Monday, October 24, 2011

Learning.....slowly but surely

My last post mentioned our outing to the olive grove with Malachy’s kindy….Well the next outing was to the beach – in between Pisa and Viarreggio, on a large piece of land belonging to the National park… This was such a beautiful day.. Playing in the sand with sticks and shells…. Feeling the gently autumn sunshine gradually and gently warm our backs as we dug sand, sculpted lizards, drew pictures, collected shells…. ultimately the children got so warm they stripped off and went for a swim..I know to an Australian the sound of swimming in autumn is quite an acceptable thing – but she’s a wee bit chilly in a Tuscan autumn….It was a beautiful day and we even got talking to a local man collecting tiny vongole (like pippies) on the beach with his home made contraption that captivated the children!!!

Last week I also got a bit enthusiastic in the kitchen and tried a few new things …Cecina (chickpea flour pancake) and arancini…..Thankfully both were a success ….. thanks to a recipe from Francesca (my friend in Rome) J I think I will take a cooking course soon – crazy not to really – I don’t think you could find a better natural source of great food than this region!!

We were joined by a few visitor dear friend Jeanette and her husband Alan who were closing in on the end of their grand tour of europe. Then a visit from our friends in Rome .... the kids had a blast as they mingled some more with their Italian friends, showing off new Italian words or phrases they had learnt!

Well finally I have found myself taking some Italian language lessons….God knows I need it!!! My Italian linguistics has been at a stand still….in fact possibly on a downhill slide – unbelievable I know, but life has just been so hectic and a vicious cycle of accumulative delays due to the language barrier!!!
So week one of classes is done! A confirmation of how much far my language skills need to go but luckily I have scored a great teacher J I was placed in class with two young men….one German and one Australian…. I am sure the young german man (boy really he is only 19) thinks I am an idiot as every time I mentioned my children I could see him roll his eyes in not just disinterest but disgust!!! Of course at 19 his weekend only consisted of discotec (nightclubs) and electronic music, naturally common ground was hard to find but we are making progress.  J
With the imminent bite of winter looming I felt that I really should get prepared for the children’s clothing requirements. So, Saturday morning we took off for Pisa where I was directed to a fantastic super store of adventure gear, Decathaloon – kind of like the ikea of adventure stuff (really cheap and seemingly really good quality). We now have hiking boots, backpacks, thermals, jackets, socks etc!!! I think we are prepared now!  One only hopes…. With the new gear at hand we thought we would take a scenic drive through the mountains and get some inspiration from the local tourist information office in Castelnuovo di Garfagnana. Now we are well equip with all the maps and books of the region we are set as can be for some mountain adventures!!! On the way home we stopped on the side of the road to an irresistible fungi/porcini/tartufo stall… This country is the heart of fungi, porcini e tartufo (truffle) … it would have been a crime not to stop!!! I selected a variety of porcini e fungi (he was out of truffle L)  to take home to try out… Whilst pondering over my selection the children had bonded with the owner of the stall who was roasting some castagna (chestnut) over the fire. I love seeing the children interacting spontaneously and independently in a language they barely know….. The poor stall holder was hot on his heels keeping up with the demands of my children, cracking open his collection of freshly roasted chestnuts so warm and creamy…. This man was so gentle and kind with the children, eventually succumbing to their enthusiasm of the chestnut – sending us on our way with a “roadie” (travel) bag of roasted chestnuts J

Sunday morning was a treat to self and I headed out with Gabby to a chamber music recital just around the corner, in an historic palace, where local students from the music institute played the piano and viola to some classics of Mozart, Debussy, Chopin and Schumann – heavenly !! Cost of concert and vino e appertivi post the show 6 euro!!!!! Classical music concerts are sooooo cheap here, luuuckyy!!!

