Sunday, 18 March 2018

My daughter Valentina’s 18th birthday

In February we celebrated my daughter Valentina’s 18th birthday. It was a great family gathering as my sons and my other daughter came from around the UK to the residential school where she lives near Doncaster. We put up a party in her beautiful accommodation, a bungalow the Hesley Group built just for her.

She’d had a party at school the day before as well and as soon as we arrived she showed us the presents they gave her, a unicorn blanket she proudly wore on her head and a pink My Little Pony soft toy.

My other daughter and I decorated the room with banners and balloons while one of my sons played with her using some glow in the dark stuff I’d found at the supermarket. Together they assembled some phosphorescent little tubes provided in the package in a very fanciful creative way and built bracelets, glasses and a sort of hat. She wore them in a dark room enjoying it tremendously.

Later on my other son and my husband took the present we had brought for her: a big soft gorilla toy as tall as her wrapped up in birthday paper. At first she couldn’t believe such a big pack was for her, then she tore up the paper and hugged and squeezed it. She was so happy about all the presents that she donned everything we had brought her: a new blue dress plus leggings, black boots, a silver scarf, a party badge, a Minions backpack, and even the inflated balloons that decorated the room, which she eventually wanted tidied up to her shoulders. It was her way to say that she was enjoying everything we had prepared for her and wished to treasure it.

The two members of staff present that day supported us in everything; all the staff that has been following her in these two years (about six people in all) are so committed to her care and well being that they have been nominated for an internal award, which I hope they will win as they really deserve it.

At the end of the day we had the cake. Valentina was delighted with it, she blew the candles and prompted us to clap our hands. Then we cut it and she liked it so much that she had two big slices, about one third of the whole cake.

On the whole the day went very smoothly and we had great fun with her. It is unbelievable how much she has improved and how much she can take part in family and community events now, coping with almost everything, compared to two years ago, that is since she moved to the residential school in Doncaster. We are so grateful and happy about all the work the Hesley Group do for her and for the great achievements they attained with our daughter.

Now Valentina is no more a ‘child’, bureaucratically speaking, she is an ‘adult’. She will be out of education in about a year and a half and new arrangements will be made for her by the social services. Let’s hope they will be as good as they have been so far. As a family, we will always be at her side, she is such a cracking irresistible young lady!

Saturday, 10 March 2018

Back to the UK

Coming back to the UK was a relief, though I felt I missed my mum. She had been here for seven months and her presence had become part of my life, her routines were my routines, we shared concerns, outings, cooking, and we regularly met the friends of the Italian community. I felt sad for a while but then life goes on, and after all this is what she wanted, go back to her home and her friends in Italy.

At home, I decided to keep the Christmas lights and decorations for another two weeks as the weather was rather gloomy and I was still feeling in a festive mood. Keeping Christmas going was also a way to virtually delay what is inevitably going to happen in spring, that is my daughter’s departure for Japan to attend a two year master course in Tokyo. It is heartbreaking for me to have her so far away but this is what she wants. We will skype, whatsapp and email each other as much as possible to keep updated. I will go to Japan for sure to visit her sooner or later and she will probably come back for Christmas. She really loves Japanese culture and has been attending Japanese classes for four years, which shows her interest and enthusiasm. But I know I will miss her dearly.

As soon as I was back, I plunged in Margaret Atwood’s books to carry on with  my PhD research. I am mainly concentrating on her early works at the moment (The Edible Woman, Surfacing, Survival and The Circle Game), an engrossing reading that indicates how she developed her reasoning about possible alternatives to the stereotyped roles of women in society and about the politics of society itself. The function of power structures and ideology is fundamental in her work; a function she defines showing its inherent contradictions, inconsistencies and construction, and trying to indicate possible different options. But there are no final solutions or definite answers, and this is maybe something we need to acknowledge.

In January, I was also in Cardiff for a meeting at the IB centre, as I am an IB principal examiner and they needed to explain to me some assessment procedures. I wasn’t well as I had caught a bad cold in Italy, which got worse and worse because of the cold weather and the stress of travelling. But the whole experience was very useful and interesting. I could meet the principal examiners of Portuguese, Spanish and French (who is a Québécois retired teacher). We exchanged opinions and ideas, and I acquired good insights of Canada by the Canadian colleague. I would like to visit Canada before the end of my PhD as I think it is essential for me to see the areas and cities that Margaret Atwood describes in her novels. It is a world of fiction, of course, and Canada today is not what it was in the 70s and in the 80s, but still I think it would be worthwhile for me to experience Canada, not just read about it.

