Friday, 31 January 2014

Snowed in

It has been snowing non-stop for two days and more is forecast . The snow ploughs and tractors seem to be fighting a losing battle. We are unsure if it's worth removing the snow from the car because it will just get covered again. Anyway, there aren't any shovels left.

Our car, covered in snow
The locals keep telling us dramatic stories of other abundant snowfalls. Apparently in 1956 it snowed solidly for three months and they survived on potatoes, cheese and butter.

At the moment we are hoping the weather forecast is wrong and the roads will be cleared.

Here's a Winnie-the-Pooh song:
The more it snows , tiddley-pom
The more it goes, tiddley-pom
On snowing
And no- one knows , tiddley-pom
Hiw cold my toes, tiddley-pom
Are growing 
In the meantime, hooray for mulled wine, hot chocolate and rum punch!

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Propping things up



My brother has been having a lot of problems with subsidence in his house. It seems to have been caused by holes that form in the chalky soil under the foundations. He has got a lot of scaffolding up to prop up the house while the work is being done. I was reminded of this today.

We went in a pasticceria in a town in the mountais and I was very surprised to see this ... prop ...
The waitress explained that it had been put there because of the problems of subsidence. It was propping up the ceiling. It seemed a very Italian solution.

Winter wonderland

One thing that still fascinates me about where I live, is that in no time at all we can be in the mountains, surrounded by snow
The first time my husband took me to the mountains, over 40 years ago, I was totally unprepared. I had a trendy Topshop mac and boots with heels. When we arrived, I looked out of the car window at all the people milling around on the snow, wearing bright coloured clothes and furry boots. I couldn't wait to join them. I dashed out of the car, slipped over and fell flat on my face in the snow. How on earth could they all stand up, let alone walk about. I was also freezing in my short mac. We headed for the nearest rifugio, ordered a vin brûlé and pasta e fagioli -and at last I saw the appeal!

Now, years later, I have all the gear but still no idea. I come to the mountains because my husband loves skiing. While he swishes down the slopes, looking like he's delivering milk tray to the lady, I stomp about writing postcards and  drinking cappuccinos .

What I really like is the dopo sci, or après ski, as we say in English.


This is where we can at last enjoy the mountains together.













To

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Special Punk Hair Day

For years , I thought going to the hairdressers was a chore, I couldn't wait to get out. Often I would wash my hair the minute I got home or even, burst into tears, when I saw my horrible 80s haircut in the mirror  at home .
Now, I really like going, look forward to it. The staff are so friendly: coffee, magazines, and hopefully looking better when I go out than when I came in.
So here I am, but this is not what I look like !!!

Born with a smile

There used to be a song I liked that went like this ...

I born with a smile on my face ,
The whole of my life's been a pantomime.
Born with a need to embrace , tra la la la la la la la.

Whenever it was played on the radio , my Mum and Dad would say "That's you Angie, you were born with a smile on your face".
It was only as I got older, that I realised how precious these words would be. To know my Mum and Dad thought I could always cheer them up, bounce back smiling, has been my comfort and strength through my darkest times .

Anyone who has had anything to do with babies, can see right from the start that there are those who are more placid, more demanding, more smiley. A lot probably depends on their digestive system, in the early days. Character traits are there though, right from the start. Even hamsters have them, after all. We had two hamsters, one was sweet and gentle, he let us hug and stroke him. The other was vicious and snarly and we never took him out of his cage.

Now I know I've said a lot in my posts about the importance of looking into your own heart, only worrying about your own thoughts, being positive etc. 

But just for today , I'm going to say how wonderful it is when somebody else sees the good in you.


Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Sell by dates

My Dad used to pay my  brother and me, threepence to scratch his back. He would take down his braces and roll up his sleeves with a silver elasticated band and lean forward in his chair. we would pummel away, scratching and rubbing, while he gave instructions. Left a bit, right a bit, further up. We put all our energy and  enthusiasm into this task. He was always very grateful and we got our threepence.
This was a lot of money for us. In those days, where we lived, you would often find, a little shop, that looked like all the houses around it, except for the Walls ice-cream sign, hanging outside. They were like Aladdin's caves for us. My Mum would go to buy things like tins of tomatoes, stock cubes or  corned beef and we would go along with her. On the shelves at the back, there were huge, glass jars of sweets. These were weighed out and put into in little bags, which the shopkeeper wrapped up with a flourish and a twirl of the corners. At the front, at our height, were all the penny sweets, displayed in all their glory, a veritable, treasure of delights. With our threepence, we could have, a whole load of sweets with enticing names, like flying saucers, shrimps, wagon wheels, sherbert lemons.

No-one had heard of Sell-by-dates, so these shops often had a sort of musty smell and some of the cans were reportedly army surplus from the war.
My Mum and Dad never took much notice of  expiry dates, sometimes my Dad would look in the fridge and ask my Mum if she was conducting a scientific experiment.

Well today, I had a litre of milk, that was about to expire, so I made Gnocchi alla Romana.It took me a long time to perfect this recipe. It is worth it though, because it has a lot of the qualities I look for in a recipe. It can be made in advance, freezes well and is nutritious. It is also quick to make and easy.

1 litre of milk
250 g semolino
2 eggs
125 g butter
100g grated parmesan cheese
salt, pepper, pinch of nutmeg

Pour the milk into a large saucepan. Add the semolina and bring to the boil, stirring all the time.
When it has thickened, keep stirring vigorously and beat in the 2 eggs.
Remove from the heat and beat in the butter, until it has melted into the mixture. Add the parmesan and seasoning and stir thoroughly.
Line the oven tray with grease-proof paper. Spoon the semolina mixture over, and with wet hands press it down evenly all over.
Leave to cool completely and then cut into squares diagonally. Lay the squares in a well-buttered ovenproof dish, overlapping slightly.Dot the surface with pieces of butter and more grated cheese and bake in the oven at 180 degrees, until golden.

My sister-in-law serves these gnocchi with a sauce made by slowly melting gorgonzola  together with some milk, to a creamy consistency.






A Turn at the Wicket

While we were growing up, my Dad would often say, "Everyone has a turn at the wicket". He was referring to bringing children up, being a parent.
Cricket is a  sport greatly loved, mainly in England, Australia, South Africa, India and Pakistan. Everywhere else, it doesn't seem to be understood, and in fact it causes amusement. In Pakistan and India, cricket players enjoy the status of the great stars of football in Italy.
My Dad loved football and Rugby, and Formula One racing, largely due to the soporific effect of the noise the cars make doing endless laps.
My Mum loved cricket. It summed up, for her, all that was great about her childhood. She didn't live in a pretty village, but near her house there was a large recreation ground, known as the rec. This was a vast green area, with a children's playground, a dike, a football pitch, and a cricket pitch. Nestled in the far corner was the Cricket Pavilion.

I'll briefly explain the game of cricket, to my Italian readers. There are two teams of eleven players on a field, at the centre of which are the wickets, and batting position. Each team takes it in turn to bat, attempting to score runs, while the other team,fields .Each turn is known as an innings.

Another of my Dad's expressions to us, when our behaviour started getting out of hand, was "You've had a good innings". This told us we should be glad with what we'd had, and now it was time to just be grateful.
What my Mum loved about cricket, was that her brothers and friends all played , the cricket pitch was lovely and green with woods around the back, and her mother would make the teas to be had in the Pavilion. She would lend a hand, and her eyes would always light up, remembering the sandwiches, scones and cakes. This was all part of her Winnie-the -Pooh syndrome.
 Every year, she would choose a birthday card for my Uncle Les, that had a cricket scene on it. It reminded her of  how much she enjoyed going to watch him play .It was a link with their childhood.

