Book review: Yeshiva Girl, by Rachel Mankowitz

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Before I tell you about this book, I need to backtrack a little.

A while back I bought a new Kindle which allowed me once again to read as much as I wanted to. I filled it with books I already had purchased, free ebooks and friends’ books, from crime and realistic fiction to sci-fi to dystopic novels to fantasy and magical realism.

I was reading the whole Asimov Foundation world again, from the Robots to the Foundation series, and was loving it but didn’t want to risk getting over-asimoved so I looked up other good stuff too. One of the ones that was sold to me by the world of literature as one of the greatest sci-fi/dystopic novels of all times was the Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. What a disappointment that was. To sum up how I felt about it perfectly, here’s a link to a review written by Kate. I hope she doesn’t mind if I borrow her summation of the book here, for those who don’t know it:

«Extremist Judeo-Christian beliefs have won America’s culture war. Now women have no rights. They are slaves to men and the biblical, patriarchal society in which they live. The Handmaid’s Tale is the first-person account of one of these enslaved women.»

The Handmaid’s Tale feels wrong on so many levels, though how could you (how could I) disagree with what she is trying to convey? The injustice of a patriarchal, overly moralistic (and therefore almost certainly hypocritical) society, made more anguishing by the fact that no men in the Handmaid’s tale are redeemable, no men help right the situation, and no men care. The nightmare world she depicts feels contrived and unrealistic.

Soon after I saw that the blogger I have followed for many years, on and off according to my time, and whom I knew for delighting me with her beautiful writing, had published a book and for a low enough price on kindle that I could actually afford it.

My expectations were exceeded.

The book is called The Yeshiva Girl and I borrow from the description of the book on Goodreads:

YESHIVA GIRL is IZZY’s story. She is a fifteen year old Long Island girl who has never fit in at her liberal Jewish day school, but when her father drags her to the Orthodox Yeshiva across the Island, she’s conflicted. She doesn’t trust her father or his newly religious behaviors, but the principal of the yeshiva is not as rigid as she expects him to be, and the new synagogue the family attends has its benefits too. The problem is, all of this is a scrim to hide her father’s escalating problems at work. He has been accused once again of inappropriate sexual conduct with one of his young female students. And Izzy believes that the accusations are true, and just the beginning of the real story of who her father is.

Can you see the connections with the Handmaid’s Tale? Remove the fiction of it being set in the future, and the themes are all there.

Well, if that book is hailed as one of the greatest sci-fi novels, this should be hailed as a great novel too. The themes and the ambition of social message the Handmaid’s Tale were aiming for, are perfectly fulfilled here.

Yet here, on top, the writing is clean, effective, beautifully interspersed with humour and, to borrow from another reviewer, filled with tension and menace at every turn. So much so that as a reader you keep relaxing, sympathetic (not pitying!) to the novel’s heroine and wanting to immerse yourself in her life, and then that menace creeps up and you fear for her, feel for her, feel threatened yourself. The tension builds up slowly throughout the book but never annoyingly, quite the contrary: you are happy to read about her crushes, her friends, her interactions with the teachers, her parents and grandparents.

Her relationships are real. Monsters are not monsters, they are people you love, and have fun with, and admire, then hate, want to murder, feel rage against. THAT is real. Good pals let you down, people you love are imperfect, YOU are imperfect. All throughout, even those like me who know very very little about Jewish culture, but may know a lot about abuse, neglect, dirty thoughts, fun, happiness, all merged into one moment in time, are intrigued and it’s very easily and pleasantly laid out for you: it never feels alien or exotic, it is immediately familiar (like the characters, so instantly well portrayed and defined).

The fact that this story’s context is an orthodox Jewish community is merely incidental, and enriching for those who know little about it: her friends, her family, her teachers could be my friends, my family, my teachers.

Throughout I have highlighted bits of writing where the author reaches peaks of poetry and/or fine humour. I gobbled up this book in a ridiculous amount of time, and really hope Izzy ends up doing well and having a great life, because she is a hero and we love her and I would love to read more about her. I will certainly want to read whatever else Rachel Mankowitz decides to gift us with.

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The House of Blue – the beginning

I am currently revising my first book, the House of Blue. One can never stop, can one? (ugh, that sounds horrid). It is necessary, because of how this book came about.

I will begin posting excerpts here again so I can look at them and polish them better. Feel free to read and if you want to purchase the kindle version of my book, which updates as I update it, you can do so on Amazon.

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Chanctonbury Ring
The South Downs
England – by Toby Deveson

In the meantime, here is the beginning.

 

The House of Blue

a short novel

by

Valentina Sarno

To the memory of us, to being «one of us»

Moments

The moments of my life I treasure like no other are the moments spent intensely, sometimes with family and friends.

The moment I swam in the ferociously strong currents of the river near my house in Italy, at dawn. We’d all come off an acid trip, and in hindsight, how irresponsible and scary… but it was hot, the colours were pastel blue and pink and purple, the river water so fresh and dawn just exploding and we were happy.

The moment I met your father him, following him up and down the steps of a concert arena, and knowing as I watched his firm bum and muscular back through his thin t-shirt as he walked that I would, and could, follow him my whole life. I, who had been everything but a follower till then.

