Venice: On the Trail of La Serenissima.

I barely sleep the night before our trip to Venice. It’s always like this when something big is going to happen. Anxiety gets the better of me. Will I be disappointed? Will the train be on time? Will I fall into a canal? These questions and more rush through the tunnels of my brain like the high speed train we’re going to take today.

But the train is on time (at 07.53), our prima seats are really comfortable, and Kat and I eat our croissants and train snacks and just sit and chat for the two hour journey, and of course, my anxieties dissipate one by one as excitement overtakes me.

My first view of Venice is from the train window. As the lagoon comes into view, we hit the Via della Liberta, the causeway that connects the mainland to the main island. My breath catches in my throat as we pass some of the smaller islands dotted throughout the water, as we pass boats, pleasure craft and fishing craft, and then… there! A line of buildings, immediately recognisable as Venetian. I’m almost overwhelmed by the desire to shout ‘There it is! Venice! Can you see her?’ But of course I don’t, although I’m fidgeting in my seat, eager to get off the train. And then the train arrives and we alight onto Venetian soil.

I’m not prepared for what I see when we exit the Santa Lucia stazione. It’s so amazing I almost can’t take it in. Because the station concourse is on the Grand Canal, directly opposite the Chiesa di San Simeon Piccolo, a most magnificent church, which shines white in the sunshine, topped by a verdigris cupola. Immediately my eyes fill with tears. I’m here, in this dream, this fairytale city, a place I’ve longed for ever since I learned of its existence. My tears are of relief, of joy that I’m here, and a response to a place I’ve never seen the like of before. Kat stands next to me, and I think she’s a bit teary-eyed too, although she’s been here before. I think she’s as much excited for me as she is for herself. And I’m so glad she didn’t tell me about this view before, that she’s allowed me to see it fresh, to see it unbiased by her recollection of it.

 

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We stand and stare for a while, and I eventually pull myself together. Originally we’d thought we’d get the water bus to the Piazza San Marco (St Mark’s Square), but the queues are long and it looks confusing so we decide to walk instead. And so I have my first experience of a Venetian bridge.

The Ponte degli Scalzi is a beautiful white stone bridge with elaborate balustrades, and spans the width of the Grand Canal. It’s also steep and stepped, and I watch as a couple of young girls try to haul massive suitcases upwards. It occurs to me then that Venice is even more different than I’d thought. The canals are the streets and all transportation is by boat, or on foot. Thinking about it kind of blows my mind a bit as I consider various scenarios, and this continues to preoccupy me as we move through the city.

Off the bridge and we’re off in search of the Piazza San Marco. Immediately we’re sucked into a warren of narrow alleys filled with old buildings. It’s exciting, like being thrust back in time. I imagine the swirling skirts of women hurrying to meet their lovers, shrouded by the night and intrigue. I imagine murders committed in the dark. I imagine… so much. Through and through and through the streets we go, following the signs to the Piazza, which are at least clear, although a couple of times we get lost in the labyrinth and have to retrace our steps. It’s wonderful, and I mean that in all ways. Wonderful and wonder-full. We constantly cross bridges over canals, where houses overhang the water, where gondolas sit at the bottom of steep slippery steps, the gondoliers looking like men out of romance novels, dressed in their uniforms of striped tops, black trousers and wide-brimmed hats as they wait for customers.

Occasionally the alleyways open up into streets lined with shops selling the masks that Venice is so famous for. I become obsessed at studying them, because many of them veer toward the grotesque. Skulls. Creepy baby doll faces with blank eyes and red lips. Feline faces. Long nosed plague masks. Devils and Day of the Dead. Steampunk masquerade masks. Feathers and filigree, full and half face. Too many styles to describe, all utterly fascinating. Kat finds them disturbing and I guess I can see why, but for me, as a writer of the weird and strange, they inspire stories in me.

Venice is making me want to write.

 

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The Piazza San Marco, when we arrive, swarms with tourists. Again, it’s to be expected, and although it’s crowded, it doesn’t really matter. This is the main public square in Venice and I’m here, here, here. The Piazza is overseen by St Mark’s Basilica, and I can’t do justice to a description. Suffice to say that like so many buildings I’ve seen in Italy (Rome included) it’s a triumph of architecture and design. Then there is the clock tower (Torre dell’Orologio), and its beautiful, recently restored clock face, which feature golden figures representing the astrological signs around its centre. And then there’s the Campanile, the free-standing bell tower of the basilica, which stands proudly alone. It’s so tall (323 feet in total, including belfry and pyramidal spire) it hurts to look up at it. Like so many other landmarks, this is also recently restored, and there’s a queue of people waiting to climb it, but that’s not for me, so I just stare, awestruck. I find, as I continue my journey through Venice, that I become a little obsessed with clock towers. They are everywhere.

The rest of the square is open, shops and restaurants lining its perimeter, but we leave the actual square and walk toward the water’s edge, still on the Grand Canal, gondolas bobbing in their moorings, but here it widens out into the enormous lagoon. We’re opposite a couple of islands, and it strikes me again that Venice is unique; its water based way of life is compelling and yet a little alien to me, who’s used to roads and traffic.

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Now we’re at the Rialto and its famous bridge. It’s choked with tourists and it’s not easy getting onto the bridge, but we haven’t walked through dozens of little streets, crossed so many bridges, not to stand on this one now. We take in two views – one over the lagoon – spectacular of course; and one toward the Bridge of Sighs (named in English by the poet Byron) or, more sinister, the Ponte dei Sospiri, its name reminding me of the Dario Argento film, Suspiria. The Ponte dei Sospiri is white with stone-barred windows, and passes over the Rio di Palazzo. It’s a link between the Doge’s Palace and the New Prison, and it is said that prisoners would pass between the two to their place of execution, and sigh at their last sight of the beautiful city. Anyway, that may or may not be myth, but it makes me sad to look at it, the idea of passing from paradise to hell, with no hope of escape. My writer’s mind writhes with imaginings.

