Friday, 16 October 2015

Southern comfort (a weekend in Naples)

“Just one thing – be careful of your stuff” said a guy I work with. “The area round the train station is better than it was, but still…” said another, rolling his eyes to complete the sentence. “You do not look like a local, so make sure you take extra care at night” cautioned a third.

I was going to Naples for the weekend and it seemed that even my Neapolitan colleagues’ tips about what to see there came littered with caveats.

The warnings were hardly surprising. Much of Italy’s south suffers badly from chronic underinvestment, corruption and crime. Naples is a working class port city that, among other things, is home to the Camorra Mafia. It’s not the kind of place for flashing valuables around or carrying your wallet in your back pocket. Then again, where is?

Evening light by the Bay of Naples

That's amore

More positively, Naples is almost universally acknowledged as the city with the best pizza in the country. This is where tomatoes were first put on a pizza base (some time in the 1500s) and today a strict series of rules defines what constitutes ‘proper’ Neapolitan pizza.

I’m not exaggerating. The Italian government produced a 2200-word document setting them out point by point… which may seem like rather a lot of fuss, until you taste it.

For context, I grew up in the UK, where Margheritas are typically the pizzas of last resort. You buy them if you’re low on cash and you haven’t got your bank cards on you. The cheese is heavy, the tomato base is sugary and the crust is as bland as a Coldplay b-side.

In Naples, a Margherita is a dish fit for royalty (literally – it was invented in 1889 for Queen Margherita of Savoy) and it tastes divine. It is light, juicy and flavourful. In fact, the memories of it are making my mouth water as I type.

It’s also a symbol of Italy since the colours of the Margherita were chosen to represent the national flag. The cheese and tomatoes are the white and red of course, while the green comes from the traditional basil garnish that is so often missing on British Margheritas.

Mount Vesuvius, an acceptable backdrop for stuffing your gob

Going underground

Food aside, Naples has a lot going for it. The city is a great base for exploring the wonderfully preserved ruins of Herculaneum and Pompeii if that’s your thing. And it’s a good place to start your trip if you’re island hopping in Capri and Ischia.

As Ms Ciao and I had only a day and a half there, we confined ourselves to wandering the centre, exploring the tunnels under its streets and strolling along the seafront in the sunshine.

The historic centre is a charming muddle of snaking alleys, timeworn buildings and diverse graffiti. It’s easy to pass an enjoyable few hours there window-shopping and strolling around – and you'll find plenty of cafes and bars to choose from when you want to take a break for coffee or something stronger.

Painter finalising a mural near the Sotteranea

The Sotteranea underground tunnels were recommended to me by several Italians, and didn’t disappoint. For €10, you get a guided tour of a subterranean warren which was built by the Greeks as temples 2,400 years ago.

After being abandoned for centuries, the tunnels were used again in the Second World War by locals hiding from bombing. One of the eeriest parts of the tour involves looking at dust-coated children’s toys that have been down there ever since.

The tunnels also house grottoes shimmering with fresh water (they were used as underground canals for a while), and your ticket even gets you entry to a hidden theatre where pyromaniac loon/psychopath/emperor Nero showed his lighter side by appearing in a number of plays around AD65-70. Seriously.

If you go, be sure to bring an extra layer of clothing. It’s cold underground, even in summer. For those who are more interested in recent history than the Greco-Roman era, the separate Bourbon Tunnel has plenty more Second World War memorabilia, along with specialised tours like underground rafting.

Stories from the city, stories from the sea

Once we’d headed back above ground, we made our way to the seafront to sip drinks looking across the water to Mount Vesuvius and take in the sunset. If feelings could be bottled, I would sell the relaxation of that hour. Via Partenope is a great place to watch the passeggiata and switch off from stress. As we walked back to our hotel, fireworks lit up the sky above the Bay of Naples.

The next day passed too quickly. We blitzed a few more sites and ate more great food. The Palazzo Reale is a bargain at €4 if you like neo-classical architecture and stately rooms, while the Castel dell’Ovo is free and has excellent views.

Basilica in Piazza del Plebiscito, opposite the Palazzo Reale

We had lunch at La Cantina dei Lazzari, which deserves a special mention. Although the pizza we ate on the seafront the night before was outstanding, the service left something to be desired.

