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...

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.

Attribution: Juliet's garden photo by Dominic Schwöbel (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/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 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Paperwork: By Pizarros (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/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...

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Tuesday, 2 September 2014

The death of summer

My first summer in Milan is ending. I will remember it for many wonderful things. I'll try not to remember the weather. 

While England has been blessed with its best summer in years, Milan has been cursed with its worst. July was known as #lugliembre – July/December – on Twitter here because it was abysmal. August was scarcely better. 

I have learnt my lesson: never again will I hex the summer by acclaiming it at the start of June.

"This town, is comin' like a ghost town"

In August, Milan was abandoned as well as wet. 

When Augustus was Roman Emperor around 4,000 years ago, he introduced a public holiday known as Feriae Augusti (Augustus' rest). The fact that this holiday, renamed Ferragosto, still exists today gives you an idea of the pace of change in Italy. Not only does it still exist, but modern tradition also dictates that almost all Italians take their summer holidays in the weeks around the day itself.

So a few weeks ago, most shops shut down for half the month and virtually everyone in Milan headed south. The city was empty apart from foreign workers like me, a few people in the tourist industry, and the tourists themselves. 

A friend's photo, taken on a rare sunny day, shows how deserted it was. 

A tourist bus driving through a deserted Milanese street, © @AdWatcher

The abandoned streets were both eerie and comic. I walked around humming The Specials' Ghost Town and enjoying the solitude. It gave me time to think.

As the seasons are changing, so is my relationship with Italy. Last weekend I flew back to England for a stag do, but it no longer felt like home. That is not a bad thing. 

Many expats say they feel permanently displaced – their native countries have changed since they left, yet their accents always mark them as foreign in their adopted homelands. For me, that's not an issue, so far. 

I've been back to England twice since I left and I've grown fonder of it since emigrating. It now feels familiar and comforting, like an old teddy bear or a warm slice of my mother's Apple Crumble. But Italy is where I want to be. It is what excites me because it is both a source of surprises and, ultimately, a challenge to be conquered. 

I have no simile for it, but it is definitely home now.  


For those who've asked, part 2 of the guide to moving abroad is coming soon.

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.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

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

A couple of weeks ago, I took a holiday in Cinque Terre.

The houses were painted peach and salmon, the sea was turquoise and the sky was blue. Getting there took just a couple of hours from my home in Milan.

Vernazza in Cinque Terre

However, I used to be like you.

When I lived in London, I'd go abroad each year and have a sublime time in the sunshine for a fortnight. But that would be it. For the other 50 weeks, I'd fester under murky English skies.

I daydreamed of moving abroad for years. Then I made it happen.

Now I live a door away from the best pizzeria I've ever been to and a street from (allegedly) the best gelateria in the world.

As wonderful as living abroad is, if you want to do it too, you'll need to make a living. This is your guide to finding an English-speaking job in a non-English-speaking country.

1) Young (wo)man, there's no need to feel down

Are you young? Poor you. If not, you can skip this point.

Let's face it: if you're a recent graduate, getting a decent job in this economic climate is only marginally likelier than going to the moon. Plus, you'll be saddled with your student debt for decades. And you're almost certainly a narcissist who takes selfies and worries about how many likes they get on Instagram. It's not your fault; it's society.


You now have two choices: feel sorry for yourself or get a job abroad and have an amazing time.

Take the latter option. The world is set up for people your age to emigrate. You can start by getting a TEFL certificate or looking at sites like goabroad.com. You won't regret it.

Seriously though, stop with the selfies, you fatuous scamp.

2) Your missing link?

Now we've dealt with the whippersnappers, what about the rest of us?

I dislike LinkedIn because it encourages tedious self-promoters and has a crappy attitude to your data but for finding office-based jobs abroad, it's essential.

That's the first time I've used bold on this site other than for headings; that's how much I mean it. Maaaan.

LinkedIn matters because it has more English-speaking jobs abroad than anyone else. Log on, click 'Jobs' then 'Advanced search.' Enter the details of the country and role you want, and save the search so new results are emailed to you. That's how I got my current job.

3) Going native 

English-speaking jobs being advertised on foreign websites that are otherwise written in the native language is a thing.

I learned this from a close friend who introduced me to Skywalker, which is a Greek job site and nothing to do with lightsabers.

Could Skywalker be your magic wand? 

Although the site is written in Greek, it has a handful of job listings in English. This is surprisingly common in Europe.

You just need to find the biggest job website(s) for the country you want to move to, work out where the keywords search box is and type "English" or the job title that interests you.
If no suitable jobs are available now, keep trying. No-one said emigration is easy.

