Hail to the Home Comforts: Things I Miss When I’m Not in Britain…

I'm packing my (tote) bag and heading off, but I'm keeping home close to my heart...

I’m packing my (tote) bag and heading off, but I’m keeping home close to my heart…

Picture E.T., its glowy finger held high to the skies, croaking out “phone home“. Now imagine E.T. walking into a small supermarket in a backstreet in Milan and emerging with a rare packet of Weetabix. E.T. then returns indoors and tries to fulfill the “phone home” objective, except the phone home is a Skype call on a laptop. If no one answers, E.T. opens up YouTube and starts watching vintage Britcoms. That’s what life looks like for me when I have those odd moments of feeling like a homesick alien in Italy. That was also an overlong and awkward intro to what’s meant to be a brief blogpost and it put me inside the saggy skin of E.T. Right, I’m now taking this skin off and getting to the point with pointed glowy-finger precision, right heeeeeeeere

Very soon I’m going to do that thing where I trip off to Italy for a couple of months. This is excellent news because I love Italy and I’m up for a fresh adventure. Still, even though being in Italy is a great – if not, the best – thing there’s stuff I’ll miss about Britain (and it’s stuff that I always miss). Here is a brief list of things that just aren’t there or just aren’t the same in bella Italia, noted down for posterity so that I and any other British people can savour them and appreciate them while they are so close…

Family

Can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em. My brethren aren’t physically near me when I’m overseas and that’s a bit sad. (And the same is also true for other distant friends. Guys! I miss you! Oh, I’m so lonely!) My bloodclan are crackers and drive me up the wall but, hey, I love ’em and miss those clan gatherings where we just share the same room and talk all over each other for ten hours non-stop. Those Skype calls home? They go on for a long, long, long time…

When in Italy: I’m fortunate in that I’ve got a great collection of Italian friends and Italian family units who welcome me with unbelievable generosity and warmth. I then end up making more friends each time I return and the children I teach come to hail me as a hero, so I’m not bereft of affection. As for my real family: long, long, long Skype calls…

Tea

Italians survive on teeny-tiny cups of coffee (real coffee and not ‘overpriced big mug o’hot milk carelessly prepped for you by an underpaid barista’). I don’t like coffee – I’m English so, naturally, I drink tea. Tea is a a bit of a mystery to most Italians and here we find a complete cultural disconnect. Far from being considered essential (the most important household item), kettles aren’t common in Italy. The rituals and regular brews that keep British people surviving and thriving – the habitual hot drink that helps us cope, comforts us and inspires our creative and constructive output – are entirely absent. No, I just don’t know either. I just shake my head – a head now experiencing a slight headache because I’ve not had a cup of tea – and sigh…

When in Italy: With a stash of teabags I can survive. With water boiled on a hob or in a microwave (yes, I know), something resembling regular tea can be made to happen. Needs must…

Curry

Italy may be a diverse country and Milan may be a cosmopolitan city but multiculturalism isn’t as potent as in the UK. What’s more, Italy – quite rightly – has a firm sense of tradition and identity that prevails and cuisine is one area that you can really see (erm, taste) that. Italy has the best food in the world and I eat a lot of Italian food at home (partly because I don’t like what might be considered ‘traditional British food’). That said, when I’m in Italy I do sometimes feel like I’m missing out on the international flavours that are in abundance back in Blighty. You can find ‘ethnic foods’ but, in the land of pasta and pizza, it feels a bit odd to be eating them. Even so, I miss curry and Indian cuisine is scarce and much misunderstood in Italy. When I tell people that the most popular dish in the United Kingdom is chicken tikka masala and that going out for a curry is a social institution I get disbelieving, quizzical glances. “You see, the best curries are in Britain!” I cry, adopting the tones of a batty aristocrat. “You shall come over to see me, chum, and I will make you eat, understand and come to love this hot stuff that we stole from the subcontinent, back in the days of the Raj, what what?!” And then it turns into a outrageously bullshit alternate history lesson in which I whitewash the past and claim that Queen Victoria travelled to Bombay with bicycles and cricket and traded them for tea and curry so that the Empire could become truly great. At the end of this the Italians are still looking at me as if I’m crazy and I’m still hungry for a curry.

When in Italy: Eat pasta and pizza and be happy.

Films

In the UK I can just take myself off to the pictures anytime I please and watch a movie. Most of those movies are American movies starring British actors and everyone speaks English. I can’t do this in Italy where films are, obviously, screened with Italian dubbing. My Italian is nowhere near good enough to follow the dialogue so I don’t get the full experience. Furthermore, I find dubbing disconcerting because I see the face of, say, Sir Ian McKellen but hear a voice that sounds dissimilar to Sir Ian McKellen’s. Altogether, in spite of Italy’s proud cinematic heritage, I feel a bit at odds with regard to this particular personal passion when I’m miles and miles and kilometres and kilometres away from my local multiplex.

