In a strange turn of events that involved an exchange with a friend of a friend, this week I was a guest on Keith Petit’s Expatriate Act podcast. (Sorry, Keith, I mean internet-based-radio-show!). This somehow turned into a two-hour discussion over Skype on what it means to be an expat and the weird and wonderful experience that is living overseas.
I highly recommend that you give it a listen, even though it’s pretty long (maybe save it for a long car journey?). However, I warn you the language is strong (read: lots of swearing, sorry Mom) and the discussion touches on some rather controversial topics. Read more
Candy-coloured houses set precariously atop the rough, jagged coastline of the Italian Riviera and a Mediterranean backdrop of lapping turquoise. *Sigh*. I can now confirm from personal experience that the Cinque Terre, or ‘five lands’, are literally postcard picture perfect. So, here’s a little Cinque Terre guide (in fives, naturally) on what to look out for in Italy’s picturesque cluster of seaside towns:
(disclaimer: apologies for looking so grumpy in these pictures)
5 things to see in Monterosso
First on my list was Monterosso, the furthest west of the Cinque Terre. Most visitors either start or finish here, but I would thoroughly recommend finishing in Riomaggiore because the sunset is so fantastic. (Scroll down to see what I mean).Read more
First of all, let me start with a disclaimer: the Liebster Award is definitely not a big fancy trophy. It’s not some kind of Blog Oscar (Blogscar?) or the ‘Digital Nomad’ equivalent of a Grammy. Kanye West isn’t about to come out of the woodwork with a round of, ‘Imma let you finish…’, Meryl Streep isn’t going to get in trouble for a politically-motivated acceptance speech and Adele isn’t going to say ‘fuck’ every five minutes.
What is the Liebster Award?
The Liebster Award is an ‘award’ passed from travel blogger to travel blogger by nomination. The aim of the award is to connect writers together and raise the profile of lesser-known travel bloggers (like lil ole me). Read more
My favourite number is 13. Not because I was born on the 13th, or that the number 13 has significance in my life, but because I figure that a number that is unlucky for some has to be lucky for someone.
Much in the same way, the year that was essentially a real-life season of Game of Thrones for the world actually turned out to be a pretty awesome year for me personally. And not because I’m a “Leave” supporter or a Donald Trump fan. My year just kind of happened that way.
So sorry (not sorry) to gloat and rub it in your face, 2016, but you did not break me. 2016 had to be lucky for someone, right? Read more
Remember when I said I was going to spend the summer improving my Italian so that I’d leave bella Italia near-fluent by September? Yeah, that didn’t happen. But I have been working on it, completing my daily tasks on Duolingo, eavesdropping on my students when they think I don’t understand what they’re saying, observing conversations around the dinner table with host families, and collecting new and strange words like the language nerd that I am.
So, although I haven’t actually achieved the level of Italian that I wanted to these past three months, I have made some progress, the least of which is compiling a list of ten of my favourite Italian words that I’ve most enjoyed adding to my limited Italian vocabulary: Read more
I set myself three challenges this summer in Italy: to improve my Italian (errr… I’ll myself a generous 5/10 for that one), to see Florence (tick!) and to discover the Holy Grail of Italian cuisine – the ultimate gelato.
However, creating a gelato guide turned out to be a lot more complicated than I first thought. On one of my first nights in Italy I started my quest by asking a seasoned gelato-enthusiast for recommendations on the best flavours and flavour combinations, but instead was met this response:
‘Well, first you have to choose your gelateria.’
Choose a gelateria? Is there such a thing as a bad gelateria? How can you tell the good from the bad?
‘Make sure it’s homemade.’
How do I do that?
‘Cono or coppetta?’
‘Frutta or Crema?’
‘What about seasonal flavours?’
