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Monday, 2 March 2015

Tiamo Italia!

Buongiorno dalla Roma!

I have already surpassed my original plan to stay in Italy for 2 weeks, and I have at least one week to go. I'm having a great time and finding reasons to stay longer at every stop along the way.

This is my first time visiting southern Italy. I first landed in Roma and spent a few days soaking in the atmosphere, every narrow street and cobble of stone oozing history from its weathered surfaces. I was instantly stunned and comforted by the realization that a large city like Roma could be so quiet and pedestrian friendly, a welcome contrast from India.

In a suburb of Roma, my Couchsurfing hosts, Marco and Kuei, took me to the kickoff meeting of their community garden, topped off with a potluck serving sausage panini, wine and home baked cakes.
My favourite plaza in the whole world - Piazza Navona in Roma
Then I moved south to Napoli, with its impressive churches sprinkled around every turn and corner of its ancient curving streets. During the annual Carnivale, the food event Chocoland filled an entire street with booths serving chocolate based sweets. It took a lot of self control not to buy only a small bundle of pistacchio truffles and sugared pineapple.

In the end I did not go to Pompeii, as I chose to accompany my Couchsurfing host, Antonio, rock climbing on the Amalfi Coast (I personally did not climb). On the drive though, I had a pretty special view of Mt. Vesuvius.
A smaller, cheaper, and much less touristy colosseum - near Napoli
Mount Vesuvius overlooking Pompeii and the Napoli region
The gorgeous Amalfi Coast, near Napoli
After Napoli was Sicilia (Sicily). I heard this island was beautiful and wild, compared to the rest of Italy, but I still underestimated how amazing this place was.

Palermo, in the northwest of Sicily, was once the capital of a kingdom that dominated southern Italy, extending, at times, as far north as Napoli. This beautiful city is guarded by towering hills, nudged up to the soft sea, and boasts many churches, palaces and monuments with a melting pot of architectural styles from its past rulers, the Arabs, Greeks and Normans. As a result, Palermo is steeped in history, and it can be felt in the air like magic.
One of many hills that watch over Palermo's seaside
Mosaics glitter on the ceiling of Palermo's most impressive church - Chiesa Santa Maria dell'Ammiraglio
My Couchsurfing host here, Gill, filled me in on the amazing history of Palermo, pointing out what attractions to visit. He also gave me tips on hitchhiking in Italy. I was all ready to hitchhike the morning after, but my early energy and hopes were extinguished as soon as I walked out into the pouring rain. I decided to take the bus instead.

On the east coast of Sicily, the city Siracusa (Syracuse) is highlighted by Ortigia, an island town that extends like an arm into the Mediterranean Sea. Picture all the look and charm of Venice, but without the canals and it's still something special. I took a bicycle ride with my Couchsurfing hosts, Helene and Dino, along the seaside path. Back in Ortigia, I had a picnic with wine, bread, cheese, sausage, and olives while the sea crashed into the city walls below me, and seagulls fluttered in the wind.
There's no feeling like riding a bicycle in a new city - especially in a place like old town Ortigia in Sicilia!
A classic Italian picnic, with some Kurt Vonnegut, on the seaside
In Ortigia, I happened to walk into an office run by The Hub, an international organization setting up coworking spaces for social entrepeneurs. A very nice guy, Vincenzo, befriended me and showed me around the office as we discussed social initiatives in Italy and Canada.

He then connected me with Manuela, my host in Catania, which lies under sleepy Mount Etna, Europe's largest active volcano. Manuela travelled for almost 12 years before she decided to settle down back in her hometown, finding work at The Hub Catania. Like me, she used to keep earthworms under her kichen sink!

It was nice meeting and connecting with young, energetic community minded locals again. And as insignificant as this may seem, it was also nice doing little favours for my Couchsurfers in Siracusa - cooking a meal for them, moving furniture, and giving computer tips. It's been so long since I've been of any use in any way at all to anyone (except for Sadhana), I forgot what it felt like. This forgotten feeling left behind an emptiness that began creeping into my conscience many months ago in India. I guess that not being needed can make one feel lonely, without purpose, even nonexistent.
The view of Ortigia from my CS host's flat, complete with rainbow
An antique market in Catania, with Mt Etna in the background
Italy restored more than just my own feeling of significance. It reawakened my soul to a romantic culture and renewed my senses with pleasure - particularly my sense of taste.

