Fat in France, and other more important issues.

Something I learned very quickly, and a phrase I’ve used often since my arrival in France is j’ai trop mangé (I ate too much). This morning I decided that I was going to put the brakes on my indulgence, I’m going to learn to say ‘no’ to hot bread every afternoon, take it easy with the Nutella and banana sandwiches, return to the way life was before I had an entrée of cheese and bread and jam before every dinner. In the last three months I’ve eaten poffertjes in Amsterdam, custard tarts and paella in Portugal, pizza and gelato in Italy and countless croissants in France. I find myself complaining all the time about my expanding waistline and hearing everyone reassure me that this is what exchange is all about: eating. This morning, profiting from a rare burst of motivational energy, I got up early, ran to the Basilique de Fourvière. (Perhaps this motivation sprouted from the fact that I SHOULD be writing an essay). I came home to a healthy, high protein, zero carb lunch. While I was eating my lunch (tuna from the Caribbean, cucumber from Morocco, lettuce grown in Spain all dressed in a balsamic glaze from Italy) I read this:

http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2014/04/fund-crunch-forces-un-cut-syria-food-aid-20144851120732617.html

(Too Long; Didn’t Read: Shit is getting real in Syria and about 3million people have fled the country. Add to that the 6.5 million people internally displaced and HALF THE COUNTRY DON’T GOT NO DINNER. The UN is trying to help out, but they’re not getting enough dosh from other countries and now Syria’s neighbours are having to look after everybody. What’s so bad about that, you say? Well these countries (Lebanon, Kuwait, Jordan etc) are in enough trouble with their own broken political systems, exploitative resource ownership, inter-ethnic conflicts. NOW they are facing employment shortages and increasing rent and food prices. This makes the host country (e.g. Jordan whose population is now 25% refugees) reeeeaaaallllllly unstable and more likely to do mean stuff to other countries around them, or even to their own people, or, as occurs most often, to the refugees themselves, who already have heaps of shit to deal with of their own. In conclusion, it’s better to have an independent body like the UNHCR in there helping the Syrians than have them put pressure on their neighbours or just starve to freaking death, as is happening in their own country.)

Kuwait, a country of less than 4 million people, which sits at number 51 on the GDP index, gave $250million to help with the Syrian refugee crisis on Monday. In comparison, Australia, a comfortable 12th on the GDP index gives a total of $200million per YEAR to Africa and the Middle East COMBINED. We could split hairs for hours about the utility of the GDP index for judging the wealth of a country, the political motivations of supporting a neighbouring country’s refugee crisis and the priorities of each nation and their right to budget sovereignty. But that’s not why I’m here. I’m here to give you chocolate.

I’m going to encourage each of you to do what the Australian government won’t. Help refugees. I know these people are far away, and I know it’s impossible to understand what’s going on in entirety, but I have faith in the UNHCR and their methods of aid distribution. If I can find $30 a month to spend on ice cream, I can find the same amount of money to give to people who are starving because of a conflict that is entirely beyond their control. I’m happy to say that the charity ‘Australia for UNHCR’ was the third largest private contributor to the UNHCR’s funds. It makes sense; we’re the lucky country. Look at our pink morning teas for breast cancer, our MS fun runs, our Tim-Tams in your jim-jams primary school fundraisers. We can afford to donate and we feel good doing it. Australians dispensed more money out of their own pockets than any other nation and for that I am proud. Were you one of the generous ones?

For those of you who are here because you think refugees are draining Australia’s resources, putting pressure on our welfare system, inconveniencing our navy and just being downright rude with their reckless queue-jumping ways, I have a (somewhat farfetched) theory: if ‘boat people’ had enough to eat, a bit of shelter and the knowledge that the lovely guys in blue hats (the UNHCR) had their backs in the cushy camps set up for them in the neighbouring countries of their crumbling nation, they wouldn’t bother trekking it across land and sea to spend their life’s savings paying for a seat in a rickety boat to come here and sit in our precious (and expensive) detention centres. These people love a free ride, right? So consider your $30 a month as ‘anti-refugee insurance’. Yes, your hard work in your secure job with superannuation contributions and annual leave and free tea and coffee is paying for these bludgers to eat a minimum calorie intake every (second) evening, but it means that they stay out of your suburbs, off your bus and in their own miserable countries. You may not see the benefits right away, but you can happily tell yourself that you’ve done your bit to keep Australia how it is.

Signing up to donate will feel really good, I promise. You get a nifty little key ring and a funky badge and they send you monthly newsletters telling you all about what they’re doing with the money. If you want to, you can drop it casually into conversation on a first date to ensure that your prospective lover knows how worldy and generous you are. You can even announce that you’re “already a donor” the next time an over-enthusiastic, dreadlocked British backpacker in a Greenpeace/Cancer Council/WorldVision T-Shirt stops you in the street “just for a quick chat”. Or you can keep it to yourself and be content in the knowledge that you’re doing something good for many people you’ll never meet.

If that doesn’t convince you, I have a proposition. To sweeten the deal (literally) I’m offering something else. Send me a screen shot of the confirmation that you’ve signed up for a monthly donation of $30 or more, and I’ll send YOU a bar of chocolate, all the way from Lyon, accompanied by a letter. Now, this isn’t just any chocolate. This is chocolate topped with pink almond praline, traditionally Lyonnais. And it won’t just be any letter. It’ll be hand written, in French ink. I might even spray a bit of perfume on it before I put it in the envelope. The postage will probably cost me more than the chocolate, but hey, if I can afford to stuff myself silly as I travel Europe, whinging about how much time I’ll have to spend at my expensive gym working off all the excess calories when I finally return to Australia, I can afford to bribe you into helping the world’s displaced people have some extra rice in their bellies.

 

“Wise men [and women] plant trees under whose shade they know they will never sit.”

