Sunday, 12 December 2010

Christmas Special

I am walking through the centre of Milan at 6.10pm on a Saturday. It is pitch black. There is an enormous crowd in front of the Duomo. What the hell is going on? Why can't I see anything and why are there so many people here? Then I see a sign advertising a "light show" at 6pm. I decide to hang around. Nothing happens. It really is very dark. We go to the English pub "The Football".

The next day I'm still asking "Where are the Christmas lights"?  What's up with Milan? It's a really poor effort. The street decorations that they do have look like giant chicken nuggets and they don't even light up.  The Christmas market isn't a patch on the one in Trento either. The metro was insanely packed when we went because people from all over the place come to have a look at the "Oh Bei Oh Bei". This is an ancient Christmas tradition here, and is supposed to sell all sorts of exciting christmassy artistic things, but this year they decided to move it away from it's home in the atmospheric Sant Ambrogio and put it in front of the Castle. It was a  bit of an anti-climax, a few white tents selling things that had very little to do with Christmas, (bed side table lamps and buddhas of all things). They did at least have hot chestnuts.

Christmas here is more about the eating and the presents than carols and fairy lights. The shops are heaving and everyone's favourite topic of conversation is the perennial question "Which is better, pandoro (a sweet bread with icing sugar) or panettone (a sweet bread with dried fruit)?" Everyone has long made up their minds about the answer (panettone)  but everybody argues about it every year anyway.

Another thing Italy is really into are nativity scenes. Any self resepecting town has an enormous life size nativity scene with at least 10 characters. Any self respecting family will DIY their own. The shops are even selling mini bags of hay, moss and gravel. My friend M's parents have one that takes up two tables with easily a 100 parts to it.

Oh, and by the way, if an Italian goes to the trouble of writing a Christmas card you should for heavens sake keep it. The first Christmas I came to Italy I caused great offence by throwing the tag on my present in the bin a few days later, where it was discovered by A's distraught father. With hindsight, I now understand the 20 minute negotiations and agonising that A and his sister went through when writing Papa's birthday card. He'll probably keep it for twenty years. 

I know, I know, I'm sorry. I'm such a heathen. What can I do though? I can't help being English! I haven't yet spent Christmas in Italy so I have done a little interview with A to satisfy your curiosity instead...

L. "You eat Christmas dinner on the 24th don't you?"

A. "Yes, you eat your Christmas dinner on the 24th, pasta, fish (fried or in the oven) then you go to mass, then you go to sleep, then you open your presents, (well there are two versions, you might open your presents and and then go to bed) then you go to lunch and have something meat based. You usually eat a lot and end up with panettone."

L."Do you eat in the evening as well?"

A: "Well, I usually go to my rich uncle's and we eat sweets and panettone, but then last year I went to my trendy uncle's and we drank champagne and ate panettone."

I hope that was informative. Buon Natale!

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

The Silly Season

I think the winter's getting to us. The cold weather is bringing out a little crazy in everybody. Take today for example. I went swimming this morning in the snow. I'm not the kind of person that goes exercising let alone walk to the swimming pool in the pouring snow.

Then, as happens post physical activity, my blood pressure and sugar took a sudden nosedive in the afternoon so I dizzily made my way to the nearest bar and had a quick caffe macchiato. I also got a "takeaway" marocchino for my boss in the smallest plastic cup you have ever seen because she too is suffering from silly-seasonitis and claimed it would be "more substantial" than a simple espresso. As I made my way back with my tiny take away, complete with mini tin foil cap and sachet of sugar, a man said "ciao" to me and then quickly "Simone arriva questa sera. Vero?" Who the hell is this is, I thought, he must have mistaken me for someone else. "Non ti conosco" ("I don't know you" - with the familiar you) I said quite abruptly and sailed on my way.

Sh*****t. Simone. That would be my next student. And that would be his father I was just quite rude to. I appologised twice. I might appologise again next time I see him.

A's Mum has caught the bug as well. She, like every member of A's family is super excited about the royal wedding, and she like everybody else seems to think I have must have more up-to-date information than she does because I am English. Her Christmas present request, nay, demand, is...wait for it... a bag of tetly tea and a snow globe with William and Kate.*

I think the silly season prize however is awarded to A's Dad. We all know he's a little right wing, (he votes for Mr B. because he doesn't like communists). Hit lastest outburst on Romanians (a communist people) went, in English, something like this, "Those bl**dy Romanians, coming to our country with all their Christmas trees. Christmas is starting far too early these days!"

I let out a rather unbecoming shriek of laughter and his girlfriend and son did get him to admit that it was a bit unfair but it was very funny. Having been mistaken for a Romanian myself once in a hairdressers (a long story) I've heard quite a few things that Romanians have been blamed for but this was by far the most original.

May the silly season bring you all the best that it has to offer. Pinchpunchfirstofthemonthblackandwhiterabbitsandnoreturns.

*Please, please, if anyone sees one of these I will be very very grateful if you could let me know.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

I Love Dinosaurs

Aia! Last night we went to see our new landlord to sign the contract for the new house. The man can talk. He told me in English that he likes to "chatter" and certainly he does. After about an hour there it was about 10pm and he had only just asked us if we would like to see the contract.
Would we?
Yes we would!
We didn't get home until 1am.

He's been very kind actually, despite his verbosity he seems like a nice chap; thorough to the extreme but perhaps that's not such a bad thing when we're looking at contracts.  He took a shine to A and I when we went to look around and so he's holding the flat for us for a month so that we don't have to pay two rents.

Fortunately we signed the contract before he discovered I'm not free at the moment to teach private lessons. He wants me to teach his daughter and her friends after school. This week I organised my first one and it finishes at 9pm. I don't think I want too many more. Socialising is difficult this year!
(Sorry peeps. You are all just going to have to stop working mornings like me and we can have some fun.)

