Easter Road and Leith Links
Giuseppe and Rosa packed their cardboard suitcases, the ones they’d brought from Italy nine years earlier; they packed the two bone-handled knives, the hand-embroidered pillow cases and the hand-edged bed sheets they had brought from the village as Rosa’s trousseau. On that original journey from Southern Italy the suitcases had contained bread and boiled eggs for the three-day train trip, but no such planning was necessary now as they crossed London Road and headed for the Montrose Terrace steps. This time they were leaving behind a one-bedroomed tenement flat in Lyne Street for a two-bedroomed flat on Easter Road; it was 1966, Giuseppe and Rosa were moving down the cobbled hill and going up in the world.
Lyne Street had in fact been only half a flat with a hallway shared with Mrs Muir and the rest of the rooms divvied up. Rosa had used the big sink in the kitchen for washing pots and bathing the children, Marino and Giovanna.
Giovanna was nine years old and spoke the best English so she’d got the job of knocking on doors with ‘For Sale’ signs to find the family a new flat. She’d reported back that the flat on Easter Road was perfect because it had a bedroom for her, another for Giuseppe and Rosa and a box room for five-year-old Marino. There was just space for another baby brother, Marcello, to squeeze in when he was born the following year.
Settling in at Easter Road, Rosa knew she had come a long way. Here she had a big metal bath – one she would change for a plastic avocado suite at the earliest opportunity – and she had a gas fire. One click of the button and she could warm her hands and knees, not like managing that dirty open fire at Lyne Street.
The family had spent their first four years in Scotland on a farm in Dunfermline, where Rosa complained there was no fruit and vegetables at all apart from a few apples. Pregnant with Marino and desperate for greens she made soup with the tops of turnips, only to promptly throw it all back again.
As she’d wiped her eyes with her cotton pinny, Giuseppe promised to get her good food; Italian food. He donned his trilby hat and boarded the bus to Valvona and Crolla, in Edinburgh. Returning hours later he declared ‘Ecco!’ And presented her with a jar of delicious olives.
The Valvona and Crolla van visited Dunfermline sometimes and Rosa bought spaghetti and macaroni, eking it out, enjoying every mouthful until she ran out and had to make do with potatoes again.
When they’d moved to Edinburgh Giuseppe got a job in the Scottish & Newcastle brewery at Holyrood, where they called him ‘Joe’. Every month he got two dozen cans of Tartan Special or Mcewan’s Export. At Christmas his workmates plied him with drink after drink – ‘Have another tinnie, Joe!’ – until he couldn’t find his way home. Giovanna, gazing from the window looking out for him, shouted: ‘Ma! Papa’s directing traffic in the middle of Easter Road!’
Rosa worked all hours cooking in The Tiffin Restaurant on Easter Road serving scampi and chips, steaks and curries to the regulars. Left in charge at home, Giovanna cooked Fray Bentos steak pie and chips for herself and her brothers.
On Sunday Rosa prepared pasta with the perfect meatballs – soft but not mushy, firm but not hard – and as she stirred and tasted, stirred and tasted, she watched Giuseppe whisk raw egg with sugar and a splash of Marsala into zabaglione to make the children grow big and strong. ‘Prego!’ he said handing them each a glass.
Relatives visited – noisy, animated, opinionated – to drink the odd glass of Martini and cups of espresso. Rosa prepared zeppoli – fried dough covered in sugar – and Giuseppe talked about those left behind in the village; folk with nicknames like ‘Half Loaf’, ‘Half a Head’ and ‘Tempesta’.
Giuseppe bought a second-hand record player and a cache of records and sang along to ‘When in Rome’, by Cliff Richard, Gianni Morandi’s ‘Bella Belinda’ and Little Tony’s ‘Cuore Matto’ (Crazy Heart). Later Giovanna introduced Rosa to Engleburt Humperdinck and Tom Jones, and in 1972 Marino taught Marcello to play air guitar to Starman, unaware that David Bowie was performing in concert a few doors down at the old Empire.
But it didn’t matter how loud Little Tony or David Bowie were playing, if it was a Saturday and the Hibs were at home the roar from Easter Road stadium floated through the kitchen window. The louder the roar the better Hibs must be doing, and, as forty-thousand people cheered and groaned in unison, Giuseppe threw up his hands – part in wonder, part in despair: Ascolta! Listen to them! He couldn’t believe anyone cared so much when it was not Italy playing.
Back home in his mountain village of Santa Marina, Giuseppe had picked olives from ancient groves and eaten tomatoes warm from the vine. Here he took an allotment on Leith Links. He cycled there with Marcello on the back, rattling over the cobbles down Easter Road past the butchers and bakers, including McAinsh’s, purveyors of fine iced buns.
There was an Italian community at the allotments. Come stai? Cosi cosi! There was always someone to talk to in Italian; someone to moan to about the mice, the birds and the foxes stealing the crops. The Italians dug and hoed, weeded and seeded and looked askance at the Scottish woman who grew nothing but flowers. She basked on her chair, her head back and her face soaking up the rays like a sunflower, surrounded by a tangle of cornflowers, poppies, dog daisies and forget-me-nots. ‘Dio Mio! What a waste!’ Giuseppe had gone hungry as a child. What was the point of land if not to grow food?
Giuseppe grew marrows and courgettes, beans and peas, strawberries and lettuce and spinach and rosemary. He erected a frame and covered it in plastic and grew tomatoes and cucumbers and peppers. He pressed the pip of a Granny Smiths into the soil, feeling it sink into the earth where it would send out roots and over the years grow into a tree.
He built a Frankenstein shed of old bits of wood he had found elsewhere, doors nailed to windows nailed to odd planks and roofed with corrugated iron. He bought two Guinea pigs and three rabbits; two female and a male. ‘These are to eat,’ he told Marcello but Marcello did not believe him.
Soon there were sixty rabbits bobbing about in the specially built runs in the enormous shed. Marcello played with them until the day he came home from school and found three skinned bodies, heads intact, hanging over the kitchen taps. He flew at his dad and slapped him about the face. ‘What have you done?’
Giuseppe fended him off; the lad was strong. ‘But you knew,’ he said, ‘you knew they were food.’
The rabbits were turned into sauce for the pasta. It smelled good. Nothing else was made for Marcello’s tea and, well, it did smell good. It tasted good too. He never played with the rabbits again.
Giuseppe took over a relative’s chip shop on Lochend Road, just off Easter Road, for months at a time, frying up two stones of fish a day. Rosa beamed and nodded from behind the counter taking the customers aback by pointing out when they were getting ‘nice and fat’.
When Marcello started high school and the register was taken the teacher, seeing his Italian name, shouted: ‘Is it fish and chips or ice cream?’
Now on Easter Road there is a Turkish Barbers, a French cafe, an Italian deli, a Spanish tapas bar, an Indian grocers and the chip shop is a Chinese takeaway. The cobbles are long gone. The blades of Rosa’s bone-handled knives have worn thin and the hand-embroidered linen remains packed away, still too good to use. On Leith Links the shed of many parts has been replaced and someone else picks the apples from Giuseppe’s tree.
On the corner of Lyne Street there is an ‘Art and Vintage’ shop selling 1960s collectible tea caddies and tea sets, just like the ones packed in the cardboard suitcases fifty years ago when Giuseppe and Rosa moved down the hill and went up in the world.