20 years of twiddling spaghetti

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Thu, 04/01/2010 - 08:35 --Lorna

Twenty years ago today I was in tears. Many, many tears. I was nineteen and I'd said goodbye to life as I knew it and was heading off to the great Italian unknown.
I cried when I left my family and I cried and sometimes laughed with my best friend in her car all the way to Luton airport.

After the usual checks at the airport I decided to order myself a stiff drink from the bar and I sat down in the departure lounge with my whiskey, opened my travel bag and took out the cards and gifts that my girlfriends had given me with instructions not to open anything until I was at the airport. Big mistake. As I read their lovely, warm wishes the tears flowed freely again and I couldn't contain the sobs. I never realised what I must have looked like until I heard a rather loud voice from a rowdy bunch of lads next to me,
"Oh crap - why do the crazy ones always sit next to us?"
That's when I looked around me and realised that most of the people there were all in a very jolly, holiday mood and jetting off somewhere for the Easter holidays.
Waahhh - more tears. I wasn't going on holiday, I was going for a whole year!

I spent the flight sobbing quietly to myself, refused the on-board food and drink and waved away the duty free cart and was then ignored by every member of the cabin crew and passengers alike. I gave myself a mental shake before landing and tried to pull myself together. I knew the father of the kids that I was going to be looking after would be at the airport to meet me and I didn't want to arrive looking like an extra from a horror film. I needn't have bothered with the little bit of make-up I'd applied to cover my red face and eyes, the shock of landing at Treviso airport twenty years ago was enough to make me pale. It had the title of 'airport' but the baggage claim section was more similar to a large empty barn, devoid of anything but the biggest Alsations I'd ever seen and lots of very unfriendly looking guards, all with big guns.

The Italian father was late. As the airport slowly emptied I could see the guards looking over at me and knew they were talking about me. I tried to keep calm, look confident and prayed that they wouldn't come and ask me any questions. I realised I didn't have any Italian coins on me and couldn't use the pay phone. I also realised that I knew nothing about where I was, where I was going to and how I was going to get out of there. I'd met the Italian father just once when he had come to England and interviewed a short list of 12 possible nannies. I'd seen a photo of his wife and children and that was about it. It was April 1st. Panic set in as two of the guards started coming towards me but just at the same time, the Italian and his little girl came towards me too, apologising, speaking half English and half Italian, waving his arms about and presumably telling the guards that it was all okay, I was with him. He took me to his home where I met his wife and baby son and they told me I'd stay with them for a week or so until I settled in and the kids got to know me.

No! That wasn't what I wanted at all!. The job came with a small flat for me and that was where I wanted to go so I could unpack some things and throw myself on the bed and cry all night long in privacy. I didn't want to sit at their dinner table and answer questions and pretend to be normal and eat their spaghetti. Bloody spaghetti!At least I already knew how to twiddle it properly and didn't look like a nerd by asking for a spoon or by slurping it up into my mouth or even worse ...... cutting it up with a knife and fork. Eventually I got into the spare room/office and was left alone. Luckily for me they lived in a ground floor apartment so the first thing I did was open the big window, climb out and chain smoke three cigarettes. I hadn't told the family I smoked. I was pretty new to smoking anyway and had planned to stop in Italy but I think I climbed out of that window about five more times that night as sleep evaded me.

The family were very nice those first few days, as was their cleaning lady, Romina.
Romina and I didn't understand a word of each other's language but we managed to get by, largely due to Romina's frequent and rapid hand signals and other gesticulations. I was still spontaneously bursting into tears at regular intervals and she tried to keep me busy with little jobs around the house if I wasn't busy with a child. One such job was ironing the boss' shirts and boy was she meticulous. Spray starch cuffs and collar then iron them. Iron the shoulder panel on the back and then iron the right sleeve. Move on to the front right side, the back, the left front side and lastly the left sleeve. I think that's where my hatred of ironing comes from and why my OH, my children and myself do not own many shirts or blouses.

I managed to get taken to my apartment before the week was up. From the outside it was a beautiful two storey villa with a large porch and a huge second floor terrace. The inside had been turned into eight studio apartments. I loved my little flat. I soon made it feel like home. I eventually saved up enough money to get thieving Telecom Italia to install a 'phone there and when I finally made some friends it became party central. Most Italians I knew still lived with their parents. I also saved up and bought myself a proper stereo. I had been making do with the small and compact electric clock/radio/casette player that I had bought in Boots for a tenner before leaving. Of course I hadn't thought about different plugs but I knew how to change one (thanks to Miss Whitaker the physics teacher) and my dad had insisted that I pack a small packet of mixed screwdrivers and some fuses because 'you never know'. That was when I discovered that Italian plugs don't have fuses but I was grateful to my dad anyway.

