I’m writing to you from humid mango-scented Mauritius this month where I’m shooting an international TV commercial for the island’s tourism board. It sounded like a dream when they called me, shivering, ladling minestrone and luxuriating in self-pity after being caught in the January pioggia. The commercial’s director wanted Patrick (my co-star on our Nat Geo show) and I to leave our wintery cities of London and Rome, get on a flight to tropical Mauritius, and be a couple on a luxury honeymoon for the cameras. Complete baller offer, right? Once people are paying you to fly to an island, hang out in luxury hotels, feast on gourmet food and go horseriding down beaches that have you convinced you’re living inside a Photoshopped screensaver, it’s just a hop, skip and a salto to diva-dom. The reality, however, is anything but VIP.
Okay so we’re shooting ludicrously beautiful scenes like walking with tigers through lush Mauritian jungle, being massaged in luxury spas, standing under waterfalls and looking spiritually sated and waking up in sexy white lingerie in an off-the-hook hotel suite with breakfast waiting for me on my private beach. But this is only what you see on camera. In real life the Italian production company is so poorly organized they make the Mauritians look efficient. We’re shooting from 5am and expected to last for 14 hours without eating anything but a banana. Perhaps they’re used to real models who don’t require daily feeding.
The most tragic part: there’s not even a pausa caffe’. There is no coffee, basta. Think about that concept for a moment. Poor pseudo-model seduced by the illusory romance of a working holiday, you’re saying, you’re stuck in paradise with no carbs or coffee. But honestly, it’s un-Italian; these guys are expecting us to go cold tacchino. I’m not even going to tell you how much coffee I drink habitually in Italy but let’s just say that this past week I’ve felt a sadness only purists who take espresso doppio senza milk or sugar can fathom. With no food and severe caffeine withdrawal my demeanor and appearance have diminished to that of a model/drug addict – not the flirtatious Victoria Secret kind you see articulating whole sentences on Fashion TV, more like a bereft crack cocaine junkie who’s one banana away from clubbing the producer with a hairdryer.
Yesterday Patrick was diagnosed with tonsillitis and with our shoot schedule being double that which we agreed to I spent the whole night debating with the producer and the director in Italian to negotiate us a model strike – hey, when in Mauritius do as the Romans would do. The ‘debate’ went on all night. You think you speak Italian well. You get your gender right. You can do plurals. You can get all capricious and hypothetical using the conditional tense with some photographer at an aperitivo. But until you’ve fought in this language, better yet, until you’ve fought in honour of your espresso addiction in tropical heat on an average three hours sleep per night, you haven’t really tested your Italian. It was magical. My hands and tongue were in the type of harmony Anglosaxons can only dream of. A linguistic ballet of indignation and acrimony poured out of me as I lunged from subjunctive to passive to past conditional tense with not a ‘come si dice‘ to be heard. And I promise you, to experience impassioned eloquence in an argument in Italian is more pleasurable than any caffè hit.
My Italian is still flawed, however, thankfully I’m past the stage of a fresh straniera, aching for the ability to express my opinion in a foreign tongue. If you’re still at this point and feeling slightly fatigued by a grammatical ambit of emotions that starts at ‘I’m hungry’ and ends somewhere near ‘me live in Italy since three months’, I urge you to do one thing: read. I encounter very few foreigners in Italy who try to read Italian on a regular basis and yet it expedited my Italian skills like nothing else. I would buy an Italian magazine or newspaper every week (now I’ve moved to books as well but try something simple like Italian Vanity Fair to begin with), choose an article on a subject with which I’m familiar and underline every new word or turn of phrase that is new to me. You may not get around to looking them up. Initially you’ll feel like your comprehension is zero. But trust me, it works.
And one day you’ll find yourself in paradise, lying on the beach sipping fresh coconut and mango juice, having successfully negotiated a TV commercial contract in Italian that includes a personal chef, wifi and down time like the spoilt but linguistically competent diva you are and you’ll thank me. As for this issue’s theme of reading this month, I’m a bookworm from way back. I still remember kids teasing me in school for being so enamoured by books. But whether it was literature inspiring me to move to Italy or conquering the language one underlined word at a time, reading truly has helped me dream up this (mostly!) romantic life I’m leading – and if that isn’t revenge of the geeks, I don’t know what is. 😉