Life Through Basia's Eyes

Random thoughts based on random stimuli.

Menaggio 

We’re off to the Hotel Merloni today, just to say hello, because of the great memories the motel has for us. 
The year after our disastrous, for me, holiday in Tuscany we decided to go back to Lake Como as it so beautiful. The Internet was in its infancy but I managed to find this place a couple of miles from the lake at a reasonable price that would accommodate us and our three children in one big room. Actually, now I come to think of it, Kasia did not come with us that first time. 

The place had a swimming pool, a big dining room, a tiny bar and an outdoors seating area. No lounge. Which was fine when it it was warm. Which it was that first year. We sat around the pool in the day, visited Menaggio and Porlezza and Lugano when it suited us and played cards in the evenings. The rest of the clientele were mainly very old though there were one or two young families too. 

It was friendly but not intrusive. The owner family was extremely nice and Columbina, the daughter, was the only one who could speak English. Very adequately indeed, except that she consistently mispronounced the word pudding which still makes me laugh when I see her in my mind’s eye, hovering over our table: “and for padding there is… ”
Anyway that first year was very pleasant so we decided to go back the following year. It was 1999, the year of the eclipse. We went for a fortnight and invited my mother and Kasia to come and stay for a week in the middle. They came on the day of the eclipse. August 11th. Jacek and I decided to go and collect them at the airport but what to do with Andrzej and Marysia, who was only six? Columbina very kindly said we could leave them behind and they would be looked after. So they watched the eclipse with the hotel staff. Marysia looked very sweet in her dark glasses. Jacek and I stopped the car just outside Milan as the sky turned a beautiful and awe inspiring dark blue and the birds all suddenly stopped singing. Night fell abruptly in a very localised way and all of nature slept. It was incredible. The air felt very heavy and rapidly got much colder. An experience indeed. 

At the airport we met Kasia and my mother where it transpired that Kasia had been invited into the cockpit of the plane ( you could do that then) to watch the eclipse from the air! Envy all round. Mama apparently had also been invited but preferred her seat and her whisky. 

We returned to the hotel and proceeded to have a lovely time for a week. The staff at Merloni catered to all our needs. Endless Twixes for the girls I seem to remember. One small fly in the ointment was when we visited Milan and wanted to go in the cathedral , Kasia was not allowed in, ostensibly because of her bare shoulders but more likely because of her crimson hair! When my mother and Kasia left we began to seriously plan my mother’s seventieth birthday party – that took some effort as it had to be a surprise. But that’s another story. 

Still. Menaggio and Merloni worked their charm again and again and we have been back many times since. 

Over the years the other guests in Merloni began to recognise us, as we them, and we would anticipate each other yearly. There was one old lady who was there every year with her helper/ possibly daughter. She was a wily specimen, pretending to be totally reliant on her daughter, but one day the moment the younger woman was out of sight she got up, slipped slightly and managed to attract the attention of two youngish men who immediately jumped to her aid. She thanked them profusely, assured them she was fine and waited for her daughter. Then all hell was let loose. Not that we could understand it. Next thing old lady is strapped to the thigh, and really unable to walk. Over the next few days she had nothing but charming smiles for any men that might be around, but only surly remarks for her daughter. She, on the other hand would follow her mother around, never actually speaking to her, just carrying an enormous book covered in brown paper. To protect it or to hide the contents? We used to fantasise that it was a murder manual or at the very least an unsuitable love story for her maiden eyes. That’s as may be.

That year they both said goodbye to our family very warmly as we left. When we came back a couple of years later the old lady had died. From natural causes. I believe. 
            ***

So today Jacek and I went on a little tour down memory lane to Porlezza and back via hotel Merloni. We popped in to say hallo but unfortunately Columbina was not there -still on holiday. Her brother recognised us but as he speaks not a word of English and my Italian is fairly limited, we did not stay long. Just enough to notice that little had changed. The same two seater sofa at the entrance. The same tables outside, bot no longer covered with green cloths. Maybe no one plays cards any more?  

Cernobbio

We first came here 19 years ago on our way to Tuscany. It’s a miracle we ever came to Italy again. Cernobbio was and is tiny and pretty, beautifully set on the edge of lake Como. Near by is Como town itself. We stayed then in the hotel Centrale which was simple and ok. This time we are in a slightly posher place, with a fantastic lake view. But as I said we were on our way to Tuscany then. We had hired a flat in a large farmhouse somewhere amongst the vineyards not far from Siena. The flat was big and the top floor was the children’s room. It had a great big beam running the length of it at head height. Precisely my head height. I kept on bumping my head whenever I went in. Not nice. 

