Rolling out pasta with a wine bottle

Cortona, Italy maybe 2015

Sitting on the veranda, opposite this huge open expanse of olive groves stretching out towards Tuscany, the pool in the foreground, a glass of chianti beside me on the coffee table, I’m aware that I’m incredibly lucky.

Right now, I don’t wish to be anywhere else. The sun is setting. It looks bigger than normal, glowing warmly as it sinks into the dip where the green trees of the nearby hill intersect with those masked in a dark grey haze on the mountain further back. The sky is pink and purple, streaked yellow where the sunlight reflects off the dainty wisps of cloud.

In the house, the Father is preparing tagliatelle – rolling it out with a wine bottle and slicing it into strips. Food here makes me wonder if my taste buds have been in hibernation. Each time I bite into a peach, slice of watermelon, plum, pear, apricot… I have to wash the juice from my chin. Prickly cucumbers, heavy tomatoes and twisted peppers grow outside my bedroom window. It’s delightful.

Yet, this is all a tremendous privilege. The ability to write these words is a privilege. I work hard, but I don’t work harder than many who are not as lucky as me. I also play. I’m trying to be kind and compassionate. I’m trying to read widely, understand humanity with all its flaws. I’m trying to catch myself before I judge people for their failings, for their looks, their weight, their passive lives or blind judgments. It’s difficult, but, as the Dalai Lama says, everyone seeks happiness and tries to avoid suffering. It’s nested in my mind, but it’s still the second thought – it’s a privilege I can think this way when so many others are trapped.

Even comparative to many of the people I wander past in the street at home, I feel lucky. I’ve watched my parents demonstrate a life of loving interdependence. A wonderful man cherishes me dearly. Friends openly love me, chastise me when I push boundaries and laugh with me over things that don’t matter, but really do. If I want to be alone, I’m alone. If I want company there are many people I can turn to who will reciprocate my incessant babble, and show appreciation for the connection. I neither worry about loneliness nor a lack of space. My only challenge is finding a balance.

Very little of my luck is caused by me. I’m a product of my family’s efforts and a society that priorities people who look and behave like I was instructed to look and behave. Genetics help too. I was born in the right place at the right time.

So does my luck imply a responsibility to do something with it? I’ve been set up for success. I’m educated and intelligent. I consider reading (fiction and non-fiction) and learning as not only valuable, but normal. I believe that my emotions are my responsibility, as is my mental and physical health and I act on that knowledge. I detest ‘supposed to’s and ‘shoulds’ but I can’t help feeling that this unfair privilege I behold is an opportunity of which it would be negligent of me to ignore.

Sure, there are people who are financially better off than I am, people who are more intelligent, people who are better writers, better artists, people who are more beautiful. That’s beside the point. I’ve already got more ability than I know what to do with. Similarly, I have many of my own battles to fight. If I want a house of my own, if I want to become a good writer, a good painter, I must dedicate my time to practice. Yet.

Sitting here on the veranda, I can’t help but think that it’s still rare, and a privilege, to have so much opportunity as to find it overwhelming.

Note on the image: I took the picture very quickly as I was walking down a street in the beautiful Tuscan town of Cortona. As a place to visit, Cortona is lovely, however it’s the abundance of art shops, with workbenches set out and in use, is what made it a really fascinating place for me. These little people were just there in the street, looking at me.

Warning, Thunder.

There’s about to be a thunderstorm. All afternoon, the sporadic faint rumbles have called our attention to the bright sky. In the sunshine, we raced the length of the swimming pool, played catch, sat reading and ate our lunch on the veranda. A few clouds appeared overhead and we laughed joyously, carefree.

The air becomes hot and muggy. The wind ripples through the trees and the sky darkens overhead. The Mother takes the crisp swimwear from the drying rack and puts it on one of the kitchen tables.

We wait for the theatrics to begin.

First the tall trees begin to dance. The fig, which overhangs the pool shower bends precariously. The oliver trees shimmer. We can walk on the patio without burning our feet and do so, with haste, to lower the umbrellas. In the wood pile the lizards hide. Above, in their nest the swallows – or birds that look like swallows – huddle together to wait out the storm. I lean back in the rocking chair.

The Mother looks around expecting to see rain, but there’s none yet. The sound she hears is the wind.

