A Holiday to Holland

Why Visit The Netherlands?

Holland (officially known as The Netherlands) is the foreign country we have holidayed in more frequently than any other in recent years.

Why, you might ask? The primary reason why we favour Holland for our holidays is it’s close proximity to our part of the U.K., in particular the ease in which we can travel to the ferry port in Harwich (45 minutes away), take a convenient overnight ferry crossing before waking up in our destination.

However, this reason of practicality is closely followed by the hospitality that the Dutch people have unfailingly shown us. Even though I endeavour to learn and practice a few simple phrases of the native language wherever I travel (and my eldest daughter has developed an interest in doing the same thing), as soon as the Dutch twig that we are British they instantly switch to flawless English. It may be a generalisation, but we have always found the Dutch people we have encountered to be a sociable bunch, often keen to start conversation and fuss over our young kids.

Historic Cities and Beautiful Countryside

Although the Netherlands is a densely populated country, with the roads fairly heavy with traffic most of the time as a result, the drivers are courteous and law abiding which removes much of the stress for British drivers, especially if a sat nav is also used to locate your destination. There are numerous historic towns and cities that account for housing the majority of the population, leaving great swathes of lush green countryside dotted with ubiquitous Dutch windmills and grazing cattle, intersected by canals and rivers in this country where much of the land has been cleverly reclaimed from the sea.

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Perfectly Presented Homes

Whenever we passed through residential areas, I was struck by how beautifully presented the dwellings were. Even balconies adjoined to modest apartments that overlooked main roads were personalised with vibrant flowers in window boxes and comfortable outdoor furniture. On terraced streets, benches were often positioned just in front of homes so that the owner could relax in the evening sun with a book. Windows facing the street are usually adorned with pairs of matching plants or lanterns for the appreciation of passers-by. The sense that homes are set up for the benefit of passers-by is heightened by the fact that many people leave their curtains drawn open long into the evening (if indeed they get closed at all), affording a clear view of the front room for anyone who cannot resist taking a look. Me? Guilty as charged!

Admirable Architecture 

I also adore traditional Dutch architecture, which is evident even in modern home designs- with large panes of glass (less frequently divided into smaller sections than windows here in England), cute gables and red roofs.

Everywhere was immaculate- the smooth roads (even in narrow village streets), the complete lack of litter and dedicated cycle lanes that were well used by people of all ages from commuters to work to young children cycling with their parents to school and toddlers in trailers on cargo bikes created an air of a highly civilised, well-functioning  society. I couldn’t help feeling a little envious of some of these things, that were undeniably streets ahead of my homeland.

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Photo by Marko Zirdum on Pexels.com

 

De Efteling Theme Park

We visited (for the third time!) a theme park called de Efteling, which is practically an institution in Holland. The park is structured around a fairytale theme, with a fairytale wood complete with replica houses from many fairytales and the respective characters found within them, such as Little Red Riding Hood poised knocking the the door of her grandmother’s house, while the wolf disguised as grandmother is propped up in bed and visible through the window. There is also a large, realistic-looking oak tree that speaks. You have to see it to believe it! As well as the fairytale forest area there are a multitude of imaginatively designed rides for all ages, from incredible dreamlike fairy themed Dreamflight to the thrilling Baron 1889. De Efteling is a huge park and takes two or three full days to do justice to the many attractions on offer. We stayed overnight at the Efteling Hotel (excitingly constructed in the shape of a castle) to enable us to easily fit in two full days at the park.

Beekse Bergen Holiday and Safari Park

After that, we moved on to a holiday park called Beekse Bergen, in the North Brabant region of Holland close to the city of Tilburg. This park is centred around a large lake and has many wooded areas where the mobile homes are sited, which created a sense of tranquility as well as privacy. The trees also encouraged many types of birds: we had a pair of ducks that took up residence right outside our mobile home for the duration of our stay, to the delight of my children who enjoyed feeding them. We all felt ourselves start to relax as the calming influence of our surroundings took hold. Playgrounds are dotted all around the site, which pleased my kids as they rode their bikes around and frequently stumbled upon new ones to explore. There was a great indoor pool complex on site, with several slides and water features in the pool for under fives as well as a lazy river and larger slide.