Obviously all these mornings free are very nice for lie ins and a good compensation for working evenings but on my own I seem to be watching far too much America's Next Top Model. I think I'm addicted (especially after watching them get helplessly lost in Milan - come on guys the metro's not that complicated!). I need help because there are 15 seasons and I've still got.... 13 and a half seasons left to watch...

If only it would stop raining. Still that's not preventing me from exercising. I have been learning and choreographing some wicked new songs to use with the students. The Octopus one gets us all out of breath (a lot of wiggling and squiggling) but I have a feeling it's nothing compared to the new Dinosaur song that is brewing.

As I stood in my empty classroom at 2pm, bored, I decided to work out the moves for it and learn the tune. Was so busy working out how to work in "The dinosaurs were big and fast" with some amazing T Rex style moves (to be done in a circle with preferably at least 8 kids) that I forgot the windows are big.

Outside there was a middle aged lady waiting for someone. She was watching me. She was not amused. It took the wind out of my sails. Briefly.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Madonna with Cat

This week I have been reading The Story of Art and I particularly liked this picture. It made me want to paint a golden madonna of my own with awkward perspective.

The inspiration was found in a picture of A's sister with (deceased) cat Micky.

The cat was so hard to draw I had to grid it up to get it right. I thought the sheer quantity of cat paintings by amateur artists meant cats are easy to paint. I was wrong!

I chose my colours.

I painted in my tones to check the balance (but forgot the floor).

I wanted gold...

...and light.

But the cat's eyes were too scary.

That's better!

Disclaimer: This blogpost has nothing to do with Italy other than the fact that the painting that inspired me was by an Simone Martini and Lippo Memmi and you can find it in the Uffizi in Florence.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

A Painting for Nonno G

Nonno G likes his bike, his vegetables and his allotment.

I started drawing this painting of an old guy A snapped in Monza in the park with his bike, but as I painted I thought more and more of Nonno G. So in a way this painting has become a tribute, if you will, to him and if you can dedicate paintings like films i would dedicate it to Nonno G.

Truth is, Nonno G isn't doing so well. For some time now he's had brain cancer. He was still out biking to the allotment but recently his lack of motor capacity has kept him in bed.

We've been going to visit him, we sit in there and ask him a few questions and try and answer them for him. He can't really talk any more other than 'si' or 'no' so whatever small talk I had is fairly useless. His dialect was always difficult to understand and it hasn't got any easier.

This time I complimented him on his shiny new hospital bed in the dining room, with it's clever raising and lowering mechanisms.
Turns out I'm not the only one to admire it. Sophia, his Granddaughter, has also got her covetous eye on it.

 "When you die Grandad can I have your bed?"

Sophia is six.

Where would he be without his women? His family are taking great care of him. His daughter is round with the three grand-kids all the time. Granddaughter II (Elena) is a comfort to him. She's always cuddling him and trying to help and making him eat. Since he has been declared terminally ill he's been very depressed and so it's great to see him smile with her.

Nonna B's got a great sense of humour and  incredible strength, literally and figuratively. She's a woman of a different world, you can see she's as tough as old boots and no stranger to hard work. She's also uncompromisingly straightforward and realistic.

Example 1) "Laura, sei ingrassata, ti sta bene."
Example 3) When Zio (uncle) had his book launch he brought back the floral table centre piece for Nonna. Unfortunately it looked a bit like something you would lay on top of a coffin. She chuckled and said she would go and put it at the head of Grandad's bed. We laughed nervously, in a "well you said it first" kind of way.

Aunty R hasn't stopped teasing him either. He kissed A's hand good bye the other day as he couldn't kiss his cheeks and Aunty R was laughing at him for pretending to be the Godfather. Poor chap. We said "see you next week" and he waved at Aunty R dramatically.

 "He wants to say 'he'll see you again if the great lord doesn't open the gates of heaven before then,'" she said with such a funny tone that even that was a lighter moment in a sad situation.

When Nonna B and Nonno G got married they were so poor that the car in the wedding photograph that they are posing with isn't even theirs. They grew up in Veneto and so Nonna B is an expert in cooking "poor people's food" as she calls it. (Nonna B was talking about feeding Germans polenta the other day while she did their washing. In my naivety I thought she meant tourists!) They often marvel to me that nowadays you can eat this kind of food in fancy restaurants. They emigrated from Veneto to Piedmont in search of work in the fields and for eventually for FIAT. They managed to get enough money and stability so that two generations on A. is the first of the family to get university educated.

Click on me

Please send them a little love. I'm sure it will be appreciated even from afar.

Monday, 25 October 2010

I can see my breath

It's a bit nippy. The cold autumn weather has arrived. It's 8c and raining. I'll be wondering what to wear today, but probably most other people in Milan will be wearing exactly the same as they usually do. The internal Italian thermostat seems to work differently to the UK thermostat. Black puffer jackets have never been so chic.

"Duh!" you say. Maybe it's obvious that in a country with hotter summers people would feel colder quicker but I think it's too simplistic an explanation. Milan is cold in the winter. The Alps are all along the northern edge of the city with their white spires in view  at all times of the year on a clear day. It snows sometimes, but mainly it doesn't. Instead the Po valley seems to act like a fridge where the cold air comes down onto the plains and sits. And sits. And sits.

In January and February there is an ever permanent freezing fog. It doesn't lift all day and it's thick enough to obscure the building in front of mine. The lack of wind means that some Sundays in Winter traffic is stopped in  Northern Italy to help everyone breath a little better. (I took my white coat to the dry cleaners this week and asked the lady to make it a little less grey. She told me not to worry and just to imagine what we breathe in everyday. Lovely.)

Unfairly Milan is just as bad in the summer as the Po valley, whilst being an excellent rice growing region that gives you the Milanese risotto with saffron, is very hot and humid. Anybody who can flee the city flees. So Spring and Autumn are much the best times of year to visit Milan. Last week in the middle of the day it was a warm 20c. A fine summer's day on the UK internal thermostat. Warranting a T-shirt and if you are a young male student most definitely flip flops and shorts. Here though everyone was wearing jackets and scarves, (including myself, I've got soft). But other people on the trams are already in full winter wear with kitted hats and polo necks and quilted coats.

