At the end of our road lies a path.
Although at the time I had no idea where it led, it proved to be a clincher when we were house hunting in Verona 7 years ago.
It was a balmy day in late spring. We had spent the weekend viewing apartments across the city ahead of our planned relocation later that year. We were hot, tired, stressed and slightly deflated by what we'd seen so far. Finally, we came to a modern complex in a quiet green cul de sac on the northern periphery of the city. We were shown around a bright and spacious apartment. It ticked a lot of boxes.
My wife and I exchanged approving nods and asked the vendor for a moment or two in private. We stepped outside onto the street to confer. The apartment was at the top end of our budget and there was another place that I had a slight preference for. Then I noticed the cycle path, and that sealed it for me. I had a clear vision of our 3-year-old learning to ride his bike here.
It turned out to be a good decision. Seven years later we're still here. And my second son (now 4) has inherited his big brother's bike.
On Saturday morning, as Number 1 sped off for his swimming lesson and Number 2 was meandering contentedly along himself, I had a rare moment to reflect on the significance of our pista rossa (red path).
The path provides a pedestrianised link between the northwestern tip of the city and the neighbouring villages of Avesa and Quinzano. It's a modest affair, all told, probably less than a kilometre in length. But from here the world (or at least our neighbourhood) is our oyster. The swimming pool, the pizzeria, the butcher, the local football team, are all within few minutes cycle.
Cutting its way alongside a babbling brook, which mysteriously disappears underground as it reaches the road, the path then breaks left, playing fields on one side and a well-maintained vineyard on the other. Another couple of hundred yards and you can choose to continue straight ahead towards the swimming pool, where the path abruptly ends, or take a right turn towards the sleepy village of Avesa.
Whether it's for football, groceries or pizza, Avesa is a regular destination. In the late spring the leisurely stroll with neighbours to the village Sagra is cherished annual ritual.
In the high summer, afternoon trips along the searing path to cool down at the local swimming pool are an essential feature of our daily routine.
Beyond the path itself lie the Veronese foothills - ideal territory for a run, cycle or hike.
And so, on Saturday , as I soaked up the warm morning sunshine and breathed in the clean fresh air, I reflected on how lucky we are to have this modest strip of pathway on our doorstep. A green space where children can learn to walk and run and cycle. And parents can relax, if only for a moment, and be thankful for the choices they've made and the small pleasures that life brings.
We'd just crossed the Po on the final stretch of a gruelling winter drive from rural Tuscany back home to Verona in the north east. With freezing temperatures and heavy snow forecast, we had abandoned our normal route home through the scenic mountain pass, il Passo delle Radici (1,529 metres), that connects Tuscany with Emilia-Romana. Instead we took the more circuitous route, avoiding the high northern Apennines, that would see us first head south towards Lucca, then swing west to Florence, before finally turning north past Bologna, Modena and Mantova.
By late afternoon we were on the final stretch of fast flowing motorway between Mantova and Verona. The worst of the weather was behind us and our spirits were beginning to lift. All going well, we'd be home within the hour. The poor souls who were heading south, on the other hand, faced 60 km tailbacks between Brennero and Modena as they returned home after a long weekend skiing.
Having thoroughly exhausted our current cd of choice, La dolce vita (a crowd pleasing compilation of singalong Italian classics), we now opted for Stevie Wonder's Definitive Collection to see us through the final stages of our journey.
A musical education for my two young kids in the back, my wife and I blasted our way through hits like Superstition, Sir Duke, Masterblaster and Isn't She Lovely.
Fifteen tracks in comes the unmistakable piano intro of For Your Love. By the time the drums kick in at 30 seconds we are deep in the groove. Thirty seconds later comes the voice. Rich, resonant, sincere.
"All the gold in all the world is nothing to possess..."
With me on drums and the wife on lead vocals, it was one of those fleeting moments where the music, the moment, everything just clicked.
"Well", I said to my rather bemused looking kids, who seemed to have enjoyed our performance despite themselves, "it really doesn't get much better than that!"
