Lizzy is mid-sentence when she takes in a sharp breath and stops talking. Her voice lowers. “Too loud,” she mutters, succinctly, nodding towards the two women behind Ali and me. “We’re being *commented* on.” Shortly thereafter the two women pick up their glasses of wine and move outside to finish their drinks.
It was only to be expected. The three of us went to school together and Lizzy hasn’t seen Ali for fifteen or so years. We arrange to meet in an Italian cafe/restaurant, but when we phone Lizzy at half four to tell her we’ve arrived, she trills down the phone, “Darling, I’m just having an emergency bath. I’ll be with you in ten.” There was no way this was going to be a low-key meal.
Deciding that half past four is too early for cocktails, despite being on holiday, we sit outside to drink coffee and eat teacakes. You’d think we were downing bottles of meths, though, from the stares that we get from passers by. I’ve got used to this in Italy, but I wasn’t expecting it in Dorset. The English that I remember from before I moved away were more circumspect. Apparently times have changed. Maybe it’s just that we’re sitting outside in the middle of a rainy English summer, but we’re under a canopy, for god’s sake. They’re the ones that are out walking in it. We move inside, away from the staring, and towards aperitivi.
The manager’s eyes widen at my response to his reeling off of the various cocktails on offer.
“Ma, lei è italiana?” I laugh and tell him I live in Catania, at which point he nearly explodes with excitement.
“But I’m from Palermo! Wow! What are you doing here in the rain? Oh, I know what you should drink – it’s not on the menu but I can make it – Aperol spritz!”
Ah, now I’m home.
There’s something weird about being back in my country of birth nowadays. I’m living with my parents while I’m here, in the same village that I grew up in, seeing the same old faces around me. It should be comfortable – but it isn’t. There’s a dichotomy between my sense memory and my heart; don’t even mention the language. Although I’m still a long way from fluent in Italian, I’ve started to forget the English words for things. It’s the idioms that are the first to go, and I find myself struggling for phrases that I know are at the back of my mind somewhere but won’t come out. Descriptions become tortuous as I fumble for words. It’s almost as frustrating as when I’m in Italy and can’t find the Italian for what I mean, although at least in Italy I can wave my hands around and people will understand.
So I keep ending up in Italian-run cafes and restaurants while I’m here. The food’s good, obviously. However, more than that: when I get inside it’s so delicious to hear Italian and to speak it, and to be welcomed because of that fact, that I wonder why I would ever want to go anywhere else.
“Um – are you ready yet?” We laughed when the waitress gave us our menus and said she’d give us half an hour, but we’ve been so rapt in conversation that we haven’t even looked at them. We flip them open and start to scan before remembering the specials board on the far side of the restaurant. It’s half-hidden behind another table of people, so we’re craning and bobbing up and down in our seats when the manager returns. “Ahem! Ladies! I’m here! Let me tell you what we have for you today.” He describes each one with the loving detail that only an Italian can produce when it comes to food and we order mixed antipasti despite my internal misgivings that ordering fritti misti in an inland town in Dorset might be a mistake.
“My god but that calamari is good! Oh, and have you tried the whitebait? Bloody hell, that prawn is amazing …” We ooh and ahh our way through the starter, barely needing to chew delicious, tender rings of squid and thin slices of parma ham. Just as well, really, as the conversation continues apace. There might have been worries before the meal that fifteen years was too big a gap to bridge, but there needn’t have been.
The manager flits back and forth between our table and others. The restaurant’s filling up, but he keeps coming back to have a quick chat in Italian. It’s so lovely to be speaking the language to which I’ve become more accustomed in recent years. He quizzes me on my knowledge of Sicilian. I produce a couple of phrases, and he throws a new Catanese one at me, which I promptly forget. Main courses are devoured. The first bottle of Sicilian wine disappears and is replaced. Pudding is beyond us all, but good Italian coffee is welcome. “Espresso? Ovviamente!”
Then out of nowhere appear shot glasses of limoncello, with which the manager joins in. “Cheers!” He introduces himself – “Giuseppe. Piacere.” – and we shake hands all around the table.
We stand up to leave, laughing and ruing the English rain outside as we exchange kisses. “When do you go back to Sicily?” asks Giuseppe. “46 degrees today – I’m going in August and I can’t wait!” He’s been called to another table, but he waits as we fumble our way back into coats and scarves before saying goodbye with a grin. “Ciao ragazze. Alla prossima!”
Until the next time. Can’t wait.