It’s Sunday morning, the one day that there's chance for a lay-in. I open one eye to be blinded by elongated polka dots of bright sunlight piercing through the tapparelle and mottle my face. Italians shut themselves into complete darkness with either modern built-in roller blinds or older wooden shutters. Both are ideal for shielding their rooms from il caldo, however, getting cool rooms in the scorching summer sun is an art that takes time to learn. I think about turning over and snuggling back down under the duvet, one luxury I definitely wanted instead of blankets and an eiderdown, but the bathroom calls, so I move unwillingly out of my warm quilted cocoon and into the white ceramic coldness of the bagno.
There's a fully fitted bathroom suite including bidet in every household I visit. The ‘foot bath’, for us British, is an essential item in every Italian home. Tell them you don't have one and it's a disgrace.
'Comè!' they say along with squinted eyes and a waving hand gesture.
You can feel their minds ticking rapidly wondering where we wash and you don't need to understand the sign language either as you can feel their disgust. I suppose it's the equivalent of a British reaction when entering into the toilets of Italian public buildings to find just a hole in the ground with two foot pads. There, that face! It's a balancing act which I have yet to master. I really don't know which is worse; trousers or a skirt. It's a circus act. Every action has to be done with one hand as you hold your skirt or hold back your trousers. It takes me back to playing in the wreck as a child and using the public loos. They were stinky, cold and metal with just holes. I had no idea what to do then no more than I do now. I managed, but it was a lasting memory. Italians believe it is more hygienic, but I'll opt for a seated experience every time. Wouldn't you?
Windows wound down and we’re on our way out for breakfast. Something ‘us’ British don’t do. We do lunch, dinner or a coffee, but never breakfast. We religiously sit down to Weetabix or Cornflakes, toast with Marmite or jam, a glass of orange juice or a cup of tea, before stepping a foot out of the door. What was that old saying? “Go to work on an egg”. Ha, Italians would never dream of it! In Italy, there’s a Sunday formality; un espresso and una pasta. Your choice of Danish pastry comes as cream filled, chocolate covered, honey dripped, fruit topped or empty with a sprinkling of icing sugar. However you like your cake, you can eat it without guilt in Italy, on a Sunday.
We arrive at the small coastal town of Bellaria, get out and take a deep breath of fresh, salty, sea air. It fills every part of the lungs, squeezing its wake-up call into every branch of the bronchiole. It’s a quiet resort on the Adriatic coast and a stylish alternative to the busy Rimini close-by. No shops are open, just the cafés and bars. Back in England we relish the release of boredom to the walk up town and do more shopping. Here, there’s no choice; get it on a Saturday or don’t get it at all, and sending the kids down to the ‘offi’ on the corner isn’t possible either, because they don’t exist! It's just a normal way of life to them. Their Sunday regime is going to casa della mamma for some home-made tagliatelle or lasagne. Her sleeves are rolled past her elbows as she mixes the eggs in the flour with a pinch of salt, she kneads the dough rigorously backwards and fowards, then grabs one of the longest and thinnest rolling to roll and stretch, roll and stretch until it's nearly transparent, then and only then is it cut into shape and left to dry. The recipes are always passed down to the girls but still they never make it as good as their nonna can. Our grandmothers might, if they are lucky and we are not too busy, get a visit on Sunday. We'll pop in and have a chat and a quick cup of tea and a bun, but having the mother and father-in-law for dinner every week, not on your Nelly! That's reserved for special occasions like Christmas or Easter not every Sunday. What must the Italians be thinking? I ponder about how there's so many things we British don't do, or forget to do, and then it's too late to do, we can’t turn back the clock and be happy families. Italy and Britain: two hours between them - but two completely different worlds. Even the windows open differently.
We walk down towards the sea, the view is a carpet of glitter balls as the sun sparkles on the ripples rolling on to the shore and the sand twirls in mini-whirlwinds like dancing ballerinas on a golden stage. The beach is wide, quiet and empty with rows and rows of bagni which are still closed and boarded up for the winter break. When the owners of the private bathing establishments return in late April the scene will change to a bustle of music, talking, children playing and army lines of multi-coloured open parasols and sun beds booked for the season. There’s no comparison to fighting with a deckchair and hammering in a wind break at ‘bracing’ Skegness. I've left behind that gusting wind, freezing muddy North Sea, sand crumbed in your toes, not forgetting in your sandwiches, made by mum before she came out, which are now warm, thin and bent from being at the bottom of the beach bag. All to be enjoyed amongst a host of white iced-finger bodies laid out on towels nearby. I can have the luxury of laying above the ground on my private lettino and ombrellone, put up by the tanned and muscular bar owner's son, and taking in the view of the surrounding, golden-baked, toned bodies turning chocolate brown by the minute. I know what I’d choose.
