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Patrizia Chen

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A Song For Each Summer

Posted: 06/28/10 02:02 PM ET

When I was sixteen I used to dance la quadrille. Doesn't that make me sound ancient? Who in the world does that anymore? Nowadays, when I talk about it, I see absolute incomprehension slowly blanket the faces of those surrounding me and I feel as if I were at least a hundred years old. But that's the way it was in those days in Italy.

We used to dance it at the many parties I attended all over Sicily, and yes, when everyone else around the world was rock 'n' rolling, I was deep in the heart of my personal 18th century world. I wore long gloves and flowing chiffon dresses and followed the steps that the quadrille caller would cry out loudly. Addicted as I was to English romantic literature, it seemed normal to me to be prancing around a splendid room, graciously bowing and nodding at my occasional partner.

I was also in love. GF, my hero, my idol, my husband-to-be, was much older; a gap of almost twenty years separated us. After I met him, he entered my life with great intensity, courting my reluctant parents and taking me out to adult dinner parties, concerts, and art openings. My head began to spin with the not-so-secret pleasure of being considered sophisticated enough to have landed him, and suddenly everything changed for me, and quite dramatically.
"The fancy make-up kit he gave me was the best gift of my childhood," my sister Giulia still remembers, smiling with pleasure at the mere thought. Several times a week he would pick me up in his elegant Flaminia car, and take me, with my five-year-old sister as a chaperon, for a quaint ice-cream at the best patisserie in town.

Two years and three summers! Symbolized by three different songs that even today, as soon as I hear the first few notes, I am transported immediately back in time. Once again, music vividly sets the stage for a flood of memories and, as I remember, my body begins to sway.

Fred Bongusto (what a name! It conjures up the image of an internationally acclaimed singer, even though he was just Italian) launched "Una Rotonda sul Mare" to huge success. It was the song of summer '64 and it celebrated those large piers typically jutting into the sea at every resort along my country's idyllic coast. A long passageway, almost a bridge on the water, led to a magic circle where fashionable tunes played and couples slowly danced under a perfect summer sky. GF courted me at one of these rotonde, making me feel like a real woman, much older and more sophisticated than my friends, and not the teenager I was. Being in his arms, head against his chest, inhaling the faint perfume of his impeccably ironed shirt carried me to a different and entrancing world.

The very first few notes of "Michelle" make my mind skip twelve full months, straight to 1965, and here I am at GF's beautiful terrace in Milazzo, surrounded by bougainvillea with its incandescent conflagration of colours and where, toward sunset, bergamot and jasmine filled the air with their sensuous scent. There were always many guests, an abundance of great food and a record player that would spin out music from all over the world: Brazil's Jobim and Joao Gilberto, France's racy Gainsbourg and Birkin, and the fabulous new group of kids from England, the Beatles. And that's when, for another first in my life, I danced with someone who actually had some formal training. A young man in his late twenties took me into his arms and twirled me around, in and out of his embrace to the tune of "Michelle".

I was in heaven and never wanted to stop, but GF didn't share the enthusiasm for my new partner and within days -- surprise! -- that young dancer was never to be seen again. Bye-bye to "Michelle" and to the enchantment of following a few patterns, of executing some kind of choreography.

And that's how we get to the third song, "Strangers in the Night", summer of 1966. Sent back to Tuscany after a sudden, disastrous change in GF's behavior, I languished at my grandparents' home, obsessively reading and listening to music, wasting away in my misery, too desperate even to want to exist. But one August day he appeared, out of nowhere, in his blue "Flaminia", and invited me to the rotonda at Castiglioncello, a beautiful little town in Tuscany. Time and again, driving along the coast, we listened to the same Frank Sinatra song, which blasted out in the night club the very moment we entered it. A sign from the gods that all was going to be perfect for us again? He took me into his arms, holding me tight, whispering his usual loving words, and the moon and the stars witnessed his tenderness and my happiness. When he took me home he looked straight into my eyes and said abruptly:"You know? I don't think it's a good idea to continue."

Strangers in the night. By all means.