Arriving back in London was an interesting shock to the system. Compared to the slow pace of Bra it is a hectic melting pot of crazy. The first week, despite it being familiar, I felt very much like a tourist taking in all the sights. There was so much going on and my brain no longer knew what to make of it all.
When I would mention to people I had been in Italy for the last year the normal reaction would be something along the lines of “Wow, it must have been an amazing experience”. While my answer is usually Yes, it is a reserved Yes.
Italy is a fantastic place, especially when on holiday, but living there is definitely not like an extended holiday. And it all boils down to Italian Time. It is appreciated while relaxing at the beach or enjoying an afternoon aperitivo. A long summer lunch, perfect.
Then there is the reality of trying to register with town hall so you can then find somewhere to work and live. Here Italian Time is not so much appreciated. All I can say is it took 3 weeks of back-and-forth with “so, now you need this form”.
Italy is well-known for its rules and red-tape but you quickly learn that the locals have a way of adapting to the rules to fit their schedule. They know what they can and can’t get away with. Waiting in line anywhere official you get a number and have to wait your turn patiently. Without this number system I would imagine only the most assertive would ever get served. Then you get the individuals who managed to adapt to the situation. In the gap between serving one person and calling out the next person, it is not unusual to get a newly arrived person sidling up to “innocently” ask a quick question. This quick question will then turn into getting served, and effectively leap-frogging the dozen or so people already waiting.
Then there is the food. I absolutely love Italian food. Italian is known around the world as having some of the best dishes. But in Italy locals really only eat Italian food and in particular only dishes from their region. You would never see somebody from Piemonte eating a canoli from Sicily or somebody from Napoli tucking into a dish of fried polenta. It’s just not done.
Having lived in several places where you could effectively eat your way around the world cuisines this can be tough. You find yourself having cravings for things you can’t have. Even when cooking a non-Italian dish they will still come out tasting like an Italian dish because of all the ingredient substitutes you have to use. That is if there is a substitute in the first place.
Again I come back to the people. This is where it is reversed. On holiday you get the pushy waiters and tourist guides trying to sell you stuff. Living here you get to experience real Italy, you get to make friends with the locals. On the news we would be away for a couple of months many of the friends I had made would proclaim “Non mi piace!” (I don’t like!). On the day we left I dropped off our leftover food to one of our neighbours, she gave me a big Italian Mamma hug and looked so sad. We would no longer be having our daily pseudo-chats by the balcony.
There have been many ups-and-downs along the way this last year. The highs of all the amazing experiences have definitely been greater than the lows. I would say to anybody moving to Italy, don’t expect it to be anything like the holidays.
And least of all, nothing like the movies.
As my time in Italy is quickly coming to an end I have started to reflect upon all the people I’ve met in the various stores around town. The supermarket isn’t as dominant as it is in other countries so you still have the luxury of going to speciality stores for all of your shopping needs. There are probably more butchers in this little town than in the entire Wellington region back home.
Bra would classify as a small town. It isn’t so small that you feel like you are on the set of Coronation Street but, at the same time, it’s big enough to have all the shops and services you might need. If not, the hustle and bustle of Turin is just a short train ride away.
Bottega delle Delzie
Entering this store you are greeted with the lovely aroma of chocolate mixed with the faint smell of freshly ground coffee. And as that sinks in the owner Paolo and his mother will always cheerfully greet you no matter how busy they are.
Their speciality is chocolate, sweets and coffee but they also have a nice selection of Italian craft beer. I once had a rather one-sided conversation about the differences in the beers Paolo had and then he pulled out his bible of beers of the world. The NZ entries consisted of Moa, Monteiths and Macs. A pretty good representation if you ask me.
The real reason I come here is for the coffee. It is the only place in town that does ground coffee that is not the potent and rather tasteless Robusta bean. And while I wait I can ogle the latest new chocolates they always have on display.
Sardo e Quaglia
This place has a wonderful array of spices, grains and nuts; alway fresh, always tasty. As with many shops around town, it is almost impossible to know what is inside without going in. I only realised what this shop was after walking by one day while the door was open and catching a glimpse of the bounty that lay inside.
