Vientiane: Then and Now

A few months ago Paola offered me and the rest of the Expatclic team the opportunity to take part in one of her travel writing workshop. I like to write and I love to travel so I took her up on her generous offer and started on this exciting journey. The aim of the course was to write a travel article to enter in a writing competition. I have never entered a writing competition and I have to admit that the concept was, and is, a bit scary. In an effort to get out of my comfort zone I took on the challenge I loved every step of the process.

Before starting with the writing we had to do some reading. Although I have always been an avid reader, I never paid much attention to the different styles. Under Paola’s attentive direction I learned how to read critically and started to see the difference between show and tell. 

Then came the second, more challenging part, writing my story!

Having just got back from Thailand and Laos, where I hadn’t been for 25 years, I chose to write about Vientiane, using a “before and after” angle. 

I immediately realised, with Paola’s discreet prompts, that I used too many words. No surprise there, I have been told once or twice that I am a tad verbose! I had to start cutting down and dig in the meander of my mind for interesting a descriptive words, in English of course!

This was just the beginning of learning to write in a new style, putting myself in the reader’s mind, all the while staying true to myself.

Then there was the memory part that, for a nostalgic like me, is always ridden with emotions. I looked at old photos, read old diaries, searched deeply for special moments and wrote about them.

Well, there is a lot more I could write about the process of writing, but this was to be only an introduction to my big announcement and I am already approaching the 400 words!

I am very excited to announce that, with Paola’s wonderful advice and support, I managed to write an article that made it to the top ten in the I Must Be Off! Travel Essay Contest. The winners will be announced on September 30 but for now my story has been published and this is so much more that I expected. 

Here is “Vientiane: Then and Now”.

Please go and have a read and tell me what you think. Any hits and comments on the website will help my story towards the Readers’ Choice award, even negative comments count, so please be honest!

Then...

Then…

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…and now!

Our made up wedding

IMG_4202When Nigel and I decided to get married, in my mind I knew exactly what I wanted: a beautiful summer day, lovely little church in my dad’s village, service with meaningful words in both english and italian, family and friends from all over the worlds gathered around us, music, good food…simple and effective!

Of course in those pre-internet days organising intercontinental weddings had its challenges and my dream wedding was perhaps less simple then I expected.

I decided to overcome the first obstacle by choosing to have the reception at my parents farm and letting my mother organise the perfect wedding lunch, involving all the cooks in the village, all somehow related to our family! It was going to be a small affair so I knew it shouldn’t have been too stressful and I trusted her with food!

My task was to find a way to organise the ceremony and this, as it happens, was not very straightforward.

Getting married in a garden, a boat, a beach was a concept totally foreign to me, until I arrived in Melbourne, where all this was possible! The option of having a celebrant to marry you wherever you like was wonderful and, before I knew it, I started fantasising!I I had in mind the lovely little church in the country but somewhere dear to me was going to be just as magic. Vallecrosia’s Comune was not that place and I new it.

IMG_4203But Nigel is jewish and the idea of the little church soon became obsolete.

In the absence of emails I had to resort to the good, old phone. I called the priest from my parents’ parish. I explained in very few words (in those days talking to Italy cost 1 dollar per minute, I had to be brief!) our situation and Don Agostino was almost as excited as I was, he loved the idea of performing an interfaith marriage! He told me that, to be married in a church Nigel would need to sign a form declaring he would bring up his children as catholic. No signature, no church! Don Agostino reassured me that it was just a formality and our children could have been brought up however we wanted. I am sure the bishop wouldn’t have approved but his relaxed approach worked for me and I knew instantly that he was the right person for the job!

Nigel, on the other hand, was outraged by the priest’s lack of integrity and he adamantly refused to sign any such declaration. A different cultural approach: Italian completely relaxed, and even a little thrilled, about breaking the rules, Australian shocked by such suggestion!

On my second call I told the priest that Nigel would not sign and he congratulated me for having chosen such a righteous man.

Nothing could dishearten us and we went on to the second option: somewhere just as magic!

