Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Turning Points

At some point in our lives as parents, we hit a new turning point when our children cease to be our “children” and become our friends. I’m not sure if this is an age specific thing or if it is different for boys and girls, but I do know that when my first-born turned 25 last month, I was hit with a sudden realization that my relationship with her had changed—in a forever kind of way. There was no sadness in this moment at all for with it came the knowledge and understanding that my baby, this former child of mine, has been transformed into a friend—and she is one of the best possible friends to walk the face of this earth with me.

Seven young mothers in the maternity unit at the McMaster Medical Centre filed into my room the day she arrived, a quarter of a century ago. They solemnly announced that they had just finished a walking tour of the nursery to look at all the newborns and had chosen mine as the loveliest of all 28 babies in the nursery that day. And while I secretly agreed that she was indeed the fairest of them all, with her single blonde curl, rosebud lips and infant starfish hands, it was her steely eye that spoke to me first. When she fixed that determined gaze on me, I knew in a heart-beat that I would learn a lot from this tiny being.

And so it has come to be. She has taught me much over the course of the years-and I expect she will continue to teach me for many more years. What kinds of things? Let me elaborate:

Curiosity Doesn’t Kill The Cat. Ever.
She has taught me that curiosity is a great teacher. She is naturally curious about everything—music, people, places, poetry, language, food, art, politics, sport— and this is a gift that has taken her far. She has travelled widely, experienced much and has friends all over the world. She has searched for el paco in the mountains of Bolivia, eaten a roasted guinea pig, and dog sledded in the frigid forests of Quebec. She has celebrated Easter in Poland where she slept in a closet and experienced first-hand the generosity of people who have nothing, and New Year’s in Mexico where she ate a grape for every wish she made on the stroke of midnight. She has survived hair raising bus rides in South America, skied the Sierra Nevada, played the slots in Monte Carlo and hiked on a plain of salt. She has bungee jumped from the dizzy heights of a swaying tower, circled silently towards the earth in a glider and been awestruck by the beauty of Machu Picchu. She takes Spanish cooking lessons, gardens in a community garden and has launched herself—fearlessly—into the arms of a stranger on a trapeze.

It Takes Guts.
I wept when, as a young woman, she left home-completely alone- for a year studies abroad. I should have saved my tears. By the time she had arrived in southern Spain 15 hours later, she had already gathered a large group of new companions along the way. Many became life-long friends. Later she spent several months in Bolivia, living in a poor area of Le Paz, travelling around the country side and working only in Spanish. She dealt with the miseries of stolen credit cards, horrendous bouts of food poisoning, ice-cold apartments and dangerous streets. She has experienced such irritations as bus drivers making pit stops at brothels and the frightening ordeal of being detained by the Mexican police, but has faced it all with her usual poise, grace and her uncanny ability tell a riveting story afterwards.

Never Say Never.
At nine months, this child of mine stood up and walked. Gripping her two small fists in front of her, she lurched in an awkward goose step down the laneway of her grandparents farm—a full 500 yards. She had never stood upright before. At 12 months she could walk down a stair case without holding the banister. In high school, a math teacher once told her she was weak in math. Never could a teacher, however misguided, have provided more inspiration. For the next three years, she slaved over her math texts, wept over exercises, listened intently to explanations, did copious amounts of homework late into the night, wept and slaved some more. By the time she graduated, she was something of a math whizz and was considering a full degree in mathematics at university—and had the marks to do it. She has since chosen other paths but her can-do attitude has never left her as she has made her way to fluency in two additional languages, an advanced degree in political science, and a successful entry into the work force.

Kindness Is A Way of Life.
Of all the things I have learned from her, kindness is perhaps her greatest lesson. For her, kindness is the leading principle of her life. Over and over, her empathy has not only astounded me-but also humbled me. On countless occasions, when taken aside to be questioned on why she continues to be good to someone who has wronged her, she responds simply with “What’s wrong with being the best person I can be at all times?” If only I could be so wise. She always makes time for her friends and her family. She wraps gifts, pores over heart-felt and hand-written cards and never misses a special occasion. She once took a 22 hour bus ride alone through a foreign country to visit an injured friend in the hospital.

Her passion—and chosen line of work—is human rights. Her sisters are her best friends and Christmas is her favorite time of year.

Live. Love. Laugh.
She is known for her infectious laughter, her ability to tell a story in the most self-deprecating manner, and her uncontrollable, hysterical fits of giggling that can continue long into the night, especially when spurred on by the running commentary of her sisters. She laughs at animated squirrels in movies, in yoga classes—and even out loud in her sleep. I see it as one of her gifts to others.

