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. To be honest, I didn’t much care for it at the time, finding it dull and overly formal 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 my 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. Watching them, 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.

A day out in London

As part of our recent weekend away spending quality time together, my husband and I took the train into London as it was only twenty minutes away from where we stayed. We still try to visit our capital city at least a couple of times a year, but used to go far more often before we had children. Even though I’ve been countless times over the years, I never get bored and enjoy discovering new museums, tours, shows and even little courtyards and pretty streets in unexpected places.

In the morning, we went to Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park. Neither of us had ever been before, and it was reminiscent of a German Christmas market in some ways with a significant number of wooden huts selling festive wares ranging from gifts to Christmas decorations to traditional German foods such as pretzels and bratwurst hot dogs.There were loads of rides, more than I expected, and we couldn’t help but speak of how our kids would have loved them. There was also an ice skating ring and Santa’s grotto amongst other attractions.

One of my favourite things to do is watch a show in the west end, which is ‘theatreland’ in London. We have seen a lot of shows over the years and have yet to sit through a disappointing one. Call me childish if you like, but I’ve always particularly enjoyed the shows based on classic musical films (Oliver!, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, The Sound of Music) and children’s books (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). So this time we booked tickets to see Matilda based on the Roald Dahl story. As usual, the show was excellent. The girl who played Matilda was incredible, she had so many lines to speak and sing as well as the dance choreography and didn’t appear to be much older than ten years old, yet she delivered it so professionally.

Part of the pleasure of seeing west end shows for me is taking time to admire the insides of the beautiful old theatres dating back to Victorian times (of which there are numerous in London). Often there are rows of seating in the stalls at ground/stage level, then the dress/royal circle higher up and then a grand/upper circle. The grand circle balcony really does look to be ‘up in the gods’ and on the one occasion I sat up there couldn’t believe quite how many steps there were to climb to reach it! I love the website Theatre Monkey to look up the best seats and ones to avoid when booking show tickets. I generally prefer to sit in the stalls (our seats here today were pretty good ones) and before the show starts I love gazing up above at the intricate architectural details the Victorian builders loved to add.

Before the show we enjoyed  a quick lunch  in a chain restaurant. I chose an avocado and goats cheese wrap with roasted red peppers and the flavour of those ingredients combined was delicious.

We didn’t have that much time to spend in the city as our dinner was included at the hotel so we caught the train back for that.

We used to always stay in London itself for weekends away, but it worked out pretty well staying just outside in Hertfordshire, as the railway station was only 10 minutes drive away (if that) and the train only took 20 minutes to reach Kings Cross station in central London. We would definitely do it again. Also, the money we saved on central London accommodation covered our meals in the Hertfordshire hotel.

All in all it was a thoroughly enjoyable day and I hope to return to the capital again soon. Do you enjoy going on weekend breaks, whether with a partner, friends or as a family? I always enjoy hearing details of other people’s trips so feel free to add a comment about it.

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A weekend away, childfree!

As lovely as our little ones are, I can’t deny that they can be quite demanding, both physically and emotionally. My husband works mega hard and is away for bedtime most week nights so it can feel an uphill struggle getting all three kids ready for bed when they are often overtired and whiny. So, every few months or so we aim to spend a night or two away while the grandparents very kindly look after the kids, which makes it a mini holiday for them, too.

It’s good for our relationship, too. Due to Paul’s aforementioned long hours, we can end up feeling like the proverbial passing ships in the night at times, sometimes I am already asleep by the time he gets home if he has been driving a long way. When we make the effort to go away we speak properly and discuss things that really matter that there doesn’t seem to be time for day-to-day.

We stayed in a hotel in Hertfordshire on an all-inclusive package so had lunch soon after arriving and unpacking.  We were given a lovely, spacious executive room with a comfortable sofa and huge walk-in shower.

Then we drove to the small city of St Albans on the day we arrived. We had been there before and really like it. It is a historical city with lots of lovely old buildings, including a cathedral (see pic below). We enjoyed a drink at the traditional old pub pictured above. There are quite a lot of shops, a mixture of both chain stores to be found everywhere and one-off independent shops. We bought a few Christmas presents for people, including in one lovely gift shop called Raindrops on Roses which amazingly donates all its profits to a cancer charity. Whilst I was waiting to be served, an elderly lady was paying for her goods and I couldn’t help but overhear her conversation with the shopkeeper. She was saying how she was impressed by the charitable cause the shop supported and that she had bought several Christmas presents for her children, grand-children and great-grand-children, which she has quite a lot of because she was eighty-six! I noticed that she was impeccably well dressed, wore a string of pearls around her neck and her hair was neatly coiffed. I only hope I am like her at the same age, she was quite an inspiration.

st-albans cathedral-2125588_640 copy

There seemed to be quite a lot of little alleyways with independent shops dotted around St Albans and we enjoyed exploring them, often ending up in a quaint little courtyard or park.

