It’s July in the Mackenzie Country, at the foot of the Southern Alps, in the South Island of Aotearoa New Zealand. Winter has drained the colour from the land and left it in shades of grey and white.
The distant mountains are lost in the mist. It’s a strange, surreal and eerie landscape, like a scene from a Nordic Noir film.
It’s late morning and the road, closed because of heavy ice, has just opened. We have it all to ourselves, until our headlights pick out a hazy shape looming, like a ghost, in the mist ahead. It’s a motorbike rider in billowing overalls. We keep a safe distance. The roads are still slippery. The rider raises a hand to wave us past. We dare not. Beyond him is obscurity. He half turns his head. We drop back, leaving him to his lonely ride and wondering what pressing business, what unavoidable mission brought him out on a morning like this.
Having decided that, in order to make the most of my new Milan locale, I need to learn Italian and quickly, I set about the business of finding a suitable course. I knew a few Adjectives in Italian, but felt it was time to deepen my knowledge of this fascinating language.
I turn to my new bible, Easy Milano, the magazine for English speakers in Milan. Among its pages of useful information are lists of Italian language schools – hundreds of them. How to choose? Scanning the list I spot Societa Dante Alligieri, courses in Italian for foreigners. I know the Societa Dante Alligieri! Once, an historic age ago, as a student teacher, I performed with my Introduction to Italian class at the Societa Dante Alligieri, in Christchurch, New Zealand. The title of the song we sang – La Bella Polenta – remains with me still. The words and the tune, alas, are lost, along with most of the language I learned in my “Introduction to Italian”.
Throwing on my coat, I head out to the Societa Dante Alligieri to enrol. I sign up for A1, the beginner’s course, which is where students with only basic greetings and a few random phrases belong. But Maria Grazia, who handles my enrolment, assures me that after a month of daily A1 three hour total immersion classes, I’ll be set for everyday life in Milan.
I start the next morning. The course is brilliant – two hours of written language with Patrizia and one hour of conversation with Myrta. Both are great teachers – fun and interesting. My classmates are fascinating. There’s a student chef from Korea, a Frenchman working in Milan’s textile industry, a young woman from China studying fashion, a model from Belorus and a Russian lawyer, learning Italian before beginning work.
The course moves swiftly and after a week, my language has increased fifty fold and most importantly, my confidence has doubled.
Just around the corner from Via Taormina is the Cooperativa La Vittoria, with its Bar/Trattoria, Da Candido. Of solid, late 19th century style and stature, La Vittoria’s stern façade stares down the glass front of the cool 21st century wine bar across the road with an air that says “wine bars like you will come and go, but I’ll go on for ever”.
That evening, as G. and I take a stroll through the streets, the wine bar’s lights are already dim and its chairs are stacked on tables. La Vittoria’s door and Da Candido’s lights are bright and beckoning. We venture in for nightcap. The place is empty and the bar is unmanned but there are sounds of merriment offstage and through a half open door, I see curls of cigarette smoke, a table with glasses and heads bent over hands of playing cards. As if by ESP, a Signora appears. She seems neither surprised, nor pleased, to see us and says an unsmiling but not unwelcoming “Buona sera”. She’s a generously built, plump-faced white-haired lady, of indeterminate age – perhaps a well-preserved seventy or maybe a worse for wear forty. We timidly ask for “vino, per favore” Without enquiring bianco or rosso, Signora points us to a nearby table.
We head to the window. As we pass the half-open door, silence falls and heads turn. I nod and smile. The heads nod back briefly, then turn away. The talk resumes and the game goes on.
