Italy: 2016 (going back to 1959)


I wrote this Tea Towel Blog while watching the Italy v Germany football match, on TV, at Euro 2016, feeling somewhat guilty.  There I was, hoping Germany would win yet reminiscing about my family in Italy.  Maybe it’s just that I like Muller, as a football player, and think that Italy are, and always have been, a bit over-dramatic.  My leanings toward the football teams that I support do not affect, at all, my love of Italy as a country or my great memories of family and times spent there.

My Aunty Eileen, my mother’s sister, was always destined to end up living in Italy; different from her other siblings, with a middle name of Carina and a tendency towards a bit of a drama, she met her husband, Ferruccio, while she was working in Barclays Bank in London;  he was over in England on a training secondment.  They married in 1958 in Ealing and moved to live in Italy permanently, initially in Genoa; it never occured to her that she might return to England someday.  Italy was the home she craved and the culture was one which she immersed herself in.  She must have been the envy of all Italian mothers: she had three sons, one a teacher and musician, one a doctor and the youngest a priest.  She was one proud mother. Aunty Eileen and my mother were very close; it was before the days of the Internet so they wrote to each other regularly.  I can still remember Aunty Eileen’s letters; she could make a cold, or a bout of flu, in the family into a dramatic episode, described in great detail.  You would think hospitalisation was the next step; by the time the next letter arrived that was all forgotten and some other drama would have occured.  The letters were fabulous, something we waited for with eager anticipation.

My cousin Andrew (Andrea), who lives in Florence, came over to England with his father in May; they did a ‘pilgrimage’ to visit all the family members (still left), scattered across the country.  I hadn’t seen Andrew since 1992, when he got married.  We keep in contact through Christmas cards (the ones that will usually arrive late because I forget to take into account the Italian postal service) with the Christmas Newsletter.  There has been the very occasional email; Andrew and I are not as committed to those weekly communications that my mother and her sister were!  Andrew and Ferruccio were staying in London and had arranged to come and see me. Naively I asked “Do you know where Leicester is?”.  “Of course, Leicester City are at the top of the Premiership”. Leicester City were clearly not just a British phenomenon but their fame had stretched across Europe (especially since they have an Italian manager!).  I might not have seen Andrew and Ferruccio for 24 years but it didn’t stop us talking non-stop while they were with me.  It’s strange how I can drag the conversation round to the Tea Towel Blog! We talked about my love of tea towels and Andrew admitted that he really liked tea towels and had quite a few himself.  It must be genetic.  After he returned to Italy, I thought that I really ought to find a decent one of Leicester and send it to him.  I am almost ashamed to admit that I do not have a tea towel of Leicester myself.  Then I found out why; it is really difficult to find a nice tea towel from Leicester.  I had hoped it would either be one of Leicester City Football Club (no chance) or Richard III (the King found in a Social Services car park three years ago).  I had more luck with that. In fact, I found two very tasteful tea towels (which I forgot to take photos of) of Richard III and sent them to him.  Several weeks later, I received a surprise parcel in the post: two Italian tea towels with a note “It was a wonderful surprise to receive your tea towels.  They are not a popular item in Italy” and was very apologetic.  They may not be very popular but there is a ‘style’ to Italian tea towels.  I say this because I do own two tea towels from Italy which I have already blogged about (Lake Maggiore and Pasta, both blogs dated 12/6/15, separately).  They are in exactly the same style – very large, (much larger than conventional British tea towels), bright white background, very colourful and ‘busy’ with lots of information; also with the same sort of border.  I really like them.  Perhaps I could start a collection of Italian tea towels; Andrew sent me one of a map of Italy and another (subject of a later Blog) of Tuscany.  When I was in Italy I also bought other tea towels which I gave away as presents – one of Olive Oil, one of Italian wines, one of Italian cheese (I didn’t photograph them either).  So Andrew shouldn’t apologise, I think these Italian tea towels are great.

