After being made redundant from a high-powered media job in London and facing burnout, writer Kamin Mohammadi escaped to Florence. A year in the Italian city, where she discovered the concept of ‘bella figura’, changed her outlook on life, work and love. Her latest book, Bella Figura, is a warm, funny and practical account of what she learned during that year. We reproduce a short extract below.
Days passed. I was back at the kitchen table, which doubled as my desk. I stared at the document on the screen of my laptop, taunting me with its blankness. I fidgeted in my seat, picking at my nails, chewing at the skin. There was no Internet in the flat and it was a rude awakening. The shock of not being able to surf the net was seismic. There was no email to check, no Facebook to click on to, no pictures of babies of old school friends to check out, no political debates on which to comment.
Instead, I was confronted by the book I had spent years talking about. Not just any book, but the story of my country, of my childhood, of my Iran, which I had fled as a small child with my parents in the violent days of the revolution. After nearly twenty years away, once I had started to travel back to Iran in my twenties, I had regaled my friends with so many tales of my relatives and the history of my country that they had begged me to get it all down on paper instead of making their heads spin with the cast of thousands that makes up my extended family.
But after years of being too busy to think, the shock of having nothing to do but write was astonishing. I gazed out of the window but there was nothing to see: an old lady was at her television in the window opposite mine, the courtyard was quiet, there was just a smell of woodsmoke which floated to me across the city. Inside me, I felt the familiar pull of my old bedfellows, fatigue and depression. So persistent were they in their devotion that nothing I had tried could shake them, not even after nights of sleep so long I felt like Sleeping Beauty’s somnambulant sister. What was I doing here, in this country, a stranger who didn’t speak the language and was loved by no one? Another mistake, I thought, tears welling up, my mother had been right when she had called me irresponsible.
I forced myself to get up, away from the blank document and outside the door, into the streets of Florence, tangible and real. I went out without a map, preferring to wander and discover where I had been afterwards. I paid attention to what was around me instead of peering into a screen all day. My mobile phone couldn’t access a network in Florence, so I had no digital way to track my movements. Soon this felt liberating: the ever-present tower of Palazzo Vecchio anchored me, wherever I was in town, I knew that the river and my neighbourhood lay just beyond it, the terraced hills above the Oltrarno the backdrop to my home. And then at a certain juncture in the town, my tower swam into view. It was easy to lose myself knowing that these markers would bring me home.
To my surprise – notwithstanding my British reserve and Londoner’s habit of catching no one in the eye – it proved impossible to stay anonymous in San Niccolò. Within days of my arrival, people had started calling out ‘ciao’ and giving me a cheery wave when I walked by. And I had returned their greetings – only the horror of being rude beat the horror of being engaged in conversation in the street – and before long I knew my San Niccol ò neighbours by name. There was red-haired Cristy. She owned a tiny electrical shop on the street, a middle-aged lady usually surrounded by a tangle of fairy lights, light bulbs and boxes of tiny fuses. Every time I walked past her shop, she professed, in stumbling English, to find me charming. ‘Bella!’ she would exclaim, sweeping her hands around my face. ‘So nice, so kind, your smile! Oh yes, brava!’ and she bobbed up and down, almost bowing in her enthusiasm for my very being.
I had not been able to escape the old man who had joined me in the church that first day. I saw him often on the street and he always smiled at me so hopefully that one day I had paused and let him engage me in conversation. Wheezing, he had spoken to me in surprisingly good English and I had taken pity. He was called Roberto and, after commiserations on the tastelessness of English vegetables, he had placed a hand on my arm, and regarded me intently. ‘And who was it who made you so sad?’ he asked, catching me by surprise. I reached for the English hauteur I had used all my adult life like a protective cloak, when, looking down at the arthritic fingers clawed around my sleeve, my heart softened. Tears filled my eyes and all my defences fell away.
I had been fighting for so long – the deadlines, the stress, the debacle of my career, and finally, the fight to try to keep Nader’s love – and I was exhausted. I gave in, I allowed old Roberto to squeeze my arm, allowed him to comfort me in his creepy way. ‘Ah well,’ he said quietly. ‘No matter, forget him. Now you are in Florence!’ He smiled at me kindly, revealing stained teeth. I gave him a watery smile back. ‘You are a beautiful woman and you should be in a beautiful place. Stay here and you see, the beauty will make you better!’
Extract from Bella Figura: How to Live, Love and Eat the Italian Way by Kamin Mohammadi (Bloomsbury, £14.99). Buy a copy here.