Auntie Penny popped into my head today, completely derailing my train of thought. There I was, walking along in the autumn sunshine, minding my own business, when suddenly, like Mr Dick with King Charles the First, there she was.
In truth, I’m not even sure I remember the train of thought she interrupted, for it was just one of those stream-of-consciousness things that pass the time on those long miles and that so help clear the mind of the cares of the messy and noisy world. I have a feeling it had something to do with malt whisky being fed to me in hollowed-out strawberries by dusky maidens, but no matter. There was Auntie Penny, plain as day, and then she vanished. And the derailment of my train of thought? Obvious. I changed to thinking of Italian food. (The connexion may seem tenuous, but it should become apparent.)
The next moment, I was recalling an evening spent earlier in the year with Calum, my youngest brother, and his wife Pam. There may have been a glass or two of malt whisky by the fireside, as we talked about many things, the joys of foreign travel, and the occasional difficulties in communication. In trying to converse with the locals in their language, we make regular mistakes, even though we’ve been warned in classes about ‘faux amis’, those words that look similar in both languages but have different meanings. Or idioms and turns of phrase that work in the school classroom but don’t work when you get to the real world abroad. Like the time in a little Breton restaurant when my French was a little more suspect, and I managed to order a giant bowl of roast potato ‘noisettes’ for six people when I actually thought I was saying “No thank you”, or the time Calum went to a filling station in France, paid by credit card, and terrified the girl at the kiosk when he asked in his schoolboy French for a receipt. Well, he thought he’d asked her to give him a receipt, but instead he’d asked her to hand over the takings. And if it’s easy to make mistakes like this in French, it can be even worse in Italian, when the meaning of two similar words in Italian can change significantly merely by the subtlest change in pronunciation of a single consonant.
Calum is besotted by Italy. He travels to Italy at every opportunity. He has fallen in love with Florence. A keen and experienced off-road cyclist, he has gone on long cycling tours in mountainous Italy with local septuagenarians so experienced they could outpace any teenager, and that includes quaffing litres of wine en route with thirty miles still to go. He has become fluent in Italian, and reads Italian novels avariciously. His bookshelves are full of Italian books and magazines. He even reads Agatha Christie novels in translation. Driving around Glasgow, his sat nav gives him directions in Italian. When, as was only a matter of time, he discovered Italian opera, he was bowled over by it. Calum and Pam have two cats. Their names? Diva and Tosca… Are you getting the picture here?
And if Italy is paradise for those who love cycling and opera, it is also a paradise for those who love cooking. Pam loves cooking. Pam is seriously good at cooking. Pam is gourmet class in the kitchen. Pam can do things with broccoli you won’t believe. And of course, the Italian influence is strong in Pam’s cooking too. Where else, then, to take inspiration?
So, one starry evening, in a romantic little restaurant in Florence, Calum and Pam were surveying the menu. An easy and accustomed situation for Calum to handle, and an opportunity for Pam, wanting to practise some of the essentials she too has been working to acquire. Calum signalled to the waiter, and gave his order. Pam, next, gave her choice, in her slightly less fluent Italian : it was ‘penne arrabiata’.
There was a short silence. Then laughter resounded throughout the little restaurant.
Calum leaned over to Pam and said softly, “They know what you meant to order, but what you’ve actually asked for is ‘an angry penis’!”