We decided that we could have the ceremony in my parents farm, where we were going to have the wedding reception. Don Agostino loved the idea, at this stage he was really getting into the groove, and he told me that, as a formality (another one!)he had to speak to the bishop but he was sure it wouldn’t have been a problem.

IMG_4181This time it was the bishop to be outraged by such proposal! Don Agostino and I were not discouraged and he came up with an idea: he would perform the wedding wherever we wanted, we could write our own service and we could go to the local town hall to sign the papers.

And this is what we did. My mum organised the food, my auntie the flowers, my cousin the music and my uncle the photographs. A true family affair! Don Agostino ran the service and he promised he would not mention Jesus! He was true to his word, even though the jewish part of the family did not speak italian. We wrote our own vows and our friends and family read meaningful poems and psalms, in italian and english. At the end of the ceremony we stepped on a glass, like in all good jewish wedding. And we were married!

In fact we weren’t. We ate delicious food, spent time with people we love, cried and laughed, danced all night. A truly perfect wedding day but at the end of it we weren’t really married. For that we had to wait a few more days when, with a couple of witnesses, we went up to the soulless Comune di Vallecrosia where we signed our papers.

It might not have been that simple, but it certainly was effective! It was a special day and, most of all, it was completely our. IMG_4204

 

 

 

 

A lot more then grief – losing someone special when you are far

A year ago we were getting ready to go home for Christmas and plans for lunch, dinner and other celebrations were well on their way. I spent hours discussing menus and logistic with my mum and my auntie Anna and I enjoyed the dynamics and little squabbles between the two of them. This is certainly one of the best aspects of living on the other side of the world, things that would be annoying if you were there all the time, become quite endearing!

My Auntie Anna is my dad younger sister and she was only 18 when I was born, the first baby in the family. I immediately became her little doll. We have always had a special bond, she lived very close to us and I spent a lot of time with her while I was growing up. When I was six my cousin was born and perhaps I was a little bit jealous of his intrusion, but she had a lot of love to give and she never made me feel like I was missing out. In fact I embraced my new role as the older cousin and, consequently, Luca and I are incredibly close.

My mum is an only child and my auntie became the sister she never had. Although incredibly different, they shared everything and helped and supported each others throughout the years.

We were due to fly on the 28th of November and I was excited.

On the morning of the 26th I woke up early and I felt uneasy. I am always nervous before a flight and I can’t help becoming extremely tragic minded! I looked at my phone and saw a message from my mum. I couldn’t read properly and I searched around for my glasses but I knew something was wrong. My mum does not send me messages at night, she has mastered the time difference beautifully! It only took a second to get my glasses but I had already started to shake and Nigel woke up to my sobs. My auntie had had a stroke and died.

Ever since I moved here I have been waiting for that call. In my dark moments I picture different scenarios and circumstances. What would I do? How would I feel? It was 6 am on the 26th of November and it was happening. I had lost one of the most important persons in my life and I was on the other side of the world.

It took me only a few minutes to accept that it was real and that I had to act quickly. I called home and someone, I only realise now that I don’t even know who I spoke to, told me that she went for her evening walk and died, looking at the sunset, without even noticing. She just kneeled down and she was gone. She was 67 years old.

I knew I had to be there for the funeral, to say goodbye, and my family knew it too. Although in Italy funerals are often held the day after the death, they promised me they would wait for me. I changed my flight and Sofia told me she had to come with me. I will always be grateful to her for being with me all the way. We flew in the evening and we arrived the morning of the funeral.

In all my conjectures I had never envisioned that there could be something positive coming out of the tragedy. Although I still feel her loss, what happened in the days that followed my auntie sudden departure has left me with a lot more then just grief.

It took only moments for Nigel to step into action and call the airlines to change our tickets, I felt confident he was in control and I did not need to worry about anything. The flight was easy and I cherished the time spent with Sofia. I am not sure why I was surprised that she chose to come with me, I’ve always known how much she loved her Zia Anna but at the time it felt like the biggest present she could give me. When we arrived my brother and my cousin’s son, Lorenzo, where waiting for us at the airport. I had never felt happier to be home, even though it was for such a sad occasion. We all felt the same, we were sharing the same pain and it made me feel lighter.

