A couple of months ago my parents and my aunt and uncle were invited to a cousin’s wedding in Perugia. They had no intention of going but then my sister moved home from Chicago and convinced them all that it would be a great idea to go. Well, actually, she failed to convince my father who would rather have all his teeth removed without anaesthetic than fly to Italy. A plane. And to Italy. Double horror. However, she convinced the others and volunteered to act as their chauffeur and do the organising. At this point I heard about the trip and decided that it would be lovely, if I went too. Italian hilltop town, family, weekend break. All most appealing and I speak Italian, I drive, I could be helpful. However, I felt that I could not, in fairness, leave Mr. Waffle with the three children so I decided to take herself. What a delightful treat for my loving family.
It was only after I had booked our flights to Rome that my sister opined that the Princess’s presence might not be entirely welcome. To start with, they would have to book a larger car to negotiate the Italian hill top towns. I appealed to my mother, was she not pleased? She hauled out her most hardworking sentence: well, dear, you must do what you think fit. A robust exchange of views followed, the upshot of which was that my mother finished all our phone calls for the next several months with the words “I look forward to seeing you in Italy at the end of May”. Though this was the formula I had recommended that she use, it never really struck me as entirely satisfactory.
Meanwhile, the Princess had been studying castles at school. The day selected for a school trip to the castle was Monday, June 2. “We will be in Italy,” I told her “but I will find a lovely castle in Italy for you to look at.” “I don’t want to go to the castle in Italy, I want to go to Hainault.” Great. Meanwhile, my poor uncle had been struck down by a mystery bug and, on admission to hospital, was found to have gall stones which, obviously, precluded him and my aunt from travelling to Italy.
What with one thing and another, when the day dawned for our trip, I was unenthused. The Princess, mercifully, had become quite animated at the prospect of a trip to foreign parts and meeting various relatives. We went to the airport and we waited and we waited Our flight which had been scheduled to arrive in Rome airport at the same time as my mother and sister’s flight from Cork was delayed by over two hours. I acquired a nasty headache and the Princess was, hmm, challenging shall we say. The flight itself, when we eventually got underway was uneventful except for my regular trips to the bathroom to throw up (headaches make me sick – hurrah).
Things perked up when we got to Rome at about 11.00 pm. Despite managing to lock my Irish mobile phone by forgetting the PIN code we found my sister and my mother who had got the hired car and were ready to head off to distant Perugia. The idea was that I would be able to drive the car too but, because our flight was so late, my sister had decided it was better to get the car and have her as sole driver rather than wait to add me as well. Given that I was sick as a dog, this was very welcome news. The Princess, delighted to see her relatives behaved admirably. We set off for Perugia assisted only by my brother’s satellite navigation device which he had posted to my sister in an old sock which came with us in the glove compartment. The world of satellite navigation is new to me and I was quite charmed with the English lady who guided us north around Rome and up to Perugia, 200kms away. As my sister drives alarmingly fast, we made Perugia in no time but we spent quite a while circling the walls of the town as Ms. Satnav had decided to abandon us and we had no map. On our fourth trip past the same spot, my mother made me get out and ask the policemen at the gate for directions. The guardia di finanza appeared to be carrying out a drugs bust: one of them was searching the car with an alsatian, another was searching the car owners with an alsatian and the third was supervising. I approached the third man to ask for directions. To be honest, I don’t think that he thought much of my timing but he pointed me in the right direction, nodded curtly and went back to drug busting.
The hotel had advised to park on Via Marzia which is steep and narrow. Our car was broad. We then had to go to the hotel for a parking permit. It was 2.30 in the morning at this point and I volunteered to run to the hotel. The Princess insisted on accompanying me. We made our way through the quaint streets of the old town and assisted by unfailingly helpful Italian revellers eventually made our way to the hotel where we got the parking permit and filled in forms and handed over passports. Inevitably by the time we got back to the car, my mother had us dead and buried. We all went to the hotel and retired to bed.
I feel a little defensive about the hotel. I volunteered to book the hotel. I was looking for something cheap. My sister approved my choice and I booked it. It was fine. Basic, but fine. My sister did not like it. The thing she disliked most about it was that there was no parking other than the steep and narrow Via Marzia which was a step from the hotel; then there was no diet coke; and no hair dryers in the room; and no common areas. Also, she did not like breakfast. Personally, I thought breakfast was ok. And it was clean, central and it had an en suite bathroom; how good did it have to be? Even I would concede that it was a little noisy. My mother, when pressed, described it as downmarket. Alas. This was a greater blow as she has not (unlike my sister) spent the past 10 years staying in luxury hotels at the expense of munificent employers; in fact when holidaying abroad in the past, she frequently stayed in a tent.
