Thursday, July 31, 2008

Swapping Italian caffe for a cup of Earl Grey tea

When my husband's work asked him to transfer to Europe for an ex-pat assignment, we made up a big list of pros and cons before we made the big decision to come here.

The cons list included things like:

- I would leave my career for 18 months and possibly go insane without a full-time job (this has nearly happened on more than one occasion, chocolate helps)
- We would miss our family and not be able to bring our beloved golden retriever with us
- Both of us would become unrecognisably obese due to the Italian food we would daily gorge ourselves with. Thankfully this hasn't happened, but there is still another 9 months to go before we move back so watch this space.

We also had a big list of pros which obviously outweighed the negatives and hence we are in Florence. One big ticket item on the pro list was that by coming to Europe, I would be able to spend a lot more time with my family that I don't otherwise get to see.

I emigrated to Australia from Poland in 1983 but still have a lot of family throughout Europe especially in Poland, Germany and the UK.

So, when Jason asked me if I wanted to accompany him on a business trip to London last week, I jumped at the opportunity to be able to spend time with my step-sister, my cousin and both their new babies. Due to the distance, expense and everything else that goes with living 24 hours flight time away from each other, I realised that I had only seen my step-sister a handful of times in my life. And I had never met my neice. Here is a picture of me holding my cousin's divine little baby and my sister Natalia and her beautiful daughter. Look at how slim she is even after having a baby not long ago - I'm so hoping that's genetic.

Natalia moved to London with her husband some time ago as she told me that there are just not as many opportunities to get ahead financially in Poland. Coming from Australia where opportunities are on each street corner (provided you are willing to work hard), it was interesting to hear about how life was in Poland just a few years ago when they were still recovering from the effects of Communism.

When Jason and I briefly lived in the UK as part of this ex-pat assignment, I was surprised at just how many Polish people are living and working in London. Not a day went by when I wouldn't hear at least five different Polish conversations whilst I ran my errands. There are also many Polish restaurants and specialty stores all around the UK. Even Sainsbury's (like the Australian Coles/Woolies) has a dedicated Polish food section and there was a Polish section of the bookshop I visited.

I'm looking forward to our next holiday when we get to see more of my family in Poland. They love hearing about life in rugged, outback Australia where thanks to the National Geographic documentaries they are convinced we have kangaroos in our backyard. But for me, nothing is more intriguing than hearing about the country I was once a part of and how it has changed over the years. I'm so happy to have this opportunity of visiting my family more frequently.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Friends, friendship and all that fluffy stuff

'A friend is someone with whom you dare to be yourself' (Frank Crane)

This week I've been thinking a lot about friendship. It all started with going to watch the Sex and the City movie at the Odeon Theatre which screens English speaking movies in Florence. I had been looking forward to seeing the movie for a long time but always envisaged I'd be going in a group of close girlfriends and having cocktails well into the night to discuss the juicy bits (ok that's a lie, us 30 something year olds would have probably gone for a green tea afterwards and then fallen into bed at 10pm) Oh, and we'd all be wearing our stilettos and then complain about our backs hurting the next morning.

So, I felt a little awkward as I sauntered up to the theatre alone. Actually more like hobbled up to it as I was wearing my completely impractical (but cute) stillettos and they just did not agree with the Italian cobblestone roads that have not been repaired probably for longer than Australia has been a recognised country.

Husband kindly offered to come with me, but I rejected his sweet gesture as I didn't want him to be the only male in the theatre. In actual fact there were two single guys there. This is Italy so I'm not sure whether they were there to actually see the movie or they were very opportunistic and smart enough to work out the cinema would be full of females presumably looking for their own 'Mr Big'.

Anyway, after the movie (which is a lot about friendship, in case you haven't seen it) I slowly walked home and realised I was in a sad mood. Just like in a tissue grabbing chick flick, I started to notice all the girlfriends out on the town together, laughing and sharing life together. They were even laughing in slow motion like in the movies.

I really missed my friends in Australia. Like, I REALLY missed them at that point. Not only my female girlfriends but also my male work colleagues, our friends that Jason worked with and of course our family. I still speak to them on email daily and the phone weekly, but nothing beats sitting together with your closest girlfriends for a cup of tea and a gossip...I mean intellectual 30 year old conversation about politics, the health crisis and ummm stuff like that.

