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.

>>>>>>>>>>>>

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.  

 

What Your Nickname Says About You

Daddy Pig

What’s in a name?

The husband I made a pact to stop calling each other ‘mummy’ and ‘daddy’ in an attempt to rekindle our pre-parent identity.

The first hurdle was actually remembering what we used to call each other before I was mainly in charge of the dishwasher. Somewhere in our past lurk names whispered passionately in the dark, murmured down phone lines at 3am, names that in the interests of privacy, I would NEVER share on a public forum such as this (Moneypenny and Batman). OMG HOW DID THAT GET IN THERE? I could swear I edited that bit out.

Our pact was going pretty well, except Batman kept calling me “Sair” which has always been my least favourite diminutive of Sara. It’s just not very interesting or committed is it? ‘Sair’ sounds like ‘air’; vacuous, invisible, drifty yet life-sustaining. OH GOD, IS THIS  WHO I AM NOW?

I blew it a few days ago when, tired and hung over, defenses down, I sighed, shook my head regretfully, and  called my husband ”Daddy Pig”  in front of some of our closest friends. Anyone who has watched Peppa Pig every night for four years will know exactly where this term of middle-aged endearment derives from, but it stopped me in my tracks to realise that Daddy Pig and I have been referring to each other by demeaning diminutives since our daughter came along six years ago.

It got me thinking about nicknames and how they can subconsciously reveal what we think about someone. My brothers, for example, call me ‘Boots’ as in ‘Too Big For’ or ‘Bossy’. I like to think this is because they see me as a gently commanding leader figure who is usually right, although they may beg to differ.  Older friends call me ‘Perky’ or ‘Miss P’ from my maiden name Perkins. Newer friends call me by my married name, ‘Brannie’ although I have never officially changed it . So, nomenclature wise, I have gone from the commanding ‘Boots’ via the rather saucy ‘Miss P’ to an extension of my husband/ reference to a bowel-movement inducing grain, ‘Brannie’. OH MY GOD. What has happened to me? Who am I? Sticks and stones will cause a nasty bruise and as for words, well, they contain me. I always wanted to be called Astrid, I think it’s time to bring her in before the menopausal ‘Muffin’ takes hold.

I’ve overheard some brilliant nicknames accidentally revealed by friends and their partners over the years; Bagpuss, Flap-lighter, Willy-nilly-woo-woo, Betty Boothroyd, Wifey, Boo, ‘Nanas, Pudding, Ninky-nonk, YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE. What is your nickname and what does it say abut you?

5 Things I Really Should Know By Now: Notes on Growing Up

When I was a child, I assumed that by the time I was in my forties I would have achieved certain things. I imagined I would be living a life of sophisticated inner-peace as I breezed around my creative business empire wafting of Eau du Coutts and Cotswolds. Instead, I exist in a primordial soup of chaos fuelled by caffeine and crumpets and what is more, there are important things I STILL don’t know such as:

1. How to reverse park

Sorry, but I just I can’t do it. It gives me a hurty neck and I get all confused. I have parked blocks away just so I can do a fronty entrance.

(And yes, all the above also applies to sex.)

2. What I want to be when I grow up

I’m not sure whether the lack of certainty here is about not knowing what I want to do, or not being sure what the general signifiers are that one has ‘grown-up’ and I’d like to know. Is it about having your hair ‘done’ regularly and acquiring a mortgage? It’s certainly not about having kids because that’s sent me into some kind of potty-talk induced decline. Plop. You see, the word still makes me laugh and I know I’m not the only one.

So what is it? HOW ARE YOU SUPPOSED TO KNOW THAT YOU ARE A GROWN-UP if no one gives you a certificate in assembly to you show that you are? I am a big believer in having something to work towards like a badge or a small engravable trophy. So until the passage to adulthood is made clear to me and broken down into small, achievable goals, I’m not playing. *Folds arms, kicks over toy bucket and sulks.*

3.Which clothes suit me

This may be a natural consequence of  Point 2 above, but I have no idea what looks good or even acceptable on me any more. This is partly because my middle-aged body is a stranger to me (as I explain in this blog). I usually go out looking like a cross between Fearne Cotton and Fern Britton which looks something like this:

Britton Cotton Bran

My face, Britton’s boobs, Cotton’s pegs

I’d be on my own What Was She Thinking page every week if I were a magazine. I don’t have a little black dress that always works, my killer heels do actually make me want to die and the last time I wore something saucy in the bedroom, my husband got the giggles and did a tiny sick in his own mouth.

I used to know this stuff, but it seems that ‘the knowledge’ fell out of my croissant along with my children.

4. How to save money and be all sensible about investments and ploppy stuff like that

You’d think by my mid-forties I’d have some savings or own some ‘stuff’ but my net worth has about the same value as an actual tiddler-net from an actual garage. I have put aside exactly diddly, zilch, nada, not a sausage. I like to think that this is because I have chosen instead to invest in skills that I do not have to ever retire from like writing and having v. smart children who I have guilt-tripped into making sure they feel they owe me.

