Category Archives: Living abroad

100th tour de france kicks off in corsica

In honor of today’s start of the 100th Tour de France on the Mediterranean island of Corsica – I am reposting my last feature on this beautiful and favorite island of mine.  Enjoy! – BTH

A trip most memorable was when our daughter was three months old, we were living in Italy and we took our first family vacation to the beautiful and natural island of Corsica.

We (and our car) hopped a traghetto from Savona, Italy to Bastia on the island of Corsica, France. (Today’s Tour de France stage begins in Bastia.)

Heart pajamas were a good choice that day, as they smoothed an unfortunate and unnecessary encounter with police at a routine traffic stop on our drive down, due to a mix up with our car maintenance papers. (Even armed Italian policemen won’t resist a cute baby.)

We loved Bastia, with its surprisingly urban city feeling on an otherwise natural island. There we got a great feel for the unique Corsican character which is sprinkled with a little Italian and a little French, due to a history involving both countries. Corsica was under Genovese rule until  1729 when the Corsicans revolted and enjoyed independence for a short 40-year period, later ceding to France in  1769 . They still have an uneasy relationship with mainland France and Bastia has been the target of bomb explosions by Corsican militants.

Ferries arrive to Bastia’s port – the 100th Tour de France kicks off in Bastia today.

We drove down the Eastern coast of the island to Santa Giulia. There, at the recommendation of friends, we rented a villa at Les Toits de Santa Giulia  and every morning went for a swim in the nearby bay.  The beaches there and nearby were beautiful in  September, and the sparkling water and red rock formations were breathtaking.

the bay of Santa Giulia

La plage de Palombaggia was the most unforgettable beach (and likely the coolest place I’ve nursed a baby.)

the beach and beautiful red rock formations at Palombaggia

The nearest town, Porto Vecchio, offered a delicious bakery and creperie, just in time to remind us we were in France, as it’s easy to forget with so many reminders of Italy. Porto Vecchio has always been a “remember when?” moment, when we purchased a much too expensive International Herald Tribune to satiate my english language news craving, and driving off, watched each of its pages fly off the top of the car, where I had left it. (I blamed it on new mom mushy brain).

A highlight was the drive down to Bonifacio, at the southern most point of the island.

Citadel and cliffs of Bonifacio

The reconstructed and renovated citadel was originally built in the 9th century along with the foundation of the city. Bonifacio is known for its chalk-white limestone, sculpted in unusual shapes by the ocean. Not a stroller-friendly town, baby was put in the carrier and we explored this town on foot. Standing on the cliffs, we could see Sardegna.

white limestone cliffs of bonifacio with sardegna in the distance

This year we won’t make it back to Corsica, but we are researching islands not far from it, closer to the Italian coast and in the Tuscan archipelago. Whatever the weather when we arrive, my first order of business will be to jump in and take a swim in my most favorite sea of all.

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hobson-jobson

I’m interested in words. Language is fascinating  – its history, progression and influence. I’m curious how certain words came to be and where they came from. The idea that if Dante Aligheri were alive today, we would have a conversation in his little-changed Tuscan Italian is mind-blowing. I’ve read that the Italian greeting “ciao” comes from the word “schiao” – Venetian dialect shortened for “sono vostro schiavo” or “I am your slave.”  “Salve” – a greeting used frequently in Northern Italy where we lived but unfamiliar to most people outside the region – comes from the latin verb “salvere” or to be in good health.

Then there are informal contractions used out of context or awkwardly. I lie awake at night when my Italian PhD student friend  and European business owner-acquaintance use the English word “wanna” in their written correspondence. I haven’t had the heart to confront them, but my insides knot up  to see an inappropriate use of “want to.”  But, somewhere and somehow Euro-English – the official language of the European Union –  has decided that “wanna” is okay – even in formal correspondence. But I digress.

It’s interesting to hear how words have been borrowed and imitated and transformed by foreigners. When I taught Business English in Italy, I heard “chattare” ( an Italian verb rooted in the English Internet word “chat”), along with “stress”, “weekend”, “computer”, “video”, “blog” and “clic.” I would love to collect these words in some sort of index or glossary.

Which brings me to Hobson-Jobson.

“A glossary of colloquial Anglo-Indian words and phrases, and of kindred terms etymological, historical, geographical and discursive. By Colonel Henry Yule and AC Burnell.”

