Thursday, 25 June 2015

The Night of a Thousand Hashtags, I mean, Lanterns

A magical night, so the flyers went... A June sunset filled with a thousand lanterns glimmering in the sky reflecting in the dark waters of the canal. Prayers for peace for all who gather as silence falls over this corner of Milan. The first time the Milanese will have witnessed such a spectacle.

Eventi Milano

Except it wasn't exactly like that.

Vantage point
For those who arrived early there was a good hour or so of waiting whilst perched on Daddy's shoulders, bins, parked motorbikes...
But more people were arriving, and yet more people were arriving. It took me two attempts to get on a train and then 15 minutes to exit the metro station such was the crush.

The inexorable flow of people from the metro and tram stops.

 I really hope that meter isn't running.
The crowds were swelling and swelling and the traffic was getting caught out in the surrounding streets. Any car that tried to pass was trapped. In fact anybody who was trying to go on foot got trapped. It seemed the organisers had failed to let the public authorities know that over 40,000 people had already said yes on Facebook.

Amazingly nobody fell in
 I tried to stand on tip toe but I couldn't see anything. So then I thought maybe if I could get my camera high enough I would at least be able to see the canal. I couldn't.

I think this man was all of us.
 It turned out I wasn't the only one in Milan who had bothered to show up.

Then the police came
 Then the police came and got as hopelessly trapped as the rest of us. The flashing of the lights and wailing of the sirens proved futile. They started getting out the car and shouting, but that proved futile too.

At last a lantern!

When the lanterns came there were two of them. 
I decided it was time to slowly weave my way back home.

And that was that. Tens of thousands of people gathered to watch precisely nothing. A hilarious fail on epic proportions.

Unconfirmed sources put the crowd at 150,000

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Things I've learnt about photography in 2015

Right now I could talk the hind leg off a donkey when it comes to photography. I'm having a very creative moment due to the coinciding of my photography course and a spot of unemployment.
I'm going to keep it brief-ish though as this is probably not the place to go into detail but it really feels like the technical aspects are all coming together* and allowing me to go on to the next step in expressing myself.

Scrap what I wrote a few years back, I am no longer one of them. It's just so much easier to use the camera on manual as soon as you want to take photos in situations that aren't all outside and in bright daylight. Hey, it only took 4 years of practice.

A Momento Milanese in white, red and black.

Here are the 7 things I've learnt recently.

1. Take the photos you would like to take. I've wanted to take more portraits for a long time now but haven't had the guts to even ask anyone other than close family. Finally I have taken the next step and done some couple's shoots for friends and it was a lot of fun and my photos came out nicely.

Can't take this on automatic.

2. Share only the photos you like the best. Making choices is the hardest but most necessary part of photography.

THIS one is the BEST

3. Get other people's opinions because often they will see things that you missed. Instagram/Flikr can be fairly useful in this respect because you will at least know which pictures made the most impact even if few people will stop to tell you why they liked something.

4. Criticisms or bad comments are useful because either you will decide you agree with them and learn from them, or you will decide that you disagree and you are one step closer to finding out what you want and like in a photo.

Ripping up the rule book on shooting (the backs of) hands.

5. It is better to use your head before pressing the shutter because trawling through 30 slightly different photos of the same thing to find the 'right' one is massively time consuming.

6. Get a comfortable neck strap and a large SD card. Not doing so is a false economy. Charge your battery after using the camera, not before.

Storm over Milan: If hadn't had my camera...

7. Everything you want to know is on youtube.

No, really.

*Except panning. I'm really crap at that.

Monday, 1 June 2015

La Certosa di Pavia

On Sunday morning A and I were up at the crack of dawn (it was a very wide crack) and set off for Pavia. Now a lot of people were enjoying their long weekends in exotic places like London or Liguria but A and I found ourselves with somewhat more limited options because 1) he hasn't got a long weekend and 2) it was forecast to rain in the mountains.