Our bedroom was tiny and was lit by two 25 watt lamps. Useless. The kitchen was big but dark. Jacek was thrilled because he could cook to his hearts content. There was a little village nearby which had an excellent butcher. They took us round the back to show us the cow so we could choose the precise cut of meat we wanted. The greengrocer had a magnificent variety of exotic vegetables. All well and good. But after he had used every fish and pot and pan it was then left to me to do the washing up. In theory I did not mind. But I did. The problem was the water. A tiny trickle of warm water came out of the tap. Very, very slowly. It was so frustrating. And then when I saw a mouse at the window with great big ears and a long long tale it was just too much.

It was dark and unfriendly and there was nothing to do or see. I just remember being bored out of my mind. Just olive groves and vines for miles around. 

There was a swimming pool of sorts outside – I don’t swim tho the children did. There was a nice family we talked to a bit. The one bit of excitement was when Marysia toppled in and was immediately rescued by a boy whose name I don’t remember. It was extremely scary though. 

One day we decided to go on a day trip to Siena. Poor Marysia was very disappointed when we arrived and we never met or saw Enna at all! We went to a restaurant that wouldn’t let the children have ketchup. Long faces all round. 

Most disastrous of all was when I wanted to look at a window display of lollipops in the shape of feet. For some reason this was the last straw for Jacek. 

As I say this was not the best holiday in Italy that we had. We came back via Chamonix which was such a relief despite being cold and wet. 

Yet the following year we decided to go to Italy again. Risky but actually brilliant. We didn’t go back to Cernobbio but further along the lake to Menaggio. We discovered a wonderful motel there and returned many times. Italy, all is forgiven. We’re going to Menaggio again tomorrow! 

Heidelberg 

We got to Heidelberg Saturday night. Again one of my favourite cities. A lovely university town, apparently saved from the bombs by the British generals who had studied there before the war and determined to preserve the hallowed halls of academia. 

I however have never studied there, though my stepfather D grandfather did for a term sometime during the nineteenth century. We have somewhere the most enormous certificate proving this. 

But I first went to Heidelberg about twenty years ago for Jacek’s birthday. We thought our children were mature enough to look after themselves and each other. My mother and father lived near by, we were only away for two nights, what could possibly go wrong? True, some of our friends reminded us that we had a teenaged daughter who was very attractive. Yes. And so? She might have a party. Of course not. She’s far too sensible etc etc. And so we went. 

We had a perfect weekend. We stayed in the Crowne Plaza hotel at one end of the city. We walked and ate and sightsaw and walked and ate and rang home several times. Including Saturday evening. Everything was fine. 

We returned on Sunday afternoon. The house was tidy, mostly. But adequate. There was a strong smell of smoke but that we were used to as my mother smoked very heavily. Perhaps she’d been round? 

The children were not very forthcoming about what they’d been doing, but we were so pleased with our own little holiday that we took little notice. They were tired. On Monday I went back to school. Yes, it was the worst school in west London but at that time I enjoyed it. I had some lovely classes that I really got on with. 

And so it was proved. A couple of weeks after our return from Heidelberg I took in some homework. Essays and short stories. 

I was particularly interested in one which was about three children whose names were Natasha, Andy and Marissa. Coincidentally similar to my offspring’s monikers. The story also unfolded very eventfully. 

It didn’t take me long, intelligent being that I am, to realise that this story was almost a blow by blow account of a party at my house – Heidelberg weekend! 

Oh dear. So, unusually for me, I brought my marking home that evening and asked my dear sensible 15 year old to read a piece of “creative” writing as composed by her friend RS. 

Kasia’s face was a picture as she realised what she was reading. 

Luckily no real harm had been done despite almost 70! people having enjoyed themselves while the cats were away. (My husband still remembers the damage done to the record player needle, though.)

So, every time we go to Heidelberg we remember this story. Advice to parents – obvious really! 

Anyway, last weekend was the best ever. We stayed in the Arthotel which is a beautifully restored and modernised 12th century building in the middle of the old town with the most fabulous restaurant. We had a room with a turret and many many views, to the castle up above and by a stretch of the imagination even to the river. Breathtaking. The next day we were bound for Cernobbio by lake Como. A different story. 

Gandawa

In Polish.Or Ghent. Or Gent or Gand or 

Gante in Spanish. I prefer the Polish version because it sounds much more romantic. I first went to Belgium on a school trip when I was 13. Unfortunately not to beautiful Ghent. It was a strange place to take a very varied group of girls as we were staying in Ostend (hello sailor!) in a seafront hotel, four to a room, not very ably supervised by Matron and Mrs Kelly. 

