Loose Women and Feta Cheese

I arrived home from a morning in the office where I was split between my Italian colleagues and my English clients. Three and a half hours of swapping business style and language can really be quite taxing. The English way is calmer and quieter whereas the Italian style, albeit laid back has lots of physical gestures and elevated vocal intonation. So after the 20 minute drive home, I kick off my shoes and decide to have a chilled out lunch.

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Being Britalian can often crop up unexpectedly as it did today. I hate food waste and there was a pot of sauce surplus to requirements from a cauliflower cheese we had a week ago, so I retrieved it from the freezer before leaving for work and it was now defrosted. I put some pasta on to cook and added the cheese sauce to some chopped speck, creating a British-Italian fusion. I open the fridge and notice the Greek feta that’s sitting there and so I crumble some into the sauce and let it just start to melt before adding it to the pasta.

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So with a bowl of hot cheesy pasta in my hands I switch on the television and eat. A UK programme plays. Loose Women; a show where four celebrity women chat about a range of topics from gun crime to weak bladders is the background hum as half molten feta adds lovely salty pockets of flavour to the dish and my brain takes a back seat as I eat my Italian-English-Greek fusion lunch.

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An Italian Day

A friend once mentioned to me that her neighbour went to the market or local shop everyday to buy provisions for that day’s lunch or dinner. She told me that if she did a weekly shop then she’d save herself a daily trip to the shops. I thought about this and spoke with an Italian friend about it and her reply was, “Of course we shop everyday, that way we know we have, cibo più fresco.” PING! on went the ‘of course’ light. In a society where seasonal is important, women have shopped daily for years to make certain they purchase the best and freshest produce.

Often people comment that Italian’s appear to be chaotic and disorganised, but that’s far from the truth. Italian’s are very organised in their day to day lives and as I think back to how my day has been today I realise I’ve adapted to some of these daily rituals easily and without actually thinking about it. So here’s a typical Britalian day for me and how it mirrors that of my Italian colleagues and friends.

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My day starts with strong black coffee and after breakfast I set off for work. Today I drive up into the mountains as I’m visiting the town of Torricella Peligna to take photos of an apartment that is being put up for sale. I have a pleasant morning with the owner and get the shots required to market her apartment. The sky is as clear and blue as a Ceylon sapphire as we leave the town and below us the road twists and turns through the countryside, with its patchwork of fields and olive groves. The car’s windows are open and the scent of jasmine is drawn inside making this journey a feast for the senses. We pass through the town of Roccascalegna and decide to drop in to check all is well with some new clients who purchased a house a few months back. I find that Sue, Keith and their beautiful daughter Sophie are settling in to their house well and are becoming happily embroiled into their Italian community.

It’s now one o’clock and time for that important of daily Italian customs, lunch.

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We drop into our local restaurant which is already filled with diners and after a ten minute wait we’re seated and ordering. Italian lunch is the most important meal of the day, it’s not to be rushed, it’s meant to be eaten in a relaxed manner to aid digestion. In complete contrast to the meagre Italian breakfast lunch is substantial. I order my primo;  chitarrina allo scoglio, a pasta dish made with the local Abruzzese square shaped spaghetti. The mussels and clams are sweet and the broth that lurks under the pasta has the fragrance of the sea. Around us the other diners are eating, drinking and chatting at a leisurely pace. Lunch isn’t something that should be rushed in Italy. More white wine: ice cold and fizzing in the carafe is delivered to our table and our dishes are cleared away in readiness for the secondo.

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Being an Italian restaurant there’s a television mounted on the wall and muted news reports are playing as the waiters clear tables and redress them in around 40 seconds for more waiting diners. My secondo arrives, a plump piece of salmon dressed simply with olive oil and a slice of lemon. My contorno (side dish) is slices of fresh tomato and wafer thin rings of red onion.

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Workers look at their watches in a relaxed manner, no one is rushing to get back to work yet; after all the standard time given over for lunch is two hours. I check the time and order coffee and stretch my arms above my head feeling happily full.

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After my two hour repast and having paid my €10  we leave and I go back to work. My afternoon is taken up with admin until it’s time to pack away the office for a few minutes and head off to the cantina. A short drive later, I’m loading boxes of wine into the boot of the car and I’m almost ready to leave when the assistant calls me over and gives me two free bottles of wine and tells me to have a good evening.

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Generosity seems to be an intrinsic part of the Italian psyche as is their cordiality, it’s customary to be told to have a good day, a pleasant evening, buon pranzo (have a good lunch) and all other manner of well wishes throughout your day. These salutations are never forced and they’re always received and reciprocated in a genuine way. I’m happy to say that there’s none of that dictated corporate bonhomie in Italy.