4) Get a transfer

Do you work for a multinational? If you do, you may be able to get a transfer to one of their foreign offices. Obviously.

5) Fly solo

Your new office?

Are you struggling to find the opportunities you want abroad? Do you want to stick it to the man? Then why not become your own boss?

Maybe you fear ending up lonely and destitute, traipsing foreign alleys with your ambitions mangled and your belly empty. That possibility exists. But hey ho, you can always come back if freelancing doesn't work out, and if it does it'll be great.

An obvious disadvantage of working for yourself is that it can be lonely. Adapting to a foreign country isn't easy and as a freelancer, you'll miss out on the camaraderie of being in a team. However, if you have friends in the place you're going plus a strong dose of bloody-mindedness and enough business contacts to get work, it's not insurmountable. Also, you can always office share.

For many people, freelancing abroad is a terrible idea. For a select group, it's the perfect solution.

5) All hands on spec

When I was looking for a job, I Googled English-language publishers abroad and wrote a bunch of on spec applications to interesting looking ones. About half of them replied and three ended up offering me jobs. 

I turned the opportunities down ultimately because they weren't right for me, but this shows what happens if you...

6) Put the work in 

After I got my current job and announced I was moving abroad, several people said they wanted to do something similar and told me how lucky I was.

I smiled politely while thinking "What utter balls."

Before I was offered my current job, I didn't take a day off from job hunting in three months. I searched for jobs seven days a week and sent two to three job applications per week without fail.

Moving abroad is mostly a wonderful experience, but it takes a lot of hard work. This is a good thing – emigration shouldn't be undertaken without commitment.

It's not all plane sailing

The right way for you to get a job might not be in the list above. There are so many variables (where you want to go, what you do, etc) that giving general advice has its limits. You might find it useful to read a job site specific to your industry, or you might decide to take a career break and travel before emigrating permanently.

Ultimately, if a move abroad is right for you, once you've worked up the courage you'll keep trying, no matter how long it takes.

In the meantime, if you've got any questions or advice of your own on getting a job abroad, you can add a comment below.

A dopo...

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

Cinque Terre photo: "Spezia vernazza" by Idéfix at nl.wikipedia - Transfered from nl.wikipedia. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Spezia_vernazza.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Spezia_vernazza.jpg
Lightsaber photo: By DancingPhilosopher (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Laptop on beach photo: Wojciech Kowalski.
Departures photo: By Jacob Axford (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Friday, 4 July 2014

Home and away

Why couldn't I get a cup of tea apart from the abomination that is Lipton? Why did Italian plugs, bought in Italy, not fit Italian sockets without an adaptor? Why, when the apartment was empty and I had told the estate agent we needed to move in by the 17th, would they not let me sign the contract until the 21st?

I was beaten by culture shock and craving a mini-break in orderly England. So I booked a flight to London without thinking about the date.

Later, I realised its significance.

Having a ball

I had booked for the day England and Italy were due to meet at the World Cup.

Although the flight did not clash with the match, I had forfeited the chance to enjoy the friendly rivalry of watching the game in Italy with Italians. Initially, I was disappointed. In light of the result, I am relieved.

England's Wayne Rooney. I find this picture oddly hypnotic

For anyone unaware, England lost 2-1 to Italy. Then we lost to Uruguay. For the English to stand a chance of qualifying from the group, Italy had to do us a favour by beating Costa Rica. Italy lost.

Then they lost again.

So, almost before I knew it, the country where I was born and the country where I live were both out of the tournament. And that was that.

People tell me this World Cup is one of the best in memory. I wouldn't know.

There's no TV in my apartment and we are still waiting for WiFi to be installed. I see players' pictures on back pages, I hear cheers coming from neighbouring houses, I catch snatches of matches in bars... But I am removed.

Emigration is entwined with separation. You desert your friends, your family, your country and your comfort zone. The separation that comes of not having a TV or working Internet connection is just another thing to adapt to.

Tackling problems

If you emigrate of your own free will, as I did, you can't complain too much. But things do wear you down.

And sometimes there are days when it's one little thing after another. Like you wake up and the pollen’s high (the pollen’s almost always high here) so your head swells like a spacehopper and your sinuses throb as you leave the house, and the humidity (it’s always humid here) has you soaked in sweat by the time you arrive at the office... And your morning's non-stop. Then in your lunch hour you go to the phone shop to muddle through a conversation about tariffs in your broken Italian. But the shop's shut for lunch, so you can't. And you don’t have time to eat. 

Non-Brits, a Space Hopper is the thing this woman is sitting on

Back at work, you're too busy to grab a coffee from the vending machine or go to the toilet the whole afternoon. And you leave the office late and your Italian class has already begun, so you run half an hour across town because the public transport doesn’t go to where the school is. And you’re sweating the whole way. 