…    or something along those lines.

 https://www.unrefugees.org.au/donate/donate-now#monthly

AAaaaaannnnyway. If you have any thoughts to add or if you disagree with me on anything PLEASE say something. I wanna learn more about this and the best way is by having someone challenge what I think.

 

Italy (Part II: Florence and Pisa)

So I said goodbye to the boys in Bologna and took the train to Florence, enjoying more time to myself to read and think and stare out the window. I hadn’t travelled far, but as soon as I stepped off the train I could feel how different Florence is to Bologna. Even in early March, away from any of the peak tourist weeks, it was teeming with foreigners. In front of the McDonalds and the Starbucks opposite the station were market stalls selling all sorts of useless made-in-china junk, and in between these stalls stood clumps of people speaking dozens of different languages, none of them Italian. I know it’s self-important and arrogant to expect to be the only foreigner in a city like Florence, but I’ve become so used to being the one who comes from somewhere exotic, so used to being the outsider. All of a sudden people were speaking to me in English first, Italian second.

 

Florence was such a contrast to Bologna, whose economy and culture centres around and caters for students. Florence is for wealthy travellers, who arrive in swarms to mount the Duomo, eat gelato and snap pics on the Ponte Vecchio. Of course I did all these things too, I just couldn’t shake the feeling that the city was being pimped out to foreign cash. Every vendor or waiter I spoke to was born outside of Florence, but they all assured me it was the most beautiful and unique city in all of Italy and that it was absolutely essential that I bought leather products from Florence! and ate minestrone soup in Florence! and climbed the Duomo in Florence! and saw Michelangelo’s David in Florence!. To me, Firenze was a city that had been rebranded and marketed as ‘Florence!’.  The real city was still there, somewhere, but it was as though it was hiding behind Disneyland façades.

 

Unable to find a couch surfing host that wasn’t exceptionally creepy, I’d booked two nights at the Ciao Hostel and after checking in, climbing the stairs, unlocking two separate doors and tripping over a pair of sandals the size of scuba flippers, I discovered that I’d been assigned the left hand side of a double bed, presumably next to bigfoot. Not too eager to spend the night spooning a stranger, I moved my diamond ring on my right hand onto my engagement finger and went back downstairs. I asked the receptionist (yet another foreigner in Florence) if I could possible move to another room, I was even willing to move to a 16-bed dorm, if it meant I had my own personal sleeping surface. He said it absolutely wasn’t possible, as he had already assigned me to a bed. It was a Tuesday night, off peak. I knew he just couldn’t be bothered to move me. I ‘absentmindedly’ touched the ring on my left hand and explained that I really wasn’t comfortable with sharing a bed with a man I’d never met. “It’s something that is very important to me, sir, if there’s anything you can do at all, I’d really appreciate it.” So he huffed and puffed and gave me the keys to the room next door, a four (single) bed dorm. Tommy from the US was sitting on his bed, folding and unfolding what seemed to be 25 different maps strewn across his bed. He looked up and gave me a heavily accented “ciao”. He was broad shouldered and bearded, but he had childlike eyes and was unable to conceal his enthusiasm and excitement at having met an Anglophone. He wore a grey t-shirt that shouted ARMY across the front and was eager to show me all the gifts he’d bought for friends and family back home. A tiny woman named Sabrina came into the room, her thick accent announcing she was from Argentina, but had been travelling for almost six months. I’d arranged to meet a couchsurfer for a drink and a night-time tour of the city, so I invited Tommy and Sabrina to accompany me to meet a ‘local’.

 

Like all locals in Florence, Martin wasn’t born in there. He wasn’t even born in Italy! But he’d been living there for six months so he offered to meet us at an aperitivo bar that was off the tourist trail named Kitsch Deux. For the first time ever, I saw my father’s favourite drink on the menu: a Harvey Wallbanger. I don’t normally drink cocktails, but I love the combination of orange juice, vodka and vanilla Galliano and ordered one despite the snobby looks from my tablemates who sipped beer and Italian red wine. For AUD$15 I had my delicious, if trashy looking, cocktail and access to an enormous buffet of baked salmon, gnocchi, pizza, fish parcels, bruschetta, spaghetti marinara, parmagiana, fresh bread and three different salads. I ate two plates, and then went back for a dessert of fresh fruit and yoghurt while everyone else had a second drink. Martin showed me a small bar on the other side of the river that reminded me of In Situ (for the sydneysiders reading). We walked past a few of the key sites in Florence together, and I enjoyed finally having the city to myself (it was by now 3am).

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The Duomo and its Bell Tower

The next morning I walked along the river towards the famous Ponte Vecchio, the only pre-WWII bridge that remains in Florence. Built on the bridge are shopfronts with small residences above them. They are all jewellery stores, and I couldn’t even begin to estimate the wealth that is suspended there between the left and right banks of the Arno River. Once across the bridge, the jewellery stores gave way to shops filled with leather products and I spent a long time wandering in and out of them, admiring the variety of products. Lunch was at a small pizzeria on the south side of the city, and I ate next to a French couple and their Chihuahua who, naturally, had her own leopard print throw rug to sit on. The dog had her own slice of pizza, and as I ate mine I enjoyed eavesdropping on their conversation and marvelling at how spoilt this hideous little dog was. On the other side of the small restaurant was a lone Japanese girl who had accidentally ordered herself an entire mozzarella pizza instead of only one slice. She looked simultaneously horrified and excited. In her defence, a whole pizza was only 5 euros and there were vendors selling sparse, lukewarm slices for that price in the Piazza della Signoria.

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The Ponte Vecchio

I saw the replica of David, standing guard of the entry to the Uffizi gallery. More impressive, was a statue in the Loggia dei Lanzi, the open-air gallery of replicas of Renaissance art. Benvenuto Cellini’s ‘Perseus with the Head of Medusa’ stands tall and intimidating over the many people with their backs to him, photographing the David replica. The blood and brain stem of Medusa dangle from her neck, held high by Perseus as he stands on her corpse, wearing a look of smug triumph.  I watched schoolboys juggle a soccer ball in the middle of the square for a few minutes, enjoying the way their clapping and cheering resonated through the great square.

