5 years ago – ISCHIA
There is a saying, “see Naples and die”. One night, many years ago, I thought this saying would become a reality. I was wearing cowboy boots like only an Albertan would and I was literally shaking in them. My friend Sunmi and I had just landed in Naples. It was midnight and we arrived late because we had missed a connecting flight somewhere along the way from Edmonton to Italy. I never had the intention to land in Naples in the pitch black, two petite Asian girls in denim cut-offs speaking English with North American accents was exactly my idea of how to best get robbed in the southern Italian night. Sunmi is a Canadian-born Korean with legs for days and the kind of innocence you can’t even find in a church pew on a Sunday. We met in first year of pharmacy school, she reminded me of Elle Woods incarnated with jet black hair and you would never know her smarts because they were the kind that didn’t belong on the streets. Now, the two of us, Korean Elle Woods and I, were in Naples with twenty minutes to catch the last ferry to our destination: Ischia. We burst out the front door of the airport and I tried my very best to act authoritative and as if I knew exactly where we needed to go, as if I had taken an illegitimate taxi in Naples a million times in my life. No big deal. It’s important to note that the Napoletani can hear your non-Napolentano accent a mile away if you’re an Italian from the next city over, nevertheless a Canadian trying to speak Italian as a second language. So my cover was blown immediately. I tried to negotiate the price beforehand, seeing as the meter was “broken” but our driver was not having it. All I wanted was to arrive at the port on time to catch the ferry and in one piece, in no particular order.
The car whipped through the narrow streets, exactly like in a film, as Sunmi and I held on to each other for dear life. I started regretting telling the driver I’d give him a tip if we got there on time, I was starting to doubt we would get there alive as I was sure we had left a trail of carnage in our wake. Suddenly a screech of the tires was followed by “raga, siamo arrivati” (gals, we’ve arrived), and I couldn’t hear the rest on account of my heart that was pounding in my ears at this point. Or maybe it was Sunmi’s heart. I looked over at her and her face was glistening with what I hoped was sweat and not tears, although they could have easily been tears of joy! Needless to say, we hopped on the ferry with time to spare and made it to Forio, Ischia at 3am after having taken two planes, a taxi, a ferry, and a bus. There was actually some walking and a car involved because the bus dropped us off in the middle of a street which we walked up and down about twenty times before desperately calling the hostel owner, Giuseppe. He showed up in a beat-up old Fiat Panda and for whatever reason, I ended up sitting squashed in the front between Giuseppe and Sunmi, the three of us laughing hysterically from pure exhaustion all the way to the hostel. There was nothing more blissful than the moment my head hit the pillow that night.
While this seems like the beginning of a typical backpacking trip around Europe, it was actually school-related. Yes, unexplainably and unbeknownst to me prior to starting pharmacy school, the pharmacy program at the University of Alberta takes 30 fourth-year students to Italy for a study abroad month on the delightful island of Ischia. An initiative started by one of the now-retired pharmacy professors, its aim is to illustrate the effects of diet and lifestyle on health. The official title of the course was Intercultural Exploration of Pharmacy and Health, a synonym for “let’s eat homemade Italian food and wine every day in a classroom by the sea and call it learning”. It was a little more than three weeks of morning lectures that started off with a steaming cappuccino and warm, buttery cornetto. We took excursions to visit various thermal hot springs on the island and spent a day doing patient interactions with pharmacy students at the University of Naples. On the weekends, most of us would head off to Naples on the ferry and from there, take the fast train to discover more of Italy- Rome, Positano, Sorrento. No city was too far or out of reach.
We were hosted by the Colella family who owned a hostel, hotel, and restaurant in the town. Giuseppe, our rescuer, was the son of the owner and managed the hostel that all the students bunked at. The family was made of two other brothers whom participated equally in making our morning breakfasts and taking part in the cooking lessons that were also part of the course. It was with the Colella family that I first learned how to roll gnocchi along a fork and fry a zucchini flower, it was also the first time that I ate cuttlefish in seafood stew so exquisite that it was devoured by every single person, even a classmate of mine who didn’t know what mussels were. We learnt all about the Slow Food Movement that was started by an Italian and about sustainable food choices and the beauty of eating locally. In the evenings, we would have dance parties in the breakfast room of the hostel, to work off the carb-loading from the day. My final research paper was on the sustainability of swordfish in the Mediterranean . The research involved eating a lot of swordfish. It was also helpful for my Italian because I made it my goal to visit the fishmonger at the local market and ask questions about swordfish. I visited restaurants dotted along the shoreline and chatted with the chefs. I learned every single detail about pescespada.
I studied Italian with my classmates twice a week with the aforementioned Roberto who couldn’t speak a word of English and it was much more entertaining that way. I had never seen someone gesture as wildly as he did during those lessons , we were always afraid he was going to knock something over! Roberto was so enthusiastic and what he lacked in professional teaching methods, he made up for in wild abandon in sharing everything he knew about his language. We didn’t have proper desks because we took our lessons in front of the pizza oven and kitchen workspace of the Colella’s family restaurant and Roberto would just weave in and out of our awkwardly placed seats like a practiced Roman during high tourist season in Campo de’ Fiori. While I didn’t improve my Italian skills, I definitely improved my live translating skills and appreciation for visual communication.
However, despite all of our best intentions and as if it isn’t intuitive enough, most of the time we spent eating. We ate seafood just fished from the waters surrounding the island and drank wine made from 0km grapes. We sat together, my classmates and I, and talked and laughed and reminisced. We talked about how close we were to the end- one more year and we would be pharmacists, for some it would be a second degree, for others it was still a stepping stone to bigger and better things: business, medicine, law even. We’ve been in school forever, we murmured, a little drunk on wine mixed with the Italian sunshine. Yet I felt like there was a shared feeling that summer, as if no one wanted the course to end, or maybe, it was just me that never wanted Italy to end.
...to be continued. Chapter 4 coming Thursday, April 23, 2020.
This Sweet Life: Chapter Two
This Sweet Life: Chapter One
This Sweet Life: Prologue