Location Italy

A story of homesickness

homesick

I was reminded of this story when I noticed that the kitchen table in Modena was the twin of the one I ‘borrowed’ from my sister and temporarily used in my bedroom in Yorkshire as a desk.

Grand-mère, from France, told the story to me in her kitchen as she was cooking dinner. I am lucky that here, in Italy, I suffer from very little homesickness. Skype and instant messaging help. But there are many times where I’ve sat in a crowded room and felt the odd one out.

Once upon a time…

Once, when she was younger, she met a young African man at a party. She’d seen him before and noted how cheerful and optimistic he appeared, but this time was different. He seemed visibly upset. Grand-mère asks to how he was. Lost and homesick came the response. Everyone else seemed to belong to the environment, but to him it felt unusual. The party mood had swept everyone else up, but he’d somehow been left behind. He felt the ache of disconnection. These people had different houses to what he was used to, their clothes were different, the way they touched was different. They spoke of experiences to which he couldn’t relate.

It was a big house. So Grand-mère suggested the man take himself away for a moment. There was plenty of space to go and take a moment of privacy to deal with the torment he was feeling inside him. Maybe a little quiet would help with the acute overwhelm.

A little while later he reappeared amid the party with a broad smile. He sought Grand-mère out and she was delighted to see his face glowing, but intrigued as to what had cause his transformation?

He explained that he’d begun to explore the house, and had come across the kitchen. It was here he’d realised that despite many things being different in France, not all were. In a pot on the kitchen side he’d found home, it took the shape of a simple wooden spoon. And it was this simple wooden tool that would have been just as in place in his mother’s kitchen as it was in this alien French chateau that had brought a smile to his face.

My tiny moments of familiarity

When I heard the story for the first time, I thought it was funny. None-the-less, in my life, I’m continually amazed at how such tiny moments of familiarity can bridge the gap between this unusual environment and the one that I traditionally call home. Here near Naples, in the room in which I now sit, there’s a print in a simple white frame hanging on the wall. I have a postcard in my bedroom at home of the same picture. Behind me, on the windowsill, there’s a plant pot I know from IKEA.

Let’s hope that the next time you’re homesick, you’ll find your wooden spoon.

One island, two totally different cultures (Sicily)

sicily

Before going to Palermo, I stayed in another house in the south of Sicily. Or rather, I stayed in a little cabin, what the Italians call una capanna. It had no electricity, although the main buildings had occasional solar power. I could charge my phone and computer and we could run the washing machine. I lit candles in the evening, and used solar powered lanterns to read in bed.

The valley I lived in was home to a few English expats and a Sicilian chap who would pass by singing my name – Caterina. He brought over mandarins, fresh off his trees which I ate daily, and kept the orchards and vineyards of the absent expats looking picturesque.

The beauty of the valley was its silence. You could hear a blue tit take off and it would sound like a helicopter. When the men were working up the hill on one of the other properties, you could hear their loud boisterous Italian conversation. You could hear each whack of the hammer. They’d stop at twelve, having started promptly at 7am. When the men were pruning the overgrown abandoned lemon groves I had no need to set an alarm; I woke to the whir of the chainsaw.

But most of the time there was silence. You could hear the breeze even if you couldn’t see the leaves of the trees sway. In Sicily, autumn has only hit the occasional tree – the pink cachi for example whose fruit and leaves are the same colour so you can hardly spot the fruits on the tree. The delay of the seasons made it all feel a little like travelling back in time.

I read. Curled up in the sunshine, watching the robins dart between the cacti, or with my legs up in front of the wood fire when the sun hid behind the clouds or after it had gone to bed. I read Sara Maitland’s ‘A Book of Silence’ and John Francis’ ‘The Ragged Edge of Silence’.

In the evenings before dinner, my hosts and I would make our way to the dojo, the meditation room, where I’d light the wood fire. We’d stretch gently with a little calm yoga, before sitting down to calm our minds.

My mind was serenely calm. There was plenty of space for it to unwind between the relaxed manual labour – I repaired furniture, painted tables and dug over the vegetable patch – and reading, writing and walking. I was calm and content. Peaceful.

And then I left and went to Palermo. And in the rage of real passionate, often furious, Italian expression, I lost the calm.