It’s lunch time by now and we search for food. It’s a shame that in a city as special as Venice that good food is a little hard to find, because so many restaurants cater for the tourist trade, and we don’t bother too search too hard, just find a pizzeria that serves good enough pizza. I’ve heard it said that the Venetians keep the best restaurants secret – fair enough!

After lunch we wander some more, and cross to the other side of the city, via more bridges, through more squares with gothic looking houses that we play ‘would you stay there overnight?’ games (no, we wouldn’t, is the general consensus we come to!) so that soon we’re walking opposite the Piazza San Marco. We pass the Santa Maria della Salute, a magnificent Roman Catholic Church, known as the Salute because it was built to offer thanks for deliverance from the plague in 1630, and which stands on the narrow tip of the Punta della Dogana, which pushes out into the lagoon, and offers a breathtaking view of the water and the skyline with its basilicas and campaniles. By now time is passing quickly so we take our leave and begin to walk back, although a shower of rain stops us for a little while and we seek shelter under a lush tree growing behind a wall in what must be a private garden.

When it stops we go in search of gelato. We find a Grom, a small chain that we’ve visited in Rome before (and there’s a ranch in London too!), and order our flavours. Kat has strawberry meringue – yummy and tastes intensely of strawberries, but a little sweet for me, and pairs it with pistachio; and I choose a single flavour, raspberry, which is tart and again, tastes intensely of the fruit from which it’s made. It occurs to me that I’m purely and simply happy. I’ve been like this since we set foot on Italian soil, and it’s such an unusual emotion for me that I wish I could bottle it to take away with me, for when times get tough. Maybe I can find a Venetian apothecary who can extract its essence from my mind and body? But this is fanciful of course, and I must enjoy these moments when they come. Store them away in my own spiritual vessel, so open it when it’s needed.

I want to buy some Murano glass earrings so we look in shops now. Murano glass holds a real fascination for me. I love how it looks, the depth and swirl and intricacy of colour and design. I love the idea that there’s an island just for glassmaking, romantic in itself, as well as the idea of the craftwork and dedication to this one form of art. Eventually – I’m being fussy – I find a pair that have been made on the island (at least I decide to trust the label), and that are neither too cheap nor too expensive. They’re drop earrings, spheres, gold the colour of molten sunshine, flecked with ruby-red running throughout the gold, swirls of god blood. Anyway I don’t have anything like them, and although I ‘um’ and ‘ah’ – there are so many colours and patterns – these are the ones that keep calling to me. I’m satisfied, and I’ve been wearing them a lot since I’ve been back, and I imagine I can hear La Serenissima whispering to me when I do, and her voice is sweet, yet dark with mystery.

We arrive back at the station concourse and sit on the steps, looking at the Grand Canal, at the traffic of boats, at the people disgorging from the station towards their own experiences in this city of wonders. Of course I cry when we have to leave, but as Venice disappears from view, I hope and wish that some day I will return.

 

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Florence Part Two: Admiring Art. Finding Food.

We wake up early today, and step out into bright sunshine and 26 degree heat, and go in search of breakfast. Over Danish pastries, we discuss our plans for the day. A visit to the Profumu Farmaceutica di Santa Maria de Novella, originally home to an infirmary in a Dominican monastery, which has, over the years produced perfume for Caterina de’ Medici, become an apothecary’s shop (opening to the public in 1612), to what it is now, a most beautiful home to a pharmacy and perfumery. We enter a paradise of ornate rooms with painted ceilings, into the pharmacy’s perfume shop, where displays of old bottles hug the walls.

As we expect, the perfumes are expensive, way beyond our price range, but we look and explore anyway, wandering from room to room, sniffing scents and soaps, examining the displays of bottles, old mixing paraphernalia, lists of ingredients and the artworks on the walls and ceilings. One of my particular favourite sounding mixtures is Pennywort Compound, which claims to have an ‘aesthetic’ effect on cellulite; and the Pausadonna, which – and its name speaks for itself – claims to aid the menopausal symptoms.

We emerge from this display of opulence and claims of cures into the street, and head for the Piazza della Signoria, which is crowded with tourists. We’re here because we’ve made the decision not to visit the two main galleries – the Uffizi and l’Accademia – because we’re time stretched, so we’ve come to Florence’s main square instead, once the site of Savonarola’s Bonfire of the Vanities in 1497, where thousands of pieces of art, cosmetics , musical instruments and even books – including the works of Dante and Ovid – were burned in a warning against immorality, sin and temptation. After Savonarola’s execution, the Palazzo Vecchio, which overlooks the piazza, welcomed the triumphant return of the Medici family and the rebirth of the Renaissance. The piazza is also the home to copies of many famous statues, including Michelangelo’s David, which was placed outside the Palazzo as a sign of rebellion against Medici tyranny. I’m not sure of the year that happened, but this David is impressive anyway, and beautiful.

In fact the whole square is full of wonderful sculptures, and we’re particularly taken by the Nettuno, erected in 1575 to celebrate Medici fortune at sea. To our left, is the Loggia dei Lanza, an open air art gallery with yet more impressive Renaissance sculptures. It’s almost impossible to take it all in, but we sit on the steps inside the Loggia for a while, soak in the atmosphere, and then decide to move on. We’re on a mission to try what are alleged by some to be the best sandwiches in Florence. So we get up, press our way through the crowds of tourists, towards lunch.

We see the queues before we see the two sandwich shops, one on either side of the Via Neri. This is the Osteria All’Antico Vinaio, (http://www.allanticovinaio.com/it/) which Kat discovered via YouTube. We take our place in the queue that’s on the shady side of the street, and wait, eagerly discussing what we might eat, despite the fact that we can’t see the menu yet! But we’ve heard about the sandwiches, made with schiacchiata all’olio, a flat bread special to Tuscany. As we wait – and the queue moves quite quickly – we watch a man carry piles of this bread to and fro between shops, and the smells of warm bread and preserved meats fill our nostrils. It’s only midday, but we were up early, and we’re made extra hungry by this assault on our senses.