We had to head South. The only problem with heading South was that coastwards all the hotels were blocked and Tuscanywards is a big drive for just a day trip. So we set on Pavia and the Certosa which we had visited some years ago and which my abiding memory of was coming face to face with a massive albino nutria rat.

It was time to give the Certosa a second chance.

La Certosa di Pavia.
 Alas, with one thing and another, (the TomTom took us through the centre of Milan and we caught red light after red light) we had the misfortune to arrive just after the first tour busses had arrived and it was getting crowded. The first two photos were taken in a lucky lull.

Figure for scale.
 Inside the church they were ensuring nobody took any photos and letting only 40 people in at a time to see the abbey.

 The beautiful summer morning turned into the classic Milanese humid grey white-out.

 And we didn't have much change for the parking meter. So our visit was very brief.

Rice Fields
All the same I feel like it wasn't a total failure. The best part was driving back through all the rice fields with all the wild rice escaping along the verges.

We'll go again another off peak season in a few more years probably!

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Eurovision 2015 is HERE!

It's generally best to watch Eurovision with a little preparation beforehand. Otherwise the 3 hours can be a bit too much if you don't know what to look out for. I've trawled through all the entries this year so you don't have to.

The main thing to know is that AUSTRALIA are competing!

But other than that:

The Good (by good I mean, good for Eurovision)

Sweden (I mean obviously). They are currently the favourites to win, probably because it's the best song.

Norway (obviously) but I don't think it's stronger than the Swedish entry. Just the first of the many male/female duets.

Slovenia - sounds like something you might actually hear on the radio and slightly Bond.

Estonia: another bookie's favourite along with Australia. 

Lativia - it's a bit wierd. I'm not sure what's it's doing on Eurovision.

The Bad
The UK: It's catchy, but is it good? No.

San Marino: unnecessarily frantic.

The Ugly
Italy -a never ending crescendo with idiotic lyrics. I dislike this song so much I have yet to sit through the entirety of it. It is also the second favourite to win. Dear Lord, can this be true?

Spain (excessive use of drumming, wind machines and eagles)

The Dull
Russia - A rather classic eurovision entry about peace and harmony but will the political events have any kind of effect on votes from their neighbours this year? I should think they won't be getting 12 points from Ukraine this year since they annexed the Russia voting half at least... but this is Eurovision so you never know!

See also: everyone one else, who pretty much all seem to have chosen female singers with ballads including Germany who are trying to repeat their win with Lena and Satellite with a very similar artist with a very familiar singing style. Nice try Germany.

Thursday, 7 May 2015


 One quite unusually very cold Spring Weekend we drove down to Umbria.... and explored the beautiful cream loveliness of Assisi against the steely skies.

Assisi - Umbria, UNESCO site

La Basilica di Santa Chiara - St. Clare's Resting Place

Pilgrims arrive at the Basilica di San Francesco where St Francis is buried.

Pink Marble and Brick

Over the sleeping vineyards and olive groves.

Monday, 20 April 2015

St Francis' Mountain Retreat: Photo Essay in Black and White

We spent Easter Weekend in Assisi, Umbria. Due to the poor weather - it was so cold it actually snowed in Gubbio on Easter Monday - we set off on our first day for the slopes of Mount Subasio to see St Francis' mountain retreat, while the weather forecasts were still hopeful.

The light was doubly filtered by the overcast sky and trees and therefore very soft and flat. The forest and mountain were still in their winter colourless state and there was a chill wind. The overwhelming feeling was one of sleepy tranquillity.

Through the Trees
Eremo Delle Carceri
In Contemplation
Tree Roots

The Monastery

Immersed in Nature

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Japan comes to a small corner of Milan

The sunken garden in Parco Portello

so soft

In the shade

Have a very Happy Easter Weekend!

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

My New Love Affair

I haven't been posting many photos recently on this blog and there are two big reasons for that. The first is that I have been unwell (although my bloodtests came back clear this week - Hooray!!) and the second is that I have fallen in love with Instagram and I have been obsessing over it (find me at laura.brandon if you are on it).