In contrast, the Cantina's service, food and prices were all exceptional. It’s a couple of streets back from the touristy area, so it may not get the footfall of visitors it deserves, but if you’re in town I recommend you seek it out. The epitome of simple elegance.

Don't stop believin'

Once we’d finished off our lunch, it was time to get back on the train and head back up north. On the journey, I mentioned to Ms Ciao that visiting southern Italy is always bittersweet for me.

I enjoy it so much that I begin missing it before I've even left. This is the part of the country I fell in love with, and where I originally intended to live. Although we're very happy in Milan, visiting the south reminds me that I've never fulfilled my dream of moving there.

As the train chuntered back to our home, the sun began to set. It was the last weekend of summer 2015 – the summer Ms Ciao and I got engaged, perhaps our last summer in Europe. I found nostalgia creeping over me. I closed my eyes, leaned back in my seat and went with it for a while.

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Sunday, 14 June 2015

How to visit Milan like a local

Mark Twain said "The Creator made Italy from designs by Michaelangelo". Giuseppe Verdi said "You may have the universe if I may have Italy." And when I Googled "Italy is beautiful", 280 million results appeared.

This is a remarkably picturesque country. But then there is Milan. And Milan is an anomaly.

People tell me the city I live in was charming before it was carpet bombed in World War II. Now, 70 years on, it's the most successful, efficient and modern city in the country. But it's also unmistakably plain.

So that you don't leave feeling underwhelmed, I've put together some of my favourite things to see and do here.


Brera's charming cobbled streets are home to many of the city's most rich and powerful people. How the high-heel wearers navigate the district's uneven surfaces without knackering their ankles will forever be a mystery. They like to say it's an Italian superpower.

The best thing to do in Brera is just potter about. It's a great place for people watching and window shopping. The creations in the fashion boutiques will either make you gasp with wonder or, more probably, shake your head with bemusement. I genuinely saw a dress made from carpet for sale last time I visited.

Beautiful Brera

Local tip: Caffè del Carmine is situated in one of Brera's most picturesque piazzas. I recommend stopping in to rest your legs and grab a well-deserved cocktail. However, avoid visiting the loo if you can. If you can't, you'll see why.


Milan's signature sight. Do you want to explore a building with 3,000 statues on it? Of course you do. Skip the inside of the cathedral and buy a €7 ticket to the roof instead. After you've climbed the stairs and wheezed your way onto the balcony, you'll be greeted by a mass of sculpted spires.

The sheer quantity of them is breathtaking, but as you make your way around the roof, you'll also notice the intricate details that have gone into each sculpture. These artisan touches are just as impressive as the vastness of the overall spectacle.

On a clear day, as you look out beyond the spires, you can see the Alps on the horizon. And as you look up to the golden angel on the roof's highest spire, you will see... scaffolding. Never mind. It's worth it anyway.

The Duomo

Local tip: Skip the long lines on the left of the cathedral by buying your ticket at the booth on the right-hand side.

Museo Novecento

Whether you want to or not, you'll see plenty of religious art while you're in Italy. And there's only so many frescoes it's possible to look at before you start thinking satanic thoughts. The Museo Novecento offers something different.

Ostensibly dedicated to the Novecento (900) art movement, which developed in Milan in the 1920s, the collection's scope is actually much broader. Other highlights include Picasso paintings, a strobe-based interactive exhibit that you have to sign a waiver to enter and an excellent view of the Duomo square.

As the museum costs just €5, and is located just two minutes from Duomo, there's little reason not to pop in while you're here.

Local tip: This neighbourhood is clotted with tourist traps, so you'll struggle to get reasonably priced food and drink. If you want a cheap lunch, local department store Trony (on Via Torino) offers coffees and piadinas on its third floor. It also has a free loo.


Castello means castle in Italian, and this one was built in the 15th century by the Duke of Milan. Take a free stroll through the grounds, enjoying the elegance of the well-preserved building while turning down the numerous offers you'll receive to buy selfie-sticks.

The route through the castle grounds will lead you naturally onto Parco Sempione, Milan's most charming park. This is a great place to have a picnic, throw a frisbee or just watch the world go by.

Arco della Pace, Parco Sempione

Local fact: The gaps in the castle walls that look like arrow slits are actually holes to cope with the expansions and contractions of the brickwork as the weather changes.