The owner, Teresa, is a wonderfully friendly lady. She is the person locals go to when they need a cure for any ailment. Her help has been useful in finding substitutes for ingredients we were unable to find in Italy. And when you ask for something she doesn’t have, she is always deeply apologetic that it isn’t in stock.
I appreciate her patience with my Italian regardless of how busy it is. We often have short chats about what I have been up to or what I was going to be making that day. She always commends me on the fact that I, as a male, do the cooking; something that is rare in Italy.
I will definitely miss this shop. The smells and sights of all the spices are always a delight.
Corto in Bra
Corto is my local. When we first moved in to our apartment we had the choice of two cafe, this one looked the friendlier of the two. I come here quite regularly, often as I return from my morning dash to the shops. They know that I like a cafe Macchiato and have a soft spot for their delicious apple cake. I am an easy customer to up-sell to, the mere mention of Torta di Mele and the brioche is quickly forgotten.
Before we learnt that Italians just take their brioche straight from the cabinet we would always ask for them. It has continued to the point where when I try to do the Italian thing, the lady behind the counter will insist on bringing it to me with my Macchiato.
Salumeria Pochettino Giuseppe
This place is a true family affair. From Granddad, who proudly makes the pancetta, to Mum and Dad who are in charge, down to Son and Daughter who are being primed to take over one day. They all help out. They have a wonderful selection of Salami’s and, in my opinion, do the best Salsicca di Bra in town.
I like going here because they are so friendly to me. Mum and Daughter always like making fun of my Italian pronunciation and will never let me forget the time I asked for Capri (the island) instead of Capra (the cheese).
Despite the laughs at my expense, I find myself going back for more. If they are not busy we end up having a chat. They are always asking about New Zealand and about what our plans are after we are finished Bra. Being as cheeky as they are they love to ask, in their words, “Are there little Peters on the way? You must bring them back to visit us in Bra one day”. They never fail to make me laugh.
This supermarket is on the edge of town and was a bit of a late discovery. I had heard there was an organic supermarket in town but never could find it. Then one day while out for a bike ride I spotted it.
The staff are always really friendly and will say hi to everybody who comes through the door. A couple of them even greet me by name. The best thing about this store is it has many ingredients that are not available anywhere else. Most importantly crème fraîche which opened up a whole range of recipes and works as a good substitute for sour cream.
When it was established I wasn’t going away, the typical conversation of where I was from and how I liked it in Bra was had. I have had this conversation so many times, I was well versed in what to say. And, as usual, their knowledge of New Zealand was limited to Lord of the Rings and the All Blacks.
The fruit and veggie store is always a wonderful place to go into. From a week to week you never know what they might have in stock. When it comes to produce, Italy is still very seasonal. Even the big supermarkets tend to follow the seasons. They only non-seasonal produce you find year round are the banana and pineapple, things which are not grown in Italy in the first place.
Caterina, on the left, loves to tell other customers that I am from New Zealand and will always call out “Ciao Peter” when I come in to the store. They are often quite busy so I usually get the stare down from customers at the counter.
In a similar vein to the Salumeria, I once effectively asked for honey juice instead of apple juice (the words being very similar in gringo pronunciation). Once the laughter died down it took a few weeks for them to let me forget the mistake.
They always provide wonderful service and will arrange to get things in that are in season but don’t have. If I am a little short in small change, they will just say “Domani” instead of having to change a larger note. It is this kind of service that has me, and much of the town, always coming back.
Where would we be with out the beauty of cheese. Giolito is the local cheese shop and it has a wonderful array of cheeses from Italy and the rest of Europe. But most importantly he sells the most delicious Greek Yoghurt. We (and by that I mean Emma) go through so much that sometimes when I go in for cheese they make sure I don’t want some more Yoghurt too.
Over the months I have tried to sample more than just the stock standard Bra Tenero, the local equivalent of Edam. They have cheese that has been aged wrapped in a variety of ingredients, spent grains from whiskey making, grape skins from the local harvest and even hay. The last one came about after the War when the farmers would hide their cheese from the tax inspectors. The practice continues on and results in a wonderful tasting cheese.
The owner Giolito is a funny character. His wonderful sense of humor is going to be missed.
Where to start with Gelato IGP? I have written about them before. Throughout the summer I was almost part of the furniture. It isn’t one of those ice cream places that do the same large selection of flavours all year round. They focus on a few flavours, done well, and change with the seasons. This variety adds to the excitement of going in.
