Run-down and lonely, journalist Kamin Mohammadi’s high-octane London life was ruining her health. So when she was made redundant and offered a friend’s flat in Florence, she took a giant leap – and discovered a new way of living…
She walks down the street with a swing in her step. She radiates allure as if followed by a personal spotlight. She may be tall or short, slim or pneumatically curvaceous, dressed discreetly or ostentatiously – it matters not. Her composure is an ode to grace and self-possession that makes her beautiful whatever her features reveal. She walks the streets of every town and village in Italy and is the embodiment of bella figura.
When I arrived in Florence ten years ago I could not have been further from this ideal. At 38, decades of working at the computer had rounded my shoulders. The stress of a demanding job and city life had hardened my features, given me acne and excess weight I couldn’t shift.
My eyes were fixed to the ground as I hurried through life, with no time to throw anyone a smile, let alone a kind word. Single for years, my loneliness had calcified. Discovering bella figura changed my life, my body and the shape of my heart.
Bella figura means making every aspect of life as beautiful as it can be, whether in Rome or London. This Italian philosophy encompasses everything we do, from what we eat to how we get to work in the morning. It’s about sensuality and sexuality.
It’s about banishing the stress that comes from limiting carbs and exercising so vigorously that our bodies shut down and we look harrowed and pinched. Bella figura is about generosity and abundance, not meanness and deprivation.
On my first morning in Florence I paused at a café with small tables outside set with yellow chrysanthemums. A middle-aged man greeted me and invited me in. ‘My name is Isadoro and this is Caffè Cibrèo, the most beautiful café in Florence.’ His enthusiasm was infectious. I introduced myself and asked him for a cappuccino to take away. He looked at me, puzzled. ‘But why? You have no coffee at home?’ I explained that I wanted to drink my coffee as I walked home to San Niccolò.
He stared for a minute and then began laughing. ‘Ma no!’ he exclaimed. ‘Why so much rush? Where is the pleasure?’ He pointed to a table by the front window. ‘Sit and I bring you. Così you can enjoy.’ I did as he said and the Gaggia machine gurgled to life. Pleasure – a new concept in my adult coffee-drinking career. I thought back to London and the cardboard cups of horrible coffee that I had carried around with me. I hadn’t passed anyone carrying a coffee cup here. I hadn’t seen any coffee chains, either.
Carrying the frothy cappuccino, Isadoro declared proudly, ‘I make best cappuccino in Firenze!’ He was right. Rich and creamy, not too hot. He lingered and asked me where I came from. When I told him his expression changed to one of pity: ‘Your vegetables – no taste!’ Then he saw my bag of produce. ‘But now you taste real vegetables!’ How amazing could vegetables be, I wondered? Surely a tomato is just a tomato.
I wasn’t much of a cook so I made an open sandwich for lunch as Antonio at the market had suggested. The smell of the tomatoes as I cut them up was intoxicating. I drizzled on some olive oil, tore up some leaves of basil and added a few flakes of sea salt. With the first bite, sunshine exploded in my mouth: sweet tomato flesh made ambrosial by the salt. The oil was peppery and the basil tangy. Each bite was so full of flavour that I actually sighed. I made my way through four slices, olive oil running down my chin.
I went to Antonio’s stall daily, taking home just enough to eat so it was as fresh as possible, as he advised. It was good for me; not just the fresh produce but the walk, the planning – it helped break up the day and kept my dreaded depression at bay. Antonio taught me the word nostrale, meaning the produce was local – ‘ours’ – not flown in from the other side of the world. ‘Food should come from here.’ He wagged his index finger sternly. ‘It’s what the land gives you. The land and the seasons decide, not the aeroplane.’
Antonio’s wares were grown in local allotments and market gardens on the outskirts of Florence. What Tuscany could not provide was driven up overnight from the south. Mornings at the market had converted me to the sensual pleasure in the feel, look and smell of a lettuce leaf so newly out of the ground that it was speckled with earth and excitement at the arrival of the season’s radishes, a blush of magenta on white.
