Italy was a big part of my backpacking trip, I was spending a whole month traveling around the country. I had never been there before, I’d only seen it in movies like Only You and Roman Holiday. I was so excited to get there and really see this beautiful country that creates so many of my favourite things: gelato, gnocchi, olives and olive oil, of course wine. My first stop was to be Viareggio in Tuscany for two weeks of Italian language classes, and some cooking classes thrown in. I was staying in an apartment with a few other students, arranged by the school (Centro Giacomo Puccini), about a 10 minute walk from school and from the bordwalk/beach. I couldn’t wait to arrive and get started.
I was so disappointed to be heading to Viareggio feeling still so sick, but I mustered up and got myself out of bed and to the train station in Genoa. I think on the way I was blessed by a nun? I couldn’t figure out the buses to get myself back to the train station – there was construction on the main road and all the buses were re-routed so I decided to walk, it was only 25 minutes to walk and I figured I could make it. I didn’t take into account that being sick means my ability to navigate and judge where I am goes way, way down. I was stumbling down a Genoa back alley trying to figure out where I was, coughing and sneezing and probably looking a bit like death warmed over, when I saw up ahead an adorable little old Italian nun coming up the street towards me. I smiled and said hello to her, and she walked straight up to me and looked deep into my eyes. She touched my cheek, said something in Italian or possibly Latin, kissed me on both cheeks, patted my cheek again, and walked away. I was so touched until it occured to me that she was either blessing me or possibly giving me last rites. looked pretty bad.
I eventually made it to the train station after getting directions from a very nice couple, and made it to my train with plenty of time to spare. I arrived at Viareggio with no other issues, which was a relief, although it wasn’t an uneventful trip by any means. I was sitting in a section with a really nice couple and a grandmother and granddaughter. They had made friends and were chatting, until the grandmother/daughter came to their stop. They left the car, and we assumed everything was fine until the train pulled away from the station: the little girl (about 10 years old) came flying down the hall sobbing, chased by several women but not a sign of her grandma. No one spoke English, but what I could piece together was that they had somehow gotten separated at the door and the little girl had not gotten off. She was panicked and alone, the poor thing, but calmed down as soon as she found the couple in our car. They got a hold of her mother on their mobile phone and one of the train officials came and got the little girl. It was so lovely and a little funny to see all the other mothers, they all came running out when they heard the little girl crying, and circled around her, clucking and commiserating and trying to comfort her. I’m glad she found her way.
I arrived in Viareggio to the heat, the sun, and the smell of orange blossoms in the air. It was so beautiful. I found my school and they gave me the key and map for my apartment. I arrived and met the first of my 3 roommates, a friendly Bavarian guy named Arne. I thought it was funny that I was rooming with someone from Germany, and then I met my other roommates, Nikki from Germany and Marcel from Switzerland (also a German speaker). I was a little surprised, but it turned out that most of the students in this program were German speakers. Not sure why, for some reason this particular school really appealed to Germans and the Swiss. Luckily for me a lot of Germans speak English pretty fluently, as did all of my roommates. They joked that they came for Italian and learned more English – I learned some more German!
When I arrived, I sat and chatted with Arne for a while, until Nikki showed up. Then she and I headed out to the boardwalk for dinner and a drink. The boardwalk and beach were so beautiful, we walked for a while, and then headed back to the house. Arne had a group of friends there – he had already been there a week, all alone in the house and had made a group of friends at the school. They were a really nice group, they came over for dinners at our place and brought their own chef! One of our fellow classmates was a chef from Stuttgart and made the best food, which was kind of amazing. We went to the beach together almost every day, out to a few dinners and a couple of the ladies even found a small strip of dance clubs, so we went out dancing a couple of nights, which was unexpected and fun.
Classes were really good – full immersion, no other language but Italian spoken. We learned grammar first thing, then a coffee break at the little bakery down the road, then back at it with conversation before ending for late lunch and the afternoon/evening to do whatever we wanted. Mostly I headed to the beach unless I really needed to go home and sleep. There were only 3 of us in the beginner’s class – myself, Nadia and Jasmine. We had so much fun, the three of us. The first week I spent a bit more time studying and sleeping but by the second week we were hanging out pretty much every day. It is always so much fun to travel, meet people from other countries, completely different lives and backgrounds, and be able to get alone so well. Language barriers are only barriers if we let them be is what I have learned.
I loved getting into the swing of life in Viareggio. Finding the grocery store, my favourite bakery, the markets that popped up in the afternoons, the best restaurants and the best coffee shops. Every morning Nikki and i walked to school together. Arne left the second week and we had a new roommate, Connor from Australia. He and Marcel got on particularly well and it was fun to see a new dynamic in the house. Marcel was really fun to talk to, we both love reggae and he would blast it in the backyard for us. He was also just starting out on a one year around the world trip, so we definitely had a lot to talk about! Nikki was such a firecracker, the two of us laughed a lot together. I couldn’t even remember what about half the time, we just had fun. She also introduced me to my new favourite wine: Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. She bought a bottle for us to share knowing I loved red wine, and it is really good. I furthered my education about Italian reds later in my trip, but that was a really good introduction. I had naively thought that Italian reds were a bit light and weak, and I prefer dark and bold reds so I had only really been drinking prosecco for my first week there. My Montepulciano tasting surprised me and gave me something to look forward to in traveling around Italy.
I also did cooking classes in Viareggio, but I feel like that should be it’s own post, so I’ll elaborate there. Suffice to say my time in Viareggio was very full and such a good time. Learning a new language was difficult, fun and sometimes so frustrating. My brain felt so sluggish and full all the time. I kept mistaking French words for Italian (sometimes on purpose; if I really didn’t know the word I would say the French version with an “a” or “i” on the end…sometimes it worked!). Also, apparently I know Spanish, because every once and a while I would say something really confidently and Carmen my (instructor) would look at me, shake her head, and inform me that I was speaking Spanish. I didn’t realise that I knew any Spanish other than “dos cerveza por favor”, the only useful thing I learned in Cancun. There was also that one awkward time when Mandarin slipped out; that was a throwback to when I was living in Shanghai 10 years ago. I didn’t realise any Mandarin was still rattling around in my brain, but apparently it is there, and poor Carmen had no idea what I was trying to say. Neither did I, apparently.
My two weeks in Viareggio flew by, each day kind of blended into the other and by the end of the two weeks I couldn’t really believe where it had all gone but I also felt so settled while I was there, like I had been there a lot longer. I love to travel and I really enjoying going from place to place, but it is also nice to have the time to really connect with others. Viareggio itself I didn’t really connect with at all; it was such a strange little town. It was not very pretty except at the beach & boardwalk, and didn’t feel like it had a lot of character or personality compared to some of the other cities I’d visited, it just sort of was there. I really enjoyed my time there but at this point in my travels in Italy, I wasn’t in love. I didn’t even know if I liked Italy particularly. I loved the experiences I had in Viareggio, but I wasn’t sure if Italy was for me. I still felt that France was my favourite European country – was that ever about to change.