England, the Costa dei Gelsomini and a Marriage Proposal: A Memoir

Yes, I know, a strange mélange. It all started when my parents were planning our annual summer vacation (usually a beach resort in Southern Italy), and I heard the words Londra and Inghilterra being cautiously pronounced by my picturefather. My ears perked up and I burst into my father’s study, trembling with anticipation. My dream had always been to visit London, and if you follow my blogs you’ll know how often I mention that almost inborn desire of mine. L’Inghilterra?! I said in awe, for real we’re going to England on vacation? A couple of unfolded maps were lining my father’s austere mahogany desk, and indeed the charming silhouette of Great Britain was catching the light from his green-shaded lamp. Babbo began explaining that it was a thought, an interesting change, when my mother sharply cut him off, declaring assolutamente no, no way, not happening, going to the beach. And she pointed firmly to the other map, that of Calabria, the ‘toe’ region of Italy, the deep south. And that was that. Though my father was the ultimate decision maker in the family, the pater familias, ‘the boss’, he was well aware that if mamma was categorically opposed to a decision, that vacation would turn into a living nightmare. So Calabria it was. We rose at dawn on a steaming August day and packed our trusty green Simca for the trip south, which would take several hours. The picturesque, tranquil sea town of Marina di Gioiosa Ionica welcomed us with a sizzling pebbly beach and the bluest sea I had ever seen. This less-known little town is on the Ionic coast of Calabria, in the province of Reggio-Calabria, a sun-drenched village on the romantic Costa dei Gelsomini, the sweet-smelling Jasmine Coast, where local perfumes are produced with the pictureabundance of jasmines that grow along the seashore, which are also exported to France for their fragrance industry.

I was almost sixteen and had just been given a whispered permission by my mother to begin using eye make up (“don’t worry about babbo, just apply it lightly and he won’t notice”), so I counted the days to my birthday when I could run over to the local profumeria, find the then ubiquitous Rimmel counter, and choose my shades of powdered ombretto (eye shadow). The thrilling anticipation of that momentous date was almost enough to get me over the enormous disappointment of having to spend my vacation in a boring tiny village in Calabria rather than walk Regent Street and Piccadilly. Well, the big day arrived: sixteen years old, feeling a ‘woman’ who could start playing with that miraculous invention that was makeup! On that morning I was ready early to walk up the hill to the village square, as soon as I thought the shops would be open. And I did, found the perfume-shop, located the Rimmel cosmetics stand and spent a deliciously tortured hour deciding which shades to purchase with my birthday money. I settled for green, light blue, lavender and white, which I figured would cover every possible outfit combination. Going to the beach on a sweltering day wearing circles of eye shadow around my eyes was slightly stressful, as I feared it would melt into rivulets down my face, which might catch my father’s attention. However it all worked out, and it was a cheerful teenager who sat at the dinner table in the hotel’s dining room that evening (as opposed to her usual grumpy self), even happily blowing the candles placed on the little cake that the waiter ceremoniously brought out at the end of the meal. I went to sleep content that night, quite unaware of the awkward conversation that my father had with another guest later on. It wasn’t until two years later that I found out – as my parents were chatting with some relatives – that on the very night of my sixteenth birthday, after I had been sent to bed, a young man had approached my father and politely asked for my hand in marriage! A very uncomfortable situation, my father recounted, when this perfect stranger made that stunning proposal, eagerly assuring him that he could provide well for me! It was with great diplomacy that my father extricated himself (and little unaware me) from that unusual and disconcerting situation, telling him politely that I was a brilliant student planning to attend university. No, I never found out who he was, and why would someone wish to marry a sixteen-year-old girl he had never talked to, but I suppose I can imagine, and well, I’m relieved to have escaped unscathed. So, that reluctant journey to the little sea town in Calabria turned out to be more exciting then expected, at least for my poor father!

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