Saturday, 26 January 2013

Erasmus a Milano!

There is a lot of exciting stuff coming up, which I will without doubt write about later here. In three weeks, I am going to spend a long weekend in Dublin, during 'innovative learning week'. A couple of days ago, I had a very impulse buy-I bought a flight to Reykjavik. I'm going there in May after the exams, for a week. Is this the answer to my various whale dreams from 2012? I hope to see whales, beautiful landscapes, bathe in geothermal pools, and ride Icelandic ponies. That's not the only thing I have to look forward to...

I'm going to Milan in the second semester of the next academic year! I am still waiting to be allocated a place for France, though I hope I will be sent to Grenoble or Aix-en-Provence.

Why did I want to go to Milan, and not some other more traditional Italian city?

1. To beat the crowds. Ever been to Florence, Venice or the centre of Rome in July or August? It's not just hot in these beautiful cities, but there are also way too many people standing in front of amazing historical sites such as the colosseum. It's great being there off season, though if I were in one of these cities for a long period of time, I couldn't pick or choose.

2. An efficient (more or less...) metro system. The metro system in Milan is like the one in London, wherever you are, there is usually a station nearby. You can go to just about everywhere without walking too much. Whilst Florence hasn't got a metro system, Rome's is rather useless. It is understandable why; Rome being a city-museum, it must be difficult to reach all important sites given that there are so many treasures under the surface of the city, and so much archaeological work going on. That said, living in a big city is made 100 times more easy if there is a good metro system. When in Rome, I have always had to catch buses, trains, then buses again, then walk to reach the destination. Commuting in Milan is slightly more comfortable.

3. Milan doesn't only have a good metro system, but it is also connected to everywhere! You can catch a 6 hour train to Paris, a 2 hour train to Venice, an hour to Switzerland, or a 3 hour train to Rome. You can even take a train to Russia, from which you could take a train to Beijing, should you wish! I feel comfortable when I know I am not stuck, but instead pretty free to move independently. I look forward to taking advantage of this central location next year.

4. Milan IS beautiful. There's the impressive duomo which inspired Alan Lee's Minas Tirith, le colonne, reminiscent of a time gone by, the impressive castello sforzesco, the cultural last supper by Da Vinci and a wealth of other great works of art over at la Pinacoteca di Brera. Aside from these treasures, there is the up until recently neglected Naviglio, a series of canals with an array of boutique shops along the side. L'università degli studi is an impressive renaissance building with many courtyards, tucked away and out of site. Should I ever wish to escape the mayhem of city life, the magnificent Italian lakes are but a stone's throw away.

5. It's a real city, it's international, and it's certainly one of the most important cities in Europe in terms of design. With design comes hand in hand creativity, which I am hoping to find in the Lombardy's capital city.

Saturday, 12 January 2013

Is Italy the perfect country?

As you may have gathered from my previous posts, I study Italian and French at University. I visit Italy regularly, live with my boyfriend who is Italian, I founded an Italian society at my University last year, and I often attend Italian cultural events at the Italian Institute in Edinburgh. I love Italy for its outstanding beauty, both natural and man-made. Rome is one of the most vibrant Ancient cities in the world, where one really gets a sense of continuity whilst navigating the many districts; you are able to see icons of the Roman, Medieval, Religious and Modern world in a very short space of time. The Alps are so majestic, the snow capped Monte Bianco/Mont Blanc crowning the country which is so famously shaped like a high-heeled boot. The lakes showcase some of nature's most beautiful colours, rich azure and India green, dotted with the cupressus trees and red roofed villages which make them quintessentially Italian. This land also offers secret coves, clear blue seas and exclusive islands. I love the pride in culture, from the magnificent uffizi in Florence to the Duomo in Milan, which inspired Alan Lee's dreamy interpretation of Tolkien's Minas Tirath. It's difficult not to feel welcome amongst Italian people, who want you to sample the best of their delicious cuisine. Above all, I love the language. It is difficult to not sound like you're singing or reciting poetry, when open vowels are everywhere and harsh consonants are rare. Knowing this language makes visiting Italy or meeting Italian people all the more enjoyable. I would definitely say that Italy is one of my favourite countries.

Despite feeling very close to this country and culture, I have over the years found some aspects of Italy which I don't like. I will try to tackle this from an objective point of view, looking  at ideas or practices which just seem completely illogical, in a negative way, in relation to many other cultures. These may seem like generalisations, and I won't deny there are. It can be said however that there is often a lot of truth behind stereotypes and generalisations, if one wishes to describe a nation as a whole. There are certainly thousands of individuals out there who do not conform to these criticisms.

