Sun, Sea and Sicily

The next leg of my birthday travels took me to Sicily, a part of Italy that I have never visited.  I rented an apartment by the sea, twenty minutes from Palermo.

In search of all things truly Sicilian, I drove my battered hire car for a day exploring the centre of Palermo, with Denise and Shan who had joined me. I have no photos for this it-should-have-been-simple-but-it-wasn’t journey, but let’s just say, I have learned how to drive the Italian way, and I know why all hire cars have dents.

The rules are:
– Never give way, even if it is someone else’s right of way.
– Yes you can fit between two parked cars although a grape skin will barely fit between the metal.
– Motor cycles will overtake you on either side and sometimes at the same time.
– You will be honked to move on, even though to go forward would involve an accident with oncoming vehicles.
– Drivers don’t argue with the buses, so stay in their slip stream and you can get through.
– Everyone gesticulates rudely at everyone else, and it’s important to respond in similar fashion if you want to keep up your street cred.

Food was high on our agenda. The street markets are a riot of colour and objects to eat that are unknown outside of this island. Fish street food is delicious, and we worked our way through a list of ‘must eats’, courtesy of Shan, who had Sicilian colleagues at work. My knowledge of  Italian food being mainly Tuscan, I had never heard of some of the dishes.  ‘Arancini’, a Sicilian speciality, is the most delicious local snack dish – a mixture of savoury fillings that are heated inside a ball of pressed rice.  I had also never known a brioche ice-cream.  This is a sweet milk roll stuffed with any flavour ice-cream you choose and once you have finished it, your belly will sink to your toes.  Delicious but a meal in itself.  I had ‘zuppa d’inglese’ flavoured ice-cream, which is custard with chocolate pieces in it.  When I pointed out that I was from England but had never heard of English soup, the woman in the gelateria told me that it wasn’t English, it was Sicilian.  I’m sure this makes sense on some level…

Life lesson learnt on this day: if you see a prickly pear fallen from a tree, (known here as Pears from India) do not under any circumstances pick it up in the notion that it is free food – the skin will leave a thousand small spins embedded in your fingers and it takes about two hours for the pain to subside. Instead buy the ready skinned ones from the street sellers. Worth the money.

Apart from food, there is the rich history of this island. We visited the Catacombes. Pay three euros and you can see a couple of hundred clothed real skeletons in various stages of mummification. I found this neither macabre nor frightening, but I did wonder why humans feel the need to preserve the body, when the spirit has so clearly passed on. Their sagging jaw bones, the open eyed sockets, the traces of human hair on the cranium, the straw stuffed limbs and faded decaying clothes all made me take the firm decision to be cremated and be done with it when my time comes. Still – it was interesting.


Palermo was full of litter and graffiti and traffic and life. The historic buildings were lovely, but as incongruous as the late Queen Mother at the Notting Hill Gate Festival.

The following morning I realised that staying in Sferracavallo, just west of Palermo was the perfect place to rent an apartment as opposed to being in the city. This small fishing village was relatively untouristy and not overly crowded, except at night. You can see the boats set out in the morning and come back with mussels. Everyone around us speaks Italian and the shops clearly cater for local families and workers. At a local bar we have met ‘Frank’ aka ‘Francesco’ who has lived in California running an Italian restaurant for the past forty years.  He is back in Sicily visiting his brother and was eager to tell us all about the area.  He speaks English with the heaviest of Italian accents and was only in America to make money.  I totally understand.  Why be anywhere else but here, if you had a choice?

The harbour views from our apartment speak for themselves. A cup of tea on our terrazzo in the morning breeze and the bluest of skies and you feel all’s well with the world.


Tea, Tuscany & a Birthday


Early morning there is a softness to the sky that will later give way to storm or fluffy cloud or perhaps that intense azure ring from edge to edge that is so famous here. I sit with a cup of tea (most un-Italian) and survey the vista in front of me. Somewhere in my soul, I smile because I am home.

