Penitent processions and the women’s social club

“Mummy, can we follow the procession?” my son asked me.

We were walking down the street in the seaside town of Nerja in southern Spain, more specifically the sun-baked lands of Andalucia. It’s an area I know well. My family had a house there and we’d gone there for Easter. Easter is a serious business there, a source of great devotion and processions through the streets. It was Easter Sunday, Christ had risen and the black mourning robes of the Good Friday penitents had given way to red. There were women with high mantillas, children in their Sunday best. Bedspreads and eiderdowns were hung from balconies and windows, streets adorned with flowers and rosemary to perfume the air. We proceeded slowly along the cobbled streets to the intermittent outbursts of the town’s brass bands. I was overwhelmed by the sense of belonging that binds and draws this town together.

Several weeks later and I was sitting in the park on the hill with my children, who were playing with the other children that were there. We were all there on that day: children, mothers, grandmothers and the handful of older women whose grandchildren have grown or simply not arrived, both never and yet. I live in a small village that is split into various frazioni or hamlets and without any real centre. Village life centres around the church, and in the warmer months around the park. It has a wonderful view of the mountains, as far as Mount Grigna above Lecco and Monte Rosa in Piedmont. 

We talked about the usual: who is pregnant, another who has given birth, we’re sorry another has died. Now it’s about religion, brought on by talk of the village priests, for religion is alive in the towns and the villages of the countryside. On the women spoke, and I was transported to a place without time, a place of communal washing troughs, of times past and smallholdings with their dark kitchens and dark secrets. Places where an elderly woman stirs a pot of polenta and another nurses a child. Nowadays it’s still the women who are holding the family together, the mother-grandmothers who bring up their own children and then bring up a second generation because it’s the only way they make it work.

The children continued to play opposite the dead that lie in the tombs of the cemetery across the road. One day all this too will be lost memory, yet there we were in the years of the women’s social club and besides, it was such a sunny day.

Photo: Il Vicolo delle Lavandaie or the old washing troughs, Naviglio Grande, Milan, photo credit: Rachael Martin

Memories are made of breakfasts

When I was young, I can distinctly remember going around telling everyone: “When I grow up, I’m going to live in France,” France being the only place that I’d visited outside the UK.

I’d been on a school trip to Normandy when I was about ten. It was the early 80s and a big event, especially if you were ten and had never been abroad before. I don’t think I’d even been to London, never mind abroad. I remember we had these French lessons before we went, as much as you can cram into a short course. I also have rather vague memories of the Bayeux tapestry which was why we were there.

Yet I distinctly remember drinking hot chocolate out of bowls in the morning for breakfast. It felt like I was entering some secret world. It was foreign and it was incredibly enticing, and it bet Yorkshire hands down. Yorkshire had nothing on this. This was pure – well if not quite glamour, it certainly felt quite sophisticated, and certainly better than a bowl of cereal. And it was sweet, always a bonus.

As far as breakfasts go, it’s probably up there with the fresh sfogliatine, small pleated puff pastries filled with crème patisserie that I remember eating for breakfast in Florence fifteen years later. We’d rented a room in a pensione which didn’t have a view, so not quite like the EM Forster novel or the Merchant Ivory extravaganza A Room with A View with Helena Bonham Carter wandering round Florence and falling in love with her wild Italian man. We had no men, and no view, but we did eat cappuccino and sfogliatine for breakfast every morning if that was any form of consolation.

We went to San Gimignano and its towers one day and mingled with the tourists as it was the Italian bank holiday for 8th December and they were out in their hordes. “We need to go to Siena,” we said, especially as the next day we had to go back. Cue two young women look at each other.

What’s the quickest way to Siena?

It turned out there was no quick way to Siena, so we hitched a ride to Poggibonsi bus station. If Florence spoke A Room with View, Poggibonsi rang of Where Angels fear to Tread, Forster’s other Italian novel with a tragic ending, and certainly not the one you’d hope for. Although admittedly this was only the bus station.

We arrived in Siena about four o’clock in the afternoon, after having got a bus from Poggibonsi. The whole of Siena was lit up and the shops sold panforte (a type of chewy cake filled with cakes and nuts and ricciarelli biscuits).

I went back to Siena a few years ago with my husband and kids, although we couldn’t get in as I’d forgotten about the low entrances in the city walls and we had bikes on the top of the car. And two very young boys were tired and not really up for a walk.

Yet there was a wonderful wedding in a vintage Alfa Romeo that we watched as the bride and groom drove off down Tuscan roads to a backdrop of Siena on the hill. Then we stopped and ate grapes from the vines while the kids slept in the back of the car. “Try these,” said my husband. And so we did and looked over at the landscape and breathed in Tuscany and ate from its vines and savoured its beauty.

It all added to the atmosphere. In spite of not yet having been back to Siena.

Being home

It changes when you move away, the perspective. The familiar is still familiar but you see it through a different lens. The old lens has long been cast aside. Or maybe it’s still the old lens but it’s transformed over the years. You’re still holding the camera and you decide the anglem which is why memory can be so unreliable.

I used to think that home was a place, and then I started to think it wasn’t. Home was something inside you. Probably true, or at least it feels as if it were true but place is more important than we allow ourselves to believe at times, or maybe that’s just the case when you leave. Home, that to which you return to, where you came from, is still there and is always there but only while ever it is still there.

