Chapter 20 : In which time does not wait for me

It’s been a little while since my last blog post. And yet, it does not feel so.

Simply because I have suddenly become extremely busy. I arrived back from the Christmas break on January 6th. I blink and it’s March 10th. Spooky.

In November I had so much free time – despite three weekends of activities – that I wrote a novel. A NOVEL. Now I find myself struggling to fit in a 500 word blog post.

I wish I could say it was down to me making a cohort of Italian friends. Ha. Haha. Though, to give me my due, I met a very nice woman at a recent Anglo-Italian dinner who said she expected I found it very boring here due to the lack of young folk and the insular attitude of the ones that are around. There – it’s not my fault!

No, I suspect rather that my lack of time is due to the 10k training (turns out that when you can run for more than ten minutes at a time it can eat quite far into the afternoon), the realisation that my distant dissertation deadline is actually slowly approaching and my slightly naive idea of letting my classes decide the topics of the lessons for themselves – much more interesting for us both, but rarely do all twelve pick the same theme, which has upped the amount of prep time required of me somewhat.

And, of course, there has been the usual flurry of visitors and visiting.

In February I was treated to visits from Laura and Lois, which was a great opportunity for me to relax and enjoy Reggio, rather than zipping off to meet people in more exotic locations.

Laura and I were extremely unlucky with the weather, but where the southern climate failed me Laura’s sunny (geddit?) personality stepped in, and what would have been a very dreary weekend for me on my own turned into a fantastic one. Having now shortlisted my favourite eateries, it was a weekend of gastronomic bliss, with the best ice cream, aperitivi and antipasti that Calabria could offer. We also explored some local delights that rather embarrassingly I had never stumbled upon in my wanderings: a castle and a rather lovely Ottoman church. It’s always nice to see somewhere through somebody else’s eyes, and I loved getting reacquainted with my (temporary) homeland, as well as one of my best pals 🙂

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Enjoying a meal out with Laura

I was sad to see Laura go, but after a three day grieving period I was off to the airport again to collect the Lo for another weekend of frivolity. Laura had shown me how the airport bus works (one weekend here and she’s WAY more of a native than me), so I could look like a truly accomplished local when I presented Lois with her pre-paid bus ticket. As it was her first time to Italy, Lois’ requests were simple: Italian pizza and ice cream were a must. We managed to get a table at Spacca Napoli that night, a truly divine pizzeria in the town centre, as well as championing some amazing looking pasta at home.

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Sisters reunited

As the sun decided to come out on March the 1st (to quote Lois, ‘It’s like somebody has just switched on Spring!’) we managed to get in a day trip to Tropea, a local-ish seaside resort that has been on my bucket list since I arrived. Tropea was really stunning – the cliffside town is both pretty and dramatic and you can walk along the gorgeous blue sea underneath the cliff tops. My advice to those considering a visit would be to stick to the pavement though, unless you want to experience the most acute agony of your life. The sandy/stone hybrid beach is clearly a feeble disguise for a disused broken glass depository – walking along the beach barefoot has never been such torture. If you look closely at the photos our carefree smiles are revealed as grimaces of pain. Still, it was lovely to spend some time with my big sis, and there is even talk of a second sisters visit to Tropea if weather and uni timetables comply!

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Beautiful Tropea

What with these visits and two trips back home (I indulge myself), it’s perhaps easy to see how this year has flown so far. And it shows no signs of letting up – there are still thirty things on my bucket list that won’t cross off themselves, and with under twelve weeks until I’m back home for good, I’d better get cracking!

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.

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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Chapter 15 : We no speak Napoletano

And so it was that I embarked upon my last trip around Italy before I return for Christmas. Naples, which, if the South of Italy were to have a separate capital city, would surely be it, seemed a fitting place to end the first chapter of my year abroad.

As with all places, I went for the food, but before we get to that, here’s what else Naples has to offer the less greedy tourist. First and foremost, it’s the churches. I suffered from a similar church overload that I experienced in Rome, which I hope you will understand when you see the Google map detailing all of Naples’ churches below:

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Still, I was particularly keen to visit the Capella Sansevero, home to a sculpture called the Cristo velato (‘veiled Christ’). We weren’t allowed to take photos in the chapel (of course, Italians being Italians, several people tried, and were put in their place immediately by two stern looking wardens), so the photos here are from the chapel’s website. The Cristo velato is astonishing – both in the skill that must have been involved in creating the impression of a figure under a veil in marble and in implying such frailty in form in stone. Still, far more interesting (for me anyway) is the underground room of the chapel, home to the anatomical machines (see gruesome picture below) – an experiment from around 1763 by Raimondo di Sangro and Dr Giuseppe Palermo that has resulted in the preservation of the circulatory system on a male and female skeleton – I couldn’t take my eyes off them!

