The stories of my life on a little island in the middle of the Mediterranean sea ... and my occasional adventures beyond these shores.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

A tribute to a special woman

Her name was Rose and she was my maternal grandmother. Today would have been her 100th birthday and I could not just let it pass without a small tribute. She was born to Maria and Francesco in 1916 at the height of the Great War, the eldest of nine siblings. As a little girl, I spent many days with her and, with that inherent inquisitiveness of childhood, I would ask her a thousand questions about her life as a child. So she told me about her father, who had fought at the Dardanelles; about a brother and sister who died in infancy - from whopping cough, if I remember well. She explained how few children were lucky enough to go to school in those days and she soon had to stay at home to help her mother with the babies that kept coming every other year or so. But in the evening, when her chores were done. she went to the nuns and they thought her to embroider, crochet and sew, which seemed like no mean feat to someone like me who never had the patience to pick up needle and thread.

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My Nanna with her brother Joseph

It seems like that's about all I can remember about her childhood, which is strange, because I spent countless days in her little kitchen with its blue and white cupboards and polka dot teacups. What I do recall is that she married my grandfather on February 4th, 1940 and went on to have six children, two of whom, my aunt and my mother, were born during the worse months of WW2. It was a life of hardship, of constant air-raid sirens (Malta was the most bombed country in WW2) and of long hours spent in the underground shelters that were hewn into the limestone. Though she was never ambitious for herself, she dreamt big for her children, encouraging them to get an education and supporting them beyond secondary school. Three went on to become teachers and one a nurse,f while the boys preferred to take up a trade.

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My grandparents with their children in 1945 (my mum is the one of the right)

My grandfather died when she was 49, which to a 6 or 7 year old, seems like a grand old  age, but now that I've almost reached that 'venerable' age, I realise how relatively young she still was. Yet not once did I ever hear her complain or bemoan her fate. She found joy in the little things, constantly, and never ceased to focus on what she had, rather that on what she had lost. Which does not mean that she ever forgot about the husband she had lost, wearing her wedding band and engagement ring (her 'consent ring' she used to call it) until the day she died.

If anyone had to ask me to use just one word to describe my Nanna, I would say that she was kind - which may sound like a very little word for someone who was so much more. But in a world where acts of kindness are becoming so few and far between, her constant thoughtfulness on behalf of others, not least myself, stand out like a beacon of light on the dreariest night.

Time is a cruel thing. Not only does it take away those we love, it also slowly subdues our memories of them, until we are left with fragments, bits and pieces of a jigsaw puzzle with several missing parts. But there are moments and particular traits that we will never forget - like the mischievous twinkle she would get in her eyes when someone caught her eating cookies or a slice of cake (she had adult onset diabetes) or slathering her toast with too much butter; or the motto to never put off until tomorrow what you can do today (sort of the complete opposite of Scarlett O'Hara), a motto that she embraced and followed diligently until the end of her life; or the radiant joy she always felt at celebrations like weddings, baptisms or graduations. We miss her physical presence at moments like these but I do not think she is ever too far away,

Memories may become faint with the passing years and photos fade away but there are things that not even time can take away from us. And today, as I stumble over words that don't quite convey what I would like to say, I think about a characteristic of hers that will stay with me all my life. Because when all is said and done, when we can't remember little details like what her favourite colour was and the name of her cat (it was Smokie), we will always remember her smile. That smile that lit up her face and made her eyes sparkle and that embraced us in its warmth and love. The smile that made it feel like everything would be all right.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

A day in Bath

Bath is not a huge city but there are enough attractions to fill up the best part of a day. If you're travelling by car, the best way to see the city is to park, ride and then walk around. The must-see attractions are situated at a leisurely 30 minute walk from each other and one day will give you ample time to see and experience what Bath has to offer.

The Roman Baths

Bath is an ancient city that was inhabited long before the Romans came to Britain. Although its original name is lost, during the Roman occupation of Britain the town was know as Aquae Sulis (the waters of Sulis) - Sulis being the name of the deity worshipped by the ancient Britons at the place where a hot spring bubbled forth from the earth. Never ones to pass a good idea if they saw one, the Romans merged the worship of Sulis with that of their goddess Minerva, and Sulis Minerva was born. A great temple was built in her honour right next to the hot spring and huge baths were erected in the vicinity of the temple.