It turns out that there is a lot that separates the gelati amateurs from the gelati connoisseurs (or conoscitore – see! my Italian is improving, promise). Here are just a few tips from a keen gelati apprentice (a young gelato-hopper, if you will), which set me down the right path:
1. Look for the word ‘artigianale’
This word means homemade. These days a lot of Italian gelati is made in factories and shipped out across the country, so this word ensures that what ends up in your cono (cone) or coppetta (cup) is not mass-produced, but made fresh in-store, so you can really taste and see the difference. The flavours are intense, often made fresh in the early morning and sold out by the evening.
2. Look at the colours.
In particular, there are three flavours (gusti) that you can look at to make sure that your gelateria is legit:
Pistachio – is it a deliciously apple-crisp vibrant green? Bolt. True pistachio should be a gross bogey-colour somewhere between snot and gravel. If your pistachio is the colour of freshly cut grass then your gelateria is using colourants and chemicals to achieve that hideous verde.
Banana – is it a warm buttery yellow that reminds you of summers on the beach, pina coladas and getting caught in the rain? Leave. Similar to pistachio, a proper banana gelato should be a muddy browny-grey that reminds you of old discoloured chewing gum, and is damn delicious because of it.
Vanilla – look close. No, closer. Even closer. Can you see the teeny tiny specks of black in the vanilla? Good, then that means actual vanilla has gone into that mix, and not just extract. You’re welcome.
If your server is using a scoop then run a mile. Spatulas all the way.
4. Are there locals there?
If the gelateria’s clientele are tourists and foreigners then this place is not the best in town, so instead you should…
5. Ask around.
In the UK, if you stop someone on the street and ask for the best chippy in the area, you will be met with a plethora of responses. The answer depends on whereabouts you live, where your family go, where your friends go, how much salt and vinegar they douse the chips in, the consistency of their mushy peas, what they use to wrap the chips, whether they do scraps, how the juicy the doner meat is… (I feel another blog post coming on…) the list is simply endless. It’s all about personal tastes, history and brand loyalty. You get a different answer every time.
Gelaterias are not like that. You ask anyone in town and they will know exactly which gelateria is ranked the best in the area and why.
‘Oh, I’m not sure, I don’t really eat gelato…’ said no Italian ever.
I have looked out of car windows in disbelief as host families have driven past three or four perfectly good gelaterias just to take me to the ‘best’ one, several miles out of town.
Can I taste the difference? Maybe. My gelati palette isn’t quite Masterchef-level yet, but I figure an entire town can’t be wrong if they all agree on one place. And their recommendations haven’t let me down yet…
So now you’ve picked your gelateria, it’s f.i.n.a.l.l.y. time to pick your flavours. Here is the most important Italian phrase you will ever need:
‘Posso assaggiare?’ = Can I taste?
The answer is always yes. Always yes. As many flavours as you like. This is a serious business.
Frutta or Crema?
Flavours are divided up into these two categories:
Frutta is best for hot summer weather, as it’s sweet and refreshing. Think of combinations such as mango and coconut, pineapple and coconut (can you tell I like coconut?), apple and pear, or orange and lemon.
Crema is good for slightly cooler weather, evenings and if you’re just feeling like being a big fat bitch that day. Must-haves include tiramisu and coffee, milk chocolate and hazelnut, or pistachio and… in fact, just double or triple pistachio is fine.
Or go crazy and mix up frutta and crema like the freak that you are! I’m talking about apple and cinnamon, hazelnut and banana, or chocolate and cherries… ok, must stop drooling over my keyboard…
Why, oh why, if you are in a gelateria you would want to choose something that isn’t gelato, I don’t know. But, gelato’s little sister and lesser-known counterpart can be equally as tasty and cooling.
What is granita? Granita is essentially a slush puppy. A fruity frappe. Whisked up ice and syrupy goodness. A gloopy sorbet with more icy bits. Sucked through a straw and eaten with a spoon, it is particularly popular in it’s home region of Sicily.
Always go for lemon, it’s transcendent. Never go for mint, unless you enjoy drinking icy mouthwash.
