Chapter 13 : In which I regret the journey

Spoiler alert: this whiny post about Italian trains does not end with some profound reflection about how great the Year Abroad is. It ends with me still whining about Italian trains, so don’t hold your breath.

Before I begin, I would like to point out that train tickets in Italy are extremely good value. Trains in the UK, eye-wateringly expensive to begin with, become nothing short of a joke when compared to Italian prices. Here ends everything positive that I have to say on the subject.

The train ride to and from Rome was quite possibly the longest journey of my life. My memory isn’t good enough to give you that fact in all certainty, but at a cool eight hours each way, it was definitely up there.

Being the jumpy foreigner that I am – (what’s that? you thought the carefree year abroad persona might have started to rub off on me after two months? I laugh at your naive optimism) – I had been afraid of being left alone in a carriage with a nutter on the long train rides to and from Rome, both of which began at the reasonable and safe hour of 2pm, but which finished closer to 10pm, which, although not the dead of night, would mean that it would be pitch black and that my side of town would be deserted by the time I got home.

Of course, I needn’t have worried: I was seated alone among an enormous Italian family both ways. Classic. On the way out, I was in a six-seater compartment with a lovely quiet lady for the first hour, and a family of five for the next seven. On the way home I was in a carriage among a family of twenty-seven (no exaggeration, I overheard the matriarch telling the conductor), for the first eight  and a half hours, and alone for the last fifteen minutes.

The journey out was fairly standard: the family laughed good humourdly as the (fully-grown adult) brothers engaged in a few friendly fights – both of the tickle and the serious physical variety, occasionally offering me a chocolate or some gum. Perhaps it was because I was full excitement for the trip ahead, or perhaps it was because they kept an eye on my bag while I nipped to the in-train facilities, but as we arrived at our destination I bore the family no ill will, all the same being glad to regain a bit of personal space.

But my God, the journey back. My ears have never been so assaulted for such a prolonged period of time. They’re still ringing now, a week later. The twenty-seven strong family of Sicilians, like me, alighted the train at Rome, and, unlike me, talked NON-STOP for the next eight hours. By my great misfortune in the game of chance that is the advanced booking lottery, my seat was smack bang in the middle of their group, so most of the time they were also shouting over/through me. Initially, there was a fellow lone-passenger sitting opposite me, with whom I was able to share the odd look of fear and companionship. He got off the train at Naples, taking with him the last dregs of my sanity. I nearly spat my water out when, as he did so, the matriarch said ‘gosh, are we at Naples already? Time flies!’ It’s exhausting being around such a great deal of noise and enthusiasm all the time, I imagine it’s how primary school teachers feel at the kids’ end of term school disco: lots of shrieking and running around with little order to the proceedings. Except the disco lasts eight hours. And there is no escape. The general ‘frastuono’ – my new favourite word that, given it means ‘din’ or ‘racket’, I have cause to use all the time here – was unbearable.

Often there would be several family members in the aisles, leaning literally over or on my body to chat, resting against my innocent arm, passing food over me… in my Britishness I made an effort to make my limbs as small and compact as possible to accommodate their rudeness, but jeez, I’ve got to put my left arm somewhere. The youngest of the group spent a lot of the journey toddling up and down the aisle of the carriage, no parent in sight but adoring extended relatives all around – cute for the first fifteen minutes, okay after an hour, a bit repetitive after the sixth, especially as everyone sitting around him would all wave and shriek for his attention whenever he toddled by, basking in the adoration like bloody Harry Styles.

The family did a weird combination of attempting to speak to me and thinking I couldn’t understand what they were saying – if you’d thought the two were irreconcilable then you would be wrong, and I would have counted myself among your number until this day. As I read my copy of the Sunday Times (I had been ecstatic to find one in Rome, totally worth €5, and naturally was taking the upmost care to ensure that turning the pages of my broadsheet brought as little disturbance to my fellow passengers as possible – why I bothered is now quite beyond me),  the matriarch next to whom I sat said in a loud voice to her family ‘ENGLISH’, nodding at me. Except she didn’t say the Italian word for english, ‘inglese’, which she could be forgiven for assuming I wouldn’t understand, she said the English word, ‘English’ – which she could not. I used this as an opportunity to say a brief ‘ciao’, with the obvious subtext of showing them that if they talked about me I would understand them, but alas, twenty minutes later they were back to merrily discussing me as if I were deaf. This happened again to me in the staff room at work today – if one more person asks the person next to me ‘who is this girl?’ or ‘why is she here?’ I will be forced to reply in my frankest Italian (ha, as if I have any idea how to differentiate my tone).

