Date: 2 May 2016.
Location: a piazza in Napoli, under an umbrella, sheltering from the pouring spring rain.
Italy is of course, stunning. Sicily especially so. Greeks, Romans, the Byzantines have known this for hundreds of years. Sitting on the rocks at the seaside down of Cefalù, its alarming easy for Paris and I to see how tales of sirens and seamonsters could come into existence and be perpetuated. To our right is a sleepy lagoon, fringed with ragged Italian stone houses and held by a white sandy beach dotted with colourful fishing boats. To our left lies the Med, glistening as though someone has broken tiny crystals across its surface. And, across that blue expanse, lies mainland Italy in the distance.
The rocks are wet underneath our jeans because we're enjoying a glimpse of afternoon sun in what has otherwise been a day of pelting rain. The weather visibly dampens Paris's spirits (I tried to distract her from viewing the weather forecast last night but no luck) — and fair enough really, for it's been a long time since we've seen summer in London and, judging purely by our friends' bank holiday Instagram snaps, other locations within 3 hours' flying time from London are enjoying brilliant sun. However, we have the spirits of Disney princess cheerleaders so we get dressed cheerfully, eat more breakfast than you'd think a girl could, and get on the road. It's been 36 hours since The One Way Street Trauma and we approach the car with some trepidation, Tim, the duplications GPS, is muted and shoved unceremoniously into the glovebox.
First stop is Olivera. It's a tiny spot of a fishing town but there, atop a mountain, is a cathedral, Ancient Greek ruins and view of some stunning coastal lakes. We tramp around the ruins with enthusiasm and pretend we're Indiana Jones in the rain. Then it's an arancini ball for the road and on to Cefalù.
It's been an age since I've been to Italy and omigod why?
I'm bewitched by every tiny side street. I snap photos of every meal and childishly drag Paris back to see every glimpse of the sea or ornate fountain that I fear she's missed. I adore the language and my Italian lessons from a decade ago limp back ungracefully. I try out a hesitant 'grazie' and a few 'buona seras' and then I'm back in the game delightedly speaking broken Italian like a Floroda tourist at every opportunity.
Yeah, like basically everyone else, I really love Italy.
It ought to come as no surprise that my absolute favourite thing about Italy is appertivo, that lost hour between riposo and dinner. To the deprived uninitiated: appertivo is the Italian varietal of the tapas hour. Come the time around sunset, you go order a wine or a negroni and you'll also be served up — at the very least — a little bowl of olives and tiny salty carbs of some form. At best you may get an entire antipasto plate, for free, for you. It's just so ridiculously civilised, a tasty manifestation of the hospitality of the Italians.
Back in 2007 I spent a semester in Tuscany. For the first few weeks that we spent (pretending that we were) studying in Florence my housemates and I were baffled by the array of little bowls of glossy yummy things that appeared on bars around town at 5pm each evening. What were they for? What were the rules about eating them? Could we eat them? As relatively impoverished 22 year olds who had to club together their euro coins to afford our Chianti requirements, it was actually imperative that we get answers to these questions. Finally a local explained the concept of appertivo — 'You drink, so you must eat, yes?'. Well, yes. We were enthralled and, I'm ashamed to say, spent many an evening trawling the most opulent appertivo bars in town (the row by the Arno was particularly lush pickings) to dine free and save our coins for half price cocktails at the Red Garter.
I ought to temper my outrageous enthusiasm for Italy just a little. Having been here over three days now I do recollect the things that I really did not love. First, there's that pervasive yet vague feeling that you're being ripped off for everything by everyone (even when that's clearly not the case). Second, the slow pace drives me crazy. Compared to London, I know you'll rightly say, everywhere will seem slow. True, but there's slow like the 91 bus down Upper Woburn/the changing room line at Zara/the movement of the tectonic plates — and then there's slow an like an Italian car rental line: a sweltering room, four people behind the desk and one outside smoking, a queue of three customers, one of whom is arguing with e the dole server. It feels like moving through treacle. Of course, as I write this I've had a day stuck in the Italian domestic air travel wormhole so take what I say with a grain of Sicilian sea salt.
Finally, yes, I do recognise and accept the contrariness of cursing the Italian slowness with one hand as I lazily sip a D'avelo Nero with the other and do nothing at all but tipsily type this like a wannabe Hemingway. But surely that's perfect for the Italians are walking contradictions: their diet is basically cheese and bread and alcohol but they radiate good health (OK, the under 40s do), they're infamously indolent pleasure seekers and yet their empire is one of the most influential of the ages. What's going on there Italy?
Whatever it is, saluti to that!