So you have your trusty Google Translate or Word Reference app up and running to figure out the gelato flavour names in Italian where colour or pictures may have failed you, but sometimes there are some curved balls that don’t quite translate. Here are some that you are likely to come across:
Zuppa Inglese – The literal translation is ‘English Soup’. However, don’t be put off because there are no peas or carrots in sight. This is the Italian name for a dessert beloved by all British grandmas: trifle.
Malaga – Yes, Malaga like the boozy Spanish holiday resort frequented by 18-year-old Brits. Hence the flavour: rum and raisin.
Baci – The word means ‘kisses’ but is actually the name of a kind of chocolate sold in Italy. It includes milk chocolate and hazelnuts.
Puffi – Ok, stay with me on this one. Puffi is the Italian name for Smurfs. Yes, as in the cute blue cartoon characters with little white hats. This ice cream flavour is usually bright blue (obvs) and flavoured with vanilla, aniseed or bubblegum, sometimes with little white marshmallows on top. It is not a suitable flavour choice for anyone over seven years old.
So, what’s my verdict?
There’s a whole world of gelati out there! So many rules; some strictly to be obeyed, others made to be broken. I did my best to try different and unusual flavours every time I came across a new gelateria with excellent results nearly every time:
My favourite flavours this summer have included pomegranate, watermelon, amaretto (as in the alcohol, not the biscuits), guava, mango, violet, lime and mint, and coconut (did I mention I love coconut?).
I hope this brief introductory gelato guide will help you and your taste buds make informed gelati choices as much as it has helped me on my epic culinary journey around Italia’s gelaterias/my waist-widening fat-fest of a summer (it’s a hard job, but someone has to do it).
He was a professor at the University of Padua. He had lived all over the world. He brewed his own prosecco, and it tasted delicious. He was Italian. He had the words ‘Will you marry me?’ tattooed onto his chest. That was how he proposed to his now-fiancé.
What I love about Italians is that they say exactly what they mean, they are passionate about what they believe in, and they never skirt around a topic. You can’t get more ‘take it or leave it’ than that.
And of course, as soon as he learned I was from the UK, the conversation inevitably turned to the recent Brexit result. We drank his homemade prosecco and discussed it over the dinner table together; Italian, British, European.
Brexit has been a constant companion on my trip to Italy this summer; like my terrible tan lines, except more annoying and more difficult to get rid of. As soon as I mention that I’m from the UK people immediately say, ‘I’m so sorry about the Brexit situation. What is going on with the UK at the moment?’
That’s the reaction that Brexit is having in Europe and the rest of the world. Pity and bewilderment.
My first week in Italy was tainted by the news that the UK had voted to leave the EU. Tainted because it wasn’t the result I wanted or needed. The confirmation came through one morning of my training week at work.
There was a big group of 60 of us from different corners of the globe, excited to work in Europe for the summer. You could tell who the Brits in the room were because we couldn’t bring ourselves to even muster up a smile. We were distraught. The Scottish talked about independence. The Londoners pondered whether London was really so different from the rest of England and Wales. The Irish and Northern Irish were freaking out about border controls. David Cameron resigned. The pound dropped so low that we were afraid to withdraw money in euros.
The Americans, Canadians, Aussies, South Africans, Dutch and Trinidadians listened with sympathy:
‘Explain it to me,’ they said. ‘What does this mean for you now?’
We didn’t know. And we still don’t.
The next week and the weeks that followed, my Italian host families listened with sympathy:
‘Explain it to me,’ they said. ‘Why did people vote to leave?’
I can only answer that some people voted to leave because they thought it was best. They did their research. Some strongly believe that the EU doesn’t work for the UK. Some believe that the EU is undemocratic. Some believe that the money we put in to the EU could be better used elsewhere. They have their reasons, and although sometimes I don’t agree with them (and also sometimes they make very valid points that I do agree with), I can appreciate and respect their opinions.
However, many of those who voted to leave did not do their research. They didn’t consider the implications and consequences of their votes; the subtle changes as well as the huge changes it would bring; the domino effect of what this meant for the UK as a whole, for Scotland, for Northern Ireland, for those who rely on international business, or who live abroad or… the list is endless because it’s everyone.
