Friday, February 3, 2012

La Straniera di Palermo (The Foreign Girl in Palermo)

It's been 3 weeks now since I arrived in Palermo, a city I'd never been to before deciding I would make it my home for the next 8 months. Many people ask me, confused, why??? And I explain that it was my intention after making the transition from Canada to Florence, to transition from North Italy to South Italy (2 different worlds in many people's minds) and satisfy my curiosity to experience the southern italian way of life. This curiosity was actually encouraged from many people's negative opinions about the south including the words ‘chaotic’, ‘lazy’, and ‘disorganized’. I couldn't help but be intrigued. Maybe this was where I belonged:)

In the months nearing my departure from Canada, I scrambled to line up a job in the south, as per my self-pledge that I couldn't afford to come back to italy without some guaranteed income. After sending out hundreds(?) of emails to english schools located in many different cities in the south (the only criteria being that they were located on the sea), one blown phone interview, and a nanny job that fell through, I decided I was going anyway(!) to my first choice city where, as luck would have it, rent is super cheap. While you need about 500 Euros a month to rent a room in the center of Florence, 150 Euro will do it in Palermo. Giuseppe guaranteed me that if I put up an ad offering private english lessons at 10 Euro/ hour, I wouldn't have any problem paying my rent.

So with that, a few days after Christmas, I said goodbye to my family and friends and the life that I'm surprised to say that I settled into in Alberta (in the last 9 years, the longest period of time I spent in Alberta was 2 weeks, and I was usually pulling out my hair by the end). I’m pleased that I used the 5 months to make some progress in my artwork, as was my objective (although I didn’t quite complete as much as I’d set out to do...), including building my website and finishing the comic that I started 3 years ago. As well, I had the opportunity to reconnect with some old friends and people from my past and spend lots of time with my sisters. Before I knew it, on Dec 28, I was on my return flight from Calgary to Florence (stopping in Montreal and Paris along the way).

Giuseppe left me the key for his apartment tucked into the seat of his bicycle in the parking lot so I was able to let myself in, having the opportunity to eat, shower, and sleep before he came home from work. It was another happy reunion:) That evening we were back at our usual spot, Pizzaman, across the street, for gluten free pizza. In preparation for our New Year’s Eve dinner I was sent to the supermarket with a list of ingredients for some ‘traditional’ new years dishes. These included squid, lentils, and something called ‘cotecchino’ a prepared pork product, like some sort of sausage. I searched the whole meat department myself before asking for assistance, and once I did, the worker sent me to the poultry section. Confused, I asked the guy behind the meat counter and then I realized they thought I was saying ‘Tacchino’ which means turkey. Noooo, I clarified I wanted pork like ‘zampone’ a similar pork-sausagie-thing and he was kind enough to escort me to it’s proper home. Although we cooked too much food, our traditional dinner was a hit and from there we made it downtown in front of the train station just in time for the countdown. It was the same spot I was standing in the year before, with firecrackers going off in every direction amongst the crowds.

The following week we decided to take off for a few days and tour some Tuscan towns. We booked a hostel in Perugia as our home base and plotted our course. The towns we saw included Montereggioni, Assisi, Gubbio, and Spello. I had been to Assisi on my trip to Italy in high school and I remembered the big church.

A life size nativity scene in Gubbio

Back in Florence we had a night of salsa dancing with a group of Giuseppe’s friends were I put to use some of the moves I’d learned from my salsa teacher in Calgary. Then on the weekend we were off to Cimone, a nearby mountain, for snowboarding. The preparations necessary in order for this trip to happen included finding affordable snowpants for me to buy as well as buying chains for Giuseppe’s car tires, as it was the new law that cars driving on certain highways had to have these in the vehicle at all times. The snowpants were the easy part. I think Giuseppe spent a whole day driving around Florence and the suburbs trying to find a store with the right measurement of chains available. They were sold out everywhere as the law was just instated and no one wanted to risk getting a ticket. However Giuseppe might have ended up with a different kind of ticket, for speeding, as within his frantic search he drove down a familiar street where he knew there was photoradar, yet was too focused on finding those damn chains and forgot to slow down. He’s still awaiting the damage in the mail. I’ve never seen him so mad as that day!

However, in the end, he got the chains and we got to go snowboarding. It’s been so long since I’ve gone and it felt great. At Giuseppe’s request I made us some butt-protector padding out of a cheap exercise matt, which came in handy for his spills (he’s still learning) and for my sensitive tailbone. At one point during the day, the zipper on the fly of Giuseppe’s snowpants broke and as he wasn’t able to do up the top button due to slight weight gain from when he’d bought the pants 4 years ago, we decided to switch. When I brought the pants out to him from the ladies bathroom, I apparently got a funny look from a lady spying my butt-protector sticking out of my leggings, haha. We packed it in a bit early as the runs were getting slicker as the day cooled off, but we were both content. However the next day, Giuseppe decided it was necessary to stay home from work as he could barely move.

