Sunday, 17 August 2014

In tribute to #Robin Williams, and to the many others


What makes a sigh turn into a smile?
What changes rain into dew for a while?
What chases the thunder with fluffy white clouds?
What stops the loneliness when lost in the crowds?

How does the rainbow shine with watery rays?
How can you focus through the fog and the haze?
How can you grasp at the straws falling down?
How does the paint roll with the tears of a clown?

When does the pain go in the heat of the sun?
When will the laugh come when all is undone?
When is the soul free of unfettered dread?
When can the fear not be left unsaid?

Where is the friend who says ‘You’re not alone’?
Where is the voice on the end of the phone?
Where is the hammer shattering the glass wall?
Where are the pieces that crackle and fall?

Who can hold on through the raging storm?
Who can restore whirling tempests to norm?
Who can silence the crumbling of mind?
Who can sit quietly, until it’s behind?

Why is it so hard to hear and be heard?
Why is it hard to condense to one word?
Why is it considered a temporary low?
Why can it kill to try overthrow?

Will you be the one who extends the hand?
Will you lead the one out of his hellish land?
Will you answer the call because you’re a friend?
Will you listen to their point of view in the end?

Hear them? Be near them? Understand them? Protect?
Hug them? Don’t bug them? Hand extended? Respect?
Hold them? Don’t scold them? Befriend and forgive?
Light up a dark corner, a small reason to live?

Can you make a sigh turn into a smile?
Can you change rain into dew for a while?
Can you chase the thunder with fluffy white clouds?
You can stop the loneliness when lost in the crowds.

©Ruth Morrison 2014

#Word of the Week - Positive

It is always difficult returning from a holiday.  For a start, there’s the house.  It always seems that little bit ‘distant’ – a shock to the system in which one is desperately pleased to be back on terra firma, but where the sense of responsibility and routine smacks you between the eyes like a low hanging sign.

And then of course there are the piles. Of washing. Of bills. Of junk mail. Of filing that you hid away in the excitement of going on holiday. Of decisions that you have been putting off, but with the excuse that you are going on holiday.

And the biggest thing to contend with is the feeling of anticlimax.  The ‘is that it now?’ The thought that the benefits of being on holiday dwindle faster than the tide washes the sand beneath your feet.  That your happy bonded family will be dispersed by the electronic pull of friends far more knowledgeable than silly old mum and dad and their crap in-car music, or the many activities in which your children bond with others, charging towards the same goal with a common purpose, and as a parent you become secondary to these responsibilities of youth.  And the feeling of dread hangs over you like a sword of Damacles as you load the washing machine for the fifth time that day, or go food shopping for a ‘normal shop’ – splashing out on a French stick to hold on to that holiday feeling for just that little bit longer…

Those who are on Facebook may have noticed a recent trend in which people are nominated to join in for a week of Positivity – over 7 days you post a daily list of three things that are or have had a positive effect on you.  This sounds easier than it actually is.  I was nominated by two people when I was on holiday in Italy – and decided to set myself the challenge of doing it when I got back, in the hope that it would offset the post holiday blues.
It was an eye opener.  It involved a different mindset. A willingness to unfetter my exterior shell of capability and culpability and see the world differently.  In a normal situation I veer wildly from a glass half empty to a glass half full.  I had to look past the washing precipice of pessimism into the lake of optimism. I had to fish something out of that lake, three times a day for 7 days.

And I did it.  Sometimes it was a bit of an old boot – a negative on the noisiness of the bin men turned into a positive  - more times it was a revelation – you can have fun in the rain, people can surprise you, there are new discoveries and places just round the corner if you keep your eyes open.

And I’m not sure if it was conscious, or subconscious, but my little family changed too. The boys have all offered, and cooked, meals this week (within their capabilities).  We have kept up with the holiday routine of clearing the table and washing up rotas.  We’ve had some really fun conversations or short trips out. The holiday bonding has carried on temporarily because none of us want it to break. I say temporarily, not to be pessimistic, but realistic  - Life will inevitably get in the way, but for the moment we are all enjoying the positive effects.

Positive. My Word of the Week, for a week.

Til next time.

Have you done the Positivity challenge?  How did you get on?

