Ciao! vs Bye!

Every time I take a trip back to the UK my sister or mum are always the first to point out some of the ‘Italian’ things I’ve pick up since living in Verona. One is how much I use my hands when I talk. Now, I’m sure this is not just down to the over-exposure of Italian gestures, but also due to teaching English as a foreign language. As much as I try to stop myself, I can’t seem to have a conversation with anyone in English these days without pointing ahead of me as I ask what they’re doing next week or doing a ‘come here’ motion over my right shoulder as I ask when the last time they went to the cinema was. A staff dinner can seem like a ridiculous game of charades to the casual onlooker.

Apart from this slightly ‘Italian’ quirk, there are a few others. Greeting everyone I meet with a quick peck on each cheek, going to a restaurant for a meal at 9pm or later is normal, always expecting my drink to be accompanied by a snack, and understanding that there are rules about which pasta goes with which sauce.

As well as these small ‘Italianisations’ I am also very aware of how ‘British’ I am in others, or at the very least ‘not Italian’. For example, as soon as there is any sign of sun or warmth over 15 degrees, the boots are off and the ballerinas are on. On a bright sunny day in early March I’ll be more than happy to parade around the centre of Verona in a light jacket while the Italians are sweating in their ‘piumini’ (duvet coats) because technically it’s ‘still Winter’.

I asked my housemate today if there is anything VERY British that I do. Expecting a tidal wave of Britishisms, she said, “You wash your face with a flannel.” Hmm.

But there is one thing that never fails to make me feel less Italian. Saying ‘Good bye’. I don’t know if it is a British thing or just something I do, but when it is time for me to leave a meal, a party, a friend’s house, etc – I get up, say ‘bye’ and leave. Now, to me this seemed like the normal thing to do, when you have to go – you go (no jokes please). But I’ve become aware that I’ve been committing a bit of a faux pas.

There was one time I was at my friend’s house with some other girls who I’d only recently met. We had been chatting for a while and were getting on really well when I looked at my watch, realised I needed to go – as I was meeting some other people that night, stood up, gathered my things, said ‘bye’ to everyone and left. My new friends rather perplexed turned to my friend Kailey (an American) and asked if I was angry with them because I left in such a hurry. She said no, it was just what I did – “She’s English” she said, “It’s what they do”.

You see, the Italian way is like this. You meet up with your friends at said place and greet everyone with a kiss. When everyone has kissed/been kissed/greeted by everyone else you can begin your evening. You spend ‘X’ amount of time together, having a wonderful time, and then when the general consensus of the group is to leave,  you all stand up, pay, leave the restaurant/bar. THEN you spend 10/15/20+ standing OUTSIDE the restaurant/bar saying ‘bye’. This is what I don’t get. How does it take this long to say ‘bye’. Usually, what happens is that someone in the group will remember something they needed to tell everyone which leads to more conversation and chatting. Ok, I love hanging out with my friends – but WHY don’t we just move to another bar or something and chat more over a drink (maybe this is the Britishness sneaking in). I don’t get the whole (especially in Winter) ‘let’s stand outside in a circle, in the freezing cold and chat EVEN more about stuff we could have talked about INSIDE. IN THE WARM’.

In these situations I (very politely) give me nicest smile, wave to everyone and leave. It’s become a bit of a running joke with some of my friends. And while they may laugh at this – some of them have been known to give me a nudge and whisper ‘fai come gli inglesi’ just to get them out of the spiral of Italian ‘good-byes’ in order to get home.

There are some things about the Italian culture that I’m sure I will adapt to and even adopt – but these long good-byes… it isn’t going to be one of them. Sorry guys.

Two Wheels

There is no better feeling, than when I’m free wheeling,

Past traffic and speeding, down streets that are leading,

me from A to B

my bike and me

 

Perfectly in sync – I don’t need to think

about what I am doing, my legs keep on moving

speeding up slowing down

till my feet hit the ground

 

Dodging puddles and potholes, taxis and buses.

Fair-weather cyclists are all just wusses.

I’m out in the sun, fog, snow and rain.