I had told Sofia about italian funerals, how, unlike in Australia, we go and see the person to say goodbye and it was probably going to be very heavy, dark, sad and emotional. I was quite worried myself. But as soon as I got to the hospital all my worries disappeared. It was sad and emotional but there was no heaviness or darkness. There were hugs and tears, kisses and smiles. The sun was shining and I felt like everyone one there was somehow part of our lives. And there was my beautiful zia Anna sleeping serene, surrounded by love, lots and lots of love. Sofia arrived soon after with Lorenzo and it looked like she belonged there. She was completely at ease, with death, with love, with family.

A year has past and I am about to fly home again. I will be there for a special anniversary, to spend some time with friends and family, to pick up Sofia and possibly to visit some museums and churches! Of course I am still worried about getting that call or that text but I am also confident that I am not alone and I will be there when I need to be there.

Link alla versione italiana Perdere una persona cara quando si e’ lontani 

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Time to travel solo!

Sofia, like her sister before her, started her intercontinental travelling very early in her life. The first time she flew to Italy she was three months old and since then she has always been an excellent flyer but a reluctant traveller.

Giochi con il cuginetto

Giochi con il cuginetto

Unlike the rest of her family, she is not interested in visiting new places, she likes Melbourne and Vallecrosia. Home. Over the years she has been happy to stay at my parents’ house while we explored bits of Europe. During our last beach holiday in Queensland she never came to the beach, a beautiful tropical paradise, because it was not Bordighera’s beach, the only beach she likes!

Sof has always known what she wanted and has never been shy to express it! From the moment she could talk she made it clear that she had two homes, her one in Melbourne and her nonni’s in Italy so it didn’t come as a surprise when, at age 12, she announced that at 15 she would go to Vallecrosia with her friend Abby, for a month of the summer holiday. We barely acknowledged her statement, expecting that in three years time she would have changed her mind but we should have known better. Last year, at not quite 15, her and Abby went to spend a month at my parents’ house and had a wonderful time.

Fare i pelati con la nonna

Fare i pelati con la nonna

On Monday Sofia left for Italy again. This time she will be there for three months. This time she went by herself. She is going to school and spending time with her  italian family.

In the weeks before her departure I went through a lot of emotions and different thoughts came to my mind. I have felt incredibly happy that she has such a strong sense of belonging to my home town and my family. When asked what was her favourite thing about going to Italy she said it was her family and spending time with them. Although I have a small family we are very close. I grew up with my beloved auntie just down the street, my grandparents an everlasting presence in the first years of my life, my brother and cousin always available for a new game or a fight. We lived in a small town and were in and out of each others houses all the time. I took all this for granted but Sofia doesn’t. Her childhood in Melbourne has been very different from mine and she certainly has enjoyed every minute of growing up in a big city, with all the opportunity that this has given her. But at the same time she has been able to grow up experiencing a different lifestyle and gaining a different perspective.

Coccole con zio Bigi

Coccole con zio Bigi

While I acknowledge that my childhood in Vallecrosia was pretty idillic, I struggle to see the positives about been a teenager there and I guess this is why I left as soon as I could! But Sofia, at 15, seems to love all the things I wanted to escape from! She loves the saturday night disco, the same disco my mum used to go and I managed to avoid, looking for more “alternative” entertainment! She loves the passion the youths have for trends and brand names printed on t-shirts, making everyone look boringly similar. I was a hippy in the ’80…no wonder I had to leave! She loves the stylish boys, all charm and  good looks who can’t have a conversation that doesn’t involve calcio. Needless to say, I never managed to charm any of those young, beautiful boys and this is why I still resent them and blame them of shallowness! I admit it, Sofia is right when she says I didn’t fit in because I was a loser and I guess I should be grateful she didn’t inherit my wallflower skills!