Signora arrives with coasters, grissini and two glasses of red wine. I really prefer white but I’m not prepared to argue. I don’t have the language anyway. Signora is watching from the bar, so I take a nervous sip. It tastes good. I determine to drink more red from now. I nod and smile at Signora. She nods unsmilingly back and continues to watch. Conversation feels awkward, so we gaze around da Candido. It’s a room full tables. Those in the front half are casually scattered. At the back, they’re lined up in ranks, refectory-style. In one corner is a large plastic palm tree and dotted around the walls are pictures of tropical isles and postcards of sunny beaches. There is also photo of the Pope and a print of the Virgin Mary. There are posters for bierra, aqua minerale, vino and even cigarettes. I feel Signora’s eyes studying us, studying the walls. Is she waiting for us to finish our drinks, or is she waiting for us to order another? It’s really hard to know. We finish them, nod, smile and head to the door. Signora follows us and locks it behind us. Was Da Candido closed when we arrived asking for drinks? Is it really closing time now? Is Signora making sure that nobody else comes in and interrupts her evening? Is she telling us not to come back? Impossible to know. There’s a lesson here – we need language.
A few weeks later, I’m passing La Vittoria with my son. It’s lunchtime. Da Candido looks busy. Perhaps we can slip in and blend with the crowd. The tables are filled with men in work-boots and overalls. Even in casual jeans and t shirts, we don’t blend in. We watch from the bar as a duo of Signore, both dressed in crisp yellow, button-up, belted, white-collared uniforms burst backwards through a swing door with steaming plates and reverse out again with stacks of empties. People don’t linger. When their plates are empty, they head out the door, lighting up smokes as they leave. Should we leave too? But Signora has seen us. She waves us over. We obey. She stands at the table holding our chairs. We sit. Glasses and bread basket appear. People give us quick, indifferent glances. I nod and smile. They look away.
“I feel out of place” I whisper
“Me too” mutters Gez
But its contorni, primo, pasta, scallopine and dolci. We’re just two people eating lunch, like everyone else, except that we eat slowly, savouring new tastes, like tourists, with no work to hurry back to. By the time we’ve finished, the tables are empty and the Signore are whipping table-cloths away and whisking a broom across the floor. The lunch costs a laughable few euros.
“Delicioso” I venture. Signora nods, “Gratie mille” I try. She nods again. She follows us to the door. Behind us we hear the lock turn. Did we just crash a private lunch? Is it really closing time? Impossible to know.
I really need language.
Later, when I do have language, I discover Cooperativa, La Vittoria is, traditionally, a neighbourhood and workers’ establishment. Da Candido still is. Foreigners like us rarely venture in. In fact, foreigners like us rarely venture into this area. It’s not on the tourist beat. It’s not in the guide books. It’s a neighbourhood of workers and families of workers. If I’m to understand it, fit in, make friends, or even survive, I need language.
Every Saturday, the market colonises the streets at the end of Via Taormina. My very first week finds me trundling down there with our apartment’s deluxe convertible backpack/shopping trolley.
There are stalls of seasonal fruit and vegetables and very other imaginable kind of fare – meat, cheese, oils, olives, nuts, preserves, sweets, cakes, bread, cheese, milk, yoghurt and wine. I am bamboozled by the variety and paralysed by the staggering number of choices. In the end, I stalk a matron of upper middle-age. She looks as if she knows a thing or two about cibo. I don’t yet know the Italian for “I’ll have what she’s having”, so I stay close, watch keenly and point. Her choices of olio, olive, formaggio, legume, pane and pollo are faultless, I later discover.
Clothes at the market are seasonal too – warm coats, jumpers, scarves, beanies, vests and boots in winter, sandals, frocks and shorts in summer. Here I need no help, nor do I need words. My first purchase, on a chilly autumn morning, is long black padded coat, of unidentifiable material, but of such warmth that I could venture into the snow with nothing more than a bikini underneath and not feel the slightest chill. Furthermore, despite its bulk, it is as light as feather. Best impulse buy I ever made!
Alongside the perennials there are classics; baby layettes, shawls, christening gowns, communion frocks and suits. There’s underwear of a kind not seen since the first half of the last century, including corsets, bloomers and liberty bodices.
