Flow in the Snow

Back in October, I opened my birthday presents and found a wonderfully unexpected gift - a week long snowboarding camp in the Dolomites, Italy. I’d never been on a winter sports holiday before, but I’d done a taster session at a local indoor slope and really enjoyed it. Marcy saw how much I enjoyed it and decided to treat me to the real thing. I was a total novice and we had to go out and buy a complete set of snowboarding clothes (all the gear no idea!). I really didn’t know what to expect from a week in the mountains.
To be honest, when we arrived I felt quite out of my depth. Everyone in the camp was super cool and I felt like a bit of outcast, aside from being the only non-Italian in the group! It felt a bit like being back at school and in a moment of reflection I looked out at the dramatic mountains that surrounded us, and the obvious dawned on me; “I’m going to have to snowboard down a bloody mountain!”

That familiar old feeling from school, anxiety, came creeping back. Was I going to make a fool of myself?
- - -
We were riding the cable car up Mount Groste and Marcy was busy chatting to the other Italians in our cab but I was too nervous to join in. I looked out of the window but I didn’t see the beautiful blue sky or the majestic mountaintops, only endless crevices that I could fall down. We arrived at the chalet where we’d begin our lessons but my nerves got the better of me and I had to run off to the toilets before we’d even begun!

Soon enough the lesson started. Thankfully, the loud group of fashionable Italians knew what they were doing and disappeared off down the mountain. The other novices and I were left to begin our lesson on a baby piste. We practised the individual movements and got comfortable with the board, before eventually tying the moves together into one fluid movement. For the whole lesson we practiced fastening the snowboard to our feet, sliding down the slope, unclipping and walking back up the piste. It was exhausting.
After the lesson, Marcy and I had lunch in the Chalet. We were accompanied by my new friend Gustavo, the glorious views and some shitty euro-dance music blazing out of the speakers. I do love Italy.

On the second day, we continued to put the moves together and actually did some snowboarding. Not without difficulty however. Aside from the obvious fact that it’s incredibly difficult to stand up on a polished board on a snowy mountain slope, the cold weather was also a challenge. I was suitably dressed in all my new gear, but the bits of my face that were still exposed were freezing. We also spent a lot of the lesson sat on our bums talking through technique. Honestly, my bum cheeks were painfully cold and I had to lean back on my elbows and thrust my hips into the air for a bit of relief. I must have looked like such an idiot! The flipside was that my bum was so numb that it didn’t hurt when I fell on it!

By this time I’d started to relax and began to observe things around me. Back in the chalet, the snowboarders are all baggy and cool, whilst the skiers are all dressed in super tight onsies and mince around on their ski boots like they are high heels. At least I could kid myself I looked good. On the piste, I could identify ice and bad snow. It hadn’t snowed recently and there wasn’t much powder snow. This was exacerbated by the top layer of snow melting in the daylight then freezing during the night, leaving hazardous spots of ice on the snow. Hazardous if you are a complete novice like me.

On the third day we snowboarded down the opposite side of the valley on the Paradalgo facile run. Unfortunately there isn’t a cable car up the mountain, so I had to negotiate the ski lift. We had to shuffle along in a massive queue of people, on the snow, whilst I had my snowboard attached to one foot. That is apparently the proper way to do it. I’d shuffle, then slide and lose my balance before falling into the poor person next to me.  Then we had to snowboard one-footed onto a travellator while the ski lift chair scoops you up. Somehow, I bumbled my way through and made it to the top of the mountain.

The views at the summit were amazing. It was a beautiful moment, to be on top of the mountain surrounded by blue skies and white snow. Incredibly, there were tonnes of school kids up there. Maybe only five or six years old, each child was already confident on their skis and made their way down the slopes in their distinctive orange bibs. I’d lost my nerves and was loving it as I made my way down. I was taking it very carefully and slowly, but I was feeling completely inspired. Then a young child bombed past me practising her 180 spins. I still had a lot to learn.

It took us two hours as a group to descend the mountain. We stayed together, so that the ones at the front never strayed too far from those at the rear. The group had also began to bond by helping each other and laughing together. Once I found my rhythm, I found it easy to focus and I could make my way down the slope, completely in-tune with the surroundings. I’d read the snow, correct my speed and choose my route. I was completely immersed in the moment, experiencing the state of ‘flow’ that Csikszentmihalyi wrote about. I felt amazing, although I should say it was all relative – Compared to the seasoned snowboarders, I was going very slowly, carefully and methodically which was quite unlike their fearless carving of the snow. But the whole world is relative and in that moment, I was completely absorbed by it.