Last week my old friend Simone arrived in Florence with her husband. When I say old I mean as in we have known each other for a long time. Not old as in her age as that would mean I'm old too. Which I'm not, you know. In fact, a clothes store owner told me I looked too young to be married this week. If only I hadn't worked in advertising sales for four years I would have believed her instead of thinking she was just using the old compliment tactic to try to sell me something. Been there, done that. But just in case she was being honest and I really do look too young to be married (yeah right), I'm telling you that MAC eye concealer is worth it's weight in gold. Anyway I digress.

Simone and I were destined to be friends ever since our maiden surnames were both towards the end of the alphabet and our homeroom teacher sat us near each other in year nine high school. We've shared a lot in our lives and although we hadn't seen each other for a few years, we slipped back into our comfortable ways with each other and joked about 'the good old days' when I easily worked three jobs, went to university, partied til 3am and never seemed to feel tired. Our respective husbands had a blank look at some of our 'you had to be there' jokes.

I also have my 'old' friend Simone to thank for introducing me to my now-husband as she was the one that yelled over the loud night club music to say 'I've found the cutest guy in here, you HAVE to meet him'. Much to my protests (I was in a man hating stage of my life) I met him and the rest they say is history...Italian history now. By the way, my husband himself will protest when he reads this as his story is that HE found ME in the nightclub. But since he doesn't have a blog and I do, this is the story you must believe.

In my life I've always been surrounded by friends. In Australia I had so many friends, work colleagues and family always around me that I had no time for myself. That was fine as I hated being alone. My life was always one big rush and I never actually stopped from the time I awoke to the time I went to sleep.

Here in Italy I don't have as many close friends and for the first time in my life, I have learnt to enjoy my own company and to just be still and quiet. It's actually harder to do than you think. At first I confused my feelings with loneliness, but in actual fact I now have learnt to appreciate the quiet times where I can feel at peace, hum a song, pray or just think about life. I hope that when I go back to Australia and get into the daily grind of working a job and busying up my life again, I will still find that quiet time.

I'm enjoying this peaceful stage of my life but I also look forward to the day when I return home and have my coffee dates with my friends. It won't be a date filled with the strong aroma of real Italian coffee and it won't be in a terrace overlooking the Ponte Vecchio, but it will be a sweet feeling to have my friends physically around me again where I can hug them and tell them how much I've missed them.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Saldi glorious saldi!

This morning Jason and I went to our usual cafe for colazione (breakfast) which consists of a panini (bread roll) and a freshly squeezed orange juice. We love going there not only for the amazing pastries (is it wrong to have a nutella filled croissant for breakfast?) but also as we have realised that the Italians get more and more friendly the more familiar they become with you. Read: good customer service, which is not so common in most places here. We especially like the staff at this cafe because they make us order in Italian and refuse to serve us in English. It has become our Saturday morning joke with them.

After we paid for our food, they asked us whether we were on our way to the famous Florence saldi (sales) which happen twice a year, in July and February. "No we didn't know about them and weren't planning on going, but I suspect we now are. Why oh why did you have to say anything?!" husband joked to the lady.

As we got into town my heart fluttered as I saw all the signs that were displaying my new favourite Italian word: Saldi. Possibly the most beautiful word in the vocabulary, no matter what language you speak. I was sad initially to see a red top I bought last week for fifty euro's down to thirty five. But I was happy with my husban'd suggestion of buying the same top in a baby pink colour - well it would be wrong to pass up a bargain, right? There was 50% off signs all over the place and I plan on going back there on Monday, oh I am counting the hours already!

During the week, one of our favourite things to do after dinner is to walk into the heart of Florence, just as soon as our tummies settle the pasta I seem to be cooking every night. Our rule of only having pasta once a week is clearly not working and needs to be addressed. Last week on such a walk, we stopped near the Ponte Vecchio to see what the local artists were drawing that night. I was speechless when I saw this picture as it was so amazingly perfect.

I was sad to think that by the morning, this beautiful artwork would be washed away by the street cleaners at night as the artists draw directly on the concrete. What also made me sad was a sign that was next to them. It read 'We are collecting donations to help pay our council fees that have been increased from 300 to over 2000 euro's per year. I didn't realise that they had to pay a fee and I wondered if the illegal sellers of fake Gucci handbags are getting charged a fee this year for clogging up the roads and walkways every day.

We also saw this and could not help laughing. A cooked pasta vending machine! Only in Italy...