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David, Perseus, and the throngs of photographers.

Wandering, vaguely in search of a coinpurse, I was dragged into a store full of leather jackets. Despite insisting that I was only there for a bag, before I knew it I was trying on jackets of varying quality and colour. I had no intention of buying from the store, but I was interested in how low they would go when negotiating the price. The ticket on the jacket I was wearing said 590€, but he was happy to let me walk out of the shop with it for 100€ cash. I promised him I’d return if I couldn’t find anything better. Caught up in the fervour of ‘Florentine leather’, I ended up buying a jacket from a very young vendor (born in the south of Italy, not Florence) named Franko. As I was paying, I asked where the best gelato was in Florence and he insisted on taking me there. He walked me fifteen minutes away from the shop, arm in arm the whole way. He insisted I return to his shop at 7 so that he and his friends can take me for the best pizza in town, and he even offered to pay seeing as I’d just bought a jacket from him. He left me with a kiss on each cheek and a “ciao bella!” outside a gelataria called GROM. He was right, it was excellent.

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Salted caramel (the flavour that will forever remind me of this entire year) and dark chocolate gelato

The prospect of pizza with a group of teenagers didn’t seem so appealing, so instead I opted for dinner in a small, cheap restaurant nearby with my two newest hostel roommates: Jesse from the UK and Taku from Japan. Taku spoke about 12 words of English, but he was still better company than the Pom, who was fussy and rude and spoilt and rushed through his dessert in order to get back to the hostel and watch the football. Exhausted, but still wanting to see more, I let the two boys go back together and I wandered the streets alone again. I went and said hi to David again, and he looked magnificent in the dark. Wandering the backstreets I could finally overhear Italian conversations tumbling from apartment windows above me instead of American tourists asking waiters if there was wifi in the café.

I fell ill overnight, and woke up sweaty and nightmarish. I showered and had breakfast, left my luggage at reception and walked slowly to Piazza della Signoria. Too exhausted to survive three hours in a museum, and wanting to profit from the sunshine, I paid 8€ to climb the tower of the Palazzo Vecchio. I’d been told it’s better to climb the bell tower than the Duomo, because from Palazzo Vecchio one can actually SEE the Duomo. I’d intended to do both, but only had the energy for one. As I was climbing the tower, the midday bells rang and it was magical. The bells echoed through the city, and I peered over the edge at the people and the pigeons in the square below me. The view from the top of the tower was stunning, and it was worth the wobbly legs on the way down! Exhausted, I slept on the kitchen bench of the hostel until my train to Pisa at 5pm.

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Views of bell towers, photographed from bell towers.

I arrived in Pisa, and was met at the station by my next host, Giuseppe. His apartment was brand new, and he made creamy salmon pasta for us for dinner. The hardest part of this scrumptious meal’s preparation was the deliberation over WHICH pasta to use. He scoffed at my ignorance when I asked why you couldn’t just put everything with spaghetti, and explained that long, thin, pasta like linguine and spaghetti is best for tomato- or oil-based sauces. For cream, it’s imperative that you use penne or macaroni or something similar. After dinner we biked into the city center. Pisa, like Lyon, has a communal bike share system. I’ve adapted to riding on the right hand side of the road, but I still have trouble negotiating tight corners on bulky bicycles and I’ve had a bicycle crash in almost every country I’ve visited so far. We had wine and aperitivi in a small bar in the centre of town, and already I liked Pisa more than Florence. It had a grungy side, a personality that Florence seemed to have forsaken in order to be more attractive to a broader base of people.

 

Giuseppe humoured me when I asked that we get gelato, and we walked to the tower, chatting about his time in the city and the many faces of Italy. It was not far at all to walk through the center of Pisa to the tower, which stands in the Piazza dei Miracoli (Square of Miracles) next to the cathedral and baptistry which, i was pleased to learn, all lean too. Despite himself, Giuseppe jumped to its defence when I said, “wow, it’s actually really tiny!” as we rounded the corner and the famous Leaning Tower came into view. It was a surreal moment on so many levels. I’ve seen many Facebook photos of people at the tower, and I even wrote a project on it when i was 10 years old for my Italian class. When I was young, I was enthralled by the way that Signora Stephens spoke about this magical tower that seemed to defy gravity. It captivated my young imagination and I truly believed that it was a wonder of the world. When I finally saw it, what I felt was not disappointment, but disenchantment. It IS beautiful. It is truly an icon of Italy, and historically significant (Giuseppe, among others, told me proudly that Galileo used to hang out at the tower and drop rocks off the edge to test theories of gravity, but apparently that’s just urban legend). Gazing upon it for the first time was somewhat underwhelming. After two months in Europe, I’d begun to understand that the things that strike me most when I travel are impossible to look for. Of course I’d gone to Italy to eat gelato and pizza, buy leather goods, see the architecture and meet a few Italians along the way, but those are not the things that I cherish most about the journey. It was the things I could never have predicted, never have googled in advance, that will remain in my memory. The little French boy playing soccer on the grass in front of the tower of Pisa – more concerned with keeping the ball away from his baby sister than the tower his mother had brought him to see, the conversation I had with the man who ran the gelataria under Florence train station, who told me I looked like his sister who had passed away a few years ago, the ferocity of the argument I inadvertently started by bringing up the TAV (a proposed high speed rail network), the kind eyes of a waiter in a busy restaurant who helped the old man next to me cut his steak. I’d gone to Florence expecting to see David, but was captivated by Perseus. Travelling alone allows me to really observe where I am, and gives me opportunities to talk to people. Travelling with others makes me lazy. I can be walking through a foreign city, through centuries of history and culture, with something new on every corner, but if I’m discussing something that happened in Australia, my eyes are open but my mind is elsewhere. I love to travel with company, but my experience of a place is nowhere near as deep or comprehensive as when I’m alone.