Monday, 11 August 2014

The Italian Job: The End

*Many of you have been following our month long trip in a Passat estate around Italy with the three boys.  We've had our thrills and spills and ups and downs.  This is the final post about our journey through a simply magnificent country.

The boys were amazing on the car journey home.  I suppose that after 4 weeks away, we had all settled into a ‘driving’ routine, whether it was reading for a bit, limited electronic entertainment or just a general laugh about what we had seen or done. Time flew by fairly quickly, we stopped for fuel and a leg stretch, and a peer into the sunlight after the darkness of the copious tunnels that we had been in.  But it seemed to be getting darker the closer we got to Calais, and it was only mid afternoon.  A quick scan of the news channels on the radio and we realised that the tail end of ‘Big Bertha’ the weather front that had played havoc in the Bahamas was heading our way.

And indeed it was not long before we were caught in the middle of an amazing thunderstorm.  Cars had pulled over haphazardly on the toll road, hazard lights twinkling in amongst the lightning bolts.  Winds buffeted the car, and the roof box thumped up and down.  Rain lashed at the windscreen as G endeavoured to keep steering in a straight line.  Little Man buried his face in my lap and emitted a low moan.  Only Middle Son, a storm chaser in the making, looked genuinely thrilled with the situation. And then it was gone as quickly as it arrived.

Driving through the storm
We all looked at one another shakily.  It seemed a good time as any to pull over and get something to eat.  We asked Garmin the sat nav for any restaurants nearby.  The famous Golden Arches logo popped up on the screen.  ‘McDonalds!’ shrieked the boys in joy, thoughts of home not far from their minds.  And so it was that the last meal of our trip was in a rather funky French McDonalds, with sections divided into Salle Rock, Salle Pop and Salle Classique, as well as a childrens gym (it had spinning bikes)/play area for those who had had that one nugget too many…

McDonalds, French style

Having  arrived at the Eurotunnel quicker than anticipated, we queued for an earlier crossing.  Hundreds of English visitors were returning home.  A woman in a Range Rover was shouting animatedly at her husband and jabbing at him with her finger in accusation.  They’d obviously had good holiday…

G opened his window to be searched for explosives by a man waving an electronic Geiger counter type thing over the steering wheel.

‘But what,’ asked Little Man in a loud voice, ‘If Mummy had a bomb?  He hasn’t checked if Mummy has a bomb.’

‘I don’t have a bomb’, I said indignantly, turning around to face him in my seat.

‘But we could have one in the roof box, or in the back of the car – he hasn’t checked, Mum, we could have bombs everywhere and he hasn’t checked.’

The man was standing by the car chatting into his walkie talkie.  G had gone a rather strange colour.  ‘Can everyone stop talking about bombs please?’ he hissed, as the man waved him on.

‘I was just saying,’ said Little Man huffily as he turned back to see what Middle Son was playing on the iPad, ‘Ooh, are you dead yet?’

And so it was we arrived home, just before midnight, the cats looking at us as if we were utter strangers as we entered the house.

It’s good to be back.  It’s strange to be back.  It’s weird to think of what we’ve accomplished – the places we have seen, the people we have met, the experiences we have had.  And we all agreed, we would do it again in a flash.
He has been warned that this will be the only time I leave the last word to G, but I asked him to sum up his thoughts.  For now, Ciao xx

The Last Word…

I forgot to mention that on the very first night of our travels (Dijon) I witnessed a shooting star.  It's the second I have seen in my life, both occasions being pure flukes when I just happened to be staring skyward. Both times I gained a sense of oneness with the cosmos as if 'it' and I were having a moment.

These past few weeks I have seen so much, travelled so far (easily 3300+ miles - as far as Dubai is from London), that I've had a problem trying to sum it up and so crystalise the memories for myself.  When I think of every place, object, meal or experience a cumbersome montage forms in my mind so I have gotten to thinking about themes and what would be the lasting legacies?  I quickly realised that it wasn't the what, where, when or how that really mattered more than the why and who because these two were the conception and the conduit respectively for the memories.

That's not to ignore a series of personal bucket list ticks; The Colosseum, The Pantheon, the Circus Maximus, the Sistine Chapel, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, a gondola ride, Vesuvius or Capri to name a few. Nor does it negate the thousands of driving experiences in the mountains, along the Amalfi coast, through great cities, through the countless tunnels or over the countless bridges (I had wondered where the EU money went other than Spain) These were special but all are repeatable.

