People sometimes ask me how, and more often why, I became a Sicilian housewife.
It is all my husband’s fault. This is the story of how I met him.
“Fancy going to a Mafia wedding in Sicily?” my sister asked, one drizzly English afternoon.
Who could turn down an invitation like that? Certainly not me. I logged onto Europe’s rudest low-cost airline and bought a plane ticket before you could say “horse head.”
The bride was a German friend of my sister’s, but the groom was Sicilian. Obviously, a Sicilian wedding with wine, women and song would be immeasurably more entertaining than a German one with speeches and sausages. I gleefully fantasised about cramming into a medieval Italian church full of men in sharp black suits and dark sunglasses, and settling on a pew amongst magnificently rotund little women dressed in black.
“No more Mafia jokes from now on,” ordered my sister Josephine when we landed at Palermo airport. “Sicilians do NOT find it funny.”
The next day, Josephine and I naively turned up outside the church at ten o’clock in the morning, the time printed on the invitations. Since my sister had insisted there is no such thing as being “overdressed” for a Sicilian wedding, I wore a full-length beaded, satin scarlet evening dress with a train, two diamanté necklaces and one choker, and a feather boa. My sister Josephine was dressed similarly, though her gown was black as she always frets that she might look plump: how she actually looks is blonde and voluptuous enough to make Italian men’s eyes pop out of their sockets.
I paced nervously around the flagstone courtyard, looking up at the ornate baroque entrance and the statues of two medieval popes staring down at me, stonily. Ten-thirty passed and we were still the only people outside the church.
“We must have come to the wrong place,” I panicked.
Josephine phoned the bride.
“Oh,” she said after a moment. “I see. Never mind.”
The bride, Michaela, had apparently forgotten to let us know that the time printed on invitations to Sicilian weddings is an hour earlier than the actual wedding is going to take place, because everyone is bound to be late. Sure enough the Sicilians, who knew the correct protocol, began drifting along in dribs and drabs at about a quarter to eleven. The men all wore the smartest black suits and black ties I had ever seen, with black sunglasses, while the women wore black evening dresses, every last one of them, and dripped with jewellery.
“Hmmm,” said my sister. “I didn’t know they really do all dress in black. Sorry about that.”
“But you were right about the spangles,” I said.
“It still looks a bit funereal.”
“Like a funeral for a chorus dancer from the Moulin Rouge,” I answered.
The Sicilians apparently thought my burlesque cabaret outfit was spot on, and were soon greeting me like a long lost relative. The women were, anyway. The men were greeting me with such enticing enquiries as “Avva you gotta one boyfriend?” and “You wont one ice-cream with me?” and romantic compliments like “You avva gotta two very beautifuls blue eyes.”
Suddenly everyone fell silent. The bride had arrived, exuding classic Hollywood glamour. The female guests devoutly covered their bare shoulders with delicate black lace shawls and crossed themselves before entering the Catholic Church. I modestly wound my red feather boa around my shoulders five times and stalked up the aisle feeling a little like an ostrich.
After three and a half hours, I realised Catholic wedding services take a long time.
“I’ve heard they last anything up to four days,” whispered my sister behind her tickly feather fan.
A famous Italian soprano sang Ave Maria towards the end of the service, and more than one pair of eyes sparkled with tears as the bride and groom kissed before the altar. After the service, the bride emerged from the church like a film star being mobbed by the paparazzi. White doves were released at the church door to represent the couple’s joyous future together. Fluttering rose petals filled the air. And, as a single thirty-something, a knot tightened in my stomach as I wondered for the millionth time when it would be my turn.
The foreign guests without cars were driven by coach to the reception, held in the gardens of a sprawling eighteenth century villa. The lawn was bordered with jasmine and pink roses, and a string quartet played background music. My sister and I sat down as soon as we found our table, since we were finding our six inch heels a little challenging by that point. A group of young men came and sat with us, all of them cousins of the groom. I was starting to feel dazed by the sheer number of gorgeous-looking men who had been introduced to me as cousins of the groom. Once the tally had gone past three hundred, I had just given up trying to keep track, despite the fact that most of them wanted my phone number. My phone memory was full of hastily tapped in entries such as ‘Giovanni big eyes’, ‘Giovanni nice teeth’, ‘Giovanni deep suntan’, ‘Giuseppe tall one’, ‘Giuseppe with the hair’, and so on.
Yet the cousin sitting opposite me had an indefinable quality that made him stand out from all the rest. He was so full of happiness it radiated from him like heat from a stove, and yet all the exuberance rested on a bedrock of serenity. He told me his name was Valentino.
“So, how did you meet Michaela?” he asked.
“She’s really a friend of my sister’s,” I answered. “This is actually the first time I’ve met her.”
