Happy Birthday dear Biologico

24598_101777316529563_3127801_nToday is my father’s birthday. Or at least it would have been, but he died in January 2014.
I didn’t really know him until I was a teenager. My mother and he split up when I was two. She and I moved to Sweden then England and we had no contact with him until we went back to Italy over ten years later. When he first met me after all that time, he was disappointed. I didn’t speak Italian, I had no idea who Dante was, and my hero was John Travolta. “I see you have inherited my looks and your mother’s brains, a most unfortunate way for things to have turned out,” was one of the first things he said to me. It seemed too late to call him ‘daddy’ so he became ‘biologico’ for obvious reasons.
He was not the most patient man, and this was before the days when children had any say in their upbringing whatsoever. Our first few years together were spent battling . Him battling to make me more intelligent, me battling to remain in the mediocrity I felt comfortable with. I am now struggling with a similar situation, trying to stop my own teenage daughter from being as stupid as I was.
At the time of course I was sure he was wrong, that how one spoke was irrelevant, that learning Dante was utterly ridiculous and that there was no real reason to read books or stop smoking. But now on his birthday I look back on all his efforts as a kind of gift. I never did learn the Divine Comedy off by heart (as he did) but I am glad that he at least opened my eyes to a world above John Travolta, smoking cigarettes and ghastly pop music.
I guess that is all you can do with children, show them what’s out there, and hope they pick up on it. Even if it takes several years for the message to get through. Sometimes it probably doesn’t even get through.1008974_655292077863679_1983957060_o
As Dorothy Parker put it so well while on a quiz show trying to use the word horticulture in a sentence: “You can lead a whore to culture, but you can’t make her think.”
I wish he were here today of course, I would phone him up and wish him Happy Birthday, he would immediately be able to tell if something was bothering me and give me some advice on how to deal with it, then he would say “grazie per la chiamata”, hang up and get back to his writing.
The best way to remember him will be to spend the day writing. He was a firm believer in working every day, and not letting too much nonsense get in the way. Of course sometimes as far as he was concerned I was the nonsense, he did constantly remind me of how stupid I was, which at the time felt kind of harsh, but looking back on it now seems fair.
Happy Birthday dear Biologico, and thank you.

Good parenting

The other night I had a drink with a friend of mine who had just had lunch with her parents. She took a sip of her wine and sighed. “For everything they’ve ever taught me, I may as well be an orphan,” she said.

My friend had what I would describe as a pretty traditional upbringing; two siblings, no divorce, living in more or less the same house throughout her childhood. The complete opposite of mine I suppose.

But her comment really got me thinking about what does make good parenting?

523931_466908883349736_884495519_nWhen my father was on his deathbed, barely aware of his surroundings, I told him he’d been a great father. He practically sat up in shock, sending the tubes flying. It made me laugh at the time. I wish we could have laughed about it together and talked, but he could no longer really speak.

Of course when I said he’s been a great father I didn’t mean he’d changed my nappies, driven me to and from school, cooked me beans on toast for tea and so on. What I meant was that without him I would have been, as my husband puts it, “an infinitely less interesting person”.

While he may not have taught me anything about the practical things in life, such as the importance of saving money on the rare occasions you have it, he taught me so many other things such as the importance of words (he used to read dictionaries like novels), humour (he would never lose his sense of humour, apart from when I was unable to recite Dante) and learning. When I finally stopped being a drop-out and decided to go to university I was in a quandary about what to study. “The important thing is not what you study,” he told me. “The important thing is that you study.”

He said so much that I will never forget. One of the best pieces of advice he gave was to “chiedi Bach” that is “ask Bach” if you have a problem. The idea is that you listen to Bach and the answer will come to you. It is not fool-proof, but a lot of the time it works.

IMG_2051I guess my point is that the fact that he said things I will never forget means they were significant. And surely one of the points of being a good parent is to be just that? And to teach your children to live well, and not be an idiot. Of course my father was an idiot in lots of ways, as we all are, but he got away with it, because he taught me so much that made me become less of one.

If we can make our children less idiotic we have done a good job. And if we can do that without being mundane or boring so much the better. I really don’t want to be remembered solely as the kind of parent who came up with tips on how to clean an oven, or which building society account to opt for. And if that makes me a bad parent then so be it.

Parental Truth number…I’ve lost count

Here is my parental truth of the day: the girls are being dreadful and I don’t know what to do about it.  We don’t beat, starve or lock them up. And no form of punishment we think of (in fact about the only one we can think of is no TV or no pocket money) seems to make any difference at all.

So Rupert came up with the idea of a contract. You do this and we do this kind of thing, lay it all out in black and white. Here is Olivia’s, Bea’s is basically the same.


