Books and Covers

We see the sign every time we go down the hill to do our weekly ‘big shop’ in Trodica, an unremarkable and mainly commercial, small town just off the dual carriageway that runs down to the coast. “Caffé Pasticceria Gelateria Spreca,”it says, in large blue letters on a white background.  It sweeps across in front of us as we round the curve of the roundabout in the centre of the town and quickly disappears behind a low-rise block of flats as we take the exit that leads to the supermarket. It is almost impossible to catch even a glimpse of the café itself, though, as it is set back from the roundabout and is obscured by the cars filling the small, permanently busy car park in front of it. All that is properly visible are the flats above it on the three upper floors of the bland, 1970s building. Perhaps we’ve been spoilt, but compared to the cosy little Caffé del Teatro in Montelupone’s medieval main square with its stunning views of the Sibillini Mountains from its sun-drenched terrace, it seems distinctly uninviting and so, for a good three years, we just pass on by.

But then, in the wake of the post-Covid ‘ripartenza’ (re-start), we join a hiking group – which turns out to use this very unprepossessing-looking place as one of its regular pre-hike breakfast-cum-rendezvous points. So at about 7.30am on a bright Sunday morning in May, we finally cross the threshold, fully expecting its interior to be as unexciting as its exterior; a café that does what it says on the tin, no frills, no atmosphere, just decent coffee, passable pastries and probably a small ice-cream servery tucked in a corner. As we open the heavy, tinted glass door and step inside, though, we are greeted by the irresistible aromas of baking and freshly ground coffee, and even at this early hour, the place is bustling with life. Above the cheerful hum of conversation that fills the bright, airy space rise the vigorous hiss of the coffee machine and the constant clatter of cups on saucers – that between them just about mask the sound of our expectations shattering to pieces on the sparkly grey marble floor tiles. “Wow!” we say in unison and pause briefly to take in our surroundings.

A couple of waiters in smart black trousers and matching polo shirts move briskly among the small round tables, efficiently clearing the newly-vacated ones or elegantly delivering orders to the newly-occupied ones. We weave between them towards the illuminated glass cabinet that runs the length of the right-hand side and along the top of which are arranged tray upon tray of freshly baked pastries of every conceivable variety. Such is the concentration required to make a choice that it’s only once we have been served a maple and pecan plait (Mr Blue-Shirt) and an almond croissant (me) by the very patient woman behind the cabinet that we notice on display inside it the neat, multi-coloured rows of tiny, hand-crafted cakes, tartlets and macarons. Then beyond the patisserie and inside the furthest-most section of the cabinet, at least twenty generous stainless-steel tubs are lined up, each filled with a different flavour ice-cream, while on top, stands a pair of large glass vases containing teetering towers of homemade cones stacked inside one another. We move along to the black granite-topped counter to join the line of people waiting to order and pay and are still debating which flavours we would probably choose when our turn comes round.

Allora….” says the woman standing by the till and glances at the plates we are holding. “….due brioche….”  She taps in the code for our pastries. “E da bere…?” she asks with a smile – “And to drink?”
Un cappuccino e un caffé americano,” I reply while Mr Blue-Shirt fumbles for his wallet.
She taps in our order and hits ‘total’.
Cinque euro venticinque,” she says, handing us the receipt to give to one of the team of baristi further along the counter who are turning out coffee after coffee from the huge, state-of-the-art coffee machine with the usual practised ease combined with a good dash of flair.  
“Five Euros twenty-five!” says Mr Blue-Shirt.
“I know! That’s the same as in the village. I thought it’d be loads more,” I say. “I’ll take our pastries and bag a table while you wait for the coffees.”
I ease myself from the knot of customers enjoying their morning espresso at the counter and head on through to the far side of the café, passing a tall chiller cabinet full of gorgeous-looking made-to-order gateaux and celebration cakes on the way. I sit down at a table that looks out through patio doors onto a pretty, tree-shaded terrace that is invisible from the road, but from which I can still spot any other likely hikers from our group arriving at the counter – and from which I now see Mr Blue-Shirt approaching empty-handed.
“Someone will bring our coffees over,” says Mr Blue-Shirt, sitting down opposite me. “She insisted.”
We’re barely half-way through our still-warm pastries when a waitress appears and places our coffees before us with such a flourish, her “Prego!” could just as easily have been a ‘Ta-dah!’ then bustles off back to the bar, clearing a table and straightening some chairs on the way.
“This place is amazing,” says Mr Blue-Shirt through a mouthful of crumbs.
“I had no idea it’d be so good. I’m sure this croissant is homemade,” I say.
“It probably is. While I was still at the bar a couple of guys in chef’s toques came out from the back carrying huge trays of freshly baked bread and cakes. And I’m going to have to have another cappuccino. The coffee’s delicious.”
“Looks like it’ll have to be another time,” I say, nodding over Mr Blue-Shirt’s shoulder to where I have just spotted a tall, athletic-looking man holding a backpack and a clipboard and gesturing impatiently at gaggle of people in walking gear at the bar. We gulp down the remains of our pastries, wash them down with the last of our coffee, pick up our backpacks and hurry out through the patio doors and round to the car park. As we take our place in the convoy of cars heading off towards the distant mountains, we are still marvelling at our fantastic find and agree we’ll definitely be back soon.

And since then, we have been back – often. So often, in fact, that most of the staff now know our breakfast order by heart. And so often that we can confirm that its patisserie, gelato and aperitivi are all just as good as its coffee and pastries.  I just wish it hadn’t taken us so long to stop judging this delightful book by its unpromising cover.

La Befana

Tomorrow, Blue Monday, is the most miserable day of the year, it is said. Largely, to start with anyway, by travel companies seeking to sell us the promise of better things to come in the form of summer holidays. however, this notion since has been enthusiastically adopted by the media more generally, who would now have us all believe that finding January miserable has become not merely customary, but practically obligatory. You know the usual shtick: the Christmas decorations have been consigned to the loft for another year, the only Quality Street left rattling round at the bottom of the tin are the sickly soft centres, all you can find in the freezer is yet more leftover turkey and you’ve already made curry three times. The weather is ghastly, the credit card bills have landed, the poinsettia has turned to twigs, and as for the new year diet and ‘dry January’…

In Italy, though, we have an extra public holiday to help keep the festive vibe going for a little longer. If Christmas here traditionally starts on 8th December with the public holiday that marks feast of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception, it equally traditionally ends on 6th January with the feast of Epiphany. This feast commemorates the visit of the Magi to the new born Holy Infant, and thus the revelation of god made flesh as Jesus Christ. That’s the official, Church position, at least. More popularly, however, this public holiday also celebrates the arrival on the Eve of Epiphany – aka Twelfth Night – of La Befana.