The stories that followed the result made me so ashamed to be British. Stories of people yelling in the streets at each other, ‘Leave the country. We don’t want you here!’ Working immigrants being told to, ‘Pack your bags. You’re going home!’
Many interpreted the referendum as a vote about immigration. Those votes weren’t grounded in reason, or research, or thoughts for what was best of the people of the UK. Those votes were grounded in ignorance and hate. And therefore I can’t bring myself to respect those votes, or to respect the Brexit result itself because of them.
The issue of immigration really hits home for me because I am an immigrant. Sometimes people forget that. We like to think of an immigrant in terms of a stereotype that in reality doesn’t exist. In Hong Kong, we like to dress it up and say ‘expat’ because it sounds cooler, but at the end of the day I am an immigrant.
I left the UK in 2011 because I couldn’t get a job – any job, including unpaid internships and part-time work at McDonalds. That’s what migration is. The search for a better opportunity elsewhere. And many people congratulate me for living and working abroad, calling me brave or free-spirited or cultured, all while condemning those who come over to the UK for the same reasons.
Did you know that the UK has the highest number of citizens working abroad of any country in Europe? Therefore, Britain is the biggest producer of immigrants in Europe.
Today, I am an immigrant working in Hong Kong and I’m an immigrant working and travelling in Italy, a country in the EU. Will I still have the same freedom to work visa-free in an EU country in a couple of years’ time? Possibly. But it won’t be as easy. And this limbo period of uncertainty isn’t making it any easier.
I’ve been putting off writing a blog about Brexit partly because I still find it upsetting, partly because there are still no clear answers as to what this means for the UK, and partly because I’m sick of talking about it. But here I am writing about the dreaded B-word because the shadow it has cast on my summer here in Italy has been so vast and so dark that I can’t ignore it. It’s become a big part of my experience here.
And then an Italian man in my first host family this summer managed to sum up all of my feelings in one short sentence:
‘Europe should be a dream.’
Those words were so perfect.
Forget the politics, the backstabbing politicians, the migration issues, the refugee crisis, the threat of terrorism, the EU and the bloody money of it all, and consider that statement.
Britain likes to believe it is separate from Europe, like a big castle with a wide moat surrounding it. Britain refers to itself as the UK, Great Britain, England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales… and Europe as somewhere else. A completely ‘other’ place. A place different in terms of economy, geography and values, among many other things. The UK is an island unto itself.
Except it isn’t. It’s in Europe.
Whether it’s a part of the EU or not, the UK is still in Europe. We can’t just raise anchor and move out. The British Isles aren’t going anywhere. Europe is not going anywhere.
Europe should be a dream.
It really should. Rather than thinking of Brexit as the problem, I now believe that Brexit may just be one symptom of a much larger problem. For a continent that is in reality so small, and made up of so many tiny jigsaw-piece countries, we focus more on what divides us rather than unites us.
And for a world so small, and made up of so many borders and limitations both visible and invisible, why can’t we at least attempt, hope and dream to come together, EU or no EU, to admit that we are all part of the same? That we have a responsibility to each other. We can’t let our fears of what is ‘different’ or ‘foreign’ get in the way of that.
So despite all the negativity, the uncertainty and the constant questions from others as well as myself as to what the future holds post-Brexit, this is what I’m choosing to focus on. This is what I am going to promote.
It was a question that had fluttered into my mind on the bus on the way to the airport, then on the plane to Doha, then on the second plane to Milan, upon landing at 6AM Italian time, and finally when I was ripped off at a currency conversion bureau at Milan Malpensa that left me more than a little out of pocket. Grazie mille.
As I walked through the airport to get the train into the city centre, I stepped on a message written in both Italian and English:
tutti i passi che ho fatto nella mia vita mi hanno portato qui, ora
every step I have taken in my life has led me here, now
When I rounded the corner of the street and walked up to the entrance of my hostel, trailing my case behind me, I saw a familiar yellow tram pull up outside. I remembered the quirky mismatched chairs before I saw them. The bookcases bursting with secondhand paperbacks in every language you could think of. Had there been a piano on the far wall before? Maybe. They still did the best scrambled eggs at the free breakfast bar.
