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Moving in with Mama in a small Italian farmhouse

The next few days passed in a blur of mixed emotions as I came to terms with life in a mountain village. I found the tranquility of the place a welcome change to the frenetic pace of a busy urban town in England but the intense heat and huge black flies with their incessant buzzing, not to mention the mosquitoes, I could do without.

When I walked into the house for the first time, it took a while for my eyes to adapt to the dimly lit interior. The closed shutters kept the rooms cool but also dark. As soon as Mara pulled up the shutters by a cord at the side of the window, a soft light flooded the room revealing whitewashed walls and dark grey tiles on the floor.

Michele told me later that due to the hot summers, it wasn’t hygienic to have carpets which, of course, made complete sense. While I relaxed on the well-worn sofa, Michele’s mother seated him at the round, heavy wooden table in the middle of the room between herself and her youngest daughter, impatient to know all the news since his last visit. His father intervened occasionally but spent most of the time puffing away on foul-smelling non-filter cigarettes, giving me furtive glances when he thought I wasn’t looking.

My ears did their best to acclimatize to the loud volume of Italian conversation and my nostrils tried desperately to cope with the acrid smell of tobacco. In an attempt to quell a coughing fit, I concentrated on my surroundings. The thick, stone walls were painted white, and dark grey tiles made a zigzag pattern on the floor. Tall dark cabinets lined the wall on either side of the door and a small wood-burning stove stood in the corner of the room next to the sofa. A television sat in the opposite corner. I had a niggling feeling that something was missing – but what?

“Would you like a cup of tea?” Michele brought me back to the present.

“Yes, please.”

I followed him and his mother into the kitchen where she bustled around, rattling pans in preparation for spaghetti bolognese. A large wood-burning stove stood next to a smaller gas stove along the wall and an old-fashioned ceramic sink sporting one tap stood proudly in the corner. I suppose I should have realised from the lone tap that this meant no instant hot water – only cold.

“Come and look at this.” Michele called me across to point out a large blue metal container hidden underneath it.

“What is it?” I’d never seen anything like it before. “It’s a bombola. We use it for cooking and it contains fifteen kilos of gas.”

“Isn’t it dangerous to keep indoors?”

“Yes, bombolas ‘ave been responsible for serious accidents when faulty valves caused explosions but it doesn’t ‘appen very often.”

That made me very anti- bombola from the start. Why couldn’t gas be piped to the houses like the rest of Europe?

“They nearly always run out on a Saturday night when the shops are shut – and certainly, there’s never a spare one.”

While ruminating over the consequences of not having any gas to cook with, I suddenly remembered the tea. I looked furtively over to the worktop for an electric kettle but couldn’t see one. Then I saw a teabag floating miserably in a pan of boiling water on the gas stove. Now I’m not one to criticise or give advice where cooking is concerned, but I did get my Badge for Tea Making when I was in the Brownies and even I know that teabags should not be boiled. Nobody offered me any milk, so a few minutes later, sipping my hot water with just the faintest hint of tea, Michele showed me the rest of the house.

“This is the best room which is never used. I don’t really know why that is,” and he closed the door firmly behind us. I just had time to glimpse a three-piece suite, a small coffee table in the middle and tall sombre glasspaned cabinets full of chalices, plates, dishes, tea and coffee cups before Michele whisked me up the uneven stone stairs. On the landing, a door to the left opened out to the back garden leading to one of the vineyards and to an area where they stored logs for the stoves during the winter months.

“‘Ere’s the bathroom.” He opened a door at the top of the stairs and I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw it consisted of a toilet – a proper one – a bath and a bidet. A tall cylinder for heating the water stood in the corner. A washing machine sat next to the washbasin with a grey pipe hanging over the bath. When in use, that’s where the water ran.

“Remember not to ‘ave a bath when mum’s doing the washing.” I shot him a withering look.

“As we ‘aven’t got constant ‘ot water, the water ‘eater can be attached to a bombola or logs can be burnt.”

“How long does the water take to heat up?”

“At least an hour,” replied Michele quite cheerfully missing the note of shock-horror in my voice. “Then again, if it’s attached to the bombola and it finishes, the water soon runs cold.” He shrugged in that loveable way of his, but it somehow didn’t have the same effect now as it had in Eastbourne.

“The other problem is that if the water ‘eater is lit, everyone decides to ‘ave a bath, and if you’re last in line, very often you end up with a luke-warm soak.”

During the first few weeks, I found myself dreaming about the warm bathroom at home in Poole, with a bath mat on the floor, a shower unit in the bath, and gallons of ready hot water. Relaxing in a bath of soapy bubbles listening to Radio One seemed a lifetime away.

