Despite the many everyday situations I encounter here in Italy that I claim I will ‘never get used to’, it occurred to me during this weekend in France that I no longer consider myself to be a foreigner here in Italy, and haven’t done for a while. Maybe you need to take a step back from the place you call home to realize just what it is that makes it so. Given that I now travel very rarely (work commitments being a big issue for both Luca and myself), it’s not often that I get the opportunity to take in the sights and sounds of other cultures. I don’t count going home to mum and dad’s in the UK for Christmas as it’s a bit like going to EuroDisney and claiming to have visited Paris, if you know what I mean…..
I guess I’m a homey person – I like my creature comforts, am not a fan of change, and like to be in familiar surroundings, so within half an hour of crossing the border I had already driven Luca crazy with my desperate attempts to squeeze the last of the crackly signal out of Radio Deejay, and was desperate for a cappuccino (even though I hadn’t had one for about a week in any case). Every time we chanced upon a familiar brand, I found myself saying “Ah look, there’s a Castorama / Cèlio / Zara / Trony… Just like at home!!” Most of these are probably French imports, but it made me strangely enthusiastic to chance upon places I would normally associate with Italy. Sad but true. I also made the following observations about France / the French (or at least those that reside in the Avignon area):
1. French food is elaborate, rich and complicated. All the things that don’t appeal to an Italian palate, as Luca reminded me every time we picked up a menu. Roast guinea-fowl in a cumin and cream sauce, accompanied by over-cooked spaghetti (on the same plate shock horror!!), and capsicum pepper stuffed with blue cheese, vine leaves, olives, cucumber and Moroccan spices. A nightmare for your average Italian, a stomach ache even for me…
2. The French (contrary to what I had heard) are very civilized drivers. OK, let’s not exaggerate. Maybe the French from Provence are extremely civilized drivers when compare to the Milanesi. In any case, in around 400 kilometres of French motorway, not one single car came roaring up behind me to a distance of 1.5 metres, flashing their headlights to get me to move out of the way. It took all of 2 kms over the border at Ventimiglia for the first Italian ‘testa di cazzo’ to pull this exact trick, which is something I have to tolerate on a daily basis. And I don’t even stick to the speed limit myself. Thinking about it, everyone in France seemed to drive at or under the speed limit, even on the motorway. We didn’t see a single crazy person going at 180, and I see at least 2 or 3 per day on the A7 to Milan.
3. There is nothing like the bar / cafè culture that I expected. I know we’re spoilt here with a cafè on every corner, including on a Sunday, but I was quite shocked that we ended up walking around for over an hour on Sunday morning looking for a place to get a coffee and a croissant. Maybe it’s just Avignon that falls short…boh….
4. The dress code is distinctly “I don’t think we’re in Milano anymore, Toto”. Kaftans, ponchos, ankle-length skirts coupled with flat open-toed sandals, bright-coloured jumpers, different materials thrown together, enormous fabric bags and lots of bandanas. I’m sure Parisians don’t dress like this, but I wonder if it’s just an Avignon thing, or if lots of provincial French towns are like this. Maybe I have a warped view of elegant / scruffy from years of feeling like an outcast for forgetting to put in my diamond earrings to go for milk on a Sunday morning….
5. Local councils and governing bodies in general seem to have their shit together waaaaaaaaay more than their Italian counterparts. I was shocked by the amount of cared-for communal areas, well-kept grass verges and vegetation along the roads, working fountains with no graffiti, flat pavements with no enormous holes waiting to swallow you up, and – best of all – constant, reliable signposting!
All in all I thought Avignon was absolutely beautiful. I didn’t expect the North African influences that seem to abound, and the vast array of architectural styles that all seem to merge into one. Nor did I expect such a huge selection of restaurants of every nationality and style – it reminded me of Barcelona. Most of these things came as a surprise because Avignon is twinned with my home town of Colchester, whose architectural delights and abundance of good quality restaurants are sadly lacking. I expect twinning is based on population….
My quasi-homesickness for Italy was, strangely enough, echoed by Luca on the way back. Being an absolute typical Sicilian (stubborn, hard-headed, suspicious of all that is not familiar especially with regard to food and drink), 2 days of creamy sauces, bad coffee (he’s also in the bar / restaurant business), and my mother chatting in his ear nineteen to the dozen in a language that he struggles to comprehend, all had him chomping at the bit to get back to safe ground. As we crossed the border back into the bel paese, he breathed a sigh of relief and virtually demanded that we stop at the first Autogrill for ‘a decent cup of coffee’. My protests that decent coffee doesn’t exist in the Autogrill even if we are in Italy were met with a grunt. I was just pleased to be able to communicate with the barista without being met with a confused expression and a look which said “ ah the poor foreign girl - can’t even order a cafè au lait without getting into difficulty”. Upon reaching the bar, the girl serving took one look at me (blond, fair skin, blue eyes…) and did the usual: “Yes?” “Due caffè di cui uno ristretto grazie” I replied. “Ah, sorry, I thought you were foreign” was her response. Nope, I’m home.