Back home, it’s time to sample the wine and a glass of excellent red is poured as I check the last of the emails for the day before setting off for the evening stroll in readiness for dinner. Passeggiata, the Italian custom of a stroll before dinner is a perfect way to catch up with gossip, and as soon as you get into the habit you realise it’s a perfect way to integrate with your community, it’s a sort of walking adhesive.

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It’s now around 8pm and the cars have started to arrive at the local restaurant, the tables outside are populated by people drinking aperitivi as the waiters finish setting up for the evening service. And all over Italy people are preparing for dinner, the same way it’s been done throughout generations.

When the Words Fall Out

I’ve posted short pieces previously about not being a native speaker in my adopted country and that the Italian language can at times lead to hilarious circumstances or great confusion. I’m happy when Italian’s praise me on my command of their language, and do find it easier now after several years to hold more than basic conversations. Partly this is due to my working in an office where 75% of the staff don’t speak English, (apart from the few, less than glamorous English words I have taught the boys). I’m equally proud when English people comment on my language skills; however sometimes I do feel like a fraud as I’m not as accomplished as they perceive me to be. But every day brings new vocabulary and a better understanding of those pesky irregular verbs. Only last week in the office I needed a pair of scissors and Nicoletta was on hand to tell me they are called, forbici

Then there’s those pesky words that trip up foreigners, words like, pesce (fish) and pesca (peach), the amount of times I heard an English person in a restaurant ask what’s on the peach menu is innumerable. Recently I fell victim to these tricky nouns: I was offered a coffee and biscotti by a lovely couple whose house I was showing to clients, I accepted the coffee but told them I’d already had breakfast so would pass on the biscuits. The man then asked me what I’d had for breakfast, and I replied that I have the same thing everyday, an egg. However as the Italian for egg is, uova and grape is uva and my pronunciation was lacking that morning, he assumed by grape I meant I have wine for breakfast, which he and his wife found most amusing.

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The most frustrating part of learning a second language is those days when the words fall out. Some mornings it’s as if I’ve woken up and parts of my stored Italian lexicon have fallen out of my ears during the night. For example this week I had a morning when I couldn’t recall the Italian for the word, who and yesterday I’d misplaced the word for, lost.

Another moment was when out one evening in L’Aquila we stopped to get some take away food and I asked for some salad, however as we were in polite company I didn’t want onions and despite foraging through the deepest recesses of my brain the word just would not come, so I ended up with onions, and onion breath all evening.

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There’s also those other moments when the words fall out, usually after too many glasses of wine the night before or a plethora of Peroni. I’m certain that under the influence my language skills are still adequate (although this could be disputed) but the next day I seem to have left great reams of words and whole sentences on the pillow.

This said, I have come to the conclusion that on the whole people are very forgiving of foreigners who mangle their language. I’ve found all of the Italian’s I have come into contact with very helpful and polite and I’m sure this can be said of most people regardless of their country. Unlike years ago in France when I went to buy a loaf of bread. The French shop keeper huffed and puffed before pedantically telling me my pronunciation was wrong. Needless to say I didn’t buy her bread.

No doubt as I continue on my journey with the Italian language there’ll be many more moments where the words fall out or my flat Northern vowels scramble what is in essence a beautifully lyrical language.

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Everyone knows that the Italians are an expressive race of people who talk loudly whilst waving their hands about furiously. This isn’t a stereotype it’s true.

Now I’m also working in an Italian office I get to see documents and I noticed that there’s quite a prolific uses of exclamation marks, especially in English translations.

Seems like the Italian people write as they speak, expressive and waving their hands wildly in print form.

Flat Out

The magazine I work for is having a grand re-launch following a take-over and a make-over. The result being, my workload has increased, which isn’t a problem as with winter approaching I wont be subjected to the desire to go to the coast. Okay, I lie a little. Yes, there will be days when all I want to do is sit looking out over a throbbing grey sea rather than be tapping at my laptop, but these days will be few and far between though. so, (hopefully) I will be able to use my time productively.

My editor has asked me for my next three-month work schedule, this entails pitching all the new stories well in advance, discovering the ones the magazine wants me to write and setting my copy delivery dates in stone. I have finally organised a schedule and hopefully if I can follow this, I will know what type of feature I need to submit at any given time each month. The new regime means I can work out how much time I need to devote to each article each week, and maybe even build up a bank of non-specific date related features to help me out when procrastination creeps up on me.

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My OCD managed to have a hand in the planning, and categories soon became colour coded.

Non-Fiction writing is a fine balance between research and writing, too much research and you can become so bogged down that you delay the actual act of writing as you sift through all the facts that you have collected. Too little and your work will be flimsy and have no guts. So when do you know when you have enough research? – that’s a tricky one. For me it is when I have all the things I want to say at my disposal and looking for any more will over-complicate the story. For example, a piece I’ve just completed about visiting the catacombs in Rome features the important things readers need to know; where, when, how and who and yes a little history to colour the required word count.

