Living by water as I now do, I hadn’t expected to mellow into an Italian lakeside break in quite such an acceptable fashion. ‘My’ water is coastal, briney and bracing whereas the waters of Lake Iseo turn out to be smooth, cool and languid. They sip away my end of term weariness and even lap up some guilt about being away from my mother who is fading painfully.
This was a mini-break gifted to me by Sis and her Partner, Signore Ricco (he who always has my back and once said, ‘if you start sounding bitter and twisted on this journey, it will be my job to tell you’.). Their Italian bolt hole has been hard won and carefully crafted and provides ready sanctuary when Mr Critter rattles my sister’s health. I discovered this week the reassurance of sleeping in a former monastery and the comfort of being loaned a door key that smoothly turns four times in the lock, each time sliding another well oiled lock shaft into place; four shafts from one key takes security to the level I’m craving. Locking such a door each night reminds me of being a child and hearing my father double checking that the front door was bolted after the last person had gone to bed. You can’t buy security like that as an adult- or perhaps you can in Italy.
Favourite Son must get a mention here; I don’t know many young men who would be willing to escort their mother on a mini break designed to test out her confidence regarding foreign travel. I can certainly take a party of 30 students to Kenya for two weeks when I’m in teacher mode, but it’s holidaying without a significant other that I have been dreading. I wasn’t even certain that I could face Stansted alone (can anyone, I now ask through the eyes of my Ryanair and M11 experience?). Favourite Son (FS) instinctively knew this and agreed to journey alongside me, even though I know he has a ready supply of much more entertaining travel companions.
As his mother, I will boast that FS has grown into a fine and insightful companion even though he’s faced his own battles over the last 12 months (Son – just in case you are reading this and have stopped breathing – I’m not about to share your story here). He manages to calmly ignore Mama J’s passport faffing and navigates me through 5am airport hell and fellow travellers who emergency stop at random with not a whisper of a hand signal to check a flight board or their phone. FS pretends not to notice my irritation, and makes me believe I’m coping with airport madness seamlessly. He allows me to people watch and spend too much money on coffee. Airports are small fry to a man who has backpacked around South America and to his sister, who might be reading this from Cambodia, from where she calmly tells me she currently has no passport (another story, but again, not mine to tell). Their patience with me is humbling and they have learnt not to parrot the platitude, ‘but you’re so strong,’ as others seem to so easily do. I am strong, of course, but just occasionally it would be nice to have a day off.
Part of me was dreading returning to Iseo; unbeknown to me at the time, when we holidayed there with my sister’s family in 2012, I was incredibly gullible. I believed that this was what family holidays should be like – bikes, gelato and water football. In reality I should have got my lardy arse off my sun bed and been less trusting; I should have honed in on furtive texting and a feeling of being invisible to my former husband. Hindsight is a smug and wonderful thing, though. In hindsight I’d have embroidered Oscar Wilde’s quote, ‘If you tell the truth you will never have to lie,’ on Mr Husband’s beach towel, and then the holiday could have been perfect.
Anyway, I want to stay trustful. I can work on gullible. If I can’t trust, I will become bitter and twisted and then I’ll be called up to Signor Ricco’s office. It’s a no win situation. I’ll just accept that life only makes sense looking backwards.
This holiday we’ve been staying a few miles around the lake from where we stayed for that 2012 marriage shakedown and I’ve been able to look up from my sun bed across the water and allow the memories to return if I’ve wanted them to. Being in the companionable silence afforded by Favourite Son, who doesn’t seem to judge or try to shape me, I’ve found the memories are just that – lovely recollections of time spent with my amazing family. Here I am, no dramatic key change, still lying on a sun bed but forging new memories.
I’ve found that, although always changing, the lake moves in a very different – and more subtle – way to my seaside landscape. The blue gauze of the Italian water gently laps at the steps leading down to the lake and coaxes my eyes up from my book to the island opposite. There the monastery perches 800 metres above the terracotta tiled roofs and the colourfully shuttered buildings below, which hug the fishing port.
When it feels likes it, a lazy ferry ambles across the still water, mocking any timetable expectations and sending a back swell of water to roll up the moorings beside the apartment’s veranda. Instead of the gulls I am used to, I see Italian swallows kissing the lake and arcing back to their tiled nesting holes above. Ducks and the occasional swan (who bizarrely seems to keep losing his partner – oh the irony), with an air of anticipation, waddle up the warm steps and roost on the grass, one eye open to see if any bruschetta might fall, opportunely, onto the tiles.
