The first time I had been to Italy was in the early seventies when it took me six days and nights to hitchhike down from Amsterdam to Rome to meet my sister who turned out to have left five days before I eventually arrived. At that time, I remember turning down the offer of a lift to a place called Firenze because I wanted to go to a place called Florence. But that was a long time ago and then I had arrived in Milan, penniless and without any Italian whatsoever, to teach English at the British Council.
The Council, in a rather lordly way, having been informed of my arrival, had booked me into a rather expensive pensione – the Albergo nell’ Galleria in one of the smarter areas of the city, near the Piazza Duomo, the heart of urbane Milan. My first thought on seeing the rather exquisite setting, with its canopied four-poster bed, thick, musty carpet, the walls covered in a dark, flocked wallpaper and its views of the massive Cathedral out of the balconied windows was “Ohmigod, how am I going to be able to pay for all of this?”
That first afternoon, sprawled on the bed, counting the few lira I had, I felt a distinct uneasiness. The day was dark and drear and the majesty of the Duomo dwarfed my spirits. I had yet to begin work and already the prospect of being in debt was weighing heavily upon me. The Allbergo was old and fusty, even the furniture seemed antique, dark, heavy wood, ornately carved, while the coat-rack on the wall seemed to be unnecessarily convoluted, and was not even placed on the wall properly, as my coat seemed to be hanging crookedly. In fact, as I glared at it with irritation, the coat seemed to be swaying as if it were a pendulum, while a dull, far away rumbling emanated, it seemed, from the bowels of the old hotel.
It was only later the next day that I learned that I had survived my first earthquake, when a minor quake had struck the northern Po valley. Only one casualty was reported, a 79 year old man had died when he had tried to steady his ancient Grundig TV set which had nevertheless toppled over, killing him instantly.
However, that was more than enough excuse for me to withdraw gracefully from the Albergo, and go looking for cheaper accommodation elsewhere.
I found it in the Via Rovoletto, a narrow, curving alley, in a warren of similar streets, dotted with cheap-looking greasy-spoon type “restorantes” and even seedier looking hotels, outside of which blowsy, middle-aged women, in tight miniskirts huddled in thick jackets against the cold, seemed to be loitering unnecessarily. Hotel Rovoletto had glass doors with its name stamped in faded gold lettering, a thin, wine red carpet in the lobby, two plastic covered armchairs on either side of a tall urn-like ceramic vase holding artificial flowers and a reception desk.
The elderly middle-aged man behind the desk seemed not to comprehend that I actually wanted to book a room and kept looking around him with an air of mystified bewilderment. Between his lack of English and my lack of Italian, what should have been quite a simple transaction between a guest and a hotel receptionist turned into a protracted pantomime with me placing my clasped hands on the side of my face, closing my eyes, snoring loudly, then gesturing at my chest and finally airily waving my hand above my head to indicate the, no doubt, numerous and vacant rooms the hotel undoubtedly had, while he shrugged his fat shoulders, brushed the back of his fingers under his unshaven chin, shook his head, rolled his eyes and seemed to do everything possible to deter me.
Finally in exasperation, I pointed at the keys hanging up on the wall behind him and, proffering my passport in an attempt to distract him, I tried to reach over and help myself to one. More, to me, inane explanations which finally subsided into a marked grudging acceptance when I flourished my rapidly thinning roll of Lire. After signing various forms and having him tediously check my passport details, I was eventually led up a flight of narrow steps, barely covered with a well-worn red carpet, unraveling at the edges. By the third floor, all pretense at class had vanished, as had the carpet, and the long, bare corridor was eerily lit by a naked light globe hanging from a frayed wire.
The room was dark and dowdy. The bed rickety, with a noticeable dip in the mattress so that no matter which side of the bed I lay on, within seconds I had rolled into the trough in the middle, and the thin gray sheets had been laundered so often that they were almost transparent except where they had been patched and repatched over the years. Clearly, Hotel Rovoletto would not be finding a place in any of the more respectable accommodation guides to Italy’s fashion capital as I was to find out more explicitly later.
That night, returning from a fantastically robust, and ultra cheap meal of pasta and beans at an underground cellar of a restaurant called Zia Carlotta, I was accosted by several stout women, lingering under the dim street lighting of Via Rovoletto. Bundled in thick coats against the winter dampness of Milan, the women made coarse gestures and cackled amongst themselves as I walked by, still naively uncomprehending the type of area I had chosen to stay in.
As I queued at the reception desk for my key, a stream of “ballerini della notte”as I later heard them rather charitably described, ascended and descended the shabby stairs with occasional shame-faced men in tow. The reluctance and bewilderment on the part of the desk clerk, the mean strip of carpet running only to the second floor, the thin, well-used sheets, the loitering women, the hoarse cackling at my expense all seemed clear now.
I had probably been living in Milan for well over a year, but no longer at the Hotel Rovoletto which I had left as soon as I could afford to, when my brother casually mentioned in a telephone conversation that one of the advantages of living there must be the ability to go into a bar and have a glass of sparkling wine at any time. I agreed that it was and the conversation turned to other things.
As soon as was decently possible I rang off and rushed to the nearest bar and asked for a glass of sparkling wine (Spumante). It had simply never occurred to me before. I was aghast at the time I had wasted and from that point on, I made a beast of myself. I particularly liked it when I’d ask for a glass and the barman would fish out these bottles from cooled, sunken tubes behind the stainless steel bar only to find them empty and would instantly oblige by opening a fresh bottle, just for me.
I enjoyed the clear, fruity taste of the Spumante so much that I determined to make a special trip to Asti just to pay homage to the most famous of all the spumantes, the Asti Spumante.
And it was in Asti that I believe I first fell in love with food per se.
The restaurant wasn’t fancy, but it was lunchtime and I was hungry. The town was empty – it was autumn and no tourists were about and what locals there were, were not eating at this particular restaurant. It was plain and homely with traditional red checked tablecloths, while the proprietors, a massively overweight, elderly senora dressed in faded black clothes and heavy brown nylon stockings busied herself behind a high counter, ignoring me as I attempted to understand the hand-written menu. Not quite sure what I was ordering, with the exception of the Spumante, I pointed at various items and attempted to engage her in conversation.
“Questo, e buono?” (This, is good?) but all I received in return was a brusque nod so that all I knew was that I was ordering some kind of vegetable dish. I ended up with a surprisingly simple dish but I had never eaten anything as delicious as those deep-fried cauliflower. Such was my naivety at the time that I thought, by praising the dish and the senora in my faulty Italian and ordering more, she would be flattered and heap more on my plate in true home style hospitality. More was heaped on my plate certainly, but the shrewdness of the country folk ran true and more was heaped on my eventual bill also.