Location Italy

Life is the result of living

Piggies, Italy, October 2021

When I was a teenager, when we were told to begin thinking about our careers, when some large chap with a grinning face mistook his job in careers advice for that of a motivational coach and mistook me for someone without an imagination, when all that happened and the computer spewed out that my ambition in life should be to teach design and technology, I already knew what I liked: I liked sunshine, books and people who were nice to me.

The careers advisor, I believe, saw the design and technology teacher suggestion as a bit of a disappointment; he was on a mission to make me aim higher. The process involved typing personality traits into the computer, hitting enter and then receiving a list dictating what one should want to be… Personally, I think the computer was doing the best it could within the limited selection of jobs available within its database. The algorithm lacked imagination, but that wasn’t its fault. The careers advisor also lacked imagination. He wanted something more exciting for the centre piece of his motivational coach routine, so, because I seemed good at studying, he thought I ought to become an academic.

I have never responded well to a pep talk. I would make a bad academic.


And as I write this, the pandemic is coming to its close. I still keep a mask in my handbag, but as long as I give my cents directly to the waiter or waitress in the café where I have my breakfast, I normally don’t need to use it. It’s sunny here in the south of Italy, where I have escaped, like a bird, free from the cage, landing on a familiar branch to reorientate itself in the world again. Today I have immersed myself in books, seated in the sunshine. I’ve scribbled in my diary whilst drinking a cappuccino. Today’s waiter, a cheerful lad with the lowest voice I have ever heard, guessed my order, knowing me to be mightily predictable, and I replied in first Spanish and then Italian, which is one language fewer than the other day. His trousers were rather short, apparently showing off one’s ankles is the fashion for Italian young men. Ankle socks no more.

“Having a nice holiday?”

No, because I am not on holiday. This is my life. It’s an uncluttered life, one where I live out of a suitcase. It’s easily mistaken for a holiday as many people have holidays with characteristics similar to my life, holidays that involve sunshine and ice cream and smiling at the sheer wonder of existence, but I’ve no tour guide leading me around and I cook more often than I eat out. I might be found staring at the ceiling of the basilica, but I’m also found buying toilet rolls in the supermarket. I have classes to teach this afternoon.

And all this that I have is something that with his good-natured expression and his insistence that I aim higher, the career’s advisor couldn’t conceive. The computer couldn’t get it either, although it recognised that I’m inclined to teach. Both created a gap, work, and then endeavoured to correctly fill it. Yet, as a curious and social human being I’m possessed of an inner determination to give to my community and to partake in it. Work gives life meaning but being told what to do tends to take that meaning away.

I’m teaching the locals to count in English with use of the game ‘piggies’. People who were at my sibling’s wedding reception will know exactly what I mean. How I ended up filling up my piggies score sheets with Italian pensioners…. I am not quite sure. They have never tossed pigs whilst drinking their morning espressini before and are delighted.

Show don’t tell – simple writerly advice. The things that are really worthwhile never require pep talks.


The pandemic has, in many ways, been good for me. The antagonist forces the protagonist to grow. A friend recently said that my stubbornness ought to be studied. I feel like this time, this fight, I have fought with dignity and finesse. I have been patient, incredibly patient, and yet I have kept a narrow focus on what is important to me. There has been relatively little tantrum throwing, few toys shoved out the pram, and I’ve only occasionally stamped my foot. Any doubts I had about what I wanted to do with my life have been eroded away. My plans, while always moving, have had a long-term focus.

The fact that my life doesn’t exist in an algorithm, or in the imagination of any careers advisor, doesn’t really matter. Life isn’t about doing what you’re told to do. It’s not about jumping through societies golden hoops (or iron hoops for some). Life is the result of living.

Settled down

Sunrise somewhere between England and Italy, September, 2021

Many people have ideas about what I might want or what would be good for me. My grandmother believes I would be happier if I settled down. I agree, I just have a different definition of settled down. My settled down does not involve owning a property. It does not involve being stationary, it involves being comfortable in knowing who I am so that when I make a decision I do so with a sense that my feet are grounded on the Earth. It involves having a firm understanding of my roots, knowing where I come from and how I fit within the bigger picture of our globalized society. It involves knowing where my privilege originated, recognizing that even being able to type these words is a gift. It means recognizing my responsibilities. It means putting effort into continuing my loving relationships within my family and long-term friends. It involves not being manipulated by fears of the past, or illusions of the future, but being comfortable in who I am, here, now, today.