Eat on a tram

If you're feeling decadent, you can wander back to the entrance to Castello and have dinner on a "1928-style" tram. It leaves from a stop near the fountain at Via Beltrami and winds its way around some of the main sights in the city centre over the course of a couple of hours. You need to pre-book and it's not cheap, but the food is excellent, the setting is elegant and the overall experience is unique.

Also, unlike all the other trams in Milan, they've spent money on the suspension so it doesn't vibrate like a washing machine as it moves.

The main course. Photo courtesy of @3taler.

Local tip: Get someone else to pay. It makes the food taste even better (Cheers Gareth).

Navigli canal

Navigli is Milan's best place for nightlife with a bohemian, studenty atmosphere. I've reviewed it before but parts of it have recently been revamped.

Have you ever wanted to be served a cocktail by a barman with blue dungarees and an unkempt beard? Me neither. But the new Mercato Metropolitano has brought hipster culture to the city anyway. To be fair, the atmosphere there is less up itself than you might expect.

UPDATE: As of 2016, Mercato Metropolitano has been closed. There are local rumours of financial mismanagement and other issues too libellous to blog about!

A couple of hundred meters away, the changes to the area by Darsena del Naviglio are unequivocally an improvement. A building site by the canal has finally been transformed into a peaceful grassy area. Bring a lover, a friend or a good book and take an hour to sit back and absorb the relaxed atmosphere.

Navigli canal

Local tip: Once you're by the Darsena, you're only a few minutes' walk from the Colonne di San Lorenzo, impressive Roman columns that look like this...

Colonne di San Lorenzo. Photo courtesy of Miss Ciao.

The Monumental Cemetery

If you want a couple of hours of quiet reflection, head to the Monumental Cemetery near Garibaldi Metro. Although this is where Milan's rich bury their dead, the craftsmanship that has gone into the graves ensures the cemetery's atmosphere is respectful without being sombre.

Tours are available if you like that sort of thing, but you don't need one. Just take a walk and see what you come across.

The cemetery entrance

Local tip: For something very different, nearby Corso Como is home to plenty of bars and clubs that tend to be more upmarket than Navigli.

The lake district

Yes Italy's lake district isn't in Milan, but it's about an hour by train so it's near enough. George Clooney has a house here. I'm not sure why.

I mean don't get me wrong, I like the lakes a lot. That's why they're in this list. It's just that if I could afford a house anywhere in the world, I'd buy one in Rio or Prague or Sifnos. I digress.

The beauty of the lakes is... well, their beauty. They mix charming, well-to-do towns with inviting islands and lush landscapes. And then there's the water itself... listening to its ripples lap at the shore on sunny days is like a spring clean for the soul.

Although Lake Como, Clooney's home, is closest to Milan, I prefer Lake Maggiore. It's quieter and taking a boat trip to its three islands is a captivating way to spend an afternoon.

Garda is another of the most famous lakes, but there are also smaller ones like Orta and Varese, so with a bit of research, you're sure to find one that suits you.

Peacock, Isola Bella, Lake Maggiore

Local tip: If you go to Como, Osteria di Via Monti is a few minutes' walk from the station and slightly off the beaten track, but sells excellent authentic food at good prices.

La Gelateria della Musica

I've reviewed this before. It's still just as good.

And the rest

I haven't even mentioned the Last Supper, the San Siro, the Scala or the Pinacoteca di Brera. There's more to see and do in Milan, and this is only intended to be a list of a few of my personal favourites.

A few more words of advice... if you visit between April and September, bring suncream (but know sun is far from guaranteed), bring antihistamines (for the crazy pollen levels) and bring mosquito spray. You will thank me.

Lastly, and most importantly, if you are not Italian, do not try to drink Negroni. It is not for you.

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Brera photo credit: <a href="">Brera - via Madonnina</a> via <a href="">photopin</a> <a href="">(license)</a>
Other photos mine or as attributed.

Friday, 27 March 2015

Waiting for Expo

As small children, my sister and I had a dressing-up box full of clothes that we used for acting out plays around the house. Its diverse collection included hand-me-downs and unusual garments from charity shops alongside items my mother had sewn. It wasn't uncommon to find a gold and scarlet sequined cloak sandwiched between a faded tweed waistcoat and an oversized 70s felt hat.