Lying in the sun and inhaling the perfume of the bougainvillea, I hear a fishing line slice through the warm air and reach out to the still water, before tracing itself back to a weathered Italian gentleman, squatting in the shade of the jetty next door. Time is irrelevant, but it is punctuated at useful intervals by the bells of the church opposite – each 15 minutes marked by a different tubular melody.
Being here is a balm. Sun-baked sleep is refreshingly dream free and I’m breathing and slumbering deeply. I think FS is benefitting as well.
The water works like a Pensive Pot and allows me to mull and day dream, cherishing the memories I want to keep. I’m letting the past wash over me like the Italian lake.
In the mornings we’ve been catching the ferry across to the island and we’ve run round the undulating road that belts the island for five miles. Again, we’ve run in companionable silence and I’ve enjoyed the rhythm of the pace. Running in the footsteps of my sister, I am in awe to know that when in residence she regularly uses this run to knock Mr Critter back into shape and to celebrate her milestones. I won’t call her strong, because I’ve learnt how throw-away this mantra can sound, and she too may require a day off, but I do feel yoked reassuringly between my sister and my children; I feel there’s less of a burden to shoulder in this company.
When we eventually make it to the monastery it isn’t the beatific experience I expected, for we arrive at the same time as a party of Italian school children who are more interested in the prospect of an early packed lunch than in the spirituality of the shade and any post-walk glow. The church itself is richly adorned by religious iconography and Favourite Son and I laugh as we remember a similar Greek Orthodox church we once tried to visit in Crete – my eight year old son was then so unnerved by the smells, bells and chanting monks, that we had to make a very swift exit through a side door. On this visit he manages to sit it out and we light candles for mum and Sis and pray for their health. We also light a candle for Favourite Daughter and I pray for her safe return – with passport (thankfully, not via Stansted).
We leave the church in the heat of the Italian sun, and, as we are still in running gear, FS suggests that we run downhill, back to the ferry. The road literally drops away below our feet as it winds back to the port. It feels liberating not to worry about leaving a mountain top experience; I am running back to the valley in good company – company that persuades me that a cafe should gently pause our return and that appropriate post-monastery fare should be beer and crisps even though it is well before lunchtime.
Later that evening FS patiently teaches me a card game that is clearly meant to be driven at a much faster pace. He doesn’t berate me, just steadily breaks it down to the slowest, most basic rules. He seems to instinctively know what I need right now, and I’ll try really hard to play again soon, to see how much I actually took in.
On the last day of the break I find myself sketching into a notepad. I haven’t picked up a pencil to draw in over 20 years, and the results evidence this. Even back then I struggled with perspective and I can see from my scribbles, that nothing has changed. I find I can laugh at this. It’s so lovely not having anyone look over my shoulder and correct my foreshortening. I’d like to come back with proper paper and softer pencils. I’d like to try again; I think I will. Like looking across the lake, I do now believe a more artistically pleasing perspective is possible, and that I may even find myself to be its author if I just give myself some time.
Dropping out of the world for a few days has allowed my feet to ground again. I just needed a little oasis in which to catch my breath. On the last day, lying back on my sun bed to snatch a last bit of warmth, eyes napping behind sunglasses, I hear life returning to the apartments. The sound of an excited Italian voice spills from the window above and even the swallows seem to bomb-dive in groups now with new vigour. I hear the swish of a raffia broom as the Italian cleaner comes to sweep the veranda of non-existent dirt, ready for a weekend of returning residents. A small fishing boat floats by, one fisherman whistles tunefully besides a companion who clearly wishes he wouldn’t. Even Grumpino, the local supermarket curmudgeon, seems to be smiling beneath his overall on this our last day – pleased perhaps that although our Italian is still limited (‘Scusa Grumpino’) we have finally cracked his idiosyncratic system for weighing vegetables.
I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting the Italian ‘Snake’ on this visit. He owns the prize penthouse apartment at the top of this former monastery and my sister tells me that the monks would blush if they could hear how he now uses this former monk’s cell to wine and dine a long queue of female visitors each weekend. Apparently he never sees sunlight. What a waste of a bird’s eye view perspective of lake life, but then perhaps I’m missing something.
Time to hand back the key…