As the weeks passed, something curious was happening. My jeans were loose. I had spent most of my life on a diet, but in Florence I had given myself permission to stop counting the calories. In fact I was committing the ultimate sin: living on carbs. For the first time in years I was revelling in food. And much as I awaited my punishment, all this joyous indulgence was having the opposite effect.
It was down to the walking, I decided: each evening I climbed the steep steps behind San Niccolò to watch the sun set over the city and as I went up and down the four flights of stairs to the flat several times a day, I no longer puffed or had to rest halfway. I was exercising more than when I used to force myself to go to the gym.
In London I had existed on prepackaged ‘health’ foods, full of ingredients so adulterated they bore no relation to their original state, filled with preservatives, packed in enough cellophane, plastic and cardboard to build a shanty town. I had had no time or energy to cook for myself.
Here, everything I was eating was fresh and natural. I carried a large straw bag to market every morning and Antonio filled it with fruit and veg; no packaging needed. I snacked on fruit and vegetables instead of power bars for no other reason than pure taste sensation. And pleasure. The concept that was so alien on my first day had become my main motivation.
Antonio also told me that drinking high-quality olive oil four times a day was the secret to more youthful skin. Drinking it neat made me appreciate the value of his mantra: invest in good quality. The bitterness stimulated my taste buds and its, well, oiliness, promoted good gut health, something my stressed-out intestines appreciated. Soon I was enjoying it, learning to love the subtleties in its oleaginous flavour.
Within ten days my cheeks were fuller and there was a different feel to my skin. Plumper, brighter, it had lost the sallowness from years of working in a neon-lit office, a grainy quality that no amount of facials had been able to shift. Even better, the last traces of acne had disappeared. Looking in the mirror was no longer upsetting; I could peer at myself under the brightest light and not see any of the previous marks or lines, just firm glowing skin.
My eyes shone, my hair was glossy; the dullness that had settled over me was being sloughed away, from the inside out. My explorations of the city had added colour to my cheeks, brought much-needed oxygen to my cells. Sometimes as I returned from these epic walks, I was sure I could feel every cell in my body singing with vitality.
A few weeks in Florence and I felt as though I was living in a musical. I caught sight of my reflection in a shop window and for a moment didn’t recognise myself. All that looking up at the beauty around me had improved my posture and I was wearing an expression that took a while to place. I looked happy.
* * * * *
Late one October morning, outside Caffè Cibrèo, I was eating sweet schiacciata bread when my phone rang. A gruff, male voice, Italian. ‘Ciao Kamin, I am Bernardo, friend of Carlo and Aurelia.’ He suggested meeting for lunch. I agreed and gulped down the last of the schiacciata – I had just broken a rule of Italian eating by having a snack before lunch.
As I got close to where we were to meet, I caught sight of a man who was nothing like the mental image I had from Aurelia’s description of her photographer friend. He was short, broad shouldered with a full head of curly brown hair and a Roman nose. He hadn’t seen me yet and for a moment I wondered if I should turn away; instead I went up to him and said hello.
He asked me if I had rubbed the snout of the boar at the famous fountain. I shook my head. ‘It brings luck,’ he replied, ‘and if you are a visitor you must do it.’ We joined the queue. When it was finally our turn, Bernardo tossed coins into the fountain while I gingerly touched the nose of the boar rubbed shiny by thousands of hands. ‘Now,’ he said, pointing to the coins, ‘you will always come back to Florence,’ and he gave me a smile so dazzling that it transformed his whole face.
Over lunch Bernardo talked hesitantly about his photography, showing me the catalogue he had worked on for a Florentine fashion brand. He talked of his three children, their two mothers, the teenage son who lived with him, the little girls who lived with their mother. He also told me about his dogs, whose existence I had already guessed from the white hairs on his jacket. I nodded along politely, trying to decipher his English. And yet, uninspiring as our lunch date was, when he suggested we go to a concert, I accepted.
