On international dating…

As you may have noticed from brief mentions in previous posts, I’ve finally succumb to the charm and got an Italian boyfriend. I won’t lie that I was a bit uneasy about the idea. There are certain stereotypes about Italian guys that I’m sure we’ve all heard: sleazy mothers’ boys who are very romantic, yes, but are so with several women at the same time.

My first year and brief dating experience only confirmed these stereotypes. To give you just a couple of examples, a man in a park who got my number through sheer persistence spent days messaging me calling me his “angel”, and an encounter on a train with a guy who actually seemed interesting ended with me backing off very quickly when he started our Whatsapp conversation with heart emoticons (hearts, after one hour of knowing me?). However, thankfully, one guy ended up proving me wrong and turning me into a hypocrite for all my “I will never be with an Italian” rants. It’s been well over a year with him now, so…oops. Of course, the main attraction is that he would never dare to call me his angel and waited at least a month or so before adding any hearts to Whatsapp messages.

There are and will always be, however, certain difficulties in any foreign relationship. Honesty and trust become all the more important when bonding across cultures and languages. I have been lucky that I found someone who has both these qualities, but most importantly is aware, like me, of potential problems:

  1. You cannot share childhood experiences. Or rather, you can, but you will never fully understand, enjoy, or empathise for the other’s. Childhood games and TV shows always seem strange to think about as adults, yet we remember them fondly and even still enjoy because they were a joint cultural experience that we grew up with. Of course, other nationalities will have had different TV shows and different games that marked their upbringing. You can inform each other about them, but you will never share the fondness that you would with people from your own culture. For me, for instance, I could still watch SM:TV and thoroughly enjoy it, yet on showing it to my boyfriend he was understandably completely bemused.

  2. You cannot quote TV shows or films accurately. Not exactly a relationship maker or breaker, but still relevant to a geek like me who enjoys quoting from top sci fi, fantasy and comedy TV shows and films. You might well share the same interest in films and TV, have even watched the same things … but you will have watched them in different languages, so quoting accurately is difficult (because most TV translations are never exact, but adapted to that language). M (his name is going to be M from now on) and I are steadily getting past this through watching things in the same language, and luckily are such nerds that we know our favourites films well enough to understand even a miss-translated quote. Still, there has sometimes been sadness knowing I can’t accurately recount the ridiculous Frodo – Sam scenes with him.

  3. Your sense of humour will be slightly different. Or, even if they are similar, you probably won’t enjoy the same comedians or comedic styles. Comedy is very much entwined with language and culture. You’ll notice that most comedians joke about everyday things, but these everyday things will be based upon that culture’s lifestyle. It is also popular to make jokes about the nuances of language. Both of these are difficult to truly enjoy if you were not raised on that culture or language, because – even if you understand it – you do not have the same feel for it as a native would. Comedic style also differs across cultures, with some enjoying more slapstick comedy, and others more subtle. Don’t be upset if your other half doesn’t laugh at your favourite comedian, or vice versa. Spending more time absorbing the other culture might help: it’s only after three years in Italy that I’ve found comedians I really enjoy.

  4. Be aware of cultural differences in gender and family. It goes without saying that gender and family traditions can be very different across different cultures. I have learnt, for instance, that family is far more important in Italy, and gender stereotypes are a lot more traditional. However, this also depends on the person you date: everyone has their own values. M is not as traditional as many other Italians I’ve met, which works in my favour (he’s happy to cook and clean, and doesn’t mind me swearing). Just bear in mind that some views you may see as “old fashioned” could simply be a part of their upbringing – the great thing about international dating is that you open yourself up to these different social norms, become more accepting of them, and maybe even change some of your own beliefs.