She is also known for the sprinkle of freckles that have graced her small nose for about twenty of her twenty five years. The mother of a young playmate once commented to me that she felt it was those freckles that made her so many friends—I nodded and smiled but I knew, and continue to know, better.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Reflections on The Empty Nest

Today’s paper has a brief article about the Empty Nest Syndrome. Turns out that far from being a time when mom and dad mope around the house all sniffly-like while looking at the empty beds, the Empty Nest is actually a very positive thing, allowing couples to reclaim some space, have more time for travel and leisure, and enjoy their kids—from a distance.

The Blessed Middle Child turned 22 yesterday and has indeed left the nest. I miss her. A lot. But seeing her strike off on her own makes my heart sing too - since our primary role as parents is, after all, to prepare our young ones to go out there and live in that big wide world.

The Blessed Middle Child has not followed the easy road. At least the road that WE thought was the easier one. She has charted her own path from the moment she took her first breath and has consistently rejected most advice, counsel or "learnings of her people.” She lurched through adolescence but has quite miraculously emerged on the other side smart, unscathed and wise beyond her years.

There is little doubt that the unconventional routes she took have contributed to her becoming the interesting person that she is today. Here are just a few examples:

-In Grade 10, she struck a deal with the Lebanese owner of a pizza joint close to her high school. By sweeping his floors and wiping down his tables, she got an enormous slice of greasy pizza from him every day—which meant she could sleep in 20 minutes longer in the morning, skip breakfast, not make a lunch and get through her day without feeling hungry.

-She has had eight paid jobs since the age of 15, all of which she got by showing up in person and knocking people’s socks off with her straight-forward attitude and her aptitude for hard work. She has battled rats the size of cats in downtown warehouse cellars, catered guests at corporate events, had 4 a.m. hotel shift starts, scrubbed kitchens, washed floors, prepared sandwiches, ejected drunken patrons, and killed multitudes of bedbugs and cockroaches.

-She set off for a year of travel during which she lived in a tent, made friends from countries all over the world, slept on beaches, jumped out of a plane, saved a bird from a spider, surfed on sand, and snorkeled in shark-infested waters. She is the only person I know who has been on a boat trip with six Scottish strippers.

-She is politically incorrect and delivers astounding drop-kick one liners that will leave you shaking with uncontrollable laughter hours later.

Yes, she smokes too much, exercises too little and drinks Jager Bombs to keep herself awake. But she also cries at goodbyes and thinks nothing of giving a homeless guy 15 bucks.

And she still holds my hand in movies.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Ten Things You Can't Hate About Italy

Lasting Impressions

We left Florence under a full moon at 4 am. The old grizzled night watchman at our hotel made us a cappucino in his white cotton undershirt as we sat on our suitcases in the dark lobby waiting for the cab to the airport. It was the best I have ever tasted.

I'm ending this series with a collection of photos because pictures say a thousand words which is very convenient for us writer types when we run out.

A few final thoughts:

I need an espresso machine. Badly. I don't think I can look a Farm Boy grind in the face ever again.

In the bread department, the French beat the Italians every time.

To do true Tuscan cuisine, I need to find and kill me a cinghiale. These are the ugly brown piggish things with big shoulders and tusks that live in the hills. I saw one on the highway. They make a fine stew. If anyone knows where one is, gimme a shout.

My husband of 26 years is still the best travelling companion in the world. He is not available for rental.

I could seriously fall for a pilot. If I didn't have the husband of 26 years that is. Anyone who can put a magnificent and fully loaded jet onto the ground without a whisper, taxi gently into his berth and then say in his best Pope John Paul voice "All Rise" does it for me.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Ten Things You Can't Hate About Italy

Olio Extravergine Di Olivia

There is a palpable feeling of excitement in the air here in Tuscany. That’s because olive season is almost here. The trees are heavy with olives in the groves and the harvest could begin in three weeks time and continue on into January.

Here’s a few things to know about olive trees:

They need regular pruning to maximize health and yield. An unpruned tree looks like this...

and is susceptible to fungus and other diseases because of the lack of airflow and unbalanced exposure to sunshine.

A well-pruned tree has a distinctive vase shape and its fruit bearing branches fall gracefully to the outside like this:

We have just made our first olive oil purchase ever. I mean a real purchase, not just picking a bottle off the shelf at the local grocery store. We bought our oil from a local producer called Mauritzio. He has a small shop in Sasso Fortino that is mysteriously never open. In true Italian style, you need to know that you have to call him and get him to come and open the shop just for you. Awkward, yes, but well worth it.

