Is it awkward to miss a stranger? And other bizarre tales of intimacy.

The neighbour

Is it awkward that I miss my neighbour? For the six months I’ve lived here, I’ve had the same upstairs neighbour (until yesterday).  He’s roughly my age, American, and does something related to economics.  Though we’ve never actually had a proper conversation, paper-thin walls mean I’ve learned A LOT about him. I’ve heard his conversations with his father, the clang from the assortment of things he’s dropped (I guess he’s clumsy) and even his farts! I’m sure he could give you some similar insights about me. Despite that for the first month of residing below him I had fantasies of throwing him off the roof, no doubt due to his absurdly loud alarm clock and  sexplicit visits of his girlfriend, after awhile I got used to him.  Perhaps we bonded when he was the only other one home over the holidays in an otherwise deserted neighbourhood or maybe for no reason in particular. His constant sounds upstairs almost felt like living with a roommate and his departure left me feeling unexpectedly lonely.

 The restaurant patron

Continuing on this theme of strange shades of intimacy, I’ve decided to tell you a little about this lady I met in Italy. After two days of potato chips and granola bars (traveling’s rough when your gluten-free) mum and I went for lunch at a fancy restaurant. After awhile, an older lady (maybe my grandmother’s age) sat next to us and ordered the same thing as me: osso buco. She asked me if I was enjoying it and in turn I professed my love of bone marrow. “Realllly?” she was both puzzled and intrigued. “Yes” I said, “my great-grandmother used to make if for me every Tuesday.” Now she was really surprised, “where was she from” she asked, “Berlin” I replied. “Oh, must be a German thing”. Now it was my turn to seem puzzled, this woman had a South African accent, or what seemed to be.

As the conversation continued it came out that she was also from Germany, had moved to Zimbabwe and finally settled in Italy. This was not unlike my grandmother’s story; born in Germany, escaped to Chile and settled in Canada.  Of course we quickly figured out that we were both Jewish, as is generally the explanation for such tales of displacement, and went on to chat about a host of other things; I said I was impressed with how frequently my mum was getting hit on by dashing Italian men and she told me some quippy stories of young waiters chasing her.  Even though we were generations apart and had only just met, the exchange flowed seamlessly and I noticed myself get quite disappointed when my mum diligently reminded me “we have a train to catch” (for once I was the disorganized one). Despite the crappy osso buco, I was sort of disappointed to leave, I had somehow really clicked with this lady, not your typical lunchroom chatter.

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The wine isn’t always redder…

So last week my mom came to visit me. And by visit me, I mean we met up in Itay, her traveling from Canada and I from Turkey.  Now my mom has always had a knack for putting me into uncomfortable situations and this trip was no exception.

I touched down in Bologna to find my mom and thirty-something Italian lady waiting for me. I was already surprised,  the chances of my mom showing up were in reality 50/50, maybe she was getting more organized. As we got into the Italian lady’s car she casually asked “so you like surprises?” to which mom replied “what do you mean?”  and Ms. Valentina continued, “you didn’t ask for any information about the bed and breakfast, you just booked it!” Totally unfazed, mom answers “Oh, yeah, whatever.” At this point Valentina must have seen my jaw drop in the rearview mirror so I fretfully tried to hide my anxiety by inquiring “so you’re from Venezuela?” just to show her we did in fact have some information about her. Of course, she was not Venezuelan, she was born and bred in Italy. Ummm “so who’s from Venezuela?” I asked. “The other Valentina” they replied in unison. At this point I guess she realized that I was totally puzzled and not in the least bit as care-free as my mom and proceeded to explain the connection. The story unfolded that Valentina shared the same Facebook name as one of mom’s ESL students (from Venezuela), that was how they “knew” eachother. We were rolling up to a bed and breakfast run by a facebook “friend” of someone in mom’s class AND it wasn’t even open for business yet. Not exactly the friend’s legitimate establishment I had been told about. As we arrived I settled in a bit, as it seemed they were not in fact serial killers and there were no funky smells or weird rodents about.

The funny bit started when Valentina decided she needed to finish preparing the place while we were staying there. So the first night, mom and I are eating our pre-packaged soups from Carrefour (Italian Carrefour is wayyy better than Turkish Carrefour just by the way) and Valentina waltzes in with boxes of furnishings. First, two kinds of salt; coarse for pasta and fine for table, next she parks herself next to us and starts folding decorative napkins. The next night, when we had retired early (mom still recovering from jet lagg), Valentina comes in frantic that she hadn’t left out the placemats. At this point I didn’t want to tell her people don’t really need placemats while they’re sleeping but heck, we were moving on the next day so what was the point. But the next morning found her banging at the door while I was in the toilet. To sum up, I’d been interrupted while eating, sleeping, and even peeing! Needless to say at this point I was ready to get out of there. My mom on the other hand was having a ball, I guess she saw the glass half full of attention.

The rest of the trip didn’t get that much more exciting. The thing I decided was that traditional travel is not for me, I can’t be bothered with hotel rooms and taxis and wondering around with an oversimplified map. I know, probably seems strange for someone who’s managed to create a life as a career expat but it’s true. For me, the best part of traveling to a new place are the subtler things; the café down the street or the guy who sells you the newspaper and occasionally offers you a tea, happy hour with the retirees (the only ones on a similar budget) or the stray cat that meows up to you every morning. Even in Fiji, I preferred my brothel turned family-friendly apartment to any of the 5 star resorts I’d passed on the bus and occasionally sneaked into the beach at. But hey, sometimes getting pushed out of your comfort zone is just what you need, to be reminded you’ve settled in a place you like.