On the night before Epiphany this cheery-looking, hook-nosed hag, who in Italy is easily as popular among children as Babbo Natale (Santa Claus), rides on her broomstick from house to house, filling children’s stockings with toys, sweets and fruits – if they have been good; if the have been bad, they may receive just coal, onions or garlic. But since no child can be good all the time, every stocking nowadays normally also contains a chunk of coal in the form of black-coloured candy. Good or bad, though, if children try to catch a glimpse of La Befana when she arrives, she may give them a whack with her broomstick – although this may just be a parental ruse to try and keep over-excited children in bed.  La Befana is usually depicted wearing a black shawl and covered in soot since she enters children’s houses via the chimney. As a gesture of welcome and thanks, families usually leave her a glass of wine and a plate of tasty titbits or Christmas treats such as panettone to restore her for her onward journey. She is a well-mannered visitor and traditionally sweeps the floor with her broom before she leaves, which to some has come to symbolise sweeping away the problems of the old year.

While it was not until the twentieth century that the traditions of La Befana cameto be practised throughout Italy, her roots are thought to be in Roman festivities honouring both Strenia, the goddess of the new year, purification and wellbeing, and Janus, the god of beginnings, endings and transitions, who is usually pictured facing both backwards and forwards. These were held at the start of the year – ‘January’ is widely thought to derive from ‘Janus’ – and involved the exchange of gifts. Like many rites and customs of pagan worship, La Befana was subsequently adopted by the early Church and her origins woven into the Christian narrative relating to the birth of the Christ Child. The only thing is, the Church has never been able to settle on a single, definitive version of the legend. That said, most versions typically tell of the Magi asking La Befana for help in their search for the new born Son of God, and her regret that she does not accompany them on her journey because she has her housework to do. Which doesn’t do much for the claim that ‘cleanliness is next to godliness’. Anyway, wracked with guilt, La Befana later tries either to join the Magi in their search, or to find the baby Jesus herself, and according to one telling, takes food and gifts for the infant Christ with her, along with her trusty broom with which to help Mary keep the stable clean. Her good intentions go unrewarded, though, and so more than two thousand years later she still visits the home of every child in her continued search for the new born Messiah. In the absence of the Son of God himself, she leaves gifts for all good children, taking comfort from the belief that the Christ Child is present in all children. Another variation offers a more tragic spin and depicts La Befana as a grieving mother, who, on hearing of the birth of Jesus, sets out to find him, believing him to be her dead child. In this version, however, her search is successful and she is able to present the Christ Child with her gifts, and the gift he gives her in return is to be the mother of every child in Italy.

Although La Befana is an integral part of Epiphany celebrations everywhere, she is held in especially high regard in the post-unification regions that historically formed part of the Papal States, in particular Lazio, Umbria and Le Marche. Indeed, La Befana’s official home is in Urbania, a small town in Le Marche’s north-west corner, where the four-day Festa della Befana is held annually. These protracted festivities normally involve every conceivable variety of Befana-based activity, attracting over fifty thousand visitors every year and rising. Children can visit La Befana in her house (a permanent site within the town hall), listen to her stories, watch her knitting stockings and scarves, and leave her letters at the Befana Post Office expressing their good intentions for the forthcoming year. The town is lavishly decorated for the occasion with Befana-themed adornments including four thousand knitted stockings, and its winding, medieval streets are filled with stands offering craft demonstrations and traditional games, handmade toys and local food and drink. There are fire jugglers, street performers, dance and music as well as dressing-up competitions and gaggles of Befanas swooping among the bell towers.

And this year there was even more jollity than usual in Urbania as the traditional festivities finally returned in all their glory after a three-year, pandemic-induced absence. So we can hope that La Befana has lived up to her reputation as a super-efficient housekeeper and used an extra big broom to sweep away the problems of the Covid years to ensure that in 2023 we can again sing, dance, eat, drink and make merry together. Once the weather has improved, the turkey is finished, we’ve paid off our credit card bills and dry January is over, anyway.

Image: painting by James Lewicki from “The Golden Book of Christmas Tales”, 1956

Mood medicine

“Experiencing awe increases well-being” and “can help a person transcend themselves,” according to Psychology Today. And in that odd period between Christmas and New Year when Mr Blue-Shirt and I had yet to emerge from our turkey-and-telly-induced inertia and were feeling rather like a pair of half-deflated party balloons, we definitely felt in need of a bit of awe – all the more so since we had also spent days shrouded in persistent, joy-sapping fog. So on the one morning during the week that we woke to crystalline skies and dazzling sunshine, the choice was obvious. We would head up to Forca Canapine, the pass that lies in the heart of the Sibillini Mountains on the border between Le Marche and Umbria, for the ten-kilometre hike up to the summit of Monte Cavallo and back.  This walk, which is one of our favourites, was guaranteed both to help us work off a few of those pigs in blankets and give us a good dose of awe.

Even the drive up to the start of the walk gets the awe-meter rising. A short stretch inland along the dual carriageway swiftly carries us towards the jagged outline of the distant peaks, and as soon as we turn off and head due south, we leave the broad, fertile Val di Chienti and begin the steady climb in the mountains. Rows of dormant vines and neatly-ploughed fields that in summer are ablaze with sunflowers soon give way to emerald green pasture and swathes of oak forest, a few yellowed leaves still clinging to the trees’ winter-grey branches. Visso, at 600m above sea level, is the last settlement of any size that we pass through and although it is still known as ‘the pearl of the Sibillini’, it now evokes a different, more frightening type of awe, for this village of barely 1200 souls that nestles among steep, forest-clad hills was all-but destroyed in the powerful earthquakes that struck the area in 2016. Having navigated the makeshift one-way system around the village centre that remains entirely cordoned off, the climb continues, the road now zig-zagging up through forests of lofty conifers, their long curving branches fat with shiny green needles. Then as the conifers give way to just tussocky grass, stunted gorse bushes and thistles, our awe levels rise again as the Sibillini’s mightiest peaks finally come into view and, as usual, we let out an involuntary ‘Wow!’

