Friday, 12 August 2011

Being Lucy Honeychurch

Miss Lucy Honeychurch, heroine of A Room with a View, would never have been allowed to do anything so foolish as to spend the month of August in Lazio. Lazio is very, very hot in August. The sun is very strong. Lucy, as we know, once fainted in very strong sunlight, and if she thought the men of Florence were excitable, that is because she hadn't yet gone to Rome.

But if Miss Honeychurch had had to go to Lazio, to take care of a sick friend, for example, she would have done her very best to keep cool and, above all, to keep her beautiful English rose-leaf complexion. She would have shuddered, as did I, at the face of the Englishwoman in Civitavecchia whose face was so painfully red, she looked as if she had had a chemical peel. She looked as if she had dunked her face into a pot of boiling oil. If I were her, I would have been in the hospital, not serenely drinking beer on the promenade. Obviously this woman was no Lucy Honeychurch.

I have a particular love for the Edwardian period, when every Englishman and Englishwoman, no matter how poor, was proud to be English. They might have poked fun at "the Britisher abroad," but that was only when they themselves were abroad; nobody hates tourists than tourists themselves. And I also have a particular love for the Edwardian English who worshipped Italy and came here in droves, especially as they appear in English fiction (except in Where Angels Fear to Tread).

Thus, I was greatly pleased to discover that Hilary dresses and acts as much like an Edwardian Englishwoman as possible. She shipped her best china and lace from England, stocks Pears soap and Yorkshire tea, has wonderful posture and refuses to speak Italian.* On this, my third trip, I brought her a very lovely portrait of the Queen. It is a portrait from Coronation Year, and the Queen certainly looks very pretty. The Young Queen has a lovely complexion, which Hilary and I had ourselves in our twenties, and which we have had some success in preserving.

The most important thing to keeping your complexion nice in Lazio in August is staying out of the direct sun. The sun is moderately gentle at 7 AM, but by 8 AM it has had its coffee and is on the prowl for complexions to devour. Its left hand bears gifts but its mouth holds wrinkles and skin cancer. If Roman ladies wish to turn chocolate brown now and pay for it later, that's their lookout. But this is not the way of Neo-Edwardian English (and Canadian) ladies. It is also strictly forbidden to cancer patients like Hilary.

Thus both Hilary and I try not to go outside between the hours of ten in the morning and seven in the evening. This is sometimes difficult because Hilary has to see various doctors and the pharmacist and the waits are long. We may get to a medical office before ten, only to wait until after eleven and then scurry home under the sun's deadly noon-hour beams.

For this reason we go entirely clothed, with straw hats, cotton blouses, long linen skirts, thin and floaty scarves and, in my case, cotton socks in flower-patterned tennis shoes. We also unfurl umbrellas.

Of course we are also wearing 50 SPF sun screen and lip balm. And the kind of sunglasses that block ultraviolet rays.

We mostly eschew man-made fabrics. We prefer clothing that breathes. We also prefer floaty clothing that traps or even creates its own breeze. Our clothes are mostly of light colours--white or pale pink or pale green or pale blue. White clothes are best, and we clean them by dunking them in a gallon bucket of water and bleach (quarter cup of bleach per gallon) before throwing them in the washing machine.

(Cultural note: The local rosary chapel is just this noon minute signaling the Angelus by playing "Christus Vincit" on its bells.)

I do have a rayon scarf, but as it is fraying, it constantly annoys me by catching on things.

Thus, Hilary and I, who could never be mistaken for Italians anyway, dress according to the best of Englishwoman tourist traditions. We are quite a contrast to the skinny, skinny, skinny Italian girls of all ages in bikinis and thigh-skimming cover-ups.

Lucy Honeychurch would also want to stay as cool and comfortable as possible so as not to repeat her sad little fainting fit in the piazza. We do this by following the coolest part of Hilary's flat. First thing in the mornings, it is nice to sit in the lacy soggiorno. But then breezes stir up outside, so we sit under a huge umbrella on the balcone overlooking the giardino. The umbrella can be adjusted to follow the sun's wicked path. In the afternoon heat, we retreat back indoors and even have a wee snooze.

After seven o'clock I put on my rather 1950s-looking two-piece under a billowy white blouse and green linen skirt and walk down to the deserted beach to bathe in the Mediterranean. The sun regards me sleepily and as it is about to disappear, it cannot be bothered to eat me up. Ha!

