Ciao Bella, by Helena Frith Powell
November 19, 2006
CIAO BELLA: In Search of My Italian Father
by Helena Frith Powell
Gibson Square £14.99 pp352
When Helena Frith Powell was 14, she and her beautiful, foolish young mother fled to Italy. Mother’s latest appalling husband had become intolerable. “She had made some pretty stupid decisions,” writes Frith Powell, “most of them involving marriages.” Fortunately, one of her earlier smarter decisions had been to marry Helena’s father, a wealthy Italian. Unfortunately, as soon as she left him she made enormous efforts to wipe him and his family out of her history. “My mother,” Frith Powell notes, “didn’t have an Italian attitude to family values.” In an emergency, though, these values turned out to be Helena’s salvation. She and her mother fled to Rimini, where the family was based, and Helena was suddenly face to face with the father she had not seen since infancy.
Ciao Bella, the story of Frith Powell’s search for her Italian roots, cuts between the past and the present. In the past, she is an insecure teenager, parked in her father’s apartment in Florence, with a view from her bedroom window of the Duomo. In the present she is a successful journalist, living in France with her British husband and three small children, and she has not spoken to her father since he flounced out of her wedding.
Years later, as an adult, Frith Powell returned to Italy intending to write a book about the style of Italian women. As soon as she crossed the border, however, her dormant Italian side sprang back into startling life, and she knew that the time had come to write about it. This book is a fascinating mixture of cultural study, memoir and travelogue — highly personal, often extremely funny and determinedly unsentimental.
The father she had suddenly got to know as a teenager was (among other things) a film director and writer, and sentimentality was something he abhorred. “Cara, you have to start again,” he tells her, after seeing her first attempt at fiction, “and try to choose something a little less like the shitting sentimental life you hope to lead.”
He is the kind of character that no decent novelist would dare invent. He wears a fedora, he keeps up a constant and sometimes embarrassing monologue of opinions and instructions. “Sex is like any other bodily function. You are hungry, you eat.” To emphasise a point, he grabs Helena’s cheek and shakes her head — something she detests. She begins to understand why her mother ran away from him. He comes across as a kind of Hannibal Lecter without the murderous streak — a pampered aesthete, a brilliant dilettante and a resounding cultural snob.
Frith Powell invites us to see the glaring difference between her mother’s rootless isolation and her father’s solid sense of family loyalty. Young Helena is taken aback to find photographs of herself as a baby cherished on the mantlepieces of a throng of relations she has never seen. Her aged grandmother bursts into a passionate storm of tears when she embraces the lost child, and that child is sucked straight back into the place her family has kept for her.
There is a strong element of the fairy tale here, because this long-lost family is so rich and glamorous that you can only marvel at the unworldliness of the author’s bolting mother. Young Helena, who has grown up in hand-me-downs, is suddenly showered with glorious Italian clothes.
She is taken to La Scala. She visits castles and villas. A wealthy friend of her father cheerfully tells her that he longs to murder his wife. “It is only rare self-control that stops me from strangling her daily.” She observes the ritualistic cooking and eating of priceless truffles. “After a truffle dinner,” declares someone, “fidelity becomes impossible.” And, like true compatriots of Boccaccio, everyone at the table swaps stories about adultery.
The adult Frith Powell cannot help wondering about the life she might have had if she had grown up with her father. “I would certainly have been spoiled and rich,” she says, “but I’m not sure it would have made me happy.”
Although her pictures from Italy are joyous, she does not gloss over the darker shades of her fractured history. Touchingly, her reconnection to her Italian roots gives her a sudden craving to be an Italian mother to her own children — adoring, cheek-pinching, pasta-cooking — just like the nonna who wept to see her again, and then urged her to eat. Ciao Bella is a sharp, honest and richly comic account of a woman belatedly coming to terms with her own lost self.
Last Updated: 12:01am GMT 17/12/2006
Laura Barnett reviews Ciao Bella by Helena Frith Powell
When Helena Frith Powell was 14, she travelled to Italy to be reunited with the father she hadn't seen for almost a decade. His first words to her, as she ran along Rimini beach to meet him, were: "Ciao bella. I recognised you by your legs." Several decades later, Frith Powell, now a journalist and the author of three successful surveys of the inimitable French feminine style, returned to Italy to write about the glamour of Italian women. As memories like this flooded back to her, she decided to write about her Italian roots as well.
The result is a frothy, humorous and highly personal romp around Italy, as she revisits the people and places she saw with her father on the "Grand Tour" they took when she was a teenager. Each stop on the tour – Florence, Rome, Naples, Venice, and her family's hometown of Rimini – acts as a departure point for her to explore her own background, as well as to muse on the Italian character.
