The Biggest Italian Surprise

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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).

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They’re smiling, but I don’t think my cousins were impressed with the ‘amazing’ view from San Luca…

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.

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Montalcino (see below).

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.

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Tripe with salsa verde in a bun :S

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.

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Food festival mentioned earlier, because the hairdressers’ and my hair don’t make good photos.

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.

English, The English, and Languages

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It’s always been my dream to speak foreign languages: I remember once swearing that, during my lifetime, I would be able to speak the ‘romance’ languages – Spanish, French, Italian and Portuguese (excluding Romanian) – all fluently. Coming to Italy for a year, I certainly thought that one of those could be ticked off the list. But, during my struggle to compete in Italian classes filled with talented European linguists, it’s becoming more and more clear how difficult a challenge I have set myself.

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Pictures don’t really fit with this blog, so I’m just adding some odd ones. Opening a latch in the street wall leads you to one of the ‘Seven Secrets’ of Bologna – Il Canale di Reno.

I am, however, going to go out on a whim and claim this: that the challenge is even more difficult because I am English. And, more importantly, that this is a fault of our society and a credit to the European mainland. 

It is, in short, a privilege to take part in an Erasmus exchange and almost always to be understood because the language of communication is my own. You can put this down to our past and to our present: the spread of English with its Empire, or the current popularity of Ed Sheeran and Peaky Blinders. Whether they want to or have to, the result is the same: citizens of European, and other, countries learn English, and they learn it well.

 

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Left to right: Joram (Dutch), Henrik and Yannik (German) and Me.

It is my privilege, therefore, to be able to express myself accurately amongst a group of people who, of course, have to try that little bit harder to get their thoughts across. Learning Italian, I know only too well the frustration of knowing exactly what I want to say, but just not having the tools to express it in the way that I would like – for example, using a word that doesn’t mean what I want, simply because it means saying something. My European friends, it must be said, speak English brilliantly; but there’s no doubt that, at times, they wish that they could express themselves in their own languages, which, supporting their cultures and having defined their past emotional experiences, have far more power to communicate the thoughts inside their heads than my language does.

At times, then, the fact that we speak English as a group is great for me. I bet that I come across as more funny than usual (or, just funny), more intelligent and more empathetic than I do in the UK because the speed and accuracy with which my expression comes are that bit quicker and, well, accurate (perhaps not, then…). To me, though, as such an admirer of the linguistic skills that my friends have picked up, this linguistic privilege has as many negative undertones as it does benefits.

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Only 1€!

Firstly, and most obviously, it means that we English do not try to speak other languages. I’ve heard the compliment many a time – ‘Wow, you are English and have learnt some foreign languages, that’s great! – but this compliment never fails to fill me with embarrassment. ‘Linguistic skills’ doesn’t mean ‘being able to speak a language’ – these skills are ones of logic, discipline, creativity, confidence and many more, and they are skills that we are missing out on because we don’t have to make any effort to get our thoughts across. Though their surprise is not meant condescendingly, to me, it sounds like ‘you guys aren’t meant to be as intelligent as we are’.

There is, however, an even more sinister consequence of our failure to make an effort with foreign languages. My inability to express myself effectively whilst learning Italian has made me pay even more attention to my expression in English and, consequently, I have become amazed at how often what I say fails truly to convey the emotions inside my head, both because of laziness (does it really matter if I’m jealous or envious?) and because of a fundamental lack of vocabulary. Can it really be true that our practice of speaking only English is actually making our English worse?

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Favourite restaurant – Zero Cinquantino on Via Peschiere Vecchie.

 

Not putting yourself under pressure to find the correct way of informing others of what’s in your head means that you become less and less able to communicate effectively. This privilege that comes with the popularity of English will soon cease to be one, because our foreign friends, who not only learn English, but learn the skills that go with learning a language, will be able to express themselves in English better than we ourselves can, simply because they are more practised at connecting their thoughts to their words effectively. In turn, it may already be hard for me, an Englishman, to analyse my expression and to apply such skills to my learning a foreign language – but this challenge is only going to become harder if we do not make the effort to change how foreign languages, and our own language, are taught and considered in our society.

And I almost managed to write this post without mentioning Brexit – but does it really need to be said that such a rejection of Europe and its people will spark big changes to how we communicate with them? In some ways, I hope that the popularity of English does decline with our withdrawal: it might force the government to train us in vital skills of expression and thought that we currently miss out on. And it might even increase the value of my Classics degree (ha, ha).

