Archive for the ‘Thought for the Day’ Category

Christmas (as in the non-religious celebration of consumption) is designed to compound all fledgling symptoms of nostalgia, homesickness, uprootedness. It’s designed to make you wish for things you didn’t even know you wanted, and more powerfully to wish for things you don’t have, without even knowing what they are!

It’s a holiday designed to make you stressed, a family gathering designed to make you fall out, a present designed to miss the mark. Christmas can never ever live up to its name (so redolent of sparkles and twinkles and snow prints and crackers and …fill in your own foibles here). It can only disappoint. So let’s get ready…

For me, this insidious spirit of Christmas is most easily caught by the ‘Christmas Wish list‘. My kids complain, “I don’t know what I want…I only know when Christmas is over and then I remember all the things I wanted and didn’t get!”  Some things on their lists make me smile (7 year old: a packet of liquorice swirls); 11 year old’s list includes (of course) a Nintendo game and the new Lilly Allen DVD. Alongside certain items (a case for my laptop; a remote control aeroplane) she has put NOT NESESARY (yeah, spell check programmes have made her lazy).

[It’s reassuring to  think that Lilly Allen is nesesary. Sometimes, listening to her with the kids in the car for the nth time, I have to agree – her lyrics are hilarious and wonderful – and indeed, as a way to understand this modern life from a different generation’s perspective – nesesary. A separate post on Lilly Allen might follow… ] 

Anyway, this distinction is the point isn’t it? Necessary. Our kids have had so much in the last few months, more than ever, as we adjust to this new life and home and try and smooth the path for them a little. Summer camps, scuba diving, After School clubs – roller skating, piano, tennis, basketball, video and script writing (these have certainly enriched their lives) weekend activities (skiing, eating pizzas and ice creams…). Then the Necessary New clothes for the harsh winters (quilted coats, roll neck jumpers, thermal gloves, waterproof boots, etc etc); the ‘optional’  extras  – pocket money for the Bake Sale at school every Thursday; and the essential items (quaderni, quaderni…hundreds of school notebooks, pens and pencils, calculators…).

Certainly we are all spoilt (I’m talking specifically about my family here, the four of us). We have way more than our fair share. Yet, by definition, it is not enough. 

What do you want for Christmas?

Just before I went back to London in November to run some writing workshops, I was doing some last minute shopping in Opicina (the small town on the Carso in northern Italy where we live). As I approached the baker’s, I took a deep breath. I was stressed. I knew I would have to pass, yet again, the old man sitting on the pavement in front of the shop, with his few symbolic goods laid out on a cloth by the tree where the dogs might pee.  Incense, lighters, a candle or two. The only black face in Opicina. He always smiles warmly, the gaps between his teeth glimmering with saliva. He always gently, unobtrusively holds out his hand. He does not seem to see so well out of one eye.

But this time he does not even look up. 

I walk on by. I do not know what to do. I feel bad. I go in to buy bread. The smell inside of yeast and dough is such a nostalgia trigger, such a warmth-inducing, family-round-the-table essence of love and sharing. I am disturbed. 

When I come out he is till there of course, sitting on the cold tarmac, staring at his feet.

I continue down the street. I go in and out of various shops, buying things we need for tea, things we need in the house, things we need. Then, realising I have forgotten something essential, I retrace my steps. I know I will walk by him again. Now I have had time to reflect,  I decide that this time I will give him some money. I select some coins from my purse. I am starting to feel better.

But he is no longer there. 

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In London, up in my friend’s attic in Acton, I dream and wonder and worry about the old man outside the baker’s in Opicina. Until that last time, he had always engaged with me, always looked straight at me, always hoped. I wondered what I should do. I pass him every day.

Then  I had a Eureka moment.

It has been a habit of mine for some years now, to go to a cafe on the way home from walking the kids to school – and have my nesesary coffee. I don’t know if it’s a habit, or an addiction, I don’t know if it does me good – or harm. Certainly, it delays the beginning of my day, it puts off the return to a house that needs cleaning, but it allows me to consider my strategy for the day’s chores, to put a space between me and the kids so I can put my wordplay hat on..and sometimes, it’s a place to network: to meet mums and exchange useful knowledge about kids, swine flu and the next PTA dinner. 

