The car is filled with the resinous smell of Christmas as the girls squash into either side of the still-netted and prickly tree. It is the end of the last school day before the long-awaited holidays and they are fizzing with excitement.
They bubble over with a jumble of chatter; bursts of song from their school Christmas Shows, jokes and gossip. They talk about the new boy, the naughty boy, the tall girl, the new friend, the favourite teacher, the homework, the party and the plans for the holidays.
Conversations with no beginnings and no ends, alive, fluid and full of laughter.
Marito and I fall silent, listening and smiling.
We are almost home when something strikes me, they are talking to each other in Italian.
The best thing I ate today;
Italy has gone Panettone crazy. These gaudily wrapped cakes are everywhere, and so appealing. There is something so splendid about the packaging that draws you in. Even if you’re not addicted to the rich, yeasty sweet bread, fragrant with vanilla and studded with sultanas and citrus peel, the festive allure of the box will surely get you every time.
As you might have guessed, I love a bit of panettone (and, by now, have probably eaten one too many). My favourites are the traditional fruited ones, although you can find the dome-shaped loaves, stuffed with all kinds of things; chocolate-chip, praline, tiramisu and even limoncello.
The prices vary enormously too, as much as €56.00 for a Father Christmas shape which, if you ask me, is a bit steep for what is, basically, an overblown currant bun. However, I did quite fancy the ‘Tachino d’Oro’, a large golden panettone, shaped like a turkey and stuffed up its rear end with custard. Now that would make a change for Christmas dinner.
Where to get them;
You can’t walk into a Supermarket in Italy without tripping over piles and piles of them.
There are many stories about how this dolce originated. My favourite, by far, is that many centuries ago this ‘pane’ (bread) was invented by a baker called ... wait for it ... Toni.
I know I’m generalising, but little girls love dolls and little boys love diggers. By the age of 40, I honestly thought I had grown up and had gone beyond that stage of my life. I assumed it would be just mine and my friends’ children who would stare into the toyshop window and gaze in wonderment at the latest Barbie/Brat/Cindy/Winx club monstrosity, or the enormous remote-control yellow plastic crane.
And then today it arrived at our house – something so beautiful it almost took my breath away. A giant yellow digger. It makes holes the size of oil drums and as deep as you want, but I don’t really care what it does (even though after it has finished, our house should be able to survive the next millennium without moving even a fraction of an inch). It’s just how it looks that got me. It could be 50 or 60 years old, it might have dug ten thousand holes, but it’s Christmas, and I want it. I want Santa to somehow get it down the chimney and stick it under the tree with my name on it.
Many who look at this beast will never understand or appreciate its beauty, but one or two might and, for those one or two, you’re welcome to come over to my house on Boxing Day and have a play on my new digger. We can spend the day digging some unnecessary holes in the garden.
It's now exactly a year to the day since we arrived here; naive, hapless, helpless and rather confused by the whole stressful process of moving to Italy from our comfortable and happy life in the UK. It obviously gives us cause to pause and to reflect on the year, but there would be too much to write and too much to repeat. So we have trawled through some of the images which have made this year memorable, and here they are, most of them. Make of them what you will...
Because you stop being able to see so far into the distance you are, consequently, more prone to reflect on your immediate surroundings; the house, the garden, the work done and, more importantly, the work still to be done. You live on an island, but only till about 10.30 when it always seems to disappear into blue skies and crispy coldness.
The extra moisture in the air brought by the fog also means that I am beginning to feel my age. I have tried all sorts of ways to hang on to my youthful good looks over the years, but there's no escaping that knee pain first thing in the morning. That's age, that is. After a fair amount of building work over the last 11 months, during which I have been careful to watch myself and to remember my mother always saying, "keep your back straight, bend your knees", ironically it was doing a little creative painting that finally did me in; overstretching,
in a t-shirt, as the light faded, as the cold descended...
I didn't want to be one of those people who's back went out more than they did, but at the moment the hot water bottles and ibuprofen are always at my side.