I've come to an alarming conclusion. Italians don't have an internal thermostat. They just dress according to the date. It's late October so therefore I must be wearing winter gear. Likewise in May I got funny looks for wearing a strappy top on the metro when it was a sunny 25c. In England people would have been dressed as if going to the beach.

Indoors the story is no different. My boss has been complaining about the cold in the office. To me something that requires only a couple of layers in order to remain pleasantly cool. Since the heating has been turned on you would feel toasty in a T-shirt. I think this is because the Italian dream is to remain at a constant level of cosy warmth whatever the weather whereas in the UK people seem to believe they should always be slightly cool and that warm bedrooms are in some way unhealthy (especially people with large houses).

Or maybe I'm just over analysing the Italian love of black jackets. It's not sunny outside, but that doesn't stop people from wearing sunglasses when underground.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Makes a Change

You might have guessed from the last post that I am teaching teens now. No more primary schools. Just lovely teens. I like teens, they can sit at tables and hold pencils and find page numbers without help (mostly).

NB. I like teens in groups smaller than 4. Teens in herd mentality send shivers down my spine. A classroom full of 13 year olds takes me back to being thirteen myself and I seem to recall that it was a cruel age - remember I have to pretend that I can't understand what they are saying about me! Last week I fairly quickly sussed out that they had placed me in the category of "authority figure." I went home fervently hoping that I hadn't been placed in either of the subsections of "supply teacher" or "new teacher."

I came back the next week with the toughest attitude I could muster and spent the lesson being very assertive and mostly calm. The effort of remaining calm did give me bright red cheeks though so I was worried they weren't really falling for it.

When I came out my new colleague saw my flushed face and she burst out laughing and gave me the sympathy speech that new teachers get; the kids-are-just-worse-and-worse-these-days, the I-blame-the-parents-for not-teaching-them-how-to-behave one. This is perceived wisdom. But are they? From stories of my parents time at school I'm pretty sure that's not the whole picture.

Let's face it it's just a horrible age and none of us were delightful, cooperative, cheerful and stable. It's a case of collective amnesia. In three/four years time they'll be fairly pleasant again.

So anyway, I was starting to think that it would be OK and I could get them to respect me. We all put on some kind of professional persona at work and that's fine. (As long as it stays at work. A. keeps unnerving me lately by dropping phrases at the dinner table like, "Would you care to share your thoughts on the issue of the pear chutney?" and "Let's not allow ourselves to get sidetracked").

But then my boss spoke to one mother and the mother wasn't happy. The new teacher is too strict. Yes of course said my boss, it is the first lesson. "No, no," complained the mother, my son is used to strict teachers. She is way too harsh."

What's the expression? There isn't one. I was just a bit speechless.

Three things.
1) I am scarier than I thought.
2) Mothers and their sons. We are in Italy after all.
3) ?!

As a result of all of this effort I have been inundated with teaching dreams. They are so boring and generally revolve around nightmarish students making me wake up feeling stressed. Last night though I had the dream that was probably a combination of all the dreams I should have been having last week rolled into one. It had everything: bears, lightening, making desserts with witches, hoards of cats and tower blocks. Even Freud wouldn't want to psychoanalyse a dream that complex. Made a nice change. I'd choose being chased by bears over being chased by teens any day.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

The Fantastic Food Quiz

Before we start this traditional beginning of the year lesson there are some very important things I need to say to you.

The first is that you must come prepared to these lessons. That means come on time, turn your phones off* (at this point scrabbling in pockets occurs) with a positive attitude and your homework.

The second is that you respect the classroom. That means you put rubbish in the bin, and are careful of the paintwork. The owner is very proud of her office and I'd like to keep it that way.

Thirdly I expect you all to respect each other. That means listen. Not just to me but to each other.

Ok, good. Now you are silent and can see I can spout as many teaching cliches as the best of 'em we may begin the ENGLISH (THOUGH SLIGHTLY SCOTTISH) FOOD QUIZ EXTRAVAGANZA!

1. What two things may you add to your tea?
"Lemon" and "sugar" ? - half a point only sorry

2. At what time of day can you drink tea?
The good thing about this question is that you can not get it wrong.

3.'Tea' is another name for which meal?
Confused WTF faces. I need to reword this question. Actually I've already tried. It might just be the concept.

4. What is a traditional Sunday Lunch made of?
Favourite answer so far "porage" closely followed by "Potatoes. They eat potatoes with everything."

5. What time of day do people eat dinner usually in the UK.
Allow anything between 5-7.30. Strangely they all get this right, no doubt from having heard the horror stories.

6. What percentage of the population is vegetarian?
Hah! You don't know either. You'll just have to guestimate.

7. What is shortbread?
What now?! Pane corto?!

* I know you will put it on silent. I only said "switch it off" so that you think you win by putting it on silent.  Mwahahahahaha....

Friday, 1 October 2010

Mangia Prega Ama

I went to see Eat, Pray, Love last week, the film with Julia Roberts that is an adaptation of the book of the same name, but of course I saw it in Italian. I really loved the book so it's no surprise that I think the book is so much better, but I did enjoy myself. Partly this is because the film was torn to pieces by the critics and word of mouth here in Milan ("the worst film ever" according to the people sat next to us and my colleague's friends) so I had really low expectations.

Ok, the film lacks all the spirituality of the book, and the beginning of the film fails to explain a) why you should like the main character and b) why she and her husband are getting divorced. It also forgot to put the main plot line in where she heals herself psychologically leaving you at the end with Julia Roberts crying again and throwing a wobbly about a new relationship, so you wonder what all the eating and praying was for. But really? The worst film ever?!

I'd like to hazard a guess as to what got the Italians' goat here though. I think it would be the depiction of themselves in the film. It shows a very American vision of Rome and Italy. The beautiful old house that is falling down (I don't know about you but the Villa Borghese area to me where she stayed looked about as flash as it gets when I went to Rome), the vintage car instead of a Fiat Punto, the lovers kissing in every scene and perhaps more importantly the rather OTT Italian friends she makes. The part where the film explains some not-THAT-common hand gestures was enough to make even me cringe for them.