We have reached Forca di Gualdo and before us lies what resembles an immense, prehistoric amphitheatre. The steep flanks of a huge ring of barren limestone peaks plunge down to the spectacular Piano Grande, the former glacial lake that is now a vast, table-flat marshy plain criss-crossed with ditches and dotted with white upland cattle. We follow the road which traverses the slopes above the plain’s western side to our regular coffee-and-loo stop in Castelluccio. This tiny, earthquake-ravaged settlement (at 1452m, it is the highest in the Sibillini) is perched above the plain on a rocky promontory and ekes a living from tourism – it bristles with walkers, bikers, pony-trekkers and paragliders for much of the year – and from the cultivation of what are, according to many, the best lentils in the world. These are grown in the fertile soils of the plain, which in summer is transformed into a magic carpet of vivid blues and purples liberally sprinkled with red poppies and yellow rape. Today, though, the entire landscape, scoured by wind and rain and snow, is a drab mix of washed-out greens, greys and browns, as currently it is only the summits of the Sibillini’s two highest peaks, Monte Vettore (2476m) and Cima del Redentore (2448m), that bear a meagre covering of snow.

From Castelluccio, we drop down onto the plain, where the road briefly becomes an arrow-straight ribbon of tarmac, before finally zig-zagging up to Forca Canapine and the start point of our walk. Even as we pull on our coats, hats and boots and shoulder our small backpacks, our awe-meter climbs again: admiring the grandeur of the stupendous landscape through the windows of a warm car engages only one sense, but being physically present in that grandeur, feeling the sun on your face, hearing the wind rushing across the plain, and tasting the toothpaste-freshness of the cold, clear air magnifies the experience several times over.

We stride out up the gravel track that meanders along a broad valley, its twists and turns at times sheltering us from the stiff breeze, at times exposing us to its chilly breath, but constantly revealing glorious new vistas. A dark, pine-filled ravine one way, a glimpse of the distant coastal lowlands the other, then rearing up before us, a precipitous ridge covered in tough grass the colour of grubby straw on which a handful of cattle graze – and all of it beneath the unseasonably benign gaze of the ever-present Monte Vettore. After about forty-five minutes, the valley opens out and on one side drops away to a broad shallow basin. We have arrived at the magical Pantani di Accumoli, a cluster of shallow, gin-clear glacial ponds that glitter like jewels in the midday sun. In summer, cattle and horses come down to drink from the cool waters, and the slightly incongruous croaking of hundreds of frogs floats on the warm breeze. Now, though, the only sound is the swish of our feet through the coarse grass as we descend to the water’s edge. But we keep our voices low and our movements gentle as even today there are a couple of horses drinking from the furthest pond and we don’t want to startle them. Our awe levels edge a little higher.

Having paused for a few minutes to watch the horses – a mare and her spring foal, we surmise – we weave between the ponds and head up the steep hill on the far side of the basin for the second half of our walk. Slightly surprisingly in view of the altitude, this takes us through a dense, windless wood populated with tall, naked beech trees, whose mossy roots look for all the world like dinosaur feet. The hush is disturbed only by the rustle of dry leaves beneath our feet and the occasional crack as one of us steps on a fallen branch. We are soon unzipping jackets and peeling off hats and gloves thanks to the long, steady ascent in the protective lee of the hillside. However, we hurriedly reverse the process as we are buffeted by the icy gusts swirling around the peaks the moment we eventually emerge from the shelter of the woods. We are now just a few hundred metres short of our destination. Onwards and upwards we plod, pushed and pulled this way and that by the blustery wind and squinting against the brilliant sunshine.

Finally we are there: 1650m up, on the summit of Monte Cavallo, beneath an infinite dome of radiant blue and with magnificent 360-degree views across the entire Sibillini range – and feeling almost literally on top of the world. As a dose of awe goes…

Celebrating Normal

No matter what you choose to watch, read or listen to at this time of year, it is all but impossible to avoid some form of ‘review of the year’. Whether it is politics (Don’t get me started!), foreign affairs (Ukraine, we weep for you), climate science (COP27 or cop-out?), sport (Football – again…) or popular culture (White Lotus or The Traitors?), there always seems to be an almost irresistible urge to look back and take stock. After the preceding two years, which both staggered to an exhausted, pandemic-scarred close, a year of turbulence-free normality was what I imagine most were hoping for in 2022. And while the very particular and frightening abnormalities that Covid placed upon us largely receded, I doubt that many would characterise 2022 as truly normal or lacking in turbulence.   However, despite all that has been going on around us, now semi-officially known as a ‘permacrisis’ (the word of 2022, by the way), Mr Blue-Shirt and I have had one hell of a year. So here, then, is a personal review of 2022…

In a nutshell, La Dolce Vita made a spectacular come-back. Well, it did once we had recovered from Covid which we both managed to catch in February. Fortunately, neither of us had it too badly, although it did take a while to get back to full strength. As soon as we were firing on all cylinders again, though, things really took off.

Definitely one of the highlights of the year was hosting no fewer than ten sets of visitors between March and October. It was a real delight to be able to share our home with so many of our friends and family once again and to introduce them to Le Marche’s many pleasures: its yummy food, its fascinating culture, its pretty towns and villages and its magnificent scenery. After all, welcoming visitors to our home had always been one of the things we had been most looking forward to in moving to Italy – and at last we were back in ‘this-is-what-we-joined-for’ mode.

In between visitors it was pretty full-on too. On the house front, Mr Blue-Shirt’s main project was the construction a proper carport, complete with tiled path down one side, newly rendered and painted retaining walls, and all topped off with a timber pergolato. But he was at last able to devote time to setting up his workshop too. After a couple of false dawns, he now has a fantastic space in the corner of a barn owned by a local framer we have become friends with. It’s only about 3km up the road and has uninterrupted views across to the Sibillini Mountains and should be fully operational in the next few weeks – there is just the small matter of a forge to build first…

With the last few Covid restrictions finally lapsing in June, all the village food festivals that are so much a feature of summer here were back in all their glory. So we took great pleasure in being able to attend Montelupone’s annual artichoke festival and its excellent Festa della Pizza, as well as a wine-tasting event and a street-food festival in neighbouring villages. On the cultural front, we finally managed to make it to the annual opera festival at the Sferisterio, Macerata’s amphitheatre-like outdoor arena, taking in not only a fabulous modern production of ‘Tosca’ while my nephew and his partner were here, but also a brilliantly bonkers production of ‘The Barber of Seville’ while some musical friends from the UK were with us. As for scenery, we enjoyed some stunning walks in the Sibillini Mountains, the most spectacular – and challenging – of which was the 10km/1000m ascent to (and corresponding descent from) the tiny and mysterious Lago di Pilato over which the Sibillini’s two highest peaks stand guard.