Modelling Giuseppe's 'moon boots', all the rage for winter fashion in Italy

The next days in Florence I caught up with some friends and we hauled my bags off from Martinho’s place (they weren’t quite as heavy as I was remembering thankfully). As well, Giuseppe helped me put up an ad offering private English lessons in Palermo and scope out apartment listings. This situation changed as a different opportunity soon came to present itself. The first call in response to my ad was from the boss of the newspaper office at the university of Palermo. I explained I hadn’t yet arrived in Palermo but when I did I’d be happy to arrange lessons at his convenience. He inquired where I’d be staying and I explained I didn’t know yet as I was looking for an apartment. Within a few days this turned into a mutually beneficial situation- I would do an unpaid internship with the university newspaper office (doing some illustrations and translations) in exchange for free housing in a student dorm until the end of February. This was a small miracle and a huge a relief, as it would’ve been rather crazy trying to find the right apartment over the course of a weekend.

So Giuseppe and I headed to Palermo Friday Jan 13 with a little more relaxed schedule ahead of us. Immediately upon stepping of the plane the air was much warmer than in Florence. Looking out the window during the bus ride from the airport I was surprised to see the streets and buildings more modern than I was expecting (the route from the airport is the newer area, we’d later see the old, old area of the city, with some parts literally crumbling). From the train station we scouted our our little bed and breakfast hotel and were graciously welcomed by the owner, Marisa. We ate dinner at the trattoria below before heading to the night-life zone where we scouted out all the cute bars before choosing one to have a drink at and then heading back to the hotel to crash.

Teatro Massimo

An awesome tree at a park in the center

The next day we were off to scope out the student housing where I’d be staying, in an area called Arenella, a little far from the centre but right by the beach:) We were welcomed by the nuns who manage the building and Sister Carmellina gave us a tour of the building, included the 5th floor terrace with an amazing view, and the room where I’d be staying. I was pleasantly surprised as I was prepared for much less. The room had a big balcony and a tub! Shortly after, the boss from the university newspaper, Dario, came to meet us and gave us a little tour of the city, ending at the university grounds, where Giuseppe and I decided to use my new ‘cafeteria card’ and eat lunch for a budget friendly 3.50 Euro. This includes primo piatto (the carbs), secondo (the meat), contorno (the veg), plus a piece of fruit, a beverage, and bread (for those robust people who can tolerate it- I still can’t).

Some naturally gluten free sicilian sweets made with almond flour

From there we headed back to the center of the city and passed through the super old historic center with it’s tiny, ominous streets and crumbling walls. The city had been bombed during the war and many of the buildings still remain in ruins. It feels very mysterious, likely due to the mix of traces left behind from the many cultures that influenced it’s history (in different periods the city was ruled by Arabs, the French, the Spanish,..) and now the ethnic mix of foreigners that populate the area today.

That evening we scoped out another restaurant to try some local dishes ( I had caponata, an appetizer made with eggplant and tomato, and risotto with pistachio pesto and shrimp) and then we took another walk through the night-life district, picking another bar to have a drink at nearby the gorgeously lit-up, Teatro Massimo (where the final scenes of the Godfather 3 were shot). The next day was Sunday, and after delivering my bags to my new room at the student dorm, it started raining. I had an umbrella but that didn’t help my feet which were soon soaked due to neglected maintenance on my boots. After walking far too long in search of shelter, we ended up back at the hotel even though we were technically checked out. Marisa was kind enough to have left us the key so we could return for Giuseppe’s bag before he had to go to the airport and catch his flight back to Florence. As such, we thankfully had a place to warm up and dry off and kill some time watching TV before it was time to go. Another goodbye, although this one was a little different than the others as this time it was him who was leaving. After seeing him off on the bus to the airport, I caught my bus back to Arenella, and despite my intention to take a shower, I went right to bed instead, waking up to my phone ringing as I’d asked Giuseppe to call me when he arrived. Then back to sleep before starting my new life in the morning.

I slowly got the hang of how things work here. The rooms are cleaned twice a week, there’s a free shuttle bus that goes to and from the university 3 times a day on weekdays, you have to leave your key with the nun at the entrance when you leave, you pick up fresh sheets and toilet paper on Saturday mornings (it took me a few weeks to figure this one out) and there’s a dinner available every week night with your cafeteria card which you must register and pay for the day before if you want to eat it. This dorm houses mostly foreign students, from the Middle East, Vietnam, Africa, although there’s also some Italians from different cities in Sicily too.

My first big room

My current small room

The kitchen

As time goes on I’m getting to know the nuns and their names and personalities. At first they all looked the same in their matching outfits. My favorite is Sister Rosetta who despite possibly being the oldest of the nuns, is the feistiest and intrigues me with her mischievous grin and glint in her eye and random singing. I’ve also had practice using the formal tense in Italian, which is used when speaking to someone of a respectful position, and in this case should be used with the nuns. It’s a little awkward and strange for me but I’m getting better. This involves speaking to them in third person, so instead of asking a nun ‘do you have my key?’ you say ‘does SHE have my key?’. Strangely, you also say SHE when you’re talking to a man, which I find a bit inappropriate but alas, this is how the language works.

