Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


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Sunshine and Chandeliers

Can I just say that Italy is lovely? And if anyone ever says to you, “Want to visit Lake Garda?”, your appropriate response should be, “When do we leave?”. Do not hesitate, not even to finish the ironing or the next page of your book, but go straight there. The combination of balmy weather, mountains and a crystal-clear lake all set about with chic little towns and pebbly beaches is a winner. We had eleven straight days of sunshine, enough to get a tan, swim in the pool or in the lake seven times a day and not even once contemplate a cardigan.

Our campsite, the appropriately named Campsite Eden, had two pools, a private beach and was in walking distance to Portese, a dinky little port with a great swimming beach, a couple of restaurants and an ice-cream parlour. We were housed not in a tent, since we have not yet reached those levels of self-sufficient derring-do (plus I like to have my own toilet), but in a well-equipped mobile home that measured seven metres by three. Minature, but perfect since we spent most of our time swimming and eating ice-cream and admiring chic Italians and little time pacing the tiny parameters of our accommodation. The big deck helped to make it seem larger, as did the fact that we were situated in an olive grove, with mint growing in the grass and semi-tame bunnies gratefully accepting carrots.

The campsite was mostly filled with Germans, Dutch and British tourists and my hours of pooltime watching my three avid swimmers gave me some time to form completely scientific conclusions about the different nations. The German and Dutch parents got into the pool and actually played with their children, while the British lay on loungers and ignored theirs. I believe the fact that the British parents were the lardiest is not unrelated to this fact. In order to not be tainted, I played with my children, and while GTH was not out climbing mountains on his bike, I went for runs along the lake, but I was not above bribing them for moments alone on my lounger by sending them to the shop with money for ice-cream.

One morning Ollie woke up, sprung into our bed declaring, “Mummy! I had a good dream! I was sailing in a boat – with you!” so we made his dream come true by getting onto a ferry at Salo and taking a trip to Isola del Garda, a private island owned by the Cavazza family where we were taken on a guided tour by a nice German girl from Liepzig. Apparently the Countess is called Charlotte, which my family found most appropriate. The children liked the Cavazza family cats which followed the tour, and I liked the snacks provided at the end. The island and the villa were lovely too.

After eleven days of five people sleeping in the minature mobile, we packed up and drove 1,200 kilometres to the Uckermark in northeast Brandenburg for a wedding at Schloss Herzenfelde. This is another place to which, if ever offered the opportunity to visit, you should unhesitatingly say, “Let’s go!”. Surrounded by 20 hectares of parkland, and then by the forests and farmlands of the Uckermark, the Schloss has been restored by its present owner to high standards of comfort and luxury. The lovely bride, who did the room arrangements, had warned us to bring mattresses and sleeping-bags for the children as there was only one double bed per room, but when we arrived we found ourselves in a suite with three double beds and a chandelier-bedecked bathroom that was bigger than our Italian mobile home. After eleven days of edging sideways round our bed and still getting knocked on the head or ankles by our belongings, it was bliss to have space, sleep on fresh white linen and admire the statuary in the park out of the bathroom window.

The wedding was gorgeous – an appropriately in love couple, a service in a quaint village church, lots of Sekt, babysitters for the children, an exquisite meal, great people to talk to and dancing until the early hours of Sunday morning. After hauling ourselves out of bed and enjoying one last lovely breakfast under the chandeliers, we drove the 700 kilometres home.

It’s good to be back, but I’m missing the olive grove and the chandeliers. And my family are growing tired of calling me Countess.


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Lucca Revisited

I may be infatuated with Berlin, but I am in love with Lucca. Berlin is for now, for being young and cutting-edge as I am, but I reserve Lucca for my retirement – a place to dream away the hours, watch the world go by and sip upon magnificent cappucinos. The first time I went to Lucca, I had been married for a mere three years, was not yet in my thirties, had a salary and was able to enjoy its many pleasures on a sophisticated and grown-up level. I fell in love with its red-roofed handsomeness,

its alleyways,

and its soaring towers,

where trees grow.

I enjoyed long, drawn-out, rather drunken lunches with my love (I could mention that my mother and my aunt were also there, but I won’t since that removes the romantic sheen of my story), naps on the wide and grassy city walls, strolls hand-in-hand through the alleyways, shopping in the delightful boutiques and coffee in the magnificent amphitheatre, where I bought a beautiful hat which I immediately put on. We climbed the Tower Guinigi with its roof of oak trees. Lucca was glamorous, relaxed, gorgeous. I felt the same way.

Last week, ten years on from my first visit to Lucca, I went back. Things have changed in ten years. I am still married but now we have three children. Children, however sweet, do not make for long, drawn-out drunken lunches. They do not make for romantic strolls and watching the world go by, nor do they make for public naps. I did not wear a glamorous hat, but a backpack containing nappies and a sippy cup. We went to the amphitheatre but our priority was finding a drink and the loo. We looked at the boutiques from the outside but did not go in since one of our children has it as her life’s purpose to separate us from our money in exchange for tat. We climbed the tower but my vertigo nearly prevented me from making it to the top. We held their hands, and not each other’s.