More than 100  years ago Yule and Burnell collected more than 2,000 entries – with notes –  of Indian words borrowed, used and sometimes changed by the English living there. This legendary dictionary of British India was called the Hobson-Jobson, a scholarly but fun glossary published in 1886 – and lists Anglo-Indian words like shampoo  (from the Indian word “champi or head massage), bungalow, pyjama, curry and bangle. The book also – perhaps indirectly – gives us a historical and social snapshot of the relationship between the two countries. The book can be seen as a memoir, BBC News writes, of colonial India.

For example, the Indian word dam is defined as originating from the damri coin that once existed but now means something is worthless (Damri – Dam – Damn). An exceprt from the Hobson-Jobson text reads:

“Damn  is a common enough expression for the infinitesimal in coin, and one has often heard a Briton in India say : ” No, I  won’t give a dumree!” with but a
vague notion what a damri meant, as in Scotland we have heard, ” I won’t
give a plack” though certainly the speaker could not have stated the
value of that ancient coin.”

Word lovers can get their hands on a new edition of the Hobson-Jobson next year launched as part of the Oxford World Classics Series. You can learn more about it here via BBC which is broadcasting a radio program focusing on the ever loved Hobson-Jobson.

words photo credit: National Institutes of Health NIDCD

i dolomiti

The Dolomites, or i Dolomiti in Italian, the breathtaking mountain range in the Trentino – Alto Adige region of northeastern Italy, is  one of my favorite places to visit. While not what most North Americans expect in Italy, this region feels most certainly its geographic position on the crossroads of Italy and Austria. When we lived nearby at Lago di Garda, we took day trips to Trento or weekends up to Bolzano. We hiked near Canazei and took in the panorama of the alps at the Sass Pordoi.

I have sentimental reasons for loving this place too. My favorite wine of the Dolomites is maker Mezzacorona .  I like their white wines, particularly their Pinot Grigio which I can find in my local market in Northern California. If you are in the area, take their informative – and fun – wine tour where you can learn about winemaking in the region, and have the opportunity to taste a wide range of their quality wines. The facility is modern and artistic.

In fact, it was this entertaining  wine tasting experience at Mezzacorona followed by a carpaccio dinner in the nearby city of Trento, that has become a memorable family story. (I found out the next day I was four weeks pregnant with our daughter. I can assure you that sparkling wine and raw meat didn’t harm her!).

Trento is never far from my heart and mind. My wedding band is from Trento’s historic city center by a  jeweler founded in 1872, Gioielleria D. Cortelletti.

Trento

During the winter Trento has some of the best known and beloved Christmas street markets. We especially loved to visit during this time. There we found a wide variety of sausages (like what you’d typically find in Germany or Austria) and delicious soup mixes for sale.

Bolzano farther north, was well worth the extra time in the car to visit. Its mediaeval city center, churches and castles – and mix of Italian and Austrian influence -give the city a unique flavor.

Bolzano

One of our all-time favorite trips was staying at an inn at Cortina d’Ampezzo near Canazei – long known as a winter sports center – in the northern region of Alto-Adige and hiking the upper part of Val di Fassa.

Cortina d’Ampezzo

We visited off season and hiked in unbelievably remote and beautiful parts. We rested our feet at an outdoor cafe clinging to the edge of a mountain. We took the funivia (cable car) to the unforgettable Sass Pordoi, called the terrazza or terrace of the Dolomites , at 2,950 meters. (We purchased jackets from a wise man selling them before our ascent.) It has one of the most spectacular panoramas of the alps!

At almost 3,000 meters at sass pordoi overlooking the alps.

The Trentino – Alto Adige region of Italy – its people, food and culture – may not remind you of the Italy you are accustomed to visiting or hearing about – but it is well worth adding to your itinerary. In fact, it couldn’t be more what Italy truly is, a mix of diverse cultures and history.

longtime love affair with the cinquecento

Let’s for a moment pretend I’m not a carpool mom of two active school-age kids, who require school drops offs and pick ups and rides to tennis and soccer and playdates. Let’s pretend my kids don’t also have friends who require drop offs and pick ups, and backpacks and sports equipment that require storing. Let’s just pretend.

If that were me, a non-carpool-driving, equipment-lugging mom, then our next car would be, without doubt, the recently resurrected Italian-designed Fiat 500 –  or Fiat “cinquecento”as it’s called in Italy.

