Having an Italian grandparent means that I have had something to do with Italy in some shape or form since I was born. But although I heard about Italy all the time the nearest I got to experiencing the country was a monthly trip to the Italian delicatessen with my Gran. In a time when a plate of spaghetti hoops sprinkled with pungent parmesan from a tub was considered to be “foreign” and you had to go to the chemist to get olive oil the Italian deli was a veritable Aladdin’s cave. The overwhelming smell of freshly ground coffee, overladen shelves stacked to the ceiling and the colourful Italian owner are definitely the origins of my passion for Italian food.
When I was 8 years old my parents announced that we were going on a great adventure by car to visit our Italian relatives. In the pre-portable technology days my mum’s main concern was keeping 2 children occupied for a 3 day car journey. The main weapon in her armoury was the Ladybird book of Car Games. To this day on car journeys I still absentmindedly compare the numbers of red cars to blue cars, do calculations with numberplates and make up rhymes to the rhythm of the windscreen wipers.
With our Datsun 120Y packed to the roof we excitedly set off from Scotland on the first leg of our journey. Admittedly my nose was buried in one of the many books my mum had been secretly stashing but arriving at Felixstowe ferry port soon grabbed my attention. Taking the overnight ferry was a clever move by my parents and once we got onboard and settled into our cabin we felt that the adventure had really begun. After getting over the initial excitement of there being a shop (a SHOP!), a restaurant (a RESTAURANT!) and a bar (a BAR!) on a boat we nodded off in our bunks and awoke the next morning to the excitement of coming into port and seeing our first bit of foreign land ever. My mum promptly got out the biggest map known to man and started navigating our way across Europe following a route that had been carefully planned over the preceding months. Avoiding France (“we’re not paying those tolls”) we set off for our first stop in Switzerland with much amusement that we managed to drive through a whole country (Luxembourg) in one hour.
On first seeing the Swiss Alps I was quite simply gobsmacked, but I had a little more time to savour them than originally planned as the Datsun 120Y couldn’t quite cope with the roads and gave up the ghost halfway up the side of a mountain. Oblivious to the fact that my parents were understandably quite stressed and not totally registering the vociferous cursing coming from under the bonnet my brother and I just took it as part of the adventure. However all was well and in spite of the fears that foreign lands = getting ripped off, the car was fixed efficiently and for less than it would have cost back home. We were soon on our way and made it to our picturesque Swiss chalet guesthouse where my brother and I got lost under the enormous duvets.
Setting off the next day we finally crossed the border into Italy and as if by magic the sun came out and we really started to feel that we were in southern Europe. Later that day we arrived to a warm welcome from our relatives and looks of astonishment that we’d actually made it across Europe in that car.
Needless to say the holiday was amazing – being able to play in the sea without actually turning blue, the warm evenings, being allowed to sit in a bar with the grown ups and not to mention the pizza, the ice cream and my first ever taste of watermelon granita. My brother made a friend using the common language of lego, Italian children loved practising their school English on me and in spite of the fact that we were a local curiosity being the whitest people that had ever been on a beach in Abruzzo, the whole experience was just very special.
It was my very first experience of Italy and the first of many subsequent trips to Italy for pleasure, study and work. All of which culminated in one of my last holidays nearly 8 years ago when I never quite made it home. And although the Italian way of life has now become my way of life I’ll never forget the excitement and wonder I felt at my first experience of foreign lands.