You haven’t had time to do your homework. And you start talking in Greek during class (quite fluent Greek – arguably the highlight of your day) because you’re so shattered you've lost track of what language you're meant to be speaking. And the class overruns and you’re late getting home for dinner and... blah blah blah. Yada yada yada.

Passing completion rate

I came to Italy knowing it wasn’t all going to be Tuscan sunsets and limoncello. And it's not that I'm complaining (how could I when the limoncello is €4 a bottle?) But if you want to know what it’s really like in the early days of moving to a new country where you don’t speak the language, the reality is that some days and some weeks are tough. So my next couple of blogs will be for people who are considering moving abroad. I'll be explaining what you can do to make it as easy as possible.

Don't worry. It's not so bad. On the plus side, I’m going to Lake Como at the weekend.

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Wednesday, 11 June 2014

I went to "the best gelateria in the world." This is what it was like

The heat has arrived in Milan.

Oh sure, it was hot when I arrived in April. I sat outside bars at night in my T-shirt. But that was heat where now there is heat, like something from The Stranger. It burned me through factor 30 suncream on Saturday and turned tarmac to gloop.

Scooter marks in the melted pavement

I feel for the pets.

There are so many dogs here that, in dreams, I've imagined them staging a coup and overthrowing the humans. But they won't be doing that in this weather. No chance.

In this weather their shaggy coats are instruments of torture, and their leashes are chains. Dalmations drag and dally behind owners. Alsations are too exhausted to bark; too exhausted even to sniff the rears of other passing pooches. They all just pant. And pant. And pant.

For humans, there are only two things worth doing when it's this warm: go to the pool or eat gelato. So I did both. And the gelato was exceptional.

Ice dreams

A few weeks earlier, at about 10pm on the night I moved into my new apartment, I walked past a bunch of people outside a bar. There were maybe 30 of them queueing to get in, and around another 30 chatting, smoking and drinking on the other side of the road.

Except it wasn't a bar. As I got closer, I realised it was an ice cream shop and the smokers across the road were eating ice cream rather than drinking.

I repeat: this was at night.

The next day I asked a friend what kind of oddballs hang around outside an ice cream shop after dark. "Have you tasted the ice cream?" she asked with an arched eyebrow. "That is Gelateria della Musica," she added, "and it was voted the best gelateria in the world a couple of years ago."

I still wasn't convinced. Foodies often bang on interminably about how utterly amazing something is, only for me to find out later that it's merely quite good. Could Gelateria della Musica's Strawberry ice cream, for example, really be vastly superior to the Strawberry ice cream in the slightly less popular place down the road?

On Saturday, in the steaming heat, I found out.

Sweet sweet Musica

The queue just after opening, on a regular day

First, Ms Ciao and I queued for a few minutes outside, next to a graffitied wall with a printout of the day's menu taped to it. Once the bouncer (seriously – security is apparently needed for food this special) had let us through the door, I ordered a cone with two flavours: Strawberry Cheesecake and Salted Pistachio, while Ms Ciao bought a tub of Bread, Butter and Jam. And yes, I am still talking about ice cream.

Looks aren't everything

We ate outside, in the shade. And I can honestly say that the Strawberry Cheesecake flavour was like eating strawberry cheesecake, the Salted Pistachio flavour was like eating salted pistachio, and that you could taste each element in the Bread, Butter and Jam as clearly as if you were having breakfast.

Perhaps after all the build up, it seems faint praise to say the flavours tasted like they were meant to.

It shouldn't.

But I don't want to overdo this. I find things that are hyped up too much are often a letdown (I'm looking at you, Sydney). When I expect less from something, it's easier for it to be special (Hello, Budapest).

So I should dampen your expectations by saying that, despite repeated Googling, I haven't been able to verify my mate's claim that Gelateria della Musica was voted the world's best ice cream shop.

And I don't want to animate the prose I write about it with similes, analogies, rhyme and repetition. Or any of the other techniques I usually use to keep your attention. I'll stop all those right now.

I'm not saying this ice cream will change your life. Or telling you to fly from wherever you live to eat it. What I am saying is that it was delicious, the flavours tasted identical to the ingredients they were named after, and, ultimately, this was the best ice cream I've ever eaten.

Perhaps you've had better. But if you're ever in town, I recommend you try it to find out. Maybe, just maybe, you'll be as impressed as I was.

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Thursday, 5 June 2014

A stroll down the Navigli canal

Let’s take a walk. Just you and me. We’re going to explore the Navigli canal, one of Milan’s best places for drinking and people watching. It’ll be fun.