The new Fiat 500 in white available now in the U.S.

I, like many Europhiles, have seen these Italian iconic cars over the years when traveling there.

We’ve snapped photos and posed in front of them. They live in our scrapbooks now.

My scrapbooks over the years include photos of me posing in front of original Fiat cinquecentos when traveling in Italy.

If we could, we would tie our hair back in a scarf like Sophia Loren, slip our Armani sunglasses over our eyes and drive it home.

Now we can.

In this 2011 NY Times review of the Fiat 500,  we learn “the consensus of people I invited along as passengers was that traveling in the car made them feel young, sporty and ‘very European.’ And the arrival of such an economical car as gas prices flirt with $4 a gallon seems timely.”

A fun, new advertising campaign for the American market – “The Next Wave of Italians has Arrived” – was filmed on the Amalfi Coast and launched earlier this summer.

Small, sporty, affordable, European, easy parking?  At around $16,000? Forget the Honda Odyssey minivan that has taken over my town. Forget the kids (this time). We can use the other car for field and road trips.

 I’m not pretending.

Standing next to our friend’s red Fiat 500 in Tuscany a few months ago.

market day mementos

Inspired by ciao domenica blog’s recent post on bruschetta, I went to our local farmers market early yesterday morning to pick up some heirloom tomatoes and country bread for a batch of bruschetta I made for a party last night.

I have a confession to make. I can’t remember the last Saturday morning I was at our town’s excellent farmers market with its line up of local Northern California growers.  Why? Maybe when the weekend rolls around and I don’t have to take the kids to school,  the morning slips away. Or , with numerous local fruit stands,  picking patches and quality grocery stores, it would actually be hard not to buy fresh, local and organic.  (I know I’m lucky, my Canadian readers.)

In fact, I love visiting market days so much that when I’m traveling, I research the surrounding town market schedules and plan my itinerary accordingly. And, yesterday, somewhere between the heirloom tomatoes and the peaches, I was reminded of some of those market memories.

Earlier this summer when we were back in stunning Lago di Garda, Italy, we visited our favorite lake market in the town of Salo’.

prosciutto crudo at a good price at the market in Salo, Italy

It’s really a combination flea and food market. You can find underwear, Bialetti Mokas (we got one for 23 euros), cycling jerseys (husband got one), airplane gliders (son got one), a variety of meats and cheeses.

buying our mozzarella di bufala for the day’s lunch

Although we were nowhere near Campana in the south of Italy where fresh mozzarella di bufala comes from, we couldn’t help buy it to pair with tomatoes for lunch that day. (Northern Italy is closer to Campana than California at least and it was delicious.)  Back in California, my coffee poured out of our new moka each morning reminds me of our recent visit there.

I’ll also never forget visiting the Vucceria fish market many years ago in Palermo, Sicily.  This is a bustling market filled with smells and sounds including a dialect of Italian I couldn’t fully comprehend or speak. But the Vucceria is an exhilirating experience! Randomly, I have a hair bandana headband I picked up there that is stuffed in my closet and comes out from time to time at the beach. This great article describes Sicilian open air street markets.

Then there is my tablecloth from  Aix en Provence, France – which also has the most amazing open air markets. Olives, cheeses, meats, breads, housewares, linens, flowers, lighting, antiques and more.( The market at l’Isle sur la Sorgue is also well known for antiques). I have been to Aix twice and I would go back just for the markets. When I set our table – as I am about to in the above picture –  and lay out my tablecloth, I can see Aix!

olives in aix en provence

Market days are, for me, an essential part of exploring a village or city and an essential part of slow travel. Do you have a favorite market ?

la bella lingua

One of the best things about being back in Italy was speaking Italian again. Like riding a bicycle, words we haven’t spoken in years were plucked up from somewhere deep down, and we found ourselves effortlessly communicating again in our adopted language at dinner parties, restaurants and other countless conversations with old friends. My Italian isn’t too sophisticated –  I often take the easy road by constructing  sentences around the easier grammar tenses while my husband is much braver – but it was back. Using the formal Lei without a missed beat. Extending long greetings when you say goodbye to someone. Buon Giorno, salve, ciao, ci vediamo, grazie a lei, arriverderci, a  domani!  Getting in a heated argument- which feels even better in Italian – at the best place for a fight, a ticket booth line at an Italian train station. The Italian language is old, complicated, challenging, and different depending where in Italy you are  – but pays off as the most beautiful, expressive and delightful language to speak.

