Tag Archives: parenting

A HISTORY OF TEA

DSCF6075The thread of sense memory runs deep.
My mother scoops dry black shrivelings
Of Lyons tea
Out of the red and black tea caddy.
The rippling rope of amber
Pours from the spout of the
Battered aluminum pot.
A ghost of steam
Rises above the rim of bone china.
She would not think to start the day
Without her cup of tea—
Milk, two sugars.

Mimicking the grownups,
Three little girls sit in three little chairs,
Teddies perched on laps,
Around the low wooden table,
Sipping sweet milky tea from miniature cups.

Granny wreathed in
Roses and fat bumbling bees,
Labrador dozing in the shade.
Teapot resting under the knitted cosy
Beside a plate of warm shortbread.
Sugar lumps in the silver bowl.
Milk in first, one sugar.

Grandfather’s breakfast ritual:
Small gold teapot for one
And a half.
If you were lucky and early to the table
He’d save those soupy black dregs for your cup.
A fond gesture from a man at a loss for words.
Splash of milk, no sugar.

Banging in the door at four o’clock,
Schoolbags dumped,
Tongues hanging out
For McVitie’s and afternoon tea
Strong enough to trot a mouse across it,
As my aunt would say.
Dreaming in the firelight,
Staving off homework,
The pet rabbit munching on Gingernut biscuits,
Between the paws of the great yellow dog.

The interior hush of the car
After a rain-lashed buffeting down the beach.
Hot tea poured into tannin stained mugs.
A stew of dogs and tea and humans,
Steaming up the windows.
The wind keening and rocking,
Trying to get inside and share the family picnic.

Waking to dull yellow light filtering through the wall of the tent
And the hiss of the gas burner boiling the kettle.
The milk bottle resting in the dew of the morning grass.
Or the sip of wood-smoke from a fire blackened pot.

The taste of tea at once so familiar
Became strange and exotic
With the sharp bite of Greek lemons,
Or a handful of crushed mint and orange blossom
Sweetness swirled in small glass cups
In a Tangier souk.

Bewleys of Grafton Street,
Cathedral of stained glass windows and dark wood,
The place to take the pulse of Dublin
While sipping tea and eating gobfulls of sticky bun.
Thought too, the site of betrayal
Of my college coffee drinking years.

But the tonic effects
Could not be banished beyond the realms of coolness.
In the wee dawn hours,
After a late gig and too many pints,
Bleary-eyed under the buzzing strip lights of the all-night caf,
The table strewn with plates,
Fag butts put out in the runny remains of fried eggs,
Life saving pots of scalding tea to ward off the inevitable.

In my new homeland
That anemic thing dangling on a string
Was no substitute for the stuff that would
Put hair on your chest and fur on your tongue.

But old habits and all that—
If not the tea, then the age-old ritual
Of sipping and sharing
Passed on to my husband—black, two sugars.
My daughter’s first phrase—will you have a cup of tea?
Getting straight to the heart of the matter.

And now?
I sit in the green chair, cradling the yellow mug,
Warmth seeping into my palms,
Thinking and not thinking,
Each honeyed sip of green tea
Bringing flesh to my bones.
My own ritual.

Three thousand miles away my father
Shuffles from the bedroom
In the predawn hours,
His head a cushiony place
Familiar with rote patterns—
Set the kettle murmuring on the stove
Scald the battered aluminum pot,
Reach for the red and black caddy,
Pour the boiling water over the tea bags,
Shuffle back to bed
Carrying my mother’s first cup of the day
And his own—milk, one small sugar.

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THESE HANDS

DSCF9362These hands–
they hold
and push
and pull
and eat
and give
and slap
and dig
and stir
and knit
and write
and carry
and punch
and caress
and grasp
and pluck
and stroke
and grip
and make love
and cling
and release
and wave
and cradle
and wash
and feed
and clap
and hug
and soothe
and let go.

TO CAREFULLY CARRY WITH ME

DSCF5353I want to carefully carry with me—
This basket
Of precious eggs.
Every one has its own space
In my heart.
But sometimes
I worry
That my attention
Will slip,
I won’t give each
The time it deserves
To turn and caress
And be mindful of,
That I will jostle the basket
And let one slip.
I want to swaddle them
With soft grass and feathers,
Turn them in the direction of the sun,
Breathe love and understanding
Into their souls.
Hover over them,
Keep them safe.
But like the hen
Who leaves the nest
To stretch her legs
And scratch for worms,
Knowing there is always
The possibility of the sneaking weasel,
I too must learn to let go.

