I’ll eat most things but I draw the line at deep-fried pizza. Study a real Italian piazzaiolo stretching his dough, throwing it into shapes in the air, slathering it with sun-ripened tomato sauce, mozzarella and herbs and crisping it to perfection in a wood-fired oven, and you know you’re watching an artist at work. To take that work of art and scald it in boiling fat is to disrespect my second favourite country in the world.
I fell in love with Italy aged 16. There’s always one teacher at school who inspires you to do your best work. Mine was the Italian teacher, Mrs Hutchinson at St Augustine’s. I’ll confess she was young and easy on the eye but she was hard on me too when she needed to be so I stuck in and did well. She helped me win a study grant to Perugia University.
After a month there, I ended up sharing a flat with an American girl. One day she came home and said her Hungarian dad who lived in Florence with his second wife, needed an au pair.
“Why are you looking at me?” I said.
“He owns a big alcohol brand called Unicum and he has to be seen at drinks industry dinners with my step-mum. They need someone to look after the baby. You’re a big kid. You can do it.”
That’s how I became an au pair boy, living in a huge house up in the hills above Florence. The day I arrived, I was shown in by the maid and there was the lady of the house breast-feeding Sandor, her six-month-old baby son and drinking champagne. “It helps the milk flow,” she said.
She took me to my “room” which turned out to be a split-level apartment built on to the side of the house. On the dresser was a box of Scotts Porridge Oats to make me feel at home and two bottles of wine, a white and a red.
“These come from our own vineyard,” she said, “just help yourself.”
It was quite possibly the skooshiest job I’ve ever had. My duties were to get Sandor on to solid food, play with him, take him for walks and get him to sleep at night. I didn’t have to change his nappies or get up in the night if he cried.
The only time I really boobed was when I took him to the Piazza della Signoria to feed the pigeons. I bought him a little bag of pigeon food, put some in his chubby hand and watched in horror as a Hitchcock-sized flock of birds enveloped the pushchair and traumatised the wee guy.
After I went home to Scotland the family left Italy and we eventually lost touch. But last year in Budapest airport I saw a huge display stand of Unicum bottles. A sales girl came across and offered me a sample. I told her that I used to babysit the manufacturer’s son. She laughed and ushered me round the other side of the display – there was a huge photo of Sandor, now a grown man, and the boss of his dad’s booze company. I wonder if he’s still scared of pigeons.