Free Days Out With the Extra Card

If you stay three or more nights at Beekse Bergen you are given an Extra card which allows you free access to a number of attractions owned by the Libema group. This includes the safari park adjoining the holiday park (one of the largest safari parks in the Benelux region, it offers visitors the option to take a bus safari, car safari, boat safari or explore on foot to catch sight of as many animals as possible), as well as a couple of other zoo type places within an hour’s drive. See image below (borrowed from inyourpocket.com) Also included is Speelland (Playland), a small scale theme park aimed at children aged under twelve with bouncy castles, adventure play equipment as well as a few rides. Speelland is accessed by boat across the lake which adds to the sense of adventure for young children. Image below of Speelland borrowed from Tilburg.com.

We were very fortunate with the weather- a heatwave made it feel almost conceivable that were in the Mediterranean rather than the lowlands of northwestern Europe.

Have you visited the Netherlands before? Prior to having children, I had visited Amsterdam several times, but never ventured beyond the capital. Now I have caught the bug, I can’t wait to start planning our next Dutch getaway for next year.

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What Living in Italy Taught Me About the Benefits of Solo Travel and Experiences

Whilst having a sort out of all of my photographs recently, I came across the photo above. This image of myself was taken when I was just eighteen years old, towards the end of my seven-month au pair placement in Italy.

Some of the memories from my time there are so fresh in my mind that it could have feasibly been just a couple of years ago. Yet in other ways it feels more like like a lifetime ago, as my life since then has changed beyond recognition. These days, I feel the need to plan most things such as a holiday or even just a day trip in precise detail. Not much in life feels spontaneous.

It wasn’t always this way, though. The eighteen-year-old me merrily accepted an au pair placement in a foreign country that she had never visited before (let alone held a grasp of the local language), without even speaking directly to the family she would be living with and working for or seeing a single photo of them beforehand. This was pre-internet days and the entire placement was arranged by snail mail. Oh, and of course that girl booked a one-way Alitalia plane ticket with insufficient funds in her bank account to buy the return ticket if things didn’t work out… I blame the impulsiveness of youth!

On reflection though, I think I took the breezily optimistic view that I simply had to make it work and was determined that I would master my duties and the language quickly once I arrived. When you’re on your own in a foreign country and want to make friends and integrate into your new place of residence, learning the language becomes a top priority.

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Therefore I purchased a stack of Italian language books after being informed that there were no Italian language courses available within the small city of my placement, so learning the language was going to be solely my responsibility. I made a start on self-tuition the week or so before departing to il bel paese, but found it easier to learn once I arrived. It’s true what people say about the best way to learn a language being to immerse yourself in it. And immersed I truly was…

The very first words I heard each morning were the animated conversations of the maids working in the lavanderia (laundry room) of the hotel my host family lived in. On balmy nights I had to leave the window open and it was inevitable that loud and lively discussions would drift from the adjacent lavanderia to my bedroom. Often, I was treated to their singing, too! I was fortunate to have a small television in my room but it only had Italian channels, but I saw this as a good thing, so determined I was to expose myself to as much Italian language as possible. It was rather amusing to watch familiar shows such as Friends that had been (badly) dubbed into Italian and knowing the gist of the storylines did help too.  My radio was permanently tuned to Italian channels, as well.

All those types of passive language learning can’t be used as a substitute for actual conversations in the desired language, though. Attempting conversations that you know will be clumsy and mistake-ridden can feel daunting to anyone of any age. Fortunately, most of the natives were very encouraging of my efforts and forgiving of the endless errors I made. Trust me, I made a couple of real bloopers by substituting similar words with VERY different meanings in highly inappropriate situations…but that’s a whole other story! 😉

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When travelling alone you have to rely solely on yourself to deal with awkward situations. However scary the prospect might seem, once you have dealt with it your confidence grows and dealing with a similar situation in the future seems less daunting.