Settled down also refers to kitchens and the domestic world, the world where women have historically found themselves spending rather a lot of time. Being itinerant doesn’t mean I’m not domesticated. I might not own a kitchen, but I’m a reasonable cook, I can sew a button on, turn up a hem, sew masks or create a skirt and I can even darn. The Mother has performed her duties to society admirably: my training is complete.* If they certified domestic skills, I’d have a shiny piece of paper to frame. I’m so domesticated that I keep stain remover and a muslin cloth in my suitcase. I am capable of running a household. But does any of this exclude me running my household of one from a variety of kitchens all over the world. Do I really need to own my own saucepans?

But settled down has another meaning. My sister is teaching her new puppy to settle himself down quickly. He has to be able to travel, to go in the car, to be taken on holiday, into cafés and pubs, into strange environments, and in all of these he has to be able to settle himself, be calm and behave. Sobrino, my name for my sibling’s puppy, needs to be able to generate a sense of security and safety from within. He will always be more watchful when away from his familiar surroundings, but he’ll be in contact with humans who love him, and he’ll have learnt to trust in the world on which he depends. His security does not come from his cuddly dragon toy or any other of his possessions, but from the relationships and faith he is developing in the people who care for him.

Familiarity is reassuring, but we shouldn’t mistake familiar for good. There are many things we are familiar with which will be good for us, and there are many familiar things which we don’t spend much time questioning, and which unfortunately are harmful. Familiar can make us feel settled because it’s predictable.

Sobrino will have to accept that sometimes his life is restricted and sometimes that he can’t have what he wants, and the structure itself will help create a non-stressful home, yet to make this a good home, a happy and healthy home, my siblings are putting in a lot of work to critically consider Sobrino’s well-being. They are not merely leaving things up to habit. There is a plan, there are strategies and sometimes hard work. Sobrino is an adorable puppy, but he mustn’t be cuddled all the time. He must also learn his independence. He has to learn to settle himself down regardless of his environment. I’m sure it’s sometimes hard for my siblings to ignore his big, soulful eyes asking for adoration.

My family possess many habits among them which are the way that they do things, and these habitual actions (or moments of inaction) are also how they most frequently hurt one another. I think this is the same in all families. Sometimes patterns of behaviour might serve one generation in one circumstance, but then they are taught to the next, and the next, and the next without being assessed for their actual value. I recall a conversation with the mother about my tendency to have unhelpful emotional outbursts (I use unhelpful here in the most British of understatements). Being wise, the Mother suggested that my outbursts had a resemblance to some of her own, which, luckily for us all, were tamer than my Nonna’s, whom she believed had been tame compared to my great-grandmother. Having travelled, it occurs to me that in another culture, such a display of emotion might be looked on much more favourably than the dangerous silence on the topic of emotions inherent in other parts of my family (which I have also managed to inherit). Circumstances change, and sometimes our habits stop serving us. We grow, and habits stop serving us.

Being settled into our relationships, our environments and our habits reduces the chance that we will critically review how we behave. Doing things just because that’s the way that things are done leads to complacency and a blindness towards each other’s needs. Personally, I think there are times that we are all too settled, too complacent, too used to a hiccup-free life. It’s easy for me to say though, I have fewer responsibilities and hence more freedom to change up the rhythm of my routines. I think that evaluating your habits is much easier away from your own culture because you run into people who point out your habits and ask, “Why?”

To move away from a place we call ours allows us a better sense of our true identity but at the same time distracts us from self-reflection; to sit at a steadfast point helps us unveil that identity in communion with the numinous but also renders the task impossible by blinding us to what defines us in the surrounding, tangible world. We must move to meet those others who provide the shifting mirrors by means of which we piece together our self-portrait.

Alberto Manguel, The Library of the Wandering Jew, A Reader on Reading

My theory is this: To see, we need to engage in critical analysis, we need comparison points and diverse role models that demonstrate alternative options. We benefit from advice from a variety of sources. Books help; teachers help; coming into conflict with the results of our mistakes helps too. But, to be, we also need stability, the arms of those who love us, the trust that what we feel is true and that we belong somewhere, to some tribe, to some people, some community. It’s only with both insight into ourselves and a sense of cohesion through our stable relationships that we learn who we are.

