Moving To Italy: Eight Months In

This month has been very exciting. With the weather warming up more and more, I spend all my weekends outside – cycling, running, walking, swimming in the sea, climbing in the mountains, campouts under the stars. It is beyond lovely to have the Italian Riviera on my doorstep. I had no idea Liguria was so beautiful before arriving. Everyone knows about the gently rolling hills of Toscana and the sunkissed beaches of Sardegna but Liguria doesn’t get much airtime so, before arriving, I hadn’t realised quite how stunning it was going to be.

Here are a few pictures of recent activities –

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The sunrise after a YesTribe Italia campout

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YesTribe bike ride by the sea

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Climbing in the Ligurian mountains

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Liguria 🙂

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On a run near my home. Just a casual relaxed pose, you know….

Another thing that has happened in the last month is that I’ve become more acutely aware of the manner in which I (and perhaps everyone) learns language and how much more holistic it is than I originally realised. When speaking a language that uses different muscles in your mouth, you find that your face also moves in a different way, to accommodate for this.

For example, the ‘r’ sound in Italian doesn’t exist in English. We say the letter ‘r’ using our lips, like when we say ‘red’. We push our lips forward and our tongue plays practically no part. This forward movement of the lips is not used in the Italian language so when I teach students how to do it, they look at me like I’m a bit crazy, while I tell them to pout at me! The rolled ‘r’ in Italian requires you to pull the sides of your mouth backward to create an open space for the sound to escape, as the Italian ‘r’ is made at the back of your mouth, with your tongue.

Using the example of the word ‘finestra’ (window), the fact of the rolled ‘r’ using the tongue means we also have to use the tongue to make the ‘t’ sound. Try saying an English ‘t’ then an Italian ‘r’ straight after it. It’s pretty difficult without adding a pause between the two sounds. So you also use the tongue to make the ‘t’ sound in Italian, then pull the mouth back and open to say the ‘r’. Which is all to say that your face and mouth are making shapes that are different to the ones we make in the English language.

While learning a new language, then, you are also learning new facial expressions. To add emphasis to the word ‘finestra’, for example, I would pull the sides of my mouth back even further, to make the ‘r’ bigger, exaggerating the way in which my mouth formulates the word, thus giving my face a different appearance to the one it would have if I were emphasising a word in English.

It was only last week that I realised that when I express surprise or shock, I raise my eyebrows, as one would expect, but the bottom half of my face does different things now. I often find myself pulling the sides of my mouth down and holding my hands up near my shoulders, palms forward, as though being arrested in a kind of ‘what am I to do’ type of gesture, that I had never used before living here. It’s interesting to see how exercising different muscles in my mouth have a knock-on effect on my facial expressions and what follows is an entirely new, learned body language.

I spontaneously used the praying gesture the other day to express exasperation. I’m sure you’ve all seen it in films etc, where your fingertips touch (but not palms) and you hold your hands near your chest and sort of rock them forward a few times, while your face is doing a ‘come on, really?!’ expression. I didn’t realise it was going to happen until I did it and I realised that, after seeing it a thousand times since arriving, I was bound to use it at some point, in order to make sure that my feeling was being understood by the person I was talking to. To use English gestures and facial expressions to someone unused to them is potentially going to be lost so, given that my linguistic skills aren’t perfect yet, I was bound to start adopting the gestures, to help me when my language skills fail me.

I am finding this process intriguing, as it helps me to understand how much more there is to learning a language, especially if you are also living inside that language every day.

As a side note, I forget English words with such regularity that it is becoming worrying. I have always prided myself on having a good command of the English language. I love words and I love what I can do with them, but I simply cannot find them in my brain sometimes. On Friday, I went on a campout with The YesTribe Italia and when the nighttime began to arrive, we saw lots of little tiny lights moving around.

“What are those called?” one of the guys asked me, as the only native English speaker in the group.

“Erm… um… I… erm…. ok, give me a minute. Erm. Light…. erm…. light….. lightbugs?”

Silence fell. I racked my brains.

“Fireflies,” said the Brazilian.