We drink tea on the veranda, so typically English in our Italian paradise, and wait. No worries, no urgency, nothing but everything.

Lightening strikes.


[Eventually, the fig tree snapped.]

Definitely Not Another Mission To A Monastery

On Wednesday, a woman asks for directions for the monastery and the waitress tells her that you can’t get to the monastery on foot. It’s too far.

On Wednesday, I point to the hill that looms over the beach and gently suggest how wonderful the view must be from the top.

On Wednesday, DeepThought says the hill is a very big hill, and not one that anyone should want to climb in this July heat.

I tell DeepThought that I’ve found a path that goes through a forest. He doesn’t believe me.

On Thursday, we watch the sunrise from the village and start walking towards a small abandoned theatre, which happens to be in the same direction as both the hill and the monastery. DeepThought finally believes me that there’s a forest once we’re surrounded by tall pine trees.

The map says the theatre is somewhere nearby, but there’s nothing here to suggest the map’s telling the truth. With caution, I enter the forest through an unmarked gate and wander along what I assume is a track. I’m really worried we’re trespassing on someone’s land when suddenly I see it below, the typical arch of a theatre. There’s not a huge amount remaining.

Behind the stage, the forest drops away into a deep ravine and through the gap in the trees we can see the deep blue of the ocean blur with the bright blue of the sky. It’s all rather tranquil and I can’t help but think how wonderful it is to be here instead of staring at a computer screen in an open office in a bustling English town.

I’m dancing around, taking photos, when I glance up and see a perfect small white house with a blue chimney hidden in the trees. According to the guide-book, this was once a thriving settlement. Now I half expect to be approached by an old woodcutter and a talking animal. I tell DeepThought I want that house. He points out the difficulty of getting here and the minor issues of electricity, sewage and internet.

We return to the main road, and keep walking. It’s only 7.30am, but it’s getting warm. The pine forest disappears and the landscape opens up. You can see the hillside right down to the narrow beaches and then nothing but shimmering blue. A cacophony of cow bells indicates we’re not alone, and I’m thrilled to see we’re sharing this hillside with baby goats.

DeepThought points out what might be tank tracks in the road. This will be more amusing to some readers than others.

At about 9am we reach a sign that points to a café, but we’re aware that the café is unlikely to be open at such an early hour. It can’t possibly have any visitors because in the previous two hours of steady walking we’ve passed four houses, two cars and a cyclist. The goats don’t count.

Instead, we turn to continue along the road up. We pass the sign saying that photography is prohibited and begin the steep climb wondering what’s so wrong about photographing a religious building. I complain that the guidebook had a photo of a white building with a blue roof.

We can’t see a white building with a blue roof.

After some time climbing upwards, and with a couple of pauses for more water, we come to a no entry sign. I reason that this no entry sign might be for vehicles as the road seems to be disintegrating around us.

A little while later we come across more stop signs and DeepThought wonders out-loud how peculiar it is to paint a monastery in camouflage and surrounding it with barbed wire. The radar tower isn’t super godly either.

We consult the map. DeepThought shares his disapproval. We walk down the hill, turn left and follow the signs to the café, which is, according to the map, within the ground of the monastery. We stride through an empty car park and follow the path down to a beautiful white building with a blue roof.

It’s locked, but the key hangs on the hook above the door. DeepThought looks at me with a frown as I unlock the door and step inside – but I’ve read the instructions in the guide-book.

Old religious stuff stares back down at me. DeepThought stands in the doorway whilst I admire the craftsmanship in the silver and gold which covers every wall. It’s all rather overwhelming. Such religious places strike me as both incredibly fascinating and a little unnerving. Maybe it’s my own pragmatic approach to religion?

We step back outside just in time for the man who runs the café to unlock the door. I’m nearly as overjoyed as when I saw the baby goats. We wait politely as the café owner goes through his rehearsed routine of sweeping the courtyard and wiping the tables. There is no rush.

I drink sweet Greek coffee. DeepThought has freshly squeezed orange juice. We debate religion and the role of spirituality in modern life. I’ve been reading Spinoza. We’re getting all philosophical when I suggest ice-cream for the journey. My choice is not really ice-cream but ice-yogurt, which is less sweet but beautifully creamy.

