‘Alessandra leaned forward, she still insists, to brush away a beastie which had landed on my collar.’
Cappucino and Porridge
By Duncan Mackenzie
Published by Acair Books
ALE AND I MEET AGAIN.
~.~ My Positive Premonition ~.~
At this juncture, I recall two points from my formative years. Firstly, at primary school age, I had an appetite for the stories of the Greeks and Trojans and of Scotland’s William Wallace. What the Greeks did to Hector was bad enough, but what the English did to William Wallace had me, aged not very much at all, making a solemn vow that I would never marry an English girl. Secondly, I had a distinct and recurring premonition that a tall, blonde girl was going to appear in my life and that would then be that.
Back in the eighties and I cannot explain why, it appears that I was guilty of having in my mind an ignorantly held stereotypical image of Italian girls as being short, dark haired and deeply tanned in appearance. There is no more validity in this than there is in believing that Scottish men all resemble the bearded, kilted piper of cartoon caricature, keen on whisky and on observing what a lovely, bright, moonlit night he was enjoying. To my eternal shame, this did not prevent me from picturing a short, dark bob-cut, deeply tanned, apprentice ‘mamma Italiana’ figure, with arms akimbo when, in 1983, I was invited to take a week off work to accompany my mother and John F to Garden Cottage, Balavil with a young Gori daughter in tow. The idea was sold to me by the offer of the use of my mother’s car (new, reliable, petrol paid by her) to get to a few golf courses and perhaps to Loch Ness and Skye to show them to the imagined ‘short, dark schoolgirl’ Italian guest. She was not English, obviously, but otherwise she was still most unlikely to fit the premonition description, according to my subconscious.
It nearly didn’t happen at all. Alessandra’s letter to Margaret, written at the suggestion of Cipriana, looked for help in finding a job as an au pair/babysitter/nanny for the summer holidays with the practice of English in mind. Ale was at university, majoring in German coupled with English as her secondary subject.
Margaret and her friends were all beyond the stage of needing the kind of help Ale was offering, but she responded with the offer of a two week visit with plenty of English practice available. Ale very nearly graciously declined, as she doubted that the length of stay would provide her with the volume of practice in conversational English that she thought she needed that summer. Fortunately, she decided to accept and booked her flight.
By this stage, both my brother and I had left home, had bought our own flats and my brother was engaged. Dinner was arranged chez Margaret and John F, with my brother and his fiancée forming the reception party at the airport, in the company of Margaret. I would arrive in time for the evening meal once I had played for the Court of Session football team against one of the big law firms in Edinburgh. It was an enjoyable time of the year for me with plenty daylight for evening golf; the rugby season was over, so click into football mode. Some of the opponents didn’t seem to have a switch to click nor anything other than long, metal studs. So, for me, it was a case of, ‘Hello. Welcome to Scotland. Excuse me while I patch up this gouge out of my leg.’
There was no ice to be broken by the time I reached my mother’s house. The ‘short, dark schoolgirl’ of my caricature turned out to be twenty years of age, tall, cascading blonde waves, brown eyes often widened in animated conversation, tanned only to the shade of honey and all hand gestures, loads of hand gestures. She would struggle for an English word, but only for an instant before her hand would be raised as if directing traffic to come to an immediate halt, then, ‘Wait!’ in a distinctly north German accent, followed by the furious turning of pages in a tiny dictionary. She was quite something, but it was Scottish eyes which met Scottish eyes across the dinner table and almost imperceptibly widened at the sight of Ale reaching confidently out to the wine bottle in the centre of the table and helping herself. It didn’t register with the MacKenzie boys that the wine was from Nazareno’s vineyard, sent over with his daughter in gift. Wine at our mother’s table was novel enough for the brothers without the sight of a young guest diving in and helping herself – utterly unthinkable for either son.
The teasing must have started almost immediately, as my brother has been quoted often since as having assured Alessandra that Scots only tease people they like. No doubt Rev and Mrs Fletcher’s eyes met and perceptibly widened when I was found to be helping to dry the dishes after dinner. I am sure that within three hours of our meeting my brother nudged me in the ribs and urged me to befriend the young Italian lady or, at least, something along those lines.
