This is Tuscany

florence instagramFrances Mayes hit the nail on the head with her book and subsequent movie about Tuscany. I won’t even mention the title here because everybody knows it. While some things in those classic portrayals of Tuscany may be exaggerated here and there, the essence is the same. All of it is true. I’ve experienced it first hand – sleeping in a renovated farm house in the countryside surrounded by olive groves; taking a stroll down to the piazza of a medieval village, waiting for the annual fair that celebrates the village’s hundreds of years of history to start. But there are other, more subtle details that define this culturally rich and stunning region. Away from the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Florence Duomo, and the myriad medieval villages, how do you know you’re in Tuscany?

Some hints: It’s being at the beach, standing on a lookout point and enjoying the view of the island of Corsica in the distance, then looking down to see a woman with bleached blond hair performing fellatio on her boyfriend. It’s the couples, mostly young, who linger against walls and fences in public places, unashamedly dry humping in broad daylight.

It’s noticing that there’s a lot of bleached blond hair, often complemented by bright blue mascara. It’s the 80’s fashion that’s not worn ironically. Doc Marteens, New Wave, asymmetrical hair cuts, nose piercings. And then there’s the ubiquitous leopard print worn by a large percentage of the female population, from young girls to old nonna. Sexy underwear, leggings, scarves, bags, jackets. Shoes, even.

It’s having dinner at a hundred-year-old restaurant (Italian of course, are there any other kinds in Italy?) and having your Italian dining companions burst into traditional Tuscan folk songs at the top of their lungs. It’s having the chef come out and join in.

It’s the 20- and 30-somethings who live in Florence and have to work three jobs to make ends meet. It’s the overqualified professionals who have worked abroad and returned home to find no place for them in the Tuscan job market which is a kind of mafia in itself and as dynamic as a dead boar.

It’s walking through Florence’s surprisingly ugly and shabby train station and seeing a feisty Italian couple in their late 20s having not only a screaming match, but punching and slapping each other. Nobody looks twice and my Italian companion tells me that it’s normal.

It’s the North African refugees/immigrants who walk around with loaded with piles of  random trinkets and other useless things. It’s nearly always men hawking these things, moving from bar to restaurant to street corner. As they can’t work legally, it’s the only way for them to get an income. The locals are annoyed but they usually remember their manners and shoo them away.

As a tourist, Tuscany offers many incredible things to see and eat. ‘Picturesque’ is far too diluted to describe the beauty of the region and its heritage. But lurking around the piazzas and castles lies a place that is living off the glory of its past. Soon, the region needs to realize it can’t capitalize on this forever.

 

 

Let it Grow

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANo reflective lady blog would be complete without the obligatory 2014 round-up. So, let’s take a look at the good, the bad, and the ugly.

One year ago I found myself on Copacabana Beach in a white dress watching spectacular fireworks with vomit in my hair. Things got better and the rest of the Brazil trip turned out to be one of the most incredible and happiest experiences of my life.

Until…the last day when it turns out that some fucker has wiped out my bank account. It then takes another four months of phone calls, paperwork and threats to get 70% of the money back. On the upside, I survived it. Yes, it was tragic and a big financial setback, but life went on. I didn’t die.

I went from glorious summer to hideous winter. I took a short jaunt to visit my amazing friend Carolyn who was working in Manila at the time. It was warm and so good to be around a like-minded friend. I haven’t seen her since then and I miss her greatly. This is the downside of the transient, expatriate life.

I then got my busy on and extended myself professionally. In my free-time (which was few and far between) I tried to study Italian and train Capoeira. I learned about trade-offs – if you work more, you get more money. But you also have less free-time to pursue things that are important. And I’m the kind of person who needs downtime and eight hours sleep, otherwise I turn into a raging bitch.