1. National hypochondria. "No you can't go outside, especially not with wet hair. The wind will cause you to catch un colpo d'aria and you will be bed ridden for the whole night. You may even be unfortunate to get a bout of la cervicale". Having lived with an Italian mamma, I can safely say that going outside in Italy is far more perilous than stepping out in Scotland or Italy. Italian children are often wrapped in many layers whenever they decide to go out and enjoy the great outdoors. Any subsequent flu will be put down to a dire case of colpo d'aria. This BBC article first alerted me to the dangers of such illnesses two years ago. After which, I became aware of the common mention of these very unfamiliar illnesses in Italy. However did I get by as a young child, running outside in the snow in nothing but pyjamas and slippers? I guess I didn't consider the existence of colpo d'aria. Yet the cunning businessmen have an answer, don't forget to wear your maglia della salute. Wearing it gives you the immune system of a Brit, the magical ability which prevents you from getting ill. I find it ever so ironic, then, that Italians are more than happy to live in an air-conditioned environment. Not only is it mean on the pocket and the environment, but perhaps also its not such a favourable condition for promoting good health. To put this into perspective, in Korea people believe that sleeping beside a fan puts you at risk of a very likely death. I wish Italian parents and their children would just put down these superstitious wives tales, and try out a weekend at Glastonbury festival. It would do good to their immune systems, a bit of real fresh air, cold evenings and dirt. It's about time their bodies built up some much needed immunity.

Unsurprisingly, in a hypochondriac society, health is also detrimental to one's overall feeling of wellness. Unfortunately, Italians seem to think that health is based upon obsessive hygiene. In the initial stages of my relationship, my boyfriend absolutely had to shower every day, sometimes twice. If this was made difficult or impossible, the world seemed as if it were crumbling down. If you hang out with young Italians, I am sure you'll notice that an issue is made if there is nowhere to wash your hands prior to having a picnic. This is probably the reason why Italians aren't famous for having picnics. If you're lucky, there will usually be some superhero friend with some hand sanitizer to save the day before eating out. Shame it only kills 99% of germs, and allows the other 1% to breed with unlimited space, free from rivals and immune to all human made chemicals... It needs emphasising, this compulsive fear of dirt can really steal time from people's lives. Over Christmas, I had some Italians staying with me. They took about an hour every morning and every evening cleaning themselves. That's a lot of time wasted, for something which in the long run is more likely to accelerate the production of oil in sweat glands, meaning you actually have to clean more often, and lower the natural capability of your immune system. Just saying.

Like in all cultures, there are many contradictions to this national obsession with hygiene. Italians are more than happy to put their fingers in a salt pot in the middle of the table, where other people have put their fingers. The same goes for olive and other finger foods, and bread in the middle of the table gets touched by everyone. I don't really care about this, it seems okay amongst family and close friends, it just seems contrary to other obsessive hygiene practices.

2. "We have the best cuisine in the world, and also the healthiest!" Italians are also very confident in the belief that their cuisine is not only the best, but the most healthy cuisine in the world. The Mediterranean diet is indeed composed of many healthy ingredients: the good fats, olive oil and nuts, a huge variety of seasonal fruit and vegetables, light salads and colourful omelettes. That said, there are some serious drawbacks to the Italian diet in particular:

  • The lack of breakfast, or poor nutritional content. Do you think your tea and bowl of cereal with milk isn't sufficient in the morning? At least you are getting hydrated and somewhat energised. Italians generally have an espresso or cappuccino for breakfast, accompanied by a couple of Mulino Bianco biscuits or an industrially produced brioche. Shameful, considering what delicacies some of their local bakeries produce. In comparison, these pre-packaged croissants taste like plastic filled with cement paste. They often contain high levels of sugar, which are unlikely to keep you energised for more than an hour and likely to leave you ravenous by 11am. 
  • This is what leads to the midday feast, what a shock for the tummy! It's not just a rumour that Italians like their carbs. A courgette is rather healthy, before you stuff it with cheese, bread, eggs and oil and serve it straight after a hearty dish of pasta with guess what? More bread. It's delicious food, but really could be healthier in moderation. Take the pizza for example, Italians often eaten an entire pizza at least once a week in Italy. But should they, for optimum health? A healthy meal is generally thought to contain between 400-700 calories, and have a high proportion of vegetables, a balanced amount of protein and carbohydrates and minimal fat. How many calories in an Italian pizza? If a 6th pizza contains 320 calories, and I eat the whole thing, that's an enormous 1920 calories in one meal. With that you could eat a high calorie sandwich and 5 chocolate bars, a homemade curry, a litre of coke, a portion of chips and a couple of mars bars. This is some serious binging in one meal, considering that the RDA for women is 2000 calories. A pity that a whopping proportion of that pizza is cholesterol and saturated fat. It's delicious, but cut back on it, moderation is much needed!
  • The continuous consumption of coffee. Caffeine causes stained teeth, speeds up heart rate and raises stress levels. It is also linked with poor circulation.