Unflattering waterproofs are more than a pain.

 

But it is all worth it, to experience the joy

and realise a bike is more than a toy.

It’s my mode of transport, my way to see places,

down side streets and allies, take in people’s faces.

 

No road rage, pushing, queueing along with the masses,

Spend half of my salary on train and bus passes

No need for a timetable, not restricted to bus routes,

I go when I’m able, any time that suits

 

If there is a strike

I hop on my bike

anytime I like

and pedal…

Are we nearly there yet…?

While I was growing up my parents always insisted that we have a family holiday. As a kid that is of course fantastic but even as I got into my late teens and friends no longer went on holiday with their parents, my sister and I continued to have summer holidays with our mum and dad and I am so thankful for that. When we were young it was the annual trip to France as my auntie was living there at the time. From Cumbria to Dover it was a pretty hefty journey (and of course it was all by car). We’d pack up the car and head down south for the epic journey over the Channel and then further on into France. Thinking about it now I don’t know how my sister and I kept ourselves occupied for all that time but I don’t remember any massive shouting matches – but maybe my parents remember different.

After crossing the Channel we’d pull into a tiny hotel in some remote French village, fall asleep on the hardest beds known to man then after a ‘continental breakfast’ head on to our Eurocamp destination. We’d be tootering along, enjoying the lovely French countryside when my mother would suddenly scream as we faced oncoming traffic and my dad would swerve into the ‘right’ (in more than one sense of the word) lane.

These long journeys as a kid have made me quite resilient as a traveller. I can’t say that I’ve done the mammoth trip to Australian (yet) but even on a 9 hour flight to Brazil or a 7 hour train ride to Nice – time passed and I actually enjoyed the travelling, not just arriving at the destination.

Thinking about these journeys as I kid, we didn’t have i-Pads, TVs in the back of the headrests, I was quite a bit older when I had a Gameboy or CD player or an MP3 player. I can’t remember how old I was when I got my Walkman but even then I don’t remember shutting myself off in the car, going into my own little bubble and refusing to admit that my fellow passengers existed. What did we do? I remember a lot of ‘Where’s Wally’, colouring books, Eye-spy, various car number plate games and probably a few wrestling matches in the back of the car with my sister, followed by a serious telling off by a parent and spending the next hour and a half in silence or worse… listening to the Archers on Radio 4.

But at the end of these endlessly long car journeys we’d be greeted by a friendly twenty something university student who would show us to our home for the next 10 days (a stationary caravan which would inevitably be infested with ants within two days) and the holiday would begin.

The one holiday we had which will go down in Cooper-holiday-history as the never-ending journey was the ‘holiday’ we had on the Norfolk Broads. Being from the Lake District a boating holiday sounded like a great way to spend our summer, however as we motored down the motorway, my sister and I balanced on tins of baked beans, chunky chicken and towels, the slow realisation that spending a holiday on a boat that was probably not much bigger than the size of our car may not be the dream we all had in mind.

The Leading Lady was the name of our boat and even though we didn’t even manage to get 10m away from the jetty before we lost the life ring and had to circle 5 times in order to fish it out and block oncoming traffic, my dad still didn’t lose his enthusiasm. With the wind in his hair and the tiller in his hand he felt like Captain Nelson… though probably a more accurate description would be Captain Pugwash. The holiday wasn’t of course without hilarious incident. I managed to fall in while we were mooring up one night, my sister caught her first fish, and on the last night we sat eating chunky chicken and mashed potato while watching other families enjoy fancy pizza and mini-golf on the other side of the canal (we missed the last boat across) and while we were pulling the boat in for the final time my sister managed to walk straight back into a 7 foot hole of dirty oily water (I’d never laughed so hard in all my life).

All our holidays were filled with conversation, chatting, laughing, (sometimes often) arguing, card games, ball games, eating together – there was interaction. Years before wi-fi and having your hand no further than 10cm from your smartphone we had to interact with each other. Our conversations weren’t interrupted by taking photos of food/cocktail/dog/cat, or idly checking Facebook, or answering messages rather than answering the questions from the person sat in front of you. These days I fear they too often are.