Finally we’re in the shop, where our orders are taken quickly and served with ultra efficiency – I’ll admit it’s all a little too frenzied for me, and I exit the shop as quickly as possible once we’ve got our sandwiches, which are monsters, and an absolute steal at five euros each. We take our first bites – Kat has decided on a mix of porchetta, truffle cream, fiery pesto and roasted vegetables; and I’ve decided to try the Speck ham, Parmesan cream, porcini cream and scamorza cheese. Our first bites are heavenly. I’ve never eaten a sandwich like it. They’re ridiculously good, each bite full of flavour. We swap regularly – and we get moved off the street by patrolling police officers who tell us we can’t eat near the shop, presumably because it gets blocked so easily. So we eat and walk and savour the food and the atmosphere, and observe that most people passing us by on the street have sandwiches clutched in their hands.

We walk towards the River Arno and Ponte Vecchio, the major bridge in Florence. A bridge of shops, it was, in the thirteenth century, home to butchers and fishmongers, but it was decided – because of the noxious stench and concentrated rot – to house the city’s jewellers there instead. Apparently it was the only bridge spared from bombings in WW2, because Hitler couldn’t bear to destroy its beauty. And so it is now the most famous bridge in Florence, and, naturally, a massive tourist trap. Of course, being tourists ourselves, Kat and I don’t care. We ascend the arch of the bridge, occasionally stopping to look in a particularly beautiful shop, and finally get to a place where we can take photos of the Arno and the other bridges we see from this one.

We spend a little time admiring the view, then decide to go in search of gelato – it doesn’t matter that we’re still rather full from our sandwiches – we’re in the birthplace of gelato and it’s rude to not try as much as possible! As Jenna Evans Welch says in Love and Gelato (2017): ‘So… Italian gelato. Take the deliciousness of a regular ice-cream cone, times it by a million, then sprinkle it with crushed-up unicorn horns.’ We need to prove this assertion to ourselves, one flavour (or two!) at a time.

We head back the way we came, to the Via dei Neri, and find the Gelataria dei Neri, recommended as one of best gelataria in Florence. Again, the queue isn’t too bad, and moves quickly. I pick peach – I’ve never had peach gelato before, and it’s gorgeous – and pair it with fig and ricotta, because fig is my favourite fruit. I can’t remember what Kat has, but they’re equally delicious concoctions. By now it’s around three pm, so, gelato cravings satisfied, we decide to wander back to our hotel and have a rest before going out to dinner.

Tomorrow we’re taking the train for a day trip to Venice. Kat’s already booked first class tickets, and I’m excited and terrified in equal measure. Like Rome, Venice is a bucket list destination for me. Why I’m excited is obvious; why I’m terrified isn’t so much. Examining my feelings, I can say admit that I’m scared I’ll be disappointed. Add the fact that I get super anxious about travelling to new places, and I think I understand it. Partly to allay my fears, we decide to go to the station we’re travelling from tomorrow, in order to check it out, and to see how long it takes to walk there from our hotel. Turns out the Santa Maria Novella station is only ten minutes walk away, max. It’s an uncomplicated place. My worries about finding it difficult to discover what platform we might be travelling from disappear, because they’re all there right in front of us. I feel a little better. We have a little look around the station shops, then go to eat dinner.

We’ve decided to eat pizza tonight, and are visiting the Pizzeria da Michele, which serves Neapolitan style pizza. It’s very close to our hotel – like everything else – and we stop on the way to have a drink in a trattoria. I feel quite drunk after two glasses of a delicious house white, and so we go to eat. The pizzeria comes highly recommended and is one of a small chain across Italy, including one in Rome, where some of Eat, Pray, Love was filmed. Weirdly perhaps, there are two restaurants in Japan. We sit in the outside area. It’s very hot but the Italians have an interesting way of cooling their patrons down – with a very fine mist of water. It’s a bit weird at first, being sprayed, but you get used to it, and it’s refreshing. The menu is pretty small, and most of the pizzas are vegetarian, except the calzone, which has salami on it. We both decide to order the doppia (double) mozzarella, which also has pecorino cheese and basil in the mix. When it comes we have to laugh – at only nine euros, they are absolutely enormous, edges hanging over the plates. They’re cheesy and gooey and utterly delicious. We eat what we can, savourin every decadent mouthful, until we’re almost bursting and can’t eat any more. Full and satisfied, we pay up, and go back to our hotel room and prepare for tomorrow’s adventure.

 

Florence Part One: In Search of a Sense of Peace

‘Florence is considered to be the artistic, historical, and cultural capital of not only Tuscany, but of all Italy. Its physical elegance coexists beautifully with the il dolce far niente (the sweetness of doing nothing) lifestyle of the Florentines and it reveals the city in a strong, yet gentle way that makes us want to delve deep into its art, culture, and history.’ – (Remembering Florence and its Renaissance Beauty at https://www.globotreks.com/destinations/italy/remembering-florence-renaissance-beauty/)

 

We – my daughter Kat, and I – land at Florence airport late afternoon, and step into an inferno of sunshine. We have arrived, and I look forward to having a new adventure, but also to decompressing after what has been an awful year for me in terms of my mental health. Perhaps even finding some peace in my still too-cluttered mind.

When Kat suggested we should go to Florence for our annual break together, I was initially not overly excited. Last year I’d completely lost my heart to Rome, a bucket list destination, and Florence had never really been on my go-to list. How could it possibly compete with the Eternal City? I’ll hold up my hands now and say, I was wrong. Totally and absolutely. As soon as I set foot on Florentine soil, I have the sense of homecoming, much like I’d had with Rome last year, but in a quieter, more gentle way.

A quick tram ride from the airport takes us to our hotel, The Apollo Guesthouse (http://www.apolloguesthouse.it/en), which is set in a huge apartment building. We enter through a big wooden communal door into a large atrium and an old-fashioned lift takes us up to the third floor into a lovely small hotel, where the manager shows us into a big, bright and airy room. He tells us a little about our location – a mere ten minute walk from Florence’s Renaissance centre. I’m excited to begin to explore, to leave behind (if that’s possible) at least some of my worries and concerns for the upcoming academic year, and try to live in the moment.