We also visited our son in Oxford and found an exceptional Italian restaurant (La  Cucina, )where we will probably celebrate his graduation in 2019. It is not a big place, more like a trattoria, but the food is superb, and it has a pay and display parking place in the back (parking is a nightmare in Oxford). We had gnocchi al gorgonzola (gnocchi with a blue Italian cheese), pappardelle all’anatra (pappardelle with duck tomato sauce), a special calzone looking like a pizza on the edge, cannoli siciliani, an extra special ricotta cheesecake and cake with pears and caramel. Everything was so good that we proclaimed it the best Italian restaurant ever in the UK.

Sunday, 25 February 2018

My trip to Rome

I was in Rome only five days to take my mum back to her house after seven months she had spent with us in England. I helped her pay a long list of bills and decorate the house for Christmas. She bought a new nativity with an ancient Rome kind of scenery, and I found a tree branch in a park nearby to use as a Christmas tree. We put it in a vase and decorated it with baubles and tinsel. It was all very simple but gave a cosy festive touch to the house and made her feel at home.

We also met some friends and had a tour around the centre of Rome to see how it was embellished for Christmas. We saw the famous Spelacchio in piazza Venezia, a twenty metres Christmas tree (for a total cost of forty-eight thousand Euros) nicknamed Spelacchio (literary ‘hairless’, as its branches were almost bare) by social media. It was a red spruce from Val di Fiemme in the north of Italy which lost part of its foliage in the transport to the capital. It was soon compared to the one in Milan, which looked flourishing in comparison, maybe an unintentional metaphor of the different reputations of the two cities. Spelacchio became a symbol of the poor conditions of the capital but the people of Rome loved it and left messages on its branches, like’ R.I.P. with you’, ‘beauty is not all’, ‘you’re beautiful all the same, NY’, ‘hold on Spelacchio’, ‘let’s fight together’, ‘you’re in our hearts’. It became a kind of pilgrimage site and once dismantled, someone remarked that the tree was not actually dead but moved to a special mysterious island where Elvis, Kurt Cobain, Michael Jackson and Moana Pozzi already live happily. In reality, its wood will be used for a little house for children and small gadgets, a clever recycling idea.

I took photos of many other interesting decorations around Rome, like a tree made of sheets of paper with the picture of the poet Alda Merini standing out in its folds, a tree made of artichokes in Campo de’ Fiori, street lights with berries and chilli peppers compositions.

I visited the new Rinascente ( via del Tritone (in the centre of Rome not far from piazza Barberini), a stunning newly restored palace with an ancient Roman aqueduct at the ground floor, eight hundred fashion brands and an astounding view of Rome at the top. The access to the aqueduct (and the view) is free, the rest is dearly expensive but beautiful to see.

Rinascente opened last October after long restoration and refurbishing works delayed by the discovery of the ancient Roman site. What you can see on the ground floor are the remains of the Aqua Virgo (virgin water, the same water that supplies Trevi Fountain, just a few yards from Rinascente) aqueduct built by Agrippa in 19 BC; but not only that. Sitting comfortably on soft stools, you can watch a video (in Italian and in English) projected on the aqueduct wall explaining the history of the site from 1st  century BC to 5th century AD. In fact, after the aqueduct they built a thermal establishment, a villa and insulae (apartment buildings) on the aqueduct as well as burial
monuments along the road. Everything is accurately narrated with maps highlighting the different stages and pictures showing the virtual reconstruction of the buildings. After that, you can have a tour around the store (sort of combination between Harrods and Selfridges), admire the breath taking haute couture items on display (some Gucci and Valentino bags looked like works of art worthy a museum exhibition, let alone the shoes) and see if you are lucky and find a bargain. I managed to buy a tiny fish shaped fridge magnet, a Mokina with the Italian colours (now on display on my kitchen shelves near a cup commemorating the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953, a lucky find in a charity shop) and some trendy socks on sale for my daughters. I took a lot of photos, though.

My mum found an oil cruet and was interested in some frames but the prices were too high. She came back from England with a lot of pictures she wished to arrange in frames. So we finally went to Ikea and bought four wall boards fitting about ten photos each. One was for my daughter’s graduation photos, another one for my son’s wedding and the other two were filled with some snaps of the grandchildren when they were little that my mother dug out from old albums. 

This was an occasion for me to revisit some beautiful photos I had almost forgotten, and the delightful moments they made me recall. They were pictures taken when we were in Stockholm (where we lived for a year in 1998-99), at the seaside in Italy with my dad looking happy and healthy hugging my children, or when the children dressed up for Halloween and Carnival. It was moving in part but also rewarding to see how much we went through to where we are now.

