Chapter 26 : The End

Well, folks, the time has come to say goodbye! It feels surreal to say the least that this time tomorrow I’ll be well on my way home. So I thought for my final blog post it would be a nice idea to sum up some of the things I’ve learned and loved during my time here, and some of the delights that I can’t wait to be re-united with.

First Things First: What I’ve Learned

How to boil an egg

This might sound plain ridiculous to any self-respecting 21 year old, but before my year abroad I had absolutely no clue about cooking. When I arrived here, before I could figure out how to work the oven (don’t laugh) I was convinced that the only thing that could be cooked on a hob was pasta. I’ve come a long way culinary-wise this year, and while producing the odd monstrosity in accidental homage to my past self, I think general cookery knowledge will probably be the most useful skill that I take away from this experience.

Have a little patieeeeence

You would go insane in Italy if you didn’t manage to develop at least a little pazienza. Nothing happens quickly or on schedule here – from my first pay check taking three months to arrive, to the hour long queues in the post office to the painfully slow walking that is borderline moving backwards (wouldn’t be an issue except that building works, also showing no sign of being finished anytime soon, mean that all foot traffic is single file along the main street.) This year I’ve gradually got the hang of turning my speedometer (mental and physical) down a notch and trying to just enjoy things. Slowly. 

A whole lot about myself

How do you go about defining yourself when plucked out of your home environment and placed somewhere with no friends, family or easily-joinable clubs? With no precedent or expectations telling you who you should be, it’s an interesting experiment in finding out what really matters. So, who am I? Turns out I’m a food-loving countryside enthusiast and wannabe yogi. All I have to do is reinstate my friends and family into the equation and I’ll be complete 🙂

Second Things After First Things: What I Will Miss

The Food

No surprises that this was the first item on the list: I LOVE ITALIAN FOOD. While I think I might just about have had my fill of pizza for the time being, I’m not quite ready to part from my best friend brioche, or the gelato. Fortunately Rome airport has a pretty decent gelateria – clinging on to the very last!

The Teaching!

Yep, shock horror, and not just my favourite students (yes, I have favourites – think I’ve hidden them well though) but all the lovely diversity and hilarity of school life, like trying to explain the ‘meaning’ of the lyrics to ‘All About that Bass’ to confused teenagers, or the boy who, when asked what he would buy if he had €1 million responded ‘a tank.’ Anything else? ‘No, I just need the tank.’ Given that the social side of my year abroad has been a bit dire, having the school community and befriending some lovely teachers has been what’s kept me sane.

The Community

As above, the school has been amazingly welcoming, but there’s something about this whole area that just feels close. Reggio has almost 200,000 inhabitants, yet I feel like the community spirit is stronger here than in Aston Clinton, which has under 4,000. You can’t walk along the main street without someone recognising a pal and wandering over to shake their hand. Speaking of which, I’m now on hand-shaking terms with the gentleman that works at my supermarket, while the owner of the corner shop has been known to buy me an espresso when I come in and comments if I miss a weekly visit – ‘we thought there was no way you could be in Reggio.’ Similarly, the man on the cash desk in my favourite café noticed when I got a bit of a tan and has started giving me free chocolate. These people have all made me feel so welcome in their own small way that I wasn’t sure if I ought to be going round telling them all that I won’t be popping in in the future. I decided against it though, as I’m pretty sure that’s how they treat everyone, because people here are lovely.

Travelling

Before this year I’d seen a fair bit of Italy, but now I can confidently claim to have been to pretty much anywhere that people suggest. Rome, Florence, Turin, Perugia, Capri, Naples, Pompeii, Palermo, Parma and Bologna have all been highlights of this year, with other local Southern places peppered into the mix for good measure. While I’m looking forward to being rooted back at home for Summer and returning to Cambridge in Autumn, this year has shown me that it’s much less effort than you think to get around and see some beautiful places – all of those trips were done over long weekends and have fed my enthusiasm for all things Italian throughout the year.