The awkward unknown of adapting to a Sicilian household

Sicilian Almonds
[Attempt two]

It took a full day of travelling to cross Sicily: a falling apart car, three trains, and then a yellow van.

I’m still a fan of the Italian trains. One of the three was a tiny train up through the hills across Sicily. It was beautiful. The scenery reminded me of the North of England for reasons I cannot explain. Maybe I was just thinking too much about home. In another train, I stared out of the window, as we followed the stunning Mediterranean coastline. No train arrived on time, but all of them had enough room that I could keep my suitcase close by. I panic about leaving my suitcase out of sight.

Then there was the yellow van. By the time I was strapped in the van seat, my suitcase safely tucked in the back beneath some large sheets of wood, I was tired.

We took a detour to the house of Maria’s mother. Maria, a Sicilian craftsman, is my current host.

I exchanged pleasantries in a British fashion with her mother, a wonderful Italian nonna (grandmother) who insisted on giving me a pomegranate.

“My mother,” Maria explained.

An enormous pomegranate filled the fruit bowl and I admired it as was pointed out. You could have played football with it. Maria’s mother and I discussed the wonder of the night’s sky. Her father turned up fully dressed, with the addition of a dressing-gown, holding a pair of binoculars.

Leonardo, Maria’s partner, and I got ready to go; Maria’s mother disappeared to find me a plastic bag for my own small pomegranate. Maria shook her head despairing affectionately.

“The house of my mother – perfect, mine no.”

This not so perfect house – which I’d describe as lively – is where I’m living for a little while. Lively is an understatement.

On growing up and Leonard Cohen

Are you sitting down?

As I type this post, I am listening to Leonard Cohen. A fascination with his voice and lyrics began a few weeks back. It began when I read some article about him, about the strange swirl of loneliness, adoration and longing he plays his life in, and it got me wondering about his music.

Those who know me well might know how his music can anger me. Indeed, the closest I’ve ever felt to hatred is in reaction to Cohen’s voice. Sometimes his music feels like a physical attack. It vexes me with the instruments bouncing around against a backdrop of darkness. To me it’s both awkwardly disconnected and at the same time, hauntingly reminiscent of the disparity between what we so often feel and what we pretend to be. As a result, when I hear his voice, I fight to have him muted. I don’t want to feel that.

So what surprises me the most in listening to these miserable tunes now, is the distance I hear them though. I’m unexpectedly calm. There’s no sinking feeling tugging me into Hades realm. I’m not desperate in my craving; my claws aren’t out. It seems that Leonard Cohen doesn’t control me anymore.

This represents some greater movement in how I think. Fundamentally, I often assume big, overwhelming emotions drive me, they tug, as if tied to a ring though my nose. But this hypothesis is crumbling. Last autumn perhaps I was the harnessed donkey endlessly turning the mill stone long after the grain has run through, worn out and unimaginative. Then came spring, dictated by hot red anger like I’d never touched before. My relationships seemed tainted with disappointment. The disappointment evolved. The summer was more arrogant and self-possessed. Inevitably things keep changing – now I’m looking back with a smile.

Frequently, I wonder where I’m going. The freedom I craved, I won. To destroy a boggart, you merely laugh at him. Perhaps I’ve learnt to laugh at myself. And at Leonard Cohen too. It leaves a wondrous relief. Freedom.

Frecciarossa: Bologna to Naples by train

statue modena

The Frecciarossa line of the TrenItalia railway leaves Bologna Centrale towards Napoli Centrale underground. The highspeed line runs deep under the city.

I’m lucky today.* My generous host arrived home from saving the environment just in time to give me a lift to Modena train station. He insisted on carrying my suitcase down the many flights of stairs. I didn’t make a fuss, but I was grateful. He remarked on the weight of my belongings, and I pointed out that whilst it was heavy, it couldn’t be much over twenty kilograms as yes, it did now contain my boots, but it had managed to fly RyanAir only a few days previously. Apart from a few food supplies, I hadn’t picked anything up.