 For me the 'why' has always been the same and beautifully expressed by JFK (no I'm not comparing him to me or the moon landings to my holiday).

“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.” JFK

Although I tend not to flog dead horses, I do like to run things close on occasion.  I like to aim for a goal a little further out than is comfortable; it ensures I remain in a heightened state ready to make the most of things.  I realise this may be an anathema as a vacation but I find it an irresistible state of mind.

Away from the narrative then and my lofty inspirations are those things that are unique of their moment and imbedded into the 'who' and as such are destined to be woven into family lore to become the defining legacy. 

For instance, on the journey back R-indoors discovered a hole in the space-time-continuum when she seemed to observe that Folkstone and Calais where on vastly different Longitudes, it being light when we left Calais on the train and dark when we arrived in Folkestone...neglecting to factor in that we were actually still in the tunnel as she gazed out of the window....Priceless.

She has a bit of form on such matters having once thrown a fit on a previous expedition when map reading because she couldn't locate Barcelona on the Spanish coast...or even the coast itself apparently...before I very carefully pointed out that she was haranguing a map of France...  That said and despite a hardwired inability to discern left from right she's a great navigator and programmer of sat navs following the immortal instruction 'punch it Chewy'.  I laugh every time at my tired Hans Solo gag and every time she responds with that Princess Leah 'not if you were the last guy in the Universe' look.  And so our love grows :)

But.  If this holiday follows previous patterns then the real legacy should be the simple, powerful yet increasingly rare experience of the family being so close together for so long.  80+ meals together, thousands of miles together, walks, talks, games, A couple of old movies together (from my 'you will watch these my son / right of passage' collection [Spartacus & The Vikings]).  Formation carpet bombing Mummy in the pool, annoying Daddy whilst he sunbathes and yes, a few lively arguments together. 

I'll spare us both an examination of just why in today's world so much effort and money has to be invested to do what was once a way of life.....and instead wrap this ramble up with a promise to myself that so long as I can I'll do my best to ensure that me and my family keep one eye scanning beyond Life's horizon so as not to miss the next shooting star.


Til the next time!

Sunday, 10 August 2014

The Italian Job: Leaning in Pisa, discovering Dolce Acqua and the Lyon's share of chocolates

The kids turned round to each other.  ‘This can’t be it  Mum – check the map again.’  The big glass building loomed over us, incongruous in its translucent beauty against the dingy surrounding areas, and Garmin the sat nav confirmed that this was indeed the address of our hotel.  We wandered into the big white reception with its Matrix like glass counters and big plasma screens, and the boys looked at me hopefully – ‘Even if it isn’t our hotel, can we stay here?’
I’m not sure what we were expecting really, when we booked all of our hotels before our trip.  I do know that budget came foremost, parking next, and location third.   When a teenager veers from being a child in one place to an adult in another, and when despite his being the right age for a kid, but tall enough to count as an adult (when it comes to beds and food) it becomes a bit of a minefield.  Most of our bookings had hastily scribbled addendums or requests from me – could we possibly have a late check in, could they clarify what a cot bed was (in most cases a foldaway) and in all honesty we breathed a sigh of relief every time a couiffered receptionist confirmed that they were expecting us.

The modern environment of the Hotel San Ranieri, Pisa
We were indeed staying at the hotel and the boys whooped with joy as they charged around using key cards to switch all the lights on and off, ran amongst the sculptures in the trendy garden bar, as G supped another local blond beer.  The next morning we set off for Pisa, fortified by a good sleep and  a large breakfast. 

Even the sign into the city leaned...
The tower was all that we expected and more.  For a start it was actually incredibly beautifully ornate.  Secondly, it really really leaned.  A lot more than we had expected, and where the architects had attempted to right the lean, there was a distinct banana-ing in the structure. Along with several hundreds of tourists we took pictures of the boys ‘pushing the tower’, decided against queuing for an hour to climb the 249 steps up the tower, and sat on the grass people watching.  ‘Can you see what she’s doing?’ I asked in incredulity as I watched a girl twerking ‘against the tower’ as her boyfriend took the shots.  ‘Yes’ G replied, shading his hand against the sun, ‘I’m quite enjoying the view’.