Of course, occasionally there were moments of repose from the familial chatter, namely when a group of students started playing traditional Neapolitan songs – guitar, backing singers, the lot – further down the carriage, accompanied by loud clapping, stamping feet and shouts of ‘bravi!!!’ from the matriarch. As I tried my best not to add to the racket with my own howl of displeasure, I mused that this is the kind of year abroad experience that I should be treasuring. This was ‘real Italy’. Instead, I buried my head in some Dickens and said a silent prayer for December to come sooner.

Call me a killjoy, call me uptight, call me what you like: but please, never, ever call me and ask if I want to join you on a cross-country train ride in Italy. Give me a British carriage, where answering your mobile in a whisper arouses the instant hatred of everyone around you, and the rustle of a crisp packet attracts the mutinous swivel of one hundred angry heads, any day of the week, and I shall know I am home.

Chapter 12 : Romeward Bound!

Last weekend I finally saved myself the embarrassment of being an Italy enthusiast that has never visited its capital by heading up to Rome!

As my gentleman’s guide book says, ‘In ancient times all roads led to Rome. The modern traveller from the North has the choice of three main roads and two main railways.’ Coming from the south, I had the choice of a short flight or a ridiculously long train ride. For some reason I opted for the latter, meaning I have spent fifteen hours on trains in the space of three days. The journey was something that probably had to be lived through to be believed, and I think that I shall devote a separate post to it, lest I mar the Rome experience with my very British complaining.

So, let’s fast forward to the fun bit: I arrived at Rome! And it’s beautiful.Those of you who know how I feel about Florence will know that it is to Rome’s greatest credit when I say that I liked it almost as much. I would even dare to say the same, but obviously will have to go to Florence one more time to check (heh heh).

In Rome I met up with my friend Mariana, a fellow language assistant who’s been placed in Reggio Emilia – conveniently, Rome is about exactly between us. We only stayed for two nights, which worked out as a day and a half to see everything. And we saw EVERYTHING. Well, everything except the Sistine Chapel ceiling (and walls, and the outside of the building in general) – for which I will have to return.

But the amount that we did see was phenomenal. Colosseum? Check. Pantheon? Check. Forum? St Paul’s? Piazza Navona? Spanish Steps? Trevi Fountain? Check check check check check. Unsurprisingly, we were absolutely exhausted come Monday afternoon and goodbyes!

11407_552442424891584_3262766027865382876_nSome of Rome’s most famous offerings: The Colosseum and the Pantheon

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Mariana and I were both completely blown away by the sheer scale of everything. There’s always that fear when one goes to visit sites that are as famous as those in Rome that they will never quite live up to the pictures or your imagination. Not the case here. It is impossible to be anything but awestricken by the ancient centre. We were unlucky that both the Spanish Steps and the Trevi fountain were covered in scaffolding (we visited them anyway of course), but it’s not just the main places of interest – there is beauty and stunning architecture everywhere you turn, to the point where I was starting to become a little nonplussed by it all. We would see a beautiful church and just be all ‘oh, there’s a church here.’ Take a quick snap and move on. I’ll call it sight saturation.

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Just another Roman church – anyone else think it looks suspiciously like the Duomo in Milan?

Despite just exuding magnificence, though, Rome seems an odd choice for the capital city. Sure, it’s more or less in the centre of the peninsula, and it is incredibly important in Italy’s history, but that’s just the thing: Rome feels stopped in time. Everywhere was either deserted or swarming with tourists – where were all the normal Romans? Certainly not anywhere near the centre. And while the historic buildings are absolutely gorgeous, what was there beyond that? No one seemed to be really doing anything, everyone was just admiring. Quietly. Turin, Italy’s estranged capital, seemed to me far more geared up to be a bustling industrial hub than Rome. It’s a romantic more than practical capital. There are only two different lines on the metro, for example, and although it was straightforward and efficient and all that you’d want a metro to be (except empty), if you compare it with the huge tube maps of Paris and London it all just seems a bit underwhelming.

