When I first arrived in Italy, I hated it on sight.
It’s taken me a few years, but now I would gladly revisit this peninsula with its warm weather, equally warm people, and food I’d fight gladiators for. But why the initial animosity?
It probably didn’t help that I first arrived late at night in a smoggy industrial city preparing for the Winter Olympics. Or that I had left behind a sunny, clean, quiet French university town with glittering fountains and a dishy boyfriend. Regardless, I wanted to leave as soon as I ducked into the taxi at Turin airport.
The reason I had chosen Turin for the second half of my university exchange was because it was near the Alps, but thanks to the pollution and fog I didn’t see any mountains for an entire month.
One Sunday morning I simply opened the curtains and nearly shouted in alarm at these dark rocky monoliths that had appeared on the horizon, but before then there was a lead-coloured haze hovering above the buildings. I’m convinced this came from the time machine that had transported the buses, trams and some of the attitudes straight from the 1950s.
Another problem I had was personal space. Back then I was a timid and reserved young woman when faced with new people, so being embraced like a long lost relative or invited to roll around on a yoga carpet with an elderly gentleman obsessed with “rain and sunshine levels” was a tad unexpected. He ended up as my landlord, and the other old man sharing the flat wasn’t only kind enough to walk into the kitchen with no underpants one morning, but to inform me that I just wasn’t as attractive as my roommate, an Italian woman five years my senior. So not the best start to my stay in Italy.
All my life I had been told how beautiful this place was, so arriving in this clunky, dusty factory town felt a bit like a betrayal. Once I escaped out of the house, I went on a fruitless search for a café bathroom to cry in (seriously, hardly anywhere in Turin has toilets), after which I sat sobbing on a park bench while on the phone to my mother. But I was determined to prove myself wrong and to get up and explore the city on my own terms.
This led me on a long and arduous walk through various neighbourhoods, one of which included more shouty people than usual, but I was concentrating so hard on the map that I paid it no mind. At least until I got back and told my roommate and landlord about where I’d been, and they looked at me as if I were the lone survivor of a blood-soaked battlefield – apparently even the carabinieri didn’t venture into Piazza Della Repubblica all that often, lest they were chased out with knives and broken bottles. And I’d walked obliviously through it, solo, at about half past 7 at night.
Fortunately, things started looking up when my roommate took charge of me. She was like a big sister during my stay, and cooked delicious food, dragged me along to underground gigs (not exactly my thing, but the reverberations helped clear the old sinuses) and took me to see one of the natural sights I will always remember. I didn’t get a photo, but I doubt even the best SLR camera could have grasped it fully, let alone my ridiculous Fisher-Price-esque disposable.
One afternoon we took a drive into the Alps to see the Sacra di San Michele.
It was built by monks at the very top of the valley, so high up that you feel like you’re floating in space when standing on the summit.
The sun had set somewhere behind us, leaving a misty pastel spectrum of red, purple, blue and orange in the skies. When we drove back out of the valley the mountains to our left were blue with snow, whereas those on the right were red with bare rock.
Another excursion was to Pila, again up in the Alps, but as usual I ended up going in the two weeks of the year when the cable car is out of service. Still, it took a great deal of resolve not to run across the fields with arms outstretched and do a Julie Andrews. Apologies for the naff shots here, these were also taken with my disposable camera.
Mont Blanc was shrouded in mist so we couldn’t see it, but the other mountains were equally impressive, almost like a king seated on a throne with his head above the clouds.
This was some of the hidden beauty I’d been told about, so it was only a matter of time before my resentment started to erode.