This week Alastair came to visit me. And it was the best. And I think it was also an eye-opener for him to see in the flesh (brick?) the place that I’ve been describing with let’s face it a fairly hefty dose of exaggeration for the past few months. So now that he’s made his way back to England and I shall be following suit in under ten days, I thought I would reflect on the things I have learned both in the last week and in the three months that I have been here.
1) Italians are immensely proud of their homeland
I think it’s fair to say that not many people would consider me particularly lucky with my geographical placement in Italy. I had wanted Tuscany, famous for, well, Florence, and its rolling hills, wine and general good time atmosphere. Safe to say I was a little devastated to find that I would instead be heading to my third choice. Wikitravel and my gentleman’s guidebook were not my friend here, the former warning me that the main road along the Calabrian coast is ‘one of the deadliest roads in all of Europe’ and the latter lamenting ‘how barren is this historic city!’ admitting that ‘there is something to be said for not seeing Reggio too close at hand’. Great. What I should have done is talked to the locals, who instead would have opined the region’s climate, history and seafront (which, I have on the authority of every person I have ever spoken to here, is known as the most beautiful kilometre of sea in Europe. I have a feeling they may have said ‘the world’ but I’d hate to overstate.)
Whenever I mention that I am going on a day trip, no matter where it may be, there is only one response: ‘Ah, bello,’ accompanied by a knowing nod and smile. I’ve yet to have any local respond with ‘oh, are you sure you want to go there? It’s a bit dodge’ – whereas the guys I met from Milan warned me that Reggio and the coastal towns shut down in the winter, and my Italian teacher, originally from further North, told me not to wear my watch or any jewellery when I go to Naples, lest it should be plucked from my body.
In order to visit some Greek ruins, that were in fact bellissimo, Alastair and I needed to get a taxi from the local station of Locri about a mile South. On our return journey, the taxi driver noted that we were early for our train, and decided to kill the time giving us a drive-by tour of his town. Locri has a pretty piazza, but other than that I’d say that it’s a fairly average Southern town. Not according to our tour guide, who offered to stop the taxi in order for us to take photos of the seafront, and insisted we return now that we have seen all that Locri has to offer. It makes a nice change from the British attitude of moveasfarawayfromyourhometownassoonaspossible, and makes you feel privileged, if a little incredulous, to be exploring places held so dear to their inhabitants.
2) Reading is good
The absence of a hefty Cambridge reading list combined with an impressive number of hours clocked up on public transport means that I have had the chance to read more than I have in years, and I’m loving it. Just thought you’d like to know.
3) Travelling is better
I’m not sure I even agree with that, but it’s a nice segue, and travelling has definitely been the best part of my year abroad. I’m incredibly lucky that the British Council scheme affords me both the time and the money to travel around, meaning I have been able to visit Rome, Naples (on Saturday!), Sicily and Turin as well as the local towns of Scilla and Locri. Having the experience of flying solo around an unknown part of the world means that I am now unfazed by the prospect of more adventurous travel. I can almost feel my mind broadening as I see these new places, and it’s definitely given me a thirst for travel in Italy and beyond in the future.
4) Don’t mess with Italian mealtimes
I struggle again and again to decide if Italy is an extremely stressed or laid back country. The driving? Stressy. The walking? Sloowwwww. The way they talk on the phone? Angsty. The way they socialise in person? Laid back. One thing that is apparently not to be messed with, however, is the eating times. One of the first lessons in Italian culture (I’m serious) is that it’s an absolute travesty to order a cappuccino after 11am, God forbid after a meal. Go into any cafe’ after 10.30 am and they will also have run out of croissants, because why would you want one after breakfast time, which is about 7am? – this would never happen in Costa.
And, as we found this week, aperitivi can be enjoyed at lunchtime and dinnertime, but at 4pm? You must be kidding. I think restaurants that stay open from 11am til late in the UK have had me spoiled – if I want to eat at 3pm there’s no one to tell me I can’t. Here that’s also true, but the reason being that they’re all at home having a siesta, so there’s no one to serve me either. 6.15pm is also too early to go out for dinner, as we were turned away by a bemused waiter who told us to come back at half seven. There is only one way to eat in Italy, and it’s the Italian way.
5) If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again
I am very grateful to be in the South for one key reason: when I speak Italian, the locals will humour me, even understand and reply in Italian. For a language learner, this is the dream, and surprisingly difficult to come by in touristy regions where people are all too keen to speak to you in English. Alastair even pointed out that often the locals would look relieved when I started speaking to them in broken Italian – perhaps having feared that I would expect them to speak English.
Indeed, I have had many a conversation, the most memorable being with a friendly old man outside the train station in Turin, where Italians have encouraged me to continue practising my Italian, assuring me that ‘poco a poco’ it will come. The teachers at the school keep reassuring me that I will speak well by May (something I am blindly clinging to without necessarily putting the work in alongside it), while the local sandwich vendor told me that practice would make perfect and I needed to change the way I pronounced my ‘i’s, and the waitress at a wine bar told me I sounded more northern Italian than English (punching the air as we speak.) I wish that I could say that this was all a gradual progression towards fluency, but it’s more that one day I will have a perfect conversation with someone, and the next day I will forget how to order a coffee. Gradually though, I must be getting better.
6) All good (and bad) things come to an end
While October dragged on forever and ever, I felt like I blinked and missed Alastair’s visit. Obviously that’s because I had an amazing time, and we managed to cram a lot into his stay (a few museums, a ruined Greek city, a boat trip to Messina and some sailing spectating on the beach), and in hindsight I wish I had made more effort to busy myself in October – the time will pass either way, but one is far nicer to look back on.
With that in mind, despite being unashamedly on the countdown to home, I still have a trip to Naples and possibly Tropea in the pipeline in the next ten days. The year abroad, like all things, will eventually come to an end, and I’d hate to think I spent the time wishing it would all be over, when there’s so much else for me to be doing here. I’m understanding Italy, and myself, a little better each day.