Life lessons from a walk in the mountains

Sunday saw me in the mountains again, this time on a longer and more difficult walk. Instead of giving you a boring account of every step, however, I thought I’d share some of the thoughts inspired by another spectacular day in the open.

Anything worth doing or having requires effort and sacrifice. The view at the top was worth every exhausting step!

Take time to enjoy the view. Life is all about the trip.

Don’t forget to look back often. It helps to see how far you’ve come.

Expect the unexpected. Change is the only constant in life, so they say, and nothing is more changeable than the weather in the mountains!

Some paths are easier than others but we all get to where we need to be in the end.

The company you keep impacts on how much you enjoy the journey. Stick with those who encourage you and build you up.

If you’re in Italy or coming to visit, this walk is in the Aosta area, in a valley called Valsavarenche. It entails a walk of about 2 and a half hours on well beaten paths with a climb of about 750m. Information on the walk and the mountain hut prices here.

A walk in the mountains – Italian style

I’ve been here for quite a while now, but never really taken the opportunity to go walking in the mountains as so many of the locals do on a regular basis. The Alps are a little intimidating when you come from a place where you never went walking. The hills and high mountains are crisscrossed with paths and sign-posted walks, but unless you really know what you’re doing, you can get horribly lost, so it’s best to walk in groups or with a knowledgeable friend.

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On top of the world!

Last Sunday was my perfect chance. Adriana invited me to spend the day with her, Lino, Graziella, Giuseppe, and his dog Elliot, and since my better half would be glued to the computer putting in extra hours on a long and complicated translation job, my answer was yes, yes, yes!

We left by car at eight in the morning and by nine we were in Champorcher, a village in the Aosta region of Italy. After a short drive above Champorcher, we arrived where we were going to leave the car. This always amazes me: we simply parked the car at the side of the road along with many others. Obviously we were not the only ones with a yen for a walk in the mountains! There is never any concern for the safety or position of the car. Italians just park and go! (Perhaps I should explain here that my surprise has more to do with my husband’s habit of always looking for a shady, out of the way spot than with any bad parking habits of the Italians.) A short walk up the road led to the start of our designated path where there was a map (which I forgot to photograph – curses!) showing the various paths in the area. You can also buy maps with indications of the various walks in an area. We chose one of the shorter routes since we had to be back in Champorcher by 3pm for a piano accordion concert in which Franco, Adriana’s husband, and Luigi, Giuseppe’s son, were playing. We would take a circular route, stopping at one of the lakes for a packed lunch.

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“Let’s go, ” said Adriana, and the five of us and Elliot the jack russel started up a path of stone steps. He had to be kept on a lead as we were walking in the “Mont Avic” nature reserve where a free ranging dog might chase and disturb the wildlife. I looked up and the path rose steeply above us, disappearing into the trees. The steps soon degenerated into uneven rocks and sandy path and we concentrated on stepping carefully so as not to slip or twist an ankle. A word from the (now) initiated: if you’re going to walk in the mountains, make sure you have a good pair of walking boots. They’re absolutely essential because they support the ankle in a way that a running shoe doesn’t. For a while, my ankle started to hurt, but after concentrating on putting my foot flat, the pain faded and I was able to walk strongly again. I was so thankful for the boots I’d bought a couple of years ago!

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looking ahead…Elliot is happily sniffing around.
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Looking back…

I looked around, drinking in the view and everything about being in such a glorious place. Trickling streams joined others and became gushing waterfalls, a background soundtrack to my thoughts and breaths. Birds twittered above the buzz and hum of a myriad of insects and the flowers… Oh, the flowers were a delight for the eye! They ranged from tiny to tall and I had to stop and photograph each new wonder. I think I love the tiny flowers best of all. There is such exquisite perfection in each minute bloom and leaf that it takes your breath away.

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Bluebells? Not sure, but they were the first flowers I saw.
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The smallest flowers. Tiny perfection! Wish I knew what they were.
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More exquisite perfection.
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Gentian flower. My find of the day!
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Excuse me for saying so, but the taller flowers seem brash and almost vulgar beside their petite cousins!