After unpacking and a brief rest, we leave our hotel and make the short walk through narrow streets to the Duomo – the Cathedral of Santa Maria Fiore – where I am left almost speechless by what I’m seeing, by its sheer size and unexpected beauty. I’ve seen it in photos, read about it, but that hasn’t  prepared me for actually seeing it, just like last year, when I wasn’t prepared to come face to face with the Colosseum or treading in the footsteps of Julius Caesar. I’m suddenly in tears, overwhelmed and moved by what I’m seeing. How it speaks to some deeper part of me. To the dreamer that is so often repressed by the pressures and stresses of my ‘real’ life. These monuments from a long ago past affect me so much; their timelessness, the knowledge that I’m in the presence of the genius of their creators, and the feeling that I’ve been transported to a kind of fantasyland, makes me want to create. So it is with my first view of the Duomo, with its intricate facades, its light and shade chiaroscuro. I’m not a religious person, but the sense of the numinous in this place that transcends words is so strong I can almost touch it.

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As we explore, we discover that Florence is a city of narrow roads and alleys, which suddenly widen into piazzas that bubble with life. Around every corner there’s something new, something that will take the breath away. On that first early evening we wander, quite by chance, into the walled garden of the Palazzo Medici, built by Michelozzi for Cosimo Medici between 1444 and 1484. We linger a while in the garden, with its fruiting lime trees (something that excites me almost as much as the architecture) absorbing the atmosphere, which, despite the few tourists who, like us, are admiring the classical statues, the mosaics on the floor, is peaceful and respectful. This was to become, in the few short days I was in Florence, a feeling I carried with me. That sense of peace. It wasn’t that the city was empty, because it wasn’t  – it’s August, after all, the height of the tourist season, and the city has a vibrant feeling of life – it was just that it induced that hoped-for sense of peace in me. An absolute sense of peace that I’m trying to hold on to, now I’m back.

We wander a little more – well, I say wander but in fact we’re in search of gelato (apparently gelato originated in Florence). Kat and I LOVE our food, and she’s done a lot of research into places to eat and drink. On this late afternoon, we’re specifically hunting for a gelateria in the close-by San Lorenzo area, My Sugar (https://my-sugar.business.site), a tiny independently owned shop tucked away down the Via di’ Ginori. The owners are a young couple, and today we’re looked after by the female half of the partnership, who takes our orders, which we make in badly pronounced Italian, but hey, we’re trying, and we experience our first Florentine gelato. I have to say that I can’t remember what Kat had, but I choose the dulce de latte, served in a cup, and the first bite is soft, smooth cold heaven. We move slowly now, savouring the sweetness, toward the Mercato Centrale (https://www.mercatocentrale.com) the covered market complex which has an upstairs eating and drinking area, for a pre-dinner glass of wine, a local rose, taking in the buzzy, vibrant atmosphere. It reminds us a little of the Time Out complex in Lisbon, where we spent some of evenings, and the Mercato will become a similar focus in evenings to come. We chat for a while, excited about what we’ve already seen, and then we go to dinner.

Our first meal in Florence is in a restaurant opposite our hotel – Malatesta (https://www.bracieremalatesta.com/en/)  – and we have a money off voucher. This is very handy, because we’d planned to eat there anyway. We’ve already decided to order the bisteca alla Fiorentina, the traditional Florentine steak, cut from the Tuscan breed of cattle, the Chianina. The waiter – friendly and helpful on what to choose, takes our order, and we wait, drinking a very good house white wine and nibbling on bread. When the steak came, we gasp at the sheer size of it (a Florentine steak is meant to be about three to four fingers high, and we’ve ordered the traditional cut, all 1.5 kilos of it!), the Australian couple next to us laugh. The waiter, as he cuts the very rare meat from the bone, seems to think we won’t  manage it all, and that it might be too rare for us, so we take that as a challenge. It’s hard work, but we eat it. All. And since we both like our steak rare, that isn’t a problem. I think the waiter is impressed!

 

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And so ends our first evening in Florence. We go back to our hotel, just across the road, full of steak and wine, and watch Friends on Netflix. I realise, as Kat and I laugh, and chat away about the day, that I can feel a sense of letting go, of having lived in the moments I’ve experienced, AS experiences, instead of being preoccupied with what might stress me out, of what might go wrong or make me anxious or unhappy. I mean, don’t misunderstand: my anxiety is ever-present, even though my depression has gone for now, but today, this evening, here in a magical city, it’s further away than it’s been for an age. I embrace that, and fall asleep easily for the first time in a long time, and look forward to the next day.

 

 

Post Holiday Reflections – I Need a Word

I’ve just come back from an amazing four day break in Florence (taking in a day trip to Venice). It was my second time in Italy (last year I went to Rome) and I’m hopelessly in love with what I’ve seen and experienced (more about that in other posts, once I’ve had time to think about how to present them), so I’ve decided to write a reflection on how I feel now I’m back, and it’s not great. It’s not that my depression has in any way returned – and that’s something I need to keep in mind and perspective – but that I have the strong feeling of being unsettled, of an inner agitation, a sense that things are not right, for me, for now. Being away, and now coming back to ‘real’ life, if you will, has made all that surface again.

I’m aware, of course, that being on holiday is a very different way of life. When we’re away, our worries and concerns (hopefully) disappear, or at least lessen, and we enter a kind of existence that (again, hopefully) frees us, liberates us, from what we’ve left behind. Take last year, for example. Before I left for Rome, I was, and had been for months and months, a depressed and anxious mess. It was so bad just before the holiday that I honestly felt like cancelling it, which was a terrible way to feel, considering that I was going away with my amazing and supportive daughter, and that Rome was a bucket list destination for me. Trying to act normally, but feeling as though I was dying inside, I wanted to cancel up until the point when we were on the plane. I didn’t believe it was possible, given the state I was in, to even think about enjoying myself. And yet, when we arrived in Rome, and I saw the Trevi fountain, busy with tourists (including us, of course) I just burst into relieved tears that I was there. But they were also tears of appreciation of the beauty. Beauty, I have found, however you may define it, has that effect on me. It feeds me, and helps me to feel positive. So that holiday was an amazing experience. I joked about living in Italy for a year, but the actual feeling itself wasn’t a joke. And it isn’t a joke now.