I had made arrangements for Sunday afternoon to head up to the mountains again with the language school for another Sagre (we are addicted) this one was devoted to the castagne (chestnut), which worked in nicely with our previous day of chestnut introduction/admiration/gluttony!!! So we met with the school and took off up to the mountains again!! Unbeknown to me this particular sagre is very popular with the local Lucchesian’s, and the tiny little mountain top village was jam packed with people and stalls. We hadn’t even entered and Malachy had wet his pants ….of course I had no spare pants- no big deal – wear it…feel it and learn!!  Fumbling our way through this little village was slightly awkward as the lanes were narrow and the crowds were quite thick. This was tough on the kids and I to stick together and at least one child was missing the whole time….I needed to break the cycle and decided to find something to eat (always a draw card for my kids) so we found a little stall that made little dumpling type things made on farrina di castagne (chestnut flour). The stall holder assured me that it contained only farrina di castagne (in italian) and I took the risk and fed it to Gabby…..This risk didn’t pay any dividends…. Within 10 minutes we had to hightail it out of the village as Gabbys cramps intensified and both Gabby and I knew what was to follow…..5 hours of vomiting L Unfortunately we were parked about 3km down hill from the village…. Poor Gabby was feeling miserable and her brothers showed no compassion, fooling around through the crowds and down the narrow little road (so close to the cliff face) that led us back to the car…. Needless to say I had a few cranky words with the boys and calm was restored – in-between the vomits….!
Finally we made it home and eventually all were in bed quite early… Sometimes the end of a day is such a relief!!
It’s a new week and one full of hope as this Saturday my mum arrives!!!!!!!!!!! The kids cannot even comprehend that it is happening and I feel like Christmas is arriving early – not because I will be showered in gifts but we will be showered with loving care – something I need a good dose of right about now!
 Kids playing on the beach...a tuscan autumn

 Gabby playing with Malachy's latest best friend ...Giulia

 My arancini and cecina :-)

 Gabby's cityscape of Lucca centro storico the detail ...check out her right middle finger...3rd floor window - thats gabby waving out of our appartment window!

 Fresh tuberose to welcome guests - my favourite flower

 porcini e fungi


 Gabby at the chamber music recital in the Teatro di Giglio

 Spencer checking out the local weaving baskets - captivating

autumn is nothing short of spectacular in Lucca... I took this picture while going for an afternoon walk this afternoon....listening to my ipod playing cosi fan tutti (getting excited that I can now understand some of what they are singing about). All while the children were at home with the babysitter...Bliss!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

A weekend of spontaneity...