However, Lucca still held its magic over us. In the amphitheatre we enjoyed an icy granita while watching a ballerina dance and a boy play the violin. We viewed the town together from the top of the Tower Guinigi. We walked the city walls instead of napping there. We glimpsed the lovely restaurant Al’ Olivo where we had had our wonderful lunch. We photographed each other, wearing very big smiles,

and then we went back to Parc Albatros on the San Vincenzo road to prepare for bopping to Italian pop music at the nightly Baby Disco. Because when you have children, that’s what you do.

Lucca promised that she would wait for me.


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Italy Unplugged

(Written sometime in August …)

I’m writing this post on paper with the plan to transcribe it when I get home in – oh – a few days’ time. I’m not missing my computer or being permanently plugged in to the information tsunami, but I do miss the regular writing.

We are staying in a lovely campsite on the Italian coast, above Rome and below Pisa. The weather is mild – warm enough for beach and pool but not hot enough to require the air conditioning in our mobile home. It’s dry and dusty here – testament to the heatwave we have missed – but the campsite is situated in a lovely forest of parasol pines with tall trunks and gracious canopies that provide shade.

One of the many joys of being in Italy is the food. Why does everything taste better here? A salad of beautiful Tuscan tomatoes and buffalo mozzarella anointed in olive oil tastes like heaven, whereas in Germany it tastes like it’s trying too hard. We’ve enjoyed fine slices of Parma ham, chilled sweet melon, olives with a bite of chilli, olive paste on grissini, baby yellow tomatoes, succulent grapes the size of plums, spicy Tuscan sausages, calamari and daily doses of creamy icecream. Make mine a pistachio.

This part of Italy – Livorno – is supposed to be one of the centres of the Slow Food movement. I don’t have Google so I can’t check that for you, but it certainly feels that way. Aptly enough, while enjoying very slow food, I am also reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, a wonderful book detailing her family’s attempt to spend a year eating both seasonally and locally. She defines local as within a 70 mile radius, but in the end the family grow and harvest most of their own food – even chickens and turkeys.

In the West, we have grown so distant from the source of our food, that just to witness Kingsolver’s attempt feels like watching a miracle. Not that I imagine for a second that I could “harvest” my own chicken or remember to water the vegetables that would feed my family for a year, but the work they do in conscious eating is inspiring.

Kingsolver is knowledgeable about the state of the protein production line and it does not make for easy reading, but it does make me want to never buy any factory farmed meat again. She is voiciferous on how farming corporations have undermined American farmers, forcing them to grow single crops in order to stay solvent. She decries non-seasonal eating, saying that food flown from China or other far-off lands merely to satisfy appetites costs not only the environment in terms of fossil fuels but also our bodies, because by the time it reaches our plates it is no longer nutrient-dense. She talks openly about how obesity is a function of capitalism:

No cashier ever held a gun to our heads and made us supersize it, true enough. But humans have an inbuilt weakness for fats and sugar. We evolved in lean environments where it was a big plus for survival to gorge on calorie-dense foods whenever we found them. Whether or not they understand the biology, food marketers know the weakness and have exploited it without mercy. Obesity is generally viewed as a failure of personal resolve, with no acknowledgment of the genuine conspiracy in this historical scheme. People actually did sit in strategy meetings discussing ways to get all those surplus calories into people who neither needed nor wished to consume them.

She makes an interesting point about the gap left in kitchens when women went out to work, and how corporations happily filled that gap with non-nutritious, calorific ready-meals. These full-time jobs that women now gladly have are:

… organized around the presumption that some wifely person is at home picking up the slack – filling the gap between school and workday’s end, doing errands only possible during business hours, meeting the expectation that we are hungry when we get home – but in fact June Cleaver has left the premises. Her income was needed to cover the mortgage and health insurance … Eating preprocessed or fast food can look like salvation in the short run, until we start losing what real mealtimes give to a family: civility, economy, and health.

Kingsolver says cooking is the great divide between good eating and bad. But the pressure to find the time to select (or as she does, grow) ingredients, plan a meal, cook it with joy and not under stress, and then eat it in a civilised and peaceable way with your family is great. I feel that pressure on a daily basis, and I do malign myself when I slap down another meal of fish fingers and peas in front of my sweetly uncomplaining children. However, what her book is doing for me is making me feel more committed to making better food choices for my family when I get home and continuing the journey of more conscious eating. I would recommend it for anyone who is interested in doing either or both, or who would like to witness one family’s bold attempt to go against the grain. There are also some great recipes, which I am going to try out. I may not actually make my own cheese, though.

Now where’s the buffalo mozzarella? I’m feeling peckish.