Is there a food more comforting, more reminiscent of home and more suited to rainy, grey days than a perfect roast chicken with all the trimmings? A whole burnished chicken, stuffed with an onion, garlic, half a lemon, some springs of rosemary, thyme perhaps. Sizzling with the butter and fat it’s been basted with, some scattered salt crystals and a few chopped thyme leaves to help flavour the gravy…
Even better if it’s chucking it down outside and the whole afternoon post-roast promises nothing more arduous than finding the energy to finish off the wine from lunch and deciding which film to watch. This is exactly what I had in mind as we approached Easter, just a few weeks after moving.
It was already clear that we’d long missed the cut off date for ordering a more traditionally Italian lamb joint from our butcher, so, after a quick family vote, we set our hearts on roast chicken. We were in desperate need of food as a comfort blanket; the initial excitement of moving and some exceptionally warm March sunshine had given way to an equally unusual cold snap, grey skies and torrential rain, just in time for Easter. Mimi and I wore our homesickness like a scratchy wool jumper. We needed the warmth of memory and longing for family and friends to share our adventure with and yet felt increasingly uncomfortable as we failed to shake off the scratchy pull of one home as we tried to build another.
No doubt about it, a roast would christen our new house in Italy and seamlessly bring together the familiarity of taste and memory we craved. Roasts have always provided the backdrop to the biggest events in my life. Although we were never a family that had a roast lunch every Sunday. We simply couldn’t afford it. But every Christmas, always my favourite time of year, there it was, the most wonderful roast chicken that served no purpose other than to make everything ok and wonderful.
Palms sweating, I focused all my concentration on remembering the lines I’d looked up on google translate. We were at our local butchers, Macelleria di Chiesa. It was the day before Easter and we knew we were out of our depth. The queue snaked around the block and inside, the throng of locals, lined up to collect their Lamb. Easter greetings were thrown around noisily as many looked towards the pale and freckly family of three. As well as memorising the vital words for ‘a whole chicken, prepared for roasting’ I’d also memorised Buona Pasquale. More than anything, I wanted to make a good impression. In my head I was imagining future greetings, exchange pleasantries in Italian, not just with the three brothers that owned the butchers but the customers too. We were neighbours, we’d become friends and share anecdotes. I’d ask after their families and they, mine. We’d no longer stand out. Stranieri. We’d be accepted.
Forty-five minutes had passed and I clutched my ticket, waiting for 119 to flash red on the screen. I’d made use of the long wait by stalking the counter and assessing my options. There were certainly chickens, although none of them ‘oven ready’ in the sense that, a whole chicken, really did mean just that. ‘Cento, dieci nove’ came the booming voice. ‘Si!’ I responded. Despite a dry throat and the feeling all eyes were upon me, I recited my lines perfectly. This was going so well. Speaking rehearsed Italian is one thing and understanding it, spoken quickly, quite another. Not wanting to look an uncomprehending fool, I said a vehement ‘Si!’ in response to a couple of questions, confirming my request. High on success, I added several more items, sei salsicce, to my order and emerged, triumphant, excited to relive the experience over and over again with Paul and Mimi. ‘And they understood me, they really understood me!’ ‘They even wished me a Buona Pasquale and I managed to say you too.!!!’ Breathless and buzzing I arrived home and put my precious bag from the butcher’s straight in the fridge, ready for the following day’s feast.
We still hadn’t finished unpacking and I was desperately doing all I could to put photos and paintings on the wall so our new place would feel more like home. I have a habit of lighting candles during the daytime when it’s a weekend and even more so when it’s cold, grey and windy. A proper roast deserves a good setting, so, flames flickering and lamps on, I set about preparing lunch. My excitement building as I hauled from the fridge, the bag from the butcher’s.
Where was the chicken? Had we left it behind? And what was all this chopped up meat I hadn’t ordered? I frantically searched the fridge for my Chicken as slowly, I felt the dull recognition of failure. I hadn’t ordered a whole chicken ready for roasting. I’d been misunderstood. My confidence in myself entirely misplaced. The chicken lay in front of me, in pieces. Hot, embarrassed tears stung my eyes. Everything was ruined. And of course, it was about so much more than just the chicken. This lunch was going to make everything perfect. The house, which, despite its loveliness, seemed so unlike our old home, compelled me to make the most welcoming of meals – so I could finally own and make peace with this new, much smaller, badly designed kitchen and its faulty appliances. But it was also the crashing disappointment of realising that, despite my best efforts, I had not made myself understood. I felt foolish. The complexity of day to day living in Italy without a good grasp of the language dawned on me. How would we ever manage to get our internet installed and sorted if I couldn’t even bring home a chicken for roasting!
Seven months and numerous trips to the butcher later, I am making myself understood. My Italian is far from perfect but I no longer worry about getting every word right. I listen, I make mistakes, often I make a fool of myself and yet I am always, always, met with encouragement, an open smile and entirely misplaced comments about how my Italian really isn’t that bad. Looking back, I’m relieved we didn’t move somewhere where English was more widely spoken. We’ve had no choice but to throw ourselves in to learning the language. We are still very much beginners, but it is so obvious how much the locals appreciate our efforts to speak Italian, however poorly. We may not yet be on first name terms with everyone but I got asked the other day, when at our local shop, ‘dove la Piccolina?’, ‘where is the little one’? Without really thinking I replied ‘a casa, con sua nonna’ – ‘At home, with her granny.’ And there it is, that deep feeling of warmth and connection. Someone has asked after my daughter. Yes, we are probably still and always will be affectionately known as Stranieri (strangers) but we are putting down roots and slowly but surely, piano piano, we are becoming locals.