A few years ago I wrote this post where I vowed never to use it or it's instagrammy filter effects BUT I have almost completely changed my mind since I got a smart phone. I love being able to share my photos so easily with so many people and there are so many inspiring photographers out there to follow. I don't use the instagram filters though unless I'm using them subtly. If it's not at 100% opacity it doesn't count, right?!

However it doesn't render the blog completely redundant for photos. For instance I couldn't post this photo of a rainy scene in the castello di Rivoli because of the tiny square format.

Classic Italian Parenting style - always 1 step behind and on the phone!

Friday, 20 March 2015

Top 10 Ways to Embarrass Yourself in Italian

Well ladies and gents, I've just survived my first week back at work  and I am pretty tired so I'm going to amuse myself by publishing something unpublishable on my Facebook page. By the end of this you'll be wondering how on Earth one language can have so many unexpected pit falls but there is still time for you to learn from mine and other's mistakes. Do I as I say. Don't do as I do OK?! I would ask my mum to avert her delicate eyes if she is reading but I think she'll secretly want to know anyway. Here is my compilation of the most embarrassing slips a foreigner can make in Italian. If I missed any then add them in the comments.


Looking all innocent like...

1. Let's start with one of the most well known ones because it was my baptism into the world of many language slip ups in Italian. Fico would be the Italian for fig or figtree while fica or figa would be a very rude way to say vagina. Fika is also the swedish for snack. So when attending an Italian party I and my collegaue announced it was "Fika time" we were confused when we were met with stunned silence and then extreme mirth.

Confusingly You can say 'che figo!' or 'che figata!' (although not in high society - they didn't like that much when I used it) and it merely means means "Cool!" Still on slightly treacherous territory here, if a man says a woman is 'una figa' he is saying she is hot, which is slightly counter-intuitive to native English speakers.

2. The next word I ran into difficulty was the word for bird - uccello. It has a double meaning identical to that of cock, but I didn't know that and so was mystified when the class erupted into uncontrollable hysterical laughter when their teacher pointed to the suspended model pigeon in the middle of the classroom and asked "What's with all the flying birds?" I was very worried for sometime that I would unwittingly walk into a similar trap...

3. ...which leads me on to the pisolino (nap) and pisellino (little willy - but literally little pea). I am very careful about the way I talk about peas in class, but it doesn't take much in the way of sloppy pronunciation to transform a nap into something entirely different.

4. You see it's that double L in the middle that makes a big difference to the Italian ear. Another word that can get you into similar trouble is the word penne (the pasta or pens) and pene (penis). Think about what could happen if you don't linger long enough on that N next time you order penne arrabbiata in a restaurant.

5. Likewise you must be careful whenever you give someone your age or write 'year'. At work we recently had to reprint a whole set of letters to parents because someone had missd a letter out of anno (ano is anus). Spellcheck is no help here.

6. The next mistake I make so often I just get gently reminded now by friends and family with a sort of small head shake and look to say 'that it doesn't mean what you think it means.' As much as I would like to use the word excited in Italian 'eccitato/a' is not the way to go about it because only the horny should describe themselves as such.

7. This is a fun one. Scoraggiare (discourage) vs Scoreggiare (to fart). I can harldy pronounce either and leave well alone.

8. Have fun asking your partner if he or she wants to sweep up (scopare) and then get them a broom (scopa) because to sweep doubles up as the equivalent of to f*ck .  Honestly I don't use the word very often because I have a hoover so mixing it up with scappare (to run away) is probably the greater peril for most of us.

9. And now to lower the tone even further.... My non Italian speaking friend got sat next to Italian man during a dinner party and thought she would amuse him by telling him all the rude Italian words she knew and she knew quite a few. The icing on the cake was when she pulled out 'spagnola' which is a Spanish woman or a slang term for a tit wank (I'm sorry I honestly had a good mental rummage for a more delicate term but it is what it is). With a stunned expression he inhaled deeply and said "WOW. You really know a lot of rude words.'