THE ROLE OF MEMORY IN STORYTELLING

melissa with poppy - Version 2My youngest son just turned seven. Watching him play with his birthday Lego, it dawned on me that he has reached my memory lifetime, that is, the age from which I have distinct memories. It was also the age I vividly remember writing my first story.

It was about a little girl who wished for a pair of red shoes. She pestered her mother until her wish came true. Against all her mother’s warnings, she wore the red shoes to go exploring. One shoe got stuck in a muddy puddle and was lost. Slowly, the shoe disintegrated, becoming part of the soil, where it nurtured a lush patch of grass . Along came a cow that ate the grass, and was subsequently killed and her hide turned into a pair of red leather shoes. Strange story for a seven-year-old, but with a satisfyingly circular pattern, and, most importantly, based in fact. Yes, I was the naughty child who’d lost her red shoe.

A baby learns that if you smile at your parent just so, you elicit an instant response, or if you pull the cat’s whiskers, chance are you’ll get scratched. From birth, we build a narrative to make sense of the world around us, based on our interpretation of previous experience.

For a writer, consciously tapping into this memory bank is essential. Storytelling, at its heart, is a thing of memory. When I create a story, I delve into a scrap bag and pull out fragments of places I’ve been, weather I’ve experienced, and characters I’ve met. I stitch together a plot and blend it with sense memories to make it come alive—perhaps the salt and dead fish-laced air of a harbor, the heat shimmering off a city sidewalk, ripe with the scents of hotdogs and car fumes and drains, or the solo chorus of a lark rising high above a peat bog.

When my first grade son writes a story his default mode is a graphic novel: elaborately drawn settings and multiple characters with cryptic little speech bubbles. When prodded he will tell me the complicated and action packed plot. These stories are nothing like the ones I wrote at his age, mostly involving princesses and furry animals, but firmly based in recalled events.Milo Pic 1

I know that all children, given the right encouragement, will express themselves through art. As soon as my older children could hold a crayon, they spent many hours drawing—dragons, knights, princesses, superheroes. As a toddler, my seven-year-old who is more than a decade younger than his brother and sister, seemed reluctant to pick up art supplies. I didn’t push him. Then, at the age of four, the drawings started to trickle in from preschool—small, lavishly detailed scenes that required much explanation from him before I could grasp what they were about.

Observing him draw at home, I noticed an interesting thing. His drawings were “live action.” He was animating his fantasy world on the page. No wonder it had taken him a while to conceptualize how to do this. He is a 21st century storyteller.Milo Pic speak 1

Today, in our screen-centric era, kids move easily between the real world and game worlds, often, at least partially of their own making. These worlds can be so enticing that kids (and adults) feel as though you are present in that fantasy world.

I can’t help wondering what kind of storytellers this makes them? Many of their “memories” are constructed from these fantasy experiences, blended with reality. No doubt the next generation will write extraordinary works of fiction. They will create worlds that we would be hard pushed to conceive of. Storytellers of the mid 21st century will break old molds.

And yet, I believe that nothing can replace the scent of wood smoke on the air that instantly transports me to the moment of arrival at my grandmother’s house. Or the feel of slick pebbles underfoot and ice-cold water stinging my knees as I wade into a lake. Or the shame of facing my mother wearing one red shoe, and one muddy sock.muddy red shoe

TOP TEN THINGS I’VE LEARED ABOUT BLOGGING

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Blogging is not for sissies. It takes time, focus, and hard work if you want to put out blogs that won’t make you cringe down the road. But the rewards are big. As the Write Eejit comes to the end of its first year, I thought it a good time to look back at what it’s taught me so far.

