Four girls. One magical, and possibly dangerous Italian summer. Family mysteries, ancient castles, long hot nights of dancing under the stars . . . and, of course, plenty of gorgeous Italian boys!
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June 12, 2012
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Excerpt from Flirting in Italian by Lauren Henderson
My Daughter's Leaving Me
"Signore e signori, please fasten your seat belts and return your seatbacks and tray tables to the upright position," says the airline steward over the PA. "We will be landing in Pisa in fifteen minutes. Signore e signori, siete pregati di allacciare le cinture di sicurezza . . ."
I peer through the window beside me. Bright blue-green sea below, such a vivid aquamarine that unless you saw it with your own eyes you wouldn't believe it could actually exist in nature. Little white flecks dance across the azure blue, waves tossed up by the wake of the occasional boat. And then the deep aquamarine fades to a lighter blue as the water becomes more shallow; the coast comes into view. It's my first glimpse of Italy, and it takes my breath away. It's the start of July, full summer, and the sea and land are bathed in dazzling golden sunshine. I can see a marina along the coastline, tiny dots that must be fishing boats and yachts moored in an inlet. The seashore is the color of pale terra-cotta, but beyond it, beyond the miniature red roofs of the buildings that cluster around it, there's rich green marshland. I know (from the in-flight magazine, not a more impressive source) that the Leaning Tower of Pisa stands in the Field of Miracles, and I squint, trying as hard as I can to make out a white pillar on a bed of green grass, but no luck.
Italy! My anticipation is intensifying so powerfully that I'm breathless. My mum says that when I was a little girl, I would get so excited at the prospect of a treat that I would barely be able to breathe; I'd rock back and forth, hyperventilating, making little gasping noises, eyes like saucers, mouth open. I twist away from the window, focusing on the gray marled fabric of the seatback in front of me, trying to calm the frantic pounding of my heart.
Italy. It's really happening. My adventure--maybe my real life--is about to begin.
And at that thought, my heart sinks. I'm feeling suddenly, horribly, guilty.
Because I left my mum behind. For two whole months. We've never been apart for that long, and I don't know how she's going to manage.
Even worse, I'm secretly, shamefully, glad. Glad to be leaving my mum, to be free for maybe the first time ever in my life. To be alone, without her always there, able to work out who I am in the space her absence will give me. Though I'm sitting in a cramped airline seat, arms tucked into my sides so I don't accidentally whack my neighbor, I feel as if I have more space to breathe than ever before.
Maybe that's how it always works; maybe you never realize how squashed in you've been until the restrictions vanish, and you can finally stretch out your arms. I feel as if I could whirl around again and again.
I should be in pieces about leaving Mum. I must be a really bad daughter.
I fumble for my phone, then remember I can't turn it on midair. So I slip my laptop out of my bag for a brief moment and open it up; I've saved the photo of the portrait on it as well, just in case I lose my phone.
I click to open the picture, and get the same shock I always do as it comes up onscreen. I stare at myself, at hair decorated with pearls, at a green taffeta dress, my eyes looking back at me, and I know that I've done the right thing in leaving my mother behind to come on this quest to find out where I come from. And why on earth this girl from eighteenth-century Italy is my mirror image.
Because as I snap my laptop shut, I know that anyone who saw a resemblance like this would move heaven and earth to find out the reason behind it.
Ever since I saw the portrait in Sir John Soane's Museum, I plotted and schemed and strategized so successfully that I surprised myself with the sheer extent of my capacity for covert action. The first thing I did was drop the name of the Castello di Vesperi into conversation with my mum.
Faux-casually, of course. I've just done my final A‑level exams--English, French, and art history--and the plan is for me to study art history at Cambridge University, if they let me in. In the autumn, I'll sit the Cambridge entrance exam and go for interviews at the college I've applied for, which means my studying isn't over, even though the A‑levels are. I'm still supposed to be reading art books, going to galleries and exhibitions, building up my knowledge as much as possible. So it's very easy to tell my mother, over dinner, that I'm going to an exhibition at the Wallace Collection tomorrow with my friend Lily-Rose--paintings from the Castello di Vesperi in Chianti. Her eyes don't even flicker; she forks up another piece of grilled chicken, smiles at me, and says that sounds lovely. No recognition of the name at all.