I don't know how many Spanish women are in your company for potential accidents to occur but Nota Bene ladies - Italian men do not like hearing women swear or use bad language. It is a total double standard but that it is how they are.

(Whilst writing this I wanted to check that I had remembered rightly so with some trepidation I put the word spagnola into google. Fortunately for me it only came up with a yound lady asking for tips for the less busty haha.)

 10. At number ten I give you with the nightmare that it pecorino (my favourite cheese) and pecorina (doggy style) and you can substitute your own embarrassing story.

I suppose if you were a sheep farmer you would have to be careful when talking about little ewes in general.

Of course I've made plenty of mistakes when using swear words I KNEW were bad words but had underestimated the badness of. When in doubt don't tell your husband where to go after several glasses of wine in front of your mother-in-law, even as a joke, and don't ask for explanations of swear words you heard randomly while your spouse is driving the car. Swerves, "Where on Earth did you hear THAT?!" .

It can also work the other way. One poor boy was on the recieving end of THE LOOK for talking about cazzotti because I didn't know it was just the innocent word for punch, much to the confusion of the students who sweetly decided he had deserved it anyway.

Probably celebrating because his wife hasn't sworn if front of his mother today.

I would also like to thank those of you who sent me get well messages. All the love is really helping me get through what has been a very difficult time.


Edit! How could I have forgotten the mix up that is tetto/tetti (roof/rooves) and tette (boobs!)

Also preservativo is another false friend to watch out for as it means condom and not preservative! To talk about preservatives without embarassment you need the word conservanti.

Who knew Italian was so dangerous?

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Hospital Food

2015 hasn't started well for me although I'm pleased to report the family, friends and students are now recovering or have turned out not to be as ill as at first thought. I caught the flu and had to have a week off work. Then I got a nasty cold and terrible back aches and spent the next week in and out of A&E after work. It only took 3-4 hours to be in and out each time but it was quite draining. It culminated in me being admitted to hospital on Tuesday after yet another trip to the emergency room. I've now started treatment which hopefully will prove effective and they've let me back home. What a relief!

I couldn't have taken another minestrina and mash meal!

So bland. So very very bland.

A is doing is best to bring my appetite back with homecooked food and treats and so far it's working although the thought or smell of mash brings on nausea still.

To be fair, it's probably the drug's fault as it has been playing with my stomach. The mash was probably pretty edible. For the patients not on a restricted diet, there was a first and second course and fresh salad and fruit.

I might have been a little petrified when they told me I had to stay in, in case I needed an emergency operation that night, and it might have showed on my face because the A&E doctor came to find me three times during my stay to check up on me and the nurse spent a few minutes rubbing my arm until I managed to pull myself together.  But all the doctors and nurses were very nice and professional and clearly knew their stuff. 

I spent the first night and day on the maternity ward as they didn't have enough beds, which was... interesting. It's quite hard to rest with a woman going into labour next you! Then they moved me onto the proper ward and it got a little better. Nobody was asking me when I was going to give birth anymore! There was still no TV or anything in our 2 bed room (thank god I got a phone with internet for Christmas! - I was able to amuse myself on instagram) but breakfast, lunch and dinner were served communally which meant I got to have a little chat with my fellow patients and met another young woman with the same problem as me which was helpful psycologically.

Today I'm feeling a little better (I'm writing this!) and I'm really hoping I don't have to go back. Keep your fingers crossed for me.

I hope this is reassuring to any other expats who were worried about Italian hospitals. I imagine that there could be quite a few regional differences around Italy, but the ward I stayed on here was extremely similar to the ward I stayed on in England. It might not have had a personal entertainment centre above the bed but it made up for it by giving a lot more privacy and quiet.

Monday, 9 February 2015

10 reasons you need to marry an Italian man and 7 reasons you don't

Right. Before we begin I'd like to state for the record that you might not actually need an Italian husband. I am obviously HEAVILY BIASED. Switch on your sense of humour, please! Also if you find my reasons convincing, I would strongly urge you to continue reading just to be safe....

The top 10 perks of having an Italian husband.