There are a few different people working behind the counter but they all got know that I am a ‘cup with two scoops’ kind of guy. Some would mention new flavours they had introduced or remark when I would try one I hadn’t had before.
After Christmas they shut down for 2 months, it was a sad day indeed. But I was back on opening day to try their latest new flavour Blood Orange. It is the big in-season fruit at the moment. They still remembered their most regular customer. I have to squeeze in a couple of visits before we leave so I can try out their new flavours. But we will be back in May when there will be a whole new range of flavours and the weather will be more agreeable for consuming Gelato.
When it came time for my second haircut the original barber was closed for the summer so I had to find somewhere else. I had ridden past GoGo several times and it was the only other place that sprung to mind. Bra has many many hairdressers for the ladies but not so many barbers for the men. The shop and its owner were hidden behind a frosted window and hanging curtain so I had to just go in and hope for the best.
Gogo, I assume, is short for Georgio but everybody who comes in calls him GoGo. He is perhaps the happiest person I have met in Italy, if not ever. He always responds with an excited “Sempre tutto bene!” or even “Fantastico!!” when I ask him how he’s been. He literally dances around the chair as he cuts your hair at great speed all while chatting with his friend, who appears to be a permanent fixture, about the footy. If I was every in a bad mood I’d definitely leave this place happy. His happiness is infectious.
Of all the things about my time here I think I will miss the people the most. They have all made a big difference to my time in Italy and have added something extra to our stay here.
If you look up the national animal of Italy you’ll find the wolf. The Italians have taken this and used the dog to show their admiration towards their national animal. And in great numbers.
Wherever you go there are people with their dogs. You just can’t escape them here. At home we are surrounded by noisy dogs who enjoy nothing better than to bark. They don’t respect quiet time during the Pranzo Pause. They don’t respect the apartment rules of no excessive noise after 10pm. To them, any time is a good time to bark. Hmmm, it is starting to sound like I might be a bit bitter about this.
At first I thought it might just be where we were living. But thinking back on our previous trips to Italy we have always had the company of a barking dog or three. One particular occasion was during a relaxing holiday in Tuscany. Relaxing, that is, until the evening arrived and the dogs at the kennel down the road decided to hold their choir practice.
The size of dogs here can be summed up in one word, small…no…make that tiny. The smaller the better. I sometimes think that the female owners must choose the size of their dog based on what would fit nicely in their handbag. Or maybe the Italian designers take this into account when designing their new range of handbags. And if not in their handbag, it is the boyfriend’s job to carry the dog in a specially designed carrier. If they are really lucky they get to ride shotgun in the front basket of their owner’s bicycle.
Part of the problem with these noisy dogs, I think, is that they barely get to leave the confinement of their balcony. Italy is dominated by apartment living so they don’t really have much choice. Unless you have lots of money, or own a farm, you are more than likely going to be living in an apartment. They can only watch and bark, with jealousy, from their balconies at the lucky few who get to regularly wander the streets below with their owners.
Despite the abundance of dogs there is never really an issue of feeling intimidated by them when out and about. Houses still have the usual warning sign ‘Attenti al Cane’ accompanied with a picture of an angry looking dog. In reality, the dog is more than likely going to be a little Schnauzer who wouldn’t even get his chops around your ankle.
As I said in my last post, there will be many things I will miss about Italy when I leave. The constantly barking dog is just not one of those things.
Italians appear to have no qualms about staring. So much so that there must be a special class at school in Italy that teaches kids the correct technique.
Whenever you head out you always have that feeling of “hmmm, I feel like somebody is staring at me”. In bigger touristy places like Turin it is not so bad, but in smaller places, especially if they don’t recognise you, people just stop and stare. I would have thought that in Bra, being the place of an international university, the locals would be used to seeing foreigners around town. I guess the novelty has yet to wear off.
The staring does add a bit of amusement to our day though. The funniest situation is usually when we are in the park stretching before a run. Back in summer, the park was always packed with grandparents watching their grandkids play, or out for a chat with their friends. This was, of course, until we showed up. Everybody would stop and stare at us crazy gringos. And they were definitely never really discrete about it either. It is not like they haven’t seen runners before, right?
