Best of Times, Worst of Times: A large deb, an olive grove and an Alfa Romeo: Judith Kazantzis talks to Danny Danziger

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I'd won an exhibition to Somerville College, and I had some time to fill before I went up there. My mother and father are Catholic and have high connections, and so it was suggested I go to Rome and au pair for a respectable family. This seemed to be the thing that a nicely brought up Catholic girl did in 1957.

I didn't think it sounded very thrilling but I was very passive at that time.

They were called Pasanisi: Signor and Signora Pasanisi. He was a round, dark-suited lawyer, and she was a very bourgeois, middle-class Italian signora. They had a baby and two little girls, and they just wanted me to sit for about an hour a day and talk English to the two girls.

It turned out to be absolutely horrible; the family were in temporary accommodation, waiting to move (into a very grand apartment), but we never did move. I stayed in this ghastly temporary flat for two months.

The two little girls were quite sweet but absolutely anonymous, and the baby, Carlo, was in a cot behind my head and cried the whole night.

I think the whole thing was a con, they were terrible snobs and they just wanted to be able to tell their friends they had this well-born English girl au pairing for them.

I got more and more homesick, and then my mother said: 'Well, if you're getting so unhappy, come home and be presented.'

We'd always been in the Labour Party, my father had been a minister in Attlee's cabinet, that was what was so curious about their assumption that I would want to be a deb. But then there are lots of people who live strange lives, and I was no exception.

So I came home. It was the last year of the debutantes' Queen Charlotte's Ball. I was very large by that time, because I had been consoling myself with Italian food, but I was pushed into a shantung dress, which had a boat neckline and a vast raspberry-coloured cummerbund - quite unbecoming if you're very fat.

I and a similarly huge girlfriend put on picture hats and our parents shared the hire of a Daimler, and we all went to Buckingham Palace.

There were a lot of people crowded around outside the palace, watching to see all these grand people going by in large cars, and when they peered in through the window my nice girlfriend stuck out her tongue at them.

We drove into the courtyard and we were met by very tall gentlemen in black stockings who passed us along from room to room. And then in one room was a throne and you were supposed to do a running curtsy towards the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh.

But in order to look beautiful, I had taken off my glasses, with the result that I couldn't see either of them because I'm terribly short-sighted. I just saw these two white blurs. But when I got out the other side, there were some refreshments, so I and my fat girlfriend gobbled them up, and that was the end of that.

I then went back to Italy to the University of Perugia to do a course in the Italian language, as a lot of English girls did then.

We all got taken up with the Italian students, and my particular boyfriend was called Vincenzo. He was an agrarian student, so there wasn't much we could talk about, but we weren't interested in talking, what we were interested in was the fact that we could dance; that was absolutely the best thing, and those months proved the most delightful time in the world.

We spent hours just dancing. It was real ballroom dancing: cheek-to-cheek waltzing, foxtrotting; very sexy and great fun.

And class was of no importance away from the gloomy snobbery of England. That is the beauty of going abroad and why people do it: to be free of their own conventions.

I was brought up in a village where, if you went to the village hall, it would be hard for a local boy to ask the girl from the big house for a dance; there was a definite them-and-us barrier.

With all this dancing I got much thinner, so I looked very pretty, and that cheered me up. I wore jeans and a T-shirt and bought my first real pair of stilettos. They were pale mushroom suede: very impractical.

And then sex entered the equation. I was a good Catholic girl. I was brought up in a very fundamentalist way by nuns, and if I didn't believe in G-O-D very much by the time I was 17, I certainly believed that I might go to hell and suffer in some way if I did the things that were considered to be mortal sins. And one of them was sex . . . I was very afraid of that.

I knew the facts of life, but I didn't know very much about men; the penis was a bit of a frightening mystery to me, although I had four brothers.

One beautiful night Vincenzo said we should go into the olive groves. Obviously he was hoping I would succumb.

So we went out into the beautiful olive groves. It was glorious. The moon was full and I can still remember the magnificence of the Italian scenery that night.

