Helen Fowler: I feel like I’ve left MS battle-ground behind

Writer Helen Fowler, who suffers from MS. Picture: TSPL
Writer Helen Fowler, who suffers from MS. Picture: TSPL
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The aroma of basil, garlic and rosemary tells us as soon as we arrive that we’re in a different country now. We left the other one behind when we stepped through the blue doorway on the Dalry Road into Locanda de Gusti.

Within seconds I have forgotten the charity shops and tattoo parlours outside. “I feel like I’m in Italy here,” I tell my husband and daughter.

Tins of tomatoes occupy an entire corner. Wooden dressers painted pink and blue stand against a wall. Good-natured laughter helps my shoulders relax.

It was a film about the desire to escape ordinary life – in this case, rain-sodden Britain following the First World War - that led us here. Enchanted April tells of two young wives who escape dreary and unhappy lives by fleeing to the sunshine of Italy. Their lives change absolutely in a place that turns out to be touched by magic.

Arriving at Locanda de Gusti is like taking the first step on a similar journey. As I’m sat at our table, I’m in my twenties again, experiencing an Italian food market for the first time, marvelling at the intensity of its colours after living in Scotland most of my life.

People are so happy here at Locanda; staff and clients alike. The good humour is almost tangible, bubbling and rising up into the atmosphere along with the aroma of rosemary, mint and other Mediterranean herbs.

Arriving here feels like leaving the battle-ground of my Multiple Sclerosis (MS) behind. Maybe it’s not far-fetched to see parallels with the women in Enchanted April who were fleeing the pain, frustration and sorrow of the war’s legacy.

READ MORE: Helen Fowler: MS diagnosis was almost a relief

We all feel like we are being welcomed into an Italian family. “I liked it, how the waitress explained things to me,” says my daughter. “She didn’t rush me or make me hurry up.” With encouragement from us all, she chooses Calzone for her main course – a bit of an experiment for her and one that works.

For pudding she decides on Pannacotta – but only after weighing up the decision with our waitress. Texture, consistency and similarity to other dishes are discussed in detail.

“Is it how you hoped it would be?” I ask, after she’s had her first spoonful.

“Yes – no, wait. It’s even better,” she replies.

She is proud of herself too for ordering - and drinking - mint tea, made with fresh leaves.

I feel so happy sat here with my husband and daughter that I really do forget about even having MS. It’s only when I get up from the table to go to the loo and stagger slightly (though I’ve drunk nothing stronger than San Pellegrino) that I remember I’m no longer that young girl in her early 20’s. I suppose I’m lucky that I had those years without MS as my constant companion.

These days I suffer from this incurable disease of my central nervous system. But, for a while, sat here in my very own Enchanted April, I manage to escape the fear and terror of having this illness.

READ MORE: Helen Fowler: How knitting helps deal with MS

There’s a character in the movie who discards her wooden walking stick at the end of their holiday, no longer needing its assistance. She plants it in the ground as she takes her leave of this paradise. There, over the following months, the stick takes root and sprouts branches that eventually flower and bear fruit.

I cannot help identifying with her. When I got my diagnosis of MS nearly two years ago I thought that my life or, rather, any hope of ever enjoying it again, was kaput. I am so grateful there are still moments of escape from the daily struggle.

Moments like my lunch today, when I can simply park my illness for a while. Park it and forget about it.

Helen Fowler is an Edinburgh based journalist and MS campaigner.

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