On finally seeing the point of Italy (originally broadcast as Summer Taste on BBC Radio 4 )

When I was seventeen, in Florence, I had the best raspberry sorbet of my life.

I know how that sounds.  They’re words filled with such potential.  After all, how could four girls, free of school and family in the most beautiful city in Europe, not have the coming of age we all dream of, wine and beauty and romance and, who knows, even love?

  Because they were four girls from Oxford, and one of them was me.


I was a breath-takingly square adolescent.  I reached my teens in the late eighties, a time of leg-warmers, shoulder-pads, neon colours and stretchy jeans.  But this passed me by.  My three closest friends were, like me, the daughters of dons or publishers, tormented by thoughts of failure at an intellectual but tragically unworldly girls’ school.  We had unfortunate hair, John Lennon glasses, RSI from grade 8 cello.  Our idea of glamour was wearing our school regulation navy cords with turn-ups.  We thought the Beatles were cool and sang along to Madonna’s ‘Like a Virgin’ hopefully, but barely aware of our shame. 

  What we did know about was love.  At least, we thought we did.  None of us had actually kissed a boy, and we both admired and pitied those who had.  We found Bob Dylan’s ‘She Makes Love Just Like A Woman,’ both exciting and shocking, when we weren’t trying to translate it into Greek.  How we romanticised Mr Darcy and the young Keats.  How we speculated, shyly, about which of each other’s brothers we would marry.  But our greatest source of romantic and sexual knowledge came from the Merchant Ivory films of E.M. Forster, specifically A Room With A View, with which we were obsessed.

  I mean, obsessed.  As we wheeled our bicycles home we would quote bits at each other: ‘A young girl, transfigured by Italy,’ ‘If Miss Honeychurch ever takes to live as she plays, it will be very exciting – both for us and for her’.  We would try to develop crushes on the three floppy-haired male stars.  And then we would end up at each other’s houses, eating underalcoholic tiramisu and inexpert pasta sauces and replaying, again and again on a crackling Betamax, the scene in which – it’s thrilling even to say it – George kisses Lucy Honeychurch passionately, torridly, spontaneously in a field of flowers.

  Kisses in Port Meadow were more likely to involve Scotch eggs and fossil-hunting than prosciutto and mozzarella with the boy of your dreams.  No: clearly, the place to be was Italy, where the best food came from, where the boys were spot-free and passionate and where, to the sound of opera, girls like us, like Lucy Honeychurch, could be themselves at last. 

  And so, when we were seventeen, four of us decided to try it for ourselves.  We would go to Florence, of course; where else?  We’d be romantic and and cultured and probably fall in love, except we’d have barely thought of that – we were just as unworldly as Lucy Honeychurch, although not as posh and considerably less attractive.  After all, we had mastered the Subjunctive – how much harder could this be?  One of us found an extremely cheap pensione; another researched bucket-shop flights; the third, the most organised and highbrow, began to devise our schedule.  As for me?  Well, I had always been greedy, reading recipe books in the bath, turning to the restaurant section of travel guides – to be honest I still do.  So my contribution to our grand tour, our coming-of-age, was to find out where, in the whole of that gelato-obsessed city, we might find the best ice-cream.  It was the least – or, actually all – I could do.

  What culinary adventures could have begun that first evening.  After all, we weren’t in Siberia, or Chad.  We knew about Italian food, sort of, thanks to Elizabeth David and, I suspect, a suppressed desire to turn ourselves into perfect little wives.  We were comfortable with Italy, weren’t we?  Besides, we were only seventeen – we could have eaten our way around the city and still have had room for bars and romance, drinking, dancing until dawn. 

  I still remember the tiny cobbled piazza we crossed on the way to the ice cream shop I had chosen, the boys sitting on benches underneath the trees.  This, we had solemnly decided, would be our pudding, after a subtly disappointing dinner in a pre-selected, pre-booked trattoria, and we were perfectly sober.  The quarter-bottle of wine we had each saved from our Al Italia flight would remain undrunk until our final night.  Together, in our shapeless T-shirts, our glasses freshly polished, we trundled into the ice cream shop – and oh, what a beautiful sight.  A yellow tiled floor, a gleaming chrome counter and there, behind glass like edible blocks of watercolour, were two long long rows of shining metal boxes, each containing a flavour beyond our wildest dreams.  

