Autumn has always been a time of new beginnings for me - ironic, perhaps, as everything fades and loses life around us, shutting down for the winter months ahead. But Autumn is when the new school year starts and, in my own life, many new experiences. One of those was going to Italy to live for the first time. N's job was taking him over there for a six month secondment (which turned into two years) and, with nothing to lose (we weren't married and I was working freelance at the time), I decided to go with him. Having studied French and Spanish at university, my justification was going to learn Italian and to get to know a country which I had previously visited just fleetingly.
So, one late September day in 1990, after the wild farewell party where too much Pimms was drunk and my darling brother 'came out' for the first time, we set off, two cars packed to the gunnels, reeling slightly from what had gone before and what lay ahead. The UK was in the grip of a deep recession which had taken the life-blood out of London and we were, to a certain extent, relieved to be escaping to the land of La Dolce Vita.
I really had no idea what to expect. N had gone on a fleeting visit some months earlier and had come back with a few photos. I'd asked him what he thought and his answer was not the fullest. I was no further enlightened. I didn't press him.
So we put the cars on the ferry and headed south to our new life. We passed through Berne to say hello to the bears and our friend who was working there. Then on again, stopping next on the Sustenpass from Switzerland into Italy. We found a hotel right at the top where we dined that night and fell to talking with a local guy who'd hitched up from the valley and was planning to skateboard down that night in the dark. All the way. I often wonder if he ever made it in one piece. Quite a guy.
The following day we journeyed on past the Northern Lakes and then on the autostrada which dissects the northern plain from West to East. We passed Milan, Verona, Vicenza - our ultimate destination, Padova (Padua) inching inexorably closer. I remember stopping for a sandwich on the motorway and being completely fazed by not being able to speak or understand a word. We ate a dried up old panini and I sipped my attempt at getting a shandy which ended up being a mix of beer and lemon cordial. I wouldn't recommend it.
We turned off the motorway at Padova Est. The excitement was mounting - in equal measure with apprehension. It didn't look too promising. We didn't know where we were going - just the vaguest of instructions. We muddled our way through to the inner ring road and popped through a large stone 'porta' (gateway) - one of many around this small city – into a whole new world. We went from brash, wide, open and modern to small, narrow, atmospheric and ancient with one flick of the indicator. It was totally magical, totally unexpected and it took my breath away. N pulled up his new dark green Volkswagen Golf and came over to my old white Fiat Panda to inform me he was lost. I didn’t care. I wound down the window and simply said ‘Why didn’t you tell me it was like this?’ It was utterly wonderful and I fell in love with it in an instant. Big heavy wooden doors with shiny brass plates hid behind the low stone arches of the porticoes that lined the sides of this labyrinthine network of little cobbled streets. Wooden shutters in brown or green, geraniums in window boxes. There was an indescribable peace and calm about the place. None of the hectic horror we so often associate with Italians. Here is was all quiet sophistication, stone, wood and glass. And then suddenly you burst out onto a set of ancient piazzas, onto which all these little streets converge – and here it is all movement and bustle, a cacophony of animated voices, a vision of all things stylish and Italian against this fabulously ancient, silent, backdrop.
We arrived in early October, and this is a period of extended ‘re-entra’ for the Italians after the long summer break. Everyone is gathering and catching up with eachother – swopping stories and travellers’ tales over pizzas and prosecco in the piazzas. You look around and you see nothing but greens and browns and golden tans. Everyone dressed up and looking their best in their autumn colours.
We stood and joined the throng, sipping our drink, staring at the animated scene before our eyes and were filled with an overwhelming sense of well-being. This was going to be fun. Grey London was far behind us, the colour and verve of Italy all in front.
I have posted a recipe for the perfect mushroom risotto over on my Fridge Food blog. Such things I learnt in Padua, the place where I really learned about Italian food and started to cook properly myself. Everytime I cook risotto, I am transported back to these wonderful days in the north-east corner of Italy, a stone's throw from such historical and architectural gems as Venice, Verona and Vicenza. It was a privilege to live there and the experiences and memories I have of these times will stay with me forever.