I’m standing in the kitchen.
In front of me: two benches, a stovetop full of pots cooking. A pork roast encased in bread is coming out of the oven. Behind me on the crowded table are a huge ceramic dish full of already-roasted potatoes, a green salad, a wide blue plate with deep red grape tomatoes and basil, a plate of picked vegetables (onions, carrots, peppers) and a half-cut loaf of bread.
Two little bowls of tiny star-shaped pasta sit in a broth, ready for the little kids who have just pulled into the driveway. It looks similar to the soupy, salty broth with butter and olive oil that Nicola made me when I was struck down with gastro, two days before I left in January. It feels like a lifetime ago, but little more than four months have passed since then.
‘Are you making pasta tonight?’ I ask Nicola’s aunty.
‘Yeah I think so,’ she says.
‘Ok, well, it’s just that I won’t have much, just so you know.’ This is a new tactic.
‘I’ve tried and tried and tried. It just doesn’t go so well in my stomach.’
I don't like making a fuss. I don't like being difficult or different and I don't want to be a pain in the backside.
It’s not just that I spent eight years not eating gluten either, or treating my body like the enemy. Those days are long over. I eat bread now, something my 20-year-old self would have struggled to see in the future. And thank goodness they are over because I'm looking forward to Saturday morning's focaccia with sweet grapes and sugar from the bakery next door.
It’s just that at a casual Friday night family dinner like this we’d eat the same quantity that we would in Australia at lunch on Christmas day.
I try to explain this to a friend of Nicola's at a dinner the following night. His counter? What's the problem with celebrating every day? You genuinely can't argue with that logic.
Still, saying you don’t eat pasta is kind of akin to saying you don’t breathe air.
‘I’ll make gnocchi then,’ she says. ‘No it’s ok, I just wanted you to know…’ I trail off. Shit. I hope I haven’t sounded rude. Or ungrateful.
‘And anyway I’m not the kind of person who is going to make you eat anything. You should eat what suits you. I’m just going to put everything on the table and everyone can serve themselves.’
Nicola walks in: ‘Are we having meat tonight?’
‘What do you want?’ she says. She produces a block of mortadella and some raw sausage from the fridge. Nicola cuts the end off the sausage and heads towards me. I screw my face up.
‘You know in Australia they cook the sausage first?’ he says. I close my eyes and open my mouth. I’m testing my limits again, and it’s not bad, but it’s still not (and might not ever be) the kind of thing I’ll voluntarily choose from a plate.
‘It’s better like this,’ his aunty tells me. Then pauses, adding: ‘for us.’ Those two extra words make me feel at home.
There are a lot of stereotypes about Italy. A lot them are stereotypes for a reason (because they’re true). The biggest differences I’ve found here derive from living in the country, not the city, anymore, not from some kind of Australia-Italy divide.
But I don’t want to digress too far here: that’s a whole essay of its own accord. A lot of the stereotypes just don’t hold true.
A couple of the biggest misnomers – at least for me – have been about the mamma and the guilt-feeder. I’ve been blessed here with a family whose philosophy really is ‘live and let live’; or ‘eat and let eat…or not’. That Nicola’s parents were happy for him to traipse around the world on his own for four years says a lot. One of my Italian friends in Australia tells how her (also-Italian) husband’s mother threw herself on the ground and cried for two days on learning her son (and his wife and their children) were moving back to Australia. They are generous with everything but not pushy with anything.
His aunty says something about apparecchaire and it’s familiar but I can’t put my finger on it.
I look confused and she hands me a blue and white tablecloth. ‘Plates on the table’ she says. Of course: lay the table. I’m embarrassed that after this long that’s not a verb that comes naturally to me.
I walk outside. The house sits adjunct to an old shoe factory, on top of hill. Pieve, I replied at language school when my teacher asked me where Nicola’s aunty lived. ‘There are ‘pieve’ everywhere,’ he said. ‘You mean Pieve di Camaiore, I think.’
Their garden has a white marquee set amongst the olive trees. Nicola is hanging off one of the branches. It’s nearly 8pm and the sun is low in the sky, but it’s nowhere near dark yet. We are up high, not quite in the mountains, but we can nearly see through to the ocean. The last rays of light filter through the trees.
His uncle is setting up some outside lights and I head into the tent to lay the tablecloth, returning three or four times with plates for mains, bowls for pasta, knives, forks, water, wine, glasses…Summer hasn't really, properly arrived yet but when it does the fairy lights will go up too in this garden: our Friday night lights.
In the meantime the kids have tumbled out of the car, straight from the beach, and are being fed their pasta broth concoction. The littlest, Giulio who has just turned one, picks up a fork and starts stabbing at the tomatoes, which alongside everything the roast and potatoes and salad; the vegetables, some cheese, the sausage and bread, have made their way to the table. two adult kids are there, her elder son’s partner carrying a dessert; Nicola’s brother who has just come back from Edinburgh has arrived on the scooter, and is playing soccer on the grass under the trees in his socks with the five-year-old.
‘Can you watch Giulio for a second?,’ his dad says. One of my best friends in Australia has a son born a day after him. They are both obsessed with climbing at the moment. I have a soft spot for Giulio too: he looks exactly like my sister did when she was little. He runs away from me, chasing the cat. I pick him up, put him on my hip and stop to look around. My mind flashes back to New Year's Eve, standing in this spot with sparklers, drinking prosecco from plastic cups. simultaneously wondering how I ended up here and knowing it’s exactly where I belong. My mind flashes back to New Year's Eve, standing in this spot with sparklers, drinking prosecco from plastic cups, wondering what the next 12 months would bring.
We head to the table. I let Giulio go to his mum. Nicola motions to me to sit next to him. His aunty walks out with the piece de resistance, as promised: glossy, delicious gnocchi covered with gorgonzola.
We eat, we talk, we eat more. We Facetime Nicola’s mum and dad, who are away for the weekend.
Giulio’s mum rolls her eyes.
‘Tecnologia,’ she says, laughing. ‘My mum is more obsessed with her phone than I am’.
We eat dessert. We drink coffee. We say goodnight and go home straight to bed. Mercifully I am able to sleep, even on a full stomach.
I wake up on Saturday morning and roll over to kiss Nicola.
‘Buongiorno,’ he smiles. ‘You hungry?’ I laugh on the inside. And on the outside.