While I do enjoy watching a magical sunset on a beach with my loved ones, or a fancy dining experience, what sticks with me and years later prompts the "Do you remember that time when..." conversations is usually when something ridiculous has happened.
I was asked by British Airways Holidays to share my favourite holiday memory, what I tend to remember from a trip are the imperfect moments, the mini-disasters that we can (usually) look back on and laugh at, and, with the benefit of hindsight, enjoy. The toilet that exploded (actually I still don't want to talk about that); the time we unexpectedly found ourselves staying in an idyllic Spanish village during a rather wild festival that lasted all week, when the locals danced and partied every night until sunrise which was fun, but then inexplicably began their morning brass band practice right outside our window only an hour or so later; that camping trip when our son was sick inside the tent. The time I fell out of a tree trying to take a self portrait because my family weren't in the mood to pose for photos. What evokes these memories years later is most often the sounds, smells and tastes of a holiday that instantly pulls me back to that moment (although hopefully I won't have to relive the way our tent smelled after that ill-fated camping trip any time soon).
My recall of place names and dates is worse than hopeless, often conversations can start with, "Do you remember that steak with the truffles on top?" and similarly years later our son still asks me to tell him all about that volcanic lake we went swimming in, but remembers almost nothing else of that visit to Rome.
Today I've been scanning some old 35mm film from a trip to Italy a few years ago. This mini scene jolted me immediately from a rather damp late spring day in Scotland to early summer in Tuscany, the sweet smell of the wisteria under the afternoon sun and the dinner we had later, and always, the scent of truffles being generously shaved over food at the table. This leads me in turn to remember my first holiday with my husband. He had been offered the use of a colleague's house in a tiny hilltop village in southern Tuscany, so we leapt at the chance and off we rushed together.
The cottage was in a tiny village, perched on top of a hill above the famous town of Grève in Chanti. Two rooms and a steeply terraced garden overlooking vineyards and olive groves. A visiting cat that expected to be fed, and probably repeated the same insistent demand at every house in the village. When I daydream about Tuscany, it's a village like Montefioralle that springs to mind. Tiny stone cottages with terracotta tiled roofs, each leaning on the next. Walled gardens and window boxes overflowing with geraniums and wild strawberries, the whole jumble balanced on top of a hill surrounded by farmland and lines of cypress trees. The afternoon and evening punctuated by the sound of crickets.
After that, I remember the charming low doorways and uneven steps, which led to our state of semi-permanent concussion, the inescapable heat, and that the fridge and plumbing stopped working the day after we arrived. The up-side of this was that we decamped to the local trattoria which served a T-bone steak I can still almost taste more than 10 years later. Simple scrubbed wooden tables and a convivial atmosphere. A buzz of conversations in the local dialect passing between the tightly packed diners. The waitress shaving so much fresh truffle over it that the petrol-scent was as intoxicating as the bottle of home made Grappa left on our table at the end of the meal and poured freely. Our lack of a fridge meant daily trips to the butcher for sausages to grill in the garden (Did I mention the cooker was also defunct?) Tours of local vineyards to sample the wine and olive oil. Browsing local markets for fresh fruit and super ripe tomatoes followed by a pilgrimage to various gelatarias (Our son's first and favourite word in Italian, as he is equally committed to the quest for the perfect ice cream or Italian gelato.) Our final night of that trip was spent at a modern hotel near the airport, and I don't think we've ever been so grateful for a proper shower, no mosquitoes, and to sleep in the cold of air conditioning as we we were that night.
After tasting a Sicilian style prickly pear granita, came inspiration for the most memorable and ill-judged moment of that whole trip. Prickly pears were in season and growing absolutely everywhere, so we had to try some of the tempting looking fruit surrounding our cottage terrace. There must be a way to pick these fat, juicy looking fruit without becoming something resembling a human cactus. Whatever the technique is, we did not find it, and the several days spent afterwards pulling the almost invisible spines out of my husband's fingers did not make the refreshing, juicy sweet fruit worthwhile. But, whenever I smell truffles, or see a prickly pear, the image of him, dancing around like Baloo with his paws full of spines, comes instantly to mind. I can be sure that we will be returning over and over to Italy, but these days relying on someone else to harvest the prickly pears. Similarly, I still love the strong flavours and simple ingredients of Tuscan food, but can enjoy them just as much while staying somewhere with functioning plumbing and in more comfort than all those years ago.