Thursday, 29 November 2012

Driving With My Uterus

It is possible, in Italy, to drive with one's uterus.

I have been told so by an angry old man - in dialetto Vicentino - who didn't approve of my parking efforts (I didn't want to sit in front of the school in a double line of cranky mothers and was trying to fit into a spot). The man, probably a beloved grandfather who likes those veline (dancing girls) on Berlusconi's busty TV shows, rolled down his window and shouted at me,


Whoahhh. This was thrown at me at a time when I had four kids under twelve, in four different schools in four different parts of town (with different timetables so sometimes I would find myself alone, parked in front of a closed school gate - shite it's Tuesday). PLUS I was living 25kms out of town, packing the kids into my crappy Lancia before dawn, listening to Hey Yah at full volume to drown out the fighting. (And bear in mind that I started driving at seventeen and have driven all over Europe and nearly all the way to Timbuctu in Mali, and clock up 400+kms a week...And my name is McNamara and I am a redhead.)

Povero nonno. Poor Grandfather. While I controlled myself and didn't get out of the car, (recently, I actually opened the car door of a woman whose bumper touched my leg on a crossing, see below*) I lost it. You know when you are truly incensed? When something has snapped and there is no one to stop you and that b*****d has pushed you too far when your life was addled enough as it is??

What would you reply - if you have one - if someone told you you were driving with your uterus? (And this raises the inevitable question, Do men drive with their penises?? Perhaps Audi drivers do, yes? I fear we have another post here.)

Well, my end of the shouting match included:

Do you even have a penis or has it fallen off?
Do you even remember what a hard-on is?
I bet you couldn't even get it up to have your own kids.
I bet you have cancer of the penis!

I mean, gosh, I feel so low even to think of it. It sounds as though I have penis-hatred or something but I swear I don't - it just came out as a Uterus VS Penis match I guess. All in front of my kid's school.

Oh Lord. Oh Mummy. But I swear it was a stellar performance.

After that I collected my son and drove off to my mother-in-law's where we had caffè corretto and laughed ourselves off our feet.

* This cow - I was in heels on cobbles in the rain - comes hurtling straight at me in the middle of a crossing and I freeze, not knowing whether to leap, lurch or put out the magic hand. She just touches my leg. I stand there, incredulous. I wanted to smash her car but had a micro-flash of intelligent thought, No, I can't damage my piano hands. And, Maybe I'll get arrested. So I hobbled around, opened her door (I swear I didn't swear) and said 'What do you think you are doing?' And then, 'I am the mother of four children! Are you going to finish bringing them up?'

Che idiota. I welcome your road rage comments. Help me to feel normal.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Sport Italian Style PLUS 10 Exercise Tips for Divorced Ladies

My Italian girlfriends don't understand me. One of them even said, 'Haven't you finished with that swimming thing yet?' And another, 'But why do you have to go skiing every weekend?'

It's genuine incomprehension. In Italy - so different from Australia where ladies in their eighties still play competition tennis in pleated skirts - exercise is like a dirty word. Why get wet in a pool, mess your hair, swim endless laps (oh but swimming is so boring), without even working on your tan? What's it all for? I've even had a Nazi pool attendent - at the dizzy height of summer, three bodies stroking down the pool, the rest roasting on loungers - say, 'But your lunch ticket finishes in a hour!' Meaning, Don't think you can hang around tanning for free!

(To which I reply, 'I've come here to swim, mate. I'd rather die than sunbake.' Astonished look. The real meaty stuff of culture clash.)

So sport. Whaat? Sometimes my girlfriends have been known to paddle at the pool. Or on our Corsica trip, they cool off after the sunbathing. It doesn't seem a natural thing. Few can hold a tennis racket, or throw a ball hard, netball-style. Many used to ski in childhood but don't anymore because, you know, it's so expensive, so far and.. you know, far. Some hike in the summertime, but it's a punctuation mark, an adventure. I remember the best holidays of my younger years of parenthood were the Dolomite hiking trips - kids in backpacks and scarves on burnt necks, Austrian food in the evenings and the kids getting a projectile vomit bug, one by one, with Mum here being the shifting target.