The very things that you may fear happening could indeed happen while you are alone. To take one example, I used to worry about being harassed by men before I went to Italy, having read about pale skinned, young foreign women being particular targets for unwanted attention. Well, I can tell you that I definitely did get harassed by plenty of Italian men when I ventured out and about by myself at first, even while sitting minding my own business reading a book by the marina. But I faced the fear head on and learned in time the best way to deal with it. Attempts to studiously ignore them and carry on reading occasionally  worked. Failing that, ‘saying ‘va via’, firmly and with a stern glare, usually did the job. I often used to wear my cheap ring that I’d bought with birthday money as a sixteen year old on the ring finger of my left hand and wave it at them, too!

Not everyone may have had the chance to travel alone in their teens. There are still opportunities to get out and spend time on your own at any age, though, and doing so can be a liberating experience.

Would you go by yourself to the cinema, if there was a film you really wanted to watch but no one else was available (or willing) to watch it with you? Or go to a great new restaurant serving a cuisine that no one close to you appreciates? How about sitting through a moving opera performance? Lots of women would feel a little awkward at the prospect and avoid doing these things for fear of feeling self conscious. Yet just focus on all that you stand to gain- the pleasure of seeing a great movie or delicious meal.

When you experience things alone, you have the peace to relish and focus on all the small details that make up the experience too, which you might not have appreciated fully had you been drawn into conversation with a companion or worse, had to contend with their complaints and whinges.

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Self-consciousness causes many of us to avoid going in public places where individuals do not usually venture alone. It’s easy to develop a sense of paranoia that people are staring at us and thinking or saying negative things. Generally, though, most people are so caught up in what they are doing themselves that they won’t even notice you, let alone think negatively of you.

Often in life, the things we fear doing the most, provide the greatest opportunities for personal growth. Feel the fear and do it anyway as the saying goes. It’s easy to dwell on the potential negatives and what might go wrong, but we are more likely to regret missed opportunities and the things we didn’t do, I think.

So, seek out experiences to spend time alone, indulging in things that really appeal to your specific interests and tastes.

Life is peppered with opportunities, large and small, that are yours for the taking to enjoy- get out there and grab them.

You have everything to gain and nothing to lose.

 

An interview with Tara Ray from Done and Left Undone blog, on Livechicandwell.com

Introducing Tara from “Done and Left Undone”

After the enjoyable experience of interviewing Jane Beckenham from My Home My Sanctuary a few weeks ago, I have been fortunate enough to score another great blogger interview.

This time I am delighted to present to you the inspiring Tara from “Done and Left Undone”. Tara resides in Australia with her young family but is originally from the United States and took the plunge to emigrate to Australia a few years ago.

Tara also interviewed me recently, here is the link to the thoughtful questions she asked and my responses.

Enjoy reading all about Tara and her fascinating perspective on life and I’m sure you will be keen to check out her blog or follow her on Instagram!

Please can you explain your choice of the name of your blog, “Done and Left Undone”? Perhaps it holds a certain significance to you or your life circumstances?

I guess it is a funny name for a blog. It’s actually inspired by a poem by the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu:

In the pursuit of knowledge, everyday something is added. 

In the practice of the Way, every day something is dropped.

Less and less do you need to force things, until finally you arrive at non-action.

When nothing is done, nothing is left undone. 

True mastery can be gained by letting things go their own way. It can’t be gained by interfering.

From the moment I read it, this passage started rolling around my brain like a marble. In our culture of glorified busyness, we are always doing, and yet there is so much left to be done. The more we do, the more needs to be done. The blog name is a reminder to myself to slow down and avoid the busy trap. I certainly believe in taking action, but I hope to take inspired action rather than just traipsing mindlessly from one activity to the next.

Tara, you grew up and spent most of your life in the US before emigrating to Australia (2 years ago?). How did you feel about the prospect of uprooting yourself and your young family to a faraway country? It sounds like a huge, brave step to take.