Due to lack of sleep, I sometimes turned into a raging bitch. I then made preparations for my upcoming trip to Italy over the summer vacation. I researched opportunities for jobs, wrote countless resumes, paid a professional to write one for me, completed a 40 page application form to be a nanny, had a couple of Skype interviews. Faced multiple disappointments as it became clear I would need an EU passport, at which point I jumped down the bureaucratic rabbit hole where, it seems, I still am. Amongst all this was an awesome Capoeira event in which I met amazing souls from all over the world. I admired these people and was grateful for the energy they shared with me.

After months of anticipation, I finally arrived in Italy. A glorious summer awaited me. There was splashing around in the sea and giant lakes. Trips to ancient castles on the back of a Vespa. There was pizza and gelato and cheek kissing and vino. More days were lost to writing resumes and having fruitless Skype interviews. I had an Italian tutor who lived in in a big, old renovated farmhouse with her horses. I couldn’t, and still can’t speak the language and felt isolated and fell into a mild form of culture shock. I cried. A lot. An unfathomable tragedy struck a dear friend which brought home the unpredictability and randomness of life.

I returned to Seoul and deeply missed the person that I had gone there for in the first place. I had a hard time adjusting back to my life there. So when I found out I had some more vacation, I did what I thought would make me feel better. I jumped on a plane again and went to the most interesting cheap destination I could afford, which turned out to be Bangkok. For the first time in my life, the travel cure did not work. I spent some days there walking around miserably, anxiously, all the while berating myself for wasting money on something so frivolous. I learned an important lesson: sometimes we do things in an effort to make ourselves feel better, but the means to that end is not always a good idea and often, unsuccessful.

Within a few weeks, I felt better and resumed by busy life, albeit with an empty feeling inside. A few days of a Capoeira event made me temporarily distracted and happy but I needed more support and friendship than I was getting, so my coworker, (who is also in a similar transnational situation) and I started to take walks through a beautiful nearby park and talk on random weekdays. But weekends were long and lonely. This incredibly dark and cold Seoul winter threatened to kick my ass and unravel my mental health. So I started an Iyengar yoga class. Although it was a big commute to get there on Friday night, when all I usually feel like doing is passing out, it was worth it. I met a fantastic teacher and started to feel more relaxed and less anxious. My passion for yoga was reignited.

Then, I had some friends from New Zealand come and visit. It doesn’t happen very often, so it was really great to have them here, to take in their energy and optimism. To share wonderful experiences with them, even in the arctic temperatures. Finally, the last weeks of work and life were a blur of Excel spreadsheets and responding to emails. But somehow, I managed to pack my backpack and get myself on a plane to Italy. Again. And here I am. Writing this from an apartment overlooking the seaside in a poor Tuscan city as the blazing orange sun sets.

It has been a roller-coastery, a bulldozery kind of year. Forging forward without necessarily knowing where forward is leading to. Vulnerability and uncertainty have decided to permanently colonize my mind, body and soul. I’ll acknowledge their presence but won’t let them run the show. While there have been magical moments this year, moments I never thought I would have in this lifetime, like eating fresh lobster in Barcelona opposite a handsome Italian, about 70% of the year has been a hard, anxiety-fueled slog. But I’m grateful – I have grown as a person. I’ve come to see and respect the limitations of my life. To have faith and gratitude.

A Lesson in Learning Language

monkey_studying_001I have always wanted to be fluent in another language. However, my lack of grit and perseverance, as well as an inability to act in the present for future gain means that I always give up after a few months or a year, thereby leaving what can only be described as a trail of broken foreign language relationships behind me.

First, it started in primary school with Maori. Well, to be fair, the exposure was pretty token and what eight year old is going to learn a second language on their own outside of the designated 20 minutes a week in class? Then came French in my first year of high school. The prim and proper teacher who was about 80 years old had also been my father’s teacher decades before. That made parent-teacher conferences awkward. I enjoyed studying about les grenouilles (I don’t mean that in a derogatory sense – our content was often about little green frogs…there was no One Direction back then). I also did well in it, despite the humiliating time that the teacher asked me to stand up in front of the class and say ‘cat’ in French, which is, as everyone knows, spelled ‘chat’ and pronounced like ‘shat.’ Except that the ‘t’ is silent. I forgot that little nugget. Still, the teacher pulled me aside one day and told me that I was très bien at the Français and should continue with it next year. I had decided by that point that it was too hard, too boring and too bourgeois and instead wanted to listen to grunge music and deface my uniform with paint in the art room.