As a tourist, though, that’s just a reason to love Rome more. We were luckissimo with the weather: the clear, bright, sunny days were perfect for wandering around the centre. The cherry on the Roman cake for me? The river. I love a river. The Cam is my favourite, the Thames isn’t bad, but walking along the banks of the Tiber on the far side of the city, with trees draping their autumn leaves over the wall alongside, was pure bliss.

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Me and the Tiber, St. Peter’s right in the background!

In fact, we managed to snatch quite a few moments of tranquility in between rushing from monument to monument. With the short time that we had we were keen to see as many of the famous sites as possible, but if I were to return, which I hope I will, I would devote a lot more time to the hidden aspects of the city. Rome is remarkably peaceful,  and in terms of little undiscovered corners and tucked away coffee bars, it’s the city that keeps on giving – from beautiful craft shops through to a woman busking traditional Ukrainian songs (identified by Mariana, not me!) to a man jus’ chilling doing tai chi in the park – there are constant reminders that the spirit of Rome can be found in so much more than what you get on the postcards. It couldn’t have been a better first look at the city, nor a better weekend.

Chapter 11 : In which most of the Edwards are in one place again

This weekend I was treated to a visit from my parents. Seeing them here in Reggio, right in the toe of Italy, pootling along to my doorstep in their hire car as if it were no more than a casual visit to Cambridge, was one of the most surreal things that has happened since I’ve been here, and that’s saying quite a lot!

Reggio isn’t really geared up for foreign holidaymakers. For starters, no one really speaks English. This isn’t a criticism – I doubt that Italian tourists in London are treated to anyone speaking their native tongue – but it is surprising when you compare that to places like Florence and (I presume) Rome, where even when you try and speak to the locals in Italian they will respond in English. Furthermore, there aren’t that many hotels. The tourism here seems to be of a seaside resort nature, and as such it completely shuts down over winter: in the first few weeks of my arrival the nightclubs, or ‘lidos’ as they are called here, that lined the sea front were being dismantled, meaning I had to kiss goodbye the dream of finding my party-hard alter ego in Reggio (no, I wasn’t holding out much hope either).

As such, the teeny hotel my parents found themselves in had only six rooms, and in order to obtain the complimentary hotel breakfast you had to follow the equally teeny hotelier down the road and round the corner to one of his mate’s cafes. It’s only when you end up going on a spontaneous hike like this that the language barrier becomes a problem, as my Dad reported that once their guide had laughed heartily at the fact that he was wearing a t-shirt on what he must have assumed was an arctic November morning (it was about 15 degrees), they had pretty much exhausted their communal vocabulary. Comprehension difficulties aside, though, Italian folk are extremely hospitable, something that, living as a local for the last few months, I had completely forgotten, and being treated to liqueurs on the house and compliments on my Italian at various wonderful eateries over the weekend was a lovely reminder.

What characterises visits from your parents is that they’ll say things like ‘I think there’s a national park near here, shall we go?’ and will manage to track down marmalade even in shops bearing the title ‘Specialità Calabresi’ – who knew?

They’ll also bring you lots and lots and lots of treats. I’d mentioned I was missing British chocolate, and my mum had said she might have some celebrations kicking about that she could bring. I was somewhat overwhelmed, therefore, by the boxes of heroes and celebrations, multipack of dairy milks, mince pies, biscuits and even Kendal mint cake that were eventually bestowed on me as a community effort from my parents, sister and grandma. On top of that, we ate out for every meal while they were here, and I finally managed to get hold of the pizza that I’ve been craving for the best part of a month (never thought I’d have difficulty finding one in Italy!) So it is with some relief for my waistline if nothing else that I had to say goodbye to them on Monday evening.