Colourful characters abound, from the father himself, Benedetto Benedetti, a sex- and opera-obsessed writer and critic, to the adoring nonna who attributes her longevity to the exercises she performs every day on the lawn of the family's country house. Frith Powell describes the Benedettis with a light touch, with enough distance to make them believable – she admits that her aunt was an incorrigible liar – and enough affection to make them sympathetic.
A strong dose of humour also keeps the pages turning. The first time Frith Powell is reunited with her grandmother, she is crushed against her silver crucifix in a bear-hug – "this was one of my first, and more painful, encounters with Catholicism", she writes. A chapter-long description of the almost Mafioso machinations required to prepare a dish of pasta with truffles is exceptionally funny.
Many of the wider observations Frith Powell makes about the Italians – using both her family and the other Italian characters she encounters, from the voluptuous hairdresser in Florence to the princess in a castle north of Rome – also ring true. Anyone who has spent any time in Italy will recognise the tendency to order food course by course, depending on one's mood and degree of hunger, and understand Benedetto's sincere warning that "being called ugly is the worst possible insult for an Italian".
Frith Powell is less successful in her attempts to capture the essence of Italian women. She describes their dark colouring and Sophia Loren-style figures repeatedly, but observations about the sometimes stifling nature of Italian society are thrown in without comment. When Benedetto quotes a poem describing the Italian South as populated by women in shawls whispering about death, she writes "they could probably do more with their lives". So why do they not?
Her descriptions of the cities she visits also verge on the banal. Santa Croce in Florence is "very fiddly", while the Campanile in Venice is "one of the only Gothic buildings I have ever seen that I really like". Clearly it is difficult to add much to the myriad Italian travelogues already written, but there must be more to say about these historic places than this.
Where Ciao Bella is really successful is in providing a snapshot of Benedetto himself. His own description of the Venice Campanile as "the largest penis in Christendom" is as outrageous as his instruction to his adolescent daughter that the best way to learn a language is to take a lover. He emerges larger than life from the pages, as do the rest of the Benedettis. Taken as a personal history rather than a generalised account of the Italian character, Ciao Bella is as rich and satisfying as a mid-morning cappuccino.
Excerpt from "Ciao Bella", page 87
I turn right along the Via dei Pucci into Via Cavour towards the Palazzo Medici. There is something here Mariella has told me to visit, the Chapel of the Magi. It was decorated by a pupil of Fra Angelico called Benozzo Gozzoli. As soon as I walk in, I am overwhelmed by sensations. Colours, light, details, images, stories and faces all descend on m from the walls of the chapel. It is one of the most magical places I have ever seen. The frescoes tell the story of the procession of the Magi. But the details are incredible, from the beautiful, almost angelical face of Magi Casper, said to be an idealised version of Lorenzo de Medici, to the natural landscape that frames the procession and the horses, reminiscent of Paolo Uccello but somehow more successful.
Click to enlarge
Last updated at 10:34am on 13th July 2006
About two years ago, I made a new friend called Patrick. Since then I have introduced him to lots of my female friends, and they all adore him.
A week ago, I sat down with one of them and tried to define why. Patrick is the wrong side of 60, so it isn’t his six-pack stomach and floppy blond hair we’re all infatuated with.
He’s also retired, so although comfortably off, he’s not about to make a million. But every female that meets him never stops going on about how marvellous he is.
‘I’ve got it,’ said my friend Mary. ‘It’s because he’s a real man. He gets up when you walk into a room.’ Patrick is, of course, of the generation that always got up when a woman walked into a room. He is the kind of man who borrows your car to drive you to the airport and then fills it up with petrol on his way home.
If you invite him to dinner he is the perfect guest; admiring your undercooked potatoes and pretending it doesn’t matter that one of your children has spilt Ribena on his cream linen suit. He takes control of a situation and sorts things out without getting in a flap or asking you for advice.
My generation of men — in their 30s and 40s — are different. Oh-so-tragically different.
And it’s not that I’m now getting so old I find everyone uncouth or pathetic. Even when I was in my 20s, I yearned for a macho Heathcliff type, as opposed to an Edgar Linton (Wuthering Heights’ resident toff) with his scrawny frame and wimpy ways.
I was desperate to be romanced Brief Encounter-style instead of the unsophisticated and modern methods used by men my own age.
So I was delighted to read in yesterday’s Daily Mail that America is experiencing a ‘Menaissance’, and that the movement may yet find its way to Britain.
In the States, the dreary metrosexual with his face creams and liberal ways has been replaced by a new macho type of man who has more in common with Hercules than with Graham Norton.
A new book called The A To Z Of Manliness is number two on the bestseller list in New York. This is hardly surprising. Forty years of feminism has confused the hell out of men. They no longer know what we want.
