Italy, the land of my ancestors, is a country I love with my eyes wide open.
My Italy is not the same as yours. My childhood never took me to the picture postcard places. Our family comes from the south, near Naples, a small town called Giugliano in Campania, and every summer my factory-worker father packed us into the Morris 1100 and drove there from our home in the north of England.
It was the 1970s and it felt like going further back in time. Peasants drove carts pulled by oxen and widows dressed in black from head-to-toe. My cousin Maria Domenica left school at 11 to look after the younger kids. My Aunt Peppina lived with a husband and five children in a tiny house surrounded by dusty peach orchards, with chickens running beneath the kitchen table and goats on the roof.
When we arrived – me and my tall, flame-haired, pale-faced brothers – those kids had never seen anything like us. A gang followed us through the streets, shouting insults, until my cousin Antonio, macho even then, scared them away.
Boredom is the thing I remember most. The endless cycle of visiting family and sitting quietly while they talked in a language I didn’t understand: the adults pinching our cheeks too hard in affection.
And then there were the glorious days when we were taken to the beach. My aunts would start cooking from the moment they woke, vast trays of baked pasta in an oily sauce of sweet tomatoes, thin escalopes of veal coated in breadcrumbs, everything wrapped in layers of foil and transported to the Lido Sabbia D’Argento – a wide strip of well-trodden sand covered in wooden huts and boardwalks. My family would rent adjacent cabins and we seemed to spend half the time eating.
I was shy then, one to hold back, stay quiet and observe; a useful thing in a writer, as I have discovered. Those childhood scenes remained vivid in my mind. The noises, the smells, the chaos and colour – so foreign and yet in some strange way I belonged.
I was in my mid-thirties when I came up with my plan. I would return to Peppina’s kitchen and learn to cook the dishes I recalled eating, then weave a novel around the recipes. Except by then I was living in Auckland, married and mortgaged, and my book became one of those “some day” things to tackle once I had the time and money.
My seize-the-day moment arrived when I learnt that broadcaster Angela D’Audney had been diagnosed with a brain tumour. She wasn’t a friend at that time, just someone I knew from work. But she was only 56 and it brought home that if I wasn’t careful, my “some day” might never happen. I went home that night and began writing my first novel, Delicious, drawing on memory and imagination.
Often I’m asked why I set my stories in Italy. Why not write about New Zealand, my home of 21 years? Having some distance from a place helps me distil the things that are special about it. Its beauty, its gilding of history and culture and the things that make it Italy: the love of food, the way everyday passions run close to the surface, how people talk with their hands, even though their voices are raised.
Italy is a country I love with my eyes wide open. I see things it is possible to miss as you take tours of the Doge’s Palace in Venice or drive the hairpin bends of the Amalfi Coast. The machismo that remains, the obsession with respect, the casual breaking of the law (“It was only a bit of corruption, everybody does it,” my father complained when someone we knew ended up in prison).
Tradition still has a hold. On Sunday evenings, Mamma may no longer take to the streets to parade her daughters of marriageable age, but in most places they will make a weekly passeggiata – dress in their best, then walk slowly down the main street and stop to chat with friends.
Best-selling pseudonymous novelist Elena Ferrante has made my part of Italy popular. Fans of her dark, brutal Neapolitan novels are boosting tourist numbers, leading to Ferrante fever – you can even eat a pizza named after her.
Meanwhile, they have built a motorway beside Peppina’s place. The family invested in a tow truck and now makes a living clearing away the car wrecks after smashes. The peach orchards remain, but hundreds of ruined vehicles lie beneath the trees, ripe fruit plopping onto dented bonnets in late summer.
My aunt is still to be found in the same kitchen, cooking for whoever appears, most likely eating hurried bites of her own food over the sink. Her husband is no longer at the head of the table, waiting for her to place a lit cigarette in his mouth. He is gone now, as are my two other aunts, sad Elena and beautiful Giovanna.
As they are lost, my past seems to blur into the distance. All I have left are faded prints taken on a Kodak Instamatic. And, of course, the novels I’ve stitched from my ragbag of old memories and new impressions. Nine of them now, all owing a debt to those summers that always finished with much kissing of cheeks and us piling back into the Morris, the boot filled with jars of pickled artichoke hearts and hunks of pecorino cheese, flavours of the place to take home and keep us going until next time. As I grow older, I find myself hoping that while I still have those flavours, I’ll always have Italy.
UNDER ITALIAN SKIES, by Nicky Pellegrino (Orion, $34.99) is published on April 12.
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