Brighton

BrightonBrightonHow cute is Brighton, though!?

When we first arrived in Italy, one of my first jobs was ‘English tutor’ at some local English summer camps. Oh how I hated those camps. I did, however, make a close friend in the very first week – I attribute it to bonding under terrifying circumstance – and we have stayed in touch since then.

On trip to the UK last October, I travelled down to Brighton, where this friend has recently moved, to visit her. We spent the afternoon eating cake and walking around the city, before having the worst luck trying to find an eatery open and serving food for Sunday dinner.

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Because I watched the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice as an impressionable 13 year old, I can’t hear Brighton mentioned without imagining Julia Sawalha begging her father to allow her to go there. So Brighton is slightly associated with a whiny teenager, but then it also isn’t, because I can’t imagine any Jane Austen characters associating in anyway with the current Brighton Pier.

Brighton PavilionBrighton PavilionThey may have visited the pavilion, though. When I was first went to Brighton just over five years ago, I mustn’t have ever seen a minaret or a mosque before and I thought the pavilion the most fantastical building ever, especially for a royal palace. This time I saw it and went ‘oh of course’. It is still beautiful, but it was less of a surprise. The pavilion was built in a style popular in India at the time, because, Britain and her Empire.

 

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What’s so civic about a civic museum

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Just before Christmas I spent a week knocking around Rovereto on my own. Matt was in the Netherlands for a conference, I would later meet him in Amsterdam where we spent Christmas. When I am home alone, I have a tendency to untether from routine. My routine isn’t even anything like Matt’s, but somehow when he isn’t here I stay up later, I stop cooking and I generally stop getting stuff done.

In spite of the extra time I spent in bed, claiming Matt’s side for sleeping and my own for storage of important things, I actually was out most days both working and socialising. I even managed to get to the Rovereto Mueso Civico, the final museum I had yet to see from Rovereto’s small collection.

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I knew what to expect from this particular museum, it having already been visited by Matt and both sets of parents. And yet, I was still hoping for a little of Rovereto history, a little bit of civics. Rovereto’s civic museum is instead more of a natural history museum. The entire collection is rocks, taxidermied animals and the more decorative items from the ruins of Isera’s Roman villa.

Most perplexing is the presence of a kiwi in the bird collection, under the heading of ‘birds not often found in Italy but here by an accident of migration, etc, etc’. I’m paraphrasing, I don’t remember the exact words. If you didn’t know, New Zealand’s kiwi is a flightless, shy, nocturnal non-swimmer. There is no way that bird swam, flew or somehow migrated from New Zealand to Italy without being tucked (carefully, those claws are sharp) under someone’s arm and marched onto a ship.

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There was no explanatory note card for why other non-Italian animals were here, other than they’re pretty fierce looking. Which begs the question, just what is a civic museum for? I assume general education and knowledge, meaning this museum was more valuable at its inception than now.

I can’t help but feel that a civic museum would better serve a city if it were about a city and its social history (the Isera Roman villa ruins aside), rather than a collection of the rocks it is built upon and a zoo of dead animals. I did actually feel very sad for all those animals.

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At the time of my visit I was waiting to hear from Matt about how the conference and associated university work was going, hence my collection of inquisitive bird photos that were sent to him.

Befana

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There is an absolute glut of holidays and festivals for Italian children in the month around Christmas. Like all good holidays, they are primarily about giving candy. And for this my candy-loving childhood self is so, so jealous.

The celebration of Befana (and the epihpany) today (6 January) is only the final day of a long festive season that starts on 6 December with celebrations for Saint Nicholas. The celebrations across Italy seem quite varied, but here in Trentino the kids get candy. The following week, 12 or 13 December, is the festival of Santa Lucia, and the kids get candy. Befana also brings candy. Lucky kids.

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These photos are all of effigies of Begana in Piazza Bra, Verona, 2014 and 2015.