I'm talking about regular exercise, the type where your heart beat gallops and your sweat brinks and your lungs turn inside out. I love it. I'm no prize-winning athlete, nor ever have been. But it's there, this marvellous animal fix, almost as greasy and delightful as sex. Here are this non-Italian woman's tips for a muscly winter season:

1. Never entertain the idea of practising sport with your sixteen-year-old daughter. It is certain to make you feel unfit, inelegant, improper and INVISIBLE. Don't think you will ever exist next to her flowing golden hair and fresh curves. You won't even be lucky enough to be labelled a MILF, because they don't know what MILFs are in Italy.

2. If you seriously start exercising, empty out your cupboards and fridge. No more processed foods. Buy stuff that you actually have to cook. Lean steak, cabbage for salads and a good chopping board. A friend of a friend once asked me how I keep slim and I replied, I swim a hundred laps and eat cabbage salad every night. MEL I WAS ONLY JOKING

3. Eat protein after running/swimming/rowing/skiing. Eat carbs two hours before. Drink water, not coffee. I know, it hurts.

4. If you swim, give in to ugliness. I mean, embrace your lumps and gorilla legs, wear that nuns' costume with pride. What I love about turning up at the pool is being a mess - turn up in your worstest clothes and shock them mothers with their terracotta foundation and blonde highlights. Delight in your smeared mascara afterwards and stride out with a beanie over your wet hair (cardinal sin).

5. Don't greet fellow joggers. Unless they are over eighty. They will follow you, ask your Facebook details, crop up every time you round a corner at the supermarket, the vet's, the bank. Be aloof. Wear ear muffs. Speak a foreign language (Albanian? Finnish? not English, which many people are convinced they are able to speak, unless of course you need a new batch of English students.)

6. If you are fortunate enough to ski - meaning there is snow rather than grass on the slopes as the snowline rises, and rises - enjoy the oxygen high, there is nothing like it after the grimy cityscapes below. If you are a beginner, get lessons, ski teachers have great thighs. If you are an expert, get more lessons, ski instructors have even better thighs.

7. Just in case you think I am not being serious try this: exercise when you feel worst. When you feel a sore throat coming on, or flu, or a headache, or a bad evil mood. The seratonin fix is better than a glass of wine or an offloading conversation. You will crash head-on into your immune system's whininess, sleep it off, and probably drive away osteoporosis to boot.

8. If you HATE exercise just concentrate on how good you will feel afterwards. DO NOT reward yourself with chocolate - it's a brief sugar high and your body is crying out for wads of spinach, your favourite meat or meat substitute. Ever cooked a fantastic quiche with spinach and feta cheese?

9. If you hear a distant thumping as I did the other day - relax. It's not a daytime disco some idiot has set up along the bike track. It's your blood - your wiring - thudding through you. Hit it, sister! We Are Family!

10. If you ever end up with biceps like Madonna forget exercise and go back to sex! You've made your point. Don't get stringy.

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PS Anyone who takes sporting advice from me - Italian or otherwise - you are crazy. MEL I AM SO SORRY. YOU CAN STOP NOW. PLEASE STOP

PPS Grazie mille to friends and fellow bloggers who left a comment on my page on I think we should go out for a virtual mulled wine together in some lodge above the snow line...

Thursday, 15 November 2012

On Sistabitches and Giving Liz Jones a Hug

I'm not a very huggy person. My kids have been brought up on 'tough love' more than wet kisses so I was surprised when I felt the urge to reach out and give panel journalist Liz Jones a big hug. It's difficult not to write about this bitter, entrapped lady. Poor Liz! Prisoner of her own hunt for good copy, who admitted she once found herself typing copy during an argument, Liz provided an alarming contrast to what was really going on that day. Reading her post-blogfest article, I feel she misread the Mumsnet agenda or - as many have said already - came with her own stereotyped critiques in her Prada handbag. Poor Liz! We don't care for your womb-based comments, and whoever defines themself by their womb? Sending hugs.

It wasn't hard to make a lot of sense out of last Saturday's brilliantly organised Mumsnet Blogfest. I'll admit I was daunted by the mass of women inside the breakfast foyer. Mummy Bloggers - so regularly slammed - were all sipping coffee and making a ladies' racket. I sneaked in, gulped my coffee, tried to get into mingling mode.