Interviews can be tricky things, you have to initially ask some standard questions, then from these you can build up an idea of how you want the interview to go and ask questions that are specific to your idea and the client. Some people can be hard-work and you can be emailing backwards and forwards reams of questions before you get anything worthy of writing up. Some people however can be a joy, I have just interviewed a young man in Piemonte and it turned out he was a snowboarder and also enjoyed big Italian family gatherings around Christmas. Perfect for the December issue. The Only difficult thing about interviews is the restructuring of some sentences to fit them into the body of your piece without losing the meaning and truth of your interviewee.

Of course the iPod shuffles in the dock, I need the constant buzz of background noise when I’m working, for some reason it stops me being distracted, well that is until something like, Taste in Men by Placebo starts to play, and I have a stretch, remove my reading specs and sing along, as the dogs look at me as if to say, ‘the human has gone mad again’

Sound and Vision

Monday morning has arrived, the Monday morning we tackle the back garden. The iPod shuffles and Downtempo, by Scouting for Girls plays as Seppe arrives to give us the benefit of his landscaping wisdom. With over forty-years of professional gardening experience, we really do need help. So far whenever asked what we’re doing at the back of the house, the answer has been, bit of hard landscaping and a patio, possibly gravel. In short we haven’t a clue what we want, let alone how to tackle the mess of rubble and encroaching wilderness.

Seppe looks at the area and is very soon calling out instructions which we follow. A frame is constructed which will be the main patio area we are informed, then he talks of dry-stone walls and gravel beds and even earmarks an area for our orto. He obviously has an idea of what will work in the space we have but we still cannot see his vision. The morning progresses with the sound of voices and the clack of stone upon stone as we fill the frame with rubble. Seppe constructs a retaining dry-stone wall and pretty quickly the wasteland takes shape.

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At the end of the first day that garden has a definite shape and each section is clearly defined, days two and three are taken up with retrieving rubble that the digger driving, Toto pushed over the edge. The rubble fills the frame for the patio and is spread out to level the area that will be covered with sand and eventually gravel. I mention that I’d like a cherry tree and we decide where the best place for it would be, before day five we clear the orto area of stones. A week in and we can see how it will eventually look.

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So a week later the cement and sand is ordered alongside the fence posts and we look at recycling the old stable doors to make gates. Let’s hope the weather cools a little more this week, as temperatures of twenty-six plus are difficult to work in. Luckily for me however I have quite a large workload this month, so will be stuck inside where it’s cool tapping at the laptop, while others toils outside with stones and sunshine.

Grasshopper in the Shower

This morning, for the second time this week I’m removing a grasshopper from the shower; something I never had to do in the UK. I’m at a loss as to how they get in; the wet room is secure. Maybe they are Inverse-Houdini-hoppers who instead of escaping, negotiate impenetrable domains and trap themselves. I release our visitor back into the wild and pour hot water over instant coffee before sitting outside to enjoy the peace and quiet before work begins again inside the house. The dogs join me, panting after running down the bottom of our wilderness: Alfie as usual is covered in sticky-buds, Olive doesn’t have a single one attached to her fur: I wonder if out of sight of humans, she’s picking them and throwing them at him.

As I sit here, I think back to how things were when work on the house started back in April, we’ve achieved so much in short space of time. We are now at the stage where we’re just finishing off jobs, mostly the ones our errant builder failed to complete. We have the second bedroom floor to lay and some cement work to complete before the arrival of my ex-wife’s son, (who we’ll call step-son for the purpose of the blog) arrives for a six week stay.

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My morning sit on the patio gives me time to reflect upon things, and be thankful for what I have. I’m lucky enough to be mortgage free, I have sufficient money to sustain myself for the next few years and I’m happy I can earn a crust doing what I enjoy doing. I’m thankful for having worked all my life in an industry that I chose to be in rather than just earning to live. Something few people are able to say.

Thinking this way makes me think about, Natalie Částka, a talented actress I had the pleasure of working with in the past and how she looks at her life and career. An actors’ life isn’t all ‘Hi diddle dee dee’, it’s fraught with meagre job opportunities, rejection, and disappointment, long hours and poor pay. But Natalie always remains up-beat even on her down-beat days and continues to persevere while others have fallen by the wayside.  I’m not talking about chasing your dream, I saying it’s all about never giving up. Natalie, never gives up, and is at the moment, in the enviable position of being able to turn work down and choose from the offers coming her way. She’s also about to go over the the USA to perform there.To find out more about Natalie’s career visit her blog: Click here.

I wanted to be here in Italy, I wanted to be self supportive and I wanted to be happy, all of which I am, because even in the face of adversity I never gave up. Maybe it’s the same grasshopper that gets into the shower, perhaps he’ll never give up getting in, and I’ll be destined to pop him outside time after time