And Finally: Things I Can’t Wait to be Reunited with

My entire wardrobe (and not having to censor what I wear)

Only through the process of packing did I realise how little I have accumulated this year. All my stuff fits easily into two suitcases, whereas my Cambridge move is usually an entire car full! As such I’m getting a little bored of wearing the same clothes, and making sure those clothes are high-necked, low hemmed, not too fitted and not too summery. There is an unspoken uniform here of jeans, trainers and puffer jacket in winter and jeans, t-shirt and and lighter jacket in the summer (Italians don’t seem to feel the heat) –  none of my preferred clothes fit that criteria at all (I didn’t even bring jeans with me), so I am left feeling uncomfortable either because I’m wearing things that I wouldn’t usually be seen dead in or because everyone, leery men especially, is staring at me because I’m different. I’m looking forward to being back in a country where no one gives me a second look!

Shock Horror: English Coffee and Food!

I know, I know, I just said that the food was something I’d miss, but while Italian food is scrummy, it is all Italian. There’s one Chinese restaurant to visit, a Mcdonalds and then that’s pretty much your lot. I am absolutely dying for a curry, proper fish and chips, a burger (not from Mcdonalds) and some tapas. I have varied and expensive tastes that Italy fails to satisfy. Similarly, while Italian coffee is the pinnacle, it’s a very intense experience. I can’t drink it without quite a bit of sugar, and find myself missing it’s weedy cousin Nescafé. I’m also looking forward to the lengthy coffee dates that a long English beverage necessitates. Espressos are great, but gingerbread lattes with friends beat them every time.

The Countryside

One of the best things about my placement this year has been the location: right on the gorgeous mediterranean coast. I’ve loved my runs along the seafront and (very) occasional dips in the ocean, and now I’m ready to go back to my home: the English countryside. Over Summer I’m planning on spending a lot of time with my family in the West Country and am excited to swap ice creams and salty air for cornish pasties and fresh country breezes!

My Friends and Family

I won’t lie, it’s been quite a lonely year. To make up for that, my social calendar for my (four month long!) Summer is absolutely jam-packed. Nothing beats home friends, but more than that, I’ve learned that absolutely nothing beats my family. They’re a mad lot, but I feel a whole lot saner round them than I do anywhere else!

So it’s time to say a fond farewell to Reggio Calabria, and an excited squeal at the thought of seeing my parents at the airport tomorrow. And what will I be having for my homecoming meal? Fish and chips, of course!

Chapter 25 : A Grand Day Out Italian Style

Over the past eight months I’ve seen a lot of Italy, but yesterday was by far my most ‘Italian’ day out. For starters, I was actually with bona fide members of the Italian nation, which always helps make things that little bit more authentic. A group of teachers from school were going to Sicily for the day and Silvana, my mentor tutor aka life saver, invited me along for the ride.

Italian point 1 : Integrating myself with Italians

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The crew heading out

We started the day taking the ferry over to Messina and ten minutes later had our first stop at the service station (I only included that detail for you, Mum!) Unfortunately, the espresso I’d been daydreaming about wasn’t to be, as the majority of the staff of Autogrill were on strike and asking for customer solidarity (which was given, a little reluctantly by some of us…) so we were quickly (after half an hour’s miscellaneous standing) on our way again to Taormina, a beautiful Sicilian resort that was on my bucket list to visit this year.

Italian point 2 : Intention to drink an espresso

Italian point 3 : Strike action

We lunched in Taormina and had a lovely wander round – I love places like this as much for the fact that they are filled with other tourists as that they are gorgeous places to visit. We took a photo by the sea front next to a random American woman who kept saying ‘oh, there are so many of you!’ ‘Oh my! Beautiful!’ ‘That’s lovely!’ Americans are definitely culturally closer to the gushy Italians than the brits. Feeling a little peckish post-panino I joined the rest of our group in indulging in an arancino, a typically Sicilian snack (or meal, depending on levels of hunger/greed) made from rice with meat and cheese coated in breadcrumbs – I found a recipe for these online so will definitely be trying to recreate them at home!

Italian point 4 : Eating local

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Sadly we couldn’t spend all day in Taormina as we had a show to catch, so in the early afternoon we headed to the theatre. Hopefully someone* will take me back to Taormina some day to properly explore the history and taste all the amazing things they do with almonds!