I test it out again, at the end of dinner, as I'm stacking the dishwasher; I mention the name of the fictitious exhibition again, and how much I'm looking forward to it.
"Goodness, you are keen!" Mum says. "You've been out at museums all this week!" She yawns. "Time to collapse on the sofa, don't you think? What film shall we watch tonight?"
So that's totally conclusive. No recognition of the name di Vesperi at all. Mum is the worst liar in the world, which is probably why her brief attempt at an acting career failed completely: she's incapable of pretending to feel anything she doesn't. It's probably why she was such a good model, though. She's as transparent as a pool of water; every new emotion is instantly registered on her face. We have some of her most famous photos hung in the flat, and I love them all, because they capture Mum's expressions so perfectly--wistful, happy, thoughtful, loving. She told me once that photographers she worked with learned how to trigger her emotions: they'd yell "Think of cute puppies, Daisy!" if they wanted her to smile, or "Your boyfriend said he needs to take a break!" if they were after romantic melancholy.
And the most famous photo of all, the Vogue cover where she's holding an orchid in her hand, staring at it with a misty, tender gaze in her big blue eyes, her blond hair falling down her back: in that one, she said, the photographer told her to look at the flower and think of what she loved most in the world.
"And of course," she'd said, hugging me, "I thought of you, my lovely little baby girl. Because you're everything in the world to me."
I love my mother more than anything. I really do. But she isn't everything in the world to me. And sometimes, wonderful though it is that she loves me so much, it can be a bit--I feel so guilty even thinking the word--it can be just a little bit . . . suffocating.
Mum wants to be my best friend, my confidante, my older sister, almost. Thank goodness, she's not one of those weird mothers, like my friend Milly's, who acts like she thinks she's our age: Milly's mum likes to come along on our shopping trips to Topshop and H&M, buy miniskirts even shorter and tighter than ours, listen to the same music we do, flirt with boys we know, insist that we call her by her first name. She made a huge scene when Milly wouldn't accept her friend request on Facebook. Mum's not like that, even though she could get away with tight minis much better than Milly's mother. Mum looks really good for her age; she works out, takes tons of vitamins, eats very lightly. The night I got home from Sir John Soane's Museum, she made boiled new potatoes to go with the poached sole, but she only ate one, and I finished the rest. I think Mum diets too much, but she says it's from being a model, and that's why she'd never want me to do it as a career.
Fat chance. Literally. I'd need to grow six inches and lose twenty pounds, for a start. Mum loves me so much that she doesn't see anything ridiculous about mentioning me and modeling in the same sentence. And if there's a secret she's hiding about why I'm not tall and willowy and blond like her, she's unaware of any connection that might exist between my looks and the di Vesperi family. That's very clear.
I simply don't have the nerve to ask her directly about the resemblance. Because it would be suggesting that she might not actually be my mother--or that my father might not actually be my father. It would upset her more than anything--even more, I honestly think, than her divorce from Dad. I simply couldn't deal with the fallout. I'm not brave enough to broach that sort of question to a mother who's done nothing but love me to pieces since the day I was born.
So I proceed inexorably to Step Two. I've already Googled the castello and the di Vesperi family. There isn't much information on them at all; I was really disappointed at first. Almost all of the entries are about the estate and the different kinds of wine and oil they produce; the closest I got to a mention of the family was a comment that the Principe di Vesperi, the prince whose family's owned the castle and estate for centuries, isn't in residence most of the time, and the di Vesperis have hired someone called an oenologist, which means a person who supervises growing the grapes and the actual making of the wine. There's nothing on the family history. Nothing that would help me find out the name of a girl who might have been seventeen or eighteen around 1750, who hung out in a turret room in the castello in the company of a big ginger cat.