“Yes! Thanks! Yes. Fireflies. They’re fireflies. Not lightbugs. Thanks.”

Sometimes there are also situations in which Italians use a word or an expression that doesn’t have a translation in English, or the translation is clumsy. In those situations, the Italian word comes to my head instinctively, then later my thoughts switch back to English. It’s rather pleasing but also makes me slightly worry for my grasp on English. Being able to articulate myself effectively in Italian is still going to take a while so if I lose my grip on English in the meantime, I fear that I’ll go around speaking like a child, having command over neither language, simply resorting to gestures and facial expressions!

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Moving To Italy: Seven Months In

Getting past the six month mark feels significant, somehow. Like I’m on the home straight to the even bigger landmark of a year. That I have survived thus far without any major mishaps is a good feeling. I was on the verge of a major mishap last week, however, while trying to put money into my account. The story goes something like this.

Day 1 – I take money to the bank to put into my newly-opened account. The lady there says that it is a bank which operates almost entirely online so doesn’t take money. But not to worry. I can deposit money into my account via a different bank, downstairs. I go downstairs. The lady there says I need to use the machine to do it. I go to the machine. The machine says no. The lady says yes. The machine says no again. The machine wins. I leave. (1.5 hours of waiting in queues.)

Day 2 – I try a different branch. ‘Yes, you can deposit money here,’ they say. ‘Do you have your passport and tax code? No? Bring it with you and we can put the money in for you.’ (20 mins of waiting in queues.)

Day 3 – Back to original branch with tax code and passport. I go to the desk. Lady says to use machine. I say machine won’t let me. She comes to do it with me. Machine says no again. Machine wins. Lady says she can’t do it. I go upstairs to the actual bank that I have the account with. ‘Can’t put money in,’ I say. ‘Is it your first time using the card?’ ‘Yes. It’s a new account.’ ‘For your first transaction, you need to withdraw money. You can’t deposit money for your first transaction.’ ‘Wait, what? How can I withdraw money, if there is nothing there to withdraw?’ ‘You need to go to the desk to put the money in.’ Back downstairs. Back to the desk. I tell the lady. She takes my passport and tax code and starts putting info into computer. 20 minutes later (no exaggeration), computer says no. Computer wins. I go upstairs to explain. ‘Yep, you just need the iban number,’ she says. ‘Ah, ok, thanks.’ I go back down with my iban number. Go to the desk, present my iban number. She is furious. ‘You can’t put money in, we already tried.’ ‘But I have my iban number now, I didn’t have it before.’ ‘Where do I put this number in? I can only use your account number, not this iban number. There is nowhere to put it.’ I go back upstairs. ‘There is nowhere to put the iban number,’ I tell her. ‘You put it in where it asks for the account number,’ she replies. I end the madness by going home, confused, frustrated and feeling hopeless. What is the point of a bank account if I can’t put money into it? (2.5 hours.)

To conclude the story, I called the helpline and they confirmed that no, with this account, it is not possible to deposit actual money into my actual account, only to transfer money from another bank account into mine.

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In other news, however, I can now read books in Italian! Since I arrived in Italy, I’ve been going, with alarming regularity (multiple visits per day sometimes) to a huge bookshop in the centre. I try in vain to read the books that look interesting. I flip through the pages, sadly excluded from the magic worlds inside because of my linguistic constraints. On Monday, however, I didn’t realise that I had wandered into the teenage section and I picked up a book at random and the most amazing thing happened. I was able to read it and to understand it! 95% of what I read made sense to me! What a revelation! So I started reading and one hour later I was still standing there, transfixed, not only by the wonder of being able to read in a second language but also by the story itself. I was able to read fast enough for the action to move at a pace which was actually exciting. I was on the verge of being late to meet someone for coffee so I bought it and raced off, my nose stuck inside the book the whole way.

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At my next Italian lesson, I excitedly presented the book and told my teacher, “Posso leggere in Italiano adesso!” (I can read in Italian now) and that evening, I tried a little experiment. Instead of translating into English rapidly in my head while I read, I tried not translating at all. I just read and I left the words un-Englished in my brain and tried to see how it felt. And it felt fine. I still knew what was happening. It seems I am beginning the slow process away from constant translation and toward operating only in the second language when necessary.