The moment I danced around happily with my boys in that attic room of windows and sunshine, because the man I had a fantastic crush on was coming over to see me as a couple for the first time. To see us.

There were moments.

The moment I I felt and saw my friends’ heroin death.

The moment I saw the flower-filled towns and hills of Alsace.

The moment my friend Linda and I… many moments of Linda and I.

The moment I saw your faces, you, my angels, the most incredibly beautiful bit that ever, ever came from me.

There were just so many moments. Perhaps one day I will tell you about them all.

The moments were many, and in-between it was so hard, so hard for someone like me. All I wanted was rest.

The House of Blue was where I found my rest. I was with the few who loved me, and some who didn’t, but it didn’t matter anymore.

I just wanted the quiet, the calm, the beauty all around me, in my House of Blue.

Bit 1

Nila and Hercules are walking idly in front of the house, embraced by the setting sun. She loves that time of day when light becomes golden, setting off the remaining blonde in her white hair, and most creatures settle down to rest. She sits on the rock near the drop to the valley, and looks out through her tired spectacled eyes at the landscape stretching beyond her for miles, and then further, the sea. “It is a good place”, you hear her say aloud, as she places her hand on Hercules’ back and caresses him gently.

She looks all around her and then lingers on her house behind her. On the left it looks like a normal house, with normal windows and doors. On the right, there is a large enclosed area, and many windows.

Above the flat roof, a huge dome of crystal panes.

Behind it, the forest, climbing up the steep mountain. Beyond the drop, at the end of the little plateau the house stands on, there are mountains, and the river slides towards them through a large valley.

Sheep, Scottish “coos”, goats, and a donkey. Hercules the dog and a couple of cats, and then Pretty, her daughter Francesca’s “Posh Dog”, a Parisian poodle who just refuses to die. Her fur that used to be pink has turned to a sorry looking grey with a reddish tinge.

The sun sinks below the gap between the mountains. Nila sighs – is she thinking about you? Is she remembering you how you were?

You used to be friends, you and Nila. You were the one who would never be stopped from visiting, and you always visited at the “wrong time”. The right time, she later found out, because you were there to look out for her, to protect her from him. You were her guardian angel, and once, while she was tripping, and you were the only lucid, sane and peaceful voice that could get through to her (it was a bad trip, Nila remembered with a grimace), she laughed with joy at the realisation of who you were: you were an angel! Of course! Oh how she laughed. She felt drenched and inundated in the joyful realisation. You were her angel, her protector and you had always been? Maybe, but mainly, you were there for her, you would guide her if needed be out of the insanity that was her death, the death she was sure she was going through at that very moment, and she would come out all right, after bawling her heart out and screaming and endless cream of despair

Nila frowns, remembering other terrifying moments of that acid-induced mind of hers. But you remember, that when she spoke to you, yes she sounded insane, but you wouldn’t let her see that, you had no judgement for her, you, the judge, you passed no judgement for her, only concern, only love, calm.

Nila smiles again, throws off her cigarette after one last long inhalation, and seems about to get up and go back inside.

She doesn’t know you were standing behind her all along, leaning against the side of the house, looking at her from the back. You are back to your old self, you can’t see yourself but you can feel it, you are long, and lean, with your long black hair and the eyes Nila always swore were green… but you told her they were blue.

Who knows – you think – I may have green eyes for her now, if she would only see me…You wish intensely for her to see you, you want to talk to her, give her a hug.

Nila turns around sharply, looking straight at you. No, she can’t see you. But she looks up and down, left and right, all round where you are standing. Would she see me with green eyes? You know she would run to you and hug you if she could see you. Nila was like that, always so emotional. You liked her hugs though, do you remember? You just forgot.

Nila looks straight ahead again. The sun has gone now, the twilight lingers, bright and cold. Nila has lit another cigarette and is weeping ever so gently. She really will miss you, even though you had left her many years before. You know what she’s thinking: she won’t ever be able to see you again. All those years secretly waiting for you to return to her, to her embrace, to her love, they were for nothing. Because now, she sighs and weeps a little more shakily, now you are really really gone.

Hercules nuzzles her. He might be feeling a little chilly, he is an old dog after all. Plus he never did like to see her sad.

You look at the handsome large dog. You smile at him and uncross your arms and try to call him to you. He turns around and looks straight at you, vaguely wags his tail, then returns his attention to his friend. He’s there for her, not for you. And you never did do anything to reach out to him while you were there.

ok Herc, ok”, Nila says.

She pats him on the head and fondles his face and ears and gives him a kiss, throws away her last cigarette, sighs again,

Damn it Travis, damn you. Why did you leave without saying goodbye?”

You know she doesn’t mean it, the damning part. She is just upset.

She turns around and goes back inside.

You follow Nila and let her go off to do her thing, while you explore the house. After all, you never really got the chance to do it before.

A room to your left, door shut, its handle a translucent blue. Further, a corner and turning right. This part of the corridor is suddenly very dark. Only one very small window on the whole wall, and around the window a mural. A small lamp on each end, lighting the way, just barely. A little creepy to walk through. It looks cold, shivery. At the end and turning right again, another long corridor, more doors to the right. Each door handle is different. Ornate brass ones, a deep red bauble, a very simple and elegant silver one.