Through winter we have kept up the running. Although there are a lot less people in the park, it does not stop the people who are walking by from staring. I will often stare back but they continue to stare, mouths agape, at us stretching. Only when I start to smile do they think to look away. How nobody has walked into any of the trees which line the park I’ll never know.
This is all quite different to the relatively anonymous society that the UK, and to a certain extent NZ, have become. In the UK nobody dare make eye contact with anyone else for fear of the other person taking offense. In NZ it is more a case of head down, I’m in a hurry, don’t have time to stop. I know I am guilty on both these counts.
Once we leave I am sure there will be a noticeable change in my interaction with passersby, and for the worse. No longer will the local I met once 6 months ago say ‘ciao’ in passing. No longer will I be greeted by name when I go into shops. And no longer will I see the same group of elderly men, in the same spot everyday, watching the world go by. All these little things will be missed.
I don’t really have a proper picture to go with this story. Just as our parents taught us it is rude to stare, it is probably just as rude to take a photo of somebody staring.
The change of season has brought in a change of afternoon treats. The gelato has made way for the hot chocolate.
A hot chocolate in Italy is not like the milky drink you would get in other places. It is pretty much what it says on the tin, hot chocolate. The consistency largely depends on how much, or rather little, milk they add to the mixture. Some also add a little cornstarch to thicken it up and give it a consistency more like a chocolate mousse.
When it comes to consuming the hot chocolate, etiquette appears to be that you eat it with a spoon rather than sip it as a drink. This is mostly due to it being so thick. For the locals, it is a treat to savour while reading the paper or catching up with friends.
So here is the round-up of places I have tried so far.
Chiavasa is the cafe/bar in town where all the young people go for Aperitivo time. They do put on a pretty great aperitivo with a continuous supply of pizza from the bakery across the road. They also do the best espresso in town. For this I had high hopes they would do a mean hot chocolate too.
I placed my order, took a seat and waited. And waited. It took a while to come out so I assumed this meant they were preparing it from scratch. A good sign. When it came out the presentation was good, topped with a decent amount of cream and even a sprinkle of cocoa powder. But when it came to the taste it was a bit lacking. It tasted like low quality chocolate and despite its presentation was a bit underwhelming.
Verdict: An average hot chocolate, not something I’d go back for.
This place has the feel of a cafe you might find in a bigger city like Torino or Milan. It slightly bigger than most around town with lots of little tables. It is a nice and cosy place, especially on a cold winter’s day.
Sadly though, the atmosphere couldn’t make up for what was a terrible hot chocolate. It was served up from one of those slushy type machines you see in a 7-11 store endlessly churning away its contents. It arrived before I barely had a chance to sit down, which is usually a bad sign. The cream was acceptable but the chocolate tasted of overly sweet, cheap, Cadbury chocolate with too much cornstarch added.
I had been reluctant to go to this cafe. We went here one Sunday shortly after arriving. It had been full of people so we took it as a sign that it must be good. We would later find out that this crowd-swell was more likely due to the fact that it was one of the few places open on a Sunday. The coffee was, and still is, the only terrible coffee I have tasted in Italy. In fact, it is on par with French coffee.
I decided though to give them the benefit of the doubt and try their hot chocolate. And I am very glad I did. By now I had the ordering vocab down pat, “Vorrei uno cioccolato caldo, con panna, per favore”. I was thrown a slight curve ball when the bartender asked if I would like a Classic or another option I didn’t quite catch. Playing it safe, I went for Classic.
Taking a seat, I waited an acceptable amount of time to indicate that some level of preparation went into making the hot chocolate. I was presented with the best looking hot chocolate I think I have ever had. The cream even came in its own bowl.
The hot chocolate had developed a decent, glossy, skin which made it look even tastier. I had to dive in first to see what it was like without cream. It was chocolate heaven. It was the firmer mousse type but I didn’t hold that too much against them as the chocolate was not too sweet. The whipped cream helped loosen it up and make it a nice, smooth, chocolate treat.
Verdict: An exceptional hot chocolate but I prefer a smoother consistency over the gelatinous version.
Gelato IGP is perhaps my favourite store in town. They do a wonderful variety of gelato and you never know what new flavours they might introduce as the seasons progress. I had thought they had stopped selling gelato as the cabinets were now taken up by chocolate treats ahead of the festive season.
