‘Piccolo problemo.’ Luigi, the hotel manager, delivered the fateful news as he served me my first lemon soda of the holiday on his sun-drenched terrace. Francesco, an old flame, had discovered that my mother and I were booked in at the hotel this week and had rung to inquire about the date of our arrival.
‘I say maybe you come this week, maybe next, I don’t know,’ said Luigi, smiling enigmatically. He never approved of my liaison with a local. It was several years ago now.
My family had been regular visitors to the small Italian resort for a long time when, one summer, after calling off my wedding and other rushes of blood to the head, I started dating Francesco, a waiter from a nearby town with no very astonishing prospects. Luigi locked me out of the hotel when I was late back after my first night out with him. He was right, of course.
A few weeks later, Francesco pitched up in London and demanded all the usual stuff that young, penniless southern Italian boys from the sticks demand in these circumstances, which is to say accommodation in my flat, introductions to all the influential people I might know, a crammer course in English, and a generous weekly allowance so that he wouldn’t have to keep asking me for money every time he went to the shop to buy cigarettes, as this was tiresome — to him.
This went on for a few months until yours truly got her act together and packed the Italian stallion back to Naples on a one-way ticket.
The first summer after that, my mother and I were unable to come to our little retreat on the Cilento coast because I was understandably terrified I would run into him.
The year after that, when we did come back, Luigi was in a very strange mood and kept looking me up and down as if to say, ‘You’re dead to me now.’
I should explain, Luigi is rather capricious. When he is in a good mood, he is as affable as Silvio Berlusconi at a bunga bunga party. In a bad mood, he is Italy’s answer to Basil Fawlty.
His hotel is idyllic, perching in the hills above a bay. But my mother and I have been going there for more years than can be explained by the commodiousness of the rooms, or the tranquillity of the location. We go there for the entertainment. There was a particularly good year when Luigi was being sent deranged by an English couple with four averagely noisy children. He made his feelings clear one lunchtime, when the mother, on discovering that there was no cutlery at their table, asked if they might all have a knife and fork. ‘No,’ said Luigi, with great conviction, ‘no cuterly for you!’ And he stood by triumphantly as the family tried to eat their roast chicken with their fingers.
One night, as the children banged the interconnecting door between their bedroom and their parents’, Luigi marched into their suite with a box of tools and took the door off its hinges. ‘Finito!’ he cried, as he carried the door away.
He emits insults only in Italian but I’m fairly sure he spits the word ‘peasants!’ under his breath whenever his guests annoy him.
He is always dreaming up new and unusual punishments. One year, he refused to serve food, despite this being a full-board establishment and delighted in telling us, when we asked where else we could go for dinner: ‘Near here? No. There is nowhere.’
Last year, he decided against cleaning the swimming pool and derived much satisfaction from watching us sit sweltering around it unable to take a dip because the floor and walls were coated in green slime. Finally, perhaps because of the intervention of his wife (who is never seen and so may or may not be called Sybilla) he relented and emitted a volley of abuse at his pool boy which resulted in him hoovering the slime.
This year, we found him in a suspiciously good odour. He welcomed my mother and me with multiple cheek-kissing, despite the fact that we were four hours late because I had tried to use a TomTom to guide us south from Naples airport. (Displaying a depth of sadism surprising even for sat navs, it brought us off the motorway and made us drive around the city screaming.)
He was smiling beatifically as he served me my lemon soda and said, ‘Piccolo problemo.’ His look was distinctly impish, if you ask me.
If Francesco makes his way to the hotel to find me, Luigi might throw him out on his ear. Then again, if he is in one of his tricky moods, he might invite him in to cause a piccolo rumpus.
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