Archive for May, 2009

Saturday today so Stef doesn’t have to go in to work. Hooray! Kids wanted to go to the Adventure Park (which was elemental in persuading Fran that it would be okay to move to Italy when he brought her here for a special weekend way back in November last year). I did not. Been there (well on a ski slope feeling forty-three years old and terrified and ridiculous and wishing I felt like my daredevil younger self. Knew I would feel the same faced with a tarzan rope and a canyon. Decided not to put myself through the shame and agony). So they dropped me off at Duino – the beginning of the lovely Rilke path.

the beginning of the Rilke path in Duino


First I went round the castle – like the castello di miramare it is picturesque and classically romantic. But intimate too. That’s what I love about this place. Everything is on a scale I can handle.


view of Duino castle

view of Duino castle

I made the mistake of talking to the guide, who then latched on to me and started recounting how he wanted to move to London, he was wasted in this place, he had a degree in marketing and economic politics after all. And telling me in great detail the origins of various objects and the lineage of everyone who ever stepped foot in the castle. I was never any good at history – and museums always overwhelm me (which is one of the many places that Jan Morris and I may have to part ways after all..). I always think, ‘later, another time, I’ll come back and take it all in…’ But I do love to just soak up the atmosphere of special places and relish the views and the angles and the crashing waves, and read snippets of the letters between Rilke and Maria von Thurn – the smouldering passion of their illicit love affair described historically as a ‘close friendship’ – but clearly everything but. Though unconsummated I imagine – and so all the more passionate.


spiral staircase

spiral staircase

As you leave the castle there is a path that winds around the Carsian cliffs, the serrated pure grey rocks in photogenic foreground to the blue blue sky. I took so many pictures. I love this new hobby! (Though still haven’t had the time or brain to transfer them onto this blog – as you can see, no longer true! have sussed it!).




 The sea feels Aegean – a turquoise that could lap at Greek islands.  And that feels romantic too (especially because as it reminds me  of a family sailing holiday – as always  I fell in love – with some 18  year old Ouzo drinker and rode around the islands on the back of  his moped. My parents let me. 




But apart from the romance, the thrill, the sense of being in the only place at the only time, the other memory – so powerful – was coming here with my mum and her older sister, Jenny – way back in 1993. At some point along that path, mum turned to me and told me she had had a biopsy – and was waiting for the results. She said not to worry – and continued to stay persuasively calm for the rest of the visit. But the way she blurted it out, like it was a long-held, painful secret, carried so much anxiety and fear and already a powerful sense of loss – all the things that she would lose, that she loved…that I will never forget. I think she knew then how things would go…and managed to persuade herself otherwise for the difficult months afterwards. 

The Duino Elegies – that’s what Rilke wrote here, contemplated and composed no doubt while walking this path, and penned while sitting on one of the terraces of the castello – looking towards Grado, Monfalcone, Sistiana.


This is where Rilke wrote his Duino Elegies...

This is where Rilke wrote his Duino Elegies...


...at least that's what it says here

...at least that's what it says here











I  think that maybe I will write my own ‘Gillian Elegies’ – to try and capture my mother – and my mother and me – the sense of loss and longing, and of love.


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This is now…

Spent the last couple of days taking refuge in the shade all day. Monday was apparently the hottest day in May for —-years. We went down past Grignano, hoping to use the outdoor pools. But they don’t open for the summer till this weekend. Instead, we went further along to another ‘private’ paying beach, where you can hire a lounger, there are showers and changing rooms and toilets. All very civilised. And there are steps down to an almost-clean sea. Veteran Triestinis are already camped out  for the summer, obviously in their faithful spots. Looks like you can rent (or own?) the beach huts too. Though beach is not quite the word – it’s all concrete. But still, the sun, the smell of pines, the holiday air (and the requisite getting ripped off at the bar/ cafe – their caprese was to die for – and we almost did).

In the evening we went to another beach even further down the coast. The kids snorkelled. Stef played with them. I ignored everyone and soaked up the remaining sunshine.  Before dinner we walked from the beach past a fancy-looking castle which turned out to be the Oceanographic department, then along a grassy path that led to more rocks all along the sea till we noticed a lone couple, naked, on the rocks. I was sad to have disturbed them, imagining their little outdoor retreat. And the kids came rushing up, whispering their surprise and delight. But then we saw a sign saying this was the naturist  part – and we felt bad, then, to have all our clothes on, though it was late by now, and there was no one else…

We discovered, too,  a little camping area back up in the woods, where people looked as if they were staying long-term (there was even a pole strung with clothes hangers). On the way back, we met weathered brown men carrying bottles and bottles of water to their simple abode. I was curious to know who lived there, and how.

