2. notes on Italy

There is almost certainly some place in the world that contains the essence of your story, somewhere that makes you pause for a moment when you run your fingers over a map.

Perhaps a crucial chapter of your life was written in a particular house, maybe a definitive kiss was stolen under a singular, flickering lamp post.  The essence of your story may be a river into which you fell, which changed the way you breathe forever. It could be a restaurant where you struck up a crucial business partnership over Ouzo, or a mountain top where you gleaned a life-changing insight. In this age of travel, there is nearly always somewhere other than home that carves some indelible mark on us. For me, that place is Italy.

The first time I ventured into The Boot was with my then 5-year-old daughter and my boyfriend. We slipped in, unnoticed, from France, the showy claustrophobia of Monaco giving way to the rugged green of Liguria. We took the autostrada south, through severe tunnels gouged into ancient rock. High viaducts offered glimpses of a distant Mediterranean so enticingly blue it set off an indescribable yearning within us.

We dropped down to the crazy coastal road and found our canary yellow car rental outrun by mint green scooters, braiding through the traffic like metallic wasps. We reached Chiavari, a busy seaside town where we met up with friends of ours, one of whom grew up in the area. They drove us to a restaurant in the mountains which offered dramatic views of the surrounding hills, wrinkled and warm, deep crevices unfolding into an abundance of flowers and green. Glasshouses sparkled in the sun and vines spindled upwards towards the light. We ate the best meal of our lives on that mountainside. A fresh tomato melted in my mouth, extra virgin olive oil dripped down my chin.  The restaurant owner was dismayed when my daughter asked for butter, “Cosi inglese!”.

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Later that night, hazy with wine and laughter, our friends took us to Sestri Levante and made us close our eyes while they lead us somewhere by the hand. When we opened our eyes, we were standing in a crescent moon of sand, the Baia del Silenzio – the Bay of Silence. Lights danced on the black waters that lap the shoreline. A few boats tinkled and rolled, tugging at their moorings like impatient puppies. The bay curved around us like a mother’s arm and we were bewitched. Our friends call this place Mermaid Bay as it is where wishes come true and the air sparks with enchantment. On cue, my 5 year old (who couldn’t believe she was up so late and still warm in her cotton dress) looked down and found an abandoned bucket and spade at her feet. She squealed in delight at the magic of it and rushed to the shoreline to build night castles for mermaids.

A few days later, we went back to the Bay of Silence alone to watch the full moon crescendo over the mountains. My daughter paddled in the magical waters while my boyfriend and I leant up against a beached rowing boat watching her. The moon took an hour to fully ascend and was joined by a carnival of twinkling stars.  As we sat on the damp sand, my boyfriend asked me to marry him. I said, “Yes” and the ragged magic and romance of Italy was etched into my heart for eternity.

We married a year later and over time, life happened to my husband, my daughter and I. Back in England, we lost jobs, and began new ones.  My daughter, then 12, was quarantined in China during the Swine Flu scare, and I could not get to her for days. I miscarried a baby, before giving birth to another daughter. My father died suddenly, two weeks before my 40th birthday and my husband had to spend large chunks of time working abroad while I was adrift on a sea of grief.  My ‘baby weight’ just stuck around and became, well, just weight. The joy and exhaustion of parenthood and a thousand tiny things wore us down and we worried. A lot. An aching nostalgia for a different time and place set in.

We needed Italy.

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Rome in August shimmers in a fug of dust and heat. As my husband and I walk through the Villa Borghese, the grass is straw-like beneath our feet. The sun pummels our shoulders and a trickle of sweat makes its way down my back. We take in the view and spy St Peter’s Basilica, its rooftop shining like a dull coin as we contemplate the power and weight of it. There is something available about Rome, not in a whorish way, but in a simple, inclusive way. ‘Here is my food’,  it seems to say, ‘Here is my weather, this is my history.’ But it feels like so many secrets lie in the Vatican City.

My husband is bolder in Italy and in Rome, he is alive. We walk hand-in-hand with no smaller hand between our own. We take adult-sized strides up the Spanish Steps and stroll briskly along the banks of the liverishly yellow and rumbling Tiber without stopping to study every piece of gum and cigarette butt on the pavement. We hop on and off buses with destinations we don’t know, we get drunk in the 30 degree evening air. And we kiss like lovers do. We fall into the cool shade of Pantheon and are haunted by the Colosseum where the floor is cut away to reveal the labyrinth beneath where slaves once paced the hours before being catapulted above to face their nemeses. The terror and intensity of the past is embedded in the walls of the Colosseum the way sheets soak up sweat. Blood and sand, pain, death and power, they’re all here, embedded in the brickwork as ink sinks into skin.

