“The last holiday I remember taking as ‘a family’”
The thing I remember most is
the sunflowers. They were my signal, the sign that after a long, hot, claustrophobic drive through France and into Italy – a drive where my sister and I squabbled over everything from whose music got to play on the tape deck to whether air conditioning was more effective than having the window open – we had arrived.
For the first nine years of my life, and for many, many years after, those sunflowers became my happy place. When I had bad dreams, when I had to count down from 20 before going under general anaesthetic, when heartbreak or anxiety kept me up late into the night, I would breathe deeply and think of the fields of endless yellow heads stretching as far as the eye could see.
They belonged to the house that we rented, every other year, in Umbria, northern Italy. We started going in 1992 when I was just seven years old, taking over an old farmhouse in the middle of nowhere with my parent’s best friends, their two daughters and their grandmother. Both families – me, my mum, dad and sister; them and their party of five – would load up the cars with food, games, toys and towels (to stop the leather seats of my dad’s car from sticking to the backs of our legs in the heat), drive to the ferry in Dover and then head down through France and Switzerland to Italy. The journey took days, but it would have been too expensive for us all to fly. That was when there was still four of us to think about, instead of just two.
As soon as I felt the crunch of gravel and earth underneath us, I knew we were close. As my dad swung our family saloon over the potholes, I’d press my nose against the hot glass and count the sunflower heads at my eye level. Eventually, a cream-and-brown stone house came into focus, half-covered in creeping green vines and purple bougainvillea. We had arrived.
Casa Quercia was our home for the next two weeks. It had no pool, no
TV, no air-conditioning. But it was a palace to me. It had been converted into two self-contained apartments stacked on top of each other, connected by a terracotta-stone outdoor staircase that opened out into the second-floor loggia – a covered terrace where we ate every single meal. My family and
I took the ground floor, and the Slopers, our family friends, slept above.
I was the youngest of the bunch. My sister, Ruth, was 10 years my senior, and the other two girls, Jenny and Alison, were three and five years older than me respectively. It often meant I was the butt of the pranks, and that I didn’t always understand a lot of the chat – particularly when it was about boys. I didn’t care. I would do anything to feel like one of the “big girls”. Once, when we went to a local village fair, I asked my mum why Ruth and the others kept talking about all the “monkey men” around. She laughed and stroked my hair behind my ears. “They’re talking about the hunky men, Ames. They think the local boys are hunky.”
I don’t want to make it sound like a scene out of The Waltons, but our days at Casa Quercia were idyllic.
Graham, the dad of the other family, was the most exceptional home cook (as were his wife and mother). We’d feast on fresh blackberries and white peaches with local yoghurt and fresh bread most mornings. Then we’d pack up both cars and drive to one of the many natural lakes that mark this part of Italy. There we’d swim, read our books, have lilo races, play bat and ball and build up to the all-important part of the afternoon when we were allowed that most hallowed of early-’90s holiday treats – a choc ice.
Back home later on, we’d play badminton, or my dad and Graham would battle it out over the Scrabble board while we played rummy and “shit head” (insistently renamed “poo head” for my benefit by the grown-ups). The sound of someone shouting “SEVEN LETTER WORD” or “Z IN GOOD POSITION” is the only thing that could be heard against the crickets and the zoom of motorbikes in the distance. The thing that lingers to this day, though, is not the memory of the pasta we ate or the tomatoes the size of my head in the supermarket. It’s not the slices of garlicky focaccia we’d wrap in greaseproof paper at the local baker’s and then eat for our lunch on the steps of whatever church or town square our parents had dragged us to that day. It was that those holidays were the last time I felt like I came from a “normal” family. One with a mum, a dad, and an older sister. Six months after we’d returned from our second time at Casa Quercia, my parents sat me down in our living room and told me they were getting a divorce. I was nine years old, and my sister had left to travel the world on her gap year. Our semi-detached house in north London went from the hustle and bustle of four people to the near silence of two.
My mum and I still went to Italy the
following summer. We flew this time, and she hired a car at Florence airport and did the three-hour drive herself for the first time with her 10-year-old daughter “navigating” in the front seat. Only now, as an adult myself, do I understand how terrifying that must have been for her – she wasn’t the most confident driver. But she did it to give us both a sense of normality. The ground had shifted under our feet.
But we still had Casa Quercia. We still had the sunflowers.
Life was never the same after that last time. Mum got diagnosed with breast cancer and our world tilted further on its axis. But throughout everything that came after – the chemo, the foul-smelling dressings and silk turbans resting on her dressing table where Lancôme perfume used to be – those holidays became my escape route. A hatch I could slide down into a happier time. Now I see that those holidays created a blueprint for my perfect summer. In every trip
I take, I bring a part of Casa Quercia with me. In every card game, alfresco meal, every trip to a foreign supermarket, every map spread wide on a scorchinghot dashboard – I am recreating the holiday I never really wanted to end. Everything that came after was hard. But I’ll always be so grateful for those weeks we spent under the Umbrian sun.
“The ground had shifted, but we still had Casa Quercia”