Saturday, 16 September 2017

My daughter’s graduation

The process of my daughter’s graduation lasted a few months for me, that is from January, when she started to work on the making of her collection of six outfits, till the graduation day on 4th July.

The preparation of the outfits was long and intense. We went together to the textile shops in Berwick street several times before she could find the right fabrics and when she finally made up her mind, some of them had run out. Making her models was not just a matter of cutting and sewing, first she had to dye and print the material, then make the patterns, cut them in the fabric, sew the outfits and finish the whole thing, in her case with embroidery. It had to be perfect in every detail. She also made some knitted tops using a knitting machine. Moreover, she had to complete a design book that testified her research activity and they also asked her to prepare the program for the final catwalk.

Living in Surrey and being so far away from Scotland we felt unable to help her, except for giving our support by phone. We called regularly and tried to help her cope with the inevitable setbacks that always occur. What worried me more than anything else was the general tendency of the students of colleges of art to work day and night (especially at night) when deadlines approach. I know now that she slept only a few hours per night for weeks, and some nights she didn’t sleep at all in order to complete her work. Luckily, she is a strong healthy girl and survived the ordeal brilliantly. I’m sure she enjoyed the job as well.

I attended the end of year catwalk as usual in May. This time it didn’t take place at the College of Art, as it was in the previous years, but at the National Museum of Scotland in a beautiful hall where the models walked along a meandering corridor flanked by the audience. It was awesome. There were seventeen graduating students exhibiting their final collection, as well as students of year one, two, three and the MA course, all the pieces were original and accurately made. My favourite one was my daughter’s collection, of course, but there were a couple of others’ I liked too.

My daughter’s collection was inspired by Japanese culture and art and also by Italian tailoring. To make her background clear, she added pictures of ordinary Italian people, e.g. elderly women, and some monuments like the Roman Forum, and film stars like Alberto Sordi and Anna Magnani.
Afterwards there was Graduate Fashion Week in London, where almost all the Fashion Design and some textile courses of the UK exhibit and promote their work. Each course had a catwalk, with three or four catwalks a day, as well as the Gala on the final day, featuring the best works across all collections (selected by judges in the audience). The Gala featured 20 or 25 collections, with awards given at the end. The University of Edinburgh had five students selected for the Gala night and obtained several awards, my daughter was one of them. It was so emotional when she was called on the stage to receive  the Womenswear Award sponsored by M&S that I couldn’t restrain my joy and started to shout: brava! She did so well and we are so proud of her.

In July there was the graduation ceremony. My parents in law and her godmother flew from Rome to Edinburgh for the occasion while we travelled north from Surrey. The day of the graduation was rather cold and rainy, unfortunately, but we enjoyed it thoroughly all the same. The ceremony was at McEwan Hall, an impressive edifice just restored. We took photos sheltered inside a nearby building and had a long delicious lunch at Ciao Roma, an Italian restaurant serving superb food and award winning ice-cream.

The night before going back home, we decided to set up the dinner in the kitchen my daughter shared with other students in the student halls she lived in near the College of Art. The place was rather grimy with overflowing bins and heaps of recyclable rubbish, but no one had thought of disposing of it. The grandparents and the godmother’s reaction was a frantic tidying up to clean enough space to have our dinner. At a certain point a girl entered the kitchen to make a cup of tea, she was barefoot and moved around the filthy floor casually. I noticed a horrified expression on the Italian guests’ faces.
After dinner, it was time to pack up my daughter’s stuff as she was leaving with us for good and all the following day. It took the full family to team up and work relentlessly until past midnight to complete it all, but we managed eventually.

On her graduation day my daughter wore one of the dresses from the collection under the black gown, a bright yellow dress with printed ginkgo leaves she designed. It suited her so well, she looked charming and professional.

The whole event was an extraordinary magic experience.

Saturday, 2 September 2017

What I did in summer

It was such a busy exciting summer I am relieved it is over, in a way, and we are back to our safe routines. I was at home most of the time but the schedule was packed.

My mum came from Italy in June to attend my daughter’s catwalk at London graduate fashion week, after it there was my daughter’s graduation (Fashion and Design) at the beginning of July in Edinburgh. Then my mum had an operation, a shoulder replacement, in Woking and after three weeks there was my son’s wedding at Samlesbury Hall near Preston. Family and friends came and went from Italy throughout summer. In the meantime I worked hard on my PhD research as I need to start to submit some work from September. From time to time I managed to attend some concerts, exhibitions and shows in London and nearby, and also did some cooking and other stuff with my mum and my daughter.