It's a shame really because people were really excited when Julia Roberts came to eat in the infamous pizzeria in Naples where they make the best pizza in Italy dirt cheap. Imagine their dismay when the Swedish friend actually contemplates NOT EATING her pizza. No, some things just push the boundaries of credulity too far.

Still, other eating parts were spot on. Never has a film made me so hungry and inspired by endless tasty dishes. I came out of the cinema craving a nice plate of pasta and having totally forgotten that I live in Milan now after being absorbed in the film for an hour and a bit. It was a bit of a shock to find myself in front of the Duomo. I was in Italy. But I don't think my Italy is anything like Julia Robert's Italy.

No, in my Italy, to my horror and recent discovery, there is NO SUCH THING as the minimum wage.

Random Film Fact for Men Who Like Random Film Facts: The man who plays Julia Robert's language exchange partner was on Italian Big Brother.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Autumn Adoration

Every so often I get cravings for the mountains. This last week it has been particularly strongly in the form of the Dolomites. I really miss them! It doesn't take much to spark the longing: a few too many weekends in Milan, Nonna B's autum themed table cloth, a plateful of pasta with funghi, or even an email from my former boss sending me overdue paperwork.

This time last year I moved to Italy to a little town northwest of Venice. It was without a doubt the most beautiful place I have ever lived. Unfortunately I was quite often very lonely, so a move to Milan to be with A. was necessary for my weight if not my creativity. I had a lot of time on my hands by myself and I was bursting at the seams with creativity. I took tons of photos, sketched, did yoga every morning in the garden (!), and even wrote poems.

These poems I wrote for myself on a whim to capture a moment, but perhaps anybody who loves nature, almost to the point of shamanism, like me, might like them too.

I would like to be a mountain

Carpeted, a handmade rug of red and green and yellow.
The clouds caress your middle
and you rise up
beautiful and immense in your perfect creases.

Keep the leaf blowers at bay

I make my way through the hospital, entranced
The sun has gone but the trees have absorbed its gold
radiant, they light up path.

The leaf blowers are busy in their futile task
shuffle and sigh
the dry leaves flutter down
pitter-patter as they tumble down the hill
and mimic the rabbits and upset the crows.

Autumn Haiku

The red berries gleam,
Hot gnocchi alle zucche,
The burning mist steams.

The good news is that A has booked a Bed and Brrreakfast (for authenticity really roll that 'r') and it looks like all being well we may well be taking a quick weekend break so that we can gorge ourselves on cheese, polenta, pumpkin pasta and mountain scenery and revisit all our favourite spots and people.

Friday, 24 September 2010

Painting in Progress

A couple of weeks ago I got some new paints. Here is the fruition of this investment. After a couple of dodgy over ambitious landscapes I finally settled on a classic scene form Rome that A took in Trastevere.

Step 1. Rough sketch and lay out.

Step 2. Take picture of sketch for blog and realise that door is wonky. This is actually a great way of looking at a picture with fresh eyes. I may well do this again in future.

Step 3. Choose paints (as few colours as possible as my Art teacher taught me).

Step 4. Paint picture quickly (to avoid boredom and over working).

Ok the door is still a little wonky, but I wasn't really aiming for a photo finish. The thing that I'm most pleased with are the walls and their finishing touch - streaks of car-blue. Until I added them the car looked a bit super imposed, but it looks more anchored. In hindsight a touch more door-green would have hurt in the car blue, but I'm pleased anyway.

Sometimes, though, I think the paint pallet itself is the best looking thing to come out of it. Hmmm that gives me an idea....

Words that begin with A

It's Milan Chaos Week also know as Milan Fashion Week. I took my camera out to Duomo, but the interesting fashion people were hiding and I only saw one male model who was looking exceedingly grumpy. There are quite a lot of girls about though, tall as trees and thinner than saplings clutching portfolios. Not where I work mind you, but it does make the metro a little fuller than normal. And if having about twice the normal population on the streets wasn't enough, the metro got flooded when two of the rivers broke their banks, so I will have to be devious next week when I try and head north. I had seen the warning signs in the metro explaining something was going on but until today had no-one to explain to me what it meant. Allagamento (flood) will now be stuck in my head forever.

As will "acconto" (deposit) and "assegno" (cheque). It's enrolment time and time for me to eat some humble pie. My Italian is really not as good as I thought it was, probably because I hadn't put it in any challenging situations for a while. Got a bit sharp with one poor mother when I she asked to do "l'acconto" (deposit) and I heard "lo sconto" (discount). Oops.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Dreaming of Blue

I'm dreaming of blue. A beautiful turquoise blue. The kind of blue that fills your eyes and soul... a corsican blue!

Had just the perfect week in Corsica in and around Bonifacio. The sea was so calm and the water's so turquoise and that deep marine blue that you only see in documentaries. I learnt to swim better in these confidence giving waters to the point where I was even able to 'snorkel' a bit with goggles.

So relaxing to think of the fish feeding and the silver and rainbow colours on their flanks glinting as they edge away from me in their little shoals among the weeds. And the weeds are like the fairytale forests of folklore. You don't want to put your feet down. Who knows what's lurking?

And now whenever I get a glimpse of blue sky from the tram window, I'm back there, dreaming of blue....

Friday, 27 August 2010

The Foreigner Returns

"Stiamo aspettando un temporale che non arriva," Sweated the pregnant lady in the lift to my remark, "Umido!"

Well I had to say something. Of course it wasn't until I got out the lift that I realised I had been living up to true national character again and falling back to the weather as the one and only source of small talk. Mentioning the humidity though seemed about the only thing I could think of though as it's 32c and hot and grey and thundery and my face was pale and shiny and all my clothes were sticking to me. Still no sign of that thunderstorm.