The other day, I was booking accommodation for my next summer holiday with a friend, and we kept saying no to all the apartments that didn’t have wi-fi. Why do we even need it? I’m pretty sure the world will be able to continue without me posting a gazillion photos of food/cocktail/dogs/beaches. I want to be able to have memories of my holidays like I do now of when I was a kid. To SEE and remember the funny moments, not to remember my holiday as ‘that time I dropped my phone trying to take a photo while on a cable car’ or stressing about running out of battery and no available plug is nearby.

I’m not going to have my phone on the table while I’m out to dinner with friends. I’m going to resist taking unneccessary photos of pointless though perhaps hillarious things. I’m going to take in the moments and share them with the people I’m with. (…And then maybe later I can ‘share’ them with others).

Ostrich Eggs

Living abroad can mean that a lot of things get lost in translation. For example I remember not long after I moved over to Italy having a conversation with someone and I was really confused when they were explaining how they love eating (what I thought were) Ostrich Eggs… I was pretty surprised by this Veneto delicacy but none the less I listened intently. My friend told me how nice and soft they are inside and told me about a technique to open the shell. It wasn’t until she started talking about the salty sea taste that I realised I’d got the wrong end of the stick. We were talking about ‘ostriche‘ – oysters.

Teaching English is basically a passport to confusing and bewildering conversations. Not only in the classroom but my housemate (Italian) and I have had many hilarious moments as we mispronounce a word or mishear another. My housemate came home a few months ago with some coconut oil, pretty innocent stuff until I burst into the kitchen seeing it on the counter and crying in Italian “Oh great, you got the ‘olio di cacca‘” (poo-oil). Another comic moment was when we were together with a group of friends and she comes out with “Honkey Donkey“. We all (the majority being typical Brits and not going to let this one lie) asked her where she got that from? It turned out she meant “okey dokey”. We all much prefer “honkey donkey” and she hasn’t really lived that one down.

Another of my friends (American) was explaining to our Italian friends what PB&J sandwiches were. They understood the jam part but got a little confused when she introduced the final ingredient “burro di ragni” (spider butter instead of burro d’arachidi – simple mistake)

Most of the time language mishaps are funny but, it can also be extremely frustrating when you need to explain something and you just don’t have the words. This can happen in your native language but more often than not in a foreign language. There have been many times I’ve been at the bank/post office/public offices and while I’ve said what I needed to say fairly succinctly, the person behind the plexiglass just doesn’t understand what I want or need. In those cases a language barrier probably doesn’t help but they just aren’t willing to try and understand.

I had lunch with a Brazillian lady on Sunday. It was fantastic. Not only was the food amazing but it was a really nice afternoon. She’s been in Verona for a month now, has Italian citizenship as her great-grandparents were from Italy but has only ever known Italian dialect – from Treviso. Not much help in Verona. I met her a month ago and since then she has learnt quite a bit but still struggles and often slips into Portuguese when words fail her. I speak minimal Portuguese … and when I say minimal the words I rememeber from my trip to Rio two years ago include; abacaxi (pineapple), água de coco (coconut water) and linda (beautiful). While I wasn’t sure how many beautiful pineapples we were going to see that day, I was fairly confident we’d have a nice lunch whether we understood each other or not.

There were a couple of quiet moments … mainly as I filled up my plate and gobbled down more delicious food, but besides the silences, word bumbles and gaffs we were able to get to know each other. Even when we didn’t understand the words, we were still able in someway, to understand each other. The fact that we wanted to understand what the other was saying meant that somehow … we did.

A conversation is so much more than words: a conversation is eyes, smiles, the silences between the words. Annika Thor

On Sunday I discovered that it really doesn’t matter whether you speak the same language as someone or not – you can still have some great conversations. They may take some time, random words and phrases will be thrown in there, hand gestures, a quick game of charades, they may not be grammatically perfect but who cares.

If you really care about what the other person is saying – understanding won’t be problem.

