Friday, October 31, 2014


Me with my [adoptive] mum, 1950

"Your birth sister is looking for you."

This was the little girl who had been three years old when I was adopted, so long ago. Now she was a woman of 67 and, the lady from Norfolk County Council's adoption department was telling me on the phone, she had known nothing about me until 1999. In that year, the lady told me gently, my birth mother had died and among her things, my half-sister Jill had found a heartbreaking letter.

My birth mother, whose name was Violet, explained in the letter that in 1950 she had had a baby girl and had given her up for adoption. She had never, she said, been able to talk about it to anyone but she had regretted the decision and thought about me every day of her life. She had also hoped that when I grew up I would try to find her. 

Why didn't I? It would be dishonest to say that I didn't think about it. Of course I did, many times, both as a young adult and as a much older one. But when you are deeply loved, as I was by my adoptive parents, you don't feel a desperate need to dig up the past; then there are the feelings of your adoptive parents to consider and mine had given me everything. How could I have hurt them like that? And finally, if you do decide to find a birth parent, you don't know what their reaction will be. The birth parent may well have their own, newer family to consider or the past may just be too painful. Then there comes a time when "later" in your life is too late and you accept that there are things that you will never know. However, I can honestly say that if, at any time, my birth mother had tried to contact me, I would not have rejected her. 

Now, in her last letter, this amazing woman who was my birth mother was expressing a wish that Jill would find me so that she would at last have a sister and Jill decided that that was exactly what she would do  She's a determined woman, my sister, because without even my adoptive surname to go on, she embarked upon a search that lasted 15 years.

During that first phone call I also understood that my sister is a kind and generous person, for the Norfolk lady told me that Jill thought I had the right to see my birth mother's letter and to know that she had loved me. I had never really doubted this, but to know it for sure was a different matter, something that made me feel "whole" in a way that I hadn't before.

And then.... bombshell number two! I learned that Jill and I also have a half-brother, who was adopted in 1960 and taken to America. So, for those of you who were wondering about the significance of the American flag on the cake at the party for Jill and her husband during their visit to Sicily two weeks ago, that is the reason, or part of it, as it was also for my natural father, who was American.

The next step, said the Norfolk lady, would be for her to tell Jill she had found me and for Jill to write to me. The first few contacts would be through the Norfolk department, just to make sure that everything was all right and also so that the department could offer us both some support, if we needed it, during what was sure to be a very emotional process.

The phone conversation ended at about 1 pm Italian time and that afternoon, I had an appointment that I had to keep. As I walked to it, fighting back the tears in the Sicilian sunshine, I kept repeating,

"My birth mother loved me. My birth mother loved me."

And both my mums were called Violet. 

To be continued.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014


A little shameless self-promotion, if I may:

In linguistics, a "false friend" is a word, in the language you are learning, which looks or sounds like a word in your own language, but the meaning is different. Students registering for courses at London Town Modica, Centro Linguistico Internazionale will receive Pat's Little Book of False Friends for Italian Learners of English.

Sai cos'è un "falso amico" in linguistica? È una parola di una lingua straniera che assomiglia a una parola della tua lingua, ma il significato è tutto diverso. Chi s'iscrive da London Town, Modica, Centro Linguistico Internazionale avrà il nuovo libretto di Pat!

Cross-posted at Pat's English Pages.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Monday, October 27, 2014


As I write, back in Wales the Dylathon is in progress in Swansea, the home city of our great Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas. There are, of course, other celebrations of the centenary of his birth taking place in many countries but tonight I'd particularly like to be in Wales.

Never mind - my thoughts are with Dylan and the magic of his words is something that I can carry with me daily. But I'm also thinking of his wife Caitlin, who, though long-suffering, was, by all accounts, a larger than life character herself, for this interesting lady had a connection with Sicily:

In Daphne Phelps's book A House in Sicily, the story of how she fell in love with and maintained the beautiful Casa Cuseni in Taormina, there is a short chapter entitled Mrs Dylan Thomas.  By this time, Daphne Phelps was taking bed and breakfast guests and she was not a little disconcerted when her friend Wyn, a companion to the widowed Caitlin, announced the latter's intention to descend upon Casa Cuseni, which she deemed a suitable setting in which to write her autobiography.  