My affinity with Italy started with my mother, Fiorentina born, a maternal thread that spooled out to my childhood and beyond. It stretched across Italy from Rome to Milan on many journeys, but in recent years, my life settled for a short span of time in this region. I have learned so much here: the annual cycle of the contadini, the growling of the tractors as they plant and harvest crops, the cacciatore, with their khaki uniforms and loud pops of the shotguns as they fell the pheasant and wild boar, the agriturismo, with their fields that change colour from green spring to beige blanched summer broken by yellow sunflowers and violent red tomatoes, on to the purple of autumn spotted with pumpkins, and sometimes – if we are lucky – the white coating of a short snowfall in winter that decorates every ancient roof with a magical dusting.

I have learned it is hard to find work here, and even harder to make that work pay, so that one can live, eat and survive. If you are not Toscana, you can never be truly one of them, and yet you will be accepted into the community provided you have a economic means to do for others, either by spending or barter or by being a good inquilino. I admire the Tuscan people, they have had few handouts, survived wars and bombing still they plough on, paying their way and developing ‘un modo da vivere’ that is envied the world over.


This land, and all the people I met, became my fourth child. I helped to plant olive and fruit trees here, my legacy after my death. I helped to restore vegetable plots, I put in a wood burning stove and learned to use a chain saw so that I could slice the dense wood required into manageable chunks to ease the winter cold with a piping hot stufa. I endured the zanzare – the ever present mosquitoes, the papatachi, the voracious midges, and I watched with fascination as a myriad of lizards moved rapidly, seamlessly from rock to rock, shedding their tails when predators lurked, so that one did not notice their disappearance into the crevices, whilst the ejected limb wriggled in the dust.

I walked dogs here, down dry river beds and across the beaches at Cecina. I have laughed and shared a love of Italy and all things Tuscan with new friends under a silk black sky with diamonds, whilst fire flies blinked across the fields.

I have loved watching the birds of prey who settle on the telephone poles and then swoop with unerring accuracy to pick out the field mice. With fascination, I acknowledged small black scorpions standing their ground on the terra cotta tiles, unafraid of a large human foot approaching. I have seen the deer, turn and bound away in the pine woods, chased by dogs that had no chance of keeping pace and occasionally the ‘irskine’ or ‘porcospino’ that rattled away hurriedly to hide – illegal to hunt, yet they are prized for their meat. They are a remnant of Ancient Rome and its African connections. I have seen the many migrants, their ebony faces staring into mine, hawking any trinkets they could find to make their way north to Belgium or Germany.

I remember with pity the many caged dogs that reside in the woods, who sit, barking and howling, waiting for a chance to be released into the hunt by their hunter masters. The chickens in coops, the swallows that circle, the rise and fold of the hills making their nest in the barns, the daily chatter of friends in the piazza, the richness of the local wine, oil and food.

I am sixty years old and I am grateful to have had my birthday here, grateful for the friends who travelled an hour from Montecatini Val di Cecina to share it with me.

And last but certainly not least, the warmth and friendship of Wide Open Writing, an adventure in authorship never to be forgotten and hopefully to continue and follow for years to come.

Grateful for having experienced and shared all of this.

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

Buses and bugs in Florence


Coming to Florence on my own, I was unsure of whether I would find my way around, but as luck would have it, I had rented rooms just next to the Number 11 bus stop, which took me all the way to the Cimitero Evangelista degli Allori.  In fact, the bus driver honked at me when I got off the bus, a stop too early and admonished me, saying that he was the professional and he had told me that the bus would put me down right in front of the cemetery, so I felt incumbent to do exactly as he wished. (I had intended to walk!) Door to door service on the bus for Euro1.20.  Not bad.

It had rained in the morning, so the city was fresh, not too hot and no humidity – just perfect for digging up all the weeds on my family plot.  The rosemary plant, which replaced the lovely golden rose we planted at my mother’s funeral, had survived the drought of this past summer, but to brighten up the grave, I bought a lovely flowering plant from a newly opened shop in the cemetery grounds.  The florist assured me it would last for a few months and she lent me some tools, as well as giving me her phone number, saying I could ring up and order more anytime and she would place them for me.