When I look for the women of Rome, I find them in its ghosts. There is Lady Olimpia Maidalchini-Pamphili whose angry phantom crashes a black carriage over the Ponte Sisto towards the Trastevere. The restless spirit of Beatrice Cenci, beheaded for murdering her violent father in the 1600’s wanders the Castel Sant’Angelo with her head under her arm. The beautiful hand of Costanza de Cupis haunts a window of her palace in Via dell’Anima. The lustful ghost of Emperor Claudius’s wife, Messalina, roams the Piazza Navona pinching the bottoms of young men, while Emperor Titus’s lover Berenice avenges her execution for witchcraft by refusing to leave Portico di Ottavia.  The women are phantom witches, vengeful and sad, caught in loops of their own searching. They remind me of how very easy it is for a woman to become invisible; through motherhood, through the careless privilege of men, through histories which do not honour her, through middle-age. And by their persistence, the ghosts remind me of how very real I am.

The more time we spend in Rome, the more we fall in love with the idea it conjures for us of both the ferociousness and grandeur of age. It is a city that counters the frivolity of youthful perfection with the fierce beauty of its decaying monuments. Suddenly I am a Colosseum, a Gorgon head, and all the Venuses in the world cannot reach the depths of me. Rome shows me that we are at once both beautiful and ancient, sculptors of our own histories, twisting and rumbling through the years, changeable as the Tiber.

In Rome we relearn how to mark our course without the boundaries of a map or the constraints of a watch. We fall in love with our beguiling new world of cracks and things breaking. As we step through the doors to board the plane home, a new chapter begins and we decide there will be grandeur and grace as our marriage matures, not decay and sorrow; we will be a goddam fine wine.  

 

Returning to Work: From the frying pan into the mire

The commute

My poor blog has been more neglected than a bikini line in winter. 

I’ve been working full-time you see, and I’ve also been letting things fall through the cracks.

Like many working women, I am still holding the domestic space together while trying to cope with the demands of full-time work. (This survey found that working women generally still do + 17 hours of  housework per week compared to men’s – 6 hours . Hang on, what?)

I’ve managed to forget music lessons and food shops, I’m haphazardly organising birthday parties, homework and play dates. I’m burning pizzas and missing school plays, concerts, and parent’s evenings.

I’m out of the playground and into the commute; away from the frying pan into the mire.

I’m trying to rally the troops, the children and my partner, with lists and memos; I have employed help – a cleaner and a child minder, and I know what a luxury that is.

And yet, and yet…

The jumble and scatter of life squeezes out my writing, these words that are my yoga and my Prozac.

Working life smooths out my edges as I polish myself down and re-imagine a woman I had forgotten; Our Lady of the Meeting, Doyenne of the Filofax, Director of Deadlines. Employee.

No more coffee mornings. No more spending hours honing a blog piece about pants or being a wanker mum.

I’ve been away from office life for so long, I fear that my brain is no longer malleable enough to accommodate the new connections I need to make. All my neurological pathways lead to my kids; they are my entrenched pattern, my learned behaviour.

While my part-time existence as a writer was isolating and badly paid, there was space. Time to reflect and get some perspective… too much fucking perspective to quote what’s-his-face from Spinal Tap.

It is a special kind of asthmatic wheeze, this squeezing out of the days, this stringing out of the hours to the last mote of air. Where are the morsels of time, those spaces in which we breathe?

Tell me how you do this thing you fellow working mums…

The Secret Map of Motherhood

Map of EuropeSome days I am not big enough for this. This unexpected battleground of “Please will you…” and “Eat this…” and “Where is my?” and “Don’t forget to…” and all before 8am.

Some mornings, I plan the whole route in my head; the Overland train to West Hampstead, West Hampstead to St Pancras, then the Eurostar to the solar plexus of Europe, Paris. From there, anywhere. Within hours I could be curled up in the boot of Italy or reading by a fire in a log cabin that overlooks a freshwater lake or dipping my white toes in the Black Sea, salt on my lips. Because some days, that is where motherhood sends me; to a hidden corner of an imaginary map of freedom I hold in my head like the teenage heart holds a kiss.

Some mornings, I plot my escape all the way back from school to my front door. But with each step, the colours of my Ordnance Survey drain away like anaesthesia. I pass a canopy of spider’s webs strung from window sill to boundary wall, a patchwork of flattened paper cups, spittle and shit, and then I am home again. What keeps me coming back to be the punch bag of my daughter’s growing. Is it duty? Is it love? Sometimes, on days when I am not big enough, I am not sure; but I always do, and I always will.