So what has this to do with Eureka? I was asking myself: would it be okay to give that old man money every time I pass? How would that be? Can I afford it? Is this a good way to help him? 

I realised that the 2€ or so I spent most mornings on my latte and croissant could go direct to him. That way too, I could return home subito and get on with things – I could clean the house in the time I would normally take for my coffee! A win-win situation – and a life-changing decision.

But now I am back in Opicina, and the old man is not there. I have not seen him again since the day he did not even look up.

He lost hope in me. And that was what made me think again. 

He was right to lose hope. His well-being should not depend on my fickle sense of virtue. 

I am not sure what to do now. But I would like to do something, about Christmas, about wanting and longing for things, about creating desires that don’t exist, and ignoring the nesesary  longings that do (for food, for shelter, for love, for peace, for health). 

I will be thinking about this over Christmas and New Year. Your comments welcome. 

In the meantime, I did not stop off for my coffee this morning, I wrote this instead.


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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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This is my thought for the day: is a good view really worth it? I mean, literally, the price it costs to have one. Trieste is situated right on the Adriatic Gulf. The main city square, Piazza Unita’, leads down to the water; if you went inter-railing like I did in those days when everyone did, you always came through Trieste on your way down through Yugoslavia to get to the cheap sea and sun of the Greek islands. And although the first thing you would have noticed was the Slav women wearing 5 pairs of Levi’s jeans under their voluminous peasant skirts, the second thing that would have taken your breath away, was the glistening light on the water as the train chugged around the Gulf. If you live in Trieste, it is possible for the many houses that line the coast, perched on the hillsides, to have sun and sea pouring in through their windows (though like architects everywhere, they never seem to put enough windows, or put them in the right places, but that’s another story…). I remember the first time we lived here and were looking for a home, in 1990 (ommigod!), the advertised view always turned out to be a glimpse through a crack with a telescope, while balancing on one leg on the side of the toilet.  Anyway, the reason I bring this up now is because Stefano was pretty keen on a view. That was a priority. What was the point of being here if you couldn’t see the sea? It turned out the price of a view was literally too high and so we opted instead for a lovely house up on the hills in a smaller town called Opicina, but with no sea to be seen (not even from the bathroom). However, to compensate, Stef was keen to have the ‘view experience’ when he got his own little bachelor pad for the 4 months before we all come to live out here. And that’s where I am right now. And that’s why I brought up this subject. This evening, as every evening since we got here on Saturday, I have sat on the balcony that, while directly overlooking the car park, does also, if you point the chairs in the right direction and ignore the vast concrete column holding that very balcony up, look out onto the most spectacular expanse of water, silhouetted birds, setting sun, and a blinking lighthouse. From our daughters’ bedroom you can look to the east and see the lights of the city spread out in a semi circle; from our bedroom you can look to the south and see the shimmering white crenellations of the Castello di Miramare, where Emperor Masimilliano set sail for Mexico and never returned.    

car park with a view
car park with a view


laundry with a view

laundry with a view


the view towards Trieste

the view towards Trieste


...il castello di miramare

...il castello di miramare

But my sense of frustration is heightened because I can’t quite do anything with this view. It is there, through the window, it is there in the evening Prosecco, but it is so nearly but not quite perfect: the concrete column, the overgrown trees hiding the sun just as it melts into the sea, the cars that rev into the car park, the fact that it’s the bedrooms (where you shut your eyes) that have the picture windows while the living rooms (where you live) look onto more mundane scenery. And then it’s the accompanying guilt of not being satisfied when you have everything, of always wanting more than you have, of always feeling cheated, that others (the people in the flat above, for example, don’t suffer the car park or the trees) have more …that makes the view instead a kind of daily torture. Why do I not love this life? Why am I not a sailor, on that sea? Why am I not capturing in oils as the wind blows my hair the tinge and hue of the irises waving below me?  And so I think we made the right decision: the room without a view is the one for me. Then I’ll have every right to yearn for what I haven’t got.

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