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Everything else is going well too. I went to the opera at the main theatre in town to see Lucia di Lammermoor. It was fabulous but slightly gutting that, just one day later, Andrea Bocelli was playing the male lead (how can one marry one’s potential husband if we’ve never even seen each other in the flesh?!). The weather is heating up which makes me feel a bit like my flesh might burn away from my bones and drop onto the ground in blobs while I walk (apparently July and August get even hotter). I still have a focaccia addiction that would rival any cocaine habit. And I am still receiving regular visitors from the UK, which means I get to constantly show off and boast about my adopted home, which is still completely fabulous.

Moving To Italy: Six Months In

Here I am. It’s been half a year. It’s been a very good half a year, might I add. I have been to places I could never have imagined, seen and done things I had no idea about before and learned a lot about myself and about this country. I’ve learned that it is possible to point to a place on a map then decide to go and create a life there – and for it to be an enjoyable process.

From the outside, the decision to come here made no sense. I wasn’t even sure it made sense to me. Everyone I loved was in the UK, the life I had lived for 11 years in London had brought me a lot of joy, being a Londoner made up a significant part of my personality. What made sense, from the outside, was to keep doing the thing that brought me joy – running in London’s parks, having dinner with friends, cycling to work, being lucky enough to have lovely colleagues, working in fabulously interesting historic buildings, exercising at the crack of dawn with my favourite people. It was all fantastic.

But an itch was lingering below the surface and a feeling kept growing, a now-or-never feeling. After a few years of mulling over this idea, I decided to take the plunge and here I am. As soon as I arrived, I had this sense of calm. I was immediately able to call this new place ‘home’. I exhaled deeply. My schedule was alarmingly, yet pleasingly, clear. I had no friends yet so evenings were spent taking a huge step back and winding down from the frenetic pace of London life. It’s something you don’t even realise is happening, until you step off the treadmill and just sit for a minute. It’s really rather nice.

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As I began to put together the building blocks of life here – job, friends, weekend activities, etc – I realised that a little of London will always persist in me. Despite enjoying the slower pace of life here, I created The YesTribe Italia, which fills up at least one full day a week, sometimes more. Sometimes I find myself hurrying from one place to another and think, with satisfaction, that actually, I quite like to be busy. So long as it’s balanced with enough free time to wind down. Thankfully, I seem to have that mix here.

April was a nice month as the weather really perked up so the Sunday walks with The YesTribe lot have been beautiful. On my birthday, we went for a lovely long (and quite challenging) walk along the coast from Camogli to Portofino. It was a haze of blues, aquamarines and greens.

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The next walk was up to a little church in the mountains where there is a Sagra Dei Pansoti, when they make a load of pansoti (like ravioli) and a creamy walnut sauce that you can go and buy then sit outside eating with an unbelievable view of the mountains below and the coastline. So we trekked up into the mountains for about an hour and a half on the promise of pasta, which was was steep and sweaty but totally worth it! Especially when accompanied by red wine and finished off with chocolate.

This month I have also been better at getting out on the bike I brought out here (thanks, Ged, for lending it to me, and to Rod, for getting it down to London!). I have been cycling down to the sea to get used to it and, with more confidence, cycling around town a bit more. Earlier this week, we had a little Yestribe cycle out to a lovely part of town called Nervi and ate pizza. It was a good trip, mainly because of the pizza, if I’m being honest.

My Italian is now improving quicker than before, since I started getting lessons with a teacher. She’s genuinely fabulous and has unlocked two new tenses (the future and the imperfect) so I am now able to tell people what I am doing tomorrow/next month and what I did for a period of time in the past eg ‘while I was eating dinner…’ Prior to this I could only say ‘I ate dinner’ and couldn’t talk about the future at all. Small victories and all that.

