The dreaming and planning phase, the anticipation, of travelling or moving abroad is often quite exquisite. Everyday life on the opposite side of the world is never quite as glamorous as you’d imagined.
Instead, every day in southern Italy is a combination of all the normal things in life, with a layer of contraction and confusion hovering like a rising fog. Add to that the sharp zaps of culture shock, moments of pure delight, irrational frustration and the fatigue that comes from living in a foreign culture with a foreign language and you start to get an insight into our daily lives.
In September, Miss S started school at a local primary school. She’s in Grade 5 in a village school of 200 children. A very similar size to her former rural school in Australia.
The major point of adjustment for Miss S has been the differences in physical spaces. In Australia the school was situation on 40 acres, with ample green spaces, football fields, outdoor obstacle courses and playgrounds. With two scheduled meal breaks, there was plenty of time and space for Miss S and her school friends to run around, play and get some fresh air and exercise.
By contrast, her Italian school has no green spaces. There is an indoor gymnasium, and a small concrete courtyard. On the first day, she came home to report that she had been reprimanded for running around in the courtyard and was bemused about the fact that the students are only permitted to walk in this space. There are also no scheduled play breaks. School commences at 8.30am, they squeeze in a ten minute at your desk food break, and finish at 1:15pm when everyone spills out of the front doors eager to get home to a home cooked lunch.
Most days we walk Miss S to and from school, a seven-minute stroll from our apartment in the historical centre, across the bridge with the amazing view of Sant’ Agata de’Goti, greeting locals and shopkeepers as we go.
Gigi and I are both working part time, mostly in the nearby large city of Caserta, about a 25-minute drive. With one vehicle, and an obligation to be present at the school at 1:15pm for the end of the school day, we juggle work and parenting.
In Australia, most families know the evening debate about ‘What are we going to cook for dinner?”. In Italy, that happens twice a day. A cooked lunch for most people revolves around a pasta dish. The list of potential pasta dishes and recipes is almost endless. Dinner generally focuses on meat/fish and vegetables. And not just British style throw-them-in-a-pot-and-boil them vegetables. Italians love ‘contorni’ – side dishes of seasonal vegetables lovingly cooked and prepared to highlight the flavour.
Shopping is an everyday habit for many people, as they pick up the supplies that they need for that day’s meals. Shopping every day drives me insane, but with a smaller fridge and kitchen, we still generally need to go to the supermarket twice a week in addition to our routine Sunday market visit for fresh produce.
We both enjoy cooking and embracing the local produce as the seasons change has been a joy. The local Annurca apples are just coming back into season, pomegranates are busting at the seams on the trees and the autumn leafy greens grown in the volcanic soil are once again providing hits of iron. We raided local fig trees in late August and attended a chestnut festival recently. Locals are hiking into the mountains seeking out the edible mushrooms. It’s time to harvest the olives. Italians take growing, foraging, gathering, selecting, cooking and eating food very seriously. Do not be mistaken. It is THE reason why many of them don’t really travel, and why so many foreigners find themselves returning or staying.
In contract, our household continues to be a multicultural food environment. Certainly not as varied as when we live in Australia as it is less convenient to source international foods in Italy. But in addition to Italian, we enjoy Japanese, Mexican and Thai, and having a break from daily pasta feels like a treat. Breakfast is sometimes in accordance with the local custom of milk and biscuits, but other days it’s an egg and bacon burger.
Most afternoons revolve around a cooked lunch and some down time for Miss S. We have decided to continue with her Australian distance education schooling to maintain her English and Maths. This term she’s also doing an Art subject online. Managing these lessons, her Italian homework, outside time and time to craft, read, play and chill see the afternoons disappear quickly.
We eat a lot earlier than most families, a hangover from Australia, and our preference to get Miss S into bed by 8:30pm. Everything happens later in Italy. On school days lunch is eaten at about 2pm. In many households, dinner is at 8:30pm and consequently bedtime is later. The only thing that doesn’t change is the need to drag children out of bed at 7am to get them to school on time. I still haven’t decided if Italian children just function on less sleep, or are often just overtired, or if they manage to enjoy afternoon naps.
We whimsically recall afternoon naps from Miss S’s time as a toddler. Since then, no amount of persuading and explaining, or lying down together in the afternoon while she thrashes about like a fish out of water, has convinced her that an afternoon nap is a good idea. She will reluctantly lie down and ‘rest’ (read a book) on those days when we are planning to venture out to attend a festival. They festivities never really kick off before 8pm, with the music and dancing starting at 10pm. Local children run around in packs until the wee hours while their parents socialise, dance and eat. But the cultural adjustment to staying out late to be able to participate in these festivals, or even a meal out at a restaurant, is something that Miss S is still coming to terms with.
We speak a mix of English and Italian at home. Having attended school for about 7 weeks now, it’s obvious that Miss S is learning Italian at a faster rate, although she remains reticent to use it at home much. Some days I catch her speaking to me in complete, correct sentences, and then other days she insists on only using English.
The days are much shorter now with winter approaching. It’s cool enough in the mornings to warrant a jumper or a jacket, although many Italians are now wearing jackets and long sleeves all day despite the temperatures reaching the mid 20’s during the day. We experience foggy mornings, and the locals talk of the snow that fell in the town last year. Miss S is eager to experience the snow, with the added benefit of the school potentially closing.
So, while life has settled down into a routine with school, work, daily chores and errands many things present challenges that leave me feeling shy and uncertain. Every day, we each experience something that makes us feel uncomfortable. Maybe it’s the language, bureaucracy, the culture or a hint of discrimination or sexism. And every day we experience something benign; a conversation, a new discovery, a delight of the senses. Those experiences meld together each day as we retreat to the comfort and familiarity of our apartment and family life. In the end, I’ve come to recognise that the initial sense of anticipation during the planning phase has now led to these moments, and these memories.