Archive for December, 2017

The Tobacco Man

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A couple of times every week, I go to one of the shops, known as ‘tabacchi’ to buy stamps to send letters or postcards. I like to write letters. Moving to Italy has allowed me to indulge in this now-quaint pastime of laboriously writing down on paper what I could send easily in a text (which would take less half the time to write), then digging out the address of the person I am sending it to, then walking down to the tabacchi, purchasing a stamp, then finding a letterbox and posting it. It then takes between one and three weeks to arrive at its destination, where the information is now far outdated, as I have continuous daily contact with the recipient or, if not, they have probably seen something on social media, so are informed about how life here is going for me. It’s all a bit of an unnecessarily large rigmarole.

Nevertheless, I love it. I love applying my thoughts to one task. One cannot be doing a million other things when one is writing a letter. One can easily text whilst also making a cup of tea, putting the pasta on to cook, talking to one’s flatmate and listening to an audio book. A letter, though, refuses to take a backseat. It will have centre stage or nothing. If your flatmate wants to talk to you, you must stop writing until silence again reigns and you can return to the letter. I like the totality of the experience. I also like the routine of buying the stamp and posting the letter then waiting excitedly to hear that it has been received.

Going to the tabacchi to get a stamp has almost become the part I love the most, though. I always go to the same place. It’s between Piazza Marsala and Piazza Corvetto, on the right, near the roundabout.

I go in, holding my letter, rehearsing in my head the Italian words for what I want. I see the man, who I refer to in my mind as the tobacco man, although a tabacchi sells way more than just cigarettes. They are more like English convenience stores, but smaller. The tobacco man is sometimes at the back of the shop, but usually behind the till on the left, often hidden away, kneeling down, unpacking something, doing something important.

“Buongiorno,” I greet him.

“Buongiorno.”

He smiles, imperceptibly. On my first visits to this tabacchi, he stayed straight faced. he was polite but not friendly, as such. He was helpful but not demonstrative. Yet something about him made me smile, made me want to get my stamps from him only. Over the weeks, as I visit every few days, his manner has shifted ever so slightly, from politeness to recognition, from helpfulness to friendliness.

“Avete il francobollo, per favore?” I ask – do you have a stamp, please.

He asks me where the letter is going to, even now, when for seven weeks I have only ever asked for a stamp for the same place.

“È per Europa,” I say.

He asks me for the letter, while getting the stamps and asking for “zero, novantacinque,” 95 cents. He peels the stamp off the sheet then sticks it in place for me. He always does it himself. He never hands the stamp to me to do.

I hand him a one euro coin and he gets me 5 cents change.

“Grazie,” I say warmly. “Buona giornata.”

“Anche tu,” he says, politely, as I smile over my shoulder, thinking, one day we’ll have a chat about the weather or something, just you wait and see.

Not yet, of course, that would be far too much now. I mean, it’s taken seven weeks to get that slight smile from him and something resembling familiarity. One can’t rush these things, you know.

But sometimes I think about the tobacco man and I think about how it is when you move to a new country and have to learn a new language and make new friends etc. It comes slowly, very slowly. The new place has to get used to you, to the fact that you gave it no choice but are now existing in its midst, demanding it’s time and attention, poking your face into it’s museums, fancy churches, cafes, shops, demanding that it allow you to make a life here.

Sometimes it feels like Genova has chosen to say no, you may not just blend seamlessly in here, you must struggle, you must feel intimidated, afraid to even conduct basic conversations due to the certainty that you’ll get it all wrong. And then sometimes, it smiles a little, makes room for me, engineers a chance encounter that will lead me to new opportunities, help me see the beauty and wildness of this country, with it’s unforgiving mountains which turn you around, get you lost, throw brambles at you, and it’s unevenly surfaced hills and steps, which trip you up and throw you, sprawling, to the ground, to remember that, just because you are living out your dreams, does not mean it will be easy.

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Moving to Italy: One Month In

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The sea

One month ago today, on 2nd November 2017, I moved out of the flat where I lived in East London, packed a select few belongings, and moved to Genova, in Italy.

