Biting the Bullet

There comes a time when you just have to.

Sit yourself down, put the bullet between your teeth to help ease the pain….and face up to reality. Face up to all those nasty questions you’ve been putting off for so long, rather like the way you lower your eyes so as not to see your own reflection in shop windows or worse still the mirror in the hallway. Can that really be me? Wasn’t I slender and 21 the last time I looked? I am like a child who plays hide and seek with her eyes shut, if I can’t see them they can’t see me. If only it worked that way with those nasty questions, if I don’t face up to them maybe they’ll go away. They don’ t though, they keep finding me in my wide open hiding space……me with my eyes shut.

So this morning as I swam up and down the pool, did acquagym and then lay in the sun for two hours, I opened my eyes, put the bullet between my teeth, careful not to swallow it along with the chlorine tasting water, and confronted my demons.

And what pathetic little demons they are too, once tackled head on they didn’t seem so invincible after all………I may be guilty of having used a smidgen of hyperbole then.

Do I have a right to be happy? Well, ok this one is quite a sizeable demon and I probably should have left it until last but it popped its head up first and demanded an answer. And of course it didn’t get one. Who on earth can answer that? Not if you’ve had a protestant upbringing, not if you are a converted catholic, not if…..

I can feel my eyes lowering again as I look into the rear-view mirror checking on what’s coming up behind me, drawing up next to me, overtaking me. That’s what happens if you stop looking in mirrors to avoid the real you, the 51-year-old you and not the 30-year-old you in your head, you get overtaken by life, by opportunities, you get left behind in the wrong lane.

Back to demon number one. Look straight into the mirror Jones! Happy, to be or not to be? To be, of course. The problem is whether I have the right to be. Sorry folks this little demon is a tough cookie and must be put on the back burner for softening up.

Demon number two. Should I have left work?  Had I asked myself this question 15 years ago I wouldn’t be where I am today. I don’t remember actually querying myself on the matter,   I just never went back to work once son and heir was born. It was taken for granted and not just by the Italian father. You can’t have a high-powered job and a baby, I didn’t have a baby to see him reared by a nanny, I want to enjoy his baby years, we don’t need the money……..I cringe. How narrow-minded, bigoted, selfish and shortsighted, and I was 37 and can hardly hide behind the excuse of young inexperienced motherhood. But here in Italy my not working seemed the most obvious thing to do.

Now we are at the showdown, me and demon number two. Ah hindsight.

Damn….i think I just swallowed the bullet and now I’ll have indigestion as well as lead poisoning and nothing to stop the atrocious pain of looking reality in the eye. The demons will be back to fight another day and I shall have to find another way of hiding from them. Anyone know any friendly ostrich, I hear they do a great thing with heads and sand……?


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a few of my favourite things…….life’s soundtrack

I had meant to go swimming, honestly I had, but life got in the way as usual and I ended up striding out on a gloriously chilly morning to the local Carrefour, I-pod blaring out through my earphones (yes, I am one of those tecno-dinosaurs who still believe that mobile phones are for calling people and music should be listened to on a personal sound system).  Nothing noteworthy there until I realised what I was listening to, a 1980’s song by Michael McDonald called ‘I gotta try’ with the backing vocals sung by none other than the great James Taylor, it just couldn’t get much better. Walking and listening, actually I was almost dancing up the road, probably not very seemly for a 50 year old, I realised that I hadn’t felt that carefree for a long time, that’s what music does for me.

The flow of my stream of consciousness (can’t you tell I’ve been teaching Modernism recently) was tidal and on a one hour round trip, during which time the battery of my trusty pod abandoned me, I had dredged up all the musical moments of my past and with them the joy and pain of remembering.

I am the daughter of a professional jazz pianist so my love of music doesn’t exactly come as a surprise. Ours was a household where if Daddy was at home there was a record on the stereo or the radio was playing or he was practicing in the front room. Strains of the greats would come through the walls, up the stairs, shake the hall carpet and if I was really lucky I could sit between his knees on the velvet piano stool and key the one note samba with him or he would play me ‘Misty’.  Sunday mornings were a mixture of good old Anglican hymns in church and the BBC Radio programme ‘family favourites’ while lunch was cooking. I would sit and read a book and sing the harmony to Ella’s ‘Into each life some rain must fall’ (no-one in their right mind would try to sing over her) or wriggle my toes along with the Count and the Duke, always getting into trouble because either I wasn’t really reading or ‘it’s a shame you can’t learn your lessons like you learn  lyrics and harmony…..’ (but that was Mummy though).

