Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Sequel (Il Seguito)

Today as I start writing this, is October 1, the anniversary of the day that I arrived in Florence last year. It seems so surreal when I remember what I went through in the days leading up to my departure, and then getting on the plane, and then finally arriving in Florence after many hours of delay, and then peeking out the window of the cab into the dark streets and wondering what my life was going to be like in the months to follow. Although I wish I was in Italy now celebrating this anniversary and propelling the next steps of my life there, I know that will follow soon. Part of me feels like the year passed so fast but when I think of all that's happened and all the ways that my life and myself has changed, it's surprising that all this fits into the time span of 12 months.

Shortly after my sister's july wedding in Canada and followed by my mom's birthday, on August 6 I was back for another week in Toronto to deal with abandoned belongings and catch up with friends before jetting back to Italy. I was so fortunate to see my first italian tutor, Mirella, on the only day that our schedules found us both in Toronto (she now lives in Montreal) and I also got to meet her brother, Leo, who was on vacation in Canada from Rome where he works as a graphic designer. With some girlfriends I had a night of salsa, toronto style, and the night before I left for Italy, another night of dancing until the early hours with the boyz in the gay district. Although I lived in that neighborhood of Toronto for over 4 years I'd never quite experienced it like that before!

The toronto girls in boyz town: Tess, Kiran, Me, Sadaf, Deanna, Olga and Alex

Photo of Sadaf and I courtesy of Mr. Alan Li

Before heading back to Mississauga to pack my bags, I met Firas for a chat and a hug and then my friend, Saud, who upon calling him for a ride to the airport again, discovered that his new apartment building is exactly beside my friend Sadaf's building where I was staying for the week. I definitely should've called him sooner! At the airport, Sadaf and Saud walked me to security where I gave them big hugs and thank yous and after a bit of waiting, I was on the plane for my original August 13, 10pm flight to ROME!!!! The one I'd initially thought I'd be forfeiting. Che culo che ce l'ho!!!! (lit. What an ass I have!!! In complex explanation, having a big ass in Italy means you're lucky, hence here I am referring to my big ass and hence, my good fortune;)

Also as luck would have it, on the plane I sat next to a sweet, young italian student named Federico who had just finished a summer course in english while staying with a host family in Toronto. He told me all about his experience and was sad to go home so soon, but was happy for all the friends he made. We talked a lot both in english and italian over the 7 hour trip and I also told him my story of why I was going to italy and where I'd be going and what my plans were afterward (to see my boyfriend, first to calabria and then to florence, and I'd be returning to Canada in a month unless i found a job). Being a romantic and innocent young lad, he gave me his heartfelt wishes that everything would work out and confided in me his wish to have a girlfriend one day, but not just any girl, Francesca, who went to his high school. I encouraged him and gave him good advice to take her dancing and play her songs on the guitar;)

I tried to sleep but didn't have much success, maybe a a couple hours total, but once we approached Italy I was glad I was awake. Federico and I peered out his window at the amazing view of the west coast of italy, which I recognized from the abundance of time I've spent looking at Italy on google maps. The mountains, the cinque terre, the islands off the coast. Magnificent.

After getting my bags and giving Federico kisses (the regular italian greeting) and a promise to email him to tell him how things go (reminder to self: fulfill promise to Federico), I was off to the train terminal. As I was already somewhat acquainted with the Rome airport after my departure in June I was able to find my way quickly. After helping a stressed out tourist buy his train ticket I looked up the next trains to Paola, the city in Calabria (the "toe" region of the boot in italy) where Giuseppe would be picking me up. The next train leaving was already fully booked so I bought a ticket for the following one, which fortunately happened to be the faster train, but as 2nd class was already sold out, I ended up with a 105 Euro ticket in first class (ouch).
Super groggy at the Rome train station, wearing the scarf that Sadaf gave me:)

I called Giuseppe (on my italian cellphone that I'd had the foresight to add credit to before leaving Canada;) while I was on the train to Rome Termini station (the main station in Rome) and told him while trying to keep my voice from exploding what train I'd be arriving on. I could tell he was excited too:) After a little tour hauling my luggage around the station, and stepping outside for a few minutes (it was so hot), I found a place to camp inside for a few hours until my next train arrived. I was SOOO tired, everything looked hazy. I had to keep reminding myself....I'm in ROME!!!! for a little reality check. I chilled and ate some food that I'd brought and took some pictures and videos to pass the time before doing a little shopping in the concourse. I bought a bottle of 14 Euro (!!) aloe vera gel which I knew I'd be needing for the hot italian sun as well as the 60 euro cents entrance to the bathroom for a long session of freshening up. Worth every euro penny on that one.