Perugia lies in the foothills of the Apennines and so it is the most religious and mystic land, full of shrines and churches, and Perugia itself has lots of little streets, houses with heavy red Italian tiles, cocks crowing, dogs barking, babies crying and a tremendous smell of wood smoke, always.

And on that particular night, everything happened but. And meanwhile, Vincenzo was doing something down there - he was clearly satisfying himself - but I was pretending to be Our Lady and not going to hell, and the psychological splits of that I still find quite strange.

There was no open argument, but there were little noises, little pleas; it was all very polite, rather sweet really.

We went back to my lodgings in the old part of town and we kissed in the hall to say goodnight. And as I went upstairs, he said: 'Judita? Voi]'

I looked down, and there was this white blur between his legs; he had obviously decided to flash in a kind of reproachful way, but it was a complete failure because I had taken my glasses off to kiss and hadn't put them

on again. So there was another white blur. It seemed to be the year of the blur.

I just went up to my room, and nothing more was ever said. We had probably reached a sexual impasse, although I wouldn't have known that at the time. I just got rather bored.

After that, I was wondering what to do next. I looked on the notice board and there was a note: were there students who would like to hitchhike down to southern Italy and around Sicily? And that was what I did.

A car stopped on the highway outside Perugia, a very big, expensive open sports car, room for all of us, driven by a heavily built Italian playboy type with gold all over his hands, neck and wrists. He said he could take us right down to Messina, but he had to divert to Cosenza for the night because he had business there.

Winding up into the Calabrian mountains we arrived at this beautiful little town and he took us to the biggest, smartest hotel off the piazza. It seemed he was going to stand the night for the five of us. It seemed too good to be true.

Then it transpired that I was booked into the same room as him. It turned out there was a plot to sacrifice my virginity so he would pay the night for us. What perfidy]

Of course I refused to go in. I wasn't going to keep it all from Vincenzo only to throw it away on this rather terrifying man. I thought it was very mean of them. Anyway, when this man heard I wasn't going to go into his room, he stomped out of the hotel and got into his Alfa Romeo and drove smartly away.

I went back to Perugia then. I rushed around town looking for Vincenzo: 'Is he here? Is he there?' No. Finally I got to the most obvious place, the student union where we all partied. I ran into the dance room, and there he was, dancing in another woman's arms, who I didn't know, who was Italian and very svelte.

I rushed up to him and seized him and he looked at me, in great startlement. No words were said, he simply took me home and saw me to my door and went away again. And probably went straight back to his Italian woman and carried on dancing.

Then I went home to England, because by that time I had to get ready for university. I cried the whole of the way from Perugia to Victoria station, so when my mother and my brothers and sisters came to meet me, there was I, tears streaming down my face.

And then Vincenzo started writing love letters about the moonlight on the lake at Trasimeno.

I saw there was a certain kudos in having this Italian lover, but unfortunately this dissolved into sand. I was boasting about him to a sophisticated girlfriend of my older brother, and she said: 'Do you have a photograph of him?' I gave her a photograph.

As it happens - I kept the news from you until now - he was prematurely bald, but had a very hairy chest and well-developed pecs. Actually, he was very male, very attractive, but for a girl of 21 whose eyes were on a whole different sort of thing . . . she couldn't see. She screamed with laughter, contemptuous laughter: 'Oh, he's got paps . . .'

This totally deflated me and my little conformist self came out and I didn't reply to the beautiful moonlight of Trasimeno, forgot all about it and life went on.

A year later he turned up at the house when I was away. My father said: 'Judita is not here,' but it was rather nice that he remembered me enough.

And that was the end of that.

I remember that year very well, because although in a sense nothing much happened, quite a lot did.

Judith Kazantzis is the daughter of Lord and Lady Longford. Her fifth collection of poems, 'The Rabbit Magician Plate', is published by Sinclair-Stevenson at pounds 7.99

(Photograph omitted)

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