Parma for a Weekend and Something Called ‘November Porc’

Who would have ever guessed, given my previous record of travel, that I would end up spending two straight weekends in Parma? For that matter, who would have thought that I would have settled myself into one place for the majority of that time (meaning no day trips to faraway places such as Venice). Well, I managed it, regardless of how badly I wanted to go to Venice something within told me stay put in Parma for the time being and I did. For the first time in the course of this journal this blog post will be written out of chronological order because it encompasses the time between when I left Granada, November 2, and when Courtney came to Parma, November 11, (a grand total of 9 days for those who are counting, and believe me I was one of those people). What I did is nowhere near as important as how I felt and the roller coaster of emotions that accompany me here and magnified themselves in the weekend of “being Parmese”. Bear with me and I’ll try to keep the dates referenced…

The most significant event of the week after departing Granada was actually a continuous event; I hung out with my friend Giordano for about 5 days straight. We went to bars together when nobody else wanted to, went to clubs with the group, went to his house and listened to music. He came to Nice’s for dinner and a homemade lunch by me (using Anna’s fresh made pasta in a mushroom, prosciutto cream sauce).

Fresh Tagliatelle with Prosciutto, Mushrooms and Cream

It makes sense, and makes me feel better about staying in Parma, that I spent so much time with an Italian. Giordano can speak English but he’s not as good at it as I am at Italian. We converse almost exclusively in Italian. He took me around town to places to which I would not have gone on my own, or even with the group likely because I’m sure that most people in my group are too timid about the Italian experience to launch themselves fully into an Italian bar or ‘locale’. But regardless I had a blast going around with him, watching him converse with friends (it’s still difficult for me to follow conversations where people are not speaking directly to me, especially since Giordano mostly knows people from the Puglia (in the south) where they speak some sort of crazy dialect that I can barely comprehend. Italy is full of regional dialects that can vary in distances as small as city to city. Italians have a hard time understanding each other in these dialects so you can imagine the difficulty I have in following a single world of them!

Giordano and Matt at November Porc

During this week and a half I made a concerted effort to go out and experience Parma. I wanted to see how the locales lived. I wanted to go where they go and do what they do. I had a guide to show me the way, but few group companions with whom to go. Honestly, I may complain of how my group members don’t want to come with me on these cultural adventures and about how they don’t want to speak Italian in the same way that I do, but the truth is that I understand their fear. It’s an intimidating experience to venture out into a world where you do not speak the language fluently. Luckily, for me, I speak well enough to at least fake conversations and comfort with the language, but it still takes some force of mind to get myself out the door, especially when I know that I’ll be the only American in the city walking around and mingling with the locals. The language barrier will never disappear, at least not until I live in Italy for a considerable amount of time away from English completely. That’s never going to happen, for so many reasons, which means that until the end of my time here I will find myself a bit lost in the world of a culture that I cannot possibly fully understand hidden behind a language that is not my mother tongue.

It feels good, though, to have a veramente (truthfully) Italian friend, albeit one that dreams of coming to America. I still feel the disconnect from the Italian world and a lot of it, almost all of it actually, has to do with the language barrier. Regardless of how well I speak the language (and one of the most frequent phrases that I hear is ‘tu parli molto bene!’ as in you speak very well!) I still don’t have the confidence to make ‘small talk’ or to converse freely with people. I know ZERO slang and have a terribly difficult time picking up on idioms, of which there are endless numbers in the Italian language. As well as I MIGHT (big if there) know the language in its basic form I sure as hell don’t know it well enough to start a conversation with a random person as I could in English.

Or maybe I do. Maybe I could hold a small talk conversation. In fact, I most likely could do it. What holds me back, then? A combination of fear, intimidation and unwillingness to look stupid. Italians are not the most approachable people. At times they can be downright off-putting because of how rigidly they conform to ‘fare una bella figura’ (literally making a beautiful figure but broadly meaning how one seems to others). If you don’t conform to the same rules than you might as well kiss goodbye any chance of meeting a random Italian. They do look down on those they deem worse than them. It’s quite terrifying. That being said, Giordano is my link to the Italian world. He can be there to initiate the conversation with the Italians so that once they realize that I can actually speak Italian they will be more willing to integrate me into the conversation and allow me the chance to indulge in their culture with them. It’s a thing for which I am very thankful.

As for actual events of the week, we had another magnificent dinner at Anna’s on the 4th where we had home made tagliatelle with ragu. Anna showed us how to make homemade pasta (something for which I’ve known the process but have never done) and then gave me some to take home. She knows I love to cook and hoped that I would actually be able to make a dish that appreciates the magic of homemade pasta. I like to think that my pasta with mushrooms, prosciutto and cream lived up to her standards, but who knows? She is a wonderful cook. On Sunday, after a week of bars and clubs, we (Matt, Abby, Kim, Ashley, Giordano and I) went to something called November Porc which is basically a giant festival dedicated to the wonderful pig. We ate free samples for hours. It was delicious, but unfortunately in a tiny depressing town in which we were stuck for 7 1/2 hours because they only ran one bus to there from Parma and only bus from there to Parma. The festival was not the kind of place where one could spend that much time, especially in Sissa, Italy…woof…

In other news I solidified my Thanksgiving plans. I will be spending my first Thanksgiving away from home (a fact about which I would rather not think) with family in Bolzano, Italy! It’s way north right underneath the mountains. Although I’m missing my favorite holiday with my immediate family I will at least get to spend it with family! Three years ago I spent 5 days with cousin Mario, his wife Silvana and his children Betta and Giovani. Caterina, his other daughter, was not there at the time but hopefully she will be able to come this year! (She’s my cousin who works in Florence if you remember). Obviously this means that I won’t be spending Thanksgiving with Courtney in Portugal (your class Court!) which is sad, but at least now I’m able to go see my family in Italy, something that I really wanted to do! In fact, if there were one definitive thing that I planned to do in Italy immediately upon realizing that I would be studying abroad, it was seeing family. As I’ve said previously, there is nothing comparable to meeting family from half way around the world. No matter the distance, family is family.