And then we need to be brave enough to make decisions as to how we want to grow.

Which leads me to consider how my freedom to be selfish, to choose to do things in a manner which fits with my individual taste is rather unusual. Historically, decisions were more collaborative. Society worked with the family as the building block. Maybe the man might make some decisions and the woman other decisions, but the overall choice of what any individual could do was much more limited. Generations lived, if not in the same house, in the same street. Your many siblings surrounded you and would saddle you with their children for a while. Children were not a decision, but a consequence of us being human. Survival took up a lot of time and energy. Options were fewer. Whereas my family and friends generally do not try to interfere in my decisions. People hesitate to give any advice further than linking me documentation for border controls and visa applications and stressing that I ought to take care.

My parents erroneously believe that if they tell me not to do something, I will be compelled to do it. I don’t actually have much of a compulsion for high-risk activities. I’m not particularly drawn towards an adrenaline rush. I like being calm, settled with an easy-going existence. I like my routines and my steady rhythm. I love hiking, as long as the most special equipment I’ll need is a pair of sturdy boots. I’m not drawn to danger for the sake of danger. I hate horror films and think jumping out of a plane is absurd. And yet, people fascinate me, most especially when they’re at ease, acting naturally, within their own communities. People of all ages, with their different backgrounds, with their different religions, different assumptions, different conversations. Hence whilst my life is, in some respects, incredibly settled, it thrives on movement and change. For me, these aren’t opposites. Right now, writing from Italy and wearing the jumper my sister knitted me, my life feels pretty settled.

* After receiving feedback, I would like to clarify that I am not stating that the Mother taught me to sew. Merely, in her traditional social role of mother, that she assured it happened. The Father also taught me domestic skills. The Mother definitely taught me to darn. The Grandmother taught me to use a sewing machine.

On Solitude

Martina Franca, Italy, 2021

It’s Grandpere’s fault, really. He was the one pouring the wine, conversing about religion and attempting to share his wisdom; he was the one who confuddled my mind with his counterintuitive beliefs and suggested that I read Jung. Jung, whose name I daren’t pronounce because my tongue fights my brain, and it always comes out wrong. It took some time, but eventually, when I was living in Chile, I did read The Essential Jung: Selected Writings and I knew Grandpere had been right.

Such individuals as Jung, who wrote some time ago and whose thoughts are often bound in the language of their field, a field which has developed since they were writing, can be a bit tricky to read. But the book I read was compiled and introduced by Anthony Storr, who made Jung’s writings accessible, giving a context for the development of the idea, an explanation amid the confusion, and holding out a guiding hand so that one was never lost for long.

Hence, when I came across his book, Solitude, I recognized the name Anthony Storr. I didn’t hesitate to make the purchase. It, after all, promised to provoke thought, or that seductive act of thinking, the peeling back, the scrying in the mirror, the steady pondering, the feeling of achieving insight without doing anything or going anywhere. In other words, his was a book written to cater to that need I have, which Grandpere recognized in me, to build complexity within my mind.

As much as being a book about solitude, it was a book about creativity. Imagination, that most precious gift, flows in the space of solitude. Precious, and dangerous. We also fear our imaginations. So frequently do they get carried away and led us into fantasies we should not give credence, and so well they hook us, pull us deep; they tangle our emotions and create a font of uncertainty, where reality and experience blur with dream. Anxieties feed on imagined fears: the preoccupation that someone we care about might judge us as lesser than we would like; that our actions may be seen as quirks; that we may be being tolerated rather than loved; that somehow a minute mistake, like the flap of a butterfly’s wing, might lead to the crumbling of our walls.

We take reality and believe it as fragile as imagination.

But to imagine can be to heal, to believe in a possibility which is beyond the current circumstance, to realize that each moment is transient, that it too will pass, to see that everything around us continues to evolve, to change, to come and go and that there is hope. Storr frequently refers to creatives, who drew sustenance from their solitude, who turned away from the crowd and into themselves to find the order they could not find elsewhere. How frightening, perhaps?