Before I knew it I was on my expensive first class seat peering out the train window to the beautiful view down the coast of italy, heading south, south, south! I snuck in a few more short naps and called Giuseppe to check in when the train arrived in Naples. Upon hearing this, he replied "Oh no! you will be robbed and will arrive with nothing!" He was joking of course as Napoli (Naples) is known for their charismatic and skilled thieves. He was at his cousin's house and she wanted to talk in english with me, so he handed her the phone for a few minutes. She spoke really well and was very polite:)

Another couple hours on the train and my excitement was growing. When the train arrived in Paola I was the first one out the door. I looked around but didn't see my little man waiting for me so I kept with the flow of people towards the stairs, scanning the platform for him. I arrived at the stairs and paused. With still no sign of him i thought maybe here you couldn't enter the platform without a ticket or something so I kept with traffic flowing down the stairs. At the bottom of the stairs I didn't know which way to turn so I stopped and then my phone started ringing. "Where are you?" He asked. "Where are you??" I asked. He was on the platform, he said. I told him I was at the bottom of the stairs. He was coming, he said. Suddenly his smiling face emerged and my eyes clouded up and I laughed with joy as I watched him descend the stairs with his arms open. We hugged, we laughed, we kissed, we laughed, i laughed more, i couldn't stop, and the pattern continued for many minutes, I don't know for how many because it felt like time stood still.

Eventually he grabbed my suitcase and we headed for the exit where he parked the car. It was evening but the air was so moist and warm. We drove a few hours of winding roads to San Giacomo di Acri, his family's town, talking and cuddling (although this may sound dangerous, italians have a particular skill for driving sharp turns at high speeds and cuddling, don't worry mom;). Upon our arrival we were greeted by Giuseppe's sister Veronica, and his brother, Antonio, who had arrived as a surprise for a few days. I gave them big hugs and by then Giuseppe's parents had heard us drive in and had come outside. I greeted them with appreciation and they quickly led us the kitchen where, what else?, food was waiting:) Although I thought I was more tired than hungry the delicious veggie dishes gave me the boost I needed, and we talked and joked in italian, with me keeping up as best as I could. We continued afterward to the sitting area outside for another hour or so before heading to bed. Although my head hit the pillow hard that night, it rose again heavily early the next morning. There was no time to waste as it was Ferragosto!!!

Ferragosto is the august holiday in Italy. It is usually celebrated with, what else?, food! Oh yeah also friends, family, and nature:) After some deliberation, Giuseppe had decided to take me to celebrate with a group of his friends, rather than his family, which totaled the grand sum of 68 people; talk about overwhelming for my first day in Calabria! So instead, we were a group of 9. We packed up the food and equipment and headed for La Sila, the mountainous region nearby to scope out a piece of ground among the mobs of people with the same idea.

The italian girls in La Sila: me, Gabriella, Debra, Nunzia and Rossella

I met Giuseppe's best friend, Angelo, who I'd heard plenty of stories about, and joked with another friend about words he knew in english: computer, cocktail, bar, okay, weekend...all these words actually exist in the italian vocabulary;) It was hard to keep up with group conversations as I'd been suddenly plunged back into the italian world after a 6 week break, and although my brain wasn't operating at top condition due to tiredness, this italian world was also all in calabrian dialect. Despite understanding a very low percentage of this dialect, I remained concentrated on listening which allowed some of the sounds to decode themselves.

We setup our spot nearby the lake and beneath the trees, and it wasn't long before we plunged into the food, round 1. There was really SO much food. Plenty of their renowned calabrian sausage, frittatta, rice croquettes, rice salad, pastries, marinated vegetables, bread, potato chips, like 6 big melons, fresh figs, I don't know what else I'm forgetting but there was a LOT of food. I watched the Italians and followed their lead on how they paced themselves. It was all delicious. It wasn't long before somebody broke into the games. First up, bocce ball!

After a few rounds of that we were ready for round 2 of eating. Giuseppe cut up some of his family's tomatoes into slices and carefully added olive oil, basil, and salt, but just as he started to pass them around, water started falling from the sky. At first we just tried to move everything under the shelter of the trees, but then the thunder started. Not looking good, we scrambled to pack everything up and get it back into the car before damage was done. I regretfully watched Giuseppe toss his tomatoes into the trash before I could intercept them with my mouth:_(

Not ready to give up on Ferragosto, we packed up in the cars as the rain fell and made our way to a property nearby owned by the parents of Angelo. Once the guys figured out how to enter the property (one entrance had a huge ditch in the road which Giuseppe strategically attempted to drive over. Plan B was going into the hotel beside the property and asking for the owner of the car blocking the other entrance. The guy finally came out.) we unloaded the ton of food again accompanied by tarantella music (traditional southern italian music) blasting from one of the cars, and this time into the protection of a little old house.