This weekend I went back to the UK, and once more I felt home. I sat in the cottage in the middle of the field, although it was sitting by a Yorkshire range with the fire burning in my mother’s house this weekend that really felt like home. It was that familiar fierceness of the heat, that slight smell of fumes. I say my mother’s house, although I could equally say my father’s house. It is each of their houses and for different reasons. It’s an old house with history and a memory. It’s not our house though, it belongs to itself. We are just passing through. They were cloth weavers and butchers before us, generations of the same families. They gave meaning to the meaning of the family home.

When I was a little girl I used to tell my mother there was a ghost there and that she was a woman. There probably was, but it doesn’t matter if there wasn’t. Sometimes I wonder. My boys still don’t like going upstairs by themselves, just like I never did. I used to run up the stairs and across the landing to the bathroom and then run back downstairs and hardly breathing. The ghost lived near the bathroom. Who knows how she died or why.

I know every inch of that house, every creak of its floors, every fault in its draughty windows. I go back and I feel myself move into it. It wraps itself around me. And then I leave it again, until next time. It’s purely emotional and always will be.

Then I come back home and I’m on my sofa eating mozzarella di bufala and Tuscan prosciutto crudo in front of the TV with my husband, having put the kids to bed before, in a kind of tableau to married middle aged life. Only I’m a protagonist now.

And once more I’m back at home.

Leftover risotto and the women’s refuge

Arancini di riso are literally small oranges of rice or leftover risotto, deep-fried and delicious. My kids love them, so whenever I make risotto I generally make extra for arancini the day after.

My recipe was given to me by a woman I met in a women’s refuge. I was there at the refuge with my eight year old son and he loved the arancini. We were invited to their party and he wanted to come with me. I wanted him to come with me. I want him to grow up and remember that party. I want him to grow up and remember the arancini and the woman who prepared them that evening and above all remember why she was there. You can generally explain most things to kids if you use the right language. Where you say you can’t, it’s often merely an excuse. Yet there is still a certain element of stigma that surrounds women’s refuges, as if the women were in some way at fault, that’s all part of the stigma still associated with domestic violence.

Next Wednesday 8th March women will strike in forty countries all over the world. They’ll strike as part of the Ni una menos movement. It was the slogan launched by a group of journalists when women took to the streets in Argentina in 2015 and has now become a movement. It comes from a text “Ni una di mujer menos, ni una muerta mas” (not one woman less, not one death more) by Susana Chevez, the Mexican poet and activist who was killed in 2011 for having denounced gender crimes and violence against Mexican women. The Women’s marches are joining the strike and planning their A Day without a Woman. It’s an international women’s movement and it’s happening now. The movement is growing every day. In Italy, strikes will take place in many cities and towns from north to south.

There are many forms of violence. It doesn’t have to be physical or even explicit. Violence against women in Italy was identified by the UN 2012 report as cultural and therefore structural. It’s rooted within society. Femmicide takes seed where women are treated as second class citizens, where women are objectified, where there is a belief that a man is superior to a woman.

We all hear stories of women in abusive relationships, both physical and psychological women in non-abusive relationships who stay in loveless marriages for want of any way out. If a woman is dependent economically, it makes it very difficult for her to leave. How many women stay in abusive marriages because they know that if they do at least they’re assuring food and clothes and a roof over their heads for their children? And where the state is not doing enough to provide the right working conditions in which women can work, it is locking the key in the door.

This week the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg ruled that Italy failed to protect a mother and her son from domestic violence. The authorities failed to respond to complaints by the woman and the result was murder of the son and attempted murder of the mother. They were accused of underestimating the violence and thus effectively endorsing it. It’s a landmark case.

Children are still studying from textbooks where daddy goes off to work and mummy makes cakes and they all go off to grandma’s on Sundays. The stereotypes are alive and kicking in the elementary classrooms of 2017. In Lombardy the recent gender theory proposals to help change gender stereotypes in schools were not just refused, they set up a helpline for people to report any examples of gender theory within schools. Yet research proves that violence against women takes root in environments where women are not treated equally to men.

You speak to other women and the story is often the same. It begins with a personal awareness, and this then translates into action.

Nutella for grown-ups

My kids were little and we were by the lake. I was making Nutella sandwiches.

“And if we ever have kids, they’re not eating any of that crap,” this guy sitting near(ish) to us said to his girlfriend.

I too had been that mother of the my kids will never eat Nutella variety. Before I had kids. Then I had kids and if my older son loves chocolate then that’s my fault as I distinctly remember sharing chocolate when he was probably only just about old enough for it to be considered appropriate for him to eat it.

Needless to say, he loves Nutella. Ask any Italian child and they will tell they love Nutella. It’s an institution. School kids take Nutella sandwiches for their mid morning break. They eat it as a snack when they come home from school.

Both my own kids love Nutella, and every time I bring a jar of Nutella into the house, I am generally horrified by how little time it lasts and each time I vow that not another jar of Nutella is setting foot in this house.

Until the next time.

“Brioche with Nutella?” A friend asked me one day when we were having bar at the breakfast.

“Yes, why?”

It was more of a kids’ thing. Nutella wasn’t for adults.

Oh but Nutella is for adults too. There’s panettone spread with Nutella at Christmas. there’s being up in the mountains all crammed into a house and staying up late and dipping leftover bread into a jar of Nutella that was supposed to last the week, there’s sitting round the table with your kids after school eating Nutella sandwiches and knowing that it’s for your benefit as much as theirs.

It’s the comfort, like mashed potato and mashed up Weetabix, comfort where the world seems to have lost it, comfort where there are times you’re living that you’d really rather not be living at that moment in time.

It’s a part of the world that’s always there, that’s telling you that things are still as they should be.

And if all this is signified in a jar of soft, velvety Nutella and a piece of bread, then surely there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.