 I thought about my Dad's expression about parenthood being a "turn at the wicket", yesterday, looking at  my grandchildren. I've had parents and I've been one, and I hope I've made a good job of it. I've certainly enjoyed it. Now it's their turn. You only get one innings.
The cricket match does seem to sum up what you need to be a good parent. Strong men (the dad), wide open spaces to run around in and let off steam. Someone to make the tea in the Pavilion (the Mum), a great team spirit, and good sportsmanship.
Here in Italy, there is now, what would have once been an usual sight. In the park here, in the Summer, Pakistanis and Indians play cricket. Maybe one of the bars could be turned into a Pavilion, and cream teas could be served.

Monday, 27 January 2014

Onomastico/ Saint's day

Today is my onomastico, or Saint's day (literally "name's day"). The Saint's Day, is very popular in Italy. Every day, has the name of a saint, associated with it. Some of these days are more well-known than others. Everybody knows when St Joseph' day is, S. Giuseppe, it is also Italian Father's Day, on the 19th of March.
S. Michele, S. Gabriele, S. Raffaele,the three Archangels are on the 29th September, S. Carlo on the 4th November (which is also the day the final battle if the First World War on the Italian front is commemorated), and S. Francesco, the Patron Saint of Italy, is on the 4th October.
I never took much interest in my onomastico, but I have now got some lovely relatives who set great score, by these events. One of them has got a book, with all the Saint's Days, and the origin of them.

This morning, I got lots of nice wishes for my onomastico from them. I thought I ought to find out a bit about her. Well, the story started off alright. Angela Merici was born at Desanzano on Lake Garda - a lovely place - in 1474. Then, things seem to go horribly wrong and her life is full of tragedy. She rose above all this terrible tale of loss and pain, and dedicated her time to teaching young girls in her home, which she converted into a school. She founded the Order of Ursulines in 1535.

St. Angela is the Patron Saint of handicapped people and of the loss of parents.
I now feel very proud to have the same name as her.

My parents told me how I got my name. My Mum wanted to call me "Jacqueline", after her beloved bicycle! My Dad wasn't having any of it, so while we were still in the nursing home, he shot off to the Registry Office, and called me Angela, after an old flame of his. To appease my Mum, he then gave me two more names. One is her own mother's name, and the other, an anagram of her brother's name, who had died in the war.
So I ended up with a long name, that was very useful in the playground game, "Letters in your name". The idea was, that one person was chosen to call out letters at random, facing away from the other players. The one that arrived first, won. It was often me ...

By the way, the only people who ever called me "Angie", were my Mum and Dad. Friends in Britain tend to call me "Ange". My youngest son called me "Latchela", when he was a toddler, probably because he heard my Mother-in-Law refer to me as l'Angela, with the article, as they often do in Italy for feminine names. I really liked that.

A good start

Monday morning, and a whole new week ahead. So to get off to a good start, make a bowl of porridge with milk and honey. Porridge oats, are another thing found in the ethnic shops.

Then an easy peasy recipe for your weekday suppers, that is ideal for vegetarians and meat-eaters alike.

Vegetarian Shepherd's Pie

1 onion, finely chopped,
4 carrots, peeled and sliced diagonally
400 g of green lentils
200 ml red wine
400 g tinned tomatoes.

For the topping
1 kg potatoes
milk, salt and pepper,
butter

Fry the onion in a large saucepan, until soft and translucent. Add the red wine and simmer for 5 minutes. Stir well and add the carrots and the tinned tomatoes. Simmer for 5 minutes then add the lentils. Season to taste with stock cubes, or salt and pepper. Stir together and simmer for another 10 minutes, adding some water if it seems to dry. It must be quite compact.
Adjust the seasoning the transfer to an ovenproof dish.
Boil the potatoes and then mash well with warm milk, butter and salt and pepper.
When the lentil mixture is cool, spoon the mashed potato over the top, to cover, make patterns with a fork. When cold, this can be covered and left in the fridge for up to 2 days, or in the freezer for a month.

When ready to serve, put pieces of butter on the top and bake in the oven for about 30 minutes, at 180 °C, until golden.


Lastly, some inspirational words, from John Wesley, for any of you starting the week with worries on your mind. He was walking one day, in the countryside, with a friend, who had confided in him that he was in great difficulty. This is the advice he gave.

"Do you know why that cow looks over that wall? I will tell you. She looks over the wall because she cannot see through it, and this is what you must do with your troubles- look over and above them."

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Man enough

One of my favourite activities on Sunday afternoons, as a child, was to comb my Dad's hair. He had what is called in Italian, a riportino, or in English, "a comb over". This meant he had long hair on the top of his head.

At Christmas, we were often given an enormous box of chocolates, which had a huge, pin satin bow, tied round it. I would spend hours carefully combing my Dad's hair and then tying it up in a topknot , fastened with the pink bow. We always had some sort of sport on the television, on Sunday afternoons. Still today, I find the repetitive roaring noise of the Formula One cars, racing round and round, or the football commentary, with the different cheers, depending on who has scored, extremely comforting and reassuring. My Dad would sit, reclined in his chair, feet up on the poof (yes, that's right), with the newspaper held in front of him, while I combed his hair. The end result, if taken today with an iPhone, would have gone viral in minutes. He looked wonderful.

I'd better say here, that my Dad was quite a character, full of fun and a good sport. He would even be so bold as to answer the door, with my hairstyles.
To give you an idea of how we all saw him, I'll quickly tell you an anecdote of his later years.
Sadly, at a certain point, he had to have a carer. She was very kind and looked after my Dad as though he were her own. She liked to dress him well, with the shirt and tie, that he had always worn. I think he only ever owned two jumpers. One day, my Mum, handed her a pink shirt. The carer was aghast. She couldn't put a pink shirt on him, pink was for girls. "He is man enough, for a pink shirt", came the calm response.

Here comes the sun

We are still in January, half-way through the Winter, but this weekend the sun has been shining so brightly, that the Beatles song "Here comes the sun", has been playing in my head. The sun beams are dancing in a way that makes you forget they are dust. They are, again, the golden creatures of childhood. People are sitting outside bars, enjoying the sun. Glasses of spritz macchiato (white wine spritzer, with a dash of Bitter Campari), glowing like candles, and  happy laughter everywhere. White statues, silhouetted against the bright blue sky. Children riding tricycles and  holding bobbing balloons. Scenes like this, are Italy's strength. It seems a sort of antidote to what is portrayed in the papers and on the news. It is what my Mum loved so much when she came to stay. I would take her to a bar with a terrace and a view. I would settle her in such a way that she was safe and could just drink in all the life going on around her. Then I would leave her in the care of the handsome waiters while I went to the supermarket and did my errands.

On my return, I would often find that she had had two cappuccinos, strawberries and cream and a brandy. It's sounds awful, but was in fact a great joy. Everyone was impressed by her incredible digestive system. It was the "Winnie-the-Pooh" syndrome, that she suffered from. Like him, when asked, "Would you like honey or condensed milk on your bread?", she would answer "both". Then, so as not to seem greedy add "It doesn't matter about the bread."

Sunday mornings, and the coffee bars are buzzing. Everyone is buying frittelle crostoli, and pastine, to take for lunch with friends and family. Many are in the mountains for the day, most towns in Northern Italy are an easy drive away from a day in the mountains.

All this lovely, bright sunshine, in January, has brought back another vivid memory of a similar day, over twenty years ago. My mother-in-law, treated my daughter, then about ten, and me, to a day in Venice, to attend Hansel and Gretel (the opera) at  La Fenice theatre.  We had a sandwich , sitting in the sun, at the "Zattere", by the Giudecca Canal. Sitting there, in that spectacular light,  which has inspired so many painters ...
... the clear blue Winter sky, and the throngs of tourists, I felt such a part of it all. No longer a foreigner. I was there with my Italian mother-in-law, and my daughter. We were an Italian family.

The performance at La Fenice was memorable. The plush, red velvet seats with gold trimmings, and the  music and dancing, kept us entranced. On the train, on the way home, we talked about what a wonderful day we had had together.