After so much fun in the hills of Tuscany during the week we decided to hit the road once again this time with no planned destination we thought we should just see where the road took us.... We headed northeast of Lucca, past our friends place (where Gabby's largest ever tantrum took place) ...we went past without too much fanfare.... I thought it was a bit too soon to return so we kept meandering through the hills but unfortunately of late gabby has developed quite bad motion about a weak stomach, fort coeliac now motions sickness! Anyway she was feeling a bit crook so we decided to compromise and find a "straighter road" which took us to Livorno about 1 hour south on the west coast. A beautiful city with a magnificent grand broad walk with what Gabby described as the worlds biggest chess board (black and whit tiles)... So we attempted too play chess on the board walk using our bodies as the pieces, but the combination of not enough bodies to substitute as pieces and a not so cooperative pair of boys we decided to open up our picnic for lunch. This was all so relaxed spontaneous and enjoyable.  I laid down on the grass, probably riddled with dog pee but who cares and enjoyed the gentle autumn sunshine while the children played in the rotunda, harassed the toy stall and mingled with the local kids... After our last autostade affair I decided to take the back roads home back to Lucca which was a delight as we got to drive straight past the leaning tower of Pisa and the majestic walls surrounding it.....We got home so happy and content that we decoded to go to the movies where we just caught I puffi ( the smurfs) which was a hit with all of us... Only 150 meters from home I put the boys on my bike and gabby road her bike home where we all snuggled up in bed promptly falling asleep.
Sunday I woke up tired to be honest but feeling encouraged with my success in spontaneity the previous day. So we went for a stroll through town about 10.30am. I let the children scoot around the piazza San Michelle normally while I get a coffee at the bar, normally with no dramas....but us being us.. This nice little arrangement couldn't always run smoothly...! Refreshed with my the consumption of my much appreciated cappuccino I do a scan for the kids sign of them....wait a minute what is that crowd of people doing over there in the middle of the piazza....oh dear! Hoarding around a group of there poor abandoned children one of which had come off his scooter and was acting up his end of the drama so well that had a broadway scout been strolling by Malachy could have had a contract for life! One I finally made my way through the crowd and humbly claimed the children as my own (probably with a spot of coffee at the tip of my nose of guilt), I was reassured that all was fine and well in fact Malachy had been given no less than 4 new toys and 3 band aides for his efforts!!!  Within the crowd contained a local family (well the husband from Denmark) with three young kids exactly the same age as mine.... They were so nice and reassuring that this was not an unusual circumstance for them either... So kind that there and then we exchanged phone numbers we plan to catch up for a play date soon :-)
After this drama we decided to get out of town again, after last weekends sagre of the hare success I was sniffing around for another local sagre - which I found about an hour north of Lucca in a mountain top village in the Garfagnana called Castiglione Di Garfagnana, where they held the Rassegna del fungo, tartufo e castagna (mushroom, truffle and chestnut) can see why this one caught my eye! We wound up the mountain and arrived to this pristinely prepared village, it was so evident that the town was so extremely proud of this event and rightly so. They put on a lovely show in spectacular venue. These sagra's are all based on food and wine consumption and the benefit of this one was that coincidently almost everything was gluten free...polenta, risotto, truffles, mushroom, steak, egg... Gabby was in heaven...and me too. The sit down area was under a marquee put up on the main piazza of this little village where after we finally got a free table, sat down for 6 courses ( I only ordered two menus).... The atmosphere was great the central table was rowdy and drunk, which suited me to a tea... They were not only amusing with their drinking games but they made my kids look like angles.....I would never have attempted this in Australia, a six course meal with just myself and the kids!!!! I would have told u I would rather cut off my left arm....but here it is not only doable, but thoroughly enjoyable! What place in Australia could you go for six courses where they let your kids scribble on the tablecloths, crawl under the long tables, spill their food and drinks without even battering an eyelid?  By the end of our meal we had a few of the drunks surrounding us trying to squeeze out the little English they knew to get a grasp on why we were their in such a distant location…I am sure we were the only English speaking people in the “tent”, which somehow made the experience even more special.  The children lapped up the attention and enjoyed showing off the many Italian phrases they have learnt, it was such a joy!   After lunch we strolled through the narrow ancient streets and sampled all the stalls purchasing chickpea flour (to attempt to make cecina at home), fragola jam, olive oil hand cream, chestnut cream, and a few little crafty things for the kids. Everyone was happy so I decided it was a good time to get going, just as we were about to head out of the main porta of the town the local philarmonic society gathered and started to play ….well this was just the icing on the cake, the olive oil on the warm bread… again the kids danced and soaked up the joy, sound and warmth that this little town exuded! Eventually we extracted ourselves from this charming location and headed back to home, satisfied, proud and happy that we had had such a successfully adventurous weekend!
We even came up with an idea to counterbalance the disappointment of having to go to school on Monday….now termed “Mad mentos Monday’s”…
Grazie a tutti
Ciao for now J

 our picnic spot under a tree 
 the view from our picnic...overlooking the rotunda and the ocean

 Using the rotunda as a stage...

 ....or a circus...

 The world is our the boys using the side of stairs as a slide :-)

 Piazza San Michelle

 Castiglione di Garfagnana

 just a snippet of the view...

 fried egg....with truffle...yummmmm! Spencers response.."why did they have to put this yucky stuff on my egg?" ....I helped him out with the removal ;-)

 oops...we ate most of the food before i thought of photographing...
 about 4pm....most people were outside by now smoking....just us and the drunks (in the centre) remained:-)
on our way out of town....