  5. Bear in mind the language differences. You may well be lucky enough to have one or even both of your mother tongues in common, but even if you are at an advanced language level, understanding sarcasm and expressions is difficult, and often doesn’t translate too well. I find it a lot harder being sarcastic in Italian without being outright insulting, where as the English language seems to lend itself to sarcasm perfectly – but an Italian still might not get it. Just a few other examples:

  • Things seen as light humour in one language might be extremely offensive in another. Italian still has the scarily common expression “lavorare come un negro” – I refuse to translate this, do so at your own offence. But yes, different cultural beliefs (and apparently their advances in racial awareness) will lead to different levels of political correctness in regards to humour.

  • Similarly, certain exclamations might be seen as offensive, and translations of swear words have different impacts. Swearing to God in Italian can still be extremely frowned upon, and is technically still illegal, and expressions like “son of a bitch” translate more offensively into “figlio di putana” – “son of a whore”.

  • Even compliments can be mistranslated, or taken differently. It’s common to call people good in Italian when they do well at something, even as adults. M will often compliment me on my successes by saying “brava ragazza”, yet in English this would come across as extremely patronising, “good girl”.

There are complications and difficulties in communication in any relationship: one with two languages and two cultures only heightens this, yet also adds an element of excitement that you cannot find otherwise. Everything that is normal to you can be new and completely different to the other: you get to experience their thrill of discovering and exploring your own culture, and vice versa. The lack of a shared native tongue also forces you to be honest with each other, since language games will not work. If you are open to learning and understanding each other’s cultures (and this has to work both ways, or someone is going to be left out), an international relationship can be the most exciting and rewarding thing – and you might just find yourself understanding a foreigner better than anyone from your own country.

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On missing Italy…

My recent lack of posts has another excuse: I am not actually in Italy at this time. Why would I leave such a beautiful country, food, host family and boyfriend, you might ask? Well, I was asking myself the same questions within the first week of returning. Thankfully it’s only for a couple of months, to escape the Italian heat and enjoy a country with full-time work contracts and a legal minimum wage. But meanwhile, there are a lot of things about the bella vita that I’m missing. Some big, some small, but all parts of my beautiful Italian life that just can’t be recreated in England.

Convenient light switches

Okay, this is one of the smaller things, but still something of an issue every time I’m back in England. In Italy as well as most other countries in Europe, there is more than one switch for the same light placed throughout the room. Often, there’s even a switch to the main light right next to your bed. Clearly, they realised the logic in not forcing people to stumble blindly through the darkness in the early hours of the morning. Unfortunately in Britain that is exactly what we have to do. Getting ready for bed is much more complicated when you have to go to the other side of your room to turn out the light – how have we not caught on to the convenient and numerous placing of light switches yet?

Aperitivo

Moving on to the bigger things: aperitivo. One of the finest Italian traditions that I cannot believe hasn’t passed on to other cultures. Basically, it is an alcoholic drink (generally a cocktail famed in that region, though there is also the option of beers or wines) served with finger food or appetisers. Most bars will have “aperitivo hour” before and around lunchtime and dinner. The amazing thing for a Brit is that the food is completely free! ….Okay, perhaps not entirely true as some bars seperate their aperitivo menu to increase the drinks price so that the food cost is accounted for. But still, a basic aperitivo shouldn’t cost you more than 5 euros: I’ve also had completely filling ones (by filling, I mean a whole focaccia, crisps and mini sandwiches) that cost only 2 euros 50. The tradition is also enjoyed at home if you happen to have the right food and drink in. As well the “opening up the pallet” aspect, it’s a great way to relax and socialise before a main meal.

Food culture

While we’re on the topic of food…I miss it. It’s well known that the English and Italian attitudes to food are very different. I won’t satisfy my Italian friends by saying Italian food beats English food every time: there are a lot of English dishes that I always miss and that are impossible to recreate in Italy. But there does seem to be a healthier theme to the Italian food culture, in that they value freshness, quality and nutritional value over the English value of quantity. Apparently the years of living in Italy have affected my appetite, because I now find myself craving salads and fresh pasta sauces more than my native pies and greasy chips. Unfortunately, fresh food is a lot more costly in Britain, and people keep looking at me strangely when I don’t want coleslaw or mayonnaise filled dressing on my salad (olive oil, vinegar and salt is just as good, if not better).