It wasn’t  just  jazz that thundered through my early childhood. The 60’s for a musical demon like my father, offered the listener  just about anything, and it all got played at some stage, so my earliest memories are of easy listening sounds of the crooners Jack Jones, Tony Bennett and Frankie of course, but also the Swingle Singers (anyone remember them?) and the Carpenters. My parents were an incredibly cool couple and being young party animals in the early part of that decade , despite having three small offspring, they were known for their Beatles parties, whose music I must have supped with the maternal milk because there isn’t a song that I don’t know off by heart and I don’t even remember listening to the Fab Four. My favourite has always been ‘paperback writer’….

Songs haunt me. My love of Aznavour singing ‘on ne sait jamais’ comes from my archly francophile mother, who insisted listening to him in French and I can still remember hearing a live group during one of our summer holidays in the land of Camembert singing in very heavily accented English ‘killing me softly wiz iz song..’ heady stuff not forgotten easily.

Having absorbed my parents’ musical tastes irredeemably, the Guru (see previous blogs to uncover her secret identity!) took over with a vengeance. It’s great having an older sibling who fights all your battles for you, passes on a priceless passion for reading and introduces you to the world of late hippy music. Along with the cascading wavy hair, peasant skirts and white clogs (I do hope I will be forgiven this little indiscretion…) the Guru planted the seed of my incommensurate love for James Taylor and CSN&Y. But above all she was responsible for a hero-worship during my formative years of Elton John (The Italian calls him the English Pupo) whose first albums until Yellow Brick Road are still inscribed upon my vocal chords after 30 years of not being listened to. I also had the coolest uncle in the world, whom both I and the Guru vowed to marry, he introduced me to 10cc (I’m not in love) and I can still feel the rough carpet on my legs and strength of his knees against my back as I sat adoringly at his feet.

At some point in my pre-teen years I was left to my own devices and ventured into the world of Radio MonteCarlo on a transistor under the pillow after lights out (which was invariably at 7pm …….children were seen and not heard in my day) and Pandora’s box was definitively opened. Pop has a lot to answer for.

I have a confession to make, my idols at 12 were the two Davids (Cassidy of the Partridge Family fame and Soul from Starsky and Hutch!) I even had posters of them on my bedroom wall. Actually it the Guru’s bedroom wall as Oxford had claimed her and I had claimed her bedroom, it was the least she could do seeing as she had abandoned me to my own questionable musical tastes. Gradually things got better.

Saturday Night Fever down at Maureen’s Dance School in Northfield learning the moves. Gerry Rafferty’s soulful Baker Street on auto reverse on my Sony Walkman  whilst puffing an illicit Consulate Menthol on the school playing fields. Roxy Music’s Love is the Drug at the school disco. Solidarnsk badges on my parker and UB40. Party dresses, boys in DJs and Haircut One Hundred. Trying to be sophisticated with The Cure and David Bowie, but going to a first viewing party to see Jackson’s Thriller.

Each innocent school boyfriend has his own theme: Julian is Bat out of Hell, Danko is Slowhand and Chris is the Boss (thank you Chris!!).

The soundtrack is endless, ever changing, too much to even begin to describe the evolutions it has made over the past 30 years. Suffice it to say that currently my I-pod touch has a renewed lease of life and it is accompanying me on my journey through new found vitality thanks to HRT and old and new friends. The soundtrack of today shuffles delightfully through jazz, russian choral music, Mahler, Guns n Roses, Rick Astley and Elbow. I love the randomness of this way of listening to music and can still be found prancing down the aisles of Carrefour singing to Snow Patrol and the Editors……….it’s just that mad English Parent forgetting half of the weekly shop again.

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all things dear….

As I stood in my sitting room at 4 o’clock this morning listening to the sirens wailing and watching the clouds of menacing acrid black smoke billow up from the underground garages beneath my house one thing became clear to me immediately. I had to get my son dressed and out of the house. That was the easiest decision in the world to make.