Looking outside the windows, the twilight is making it difficult to see. You think you see a shadow running into the woods. A lone, mournful howl chills you to the bone, you feel like it sucks you towards it, it calls you.

Let it go, let it run through you.

It was the saddest sound you ever heard.

For a moment you feel a bit lost and lonely, and wonder whether it would be best to go back to your room and go the other way, but the spell is broken by Dean’s warm voice further along the corridor. He is making some sort of joke about Claudio’s cooking.

You like Dean. He really is a cheerful sort of young man, handsome as hell, everyone likes him. You used to be like that once, remember?

Everyone is in love with Travis” was what they all said. You knew they thought that about you. You never really paid any mind to whether or not you really were as crush-worthy as they implied. Nila had been the only one to enquire further, and find out you quietly suffered through a deep, old, unrequited love. You were not gay, as many thought and most women hoped, because why else would you ignore them so? You didn’t mind the many crushes many men had on you either.

You come upon a balcony looking down onto a huge open space. Cosy, warm, wooden. Though somehow the fires are not as bright as you feel they ought to be, and the spirit in the place is just not right. There is a slight gloom, a stillness, a silence.

Well, someone did just die.

You go down the stairs and arrive at the big table. About a Half a dozen people there, even Linda, your wife. You don’t see Jane, on of your daughters, who’d been peeping into your bedroom earlier. You wonder if she was the one you saw running into the woods.

Nila begins to talk as Dean, one of the grown kids who lives in the house and Claudio, Nila’s husband, bring some food to the table, to all of them and to no-one in particular. You think she is talking to Linda, your wife.

Well, tonight’s the night we say goodbye. There are no words. This was all too much to happen and feels so unfair, and we are all ready to continue to help you overcome this. But please, do say goodbye to him. Let us not keep anybody here who does not belong.”

You really are not sure who she’s talking about. Then they all start eating, and that is that. They didn’t see you there. You feel damp, and you feel a little shivery.

Later, you follow the silent stream of people outside. It is very foggy and eerie and you can almost feel the wet cold creeping under the woollen jumpers they are wearing.

Dean and his father and mother, Peter and Deirdre, and Tony, Nila’s friend, are carrying a wooden frame with carrying handles and a body is lying on top. You can’t see who it is, as the body is covered with a twilight blue funeral shroud. Everybody is solemn and serious, nobody is crying. Jane your 13-year-old daughter is not there. Where is Jill, her twin? You can’t remember. You have a feeling something is not right with Jill, but you can’t remember what. They walk towards and into the woods, and as they do so you feel sure there are shadows running ahead and on the side of them, on the right and then on the left. They are more than one. Is it a dog? A person? Many beings? They are whitish, greyish. You can’t tell what they are, but something is definitely moving within these woods.

You follow the procession.

They climb a little, winding through tall trees, berry bushes around them and all through the forest as far as you can see, which is not very far, because the fog is so thick. You just know they carry on for miles.

They arrive at a clearing. There is a large rectangular hole already dug just under a tree. The bearers place the frame down carefully. They wait silently, perhaps in case anybody wants to say anything. Nobody does. Everyone stares at the frame and the shrouded body. Linda your wife, your love, she is beautiful, she and her long dark hair, falling softly on her long blue deep velvet dress, almost ethereal, barely there. Her eyes are wide and wild, trembling, she gazes ahead at the body under the shroud, she keeps composed, graceful as always, still. Then, as though upon a secret signal, they all hoist up the frame with the ropes and then slowly lower it down into the hole. It looks very heavy and they struggle, but they manage not to dump it in.

They all pause for a moment then, without a word, Nila leaves the scene and heads back down to the house. Two of them fill in the hole, the others follow back to the house too. Linda lingers a little longer, she seems to shake something off her hair, she looks up to the sky and turns away, catches up with Nila, and takes her by the hand.

You stay behind, in the woods and watch them all go.

This was your funeral, and you are not supposed to return with them.

The dogs of my life – Part 2

I am very aware that reading about other people’s dogs is not half as interesting as having one, or reading about your own.

But as part of my books consists of talking about my life, my life wouldn’t be complete without the dogs I’ve had. However, there has always sometimes been conflict around them.

The first dog in Italy, so after I was say 13-14 was a lovely white Spinone someone had given me. My mum did try to keep him for a while, but of course, as with most kids, I was in and out of the house so very, very much, that in the end it was her taking care of him, and she simply didn’t want to have a dog. So she sent him back.

Then around maybe 16, some unknown person gave me a German Shepherd puppy I called Tequila and put a red bandanna on him I had on me as I wore them myself (it was after the fashion-devastation of the Philippines, when I would wear lots of Americana and my favourite item was a pair of black cowboy boots… in humid and very hot Philippines). I hung around the park with pals for a bit and with the puppy, then took him home with me on the train, then my mum turned me away at the door. I got back on the train and took him back to Milan to the person who’d given him to me.