What had led me here, now?
After checking in, I grabbed a plate of those eggs and chose the table nearest the window, looking around the same hostel I had stayed in four years ago. We had sat on that table, the long middle one, and drank mojitos with people we had never met before and would never see again. We had laughed. We had walked down to the canals for Nutella crepes at midnight. Well, who am I to say ‘we’? We were all strangers. I don’t remember any of their faces, let alone their names.
I was inflicting a twisted déjà vu upon myself. I had returned to the same summer job, the same airport, the same city, even the same hostel that I had stayed in four years ago! So, why was I retracing my steps? None of this had happened by accident – I myself had written my resignation letter, booked my flights and packed my suitcases – but suddenly faced with the reality of being back I couldn’t understand why I had brought myself here. Why here, why now?
I surveyed the empty room. Just one guy, nibbling on some toast. It was too early for backpackers to be up yet, though I was full of energy and still on Asian time. I had done a bad job of my coffee at the self-service machine – all milk and sugar.
I opened my laptop. I started to write. And as I typed the words ‘What am I doing here?’ over and over again, allowing a stream of consciousness to fill the page, I started to realise the answer: so I could ask myself that very same question.
Sometimes people have ups and downs. Even people who look like they’re living the high life in Hong Kong. A few rough patches and bumps in the road. No more than anybody else, perhaps – that’s life – but I’d had a bumpy year… or two.
Maybe something in me remembered the summer of 2012 – dancing all night in Rome, playing drinking games in Bajardo, consuming obscene amounts of pizza, gelato and spritz aperol. And this same part of me thought, ‘Amy, you need a little more of that.’
So my feet led me back here, now. Not to chase the past, relive old memories, or repeat the same experience I had already had, but to spend a summer being… happy. A summer of ‘freedom’. A summer of drinking espresso and prosecco, of eating ripe Mediterranean tomatoes like apples, of speaking Italian badly, of seeing a side of Italy that you can’t find in guide books, of laughing, of tanning, of making lifelong friends out of strangers, of singing ridiculous songs about bananas and llamas and magenta flamingoes.
And I didn’t even know I wanted and needed all of those things until I was already in Milan, questioning the motives that had led me there. Sometimes, your instincts kick in and you make choices without knowing why. Some people are lead by their head, others their heart, and I am led by my feet. My head might have been confused, but my feet knew exactly what they were doing. They always do. They had led me back to my happy place.
And so I decided to have the best summer.
I left Milan for San Remo and I met the best bunch of people. I dug my feet into the sand on Taggia’s beach and watched the Mediterranean Sea lap at my ankles. I donned my red t-shirt and ACLE heart and got back into the routine of working with kids (how had I forgotten how hilarious children are?). I started serious work on my gelato gut. I stayed in an actual castle in Castelfranco. I cycled through fields of sunflowers. I danced Zumba at White Night in Montebelluna. I went to a Japanese art exhibition in Treviso. I repeatedly lost games of Uno to opponents under ten years old. I did the most tourist thing and took a photo of myself leaning against the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
I feel like I have laughed more in these past few weeks than I have in the last couple of years put together. And the best part is that I’m barely halfway through my time here yet. It’s still a work in progress but summer 2016 in Italy is definitely one of the best decisions I have made in a long time. Thank you, feet. You know me better than I know myself.
Outside of the UK, I have lived in two places: Hong Kong and Italy. Therefore it sounds a bit biased to claim that the Italians and the Chinese are kindred spirits, because their countries are the only two places I’ve lived in away from home. However, living in these two very different corners of the globe, I have felt déjà vu more than a few times and have thus come up with a theory that Italianos and Heung-Gong-ers have more in common that you may think…
They are the best at food
Are there any cuisines more universally beloved than Italian and Chinese foods? You can find Italian and Chinese restaurants anywhere in the world almost as easily as you can find an Irish pub.