Evening life

Again, something that is a lot different between our cultures. Truthfully, I still appreciate the traditional English evening of a pint in the pub with some friends, or else in front of the TV Royle Family style. But I still miss the more lively Italian evening. Italians, from my experience, enjoy the fresh air far more than us (it makes sense when you consider the warmer climate) so a free evening will be spent walking through the city or to a local beauty spot, and finding an ice cream parlour or aperitivo-serving bar along the way. I struck gold by living on Lake Garda for this: most clear evenings, you’ll find me walking down to the picturesque Moniga port, enjoying a pirlo or gelato and listening out for English tourists.

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Signs I’ve been in Italy too long…

In some ways, I am still exceptionally English. I insist on going outside even when I have a cold, because – despite the Italians fear that a slight breeze will give us all fever – my mother taught me that fresh air is the cure for everything. I jump into the water before it is as warm as the summer air, because my childhood experience of swimming in outdoor water was always a challenge to how long you could stand the cold. And, frustratingly when it comes to social plans in Italy, I prefer my dinner before sunset.

However, almost three years of Italy is certainly having its effect: on every visit back to England, I notice a few more things about myself that do not fit in here. What is happening to my English soul?! Let’s just hope my love of takeaways and queuing persists, because there’s a few odd changes happening:

I tuck my shirt in (even t-shirts).

Although apparently the height of fashion, certain Italian trends are still stuck in the nineties, one of these being the habit of tucking your shirt, even if the outfit is completely informal. Though originally I felt like I was in an episode of Saved by the Bell, I now feel untidy and judged with my t-shirt hanging out. As long as I don’t take it to the step of tucking it into my underwear or nightwear (yes, that’s a thing, even for adult males apparently).

I pair my food and drink.

Oh, if only my university self could see me now. Whilst previously I was happy to have the cheapest, most bearably alcoholic drink to match my meal, I now have to carefully consider what type of dish I’ll be eating, so that the drink can enhance the flavour and vice versa. Though certainly not on an Italian level yet (I still have some way to go for learning the best dessert wines), a steak with white wine makes me cringe.

I am all about the aperitivo.

Possibly even more than Italians, actually. For those who haven’t been blessed by an aperitivo, or aperitif, it is the tradition of having a drink and appetisers before the main meal. Most bars will offer it in the hours before lunch and dinner, with a specific drinks menu from 2-6 euro (any more and it is massively overpriced). The price for the drink includes various finger foods: mini sandwiches, mini pizzas, olives, crisps, nuts and bread. A bargain, if you ask me. When I have enough time and money, or enough ingredients at my place, I will insist on an aperitivo. It’s a relaxing, social way to start your meal….but mainly, free food! (…okay, perhaps that’s still the English part of me).

I crave fresh food.

Whilst true that Italians love their pizza and pasta, in general they maintain a much healthier diet than us northern friends through their appetite for salads and fresh fruit and vegetables. In summer especially, I will usually have a dinner of fresh salad leaves with ricotta cheese, with a bit of oil, vinegar and salt on top. Although this food is available in England, the freshness and quality is not nearly the same: its no wonder we’re a lot larger.

I’m okay(ish) with public displays of affection.

This has honestly taking a lot of getting used to, but it’s finally happening. Italians are far more open about their affection for people, whether it be a lover, friend, or completely new acquaintance. I still struggle giving relatively unknown people two kisses on the cheek, and often accidentally go for a hug with friends when they want to do three kisses, but I have become far less conservative about seeing couples cuddling and kissing around others. My boyfriend was a little put off when I introduced him to the concept of PDA, and regularly mocked me for it: for him, it was no one’s business how much we kissed or made out. Although there’s obviously a limit, I’m far more comfortable with showing affection in public places now: with everyone else seemingly do it, there’s little focus on you.