And then, catching me completely off guard, came this...
More like this...
As those of you that follow me on twitter will know, I enjoy the daily ritual of perusing the local paper (in my case usually L'Arena of Verona), preferably accompanied by a suitable beverage, in keeping (of course) with the hour.
This week I delivered a lesson about the British print media to a group of Italian chartered accountants. As well as discussing British newspapers in general, we also dissected a copy of that august pillar of British journalism, the Daily Mail (in my defence, it was the only UK title I could get my hands on in Verona this week). Each student took an article and reported back to the rest of the group.
From beached whales, to ISIS death threats, bikini selfies as a means to weight loss and the feared extinction of an iconic species of banana, this lesson provided a somewhat perverse insight into the current state of the British media.
Of course Italian media isn't without it's faults (don't get me started on television), but, notwithstanding the merits of the Daily Mail, in terms of conveying a serious news agenda, Italian newspapers are far superior to their British counterparts, which seem to me to have descended into a tabloid style, sales driven, celebrity obsessed, race to the bottom.
One question that I wasn't quite able to answer at the time was how circulation figures for Italian newspapers compare to those of British titles. So I checked. The results, illustrated in the diagram below, are interesting.
I didn't realise it at the time, but after 10 years in Edinburgh, my relocation to Verona 4 years ago came at just the right time. Professionally, personally and geographically, I was ready for a change. And so, I've no regrets about coming to Verona. Of course there are things (like diluting juice, baked beans, afternoons spent in the pub, fish and chips, a fry-up and a good curry) and people (family, friends and former colleagues) that I miss, but we've generally just been too busy getting on with life here in Verona to dwell much on what we've left behind. Anyway, Verona isn't exactly a million miles away and, with Facebook and Skype, events at home never seem too far away.
But with the illness and tragic passing on Saturday night of a great friend and former colleague, the short distance between our lives in Verona and our family, friends and former colleagues in Scotland suddenly seems much wider.
Jude was a wonderful colleague. When I joined the research department from another part of the Scottish Parliament, Jude's was the warmest welcome. I was fortunate enough to share an office with him during my last 3 years in Edinburgh. If he was approaching, you would invariably hear him before you saw him. His contagious fits of laughter would frequently reverberate around the Scottish Parliament's hushed research library. But Jude was so much more than the just an office clown. He had genuine (and first hand) expertise in his field (unlike me who just pretended) and knew better than most the political environment in which he was operating. His passing will leave a gaping hole, not just in SPICe where he worked, but throughout the organisation as a whole. He was an unsung hero of the Scottish Parliament, a genuine character whose personality transcended the various silos that inevitably exist in such an organisation.
Jude was more than just a colleague.
We would often share a couple of drinks together after work (following his kidney transplant, he wasn't a big drinker, but would enjoy an occasional Jack Daniels and diet coke). Again, with his warm sense of humour and contagious laugh, he was a consummate and generous socialite. He was also a great armchair companion and we enjoyed watching many memorable football matches together. Cheering on Scotland to yet more glorious failure, following the Old Firm in Europe as (ahem) interested neutrals and, on one indelible occasion, encountering a particularly voluble follower of the so-called "pope's eleven" while we enjoyed a quiet pint in a Rose Street hostelry.
A couple of weeks ago I was fortunate enough to spend a rainy afternoon with Jude at his home in Joppa. With his kidney problems and then his recent illness, Jude had more reason than most to feel hard done by, depressed, angry, subdued. But he wasn't. Despite being gravely ill, he was the same old Jude. Warm, funny, engaging. Full of gossip and curious about my life in Italy.
Surrounded by the well-wishes of his friends, colleagues and neighbours, and above all by his devoted wife Ali and his beautiful children (of whom he was justifiably so proud), and fortified by his faith, which was profound, he didn't fear death. His thoughts, typical of the man, were for those who he would leave behind, and above all for his wife Ali, who he told me had been his rock throughout his illness. He was genuinely surprised and deeply touched by the outpouring of love and support he had received in recent weeks - in his humility, somehow he had been unaware of the genuine respect and affection in which he was held by so many.
