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.
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.
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.
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..