Seeing my parents has been a great morale booster for the rest of term, which suddenly seems quite short if I think that we’re well into November now. Acting as their interpreter for the weekend has made me see that my Italian has come along quite a way since I arrived, while just kicking about in Italy, drinking cocktails and meandering along the busy main street at night, made the experience seem a whole lot more like a holiday and less like a compulsory year of self-discovery. The end of the first leg of the journey is in sight now, as I will be heading home for Christmas in just over four week’s time. Before that though I am going to Rome, hopefully to Naples and welcoming a few more visitors here – amazing how much I’ve been able to cram in, and yet I’ve still only scratched the surface of everything that Italy has to offer. That’s what makes it such a great place to be based for a year abroad, and what will keep me eagerly flicking through my guide book over the Christmas break.

Chapter 10 : ‘Reflections on Cambridge’ or ‘The land that free time forgot’

I know I am not alone in what I am about to say. Somewhere between the long hot post A-level summer and reaching week five of Michaelmas term, the unwitting Cambridge arts student realises with not a little bewilderment that they no longer have access to that delightful pocket of hours they once referred to as free time.

I’ve always considered myself a hard worker, but until I started as an undergraduate, it had never been out of necessity. I spent free periods in the library at school because it meant that I could chill out at the weekends. I put a lot of effort into essays that didn’t count towards my grade because I am a sucker for praise. Now, things are a bit different. If I slacked on an essay, it would really show during the hour that one of the country’s top academics dissected it with me. They might ask me something like this:

‘So you’ve said here that the city is portrayed with almost feminine qualities in the film, and I just wondered what exactly you meant by that?’

Me: Yeah, to be honest I’d just forget everything I’ve said in that paragraph, it was getting to that point in the evening where reaching the word count was my sole goal and I was throwing out theories that may be creative genius but that I have absolutely no evidence to support in the cold light of day.

Except you can’t say that, because they’ve taken the time to mark your essay, and they, a serious academic, are giving you personal, one on one feedback on something that you boshed out a few days ago in order to have the weekend free to go to so and so’s birthday at funky fun house and enjoy the next day hungover, safe in the knowledge that the essay was done.

Instead, I will reply with a string of abstract ideas that I hope sound intelligent but that are in reality fairly transparent in their nonsensicalness. By this point in the supervision, usually at about the forty-five minute mark, neither of us has any idea what I’m saying anymore, and I will use my hapless supervision partner as a prop to shield my shortcomings, hoping that I at least managed to claw some dignity back in my conclusion.

For this reason, this hour of painstakingly detailed feedback, slacking off on an essay is no longer a viable option for those among us who blush easily and can’t think on their feet. For the last two years then, I have studied harder than I ever have before. My Cambridge friends will laugh at this, as I am known for being the least studious of the group, but I believe this to be more of a reflection on Cambridge than on my lacklustre approach to my education.

Arts students suffer from the perennial fear that ‘there is always more to do’. You could always add one more text to that bibliography, polish up that middle section where your argument kind of loses its way, or, as a linguist, spend those free hours once the essay is done working on a difficult grammar point or revising vocabulary. The concept of work ending and fun starting is no longer the clear line that the school bell gave us at 3.30pm, rather a somewhat fudgy shadow residing at around the 11pm mark for me, closer to 2am for those that can maintain their concentration for a few hours longer. Of course, we’re not working solidly from dawn til dusk, but the breaks that we do take fall more into the accidental category – having a two hour lunch break because you get lost on your facebook feed, or heading down to the bar for a quick caffeine fix and getting caught up in conversation – as opposed to the conscious decision ‘I am going to relax now’. What’s more, people rarely take time off just to chill out. If people aren’t working, they are usually engaging in a specific activity, like going to the cinema or meeting friends for dinner. It’s rare just to go and have some downtime.

This phenomenon affects individuals in different ways. For me, it just means a heightened sense of guilt. I don’t have the attention span that some others are blessed (cursed?) with, meaning that I still award myself plenty of breaks, but they are accompanied by the niggling feeling that I really ought to be in the library. This includes evenings and weekends: basically if you’re not in a lecture, the shower or bed, you don’t really have an excuse not to be studying. For others, it means that that is pretty much exactly what they do, and many people struggle to reach that elusive work/life balance.

I know that anyone familiar with the length of Cambridge holidays, or doing a science subject, will read this and scoff at the very idea that arts students have more work. That’s the frustrating thing: we probably don’t. But the mindset that we’ve trained ourselves into as aspiring individuals is to keep working on something until the time runs out. Some would call it perfectionism, I suppose.