As we walk home we’re passed by quadbikes, mopeds and rental cars. They’re driven by bare-chested men or women in bikinis. They kick up the dust and the heat makes me sweat, but the view is just as stunning and most of the time there’s no traffic about.

Finally, back at Kefalos, we gorge ourselves on pizza. It’s only just past mid-day. Nearly siesta time.

Would you choose a banana and kiwi pizza?

Holidays for the Greek banks and I, but work for Lucy – Kos, Greece

Posted on - 4min

Lucy, the guard dog, who jumps up on the wall and barks as I pass, has a tail that swings from side to side with such excitement that I’m always sorry not to go pet her, yet, Lucy is a guard dog, chained up day and night outside our apartment. This is Greece, and the relationship of an Englishman and his loyal compatriot isn’t mimicked here. Lucy could be lovely. But do I really want to put our friendship to the test?

Lucy’s home is the hillside between the Greek village of Kefalos, where Hippocrates was born, and the beach. Kefalos used to be the capital of the island of Kos, until an earthquake persuaded many of the inhabitants to move east and form the imaginatively named Kos Town. Now it’s a gentle place, filled with cafés for the tourists and restaurants that close in the evening when the buses go home. It doesn’t heave with pleasant. Maybe the ‘economic situation’ has deterred some of the usual visitors, or maybe this place is normally slow of pace. Either way it’s a really nice place to be.

A Greek café owner sums up this village’s outlook. She points to the sea, down to the sandy beaches and up, round her at the marvelous brightness.

“Tourists come, for this, the tourists will still come. If they need a visa,” she shrugs and stamps her hand with an imaginary visa stamp. “They will get visa.”

Life goes on.

Yet, with the referendum happening on Sunday, this entire week is one long holiday for the banks. Money isn’t particularly difficult to come by if you’re using an international bank account. DeepThought managed to get some out of the village ATM. Hesitantly watching a holidaying lady wants cash – even if she doesn’t need it.

“Does it work?” she asks me before DeepThought had even managed to tap in his PIN. She assured me that she’d brought plenty of cash, but… Despite the calm there’s a slight tension amongst holiday makers as they arrive, a tension drummed up by the media. The ATM at the airport was empty.

It’s more challenging for the long-term tourists or the Greeks themselves. If you’re working with a Greek bank account, and some of the more permanent English women in the pizzeria were, you’re unable to retrieve more than 60 euro each day.

I’m reminded of my arguments about national pride by my sister. Can you also have national shame?

A young waiter, tells us of how when he was in New York, he worked one job. Here in Greece he works two. What he dreams of, trains for and spends his money to do is play football for an English club. The unemployment rate here (those looking for a job as a percentage of the labour force) is 25%. England’s is 5.5%.

I drink freshly squeezed orange juice and coffee. I eat a gorgeous, light chocolate cake. I have a cone of what looks like ice cream, but is actually frozen yogurt, filled with candied cherries. The sun makes me deliriously happy. I read the travel guide and it explains the tension between the all-inclusive resorts with their captive audience, and the small business owners. All inclusive resorts reduce inefficiencies and require a smaller workforce.

There’s so much sun, so much light I wonder how different this current crisis would be in the depths of winter when depression is so much easier to come by. The heat though can frustrate tempers. I’m in a bubble. The tourist’s bubble of a small village on a quiet island that’s focused on enabling me to enjoy myself.

I drink cocktails and eat more cake.

The path from the village that takes us back to our apartment runs adjacent to Lucy’s garden. Enigmatically pleased to see us, Lucy jumps up on the wall and barks excitedly, her tail wagging like a windmill. As we get closer, she lays down on the wall and I stop to take her photo. She doesn’t seem to mind. Then, suddenly, between the wagging and a full body-shaking sneeze, Lucy falls off the wall.

Her chain pulls her collar tight.

Lucy’s chain is attached to a wire that runs between two trees in the garden. It means she can run the length of the yard quite happily, but she’s restricted to the bounds of the garden. She can’t get over the wall to the path.

Yet now she’s the wrong side of the wall and her head’s against the wall. She’s pinned by the chain. Her front paws touch the ground, but only just. It she wanted to turn and try to scramble up, I’m not sure she could.

