Friday, June 12, 2015

Taking Italians to London

Two years ago we started a Christmas tradition by pledging a trip to Barcelona with Beppe's parents. They are not widely travelled, and left Italy for the first time only ten years ago, when they visited Lourdes and the South of France.
Their second international trip was to Australia for our wedding, so while not frequent travellers they have travelled further than most.

Barcelona was a great success: we were able to structure our days around the many things there were to see, as well as duck home for an afternoon nap for Nina, and quiet time for everyone else. The mediterranean air of a port city was familiar to them, and the dialect of Catalunya was surprisingly close to their home dialect of Sicilian.

Emboldened by this experience we pledged a trip to London, taken this last week.
My in-laws are lovely people, who have always put the happiness of their children before their own, and are devoted grandparents always available to babysit. That said, taking them to London was hell.

I don't want to dwell on the negatives here, on reflection it is easy to understand them clinging like drowning and forlorn sailors to what they knew, but London is a special place for me. It is the closest English speaking major city and a paradise of all the things I find comforting and homey, and when there I want to revel in the crappy gossip magazines, Sunday roasts, and all the other bad/good food I crave when I'm sick of Italian food.

After working years in tourism I've seen the same thing many times before. Ironically the English are particularly given to touring the Italian countryside, distancing themselves as 'others' to the locals, pointing out the cultural differences with alarm and ridicule.

While in London we made sure to do all the touristy things, and many slightly offbeat things as well.
Perhaps the most interesting thing travelling with a small child is the different perspective they have on what they see and experience.
On this trip to London, I think Nina first came to grips with the fact she speaks two languages, perhaps due to seeing her Nonni outside of Italy for the first time. She would sit and patiently translate things for them, keen to name in Italian the things she could see.

While we visited the Tower of London, and saw the crown jewels, Nina had picked up a pebble from the moat, and declared it a treasure more beautiful than the others. When she spotted actors in costumes, they were all princesses, and a close encounter with one had her burst into tears of awe.

With the start of each day she declared our planned trip of boats or museums or markets to be boring, but admitted at each close of day that they weren't, at least if the museums had dinosaurs, the boats had pirates or the markets had gelato.

She and I had a day off to explore the local playground while Beppe took his parents to Portsmouth to see the Victory, a model of which his dad had spend 2 years making when he started his retirement. Another day we visited the Observatory at Greenwich, of relevance to his father who had worked years in cartography. I was most happy to find a work by my favourite contemporary artist; Yinka Shonibare OBE, a large model of the victory with African dutch wax print cottons as sails, set in a corked bottle.

We went to Camden and took a narrow boat tour through canals and tunnels to Little Venice. The narrow boats, once working barges are in most cases full time homes, and are so lovely. When we're older and Nina's off exploring the world, I could imagine touring Britain on one of these, stopping in small towns along the way.

Back at Camden markets we lunched among the many international food trucks, and Beppe's mum was thrilled to find Italians cooking Italian food. This may well have been the highlight of the trip.

We were able to catch up with a couple of friends who live there, Mudlarking with Australian Kathryn, searching for 17th century clay smoking pipes on the banks of the Thames, discussing life and business rapid fire over dinner and drinks with Lisa.

One of the best things we did in London for the whole family was visiting the London museum, a free museum packed with artefacts and narratives from the history of the city. While the British museum would be fabulous to visit, it focuses more on global histories, and we weren't in London to learn about the Egyptians.

Napoleon said of London that it was one big market, and even today there is a constant rush of commerce, people are always shopping and always eating. We came home with surprisingly few souvenirs. A couple of books for Nina, a vintage silk bobbin and an old typesetter's ampersand.

I don't know when we will return to London, it may well be when we're ready for that slow coast on a narrowboat.