We started round 3 of eating while the sky cleared up and afterward played some frisbee, volleyball and other various games. Round 4 eating commenced and Giuseppe cut up the biggest watermelon I've ever seen, followed by another bocce ball showdown between the boys, and round 5 of eating followed by some lounging and napping on the grass, later followed by round 6....maybe 7 too of eating. As the evening approached it was time to pack up. Among all the back and forth, the rice salad with a bowl of fresh figs balancing on top slipped out of Giuseppe's hands as he exited the house and turned the corner. Dead was Giuseppe's mom's glass dish and the rice salad all over the dirt. The figs on top could've been salvaged in my opinion but before I could save them they were in the trash too:_(

The boys settle a discrepancy on who's ball was the closest.

More games and music

The next day we slept in and then we were off to the beach in a nearby city called Corigliano. We headed out after a late breakfast, which always included fresh fruit from Giuseppe's family's fruit trees and for me, herbal tea and gluten free bread or rice cakes with jam. A lunch of leftover rice salad (luckily not all of it was sent with us yesterday) and a panino for Giuseppe was packed ready to go by his mamma. I promised her that I wouldn't let Giuseppe break the dish this time but she said this time she knew better and was sending plastic. On the way to Corigliano Giuseppe stopped the car to show me the land with olive trees that his family owned; the origin of the fantastic olive oil I'd been consuming over the previous months at Giuseppe's apartment in Florence.

After roasting on the beach and swimming for the afternoon, we made it back home to get cleaned up in time for dinner, but first Giuseppe took me on a tour through their "garden"...um more like farm really. I met all the animals, the pigs, rabbits, guinea pigs, and goats; the vegetables, corn, eggplant, cucumbers, zucchini, tomatoes, lettuce, beans; and the fruit; pears, plums, cherries (also they have a separate piece of land with just cherries which I was fortunate to eat plenty of in June) hazelnuts, chestnuts, figs, melons, and I don't even know what else. How fantastic! Giuseppe would periodically find something ripe and pick it for me and I would eat it...a pear, a tomato, a plum, a green bean.....Giuseppe looked back surprised to see me munching on that one! His intention wasn't for me to eat it but just to show me. I was too happy to question.

Picking lettuce for dinner one night

After a lovely dinner with almost all the ingredients directly from their garden farm, I brought the Canadian gifts down to his parents and explained as best as I could what everything was. Maple syrup and candies, a little bottle of icewine, beef jerky, rhubarb jelly made by my grandma, and a mickey of whiskey along with some postcards of the Drumheller badlands and the dinosaur bones. Although I could see all these things were pretty foreign to them, they seemed quite impressed and happy. Veronica and Antonio were also happy with their maple leaf socks and chocolate loonies, as well as Giuseppe who also got a stylin' Toronto shirt.

The next evening there was a concert in another nearby town called Rossano, by a southern italian girl group called Le Rivoltelle. We headed there together with Veronica and Giuseppe's cousin, also named Giuseppe and his girlfriend Vivianna, who I'd had the pleasure of meeting in June when we went to visit them at their home near Venice. Once we got there we met up with Angelo and Debora, another friend from ferragosto. Despite having tickets that said the concert started at 11 o'clock we waited patiently (at first) maybe an hour? to be let in. Finally we entered and the show started. Giuseppe and I snuck to the front to dance for the whole show, at least 2 hours! They were really spectacular, I'm sure it won't be too long until they're famous in Italy.

The next morning we were up early again and off on a 3 day beach trip, with Angelo riding with Giuseppe and I, and cousin Giuseppe and Vivianna trailing in their car behind us. The first stop was Praia al Mare where Giuseppe and Angelo's other good friend from University, Mauro lives. I also had the pleasure of meeting Mauro and his girlfriend, Anna, when they came to visit Florence at the end of April for Notte Bianca. It was so cool to see them again! The beach was beautiful with crystal clear blue water and an amazing view. After some swimming, eating, and suntanning we rented boats to go visit the grottos (water caves). Upon returning we were all bagged and took a beach nap. Waiting for us upon awakening was a big bag of pears that Giuseppe's mom had sent with us. I handed them out with pleasure and watched as they were quickly devoured.

Anna kindly put us up for the night in some open rooms of her house that they usually rent, but first we were off for gluten-free pizza, I was ecstatic! Anna is also allergic to gluten so she knew where to take us, a place called escopocolasera or in english, idon'tgetoutmuch. Anna and I both had the prosciutto cotto, also known as ham, and afterward was dessert at a nearby gelateria, I had the hazelnut gelato made with rice milk. We polished off the night with sangria back at Anna's, I had 3 glasses:D
On top of the rocks in the grotto

The next morning again came too soon and we doused our stingy skin in aloe vera (I knew it would be worth those 14 euros) before saying our thank-yous and goodbyes and other nice words to Mauro and Anna and were off to the next stop, Tropea, driving along the west coast with a short detour to drop off Angelo in Cosenza. He was leaving for a trip to Sicily shortly and needed to get back to prepare. Along the drive Giuseppe received a call from his family that his cousin Tony's adopted baby, Alessio, was taken to the hospital and the doctors were monitoring him to figure out what was wrong. I also had the pleasure of meeting them along with Tony;s wife, Jolanda, in June when we went to visit their new baby at their house near Florence. Giuseppe had just visited them before my arrival in Calabria and told me how much Alessio had grown and how good he seemed to be doing. Despite our concern, we knew there wasn't anything that could be done so we stood by for updates and carried on our trip.