We parked the car at the top of a multi storey car park and enjoyed quite an impressive view of the cathedral and rest of the city from there.

That evening, back at the hotel, we enjoyed dinner as part of our all inclusive package. I went for a starter of mozzarella, tomato and basil salad, which always takes me back to my days of living in Italy as an au pair. Then for main I had wild mushroom risotto, mainly because I am a fan of mushrooms but Paul cannot stand them, so when we eat out is an ideal time for me to get my fix of them. We also imbibed in a few glasses of red wine as it was included in the deal and was a pleasantly drinkable one, too.

There were other tables with parents struggling to deal with tired, whiny children in the restaurant, which didn’t bother us at all, we were only thinking what a relief it was for us not to be in their shoes for a change! Of course, we spent a lot of the time talking about our own kids anyway, can’t seem to help it. It was so nice to have some time just the two of us, though.

Do you often go away for weekends, whether or not you have children? It often feels as though you have been away for more than just a night or two, I think.

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Life in Italy and the Bella Figura concept

Living in Italy and an Introduction to the ‘bella figura’ Concept

A Gap Year in Italy

As an eighteen year old, I decided to take the opportunity during my gap year before starting university to spend time in Italy as an au-pair for seven months. Italy had long held an allure, based on what I had seen on travel programmes on TV, the sound of the language (not that I’d ever had a single Italian lesson, mind), not to mention that pizza, pasta and ice cream were amongst my very favourite foods.

It was an incredible experience to spend seven months in il bel paese and immerse myself into the lifestyle. It was certainly the experience that really opened my eyes to ways of living a more chic existence through incorporating a number of small yet significant changes into my daily life.

An Unusual Home

The family I stayed with didn’t have a typical set up from an au-pairing perspective; they owned a hotel on a promontory almost completely surrounded by the sea and took residence on the top floor. The family comprised three generations- the seven-year-old boy I had to look after and teach English, his parents and the paternal grandmother, great aunt and uncle. Although an au-pair typically lives with her host family, I was allocated a room in a small annexe on the hotel site. Alas, it was on the ground floor so was missing the incredible sea views that the family enjoyed, but I could hardly complain as the sea was virtually on my doorstep. The hotel was located on the edge of a large, historic town full of beautiful old buildings, quaint cobbled streets, a cathedral and a harbour- see the photo above. Yes, I felt sure  that I’d chosen a great placement the day that I arrived!

Gregarious, Welcoming Italians

It’s true that I’m a little introverted and tend to avoid large group situations and most very noisy places, but had to overcome these natural tendencies as I found the Italians in general to be very sociable people who love large gatherings with family or friends. Perhaps because of the groups often being large and needing to be heard, people often spoke quite loudly and gesticulated with their hands a lot. I found the gesticulating with hands to emphasis points quite endearing and found myself doing it too, after a while! Despite my natural preferences I was pretty grateful that the Italians are a sociable and welcoming bunch on the whole because it made it easier for me to pick up the language, make friends and build up a social life, without which my time there would have been pretty lonely.

Fare la Passeggiata– more than just a stroll

The same day that I arrived, after unpacking my belongings, I was invited to join the family to ‘fare la passeggiata‘ – this transpired to be a late afternoon/ early evening walk around the neighbourhood. It didn’t take long before I realised that everybody else seemed to be out doing the very same thing- this daily walk was a chance to socialise (as various friends and often extended family members would be encountered during the stroll) and everyone made an effort to present their best self. Even though the majority of people had probably been at work all day and they would just be heading back to their own homes for dinner after the passeggiata rather than to a restaurant, they all looked very smart, with women wearing either dresses, skirts or a nice blouse with trousers or jeans. Men invariably wore shirts or polo shirts with trousers or smart jeans, no shorts. A lot of women wore a noticeable amount of jewellery- not in an excessively flashy way, but enough to be noticed. The shoes that people wore were smart, mostly leather rather than trainers. Even though it was the end of the day everyone’s hair looked immaculate so they had probably re-done it specially before leaving for their walk.

The start of my education on La Bella Figura

I can’t deny that this experience of ‘fare la passeggiata’ was quite an eye-opener for me, who was still wearing a printed sundress more for daywear than evening wear (and not the sort of dress I spotted the Italian ladies wearing). I felt distinctly underdressed and wished I had made more of an effort with my hair (more than a little windswept from not having been brushed since that morning) and worn a bit of jewellery. Still, at least I knew for next time!

This evening passeggiata was my introduction to the Italian concept of creating ‘la bella figura‘, loosely translated as ‘looking one’s best’ or making a positive first impression and extends to putting one’s best face forward in any situation. Kristi Belle explains this concept and much more about living an Italian lifestyle in her wonderful book. I would highly recommend a read of it if it interests you.

There will be more posts about my experience of life in Italy and what I learned about how Italian women create la bella figura. Please add your email to the box on the right to follow my blog and be notified of future posts —>