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Religion and science in the Capella Sansevero

No doubt you could spend weeks in Naples just exploring the churches, and it’s also home to some great museums, but this time round we were there for the Christmas market. Part of Catholic tradition is to decorate homes with an elaborate ‘presepio’ – a Nativity scene, for which you can buy countless characters and pieces of scenery at the market on Via San Gregorio Armeno. Italians begin decorating their homes with these nativities and their Christmas tree on the 8th of December, the immaculate conception. The streets of central Naples were packed with merrymakers from the early hours, and the atmosphere was jovial (think people in fancy dress bursting into song and parents carrying toddlers high above a sea of people), if at times a little tense (think not being able to edge your way around crowds of singing people in fancy dress and the fear of sending toddlers flying as you shoulder your way through the throng). Still, it’s clear that the people of Naples take Christmas extremely seriously, and of that I heartily approve.

The market was the perfect opportunity to indulge in two of my favourite year abroad hobbies: listening out for people speaking English and shopping. The former was mainly satisfied by Anna, my travel companion, and the gentleman from whom I purchased an unholy amount of pashminas, also fulfilling criteria b. Naples is far more pleasantly diverse than Reggio, and as a tourist I felt much more at home there, if a little overprotective of my belongings at all times.

Still, that’s not to say that I was able to communicate with any of the locals. The title of this blog, as well as being a gioco di parole that I am understandably very proud of, is a reference to the fact that, sadly, having a decent command of Italian does not mean that you will be able to converse with any Italians. This is perhaps more true in Southern Italy, where speaking dialect is very common, and said dialect is pretty removed from Standard Italian (the closest dialects to the standard used to be around Florence, and have since gone further north). Although there are very few people that are unable to communicate in Italian (my guess would be the elderly or those living in very remote areas), dialect, or a mixture of the two, are still very widespread, and largely incomprehensible to the foreigner. Wikipedia, seemingly having even more time on its hands than me, has handily translated the Lord’s prayer into Napoletano – here is an example:

English: Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Italian: Venga il tuo regno, sia fatta la tua volonta’, come in cielo, cosi’ in terra.
Napoletano: Faje vení ‘o regno tuojo, sempe c’ ‘a vuluntà toja, accussí ‘ncielo e ‘nterra.

So not entirely removed, but hopefully you can see why I might have trouble. Fear of living in the South and developing an unprestigious deep southern accent (the equivalent of the North here – sorry northern friends – with the additional menace of the Mafia thrown in), has been replaced by the peril of accidentally learning an entirely different language. Fortunately, three months later, I still understand next to nothing of Calabrese, the local dialect, with the exception of a few swearwords that have eked their way into the everyday language.

Anyway, where was I? Naples! Food! We finally made it here, your reward for reading the above is that I will now make your mouth water with a description of the delights of Neapolitan cuisine. Silvana had advised me to try pizza (which originated in Naples), hazelnut coffee and sfogliatelle, and so, like a dutiful language assistant, off I went! The pizza was naturally incredible – if you’re a fan of the crispy base you really ought to stay away – the dough is as dreamy as the toppings of fresh buffalo mozzarella and prosciutto. Sfogliatelle, for those wondering, are yummy warm filled pastry creations – the pastry is like a filo texture but there’s so much of it that it’s really thick, and then it’s filled with a custard-like mixture that’s much thicker too and you eat them warm and they’re YUM. On top of this Anna and I found an enoteca (wine bar) for an evening drink and had some delicious sangria, albeit with some rather rustic chunks of orange – and of course I was merry after a glass because I have been essentially abstaining for most of the trip. Breakfast at the hotel was the classic croissants and cake combo – I don’t think I had anything but sugar before 2pm, no wonder I was buzzin’.

I would definitely visit Naples again – as per I had been rather optimistic in time allowed for the visit with just one night in the city – but the views of Vesuvius on the train ride home have reminded me of something I have to see first – Pompeii!

Chapter 14 : Things I’ve Learned

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.

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Locri Epizefiri

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.