I can hear it sometimes in people’s voices, the urge to connect, to communicate and envelop myself within society. And this makes me laugh. I wonder what terrible thing will happen by my not speaking to a soul for a few hours. Maybe I will disintegrate? I laugh because I do not think myself shy, and although I can come across as sometimes unsure, this is more frequently because I am slow adjusting to a new culture or the dynamics of a varied social group, or the speed of the language flowing back and forth that hits me like a jet.

There are many people who are afraid of striking up conversations, concerned that they might be rejected in some form, or cross an invisible social line they cannot see. They become paralysed in their seats, uncertain of how to introduce themselves. Filled with adrenaline, they might rush through the preliminaries and stumble into silence. All of this is true for me. I might ask the wrong question. I might mispronounce a name. I might give off the wrong impression. Or maybe interrupt something I shouldn’t. Away from the English world, I start sentences I cannot end and fail to understand the answers to the questions I ask.

Thankfully, I don’t seem to care very much. I love people. I love my friends, my family, the students who fill my days with their entertaining conversation, the chap in the grocery store who is teaching me the names of the vegetables, the waitress in the café who insists there are better things than croissants, the Senegalese woman who asks for my money, but shows more gratitude for my asking where she calls home than the coin I give. I love a life full of people, full of conversation. But I also love solitude.

I love reading books which tear at the heart, composing sentences of my own, placing words together and weaving a line. I love listening to classical music I don’t understand and wandering unknown streets. I love sitting on park benches painting in my sketchbook and time alone in a café, notebook in hand, taking the time to reflect and compose my life so that it’s the life I want to lead.

I love solitude, and I need solitude, and with solitude in my life, I feel more loving.  

Anthony Storr wrote a long book. He talked about Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung and Isaac Newton and Henry James. But he ended with the idea that:

The happiest lives are probably those in which neither interpersonal relationships nor impersonal interests are idealized as the only way to salvation.

Solitude, Anthony Storr

I cherish both, but to build the skills I want to build, I need the concentration and the space that solitude provides. I need the freedom to go deep, to focus free from everyday distraction. And then I’ll pour that glass of wine, rustle up a meal to share, and with laughter and joy be that social being I also am.

Drifting along through my Italian daydream

Martina Franca, Apulia, Italy. September 2021

Church bells ring for mass, and it seems that people heed their call. Past my window the footfall is generally infrequent, but for a few minutes, there’s a rush, with almost everyone heading in the same direction. I listen to the bells and watch the people, surprised at the activity. I’m struck by the sense of community. It’s nearly time for places to open up, but the chef, wearing his chequered trousers, is playing cards in the park.

The way everyone moves in sync reminds me of Murcia. I observe the rhythm of the street: older ladies staggering along with bags of vegetable in the morning, flat-shoed German tourists staring at guidebooks, Italian women striding past them in their heels, then by afternoon, the streets are pretty much dead, until evening comes with children playing in the streets in spotless trainers and the city wakes up.

You have to learn the unsaid schedule if you don’t want to spend your entire time being disappointed. In Murcia you could identify the foreign tourists by the way they didn’t obey the ritual of the city. They walked on the wrong side of the street, not knowing how to avoid the intense rays of the lunchtime sun. They looked for lunch when everyone was eating breadsticks, and ice-cream when everyone was eating lunch. They were constantly confused and, for the most part, oblivious to the social system. The Italians in England have similar problems. They can’t understand where to get a real lunch in a country that only sells tea and cake and find it weird that the shops shut at 5. To be fair, I’m with them on this one – it’s terribly inconvenient when you stop to think about it.

Drifting along through my Italian daydream, I follow the lights to the town centre, and I’m met with boutique shops and rows of restaurants where people sit, sipping cocktails and eating olives. My head in a spin. People speak to me in Italian and although I sometimes understand them, I can’t respond in Italian. In fact, I fail to respond in English. I automatically find my mouth brimming with Spanish and the words tumble out incoherently much to my frustration. There’s a fight going on in my mind. My thoughts seem to happen languagelessly and then splinter, different words finding different ways of expression. Sometimes people understand. Most of the time they have no idea what’s happening. I think of the trilingual three-year-old I once looked after back when I was an au-pair, and her insistence that I didn’t speak English because when she spoke to me, I didn’t understand. She was speaking Catalan; she just didn’t know it.

