I’ve just started watching La Mappa Misteriosa on ABC iView. Each episode of the series is less than ten minutes and it’s compelling viewing — no mean feat for a program essentially designed for learners of Italian. It’s a clever interactive drama that mimics the experience of cultural immersion. The introductions are in English, and English punctuates each episode, but otherwise the dialogue is in Italian, with pauses where the actors break the fourth wall and look right at you, inviting you into the conversation. It’s exactly pitched at my beginner level of Italian. You join the characters on an adventure involving a mysterious map to crack a decades-long mystery in the Emilia Romagna region of Italy, where Bologna is. Back in April, I spent part of the Easter break in Bologna with my other half, and it’s easily one of the best places for food in Italy. It’s also a very beautiful town so the idea of setting a food-related mystery there for a series is a pretty irresistible one.
Okay, at this point I’m going to take a sideways step to talk about food, ’cause I haven’t written enough about it.
I had lots of great meals out — like salt cod (baccalà) with polenta — but I had better home-cooked dishes in, with risotto alla zucca (pumpkin risotto) being a particular highlight. I loved all the cured meats and cheeses, and every other day I’d eat tramezzino — little white bread sandwich-like snacks with savoury fillings — as well as calzones from a hole in the wall near where my classes were held. I discovered a taste for vegetables like radicchio and finocchi (fennel), and it was a real joy to buy from the open-air market in one of the piazzas, indulging in whatever was in season. Gelato often hit the spot and the ever-flowing coffee, prosecco and Spritz never got boring. And then, of course, there was the food in Naples, which was both glorious and gloriously fattening, plus good stuff in Rome as well — but more about the south of Italy later. By the way, no surprises that I got a little fat in Italy. Just look at what I was eating!
Watching La Mappa Misteriosa has inspired me to cast my mind back to Italy, which now seems so far away from my life back in Sydney. Strange to think that I spent more than three months there this year — a dream within an even weirder dream involving different parts of the world. To be honest, Italy wasn’t quite the romantic vision I had in my mind, and I alluded to it in an earlier post when I said that Italy “was not as easy to fall in love with as I expected”. But maybe my expectations were too high, which is entirely possible with a country that’s usually talked about in the same breath as France, another place that has successfully exported an image of its magnificent lifestyle.
I was lucky to have the chance to live in the apartment of an inviting and open-minded Italian couple for two months, friends of some good friends of mine. They generously opened up their home to me, allowing me to share it, and we had some great times together during my stay. They took me to small towns I would’ve never seen otherwise, and gave me glimpses into their day-to-day lives. I also met many other Italians at their various social occasions. If it wasn’t for their friendship, my experience of their country would’ve been so much more limited, so I feel a lot of gratitude that it all worked out the way it did.
The thing is, Italy is what it is and my feelings about it relate entirely to my own sensibilities. It just felt so old world to me, with its endless social scripts and traditions — but maybe this is exactly what other people love about it. There are hints of student activism but I think Padua is a pretty refined sort of town with beautiful old buildings and grand piazzas. I spend a lot of time thinking about how a place’s history affects its outlook, but I guess I’m more drawn to places that have a throbbing, pulsating heart not so weighed down with the past. I realised this when I went to Naples and it was the complete opposite — people laughing and chatting on the streets, teenagers wearing crazy clothes and trying to be fashionable, graffiti and garbage everywhere. It was chaotic and edgy, and there was a vibrancy I really hungered for after spending most of the year in small towns in Europe. Naples is dysfunctional of course, and its past is pretty chequered, but somehow it felt really alive. Maybe just being a big city was enough, because I liked Milan and Rome too.
Needless to say, though I felt the weight of the culture around me, it didn’t stop me from finding the parts of it I related to. For a small town Padua certainly punches above its weight, especially in terms of music, and I saw a lot of great gigs like a mental South African group called Die Antwoord. I also did my best to check out Italian pop culture, mainly through watching its version of The Voice, which attracted international attention this year because one of its contestants, Suor Cristina, was a bonafide nun…and she won! I got my Italian housemates hooked on it as well and we’d watch it together. The show gave me a small window into how Italy is changing, slowly but surely, because minorities were pretty well represented. It was funny to see people speaking Italian natively when their parents come from places like Mauritius (as in the case of Dylan Magon), since Italy is not exactly known for being multicultural. But nowadays there are a lot more migrants there, which is noticeable even in conservative, small-town Padua. It’s a well known problem in terms of people from different parts of Africa, others refugees and undocumented people, and Italy is becoming known as the “back door” to Europe. There are also a lot more Chinese living in Italy too, particularly found working in manufacturing. For my graduation I got my hair done in a local salon run by two Chinese women where the only language we could use to communicate in was Italian. Learning about the country’s multiculturalism was one of the best things about my whole experience there, and it was a bit of a surprise too.
You know, the premise of La Mappa Misteriosa is a great metaphor for travel itself. You start off with a mysterious map, following the clues in another language, where one thing leads you to another and you have no idea where you’ll end up — with a few unexpected twists along the way. Looking forward to the next episode.