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I’ve also been super lucky with nice visitors from the UK, a surprise one being the wonderful Adam, from Project Awesome in London. He left the UK on a bike two years ago and has been on the move since then, cycling around the world at a beautifully chilled out pace. His decisions about where to go next are entirely based on what he feels he wants to do. He doesn’t steam ahead to the next country because he’s on a mission to cycle around the world and will do it at any cost. If he likes a place, he stays. When he feels ready, he moves on. I love it. His surprise visit for a few days was a breath of fresh air and reminded me of what life on the road is like. It made me nostalgic for long-distance human-powered travel. There’s a route in Italy called the Assisi trail, which I’ve got my eye on. I have no idea when I might do it but it’s only a month in total, probably so I might be able to squeeze it in somewhere.

Anyway, here’s to more time spent outside – more cycling, more running, more long walks, more Italy.

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Moving To Italy: Five Months In

Month Five has been The Month of People! I’ve had visitors almost back to back for the whole of March and it has been thoroughly lovely showing my friends from England my new home here in Genova. It gives me a sense of pride to introduce people to a life I created entirely for myself.

I arrived without any real idea of what would happen and now I wake up every day with a job to go to (that I really enjoy, might I add), the knowledge of where to buy the best focaccia/gelato/pesto, friends to meet for lunch or dinner, a favourite part of town where I like to go and sit by the sea whenever I get the opportunity, an Italian teacher to help me navigate through everyday life, enough money to survive… All the things that a life consists of, built up from nothing.

If you do nothing else in life, build something up from nothing and see how it makes you feel about yourself (ps. I’ll give you a clue – it makes you feel amazing).

So the activities my guests and I have indulged in have been along the following lines;

  • Rediscovering hot chocolate. An old friend from university, Sophie, is entirely to blame for this. I always have the kettle on, making cups of tea but Sophie doesn’t really drink hot drinks. When I kept suggesting we pop in somewhere for a coffee, she would get a hot chocolate every time and was going on about how awesome they are so one time, intrigued, I also got one and o my! It has started me on a slippery slope that I can’t see ending any time soon.
  • Long walks and lunching for hours. Last Sunday, a group of us went to an area of town I’ve never visited and pretty much just walked sharply uphill for a couple of hours until we reached a church at the top, alongside a small museum about caving (!) and a restaurant which did good food and even better wine.IMG_20180325_130505.jpg
  • Discovering underground cellars under drinking establishments. A few weeks ago, after the usual fortnightly YesTribe Italia aperitivo, we wandered into the vicoli (pedestrianised area by the port) and ended up in a bar where there promised to be a music performance a bit later. It was a bit confusing to work out whether this actually happened but in the meantime, we were shown around an area underneath the bar which was quite eerie – a few empty rooms which seemed to have been built in Roman times, maybe to house the wine supply.
  • Getting focaccia straight from the oven. Now, I’ve had my fair share of focaccia since arriving, trust me. But straight from the oven? That was new… and utterly mindblowing! The texture was amazing. A lovely crunch on the top and so soft and perfect underneath with just the right level of saltiness and oilyness. Words just can’t describe what this discovery has done to my life. I’m thinking of spending my weekends just hanging around outside focaccerias until I see a fresh batch emerge from the oven then rushing in to purchase the entire lot.
  • Walks in adverse conditions. The first eventful walk of the month was in snow up in the mountains behind Genova. That ended up with a group of us (plus a dog) practically throwing ourselves down the side of a snow covered mountain to get to a train station to get home. The second was a super rainy day on the coast, navigating headwinds to round steep cliffy sections which really weren’t so safe. In both situations, we beat a hasty retreat and returned home, mission unaccomplished but friendships formed and stories ready to be told. As a Brit, I don’t mind going out in all weathers but those two walks really tested my resolve to the extreme!IMG-20180304-WA0008.jpg
  • Discovering new villages. Last week, I jumped on a bus to go and see a friend and spent an hour watching out the window as we wound further up into the mountains to a place called Torriglia. It was so nice to see somewhere new and go for a little walk and see an old castle and sample the canestrelli biscuits which are a speciality of the area.IMG-20180327-WA0002.jpeg

The weather got a bit wacky, with rain, a smattering of snow and very cold conditions (nothing as intense as The Beast From The East though) but it seems to have settled now so I can concentrate on all the cliche things that one associates with life on the Italian Riviera = icecream eating, running in the sun, eating lunch next to the sea, drinking aperitivo on a balcony with a view, exploring old ruins in the mountains. Bring it all on!