Bla Bla bla…?

“Make sure you call me when you get to the airport. If we don’t hear from you in a few hours we’ll send out the search party!”

Parting words from my friends as they dropped me off at the moterway entrance to catch a lift with “Gio”. I was using Bla Bla Car (a car-sharing service) for the first time and I didn’t really know what I was letting myself in for. Sharing a car with a few sconosciuti for a couple of hours seemed like a decent price to pay for saving time, money and my sanity -when the alternative is negotiating public transport.

I hopped into the car and was greeted by Gio, 2 Napolitanos and a Bergamasco. After the initial awkward ‘hellos’ we settled into our seats and were off. I hadn’t really thought before how weird and unusal this situation was. I mean, there I was in a stranger’s car with another 3 randoms. It sounds like the start of an American-teen-roadtrip movie…

“They left as strangers and arrived as friends…”

It wasn’t like we were sitting on a train or a plane where you could hide under a pair of headphones or shield yourself with a book (e-book). We were stuck with each other for the remainder of the journey and it would be rude to pretend that the others didn’t exist. Wouldn’t it?

I was (fortunately) in the front seat and chatted to Gio (a 23 year old from Pompei studying Engineering). He told me he does this journey quite a lot, going to meet his girlfriend, often giving people a lift with Bla Bla Car. I asked him about the passengers he’s had. “One girl talked the whole time about her plans for the wedding, I’m sure she almost thought about inviting me by the time she got out of the car”.

The others listened politely or maybe just politely ingnored us, but after a few more kilometres we warmed up and chatted here and there, mostly about using Bla Bla car, neutral territory I guess. This being the first time using BBC I couldn’t really comment but it was interesting hearing the others’ experiences. I must admit I didn’t catch everything –  3 southerners and a Bergamasco weren’t the easiest to follow. One of the Napolitanos answered the phone and started speaking in dilect of which I understood – niente.

I can’t really say that converation flowed. After all, we were all complete strangers and not all eager to become best friends. At the time I found it a bit frustrating that after a while conversation seemed to stagnate. I wracked my brain trying to find mutual conversation topics – but often forced conversation is worse than no conversation.

At the end of the day we met as strangers and left as strangers. It wasn’t a hollywood movie where we said goodbye, hugged each other and wiped away the tears after a 2 hour therapy session. I did’t ‘get to know’ these people, we didn’t swap numbers or add each other on Facebook. We were people who passed some time together in company rather than sitting alone, ignoring the world with our eyes glued to a piece of plastic.

And that was just fine.

 

N.B. I read this article a few days ago and thought it was quite funny and linked in fairly well.

https://www.the-pool.com/life/life-honestly/2016/5/should-grown-ups-talk-to-strangers?utm_source=today&utm_campaign=7f986646fa-Today_in_3_February_11_29_2016&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_0522b4f78a-7f986646fa-69117129&mc_cid=7f986646fa&mc_eid=76dbe46984

Painting by Eleonora Milani

 

Margherite Gialle

“In February it’ll be 30 years since we’ve been open. Yeah, I’ve been working here that long … we had a party for our 25th year. We invited family and friends and went out for a dinner but this year, I don’t think we’ll do anything…”
My first “waiting conversation“.
I was given a beautiful vase by some friends over New Year and I finally had some time to go over to the florist at the end of my street and pick up some flowers. My usual procedure in Italy whenever I have to buy something from a local shop that could result in me awkwardly pointing and splurting out words in Italian is to enter, quickly glance round hoping that the thing I need is easy accessible or ‘point-able’, point/grab, pay (praying it isn’t too expensive) and leave. Whole shopping experience in no more than 5 words.
However, I had a challenge to complete. With all the grammatical precision of a billy goat I explained I wanted some flowers (well… duh) and asked for some advice. We picked out some nice margherite gialle (yellow daisies) and something pretty and white (that I have no idea what it’s called in any language). She asked me if I knew how to arrange them. A week ago I would’ve said ‘yes’ just to get out of her hair and then returning home, mutilate them into mush. However today I was honest and said “no”.
She then began to arrange the flowers (miles better than I could have) and resisting the urge to pull out my phone and Whatsapp a photo to my mum, I continued making small talk. I asked how long the shop had been there, how long she’s been there other banal questions like that. Then it was her turn. Aware of my (not-so) ‘subtle’ foreign accent she asked me where I was from, what I was doing in Verona, was I here for love, work or both? Why was I here when so many Italians are leaving? I wasn’t surprised, I hear these questions quite a lot.
I introduced myself and so did she, I paid and said ‘bye’ and left the shop. I balanced my beautiful flowers on my bike and resisted the urge to sing songs from the Sound of Music as my flowers bounced happily in the basket on the ride home. With new vase ‘christened’ I thought back to our chat. While I’m sure it wasn’t the most riveting conversation either of us had had in a while – it was nice to have a bit of human interaction with a stranger, someone who won’t be a stranger next time I visit the florist.