Inside the first speakers revealed just what a diverse bunch women can be. Justine Roberts, Mumsnet co-founder, spoke of the democratic nature of blogging - a 'calibration of voices' - and we were reminded that this booming site has three million visitors a month, with two thousand bloggers enlisted. Next spoke the eloquent Miriam Gonzalez Durantez, a 'politician's wife' who refuses to be defined as such, who runs a household and a law firm. We were then joined by Gaby Woods from The Telegraph, Zoe Williams from The Guardian, the author Rachel Cusk and - in pyjamas 4am Texas time - the entertaining best-seller Jenny Lawson (aka The Bloggess) on the big screen. Talk topics ranged from exploiting home intimacies to dealing with internet trolls. Try following The Bloggess' advice: she simply changes a comment such as 'You should be hung' to 'I want to be in your skin'. Not bad!

I thought the many guises of female fragility often came to the fore. Not wanting to expose your children, while finding relief in shared experiences. Rachel Cusk noted that 'the same candour that enables you to write also ensures you are the most lacerated', having recently produced a book tracing her separation, while Zoe Williams talked about the scariness of the public domain, where trolls are a many-headed and namesless monster. Ideas differed about what to aim for when blogging: ignore sexist labels, write to someone you know, be authentic, practise. Sadly, the discussion touched upon the prevailing misogny that sees much prejudice thrown towards mothers-who-blog - sadly confirmed by (you guessed it) Liz Jones later in the day.

But in the lifts upstairs to the coffee lounge the mood was buoyant and enthusiastic. Views were spectacular and the muffins were divine.

Later, after masses of technical advice from mindshare guru Paul Armstrong (who many would also like to hug) I settled into a series of handpicked talks. I was interested in hearing about bloggers who have gone on to book forms (Cari Rosen and Mme Guillotine) and feature writing (Louise France-The Times). I came away asking myself Why blog? What am I blogging about? and promising myself regular six-month check-ups on blog functionality and blog purpose - instead of just toddling along, snatching topics from my (small) daily universe. Very good to ask oneself these questions, given the resounding reality is that there are so many of us. And what truly makes a great, compelling blog you always have time for?

More ideas from the wonderful Paul Armstrong: Don't write down the first idea - everyone will have thought of that - nor the second, because the smart people will have too. Start with your third idea, there is a chance it might be slightly original.. I loved this tip, don't you?

Lunch anyone? Sumptuous veggies, great talk, not enough divans (cutlery clanging to the wooden floor) and divine lemon cake. I felt the lovely sensation of women treating women - something we domesticated creatures appreciate no end.

Private Lives was the penultimate talk that filled the lecture hall. I wrote a jumbled live post from my seat on the far right, where I was unable to properly see Liz Jones' glowing tan. Don't mistake my tone for bitchiness - I don't have time for sistabitches - I was genuinely curious to see what this woman whose 'gut-spilling' column I sometimes read was all about. I was also keen to hear Zoe Margolis speak - years back I read her explicit girlwithaonetrackmind blog, enjoying her go-get-em attitude to guys, but on Saturday I wanted to see where all this personal revelation had taken her. Writers are all prone to recounting their lives, but Margolis must have made every date either quaver - or get off - in his shoes.

None of the speakers disappointed, and what I took away was the sense that if you probe your own life for material, you will have to pay. Kids don't like it. Partners will be dismayed, parents will be shocked. Tellingly, moderator Geraldine Bedell asked the tortured Liz Jones, 'Was it worth it?' And hard-working Liz, who has told us of her facelift, her tattoo, her shot letterbox and her randy ex-husband, replied: 'No, none of it.'

Lesson learned. Hugs in the post.

The final image I'll be taking home is of wunderkind Caitlin Moran (How To Be A Woman) taking the microphone into her mouth and offering saucy sex to a fan. In that moment I think we were all joined together in hilarious laughter - a bunch of delighted, invigorated women. I loved her advice on how to end an article (or even a book!): Take out your second paragraph, which usually explains all of your ideas, and stick it in! Useful? Next time I'm stuck I might consider it.

And then it was over. A great day organised by chic and savvy women, a day that wasn't self-congratulory, or smug, or selective, or elitist. And how better to celebrate this wordfest than with cocktails along the riverbank with prosecco and shards of tasty cheese from the excellent British Cheese Board?

