Before I went to Naples I was told three things:
1) Don’t wear any jewellery
2) Keep an eye on your bag at all times and definitely don’t take a backpack
3) Do not venture into the Spanish quarter because you won’t come back out again
I managed to break all of these rules on day one and live to tell the tale – and I’m so glad I did. My trip to this vibrant, hectic, sprawling, often graffiti-covered yet still utterly charming city was just one of many I made across Italy during my time living there.
Photo: Rosie Benson
I left England for Italy on not much more than a whim, after dreaming about it for some time. When I was seven or eight years old, I learned that a tiny part of me was Italian, thanks to my great-grandmother, whose family came to England in the 1880s from Turin.
She was one of an estimated 9,000,000 Italians who fled during a period crippling poverty and hardships between the 1860’s and 1920’s, a colossal migration that later became known as the Italian Diaspora. This piece of heritage was a wonderful thing for my childhood self to discover; until that point the only thing I knew about my ancestry was that it was entirely British, which was much too ordinary for my liking.
Though I didn’t spend too much time dwelling on it, the fact that I had discovered this exotic Mediterranean streak in me, coupled with my parents’ insistence that we holidayed in France every single year (what’s wrong with a bit of variety?), led me to harbour a not-so-small fascination with the land which spawned the Renaissance, the Roman Empire, and the most popular cuisine in the world.
This fascination only grew with each successive summer trip on the grim P&O ferry from Dover to Calais.
Monti in central Rome. Photo: Rosie Benson
In my first year of university, I decided that it was high time to see if this land of my dreams really was the land of my dreams. I hastily booked a weekend trip to Rome and upon arrival fell completely in love with it. It was the most beautiful city I had ever seen; seven years later, after many more trips around the world, this still rings true. Two years after that first holiday, I went back again, which only increased my love for the place, not to mention my envy of the people who were able to call it home.
But three years after that first trip, Rome had become a distant memory. I had left university and managed to land myself a job at the BBC. Soon afterwards, a friend bought a flat in London and asked if I wanted to move in. As I settled in to my sparkling new flat along with my new job, for a while I thought I had it made.
Occasionally, on a miserable rainy afternoon or when the topic of travel and living abroad came up in the pub, I would think about Italy and how wonderful it would be to live there. Apart from London, Rome was the only city in the world that I could really see myself living in. Yet no sooner had I thought of it, I would dismiss the idea as simply a dream – a nice dream – but one never to be realized.
At the Amalfi Coast during her year in Italy, with Canadian friend and fellow au pair Alex (left). Photo: Rosie Benson
Fast forward one year and the post-university promises that I, along with so many others of my generation, had been sold since childhood were starting to feel like a pyramid scheme we had all been conned into investing in. The majority of my monthly salary was being eaten up by rent, bills and my daily commute, while the initial excitement I had felt on starting my new job had long since faded; it was beginning to feel more repetitive and monotonous each day.
I started to think more and more about whether there was another life beyond the four walls of my office, beyond rainy London, and beyond crowded, sweaty tube carriages. As clichéd as it may be, getting on the train for my first day back at work in January was the catalyst I needed. As I crammed myself in with hundreds of other weary commuters, each of us rudely dragged out of the holidays back to our grey desks and computer screens, I realized that I had to see if there was another way of life beyond Excel spreadsheets. And if I was going to go somewhere, why not Italy?
Three months later I was on the plane.
With a friend, Katy, at the Roman Forum. Photo: Rosie Benson
I found a wonderful family in Rome who agreed to let a complete stranger (me) live with them in return for teaching English to their four hilarious, bright and beautiful children. In my spare time, I did all I could to find out anything and everything about my new home.
I was determined to experience Italy to the fullest possible extent – never mind that I spoke no Italian and had barely seen any of the country beyond Rome’s city walls. I wanted to speak like a native, gorge on pizza and pasta, discover Italy’s ancient history and see as much of the country as I possibly could (preferably via Vespa…).
Isola del Giglio in Tuscany Photo: Rosie Benson
My first few weeks were spent wandering around and marvelling at the sheer beauty of Rome all over again. I had visited the city before only as a tourist, so it was mind-blowing to me that I now regularly walked past the Colosseum and the Pantheon on my way home from a night out. The cobbled, narrow streets of Trastevere were a mysterious maze that undulated on, to reveal softly-lit piazzas around every corner, and the gorgeous green expanse of the Villa Borghese was so close to my new home it soon became my back garden.