When I saw the sheer beauty that is Florence, when I stepped out of Venice station onto the concourse and saw the Grand Canal, I cried again – again, more on this in later posts. I’m not ashamed to admit it. Why should I be ashamed of being moved by beautiful places, beautiful things? I cried when I left too; it was as though part of my heart had been ripped out and left behind. And that feeling has resurfaced again now I’ve returned. While I was away, I didn’t think about anything else but where I was. I lived in the moment and for the moment.  Now I’m back, I’m living yet again in an uncertain future. I want to be somewhere else that isn’t here in Luton, doing something that isn’t what I’m doing now – not the teaching side of my job, mind you, never that –  but the rest of it, the sense that I’m just working as a cog in a machine that no longer values people, or that treats us respectfully. I go back on social media to find the same divisions, the same hate for anything that is considered ‘wrong’ – ‘You don’t believe the same things as I do? You’re a bad person.’ And I’m less tolerant of it than ever.

I’m all too aware of my extreme idealism, because I know that’s what it is. I know that many people feel that way about their jobs, and their lives, and I think it’s sad. I know I should be grateful for what I have, and on one level, I am. But it’s becoming more and more difficult to tolerate, and post-holiday, after being in a place that inspires me, that makes me want, more and more, to just discover more in general, and myself in particular, what drives me, how I learn to be driven by my passions, my heart yearns to do it. It yearns to really live life, rather than just be a passenger, drifting on the currents.

It all comes back, I guess, to needing change. That elusive ‘something’ that I can’t put my finger on, or define. I know I can’t just up and leave, for many reasons, not least financially, but the temptation to do just that is becoming almost overwhelming. While I was in Florence my daughter and I watched the Italian section of Eat, Pray, Love again. I love that film, it’s hopeful, and celebrates a freedom most of us can only imagine, but it’s a freedom born of despair and misery. But we can’t all afford to take a year out, and we don’t all have the courage to travel alone, as the writer Elizabeth Gilbert did. Again, much of that comes down to courage and the willingness – not just the desire – to change, and a huge amount of faith that one can change one’s life in profound ways. Anyway, I cried (yet again!) watching the beginning of that film, because whatever else Gilbert may be, however privileged she is, she still experienced that desperate unhappiness with her situation, a situation that many people thought she should be grateful for, that they thought she should tolerate, because why would she want to throw it all away? But surely sometimes we have to find the courage and the means to make those changes, take those positive steps to our own peace? Surely sometimes we have to tear it all down to build something new and more meaningful.

Anyway, those are my feelings now. This has been a really difficult year for me, as I’ve written before, but I’m emerging, still emerging, from the deadening cocoon of depression into what needs, so desperately, to lead to a new way of being. Something that Elizabeth Gilbert’s Italian friends said in the film during a discussion about finding a word that sums up where they’re from, and which represents themselves was interesting. It made me think a lot about myself: Elizabeth Gilbert said that she was a writer, but she was told that was what she did, not who she was. Maybe, someone said, she was a woman in search of a word. I kind of couldn’t stop crying at that, because it sums up my emotions now. Coming home to a place that is stagnant (my word for where I live), back to a profession that is ‘lecturer’, which is what I do, has made me think about that line again. Maybe ‘teacher’ is more what I am – and I think there’s a big difference between ‘teacher’ and ‘lecturer’; ‘writer’ is definitely who I am. One of my friends tells me I should be happy because my being a lecturer in creative writing enables me to be a paid writer, but he doesn’t get that it’s not who I am. It’s not the same, although his words, of course, have some logic to them.

So although I’m probably not going to run off to Italy to find myself, tempting though that is (I’d get on a plane right now if I could!), I am going to search for my word, and live it before it’s too late and I’ve lost it forever.

The Parakeets of Hyde Park (and their mental health benefits!)

 

 

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Originally from Africa and southern Asia, ring-necked, or rose-necked parakeets ‘were kept as pets in the UK. They escaped into the wild, however, and have become naturalised in the south-east especially, aided by warmer winters’ (The Wildlife Trust) are birds I can’t resist. According to the RSPB website, they’re ‘large, long-tailed and green with a red beak and a pink and black ring around its face and neck. In flight it has pointed wings, a long tail and very steady, direct flight. Often found in flocks, numbering hundreds at a roost site, it can be very noisy.’

And they are all of those things.

I first came across them in Greenwich Park a few years ago. I heard bird sounds I didn’t recognise – not that I recognised very many then (and don’t always now, either!). Still, despite my inexperience, I knew instinctively that this was something different. The calls were tantalisingly close, and yet, crane my head as I might toward the sounds, hunting for any sight of the bird that made it, but seeing absolutely nothing except the green leaves of the trees, I couldn’t make anything out. I’ve since learned that their brilliant green plumage means they’re superbly camouflaged; seeing them when trees are in leaf is pretty difficult. So I went away that day wondering what I might have heard.

I found out a few weeks later In Richmond when Keith and I walked the River Thames from Richmond to Kew. At the riverside in town, we saw male mandarin ducks, looking like painted toy ducks, which was pretty cool, and then when we walked out of the town centre, we heard that sound again, even more raucous and squawking. And this time we saw them. Loads of bright green birds flocking in the trees on the opposite bank, outside several small apartment blocks. They were clearly visible but we got our binoculars out, of course, and began to watch. And immediately I was in love.

Firstly I couldn’t believe I was watching wild parakeets in London. At the time I didn’t know the extent of their colonisation of London and the South East of England. In this one place there were so many of them – as the RSPB says, a huge flock – we gave up counting. As we continued to walk, we observed more and more, many flying over our heads to the opposite bank, squawking loudly as they flew, something I’ve come to love to watch, like bright green feathery arrows, or fighter planes zooming overhead.