I love being so close to the beach and going there to sit and listen and watch the waves, the feeling is unexplainable. And I’m overjoyed that it’s finally been confirmed to me by a local that yes, surfing (not just wind surfing which I knew is common but REAL surfing) exists in Italy, particularly at Mondello, a beautiful beach just outside of Palermo. I. CAN’T. WAIT. FOR. SUMMER!!!! When the sun is out, the weather is nice but somehow it's still always cold inside, and especially on rainy days. I wasn't prepared for this, I thought it was going to be warm here!! However I've been assured that spring always arrives early, so by next month the temperature will start to climb.

The amazing waves

In the courtyard of the student housing

The homeboy outside the front gate

Tour of the front entrance

My private English lessons have been going well and some days I’ve had trouble fitting people in at the times they request. It’s interesting tailoring the conversations to different levels and ages. Apart from Dario, I have Valeria, an Italian teacher with a degree in language who is gearing up for some tough oral exams in English which will allow her to teach and be an English tour guide. Then there’s Andrea, a 13 year old boy who’s skipped a grade and already started high school, and whose parents want him to be completely fluent in English. Last week I met Elena, who picked me up in front of Teatro Massimo on her motorino and gave me a ride to her house through the chaotic traffic in the historic center, to meet her 9 year old son, Marcos. I discovered he can’t sit still for more than 10 minutes so I needed to take a more active approach, teaching him the verbs ‘run’ ‘jump’ ‘kick’ while performing the actions. He actually retained the information immediately as opposed to when we were sitting at the table trying to get him to remember the question ‘do you have any 5’s’? while playing the card game ‘Go Fish’. I also met Giuseppe, a university graduate who now works for his family’s olive oil company and wants take part in a course abroad for entrepreneurs. Although of course, regardless of which city he actually goes to, the program will be in english, so he's got a lot of work to do before he can join.

I did a few private trail lessons through an English school near the university and also met Giusi, who was preparing to do a practicum for her masters in Prague within a couple months, in English. She was extremely nervous. Then I met the Pelliterri family, who have two kids, Antonio who’s 12 and Giulia, who’s 9. They were both very attentive students and above all the lessons I've done, I enjoyed my time with Giulia the most, who smiled all the time and has the cutest Italian accent when she speaks English very breathily. “Hiiii, haaliiiikaaa, hatooooa, danzaa” she told me (I like to dance). Me too, I said:) She was so proud of the things she learned and beamed when I praised her.

I’ve since been offered an official contract to teach at different school in Palermo, guaranteeing me at least 10 hours a week to start, until the end of August. As it’s a school that operates a little outside of the box with their methods, encouraging creativity and originality from their teachers, it seemed like the ideal place for me. Although I have lots to learn in order to meet their high standards I think I have something to offer them as well as lots to gain. I start my first lessons for them on Monday and I have lots of preparation to do before then! The only thing I felt bad about is that I wouldn’t be able to return for the second lesson at the Pelliterri house as planned, as it’s not permitted to work for 2 schools simultaneously (however since I'm just part time I can continue to do my own lessons discreetly on the side).

The woman at the school was very angry with me when I told her I was accepting a contract with another school, and I tried my best to explain my position to her inbetween brief breaks of her yelling at me. I decided to pass by the Pelliterri house (as I didn’t have their phone number) to apologize and explain the situation myself. I was greeted by the kids who seemed a bit sad and disappointed. After chatting with the Mom she explained they were distraught when she went to the school to pay and were told that I wouldn’t be returning, and I’m not sure what reason the woman gave them, I didn't understand. However, the mom understood and appreciated that I came by. Perhaps I'll be back to do some private lessons for them in the future.

Now that I've seen Palermo for myself, I can see truth to the statement I heard many times in different contexts; Palermo is not like Florence. Sicily; the land where cars prefer to park on the sidewalk, the garbagemen don’t show up for weeks, and car horns like to randomly sing together. At least the bus system is easier to figure out than in Florence. While there are many foreigners in Palermo from Tunisia, Sri Lanka, Morocco, as far as I can tell there are virtually no Americans/Canadians in Palermo. I’m trying to train my ear to the Sicilian dialect which is another whole language on it’s own, and while being similar to the calabrese dialect it has a little different rhythm as far as I can tell. I was thinking that the Sicilian accent might be compared to English as what a cross between a southern drawl and a Scottish accent would sound like.

Reasons I'm obviously a foreigner, apart from my appearance which is already a big clue: 1. My accent. People scrunch their faces while they listen to me speak (this means they’re straining to understand me) 2. The order that I eat my food at the university cafeteria as a professor sitting at the table beside me observed. I ate my spinach first (il contorno- or side plate), followed by meat (il secondo or second course) and rice (il primo or first course). 3. The map I discreetly pull out while tracing the route of the bus or exploring the city, which sometimes results in someone wanting to help me and giving me wrong directions. Note: I don't think the Palermitanis know any of the street names in their city.

In anticipation for my independence in March when I'll be kicked out of the free student housing, I looked at my first apartment the other day (I can't wait to have a real kitchen!). Despite being in the perfect zone and being a nice room, the rest of the situation can be summed up like this; 6 girls,1 shower. Bye bye. I’ve got the whole month to find the right place, so hopefully it’s out there waiting for me!