Bittersweet Memories

The problem with being old – or as old as I am – is that there’s an overabundance of memories.

Driving from the airport with a group of strangers with whom I will soon be sharing greater intimacies than with many of my friends, we pass tollbooths on the Italian Autostrada. How many, many times we did this on family holidays. And individual instances stand out. The time our toddler piped up from her car seat as we slowed in order to throw coins into one tollbooth in a row of about a dozen, with cars funnelling in and zooming out in blazing unsheltered heat: ‘this looks like a good place to step out’. That was the time we took ages to cross the mountains and for far longer than expected followed signs for Domodossola, a name which evidently tickled her, and which she repeated, encouraged by me, all the way home.

There was another time, I think it was that last fateful holiday in Italy, but maybe not, when one weekend, having failed to find an open grocery store and needing provisions for the five of us, we in the end hit on the idea of trying the motorway services, and then had a terrible time trying to explain to the man in the booth that we had indeed picked up our ticket at the self same location – Orvieto – not long previously and had travelled nowhere.

And now I lie like a beached whale by the pool on holiday and there are other guests beyond our group. Children. I hear the splashing and squeals and am reminded of many family holidays and hearing the laughing and games. ‘Marco?’ ‘Polo!’ A game I played myself as a child (living in Iran there were countless days spent in pools with other children).  And another game my own kids made up. A godparent had given one of them a large inflatable alligator for the pool and the game seemed to consist largely of sitting aboard the creature and singing a song with the chorus ‘Eat me! Eat me! Bite my head off today!’

Sprightly elderly Italian man, trim figure, greying hair in a bun, comes out of the pool with a girl of roughly seven years, wraps her in a towel and sends her on her way. (Granddaughter? I’m guessing daughter from second marriage.) He lies flat on his back on the lounger, face to the sun, and straightaway pulls up the legs of his (not very long) trunks. He’s worried about tan lines.

A week later, driving back to the airport. The others have gone quiet, have nodded off. Late night, early start: we got little sleep. And all of a sudden, I can’t stop smiling. Affectionate memories of many, many holidays in Italy. My ex, by no means a linguist, always willing to have a go. He explains that he uses a combination of his schoolboy Latin and the small amount of Spanish he learned (mainly vocab relating to telecoms) when working in Madrid shortly after we married.  I’m smiling and feel fuzzy with love for the man I knew (if he ever existed). But then, on reflection, another insight into my own failings. The linguist was me.  But I never did the talking.  Too afraid of making a mistake, not doing it right, making a fool of myself. I made a fool of myself all right. By prefering to mock and criticise than to take any kind of risk myself.  I’m ashamed.

And here am I, fresh from an expensive week spent largely trying to rid myself of shame.



Image: Tempting though it is, thought maybe not a good idea to take or post an actual photo of the Italian chap; this is the pool taken earlier.


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Florence Feynman

I am a middle aged, middle class woman, thinking.

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