Daphne made excuses in writing twice and didn't answer the third letter from Wyn but one night, the two women turned up, Caitlin carrying a large bottle of wine. Daphne told her, truthfully, that she was going away the next day but managed to put them up in a small pensione

When Daphne got back, she found a letter from a worried Wyn, explaining that Caitlin had fallen for a Sicilian man from whom Wyn had tried to separate her, believing the match would not be a happy one. Caitlin, however, had missed him, had written to him and had now gone away with him.

The Sicilian was film director Giuseppe Fazio, who became Caitlin's partner and with whom she had a son, Francesco. Daphne Phelps says that, according to Wyn, Fazio "beat" Caitlin but I can find no corroboration of this. Caitlin spent the rest of her life with him, apparently staying sober during her last twenty years and she died in Catania in 1994.

Caitlin, then, was attracted first to a fiery Welshman and then to a presumably fiery Sicilian. Some say there is Latin blood in the Welsh and I wouldn't be a bit surprised. I think it would have been fun to have known Caitlin and to have talked to her about Sicily.

Post scriptum:  I like to think I have brought a little of Dylan to Sicily myself, having, for the past three years, read from A Child's Christmas in Wales at our multilingual carol service. It goes without saying that no one reads it like Dylan!

Saturday, October 25, 2014


Take it away, Suor Cristina from Comiso!

Suor Cristina - Like a Virgin

This is the launch track from her album Sister Cristina
to be released worldwide on November 11th.

Thursday, October 23, 2014


It was the hour, in Sicily, when all is quiet, the streets are deserted and people are sleeping off lunch so if, like me, you love your computer, you know that you can abandon yourself to it as no one will bother you until late afternoon. It was the end of May, the summer heat was beginning to make itself felt and I was glad of this peaceful oasis in the day. 

Then I happened to glance at my facebook page for this blog and saw the message that would change my life. The writer, whom I didn't know, said she worked for Norfolk County Council in the UK and asked me to contact her. Norfolk? I'd never been there - well, I had been born there, but I have no memory of the area, having been adopted at nine months and taken by my Welsh adoptive parents, whom I adored as my own, to Bristol. The thought went through my mind: "This is something to do with the adoption." But how could it be, after 64 years?  

This story, you see, begins in cold, postwar Britain, a country very different from the vibrant UK of today, and in a society where unmarried mothers met with disapproval at the least and, in the worst of cases, downright cruelty. My birth mother, who already had a three-year-old daughter by another father, had no money to bring up a second child. There was pressure to give me up for adoption from all sides and there was no state help. What else could she have done? She had wanted me to have a chance....

I forced my mind back to the present, wrote the Norfolk lady an email and waited. And waited some more. After a few days, the delay having been caused by annual leave, I received a reply:  

"I work for the county adoption service and have been contacted by a possible birth relative."  

We agreed to speak on the phone.

Who had made the contact? I realised that it was unlikely to have been my birth mother, for I knew, from the adoption documents, that she had been 29 in 1950. There was only one other person that I thought it could be, but I was afraid to hope. Perhaps it was a more distant relative.

It was another week before the very kind lady from the adoption department and I actually spoke as we kept missing each other but finally we managed it:

"It's your birth sister who is looking for you."

To be continued.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014


Once again, I am just back from a supermarket and once again, my pazienza has been sorely tried: This time it was a supermarket that I don't usually go to, but as they have certain offers on this week and a friend had offered me a lift, tonight I went there.

