I ran into a man in the Vet’s waiting room yesterday who said: “Aren’t you Patricia? I read you every month because you have polemica about wine.” I said “thank you” and thought: Polemic? Me! By the way, Stanley is fine. He just strained a muscle in his back due to his joyous jumping.
Those looking for polemic in this August diary will be disappointed because everyone goes on vacation in August. It is the time when Italian wine trade professionals start posting pictures of themselves on the beach clutching brightly colored cocktails. So instead you will get the story of how I met Michael and how I became a wine writer (with the help of Perry Mason). Are we sitting comfortably? Then I shall begin.
Michael and the Sweet Etcetera
I had just turned thirty-five when my tasting tutor Maggie McNie M.W. took me to a wine shop of which she was part owner. We entered the converted stable on Clerkenwell Road and my life changed in an instant. Michael, an importer of fine Italian wine, ascended the broad staircase from the basement where he rented offices. I saw him and my heart (etcetera, as ee cummings so properly put it) beat fast. I had read about such visceral experiences but nothing prepared me for the feeling in real life. I assure you the air vibrated, it tingled. Yes, a slightly built, balding young man in a gray pin-striped suit turned my world upside down with a smile. My first words to Maggie after we left the shop were, “Is he married?” He was not.
A romantic but decorous courtship followed…the theater, where he impressed me by pulling a giant chocolate Toblerone bar from his serious briefcase during the intermission, and Champagne picnics in Hyde Park.
Being entirely unexpected made this romance all the sweeter. I had reached the point in life where I had become the man I had always wanted to marry: I knew about wine, I knew how to order and even enjoy exotic cuisines and, after stays in Paris, New York, and London, I could be thought of as a person “of the world”. The last thing on my mind was slipping in to the giddy joy of being in love. Fortunately, the etcetera was surrounded by the rest. Michael loved food, we could talk about wine without having to measure our enthusiasm and he made me laugh.
Then Michael’s boss in Italy requested that he transfer to Verona. I had been brought up in the good old days of feminism when women did not give up their careers and home to follow a man: follow adventure, yes; follow a man, no. So, Michael went to Verona and I stayed in London.
I imagined him in an Italy where all the women wore perfect shoes and never went red and blotchy when they cried. He imagined me attending tastings with other (perhaps taller) young men in pin-striped suits. We were miserable. After a year apart, I came to my senses, finally realizing that I could recognize real love when I felt it. And if in the end I lost him to a short, dark-haired girl in elegant Gucci sling-backs…so be it. I left my job, my apartment, my friends, my clients (I was brokering Bordeaux at the time) and moved to Verona, to live with my own true love in a small apartment with a sunny balcony.
Thinking solely of love, I had let the little matter of speaking the local language fade into insignificance.
Finding a New Career With the Help of Perry Mason
My biggest handicap in learning Italian turned out to be my adored Michael, the linguist. He speaks four languages fluently. French people think he is French. Italians think he is Italian (just not local). Germans do not think he is German but they admire his fluency. And of course he speaks English with dulcet Oxonian tones that my American accent has eroded over time.
Michael the linguist is not, by any stretch of the imagination, Michael the teacher. His method consisted of barking out corrections every time I opened my mouth. While there may be a student in some part of this vast universe for whom this method is valid, it did not work for me.
I turned to fictional heros for help. I bought a nice thick, brightly colored Topolino (a Mickey Mouse magazine). Once I had mastered voglio vedere Paperone, ora! (I want to see Uncle Scrooge now!) and lascia stare quei panini, ingordo! (Leave those rolls alone, glutton!), I moved on to comic books like Racconti della Cripta (Tales From the Crypt). Some of the many fine words I learned and have never been able to insert into conversations include dischi volanti (flying saucers), lupo mannaro (werewolf) and distorsione del tempo (time warp).
Perry Mason and his dutiful secretary Della Street conducted my first serious language lessons. They spend an inordinate amount of time discussing what they plan to have for dinner. “Andiamo a pranzo. Sono affamato,” says Perry. (Let’s go to lunch. I’m hungry.) “Dove potremmo far colazione,” Perry asks, with occhi sorridenti. (Where shall we go for a meal? asks a smiling-eyed Perry.) And boy does Perry eat! While Della makes do with pane integrale tostato e tè senza zucchero (wholewheat toast and tea without sugar), Perry tucks into crema di pomodoro, filetto “mignon”, carciofi e patatine, un budino col liquore e una Macedonia di frutta (cream of tomato soup, filet mignon, artichokes and potatoes, a liquor-drenched pudding and fruit salad). However, his most satisfying contribution to my use of the Italian language was that most wonderful phrase: Mi oppongo! (I object!) Oh, the pleasure these words have given me over the years.
I then made friends with Brooke, Stephanie, Ridge, Clark and Sally, the protagonists of The Bold and the Beautiful. The words and phrases I learned from this soap opera proved an excellent means of communicating gossip. Brooke è incinta ancora! (Brook is pregnant again). “Sgualdrina,” (slut) Stephanie would snarl at Brooke. “Mandrillo,” (lecher) Sally would growl at Clark. A few years after beginning my daily language lessons with the Beautiful crowd, I went to New York on business and saw the show in its original language for the first time. What a come-down! “Lei è molto affascinante” became “Wow. She’s hot.” It sounds better in Italian, doesn’t it?
Vinitaly, the world’s largest annual wine trade fair, offered a lifeline to my drowning self-esteem. In high spirits I boarded the special bus laid on by the city of Verona to carry foreign visitors to the fair ground. As I wallowed in the steady stream of English babble about wine prices, I noticed a slim bespectacled woman sitting hunched in an oversized raincoat.
I took the empty seat beside her and fell into conversation. She admitted to feeling overwhelmed by the task of tasting Italian wine. “I’ll give you a tasting lesson,” I said. “And some sure-fire phrases to use to put overbearing people in their place. Remember your opinions are just as valid as theirs…we just have to give you the right vocabulary.” We entered the Sicilian Pavilion and lesson one began. As we tasted I told her what was wrong with most English writers when they wrote about Italian wine – mainly their need to compare every Italian wine with French styles and grape varieties. On and on I went, happy to be talking about Italian wines and joyous to be speaking in English!
“That’s jolly interesting,” she said. “Why don’t you write it for my magazine.” I had not known she had a wine magazine. I agreed, found a typewriter and entered the world of “the check is in the mail” journalism, working for European magazines whose payment policy is: we will pay if you catch us.
“But eet ees peanutz,” a sleek little Frenchman sneered down the phone line at my eighth request for money owed.
“But they are my peanuts,” I countered.
His laugh echoed in my ear and could easily be translated as “You are in Verona and I am in gay Pa-ree…zho zhere is nothing you can do about eet.”
It was at that precise moment that I began having my Arnold Schwarzenegger fantasies. Arnold, in full Terminator regalia, enters the reception room of the publisher’s offices and requests my check. When told that it is not ready he says, “I’ll vait.” He leans his mega-galactic weapon of mass destruction next to the potted ficus and settles into a white ultra-modern architecturally-molded (for a much smaller person) chair. Ah, Arnold, how that fantasy helped me during my early days in journalism.
Arnold and my other fictional friends provided me with the confidence to take on my new career. Perry and Della prepared me for business lunches (eating is an integral part of being a wine journalist), knowing the current plot twists of Beautiful provided fuel for small talk, and my knowledge of viticulture and enology when filtered through the Italian vocabulary of mystery novels and action films made my interviews with Italian winemakers memorable for both parties.
I found myself transformed into a wine writer with magazines in three countries owing me money – I had a career!