My girlfriend loves to shop. We are in Tuscany, motoring through the beautiful ochre and forest green landscape in a hire car, which to my disappointment is a rather cumbersome black bus that takes up most of the road. When we picked up the bus at the airport the hire car man had simply thrust the keys into my hand and said, with weary brevity:

 “Damage it: 800 euro–lose it: 1000 euro”. (Welcome to Italy!)
 
I had replied with a simple ” Drive on the right hand side, yes?” He had looked aghast as if  considering withdrawing the privilege of temporary ownership of the big black bus. We left hastily. The bus, it must be said, is not his fault. It is my girlfriend’s. With intentions of  contributing to Italy’s flagging economy through a concerted shopping effort, she had filled out the online form that asked you how many bags you are likely to have, and was then allocated a suitable vehicle to accommodate them.
Hence the bus.
 

The Storm, the Chianti & the Grandmother

Within a few days, we are engaged. A heady day in spellbinding Sienna begins with the selection of the ring and then an impromptu proposal in  a magnificent piazza. It is not without it’s trials. Even though our engagement was planned for our trip to Italy , the finer points have been left to chance—left to me. The commanding Romanesque and Gothic Piazza Del Campo is my spur of the moment choice for the proposal. It starts well as we sit on the ground in the enormous square and I fumble for the ring. But disaster is on the horizon as a coach party of over-badged French school children from Bayeux begin to march in our direction—oblivious to our presence, it seems. By my calculations I have about ten seconds to pop the question before we are trampled. To my horror, my window of opportunity closes even quicker as my iPhone’s ringtone of “Mission Impossible”  screeches from my pocket. I know that this sort of thing is not a good omen for our future together so I hastily silence it before asking for her hand.  I just about pull it off in time and within minutes, we are engaged and out of the path of the Norman Conquest, and sipping Prosecco from an overpriced cafe a few metres away.
 
Later, we stop for lunch in a touristy cafe masquerading as a nice locals’ place. Despite the clouds looming on the ancient city skyline, we opt to sit alfresco, comforted by the large sail canopies which promise shelter. The antipasti course passes without incident but midway through the pasta, the heavens open and the rain comes down in a way that looks as if someone has  turned on the rain machine in a black and white movie. It is only at this point that the inadequacy of the canopies is manifested. Generally they protect the thirty or so diners that shelter under them with the exception of those who had been oblivious to the fact that the canopies do not overlap and from the gaps torrents of rain pour onto the tables below. Diners begin to pack up and rush to the safety of indoors. Everybody leaves- with the exception of a French family who do not want to interrupt their lunch just because of sudden, unwanted  flooding of their dining area. As the rain lashes down onto the table the Grandmother calmly and stoically sips her soup—fighting a losing battle with the rainwater that refills her bowl faster than she can consume its contents. She wears the stern expression of “I’ve been through two world wars, this rain isn’t going to stop me enjoying my lunch’. Eventually it was even too much for the French family and Grandma was coaxed inside, shuffling towards the restaurant door clutching a carafe of Chianti as a consolation prize.
 
Road-in-Tuscany
 
Eating out in the Chianti region with my Other Half—who has an intolerance to tomatoes (Italy’s pride and joy) and a dislike of red wine (Tuscany’s pride and joy)- can raise some eyebrows.  Fortunately , she is attractive and this seems to counterbalance the problem of refusing the national specialities with the Italian waiters, who simply eye her and smile.  Had it been me ordering, I am sure they would simply refuse and ask me to leave the cafe, or perhaps even the country.

 

Ostriches

My thoughts turn to the history of the city, which we discuss until it is time to revisit the shops, where she purchases a pair of Italian leather shoes (I later read her diary: “He proposes in the morning. I buy a lovely pair of shoes in the afternoon”). During the shoe shopping sortie, I occupy my mind by wondering about the economy and history of the area, whilst commenting as appropriately as possible on the various types of Italian leather footwear that appear before me. The combination of all of this leads  me to wonder why Italy is famous for leather. I haven’t seen any cows, so where does Italian leather come from? I ask what she thinks as we leave the shop and she replies that the cows live in Albania—she has read something to that effect. It’s just the leather products that are fashioned in Italy, she ventures.
 
Modern day questions of such irrelevance do not remain unanswered for long thanks to the Google, which informs us via my iphone that Italian leather is in fact made from Ostrich. This instantly leads me to wonder about the credibility of Belgian chocolates, Scotch Beef and German beer. I explain my findings to my fiancee, who trumps the entire process my simply saying:
 
“But we haven’t seen any Ostriches either.”
 
“Perhaps they’re all in Albania” I say quietly as we walk the cobbles back to the square, now dappled in the evening sun, free of schoolchildren and looking itself like a beautiful Renaissance fresco.