Now I understand. Now I can empathise.

I treat myself to pizza. I’ve been awake for way too many hours and I’m hungry. The waiter uses a mobile phone to scan my vaccine pass, which is very 2021, but ‘we don’t pay like that’ is the response to me brandishing my money card. I assume it’s the thick stone walls, but I’m a suddenly aware that I’m going to be going to a cashpoint for the first time since leaving Chile. Later, when I find a cashpoint, it’s run out of small notes.

Learning as comfort: Crivelli, Botticelli y perspectiva lineal

Italy
Just one of those beautiful Tuscan sunsets. April 2012. Italy.

Winter has come. Outside there’s a blue sky and it looks deceptively like summer, but a bird sits on the branch of a bush, which bobs in the breeze, and one by one picks off the red berries.

And the underfloor heating in my bedroom has sprung into life.

I collect the glass milk bottles from beside the door and chat with my grandparents a short while on the phone. My first coffee is decaffeinated, but my second isn’t. I place my bum determinedly on my chair and click to play the video which constitutes the next step of the course I’m doing. It would be surprising if I wasn’t studying something. My brain is comfortable when engaged in study. I like how my awareness feels like it’s expanding, but without that panicked style ‘must learn’ of formal education.

Learning is comforting

It used to bother me that instead of remembering facts I just stored a bunch of vague ideas in my brain, but with time I’ve become more forgiving of my inability to recall specifics. I have intelligent friends who have remarkable memories and can store endless names, dates and details in their heads with immaculate precision. I’m not like that. If I do recall details, I have to admit that they are often not accurate details. If I ever start a sentence with a statistic, you should roll your eyes in response. It will inevitably be wrong.

Sometimes though, I feel that, for me, vague ideas are more useful

What I find fulfilling is knowing of ideas and themes that allow me to listen to conversations and connecting them to my knowledge and understanding of the world. I like walking into a museum or gallery and having a sense that the material is something I’m a little familiar with – regardless of what type of museum or gallery it might be.

This time I’m taking on the world of Renaissance Art… in Spanish

As I listen to the short lecture, I scribble down the words I don’t know (arrodillarse, adecuar, afán, pliegar, la orilla…) and after it has run through, I complete the comprehension questions. These throw more words (martires) at me but I understand enough to answer the questions, and when I don’t I look the words up.

The Annunciation, Botticelli (Alessandro di Mariano Filipepi) (Italian, Florence 1444/45–1510 Florence), Tempera and gold on wood
Sandro Botticelli, The Annunciation,
Robert Lehman Collection, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA (Public Domain CC0)

Thankfully, the context is one that I can understand

Even if I don’t recall dates or names, I have by now read enough art gallery walls to recognize some core characteristics in Renaissance Art. One of the three paintings in today’s video is Botticelli’s Mars and Venus which can be found in the National Gallery in London. His ‘The Annunciation’ can be found in New York, which means I can’t have seen it, although I may have seen photos. Yet something niggles at me.

I’ve seen a similar image, somewhere…

The Annunciation, with Saint Emidius - Carlo Crivelli - National Gallery.jpg
Carlo Crivelli, The Annunciation, with Saint Emidius, The National Gallery, London, United Kingdom (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

Eventually, after frustrated searching, I discover an artist called Carlo Crivelli. I don’t recall his name, but his painting of the annunciation hangs in the National Gallery in London and I must have seen it because the Botticelli version looks like a similar yet simplified version of the same image. The two artists were contemporaries. The more I look at it, the more I know I’ve seen it before.

Beside Crivelli’s painting, on the wall of the gallery, I believe was a detailed description of the techniques the artist had used for creating a sense of perspective. Linear perspective wasn’t something new to me; understanding its role in renaissance art was. Botticelli of course being a contemporary Italian artist was engaged in the same challenges as Crivelli and experimented with the same techniques. And such techniques were what set the early renaissance art as being different to what had come before it.

And as my toes warm on my heated carpet, I have to delight that my mind can be playful like that.

Even if next week I’ll have forgotten the painters’ names.

On Solitude

The valley. Yes, that’s the Mediterranean down there. Sicily, November 2016.