Why we fell in love with Lake Garda

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Alongside the attractions of the city itself, one of Bologna’s best assets is its location relative to some other beautiful places in Italy: the famous Tuscan cities of Florence, Pisa and Siena are no more than two hours away; in an hour and a half you can reach the stunning principality of San Marino, near the Eastern coast and not far too from Venice; and, as I found out a few weeks ago, a train and two buses can transport you not just from grand urban architecture to the breathtaking natural landscapes of the Northern Lakes, but also from the bustle of modern city life to a simpler scene from the past – or, at least, from my romantic, escapist imagination that, I think, tends to be enhanced whenever I move from the trees and fields of Warwickshire into a new city. Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that the journey to Lake Garda from Bologna takes you past the town of Mantua, the birthplace of the poet Virgil in 70 BC, who, in his Eclogues, carried the dream of a ‘Golden Age’ defined by nature, simplicity and happiness into a Roman society plighted by political instability and war – though, I’ll admit, my relief was more from the hectic first few weeks of my placement than from the bigger worries of natural disaster and nuclear war in the world right now.

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It was thanks to my girlfriend, Jess, that we really saw the full extent of the tranquility that Lake Garda has to offer: the south of the lake, though still beautiful (especially Peschiera del Garda, a little port filled with colourful houses, small fishing boats, Vespas and Fiat 500s), has a big tourism trade, and it was pleasing to leave the theme-parks behind us, replaced by the string of small hamlets dotted along the eastern coast, in one of which Jess had booked a charming Airbnb.

The apartment, in fact, wasn’t on the coast but a 5-minute walk up the mountain, which gave us some lovely views over the lake, even if it meant having to make a painful climb every time we needed to go out: our ‘village’, Castello, was made up only of a church, a pizzeria and houses like ours. It might have been nice to have had a car – but, then again, such a modern commodity wouldn’t have been fitting in our Arcadia. It’s hard to write about such a perfect place without giving a minute-by-minute account of each small thing that we did, from sitting on a jetty watching the boats rock as the sun went down to gliding over the lake with the wind in our hair on the ferry home, but, I think, two things did stand out.

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Our evenings eating out were, simply, special: on our first night, we ate at ‘La Trattoria del Captiano’ in Porta di Brenzone, which sits on a pier so that you really do feel as though you are in the lake as you eat. Typically of the area, it is family-run: the mother cooks, the father and sons wait on the tables and the uncle goes out at 5am every morning to catch fish from the lake. We ordered too much food: I’m still not sure whether the portion sizes were too big or whether we shouldn’t have ordered pasta in between our starter and main course… but the fact that we had to roll out of the restaurant didn’t mar the incredible setting and warm atmosphere of the night.

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Having thought that this would be hard to top, however, our second night was, perhaps, even more special. This time we took a peaceful 20-minute walk down the gentler slope of the hill to the village of Brenzone and, thanks to the fact that our first choice restaurant was full, we found ‘Ristorante al Vapor’ – right next to the lake and, this time, outside. We both had an incredible set menu of mixed fish carpaccio, salmon pasta, gurnard with caper sauce and chocolate mousse, made all the better by friendly waiters, free aperitivi at the beginning and free limoncello at the end. Safe to say the walk home went quicker than we had feared before we came out.

The second thing that stood out was the town of Malcesine. The town itself is a maze of cobbled streets, gelaterie and tiny squares bordered by locally-supplied restaurants, but it is the castle that steals the show. By some stroke of luck, the weather cleared just as we entered its walls, meaning that, as we climbed the steps first onto a pretty terrace and then to the top of the main tower, we were greeted with views of the lake, the mountains and the rooftops of Malcesine that really did make our mouths drop.

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Thankfully for you, I caught most of the trip on video; as hard as I have tried, I’m not sure I’ve done justice to the tranquility and beauty that we experienced on this holiday with my words. I feel almost torn sharing it with you, to be honest, as though I’m giving away our secret hiding place (though I am aware that Lake Garda isn’t exactly a remote island in the Pacific) – but it would be selfish not to give you the opportunity to see for yourself why we fell so much in love not only with the view from the terrace at Malcesine, but also with the whole modus vivendi in this secret paradise in the north of Italy. Between the warmth of the locals, the silence of the single-track roads, the serenity of the lake and the grandeur of the mountains, we found ourselves lost in time and place with no will to find a map nor to call for help, but, now that we’re out, the least we can do is to direct you there too.

 

 

First week in Italy: the Food, the Bad and the Beauty

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Even though I’ve only been out here for just over a week, I feel that I shouldn’t have left it this long to write my first post – so much has happened, so many feelings have come and gone and so many new impressions have hit me that I’ll never be able to do it all justice in one post, nor remember each amazing and frustrating thing about my first week in Bologna to recount later. I’ll give it a go – hopefully as the year goes on I’ll get better at putting this surreal experience into words.