I hadn’t been into the store for a while but the shop assistant still greeted me warmly and asked how things had been. She thought I had come for gelato and upon the discovery they still were doing gelato I almost caved. But I was here for the hot chocolate.
Being a small little store it was served up in a takeaway cup. It was more liquid than other places but, as it was advertised as something to enjoy during your passigata, it had to be easily consumed. It was a nice drink and the only place that added anything extra to the chocolate, with a bit of hazelnut. As a takeaway it was really good but I missed the cafe atmosphere to slowly savour the hot chocolate.
Verdict: A decent hot chocolate but I’ll stick to their gelatos.
I stopped here after a short Sunday MTB ride. The ride meant I had actually earned the hot chocolate for a change. I had ridden passed the bar plenty of times and it always looked like a nice place to have a drink. Despite there only being one other couple in the bar, I could see that when full it would be a nice place for dinner.
The hot chocolate here was served from another one of those bar-top churning dispensers. Once spotted, I didn’t hold out much hope of a decent hit. On top of all that there was no cream. Despite all the negatives the chocolate was actually pretty good, reasonably dark compared with many other places. Still, no cream was a bit of a let-down.
Verdict: An OK hot chocolate, points for using dark chocolate but taken away again for no whipped cream.
This place has a big reputation of being the best place in town for a hot chocolate. It is a cafe and pasticeria so you’d assume they must know a thing or two about making a sweet treat.
The cafe itself is a bit of an intimidating place. From the outside, you can’t really see how many people are in there. When you do enter everybody stares at you. A scary experience for a non-local but something I have become accustomed to over the months. Once inside, it has a wonderful atmosphere. The place dates back quite a while and is on the register of historical buildings in Italy.
This was the first place I tried a hot chocolate and I nervously asked, as I do when trying out new vocab, if they did hot chocolate. The reaction was something between “of course!” and “oh, these silly gringos!”. Asking if I’d like cream… and why not?.. I took my seat.
The hot chocolate was excellent. They used nice, bitter, hot chocolate and it was of a smooth consistency just as I like it. The presentation of the whipped cream seemed a bit of a let-down but the taste more than made up for it. And after all, it is the taste that matters.
I have since gone back to Convorso to try their version again. I had not expected the Italian hot chocolate to be so…well…chocolatey. Now that I have a better understanding of the drink, I was able to better evaluate it against the others I had tried around town
Verdict: A rather superb hot chocolate. Its presentation could do with some work but, at the end of the day, it is all about the taste.
Overall it is hard to pick a winner between Convorso and Talamini as both were pretty good. I think because of its history, and atmosphere, Convorso might take first spot. But that won’t stop me from going back to Talamini. I like to share the chocolate appreciation around.
There are a lot more cafes in town but far too many to try them all. I think all that is left now is to make my perfect hot chocolate at home, taking into account all that I have tasted. I think adding some spices, like cayenne or cinnamon, will be the 5% magic for my perfect hot chocolate.
Get money out from any ATM in Italy and you will likely receive a few €50 notes. This will be shortly followed with a bit of dread when thinking about which lucky shopkeeper will have to break this. Germany, when I was living there, was much the same.
If I were in New Zealand or the UK and was given a fifty I would probably think to myself “Oh feck, where am I going to use this?!?” However, since all the machines here give out large notes the stores just accept them. There is still that feeling of guilt though when you hand over a fifty, especially when it is for a small purchase.
My record since being here in Italy was using a €50 note to pay for a €2 ration of rum, which I needed for some baking, from our regular cafè. I couldn’t find rum anywhere in any of the stores, so one shop owner suggested I just go to a cafè and ask there.
A theory about the small change situation is that the person receiving the money just can’t be bothered working out what to give back for fear they might get their fingers jammed in the till. They will often wait patiently for you to check your pockets, and count out the correct change, just to reduce the amount of interaction with the cash drawer. When you have the exact amount you are greeted with a “Perfecto!”. But when they have to count out €3.21 in change back you are made to feel guilty for not having better change.
There are benefits to this fear of small change though. It is not uncommon to get small discounts on things when you are a little short of forming a round amount. There is even the occasional “domani” when the amount is small and the shopkeeper will just add it to the next day’s bill.