During my gap year, I went to Amsterdam and lived a with an Irish-Dutch family. Now I was attempting to learn Dutch. It should’ve been easy – the language is, after all, a combination of weird English and German. I watched The Simpsons and Friends in Nederlands and took classes with my French-Canadian nanny comrade Veronique. But it turned out that she was a genius who had skipped some years of school and would finish university in half the time and end up working in a senior post at the U.N. before she was 23. Which is a convoluted way of saying that I ate her dust in class and felt like an idioot.

I also ran into the problem/excuse many native English speakers face when traveling abroad, particularly in western Europe. Everyone replied to me in English. In fact, in that part of the world, almost everyone speaks English. Better than I do. I also lost heart when my host mother/boss/master indulged in that endearing Dutch quirk of speaking without a filter, telling me that not only was I a coward for not speaking Dutch fluently, but also that I smelt bad and should wear more deodorant.

Jump ahead two years to when I’m a poor, anemic undergrad. The university opens a brand new Spanish program and I was very excitado to join. I mean, Mojito, salsa, tango, flamenco, Manu Chao, Pablo Neruda, Frida Khalo, Sangria, Macchu Picchu. Need I go on? Classes were muy difícil but the tests were easy and I got an A. I was determined this time to learn, really learn but when I started the second year, the jump was too big and I couldn’t justify all the time and energy required for the classes when my major papers were suffering, so I had to quit. I still tried to learn on my own and with a tutor but time and motivation were lacking. Unsurprisingly, this lack did not serve me well on my various forays through Latin America.

Then after graduating I moved to Japan and had to study Japanese which seemed so, um, foreign to me, with its weird writing systems and bizarre grammar. I studied alone at work everyday and had weekly classes. I knew survival Japanese and could read and write the two simple writing systems. But then I moved and since Japanese is only spoken in one country, I wrote that language off too. Then I tried to study Korean, not very seriously though, a few classes here and there. It turns out that in Korea you can get by without knowing the language. Sometimes I chastise myself for being so lazy, but Korea is not home.  Then I started to study Brazilian Portuguese after I started capoeira so I could understand the songs and learn the names of the movements. I had always wanted to visit Brazil, and when I had the opportunity, I was able to bust out a few words here and there. The language barrier was oddly refreshing as basically nobody in Brazil can speak English.

But then, something incredibly bizarre happened and I found myself enamored with an Italian, which would therefore mean that I should learn Italian. So, thanks to Duolingo, I have been chipping away, gradualmente at this very beautiful, romantic and complex lingua. After dabbling in Italian for a few months and spending two months there last summer (where I also received some tutoring), I realized that I can’t actually speak any.

Since my brain is now about as plastic as a metal cage, it has been a very slow process. Sometimes it’s easy (no means no), sometimes it’s ridicolo (toothbrush is spazzolina), and often it is infuriating – why are simple, short words in English like towel, fridge and heating, asciugamano, frigorifero, riscaldamento respectively? And don’t get me started on L’uomo Pipistrello – AKA Batman.

I started to put pressure on myself to learn more, faster. But that approach doesn’t work with me, so I went to the other extreme and decided that I want to be fluent by the time I’m 70. Which means that I just have to learn a new word everyday. Today’s word? Perseveranza.