The heavy rain that woke me this morning ceases and is replaced by fine droplets,  barely visible to the eye, but there’s a quivering in the light between my window and the dark hedge telling me that it’s still falling. The sky is the sort that photographers detest. It’s one solid pale grey block. It’s not that it lacks character, dull can be a character trait too, but it’s so consistent that it gives nothing to draw the eye. There’s no spontaneity. The rain will keep falling and the sky will stay grey and not even the wild cat will show up today. She’ll be hiding somewhere safe and dry.

Last week, curled up in my father’s rocking chair in front of the roaring fire, I felt a sudden pull of nostalgia for the two weeks I spent in the south of Sicily. It was the fire that did it. I stayed in Sicily, near a town called Noto at the end of November in 2016 and although during the day there was frequently warm sunshine, in the evenings the temperature suddenly dropped. We had no central heating and the electricity was limited. If it had been sunny in the morning, we might get enough energy through the solar panel to run the washing machine, but dinner would have to be eaten by candlelight.

For some, such an environment might feel somewhat limiting, but for me it was a remarkable moment of quiet. A quiet that I desperately needed. In the evenings I’d take a book from the library and curl up in one of the guest bedrooms where I’d light a fire in the wood burning stove and contentedly read, write or stare at the flickering flames. Contentedly alone.

Staring at our fire here, lit because the windows had to be propped open as they’d just been varnished, I couldn’t help but think about Sicily and the perfectness of those quiet, solitary evenings.

Some people, I know, hate being alone. It makes them uncomfortable. They actively avoid solitude. I’m not sure what it is they fear or dislike about being alone with themselves, and I guess it’s something I’ll never quite understand, but still they talk of being alone with great distaste. Other people cling to their isolated-ness as an identity. As if somehow being able to survive being with themselves somehow makes them not need a thriving active social life. I fall into neither category. It’s the combination of quiet moments of solitude and comfortable connection with people I love that make me thrive.

That evening, in front of our fire, I picked up my Sicilian diary from the bookshelf and flicked through it, wondering what I had written about. I’m not sure what I expected, maybe that my diary would be me writing all about me. That I’d be self-pitying or excessively analytical. It wasn’t. In my diary I write about the flames, how the logs burnt and the heat warmed my skin, I quote passages from the books I’m reading and muse upon the writer’s thoughts. There’s a long paragraph where I’m sitting out on the patio in the sunshine watching a lizard devouring a grasshopper, I record the battle with an obsessive fascination which falls into a contemplation of the act of dying and how the grasshopper fought back.

Page after page, I write about the steam in the shower and the sun on my skin. I write about arguing with a god I don’t believe in. I write about the beat of the hammer falling in the yard of the villa the far end of the valley where a Sicilian man laboured.

And I’m not normally the nostalgic type, but sometimes when life is busy all around me, I think of the incredible quiet that I felt those few days in Sicily. And I long to go back to it.

Here, meanwhile, the rain continues to fall.

A beautiful morning

By Posted on Location: 2min read
A tiny little shrine to Mary I found in the forest during a walk on Sunday afternoon.
A tiny little shrine to Mary I found in the forest during a walk on Sunday afternoon.

This morning I didn’t run across the park, barefoot, in my pyjamas, chasing a small dog who had managed to pull open the front door and make his bid for freedom. This morning I didn’t put the Italian moka on the stove top, turn on the heat and then get distracted, downstairs, looking at Instagram, only to hear the whoosh as the coffee brewing came to completion, and so I didn’t have to dash back upstairs in fear of ruining my Italian family’s first coffee of the day.

This morning has gone somewhat smoother.

No. This morning I sat on the stool at the end of the breakfast counter, the odd one, the extra one, the one normally reserved for guitar playing, and I sipped my coffee and drew pictures of animals as requested by the six-year-old. He taught me the Italian, I taught him the English.

Now when I’m asked if I speak Italian I say, “Si, parlo Italiano, ma solo gli animali e le vedure.”

I’m getting pretty good at animals. This morning I learnt the name for a kiwi (bird) and a koala. I feel I may also remember them.

Kiwi = Kiwi

Koala = Koala

And now I’m sat out on the veranda, hiding from the sunshine, smelling of sun-cream and listening to the birds twitter along whilst provide the percussion with my typing.

A beautiful morning.

Can I play too?

