Memories are made of breakfasts

When I was young, I can distinctly remember going around telling everyone: “When I grow up, I’m going to live in France,” France being the only place that I’d visited outside the UK.

I’d been on a school trip to Normandy when I was about ten. It was the early 80s and a big event, especially if you were ten and had never been abroad before. I don’t think I’d even been to London, never mind abroad. I remember we had these French lessons before we went, as much as you can cram into a short course. I also have rather vague memories of the Bayeux tapestry which was why we were there.

Yet I distinctly remember drinking hot chocolate out of bowls in the morning for breakfast. It felt like I was entering some secret world. It was foreign and it was incredibly enticing, and it bet Yorkshire hands down. Yorkshire had nothing on this. This was pure – well if not quite glamour, it certainly felt quite sophisticated, and certainly better than a bowl of cereal. And it was sweet, always a bonus.

As far as breakfasts go, it’s probably up there with the fresh sfogliatine, small pleated puff pastries filled with crème patisserie that I remember eating for breakfast in Florence fifteen years later. We’d rented a room in a pensione which didn’t have a view, so not quite like the EM Forster novel or the Merchant Ivory extravaganza A Room with A View with Helena Bonham Carter wandering round Florence and falling in love with her wild Italian man. We had no men, and no view, but we did eat cappuccino and sfogliatine for breakfast every morning if that was any form of consolation.

We went to San Gimignano and its towers one day and mingled with the tourists as it was the Italian bank holiday for 8th December and they were out in their hordes. “We need to go to Siena,” we said, especially as the next day we had to go back. Cue two young women look at each other.

What’s the quickest way to Siena?

It turned out there was no quick way to Siena, so we hitched a ride to Poggibonsi bus station. If Florence spoke A Room with View, Poggibonsi rang of Where Angels fear to Tread, Forster’s other Italian novel with a tragic ending, and certainly not the one you’d hope for. Although admittedly this was only the bus station.

We arrived in Siena about four o’clock in the afternoon, after having got a bus from Poggibonsi. The whole of Siena was lit up and the shops sold panforte (a type of chewy cake filled with cakes and nuts and ricciarelli biscuits).

I went back to Siena a few years ago with my husband and kids, although we couldn’t get in as I’d forgotten about the low entrances in the city walls and we had bikes on the top of the car. And two very young boys were tired and not really up for a walk.

Yet there was a wonderful wedding in a vintage Alfa Romeo that we watched as the bride and groom drove off down Tuscan roads to a backdrop of Siena on the hill. Then we stopped and ate grapes from the vines while the kids slept in the back of the car. “Try these,” said my husband. And so we did and looked over at the landscape and breathed in Tuscany and ate from its vines and savoured its beauty.

It all added to the atmosphere. In spite of not yet having been back to Siena.

Being home

It changes when you move away, the perspective. The familiar is still familiar but you see it through a different lens. The old lens has long been cast aside. Or maybe it’s still the old lens but it’s transformed over the years. You’re still holding the camera and you decide the angle. Which is why memory can be so unreliable.

I used to think that home was a place, and then I started to think it wasn’t. Home was something inside you. Probably true, or at least it feels as if it were true but place is more important than we allow ourselves to believe at times, or maybe that’s just the case when you leave. Home, that to which you return to, where you came from, is still there and is always there but only while ever it is still there.

It was sitting by a Yorkshire range with the fire burning in my mother’s house this weekend. The fierceness of the heat, that slight smell of fumes. I say my mother’s house, although I could equally say my father’s house. It is each of their houses and for different reasons. It’s an old house with history and a memory. It’s not our house. It belongs to itself. We are just passing through. They were cloth weavers and butchers before us, generations of the same families. They gave meaning to the meaning of the family home.

When I was a little girl I used to tell my mother there was a ghost there, and she was a woman. There probably was, but it doesn’t matter if there wasn’t. Sometimes I wonder. My boys still don’t like going upstairs by themselves, just like I never did. I used to run up the stairs and across the landing to the bathroom and then run back downstairs and hardly breathing. The ghost lived near the bathroom. Who knows how she died or why.

I know every inch of that house, every creak of its floors, every fault in its draughty windows. I go back and I feel myself move into it. It wraps itself around me. And then I leave it again, until next time. It’s purely emotional and always will be.