Something else that made 2022 a special year for us is that we both turned sixty. We marked Mr Blue-Shirt’s 60th in June with the purchase of a classic Fiat 500, a car for which we have both had a massive soft spot for years. Having had three or four very pleasant days going out for test drives, his heart was finally stolen by a gorgeous 1970 500L that he found in Bologna: teal-blue with tan interior and in terrific condition, but with just enough tinkering required to keep him happy. We transported it home in the back of the van: it fitted in (just), but Mr Blue-Shirt did have to climb out through the sunroof.  So he could play with his new toy, I organised a surprise overnight trip to a swanky B&B further down the coast near Porto San Giorgio where we also enjoyed dinner in a fancy restaurant.

In early September and halfway between our respective birthdays, we marked our joint milestone with a fantastic holiday comprising four days in Alghero on Sardinia’s north-west coast, which is stunning, and five days in Barcelona, which has long been on our ‘must see’ list and was absolutely jaw-droppingly amazing. The trip also allowed us to give our 100% electric Nissan Leaf its first long outing, as we took the overnight ferry from Rome (Civitavecchia) to Sardinia, and from Sardinia to Barcelona, and then drove all the way home via the Côte d’Azur and the Gulf of Genoa.

I have to say, though, that this trip was probably eclipsed – and I admit I am probably biased – by the incredible Magical Mystery Tour that Mr Blue-Shirt organised for my 60th in November. It involved a week in the UK and included, along with several other surprises and treats, a surprise lunch party in Exeter with every single member of my family followed by a corresponding dinner party at a cosy pub/hotel in the Cotswolds with most of our dearest friends. ‘Overwhelming’ barely does the experience justice.

After so much partying, we chose to bring the year to a close with a comfortingly normal Christmas à deux. Superficially, it may have looked very much like the preceding two, but it felt oh, so very different. Over our roast turkey and all the trimmings, we raised our glasses to toast our year together as usual, but this year, Mr Blue-Shirt and I didn’t have to grasp feverishly at the odd glint of positive within a swirling, frightening fog of negatives. For all the positives 2022 had brought us still shone brightly like jewels of joy in a glorious kaleidoscope of memories, that with just a simple shake and twist can be infinitely re-played…

A Brief Guide to Christmas in Italy

The first time we spent Christmas in Italy it came as quite a surprise to find – bearing in mind Italians’ reputation for flamboyance and passion – that it is celebrated in a relatively understated manner. Christmas remains first and foremost a religious festival, and while it is one of the church’s cheerier ones, it is still treated with a much greater degree of reverence than in UK. Consequently, it is not subject to anywhere near the same level of rampant and relentless consumerism.

First of all, there is barely a hint of the approach of Christmas until the feast of the Immaculate Conception on 8th December, which is when most families put up their Christmas trees and decorations and when town centres formally turn on their Christmas lights . No giant inflatable snowmen and rooftop reindeer, though, nor any national-grid-dimming light displays that you can practically see from outer space. It is all very restrained and traditional with lots of pine garlands and strings of dainty fairy lights – and mostly plain, clear ones; coloured or flashing ones are still thought a little daring by some. As in the UK, Father Christmas – aka Babbo Natale – plays a leading role in festivities, but here the star of the show is very much the baby in a manger along with the rest of the cast of the nativity. Very many families will create their own nativity scene at home as part of their Christmas decorations, and most towns and villages will have a life-size one in a central piazza and starting from Santo Stefano (Boxing Day) many places put on a living nativity scene – presepe vivente – complete with ass if not ox.

This relative restraint is also apparent when it comes to Christmas shopping. People exchange gifts in Italy in much the same way as in the UK and so the shops do get much busier in December, but there is certainly no ‘shop ‘til you drop’ mentality. Shops themselves don’t seem to rely on sales over the Christmas period for their very survival, and there are almost no over-packaged, over-priced Christmas ‘gift packs’, novelty goods and jokey stocking fillers. Better still, shoppers are largely spared the dubious delights of Mariah Carey, Noddy Holder and Roy Wood played at full blast in practically every shop from November onwards – although I have heard ‘White Christmas’ and ‘Santa Baby’ rather too many times. Christmas cards are a rarity, as are advent calendars of any kind, and Christmas wrapping paper, gift tags and ribbon are still not as easy to find as in the UK, but since most shops will happily gift-wrap even the smallest purchase for you, this is seldom a problem.

This being Italy, however, what there is definitely always an abundance of is food. Attractive, cellophane-wrapped food hampers are extremely popular gifts and can even be found in most supermarkets as well as in specialist ‘foodie’ emporia. The most typical contents are lentils (a symbol of prosperity dating back to Roman times) and zampone (stuffed pig’s trotter, whose fattiness symbolises abundance), which are traditionally both served at New Year. Wine and cheese are also very popular, as are sweetmeats such as torrone, a nougat-like dessert spiked with nuts (or its Tuscan cousin, panforte) and, naturally, the omnipresent panettone. That said, pretty much anything goes, providing it feels a little bit festive and luxurious.

And then, of course, there is all the feasting, which begins in earnest on Christmas Eve (La Vigilia). The centrepiece of all meals served on the eve of religious festivals is fish as the idea is to have a giorno magro (a lean day) to prepare for the indulgence of the festival itself. That said, la cena della vigilia (Christmas Eve Dinner) is seldom that ‘lean’ as it often consists of several courses. There is, for instance, the seven-course festa dei sette pesci (feast of the seven fishes) which represent the seven sacraments. But it can also run to nine courses to represent the Trinity (squared for good measure) or twelve to represent the disciples, thirteen if you include Jesus.  There is no single, national dish, though, as Italian cuisine varies so much from region to region. In Naples, for example, salt cod fritters are very popular; in Rome, a soup of broccoli, pasta and arzilla (a type of skate) is traditional, while in Calabria, it’s spaghetti with anchovies and crispy breadcrumbs; and here in Le Marche it has to be stoccafisso all’anconetana, a hearty fish stew made with stockfish (dried cod), potatoes and tomatoes.  While Mr Blue-Shirt and I have not yet plucked up courage to attempt such an iconic dish ourselves, we do observe the fish tradition. But our hearts weren’t quite in it last year and the year before thanks to all the Covid restrictions, so we only managed fried sea bream fillets in shrimp butter. This year, though, we upped our game a bit and went for very thin spada (swordfish) steaks wrapped around a stuffing of olives, capers and anchovies and baked in a rich tomato sauce.

