Chapter 7 : Eat, Sleep, Get Ill, Repeat in Part

It’s been a funny old week. My working week begins on Tuesday, and this one got off to a flying start with an invitation to lunch from one of the teachers at the school. Lunch, as the main meal of the day, is a BIG deal in Italy. As we made the vertical descent from the school towards the various central eateries, Prof. Marino asked me if I would prefer a traditional Italian lunch (a multi-course affair where a massive bowl of pasta is belittled to the role of entrée and followed by meat or fish) or an aperitivo. Anyone that has travelled to Italy will know that there is only one sane answer to this question, and so off for aperitivi we went. The aperitivo tradition, I’m told, began when those indulging in an afternoon/early evening drink enjoyed a little accompaniment to their beverage – perhaps a bowl of olives, or a few delicately arranged hams. Something got a bit confused with the passage of time however, and now the food takes centre stage. My expression went from one of eager anticipation to speechless wonder to slight concern as the waiter placed plate after plate of food on the table. It reminded me of that scene in Bagpuss where all the mice come out of the ballet shoe. Know the one? Never mind. There was, naturally, the token bowel of olives, but these faded into the background of a scene filled with dough balls, stuffed tomatoes, fried cheese, savoury croissants, breaded rice balls, pasta, not so mini ham sandwiches, stuffed mushrooms and, well, you get the idea. It was all delicious (ok the stuffed tomatoes were weird but let’s not split hairs), and everything tastes that much better when you can eat outside overlooking the sea. It was also a good opportunity for me to pick Prof. Marino’s brain about life as a teacher, and I have to say the case she put forward was very convincing. Food for thought as well as for my stomach then – if that’s not the definition of a successful meal then I suggest someone passes me a dictionary.

After a day’s work I think we can all agree that I deserved a rest, which is fortunate because Wednesday is my midweek day off! Sadly though, all that remains in my mind of this day is the disappointment of returning to fish m chips only to be served fish m crisps! Let us move on before any more damage is done by their scanty commitment to correctly labelled potato snacks.

On Thursday the theatre came to the school, and we all piled into the main hall (me facing the awkwardness of which student to embarrass by sitting next to them) to watch a show called ‘Tune into English’ – a one-man karaoke production to help language learners get their head around English. While probably very useful for the students, for me this was just outrageously good fun – getting paid to sing along to all my favourite tunes (now I can FINALLY replace my confused mumbling to ‘Budapest’ with actual words!) Admittedly there was a slightly awkward moment when Fergal, the one-man of the production, came over with his microphone to check with me, the only other native English speaker in the room, who Princess Bea’s parents were, only to find me completely clueless on the matter – is that UK general knowledge?? But overall, good fun was had by all, and I even learnt a new hand gesture to show my parents (they’ll be thrilled!)

Winter, in contrast to its normal majestic arrival, fell in a heap on Calabria on Friday. Who needs Autumn when you can go straight from glorious eating outside days to thunder that jolts you awake and torrential hail overnight? The day before I had been borderline ecstatic to feel the first cool breezes breaking up the humidity of the last month, suddenly the prospect of winter, even an Italian winter, seemed unbearable. I’m already picking out my puffer jacket in prep for my return to the UK. Naturally, I got ill: I hadn’t been feeling my best the day before and with my sickly disposition (as Lois affectionately describes it) it was only a matter of time. I pathetically shivered my way through four classes before going home to sleep for a good fifteen hours. Being ill away from home isn’t great – normally my dad brings me Lucozade and my mum will poke her head round the door in case I’m too weak to call out for refreshments. Here I had to make do with Fanta, which I’m not sure possesses quite the same healing properties, but I DID get well taken care of at the school, where Silvana, my mentor teacher/temporary mum kept me furnished with hot drinks all day, lent me her umbrella and drove me home. Although I didn’t quite feel up to going out dancing, as had been the original plan, I did make it to my first Italian class at the Oxford Centre that evening. After all the new experiences I’ve been having lately, there was something immensely reassuring about sitting down with some good old-fashioned worksheets to talk about gli italiani e lo sport. I loved it – the people at the Oxford Centre are super friendly, and for me there’s something about being at school when it’s dark outside that brings back that childish excitement reminiscent of Christmas productions, when we would all troop to school in the dark and be allowed a lie in til ten the next day to recover from the wild night before.

