Italy. Even being half Italian with a name like Francesca, it still confuses me. I have been coming to Italy my entire life, and have seen far more than any normal British tourist would have seen. I have drunk home made limoncello on a roof terrace with Giuseppe and Julio in Liguria. I have eaten antipasti and danced the samba in a tiny Roman restaurant to bring in the New Year. I have seen more Berninis and da Vincis than you can shake a stick at, made fresh pasta with my nonna, and been gifted flowers from a Vespa-driving stranger with a cry of ‘bella, cara.’ So you could say I’m a little bit of an expert.
If you are from a single culture it’s difficult to explain the strange dichotomy of splitting your life between two such different places. Where the English are cool and polite, an Italian will kiss you soundly upon first meeting. Where the English make small-talk, in Italy you will find yourself lying on a pier next to a perfect stranger swapping constellation stories about Zeus and Andromeda before arguing over the philosophical implications of lemon gelato. I myself find it tricky to fit into either bracket; terrifying the British with what could charitably be described as a bit of a ‘touchy’ greeting, yet offending the Italians when I don’t immediately kiss the slightly sleazy friend-of-a-friend eyeing up the arse I definitely got from my Italian side.
If you have never been to Italy before, or you have but you were disappointed, that is unsurprising. It isn’t all rolling hills and vineyards, but graffiti and Neapolitan streets piled with rubbish because the Mafia control the network. If you go to the famous monuments, you will be pick-pocketed. If you take a cab, you will be scammed. It’s hot, and even the trees seem to be the earth throwing up its arms for shade rather than the flowering fields in pictures, the spindly pine trees the only things that can bear it.
In his famous novel, A Room with a View, E.M Forster tells the reader, ‘one doesn’t come to Italy for niceness… one comes for life!’ As I read this I was sitting in an unconditioned carriage on a train somewhere near Milan. Sweat was pooling in places in which sweat should never pool, with my face resting against a window so thick with dust that I could hardly see out. I grumpily underlined the phrase with a stub of pencil and fanned myself with the ticket no one had bothered to check because the inspector was busy smoking out the window. The man opposite hadn’t taken his eyes off of me for the last fifteen minutes, and I had run out of water. Just then I glanced past him out of his window to see, fleetingly, a perfectly preserved 14th century castle suspended above a clear bend in the river. The sun hitting it in the Italian way that you can find no where else in the world; a peach pink that is clearer than any other light I have ever seen.
That is the problem: just when you’re at the end of your tether Italy turns around and punches you right in the feels. You have to go to Italy with a sense of humour. It is the most superstitious place in the world, so don’t be surprised if you see men touching their testicles when two nuns walk past (against the evil eye. Obviously.) You have to admire the tenacity of the cab-driver who stops to honk at pretty girls and tries to charge you double (before taking him down with a couple of well-rehearsed Neapolitan swearwords. Contact me for details.) You can’t be angry when you order a Cappuccino after midday and the waiter unapologetically brings you an espresso with a flat refusal to bring you what you actually ordered. You go to Italy for life, because all everyone does there is live. They do not queue because it’s a waste of time, but will happily sit in a church square playing cards for hours. They don’t stop at red lights because that will slow them down, but will stop work at midday to have lunch with their bimbi and sleep off the wine because, as they say, ‘a table isn’t complete without wine.’
You will walk through the dirty streets of Rome, or the dangerous slopes of Amalfi, or the narrow lanes in the rice fields in the North. You will be surrounded by beggars, appalled at the lack of health and safety, and will probably be run over by a fifteen-year-old driving a motorino.
But then you’ll eat a pizza the size of your torso in that osteria down the road, or a slice of parmigiana that is smoky but salty and like nothing you’ve ever eaten. You’ll stumble across a century-old olive tree, or a palazzo covered in jasmine flowers, or a flower seller will give you a rose for good luck. A sugar-hyped child will beg you to say ‘jellyfish’ and then scream with laughter, or an old man will bless you by a statue of the Madonna. And then you will understand.
My advice, from all my years of practice, is just to relax. Sit in the sun, and drink an espresso. That’s what everyone does in Italy, and is why nothing gets done. And that, my friends, is why the phrase ‘when in Rome, do as Romans do,’ is a perfect rule to live by.
Above all, if you’re a girl travelling alone like me, and that man staring at you makes a move: a well-timed kick to the coglioni and an insult for their mother never hurt anyone.
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