I hadn't intended to buy a doormat but I do need one, so when  I saw a very cheap and jolly specimen I picked it up, only to be told, at the cash desk, that it couldn't be sold until tomorrow. I asked why, in that case, it was on display and the response was a shrug. I asked for the manager, who only repeated that the item could not be sold tonight,"because it won't pass through the system" so I asked if it could be put aside for me until tomorrow. The answer, again, was "No". I found this unhelpful to say the least and I'm also British enough to expect to hear the words "I'm sorry" but what flabbergasted me was that my Italian friend thought it was all perfectly acceptable.

The first time I came to Italy, in 1969, one of the reasons I thought it was a wonderful country was that service standards were so high compared to those of the UK at that time. It remains a wonderful country in many ways and you can still find excellent service in some sectors, particularly in bars and restaurants, pasticcerie, small shops and when dealing with most craftsmen. But in the intervening years, the rest of the world has moved on where Italy has not and service standards in some supermarkets leave a lot to be desired. [I'm not even going to start on post offices this evening!]  This is sad in a country that was once so proud of its tradition of good service and in these economic times Italy cannot afford to be uncompetitive.

I have now decided that I am not going to be a doormat even if I can't get one and have just taken the supermarket chain in question to task on twitter.  Needless to say, no reply has yet been receieved.

Monday, October 20, 2014


I once taught in a school that was forced, for political reasons, to close and I have never forgotten what a painful experience it was for staff and pupils alike. Although that was a large, British comprehensive school, a far cry from a tiny school on a very small Italian island, it gave me some idea how the one teacher and, at that time, three pupils at Italy's smallest school must have felt when it was threatened with closure in June.

Therefore I was happy to read that the school, on Alicudi in the Aeolian Islands, has been saved, despite the fact that this year it has only two pupils, in their first and third years of primary school respectively. As you might imagine, there is still only one teacher but perhaps what the pupils lack in the presence of peers is made up for by the idyllic setting in which lessons take place in good weather conditions - on a terrace with a spectacular view.

The school owes its survival largely to the efforts and determination of Mirella Fanti, the headteacher of the Istituto Scolastico Lipari 1, which coordinates schools in the area. Signora Fanti said the school had been saved because other institutions on the islands had supported it and the families involved had decided not to move from Alicudi, which now has only about 100 inhabitants. Without the school, says signora Fanti, Alicudi would be even more isolated than it already is, as the school involves itself in community activities when there are no lessons.

The story of the school has inspired the documentary film L'Ultimo Giorno / The Last Day [Zalab /Museo del Cinema di Stromboli]. Director Alberto Bougleux says that the film is dedicated not only to Alicudi but to all teachers who fight for the right of their pupils to have a modern, creative and democratic school.

Three cheers for Alicudi!

Saturday, October 18, 2014


This philosophical track from Luciano Ligabue has been the most played song on Italian radio this week and it suits my mood.  ["We are who we are."] I like the reference to Dante at the beginning of the second verse and the conclusion, which is that we are who we are but if only time would go by a little more slowly!

Luciano Ligabue - Siamo chi siamo

Friday, October 17, 2014


My sister had found me after 64 years, she and her husband had flown to Sicily to be with me and now it was up to Sicily [and me] to pull the culinary stops out!

Last Friday morning we had coffee and extras with international friends. There were some very British sandwiches and some very Sicilian almonds

and lots of other treats as well:

Later we succumbed to gelato at the Marina

and later still I decided it was time for Sicilian fast food in the form of focacce, arancini and a pasticcio [pie]:

On Monday we enjoyed a special feast with friends

and had a very jolly time:

On Tuesday I arranged a festa so that all my friends and students could meet Jill and Paul and if I'm having a festa there have to be Welshcakes

and a tipsy cake , along with my chocolate thingies. And why not some chocolate and lime truffles too?

 I left the rest of the catering in the capable hands of Bar Cicara and they did us proud:

The Pasticceria Delizie D'Autore  made the wonderful cake, to my design. It bears the flags of the four countries the occasion united - England, Wales, Italy and the USA [I'll explain the US connections in another post] - plus a windmill to represent Jill's home county of Norfolk, UK and Modica's famous clock tower.