Saturday was the day of the wedding and we were up betimes making preparations for a wedding which would be half full of Italians (the bride being from Perugia) and therefore required extra elegance. The Princess and I were not going to the wedding given that I had not met the groom in many years (hey, he’s a second cousin and 12 years younger) and he was blithely unaware of the Princess’s existence. The morning passed off peacefully enough and in the afternoon, my mother and sister (designated driver) went off to the wedding and the Princess and I explored the town. As you might imagine, the Umbrian hill top town of Perugia is spectacularly beautiful. As you might also imagine, the Princess was completely indifferent to its charms. There was an international market where we were able to buy butter popcorn from Grand Rapids, Michigan (twinned with Perugia, in case you didn’t know) and eating this was probably one of the highlights of her day. I was delighted to hear a singer on the street belting out Jacque Brel’s ode to Belgium; Le Plat Pays. It made Perugia feel like a home from home but, again, her highness was indifferent. She was also indifferent to the parade of drums and horses (interesting combination for the riders) on Corso Vannucci. We saw several weddings including one where the bride was a good six months pregnant and an Anglo Indian one where the bride was serenaded down Corso Vannucci by a brass band playing here comes the bride. All very multi-cultural. I was a bit disappointed by the style of the locals. The young people all seemed to be wearing slogan t-shirts and low hanging jeans. Important note for Italian youth follows: if you want to go for this look, it is vital that you do not let your mother iron your clothes. You’ll have to trust me here. I dragged my unfortunate daughter into the Pintoricchio exhibition which she took with reasonable equanimity in exchange for the purchase of a pair of high heeled pink slip-on shoes (€6.50 to you signora).
By this time it was about 7 and the Princess and I were preparing to go for dinner and bed when the phone rang. It was my cousin S, eldest sister of the groom. The groom comes from a family of 8 and I know the three eldest: S well as we were in college together and D and M reasonably well. The others are a mass of younger siblings. Their father and my mother are first cousins and my grandmother and their grandfather were brother and sister and close friends which is how the families know each other pretty well. I know a lot of my second cousins on this side (though as my grandmother was one of 10 by no means all of them). I’m not sure Mr. Waffle actually knows what a second cousin is. I digress. Anyhow, S rang saying that we should come to the wedding. I demurred: we weren’t invited; the Princess was tired. She insisted: there was extra food, paid for which would go to waste; the Princess could play with her cousins and sleep with them, minded by their babysitter. I demurred: we had never met the bride. She insisted: you speak Italian, you could be useful, we would love to see you. I conceded gracefully and my kind sister drove into town, picked us up and brought us out to the villa where the wedding was in full swing. I was glad that we went. The Princess loved her new (3rd) cousins. They, as children of a father with 10 siblings and a mother with 7, greeted the arrival of a new cousin with complete equanimity. I imagine that new cousins are always appearing out of the woodwork for them (they already have 29 first cousins). There is one little cousin almost exactly the same age as the Princess and she is a lovely, lovely little girl. Even better, she lives around the corner from my parents in Cork. Hurrah.
Meanwhile, I was off at the wedding (fabulous food, I fail to understand why this is so very rarely replicated at home) and chatting gamely to my cousin’s neighbours who had come out from North Cork. Living as I do in Brussels I was pinned to my collar trying to answer questions on CAP reform and the WTO negotiations about which I knew far less than the man from the dairy farmers’ lobby who, unhappily, was sitting beside me. I was rescued by my cousin who brought me off to a table of cousins and spouses and left my mother to fend alone on searching questions about SACs. It was really lovely to talk to my cousins and meet their various spouses. S and I have a lot of friends in common, so we spent a happy half hour exchanging gossip. She is also hilariously funny, so it was all very pleasant. The bride and her family were gracious and charming to the interlopers at their wedding. The speeches were excellent and, very cleverly, they had translations projected on the wall behind so that there was no need for lengthy translations (as my mother said, well that’s his speciality. “What?” my sister and I asked. “Computers” said my mother. The groom is an IT consultant; we wowed my mother by explaining that, if necessary, we too could use powerpoint). The groom’s father’s speech was really lovely; simple and moving. He described his son as “having a good word for everyone and not having a bad bone in his body”. I wiped away a surreptitious tear. S then ruined it for me by hissing “you know he’s used the same speech for all of us”. The bride’s father spoke about how proud he was of his daughter and how delighted he was that she lived in a country where CVs counted more than “la raccomandazione” (what Irish people would call pull). I found this a little distressing as, his lovely daughter (having passed the exams necessary to become a solicitor in Ireland – including the Irish exam – it’s not a very challenging Irish exam, I passed it but then I did spend 13 years in school learning Irish) was looking for an apprenticeship in an Irish law firm. And if there’s one area of Irish life where having a little pull is very useful, it’s in finding an apprenticeship in a solicitor’s office. Particularly a solicitor’s office in rural Ireland. They take on their own children and their client’s children. And, if they do find room for someone else, I suspect, they’re not particularly open to employing a non-native English speaker. I think that her best bet is probably to go to Dublin but since she met her husband in Cork, did her PhD in Cork and now speaks English with a strong Cork accent, I’m not sure how willing she would be to go to foreign parts (though her husband did say that he thought that she’d go to Letterkenny, if she could find an apprenticeship there, of course, Letterkenny isn’t Dublin). Oh well, if she stays in Cork much longer, it will be impossible to distinguish her from a native (except when you see her, of course, she looks entirely Italian – they will have beautiful children).