Pisa was a laid back place with a lot of students and a university with an excellent reputation. The restaurants had reasonably priced menus and there was a very warm vibe everywhere we walked, from the bridges to the piazzas to the tower to the steady clip clopping of the tourist horse drawn carriages lazily ambling down the side streets.

But we had to get on – our journey was drawing to a close and we were on the home straight.  Next stop was Dolce Acqua.  ‘Where?’ asked every Southern Italian we had encountered en route.  ‘Where?’ asked our receptionist in Pisa, and indeed, no hotel in that area suiting our criteria had come up in our internet searches, so we had had to make do with the seaside resort of Diano Marino, with plans to visit Dolce Acqua the next day.

The hotel in Diano Marino could have been a hotel in Blackpool.  It had a swimming pool, coachloads of British tourists, and was saved only by the breakfast the next morning. Diano Marino itself was like any seaside resort in Europe – bright lights, cafes, burnt holiday makers, a souvenir knife and bong shop, and all the beaches seemed to be privately controlled.  We were pleased to get away and follow the signs to Dolce Acqua, up in the mountains.

The sole reason that we went to Dolce Acqua was that two of the three boys had studied it for ‘Topic’ at school in Year 4 for a brief period. We have no idea why, perhaps at one point one of the teachers had gone there on holiday, but at 20km square and with a population of 2000, it was quite hard to find. But we did, and there were 7 car parks servicing the town, all full, the number plates belying a multitude of nationalities.  We abandoned the car on a side street and wandered into the town where the clouds darkened ominously. It was there that I saw the bridge – the Ponte Vecchio that Claude Monet had captured to canvas all those years ago, and at the same time a light bulb went off in Little Man’s head and he waved at it excitedly.
Monet and the Ponte Vecchio
Somewhere on that bridge is my family...
The hidden secrets of Dolce Acqua
Thinking that this was it, the sum total of Dolce Acqua, we wandered over the bridge from the new town to the old bit, in an attempt to get to the ruined castle at the top of the hill.  In doing so we entered what can only be described as an alternate world.  One in which Diagon Alley out of Harry Potter would sit very comfortably – where houses piled higgledy piggledy on top of one another and alleyways opened up to reveal artisans working in darkened rooms and teeny weeny cafes exuded aromas of garlic and frying onions. And there were loads of guest houses behind tiny doors.  None of which had come up on my searches because of the parking criteria.  We had a wonderful day there.

Lyon stood impassively before us, our last hotel of the tour looking down on us loftily – offering us a sumptuous apartment with a kitchenette, English channels on the tv, which was good because it was also the only place in which we were charged for using the wifi.  It was a little wearily that we dragged ourselves out for the evening, but we were delighted that we had done so, because it was a city with a lot to offer – a big opera house, piazzas, and eateries influenced by the huge immigrant population.  We found a tiny restaurant in which I had turbot with coriander, Middle Son had fish (our translation only stretched to that) with a crab butter, and the other three had beef. We ordered a Pot – which is literally a carafe of the local wine of choice, and G had another local ale which was in a small bottle but with a big punch.

The silk merchants of Lyon
Yup... chocolate heaven
Lyon is famous for silk and chocolate.  I’m not that fussed on silk, but we all enjoy a bit of chocolate and had read up about a chocolate shop that had its own ‘laboratory’ and the next morning we wandered into town on a mission.  A couple of wrong turnings later and we had arrived at Sebastien Bouillet and were stunned at the selection on offer.  Unfortunately the laboratory tours closed over August, but the chocolatiers were happy to help us choose something to sample from the cakes and chocolates on display.  They were not cheap, but melted in the mouth, and were the perfect accompaniment to our coffee and pastries for breakfast.

Sated, we looked at one another.  This was going to be a big journey home – our longest drive of the trip, some 634 kilometres to Calais, and then a 2 hour journey from Folkestone to home. We had a night time Eurotunnel crossing booked, and needed to set off.

As we swerved the wrong way down a one way street in an attempt to leave Lyon, none of us flinched at the blaring horns of the frustrated French drivers. I just threw my arms up in a Gallic shrug, as G screeched the gears into reverse.

