I remember when I first came to Italy being so attracted by the whole aura surrounding being a tavola or at the table. It was the thing I loved most, being at a table laid with all this wonderful food, wine flowing and everyone talking over one another. Not that I could understand any of it. I could hardly speak a word apart from ciao when I got here.
Yet it didn’t always matter, or rather sometimes it mattered very much, but there were times when I’d just sit there and soak it all up anyway. What I was soaking up I couldn’t quite define. Nevertheless I was attracted by it. I loved it. Food had never had such an important place when I was growing up or at least I didn’t think it had. Now I realise of course it did. It might not have necessarily been central – food was treated as something you ate to live rather than a pleasure in itself – but there was still a great sense of tradition that my mother kept going. We always ate the same thing on certain occasions. She made the same dishes at Christmas and at Easter, prawn cocktails, trifles and coleslaw with cheese, as well as the usual Christmas Day dinner which never varied from year to year. And although when I was growing up I used to sit there and think, “Why can’t we have something different?” now I understand exactly why she did it. It was to keep that sense of home, that sense of sharing something that united us together.
Which is what food does, it unifies us. It gives us a sense of togetherness. And whether it’s sitting round a table or eating spaghetti alla carbonara out of bowls on the sofa as we did last night as we all watched Giorgione, the Italian celebrity chef Giorgio Barchiesi’s cookery show, this is what it essentially provides. Of course sitting on the sofa eating spaghetti alla carbonara is possibly about as un-Italian as you can get, if I stick to the stereotypes, at least. (My mother-in-law would be horrified.) Yet it was one of those moments that I’ll remember when the kids are older and have left home. In the meantime, like most women, I waver between this wanting to treasure every minute and can you please just go off and do something as I really want to finish this now, also known as the constant pull of the freelance mother. You are the mother who is constantly on the computer or on the phone because they have the chance to see you. And if you were out somewhere else, you would be not there. It’s a no-win situation either way.
This morning my elder son went out of the house, barking a series of accusations all against myself. Combine this with the fact that he won’t be going to football practice because he hasn’t been well. Then he went off to get the yellow school minibus that winds itself around the village with a view of the mountains thrown into relief against clear blue skies that in turn throw everything into perspective. At least they do for me. He got off the bus and went off into his little school and world because that’s his world and he is very much part of it, and possibly forgot about his mother and his accusations. He won’t forget about the football practice. It will be there in his mind as he sits and does his history lesson and Italian grammar and things that his mother never learned at school as they just weren’t part of her world. That’s one of the things when you’re bringing up children in another country. It’s their world, but it’s never quite yours. There’s always something that keeps you outside their world and reminds you that this is not quite yours, however long you live in a place.
When my kids were little, I found this difficult at times. I wanted them to have more of my world. Then they start to get a bit older and in the meantime you find you’ve got used to it. You’ll always be their foreign mum in some way, and even more so if you’re living a life that’s not quite always what all the other mothers are doing, or at least as they see it. They want to fit in, and they want you to fit in. And at times, it’s not easy for either of you. In the meantime, he’s there in his world of school, and it’s the lunch break now and he’ll be out in the playground with his friends because today is sunny and the children only generally go out on sunny days. And then at the end of the day he’ll get back on the little yellow minibus as it winds its way around the small northern Italian provincial village and come back home once more.
Tonight we’ll be cooking together. He’ll get to decide what he wants to make and I’ll probably end up clearing up the mess. Nothing like a bit of pottering about in the kitchen to clear the air, or at least that’s the hope.