Celebrating 2017, Welcoming 2018

Happy New Year everyone! May 2018 be a year of love, success, joy and peace for all of you.

An Old Irish Blessing

May love and laughter light your days,
and warm your heart and home.
May good and faithful friends be yours,
wherever you may roam.
May peace and plenty bless your world
with joy that long endures.
May all life’s passing seasons
bring the best to you and yours!

Usually I can’t wait to finish the year and start a new one, in the hope that the new one will somehow be better than the old. This year was different. At the start of 2017, I made a “good memories jar” and throughout the year, I added slips of paper with special memories of all the good things that had happened to me.

This was the cover of my jar, with images of things that are special to me.

Last night, I opened the jar.

And throughout the evening, we chose a slip and read it to each other. So saying goodbye to 2017 was a very pleasant trip down memory lane and 2018 was welcomed in with hope and joy. This was the best New Year’s Eve ever!

What New Year’s Eve traditions do you have? Share them with us in the comments.

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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?

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.

      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.

      A Year in Seasons

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      Summer blasted in,
      A roaring furnace
      First greening fields and hills
      Then parching leaf and vale.
      Giving and taking life
      With each heavy, sun-scorched day.

      We gasped for breath
      Through long, desultory days,
      Quarrelled in the baking sun,
      Tossed in bed, keeping our distance,
      Waiting for better times.

      Autumn blew in,
      A chilly breeze,
      Misty mornings and soft showers
      Replenishing parched earth
      Softly swelling, ripening
      She burst forth her bounty.

      We found each other
      Through gentle rainy days,
      Snuggled close in bed,
      Hands reaching, touching
      Living a better time.

      Winter crept in
      On softly floating flakes,
      Crisp morns and howling winds.
      Frosting and freezing
      Life and earth,
      She cloaked our love in icy mirth.

      Silent we became
      Through frozen, sterile weeks,
      Souls darkened as the days
      Were dark and laden
      Skies wept tears upon the earth

      Spring fluttered in
      On birdsong and butterfly wing,
      Each dawn a promise.
      Spring buds clamoured
      For warming sun,
      Welcomed with open petals.

      Spring’s thaw for us
      Came none too soon.
      Warmed beating hearts
      Love’s rising heat
      Burning through our limbs
      As we journeyed to love’s ecstacy.

      Double trouble, double blessings, plus one = triple blessings!

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      That’s right. Twins! This celebration is one of the best. My daughter-in-law is expecting twin girls. Sadly, the distance between us means that we won’t get to hold them and love them as much as we would like. But we will be sharing in the joy and excitement of the arrival of these two precious babies. And we pray that they, their siblings and their parents may be blessed and sustained throughout their lives. Their arrival turns a family with two children into a family with four children. Yikes!

      But wait. There’s more! My daughter, who lives near us in Italy, is expecting her first child. For the first time I get to share in the pregnancy. We feel incredibly blessed to be able to share in her pregnancy, seeing scan pictures and hearing about her experiences. And we know we will share in this baby’s life in a meaningful way. We are truly blessed and very thankful!

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      Life Celebration # 18 An Italian Spring Sunday Afternoon

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

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      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 #17 Small Pleasures

      Simple things -simple pleasures.

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      A pile of warm, fragrant ironing waiting to be put away.

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      Love it or hate it, there’s always a sense of achievement when you survey the results of the last hour’s work.

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      What’s your take on ironing? Love or hate? Or are you an inveterate non-ironer like my daughter who refuses to iron all but the absolute looks-like -it-was-dragged-through-a-bush-if-not-ironed?