“It’s like we’re in a Game Of Thrones episode!” I exclaimed, hiding behind an ornate stone column in the courtyard of the Palazzo Comunale and spying on the people walking by.
“This is a medieval building from 1206,” Frankie replied, ignoring my drama and focusing her camera through the foggy haze obscuring her view.
“Danger lurking in the shadows, traitors scurrying by...” I narrated, attempting a sinister voice but sounding like E.T., instead.
The palazzo’s courtyard had been beautifully decorated for Christmas. Tiny strings of lights twinkled softly, smudged by the white haze that shrouded the town, so that everything glowed as if lit by candlelight.
“They’re people visiting the Christmas night markets,” Frankie corrected me as she continued taking photos and deleting them.
“No baby, they’re plotters. Plotting their skulduggery and chicanery.”
“The plotters are plotting?” She teased, lowering her camera and smiling for the first time all day. “Do you need to work on your English?” “No. Because I know words like chicanery.”
Frankie grabbed me and pulled me in for a kiss. “There... That will shut you up,” she laughed as she slapped my ass, grabbed my hand and headed for the market stalls in the piazza.
It was several weeks before Christmas and we were in Cremona in northern Italy, the scene of Frankie’s general surgery exam. For the four days we’d been in town, Frankie had spent every moment studying while I played housewife. I shopped for food, cooked dinner and ran errands to Vodafone when I accidentally used up all of her internet access.
One more week, then we start our excellent Italian adventure, we kept telling ourselves.
As we walked around the piazza, people stared at my red hair and pale skin. “Will I fit in here?” I asked Frankie, pulling my cap down over my eyes.
“You need a Louis Vuitton bag and a fur coat to fit with these wankers. Pretentious Northerners,” Frankie retorted, rolling her eyes at the elegantly expensive women promenading past.
Cremona had a noble history. Grand palazzos dwarfed the tiny cobblestoned streets, violin makers continued their tradition made famous by Antonio Stradivari, and the town had the air of a great beauty whose youth had slowly faded away.
“We’ll get you a fur trimmed puffer jacket,” I joked as we looked at the stalls selling Christmas ornaments and gifts and food.
“Will you still love me if I don’t pass this exam?” Frankie blurted as she found a stall selling home-made taralli biscuits and started shoving them into her mouth.
I wanted to tell her not to insult me. Instead, I wrapped my arm around her shoulders and squeezed her tight. “You’ll pass, sweetheart. You’ve done your best. You’ve got this,” I said as I gathered taralli, cheese, home-made salami and a bottle of Lambrusco for our dinner.
Frankie had done more than her best. She’d done everything possible to pass this exam, and in two days her fate would be sealed. The dream job she’d been working towards for nine months would finally be hers to claim.
The next morning, I left Frankie at home for her last day of study and braved the zero degrees to walk into town. I was off to buy a gelato cake and Prosecco for our celebration and a pair of shoes as Frankie’s present.
I sat at my favourite bar eating pastries, drinking coffee and conversing in a hybrid English/Italian language favoured by the owner. She was discussing a recent news report which called Italy the second most corrupt country in Europe. Obviously written by a Northerner, the article blamed all the problems on Rome and the south.
“Ma, ‘sti terroni, all mafiosi in the south… ma vai vai,” the owner spat, gesturing with disgust.
I didn’t need to be fluent in Italian to understand what she meant. The peasants from the south are all mafia.
As I walked home down Viale Po, I wrapped my scarf around my face, protecting myself against the sting of the air as it bit at my skin. I gazed at the gracious villas lining the boulevard, their elegant stone facades fading into the grey of the sky. High atop their roofs, gargoyles stared menacingly as the fog rolling in from the Po River obscured them from view.
Are these houses the perfect metaphor for modern Italy? I pondered. History, culture and great beauty with a hidden dark side.
At home, I teased Frankie about this competition between the north and south.
“Ma vai vai,” she scoffed, flicking her fingers in a walking gesture that only Italians can make.
“That’s what she said! You even speak the same,” I teased. “If we live up here too long you’ll become a northerner.”
“I did my surgical training up here for six years, remember? I’ll never beone of them,” she shot back.
The next morning I woke early to find Frankie studying beside me. I slipped downstairs, made coffee and brought it back to bed.
“Thank you for being here with me,” she said softly, her eyes filling with tears. “I know it’s been horrible for you.”
“It’s been an adventure.”
“It’s been horrible and I miss you.”
“I miss you too,” I replied, trying not to cry. I grabbed her hand and kissed it softly. “It’s OK, sweetheart. You’ve got this.”
“I know. I’m ready.”
Frankie left for the hospital and I closed the door behind her. Realising I had a full day to fill before she would be home, I headed to my favourite café. After an hour and a half of heated discussion about how the north was carrying the south financially, I checked my phone. I had three missed Viber calls from Frankie.
I rang her back but she didn’t answer. I rang again, no answer. It was 12.30pm. She’ll have gone in for the second part of her exam, I thought, heading off to tour the Palazzo Fodri. I jumped on the free town Wi-Fi to get directions to the palazzo and Frankie Vibered me again.
“Where have you been?” She asked.
When I walked in the door, Frankie was sitting on the sofa drinking a glass of Lambrusco. “Cheers!” she said, handing me a glass.
“You passed!” I squealed.
“I didn’t pass.”
I waited for Frankie to smile and tell me she was joking.
“None of us passed…” she said as she grabbed the wine bottle and re-filled her glass. “At least I can drink now.”
Frankie had been shocked to see her old uni friend at the exam. She knew he worked at Cremona hospital and had asked for some study information to help prepare for the exam. He’d promised to email information but it never arrived. When Frankie followed up again, he promised to email her but never made contact again.
So it was odd to see him at the exam with four of his colleagues from the hospital.
When the thirty-five surgeons sat down for the exam, thirty of them had major issues with the unfairness of the marking system. They complained but were told the exam would go ahead anyway.
Ten minutes into the exam, the five doctors from Cremona finished their tests, got up and left the room. Everyone else spent the next twenty minutes attempting to answer one single question correctly.
Five doctors passed the exam.
“Get on the phone to your cousin!” I yelled once Frankie finished her story.
“No. I can’t deal with any more.”
“Get on the phone to your cousin!” I bellowed.
“A lawyer can’t help, so stop yelling. I’m done. To failing the concorso and losing my job!” Frankie toasted as she handed me another glass.
The next morning, Frankie prepared to meet with the head of the surgical department. She would tell him she failed the exam and he would explain that she could no longer accept the position.
I helped her get undressed and into the shower. I shampooed her hair and helped her wash, then gently dried her off with the towel. I moisturised her face, combed her hair and sprayed deodorant under her arms.
“I can do it,” she said quietly as I plugged the blow-dryer into the socket.
Frankie decided to go to the hospital on her own, so I kissed her goodbye, told her to be strong and gently closed the door behind her. Then I placed my hand on the wall for support and cried.
Two hours later, Frankie Vibered me.
“Baby! You won’t believe it!” She yelled.
“Probably not,” I thought, bracing myself for more news.
“The concorso has been invalidated!”
“What does that mean?” I asked, totally confused.
“It’s been invalidated… It’s not valid, it has to be re-done.”
Re-done? Were they fucking mad? Our lives had been on hold for this job for nine long months. The last two had been spent preparing Frankie for this moment and now we had to go through this bullshit again?
“Welcome to Italy, baby,” Frankie said sarcastically.
"Are you serious?” I snapped. “You still want this job?”
“Yes baby, I’m serious. I still want this job.”