Thank you! My husband and I, along with our three children, moved to Australia in July of 2016 because of my husband’s job. The move is not a permanent one, which made the leap a little easier. It has been a really exciting time in our lives. I grew up in Austin, Texas, and had lived there most of my life. I had always wanted the experience of living in another country, so I was very grateful for the opportunity when it came along. The logistics of moving and figuring out how everything works in a new country, from enrolling the children in school to setting up our phone service and bank account, were not always simple.

It took about three months for me to feel settled, and ever since it’s been great. Sydney is such a beautiful city and I love being closer to the beach. My oldest child was 12 when we moved, and it was a lot harder for him than it was for his younger siblings. I think big moves are often easier for younger children. Still, we’ve had opportunities to travel and experiences that we never would have had if we had stayed in the US.

How is your life in Australia now different to the life you lived before in the US?

We shipped very few of our belongings from the US to Australia. We arrived with only our suitcases. A few months later, a few boxes that we sent by sea (mainly the some toys and books) arrived. The result has been an experiment in minimalism. 🙂 The house we’re renting in Australia is a lot smaller than our house in the US and we have relatively few things here. That aspect of it has been amazing in terms of housekeeping and having fewer things to organize and keep up with.

We’re also in a more walkable area here than we were in the US. I had been spending almost 3 hours a day driving in the US, which was way too much. Being able to walk the kids to school and spending less time in the car has been HUGE for me. I hadn’t fully appreciated before how much time I was losing every day by having to drive so much. One reason I’m able to write more now is that I’m spending less time commuting and driving the kids to activities. I finished the draft of a novel last year, and I don’t know that I would have been able to do that if we had stayed in the US. That change really isn’t anything specific to the US or Australia, we just happened to end up with a really different lifestyle.

This experience has taught me that there are a lot of different ways my life could look. I was on one path and it was comfortable and it would have been easy to continue along that path without giving it much thought. Making a huge change, like uprooting ourselves and moving to Australia, has taught us that it is possible to make massive shifts. If it’s possible to do one big thing, maybe it’s possible to other big things. Our lives are full of endless possibilities– I think it’s so easy for us to forget that as we go through our daily lives.

A quote in one of your blog posts really resonated with me: “I tell my kids, and myself, and anyone else who will listen, that our lives are the stories we tell ourselves”. Please can you expand a little on this. 

I think the stories that we tell about who we are define us. Have you ever noticed how two people can have almost identical experiences but describe their circumstances completely differently? Maybe one is a victim, the other is a survivor. We can focus on the negative or focus on the positive. It’s all about the details we choose to focus on and repeat. We’re not just passive creatures letting things happen to us; we get to be the creators of our own life stories. I think it’s empowering to recognize that where we choose to focus our attention helps shape our life’s narrative.

Finally, what advice would you give to your 20 year old self?

Oh, my 20 year old self was kind of a mess. I would tell my 20 year old self to start loving herself. She cared way too much about what other people thought and she wasted way too much time worrying about the future. I would tell her to start paying attention to her inner guidance instead of always looking for external validation. And I would tell her she is going to LOVE her future. In just three years she’ll meet the love of her life and each year will be brimming with more love and adventure than she can imagine.

Thank you for such thoughtful, insightful answers, Tara. They are very in-keeping with  the lovely, thought-provoking blog posts that you write 🙂

Tara Campbell Ray blogs at doneandleftundone.com.

You can also find Tara on Instagram @doneandleftundone.

P.S You can now follow me on Instagram. My IG handle is sarahdeeks_author. I post extra photos of bits and pieces that inspire and uplift me day-to-day so they may well have a similar effect on you 🙂 I look forward to seeing you there!

Read about our family seaside break away in a static caravan

A Seaside Break Away

Our family has begun a tradition of taking a short spring break to a seaside resort in the school Easter holiday each year. We usually wait until after the Easter weekend itself as we love staying at home to celebrate Easter. Having this short break to look forward to helps get us through the dark and dismal days of January and February. Most years we only venture as far as the neighbouring county of Norfolk, which is far enough when we have three young kids who don’t particularly enjoy long car journeys (and suffer from travel sickness…)

Staying on a Holiday park

Staying in holiday parks and sleeping in a static caravan were not things that especially appealed to us before having children. It can’t be denied though, that with all the facilities they have from swimming pools to evening entertainment, they do have plenty to keep families occupied and happy.