After the concert I found myself sitting in his car outside my building, locked into one of those conversations that somehow eat up the whole night. He managed to turn the not inconsiderable dramas of his life into a big joke – his childhood in a castle in Chianti, the failure of his marriages – and I found myself laughing more than I had in ages. He didn’t stop entertaining me until the early hours when he left because he had to be up early to take his son to school.
A few weeks later, I invited Bernardo into my flat. Earlier that day he had taken me to a photography exhibition and there was a flirty feeling between us. Dropping me home he had told me that his son was out with his mother so he had a free evening. I searched the flat for something that would do for dinner, but I hadn’t been to the market.
‘Non ti preoccupare,’ he said, getting busy filling the pasta pan with water. Fifteen minutes later we sat down to a steaming dish of pasta with garlic, oil and chilli, a Roman classic. It was simple but tasty. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t come across such a handy dish before.
Suddenly I knew that he was going to kiss me. Having thought a few times over the past weeks that we were just going to be friends, tonight I was aware of him as a full-blooded Italian male. And what kisses they were – long, lazy and luxurious. We kissed for the rest of the evening. Every time his hands moved on to the rest of my body, I steered him back to my lips and he didn’t insist. They were fine kisses. What I didn’t know was how I felt about him yet.
Two days later, on a beautiful Saturday morning, I was in Bernardo’s car, throwing caution to the wind. I had accepted his invitation for lunch at his house in the country. We followed the river as it cut through a wide valley, the bank alongside us patchworked by the allotments whose produce filled the markets of Florence. Dragonflies darted on the surface of water so clear that the rocks on the riverbeds were visible. As we crossed the bridge the road narrowed, becoming steeper with twists and turns.
I had the sense that we were leaving the ordinary world behind, entering an enchanted land of forests, hills and mist-filled valleys. On a straight stretch of track, with the hillside slanting up to our left and a vineyard dipping dramatically to our right, Bernardo slowed down. ‘There…that’s my house, Colognole.’ Sitting below us was a large stone house nestling among thick woods. ‘Wow,’ I said. ‘That’s huge.’
‘Noooo,’ he laughed. ‘You should see the castello where I grew up. This is a simple country house.’ I examined his strong profile against this backdrop. He had never looked more relaxed to me, more settled in his skin.
Colognole was delightful. The acacia trees provided shade. A long table and benches sat outside the house and there were bright red geraniums along the wall. Inside, the sitting room was arranged around a huge fireplace and his dog Cocca was on the biggest sofa. Bernardo made a fire and I sat on the sofa with Cocca.
I watched Bernardo as he made us coffee. Here on his own territory, he was more confident and more sexy. And I was more susceptible to his kisses. So when he came over to the sofa and his hands began to roam, I didn’t stop him.
* * * * *
Today, whether we’re in Tuscany or London, Bernardo and I shop at the market and cook simple meals together. My family has expanded to include children, dogs – even Bernardo’s ex-wives. Most of all we take care of each other. At my father’s funeral, Bernardo bore his coffin on his shoulders. Months later I held the ashes of his mother as we drove her for the final time back to her castle.
How we have navigated the past ten years owes much to bella figura: the trials of being a stepmother, settling into life in the Tuscan countryside and the struggle to span both our countries, families and dreams have been helped by what I learned in Florence that first year. Most of all I now know how to be kind to myself and to treat myself with the same love and care reserved for a beloved friend.
This is an edited extract from Bella Figura: How to Live, Love and Eat the Italian Way by Kamin Mohammadi, to be published on 5 April by Bloomsbury, price £14.99. To pre-order a copy for £11.99 until 1 April, visit mailshop.co.uk/books. Or call 0844 571 0640. P&p is free on orders over £15.