Telling my friends later that evening about my florist trip it turns out that this lady goes to the same church as a friend of mine and is also doing the flowers for another friend’s weddings. Small world.
N.b. Illustration by Eleonora Milani

Lost Voice

Have you ever arrived somewhere and realise you haven’t spoken to anyone that morning or even day? Then discover that you have no voice? If the answer is ‘no’ it might mean one of two things: You wake up in the morning and immediately have someone to talk to – face to face I mean. You often talk to yourself – aloud so will be aware of your voice or lack of.
While I do have a housemate and often sing 90s hits to myself, I have had a couple of instances when I have gone without speaking to anyone for a considerable length of time, then when finally the opportunity of face-to-face communication happens I discover my voice has gone. I have seen hundreds of people that day but haven’t spoken to anyone.

I’m sure this is not that unusual in a 2016 world. Yes, we communicate – we don’t lack communication with Whatsapp, Facebook, Twitter, texts, emails – so much communication these days can be done without even using our voice. A pair of thumbs will do.

So what am I getting at? Honestly I would like the world to get back to the art of conversation.

I see kids on the bus not speaking to each other because they are listening to music, whatsapping, tweeting, facebooking, instagramming – staring mindlessly at a piece of plastic. Maybe I should be pleased that they’re not all talking and making a racket but honestly it worries me that they can’t hold a conversation between themselves without being interrupted or distracted by a ping, a ring or a whistle.

I’m not only talking about teenagers, we are all to blame. I’ve watched a group of adults at a bar. As soon as one finishes what they are saying or even while he’s still speaking, others are sliding their phones out of their pockets to see if anyone has liked the photo they’ve just posted of them with their friends in the bar. Even in our staff room, sometimes I realise no one has said anything for about 5 minutes because we’re all too busy sending messages to other people.

Technology is great and I’m very thankful for many of the social networks available especially as I live abroad – they are a great way to stay in contact with family and friends. But what I do disagree with is using these social networks to avoid actually socialising with the world around us.

People spend a lot of time waiting. We wait at the checkout, bus stop, train station, airports. We wait (especially if you live in Italy) a long time at the post office or any other public office for that matter. We wait for friends when they are a few minutes late – and what is the first thing we do? Get out our phone and look at something virtual to occupy our minds (or thumbs) because God forbid we have to sit there and twiddle them or engage with the world.

That’s why I’m setting myself a challenge. I’m going to make conversation. What I want to try to do is to take opportunities in my daily life to start conversations. Stop and chat with people that I just say ‘hi’ to occasionally, like the lady who cleans the stairs in our building, or the old guy at church who I’ve seen a million times but still can’t quite remember his name. Not being afraid to start a conversation with the random person sat next to me at the post office and to take advantage of our shared waiting time. Making strangers – ‘not strange’. 

So my blog will be this – to find my ‘lost voice‘. The voice I ignore when I’m scrolling on Twitter and avoiding eye contact with those around me. I hope to take advantage of waiting and not see it as another opportunity to check Facebook.

Hopefully it will be an interesting experiment – if nothing else a few entertaining anecdotes about an awkward Brit in Verona.