My mum’s operation wasn’t a picnic. She had no choice but do it as her shoulder’s tendons were completely worn out and it was very painful for her to move her right arm. Three months after the operation she should be able to use her arm again in a normal way without any pain. She is still recovering at the moment but got rid of the sling after four weeks and is able to prepare some cooking and to do some crochet. I can see she is improving a little bit every day though she says it is still painful sometimes. I helped her wash herself and get dressed in the first four weeks but she is such an independent brave person that she did as much as she could by herself.

We attended a concert together at the Southbank Centre in June, the Rachmaninov piano concerto no. 2 and Shostakovich Symphony no. 5, definitely powerful dramatic pieces that don’t let you a minute of rest, romantic at times (Rachmaninov) but also unsettling and frightening (Shostakovich).
I was flabbergasted by a previous concert I attended in May with my husband, featuring Beethoven Symphony no. 7, a masterpiece. Though my favourite classical music is Opera, above all Verdi, Bellini and Donizetti, I can’t help acknowledging that Beethoven is one of the best composers ever, though he is not Italian. The richness, variety and vitality of his music are unique.

We also attended An American in Paris at the Dominion Theatre. My mum and a friend of hers had the lucky chance to watch the show sitting at the Stalls while the rest of us were up in the Circle. They gave them this opportunity as there wasn’t a lift to the Circle section. The music was fantastic, I love Gershwin (not just An American in Paris), the way he evokes his experience in Paris, the street noises, the energy, nostalgia and the passion for life he expresses all wrapped in a hopeful and triumphant atmosphere. The musical also features other Gershwin songs, like I got rhythm, I’ve got beginner’s luck, The man I love, Who cares?, But not for me, etc., building up an improbable romantic story that slightly contrasts with the apparently nonchalant casual tone that his music communicates. It involves the listener temporarily in a wonderful dreamy world, but it is clear it’s only for a while, a short while. Enjoy it till it lasts, it seems to say. The singers and dancers were great and I enjoyed the show thoroughly, especially the scenery’s wow effects towards the end.

My mum likes attending the Italian club in Maybury (Woking) where she plays bingo and meets elderly Italian ladies who moved to England in the 50s and 60s. She meets them at the Italian mass every Sunday at St Dunstan’s as well. We also attended the famous procession of Madonna dei miracoli (Our Lady of Miracles) around Maybury, an interesting experience that brought me back to my Italian background and religious faith. The people of the Italian community are all very nice and welcoming, some of them can still speak and understand Italian so my mum feels at home with them. I must say that the people in the cars we encountered during the procession looked at our snake-like parade with a mixture of surprise and fun, not fully sure of what was going on. We must have looked very exotic. Everything was very well organized, the priest’s prayers and instructions were amplified along the queue, people in charge told us where to turn and when to move on or stop. The statue of the Madonna is moving with her caring expression, rather firm if looked at from afar, and figures of people in need around her. It appeared in the stendardo (ensign) and in the priest’s chasuble as well in exquisite embroidery.

My mum and I entertained ourselves by experimenting with old and new recipes (which I am going to publish on this blog in the following weeks) and celebrated my family’s ten years in the UK with special cakes, fruit pies with the colours of the Italian flag and of the British flag, a delicious treat that disappeared in a blink of an eye.

My mum also helped me embroider two shawls for summer before she was operated and we are planning to make some new dresses with beautiful pieces of cloth I found on sale in Berwick street, Soho. But she needs to recover completely to give me a real good help.

My work on intertextuality is digging deeper and deeper. The more I read Julia Kristeva, Bakhtin, Michael Riffaterre, Derrida, Barthes, John Barth, Linda Hutcheon and other literary critics , the more I realize the importance of the reader in the production of a text and the pivotal influence of intertexts in the understanding and interpreting process. A tough work that implies wide reading and serious literary analysis.

I couldn’t miss A quiet passion, the film on Emily Dickinson’s life. She has been one of my favourite poets since my university years when I found a selection of her poems with facing-page translation on a book stall at the university La Sapienza in Rome. I go back to her work from time to time always finding new implications. I have her complete poems edition, of course, and while I was tidying up my room this summer I also found a tiny book of her poems my father gave me years ago, probably as a present coming back from one his trips with my mother. It is a dear object that testifies my father’s understanding of my interests. I liked the film very much as I think it recreated the setting and the mood of the Dickinsons and of their time. Nevertheless, I believe it should have explored other sides of her poetry and of her life, though it was apparently a quiet, almost secluded life, but with complex inner aspects. The film shows mainly her spiritual side and her love for her family, which are true, but minimizes her passion for nature and her eroticism. Another aspect I often find in her poems is the development of a philosophy of life expressing opinions on human conditions and giving her point of view on existential questions, a perspective I consider engrossing, still fresh today and worth exploring.