I usually book direct with an owner (via direct letting websites) to stay on a Haven holiday park, as we like to be able to select a spot close to the facilities yet still in a quiet spot. Most evenings I stay in when the baby goes to bed early while my husband takes the older ones out to the disco at the clubhouse. As we spend more time than most people in the accommodation, we prefer to stay in a higher grade rather than the more basic ones.

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This year’s caravan

This year, we booked a gorgeous caravan with a view over the sand dunes and to the sea. It had decking outside that we were able to sit and enjoy the view from which was lovely when the weather was sunny.

In the living room, it hardly felt like a caravan with modern, comfortable interiors including a proper sofa rather than the fixed to the wall, bench type sofas of more basic models.

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By the beach

We made the most of being right beside the beach by going for plenty of walks along beside it and in the sand dunes. Even though it was only early spring, the kids loved collecting shells and pebbles and other bits and pieces that they found, as well as hurling pebbles into the sea. They carved their names into the sand with sticks and all those timeless beach activities that children have always enjoyed.

After my husband and older children had left for the clubhouse each evening, I took our toddler for a little walk along the beach. It was so peaceful and calm at that time as the sun was about to set. We often didn’t see another person during the whole length of our walks and my toddler’s chubby hand excitedly pointed out seagulls, boats and other things that caught her attention. The sea air before bedtime did the trick to help her drift off to sleep quickly, too.

All in all, we had another lovely spring break away and enjoyed some quality family time together.

Do you go away for a short break or holiday in the Spring? I would love to hear about it, wherever you are in the world.

P.S. Check out my interview with Jane from My Home My Sanctuary here!

P.P.S. Please do add your email to the box to sign up for weekly blog post updates and a free printable self-care pack if you haven’t already.

 

 

How can you make yourself happy?

How Can You Make Yourself Happy?

Having long been interested in life in the Scandinavian countries, who consistently rate highly in global happiness tables, I was keen to read The Little Book of Lykke: The World’s search for the world’s happiest people by Meik Wiking when I spotted it on a supermarket shelf recently.

Wiking is also the author of The Little Book of Hygge which I had previously enjoyed very much, so I expected to enjoy this one, too.

Experiences versus things?

One of the most salient points that Wiking makes is that buying experiences, rather than things, results in a greater sense of happiness. He quotes a study carried out by Dunn and Norton, who found that ‘study after study [shows that] people are in a better mood when they reflect on their experiential purchases which they describe as “money well spent”‘.

When people are asked to review how happy a purchase made them (such as a mobile phone) compared to spending money on a holiday or concert ticket, far more people will claim that the experience made them happier than the tangible item.

Spending money on experiences will make you happier still if those experiences involve spending time with other people and make you build a closer bond to them, and if they are linked with who you see yourself as being. For example, if you are a history buff you would gain greater happiness from visiting historical sites such as Pompeii if you were on holiday in Italy. Therefore investing in experiences in this way can be perceived as an investment in happy memories and in your personal story and development.

Preserving your memories

Taking photographs whilst you are enjoying the experiences can help to prolong the sense of pleasure, as you are able to look back and prompt your memory to recall details you may otherwise have forgotten. I often create photobooks of our family holidays and the kids enjoy looking back at these with us. I hope they will enjoy doing this for many years to come, as it evokes a shared sense of history and wellbeing and strengthens the bond between us as a family.

It’s similar when I reminisce with close friends about holidays and other experiences that we shared together in years gone by. We often end up laughing so hard we are almost in tears and our sides ache (in a good way!).

I’m a little wary of taking too many photographs, though. There is a danger that we can become so focused on taking countless pictures and striving for the perfect one that we miss actually being present in the moment and enjoying the experience for what it is. That seems a real shame, especially when you have spent so much money on a special experience in the first place.