  I had done my research.  I knew no Italian, only Latin, in which I could say ‘the girls are festooning the table with roses’ but not much else.  However, I had miraculously absorbed certain culinary terms, primarily those for ice cream flavours, and now these did me proud.  Blackcurrant and melon I recognised, the true colours of the fruit they contained.  Praline, chocolate, vanilla for which Walls and Lyons had not prepared us.   Ice cream not only looked but sounded better in Italian; after this, how could we return to the cider pops of our youth?  We spotted marscapone, limoncello, fruits of – no, not an artificial forest, but dusky Tuscan woods full of tiny strawberries, brambles, raspberries …

  Like Lucy Honeychurch at her piano, only less well-groomed, we let our hair down.  W decided that it would be permissable – wouldn’t it? – to have two scoops, in a crisp waffled cone.  The others chose quickly, sorbet or ice cream but never both; our usual idea of self-indulgence was to use blue-black ink, so crossing genres, tutti-frutti, a topping of hazelnuts or a chocolate cone would never have been an option.  But I faltered.   How could I decide?  I have terrible restaurant anxiety and here in Florence, faced with seventy-five tastes of heaven, how could I be sure of making the perfect choice?  At last I hit upon the ideal combination: sharp fruit and velvety cream, intensity and brightness.  I would have chocolate and raspberry, and hang the consequences.

  The chocolate was wonderful, so dark and silkily bitter that only the smallest, most continentally sophisticated licks would do.  The raspberry was even better.  If you are a berry-lover like me you will understand the rapture I felt when I tasted – not flat fruityness, the taste of jam tarts or raspberry lollies, but the pure, deep essence of raspberryness, enough of it, almost too much of it – but not quite.  Let the others lick their apricot sorbet or pistachio; I had discovered the platonic ideal of icecream: pleasure, in frozen form.

  The next morning our holiday proper began, and so too began a routine we were to follow every day until its end.  We had breakfast Italian-style in the nearest bar to our pensione – one cappuccino and one pastry each, standing up.  Following our organised, intellectual friend’s schedule, which, sheep-like, we followed, we visited at least one gallery before our lunchtime panini, churches and more galleries all afternoon.  We spent our savings on postcards of the art we had seen; we became proficient in identifying saints from their symbols: Peter and his key, Agatha and her dish of breasts.  We would eat our dinner – not, to be fair, always the same dinner – in the restaurant recommended to us on our first night.  Then we would walk towards the ice cream shop across the little piazza, angrily repelling the friendly pestering of the boys under the trees.  Now I can see that we were frightened of them, though we were dreaming of stolen glances, romantic pen-friends, future Italian husbands.  And then, in the gelateria, we would choose…not amaretto or mint or strawberry, not a granita or delicious drunken sundae, but exactly the same combinations as we had chosen that first night, over and over again.

  What was wrong with us?  How could we have been so freakishly self-restrained?  And even our culture-vulturishness was a failure. I still have the yellowish, ugly postcards but of our galleries and monuments and museums I remember nothing, except for a gold door, the sweet lion’s-face of David’s tiny genitals, and the naked Adam and Eve in the Brancacci chapel, cast out from heaven and ashamed.  I remember how, on our last night, our waiter gave us each a tiny glass of spirits, on which we felt quite drunk.  I remember the Italian insult one of us attempted to fling at the hopeful ragazzi – how they laughed.  But my strongest memory is of that first lick of raspberry sorbet, the intensity, the thrill.

  After Florence, I decided I was too uptight for Italy.  Let others bang on about its scenery, its people, its music; it was too unbridled, too worryingly relaxed for me.  And, while Italian food still had my heart, I was happy never again to try it in its native state.  So it wasn’t until I was in my thirties, badly in need of a brief festive escape, that I decided to be broadminded.  I would try Rome for Christmas  – having, obviously, pre-booked our pensione and as many meals as possible, weeks before. 

  There, in a half-frozen city where almost everywhere was closed, I understood what all the fuss was about.  Everything, however clichéd, delighted us: the Trevi fountain, the Pantheon, the deep-fried artichokes, the families, the wine.  There was, however, a problem.  True to form, I had researched the gelateria and found that only one was open: hard to find and no longer in its heyday.  It was astonishingly cold, and the worries which had made us flee London had followed us here.  But some leopards’ spots do change – they blur, or sharpen, over time.  They must do.  And so I decided, on Christmas morning, to contravene all sense and planning and drop in there, just to have a look, on our way to lunch.

   It was full.  Matrons in fur coats nibbled at enormous cream-covered cakes; men bought chocolates, ate spinachy pastries, gestured for another espresso, then another.  And, at a table just outside the door, two handsome young priests in their robes and three teenage boys – choirboys, I can only assume – tucked into vast complicated icecreams: their reward, presumably, for a mass well sung.  They could do it.  Why shouldn’t I?  So, shyly, I ordered a scoop of raspberry sorbet. 