Friday, October 7, 2011

Fun in the hills...

Well after our very busy and adventurous weekend we settled back into school on Monday with much reluctance, especially getting to school.....At times this is quite a physical battle .....literally dragging children out of bed!! Something I never thought I would have to do with children that previously never slept in past 6.30am !!
Fortunately Malachy's lovely little Steiner kindy had organized an excursion to my landlady's  olive farm and they invited Gabby and Spencer along too. It was yet another beautiful sunny autumn day, as we arrived to Falampa (an olive farm that Paola and Erico started 30 years ago when Erico decided to quit the corporate world) to the warm embrace of Paola and a delicious morning tea of organic delights, which my children devoured!! After we polished off every crumb of food we wandered through the olive trees testing the trees for their climbing qualities..all proving to be of fine standard for 2-6 year old tree climbing experience.....As we continued to literally skip through the olive trees we approached the pine forrest. Here some of the older kids, gabby and aurora climbed with adoration the se beautiful old majestic beauties whilst the littlies collected enough pine cones to keep Paolas fireplace sufficiently fueled for the entire winter! We continued to wander through the forrest, along the creek and an open grassy meadow.  On further inspection this was one of natures precious gardens with a abundance of edible herbs, mint, thyme, borage, comfrey, and an assortment of green leafy edible plants....those of you that know me know that this discovery was a highlight for me, picking these native -wild growing plants. Needless to say this seemed like the perfect place to set up our picnic where the kindy teacher offered up her freshly made arancini balls, pesto and carrot again all organic and delicious!!!
After our bellies were filled we retreated back up to Paola’s villa and spent the afternoon chatting and cooking..... A glorious day!!!

Back to school again yesterday but we had the excitement of anticipation of a weekend of more fun. I recently met an english lady at the health food shop and we got talking .....before I knew it we were invited to her place for a swim and some dinner. I jumped at the opportunity, social connection is so important to me especially when so far away from home... So, shortly after school pick up we headed to the mountains, about 30 mins out of Lucca in a beautiful area Capella, we drove up and up and up! Until finally we reached this beautifully restored villa rustico. With all the warm charm a family home could contain, with evidence of a playful spirit. As soon as we arrived the kids took off outdoors once again ready to make more discoveries, with their two new friends Anna 7, zara 9. When they finally decided to actually enter the house they were welcomed to the smell of an alluring apple tea cake... As it happens the mother of the family is also celiac so everything on the menu was Gluten free :-) after scoffing down the cake, in very anti Italian style the kids went for a swim (if they were Italian – swimming so soon after eating would have meant certain death)  the view from the pool was spectacular with the delightful edition of mosaic sea creatures at the bottom of the pool and a wooden diving platform the kids were in heaven once again. After the freezing bathers thawed out in the house they settled down to a cartoon whilst dinner was prepared and adults was a truly lovely evening.... Then it was time to go and I was determined to show my gratitude…. But…. unfortunately this was interrupted by my 6 year old protesting to stay, this started playfully by running away, then rapidly developed into the most difficult physical and verbal protests I have ever encountered with my children. It was like she was possessed!!! She was dragged to the car kicking and screaming. The man of the house, Chris, with all his might physically held her in the car whilst I whisked around to the drivers side…. I had to then hold both her arms with my right arm whilst my left arm fumbled starting the car, maneuvering the car a 5 point turn all whilst gabby remained in a hysterical state demanding to stay, threatening to jump out….i managed to pull away but Gabby’s state remained consistent! I only got about 200m down the road and she slipped out of my grasped and opened the door to try to jump down a VERY sheer cliff…which I then almost swerved down with the car!!!!! That was enough!!! I had tried talking calmly, I had tried being firm, I had tried yelling, I had tried screaming!!! Nothing worked!!! I reduced myself to a cold hard slap across her face! She had been trapped in her own wrath of tiredness, frustration, disappointment and terror for long enough and needed an abrupt jolt out of it. I was pushed ...literally to the edge of cliff….As soon as my hand met her cheek…..the terror was broken and silence finally fell upon us….. All of a sudden I realized  my body was trembling, my breath panting, my heart racing….I was a mess I was exhausted!!! With the abrupt silence that had fallen upon us, I only had the energy for a short lecture…. once I caught my breath… “that is enough!!!!!!!…that behavior is completely and utterly deplorable, disgraceful and unacceptable…. Don’t you dare utter a sound until tomorrow morning, at which time you will get up, get dressed and appologise….!”