Fog in England only used to mean a slightly more treacherous drive to work but the drive through the suburban townscape where we lived wasn't ever inspiring enough to be much changed by not being able to see where you were going - here it seems to add an atmosphere and a quiet which can be quite wonderful, especially first thing in the morning. I'm usually quite happy to be the one to take the dog out at that time. He's the happiest one though - not sure why - maybe he knows something I don't, maybe he's just stupid or maybe he's been hanging on to that wee for so long...
Anyway it is a wonderful way to start the day, and to escape, albeit fleetingly, from the misery that is getting two warm little girls out of their beds to face the icy cold bathroom. The moans and screams shatter the silence and the reality of the day begins.
The stupidest thing I did today;
Overstretching, in a t-shirt, as the light faded, as the cold descended...
Two little girls are glad to see me; brown eyes shining in squirrely faces, gappy smiles and vanilla flavoured sticky kisses. Marito, slightly weary but triumphant (smug even) after 10 days single parenting, is glad to see me. Tufo, wagging his entire doggy body, is glad to see me. Even the deaf cat manages a purr. I am back were I belong, back to fill the me-shaped space that has been waiting. Our house, standing on the hill, its lights glowing in the dusk, is glad to see me, and I am glad to be home.
Letter to Santa, just before it disappeared up the chimney
I have arrived to a house full of Advent calendars, letters to Santa and persistent requests to "Please get the crib out so that we can play with Baby Jesus".
There is always some debate about this as Marito feels it necessary to point out that baby Jesus should not strictly be in the crib until Christmas Day. However, as it is impossible to play the 'Baby Jesus and his Family' game without the main character, the small one and the tall one get their way. As usual.
The Three Kings - early and confused
The best thing I ate today;
Baked beans on toast.
If this was the best thing I ate today it must have been the best thing the girls had eaten for ages judging by the whoops of delight when I produced two tins of Heinz Baked Beans from my bag.
It's not immediately obvious, but there is an art to making the perfect beans on toast; the beans, Heinz of course, must not be too wet, they must be cooked on a high heat to reduce the syrupy tomato sauce to a beany sludge and then dolloped on to crisply toasted sliced white bread of the lowest possible quality which has been thickly smeared with enough butter to choke a horse. A few grinds of black pepper, maybe a dash of Lea and Perrins Worcestershire sauce and there you have it. Delicious!
I used to watch football from Italy on Channel 4 in the 90's in England, and I was struck by how often you couldn't see one side of the pitch from the other, and also by how often players wore gloves and earmuffs. Now I am beginning to understand why, though I'm still a little perplexed by those earmuffs.
The view of Chiusi from the house as the fog begins to clear
The fogs bring with them a number of changes. The cold is the most obvious change, but it is so much colder than I had ever imagined. We fight over who does the washing up, because the sensation of plunging your hands into hot, soapy water is about as good as it gets here during the Winter. We have tried to increase the amount of heat we produce in the house but, as I now realise, it's not how much heat you produce, it's how much heat you lose that counts. We lose a lot, with our high, uninsulated ceilings making the sky above the house quite warm, but leaving us stone cold.
The back of the house in the fog, (photo taken by our friend George)
The days have a different rhythm now; starting with how to get warm in the morning, then the wood run begins, sometimes just schlepping it from one place to another, often chopping it into smaller sizes, always hoping it's the good stuff; not too young, not too wet, not too dry and, preferably oak. In the evenings it's all about keeping the fires going and, finally at bedtime, it's about retaining as much heat as possible until the next morning.
The wise heads around here use inside/outside thermometers to check whether or not you should have the doors and windows open as it's often warmer outside than inside in these big, draughty houses. However, wherever you go and whoever you spaek with, the conversation inevitably turns to heat, or cold, or heating, or insulation. Underfloor, solar, back boilers, wood burners, open fires, geo-thermal, the cost of having the roof done in euros, the cost of not having it done in degrees and unhappiness. It becomes the sole topic of conversation after olives and before Christmas.
The stupidest thing I did today;
Well, this was actually many years ago, but only really affected me today. I was reminded that I had once said that I would never wear thermal underwear...