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The tower and the cathedral of Pisa

I slept well and woke early, hopeful that I’d shaken the illness I’d felt the day before. Heeding Giuseppe’s caution, I stayed well away from the food vendors near the tower and bought a Panini from La Carta Gialla. The man who worked there was ancient, wrapping the sandwiches on a tiny bench and muttering to someone who I assume was his wife who was audible, but out of sight. There were twenty different combinations of Panini with meat, cheese and even fruit. They were enormous, and for only 4€ Ibought one with salami, a fresh cheese that was the consistency of whipper cream, Parmesan and kiwi fruit. I stowed it in my bag and wandered around Pisa, discovering orange trees hanging over laneways, old bicycles, and gypsies playing accordions.

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It was a beautiful day. The sun was shining brilliantly and the air was clear and still. There was still a chill in the air, but the sunlight was warming everything. Knowing that Pisa was small, I’d packed my novel and a towel-sized piece of fabric I’d bought in Bologna for 50 cents that would be my picnic blanket. I found a spot on the grass in front of the tower and lazed in the sun for three hours, reading and eating my Panini while watching the throngs of people come to see the tower, take their pictures and leave again. I was lost in my novel when Giovanni, a young Italian in a very expensive looking suit, boldly asked if he could come lie down next to me. His friends were standing a few metres away, laughing and he gave them a thumbs up. I shuffled over and he chatted to me in his limited English. He told me he’d just graduated as a Civil Engineer. I remarked that he must be here to finally climb the tower, and he was surprised I already knew of the suspected link between tower-climbing and dropping out of university, as I’d learned in Bologna. We ran out of things to say, and he scampered off behind his friends after insisting that I come to Piazza dei Cavalieri that night for the graduation party.

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Soccer games and sandwiches and posing for photos  

 

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The Piazza dei Cavaleiri by day. That’s the ‘tower’ referred to in Dante’s Inferno, for any lit nerds who care. 

I’d been told it was unheard of to drink cappuccinos after breakfast in Italy, but I was tiring and needed somewhere pleasant to hang out until I met Giuseppe outside the university’s department of mathematics where he’d been working all day. We went for dinner at a diner-style restaurant named número unedicci and ate parmagiana and tagliatelle as Giuseppe told me about job he’s just accepted in San Francisco with Facebook. He cringed as I cut my tagliatelle with a knife in an attempt to preserve the cleanliness of my clothes, and we laughed about how seriously the Italians take their pasta. After dinner we met his friends who were drinking beers from plastic cups. It was scene I’d discovered to be typical in Italy: groups of young people, standing on the sidewalk in dark coats, chatting amongst the Vespas, while drinking and smoking. The smell of marijuana was distinctly recognisable and the proprietors of the pubs never seem to mind that half the people are drinking beer they’d bought from the pub, but the other half seem to have brought their own booze. I made the mistake of asking Giuseppe’s friends (most of which were PhD students or had already completed their doctorates) what they thought of the fuss around the country’s high speed rail line, the TAV. Bologna and Pisa had been covered with #noTAV graffiti and Enrico had told me about huge demonstrations that had been held regularly. The boys descended into a noisy argument: “of course you’re pro-TAV, asshole” “what do you expect me to do, walk to Paris?” “it’s destructive, they’ll destroy the mountains” “it’s progress!” “take the regional train and read a fucking book” and so on. I apologised for even bringing it up, and had to congratulate them for being so passionate.

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Giuseppe outside the restaurant and typical modern Italian wall art

We once again satiated my desire for gelato, and headed to a party held at the university. It was a strange cross between a house party and a school disco. It was held in the gymnasium of the university, and there were people at the door collecting donations to subsidize the cost of the music and the booze. The boys explained to me that if you don’t like the party, you don’t have to pay. They had two dancefloors, one with mostly English music and the other that seemed to be playing remixes of Italian television theme tunes all night. We bought a cup of terrible sangria for 1€ and headed to the dance floor. We danced for a while before Giuseppe and I excused ourselves to head home. I explained to him that a party like that would never be allowed in Australia. There was no formal security, it was on university property, there was alcohol being sold without a liquor license and the noise was going to continue into the early hours of the morning. I told him of the regularity of violence in Australia outside pubs and clubs and parties, and he was really shocked by how many fights I’d witnessed and that I had stories of friends being punched by a stranger for no legitimate reason. As we were discussing this, we walked through to Piazza dei Cavalieri onto the big party Giovanni had told me about earlier. People were just milling around in the square, drinking beer sold by gypsies for 1€ from shopping trollies filled with ice. Someone was playing bongo drums as people danced and chatted loudly.

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The scene at Piazza dei Cavaleiri at night

It was tough getting up the next morning, after only a few hours sleep but I knew I could relax on the train to Torino. After saying farewell to Giuseppe, the Frecce Bianca took me through Tuscany towards Genoa. The train sped past snow capped mountains, some gutted by marble quarries. Through my window I saw olive groves, vineyards and small crumbling houses. I had an hour in Genoa and wandered down to the marina to watch fishermen repairing their nets and clean and scale their catches.

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Tuscany from a train window, and fishermen in Genoa

I’d not yet confirmed my next couchsurfing host, and the person who’d offered to host me had suddenly vanished.  Tired, sick, and unimpressed with Torino I marched to the Eurolines ticket office and changed my ticket to take me back to Lyon that night, instead of the next morning. It was International Women’s Day, and people everywhere were carrying branches of acacia. I lugged my little suitcase with me around Torino for a few hours, determined to see SOMETHING. My bus didn’t depart until 11:30 that night and I was cold and running out of money. I went to McDonalds, sat my exhausted self down and whiled away three hours in the warmth and anonymity of the restaurant. Dinner was at a pleasant, if overpriced, aperitivi bar and I savoured my glass of wine as I finished my book. I watched the people coming and going, all dressed up and ready for a night of partying.

