Archives for November 2012

Need Inspiration? Just Watch This.

I have been spending a half hour or so each morning watching soul-stirring stuff on the wonderful Ted Talks site. It never fails to deliver.

And in case you think your heart strings can't be tugged any more, that the hairs on the backs of your arms are immune to rising in response to a few well-chosen words, that you have your tear ducts well under control, just watch this. Truly, truly inspirational.


How to Survive the Winter in Your Tuscan Farmhouse

DSCN1362 It looked so enchanting in the warm summer months, didn’t it? With its terracotta tiled roof and its wonky walls. There were twinkly fireflies in the garden, the scent of honeysuckle and jasmine filled the air as you sipped your glass of Chianti on the terrace and dreamed of living a simpler life in Italy. But everything changes once winter comes.

It gets cold in Tuscany. Damn cold. Bone-numbingly, why-the-hell-did-I-buy-this-place cold. Here are some ideas to help you cope until spring.

Layers – layer everything – clothing, bedding, children, pets – to create an insulating effect and prevent that romantic Tuscan icy gale from howling through all your unsuspecting nooks and crannies.

Farm animals – remember all the expensive animal-stall remodeling you had done? Maybe it’s time to undo that and reinstate the old practice of having farm animals living downstairs. In that way, all their lovely body heat wends its way upwards to where you are. This is energy efficient, adds an authentic, earthy aroma to your home and will stand you in good stead with Italian neighbors who live in sensible, modern, warm apartments and may be looking to house surplus cows, pigs and sheep at low cost.

Fireplace – that walk-in cavernous stone inglenook with its cute little seats may have seemed delightful when you first saw your farmhouse, but be warned – it sends heat whooshing right up the oh-so-charming chimney and onto the vast uninsulated tiled roof where happy birds sit and warm their little birdy toes. Oh, and sleeping wearing all your clothes inside the hole next to the fire meant for the copper cauldron is not the answer.

Windows – yes, you may have been baffled by how tiny the windows in your farmhouse were. It is quite incredible how peasants working 29 hours a day in the fields and then crawling home exhausted to a meal of warmed up bread and water didn’t make the most of the views. Some people have no soul. But those new north-facing floor-to-ceiling picture windows you had installed don’t seem such a good idea now, do they? Still, at least you get a good view of the snow heading horizontally at you.

Temperature – repeat after me – “64 degrees is hot, 64 degrees is hot, 64 degrees is hot…” Your body will slowly adjust. Either that or – well, best not think about the “or”.

Weights and Measures – it is a very good idea to get acquainted with the various ways to quantify products to keep you warm. You buy wood by the quintale, wood pellets by the kilo and GPL gas for your central heating by the litro. Another good word to get to know is Euro. It takes a lot of Euros – many thousands of them, in fact – to buy enough of the above to keep the house at the target temperature of 64 degrees. (P.S.A very common question from established Tuscan farmhouse owners is “How on earth do you get the temperature up to 64 degrees?” You have been warned.)

Clothes – forget any ideas of sexy Italian fashion, such as the plunging necklines and small pieces of fabric worn by “showgirls” on TV. Your clothes now have one aim and one aim only – to keep you from freezing to death in your house. It can be an interesting exercise to see just how many items you can wear at once, you will be very surprised. But remember that Italians still very much judge a book by its cover, so try to avoid going out in public in your farmhouse clothes unless in an emergency. If it is really necessary, then act as if wearing a beret, three cardigans, two pairs of socks and several scarves all in different colors is the latest look in New York or London.

I hope that has given you some useful ideas. Battling the elements can be very character building and makes you grateful for the little things – like sitting in front of a cosy fireplace with a glass of local wine, wrapped in dogs and blankets and watching the snow. Some things are worth putting up with!


Is Letter Writing a Lost Art?


From when we moved to Italy in June 1994 right up until a few months before my dear Mum died last December, I wrote her a letter every week. A handwritten letter with drawings, bits cut from magazines and pasted to the paper, sometimes with enclosures like photos, sometimes just plain letters. And she wrote back to me.

Every so often I read through the hundreds of letters she sent me. They make me laugh and yes, cry too, as her humour comes shining through the lines. I’m transported back to her house, her kitchen, her little dog, her daily life and the years melt away.

There’s something about a letter, a proper letter, that forever holds the energy of of the person who wrote it. It’s rather magical really.

Compulsory Letter Writing

And so I read with interest a Daily Mail report on the latest UK government plans for the 2014 curriculum. Key Stage 3 pupils (11-14) should be able to ‘write accurately, frequently and at length, with increasing fluency and sophistication’ through ‘personal and business letters using the correct form’ as well as other forms including stories, poems and essays.

Apparently the fear is that too much texting has caused kids to lose the ability to write a letter. Some teenagers can’t even do joined up handwriting apparently! (Actually I can well believe that as my own handwriting is much worse since I started doing almost all my writing on my computer or iPad.)

So writing a personal letter would kill two birds with one stone: kids can practise their handwriting while also learning things like salutations, dates and even how to spell sincerely correctly apparently.

I actually think this is a good thing. Using text, messaging or email feels different from writing with a pen. There are some novelists, more than you would think, who write in longhand first in a notebook or similar and then transcribe it later, and these include Stephen King and J.K.Rowling.

Handwriting Stimulates the Brain

They are not being old fashioned, as brain scans shows that handwriting uses more parts of the brain than typing does. It also helps us remember better and stimulates creativity.

In an article in the Wall Street Journal, Gwendolyn Bounds writes: “Virginia Berninger, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington, says handwriting differs from typing because it requires executing sequential strokes to form a letter, whereas keyboarding involves selecting a whole letter by touching a key.

She says pictures of the brain have illustrated that sequential finger movements activated massive regions involved in thinking, language and working memory—the system for temporarily storing and managing information.”

So dust off your fountain pen and buy yourself some luscious handmade paper, open up your address book and send someone a handwritten letter. Not only will it make their day, it will make you – and your brain – feel good too.