We have been ‘on the road’ for eight glorious months now. By the end of this week, we will have explored six European countries, nine European cities and hundreds of towns and villages. For the most part, we have been welcomed for free, or for a small charge.
Since the start of April 2016, we have travelled through Northern Italy stopping at five amazing lakes (Maggiore, Varese, Como, Iseo & Garda) on our way to Verona and Venice. On each occasion, we have been situated just feet from the lakeside, thanks to the hospitality of our hosts.
None more so than Gavirate – a small aire just 10 metres from Lake Varese. Our pitch provided an uninterrupted view of the lake and the rowing lanes where the world’s best rowing para-athletes have been preparing to compete for a place at this year’s Olympics.
Beside us, an alfresco bar played sunny tunes from past decades, which seemed to complement and enhance the excited chatter of diverse nationalities sharing coffee and Peroni with local people.
Families with small children, dog walkers, elderly groups of friends, joggers, cyclists, courting couples and afternoon amblers all enjoyed the sunshine together, greeting each other as they passed.
Children from local schools came to support the rowers and helped to erect marquees, banners, speakers and lighting for the main competition event. We helped as much as we could, providing tools and making coffee for local police officers. We were part of their community, if only for a while.
A constant stream of disabled athletes with significant amputees, spinal deformities, blindness and paralysis graced the walkways from the training centre to the lake; proudly boasting their national colours. People who actually have something to complain about paraded with determination, excitement and promise. Observing their physical and mental strength was awe-inspiring and humbling. Everyone was swept up by their optimism.
Motivated by the athlete’s determination to overcome adversity, our youngest, Jonah, asked if I would take him fishing – a pastime we have had zero luck with. Still reeling from the spirit of the afternoon, we walked, hand in hand, 2.5km to a bridge where we had earlier seen thousands of fish. We extended our whip preparing to make our first cast when a passing Italian noticed our line was too long.
The wonderful thing about Italians is that they still speak Italian to you even when you say ‘Non-Capisco’ (I don’t understand). It makes no difference. So, he talked me through the process of shortening the line, whilst kindly showing us how to do it. After 20 minutes of expertly biting and re-tying the line, he gave Jonah a playful shake of the hair and shouted ‘Buono Fortuna!’. Indeed, we needed all the luck we could muster.
After casting twice with small nibbles of bread, and no bite, Jonah was already growing impatient. In his wisdom, he decided the fish were so plentiful, it would be easier to dry hook them by simply whipping his rod out of the water as fast as he could. With a stroke of beginners luck, it worked first time!
Though, as our luck would have it, he whipped out his rod so quick that both the fish and the line became tangled in the tree above us. No matter how much we pulled, neither would come down. Reluctantly, I cut the line, we packed up and admitted defeat – for the zillionth time.
‘I think we should give up fishing, Son’ I said as we strolled back.
‘Do you know what is more inspirational than an athlete Mum?’ he replied, ‘A disabled athlete who hasn’t given up on his dream despite his difficulties.’
Wow. I understood. I guess that was the best response I could hope for from a 9-year-old boy.
Returning empty handed, our German neighbours came rushing with offers of replacement lines, hooks and weights. Another Italian neighbour offered to show Jonah how to cast off from the jetty with glowing lures. They all agreed to meet late in the evening when darkness descended.
With hunger in our bellies, we sat around our small table devouring our evening meal, when Lola simply said ‘I love it here. I don’t think I ever want to leave.’ She didn’t even look up from her plate. It was as if she had just spoken her private thoughts. Though she was not seeking a response, Jonah concurred, adding, ‘Me, too.’
We weren’t expecting that, but we were truly grateful.
Later in the evening, after the boys had left for an evening of midnight fishing, Lola settled down to read a book and I finally had a chance to catch up with the virtual world – and reality back in the UK.
Scrolling through my Facebook page I was immediately taken aback by the number of status updates relating to the referendum on the 23rd June 2016 on whether the UK stayed or left the EU. There is no doubt that the referendum is hugely important to the future of the UK…but rather than see educated reasons for, and against, I came across a diatribe of ugly prejudice nonsense, mostly regarding immigration.
It was a far cry from the kindness, generosity, positivity and community spirit of Lake Varese.Is this what has become of us as a nation? Ugliness? A chance to use the referendum as a vote on prejudice? An opportunity to disguise casual racism under a cloak of independence?
Is this what has become of us as a nation? Ugliness? A chance to use the referendum as a vote on prejudice? An opportunity to disguise casual racism under a cloak of independence?
Here at Lake Varese, every nationality from around the world cheered each other on, helped each other out, hugged and shook hands. It was a celebration of diversity in the truest sense.
Looking in through the window from outside, I could see the scene unfolding in the UK. Horrible negativity and hatred. Unkind words. Hostility. Nastiness. Like watching a fight brew under the cover of darkness.
I switched off my laptop and just stared into the darkness. Outside I could see small flickers of light from the jetty where our new European friends were teaching my son to fish. From darkness back to light.
I felt disappointed and sick. After such an awe-inspiring time at Lake Varese, surrounded by optimism and sunniness – the thought of returning to such negativity at home made me feel physically sick.
I wanted no part in it.
I wanted to be utterly selfishness and run as far away from the ugliness as possible. I wanted the positivity of Lake Varese to last forever. For our children’s sake.
It was time to make a decision.
Our partnership with the EU has gifted us the freedom to experience the best and most thrilling time of our lives. It has helped us heal and rebuild. With every new country and culture, we have grown as individuals and as a family. We have benefited vastly from the climate, breath-taking scenery and positive interactions with various nationalities. We have learnt about different work ethics and family values and been humbled by the enthusiasm of our European friends to embrace our union.
Above all, our journey through Europe has been effortless and immensely enjoyable. We have been welcomed without reservation. Our children have had the opportunity to see beyond their own back yard. They have broadened their horizons. They have formed lasting friendships. They have taken full advantage of free movement. They have dared to dream of a life beyond the UK.
What message will we send to our children now, if we return?
Do we, as a family, want to be small fish in a small pond or small fish in a large pond? What pond, if we have to choose, will afford our children the greatest opportunities? Where will we be happier? Where will our future be more secure? What pond will provide the better quality of life?
How can we avoid the same fate as Jonah’s fish – stuck in a tree!?
With Lola’s words still echoing in our ears, who would have thought that we would actually need to make a life-changing decision so soon?
Undoubtedly, this adventure has changed us. We know that we never want to become a slave to the corporate system again – we worked too hard to escape it. From here on, we will always be a family who aspires to travel, for we now appreciate the richness it brings.
So, do we continue to travel and hope that our future free movement through Europe is not compromised by the Brexit vote, or chose to make a life in a country that will enable us to continue to live the life we desire? A country that shares our values. A country of hope and kindness. A country where different nationalities can fish together in silent companionship.
If our future purely resided in the UK, and we accepted this as just a one-off adventure, perhaps our decision would be different – or easier to make. But confining ourselves to a country that wishes to isolate itself when we have just found our wings feels counter-intuitive.
In a strange way, I’m glad I switched on my computer and witnessed the unpleasant scene unravelling back in the UK – it made me think long and hard about the country we call home.
Home, after all, is where your heart is.
And Italy has certainly stolen our hearts.