The best buds

Every road in Calabria was so scenic, I took many videos out the windows and exclaimed 'wow' so many times it started to loose meaning. Shortly before our arrival we passed through this cute, crumbly town.

After arriving in Tropea and some effort tracking down the two rooms we reserved (which were in different neighborhoods) we got settled and tried to squeeze our butts onto a patch of sand on the beach. It was so packed! It was obvious why however, it was so beautiful with the town overlooking the beach from the cliffs above and the water beyond pristine. As the land space was limited we spent time in the water and then relaxed in the shade before heading back to our rooms to get cleaned up for dinner. We found a cute restaurant with tables in a courtyard that served 500+ kinds of pizza! Unfortunately none of those kinds were gluten free so instead I had the tropean fish, with the specialty ingredients of the area; capers, onions, and olives. We walked around the town the rest of the evening and watched some performances in the piazza.

The next morning we decided to scope out the beach in the town next door, Capo Vaticano, and we had a little more luck staking out a prime spot of ground for our towels. We swam and swam and suntanned and it was bliss. After lunch we were homeward bound, but for Giuseppe and I not without an important detour.....to Amato, the town where my italian great grandparents were from.

Our trademark tandem float

We set the destination on the GPS and I continued to marvel at the roadside views along the way. Then I noticed how high up in the mountains we were! Upon our arrival we first stopped at the gas station and I checked out the 'tourist board?' with some information about the town. We proceeded to drive slowly down tiny streets as I soaked it all up and exclaimed my already overused word, 'wow!' many times more. Although so old and crumbling, it was so beautiful with the bright sun casting shadows in the streets and the tiny houses side by side along the angled roads. It didn't take long to do a loop of the whole town, complete with 1 church, 1 piazza, and 2 bars.

We parked the car and entered into the first bar, buying popsicles as we were eyed up by the 3 customers and bartender. Giuseppe casually explained our situation as we paid and asked if they knew anyone with the last names 'Cardamone' (my great grandfather) or 'Masi' (my great grandmother). The men hummed and hawed a bit and said that the mayor's last name was Masi (confirming the information I had read on the internet) and he lived down the street over there, gesturing, and then there was a man named Cardamone but he died some time ago. We thanked them and took a seat out front, watching the life of the 800 person town unfold with it's funny characters, it seemed like right out of a Fellini movie!

Giuseppe and I chuckled discreetly and finished our popsicles before making a tour on foot through the piazza and a loop around to visit the church, no doubt where my great grandparents were married. After exiting the church we peeked around the corner where the other bar was; the tables out front completely packed out with old men playing cards. Giuseppe asked jokingly if I wanted another gelato but after thinking about it for a minute I said yes, let's go! Nearly all the town's inhabitants were there, despite the intimidation factor, I figured somebody must know some relatives of my great grandparents.

A posting with the first name of my great grandpa and the last name of my great grandma, which Giuseppe told me after was a posting for a funeral memorial. Oops, kinda rude.

So we bravely entered as all the men paused their games to watch us. We picked out another set of popsicles and again upon paying Giuseppe inquired casually as to the last names of my great grandparents. Again some humming and hawing pursued among the eavesdroppers and then one man piped up and said that he knew a man with the last name of Cardamone who died 7 years ago, although the wife still lived here. He offered to take us to her house and we graciously accepted after he assured us it was nearby.

We chatted with the man as he led us to the old lady's door and upon greeting her and explaining the situation, she remained rather confused as she didn't seem to know anything about her husband's side of the family. That didn't keep her from inviting us inside to eat something though. We politely declined and thanked her and then followed the man to another person's house who had known this Cardamone. Unfortunately there was nobody home but as we continued back to the main piazza I felt content knowing that we had at least tried and I'd have a little story to tell my family back home.

We thanked the man for helping and in true small town spirit, he thought nothing of it and even wanted to buy us a drink at the bar, but we insisted that instead we'd like to buy HIM a drink, which he refused. However he explained that he presently had a nephew visiting from Canada who was going crazy because he doesn't speak much italian and there was nothing for him to do there. If we wanted, he said, we could come to his father's house where his nephew was, and talk to him a little bit in english, it would make him so happy, he said. We agreed and followed him on his moped (I wish I could remember his name, I think Andrea..?).