More annoyingly, I have noticed that Italians are often very cautious about trying other cuisines, and sceptical of their health properties. An Italian friend said to me only last week with regards to Quorn, "but WHAT do they put in it?" (with a disgusted face). I answered calmly, "just a variety of mushroom and egg whites". He still sustained a disgusted face which suggested that he knew better. I'd like to see fewer Italians abroad searching for Italian food, and more seeking the exotic culinary delights of other countries. It is after all part of the travel experience. It's quite reminiscent of certain Brits who head to Benidorm and live off fish and chips and bangers and mash...

To summarise this section, most things are good in moderation, even the Scottish battered mars bar. I get the impression that Italians are too confident about the health benefits of their cuisine to care about moderation. Maybe the next generation will be more aware about this, considering some shocking recent statistics regarding child obesity in Italy?

3. Superficiality. It may seem only natural that the nation which produced Gucci and Armani is also very vain. Once I was at an Italian school, and a teacher turned up her nose at me and stormed off, sighing. At the time I didn't speak Italian, and asked my boyfriend what obscene social taboo I had committed to be so blatantly shunned. Apparently she didn't like my boots. Italians have two opposing concepts, "bella figura" and "brutta figura". If you fall down a flight of stairs, don't expect instant sympathy if you just slightly bruised your ankle. You have just committed a brutta figura. You have embarrassed yourself in public. I apparently didn't give across a good impression with that teacher, so I also experienced a brutta figura. How does one make a good impression? I often fear getting dressed to leave the house in Italy, where fashion, composure and make-up are all greatly observed and judged. I often feel like I am likely to be judged as a person, based upon whether what I am wearing matches. It would be great to rebel in Italy, when you see goths or punks, they really unique. Even though I am complaining for the social pressure and judgemental aspect of Italian culture, it is nice to see people well dressed in public, I must admit. Maybe the moral to this story is again, that Italians need to do things in moderation. It's okay to wear what you feel comfortable in sometimes, though we could most definitely make use of your fashion tips from time to time!

4. An Obsession with Queen. I won't say much about this topic, apart from the fact it really annoys me. Was Brian May ever really cool? Where are David Bowie, Leonard Cohen and modern bands like Radiohead in Italy's music scene? When radio gaga comes on the radio or is played in a bar, it's difficult to avoid hearing enthusiastic fans singing along, or at least see them mouthing the words. The reason for this, we will never understand.

5. An infatuation with capitalism. On the whole, Italy does a really good job of avoiding capitalism. There are very few chains on the street in relation to other countries. Obviously a variety of well-known supermarket names, brands and high street clothes shops exist, yet the private sector is still exceedingly popular. It's fantastic that Italy has avoided the spread of Starbucks, and that one can get a really good coffee in numerous family run bars in just about every Italian city and town. Despite this, Italians are in other ways very much prey to the seduction of capitalism. I have already mentioned a loyalty to household brands such as Mulino Bianco, but this is rather normal. What I find crazy is the general belief in Italy that there is a specific object that is needed for every necessity. Italians often ask how people from other countries wash their private parts after going to the toilet, without the godsend that is the bidet. We do have sinks and showers, isn't that enough? The bidet is an incredible invention, but other countries do it differently and people's idea of what is hygienic varies. In Asia, many think that placing used tissues in your pocket is disgusting. Some think that eating cheese is revolting. I can't criticize hard cut cultural beliefs, but I can say that the context in which they stand can seem bizarre.  My sister-in-law feels lost without "fazzoletti", or handkerchiefs when she has a cold, even if there is toilet paper in the house. My boyfriend's friend also seemed shocked when I said we didn't have any napkins. Tap water is never okay, not even if during blind taste tests no one can tell the difference. Only bottled water, which has been in storage for often more than a year and exposed to sunlight and heat suffices for the particular tastes of sophisticated Italians. I'm not saying this is wrong, it just seems as if too many people are trained flashing colourful suggestions of capitalist industries.