Mentally I begin working out what I’m going to strip from my case next time around. It seems silly to carry more than I can lift.**

I am also concerned someone might walk off with my suitcase. I am going to Naples, and Naples does have a reputation. Sadly, my luggage has neither legs nor teeth and can’t defend itself or undertake an epic adventure to reclaim me should we become separated. However, I’m not as worried as I was a short time ago before I clambered aboard this train.

The seats face each other in sets of four. Each row across has letters to mark the seats, like an aeroplane and unlike an English train. Between the seats there is luggage space. If I were strong enough, or if wasn’t hauling around a bag almost a third of my own body weight, then there’s also space above my head on a deep rack. The ladies opposite have managed to get their huge suitcase up there.

This strikes me as much better than the English system. English trains dedicate a tiny amount of room for luggage. Usually taking my case by train involves me having to accept the help of a stranger to get it up on one of two racks at the end of the coach. Out of view. Right by the exit.

Not all Italian trains are so fresh or so easy. The crankier local regionale trains fit luggage (and people) in any gap. I kept mine between my knees.

This train however is so shiny it has a computer screen, hanging from the ceiling in the middle of the carriage. It advertises buses, some sort of free (Italian) film service and occasionally shows a map. Kindly, it reminds me to be vigilant about watching my bags. I’m on high alert; security notices bombard me from every direction. Witnessing two young men being arrested in the posh, ‘highspeed’ waiting area of the station rather illustrated the point.

We finally break out into sunlight, twenty-five minutes after setting off from Bologna. The computer screen flicks between the weather, the connections available at the next station (including the platforms at which they can be found) and ‘livecam’. At hundreds of kilometers per hour, we zoom along railway track bathed in autumnal sunshine. It’s three o’clock in the afternoon. By the time we reach Naples it will be dark.

DeepThough will be waiting for me. It’s time for another adventure.

[Happy 2nd November.]

*And every other day.

**I can of course lift my case, huffing, puffing, one inch off the ground scraping the steps kind of way. Jumping down the three steep steps off the Italian trains involves a prayer.

Travel: Arriving in Modena and falling in love with Italy all over again

Modena

It’s a good job that the clocks went back this weekend. After taking buses, trains and an aeroplane on Friday, I’ve hit a wall. I was in an easy going quiet village in rural France. The sort of place with just three bakeries and a church. However, it was time for a change, so I boarded my flight and arrived, some time later, in the hustle and bustle of Bologna. This was a detour on my way to Modena, which itself is a detour on my way to Naples. I’m off to meet DeepThought there next week.

Me and my suitcase (worryingly under 20kgs) arrived at the train station of Bologna. I wanted to catch a train to Modena but since I had some spare time, I thought it would be useful to buy some seat reservations ready for my exploration of Italy over the next month. Especially since the Trenitalia website hates me. As you might expect, it wasn’t much easier in the ticket office. There were not enough open desks and it was coming up to rush hour on the Friday evening before a long weekend. Tuesday is a public holiday here to celebrate the dead and Monday is a day off as a ‘bridge’.

To make sure the Italian man on the other side of the counter made the right seat reservations for me, I stood on my tiptoes leaning forward and gesturing at his screen with my pen. I’d written the details of what I wanted in my notebook to help this exchange. Even so, and not unexpectedly, it wasn’t a case of right first time. The ticket booth attendant spoke a lovely Italian. I replied not in Italian, which I can’t speak, but in a mixture of atrociously pronounced French and my tired Yorkshire infused English because my brain has gone poof.

To keep me on my toes, the app on my phone included trains and train stations that didn’t actually appear to exist.

I finally arrived in Modena, where Balsamic Vinegar comes from. It is very near to Ferrari land. In fact, my current host, a most hospitable Italian man who’s got a mountain of his own wondrous travel stories to tell, used to work in the Ferrari museum. As a true Modena man, he’s also the very proud owner of a small collection of real balsamic vinegars. Each is from a local family and tastes completely different. The experience is different to consuming the mass-produced variant. A deep sense of tradition and an attitude that treats vinegar like art results in this ‘black gold’. The bottles are so small that they’d pass through airport security in a sealed plastic bag.

He has an admirable Italian passion for food. We went out and got pizza, cooked by a Napolian chef in the local Modena style with aubergines.