Once we were ushered into the tidy little shop, with its arching stone ceilings and chestnut beams, Mauritzio started pouring different oil types into small serving cups. To our horror we realized we were going to have to taste the oils and somehow differentiate between them. Not easy for the untrained Canadian palate. In addition, Mauritzio started filling his mouth with oil, swilling and gurgling and making all sorts of other alarming noises out the side of his mouth by drawing in air in large sucking hisses. It was unclear how to participate. However... under his expert guidance (with some simultaneous translation going on in the background) we quickly found that we could indeed taste the differences. After several tastings we settled on a very fine olive oil with a lovely peppery aftertaste. It is made from olives that are hand-picked (ie. not allowed to fall into the nets and risk bruising) early in the season (ie October, before the olives are fully ripe and before a particular fly may infest the crop and require spraying) and the oil is pressed on the same day that the olives are picked. No pesticides or other chemicals are used so the oil is certified “biologica” and has won all sorts of awards and distinctions as well as an honourable mention in the “slow food” winners book published here in Europe. A huge honour for a small producer.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Ten Things You Can't Hate About Italy

Shopping without Dropping

If there is a crisis in the economy, it isn’t very apparent here. Everyone is out shopping…

and I mean EVERYONE.

The storefronts dazzle with their creative displays and the merchandise is oh so tempting.

Say goodbye to Birkenstock and Bushtakah and mommy’s practical walking shoes, gals, and say hello to Italy’s finest.

Perfect for a special occasion or a brisk walk with the dog across the cobblestoned piazza.

From Florentine gold…

and fine leather handbags,

to back to school fashion...

and clothes for small princesses.

Interested in some sexy pasta?

and some large-ish bottlies of vino to go with...

ruffled gloves in fine Florentine leather...


and lively pinocchios.

Italy has it all and then some.

And if your budget allows, you may even want to stop by here…

and pick up one of these. (excuse the sideways view!)

Monday, August 31, 2009

Ten Things You Can't Hate About Italy

The Italian Riviera

OK—I have it all figured out. After some close scrutinization of the jet setty folk on the Italian Riviera, I now know ALL THE STUFF you need to have in order to fit in right.

The Tan
The Tan that needs acquiring here does NOT come in shades like Sun-kissed Glow or Bronzage Go Lightly. Those just don’t make the cut. Here you need to be tanned to within an inch of your life—probably quite literally. You’re after the Charred Mahogany hue since this is the one that best sets off the white linen shifts and the bold gold jewelry. As far as I can tell, there are two ways to acquire the right colour: mind-numbing hours on the beach OR threading oneself on a skewer and lying atop the barbecue coals, turning every four hours.

The Yacht
You need one of these to tie up at a picturesque harbour towns like Porto Santo Stefano.

Then the Unwashed Throngs can pass by your craft and marvel at your wealth, admire the fine teak furnishings and see your staff, in matchy nautical golf shirts, smoking haughtily while you’re in town buying more expensive trinkets.

It doesn’t matter if your craft is a sleek racy one or a regal sailing one ...

but it has to be BIG. More people seem to take pictures of the sailing ones, just fyi. Here’s an ad for one that is for sale right now. Note the zeros. Note the euro exchange.

The Villa on the Hilla
You absolutely need one of these...

and it has to be well appointed with a killer view...

and it should have at least a couple of accoutrementis so you can entertain Ange, Brad and the fam should they drop by...

OH-and it probably helps if you have someone to pay for it all so you don’t have to lie awake at night and worry about stuff like debt.

And it may help if that someone isn’t an old rich auntie...
and looks something like this.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Ten Things You Can't Hate About Italy

Days of our Lives-Tuscan Style

In case anyone is sitting around wondering how our days unfold, here’s how in a nutshell:

Once we awaken, we look out our window...

and may go for a cool swim or just have an espresso at our table on the patio. There we contemplate morning light, listen to the roosters crowing and the sheep bells jangling and consider making The Plan.

The Plan generally revolves around a half-day activity and can get off to a slow start by merely going up into the village and having a cappuccino at Smiling Davide’s little bar. Our sis Nicky sometimes meets us there underneath the hundred year old wisteria that covers the patio.

From there we go on an excursion. We sometimes take our little rented Fiat
or Nicky’s black Porche.

(OK OK I lied... we set that photo up)

We then head out to see:

the ruins left behind by the Etruscans and Romans all over the hillsides here. There are whole village outlines, stone walls and mosaic-ed baths, tombs and old stone roadways OR...

the pretty fortressed villages of the area with names like Roccastrada and Montemassie that are charmingly picturesque, very tidy and devoid of people because the smart locals don’t do stupid things like walk around outside in 39 degrees.

Some days we take in a market in a neighbouring town like Castaglioni where you can buy...

beautiful salamis flavoured with fennel...

cheeses of all kinds, many of which you eat with a bit of honey on the side...

all sorts of salty dead fishies in tins...

as well as just about anything else.

We have also accompanied Nicky on her rounds as she works to look after the properties of owners who may be away. This includes their homes, pools, livestock, gardens, dogs, horses—and entire olive groves. Nicky can prune 40 olive trees in a morning and wears hard-toed boots to keep the vipers away. She is small and mighty and never ceases to amaze. She needs an epi-pen badly.