Then I come back home and I’m on my sofa eating mozzarella di bufala and Tuscan prosciutto crudo in front of the TV with my husband, having put the kids to bed before, in a kind of tableau to married middle aged life. Only I’m a protagonist now.

And once more I’m back at home.

Nutella for grown-ups

My kids were little and we were by the lake. I was making Nutella sandwiches.

“And if we ever have kids, they’re not eating any of that crap,” this guy sitting near(ish) to us said to his girlfriend.

I too had been that mother of the my kids will never eat Nutella variety. Before I had kids. Then I had kids and if my older son loves chocolate then that’s my fault as I distinctly remember sharing chocolate when he was probably only just about old enough for it to be considered appropriate for him to eat it.

Needless to say, he loves Nutella. Ask any Italian child and they will tell they love Nutella. It’s an institution. School kids take Nutella sandwiches for their mid morning break. They eat it as a snack when they come home from school.

Both my own kids love Nutella, and every time I bring a jar of Nutella into the house, I am generally horrified by how little time it lasts and each time I vow that not another jar of Nutella is setting foot in this house.

Until the next time.

“Brioche with Nutella?” A friend asked me one day when we were having bar at the breakfast.

“Yes, why?”

It was more of a kids’ thing. Nutella wasn’t for adults.

Oh but Nutella is for adults too. There’s panettone spread with Nutella at Christmas. there’s being up in the mountains all crammed into a house and staying up late and dipping leftover bread into a jar of Nutella that was supposed to last the week, there’s sitting round the table with your kids after school eating Nutella sandwiches and knowing that it’s for your benefit as much as theirs.

It’s the comfort, like mashed potato and mashed up Weetabix, comfort where the world seems to have lost it, comfort where there are times you’re living that you’d really rather not be living at that moment in time.

It’s a part of the world that’s always there, that’s telling you that things are still as they should be.

And if all this is signified in a jar of soft, velvety Nutella and a piece of bread, then surely there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

Cappuccino, brioche and the day is mine

I love Italian cafés, or bars as they’re called here.

Of course you can’t generalise. Not all of them are such shrines to all things sweet. Some are best avoided, generally the ones where you walk in and there are a load of old men. Not that I have anything against old men, but it’s often a sign. In Spain if I walk in and there are a lot of old men, chances are they serve good tapas. In Italy, it’s not quite the same.

In both cases, if you’re looking for a quick toilet, don’t. They probably won’t even have real toilets preferring the Turkish variety. And in any case they won’t be clean. Although this is no guarantee. You can go to the chicest bar in Milan and chances are you’ll still be clambering down some rather lethal staircase into somewhere you probably were better off giving a miss.

Choose your bar, and choose your toilet, with care.

On the other hand, the best of Italian bars are almost like living works of art. And it’s not just about the food. It’s the whole atmosphere. From the group of mums who have just done drop-off to the businessmen having their quick caffé before going off to the office, it’s clear that the Italian bar is central to Italian life.

Some of them are very traditional, family-run and have a regular clientele that’s been going there for years, and are often the best. My local bar is like this. It was one of the first bars I came across when I moved to the area and it’s still my favourite. I walk in and the world is as it should be.

Today there were some particularly appealing chocolate and raspberry affairs sitting in the cabinet where I walked in (see main picture). Not strictly cakes, they are actually semifreddos. Or semifreddi, more like a mousse disguised as a cake, as a result of its semi-frozen texture. And utterly beautiful. Too good to be eaten? Not quite. Trust me, they need to be eaten.

There’s something so very civilised about going out for breakfast in Italy. Or maybe that should be there’s something so very civilised about having cake for breakfast, even if a brioche doesn’t strictly count as cake. I remember when I came here years ago, I’d go around in raptures like some kind of crazed Marie Antoinette. “Oh, let us eat cake for breakfast! How wonderful it is to eat cake for breakfast!” And I’d sit and have pasticcini (little pastries) for breakfast, and think I’d arrived in some form of culinary paradise.

And what better way to start your day than looking across a glass cabinet that’s full of various brioches? Take your pick: various types of jam, chocolate, Nutella (who says Nutella isn’t for grown-ups?), pistacchio, Gianduia (like Nutella), apple and so on. This morning I had an extremely buttery and delicious affair with cooked cream (a bit like custard), raisins and almond flakes. And the whole thing was freshly dusted in icing sugar.

