Italy Day One: Stuck Up a Mountain, Send Help

I am sat on a mountain in Italy, surrounded by stunning views and Italian homes. People are riding up and down the mountainside on mopeds, speeding along the quiet country lanes, swerving round bends. Our rental apartment has panoramic views of Lake Garda and the mountains beyond, to the back of the property we have more mountains. I am almost on top of the world.

Yet I feel scared.

It’s rare that I feel this overwhelming sense of panic, of fear, that where I am is not comfortable. It’s difficult to explain. It’s not that I’m scared of being this high up, altitude doesn’t bother me, as long as I feel like I’m not sat on the edge of a cliff face. Nor am I scared of being in the middle of nowhere, as long as I have a means of going somewhere less sparse.

I suppose the thing that bothers me is how long it took us to drive up the hill, how hard we had to push the hire car, and how windy the streets are.

I hold within me a fear of not being able to get home. I don’t know where it came from, or how long it’s been there (except that it’s been there a long time), and that is how I feel up this beautiful mountain.

I’m scared that the car we are using is not powerful enough to handle going up and down this hill more than once a day, or even that, (which means we either stay up, or we stay down). I’m scared that we will not be able to find our way “home” in the dark. I’m scared of going down (that is where height definitely comes in) because we’ve yet to do that for the first time.

A few years ago in rural France, we went out for a walk one day and got lost on our way home. I was stood on a darkened, rural, French street at night, with no street lights, with houses shuttered up, feeling like I was going to be there all night. We couldn’t call a taxi because we didn’t have a number (or know where we were). We couldn’t ask somewhere where the house was, because we didn’t really know that either. We walked until nearly midnight (after setting off at around 7/8pm) and we finally found “our house” and it was the biggest relief. Fearing we would never find our way home is something I will never forget it.

What I feel today is something I hope will pass. We may be able to get a different hire car, if the company allow us to trade it in, and maybe that will help. I just hope that this weight sitting on my chest doesn’t stay there for the whole week. We are in a beautiful place, surrounded by natures greatest gifts, and I don’t want to waste it.

Update: we found a much less dramatic way up and down the mountainside, so I’m feeling a lot calmer about it.

Here are some photos of the area:



(The mountain behind the apartment.)



(The lake view from the apartment.)



(The mountain we’re staying on from below, we think we’re near the light coloured smudge next to the tall tree.)

Short Story: Desert Heat

I wrote a random little piece using a prompt from a book called The Writer’s Block. The prompt doesn’t really match the story, at all, but whoever said prompts and stories had to? The prompt was “According to the Texas Department of Transportation, one person is killed every year while painting stripes on that state’s roads and highways. Describe one of these accidents.

Desert Heat

I walked along the empty highway, miles from anywhere, miles from nowhere. The sun shone down on me from high up in the sky and I could feel a layer of moisture coating the back of my neck. I hadn’t had a drink in nearly two miles. My knees had become unstable.

I didn’t think I would make it to the next town.

In the distance a truck the colour of desert sand had pulled over by the side of the road. A man stood on the dirt track beside the highway, a wide brimmed hat sat askew on his head, whilst his pants were gathered halfway down his legs. His hand wrapped around his manhood as he angled urine away from the road.

It felt like a mirage.

There was no water, no food, no vegetation at all except for dry grass that had miraculously survived the summer’s heat. What I saw was a man who could take me to water, to food, to shelter. I saw a truck where the window could sit open and the great gusts of speeding air could cool me to a shiver.

“Wait,” I shouted, my throat burned more each time I repeated the word. I picked up my pace, though each step wasn’t much faster than a slow walk.

The man zipped up his pants and returned to his vehicle. He rolled down a window and I felt an insurmountable amount of jealousy. I could almost feel the stagnant air circling around my face when the engine roared and the truck sped towards me. I tried to swallow but my sandpaper throat made it almost impossible.

“Wait,” I shouted again, not much louder than the other dozen or so times. I moved out into the centre of the road and lifted my arms in front of me, an action reminiscent of the times I spent in the gym trying to lift weights.

I stood my ground, feet firmly on the tarmac; a little squishy from the burning ball of fire up in the sky. If I stayed where I was the truck would have to stop, he would have to pay attention to me.