  1. Nobody just pops out a post worth its salt. Even the folks that seem to effortlessly come up with witty and informative things to say on a daily basis have more than likely been mulling them over for a while.   WHITE DEER
  2. It’s an excellent way to get a load off my chest. Feeling aggravated or ecstatic about something? Why not post a mini rant. So what if I’ll forever be known as that miserable woman who hates her cat. I HATE MY CAT
  3. Blogging has a way of bringing things into focus. Coming up with topics not only allows me to live in the moment, but also reflect on past events in a new light. GOLDEN MOMENTS
  4. I get to experiment without having to commit to a specific idea or format. PAGAN MOON
  5. I’ve rediscovered things about my past that had dropped off my radar. HIPPIE ADVENTURE
  6. On good days when I post without a hitch, blogging makes me feel like 21st century Warrior Woman. On bad days when I can’t figure out why my password has reset itself, I’m an FTD (frustrated tech dummy). OLD WRITERS NEW MEDIA
  7. Blogging forces me to set goals and shoot for a deadline, and is a constant reminder to adhere to good writing habits—check spelling and punctuation before hitting “Post”. COTTER PIN
  8. Blogging helps me take that breath and reevaluate where I am, both in life, and as a writer. MUD SEASON
  9. There are many talented and inspiring fellow bloggers out there. HIGH JINKS IN THE HAREM
  10. And when those “Likes” and comments pop up, boy is it instant gratification for someone who spends a lot of time tapping away in no-woman’s land. BLIND SQUIRREL PARENTING

Corfu Adventure, Part 4

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When my family and I arrived on Corfu in 1973, we were part of a long line of blow-ins. For a small island, it has a blockbuster of a history, and not surprisingly, features in Greek mythology. Homer’s hero, Odysseus, washed up on it’s shores after being shipwrecked. It’s strategic location between the Adriatic and the Ionian seas made it a great location for trade and an excellent naval base, and it’s turbulent history reflects that. The Corinthians founded the ancient city of Kerkyra around 734 B.C.E., while many others over the millennia, sought to exploit the island including the Romans, Goths, Venetians, French, and British. Interested to read more- http://www.greecetravel.com/corfu/history.html

My sisters and I were lucky enough to see, first hand, evidence of Corfu’s earliest settlers. With Dr. Augustus Sordinas, an expert on Corfu’s early human inhabitants, we explored the cave where he excavated the bones of wild cattle, deer, and hyenas, and flint tools dating from the Paleolithic period, about 25,000 years ago.

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At Sidari in the north of the island we were not the first to camp by a small river leading down to the sea. In the sandy cliff face we studied the layers of fossilized shells left over from Stone Age clambakes, and shards of flint, chipped into workable tools. I still treasure the finely worked flint spear tip I found poking out of the mud. We visited a man who lived in a remote coastal area. His home was built from marsh reeds, and inside, his bed was a raised pallet of earth. We watched in awe as he caught his dinner of sardines using a net weighted down with rocks that he cast into the shallow bay. He then offered Mum and Dad wine made from his own foot-crushed grapes. His lifestyle had probably changed little from that of his ancestors, hundreds, if not thousands, of years ago.

Some of the strongest memories of living on Corfu revolve around food. At first, my seven-year-old palate craved cornflakes and peanut butter, a throwback to home. I soon saw the light, and a pan full of fresh-caught sardines, fried to a crisp in olive oil was a treat—eyeballs and all. I even came to like the chewy texture of octopus.

Our favorite place to eat was on an unprepossessing backstreet in Corfu’s main town, Kerkyra. The tiny neighborhood restaurant had two tables outside and the same number inside. Grilled lamb kebabs, Greek salad fragrant with oregano and olive oil, and slivered potato fries—that’s all they made, but that’s all they needed to make. Afterwards we wended our way through the labyrinth of narrow, cobblestone streets of the old town, little changed since the Venetians laid them out five hundred years earlier.

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At Spianada square, overlooked by the ancient Citadel and moat (also courtesy of the Venetians), we joined in the passeo of Corfiots strolling along the esplanade flanked by its arched colonnade filled with cafes and restaurants. Sometimes we’d sit and enjoy a bottle of the local ginger beer, or lick ice cream and listen to the brass band playing in the bandstand. On Sunday afternoons, we watched the strange sight of cricket being played, a reminder that Corfu was a British colony in the 19th century. On our way home, we had to stop at a tiny dairy shop for a dessert treat. They served the most delicious, cinnamon-topped rice pudding. As soon as Easter was over and the restrictions of Lent, they switched to serving equally wonderful rich, creamy goats milk yogurt.

Another one of our greatest pleasures on Corfu was swimming. In addition to the small tourist beaches, surrounded by hotels, there were plenty of remote swathes of sand with only seabird footprints. Mum and Dad kitted us out with snorkels and flippers and we entertained ourselves for hours while Dad fiddled with his leaky underwater camera. Tourists would sit up and gawk as three small, blonde children swam in, often from half a mile or more offshore, and trouped out of the water like ducklings.

