Papa, teach me more about love
At first Helena Frith Powell was stunned by her estranged fathers open attitude to sex, then she learnt to appreciate it
“Testicles,” replied my father.
“Oh yes, and I suppose there are breasts for pudding?” “If you wish, my dear, I know a very good lesbian bar.” My father roared with laughter.
“I’m not eating these.”
“Go on, bella, just try one mouthful. And if you don’t like it, you can have anything else you like on the menu.”
I circled the food with my knife and fork, prodding here and there, trying to work out which would be the least disgusting place to start. Finally I opted for a rather overcooked part. It tasted like liver and I swallowed it quickly with the help of some wine.
“No, I hate it.”
“Very well,” said my father, beckoning the waiter. “I know what you will like.”
What arrived was a tiramisu, a pudding made of coffee, cream, sponge, mascarpone and sugar. To my 14-year-old self it made a knickerbocker glory seem like a stale cucumber sandwich. I was in Florence with my long-lost Italian father. His lectures to me on sex and relationships left me stunned. I had only recently met him after a break of nearly 12 years, and I still didn’t feel completely comfortable with this man. I couldn’t help feeling shy, which was ridiculous. This was my father; biologically I was at least half of him.
After the meal, we stopped and looked at the Ponte Vecchio. The night air was warm and there was a full moon over the Arno.
“It’s lovely,” I said.
“I ordered it just for you,” said my father. “It cost a lot of money, but it was worth it.”
We walked on towards his flat. In front of the Duomo we stopped again.
“Bella, you have to choose your lovers carefully. The important thing when you choose a lover is not how big his penis is or how well he uses it, but that he speaks five languages.”
“Where am I ever going to find a man like that?”
“When you speak five languages,” he said grabbing hold of my cheek. I asked him about my mother, who was from Sweden. Why had they split up?
“She told me she was going to die if she stayed with me,” he said. “Obviously I couldn’t be held responsible for the death of such a beautiful young girl so I let her go.”
My mother severed all links with my father when she left Rome with me aged three and married a young Englishman whom she had met on a train. When I asked my father why he had given up trying to get in touch with me he told me the last straw was a postcard from England from my mother saying: “Since I remarried, the child has stopped looking like you.”
Next day my father announced we were going to the Galleria dell’Accademia to see Michelangelo’s David, so I could “experience a real man”.
“Of course, Michelangelo was a queer, as most of your English men are, but David is a work of genius and only homosexual in his creator’s dreams,” he explained as we jumped the queue of tourists waiting to get in, thanks to some card he flashed intermittently.
“Isn’t this a bit rude?” I asked, nervous at being branded a queue-barger.
“Bella, queuing is for the proletariat. They have the time. They have nothing important to do. You don’t have the time to waste; you have a lifetime of art, music, history and literature to catch up on. You cannot afford to waste even one minute in a queue again as long as you live. So, andiamo. Rude,” he mimicked my accent.
“Bah, you English are so bourgeois. Show a little flair, be a little frivolous. Dare to be different, bella. You behave like a sheep. If you want to be one you can queue. If you want to be an interesting and magnificent woman, come with me. Here you will lose your artistic virginity.”
We came to a standstill in front of David. He really was beautiful. A tower of masculinity.
“His hands are too big,” said my father. “But otherwise he is in good form.”
“So, when the time comes to lose your virginity, we find you one of these. Agreed?” “One that speaks five languages?” My father laughed and grabbed my cheek. “Bella, for losing your virginity you only need the language of love.”()
We took the train south to visit my aunt Piera who had a house outside Amalfi. She must have been in her mid-forties. She didn’t even look 30. A tall, dark, good-looking and even younger-looking man carried my suitcases into the house. He was not the butler but Bertrand, my aunt’s lover of 10 years. They had met in a bakery in Paris. She had chosen a brioche for her breakfast and found she had no money to pay for it. A tall dark stranger stepped out from the queue and offered to pay. They ended up having breakfast together, followed by rampant sex and everlasting love. At least that’s my aunt’s version.
That evening guests arrived for dinner. The man was a large flamboyant artist called Pierpaolo with his mousy wife. “Do you think some of your English friends might like to meet me?” Pierpaolo said. “I find young women very attractive.”
“But you’re married,” I said.
“My dear Helena, if everyone had your attitude I wouldn’t have had sex for over 30 years. Imagine what that would have done to my creativity. The whole world would be a bleaker place than it is today.”
“Fidelity is something for the petite bourgeoisie,” my father now joined in. “It gives them something to talk about when it is breached. Besides, who are we mortals to suppress such a powerful instinct?”
“Well, you should try to be strong, I suppose, isn’t that the idea?” I suggested.
“No wonder England is such a dull place,” said Pierpaolo. “I don’t see what the big deal is anyway. Who wants to own someone that doesn’t want to be owned? Much better just to relax about these things.”
“Voilà,” said my aunt, placing a huge grilled fish in the middle of the table. “Fish, the food of sex. You know, Helena, in ancient Greece fish was the symbol for sexuality.”
“No, I didn’t.” I felt my stomach turn at the smell of it. “Oh God, I don’t know how to say this, but I don’t like fish.”
“That figures,” said Pierpaolo.
My aunt couldn’t have looked more horrified if I’d announced I was a lesbian with a penchant for sadomasochistic sex with nuns.
“It’s not possible,” she said. “To dislike fish is to dislike life itself. It is a negation of sex.”
“No, I just don’t like fish. There’s nothing more to it than that.”
“Bah,” said my aunt. “That is a typically superficial Anglo-Saxon way of looking at it. You know, dear Helena, that there is a reason for everything. And the reason you don’t like fish must be something to do with your sexuality. This is a problem you have to address. Try some.”
She put a piece of fish on my plate. All eyes were on me as I put it in my mouth. It was disgusting: salty and unbelievably fishy. I tried to smile at the five faces staring expectantly at me. I had to disappoint them.
“No, sorry, I just don’t like it.”
My father laughed. “I knew it. I’m destined to have a frigid daughter.”
“It would be an apt punishment for you,” said Pierpaolo.
For the first time since I arrived in Italy, I felt like running away. I suddenly missed my mother terribly and wished she had stayed with me to face all these mad Italians.
Late next morning we all piled into my aunt’s red Alfa Romeo Spider and headed for a day on the sea. I had never seen anyone more unsuited to a boat than my father.
Finally he settled down next to me and pointed out a large white house that perched in splendid isolation to the right of the town of Amalfi.
“It belongs to a famous American writer called Gore Vidal,” he explained. “You’ve probably never heard of him.”
Something in me snapped. “If I’m such a disappointment to you, then why are you wasting all this time with me?” I demanded.
My father looked slightly surprised but smiled. “You must understand it is very important for me to have a daughter I can insult. But I also love you and you must not be afraid of disappointing me. I will always understand you. A person who is disappointed is only someone stupid who was filled with illusions.”
He put his arm around me and drew me towards him. I rested my head on his shoulder and breathed in the smell of him, a blend of expensive aftershave and something comforting.
“But you have a lot to learn to become a really important woman; draw your strength from me, I am here to teach you,” he said, tightening his arm around me.
I felt like crying with happiness, like a girl being told she is loved for the first time by the man of her dreams.
© 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
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. Helena is also working on a thriller called Thin Ice that will be published in spring 2021 as well as a novel about the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield called Sense of an Echo.
Her latest non-fiction work Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles came out in hardback in 2016 and in paperback in April 2018.
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