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.

20170806_102333
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.

20170806_100449

“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!

20170806_095416
looking ahead…Elliot is happily sniffing around.
20170806_095421
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.

20170806_095754
Bluebells? Not sure, but they were the first flowers I saw.
20170806_104303
The smallest flowers. Tiny perfection! Wish I knew what they were.
20170806_104217
More exquisite perfection.
20170806_122550
Gentian flower. My find of the day!
20170806_112421
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.

20170806_103246
Juniper and heather rampant on the hillside.
20170806_101007
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.

20170806_105200
Cheese in the making! Alpine cheese is infused with the flavours of an Alpine meadow.

20170806_103257

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!

20170806_122707
First view of our picnic spot. Who wouldn’t love this?
20170806_130909
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.

20170806_115829
Stone mountain huts abound.
20170806_134020
That rocky bridge. See the holes and the bolts?
20170806_134242
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?

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.

      Spaghetti Alla Norma a Modo Mio (Spaghetti Alla Norma My Way)

      Yesterday was Cleaning Day and I hate Cleaning Day! Perhaps I should qualify that: I hate the process but I love the result. There is nothing like the smell of a freshly dusted and polished house or the feel of a newly washed floor underfoot. Anyway, since it was a hard day cleaning, it had to be an easy day cooking and nothing is easier than pasta, in my book.

      A quick look in the fridge revealed an aubergine begging to be eaten and a plan began to form. This recipe is based on a recipe from an Italian recipe book, but I tweaked it with the addition of bacon bits. My daughter has the firm belief that there’s nothing that can’t be improved with the addition of bacon, and I tend to agree. If you want the authentic recipe, just leave out the bacon. The ingredients are enough for two hungry people as a main meal. If you serve this as a primo, Italian style, then it would probably serve three or four people.

      Ingredients :

      1 aubergine
      1 onion
      100g bacon bits
      250g spaghetti
      Tomato passata
      A few fresh basil leaves finely chopped
      Salt
      A small mozzarella ball (about 125g)
      Chilli pepper to taste

      Peel and slice the aubergines in thick slices. Salt them and leave them to draw for twenty minutes.
      image

      In the meantime, peel and dice the onion and the bacon if it isn’t already diced. Prepare the basil leaves and keep them aside.
      image

      Fry the bacon and onion together. You can add a little oil if needed. I always fry my onion until it is soft as I don’t like it crunchy, but you do it the way you like it. It should be golden and delicious. Mmmmm….can you smell that delicious onion and bacon smell?
      image

      Now prepare the aubergine. Rinse and dry the slices well. Cut them into squares and fry them in a little hot oil. They will absorb the oil. When they have browned all over, drain them on kitchen paper. Be careful not to let them brown too much!
      image

      image

      When they are ready, add them to the pan with the bacon and onion. Add the passata, salt and chilli pepper to taste and allow to cook until the brinjal is cooked through and the sauce is rich and glossy.
      image

      image

      Now prepare the pasta.
      image

      You need a large pot because pasta needs to cook in lots of water. None of this shoving it in a tiny pot. You need one this size and the water must be boiling with a rolling boil before you put the pasta in. Add lots of salt to the water. According to one italian saying, the pasta water should be as salty a the sea.

      image

      Add the spaghetti to the pot in one piece. Do not break it or you’ll spoil the chance to eat it like an italian, slowly slurping in those stray strands that wouldn’t twirl on the fork. The strands slowly sink into the water as they soften and you can help them with a fork, turning and mixing them slowly. Put the pot lid on to bring the water back to the boil quickly, but watch the pot as it boils over easily. Once you have a rolling boil again, you can remove the lid. Use a long fork or spaghetti spoon to agitate and turn the pasta now and then while it cooks. This will help prevent the strands from sticking to each other. Cook until the spaghetti is cooked enough for you. It’s a personal thing. Al dente for most Italians means that there must still be a hard bite in the centre of the pasta. I don’t like that and cook until that bite is gone but the pasta is still relatively firm. About 14 minutes for this pasta.

      image

      While the pasta is cooking, dice the mozzarella into small dices.
      image

      Drain the pasta in a colander, keeping aside a little of the cooking water to add to your sauce if it’s too thick or too little and needs extra liquid. This is a trick all Italian mammas know and use to make a sauce stretch. It also helps make a sauce creamier. Put the spaghetti back in the pot and slowly add the hot pasta sauce, the diced mozzarella and the chopped basil, mixing gently. Add only enough to give the pasta a generous coating, not to drown it in sauce. I used about half the sauce and froze the rest for another meal.