By Posted on Location: 2min read
A yellow bike on a yellow wall in Verona on the way to my new Italian home.
A yellow bike on a yellow wall in Verona on the way to my new Italian home.

I’m babysitting. I guess that’s the best word for it because if I say I’m an au pair it suggests that I’m doing a lot more than I actually am. Either way, whatever the terminology that you choose to use, this afternoon it’s me and an Italian kid.

It seems we’re surprisingly similar: both independent and introverted. The kid’s got a powerful sense of focus, such that I can imagine most adults envying him. I watch him play with his lego. He follows the instructions with impeccable attention to detail. He rarely makes a mis-step.

What’s clear however, is that he’s going to do this on his own. He was reluctant to let me even open the packet, let alone touch his bricks. But I can understand. When I’m working on a project I often find interference terribly frustrating. I also hate asking for help.

However, when you’re in this position of watching over a kid, and preferably bonding with said kid, you rather want them to play with you. Nobody likes not being wanted as a play companion, least of all the new babysitter who doesn’t speak the language and is reliant on the kid, who knows a handful of English words, to say when he needs anything.

So I spent a good long while in this predicament. I know the pleasure of peace and quiet and time to play alone, but as the responsible adult I want to be responding to something.

The good news was that the kid, who’s terribly polite, didn’t seem to have any objection to me being around. There’s no crying for an absent parent or telling me to go away. If anything, he mostly seemed mildly bemused by me.

To satisfy my need to parent, I found ways to make myself useful. I got him a drink – I don’t want the parents coming home and the kid complaining of a headache. I sliced an apple and gave it to him. He ate it quietly, whilst continuing with his lego. I sat on the sofa and read my book.

And then, a few hours later, he suddenly decided that he wanted attention. The change was remarkable. Suddenly he wanted to go outside and play football with me.

Football? Yes! Something I can do!

This is perhaps not how other people plan travels.

train travel on a ferry
This was the train from Naples to Catania. It took a ferry to cross from the mainland to Sicily which amused me more than taking a plane.

Often, I’m asked where I start when I’m planning my travels

When you’re thinking about travelling it’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the options. I’m lucky, in that now I have done some travelling, and met people from all over, I can build trips around visiting people I care about seeing again. There are a few other factors that orientate me within a plan. Primarily, I’m currently keeping to Europe. There’s a lot in Europe, and since I’m a young naïve woman who travels mostly alone, Europe is where I’ve decided I can push the edges of my comfort zone without jumping overboard.

This post demonstrates some of the whimsical thinking that goes on behind my travel planning.

A friend invited me to go stay with them during their spring holidays when the university is closed

Without really thinking about it, I said yes. She’s up in Finland and although I’ve driven as far as Sweden, I’ve never been to Finland. Ignoring how cold Finland is in March, it seems like an excellent idea. After all, I’ve never been to her town; I hadn’t heard of it until she moved there to study.

The two of us met in Sicily working as carpenters and have written to one another regularly ever since.

Another friend invited me skiing

I said yes despite never having been skiing before and knowing nothing about skiing. I’m sure I’ll learn, and I know I’ll have a great time since the friend in question is the sort of friend who has me giggling and chatting until the early hours of the next day – and it’s always about wondrous trivia and calamitous romances whilst eating much too much chocolate. She’s so accepting of me, and non-judgemental, that I find myself feeling comfortable even when I’m saying the most ridiculous of things, and this is despite our strong, differing opinions on odd socks. Skiing is in Austria. I’ve got new gloves, but I still need some good socks to keep my toes warm, I’ll need them for Finland anyway.

Paris is one of those cities I wish to see more of

And since another dear friend is starting work in Paris very soon, it would be a waste not to visit her and her partner and their sofa-bed to celebrate their move. I’m already imaging us in a Parisian patisserie, my mouth already watering. Then there’s the art galleries that I haven’t spent nearly enough time in and the streets which require some aimless wandering.

Which is the basis of the odd framework for my next trip (next big trip)

Which I’ve then bulked out with more whimsical intention. Since I’m going to Finland, I figured Estonia’s capital Tallinn is on the way. I read something about Tallinn long ago in a book, which I then promptly forgot, but which has managed to lodge an odd bead of curiosity in my mind. Then I learnt about the Singing Revolution which started in Tallinn in 1988 and which is the sort of thing I wish I’d been taught about in school.