It is rare for everything to go so beautifully to plan when you set out, not sure how you will arrive, nor whether you can find a trowel and a place to wash your hands, but everything went perfectly, and it was only when I went to leave the cemetery feeling that I had duly honoured my mother, my aunt, my father and of course John Tomlinson Baldwin, mio nonno, that I realised I had been bitten – more than once!  Watching all the welts come up on my skin reminded me of past summers in Montecatini where all I could do was scratch and bleed.  However, even here, the gods smiled on me and within about 15 minutes, the swellings subsided and the itchiness went away.  Marvellous, some immunity after all those months of bug misery.

After that I happily took buses all day, visited places, chatted to shopkeepers and generally loved leisurely wandering around a city my mother always regarded as home.  The Ponte Vecchio was full of Chinese and Arabs looking in the jewellery shops, and the queue outside the Duomo was certainly enough to make me skip that and simply enjoy the outside architecture.


I spent an hour talking in Italian to a lady in a gelateria, whilst eating my pistachio ice-cream and drinking cold white wine. She told me all about her views on Florence – the best city in the world bar none – and Donald Trump – mad and dangerous, but nothing would happen to Italy, because nobody bothered about him here.

And finally my photo in front of the Arno, taken by a tourist who asked me to take hers.  You don’t need a selfie stick when you can simply strike up a conversation with someone standing next to you.  La Dolce Vita indeed.


The Return

It is seven months since I have been in Italy.  I sit on a terrazzo, sipping a cup of Earl Grey and surveying the beautiful hills.


The GP told me to avoid Italy in case it caused a recurrence of my illness.  However, I cannot leave this country to be coloured by certain memories only.  Italy was the happiest part of my childhood; Italy is a part of whom I am, my favourite food, my favourite wines, my favourite views, il modo di vivere piu speciale, and although, I do not wish to document the lows of these past seven months, it has brought me closer to a sense of what and whom I truly value.

So here I am in Florence, initially going to visit my mother’s grave, before I move on to other places.  I say my mother’s grave, but in fact, it is the grave of John Tomlinson Baldwin, my grandfather, and an artist who although sporting an American passport, was every inch a Florentine.  He was born, lived and died here in 1964.  He never left except for the occasional trip to USA to see his sisters.  He was imprisoned during the Mussolini regime as a communist – in those days that meant being anti-fascist. In fact, he was an artist, profoundly deaf, who managed to maintain friendships, follow his own creative path and live a full life, in an era when disabilities were not tolerated.

When my mother died two years ago, I vowed to take the ashes of my parents (my father had died ten years earlier but was in an urn next to my mother’s bed) and bury them in my grandfather’s grave.  One of the strongest things that held my parents together was their love of Italy, and both wished to be buried in Italy.  Michael, my cousin, also added a portion of his mother’s ashes (my aunt), who like my mother was born in Florence.  I regard this as the family grave, and it does not hold any sadness for me. Rather I regard it as a place close to my heart.

So for the first days of my pilgrimage to rediscover Italy on my own, I am staying in a delightful AirBnB on the Via Masaccio, which is about an hour’s walk from the Cimitero Evangelista degli Allori on the Via Senese, but the journey will take me through the historic centre.  It is an odd day, because it is raining and there has been a storm, but at least the punishing heat of Ferragosto has dissipated and the tourists are beginning to go home. Florence is not the city that my mother and aunt were forced to leave because of World War II, but it has that timeless quality nonetheless.

The building and rooms I am staying in are so delightfully, Toscana.  From the high ceilings to the stucco on the walls and the cotta tiles.  The streets with their green shutters and the large houses, now made into apartments, still maintain their distinctive Florentine architecture on the outside, with a spattering of newer buildings that would have been created post bombing.  A nod to the present day is that I can hear in the distance Muslim prayers being chanted on a loud speaker. I can’t imagine what my  mother would have made of that, but to me it is just a communal coming together, a call to peace, and all is well in the world for this short moment in time.

Home: Thoughts on refugees


I begin the morning with a cup of Earl Grey tea, where ever I am. A ritual that comforts me now, as I ask: Where is Home?