But we, in holiday mode, went to the fabulous restaurant back on the beach right there. You don’t get restaurants like that in London – where you can walk in off the pebbles in your flip flops, where half the clientele have been topless minutes before, where babies are swiftly and happily perched in high chairs by solicitous waitresses, business men chat on their mobiles, couples gaze out to sea…and the food is fresh, delicious – and reasonably priced.

take a left down towards the sea...

take a left down to the sea...

Tuesday we stayed at home all morning it was soo hot!  Then the girls and I walked down to Barcola, down our by now well-trodden path:past the ferocious dogs who make us jump out each time,

down the steep path...

down the steep path...

past the irises (now blown out completely), past the lighthouse, down in the pencil line of shade by the side of the road, down the crumbling steps to the railway bridge, then past the scuola statale, imagining all the kids inside busily reading and writing (they are so quiet in there!) till we arrive at our favourite ice cream bar – Pipolo. There is always a party of some kind going on in the canopied terrace – last time it was a kids’ birthday party – with a massive cake made entirely of ice cream. This time it was a more sedate adult affair, with cocktails and canopes. Fran is very excited that she might have her next birthday party at Pipolo’s. (I wonder who her friends will be, a year from now?)

past the terraced gardens..

past the terraced gardens


along the pencil-line of shade

along the pencil-line of shade



Then back again to the big pebbled beach and more snorkelling. I spent my time watching a young couple trying to get their alsatian to swim. He hated the water! They had to keep throwing hime in – and he jumped right out. Then they tried enticing him with a ball. But he didnlt know how to play with the ball either. Just looked at it and wagged his tail. He just wasn’t doing any of the things dogs are supposed to do. A very pregnant lady with a sunburnt face (could have been British) sat at the edge of the sea and screamed with delight as the waves pounded her belly. I wondered how the baby inside was enjoying the ride. And another couple, peacefully side by side, reading, joined suddenly by a woman with a tiny baby – and they are transformed, looking on longingly as the baby does baby things, wobbling her head, smiling.

Wednesday I spent the morning in bed with a migraine (haven’t had one of those for a long time – must be the release of stress), while the kids bounded around the small apartment, making films of themselves on my laptop) – and then Stef arrived to take Fran to the doctor’s in town (a suspicious-looking mole that turned out okay – but what is it about us, Trieste and doctors? We never go in London!). 

Today, feeling better, off to take the kids to the Napoleonica. Will finish my update of Trieste, then..this evening perhaps…

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Back in Trieste for the week of half term. Feel like I have been placed in a tardis-like season pod and hurtled into a brand new world. It is summer here. Not just sunny – baking! You don’t even need sheets.  You need NO CLOTHES . Took Fran to do a bit of girly ethical shopping in Primark before we left (getting her a whole summer wardrobe for under £30 – and a cotton bag saying Primark: Save our planet to confuse everyone ) but that was £30 too much. A vest is too hot. 

Hard to believe that just yesterday I was negotiating builders’ debris and packing till 2 in the morning. Have left it all behind! Right now Acton to Trieste feels like no contest.  Trieste: What’s not to like?    (I know, I know, a few months in and I’ll have a few samples…but for now, treasure the optimism.)

Am feeling bad about my earlier post ranting about the virtues (and not) of a good view. It is indescribably life-affirming to get out of bed and saunter onto the balcony and see the glittering sea, the lighthouse below, the castello di miramare, the curling tail of Trieste….nonostante the misplaced concrete pillar, the car park, etc etc. Middle class spoilt brat. Dissatisfied Brit-picker. And it is still frustrating not to be able to DO something with it/ in it  (a spot of gardening perhaps?). Worst of all, I got a fab new camera and it is not working this morning…To quote Joan Rivers, ” It’s not that the glass is half empty. Someone stole the glass.”

