- Almost five months might seem like a long time, but it is no time at all. Three months in Italy whizzed by, and there were major parts of the country we avoided all together. Still, we know how lucky we are to have had this amount of time.
- With time to reflect, most of all I wax lyrical about Jordan, and Puglia. Jordan for its unknown treasures as well as the rightly famous Petra, and for its friendly people. Puglia for the light, the most picturesque of seaside villages, and the seafood.
- We found it is possible to travel both comfortably and relatively cheaply.
- Renting apartments and houses gave us stability, space to relax between sightseeing excursions, and gave us an insight into real Italian life.
- Travelling off the beaten track – whether it’s to Qatar, in the hills of Molise in Italy, inland from the Dead Sea in Jordan, or in the lake district of Poland – brings unexpected rewards and is always worthwhile.
- Even supermarkets give insights into local culture, and provide both amusement and horror.
- There are a lot of myths about places and people that shouldn’t be believed.
- There is too much waste and litter in this world.
- When life gives you lemons, make limoncello. It really is delicious.
- Travelling abroad for an extended period allows you to see with new eyes when you come home. Things, people, places we take for granted, appeared new and fresh on our return, and we were reminded how beautiful our own country is, and what gifts we have here. Maybe that’s the best gift of all?
For the last four and a half months, we have been surrounded by speakers of foreign languages. Or perhaps, we have been the speakers of the foreign language, English, surrounded by Arabic, Hebrew and Italian. Polish too, but we had some light relief there staying with a friend, and so had plenty of lively conversation in English. It took a bit of time to stop thinking and speaking in Italian, but once we hit English shores, we slipped back into our native tongue with ease. (Though I will admit, comprehension isn’t guaranteed, what with our accents, and those of the English speakers we encounter, and the fact that many of them are not native speakers even here).
Suddenly we have English language TV, news at the flick of a switch, or in archaic paper form delivered under our hotel room door in the morning. And with this immersion back into English, the need to blog – or perhaps the space just to tune out everything and think in English that leads to a blogpost – has diminished.
I will wrap up the blog when we get home, put on some more photographs and thoughts of Poland (Chopin, and good bread), and maybe some of London. But many of my readers know London well, so I won’t dwell. We’ve been having some very “English” days – Covent Garden markets, Victoria and Albert museum, a West End show, getting caught in the rain, a curry for dinner, and walking back to our hotel through Soho. We’ve explored new places, enjoyed the Cabinet War Rooms and Churchill Museum, strolled through St James Park, photographed squirrels, and supped beer in a pub. We’ve been crushed in the Tube at rush hour, and pitied the poor Londoners. We’ve had afternoon tea, thrilled over the availability of Asian food (finding Khao Soi – Chiang Mai noodles – was a highlight), and educated ourselves at museums. So we are improving our minds, emptying our wallets, and expanding our … um … palates.
And all too soon we will be home.
There is often a moment, as I enter a new country, one where I don’t speak the language, when I feel completely unprepared, all at sea, and very vulnerable. I think this is even more disconcerting when driving across a border, because at least at international airports there is a degree of English spoken, signs to taxis, and (usually) a hotel booked. You’ve had the time in the air to adjust, and on arrival you settle into the new country and language more gradually. But physically crossing a border means that you instantly cross from one environment to the next, and for a moment, your perception shifts and everything is different. When we first came to Europe, we picked up a car in Paris, and drove to Switzerland. We were fine, my schoolgirl 6th Form French was adequate, and driving (without GPS) was easy. We drove from Geneva to Bern in the afternoon, and I remember the shock of entering Bern, discovering that we were now in the German-speaking part of Switzerland, and finding that German was not a language I was prepared for. The husband of course points out that he feels like this in most non-English-speaking countries, with the exception of Thailand, and doesn’t understand why it is a shock to me.
I had that same feeling of disorientation about two hours after leaving the apartment. We crossed the border – well prepared, having bought the requisite Vignette for driving on the highways at an Italian autostop on the highway earlier – and suddenly, we were aliens! But soon we could see that the highway wasn’t as busy as the Italian autostradas, and our destinations were well signposted. And the scenery opened up. Any feelings of disorientation were quickly replaced with delight, and self-congratulations on our decision to stay the night. (At first we thought we’d go just for a day. But we started looking at the maps, estimated how long it would take us, and would it give us enough time to see what we wanted to see, and importantly, to spend time with the friends we planned to meet. So the night before we left, we got onto the internet, and booked a hotel. It was the right decision.)
We left the highway just past the capital city, and found ourselves driving through lovely countryside, crops in the fields, hay racks, and small villages with elegant churches. There were mountains to the north, and vast swathes of forest, real forest, thick forest, Red Riding Hood forest that looks like the Big Bad Wolf is lurking nearby.
And soon we reached the small and beautiful town of Skofja Loka, about 20 kms out of Ljubljana. Yes, if you haven’t guessed we were in tiny Slovenia. It is a small country, but – like the friends we had gone to meet – it is very welcoming. We spent a wonderful day with them, learning about Slovenia, life under the communists when it was part of Yugoslavia, independence, and life now. We explored their home town, talked and talked, and they kindly provided lots of advice for our drive back to Italy the next day.