So after your (supposedly) lean day, it’s back to meat as the centrepiece of the Christmas Day feast.  But first, there will probably be a selection of cured meats and cheeses, and this will almost certainly be followed by at least one pasta course – and possibly several. Once again, there is no single, national dish, but pasta in brodo (pasta in broth) is a pretty ubiquitous in the north, while in the south, pasta al forno (baked in the oven) tends to prevail.  When it come to the main course, roast turkey is becoming increasingly popular, but just as common are goose, pheasant, partridge and duck, or, in Le Marche at least, a large joint of porchetta – roast pork. And again, it is quite normal to have more than one meat course.  Incomprehensible (if not heretical) though it may be to our Italian friends, we tend to give the pasta course a miss, and dive straight in with what has become our traditional main course,  an Anglo-Italian dish of our own creation that is a prosciutto-wrapped joint of turkey breast and leg rolled around a chestnut, pistacchio and sausagemeat stuffing, served with a sauce made from red wine, pancetta, olives and homegrown figs. This is accompanied by roast parsnips, which Mr Blue-Shirt smuggled back from the UK recently as they are practically unheard of here and a few Brussels sprouts for form’s sake.

As for dessert, although there is no equivalent of British-style Christmas pudding or mince pies here, dried fruit, nuts and spices in various combinations still feature strongly. Frustingo, for instance, is a Marchigian speciality made from a deliciously rich and squidgy mix of dried figs, almonds, pine nuts, raisins, chestnuts and candied peel flavoured with coffee, chocolate, rum and mosto cotto (a syrupy reduction of the leftovers of the wine-making process – and much tastier than it sounds). Probably the only truly national favourites – and two of the very few dishes that are invariably shop-bought rather than homemade – are panettone, the large, domed, brioche-like cake studded with sultanas and citrus peel, and pandoro, the slightly denser, star-shaped cake traditionally dusted with icing sugar, both of which are typically accompanied by sweet sparkling wine. We fall into the panettone camp, but tend to treat it as an alternative Christmas cake rather than as a dessert – and don’t tell our Italian friends, but we also like it toasted and spread with butter. Anyway, since neither of us is a big fan of English-style Christmas pudding either, our dessert consists of a variation on a chocolate fondant pudding laced with lots of Christmas spices and studded with chopped brandy-soaked prunes.

After two days of multi-course dining, you’d be forgiven for thinking that on Boxing Day (Santo Stefano) might be another giorno magro. Nope. As in the UK, leftovers tend to feature strongly, but in the form of completely re-worked dishes rather than just variations on cold meat. Leftover pasta, for example, is mixed with eggs and cheese to create a frittata di pasta (pasta omelette), and leftover meat is shredded and chopped and mixed into a rich tomato sauce to create a warming stew.  However, giving the chef a break and going out for lunch is just as popular on Boxing Day. When I go for a waistband-and-conscience-easing run along the seafront at Civitanova Marche as usual tomorrow, I am sure to find that most of the beachfront restaurants will have come out of hibernation especially for the festive period and that every single one of them will be crammed with groups of ten, twelve or more, all tucking in to steaming bowls of saffron-scented brodetto (fish stew), huge pans of silky pasta mixed with locally caught shellfish and platters piled high with crispy fritto misto (mixed fried fish). On Boxing Day, though, we tend to keep things strictly English so for us it will be cold turkey, pickles and, of course, lashings of yummy bubble and squeak…

Tanti auguri, buone feste – e buon appetito – a tutti!

The photo shows the life-size nativity scene in Montelupone. Note the empty crib: since the photo was taken a few days before Christmas, the Christ Child had not yet arrived.

Community Spirit

Montelupone is one of Italy’s loveliest villages. I know we’re a little biased on the matter, but this description happens to be official. Montelupone is one of 27 villages in Le Marche, and fewer than 300 nationally, that are members of the ‘Borghi più belli d’Italia’. This is the association that was founded in 2001 to promote the history, culture and individuality of small Italian towns, and whose names means ‘Italy’s Loveliest Villages’.  

To qualify for membership, historical buildings must not only predominate but also form a harmonious whole; and if a village also has a fortified castle or ramparts, then so much the better. Looks aren’t everything, though. Members must also have a strong cultural heritage and be living, breathing communities with an active village life that is celebrated with local events.

It is therefore not difficult to see why Montelupone qualified for membership. Contained within over a kilometre of defensive walls that ring the entire historical centre, access to which is gained through four imposing town gates, are four medieval churches, a small park and a war memorial around which winds a maze of cobbled streets lined with traditional, green-shuttered townhouses built in honey-coloured brick. These narrow walkways radiate out from the generous central square that is overlooked by the 14th century Palazzetto dei Priori with its distinctive castellated clock tower, and the elegant Palazzo Comunale (town hall) that also houses the exquisite little Teatro Nicola degli Angeli.

As for being a living, breathing community that celebrates it heritage, Montelupone’s annual fixtures include an artichoke festival, a pizza festival, an apiculture festival, a medieval weekend and a Christmas market, as well as a summer programme of smaller, family-orientated music, dance and sports events. And almost all of these events are organised and run by community volunteers from the not-for-profit association found in most small communities, the ‘Pro Loco’, whose purpose is the promotion of the town, its sights, history and identity. The village also offers its 3000 inhabitants a surprisingly comprehensive range of commercial and public services. These include a primary school, a doctor’s surgery and a pharmacy; a butcher, a baker, a greengrocer and a supermarket; a laundry, a newsagent, two hairdressers, two restaurants, a bar, a bank and a post office. And the last plays an unusually significant role in terms of bringing the community together – as everyone in the village seems completely united in finding the place utterly infuriating.

Located on the ground floor of a recently restored palazzo just off the main square, the modest space boasts three counters – although the middle one is completely redundant as in the five years we have been here I have never once seen it in use – largely because there are only two clerks. One is chubby and rosy with prematurely thinning dark hair while the other is skinny and sallow with curly hair and a threadbare beard. And both are expert in working glacially slowly, avoiding all eye-contact (or even smiling), and completely ignoring the growing gaggle of customers waiting to be served – with one or other of them often even carrying out non-customer-facing tasks while young parents are left trying to entertain fractious toddlers and stoical pensioners keep having to shift their weight from one stiff leg to the other.