Gadgetry abounds – peelers, corers, squeezers and stoners, miracle knives and magic dusters.
There’s a multitude of Manchester from duvets to doilies, table cloths to tapestries. There are beads, buttons and wool.
Among all this merchandise dedicated to worldly needs and pastimes, the soul and spirit are not forgotten; there are holy pictures and statues, shrines and votive candles too.
I stare in wonder as bloomers, buttons, coats, candles, self sharpening scissors, artichokes and apples fly off the stalls and into trolleys.
This a market, I think, as I trundle back along Via Taormina, with the bulging deluxe/convertible backpack/ shopping trolley, that truly serves its community.
Milan’s Via Taormina is part of the city sprawl that has swallowed a small village. In spite of the roads crammed with roaring traffic that surround it and the modern shops and dwellings that hover at its edges, much of village life continues here.
The church, San Marco, opens onto Piazza Caserta at the crossroads of Via Taormina and Via Veglia. While 21st century secular life and work dictate the rhythm of the days for most of the people who live here, still the bells of San Marco mark out traditions of prayer and spiritual observance. Every morning, they call the faithful to Mass. They chime out the Ave Maria at 12 o’clock to announce the Angelus. They ring again at three for Benediction. They peel at length on Sundays and feast days, for Baptisms and weddings. They toll at times of mourning.
Inside, San Marco has all the timeless and universal symbols of Catholicism. There is the familiar scent of incense and candle wax, the dim light, the wooden pews, the pillars, the confessional boxes, the Stations of the Cross, the altar and its white cloths, the gilded tabernacle, the small red lamp glowing beside it, the stone angels, the paintings of Our Lady, the infant Jesus and the saints.
All this was the backdrop to my girlhood, the culture in which I grew up. I am not surprised to find it, here in San Marco, Via Taormina. Italy, is after all “the source” and the “Mecca” of the Catholic faith. The nuns, our teachers, too, always confident that we would make our way out into the wide world, had promised that in any Catholic church, anywhere, we would find all the same symbols and rituals. What does surprise me, is my sense of belonging and how much “at home” I feel here.
The Auckland based tour company TIME Unlimited has just won the prestigious National Geographic World Legacy Award in the “Sense of place Category”. http://www.newzealandtours.travel
It’s no surprise to those who know Time Unlimited. For 11 years now they’ve been welcoming visitors to “their place” showing them its unbelievably beautiful landscapes and sharing its unique experiences with them. Having a unique and wonderful experience whilst visiting another part of the world can really impact the person going, just like with Immanuel-Tours who take vacationers to Israel to soak in the history and cultural landscape, it is important to see outside of your own four walls.
Time Unlimited was established in 2005 by bicultural couple Ceillhe and Neill Sperath. Ceillhe is Maori, a direct descendant of the Ngapuhi chief, Patuone. Neill is tauiwi, of Irish and German origin, and a New Zealander by choice. Both are passionate about their country. Both are equally passionate about how its unique culture and environment should be shared. TIME Unlimited reflects this.
TIME Unlimited says Ceillhe Sperath, is founded on three essential pou, or pillars, of Maoritanga, or Maori culture; manaakitanga or hospitality, whanaungatanga, or relationships and kaitiakitanga, or guardianship. On their tours, the Speraths explain, manaakitanga translates into welcoming, respectful, caring, reliable and punctual service; whanaungatanga means sharing experiences, finding common ground, forging links, making friends and becoming like family; kaitiakitanga means responsibility, respect, care and protection for the environment – the streets, parks and institutions, the land, sea and bush that they pass through.
This highly contested, coveted National Geographic World Legacy Award is a fitting tribute to a company that has a true sense of place, that cherishes Aotearoa New Zealand and is dedicated to safeguarding it for future generations.
As French is the language of love and France is the land of lovers, le Jour de Saint Valentin or Valentine’s Day is an important ‘Fête’ or feast day in France.
Three Saint Valentin are listed in the calendar of saints’ days and one, of course, is February 14.