Milan Fashion Week took place a couple of weeks ago and most of its attendees seemed to base their clothing combinations on the contents of that dressing-up box.

Fashion Week is a biannual event here and it's always full of industry hangers-on strutting around in outfits that are more bizarre than beautiful. Oh, and then there's their hair. Don't get me started...

There are usually plenty of models milling about too, but they seem to dress relatively normally when not on the catwalk. Still, their builds and bone structures make them easy to differentiate from us mere mortals.

The latest influx of fashionistas was a taste of what's to come. This summer, Milan will host EXPO, which is expected to draw more than 20 million visitors.

Food, glorious food?

For the uninitiated, EXPO is a world fair which occurs every five years in a different location (the last was in Shanghai). It will take place from 1 May to 31 October and involve exhibitions from 140 participating countries.

The organisers promise "A platform for the exchange of ideas and shared solutions on the theme of food, stimulating each country’s creativity and promoting innovation for a sustainable future."

If you think that sounds well meaning but waffly, you're not alone. The people of Milan are ambivalent about Expo. No-one is sure what to expect.

Will 20 million people really turn up for what appears to be a glorified food fest? Will experts be drawn to exchange "solutions" for food when they could discuss them at, say, an academic conference? And most important of all, if everyone does turn up, how will the city cope?

Building Italy's future

Milan is Italy's most successful modern city, which is a bit like saying that Berlusconi has been its most successful modern politician. It may be true, but these things are relative.

Milan: home of scaffolding

Currently, there is scarcely any water in the Navigli canal, one of the city's main tourist hangouts. The water was drained in October, for reasons that are unclear, and has not been replaced since. Without water, the canal is a rat-infested eyesore.

Not only that, but much of the city has been being dug up since I moved here almost a year ago. Architects' pictures alongside the excavated areas promise pleasant paved spaces for pedestrians and picturesque fountains. The problem is that these were all supposed to be finished in time for Expo. Now, with the event a month away, they are still gaping expanses of mud dotted with cement slabs.

There is much to love about my adopted homeland, but Expo will provide a litmus test of how well modern Italy can deliver on its promises of being, well, modern. The signs so far are not promising, and a common worry is that the public transport will be strained past breaking point. But Milan could yet pull a rabbit out of the proverbial hat.

One of this country's greatest strengths is its charm. If it can combine that with effective last-minute organisation, Expo might still be a great success. Watch this space...

From winter to spring

This is my first blog in months. The days since I last wrote have sped by in a blur of work and travel.

Since I came back from my Christmas break, I've visited Madesimo, Modena, Monaco, Vigevano, Prague and Parma.

In Madesimo, I went snowboarding for the first time. After a relatively promising first day, I spent most of the second day falling on my backside. In the end, I retired to the bar and stayed there.

Heading for a fall

In Monaco, I watched Arsenal crash out of the Champions League with the ragazzi of the Italian Arsenal Supporters' Club. After I turned down several beers on the coach at 9am, they insisted on feeding me homemade grappa at 10. Despite the disappointment of the match, it was a memorable journey!

Of the Italian trips, Parma stands out. It is a large, bustling city with plenty going on. Tomorrow, though, I am taking the train to somewhere truly exceptional. Ms Ciao and I are heading to Rome to spend a few days in Trastevere before Easter.

The weather forecast is 20° and sunny. For those of you back in London, I'm heartbroken to hear that your forecast is 14° and rain. I guess I'll get over it. Have a good Easter!

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Tuesday, 9 December 2014

A weekend in Verona

A week ago, I visited Verona. I recommend it wholeheartedly, and not just because you can wander round the city humming "M- m- m- my Verona" to the tune of The Knack's My Sharona.

Verona has a big arch. So far, so St Louis, you may say. However, unlike St Louis, Verona was the setting for Romeo and Juliet. 

It's also home to a stone amphitheatre that was built in the first century and is still in use today. In summer, this arena hosts opera concerts. As the audience members arrive, each of them is given a candle. When the sun sets, the performances are lit exclusively by the flickering flames of the spectators. I'm not an opera fan, but friends who've been tell me these are magical events.