Entrance to the Roman Baths, Bath

Entrance to the Roman Baths and temple

Entrance to the baths is via a a 19th century building that is adjoined to the Great Pump Room constructed about a century earlier. Are the Romans Baths worth a visit? For anyone who loves ancient history, they certainly are. An audio-guide is provided with the entrance ticket and the information on the audio-guide together with the large number of information boards spread around the complex  provide a fascinating insight into life in Roman Britain and into the baths and temple themselves.

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The Great Bath

The current city of Bath is about 4 metres above the town of Aquae Sulis so, apart from the Great Bath, which is open to the elements, the remains of the other parts of the Roman Baths and the remnants of the temple are on a subterranean level. At the end of the tour, visitors can sample filtered mineral water from the spring which has made Bath so famous for over two thousand years (be warned that it tastes very metallic). Exit is through a National Trust shop that sells a variety of interesting souvenirs. The shop is also directly accessible from the street.

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Bronze head of Sulis Minerva

 

Bath Abbey

Another building that shouldn't be missed on a day trip to Bath, and situated right next to the Roman Baths, is the Abbey Church of St Peter and St Paul - more popularly known as Bath Abbey. A church has stood on this site since the 7th century but it was destroyed and rebuilt several times. Following Henry VIII's infamous quarrel with the Church and the subsequent dissolution of the monasteries in 1539, Bath Abbey was in ruins until work on its restoration started in the 1600s.

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Bath Abbey

Large parts of the current abbey were added to the 17th century building by architect Sir George Gilbert Scott in the 1860s. The present abbey of Bath is a splendid example of Victorian Gothic architecture. It boasts a wonderful fan ceiling and over fifty windows of stained glass.

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Fan ceiling in Bath Abbey

Bath Abbey is famous for having been the place of coronation of King Edgar in 973. It stands right next to the spot where the ancient Romans had built their temple to Sulis Minerva and one of my favourite views  of Bath Abbey is its reflection in the water of the Great Bath: history - layer upon layer of fascinating juxtapositions - that's why it's a subject that will forever fascinate me.

The Great Bath & Bath Abbey

The Great Bath & Bath Abbey

 

The Circus and the Royal Crescent

Throughout the centuries, Bath had is fair share of popularity and misfortune. Following a period of decline, the city became popular again in the late 18th century when fashionable gentry travelled there to 'take the waters'. It was during this time that an architectural revival took place that led to the construction of, amongst others, the world-famous Circus and Royal  Crescent. The houses at the Circus and the Royal Crescent are perfect examples of Georgian architecture in the grandiose Palladian style. The sweeping arcs of the Royal Crescent in particular, bring to mind a palatial residence - although in actual fact the Crescent is made up of 30 separate houses whose exterior is repeated from one end to the other to create a  uniform style and the illusion that one is looking at a single residence.

Which the Royal Crescent is shaped like an arc, the Circus is a perfect circle. Architect John Wood (the elder) designed its diameter to coincide with the dimensions of Stonehenge. Number 17 used to be the home of painter Thomas Gainsborough and was used as his portrait studio.

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The Circus

The Shops

You're probably wondering what shopping has to do with history and architecture and, of course, the answer would be nothing. But, in my opinion, you cannot travel to a city and not stop for a while to discover its shops.

Due to its compact city centre most of the the shops in Bath are within easy walking distance of each other. Apart from the usual high-street stores that you'll find  in every major town and city across England, Bath boasts a large number of independently-owned stores and boutiques selling everything from the quirky to the eclectic.

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Outdoor stalls dot the city streets, some of them, like The Chilli Hut, selling produce that I would not usually expect to find in the historical centre of a city like Bath.

Just round the corner from the Royal Crescent, a pedestrianised street (that appears to be known as Margaret's Buildings) is lined with delightful little shops. On the corner at the upper part of the street, Bath Old Books is a must-stop shop for all book lovers. This shop stocks a wide array of books on specialised subjects together with a large selection of Jane Austen novels and children's books. I had barely stepped inside the bookstore when my nostrils were tickled with the unmistakable scent of old books, all crowded together but in an orderly manner. I inhaled deeply and didn't want to leave.