When we arrived and the nephew came out, a young guy from Vancouver, the man explained the situation and immediately the guy turned to me and said "You speak english? Give me a hug!" and he hugged me joyously. I chatted with him in english while the man's parents and daughter came out and chatted with Giuseppe in italian. Then the man's father interrupted suddenly to tell me that many years ago he had bought a peice of land with olive trees, which used to belong to my great grandfather, Agostino Cardamone! In Italy a contract for property contains the names of many previous owners, not just the most recent one, so he had recognized this name upon hearing it from Giuseppe. Quite a coincidence and some news that I knew my family would be happy to hear.

Before completing our trip back to Acri, we thanked them all and on the remaining drive we proceeded to laugh about the little adventure we had experienced in the town. I would soon have the pleasure of hearing Giuseppe repeat the story many times in dialect and in his very entertaining way, to his family and friends whenever the subject came up. In this way I started to be able to understand the dialect more, since I knew the subject and the events, I was able to follow along and make sense of the phrases.

This made me so happy because although Giuseppe has lived in Florence for over 5 years, he's truly 100% calabrese (as the t-shirts we saw for sale in Tropea stated. I joked that I needed one that said 25% Calabrese) at heart. The different regions of Italy are surprisingly quite distinct and it doesn't take any italian long to recognize Giuseppe as Calabrian, not just because of his name, the quintessential calabrian name, or the manner in which he speaks regular italian with his calabrian accent, but most importantly, his warm, funny, generous character. Seeing him in his world and being able to understand more when he spoke in dialect made me feel like I got to know him on another level.

That evening we passed through the main piazza of his town, San Giacomo di Acri, a population of around 6000, where he introduced me to and caught up with some old friends and relatives while I watched the young girls doing dance routines in the center. I also met an old friend of Giuseppe's who's from Boston, but lived in the town every summer with relatives while he was a teenager and hence learned the dialect of the region perfectly (although he doesn't speak normal italian at all). I was surprised to hear this because he spoke english with a really heavy boston accent, I thought he might have that boston accent on top of his dialect too! Anyway, he ended up marrying a girl from the town and now they live together in Boston and have a baby daughter. I talked to his wife about her experience and adjustment to life in America, not easy, but she said they were happy there for now although she was SO glad to be home for a visit! No kidding.

The next day was a sad one, as Alessio's case had worsened, and all the family gathered for support at the hospital in Cosenza. We spent all day there amongst massive heat, and felt so bad for Tony and Jolanda as different information was passed down. The baby had died, due to a problem in the brain, but they were keeping the tissues alive for the possibility of donation. As the adoption process takes a number of months to be finalized, it wasn't totally in their power to grant permission for organ donation and they had to await some sector of the government to confirm. How excruciating for them. The loss of their beloved baby followed by this waiting period and trying to make sense of all that had happened. It was told later that the baby had likely been born with some degree of brain damage and it had developed into this fatal problem. Once we were back in Florence the following week, Giuseppe and I attended the funeral for Alessio, another sad day, and afterward accompanied Tony and Jolanda, with her mother visiting from Spain and another cousin of theirs, Giorgio, back to their apartment to keep them company.

After returning from the hospital and getting cleaned up and fed, we felt renewed enough to make the most out of our last night in Calabria, and Giuseppe took me to the beachfront area in Corigliano. He showed me the pizza place where he'd worked in the summers as a teenager, and we stopped at one of the bars for a drink before seating ourselves in the sand beside the sea and watching the moonlit waves wash in. On the way back to the car, Giuseppe couldn't resist the place selling croissants stuffed with gelato and I enviously watched him devour it. Ciccione! (Fatty!) Okay I admit, this cicciona had a bite too despite her intolerances :P

The next day we slept in really late before starting to pack. I was catching up on some emails when I was gifted a lovely bracelet from Veronica and a notebook and pen engraved with the letter 'J' from Giuseppe's mom, along with a bottle of liquirizia (liquor made of the highest grade of calabrian liqorice) and a bowl and apron with maps of calabria to take to my mom. How sweet of them! After dinner and some pictures and a quick goodbye and thank you to mamma Cecilia, we were waiting at the bus stop for the bus that would drive all night and take us all the way to Florence. It showed up almost an hour late but we got our bags packed in and I said my goodbye and thank you to papa` Raffaele and a see you soon to Veronica, who would be staying a few more days before making her journey back to Pisa.

I was a little nervous about the long trip but it proved to be not as difficult as I was preparing myself for. Giuseppe and I watched a movie on my laptop after my first attempt to show him an episode of my favorite show as a kid, pee wee's playhouse, resulted in embarrassment as to what the other passengers might think if they caught a glimpse. He made me turn it off haha! I also ended up turning off the movie prematurely because mr.embarrassed dozed off.