Our bedroom was next to the bathroom and then more stairs led to the main bedroom on the left where Michele’s parents slept and another bedroom on the right which Mara shared with either Anna or Pietro, depending on who happened to be spending the night there. The three bedrooms were all furnished in the same way; two bedside cabinets flanked the beds, a wardrobe stood in one corner and a single chair in the other, presumably used as a clothes horse.

Two single beds had been pushed together in our room and I was just going to ask Michele what his Catholic parents thought about us being together but not married, when his mum appeared in the doorway, and with her son translating, proudly informed me that the mattresses and frames were the same ones that Michele and Pietro had slept on as children. Interesting, was the only non-disparaging word that came to mind.

Last of all, Michele showed me the attic where laundry hung to dry and trunks contained old clothes and bric-a-brac. A scratching noise behind a dusty box made me jump.

“What’s that… Aaagh!…” Ignoring my screams, Michele calmly moved the box and I just had time to see a grey streak scuttling across the floor.

“It’s only a mouse. You’ll frighten it.”

“Sorry,” I said huffily, trying to stop shaking.

E’ pronto!

Michele’s mother’s voice echoed from the kitchen and all thoughts of the resident mouse were temporarily forgotten as we joined Mara busily laying the table. As the church bells tolled noon, Carla walked in with a huge bowl of spaghetti and we took our places for the age old ritual of il pranzo which is what lunch is called.

Buon appetito!” Michele’s dad Alberto said as his wife handed round generous portions of pasta. Michele’s family tried to include me in the conversation but for the moment the language barrier made dialogue impossible. Besides, I had to concentrate on keeping the strings of spaghetti on my fork long enough to put in my mouth. They had a habit of slipping back onto the plate as soon as I lifted the fork. Furthermore, the fact that I drank water instead of wine caused great consternation, judging by the looks being exchanged between Alberto and his wife.

After dishing out second helpings, Mara carried the bowls out to the kitchen before Carla served the next course: steaks with a mixed salad. Having devoured everything, the cheese board appeared. My eyes practically popped out of my head.

“You don’t always eat like this, do you?” I asked Michele.

“No, it’s usually more but mamma didn’t ‘ave enough time to prepare anything else this morning.” Then after a slight pause he added, “We didn’t always eat so well when we were children. needed all the money ‘e earned to build the ‘ouse. I remember eating a lot of polenta – that’s made from corn flour and is very filling, but very boring.”

So much for our English lunchtime snacks of baked beans-on-toast or a ham-and-cheese sandwich! An espresso brought the meal to an end. I intended helping with the washing-up but Michele and his father invited me to go outside to see the vineyards. Feeling the need to stretch my legs after eating so much, I accepted, not reckoning with the intense heat that once again made me gasp.

Alberto did his best to speak Italian as opposed to the usual village dialect but it made little difference to me; I couldn’t understand a word. Michele translated his father’s explanation of how he’d planted spindly vines behind the house and nurtured them into their hardy present state. A leafy wooded area enclosed the vineyard. “We often get deer ‘ere,” Alberto told me with Michele translating for him. “They damage the vine leaves and are a real menace.” He shook his head emphasising the seriousness of it, as he put another cigarette between his lips and lit up.

Opening a gate, we walked down to the track alongside the house, and looking around, I suddenly felt completely awed by the sublime landscape stretching out lazily in front of me. The Alps encircled us clothed in varying shades of luscious greenery, small villages sitting proudly within them and the silvery river snaking down to Lake Como, a light blue blob, just visible in the distance. Surrounded by such natural beauty, with traffic minimal and noise a mere memory, I felt I’d found my very own haven.

On rounding a corner, Alberto proudly showed me an even bigger vineyard. Speaking animatedly and hardly stopping to take a breath, he gave me a lesson in winemaking but the rhythmic sound of his voice lulled me into a comatose state and Michele suggested going home for a siesta. I wasn’t quite sure what a siesta was but I soon found out – I slept soundly all afternoon.

I woke up to hear loud voices from below and recognising Michele’s as one of them, I got up and went downstairs to join the family.

Ciao! ‘Ere you are at last. This is my sister, Anna, and ‘er boyfriend, Filippo and this is Pietro, my brother.” Instead of shaking my outstretched hand, each in turn ceremoniously hugged and kissed me on both cheeks. This show of affection unnerved me, yet at the same time made me feel part of the family.

