Chapter 19 : The differences between Italy and the UK, as illustrated by my week spent in both

Italy’s a funny one. Like the UK, it’s part of the EU. Like the UK, its nearest neighbour (ok, one of) is France. Like the UK, it is populated with humans. Here end the similarities between us. Take a look.

Adjective Availability

I have started with this obscure point because it is the one that I feel by far the most passionately about. There are a few adjectives that have been completely dropped from my vocabulary in Italy, and that only upon my return to England did I realise how sorely they had been missed. When I returned to Cambridge, I was absolutely delighted to see my friends, and fell immediately back in love with the quaintness of all that is British. Coffee and a chocolate muffin in the John Lewis café is for me the pinnacle of human happiness, and in the UK we are even allowed to sit down while we drink! None of this espresso at the bar funny business. So ‘quaint’ has been ushered back to the deep recesses of my mind for the rest of my time abroad, as has ‘cosy’. Italy’s climate is fantastic, but with a lack of cold weather comes a lack of indoor cosiness. Tiled floors have not won me over, and being at home with our unnecessarily large sofa and access to my ever-growing collection of woolly jumpers was far more of a treat than being greeted by hot weather would have been. Italy’s restaurants are inviting, and Mariana and I were treated like queens with free appetisers and prosecco in our accidentally posh choice of restaurant in Lucca, but they aren’t cosy, as I realised when I was reacquainted with that delightful pub feeling in the Eagle on Valentines Day. It was in various pubs over the weekend that I also rediscovered ‘tipsy’, that old friend that’s been in hibernation ever since I discovered that Italians drink because they actually like the taste of wine, rather than to enjoy that just-on-the-right-side-of-drunk feeling that we covet back home.

So back in Italy I am once again swimming in a sea of ‘bella’s and more than the odd ‘bellissima’ – Italians are impossible to underwhelm, nothing falls short of this threshold. Of course, what the Italian vocabulary lacks in variation is more than compensated for in gestures and volume – heaven knows how they manage by e-mail.

Queuing

We British are much mocked for our love to queue, and as well as being the best at forming a lovely straight line, we excel at the passive aggressive grumble that must accompany it. Coming back from Italy, I know I’m home when I hit the queue for passport control. For some reason the e-passport machines find me completely unrecognisable, but I join the queue nevertheless, and wonder who will be the first to say ‘it isn’t actually quicker, is it?’ as we tap toes in time. Actually, it is much quicker, as I found out on the way back, as I joined a more Italian style queue at my stop-off in Milan – one enormous bulging body where the man who was originally next to me is suddenly ten families ahead and I haven’t moved at all. The most frustrating part was that I could see person after person passing through passport control and the queue on my side didn’t seem to be getting any smaller – probably because every time a space with my name on it opened up it was immediately filled by a sharp-elbowed Italian. In the end I latched onto a family so my shins were permanently pressed against their suitcase – they gave me a few odd looks but boy did it speed up the process.

Public Transport

London excluded, the UK’s public transport system is utterly hopeless. Tickets for buses and trains cost an absolute fortune, and said buses and trains are rarely on time – meaning that for short journeys at least it is far quicker and cheaper to get a taxi if you form a small group, which in my mind is utterly ridiculous. Here in Italy, the balance is correct, but far more extreme: it costs literally a few euros to travel to the next cities along by train, but to get from one end of Reggio Calabria to another (a straight line on a traffic-less road about 2km long) cost me €20 – because it was Sunday. My plane home this weekend was late, leaving me angsty that I would miss the last train home, which I definitely would have done had this been the UK. Still on the plane at 10pm, I managed to make the 10.19pm train at a station a 10 minute drive away thanks to the combination of a friendly taxi driver and a worrying but useful lack of passport control. Just as well – the one and a half hour journey would have cost me €250 in a taxi – if you take one thing from this, AVOID AVOID AVOID taxis in Southern Italy.

The North South Divide

We joke about the North South divide here, and maybe speculate on its seriousness, but my, my does Italy put all that into perspective. Here it’s the prosperous North that takes the snobbish approach and the South that’s left to be misunderstood, with questionable efficiency and economic prosperity even if they do have some of the best food (some things are universal). I always thought that the northerners hating on southerners thing was a bit of a stereotype, but I’m proved wrong time and time again by Italians themselves. In an absolutely gorgeous restaurant in Florence Hannah and I were telling the owner what had brought us to Italy – he was all smiles as Hannah explained that she was living in Parma, but his eyes clouded over when I mentioned that I was down in Calabria, as he made a gesture that I thought meant ‘dodgy’ and Hannah thought was a gun – either way not ideal. Then, on my connection flight from Milan, the security guard looked at my boarding pass and said ‘Lamezia. Why?’ Naturally I panicked that I had chosen the wrong gate, but turns out he was just questioning my travel choices, as he proceeded to add ‘you work there?’ Momentarily confused about which languages I speak and which he expects me to answer in, I opt for a sage nod as an answer and hope he understands the complexity of my year abroad setup. Strangely, I have never heard a bad word from a Southerner about the North – either they are a much nicer bunch, or the Northerners actually have a point..

Chapter 18 : My Friends in the North

Last weekend saw me take a friendy trip up North to see ma buds Ellie and Hannah in Bologna and Parma. With planes working out too complicated, I decided to risk the enigmatic night train – previously avoided due to the new ‘trust no one’ attitude that I’d adopted for personal safety reasons.