And we finally got to cut it!

There's no better place than Sicily for a welcome and some fine feasting!

Thursday, October 16, 2014


I'm going to tell you the story of my reunion with my birth sister, Jill, little by little in several posts but first I want to share with you some of the things we did together over the past seven days.

We spent time at the Marina di Modica

and, as you see, I've got me a lovely brother-in-law as well!

We went for an evening walk in Ragusa Ibla with friends,

sat in the park

and ate ice cream in a crepe!

I must say, as we walked through the narrow, softly-lit streets, I felt completely surrounded by love and I hadn't felt like that for a long time.

On Sunday we took a guided tour around Catania. There is always something new to learn from a good guide and the city looked particularly elegant in the October sunshine:

Later, it was on to Militello in Val di Catania for the Sagra della Mostarda e del Fico d'India or Mostarda [made with prickly pears] and Prickly Pear Festival, where the highlight of the afternoon was the parade of Sicilian carts:

This last horse danced to the traditional music and was definitely the star of the show!

When I visited Militello for the same festival four years ago, I never imagined I'd be back there with my sister!

Then suddenly it was Wednesday, Jill and Paul's last full day in Sicily. We decided to spend most of it in Siracusa, for how could I let them go without taking them first to the magnificent Greek amphitheatre there?

The Roman Amphitheatre, Siracusa:


The Greek Amphitheatre, Siracusa:

The Ear of Dionysus, Siracusa:

We had fun calling to each other in the echoing cave where the tyrant Dionysus reportedly imprisoned dissidents and eavesdropped on them. 

Jill and Paul are safely home now and they have promised to come back to Sicily soon. I hope so because I'm already missing my wonderful, newfound sister!

Saturday, October 11, 2014


This was one of the first Italian songs I ever learnt and nothing could better describe my feelings this week.  Tonight I dedicate this song to my sister, Jill:

Gino Paoli - Prima di vederti

Long before I saw you
I'd already known you
in another world,
an ageless world,
so far away 
and so long ago,
Who knows where?
Who knows when
you lived with me?

Long before I met you
I was waiting for you.
My old life, that I had then
is ageless now.
So far away
and so long ago
Who knows where?
Who knows when
I knew you before?

So far away
and so long ago
Who knows where?
Who knows when
I knew you before?

[My translation]


Speaking as a linguist, I can tell you that no one ever knows every word in their own language and speaking as an only child I can tell you that there are two words in mine that I knew but never thought I'd be able to say. They are, quite simply, "my sister"

But all that changed for me at 3pm Italian time yesterday when, after 64 years, I was reunited, here in Sicily, with my birth sister, Jill.  Here we are at that very emotional meeting:

Some of you will know that I was adopted at the age of nine months, and that story is here. Now my sister and I are living through another story and I hope I'll be able to tell you about it during the coming weeks.

Regular readers may have noticed that my posting has been a bit irregular lately and, if you have a blog that I normally visit, that I haven't made my visiting rounds as usual. Now you know why! The blogging will be back to normal soon but meanwhile I'm enjoying getting to know my sister and showing her Sicily. Please be happy for my sister and me!

Friday, October 10, 2014


I often criticise Sicily when things go wrong so it is only fair to congratulate the island's administrators publicly when they come up with an excellent project.

By the end of the year, 310 defibrillators are to be installed in public places in Sicily and careful thought has been given to the eventual locations: Schools, universities, rural pharmacies, small prisons, public transport vehicles, archaeological sites, theatres and railway stations are among the locations selected and training courses in the use of the defibrillators have already begun. It seems that all the Sicilian provinces are included in the programme and the smaller Sicilian islands have not been forgotten.

The Ragusa Health Authority is responsible for developping a software programme to support the project.

Well done, Sicily!

Tuesday, October 07, 2014


La figlia del papaLa figlia del papa by Dario Fo
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I am not sure what I think about the current fashion for writing historical fiction in the present tense and using conversation to carry the action forward. In English Philippa Gregory and Hilary Mantel do it superbly, if, in the latter case, rather academically.

