Saturday, 31 March 2012

Nesting in a 'Medici Hunting Lodge' in the Hills above Florence!

It’s Mothers’ Day, and casting my eye around the nest it feels particularly empty.  Moss is beginning to wear thin here and there and protruding twigs make their presence known, where once feathery down nurtured my happy brood.  Softly, a card falls on to the ‘welcome’ mat by the door and opening it carefully, I read the message inside, “ For Mothers’ Day, your daughter Katie would like to buy you an air ticket, to spend a weekend with her anywhere in the world!”

The roar of the jet engine rings loud in my ears, as the Boeing 737 leaves the tarmac and propels me in the direction of Italy, my chosen destination, the birthplace of my great-grandfather and a country steeped in dreams of the Renaissance. Ahead of me at Pisa Airport, Katie awaits my arrival, ready to share the ‘Dolce Vita’ with her Mum.  She knows I only need a gentle nudge to ‘fall out of my empty nest!’

Collecting our hire car at the airport, the scene is set for our Tuscan adventure.  The helpful assistant behind the counter, upgrades us to a sporty white Fiat with a sunroof!  Wishing us, “Buone Vacanze!” he sends us on our way with a cheeky Italian wink!

Our bags stacked in the back and sunglasses on, we hit the road.  Ahead a heat haze hangs over the rolling Tuscan hills and tall cypress trees paint familiar pictures, only seen in books or as the backdrop to some famous ‘Renaissance’ painting!

Eventually, at around eight in the evening, our little Fiat climbs the steep cypress- lined drive to the old Medici Hunting Lodge that is to be our base for the weekend.  Falling out of the car after our journey, we look around to find ourselves at the centre of an Italian wedding celebration.  On the terrace, huge stone urns nurturing lemon trees and plump red geraniums are tied with cream ribbon for the occasion and everywhere the air is warm and still.  On the beautiful stone terrace, with its classical balustrades overlooking olive trees and vineyards, bathed in the yellow haze of the setting sun, tables are set, bedecked in linen and flowers under vast canvas umbrellas.

The air is alive with music, interspersed with the sound of crickets, as they vie for supremacy, and climbing the stairs we follow in the footsteps of the famous Medici family, as we make our way to our room.  Settling in, we watch the festivities from our open window and looking down as the bride and groom lead the dancing under a canopy of stars, we witness the ‘Dolce Vita’ enfold below us, until we fall into bed intoxicated by the atmosphere of this magical place.

The next two days find us steeped in the history of Art, as we browse the Uffizi Museum in Florence.  Katie originally flew the nest to study Art History and French and now my clever daughter is my own private guide, revealing to me the beauty of paintings like Sandro Botticelli’s, “The Birth of Venus” and my favourite, “Primavera”, depicting mythological figures in a garden, their diaphanous garments set against the colourful vegetation, portraying the lush growth of spring.

Laughing together, we persuade a passing tourist to take our picture on the “Ponte Vecchio”, the oldest of the six bridges in Florence, with its secret corridor built by Vasari in 1565 for Cosimo de’ Medici, as a secret walkway for the family and now home to their vast portrait collection.  We stand at café counters sipping ‘espressos,’ and gaze up into the blinding sunlight at Michelangelo’s ‘David’ towering above us and spend hours in the cathedrals of Florence and Siena, lost in a world of Gothic splendour.

At night, we taste the best pizza in the world, in a sleepy little village in the Tuscan hills, where outside the silence is almost tangible and inside the welcome as warm as the pizza oven itself! A mother and daughter together in a country where family is still the most important thing, I forget about my empty nest, as arm in arm we step back into the sultry evening air, our laughter the only sound to break the silence.

All too soon we find ourselves on the road back to the airport and stopping off in Pisa to get that all-important picture beside the leaning tower, we share our final espresso.  Parting at the airport, I see Katie off on the train to her nest in Switzerland, waving until she is out of sight and boarding the plane, I return to my empty nest, still filled with the spirit of the ‘Dolce Vita.’  A very special Mothers’ Day gift from a very special daughter!

Monday, 26 March 2012

'Confessions' from The Old Presbytery, my nest in France

It is a balmy, hot evening, the sun having baked the ground dry with its merciless heat from early morning. At the bottom of our garden in the grounds of The Old Presbytery, Ron and I survey our wilting crops.  Two expats from Ireland, building a new nest in the South West of France.

Gone are our city suits, replaced by the hot dust of the French terroir, clinging to our sticky sun-tanned bodies, the sound of crickets ringing in our ears and our pace of life driven effortlessly by the church bell’s hourly chime.

Leaning intrepidly over the stonewall of our ancient well, we gaze searchingly thirty feet down through the darkness to the glint of water reflecting the last of the sun’s fading rays.  Somewhere in its murky depths lies the metal bucket that up to now has been a lifeline to our slowly wilting vegetable plot. 