‘Ros Bif coming through!’ the kids yelled as we careered towards Calais.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

The Italian Job: Sorrento

Ten days in Sorrento is good for the soul – at least it was good for us.  To have a break after so much travelling and touring was timely – and the addition of a swimming pool in the sticky heat meant that  the boys had reached a state of nirvana.  It didn’t take us long to get settled into the sprawling Villa Giuliapina (named after the two sisters who owned it) in a small village called San Agata.

The friendly agent Carmine (his catch phrase was ‘Hey… it’s no problem’) soon made himself indispensable – which was good, because when we plugged the brand new kettle in we blew the electrics in one of the kitchens (there were two, one with a professional oven, another with both a built in BBQ and a pizza oven). 3 random visiting men later, all of whom sucked their teeth and gabbled madly into their mobiles, it was all ‘fixed’ – but we were given strict instructions not to use the toaster and the kettle at the same time… It may have been coincidence, but at the same time as the kettle incident the wifi went down, and for 5 days Carmine kept us updated as to how it was all proceeding, it had something to do with the bad weather and a tree – resulting in a man in a van who managed to set up two wifi addresses (one worked upstairs and the other downstairs).  Only in Italy…

view of the villa from the top terrace
The villa itself was stunning both in location and as a venue.  There were several terraces from which you could sit with a glass of vino rosso and gaze on an unrivalled view of Vesuvius across the bay, from the first hazy pink sunrise to the dramatic dark clouds of the sunsets, the base of the mountain scattered with the shimmering lights of the buildings and many festas taking place with the occasional burst of fireworks in the distance (we had to reassure Little Man several times that the volcano was not just about to erupt). With 5 different areas which were set up for dining, we were spoiled for choice as to the views, but ended up in the main using the big old farm table on the main terrace, which was a natural central meeting point.

view of Vesuvius from the top terrace
G’s parents joined us on the second day.  In their late seventies they are fairly seasoned travelers, but as their age befits, have started to slow down a little with the odd ache and pain here and there, every now and again.  This enforced laid back approach suited us fine, as we all wanted to relax, and so G and I took on the manqué of parents and went on the hunt for food etc as Grandma and Grandad played endless rounds of cards and table tennis with the boys. G became adept at using the pizza oven as I swirled my homemade dough with all the wrist action of a true Italian mama.  And everyone piled on their own combinations of toppings.

making pizza
sous chefs
Pizza dad
Top of Vesuvius, swathed in cloud
scooters - the sensible way to travel on the narrow Amalfi roads
stunning views of the coastline from Ravello
It was a great family holiday – Carmine had organized (‘No Problem’) a fascinating tour of Pompeii and I even managed the tough walk up Vesuvius with Grandad, G and the boys (we abandoned Grandma about a third of the way up, leaving her on a seat with a bottle of water and strict instructions not to run off with a gigolo).  

We drove along the Amalfi Coast taking in the sights of Positano, Amalfi and our new favourite, Ravello, with its absolutely stunning scenery and mixture of Moorish architecture, big bossy flowers and faux Renaissance courtyards coupled with the hippy atmosphere so beloved of the Bloomsbury set in days gone by. Grandma and I escaped for a few hours one day for some girlie shopping in Sorrento, and we had a fabulous family day in Capri – a private boat trip with a friendly (if not entirely intelligible) driver Mario (yes, the boys had fun with that one) over to the island, then a hair raising bus ride up to the main piazza, and window shopping in the designer stores before jumping back on the boat for swims in the azure sea and in little coral caves.  Bliss.


It all ended in a final joint birthday meal for Grandma and Eldest Son, who have one day between them and has been celebrated as such in the UK for a number of years, as well as Spain and the States.  Our private chef turned up (yes, it was Carmine … ‘No Problem’) and he cooked up an amazing selection of local dishes and wines, complete with Tiramisu cake, disco lights and a full sound system to which with the help of some locally made limoncello, even the grandparents were shaking their booty.

We were all sad to wave goodbye to Carmine and the villa as he took the keys and zoomed off on his scooter.  The car wheezed as we settled into our seats and Garmin fizzed back into life again with some wildly coloured routes from which we could choose.

The journey back to England had begun.  Next stop, a 7 hour drive to Pisa, with its eponymous tower.

No Problem. 