I, Olivia Wright, agree to:

Go to bed at 8 o’clock during schooldays, having done my homework and got my clothes ready. To get up in the morning, eat some breakfast and be ready to leave at 7.15. I will not clown around in the car, either on the way there or on the way back. I will wear my seatbelt at all times. I will not be rude to Ramina, Nisar or anybody else. I will go to those activities that I have chosen, and will practise the piano. I will not make a fuss during the lesson, nor say that I do not want to play. I will not lose my temper and shout at my mother or brother or sister. I will not go out of the house without first asking permission. At no time will I act the goat. I will also do my homework and piano practice as soon as I come home from school. That includes Thursday so I don’t have any homework at the weekend.

In return, we, Mummy and Daddy, agree to:

Give you 20 dirhams pocket money every week. Take you swimming and out to lunch and dinner when possible. Buy you nice clothes. Look after you and help with your homework, and not go out more than twice a week unless it is work-related. Take you on holiday. Love you forever.

However, any breach of the above agreement and first there will be no pocket money. Then there will be no activities, no new clothes, no friends over and no nice treats whatsoever. Your birthday will be cancelled and you will not get any Christmas presents.

October 9, 2009


We all signed it and the girls proudly stuck them up on the wall. That was a week ago. As I write there is no discernible difference in their behaviour so my plan is to get a friend they don’t know to pose as a lawyer and pretend we are suing them for breach of contract. Maybe the threat of a prison sentence will encourage them? I am beginning to understand what a great invention boarding school was…..

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2009

Grumpy Frogs….

A survey published today concludes that the French are more miserable than ever. In fact they are more miserable now than any time since records began. That’s pretty miserable.
When I moved to France eight years ago with my children I expected them to pick up the spirit of Voltaire, freedom, liberty and equality.


Little did I know that almost by osmosis they would pick up another, more obvious, national trait: the ability to whinge, complain, curse one’s lot and go on strike at every given opportunity.

You might think the average Frenchman has a lot to be chuffed about: the choice of endless sea shores, fabulous skiing, the loveliest city in the world, great food and wine, sunshine and the sexiest First Lady since Jackie Kennedy. Are they happy? Non. They are not. I have never known a nation grumble so much. I can only assume that they are worried that if they smile the tax man will assume they are hiding money and come and investigate them.

Tomorrow I am leaving my grumpy children and going off to renew myself at my new anti-ageing spa retreat. It is May 1st so I will be almost the only person in France “working”. But somehow I can’t see myself grumbling, however tough the downward dog gets…..

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2008

Parental Truths number eight

Despite paying thousands of euros a year into the French pension and social security system, we are under no illusion that they will give us any money when we’re older and even greyer. So we have been vetting the children.

“Which of you will look after us when we’re old?” asked Rupert the other day.

“Bea will be no good,” said Olivia, “she’ll be too busy with her boyfriends.”

“What about you? You’ll look after us, won’t you?” he asked.

“Only if you’re good,” she replied.

So parental truth number eight is this. Although your children have the right to drive you mad and behave as badly as is possible for twenty years or more, you do not. But I guess we have had our turn with our parents.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2008

Parental Truths number eight

Oh help, how depressing. When I was young my stepfather would always say to me; “You’ll wish you listened to me, I am older and wiser than you and I know better.” Of course I didn’t listen to him, I found listening to anyone extremely tedious and, anyway, how come he knew so much?

Who was it who said I started out thinking my parents knew nothing, by the time I was twenty I was amazed at how much they had learnt?

Anyway, the night before last there was a storm and Bea couldn’t sleep. “Go to sleep Bea, we’re going to the ballet tomorrow night, you’ll be tired.” Still she fiddled about until the early hours. Yesterday afternoon I told her to have a sleep. “You’ll sleep through the ballet tonight,” I warned her. “Have a sleep.” No way. In the car on the way to Montpellier I tried again. “I’m not tired,” said a by-now-extremely-tired Bea. “I don’t want to sleep.”

We went to see Coppelia, performed by the National Ballet of Kazan. The what? I hear you ask. Well, apparently it’s part of the National Opera of Tartarstan, in the Volga region. Wherever they came from, they were excellent. They danced as only Russian ballet dancers can dance, with 100% precision and constant smiles. The chorus was perfectly synchronised, the prima ballerina impeccable. The male lead had buttocks that made you want to weep with a mixture of lust and envy.


“I love it,” said Bea, during the interval, glowing and grinning from ear to ear. “I’m going to dream about it.” And indeed she did. She dreamt about it all the way through the third act which has a pas de deux I would travel to Tartarstan to see.

Tempted as I am to say “I told you so” I remember how bloody annoying that was when my stepfather did it, so I won’t. I might just buy her a DVD of the ballet for Christmas and watch the third act with her.

All four girls (Bea, Manon, Olivia and Estelle) were great. An English couple behind us said their hearts sank when they saw that they were behind four children. “But they were less trouble than our neighbours,” they told us on leaving. “The girls were all transfixed.” Apart from Bea of course, who was asleep.