On reflection, I think for Gabby this is a tough experience. She spends all day at school trying to understand her teachers, her peers… she is desperate to make friends and not understanding them is so incredibly frustrating. She is most of the time a gem and I probably take advantage of her helpful nature… Last night we had so much fun especially Gabby --- every thing gluten free (completely included), conversation completely English (complete comprehension), warm kind family… she finally found complete comfort and relaxation and going home represented going back to school and the frustrations and discomfort in her life.  Yes this is tough, but I remain hopeful that this will remain a learning growing experience for the children….time will tell.
This morning Gabby did get up… get dressed…. apologised and rode her bike to school without complaint…it’s amazing what a new day can bring!
 Literally skipping through the olive grove :-)
 Admiring the view and open spaces ...
 Picking pine cones....

 pine forrest ...
 busy boys - shifting and collecting big logs
 preparing for the dive...

 not bad for a thurday afternoon play date :-)

View from Capella

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Time with friends...Rome and Pisa

 So hectic once again....wait a minute....I continue to be hectic! About two weeks ago my allocated appointment time finally arrived for an interview for my official permit to stay in Italy for 6 months.... But on my mission for retrieving all required documents I discovered that my passport was missing...eeeek!
This alone required several trips to the local caribnieri, Questura, (various levels of police) etc with the inevitable trip to the Australian Rome!!! The silver lining in it all really! The idea of a train trip to Roma with a change over in Firenze with three kids was somewhat intimidating but I had the privilege and comfort in knowing that we would be warmly received in Rome by the Tani/Crino family...our Italian family :-)
The train trip went exceptionally smooth and the children fantastic on the way to Rome...and our welcoming party did not disappoint. The children were whisked into a world of fun, warmth and music…..not to mention a heartwarming meal J It is always such a pleasure and home style comfort to be in the company of this family. The various personalities and talents of this family never cease to fascinate and entertain myself and the children….
The next day was down to business and once again I was spoiled by having Francesca chaperone me through the Roman bus system – which I am absolutely sure I would have performed dismally… Without drama we reached the practical and comprehensive service of the Australian Embassy in Rome. Once all paperwork duties were complete we headed for home…..I have to point out that this bus trip was so much more enjoyable because A) I had somebody telling me exactly where, when and what I needed to do and B) this bus route dissected the center of Rome, seeing many of the major sites and treasure troves Rome has offers on such a majestic and impressive scale.
After a well earned rest we head out again for the evening to our other Italian family the Guzzetta’s who we shared such a magnificent time with in Lampedusa. This was an evening of Japanese and the a grand tour of their newly renovated apartment in central Rome….we were all very impressed with the transformation and I loved the combination of modern edge with old style architecture…nicely done!
The following days we spent with both families rambling through some of the grand sized villa gardens, having picnics, playing soccer, going to markets and strolling through the center of town where we ate some GF pizza J
The train ride home was a little more hectic as we returned on a Sunday afternoon – trains were packed. My problems were mainly due to A)my belated realization that the tickets we had been allocated were infact separated between car 8 and car 10 – not possible (although tempting:-/) to separate me and two children – nor legal I would imagine.. and B) the complete lack of cavalier in of anyone (particularly the men) around me. The two seat that we located we occupied and the people in the seats refused to move as they two had been allocated those seats…BUT they were both young early 20’s romantic couple who were blind to the fact I had just hauled on the luggage, pram and negotiated my way through the train with 3 very tired small children!!! Thank God I came across a very capable sensible bilingual gentleman who came to my aide and assured me he would sort this out – and he did – and we all proceed to drift off to a deep sleep. :-)