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Some of the best beaches for snorkeling were the rocky coves reached by a steep cliff path. The water was crystal clear and teeming with life. After a morning of swimming, we’d picnic in the olive groves: hunks of fresh bread doused in musky, green olive oil and topped with slabs of salty feta and slices of sweet tomato, and a handful of pungent little olives. Desert might be a juicy peach, or a square of sweet halvah made from crushed sesame seeds and honey. Heaven!

When it came time for my 8th birthday in the middle of July, I knew exactly what I wanted—a watermelon. I had fantasized about that watermelon for months, keeping my eye out for it every time we went to the market. The Irish climate precluded growing anything more exciting than cabbage, potatoes, and the rare zucchini in the early 70s, so this would be a first. On the morning of my birthday, my excitement knew no bounds at the sight of that huge, dark green globe. I carried it around the neighborhood showing it off to all my friends. Just as I staggered home with it, my arms gave out. Splat! It landed on the cobblestones in a pink, mushy mess. I was heartbroken—until Mum took me down the village to the watermelon man and I picked out another from his huge pyramid of ripe fruit.

To this day, nothing says summer and Greece and birthday quite like a slice of sweet, crisp watermelon.

Fifth & final installment coming soon

 

Greek Island Adventure, Part 3

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Have you ever daydreamed about something, and then that daydream came true? When I was seven years old, that happened to me.

It all started one grey, rainy January day on a family walk in Ireland, the country where I grew up. As my sisters and I splashed through muddy puddles, Mum and Dad said to us, “How would you like to go and live on the Greek island of Corfu?” The first picture that popped into my head was of a deep blue sky, a dusty white road, and an orange tree, heavy with fruit. In my daydream, I reached up on tippy-toe and picked one of those warm, juicy oranges. I couldn’t imagine anything more magical.

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In early April shortly after our arrival on Corfu, as we explored the island in our red VW van, we stopped on a deserted country road. Coming over the brow of a hill, I looked up and there, against the blue sky, were my sun-warmed fruit. The smell and taste of a fresh orange is a memory dart that will always recall that moment.

Spring was a busy time in the village of Kinopiastes. Everyone was cleaning and whitewashing their houses and streets for Orthodox Easter. This was nothing like Easter back home, and my sisters and I were eager to see everything. Instead of stores filled with chocolate eggs, we soon added a new word to our expanding vocabulary, kokkina avga. These were dyed red hen’s eggs. At the time, our Greek didn’t run to the explanation of their symbolism of the blood of Christ and the renewal of life. But we got that they were special. They were even baked into an Easter sweet bread.

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When the day came for the family we lived with to butcher the lamb for the Easter feast, we watched the gory details with fascination. The lamb was strung up and its throat slit, before being skinned and disemboweled. The blood was smeared in the shape of a cross on the fresh whitewash around the front door of the house. When the Easter procession passed through our cobblestone yard, led by Straggly Beard the village priest, we leaned out the bedroom window to watch. And then we ran outside to join our friends following the flower bedecked icon of Christ, carrying special white Easter candles. The narrow streets were lined with people, holding their lit candles and waiting for the procession, which would eventually wind it’s way back to the church.

On Holy Saturday, we were allowed stay up extra late to attend the special ceremony in Kekira, the main town. We could feel the excitement building all around us as we stood waiting in the dark. Finally, the priest held up the eternal flame and announced, Christos Anesti—Christ is Risen. All hell broke loose: bells tolled, guns saluted, and to our delight, fireworks exploded in the sky, illuminating the fort above the town. Soon a sea of well-wishers and flickering candlelight surrounded us.images-2

There is nothing like the smell and taste of lamb, slow grilled on a spit of charcoal. The Easter feast, like so many of the saint’s days and special occasions on Corfu, was a wonderful excuse for everyone to party. And of course that meant great food, and drink, and dancing. Grown ups sipped ouzo and retsina and laughed and joked. We were even allowed to have some watered down wine, though we preferred Gazoza, the local fizzy beverage. The village kids introduced us to a new game they played with the special red eggs. The aim of it was to crack your opponent’s egg without cracking your own.