Verona's Piazza Bra

The arena is in the heart of the old town, which is architecturally stunning. Statues are dotted around charming cobbled streets and one photogenic piazza runs into another. A few streets away, the river Adige weaves its way through the city, topped with impressive bridges.

The Ponte Scaligero

Star-crossed lovers

In truth, the Shakespearean connection with the city is rather overdone. Visitors can pay a few euros to see the houses of Juliet and Romeo. However, it's hard to find meaning in the home of a fictional character – particularly given that Shakespeare never visited the city and his Capulet and Montague houses weren't based on these buildings.

Instead, I recommend just visiting the garden of Juliet's house, which is free. After you've been, you can put the money you could have spent on going inside toward something more useful. Like alcohol.

Juliet's garden, featuring her famous balcony and (at the back if you enlarge the photo) her statue

In Juliet's garden, you can stick a love note on the wall (alongside hundreds of others), take a photo of her famous balcony and have a picture taken touching her breast.

I should probably explain the breast thing...

In the garden, there's a bronze statue of Juliet. It's said that touching the right breast of the statue brings luck in love. If I was cynical (and I am), I'd guess this might be a marketing gimmick by the people who own the house rather than a legend that's grown up organically. Whatever the source of the rumour, there's a constant queue of people waiting to have a grope – and as a result, her right side gleams brightly from all the greasy hands that have touched it, while the rest of the statue is a standard dirty bronze. 

If you want to cop a feel, you should probably bring some hand sanitiser...

Fair Verona

Aside from bacteria-coated breasts, Verona is a genuine treat. Aesthetically, it's on a par with Florence but has fewer tourists. Also, it's located directly between Milan and Venice. If you're going from one to the other, it makes sense to stop for a day or two.

The city was gearing up for Christmas when we visited, so each piazza had a tree decked with baubles, and there was a festive market flogging mulled wine, reindeer hats and German biscuits.

Energetic visitors can cross the river and climb a hill to watch the sun set over city's spires. Even on the foggy evening that Ms Ciao and I did this, it was worth it. Although Verona isn't huge, there's easily enough to keep you occupied for a weekend. I simply can't recommend it enough.

Verona, on a poor day with a poor camera. Just imagine the summer sunsets...

A Turinese tribute 

The following weekend, we visited Torino (where we hummed "All the Way, Torino" to the tune of REM's All the Way to Reno). It was a much less memorable place, but we chanced across a free gig featuring local tribute bands for the Foo Fighters and the Smashing Pumpkins. (As you may have noticed, Ms Ciao and I like free things).

If you're in town and you like the Foos, keep an eye out for gigs by The Fresh Fighters. You won't be disappointed...

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Attribution: Juliet's garden photo by Dominic Schwöbel (Own work) [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Friday, 28 November 2014

Interview: the best of Italy

From the shining waters of Como and Venice in the north to the sandy southern shores of Sardinia and Sicily, Italy has something for everyone.

To give you a virtual guided tour, I decided to interview a man who's seen more of the country than most. On the basis that other people can't be trusted to give answers I want, the man I decided to interview was, err, me...

What were your first impressions of Italy?

Negative ones! I went to Bologna with an ex-girlfriend in 2008. It's a studenty city that's meant to have an artsy, bohemian feel and a decent live music scene. If it had been like that, I'd have loved it. But my main memories are a piazza clustered with bald blokes in tan shoes, an awful Ryanair flight and a very average Spaghetti Bolognese.

At the time I lived in Camden Town, and Bologna seemed neutered in comparison.

A Bolognese church. I thought this worth photographing in the days before I realised how many churches Italy has

So why did you come back?

I went on holiday with friends in 2010 and they didn't want to go to Greece! We compromised on Sardinia and I adored it.

If you're going, fly into Cagliari, then hire a car. Poetto, Cagliari's local beach, is nothing special but if you drive a little way out of the city, you can find some half-empty stretches of coastline that are heartstoppingly beautiful. Also, try the local liqueur, Mirto. It's made from myrtle berries and it's very moreish (Hans fans, the reference is deliberate).

Stunning Sardinian shores (photo by Ele)

A few months later, you went to Rome. Did the Eternal City match your expectations?