Last but not least, my mum and I had some lucky picks at charity shops where we often go hunting. I also coined a new word on the subject: charitare, according to our Italian way to add the suffix –are, the first conjugation of Italian verbs like in mangiare (to eat) or giocare (to play). I also heard of ‘parcare’ (to park) as well as mixing English words in an Italian conversation, a habit Italian people who have been living out of Italy for decades have, as the English words come first in our minds.

Finally we went sightseeing in Oxford when my parents in law were here. My son, who studies in Oxford, gave us a guided tour around the Colleges. I rediscovered parts of the historic university town I hadn’t seen since the first time I visited Oxford ages ago, in my twenties. It was a pleasant revisitation.

My son also had a great idea, he volunteered to take us on a punt on the river Cherwell. It was a gorgeous sunny day on the last bank holiday of our hectic summer, a worthy way to celebrate all the stirring events we went through. He skilfully manoeuvred the long pole like an expert gondolier while my daughter helped him with a paddle, if needed. Surrounded by fresh air and ducks gliding on water with the little ones close behind, we had perfect relaxing moments just before starting the new school year.

Saturday, 22 July 2017

Thank you UK, Summer 2017

My summer is going to be very special this year starting with my daughter’s graduation and ending with my son’s wedding. My mum is with me again, like last summer, and will have an operation (a shoulder replacement) in Woking, which will make her unable to move her right arm for a while. She will probably stay with us till autumn.

I am also starting a new exciting project, a PhD at the University of Reading on Margaret Atwood, following my passion for the superb Canadian writer and for female writing in general. I have an incredible team of scholars to support my research, of which I am glad and grateful. This will be another turn in my life where my day-by-day job will become marginal while my studies and writings will be central. Hopefully my career will develop as well.

We are also celebrating our tenth year in the UK this summer. We moved to the North West of England (Lancaster) in summer 2007, became British citizens in 2014 and moved to Surrey in summer 2015. I must say we’ve had a wonderful time so far in this country, my children had great achievements and made good friends, and my husband and I could develop our careers. So, a big thank you to UK for giving us good opportunities and such a quality of life.

All news, reviews of my readings and new recipes will be on my blog from September.

Have a good summer.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Living with Valentina: my life with an autistic daughter

I am posting here below a full revised version of Living with Valentina and other pieces I wrote on my autistic daughter in the past eight years. At the end I added some paragraphs to update her present situation at Fullerton School near Doncaster.

We lived in Italy when we adopted Valentina from a country in Eastern Europe.   She was a two year old, blond, blue-eyed, tiny little girl when we first met her. Born with a cleft palate and heart problems, she could hardly walk and couldn’t speak at all.  At the orphanage they told us she might have hearing problems as well, but when they called her name aloud she turned around.  Our
interpreter had told us that other families from different European countries had already seen her but nobody had adopted her.  We did.  We thought her problems could be easily fixed in a good Italian hospital.

When she arrived in Rome she had a medical check up and the doctors told us she was underweight, but healthy.  They scheduled an operation in two months’ time, to close the gap in her mouth, and another operation in six months for her heart problems.  In the meantime they checked her hearing because people with a cleft palate can have hearing impairments as well.  The diagnosis was severe deafness.  She had to wear hearing aids and start speech therapy.

All right, I thought: she is deaf.  It didn’t seem to be such a big problem.  Deaf people can have an absolutely normal life and communicate using sign language.  I put her on the waiting list of several Therapy Centres in Rome.  One of them called me shortly after.  They said they preferred the
language approach instead of sign language and started to teach her sounds and words, matching them with photos, pictures and toys.  For example: the therapist showed Valentina a toy apple and said ‘apple’, Valentina was then supposed to say the word or at least repeat a sound.  I was present during her therapy sessions, she said nothing most of the time.

After a year she uttered casual sounds from time to time and I started to think she just couldn’t match the words with the objects of the pictures.  She couldn’t even call me mamma.
Whenever I complained or voiced my concerns they told me she was improving.
“Deaf people always behave like this,” they said, and what I should do was practise at home using the same kind of approach.

Once one of the therapists gave me a list of about 40 words we had to rehearse with her during the Christmas holidays.  We were distraught.  How could Vale do it if she couldn’t even utter a single word?
I asked about sign language again but they said that it was not their approach.

At home Valentina was very demanding and unsettled.  I thought it was because she had lived in an institution until we adopter her and she needed time to adapt to such a different environment.
We had three other children who had welcomed her and had played with her from the first moment they met.  I still remember she was crying desperately when we arrived home after a three-hour flight, but she stopped crying as soon as she saw our children.  Love at first sight.  She was so small, with curly blond hair and blue eyes like a little angel, her harelip was barely visible.