Matron was a very unfortunate, very unhappy old lady who did wonderful embroidery and made beautiful crafts as belied her Belgian origins, and Mrs Kelly was our scary geography teacher whose hair was set so tightly and never changingly that we were convinced it was a wig. These termagants did not get on. This became apparent almost immediately at the beginning of the holiday and we used their relationship to our advantage. I say we but I mean the other girls. I was far too shy to talk to either of them. But rumour has it that the older girls went out in the evenings getting to know some of the local boys. Well, travel broadens the mind, and wasn’t that the reason for school trips?  

Ostend itself was horrible but we went for day trips here and there – Bruges – lacemaking, the Atomium in Brussels – loads of escalators, Liege – Wurlitzer organ and puppets, Middelkerk in Holland – C and A Modes, as it was still called, and generally we had a variably boring time. But the last night was significant. 

I was in a room with some older girls I think. I was tired. I fell asleep. At some point during the night I was woken up by raucous giggling and the smell of smoke. My room seemed to be the venue of a party in full swing with wine being swigged from the bottle and cigarettes being smoked with gusto. Everyone seemed to be having a good time. Except me. I remember gazing blearily round me , when all of a sudden a cigarette was popped in my mouth. I started spluttering and the next thing I know both Matron and Mrs Kelly storm into our room. Everything went very quiet. Except me. I still had the fag in my mouth/hand. The shouting then started. Not just at me. But they argued. With each other! I was so confused. Mrs Kelly was all for having fun!  Did she have a glass of wine in her hand? Matron and fun did not agree. She had a night cap on! All the other girls managed to hide everything. I was in disgrace. The only one in the end to get a letter home. Luckily my mother saw the funny side. I haven’t smoked since. Nor been to Ostend. 

But Ghent on the other hand must be one of the most beautiful and delicious places in the world. The architecture, the people who al seem to come out of van Eyck pictures, the fruit beer and the cakes…. 

We have been there many times, usually on the way to somewhere else. And every time there is more to see, more to explore. More to enjoy. 

Call yourself a reader

Do you recognise these words? Aqua Laureth sulphate.?  Limanol? Are you a chemist? If not,  then you are indeed a reader. Reading the back of the shampoo and conditioner bottles, for lack of any other reading matter, or the label on the marmalade jar has always made my family think I am quite eccentric – I was once even  caught  reading the instructions to the Polish yellow pages – but this only happens in times of extreme necessity. I am of course much happier reading a book.

So, packing this morning for our extremely long motoring holiday to Italy, I knew I had to take a lot of books. 18 days equals 18 books to my mind. But my long suffering husband put a limit on my readerly ambition. None in the suitcase. One small bag of books. So I compromised. 9 books. Plus two for  him. Maybe this way I will write more. Then I found I could fit one more into my handbag. Hooray. I’m going on holiday.
And so back to the shampoo bottle. One of the greatest pleasures of going on holiday and staying in hotels is gathering the little toiletries and soaps and taking them back home again. I then use them all year round thus prolonging the pleasures of having been away. I can make that holiday afterglow last almost the whole year. Sometimes I have to stop Jacek using them all up in situ by secreting them almost immediately we get to the hotel. We race to the bathroom. For different reasons. I wonder what my haul will be like this year ! Oh the anticipation!

Good behaviour

I wrote this in response to someone’s little rant on Facebook. They had all my sympathy as there’s nothing worse than going to a concert of a play or a film and being distracted by sweets and popcorn and talking and in one case in my experience a couple trying to make love next to us in the theatre. Granted, the play was called Shopping and F..king, but no one else interpreted it as an invitation. There was nothing to buy, anyway. ( I won’t count the programme or the interval ice creams!

So what I did was a very risky enterprise:  a couple of years ago a friend of mine had organised an event in the South Bank and I really wanted to go.  It was the occasion of the recommissioning of the Chopin monument outside the Festival Hall. My head said I could go, provided I took some children with me! They were self-chosen in that they wanted to go, but none of them had been to any sort of concert before. They all had different learning difficulties and were between twelve and fourteen.

I prepared them by letting them listen to bits of Chopin in class and by reminding them that in a public place there would be no eating , drinking, chewing or talking – no going out to the loo or looking at phones or loud sighing or yawning. I had to be very explicit.