“No it isn’t!” exclaimed Josephine. “She works in the bank with me. Don’t you remember? You walked past us once when I was having lunch with her outside a café near work. You stopped and chatted to us for several minutes.”
My sister worked in Human Resources in a bank around the corner from mine, and we often bumped into each other like this. I am a tiny bit scared of my sister sometimes. She sometimes spends days at a time telling lists of people they are fired.
“Oh, I don’t remember,” I mumbled, feeling a little embarrassed.
“Well, she certainly remembers you,” Josephine declared emphatically. “That’s why she invited you to the wedding.”
Josephine has a degree in modern languages, and she went on to tell the anecdote to the whole table in her flawless Italian. I had apparently made an unforgettable impression on the bride during the mere five minutes we had ever spent together. In fact, Josephine insisted, I had made her laugh until tea came out of her nostrils by describing an attempted shopping trip in Indonesia.
While on holiday Bali, I had noticed that my clothes had all developed perma-B.O. as a result of the tropical climate. Intent on remedying the situation, I had entered a department store which seemed to contain nothing but children’s clothes.
A helpful shop assistant looked anxiously at my boobs – his diminutive stature made it impossible to avoid them – and politely suggested I searched for something larger in the men’s section. I browsed through their vast selection of counterfeit trendy tops. A twinkly one by “Dolce & Banana” particularly caught my eye. After splitting three of their fake designer garments in the changing cubicle, although I was only a size ten, I eventually left with a T-shirt that I could just about stretch around myself as a bikini top, groaning at every stitch. The imitation logo, pulled out until the silver letters were three times wider than they were tall, labelled my bust as “CHANNEL.”
After this I had ventured back to the women’s department, sought out the same diddy sales assistant, and asked if they had any bras.
“For you, Madam?” he asked my breasts, his eyes gaping wide. “Noooooo.”
Having broken the ice with this polite small-talk, Isabelle started to chat to one of the cousins beside her, so I turned to the intriguing cousin opposite me. His name was Valentino, he told me. I cannot remember the first questions he asked me or how I answered them, I just remember feeling an overpowering desire to be completely honest with him. I think it was his eyes that did it. They were a warm reddish brown, and they sparkled, and when I looked into them I saw so much kindness I almost felt like crying. Despite my terribly rusty Italian, I talked to him with an ingenuous honesty I had never managed before in my life. Somehow I ended up telling him about my relationship with my ex. Instead of listing his annoying habits in comedic style, I actually talked about how really bleak and hurt he had made me feel inside, and how truly desolate it is to stay with the wrong man just because you are in your thirties and afraid you may never meet the right one. It was as if Valentino had slipped me a truth serum. I felt he was gazing into my eyes and seeing right into my soul.
The first course we were served was a prawn risotto, which I ate with relish.
“So, what were you doing in Indonesia?” Valentino asked.
“Just on holiday,” I explained. “I love travelling as much as I can.I save up my money till I have enough, then go abroad.”
As I told Valentino about some of my travels, we were served plates of pasta.
“But we’ve already had rice,” I said to Isabelle, under my breath.
“Just go with it,” she answered.
“By the way, are they really in the Mafia?” I asked, as quietly as possible.
“What? You nitwit!” she answered “I was only joking!”
“Shall we dance?” Valentino suddenly asked. His eyes glowed, and I wanted to laugh just because I was so excited to have met him.
He was a good dancer, and he twirled me around and made me laugh at the same time. Nobody else was dancing. It was not a dancing wedding. We just tangoed between all the tables while everyone else sat politely in their black clothes, eating the umpteenth course of their meal.
“Don’t worry,” he assured me. “It’s completely dark now. Nobody can see us.”
“Yes we can!” the people around us laughed.
“It’s your blue eyes lighting up the garden,” said Valentino into my ear. “They’re like two stars fallen down from heaven.”
Valentino flung me backwards till my head was six inches from the lawn, and I wound my leg around his waist as he deftly lifted me upright again and changed direction, leading me towards the string quartet. When we were close enough he said something to them in Sicilian.
“What did you ask them?” I whispered.
“I asked if they would play something a bit more lively,” he answered. “I’m finding it difficult to dance the tango to this Strauss waltz.”
The musicians did change their tune, and other couples gradually stood up too, abandoning their food and dancing with us.
Everyone else at the wedding gradually became a blur. The toasts to the bride and groom seemed like a dream. I was only vaguely aware of the Sicilians following their ancient wedding tradition of assembling en masse to stampede the pudding buffet and consume slightly more than their body weight in refined carbohydrates. I did not even bother to join the scrum for the bride’s bouquet. I was just thinking, thank goodness I bought that microscopic T-shirt in Indonesia so that I could meet this wonderful Sicilian.
Did you enjoy this? It is an excerpt from the opening chapter of my travel-novel “The Dangerously Truthful Diary of a Sicilian Housewife” which is the first book in The Godmother Trilogy.
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