There are people we meet throughout our lives that leave an inexplicable mark on us. These people shape us in wonderful ways and guide us through some of the darkest storms we face. Nai is one such person for Alan and Susan Reed. Almost like a second mother to Susan, and a delightfully enigmatic and wise lady, now in her eighties – this is the story of Nai.
Navigating a new world with her two young children Louise and Oliver as a young twenty-something herself, Susan rented a small apartment at the top of Via Garibaldi for her young family after moving to Venice in 1983. A beautiful old building in the Castello District, it wasn’t long before Susan was introduced to the lady who lived in the apartment above – a hardworking Italian housewife and mother of two sons. Taking Susan under her wing almost immediately, Nai adored Louise and Oliver and helped Susan learn the language. It was the perfect friendship – Nai took Susan and the children to places across Italy they could only have dreamed of. Picnics in the park, to Dodges Palace – one of Venice’s gothic landmarks and across to Burano Island, famous for its lace and coloured houses – just to name a few.
Once the children settled in at nursery, Susan would spend many mornings accompanying Nai shopping in the hustle and bustle of Venice – to the barge on the canal where they would buy the most succulent fresh fruit and vegetables, to favourite lesser-known bakeries, and to the tabaccheria for her cigarettes “Esportazione” (the same brand that she had smoked since the war) before heading back to her house to cook lunch for Nai’s husband Mario.
Nai’s home in Via Garibaldi was very much a traditional Venetian family home where much of the furniture belonged to older family members who lived there previously and kept in immaculate condition. Alan took great delight in sketching the various rooms and corridors of this old house during the couple’s visits many years later. Giving Susan a first-hand experience into the wonderful family values and Italian culture is something she’s never forgotten. Whether through watching Nai’s mother in law, the head of the household sewing intricate swatches of lace by hand for the family’s bedding and linen, or the unforgettable dishes Nai taught Susan to cook from scratch. From fresh artichoke hearts – “carciofi” floating in salted water and divine when cooked, to a simply delicious starter of zucchini and pasta, drizzled with fresh lemon juice, olive oil and parmesan. Wine was always enjoyed with every family meal, followed by a caffe corretto – espresso and Nai’s favourite tipple – a shot of grappa.
A fiery spirit, grappa is fondly remembered as the liquid courage carried in Italian soldiers’ flasks in World War One to sanitise their drinking water, warm them up and lift their spirits. While its common name is “grappa”, the drink’s formal title is acquavite di vinaccia, derived from the Latin aqua vitae, or “water of life” – Nai remains a figurehead of her family even now in her 80s – perhaps thanks to, her water of life! Susan couldn’t have had a better teacher in Nai, and it’s no surprise that when she decided to return home to England after five incredible years, they remained close. Returning to Venice often and sometimes with with close friends such as John and Liz Wilthew in 2007, it was Nai who saved the couple time and money by purchasing tickets to the famous Teatro La Fenice, before welcoming the group to her home the next evening for a fabulous family meal – a perfect example of how fond Nai and Susan had become of each other.
Alan and Susan often stayed with Nai on their trips to Venice over the years, and one trip in particular to the Dolomites in 2006 remains sharp in their memories. Knowing the Dolomites like the back of her hand, Nai and her sister used to explore the mountains in the North Italian Alps every summer in their youth. The family owns a beautiful rustic chalet in the area, and so Nai invited Alan and Susan to come and stay with her one year.
Now in her 70s, Nai would fervently send the young couple off out into the mountain range for a days’ exploring – sharing invaluable tips of where the best place to catch the sunset was or stop for a picnic for lunch. As if by magic, the stony grey and white mountain range would light up a beautiful shade of pink before falling into darkness and giving way to a starry night sky, providing incredible scenes of inspiration for artist Alan. As is tradition in Italian culture, Alan and Susan would drive off in the morning to explore but return to Nai in the evening – calling her at ten to eight on the dot so she could put the pasta on as part of the meal for them to enjoy together as they arrived home. Alan recalls fondly being asked to make the coffee after dinner, a sure sign that he was officially one of the family.
Nai’s kindness and compassion has never wavered over the years, despite the thousands of miles that keep the old friends apart. Whenever Alan hosts an exhibition of his artwork, he dutifully sends Nai an invitation – which she fondly keeps in her bedside table as a way of keeping up with the couple’s news and adventures. Despite her husband Mario sadly passing away over 20 years ago, Nai remains a wonderfully independent lady. She leaves Venice for a month every August to enjoy the cooler weather in the Dolomites, or packs up her famous tiny suitcase (containing little more than a clean blouse and her essentials) and travels across Italy, often to Rome to stay with nuns and enjoy a simple meal while she soaks up the history of her beloved country. Susan’s much-loved personal tour guide, confidante and wise old friend; Nai has been an integral part of Susan’s adulthood, giving her a taste of the flavours of life and cementing her love of Italy which in turn has inspired the couple to create Reedart Italian painting holidays.
Susan’s winning pasta zucchini recipe – inspired by Nai’s original dish for you to try at home…
175 grams of Orecchiette
2 Large Zucchini
Clove of garlic
Flat leaf parsley
Toasted pine nuts (optional)
Slice the zucchini as thinly as possible (I use the flat side of my grater) In a large frying pan heat the olive oil with the garlic left whole (just to add flavour) and fry the zucchini in small batches so they brown quickly, when cooked drain on kitchen paper to absorb the excess oil until they all are done. Discard the garlic sprinkle the zucchini with salt and freshly ground pepper and stir in with the cooked pasta and pine nuts. Serve, add a squeeze of lemon juice, freshly grated parmesan and finish with chopped parsley