Thursday, 28 July 2016

Chapter 152: Italy: Paradise Lost. Paradise Found.

"You're too little to remember this, but there was a time before circus when you would never find Mum on a telephone or laptop."

I overheard my 8 year old explain this matter of factly to her 4 year old sister a couple of weeks ago, on the way back from the school run. That's two years of their life, I thought. So when Xav texted me a few days later to say he'd booked us into an Italian campsite with his family, I didn't protest "but that's the last week of Postcards Festival at Jacksons Lane..." I simply texted back Great! I was ready.

Only I wasn't. We missed the flight. Xav had lost his wallet and totally took the blame, but hand on heart if I'd actually been helping him with the kids and packing on that Sunday, the day after Ssshhh!, instead of all that social media wrap up, and then pulling an all-nighter to release a blog post about it, we would have caught the plane. I decided not to point this out though, and just polish my halo by taking over the search with a smile. I eventually found it by the coffee machine - elementary, really, for that hour in the morning - and we legged it to the airport, but in so doing I left my phone on the side in the kitchen, and the keys in the front door. The next available flight wasn't until early afternoon, so I ended up back on the tube to nip home, chatting to a beautiful vision in a bright fuchsia dress and metallic lilac eyeshadow, who writes a blog, intermittently, about women behaving outrageously in their 40s. Needless to say we hit it off immediately, and who knows where that will lead.

Clowning around take off
As I walked in the front door, a text bleeped: Don't hurry back to the airport, we've gone on a boat trip down the Thames! That extra couple of hours was a life-saver. Time enough to revisit the blog to correct any glaring syntactical errors (though I forgot to strip out the exclamation marks, dammit!!!), insert a couple of pics, grab a power nap and a shower. I made it back to the airport refreshed and on a high.
This was our first summer holiday abroad together in over five years (spare the violins, we love to ski), and so we ordered a glass of bubbly at lunch, only the Toby Maguire sweetheart of a waiter cocked up the order and brought yet another on the house. Not complaining, rather light-headed, feeling great, looking forward to the seat in business class they had bumped me up to on my own as there were only four seats left in economy. Xav gallantly put me forward as he was still feeling guilty about missing the last flight, and I kept very quiet. So there we were at the gate, some lovely guys gave up their seats for the kids and I'm mentally floating off to ... when they go and cancel the sodding flight!!! Of course they do. By this point I've had too much bubbly and collapse in a fit of the giggles. The kids were not amused. Except for our youngest, who hadn't quite grasped our predicament and skipped all the way along to baggage reclaim holding my hand and singing at the top of her voice "We are going to IT-A-LY, yay!" which cheered up the queue no end. Once there we turn collecting our luggage into the game of "that's not my suitcase..." and here we go again. British Airways stood us a taxi to Gatwick Airport, over an hour away. Another chance to nap at least, and we are all out for the count. Once checked in, we still had a good few hours still to kill, so each find a book at WH Smiths, and I grabbed a garish, but comfy-looking, pink satin eye mask from Boots, together with a few lotions and potions for good measure. Finally we boarded a plane covered in Spanish logos, with Spanish announcements and aircrew, and I wondered if we are headed to Florence at all... 

We hadn't planned to stop in Florence. From there we were to drive to a campsite down the road from an Italian nature reserve where Xav had holidayed as a child. Dyed in sunshine, my olive-skinned Latino Lover was once upon a time, astonishingly, known as "Il Biondino", for his tumble of blond curls. But by the time we landed the car rental was shut, so we were stuck for the night. To be honest, I can think of worse places to be stranded than the Florentine answer to the Savoy, complete with American Bar. Only this being Florence the artwork in the corridors was more of a nod to Renaissance religious devotions, gilded triptychs hanging from the walls. We had two rooms. We could have fit the entire family in one room, which turned out to be larger than the tent where we would spend the rest of the week. I sensed the rustle of crinoline down the hallway, signorinas on the Grand Tour, blushing with heat, fanning their imaginations and wending their way, somewhat unstably, to their room with a view.  By the time I came to from this reverie with my littlest one nestled in my arms the following morning, Xav had already picked up the hire car and we were off. We stopped off at a service station for lunch where I ordered a cappucino with a salad for lunch, much to the bewilderment of the girl behind the counter and the embarrassment of my husband. Lucy, you're in Italy now, people don't have cappucinos after lunch here.  I took a sip of my cappucino, and savoured my retort along with the foam. I swallowed it too.