The story of Befana has a few versions. Most involve an old woman who was alive at the time of the birth of the baby Jesus. She encounters the wise men, or doesn’t, and either refuses their invitation to journey to Bethlehem and then later regrets her choice, or sets out herself – mistakenly believing the baby Jesus is her own son.

The story is a little sad as in all versions the woman is alone, her own child or children having died. She decides to visit the baby Jesus and take her own children’s toys. She also takes her broom, in case the new mother needs help with house work.

Can we note here how much more practical woman are in times of childbirth. Help with the house work? Yes please! Toys or other items that baby needs now or in his near future? A great idea.

However, those wise men may have been playing the long game, according to this site frankincense helps relieve arthritis, and the myrrh may have prefigured the death and embalming of Jesus. Helpful. I’d take the gold though.

In most versions of the Befana story, she doesn’t even find the baby Jesus. And for this reason she continues in her search once a year, leaving gifts and candy for Italian children and sweeping their houses with her broomstick.

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In Italy Befana fulfils a role usually taken by Father Christmas in the US and UK, leaving those toys and candy in a sock or stocking. Most/all stockings are sold pre-filled by the major sweets companies in the supermarkets.

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Were you wondering what was going to happen to that hapless Befana sitting on a pile of flammable sticks? I believe the annual Befana burning only takes place in the Veneto, but I could be wrong. This is in Piazza Bra, the main square in Verona.

The burning symbolises both the end of the Christmas season and the previous year, the old woman representing the old year. The direction the wind blows the smoke is a foreshadowing of the weather the new year will bring.

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Because nothing says ‘hey thanks for the candy and cleaning my house’ like burning the witch.

Mercatini di natale

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All of my Christmases came early this season: with my visiting mum and sister I visited six Christmas markets in November in the space of a week. With so much Christmas spirit it felt strange to then wait another four weeks for Christmas day.

Also, how nice it was to have my mum and sister stay! They came for my 30th birthday (and for Europe, I guess) and we did lots of little trips together. That photo above is them, with their daily vin brulè.

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On one memorable occasion, we visited TWO Christmas markets in one day. Because I was the tour operator and I was that keen.

The wooden decorations are from a little shop within the Merano markets – they sold such cute stuff but I couldn’t bring myself to spend close to 20 euro for a Christmas decoration, and I left empty handed. Those gingerbread weren’t from a market at all, but a bakery in Merano. So festive! They looked better than they tasted.

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Merano, our first stop, is rather adorable. It’s an ex-Austrian spa town so, like other towns in Alto Adige/Sudtirol, the main language is German. I never know if I should speak Italian or attempt my very, very poor German, or if should give it all up and speak English.

*My German is about ten words strong, most of them food related and most of them I can even pronounce properly.

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After Merano we went to Bolzano. As much as I love visiting the markets, I never actually buy anything, except food. And for this Merano and Bolzano didn’t rate so highly for things I wanted to eat. But, they are quite pretty, no?

Ever since our first Christmas here, I have had a mini, mostly internal, dialogue that I should buy things – I can imagine a day in 15 or 150 years time, when a mortgage and school fees have sapped my income and I can’t afford to leave the country, and at that point I might like to have decorations for my tree from Italian Christmas markets. But, I still can’t be bothered buying them, and practically my only Italian-bought Christmas decoration came from Upim (a small department store, similar to Farmers), so I shall have to steal them from my mother instead. You won’t mind, will you mum?

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Those last photos are all of Bolzano – so pretty! See also, no snow. It has been a very dry winter so far, I’ve heard the ski slopes look a little dismal with only a thin track of artificial snow for the skiers to follow. Things might be looking up now, Saturday brought actual, real snow to Rovereto’s mountains and on the ground in the city, so things can only improve.

 

Isole Tremiti or, is it summer (again) yet?

Isole tremitiIsole tremitiIt’s already four months since I had my post-summer end-of-summer holiday down the east coast of Italy. When I wrote this post it was Autumn: daylight savings had ended a couple of weeks previously and the leaves had moved from green to red/brown/yellow and were falling from the trees in clumps.