Interestingly, I can vouch that both Chinese food in Italy and Italian food in China are utter rubbish. Like Batman and Superman, I guess they are separately amazing and disastrous together. Sorry, Ben Affleck.) And for both Italians and the Chinese, mealtime is family time and everyone sits around the table and shares.
Mamma Mia! Ho May ah! Spaghetti = noodles, fried rice = risotto… coincidences? I think not!
They invented all the things
Paper, compasses, umbrellas, alcohol, kites, printing, the cuppa tea, clocks… Thank you, China. Roads, sewage systems and sanitation, concrete, the calendar, city planning, the coffee machine, really good wine… the Romans send their regards. I rest my case.
They were both home to powerful historic civilisations
I see your Colosseum and I raise you The Great Wall. I see your Chinese dynasties and I raise you the Roman Empire. And who wouldn’t want to see a fight between Mulan and a gladiator? Both places were once home to the most advanced civilisations of their time and have some of the richest and most fascinating histories in the world.
They are hypochondriacs
Oh mio dio! Honest to god, when I was working in English summer camps in Italy, water games had to be held at least four hours after mealtimes in case the children drowned. While in Hong Kong, people freak out if the air con isn’t on or a window isn’t open in case they get sick from the room being “too stuffy”, all while wearing a surgical mask that makes me think I’m really working as an extra in 28 Days Later.
Traditional values at heart
In both cultures, families of several generations live under one roof. Whether you call her nonna or popo, your nan probably lives with you at the very least. It’s also worth noting that both Italy and Hong Kong have some of the lowest birth rates in the world, mostly likely because couples don’t get too much privacy living with their parents.
Both Hong Kong and Italian families are generous, welcoming you into their homes like one of the family and constantly insisting that you should eat more of their food. And as for traditional values… let’s just say that neither Italy nor Hong Kong is going to be legalising gay marriage any time soon!
Who would I least like to meet on a dark night, a member of the triads or the mafia? Hmmm. Tough choice. There was a time when the mafia practically ran Italy, and their reputation is immortalised in films such as The Godfather.
In Hong Kong, the former Kowloon Walled City was filled with triad activity, opium dens and brothels, outside the reaches of the law. If rumours are to be believed, both underground gangster circles are still very much alive, thriving and influential, but I definitely don’t want to comment on that in case I wake up with a horse’s head on my pillow…
Mad about brands
Something I cannot fathom in general is a love of big brands, which are crazy popular in both Italy and Hong Kong.
As soon as a new iphone is released, people in HK are queuing up overnight to get the latest version, even if their current model is working fine (not to mention the amount that are smuggled over the border to be sold in China); no outfit is complete without a designer (or knockoff designer) bag; and the amount of luxury shopping malls that exist in Hong Kong is ridiculous.
Journeying to the West, Italians love their fashion, designers and brands, and the status it shows. The kids I taught in Italia all wore spotless converse or Nike trainers while dressed in plain white t-shirts with brand names printed in the corner. I’ve heard it said that Italians would rather save money on basics than scrimp on luxury.
Cultural kindred spirits
Of course, in many other ways, Italy and Hong Kong couldn’t be more different. The Italian relaxed pace of life and lack of urgency versus Hong Kong’s workaholic efficiency are polar extremes; a midday siesta in Hong Kong is as unthinkable as a skyscraper in Rome; a 24-hour 7-eleven or McDonalds in Italia is as out of place as a vineyard in the Fragrant Harbour.
Despite this, I love the idea that two complete opposite peoples can be cultural kindred spirits, affirming that deep down we are all human and also that I seem to have followed the my taste buds when I have chosen countries to live in. Did I mention that Italy and Hong Kong also happen to be the best places to live? I promise I’m not biased.
As for other cultural twins in the world, I have another theory that Brits and Koreans are soulmates, but that’s a discussion for another day…