Saturday, 25 January 2014

Appealing aromas

One of the joys of  walking around an Italian town, especially in the morning, is the wonderful aroma of coffee that wafts through the air, luring you in, to the nearest bar. Just the aroma, is pleasure enough. Sometimes, I think it is as good as drinking it, so closely bound are the senses of smell and taste.

When I first came to live in Italy, over 30 years ago, the word espresso was little used in Britain. When friends came to visit  and I took them for coffee  in an Italian bar, they were horrified. "Is that it?", they would say, astonished at the small cup placed before them. No chance to linger over a huge mug of instant or percolated. We would stand at the bar and the coffee would be gone in a flash. After a few days, however, they grew to like it. The sharp, intense flavour, the bustle and vibe of the bars, here there was life! People going about their business, with just enough time to say, "Un caffè", and then back to what they were doing.


There have been changes, here, as to the way Italians drink coffee.They joke about it. No-one asks for a simple coffee anymore. Un caffè, un macchiatone, un caffè lungo, un caffè macchiato lungo, un cappuccino decaf, un caffè macchiato in tazza grande, the list has become endless here too. The waiters have the amazing ability to remember it all without writing it down. This is definitely an Italian talent.

The wonderful smell of freshly ground coffee, is the essence of an Italian town for me. The scent of pine transports me to France, fresh, clean, earth after the rain and I 'm in England-where else?, a leather bag takes me back to my schooldays, disinfectant and baby powder to the birth of my children, clean washing to their childhood - when I was in charge of the laundry - a chocolate cake cooking to Saturday afternoons.

I was thinking about the great power of the sense of smell and memory, when playing with my grand-daughter, who smelt like lemon soap. This brought back memories of Auntie Joan and her Bronnley gift box. My grand-daughter thrust an African violet under my nose. "Do you think this has a perfume or a stink ?", she demanded. Well, I had to think about it for a while.

Aroma-good, scent-good, perfume-good? Smell? Could be either: good or stink-bad.

Of course, she said it in Italian, profumo-good, puzza-bad.

False friends? More like close relatives ...

In my Anglo-Italian family we happily gabble away, using a mixture of English and Italian.We switch from one language to another without being aware of it. Whenever I meet up with my English-speaking friends, we often anglicise Italian words and expressions, and we all understand each other perfectly. Sometimes one of the languages has a word that is just so much more colourful or accurate.One example is furbo. The dictionary will translate it as "clever" or "devious", but it doesn't really mean either of these things. It is more like "ingenious".

When teaching English to Italian teenagers, it is good to be aware of  pronunciation. Cats, castle, phone call, murder, will all guarantee a giggle when said with an Italian accent.

Then, there are all the so-called "false friends". This comes from the French faux amis, and apparently goes all the way back to the Norman Conquest in 1066, when the Anglo-Saxon words fought with the French ones. Some words were synonyms with a different origin, and some had to compete with Anglo-Saxon words with the same meaning.

Italian, like French, is a Romance language, so the words that are false friends in French are often similar to the Italian ones.
Parents, in English, means just the mother and father but, in Italian, parenti refers to the whole lot. Aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews, are all parenti.

I don't really like the term "false friends". Who would ever want one? I prefer to think of them as being like close relatives ... they are all on the same side, but you just have to understand them.

Here is a short list of the most common ...
parents - genitori          relations - parenti
factory - fabbrica          fattoria - farm
education - istruzione   educazione - good manners
cold - freddo                caldo - hot            
magazine - rivista         magazzino - warehouse
stamp - francobollo     stampa - newspaper press
gentle - dolce               gentile - kind
annoy - irritare            annoiare - to bore
to pretend - fingere      pretendere - to expect
morbid - morboso       morbido - soft
... but there are lots more.


You can seem from the list, how easyily misunderstandings can occur. There is quite a difference between being bored or annoyed, pretending or expecting ... eating an ostrich or an oyster ...

May all your misunderstandings result in laughter.

Burns Night

Robert Burns was born on 25th January 1759, the eldest of seven children born to William and Agnes Burnes. The poet changed the spelling to Burns. His father was determined that he should have as good an education as possible and Robert Burns started writing poetry from a young age. The family were not very successful farmers, and had a hard life. Robert Burns decided to emigrate to Jamaica to work on a plantation. He wrote some poems, and had them published, to raise money for his journey. They were so popular, that he changed his mind and went to Edinburgh instead. While there, he wrote the words to many traditional Scottish songs, known today. The most famous is undoubtedly Auld lang syne, sung all over the world on New Year's Eve. He eventually moved to Dumfries.


Burns Night is celebrated with great ceremony every year on 25th January. I have never been to a proper Burns night celebration, but have heard a lot about them. There is usually a piper, who plays the bagpipes, to pipe in the haggis, which is the central dish of the evening. There will be recitals of Robert Burns' poetry, speeches and dancing. There is often a final speech to the lassies. The whole evening is conducted with spirit and humour. It probably reflects the spirit of his poetry, which  shows his compassionate and generous nature. Two of his most famous poems are (O my Luve's like) A red, red rose and Tam O' Shanter. There is a bust of him in Westminster Abbey, in Poets' Corner.

My Uncle Les liked saying this extract from Tam O' Shanter:
But pleasures are like poppies spread,
You seize the flow'r, its bloom is shed;
Or like the snow falls in the river,
A moment white-then melts for ever;
Happy Burns Night.

PS. I said above that I have never celebrated Burns Night, but that's not quite true. I have never been to a proper one with a Piper, haggis, and dancing. However, over thirty-five years ago, when I first came to Italy, I made friends with a Welsh girl, called Eiralys, this means "Snowdrop", in Welsh.
It was largely due to her that I got a job, in the town where my boyfriend's parents lived. We warmed to each other, from the start, and on Burns Night, we organised a party. She made a cake with candles and we invited some Italian friends. So there we were, an English woman, a Welsh woman, not a Scot in sight, just feeling patriotic and a bit closer to home. Our Italian was limited at the time. She was already married to her Italian husband, she had met him on a train, and it was love at first sight.
We had a lovely evening and drunk to Robbie Burns. The next day, she told me they had all rang up to ask whose birthday it was.
Eiralys went back to Britain not long after, but every Burns Night I especially think of her.









Friday, 24 January 2014

Smackerels

"Let's go and see everybody," said Pooh. "Because when you have been walking in the wind for miles, and you suddenly go into somebody's house, and he says "Hello, Pooh you're just in time for a little smackerel or something," and you are, then it's what I call a friendly day."

This is an extract from House of Pooh Corner. It sums up what my Mum liked best. The words "Would you like a cup of tea?", were among her favourites. She loved Winnie-the-Pooh. We knew it off by heart.

My Mum loved moments like elevenses and teatime and a little something.

As it's Friday and there may be a chance for a long walk, coffee with friends,or  any occasion to have a little something, this recipe is easy, requires no cooking and is a great success with all ages.

Rice Crispies squares

6 Mars bars
150 g butter
half a box of Rice Crispies
some Smarties  or M and Ms

Melt the Mars bars with the butter, over a low heat. Beat well with a wooden spoon to a creamy consistency. remove from the heat and add the Rice Crispies.
Line a square cake tin with grease-proof paper and sprinkle with the sweets. Spoon over the Rice Crispies mixture and press gently. When ready to serve, reverse onto a plate and cut into squares.
This is always popular at children's parties.
Have a friendly day .


Thursday, 23 January 2014

Thinking about it

When I came to Italy, one of the pieces of advice that my Dad gave me, was to never talk about politics or religion. In Britain, this is quite easy, probably all British Dads give the same advice. Italian politics, on the other hand, can be riveting. Italians pride themselves on being able to carry on, whatever the government. There are numerous talk shows every evening on the television, usually with a presenter, a number of guests from different political parties, and a studio audience. The discussions can get very heated, often with everyone talking at once and interrupting each other.
Whenever we get together with friends, the conversation easily turns towards the present political situation. People can get quite passionate, everyone has a point of view, after a lot of discussing, rarely anyone changes it.
Italians seem very informed about their political situation. My children are surprised by their British cousin's apparent indifference to politics. This could be because, they feel secure that whoever is elected will be controlled and held responsible for their actions, or it could be a reluctance to express personal views. Maybe a bit of both.
I have always had a lot of respect for politics,. At school, the history teacher told us that "War is the breakdown of politics". This confirmed my opinion that a could chat can sort out a lot of  misunderstandings.