But the heat remains, and this is where I sadly reflect on the importance, in hot countries, of being thin. If you are thin, your upper thighs are slightly concave, but if you are not (and I am not anymore, boo), they are slightly convex and brush together. This is okay in cool countries, but not in hot countries, where you can get heat rashes. Short of going on a stupid and dangerous crash diet, or not going to a hot country until you have spent six months with the thigh-master, what can you do?

What you do is powder yourself with liberal amounts of talcum powder. This, by the way, was how girls in my high school dealt with perspiration. We had no recourse to the showers (which were only for The Nuns), so the daintier girls covered themselves in talcum powder after gym class. (I was so lazy in gym class, I myself never broke a sweat.)

Thus, when I feel the slightest bit sticky, I just powder myself madly with "Felce Azzurra" talcum powder. It has a very nice scent.

The whole morning routine of washing, powdering, moisturizing, sunscreening and dressing to keep cool is not time consuming when you're used to it, and essential for staying unburnt as an Anglo-Saxon/Celt in Lazio. It takes me only twenty minutes, and then I sail out into the cool, bright morning to the corner "bar" (cafe) for my croissant and cappuccino.

Update: A voice in my head said "What about the men?" And that is very easy. As I am now over 40, I am an unlikely Mediterranean sex object, and the only man who has tried at all to flirt with me recently was the fishmonger, and I understood only one word ("You're blushing.") I do have a little mendacious speech about having three children (Hugh, age 12, Rory, age 10, and Anita, age 5) saved up for an emergency, as it is mothers, not the merely married, who are sacred in Italy. But it has not been necessary. It is the young things in their teens and twenties who can expect the constant attentions of local men.

*Update: When I was much younger, and my Italian was in great shape, it was my job at the [Canadian government department] to help those few Italians who, after years of living in Canada, still could not speak English or French. A marvellous elderly lady, who had been in Canada for over 20 years, sighed and said that she had attempted to take English classes many time, but they never took.


berenike said...

Carissima, se non e Roberts, non e borotalco ... :) I get mine imported from Rome by my uncle :)

Catholic Bibliophagist said...

About thighs, chafing, and heat rash:

As I am pathetically thin, I have never had this problem. But I hang out on lots of vintage sewing blogs and New Vintage lady solves this problem by sewing her own undergarments out of cool breathable cotton. She calls them breeches or drawers. They do look nice and cool.

Look up "underpants" on her blog if you want to see how she makes these.

--C.B., who is suffering through a Southern Californian summer because she has to wear support hose.

Andrea said...

We'll have to agree to disagree! I love the sun. I have few "vices"--and I will never eschew sports, lying about, just generally being outdoors in the sun. My theory is that as a Canadian there is only a nice warm sun three months of the year anyway, so I should enjoy it. Maximum SPF 15 and I'm on my way!

I believe people of good will can differ on this. ;-)

Seraphic said...

Wrinklie wrinklie wrinklie!

Mrs Doyle said...

May I just chime in with a slight warning that those of us with such fair skin living in warm countries - we either have two choices; skin cancer or vitamin d deficiency!

Therefore I beseech (I've always wanted to use that word in a sentence of my own, and not just after the Hail Holy Queen!) all men and women to have their Vitamin D checked regularly.

A Vit D deficiency has been linked to a few nasty auto-immune conditions including Type 1 Diabetes and MS and of course rickets in unborn babies. Symptoms of deficiency usually go unnoticed, but you may find yourself fuzzy headed, a bit depressed or unable to concentrate.

I would rather take my Vit D daily for the rest of my life (which the doc says I probably will have to), rather than risk skin cancer (in Australia...yuck).

Medico's think that this might actually be a new epidemic, it seems so widespread.

---End of Public Health Announcement---

berenike said...

Apparently (i.e. I read it in a newspaper, so it's probably a warping-beyond-recognition of some actual report that came to no exciting conclusions) there's a problem now with children not getting enough vitamin D because their parents are so paranoid about them getting skin cancer.

I made sure the nevvers spent a lot of time in the scud this summer :)

Seraphic said...

Vitamin D deficiency is not anything anyone in Italy needs to worry about unless they are deprived of sunlight all day long every day, e.g. if they are never allowed outside or wear a burkha. I am happy to say, however, that I have not seen any burkhas in Lazio.