Of course, the main reason I chose to come to Italy (besides the cheap $320 CAD flight) after India, was... the food! The contrast between different cuisines couldn't be more evident than between these two countries.

Indian cuisine is exploding with intensity and heat. I absolutely loved the flavours and spices of the curries, samosas and dosas, and sipped tea like it was water. But I feasted on just a few varieties of sweets and generally avoided baked goods, especially from the many places calling themselves "German bakeries." I can count on one hand the number of Kingfishers and Indian whiskeys I drank all trip. And after a few months, I couldn't look at a thali, the standard dish of India, swimming with different shades of yellow on white rice.

On the other hand, Italian cuisine has soothed my tongue with its rich and finely crafted flavours, easily appreciated with every slow and tingling second of time. Every morsel of pasta and pizza is exciting, every bite of sweets satisfying, and every sip of wine blissful. What India lacked most, Italy has revived in my withered palette - cheese, bread, olive oil, coffee and wine!
Pasta alla squid ink. Seriously
This purple cauliflower is twice the size of the normal yellow ones!
It didn't take me long to realize how narrow my scope of Italian cuisine was, especially regarding sweets. In fact, gelato aside, there are a huge variety of "dolci" which are among the best in the world! Some of my favourite sweets contained ricotta cream, such as cannoli, or are sprinkled with pistacchios, such as white chocolate truffles.
This collection of popular characters and quirky objects are - you guessed it - chocolate! Chocoland, Napoli
I could go on and on about the food... but Italy has also exceeded my expectations in many other ways.

This time I have had much more success finding Couchsurfing hosts than in my past visit, and they have been nothing short of amazing. They have sheltered me, fed me, showed me local experiences, and endeared me to Italian culture.

They taught me how to talk with my hands the way Italians do. They explained the various ways in which the infamous mafia invisibly affects the machinations of daily life and politics in Italy. They lamented at how most Italians don't speak English and are close minded, while I argued that they have so much to be proud of at home, so much that is imitated by other countries, that many are quite content not travelling and discovering other cultures (not that I'm fully supporting this).
Not sure if this is Italian culture or just weird, but this guy carries a cat on his shoulder everywhere he goes
Another aspect of their culture that is beautiful is their language. Being around my hosts and listening to them talk, I have fallen in love with "la bella lingua!"

Italian really is a very musical language and is both interesting and funny to learn. For example, the simple act of adding "issimo" emphasizes an adjective - "bellissimo" is very "bella", or beautiful. Italian words are similar to French and Spanish making it relatively easy to learn compared to, say, Hindi.

When I'm not spending time with my hosts, one of my favourite pastimes is simply walking around. Italy's cities are very well preserved, feel as old as time itself and, by historical design, have inviting plazas and pedestrian friendly streets.

In India's cities, on the other hand, I felt under constant tension with my surroundings. India's public realm is uninspiring, unsettling and suffocating, providing no peace and quiet. I always felt watched or targeted by the locals, like an animal at a zoo. And I suffered from the strain of the obviously inequality, living like a king while an ocean of poverty surrounded my island of content.

In Italy I felt relieved to be able to walk around in anonymity. And to have space for quiet contemplation, and just breathing.
A typical feature during lovely walks in Italy - this palace is in one of Napoli's main square
Graffiti - or street art - is one characteristic of the lawlessness that rules Sicily
Only a few things have held me back from having a more extraordinary time. It has rained more in 2 weeks in Italy than in 5 months in India, cooping me up inside more than I would have liked. My hosts in Sicily told me it's been especially rainy this winter. Also, I have terrible luck in going to specific restaurants or attractions only to find that they are closed - maybe half the time this happened! As a tourist this is frustrating, but I respect that Italians love to relax and enjoy life instead of opening their businesses for such long hours.

Maybe my luck with these things will change when I head back to northern Italy. They say that north and south Italy are like different countries but I haven't really noticed much of a difference yet.

I have behaved a lot like a tourist so far, unable to restrain my wallet against the temptations of food and grand churches. But I will begin taking steps towards my realization of becoming a low budget traveller again, as I look to stop in an ecovillage in central Italy, then on to visit friends. I also plan on self-imposing a ban on added sugars - but only once I leave Italy :)
Cause if I keep eating sugar at this rate, I'll end up like these guys in a crypt in Napoli

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