For the past 8 years, I have spent at least the majority, if not all of my 3 month summer holidays out of the country. This has been been a method of catching a "real" summer, getting a tan, spending less than I would on rent in the UK, and going on a fragmented journey of self discovery. I would have gone the hole hog and set off overland to Bali or further afield had I enough time, but as it so happens I am a modern languages student. This is my alternative. Initially I thought I was running away to some better reality, which is often the case when one is overly familiar with one's home. I have always craved the exotic and detested the monotonous British countryside, the bland British food and rotten class system. Surprisingly, spending sometime away from home has made me realize that the UK is not THAT bad after all...
After au pairing for a month in Switzerland I returned to Italy to spend the rest of the summer with my boyfriend's parents, in the small city of Cremona. I had fond memories of both countries, Switzerland thanks to its incredible mountaintops, quaint little towns and delicious chocolate, Italy for its dazzlingly elegant coasts, lakesides, melodic language and friendly people. When visiting as a tourist it is easy to be blinded to the faults of a country and see only the positive things. The grass is always greener on the other side, right?
Working in Switzerland gave me an entirely new perspective on the country. To start off with, I wasn't nestled in a chalet in the mountains for the entire time, I was in a very wealthy city, Lausanne. One stereotype was quickly replaced by another in my mind, that of Swiss watches, investment bankers, over cleanliness and plush lakeside hotels. I didn't like this new image of the country near as much as the first. It was a pretty town, people were wealthy but everything both in and out of the shops screamed capitalism. The family I was staying with were very nice, but you could see the effect money had on them. Too much money leads to bizarre life choices... Why not buy a contraption which cuts the green bit from strawberries? Or pay to visit an artificial lake when there is a wide range of far more beautiful natural lakes in the city? Or pay the equivalent of £10 for 6 rolls of sushi just because you can? Heck, why not get your children an au pair when they would rather spend time with their parents or get plugged into the matrix?
So I spent some time in a chalet too, and I did eat lots of chocolate, but living in the country I realized it wasn't altogether better than where I was brought up. My parents worked enough to live and give me plenty of great experiences, but never went through the protestant work regime, so I had both their attention and security.
Italian hospitalty. It seems limitless right? There is a point where you work out that you have overreached your stay, over-abused your stomach and your poor waist line. La dolce vita cannot continue every day, and doesn't even for the Italians who apparently are blessed with the gift of slow living. My offers to help are still rejected, yet I feel the resentment building up. Blood pressure is often high amongst Italians, and it is unsurprising considering the passion/stress levels.
I won't ruin the contents of my top 10 list before even getting started. Let's go...
1. Independence. This is the number 1 thing I miss about being out of the country. This is not the fault of any country I am in, but rather, the circumstances in which I find myself. Whilst my parents are pretty easy going when I visit, here I might as well have set off an atomic bomb if a drip of water dares touch the clean tiles. Better not mention the consequences of daring to mention by lactose allergy. What on earth will I eat if I cannot digest mozzarella? Really better not tell them I am vegan...
2. Small lunches and more substantial breakfasts. Brits love the idea of slow meditteranean lunches, a delicious antipasti followed by a bowl of fresh pasta bursting with fresh aromatic flavours, soaked up with bread and followed with cheese and fresh frittata. All of this washed down with a deep red wine. First of all, at home Italians drink Lambrusco, a pleasant enough "soda" which goes by the name of wine. It is sweet, sometimes sickly, and often results in tipsiness at 12pm. This and the big lunch results in a massive stomach ache if consumed everyday after having been starved all morning (yes, here they have coffee and a biscuit for breakfast if you are lucky). I must admit I miss my porridge, mid morning snack and gut-loving mini lunch. The lunch of la dolce vita is occasionally quite sublime, but if eaten every day can only lead to angina and an afternoon food hangover, surely?
3. Good television. I never really appreciated the BBC and HBO (yes, American, but well-diffused in the UK) as I should have. Whilst we have Attenborough, Doctor Who, monty python, game of thrones, Michael Wood and a whole host of amazing documentaries, dramas and comedians, Italy has Mediaset and a variety of badly dubbed American reality TV shows like Breaking Amish.
4. My cats. Not much needs to be said regarding this one, but I really do want to spend some quality cuddle time with them both.
5. The sea and the mountains. Yes Italy has plenty of high mountain ranges and beautiful coastal towns. Unfortunately I am about as inland as you can get in the sweltering Po valley. The heat I once craved is agonising, I actually miss the cool salty sea breeze and the roaring winds which break the silence in the glen. Here I feel like a rabbit in an open space, there is no where to run to or hide. At least cycling is an option.