Another unexpected benefit, and much to Emma’s relief, is that there is a lot less change floating around the house or going through the washing machine. When we left the UK I had amassed a large-ish coin collection. I hope the charity collection at the airport appreciated my dedicated collecting of coins over those years we were in the UK.
Here though, even those stupid one and two cent coins are quickly snapped up and I am void of the usual jingle in the pocket as I walk or cycle anywhere. Even if I don’t think I have the right change, the eagle-eyed shopkeeper will have eyed up the correct change from what is in my hand and motion for me to check again.
There is a downside though to this want for exact change. It is detrimental to the charity collectors and buskers. Upon a recent visit to the [free] bicycle museum, I had nothing left to put in their local charity box, having just used my last coins for my morning macchiato and pastry . It was a great display but possibly not worth the €50 I had in my wallet.
And lastly, there is also what comes with the change, the receipt. It appears to be an unwritten offence not to wait for the receipt, regardless of whether you want it or not. I am a bit of a hoarder, so my previously mentioned coin collection has now been replaced with crumbled up receipts. Again, much to Emma’s annoyance. The one time I tried to say I didn’t need a receipt was met with shock and insistence that I wait for it to be printed.
I guess there are just some things I will never quite understand about Italy.
I was going to do this as a single post but I have found there are so many things to write about living in Italy that I am going to break it up in to a series.
We have been in Italy for six months now and have experienced many things uniquely Italian; from the wonderful seasonality of the produce at the market through to struggles with the famous Italian bureaucracy. Despite the challenges I am really enjoying my time in Italy. It has been a pleasant change of pace compared to London. Even Wellington seems like a fast paced metropolis compared to where we live now.
The bigger cities in Italy may be different but, small town Italy is still sticking to its (some would say old) way of doing things. Shops still close at lunchtime, Sundays and various other random times through the week. This just means that you have to plan ahead especially when it comes to food shopping.
The charm of living in a small place is that the people are always super friendly. Even the grumpy looking ones will respond to a “Ciao” or “Buongiorno”. A real estate agent we met once when we first arrived (but didn’t get a place through) still says “Ciao” when we pass in the street.
I have been reading a few books on life in Italy and they all write about similar experiences to what I have had over the last six months. This quote from Zoë Boccabella in her book Mezza Italiana does a good job of summing up what it can be like on a daily basis.
Just as we sit down, a chainsaw starts up in the nearby woods, shattering the serenity. Then a power tool begins to whine in one of the houses further along. Near the main piazza, a man wields a relentless, droning whipper snipper, despite the long grass being wet from the rain. The theme song to the American detective show Colombo blares from an open window above us. And, just when I think it can’t get any noisier, a young guy comes out onto his skerrick of a balcony below us to yell into his mobile phone. We sigh and twirl our pasta.
I would also throw in some little yapping handbag dogs for good measure. The little bastards are relentless!
The other distinctly Italian experience is the concept of Italian time. I have not so much been on the end of having to wait for somebody to show up, but go to any shop and you definitely have to factor in a bit of time in order to navigate your way to the counter.
My experience at one of the shops I visit regularly is a prime example of this (and is not the Gelato shop). The owner appears to be the town’s “go to” person when it comes to wanting any advice. It is not uncommon to go in and she will be chatting with somebody despite there being others waiting. Those others will often join in on the conversation too. It can sometimes take fifteen minutes just to get a bag of flour. It is all worth it though, the atmosphere is friendly and it is a great way to improve my Italian listening skills. Plus, I am never usually in a hurry.
Just recently I feel like I have reached another milestone. I have started to be treated less like “just another foreigner” and more like a [temporary] local. I’ll never be a true local but still it is a step above a long term tourist. My Italian has improved enough to have proper, albeit short, conversations with people. It is usually about cycling or food but at least it is something. The neighbours in our building have even commented on how my Italian is coming along. piano, piano.
For now I leave you with this quote from Jennifer Criswell and her book At least you’re in Tuscany. It perfectly sums up what it takes, as a foreigner, to live in Italy.
I think it’s a necessary part of becoming Italian, this resignation to the interminable bureaucracy. Janet is fond of saying, “If you want to survive in Italy, you need two things: patience and a sense of humor.”