I was going to mention the heat but then I remembered that this would be a faux pas. The milanese KNOW it's hot in August. They don't need reminding.

Indeed, what I took to be an urban legend, of the Milan City Transport Agency spraying water on hot travellers, did turn out to be true today. At Duomo the fans were covering everyone in a light spray of water. But joy of joys I was able to catch one of their new elusive air conditioned trains today!

I was getting back from a lunch break with A, who's having lazy lunches at the moment on account of everyone being away on holiday, when I witnessed the above event. It's so weird in Milan right now. The city is like a ghost town, in most parts, except the very centre which is full of tourists, and all the shops are shut. It's a nightmare trying to find anywhere to get lunch. And I write this in full awareness of my snobbery, we were reduced to getting lunch from Autogrill and Spizzico (I actually enjoyed my lunches here but shhh don't tell the Itais).

Today I ate lunch at home before coming out which was economic given that the bar we went to was probably charging about 6 euros for a piadina (a wrap). We were in the beautiful but expensive area of Milan known as San Babila. It was really nice. I don't know why I was surprised. As we were walking past the Music academy "il conservatorio" we could hear the students practising. Plus we had our hands full of shopping from the cute art supplies shop we just went to. All very much like living in a poem. I feel inspired.

Enough blogging! I have paints and paintbrushes to try out!

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

That Summer Feeling

Oops. I, like, totally, forgot to blog last week. That summer feeling I was getting irritated with my students for seems to have infected me too!

Last week the summer weather was well and truly here. It was 32c at least everyday and horrendously humid. That meant staying indoors with the blinds down and pounding headaches at the end of the day. Too hot to learn and too hot to teach. I think I understand now why they finish school so much earlier in Italy than in the UK.

My diary is almost indecipherable as my private students all variously changed their lesson times only to cancel the lessons after all. They probably don't realise that I'm not paid everytime they do this, and one lady in particular has left me at least a hundred euros short, but there's not much I can do about it. The last thing I want is an atmosphere of guilt and recrimination spoiling the lessons and encouraging them to cancel next year. I smile sweetly, tell them it's not a problem and try to remind myself that "true wealth is the ability to let go of your posessions," or so says the random 'yogic' chocolate teabag on my desk.

Anyway, it looks like next year things might be different. Despite A's stress and flipflopping over his job, it looks like I will still be in Milan afterall. What is more, the school will have brand new premises with classrooms, and I have been asked to do some afternoon classes there. It sounds like I might also be getting paid a monthly salary too, so will perhaps be able to stop worrying about cancellations and postponements from a financial point of view. Will be meeting my boss tomorrow to sign the contract, I believe, so fingers crossed for a good pay deal.

So it's bye bye Milan and A. for a while and I'll see you both at the end of August. Don't have too much fun without me!

Thursday, 20 May 2010

The Duomo

Here are some photos of Milan's most famous landmark from my parents' visit at the beginning of May. Credit to A. for this gorgeous gothic one.

O mia bella madonnina...

Thursday, 29 April 2010

The Milan Summer Look

Dear all, it's high time for a fashion up date. I can't really believe I've spent so long (well, four months) living in the capital of fashion and failed so far to blog about it. Well, now's the time to reveal this season's trends since the sun's making an appearance more and more this past week and people are wearing their black coats less and less.

In fact it's been so warm, I regretted having a long sleeved top during Monday's fire drill, and then took the opportunity to sunbathe in a park between lessons. I even ate an icelolly, un ghiacciolo, (don't ask me to pronounce it, I'm constantly being corrected).

Unfortunately my wardrobe mainly consists of winter clothes, having moved to Italy at the end of September. This would be a great excuse to go shopping, but I'm trying to save money for a summer holiday, (Crete? Corsica? Suggestions on a post card please!), so it is with impatience that I wait for my parents to arrive for their weekend in Milan, hopefully bringing with them a suitcase of summer clothes and tea bags.

So what fashions will we be following this summer?

Well this morning illuminating the concrete jungle as I sat on my balcony in pink tracky Bs and a yellow strappy top I was imitating the Italian-Middle-Aged-Man. I.M.A.M (very unlike the model of the same name) gets to a certain age and then decides he is bored of the black suit he has been wearing most of his life and bursts out upon the world in red, orange and yellow trousers. To top off this summer look you will need to mismatch as much as possible, preferably with a velour brown jacket.

Or perhaps, as I did on Monday, you might want to imitate Poor-Extra-Communitaria-Woman fashion, which as in Russia with the elderly, involves heavy knit wear whatever the temperature. So don't worry, those cable knit sweaters you bought last winter were a great investment.

Your other option, a personal favourite, is One-Colour-Chic. This season ladies are working purple or white head to toe, and one young lady I saw on the tram was resplendent in gold jacket, trousers, belt and and bag. Extra points to her for matching her accessories. Of course this is too much for many Italians shedding their winter black and if it's too much for you, you may wish to stick to all over beige instead.

You can even his and hers. I saw the cutest geekiest couple on my way home who were perfectly matching, in beige pumps, demure knee length skirt and cardy for her and beige trousers and jacket for him.

Of course it depends who you are trying to blend in with, if you're heading to the Tibetan Buddhist Centre, as I did yesterday, you may wish to wear bright red to fit in with the monks.* However I wouldn't recommend red shoes. As I went to find my pair of red shoes at the end of the session, I was shocked to find that a large percentage of the audience were also wearing red shoes and relocating my footwear was not as simple as I had been expecting. Sometimes it's not so easy to stand out.

*Nobody actually did this.

Friday, 23 April 2010

Wounded Pride

A few weeks ago some of my youngest students refused to believe I was over the age of 18, only for the next week one of the boys to ask me if I had children and was I married. No and no.

But then, "Why not?" said he.

I was a little lost for words at this question. How do you reasonably satisfy a small child's curiosity about your life decisions without fobbing them off with a crap answer? I didn't know.

"Err, I'm too young!?"