I'd met a girl in Sardinia, so I went back to visit her, but I stopped in Rome on the way. Rome bettered all my expectations. I've travelled a lot, so I've seen plenty of ancient monuments and I'm not easily impressed, but there's a square mile or two in the centre of Rome that's packed with wonderful sights every way you look.

I've been back half a dozen times and I can still see those same sights and not be bored. It's one of the few capital cities that have everything – culture, history, vibrancy, nightlife and weather. It's only 20 miles from the coast if you want some beach time and... well, I'd live there tomorrow if I could.

Roman ruins

Do you have any less well-known tips for Rome? 

For nightlife, check out San Lorenzo. It's a bohemian studenty quarter – basically everything I expected Bologna to be and found it wasn't.

In 2013, you and Ms Ciao stayed in Rome (again), Florence and Sorrento. What was the highlight?

Well, of course Rome was great. Florence is also gorgeous, but small. You only need about 48 hours there – one day to see the city and one day to see the art.

Sorrento is the home of Limoncello. It was our base for exploring Herculaneum and Pompeii. A lot of people prefer Herculaneum to Pompeii because it's less well known and has fewer tourists, but of the two, I'd recommend Pompeii. If you can only see one ancient city that was destroyed by a volcano, you might as well make it the largest!

A Florentine sunset

You went on holiday to Cinque Terre and Finale Ligure this year. What were they like?

Cinque Terre is part of a national park. The cinque terre (five earths) are seaside villages separated by hiking trails. The villages are clotted with charming multicoloured houses and less charming American tourists. It's a beautiful place that feels depressingly bereft of authenticity. It's sold its soul to tourism and that soul's now gone for good. I'm glad I've seen it but the reality of the place doesn't match the hype.

In contrast, almost everyone in Finale Ligure was Italian, including the tourists. It's a typical beachside town and nowhere near as striking as Cinque Terre, but Ms Ciao and I enjoyed it much more. I wouldn't go out of your way to go there though – for Italian beaches, the south's really where it's at.

A typical village, Cinque Terre

What are your favourite daytrips from Milan, the city you currently live in?

There are plenty of charming towns and villages near Milan, but if I had to pick one, I'd recommend Monza. I visited for the first time a couple of weeks ago and it's got everything a regular provincial northern Italian town has (for the uninitiated, that's a piazza and a church), plus plenty more besides.

Lake Como is also worth a mention for its beauty. If you go, get a hop-on, hop-off boat trip to the nearby harbours from the dock near the train station. Don't bother paying €40 to go to Bellagio, which is a little pretentious. I'd also recommend the hiking trail at the top of the funicular if you feel energetic.

Lake Como: not ugly

And then there's Venice...

Indeed! I thought Venice would be disappointing because I'd heard so much about it. I wasn't disappointed at all. It's awesome, by which I mean it inspires awe, rather than the way some people describe muesli as awesome.

If you only ever visit two places in Italy, visit Rome and Venice. And when you go to Venice, stay for at least a couple of days, so you can enjoy the evenings after the day-trippers have scuttled back aboard their cruiseships.

Of course, Venice is touristy, but unlike Cinque Terre, it feels as though there's a vibrant, nuanced city underneath. It's got a dark side to it, mystery, glamour and charm. It's the most unique place I've been in Europe and I'm already planning my next trip.

Venice: where locals hang their washing above canals

Where else are you planning on visiting soon?

I'm off to Verona tonight. And I'd like to see more of Sicily. I went last year at the end of a six month round-the-world trip but I was too jaded to venture beyond Palermo. It's a diverse island with loads to see – just don't ask the locals about the Mafia. They're not keen on talking about them... not so much (in my opinion) out of omerta; more because they're sick of every tourist asking the same questions.

Puglia, the heel of Italy's boot, is also on my to-do list. And I want to see Pisa (for the obligatory photo – apparently it's not worth staying longer than a day) and Lucca and Lampedusa and Elba and and and... you get the picture...

You can see a map of all the places I've been in Italy here, should that be your thing.

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Friday, 10 October 2014

How to move abroad, part 2: how to live abroad

Should you wear sunscreen every day? How many beach towels do you need? Will you be deeply, profoundly lonely?

If you want to move abroad, there's lots to think about. And unfortunately, it's not all fun.

