Lessons from my lothario Papa
Helena Frith Powell didn’t know her Italian father until she was 14. When she found him he initiated her into whole new Latin attitude to life
As soon as we leave Italy, my memory of Rome and my real father fades. I start to believe my father is an English artist. But my mother is not happy; nor am I. My stepfather is demanding and spoilt. When he wants coffee in the morning he bangs on the floor from his bedroom. My mother and I both dread taking it up to him.
One day soon after my ninth birthday my stepfather travels to Morocco, apparently to find himself. “Hopefully he’ll lose himself,” jokes my mother.
Two days later a car crashes into our garden driven by a drunk called Barry, who has a red beard. He is short and wears flares with platform shoes. Not a great look. But, to begin with, he is light relief after my stepfather.
My mother begins an affair with him almost immediately. Over the next few years we move house several times with him as he is careless about paying the rent. I nickname him Psycho because of his violent temper. The last place we live in is a farmer’s cottage in Berkshire. To escape the tension inside the house I make myself a den in a barn. One wet April morning my mother comes out to find me. She alone knows my hiding place.
“Your real father has asked if he can write to you,” she says. “He’s called Benedetto Benedetti.”
A year or so on, life with Barry has become unbearable. My mother decides it is time to leave England before he kills us both. I am now 14 years old.
I am getting ready for school one Tuesday morning when my mother tells me today is the day. Halfway through my English lesson I see my mother rush past the window. I raise my hand and ask to be excused. The whole class looks on in amazement as I leave. My mother and I get into her purple Ford Cortina and drive towards the coast.
We navigate with the help of the map of Europe in my Girl Guide diary. After three days we arrive in the Adriatic town of Rimini, the ancestral home of my new Italian family.
We arrange to meet my father on the beach. We are early, or he is late. I go for a swim but when I come out I realise I am lost. I am terrified I will never see my mother again, but more importantly that I will miss my appointment with my father.
I start running on the beach, looking for something I will recognise. Suddenly I feel two strong arms around me. I look up into eyes that are shockingly similar to mine.
“Ciao bella,” says my father. “I recognised you by your legs.”
I used to have a photograph my mother took of my father and me on the beach at Rimini that first summer. He was much taller than me and well built. His hair was thick and brown and slightly wavy. He had a moustache. But rather than make him look ridiculous, which I have always thought moustaches do, it made him look even more like an Italian film star.
He looked intelligent if a little out of place, fully clothed and clutching a 1920s fedora hat among all the half-naked sun-worshippers.
I remember our first embrace. He was wearing a white silk shirt, and my hair, wet from the sea, left a mark on it. I felt secure in his arms. His voice was loud and strong. With my head resting on his chest I heard it reverberate through his ribcage.
“Well,” he said looking down at me. “At least in terms of looks I can’t deny you’re my daughter.”
He stroked my cheek and I started crying, for no particular reason. He smiled: “I must be some disappointment, but please, try to hide your grief. I am a sensitive man and easily hurt.” This was the first time he made me laugh. ()
My parents embraced.
“Still smoking I see?” he said to my mother.
“Yes, aren’t you?” “No, never. Especially not in Rimini. The mayor forbids it.”
My mother laughed and raised her cigarette to her lips. “I see you’re still wearing that ridiculous hat.”
My father smiled. “Brava, you still have your legendary sense of humour.”
It was difficult to digest that this man was my father. I had got so used to pretending other people were. But here he was: the truth. I couldn’t stop listening to his voice and examining his face. He really did look like me.
I walked behind my parents, enjoying seeing them together. A group of boys whistled at me. “Ciao bella,” one of them shouted. I was amazed. It was only my father who called me that.
“Don’t be alarmed,” said my father. “This is the normal mating call of the Italian male. All over Italy you will hear it. But of course when I say it to you, it is different.”
We drove in his cream open-top Mercedes with red leather seats to my grandmother’s house. We found her sitting in her bedroom. She was so small that for the first time in my life I felt gigantic.
“La mia bambina,” she said, reaching her arms out. She hugged me with a strength I would have thought impossible for a woman her age and size; she was at least 80. Overcome with emotion, she caressed my head and covered me with kisses, all the time crying and repeating the words “La mia bambina e tornata.” My baby has come back.
She didn’t stop crying and clutching me for about an hour. When I called her “nonna”, which I’d been told was the Italian for grandmother, she said she had waited 12 years to hear that word.
After a couple of days in Rimini my mother decided to go home. My father offered to keep me in Italy and take me on a grand tour.
I think she was relieved that he showed an interest in me; maybe it made her feel less guilty about the whole saga. She had made some pretty stupid decisions, most of them involving marriages, but now my father and I were finally reunited.
He started to teach me Italian on the drive from Rimini to his home in Florence. “All you need to speak Italian is Dante, or an Italian lover, or possibly both,” he continued.
By the time we got to his flat in the Via Ricasoli I was reciting Dante like an Italian, partly because we almost crashed every time I let out an English vowel sound.
