This time last year the big 50 was fast approaching and without family or friends in Adelaide I was facing the depressing prospect of it just being me shaking my booty at the party. And so with quiet desperation I flung my frustration at the universe and waited. And as it does the solution arrived in an email from my friend Jo Parfitt a “Write your life stories” week in Italy. This was it!
All that was needed was the ‘Golden Ticket’ from Andy that would allow me to go to Tuscany, the region that had captivated me all those years ago. As cabin crew in the 90’s I had spent time each week in Italy and fallen in love with the lyrical language, the simple but delicious food and the general chaos of a country steeped in history and family traditions.
Such was my love affair with all things Italian that Andy, aided by Google translate, would text me only in Italian. And the romantic gestures followed with the transcription “Luce Della Mia Vita’ or “Light Of My Life’ etched into my wedding band. And so by letting me go it got the whole 50 thing off his back and gave me the exquisite anticipation of a trip back to my beloved Italy. I don’t think the kids were very impressed though that once again I was going somewhere without them.
A brief stop in the desert
I hatched up a plan to stop in Qatar and see some friends. I was met by their driver and reminded of the contrast between my old privileged expat life and life back in Adelaide. On the slow moving freeway we edged through the city in the shadows of the huge land cruisers, driven by the Qatari men distinguished by their neatly pressed white thowbs and red and white ghetras. High rise concrete towers rose out of the desert as far as my eye could see and a blanket of dust coated every part of the arid landscape like a cake sprinkled with icing sugar After fourteen hours in the air I couldn’t wait to squeeze my bloated and dehydrated body into my bikini and plunge myself into the pool. I had dreamt of how refreshing it would be but in the 40c heat the highly chlorinated pool resembled a bug invested hot bath. I climbed out exhausted and collapsed without a towel on the sun lounger. I fell asleep for three hours and awoke to find my bikini still hadn’t dried and my hair like a bird’s nest. I peeled myself off the sun lounger slowly trying not to peel my skin off, and I saw with embarrassment that I had left behind my body imprint like in a crime scene. It was a stark reminder of one of the many things that I hadn’t missed about living in the tropics.
The pull of family
I didn’t want to go all the way to Europe and not see Mum and she certainly hadn’t needed much persuading to join me in Pisa where I had planned to get over the jet lag, soak up ‘La Bella Vita’ and check out the leaning tower of Pisa. She bravely agreed to come alone, leaving my beloved Dad who had recently gone into dementia care.
The reassuring lean of the tower
The fabric of Italy hadn’t changed much in my absence but the volume of tourists and their intrusive selfie sticks had. And so we took a quick walk around the tower, took the expected tourist picture of trying to push it over and retreated thankfully to the cool calm interior of the nearest bar. There is nothing better than a chilled glass of the local digestivo limoncello and to feel its warmth winding happily through the bloodstream and one of course led to two. Giggling like schoolgirls we sat contentedly allowing our gaze to linger just a little too long at the slim dark handsome Italians with their jumpers slung ever so casually over their shoulders and their perfectly pressed chinos. The boardies, singlet and thongs of the typical Aussie male back home would look shockingly out of place here. It was just like the old times when I was a free spirited teenager and we had holidayed together. I had seen the twinkle in her eye when she had arrived at my hotel earlier and I could see a transformation and a new chapter ahead of her.
Where ever I go I meet someone I know
Two days later we unpacked our bags with the other writers at The Watermill in Posara. It was a beautiful setting that inspired us to be creative and to share our stories in a safe space. Mum had come to just be with me but I knew she was itching to be included. “Why don’t you join in the writing course Mum? I asked her. “ I am too scared, she said, “What if they judge me?” It didn’t take much to persuade her to join in and I knew it was a pivotal moment for her to let go of the draining exhaustion of taking care of my beloved Dad and to open up another one of her creative windows. It was time for aperitvo at 7pm and of course I bumped into someone I had met earlier in the year in The Netherlands and the expression ‘it’s a small world’ sprang to mind.
The Art of the Aperitivo
We would gather on the terrace in the evening for aperitivo, the most magical hour (or two) of the day in Italy. Sitting under the vines we narrowly avoided clumps of swollen and bruised red grapes landing on our heads and the odd bug creeping into our olives. Armed with pens and paper we were eager to tell our stories and there was no holding back such is the power of the safe space we were in. “I tell you my dear,” said Darleen endearingly before beginning one of her intriguing stories. She would become my dear friend as the week progressed as we laughed and shared our life stories. Mum made her own close friends and poured out her memories of Dad and their travels, all of which helped the healing of leaving him behind. How I loved getting my mum back and seeing her laugh and feel the joy of living again. Isn’t that what it is all about? Seeing life like the contrasts of the ocean; ups and downs, calm waters and stormy seas and being ready to catch the next wave up.
Getting the creative juices flowing
“I want you to write a memory of your childhood whatever springs to mind,” said Jo as our starting task. I thought of my Grandma brushing my hair while she recited this poem to me written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
There was a little girl
Who had a little curl,
Right in the middle of her forehead,
When she was good,
She was very very good indeed,
But when she was bad she was horrid.
As a little girl I was allowed to walk the five minutes from home to my Grandparent’s bungalow for tea and if I had been good I would spend the night in the big bed at the front of the house. After tea I would sit in her bedroom on the white whicker chair to have my hair brushed and she would recite this poem to me. In the oval mirror above her dressing table my pudding bowl haircut and dead straight fringe stared back at me. Grandma would pin her stray curls with silver pins and push her sleeping curlers into a pink hairnet before she started the rhythmic brushing of my hair. From the glass topped dressing table I picked up her heavy comb and stroked my fingers across its ivory teeth. Grandma’s brush was silver with a long handle and the mirror on the back would catch its light against the mirror and dazzle me. There was a round white china bowl with a lid and she would let me count the pins inside. I never questioned who the little girl was in the poem but I assumed it was me.
Underneath my bed was a big round tin of Quality Street and lying beneath my striped flannelette sheets I would feel the heat of its temptation burning a hole in my back. I reminded myself that I had cleaned my teeth and good girls don’t eat after that. Granddad had left my bedroom door open and if he looked up from stirring the breakfast porridge he could see me from the kitchen down the hall. I could see his blue and white striped apron that he wore to keep his neatly pressed shirt from splashes. I watched him as he tipped the Quaker oats into a pan and then add the creamy top of the milk and I could hear the soothing swish of the wooden spoon against the pan. He always made it the night before which meant it was solid like a cake the next day. I calculated how long it would take him between stirs and going back to his painting easel on the kitchen table before I could creep out of bed unnoticed. I was after one of those Quality Street; the urge was too much to bear. I tried saying the poem out loud once more, “There was a little girl who had a little curl” but when Granddad had gone out of sight I took my chance and ran to the door to close it. Lying on the floor with my nose pressed to the carpet I tried to squeeze all the air out of my body so I could fit under the bed but I couldn’t reach the tin, which was right in the middle of the floor next to the shoebox and a dusty red slipper. As I lay there trying not to breathe the metal tin twinkled at me like the Christmas present that I wasn’t supposed to find. I recited that poem again to try and talk myself into bed, “But when she was bad she was horrid.”
The power of stories
Mum said the week elevated her to another dimension and she said she was floating on a high. The worried look and anxiety that had shadowed her face for so long had evaporated and Jo said she was a natural writer, which thrilled her. Such is the power of writing and telling stories and to remember that we all have a story worth telling.