Hats off ladies! I'm up for next year.

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The lovely people at have put up an interview with me do have a look!

Saturday, 10 November 2012

LIVE at the Mumsnet Blogalong, Millbank Tower London

I'm sitting in the plush lecture theatre of the Millbank Tower in central London, waiting for a talk about Private Lives - how much one should or shouldn't let fall onto the blog screen. From Daily Mail columnist Liz Jones about whose love life (and new facelift) I could tell you a thing or two, to Zoe Margolis, unmasked blogger of the cheeky and explicit blog I used to religiously read, girlwithaonetrackmind. Also present are Tim Dowling (strange to see a bloke up there) and anonymous blogger/journalist 'Eliza Gray'.

I'm curious. Natter natter. Lights are on and after a stunning lunch it's time to talk of misogyny, gut spilling and boundaries.

Amazing. I've just learned that original sex blogger Zoe Margolis had 8 million views and was placed as the 24th most powerful blog by The Observer. She talks about sex as 'squelchy', and doesn't agree that talking graphicslly about the subject destroys its intimacy. Brave thoughts. But she also speaks of being followed, slammed, outed and embarrassed - for her parents! Moderator Geraldine Bedell asks, 'Are you the blogging equivalent of the flasher in the park?' Poor Zoe is insulted.

She claims she had masses of comments for a post about men faking orgasms !!
Interestingly - and tellingly? - Margolis also announces that all writers are neurotic narcissists.

On to Liz Jones, who has written extensively about her ex-boyfriend, her body, lack of love. Does she have regrets?
'Yeah, all of it. Whenever I press Send, I literally have a nervous breakdown. You know you're going to set off a bomb...'
Geraldine: 'Are you affected?'
'..It makes you into a heartless, nastier person.. I've been typing during an argument, just to get some good copy out of it.

Freaky? Necessary? Liz uses her life to the max!

Columnist Tim Dowling also uses real life instances and is asked how close he is to his public persona. He mentions caution around his kids, his neighbours - and his (sometimes) enraged wife.

Anonymous blogger 'Eliza Gray' is the writer behind 'Fifty is the New Black', describing herself as a menopausal Bridget Jones. She hits the nail on the head when she says,'If you can't hack it don't blog it!'

Now off for goodbye drinks on the 29th floor over the city.. And my goodie bag!!!

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Hmmm. Now dodge this, journalist Liz Jones' ungracious view of proceedings!

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Whores or Madonnas?

I don't usually like being identified firstly as a mother. In Italy being a mother entitles one to an almost saintly status. You can be treated as a holy madre or, well, the opposite. Whores or Madonnas? The Virgin Mary or Mary Magdalene? Which team are you on?

So I wasn't sure about chasing down the big British web site I was worried it would be a forum for late fussy mothers, eco-warrior mums, mums-with-views. I've been ad hoc in the twenty-three years I've been doing it. And far from saintly most of the time.

But Mumsnet found me. A while back I stumbled upon this huge organisation, signed up and forgot about it. Then just before the book came out they sent an encouraging email saying, We see you have a book coming out! We love it when our bloggers publish books! How lovely was that?

Every so often one of my posts makes it to the bloggers' home page, and I confess I could spend half the day reading interesting women's blogs and have hooked up with some venerable ladies. (There are also some blokes, though I haven't really chased any down.)

And let's face it: we all blog these days. Everyone is writing one. They are as natural and ongoing as conversations over the fence, on the phone, at the bar. Most blogs are written by women, read by women. But what makes one blog count more than another, last longer than another, notch a little higher and become relevant? (I think of planktonlife, a brilliant blog I follow when I remember, now a Times column). What is it about this explosion of words and presences and identities that has us all tapping at our screens?

In September I signed up for the inaugural Mumsnet Blogfest, thinking it would be a great excuse to pop over to London and hawk my book, but also a tangible way to learn more about the art of blogging. Some tricks of the trade, and perhaps a hook up with some other bloggers.