According to our French neighbour, a grappling hook is the answer to our problem. And so we find ourselves tying the aforesaid rusty item in place, ready to lower into the depths of the well. I can’t help but feel like we are in some kind of giant fairground game, wondering what the darkness will yield up, as Ron turns the handle and the giant hook descends 30 feet into the shadowy water below.  It seems an age before the stillness of the sultry evening is rocked by the splash of the hook hitting the water and we wait in silence until the rope slackens and it slowly comes to rest on the bottom.

“C’est bien!” exclaims our neighbour, Frank, “Allez-y!” Off you go! Ron starts to turn the handle again.  Slowly the grappling hook rises from the bottom of the well. “I think I’ve got it, just a few more turns and it should break the surface!” Peering into the darkness, the water reflects the two curious faces of Frank and myself, as we search the depths, eager to be the first to see what treasure our ancient well will reveal. 

Suddenly, thousands of water droplets, sparkling like crystal in the last rays of the fading sun, send Frank and me scurrying to dry ground. Not quickly enough though. I feel the icy water soak my clothes and run in rivulets down my dusty arms.  Ron falls back onto the dry parched grass, as the grappling hook, free from the pull of the water flies into the air, not holding the expected bucket but holding something. A secret perhaps, released from the murky depths to tell its story?

Gathering round, Ron pulls the hook towards him, being careful not to accidentally loose its precious cargo and brings our treasure to rest on dry land, with a gentle thud.  Three curious faces stare down at the object on the grass, a beautiful piece of intricate wrought ironwork, about the size of a tiny window and gothic in style; it stares back at us from somewhere in the past.  Bending down and lifting it in my hand, it feels heavy and cold to the touch and as the sun sets behind the old presbytery, I place our treasure carefully in the barn and wonder if it will ever reveal its secret?

We only have to wait a day or two however, until a surprise visit from Pierre, a friend from the village provides us with an answer.  Showing him our mystery object and explaining its miraculous appearance from the bottom of the well, I am astonished to realise he recognises it at once. 

Pierre having grown up in the village is now in his early sixties, but remembers as a child going to confession in the little church next to the Presbytery.  He explains our mystery object is in fact, the ornate grid through which he whispered his childish confessions to the village priest. The church had been renovated some years ago and the confessional replaced, but how our beautiful piece of gothic ironwork, with all its secrets, managed to end up at the bottom of the well, is a mystery for another day. In the meantime I treasure my little piece of local history and imagine in its ancient past, what confessions where whispered through its ornate framework?

Leaning back against the cool stonewall of the barn, I gaze up into the warm sunshine and find myself wondering if perhaps it brought with it a blessing; for the next time we drop the rusty hook into the well, it does indeed produce the long lost bucket!
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Friday, 16 March 2012

Home Thoughts from my 'Childhood Nest'

There comes a time in most peoples lives, when they have to return to the nest they grew up in and empty that nest for the next family to take up residence and weave their story. 

So I find myself today, sitting on the floor of my old bedroom, as I did all those years ago, surrounded by photographs and letters, many of which I have never seen before. My lovely father went into sheltered accommodation recently and mum died several years ago, aged only 73. I still miss her like it was yesterday.

I didn’t know she kept so many mementos. I didn’t know she wove a history of our little family that told a story of just how much she loved us all.  Now her legacy to my sister and me is a history that fills the gaps and tells us just who she was, who our dad is and indeed how we have become the people we are today.  Strange I didn’t find these things when she died six years ago; only now, as I clear the home she loved, does she reach out across the divide to finish her story.

Until her late forties, mum had been physically fit and healthy, but from this time on she battled a disease called Lupus, that gradually changed her story.  That is why my heart leaps with joy as I find letters between her and dad when she was just 19 and he about 27.  She describes a hot summer’s day when she climbs to the top of a hill with her young brother David and I quote from her letter, “We both lay flat on our tummies and started to roll to the bottom. About half way down, I rolled on top of David and we both went tumbling to the foot of the hill. I must have looked a terrible sight sitting in the middle of a field, gasping for breath.  It was such fun, just the two of us playing around all afternoon and no mum to remind me I was a young woman and that it was not dignified to go rolling down hills!”

In dad’s letter he replies how much he loves her, of course, but tells her about the ‘Forty Footer’ and goes on to describe the coast in the south of Ireland where he grew up and how there was a piece of land jutting out over the Atlantic, beneath which the sea forty foot below never lost its depth. Sometimes it was calm and sometimes it was a churning cauldron, but always it was a challenge.  He describes the adrenalin rush of diving off the cliff edge into the deep water below, “Don’t be afraid for me!” he went on to say, “I love the danger and am more than a match for the mighty waves.”

As I sit amongst locks of my baby hair, every school report my sister and I ever received, every letter we wrote to mum, our drawings and our childish poems, I think of the vigour of youth my elderly parents shared and their amazing zest for life.  I feel a comfort inside to know they had their ‘time to laugh and their time to dance’ and I thank my mum for her secret history woven in love and left for me to find.