Food matters to a true Italian. To amuse myself, I bought a couple of cachi (persimmon) and a few other vegetables from the fruit and veg shop down the street. Unlike a supermarket, or even a slightly larger grocery store, you must ask for each of the products you want. You do not touch. All the plastic carrier bags are stored behind the counter. The shopkeeper seemed delighted with my choice and particularly with my hesitant but correct pronunciation. I didn’t tell him that I leant the ‘chi’ sound from drinking Chianti. I’ve never had a cachi before, but found them heavenly and highly recommend them. Unfortunately, I spoilt it a bit by saying thank you in Spanish.

To recover from my travels I plan on spending my Sunday relaxing, perhaps going as far as the local art gallery.

Rolling out pasta with a wine bottle

Cortona, Italy maybe 2015

Sitting on the veranda, opposite this huge open expanse of olive groves stretching out towards Tuscany, the pool in the foreground, a glass of chianti beside me on the coffee table, I’m aware that I’m incredibly lucky.

Right now, I don’t wish to be anywhere else. The sun is setting. It looks bigger than normal, glowing warmly as it sinks into the dip where the green trees of the nearby hill intersect with those masked in a dark grey haze on the mountain further back. The sky is pink and purple, streaked yellow where the sunlight reflects off the dainty wisps of cloud.

In the house, the Father is preparing tagliatelle – rolling it out with a wine bottle and slicing it into strips. Food here makes me wonder if my taste buds have been in hibernation. Each time I bite into a peach, slice of watermelon, plum, pear, apricot… I have to wash the juice from my chin. Prickly cucumbers, heavy tomatoes and twisted peppers grow outside my bedroom window. It’s delightful.

Yet, this is all a tremendous privilege. The ability to write these words is a privilege. I work hard, but I don’t work harder than many who are not as lucky as me. I also play. I’m trying to be kind and compassionate. I’m trying to read widely, understand humanity with all its flaws. I’m trying to catch myself before I judge people for their failings, for their looks, their weight, their passive lives or blind judgments. It’s difficult, but, as the Dalai Lama says, everyone seeks happiness and tries to avoid suffering. It’s nested in my mind, but it’s still the second thought – it’s a privilege I can think this way when so many others are trapped.

Even comparative to many of the people I wander past in the street at home, I feel lucky. I’ve watched my parents demonstrate a life of loving interdependence. A wonderful man cherishes me dearly. Friends openly love me, chastise me when I push boundaries and laugh with me over things that don’t matter, but really do. If I want to be alone, I’m alone. If I want company there are many people I can turn to who will reciprocate my incessant babble, and show appreciation for the connection. I neither worry about loneliness nor a lack of space. My only challenge is finding a balance.

Very little of my luck is caused by me. I’m a product of my family’s efforts and a society that priorities people who look and behave like I was instructed to look and behave. Genetics help too. I was born in the right place at the right time.

So does my luck imply a responsibility to do something with it? I’ve been set up for success. I’m educated and intelligent. I consider reading (fiction and non-fiction) and learning as not only valuable, but normal. I believe that my emotions are my responsibility, as is my mental and physical health and I act on that knowledge. I detest ‘supposed to’s and ‘shoulds’ but I can’t help feeling that this unfair privilege I behold is an opportunity of which it would be negligent of me to ignore.

Sure, there are people who are financially better off than I am, people who are more intelligent, people who are better writers, better artists, people who are more beautiful. That’s beside the point. I’ve already got more ability than I know what to do with. Similarly, I have many of my own battles to fight. If I want a house of my own, if I want to become a good writer, a good painter, I must dedicate my time to practice. Yet.

Sitting here on the veranda, I can’t help but think that it’s still rare, and a privilege, to have so much opportunity as to find it overwhelming.


Note on the image: I took the picture very quickly as I was walking down a street in the beautiful Tuscan town of Cortona. As a place to visit, Cortona is lovely, however it’s the abundance of art shops, with workbenches set out and in use, is what made it a really fascinating place for me. These little people were just there in the street, looking at me.

Warning, Thunder.

There’s about to be a thunderstorm. All afternoon, the sporadic faint rumbles have called our attention to the bright sky. In the sunshine, we raced the length of the swimming pool, played catch, sat reading and ate our lunch on the veranda. A few clouds appeared overhead and we laughed joyously, carefree.