We took turns with my travel pillow, waking up when the bus stopped for bathroom breaks at the gas station convenience store/caffe chain called Autogrill. These spots brought back memories from my trip to Italy in high school when we covered all the ground, from Verona to Sorrento, in a tour bus and made frequent pitstops at these infamous Autogrills. I remembered our fun guide, Mario, who called me white mountain, or pink mountain (the names of the italian mountains in the north) depending which color of bandana I wore on my head that day. Yes had a keen sense of style even in high school;)

Finally we pulled into Florence at 7:30 am and groggily descending the bus I was excited and amazed that we'd made it. I felt like we were home! Back to familiar territory. We got our bus tickets and didn't have to wait long for the city bus to arrive. We loaded up our luggage, including one extra suitcase packed by Giuseppe's mom, exclusively of food. In 10 minutes we were at Giuseppe's house and after a meal and a nap, we got cleaned up and headed to the center for a walk through the beautiful and streets and sights of Florence, places that held many memories for us over our past months together, including the door of the duomo, where we'd met for the first time:) That evening we also jetted over to scusamario for some salsa, the same place he'd taken me the night before I left, where I cried on the grass. I felt so overjoyed and grateful to be back.

Giuseppe's apartment building

In the following days Giuseppe was back at work and I had some work of my own to do on my dance card illustration project which became a little difficult when his apartment turned into a sauna in the afternoons. It was regularly 40 degrees in Florence (that's without humidity factored in) and air conditioning is highly uncommon. I didn't mind so much as I always prefer hot to cold but as I was banned from suntanning on the balcony in my bathing suit (after Giuseppe woke up late one saturday surprised to find me in such a state and had to explain to me that it's not considered appropriate in Italy, despite my objections), sometimes I needed an escape in the afternoons so I'd go to the grocery stores or the park nearby, La Cascine, where there's a huge market on tuesdays, or to the center to meet some friends or walk around. Once I got the tire filled up on his old bike and the rusty lock cut off (all it cost was a smile and some patience for the old men in the bicycle shop), I was so pleased to be liberated from the buses and also enjoyed regular rides in the cascine park.

Within a few days of being back in Florence I was super happy to meet up with my american friend, Sally, who had also just arrived back from a trip to the united states followed by a trip to Puglia (the "heel" region of the boot in italy) with her boyfriend, Piero, to visit his family. I met her and some friends at a restaurant and we caught each other up on our lives over the past 6 weeks, including trading stories of our experiences in the south of italy, and we ended up in the usual spot, Piazza Santo Spirito near my old apartment. I also met my old language exchange partner, Daniele, a few times in the center where we chatted only in italian this time as he insisted he was on vacation from english. Unfortunately I missed seeing my cousin Martinho, who had left for Portugal the day I came back from Calabria (although I had just seen him in Calgary a few weeks prior!), and Valentina, my italian tutor, who'd be arriving in Florence the day before I left for Canada, but she was so surprised and happy when she received my phone call and I told her that I was back in Italy.
With his long hours at work, we were both always happy to see each other at the end of the day when he got home and we tried to make the most of our evenings together. One evening while walking around the center deciding where to go, we came across a young dance crew in Piazza del Mercato Nuovo, who were tearing up the pavement in ways I don't think florence has ever seen before. My eyes were glued and we watched their whole performance which combined different styles of hiphop, breakdance, poppin and lockin, tap, and freestyle. They had some really original choreography and I loved how the girl members of the group would faceoff with the guy members. The girls were all sass and the guys all strength, it was so fun!

The lighting isn't so great but you get the idea!

Other evenings were filled with concerts at the fortezza, another night of salsa at scusamario where we did a lesson of chacha before the regular dancing started, dancing at a bar with a group of polish travelers, mexican dinner on a beach beside the river with Giuseppe's friends Tomasso and Madelina and another night with the lovely couple at the stylish club Manduca for an apertivo and dancing. Another night on the weekend I met up with a group of entertaining american ladies and a swedish woman, who were going out for cocktails and had heard from Sally that I was back. Giuseppe met up with us a little later that evening and we had a nice time on a terrace in the San Niccolo` neighborhood.

One evening we made a point to hit up Pizzaman across the street from Giuseppe's apartment for their awesome gluten free pizza, of which my usual was the pasquale, with tomatoes and basil. On our way out, upon seeing a friend of Giuseppe's from work (also named Giuseppe, he's from Calabria;) we stopped to chat with him and then made it all the way back to his apartment where I was about to thank him for dinner before realizing that neither he nor I had paid the bill! We hurried back and set things straight, having to explain the situation to friend Giuseppe as we made our second exit.