Something my Italian teacher (because of course, despite living in Italy, I have taken it upon myself to enrol myself in an evening class) said the other day really struck me. A classmate asked for a definition of ‘la vita frenetica’ – I prepared to tune out, as I already knew what the frenetic lifestyle we modern citizens deal with was, and that it didn’t really apply to me: I wouldn’t consider myself a particularly stressed out person, in fact I’d say the opposite. But then my teacher went on to describe her interpretation of it, which went a little something like this:

‘The frenetic lifestyle is about how we never take time out, we never stop. We work longer hours, we are constantly connected by phone and by the internet, we rarely have free time, and when we do we feel like we should fill it with some kind of self-improvement. You’re all here at this class, people travel, they do exercise – we never just stop.’

Somewhat alarmingly, I felt like my teacher had just summed up my whole existence. I had been toying with the idea of switching degree disciplines to English before I came out here, but had dismissed it as the travelling would be ‘good for me’. Now here I am, out on my big adventure, having a fairly decent time but still thinking that maybe English was the way to go – a decision that’s going to be a lot harder, probably impossible to put right in my final year. And, because I work short hours, I have felt the need to fill them up to resemble my university schedule, so on top of lesson planning and working on my dissertation for university, I’m taking Italian classes, I’ve joined the school choir, started a blog, tried to travel around as much as possible and decided I might as well take part in National Novel Writing Month as well. Even with all that, I still feel like I have more free time than I’ve ever had before in my life. And instead of it being liberating, I actually find it quite daunting. I don’t wake up thinking ‘Woo hoo! Another commitment-less day! Let’s see what’s on Iplayer’, I wake up thinking ‘right, how can I make use of the hours today?’ and in the evening, it’s ‘what have I achieved?’ and if the answer is ‘not a lot’ I still feel guilty. Even when there is nothing that I’m supposed to be doing.

A particular memory sticks with me from sixth form. I was at a friend’s house and we were all watching TV, when the Big Bang Theory came on. Everyone else in the room started singing along to the theme tune, which I would have done too if I’d had any idea what the words were. I’d seen the show a few times, but I wasn’t hugely familiar with it. My friends all teased me for spending too much time on my homework to watch any TV. At the time I was a bit annoyed, wondering how I’d come off worse for not watching so much TV that I could recite entire theme tunes (and the Big Bang one takes a good few series to perfect) So instead I smugly congratulated myself on being too busy and important to watch TV. Now I just feel kind of sorry for myself. That occasion was one of the few that I spent round my friends’ houses – I had a weekend job and I took my studies seriously. Those are two years filled with house parties and evenings just hanging out in the town centre doing, well, nothing, that I’ll never experience now. Alright, there’s nothing particularly improving about just hanging out, but does there have to be? What’s so bad about just enjoying the company of your friends?

And what’s going to happen when I get a job? Will I accept that 9-5pm is enough, and chill out in my free time, or will I become glued to my Iphone (it’s my future I’ll imagine gadget upgrades if I want), refreshing my emails and twitter feed last thing at night and first thing in the morning? And if I have kids, will I encourage them to go out and get their hands dirty, or will I be enrolling them in piano, ballet and debating, ensuring that every aspect of their tiny brain is nurtured to maximum capacity? When does this journey of self-improvement end? When do I plateau, and get to relax? I find it a little concerning that the answer to that last question might be ‘never’, or ‘retirement’, which, in the current economic climate, amounts to about the same thing. So here’s my new day’s resolution. I want to appreciate every little thing. Tomorrow, I’m going to make myself a coffee first thing, and savour it. Then, I’m going to go to school, and enjoy teaching my lesson. When I finish at 9am (there’s a whole other blog post needed about the Italian work ethic), I’m gong to get breakfast in a cafe and watch the world go by, for as long as I please. Then – wait, I’m not even going to plan any further than that. Call me a maverick. Or someone that’s just trying to learn how to appreciate the small things. And if, come evening, I have but a little to show for my day’s flanning around, will I grumble? Will I heck. I will breathe a sigh of relief, and herald the return of genuinely ‘free’ time.