Pietro had arrived home after his shift at the Hotel Villa d’Este in Como where he worked as a receptionist. Fortunately, he spoke English but Anna and Filippo could only smile at me. Anna, an auxiliary nurse in a hospital near Lake Como, came to see her family on her day off when her boyfriend, also a nurse drove her the twenty-minute journey. She wanted to know how we’d met, what I did for a living and what I thought about Italy. Unable to answer for myself, I let my eyes wander over the room while they chatted away to Michele. Again, the niggling feeling that something was missing came back, and then it dawned on me. There were no radiators – just a woodburning stove. How would we cope with the harsh winters Michele had told me about? I could almost feel the sharp icy blasts of air filling the rooms and making us shiver. For the time being, I decided not to think about it – I already had the summer heat to contend with.

Mara laid the table again and we took our places for la cena – dinner. After the customary “Buon appetito”, Carla ladled the soup into our dishes and I had my first plate of minestra, followed by an assortment of cold meats, cheese and coffee. Not being able to join in the conversation, I studied my fiancé’s family. Michele had already described them to me and I felt as though I knew them.

Papà Alberto, a gaunt, bent man with thinning black hair and a kind disposition, had suffered ill health for most of his married life and the chain-smoking didn’t help.

was a great liscio dancer when ‘e was young,” Michele told me before turning to speak to his father, who smiled in my direction, nodding energetically.

“I’ve just made ‘im promise to take you for a spin on the pista, that’s the dance floor they build, at the next festival where there’ll be music and dancing.”

“Ok, but what is liscio?”

“It’s like old-time dancing.”

Now retired, Alberto spent his days farming his land. He made his own wine, like most of the people round here, and was proud of its quality. He caught me looking at him and his lined face creased into a smile.

Assaggi il vino,” he coaxed. Michele poured a drop of red wine into my glass. “Try it – for my papà. I know you don’t like wine but per’aps you’ll like ours.”

“I suppose there’s no harm in having a sip.” The cool ruby liquid slid deliciously down my throat leaving a warm contented feeling inside.

“Well?” Michele asked.

“I like it.” I drank some more. “I definitely like it.” nodded happily and my teetotal days became history.

Funnily enough, my glass always remained full. Somebody topped it up every time I looked away. This seemed to be the pattern for the following meals, too. I must confess it left me glowing and euphoric. I just wanted to laugh. No nostalgia, no thoughts of going back to England. That is, until a strong cup of espresso brought me back to my senses. From then on, I decided it would be better to have half a glass at lunchtime and another half at dinner.

A typical Italian mamma, Carla’s main priority was food and feeding her brood.

“Mamma’s an excellent cook,” Michele had told me in Eastbourne.

I’d groaned at this piece of information; allergic to cookers and recipes and anything else regarding food, my culinary talents still had to emerge.

Each member in turn scrutinized me throughout the cena.

“Do you think I’ve passed the test?” I whispered to Michele later, but he didn’t understand the irony of the question.

“I mean, do you think they like me?”

“Why shouldn’t they?” That was as good an answer as any for me.

Before going to bed, Michele took me outside to see the view. Silhouetted against an inky black sky with stars shimmering and a full moon, the Alps towered above us and lights winked mischievously high up in their shadows where chalets were homes to farmers and tourists for the hot summer months. I looked hard and long, savouring the smell of pine and the absolute silence broken only by a dog barking in the distance and the unmistakeable sound of crickets hiding in the tall grasses. The magical moment was forgotten later that night, as I tossed and turned, desperately trying to find a cosy spot in the lumpy mattress. I made a conscientious effort to appreciate the historical and sentimental value of what I was lying on, but all I really wanted was to sleep on smooth, modern bedding.

“Mamma says that single mattresses are a very sensible idea because you each ‘ave your own space,” Michele explained the next morning.

I couldn’t help thinking that if I’d wanted my own space, I’d have remained single. Personally, I found the two single mattresses very uncomfortable. I always seemed to end up in the middle of them. If and when we ever had a place of our own, I would make sure we had a new and very smooth double mattress.

The following night, I woke up to find something pricking my cheek. Despite the crisp, new pillow-case, the pillow itself wasn’t exactly soft and smooth but I managed to fall back to sleep. In the morning I found what looked like a feather on the pillow.

“It’s a chicken feather,” my mother-in-law-to-be proudly told me with Michele’s help. “I stuffed the pillows myself when Pietro and Michele were toddlers.” My new life seemed to be full of reminders of years gone by. I silently added pillows to my list of wants.

Extracted from Valerie Barona’s book ‘That’s Amore‘ published by Troubador.

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