Another set of evenings we spent with friends of Giuseppe's family from their town in Calabria, who were in Florence to find an apartment for their daughter, Alessia, before university started. We chatted and went for walks and stopped for obligatory summer evening gelatos. Also, as luck would have it, and as we were rapidly consuming the ingredients in the first load, they brought us another suitcase full of garden fresh food from Giuseppe's mom:) We cooked many amazing meals together and thought of creative ways to eat the huge quantity of tomatoes at our disposal.

Weekends also included a picnic at La Cascine park (where Giuseppe slept the afternoon away despite his intentions to go into work), hiking the trails in Fiesole, and on the final weekend, a pool party at his friend Silvia's parent's villa near Pistoia followed by the medieval festival in the town down the road. We all ate dinner medieval style, the plates included cinghiale (wild boar) and sausage with beans, and were entertained by the theatrics and performances in the streets. I couldn't resist buying a crown of flowers for sale in the streets which has since cemented my other nickname from Giuseppe (other than pazza (crazy)), which is principessa (princess) :)

While I was in Toronto in August before departing for Italy, Sadaf was telling me about an italian animation studio that she'd found out about, and out of curiosity we looked it up on the internet one day. The studio is near the east coast of Italy by a city named Ancona, around 3 hours on the train from Florence. Surprisingly there were two job ads posted on the site, one for a character designer and one for a storyboard artist, coincidentally the two jobs that I have plenty of experience in. After reading through the criteria it seemed that I was the perfect candidate, and despite my preference to not work in the animation industry, Sadaf encouraged me that maybe it would actually be the best thing to get me going in Italy.

I called up my mom and had her fed-ex me my portfolio and hard drive which I'd left at home as I hadn't anticipated needing them, and they arrived a few days before my departure to Italy. Upon arriving in Florence I put together my application, cover letter, reference letter, sample portfolios and sent it all to the email address listed on the website. Then I waited. After 2 weeks my confidence that destiny wanted me to stay in Italy started to wane and I called up the studio to verify that they had received my application. The woman verified the email address I had sent it to but said she couldn't verify that they'd received it but I'd know when I received an email back. I asked if it was possible to visit the studio and she said that no, that only if I was contacted I would be invited to visit. As a last attempt I wrote another email to one of the other email addresses listed explaining that I'd only be in the country for another week and would like to visit, but I've still yet to hear back:/

Once the idea of working at an animation studio got in my head, I figured maybe it was worth another shot contacting a studio I knew about in Florence. I had sent them an email in June but, in italian style, never heard back. This time I called in to ask if I could visit and the secretary said, perhaps it was possible, but I needed to write them an email and proceeded to give me the same email address I'd already contacted. Knowing there was little chance I would receive a response, I sent another email anyway, but with my days numbered, I had to take alternate measures.

I had found out about this animation studio only because I had stumbled upon the blog of a director who worked there, so I sent an email to his personal email address, and received a response within a number of hours. We arranged a time and before I knew it I was reassembling my portfolio and off to their studio, which was only a block away from the train station. I arrived a little early so I decided to take a walk around the block, and by total chance I stumbled into my friend Sally who was standing out front of the place she happened to be working at that day. After a little chat and good luck wishes from her, I walked back to the animation studio feeling a little more confident and at ease. There were only 4 people working there, the secretary and 3 men, who I proceed to talk to all in italian for the next 40 minutes. I showed them my portfolio, film, and storyboards, to which they were really impressed and said that I was bravissima (brilliant).

They asked me many questions and answered mine, explaining how things usually work at their studio. Although I wasn't understanding 100% I did well clarifying and figuring out what they were saying. In the end, they said they'd love to work with me, that is if they had any work to offer me. Things were slow at the moment, and in regular animation studio fashion, when they had work it was last minute notice with intense deadlines. That said, they assured me they'd be in touch if they needed anyone.

That same day I'd made an appointment in the afternoon with the man who owned the jazz restaurant, who I'd met when I applied for a job as a waitress and although that never ended up panning out, during the interview he discovered I was an artist and upon seeing my work expressed interest in doing an exhibiton at the restaurant. I'd assembled some of my original paintings that were in Canada as well as some digital prints that I'd had done in an effort to seize this opportunity. He was happy to see me and like the other times, we talked a lot as he looked through my pieces; about art and life and what it takes to succeed.

He told me that he'd be willing to start an exhibition right away which could then be moved over to the biennale in december but there were things I needed to do first, most importantly, get the artwork framed. With limited time and budget, I decided it would probably better to go with the possibility of option 2, get the pieces ready in the spring and have the exhibition run all summer, then, as he was offering, he would arrange with his contacts throughout Italy to have the exhibition travel to different cities. I liked this idea and if the collection was to make a tour throughout Italy, I'd definitely like the extra time to put together more of a solid and unified collection of work. So, it was worth the effort and we'll see what might pan out in the spring.