The day has been celebrated in one way or another, in France since Roman times, first as the feast of Juno, then as the day (in the middle of February) when animals coupled for spring births. By the Middle Ages, the day had become a day for couples (human, and strictly male and female) In an age where to be single was to be in a precarious, if not dangerous situation, especially for women, le Jour De Saint Valentin became a day for match-making. The tradition of the “loterie d’amour” was born. This involved single people of all ages descending on the houses across the street and calling through windows until they eventually found a match. The man was supposed to become the woman’s champion and protector for the following year and then, hopefully, her husband. But all too often the woman was rejected out of hand. No mention is made of rejected men, so presumably that never happened. The spurned women took their revenge that night by burning the rejecters’ effigies at a public bonfire and hurling abuse at them. The practice got so out of hand (or the men felt so threatened) that before too long, it was banned.
A kinder tradition is the one attributed to the Duc D’Orleans. Imprisoned in the Tower of London after the battle of Agincourt in 1514, he wrote love letters, cards and poems for the love of his life, his wife in France. The tradition lives on today as “la Carte D’Amitié” or as we Anglophones call it, the Valentine’s card.
The place to be in France, if not the world for Le Jour De Saint Valentin is the little village of St. Valentin in Indre, the central Val de Loire region, which has in 1960s dubbed itself the ‘Village of Love’. Then in the 1980s the Mayor created a Lovers Garden (Jardin des Amoureux) and inaugurated the annual festival of Saint Valentin.
During the three day festival, the village is decorated with red roses and lovers from all around the globe flock to Le Jardin des Amoureux. Couples can get married in the gazebo, plant a tree to commemorate their love and pin hearts or love tokens to the Tree of Vows or Tree of Eternal Hearts. Out in the village, they can letters stamped at the St. Valentin post office, buy chocolate hearts from the local chocolatiers, dance at the Bal de St Valentin and eat a wonderful St Valentin repas
It was about this time of the year, perhaps just a little later, that we arrived in Milan. Nobody I knew had nothing positive to say about the place. It was cold, it was old, it was dirty, it was shabby, it was industrial, it was ugly.
Nothing, however, could dampen my enthusiasm. It was Italy! Cold! Who cared, with all those museums, art galleries, cafes, bars, restaurants and shops offering warmth and shelter? Old? That meant history and heritage – Roman ruins and streets where Leonardo Da Vinci had walked. Dirty and shabby equalled character. Industrial? – Ferari factories and fashion fiera! Fabulous! Ugly? Well beauty, in my book, was confined to the eye of the beholder. I was determined to see it!
Old, beautiful, characterful and sunny! I thought, as we broke through the clouds and circled a city lit by watery winter sunlight.
Our taxi careened along the freeway, steering its own path, or so it seemed, while the driver talked incessantly with both his mouth and his hands, turning, and even leaning, from time to time, over the front seat to look us in the eye. My grasp of Italian, at that stage, was hazy, but it was clear that he was expounding, with great enthusiasm, on the marvels of Milan. I responded with appreciative nods, smiles and with little gestures that I hoped would encourage him to keep his eyes on the road and his hands on the wheel. They were lost in translation.
“Ecco! Via Taormina!” he exclaimed, throwing both arms out in triumph, as we zoomed round a corner, past a church, into a street flanked by cars parked nose to tail and overlooked by a mix of buildings representing every age of construction from middle to modern. Via Taormina was part of the city sprawl that had swallowed whole and left undigested, a small village, with its church, walled gardens, stone houses and stables.
“Ecco! – La Casa!” our driver announced, beaming over the back seat and screeching to halt simultaneously.