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Moving To Italy: Month Four

Spoiler alert! Month Four has been amazing.

After organising a few walks that people joined me on, there seemed to be a recurring theme of people craving community, especially people who have moved here from other places. That got me thinking about the communities I had enjoyed being part of in the UK – Project Awesome (an early morning free fitness workout group) and The YesTribe (getting people outdoors for walks, campouts and general adventures). Given that I had already organised a few things that seemed to fit The YesTribe vibe, I had a chat with Dave Cornthwaite, founder of The YesTribe, and asked if he thought there was any scope for a YesTribe in Italy. He was wonderfully supportive and encouraging, as he always is, so I had the go-ahead. I just needed a plan of action. So instead I went skiing in an amazing ski suit from the 80s.

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Once I returned, however, I was ready for action. After another walk and another chat about what the YesTribe might offer that doesn’t already exist here, I took the plunge and made a Facebook page, cause everyone knows it’s serious when you got a Facebook page, right?!

I set up a few more walking events (we have our third tomorrow) and a first social evening, in which a lovely bunch of people who had been on one of the walks came along and we spent the evening discussing the beauty of Slovenia and teaching me Italian slang and swear words, both of which make for a lot of fun, especially when you add prosecco into the mix.

So The YesTribe Italia now exists and setting it up has been a lot of fun. I can’t wait to see what direction it will take.

In other news, my Italian is improving enough for me to follow most conversations in a general way, if not always specifics. And I can read most things now too, which is very exciting, and am becoming confident enough with writing to send text messages without double checking everything first. I am getting an Italian teacher imminently, I hope, to speed up this process.

That’s it for me this month. Work is good – I’m lucky enough to love what I do and the teaching is starting to come more naturally as time goes on. This city very much feels like home too. The streets and bus routes and focaccerias are familiar to me. The museums still amaze me every Wednesday when I go to a new one.

This month, I have four visitors from the UK so it will be action-packed until my next check in! Bye for now, ciao ciao!

“How do you feel about being an ex-pat?”

“How do you feel about being an ex-pat?” the man across the table asked me.

“I… Um… I… What? A what? I have no idea. I just… I just, sort of, live here. I don’t know.”

Even now, this question throws me into a fluster. It just feels like such an alien concept to call myself that. I know, of course, that factually, I am an ex-pat. But the connotations feel all wrong. It has overtones of otherness about it, of ousider-ness. It reminds me of those people who move to another country and who make damn well sure that people don’t mistake them for a local. They like their separateness. They seek out others who are living away from their native country. They look for and cook food that reminds them of home. They still think of the country they grew up in as home.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with this way of doing things. It’s only that it bears no resemblance to how I live, and engage with, Italy. Hence, this label, ex-pat, feels weird to me. I don’t feel like an ex-pat or a local or an anything. I’m just here, being me. And eating a lot of focaccia.

I’ve wanted to live in Italy for many years. Now that I’m finally doing it, I don’t want to spend my entire time being as English as possible. The Genovesi eat focaccia? Well then, I shall eat focaccia. The Genovesi go skiing at the weekend? Well then, I shall go skiing at the weekend. Admittedly, these are rather fun things and don’t take a lot of effort to decide to do.

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There are other things, however, which are rather less fun but which also make up my experience of living in Italy. One is receiving letters. My dad sent me a letter over a month ago, even paid to send it airmail, and it has never arrived. How beneficial is moaning about it? Not at all. It’s Italy. I knew before arriving that things wouldn’t work perfectly. Just like they don’t work perfectly in England. But in my mind, that is exactly what I expect an “ex-pat” would moan about. And they’d let you know how things operate “back home”.

