San Pellegrino for your soul

The unvarnished reality of a young family with two careers, and how to enjoy it.

My husband Jonathan and I get invited to lecture at the Mario Negri institute in Bergamo, Italy.  Jonathan from his vantage point as a surgeon and medical doctor with a PhD in molecular biology, and I as a lawyer with degrees in philosophy, politics, economics and law.  The lecture is on sustainable pricing of life-saving innovative treatments – a field we have researched together for over a decade since I lost two sisters to a rare disease, to help other families do better.

We are both looking forward to the lecture.  Our son Bear will be in Legoland celebrating his 10th birthday with his best friend, so Bamse (6 years) will join us in Bergamo.[1]  I envisage an engaged dialogue between Jonathan, me and an audience of scientists, with Bamse operating the slide deck.  We will finish with chilled white wine in the shade of the research institute garden as we watch its palm trees sway gently in the wind.

You might think: that’s an intimidatingly cool collaboration between a two-career couple with kids.  And he’s handsome too.  (Yeah, when I was a trainee seconded to Freshfields Paris and he visited, the French women called him the “Clooney of Paris”.)

Let me tell you, though: the lecture trip didn’t work out as planned.

On Monday before our Saturday departure, Bear comes down with a high temperature which lasts the whole week.  He can barely stand up.  By Friday he also vomits, and whimpers like a puppy.  By 6pm on Friday it is clear that Bear has to skip Legoland.  Can we fly family over from Finland to look after him while we go lecture?  Flights would cost over a thousand at short notice.  Jonathan says Bamse is so unstable that he will stay with the boys and send a recording of his segment.  I will fly over and lecture in person, as it is easier to converse with the class that way. 

The disappointment sours our Friday evening, which is also accentuated by a client of mine expecting a finalised letter by 9pm.  The exhausted parental dialogue ascends into an argument that sounds like two intense foxes at each other on a London residential street at dawn.  Broad themes: why life as an entrepreneur is hard: one’s building a business alongside fighting high-stakes fights.  But must it always be hard?  Why isn’t there enough time for relaxed cuddles?  And indeed, how it is possible that the Clooney of Paris doesn’t get cuddles.  Because it would take a sociopathic level of compartmentalisation to switch from the multimillion fight mode to cuddles, just the way it is hard to switch to a soothing parenting mode when Bamse suddenly butts into my office needing a plaster and comfort for a blister.

The escalating jousting brings to mind Taylor’s “Blank Space”: this relationship “is gonna be forever, or it’s gonna go down in flames”.  It is palpably ironic that our attempt to save children with life-threatening diseases results in our own kids suffering, with Bamse covering his ears, his eyes wide open, as we wrestle verbally.

The disagreement is so bad I hover in half-sleep for some hours, and at 5am Uber to Gatwick.  I pick up in an airport book shop Trevor Noah’s “Born A Crime”.  His mother Patricia Noah’s fearless doggedness makes me laugh out loud.  The EasyJet on-flight wifi is not working, as usual, and as soon as I land, I plug in at a Milan airport café to get drafts to a clean tech client.  At a table opposite me is a girl in a hijab, messing around with her boyfriend.  She looks at my blonde mane, falling over my shoulders in untamed kinks, and gives me a big smile.  I smile back.  Our connection is the best kind of globalisation.

Some hours later, I sit in a taxi to take me to a village in San Pellegrino, the home of the sparkling water.  I booked a guest house far from the lecture centre as we were going to rent a car and drive around as a family.  My driver’s licence has been stolen and I am too tired to operate a vehicle, so a taxi will have to do.  The journey is so long the driver whistles with joy at the prospect of the fee.  I fall into deep sleep and it is the best nap I’ve had in a while. 

We arrive at the foot of the Dolomite mountains, and the town of San Pellegrino Terme, with enormous water tanks from which they bottle.  There are inviting Art Nouveau buildings and a thermal spa.  We climb the steep mountain to the guest house.  The lady of the house, Marina, shows me to my room, made of warm red wood.  Perhaps varnished Norwegian spruce.  They have no restaurant and, in her words, “are in the middle of nowhere”.   She offers to make me a pizza.  I find a bottle of prosecco in the mini fridge, and sit in the shade studying the steep and wide mountain in front.  Marina returns.  The pizza isn’t the highest-end artisanal affair I have ever tasted, but I am hungry, and it is deeply satisfying.  Not to mention the tomatoes that accompany it, which taste as though they have drunk Alpine sunshine their entire growth season.  Slowly, the weight of sadness in my stomach lifts, and disperses in the nooks of the mountain. 

I feel new, and have a productive day of work.  I tell Marina my family was going to come along but Bear is unwell.  “A weekend alone is my idea of a perfect holiday”, she says.  Maybe she’s onto something.  My soul sings again.  I am like Julia Roberts in “Eat, Pray, Love”, except I am only doing the eating part.

I pop into the sauna to stretch out in its warmth, and have an early night under Marina’s linen sheets, laughing at Trevor’s pranks at school.  Especially the one where he fills a piano with foam from a fire extinguisher: the school gathers into the concert hall, the pianist lays his fingers on the keys… and the piano explodes with foam.  I drift into sleep in my red wood cocoon, with the silent mountain night around me.

I set no alarm and sleep in; rare.  I do a morning run, up and down the mountain flank.  The sun is bright.  I am not fast, and do not cover a great distance, and that is perfect.  Marina serves more sunshine tomatoes and homemade scramble.  I finish the slide show for the talk.  Marina tells me there is a taverna up the hill where I should go for lunch.  She shows me the path.  An hour in, I am still deep in my slides.  Marina comes to tell me I need to get going and eat lunch.  We all need a bossy Italian mum sometimes. 