After reacquainting myself with the streets of Rome, it was time to get fully integrated in Italian culture, and my first lesson was, of course, a culinary one. Italians are fanatical about their food and rightly so. For a start, the utmost care is taken in creating each meal. My host-mum once asked me very seriously whether I knew how to cook pasta, something I had before considered to be a basic student skill.
Italians are far more refined in their eating habits than the English and place the utmost importance on separating the primo piatto (usually a pasta or bread-based meal), from the secondo which follows (a meat dish).
Rosie (wearing red) learning to make pasta at language school. Photo: Rosie Benson
Then of course there is il dolce. For someone utterly unable to resist temptation when it comes in a chocolate coating, I am in my element when it comes to eating dessert in Italy. Additionally, I discovered that Nutella is practically a table requirement by law, and was heartily welcomed to breakfast each morning by a huge tub of it, along with all kinds of cakes, pastries, biscuits, and whatever fruit happened to be in season.
My second lesson in Italian culture came on the roads. I had heard many things about driving here, none of them good, but what I didn’t expect to find was that once you get used to the craziness, chaos and general lack of regard for rules, driving here is one of the best ways to get around. Public transport just isn’t extensive enough and walking will only get you so far.
In Naples with fellow au pair Alex (right) and Italian friend Nicola. Photo: Rosie Benson
Early on in my trip while taking the car for a test drive on the right (wrong) hand side of the road, under the nervous eye of my host-dad, I looked at the jumbled mess of traffic in front of me and wondered aloud which lane I should be aiming for. He gave a mighty chuckle and exclaimed, “There are no lanes!” as if only a crazy person would expect to find lanes on a road where four cars (and frequently more) can quite comfortably jostle alongside each other.
It doesn’t take long for pedestrians in Rome to realize that their only hope of making it across a zebra crossing is to step out confidently into the oncoming traffic, or else be destined to stand on the side of the pavement for all eternity. What’s more, wearing seatbelts and obeying red lights seems to be considered strictly optional here rather than a necessity.
The upside of all this chaos is that if you do find yourself lost amongst the labyrinth of Roman roads (as I frequently did), and end up doing something utterly illogical (again, frequently) in order to get back to where you should be, no one thinks any the worse of you.
In Orvieto, a short journey from Rome. Photo: Rosie Benson
Yet even after all these eye-openers, I couldn’t help feeling that my inability to speak Italian was holding me back from discovering the ‘real’ Italy. The majority of my new friends were other English speaking expats, and a part of me still yearned to sit in an unadorned, neon-lit pizzeria and gesticulate wildly while babbling away in Italian at 100 miles an hour.
It didn’t happen overnight, but enrolling in a language school and learning the quirks of the Italian language, helped me to feel like I was discovering the Italy beneath the tourist-saturated exterior. I made friends with non-English speakers and was soon horrified to discover that each region of Italy has its own dialect – it was hard enough learning ‘standard’ Italian – but I persevered, and slowly began making progress.
I felt overjoyed the first time I was able to chat away to my taxi driver in Italian for our entire journey across Rome. I visited more of the country with my adopted Italian family and discovered parts of Italy I never would have seen on my own. I jumped off rocky cliffs into the azure sea by Porto Santo Stefano, ate in Naples’ finest pizza restaurant, took the obligatory tourist photo outside the leaning tower of Pisa, climbed to the still-smoking summit of Vesuvius, and fed wild dandelions to deer on top of the Dolomites.
With her friend Elaine in a Naples pizzeria. Photo: Rosie Benson
I discovered so many wonderful things during my time in Italy, yet looking back I realize that the most important lesson I learnt by far was how liberating it was to jump, head first, into the unknown. Just like the Romans who warned me about my first trip to Naples, there were many people in England who couldn’t fathom why I was leaving a highly respected and well paid job, to live on an au-pair’s meagre pocket money in a non-English speaking country that I knew next to nothing about.
Yet despite their doubts, (not to mention a few of my own), I took the risk and went anyway. British journalist Daisy Buchanan once wrote that “fear is usually a signal that something is worth doing”. Change is often scary, but it is what keeps us interested and gives us much needed variety and adventure in our lives.
Despite my many inner protestations that my dream of living in Italy would always be merely a dream, I discovered that it’s not so impossible to follow an idea, a whim, a dream – no matter how big or small, obscure or ordinary. If 2017 is the year of your catalyst moment then I sincerely wish you the best of luck, or as the Italians would say:‘In bocca al lupo!’ (good luck, or, literally: Into the mouth of the wolf).