Our Via Taormina apartment building was a chunky, stone edifice, of indeterminate age and undeniable ugliness. But ugliness, like beauty, is only skin deep and, inside, our apartment was beautiful. The rooms were large, with wooden floors, tall windows and furniture that spoke of household set up in a vintage somewhere around the mid 1900s . At the front, French doors opened from the lounge and onto a wide, sunny balcony that looked out over the neighbourhood. Potted bamboo and trees, covered in tiny buds, promised shade, flowers and fresh green leaves in a few months’ time. The kitchen was equipped with every conceivable 20th century culinary invention and utensil. Platters, plates, dishes, glassware and cutlery to cater for any occasion and any number of guests spoke of large family feasts and gargantuan cook-ups. In bedrooms there were beds with ornate headboards and dressing tables with doilies and ornaments. This was not just an apartment. It was a home and the presence of the life lived here was strong, close and welcoming. It wrapped around me like a shawl borrowed from a dear friend. I knew that I would be happy and that I would also be at home here.
Devonport, on Auckland’s north shore is a quiet, picturesque marine village.
Despite a shopping strip with upmarket boutiques and trendy restaurants, cafes and bars offering cuisine from all around the world, Devonport is a haven of a timeless, relaxed, New Zealand lifestyle.
Kids drop in for a swim after school at the wharf at Stanley Point, the ferry chugs in and out as it has for over a century, taking commuters over to the city to work, houses, grand and modest look out over the same million dollar harbour views and watch the cruise ships sail up Auckland Harbour.
Devonport’s Mount Victoria, another of Auckland’s extinct volcanoes, is the resting place of the great Ngapuhi chief Patuone. Known as the peacemaker because of the role he played in persuading the Tangata Whenua to accept a partnership with the British Crown rather than to attempt to resist it (against overwhelming odds, it must be said) he laid the foundations for modern bi-cultural Aotearoa New Zealand.
Moeraki is a tiny seaside village with a huddle of beach houses, a pub, a community centre, a small sheltered harbour where a dozen weather beaten boats bob at anchor, a couple of beautiful sheltered bays with golden sand and rippling blue waves. It’s set right at the ocean’s edge, well off the track beaten by State Highway through the last quarter of Aotearoa New Zealand’s South Island.
Moeraki is not the kind of place that you might blink and miss. It’s the kind of place you might miss completely because you wouldn’t know that it was there, across the paddocks, hidden in the lee of the cliffs. There are, however two compelling reasons to slow at the Moeraki turn-off, leave State Highway 1 and cruise slowly towards the sea.
The first reason is the mysterious Moeraki boulders. Round and perfect, they sit like giant cannon balls on the sand. Maori legend has it that the boulders are the remains of calabashes, eel baskets and kumara, washed up after the wreck of the waka, or canoe Arai-te-uru. The nearby rocky arms that reach out into the sea are said to be the waka’s hull and the promontory nearby is the body of the captain. Science explains them as rocks pulled from their mudstone bed by the sea, caked with thousands of layers of mud and sand and slat by the wind and water, then worn smooth and round by the constant wash of the waves.
The second reason to take that detour off State Highway One and meander down to Moeraki, is Fleur’s Place, one of the region’s if not the South Island’s, if not even Aotearoa NZ’s most popular seafood restaurants. Set at the edge of the little harbour, overlooking the boats on one side and the vast Pacific horizon on the other, Fleur’s Place is housed in a weather worn corrugated iron and stone building. Inside its walls are busy with memorabilia of Moeraki’s seafaring history. On the day we dropped into Fleur’s, without a booking, all the tables were taken and only the last three seats at the bar remained. We took them and then watched a stream of disappointed, also unbooked punters turned away. The seafood with thick slices of rustic bread and the fish of the day with salad and chips explained why it is always absolutely imperative to book at Fleurs. Everything was fresh, perfectly cooked and exquisitely presented. Furthermore, Fleur’s is a place with a wonderful atmosphere, a superb outlook and interesting, helpful and cheerful staff.
Don’t miss Moeraki, make the turn, ponder the mysterious boulders, enjoy a fresh from the ocean seafood lunch at Fleurs, but to guarantee your place even at the bar, book.