Having done that I wondered what I should take with me in the imminent probability of having to abandon the house and all of its contents to the flames and fumes. I don’t live in a big house and it’s all on one floor so with not much effort I can pretty much see most of what I own in a quick 360 degree twirl of a cat. The list of things I knew that I absolutely couldn’t live without was very telling………

my british passport,  my father’s pocket bible from when he was at school, my mother’s white book of english prayer which both of us carried on our respective wedding days, a tiny gold cross that my grandmother gave me on my confirmation day.

my jewellery box and the deeds to the house.

if I had time to come back up I would take my father’s London College of Music certificate dated 1939 and an antique silver toast rack that my sister bought me years ago.

The more I think about it the more irrational my list seems. None of these things would keep us warm or have any monetary value (jewellery box aside) but they were things I could put in my pocket and that would make me feel better later on.

As I sit and write this now with the still rancid smell of burned tyres floating through the house (damn it I’m going to have to wash the curtains!!) the list  obviously gets longer, but in all honesty this is what I was ready to save as I watched the dawn break through the smoke and waited for the fireman to give us the OK.

I am pleasantly surprised that  21st century consumerism hasn’t yet taken over my soul and that my instinct is still very much directed towards saving all things dear.

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The closet exhibitionist

I’m discovering things.

My total lack of self-confidence in the first impression I give of myself, coupled with bouts of chronic shyness, has always hindered my tongue.  I have plenty to say but absolutely no courage with which to say it. Shyness was a problem that I had to overcome as a working woman in a man’s world but which returned as soon as I was forced to foray into the jungle queendom of the school run (far more ferocious and much less forgiving).

I don’t mind what people think about me as long as I don’t have to see their faces whilst they are expounding my inadequacies or berating my presumption. My shy and retiring alter ego  is protected by the anonymity of writing. Whereas I wouldn’t stand up in a crowd and say what I think, and am often reticent amongst family and friends to come forward, I can sit here at a keyboard or armed with pencil and my beloved moleskin and rant and rave to my heart’s content without the glimmer of a blush or cringe.

Because ranting and raving is balm for my ex-pat frustration in the country that has adopted me but that I have never quite adopted myself. My love affair with Italy is not always 100% reciprocated. One of the main causes of angst between me and Italy is that I look different from everyone else. I am big and blonde, Italians aren’t. I laugh too loud, Italians don’t. I drink wine, an awful lot of Italians I know are abstemious… can anyone be abstemious? What’s the point living in the land of the grape if you don’t squash a few and imbibe?

Well, the point in all this is that Italy has ruined my true English spontaneity, my witty barbs, my love of pythonesque asides. They just don’t get it do they Helen? It all loses so much in translation. After 25 years of attempting to transpose my Englishness into Italian I’ve given up, far too exhausting and the results not very satisfying.

But now, ah… now I’ve got this. A blog upon which  I can  unleash all those years of pent-up blightyness. Why is the written word so much easier than the spoken? And more dangerous too, but that’s the thrill. It feels like dancing on the table in the middle of a bar full of people and not giving a damn that you are overweight and nearly fifty,but the good part is that nobody can see you. Release and fear, good for the adrenalin.

I’m discovering things. I am a closet exhibitionist!

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into the void

Today is one of those days when I wonder why I am doing this, or rather who I am doing this for. Couldn’t wait for the men to leave the house this morning so I could crank up the family computer and see who had been to look at my blog yesterday.

Why am I so surprised and disappointed that most people have got better things to do with their spare time? Of course they have, however, it doesn’t stop me feeling  like a school girl who has handed in her homework but the teacher hasn’t had time to mark it. So all that self conviction that I’m writing this for myself is a crock of the brown stuff!

Ah, there now I’ve gone and said it! And I feel much better.

I apologise to anyone who had the misfortune to stumble upon my little tirade, there I go again thinking that someone might actually read this!

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Insomnia & Moleskin

I am a very light sleeper at the best of times. Before my son was born I was practically an insomniac. Constant travel and a passion for reading at 3 in the morning probably didn’t help. But often this state of things was of my own making and I didn’t complain.