Saturday was a great day at the school. Working with a really nice teacher, I got through two fairly standard lessons about buying tickets (using ma home made role-play cards – could probably afford to up the technological ante a bit), before teaching a last lesson on reality TV. As part of this, I asked my students to come up with their own reality TV show, including name, concept and prize for the winner. I had intended to come up with some kind of reward for the best idea, but, as I completely forgot to organise anything in time, I guess publishing it on here will have to do. The name of the show was ‘Drunk Cake’, in which the contestants each down half a litre of wine before completing an obstacle course, during which they collect the ingredients to make a cake. At the finish line they each bake a cake, and are judged on speed of drinking the wine, speed of completing the obstacle course and the taste of the cake. For this kind of genius – I for one would be well up for taking part in the first series – I feel the group really ought to be moved up a year.

So that’s my week. Heavy on the school-based activities, which like the little swot I am I really enjoy, bit light on the extra-curriculars, but hey, I was ill guys. Next week I can look forward to Saturday off work (those four mornings a week can be a bit much) and to my first of three whole visits before I go home for Christmas!!! Ellie, who’s spending her Year Abroad in Bologna*, is making the long journey down South on Sunday, so we’ll have to be sure to cram all the fun in to make it worth her while – first stop Sotto Zero!

* Here’s a link to Ellie’s year abroad blog, I wanted to do the cool hyperlink thing but I think I must have been ill for the ICT lesson where we were told how to do it. Damn sickly disposition.


Chapter 6 : In which I write a melancholy post, but decide to publish this instead

I’ll be honest, last week wasn’t a hugely positive one for me. Homesickness kicked in and, considering myself a blogger of the upmost integrity, I had written a post that tried hard to finish on a high, but that ultimately lamented my involuntary exile away from everything that I know and love. Here are the high (low?) lights for you, just so you don’t feel like you missed out on anything: no one here gets me and my English uptightness, there’s way too much needless bureaucracy and to say that the men here can be forward would be a gross insult to litotes. I was coming up to the month mark and was meant to be having the time of my life, but instead I was feeling more wake me up when October ends. So many of my friends have told me that they’re jealous of me, but I think what they mean is ‘I want to go on holiday to Italy’, not ‘I want to go and live alone in Italy’. It is a difference that I’ve felt quite acutely now that the honeymoon period is over, and I see what I’ve really signed on for.

I needed to reset my thinking, realign my chakras, if you’re into that sort of thing, and there’s something symbolic about the start of the month that makes it a whole lot easier. I suppose the start of the week will have to do.

Mondays never feel like Mondays to me because I don’t work – my luxurious lifestyle affords me Sundays, Mondays and Wednesdays off. So I decided to hop on a train to Scilla, a picturesque little town along the Calabrian coastline. The weather was perfect (not quite as uncomfortably hot as it has been, but sitting nicely in the 20s), the sea was gorgeously clear and there was even a real life english couple sitting at the table next to me for lunch! I found listening to their chat about the best places to rent property in the area even more comforting than my octopus salad and seafood spaghetti – which, by the way, were delicious.

Scilla is linked by a little coastal tunnel to Chianalea – without a doubt my favourite year abroad discovery so far. Chianalea is the Italy of postcards, the kind of place that I want to show people when they visit. My Dad has never been to Italy before, but has often listened politely while I go on about how great it is. I had feared that, if all I could show him was the city centre, he might leave wondering what all the fuss was about. ‘No danger of that here’, I thought to myself as I lunched on a little deck over the sea, to the ditty of the waves lapping the rocks and cool wine filling glasses, making that delightful gentle glugging noise. Wandering through the narrow cobbled streets of this tiny harbour town, I felt like something out of La Pointe Courte (not least because the place seemed to be full of extremely good-natured cats). A gentle breeze bathed me in fresh salty air, but apart from that the town was perfectly still. Chianalea seemed to have mastered the calm that I was seeking.

