Rhythm sticks, the sound of Italian crooners, boisterous adolescents and a whiff of pesto remind Philippa Goodrich of a summer that brought the first stirrings of romance

Summer 1978: the era of Ian Dury and the Blockheads, the year the Italian statesman Aldo Moro was kidnapped and killed by the Red Brigades - and the year of my first trip abroad. I was longing to go. Most of my friends from the well-heeled world of Sevenoaks in Kent had been going on skiing holidays or trips to Spain since they were tiny. But I was 15 and I'd never even been on a ferry to France, let alone on an aeroplane to somewhere more exotic. At last my moment had come. I could hardly believe it but I was to go to Milan for two weeks on an exchange with an Italian girl called Silvia.

Summer 1978: the era of Ian Dury and the Blockheads, the year the Italian statesman Aldo Moro was kidnapped and killed by the Red Brigades - and the year of my first trip abroad. I was longing to go. Most of my friends from the well-heeled world of Sevenoaks in Kent had been going on skiing holidays or trips to Spain since they were tiny. But I was 15 and I'd never even been on a ferry to France, let alone on an aeroplane to somewhere more exotic. At last my moment had come. I could hardly believe it but I was to go to Milan for two weeks on an exchange with an Italian girl called Silvia.

The trip didn't start auspiciously - we arrived at Gatwick only to find that the baggage handlers were on strike and we would have to wait 12 hours. I can't remember now if we went home or not, but I do remember not being unduly deterred by it, so novel was the whole experience that striking up conversation with a Texan who had already waited longer than us, or gazing round the departure lounge at the prostrate bodies of fellow travellers trying to sleep away the tedium was all part of the adventure.

When we arrived in Milan - almost a day late - I was overwhelmed by the strangeness of it all. Silvia lived in a flat. That was odd for a start. Being a clergy child I'd only ever lived in rather large and well-worn vicarages. Silvia had no siblings, so this flat was quiet - also odd for someone from a family of four daughters. It had marble floors, rooms that were only used on Sundays and kept in semi-darkness for the rest of the week, and a front door that had a layer of steel in the middle and a bolt that clicked smartly into place after you'd turned the key five times. It had a clean and slightly pungent smell of pasta, pesto and herbs that are familiar to me now, but were unknown then.

Silvia had a mother called Franca who - and this to me was the most peculiar thing of all - changed from a flowered house wrap to an expensive linen dress just to go to the supermarket five blocks of flats down the road. Suddenly the novelty was too much and I was very homesick. I can remember swallowing hard to keep the tears at bay on the roof of Milan's spectacular cathedral on one of the many outings that Silvia and Franca kindly took me on, and when I rang home I couldn't speak in case sobs came out instead of my voice.

Salvation came when they took me on a trip out of Milan to a small town called Torriglia in the mountains behind Genoa. Suddenly we were in the midst of noisy, brightly coloured, rude, raw Italy. "Hit me with your rhythm stick" accompanied us wherever we went. We fell in with a group of girls and boys our own age who came up there every summer from Genoa. To me they seemed wild and exotic creatures. Everything about their lives was different from mine. Girls and boys mixed easily together (amazing for someone from an all-girl family and a girls' school to observe) and went in and out of favour with each other from one day to the next. With parents nowhere to be seen, they roamed as freely as they liked. Even when they went to church on Sunday they didn't stand up and sit down for an hour at the behest of a beady-eyed incumbent, but wandered in and out of the church at will.

The main thing was they didn't know the meaning of the words "shy" or "reserved". Within hours of our first meeting I had been firmly befriended by Cristina, the smallest, darkest and liveliest girl in the group. She practised her (very impressive) English on me, and I learnt my first few Italian words and developed a passion for Italian pop music. I think Silvia, a Milanese convent girl, felt slightly dubious about this boisterous crowd from the wrong end of the Ligurian coast, but all I wanted to do was hang out with them. I thought the day wasted if we hadn't managed to run into them at least twice.

The boy I developed a serious crush on was Alessandro. He had dark curly hair and a moody expression and I only ever managed to blurt out about two words to him. He didn't reckon to talk too much himself, which of course just made him more mysterious and therefore more desirable.

All of a sudden Ian Dury was replaced by Umberto Tozzi, a fully paid-up Italian crooner, and his romantic hit "Tu". The song had just the right touch of longing. Against this musical background I admired Alessandro from afar until the day Cristina and her friends rumbled me - probably after I'd asked nonchalantly where he was.

"Oh, Philippa likes Alessandro," they chorused. This was too much. In the litany of dire, blush-making situations, having it made public that you liked someone came pretty near the top. I had no choice but to issue an instant and categorical denial, and to give my denial credibility I devoted myself for the rest of the holiday to the most short-back-and-sides, un-Italian, unthreatening boy in the group.

My love affair with a real-live member of the opposite sex might not have got off the ground, but a longer-lasting love of Italy and its language is rooted in that summer. I went on to study Italian at university because of that holiday. And though the love might have been diluted as other countries have joined the favourites list, it's never been eclipsed. And I can still sing the first three lines of "Tu".

In summer 1978, a charter flight from Gatwick to Milan cost around £150. In summer 2004, a scheduled flight on the route with easyJet is available for around £120.

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