Well, it’s pretty simple, boys: we want a real man. And by a real man I don’t mean someone who will boss you about and expect you to run around after him - that’s a man with an inferiority complex and an outdated view of a relationship.
What I mean is a man who will treat a woman as just that. The fact is, we are different. We may come from the same planet, but we are not the same, and I for one would much rather be treated as a lady than an equal in absolutely every field.
Friends of mine are no different. I know one woman who actually married a man because he was the only one she had ever met who stood up as she walked into the room.
‘It was a moment I’ll never forget,’ she says, ten years and three children on. ‘No one had ever done that for me before. It was so romantic.’
Sadly, they’re now divorced. Maybe because he stopped treating her like a lady.
Another friend says she broke up with a man because he asked her to go Dutch on a dinner date. ‘If I wanted to pay for dinner myself, I’d go out with a girlfriend,’ she told me at the time. ‘Whatever happened to real men who look after a girl?’
When we’re told as little girls that ‘one day your prince will come’ we don’t imagine he will show up with an empty wallet and a limp peck on the cheek. We imagine a Superman, but without the tights.
It always seemed very odd when I was dating that men didn’t understand the basic fact that what women want is an old-fashioned man, not some kind of disastrous hybrid who thinks we’re all the same and that we should open our own doors.
Of course when we offer to pay for dinner we don’t actually mean it. And clearly we want to be walked to the taxi, what the hell did you think? That we’d rather be mugged, murdered and dumped in a skip?
In fact, my grandmother gave me two rules when I was in my 20s; never call a man and never see him again if he doesn’t see you to your door. Great tips, which I, of course, ignored.
With all these years of feminism, the pendulum has swung so far that men are even taking over areas previously thought to be the exclusive domain of women. According to a recent study in the Lancet, four per cent of fathers suffer post-natal depression.
Oh, please - like they’re the ones who can’t sit down for weeks after 12 hours of labour, whose hormones are going mad and whose bodies will never look as good on a beach again.
I hear that men even have their own version of PMT. It’s called IMS, which stands for Irritable Man Syndrome. Scottish scientist Dr Gerald Lincoln found that when testosterone levels in rams dropped, they became irritable. Psychotherapist Jed Diamond, author of Male Menopause, extrapolates this research from rams to men.
He concludes that men with IMS are angry, impatient and more likely to blame others for their misfortune. Irritating Man Syndrome, more like.
I once went out with a Frenchman. He had nothing much to recommend him apart from the fact he had a silly accent and was very handsome.
But our romance came to a rapid end after our first night together. I walked into his bathroom in the morning to find more Clarins products than I had ever seen.
There is nothing more off-putting than a man who spends more time looking at himself than you. Do you really want to be arguing about whose turn it is to use the night cream?
Normally, trends that start in the U.S. reach us eventually. So we should soon see a marked change in behaviour from men. Football players will no longer be crying on the pitch (but hopefully not head-butting people either), David Cameron will start worrying about the Rugby World Cup instead of icebergs, and all over the country men will be standing up as women walk into rooms.
The metrosexual is dead, long live the Menaissance!
Last updated at 09:24am on 13th February 2006
When I lived in England my preferred seduction technique was as follows. Drink as much alcohol as possible. Make the man I was trying to seduce drink as much as possible as well.
Pretend to fall over in his general direction and see what his reaction was. If he repelled me with an "ohmigod what on earth are you doing?" I would quickly stand up and pretend nothing had happened.
If on the other hand he caught me affectionately and looked rather pleased, I knew he liked me. Foolproof, eh?
Or so I thought, until I moved to France five years ago and wrote a book about French women. Now I realise my method was seriously un-sexy.
With Valentine’s Day around the corner you might be planning to seduce the man of your dreams. So here is how to do it French style...
Are we Brits really so hopeless about the gentle art of seduction, or can we teach the French a thing or two? Click on the reader comments below to have your say.
Let's start with the most important thing: Your brain.
When my French friend Emmanuelle wants to seduce her boyfriend (or anyone else's), she relies on her brain. Of course she looks great as well, but according to her, the most vital seduction tool is esprit.
"You need to be lively, engaging, intelligent and amusing," she tells me. "No man can resist a woman who makes him laugh, who interests him." Perhaps this is why French women are so obsessed with going to the latest exhibitions and reading.
Last time I was in Paris I saw a vast queue of mainly women outside what I assumed was a designer discount store. I asked one of the women queuing what it was. I thought I might join them and pick up some bargains. 'The Maillol museum,' was the reply. Maillol being a French sculptor. And not even a very famous one.
Of course they have a great literary tradition of temptresses. Colette, one of France's most famous authors, was still seductive in her sixties, dancing on tables and marrying her son-in-law. Age is no barrier to seduction French style.