All This Scratching is Making Me Itch: Are Tights a Feminist issue?

Vintage Stocking Ad

Vintage Stocking Ad image from http://vi.sualize.us

The leaves are coming down which means the tights are going up in our house. While the Teenage Songbird is dressing her shapely pins in skeins of sheer and shimmer,  the Biscuit Thief and I are just plain itchy and scratchy. We, with our highly reactive ‘sensitive’ skins,  practically BLEED with annoyance the entire autumn/winter season because of the brutal and perilous world of tights and wool in general.  As an added bonus, my seasonal look is topped off by a nose that becomes my personal temperature, mood and alcohol gauge from September to February with a neutral setting of ‘shiny, scarlet and dripping’. I spend the chilly months living in fear that the thin, papery husk of skin holding me together might, at any moment, rip open like the Hulk’s shirt, causing my guts to tumble out onto the gum-strewn pavement; the shiny burgundy reds of my liver and kidneys disappearing among the sodden autumn leaves.

Getting the Biscuit Thief dressed for school in the autumn/winter is a confusion of limbs, tears and static. She’ll put on one skirt/tights combination, dance around like a whinging monkey in tin shoes for twenty minutes, then remove the whole lot about five minutes before we have to leave. She then tries on every pair of black trousers she owns until she finds THE ONES THAT AREN’T ITCHY MUMMY. She is anti-tights, anti-trousers, anti any kind of containment really and I feel her pain. Winter is just SO CONSTRAINING. It totally elevates my desire to train as a trapeze artist or pilot to the top of my ‘to do’ list, and I come over all tubercular, pining with empty longing every time I come across an unopened pack of 70 denier. I just can’t sit still while the heating clicks through the pipes and the rain spits the earth from my window boxes for weeks on end; winter makes me figuratively and literally ITCH.

I have yet to find a cold weather solution that works clothes or activity wise and so, I feel, I must move somewhere warm where I can bake my leathery vellum dermis on slow burn all day in just a pair of pants.  I need, frankly, to let it all hang out.  I lived in California for a while and I’ve got to say,  I loved the freedom of  life lived outside all year round, released from the unbreathable layers of textiles required for English living.  However, I did miss the  toasty comfort and nostalgia of the British autumn and the ego-pummeling vehemence of our winters for that is the stuff of tortured poetry. Yes, I missed the conviction of the seasons when I lived in California because I so desperately require structure for my mind, but ah, how my body loved its freedom from fibre.

My grandfather owned a wool mill in Yorkshire and lost his world to acrylics and nylon, so perhaps it’s some kind of ancestral destiny that I should forever suffer the itch, the itch. Apparently there isn’t such a thing as a wool allergy, it’s more that the coarse wool fibres poke into one’s skin causing irritation and inflammation, frazzling the nerves and causing the release of histamines. Wool turns me into an irritable splatter-painting of blotchy crimsons. To wear it feels like allowing millions of ants shod in tiny, heated stilettos made out of needles to perform a Busby Berkley tap dancing routine on my torso leading to the incredibly sciency question, WHY DON’T SHEEP ITCH? I find acrylics, nylon and lycra no less annoying than wool; it’s a case of clothing claustrophobia! Scarves, tights, polo necks, hats, and mittens; these are the moth-luring terrorists of my clothes cupboard and I want them extradited.

Tights come packaged with all sorts of schmexy word kisses like ‘gusset’, ‘denier’, ‘sheer support’ and ‘control’, but this just disguises the fact that they are in cahoots with yeast and cystitis, home to thrush and the peppery sweat of inner thighs. Tights are basically giant acrylic-mix condoms for legs; unsexy, good for one time use only, and prone to holes. And yet leggings, leggings are just wrong, reminding me too much of my own state of permanent indecision. “Are you trousers or are you fucking tights?” That’s what I want to say to leggings. And as for jeggings! Jeggings are in such a state of identity crisis that the idea of them makes me shudder even more than the thought of Jeremy Clarkson leaving a pube hair in the soap.

The important question is, are men doing it? Are men doing tights? Are men doing scratchy gusset torture? They used to, before they realised that it’s pretty hard to rule the world if you are itchy, yeasty or have a raging forest fire in your bladder. These days, the only men in tights are the dancers it would seem, and those playing Hamlet.  And so I leave you with this question, are tights a feminist issue? or do I just need to wear jeans until the bunnies get frisky?