Where my throat had failed, my body could not.

The truck came faster down the road, the engine ticked over, the wheels turned with each few yards. I waited until the truck approached, fearing nothing but the unbearable heat.

When the truck flew through me I expected to feel pain. The sudden shock of a vehicle smashing into my weak skeleton and throwing me out across the scorching desert. I didn’t feel any pain. I didn’t feel anything else either. I turned around to watch for the truck travelling on behind.

“Come back,” I said, my attempt to scream failed like every attempt before it.

The truck drove on down the road at speed as though the man hadn’t seen me. A few hundred feet further along the highway the truck slowed. The man got out of his vehicle and walked again to the side of the road. He didn’t drop his pants, nor did he urinate. He knelt down beside a shape, his head low as if in prayer.

That was when I knew that the truck wasn’t a mirage. It wasn’t my saviour from the heat.

I was already gone.

The Saddest Thing About Death Isn’t Dying

(Before I begin I should make it clear that I am not trying to trivialise dying, I’m not saying the moment when someone does die isn’t painful, merely that death is more than a moment when life ends.)
I’ve only suffered four significant deaths in my twenty seven years (one of which was a pet). I’m lucky. I didn’t lose a friend in school, or a parent as a teenager, or a baby as an adult. I am luckier still in that I had all four grandparents until the age of twenty one (and still have two left at twenty seven).
The two grandparents I did lose weren’t young. They were both ill and death was, and still is, the best way out of their suffering.
The final Christmas with my mum’s mum was hard. We visited her on Christmas day and she sat in a chair asking God to take her. It was her time. It was beyond her time. Her death was not sad, it wasn’t soon enough. The saddest part of her dying for me was watching her wilt away over a number of years. Seeing my mum and aunts look after her, watching her beg for her last breath. The saddest thing was not being able to remember before; before she got ill. I have very few memories of the woman she was because they were all taken by that woman sat in a chair ready to go.
My dad’s dad died just before Christmas and like my grandma his death was more of a relief than sad. Naturally there was sadness, as there was when my grandma died, as there is with any death. He suffered from dementia. So, like my grandma, I watched him disappear into himself until he was a fraction of the man he once was. Again, I barely remember him before.
The saddest things for me are the fact my cousins didn’t know him before, they were too young. It’s the fact he died days before Christmas making an otherwise happy family occasion feel that much harder. The memories I don’t have because they were squashed down by a suffering man.
The third death was my uncle. I barely knew him but he died suddenly of a heart attack. I still have what little memories I have of him. The saddest thing about his death is the family he left behind, the granddaughters who weren’t biologically related to him but whom he doted on, the youngest of which suffered the pain of being there when he died.
Lynda Bellingham died of cancer and like many celebrities before her, she spent much of her life in the spotlight. She chose to give up fighting, to die with dignity. Her loss is not personal to me, but her death is no different to any other. She wanted one last Christmas with her family and she didn’t get it. She was a talented woman who didn’t get to perform her last shows because she needed to recover, she never went back. Those are the saddest parts of her death.
Babies, children, teenagers, adults, the elderly. When we die, whether old or young, we leave behind memories – or a lack of them. The saddest thing is that we don’t get to make memories, we don’t get to watch children become adults, we don’t get to have our parents at our wedding, we don’t have another Christmas with the people we love. Talented people don’t get to carry on being talented. Children don’t get to reach their potential or live their dreams. Parents and grandparents never get to meet their unborn relatives. The grief, the suffering, the having to say goodbye.
That’s where the true sadness lies.

To Kill a What?

Young people don’t read.

It’s a fact.

Out of 10 young people, just 3 of them read daily in their own time. These are figures that were collected by the National Literacy Trust. In 2005 the figure was 5/10, by 2011 it had dropped to 3/10.

Between the ages of 8-11 and 14-16 the percentage of young people who enjoy reading drops from 73% to 34%.

These figures are startling; they’re a truth that those of us who love to read can’t understand.