6. Love hate relationship with garlic. I really do not understand this one. People associate garlic with Italian cuisine, from garlic bread to the strong taste of garlic in certain pasta sauces. Garlic is quite common in Italian cuisine, contrary to what Italians say. Many sauces and antipasti include garlic as an ingredient. It is of course the main ingredient in spaghetti aglio olio. Strangely then, many Italians seem quite in denial about its presence. They often praise the good taste of food, declaring there is no garlic in a dipping sauce. I check, I bring it to their attention that there is indeed garlic, and suddenly we have a tragedy on our hands; the infected Italian must drink milk and wash their hands in lemon, drink coffee, chew gum and gurgle bicarbonate of soda to prevent contamination. Garlic is extremely healthy, and can really improve the taste of a dish. I'm not saying Italians should eat garlic before making a speech or their first kiss, but it really is an ingredient which should be enjoyed regularly without such worry about the social consequences.

7. "We are the best" syndrome. A lot of nations have this problem, including some Brits who look back at our colonial past and somehow feel they are partly responsible for the rise of the British Empire, or for a win in football against Spain in the world cup... Italians are not much different in this respect. Ask an Italian: Italian wine is the best (French wine pales in comparison) and Greece and Italy are responsible for having created culture in Europe (let's not mention any Eastern civilisations which passed them philosophical, literary and linguistic ideas). I feel that Italian education is partly to blame for this; it gives Italians the idea that they are studying a very progressive European history, starting from the dawn of civilisation (the classical world) and resulting in the modern day. Eastern influence and cultures are often avoided, or taught in a way in which they are very much dwarfed by their European counterparts, resulting in an extreme pride of being European, yet often an Eurocentric perspective on everything.

8. Extreme passions. Italians are probably amongst the most skilled seducers in the world, with their creative minds, romantic language and sceneries and soft words. Yet most goods in the world are contrasted with evils: you don't ever want to see an Italian angry. I have heard Italian life described as theatre, and this is very true. Italian love is deeper, a more thrilling rollercoaster and thus exceedingly more exciting. Italian hate is the complete opposite, to balance things out. Gestures, some of the harshest and most intricate swearwords ever, insults meant with such compassion. It just feels very exaggerated  and for someone who is used to less exaggeration, it can be overwhelming.

9. La lingua forbita. You take a simple sentence, swap a few words and add some extra clauses, and create a complicated sentence which people may struggle to understand. Why? It makes you look more intelligent and gives across an idea of formality. It also makes you seem more pretentious and less capable of communicating simple ideas. Italian literature is one of the least accessible in Europe, mainly for this problem. Often the grammar involved is simple, but the fussy collocations and obsessive use of synonyms hold back some readers. Sure, it is good to read to learn, yet I believe a good book is one which can be read on many different levels by a variety of readers, whether they have graduated in Italian literature or not.

10. Absurd bluntness. "I'm just being honest". This was one of the first faults I found with my beloved Italy. Blunt comments like "What have you done to your hair?!?!" (accompanied with gaping mouths), "eww you have loads of spots!!" or people spitting out wine you gave them, are quite common phrases and occurrences. A good day can soon be turned into a bad day if you are made so aware of the defects that other people see in you. I find some sincerity refreshing, for example if I ask a friend if she likes my dress, I'd prefer her to be honest. If however I am quite comfortable with how I look, or not really considering it, and someone picks up on one of my many insecurities, I am likely to feel hurt and embarrassed. Unfortunately, this happens way too often in Italy. My boyfriend's friend came over for Christmas, and wrinkled up his nose before eating a lot of what he ate. He was not shy in telling us what he loved and hated. Sure, at least we knew that he was being honest when he said he loved food, but quite frankly, we didn't ask for his negative opinion. It's not just him, but many Italians who are very open in making public judgements. Tired of this same old situation, I actually let him know on this occasion that such blunt comments aren't so welcome here, that they are considered rude or even mean. If he had done the same in a country such as Japan, he may just never have been invited back for dinner a 2nd time. I understand that this is a cultural difference, that perhaps people are more used to such blunt insults in Italy, yet I am not convinced it makes much difference. I know many Italians who are very self-conscious about petty issues like spots, skin colour, hair and weight. They have probably been made aware of such defects by other people. Manners do exist for a reason, to protect people's feelings.