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Even the McFlurries were amazing – ain’t no oreos in Italy, this one was Bacio flavoured

The overnight coach was packed, and I sat with a guy named Brajan. He’s Serbian, living in Lyon to study. His English AND French are excellent, and I was reminded how far I have to go before I can speak French with any real fluency. He was young and confident, smoked incessantly and spoke at a volume much too loud for 3am on a crowded bus, but he was friendly and told me of his surprise when a trip to visit his uncle in Florence had become a reunion with his mother. We were stopped at the border and police and immigration officers came onto the bus to check passports and visas. They were very thorough, asking questions about our travels and what we were studying. Being 4:30, they were met by some very grumpy responses. By the time I got home it was 6am and the sky was only just showing hints of lightening. I collapsed into bed, completely exhausted but perfectly content with my adventure.

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So much for the Schengen Zone

Italy (Part I: Torino and Bologna)

In typical French fashion, only two weeks of classes had passed before we were given a week of holidays. With the other Aussie girls making plans, I decided that it was the perfect opportunity to travel alone for the first time. I wanted to get out of France because I know I’ll see a lot of the country on the weekends, but I didn’t want to go too far because it’s too expensive at the last minute, so I booked a return bus ticket to Turin, departing half an hour after my last Friday afternoon class. After such positive experiences with couch-surfing, I resolved to surf my way around Italy. Predictably, I left a lot of my planning to the last minute, so with only my first night’s accommodation booked I was frantically searching for hosts and sending requests as my bus approached the Italian border. After unapologetically gawking at the snowflakes falling as we crossed the Alps, I lost 3G connection and arrived in Torino at 11pm in the pouring rain with vague directions to my hostel. I managed to jump on a bus (without paying, because I had no idea how to and was too intimidated to ask) and arrived at my crummy hostel soaked to the skin and brimming with apprehension about the journey I had just begun. I ended up speaking French with the man who owned the hostel, as his English was very basic and retired to my room which smelled of wet socks and unkempt boys (one of whom was rolling a joint in his bed while the other watched a hip-hop video on YouTube on his phone).

I’d been accepted by some couchsurfing hosts in Bologna, so it was there that I headed the next day. I took the slow train to Bologna via Milan because it was cheaper and I was looking forward to some time to myself to read and just stare out the window. My first month in France had been so frantic with classes and travelling and meeting new people and staying in touch with Australia that I hadn’t had a day to myself. On the train from Torino to Bologna I wasn’t obliged to make conversation with anyone, my phone didn’t work and I could stare out the window or lose myself in my book. As we approached Modena we encountered a hail storm that plunged the countryside into darkness and battered the train with hail. The weather affected my perception of the Italian countryside. The railside homes crumble in a fashion that might seem quaint in the sunshine but in the rain and the darkness they were just bleak.

Unimpressed by what I’d seen of Torino, I was instantly enamoured with Bologna. I came out of the station and walked under the porticos along one of the main streets of the city, Via dell’Indipendenza, following the directions given to me by my host. I was welcomed into a spacious apartment by Enrico (aka Zedda) and his two flatmates, Moreno and Francesco.

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(Click the images to enlarge them)

I was treated to a classic student meal, pasta carbonara, before we headed out with a group of their friends. Their apartment is metres away from Piazza Verdi, the centre of the student population in Bologna. At night you can hear the conversations of the people in the street below and it seems like the city never sleeps.

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The view from the kitchen window

The university of Bologna is the oldest in Europe, having been founded in 1088, and students rule the city. There is political graffiti everywhere, and Bologna is known colloquially as ‘La Rossa’ for two reasons: the red and orange tones of the houses and rooftops, and for the communist persuasion of its population.

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On our outing, my hosts took the time to show me some of the seven mysteries of Bologna as we moved between bars. We accumulated more and more people until we were a group of more than ten, and everyone tried to stick to English for my sake. I was happy to listen to them speak Italian, and I was amused by the way they fulfilled my preconceptions of Italians. They spoke at high volume amongst each other, with the topic changing swiftly and unpredictably. They gestured wildly as the conversation got heated and I found myself perplexed by what I thought was an argument as we stood in the Piazza Maggiore. As they explained the history of the square to me, someone remarked that it reminded them of a square in Venice and from there the conversation descended into what appeared to be a very heated argument. Kindly, Enrico informed me that they were just trying to remember the name of the square, and couldn’t decide whether it actually did resemble where we were presently. I apologised for causing an argument and they laughed at me good-naturedly.

After an evening of wine and new faces we sat on the couch where I would spend the night and the boys played guitar and sang for me. They sang songs in Italian about women and the spring time, and would search English lyrics online to sing popular rock songs. We ended the night with ‘I’m Yours’ by Jason Mraz at 4am, sang together with thick italian accents and slightly out of time and I slept comfortably until well after midday the next day.

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Enrico made me an espresso when I woke up, but Francesco insisted he make another one himself because “Zedda doesn’t know what he’s doing.” Breakfast was tortellini cooked in vegetable broth, which I found hilariously typical. Enrico was apologetic that it wasn’t proper breakfast food, and assured me that it’s not normal to eat pasta for breakfast but it was delicious and I was impressed. It was now that taught him my favourite Australianism, “no worries”.

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We spent the day wandering around Bologna and he showed me more of the mysteries I’d begun to discover the night before, like the portico decorated with cannabis leaves that says ‘cannabis is protection’. The city has a long history of hemp production, and with a large student population it’s also a part of the modern economy. We saw the secret door that opens to give a view of the canals of Bologna nicknamed Little Venice.

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The portico decorated with cannabis leaves.