Adapting to a new country takes time and most people are nervous about how they'll cope. Take a deep breath, pour a strong drink, and I'll guide you through the realities of emigration...

1) Early days 

"Leaving on a jet plane..."

Bad news: you'll feel a constant low throb of stress in your first few weeks living abroad. Good news: this is completely standard and you'll get past it. Unless you're a quitter. You're not a quitter, are you?

You'll probably be adapting to a new job and a new language, plus new customs and ways of doing things. Also, you'll need to find a house, make new friends and get to know a new city. Smaller things are time-consuming too: you'll have to sort out a phone contract and an internet connection, buy furniture and so on. You're going to be busy and it'll be tough.

For me, the first 2–3 months were up and down. I kept getting mouth ulcers from the stress, and I haven't had those since I was a child.

Until you reach your happy place, just keep on keepin' on. You'll get there.

2) Bureaucracy

Enticing, huh?

Emigrating equals paperwork – tedious wodges of it. Bureaucracy is a way of life in some countries. In China, for example, 'bureaucracy lit' far outsells whodunnits and spy stories as the airport novel of choice. Let your mind boggle on that for a moment. Unless you're moving to China.

When I applied for my Italian residence permit, friends advised me to bring originals of the documents I needed, plus colour photocopies and black and white photocopies. In the end, my appointment went smoothly, but others have fared less well. In Italy's many temples of bureaucracy, much depends on the mood of officials, and whether they like your face. If one employee won't help, their colleague may happily assist you.

There's little you can do about this illogicality apart from keep smiling (literally, at the officials), seek help from native-speaking friends and persevere.

Once you've sorted the initial barrage of paperwork after arriving in a foreign country, you can usually stay the bejesus away from bureaucrats for a long time. You may even start to miss them.

OK, you won't.

3) The friend zone

Shake it to make it

I knew no-one in Milan when I arrived. The first time I was invited to a house party, I accidentally spilt a glass of red wine over the host's new cream sofa. Fortunately, he still speaks to me. However, do as I say rather than as I do, by not overusing Dutch courage to make friends.

I was lucky because I work in an English-speaking office. Since arriving here, I've been invited for drinks regularly, and had people translate for me and show me round Milan. It's hard to overstate how valuable this has been. But I've made an effort to make friends outside work too.

To find friends abroad, throw yourself into things. Attend language classes, go on free walking tours (Google "tours for tips"), play a sport or join a gym, search for Expat meetups, try to find a local language exchange partner or take up a new hobby.

If you're quiet, living abroad will almost certainly make you more outgoing. When you're forced to adapt to a new culture, you become more self-confident. I know I did.

And, to state the bleeding obvious, if you're single, hooking up with a local is a fun, easy way to meet people.

4) The language

Naturally, if you speak the language of the country you're moving to, you've got a huge advantage professionally, socially and administratively.

If you don't, you'll want to learn it, unless you're some culturally rude oddball (like, say, a Top Gear fan).

I'm going to address language learning properly in another blog because it's a huge topic. In the meantime, follow the basic principle from the video above: take every chance you get to practise. 

5) Shopping

The delights of the Asian food store

Shopping abroad can be confusing. In southern Europe, people typically earn much less than the UK but many goods cost more. A coffee in Athens may be €5. In Rome, a small bottle of soya sauce can cost €6. There are ways around this, but they may not be obvious when you arrive.

For example, kettles are rare in Italy. The first few Ms Ciao and I found were €40, which is stupidly expensive compared with back home. Eventually, we found one for €10 – it was just a case of knowing where to look (Media World).

Likewise, if you're in Italy and don't want to pay Esselunga supermarket's ridiculous prices for soya sauce, you'll find it's 75% cheaper in the local Asian food store. And vegetables cost much less at Italy's ubiquitous street markets.

Traditional Italian products can be very cheap – it's not unusual to pay €1 or less for a decent cup of coffee in non-touristy places. But for some things, it's just better to wait until your next trip back home to get a decent price or a style you like. I wouldn't buy a laptop here, for example. I can't buy shoes anyway, because shops don't stock my size.

6) Homesickness 

England, symbolised

Everyone worries about being homesick. Everyone has phases of feeling homesick. They pass.

Of course, you'll miss people and things from home when you live abroad. In England, I never drank tea. After I arrived here, I craved it for the comfort and familiarity it represented rather than the taste.