We’re starting near my apartment, mainly so I can show you this charming church.

The San Cristoforo sul Naviglio

According to the Wikipedia article I looked up as we were walking here, it’s actually two separate churches cobbled together. Why build two different churches on the same site, you ask? This is Italy, my friend. Asking logical questions will stress you out. The important thing is that it’s quaint. 

The same could not be said for two curiously named places that we’re about to pass on our way along the canal. They're both closed, but that's only one of many reasons we're not going inside. Here’s the first venue:

If you're ever in London, try their English franchise, Tea Chips

Seriously, who outside of Italy would think of coffee and burgers as natural bedfellows? If this place were open, you'd see that nominative determinism is not a big thing in these parts because the patrons are usually swigging beer and guzzling crisps.

There’s not long to think about that though, because here’s a venue with an even more striking name:

Classical drinking

I have almost never seen Johann Sebastian Bar open and I’ve walked past a bunch of times. However, what I have seen, and what I am pointing out to you while you’re avoiding the dog mess on the pavement here, is that the curtains and chairs inside are gold. Puns and ostentation – what's not to like?! 

We’re still not at the main drinking area though, so let’s pick up the pace because I’m thirsty and I know you’re a bit of a lush. The rock bar we’re passing is decent and I might take you there another time, but tonight we’re going to Banco.

I like Banco because they do happy hour cocktails for 6. Also, they bring very tasty mini pizza squares with the drinks. (Technically, this is a form of aperitivo, but that’s a topic for another day.) Thirdly, the tables at the front provide excellent people watching.

Let’s sit at this one, right at the front, and have a look around.

The Italian eccentric 

Britain tends to be rather proud of its eccentrics. The first result that comes up if you type “British eccentrics” into Bing (I know, but I’ve got a Windows phone you see) begins “England may be a small country but it seems to have more true eccentrics than many larger countries”. In my view, there are as many here; people just don't make such a big deal out of it.

Hold that thought because here comes the waitress. I’ll have a Mint Julep and I recommend the Mai Tai if you’re unsure. While we wait for the drinks to arrive, why don't you have a look around? Beergut 80s rocker and his gold clad companion are a decent starting point, but there are plenty of other people here too.

The banks of the canal, seen from Banco

Check your watch. It's 6pm, which means we're right on time for the local "passeggiata." The direct translation is "little stroll," but essentially, the hours before dinner are a time to see and be seen. Half of Navigli is here. Look at the guy who just walked past you. Observe his textures and tones. His hair is silver but slicked, his blazer is blue and starched, and his white shirt is unbuttoned halfway to his navel. Tan shoes match his tanned face, while his red trousers wouldn't be out of place on a Hoxton hipster. He's pushing 70 but he walks with a flourish and there's a shine in his eye that's more than halfway hopeful.

Behind him, there's an interesting woman... and I want you to look fascinated by what I'm telling you because right now there's a rose seller heading for our table and the best way to get him to leave is to be engrossed in conversation. What? No, I'm not buying you a rose. Get over it.

Anyway, this woman I mentioned... She's over there. Do you see? She's the one with the King Charles Spaniel bobbing along beside her. Notice how the ribbon in the dog's hair corresponds with the ribbon in hers? That's no coincidence. 

I don't want you to think that Italy is full of peacocking polished people though. There are some, but that's a stereotype and not the general reality. The best thing about the passegiata is observing a panorama of life. 

Tuck in; you're on holiday

Here's a young couple, all laughter and lust. Leaning against the wall behind them is a guy who's been on his phone since we arrived. His right hand's holding the phone and his left one's in his pocket, but that's not stopping him from gesticulating. If you watch closely, you can work out what's going on.

First, his gestures were fast and – literally –
 furious. Then they became wider, more expansive. He was accepting whatever had happened; shoulders shrugging, arms spreading. Now, though, his right hand moves up and down in his pocket. He is pleading. Has he been stood up? A business deal gone wrong? Whatever has happened, he is not a happy coniglietto (bunny).

That girl in her early 20s at the next table is American. You can tell just by looking at her. She is with a group of males, and seems shy. Did she just meet them at the hostel down the road? They're hardly speaking to her. I can't quite work out the dynamic, but I'd better lower my voice – I think she knows we are talking about her.

If we spend a couple of hours here, we will see Romeos and Juliets, doubting Tommasos and moaning Micheles. We will observe hellos and goodbyes. We will watch the moon rise. We will see Italians young and old in their natural habitat. And tourists. You are far from the only tourist around here.

Let's sit back, relax and order another drink. You're buying.

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.