We visited Neptune (to whom I’d been introduced to the night before) in the daylight. The cardinal of Bologna commissioned the sculpture of Neptune in the 1560s and the legend goes that his sculptor, Giambologna, was silently opposed to the church (to be openly opposed was a deathwish). There was a dispute about Neptune being too ‘well-endowed’ and it was ordered that the statue be made again. As revenge, Giambologna added a perspective illusion to his new sculpture: if you stand in a certain corner of the square, the position of Neptune’s outstretched hand appears to be an erection. As an added affront, it points in the direction of the Vatican.

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We had gelato (after much deliberation I settled on Nutella flavoured gelato swirled with pistachio syrup) before climbing the Asinelli Tower. In the 12th and 13th century Bologna was densely populated with stone towers (close to 200 by some accounts) but most collapsed or were dismantled within a few centuries because they were so poorly built. According to Enrico, they existed as a way for families to show off how wealthy and powerful they were. They seem to be yet another manifestation of the ‘mine is bigger than yours’ mindset that persists today and of course one can quip about all the phallic connotations of building the biggest tower in Bologna. Today there are only a few that remain, and the towers Asinelli (the taller) and the leaning Garisenda are symbols of the city.

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We went through the narrow and wonky doorway and up a spiral staircase to pay our 3€ through the window of the tiny office. We squished up flights of wooden stairs with balustrades rendered smooth by the thousands of sweaty palms clinging to them as the ascend the crumbly interior of a centuries old tower in a city prone to earthquakes.

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The 498 steps to the top of Asinelli Tower

Only when we were halfway up did Enrico tell me about a myth, well known to the Bolognese, which warns that if you climb the tower as a student you’ll never graduate. The view from the top 90m above the city was magnificent. The city is quite small, and I was able to see the cities centrifugal layout through the terracotta rooftops, church spires and the hills in the distance.

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As a reward for conquering the tower I bought an enormous slice of pizza for only 2€ and we wandered more of the city, searching for the arrows (unsuccessfully) and finding the devil’s head laughing at the people who pass by.

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Exhausted from a big day, Francesco, Enrico and I agreed there was nothing left but to order pizzas and watch The Big Lebowski together on the couch. Ever hospitable, they insisted on watching the original version instead of one dubbed by Italian voice actors. When we couldn’t find a copy with Italian subtitles we ended up watching the movie in English with French subtitles. This suited me doubly as I speak English and want to improve my French, but neither Francesco nor Zedda. This insistence on accommodating me epitomised my entire stay with them. Of course, I fell asleep halfway through the movie anyway.

Moreno made my espresso on my second morning and I was determined to make breakfast as thanks to my hosts for being so generous. Moreno’s English is very basic, but he was able to give me broken directions to the supermarket with the aide of Google Maps. The promise of pancakes meant that even Francesco got out of bed early and we chatted amicably before everyone went their separate ways for the day.

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As I set out alone for the day, Moreno farewelled me by saying, “Good Bologna!” with a grin. I wandered around the city soaking up the sunshine and the sounds of the people around me. I perused second hand clothes markets, window shopped for leather handbags, lost myself walking around the boundary of the city that, in centuries past, was defined by great walls. Today the perimeter is a two-lane highway. I was put in touch with another Australian girl on ICS by a friend in Lyon, so we met for gelato and pizza (naturally) and shared stories of the challenges of adjusting to life in a new city. After wandering for a while, we met the rest of the Australian group for coffee (or in my case, thick, dark hot chocolate with coconut). They were already settled into life in Bologna, with their favourite café overseen by a somewhat overzealous waiter who insisted on rearranging the tables despite the fact that we were already comfortably seated. One of the girls casually explained to me that, “it’s because he’s Greek”. It was great to be welcomed by Australians in a new city, and made me feel like I really wasn’t so stupid to travel alone.

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Friendly faces and familiar accents

Of course I couldn’t leave Bologna without eating tagliatelle al ragû! And why pay for it in a restaurant when I could observe the process and share a glass of wine with the chef himself? So Zedda and I set out to the grocery store to buy the ingredients, taking a detour to a store that stocks a wide variety of foreign products in search of Vegemite. We found some, but at 9€ for a tiny jar we decided it wasn’t worth buying. Deep down, I think I knew my Italian friends wouldn’t like it anyway. Long, distracting conversations had us eat late, but the food was excellent and I was once again pleased with my decision to couch surf.

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Ragû and Moreno performing a typical hand gesture, a vital part of Italian communication

Having had no luck finding a suitable couch surfing host in Florence, I booked a hostel and decided to get the train the next afternoon. I could have hung out with the boys in Bologna all week, but I had come all the way to Italy, I had to see as much as I could. So my final morning was spent weaving through the alleys of Bologna, eating more gelato despite the return of the rains and finding a copy of Fight Club to leave as a parting gift for the boys. I was apologetic for leaving so soon, and we parted with big hugs and invitations to return in the summer and for them to visit in Lyon or even Australia.

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…. Part II to come when I’ve had more sleep and finished my homework!

First Impressions (or: Life As Hervé’s Apprentice)

The following is my first assignment submitted to UTS for the year entitled ‘First Impressions’. Like all great impressionists, I haven’t represented the absolute truth of what I experienced, but an easily digested, fluid work. I’ve presented my story in a way that best facilitates my analysis of what I’ve experienced, the personality I’m introducing you to, and the culture I’m embedded in. So take it all with a pinch of salt, and enjoy!