6. Travel culture. A well-thought out gap year between 6th form and university reflects well both in academic and social spheres in the UK. It shows you are worldly, independent, have broadened your horizons, and you usually turn up at university far maturer and ready to study. Chances are you also have something to add to your CV, be it volunteer work in Burundi, language learning in Austria or a TEFL course in Thailand. Whatever you do will undoubtedly give you some kind of experience, anyway. I did a foundation art course at my local college which was still free as I was under the age of 19. I met loads of cool people and gained plenty of experience/new skills, as well as an extra qualification. It was also a step up between school and university which gave me a taste of independence without too much of an abrupt change. I then spent 2 months in South America, travelling in Brazil and Argentina, living a dream and visiting the Amazon rainforest. Not only did this gap year look impressive to employers and the university admissions committee, but it also gave me an incredible life experience and I got to meet many new people. All too often in other countries the reaction when I say I went on a gap year is far from the "Wow that's so cool" that I regularly get in the UK/America. Here in Italy for example, there is not a strong gap year culture, and a more urgent rush to graduate. It's a shame, because it means that many students feel under pressure when they are distracted by other ambitions, unsure of what they want to do, and too often end up studying a subject by which they are not interested and have no motivation to excel. Travelling is just not on the agenda for many Italians, so are "so anxious" to get to university that they often repeat years and take it slowly in the end, graduating at a later date than many Brits. It's a personal thing, but in my opinion you should travel earlier on in life when fit and healthy if the desire to travel is present. It really does open up your mind.
7. Variation in the diet. I like Italian food, but as already mentioned it is often carb heavy, fat heavy and very rich. It is also lacking in spice. I miss eating Mexican, Thai, Indian, Chinese, Indonesian and Japanese food. I miss inventing dishes and trying new stuff every now and then.
8. A mild climate. I was also convinced that I hated lukewarm summers and cold but snowless winters. Whilst I do love a bit of sun and snow, I have come to appreciate the comfort of mild weather patterns. In South West England in particular it was never colder than -1 degrees celcius in Winter, and never much hotter than 25 in Summer. For someone used to 35 degrees heat, this may sound cold, but when it arrives after 15 degrees in Spring it sometimes feels tropical. I could swim outside in 25 degrees, eat an ice cream, lie on the beach, all without the displeasure of meeting mosquitos, jelly fish, and avoiding the risk of heat stroke. Don't get me wrong, I love hot countries, but when in a city with no sea/lake to resort to, life is tough. I love the snow too, but only if it snows before Christmas. Afterwards it is far too often a curse, mixing with mud and salt to create that gritty dirty slush which makes movement cumbersome. It delays/cancels flights, blocks roads, causes accidences and increases heating bills. Either way, extreme weather also makes it difficult if you have plans to do anything productive that day. In Florida I got hives from the heat, in China last year I looked disfigured for 3 days after an allergic reaction to a mosquito bite on the face, this summer I am suffering from dizziness and multiple itchy bites. In the extreme cold I suffer from raynaud's disease, which shows its full fury and my extremities turn blue. With extreme temperatures, the body is likely to suffer and life may need to be put on hold.
9. Useful product details. As a vegetarian verging on vegan with a gluten intolerance this is something I really miss when outside northern Europe/the USA. Product labelling is essential in the UK, and it is easy to find some indication that a product is vegetarian/gluten free/contains nut. Here, and in many other countries, it is difficult to distinguish between animal rennet/vegetarian rennet, as both are dubiously listed as "caglio". Though vegetarianism is getting more diffused in Italy, and health food shops are more likely to provide useful labelling ("caglio caprino/bovino etc/caglio microbico", the latter being vegetarian), in supermarkets this still too often a problem. I guess it generally quite disturbs me that there is such a lack of vegetarianism here. Sure, there are plenty of products like vitasoia gelato, soya milk, seitan and tofu burgers, but many people just eat these for health reasons. It is difficult to get hold of gelatine free sweets, for example M&S veggie percy pigs, Katie's veggie sweets, trolli vegetarian fizzy mix and haribo veggie funmix. With a high occurence of coeliac disease, at least Italy is good at labelling products as being "senza glutine". I will struggle on, and probably miss a lot of accidentally suitable products by being too cautious.
10. Privacy. Bathroom doors open, unannounced visitors and the culture of making room for relatives in whatever small space that may be found. Knocking on the door seems to be quite alien to many cultures, who are apparently okay about being caught naked or on the loo. I even get my food inspected here. It is difficult to get used to minor details like these. I guess I miss feeling as though no one will disturb me when I am in my room. In a strange way though I feel I have more privacy in hostels, because despite sleeping in dorm rooms, there is a definite social constraint which prevents too much invasion of privacy.
So there we go. Not too many things, but enough to appreciate where I am from. Now to get on with it and enjoy this lifestyle while I can. I am heading to Grenoble on Thursday, and will not return here for at least 3 months, if not 5.