Since then I’ve seen them in all sorts of places. When my daughter and I went to Rome last year, there they were, flying around the top rows of the Colosseum. At that time, despite being in a city I’d always longed to go to, seeing all the things I’d always longed to see, so happy to be there, I was really struggling with my depression. Seeing the parakeets made me ecstatic.

And then Keith and I found their feeding spot in Hyde Park, one of the original Royal Parks in London. Hyde Park isn’t my favourite park. I find it a little uninteresting compared to, say, Regent’s Park, or St James’s Park or the bigger parks like Greenwich. But I do enjoy a walk around the Serpentine, a huge artificial pleasure lake, where people can hire boats and pedaloes, or swim in the lido. I don’t go for any of that. I go for the wildfowl that have colonised the lake. True, it’s not as varied as in some other parks, but I love to watch the mute swans (although I’m quite scared of them) the Canada and Greylag geese, and the zombie-looking Egyptian geese which are, in fact beautifully marked. I enjoy the squabbles of the coots, and especially the cheeping of their young. But best of all, there’s that spot in Hyde Park where parakeets come to be fed. Or rather, where visitors to the park come to feed them. I don’t know how or why this happened but it has, and when you visit the spot, just back of the Albert Memorial, it’s captivating.

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So this Saturday just gone, we were in the area. I was feeling, for whatever reason, pretty anxious and needed a fix, if you will, of parakeets. There were a lot of people there when we arrived, all standing around watching. At first it seemed as though nothing much was going on, but then they came into view. Then I saw people with parakeets on their hands, on their heads, flying around them, as they swooped in for the food that was being offered. Immediately I felt the anxiety drain away, replaced by a feeling of absolute joy and amusement. Now, I understand that animals aren’t here for our entertainment. More and more, I’m furious with so-called human beings who kill other animals for so-called pleasure: big game hunting, fox hunting, murdering raptors on grouse moors, killing the grouse themselves just for fun. I loathe it with a passion. It makes me feel that there’s no hope for humanity, or the creatures we kill. But watching animals – birds especially for me, of course – brings joy and, yes, entertainment. It’s increasingly being shown that interacting with nature (and okay, the parakeet isn’t a native bird, but then the grey squirrel, and rabbit, aren’t native animals either and most of us love watching them, and they’re still part of the natural world!), has beneficial effects on our well-being. For those of us with mental health issues, such encounters have been demonstrated to have healing effects on or overloaded brains. And this how I feel when I see the parakeets of Hyde Park, when I watch them interact with us, cleverly using us to get free food, while yes, we use them too. I feel like all the dark or anxious thoughts are cleansed, replaced by something – well, maybe more light and pure,

Whether or not that’s entirely ethical as a reason to watch wildlife, I don’t know. How do we measure that? But what I do know is that watching wildlife brings joy for so many of us, and we need to appreciate that more. Understand that we’re all interconnected, that everyone benefits, including and especially the creatures we take for granted, and in taking them for granted, seeing them as nothing more than resources or things to be cleared for so-called ‘advancing civilisation’, we are all rushing toward destruction.

It occurred to me, observing the pleasure that parents and their children shared together watching these bright and beautiful noisy birds, that maybe the seeds of something good were being sown. That maybe there is some hope after all.

So, although you can’t read this, thanks, parakeets. Thanks for being part of our urban world, however that happened. Thanks for your bold interactions and allowing us to watch you, and helping us to focus – even for a little while – on something other than the increasingly conflicted world we live in.

 

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https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/wildlife-guides/bird-a-z/ring-necked-parakeet/

https://www.wildlifetrusts.org/wildlife-explorer/birds/parakeet/ring-necked-parakeet

https://www.royalparks.org.uk/parks/hyde-park

Some (short) Musings on Self-(re)discovery

“And you? When will you begin that long journey into yourself?” ― Rumi

 

“Why escape your intended purpose by copying and trying to be someone else? You will discover who you were meant to be only after you have shown confidence being yourself.” ― Suzy Kassem, Rise Up and Salute the Sun: The Writings of Suzy Kassem

 

Every day is a day of recovery. Every day I learn more about myself. It’s a long process and I’m unlearning a lot of previously learned ‘truths’, and while I’m still not entirely well – and what does ‘wellness’ really mean, since it’s a continuum that takes in states of illness-wellness, as proposed by Dr. John Travis in the 1970’s, who stated that ‘Wellness is a process, never a static state’ (link below). I think that wellness for me will involve developing a sense of inner peace, a sense of having and doing things in life that are nurturing, rather than damaging.  My recovery is a process, that continuum of illness-wellness, but I now have to try to work more along the wellness side of the continuum, because I’ve accepted that I may never be entirely well, and that’s okay, it really is, because this kind of knowledge is power. A movement to the side of wellness. As long as I can feel joy, love the people I’m with, do the things I like to do with a sense of pleasure and achievement, and be appreciative of the good things in my life, then that really is fine. I want to write more about that here. To chronicle what gives me joy, whether that be new writing, talking about new or established places that uplift me, or watching and writing about nature, wherever I may find it.

I’ve always been self-reflective, I know myself very well. But this recent breakdown (and it is still relatively recent and I’m still in the healing process) has taught me more about myself than anything that’s gone before. I think this was and still is elicited by an extreme fear of it happening again, and fear can be a great motivator. So I’ve forced myself to look deeper, to really continue, rather than begin, that long journey into myself, in order to recognize and acknowledge the things that that help me, and the things that harm me. I’ve learned that I must accept more of what nurtures me, and can, in a positive way, reject things that cause harm, and to start to build my life into a model of something I can feel comfortable with and excited by.