When I moved to the Philippines, with my dad, we were staying in a massive villa of some colleague of his who owned a white fluffy dog, a pretty white Pomeranian who, despite our best efforts got infested with fleas and ticks. I felt very bad about it and was glad I didn’t have to face the owners on the way back.

There was no dog, for a long time after that. After all, I was in and out of the house, the region, the country even for so long and so many times that it made perfect sense that my mother wouldn’t allow me to have dogs.

In my late teens I would sometimes across the dog of a friend, one whom I’d come to share a house in Tuscany with: her mother, out of spite because this friend had wanted a puppy and then was never there to look after it, kept this ball of white fluff chained on the front lawn, and never took him anywhere nor did she pet him, as she was a cat person, she said. This turned out to be a very evil woman, but at the time, she posed as a lovely person, though her cruelty to this poor dog should have given her away. Secretly, I thought my best friend was also cruel for allowing her mother to treat her dog so.

Time passed, I went to London to study, came back pregnant, went to Spain, returned from Spain, and finally moved to Tuscany, this time without my partner/first husband, but with two boys and the above friend, my best friend.

We lived in an incredible area, very wild, with wide open grounds almost wholly ours to frolic in, and so, for this reason, as well as for discouraging the father of the kids from coming upon us unannounced again, I wanted a dog.

Like my mother, my friend threatened me that if I did get a dog, I would be the only one to look after it. I promised. I went to the dog pound, and they convinced me to get a puppy who was a Husky mix. She at the time told me this as a good thing: knowing more about dogs now, recommending anything containing any Husky to someone who is a single mother of two very tiny children was really NOT a good idea. I guess they didn’t know that much about dogs either.

We called her Lula, and she was ever so pretty. But she was unruly from day one. They had said she was an 8 month old puppy, and I later learned that at 8 months a puppy has already got a pretty ingrained character: if it is an unruly, wildish dog, she is not likely to change, no matter what efforts you put in it.

She was nothing like Churro. Churro was constantly next to me, she found any excuse to run. She pulled like a demon and hated being held back.

Things between my friend and I quickly soured, not because of Lula but Lula was a factor, and I moved from that incredible place in the Tuscan wilderness to Florence, where I had found a job. I shared the flat’s rent with a friend (more on that in my book) and I had an aupair helping me pick up the boys from school and walk the dog. However, for various reasons all of this fell apart, and I was left coming home after picking up my boys to a kitchen filled with dog poo and pee. It was not a happy experience, certainly not for the boys either. Eventually, because I could no longer afford that crazy expensive flat, I found a new house with enormous difficulty (nobody in Italy is keen to rent to a single mother of two small children… and a dog) half an hour outside of Florence.

At home in Carmignano, Tuscany, with our half-husk.jpg
Beautiful unruly Lula and the boys

The place seemed perfect: forget the condition of the flat, just outside there was a little fenced-in garden, and outside that a big park you could walk and play in, and all around our little town there were glorious hills and nature. It was a perfect place for a dog, and we happily took her for walks, although that soon became an issue: Lula was completely restless, wild, pulling on the lead hurting me and the boys. Wish we had known about Haltis at the time.

Eventually the time came that everything was way too much for me. I began looking for a flat near my sister’s house in Northern Italy but on top of all the other difficulties, the final no came as soon as the heard I had a dog. This was even though we were looking for an unfurnished house.

The rental market in Italy was tough: it is not usual to rent. Somehow, people always seem to have some money stashed somewhere, either from their parents or what have you, and with that they would put a deposit down and buy a house. Everyone owned a house, back then. If you rented, you were looked down on, especially in northern Italy.

Back in Tuscany, as all this happened, I had gotten to know a Norwegian lady that lived across playground area and up another bit of hill. She had an enormous house, and a huge green area in which she also cultivated fruit and vegetables. She also had 8 or 9 children. She lived on the charity of the Church. I, ever the outsider, had no such privilege. She had met Lula a couple of times, and I had told her about how the months were passing and I was increasingly desperate to find a home, also because the current owner of the house I lived in had grown tired of my delays in paying the rent and thus wanted me out. Bless her forever and always, when she heard my major hurdle was Lula, she offered to take her. Waves of relief washed over me, and I cannot hide I was also relieved because Lula was a dog who was very difficult to love, when you had your safety and your children’s to worry about. All this lady’s children were older, and they had plenty of grounds in which to attempt to contain her, so I just let the relief wash over me and soon after that, a new place was found and I moved away from Tuscany.

The dogs in my life – Part 1

For many, too many people in my life, the importance dogs had in mine is of no interest. My lust for life (and boys) is far more interesting.

However, dogs and other animals have played as significant a role in my life as any man… or woman.

They are the closest part of me, interacting with them is where I am most truthful, to myself as well as, obviously, to them. Interactions weren’t always great! But then again, neither were they with people, so.

In these next couple/few posts I will speak about the animals in my life. This is all conducive to being placed inside my second book (new working title: windruffle), because as it is a book of my life, it definitely cannot be without my dogs and other animals.