I soon noticed that she didn’t play with her toys like other children and she wasn’t remotely interested in children’s books. She played in a strange way, different from my other children, putting books in a line, piling them up and forming patterns with her toys.  Sometimes she threw things around wildly and angrily for no apparent reason.

I tried to teach her to tidy up after herself, as I had done with my other children. Most of the time she refused to learn rules in general.  I thought she just needed time.

At the therapy centre they asked us to look for a neuropsychiatrist because they hadn’t one.  We found a good one and met her regularly.

Two years passed.  I started to worry because Valentina was already four and still wasn’t speaking, she seemed to not even understand what I was saying either.  Her behaviour was still awful and she would suddenly run off into the road, scream, lie down on the floor in shops, or follow strangers.  At home she made a mess with all her things and broke all her toys.  She used to bounce up and down our bed and spin around for hours.  I couldn’t leave her alone for a minute in case she broke something or hurt herself.

Valentina went to school only in the morning and I had to take her to therapy three times a week as well.  I started to complain.  But the more I complained the more people blamed me, from relatives and friends to teachers and even therapists.  They said we had been wrong to take a fourth child, three were enough.  And what did we expect from an adopted child?  They all have problems sooner or later.  After all there was nothing wrong with her, they said, she was only deaf.  What was all the fuss about?  She misbehaved because she was spoiled and because she couldn’t speak yet, but she would speak soon and everything would be fine.

I felt empty, frustrated.  What I was doing was never enough.  I was neglecting myself as I had never done before, not even when my first and second children were little and the third one was only a baby.  But they had followed me, learned from me, stuck to my rules.  Valentina didn’t.  Was there anything wrong with her?

My experience of disabled people was very limited: a few friends in wheelchairs, some of my students affected by Down’s syndrome.  There were no disabilities in my family or in my husband’s family.

At the hospital where she had had the operations they suggested she might have the Di George syndrome or the CHARGE syndrome, but she had blood tests and were negative.

I read a few books about deaf children and about Autism, a word that some people muttered seeing Valentina because she had no eye contact and didn’t like to be touched.

I learned that deaf children can be very unsettled before learning to communicate.  What about sign language?  “Why?  She can learn to speak,” the therapists told me.  But she still wasn’t speaking at all after three years of speech therapy.

The information I read about the Autistic Spectrum Disorder fitted like a glove to Valentina.  I asked the doctors if she was autistic.  They said she wasn’t autistic: she had only some autistic traits that were disappearing quickly.  Couldn’t I see how much she was improving?

She had improved but her ‘autistic traits’ hadn’t changed.

She was still so demanding and challenging I felt I could cope with her less and less.  I was constantly confused and tired.

My husband supported me and helped me as much as he could.  He was angry too, because he saw there was something wrong with Valentina but nobody was helping us or telling us what it was.
The other children suffered from this situation as well.  Sometimes they told friends and grandparents we had no time for them because we were always with Valentina.  They still helped us with her, playing with her or catching her when she ran away.  But they were children as well.

Valentina had been attending mainstream nursery school since three years old. She was in a small classroom with twenty other children and two teachers, one of them there specifically to support her.  They had big problems with her.  She was very unsettled and her behaviour was dangerous for the other children.

I asked for help from social services but they said there was no money.  The neuropsychiatrist said she needed to play with other children as much as possible.  The therapy centre suggested we should employ someone for her in the afternoon so she was never alone.

Four years had passed.  I felt exhausted and stopped working.  We paid someone to stay with her in the afternoon so she could go to the playground, have a walk and go swimming.  She also started sign language at school and her communication skills improved a little.  But her behaviour didn’t change much.

Our questions became more pressing.  We wanted a diagnosis.  We needed it, to give a name to the endless, tiresome efforts we were enduring and to know what our future was.  But no one had an answer.

She was six when the doctors and therapists hinted that maybe she was retarded because of what she had suffered in the orphanage.  But they also said she could change, suddenly improve.  And, after all, it wasn’t such a big deal.

Nasty rumours also went around saying that maybe we abused her in some way and that’s why she misbehaved and didn’t improve much.  We must be awful parents.

I saw no way out, except abandoning her to an institution.  But she was our daughter; we didn’t want to give up on her.

Finding no answers in Italy, I looked for them abroad.

I called the British Embassy in Rome to ask information about the disability help schemes in England.  They sent me a booklet and I could easily see it was much better than in Italy, though services could change from area to area. Valentina might have some chance in England.
My last attempt in Italy was to take contact with a special school for deaf children.  Valentina had to pass a test and they sent us a report a few months later.  When I asked if she could attend the school they said there was no place for her.  They said she had a lot of behavioural issues and they already had enough children with problems.

It was hopeless.