After a few weeks and just as Romina and I were learning how to get along and comunicate a bit better, the family said they were moving into their new place 10 Km away. They wanted to live closer to the Signora's large clothes and sports shop. Closer? They moved on top of it! The huge, second floor space above the shop had been turned into a family dwelling place for them with a separate entrance. Romina had asked for petrol money. They refused. She refused to work for them any longer. Know the phrase "taking everything but the kitchen sink"? Well the Italians do take that with them. I couldn't believe it when the whole kitchen (sink included) got taken out and refitted in their new place. It was a buttercup yellow kitchen and I hated it. My days were longer and more lonely without Romina even if I couldn't chat to her properly, my work load almost doubled too but that was the time when the family gave me a motorino (moped) so that I could drive myself the 10 Km to work. It was also the time when I got to know the maternal grandmother much too well for my liking as she lived in the big villa in the field at the back of the shop. An ugly, short, dumpy kind of woman but expensively dressed and expertly washed and coiffed twice a week. She never washed her own hair. She had an awful voice, more like a squawk and I quickly grew to hate her and her orders, but back to my motorino.

Ah my motorino. It was the weirdest thing I'd seen on two wheels. It had pedals like a bicycle and brakes like a bicycle but the right handle was the accelerator and it ran on something called "miscela", a mixture of petrol and oil I think. All the petrol stations had an extra pump just for this "mixture" and you'd drive up on your little motorino, open the petrol cap in front of you, get your mean machine filled up, pay the fifty pence, cap back on and drive off again. It had a tiny little number plate on the back, no indicators and the pedals started the motor. I pedalled like a demented dervish on some cold mornings to get that thing started and that wasn't the only trouble I had with it.

Luckily for me there was a lovely mechanic man with his own little workshop on the same street that I lived on. He only worked on bicycles and motorinos but it was thanks to him I discovered that motorinos had a spark plug that needed to be replaced sometimes. It was also him that managed to repair it when I got it totally jammed one day.

I was driving home for lunch and was at the last little junction in my village close to home. I stopped at the stop, checked the traffic and turned my handle ready to go and the motorino took one lurch forwards and then jammed completely. I looked down and nearly cried. My beautiful, ankle length, embroidered skirt that I'd bought in a hippy shop at Halifax Piece Hall when I was going through my arty farty I'm going to be an art student phase, was wrapped up in the insides of the machine. The tears that were threatening to spill from my eyes soon dried up when I realised I had a bigger problem than a jammed skirt on my hands. I could not move and the skirt wasn't budging either. Silly of me you might think to drive such a thing with a long skirt on. It probably was but I'd bunched the skirt up around my knees before and driven backwards and forwards quite happily. The skirt must have fallen when I put my foot down at the stop. I was stuck. I couldn't move my left leg, couldn't lift my foot up. I couldn't move my right leg and get off the motorino as the fabric of the skirt was pulled tight around my legs. Luckily there were no cars behind me.

I came to the only possible conclusion and decided that the only way I was ever going to move and get off the motorino was to wriggle out of the skirt. So I did. I moved the moped to the grass verge and stood there in my black leather jacket (which was fortunately just long enough to cover my bum), black woolly tights and knee length boots and wondered what to do next. Crouching next to the moped, cringing when a couple of cars drove past and pulling on my beautiful, purple skirt didn't do anything. It wasn't going anywhere. I'd just decided that I'd have to leave the moped at the side of the road and walk home in my jacket when a man with a van stopped and offered help. He said he recognised me from the village. Who didn't? I was the only foreigner in the whole village and I knew all the residents talked about me, nudged each other when I walked by and discussed amongst themselves if I were a prostitute, a criminal or an orphan. I mean, what right minded parents would let a 19 year old girl go off to a foreign country all alone? The man with a van saved me a walk of shame that day anyway and dropped me and my moped outside the mechanic's shop - which was closed for lunch. I left the moped and its trail of purple fabric outside the shop front with a note on it saying "will come to shop later. Lorna"

A few hours later and more suitably dressed, I sauntered down to the workshop where I saw bits of purple skirt on the floor and a larger, ripped and oil stained piece. Mr Lovely Mechanic had managed to free the moped of its purple blockage.

"What I can't understand Lorna" he said, "is how the hell your scarf managed to get trapped in the motorino."

"That's not my scarf - that's my skirt!"

As I haltingly told the story and mimed wriggling out of the skirt, the mechanic's laughter got louder and louder until I thought he was going to do himself an injury. As I drove myself off back to work I could still hear his laughter at the bottom of the road. I bet he milked my story for weeks in the local bars. "Get me a drink and let me tell you a story about the crazy English girl. Mamma mia, che pazza!"

That wasn't my only motorino adventure, there was a worse time involving an old man, an ambulance, a bus driver and lots of screaming and finger pointing Italian housewives. I have since progressed to a car and haven't been involved in any accidents.


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