Today, having tea with my English friend, the only thing we said about politics was that David Cameron was worried about his bald patch.

This reminded me of a joke from my teenage years.
Men that are bald at the front are intellectual. Men who are bald at the back, are sexy. Men that are bald all over, think about it a lot ...



Blogs I like

You may notice that I have posted the names of two blogs that I enjoy reading, on my home page.
One is by a young woman, who travels the world  and writes about her adventures in  a warm and entertaining way. She could be in Peru or El Salvador, but she makes it sound as though she is down the road. Her blog is laugh-out -loud funny, and she brings her experiences to life, I feel like I am riding beside her on a bike as she visits  a village school , teaching English, or gazing at Buddhist temples,and making friends with people of all nationalities. At the moment she is about to embark on a ten day retreat in a monastery in Myanmar.

She won't be allowed to talk or communicate with the outside world. I am looking forward to reading about her experiences.
I know a young Italian woman, who goes on such retreats, every Summer, in Italy. She stays in a convent, and is only allowed to talk for an hour at supper time. She says the experience totally restores her life-balance. After a week in a convent, in silence, she feels invigorated and mentally re-charged. Her job is a Psycho-therapist, and she spends a lot of time listening to people's problems.
She is a very serene, relaxing person to be with.

There must be something in the saying "Silence is golden".

The other blog I like is called "The Daily Connoisseur". This is by a young American woman, who wrote a book called Lessons from Madame Chic. I really enjoyed this book. It is a highly entertaining account of the author's youth exchange in Paris. She stays with a French family, and  describes what she learned from them. A lot of what she says, seemed very similar to my own experiences with my mother-in-law, it really struck a chord in me. There are chapters on exercise, wardrobe care, make-up, culture. The author compares her American way of life with what she sees in Paris. In her blog, she is now back in California and putting into practise what she learned from the French family.

These two blogs, at first glance, might not seem to have much in common, but I see them both as being about living a passionate life. Every detail of life, whether you are trekking in the Himalayas  or shopping for your family, can be exceptional. It is up to us to make life a passionate affair. This is what Madame Chic says:
"When filled with laughter,friendship, art, intellectual endeavours, music, and a certain joy, life can be extraordinary.  Allow yourself to be moved on a daily basis. Every day, when you step out of bed, you have the choice either to go through the motions and merely exist or to go about with passion, to always be present in your own life, to take something from every situation, whether it is good or bad."
I always look forward to reading both of those blogs and hope  you all find inspiration and passion in my blog too.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Spaghetti kisses

One of the scenes I loved best in "Lady and the Tramp", is when they go to the Italian restaurant and have spaghetti and meatballs.
Even though they are dogs, when their lips meet chewing on the same piece of spaghetti, who can fail to feel the romance.
I worked with an Italian woman who was a real expert at preparing meals at breakfast time, so when everyone came home for lunch, everything was ready.
She gave me this recipe for spaghetti and meatballs, which is a real favourite. At lunchtime with a salad, or in the evening with a glass of red wine. Porta gioia in tavola - bring joy to the table.


Spaghetti with meatballs

For the tomato sauce:-
1 onion, finely chopped
2 tins of tomatoes
basil,
salt and pepper,
dash of red wine vinegar
pinch of sugar


Gently fry the chopped onion in a tablespoon of olive oil, until soft and translucent. Add the tomatoes and flavourings, the vinegar, sugar, and simmer gently for about 15 minutes.

In the meantime make the meatballs:-
600 g lean minced beef
2 eggs
100g parmesan cheese, grated
salt and pepper to taste
3 tablespoons of breadcrumbs

Mix together all the ingredients in a bowl, using your hands. Shape the mixture into balls the size of a walnut and gently drop them into the tomato sauce. Cook over a low heat for about 30 minutes, until the meatballs are cooked through. Add some water if the sauce seems too dry.

When you are ready to eat, make the spaghetti according to the packet, and slowly re-heat the meatballs in tomato sauce. Serve in bowls, add grated Parmesan cheese on top, ground pepper and extra olive oil, to taste.

You can try and steal a spaghetti kiss ...


Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Cheers

The one and only time I got drunk was when I was 15. A whole crowd of us went to celebrate a friend's birthday at a themed restaurant, which was like a Medieval banquet.

We all sat round an enormous wooden table. The birthday boy was the "king" and I was the "queen". We both sat at the top of the table and could give commands, for fun. The "king" had a broken leg and every so often would bang on the table.

We were given mead to drink. This is a honey-wine, and very sweet and easy to drink. We could have as much as we liked. I can remember a surprising amount about that evening. It was fun, everyone was happy and friendly.

I can also remember the journey home, my Dad laughing and saying that it was good to know what it was like to be drunk in a safe environment. It was horrible. At home, in bed, I could hear wolves in the garden, howling. When I asked my Dad to go and see, he said it was the badgers. The next day, it felt like a rite of passage. I knew what it was like to feel drunk. I didn't like it.

The funny thing about alcohol is that a small amount makes you feel relaxed and happy, but too much and it is quite the opposite.

I was thinking about this incident, today, because someone asked me to write a post about wine.

After the "mead incident", I was wary about alcohol.

A glass of Liebfraumilch on a Sunday, or half a cider in the pub, maybe a gin and tonic before a party to give me Dutch courage, no more, a sherry on a Sunday morning with my Dad. Actually that sounds quite a lot.

When I came to Italy, wine was served on the table every day, even at lunch time.
My husband's  90 year old nonna (grandma) always had a glass of wine, white wine in a carton.
My mother-in-law and I would share a glass of her special vin santo (literally, "holy wine" perhaps because it was used in church), often with cantucci biscuits, on a dull day. 

My husband knew exactly which wine to order with each dish in a restaurant. It was a whole new approach. My sister-in-law had a glass of white wine before lunch every day.

Wine, here in Italy, wasn't meant to get you drunk, make you more amusing and wonder what you'd got up to. It was to enhance the food you eat, to savour and enjoy the different flavours.

Wine can be described in a myriad of ways.
It is difficult to do so without sounding pretentious. I was asked to do a translation for a wine seller, years ago, when my Italian was in it's early stages.
Trying to find English words that could describe the colours and bouquets of the different wines, was extremely difficult for me. In the end, my husband helped me out. He gallantly pretended that I'd done it, and we both enjoyed our payment in bottles of wine.

Wine has to be sipped and not gulped. It has to be treated with respect, like the mead.
We all know about the potentially devastating effects that alcohol can have on people's lives.
I don't like to be a spoilsport, because a glass of wine definitely adds a lot to a nice meal, but
maybe bottles of wine could have  a list of ingredients on them and a warning.

My sister-in-law has a sign up in her kitchen that says "I cook with wine, sometimes I add it to my food". It was said by the American comedian, W.C. Fields.

Napoleon apparently said "In victory, you deserve champagne, in defeat you need it."

My Mum used to sing a sweet song at bedtime that went like this:
Drink to me only, with thine eyes
And I'll not ask for wine
Or leave a kiss, within the cup
And be forever, mine.





Boston Baked Beans

This is my second post today, because writing about Baked beans, made me think of Boston. So, I wanted to write about Boston, but it would have made that post too long.

I have a lovely recipe for Boston baked beans. The only trouble is that it is very long and needs molasses, which are harder to find here than baked beans.

But back to Boston. I have a wonderful memory of going there.

