I was born in Venice, something which my father never let me forget. Paraphrasing the famous Venetian phrase, ‘noialtri semo prima venessiani, poi cristiani’ he’d remind me, ‘you’re Venetian first, English second!’, much to the annoyance of my proudly English mother.
My parents met in the early 1960s while my mother was living and working in Italy as a teacher. Perhaps she was inspired by movies like Roman Holiday and Three Coins in a Fountain, but it seems to me a very brave thing for an English girl to have moved alone to a foreign country far from friends and family before the era of mass communication. My father was a concierge at the Hotel Europa & Regina (now the St. Regis, Venice) and later at the Hotel Bologna in Mestre (now a shadow of its former self). My mother continued teaching until my elder brother and I came along.
When I was about three years old, my parents decided it would be a good idea to go and live in Bournemouth, in the UK, where my mother was from. It was there that I grew up and went to school. Every summer, however, we would pack the car and drive down through France and Austria to visit our Italian family who were based in and around Venice but also in Piemonte. My father’s elder brother, Paolo, had married a woman from Alessandria and lived there with his wife, Zia Teresa and his daughter, and my cousin, Cinzia. My nonno lived in Mestre with his second wife—my grandmother died before I was born—Zia Rita. It was from these two aunts that I developed my love of Italian food and was introduced to many of the basic techniques and recipes that I still use today, including making pasta, risottos, and ragù.
At one point, my parents got tired of making the journey to Italy every year, but would send me on my own, either to stay with Zio Paolo in Piemonte, or to stay with Zia Rita in Venice—sadly my nonno died when I was about ten. When in Venice, I would spend the whole day wandering the city with my hefty guide book systematically visiting every church and museum. The evenings were spent with Zia Rita who spoke only Venetian dialect.
It was from my parents that I got my love of travelling, history, and the arts. They were both very keen to that my brother and I should have all the opportunities that they never had as children, so my brother and I were given music lessons (he: cello and piano; me: violin and piano) and my brother was encouraged to play sports (I wasn’t interested). They would also take us to concerts, plays, and the ballet. After a trip to see the Sadlers Wells Royal Ballet when I was about 8, I decided I wanted to be a ballet dancer and my parents duly obliged with lessons. This led to me spending two years at the prestigious (but now defunct) Bush Davies: Education and Theatre Arts school in East Grinstead where I studied dance full time.
After Bush Davies, I decided that dancing was not for me after all, and went to study History at the University of Manchester. I chose that university as I wanted to study Venetian History under Professor Brian Pullan. It was there that I joined the Royal Naval Reserve and on graduating I almost chose a career as a naval officer. Instead, I went to work with my mother, who by this point was the principal of an English language school in Bournemouth. The idea was that I would qualify as a teacher of English as a Foreign Language and use that qualification to go back to live in my beloved Italy. But it wasn’t to be. I kept getting offered good teaching jobs in the UK and eventually settled down there.
In the late 90s I was offered a job as a project manager in the English Language Teaching Division of Oxford University Press. During my two years there I learnt the editing skills that formed the basis of the rest of my career.