The concert took about an hour. It was excellent;  my children had behaved brilliantly. They clapped in all the right places. But then the rest of the audience decided they wanted an encore and the pianist Alexander Ardakov, was ready. I took one look at my kids and their faces were desperate. They had had well and truly enough. So I relented and we filed out as quietly as possible.  They then told me that they had had a brilliant time. This was after standing and listening to all the speeches, most of which were in Polish. Excruciating for the uninitiated!

One of the most exciting moments for the girls was meeting Rula Lenska in the loo. She very kindly allowed herself to have her photo taken with them against the delightful background of white tiles and taps!

So. It can be done, even with “difficult” children. But I would say preparation is the key and an easy access to an escape route if necessary.

Exhibitions

I’m on my way to the Tate Modern at the moment and  I’m really looking forward to it. I’m on the train to Paddington and just thinking about all the exhibitions I have really wanted to see and actually made the effort to go to the gallery, yet did not manage to see them.

Many years ago when I was still at university, Irene, Jim, Stephen and I decided to go and see the Fuseli exhibition at the Tate (now Tate Britain).  We arranged to meet there. It had finished months ago. So much for forward planning!

Another time my friend Elisabeth had come over from Germany to see the Edward Hopper exhibition at the Tate Modern;I think, when it first opened. I believe she enjoyed it. I went a couple of days later. No sign of it. I think that is the one I am still most disappointed by.  I can’t imagine their size or texture. Pictures of pictures are better than nothing – she says trying to put a positive spin on things- but there’s nothing like the real thing.

A few years ago I took a school trip to St. Paul’s and then persuaded everyone to go to the Tate because here was a magnificent exhibit by Anish Kapoor called Marsyas. It was an enormous red trumpet-like sculpture which filled the Turbine  Hall. Incredibly powerful.  I thought the children ( all 38 of them) would respond positively. We arrived however to the most depressing scene. A fifty metre deflated balloon. Just lying there like an enormous pool of blood after some primeval battle. Impressive in its way, but not what I expected. This is it before its deflation.


I have to say that the children were very kind after I had got them all excited about what they were about to see. Less so their teachers who were not impressed with having to walk across the Millennium Bridge when they were already tired and annoyed by being on a school trip anyway.

But today was more successful. The new wing of the Tate was open, the views from the tenth floor were fabulous and the exhibition we went to see witty and expressive and not too big. Bhupen Khakhar, if you’re interested.

Babcia Halina (Helena)

My mother,Grażyna  Łomnicka, never spoke about the war or Siberia at all until one day her doctor persuaded her to tell him why she wouldn’t let her throat be examined. She had had problems for years with swallowing and absolutely refused to have anything done about it. One Sunday, however, she came to lunch as usual, and quietly announced: “I’ve told my doctor. Now I can tell you: when the soviets came in the middle of the night, April 1940, to take us away my mother had hysterics. She screamed and cried and said she wouldn’t go. The guards or soldiers or whoever they were tried to persuade her to pack and started finding boxes and cases for her. Still she did not stop. Finally, totally exasperated, the soldier grabbed me by the neck and told my mother  that he would strangle me if she didn’t stop her screaming.” This apparently brought my grandmother to her senses and she packed masses of embroidered nightdresses, amongst other things. These were to stand her in good stead in the village in Kazakhstan where she my mother(10)and aunt(3) were sent. She was able to sell them as wedding gowns to the village girls as they had never seen such silks before.

The other way my babcia survived was by cupping (stawianie  bańki ) children who were ill, until one day one child nearly didn’t survive. Babcia thought she would be lynched by the elders of the community lynched, but eventually the little patient pulled through. 

She also contributed to the family coffers  ( or at least to have enough to buy mahorca ) by reading tarot cards. This used to infuriate my mother because she still carried on when she eventually reached safety and London. She used to do it in secret on our flat in West Kensington.. They would pore over the card table smoking Woodbines and drinking lemon tea, pleasantly ignoring me till their session was over.  I’d be sent to another room and made to promise not to tell my mother that Babcia had had “friends” round in the afternoon.

I became quite an adept little keeper of secrets as a very small child! 

Reading List

Reading List

Suitable literature for young ladies 1964 – 1971

Form III                                Mrs Nurse:         39 Steps; The Tempest

Lower IV                              Miss Crowfoot: Great Expectations; Twelfth Night; Hornblower

Upper IV                              M M Francis:       The Rape of the Lock; Northanger Abbey

Lower V                                Miss Mclaughlin   A lot of poetry and visits to the theatre  What else?