Thinking that probably as far as history and the world at large goes I am probably one of the few women not to have children or a husband at 23 I wasn't sure if this was a good enough answer but it seemed to satisfy him, (on reflection, "my socio-cultural background makes it feel normal," would have been more accurate, but probably less satisfactory).

But then, this week, after starting to think I was getting grown up (especially after teasing A about it after his 27th birthday - he's going to be 28 next year!) I got brought straight back down to earth.

As I entered my high school the other day, like normal I wanted to use the bathroom before teaching. I was suddenly stopped by about six or seven cleaners shouting at me, "Where are you going?"

"I have English," I said, thinking I had been mistaken for a random stranger.

"No, where are you going?" They all shouted again.

"Err I need the toilet...."

"No!! No!! you can't use that toilet!!" They all shouted again and all said something very fast that I didn't understand because they were all shouting at once. (What is it with Italian cleaners and door people?!) Well I acquiesced assuming the toilet was broken and went and used the grim students toilets down the corridor.

It was only as I left afterwards that it struck me. There was nothing wrong with the normal toilets... Ladies and Gents, I had been mistaken for a naughty pupil trying to use the teachers' bathroom!

Oh the shame! My wounded vanity! It would seem I do not even look 17.

It's a ridiculous situation and it's probably going to take some time before people stop talking down to me when taking me at face value (ha ha - sorry.) No wonder teenagers find adults so irritating!

I'll just have to take comfort in the fact that it makes good blog material.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Being English

I was suffering from writers' block this week until I read my friend's blog 'English Barber or a Pissed off Patriot' so I'm taking his theme and expanding on it. Whilst he was bemoaning the lack of opportunities for feeling English in a politically correct way and looking forward to the World Cup, I'm not really suffering from the same problem. Yes I know, as Winston Churchill said, "An English man is never a foreigner. Even abroad he is surrounded by foreigners!" but when you are the ONLY English person around you do feel slightly differently.

Actually it's quite cosy. I'm snug in my little 'English person' identity. I don't need to worry what people think about me, I am an unpredictable eccentric foreigner with odd habits. And as for patriotism, well people would think you were a bit strange if you didn't love your homeland in one form or another.

After watching Crash, which by the way I wouldn't recommend watching if you were thinking about moving to California, A and I decided to lighten our moods with 'L'herba di Grace' which I assume translates as 'Grace's Grass'. A low budget properly English film set in Cornwall, widowed Grace raises money to pay for the mortgage by growing pot. The film finishes with naked police men and old ladies getting very high and dancing round the garden as the greenhouse catches fire. It's light hearted comedy England at its best.

But as A pointed out, what makes it feel really English to him is the amount of times someone is offered a cup of tea in the film. he was totally right! No Italian film maker would dream of putting that many nice-sit-downs-with-a-cup-of-tea in a film. It had completely passed me by.

What makes you truly English, it seems to me, isn't cultural symbols like red telephone boxes, but the little every day ceremonies that you never think about.

Of course being English doesn't mean the same thing to everyone. One of my primary students asked me this week, "Where are you from?" to which I replied, "England," and then to help them out with their blank looks, "Inghilterra."

Her eyes widened with a look of recognition. Then,

"Is that in Australia?"

Tuesday, 6 April 2010


The Easter feel certainly had hold of me on Wednesday as that evening I left to join the family in the traditional trip to Liguria, (how very obliging of them for them to go on holiday only two and a half hours by train from me).

Despite the delay and a slightly pungent train (smelling just like the old trains we used to get through my village where you had to lean out and undo them from the outside)I got to see the stunning views as we crossed Lombardy. Crossing the impeccably flat plains of the Po valley with the white white Alps to the right, and the lush Ligurian hills to the left; a very dramatic and implausible landscape indeed.

Of course by the time I got to Genoa it was dark as I had set off after work, which was a shame as I have a strange feeling of affinity for this town despite having never gone there in the light. Probably I should write because I have never gone there in the light, since A seems to think it would probably be a letdown. Mind you, how much of a letdown can one of the best aquariums in Europe complete with Penguins be, I ask you?

All in all my four and a half days in Liguria were excellent, lots of different types of weather complemented by lots of different types of foccaccia and icecream. The Cinque Terre are simply beautiful and I leave you with one of the best pics form the trip. What more need I say?!

Friday, 19 March 2010

The Italian way...

This week I have been mostly eating spinach. We went to see Nonna B and she gave us a huge bag from Nonno B’s allotment. She was very concerned that I wouldn’t be able to wash it, but I think I managed to persuade her I was capable...or indeed that possibly Himself was capable, but that might have been going too far for the bounds of credibility. A young man! Washing spinach! Whatever next?! Anyway the result has been that A has been very anxious to do the washing up and tomato chopping this week on account of wanting to be on the right side of feminist history.

In other news, this week I have also been doing a lot of stressing about my in-school conversation class in collaboration with an Italian teacher. It is a very noisy class and discipline is not my responsibility so I told my boss I was having problems.

My boss tried to explain it to me like this:
“It’s that you both have conflicting systems. You come from a system where there are rules and consequences. In Italy however we just scream at the children.”

The word system not exactly what I would choose there.

Need to do some deep breathing or yoga or something! Or perhaps I need to find my inner Super Nanny, which coincidently is called Tata SOS in Italian and features a blonde stunner who rides a quad bike with obligatory slow-mo for when she takes her helmet off and shakes her golden mane. Other than that though it’s pretty similar! And no, she doesn’t scream at the children even if that is the Italian way.

I have also been forced to watch Italian football coverage which is more entertaining than perhaps I should let on. The normal channels can’t show a lot of the big games so to get round this they show you a commentator watching the game on a screen that you can’t see with generic football clips shown on the screen behind him. Sometimes, if they have enough money they send a couple of commentators and fans to the game and you can watch them watch the game. The humour comes in because they are laughably unprofessional; insanely biased for whichever team they are supporting they spend ages celebrating extravagantly if their team scores. And if they are losing? Then they sit there and say nothing and sulk.