The earliest animal interaction I remember was with a horse, or even various horses. The most dramatic one, the memory that would remain forever, was of course the time  while we lived in New Zealand and the horse I was riding on, alone, with my dad holding a rope that was tied to him, decided to gallop at full speed down a hill, on a track on the edge of the hill, on the edge of a cliff, to chase after the other horses that were thrilled to go back home. I mentioned this experience in another post, but I don’t think I brought home just how I felt. And I was tiny, but I do remember it well.

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The horse ran, I was terrified by the sheer speed and the bumping up and down, and the sense of complete inability to hold on, of complete tumbling wildly without anything to hold on. I thought rope but my tiny hands were completely inadequate to hold on to that rope. Eventually I just flew off, and I still remember the wind whooshing as I flew, in an arc, it seemed to me, first up, then down and then hitting the ground, hard, the earth was hard and not as soft as I remembered it being when I played within it. I was aware of the cliff, my eyes must have been open because I saw it going down a long way, and I saw the track I had fallen off a way up, and I have a memory of large spaces and mountains around me.

I also remember then everything turning, spinning, and I felt that was it. I remember feeling his is it, and not feeling a bit sad about it, it just was. Then all of a sudden my dad was there, and he picked me up, he dusted me off, and I was back on the horse, this time with him on it too, and we made our way down.

I never felt any resentment, any fear for the horse. It certainly wasn’t his fault I had fallen off, and to be honest, I don’t even remember being particularly traumatised, or scared about the experience. It just happened.

The next animals after that that I remember were mostly cats.

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We had them in New Zealand, we didn’t have them in Venezuela, where we had a couple of parakeets, though. (I’ve ran out of photos, they’re all still in albums at my sister’s house). And when my dad would take to Cumanà, to a beach villa there, I would spend many, hours playing with lizards.

Near Cumanà, there was another important animal encounter. We went at this wonderful beach, with lazy palm trees, a big ocean ahead of us and Technicolor underwater life and scenery. There were waves and on these waves a strange fish would constantly swim in and risk ending up dead on the beach. So I, somewhere between 7 and 10 years old, kept picking it up and throwing it back in. My dad passed by and looked at it and said it looked like a baby shark. So I grabbed it and decided to swim out to sea. I swam and swam and swam and then got confused because I couldn’t remember whether sharks needed to come up for air, like dolphins, or not, so I would make its head bob in and out of the water. When I thought I was far enough to release it I turned around to check and the beach I’d come from had become a thin line in the horizon.

I let it go and swam back. My dad was mad with worry and very shouty, saying what if its mother had come to find you!! But it didn’t, all had gone well. I felt like I had saved that pup.

We moved to Peru when I was ten. Our house in Arequipa was big and the garden went all around it, it had a lawn part on top right, then there was the driveway and then a slope down into a field, and in the back there was a vegetable garden which tumbled down, terraced. The vegetable garden was great for my earthworm  races, the field and hill perfect for two llamas, a white one and a brown one, but the white one was poorly when it arrived and died soon after (Biba), wheres the brown one thrived (Bibo). When Churro arrived soon after, he would hassle the llama, and Bibo would spit at him, rendering him quite green. Also, where Bibo pooped the grass shot high and lush and bright green, where Churro pooped the grass was burnt and dead. It was funny. I went for long walks with Churro,  down to the International Club at the bottom of our road, into town, around the block, or far into the fields around Arequipa. Nobody ever asked me where I’d been or where I was going or how long I’d be gone for, because it wasn’t Gladys our maid’s job to do so, and everybody else was usually out of the house. So we roamed free. Now that I’m adult of think of many things:

  • I was between 10 and 12 in a huge city, that might have been a little risky to let a kid go round by herself? But it never felt risky at all, I felt perfectly safe.

  • Now that I have dogs, and I don’t remember Churro being on a leash, I wonder: did I walk around all these places with Churro off the leash? Was he THAT good?

If we went into the fields, we always brought back heaps of alfalfa, Bibo’s favourite chomp.

ArequipaPlayground
My Playground, in Arequipa, seen from the Puente Mariano Melgar Valdivieso, courtesy of Google Maps: in the background, the Misti and the Chachani volcanoes.

In the International club, I often visited and was bitten by some semi-wild ponies that roamed freely in its terrain. Once again, I never developed any fear for them, I knew that I was bothering them and they were telling me to go away, that’s all.

I felt safe with Churro, I realise, though at the time not being safe wasn’t even a small thought in my mind. He wasn’t allowed in the house, so I went and stayed out with him as long as I could.

When we left for Italy, it was a surprise, sure. I had registered my mum was in Italy with my sister, because she sent boxes containing Nutella and pretty Italian dresses. I never really missed her though. Peru was so rich, my life there was perfect. I didn’t like the school so much, as there were other kids there, people, and these weren’t always easy to get on with. But back at home, alone save for Gladys if I needed her, or outside the house with my animals, I was just dandy. But it was when I understood that Churro wasn’t coming with us, that I started bawling. My father said he’d given him, along with Bibo, to a teacher of mine (which is presumably why I believed him), who, of course, had a large house with lots of countryside where they’d be happy and, of course, her husband was a butcher so he’d bring home huge bones for Churro to chomp on. 