Upper V             Miss Thickett:    As You Like It, Cider with Rosie, 8 Narrative Poems including Sohrab and Rustum

Lower VI /Upper VI          Mrs Cheung (Miss Howarth): Hamlet: Middlemarch: Emma; Wordsworth and Coleridge; Nightmare Abbey; Wife of Bath’s Tale, Paradise Lost, Book 6

I am not usually too partial to lists but last night when I couldn’t get to sleep I was trying to remember all the books I was made to read at school, and it is a miracle I still like reading after the literary diet they fed us from the age of 11.  My overwhelming memory is not of the books themselves but of how I struggled to understand what was going on.  They were always chosen, until the O level year, by Mother Mary Francis, who was a brilliant woman and very highly educated herself, but unfortunately very keen to extend our narrow little minds.  I remember enjoying Agatha Christie, Georgette Heyer and other novels of that ilk but the classics, at that time, totally left me cold.  She used to go through our bags every week (the boarders) and confiscate everything she thought was unsuitable – until one end of term she handed back the pile of books she had requisitioned, with the words: “Does Mummy have any more of these as I have really enjoyed them?” It turned out that she was allowed to read at night time (very unusually for the nuns) and devoured all the Georgette Heyers and Anya Setons with the best of us.  Once her little secret was out, I was allowed to read what I liked too!

Meanwhile I used to complain to her and she  would just chuckle away and say the classics were good for me. She even wrote it on a report, much to my horror.  The absolute killer was the “Rape of the Lock” – which she herself taught us, explaining all the little jokes in a most painstaking way – and we still never got them! I can see her now, twinkling away behind her John Lennon specs, with pure relish at the cleverness of the poetry, the puns, the reversals, the alliteration and the assonance, convinced that the sheer elegance of the words would rub off on us somehow.

So – she found The Rape of the Lock hilarious – whereas we would just be longing for Mother Mary Austen’s RE lesson, where she would open her anonymous question box and try and answer our teasing questions.  Or she would ask us some of her own as she hadn’t been outside the convent walls since before the first world war.  This was 1966, and I remember her asking us if they still put straw down on the road to dampen the outside of the carriages when they knew a funeral cortege was going to go past.

Back to the list.  The names are of my English teachers and the books those on the official reading lists.  Who have I missed out? What have I missed out? I am annoyed I can’t remember more precisely.  So any St Augustine’s girls reading this, who can remember, please let me know. ho can remember any of these books?

***

Mother Mary Francis (Florence Kay) had entered the convent just before the Second World War, I believe, as an already mature woman who had a job and a flat and was totally independent.  She had met the woman who was to become Reverend Mother May Gabriel (Constance Chapman) and when Constance converted to Catholicism, and became a Canoness of the Lateran, so did Florence and entered the same order a few years later.

I remember her telling us that as a child she had several brothers and that she was cleverer than all of them but because she was a girl her parents did not want her to go to university.  They let her take the entrance exam though when she was fifteen.  She thought it would be a huge joke to answer all the questions in rhyming couplets and iambic pentameters, and was only a bit surprised when she got a place at Birmingham university.  She had to wait until she was seventeen, however, until they let her in.  She read Latin and English, I think, but her general knowledge is what made her stand out so completely from the rest of the nuns and teaching fraternity.  She was headmistress for a long time and could teach everything.  There was never any need for a supply teacher in those days. She officially taught me English, Maths, Latin and History at various times in my school career and could always take over any French or Spanish lesson. She wouldn’t, however, let German be taught because of the war – even though she could speak it and over twenty years had passed.

The most poignant story she told was about a day during  the war.  The nuns and the school had been evacuated somewhere safe, and they hadn’t yet got to grips with the catering arrangements. She was doling out mashed potato to the long queue of girls when she realised that only about half  had been fed and there was no more food in the pot. So she prayed. Nothing happened. She scraped the spoon along  the side  of the pot. Enough for one more plate. The pot was empty. She scraped again. A  spoonful.  And so to the end of the line.  She told us this in answer to the question, “Do you believe in miracles?”

Humble and self-effacing in many ways, she was also very assertive. She was the only nun in the school who understood the lyrics to the musical Hair.  The dance and drama teacher, Miss Royle, was playing the song “Sodomy” at full blast in the hall while teaching the girls a dance, when MMF happened to be passing by.  The only person in the school probably at that time  (1968) who actually knew what the words meant.  She wasted no time.  Miss Royle was never to darken the doors of St Augustine’s again.  There was no dance nor drama on the menu again either, at least not while I was there.  We were devastated as we adored her. I was to meet her by chance in Barcelona in 1975, but that is another story.

 

Bognor Regis

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