At about, 12.30, I lifted the Princess out of the bed where she was snuggled up with Doggy and two cousins and brought her out to the car. We drove back to our hotel and my sister dropped us off at the door as the Princess was in her pyjamas and groggy. The three of us went in at my sister’s urging leaving her to find her way to via Marzia (you will remember, how could you forget, that there was no parking at the hotel). We all went to bed. About 1.15, I was awoken from my slumbers by my mother. I tiptoed out of my room leaving a sleeping Princess. There was no sign of my sister. My mother was poised to start phoning the hospitals. She would never forgiver herself or (definite subtext) me for having left my sister park alone; suppose she had been attacked. I had the advantage of having walked round the town the previous night at 2.30 and knew it to be heaving with people, so I felt that this was unlikely, I did think that she might have had difficulty finding parking or maybe a slight tip in the car. Eventually, after 20 unnerving minutes my, very cross, sister arrived back at the hotel. She had indeed had difficulty finding parking. The Via Marzia was full. A car had driven up this steep one way street against her and the carefree revellers in the car had thought it an excellent idea to reverse, then rev up and drive towards her several times. She had eventually got out, got parking and got back to the hotel. I think it is fair to say that it was at this point that my mother and my sister’s profound dislike of what became known as my hotel, settled. It was also around then that we discovered there was a multi-storey car park nearby and I feel that had we only found this earlier, all might have been well.
The next day, my mother and sister slept late to recover from the trauma of the previous evening but the Princess and I were up early and off by taxi to the villa where the cousins were staying to do some more bonding. The taxi driver, on learning that we were from Ireland said “oh a beautiful country, I would love to visit, much more beautiful than here.” Boy, is she due for a disappointment some day. The Princess and I spent much of the day imposing on the cousins: eating their food, using their pool, their swimsuits and their floatation devices. My mother, when she and my sister came to collect us, was torn between disapproval at our imposition and delight that the Princess had got to know her little cousins whom, hilariously, she resembles. Genetic code and all that. Mr. Waffle refuses to see any resemblance and points out that until last week, this was a child who was held to resemble no one but him. Back in town, we took ourselves to mass. A full hour’s worth, in Italian. The Princess was silent but wriggly. The young woman next to us with the looks, and the patience, of a Pintoricchio Madonna, smiled indulgently.
The next day, my saintly sister and mother, drove us to Rome airport. We stopped on the way for lunch in a hilltop town which was bizarrely depopulated. Lunch for four was lovely and came to 30 euros which led to much discussion on value for money and some further reflection on my part as to the disappointment that the taxi driver was likely to feel on her long awaited trip to Ireland. It started to bucket rain and (definite highlight of the trip), my sister produced from her pocket the rain coat she had bought the Princess as a present. The excitement. This only slightly marred by an incident involving a tree and one of the car’s rear lights. In fact the Princess was utterly cheerful but the rest of us were a bit unhappy. Throughout, she ignored the concern of the grown-ups and demanded to be told a Dora story. It may be that my daughter is a little insensitive to the moods of others. The Princess and I were dropped to our plane leaving my sister and my mother to refuel the car, hand it back and wait five hours for their flight which made me feel grateful but very guilty – a good catholic combination. The Princess and I travelled back to Brussels (an hour late but otherwise without incident) where we were met with suitable enthusiasm by the rest of our little family and the Princess told the boys, in completely unnecessary detail, how many ice creams she had eaten. That is all. My congratulations, if you have read this far.