At this moment, I am technically homeless. I have possessions, objects, clothes in three countries: USA, England and Italy. No one place is my home, no one room represents my bedroom, no one country is my country of residence. At this moment.  It is a situation that thousands of refugees find themselves in.

Consider all the rhetoric about migrants that fills the internet and TV. Choose your vantage point…

– keep them out / let them in/ they are economic migrants / they are false migrants and potential terrorists / they do or don’t speak the language / they are a drain on the system / they are doctors, lawyers displaced, and so useful to the system.  Yet all the rhetoric does not define the fact that they are people like me, who live out of a suitcase.

Their life has been parceled up and their routines have been thrown away. They have had to choose between something they cherish and something that is useful. A cup of tea may be all that remains of what was once a structure and society that held them together.

My paternal grandfather’s family left Austria because of the systematic ethnic cleansing that was occurring in the nineteenth century in Europe. His family was Jewish. They came via London, where he was born, to a place of safety: New York. The Statue of Liberty welcomed them in – a family of refugees. They had a life with ups and downs, but it did not stop them putting down roots and making a home for themselves. My father lost his job when I was a small child, and so I was brought to London; we were economic refugees. My mother’s family were in Italy in the twentieth century, and left Europe because of World War II; they were refugees forced to flee because of war. In each case, my family sought a place to live and work without the fear of being persecuted or being unable to support themselves.

To be told to leave your home because it is unsafe, to quit the bedroom, whether through economic necessity or through emotional turmoil or through war, is an event that is as high on the list of stresses as death or divorce. In my life, I have known what it is to have lost my home on more than one occasion, and each time you say to yourself: Move on, bounce back, find a new place. Yet I look at some of the ancient faces of the migrants on TV, the grandmothers, faces passive, and grandfathers, with eyes that stare, who sit silently whilst the children rattle around dusty spaces. I look at those people on the newsreels and I understand how they feel. What I don’t understand is how the people watching feel.

The refugees want to have a cup of tea in a safe house, where no one shouts at them, no one turfs them out of their home so they can take over, no one threatens their existence, no one looks down on them and treats them with mistrust and condescension, and tells them they must run to stay in the same place, change to keep up with external demands. They just want a home where they can live in peace and have enough to eat, heat and sleep.

Isn’t that what you want? Isn’t that what you have? Do you think they will take it away from you? Is that your deepest fear? Is that why we reject them? Because someone has already taken their home away from them? Because they walk where we most fear to tread?

If only the world could change so that everyone acted on compassion rather than anger or fear, we could stop the migrant flow. Because most people just want to be back in their own home. To brew a cup of tea in a place of safety. Gandhi said that to change the world, you had to start with yourself. So I have only one goal, one thought at this moment: Eventually, when I find a home, I will put a notice outside my door, and it will read:

In this home, you will be offered a cup of tea. Everyone is welcome. This is a place of safety, where you can share your ideas and your values without judgement. Please leave your anger at the door when you come in.                        Won’t you join me?

Why Tea?

Vaclav Havel, playwright, dissident and President, in that order, once wrote an entire letter to his wife about tea.  His work was heavily censored in prison, so he took to writing on themes that would be beyond reproach.  In his cell, he was allowed the act of brewing cups of tea, and this gave him comfort in what must have been a restricted and narrow world for his intellect.  In moments of my life, where things have seemed difficult or the path ahead has been unclear, it is not wine that I want to turn to, but tea that offers me a breath of reflection on my situation.  The wonderful restorative properties of tea: lemon or milk, assam or earl grey, breakfast or evening, a cup of tea goes with the kind of solid thought that can put nonsensical and random events through lens of  ‘chaos theory’ into a world order that allows me to accept the past and get on with the future.

This blog is about my approach to my sixtieth year, my third age, and my thoughts about our beautiful planet unfolding against a back drop of shifting politics, uncertain economics and changing values.  Please pour yourself a cup of tea and join me on reflecting on the world from the viewpoint of one of the middle of the road people, who vote, but lack power, and speak, but are not always heard.