A tea towel with a map of Italy is great; I always love a good map.  But the map reminds me of the many holidays and happy times I had in Italy with Aunty Eileen and her family.  I was fortunate enough to be able to go and stay with her every summer holiday from the age of 7 until I left school, and quite often at the Easter holidays as well.  My first visits were to Genoa but after a couple of years they moved to Rome.  And how  I loved Rome.  As with many Italian families living in Rome during the summer, which is very hot, they ‘retired’ to the Dolomite mountains for a couple of months each year so I had the opportunity to visit them there and one one occasion going to Milan for the day to see Milan Cathedral.  This tea towel reminds me of those 8 or 9 years that I spent time with them.  My memories of those times are strikingly vivid: (a) the weather: I remember the brilliant sunshine and the heat, never had to take a coat although you had to be prepared for the sudden thunder storms and brief spells of torrential rain with thunder and lightening.  But it cleared up so quickly. Italy may be the place I learned to always wear long sleeves, never to ‘expose’ my arms, something that my friends comment on even today.  I never got sunburnt (b) I was always surprised that most Italians in towns appeared to live in apartments with big balconies.  Aunty Eileen lived outside the centre of Rome and their apartment was on the first floor.  They shared some communal growing space with their neighbours.  Aunty Eileen grew tomatoes, zucchini  (I only found out that these were actually courgettes, a few years ago) and salad.  I remember my aunt making gallons of minestrone soup, with me as the sou chef preparing the vegetables.  She taught me how to ‘skin’ the very large beef tomatoes – not a skill I have used since, I would have to say. Some days the amount of vegetables seemed never ending but sitting in the sun on a stool, in the peace of the Italian countryside seemed like bliss, such a contrast with London  (c) I have distinct memories of being some kind of ‘beast of burden’ when I went to Italy, taking items that my aunt couldn’t buy in Italy and still missed.  Remember, this was long before the Internet and Mr Amazon.  Marmite, Polo Mints, Pontefract Cakes, Oxo Cubes, Bisto Gravy Powder, Birds Custard Powder, loose leaf tea because you could only buy tea bags in Italy, Marks and Spencer knickers….. I am glad they didn’t have scanning machines in airports in those days.  I would have looked like some kind of ‘drug mule’ (d) I remember being very keen to buy my parents some exciting presents from my holiday.  I remember going around the big supermarket/department store of that that time that I think was called Uno.  The first present I remember buying was a dark green, ‘unbreakable’ glass bowl; it was huge, very deep; I still have it and it is very heavy.  I wonder that I got through the baggage weight restriction.  My mother loved it; I’m not sure my Dad was so excited and for a number of the following visits I added to this collection – a yellow bowl, some yellow and blue drinking glasses.  I don’t know if they are ‘unbreakable’ but they are certainly durable hence I have them 50 years later (e) the ‘rule’ of Aunty Eileen’s household was that English was always spoken at home and Italian outside.  It was good for my cousins who are fluent now in many languages but it was also good for me.  I hate speaking foreign languages, I was just too embarrassed but she ‘forced’ me to, she wouldn’t interpret or translate.  As a result I did manage to get a good grade in Italian O/Level which has proved useful on an occasional Italian holiday – not that I would actually speak it but I could tell the people I was with what things meant and what to say!!  (f) I remember the amazing days out in Rome, visiting places like the Colosseum, Roman Forum, St. Peter’s, the Sistine Chapel.  Aunty Eileen inspired in me a love of the world of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci.  I still have a number of art books I bought in Italy of their works.  I liked the paintings of Canaletto which made me want to go to Venice and the blood-thirsty work of Caravaggio.  As I grew older, and became more confident about using Italian buses, Aunty Eileen let me go off sightseeing on my own.  I loved doing that; she told me about small churches down the back streets or where to find some less well-known works of Michelangelo; she told me about museums and small, cheap cafes; where to find the hidden treasures; she prepared my packed lunch and, most of all, she trusted me.  She told me what time to be back and I was never late.  It was one of the best periods of my teenage years.  When I was 15, I met Alberto Dentoni, at the Spanish Steps; he was a student who showed me around ‘his’ Rome.  He was a great guide.  I told Aunty Eileen and she was ok about it, except the next time I was to meet him she didn’t let me go by bus, she took me by car so she could meet him.  It was no holiday romance, just a friendship which lasted several years.  Not long ago I found a passport-sized photo of him; he was, in fact, very good looking. I missed a chance there!!  (g) I remember playing with my younger cousins, especially Andrew, who, for some reason I cannot remember, gave me the ‘Nick name’ of ‘Pickled Onion’ which he pronounced Un-yon (h) Aunty Eileen was a great cook and I learned to love Italian food from her; I learned to love the simplicity of it, the use of fresh ingredients, the use of Parmazon cheese to add flavour.  I’m never quite sure why, on reflection, that I had to take things like Bisto since I never saw her use it.

As a child, I was the envy of all my friends being able to spend every summer in Italy; I certainly had interesting things to write in those essays ‘What I did in my Summer Holidays’.  As an adult, my friends, who are parents, find it odd that my parents could just take me, as a seven year old, to Heathrow Airport and hand me over to an Air Hostess and be able to travel independently. Not a problem, my aunt was always there to meet me and I used the opportunity to read ‘Heidi’. Those times in Italy gave me such opportunities and learning experiences – of Roman history and architecture, of Renaissance art, of the Italian language but also the opportunity to develop self-confidence and independence skills.

Just looking at this tea towel gives me a warm feeling and such happy memories.  I look at the map and there are loads of places that I visited later on, as a result of those holidays with Aunty Eileen – Florence, Venice, Verona, Pisa, Siena, Assisi and to the Italian Lakes; it also makes me realise that there are so many other places that I want to visit in Italy.  Aunty Eileen was great fun, full of imagination and creativity so that even peeling vegetables seemed like good fun.  My aunt was born to be Italian, she was in her element in Italy, never thought about returning to England on a long term basis, even though she was of a true Lancastrian family.  Aunty Eileen was very close to my mother and she gave me a part of my childhood I will never forget and definitely not regret.

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