      Serve with a little grated parmesan. Buon appetito!
      image

      image

      Spinach like an Italian Mamma

      I love spring! The market suddenly blossoms with all manner of fresh, interesting vegetables and I browse the stalls with intense interest to see who has the biggest, brightest and crunchiest examples of my favourites. Piles of plump red and yellow peppers show off next to luscious purple brinjals. Nonnas and Mammas gently squeeze their flesh to gauge their freshness, exchanging opinions in the weak spring sunshine. No, these are not the best, they are rubbery and soft. Best to try the farmer’s stalls at the end of the piazza.

      My weekly visit to the Friday market this week saw me returning home with 1,5 kilos of fresh young spinach. These are not the large Swiss chard leaves that we ate in South Africa when I was a child, They are small, young, dark green leaves with the most delicious taste. But if you want the best from your veges, you have to treat them right. Here’s what an Italian Mamma does with her spinach.

      The leaves are bound to be dusty, even if they have been washed, so as soon as you get them home, give them a good wash under running water. Then dump them in a deep sink or bowl filled with fresh cold water. Take a large pot or deep pan and trim the roots and any unhealthy leaves from the spinach, dropping the leaves into the pot as you go. Look out for the initial leaves of the plant. They are long and narrow and must be thrown out as they will be starting to deteriorate. When the pot or pan is full, put it on the stove and start cooking the leaves. You can add a little salt to the leaves if you like. Do not add water as they cook in the water left on them. When the leaves are wilted, the spinach is done. It only takes a few minutes. Drain the leaves in a colander. Repeat the process untill all the leaves are cooked. Leave the spinach to cool.

      image
      This is what it looks like.

      When the spinach is cool, ask a big, hairy husband to squeeze the hell out of that spinach, forming small balls that you can put in the fridge (or do it yourself). The more water you squeeze out, the better the spinach keeps. It will keep in the fridge for between 3 and 5 days.

      This is a common way for an Italian Mamma to store spinach. In fact, you can even buy balls of cooked spinach from the supermarkets here. It can now be chopped and served as a salad with salt, pepper, olive oil and lemon juice. Delicious! Or if you like, it can be gently fried after chopping. Depressions are made in the spinach and eggs lightly poached in them. A delicious brunch with bacon and toast. A  perrenial favourite at Easter is the “Easter tart”. The filling is a delicious blend of spinach, ricotta cheese, parmesan, eggs and nutmeg wrapped in puff pastry – one of my favourites!

      Hmmm… which one shall I make this week? And what’s your favourite spinach dish? Let me know in the comments.

      Questions to ponder

       

      Let me start by saying that the purpose of this post is not to garner sympathy or expressions of solidarity. Rather, it’s a genuine attempt to understand what other people do, and more specifically, other people of a similar age and background.

      In many ways, life has become easier for the majority of middle class westerners in developed countries. We have easy access to food and water, and electricity allows us to be plugged in to entertainment and information 24/7. All of this ease comes at a price however, and the bottom line is that we have to continually earn a dollar to spend a dollar. That’s fine when you’re young, fit and healthy, but what do you do when age, health or circumstances make it difficult or impossible to earn a living in the conventional ways, or make it necessary to supplement your income in order to make ends meet?

      I’ve just started this journey of discovery and wonder if others feel the same as I do. I’m fifty-five this year. Not particularly old if you ask me, but living in a country whose language is not my mother tongue and whose unemployment statistics are high and steadily rising means that I will probably never be able to find employment in the general market. Add to that my age, and I’m out for the count! Although I can earn a little by teaching English, it doesn’t pay very well, and during the summer holidays here, everything stops, including one’s earnings.

      Spurred on by these thoughts, I decided to investigate other means of earning some cash, focusing primarily on Internet-related possibilities. After ruling out a number of ideas for various reasons, I settled on writing and online work and set about investigating these in more depth. After all, I’m an English teacher with a BA degree and I have a blog, so surely I should be able to make it in the world of copy writing and such? That’s what I thought!

      I started my research at Textbroker.com and was surprised to find that they only accept writers living in the USA. Scratch that then! My next step was to investigate Textbroker.co.uk but they only accept people in the UK, Canada, New Zealand or Australia. So much for that idea! I moved on to the next websites on my list, which were eLance and Odesk.

      A quick browse of both websites gives the impression that working online as a freelancer is as quick and easy as the click of a mouse. “Sign up right away and you’ll soon have plenty of work and much more money in the bank,” is what they would have you believe. I then did a quick stroll around some writer profiles to see what kind of background and experience people had, and that’s when my heart sank.

      Seasoned writer with more than 17 years of journalism, public relations and marketing experience. I have a proven ability to produce engaging copy, meet tight deadlines, clarify complicated issues and write about a wide array of topics.