It’s often entirely on gut feeling that I start off my plans for visiting places or seeing things. A painting in an art gallery can be a catalyst for my spending three months in one village in Northern Spain. A friend’s postcard spent too long staring at me and I had to go see the original again. It doesn’t take much to get me inspired, but when there’s a travel idea in my mind it takes root and won’t budge until I’ve followed it through. I’ve been to the same ice-cream shop in Italy on at least three, but probably four, entirely separate trips. All this goes to show that motivation is a complex topic. To me it feels whimsical, but simultaneously like the most obvious common sense.

Latvia and Lithuania happen to be between here and Estonia

Although I’ve been to a fair few European countries, I’ve not been to either. Lithuania particularly caught my attention because of a tour I did through Warsaw last May. From 1569 to 1795 Poland and Lithuania were joined in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which at its largest also contained Latvia, that odd extra bit of Russia, a bit of Estonia, considerable amounts of Ukraine and a tiny bit of Moldova. This commonwealth was notable for its quasi-democratic government and tolerance of religious differences.

Managing the logistics of this trip requires the full application of my analytical mind. Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital, is proving an interesting challenge to get to. It has a train line that only seems linked to the rest of the world during weekends (look up Rail Baltica I). The main problem seems to be a lack of standardisation of gauge. With EU funding, this part of the world is slowly becoming more connected.

I don’t know when I decided that I was going to do the whole lot by train

I think it was when I started considering the number of planes it would take to get back and forth: England to Helsinki, Helsinki north, back to Helsinki, off to Austria… It feels excessive and I’m not in a rush. Plus, leaving the obvious planet saving point aside, I prefer trains to planes. Often, the view out of the window is better. In a plane you get a breath-taking view on take-off and landing, and occasionally when the clouds clear as you’re passing over the Alps or along a stunning coastline. Most of the time though, what you see is cloud and often. Lots of cloud. And clouds are impressive, but not necessarily any better than passing through a quaint little village station. The windows are bigger on trains, and people rarely try to sell you a glass nail file for more money than you’ve spent on your entire lunch. On the Berlin to Warsaw train you get a free cup of coffee.

I also find trains soothing

There’s something about the motion of the train that has a calming effect on me. As long as you avoid the busy trains, and frantic crowds, you can have an easy afternoon, not doing a lot, just watching the world go by.

Writing, and reading, on trains I find comes easily to me. It’s like the motion of the train sets my mind moving. When I’m in a new place learning how to fit in and ideally create a temporary sense of belonging, then I often don’t pause long enough to get my thoughts and feelings and all that stuff I’m reflecting on scribbled out. A train can, in its own peculiar way, be a place of pause and sanctuary.

What’s your favourite way to travel?

The Land Where Lemons Grow by Helena Attlee

By Posted on Location: 2min read
Sicilian lemon grove
Lemon trees in Sicily. Many of the traditional lemon groves are abandoned because maintaining them is labour intensive.

Next time I pass through Savona, I need to stop and find myself a candied chinotti. It’s a type of citrus fruit used in the perfume industry and candied in panettone.

I told a friend that I was reading a book about the history and farming of citrus fruits in Italy. He laughed. But the more you see a land, the more you want to understand it. It helps that the book flows with a personal narrative and delighting anecdotes.

Perhaps I enjoyed the book more because I’ve eaten Amalfi lemons, lived a few weeks on the outskirts of Palermo and wandered lost, in the rain, through abandoned lemon groves. Perhaps it helps to have drunk homemade limoncello.

Surely it helps that I know what a citron is. When I was in Sicily last winter, I ate a slice of one. This beast is somewhere between a lemon and a rugby ball. Its skin isn’t smooth. You can’t find it in our supermarkets, and its juicy centre is pitifully small. Imagine the earth, with its small core, thick mantle and rough crust. The segments are the core, the pith is the mantle and the yellow surface rough with character. The juice is incredibly sharp. You eat it, and the thick white pith, with salt.

Before visiting Sicily, I’d never heard of this fruit. Along with the mandarin and the pomelo it’s one of the oldest citrus. The rest of the citrus family (which is much more extensive than just oranges, lemons and limes) is descended from these fruits.

I made lemon sorbet yesterday afternoon.