However, Italian is a language in which the "vivid present " [the use of the present tense to recount past events] is more common and, as we are in the hands of the dramatist Dario Fo, we must surely expect mostly dialogue.

On the whole I feel he succeeds, though I got lost in some of the early dialogue concerning political intrigues, as I have in other books about the scheming Borgias.

Why did Fo choose to write about Lucrezia? Because, I would guess, there can be no doubt that she is one of the most maligned women in history and because her story of course lends itself to high drama. Fo portrays her as the political pawn that any woman in her position and time would have been but also as intelligent, politically astute, kind and even gentle. In an interview about the book, the Nobel laureate dramatist said that Lucrezia reminded him in some ways of his late wife, Franca Rame, because Franca, too, had taken up unpopular causes, helped the unfortunate and felt the need to intervene for the sake of social justice.

We cannot know to what extent Lucrezia was complicit in the outrageous plotting of her devious father, Pope Alexander VI and notorious brother, Cesare, but that she tried to save at least one of her three husbands from death at their hands is documented. As Duchess of Ferrara she was popular with locals and, at the end of her life, espoused charitable causes and set up a convent. We know that she had an affair with the poet Pietro Bembo and this is touchingly recounted in the book. It is commonly held that she also had an affair with Francesco II Gonzaga, Marquess of Mantova, but Fo - uniquely, according to him - refutes this, citing the fact that Lucrezia would have known that Francesco had syphilis and would not have risked it.

The book is beautifully illustrated but I find it strange that none of the images - some of which are famous and some of which are, I presume, by Fo himself - are accredited.

As far as I am aware, the book is currently being translated into several other languages so, if you are interested in Lucrezia and get a chance to read it, I suggest that you do so. You may conclude, as I did, that she was a product of her time and class, neither wholly bad nor as good as Fo would have her but, like most of us, somewhere in between.

View all my reviews

This review is also posted on Goodreads.

Saturday, October 04, 2014


It's those two Italian Americans with the musical chemistry again!

Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga - I Can't Give You Anything But Love

Friday, October 03, 2014


As the world now knows, one year ago today 368 migrants perished off the island of Lampedusa when their overcrowded boat capsized, Today has been a day of remembrance on the island and I thought the best way I could again draw attention to the tragedy would be to re-post what I wrote on that horrific night:

7.14 p.m.

Just as I was thinking that I would be able to bring you a little light relief this evening, I happened to glance at the "Corriere della Sera" site and saw the news of a further tragedy at sea which is unfolding as I write.

The BBC and all main foreign media sites are carrying this one and you will be able to follow events as they happen and see the images on many of these and, of course, on television. I am not a journalist so cannot add to the MSM coverage but I will summarise for you what I know.  If further news of the tragedy breaks later and is not carried by MSM outside Italy, I will try to bring it to you. You will understand that this is an ongoing situation and there are some conflicting reports as to the exact sequence of events and as to numbers involved in the tragedy:

Early this morning fishing boat crews raised the alarm when they saw a migrant boat in difficulty off Lampedusa. The 20-metre boat is reported to have been carrying at least 500 Eritrean, Somali and Ghanaian migrants, among them around 100 women and an unknown number of children. A survivor has told reporters that conditions were so cramped on board that the passengers were unable to move.

The boat was near the southern tip of Lampedusa, off the Isola dei Conigli - which has a beach voted the second best in Italy in a web poll this summer - when the engine failed and the vessel began to take on water. Having no cellphones to call for help, some of the passengers lit a small fire to draw attention to their plight. However, fuel was leaking into the water on board and the fire became an inferno. Panicking, a large number of passengers scrambled to one end of the boat, causing it to capsize and then they began to jump into the sea.

