A small apartment in the middle of Milan. A kitchen, a bathroom, a bed-sitting room. Tiled floors. Tall windows. The aroma of something delicious simmering all day on the stove. Sauces so rich, it only requires a dessertspoon over pasta, with a sprinkle of fresh Parmesan. Yet, this is only il primo, the entrée. Il secondo is meat and potatoes. We are forever eating. Our washing is done, our ironing, too, while we pop out to visit the duomo and the Last Supper, which we can barely see for scaffolding.
The One & Only and I are to share Zia’s big bed with its iron bedstead. We prevaricate, she insists. She and her sister will share the sofa bed at the end of the bed. Awkward as hell, but so well-intentioned. To look at, they are Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker in the flesh, without the deficient personalities of Dahl’s horrid aunts. These Italian aunts are kindness and generosity personified.
As the days pass, their broken English gradually grows more fluent. Likewise, our broken Italian. All of us understanding more than we can say. A family photo requires endless preparation with combs and lipstick. Everything must be perfect. Without makeup or jewelry to hand, I wait patiently as the aunts bustle in the bathroom for an age.
We have arrived on bikes, which have become a burden in the suffocating heat of August. We park them in left luggage and buy a train pass. We have a two man tent and six weeks to explore the boot of Europe. We find a gift of 200,000 lite wrapped in a flannel. The One & Only sees extra weeks of travel, but I insist we should use it for a special treat. I win the toss. I have a plan.
We head south to Firenze, Roma and Napoli. We crash a friend’s honeymoon in Sorrento and together we trek across to Pompeii. In the cool of the evening we eat pizza among the olive groves, overlooking the Bay of Naples. Gelati, sometimes twice a day, has become the ‘go to’ snack. And with so many flavours to choose from, we may be here for years!
We head north again to Treviso, and back among the family: the aunts, of course, and more. An uncle, Nonna and a handful of cousins, too. All with names that sound like poetry: Tatiana, Serenella, Mirella. All with faces and figures like movie stars. Move over Sophia.
Staggering off the bus, we spot a tiny figure careering up the street calling for her grandson. Nonna. Ninety years old and as strong as an ox. She covers us in kisses and almost drags us home, wanting to carry our bags, or us, we’re not sure. Our understanding is poor, and in her excitement, she is talking a million miles an hour. We cross the city – cobbled streets, stone bridges, high walls – and into the luxury of a spacious apartment, after weeks in a two man tent. A bathroom, a real bed, and eating at a table. The One & Only is being constantly grappled round the knees by his affectionate but truly short family.
We drive up into the Dolomites with the aunts and Zio Corrado, laden with enough food to survive an ice age. We picnic beside an alpine lake – Lago di Misurina – under the pines. Prosciutto, olives, and cotolette that Nonna prepared late last night. Zio chats in Italian, which the aunts struggle to translate. His English may be non-existent, but he exudes warmth.What a sweet gentle man, with his deep love of the mountains. We leave the wander around the lake, gasping at the views, while the relatives enjoy a postprandial nap.
Later, we drive on to the ski resort town of Cortina d’Ampezzo. ‘Bello, bello, bello.’ A chairlift carries us up the mountain, where the air is crisp and clear, and the panorama is stunning. Cow bells echo off the cliff faces. Small children attempt to throw themselves over the railings. Parents hold tight. Then down again for coffee and cake, while Zio, the eternal extrovert, makes friends with the neighbouring table. The One & Only is delighted with his family, agog at the scenery. Perhaps we will come and live here one day…
A day of sightseeing in Venezia, just the two of us, exploring back streets away from the souvenir shops and trillions of tourists. Then back home for dinner with the family, where we ad lib in a bizarre mix of Italian, English and French among furniture straight out of Beauty and the Beast – I’m sure that pastel wardrobe can talk – and vast chandeliers in multi-coloured Venetian glass. Overly fussy for my taste, but quite spectacular.
The cousins kidnap us for a trip to a café beneath the ramparts of a 10th century castello (castle) in Conegliano, and again, the following day, for a jaunt to the sea at Jesolo Lido. I can’t profess to be fluent in Italian, but none of us will be deterred by the lack of a common language and we continue to get by in ‘Italish’ or ‘Franglais.’
Back on the train, we head west, aiming for Milan and a train to somewhere else. I insist on jumping off at Verona, where we unwrap the gift from the aunts, and buy tickets for a ballet at the Arena. Romeo & Juliet no less. It couldn’t be more perfect. A camp site up in the hills gives us stunning views onto the terracotta roofs of the town far below.
After pitching the tent and refreshing ourselves under cold showers, we wander back down to town, and take our seats high above the stage on the rough stone steps of the Arena. Candles are handed to the audience and the flickering lights are beautiful, competing with the stars. This morning, the stage was set up for the magnificent opera Aida. Tonight, it has been cleared for the dancers and the set is simplicity itself. Like a political rally, the Capulets are in blue, the Montagues in red. Or was it the other way around? No matter. It is wonderful. The orchestra makes the most of the amazing acoustics, and Prokoviev’s lush music soars to the heavens. This really is a ballet to show off the skills of the male dancers. Romeo and Tybalt and their kinsmen are breath-taking, as they leap and twirl across the stage.
Afterwards, we wander dreamily back through cobbled streets, past the balcony that claims to be Juliet’s own. There is always a balcony somewhere for lovers to meet. A magical night, a wonderful gift, from those sweet and thoughtful aunts.