This will involve a lot of changes, and change, for many of us with any kind of anxiety disorder, is really scary. Up until now, utter terror has kept me static. I still feel that I’m static, mostly because I feel as though I can’t properly move on and plan for my life without certain situations, over which I have limited control, have been resolved. I can’t quite say, ‘screw it, I’m going to do it anyway’, and I’m very aware of time slipping through my fingers. But maybe fear is just an excuse. I have to explore this stasis. What, exactly, other than fear, is holding me back? Why am I allowing myself to remain in situations that are bad for me?

Suzy Kassem’s words hit home to me when I found them. I was searching for quotes about self-discovery for this post, and it occurred to me – as I’ve said in other posts – that I’ve spent my whole life trying not to be me. Reading Kassem’s words put that in clearer focus for me. I’ve copied and tried to be someone else, but I don’t know who that someone else really was. I guess it was someone prettier, thinner, more intelligent, less afraid, more confident than I’ve ever been. Now I think that person doesn’t exist, except in the nagging and critical depths of my nagging imagination. So now I have to consider – who am I meant to be? That looping question – what is ‘myself’? – will be another focus of my continued journey along that continuum. I’m scared of that journey, and I’m scared of what lies at the end of it – although I guess the journey itself will never be at an end.

Life is not some three act hero’s quest fantasy. Life is real, painful, joyous, chaotic, and ever-changing. I really really want to live it to the full before it’s too late.

 

What is Wellness? at http://www.wellpeople.com/WhatIsWellness.aspx

 

Suzy Kassem at https://suzykassem.com

Holiday Interlude 2: Cromer to Wells-next-the-Sea 18/07/2019

Cromer to Wells-next-the-Sea 18/07/2019

We decide to go to Wells-next-the-Sea today, Thursday. It’s a place I have special memories of from when I was a child of about nine years old, fifty-three years ago. Which is terrifying. How old I’m getting! I have a black and white picture of me posing by a fishing boat holding an oar. I’m obviously enjoying posing for the camera. I don’t know where that photo is now, but thinking about it brings back a feeling of warmth and nostalgia. Then a couple of years ago I visited with Keith and it was weird, surreal, the way the light and heat haze played off the sand and water, and the dark shapes of the seals on the opposite bank, and people apparently moving amongst them like ghosts, although they were further out, and the poor baby seal, decapitated and decaying as it floated along in the shallow shoreline waves, weirdly reminiscent of a story I wrote about that beach, which added to the strangeness and surreality.

So we decide to go again, although the sky looks heavy today, and some rain is forecast, but not much, and not in the afternoon. We’ll have lunch when we get there, and then walk down the causeway to the beach. I’m excited, looking forward to experiencing maybe that same sense of strangeness, all the while aware that you can’t go back. That you can’t recreate the past.

The bus is full of people, and again I note that the that the average age of the locals around here seems to be sixty five and above. I’m sixty-two but I feel no fellowship with these people whatever. I feel younger than that, and again, feel a sense of terror of my ageing, of my inexorable and rapid run into older age. I think that maybe working with younger people keeps me young, or maybe it’s because I’m a ‘creative’ with my mind constantly throwing up new ideas, constantly questioning my life, my environment, and the way I live within both. I balk at becoming like these people. Old in mind, it feels, as they sit passively, as well as in body. But I know nothing about any of them, and ‘m judging, projecting my own horrors of ageing, and I try to stop. Try to concentrate on the views to my right.

As we travel along the coast road I’m again mesmerised by the constant presence of the sea, the opalescent line of light that divides land from water. It’s a kind of light seen only on the coast, and I love it. It feels rejuvenating and life-giving. It starts raining pretty soon into the journey, and I don’t mind. Despite my earlier gloomy thoughts, I’m just happy to be out and about.

We get to Sheringham and the bus pretty much empties. Maybe the people from Cromer do their shopping here, who knows, although Sheringham is also pretty quiet, appears not yet really part of the modern world. So it seems to me anyway.

The bus continues its journey. We pass the Sheringham golf course, behind which the sea glistens. On and on, the rain coming down harder. Although I’m enjoying watching the rain wash the countryside, I hope it stops by the time we get to Wells. We drive through a place called Saltash, and I get a bit excited because we’re coming into an area of salt marshes, and there they are to my right, stretching out as far as I can see, right down to the distant shore. This is the home of the Norfolk Wildlife Trust reserve, apparently a wonderful place to observe birds. I watch somewhat wistfully as we drive past the visitor centre, where one man gets off, fully equipped with binoculars and long lens camera. A little wistfully, I wonder what he might see. Hope we see something interesting. Through Cley and past the road that leads down to Blakeney quay, where you can go on seal watching trips. That would be fun, I think. Through lots of other picturesque villages, past the Wells and Walsingham light railway that we visited with Lawrie and Auro on Tuesday.

Down the final road to Wells-next-the-Sea and off the bus. It’s stopped raining.  Hooray! We walk down Staithe Street, the main thoroughfare, looking briefly at the small independent shops and then, through a gap, I see the sea. We walk through the gap and the panorama opens up. Just what I’ve been waiting for. Again, I feel that sense of rejuvenation. Of restoration and rebirth. We look for somewhere to eat lunch. After asking for advice, we go on board the Albatross, a permanently moored wherry that serves Dutch pancakes. I’ve never had one before. Intriguing. But better than the idea of the food is the view. So we take a seat on the deck, order our food and watch birds at the same time.

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I spot a cormorant on the beach next to a metal framed sculpture of a horse. It has caught a fish, which it gulps down, and then it holds out its wings in that weird way that cormorants do, and dries itself off. There are many black-headed gulls squabbling all around. On the far shore what looks like a greater black-backed gull stands, looking stern and slightly intimidating. I hear the haunting piping of an oystercatcher. I can’t see it yet, but it sounds close. I use the binoculars and train them onto where I think the sound is coming from and there it is on the far sand bank, sitting in the grass. I’m overjoyed. I don’t have a favourite bird as such, that wouldn’t be fair, but oystercatchers are special to me with their black and white plumage, their red eyes and long red beak. I just love them.

