Visiting San Domino
February 23, 2017
‘Attilio is famous for his ragu,’ Luigi tells me, nodding towards the stove. ‘The whole island knows he makes the best ragu.’
The sauce has been sitting on the stove for hours, the meat stewing slowly, flavouring the humid air. I know this because I have been dropping in and out of Attilio’s kitchen all morning, as I dash around San Domino carrying out research for my book. I dash in to tell him I’m around; unsure when we had agreed to meet up – he has no English, I have no Italian, we have communicated so far only by laughing and nodding. I dash in again an hour or so later to borrow an umbrella when an unexpected downpour hits. Now I have come back for the promised ragu. Attilio’s door, despite the rain, despite the fact that he is in his 90s, is perpetually open.
Luigi and Elena, a younger couple, have dropped around with a bottle of wine – they live a few streets away. I met them last night at dinner, when Luigi agreed to be our translator. ‘We do this often,’ Luigi tells me, settling himself at Attilio’s kitchen table. They must be on their lunchbreak, I think. ‘Especially in the winter. It’s better to all be together in the winter here.’
Italians, of course, are famous for their families, and for a second I feel like I am part of one of those Italian movies; the famous family pasta sauce recipe, the bottle of wine, the laughter around a table. Luigi, Elena and I sit at the table and talk in a broken mixture of their excellent English and my near non-existent Italian about all sorts of things; the weather (unseasonably cold, apparently; they are baffled by my bare arms), the island’s history, the English romantic poets, of whom Luigi is a fan. I tell them about my book. Luigi tells me about the books he likes, he writes down titles and authors, he promises to read mine.
‘We are great friends,’ Luigi says, smiling at Attilio, still stirring his ragu at the stove. I wonder how long they have all known each other. I met them less than 24 hours ago.
‘1. Can you get time off work?’ my dad texted, when I sent him a panicked message about having to go to the tiny island of San Domino for book research, how I had no time to do it and I should have thought of this months ago. ‘2. Book it. 3. We will lend you money. 4. Don’t panic.’
And so I went, because my parents have always made me feel brave. I booked, and I went, and I knocked on a stranger’s door, because everyone on the island knew that Attilio’s memory of San Domino stretched far, far back into the past. I texted my parents all the way through it; I think I’ve found someone who knows him…I’ve met him! …we’re having orange squash with the priest…now he’s making me ragu. Even when I couldn’t talk to them, knowing my parents were there, hundreds of miles away but on the end of a phone, willing me on, made me braver.
At the kitchen table, Attilio is showing me his family photographs. They’re beautiful; sepia tinted, black and white images of children in wheat fields, riding donkeys on the beach. He shows me a picture of himself, just a baby, in the arms of a prisoner who had been confined on the island. What must it be like, I think, to have lived your whole life in this place? To know every change, every new arrival, to have everyone know your name, where you live, who you are?
My own family is spread out all over the world. My grandfather, of whom I have vivid childhood memories, had a twin brother I never met, although those memories make me feel as though I did. My grandfather’s twin was a ‘ten pound pom’ who moved to Australia when he was very young. Before my mother was born, my grandparents moved out there too, returning later with my mother. Other members of my mother’s family moved via marriage and circumstance to America, Japan, Canada. I see them all as an invisible network, stretching like telephone cables across the world. I see them in person hardly at all. I feel guilt about that sometimes, about not taking the time to visit, to write, to find out more about their lives.
But it’s hard when your family live so far away. Sitting here in Attilio’s kitchen, it seems incredible to imagine such distances. San Domino is two miles across. You can walk its length in around an hour, and many of the people who live here have never lived anywhere else. Nothing could be more different to the vast network of my global family than this world I have stumbled into, a tiny island of friends and neighbours, where I feel instantly one of the family. We can barely speak a word to each other, but as he pops a Tuesday lunchtime bottle of prosecco I feel like Attilio has welcomed me as though I am part of his family, these faces looking up from the black and white photographs he has spread out across the table.
Then he shows me a picture that makes me pause. It isn’t like the others. It is recent, vivid with colour. Attilio is standing incongruously in front of a sky scraper, squinting into the sun. ‘Visiting my family,’ he says, through Luigi’s translation, and names a country as unimaginably far away from my life as this tiny island is. A country I have never seen, and can’t imagine ever visiting. ‘I go to see them every year,’ he tells me.
I smile, and stare at the photograph, trying to square it with the version of Italian family life I’ve learned from films. My imagined version of Attilio’s family, which turns out, of course, to be just as complicated, as global, as anyone else’s.
I surreptitiously text my dad under the table.
Now we’re having prosecco! They’re all wonderful!
Can you talk to each other much? he replies.
Hardly a word.
It turns out, talking doesn’t matter much.
‘Yes, we do this a lot,’ Luigi says, taking the bottle from Attilio and pouring it out for us all. ‘We’re family. Why be on your own?’
Mussolini’s Island publishes 23/2/17