We make our way back to the centre as the sea air has worked up an appetite. My stomach grumbles as we are intoxicated by a profumo of pane fresco. We follow our noses to the main square where we find a few street stalls selling home-made breads, spring flowers, matured Pecorino cheese and ‘Cagnina’, a beautiful purple-red wine. The tasting samples are gladly received and I happily buy two bottles from the locals. Via Paolo Guidi is the main promenade, the perfect place to meander and chat. Italian builders might take their time in their work, but when it's finished, the end product is usually stunning. We walk along a modern, light area with level paving slabs, not like Italy’s roads. There's a problem with the roads, if you haven't already noticed; they're full of buchi. To my amazement I once saw a little 'Ape' van moving and stopping along a town road. The council worker got out near a hole, shovelled loose tar into it, flattened it down on top gently and then got back in to move on to the next hole. No hard hat. No cordoning off to the area. No security signs. No steam roller in sight. No digging up the whole road for three weeks. Just a man and a little van. We pass a seating area where a group of old men cluster together in the shade with life-long friends. The smart clothes, caps and coats, talking all at once and over each other, life worn faces, a wrinkle earned for every story to tell, wild hand gestures and raised voices from arguments which are forgotten and done with, in five minutes. I think about our older, homing-pigeon, generation who coup themselves in cold solitude, or maybe huddle round an electric fire, venturing out maybe once a week to the Co-op for some weekly essentials. Maybe they chat with a friend on the bus and go for a well earned cup of weak tea in Allen's cafe, but never do they just pass the time in groups. Are we really such a cold nation?
We join in the passeggiata, a way of Italian life that needs to be acquired to be accepted; a walk that’s not too fast and not too slow. It’s something which we, British, have a problem doing as we normally dash everywhere to be ‘on time’, ‘in time’ and hardly ever ‘out of time’. You have to learn to enjoy the surroundings, stroll, window shop, gossip with friends and finally, get some exercise before your breakfast. I open the caffè door and my lazy Sunday senses are jumping out of their slumber. Sugar hovers in the air combining with strong espresso. The sweet-bitter perfume alerts my taste buds as my salivating mouth awaits its reward. Clang. Whirr. Chink. Squirt. An orchestra of sound beats on my ear drums with the preparation of the perfect drink. ‘Clang’ as metal on metal empties the last espresso. ‘Whirr’ as beans are freshly ground. ‘Chink’ as tiny tazzine are placed neatly catching the decadent drizzle of black fuel. ‘Squirt’ a crescendo of hot steam is forced into milk. The show repeats itself. Perched teasingly in glass cabinets, are rows on rows of delicious parcels, each one begging to be eaten in one swift mouthful. An ‘eat me’ label would not have been needed for Alice. She’d have crammed them all in with no instruction! I browse on this child’s paradise knowing that each one has an individual, scrumptious reward. From small ‘minion’ cakes to large brioche, I find it hard to choose. I wish I was Italian then I’d know straight away. You see, Italians don’t have a problem decision making. They have their di solito, the same week in week out and it rarely differs. It’s the same with pizza; they order instantly whilst I read tediously over the menu for ten minutes deciding; shall I have the ham and mushroom or the tuna, olive and onion, maybe I'll try the aubergine, courgette, Porcini mushrooms and asparagus, decisions, decisions, then I order what I had last time. I push forward into the crowd. There’s no civil queue, it doesn’t exist! I fight through the throng of people horizontally lined up against the bar either drinking as they stand or waiting to be served.
‘Permesso, scusa, permesso,’ I say as I squeeze my way towards the front.
It’s not for the faint hearted or shy and my ‘English’ personal space is invaded as every inch of me presses into some part of someone else. The orders swoop in from everywhere;
A large espresso topped with a bubble bath of milk.
An espresso with just a touch of milk - a mini cappuccino.
'Caffè macchiato freddo il latte a parte.'