The campsite itself was pretty basic. The tent for five was smaller than a single room in Florence the night before, and a baking furnace to boot. We peeled back every blind and window possible and reconciled ourselves to a week without privacy, but at least we had a makeshift draught. For the first time in forever I felt utterly unshackled. No locks, no wifi, no technology, no worries. Each morning we would cycle with cousins to a beach inaccessible to cars. When Xav was a child, the beach had been empty, now, still a trek to get to, it teemed with bronze sculpted adolescents, admiring themselves and each other. I felt like a pale phantom floating through a classic tale of Pygmalion meets Narcissus. It was a case of Paradise Lost for Xav. He missed having the place to himself. He missed swimming along the old, submerged via Romana where they would scoop up pieces of amphora and bring them back to the tent to paint and decorate. But then we happened on the bar and it was a case of Paradise Found. An oasis of cool, in every sense. Hammocks strung between the cypress and pines, cocktails on tap, not a single tourist bar the platform for an English band to play funked up reggae... we could have lost track of time in a place like that, if it weren't for little hands tugging us into the present.

One evening a clown came to the campsite. The idea of that amused me no end, because the Tuscans really do take themselves so seriously. I watched him for a little with my youngest. "Look, it's a juggler Mummy, a juggler!!!" she exclaimed enchanted, as he took out three balls and looped them in such an uninspired combination that I was itching to go up and take over - thank you Jon Udry (click here) for the masterclasses, I know I've dropped a few, but still... Then came a piece of melancholic trumpet-playing to a backing track, and I sat there willing him to at least have a go at trying to make us laugh. As ever, the universe delivered as for his next trick he pulled off the lion-tamer's routine, an exercise we had done in class with Butzi (see The Gift of Clowning - click here). My attempts had been hopeless, but I remembered then the hilarious performance by Italian classmate Angelo, and the memory of that, mixed with the unexpected delight of coming across another version here at the campsite "for real", made my evening.

Another evening we went for an ice-cream in Follonica, and there in the window was an advert for Circo Nero. Assuming it was some punk metallica band, I googled it just now to find it really is a circus of sorts, modelled on Tod Browning's 1930s "Freaks" but for the 21st Century. I enjoyed watching a video of interviews (click here) as much for the poetic soundbites on the idea of circus as for the reality of Circo Nero. It reminded me of the preshow act to Ssshhh!, for which I had compiled quotes and set to the Betty Hutton number "Oh So Quiet...", more original than Bjork.

After the week camping, we headed back to civilisation: Florence via a detour in Siena. I had always wanted to go there. I grew up with tales from my mother about Catherine of Siena, one of the first women doctors of the Church, a role-model for all free-thinking intelligent women, and took it for my confirmation name as a result. The bells peeled out as we approached the cathedral, and then we carried on straight past it to the main piazza for lunch. No circus here, bar the tourists, and the clowning with the waiter at lunch that earned me rosé on the house.

Onto Florence, we lucked out with an AirBnB right beside the Ponte Vecchio. Breathtaking beauty. I wanted to cry in awe of the sunset, the colourful riot of flags on the bridge (we counted them - all 52), the padlocked love, and above all the evergreen lines of Il Duomo round the corner that hijacked my vision and overshadowed all else. We wandered round the piazzas. That is to say, I tottered. I couldn't resist peeking into Desigual, the Barcelona clothes line whose quirky, topsy-turvy style has an air of circus about it. In fact the first piece I ever bought was a tunic dress for my daughter from their Cirque de Soleil collection. I found there a sundress fringed with Duomo green, and an empire line handy for the ever-expanding pasta belly. But it was oh so long. Next door, though, were selling a pair of gladiator-style sandals with stilts for heels. Utterly impractical with three kids on cobbles, but I reckoned they counted as equilibristics training and gave it a go. I lasted til just after lunch, then collapsed onto an upturned barrel in the back of a groovy gelateria, round the corner from Dante's house, where the walls were lined with sackcloths from Brazilian coffee beans, and David Bowie, musical clown and maestro, played non-stop.

The rain started soon after. The ground became shiny and (even more) lethal. Time for a pony and trap ride. "Francese, no?" said the driver, and proceeded to release a stream of French in a thickly buttered accent. I think I would have found Italian easier to understand. Still, we hit it off.  He stopped on a side street to pick up a punnet of cherries from the best market in town and insisted we have them. The kids faces streamed with juice, and our fingers were stained with pride. As we entered into the Piazza de la Signoria, he told us stories of the Medici castle, and each statue in turn, but left one out. What's that? Quella statua? I asked, pointing to a monstrosity of a giant gold turtle with a pint-sized man riding it. Quell'orrore? Our guide shuddered. Belgi. There was something Tin-Tinny about it.

In the corner of the square I spotted a bar with Circus up in lights, we had to stop for a drink there later. It had the dubious honour for serving up the worst mojito I have ever tasted in my life, but even that made us laugh. We moved on, ate our fill of pasta and anti-pasti, and threw ourselves back into the wonder of a week together in a world apart. It truly was La Dolce Vita, with circus everywhere, above all in our state of mind. In the words of Federico Fellini:

"Put yourself into life and never lose your openness, your childish enthusiasm throughout the journey that is life, and things will come your way."


Bridge with a View. Ponte Vecchio, Florence.

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