Had this great idea that I would use Jan Morris’s amazing travel memoir ‘Trieste: the meaning of Nowhere‘ as my guide and, like him/her do a sort of double take. Morris (“the world’s greatest travel writer” ) first visited the city as a soldier in the 40s – and then came back (after the operation) as a woman. It’s a brilliant sort of metaphor – to see the city metamporphose from man to woman too, whilst maintaining always its own identity as being neither one nor the other…

I’d like to document too the change in perspective for me, the difference in the city – and my two selves –  from my first sojourn here from 1990 to 1994 – and this later, ongoing, life-changing return. So I shall start here (‘quick now, always’)….while Fran is asleep and Stef has taken (the) Micky down to the sea for a morning dip….I am recovering from the builders and baggage of Acton and the euphoria of getting a tiny glimmer of ME- time…transformed from single child-carer to child-sharer overnight and relishing my freedom. Maybe I’ll just write this on the balcony…(or not…too hot, too bright, too damned hot!!!)

Getting to Trieste 

September 1990. After my 25th birthday. I had just spent 3 months working as a waitress in a (no, not cocktail bar)- tiny restaurant squeezed between il Duomo and la stazione of Firenze. It’s a 5 minute walk from one to the other, on a busy street – and a few paces from this main thoroughfare was Il Banchino, owned and run by Andrea. I got a job there after walking around the city with a sentence scribbled in pencil on the back of a brown envelope ‘Cercho un lavoro‘. Stefano helped me practise the pronunciation. Only problem was, I didn’t understand the replies! And from one hotel or bar to another I would go, feeling shy and misunderstood. Fortunately, Andrea spoke English and hired me then and there. So around 3 in the afternoon I would start work at the Banchino, slicing tomatoes, rinsing lettuce. When I first started work, in the summer, the restaurant was full of English-speaking tourists so my lack of Italian was an advantage. Later in the season, tutored by Andrea, when the Italians started to trickle back in, I was able to get by with the basics and bring them what they wanted.  I loved my time at the Banchino.

This is how my I passed my days.

In the mornings, I’d get up late, go for a cappuccino and  brioche at the nearest bar, then set off on my bike around Florence with my ‘Blue Guide’ (the Rough Guides weren’t even born then). I would visit all the churches and galleries. The Blue Guide was incredibly detailed. I remember touring the Uffizzi and studying paragraphs  and paragraphs about each of the paintings. I loved leaving my bike locked by the Ponte Vecchio, or walking through the market at San Lorenzo. Then maybe I’d have a sandwich somewhere, or I’d wait till I got to the Banchino round 3. Andrea would be there, taking stores down from the tiny loft. There were only 3 tables in the Banchino. It was the smallest restaurant I have ever seen. Andrea and I would work together in the kitchen. preparing salads. And he would talk to me in slow, carefully annunciated Italian. 

‘Tonya, sai la cosa piu’ importante nella vita?’

I would look at him, ‘No!’ I would say.

Then he would pick up the tomato he was about to slice.

E’ il pomodoro?’

Non! (I was guessing…)

Then he’d pick up the plate he would put the tomato on,

E’ il piatto?’


Then the knife he was slicing it with,

E il coltello?


Tonya, sai la cosa piu’ importante nella vita?


E’ l’acqua!

And that was it, same thing every day, he’d introduce the names of the food we were preparing (finocchio proved the most difficult, meaning both fennel and gay. There were plenty of male tourists who wandered in who Andrea would describe as fennel…)

Later I enrolled on an intensive Italian course and would spend 5 hours every morning studying Italian at the Dante Institute before going to the restaurant. This full immersion in both theory and practice really worked – and I could speak pretty fluent Italian by the end of the summer. 

I’d work at the Banchino till 2 or 3 in the morning, whenever the last (usually stoned) customers left. Then I’d cycle home past the old fortress and the men dressed as women looking for trade – their glossy heels sparkling in the moonlight. “Ciao!” they’d call, “Ciao!” I’d call back. I loved that ride. 

Back home in our tiny flat, Stefano would be asleep after studying all day for his PhD exams. He never complained when I woke him up.

And that’s how we ended up in Trieste:  Stef went off to do his exams at the SISSA (Scuola Internazionale di Scienza e — Applicata), perched between the castello di miramare and the carso of Trieste –  and was accepted onto their PhD in Mathematics.

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School – and SATS – and attendance percentages – are another stress that has been winding me up this week. Seem to be the only governor who has no belief in the benefit of Sats whatsoever (and 2 kids four years apart having to endure them – for what?).