So, on to the show. Being forgetful I couldn’t remember where the show was (and when I asked Silvana I immediately forgot again as it’s a place I hadn’t heard of) and indeed what we were going to see, and my hopes of having a fabulous time were momentarily dashed when we arrived at the theatre and it all just seemed a bit dodgy. My personal experience with Sicily seems to be that unless you are in a very precise touristy spot (i.e. inside a museum or in the haven of Taormina) then it all feels a bit unsafe and not the kind of place you either want nor ought to observe more closely. However, everyone else I know (Italians and the Brits alike) tell me time and time again that Sicily is magical, the best part of Italy and totally stunning, so I’m prepared to put my personal prejudices on hold, if remaining lightly sceptical of the whole thing.

Anyway, this place genuinely was dodge – our car was hailed down by an unsavoury looking character on the way in, who asked us to park where he indicated ‘to save time when coming out.’ I didn’t like the look of him or the thought of handing him euro, but I also didn’t like the idea of trying to do differently to what he said. Luckily the decision wasn’t in my hands and our driver dutifully obeyed him, telling me afterwards ‘This is Mafia. If you don’t park here and pay them who knows what they will do to your car while you’re in the theatre.’ Heck!

Italian point 5 : Encountering and surviving the ol’ Cosa Nostra

Fear not for your narrator, though, not only did I survive the show but it. was. amazing! It turned out we were seeing Romeo and Giulietta, which was fortunate as I could follow the story well enough even when the Italian got a little beyond me. Not only had I never seen a musical of Romeo and Juliet before, I’d never seen the play at all, so I had no real expectations. First thing to note, the actors playing Romeo, Benvolio and Mercutio were all absolute stunners (and Tybalt if you like your men without long flowing curls) and amazing singers and dancers. The Prince Juliet is supposed to marry was played by a sufficiently poncy ballerina who didn’t have any lines, and it had a really cool edge based on the crisis of faith experienced by everyone (including the friar, who does a great rock solo about it) in the face of all that tragedy. The performance was fantastic- the troop have travelled around Europe and have been to England (not sure where their Italian audience would be?) and they had some hardcore fans waiting for them in the audience – the staff placed barriers before the stage before the curtain call! One thing I will say about the play is that it was much steamier than I imagine the British equivalent would be: Romeo and Juliet enjoy many extended kisses on stage, Mercutio and Romeo get a proper on the lips kiss (don’t remember seeing that in Shakespeare’s version) and there is a nude Romeo! Even if it is from back view/behind a translucent screen.

Italian point 6 : Any excuse to get touchy feely

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Mercutio (left) and with Benvolio (my personal favourite)

As a lovely day drew to a close we had one more stop to make: a café in a nearby town that on Silvana’s authority was the second best granita she’d ever tasted (the first was a bit more of a trek). Granita is basically a cross between an ice cream and a slushy – the best ones are nearer to ice cream and the worst ones taste like someone’s poured milk in what could have been a delicious ice-cold beverage. This was one of the better ones, and momentary panic that the café had run out of brioches was replaced with the intense joy of receiving them freshly baked! Brioche goes with everything here, and is definitely one of the things I will most miss!!

Italian point 7 : Everything with brioche

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Me with pistachio and chocolate granita and freshly baked brioche #1

Another brioche (tee hee) and a taste of local liqueur later and we were heading back home. By this time it was nearing eleven and some of us (mainly me) were pretty tired, so I took a back seat (literally ha) in the car and the conversation – something that is especially easy when there are four Italian women around you to take the reins. The ferry home was late so I rolled into bed at around 1am – am I embarrassed to say that is one of the latest nights I’ve had this whole year?

Italian point 8 : Be late (the ferry) and sleep late (me)

Thankfully, unlike everyone that I was travelling with, I get Mondays off, so am spending the day in a glorious state of relaxation, munching on grapes and shuffling papers ready to start packing, because – and I can scarcely believe it – I’m coming home a week today!

The grand day out was the perfect way to spend my last calm weekend in Italy, reminding me of all those Italian quirks that I might just miss.

*cough Alastair

Chapter 24 : Back to School

For someone that couldn’t wait to be shot of school the first time round, it’s surprising how many excuses I’ve found to go back: Homework Help clubs, British Council, and now I’m seriously considering teaching as a future career. Problem is, I fluctuate from one extreme view to the other with alarming rapidity: I have close to zero authority in the classroom, lesson planning is a drag and trying to maintain enthusiasm in front of a bunch of teenagers all day is exhausting. But the thing is, being in school not as a student – ha, never again as a student! – is also kind of fun.

