It was in Italy where my appearance, that in northern Europe had marked me out as different-but-not-obviously-what-kind-of-different, stood me in good stead. The blonde girls in the hostels complained about having their bums pinched, about being harassed on the street by boys following them and whistling at them. Here in Italy, my colouring fitted in. With dark hair and olive complexion, I blended in and was able to walk around with almost no attention.
The only attention I did get was from Italians asking me the time, or tourists asking me directions to landmarks. In cafes the waiters were surprised when I said “Inglese”. I discovered that a lot of people working in cafes in Italy had relatives in Australia.
Old people also liked to talk to me – if I was sitting in a park or a town square or waiting for a bus there would always be an elderly person come and sit near me and start to chat. Not all of them spoke English but they chatted to me anyway, telling me stories I usually couldn’t understand but listened to anyway. “Ragazza gentile,” they said, patting my arm. I wondered if these elderly people were lonely, or just social people who would chat with anyone they came across. It humanised my days anyway, as most of my conversations in hostels were centred around where. Where are you from? Where have you been? Where are you going?
It was not often that people asked other questions, such as How are you? Why are you travelling? What do you miss the most about home?
These were questions I thought about a lot, even if no-one was asking.
I discovered gelato early on during my time in Italy. I was walking around in Milan one afternoon and saw a queue outside some little store and went to see what was going on. It was a hot afternoon. I joined the queue.
When I got to the front of the queue, I was entranced by the brightness of the colours and the huge range of choices. It was through gelato that I learned some Italian. Doppio = double. Bola = scoop. And the words for the flavours. Fragola = strawberry was the first word. This soft creamy mouthful shot through with chunks of fresh fruit and seeds that got stuck in my teeth only to reappear hours later as a reminder. It was a whole world away from the chemically flavoured strawberry ice cream I remembered from my childhood.
I would have had a gelato every day but I was on a budget so tried to ration myself. In every new city I would ask at the hostel where the best gelato was sold. This sometimes prompted heated debate amongst the staff as people had quite strong loyalties to certain gelato establishments and also to certain flavours. It was through recommendations I tried honey and ricotta, basil, and dark chocolate with orange. Flavours that would have otherwise been outside my comfort zone.
My limited budget left me not a lot of money for eating out but I tried once of twice a week to find somewhere simple to eat a pasta dish. My limited Italian meant my choices were sometimes good, sometimes bad. One day I received a plate of gnocci nestled in a bright orange sauce made from pumpkin and garnished with crispy sage leaves. Another day I received a plate of spaghetti in a stinking black sauce that looked and smelt like the residue left on sand when the tide goes out. The waiter looked impressed when I ordered it and on delivering it to my table managed to convey that this was a speciality. I tried my hardest to conceal my horror at the plate of black food in front of me, but knowing my budget did not allow for any replacement meal, I choked the food down. Or at least most of it.
Where possible and where I could find them, I bought food from the local markets. I ate a lot of tomatoes. Up until my time in Italy I didn’t think I liked tomatoes much, but the Italian markets had so many varieties. Sweet tomatoes the size of your thumbnail, large meaty tomatoes the size of your fist. Tomatoes in red, yellow, purple and striped combinations of all those colours. On my non-pasta nights my dinner would often be tomatoes on bread with a tiny pinch of salt and pepper.
As I stood at the counter of a cafe in a bus station in Florence one morning, waiting for my onward bus, sipping my cappucino, I watched entranced as the woman behind the counter performed a perfect dance of coffee preparation. Dealing saucers and spoons out onto the counter where people waited, she had three coffee machines on the go preparing little cups of espresso that she placed onto the saucers in front of the waiting customers, who added sugar, stirred once, drank in one gulp, put their money on the counter and left. She would then scoop up the dirty cups and spoons and money, one into the dishwashing tray, one into the till, and then she dealt another set of saucers and spoons for the next customers arriving.
The other example of perfection I saw in Florence was Michaelangelo’s David, who looked so lifelike despite being carved from cold white marble. The longer I stood and stared at him the more I was convinced he had moved. Did his leg muscle just twitch? Did he just shrug his shoulder? I left the room giddy. But the coffee dance…. the beauty of the coffee dance stayed with me longer than the beauty of David.
In Rome I discovered pistacchio gelato, at a little place outside the Vatican museum. The Vatican museum was amazing and overwhelming and I felt a little bit sad that all this art, all this wealth, belonged to a church that was supposed to serve the people. I came out, dazzled by the sunshine after the dark rooms, and immediately knew that gelato would cheer me up and restore balance to the world. In Rome, I felt I was walking through a city part film set, part museum. I walked around pretending I was the star of a movie, perhaps about a millionairess who runs away to Italy to get away from her family. In my mind I looked like Audrey Hepburn or Grace Kelly, wearing a pretty dress and high heeled shoes. In reality I probably looked more like the gardener at Audrey’s/Grace’s mansion in my jeans and old trainers.
After Rome, I landed in Naples, which made me want to laugh at its crazy, chaotic noisiness. Cars, scooters, pedestrians, all competing for the road and the footpath. People shouting, horns blowing. The petrol fumes not quite covering up the pervasive smell of garbage that hung in the air. Naples felt honest to me – it wasn’t trying to be prestigious or important – it was like a rude hand gesture to the rest of Italy. Like me or don’t like me, it seemed to say, but if you don’t like me, then fuck off somewhere else.
After Naples, I made the long journey back up the country to Venice, a magical city floating in the sea. Although the cheap hostel I stayed in on one of the outer islands was floating in a cloud of mosquitos whose bites left large swollen lumps on my arms and ankles. Arriving from the noise and chaos of Naples, Venice was tranquil, aloof, but with a hint of that same smell of garbage beneath the salty smell of the sea. Yes its main business was tourism, but it also seemed to exist on some kind of mystical plain above the thousands who thronged around the Piazza San Marco. Yes, there were crowds and touts and shops selling cheap tat and gondoliers in their stripy tops pushing boats along the canals, but it was still possible to lose the crowds and find a quiet place, although I did it unintentionally, by getting lost while looking for a famous church. Misreading my map, I took two wrong turns and found myself on a street that was empty of tourists, in an area that still seemed to be inhabited by locals, judging by the laundry flapping from lines outside the upper windows. But there was a Gelateria, and on that day I chose a doppio of melone and pistacchio.
Verona was my last stop before I headed out of Italy and back to the north again. Verona, the town of Romeo and Juliet, with the fake balcony and the little street where people wrote love messages on the walls. I didn’t buy it. Instead I bought a ticket for the opera, and sat, perched on hard stone at the top of a Roman amphitheatre while tiny figures on a stage below sang about love, betrayal, and death. It was one of those moments you find yourself in and want to laugh: I am in Italy, watching opera, sitting in an amphitheatre that was completed in 30AD.