Saturday, 10 February 2018

100 years of women’s suffrage: celebrating forgotten women

I took part in an incredible event at the university of Reading last Thursday organized by the departments of English literature and History. The Van Emden Lecture Theatre was full of young (and not so young) people eager to celebrate a hundred years of women’s suffrage displaying the colours of the WSPU (purple, white and green) and pictures of significant (but not well known) women.

In 1918 a limited women’s suffrage was granted in the UK for women over thirty and owning property. Women’s vote was already effective in countries like New Zealand, Finland, Norway, Sweden and Australia. After WW I, most of the western countries introduced or expanded the right to women’s vote, though for some nations it happened only after WW II, such as France (1944), Italy (1946), Greece (1952) and Switzerland (1971).
The event at Reading not only celebrated the achievement of women’s suffrage – which today is considered such an inalienable right –, it also pointed out forgotten outstanding women who are missing from historical records. One example is Constance Garnett who taught herself Russian from scratch and translated sixty-nine works of Russian nineteenth century literature into English, among them authors like Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Chekhov. Her work had a huge impact on the English authors of the time. But instead of recognizing the importance of her contribution, some critics consider her work flat, second order translations, in brief she was not a professional. But translations are not supposed to last forever and this is the reason why books are translated again and again. The language and the inevitable interpretation of the original text become outdated quickly. So, why such a denigration of Garnett’s work?

Other incredible courageous women were remembered, such as Stella Browne, who campaigned for the right of legal abortion, Jayaben Desai, who organized the Grunwick strike in north west London, Libby Lane, the first woman bishop, the African-American abolitionist Harriet Tubman, Mary Aming, famous for extracting fossils in Dorset and Devon but whose work was never fully credited, Ching Shih, who was a pirate, and Emma Hardy, Thomas Hardy’s first wife, who wrote two books about her marriage and a collection of poems.

I believe that there must be much more women whose records are buried, forgotten or erased to hide their achievements and potentials and give space to men. Diminishing women not only keeps them quiet, but also grants some vital necessities of our society, like child bearing and their raising, cooking, shopping, cleaning, caring for disabled and elderly people. All these works require time, energies and dedication. They can be shared with men, of course, and some men do it, or you can pay someone to do it, which has a cost (in the case of disabled or elderly people it can have a high cost). How much easier it is to give the whole burden to women. And how unfair.
Your life slips away without giving you the time to concentrate on anything substantial and rewarding, anything distinctive that puts you in touch with the outer world and opens your mind. Having a family is rewarding as well, but it may not be enough. The multitask approach can be a solution (having it all: home, family and career) but it is also exhausting, almost impossible sometimes.
Maybe today that life is longer, that women can easily find help in house chores and some men are happy to help with the children, maybe women today can catch up at some point, engage in serious career paths and stop being considered only amateurish.
I am sure that there are millions of talented women that can find their valuable space in our world. As Madeleine Davies said last Thursday, genius is not only in the masculine.

Sunday, 28 January 2018

Our Christmas time

Cooking and shopping were our priorities at Christmas. We stored enough Italian food the week before and carefully planned the menu and how to prepare the dishes. My daughter made her famous lasagna, enough for three days at least, while my mother and I prepared the fish for Christmas Eve and the duck and sides for Christmas day. For pudding, we bought Pandoro, Panettone and torrone. We went to the Italian mass, of course, where we met the Italian community and sang the traditional Italian Christmas carol, Tu scendi dalle stelle (you come down from the stars), but ended with We wish you a Merry Christmas.

My favourite Christmas meditation was Mary’s song:
“He has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.”
(Mary’s song, Luke 1: 51-53)

I consider it typical disruptive feminine language (technically: écriture féminine), which is what I am studying at the moment. A different view of the world that tries to unsettle the male order. I’m a fan of écriture féminine.

My Christmas motto was on my glittering t-shirt I wore on the day: Ski you later, a pun to state in a casual way that what matters in everyday life are the little things, as the big ones are made of them eventually, and are too abstract and unreachable as a whole, often doomed to failure.
In the evening we watched the Great Gatsby with Leonardo Di Caprio and Carey Mulligan, a masterpiece (both the book, the story, the film, and the other film directed by F.F. Coppola), we discussed and compared the different actors and characters, especially Gatsby and Daisy, alluring as ever.

On Boxing day we ventured in some crazy shopping in Guildford and Camberley looking for more stuff to accumulate for winter, in a shopaholic lethargic mood. We found good bargains: earrings, coats and shoes. Not something we really needed but it was fun, and not so expensive.

