The phone rang its extended continental beep. ‘Pronto!’ said a slightly bored sounding Italian teenage girl.
‘Ciao Elena! Come stai?’
So beganneth the conversation I had last night with the girl for whom I babysat when she was just a few months old. Sadly sixteen years have slipped by and she is no longer the chubby cheeked little creature she once was. I haven’t seen her since she was about six, so it will be quite a shock. After a long time without contact, it is hard to believe that tomorrow night we will be having dinner in Padova (Padua) with the wonderful family I once worked for. We left in 1992 after two glorious years in this ancient seat of learning in north-east Italy, a stone’s throw from Venice. We used to return frequently until another stint in Italy (Milan this time), new baby, a return to England, house renovation, house move, new baby, house re-build, new baby, house move – all in quick succession - took their toll on our time.
Padova is where my husband proposed to me (over the washing line – you can tell he’s no passionate Italian) and where we mutually fell in love with the land, its culture and its people as so many have done before us. That old cliché, la dolce vita, is as true today as it ever was. I don’t think there is a nation who knows how to live life quite as well as they do in Italy. Whatever the situation, the Italian ‘spirito’, their ‘brio’, always wins through. It is hard to be sad for long.
I will never forget the evening we first drove into Padova – my Fiat Panda, my (not yet) husband’s Golf, both packed to the gunnels after a two day drive through France, Luxembourg, Switzerland and down into Italy. With each sign on the autostrada counting down the kilometres till our exit, I grew more excited, and nervous, about what I was going to find. As we passed through the city walls and drove through the narrow porticoed streets in search of our new home, I stopped my car, rolled down the window and said to my husband-in-waiting, ‘Why on earth didn’t you tell me it was so beautiful?’
Forgive me if I seem to be straying a little from the theme of English Country Living. The truth is that when we first visited the village where we now live in the Peak District, my husband and I both agreed that we sensed a set of rhythms which were not dissimilar to those we had experienced, and so loved, during our time in Italy. The passage of the cows to milking, the movements of the farmers checking their flocks and herds round the hills and dales were as regular and predictable as the flood of people into Padova’s central piazzas for ‘passagiata’ and their reciprocal emptying when the time came to eat.. I just thought it would be interesting to draw a few comparisons, shed a soft Italian light on things. Added to which, my best friend here is Italian, blown like me into a life that neither of us would ever have imagined. She lives in a lost valley: I’m on my hill. She is in Staffordshire: I am in Derbyshire. Her husband is a pilot and they have an alpaca farm: my husband’s an accountant and we have a cat. She has two young boys: I have three young girls. She gives me the bursts of Mediterranean sunshine that I crave with her laughter, her passion and with prosciutto, parmesan and olives smuggled in from her homeland: I temper her occasional homesickness as the winds and rain lash our respective homes with reminiscences in her native tongue about la bell’Italia. Most of all we laugh together at the strange twists of fate that brought us both to this part of the world. You see, 10 years ago, our paths crossed once before – but maybe I’ll tell you about that some other time.
Till then, my friends, arrivederci.