Italy – la casa della Nonna

18 Sep

Italy had started with a four day blast of aperol, cheeseless pizzas and talking my half witted Italian to waiters who no doubt thought I was a complete idiot while Simon thought I was simply marvellous and very brave.
When the awesome four days were up Simon took the train back to Munich to go back to the drudgery of work while I took the next train back to Sonia’s home for a few more days of family time. And oh what a family time it was.

We went to markets and looked at tablecloths and to a fancy pizzeria with an azure pool as the sparkling centrepiece and a tight-dressed woman singing La Isla Bonita to karaoke music on stage. We went out onto the lake in a relative’s little motorboat, an activity which saw us shimmying Nonna off a makeshift concrete dock into the rocking disobedient boat, we drank Aperol spritzes and Nonna got drunk, every few minutes mentioning how dizzy she was. She secretly stuffed money into my handbag and then she made me take even more money from her to give to Sonia after Nonna had left, so that Sonia would have no way of refusing it.

We took a trip together in Sonia’s car to my Nonna’s childhood village, a few hours drive away. There we would drop Nonna and Carmen at the village where they would spend the next few weeks doing woozy circuits of cousins houses across the surrounding mountaintops. Five of us squished together in the car that day: a talkative Italian woman assuring us that she would never take her eyes off the road while doing typically Italian heart stopping overtaking manoeuvres; a just-on-the-good-end-of-senile 85 year old man who spoke in a combination of Italian, German and English and kept repeating the same line from a tv commercial that went something like “buy blah blah blah tyres, because it’s the tyre that makes the car” after which he would giggle wildly like it was definitely the funniest joke he’d ever heard; a 65 year old Australian woman who had never visited Italy before nor met any of the relatives she was about to be the guest of nor had any idea what kind of situation she was about to land herself in: an 88 year old Nonna who seemed nervous and anxious to get there, and me.

The front seats of the car were animated by loud, argumentative father and daughter. A lot of the conversation was in Italian, and while I could grasp a thing or two here or there, most of it was way beyond my comprehension and so it just seemed as if everyone was yelling random things really loudly, sometimes getting more passionate, sometimes a little more subdued, but more often than not, just plain loud. I got the feeling that when it came to the 85 year old cousin, no-one really comprehended what he was saying (possibly sometimes even himself), so at least I wasn’t left out in that respect. The rear seats of the car were quiet and fidgety- three generations of the one family all nervously twiddling their fingers, hoping not to die in the car, wondering what exactly was about to happen. I was hot sitting in the middle and I started to get a headache.

We stopped for coffee in a cafe next to a castle. There was a big drama about where to park, how to get out of the car, when to cross the road, whether to take the walking stick, where to have our photos taken, what to order at the cafe, when to leave. There was a big drama about everything, it appeared.

We took hairpin turn after hairpin turn, blind overtake by blind overtake up the mountainside until we reached a pretty little line of houses, five of them: the village. The view was spectacular. The houses were right on top of the mountain and had a killer vantage point for looking across to the other small villages peaked by churches which were dotted on hillsides and nested in valleys.

More relatives greeted us and took us inside their home, which was the house that Nonna had been born in so long ago. It was like stepping into a caricature of an Italian mountaintop home with low low low wooden ceilings, an old Nonna (not mine) in a wheelchair, a daughter with an apron on dusting flour from her hands, bread rolls sitting on the wooden tabletop, a bowl of apple peel on the dining table. Everyone jabbered on in Italian while I stood there wondering what I should do. Was I supposed to kiss everyone? Was I supposed to introduce myself? Was I supposed to just go back outside and pretend I’d never been there? Should I have brought some cookies for them? Was I breaking some sort of unspoken village law by displaying a tattoo on my leg written in Italian? I awkwardly manoeuvred myself out of the roof-closing-in claustrophobia of the low ceilinged house and took some photos instead.