Young people* usually have pretty interesting things to say on the topics we’re discussing, but they’re at their best when they decide to take the conversation elsewhere (which thankfully in a conversation class actually counts as work). While I was waiting for ‘absolute silence’ from the class the other day (I usually end up settling for quiet murmuring or I’d never get anything done), one of my students piped up: ‘Isobel, while we wait, where did you get your clock? It’s too beautiful.’ Day made. (He meant watch). Incidentally, said class have also started greeting me ‘Good morning beautiful’ each lesson – I would tell them that it’s not really what we say in the UK, but I’ve grown to love my weekly confidence boost.

Of course, not all my classes greet me quite as enthusiastically, especially the group of topless boys I accidentally walked in on after a P.E. class the other week – though I think I might have been more embarrassed than them.

But it’s not just the time spent with students, now that I’m on friendly terms with most of the staff here I really enjoy coming into school – it’s a community. On my way in I’ll say a cheery good morning to the building staff – I had a really nice chat with one of them the other day while waiting for another teacher – turns out he speaks fluent french and has friends in Luton! Small world! I also invariably end up spending an hour in the segretaria once a month when my pay hasn’t come through – in their opinion my Italian has greatly improved by the way! And for the most part I get on really well with the teachers themselves, although I still feel a little bit out of place in the staff room (most of them seem to think I’m a student who got lost on the way to the toilets).

By far the best thing is getting to work with teachers that are really inspiring – the ones that the students behave for out of respect rather than fear, who seem to really care, or who have the sense of humour to make the hour pass quickly. My favourite by far is a substitute teacher I met this week: on seeing his jeans and leather jacket, statement glasses and goatee I was gobsmacked when he started talking to me with a West London accent! I’ve never know anyone able to become so animated about the vocabulary of law and order – it’s so true that enthusiasm in the classroom is infectious!

The problem is that for every four or five days where teaching is a dream and I sail through the corridors nodding at everyone and thinking I’ve pretty much made it in life, there’ll be one where I end up teaching one student while the rest make paper hats/doodle/consult each other on how to reply to the hottie in the year above, where no one will stop talking and I have to unleash my squeaky shouty voice, or where one of the teachers will look at something that I’ve tried really hard to make fun with a face that says ‘why are you here wasting my lesson time?’

Still, it’s hard not to laugh when I’ve just finished delivering a stern verbal warning and a student breaks what I have taken to be a stunned and penitent silence with ‘What was the question? I didn’t understand.’

Safe to say that, whether teaching is a part of my future or not, it’s guaranteed to be a fondly remembered part of my past.

*I know it sounds pretentious using ‘young people’ as a young person but I can’t find a linguistic way round it. Bucketful of soz!

Chapter 23 : In and around Naples

So here I am, I’ve just got back from a beautiful weekend away with myself in the Naples area – see how Italian I am, I’ve started thinking that ‘beautiful’ is an acceptable adjective to put in front of everything.

I had high hopes for this weekend away, not least because it would enable me to tick a whole three things off my Italy bucket list (bringing me to the somewhat mediocre total of 15/42 so far, though perhaps it was ambitious expecting to be able to tour the whole of Italy, small villages included, in eight months).

I have mixed feelings towards solo travel. On the one hand, I always come away feeling inspired and chuffed with my intrepidness, you can tailor the itinerary to meet your expectations exactly and you don’t have to make conversation while walking uphill (which there was an awful lot of in Capri!) That said, the evenings can be a bit of a bore, even for someone who loves their own company as much as I do.

The expression ‘the only person that notices if you’re dining alone is you’ is total bull. While I tucked into the most sublime pizza of my life* in Naples I received odd looks from fellow diners and waiters alike (though I think one of them might have thought I was a mystery diner as he asked me what I did for a living, so he’s excused). That said, I genuinely couldn’t have cared less – the pizza was so good that it would have been an absolute travesty to miss out on it to save myself from embarrassment. Maybe the phrase should be ‘the only person that doesn’t care that you’re dining alone is you.’ I didn’t even get my book out – but then, I am blessed with having very interesting thoughts to keep me occupied.