One spectacular trip over this week was on Tuesday the 9 when I left class early in the afternoon and came home to find Nice at her computer. I had planned on going to my room to do some sort of work, but Nice asked if I wanted to go with her into the country for a walk. I immediately consented and forwent any pretense of doing work. I had no idea where Nice was taking me. I knew we were going to get tea with one of her friends and maybe some great pastries and maybe some cheese. The day was gray and rainy, but Nice was hopeful that it would clear up by the time we got to wherever it was that we were headed. Well our adventure turned out to be kind of a non-adventure because the rain never let up. We drove for nearly an hour through the stunning Italian countryside. Everything is agricultural. Everything is either green or a dark brown earthy color. The pianura (plane) screams fertility. It’s dotted with farm houses and small towns. To me it looks exactly as a country side should look; no chains, no megamalls, no massive shopping centers. Only farm houses and the occasional mini-village surrounded by endlessly fertile farms. It was breathtaking.

Nice drove me all the way into Lombardia (the neighboring region). We drove over the end of the river Po and she took me through winding back roads better fit for bicycles until we arrived at an old farmhouse where we bought fresh cheese and yogurt for the night’s meal. We drove by many caseficio (cheese making places) that used to be old castles and were, in fact, mini functioning towns. We were supposed to go to Nice’s friend’s house for tea but I unfortunately had to get back to Parma for a worthless Italian lesson. Nice and I, though, had a wonderful time talking and those two hours of driving were obviously much more valuable to the improvement of my Italian than any stupid lesson. She’s such a great person. I need to take more trips with her, which is another way that I can become more incorporated into the Parma life. She is my host mom and I should spend as much time with her as humanly possible.

A cheese making place (extremely small)

All in all it finally felt good to remain in Parma for a weekend. I’ve begun to walk the city more and become more acquainted with the city. I know the side roads and the main streets. I know where the restaurants, bars and clubs are located. I’ve spent time in the apartment of an Italian friend, or two. I’m trying to speak as much Italian as humanly possible and hopefully to finally throw myself into this program after two months of toeing the line between wanting to become as Italian as possible and wanting to maintain my sense of self.

But is it even attainable? Can I even hope to pretend to be Italian? I only have a month left and I can securely say that it will be impossible for me to turn some magic corner and enter the ‘Italian world’. It’s dating and exhausting task and one that at times I’m not sure if I truly have the energy or desire to accomplish. Coming into this abroad experience my mind told me that I wanted the full meal. I wanted everything Italian and everything different, but then I arrived here and realized the Himalayan task with which I had presented myself. Become a part of a new culture within 4 months where I don’t throw away America entirely? Impossible. To actually do such a thing would require the Herculeanly courageous act of leaving for Italy by myself for a job or school completely within the culture and outside of the bubble with which BC surrounds us.

I’m not ungrateful for the BC program; I love it and think, outside of minor problems here and there, it is structured amazingly well. And though at first I had envisioned and desired to become a full Italian, one who could blend seamlessly into Italian culture I have come to understand that such a full change would require me to forgo my life at home. I’ll never be fully Italian unless I live here permanently. I know because I’ve met the integrated people and they are the ones who live here, in Italy, without the connections and pulls of home. The BC program is almost like a trial run; it let me put a foot in to test the waters of culture exchange and see if the temperature suits me.

The answer? Not likely. I’m not courageous enough to give up my life at home for something as incredible amazing as Italy is because of all that awaits me at home. Home is what I know and it is safe. I have established relationships there, an established family life, an established home (wherever it might be during the year), an established scholastic path. These are definites and in Italy what so I have but a bunch of temporary substitutes for the permanence of home? Certainly if I made the choice to remain here or to move myself here these hints would become, eventually, permanent and, hopefully, I would find myself one day integrated into the Italian culture. But none of those events are set in stone. I’m not sure I have the emotional strength to start my life over here. How could I give up everything at home for the fleeting desire to fully integrate myself into a new society?

It’s strange to here me describing myself as non courageous because there are many incredibly scary things that I would do such as jump out of a plane or jump off a cliff. I would travel to strange and distant lands. I am courageous and I’m not one particularly prone to homesickness. I become accustomed to new surroundings extraordinarily quickly meaning that I don’t NEED to go home in order to feel secure in whatever new place I might be temporarily located. For me it’s enough to know that home will be there for me when I return. But that’s the difference. I’m comfortable in temporary changes (regardless of their duration) because I know they’re temporary. Home and all of the comforts are friendship are still there if I need them. But I I were to desire to immerse myself entirely into a culture I would have to give up the idea of temporary and grasp the idea of permanence; permanent separation from everything with which I have grown up and with which I have loved. And that is something I simply cannot do.

So the point of this long winded ramble? I am now comfortable with the fact that I WILL NOT become fully immersed into the Italian culture because it is not something that I want to do. Yes I love living here and EXPERIENCING the Italian world more than person would who simply comes for a visit, but to transform myself into an Italian and away from my life at home would be too much for me. I live in Parma, but only temporarily, which means that I’ll never be a full member of the culture. This can never be my city and I will always be a visitor. And I’m OK with that.

This experience, besides allowing me to come to love another rapt of the world with entirely new people and a new culture, has reinforced for me the amazing life I have at home; especially how I would never trade it for any other life.

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One Response to Parma for a Weekend and Something Called ‘November Porc’

  1. Andrew Cohen says:

    A beautiful post, and I’m glad you’ve made a nice Italian friend.

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