 

Leaps of Faith in Venice

10703716_10152232332981853_2837997001685255358_nDuring the Summer of Love, I was fortunate enough to be able to visit one of the most magical and enchanting cities in the world – Venice. Don’t hate me, but it was actually the second time in my whole life. While I spent three days there, two of them alone, I of course became reflective. It had been sixteen years since I had trotted through the labyrinthine streets and over the little ponti. Back then, I had taken a leap of faith and began working for a family near Amsterdam as as au pair. Not long after my arrival, they announced they were going on vacation and I would also have my vacation time. I didn’t have much money so I booked an extremely cheap all-inclusive trip to the coast of Italy, near Venice. It took 24 hours in a bus to get to the ritzy seaside town. It was the kind of trip I could probably only do in my youth. I slept alone in a tent, although it was too hot to sleep. I made friends with three Dutch girls who were also on the trip. They were nurses from a town near the south of Holland. During our time together, we ate a lot of pizza and I felt very European as we strode among the waves at the beach in only our bikini bottoms. Once I got so attacked by mosquitoes that my ankle swelled up to the size of a baseball and I had to be injected with something. At night, we hit the discos, along with hoards of multinational young people – we looked like a giant, drunk United Colours of Benetton ad.

At first I was unnerved by the young, ripped North African men (boys?) dancing in wrought iron cages suspended above the dance floor, and the dancing that looked like it was influenced by National Geographic mating videos. But soon I understood that this  too was grist for the maturing mill. Wait until I tell my friends back home at the end of the world about this! We got to spend only one fleeting day in Venice, but it was like a dream for me – in the sense of being in one and of achieving one. Just a few weeks earlier I had no idea that I would have the opportunity to realize this dream – a childhood fantasy. I have a photo somewhere of me standing in front of the iconic Rialto Bridge, wearing my favorite blue tank top and grey trousers that I bought for $10 dollars in Australia some months earlier when I attended my uncle’s wedding. I have an impish smile on my face and the same long, two toned blond-brown hair that I have now. I was infinitely cooler back then.

And back to the future: I chose the busiest time of year to go. I caught a train directly there and of course got motion sickness on the canal taxi ride to the hotel. Yes, there was no ghetto tent for me this time. I was living the high life and stayed in a very beautiful hotel. I figured it would probably be the last time in my whole life I would visit there and so I splurged. I walked around in a daze, camera in hand, dodging the hoards of other privileged people from all over the world. I got my bearings and walked around and around the narrow streets, just walking, looking, thinking. The food is overpriced here, I thought. The waiters are rude. It’s so commercial, with an H&M and Disney Store tarnishing the elegant buildings that have watched over the canals for hundreds of years.

I went into a quaint little paper store and bought an exquisite little blue notebook from a very well dressed man with silver hair who looked like he’d been working there for about 300 years. I went back to my airy, plush hotel and I wrote in it. I wrote down all my fears and insecurities. I wanted to see myself, to see how I was back in this context after so many years. To see my progress. As the writing spilled onto the paper, I could still see that I had the same issues as that naive eighteen year old girl standing on the bridge. We are two different people but we are the same. I was again taking a leap of faith.

I trudged around. I explored. I escaped the heat in shops and restaurants. I healed an old wound from the first time I was in Venice when I had very little money and couldn’t afford to purchase anything more than some little glass ornaments. I went to a mask store of some renown and it took me about ten minutes to buy four exquisite Venetian masks. Every time I check my bank account I’m reminded that I still have to pay for them. But the highlight, the climax, the crescendo was walking alongside the largest canal one night in the dark, waiting for a boat to arrive. On that boat would be my sweetheart who had worked all day then driven some hours to be with me. At his arrival, we embraced and I shut my eyes tight, never wanting the moment to end. It was perhaps the most fairytale moment of my entire life, and in that one moment, I could say that love, with all its messiness, is worth it.

As I write this, I have just re-read for the third time a favorite memoir of mine by Vanessa Woods that entwines three stories – her personal love story with her husband, their work together in the Congo with Bonobos, and the heartbreaking history of the region. One passage struck me, and I should write it down in that little blue notebook full of my anxieties: ‘If there are those you love, whoever or wherever they are, hold them. Find them and hold them as tightly as you can. Resist their squirming and impatience and uncomfortable laughter and just feel their hearts throbbing against yours and give thanks that for this moment, for this one precious moment, they are here. They are with you. And they know they are utterly, completely, entirely…Loved.’