Actually if there’s one good thing about Italian telly being really rubbish then it’s that I hardly watch it. I have so much more free time. That’s why I’m writing a blog.

Friday, 12 March 2010

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Life is a Spider Diagram

Lists. Everybody loves a good list. Apparently psychologists claim this is because it gives us "an illusion of control in [our] otherwise chaotic lives." Given that I do have the impulse to write lists a recent BBC article, was a bit of a wake-up call when it comes to categorization. Trying to categorise and pigeon hole our lives is a somewhat futile task, given that even Jeremy Clarkson realised (for a moment or two) that "now I know what I know is that I know nothing at all" after trying to form an opinion on Kosovo.

Stick with me.

This week I would dearly love to tell you all about life on the milanese metro system. I have been in Milan for two months now and have clocked up many hours. The time has come to convey some vaguely amusing and interesting tit-bits, but for the life of me I can't work out how to do it without resorting to the ever so gimmicky but oddly satisfying list. Why not go with the list option, you say. But people watching - if done properly - simply isn't like that.

For a start, people are remarkably similar. Everybody sits and stares at an undetermined point somewhere past the end of their nose and gets lost in their thoughts. If they are not they are on their phones (Milan has mobile signal in the metro). Many appear to be sleeping and many appear to be on the point of falling asleep. Babies and immigrant manual workers seem to be the worst culprits for this.

Also people tend to look awfully worried, sad, anxious or downright cruel as their default expression. A rather depressing screen saver that one. I'm not sure I would have noticed it if I hadn't read a quote that Carl Jung took from a Native American Indian in an interview. The chief said that white people to him had tense faces and staring eyes. "The whites are always seeking something. What are they seeking? The whites always want something, they are uneasy and restless. We think they are mad."

Ah, good old Western civilization. But of course my next thought upon noticing this was indeed true was "Do I look like that too?" and on catching my reflection in the window one time I saw the answer is, yes. I do look a little sad on default settings. So recently I have tried to turn metro time - many hours of my week into useful time. And in trying not to let my thoughts sweep my life away, I have taken to people watching. And as most people are utterly oblivious to their surroundings it's pretty easy to do.

Milan is a great city for people watching. You have people from every walk of life. American youngsters drawling about drug-taking experiences, businessmen and lawyers, beggars with terrible limps or heavily pregnant, ladies of a certain age in fur coats, smelly men and crazy men, and unfortunately even the odd smelly crazy man. I even saw yesterday a young lady in Fendi wellingtons. Besides asking myself the somewhat obvious question of "why?!" (so I would notice them of course)I was struck by the idea of going to Fendi - maker of many a pair of beautiful heels and choosing black wellies.

Designer labels in Milan is nothing unusual and the capital of fashion naturally contains many models who of course use the metro occasionally. And they're not hard to spot. They walk on with a sort of otherworldly appearance caused by the fact that they are incredibly tall and thin and everybody is looking at them. That must really suck. They also look pretty normal (aside from the whole tall thin thing) and it testifies to the power of photo shop that I was even surprised they would look so tired.

Then, when I get bored of watching it is time to practice metro surfing - riding the jolts and bumps without using the hand grips! Actually getting pretty good now if I may say so, partly as I have no choice in the evening crush but also because I rarely step on peoples toes now.

Tomorrow I will not be surfing as there will be (another) public transport strike. I will also not be teaching, as I remember the three hour journey back in the snow only too well, and managed to get it fixed so that we could just cancel the whole damn thing. Whoop! A little break might do me good anyway. I have already written far too much for a blog post on the metro.

Friday, 26 February 2010

The Football Supporters

Oof! This has been a hard week. It’s been tough getting back into the swing of things after a week doing very little and to top it off I haven’t been feeling well. I’m a little tired and in need of some non-teaching related adult conversation, which this week came from a surprising source.

Whilst on the bus to one of my schools on Wednesday, a hoard of Inter Milan supporters pushed their way on. Packed in on all sides I was trying carefully not to step on anybody’s toes and ensure nothing was stolen from my bag or pockets. The supporter nearest me asked me how many stops to the metro for the stadium. I answered I didn’t know, probably about 6.

She says about 7 or 8,” yelled said supporter to the rest of the fans.

You’re not Italian?” he asked.

No.” I said, hoping that he wasn’t going to start a conversation.

Where are you from?” he asked full of curiosity.

England” I replied shortly but politely.

Where in England?” he continued with enthusiasm.

London,” I said, seeing my subtle hints of wishing to remain in anonymity and peace were going ignored and hoping very much this man wasn’t going to turn out to be a nutcase/creep.

Wrong answer!

Are you watching the game tonight?” he asked.

What game?” I replied. This time it was his turn to look a little nonplussed.

Inter- Chelsea!” ‘Are you really from London?' was written all over his face. At that point I relaxed and we had a really nice chat about the promiscuity of Chelsea players and their wives and Ashley Cole’s imminent divorce all the way to Lotto. He turned out to be Southern Italian, which I think would explain his disregard for Milanese bus-riding etiquette.

Football teams are like mothers. You can only have one!” he shouted to his friends joyfully, neatly encompassing two Italian stereotypes in one go.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

A Week of Carnival

As the title suggests, this week is the week of Carnevale in Italy, and also in other countries, probably by now you've all seen some of the glittery photos from Rio de Janiero. In fact most of my students were away skiing in the mountains and not participating in the festivities in Venice. So far, carnival for the majority seems to involve eating vast quantities of bugie and fritelle - deep fried and sugared goodness. Thank you nonna B!

I did consider going to Venice/Parma/Florence but the persistent cold and wet weather has really dampened my enthusiasm for sightseeing. As my fellow work-free friend pointed out, it would be much better to go when its sunny. At least that way we can look up at the buildings without getting a face-full of water.