Not everything is an item in a tick-list

I will never forget the retired couple who sat in the adjacent seats to my husband and I on the William Tell (now known as the Gotthard Panorama Express) train ride in Switzerland. In case you aren’t aware, this very scenic journey takes you through stunning lake and mountain scenery and the trains have extra large, panoramic windows to afford a better view. It’s not a cheap ride, either. When we boarded the train, the pleasant couple were friendly to us and during conversation mentioned that this train trip had featured high up on their to-do list of things to experience in Switzerland. We heartily agreed with them.

However…about fifteen minutes into the ride, both of them fell sound asleep! Shortly after the train departed, they both sat back from the window, reclined into the comfortable seats and seemed to be anticipating a nap. They didn’t wake up until we reached the final destination and I couldn’t help but think what a waste of money it was for them. Perhaps there is a danger of regarding some experiences as mere items to be ticked off in a list, rather than a special time to be savoured and relished?

Fortunately my husband and I gained maximum enjoyment out of the journey and remained glued to the expansive windows for most of it, taking in every little bit of the incredible alpine view as it unfolded before us.

Anticipation

Another point that Wiking makes is that where possible, it is better to plan ahead for your experiences and even book them well in advance. The key benefit to doing this is the sense of anticipation it brings. I have to say that I am rather the queen of doing just this. I usually plan and book holidays well in advance, usually twelve months ahead. We are going on a cruise in August and I booked it a whopping twenty one months in advance. Admittedly, that felt a little crazy at the time even for me, but I love the fact that it gives us extra time to research which shore excursions to do, chat excitedly to the kids about it (many times!) and feel, well, happy just at the thought of knowing it is definitely booked and looking forward to it so much.

I tend to book tickets for shows and concerts as far ahead as possible, too. There is the added bonus of being more likely to secure the best seats by doing so.

It has crossed my mind on occasions that if we cut right back on spending on holidays, weekend trips, concerts and show tickets, we could afford to move to a larger and more impressive home. Admittedly, we are very fortunate that we live in a home that is sufficiently large enough for our family, although it lacks rooms that others may not wish to go without, such as a utility (laundry) room and an extra bathroom. In some ways, the larger home would bring us pleasure. But I’m not convinced that having the additional rooms would compensate for the loss of life-affirming experiences we would miss out on and Wiking’s book has confirmed that we are making the right decision to stay in our current home.

How about you? Do you agree that spending money on experiences rather than things brings more happiness? Which types of experiences do you most enjoy spending money on? I would love to hear from you.

If you’ve enjoyed this post, please add your email to the box on the right-hand side to be notified when new posts are added 🙂

 

Be inspired to enjoy your meals with Italian style!

Be Inspired to Enjoy Your Daily Mealtimes… Italian Style!

When I spent my gap year as an au pair in Italy, the family I worked for happened to live in and run an hotel. A rather historic, opulent hotel that Italian royalty used to holiday at in the distant past and celebrities such as Elizabeth Taylor have stayed at.

Restaurant Dining Every Day

During the first couple of months of my stay (still classed as summer season), my host family chose to eat their meals in a corner of the main hotel restaurant in which the hotel guests dined. This allowed me to indulge in my people-watching hobby very well, as I (inconspicuously, of course) observed the comings and goings of couples and families that were staying at the hotel. Many of them were wealthy, with luxury sports cars parked outside the hotel and often were dressed head to toe in designer clothes. Guests from multiple nationalities came to stay, and I enjoyed trying to figure out where they were from based on their appearance and trying to identify the language they spoke. Anyway, I digress.

The restaurant was a truly stunning room, with floor to ceiling windows overlooking the azure Mediterranean sea. The tables were simply dressed with pristine white tablecloths, pure white crockery and polished silver cutlery. Each diner was provided with a starched white linen napkin. A vase of fresh flowers, usually roses, was placed in the centre of each table.

Italian style mealtimes

From the first day, despite being seated in a restaurant, it became apparent that my host family followed pretty standard Italian meal traditions (at least for the region I visited), which I shall describe for you.