Even putting the label on oneself shows a desire to stand apart from the locals. Now, it might just be me but I love pottering about among the crowds and going unnoticed, blending in. I love knowing the roads and being able to walk around without needing a map. I love it when out-of-towners ask me for directions and I know straight away how to help them. I love imagining the day when my Italian is good enough to read the many books I see by Genovesi authors in my favourite bookshop. I love how well the Italians do museums (trust me, they’re amazing) and I love learning something new every week when I visit a different one. I love saying hi to the Moroccan guy who sells tissues in the underpass every day and having the mixed English and Italian conversations in which we slowly learn a little more about each other every day. I love that when I walk into my favourite focacceria, the woman starts cutting me the focaccia I want, before I’ve even opened my mouth. I love the variety I find here, both in the environment (the sea and the mountains are practically on my doorstep) and in the people (my friends here are Italian, German, Colombian, Ukrainian, Kiwi…). I love how the cost and style of living here affords me a work-life balance I could only dream of in England.

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I also still love Italy, even when it’s taking forever to set up a bank account. I love Italy even when my right calf is tight like a balled up fist and hard as concrete due to the hills everywhere. I love Italy even when the wind blows and turns my nose to ice. I love Italy even though living here separates me from those I love most.

There is an advert that I see everywhere here that says “Genova fa parte di te,” which translates roughly as “Genova is part of you.” And, if I may be so bold as to agree, I’d say that that’s true. Genova is home now. And it is part of me.

Moving To Italy: Three Months In

Here I am, sitting on a bus, heading to the mountains, for a weekend of skiing with friends. And I’m super excited.

But I’m also excited about life, in general. Life in Italy is good. It may sound like a rather obvious statement from a girl who’s lucky enough to have both mountains and sea on her doorstep and be living out her dreams,  but favourable external circumstances do not always indicate inner happiness, as I found out when I first arrived and everything sort of overwhelmed me. I was intimidated by how much I didn’t yet know but wanted  to know and didn’t have the patience to recognise that it would all take a while.

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Thankfully, however, my brain seems to have pulled itself together and things are flowing much easier (talking of flow, I am reading a book right now, which is called Flow, about the science behind how and why we are able to find happiness, I can’t recommend it enough!). The language struggles I had before Christmas are not bothering me so much anymore. I’m not fluent by any stretch of the imagination but I’m less stressed about it now. I study every day, I talk to people, I ask questions – all without the frantically nervous edge of desperation that tinged everything before, thankfully.

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Sometimes I tell myself I have successfully passed for a local eg by giving directions correctly or completing a transaction in the focacceria without having to ask for something to be repeated. I had one of these occasions yesterday while waiting at a bus stop. A lady approached and asked if I knew whether the number 44 bus stopped here. The young man next to me said he wasn’t sure but I, in an impressive display of local knowledge said that the 39 and 40 stopped here but I didn’t think the 44 stopped here. She thanked me and walked away.

“My goodness, Laura,” I thought to myself, “you handled that like a pro! Your Italian was on point, your local knowledge was expert. Maybe, just maybe, you’ve got this living-in-Italy thing nailed.”

What’s that saying? About how pride comes before a fall?

It must have been ten minutes later, when the number 16 bus arrived, that I realised my mistake. The numbers 39 and 40 serve the other side of town. The stop that I was at was for the numbers 16 and 17….. O well. Such is life.

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Another exciting thing happened this month. I decided it was time to have some friends! After a chance encounter in the mountains a few weeks ago, I went to an event organised by an online community called InterNations. It was a meet up at a bar near my flat so I pottered along, said hi to a few people then, sure enough, the guys I had met in the mountains were there.

This turned into a whole evening of blabbing, exchanging phone numbers and promises to meet again. This then led to sharing my Sunday walk in the mountains with new friends, which led to a gig on Wednesday evening with said friends, which has led to a lot of loveliness and the reminder that life is better when there’s people in it. Because I enjoy my own company and would happily spend days running and walking alone when I was on my run in 2016, I sometimes forget how freaking much I like people. This month has been an excellent reminder of how much better a person I am when my life is full of other people. This reminder has since become the early rumblings of The YesTribe Italia! Watch this space – we’ll hopefully be up and running by the time I write my next update!

To conclude, Italy is everything I hoped it would be and right now, I couldn’t be more happy with my decision to move here.

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