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     Sitting alone in the airport on the day of my departure from Sydney, I spent a long time envisioning myself the next time I set foot Australia. Staring at the planes taxiing around Kingsford Smith airport, I saw myself walking through the Arrivals gate in 364 days time: I’d be fluent in academic and colloquial French; I’d wear a t-shirt given to me by the French organisation I’d volunteered at and bracelets collected from my travels all across Europe during the summer; I’d have, manifested in my augmented Facebook contact list, many new friends who wouldn’t be able to bear my return to my homeland in January 2015. After 24 hours in the country and a large reality check, I’d adjusted my aspirations. They were now much simpler: to successfully spit out “Merci,” as I bought my ham and cheese from the supermarket, too intimidated to venture into one of the authentic fromageries or boucheries nearby; and to survive the year without losing all my valuables or my sanity. A month has passed and I’m well oriented in the city, my French is improving exponentially, and my ego is on the mend. Now, my main goal is to be ‘transculturally competent’ (Slimbach, 2005: 207).

I had a window of ten days between my arrival in Lyon and when I was able to move into my room at the university residence. Feeling as though I was wasting money on expensive hotels, I turned to couchsurfing.org[1] in search of a host for a few days before I could move to my own room on the 1st of February. I consoled my nervous mother, and insisted it would be a good way to meet someone ‘authentically French’, who would hopefully look after me. It was here that I found Hervé. He gave me a futon and a set of keys to his one-bedroom apartment in an old building near Hôtel de Ville, one of Lyon’s main squares and metro stations. He’s a carpenter by trade, and everything that he needs is within walking or biking distance, but he owns a car because he travels for work. His girlfriend, Juliette, lives over the Rhône, ten minutes by bike, and Hervé plans to move into her place in July. Living with him has been one of the most significant parts of my first month, so instead of focussing on one facet of Lyonnais life (the pink almond broiche, my surprisingly pleasant bankers, the traboules[2], the ultra-efficient transport or the minefield of dog droppings in Presqu’île), I’m going to structure my analyses of my first impressions around a Friday night dinner shared with my gracious host, guide, and friend, Hervé.

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Hervé’s apartment (and my bedroom)

As a preamble to my anecdotes, I want to refer to Kulacki (2000: 26), who notes that students with a broad ‘knowledge’ of a culture are more prone to make assumptions about intercultural experiences. They have a tendency to automatically interpret what has happened to them in individual encounters through the framework they have learned in their home country, ignoring the reality of the specific experience. This is the danger of pre-departure reading and education, as one is tempted to perceive their new country according to several anecdotes or academic assessments learned at home. I have tried my best to avoid this, but as a fish cannot avoid water, I cannot avoid the academic and cultural context as an Australia student of Social Inquiry that prepared me for my journey to France, and I have provided an example below where my ‘educated’ assumptions led me astray. After all my pre-departure classes, reading and advice from friends and family, a dinner with Hervé and Juliette taught me more than I could have read in any Lonely Planet guide or student blog. That evening, I learned explicitly about the people I dealt with, the food I was eating and the streets I walked through, but I was also able to garner implicit knowledge by analysing more than just what Hervé said. Embedded in every opinion, fact and tidbit that Hervé and Juliette threw me was a manifestation of their culture and values as young French people. Each part of the evening revealed something different to me about Lyonnais life so I will analyse what I experienced, interpret and propose hypotheses as I go.

Shopping

Hervé and Juliette insisted that they cook quenelles[3] for me on my first Friday night in Lyon. They’re a Lyonnais specialty and are on the front page of many Lyonnais regional cookbooks. Approaching 1pm, the vendors were beginning to close, so we wove through the meandering crowd with focus. Hervé had no patience for my desire to photograph the florists or the fromagerie or any of the fresh produce that was so beautifully and simply displayed. It was one of the things I’ve looked forward to most about living in France. The abundance of fresh produce is so inspiring and the open markets are a well-known trope of French life. Hervé’s mind, however, was set on buying certain quenelles from a certain butcher and there was no time for anything else. To Hervé, a trip to the markets is as mundane and routine as my regular traipse around Woolworths. To me, there is little difference in the way he chats to the large woman in the trailer-cum-butchery, and the way I talk to the people who work at the checkout at my local Woolies. It helps that I know a few of them from school and through friends, but the conversation flows along the same paths in both places, “How are you this week? Did you end up fixing your broken toilet? I hope you didn’t have to work outside in all that rain we had on Wednesday!” I listened intently, trying to understand as much as I could and before I knew it we’d bought the quenelles brochet and the lobster bisque to cook them in and were walking through one of the oldest parts of Lyon as Hervé relayed the conversation to me and explained some of the colloquialisms they’d used.

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Juliette and Hervé catching up with their butcher

Dinner

Chatting about my day over the delicious meal, he was horrified when I told him I’d gone to Part Dieu[4] to meet another Australian girl for coffee and breakfast. “Why would you go there?” he said to me in a tone that was uncomfortably condescending. “It’s so ugly and there are too many people. Plus the best coffee in Lyon is just here, around the corner.” After that reproach, I didn’t dare tell him we’d eaten at PAUL, the chain patisserie with more than 300 franchises across France. With this comment, he confirmed my assumptions about the French resistance to American-style shopping malls and mass-produced food. According to Meunier (2000), “antiglobalization sentiment is much stronger in France than elsewhere, and French politicians [and citizens] have felt compelled to take the international lead in the march against ‘Anglo-Saxon globalization.’” On our first day in Lyon, I had taken shelter in the familiar and navigable habitat of the Part Dieu centre commercial. To me, a jetlagged and disoriented Australian, it was less threatening than the ‘real’ streets of Lyon. I recognised the brands and the layout of the mall was intuitively recognisable. To Hervé and many of his compatriots, the shopping centre is an affront to French taste and culture: a manifestation of Anglo-Saxon commercial imperialism (with its Disney, Apple and American Apparel stores) and, most abhorrently to Hervé, a place full of the dreaded malbouffe[5].

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The uncooked quenelles. 

