I studied law in college and, contrary to what many people think, it is not particularly demanding. With only 8 contact hours a week, I had a lot of time on my hands. Time which I now realise I should have spent in the library. I digress
I took on Italian as an occasional student. This was a quarter of what an arts student was doing and, again, contrary to popular opinion, that arts stuff is very demanding. I found that my time was split pretty neatly between Cheshire and Fifoot and Manzoni’s “I promessi sposi”. I know which I thought was easier too.
By the summer of second year, it seemed appropriate to spend some time in the land of Dante to try to keep up with my arts peers, so I signed up with an agency to work as an au pair. I had originally been slated to go to Florence but at the last minute was sent to Naples. My mother, seeing me off on the train in Nice, where we were on holidays, was convinced that I would be sold into the white slave trade.
I wondered how my Neapolitan family would recognise me when I got off the train in Naples. I think this shows a fundamental lack of self or any other kind of knowledge on the part of a fair-skinned, blonde, blue eyed teenager. They rushed up to me and I met Gabriele, my 18 month old charge. We took an instant dislike to each other which did not dissipate over the course of the summer.
As his parents drove me to the house, pointing out the sights Gabriele wilfully and cruelly pulled my hair. It appeared that they were getting work done to their house and the family had moved back in with her parents. My family were still on holidays in France and I could not contact them. The contact number my mother had was only answered by Italian builders. Not to be deterred, she rang a friend in the Italian Department in college who spoke to the builders, gave my mother my new number and reassured her that I hadn’t been sold into the slave trade.
Other than a brief stay in Berlin as an exchange student (which was very nice also), this was my first experience of European appartment living and I was very impressed. The avvocato and his family enjoyed a great deal of marble. Gabriele, while in my charge, once fell down the marble stairs and bumped his head and his grandmother told me it was the kind of thing his mother probably didn’t need to know. I was found of that grandmother.
I had never worked before. I found it tiring. Though the family were very nice, I had no time off. We did lots of nice things together; we ate in smart restaurants, we went to the seaside (Gaeta) and their house in the country. I got a pair of pyjamas for my name day. But I was never left alone except when I swam out to sea, went to mass on Sundays (they were lapsed catholics – I nearly had heart failure when the signora said that she had been so sick when she was pregnant that she had contemplated an abortion) and took Gabriele for long walks in the mornings in the country (not, alas, allowed in Naples). The younger daughter of the house brought me out with her friends but I wasn’t allowed to make any friends of my own. In retrospect, I think this was because they were terrified that something would happen to me. I have a picture of myself in the park with the other childminders and, I might as well have had a sign on my back saying mug me, I’m a tourist and an amazingly naive one at that.
I remember once, some young man came and chatted to me in the park saying that he was a friend of Giulia’s (the daughter of the house) so I chatted away to him. That night, my activities had been reported back and the signora said to me that he was a drug addict and not to be trusted and only talking to me so that he could get into the house and burgle it. These things do not inspire confidence in the young.
By the end of the summer, though, I had reached a pinnacle of fluency in Italian (with a slight preponderance of vocabulary aimed at the under twos), I was skinny and fit from swimming an hour a day and wrestling a two year old the remainder of the time, I had a tan for the only time ever, I could iron children’s clothes to Italian standards, I knew that the worst sin in making pasta was not to have too small a pot and insufficient water (a lesson I cannot seem to pass on to my recalcitrant husband who continues to cook pasta as though it were rice), I could manage Gabriele – though we still did not like each other at all and the signora begged me not to leave and go on holidays to Florence (ha!).
Now that I have children of my own, I think I should have cut Gabriele a little more slack. Of course, he’s 22 now but in my mind he is still an annoying but very attractive little blonde boy.
Tomorrow, your heroine will be living in Modena.