I shivered against him, pushing my face into his heartbeat to stem the pain in my nose from the cold. My coat thrown over the thin blankets as the radiator gave a last emphysemic splutter. It was early, the thin grey light barely permeating the space. The scratch of an unseen rodent in the wall beside the bed adding to the ambience. How he was sleeping I don't know, cramped as he was jammed into the wall with me practically climbing into his skin in search of heat.
Our introduction to Italy had not been thrilling. We'd arrived last night and the appeal of poor plumbing, drafty doors and best of all a single bed had made me want to cry in my overtired state. The delayed flight from Budapest, being unable to find my scarf and now the freezing cold just added to the misery. It was not the start to Christmas Eve that I'd envisaged.
Shaking visibly I rummaged in the suitcase that I could reach from the bed in the tiny ugly room and pulled out another jumper before curling back into his radiant warmth. Day 10 of this strange and wonderful new life was not shaping up to be memorable for the right reasons. He was perfect. Being together was perfect, but cold and sleeplessness were conspiring to make me grumpy. I was annoyed at the fraudulent website description and for not having splurged and booked a proper hotel. There was nothing fun and kooky about this place. And I was hungry.
Eventually, as the wind picked up outside, shrieking against the window pane, he stirred against me, his arms tightening, nuzzling against my ear. Smiling against my skin. His good mood grated against me, fed the grumpiness as my skin prickled. I couldn't help but think of luxurious hotel bed sheets and room service and adequate plumbing. Moaning aloud at the thought of room service as my stomach gurgled in harmony.
He chuckled against my ear, abandoning the now customary morning slide of fingers over bare skin, unable to find me under my umpteen layers and settling for a bone crunching hug instead. He smelled of warmth and musk and I briefly started to melt before another scratch from the other side of the wall shuddered up my spine as my grumbling belly echoed again.
Milan, Italy. Place of style and beauty and rats.
We climbed out of bed and pretended not to notice the scuttle of some unknown creature along the opposite skirting board. Pulled on shoes and wandered down the rickety stairs to the frosted front door of our apartment. I know that had the weather been kinder and if I'd been less bone achingly tired that I would have found the spooky cage lift charming and the cobblestones in the street as magic as they'd been in Budapest and Brussels, but today they were slippery with wet and fuelled me.
He tried cajoling me out of my funk, jostling me with the terrible jokes he knew I loved, before lapsing into our easy silence, speaking without words as I tried to cheer up for him.
We found a tiny grubby cafe on the street and the blissful warmth once inside enveloped like a hug. I sat, unladylike with my knees up to my chin as I sipped my scalding hot chocolate. Amused, he took a photo before pulling out his mini notebook to write some final Christmas messages to family while I inhaled my brioche and half of his Fette biscottate.
It was barely 7 in the morning and many of the beautiful stores that we passed were closed still, sparkling Christmas decorations strung between the ancient buildings, reminding me of the season and lifting my mood infinitesimally. An impossibly chic woman breezed past me in a flurry of cashmere cloak and charcoal suit and silk stockings in Louboutins and I sighed as I watched the red soles flash past as he laughed at my rapturous expression. I thought of my unshowered skin and my lumpy layers of clothes and blushed deeply, wondering if he could possibly find me attractive compared to the elegance of the women of this city.
Reading my thoughts, he pulled me against him and kissed me against a doorway while a man delivering newspapers broke into applause behind us. Our cheersquad winking broadly at us before offering pearls of wisdom that neither of us understood. Thoroughly warmed now the city began to take on some charm and I properly looked as we wandered, smelling coffee and chocolate and smog and diesel from the cars that whizzed past.
I'd always pictured myself sitting Hepburn like on a Vespa as I zipped through the streets of Italy, so was excited when he bubbled over and told me that he had a surprise for me as he steered me towards a dirty shop front that promised nolo de veicolo. Trying not to look deflated as he instead steered me, beaming, towards a tiny ancient red Fiat that made me laugh in spite of myself, as I tried to imagine him folding his long limbs into the child sized seat.
We pulled out some time later into the honking street, gridlocked with commuters and made our way back to our apartment, racing to stuff the bags in the back, tying the boot closed with the rope that was handily left there by the last innovative traveler. I asked where we were going and he merely grinned, his face alight with the knowledge of having something so fantastic to share that you can't wait to see the other's face when they find out. As we drove for the next 40 minutes he artfully dodged all my cleverest questions as we left the heaving city and found the countryside that Italy is famous for.
Mid morning we stopped at a market and bought supplies of wine and cheese and chocolate and olives and a poinsettia that I balanced on my lap entranced by the red leaves as I reminded myself that it was Christmas Eve. My very favourite day of the year, and I was in Italy, 10 days in to the most amazing time of my life.
We spent the rest of the morning driving, watching some of the most breathtaking scenery and passing Christmas tree sellers by the roadside. Trying to pronounce "Viggiu" as we drove through it, and curious as he stopped and punched in a key code to a private gate. Crunching onto the gravel of the driveway of a white villa, flanked on either side by a dark green forest of trees, a rusting cast iron filigree afternoon tea setting on the leaf strewn lawn. My eyes wide as I wondered what we were doing here, hoping against hope that there was perhaps a possibility that there was a bedroom in this stately house that we could rent. Looking over to his sparkling eyes and letting that hope swell as he grabbed my hand and lead me towards the front door.