What should have been a pretty special moment was more like an exercise in polite awkwardness, although I did at least manage to take some great photos of us together there.
It was pretty incredible to think she had been born inside that house, and even more incredible, and almost impossible, to imagine her there as a child. She described to me how she used to walk down the mountainside to the other village to go to school. She was ten years old when she left for Australia, and so she remembers quite a bit about the village and about her life there. Also she has visited many times since emigrating to Australia so has had regular, if far between, refresher courses.

Next stop was lunch, a trattoria on a hairpin turn which looked like an alpine chalet, where there was no menu, but a waiter who came to ask us what we wanted, like we already know everything there is to have, and if we didn’t, well then, he’d just have to tell you what there was . There was a bit of hoo-hah over getting me something to eat- I found that my meal was being negotiated by every one but me, and luckily the negotiations arrived at a pleasing outcome. Amongst the veal scallopini and the osso bucco was a simple pasta with tomato sauce and a plate of green beans cooked exactly how Nonna had always made them, all fried and mushy and delicious.

Stuffed, we drove on further to the next cousins house, the house Nonna would be calling home base for the next few weeks. The place was AMAZING. The cousins were totally rich if their home was anything to judge by and it was just exactly how you would imagine a rich Italian house to look- everything totally over the top, huge glass display cabinets full of china and religious statues and trinkets, a wooden stove with a pearlescent floral finish, immaculately clean, family photos everywhere in chunky sparkling silver frames. It could have been the cover photo for a dated Italian Better Homes and Gardens interiors special magazine. We were offered bitter orange cordial brought out on a silver tray and took a tour of the expansive labyrinthine building, each room more highly styled with pink gingham ruffles than the next.
We spent a few hours there, all the while I had no idea what any one was saying any of the time, except for interludes of “because the tyre makes the car!! Hahahahaha! The tyre makes the car!”
I sat on the couch watching the clock, wishing I knew what everyone was talking about but also kind of glad I couldn’t understand because I would probably be even more bored if that was the case.
My headache became more and more intense, and by the time we’d spent 3 or so hours at the cousins home, I felt my brain was ready to make a wet popping sound before gushing out of my ear holes.

We said our farewells and I drove back home with Sonia for one more night before catching the train back to Munich. In the car I tried to sleep because with the combination of the stuffy air con and the loud talking bouncing around the walls of the car having an unsurprisingly negative effect on my headache situation, I was beginning to think I might just rather open the door and roll myself out of the car, lay on the side of the road for a while, maybe til the next morning, and then rock myself back and forth in the fetal position until I’d made my rocking way back home.
Instead I was constantly woken with cries of “It’s the tyre that makes the car” and a particularly cutting comment about how I’ve changed, how I’m always so serious and never laughing like the last time I visited, a personality trait which co-incidentally occurred almost exactly at the same time as everyone forgetting that I don’t speak fluent Italian. I hadn’t changed. I just had a headache and a less than perfect understanding of what was actually being said. Well, that and I was sick of the car and tyre catchphrase.
Half way home we made a quick pit stop at a roadside pumpkin and melon stand, where I marvelled at the lumpy, warty, spotted pumpkin varieties and felt a little bit better for being outside.

Back at home I basked in the quietness of my room while I waited for a friendly little red aspirin guy to do his work and thought about what had happened.
It had been so wonderful to be in Italy with Nonna and Carmen, to see them speaking Italian, to see them where they and by association I too had come from. It felt like everything was sort of sliding into perspective. My brain began unravelling some of the deep rooted Italian-bent personality traits that are in my family, and suddenly it all made sense why Nonna’s house is decorated the way it is, why her green beans are cooked the way they are, how she must have felt on her adventure to Australia, to be transported from this magical snowy mountaintop to the suburbs of Sydney and how significantly this must have affected the feisty agile woman, and in turn how it must have affected me.
It had been a trying but immensely satisfying trip and as my headache slowly faded away I felt a tired kind of blissful happiness that comes with fulfilling one of life’s unlikely, surreal dreams.


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