The same but milk on the side in a doll sized jug.
The top of the top - that little espresso with a special touch of 'medicine', as some of the oldies call it, alcohol to me and you in the form of Sambuca or Grappa. It's a complicated ritual that the bar staff seem to learn with ease and take it in their stride. I grin to myself imagining Allen's cafe waitress:
'Yer what? What did you say you wanted luvvy?' with raised eyebrows thinking she might just be on candid camera.
Head up, hand gesture, eye contact and in a loud voice I call mine.
'Cappuccino d'orzo con latte scremato molto schiumato' (barley wheat coffee with skimmed milk and a lot of froth on top)
I feel the sideways glances of disbelief as I denounce the caffeine and full fat milk.
'E due cappuccini e tre paste.' I add.
No ‘please’, no ‘thank you’ needed. I receive a nod from the barista acknowledging a gesture that I’ll be outside, I don’t wait and I don’t pay. It’s a trust and service which is impeccably ‘Italian’.
We sit back and enjoy the oven-hot sun and humorous stereotyping of the passing people. This holiday pastime is fascinating, just watch. Here come the ‘Church goers’; they’re both dressed for show; her hair’s done perfectly and she’s in her ‘real’ fur coat. It was bought twenty years ago when they were in fashion and for middle-aged women here, they still are. He’s in his best suit, well the one she’s told him to wear - a chocolate brown one from the 70’s worn with a raspberry shirt. She buzzes around him removing the fluff and setting his jacket straight across the shoulders, all to ensure they both look immaculate. Next pass the ‘Sunday walkers’; they’ve just done their weekly five kilometre power walk, dressed in Nike tracksuits and the most recent matching footwear. It's never a BHS or a Tesco shell suit like those worn as best togs for going up town that have only made it to Spa and back. The Italians have been home to shower, they’ve redressed in their second 'clean' set - One set's for walking and one’s to show that you’ve been walking. Italians don’t like to sweat in public. A little later the ‘lovers’ pass; they are arm in arm, giggling, chatting and smiling, they’ve done their exercise for this morning too! He’s in blue jeans, a stark white shirt and a suit jacket and she’s the prize, shown off in a low top, short skirt, jacket and too-high, high-heels. Then, lastly, here come the ‘Sunday parents’ in their best clothes. Their unruly, but designer-clad, bambini run around or scream as their parents watch them with no sense of responsibility. The problem is that Italian parents start older; they marry at thirty five, have children at forty, and it's la nonna that has them when they get out of school at lunchtime. When Sunday arrives it’s the parent’s turn, but they don’t have a clue. British mothers work too when they have kids, but there's no free baby-sitting service from their mum who’s still working, we pay hundreds of pounds for the newly-called 'child minders' to pamper them until we get home. Our kids eat tea at a reasonable six o'clock, not eight, and go to bed before the watershed. Italians don't know what a watershed is let alone being seen and not heard! Their ‘adorables’ stay up past eleven, are uncontrollable in restaurants, and no one batters an eye-lid, except me, with my English blood gently simmering. It’s unbelievable but hilarious.
What makes us so different? ‘La figura’ is what all these Italians have. How does one define it? It's the style, the flair, everything matching, everything cleverly layered and everything has an ‘Italianess’. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention, the essential accessory that they all have to have, adding the icing to their exquisite display of Sunday best, smart or sporty outfit, come rain or shine, rich or poor – yes, the quintessential pair of Prada, Guess, Gucci or Ray Ban. I suppose we would call it ‘posey’.
Five minutes later and a well-groomed waiter serves us our goodies with a large smile on his tanned face and a politeness that could melt any signorina’s heart. He oozes pride and enjoyment with no embarrassment of working in a bar. Not like the British who tend to feel ashamed, bored, unemotional and hard done by. Here, it’s about perfection and fulfilment in whatever job you do. My eyes close with confirmed anticipation of the mouth-wateringly soft and slightly warmed pastry, a cool kick of succulent apple jam tickles the tongue as it escapes the folds, which is followed by an explosion of thick vanilla cream engorging the whole mouth, a slithering of honey spun over the top sticks to my fingers which I just have to lick clean. Completely devoured, our two-minute ecstasy session is over. It’s gloriously sunny and 16OC as we sit smiling and satisfied with icing sugar smiles.
‘Che bella! Italia’.
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