Dogs, Dust and Italian Housewives

Four years after the untimely death of Stella, our adorable German Shepherd, I found a huge dust-ball of her fur under a bookshelf. This is testimony to my poor housekeeping skills indeed! I got a bit teary-eyed actually, because it was kind of nice to find that furry reminder, although I also felt quite ashamed that it had escaped my notice for so long.

Casa nuova Monti

I admire Italian housewives enormously. Often, as I sit at my computer, staring out of the window while waiting for inspiration to strike, I notice the morning rituals of the women in the houses around me. They bustle around, flinging open windows, shaking out bedding and vigorously whacking at carpets tossed over their balconies.
My husband is a great window opener too. Each morning he opens them up all over the house, even when a freezing wind is howling, because Italians believe that the air in their houses needs changing frequently. I scurry behind him, closing everything up and suggest feebly that the draughts under the windows would do the job for us quite easily, to which he just raises a patient eyebrow. He does not seem to mind me being a bad housekeeper, or maybe I have done a great job of training him to do the jobs I dislike?
Italians are also constantly at war with germs. Every surface; floors, kitchen work-tops and bathrooms; get thoroughly disinfected on a, for me, far too regular basis. You see this obsession on TV adverts where, before a baby can be allowed to crawl across the kitchen floor, someone has to whisk around with a mop and disinfect the tiles. I am convinced that kids need to fall, scratch their knees and roll around in dirt a bit in order to develop a decent immune system, so was constantly the subject of indignant criticism when my son was small.
Visit any supermarket, big or small and you will find a huge range of cleaning products to choose from, as well as the extensive selection of wonderful cold meats, cheese, pasta and fresh vegetables that you expected. They even have things I never knew existed when I lived in the UK, such as umpteen additives for your washing machine; to make your clothes smell nice, your washing machine smell nice, your whites stay white and your coloureds not fade, as well as stuff to clean out the lime-scale. It is true that I have not lived in England for 25 years, so maybe this is just modern life and not Italian excess!
I was really tickled the other day, when I decided to check out a new Di Più supermarket which had opened up nearby. They have a whole range of body pampering products with a very bizarre brand name – TWIT. I was very tempted, believe me. I could imagine having a shower, surrounded by TWIT Shampoo and TWIT body lotion. It would certainly ensure starting the day with a laugh!
So, when on holiday here you can rest assured that your hotel rooms or apartments will be scrupulously clean when you arrive. You will have booked your holiday already expecting to eat amazing food and sample fine wines but now you also know that Italian hygene standards are extremely high.
If a group of Italian ladies start fussing around when your children are playing with some interesting dirt in the park or at the side of the swimming pool, just smile, they are only showing concern for the children’s welfare.
As for me, my lovely Italian neighbours have no idea how bad a housekeeper I am. Before anyone comes here for dinner I rush around like a lunatic, attacking any dust or stains I can find, polishing the lime-scale spots off my wineglasses and sweeping the floor. I can never get things to their standard of perfection but I have a great strategy to get around this. As I greet my guests at the door, after a day of frantic cleaning, I can often be heard to say,
“Please don’t look at the house, I haven’t had time to clean up.”

