Project: Bi-annual family holiday. Destination: England and Tuscany.
I was lucky enough to spend a little over 4 weeks in June and July, away from this bone-chilling Melbourne winter. It’s become a tradition for the Australian arm of our tribe, just us four, to visit family and friends in the old country every other year or so. After months of planning, fine tuning, ensuring that we spend equal amounts of time with each side, booking accommodation, hire cars etc. we were plunged into the fabulous mayhem of catching up with everyone. It’s always emotional and busy and time goes by at break-neck speed. It’s over almost before it’s begun. So important, then, to capture moments that stand out, for whatever reason, and store them up for later. Here are my top ten holiday moments, in no particular order.
Swimming fountain in Capannori, Tuscany.
We stayed at Camelia Cottage, a gardener’s cottage on the estate of the Villa Mazzarosa, Capannori, Tuscany. We booked through AirBnB. Just me, Mr.B and the girls having a week’s Tuscan interlude in-between UK family madness. Apart from our hosts, we had the historic estate to ourselves. The park-like grounds with their stately trees and magnificent villa set the scene. The pool was a converted ancient stone fountain, set in romantic, run down gardens, against a backdrop of the Apuan Alps. It was so perfect there was a distinct feeling of unreality. We just couldn’t believe where we were.
Opera rehearsal in Barga, Tuscany.
On a day spent meandering through villages at the base of the Apuan Alps, we stopped to explore the medieval walled city of Barga. Whilst making our way up steep steps to the Duomo, we happened to pass by a smaller church. Not much to look at, then suddenly the most glorious torrent of music poured out of the slightly open doors. The music was rich, like a golden liquid, like maple syrup almost. A soprano and orchestra were rehearsing. We glanced at each other and silently sneaked into the cool darkness. We just sat at the back of the church, mesmerised. Truly magical moments that I’ll never forget.
Swimming at Cinque Terre, Tuscany.
I’d read about the five villages set into the rugged coastline of the Italian Riviera before we left Australia. Deemed a UNESCO World Heritage site, I was longing to experience them for myself. They did not disappoint, although the height of the tourist season with thronging crowds wherever we went. The day was stiflingly hot, and after a sweltering trek along the popular walking track between the villages we settled on the pebble beach at Monterosso for a swim. The scorching stones were so hot we had to fling our towels down, and fling ourselves down to avoid burning the soles of our feet. The Italian beachgoers looked-on, nonchalantly smoking and applying lotion to their overly bronzed bodies. If there was ever a case for avoiding too much sun and cigarettes, this was it. Plunging into the clear, cool waters of the Ligurian Sea, we spotted a troupe of teenage boys clinging to the cliffs over-hanging the beach. As they plucked up the courage and then plunged in, one by one, I felt as if I was in the 1950’s Elvis movie Blue Hawaii. A faintly absurd, but totally magical moment.
Family holiday board games, Hereford.
Staying with my extended family in a big country house in Hereford was bound to be filled with brilliant moments. There were so many. My aunty Penny brought a word game that was new to us – Bananagram. It proved to be totally addictive, and we fought each other to be included in the games that seemed to be going on almost constantly, often until midnight. It was decided that a rude word must be included in each set. Well, that added another dimension. The 14 year old misses S and E were included in this and much hilarity ensued. Snippets of conversation: “I’m sure you’ll get an ‘A’ for your vagina, sweetheart” – Aunty Penny to Miss S, and “Dad’s just jealous because I’ve got ‘penis'” – Miss E to the rest of us. Oh how we laughed! Moments now enshrined in family history.
Impromptu shopping trip with my sisters, Hereford.
Driving along the A road in the countryside near the holiday house, my eagle-eyed sister spotted a sign and the glimpse of an interesting, barn-type store. Bailey’s Home Stores – if you’re ever in Hereford I urge you to visit. In a quieter moment when kids were building dens and husbands were watching the cricket, my two sisters, Aunty Penny and I sneaked off to investigate. The display outside the gorgeous barn conversion was promising, but we were totally unprepared for the scale of delights inside. The place was, well, as big as a barn. Everywhere I turned there was another amazing basket or tasteful cushion. If I’d had unlimited check-in allowance and cash I’d have bought almost everything. My sister thought she was going to have a stroke and I felt I might cry. An emotional retail moment. I know it sounds shallow. You had to be there. They have an online store, but it doesn’t even scratch the surface. Distance precludes me from the everyday pleasures of shopping with my sisters, so this was special for me.
Idyllic countryside walk, Hereford.
Sunny day, blue skies, wildflower meadows, lazy river with white swans, children chasing butterflies, birdsong, family.
Ingredients for a quintessential walk in the English countryside.
Mum’s new home, Birmingham.
With Mum’s dementia deepening, the time came earlier this year for her to move to a residential care home. The home wasn’t very nice, smelled of stale cabbage and worse, and made the heart sink when entering the front door. I’m sure the care was fine, but the place upset my family when visiting. They tell me I was lucky to have never been there. Imagine our joy, when just a few days before our arrival, a place became available at the most wonderful care home just around the corner from their house. The home is bright and clean, with caring, friendly staff. They have recently completed Sensory Street, a tiny row of mock old-fashioned shops where residents can wander around safely in surroundings both stimulating and familiar. There’s a petting zoo in beautiful gardens, and the rabbits and guinea pigs are brought into the lounge to sit on residents laps. The moment I saw Mum in this setting I felt elated. There’s no recovery or improvement for her now, but it’s such a relief to know she’s safe and has real care and dignity here.
A day with old friends, London.
It’s always brilliant catching up with old friends. Our London week included a wonderful day spending time with close friends that Mr.B met on day one at university. The day ended with a whole bunch of old uni friends, some that we hadn’t seen for 30 years, having dinner. I watched them all catching up, as if they were still 20, with our kids sitting at the table too. I have to admit to feeling a bit choked up.
‘Escape to the Country’, Kent.
I have this dream of living in the country; well-tended veggie patch, chickens roaming free range. I’m doing my best in my tiny urban nest, but had the chance to visit friends living the dream in Kent. Previously the kitchen garden of a grander residence, the unassuming 1960’s modernist home was surrounded by a walled garden from a bygone era. Stately mature trees, raised vegetable beds, a raspberry patch running wild, endless lawns and two lively Dalmatians – the stuff of my dreams. They have dahlias so abundant the kids set up a stall to sell bunches, along with apples from the tree, to passing motorists in the summer months. We enjoyed a wonderful home-cooked roast dinner (with veggies from the garden) and relaxing day catching up on news from the intervening years whilst our collective kids forged new friendships. I will often dream of this day.
Lunch with Jane, London.
This girl is one of those people who lights up rooms with her vitality and strength. Having missed catching up last time we were in London, I wasn’t about to do it again. Close friends from Hong Kong days, our lives have both changed from their previous paths, but hers far more radically than mine. A last minute, important meeting in the city nearly derailed our plans. When a friend moves heaven and earth to make it to lunch with you, just for an hour, you find out how strong that friendship is. It was just an hour, but I know how difficult it was, and it made me feel so honoured and appreciative. We will always be friends no matter how long between lunches.