Sitting on the beach writing this, I feel like that same calm is slowly ebbing back to me after a few days of agitation. I still feel a bit nervous about something, but there is something immensely therapeutic about the sea. I’ve learnt that the most important thing here is not to have expectations. There have been days where absolutely nothing has gone well. And then there are days like today, where everything is unexpectedly perfect. And that, to quote Gandalf, is an encouraging thought.

Chapter 5 : In which a normal day is no such thing

Teachers always say that they like their job because no two days are the same. For me, this applies to my whole life in Italy, not just the few hours I spend in the classroom. To prove my point, here is a day (TOday, in fact) in my life:

My alarm goes off for school at 7am. I grimace. Trudge to the kitchen to make myself an Italian espresso, promptly adding a bucket of hot water to turn it into a nice recognisable americano. Have run out of suitable breakfast foods, so settle for a peach and some biscuits.

Already pretty hot as I leave for school at 8.20am, I give a cheery nod to the man from the 3 shop who recognises me from last week – it’s a small city. Slightly unnerved to see a lot of students from the school meandering along in the opposite direction when they should be in their first lessons of the day. My walk takes me past the local nursery, which has been amusingly translated as ‘baby parking’. I take the street escalators for the last leg of the journey (why have these not come to the UK???) as am not feeling quite up to the near vertical climb to school this early on.

On arrival at the school I find no students but plenty of teachers in the staffroom – there’s a strike. While many of the students have stopped at nothing to selflessly sacrifice a day at school in the name of democracy, it seems the teachers are taking a more leisurely approach to the protests. My two classes are cancelled due to a lack of willing participants – the English teachers invite me out for a coffee instead. Two minutes later, I contemplate my next move. (To say that coffee breaks are brief here would be quite the understatement: espressos are drunk standing up at the counter quicker than you can say ‘no sugar’). One of the teachers invites me shopping – I gladly accept. She shows me where I can buy clothes for ‘young people’, but the majority of our time is spent in Zara. I fall for a beautiful blue tunic – perfect for work as soon as the winter (or at least autumn) weather arrives, and what’s €39.95 to a working gal? I also invest in a copy of Dan Brown’s ‘Il simbolo perduto’ to get a grip on my language learning. The shop assistant does not look convinced that I will be able to read it. He underestimates me. As we leave the shops the sound of drums tells us that the protest march is approaching. I recognise some of my students in the throng. They motion for me to join them. I politely decline. The crowd passes as a lefty with a megaphone rouses spectator support – I pretend to listen but understand nothing.

The day takes a darker turn as I have my first encounter with the famous Italian ‘furbizia’ (cunning) since I’ve arrived. Opposite the Museo Nazionale I spot a stall selling a delicious kind of honey-infused bread that I haven’t seen since the day I got here. In the spirit of the holiday, I mean strike, I decide that I must have some. The stall owner bags up my bread for me. I hand him €10, expecting change. He tells me that I owe him another €8. I give him a €20 expecting my €10 back, he keeps the lot but throws in a ‘free’ packet of biscotti worth a maximum of €3. Having neither the will nor the vocabulary to say ‘give me my money back you thieving b*****d’, I am left speechless and bewildered as he warmly shakes my hand and offers me a dried fig. And so he should, I’m keeping him in hot dinners for the whole of winter! I leave momentarily disillusioned, chastising myself for shopping in such an obvious tourist trap.

All is forgiven though as I head to the Museo Nazionale (via a cash point as thanks to the morning’s shopping/robbery I am now broke), home of the famous Bronzi of the Magna Graecia, a reminder of Calabria’s place in ancient Greek history. My €5 ticket seems to have bought me a personal guided tour, as a curator accompanies me around the whole exhibition, which, despite being made up of under 10 exhibits while the museum is being refurbished, extends into a two and a half hour tour, and I get the feeling that was the edited version. Halfway through, my guide Antonio’s friends invite him for a coffee. For some reason I go with them. We nip across the road to De Mauro for an espresso before resuming the Magna Graecia experience. Antonio’s explanation of the sculptures in the museum takes us onto the topics of the fundamental differences between men and women, the core values of humanity and the importance of a multicultural society. I feel well and truly enlightened when our journey comes to an end, and only in Italy would a tour guide finish up with ‘I feel like I’ve been doing all the talking. Tell me about yourself’.