But to this day, if I dwell on it long enough, I still feel crying. I could bear to be in this new place, with a mother I knew barely how to talk to, a brother and sister whom I barely knew, and without my father, who I was used to seeing coming and going. But not have Churro? I still remember all our walks, all our exploring, as if they were yesterday and I missed him and our Arequipa and cried for him and for Arequipa endlessly.

Those were my animals before Italy. The others were the ones I met on my walks: cows, birds, any little critter I could find was my friend, whether they liked me back or not.

Because of my animals, and my unquestioning connection to nature (which may be why Venezuela created less of a bond within me than Peru, despite having lived there longer) I feel, I KNOW, that my childhood was a happy one. A free one.

As an adult and a parent I would now look back in horror at the way us kids were neglected and left alone. But I can tell you: give your lonely child some nature, and an animal to relate to (nothing really beats a dog) and that may well be all they need.

Besotted

My new baby sleeps next to me, her long paws on my shoulder, under my chin. Her pointy ears just visible in the half light, her pretty colours starting to show.

Her breathing combines and mingles with my husband’s.

We got her too soon, she was only 2 months old.

But the doctor said “Keep her under a glass bell”, an Italian saying for: keep her safe, sheltered. So we did. I slept with her as she would have slept with her mummy, and she is happy, healthy and well adjusted.

A lot bigger now, at only 3 1/2 months, she is my baby. And I never want to be without her.

Perfect Valentine’s Days – Part 2

So, in yesterday’s post I told you about how I began my young adolescence in Italy, having lived the rest of my precedent life in very different continents and cultures.

Yet I was soon picking up on stuff: boys liked me. I was cute, and I was, for want of a better word, I guess, constantly horny. Horny in the sense that I absolutely loved boys’ attention, but even at such a young age, I already knew that it was ME, preying on THEM. I will leave further telling and speculation about this particular aspect of my puberty years for my book. I know many people would be shocked to hear a twelve/thirteen year-old can be sexually predatory. I certainly don’t want my daughter of the same age to know about it now nor would I want her to be! It only leads to trouble. But occasionally, being so full of life and laughter and so easy to get along with can have its advantages, and bring lovely surprises.

So, back when I lived in the «Farmhouses of the Adda», there was the other lot of house, on the other side of us, called «The Farms of the Adda».

There lived there a few boys, and they were friends with a boy who lived further down along the road who owned the massive gigantic villa on top of a hill. For us, mostly girls with only way-too-young boys available inside our own private residence, this was a fantastic new input. The boys were all from “good families”, respectable and all that, so my friends could relax in their parents’ approval of their frequenting them.

It was me that began this friendship with them, and it was through Michele.

Michele was a drop-dead gorgeous boy, who was 15 when I was 13, who would come over to our lot to play tennis with some of our people there. He played with my brother, with our friend Alessandro, also a very good tennis player, with older people, because he was that good. They called him «Il Negro» not as a derisive or insulting term (at the time the Lega Lombarda, who would bring out the worst in Italian people’s latent racism, wasn’t popular yet), but as a compliment: he tanned the moment he felt the sun, and he tanned deeply and darkly. He had beautiful doe eyes and long eyelashes, a perfect nose and lush lips, and he was as fit as they come. Boy was Michele beautiful.

I noticed him and he seemed nice and, as would happen many times in the future, I had no problems befriending this beautiful boy all the girls were too abashed to speak to. Somehow I was never sexually attracted to the truly beautiful, so it was always easy to make friends with them. As we became friends, we extended our friendship over the other guys at the “Fattorie”. My girl friends were very happy to make friends with this lot, as these weren’t the scruff rough provincial town boy types I insisted on meeting up with and introducing to them, these were polished Milanese boys in their home away from the city (as my girl friends were). Michele was never excessively polished, despite his rich family, which is why we became such friends, so quickly.

Many months passed, maybe a year or two. Girls met and regularly fell head over heels in love with the beautiful Michele, who was always kind but never seemed to want to take things further with anybody. And no, he was not gay, though he was the sort of boy gay people would want in a magazine.

One day, it was Valentine’s day, and I was waiting for my boyfriend at the time* to come and pick me up. I was sat outside the gate, as I often did, well in advance: I liked being out of the house as often and as early as I could, and I wrote in my diary, as always.

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Google Maps’ shot of The Farmhouses of the Adda, where I lived for many years, in Nov 2017

Michele arrived, seemingly casually, and when I asked whom he had come to see, he just shrugged and said «I don’t know». It was a strange response, and he was acting strange, nervous, not relaxed and laid back as he was known to be, at all times. We chatted for a while, and we laughed. I loved laughing with Michele, because his laughter was as rich and lush and beautiful as he was. I never fancied him, because he was too young for me: I was 15 by then, and he was only 17. But being an aesthete, I appreciated his objective beauty.

He said «let’s play a game, shall we?» and I said «OK, what?».

«Let’s play Dear Diary». This immediately appealed to me, because I used to sit in all sorts of places, usually on my moped, and write in my diary, all the time.

«Ha! OK then.» I knew the boys over there were mystified by what I got up to with my many and varied groups of friends. I thought maybe he just wanted to gossip a little.

«You start!», Michele said with his perfect white teeth smile.