Let’s face it, reading in school can be difficult, it can be frustrating, it can be boring. I remember lesson after lesson where one pupil wanted to read aloud each and every time; she wasn’t a very good reader, but she wanted to do it. For the class it made it a little boring and tiresome, but with hindsight I know that that probably helped her to become a better reader.

We’re forced to read a lot of different stories in school. In secondary school it becomes more important that we read the ‘classics’, stories which have stood the test of time like no other.

Shakespeare. Mark Twain. Emily Bronte. William Golding. George Orwell. John Steinbeck. Harper Lee. Bill Naughton. Willy Russell.

The list feels endless. The possibilities are many.

We all explore the moors of 19th Century Britain, the streets of Liverpool and the Deep South, the cities of Verona, Athens and Vienna, an uninhabited island, or dystopian Britain.

Whichever books you are exposed to in school, whichever stories you are forced to read, there are some which stay with us forever.

I have fond memories of studying To Kill a Mockingbird, Blood Brothers and A Streetcar Named Desire.

Others will feel differently about those very same stories.

The fact is, we were given a glimpse into other worlds, we were exposed to stories that we might not have sought out on our own and for that I am grateful.

Today it was announced that Michael Gove – Education Secretary: the man who should be looking out for the bright young minds of tomorrow – has decided the reading list in schools should only contain British authors.

Something which I believe is a travesty.

There is some belief that there are plenty of brilliant novels written by British authors, so what is the big deal?

Well, the big deal is that whilst there are many amazing British novels, there are also many amazing novels written by authors of other countries.

Who is Michael Gove to say which books should or shouldn’t be covered in the curriculum? He is but one man who seems to have a very specific idea about literature and education.

I do not agree that this move is the right one.

Two of the three books I remember from school with the most happiness were written by American authors/playwrights. I have since enjoyed several other books by American authors who I did not read in school, but who have been on the curriculum at some point in time.

Let us reverse this silly idea that we must only explore books written by UK authors for a moment. Let us pretend that we’re from the United States and actually, we should only be studying books from American authors.

The Bronte Sisters. Gone.

George Orwell. Gone.

Shakespeare. Gone.

These are classics which are known the world over. They are studied in schools across the globe. They are sources of tourism; they are connections to British history and themes which are not always explored in a history lesson.

It would be unthinkable to remove Shakespeare from any curriculum.

Let us return to reality.

Harper Lee. Gone.

Mark Twain. Gone.

John Steinbeck. Gone.

Important time periods in American history that young people in education do not get taught in the UK are being wiped from the curriculum. That insight into the past in countries we don’t necessarily know much about is being taken away.

Young people who do not care much for reading will not be able to fall in love with To Kill a Mockingbird or Of Mice and Men or Huckleberry Finn. They will not go out of their way to read these books that have not been forced upon them and they will not learn the lessons that generations of children have been learning from these great American novels.

Yes, there are some wonderful books of British literature, but there are also some wonderful books that aren’t British literature, and Michael Gove’s act will mean generations of young people will never know how great they are.

Random Giving

I don’t give money to charity very often. I have given, and still do give, an awful lot of time to good causes. Over the last ten years I’ve volunteered with several high profile organisations, as well as some smaller ones too. I was a Beaver Scout Leader with the Scout Association, a Samaritan and a volunteer at the Youth Hostel Association’s Doit4Real summer camp programme. I’ve made films with an anti-bullying charity, decided who should get money to do something amazing in their community and helped primary school children with their reading.

Today, for a change, I’ve pledged money for a good cause on Kickstarter.

It all started when I was browsing Twitter, as I do every day, when someone I follow ( @NikaHarper ) tweeted that she’d read several great blogs today. She posted links and I ended up reading about someone I don’t know, about their birthday, and about their hope that readers of the post will support a Kickstarter project.

if you’re feeling abundant, or lost, or bewildered, or generous, or disconnected…please go to Kickstarter and back something crazy and random……….just go out and…back anything. help an artist. connect your wallet directly to some sort of positive creation out there.

(amandapalmer.net)

It doesn’t matter which one, that wasn’t the point (though some suggestions were provided) and I thought, what the hey, I don’t do things like this very often, let’s do it.