But then, far down the third page of entries, I strike gold.
"Mum?" I say in a would-be casual tone a few days later, when I've had enough time to work out my strategy, have answers planned for every question she might ask or objection she might raise. "You know my art history teacher said I should really use my summer to broaden my range of knowledge for the Cambridge entrance exam?"
Oops. I cringe. I rehearsed that much too much. I sound about as casual as a high--speed train doing 140 miles per hour.
Mum is arranging flowers in the huge, three-foot-high glass vase that sits next to the living room fireplace. I've picked this moment because arranging flowers makes her happier than any other activity I can think of; she hums to herself as she does it, a soft pretty little thread of sound.
She turns around, a spray of cherry blossom in her hand, an abstract, dreamy expression on her face.
"What was that, darling?" she asks.
I get a second chance.
I repeat what I said before, but add a lot more "ums" and pauses, so I sound a lot more relaxed. She nods, half her attention still on the vase and the cherry blossom branches that are already inside it, framed by tall fronds of green leaves.
"That's why you've been going to so many galleries," she says vaguely.
"The thing is, I don't think it's enough," I say, frowning in concern. Unlike Mum, I'm very capable of dissembling when I need to. "I think I should be doing more."
Mum's beautiful big blue eyes fill with concern.
"Darling!" she exclaims, putting down the blossom and turning fully to me. "What kind of thing? I know how important this is to you!"
I do love my mother very, very much.
I take a deep breath.
"Well, I'm getting a bit worried about not having a classics background," I say, propping my bottom on the arm of the sofa closest to me. "I've been doing some research on what the art history faculty wants, and a lot of the previous students have done Latin or Greek or both."
"They did have Latin at St. Tabby's, didn't they?" my mother says, biting her lip. "But you did German O‑level instead."
"That was a mistake," I say gloomily. "I was terrible at German. I was lucky to get a C. All their sentences are backward. I mean, who talks like that?"
"Oh, never mind," Mum says consolingly. "You know I told you that all the German people I've met spoke perfect English anyway. Like the Norwegians," she adds, smiling.
Mum's been living in London for twenty-five years; by now she has only the faintest trace of her Norwegian accent. And her English really is perfect.
"Your French is very good," she continues.
"Hopefully," I say, crossing my fingers. "I won't get the A‑level results till August. But that's sort of what was on my mind." I tilt my head to one side. "I was thinking maybe I should try to learn another language."
"Latin or Greek?" Mum says incredulously. "What, in a couple of months?"
"No!" I grin at the mere idea. "I was thinking Italian--"
"Oh!" She brightens, her eyes sparkling, "That sounds like a really good--"
"In Italy," I say, and watch her expression like a hawk. She looks, to my surprise, genuinely excited.
"Oh, that's lovely!" she exclaims. "I've been wondering what to do for a proper summer holiday! I know we're going to stay with Mormor in September--she's rented the cottage on Sognefjord again for us and your aunt Lissie--but you and I should get away too, shouldn't we?"
Mormor is my grandmother--it's a funny word that actually means "mother of your mother." Mum's dad was my farmor, and my dad's mum would be Morfar, etc. I love going to the cottage in Norway; it's painted red with bright white trim and a slanting roof, like something from a fairy tale, and it has a deck from which you can dive into the lake, with its clean clear water and views to the mountains beyond. It's always just me and Mum, Mormor and Aunt Lissie--Farmor died three years ago, and though Aunt Lissie has lots and lots of boyfriends, Mormor wants the fortnight in Sognefjord to be just us. The women in the family. (Mum, unlike her sister, never has boyfriends. I used to like that it was just the two of us, after Dad left, but now I'm beginning to feel it's about time for things to change.)
"We could travel all around Italy!" Mum's saying, waving her arms in great excitement. "Venice--Florence--Rome--Naples! Do a big trip!"
"The Grand Tour," I mumble, thinking of Sir John Soane.