«Ok. Well, Dear Diary, I am still recovering from a day spent with the girls obsessing over Michele and wondering who should find the courage to tell him they love him, and as I sit here waiting for ____*, my friend Michele, instead of going to make one of their days by talking to them, is standing here next to me playing strange games».

We laughed.

«I’m sorry, I just… they’re not my type.» He looked down tot he ground, he was abashed, he laughed a little, but this time it was a very quiet laugh. He looked… almost embarrassed.

«Well.. your turn!» said I.

«Ok.. Dear Diary, I am in love with a girl and have been for over a year. She is always lovely to me but I don’t think she sees me that way at all. She went out with a friend of mine for a long time, and I was their friend and it hurt. A lot. But I love her and I was terrified of losing our friendship. But the thing is, Dear Diary, I can’t keep it to myself anymore. I have to tell her. I need to tell her

My smile froze a little in confusion. Who was he talking about?

He looked up at me like a coy puppy and then he looked down again. Then he continued:

«So, Dear Diary, all I want is a kiss, because I’ve never had a kiss with her. And she’s my friend and I am afraid to ask but… And I know she has a boyfriend, but I’m worried this is becoming serious for her. And if I don’t tell her now, I may never get a chance again.»

I asked, in a neutral “diary-like” tone:

«What is her name?»

«Her name is Valentina»

I felt a bout of relief. I wasn’t the only Valentina in our group of friends, there was one who was older than me, the same age as Michele, and a dear friend of mine. ‘He HAS to be referring to her’, I thought with relief. So I laughed!

«Ah, dear Michele, well then, just tell her, just kiss her, if not, you’ll never know!»

So he did. He kissed me and he was so lovely but I felt so confused, it was a wonderful, lovely kiss that took my surprise because I’d have expected it would feel like a brother’s kiss, but no, it was just as beautiful as those lips would promise……

I felt flattered, flustered. Very confused. I said:

«Ah but so it wasn’t Valentina F.»

«No, it wasn’t Valentina F. It was you, dummy.» he replied, still holding me close.

«Ah.»

I moved away from him, still wondering what to say, still confused. Then _____* arrived, and I kissed Michele on the cheek and said «Thank you» and «I’ll see you later» and gave him a big hug, and he waved his hand at me a little shyly as I got into _____’s car (because of course, _____ was much older than Michele and owned a car) and we left.

Michele and I remained friends, a little confusedly, but very shortly after that I left for the Philippines with my father. I corresponded a little with Michele but my head was filled with a whole new world, and so he eventually faded out into the background… until I one year later I went back to Italy.

But that, is another story.

Perfect Valentine’s Days – Part 1

What happens to your life when you’ve grown up seeing perfection?

I had memories of Lake Titicaca in Peru,

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Lake Titicaca, the highest lake in the world.

of the stunning scenery of its eclectic geography. I had memories of walking along the city of Arequipa with my dog, alone, but always unafraid, and never had any cause to regret that daring. I lived  as good as alone, yes, in a big six-level-villa surrounded by a garden, but my maid Gladys prepared my meals and I would sit and watch a couple of telenovelas with her, and I had my animals: my llama, Bibo, my dog Churro, and various kittens that would come and go. I already said I played with earthworms, in Peru I had progressed to earthworm races.

I loved my freedom and I loved my own presence in this world. The occasional encounters with parents or siblings I remember little about, this was when my parents were beginning to split up for good and so I saw them even less than before, and that suited me just fine. There were once or twice long trips in the car with my dad, and we all just focused on the extravagant magnificence of the Peruvian landscape and fauna. Back at home, I was happy with the chats with Gerardo, our driver, looking out from where we sat in our garden out over the city of Arequipa.

But this is all part of the tale of my years in Peru, in its own chapter in the book I am writing.

From this I was swept up and taken, along with my brother, to the north of Italy, where we would now live in a small house with my mother and my sister. This is where the chaos in my life began.

I was 12 when I arrived in Italy, and what a hugely different place that was. It was massively crowded, both in the house and outside. There were people everywhere, and there was no escaping talking to all of them, it seemed.

I struggled to understand why my Peruvian jumpers were funny, and I struggled to understand almost everything that was supposedly funny, even when not about me. My father had picked out in advance some girls for me to become friends with, and though they were indeed nice and gentle, I didn’t understand them. Oh, I knew enough Italian to understand the words they spoke, but they made little sense to me. I tried, but I soon found myself preferring the company of boys, who were more boisterous, more interesting, more adventurous. Boys took their bikes and went exploring places, and that was far more my style. So I began tagging along with them.

I had always been precocious in my appreciation of boys, so by all means part of me wanted to be with them because I found them overall more interesting: they were cute, one of them in particular, and they did things that were more fun: girls, particularly these «good» girls my dad had picked out, never stood a chance, really.

I will write more about these boys and those first years in Italy in my book, but because yesterday was Valentine’s Day I wanted to tell you about a couple of perfect Valentine’s. 

You see, I come back to the perfection I mentioned above.

Valentine’s Day has now become absurd, according to me. It is everybody’s day. I’m not kidding when I tell you my father sent us girls (women and children) a «Happy Valentine’s kitten in a champagne glass» email. I had to respond with laughter and say hahah but why, it’s not like it’s women’s day!

