We were in something of a celebratory mood, so, being in London for the day, went for lunch at one of our favourite Italian restaurants, in Bloomsbury. “Let’s go there,” I said to H. “Last time we were there, the manager promised to get a bottle of Strega in.”
I like a glass of Strega after a meal. I like its golden colour, its fragrance of mint and fennel, its sweet, aromatic flavour. I also like drinking a liqueur that lends its name to Italy’s most prestigious literary prize. Whenever I go to an Italian restaurant in Britain, before ordering, I ask if they have Strega. If they do, I forego the wine with my meal, saving my very low alcohol tolerance for a drop of that magical nectar. Sadly, very, very few restaurants serve it.
Perhaps predictably, when we arrived at the Bloomsbury restaurant, the manager was different and, sadly, no Strega in stock.
Directly behind us, sat a middle-aged American couple that were engaging in conversation with two Scottish women at the adjacent table. The American man was telling a joke.
We didn’t get the joke entirely but began to eavesdrop on the conversation and enjoying the general good humour and joviality behind us.
As we tucked into our scrumptious food – in my case pasta with courgette flowers – there was a roll of thunder and the skies broke open and sheets of rain teemed onto the street. I heard someone – not sure who – comment that “it always pours in England”. A remark that, after years of teaching English as a Foreign Language I am, frankly, sick and tired of hearing. “Ever tried Milan or Brussels?” I snapped, swinging around.
The American woman, who was sitting back to back with me, also turned round, and asked about Brussels. I told her it could be very, very grey, so it wasn’t fair that England should, alone, carry the reputation for miserable weather.
We got talking. It turned out the Americans were lawyers, as well as film lovers and wine connoisseurs.
Suddenly, the man asked out right, “How are you all voting in the European Referendum?”
Silence. Dense, palpable silence.
He looked at the adjacent table. One of the Scottish women was looking absent-mindedly at the table cloth. The other replied with a grave tone, “This is a very personal question.”
Feeling merry and particularly loquacious as a result of having drunk half a glass of Nero d’Avola – twice my usual amount of alcohol intake – I was only too happy to open my mouth wide and unleash all my opinions about how I felt about this topic, allowing them to gallop freely, like a wild mustang over sun kissed mountains. H. joined in and, after a while, the Scottish women also dipped their toes in the debate. There were crusaders, devil’s advocates, apologists and fence-dwellers, each of us taking turns to assume these roles. The course of the discussion inevitably veered to the US Presidential elections. More dense, palpable silences, dissent phrased as questions, and – when it came down to it, a shared wish for a better world and a peaceful world.
The American man ordered a bottle of Amarone and six glasses. “The grapes are left to wilt in the sun first,” he said, “which gives the wine its intense flavour.”
We all stood up from our tables, dropped our napkins on the tables and, with them, all our political differences, and clinked glasses in the uniting pleasure that an unexpectedly stimulating conversation with a new acquaintance can bring.
The red wine glided down, smooth, rich, warm. As warm as, a little later, the goodbye handshakes, exchange of business cards, and hugs, while the tall-stemmed wine glasses gleamed in the afternoon sun.