This Monday, the temperatures are forecast to be -2 C maximum, -11 C minimum. It’s safe to say that this is not a welcome aspect of my year in Italy; in Seville – my initial first choice, before I was persuaded otherwise – it’s going to be 19 C. Having had some family to visit last weekend and others coming next, it feels almost embarrassing that I can’t offer them the winter sun that I thought I’d be able to (still giving them more than a trip to Durham, though).
Anyway, despite forcing me to wear four layers and lengthening my longing-for-Summer playlist on Spotify (check it out, you won’t be disappointed), the cold weather has got me thinking about other things that I wasn’t expecting before coming out here. Some, like this winter weather, I could have done without, but, given how nervous I was before getting on the plane back in September, the biggest surprises have certainly been positive and have made me even more grateful to have had this opportunity. Since a list of every surprise would bore you to death, I’ve chosen to inform you of the biggest, nicest and most important:
Italian people have been so kind.
True, most of my friends out here are not actually Italian – that’s not to do with the people themselves, though, but rather down to the nature of an Erasmus placement. But it’s impossible not to have interactions with the real locals if you spend longer than a month out here: if your hair grows like mine, a haircut is one of the first worries to crop up; and, almost inevitably in this weather (you can tell it’s really getting to me, can’t you?), a trip to the doctor will become necessary at some point or other. All of this, of course, on top of daily interactions at shops, restaurants and bus stops. Now, it’s not that I ever had a negative opinion about the Italian people – I’ve always loved Italy! – but, since arriving, its become clear that people here are not just willing to help you, but will actively go out of their way to enable you to enjoy their country – and this was a surprise.
For example, in October, some friends and I went on an Eramusland Wine Tour of Tuscany. We had lunch in a beautiful town, Montalcino, where there happened to be a local food festival: picnic benches, barbecues and outdoor bars in the sun, overlooking terracotta roofs and undulating hills (talk about La Dolce Vita!). This is enough to put anyone in a good mood – but is it enough to make you want to share your bottles of expensive wine with five tourists sticking out like sore thumbs and looking questionably at the local idea of street food? Well, it was for the jolly party of six retirees sitting next to us. I refused at first (an English dilemma: is it polite to refuse?), but they were so insistent that we ended up taking at least two cups each from them. Perhaps it was their deep pride in their town, country and life; maybe they were just so grateful for our interest in their culture; or was it an older generation looking after, even teaching, a group of young lads? It was probably a mixture of all these and other things, but, whatever their reasons, the resulting kindeness was the same.
Shortly after that trip, I did take the bold move to have my hair cut by an Italian hairdresser. ‘Parla inglese?’ ‘No.’ Damn. After fumbling to get a photo from my phone in an attempt to avoid a buzzcut, he proceeded to cut my hair and, despite my terrible Italian, to ask after my life and my reasons for being here. At the end, as I was paying, he disappeared for ten seconds; upon returning, he had three books in his hands, all in Italian: a joke book, a short story book and a novel. As he was placing them in the bag, I got my wallet out again (this time, too polite to refuse) – he laughed, gestured for me to put my wallet away, handed me the bag and wished me a good day. The man had given me three of his own books so that I could learn his language – and how much more personal is gifting a book than telling me to download Duolingo? Now, I can hear the voices of particular friends as they read this: Ed, you’re so naïve, he just wanted you to return to him so that he can make more money. I’m not stupid, I can see that – but I genuinely don’t think that that was the point. Above all else, he wouldn’t have had the chance to pull such a stunt had he not had the interest to find out about me, even after realising that my Italian was painfully slow and inaccurate. I do go back, in fact – last time, I was 50 cents short in cash, but he didn’t make me pay by card or go to the machine – he just smiled and took it.
Finally, and most recently: I went to the doctor soon after returning after Christmas. I think that this is the most stressful part of living away from home – the idea that, if something happened, I wouldn’t know what to do. I found that there was a doctor on my street and noticed on his CV that he spoke English, so I gave him a call and he gave me an appointment. I was greeted by a smile and listened to with the concern that you would wish for from a doctor. But, at the end, he didn’t just wish me well and say goodbye – he thanked me for helping him with his English and he told me I could come back at any time, even outside his office hours, if I ever had a problem. And, without ever having seen my EHIC card, there was no suggestion of any payment – and there still hasn’t been, two or three trips later. Little gestures, I know, but he couldn’t have known how worried I had been about the visit, and I’ll be searching for a way to let him know just how grateful I was for his kindness.
These are the sorts of things that really make a difference for a young student living in a foreign country. You’re not at home, and sometimes that’s the point; but, at others, you need to be made to feel part of the family. On each of these occasions I was left with debates in my head – Would this have happened in England? Why did they really do this? Am I too pessimistic and sceptical? – but, more importantly, I was left with a sense of happiness and comfort.
I must finish with a disclaimer, alluded to in the last paragraph: I’m not suggesting that this doesn’t happen in England. I’m sure you have many examples of random acts of kindness from all over the world, and I hope you can see that this post is not about a comparison of cultures, but about a real experience of welcomness that, whether abnormal or not, whether a product of my circumstances or not, has stuck with me here more than any other has. These were all people that I did not know at all, yet they still treated me like an old friend; I guess I’m just wondering how often I do that for people, English or foreign, back at home. Is this just my problem? Well, if so, at least my eyes are open now.