Chapter 9 : In which I finally do what I came here to do

It is with no small dose of excitement that I can announce the moment we’ve all been waiting for: I have finally worked my way through enough meals here to feel myself qualified to write a blog about that Italian cultural pinnacle (apologies to art historians): the food.1899950_540970492705444_5023749844036903015_n

Me and my antipasti. Worth doing an Italian degree for this moment.

One need only mention Italy in conversation and be forced to pause as a collective sigh is shared about the breathtaking wonder of Italian cuisine. Perhaps surprisingly, Italians are by far the worst for this, believing (not entirely without reason) to have been born into the best diet system on the planet, and feeling thus unmoved to stray from their pasta and pizza staples to the lesser known carb territories of the potato and the humble loaf, God forbid a naan.

Of course, I exaggerate, but it is a fact that when I asked my second years what their favourite food was, every single student answered pizza. In another class I had the same response, with the exception of one either very healthy or very deprived youngster who answered ‘carrot’. It wasn’t even pizza with artichokes, mozzarella and caramelised onions (an old favourite of mine), or pizza with prosciutto and super hot peppers (my new favourite having tried it in my first week here) – no, it was margherita pizza. Come? La pizza margherita? Con cheese e tomatoes? E basta cosi? Apparently so.

The thing about Italian cooking is that it’s not so much what comes out of the oven, but the ingredients that you put in, that are important. When students say they love margherita pizza, they are not picturing the Tesco 2 for £1 travesty, which I’m pretty sure is just bread with tomato paste and value – sorry, everyday – cheddar. No, they are imagining a heavenly doughy platform, lovingly adorned with the freshest buffalo mozzarella and tomatoes just plucked from the plant. Italy is blessed with a climate that favours fresh fruit and veg – as I walked to a friend’s house the other day I noticed a little lemon garden just doing it’s thing next to the busy main road – and when the raw ingredients are that good, margherita pizza is actually a delicious option.

It’s this ‘less is more’ philosophy that for me really sets aside Italian food. Sure, top british chefs might be able to do amazing things with some on trend parsley foam and a pomegranate jus, but I’m far more impressed by the little unknown chef in a restaurant I frequented in Messina, who managed to turn a simple dish of pasta with a spicy tomato sauce into one of the most delicious meals I’ve ever had. And of course, there was fresh parmesan to go with it.

Italy’s ability to do extraordinary things with vegetables can be summed up by one dish: La parmigiana. Britain just doesn’t get aubergines. We griddle them a bit and eat them dutifully when we’re told they’re in season: Italy cooks them in the oven with oil, tomatoes, basil and parmesan and creates the most delicious meal ever – it tastes a bit like lasagne except everything about it is better. In fact it’s only real similarity is that the layers of aubergine are stacked like those of the pasta – I can’t describe it, you’ve just got to try it everyone! Today I went to a local cafe for lunch and ordered la parmigiana, and I am convinced that it was as tasty from there in it’s little takeaway container as it would have been coming from one of the most expensive restaurants. Which leads me to another thing: Italy really doesn’t do fast food. For one thing, there is just no need: schools finish at 1pm and most shops close from 1.30pm-4pm, meaning that there is simply no excuse to rush through lunch. There’s a great Italian initiative called ‘Lo Slow Food’, which is fairly self-explanatory in its aims, that people have been trying to slowly push into Britain. Sadly I think we’re a little too dependent on the meal deal, and I do have to ask myself whether I would trade more leisurely mealtimes for my local town shutting down for three hours in the middle of the day. Places like Vapiano have struck a good balance between the two, mastering the Italian freshness if not the snail-like eating pace.

To give Italians their due, though, lunchtime is actually their main meal of the day, so they can be excused for making a bit of a meal (titter) of it. Breakfast, on the other hand, is a surprisingly modest affair. A coffee and a cake will do for most people. The selection of food on offer in cafes first thing in the morning is without fail characterised by alarming amounts of sugar. Think filled croissants, jam pastry tarts, and a good deal of actual cake. There is a fair bit of science behind the idea that eating something sweet in the morning balances your cravings for the rest of the day. Personally, I think it just gets me thinking about nutella way earlier than I would otherwise be moved to. For the first time last week I caved and bought some cereal from my local shop, a hefty €3.90 for a tiny box, but worth it to ward off type 2 diabetes.