So I hopped on over to Kickstarter and searched for projects in my local area. That’s when I came across this lovely project called The Boo Puppet Festival 2014, who doesn’t love story telling, puppets and children? (Well, some people don’t, but I don’t suppose many of them will be reading this.)

I pledged £5. It’s not a lot, but it’s £5 more than they had a few minutes ago. It’s £5 closer to their £1000 goal. It’s £5 closer to helping children and their families to enjoy puppetry from the UK and Europe without having to pay a penny. There are paid events running alongside, but due to funding cuts in local government, amazing projects like these are having to make cuts and not host free events – or find more creative ways to raise money.

The best thing about the project that I stumbled upon is that if they reach their £1000 goal the Tempest Trust will match it, meaning £5 actually becomes £10 and that’s even more money towards this wonderful cause.

So maybe this post will inspire you to do it too, even if all you can give is £1, $1 or €1. There’s a good cause out there wanting funding; small organisations, local people, hoping for someone to help them be creative and do something wonderful.

It’s always a risk with crowdfunding because you never know if a project will succeed in achieving its goal, but if it does, if their project gets funded and the money goes out of your account, then you will forever be able to remember that random giving and the part you played.

Metaphor Challenge

I’ve been participating in Camp NaNoWriMo this month (April), which is an extension of the Mothership NaNoWriMo (in November), it’s sort of another chance in the year (there’s a third, another Camp NaNo in July) to put your heart and soul into a writing project. The only difference with Camp NaNo is that you can set your own goal and break as many rules as you like.

I set myself a goal of 20,000 words. Unfortunately the short story I planned to write doesn’t stretch that far. So instead I opted for writing shorter short stories (around 1k) with the help of a book called The Five-Minute Writer (Margret Geraghty). It has many writing exercises that can be done in roughly five minutes (duh!) which makes it a great starting point for short stories. I’ve not been sticking entirely to the brief of each exercise, but it’s been a great springboard.

One exercise wasn’t really the kind of exercise that could be turned into a story – which is why I’m blogging about it. It involved creating metaphors which, in this circumstance, are about life. An exercise that has made me realise just how cynical I can be – anything lacking in cynicism was an accident.

Here are the ten metaphors (I do realise that actually these are similes, but the book told me to write them like this) I created:

1. Life is like a brand new book, filled with potential; sometimes it goes well, other times you realise it’s a piece of crap.

2. Life is like a lamp; one minute everything is perfect and glowing, the next it’s like something has popped and you’re plunged into darkness.

3. Life is like a keyboard; some keys get used more than others and no matter how hard you try to coordinate both hands, the music still comes out terribly.

4. Life is like a doorknob; you can turn and turn it but if the door’s locked, you’re never going to get far.

5. Life is like breakfast; it’s really important to experience it regularly, but people so often give it a miss.

6. Life is like a pair of curtains; when you’re born you don’t really care if they’re open, when you’re a teenager you’d rather close them and when you’re elderly you wish you could open and close them at will, but are too frail to do so.

7. Life is like a sewing machine; in the beginning you don’t really know what you’re doing and make a lot of mistakes. When you’re older you think you know better but really you just got better at ignoring the errors.

8. Life is like a backpack; it’s meant to carry the most important things, but somehow always gets filled with useless rubbish.

9. Life is like a window; it starts out squeaky clean until one day it gets so dirty that you can’t even remember a time when it was once clean.

10. Life is like a pair of glasses; they make you see things clearly, but half the time you can’t even remember where you left them.

If anyone fancies trying out a similar metaphor/simile challenge, just let me know and I’ll give you more details on the exact exercise.

Crumble cake

Today I baked a cake. I really wanted to try something a little different, and different I did. I have a few baking recipe books, so after trawling through those and finding some lovely looking rhubarb at the market, I decided on a fruity option.

The recipe I actually found was for ‘plum streusel’ but to directly translate that into language I understand perfectly – it’s crumble cake! I substituted the plum for rhubarb, added a little banana in place of some of the butter, and grated in some lemon zest and then cooked it all up.

The result? A pretty tasty rhubarb crumble cake, with a lovely layer of crunchy crumble, slightly blackened (but still yummy) rhubarb and a final (well, on the bottom) layer of cake.

And here is a photo of my creation.

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