Newspapers in France today are reporting how a small bomb went off in Rome today as French President Hollande visits and it reminded me of a time when I visited that lovely city many years ago.
I was very young, in my first job as a reporter and very keen to impress after just a few months when no-one seemed to know I existed and I was doing all the grunt work.
My then boss, the editor of a glossy magazine planned to take a group of very rich clients to Italy to tour the beautiful cities of Florence, Venice and Rome. He had a famous and extremely volatile Italian mistress, a Baronness no less (I can’t tell you who because I might get into trouble) and knew Italy quite well but he didn’t speak much Italian (at least not the sort you’d use with clients). He instructed me to make a list of sites to see and sort out a translator to accompany the group on their tour. He had considered his lady friend but she was rather dramatic and prone to touchifeeliness which would not have been appropriate with the clients present!
I saw this as an opportunity.
“No need for a translator” I told him “I speak Italian – my Dad is from Milan”
One statement was (sort of) true – my family are from Milan but my Dad was actually born in the east end of London… one statement was completely untrue – I did not speak Italian.
I figured I had three months to learn Italian and enrolled at a night school. The problem was, as a reporter I had to go where I was told, when I was told, whatever the time of day or night. In the three months available to master Italian, I managed to attend only 7 classes and learned how to say with a perfect Italian accent “Mi dispiace io non parlo italiano” (I’m sorry, I don’t speak Italian).
But I was young (immature), keen (stupid) and willing (very stupid) to tough it out and go for it. We alighted from the plane in Italy. We were escorted through customs (my boss was very well-known and very rich) and a man came over to us and started talking in Italian – really really quickly.
I didn’t understand a word, at that split second I learned how not to impress your boss in the worst possible way.
My boss looked at me – I looked at him blankly. “Well” he barked at me “What now”. The group were lined up behind him – their narrowed eyes swivelled round, lips pulled into a smirk.
“erm… erm” I stammered.
“He’s the bloody coach driver” he yelled “He’s telling us to get on the coach”.
Needless to say, he was extremely angry with me, instructed one of his secretary’s in London to sort out an interpreter and I thought I would be fired on the spot. However, he was a remarkably eccentric man and was apparently intrigued by my extreme stupidity and was generous enough not to make me go straight back to London. My punishment was to be barred from a visit to the Vatican with the group. I was to stay in the hotel and sit and think about what I was missing out on and why! Of course I nipped out while they were gone, the hotel was right by the Spanish Steps and I drank in the fabulous views (above) and returned to my room before they got back!
Afterwards my boss and the group flew off to South Africa for a visit to one of his famous friends in Cape Town and he said he felt so guilty about not letting me go to see the Vatican he paid for me to stay on for 2 days alone to do the sites! I walked everywhere and had a wonderful time but I never got to see the Vatican – a small bomb went off close by and the roads were closed…