Spring turned into early summer. The pace of life on Corfu took some getting used to. People rose early and headed out to work the fields before it got too hot. If you had shopping to do, you did it in the morning at the open air markets, or the bakery, haberdashery, and grocery stores. After lunch shutters were closed and shop doors bolted as everyone went for their siesta. vlcsnap-2013-10-14-22h17m04s10For a child, this was both the most frustrating and most wonderful time of day. How could grown-ups possibly sleep when it was hot and prickly under the sheets and the cicadas were making an ungodly racket in the walnut tree? Ah, but you could tiptoe outside and sit on the cool stone steps and watch the tiny lizards that ran up and down. You could go and steal a peach from the tree in the yard and eat it with the juice running all the way down to your elbows. You could explore the old cemetery and pick bunches of wild, magenta roses. And there was always the cooling relief of the village pump. Not everyone slept. Many of the older men—probably because they didn’t work nearly as hard as the women—preferred to sit in the shade and play backgammon or dominoes. I can still remember the sound of the click of the tiles and the tumble of the dice. And then, like the castle in the Grimm brother’s Sleeping Beauty, slowly the village would come back to life as evening came.

The village square was a nightly focal point for young and old. On weeknights, people brought chairs and gathered to watch episodes of the wildly popular General Hospital. Passeo started after dinner when the villagers came out to walk and talk. Arm and arm with our friends, we’d wander the streets sucking on ice pops and taking in the sights. Older folks would sit, gossiping, while groups of teenager girls and boys giggled and flirted under the watchful eyes of the grannies. We were amazed to discover that many of our playmates would be married by the time they turned sixteen. On weekends and special occasions, speakers were set up around the square and there was traditional Greek dancing. Eleni delighted in showing us the steps, and, arms laced around each other’s shoulders, we joined in the fun.vlcsnap-2013-10-14-21h24m12s14

We soon learned that children were considered the lifeblood of the village. New babies were carried around for everyone to admire. And chubby toddlers were considered fair game for squeezes and tickles from grandfathers to school kids alike. We couldn’t walk the streets without being hugged and pinched. In a small village everyone shares the daily joys and sorrows. During our time in Kinopiastes we were lucky enough to see a wedding, thrilled at the sight of grown-ups smashing plates on the ground, and a baptism where the naked baby was dunked under the water and came up dripping and squealing. Sadly, we also witnessed the communal grief when a young man was killed in a motorcycle accident. Over night his young wife joined the ranks of the black-garbed widows, clothes she would wear for the next seven years. But in that close-knit village we knew that she and her toddler son would never be alone with her grief.

When we had first visited, my sisters and I had been horrified by the hordes of curious people who had turned out to see the unusual sight of an Irish family invading their village. However, I will always be grateful to my parents for making the decision to live there, and to the community itself for embracing us and sharing their lives with us. It was a truly formative experience for a young child.                                                                 To be continued.

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Greek Island Adventure, Part 2

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Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals is the reason my parents loaded their three young daughters and camera equipment into the back of a red VW camper van and drove across Europe to go and live on the Greek island of Corfu. The book is an uproariously funny account of the years Durrell spent as a young boy living on Corfu. He wove such a magical picture of the island and its inhabitants and his eccentric family that my parents chose it as the perfect spot for their honeymoon. They too had a wonderful adventure and vowed to return. So there we were, a decade later, rolling of the car ferry in the main town of Kekira on a chilly March morning.

Our first weeks were spent searching for a place to set up house. Spiro, a friend who worked for the island’s tourist board, showed us around his home village. Kinopiastes, a traditional village, far off the tourist track, sat in the hills looking out over fields and cypress groves to the sea and Greek mainland. My sisters and I were horrified by the ever-increasing crowd of school children that followed us, giggling and shoving to get a good look at the three Irish kids. Even though the simple three-room villa set in a family compound on the edge of the village was a good fit, we thought we’d die if we had to be exposed to that kind of scrutiny on a daily basis. Luckily, my parents didn’t heed our moans.

We’d left damp, chilly Ireland in early spring, dreaming of azure skies and sun-drenched days. In late March when we moved into the villa, with its terrazzo floors and drafty green shutters, Mum dressed us in every layer of clothing we’d brought with us. We looked like strange mummified bodies, but then most of the kids in the village did too. Young children were kept swaddled in woolly layers, like plump, cocooned moths, long after the April sun had made us shed out sweaters.

We were rather spooked by the outhouse that consisted of a wooden box perched over a hole in the ground, and especially the thought of the scorpions that lurked there, just waiting to pinch our bottoms. But we soon got used to the little pink geckoes that clung to the ceiling, illuminated by our flashlights.