Leaving the museum with an invitation to return tomorrow to see more (?), I head out in search of lunch. ‘Fish m chips’ (not a typo), a recommendation from my students as a place to satisfy my craving for some good potatoes, is just across the road. The shop offers a variety of delectable meals, most notably ‘fish n chips’, ‘fish n fish’ and ‘chips’. I take my meal – a decent sized cone of chips topped with a variety of battered seafood – to the promenade. I munch away while watching the waves – bliss.

Only a brief pause, mind you, as in the afternoon I welcome my parents into the 21st century with their first ever Skype date. It’s great to see them. We marvel about what modern technology is capable of, I boast about the weather and we biro in a date for a November visit!

All in all, I’d say a pretty successful and surreal day, and it ain’t over yet! As I write this I mull over my options for the evening – the most appealing of which is reading on the beach, the most likely of which is a nap. I’ll need energy for whatever tomorrow has in store for me!

Chapter 4 : In which I learn that for every Antonello there’s a Carmello

This post came about because I am a big Danny Wallace fan. I think he represents what I would have been like if I had been born male (feel free to use that to judge whether or not you’d like his work). One of the reasons I like him so much is that you get the feeling when reading his books that he writes them more for himself than for anyone else, and that publishing is a sort of by-product. I’m all for a bit of self-indulgence, no occasion necessary, and in a way that’s exactly what this blog is.

Anyway, here’s what Danny Wallace has to say about strangers in his book ‘Friends Like These’*:

‘I’m a firm believer in the kindness of strangers – in the fact that strangers really can be friends you haven’t met yet – and other things you might sometimes find on a bumper sticker. I relish the chance to meet new people, and I have found that wherever you go on this strange little earth of ours, you will generally find that they are good. But rightly or wrongly, sometimes you feel awkward. Sometimes you feel strange. You shouldn’t – there’s generally no reason to.’

Ok, it’s not exactly proverb-worthy, but I like the sentiment, and I do agree that strangers are sometimes just un-made friends (and let’s face it, if I don’t buy into it it’s going to be a pretty lonely year!) And, whilst I’m perhaps a little way off relishing meeting new people, being out here, it is getting easier every day. Besides, I am definitely a happier person for having met Carmello, the friendly, stereotypically bronzed and speedo-donning Italian man, who helped me rush my belongings to cover when a dip in the sea in the afternoon sunshine became a mad rush to safety in a tropical storm. He even offered me his phone number in case anyone tried to give me any trouble.**

Then there was Simone and his lovely friend whose name I can’t believe I’ve already forgotten, who I met in the queue to board the plane to Turin. They opened with the classic ‘Excuse me, but why are you here?’***, and we ended up having a great chat about all the places I ought to go while I’m in Italy. They were just returning from a holiday to Sicily: ‘We came here to eat’.

And although I could have done without meeting the slightly slimy Antonello, who told me I was ‘bella’ and that my Italian was ‘perfetto’ (blatant lying with the latter means that I can’t trust him with the former), without him I’d never have been able to practise the Italian for ‘No, sorry, I’m going now, bye!’

I suspect this is something that will never catch on back home. I do enjoy the odd chat with strangers in England, but it’s almost exclusively at overground train stations and with the over 60s – hardly a culture of openness. But maybe it’s something to work on. For every Antonello there’s a Carmello, and for every stranger I chat to there’s a chance to practice my Italian, learn a bit more about my surroundings, and hey, maybe even make some new friends.

*If you do decide to explore the opera of Danny Wallace, don’t start with that. Read Yes Man.

**I saw Carmello on the beach again today. He informed me assertively that it’s winter now, despite still sporting only his pink speedos.

***It is a constant source of surprise to Italians that I should find myself in this part of Italy. The general consensus seems to be that if you’re going South you might as well go the whole hog and head to Sicily. Will take the ferry to Messina and report back.