Last week I received the programme. Apart from a series of fabulous speakers and a spectacular location, take a look:

Registration opens at 9am, and the first session starts at 9.30am. There will be tea, coffee & pastries, as well as yummy smoothies provided by our friends at Innocent drinks & a copy of the Times for each of you...

Lunch - There will be a hot buffet lunch, from 12.20-1.30, and this will be served in the fantastic Skyloft space, with amazing views across the city. Over lunch, and coffee breaks, do take the opportunity to drop into our Blog Clinic for some expert advice, and check out the activities that our select group of sponsors have developed for you..

Reception - At 5.15 we’ll decamp to the River Room for a drinks reception fuelled with prosecco & wine from our friends at Pizza Express, juices from Innocent Drinks and splendid platters of cheese courtesy of the British Cheese Board.

Going home with goodies - The day will wrap up about 6.30ish, and before you head off into the night, don’t forget to collect your goody bag which is crammed full of goodies from Boden, Green & Blacks, Nails Inc & much more..

I'm feeling really chuffed! This messy writer has been counting the tractors pass on that yonder field for the past few restless weeks. Or ferrying the troops in and out of town and enjoying sports such as watching a new gas tank bolted onto the cement. What to wear? The beloved (and frayed) Paul Smith skirt with red Russian embroidery and my towering blue secretary heels? Or my 1euro secondhand jeans and coffee-coloured plastic boots for the expected showers?

Mary Magdalene or Virgin Mary?

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Before and After - Fifty Shades of Loving Italy

As my blog post last week moaned and moaned about the disturbing state of contemporary Italian politics, I wanted to write something positive about La Dolce Vita in this blessed environment. Sometimes, I really need to convince myself that there are unwavering reasons why I should remain here. I shall think up a few.

Before: Ciao Bella!

The first time I came to Italy I was a prim Aussie uni student on a Eurailpass who fed her eyes on shoes (more later on that) and museums and architecture. Coming from a country with a dodgy colonial history of convicts and oppression - a history more whispered by the land than announced by architecture, I gazed over facades and domes and marble and fountains and sculpted gardens, giddy with delight.

After: La Dolce Vita

But I remember finding Italy overwhelming. The ornamentation, the fancy dressing, the flirty guys on vespas. I suppose you could say my first reactions were like those of my character Marilyn, who was shocked by the constant 'checking out' by both men and women sweeping along beside her. Now I'm pretty bad at it myself. In fact, in the bar the other day when I treated myself to some non-driving time, I told GG to get out of the way so I could check out the midday dude swarms in the piazza. There are aeons of them swanning around the piazzas in Armani and sunlamp tans, RayBans hooked around their faces. Oh dear, I am lapsing! I have accepted that vanity is a national trait. Is this the trade-off for the pitch-perfect wine in a divine setting?

Heavenly heels.

I make no excuses for grounding my patchy love of Italy firmly upon my passion for well-crafted shoes. No excuses. It would kill me to leave what I love with such searing ardour. I would have to wed a shoemaker, have him trained by Gucci, supervise leather acquisition and the dosage of dyes. Nah! I'll just wait for sales time again. I do wish I could pretend to be less shallow.

50 Shades of Espresso.

Ones of the marketing straplines for my book has been about the 'transition by espresso' that Marilyn undergoes. I didn't grow up on coffee and was strictly anti-coffee while a young adult. Then I went to Ethiopia. Discovered buna. Oh Lord! Went through the whole coffee bean selection/roast with frankincense/boiling and filtering - until that wonderful moment when taste and aroma joined forces at your lips. I fell hard for coffee. In Italy too, the right beans send me into ecstasy, making me crave the smoky slow Ethiopian ritual, but hell it can be good! (I also blame an older local relative for introducing me to the local poison caffè corretto - a blast of coffee injected with a shot of grappa. Poor Marilyn is introduced to this by a cheeky Australian friend, let no names be mentioned.)

The Loveheart Terrace

Apart from the orgasmic dimensions of architectural and foodie and musical delights, Italy is also stunningly diverse in its natural features. I confess I'm more into roaring fires and funny beanies than string bikinis on the beach. My favourite winter hide-out starts here.

Fifty Shades of the Purest White.

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P.S. I'd be very grateful if any of you who enjoy the blog would like to jot down a comment on the site, where I'm in the running for an award this December. Mille grazie!