Chapter 17 : In which I find my feet (they were in Brindisi)

There are many reasons why I would recommend doing a year abroad. Broadening cultural horizons, employability, language skills, yackety yak yak…

For me, though, the year abroad really comes into its own for the timid young woman such as myself (I’m a delicate petal). Don’t get me wrong, I’m perfectly able to take care of myself, make my own decisions and argue my own case, but sometimes I just lack the self-belief to follow through.

In England, for example, I used to dread having to make phone calls for no particular reason. Half-cured half-exacerbated by the telephone campaign, the problem has been blown out of the water by the fact that I now have to ring people up and speak in Italian. (Last time I tried to book a hotel, a task which drew predominantly on GCSE level vocabulary, the kind lady asked me, a supposed ‘near-native speaker’, to hang up and send her an e-mail instead. Whoopee.) Ringing the overly polite English lady from Expedia to alter my flight schedule the next day suddenly seemed a doddle in comparison.

And that’s another thing: flying. I do it so often now (this week I took four flights in three days – my carbon footprint is the size of my face) that for me it now seems no bigger a deal than catching a train. Sometimes I don’t even pay full attention to the safety demonstrations. Edgy.

This weekend in Brindisi did teach me that I still have a little way to go, though. Power-walking confidently through Rome airport to catch my connecting flight, getting into that smooth groove that comes with long legs and a shiny floor surface, I contemplate how far I’ve come since the last time I was here, just a week after moving to Italy. Passengers look on, no doubt marvelling at my togetherness as a young woman alone in the big bad world.

As I power-walk back past them in the opposite direction moments later, I ponder how easy it is to count one’s chickens before they hatch, and question why the gates of terminal B aren’t in chronological order.

So no, I’m not quite as savvy as I could be. Anna virtually had to drag me into a wine bar that I was convinced was closed despite there being lights on and people inside (I’m so glad she did because it was the cosiest thing ever) and on our return I confidently marched us in completely the wrong direction to the train station (never take the words ‘I’m 100% sure’ at face value when said by me in relation to directions).

Still, with every new embarrassment comes a new place to see, and Brindisi this weekend was glorious – once the sun came out that is. Italy is a sleepy land on Sundays. Shops are closed and the only alternative activities are going to church or for a leisurely stroll with the family. I’m not sure what the female population of Brindisi are usually up to of a morning (please don’t let it be cooking lunch for their husbands) but the men all congregate on the main street, drink a coffee, have a smoke and generally catch up with their friends. They’ve probably done the same thing every weekend since they could walk. Nice, really.

It’s a lifestyle that I’m starting to really enjoy. I mean, I’ve lived here for four months now, I’m practically a local. Arriving back in Reggio, I tell the taxi driver my address to take me home.

‘Is there a B&B there?’

Oh.

Chapter 16 : Back to the Bolla

Not wanting to blow my own trumpet here (though let’s face it, if I don’t, who will?) but I reckon I’m handling this year abroad lark pretty well. It’s not easy being forcibly separated from everything you know and love, even when the trade-off is getting to live somewhere as gob-smackingly beautiful as Italy. I’ve got to be honest, I wasn’t looking forward to coming back after the Christmas break. In fact, in the highly illogical manner of thinking that I pride myself on, part of me was reluctant even to come home, knowing the wrench that would come with leaving my family and friends for a second time.

But Christmas came, and I felt fine. New Year’s day arrived, and I was strangely calm. The day before my flight arrived, a day on which I’d decided to torture myself by visiting Cambridge to use the library and generally cling longingly to the walls of Corpus Christi college, yet, you’ve guessed it, even after seeing my beloved I was disconcertingly happy to be going back to Italy.

Maybe it was that January itch to get back to routine, or maybe it was the thought of how much work I would have if I were indeed heading back to Cam – I’m not sure. Either way, it is a highly pleasant turn of events and, to quote Miranda, one that I am very pleased with.