Then there’s the coffee. Italy is famous for its coffee, and Italian coffee can be seriously good. Cappuccinos are smooth and creamy and caffé lattes are the real thing and served in a glass and not a paper carton. Coffees don’t come in sizes, they come in cups. And that’s how it should be. And in spite of Starbucks’ recent invasion of Milan’s Piazza del Duomo complete with palm trees and protests, well, let’s just leave it at this. They might do a caramel frappuccino, but personally, I’d rather have this.

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Things I’ve learned from living abroad

  • Living abroad is very different to being on holiday. Sounds obvious, but needs saying. Of course you can stretch out that holiday feeling but sooner or later reality kicks in.
  • Upping sticks and moving abroad usually might mean leaving your job as well as your own country, family etc. It might seem very romantic to go off and live with your Italian boyfriend in his Italian village at the time. But what are you going to do when you get there? Get a job to go to. Or look as soon as you get there. Alternatively, any big project while keep you going for a while.
  • Get out, get out and get out. You’re here to meet people.
  • Don’t fall into the comfort zone of what’s immediately around you. Comfort zones can lose their appeal. Keep forcing yourself out of yours. This applies whether you’ve been in a place a year or twenty years.
  • Remember why you’re there. This may be work, family or simply because you love the place. It will give you something to hang onto during difficult times. Chances are the good times will come round again.
  • Learn the language. Do it. People are more like to accept you if they can speak your language. It’s your passport to the country. And if you stay there long enough, it will give you a whole new social and cultural identity.
  • Make yourself a family. And I don’t mean partner, kids and in-laws. Finding your tribe is the best support and therapy there is.
  • There’s a huge psychological difference between living abroad for a few years and living abroad when you know it’s permanent.
  • Be kind to yourself. Contrary to what we may be led to believe, not everyone is upping sticks and offing all the time. It’s a big change. Become an expert at your own hygge.
  • Remember to enjoy it. Always take time out for the best bits. You came for that amazing view from the café up on the cliffs? Make sure you make time to revisit it.

Up Grigna, Lake Como way

It was supposed to be a family affair, the four of us. “Have we got enough petrol?” “Yes, of course we have.” Of course we have enough petrol.

“Excuse me, how much further is it to the start of the walk?” I ask. The man cycling upwards pulls a face. “Oh, about four kilometres.”

Not so long after we’re sitting in the back of a car of a couple from Milan, myself squashed between my two kids, and I’m telling them the story of how my husband dropped us off earlier and is now somewhere on the shores of Lake Como with a petrol can, and thanking them profusely for giving us a lift up to where the walk is really supposed to start.

It’s all worth it though. Granted, there’s the occasional sheer drop and excessive scree but that’s what it’s like up Grigna, that huge mountain massif in the province of Lecco above Lake Como. It’s calcareous and dolomitic for a start – just like the Dolomite mountains that stretch across Trentino and Alto Adige – and renowned for its huge rocky peaks and world-famous climbing opportunities. Today we’re walking the stretch from above Cainallo to Rifugio Bogani up at 1900m. This matters for my son. How high is it, mum? How high is it? There are several people already coming back down. They greet us with the friendly air of people who walk regularly in the mountains. No pretences, just a genuine appreciation and respect for all that is around them. Mountains can be a great leveller.

There is a famous saying by an Italian Alpinist Beato Contardo Ferrini, a Franciscan monk who also became a saint. “It is by overcoming the obstacles of nature in the mountains that you learn to overcome the obstacles of life.” It’s carved onto a slab of rock in a valley where the cows are taken to pasture in summer and fresh cheeses smell of meadows and the cycle of life; and it’s always there at the back of my mind.

Mum, I want to go to the top. Mum, can we go right to the top? Mum, when can we go right to the top?

Rifugio Bogani, Vò di Moncodeno, 23825 Esino Lario LC, 368 352 7021

It’s always advisable to ring and book if you’re wanting to eat at the refuge, and especially with the new COVID restrictions.

Up in the mountains with kids

Little did I imagine when I came to Italy that one day I’d be walking through the mountains with my kids.

But do your kids walk? I get asked. Well yes, they do. I don’t know whether this is because they have a mother who walks and makes them walk. I can’t bear the thought of my kids not walking. And for that reason it’s always been a priority.

