Strength in numbers

I had the opportunity to spend this Christmas in Italy with my partner’s family. It was one of the last traditional events I had yet to experience over there and I hoped that taking part might enable me to experience a little more of what Italian culture was all about.

After a spectacular flight across the sun-blushed peaks of the Swiss Alps, I landed at Malpensa airport and successfully made my way to meet Veronica at the local train station outside of Lake Como.

As is the custom whenever I visit, we went for a quick aperitivo at her dad’s bar, then it was time to head to the family’s apartment for dinner. Soon after arriving, however, I began to notice a tendency for all members of the family to outwardly express an opinion on everyone else’s business. It’s not the first time I’ve witnessed this and as I discovered, it wasn’t only confined to the Mulas household.

On reflection, it seemed to me that this (admittedly irritating aspect) came down to that most well-known feature of any Italian home; the dinner table. Throughout my stay, every lunch and dinner was eaten around the table with just about every member of the family in attendance from two to 65 years-old. And it was here that anything and everything was discussed, whether it was what to have for dinner the next evening, the best route to take to town or what a certain child should or shouldn’t be doing. No one was safe.

I’m a fairly independent person and am used to making my own decisions, so I initially found this a challenge. Even just getting out of the door was often delayed by an impromptu debate on what we ought to be wearing and if it was this place we were going, shouldn’t we go another day or take so and so with us. Nevertheless, as the days passed, I began to see a deeper reasoning to this approach and I found myself thinking back to something her dad once said.

A few years ago, I went to the wedding of Veronica’s oldest sister in a village near Rome. On the way home, we were sitting in the airport with her parents, waiting for our respective flights. The news was showing on a big screen, flashing up the usual ominous world events and I mentioned how nice it was to have been away from all that. Her dad gave a dismissive wave at the television and said something that stayed with me; “all that matters is that you stick together.”

The notion of the family unit was central to virtually every activity that took place within the home. When the table needed to be laid, everyone helped out, if a child started crying, others were ready to offer a hand or some advice. Inevitably, this attitude spreads out to neighbours and other relatives who, like long lost friends, would stop and chat in the street or the hallway or simply turn up, unannounced.

Not only that, but this group mentality puts everyone on an equal footing, including children who, from day one, are initiated (kicking and screaming) into the etiquette of Italian social life. This was apparent when we went to dinner at a friend’s. Naturally, the evening took place around a large table with a family of six. Everyone helped out with the preparation and, perhaps most crucially of all, every opinion was listened to, including the children’s.

The last notable instance was during a visit to an aunt and uncle’s house. Their son, a reedy man with a grungy biker look, had not long come out of rehab and was now living in an annex at the back of the house. He struck me as a gentle yet melancholy soul who had clearly lost a large part of his life, but with a supportive family network around him, it seemed to me that he couldn’t be in a better place to rebuild his life. I wondered how he might have turned out if he was shoved into a one-bed flat somewhere across town or bunched together with other recovering addicts.

With such loving and devoted family around you, there’s little you can’t get through, even if it does mean having to put up with everyone’s point of view in the meantime. It certainly brought out an affection for my nearest and dearest when I returned home and I hope to hold onto that impression, even without the addition of an enormous dinner table.

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All roots lead upwards – part two

On our last full day, we turned our backs on Florence and took the train to Arezzo, a city less talked about yet promising an equally grand history with Etruscan roots dating back to early BC.

We were rather unimpressed, then, to find a bland urban centre spreading out from the station, made all the more worse by pouring rain. With no other options in sight save for shopping in the highstreet stores, we made a run for a cafe, trying to find one that would fit the five of us and a pushchair. Eventually, we came across a rather unusual but immaculately done out 60’s style joint where we immersed ourselves in pastries and cappuccinos.

Once the rain had eased, we continued away from the train station and soon noticed the environment beginning to change. Unlike many cities where the landmark sights are to be found in the centre, here only those willing to climb the vertiginous streets are rewarded with the true Arezzo. The higher we climbed, the older and more majestic the buildings became. One of the more famous was the Basilica di San Francesco, where the Legend of the True Cross fresco by Piero della Francesca resides. But there was a myriad of other churches and museums at almost every turn, each with their own story to tell. Even the library was a sight in itself, with a wall of carved faces and emblems facing the street.

At the very top of the hill was a cathedral with a working clock tower and nearby, the Piazza Grande, a square surrounded by churches and towers as well as a stunning arched promenade.

But it wasn’t only the architecture that was fascinating. The shops added to the fabric of the area, with many specialist retailers such as a ‘Particularia’ store housed in a building from 900AD, which was packed with curiousities and medieval tools. There were also cave-like delicatessens full of cheeses and Italian meats and wine-tasting grottoes barely large enough for two tables.

With limited trains to take us back, we left Arezzo earlier than we would have liked and opted to go for a last supper in the nearest town to our farmstay. Considering there was only one restaurant to choose from, the decision was straightforward. The place was a traditional trattoria in every sense; analogue TV playing dubbed films in the background, paper tablecloths and hefty pizzas. Not to mention a Tuscan twist of stag’s heads decorating the walls.

All roots lead upwards – part one

Following a satisfyingly high-speed train journey from Lake Como to Florence, we begun the second part of our holiday in Italy. The first had involved the baptism of my 8 month old daughter and all the preparation, organising (and socialising!) had left us in need of a break. What better place to do it than in Tuscany!

Taking a local train out of Florence we arrived at the rural outpost of Sant’ Allero where the owner of our accommodation picked us up.  A five-minute drive brought us to Agriturismo Petrognano, a converted farmhouse in the hills of Tuscany where we were to stay for the next four nights. The place was idyllic and incredibly peaceful, not least because, being out of season, we were the only guests on site. 100 hectares to ourselves not to mention a swimming pool…

The first day we spent exploring the area’s fields and olive groves, which threw up the occasional surprise such as wild roe and an extremely aggressive cockerel (!) Then we treated ourselves to a four course dinner cooked by the host, Christiano, with cold meats, a pasta dish and meat platter followed strawberries and Chantilly cream.

The next day was the main event; a visit to the city of Florence. We took the train in and set about exploring the streets. The cathedral was the principal sight as we left the station and was probably one of the most impressive buildings in the city. But with queues around the block to see inside, this was no way to spend a day and with my mums original 1960’s map as our guide, we roamed the elegant streets.

Not long afterwards, however, we fell victim to a powerful thunderstorm, which had everyone, tourists and Firenzians alike, running for the coffee shops. A large ice-cream later and a barrage of street-sellers trying to flog us cheap umbrellas, we headed for a series of steps that rose up to Piazza De Michelangelo. It turned out that not only did this bring us to an unprecedented view of Florence, but also to a great area full of restaurants and local shops virtually devoid of tourists (all too busy walking over the nearby Pontevecchio).

On top of that, the sun came out, making the climb and the view all the more worthwhile.