I’ll start with the bad stuff, for two reasons: firstly, it’s very easy for people to travel the world and selectively show their friends and family back at home the exotic and novel, whilst leaving out that which might upset their family or, to be cynical, devalue their investment of time and money in a life-changing gamble in the eyes of their friends. This blog is as much about giving as accurate a representation as possible of starting a life in a scary new country for those considering doing the same as it is about letting those I love know that I’m having an amazing time – after all, it’s the 21st century and I have a phone. Secondly, you’ll know that the great parts have even more value than they would have if my whole experience were an insta-feed of pizza, beaches and parties.

Leaving home was hard – I didn’t feel prepared, though I’m starting to think that perhaps you’re never really fully prepared for bigs steps like this. Safe to say I am lucky to have such a supportive family and a girlfriend who had done the same thing two months previously to help me have some faith in my future.

No – I have a strict weight allowance, you can’t come along 😦

Hard too was the fact that I only had a place to stay for a week when I got out there. I’d read online that it was important to look for permanent accommodation in person so as to avoid paying money to someone I’d never met for a place I’d never seen – but while I reduced the risk of being scammed, I greatly increased my stress levels over the seven days it took me to find somewhere to live, each day getting closer to thinking that I’d have nowhere to stay on Saturday night. Maybe the best solution would’ve been to visit the city earlier in the summer to search then, and if you future exchange students have the money for extra return flights I would definitely advise that – I didn’t really want to spend the money, so in hindsight this was a dilemma that I couldn’t really have been avoided; I’m just glad finally to have a place (and a nice one at that) to call home until July!

So, I won’t deny that there were overtones – sometimes overriding – of homesickness and accommodation stress during my first week away – but then it’s probably a good thing that my first post wasn’t written at that time, or I might not have done justice to the amazing experiences that did occur every day. I am conscious that my negatives were very generalised and could have been written from any city – so, let me show you a selection of my initial highlights of Bologna:

1) The beauty of the city – people talked so much about spaghetti bolognese (or just ragù, as they call it here) before I came that the stunning porticos, iconic red roofs and (worryingly) leaning towers really were a welcome surprise when I first ventured into the city on Sunday morning.

Porticos – arches that cover most of the pavements in the centro storico. Taxes only used to be paid on the square footage of the ground floor of a building, so the Bolognesi just built over the pavements!

From the top of la torre asinelli

The smaller of ‘le due torri’, la garisenda, leans at 4.3 degrees – more than the leaning tower of Pisa.

2) Food – I’m actually yet to have spaghetti bolognese in Bologna (shock), but that’s because a) I prefer pizza, and b) there exists something called ‘aperitivo’ (or ‘apericena’) – you buy a large drink, alcoholic or non-alcoholic, for between 5-8€ (depending on the place), and then have access to an all-you-can-eat buffet full of meat, pasta, pizza and potatoes (not as many varieties as in Durham, granted) – the perfect and authentic way to line your stomach cheaply for the night to come.

3) Friends – okay, the concept isn’t exactly specific to Bologna, but the individuals certainly are in a sense – even though they come from all over the world. I’m certain that the best decision I’ve made since being out here was to go on an Erasmusland walking tour the day after I arrived; I was very nervous and it would have been very easy to ‘allow’ myself a few days to settle in before beginning to socialise, but on that tour I found some great people who have not only been fun, kind and crazy, but who are also in exactly the same situation as I am: at least the accommodation struggle was a shared one. And that group of friends expands more quickly by the day – the Erasmusland society has been great for organising parties and trips through which you meet so many friendly people. The only negative is the envy I feel at the incredible levels of English – and many other second languages – spoken by every Erasmus student; if there’s one strong opinion that this post is going to give, it’s that we, as a country, are seriously behind in our foreign language proficiency to a point where it’s almost embarrassing, and you wonder what we are actually learning at school if every foreign student has just as much knowledge and intelligence, if not more, as we do in the UK, yet can speak a second, third or fourth language to such a high level. And no, the fact that they speak English doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t bother with other languages – I think that’s something that one half will agree with instantly, and something that the other half will never understand.

Aperitivo after a day on the beach

I think I’ll leave it there for now. Sorry for the length – then again, apologising itself is only making it longer. I just think it’s important not to give a polarised view of what has been such a hectic week, and to do that demands a bit more writing than I intend to do for my next posts. I hope you’ve found it at least informative, if not interesting – so, until next time, arrivederci!

Oh, and sorry for the awful title…