The therapy centre she attended said Valentina needed more time and then she would improve, without doubt.  I still wonder what they meant.  They wrote a single-sheet report in which they said she was retarded.

I and my husband hadn’t got a minute for ourselves since she had arrived.  One of us had to take care of Valentina all the time: weekends, holidays, anniversaries.  After five years we felt anxious, exhausted and vulnerable.  Our family was crumbling.

We decided it was time to move.  The whole family was at risk.  We found out that Maths teachers were needed in England so my husband applied for the PGCE course at the University of Cumbria and gained a place.  We could keep our jobs in Italy open, taking a year off.  We decided to move to Lancaster.

In June we went to Lancaster for a week and handed in Valentina’s reports, translated in English, to White Cross.  In a few days they suggested a Special School for deaf children in Preston and they said they would organize the transport.

It was another world.

We moved to Lancaster in July 2007.  After a couple of months she had a Special Needs statement and in a year the assessment that said she was autistic.  I felt relieved.  Her problems had a name and it was not my fault.

At Royal Cross Primary School in Preston they taught her to communicate with pictures: PECS, something unknown in Italy.  Her communication skills improved greatly.  She started to point, use BSL and pictures to communicate.  She showed a great visual memory I had never known about, which is typical of autistic people.  She could still be frustrated, angry and unsettled but I knew why she was so and learned some good strategies and distractions to cope with her.

Attending meetings for parents with autistic children I became more and more aware of her problems and I could share my experiences with them. I was not alone, not a unique case on the earth, but in good company. At the FASD group they gave me all the information I needed to apply for assessments and benefits.

We also attended the NDCS meetings in Lancaster where Valentina could meet other deaf children and have a bit of fun.

After two years in Lancaster we had respite care once a week to help us cope with her, have some time for ourselves and the other children as well.

After a few years her behaviour deteriorated and she became even more physically aggressive and totally unsettled.  We asked for medication to calm her down a bit and improve her concentration.  At first it worked very well: her awareness of what was around her and her sign language improved greatly and she was calmer.

What I had experienced in Italy seemed all a misunderstanding , we felt we had learned a lot from this experience and were very grateful to all the people who helped our family to cope and live with Valentina.

When she had to start secondary school we thought it was a good idea to find one in Lancaster so she didn’t have to travel far away every day, which unsettled her very much.  We found the Loyne specialist school in Torrisholme, which seemed the ideal place to support her and help her improve her skills.

Unfortunately they had a lot of problems with her. She started to refuse the uniform, attacked the other children (mostly vulnerable children with different disabilities but not severe autism) and was very aggressive with the staff. After recurring and serious incidents they finally decided to exclude her permanently.

The authorities found another school, Hillside specialist school in Longridge and arranged the transport: a taxi only for her (as she couldn’t cope with other children in the same vehicle) and two escorts, as one was not enough. We realized that she was becoming even more demanding than she had ever been before and her behaviour was deteriorating. In a way she was a typical teenager: rebelling, stubborn, aggressive at time and self-harming. But it was becoming hard to control her and stop her damaging property and harming people.

An interesting side that developed during her teenager years was her fashion mania. She was very much influenced by the artistic and fashion trends prevalent in our family. She liked drawing and painting at school and dressing up at home. I bought her clothes from charity shops and dug into the family wardrobes and drawers looking for skirts, dresses and blouses we didn’t wear any more.
In the past she had habitually worn several layers of clothes, such as two or three skirts and tops at the same time, regardless of weather. Now she mixed them in very inventive ways: she could wear a long sleeveless dress with a woollen hat or a soft toy frog on her head and tights for gloves. She zipped and wore two coats together or used tights as hats and blankets or bed sheets as tops or skirts.
She enjoyed Halloween very much, playing with lights and decorations, especially pumpkins, and dressing up in Halloween costumes from mid October till Christmas.

Unfortunately she also ripped a lot of them or changed the parts she didn’t like by cutting them off (e.g. she hated sleeves, ribbons, belts and buttons), only to ask to sew them on again after a while.
Sadly her behaviour kept deteriorating both at school, at respite care and at home and was excluded from a few respite care centres for one reason or the other. For a long period we didn’t have respite care, which added to the stress. We spent more and more time at home with her as it was too dangerous and unmanageable to plan any outings; the rare occasions we did, it always ended with some incident or more stress.

We asked for more help again but nothing definite was provided. Specialized day school and, when possible, respite care (one night per week and a weekend every seven weeks) was all they could do. We asked for a residential placement as we couldn’t manage with her aggressive behaviour anymore and in the future it would get worse and worse, therefore thinking it would be the best option for her. Nothing happened.