We reached the top of the hill, starting down the other side and I soon learnt the downside of a walk such as this. When I was tiring on the upward slope, the others encouraged me by saying that after an upward slope, there is always a downward one. That’s true, but I soon discovered that after every downward slope there was always an upward one! Nevertheless, by taking it slowly, I was able to keep up with my fitter friends and stay the distance. It certainly helped that we slowed down to pick wild blueberries (not as sweet as commercial ones but all the nicer for being enjoyed while in the mountains) or to photograph and comment on the scenery. Rocky outcrops and slopes mingled with fields of heather and juniper.

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Juniper and heather rampant on the hillside.
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Trickling, gurgling, rushing streams: the background soundtrack to my thoughts.

We passed two herds of cattle, their cowbells clanging and echoing through the mountains long after we had left them behind. At first I was enchanted, but then I thought of all the wildlife and how they must have been disturbed by the sound. I suppose they must get used to it. We didn’t see any wildlife and I wonder if the cows and the number of people were part of the reason although, to be honest, the cloudy weather and the time of day could have played a part too.

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Cheese in the making! Alpine cheese is infused with the flavours of an Alpine meadow.

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Another seemingly interminable rise, another dip and finally we arrived at the lake and a very welcome lunch break. There were quite a few groups of walkers dotted around, chatting and munching. I was fascinated by the colourful reflection of one group in particular and tried to capture it. For being simple phone camera shots, I think my efforts weren’t too bad! While we were having a quiet lunch, we were disgusted at being disturbed by a group on the opposite bank who were flying a drone. We agreed that had it come close enough and had we had the means, we would have blasted it out of the sky. But that’s another blog post!

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First view of our picnic spot. Who wouldn’t love this?
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Reflections

Our relaxing lunch break was all too short and soon we were heading back on a different route. It was obviously the short way back because the path snaked steeply down. Our knees complained as we braced ourselves on the slippery, rocky path and I was grateful for the Nordic walking stick that Graziella lent me. It made me feel just a little more secure. We picked up the pace as we were running a little late, but I remembered to look around nonetheless. At my feet, a rough hewn stone “bridge” was bolted together to allow an easy crossing over a little stream. How long had it been there, I wondered. And who had built it? A little further along, the path rounded a corner and the vista opened up. Verdant meadows with tiny stone lodges lay dizzyingly far below, backed by brooding, forested peaks. To my right, a rocky outcrop dominated the view. I took a deep breath and let it soak into my soul.

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Stone mountain huts abound.
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That rocky bridge. See the holes and the bolts?
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Yes, I really was that close to the edge!

Further down, we stopped to top up our water bottles and were enchanted by the butterflies drinking from a trickle on a rock.

butterflies by Adriana
Photo by Adriana

All told, we think we walked about 10 km and climbed about 680 m. It doesn’t sound like much, but it was up hill and down dale all the way and my legs were aching. But the day wasn’t over yet. Arriving back in Champorcher, we parked the car and drifted towards the accordion music echoing from the medieval centre of the little village. An enthusiastic and talented group of musicians was seated at the entrance to the little chapel, entertaining a growing crowd of listeners who arranged themselves in the little piazza, some seated on a mishmash of kitchen chairs and benches supplied by the church and some sprawled on the grass in the shade of a tower and a war memorial.

I chose a spot on the grass and closed my eyes, concentrating on the music. The enthusiasm of the musicians was catching, and I found myself humming along and tapping my feet in time to the music. They took us on a whirlwind musical tour of the world, with pieces evoking or coming from, among others, France, Spain, Russia, and Africa. I glanced at the faces around me. The little crowd kept swelling and people were singing, swaying or humming along with even more gusto than I was! The grand finale was a piece played by all the musicians who had contributed to the day. I pictured the notes floating into the mountains on a never-ending journey. What a wonderful way to end a spectacular day!

When I got home, I collapsed on the couch and didn’t move until bedtime. However, after a good night’s sleep and a few day’s rest, I think I’m ready to do it all again. Anyone want to go walking on Sunday?