In fact, I had a really lovely time with myself. On arriving in Naples I marched straight to a celebrated pasticceria to sample the best traditional pastries – you haven’t lived until you’ve had a sfogliatella or three! Then I worked up an accidental sweat power walking to the National Museum, which houses some of the best preserved artefacts from Pompeii. Naples is an exciting city, but I have to say I’m glad I wasn’t based there for the year. Priorities suddenly switch from ‘How can I get the most out of my day?’ to ‘How can I live to see the end of the day?’ The narrow streets are treacherous motorways for mopeds and the station is unfortunately surrounded simultaneously by the best places to eat and drink and the seediest characters to avoid at all costs.  I’m definitely paranoid, but better that than to be mugged as I always say!

The next day I got my tourist on in style in Pompeii. Forgetting that there would be other tourists in Pomps and that it would thus be ok to dress like one, I was left absolutely boiling even in leggings and a t-shirt – Summer has definitely arrived! Pompeii was nothing like I’d expected. I’d imagined it to be a city perfectly stopped in time where you’d be able to peer into houses where tables were still laid and petrified people were frozen in action like Bernard’s Watch. In reality the main thing on show is the rubble of a city, which, if you’re as bad at reading maps as I am and as bad at signage as the proprietors of Pompeii are, is phenomenally difficult to navigate. As such I’m not exactly sure what I saw, although I did find the forum really interesting, and a few of the larger villas have been particularly well preserved/restored. So all in all quite an interesting day, especially once I’d bought a sfogliatella (heh heh heh) and decided to take the advice another tourist was offering to his friend and ‘imagine everyone walking round in togas’.

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The forum in Pompeii – one of the few times when I knew where I was.

From Pompeii I headed to Sorrento. Crammed with tourists, Sorrento definitely has a ‘resort’ feel about it, but if anything for me that was its charm. I wiled the evening away ambling through pretty market streets, wining and dining myself and sampling some particularly incredible ice cream (if you’re ever in the area, I recommend ‘nuttellone’ with all my heart and soul!)

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View from the terrace where I enjoyed a Spritz in Sorrento!

On my last day I took the ferry to Capri, which is PARADISE. Gorgeous weather shone on gorgeous surroundings, and my boat tour around the island revealed lots of magical hidden grottos. The idyllic image was only slightly marred by the fact that our captain, bless him, seemed to think that we simple tourists wouldn’t be satisfied with the stunning views and crystal waters unless he hyped them up a bit, so a fascinating natural arch became ‘an arch that, with a bit of imagination, looks like an elephant!’ and a grotto adorned with hanging stalagmites became ‘a grotto with stalagmites that, with a bit of imagination, take the form of the Madonna!’ No, they don’t, stop saying that.

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Beautiful Capri!

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The boat tour took us to the famous ‘grotto azzurro’, so named because the way that the light enters the cave creates a blue glow in the water. In my opinion the blue grotto is fairly overrated, and at any rate what would have been an exciting place to visit was ruined by extortionate entrance fees for a max five minute visit and boaters who, in the hope of a tip, belted out a range of italian songs all at the same time. Not exactly soothing. By far the most exciting bit was entering the grotto itself: we descended our tour boat onto little row boats, in which you have to lie completely flat as you go through the tiny entrance – it was the same feeling as when you’re on a roller coaster that suddenly speeds up: I even let out an involuntary squeal, so petrified was I that our guide was going to smash his head on the rock!

Wandering through the quaint paved streets in Capri afterwards was a little like being in Bicester village – lovely atmosphere but everything massively overpriced. As such the only think I bought was a pizza and a beer for lunch, which I ate in a little piazza watching the world go by. (A lot of the world went by two or three times, it’s quite a confusing place to find your way around.)

I had just enough time to pick up an ice cream in Sorrento on my way back to Naples to get the train home. I definitely won’t shy away from solo travel in the future, especially in places where there are lots of tourists, but I must admit that I’m excited to see my big sis in eleven days time!

*Da Pellone, Via Nazionale 93, near the station. The best pizza I’ve ever had in Italy and indeed my life! Queues of locals out the door are proof that it’s not just my opinion, too. I got my tip offs from this website which is worth checking out!