I love to hear young people talk about their travels, going round the world on their own, having tattoos done on beaches in Thailand, re-building bungalows after the Tsunami, swimming with turtles, toasting marshmallows on the top of a volcano. As you get older though,  you are more likely to find yourself in an organised tour, part of a group.

We went to New England in a group, and that's how I found myself on a coach, having a guided tour of Boston. As we neared the city, our guide told us about the traffic lanes, where you have to pay if you're on your own. So, some people put blow-up dolls in the passenger seat! With guides, you're never quite sure if they're pulling your leg.

When we arrived in Boston, a local guide, called Al, took over. He was very entertaining and witty, and we drove round Boston , absorbing his information, from the comfort of our coach.

This is what I remember:- the hotel where Marilyn Monroe went with the Kennedys; the very tall skyscraper with mirrored glass, which is in Ally McBeal; a very old boat; a department store that on one day a year, sold off bridal dresses for next-to-nothing and you'd risk your life in the stampede of fiancees; the statue of Paul Revere. I'm going to pause, because I'm ashamed to say I didn't know who he was.


Our guide told us the poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, which started:-

Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere
On the eighteenth of April in 75
Hardly man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.

The poem goes on to explain how Paul Revere defeated the British. As we were mainly British we had a lot of laughs about this.

We were also reminded of The Boston Tea party, I did know about that. It was because of the taxes on the tea.

Al told us that the original settlers in Boston were all a bit deaf and had lots of children, This was because, every night, the man of the house would turn to his wife and ask "Are you tired or what?" and she would rely "What". So after that every evening our group would say to each other "Are you going to bed or what?". Yes, well. It seemed funny at the time.

At the end of our guided tour Al said, "Now, you are going to do two things, if you don't do these  two things, you can never consider yourself a true American, They are: shopping and eating, eating and shopping, shopping and eating".

With that he dropped us off at "The Faneuil Hall Marketplace". First of all we went into "Victoria's secrets", which we'd heard so much about. Then we bought a Red Sox teddy bear, then we went into the pub where "Cheers" was filmed. That was the shopping bit.

Then we went into the food hall. Wow! We had never seen anything like that, or even imagined it. There, in this very attractive covered market, was food from every possible nation and for every possible taste. People from the world's most troubled countries were standing side by side, displaying their  homelands' delicacies. The Albanian, next to the Syrian, next to the Iranian, all the way along.
That to me is America's strength. That is what is to be really admired and seen as an inspiration.

Of course, there were also stalls selling amazing doughnuts and waffles. Huge Homer Simpson doughnuts, covered with sugar, chocolate, icing, whatever you like.

Faced with this enormous choice, we walked up and down, and do you know? I really can't remember what we ate. I think we went back to the Cheers pub and had New England chowder. That was my favourite dish of the holiday - along with the Boston baked beans.

Here is the recipe:-

500 g white haricot dried beans
200 g bacon , cut in pieces
1 medium onion, finely chopped
200 g molasses
1 teaspoon mustard
60 g tomato ketchup
1 clove
salt and pepper to taste

Soak the beans in cold water overnight.
The next day, drain the beans.
Put the beans in a large saucepan, with enough water to cover.
Bring to the boil and then simmer gently for about 40 minutes, until beans are soft.
Drain, reserving the water.
In a large oven-proof saucepan, cook the bacon until crispy and then add the onions and continue cooking until golden.
Add the beans and 1 litre of the reserved water.
Add the molasses, mustard,ketchup, clove, salt and pepper to taste.
Cover and bake in the oven for about 3 hours.
Check that there is enough liquid, every hour or so.

This makes enough for about 8. You can pop some scrubbed potatoes in with them for the last hour. They go very well together. This is a great dish for this time of year. The house warms up with the oven on all that time. It's wonderful after a brisk walk in the cold air, to come home to with friends.

Have a nice day.

Baked Beans

Whenever I went to Eileen's for tea, we would have baked beans on toast and a glass of milk. Her Mum would lay the table for the two of us and then serve us like a waitress. She was  very extrovert and  cheerful,  born within the sound of Bow Bells, a true cockney.

Eileen's house was a pre-fab built for the Londoners who had lost their homes in the blitz. She had Beatles wallpaper in her bedroom and I really liked going there.

When I first came to Italy, I really missed British food, like Marmite, baked beans, lemon meringue pie filling. I 'd fill my suitcase with such products. Friends would ask me to bring them HP Sauce and salad cream. I only brought back HP Sauce once, because it exploded in my case. Not a great home-coming.

After awhile though, those packets and jars would just sit in the cupboard and go past their sell-by-date, because we mainly ate Italian dishes. The one exception was Lemon meringue pie. It is always a huge success in Italy, a very popular dessert among my family. I can make the filling from scratch now, without the packet.

Baked beans have a more limited fan club. Mainly my sons. One of them, even gave tins of baked beans as Christmas presents. They looked very festive. They haven't been made famous by Andy Warhol, like the Tomato soup cans, but they do brighten up the store cupboard. As a quick meal, they take some beating and whenever I see them in a supermarket I will buy a few cans.


In recent years, quite a few ethnic shops have opened up in Italy. The one near home, that I occasionally go to, is run by people from Ghana. There, among the plantains and twisted roots, hair products for Afro styles, small green bananas, what should I discover, but Baked beans, salad cream, carnation milk, Ribena and PG tips.

How incongruous it seemed. How wonderful to find them. When I asked the shop assistant, she explained that all those products are sold in their country, some are actually made there. These supermarket products from Britain, made them feel more at home too, just like me.

Monday, 20 January 2014

One a day

Someone gave me some advice about my blog yesterday, they think I should limit my posts to one a day. So, this week I'll try and do that.

In a book I've been reading, the emperor Marcus Aurelius, popped up in a conversation. I really liked what it said about him. So, I thought I would mention him in my post. The only thing is I don't know much about him. The trouble is, my history is all a bit patchy, and like "1066 and all that", I only know things happened a long time ago and were either "a good or bad thing".

Our syllabus at school was rather perplexing. We seemed to spend a long time with Neanderthal man and then suddenly we were learning about Henry the Eighth. Maybe I wasn't paying attention.
I also had a tendency in History lessons, to imagine what it would be like to be a wife and mother in those times. I'd imagine myself with a husband, madly in love with him of course, and looking after my children. So, I'd be in a cave making something tasty out of a Mammoth that had been brought back. Or maybe making soup with herbs and things I had foraged. The history teacher told me not to romanticise the past. They weren't all rolling about in haystacks, having fun.

The Italian system appears to teach History in a more linear way. Italians seem to know a lot more facts.

The type of things that stuck in my head were things like, Marie-Antoinette had a pair of shoes for every day of the year. A pope who died of amorous excess. Alfred burnt some cakes. Queen Victoria never got over losing Albert.

What had attracted me to Marcus Aurelius was the following quote,
"Through not observing what is in the mind of another, a man has seldom been seen to be unhappy. But those who do not observe the movements of their own mind must of necessity be unhappy."


I interpreted this as meaning that we should concentrate on improving ourselves, and to not worry what is in other people's minds, just think the best of them. One of my problems has always been that I get hurt easily and it helps me to think people don't mean any harm. We're all just trying our best.

I thought I ought to know a bit more about Marcus Aurelius. This is what seemed important:-
Marcus Aurelius was born on 26th April 121 in Rome. He married Hadrian's daughter, Faustina, and they had lots of children, the most famous ones being, Lucilla and Commodus.
He was chosen by Hadrian to be his successor. He wrote a book called "Meditations" in Greek, which is a monument to a philosophy of service and duty. He tried to live a "Stoic" life. This means enduring pain and hardship without showing feelings or complaining. He thought that the happiness of life depends upon the quality of your thoughts and following nature as a source of guidance and inspiration.
Well, it sounds like he had his heart in the right place.

Joke for the day about Ancient Rome.
The Roman Emperor asked why they weren't making money from the Colosseum.
Because the lions were eating all the Prophets!

You might like to look at Monty Python's Football Match, but Marcus Aurelius didn't make it to the team!