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Typical Italian breakfast. Still not 100% sure why it always comes with a shot of water.

Still, one can hardly be concerned about one’s weight when in Italy. This is particularly true of travellers, as each region boasts its own local delicacy, hence one is wont, nay obliged, to try everything that a region has to offer, lest one is unable to return to sample anything missed on the original visit. For this reason, perhaps among others, I have gorged myself on chocolate in Turin, granita in Sicily, fresh fish along the coast and peperoncini (really spicy peppers) in Calabria. And, of course, my whole stay has been peppered with ridiculous amounts of gelato. Although originating from Egypt, Italy is the undisputed queen of ice cream – it’s eaten all year round and is deliciously cheap. Down in the south pistachio flavour is particularly good, but it really is difficult to go wrong with ice cream here (except for one fateful mango and blackberry combination that I don’t want to talk about).

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Local delicacies: bicerin (hot chocolate, coffee and cream) in Turin and granita (icy chocolate, more cream) in Messina.

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There’s definitely room for Italy to broaden it’s horizons a little where food’s concerned, though. For the capital of a region, Reggio is seriously lacking in multicultural cuisine: bar one rogue Romanian restaurant on the high street I am yet to spot anywhere offering anything other than authentic Italian food. Teeny Cambridge’s offerings seem positively vibrant in comparison. So if I could set Italy some homework it would be to step up to the plate (sorry I can’t help myself) and look to broadening its culinary horizons – what it’s got is great, but think how amazing it would be with a little more variety. In the meantime, I’ll just wait here with my ice cream.

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This photo does not do the ice cream justice, but will hopefully provide a sense of scale.

Chapter 8 : In which the population of foreigners in Reggio is doubled

Halloween has been and gone, and although I didn’t celebrate it with a ‘disco party’ like my students apparently did, I was treated to my first visit from home friends, as Ellie descended (quite literally from the North of Italy) on Reggio for a glorious weekend of fun, ferries and lots and lots of food. I’m so excited about the whole thing I’ve even included pictures. 

Ellie

This is Ellie. I think you would like her.

Ellie is my perfect companion because we share a very similar approach to travelling: we are both blessed with an eagerness to explore new places and eke out everything that they have on offer (see the section where we force our way into a closed bell tower), and are both cursed with an appearance that immediately marks us out as dutch tourists (tall, blonde, pale.. a teacher at the school actually told me that I seemed more pale to her now than when I arrived. Well that’s just great.) Back on topic though, although people don’t quite always hit the mark with the nationality, the sad fact is that they would never in a million years mistake us for Italians. Which is just fine, unless your whole raison d’être is to develop the linguistic competences of a native. So we’re basically screwed.

Although we both find ourselves in Italy at the moment, mine and Ellie’s experiences of the year abroad so far couldn’t really be any more divergent – proof that it is nigh on impossible to explain to anybody what the year abroad is really like. She is in the North, I’m in the South, she is studying, I’m working, she is splitting the year between Italy and France, I am spending the full 9 months in one country. On paper, we’ve taken completely separate routes, and yet the struggles that we’ve faced have been remarkably similar: the difficulty in trying to make friends with locals as opposed to other foreigners in an attempt to improve our Italian, the stress of adopting the social norms of a culture that is surprisingly different to that in the UK, and the horrific realisation that you’re on your third 400g Nutella jar in the space of fewer months. OK that last one was just me.