Out of habit, we customers still dutifully tug a numbered ticket from the rickety dispenser in the foyer on arrival and still glance up at the LED display screen inside to see how far down the queue we are – only the staff haven’t bothered to turn the screen on for months (or, for that matter, replace the battery in the clock, which has stood at 21:43 for as long as I can remember). But as we then compare numbers to establish who’s ahead of who, at least we all have the chance to share in a collective moan, or maybe even ask someone to keep your place so you can pop to the café on the other side of the square for a quick cappuccino – and then offer to return the favour so someone else can go and grab an espresso. Or, now that winter is here, simply to announce that you can’t face waiting in the cold any longer. For even though all rules on capacity and social distancing have long since lapsed, our two ‘jobsworth’ postal clerks still won’t let people queue inside, so everyone is obliged to wait outside in what is probably one of the coldest streets in the village as it both faces the keen wind that blows in direct from the mountains and is in almost permanent shade.

This is exactly how things played out when I ‘nipped’ to the post office the other day, resulting in a 25-minute wait in damp, swirling fog to send a single letter to the UK: the half-dozen customers hunched against the cold, the shared grumbles, the comings and goings to the café, and the exasperated departure of a middle-aged man whose wife, judging by his responses, had obviously called to find out where the hell he’d got to as lunch was nearly ready. And rounded off, eventually, with a near-monosyllabic exchange with the chubby clerk with the thinning hair – his bearded co-worker was nowhere to be seen – whose disdain for the customers still waiting outside was all too apparent in the well-practised slowness with which he went through the (admittedly laborious) process of weighing and franking a single letter, taking my payment and giving me my change – all without once actually looking at me. I was met with rueful smiles and thankful glances as I left the fusty warmth of the interior, since my leaving meant that they were all a little bit closer to their turn. A couple of people even gave me a cheery “Ciao! Buona giornata! – Bye! Have a nice day!” as I disappeared into the fog.

Like I said, the post office has a way of bringing the community together – and consequently still helping make Montelupone One of Italy’s Loveliest Villages.

Normal Christmas, everyone!

We are just coming up to the last of the three annual public holidays in Italy that do not exist in the UK. Although they all technically mark Christian festivals, they are all distinctly secular in flavour – and as the year has progressed and the last remaining Covid restrictions have lapsed, each seems to have been celebrated more enthusiastically than the last.

The first, which falls right at the start of the year but at the end of Christmas, is Epiphany on 6th January and commemorates the visit of the Magi to the new born Holy Infant and thus the revelation of God made flesh as Jesus Christ. That’s the official Church position, at least. More popularly, however, this public holiday celebrates the arrival on the Eve of Epiphany (aka Twelfth Night) of La Befana whose roots are believed to be in Roman festivities that honour Strenia, the goddess of the new year, purification and well-being. This cheery-looking, hook-nosed hag, who in Italy is easily as popular among children as Babbo Natale (Father Christmas), rides on her broomstick from house to house, filling children’s stockings with toys, sweets and fruit and a chunk of black-coloured candy to represent the coal which traditionally was all that naughty children received. However, the arrival of the highly infectious new Omicron variant barely a month earlier ensured that this year’s festivities were still a little muted.

The second additional holiday, which falls in mid-summer, is the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary on 15th August and was established in the 5th century AD. This represents one of many attempts by the early Catholic Church to hi-jack pre-existing pagan festivities since it was placed slap-bang in the middle of the long-established ‘feriae augusti’. This translates as ‘the holidays of Augustus’ and was named after the pre-Christian Emperor who designated August as a period of rest following the strenuous labour of bringing in the harvest over the preceding weeks. Now known more widely just as Ferragosto, this very popular public holiday marks the height of summer and has broadly retained its Roman roots as it is typically celebrated with a huge and protracted picnic lunch with family and friends – even though the official reason for it being a public holiday is that it supposed to be the day on which the Virgin ascended to Heaven at the end of her life on earth. By this time there were no restrictions left on anything that would affect people’s enjoyment of the holiday season, but even so, it did rather feel as if people were still a little rusty, perhaps even cautious, when it came to unconstrained enjoyment.

The third additional holiday, the one we are just coming up to, is on 8th December, and is the feast day of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception. Officially, the Immaculate Conception is one of Catholicism’s four Marian dogmas (ie it was divinely revealed) and celebrates the sinless (ie immaculate) conception of the Virgin Mary by St Anne, which is why the date chosen for the feast was exactly nine months before the date of Mary’s birth on 8th September. This all seems a tad convenient to me, though, as this feast was only created in 1854 by Pope Pius IX – just when some of the more commercial Christmas customs we know today were becoming established. So I can’t help thinking that this could well have been a latter-day attempt by the Catholic Church to muscle in on what they may have feared was becoming an increasingly secular celebration. While the feast does retain some of its sacred character, it is in practice the day that kicks off Christmas when people traditionally put their Christmas tree and decorations up and begin shopping and celebrating in earnest.

And this year, after two tense, joyless and not-very-festive seasons in lockdown, people do now seem to have fully got used to socialising again and so there seems to be a collective urge to celebrate Christmas properly once more. After all, two years ago practically everything was closed for much of the Christmas period, movement was tightly restricted, and there was such a strict night-time curfew that the Pope had to bring forward his ‘Midnight’ Mass by a couple of hours. Even last Christmas, by which time over three-quarters of the population had been vaccinated and the principal restrictions involved just the Green Pass and mask-wearing, many people nonetheless cancelled their celebrations at the last minute thanks to the anxiety arising from the arrival and rapid spread of the Omicron variant – and we were back to the same brave faces and forced jollity as the year before.

But with the pandemic now apparently behind us at last, the current mood – raging inflation and war in Ukraine notwithstanding – seems to be one of unfettered good cheer. Signs announcing Christmas markets and nativity scenes are popping up at every roadside, Christmas lights are going up in every village square, pyramids of panettone and mountains of chocolates, dried fruit and nuts are appearing in every supermarket, restaurants are getting booked up with large, festive get-togethers, and people are filling their trolleys with sparkly baubles, super-size trees and miles of fairy lights in preparation for some proper, long overdue merry-making.

For it is almost as if, even after several months of ever-increasing normality, it is only as Christmas approaches once more that people truly feel that they have finally stepped back through the looking glass. That they – we – have finally left behind the dystopian, back-to-front world of Covid that was characterised by fear, isolation and separation. And that we have at last returned to a world the right way round, where conviviality, sharing and togetherness can be fully enjoyed and celebrated once more – regardless of whether those celebrations are sacred or secular.

