The morning after I met the woman who became my wife, I couldn’t remember her name. I knew it was something ‘a bit foreign’, and possibly Italian or Spanish. By the time our daughter is old enough to read, this insight into the situation in which we met will be edited out. Take a bow, Citrus Club.
That Sunday morning was, I felt, too late to ask. I would just have to put her into my phone contacts as ‘Citrus Girl’. Then, while she showered, I spotted a utilities bill propped up on the hall table. Bingo: I could find out her name and her preferred power supplier in one fell swoop. That name was gloriously Italian. I forget the energy firm.
As far as I could tell, she spoke in a profoundly Scottish manner. It was, then, not the act of being Italian itself that I found so exciting, but the heritage behind this name, the stories and questions – who had come to Edinburgh from Italy, when and why? In retrospect, there was no wonder I was so captivated by this exoticism: the furthest my family seemed to have travelled was from Doncaster to Leeds.
‘Is it your parents that are Italian?’, I asked Citrus Girl.
‘We discussed this last night. Or this morning. It’s my Dad.’
‘Oh yeah, sorry. Have you got anything for breakfast? Some pasta maybe?’
On my previous visits to Edinburgh, I’d always wondered why the chippies had Italian names (and what appeared to be small menageries of deep-fried shapes in their greasy cabinets, but that’s a different story, one possibly involving the mafia). I vaguely knew that a lot of Italians had settled here, but now I was fascinated. Admittedly, my fascination was thickened by the fact I had already fallen a little bit in love with Citrus Girl, so perhaps this was just a more grown-up version of, say, pretending to like All Saints to get off with a lass in 1996.
The stories are familiar to many here and, I now discover, subject of a brand new social history project. In the 19th century, thousands fled impoverished Italy and arrived here in slightly less impoverished Scotland. Some believe they did not mean to, but were duped by shipowners into thinking Glasgow was New York. Whatever the explanation, even if Caledonia had not called she made them stay. They toiled hard to remain, food usually the thing; ice cream wagons or parlours and pesce e patate.
Hardship always tugged their coattails, not least during World War Two. Whether they were born here or not, thousands suffered internment. Many of those that remained in their cafes and homes had stones pelted at their windows, the enemy within (salt ‘n’ sauce with your bile?)
Today, as I walk around Leith I often think back to that first morning with my new Italian wife to be. I see Valvona and Crolla; legend has it they pull the shutters down every night to recall that time of street missiles on glass. I walk by The Sicilian Pastry Shop, above which Eduardo Paolozzi lived, a founding-father of pop art who came home from wartime internment to a tenement bereft of his grandfather, father and uncle. They were three among 800 lost when the SS Arandora Star, a prisoner ship, was sunk by a U-Boat.
Then I notice this, my favourite bit of local ghost-writing, on a wall by the Hibs ground. It reminds us that the Italians brought hoopla and happiness, and not just for me.