The air becomes hot and muggy. The wind ripples through the trees and the sky darkens overhead. The Mother takes the crisp swimwear from the drying rack and puts it on one of the kitchen tables.

We wait for the theatrics to begin.

First the tall trees begin to dance. The fig, which overhangs the pool shower bends precariously. The oliver trees shimmer. We can walk on the patio without burning our feet and do so, with haste, to lower the umbrellas. In the wood pile the lizards hide. Above, in their nest the swallows – or birds that look like swallows – huddle together to wait out the storm. I lean back in the rocking chair.

The Mother looks around expecting to see rain, but there’s none yet. The sound she hears is the wind.

We drink tea on the veranda, so typically English in our Italian paradise, and wait. No worries, no urgency, nothing but everything.

Lightening strikes.


 

[Eventually, the fig tree snapped.]

Luncheon and some posh frescos

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Setting: A monastery in the beautiful Italian countryside that was converted for living in by none monks. The walls were decorated with the original Napolionic frescos from the time Napolean popped in for a visit.

Food: Bread, soup, pasta, more pasta of different variety, salmon, potatoes, fennel, strawberries, more strawberries, cherries, and some sort of pastry thing.

Drinks: Alcoholic and voluminous.

Guests: Of mixed nationality, perfumed and wearing loud jewellery.

Transportation: Open top car, driven by the Italian Stallion.

It all sounds pretty perfect. The food was good, the views from the monastery were stunning. Racing through the Italian countryside in an open top car in the sunshine was exhilarating and on arrival, windswept and grinning with a bottle of wine in my hands, we were met by a flurry of hand shakes and cheek kisses.

Cautiously we stepped into the monastery, I accepted a glass of prosecco and meandered through the rooms staring at the ceilings, floors and walls. The most impressive was the Napoleonic frescoes which included small smiling faces of some of the monks who had been there when Napoleon visited peering down from the ceiling.

Soup was brought out, and I quickly ate some bread to help absorb alcohol. My glass was being regularly refilled by many of the gracious men who passed by with a bottle in their hands.

But there it all kind of stopped.

At a K-town party (ie. one of my tribes’ parties, including the mother’s fancy dress party) there’s a general feeling that you don’t want it to all come to an end. People may be tired and in need of a moment of solitude, but there’s an overwhelming tug towards staying just that little longer. The accumulation of people, those friends, it’s all something incredibly special. There’s a just one more song feeling.

The monastery luncheon had a ‘done my due now’ feeling about it. And to add to that, the bathroom wasn’t exactly clean either.

 

[Written last year but not published.]

That Man

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On our journey thus far we have encountered a number of men (and a woman) that we have labelled as ‘That Man’. ‘That Man’ is a term of endearment that we have coined, describing an individual that has helped us, two rather ditsy British girls, in our hours of need so far on our trip.

They are:

  1. The woman at the first petrol station we used in France (the first ever in the continent). We shared no common language. The petrol went in the tank, but our credit card was refused on the first go. We were rather hysterical, after a rather challenging few hours of learning to drive on the wrong side of the road. Despite her lack of English, and our lack of French, she smiled at us, and beckoned to us to try again. It worked! She grinned at us, wiped her head in mock relief and sent us on our way, with a full tank of fuel.
  2. The Italian men who gave us directions to a hotel in Turin. After getting lost in the one way systems of Turin, and had been driving around for five hours, we were exhausted and desperate. After Betty, also verging on hysterics, virtually begged them for directions, the kind gentleman told me to her to ‘calm down’ (In English!) and gave us directions to our hotel.
  3. The man at the hotel in Turin. We were absolutely exhausted when we stumbled into the hotel. It was late. He gave us a nice room, and hot water for drinks. TWICE. What a legend.
  4. The paramedic men in Rome, who kindly took our picture in front of St. Peter’s Basilica.
  5. The police man in Rome who explained to us how to get home after the trains stopped running for the night.
  6. The local ‘Italian Stallion’ for driving us around the bella Italian countryside in his open-top car and bringing us fruit and yoghurts!

From Kate because Betty missed out: The volleyball team playing on the beach at Terracina. All of them.

(written by both of us collaboratively, like our shared wardrobe)