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Italia in Rosa

Though only a small village, in summer Moniga Del Garda becomes a hot-spot for evening entertainment. As well as the several bars serving aperitivo at the picturesque port, the central piazza (really the only piazza – as I said, it’s a small village) hosts several concerts, and even a mid summer beer festival which attracts a huge mix of tourists and locals.

The castle also plays an important role in summer entertainment, through its lake-view cocktail-serving kiosk, regular live music and the increasingly popular annual event, Italia In Rosa. Normally taking place in June each year, it sees the outside area of the castle overtaken by around 80 wine stalls, plus a couple of food stands in the lower section. The relevance to Moniga is that some of the most famed Italian rosé wine (hence “Rosa”) originates here, though the event sees wineries come from all over the country, with the stalls ordered by region.

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I’ll admit, I was a bit wary of this event: firstly because it meant my tranquil reading spot was imposed upon, secondly because 10euro still strikes a scrooge such as me as a lot of money, and thirdly because wine events can attract a certain snobby crowd. In fact, in the end it was not so much by deliberate choice that I attended: I headed to the castle with my boyfriend hoping for a relaxing sit down in our favourite view point, completely forgetting it was the weekend of Italia in Rosa. Being the Italian he is, and the alcoholic I am, we couldn’t resist the appeal of wine: a short five minute queue and thirty euros (to include a deposit on the wine glass) later, we arrived armed with breadsticks, a leaflet, and a wine glass handily supported by a necklace.

The first thing I noticed was that we weren’t, as we had thought in the queue, out of place in our casual clothes. There were some more elegantly dressed professionals, but they were balanced by tourists and locals who, like us, had stumbled upon the event. The second thing was: “how I am ever going to taste ALL the wine?”. Eighty stalls is a lot, but you then have to counter for the fact that several stalls have two or three options. Yes, they only ever give you a taster, but you’d be surprised how quickly they add up. It is for this reason – and the fact that I am not nearly a professional wine taster – that I cannot give a valid view of the wines we tried. Though we made notes for the first few, they soon became confused, and I’m quite certain that our taste was slightly tarnished for the later samples. I can say, however, that there was a huge mix there. The base was obviously rosé , including the Garda famous Chiaretto, and for those who like a particularly sweet taste there were some excellent spumantes and moscatos (towards the end I was considering disguising myself in order to get more refills of a particularly deliciously downable moscato).

It also paid off having a few contacts through English students: in the first few stalls, I met Andrea Bertazzi, whose agricoltura (a restaurant serving only home-grown and home-made produce) Il Roccolo Bertazzi, in Polpenazze del Garda, offers buffet aperitivos for groups with a range of their own wines. I can fully recommend their chiaretto.

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Overall, there were only two downsides to the whole event:

 

  1. There was nowhere to wash out your glass. This struck me as a clear overlook on the organisers part: although there were a few spots to tip out any unwanted wine (pfft, as if), there was nowhere to rinse it out. I’m not a professional, but even I know you want a clean – if not fresh – glass when trying a different wine.

  2. There was only one food stall. Though everyone I spoke to complimented the food served, we never even attempted getting it due to the huge queue that the only food stall for hundreds of guests is likely to attract. If any organisers see this, I would suggest at least three food stalls, and spaced out around the event so the crowd isn’t confined to one area.

It could be down to the small dinner of breadsticks (and consequently only taking the first few stalls to get me tipsy), but the night was one of my best for this summer. For a piece of local culture, a professional wine tasting, a relaxed evening with friends, or just a chance to get drunk, Italia in Rosa will meet your needs and, even better, do so in one of the most overlooked viewpoints on Lake Garda. When you get to that tenth wine glass and need a sit down, you can collapse on the embankment to admire the lights glistening over the water from Sirmione, and know that your 10 euros were definitely well spent.

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Read-in Tranquillity: Moniga Del Garda

with Nod, by Adrian Barnes

(review coming soon on unwrittenshades)

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Though one of the smaller lake-side towns, Moniga Del Garda offers a few simple yet beautiful pleasures. One of them is the “castello”, situated on a small hill, just a five minute walk from the village centre.