My husband came back for New Year’s Eve. My mother and I decided to make homemade tortellini for the occasion. We prepared the dough and the filling (two kinds of meat plus mortadella) and set to wrapping and curling the tortellini one by one. The final result was OK on the whole, not perfect, but genuine, and everybody kindly said it was delicious. We prepared lentils as well (according to tradition they mean prosperity for the new year) and luganega, an Italian sausage.

To end the night, we watched a Japanese film (Like Father, Like Son by Hirokazu Kore-Eda), Jury Prize at the Festival of Cannes 2013. A remarkable story about two sons switched at birth in hospital and raised for six years by their non-biological families. It puzzled me a bit, especially some traits of the Japanese culture and the female characters, so different from western ones. But I should start becoming familiar with it as my daughter is about to do a two-year Master in Tokyo, beginning this April.

Ski you later, alligator.

Thursday, 11 January 2018

What I did before Christmas

Wrapping presents and decorating the house for Christmas made me finally realize that the deadline was near. I needed to stop fussing with books and writing and think seriously about planning dinners and family gatherings.

I overloaded the Christmas tree as usual and scattered old and new Christmas cards on every possible free shelf and top surface available, prepared saffron buns and pepparkakor (ginger biscuits) for St
Lucia on 13th December (according to the Swedish tradition), baked panpepato and bought Italian Christmas cakes (Pandoro and Panettone) and other Italian products at Italian shops in Woking and Maidenhead for our Italian binge, and we all travelled north to celebrate Christmas with my autistic daughter Valentina.

Before the hectic family festive routine, I managed to meet the deadline for my PhD and send an application for a bursary. Some of my creative work was published in poetry magazines (London Grip and Poetry News) and others were accepted and will be published in spring (Ink, Sweat and Tears and Alternating Current). I have also submitted some more work hoping my lucky streak will keep. And I am on Twitter now (@scaranocarla62), trying to post something smart (but not too smart) almost every day.

My mum spent Christmas and New Year’s Eve with us. We went together to see Robin Hood at the Victoria Theatre in Woking, a cracking pantomime with a scary part in 3D. We also visited a beautiful exhibition, ‘Turner in Surrey’, at the Lightbox. It focused on the period he lived in Isleworth (around 1805) when he used to fish and paint along the Thames and the river Wey. His sketches were quick and direct, reminding of the Impressionists’ practice to work in the open air reproducing the subject as it appeared, depicting in blotches and approximate marks. The contact and engagement with nature was paramount (differently from the French Impressionists who, about seventy years later, mainly represented life in cities). There were maps of Surrey, his fishing rod and elegant engravings of mansions and lakes in Middlesex and Surrey. Some of the sites are now part of Greater London as the growing urban development incorporated places that used to be in Surrey, such as Richmond and Kingston. My favourite pieces were the oil sketches, so fresh and original, evoking the pictures of his last years.

My mum could also meet her friends at the Italian club in Maybury and at the Italian mass at St Dunstan’s. They are lively elderly ladies who always welcome her. One of them, her best friend, invited us for dinner at her house. She was a cook before retiring and prepared a typical English dinner especially for us with two kinds of meat, gravy, vegetables and potatoes. We had a lovely day watching Italian TV and talking about her past. She came to England in the late 50s almost illiterate as her primary school teacher made her look after her own children instead of letting her attend the lessons. She came here because she desperately needed a job to support her family. Starting as a
maid, she soon improved attending courses to become a cook, found better jobs and took her whole family here. She also told me she saved her father’s life. In fact, he suffered from diabetes and had one of his legs amputated after a fall from a tree. In Italy there weren’t proper cures and assistance at the time, so she took him here and he lived with her for ten years till his death. Later on, she married a Ukrainian man who had a story similar to hers, but harsher as he was wounded during the war; unfortunately he died three years ago. Living alone is not always easy for her, but she is such an energetic person; she drives and helps her neighbours and her family, who live nearby. I definitely feel proud of my Italian friends.

Before Christmas, we also went to visit my autistic daughter who lives in a residential school near Doncaster. We spent two days with her and she was overjoyed to have the whole family around her, spoiling her with presents, her favourite food and playing with her all the time. We had dinner at an excellent Italian restaurant, Trattoria Toscana, where we had our official Christmas event all together and exchanged presents. Valentina was lovely in spite of the noise and the excitement of the evening. We took videos and photos, had great fun with her unpredictable original way of dressing herself up and with the way she communicates drawing what she wants on a piece of paper in such a skilful way.