While out on our nightly walks we almost always stop at the famous bronze boar of Florence.

Locals say that if you roll a coin down his nose then you will have buona fortuna (good luck) and you will one day return to Florence. There were so many tourists in line waiting to have a picture with him that I didn't want to take up time with a coin. But I figure I have nine more months to visit him to ensure that some day we return to this beautiful city. And being able to walk around Florence every night makes me realise I already have my fair share of buona fortuna. But it's also good to know the boar is only a five minute walk away if I feel I need a top up.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Hair today, Gone tomorrow

Life is an endless struggle full of frustrations and challenges, but eventually you find a hair stylist you like. ~Author Unknown

So I know it's only been about one day since my last blog. Usually I would ring my Aussie girlfriends and share this kind of news with them, but since I don't have many of those in Florence I had to write about my exciting day. (I did comtemplate ringing them but I didn't think they would appreciate me calling at 2am their time for something as trivial as my hair).

I had my first hair colour appointment in Florence today. My male readers are probably saying 'so what?' but my female readers know exactly the dilemma in trying a new hair colourist.

Jason had told me to wait for an English speaking hairdresser when we go to London in the next couple of weeks but I refused saying I was going to do this in Florence. I am woman, hear me roar! Plus, when I looked in the mirror all I could see was my re-growth that Jason told me I was imagining. Ladies, does this happen to you: you look in the mirror and think 'I could go another two weeks before I need my colour re-done'. But then that very night your hair grows 30 centimetres of regrowth and you can't even bare to look at it? Same goes for my eyebrow waxes...anyway I digress.

I walked into the salon and told the hairdresser what I wanted through the English interpreter. He told me that it was not exactly what he wanted to do and would make it look better than what I was asking for. I started squirming. The English interpreter told me to relax and I realised I was probably sounding like a lunatic giving a hundred instructions on how I like my hair done as if I'm some kind of diva (which I'm usually not).

Feeling deflated I resigned myself to a bad hair colour. Due to the language barrier, the two hours it took for him to do my hair was in silence with both of us smiling politely at each other. He asked one of the girls to wash my hair and I had a flashback to my last hairdresser appointment (see my last blog). I was so pleasantly surprised to get a brilliant head massage. Then my hairdresser exclaimed VOILA! and I nearly hugged and kissed him amongst my exclamations of grazie. I love my hair and feel like a million dollars! Or a million Euro's I should say. Luca from Pistolesi Group - I LOVE YOU!!

When I lived in Australia I felt confident in everything from dealing with advertising agencies in my job to booking a holiday to speaking in front of a hundred people at a work conference. A few years ago I used to be an advertising consultant and drive a company car to visit corporate clients and present a sales pitch in front of a boardroom. Here I am scared to drive down to the shop. In Florence I don't feel so confident and am aware that situations that would never ever usually intimidate me, do now. I know how small and irrelevant this blog may sound, but to me it was a major cause for celebration. Not because I got a hair colour that I love, but because I felt like I wasn't on the back foot yet again in this country.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Looking at Florence through a tourist eye

The Creator made Italy from designs by Michaelangelo." (Mark Twain)

Recently my father visited us from Australia. I put on my well worn tourist cap and took him to see Cinque Terre, San Gimignano, Siena and the Leaning Tower of Pisa. It is always interesting for us to have visitors as I find myself looking at Florence through their tourist eyes and seeing things that I now take for granted as daily Italian life, but to an outsider seem quite strange.

So here is a list of things that show some differences between living in Australia and central Florence. I remember being surprised at these points when I first got here. It's funny how I had forgotten about them until my dad pointed some of them out to me.

uno) Italians are not big breakfast eaters. I am not even sure that there is a cafe in Florence that serves the traditional 'big brekky' that consists of fried eggs, bacon, hash browns and sausages. I used to cook bacon and eggs every Sunday for us but have only just realised that I haven't made it in over six months. Now our breakfast consists of a pastry and cappuccino eaten while standing up in a pasticceria. I do wonder what Italians eat when they have a hangover as everyone knows that a big greasy breakfast is the only cure.

due) Italians eat very late. Restaurants here do not open until 7pm and we (along with some other tourists) are generally the only ones eating at that time. Around 9pm when we are finishing off our dessert, the Italians slowly start coming in for their dinner.