They scrub up pretty nicely.

1. If you marry an Italian you will be tied to Italy forever, whether you live abroad or in Italy. If you love Italy,  Italian food, Italian culture and Italian style then that is probably a very good thing.

2. You're Italian will be amazing... Well alright, pretty decent. Much better than it will be if you don't.

3. If you have kids they could be biligual which sounds fun, although I'm not sure that actually works out as a benefit, or even it's a very good reason for marrying an Italian, since pretty much anyone who speaks another language would do. However this seems to be the number one reason everyone will think you should have kids.

4. You think Italian men are very good looking. Let's face it, it doesn't hurt to marry someone who's pleasing to your eye.

5. Italian husbands are frequently terrible mammoni who never grow up but just as often incurable romantics. In my experience they (I haven't had plural husbands - I'm just thinking about the ones I know) are largely capable of remembering anniversaries, noticing hair cuts and showering you with gifts and compliments unaided. No, really.

6. He will most likely have a strong appreciation for food. If you follow my advice from day one you can make this work for you. The first time you invite him over pull all sorts of random ingredients together, like popcorn with pickle and some peas. He will be amused by your hopeless foreign ways and insist on taking you out to dinner often or cooking himself for your education (and if he marries you after this, he marries you with open eyes as to your unsuitability of being a mummy replacement!).

If you love cooking then even better, you have just married someone who will unceasingly appreciate your favourite past time.

7. If you want honest opinions about your appearance you will get them. It is quite useful having a human mirror who can confirm if your mix of patterns is stylish or just OTT. Plus he married you, didn't he? He's whole-heartedly convinced you are bellissima and he's going to expect you take compliments with the poise of Monica Bellucci.

8. If your in-laws approve, like mine, his family will be very generous. You can expect to eat many delicious meals and tasty presents and they will happily let you stay in their holiday homes, pass on old clothes, etc... In return you can provide them with an endless source of entertainment by doing crazy things like reading a book on the beach, not understanding jokes, drinking tea all the time, or dressing really 'English'. You've always wanted to be funny. Embrace it.

9. Your in-laws will have all sorts of advice for you, because poverina you can't help not being Italian, but also because they genuinely want to help. Set some boundaries, if such a thing is possible, but you can use this to your advantage if you are living in Italy. Your husband will likely not know how to do many things, like change doctors or where to go to buy random things like dice and whistles. MIL will be only too happy to help.

When they have advice for you that you don't intend to follow, just nod and then later do what you want. They will be powerless in the face of polite affirmatives.

10. Last but not at all least, Italian men, despite their reputation, are not very macho. They are not ashamed of holding your handbag while you try on shoes, taking you out for ice cream, PDA or generally appearing a devoted family man or husband. You won't have any trouble in persuading them to spend time with you on the weekends.

One woman I know went on a first date with an Italian man and freaked out because he took her window shopping for shirts.

And here are some provvisos...

Rice stings a lot more than confetti.

1. Do you like Italy? Do you really like Italy? Some people think they like Italy and then live here and decide actually they don't like Italy at all. Even if you aren't living in Italy you'll find you have to spend your holidays here anyway. I hope you didn't have too many other places you wanted to see.

2. You remember the bit about the mammone? Yeah, well, it's a stereotype but it has it's basis on truth. Spending his adolescence living with only his father, A has had to learn to shift for himself, so I got lucky but the phenomenon exists. If your boyfriend seems to need his mother's permission for things don't imagine this will stop if you get married. If you can persuade a mammone to marry you that is.

3. If you want kids they might be cute and bilingual, but you will have to raise them in one country or the other and one of the parents will find the other's educational/health care system sadly lacking. A for example, found navigating the NHS extremely frustrating while I currently rage at the obsession with rote learning and testing in Italian schools FROM THE AGE OF 6!

Did you want to raise your kids Catholic? Take them out around town til past midnight? Dress them like they are going on an arctic expedition when it's less than 25°c? The sources of potential conflict will be many and varied and utterly unpredictable. What do you mean our child is not allowed to drink cold water?! (All taken from real life).

