I haven’t always been obsessed with San Francisco.
There was a time when I was obsessed with Italy.
My affection has never diminished for the land of olives, arias and elections. It’s just that since we first – belatedly – discovered the United States, and San Francisco in particular, the siren call from across the Atlantic has invariably proved too hard to resist.
But for a decade in the eighties and nineties, it was Italy that held us in its thrall.
Our first date, however, did not go well.
Midway through a twelve day cheese and wine driving tour of France, we made a short detour into Italy via the Mont Blanc Tunnel. That excursion might have lasted a little longer had it not been for the fact that, having realised we had the taken a wrong turn on the outskirts of Courmayeur, we reversed onto the newly laid tarmac driveway of the startled, and more worryingly, burly owner.
Fortunately, our hire car had sufficient power to outpace him, his even sturdier wife, three small children and fearsome German shepherd dog as they gesticulated in a manner that seems to be every Italian’s birthright.
Having lain low from Interpol for a couple of years, diplomatic relations were restored when we snuck back on a ten day coach tour that included Rome, Florence, Pisa, Venice and Assisi (our earliest encounter with San Francisco?).
Over the next few years we took short breaks to Florence, Venice and Milan. Longer holidays followed to Sorrento (twice), Lakes Garda and Como and, loveliest of all, Taormina in Sicily. We even abandoned France one year to base ourselves in the Aosta Valley resort of La Thuile, from whence we could ski over the border to La Rosiere.
No matter that public life was mired in scandal and corruption, and that television was a boorish blend of babes, boobs and Berlusconi baloney. We were now besotted with the breathtaking natural beauty, history, sense of style and the ravenous appetite for life of the people. We enjoyed la dolce vita, worshipped la bella figura, and did our best to blend seamlessly into la passeggiata every evening. Puccini, Giotto and Michelangelo became my cultural icons. The whole country was one large show and we loved it.
Climbing up from Piazzetta Michelangelo to San Miniato al Monte in Florence, coming upon the Campo dei Miracoli in Pisa for the first time, getting lost among the remoter calle in Venice, gazing on Santa Lucia in Naples, walking the Circus Maximus……the list goes on.
In 1992 I began to learn the language (that, acording to Lord Byron, ” sounds as if it should be written on satin”) in earnest, and attained a Royal Society of Arts Level 1 diploma with distinction.
And then there was the calcio.
Serie A was at that time the most glamorous football (soccer) league in Europe. Real Madrid and Barcelona may still have attracted many of the bigger names, but La Liga was not televised on British television as it is now, or if it was, only to a miniscule satellite audience. And the Premier League in England was only in its infancy.
But Sunday afternoon on Channel 4 was one of the highlights of my week, when a top Italian league game was televised live. The Saturday morning magazine show, Gazzetta Football Italia, presented by the witty and well informed James Richardson (did he ever drink that cappuccino or eat that gelato that shimmered on the table in front of him?), showed highlights of all the previous week’s games and featured interviews with the top players, including Paul Gascoigne and Paul Ince, who took the rare route of moving from England to Europe.
It was bliss to an Italophile like me.
Roberto Baggio with his languid style, pony tail and hip Buddhist beliefs, and Franco Baresi, the epitome of the Italian hard man defender, became my footballing heroes. We even named our pet rabbits, Baggio and Schilacci after their namesakes’ exploits in Italia ’90. The spectacle and drama of that World Cup tournament only endeared me to the country more. I could not even get downhearted when the host country beat England 1-0 in the third place play-off.
And then, five years later, I realised an ambition and attended the San Siro where, in front of 83,000 fans, AC Milan “welcomed” eventual Scudetto winners, Juventus. I’d always thought that English football supporters were passionate, but the fervour and fanaticism in that stadium that evening was astonishing. One elderly gentleman next to me spent the entire game clutching his prayer beads and yelling at Milan’s mercurial Yugoslav playmaker, Dejan Savicevic, to produce a moment of magic for the hosts, but to no avail.
Discretion being the better part of valour, I kept my allegiance to La Vecchia Signora (Juventus) firmly under wraps as they strolled to a 2-0 victory with goals from Gianluca Vialli and Fabrizio Ravanelli, both later to star in the Premier League. The contrast with the last match I had been to, between Gillingham and Bury four nights previously in front of little over 3,000, could not have been more striking.
It was later in that year that we made our first fateful trip to the American West. We didn’t abandon Italy immediately as we visited Lake Como two years later. But it was another decade before we renewed acquaintance with La Serenissima as part of my wife’s fiftieth birthday celebrations.
And now, another seven years later, we are finally returning for a third time to Sorrento. We may only be there for a week, but that will be enough to enable us to go back to Capri, Pompeii, Naples and the Amalfi Coast (Positano, Amalfi and Ravello).
Torna a Surriento!