The House of Stories

The House of Stories

Whenever his parents told him they were going to his grandparent’s house for the day Luke felt little bubbles of happiness racing around his body. He loved visiting his grandparents and he loved the house itself, full of beautiful and mysterious objects and each one of them with a special story to go with it. His grandparents could always be coaxed to tell a story again even if Luke already knew them all off by heart.
As they drove from the big city out into the countryside with soft hills and tall trees, Luke would look for familiar landmarks that meant he was almost there and as soon as his father had parked the car Luke would scoot out and run to ring the doorbell. Often grandad would be waiting for them on the terrace that ran along the front of the house and Luke would wave excitedly and call to grandma that they were here.
Even before the green front-door opened Luke could feel the magic seeping out of the house as the wind-chimes sang melodiously in welcome. While everyone hugged on the doorstep Luke would sit on the big wooden chest in the entrance hall and swing his feet. It looked like a pirate’s chest but when he had peeked inside one day he had been disappointed to find shoes instead of treasure. On top of the chest were three bright cushions. Grandma told him that these had once been Scheherazade’s cushions.
“Who is Sherryzade?” Luke had asked the first time grandma had told him this tale and the next time he visited grandma had given him a book called One Thousand and One Nights about a Persian king who had been very cruel and had killed many wives because his first wife had been very bad to him. Then a beautiful lady in his court called Scheherazade said she would try to change the king and she had very cleverly told him a wonderful story but not the ending so he decided to keep her alive until she finished the story. It took her 1000 nights to finish her tales and by the time she had finished the king had fallen in love with her. He married her and turned into a good king from then on. Grandma said that while the beautiful Scheherazade sat during the day thinking up stories to enchant the king and stop him from killing her she would sew cushions, embroidering them richly and adding sparkling sequins in the same way that she filled her stories with mysterious twists and plots.
Grandma had found the cushions at a market one day and they had called to her and asked to come home with her because they missed listening to stories. Grandma is a writer so the cushions must have felt that she would be a good storyteller too. Luke asked why they were kept in the hallway so far from her writing room and grandma laughed and told him that they were such noisy cushions, forever chattering and trying to suggest different endings to her stories so she kept them down there until she was ready to read to them. However, to his disappointment, no matter how close Luke laid his head or how hard he listened to those cushions he had never heard them speak.
Running upstairs, Luke would head straight for the lounge where there were so many treasures for him to look at. Everywhere he turned were objects that told a story or held a memory of his grandparents or of his father’s childhood.
On the mantelpiece, above the fire that chattered cheerfully, were two wooden elephants that Luke loved to hold. If grandad picked him up he could also see the burn mark on the top of the wooden mantelpiece. Grandma said that his daddy had been playing on the hearth one Christmas Eve when suddenly the candles had burnt too low and set fire to all the decorations and almost to daddy! Grandma had managed to throw the decorations into the fireplace and make everything safe again but not before the fire had left a great black mark up and across the chimney. The magical thing here was that when the family had woken up the following morning, expecting to have to clean up the mess, the only sign of the fire had been the scorch mark in the wood. The chimney was as good as new. Grandma thought that Father Christmas must have felt sorry for them when he came down the chimney with toys for daddy and given them a special present too.
In the centre of the mantelpiece was a shiny brass sextant which Luke could only play with if grandad could be persuaded to take it down and lovingly show him how it worked. Grandad and grandma loved sailing and in the summer took Luke out with them on their sailing boat, Euriklea. The sextant was not a modern piece of equipment for the boat however, but an old instrument that would be too fragile to take on-board nowadays. Luke loved to hear his grandad explain how to line-up the sextant with the stars to find your position when navigating at sea.
There was a huge black rock on the side of the fireplace which reflected the flames in its dark, mirrored surface. Grandad told a funny story about how he had found that rock when he saw it glittering on a cliff-side in Lipari. Grandad had been much younger then (grandma always broke into the story at this point to scold grandad and say he had been foolish too) and very fit so he had swum to the cliff and climbed up it to reach the glittering obsidian. He had got a big fright when a seagull, which had been sitting on a ledge near the stone, had been scared by the man climbing up so close and flown off. He had flown straight at grandad who had been quite frightened himself but fortunately had managed to hold on and not slip. Once he had got his breath back he had wrestled the obsidian rock from the cliff and hurled it down into the sea below. Then he had climbed back down and dived into the sea to find the rock and take it back to the boat. One day Luke was sure he too would have exciting adventures and bring back treasures from all around the world to decorate his own home.
On the sideboard, between a big amethyst cave, which grandad had brought back from Brazil and a bonsai tree, was a copper dish filled with semi-precious stones that Luke loved to roll around in his hands because they felt so nice. In amongst the stones were two tiny jade men. Luke liked to imagine that these little men were the guardians of the house who would come to life when everyone was in bed and spend their nights climbing the bonsai tree or exploring the crystal cave.
Luke adored the Samurai swords high on a shelf above the settee, which grandad had found in a shop in Japan. They were very beautiful but Luke was only allowed to touch them when an adult was there too because their blades were very sharp.
The bathroom was full of opalescent shells from oceans far away and there was a big jar of stones, gathered from Merlin’s cave in Cornwall one stormy day when the sea frothed around the jagged coast and the wind howled dark secrets into his daddy’s ears while he filled his pockets with the perfect pebbles. There was also a pretty wooden Mermaid who smiled enigmatically at him while he brushed his teeth.
Daddy’s old bedroom had been left exactly as it had been when daddy lived in that house and now, when Luke stayed overnight by himself it was where he slept. He liked those nights best because otherwise he had to sleep in the computer room which was full of books but nothing else of much interest because when Grandma was writing at the computer she did not want to be disturbed by too many garrulous things. In daddy’s room there were lots of great books for Luke to read, carved animals and a collection of penknives. There was also a fearsome alligator skull that Daddy had found in a swamp in Florida and the boomerang which Uncle Andrew had used to kill snakes in the Australian Bush. Around the big bed was a mosquito net so that Luke could feel safe all night, like a small fish hiding inside an anemone at the bottom of the sea.
For Luke, the best place of all in the house was the kitchen, where his grandparents cooked wonderful meals that they then ate at an old wooden table. Luke loved dinners here, the feeling of love, happiness and fun. The table was so big that the whole family could easily sit around it, filling the kitchen with their laughter. It was so sturdy it could have been used as a bed. In fact one of Luke’s cousins had once pushed her plate away, rested her head on the wood and fallen fast asleep.
What made the table truly fascinating though were the deep scratches in the corner where Luke sat. If he moved his plate and felt the deep grooves he could believe the story his grandma told about how they came to be there. One day, a long time ago when daddy was young, he had gone out searching for mushrooms with grandad and came home with a strange shaped one, bigger than a puffball and much heavier. Daddy had shown it to grandma who had declared it to be a magic egg and wrapped it up in cotton-wool in a small box. The next day it had hatched out into the most adorable little dragon.
The dragon was very friendly and liked to play with the dog, Stella and sleep between her paws. It also liked to eat her food which was good because otherwise Grandma had not been sure how to feed a dragon. One day the dragon had seen a roast chicken on the table and had jumped up onto a chair and then tried to pull itself onto the table to eat it. It had made deep scratches in the table with its sharp claws and fortunately made so much noise that Grandma had discovered the naughty little thing before it had eaten the chicken.
When the dragon began to get bigger it found that living in a house was too hot and asked to be allowed to return to the woods. The family had hidden it in a big basket so that the neighbours would not see it and set it free, deep in the forest. Grandma says she thinks that when Stella died a few years later her spirit went to the woods to find the dragon and that they are playing there together still.