There are ways around homesickness. You can use technology to keep in touch (for example, Skype, Whatsapp, Viber and email). You can ask people to post you things you miss, or invite them to visit. You can reward yourself with a trip home if you need a few days' break from your new country.

Although it's one of the most talked about aspects of moving abroad, homesickness generally passes quickly if you make friends in your new country.

If you don't, it's harder. But you will.

7) Don't think it's forever 

The easiest way to adjust to the changes that come with moving abroad is to perceive emigrating as an experiment. Maybe it's an experiment that will last a year. Maybe it will last several years or your whole life. But if you go abroad convinced you'll never return, you're setting yourself up to fail.

Consider all the changes to your life temporary annoyances, and they'll be easier to handle. Then, in say a year's time, you can always leave if they're still bothering you. By that point, you'll probably be used to them.

8) The upsides

Lake Como, more or less on my doorstep

If you're passionate about wanting to emigrate, the upsides of living abroad will outweigh the annoyances above.

Personally, I love living in Italy, learning the language and absorbing the culture. I'd be lying if I said it has always been easy, but at no point have I seriously considered going home. I've had great experiences, met great people and developed as a person.

Hopefully, the upsides of emigrating are obvious. If they aren't, then it's not right for you.

You've read this far though. You wouldn't have done that if you didn't want to. So try it. The worst that can happen is that it doesn't work out and you move back. The best is up to you.

How to move abroad, part 1: how to get an English-speaking job abroad

Missing Italy? Want to read more about la dolce vita? Then why not subscribe to Ciao Mr by using the 'Follow by email' box on the top right of this page.

Plane landing: Barry Harvey [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Paperwork: By Pizarros (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Handshake: By Lucas (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Tea: By Vanderdecken (Author's original own work.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Foreign produce: By Atinncnu (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Milan's 'rudest' sculpture

Close your eyes and imagine Milan.

What do you see? Do you picture pizzas and piazzas? Do you think of the Duomo, the Castle or the Opera House? Perhaps you envisage a night necking Negroni in Navigli or a day gawping at Gucci in Brera.

Or maybe, just maybe, you think of this very large sculpture of a middle finger.

Welcome to Milan

It's officially titled "L.O.V.E." but known by everyone as "il dito" (the finger). The sculpture was designed by contemporary artist Maurizio Cattelan, who donated it to the city on the condition that it be placed outside Borsa Italiana, Milan's stock exchange. In effect, it's our equivalent of the Wall Street bull.

The hand and finger are four metres high. Including its plinth, the sculpture measures 11 metres. In a wry nod to the Renaissance, it's made from Carrara marble – the same material used by Michelangelo and Bernini.

The ambiguity of L.O.V.E.

But who is the finger's target? Is it pointed at the traders of Milan's stock exchange who walk past each day? Milan's leftwing mayor, Giuliano Pisapia, thinks so. He called it "an open criticism of the international financial management that led to the great crisis of 2008."

However, although it stands in front of the stock market, it faces outward. When Milan's traders complained about the sculpture, Cattelan responded "It's actually more the stock exchange giving the middle finger to the world." He's also said "I have nothing against the stock exchange... I’m not giving the bird to anybody."

Cattelan suggests interpreting the sculpture as a maimed Nazi salute. By chopping off the hand's other fingers, he's attacking Italy's fascist past. This also tallies with the sculpture's location – Palazzo Mezzanotte, the stock exchange building, is a typical example of fascist architecture, built in 1932.

Will the finger linger?

Although there have been calls to remove the sculpture, a raised middle finger is less offensive in Italy than in many places. And several locals chuckle at the subversiveness of forcing privileged traders to look at it day after day.

For Cattelan, amusing or offending people isn't entirely the purpose. The point is to create an enduring image that could subtly shape public consciousness. "History is made of images. When we think about the Vietnam War, we think about a couple of images. An image can do a lot. I’m not saying this is going to be an image [in the way those couple of key Vietnam photos are]. But we have a chance."

Draw your own conclusions whether, despite his denials, he really does intend to flip the bird at the traders after all...

Missing Italy? Want to read more about la dolce vita? Then why not subscribe to Ciao Mr by using the 'Follow by email' box on the top right of this page.