Thursday, 16 December 2010

A Brit abroad in Italy

In this month's post, Roxanne Bridger shows how to make the most of your time abroad by trying your best to integrate into the local culture.

Whether you plan on visiting another country for a few days or several months, the only real way to get to know how other cultures live is to live like the locals do. And that is exactly what I did when I lived in Italy for a few months back in 2009. I think travel should be much more than ticking off a list of places you've visited and famous landmarks you've seen – you need to understand how the locals live their day-to-day life to truly experience a new area or culture.

While I was in Italy I lived in Milan for two months and Tuscany for the rest of my stay. Tuscany is an area rich in history and culture and there are plenty of sights to be seen. But before I had even set off on my trip, I knew these things weren't what I wanted my photo memories to be full of. I wanted my photos to be of the friends that I was planning to make and the fun times we were going to have. Seeing the famous landmarks is only a small part of any trip I take.

Whenever I visit a new place, the first thing I want to do is try the food. I'm a real lover of all things edible and enjoy nothing better than tasting local delicacies. It's one thing to go to a restaurant and try them, but my goal is to try and learn how to cook them for myself. I was really lucky in Florence, as the apartment I was living in was right above a small family-run restaurant. When I first arrived I didn't know anyone, and because I've travelled alone before, I'm not afraid to sit in a restaurant alone and pass the time people watching. So that's exactly how I spent my first few nights. 

Thankfully, Italy has a very welcoming culture and it wasn't long before I had made a few friends and had people to go out for something to eat with. However, there was one person in particular I instantly became friends with: a girl called Carys, the daughter of the owner of the restaurant I lived above. She was incredibly warm and friendly and took me under her wing. She got me a waiting job at the restaurant and taught me how to cook like the Italians. The restaurant was known for its range of ice creams and desserts, and I quickly became a pro at recreating these in my own kitchen. My favourite is the Castagnaccio (chesnut cake), a classic dessert from the chestnut woods of Monte Amiata in south Tuscany. Chestnuts are harvested all over Italy with many regions having their own version of the cake, notably Montella in Campania. This makes for subtle variations in the Castagnaccio recipe. I learned to make it the way they do in Florence, and it has since become my signature dish.

Food is something that connects us all and I was so grateful to have been accepted in an Italian kitchen and feel like part of the Pizzeria Da Giovanni family. I feel that being so close to the locals meant that I had no choice but to embrace the Italian way of life. 

With Carys and her cousins at Pizzeria Da Giovanni

Whenever you are in a foreign place, not knowing the basics of a language can be a bit daunting. It's always important to at least know the basics such as 'please' and 'thank you', but it's worth trying to go beyond the most common phrases and finding out a few of the local sayings. Many regions have their own sayings, and learning these will help you feel part of the community. The first one I learned was while I was sat in the pizzeria, complaining about where all my money was going and how I had been spending it so quick. Carys' uncle, Marco, turned and said to me 'le mani bucate', which translates as 'they have holes in their hands'! A very original way of explaining how people have gone over budget! My excuse was that because I had made friends with people living in the area, I got to know about the hideaway bars they visited and what markets were best on which days. I felt like I had to fully take advantage of this information and buy whatever took my fancy!

Eating one of Carys's family's famous ice creams

For anyone moving abroad for a while, my main pieces of advice are as follows:
  • Learn to cook like the locals, you can be sure to impress your friends and family when you return home. When you do dine out, eat wherever the locals eat. You can sit with them, chat, gossip and share the same meal.
  • Smile and don't be shy about speaking another language. The first mistake is worrying that you look out of place. You might, but that's not a bad thing – people will you see you respect them, and in turn, open up to you more.
  • When it comes to local dress, don't just assume that the shops you will find in the town centres are where the locals shop. Don't be afraid to ask your new friends where they bought that dress that you really like. You will probably be introduced to a range of markets with excellent quality goods that you may ever have found on your own.

If you staying in a completely new place, it may seem like it will be hard to try and fit in but as long as you are willing to make friends, you will. Introduce yourself to everyone you meet. You don't know what doors this could open to an otherwise inaccessible world. Your experience transforms from travel to immersion, and the connections you make along the way will help you with this.


Roxanne Bridger lived in Florence for four months during 2009. She is a travel blogger for Simonseeks.com, a community of travel experts, enthusiasts and celebrities sharing their tips on the best places to eat sleep and visit, ranging from the best nightlife in Amsterdam to the cheapest hotels in London.

1 comment:

  1. Agree completely - Learning the local language and speaking at least a little goes a long way in making an expat feel at home in the host country. I have been learning the Dutch language as well as some Dutch cooking, and though both still need lots of improvement :) but the process gives insights into the local culture and helps integrate better.

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