Monday, 27 June 2011

Are your breasts too small? Are you single this summer?

As I wait for my chapters to download or sit there mulling over ways to sneak some of my wacky language past my grammatically rigorous British editor, I've been grazing online, skimming over some Italian tips for the summer.

First of all, Are you ready to pass La Prova del Costume? Your Bikini Test?

Unfortunately, that doesn't only mean a wax and tan, it means you must have the curves in the right places, almighty ones such as so-and-so and such-and-such, and if not then Mamma Mia it's time to shift some weight. And beware! Is it possible you don't have the right bikini top to make a riveting gorge of your breasts?

I saw a television advertisement for a big phone company where a not-so-gorgeous woman and suave actor Raoul Bova are husband and wife sitting on a beach. The wife peers through her binoculars at some of the young buxom fauna bouncing past.

Darling, what would you give her out of ten? And that one, what about her?

Ho-hum. Raoul Bova - and the spectator - peer over the shapely girls shaking towels, shaking their assets. They are really something. Sure, we know Italian men have a license-to-perve, but why belittle the moderate-looking wife and make beauty into such a plastic, tarty thing? Why allow a young woman watching TV to think it is funny to laugh at an unattractive woman ranking half-naked stunners on a beach? Or a silly young bloke? Why must marriage remain this stale banter?

Enough. This morning a comment I wrote on another blog made me think of a string of summers I had a while back, when I used to go to Berlin to visit my gay mates. It was when I really needed to escape smaller children, the school run, Italy. In Berlin I wasn't a checked-out woman anymore, I wasn't glanced over to see if my boobs were good, if my arse was nice, how I was holding up. I was a friend of S&D who was hanging around, invited. All I did was follow conversations, or wander off, or say something that was listened to, even examined. It was such a relief to be a talking head instead of a talking body. It wasn't even odd going to the gay end of the park or the lake beach, stripping down and pulling out a book. It felt more mischievous to run away from the straight world, to pretend for a while that I wasn't burdened by gender, or coupledom, or motherhood.

At S&D's apartment I used to sleep in the library on a Napoleon III cherrywood bed which had four lion paws for feet. One night my youngest called up sobbing, he was with my first husband and his bird,

'Mummy, come home Mummy. Come home now, Mummy. Please, I want you.'

I lay there in Stefano's kimono under his rows and rows of first editions and his framed French prints. That night when we went out clubbing I knew I was a fake.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Caffè shakerato with my Aunt

As my publishing date comes nearer and I feel like running to the mountains, my Aunt has come to visit and my days have slowed. We sit under the grapevines in cane chairs enjoying the soft breeze. I think about watering the plants but don’t do it. Coffee materialises in our hands and the dogs snap at flies.

I think, It is summertime again, How did that happen?

When I was small I was afraid of my Aunt because she had a big voice and I never grew used to her. She lived abroad and we were a quiet family. She sang in an important choir, wore kaftans and didn’t care. She had a son with the bluest eyes and he used to cry when any of us plonked through Chopin on the piano.

One visit that I think we have all tried to erase from our hearts an accident happened and this boy’s life was taken away. At the time, we children were given improbable religious explanations, but the reason why this thing had to happen was not to be understood. We were told to go back to school while the adults sat around in shock, then clung to mourning.

Now, so many years on, when we have been drinking my aunt and I talk about how old her son would have been now, how handsome. I feel dizzy to think that my life travelled on, I grew up, I gave my parents grandkids. But I like to bring him into our talk. My Aunt is not sure whether to believe me, but this boy often comes to me, he is a man now, sending her comfort.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Vi facciamo neri!!!

I nearly left the road the first time I read this.


The banner comes out every summer and stretches over the front door of a beauty centre a few villages away, with a pumped-up and very tanned lady in a bikini next to the words. Every time I drive past I really stare to check I haven't made some translation mistake. A couple of times when I was already pissed off I have felt like stomping in there, shaking my wet swimming towel, and shrieking Whaat the? How can you appropriate the word 'black' when most of you are petrified of Africans and their black skin? Who on earth among you is going to walk through that door and willingly come out a black man or woman??

The thing is, Italy has been late to the party several times. They were late to join the scramble for Africa, ending up with Libya, a sliver of Somalia, disgrace in Ethiopia. And now the great wave of post-Independence migration has just recently hit Italy's coasts. I have heard hilarious stories from Ghanaian mates about posing as refugees from Liberia with their obviously Ghanaian names. Or the passport swapping that goes on because for the already-muddled carabinieri, all black people look the same (in Ghana people used to think all whites looked the same too, and the funniest crowd scene in my life took place when I was walking through the massive used clothes market in Rawlings Park and EVERY SINGLE PERSON started cracking up over my skinny non-African bum).

The thing is, everybody is afraid of real black skin here, that is why I can't understand the gist of that advertisement. My neighbour, a man who thinks our properties will both be handed down to the next generation when I know my kids will be taking off to Sydney or New York or Milan and I'll probably sell up, once told me I should watch out.

There is a shop near here where they congregate, he informed me. He didn't know I had to pass my Italian driving test with a bunch of fairly ordinary Senegalese.

I told him I knew the place he meant, which was true because the guy who runs it is called Omar and we once had a great laugh because I have a son called Omar too.

You've seen them out the front together, in those long dresses. My neighbour said they were all pimps and drug addicts, he was certain. They all had big cars.

That day I remember it was very hot and my neighbour spoke on at length but there was not a thing I could think of that was going to change his racist fears. I tried for a while, but then the idea of the men in robes set me thinking backwards. Back to my old hajis in Nima the Muslim quarter of Accra and the dusky call to prayer. Back to driving through Burkina with Cissé-the-crackhead and taking a wrong turn at Ouaga and doing 60kms of sandy road. Back to the night in the car on the border with Mali where we all woke caked in red dust - red fuzzy hair, red eyelashes. Back to the afternoon after Segou when I released cranky little Omar into the desert. Omar who was sick of the all-day driving, Omar who ran and ran and ran into the dust towards a big baobab tree, the biggest baobab tree I had ever seen.

Monday, 6 June 2011

Lascia ch'io pianga

Lascia ch'io pianga
La mia crude sorte

Let me weep over
My cruel fate

Words from an aria from Handel's opera Rinaldo, first performed in 1711, Almirina mourning her lost love, sung by my Facebooker daughter aged fifteen as I wept and her eye-rolling brother had to hold the camera.

Just too beautiful. And every time I cry.

Then afterward we pass an old lady on the footpath from the old people's home nearby. She is tiny with whiskers and looks up at my tall kids, one blond and wearing my heels not-too-shakily, one brown with a tidy afro today. Her eyes glistening, she wants to talk. Where are we from? Why are we here?

We tell her we are not really Italian, that we are somewhat mixed-up.

Well I was in Belgrade, she said. Where the two rivers meet and there is a yellow line down the middle. Because they are different, the two rivers. Ah, Beogrado!

My kids waited it out.

I used to be in Venice, she said happily, you could see she was sassy once. I knew Ernest Hemingway, she said. Do you know Ernest Hemingway?

I said I did. My daughter loved Fiesta.

Poor man! she said. Ah! But now I am here, look where I am. She looked in towards the entry gate of the old people's home. Another lady pushed along a frame.

Her eyes filled with tears and she asked me for a cigarette. There are three of us who smoke, she said cheekily. She showed me inside her handbag which had an empty packet.

We walked away for ice cream and my kids swore they would never put me in a home and my legs felt weak. We were each quiet for a while until we resumed talking about my daughter's excellent performance.