Lunch comes and it’s delicious. A Dutch pancake with chorizo, mozzarella, sun-dried tomatoes, and fresh basil. It looks like a pizza, but the pancake base is soft and soaks up the oil from the chorizo and tomatoes. Yummy.

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We finish lunch and as we walk towards Staithe Street (it’s started raining a little so we decide to go for shelter until it stops), I’m distracted  by the ubiquitous black-headed gulls squabbling by the quayside over chips. I watch them for a while, loving their antics and their boldness. I guess they’ve become accustomed to the easy meals that people feed them.  Then we go into the Wells visitor centre, where Keith buys me a pair of glass earrings the colour and opacity of opal, my favourite stone.

 

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When we get outside, it’s stopped raining again – indeed the sun is peeking out from behind the clouds – and so we decide to go down to the causeway, which is actually a sea wall built against the encroaching high tide flooding, about a mile long, leading to the beach. I feel a tingle of anticipation as we walk, remembering how it felt last time, how the beach opened out to that wide open strange space. But there are distractions on the walk this time that I didn’t really notice before, or which maybe weren’t there. On my right hand side, just beyond the scrubby grass, bushes and wildflowers that lay just back from the shoreline of the sea channel, the tide is out. Small fishing boats, some with masts, sails furled up, sit empty and apparently discarded. I wonder what they’re like when they’re in use, sailing on the open sea, catching mackerel and bass, evidently the most common food fish in these waters. I imagine fishermen from a past time hauling in the nets, and smile to myself. As always, my imagination is getting the better of me.

 

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But it’s not my imagination when I spot an oystercatcher digging in the intertidal mud. It pulls a sand-worm from its hiding space, washes it in sea water, then gulps it down. Again, again, again. I am transfixed by it, watch it while Keith readies himself to take a photo, and then another. As I continue to watch, I become aware of more black and white, red-billed bodies spaced along the shoreline. Quite a lot of oystercatchers, I realise with a thrill that lifts my heart. I can’t stop smiling. I take my own photos but my phone camera can’t catch any details. I decide to ask Keith to share his photos later, so I always have a visual to help me remember.

We pass the oystercatchers, and then I spy a brown mottled something digging amongst the stones with a long curved bill. I stop. Again. This walk is barely a third done and we’ve stopped half a dozen times already, completely distracted by the view and the birds. I take Keith’s  binoculars (I stupidly forgot to bring my own!) and spot the curlew. It’s on its own, absolutely engrossed in feeding. Another photo opportunity, of course. This isn’t a managed reserve but it’s giving us so many wildlife gifts. Above us the martins and swallows fly by like mini fighter planes. It’s entrancing. We leave the curlew behind, and I remark that we have to get a move on, that we can’t keep stopping and Keith agrees but of course we do stop. More oystercatchers, another couple of curlews. Then, wading in the sea channel, an egret, its feathers brilliant white against the blue water. Of course we stop. We’ve seen egrets so many times, but it’s always something special, watching them fishing.

 

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On we go, pausing again and again, but eventually we come almost to the end of the causeway. We see a lot of gulls in the near distance flying around a sandbank on the far side of the shoreline. It’s partially fenced around, and we see a notice telling us that there are nesting birds here, and the area must not be disturbed. I remember this from last time, and feel another jolt of excitement as we come to the realisation that the noisy, squabbling gulls we’re watching are in fact a breeding colony of kittiwakes. They’re pretty gulls, smaller than herring gulls, short-beaked, with a ‘kind’ face, soft grey plumage on their wings, and black wing tips, black legs. We spend ages watching them as they wheel around, hardly ever still. There are juveniles amongst them, distinguished from the adults by mottled spotted markings.

After a while we leave them, pass the cafe and visitor facilities, and climb the small dune that leads to the beach. At the top, I stop, a little confused by what I’m seeing. It’s completely different from when we were last here. So different, it’s like another beach entirely. In fact, apart from the sandy expanse on the other side of the sea channel, it hardly looks like a beach at all from this side, and at first I think the sand has been covered by grass. A man next to me, having overheard my remarks, tells me it’s low tide, and I realise that what I think is grass is in fact brilliant green seaweed. I can’t help but feel just a little disappointed, but then shake it off, and acknowledge that this is a different kind of beauty, lush and vibrant.

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There are gulls and oystercatchers in the channel, and on the far shore, where last year there was that eerie heat haze, our view is unobscured. There are no sandbanks, no seals, no people, but there is a distant pool with numerous birds clustered around it. Binoculars show more oystercatchers and curlews, and again I’m struck by the richness of wildlife in this area, which is also different from last year, where bird-watching wasn’t as productive as this has been. Something flits really fast in front of me. It looks different from the usual black headed gulls, and I think it might be a tern. I’m excited for a while but then what I think is the same something flies back, and it is indeed a black headed gull. I’m disappointed – seeing a tern would complete my want-to-see list. But oh well. I’ve accepted that today is not last year. That today is its own day, with its own offerings. We walk along the beach for a while, aware we can’t stay long because of the bus times, and then, there it is again, flying very differently from a gull, almost flitting, and it’s smaller, more slender, and sharper looking than a gull, and I notice it has, in the short time I see it, a small black flat ‘cap’ on its head. This is definitely a tern, and despite the fleeting time it was in my line of vision, I’m elated. As we leave the beach I keep on looking back, but it doesn’t reappear.

We walk back along the causeway, trying not to stop and be distracted, and mostly we’re successful. Walking back through the town, we chat about what we’ve seen, how privileged we feel, and how we wish with all our hearts that the tide of human encroachment and our destruction of nature could just be stopped. Now. Right now. It makes me feel angry again, and a little hopeless, but again, I tell myself that I can’t think like that because I want to appreciate it. And I have. And I do. But I long to live in a world where we live in peace alongside the beautiful creatures we share this world with. And I crave, even more strongly than before, to live by the sea on a beach as beautiful as the ones we’ve visited in the past few days.

We board the bus and travel back, and I watch the countryside go by, yearning already for the marshlands and sea strands, and hoping they’ll still be there when I next visit.