Sunday, 19 January 2014

A laugh a day

One of my aims as a mother, when my children were small, was to teach them how to see the funny side of things that happened to them, not to take themselves too seriously.
After all, if we can laugh at ourselves, we'll always have someting to laugh about.
It's nice when people laugh with you, but not at you, that just hurts.
I'm a great believer in the restorative power of humour. A bad day at school, or trouble in the playground, and then a chocolate biscuit and half an hour of Mr. Bean and nothing seems quite so bad, after all.
Obviously there are serious problems that can't be laughed away. I'm talking about the every day challenges, not the heavy stuff.
I would buy them bumper books of jokes. These served also to help them cope with the ambiguities of the English Language.:-

"Can a giraffe jump higher than a house?", "Yes, because houses can't jump".

"Two silkworms were in a race. They ended up in a tie".

"A man goes to the doctor, and tells him he keeps having a recurring dream. First he's a wigwam, then he's a teepee. "It's driving me crazy", he tells the doctor. "What's wrong with me?"
"Oh that's easy", says the doctor. "You're two tents."

"What do you say to a Buddhist hot-dog vendor?" "Make me one with everything".

Jokes can make you groan or laugh out loud. Often it's the way it's told that matters. You can hear someone tell you a joke that you've heard many times, and it makes you laugh, because of the way it's told.

It's the singer, not the song.

Poems in my posts

Those of you, following my blog, will have noticed, that I often quote a poem, appropriate to the post.
Sometimes, there is just a verse or two, I don't want the posts to be too long, it's just the time for a cup of coffee or tea.
Poetry is very important to me. Without wishing to appear OTT, it seems to go straight to my soul, to nourish my spirit.
It must come from my Mum, like a lot of the really good things in life. She often read us poems, in her gentle voice, she made them come alive.
There were two by Robert Louis Stevenson, that we really loved. I 'll just write one verse of each, so you can get the flavour.


In winter I get up at night
And dress by yellow candle light,
In Summer, quite the other way,
I have to go to bed by day.
(from Bed in Summer)

I actually liked lying in bed on summer evenings, with the light coming through the curtains, and hearing my Mum and Dad downstairs.

Even now, when we go to England, from Italy, in the summer, we find it hard to get used to there not being shutters, and so my sister-in-law has bought us all eye masks to help us sleep beyond 5 am.


My tea is nearly ready and the sun has left the sky;
It's time to take the window to see Leerie going by;
For every time at teatime and before you take your seat,
With lantern and with ladder he comes posting up the Street.
(from The Lamplighter)

This poem is about what was my favourite time of day, as a child. Teatime.
In Italy it is called merenda ("snack") and I loved it as a mother too. It is a moment when you have a chance to talk about the day's events, and relax with the children.


It is also nice to imagine what life was like without electric lights, what it must have been like to see the Street slowly start to glow in the lamplight.

As I said above, poetry speaks to my soul.
This is what the poet Shelley said :-
"Poetry is the record of the best and happiest moments of the happiest and best minds.
Poetry makes immortal all that is best and most beautiful in the world.
Poetry redeems from decay the visitations of the divinity in man."
When I was Mrs Rabbit in the Primary school play, I discovered what a great feeling it 
is to make children laugh, by reciting a poem, a limerick.

There was an old man from Peru
Who dreamt he was eating his shoe,
He awoke in the night,
In a terrible fright,
To find it was perfectly true.

So there we are, humour and poetry together, wonderful.

The joys of an open fire

We always had an open fire,in my childhood home.
It was the main source of warmth and we would sit round it, toasting crumpets and listening to my Mum telling stories. She would say that the sparks on the chimney, were in fact messages from Father Christmas and she could read what they said.
When we had coughs and colds, she would rub camphorated oil on our chests in front of the fire. She would sing a song about it, to the tune of "Glory, glory, alleluia".
We had a fire guard, and we would hang our pyjamas over it, to warm.
For years, my Dad would fill up the coal scuttle and have logs to hand, for the daily ritual of lighting the fire.
When it got too much for him, he had a real-effect gas fire installed. At the flick of a switch, we could still enjoy the cheerfulness of the hearth.
The open fire was such a focal part of our home, that I thought I would miss it in Italy. But, luckily, I don't.
Here, the light is brighter, there are more hours of sunshine and the days never feel short and gloomy like they can in Britain. I don't feel the need for an open fire, but when I happen to be near one, in a trattoria (tavern) or a rifugio (mountain hut), it brings back all the joy of the warmth and the delight in the hypnotic effect of the flames.

This is one of my favourite poems about winter, and I especially love the last two lines. It conjures up memories of feeling safe at home. It is by Robert Louis Stevenson.

Family sitting by the fireplace
In rigorous hours, when down the iron lane
The redbreast looks in vain
For hips and haws,
Lo, shining flowers upon my window-pane
The silver pencil of the winter draws.

When all the snowy hill
And the bare woods are still;
When snipes are silent in the frozen bogs,
And all the garden garth is whelmed in mire,
Lo, by the hearth, the laughter of the logs --
More fair than roses, lo, the flowers of fire!

(Winter, from Songs of Travel)

Just writing that, I can close my eyes and be 10 again, coming home from school, on a dark winter's afternoon, and sit by the fire with my Mum, having tea and jam tarts, and watching children's television.

So evocative, is this poem, that while saying it, to myself, I soar over the Woods and fields in the Hills where I grew up, totally at one with the countryside. I can see every leaf and tree, hedgerow and stile, every lane and woodland copse.

Friday, 17 January 2014

Bedtime stories

     My little grandson loves horses. I was watching his favourite cartoon with him," Spirit,stallion of Cimarron." A 2002 Dreamworks production.

We soared above the Grand Canyon with the eagles, we raced through the forests feeling the wind run through our manes, we marvelled at the vast expanses of North American National Parks, ,then we zoomed into a beautiful mustang, nuzzling her little foal.
"Oh no" I said to my son, "Nothing awful's going to happen is it?".
"No, he replied," the film ends happily, the days of Bambi are long gone".

Thanks to Disney, many Hans Christian Anderson and Brothers Grimm fairy tales, end happily.
The Little Mermaid gets legs as a wedding present from her Dad, instead of turning into a wave.
Reading my children stories was way on the top of the list of my favourite activities.

 Books have been written, explaining the psychology behind traditional tales.Psychologists explain, that for a child to hear a frightening fairy tale, while feeling safe at home, helps them to be stronger. It's difficult to believe that when you have a child scared to go to sleep because of a film or story.
The most frightening story for me, was The Snow Queen.

 We read all the classic fairy tales, often, my son had his own interpretations.
Snow White was rather ungrateful, leaving the Seven Dwarves, after all they had done for her. So we invented Seven princess-dwarves for them, and they all lived happliy ever after.
He felt sorry for the Two ugly Sisters, so they found two ugly princes to go to the palace with.
The ants could have given some of their food to the poor grasshopper.

The great wealth of English children's literature  meant we could immerse ourselves in The Beatrix Potter stories, Paddington Bear, Winnie- the- Pooh, Richard Scarry. as they got older we loved all the Roald dahl stories,Just William, The Famous Five, Fudge.
Car journeys, were a delight, as we all listened to "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory", "James and the Giant Peach", George's marvellous medicine".

It was such a pleasure for me to read to them in English,and so much easier too,  but I did worry about their Italian Heritage. They needed to feel they belonged in Italy, that it was part of them too.They needed to enrich their Italian.
The first author I found that I could enjoy with them was Gianni Rodari. Our favourite one was "Storie del telefono senza fili". They were stories told by a father, who had to be away a lot for work,  to his children over the telephone, every night before bedtime.