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Bath Old Books

Literally just a few steps away, Off The Wall Antiques offers a veritable treasure-trove of excellently curated objects from around the world. This store felt more like a well-travelled person's home than a run-of-the-mill antiques store. I just wish I'd remembered to take some photographs.

Other shops worth a mention are Bath Aqua Glass - a glass company specialising in stained glass, glass blowing, glass jewellery and decorations; Gallery Nine - an art gallery that offers a selection of jewellery, ceramics and original prints; The San  Francisco Fudge Factory - for handmade fudge, chocolates and other sweet treats; and Vintage to Vogue - a clothing shop speciliasing in quality men's and women's vintage clothing. Unfortunately, there's never enough time to check out all the shops that I would have liked to but you can take a sneak peek at a few others here.

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Bath Old Books & Gallery Nine

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The summer country

It was in 'The Mists of Avalon' that I first heard this part of England being referred to as 'the summer country'. But , this region that we now call Somerset, has been inhabited since ancient times due to its milder climate and fertile farmland. It was to this rural county in the south-west of England that we recently travelled and, as always, came back with bucket-loads of memories.

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We stayed in a bungalow (with a lovely garden and a games room) on the outskirts of a tiny place called Churchinford and woke up to the songs of birds I cannot even name. As always, we choose solitude over cities whenever we can and this was no exception. From Churchinford we ventured further afield, to the  neighbouring counties of Dorset and Devon, whizzing through country lanes so narrow that we held our breaths and crossed our fingers that we wouldn't encounter a car, or worse, a tractor, coming from the opposite direction. It did happen once or twice but by some miracle (and deft driving by my  husband) we managed to squeeze past each other unscathed. We drove through some of the most beautiful countryside that I have ever seen: gently rolling hills, sleepy villages and the seemingly hap-hazard beauty of English country gardens. I'd left a piece of my heart in England many, many years ago and, on each trip, I feel whole again. For a while. Except that when it's time to pack up and leave, I find that a bigger piece seem to get left behind. This visit was no exception.

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But I don't want to bore your socks off (if you're even wearing them in the summer heat) with talk about my fragmented heart. Instead I'll tell you a little bit about the places that we visited. As I said in the  introduction, we were staying in the tiny village of Churchinford. This is a rather remote place so, if you ever decide to stay there, you would definitely need your own transport to be able to get around and make the most of your stay. Like almost anywhere that you go to in England, Somerset and the rest of the south-west is rich in history and there is a lot to see. Here are the places that we managed to visit in one (very crammed) week.

In Somerset

This town, and the ruins of its abbey, has long been on my bucket list as it is purported to be the final resting place of my beloved King Arthur and of his queen, Guinevere. Close to the town is Glastonbury Tor. Unfortunately, we did not have time to visit this famous conical hill that arises out of the Somerset Levels. Which gives me the perfect excuse to go back to this mystical place one day.

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This town is famous for its Gothic cathedral, picturesque streets and colourful shops.

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The history of Bath goes back thousands of years, mainly because of the hot spring that runs underneath the city and which was considered to be sacred by the ancient Britons. Bath is famous for its well-preserved Roman Baths, its Gothic abbey and its regal Georgian architecture. It has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1987.

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Dunster is a colourful, medieval village complete with a castle on top of a hill. It sits at the edge of Exmoor National Park and it truly feels like it is a place straight out of a fairy-tale.

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If you're dragging a ten year old boy with a keen interest in anything military around with you, then this museum is worth a visit. It has an extensive collection of military and civilian aircraft as well as models of Royal Navy ships and aircraft carriers. I sat in the car and read a book for 3 hours but my son loved it.

In Dorset

This coastal town is best know for the fossils found on the beaches and embedded in the cliffs. It forms part of England's Jurassic Coast and is also a World Heritage Site. Its harbour wall, known as The Cobb, featured in the movie 'The French Lieutenant's Woman' starring Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons.

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Dorchester is a quaint market town dating back to prehistoric times on the banks of the River Frome. We were lucky to visit on market day, which is Wednesday, so we got a true feel of life in a market town. Dorchester was the home of author Thomas Hardy and it is the backdrop for his novel 'The Mayor of Casterbridge'.

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The collection in this museum traces the history of the tank and, with almost 300 vehicles on exhibit, it is the largest collection of tanks in the world. Needless to say, this museum is strictly for the boys.