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On one of my many walks by the sea

This was easy and difficult in equal measures. Easy, because I had been mulling the idea over for years, wanting to do it, wondering if I would actually ever do it, preparing myself mentally for it. Difficult, because my whole life was in the UK, and more precisely, in London. Everyone I loved the most was there, my job was there, my life was there. It was what I knew and what I enjoyed.

I knew, however, that this itch, the desire to live in Italy, would bug me until I scratched it. When I imagined getting to age 70 or 80 and talking to people about what I’d done in my life, I hated the idea of being the person who said, “Yeh, I’d always loved Italy, I spent lots of holidays there, I even attempted to learn the language using apps and what have you. And I always thought about having a go at living there. But I never did. O well. Never mind.” And the person I was talking to would perhaps say, “O, so, why did you never go and live there?” Then I’d go, “Um, because, um, I just didn’t. I don’t know why.”

How idiotic would that be? To not go for any valid reason other than I “just didn’t”.

dav

Looking down over Genova from the mountains

Earlier this year, I decided that I was not going to be that person. I had been on holiday to the coast in Northern Italy and liked it and I had a friend with a flat in Genova where I could live and, despite having then met a lovely man who I want to spend the rest of my life with, it still seemed like time for me to finally do it.

The preparation was minimal, primarily because, still being in the EU for now, there’s not really a lot that needs doing. You have the good fortune to be able to make a decision, buy a one way flight and just arrive.

My first week here was whirlwind of fun. Nine of us from the group I worked out with in London every week flew out together for a birthday party in a beautiful house in a small town called Celle (cheh-leh, for non-Italian speakers) and ate our body weight in chocolate, gelato, lasagna, pesto (more of this to come), focaccia (will also reappear) and pizza. We also went for a swim in the cold cold sea and might I add that despite flying out as a rather multicultural group, the Armenian, the Italian and the German all found other things to do, leaving us six Brits (idiots) to take on this task alone!

Almost everyone else departed, leaving myself and my other half in Genova for the next four days until he, too, had to leave and then that was it. I was here alone. Things had got serious. I had to work out how to survive alone.

When I said I hadn’t done any prep, perhaps that’s not completely true. I have spent the past few years ploughing away on language learning apps on my phone, attempting to build up my vocabulary. When I started having private Italian lessons with a teacher in London, I was equipped with a fair amount of vocabulary but my grammar was all over the place. She helped to pin that down, so that I could attempt to build sentences that might even make sense, if I was lucky.

One of my first tasks, however, was to find a job, thus making my life here sustainable. To get a job, one needs a CV, which I realised was more than just running my English CV through a translate app. Firstly, CVs are usually formatted differently in different countries. Then yes, I had to translate the actual words. Getting a severe case of cabin fever, I stayed inside for the whole weekend, undertaking this mammoth job and kicking myself for not having done it before I left the UK.

As I was sending out my CV, I knew it was likely that it was littered with mistakes that might technically be fine but that you’d never actually say, as a native speaker. I longed to already be fluent with Italian.

As it happened, I found a job not even using the Italian CV I had slaved over for so long. I used my English CV because the job uses la mia madrelingua (me trying to sound fancy while saying ‘native language’).

I also found the job in a surprisingly short amount of time. On the Sunday, I was despairing that I’d never get hired. By the Tuesday, I had something in place. I have a lot to thank the world for. No matter what situations I throw myself into – under-prepared, naive, hopeful – it seems to sort things out for me.

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The view from Righi

 

 

Work was sorted, then. The basic admin stuff like getting a tax code and a bank account have been successful to different degrees. Tax code was fine. Bank account creating seems to be dragging a bit. First I set up most things but needed to bring in my passport and tax code certificate, which required a second appointment. Then I was told I would receive a code on an email and another by text. Then I would be able to open the online banking. Then I would need another appointment for finalising it and putting some money in to open the account. I’m about half way down that road so far.

Now for the big meaty questions. The first is about company and socialising. In London my life was packed to the brim with people – friends, family, colleagues. There were always people to chat to, to go for coffee with, or for dinner, or a workout, or a campout. Here, I obviously don’t have that same network. The friend who’s apartment I live in is absolutely one of the best friends anyone could have and his family have welcomed me with open arms. His two brothers and his sister in law involve me in dinners or parties they are having, or drinks they are going for. His parents have had me round for dinner so I could meet all of his cousins. I had my hair cut by one of his cousins yesterday. That is lovely and comforting and I am so grateful to have those people there.

