Wanderer

Christmas has found Italy!

I’m feeling all Christmassy!

So I spent a couple of days in Naples after meeting the lovely Davide in Rome, who was kind enough to offer me and my friend a place to stay. I’ve visited Naples once before, very briefly in order to meet Pompeii, and frankly, I didn’t like it. It’s noisy, smelly, dirty, the people are often pretty rough around the edges (Davide being the exception there!)

In fact, one thing that I noticed pretty much about Neapolitan guys on this visit, is that they are often questionable in one of two ways: either they seem like pretty dodgy, probably belong in the Mafia kind of guys. The kind of guys who you cross the street to avoid because they can’t help but same some ridiculous comment towards every girl they see. Or, they’re questionable as in.. you just can’t tell if they’re straight or gay. Guys are very comfortable around other guys; cuddling (yes, as in, in bed in the evening while discussing their day with everyone else in the room), holding hands, taking a bite from each other’s rum baba’s (not a euphemism – a rum baba is a cake. Google it, it’s delicious!), and so I think, ok, gay, nothing wrong with that, it’s just a shame because they’re both cute… and then one of their girlfriends arrive, and the guy will give her a kiss while still holding hands with his friend. And this is perfectly normal. Ok, different cultures and blah blah blah, but… I for one found it confusing. And more than once I’d meet a guy and say ‘oh, so this is your boyfriend’ and be met with ‘no, he’s just my friend/cousin/neighbour who I hardly know’.

My bad.

Moving on from the Mafia and confusing sexuality of Neapolitan men… Italy is getting ready for Christmas!

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Naples is famous for it’s Christmas streets or presepe: San Gregorio Armeno, which sells nothing but Christmas decorations and Nativity sets all year round. Lord knows how they can afford to sell Christmas decor all year round, but they manage, somehow. Tourism? Do people flock to Naples in June to decorate their tree just because they can? Who knows.

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They really know how to make a nativity set! Really elaborate miniature houses – towns, even – made from wood, twigs, moss, beautifully crafted. And then there is such a range of figurines and items to fill them with! I saw figurines of bakers, butchers, seamstresses – every profession you can think of (well, every “old-fashioned” profession, so no photographers or tech-wizards, unfortunately) with little motors so that they move their little plastic pies back and forth in and out of the LED oven, or constantly ironing the same dress, or hacking at the same lump of plastic meat.. or whatever.

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Not being one to think much about the religious side of Christmas, needless to say that no, I haven’t bought myself a twigs-and-moss nativity, and there are not little motor run, palm-sized bakers working through the night on the same pie in my suitcase. They’re cute to look at, but definitely not for me. I have, however, started a cute little Christmas tradition; collecting Christmas decorations from around the world. Obviously it’s a collection limited to my winter travels – unless I can find more cities with year-round Christmas markets like Naples – but I think it’s pretty cute to have a tree decorated with memories. Nothing cheesy though, no ‘Rome 2013’ baubles, so I’ll have to make a note in my travel journals as to which were bought where for when I’m old and forgetful.

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Oh, and I ran into someone who was clearly a celebrity (screaming girls, lines of people having their photo taken with him), but I had no idea who he is… clearly his fame hasn’t reached the UK!

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So Naples wasn’t all about Christmas markets, of course. FYI, if you want to try the best pizza in Naples, go to Sorbillo on Via Tribunali. Best. Pizza. Ever. I recommend both the margherita and diavolo (me and a friend of mine shared so that we had half of each – delish!) I’ve already mentioned baba cake, which is basically rum-soaked cake, also delicious but can be a bit sickly after a while… or I found so at least, but everyone else cleared their plates and asked for seconds! There’s also sfogliatella, which I have to refer to as ‘that one, please *point*’ because I just can’t pronounce it to save my life. Sfogliatella comes in two forms; frolla (smooth) and ricca (curly), and basically it’s a sweet pastry. Layers and layers of pastry – to me, it looks like a sea shell! – with a ricotta filling, or most commonly at least. A must try!

And… despite the noise, insane traffic, dodgy reputation, piles of rubbish and general Naples-ish ways of the city.. it can still be so beautiful.

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And then what did I find on returning to Rome? Christmas!!
As ever when I arrive in Rome, even if I was there just a few days ago, I head straight to Piazza Navona, my absolute favourite spot in the city. So imagine my excitement when I round the corner and see this scene!

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The words ‘giddy’ and ‘schoolgirl’ spring to mind.

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They were in the middle of setting up while I was walking around, but I did spy some familiar-looking twigs-and-moss nativity sets lurking in the back of a lorry. No mechanical villagers yet though!

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I’ve been told that Christmas celebrations don’t officially begin until 8th December, on which the Feast of the Immaculate Conception takes place. That’s Mary’s conception, not Jesus’.. apparently the ‘immaculate’ part of of the tradition is because she never sinned.. or something like that. But anyway, so me and my friend will be heading back to Piazza Navona to see the finished market, decorations and celebrations next week. I’m. So. Excited.