In My Italian Dream

10383631_10152230773851853_4697526860467526129_nAnd old and rather Zoolanderish friend of mine from my university days recently posted some modeling shots of himself from some years ago. One photo caught my eye – of him sitting next to a Vespa with a smoldering look on his face in jeans and a loose-fitting shirt. The caption he wrote was: ‘The photographer said, “Think you have just got out of bed and you are fixing your Vespa on a sunny morning in Rome.”‘ It’s such a cliche, but it’s so true. I lived this experience. I didn’t make it to Rome this time, but I did spend a fair amount of time on the back of two different Vespas, being driven around by one very handsome Italian, clinging to him like a koala. I spent time at the Vespa repair shop too. I learnt about the trajectory of the brand and the different models and heard all about the intricacies of finding and buying old parts and the quasi-communist payment system it entails. This was all a part of my Italian dream.

I slipped in and out of this dream in the two months I spent there. Sometimes the dream took over reality, like the first time I visited the shabby port city of Livorno in Tuscany and walked along the narrow canals, watched lovers kissing on the bridges and had my first taste of ponche, a local speciality which consists of espresso mixed with spirits. As I gazed up past the sheets hanging out to dry from the windows of four storied terracotta buildings built decades, if not centuries, ago, and scanned the stars in the sky, I wondered if I was on a movie set. As rain fell and we sought shelter under the canopy of a pizzeria, watching the ubiquitous lone African hawking umbrellas, would Fellini come chasing after me and swipe me with his pudgy hands and yell at me in Italian to VATTENNE (go away)?

10672204_10152230774971853_2200441193191780817_nI walked along Roman aqueducts hidden in a forest, through Roman ruins on the coast, around crumbling castles, in and out of monasteries, stood high atop a fascist-era tomb. I trudged through city centres where nuns and monks, beggars and merchants have walked for centuries, listening to the chime of church bells while licking gelato made from lavender. I observed meadows of sunflowers nod off at sunset, all witnessed from the back of a Vespa, zipping through the narrow back roads of Tuscany. I heard the waters of Venice lapping against the ancient, sinking piers as an orchestra played in Piazza San Marco, in almost complete darkness, apart from the moon and the silhouette of Venetian arches. I swam in the same  clear blue lakes as nobility and old monied families on vacation from Switzerland. I took in the view of an old Tuscan village from a restored farmhouse high upon a hill. I was literally under the Tuscan sun. And I stood in awe of many a dazzling Tuscan sunset – like the hottest, reddest fire burning into gold and then blackness.

And yet, while these moments are perhaps too beautiful and perfect to adequately describe or recapture in words – moments I never thought I would be lucky enough to experience in this lifetime, moments of reality seeped in. The gypsies who try to swipe your things at the train station. The young prostitutes standing on the side of the road. The mentally ill who want to fuck them in broad daylight in public. The shops and supermarkets constantly being closed. The fact that it’s so difficult to communicate and so easy to feel isolated. The realization that it’s your own fault because you were too disbelieving in your Italian dream to study much beforehand. The way that public transport doesn’t make any sense and doesn’t run on time. The astronomical cost of said public transport. The whining and justified pessimism of locals entering middle age who feel that there’s no way for them to get ahead. The tenacious clinging on of nepotism and a Byzantine bureaucracy designed to make your life a living hell. A youth disillusioned and/or brainwashed by twenty years of rule by the vacuous iPod Nano that is Berlusconi. A culture of immediate gratification and materialism, and hypocrisy.

And yet La Dolce Vita triumphs. I met her in my dream and now she haunts me while also comforting me. I close my eyes and dream of once again riding on the back of a Vespa, zipping through not only dreams, but also reality.