Old vespa in Verona

I’ve always loved Italy. My parents took me to Florence aged six in 1971 but I didn’t discover Verona until I was thoroughly grown up.

Arrivederci Firenze

Between 1985 and 1987 I was lucky enough to rent a flat in Florence from a friend of a friend’s nonna, a treasure of a woman in a black twinset and pearls and a gold cross set with coral bought for her on the Ponte Vecchio in 1919. She was eighty and had gone to live with her daughter and her flat was exactly what you’d expect. Dark wood furniture and horse-hair sofas, crystal glasses used by Miss Lush, glass-fronted cabinets full of venerable china, the very bed Lucy Honeychurch slept in, and a pensive little Bernadette Soubirous keeping an eye on you in every room. And crucifixes, of course, crucifixes everywhere. I loved it. The plumbing was as temperamental and the floor tiles were cracked but they were sixteenth-century floor tiles. The stove must have been the envy of the block in 1955 and the balcony served as scales (anything over 123lb and it would creak and threaten to spill me on to the street). The cat’s name was Topo Gigio. I don’t think he knew.

Then someone died and I lost my tenuous grasp on the plot of life. I went home to my folks and it took me twenty years to go back. Not to go back to Italy, I’m not that insane, just to Florence. I got off the train on the first of May 2005 and on the second I got back on; it was that awful. Florence had changed too much and not enough. I found the flat and it was part of a B&B so I stood in the street and gazed up at the reinforced balcony and my heart’s eye saw geraniums and a fat ginger cat nestled in the morning sunshine where a young couple sat smooching. I had expected to feel mellow and sentimental but I got tearful so I did the sensible thing and went for un caffe.  I decided I would find my own special place without bittersweet memories.

From the train I phoned a friend in Florence from these days and he cheered me up (as only a man would) by telling me Topo lived till he was 18 and died under a picture of Our Lady of Lourdes looking out on to his balcony. I was glad Topo lived a long life and died peacefully but I had to lose the signal and cry for half an hour anyway. In another half hour I was in Milan fighting with the ticket machine (some things never change, and the entire Apocalypse will be held up by the Archangel Gabriel trying to get a ticket down to Rome) and my friend’s wife called and said, “Meet us in Verona at the weekend, it will make you feel better.”

I love that woman. If I was a man I’d have sneaked off and married her while Marco was watching the football one Sunday afternoon. Really. I would. And if I had my kitchen would be gleaming like the sunshine on the loch. But I digress.

Verona was love at first sight

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I got off the train in Verona and like all Italian railway stations it’s full of stairs so I’d had my weekly work out before I struggled into the taxi. Ten minutes later it deposited me at a B&B and this was – more or less – the view. I say more or less because this photo is from a long the road a bit and taken this year. I forgot my depression. I forgot I’d expected to die on the stairs in the station (probably wouldn’t have – in Italy if you look as if you’re expiring people will come to help). I decided at that moment, standing on the doorstep of the B&B that Verona would be my place.  I had been living in Como and had had enough. It was too wrapped up in business, an awful love affair, and a friend’s crazy brother whom I’d gone right off helping.

And Verona has been my place. I’ve lived there, worked there, painted there, and was stupid enough to leave.  I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to live in Italy full-time again (money and health, not Brexit) but at the moment I can go there for work for a few weeks at a time so I am happy.

Tiramisu, btw, literally means ‘pick me up’.

Verona makes me happy.

Find your happy.

I’m thinking of all the things I’ll miss when I have to leave, after all, there’s nothing like rehearsing regrets and here are the first seven…

Aperitivo

I love finishing work and finding a bar and some friends to enjoy a spritz or two and a few olives before a late Italian dinner.  The idea of aperitivo is to refresh the spirit with fellowship and ‘open’ the stomach to prepare it to digest food which is why the drinks such as Aperol, Campari, Vermouth, Prosecco are based on bitter herbs, the ones that get your gastric juices running. In some cities now you find apericena which is a mash-up of aperitivo and cena which means dinner, in other words, a drink with a little buffet rather than a simple dish of olives. I’m not keen on this because I don’t see the point of taking the edge off your appetite before dinner. I’m also cynical enough to think the bars are just charging me extra for my drink to help them use up the leftovers from lunch. Still, I see a lot of people enjoying it and, perhaps, for some it makes things generally more affordable if they don’t have to buy dinner every night but can still enjoy this lovely evening ritual.

Good Coffee

Not a surprise for anyone who knows me.

Coffee in Verona, Italy

In Italy it isn’t a hit or miss whether you’ll get a good cup of coffee. You always will. In the UK coffee is brewed to be weak and bitter and going to a new coffee shop is a gamble. If I want a coffee in Italy and I don’t want to walk to a favourite place I will go to the nearest one and even if it isn’t the best coffee I’ve ever had it’ll never give me gut wrench which is more than I can say for some so-called artisanal coffee houses in the UK. And, of course, there are regional joys like caffe triestino which is an espresso with whipped cream on top. Now, where did I put that Trenitalia timetable and can I get to Trieste before I expire from whipped cream deficiency?

Bidets

I have never understood why they aren’t standard everywhere. ‘Nuff said.

Weather

Italian weather isn’t gorgeous all year round and it gets grey and cold in the north in winter but, for me, the springs and autumns are just glorious and I’d take a too hot Italian summer over a non-existent Scottish one any year. My mother says, “grey skies make grey people”, and I feel the truth of that when I live full-time in Scotland. I get very depressed with overcast skies but it only takes a few days of sunshine to make me feel bright and energetic.

Fruit

Peaches and nectarines in the UK are too often rock solid and tasteless. When I go to Italy I live on fruit. I lose weight, my skin plumps up and after a few weeks I look like 52 instead of 347.  Same with veggies. I’ll never forget the little Lancashire lass in Perugia a few years ago, “Mum, what is this? Whatever it is I’m going to eat it for the rest of my life.” She was about ten and it was a peach. Yes, you can live a decade in the UK without ever having had a peach that isn’t like a lump of damp wood.

Politeness

Italians are on the whole very polite. I have never struggled with bags in an Italian railway station or had an asthma attack in any Italian city without someone (often a handsome young man!) rush to my aid. One day when I am super-rich (!) I shall institute an award for all the lovely young men and women police officers who have been kind to me over and above the call of common decency.

Church bells and Roadside Shrines

I love the romance of shrines. You see them everywhere in Italy, mostly to the Madonna but sometimes to other saints, dotted about in city streets and country roads, set into the walls of houses, nestling in alcoves and colonnades, and presiding over all aspects of life. Italy is a much less observantly Catholic country than it was when I was young but as my generation is still fairly devout the shrines will be around for a while yet. When I’m old and nonna-like I hope I can still hobble along to this one in the Corso Porta Borsari in Verona.

Shrine Corso Porta Borsari, Verona, Italy