To cap it all, a large number of parents received letters this week telling us that our child’s attendance was below the expected national average and that ‘the situation was being monitored and social workers would be  informed if necessary’. Many parents took this threat at face value and, terrified, were banging on the head’s door the next day. ‘My child has only been off for two days the whole year’ they protested. ‘Oh yes, it’s a problem with the percentages – since the year is not yet over’ defended the Head. Excuse me but Bollocks to that! And – for me- the whole principle is wrong. The school should be grateful if I feel able to look after my kid at home for a day even if all she’s feeling is under the weather (which of course she will be since all she’s been doing for 6 months is revision for Sats tests that will anyway be banished next year) – a smaller class to manage! less germs! fewer days off school in the long-term.

And if there are a ‘ significant number of parents’ who are so neglectful of their kids that they can’t get up in the morning to send them to school , or keep them at home to do jobs, etc. then those kids should be known to the school – and be getting some personal attention and support. Not some confrontational letter sent out to all and sundry. I give up with this battle. Does anybody who governs (including school governors) have a clue about education? It cannot just be down to statistics Labour Party! Children’s lives are not always reducible to data analysis. You are losing them – and they are losing out on developing their natural, joyful curiosity and desire to LEARN. Give them a break. Trust them. They count. And they can count too (as in numeracy)  if you give them a good enough reason.

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Colours I must choose for front of house and bathroom – but also how I’m feeling.

Haven’t written in here (on here?) since April 21st. Should have waited a few days to make this a symmetric (??) month. I’ve extracted myself from all laborious and impossible miserable decision-making and brought my laptop down to The Rocket. Have just eaten the most delectable goats cheese and portobello mushroom starter. And am awaiting a mint tea and a chocolate brownie. Has almost cheered me up. I am spoiling myself (not for the first time this week) because everything in my soap opera life has become a little too much.

To cut a long story short (and then untangle it again) our lovely cat Silky was “let go” this morning. By that I mean that after brain surgery on Monday (crazy but true) and what was the possibility of a miracle recovery ( she has always been unbalanced on her feet: lately she was toppling over every other step) this morning I got a call from the vet at the Royal Veterinary Hospital to say that she was having great difficulty breathing and we could put her on a ventilator, etc etc but the chances of survival were very small (and he had to add – expensive).Very hard to “let go” since we got this far. She would have been two at the end of July. Her twin sister Minty has missed her like crazy since she’s been in hospital and even stopped eating for the first few days.

To cap it all, my youngest daughter Michaela has been having a hard time this week – missing Silky who’s been away since last Monday – and her dad (who has already started his new job in Trieste – on April 1st would’ya believe?) and since Saturday also missing  her sister Fran who has gone (with her best friend Emine) to join her dad in Trieste for a long-planned post-SATS treat – and joint birthday celebration –  till Tuesday.

On top of this we’ve had builders in (and ensuing mess and mayhem) since last Monday. Not surprisingly Micky has been uncharacterstically tearful and needy….(I’m hoping she’s not going to get another bout of terrifying croup though it’s in the air again: her classmate was in the cafe with his mum this morning barking away) – and now I have to break the very sad news about Silky to her.

Miserable decisions – to go and fetch Silky and bury her in the garden? Or pick up her ashes and sprinkle them around a rose bush? (Stef suggested maybe taking them to Trieste and throwing them into the sea but I can imagine customs could have a problem with ashes….). Just let the RVC cremate her?…Non-cat lovers will be laughing at all this I’m sure. But a life is a life..and the death of this lovely animal who has kept us company needs marking. When an operation doesn’t go well there can only be regret: given the outcome, it would have been better for her to have been put down peacefully and the kids could have said a proper goodbye beforehand. Instead she has been all on her own for a week in a strange place being messed about with…And yet, if she’d survived…We should have learned our lesson. We had a similar tragedy with our other cat, Gem. I’ll write about that in another post.  We have, to understate, been unlucky with cats. 

Maybe now is not the time to go through our travails this time round with the insurance company, the last-minute MRI scan, the desperate decision to operate or not operate even though we were going over the insurance allowance by a couple of grand….My dad and step-mother’s immediate and generous intervention so that the decision would be a ‘medical rather than a financial’ one. The muted euphoria when we heard that she had made it through the operation and was as good as could be expected…(I even stage-managed a small impromptu Eurovision party at our house and bought Micky a pink wig to celebrate) but the rumbling suspicion that perhaps all was not turning out as hoped after all…I had joked about the vet’s German intonation – ‘so flat! Everything sounds depressing…’

I will leave this story here for now. I hope Micky has been okay at school. Now I’m going onto a SATS Rant.

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