“You will look after yer dear old mum won’t you? ” I say to my talented girls as I drop my pants and show them my caesarean scar for the 6,000th time.

So, if all you own is one cardigan, a pair of unwearable shoes and a hair dryer, you are not alone my friends.

5. How to accept that my husband really does love me

I just assume that I irritate the hell out of my husband and that at some point he will get fed up and leave me. I press his buttons daily (no, not those ones) in a perpetual test of his love like my 6-year-old smears bogies on my living-room wall to test mine. Even after 12 years of his consistent, patient, steady loving, I just can’t relax. Perhaps I just don’t really believe that I’m that lovable, or maybe it’s because I’m a child of that dreadful hairy 70‘s era when men did what the fuck they wanted when they wanted with whom they wanted while women were stuck somewhere between liberty and tradition. Why is it that women assume they will be left for a younger, prettier version of themselves, and men assume they will be abandoned for a richer, better provider? Perhaps the old adage is true, that until you truly love yourself, you won’t believe that anyone else can. Or perhaps learning to let someone love you is Lesson One in growing-up.

Musings on Kite Hill: Earth, Air, Marriage and Trees

Kite on Kite Hill

I recently spent an afternoon on Kite Hill, one of the highest peaks of London’s ancient public land known as Hampstead Heath. The Heath, all 790 acres of it, is about as wild as the city gets; unruly tufts of long grass dance upwards to an expanse of rolling sky, pockets of unhindered nature abound indifferent to mower, trimmer and shear.

The view of London from Kite Hill is exuberant; it’s as if the land has embedded the awe of everyone who ever climbed to the top; the summit offers all the comfort of a giant collective sigh. The hill is officially known as Parliament Hill and legend has it that this is where Guy Fawkes planned on watching the destruction of Parliament in 1605. I have always known it as Kite Hill because its topography captures the breeze and creates an ideal location for kite flying. My husband loves this place as do I, so we traipsed to the top of it with our five-year-old a few Sundays ago.

The husband was flying the kite equivalent of an F1 Tornado aircraft, streamlined and breathtaking in its high speed drops and turns. My daughter and I struggled for half-an-hour to launch a kamikaze paper butterfly which is now residing in the ‘shit toy’ pile at home. With her kite launch aborted, my five-year-old removed her shoes and ran off to try and adopt a stranger’s dog and I was left to contemplate the world to the buzz and hum of airborne diamonds, dragons and sails.

As usual, the summer in London was doing about five different weather fronts at once. Ominous sulky clouds petulant with rain hung below fluffier ones skipping along on a different breeze. Sunny fingers pointed down from the heavens lighting up the edges of buildings; glimpses of Mediterranean blue played a tantalizing peek-a-boo with the fug.

Why, I thought, do people fly kites? For me kite flying is an engagement with an element I’m not that comfortable with, air. It’s just so unpredictable! I watch how my husband patiently holds the strings of his kite while it twists and pulls against his grip. I witness the kite’s incredible instinct for pockets of friendly air, for slipstreams to dance in. In my husband’s hands the kite is tugged and repelled into a hissing, buzzing gambol. It is an air dervish.

This is how many a marriage works I think to myself; one partner will have that instinct for air, a chaos in their soul which leads them to perpetually arc and crash. The other will be anchored in the earth, solid and resolute, always catching the falls and admiring the acrobatics. Most of the time it works, this ground to air gavotte. But I know that when a kite tumbles to earth, it can do so with surprising viciousness. Things can turn from joyous dance to broken heap in a moment and it makes me sad to think how many times I’ve seen it. How fragile and how predictable these things are. How incredible it is that the loving intention of one can save both flyer and flown, and how sometimes the only thing to do is let go.

I grew up on the edges of Hampstead Heath and have been walking its paths and feeding its ducks since I born. I have watched saplings planted in the Seventies grow into sturdy kings. If we are lucky, we find somewhere in Nature that provides us with an outer landscape that mirrors our inner world and in many ways this is mine. I am struck by how I have loved in different ways all those whose hand has held mine up on Kite Hill. All those who’s reassuring grip has steadied my course; those who unraveled me and anchored me, and those who let me fly.

I am thinking of my dad’s baseball-mitt sized palms wrapped around a hardback copy of the Observer’s Book of Trees which I still have. Between us, we could identify every genus of tree between the bandstand and Kite Hill; Silver Birches, Oaks and London Planes giving way to shrubs and Rosehips on the upper slopes. When several mighty Elms were felled in an attack of Dutch Elm’s disease, I actually wept.

My little brother’s hands, covered with mud as we raced each other to the top, fire in our lungs.

My arm linked through my best mates’ as we made the trek from our school on Swaine’s Lane towards the running track for the annual humiliation of sports day.

A lover’s hand curled around mine a lifetime ago, and the same hand letting go.

Now up on Kite Hill, my youngest daughter fills my arms with wild bouquets of daisy and couch grass and I lie on the slopes longing for sunshine while kites sing among kestrels.

(Copyright Sara Bran 2011)