My dear readers may be surprised to learn that my first visit to Italy was as an au pair.
Yes, me responsible for children and ‘light household duties’.
It was the year of my world trip. I’d chucked my job and I was waiting for my travel companion to get the results of her journalism exam, so this was a mini-adventure of sorts beforehand to fill in a couple of months.
The family was based near Torino. They were odd.
He was a dentist, she no longer worked (a physio) and was French, or part French. The father was vegan, the younger daughter was an aspiring vegan. The mother ate mostly meat (veal and prosciutto) as did the older daughter; they both smoked. The mother was rumoured to be an alcoholic and the cleaner discretely removed the bottles every morning. Either the mother, or the older daughter, or maybe both, were described as nymphomaniacs, somewhat without basis from what I saw.
This charms of this odd family wore thin rather quickly, as did the delights of ironing Madame’s frilly, skimpy, lacy silk knickers.
We decided to part ways. But not before I’d received a phone call from my would-be travel pal saying she had failed her journalism exam, thereby putting back our travel plans as she waited to take her resit. She agreed once taken however, that we would go regardless and she wouldn’t wait for the resit results. Phew. Resit pass rates are not high. We could have been sitting around for years.
So, in November, after I’d spent the previous few months as a rather more successful part-time secretary in the health service, we set off. The Italian part of our trip was designed around my degree and planned to cram in as much as possible of what I’d seen only in books and on slide shows for three years. Said pal was happy to leave all planning and destinations up to me—luckily. I had to be in charge of planning.
Mention Florence and people usually think of one or two words. The Medicis, the Uffizi, and maybe the Duomo and the wide river Arno.
We had little time in Florence. It was our last city in Italy before we set off on the long train ride through Yugoslavia to Greece and Athens.
But I did want to see the Uffizi. Top tip, don’t try and see the Uffizi on a Sunday morning with limited time and the deadline of a train departure looming.
Florence’s gems are not my main memory, hence I have only two photos.
From my diary:
Train to Firenze was late so we had whistle stop tour of Medici Cappelle and Uffizi. Chapel not up to much but Uffizi quite good tho! Lots of super Botticelli and Fra Filippo Lippi and Da Vinci. Lots of stairs too. Still haven’t found any food yet. Catch train to Bologna …
What made Florence memorable for me on that damp dark Sunday November morning was the phone call home my friend made. No major family tragedy, just … she’d failed her exam again. And my first selfish thought was, would she want to bail out on the trip to go back home for another resit?
Luckily she was made of sterner stuff, or was enjoying my extremely well-planned tour. We continued onwards, eastwards, and southwards.
Footnote: I met her years later by chance; she never did pass the exams and gave up in the end. My world trip might never have been completed!
It’s the story of a perfumier, Elio, his life, his loves, his expectations, his disappointments and his acceptance of the past and the changing world around him. It’s the story of Florence, and the artisans who work in the city in various differing trades. And it’s the story of perfume too, how it is made, the skill of a perfumier in developing and selling it, and the impact perfume has on each one of us through our sensory perception.
Written mostly in intimate third person, through Elio’s thoughts, the story unfolds through a mix of the present, and his past. Gabriella’s gentle style manages this in a smooth fashion so there are no jarring backwards and forwards moments for the reader as it is all progressively woven into her composition.
Nor do we stay in Florence, we visit Verona, and further afield, Grasse (for perfume), Nice, and Paris. In fact when they were in Paris, I wanted to know which bridge over the Seine they were standing on after reading Michael’s Bridges of Paris so recently.
This is a book of introspection, of evaluation, so inevitably the pace is slow, thoughtful, and often langorous and sensual. Yet there are events, moments of sharpness, of reflection and realisation that keep us hooked to find out the outcome, not just for Elio, but for the other characters in this book.
It’s the sort of book that becomes more rewarding as we become more deeply involved and invested in all the main characters, Elio, and the women in his life.
I really enjoyed not just the examination and evaluation of relationships, love and life choices, but the fine detail about the creation of perfumes and the other references to artisan crafts.
A couple of quotations that I liked:
When he was a small boy, his parents told him that all Florentine life led to and emerged from the Duomo. … That meant that there was always a central point drawing your heart.
And this one may resonate with other readers as well as me:
Buy better, buy less, whether it be a pair of shoes, a new piece of furniture, a kilo of peaches. Wherever possible buy from and support local artisans and local businesses. That’s how you do your part to keep them alive.
This is a book for readers who are interested in those values, artisanal skills, and self-reflection about life. It’s also a book for people wanting to read glimpses of Florentine, and, some French life.
As such, I highly recommend it as a good and thoughtful read. There are a few errors, but not sufficient to spoil the enjoyment.
Thanks to Gabriella and Italy Book Tours for a print copy of the book and the additional photos.
Gabriella Contestabile emigrated, with her parents, from Italy to New York City in 1959. In her pre-writer life, she worked as a foreign language teacher, management development specialist, and fragrance/cosmetics executive. Gabriella is a strong advocate of the arts, of multiculturalism, and of social justice—a passion inspired by reading Dickens and Dante at a young age.