A Magical Mystery Tour

“I think I’d like to be with people,” I had said when Mr Blue-Shirt had asked me in late summer what I’d like to do for my 60th birthday in November. “And I think I’d quite like it to be a surprise.”

He nodded thoughtfully, and left it at that. Over the succeeding weeks, though, I was aware of hurried phone conversations that he took great pains to ensure I couldn’t overhear, and of lengthy periods he spent behind closed doors on his laptop: Mr Blue-Shirt was plotting. And, despite my preference for a surprise, I couldn’t help being curious. After all, that’s half the point of a surprise surely…

Small clues extracted
And a few red herrings too
Not enough to guess

By early October I had established that we were going to spend a week in the UK, and a couple of weeks later I had learnt that on my birthday itself we would be staying in the Cotswolds where, I learnt later still, some friends would be joining us for dinner. Beyond that, though, nothing. Well, nothing of any use. When I asked for some hints, just so I could start thinking about what to pack, that I wouldn’t need my swimming things or my ‘steelies’ (steel-toed boots), but might need something for parachuting, wasn’t quite what I had in mind…

Selecting outfits
Suitable for partying –
Or bungee-jumping..?

With barely a week to go, I managed to prise out of Mr Blue-Shirt the fact that we would also be spending the first part of the week at his sister’s house near Exeter, from which I concluded that his plans involved those family members who live in the area. But as to the precise details, he remained resolutely tight-lipped …

What? and where? and who?
Tantalising surprises
Yet to be revealed

This still left a couple of days unaccounted for, though, especially as Mr Blue-Shirt had disclosed that there were not just two but three occasions (if not four) for which I would want to pack something nice to wear. So when even Mr Blue-Shirt started checking that certain shirts (in his signature colour, obviously) were washed and ironed, I pressed him further. It transpired that we were staying somewhere else again on the first night – a cosy pub somewhere in Berkshire perhaps, simply to break the long and often very slow journey from Stansted to Devon? But when I put my theory to Mr Blue-Shirt, he just shrugged.

Excitement fizzing
As my birthday drew near, like
Bubbles in champagne

He came clean only once we were airborne: we were spending the night not in Berkshire but in Essex, and not in a cosy pub but with some lifelong family friends who were also treating us to dinner at a very swanky local restaurant. And this wonderful stay with my ‘nearly-cousin’ (our fathers had been best friends, each other’s Best Man and Godfather to each other’s children) was just the first in a succession of meticulously planned surprises that unfolded as the week went on…

Only the next day came a visit to a blacksmithing friend in Surrey who stocks a range of distinctive artisan jewellery in her ironwork gallery where I was invited to choose whichever piece caught my fancy as my birthday gift from Mr Blue-Shirt himself. Since you ask, a delicate silver necklace set with blue and white topaz, which happens to be my birthstone.

The day after that was a lunch at a lovely pub on the coast a few miles from Exeter where we have enjoyed many family occasions over the years. Put like that, it may not sound that special, but Mr Blue-Shirt ensured that for me it was more special than I could ever have imagined. Travelling not, as I had anticipated, just from Exeter, but also from Southampton, Bristol, Torquay and even St Ives in deepest Cornwall, every single member of my family (as well as their partners, children and dogs) was present, from my three-year-old great nephew to my ninety-one-year-old aunt – as well as my sister-in-law and nephew whom I hadn’t seen for nearly ten years and whose arrival reduced me to a delighted, blubbering wreck. To say that ‘my cup ranneth over’ would be an understatement.

Sunday was spent ‘at leisure’, but on Monday it was on to the Cotswolds and what Mr Blue-Shirt finally revealed would be a two-night stay in a favourite pub/hotel in Burford that we have been going to for over thirty years. And while I was sure I could guess which friends were probably joining us for my birthday dinner the following evening, still the surprises kept on coming. First was an upgrade to the hotel’s only and very luxurious suite (which came as a surprise even to Mr Blue-Shirt), then, when we went down for drinks before heading into the town for what I had been led to believe would be a casual meal on our own, sitting in the bar with a glass of fizz already on the table for me were Ginny and Pete, dear friends since the early ‘90s when we all lived in Germany. Since they are still enjoying the novelty of early retirement, they had decided to come for two nights, so the four of us had a wonderful ‘bonus’ evening together and by the time we called it a night it was technically already my birthday.

Sixty! How on earth..?               
Way too young to reach this age
Inside still a girl

Mr Blue-Shirt still hadn’t finished, though. After a late start and a leisurely day opening gifts and pottering around Burford’s pretty shops, I was getting really excited about my birthday dinner that evening, which I was sure I had got all worked out. In addition to Ginny and Pete, I was confident we would be joined by Diane and James (more very old army pals from our Brunei days) and two sets of dear friends from our time in Lincolnshire, Nick and Elaine (who I used to sing with) and David and Samantha (who we used to drink with!) I had in fact got this bit spot on, but what Mr Blue-Shirt had kept up his sleeve was that, as well as dinner, he had also reserved part of the lounge for the afternoon so that everyone could gather there first for tea and birthday cake… and maybe a glass or two of champagne…

Dinner was everything I had hoped for and more: first-class food and wine served in beautiful surroundings and accompanied by animated conversation and raucous laughter, and all of it enjoyed in the wonderful company of treasured friends. Once again, my cup truly ranneth over.

I was rather thrown by how little things seemed to have changed when we got home barely 36 hours later. While some of the plants in the garden did look slightly more dishevelled, the peaks of the Sibillini remained dusted with snow, autumn colours still glowed in the trees, and even though the warmth of our protracted Indian summer had perhaps faded a tad, there was still no sign of proper, wintry cold. Then again, we had only been away for a week. But I had somehow expected everything to look or feel different after such a fantastically joyful, treat-filled, surprise-packed and completely overwhelming week.

Ever the engineer, Mr Blue-Shirt had taken my wish literally, and then delivered it in spades. He had created for me the most marvellous and memorable Magical Mystery Tour that was…

Planned with care and style,
Military precision,                                                   
And, of course, with love

And for which I shall forever remain thankful.