My return was made all the more pleasing when my Italian teacher presented me with an unexpected gift – a treasure of an Italian book called ‘Momenti di trascurabile felicità’. Normally I find reading in Italian a rather disheartening process (my unwillingness to admit defeat by checking a dictionary leads to me having not the foggiest idea of what’s happening) but this one is far more short and sweet than the heavy going stuff we read for Italian literature classes (seriously, whose idea was Machiavelli and Dante in first year??). It is a compilation of musings on those everyday moments that bring us joy, but that aren’t worth shouting from the rooftops. Here is my favourite example so far, accompanied by what I hope is an accurate translation:

“Entro in un negozio di scarpe, perché ho visto delle scarpe che mi piacciono in vetrina. Le indico alla commessa, dico il mio numero, 46.
Lei torna e dice : mi dispiace, non abbiamo il suo numero.
Poi aggiunge sempre : abbiamo il 41.
E mi guarda, in silenzio, perché vuole una risposta.
E io, una volta sola, vorrei dire : e va bene, mi dia il 41.”

“I go into a shoe shop, because I have seen some shoes that I like in the window. I point them out to the shop assistant, I tell her my size, 46.
She returns and says : sorry, we don’t have your size.
Then she always adds : we have them in a 41.
And she looks at me, in silence, because she wants a reply.
And, just once, I’d like to say : ok then, give me the 41.”

So anyway, armed with a rekindled flame in my soul for Italy and all things pertaining, I set out on my first day trip of the New Year.

Brancaleone is a coastal town heading towards the instep of Italy’s boot from Reggio Calabria. On my ‘to visit’ list as it was a place of exile during Mussolini’s time (it’s my dissertation topic), I hadn’t expected a particularly cheerful milieu. Still, I merrily boarded the lurchiest train in history, armed with my camera and an open mind. Well, at least not entirely closed off.

A lady sits down next to me and begins asking me questions in rapid Italian. Thankfully she soon cottons on that I have forgotten all my Italian over the Christmas holidays and desists.

We arrive. Brancaleone is not large. I contemplate getting the train back to Reggio that leaves in 20 minutes, but force myself to at least take a turn around the town. The whole thing can be traversed in around 15 minutes, provided you don’t want to go up any side roads (and why would you? There’s nothing there.) Ok I lied, there are some independent shops to mosey round, but I, as an awkward Brit used to chain retailers, cannot enter them without feeling watched and an odd moral obligation to buy something. I do, however, chance upon a bakery – ideal for my lunchtime needs. The sign outside the shop boasts ‘panini’ among other things, so, like the gullible fool that I am, I enter, sidestepping the man on his mobile at the entrance. Turns out the shop is only about 2 metres squared, and the man on his mobile is the owner, so I dutifully wait for him to finish his call as I browse his wares, noting, to my horror, a distinct lack of sandwiches. There is, at least, bread. We’re halfway there.

I enquire about sandwiches – he nods and calls his wife over from the building next door, I can only presume to make me a sandwich – isn’t that how the saying goes? But no, he just needs her to put a roll in a bag for me. I feel I’m in too deep at this point to explain that I was hoping for some filling, so dry bread it is. My only saving grace is that they also sell petrali, heaven wrapped in pastry. I buy four. As I walk away I notice that the paper bag containing my roll assures me that I have just experienced ‘la qualità al servizio della FAMIGLIA’. Well, it was a team effort, I suppose.

Walking down to the sea, I am amazed at how quiet Brancaleone is. So quiet that I can hear the conversations of people in their houses. The only other sound is the sea.

As I enjoy my pauper’s repast on the beach, my mind wanders to Cesare Pavese, a confinato sent to Brancaleone back when Italy was ruled by Mussolini – as a political exile, he was not permitted to leave the town for around a year. While the landscape is beautiful, and the people I’m sure very friendly, you can certainly see how this was a fairly severe punishment. Coming from Turin, this quiet, remote part of Pavese’s country must certainly have been a shock to the system, and I can’t help but think how fortunate we are now to be connected wherever we go.

So here’s to new experiences and roads less travelled, but also to the fact that, once I’ve had my fill of exotic locations, I get to come back home.

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Some highlights from Brancaleone

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