A wish for a friend

Today, it's the birthday of a very dear friend. She works as  a volunteer in a Centre to help women and girls who are in difficulty. Many people are very grateful to her, she has saved lives.
In a world with wishy-washy shades of grey, she holds firm her convictions of what is good.
For her, there is right and wrong, black and white. But she is no bigot nor prude. She judges no-one, has a heart of gold. She's great fun to be with.
It is so refreshing to hear her forthright views. I feel, it is a privilege to hear her opinions, she tells you exactly what she thinks and is in her heart.
I'm going to dedicate this poem to her. It is by Alexander Pope. He is the third most quoted poet in "The Oxford book of quotations", after Shakespeare and Tennyson.This is what I wish for her:

May joy and ease, and affluence and content,
And the light conscience of a life well spent,
Calm every thought, inspirit every grace,
Glow in thy heart, smile upon thy face.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Brownies

As we are nearing the weekend, I'm going to make some Brownies. They are great to have instead of dessert or for coffee with friends.
It took me a long time to get the right recipe for Brownies. They need to come out of the oven while they are still moist, not dry in the middle, like a sponge cake.

This recipe makes about 16

Preheat oven to 180°.
Line a 20.5 cm square tin with baking parchment
In a large saucepan, gently heat 150 g butter and 200g chopped dark chocolate until melted and smooth.
Take pan off the heat
Stir in 3 eggs and beat well
Add 2 tsp vanilla extract, 250 g sugar and 100 g plain flour.
Beat together well, until glossy.
Pour into the prepared tin and bake for 30-35 minutes ,until a smooth shiny crust forms.
Allow to cool completely in the tin
Cut into 16 squares and dust with icing sugar.
The Brownies but better if left to cool overnight.
Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 3 days.

Uncle Les

Whenever I arrived home from school and found my Mum and her brother, Les, chatting together in the kitchen, it always felt like a party.
They'd pour out  a cup of tea for me, and I'd join in with their happy, cheerful banter.
Uncle Les was the second of my grandma's three children born before the First World War. My Mum was the last of the three born afterwards. They had quite different childhoods.
Uncle Les started working when he was still a boy, he did milk rounds, and anything he could to keep the family going.
He bought the whole family a pair of slippers each for Christmas every year. He called his first family dog, Slippers. My Mum thought the world of him. We all did.
His heart was pure gold.
My Mum loved telling stories about him and his great wit and humour.
When he was a toddler, my Nana was pushing the youngest in a pram, he and  his older sister ,walking along side her. She tried to tell them in her gentle way that their Granddad had passed away.
"Jesus called him", she said. Back came the quick response from Uncle Les "He called me once, but I didn't go".
Like all good comedians, he needed a stooge. He found one in his wife, my Auntie Daphne.
She was as efficient and practical as he was warm and witty.
One day he had  a bad headache. He was lying in bed resting, when Auntie Daphne came bustling in with the vacuum cleaner. "Oh Daph, please, turn that thing off, I'm dying". True to character she replied "Well, you're not dying in a dirty bedroom." Sure enough he was at the local football match a couple of hours later.
During the war, Uncle Les had to go into hospital to have his tonsils out. He was in Scotland at the time. He received a letter from Auntie Daphne. It said, "Be careful, having your tonsils out, Peggy knows someone who died that way".
They both lived into their nineties, leaving behind a whole lot of grandchildren and great grandchildren who adored them.
My Dad and Uncle Les were best mates. They called each other up, they met in the local pub. It was a joy to see them together.

At my Uncle Les's 80th birthday, my Dad gave a speech saying how our lives were richer from knowing him.
Uncle Les sometimes picked me up from school, or took my Mum and me shopping. We'd always sing going along.
These are two of the songs he taught me:-

Goodbye ee, Goodbye ee,
wipe a tear, baby dear, from your eye ee.
Though parting's sad, I know,
I'll be tickled to death, to go
Goodbye ee, Goodbye ee
There's a silver lining in the sky ee
Bonjour, old thing,
tiddly oo, chin chin,
wam poo, diddly oo
Goodbye ee

This one has been re-vamped recently, there is a reggae version

You are my Sunshine, my only Sunshine,
You make me happy, when clouds are grey,
You'll never know, dear,
How much I love you,
please don't take my Sunshine away.

Uncle Les gave a lot of sunshine to me.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Old heads on young shoulders

My Dad would often say to us "You can't put old heads on young shoulders".
This had the effect of making us feel that we weren't behaving wisely, we'd done something wrong.
Wisdom is defined as the ability  to discern or judge what is true or right. To be wise, is to have good judgement.
According to Confucius, there are three methods  to learn wisdom.
The first one is by reflection and that is the noblest.
The second is by imitation, and that is the easiest.
The third is by experience, and that is the most bitter.
Socrates took the wind out of everybody' sails, by saying, "The only true wisdom, is in knowing you know nothing."
Going back to "you can't put old heads on young shoulders", is something that any parent can relate to.
How can you encourage and stimulate children and young people, if they aren't? How can you steer them in what you think is the right direction?
When I see young people coming out of school, their bags full of books and an afternoon of homework in front of them, how many of them actually consider it a privilege, and put all their energy into it? How many older people wish they'd worked harder and got better qualifications?
The lyrics to the old Ronnie Wood song Oh La La (<= click; sung also by Rod Stewart) could sum it up.

The words of the song refer specifically to women trouble, but the chorus could easily apply to school work, behaviour, drinking, any challenge that faces young people.

Poor old Granddad
I laughed at all his words
I thought he was a bitter man
he spoke of women's ways
They trap you, then they use you
Before you even know
For love is blind and you're far too kind
Don't ever let it show

chorus.-
I wish that I knew what I know now,
When I was younger
I wish that I knew what I know now
When I was stronger

Then it ends by saying:
Poor old grandson
There's nothing I can say
You'll have to learn just like me
And that's the hardest way.

Confucius thought so too.

Funny Phonetics

The look of amazement ,on my Italians students' faces ,when they discovered how to spell "daughter", was  almost comical. "But why ?", they asked. I had no explanation.
Another time, teaching a class of unruly 8 year olds, I told them to spell"earthquake", the ones that got it right would get a prize.Even the ones full of bravado got in a panic. After that, they were putty in my hands.

Italian is a much more phonetic Language. Italian children start school in September in the year of their Sixth birthday, and by Christmas can spell almost any word.
Not so In Britain. We had dictations up till the age of 15. I struggled with "separate" and "independent" for a long time.
George Bernard Shaw, the Irish writer, wanted to reform English spelling to make it more logical. He use the following word to prove his point. "Ghoti", he said this could be pronounced as "fish",
gh-as in rough, o as in women, ti as in nation.
When he died in 1950 he left money to develop a new phonemic alphabet. It is yet to happen.
When I do the spell check on my computer, it's mainly to make sure I didn't make mistakes, due to typing errors. I like to think my spelling is fine.
We always had spelling tests and dictations at school, but in America they made it sound more fun, by having "Spelling Bees".
The United States National Spelling Bee was started way back in 1925, but only in 2009, was one started for schools in Britain. It is run by The Times newspaper.
I know of two lovely films about Spelling Bees. One is called, Akeelah and the Bee, from 2006, it's called "Una parola per un sogno" in Italian. The other, Spellbound (<= click for trailer on YouTube - 2:22) from 2002.

Often, the spelling check on the computer, corrects words with "S", "c" or "z",
I have just discovered why.
In some words, in British English, the noun has a "c" and the verb has an "s".
For example, The doctor is going to practise at his Practice.
Oscar Wilde advised to pass on good advice, it's the only thing worth doing with it.
For Americans, it is often the other way round.
In 1828, Noah Webster published "An American Dictionary of the English Language".
He didn't like the way lots of words were spelled.
Among others he changed, centre to center, theatre to theater, honour to honor, humour to humor.

Webster was the man, mostly responsible for the differences  between American and British spelling.

Last week when the Polar Vortex was making America freeze, the coldest town was called "Embarrass", I wonder how it got it's name, but I'm sure that was one of my challenges in Spelling tests.