In the meantime she was assessed by CAMHS and they said she had no mental problems, only sensory problems so no medication was added to what she already took. Her behaviour deteriorated further, at school she had incident after incident, attacking staff and pupils, serious self-harming and ripping her clothes. They locked her in a room in her worse moments (we gave permission for it as we saw there wasn’t any other way). At home she had a similar behaviour and I didn’t know what to do, especially being alone with her most of the time and not being able to handle her. She did a lot of damages to the house and hit herself repeatedly. She had bruises all over her body even on her face as she aggressively punched herself.

Everything became impossible with her. We carried on in a constant emergency balance, hoping that nothing serious or irreversible would happen.

In August 2014 I commuted from Lancaster to Woking for my new job at an international school. It was a fulfilling and rewarding job I thoroughly enjoyed. We asked for a residential placement again in Lancashire as I was away three days a week. After several months they finally said they couldn’t do it and gave her two respite care nights per week. We barely survived and Valentina had very bad moments. The school asked for emergency meetings and for more meds, but the people responsible for it had no solution.

We miraculously managed to end the school year and moved to Surrey. Here the assessment was quick and efficient. They gave us 52 weeks residential school and placed her in a temporary five days a week respite care, which gave us time and energy to work full time during the week. In the meantime they looked for the residential placement. It was heaven compared to what we had in Lancashire (and it was heaven in Lancashire compared to what we had gone through in Italy). In November the respite care became full time (seven days a week) so we could completely relax in the weekend and at Christmas we could fly to Italy to spend time with family and friends, which would have been impossible with Valentina as moving to unfamiliar environments unsettles her.
This was definitely a big change in my life; my career soared compared to what I used to do in Lancashire (a few hours of Italian tutoring in adult education and private lessons). I started a proper job, highly satisfying both from an intellectual and a financial point of view (which is not to be overlooked as two of my children were at university). The reason why I could achieve all this was because my family supported me (above all my husband), especially in taking care of my autistic daughter Valentina when I was away.

Having five days a week without Valentina changed my life completely. Finally I could dedicate time to my career and plan to widen my horizons. Also all my other children were away: my eldest one graduated and now lives and works in Leeds, my second studies at Edinburgh University, my third one started Physics at Oxford University. My job as a full time mum had ended; I was going to have much more time for myself, which was definitely a new phase of my life. This hasn’t happened since I got married and had my first child twenty-four years ago.

The full time respite care facility where Valentina spent eight months was a fifteen minute drive from our house, Ruth House in Mayford Green. This was a temporary placement till they found a proper residential school. We went to see her regularly, at least twice a week.

She had an apartment and two members of staff with her day and night. We realized she was happier and more settled in a place where she had stable routines and could arrange the space around her in the way she liked. The staff were exceptional, they were flexible enough to meet her needs and firm enough to give her rules and routines she was comfortable with and needed in order to stay safe. They also had great fun with her at times when she arranged her clothes in a fashionable and unique way, or mixed olive oil and ketchup with everything (even grapes and ice cream), or when she spread her favourite food (e.g. salami) on faces and shoes as an alternative to cream therapy, and even when she flipped her faeces around, giggling defiantly. They missed her when she left.

It wasn’t easy to find a residential school for my daughter because of her challenging, aggressive behaviour and her habit of stripping her clothes. None of the schools in Surrey or nearby accepted her, but after a few months the Hesley Group, based near Doncaster, said yes. Members of staff visited her several times, observing her for days, then in April 2016 the transition was arranged. It took about two weeks to move her from one place to the other with members of staff from Ruth House assisting her in Doncaster. Finally she had a permanent place to stay and we could go and see her in her new home.

We have kept visiting her every 3-4 weeks, more often during holidays.  We have also the chance to spend the night there as they have accommodation for visiting families at school and, if we stay for the weekend, they offer a great full English breakfast in the school canteen. We found her more and more settled every time we went. At first she seemed unwilling to attend school, as she had been out of school for months when she was at Ruth house, but then she was happy about it and her communication (mainly BSL, PECS and Makaton) has definitely improved. At school they have sensory rooms, a gym, a canteen, a computer room adapted to her needs. We visited the school with her, she looked proud and happy to show us what she did and where she lived. She also showed us the houses where her friends live and where she had previously had a party.

They adapted the house to her needs as well, nailing the table and her bed to the floor, buying special plastic chairs filled with sand so she can’t throw them to the staff and getting rid of the furniture or colours she didn’t like. They also built a bungalow for her as they realized she was uncomfortable in a two storey building. Her eating habits improved, she accepts a wider range of food and has proper meals instead of grazing the whole day as she used to.

The school is in a village so she can go out in the community, to the hairdresser, to the restaurant or cafe and go shopping, of course, one of her favourite activities. We went shopping with her once; she absolutely wanted a pair of tiny snow boots so she tried them several times but realized they didn’t possibly fit, finally she opted for a number of DVDs she carefully selected.