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It didn’t take long for us to find our niche in the village. The Gardigotti family who owned the villa and land around it had moved into a cottage on the far side of the cobbled courtyard with their three daughters. Angeliki (16), Eleni (12), and Yianoulla (4) became our constant companions and our guide to village life. Eleni and I made luscious mud pies under the giant walnut tree in the center of the yard. We chased the chickens and gathered their eggs. She showed us where the best Naspoli trees were, and how to harvest the delicious yellow fruit (throw a stick up at a clump).

Angeliki had finished school and her job was to help out with the household chores and keep an eye on things while Katerina and Tatsi, her mother and father, were off working the fields. I loved to watch her scrubbing the family’s clothes into a sudsy lather on the wooden washboard over a tub in the yard, all the while making sure her little sister wasn’t getting into too much trouble. Yaya, in her black widow’s weeds, was never far away and was always ready to wag a disapproving finger, or show her wonderful toothless smile at a good piece of gossip.

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After school let out for the day, Eleni and a small crowd of village children in their sky blue uniforms would lead us through the winding backstreets of the village, stopping to introduce us to shopkeepers, family, and friends. We soon learned to find our own way around, picking up useful Greek phrases along the way.

One of my favorite jobs was to fetch the bread from the bakery with my sisters. Before breakfast we’d gallop down the whitewashed side streets. The baker and his wife would be taking the fresh bread out of the oven on long wooden paddles. The whole place was shrouded in a fine layer of white flour. If you got up extra early, before the roosters started crowing, you could walk through the silent streets in time to catch the baker before he put the loaves in the oven. Then he would give us a lump of pale, yeasty dough to take home and fry in olive oil and sprinkle with lemon and sugar—the best doughnuts in the world. But on a regular morning, we’d fight over who got to carry the hot loaf. It never made it home intact. We’d gouge out fistfuls to gnaw on our return trip, while running the gauntlet of the grandmothers sitting on their steps wanting to pinch our cheeks and stuff lemons in our pockets.vlcsnap-2013-10-14-22h02m50s148

Mum and Dad wasted no time in getting down to the serious business of touring the island in the van to record the signs of spring that were everywhere. In the olive groves women picked the remaining olives from the new grass under the trees. Meadows were full of spring flowers and peach and almond blossom. Families worked together planting potatoes and tilling the soil around the vines. The last of the oranges and lemons lay in the ditches, free for the picking. At the end of the day, a procession of heavily laden donkeys, attended by their owners, would return to the village burdened down with sacks of olives and mountains of fodder or fresh-cut horta (dandelion greens).

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We set up camp beside a pond where the percussive croaks of the tree frogs kept us awake all night. With nets and collecting jars, we waded through the shallows, exclaiming over each new find. We scooped up newts and turtles and water beetles to examine at home.

Outside the villa was a long stone table set beneath a knotty trellis of grapevines, still bare of leaves. Here, our morning lessons took place with Mum, which largely consisted of recording in our diaries all that we had seen. Dad set up an aquarium so he could film and we could study the pond life before returning it to the wild. We examined each creature, reading about them in guidebooks, and then drew pictures of them. The village children were cautious at first. But when they saw us handling the toads and newts, they soon lost their fear. They would tell us the Greek names and we would tell them the English.

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Much of the fauna we encountered was new to us. Our squeals of joy were earsplitting when we found our first tortoise. Soon we had a temporary pen full of them under the mulberry tree, whose fruit they adored. We would watch the females being literally turned turtle by sex-crazed males, eager to mate.

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We tagged along with Angeliki when she went to tether the sheep and goats on a fresh patch of spring grass, charmed by the their newborn lambs and kids. And we were eager to help feed the plump baby rabbits. Little did we know we were helping fatten up the Easter feast!

All images from Yassu, Corfu by David & Sally Shaw-Smith

                                    To be continued.

VW Bus, Our Hippie Adventure, Part 1

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I know I must be hitting middle age because tsunami’s of nostalgia keep washing over me. The latest was prompted by the news that Brazil, the last remaining country to produce the Volkswagen camper van, also known as the hippie bus, is to end production after 57 years.