When your social network reduces to a much smaller number, however, something happens. Your time suddenly is more free. I can look at a weekend and have no plans for it and that prospect is exciting. It’s like taking a massive time-detox, a huge step down from the fast pace of London life. If I’m honest, I think I was sort of ready to take a step back from the hectic schedules and packed days, just for a bit, just to return to myself, have time to think, have space in my brain to find silence and calm.

After my pilgrimage last year, I have better understood my desire to return to that calm every so often. In London, I found almost no time to do that. Here, I am bingeing on it. I love it. I walk for hours alone, in the mountains or next to the sea or just home from work. I take a bus perhaps twice a week and I walk everywhere else. I live simply. I have an annual museums pass, which is another ticket to calm and peace. I go into a museum or an art gallery and I look at beautiful images and I move slowly around, spending hours in each museum, totally immersed in art and beauty. It feels almost although I am only able to do that because my brain has begun to learn how to think slowly and calmly. I’m not sure that my busy London brain was ever so overwhelmed by art and sculpture and beautiful buildings the way my Genova brain has been. With a minimum of effort, one can also find really interesting free or cheap events happening around town. For example, last weekend I went to an opera for €6, on Wednesday I went to a free concert of 15th century songs, sung beautifully in a capella, this morning I went on a free tour of the oldest chocolate and sweet factory in Italy.

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Amazing Caravaggio painting. Look at those hands!

Just a side note on the name – I am living in Genova in Italy, not Geneva in Switzerland. Genova is the Italian name, Genoa is the English name.

On that note, the biggest challenge of moving here, and my main driving force for coming, is the language. Now, I had some level of knowledge before coming away but I don’t think any level of learning compares with being in the country, day in day out. Before arriving, I thought, I have enough to get by, I can make myself understood, I’ll stumble by and improve really quickly when I get there.

Lets talk about the reality now. Language learning is tough. It’s enjoyable, it’s interesting, it’s mesmerising but it is a fact that it is tough. I can sometimes see the same word ten times before I start to remember what it means (fuga, meaning escape, has taken me weeks to nail down). Today, I suddenly realised that the Italian for “I like the trains,” conjugates the verb “to like” in a totally different way than I had thought they would. Here I am, six months of Italian lessons under my belt, years of fiddling about on phone apps, one month of living in Italy, and a simple sentence such as, “I like the trains” – mi piacciono i treni – has boggled my mind. What hope can there be, then, for me to conduct any type of meaningful conversation with people I meet?

Well, fear not. Since arriving, I would say that my comprehension levels have gone up by about 60%. I am mostly aware of what’s being said to me and, of course, context helps, so I can make decent guesses too. My ability to respond has gone up by 25% so it’s the speaking that is coming slower, but it is coming.

dav

Discovering a painting by my favourite artist

Honestly, the majority of conversations I have are when buying things in shops, where I am now well versed in what I am being asked – “porta via?” for takeaway, “un sacchetto?” for a plastic bag, et cetera. If I sit at home alone, I can construct appropriate sentences. It’s just when I get outside and am faced with questions, that all these ready answers disappear and I’m flailing around, going “oh, uh, sì, uh, sono…. uh…”

Now, for a side note, pesto is the pride and joy of the Genovese, having been invented here, so I find that many of my snacks or meals are pesto based and, as yet, I’ve not grown tired of it, nor can I imagine doing so. Good pesto is not a thing to be underestimated. Focaccia also, should not be taken lightly. At least twice or three times a week, I will discover a couple of coins hanging around in a pocket and find myself holding them aloft and entering a bakery, to request my new favourite food, focaccia con cipolla (with onion). As soon as I get out, I have to walk far away before I can begin eating because once I have finished, I need another immediately, urgently. The only way to save myself from exchanging all my worldly goods for another one is to flee the scene at high speed.

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On the factory tour

And so there you have it. The first month of living in foreign lands.