Shopping a Milano

Beside dancing and picking up boys, Sofia will have to do some learning as well. She will be going to school three days a week to practice her spoken italian and for a few hours a week she will work with a private teacher to master the mysteries of the italian grammar. As next year she will start her VCE (final exams) and she has chosen italian and french as two of her subjects, she is having some french tutoring as well. France is just around the corner after all!

On monday night we took Sofia to the airport and handed her over to the Qantas hostess who would take her across to her plane. There were no tears and, strangely enough, it felt very natural. I remember when the girls were little and we used to talk about the time they would go to Italy by themselves. When I packed huge bags with every possible snack and change of clothes before undertake that never ending flight, I felt like that time will never come. Little did I know, that moment was just around the corner. I don’t miss those interminable flights with toddlers in tow and when I said goodbye to Sofia I felt just a tinge of apprehension about the long flight ahead (well, perhaps a bit more then “a tinge”!).

Buon viaggio, tesoro!

Sofia has arrived safely and she is home. For the next few months I won’t have to pick up her mess around the house and wash her clothes, I will be able to see her and talk to her on Skype but not have to put up with her grumpy moods. I will miss her cuddles and smile in the morning (well…her “good” mornings!) but  I know that she is with people who love her and will look after her just as well as I would. 

I look forward to hear her stories and, perhaps, learn a few tricks about fitting in better. Who knows, I might even join her on the dance floor one day, but she doesn’t have to know this quite yet!

Getting closer, when you are far

When I first left home and Italy I was 20 years old. A friend and I decided to go and spend some time in Paris. My mum was supportive of my decision but, like me, I don’t think she realised I would never come back to live home again. I think she thought I was going on an extended holiday, a little bit of adventure before settling down. In those first few years of my living abroad we didn’t speak or see each other much. I called her regularly but our lives were so different if was very hard to find something to say.

My mum at her happiest, in her garden, with her precious nipotine

My mum at her happiest, in her garden, with her precious nipotine

My mum hates to travel, she loves her home, her garden and her cooking. It must have been very hard for her to accept that her only daughter had no intention of settling down. On the contrary I kept travelling from place to place, living in grotty flats, doing all sort of casual jobs and having absolutely no plans for her future.

When I introduced her to Nigel she had been so worried that I was never going to find anyone who would marry me, that she loved him at first sight! Even if he was a tall, Jewish, Australian boy, wearing thai farmers’ pants and did not speak a word of Italian! I guess she knew by then that I would never go back to live in Italy and the idea that at least I would not move around so much appealed to her. Even if I was going to live in Australia.

Although she does not like to travel she has come to Melbourne many times over the years. She complains about the long trip (but who doesn’t!) and the life style here but she has made the effort and I do appreciate it as it hasn’t been easy for her.

We have had our ups and downs and she wasn’t always accepting of my decision to move and, for years, she found ways of making me feel guilty about having “abandoned” her and I resented her for doing that.

But at the moment our relationship is flourishing and I am thanking Skype for that! It took a while to convince my parents that there was a way to talk and see each other on the computer. They don’t like changes and technology scares them. But once they understood how Skype worked they never looked back.

Selfie!

Selfie con mamma!

My mum and I speak at least twice a week. Often it’s just a quick exchange, a little bit of gossip that she knows I would like to hear or something about the girls. She shows me the beautiful mushrooms she picked in the woods and I show her my bread just out of the oven. Skype has brought a new dimension to our conversations, now is almost like a “dropping in”. I can see what she is wearing and understand immediately how the weather is in Vallecrosia. She can see my new haircut and notice if I have a new top. She can comment on the girls too long hair and too short skirts and, although she is on the other side of the world, they can still experience this delightful aspect of an italian nonna!

I know it won’t always be this easy, my parents are still young and at the moment chatting on Skype is a wonderful way to feel part of their life but once their health will start to deteriorate it will not be enough. For now though, I enjoy this new found closeness with my mum, our laughs and our gossiping on line have become a pleasant part of our week and I am sure we are both cherishing our time together. I often wonder if we could have been this close if I lived next door to her but this, I guess, I will never know!