Crazy stuff happens now with Valentine’s: people moaning about how it should be abolished because they are bitter or depressed as they don’t have a boyfriend or girlfriend, America trying to establish a «Galentine’s day» to celebrate best friends (just so more people buy on the day before too), friends say Happy Valentine’s to friends (why!) and so on and so forth.

But to me, as I was growing up, both in Peru and in Italy, Valentine’s Day was the day when hidden love was revealed, confessed, brought out into the open. Sometimes anonymously because they were too shy, or not quite ready, sometimes with open declarations. It should mean a lot to gay people coming out these days, since heterosexual kids these days just whatsapp their love to each other before it’s even formed!

The story behind this day was that it was named after a priest who would marry the couples who were secret lovers: this way, they could finally come out into the open. It’s a lovely story and why can’t we keep it?

Well, I have had a couple of perfect Valentine’s. But the two most perfect ones have got to be the one with Massimo and the one with Michele. How do I tell these stories without their long backgrounds?

I will try, but they’re both worth reading up about in whole in my book, I promise you.

Massimo was a boy, a couple of years older than me, from the group of houses next to ours. He was a cyclist, a serious one, sure to become professional one day, it was clear to everyone, especially his dad who trained him. He was a cute boy with large brown eyes and brown hair and light skin. We’d gotten together around the age of 13, but because his friends, who were jealous of the time he spent with me, had found out about my running around with the kids from my school and their older siblings, they began calling me names and insulting me in front of and to Massimo. Massimo always told me to just ignore them. But it wasn’t enough for me to ignore them, they were hurting my feelings deeply and I wanted him to do more about it. So I broke up with him. He accepted it, though he was sad, but he began cycling past my house where I would sit with my friends to watch the world (and cute boys) go by. Then he began doing funny things, such as cycling past and then immediately cycling past again, making faces and singing songs, until eventually he convinced me to get down from the rock my friends and I sat on and come outside the gate and talk to him.

By then I had started to go out with a bigger and older group of friends, a result of following a couple of older brothers of the boys from my school. These all had motorbikes, mostly Vespas. Massimo had seen me with them, they were cool, and older, and they smoked, and they had motorbikes: he knew he couldn’t compete, so he began to tell me he was thinking of buying a motorbike. He must have seen my eyes open wide. He would tell me all about it and eventually one day instead of cycling past, he drove past with his motorbike, and he’d gotten good with it, and he did wheelies with it, and he convinced me to go for a ride, and we did, and it was such fun. We were still split up, but we had become fast friends.

More than once, he’d fall off his bike. He would come and laugh with my friends and me about his scabs, the big scabs from his falls, we would have fun picking them off.

Then Valentine’s day arrived. There was a party at his group of houses, organised by his friends. He invited me and I was very worried because his friends continued to be very frosty towards me, adding to their scorn for the boys I hung around with their supposed anger at having broken Massimo’s heart. He told me not to worry, he’d walk in with me, and never leave me alone.

So we went, and there was music as there was in the eighties, you know, fast pop music for dancing, and then slow ballads for slow dancing.

I still remember that day as if it were yesterday: Massimo and his black jumper, thin enough that as I hugged him and he hugged me as we prepared to dance to a song he said he’d prepared just for me, I could feel the scabs from his latest accident all over his back and strong arms. I felt enveloped and protected and loved, and I was also hugely aware of the piercing stares from all his friends at the party: Massimo had many friends, some even came from the church, as you’ll read in the book. The song «Hard to Say I’m Sorry» by Chicago came on, and he hugged me tighter, and spoke in my ear gently that he should never had left me undefended, he should have stood up for me, he should have told them all to go to hell, and he should never have allowed an ill word about me to be spoken by them. He promised me that if I ever gave him another chance, he would be proud to hold me in front of everyone, and slam down anyone who dared speak badly of me. We would «come out», into the open, and even if I wanted us to remain friends, he would hold me and love me in front of everyone.

I cried into his jumper. I apologised and we laughed, it didn’t matter that I’d gotten his jumper wet. The party was over and we left together, and he didn’t let go of me one minute, and he stayed close and looked openly and defiantly at his friends, who had to look away and gossip amongst themselves. I felt like the Queen of the party, because Massimo was by all means the King.

This is hard for me to write.

To this day, I can barely hear that song without shivering and crying, and even as I write these words now, my eyes fill with tears and I am not sure how I will continue.

A few days later, Massimo came up to our group of houses as always, and we went for a short walk into town. I walked, he pushed his bike, on which he had just done his usual pirouettes to impress me. As usual, I told him off about them, pointed out his many falls, and told him how he had to be more careful. He asked me whether I’d thought about what he’d said, and whether I was going to give him another chance. I said hm well, let’s try, and see how it goes. We arranged to meet that coming Sunday, it would be the first day of our renewed relationship. He was so happy and whoopped and bounced on the motorbike and began to set off and I laughed and yelled at him over the racket he was making «That’s if you make it to Sunday considering the way you drive!».

He laughed as well and drove off.

That Thursday he crashed with his bike, and died.

This will have to end here. Part 2 tomorrow.