I met an attractive elderly lady in the underwear department at Galeries Lafayette in Paris once while I was researching a piece on French women and underwear.
"What are you looking to buy?" I asked her.
"Sexy underwear," she told me. "I want to look good when I undress." For the French, a bit of seduction keeps you young. As the actress Jeanne Moreau (78) says: "Age does not protect you from love. But love, to some extent, protects you from age."
In England some of my friends feel they're over the hill as soon as they have children. They just give up. They never lose the weight they gained during pregnancy, they are too tired to make an effort and anyway who needs all that seduction business after childbirth? The French attitude couldn't be more different.
"After you've had a baby is exactly the time you need to be seducing your husband," says my French friend Marguerite. "This is when he's most likely to feel abandoned and go and sleep with someone else."
She has had four children and is still thin as a rake.
One way to minimise the risks of your husband straying is to adopt a French attitude towards underwear. French women wear very sexy underwear, which is always matching, most of the time. So Valentine’s Day apart, it might be time to throw out your faded knickers and start again.
I don't mean you need to wear stockings and suspenders, although as a seduction aid, they are second to none, but you could at least go for matching smalls that haven't been washed so many times they've gone a non-descript grey colour.
French women also believe underwear should be under your clothes. So none of your thongs peeping out over the top of your jeans or wearing your bra over your T-shirt please.
There are of course exceptions. A little bit of a bra strap showing is sexy. A whole D-cup revealed is not.
France's leading lingerie designer Chantal Thomass suggests wearing a corset with a pair of jeans and a shirt buttoned low over it. This can look great, but remember it's the mixture of the casual (the jeans) and the dressy (the corset) that is seductive. If you go for a corset and a short black skirt for example, you risk looking like a tart.
French women use everything they can to seduce men, including perfume. They're mad about it. Most of them won't leave the house without it. If you go into a perfumery in France once the sales assistant will offer to 'perfume' you.
I can see why. Their men are equally mad about the way women smell. I once sat next to a French man at a dinner. Half-way through the starter he turned to me and whispered: "Your perfume is intoxicating." As an English girl I'm not used to that sort of comment. It half made me want to throw up, but it also made me feel rather, well, intoxicating and seductive.
If you're wondering where to spray your perfume, take some advice from Coco Chanel herself.
"Wherever you want to be kissed." In fact if you're not sure which perfume to go for, Chanel is a safe option; always elegant and chic. But don't overdo it, perfume has to give a hint of sweet things to follow, not knock your date out.
Lotions and potions
French women also swear by allies such as creams, lotions and potions when it comes to seduction. Their skin is beautifully soft due to all the time they spend exfoliating and preening.
Sabbia Rosa, who runs a lingerie business so knows all about seduction, says she has a massage once a week, exfoliates three times a week and moisturises every day.
If you're going for the big seduction, it's very important not to neglect parts of you that might otherwise go unnoticed. Your feet for example. Spend some time massaging cream into them a few nights before the big event and filing your toenails neatly shaped.
Paint your toe-nails, personally I like fuscia pink, a colour I would never go for on my hands. You never know; the man of your dreams might be a foot-fetishist and spend most of the evening sucking your toes.
Talking of nails, if you're going for French seduction, of course the nails on your hands must be perfect too. But they should always be painted a subtle colour.
At last it's time for the clothes. The only thing you need to remember here is the author Françoise Sagan's dictum. "A dress makes no sense unless it inspires men to take it off you." But here I am talking about a dress that inspires seduction, not one that makes you look undressed before he's even started.
Seduction French style is all about femininity and subtlety. A world away from the British ladette style. An English friend of mine who lives in Paris says he prefers French women to English ones purely because of this difference.
"If I want someone to sit and drink lager with and watch the footie, I'll see one of my mates," he says. "If I want to be with a woman, then I'll find a French one." This Valentine's Day get in touch with your inner French seductress and surprise him with a truly French experience.
Top Valentine's Day seduction tips
• Go big on your smalls - elegance, sex appeal and chic. Remember more is often less.
• Go big on grooming - from your nails to your bikini line, everything must be perfect.
• Go small on the booze - if he wants to get drunk he'll do it with his mates.
• Go big on the charm factor - be interested in what he says and smile a lot.
• Go subtle on scent - small touches wherever you want to be kissed.
• Go big on detail - give some attention to every part of your body. And of course your outfit.
• Go shopping before the big date - there's nothing like a new outfit to make you feel confident and seductive.
• Go big on your hair - French women go to the hairdressers once a week, even if it's just for a blow-dry.
• Go big on culture - remember the key to seduction is on the conversation. Talking about EastEnders won't necessarily turn him on.
• Go big on your feminine side – French women like to be treated like women. Let him open doors for you and act like a lady, not a ladette. Go easy on the football banter.