      My background is in journalism and advertising. I ran my own small advertising agency for several years, which helped me hone my ability to put words together in fresh, meaningful ways. Along the way, I also created thousands of graphics for a wide range of marketing purposes. I have over 25 years of professional writing and graphic arts experience…

      These are just two examples of the kind of profile that almost every person had. How could I compete with people like that in what I’m sure is an extremely competitive environment? What can I bring to the table? I don’t have any marketing/advertising/copy writing experience and if I’m honest, very little Internet experience ( I only started really using the Internet about 12 or 13 years ago and there is an awful lot I don’t understand). I’ve always been a mother first and an employee second. I have 9 months of experience teaching English in a high school and some years of freelance ESL teaching experience, but how is that going to help in this situation? My only other working experience has been my seven years as a receptionist and office manager for a dentist. Granted, I wrote quotations and reports and corresponded with the medical aid companies regarding the payment of patients’ accounts, but I don’t know how I could make that relevant.

      So you’ve probably guessed that I’m feeling more than a little discouraged! I would love to know what other people think and what other people do when faced with this kind of situation. If you are my age, you’ve probably resigned yourself to the fact that you will always have to work (unless you have a secret method for winning the lottery, in which case, let me in on the secret, please!) but you realize that the opportunities for work will probably narrow as you get older. What will you do? What do you do? Please let me know in the comments.

      This post was written in response to the Daily Prompt’s weekly writing inspiration.

       

       

       

      Freedom on two wheels

      image Ready to hit the road

      I grew up in a house where there was always at least one motorbike and, at one point, six or seven. Although Dad had given up riding when we were very young, when we reached our teens and money wasn’t as tight anymore, he bought the first of the long line of silver steeds that I remember. Perhaps it was the thought of spending time with my brother, who had graduated from his annoyingly noisy 50cc to his first big bike, or perhaps it was just the desire to do something he loved. And I think I understand why he loved it so.

      When you ride a bike, even as a pillion passenger, you’re out there with the elements. The sun beats down on you and if you’ve fogotten your sunscreen (or a light jacket), your t-shirt sleeves will be scorched onto your arms for weeks to come. I remember one trip here in Italy where the heat was reflecting off the tarmac in visible waves and my feet were cooking when we eventually got to our destination!

      Spring is the best time to ride if you can avoid the rain. The colours are bright and vibrant and your senses are assailed by sights, sounds and smells that you would never notice if you were travelling by car. Travelling down to Cinque Terre in Italy a few years ago, the smells of travelling cemented themselves in my memory. Rice paddies in the Vercelli area smelled damp and fertile. That smell lasted until we left the paddies behind us but our nostrils were soon assaulted by new barnyard smells of fields being fertilised with manure in preparation for a new growing season. Phew! We were happy to leave that smell behind! Further on, I remember the heady fragrance of a grove of flowering trees – a smell so strong, you could almost touch it.

      And the sights! Hilltop towns clinging to their peaks give way to verdant valleys and further towns. I want to stop and explore every one of them, but the chief tends to want to get to where he is heading. Exploration is reserved for specific trips, when there is no other goal than that.

      This year, having scaled down on the size of our silver steed, we’re hoping to do more trips around Italy. They’ll be shorter trips, allowing us to spend a few days at a time in Tuscany first, and in some of the other beautiful areas of this stunning country.

      Life Celebration # 18 An Italian Spring Sunday Afternoon

      That view - food for the soul.
      That view – food for the soul.

      20150308_144702

      Italian Sunday afternoon family entertainment - take the children for a walk anywhere public. the more people who see you, the better!
      Italian Sunday afternoon family entertainment – take the children for a walk anywhere public. the more people who see you, the better!
      Time to go home. That breeze was a little nippy!
      Time to go home. That breeze was a little nippy!
      Admiring our new ride
      Admiring our new ride
      Close-up view.
      Close-up view.

      Here’s to spring, warmth, sunshine and blue skies. We in the Northern hemisphere could all do with a little more of those.

      How did you spend your Sunday afternoon? What did you celebrate today?

      Life Celebration #16 Snow!

      image

      I have to admit that I love snow and the occasional snowy day! It’s true that where I live in the foothills of the alps, we don’t often get deep snow or long snowy periods. For the most part, the snow stays on the nearby peaks, giving them their winter brightness. On Friday, we woke up to a winter wonderland. My heart leapt at the beauty while I was going to market. The tree branches were outlined in snow – there was absolutely no wind to disturb it.

      image

      From my balcony, the surrounding hill had a glistening icing-sugar dusting.

      image

      The church spire rose proudly above the snowy roof tops.

      image

      Sadly, the snow is almost all gone already. Only the coldest corners of the garden harbour a few sad heaps. I’m hoping for a little more in the coming days!
      How do you feel about the snow? Love it, or hate it?