To Conclude...

Even though these problems do exist, I very much love Italy, and actually feel closer to it given that I can see past the perfect postcard image of the country. Imperfections make us human and it is far easier to appreciate beauty when contrasted with the defects that are seen in every nation. The positive sides of this country definitely outnumber the negative, as you may have seen in my previous posts. Being pre-warned about certain cultural differences, above all bluntness, may help you avoid an embarrassing situation in which you feel you insulted.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Language Resolutions for the New Year

1. Read more novels and online magazines in French and Italian. So often I feel wretched that I am unable to understand literary texts, then I pick up a short novel like Amélie Nothomb's Stupeur et Tremblements, and quite suddenly, I feel far more relaxed about my language skills. Though a great book, Madame Bovary is hardly likely to in still me with such a sensation. Sure, I still didn't get EVERY word but I got the generally gist of what was going on, and managed to enjoy the book. Magazines which interest you in your native tongue may also prove good options in your target language. There is no point picking up an article in Swahili on the financial situation in Uganda if you wouldn't read it even in English. If you are learning you really need motivating material to make you want to continue reading. I need to follow this through also for Italian, my target books are Gli Indoeuropei e le origine dell'Europa and Alessandro Baricco's Oceano Mare. Watch this space.

2. Improve my listening skills. People keep telling me to listen to the radio. The conservation usually goes somewhat like this:

Me: I don't feel very confident with my listening skills.
Friend (another language learner): You should try listening to the radio.
Me: Do you do that? What do you listen to?
Friend: Umm no but I know it helps.

The problem with this well meant suggestion is that I don't listen to the radio in English. I sometimes find music or radio plays I really enjoy, though I never listen to it live. I do however watch some television programmes, films and the news.

What can I do then? The obvious answer would be to watch French and Italian television and movies, though when at home with my parents, I have no access to fast internet and there is no French or Italian channel. I have a few movies but for some bizarre reason, they only offer English subtitles. I need to buy some other language DVDs from Amazon FR/IT which offer French/Italian subtitles for the hard of hearing. I will continue to listen to my favourite Disney songs translated with lyrics, and find new songs. The next step would be to find Game of Thrones and Doctor who dubbed into French and Italian. That would definitely entice me, and it wouldn't really feel like studying after a few evenings straining to understand what they hell is being said.

3. Stop doing everything in English. If I need to find out a recipe, a review or general information on wikipedia I generally search on, in English. Imagine what I'd learn if I were to type "ricetta cantuccini" the next time that I fancied making biscuits. Not only would they be more cool and authentic, but I would be actively using and developing upon my language skills. Even if you are not where your target language is spoken, you can act as if you were.

4. Grammar! I am not scared of it, I like reading about it, but geez, French inverted hypothetical senses give me a headache! I am not sure why, but when you know you find something difficult you shouldn't just avoid doing it. This semester I will resolve this problem, besides also trying to tackle certain Italian collocations.

5. Talk more. I keep telling myself I never have opportunities to speak. I live with an Italian guy, yet I hardly ever debate or tackle complicated issues in the language. I really should. I should also make more use of and tandem, as speaking with natives is a really good way to become fluent in your target language. If I miss an opportunity, I should discuss things in my head. I.e. Bonjour monde! ça va? Est-ce que tu pense que je devrais sortir ce matin? Ou devrais-je rester au lit pendant tout le matin, je devrais me bouger seulement quand j'ai faim, et puis j'aurai la possibilité de faire des crepes pour le petite-déjeuner! Miam! J'adore des crepes! Even speaking with yourself keeps the language alive.

6. Take extra classes in French. I will not lie to myself, sometimes learning to languages side by side more or less from scratch involves a lot of stress. I feel inferior to the advanced students in my French class, I feel there is an infinitive list of idioms and new vocabulary to learn in both languages. It is not wrong to seek extra help from elsewhere. The French institute is quite far away, but offers reductions for University students, so that may be a worthwhile option.

7. Don't restrict the knowledge input. Studying two languages and linguistics, it is easy to think it impossible to study anything else at the same time. That would be a shame, considering I not only want to learn to play an instrument but also would love to learn Chinese Mandarin and Brazilian Portuguese. I may just buy myself a basic grammar and start learning as a non-academic, non-stressful, and enriching hobby.

Watch this space.