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Wanderer

Portugal is beautiful… if only they could understand a word I say…

I know, I have a bit of a tendency to stammer.. or rather, not quite stammer, but more like stumbling, when I talk it’s like running downhill in flip flops, there’s so much that I want to say, and sooner or later I’m going to fall flat on my face at the bottom of the hill in a muddy pile that was once a sentence. That’s why when I travel I slow down, I take my time, I take off the verbal flip flops and I enunciate. And so when I arrived in Porto I thought, my Portuguese may be pretty much non-existent (despite having read through my phrase book about 50 times!!), but my English-speaking friends will be able to understand me. So, I arrived, and in this one apartment there are my three Portuguese friends, two people from Turkey and there was until yesterday an Italian guy, and I have also been introduced to a third Turkish guy and a girl from Finland. Can any of them understand me? No.

The stumbling stammer has been left behind in England, I’ve never spoken so clearly in my life and still, no one can understand me. It’s pretty frustrating to sit in a room with people from all over Europe, talking easily in broken English between each other and as soon as I ask ‘how are you?’ or ‘how was your day?’…. ‘what did you say?’

I think it’s partly because I say things like ‘gr-arse and ‘b-arth whereas they say ‘gr-ass‘ and ‘b-ath‘, but for the most part… apparently I am just too English. It’s one thing when I can’t join in a conversation because I don’t know the language, which of course is my own fault, but quite another when I can’t join in a conversation because I have the wrong accent.

Strangely, people here always presume that I’m French. I don’t know if it’s the clothes (mostly people ask if I’m French when I wear this skirt) Can’t say that I’m complaining. In fact, early today it took me five minutes to convince an elderly Portuguese woman that I am in fact English, despite my English accent and of course, the fact that I was speaking to her in English. ‘No, no, Français!’ Sure, if you say so.. it’s not an insult so, whatever.

I really have tried to learn at least some Portuguese though, but still after 9 months, I’m still stuck at the basics: hello, please and thank you. My first phrase book wasn’t really helping me though, as it contained such ridiculous phrases such as ‘Please help me, I have lost my pen’, ‘I have ripped my pants’ and ‘I have many diseases’ and in the ‘everyday use’ section, some worrying phrases about rape and murder. Yes, you could argue that these are important phrases, but everyday use? That’s worrying.

I’m sure it’ll just click for me eventually though, especially as here people are so friendly, even when they realise I can’t speak Portuguese, they insist on talking to me all the same, which is nice I suppose. I’m not really used to it yet though, I mean personally, if there is a language barrier, that ends the conversation right there unless I have to continue it, like when I am couchsurfing or if there is something urgent that I can only say in English; ‘your house is on fire’, ‘I am having a heart attack’, ‘a bird has just pooed on your head’ etc. Maybe people think I am lying, or maybe they think that as I am apparently French, I would be able to magically understand Portuguese?

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Anyway, on a cheerier note, I’ve fallen a little bit for Portugal again. I realised it while sipping cappuccino on the harbour front in my favourite cafe; it’s unbelievable cheap for a harbour-front cafe, modern and beautiful and yet I’ve never seen it more than half full, which is just perfect. Porto is one of those places when you can just spend hours people watching, and I’ve started to collect interesting characters; Portuguese Sean Penn with a mouth ready for false teeth; a cat with a mouth like Carey Mulligan (as in it looks like a corner of it’s mouth is being pulled up towards the sky with a fish hook); a morbidly obese woman with smiley face shaped sweat patches (and somehow the face had a ketchup nose) on her back; Asian Indiana Jones meets Dame Edna. Everyone has something that they collect when they travel; this is mine, and I’m rather excited to add to it.

I love that Porto has red phone boxes and postboxes like in England. It’s taken me three days to re-notice since September, but there they are, right in Avenida dos Aliados. I love that the metro is 1000x simpler than those in London and Paris, though sometimes I think the simplicity takes the fun out of it somewhat, and I especially love that the metro has air con! Both the stations and the tube itself. London, take note, you may not have Porto’s climate, but for god’s sake, you need air con too! I love Livraria Lello bookshop, which is quite possibly the most beautiful bookshop of all time, though I rather wish they didn’t have a no camera rule… and I also wish they’d allow me to have a shoot there, but alas, no.

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Photo from here

I was not at all surprised to learn that JK Rowling once lived in Porto and that this bookshop was a thread of inspiration behind Harry Potter.

I even love the beach, Matosinhos, though generally I am not a beach person. I hated it for a moment when the sand (I swear it wasn’t sand, it was glitter, someone has emptied 100 million pots of gold glitter and called it a beach), almost stripped the flesh from the soles of my feet, but I forgave it. It was my own fault, and I have learnt my lesson; keep the sandals on when it’s 35C+ degrees. The sand will be hot.

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