  It wasn’t quite as good as its Florentine cousin.  The gelateria was clearly past its best; I was much too cold, and full of breakfast.  But, as I licked it I realised that this, at last, was my coming of age.  Here, now, in the cold of Rome with my love beside me, I had finally relaxed enough for Italy.  My life hadn’t turned out as I had expected, but what happiness to be no longer seventeen; to be not the woman I hoped to become.  Italy had been the test.  Now, at my second attempt, I had passed.




Onward and Upward in the Garden: from the New Yorker, on Rot

In Praise of Autumn’s Rotting Beauty

I say “autumn,” you say “fall.” Obviously, I’m right. But maybe we can compromise with “harvest,” the season’s traditional name.

At this time of year, anyway, what one really needs is adjectives, and “fall-like” just won’t do. Look at those gold and red and russet leaves, blown roses, fruit on the verge of overripeness. If one has an ounce of poetry in one’s soul, how can one not want to describe such morbid beauty? Unlike Japan, with its seventy-two traditional , or micro-seasons—I write this in “chrysanthemum-blooming time”—the West has a paucity of good seasonal descriptions. It hardly matters, so long as we agree that it’s the best time of the year. ’Tis the season of mist, nature’s Photoshop; trenchcoats; barley; licensed melancholy; munificence; and glorious rot.

I was introduced to the loveliness of rotting nature by my grandparents. It was the Christmas holidays, and they were desperate; they dragged me to the Serpentine Gallery, in London’s Hyde Park, which happened to be exhibiting the art of Rory McEwen. The British have to Google him, too, yet McEwen was a great of botanical painting: a microscopically precise master of decay. His portraits of black-eyed anemones and pinstriped fritillaries are his better-known works, but his greatest ones are the pulpy Indian onions, shedding skin; the glinting ridges of drying chilis; the curling petals of theatrically dying tulips; and the series “True Facts from Nature,” which depicts rows of, for example, two dry sycamore seeds, three disintegrating leaves, and a bit of straw.

Was it the whiff of death that spoke to me? I think, rather, it was myopia. We gardeners are short-sighted types, getting our nature thrills in closeup; not the rustling forest but a dollop of lime-green moss, not the rousing seascape but the pebbles on the beach. Is there a good view from here? Who cares. I’m too transfixed by the elegant fluting of a single coriander seed, by burr spikes like a Borgia’s favorite gadget, or by the private silken folds inside a beech-nut case.

And, at this time of year, when even the most ordinary vine leaf is pink-spotted, when a simple Cox’s Orange Pippin apple is striped and freckled as a Paul Klee landscape, it’s extraordinary that I ever make it down the street. The hedges and pavements are littered with temptation. I may try to pass as an elegant novelist, but my pockets prove that I’m secretly Huck Finn: Japanese quinces; interesting tree bark; discreetly nibbled, acrid sloes; pretty twigs; glossy, thoroughbred-brown horse chestnuts and their flat-hedgehog shells; the crumbled remnants of a dozen exciting leaves. Theft becomes a duty; only a fool would leave the frilled discs of hollyhock seeds or the Muppet frenzy of a nigella pod when it is fat with next season’s flowers. As Thoreau, an admirer of lichen shapes, well knew, nature is full of strange beauty, and seed heads and pods are among its greatest glories.

Everything in the garden is lovely in autumn. Without the compelling chaos of new growth, the soothing wash of greenery, or the blare of blossom, one has time to examine the life cycle in full: a bunch of grapes offer both tiny, acid babies and impressively home-grown raisins; a wilting plum leaf contains a spectrum of yellows; a chokeberry bush is in Technicolor decline. Autumn is a snappy dresser; those flowers that remain, tangerine-orange calendulas, vein-dark dahlias, the lipstick sting of pineapple sage, pop spectacularly against a bright blue sky. And, at night, the cloudy puffs of breath and the mulchy stink of soggy leaves remind us that the garden is ours again; no obligation to clear the table of potting trays for al-fresco lunches, no visitors tumbling into the tomatoes. Put away that cocktail shaker. After the hell of summer, autumn is the introvert’s revenge.

But, before we can retreat to the bath with a seed catalogue, to plot the next growing season, there is so much still to do: leaves to bag for leaf mold, snails to massacre, pruning and gathering and clearing. Small, interesting tasks amid such beauty; how can one not feel at peace? My mental soundtrack is the verse of the Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, a sexually frustrated priest whose quiet passion for the natural world made Thoreau look like a jaunty frat boy. “Margaret, are you grieving / over Goldengrove unleaving” may seem like an evocation of entropy and the inevitable passage of time, but to any gardener it’s a paean to the glory of botanical decay. I think of Hopkins’s “worlds of wanwood leafmeal,” and am happy.

  • Charlotte Mendelson is a prize-winning British novelist and the author of “Rhapsody in Green,” a memoir about her passion for gardening.

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