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.
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.
A 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.
Above: Turin and Messina’s matchy matchy cathedrals
Below: The view from the bell tower
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.