It was bitter-sweet life-affirming afternoon for me. It was such a pleasure to be in Jude's company again, but heartbreaking to contemplate that it might be for the last time.
Until the very end I was hopeful of a miracle (if anyone deserved one it was Jude), so the news, when it came, was still a gut-wrenching blow.
Jude, it was a privilege to work with you and an honour to call you a friend.
I miss you.
It’s exactly 20 years ago today that I began my four-year adventure as a fresh-faced student at Stirling University. During the next four years, life-long friendships were forged, a future spouse was acquired and I even came away with a degree.
The passing of 20 years seems like a good moment for a wee trip down memory lane and some reflections on where we are now.
Financially, these were challenging times. While we would often go without food and even electricity, somehow we could always scrape together a couple of quid for a night out (at £1.69 for a bottle of cheap cider, I mean a couple of quid).
We were lucky though. In my first two years I got a grant cheque (remember them?). I was also well supported by my parents and was lucky enough to secure a (relatively) lucrative dj-ing job at (ahem) one of the university’s premier nightspots.
At the student’s union we sang along to Oasis Live Forever – and we really did believe we would.
Even Renton was cleaning up and moving on, starting a new life for himself to the strains of Underworld’s anthemic Born Slippy.
Politically too, these were times of great optimism.
The beginning of a new dawn. Or so we were told.
The previous summer (it must have been around May 1994) an exciting young reformer (“just call me Tony”) had become the leader of the Labour Party and in May 1997, towards the end of my second year at university, New Labour won a landslide election victory, ending 18 long years of Conservative government.
It was a night I will never forget. A number of us had essay deadlines for the next day and were planning to stay up all night anyway. With increasing excitement we watched the election results come in, our essays deferred till morning.
When it became obvious by the scale of the landslide that Michael Forsyth, the Secretary of State for Scotland, was going to loose his seat, a couple of my inebriated flatmates hot-footed it to the Albert Hall to yell abuse at him. If you listen carefully you can hear them in the background as a clearly emotional Anne McGuire is announced the winner.
The next morning Tony Blair swept into Downing Street on the crest of a wave of hope and optimism.
Devolution was promised. The windfall tax on the excess profits of the privatised utilities would fund the New Deal, end long term unemployment and provide much needed investment in schools and education.
Of course such optimism couldn’t last.
These were the times of easy credit and it was all too easy to quickly amass massive debts on credit and debit cards, perhaps a forewarning of the financial crisis that was to come.
In September 1998, David Blunkett, the Labour Education Secretary, announced the introduction of £1,000 tuition fees to be paid by every student in each year of study. The student grant was abolished and replaced by means-tested student loans. I took out a student loan in each of my final two years of study. Although modest by today’s standards, the debt was source of some anxiety for a few years to come.
Political leaders invariably disappoint. They become tarnished by power, compromised by office. Blair was no different.
A politician who placed greater importance on making newspaper headlines than affecting real policy change. A socialist with an insatiable appetite for wealth and the wealthy. A leader of the Labour Party who embraced one of the most morally and intellectually bankrupt governments America has ever seen.
But Blair alone shouldn’t carry the can. Too many Labour politicians (with some commendable exceptions) were too quick to abandon their principles. Scottish Labour in particular, is now feeling the backlash of the vacuousness of the New Labour project.
The current refugee crisis, is only the latest manifestation of our disastrous intervention in Iraq.
Which brings us to the present day and the new leader of the Labour Party.
Now I know Corbyn is far from the perfect politician (this is clearly part of his appeal).
And I'm not sure that he is a Prime Minister in waiting - would you want him calling the shots at moments of political or economic crisis?
But what I do know is that he is a socialist. He has moral integrity and compassion (note his first act as leader was to to attend a protest in support of refugees). And he is perhaps just the person that the Labour Party needs to rediscover itself.
I might not be 18 years old anymore, but I’m still optimistic. And I still drink cheap cider!
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A short collect of reflections on family life in locked down Italy
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