Interior

You can’t see

The inside that is me

The love and tears

joys and fears

that line the walls.

you see the smiles, frowns, ups and downs

A musical with sound surround

but the the spider fear 

that inside crawls

is hidden from your gaze.

you hear the words I bear

like loaves to a feast

but the empty shelves

and yawning chasm of loneliness

are hid from prying eyes.

You see me but you do not

it takes a lifetime and more to know

The inside that is me.

Margaret Brizzolari

2 January 2017

written in response to the daily prompt.

Passion

Do you feel it too,

This warring of our limbs,

Rebellion of our bodies,

Betrayal in full force?

Kisses seem a battlefield

Of lips and mouths

Tongues  pushing  

Faces pressing.

Take a breath,

Start again

Softly, gently

Passion rises.

For today,

The war has been

Forgotten.

Adventures in teaching English in Italy

I’ve just survived my second week of teaching English at a summer city camp in Italy. The first week, in June, was extremely nerve wracking. I was so nervous and agitated about being prepared that I couldn’t sleep at night after spending the last few hours before bed reviewing what I would be doing the next day. By the end of the week I was shattered.

This time, I was ready for my overactive brain and didn’t prepare late into the night. Sleep came more easily, and a rested mind left me with more energy the next day.

As before, we stayed with a host family whose daughter would be attending the camp. My partner teacher, Giulia, and I were welcomed with open arms and shared an attic room with an en-suite bathroom and a resident cat. Actually, there were two cats, but only Micio came looking for company and slept at the foot of my bed every night. He had the most gorgeous face with an intelligent gaze. While practising the guitar one morning, I looked up to find him watching me intently from the top stair, his unblinking gaze and tilted head taking in everything I was doing. I almost expected him to start talking to me!


So here are a few observations and ideas from my experience.

  • Be prepared, but be flexible. Things can change in a moment and if you see something isn’t working, it’s better to change it. When a game or activity was no longer fun, we moved on to the next idea to keep things fresh and fun.
  • It’s not really necessary to organise every moment of the day. We found that our kids begged us for free time when they would quite happily organise their own games with a ball. If you have enough balls, you can have three or four different games going. Favourites were football for the boys and various versions of tag using a ball. They also loved it if we joined in with their games. Although it was quite exhausting, judicious use of my time and energy helped forge a bond between myself and the children and made class discipline a little easier.
  • I found a lot of good ideas on the Internet. Besides finding examples of English camp songs (for ESL purposes), I found a number of brilliant ideas that worked very well. The first of these was a simple call and answer to get the kids’attention when they were particularly excited and noisy. Most teachers will probably know this one, but I didn’t.  It was a lifesaver! Teacher shouts, “One, two,  three, eyes on me!” Campers must reply, “One, two, eyes on you!” I stressed that they should stop what they were doing, look at me, and listen for instructions. It worked like a charm, and made a very good impression at the final day concert.
  • The second was my “Good English” cards. Most Italian kids of this age can’t string together a sentence in English, although they maye be able to conjugate various verbs correctly. My main aim for this camp was to get them talking and to help them realise that it’s not as hard as they think. So I found this sheet of squares with “Good English”, printed off a large amount and cut them apart to keep in my pocket. I told my kids that if they used good English any time in the day, they could get a card. At the end of the day, each camper counted his or her cards and the camper with the most cards could choose a sticker from a supply i brought with me. I also decided on a second camper to get a sticker every day so that not only the best students got stickers. I was soon surrounded by campers, even during the freeplay period, as they asked me questions and tried to make conversation. Success!

      The final day mini concert was a proud moment for me as campers who hadn’t wanted to speak last time around spoke loudly and proudly in front of their parents. All in all it was exciting, exhausting and very satisfying and I’m looking forward to doing it all again next summer. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must go and write a reply to a twelve-year-old camper who wants to continue speaking English.

      Soul food


      Take a bite…

      A burst of sweet summer sunshine

      Explodes in my mouth and

      Slides down my throat.

      Another bite…

      Warm, salty sea

      Rolls over my tongue

      Mingles with sweet sun.

      I close my eyes.

      Another bite…

      Sweet summer days fill

      My mouth,

      My stomach,

      My soul.