The day I went to meet Ellie at Lamezia Terme Centrale train station, I smiled so much my mouth hurt, laughed myself close to tears on more than one occasion and talked myself to a sore throat. It was such a relief to be able to confide in somebody that knew exactly how I was feeling. All the minorly depressing things that happen all the time on your year abroad alone suddenly become hilarious when you can share them with someone else. Because Ellie’s plane arrived at Lamezia at 8am but the first train to me wasn’t until 1.30pm (welcome to the South), we decided that we would spend the day in Lamezia Terme. Only Lamezia Terme wasn’t really a city. It was a vast, desert-like expanse with a church, a coffee bar and a taxi rank. There was one shop, a smattering of locals and about five hours to kill. Alone, I would almost certainly have splashed out the €50 we apparently needed to get to the nearest city – not Lamezia, as we had imagined in a moment of madness, but Nicastro – to search out some kind of focal point to plot my day around. Instead, Ellie and I stationed ourselves on a bench on a surprisingly picturesque roundabout in the beautiful southern sunshine, and proceeded to chat the time away. The church actually looked quite quaint against the backdrop of a perfectly blue sky, the coffee bar served some of the most amazing croissants I have ever seen and the men at the taxi rank gave us an important lesson in maths as we tried to negotiate our way to Nicastro (“It’s €50. €25, but you want to go, and then you want to come back. To go, €25, to come back, €25, so €50. €25 each way.” With helpful diagram in case the breakdown of how our €50 would be put to use hadn’t quite been made clear.) Suddenly I realised that this was really what it was all about. Forget fluency and reaching some kind of higher cultural plane, from now on if I’m enjoying myself, then that will be enough for me.

churchA break in Lamezia’s blank horizon.

Pretty much every day here is peppered with the indignant cry of ‘this would never happen in England!’ – my favourite example from this week being an entire trainfull of passengers crossing the train tracks when a last-minute platform change was announced. (I say a trainfull, there was one English passenger who took the underpass while tutting loudly to herself at the sheer recklessness of an entire nation). Yes, they do things differently here and yes, there are bound to be aspects of the culture or the region that I find difficult to accept, but there are some things that would never happen in England that I really rather wish we would take up. The cheek kissing, something that has always thrown me in the past, is something that I will certainly miss. It’s a much friendlier greeting than the half hug half awkward wave that I usually go for at home, and I think that I’ve finally managed to decipher some kind of general rule – left cheek first, two kisses if you’re feeling particularly affectionate, but one will probably suffice. As Ellie and I tried the local delicacies in Lamezia’s lone shop, we were inundated with free mandarins from the owners, the kind that still have the leaf attached that you might see in a rustic Orangina advert – perhaps we looked undernourished, I for one certainly haven’t mastered cooking for myself yet. This was just about topped by the free mini pastries that we were presented with after a leisurely aperitivo in Reggio two days later – so adorable and perfectly formed that for once I wasn’t disgruntled to be given a smaller-than-average portion.

But the highlight of the weekend for me has to be Sicily. Although my positioning in the toe of Italy has made it almost comically difficult to travel around while I’m here, the prospect of Sicily lies just a short train and ferry ride away. Despite practically being able to see the cars scooting along the coast on a clear day, Messina feels like a very different city to Reggio. The leafy suburban streets and tall, symmetrical, balconied buildings reminded me of something a little Parisian, but the food was definitely Italy’s finest. I shan’t go into more detail on that note here as I intent to devote an entire post to the gastronomic delights of the peninsula, but rest assured that we were wanting nothing as we meandered through this little town. Messina is the ideal place for a mosey, and we were lucky that the sun had chosen to shine for the occasion (neither I nor the weather are certain whether it is Autumn or midwinter, being so flung between storms and Indian summer days). Messina reminded me of Turin – strange that the two most similar places that I’ve come across should be quite literally at opposite ends of the country. Incidentally, both boast beautiful (and strikingly similar) cathedrals with bell towers. As we congratulated ourselves on the lack of queue to climb the bell tower in Messina, we were a little disappointed to learn that the reason for this was that the exhibit was actually closed. A few folorn looks, a well-timed ‘No, va bene’ from Ellie and a tense period of consultation (seemingly with himself) from the steward saw us sneak in just before the door was locked. The downside of this victory was that we felt obliged to run up the tower, in order to allow the friendly steward to go home for his – well, what pressing appointments do people have at 3pm? My legs haven’t quite been the same since, but it was worth it for the gorgeous view out onto the Mediterranean.

Turin churchMessina church

Above: Turin and Messina’s matchy matchy cathedrals

Below: The view from the bell tower

the view from the belltower

Like all good things, Ellie’s visit did have to come to an end. She left this morning, but leaves me with a new attitude towards this crazy experience, an invitation to visit Bologna and later Paris, some great photos and some even better memories.