It’s now the end of December, the trees are bare and the temperatures are a little frosty (no snow in sight, though), and I’m finally going to publish this post, result!

And even though I don’t miss the sweat that came with summer this year (seriously, so much sweat), I do still miss the long days and my daily gelato. Those Autumnal feelings were what made me finally sort my photos from that trip, meaning this post will be full of blue skies and blue seas.. bliss.

Isole TremitiIsole TremitiTanned Italians motoring out to sea

Early September I spent a couple of days visiting a friend in Termoli, Molise. From there we visited Isole Tremiti, a group of islands (an archipelago, fancy) in the Adriatic.

This was one of those mythical summer holidays that Matt and I rarely do – we spent our August in hot, dusty and crowded cities much further inland. Though, really, being squished up on a beach with the entire population in August also doesn’t sound that appealing. Much better to go in September when everyone else is back at work (spoken like a true lady of leisure) – the temperatures were still hot and the beaches not even half as crowded.

San Nicola Isole Tremitiisole TremitiIsole TremitiIsole TremitiThe first thing we did after arriving by boat from the mainland was to get on another boat, this one to take us on a tour around the islands. There were conversations about getting our own little private boat, but money, so we squished in with more tanned Italians instead.

Padre pio isole tremitiPadre Pio Isole Tremiti

We dove off the boat to swim over this underwater statue of Padre Pio. Unfortunately, none of us had brought goggles or a mask, so we couldn’t see anything so clear as this. We were able to make out the shape when the water was calm enough, so I can still claim it.

Isole TremitiWe swam at the crowded beach in the first photo, before returning to the main (?) island for lunch and a swim off these rocks. As well as goggles we were also missing water shoes, so getting in and out of the sea was a delicate operation. But worth it for that beautiful sea – the water was so clear and blue.

Nowhere else in Europe is my pale skin such a contrast to the rest of the population as it is in Italy. It was midway through this day that I noticed that I was one of very few on the boat/island wearing a t-shirt or a sunhat or, likely, sunscreen. I wrote this post at the end of that day.

A Polish wedding

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I only took one photo of us – and it was on snapchat (yes I am an adult, thanks), so it comes with a misspelled caption

A highlight of our August was celebrating the wedding of friends in a small town in central Poland. This was that same wedding where temperatures peaked at 37 degrees, both the hottest day of the year and perhaps even of the century.

I had bought my dress a week earlier, when then current temperatures in Poland were more temperamental and even threatening rain. Which explains how I found myself in a long black dress, trying to keep a face of make up from sliding off and a head of hair from turning into frizz, in the middle of a church parking lot in the middle of a burning afternoon. It was a real scorcher!

While waiting in the car park for the wedding bus to take us to another church, one of the guests asked us what New Zealand weddings were like. Such a question! Strange isn’t it how you can’t describe what something is like until you’ve experienced something different. Our answers were very vague.

Likewise, I can now only describe a Polish wedding in how it differs to those in New Zealand. The first answer, of course, is that weddings are like weddings anywhere – the decorations may differ, and the language may be incomprehensible, but everywhere likely features some form of someone in a white dress and another someone in a black suit, who say things to each other and the guests celebrate.

And, of course, the other answer was that this particular wedding was beautiful. The ceremony was both Catholic and in Polish, so we didn’t understand much of what was going on. Keeping an eye on the guests in front helped us stand and sit down at the appropriate moments. Following the ceremony, the newlyweds waited for all the guests to exit first – which makes sense for what comes next but it felt strange to leave them standing at the alter – and they were then showered with a confetti of coins as they followed everyone out the doors (which they picked up).

Following the ceremony, it was back on that wedding bus – did I mention that it may have been hotter inside the bus than out on the street? – to head to the reception venue. Such air-conditioned bliss!

