Nostalgia


The smell of freshly fried fish fingers at a cosy little elementary school in Rome.

The strong, pungent smell of garlic bread fresh out of an oven just beneath my parent’s one room flat on Via Panisperna.

The romance between Peter and Mauri on the winding stairs down from ours to the office below.

My gawking at them when they kissed wondering how they didn’t tumble-down the stairs while doing so.

The ancient, clunky lift in the well of the ancient building housing my father’s news agency and our flat above.

The sight of my father, thickly bespectacled, with scores of newspapers before him, and a cigar or cigarette perennially lit between his lips, impatiently turning the pages of what he was reading while smiling benevolently at me when I went by, on occasion, to hang out at his office.

My love of the sights and sounds of a busy newsroom.

A thick yellow light drenching my father and his colleagues. Their always seeming to be talking unnecessarily loudly in order to be heard above the din of typewriters, always clanking away in the background.

The wonderful smell of apple shampoo in our tiny bathroom.

The bubbles it made – fragrant and huge.

The smell of freshly brewed coffee from my mum’s little kitchen.

The noisy arrival of my father, his protegé, Peter, and other hanger-ons up the stairs, into our little flat, their heavy collapsing into the few pieces of furniture that we either rented or owned.

Long leisurely lunches filled with conversation and laughter often ending with someone or the other knocking down nearly empty wine flutes.

Peter playing Bob Marley and the Wailers, John Lennon and Genesis.

My father playing Ravi Shankar whom I distinctly remember he didn’t much care for, back home.

My playing for hours on end, behind the door leading to the small sitting room, with an immense and colourful UNICEF puzzle that consisted of putting a group of children’s hands correctly into each other’s, as they stood half-smiling at me.

The noise of Rome’s vegetable markets. The smell especially of celery.

The stink to my nose of its various meats.

The beautiful and delicious pastries down the street from home.

The numerous ice cream cones my mum and I devoured after she picked me up from a school bus-stop.

The dark, deep delight of chocolate.

The one time I travelled on the school bus with my classmate Peter to his home when mum wasn’t at the bus-stop.

His mother being so kind and attentive to me.

The game machines, rudimentary back then, in the ‘corner stores’ where I played and won small trinkets – which were always surprisingly appropriate to the desires of an eight year old girl – hairpins, rubber-bands, scented erasers.

The gorgeous stationary.

The Italian Pablo and the Spanish Pablo gifting me handcrafted leather-bound sets of colour pencils and deliciously thick crayons.

The tall, cold glass of milk at school.

My best friend Bianca so eager to learn English from me.

My embarrassment at being ‘too attached’ to my mother in comparison to her seeming independence from her own mammy. Feisty, bright-eyed, sun-speckled Bianca.

My insisting on wanting to see Venice as part of school ‘field work’ on Marco Polo.

The pigeons in Venice: so many, so tame, so willing to be fed.

One sitting on top of my head.

The wonderful way my father’s colleagues loved my mother. The open home she kept, the delicious food she made, the lovely saris she wore, the way she always made it seem as though working hard was fun, enjoyable and deeply satisfying.

The larger than life, Indian intelligence officer who loved to see me giggle when he drove us around, at great speed, in his always immense automobiles, always nattily dressed, always smelling of cigars and strong, manly perfume.

My mum getting drunk once. Really drunk. At an Indian embassy party. Her crying. My crying. My father trying to console us.

A window in the sitting room at home out of which I saw clothes flapping on lines tied between our building and the one next to it.

The easy banter between neighbours.

My speaking Italian easily, fluently. My becoming my parents’ translator.

People on our street calling out to me, ‘Ciao Bella! Indiana Bambina!’

My wanting to have ‘bangs’. The high-end barber at the end of our street turning red with embarrassment when my mum offers to pay for what he says ‘izz not, NOTTT a hair cut ATT ALLL!’

Visiting the British Council library and feeling at home in the midst of English language book titles.

Sensing, without being able to describe it, how ‘un-Italian’ the staff were.

The way the most ordinary streets were full of extraordinary beauty.

Door knobs, flights of stairs, water fountains, shop windows.

The way children were always ALWAYS heard and seen and loved.

The visit to English Vic’s Italian family.

The delicious pasta his large, gentle, bespectacled mum-in-law made. Ripe tomatoes, abundant garlic; the warm sun, the beautiful, golden Laura, then Vic’s wife. My little friend, with golden locks for hair, Lorenzo, their son.

Going out with Peter and Mauri in their car to the sea.

Riding on Peter’s back as he swam out, me shrieking in delight, him proud and happy like a young father.

Our returning late.

My worried parents.

A late meal at home. My falling asleep in the midst of it – listening to their conversation.

My writing a stupid letter to the Queen of England and handing it to Peter whose mum worked for the Queen!

My receiving a reply from her office thanking me for my wishes and my wonderful drawing!

And yet despite all this, a nagging longing for home.

My missing my aunts, the smell of earth, the rains, the trains, the people, the sounds.

Our journey back with Michella, my Italian speaking doll in tow.

Her ‘talking’ button accidentally coming on in the airport making for some embarrassed apologies from my parents and eventual joviality among the airport staff.

The flight home. Alitalia. My loving the way the word sounded and looked. So many A’s, all perfectly placed.

The memory of my aunts receiving us.

The feeling of time well spent in a magical world. Happiness at getting back.