My grand­mother’s un­likely trip to Italy

The Guardian - Family - - Family | Family Life -

The woman in the pic­ture is my grand­mother, Sofia. You may won­der what is so spe­cial about a woman stand­ing in the rain in front of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence? Well, the fact that in 1977, when the pic­ture was taken, my grand­par­ents lived in the So­cial­ist Repub­lic of Ro­ma­nia. It was al­most im­pos­si­ble to travel to the “deca­dent’ west. Luck­ily, my well-con­nected grand­fa­ther was able to pull some strings. They were granted per­mis­sion to join a bus tour of north­ern Italy. They weren’t al­lowed to take my fa­ther (who was 17 at the time) with them. The au­thor­i­ties feared that they might de­fect, so one im­por­tant fam­ily mem­ber had to be left be­hind.

My grand­par­ents were not al­lowed a lot of for­eign cur­rency, ei­ther. Not even enough to sat­isfy lit­tle whims. For in­stance, a few days be­fore this pic­ture was taken, my grand­par­ents had been in Venice and it was very hot. After much hes­i­ta­tion, my grand­fa­ther bought him­self an ice-cream cone – and it was the best he had ever had! Un­for­tu­nately, after only a few bites, he dropped it on to the pave­ment in a mo­ment of inat­ten­tion. My grand­mother told me, many years later, what a long look he threw the splayed ice­cream, as if con­sid­er­ing whether to scoop it up again. He didn’t – but nor did he buy an­other one. This story al­ways broke my heart.

In 2003, my fa­ther and I vis­ited my grand­mother in Con­stanţa. We talked of trav­el­ling to Italy that year. She re­mem­bered her own ex­tra­or­di­nary trip and told us how, of all the cities she saw, Florence had been her favourite. Florence. Yes. We would go to Florence. Ex­cept we didn’t. My grand­mother died a few weeks after our con­ver­sa­tion; my par­ents can­celled all our hol­i­day plans.

We didn’t travel to Tus­cany un­til 2011. It was the last hol­i­day I ever went on with my par­ents – but I could not know then about the heart at­tack that would bru­tally tear my fa­ther from life not long after. How­ever, at the time, we were ter­ri­bly happy to walk the same streets and pi­az­zas my grand­par­ents had walked 34 years be­fore, as un­likely as it seemed. We fell in love with bits and pieces of Florence: the Uf­fizi, the Pi­azza della Sig­no­ria, Ponte Vec­chio, but, most of all, with Santa Maria del Fiore. I re­mem­bered my grand­mother say­ing it, as if it were the name of a long-lost love: “Santa Maria del Fiore. Santa Maria del Fiore.” So­phie van Llewyn

Snap­shot … So­phie van Llewyn’s grand­mother, Sofia, in Florence, 1977

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