This weekend we visited Pisa for the first time, where we visited our dear Aussie/Italian friends G & A. It was a beautiful autumn day, sunny with clear blue skyes. Their home is so welcoming that when spencer arrived to the top level he jubilantly declared “Mum I love our new home!!!” I had to let him down gently…We were also greeted by extra visitors G’s friend from Madrid (who we all felt a bond with immediately as that is where Ceci is now) and A’s parents who spent a day out on our boat last year! While we all got talking the chidren played in the courtyard and in particular the abundance of ripe and very available pomegranate tree. After much deliberation of our options of agenda we decided to head first to a dolce festa just around the corner where we feasted on an intriguing variety of chocolate, gelati, biscotti, spectated in the panforte throwing competition and watched a puppet show ….a true hit with the kids ….how could it be anything else…. After another decision making process we decided to head to the hills where a little villiage  Terricciola, where they were celebrating the Sacra della leper (festival of the hare). This was a really pretty drive through the country side and when we arrived I felt immediately relieved that this was the right decision… it felt like a country fair, a typical town hall with no grand decoration but the passion and essence of the evening was in the preparation of the food.  Everything was based on the preparation of the hare …with pasta..with olives, with beans. Plus some polenta fritta…..not to mention washed down with a good rough red J After eating we naturally adjourned to the dance floor where the kids and I well and truly kicked up our heels. I often think of Nicko when we dance and last night was no exception as my kids like to be the first on the dance floor…just like their Dad. Our dedication to the dance floor was briefly interrupted by the raffle draw….which I won!!! A brand new, very stylish red, green and white vespa styled and vespa branded helmet!!!!! Now all I need is either a vespa or a boyfriend with a vespa ;-)
After a big day of jubilant success we said our goodbyes to G, A, M and our new Spanish friend M and headed home for Lucca, as expected the kids were asleep before we even exited the tiny village and I was in bliss knowing that we had had such a full and happy day.  According to the GPS I was due to arrive to our carpark at 11.55pm but I was happy knowing that we had all had so much fun and that Sunday would truly be a day of rest…. Except about 20min out from home, on the autostrade ….I blew a tyre!!!! This was such an obscure circumstance to be in, my initial reaction was to laugh until I though what to do.. It’s been a very long time since I last changed a tyre and I certainly haven’t changed a 4WD tyre, so I quickly came to the conclusion that in the narrow strip beside the autrostrade in the dark it was best I called for help… So as it was Giovanni’s car I was driving, I called him, fortunately he talked me through the options and I decided to call the 116 number for help. I waited around for an hour or so and eventually a truck arrived …. A big burley Italian man got out ( of course he spoke no English) and with gesture he signaled that I needed to drive the car onto the back of the tow truck where we were to remain while he towed us away to an area with more space…. I just had to have faith that he was a good man and would do the right thing, it was a most obscure feeling being inside the car on the back of a truck, I am not completely sure how safe this is but I was willing to take the chance… Once it was all fixed I discovered that he only takes cash…. Which I did not have enough of so, off on another detour I followed his truck this time to a bancomat in a little village off the autostrade.. All paid up I got back on the autostrade and back to Lucca in a jiff. Surprisingly getting home at 2am I was even more jubilant that the day was FULL of jubilant adventure!
 Giulias pomegranite tree

 Dancing Tuscan country style :-)

 Festival of the Hare...Mum and Dad would be so proud!!

 Magdalena in the winning Helmet!

 Fresh Pomegranite

 Spencer and Andrea

 Malachy at his kindy on San Michelle day where we made wooden swords

 Panforte throwing competition

 stacking the gelati cups after lunch... 

 Entertainment at the markets in Roma

 Just a snippet of the view from our day in the gardens

 Spencer mopping up his abundant adoration

 Malachy and Gabby sleeping through the Panthenon

Spencer and Giovanni walking through the city.