Many could not swim and so far 93 bodies have been recovered. Only three of the women passengers are said to have survived and a three-year-old child is confirmed dead. As I write there is no news of the other children. The last Italian report I consulted said that 159 migrants have been rescued but Italian Coast Guard and police fear that there could be 40 more bodies under the boat and up to 100 inside the wreck. 

Survivors say that the boat left a Libyan port two days ago and that, prior to the lighting of the fire, three fishing boats had spotted the vessel in difficulty but had done nothing to help. This is unconfirmed.

One people-trafficker has been arrested.

Mayor of Lampedusa Giusi Nicolini has described a scene of "continuous horror" as bodies are being laid out on the quayside there.

Prime Minister Letta has spoken of a "terrible tragedy" and Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister Angelino Alfano has already arrived in Sicily.  He has said that he hopes that the EU recognises that this is an event which involves every EU country. A few minutes ago, Mr Alfano said that he had seen the 93 bodies, a horrifying sight which he had never imagined he would see. He reiterated that Europe must act to prevent this kind of tragedy. "These women and children did not die to come on holiday", the shocked Minister said. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, has praised the Italian Coast Guard for their swift action in rescuing so many. President Napolitano has said that Europe and the countries of departure of migrant boats must work together to stop the people traffickers and prevent disasters such as this one. Pope Francis has expressed his "shame" at what has happened and has called upon all nations to unite their strengths in order to ensure that such a tragedy does not happen again.
Latest Italian media reports say that the death toll could rise to over 300.

I cannot close without mentioning my disgust at the Italian political party which has used the situation in order to try to score political points this afternoon and I know that the majority of Italians will join me in this. 

Update at 20.40:  Tomorrow will be a national day of mourning in Italy.
Update at 22.09:  127 bodies have now been recovered, among them those of children. Sky TG24 Italia has interviewed one of the fishermen who first raised the alarm. Visibly moved, he spoke of the horrific scene and how he and his colleague managed to take 47 of the migrants onto their own boat.

It was heartening to read this morning that around 40 survivors of the tragedy returned to the island, after being received by Pope Francis, to thank their rescuers and to remember their fellow-passengers who did not survive.  They came to Italy from several European countries where they have since found refuge. 
The day has not been without its tensions on Lampedusa and this is understandable. However, tonight, on this blog, I just want to remember. Although, in the past year, there has been slightly more international coverage of the migration situation in the Mediterranean, I feel that there has been scant mention of the amazing rescue work that has been carried out by the Italian Navy, Coast Guard and other Mare Nostrum operatives, so let us remember these brave men and women too.
According to figures released by UNHCR today, over 3,000 migrants have died in the Mediterranean in the past year and Italy has received 140,000 migrant arrivals since the beginning of 2014, at the rate of 516 per day.
In November Mare Nostrum will be replaced by an EU operation known as Frontex Plus and no one really knows if this will make a difference. Everyone here hopes so. 
The Comitato 3 ottobre, formed to make the 3rd October a day of remembrance for all migrants, says,

"Proteggere le persone, non i confini - Protect people, not borders."

Wednesday, October 01, 2014


In George Mikes's Italy for Beginners, a book I read when I was about 16, the author says, in a chapter on manners,

"Half tones will not even take you half way; understatements are taken at even less than their face value. If you are deeply worried about something, it is no good remarking softly, 'I'm a little peturbed.'  If, on the contrary, you run about the room berserk, beat the walls with your fists, froth at the mouth, turn purple and scream for half an hour then people may gather that you are slightly irritated, though not annoyed. Unless, of course, you are simply tired."

I was reminded of this whilst watching last Friday's Bake Off Italia, during which this lady got a little upset when her éclairs didn't turn out the way she wanted. I think I can guess what the estimable Mary Berry would have made of it, but haven't we all felt like this when our cooking has gone wrong?  [You only need to watch the first minute or so of the clip - the rest is a repeat of it.]

By the way, I'm rooting for the modest baking builder in tonight's Great British Bake Off, though all the contestants are so good that it's a shame that any of them have to lose!


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