The fortress dates back to the tenth century, when it was built as a defence from the Hungarian invasions. Although the inside now holds a normal residence (much like that of Padenghe), the outer walls are impressively intact.

The main entrance for both tourists and residents is under the former gate tower, now converted into a bell tower (unlike other castles, it is unfortunately forbidden to climb the tower, with the steps being noticeably in disrepair). However, there is also a smaller entrance on the opposite side, accessible through the park: it is this area that makes Moniga Castle my first Read-in Tranquillity post.

A small green area of land, surrounded by olive trees and herbs (residents – including me – pick their rosemary and bay leaves here), with a few benches placed along the path that follows it round from the castle. Simple, right? Just wait until you get to the view-point on the South-East side. On a clear day, you can watch over lower Moniga and a significant portion of the East side of the lake, being far enough to take in the sheer expanse of Garda, yet close enough (being around 1km from the port) to admire the sailing boats, the tourists on pedallos, and on a windy day, the force of the glistening waves. Conveniently, and surely not by accident, there is a bench in the perfect viewing position, just waiting for you and your book.

When to bring your book.

This spot is obviously better on clear days, however that doesn’t necessarily mean in summer – Italy has a strange climate where winter doesn’t automatically mean clouds. Personally, I prefer it out-of-season, when I am unlikely to be disturbed for hours. However, even in summer, this spot – considering its incredible viewpoint – remains fairly tranquil. I rarely find more than a couple of people at the top, unless there is an event. The only restriction is night-time: the whole castle area is only open in daylight hours, presumably to keep the privacy of its residents.

Other than reading?

For those of you who for some strange reason want to visit for reasons other than reading, the castle provides a few. There is a small kiosk bar on the decline of the South-East side, which shares in the stunning view, and provides a satisfying aperitvo to go with a choice of wines or a beer.

Speaking of wines, Moniga Castle is host to Italia In Rosa: a yearly wine festival, usually held over a weekend in June, which celebrates the famous Chiaretto wine created right here in Moniga. Tickets are generally around 10euros, and allow for entrance plus wine tasting.

In high tourist season, the inside of the back of the castle can also be transformed into a small concert area, for completely free, open-air gigs. Keep your ears open as you walk around Moniga, as the music is sure to bounce of the old walls and spread to the neighbours.

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A New Idea: Watch this Space

For any of you lovely people who for some reason actively enjoy my writing, you may be aware that my other wordpress page – unwrittenshades – largely consists of book reviews. Yes, I am a bookworm. No surprises there really, with writing and reading generally going hand-in-hand. In my mind there is nothing better than curling up on my sofa with cup of tea (no matter how long I stay abroad, I’m English), a new book, and no outside interruptions.

However, being in Italy has pushed me out of my normal reading cocoon and into the big wide world. There are so many beautiful, tranquil spots that I always take my book along when leaving the house in case the urge strikes to enjoy my two hobbies (travel and reading) together. Lucky for me my boyfriend often shares this urge, so that whenever we visit a new place we always end up searching for a quiet spot to ignore the rest of the world, with the satisfaction that we are still technically being “active”.

This brings me to my idea: why not share the enjoyment of both hobbies with my readers by reviewing my favourite, outdoor reading spots? Of course they will mainly be local to me (the Lake Garda area), but I’ll do my best to search out places a little further from home every now and then, and I can also add a few on my trips to England.

I’m currently working on a title and general layout, so that each post will follow the same theme: there will be a review on the place itself, including any interesting history, followed by why it is why of my chosen reading spots. There may even be photos of me reading if I can talk my boyfriend into being my amateur photographer.

Honestly, I’m pretty excited just for having an excuse to both read and travel more. I’ve already got a few places on my list, so I should get the first post up in the next month.

I hope you enjoy the idea as much as I do!