tre) The driving situation here really is horrendous. Italians have little regard for road rules and not many of them observe the marked lines on the autostrada (freeway). Parking is also a problem. I remember driving home in Australia, parking in our private driveway and walking ten steps to our front door. Now our car is parked a ten minute walk away. However from what I see of the cars that are allowed to park on the road (they have a special residence permit) there is very few without scratches or dents. The parking on the street is so tight that sometimes a little nudge to the front car is necessary to parallel park your car.

quattro) Beach space is at a premium. At the Cinque Terre this week, I was shocked to see so many people cramped together on one beach. Not only that, but you had to pay to sit under the beach umbrellas one metre away from a complete stranger. In Florence, there is a fake beach set up on the banks of the arno river so people can tan. (You can't swim as the water is dirty). Only now do I understand why Australian beaches are so appealing to tourists.

cinque) You have to pay for plastic bags at shopping centres. I don't think I've ever come across this in Australia.

sei) When at the supermarket, you have to weigh your own fruit and vegetables before you take them to the cassa (cash register). I was very embarrassed the first time I went shopping with a trolley full of fruit. I held the queue up for five minutes while the lady waited for me to go back and weigh them myself.

One thing I also learnt this week is that Italians don't believe in pampering or 'niceties'. Last week I had an appointment for my first Italian haircut and back massage, both at different salons. Let me describe a massage at my local Australian beauty clinic:

Customer shown into beauty room. Serene rain forest music is playing softly. Candles are lighting the room up with a gentle glow. Masseuse asks you to take off your clothes when you are ready and get under the covers. Masseuse politely knocks on door to ask if you are decent and whether she can come in. After the massage, masseuse thanks you and hands you a glass of water and tells you to relax as long as you want.

All sounds good doesn't it? So, I decided to try an Italian massage. Now before I go on, I have to point out that this was not some kind of backyard beauty shop, it was not exactly a cheap place. I walked into the room and noticed the Italian pop music playing. Not relaxing, but fine. The masseuse hasn't made any obligatory small talk so at this point I'm not sure she speaks English. Then she says loudly in English 'take off your clothes and bra and lie down.' I wait for her to leave the room. She looks at me and repeats the sentence. I realise she isn't leaving. She looks bored as she watches me get completely undressed. I'm quite sure I looked really attractive (not) trying to hoist myself up on the tall massage bed with her looking on at my boobs and half bare bum. Mental note: make sure I always specify a request for a female masseuse in the future. For the next hour I ponder how such a small and lean Italian woman could have so much force and power to do such a brilliant massage, perhaps the best one I have ever had. After she finished,she said finito and left the room. And that was my Italian massage experience. Not relaxing but damn good.

The next day I went to get a haircut. Again at a very reputable place. The hairdresser who cut my hair chatted to his colleague the whole time he was cutting and he even stopped midway to have an espresso. Then it was time for my shampoo. In Australia this is my favourite part as they massage your hair, wash it and give your head some pampering. Not here. They pulled at my hair and twisted my neck around so that they were comfortable in washing my hair, not me the paying customer. Then they proceeded to brush it so forcefully that I had tears in my eyes. I realised I had wasted my money the day before on that massage as my neck was already throbbing. Again no small talk and a quick exclamation of 'finito' and I was off.

The next day, on my way to the English bookstore, I ran into my American friend Melinda who has been living in Italy a few years. I asked her whether this beauty regime was normal or whether I had just gotten two people who really did not like me. She confirmed that that Italians don't believe in pampering and would definetely not be shy about seeing you getting undressed in front of them. I'm not a shy person so I wasn't really bothered but I can imagine my mother-in-law being mortified and leaving the beauty salon altogether.

On Thursday I'm going to a different hairdresser to get my hair colour done. I have been putting it off as going to a new hairdresser is bad enough, but going to a hairdresser that speaks a different language to you could turn out to be a molto interessante experience.

With our vast spaces, backyards and private garages, it is nice to be reminded of how easy life is at home in Australia - after all, we do have to return in ten months! But where in Australia can you have the experience I had this morning. Slice of pizza in hand, I walked past the statue of David to my favourite traditional Italian market and bought some fresh porcini mushrooms. The seller was so excited when I told him I had never cooked with fresh porcini's before so quickly added some fresh herbs that he told me I must use to enhance their flavour. Then walking home, I stopped at my favourite gelateria and had Florence's best gelato. Everyday Florentine life might be crazy at times, but it is also a wonderfully unique experience that we'll treasure forever.