There was a bread basket placed on the table almost as soon as we were seated. For my host family this included breadsticks (grissini) and locally-made fresh, crusty bread which was eaten plain, never spread with butter or dipped into oil or anything. On my first day, I almost asked for butter but stopped myself after observing that the other members of the family, even the little boy, ate it plain. There were large bottles of mineral water, always a choice of either still or sparkling. The family would usually eat a piece of bread or perhaps two each and sip water while waiting for the first course to arrive.

About the Courses…

The primo (first) course, almost always consisted of pasta, or occasionally a risotto (made from arborio rice) or a polenta dish. Fortunately, I’ve always been a fan of pasta so it didn’t bother me to eat it every day, but they successfully varied it by cooking many different shapes and types of pasta, from long spaghetti to shorter penne and orecchiette to tiny orzo. Plus, different sauces were added to the pasta. Most often, it was sugo al pomodoro, a basic but delicious homemade tomato sauce, and sometimes meaty bolognese. During my stay there, I had my first ever taste of green pesto sauce (made from pine nuts, olive oil, garlic, basil and parmesan). No exaggeration, that first bite of pasta al pesto was sheer, unadulterated bliss and I couldn’t believe I’d been missing out on it my whole life! Sadly though, no pesto I’ve had in back in the UK can compare.

There was always freshly grated parmesan in a bowl with a tiny spoon to sprinkle over the pasta ourselves. 

The main course, known as secondo, comprised a piece of meat or fish, maybe steak. The fish usually had bones, sometimes was a whole baked fish so I had to learn quickly how to deal with removing those bones. Sometimes they even had an omelettte or a couple of fried eggs with a side dish of vegetables (contorno) or salad. For every meal, olive oil and/ or balsamic vinegar was present as the salad dressing and often drizzled over other vegetables, too.

Sweet Treats

With regards to dessert, this was usually just a bowl of fruit from which we all helped ourselves, sometimes to several pieces. This is a ritual I’d like to start with my own kids as it certainly helps ensure the five-a-day get consumed. Only occasionally, perhaps once a fortnight, would there be a different type of dessert such as creme brulee or a selection of choux pastry delicacies purchased from a local specialist shop. However, plenty of Italians  clearly do possess a sweet tooth, as lots of them buy a gelato (ice cream) from one of the many gelaterie in town. It was often an afternoon treat for me to buy one, too, when I wasn’t working (between 3-6pm).

What I’ve detailed above was standard procedure for both lunch (starting at 1.30 or so) and dinner (from 8.00). If people were feeling less hungry, they sometimes opted to have a very small portion of pasta. Perhaps it sounds like a lot of food, but Italians are not big breakfast eaters. Adults often consider coffee a breakfast in itself, perhaps with a croissant. Plus, generally speaking they do not snack a lot between meals. When I was invited to eat at several friends’ homes during my stay, I found the types of food and number of courses to be similar each time.

When the main tourist season finished and the restaurant closed (apart from breakfast time), my host family instead opted to take their meals in a small private room. The types of foods consumed and the courses remained the same, though. As did the beautifully laid table complete with fresh flowers and starched napkins.

Inspiration for my Family’s Mealtimes here in England

When I make the effort to set our table at home in an attentive, beautiful way, it sure seems to make the meal more of an occasion and makes me feel as though I want to slow down and enjoy the experience more. When we eat outside al fresco in the summer, my eldest daughter enjoys picking a few flowers from the garden to place in a vase and fills a jug of water with ice cubes and lemon slices. This, along with a pretty tablecloth really enhances the experience for all of us, even the children (as a bonus they tend to eat better, too).

Even though we don’t manage to sit down and eat an evening meal together as a family every single night, reminiscing over the mealtimes I experienced with my host family has inspired me to renew my effort to make dinners a more positive and pleasurable experience for my family, too.

Actions I plan to implement:

  • Move the vase of fresh flowers that I usually have on the kitchen worktop to the kitchen table before I serve dinner.
  • Cover the table with a clean, pretty tablecloth just before family meals (rather than the scruffy one that protects the table from my eldest daughters’ glue and sticker attacks).
  • Make dessert be a ‘fruit course’ similarly to what I experienced.
  • Experiment cooking different types of vegetable side dishes.