The following also helps:

  1. Everything is an adventure. Whether you’re looking for heffalumps, Eeyore or poisionous grass snakes, it always helps to be looking for something. Be careful with how you play the latter though. I managed to scare my 8 year old once regarding the grass snakes. Result: huge tantrum up the side of a mountain and refusal to go any further.
  2. Food. Sounds obvious but essential. Kids need energy, kids need food. As soon as the car stops on the way up to the mountains, my two will inevitably start. Mum, I’m hungry. Mum, what have we got to eat? Pack for breakfast, lunch and tea. On Sunday we went to the mountains and didn’t take anything. We were going to a mountain refuge for lunch so I didn’t think we’d need anything. WRONG. 11 o’clock and we’re all in the bar eating brioche. And we had breakfast before we left.
  3. Don’t be a pack horse. Give them a rucksack each. Pack bottle of water, sandwiches, crips, fruit (skip bananas, they get squashed). Give to the appropriate child and get him or her to carry it. The same applies if your partner is there that day. Like anything to do with kids, consistency is the key.
  4. Take a friend, their friend. Kids will do it if they see others do it. And if your kids are still quite young and any of your friends have older kids, you’re onto a winner. And excuse you if you just lie back in the lounger in the sunshine and finish off your glass of wine…
  5.  Don’t give in. Kids will come up with every excuse they can think of to get out of going in the first place. And really, why would they want to leave the comfort of their sofas? If all else fails, pack their bags for them, grab the boots, kids out of the door and you’re off. They can always put their boots on in the car.
  6. Don’t worry too much about the weather. Obviously you don’t want to be stuck up a mountain in severe weather conditions as that would be downright dangerous for all. But if it doesn’t quite turn out as expected, don’t give yourself a hard time. You’re not a cruel mother, you’re making memories. Mum, do you remember when we went to that refuge and it snowed? Mum, do you remember when we got caught in that storm and I ran down the mountain with Filippo under his jacket? One exception is heat. Heat and midday sun is not pleasant, and can make you ill. In summer, start early.
  7. Relax and enjoy. Okay, so it’s off the cliché scale, but really, believe me, you are giving your child a gift for life. My brother and I spent virtually the whole of our childhoods traipsing up and down some hill or other in the Yorkshire Dales and across the North York Moors. He now traipses round the same hills with his son. I traipse up and down mountains with my kids. Nothing beats getting to the top and your son running round with joy, shouting “Mummy it’s beautiful! Thank you, mummy!”
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Mummy, it’s beautiful! Angeloga, Province of Sondrio, Lombardy 

Mountain refuge

Yesterday I was sitting in a mountain refuge with my oldest Italian friends. It’s the thing I like doing best. Walking up a mountain, taking in the views of the said mountain and then sitting in a mountain refuge and eating mountain food. It was an early birthday celebration, a day with friends and their teenage son who I remember being born and have known all his life. It happens when you live in a place for a while. You make history here.

“I’ve just realised I’ll be twenty years older than the age I was when I first came here,” I said as I finished off the polenta and wild mushroom stew.

And in twenty years nothing much has changed. I’m still sitting in mountain refuges, older, with two children and an Italian husband.

Conversation in the car with my elder son.

“But mum,” he began, “could you not speak ANY Italian when you came here?”

“No, I learned it when I got here.”

“But how long did it take you to learn it?”

“I can’t remember. A few years. I learned most of it in the mountains, when dad and I used to go skiing every weekend.”

Silence, which means he’s thinking.

“You know what I once did. I once needed a stamp and I didn’t know the word. So I made it up. I kept saying to the guy, timbra, timbra. I thought, well it’s timbre in French so it could be something similar.”

Elder son starts laughing.

“Anyway, so he said francobollo. So, I thought right, it must be a shop called Franco Bollo.”

“Francobollo?”

“Yeah, you know, Franco. Franco Bollo. So off I went to look for a shop called Franco Bollo.”

“Oh, muuuum…”

Once there was a young woman who went round a shopping centre for a good half hour looking for a shop called Franco Bollo.

She’d arrived in Italy only a month before liked some kind of 90s Lucy Honeychurch with a bright orange puffer jacket and a vague desire to travel. She stood out like an amber traffic light. Very few Northern Italian woman wore bright orange puffers jackets and certainly not in provincial lakeside towns. She got on and off trains and went up and down a lake and looked at the mountains and wanted to go. She loved all of it: the food, the scenery, the places, the people. Which is what Italy is all about, all that, and never judging a book by its cover.

That’s the bit you learn later, when the dream becomes reality.