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Monte Isola

With several large, tourist-budding lakes only a hundred or so kilometres apart in the north of Italy, there is obviously some competition between them, in much the same way as with neighbouring city’s football teams. Being my Italian home, Garda has stolen my bias: with its diverse landscapes, micro-climate and peaceful walks, you’d be mad not to appreciate it. However, even I can’t deny the attraction of a sparsely populated mountainous island placed in the middle of a lake which is itself surrounded by highlands.

This is the case of Monte Isola, which sits on the waters of Lake Iseo. Most recently it was famed by Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s large scale art project, “The Floating Piers”, in which large, fabric floats connected the island to different sections of the mainland, allowing visitors to have the sensation of walking on water.

Although I appreciated the project for popularising this unique island, I much prefer it orange-float-free in all its simplicity – even if that means paying five euros for a return ticket on the ferry boat rather than walking to it. (Ferry boats run regularly to and from Iseo, Sulzano, and Sale Marisino. See here for full timetables).

With a population of less than 2000 people and fairly small roads, there is a common thought that only the priest and the doctor have cars on this island. Whilst not entirely accurate (there are several small trucks used for maintenance and landscaping, for example), it is true that you will see very few four wheeled vehicles. Instead, the Italian moped stereotype is exemplified here, with everyone over the driving age appearing to have a moped, and even children and toddlers being taken on them (there being little other ways of transportation).

In addition to the obvious natural attractions, the main tourist spot here is the Sanctuary of Madonna della Ceriola, which sits at 600 msl, the highest point of the island. Unfortunately there is no lazy way of getting there, so bring your comfy shoes and stamina.

There are, however, a few different routes, depending on your ability and time limit. From the port for Sulzano in Peschiere Maraglio, follow the road right and take the sharp left turn. Following this road will lead you to several different signs towards the sanctuary, the first of which appear after just a couple of hundred feet. Those with the red marker highlight the more difficult, off-road path: don’t be put off by the dangerous red colour, its doable for anyone with average fitness and some will power in my opinion. Whilst the lake and mountain views aren’t particularly more stunning on this path, the nearby landscape is far more tranquil, with the track taking you through fields and woodlands.

If you aren’t feeling up for a short hike (about two hours) however, you should opt for following the main road to the village Cure, and taking the mule tracks for the final ascent. It saves at least an hour, and you still have several astounding viewpoints.

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Other attractions include the Martinengo fortress. Unfortunately also accessible only by a fairly steep incline (its lucky I enjoy hill-walking) that starts in Sensole, this is a mediaeval structure from the 14th century, now secluded in the woodland and giving the true sensation of the ancient lordship.

The rest of the island’s attractions lay largely in its natural landscapes. To admire the lakeside, take the small, coastal road that goes from Peschiera Maraglio to Sensole. The first part of the walk will take you past all of the main shops, bars, and pizzerias, but there are also a few other stop-off points further along the road, including some well placed coastal-view benches. For a tourist spot, the bars and pizzerias aren’t hugely over priced, costing only about a euro more than the average spot. However, I would recommend taking a picnic rather than eating an average pizza. Though the pizzerias might still be lake-side views, there are so many other natural beauty areas to relax in that personally I would rather take a few sandwiches and admire the view from a window-and-waiter-free zone.

Even the travel here is relatively stress-free. Ferry boats travel from several of the lake-side towns on Lago D’Iseo (see the timetables linked in the third paragraph), and most of the surrounding cities provide public transport via bus or train to Iseo town. If you are going by car, you will have to leave it on the mainland, and if it is in season be prepared to pay a parking fee (generally 6 euros for a full day). There is no specified parking for those catching the ferry boat, but every town has a few car parks a short walking distance from the port.

Whether you are looking for an adventure, a light walk, or simply some spectacular views, Monte Isola is a must. The landscape is tremendous: standing near the edge of the island, you feel as though it is a sanctuary from the forbidding mountains looming over it, your only protection the glistening water between you. At such a small cost, this natural highlight is a must on any north-Italian tour.

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