Dessert
As the dinner progressed to a dessert of chocolate and a second bottle of wine, Hervé told me about the small town he grew up in. His favourite way to shock and intimidate Anglophones is to tell them to ask him where he comes from, to which he replies flatly, “Bitche.” But I found that there’s more to Bitche than its ironic name. Hervé shared stories of the relentless rain, the beautiful forests, his tiny school and some residents who do not speak French at all, insisting on communicating with others in German. With a population of only 5,000 people, it sits close to the Maginot Line and was under German control during WWII. Feeling jovial, and having a bit of knowledge about the contest for the region, I passed a deliberately ironic comment.  “Alsace-Lorraine is a German territory anyway, right?” Before I knew it, the cork from our bottle of wine had landed with a ‘thunk’ on my forehead. Hervé laughed, of course, but it was clear that I’d hit a nerve. He went on to tell me that it was “French. Very French. Always French.” Reflecting on my playful comment and his pseudo-playful response, I realised that WWII and German occupation was more than just a topic of study in a Modern History class, or a setting for a Hollywood movie. To Hervé’s ancestors it was real, and my comment was a threat to the identity and sovereignty that so many people had died to defend and preserve. It was the first of what I’m sure will be many cultural faux pas. In Australia, most of us have come from such varied cultural backgrounds that a sense of humour about our cultural identity, or lack thereof, is normal and at times necessary. I’ve heard friends, one with Thai parents and one who is half Japanese, playfully repeat (and in doing so, take ownership of) the racist joke that, “all Asians look the same”. To Hervé, who had abandoned his birthplace for the city of Lyon, my comment was an attack on part of what made up his identity. After discovering his reluctance to learn German (unusual in comparison to his enthusiasm towards English, one of the reasons he hosts couchsurfers like myself) I could even deduce that if he wasn’t born in a town that was considered by most to be a part of France, he wasn’t French. We spoke about the fact that I was born in South Africa and lived there until I was eight, but feel no attachment to the country. I consider myself 100% Australian. I relish in Australian (multi)culture; it is where I’ve been educated, made friends and plan to spend the majority of my life. To me, the country of my birth is of little importance. It is the country I identify most with that forms my sense of self. I can therefore cite my own lack of birthplace-identity relationship, due to my migrant and cosmopolitan upbringing, as the reason I was such a bitch[6] about Bitche.

Looking forward
Kulacki refers to a “fascination with something other, the attraction to an appealing entity outside the conceptual boundaries of his or her individual sense of self” (2000: 27). Here he is speaking about China, but I think the statement is applicable to many cultures. The tropes of French society have been somewhat fetishized in Anglo-Saxon popular culture so that one feels the need to point out that people actually do eat lots of baguettes, smoke lots of cigarettes and eat lots of snails. But the French themselves also actively perpetuate these tropes. Hervé demonstrated to me his personal desire to be recognised as distinctly French. He chose a dish that was distinct to the region we live in, chastised me for choosing the wrong bread, the wrong wine AND the wrong cheese from the wrong supermarket, vehemently defended his birthplace and language and laughed happily when I introduced him as my “tourguide, mentor and favourite French person so far” to my curious new neighbor in my student residence. I have seen Hervé several times since he I moved out of his apartment on that rainy Saturday, and he always asks me what I have learned since we last spoke. I often find myself imparting his knowledge to my fellow Australian ICS’ers, and I know it makes him happy to consider me his little apprentice.

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References:

Kulacki, G. 2000. Area Studies and Studies Abroad: The Chinese Experience. Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad, 6 (Winter), pp. 23-46.

Meunier, S. 2000. The French Exception | Foreign Affairs. [online] Available at: http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/56244/sophie-meunier/the-french-exception [Accessed: 25 Feb 2014].

Slimbach, R. 2005. The Transcultural Journey. Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad, 11 (August). Available online at:<http://www.frontiersjournal.com/documents/RSlimbachFrontiersAug05.pdf&gt; (accessed 21 Feb, 2014).

… and the seemingly infinite knowledge of Hervé Otentin


[1] A site that connects travellers with hosts. One can find a couch, futon or even a spare room in most major cities, offered free of charge. It operates by providing people with the opportunity to make friends, exchange stories and connect with a global community of travellers.

[2] Hidden or discreet passages between streets and buildings that are unique to Lyon. They were primarily used by the canuts (silk workers) during the city’s bustling silk trade.

[3] Hervé and I still can’t agree on how best to describe quenelles to someone who’s never tried them. They’re blended fish (brochet) or meat bound with egg, flour and butter and shaped like a sausage.  They are poached or baked in sauce and swell to two or three times their size while cooking. To me they’re a cross between bread pudding and a kind of dumpling but, of course, Hervé scoffs at this description.

[4] One of Lyon’s main transport hubs and the second largest business district in France. It  was built in the 1960s and has a large indoor shopping mall. It is where one of Lyon’s only skyscrapers, la Tour du Crédit Lyonnais, is located. Its apex aligns with the Basilica at Fourvière, and the pair make for a stark contrast in architecture. Hervé assures me that everyone in Lyon simply calls it le crayon (the pencil).

[5] Literally ‘bad food’ it is synonymous with McDonalds and other ‘junk food’.

[6] Forgive me, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to make that jeu de mots!


Big Things

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As I was unlocking my door this evening, one of my neighbours stopped to ask me a question about Australia. She asked me (in French) if there were big trees in Australia, and I replied, “yes”. She then asked if there was fruit on some of these trees, big fruit, to which I replied, “yes, of course.” Now, here’s where we lost each other: she asked me to tell her about the mangos that are bigger than people, and I thought she was asking if there were mangos that were sold to people as food, to which I once more replied, “yes, of course, there are lots of mango trees in Australia!” The perplexed look on her face triggered a memory of an article about The Big Mango in Bowen being stolen as a publicity stunt and I realised that the story had made its way to France. I then had to spend five minutes trying to explain to her this bizarre feature of the Australian cultural landscape. I’m not sure she really understood me, and is probably telling all her friends back home in Sudan that there are mangos as big as people in Australia.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Australia’s_big_things

 

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