As the coach sped across the plains of the Po valley, there was something serene in the view outside that pleased my eye. This was my first trip to Italy; together with my parents and one of my sisters, we were on our way to the Adriatic Riviera for a holiday. I knew from the start that I was hooked on Italy.
This shouldn't have come as a surprise. My mum had a long-standing affinity for Italy, dating from her posting in Rome in the Allied Commission at the end of World War II. Whilst my sisters and I were at school, there wasn't much opportunity to travel overseas. But
subsequently we often went on summer holidays to Italy – particularly to Viareggio on the Tuscan coast where we would spend relaxing fortnights. Since my mum wasn't keen on flying, we travelled by rail from the UK. Waking up as the train travelled through the Alps and catching glimpses of the Ligurian Riviera as we passed between a plethora of tunnels were particular highlights of those journeys.
Since then, I have travelled to many other parts of Italy. I have been captivated by the snow-capped Dolomites during several cross-country skiing holidays in Alto Adige; amazed by humans (and horses!) enacting a medieval chess game in Marostica in the Veneto; engaged by the carnival costumes and masks at the Venice Carnival (whilst wondering how could so many people fit into such a small area!); and soothed by jazz music at a concert in a Roman villa on a balmy evening in early summer.
What has struck me is that the highlights of Italy are located not solely in the big tourist attractions such as Rome, Florence and Venice. On many occasions I've visited a small town which has historical or artistic connections; for example, Asolo in the mist-topped hills of the Veneto where the author Freya Stark lived, and Pietrasanta, an unpretentious town near the Tuscan coast where many sculptors – including Michelangelo – have worked.
But my love of Italy is not restricted to the places, nor to the climate and food, good as they are (particularly the pasta!). Right from my early visits, I have been much taken by the Italians' attitude to life. In the so-called Anglo-Saxon countries, too much stress is placed on working for long hours without leaving enough time to enjoy life. Whilst the same may be true in some parts of northern Italy, thankfully most Italians set aside time for family, friends – and food! And I'm pleased to say that some of my best friends are Italians whom I've met in the course of my work.
Developing a good working knowledge of the language has been important for me in communicating and – as far as is possible - understanding how Italians think. For that, I must thank my teacher in the UK, Maria Pia, who ran a weekly Club Italia class for many years. I benefitted greatly from regularly conversing in Italian - English was "vietato"!
My relationship with Italy might have continued in this way, but - out of the blue - things changed abruptly in 2006. During a short holiday in Sicily, I decided to purchase a small apartment in Syracuse. This decision surprised not only my friends but also myself, since normally I take time to think things over. However, the enchanting island of Ortigya – the historic centre of Syracuse and a UNESCO World Heritage Site – was undergoing a renaissance. I decided if I was ever going to make such a purchase, this was the right place and the right time. As is ever the case in that part of the world, the purchase and subsequent renovation took longer than expected. However, by 2010 I was able to start using the apartment.
I was fortunate to spend a few months in Syracuse towards the end of last year. This was a very special time for me, not simply because of the opportunity to enjoy the Sicilian climate and food at a leisurely pace. With its perfect blue skies, glistening sea and architecture dating back over many centuries, Syracuse is a very romantic place and it was there that - after more than 50 years as a bachelor - I asked my girlfriend to marry me. To my great pleasure, she accepted!
Looking to the future, we plan to rent out the apartment in Syracuse to friends and family. We certainly hope to return to Sicily and other parts of Italy many more times. Italy has enriched my life in so many ways – long may it continue to do so!