Of Mice and Men

Mr Blue-Shirt’s phone rang as we started pulling the nets from the base of the olive tree whose ripe, glossy fruit we had just harvested along to the next one. I straightened out the expanses of green plastic mesh beneath the tree’s fruit-laden branches while he took the call.
Ciao, Francesco! Come stai? – Hi Francesco! How are you?”
Francesco is our farmer pal who owns the barn where Mr Blue-Shirt’s workshop is taking shape. I imagined that, as usual, he wanted help with some agricultural machinery that had broken down.
“Yes, we started this morning. We’ve only done about five trees so far, though.”
This puzzled me slightly, but with the nets in place, I picked up my orange plastic hand rake and began combing it through the tree’s lower branches, the shiny black and purple beads pattering onto the net like big fat rain drops.
“Well, there are some that aren’t perfect, but it’s always like that. Why do you ask?”
I continued combing, but tuned in more to what Mr Blue-Shirt was saying.
“What, all of them? Oh no, that’s terrible! I’m so sorry.”
I stopped and caught Mr Blue-Shirt’s eye, a ‘what’s up?’ expression on my face. He pointed to the russet-coloured crate of fruit we had already gathered, then, in the universal gesture for ‘stop’, made a sawing action in front of his throat. I frowned at him in exaggerated bafflement and mouthed ‘Wot??’
“Yes, that would be great. Thanks,” he said. “A presto. Ciao. – See you shortly. Bye.” Mr Blue-Shirt rang off, stuffed his phone back into his pocket and sighed.
“Well? I said. “Why is Francesco so interested in our olives?”
“He and his dad have just started harvesting theirs, but the whole crop is ruined, he said.”
“No! How come?”
“They’re full of worms, apparently – so he wanted to know what ours are like.”
“We always find a few worms, but it’s never been a problem before.  In fact, last year Rodolfo made a point of saying how good our fruit was when we took it to him for pressing.”
“I know! But as Francesco’s trees aren’t very far from ours, he thinks ours might have a problem too. He’s on his way round to have a look.

Rovinate – come le nostre,” said Francesco, “Ruined – like ours.” He tossed the handful of olives he had been inspecting back into the crate and smiled ruefully. It had only taken him a few seconds to reach his diagnosis: the brown-edged puncture marks told him all he needed to know. To prove his point, he slit one open with his olive-stained thumbnail and pressed the juicy, pale green flesh away from the stone to reveal a tiny, biscuit-coloured worm wriggling about in the narrow tunnel it had burrowed into the fruit.
“See?” he said.
“But they’re not all like that,” said the incurably optimistic Mr Blue-Shirt.
“No, not all of them – but enough to mean your oil won’t be any good. Personally, I don’t think it’s worth harvesting the rest. Look…” Francesco stood up from the crate we were crouching around and walked over to the tree I’d spread the nets under and among whose silver-green leaves hung hundreds of sun-ripened olives that in the autumn sun looked like fairy lights made of jet. He gave the trunk a brief shake and a shower of fruit rained down onto the net.
“But I thought that just means the fruit is ripe,” I said.
Francesco shook his head. “Healthy fruit shouldn’t fall off that easily.”
We trailed behind him as he shook a couple more of the trees on our northern boundary and then a few along the eastern edge – and each time with the same result. By the time we had reached the far south-eastern corner even Mr Blue-Shirt was looking glum. There was no need to test the trees on the southern side: we’d got the message, so we trudged back across the garden to Francesco’s battered white jeep on the drive.
“Trust me,” he said, running a grubby hand through his wild mop of hair. “It’s not worth the effort.”
“We do; it’s just that…,” Mr Blue-Shirt tailed off with a dejected shrug.
“Yeah, I know. We feel the same about ours. Look, why don’t you take the ones you’ve picked down to Rodolfo this afternoon and see what he says. You never know, he might pay you something for them.”

Mr Blue-Shirt’s laboured footfall on the stairs up to my study told me it wasn’t good news.
“Well?” I said as he slumped into the armchair under the window.
He responded by tossing a couple of bank notes onto my desk.
“Thirty Euros? But we had over fifty kilos of fruit, didn’t we?”
“Yes, but because of the worms, he can only use it for the low-grade oil he sells at a discount. To be honest, after what Francesco said, I’m surprised he gave us anything at all.”
“Yeah, and I suppose thirty Euros is better than nothing – although it confirms what Francesco said about harvesting the rest: too much effort for too little return.”
“Yup! And pretty much what Rodolfo said too.”
“Did you ask him what we should do with the rest of the crop, though? Surely we won’t get rid of the worms if we don’t get rid of the fruit.”
“He said just leave it and let it fall off.”
“Really? What about eggs and larvae and so on?”
“He reckons they’ll all die off over winter, but we’ll need to spray the trees next July.”
“That makes sense: after they’ve bloomed and just as the fruit sets. What with though?”
“He didn’t say exactly. We can get it from him next summer, though. But that’s it for this year,” he said with a sigh.
“I know,” I said. “So disappointing, isn’t it.”
“Yes, very. And not just because of the oil.”
“Hardly! We’ve still got most of last year’s down in the cellar. But I know what you mean. It’s that connection with the culture and doing something that is so much part of the community.”
“Exactly,” said Mr Blue-Shirt. “It’s as if we’re missing out on something.”

As we reluctantly gathered up all the olive harvesting stuff in the fading light, I felt another pang of disappointment. Further down the mist-filled valley I heard the unmistakable chatter of a battery-powered rake just like the one we have that Mr Blue-Shirt was carrying back to the shed almost unused. He was right: it felt as if we’d got some kind of injury that meant we couldn’t take part in the match but only watch from the side-lines. And that is no fun at all.

Family Snapshots

They were our tenth and final set of visitors this year, which alone made their stay feel quite momentous. In addition, though, this was the first time my eldest niece and her husband had ever come to stay with us, which in turn meant that we have now had all three of my late sister’s grown-up children come to stay this year. It was these visitors’ first time in Italy too, which, for a couple who find travel more challenging than most, also made their visit something of a personal achievement. Consequently, with so many new experiences to enjoy, so much lost time to be made up for, and so many things to say and see and do, putting pen to paper dropped way down my list of priorities. So after a few days’ pause for reflection, here are some snapshots of a very special visit expressed in haiku.

Nervous travellers
Craving our reassurance,
Fearful of ‘what-ifs’

Relief, then delight.
Seeing our smiles of welcome,
Angst melts into hugs

Aunt, niece, late at night
Exchanging confidences,
Laughter and gossip

Tension recedes as
Le Marche works its magic.
Newness is embraced

Conversations that
Illuminate our shared past,
Finding common ground

Sights, sounds and flavours,
Traditions, language, culture
Turn from foe to friend

In her daughter’s face
I sense my sister’s presence
And her wistful smile

Strengthening the bonds,
The golden threads of kinship
That miles cannot fray

Three precious visits:
Future blooming from the past.
Niece, niece, nephew, aunt…

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