I twirl the spaghetti around my fork as I watch a stream of humanity pass me by. The fountain splashes merrily and the dulcet sounds of the street performer singing well-known arias set the mood. The sky is that exact shade of topaz blue that lovelorn poets write about, glimpsed between two rows of Tuscan buildings from which a line of washing is suspended. I sit back in my chair on the sidewalk of a trendy ristorante and sigh in contentment. “Ah, la dolce vita!”
Where am I? Rome? Venice? A lesser known village somewhere in Tuscany? No, guess again. Assisi, Napoli, Sienna… Milan? No, all wrong. I’m having lunch in the heart of Fourways in Johannesburg at a casino complex called Montecasino.
Okay, I’ll admit it, it’s lame. The sky is a perpetual sunset painted on the ceiling, the buildings are the fake façades of shops and the twinkling lights of the slot machines are never far off. The soloist on the piano gets paid by the hour and the man selling balloons is probably not called Marcello, or even Luigi or Mario.
But if you can let your imagination go for a bit (and if you’re desperately longing for the real thing) you can pretend that the cobblestone streets date back to Roman times, that the stork nesting in the chimney above has just returned from a delivery and that the pasta you gobbled down was cooked from scratch by a little old lady dressed all in black.
My mind wanders back to fond memories of Italy. I remember a night spent in a campervan in a field of sunflowers. The bells of the Cathedral of San Rufino tolling in a square in Assisi. That first sweet taste of fresh cherries from the market in Sienna. Giggling at the strange outfits worn by the guards on duty at the Vatican City. The feeling of gloom as I gazed upon Mount Vesuvius from the forum in Pompeii. Tourists posing with outstretched hands holding up the Leaning Tower of Pisa. My first ever Italian pizza. The views from the Amalfi coast. Practising the lingua while shopping for souvenirs in Venice. Images upon images flash before my eyes, and before I know it, the nostalgia is replaced by a bittersweet melancholy.
Montecasino may not be authentic, but the longing for Italy it inspires definitely is.