I wander into the woods to find the taverna.  The forest breathes.  Suddenly the vegetation ends and I am on a sun-scorched road.  I keep climbing, and feel a mix of sunscreen and sweat run under my wedding band.  The road finally ends.  The wall of the house reads “La Tavernetta Trattoria”, and I feel a rush of satisfaction at having found my way, and relief that I will get to slink into shade.  Marina has called ahead so they are expecting me.  They seat me on the terrace at a table numbered 7.  It is my favourite number; we were all given a number in primary school, and I happened to get 7.  The menu is in Italian only and I order courageously without much understanding.  There are animated conversations around me, and long-form lunches involving several courses.  No-one is in a rush. 

I see boys playing football near-by, and fighting.  I am expecting the ball to crash through a window any moment.  Trevor Noah’s pranks were relentless, to the point he was nicknamed “Terror”.  The experience of being a child seems pretty universally loud and chaotic regardless of our geography. 

I realise that what often causes suffering is not what happens, but the delta between what I expect and what happens. When preparing a lecture gig, and any scenario for that matter, I should have in mind three alternatives:

  1. We travel with Bamse, lecture in person, have gorgeous food and enticingly orange Aperol Sptriz.
  2. One of us travels, because one of the kids is inevitably unwell.
  3. None of us travels and we lecture via zoom. 

Mapping out alternative scenarios at the outset would create a less rigid expectation, with a readiness to see the silver lining in whatever happens.  Scenario 2 clearly delivers the benefit of a soulfully silent weekend in the embrace of San Pellegrino woods. 

My lunch arrives.  The meat and vegetables on my plate are so pure somehow that taking a picture would undermine their grace.

In the afternoon, I do some clean tech work and practise my non-existent swim in Marina’s pool.  She joins me in the pool.  We talk about her family: she has three kids and they all live nearby.  Her husband runs the place full-time, and she helps when she is not teaching middle school maths.  She offers to drive me to the research institute tomorrow as she needs to go see an ear doctor anyway, and it is difficult to get taxis to come to this neck of the woods.  A true mum.

The sun sets to my further realisations on how to enjoy the uncertainty of two-career, two-child, multi-uncertain reality:

  • Have a kind dialogue with yourself.  That is the conversation you have the most, so make it enjoyable and do not berate yourself.  This TED talk is excellent: Dan Harris: The benefits of not being a jerk to yourself | TED Talk
  • You don’t actually know what your future self wants, so stay humble, curious and brave.  Including embrace the new Italian family.  This advice is by Shankar Vedantam: You don’t actually know what your future self wants | TED Talk.
  • Intensity in a team is sometimes essential, so accept it.  Tension creates motion, for example when the wind hits the surface of sails at an appropriate angle.  But one should know when to take the sails in, moor, dig your toes into a sandy beach, have a drink and give Paris Clooney a cuddle.

We navigate the Monday morning traffic in Italian Mum’s electric Fiat.  Here we are, talking about the Government’s subsidy to buy electric cars and solar panels.  Patsy Rodenburg OBE talks about a connection in her book “Presence”.  Fiat 500 is full of presence.  I know that if we lived around the corner, we would be having family dinners in the Trattoria and splashing with her 10-month-old grand-son in the pool.  We would become part of the village’s fabric.  Italian Mum is momentarily misguided by traffic works, but we find our way to the institute, Alco a Cele Dacco, in Ranica.  The Fiat of Presence stops. 

She gives me a hug.  There is the love.  Only the prayer bit to go now.  I promise to bring la famiglia next time, and wave her off to her ear doctor appointment.

At the research centre, I test run the lecture.  The electric sockets are not working.  Jonathan sends through his recorded talk and I watch his animated head speaking on the screen.  My high heels are feeling small in the heat, so I kick them off and look for a better power socket, bare-foot.  There’s perfect and there’s good enough.  Chasing the former makes you suffer.  Aiming for the latter allows you to joke and smile.

I step into the garden.  Italy’s summer sun settles on my skin like a warm weight.  I box breathe to Patsy’s instructions – my version of a prayer – and walk in to give the lecture.

The room is packed with pure scientists in the field of kidney disease.  Interdisciplinary is the word in today’s world.  How to converse with someone who thinks differently, and how to connect the dots, and to challenge premises.  Having the confidence to challenge ideas was the biggest gift of my PPE degree and what has helped me blast boundaries as a lawyer.

The lecture is engaging, and a success.  I find my luggage and head to the airport.  The pebbles crunch under the taxi tyres. 

You might think the challenge ends here, but EasyJet is delayed (as usual).  Trevor’s mother getting shot in the head puts it into perspective.  I have been up since 4am UK time and the exhaustion burns bitterly in my eyeballs, but I have a lovely cup of English breakfast and take care of client calls.

I find Jonathan and the boys past midnight in the dark parking lot of Gatwick.  We have a ferry to catch in Germany to make it to Finland for the boys’ summer holidays; I will remote work.  My Paris Clooney drives through the night and stops at a nondescript gas station in Belgium where I do a 7.30am conference call while he naps.  I get a text saying that the ferry has been downgraded and we no longer have a nice cabin with a sea view.  But what we have are Swedish summer classics from the 80s to House Mafia, and lousy Burger King, and we sing and chat.  The family is back in the groove.

[1]              Names anonymised for privacy.