So my grasp of Italian is such that I’m not entirely sure I haven’t been using just fabric softener to wash my clothes the entire time. But living in a place, as opposed to just breezing through as I normally do, puts a whole new spin on Being Foreign.
I think I’ve always been a good traveller because I’m generally confused by most things in the world that others seem to tackle with nonchalance. I generally feel the odd one out or awkward or oversized or silly in some respect, so at my grand age am now comfortable with that. But what of being permanently thus? Well I’m glad I’m in a place where people are generally extremely kind, chatty, and community-minded! Here are some thoughts.
The length of one’s day
It breaks down like this:
Brekky starts at a normal time with a 30-second espresso (see below) and a pastry, then zoom to the office/school until about 1pm, when every shop clangs shut until after 3-ish.
Queues start at the gelateria at about 3:30, increase about 4:30, keep steady through till 8pm, then all shops close with a clang at 10-11pm.
The hour of the aperitif goes from 6:30-8:30pm, with a free buffet, which is what you do before dinner. One does not go out after work with one’s colleagues in general. Dinner can be around 9pm on, although the other night after fencing I was asked to dinner at about 11pm.
During Sunday Lunch we observed ladies kicking off with Spritzes at 11:30am and families winding down at about 4:30pm.
So many questions.
How do you survive ‘til lunch on a tiny coffee and a pastry?
What do people do in the midday pause if they don’t work or study near their home? When does work finish if there’s a 2-3 hour knockoff? Doesn’t that make every day humungously long and exhausting?
Is the gelati a dessert? A snack? A meal? Is it diabetes?
How long exactly is the Sunday Lunch? If it’s 5 hours, then why was Caffe Cesare around the corner only open for 1.5 hours?
And finally: When does one digest one’s dinner?
So what is it they teach at the Autoscuola exactly. Yes, we have seen parking inspectors. We have also seen people park creatively across intersections, in lanes of traffic, at right-angles to buildings, parallel to other people’s cars, in front of trams full of commuters, etc. If someone boxes you in, the park-ee just sits on their horn for ages until the park-er emerges from whatever vital life-saving tasks they were doing, apologises profusely and moves, and the world resumes on its axis. Not a punch thrown. Splendid!
Art supply stores
These generally look like someone has backed a shipping container full of paper up to the door and tipped the contents inside. When you broach the portals, staff are about as friendly as they are in Melbourne (snobby yet fashionable yet angry) and follow you around the shop like you’re one of the Beagle Boys. Browsing is the best bit of the art supply store! And no, I want ‘black Windsor & Newton ink’ not fabric softener!! Just let me find it myself dammit, and I might buy some other things too.
“All northern Italians are tall and blonde!”
Like everything people have spouted unto me before I go overseas (‘Singapore is westernised!’ ‘Africans will want to rob you!’) this Aussie insight is best taken with a grain of salt. People in Turin are generally wee and dark, with the odd flaming ginger. So I am in as much danger of buying clothes and lingerie here as I was in Singers. To my great delight, however, the Italian swarthiness means their assorted hair removal methods, depilitations, unguents and waxes are WORLD CLASS. Italy, we hairy women salute you.
“All Italians dress in Armani every day!”
Yes, there are handfuls of outlandishly good-looking and stylish people living here. In Milano I was mesmerized by a young, very small Alan Cumming-esque gent with a steely gaze and quivering nostrils, completely grey hair swept back and up in the air, a perfect, tiny blue suit and cufflinks, and a ginormous tie he’d fashioned to jut out at right-angles from his neck, then drop like a silken waterfall. He was outstanding. There are, however, also rock chicks with Docs and tattoos, suited fellows, uni students in hoodies and jeans, and yes, they have bogans. Just like Melbourne, or anywhere, really.
Is there nothing we can do about the Jabba the Hut-sized shit in front of every driveway? Are the thunderstorms playing out this time of year the only way to rid the kerbs of rivulets of dog piss? We have loved watching the different breeds of dog parade around Turin, looking up faithfully at their owners for approval, sitting down in shops and restaurants with their little chins on their crossed paws, and barking and fighting regularly with rival dogs (with no-one turning a hair). But the poooo! Will no-one think of the poo!
So Melbourne’s coffee scene is blah blah laneway blah hipster blah blah deconstructed etc etc. So we think we know it “all” about coffee culture, which is something we pinched wholeheartedly from Italians in the first place. One thing that has escaped us is the 30-second coffee. Here, at any time of day you can swagger up to any bar, order your espresso coffee (we have to re-iterate caffe normale for the baristas scarred by English speakers ordering milky vats of coffee after 12pm), down it in the twinkling of an eye, and swagger off, 50 cents lighter. No lingering over the dregs, no quiet chatting or business meetings, just 30 seconds of shouting, then dust and empty sugar wrappers.
According to Paulie, you only go out for a coffee and sit down with someone when you have “something in particular to discuss”. Oh, and you have to have a special license to own a coffee machine! This is serious business!!
The spa situation
Oh the thermal springs we went to for my birthday treat. This was treat-y as much for the experience as the actual relaxing life-giving properties of the water. We first arrived and were told to descend to the change rooms to begin our adventure.
Now the bowels of this place were like ‘The Place That Sends You Mad’ in the Twelve Tasks of Asterix. Men’s and women’s changerooms here are rarely marked or are unisex (that THAT, Colorado, problem solved), so you either tiptoe in, bracing yourself for urinal cakes and the like, or linger near the door, hoping a woman comes out of the right spot. Once we’d wandered around in a daze in a maze of low-lit, steamy corridors packed full of bustling people, lost each other, found each other again, figured out we needed special swipe cards and keys, figured out how they worked, lost each other, realised we needed our receipt and more money to get towels and thongs and an odd flower badge, disappeared to change and re-convened, THE RELAXATION COMMENCED.
It was fantastico. Dozens and dozens of bubbling outdoor and indoor springs, saunas and steamrooms everywhere, and sun lounges with a view of Monte Bianco the magnificent. It was all very body temperature and relaxing, so not the scalding Japanese endurance test we’re used to. I took up the offer of a mud treatment, which again was 15 adults queued up in a dark corridor, waiting to be given their mud, slap on ourselves, then steam it off while making friends. The attendant made a point of explaining the mud’s energizing properties to me in English later – hello how wonderful are Italians really.
And oh the healthy buffet. It was like their changerooms, but in the form of a buffet. Grissini was the centrepiece, along with bowls of healthy fruit, a huge vat of cheese dip, yoghurt in urns, cereal and fruit juice. Like someone in marketing had seen an ad for Swedish breakfast cereal and thought it looked rather nice. You could tell the hundreds of bathrobed people milling about with a vaguely panicked air were just itching for a fag and the 6 strongest ristrettos they could get their hands on.
So, Turin! Still enigmatic after all these months. I may add to this list.