4. Have you ever been woken up to someone telling you you have got a massive spot on your chin? No? This is the downside of the 'only trying to help' honesty you can expect. If you can't muster the dignity of Sofia Loren on these occasions it will be a source of many an argument.

5. If you did as I said earlier then there is no food related down side. Unless you don't really like eating and talking about eating. If you don't like eating then you will find all social arrangements, and your husband's expectation that weekends revolve around mealtimes, stressful. Maybe better not move to Italy.

6. The wedding. Unless you really wanted an enormous, formal and expensive wedding with a Catholic ceremony and a 14 course lunch you will not have fun planning an Italian wedding. Plan the kind of wedding you actually want and it could be a political minefield.

7. Now we come to the in-laws. They're at number seven because it's a lucky number. You could be really lucky like me or really really unlucky (or somewhere in between). If you are really unlucky and they don't take to your foreigness, it could topple your mariage. DO NOT UNDERESTIMATE THE POWER OF THE IN-LAWS. Of the horror stories I have heard and witnessed the divorcee has always celebrated getting rid of the in-laws more than the husband. Italians spend a lot of time with family and if you live in the same small town you could be seeing them MORE THAN ONCE A WEEK.

Don't try and be less foreign. It'll never be enough. The real test here is your potential husband. If he sticks up for you you're good to go. If he leaves you to cope on your own, he is not a keeper and you must not marry him unless you live several time zones away from his family.

Also, how good are you at taking criticism? Italians have a standard of house proud I've found in few other places. They might find it concerning that you don't iron your underwear or trim the dead leaves off your plants or use table mats or stock the right medecines or ....

Once I got a bottle of vagina cleaning soap as a present. I didn't really know what to make of that. I've since decided that it was just considered a small useful gift.

In a cross-cultural marriage the relationships with in-laws are always going to that little bit more interesting.

Whatever you decide do don't do what this muppet does and marry a Tony from Milano.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Misty Misty Mantua

Sunday was promising. We got up early. We had a quick breakfast and jumped in the car. The sun was shining.

Then we hit the autostrada and around Bergamo it started to get foggy, then a bit foggier and then some more. But it was too late. We had already booked our restaurant in Mantova and the tortelli di zucca (pumpkin ravioli) were calling to us.

True Padana Driving - 50km/h max!

It was slow going but before we knew it we were already at the car park. No sign of the city's outskirts in this fog. We crossed the lakes on foot having hoped to see Mantua's famous skyline, but obviously it was a white-out so we admired it via google images on A's phone!

First Glimpse of Mantova

Piazza Ducale
We had a second breakfast in what appeared to be Piazza Ducale.Then we wondered around. It was very cold. Very very cold. The town is very very pretty though. It's like a mini Florence - everything renaissance! The co-cathedral was really something (sadly, photos not allowed).

The garden in Palazzo Ducale

Shopping in Mantua

After an hour and a half we were thoroughly chilled so we headed to our trattoria. Eating pumpkin ravioli in Mantua was one of the things on my list that I want to do by the time I'm 30 (If you were wondering - yes they are all rather achievable). They didn't disappoint. The wine was also very tasty. I love fizzy reds.

Very happy with my pasta
After having been all toasty inside outside felt even colder. So we went to Palazzo Te, built by one of the dukes of Mantova. Mantova/Mantua was once a regional capital hence the stunning architectural legacy) The rooms are pretty much all empty, but it took us over 90 mins to see it as it is rather impressively decorated. Imagine how an incredibly rich 15 year old boy who loves war, sex and giants might decorate his house and you're pretty much there. My favourite room was the horse room, obviously. A's was the lifesize giants room.

Palazzo Te (slightly NSFW!)
 When we came out the chill wind had been lifting the fog and we had to march very fast back to the other side of the lakes to take the photos I wanted before the sun went down. Luckily A is used to this and is very cooperative.

An Italian Scene

Skyline of Mantua

Across the lake.