Chapter 3 : In which I travel the length of the country in the quest for the holy shroud

Although I tend to refer to my stay in Italy as my ‘holiday’ (‘year abroad’ is way too scary), it may surprise you that I am actually here to work as an English language assistant. As part of my (very brief) training to equip me with the basic skills to do this, the language assistants from across Italy were summoned to a two day conference in Turin. If you’re au fait with your Italian geography (which I thought I was until confusion over which side of Italy Rome was on had me panicking that my connection flight was taking me straight back to Calabria), you’ll know that Turin is in the north west of Italy. And that Calabria is in the deep, deep South. Hence why I had to take two planes to get there, and why I decided to do that two days before the conference, thinking that for all the effort and expense I might as well throw in a mosey round Italy’s estranged capital at the same time.

My outbound flight was with Vueling, an airline that completely redefines the budget experience for the worse: Despite being an internal flight IN ITALY, everything – safety briefings, flight announcements, the little writing saying ‘life vest under your seat’ on the stowaway tables – was in Spanish. Surprisingly, the plane, which made a noise disarmingly like that of a shredder with a serious paper jam for the entire journey, arrived in one piece (late of course) at Rome airport, leaving me to dash through the terminal in a desperate bid to make my connection. Luckily I’m a born power walker.

It did feel odd though, being in Rome, a city that I have always wanted to visit, with the single goal of getting out of there again as quickly as possible. But then I had my sights set on Turin! City of power! City of industry! City of really, really, ridiculously massive buildings. So much baroque. As cities go, the centre of Turin is by no means large – you can pretty much walk it – but what it’s lacking in breadth it makes up for in height. It certainly feels grand and, if I’m honest, when I first arrived on Saturday night, a little intimidating. Still, as I went in search of all that the city had to offer, I found it increasingly inviting, to the point where I was pretty sad to say goodbye this morning. From its distinctive Mole Antonelliana (‘for a time the world’s tallest brick building’ – very impressive but frustratingly difficult to take a good photo of), to its superb Piazza San Carlo (‘Turin’s drawing room’!), to the famed Museo Egizio (where despite my best efforts I became one of those people that takes hundreds of photos of museum exhibits that never get looked at again), the city has plenty to excite and delight the eager tourist.

And then, of course, there’s the Holy Shroud. Although I had never heard of it until I planned this trip, I have since come to accept that it’s a pretty big deal. The Duomo in Turin houses a length of linen that mysteriously bears the imprint of a crucified man, that is now a well-entrenched holy relic. Although my DK guide (surely the most trusted source around) highlights the fact that a carbon dating test has completely ruled out the possibility of this being THE Shroud, the leaflet in the Duomo offers many persuasive arguments to the contrary. Whether you’re religious or not, though, the shroud IS impressive. I found myself somewhat mesmerised by the sad, solemn face gazing down before me. Even if the one on display is only a replica. Whose head is about five times the size of that of a normal human. Nevertheless, I could probably have watched it all afternoon, but was spared any difficulties that might have arisen from this as for just 80 cents I was able to purchase my own tiny textile copy.

It was with the Lord quite literally by my side, then, that I headed to the conference on Monday. I’ve got to admit, it was a relief to speak English. Don’t get me wrong, I would be really disappointed if I only made English friends while I’m here, but at the same time Italian is tiring. It’s impossible to have a casual conversation extending beyond ‘come stai?’, due to the level of concentration on my part that the whole exercise requires. So, for those two days, I indulged myself. Sadly, the event itself was a bit of a disappointment.  The co-ordinator for the British council in Italy has recently left the organisation, taking with her, it seems, every scrap of useful information on starting a new life there. ‘Ask the french’ was the genuine response to most of our questions about the extremely complicated banking situation we were all trying to work through. That said, I did pick up some useful teaching tips and met some great people to go out for a birra with, and that’s got to be worth a flight.

Tomorrow is my first day in school and, I imagine, when all the hard work really begins. But, as an extremely cheery Spanish assistant from previous years pointed out to us, you just have to go in assuming that everything will go well. So that’s exactly what I’m going to do, and if I arrive on time, and don’t fall flat on my face in front of the students on the first day, then I’m gona call that a roaring success.