When in Italy: There are ways to see original-language Hollywood flicks in Milano and, if I get chance and miss the cinema too much, I may try that. Otherwise I could also just go and watch new movies in Italian for kicks (staggered international release schedules may mean that I’ve already seen the film in English). Alternatively, I could take a Friday night trip out to the legendary Cinema Mexico to catch one of their audience-participation screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Hot-patootie, it’s pretty groovy…

Accents and Dialects

The anglophone world is vast and diverse. The ways people use (and abuse, misuse and confuse) English fascinates and delights me. Being in a country where English isn’t the first language, though, I find that I start to miss the sound of English in its infinite varieties. I inevitably encounter English speakers from all over the world but the ‘anglophone presence’ obviously isn’t the same. Simultaneously my own English speaking becomes slower, clearer and shorn of quirky colloquialisms in work and day-to-day speaking (when I’m not mangling Italian). Altogether, there’s a deficit of idiomatic language, slang and dialect and my ears start yearning for accents. I’m not just talking about the accents of North West England – I’m talking all parts of the UK, Ireland, North America, the antipodes and Africa.

When in Italy: I end up procrastinating on YouTube, watching videos of people spitting out all sorts of slang and dialect and speaking in an array of accents, lilts and brogues. I subsequently come to find awful sketch shows and sitcoms funny, even though they aren’t funny and trade in ropey-ass regional stereotypes and duff gags. (Hey! There’s amusement in novelty!) I also find myself occasionally slipping into silly voices and bad impersonations of thick anglophone accents when I feel bereft. I sometimes do this for effect when I want to scare children (it’s easy to scare Italian children with a Scouse accent). Allow me this indulgence, guys. I’m a foreign land and 60% of what’s happening is incomprehensible to me. Just give me a moment where I can blast out something like “Eeeeeeyaaah, by ‘eck luv, s’like pea-soup out th’urrgh t’day, like. Summat’s up wit’ t’environment, like. S’at clim’ut ch’haaange int’it? Int’it just, reet?

There are lots of other little things that I miss when I’m in exile: the BBC; British politics; famous British folk that have no celebrity presence or elsewhere (I weirdly end up missing newsreaders, celebrity chefs and BBC documentary presenters); porridge; the moors; Manchester; complaining about crap public transport; and so on. Allora, as alluded to a little earlier, Italy is possibly the best place to be and I’ll be there. In the meantime, this evening I’m going to go out to the cinema to watch Star Wars with my family and then we’re going to go and get a curry. Home comforts, y’know?

Home comforts...

Home comforts…

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Merry Christmas from Me to You, You and All of You…

Fa la la la, ha ha ha muhahahaha! ‘Tis Christmas Eve and all the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future are in the aether and haunting my brethren’s beautifully decorated Christmas tree. (The Ghost of Christmas Future Perfect will have arrived by the time I finish writing this timely blogpost.) Altogether, I feel that there’s some irrational, uncanny spirit upon me and am experiencing the realisation that “Whoa! I’m in the midst of Christmas ritual!

'Tis the season! Have a cup of good cheer…

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It’s all happening: Doodling up Christmas cards; Watching Christmas movies; Rocking out in celebratory style to ebullient party metal and Christmas tunes; Going to a Nine Lessons and Carols service and having minor crises (I can’t settle on one key when I’m singing and struggle to work out how my Zen Buddhist principles fit with this Christian festival).

Tomorrow is Christmas Day and the rituals will continue: gift-giving; gift-receiving (I like socks); videogames and board games with my lovely relatives; feasting on sprouts; cleaning up all the greasy pots and cutlery that my lovely relatives have left for someone (me) to tidy up. That’s what my Christmas looks like every year and it’s always nice. I’m now going to go and enjoy that very typical and very nice Christmas, taking a conscious moment to: be with my blood-clan, be present, be (semi)relaxed and be grateful as I meditate on the good stuff amidst the bleak (erm, unseasonably mild) midwinter.

I hope that your Christmas is, likewise, lovely. If you’re finding things hard, this article on being depressed at Christmas is a good and possibly helpful read. Otherwise, take care of yourselves and each other and take the opportunity to reach out to your fellow humans and realise that, if anything, this holiday is all about reconnecting with the best of the human spirit. The best of the human spirit is within you and you’ve been working too hard, handling too much stress and you deserve a break and warm fuzzies. Yes, I’m talking to you, you and all of you. And that thing too. I have no idea what that is but I’m going to invite it in, feed it roast parsnips and dance with it.

Allora, enough! Christmas! The spirit is upon me and I’ll now spirit away. (There are greasy pots to wash and gifts to wrap in ham-fisted fashion.) All my festive best wishes, thanks for reading and have an excellent Christmas… 😀