We toasted the couple when they arrived, and they promptly threw their glasses over their shoulders (nearly taking someone out in the process). Their first task as newlyweds was to jointly clean up the broken glass off the floor.

We had heard stories of how much vodka we should expect to see at a Polish wedding. And it is true that there was a bottle on any table – that was replaced as soon as it was half empty and anything warmer than ice cold. But the crazy heat seemed to lower the amount people were willing/able to drink. A friend of the groom explained that perhaps people in Poland don’t even drink that much vodka, just that they drink it regularly.

That heat also removed some of my appetite, such a shame because the food! Soup, meat, fish, potatoes and cakes – and that was just dinner and dessert. Later came supper (or dinner, perhaps that first round was lunch..?) with fish and meat and pierogi and cake. I forced some pierogi down at the second round, and then only managed cake for the rest of the night – passing no everything, including the beetroot soup, that came throughout the night.

It’s a bit of a cliche to talk about how lovely a people are, to characterise an entire nation based on one event, but I’m going to anyway. Because the people were lovely, really lovely. I had imagined a scenario where we were boxed in a corner with the other few English speakers from my old work, unable to communicate with anyone else and only clinking vodka glasses in mock-friendship with the guests. But it wasn’t like that at all – we were seated next to the bride’s school friend and her French husband, who were back in Poland for a short holiday before moving to Japan. And everyone else who could speak English, any level of English, spoke to us and made sure we felt welcome.

And with everyone else, we surpassed any language barriers on the dance floor. Because, despite the heat, we danced until 4 am. It was non stop, with the only breaks coming as more food arrived, or when we ducked outside to take in the ever cooling air. And everyone danced, including the DJ who also led a dance to Saturday Night Fever, and then co-opted Matt into a performance involving wigs and inflatable guitars (I have a photo but I doubt he would appreciate my sharing it). We also danced in circles, and then in two circles, because of course.

And so that was our Polish wedding. We have made promises to return, to visit Gdansk and to spend the rest of our Polish currency that we have left over, so we hope to be back some day.

 

Problems with the Italian post system (flag edition)

New Zealand has never been such an overt lover of its flag, a nation of flag wavers, compared to, say, Australia or the US. The current prime minister is trying to change that by changing the flag (other reasons for the flag change include him not wanting to be mistakenly seated under the Australian flag. How this will stop him from being confused with Czech politicians is not so clear).

Like our attitude to the flag, the response to the proposed change hasn’t been much more than a collective meh. Which isn’t to say that no one cares – my Facebook feed has a pretty good random sampling of pro-change, anti-change, what-about-the-TPPA, there-are-more-important-things view points.

My main concern has been that as a voting public we would collectively choose something rather ugly. Something that, considering the four five shortlisted voting options, wouldn’t be so hard to do. Because aesthetics are still important. And so if there is to be a referendum on which of those designs will become the new New Zealand flag, then I want in.

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Those same flags (real or imagined I can’t tell), flapping in a pastoral scene.

And so because of this minor enthusiasm, I’ve just had to apply to become a ‘remote voter’ – the term for someone who hasn’t or who is unable to receive their voting papers. This has both nothing (friends in the UK received theirs over a week ago) and everything to do with us being overseas (oh hi Italian postal system!). The papers were sent out on 20 November, surely with enough time for everyone in the world to receive their copy. But, the final date for voting is 11 December and our forms are still nowhere in sight.

Because the Italian postal system isn’t strong at the best of times. A birthday card from my mum took 20 days (including weekends) to fly sail crawl its way to my letter box, so while I was originally optimistic about our voting chances, my expectations should never have been so high.

(Fortunately for me (as someone who still actively chooses to send cards and postcards), letters departing from Italy seem to have a better track record than those arriving in to Italy. Which is just as well, considering the rates the post office likes to charge.)

Fingers crossed I still have the opportunity to rank those coloured little boxes in order of my preference. (Because aesthetics matter.)