My seven-year-old excitement knew no bounds when Dad roared up the avenue in the second-hand, red VW bus. Our family was preparing to leave soggy Ireland to go and live on the Greek island of Corfu for six months. The bus was to be our home during the drive across Europe. Once there, it would become a mobile production unit while Mum and Dad made a series of documentaries on the people, history, and wildlife of the island. This was 1972 and I didn’t even know what a hippie was, but Mum and Dad with their three little girls packed into a VW bus must have fit the mold.

Mum set to work sewing bright orange curtains for the windows. Soon, with the film equipment stashed under the seats, we were off to catch the ferry to England. London in the early 1970’s was a psychedelic experience. I remember sleeping on the floor of a musician friend of my parents. It was all Indian prints and sitars and smelly incense, and it blew my provincial Irish mind. I lay on a makeshift bed on the floor gazing, transfixed at the first lava lamp I’d ever seen. But that was nothing compared to the thrill of driving up the ramp into the hovercraft that would take us across the English Channel from England to France, and feeling the airbags inflate beneath me, before skimming across the sand flats and splashing into the sea.

trip map 1

We were on a very limited budget, so, even though it was March and freezing, all five of us spent our first night in Paris squished into the back of the van. To pee, we had to get out and squat in the gutter, much to the horror of the early dog walkers—their dogs got to poop on the sidewalks! Not surprisingly, after that we graduated to cheap hotels, at least one of which doubled as an up market brothel as my older sister later informed me.

In France my sisters and I discovered bidets, fizzy water, and Nutella. Who knew you could eat bread and chocolate? Surely an invention of the gods. Bolsters, on the other hand, were a form of torture, only good for annihilating your sisters in a pillow fight.

The van chugged valiantly across France and into Switzerland, where the heater conked out. By now it had truly become our mobile playground, filled with books and sketchpads and colored pencils. Entertainment was never hard to find. When my sisters and I got tired of squabbling, we could sit for hours gazing out the window at the passing scenery, marveling as we climbed up into the Alps at the snow-filled valleys. Until then I had never seen more than a dusting of the white stuff. Once we had driven through the Great Saint Bernard Tunnel and crossed into Italy, we begged to stop so we could sink, up to our uxters, in the snowdrifts at the side of the road.

On the outskirts of Turin, the driver’s window of the van got stuck, allowing in icy blasts of air. While it was being repaired, we spent a night at a wonderfully old and creaky hotel, undoubtedly haunted. Much to our delight, several black cats slept in a basket on the wooden counter that served as a front desk.

Riding the vaparetto through the canals of Venice, I felt like I’d stepped into a Richard Scarry book. They had water taxis, water ambulances, water police, and of course, gondolas. In St. Mark’s Square, on a chilly March day, the pigeons were more numerous than the tourists. We giggled as hordes of them descended on our outstretched hands to nibble the corn kernels we offered them. I still have the miniature glass goose I watched the glassmaker swirl out of yellow and black glass.

On the outskirts of Rome, my parents looked up an acquaintance. Unfamiliar with the eating habits of small children, he took us to a fancy Italian restaurant and plied us with Parma ham and slivers of dolphin meat. My devious seven-year-old brain went into action. At one point my mother turned and praised me for trying the unusual food. Little did she know there was a pile of discreetly rolled Parma ham deposited under the chair of the corpulent Italian gentleman at the next table.

My sisters and I fell in love with the Botticelli’s in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. From the windows of the museum we looked out over the Arno River and the Ponte Vecchio and marveled at the golden carp swimming below us. Whenever I see a Botticelli, I think of those golden fish.

Arriving in Rome late at night, we huddled in the backseat while Mum and Dad fought bitterly over the frustrating one-way system. When we finally found a hotel room, it was well past midnight and all the restaurants were closed. The owner, a cranky old English fart, said, ‘I hope your children don’t wet the beds,’ much to our indignation. We sat in bed eating handfuls of raisins and sipping watered-down whiskey. (I suspect that my parents merely wanted a bit of peace and quiet, but it’s possible that that is where I first acquired a taste for the smoky, burnt caramel flavor.) The next morning we began our Roman adventure with breakfast on the roof terrace of the hotel, overlooking Roman ruins, filled with cats dining on spaghetti provided by little old ladies.

The van roared past Naples and Mount Vesuvius in a hell-for-leather attempt to catch the ferry at Brindisi for the island of Corfu—our new home for the next six months.

It’s funny how of all the amazing ruins and sights we must have seen, these are the ones that stick in the crevices.                           Untitled1                     To be continued.