So children, of course some of these stories are made up and some are true. Scheherazade’s cushions were found at the market but it is doubtful that they belonged to the famous story-teller. However, Grandad really did risk his life climbing up a cliff to find the obsidian rock. As for the dragon claw-marks on the kitchen table, some say they were made by a man with a knife many years ago. Was there really a dragon? That is up to you to decide but one thing that is certainly true is the magic that table possessed, the feeling of love and happiness when everyone ate around it.
Have another look at your own home. Take down some ornament or unusual object and let your imagination weave a wonderful tale around it. Any home can be a House of Stories.
I would like to hear yours …..

Italian Myths and Idiosyncrasies

I would like to dispel a few Italian myths and explain some idiosyncrasies here. The first myth is that “Italy is a hot holiday destination”. Most parts of Italy are definitely scorching hot in the summer, so hot that poor, pale-skinned English people like me are scared to venture outdoors during the daytime! The same is very untrue during the winter. Here in the Valdarno we are nestled beneath the Apennine Mountains which are usually snow-capped for most of the winter.

Monte di Loro in snow - minimized (FILEminimizer)
What people do not expect is that in Italy, people dress for the weather. That means that they do not wear shorts and t-shirts until it is officially summer and laugh at tourists who show too much flesh too early. They also insist on wearing fur-lined boots and padded jackets until the very end of winter, no matter how warm the temperature gets.
Italian houses with their high ceilings are hard to heat and heating is very expensive so most people live in houses which for us foreigners are like fridges, with the thermostat at a gelid 18°. That means when you are invited to dinner in the winter you cannot wear anything glamorous and the same goes for most hotels and restaurants too. Here, when I go out for a meal in winter I wear at least two warm woollen layers, a jumper and cardigan, so that if I get warm I can remove one. This is quite sensible but it leaves foreign guests very perplexed, and cold.
I made the mistake of forgetting how hot it can be, inside, in England. My best friend got married in Essex in November. I packed a sexy dress for the actual wedding, knowing that the hotel where the reception was being held would be well-heated. However, I went out for lunch with my friend the day before wearing jeans and a long-sleeved black jumper. Her other friends, being Essex Girls, were all in slinky see-through blouses and tight short-sleeved t-shirts. I pushed up my sleeves, fanned my face and felt my make-up melting as the hours wore on. Unfortunately I had nothing on underneath except my underwear so had to sit and swelter.
A Scottish friend came to stay in June. I had made the mistake of telling him that June was usually lovely and not too hot. That year it rained nearly every day and I had to lend his wife a fleece top and rain-jacket for the holiday. Once the summer arrives tourists are usually guaranteed the heat they crave but it makes sense to pack and extra layer just in case. Inclement weather however does have its positive side for us women – it is a great excuse to buy something gorgeous from one of the wonderful boutiques here 
Once you get here on holiday there are a few things that it is very handy to know. A simple cup of coffee is fraught with unexpected risks. The coffee is wonderful of course but you must decide whether what you want is a quick cuppa to warm you up or if you want to sit, sip slowly and enjoy watching life pass you by. This is because you will be charged almost twice if you choose to sit at a table and have your coffee brought to you. Prices can be really high if you decide to have your coffee or ice-cream sitting in a popular town square. Locals know this and crowd around the bar to order an energising espresso, slurp it down quickly and are off again.
Once you have refreshed yourselves in a bar or restaurant, make sure you keep your receipt when you leave. If stopped by the financial police without one you can be fined.
If you are driving over here be very careful if you see the car behind flash its headlights at you. It means “stay where you are because I am coming fast and I’m going to overtake”. It is not the polite invitation to pull out, as used in the UK.
One final myth for the ladies out there, like my mum, who expect to have their bottoms pinched when they arrive in Italy. This custom is no longer in use. No one has ever shown the slightest inclination to pinch me, although Italian men still love to chat up a pretty lady and flirt beautifully. My mother was quite disappointed, I believe!