Friday, 1 August 2014

The Italian Job:Naples

*Most of my blog readers will know of our travels in Italy, an amazing experience.  Today I have a guest blogger, none other than my long suffering husband G, who makes his debut into blogging, and will tell you his thoughts so far. Enjoy!

This is my 5th trip to Italy; once with my parents and brother when I was 3, where I managed to get lost on a beach for 2hrs before wandering into a red cross station... (my poor mother),  twice to ski with my school (poor teachers), once with my own family + my parents (poor me £) and now this latest and greatest adventure of which you have been reading on my Wife’s blog which she has kindly allowed me to 'bomb' just this once.  

So apologies in advance to all of Ruth’s loyal lady fans because it's going to get blokeish for a bit, which should be a relief to your husbands who will feel a little less furtive as they peer over your shoulders:)

As I sit here staring across the bay of Naples to Vesuvius at the start of 10 days of ultra chill, with a gallon (yep) of local plonk to keep me company, it's as good a time as any to reflect (whilst my fingers and brain still work) on what has so far been an inspirational tour.
pop up shop in Naples

I love these types of trips on many levels.  I'm discovering new things, I'm with my fab Wife and family but I'm also on a junior stag trip with my 3 growing lads all of whom I am quietly grooming in the dark arts of laddism under the Lady’s withering gaze. 

Driving has been fine and something I really enjoy. 4 tanks of fuel so far; glaciers, mountains, tunnels, cities, countryside, coastline and now volcanoes.  What's not to enjoy?  The car with roof box has done well (not going to work when Middle Son and Little Man join 6'+ No. 1 son but OK for now), despite our much publicised electrical mishap :) (erindoors neglected to mention that I'd had the sad foresight to buy spare fuses - oh yeah).  I have driven in Italy before but must have blanked out the memory of in town / city driving where junction etiquette is more a matter of country dancing than teutonic, deferential observance.

Financially, it ain’t cheap with the killer cost being food.  There's only so many ham and cheese rolls my family will stomach, so pretty much every day we have supplented such fare with an ϵ150 meal.  Oh yes; and Tourist Tax in every city we visit, plus endless toll road to win friends... Beer kills the pain and on that note I am pleased to say that I have discovered an incredible series of bottled brews, complete with sediment that I will be looking up on my return.  Italy is getting into the micro brewery business and with typical style.

Up next we have a boat trip, a volcano tour + Pompeii, lots of relaxing, then Pisa, Dolce Aqua, Lyon, Calais, home.

streets in Naples hold many secrets
But of all the places so far, all of which I have loved it's been Napoli which has surprised me most and what has inspired me to put thumb to screen.  Dijon was pretty, Milan did in fairness have more 10/10 ladies (and men, my Wife tells me) per square meter than any place on earth, Verona more than hinted at the Roman greatness to come, Venice was awesome in its incredulity and Rome bundled the whole lot together with the added sublime magnificence of history’s greatest artists.
Naples is an ugly mess.  It's a beautiful, sexy mess.  Men of my generation will remember those grossly disappointing and diminutive fireworks labelled Vesuvius Eruption - it's not like those. 

This lady's house is built on an old roman theatre
At first glance Napoli is a shanty town with an interesting old quarter (rather like Warsaw if you've been). The guide books try to be positive but all feel obliged to advise visitors to beware at night.  The omnipresent graffitti hints at the Bronx, the external wiring suggests a temporary, post apocalyptic world where only today matters. Flagstone roads, suicidal scooter riders, masses of students from the 3 universities, rubbish on streets, shops selling everything including tiny outlets offering modelled 'cribs'.  Tourist signage that sucks as if to say 'find it yourself if you're that bothered'.  We saw amazing marble sculptures and some of the miles of tunnels used over the years to hide, attack, preserve and protect the people of this place. 

Vesuvius - the slumbering giant - a view from our villa
Mafia, war, civil war, volcanic eruptions; all have smashed this City into what it is, and isn't.  But as I sit here now and gaze at Napoli from without it all makes sense.  The City simply refuses to kneel before the slumbering giant and its inevitable wrath.  Vesuvius will have its day at some point but until that time Neapolitans will continue to live for the moment and offer a not too respectful 'ciao' to their sleeping mountain.

Now, where's the vino.