Just after that, my husband went to Italy to spend Christmas with his parents while I stayed at home with my mum and two of my children, who had decided to spend Christmas in England.

Saturday, 9 December 2017

On cakes

The reason why I have posted so many cake recipes in this blog along the seven years since I started publishing it on Lancashire Life’s website and then on Blogspot, is that I usually make a cake every weekend. We like having it as a dessert and it is handy to have a slice of cake for breakfast before dashing to work. Above all, I really enjoy making cakes, it is relaxing and rewarding. Not just because they come out well, all modesty aside, they also taste good, their sugary flavour boosts my energy and makes me feel better on the whole. Here are some of them I have recently experimented, which may come in useful during Christmas time as well.

Cake with yogurt
You need: two eggs, 300 g of plain flour, 170 g of golden caster sugar, 50 g of butter, 100 g of chopped dried apricots, 250 g of natural yogurt, one tsp of baking powder, half a tsp of bicarbonate of soda, 100g of white chocolate and party sprinkles to decorate.
Beat the butter and add the yolks of the eggs and the sugar. Mix the yogurt with the dried apricots and add it to the mixture. Add flour, the baking powder and the bicarbonate of soda. Finally whip the whites till stiff and add them as well. Bake at 180° C for 30-45 minutes. To decorate the cake, melt the white chocolate in a pan adding some milk if it is too thick. Pour it on the cake and sprinkle some sweets on top.

Fruit pie
I prepared this fruit pie to celebrate our ten years in the UK using fruit with the colours of the British and the Italian flag. It was so good it was gone in a flash.
For the dough you need: 250 g of self-raising flour, two eggs, 50 g of sugar, 50 g of butter.
For the custard cream you need: 500 ml of milk, 100 g of sugar, two eggs, 40 g of plain flour, grated zest of a lemon.
For the topping you need: fruit (e.g. strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, kiwi, peaches), gelatine in leaf or sachet (follow the instructions on the packet).
Prepare the dough mixing all the ingredients then chill it for half an hour. Prepare the custard cream mixing all the ingredients and cooking it till it thickens then let it cool. Roll out the dough and line a greased pie tin with the dough sheet. Bake the dough for 20-30 minutes at 180° C or till golden. Spread the custard cream on top and decorate with the fruit. To finish pour some gelatine on top and chill before serving.

Rice pie
You need: 250 g of Arborio or Carnaroli rice, 500 ml of milk, a piece of the rind of a lemon, two tbsp of sugar.
For the dough and the custard cream see the recipes above.

Prepare the dough and the custard cream following the instructions of the fruit pie above. Cook the rice in 500 ml of milk adding two tbsp of sugar and the lemon rind. When the rice is ready, remove the lemon rind and mix it with the custard cream. Roll out the dough and line a greased pie tin, spread the rice and custard cream mixture on top and bake for 30-45 minutes at 180° C.

Apple pie
I made some apple pies and cakes at the end of summer when some neighbours kindly provided apples for free leaving them in baskets along the road leading to Chobham high street. Here is the recipe of my favourite apple pie:
For the dough you need: 300 g of plain flour, a pinch of salt, half a tsp of baking powder, 100 g of sugar, three eggs, 60 g of melted butter.

For the filling you need: 5 apples, 100 g of sugar, the juice of a lemon, 3-4 whole cloves, a tsp of fennel seeds, a tsp of ground cinnamon, the grated zest of a lemon, 100 g of pine nuts, 100 g of sultanas.
Peel, core and cut the apples in cubes, add the sugar, the juice of the lemon and all the other flavours. Prepare the dough mixing all the ingredients and chill it for half an hour. Roll out half of the dough and line a greased tin pie, fill it with the apple mixture and cover the pie with the rest of the dough. Bake for 45 minutes 180° C.

Fig tea loaf
Here is a super-delicious fig cake made with dried figs which I love. Figs always remind me of Christmas as that's the only time I had them when I was a child.
You need: 300 g of flour, two eggs, 10 g of brown sugar, the grated zest of a lemon, two tbsp of sunflower oil, one and a half tsp of baking powder, half a tsp of bicarbonate of soda, 150 g of dried figs coarsely chopped, 50 g of mixed peel and half a glass of milk.
Mix the figs, mixed peel and the zest of the lemon with the sugar and eggs. Add the rest of the ingredients and stir well. Pour the mixture into a greased loaf tin and bake for half an hour to forty five minutes at 150°C, till a skewer comes out clean. Sprinkle generously with icing sugar when cold.
I’ll be back in January. Have a good Christmas!