Later that day, Veronica arrived from Pisa and we had a short walk in the center before receiving word from Giuseppe that he'd left work. We met him back at home and cooked dinner before heading out again for gelato which was treated to us by Veronica in celebration of her completed exam. I asked if it wouldn't be more appropriate that WE paid to congratulate her but they explained to me that no, in Italy the person celebrating did the buying. For example if you go out on your birthday, you buy for all of your guests! I was surprised at this but then I remembered something that Giuseppe said on his birthday, about wanting to pay for everyone. After gelato we passed by the club at Piazzale Michelangelo, Flo, for a little dancing before bedtime.

The next morning, Giuseppe headed off for work and Veronica and I slept in before enjoying the day together. I helped her dye her hair and then we had lunch before heading into the center, stopping by her favorite shoe store which was having an amazing sale, every pair of shoes was 10 euro! Afterward we relaxed in the piazzas and by chance caught the entertaining show of Grey the Mime in Piazza della Signorina, who essentially just scares or makes fun of the tourists walking by. At one point he picked up a chinese man and set him down in our laps! As the afternoon came to an end, I walked Veronica to the station and when it was time to say goodbye she shed a few tears. Although she wished I could stay, she told me that after seeing my artwork she understood that I needed to be pursuing work as an artist. I told her I couldn't feel sad as it was practically a miracle that I got to return to Italy for that month and it was so absolutely amazing visiting their home in Calabria. We hugged and agreed to stay in touch.

On my last day, Giuseppe cooked while I packed and after many hours I was instructed to enter the kitchen, greeted by glorious smells and a smiling chef. Awaiting on the table were mushrooms cooked with rabbit (from farm Zampelli) cooked to perfection, with a fabulous salad, leftover peas, and bread sprinked with oil and basil (gluten free for me;). We ate until we couldn't eat anymore, in the style of our usual weekend all-inclusive breakfast/lunch/dinner meal.

All fueled up, Giuseppe was then ready to record a video to greet my family, in response to the short hello videos I had done of all my family members (including our new kitty, Charlie, my mom's birthday present) before leaving Canada. He did an amazing job using his english vocabulary to acknowledge each person separately, making tons of jokes and being so sweet. Upon finishing this 8 minute epic, I couldn't hold back my tears <3

That evening despite still being stuffed we grabbed a gelato at our usual spot, de medici, with me sampling my favorite almond-fig flavor from Giuseppe's cone as I knew I wouldn't be able to digest a whole serving to myself (I can only do the sorbetti (sorbet)), followed by a walk and a sit in front of the fountain at the fortezza. Then, to help us feel like it was just another regular night, we went for a drink in the center with a colleague of Giuseppe's, Ezio, and his girlfriend.

My short notice, month long trip back to Italy felt like the sequel to a movie, I told Giuseppe one day towards the end. I saw many of the same places and people, many of which I wasn't sure if or when I'd see again, along with many new places and people. Half was so familiar and the other half, brand new. The month was absolutely wonderful, more that I could've ever asked for. And of course, as things go when you're enjoying yourself, it flew by. The second goodbye, this time at the airport as opposed to the train station, although sucking just as bad, was a little bit easier knowing that it was such a bonus that I was there in the first place, and knowing that after a month of staying together everyday in happiness, we would definitely see each other again upon my return to Italy, regardless of how circumstances might change.

Shortly after my return home, I was notified that the CILS exam (certification of italian for foreigners that I did at the beginning of June) results were in. I nervously punched in my code and was elated to find 82%! During that last month in Italy I knew I had improved both talking and understanding Italian in leaps and bounds, which I was surprised to experience after a 6 week cold turkey break. However I was torn out of english pretty quickly being in complete immersion in Calabria the first week (which also allowed me to pull out some calabrese dialect frases every so often to surprise Giuseppe, including "vieni ka!!" (come here!) and "nineam a mangear!" (let's go eat!)). However at the time of writing the test in June I still wasn't so confident so I'm so happy that all my studying paid off at the time. My tutor, Valentina, was even prouder of me upon hearing the news.

About a week after my Canadian re-arrival, I celebrated my 28th birthday which was the first in 10 years that I had celebrated with my family. We cooked a nice italian dinner complete with gluten free cake and I broke out the italian licorice liqor, a gift from Giuseppe's parents, with dessert. A low key birthday, but of course I had to shake it up a little bit with a request to all the guests to adorn a funny hat. This was mostly because I wanted to wear my princess crown from Italy:) By chance Giuseppe caught me on skype the night before, where it was already past midnight in Italy and therefore my birthday, and he had me read the sweetest email ever before serenading me with 'happy birthday' on his guitar :_ ) Thank you skype.

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