I stop photographing and put my camera on the ground. Lucy might be lovely, or she might not be. I watch her very carefully as I approach, she’s still a Greek outdoor guard dog, and having lived in Italy for a few months and heard terrifying tales of outdoor guard dogs, I’m weary of her.

She can’t stay like this though, so, with great care I put both arms around her body, and steadily heave her back onto the wall. Her tail wags faster than ever.

Iceland: Dark and white; hot and cold

Dark and white. That’s how I’m going to remember Iceland.

11am in Reykjavík.

Cloud hung over Reykjavík all week; we had only occasional glimpses of the stars or the moon. Yet the cloud was a continual grey abyss. The moon, shone brightly, just as it does through my skylight at home in the middle of the night when I’m trying to sleep, but this was half nine in the morning. We shared the breakfast table with a tea light.

One moment, the air would be clear. The next instant a storm would saturate the sky drowning everything in white snow. The mountains across the bay disappeared to such an extent that when I told the Father there were mountains across the water he assured me that I was wrong, he said the only thing out there was the cold North Atlantic and in the far distance, Greenland.

As the snow cleared I was proved right. Yet I only knew this because I’d seen the phenomenon a few days earlier when the Midget and I had fought our was back along the coastal path home, unable to determine what was path and what was road.

Amazingly, 90 degrees and no more than 3 minutes from the picture in the previous post.

Except where the geniuses had placed under-floor heating beneath the pavements. This might seem excessive, but hot water in Iceland is magic. Electricity and heating are super cheap because of the magic the scientists and engineers generate out of the powerful tear of the tectonic plates (2cm per year). In Iceland, electricity bills are at a flat rate, so Icelanders keep their twinkle lights on all day and all winter.

Under-floor heating.

The Midget delighted in having super-hot showers for as long as she liked, guilt free.

The Blue Lagoon.

Showers aren’t the only way to enjoy all this amazing hot water. Swimming pools in Iceland are in their high twenties (Celsius), but this is nothing compared to a 40 degree thermal bath.

Have you ever been to Iceland, if so, what did you think?

Too much coffee. Too much cake.

Burger Recipe. Poland, 2014

I’m sat in a café with a goat beanie baby drinking tea – it’s Assam as anything that remotely tastes of what I’d call normal (Yorkshire tea or Lapsang Souchong) isn’t sold this side of the channel.

My coffee limit has been reached. Not particularly today, I’ve had one cup, but in general over the last two weeks. Tea’s a lighter welcome refreshment.

The overdose of coffee is part of a bigger problem. My entire diet is a disaster.

It begins with breakfast. I don’t fancy meat and cheese first thing in the morning. When we stay in places that offer a complimentary breakfast I’m overwhelmed and just drink more coffee, sometimes orange juice and eat the fruit.

When there’s no breakfast options then a trip to the nearest bakery for croissants and coffee is in order, and I’m not sure that this rates positively on the healthy scale, even if it tastes good.

When we’re self-catering, i.e. a hostel with kitchen or an apartment, then cereal is an option. Of course we can’t carry a cereal box around with us, but cereal comes in minuscule boxes anyway. Small enough that between two of us we can finish a box in three days.

There is little variety in the cereal sold here. And I feel the basic normal cereals are the ones that are missing. If you want something that’s soaked in chocolate and has a picture of a cartoon astronaut you’ll be fine. If you want something with the most minimal number of calories you’ll also have no problem. If you want normal cereal you’re screwed.

We’re darting between city centres so corner shops replace the supermarkets (although there was an underground Aldi in Vienna), this accounts for the lack of shelf space, but mostly I think the problem is that cereal isn’t revered like it is in my house at home where it’s bought 15 boxes at a time.

Meals that aren’t breakfast come under one of three types:
1. Ones we cook or make. Pasta with vegetables or bread cheese and salami.
2. Ones we eat at restaurants. Pizza or local dishes like gnocchi, veal stew or goulash.
3. Cake or pastries.

Three meals a day can therefore look like: croissant, pizza, cake.

Of course we also have snacks. Sometimes cake, but there are also Spar’s budget cereal bars (the banana one really is very bananary), strawberry and cream flavoured sweets originally bought in Hungary and rather unappetising butter flavoured crisps.

We had chocolate but that lasted all of ten minutes.

What food do you miss when you’re away?