      Margaret Brizzolari August 2016
      This poem was inspired by my supper: sweet, ripe melon slices and parma ham, a match made in heaven!

      What foods evoke strong emotions for you? Write about it and link to  the comments if you like.

      Happy summer days, everyone.

      Tomorrow

      “I’ll play tomorrow,” the child cried, while rushing headlong to maturity. Forever and forever lay ahead in golden days and unexplored dreams but the child, in petulant stubbornness, reached steadfastly for tomorrow, while today lay wasted and neglected at the door. Climb a tree? No thanks. Must watch TV. One day I shall be that princess, teenager, twenty-something. 

      “I can’t wait for tomorrow, ” the teenager cried, reaching with greedy hands for independence,  sexuality, sensuality, childhood left behind like the tattered teddy bear forgotten on the porch stair. Play a game? No thanks. Must send this chat, watch this video, do my makeup. One day soon I shall find a partner, start a family.

      “Not today, I’ll play with you tomorrow, ” the young mother cried, while frantically juggling home, work and family. No time to play now. Must clean the house, do the washing, cook a star meal for an ever-more-distant and stressed husband. Tomorrow I’ll play. Tomorrow I’ll be your play princess, but not today.

      “There’s always tomorrow, ” the retired couple cried, while navigating a life filled with hobbies, meals, appointments with friends and living past each other every day. No time for midnight chats, afternoon love or coffee dates. Not now! Tomorrow I’ll tell you my dreams, but not today. Gotta rush… friends to see and places to be. Tomorrow I’ll see you. Tomorrow we’ll talk.

      “There is no tomorrow,” the wise man said. You have only today. This day, this moment. Live it wisely. Live it fully. Give yourself fully to the task, to the person you are with. That moment will never come again. Life is NOW. Hold it NOW. Live it NOW.

      Carpe Diem

       ​

      Don’t weigh me down

      With might have beens,

      Would haves, could haves

      Or should have seen.

      My soul can’t live

      On dreams and wishes

      And empty dishes.

      I need to feel 

      The grass beneath

      My feet

      The water lapping at my ankles

      The wind tugging

      At my hair.

      I need to

      Seize the day,

      Live the day,

      Hold the day

      My way.

      Come play

      With me

      Stay with me

      Ride the wind with me

      For as long as we can.

      Book review: Venuto al mondo (Twice Born) and Sword and Scimitar

      A funny thing happened to me recently. First of all, a friend lent me a book by Margaret Mazzantini which she praised as a beautifully written novel. And then another friend gave me a bag of historical novels to read.

      I read the Mazzantini novel first.


      I read the original language, so I can’t vouch for the translation, which is called Twice Born, but I presume if it’s good, it should have the same lyrical quality. To be honest, I hated the main character at first, finding her immature and irritating. However, I realised in retrospect that the slow chapters at the start of the book are a vital part, establishing character and motivation for the later action.

      A large part of the story is set during the siege of Sarajevo and if I hadn’t been fascinated with the main character by then, I would probably have put the book down. But I was hooked, and laboured through the painful matter-of-fact  descriptions of daily life and degradation in the city. It was this matter-of-fact attitude that hit me in the gut, increasing my shock and outrage. But this book is more than the siege, and the story twists and turns before reaching its end and a satisfying catharsis. This is one of those books where every word matters. Every action, thought and dialogue carries the account towards that final moment for more than one character.

      Would I recommend this book? Definitely!

      The next book I picked up was Sword & Scimitar by Simon Scarrow.

       Without realising it, I had chosen another siege novel! This one was set in 1565 during the great siege of Malta. At that time, the Ottoman empire besieged Malta in an attempt to wipe out the Christian Order of St. John whose knights used Malta as their base and were constantly hampering and fighting the Ottoman forces. The principal character of this novel is a disgraced knight who has been summoned along with all knights of the Order to protect Malta. The novel was full of graphic descriptions of the fighting, which gave it a sense of reality, and a quick websearch showed that much of the action depicted was recorded in historical annals of the time. It was too much for me, however, and I must confess to skimming large parts towards the end just to find out what happened. 

      The writing was good, if not spectacular. I would recommend this book if you really like historical novels, and particularly war novels.