Idiosyncrasies are what make individuals so interesting, but they can also make them really annoying if they are totally at odds with your own learned and acquired behaviours. I find few things more uncomfortable than over-enthusiasm and gushy praise for ordinary things – like, say, waxing lyrical about something that appears, tastes, sounds or feels the way it always did – but if I experience something extraordinary, I’m going to comment. However, even ‘extraordinary’, I’ve come to acknowledge, is subjective.
When my son and I took the train from Milan to La Spezia, a port city in northwest Italy, we passed along some stunning coastline. I took to my feet to get a closer look as we slowed along the tracks above Portofino – a breathtaking fishing village on the Italian Riviera coastline, known for its pastel-coloured houses and super-yacht-lined harbour. I encouraged Jackson to put down his iPad and join me at the window. He looked up, completely nonplussed, and asked me to give him a break. I felt myself getting a bit annoyed that he wouldn’t share in the experience, and then pondered on why I wasn’t content with it just being mine. I travel happily alone, I have no problem taking a table for one in a restaurant and there are quite a number of things I prefer to do without company, so why was this bothering me? Could I not just accept that he was having his fun and I was having mine?
I’m fascinated by appearances. I’ll often watch other families interact and wonder what’s real and what’s being put on for show. I’m not so bothered about the social media side of image because I understand that it’s all already edited – I much prefer watching the real-life version unfold and editing the content evolving right before my eyes for myself.
Take, for instance, encountering a young family in a museum and seeing the children enthuse about something old and inanimate, or intimately observing ancient brushstrokes applied centuries earlier by one of the Masters. First I feel a sense of shame as I recall my child expressing more emotion in a southeast London McDonald’s than he did in St Paul’s Cathedral, and then I wonder whether the kids have been conditioned by their parents and might one day completely fall off the rails, destined for an adulthood dominated by family loathing and prescription drug addiction. I suppose their apparent state of contentment, sense of presence and overall appreciation for the cultural world around them threatens me as a parent, so the easiest thing to do is destroy their future. That’ll learn ’em.
What I came to realise fascinated me even more, however, was how my son and I appeared to others in Italy. When my wife was pregnant with Jackson, she once told her mum that she had felt so angry one day that she had taken a walk into Peckham – right by where we lived – to give some tough-looking girls dirty looks in the street. She wanted someone to take her on so she could release some rage. I experienced similar urges a few times after she died. Sometimes, when my son and I travelled on a train, I would will someone to ask Jackson where his mum was, so that I could make them feel like shit for asking. I even used to travel with her death certificate, just in case an officer at passport control was confused by a father holidaying alone with his son. It happened only once, in Portugal, and the guy looked mortified. I hadn’t felt more alive in ages.
Imagining what people might be thinking of you, when you stop to consider it, though, is a complete waste of time. They could be thinking almost anything. It’s what you think of yourself that really matters.
I reminded myself of this notion just as Jackson and took our seats at the most stunning tower edge restaurant in Vernazza, one of the five-centuries-old villages that make up the beautiful Cinque Terre, on northwest Italy’s rugged Ligurian coast. The table next to us was made up of what I saw as a ‘perfect’ American family. The daughters, both grown up, were studying Fine Art in Florence (their mother could barely wait to tell me). The parents were clearly loaded. Once we got chatting, the told me they were going to see Andrea Bocelli in a concert in Pisa the week after, ‘You should come,’ they enthused, ‘The tickets were only about $600 each.’
I would have loved to. What an experience that would have been. But I imagined how irritated I would have grown waiting for Jackson to effuse about something he would probably think was beyond boring and would have cost me a grand. They, I had already decided, lived in a different world to us. It was what I could hear them saying quietly about us that really got me, though.
‘Just look at him,’ the mother was saying about Jackson, ‘he’s so grown up. Look at how he’s eating all the seafood.’
What they were observing wasn’t reality. I mean, of course what they could see before them was actually happening, but it wasn’t our reality. I struck a deal with Jackson a couple of years ago: he would eat vegetables, as long as I promised not to make him eat fruit… or anything red. The first few days in Italy had gone better than I expected: pizza bianca (white pizza with no tomato sauce) was everywhere and no one blinked if we asked asked for plain pasta al burro (pasta with butter).
But this time, when I ordered the shellfish – Jackson happily rising to the challenge of trying lobster for the first time – I forgot to ask for it not to come with a tomato sauce. As the waiter flamboyantly presented us with the dish, I clocked that it was red. I held my breath and waited for the family next to us to see my beautiful, well-behaved child explode.
A minute passed, he had already dived in, his hands had taken on an unfamiliar rouged hue, and I hadn’t seen him happier since he had ‘the best pizza ever’ a couple of days earlier.
I knew myself to be an insecure and slightly anxious man and father; I knew Jackson could be bad-tempered and hard to reason with over small things like red food. All our little audience could see was a father and son eating lobster and mussels together. I had spent years trying to make us appear something like ordinary as a little family of two, but I realised they could only see the extraordinary. A bereaved father and son (they asked) laughing, playing and eating in the sun, adventuring together for the whole summer.
Our enjoyment of this trip, I accepted, would be experienced both individually and together. We didn’t always need to like the same things, as long as we looked out for each other.
And appearances, it struck me, were what made people memorable. The two families sitting at those balcony tables on the coast could not have been more different, but I’m sure they’ll have remembered our story as well as we remembered theirs. Both living their own ordinary or extraordinary lives, depending on the individual’s point of view.