In the days that followed, I am told that I suddenly found time to drive from my office to my mother’s house for lunch and then to reappear for dinner in the evening. Mother, apparently, told family later that Ale would not eat until I arrived, no matter if work, football or golf kept me very late.
On one of my journeys in for dinner, I was nearly delayed on a long-term basis. I had been cruising along quite happily in my old mini, when a black car came right out in front of me from a side road on my left. It felt like the wee mini’s nearside wheels left the ground as it got itself round the black car before making it back on to its own side of the road – no anti-lock braking systems in those days, at least not in old minis. Looking back to see if the other car was ok, I saw it had stopped so I did the same. The driver came forward to thank me and congratulate me, in colourful terms, for my evasive action. We parted as new best buddies. Alessandra’s reaction, on hearing of the incident after dinner, was (wide-eyed of course) to take my hand in both of hers – nice. I was really getting to like this very foreign girl.
As to the week which followed, there is an unusual source of information. On 14th December 1996 Ale, John, Seumas and I were surprised to find ourselves in colour on the cover of the weekend section of one of Scotland’s national newspapers with the words ‘The Europeans’ emblazoned below. The four of us, pre-Finlay, were surrounded by cartoon Santas in the traditional styles of half a dozen European countries. The Glasgow Herald was running a feature on how Europeans had made Scotland their own. What had the Europeans found in Scotland? What did they miss? What part did they see Scotland playing in Europe?
In addition to the group photo on the front, inside there was a close-up of Ale, taken at her desk, the caption reading, ‘The Gaelic Dolce Vita.
Ale had clearly spoken freely to the writer of the article, Jane Scott. There are one or two quotes which, on re-reading the piece for the first time in many years, I found touching. In addition, there was a paragraph on Ale which remains pertinent, namely, ‘Her first foreign language was German. When she first came here, she had a German accent, but she has a superb ear. When she speaks now it is pure Edinburgh. After holidays on Harris, the island of Duncan’s father, her accent is often mistaken for Hebridean. She is proud of that.’ Ale still comes back from Harris sounding like Auntie Mary Ann in Quidinish.
The article did carry one serious error slap bang in the middle of the headline which read, ‘A first kiss upon the moor.’
On the absolute authority of one of the parties to that first kiss, it is confirmed that it did not occur up on the moor. It happened a good two or three hundred yards below the edge of the Balavil moor, on the track, in the woods. Alessandra leaned forward, she still insists, to brush away a beastie which had landed on my collar. I misinterpreted the approach and there we had ‘the first kiss upon the track, two or three hundred yards down from the moor and thanks, in part at least, to a visiting insect.’
The suggested trip to Loch Ness did not happen, but the two of us did take off for a day trip to the Isle of Skye which is only about two hours away from Balavil.
Scotland, it must be admitted, had a very good summer in 1983, good enough to amount to a clear case of innocent misrepresentation to a visiting Italian. We stopped off at Invergarry where Ale took a photo from the riverbank. An enlarged version of that photo has hung above our open fireplace for over thirty years and it shows that the day must have been quite hot.
While we were walking in single file along a narrow path in the glen, I realised that things had gone quiet. There was no sound at all from the enthusiastic conversationalist behind me. I turned around to find Ale looking like a feeding duck, head in the river, both cooling off and controlling the former cascading waves, which had first become slightly unruly curls and which then became, instead, cascading ringlets; so, cooled and controlled, the operation worked on both counts. The feeding duck reference is perhaps best consigned to history; she probably didn’t find it funny, even then.
Over on Skye, on Broadford pier to be precise, I heard a burst of Italian (no German accent) which rang a few bells from early Latin classes, Amo, amas, amat and all that. By the time the week was nearing its end, we had talked about Protestant/Catholic and Scottish/Italian marriage and even the raising of children. Discounting the 1974 discovery of bivouacked children in my home, I had known Alessandra for all of two weeks.
Cappucino and Porridge by Duncan Mackenzie is published by Acair Books, priced £15.95.
Joanna Geyer-Kordesch has a distinguished academic career bridging the disciplines of history of medicine and cultural history as embodied in our landscapes. After Directing The Wellcome Unit for the History of Medicine at Glasgow University from 1990 …
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