It’s funny how insignificant places can come to represent something quite meaningful.
(It’s especially funny how most of the important things that have ever happened to me have occurred in a distinctly average Italian restaurant; but we’re not here to discuss my lack of a social life.)
For me, Pizza Express used to be the place where all hope went to die. Somewhere hidden amongst the little salt and pepper shakers and half pints of Kronenburg were a million abruptly sliced trouser-legs of time; leaving the other leg of possibility to neatly snake around the tables and out to the street. It is was a place where hopes were crushed and romance wilted like a lonely mushroom under a hot grill.
Why? I guess I’d better start at the beginning.
I screwed up my A Levels; or rather I got distinctly average marks. You can thank a combination of boys, alcohol and being left in a room for a long period of time to my own devices with a piece of paper and a pencil. I’m glad for it; the time I spent ‘revising’ I doodled with extreme intensity and I’m now a creative, so I guess we can call it a training ground.
At the time it was devastating. I hadn’t got into my university. I had absolutely no idea what to do. Unable to bear the joy of my classmates celebrating and planning their futures, I shuffled off and for some inexplicable reason wanted pizza. I remember every single bite of that Margherita because it tasted like failure.
(Interesting to note at this point: I initially applied to dentistry and ended up doing English Lit. So in many ways, alcohol and boys saved me from an eternity of staring into people’s mouths. It is therefore a series of choices I’d recommend it to anyone.)
Following my rather slow transition to university I found myself in a long, monotonous relationship with a jazz musician for (gulp) three whole years. I’m not sure quite how it happened; jazz is supposed to be exciting, after all. But one day I woke up and calculated (at that point) that exactly one seventh of my life had slipped by in a period of life I now rather affectionately refer to as ‘Waiting For Bebop’.
Every Friday in two different cities for three whole years we frequented two outlets of Pizza Express. He had the same order each time: garlic doughballs to start, American Hot for main - and very, very occasionally we would share a desert.
Now there’s nothing wrong with garlic bread or pepperoni per se; but with 52 weeks of the year and an entire repertoire of food to choose from, I simply didn’t understand the mentality of anyone who would choose to devote themselves to pork and bread quite so diligently.
In a fit of rebellion I began to work my way steadily through the menu, ordering something different each time. In a desperate and childish way, I hoped being a devoted slave to variety would somehow bring to a head the obvious, soul-destroying stagnation in the relationship. I once ate a pizza with anchovies on it which I promptly threw up in a flowerpot, all in the aid of making my point. When that didn’t work, I knew what I had to do.
I was very keen to impress on my second (and last, to date) boyfriend the importance of Never, Ever eating at Pizza Express. That Pizza Express was the place that all romance withered and wrinkled away. To my immediate joy, he obliged to the point that never going was a point of pride. For a while, I had found the elixir of happy relationships - an absence of cured pork products.
Fast-forward two years and the halcyon days had, as they are often wont to do, turned sour. If we are to stick with the pizza metaphor: the boredom of making the same order is no worse than having your order chosen for you. I was still trapped; having to go somewhere every Friday is no different to not being able to go ever. Near the end I insisted on reneging on my two year promise. I felt like an ex-con eating his first meal back at home. It tasted bloody marvellous. I wanted to be free. I left him a week afterward.
Most recently I visited with my best friend. We talked about the usual; boys, booze, work, our flat. We’d cracked open a bottle of wine. I was halfway through main before I actually realised what I was putting in my mouth.
I’m not ashamed to say I had a moment of mystic self-realisation sat before a half-eaten American Hot pizza. It’s not quite Buddhism, granted… but something like it. Here we were; me and my best mate, discussing our hopes, dreams desires - in the very same place that for so long represented the antithesis.
The food is still average. The branding is poor. I will always, always hate the shitty tinkly jazz music they insist on playing. I will probably date some more awful boys. Some things will never change. However when I happen to walk past I can’t help but raise a smile, because for me it represents how far I’ve come and how much I’ve grown up.