Even if she missed the final act I am thrilled. I have always loved ballet and I was really hoping my girls would too. It is one of those things that when done well leaves you with a warm glow for days afterwards and an inexplicable desire to jump around wearing a tutu. Which I think is a good thing. When I once did this with my friend Louise in her aunt’s garden we were told “it’s so much better to live out your fantasies.” I couldn’t agree more.

Having my two happy little girls sitting with me watching ballet dancers all the way from Russia is something I have fantasised about for years. Even if the little one did miss one of the best bits.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2007

The homecoming (parental truths number seven)


We got back yesterday evening from a perfect press trip. I did write and tell you all about it but the blog seems to have vanished. I can only assume the tourist board of the Var, keen to avoid yet more visitors to the magical islands of Porquerolles and Port-Cros somehow managed to infiltrate my blog and delete it. Anyway, to sum up, it was totally perfect. Lots of sunshine, sea, sand, and not a PR person in sight. The only PR I saw a lot of was Pale Rose.

Then we came home. It started well. “Did you have a nice sleep?” was Leo’s first question. But then it went pear-shaped. Children, rather like animals, will punish you if you go away. The parental truth is that much as you NEED to get away in order to remain married, they don’t care. I mean they care about you remaining married but they don’t care what takes you away, they don’t like it.

They bickered and fought and pushed each other off the trampoline and argued and wept and generally behaved as badly as was humanly possible until it was time for bed.

But I was prepared for this. I had three days to prepare for this. And rather like a terrible hangover after a fantastic party I have to conclude that it was worth it.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2007

Parental truths number six

The Happy DayI have always prided myself on the fact that Rupert and I have never had an argument in front of the children. I think after almost 10 years of marriage this is incredibly good going. But, I’m sorry to report, parental truth number six is that you will, at some stage, argue with your spouse in front of your children. And a few nights ago, I did.

I won’t go into the details. Obviously I was totally, 100 % right and he was impossibly wrong. But the reaction of the children was not as I had imagined.

After about three minutes Olivia started to cry, which then set the other two off. I felt like a wicked witch and we immediately stopped arguing. A little later on, Olivia told me she didn’t like us arguing.

“I don’t like it either darling,” I replied. “But you three argue all the time, now you see how hateful it is.”

“Yes,” she said. “But we can’t split up.”

Fair comment I suppose. Then came Bea’s reaction, as she flounced past me in her cute little swimming costume.

“If you two split up, I’m not living with either of you.”

We have been warned.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2007

Parental Truths number five

When I was a little girl I would spend hours hitting a tennis ball against a cement wall in a barn on the farm we lived. One of the few advantages of getting older is that I can now pay someone to hit a tennis ball back to me.

I am sure that anyone who is a parent thinks their children are having a nicer childhood than they did. Last night we sat watching our three jump in and out of the pool, climb the almond tree to pick some almonds and push each other in the hammock squealing with laughter eating figs from the fig tree.

“I’d like to have my childhood again,” said Rupert. “Here.”

I agree with him. But the children of course don’t see it. Last Wednesday as I spent my whole afternoon driving them around to their various sports activites Olivia was complaining.

Feliciano & Rafael“When I was little I didn’t have anyone to drive me anywhere,” I said, sounding like the Monty Python ‘we had it tough’ sketch. “I had to walk three miles to the local stable, muck out horses all morning and then in return I would get to ride for an hour.”

“Why didn’t you cycle there?” she asked. Good point. Wish I’d thought of that.

Anyway, back to tennis. During my lesson this morning a young man who looked like a cross between Rafael Nadal and Feliciano Lopez arrived on the court next door to me.

In my seven years here I have yet to spot what men would call a ‘total babe’. In about three seconds this man made up for seven years of babe deprivation. Then he took his top off.

I am going to call my catholic friend Mary with whom I had a heated discussion last night and tell her she’s right. There is a god.

Parental truths number four

Unwelcome visitorsIf you don’t have children you have probably never had to deal with head-lice. They are more irritating than unwanted house-guests and seem to stay longer. My step-daughter first got them aged five and is only now (aged 13) finally getting rid of them.

But now my children have them. And of course I have caught them too. I thought they would be put off by Rodolfo Valentin’s exquisite infusions, but no, they love them.

As any head-lice enemy will know the most effective way to get them out is by pouring conditioner on your hair and combing them out. Of course with hair extensions this is no longer an option. So I will have to find someone willing to pick them out, which could be tricky. It brings a whole new meaning to the phrase nit-picking.

I have become a woman possessed. I can’t see one of my children’s heads without pouncing on them and picking out lice. Yesterday Leonardo and I spent a happy hour on the terrace while I picked out his head-lice and he ran them over with his yellow toy Mercedes.

But that is the only upside to them and frankly it’s just not enough. I have heard that there is an electric gun you buy that zaps them. If anyone knows where you can get it from; please advise. Electrocuting them could be even more fun than running them over.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2007