Jaunt cancelled, we decided to do a bit of indoor-sightseeing here in Milan to combat the developing cabin fever. Our first port of call was Santa Maria della Grazie - the church that houses the Last Supper in the refectory, but the tickets were all sold out, (you need to book) so we went to the Museo Civico Archeologico instead. It was small but quite interesting. Unfortunately we didn't have a dictionary but it was quite fun making up our own explanations to the displays. As it turned out to be a beautiful sunny day in the end we finished our touristy afternoon with more carnival deepfried sugary food, tortelli di cioccolato.

And to complete our carnival experience, on the way home we got covered in 'coriandoli' (not coriander but confetti, confetti in italian being sugared almonds). I'm still shedding it now...

Monday, 1 February 2010

Milano Nel Sole

Milan. It looks so much better in the sun. There’s a stiff breeze and rays of sunlight are warming the kitchen. It makes a nice change from the grey grey fog that has been hanging over Milan for the past few weeks. That said, they did stop the traffic in central Milan yesterday due to the air pollution being so bad.

Aside from blacker lungs I have also had the time to acquire a map and a metro card and I have news for you. Milan is growing on me.

When I first came here, I wasn’t impressed at all. January cold – these are the days of the merla and concrete concrete everywhere. The outskirts of Milan, where I live, are it must be said, a bit of a dump. No restaurants, no cafes, hardly any shops, (well there is a travel agent’s) and no green spaces. First impressions did go rather against it. My housemate got mugged on the dark and lonely path. There isn’t a bakery nearby. Oh, and the place is a building site full of cranes. However I would like to point out that if you squint when you look at the flooded pit in the building site in the sun it looks like a lake, the coop is not THAT small, and there are plenty of people walking dogs after dark.

As for Milan city centre, the Lonely Planet is right when it says at first glance Milan "can appear like one of the models gracing its catwalks: great bone structure... extravagant taste and no obvious soul.” The Duomo is undeniably breathtaking and the castle and parks are very lovely. However you’d be forgiven for thinking why on earth people live in this city when it’s freezing cold and damp in winter and hot and humid in the summer. It left me cold at first, but it really does have its plus points. Here are some things I’m learning to love about Milan.

1)The city is really multiracial and multicultural. People-watching in the park and on the metro is a very rewarding pastime here.

2)There are lots of exhibitions. Including for example the one I saw by Steve Mccurry. You know him because he took that picture of the Afghan girl with the green eyes for National Geographic.

3)People are open to meeting new people. I have met some people for conversation exchange several times already.

4)The public transport system is pretty good and it only costs a euro for a single on the metro, unlike another city I could mention. Ahem *London*

5)There is aperitivo. You pay seven Euros or something for your drink and can eat as much as you want from the buffet.

6)It’s very close to the lakes of northern Italy. A day trip to Lago di Como or Lago di Garda anyone? Or would you rather spend a weekend in the mountains?

Saturday, 23 January 2010

How To Protect Yourself From The Milanesi

Come Difendersi Dai Milanesi was the name of a book that struck me in the bookshop. Although it was clearly a joke, I'm still wondering if I should buy it, but so far the Milanesi have seemed rather normal. Perhaps I'll find out soon how and why one needs to protect oneself from the people here.

I moved to Milan only two weeks ago. I had been teaching in a small school in the mountains. The people were lovely, the scenery was stunning, the cheeses were great, but still I felt in need of a social life and decided to risk it in the big city by moving in with A. I spent a week of sending out CVs to a multitude of langauge schools with a snappy introductory email. By Friday I had a job. 10 hours a week, teaching young learners to start Monday.

I had another interview (using the word loosely - "you don't seem like you want the job just for drinking money") for teaching in Milanese State schools with teenagers, but I was overcome by a strange desire to cry during the interview. My interviewer was so world weary and negative. On reflection the pay and hours were good, but when your gut says no, your gut says no. People, especially TEFL teachers that I have met so far here seem to be very negative about the city and I've heard the adjective "cruel" used more than once. Language schools won't pay you for months... They'll make you travel hours and hours all over the place...

Friday's interview was a little more productive and unexpectedly formal. I was adressed as Miss B and subjected to a sincere grilling with regards to my experience. The secretary continues to address me as Miss B even now, which makes me smile. Italian working methods are a little different from the British.

So for sure this week has been a rollercoaster. A new city with a new transport system, new students and new schools. The students are mainly 6/7 year olds doing after school lessons, but I also have a lady who I go to give private lessons. Was a bit confused to find a maid answering the door, but I can see that I am in Milan now and that things are a bit different here compared to the simple life in Veneto.

I finished my lessons with FCE preparation students on such a high on Tuesday, came back shattered on Wednesday and in the depths of despair on Thursday. Friday was make or break.

Adjusting to teaching small children after young (and not-so-young) adults has perhaps been the hardest challenge. After varied reactions to my lessons it culminated in disaster on Thursday. That day my boss did not accompany me and give her introduction and discorso sul comportimento. I was left asking the children to show me where the classroom was. Then I made the mistake of starting with a game. They were really cute and I wanted to be nice. The consequence? My authority was eroded quicker than a pair of cheap pumps from Primark. With no rules or punishments I tried to resurrect the situation by shouting at them (in English, none of the necessary Italian), but they quickly asessed that I had no real idea of my limits. Mayhem. Running, shouting, singing rude songs. 90 minutes have never lasted so long.

Fortunately no tears were shed in the classroom, well none of mine anyway, but I don't think I have ever felt so low about my ability to teach. "How did it go?" asked my new colleague, "Last year we wanted to cry after every lesson at this school," she said, "In the end I bought a whistle."



A quick word about the blogging business. Tired of filling peoples inboxes with round robin emails to keep people updated as to my whereabouts and address, I have decided to start writing a blog.*

 Since I moved to the "cruel" city of Milan, life has been throwing a lot of lessons at me right now, and I would say that this week the learning curve has been particularly steep!
A dopo!

*(A. did suggest Twitter but the gimicky character allowance drives me insane. "They could call it Twatter," he said, with a very smug smile. He's starting to get the hang of word play in English. I'm very proud of him.)