Despite what most people say about having children and the general loss of sleep their much awaited for arrival involves, this wasn’t an issue for me as I wasn’t getting any before anyway. However, the lightness of my sleep has been exacerbated by 12 years of parenthood, every newborn breath, every toddler rasping cough, every furtive sms in the middle of the night…….and anything that goes bump. I’m awake , the brain kicks in and all hopes of slipping back into a well-earned unconsciousness are in vain.

As a young girl I mithered about school, then about unrequited love, then about requited love (not sure which is worse), the career woman in me mithered about balance sheets, 5 year sales forecasts and all those relentless due dates. Then I became a parent and the mithering stopped. No more invented problems that one could mull over for hours until scared witless. The real problem was sleeping, or not, as the case often was, in the next room.

This was a doddle, get up solve problem,  wet nappy, wet bed, bad dream, the number of excuses a child can invent just to get you into the room at the most improbable hours of the night is limitless, but they are all real problems which don’t require any amount of mithering, you just get up and deal with it.

Problem solved, there I was staring into the darkness with nothing to mither about. I used to turn the light on and read other people’s words, borrow other people’s thoughts, but just recently I started forming my own words and collecting my own thoughts.

New problem. Having formulated in my mind sheets of opening gambit, funny anecdotes and dread family secrets during my sleepless hours, everything would vanish at the shrill call of the new day.

A very smart and enviable lady, who I am just beginning to know but who I already love, suggested I write as soon as I get up or whenever the creative juices start to flow. Good advice but hard to do with a family asleep on both sides of you and the computer in the hallway.  She was right, I had to find a way to capture those hours of nocturnal cerebral fever before they fizzled away with the break of dawn and the marmite on toast.

Got it! Have Moleskin Will Scribble.

That’s what I’ve been doing each time something goes bump in the night. Pencils don’t make half as much noise as a keyboard and I can scribble away to my heart’s content and the men of the household are none the wiser and rested to boot. Win win I’d say. Well, win win for me and my men and I’m hoping, dear reader, that the odd smile from you will do the rest.

Me and my moleskin are  inseparable, now I’ve just got to find time to put it’s contents onto the computer. I’ve got a feeling I’ve been here before…….

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Having a baby was a novelty for me and so to be on the safe side , as I had nothing with which to compare the Italian system,  I decided to tap into the tried and tested experience of my elder sister (aka the Guru). The Guru has turned having babies and remaining ladylike into a fine art so I reckoned that she would be a valuable source of information,which she would have been had I been in the UK.

On my first visit to the gynaecologist I went armed with the precious information that the Guru had jealously passed along. Pearls of wisdom that were going to help me float through the final stages of pregnancy without sweating or swearing. My long list of requests included chosing the day on which you want to give birth and best of all epidurals. Epidurals?

My very expensive doctor regarded me for what seemed like an eternity with a wry(and in hindsight rather sadistic) smile and eventually pronounced in flawless English “this is Italy Madam……..” I could almost hear my self -confidence and English aplomb slam the door as they fled.

Italian doctors believe in natural birth giving.

Italian doctors believe in pain.

Why bring on a birth even if it is two weeks late, baby is obviously happy in there?!

I grinned and bore it with typical English stiff upper lip. The nurses popped in occasionally after sending Him home for the night and just left me there attached to a monitor, trying desperately to remember which colour it was I was supposed to be envisioning that would miraculously take the pain away. I didn’t work.

The man responsible for all this tells me that I was an absolute trooper and didn’t swear once, well, only in English and no-one could understand anyway. He cut the cord and preened as Son & Heir came in to the world and finally relinquished him to me. My first words to the  newest male in my life were “listen to Mummy’s heart” and all the clichés came true, I fell in love with my son.

It was marvellous. I finally had someone to talk English to, incessant, insane, nonsensical, wonderful English. I hadn’t realised how much I had missed my mother tongue until I became a mother.

Seconds after Son & Heir is out mother becomes invisible, she is considered a well patient and therefore requires no extra care or sleep. Baby is brought out a very regular intervals for immediate feeding sessions and black looks all round if you and your prole don’t perform to scratch by the third day when they kick you out rather unceremoniously.

And there you are driving home, hormones playing havoc and a feeling of absolute terror that maybe you’ve bitten off more than you can chew. Isn’t that the same in any country? What was different in my case is that the Italian in-laws were waiting for our arrival at home.

Let the show commence.

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