15: La Dolce Vita

My new job was with a firm that leased company cars to executives, and I started work during my birthday week – the only time in my career when I didn’t take at least one day off for my birthday. Perhaps I had lost some of my cavalier attitude – this was a senior role, and we had a mortgage to pay, so I felt I needed to behave a bit more like a responsible adult.

In the interview, I had said that, although I spoke some Spanish, I didn’t really know any Italian – but my soon-to-be manager (RH) assured me that everyone spoke English. I also said that I wasn’t very good at being punctual – and he admitted he wasn’t either. All in all, it seemed like the perfect job.

For the next two years, I spent a week or two in Rome or Madrid every couple of months. I’ve since heard people say that they hated travelling for their job – because they were either rushing from one place to another after just one day or spent a week in the office, followed by a weekend at home to catch up on the washing, before heading overseas again. But for me, it was a dream come true.

Before each trip, I had to obtain travel expenses from the Help Desk manager.

“Have a nice holiday,” he said to me on one occasion.

“Thank you. I will,” I answered.

“You’re no fun,” he complained. “When I say that to RH, he gets all huffy and says it’s not a holiday – he has to work very hard.”

“He might be right,” I said. “But it’s still like a holiday.”

On my first trip to Rome, I arrived around eleven on Monday morning feeling shattered, having caught an early flight from Heathrow. Rome is noisy and bustling, especially in an office which faces onto a main road, and I could have done with a more gentle introduction to la dolce vita. On future visits, I planned things differently – arriving on Sunday afternoon, so that I had time to catch my breath.

1992 – view of Rome from the Gianicolo

The Operations Manager (PP) collected me from the airport on that first Monday, and drove me to the office, where he introduced me to the senior staff. After introductions, we took a coffee break – trooping downstairs to the local caffè, where everyone ordered a shot of Espresso and drank it down in one gulp. Unfamiliar with this custom, I had ordered a cappuccino, which I had to sip slowly. I felt self-conscious, as PP waited for me to finish while the others rushed back to the office. I quickly learned to drink Espresso coffee.

During each visit, I stayed at the Sheraton hotel, on the outskirts of the city. It was very comfortable, but I would have preferred to be nearer the city centre, so that I could go exploring after work. My first view of ancient Rome was a whirlwind tour in PP’s car, whizzing past the Colosseo and the Foro Romano at breakneck speed on our way to the restaurant.

I felt more relaxed on another evening, when one of the Directors took me to a restaurant which served a traditional Roman delicacy – deep fried courgette flowers – after which we sauntered around the Spanish Steps, taking in the ambience.

On subsequent visits, I tasted many traditional delicacies in various parts of Rome. And whilst I appreciated being wined and dined and shown the sights, I fancied a night off occasionally. Eventually, after nearly two years, I plucked up the courage to tell PP that I’d like to spend a quiet evening by myself at the hotel. He was so relieved!

Right from the outset, I had been learning Italian at evening classes – and I was eager to practise what I learned whenever I visited Rome. It was slow going in the beginning, but my colleagues were very supportive – and eventually I was able to converse reasonably well. I learned it’s quite rare for English people to learn Italian, unless they have family connections.

1993 – at the Galeassi Ristorante, Trastevere, Rome

Initially, only PP or the Directors were able to take me to restaurants, because they spoke English – and PP always accompanied me in the office, to act as my interpreter. But as my Italian improved, I was able to communicate better in the office, and other members of the team volunteered to show me the sights.

On one evening, three of us visited a restaurant in Trastevere, and there was a buzz of excitement in the air. Apparently a Hollywood crew was waiting to start filming – and although we didn’t get to see the action, I recognised our table outside the restaurant, when Paul and I watched the film “Only You” the following year. A minor claim to fame, perhaps – but a pleasant memory, nonetheless.

* * *

I had also been brushing up on my Spanish, although I was already fluent enough to have a reasonable conversation. And although some of my colleagues spoke English, the others appreciated my efforts, because it was easier for them to explain things to me in Spanish, when I was asking about their requirements for changes to the computer system.

I felt like I had more freedom in Madrid – possibly because I spoke the language – and I was fortunate enough to see a lot of the city during my visits. My hotel was on the East side of Madrid, but it was only five blocks from the office on the West side, so I could easily walk there and back every day – and make detours with my camera along the way.

I made friends with a small group of colleagues – one of whom I’m still in contact with – and we regularly went out together for meals at lunchtime and in the evening. I was initially surprised that the dinner reservation wasn’t until 10pm – I was practically ready for bed by then – but at least it gave me plenty of time after work to explore the city and take photographs.

1994 – in the old town of Segóvia, Spain

During a two-week stay, Paul flew out to join me for the weekend, and the company loaned me a car – a benefit of being in the business – so we were able to visit the beautiful town of Segóvia as well as spending time in Madrid. Often on other trips, I would take the Monday off work and catch the bus to Jaén , to spend the weekend with Mary and her family – which was another added bonus.

* * *

I probably would have been happy to continue in the same vein – visiting Rome and Madrid every couple of months, improving my fluency in Italian and Spanish and building friendships with my colleagues – but Life isn’t like that.

Things change – which is probably for the best, because I do enjoy new challenges.

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