At Halloween she had a treasure hunt at school and managed to collect all the pieces of a skeleton scattered around the place and assemble it. For Christmas there was the assembly, the party and Santa’s grotto. She enjoyed most of them and looked happy and settled in the school community. We also went to the restaurant with her before Christmas with some members of the staff. She went to the toilet to change her clothes several times but on the whole was settled. The members of staff who take care of her have long shifts (from 7 in the morning till 9 in the evening, then there is the night shift) so she doesn’t change too many people in a day, which used to unsettle her. They are very dedicated to her and know her very well now. In fact, they have also become family to her.

We would like to see her more often but living so far and working full time makes it very hard. We think she is happy where she is and, being 17, she needs her own space like our other children. We miss her sometimes despite her challenging and unpredictable behaviour, she is an essential part of our family and we wouldn’t be who we are without her.

We had a wonderful weekend before Easter with Valentina, the whole family met there, my eldest son with his fiancée from Leeds and the other two, the other daughter and the other son, back from uni. The weather was gorgeous so we spent all the time in the garden playing with her and having fun altogether. Valentina was overjoyed, relaxed and delighted by having so many people around her. When we finally left, she was clearly sad but accepted it. We promised to take her a scooter next time, I showed her some pictures on my smart phone and she cheekily pointed at the real one, the motor scooter, but we made it clear that we would go for a simple manual three-wheel scooter.

Before summer she moved in her new house, a bungalow they built just for her, a cosy two-room house with under floor heating (so she isn’t tempted to dismantle the radiators), very spare furniture and decor and special blinds. She has a nice garden around and direct access to the school playground from her back garden. She still loves creating and wearing funky outfits and from time to time she can still be unsettled. Her core team knows how to deal with her problems and she looks very accustomed to them and to the whole environment of Fullerton now. A year has passed since she moved there and I can see how much she has improved from living in a place where they meet her needs and know her patterns. Being a normal family, we could have never tended to her in the way they are doing now, and it would have inevitably burned us out. She is a special young lady after all.

Sunday, 2 July 2017

Some exhibitions I visited at the V&A

I usually visit the V&A with my daughter as we are both deeply interested in art, fashion and design. Every visit is an experience of aesthetic pleasure and a source of inspiration, especially for her as she is graduating in Fashion and Design.

Some months ago we saw Undressed: a brief history of underwear, which unfortunately didn’t impress us so much as we had seen a similar exhibition in Paris some years ago, which was excellent. The main idea was to show the history and change of the most hidden and personal garments, which have necessarily an erotic quality, from the 18th century on. The different items reflected the changing attitudes of morality, sex and gender as well as the renovation of fabric technology and design.

Several aspects influenced the changes through centuries, like modesty, cleanness, comfort and the wish to mould the wearer’s body according to the fashionable ideals of the time. This is evident in the use of stays and busks in corsets to support the breasts or shape a tiny waistline. Sometimes this obsession of an ideal body could be extremely painful, like in the 19th century fashion, other times it was looser, e.g. when ribbon corsets were allowed in summer. Near to the present days girdles were on display, reminding me of the stocking belts I found in my mum’s drawer when I was a teenager, dating back to her youth when tights were not available yet.

Opus Anglicanum, English work, was about embroideries on copes, stoles, chasubles and dalmatics made in England, mainly in London, in the 13th and 14th centuries. The figures were realistically depicted in intricate and sophisticated patterns, highly detailed and richly decorated in gold, silver, enamels and pearls. The kind of iconography was typically medieval among Celtic foliage style patterns. The reputation of the Opus Anglicanum was international together with other famous fabrics produced in Bologna, Rome, Namur, Velk and Toledo. The display looked shimmering and exquisite though worn out by time, which gave an idea of how astounding they must have looked at the time.

You say you want a Revolution? Was on at the same time. The title intriguing in itself, unclear if it was a rhetorical question or was issuing a challenge. It was about the late 60s (1966-1970), idealistic, revolutionary, colourful and psychedelic, which can also mean ‘mind-revealing’. It was a very
entertaining exhibition mainly due to the sort of audio-guide they gave you at the entrance. It played noises, music, speeches and songs of the time according to the different sections you passed through, reflecting and completing in words and sounds what we were looking at. I was born in the 60s and it seems all so far away now, exactly a museum piece.

When I was in Rome at Christmas and Easter, I visited a few exhibitions as well. Artemisia Gentileschi e il suo tempo (Artemisia Gentileschi and her time) was at the Museo di Roma (Museum of Rome), an impressive exhibition on the greatest female Italian painter. She was the talented daughter of Orazio Gentileschi, who was her first master. As it often happens with women artists, her work was neglected and undermined while her sensational
biographical events became paramount. She was a renowned painter but died poor and her work was forgotten while her fame of indecent and dissolute woman stuck.