His apartment had large rooms, high ceilings and almost no furniture. He showed me into a spare room, with nothing in it except a big bed, a wardrobe and piles of books. I opened the shutters. The entire view was of the famous Duomo. It felt as if I could reach out and touch it.
It didn’t seem possible that a city could be so beautiful. When I went for a walk, every building I saw would have been a national monument at home in Newbury, which was mostly made up of supermarkets and car parks. Here they were just there, one after another, practically unnoticed.
I got back to the flat to find my father listening to an opera. “We are going,” he announced in his loud voice, “to the best restaurant in Florence.” He told me to go and get dressed “with a lot of attention” and be ready to leave in an hour. I could choose any clothes I wanted from the wardrobe in my bedroom.
I lay on my bed and wondered how he felt about having me here. He wasn’t like my grandmother; he never expressed his feelings or showed me any affection, but I supposed that if he was willing to spend time with me he must be vaguely interested in me.
I walked over to the wardrobe. Whoever had stayed here had expensive and good taste in clothes. There were dresses, skirts, shirts and trousers, all much smarter than anything my mother or I would ever wear. There was a small black skirt that fitted well, and I found a top that went with it, although it was practically see-through.
“Brava, you look like a high-class hooker,” said my father. And he assured me this was a compliment. He looked dashing in cream linen trousers and a pale green shirt. He had swapped his fedora hat for a panama, which completed the look.
As we walked arm in arm through the cobbled streets to the restaurant I told him I had seen the statue of David in the Piazza.
“He’s such a perfect specimen of a man, so beautiful,” I said.
“Yes, but how can you have such admiration for a copy?” said my father.
“Yes, the real one is in the Galleria dell’Accademia in my street.”
“What’s the difference between them?”
“The real one has an erection every Wednesday at 6pm precisely. The tourists love it, especially the Americans. You should see the way they gaze at it. They queue for hours to get in.”
“Surely you’re not so English that you have to be embarrassed about an erection?”
“No, I just . . .”
“How many lovers have you got?”
“Well you’re still a bit young. But you should think about the future.”
I didn’t answer but pretended to look at a church we were passing.
“Cara, don’t get offended. Sex is like any other bodily function. You are hungry, you eat. You are thirsty, you drink. What is the problem?” He laughed.
“Today I read the most wonderful thing,” he continued.
“I was doing some research into the British psyche, so as to better understand you, bella, and I found this passage, written by a young British subject over 100 years ago while visiting Florence. Listen!”
He began reciting in a high-pitched voice in an attempt to imitate a young Victorian girl.
“I often half-envy the happy life of an Italian, free from care and brought up so as to be almost devoid of conscience, indulging in every inclination natural to man, loving to be loved, and all without restraint. Yes, I sigh after such happiness.”
“All I want is for you not to sigh after it, but to have it,” said my father.
He took my hand for the first time and marched me towards the restaurant. It was as if the strident action compensated for the tender one.
© Helena Frith Powell 2006
Extracted from Ciao Bella: In Search of My Italian Father, to be published on November 2 by Gibson Square at £14.99. Copies can be ordered for £13.49 with free postage from The Sunday Times BooksFirst on 0870 165 8585 or visit www.timesonline.co.uk/booksfirst
Helena Frith Powell was born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and Italian father, but grew up mainly in England. She is the author of eleven books, translated into several languages including Chinese and Russian. She wrote the French Mistress column The Sunday Times about life in France for several years. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Tatler Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar.
Helena has been the editor of four magazines, including M Magazine, a supplement for the Abu Dhabi-based National Newspaper and FIVE, a high-end fashion glossy, also published in Abu Dhabi. Helena was also editor-in-chief of 360 Life, a quarterly glossy magazine published with the Sports 360 Newspaper in Dubai, part of the Chalhoub Group.
Helena contributes regularly to UK-based newspapers and magazines and holds a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Cambridge. She is working on a thriller set in Sweden as well as a novel about the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield called Sense of an Echo.
In 2022 her short story The Japanese Gardener came second in the Fish Publishing Short Story Prize. One of her stories was also shortlisted for the Bridport Short Story Prize. When she’s not writing, she works as a headhunter for the media and entertainment industry for the Sucherman Group.
Helena, who was educated at Durham University, lives in the Languedoc region of France with her husband Rupert and their three children.
More France Please, we’re British; Gibson Square 2004
Two Lipsticks and a Lover 2005; Gibson Square (hardback)
All You Need to be Impossibly French; (US version of above) Penguin 2006
Two Lipsticks and a Lover; Arrow Books (paperback) 2007
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (hardback) 2006
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (paperback) 2007
So Chic! (French version of Two Lipsticks) Leduc Editions 2008 (also translated into Chinese, Russian and Thai)
More, More France; Gibson Square 2009
To Hell in High Heels; Arrow Books 2009 (also translated into Polish)
The Viva Mayr Diet; Harper Collins 2009
Love in a Warm Climate; Gibson Square 2011
The Ex-Factor; Gibson Square 2013
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles; Gibson Square 2016
The Arnolfini Marriage; Amazon Kindle December 2016
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles (paperback); Gibson Square spring 2018
The Longest Night; Gibson Square spring 2019