Those were just a few snippets of information to (hopefully) arouse the curiosity of those who haven't visited England's 'summer country'. More will follow in the coming weeks - so stay tuned. In the meantime I will try to pick up what remains of my heart and  try to go about daily life as best I can without stopping to think every  few minutes about the beautiful flowers that grow like weeds in this 'green and pleasant land'.

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Thursday, June 23, 2016

Querencia

Before I got married I lived in the same place, for thirty years, in a town on a hill; a town with ancient roots. It is called Rabat, from the medieval Arabic name for 'suburb' or ‘a fortified place’, but people have lived there since pre-historic times.
It has a variegated history – but you can find that information on any website or even on my other blog (that I have sorely neglected this year). But there’s more to life than history. There are the personal stories; the everyday tears and laughter that no one will ever record or write about. And scattered around this town are little pieces of me: pieces of my history; my story.
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Although we lived in the suburbs, I know the old town well. I could walk blind-fold through its winding streets and ancient alleys. But I don't, I walk with my senses all a-buzz, hunting out forgotten doorways; mysterious windows. And here and there, the echoes of yesterday’s laughter reverberate in the silence of my head. I gather them to me, these moments suspended in time, and wear them, like a soft shawl, hugged tightly to my body, to warm my heart on days when life seems bleak: memories of childhood games in shaded alleyways; shadows and whispers of those who have gone but whom we still love; snippets of conversations from balmy summer nights of long ago; teenage giggles in secluded corners – they are there, like a bridge between what was, what is and what will be.
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Home, home, home my heart seems to sing as the echo of my footsteps ricochets off of tall buildings in narrow streets. I can still feel their presence, those people who were old when I was just a child. They seem to be here still, benign reminders of the passage of time. There are some whose names I remember - names which sound so strangely archaic now – but others are just faces etched on the canvas on my mind. Maybe that’s what makes a place feel like home, when the ghosts are familiar and the air is thick with memories of half-forgotten yesterdays.
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They say that home is where the heart is. But home is more than that. It is a place where the soul lingers long after the body is no more. And, sometimes I wonder, whether after I’m gone, I’ll come back, to join the kindly spirits who wander the streets of that town on the hill.
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Querencia: a  place from which one’s strength is drawn, where one feels at home; the place where you are your most authentic self.
Location: Rabat, May 2016

Monday, June 6, 2016

I've picked sea-shells where heroes walked

The drive from Paris to Normandy was supposed to take three hours at the most. But Madame GPS, as my son nicknamed her, decided to take us on the scenic route. So after close to six hours of driving, we finally pulled into the driveway of Le Vaumicel. It was getting late, and grey clouds were gathering overhead, but nothing could keep us way from the D-Day  beaches. It was what we had come here for. Ten minutes later, we were getting out of the car and walking on Omaha beach. The three of us went our separate ways. I took a few paces and then stopped, as a chilling realisation hit me like a stray bullet: behind me, German bunkers were built into the rock;  in front of me, miles and miles of sand and open sea. There was nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.

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On that fateful, stormy morning, that is retreating further and further into the realms of memory, thousands of men waded ashore, into the line of fire, staring death fully in the face. I couldn't, for the life of me, imagine the courage it must have taken, the willingness to sacrifice self for the greater good of humanity. I felt awed, humbled, completely at a loss for words, awash with emotions that I could not even name.

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The tide was out and, as I walked slowly on the wet sand, I noticed the sea-shells. I bent down and gently started to gather them. They were fragile, little things - chipped, broken, incomplete. None were completely intact. The storms, the tides and the ever-restless sea had taken their toll. And as I held them between numb fingers and turned them over, those little shells reminded me of those men whose maimed and twisted bodies had lain, like the sea-shells, on the beaches of Normandy over seventy years ago.

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I walked back towards the shore with tears in my eyes and noticed, for the first time, the roses that had been left on the sand, the little wooden crosses to commemorate loved ones, fallen comrades, men who were gone too soon.

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I came back with much more than memories from Omaha beach and someday, when perhaps the world will choose to forget the ultimate sacrifice that was made there and on the other beaches of northern France, I will tell my grandchildren that I'd picked sea-shells where heroes had walked; where heroes had died.

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Location:  Omaha Beach (Vierville-sur-Mer & St Laurent-sur-Mer), Normandy, France

March 2016

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