We left late in the afternoon, heading into Ljubljana, for an evening stroll around the elegant centre of the city. It was warm, crowds of locals and international tourists were out, buskers entertained, and the cafes, bars and restaurants along the river were packed with people enjoying the evening. An after dinner gelato was the perfect ending to a great day.
Slovenia is very much part of Europe, just south of Austria (once part of the Austro-Hungarian empire), and neighbouring Italy. The lack of border controls (since Croatia joined the EU in July this year, the country now has no land border work for a thousand customs/immigrations officers), and the use of the euro – unlike our detour earlier in the month to Switzerland – made it very easy for us to pop into the country for a day or two. The ease with which Europeans can visit different countries is very strange for island dwellers like us. But it is one of the charms of visiting Europe, crossing borders easily and finding different languages, geography, food, culture, politics and history.
Our second day in Slovenia involved driving north. We took our time, popping in to see a church near where our friends plan to build a house, and stopping to see the famous Lake Bled, with its lake, island in the middle, and castle on a cliff. In the summer, the water in the lake is a warm 23 degrees. It looked an idyllic place to swim. But I need say no more about stunning Lake Bled. After all, picture, thousand words, etc.
We took our time leaving Slovenia. We stayed off the autostradas, and enjoyed the very scenic Vrsic Pass, very close to the border with Austria. The Italian Front of the First World War moved across this whole area back to Vittorio Veneto (where we were staying), and the road across the pass was built by Russian prisoners of war in 1915. It would have been anything but easy labour, on the steep slopes and in the depths of winter. We passed through ski villages, and now, in the height of summer, the pass was filled with motorcyclists loving the thrill of the bends, cyclists (sources of admiration and disbelief) climbing to 1600 metres and cruising back down the other side, and tourists there to enjoy the scenery. There were few spots to stop to photograph the scenery, so you shall have to take our word for it that it is beautiful. We picnicked near the top of the pass – enjoying a famous Lake Bled Cream Cake which is (for my kiwi readers) essentially a perfect South Canterbury custard square, without the icing, but with the decadent addition of whipped cream between the custard and the pastry top – before we continued along the windy roads, envying the many tourists staying (as we wished we could) and walking the many trails in the mountains and through the valleys alongside fast-running rivers. Finally, another pass took us back into Italy, where we relented and rode the autostradas again. We only stayed a night in Slovenia, but wished we had stayed more. From travellers, that’s the highest compliment we can give.
“Three months in Italy!” friends exclaimed. “You’ll be fluent after that!”
I sighed then, and I sigh now, even more so. Fluency is very difficult to achieve in any language. I have spent four years living in Thailand, and whilst I became comfortable enough in the language, I know I was far from fluent. Fluency seemed to recede further into the distance like a mirage; the more I learned the more I knew fluency was a long way off. Likewise, a year studying Mandarin full-time saw me with a good stock of characters and language, the equivalent of a degree major in Mandarin, but I always lacked the comfort I had in Thai. Of course, fluency means different things to different people, and whilst I dream of achieving a higher degree of fluency in any language, a comfortable ability to express myself in most everyday situations is all I want to achieve now. And I know how difficult it is to do that. And how unlikely I am to even get close whilst here in Italy.
Once we knew we were coming to Italy, I started teaching myself some of the language. I dug out an old Italian conversation book I had purchased for our first visit to Italy 15 years ago. But it is now 2013, and so I also downloaded as many (mostly free) apps as I could find for my iPad, and a couple for my cellphone. I started with the basics, and started learning a bunch of verbs, as I prefer to know “doing” words than a bunch of boring vocab giving me the words for professions (especially given our current employment situations), or for subjects studied at school (language courses are directed at young students, not middle-aged matrons), or for various body parts (if they hurt, I will point!). I lay in bed on cold Sunday mornings memorising verbs, and practising vocab, and shaking my head at the vagaries of Italian grammar and conjugations.
Then we arrived in Italy. I stammered and my mind went blank in the first week. So I organised a few lessons, and got the much needed practice that gave me more confidence to try speaking it, and that explained some of the grammar that confused me. And speaking even the basics (though I’ve pretty much given up on the possibility of ever being able to roll my Rs in the Italian way) became easier.
And as I spoke, and listened, I smiled at the Italians who wanted to try out their English, and had several conversations at the market or in restaurants where I spoke Italian and they spoke English. I got frustrated at the Italians who panicked when they saw me (an obvious foreigner) approach them, and refused to talk to me, instead rushing off to get a friend, colleague or family member to speak English to me. (Especially when I knew I could conduct the transaction in Italian.) But I really loved the Italians who gently corrected my grammar or vocabulary (a surprising number), whilst appreciating the effort I was making. Who knew that the Italians, who seem to think rules are made to be broken, would be such sticklers for correct pronunciation and grammar?