She started painting from a very young age showing a great talent that her father supported. She was raped when she was sixteen by Agostino Tassi, a painter who worked with her father; the rapist was later sued and sentenced, but Artemisia was never completely believed. She married Pietro Antonio Stiattesi and moved from Rome to Florence where she worked for the court of Cosimo II. After a while she divorced as her husband was squandering her money. Her work took her to Venice, Genoa, Naples and at the Royal Palace in Greenwich. Her paintings were definitely influenced by Caravaggio in the first place, but also Rubens, Cigoli and Van Dyck. The first decade of the 17th century saw a flourishing of decorative paintings in Rome under Pope Sisto V in the churches of Santa Maria del Popolo and San Luigi dei Francesi (Caravaggio), San’Andrea and San Gregorio
Magno (Guido Reni and Domenichino) and in Galleria Farnese (Carracci). Artemisia probably met Caravaggio, nevertheless, her inspiration went beyond contemporary masters, the way she shaped the bodies in her paintings reminds of Michelangelo’s dynamic energy and plastic figures. Her attention to details (a wisp of hair on the cheek or dimples on a hand) in depicting Madonnas shows her originality and expertise. Among her most famous works are Susanna and the elders, some Madonnas with Child, several versions of Judith and self portraits. It is interesting the fact that she gives her own features to her heroines, especially to Judith. Other important works are Cleopatra, Lucretia and Mary Magdalene penitent, where the sensuality of the body, in Cleopatra, and the richness of panneggio, in Mary Magdalene, testify her mastery and originality in interpreting the characters. Her heroines are never stereotypes, they are complex, dramatic and in control, living their moment in full.

I also visited the exhibition of Giovanni Boldini, an Italian painter who lived most of his life in Paris during the Belle Époque. His life size portraits of beautiful aristocratic women were famous and can be found in most Modern Art Galleries around Europe. He expressed the beauty, elegance and joie de vivre typical of the time, with all its vibrancy, dynamism and instability, well depicted in his flowing, sketchy style. Some of the portraits were astounding, though sometimes too similar to one another, my favourite were the still life of pheasant and flowers with impressive use of colours that mould the objects, and the portrait of Giuseppe Verdi (the best one is at Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna, the National Gallery of Modern Art in Rome).

Back in England at the Lightbox in Woking, I could see a wonderful exhibition of Henry Moore (Henry Moore, sculpting from nature) and attend an event with Mary Moore and Peter Murray in conversation about the artist’s life and work. There were interesting scale models, drawings and etchings and full size monumental works as well. Video clips were on show before entering with interviews to the artist.

His idea of sculpturing was an amalgam with the landscape, as it clearly happens at the Henry Moore Foundation in  Hertfordshire. His sculptures are classical, monumental and are part of nature as well. In fact he thought that the best place for a sculpture was not a square or in front of a beautiful palace but precisely in the landscape. His inspiration were past masters, like Michelangelo, as well as shapes from the natural world, like bones, shells, flint stones and plants. This merging of the human body with the landscape and the detailed observation of parts of it make his work so unique. Examples are in his hieratic sculptures of mother and child (a form inside another that creates a whole) stretching, reclining and merging with the landscape. Or in his exploration of an elephant skull where he finds new landscapes inside the structure of the bone. The shapes are explored in their inner parts, e.g. the labyrinths inside the skeleton, the secret passages, the holes. This evokes new perspectives and new imaginary worlds.

His daughter Mary spoke of him as a very generous and approachable person who mostly worked at home drawing whatever he saw. She realized her father was a famous artist because important people came to their house, Rothko came for tea once and Botero and Marino Marini visited them. For him it was important to study sculpture at the British Museum, for example, in a time when visual images were not available everywhere as it is nowadays. She also said that her father was able to express a psychological form in sculpture effortlessly as it was already inside him, something he understood profoundly and shaped in a personal cutting-edge style. He was undoubtedly a great artist.

In Rome my husband took me to see one of his favourite places, the famous Galleria Prospettica (forced perspective gallery) built by Francesco Borromini at Palazzo Spada. It is in a courtyard with a small garden, a magic place where the impression is created by one vantage point and by the lowering ceiling and the rising floor. Looking at it we imagine it is very long (about 30-40 metres) but it is actually only 8-9 metres long. The illusion had both a moral meaning, the deception of worldly matters,  and a more profane aim to surprise and entertain the viewer, a bit like a mirror maze or other today’s interactive fun things. And there was a very fat cat strolling casually along the gallery and posing for photos.