Still, I felt that there was little that could go wrong in booking a ‘women’s comfort carriage’, and when I arrived at the station it was pleasantly full of friends and families saying their goodbyes, which put paid to the image I’d had of a pitch black deserted station with a mafioso leaning against my carriage drawing on a cigarette.. (you can see how my time abroad has really opened my mind, can’t you?)

By using it once, I feel the word ‘comfort’ may have been overused in the description of my carriage, which consisted of the arm rests being raised on three day seats and a blanket and pillow in a packet placed in their stead. Still, I am so tired from the week that it actually looks pretty inviting. The train creaks into action. Fourteen hours. That’s the longest train in the world. Still, it could be worse – leaving at 9.35pm, my train arrives in Bologna at 11.30am the next day – the woman opposite me, headed to Milan, won’t get there til 3pm.

I was lucky to be sharing with a very nice lady and I did manage to sleep for most of the fifteen hour journey – until our bed things were unceremoniously collected at 9.15am that is (we were assured that usually they collect them promptly at 9, but they gave us a lie in as it was Sunday). There was even a little cubby hole with a mirror to do my make-up the next day, although it was furnished with a particularly lethargic movement sensor light, so while I apply my mascara with one hand I am manically waving around with the other. Doesn’t make for the smoothest application.

I ate well on the train. I had broken my fast with my cake bar and banana when I awoke, then my bunk mate woke up and offered me more. After a few seconds of polite refusal that I got the feeling were being interpreted as a rude refusal, I gave in and had a second breakfast. Then a third when she offered again half an hour later. All this journeying and eating, I could definitely be a hobbit.

Bologna and Parma, unlike most of the cities that I’ve been visiting recently, are places that you might actually plan a holiday to from the UK as a normal holidaying type person. Bologna is home to the oldest university in Europe, and is full of both those big, wide streets that I loved in Turin and the narrow, ‘explore me’ ones you can find all over Rome. I am ashamed (or proud?) to say that I didn’t bother with anything particularly highbrow during my one day visit, although we did explore a lovely cluster of medieval churches and head inside the San Petronio for good measure. I have to admit I was rather jealous of Ellie’s European chic coat/glasses/bob combo (I only have one of those things!!), which is probably what led me to break my New Year’s resolution while still in January by buying an ‘interesting’ black dress from COS – we reasoned that these sort of pieces must be invested in in the sale.

Other highlights of the day were food and friend based – enjoying a delizioso cappuccino with Ellie and Hannah on the terrace of the best coffee shop in Bologna, then following the pair round Tiger with increasingly wide eyes as Ellie convinced Hannah that no, she couldn’t live without a set of five heart-shaped sponges and Hannah convinced herself that no amount of craft materials would be sufficient for the time being.

In the evening, after a few spritzes/mojitos and a seriously amazing aperitivo, we said goodbye to Ellie and hopped on the train to Parma, where Hannah is living and working for the year. Only we couldn’t hop back off at Parma, because none of the three doors we tried would open to us, and despite some well-meant yelling at an innocent passer by on the platform, we were forced to take a detour to the next town along and then casually hop on the train back, as if that was how we’d planned it all along.

I feel like now would be a good interlude to say that Bologna and Parma were cold. It’s about 14 degrees in Reggio Calabria, but it feels a lot colder than that. (Whenever I talk to locals about it they say that it’s the humidity that gets to your bones – I always thought humidity made a place warmer but I do kind of see what they’re saying – it’s a weird cold feeling that locks in place and is difficult to shake – not helped by the fact that my apartment is sans heating). But, anyway, I though Reggio was cold, Bologna and Parma are pretty much in British climes at the moment, and I was hopelessly unprepared. I didn’t even bring a coat back to Italy with me, so Hannah kindly leant me the cosiest snuggliest Norwegian jumper and I marched happily round Parma as if I knew it would be this chilly all along.

Anyway, as Hannah is a working gal these days, I had Monday morning to myself to explore Parma, which was lovely. Parma reminds me of Cambridge a lot. People go everywhere on bicycles, you stumble across lovely hidden buildings wherever you go and the place is overrun with independent bookshops and cafes, such as ‘La Pulcinella’ (the puffin) where we enjoyed another coffee before lunch.

In the afternoon we met up with Mariana, who is working in Reggio Emilia (dammit should have gone to Emilia Romagna) for lunch and a mosey round. We had a look in some charming but confusing antique vintage shops (charming in that everything in it incited an ‘ooh’ from at least one of us, confusing because none of us could figure out how they made enough money to still be here) and had another coffee (sensing the tone of the day?) in a lovely chocolate shop, although I nearly spat it out again when the bill came to €15.50 just for mine and Hannah’s share!! We were sitting opposite a mother and son, the former having bought the latter a cream cake, which provide endless amusement as he proceeded to sink his fists in the oozing cream and try a little misguidedly to bring it to his mouth without spillage.

In the evening we met up with Peter, another english language assistant from Parma, and we went for a pizza (prosciutto di Parma style, of course) and a few drinks. It made me wish that I had been placed in a more studenty area – again, Parma seemed to have managed that diversity of people that I feel is lacking where I am. Even so, I felt that lovely familiar ‘home’ feeling when I stepped back off the train in Reggio on Tuesday, not least because it was about 10 degrees warmer. Heading to Lucca next weekend, where a quick google tells me its a miserable 1 degree. I’m going to need to buy a coat.