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Oh là là

On holiday, in France, I have often, over a glass of rosè, on a balmy Summer's evening, found myself drawn into quite heated conversations about the assumed differences between British and French attitudes to what gets into the papers.
They seem to think we are narrow-minded prudes. They proudly declare that their politicians are free to do what they like in their spare time. As long as they are doing a good job, running the country, their private lives are their business.

I usually try to defend our press, saying things like, "None of us cares about their private lives either, but the press have got to be free to print everything, public figures have to be aware of their responsibilities".
At the end of the evening, our French friends still hold the same views and I feel I haven't made any intelligent contribution, and that the French are in a class of their own when it comes to charm and romance.
The recent events in France, reminded me of a very interesting debate, that we saw on French television during the run- up to their general election.
Mr Sarkhozy and Mr Hollande, were together in the television studio with two interviewers.
They were asked questions in turn, and allowed a set time in which to answer them.

They both spoke very clear French and it was easy to follow, even for me.

The topics they had to talk about, at least the ones I can remember, were:- Health, Education, Welfare, Immigration, the Environment, Pollution, Energy, The European Union, Defence, World Affairs.
Both men were very polite, calm and eloquent. We were very impressed, by the way the debate was conducted.
The topics facing the French president, are the same ones facing all European heads of state, at the moment.
Mr Hollande has got an important job to do, the French people elected him. It is true that his personal life is his own concern, as long as it doesn't harm his country.


Feng -shui

There is a big, open air, antiques market, on the first Sunday of the month, in a town near where I live.
Walking round it, looking at all the tables, chairs and sideboards, jewellery, I often imagine the lives of the people, that once owned and used them .
What would they have worn? What were their families like? Did they have to go to war? Were they lucky in love? What great historical events occurred in their life times?
Some antique dealers, actually feel that their wares have life in them. The objects could tell stories themselves. Well, I don't really go that far, but it is easy to believe, sometimes, that good forces are present in the objects , that belonged to loved ones. Wearing my Mum's scarf makes me feel protected, sleeping in my Dad's pyjamas gives comfort to my son.

I've always liked Feng-Shui. All my information comes from articles in magazines, so I'm certainly no expert. Apart from some things, like, "floral patterns in the bedroom could encourage infidelity", or "plants with spiky, pointed leaves make you argue more", it seems just common sense.
Feng-shui. literally means "Wind-Water", and is concerned with  improving the quality of human life by bringing harmony to the environment.

The idea is to maximise energy circulation and improve the way we live.
Marriages could be saved by positioning the bed in a certain way. Work could benefit if the waste-paper basket is placed in a different corner.

It's all tied up with getting rid of toxins and circulation, a bit like the Yin and Yang. Even the way we dress could be improved, by feng-shui, the harmony of the colours, the materials we wear.,
Sometimes, my daughter will comment if something is Feng-shui, or not. For her, it's about thinking kind thoughts, being discreet, not moaning, tidying up, creating a pleasant atmosphere in the home, giving a warm welcome to the family and friends that enter.
Originally, feng-shui was mainly applied to buildings. Certainly buildings can be an eye-sore or a pleasure.
Alain de Botton, in his book "The architecture of happiness", says that our buildings and the objects we fill them with, affect us more profoundly than we might think.
The elements, earth, wind, fire and rain do influence our moods. A friend of mine told me that she never has discussions in the home. They go for a walk, so any negativity is dispersed down through the earth, instead of getting trapped in the house.
It's easy to dismiss all this and say "Whatever makes you feel better", "Each to his own", but I firmly believe we all have to work together in creating a harmonious environment.The quality of the air we breathe, the food we eat, people's behaviour, really affect us all.

Monday, 13 January 2014

Tomato tomayto

Thinking about all the measures, the cups, pounds and ounces, grammes and kilos, brought back some funny misunderstandings I had while working with Americans.
It all started at my job interview, when I asked them what "mono typing" was, thinking it might have something to do with me being on my own. They looked puzzled. They had actually said "a certain amount of typing".

Once, I said "apricot", by this time we were great friends, they fell about laughing and mimicking my accent, apri còt! They didn't believe me, "it's apri cart", they insisted. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, this is how it should be pronounced: \ˈa-prə-ˌkät\ (<= click; or \ˈā-prə-ˌkät\)

Brought up on a regular diet of "Bonanza", "Rawhide", "Bewitched " and "Bronco Lane", I was not only used to American accents, I loved them. American English sounds so much more fluid, relaxed, interesting and warm. My British accent sounds  stiff and formal in comparison.

When my brother took his family to Disneyland in Florida, he had a guide book to read before they left, to make the most of their stay. It said never to ask for a "fag" or a "rubber". Both quite innocent in Britain, one meaning "cigarette" the other "eraser". The American meanings might not get past the censors on my blog (ha ha).

My American friend might look confused if I say "my shoes fitted well", she would say "fit".
We are all used to sidewalks and pavements, lifts and elevators, fanny-shapers and girdles.

Probably the most spectacular episode of misunderstandings, happened to me on an aeroplane. An American woman was loudly proclaiming that she wanted a "shag", someone near her must have explained what it means in Britain, because she exploded in laughter and the whole plane joined in with her. A "shag" in America is a sort of short, pixie hair cut.



You might like to look at Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers on YouTube in Let's call the whole thing off (5:34).

American cakes for beginners

There was an old people's home near our house and the family next door worked there. Every year, on Independence Day, they would be given cakes from the local American community and I was invited round to try them. They were magnificent, swirls of frosting, abundant on the lightest sponge cakes, nothing like I'd ever tasted before.
For a while, I worked with Americans, and when I was expecting my first baby they invited me along to a" baby shower." I was overwhelmed by their generosity, and once again, their wonderful cakes.
Everytime I asked for the recipe they replied, "it's from a packet". I hunted all through the American magazines that my friend s gave me until I found  the perfect recipe for chocolate cake, made from scratch.
It is for a beginner cook, so rather long, but has all the qualities of those wonderful cakes  made for the Fourth of July. It's also in American measures, I've had the recipe for 30 years, so it's very worn. It's just the thing to make on a Monday to round off all your weekday suppers. Produce it with a flourish, after a simple soup or salad.

The Best Mocha cake


cocoa
2 cups all-purpose flour
1  and two thirds cups of sugar
1 and one third cups water
two thirds cup of butter, softened
3 eggs
2 teaspoons instant coffee
1 and a half teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
half teaspoon double acting baking powder
half teaspoon salt
Mocha butter frosting (below)

early in the day
Prepare the cake pans first,
Preheat oven to 350 degrees (180)

Grease two 9 inch round cake pans: coat bottom and sides of pans lightly with cocoa.
Into a large bowl, measure two thirds cup of cocoa and remaining ingredients except frosting
With mixer at low speed, beat until just mixed. Increase speed to high, beat 4 minutes.
Pour batter into pans. Bake 30 minutes or until toothpick inserted in centre of cake comes out clean.

Cool cakes in pans on wire racks for 10 minutes. Remove from pans, cool completely.
To serve:-
Prepare frosting. Place one layer, rounded-side down on cake plate, spread with about one third of frosting.Top with second cake layer, rounded side up, frost side and top of cake with remainging frosting. Makes 16 servings.
.
Mocha butter frosting:
In bowl with mixer at low speed, beat one 16 ounce package icing sugar, half a cup of butter, softened, quarter cup of cocoa, quarter cup of water,1 teaspoon instant coffee,1 teaspoon vanilla extract, and pinch of salt. until light and fluffy.
To make pretty swirls on the frosting use a spoon. Gently press spoon into frosting and give a twist of the wrist.


Along with chocolate Brownies, I can only make this cake once in awhile, or if there are lots of guests, because it's irresistible. I'll just quickly say here, that the chocolate cake recipe is from an American magazine, so the measures are different. American  spoons and cups are a standard size.  1 cup = about 4 ozs or 120 g. You have to use the same cup throughout the recipe, and then it is quite easy.