Confirming my love for the Italian language, I just finished “La Bella Lingua” by Dianne Hales.

“Learning a new language is like growing a new head…You see with new eyes, hear with new ears, speak with a new tongue.” – La Bella Lingua

  Right before our trip, I picked this book up at our local bookstore with the intimate knowledge that it’s always a gamble when choosing a novel from the travel section. But this is the real deal.

Ms. Hales has done her homework (and more). The book is a love story to the Italian language, providing anecdotes through her experiences living and traveling in Italy and pursuits in studying the language. Her über thorough research reveals interesting and little known aspects of Italy’s history, literature and culture, and demonstrates how several key Italians and scholarly groups – past and present – have contributed to helping the language develop and survive.  This book has inspired me to search at the local library for “The Divine Comedy” (or “Divina Commedia”)  by Dante Aligheri,  any film by De Sica, and the opera Madama Butterfly (which I was surprised to learn  opened in 1904 at Milan’s La Scala and bombed, then reopened in Brescia,  where we lived for several years, to then triumph in Paris and around the world!) 

Hales makes the point that while a unified Italy is fairly new, the Italian language  – which has served as  the great unifier – is very old. The 14th century dialect of Florence – the language of Dante Aligheri himself – is little changed and what is taught and spoken in Italy today.  English may be the language everyone needs to know, Hales writes, but Italian is the language people want to learn. With only 60 – 63 million native speakers Italian barely eclipses Urdu, Pakistan’s official language for 19th place as a spoken tongue. Yet Italian ranks fourth among the world’s most studied language. (Only four countries other than Italy recognize Italian as an official language.) The soaring popularity of the language is hardly surprising, she writes, with its exported food, fashion, art, architecture, music and culture … and I’ll add, Italian boyfriends.

For lovers of Italian – those of us who have lived or traveled to Italy and keep going back, who are fascinated with Italy’s history and culture and protagonists, and consider ourselves lifelong students of Italian,  “La Bella Lingua” shares our passion and provides a new perspective and adventure through the world’s most enchanting language.

Next up: My favorite study Italian abroad schools in Italy

wanted: italian tapparelle stateside

When in Italy a few weeks ago, I took note of some of my favorite Italian things that, for some reason, have not become popular culture on this side of the ocean.

Tapparelle

I sleep the best when in Italy. I owe it to the efficient tapparelle that cover the windows (they go up and down either by pulling on a cord manually or pushing an up and down switch electronically which, from experience, is a celebratory way to start a day) and make a room pitch black. At home, blinds and curtains – even black outs – don’t keep the sun out and I wake early, particularly during summer. Italians transplanted here or on vacation will complain of rooms that are too light and how they are prevented from a good night sleep.  I am convinced, like the bidettapparelle is an item searched for stateside, but I have yet to see one dressing a house window. For a country that invented the personal computer and put a man on the moon, my neighborhood’s decorative, can’t-shut shutters on windows blasted with the hot California sun are an embarrassment.

Autogrill

I was as excited to see an Autogrill off the autostrada again as the Duomo in Florence. Seriously.  I almost cried. It’s a consistently quality restaurant off the autostrada (or highway) that will serve you a fresh, delicious prosciutto crudo and rucola panino and one of the best espressos in all Italy. While we have Subway for fresh sandwiches, this all-in-one, easy-exit-off-the-autostrada restaurant & store has also been our go-to place for replacing lost sunglasses or picking up the latest newspaper.

Latte Vending Machines

This trip is the first time I stumbled upon a vending machine for fresh milk. I found one just outside the train station in Desenzano on Lago di Garda. Stepping out of the train, my kids plugged their noses and I smelled what I thought were cows. My guess was right. The milk, we were told by a local, comes from the cows in the area. We have 24 hour convenience and grocery stores but I’d choose the fresh, local latte vending machine any time.

Finally, the machine used at the Italkmark grocery store deli to cut meats like prosciutto crudo is different than here, and I continue to wonder if it’s operator error or the machine that cuts of prosciutto just plain wrong, even in the fanciest American grocery store.  There’s nothing worse than walking out with fifteen dollars worth of too thickly sliced proscuitto crudo. But I’ll save that for another day.