I hope you enjoyed this insight into eating meals the Italian way.

I’m fascinated by how people live their lives in different countries and cultures, so if you live outside the UK, or have lived elsewhere, I would really love to hear what mealtimes were like there, please do leave a comment. I really love hearing from readers, whether you read my blog regularly or it’s your first visit here 🙂

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Reasons to embrace the arts

Reasons Why You Should Embrace the Arts

The older I’ve become, the more I’ve grown to appreciate the value of the arts and realise the significant effects they have on me.

Annual trip to the Ballet

For the last fifteen years, the Russian State ballet of Siberia has included our town in its extensive tour every February. The first year that I noticed an advert for it, I mentioned it to my sister suggesting it as a possible birthday present for our mother. She agreed so we booked tickets, not really sure what to expect as we had never attended a ballet before and we weren’t sure if we would really enjoy it.

We were pleasantly surprised. By chance, our tickets were down in the stalls close to the front, where the large orchestra is positioned. Sitting so close to the orchestra and their moving Tchaichovsky instrumentals, while we watched the incredibly graceful, expressive ballet dancers acting out their story on stage was mesmerising. Since then, my mother and I haven’t missed one and they all have a similar impact on us.

Other shows on offer locally…

The same local theatre offers a good range of visiting performers and we have been fortunate to have enjoyed shows ranging from the west end Cats show, Irish Riverdance and Lord of the Dance, The Sound of Music, as well as Abba and Queen tribute bands. Varied, but all thoroughly enjoyable in their own way.

The benefits of attending live theatre

Somehow, opening the mind to different types of performances has a mind-broadening effect and gives a sense of fulfilment. Sure, that’s just my subjective opinion, but interestingly Science Daily reported a few years ago that attending live theatre increased tolerance and empathy as found in a group of students who took part in the research. Tolerance and empathy are attributes that seem to be in increasingly short supply these days, so perhaps all schools should aim to take students to watch plays or ballets from a young age.

The benefits of listening to classical music

Certain types of music move me in a similar way. All through my childhood and adolescence, I grew up in a home hearing classical music several times a week as both my parents were fans of it. To be honest, I didn’t much care for it at the time, finding it dull compared to my preferred pop and rock music.

Yet now, I can’t deny that it somehow has a profound effect on me. I don’t listen to it all the time, but if in need of a little inspiration then classical music helps me find it. I find it awe-inspiring that some of the complex pieces were composed hundreds of years ago. I also find it has a calming effect on me and it seems I am not alone in feeling this way. The Readers Digest published an article featuring 10 Wondrous things that happen to your body when you listen to classical music. Amongst those were feeling more relaxed and productive. More than enough reasons to persuade anyone to give it a try. For a complete beginner’s introduction, I recommend either tuning in to a classical radio station such as Classic FM, or search YouTube for ‘best classical music mix’ or similar.

A classical Italian experience

Some years ago, my husband and I toured Italy one summer, visiting several of the major cities. While we were staying in Rome, we were taking a stroll after dinner one evening and soon after tossing the obligatory coin into the beautiful Trevi fountains, happened to stumble across a large piazza where a classical music concert was about to be performed. Chairs had been set up in rows, many of them already taken but there were still some free seats, and after a friendly lady explained that it was a free performance for the public, we sat down. It’s difficult to fully describe the atmosphere as we sat there in the moonlit, balmy July evening, with the loud, passionate sounds of of Vivaldi and Verdi echoing all around us in that historic piazza. A romantic, special evening to remember for ever.

Foreign Language Films

World cinema is another way of broadening the mind. Through my local library (as well as a small independent cinema that shows many foreign films) I have been able to access many foreign films in different languages. The ones in French and Italian have the additional bonus of helping me brush up my language skills but I have enjoyed subtitled films and series in many different languages. It’s surprising just how many countries have thriving film industries, even if they are relatively small-scale compared to Hollywood. Watching foreign language films, even if they are fictional, gives a fascinating glimpse into life in different countries.

Do you spend much time seeking out the arts in your life? I would be interested to hear which ones appeal to you the most.