On the following day the instructor let me go out on the piste on my own. It was a bit scary without someone guiding me down the piste and advising me on my technique. I couldn’t quite get into the ‘zone’ like the previous day. I’d put a couple of turns together and then slip. Nevertheless, I was feeling accomplished and decided to record a run on my GoPro. Watching the video in the evening I learned two things; I’m a terrible videographer and captured neither the action nor the scenery. I also learnt that I am the slowest snowboarder in the world. I got bored watching my own video as I trundled down the mountain!
On the final day of snowboarding, I was feeling confident. I was determined to knit my moves together, read the snow and pick up some speed. In fact, I felt more balanced when I was travelling faster. Around 3pm in the afternoon, I made my best run so far. I was cutting through the snow and spraying snow on the turns. I was really enjoying the moment. Near the end of the piste I was building up quite a lot of my speed while I travelled on my toe edge. Ahead I spotted an ice patch. I was having an incredible run (for me) and confidently decided to take on the ice. Big mistake. I lost control of the board, my feet went skyward and my already bruised backside hit the ground. In that moment my vision went white and I thought I was going to shit my pants. Thankfully a moment later the feeling passed and I was left feeling a bit shaken. I picked myself up and finished the run. With hindsight I know I should have stopped, or slowed down, or gone round the ice but my ambition got the better of me! Back at the chalet, I was feeling a bit sick and my wrist had swollen. Marcy and Gustavo took one look at it and recommended that I went to the hospital.

The doctor quickly diagnosed me with a fractured wrist. My first ever broken bone was also the completion of my initiation into the world of snowboarding! I felt completely foolish. Although as I had begun to learn, everything is relative. In the hospital there were people with broken legs and shoulders. I counted myself lucky.
So my first snowboarding trip ended with an overconfident fall and a broken wrist. That was completely inevitable. But I wasn’t downhearted, I’d loved every moment of the trip. Externally, the views were amazing and I’d spent a week communicating in Italian (well, 75% of the time!) Internally, I’d challenged myself and gone from initial nervousness to learning a new skill. I fell countless times and did make a fool of myself, but it didn't matter. I came out the other side with more confidence and a worthwhile experience… and a fancy blue wrist brace. I can’t wait to go snowboarding again in the future.

A Neapolitan Christmas: What to Expect

I've spent my first Christmas in Naples and there some fascinating cultural differences in the way Christmas is celebrated in Italy and the UK. I was at home with Marcy's family in Naples where everything is bigger, louder and more Italian. Here are a few of the ways the Italians celebrate their Christmas.

Christmas Eve and seafood
The family all gather together for a big meal on Christmas Eve. Whilst families have a big family meal on Christmas Day as well (this is Italy after all; family and food is everything) it is Christmas Eve that is the main event. And its not turkey and roast potatoes on the menu but seafood. There are are also many many dishes and I struggled to eat everything. We all sat down to eat Napoli football club shaped pasta with artichokes, 'Zeppoline di alghe' dough balls with seaweed, 'calamari', 'chele di granchio' crab claws, 'risotto ai frutti di mare' seafood risotto, 'scarola' a Neapolitan leafy green, 'orata alla grilla' grilled sea bream and many other dishes. The equivalent of brussels sprouts - that horrible veg dish your mum makes you eat - is 'l'insalata di rinforzo' literally 'reinforcing salad' - a pickled salad of cauliflower, carrots and broccoli, a dish which stinks the room out. Although to be honest I love pickles and was quite happy to eat it.
The main problem for me was that we didn't sit down to eat until 10pm. In Italy they eat late and the Christmas Eve meal is timed to finish in time for the Midnight Mass. I was so hungry I wolfed down the first pasta dish and didn't leave enough space for the other dishes. I didn't want to look rude, so obviously, I still managed to eat everything.

In every family home at Christmas there well be a 'presepe', a homemade miniature nativity scene. In Naples, this is very important and at San Gregorio Armeno there is a whole street dedicated to selling little models and figurines. These scenes can be very elaborate and detailed. The presepe at Casa Greco includes shooting stars, flying angels and even farm animals. And no Neapolitan Nativity scene would be complete without the essential Pizzaiolo.
I find this tradition quite endearing. As a child I loved models of cars and planes and train sets. The presepe is also an opportunity to express some creativity and I'm sure there are many personal stories behind each arrangement of a presepe. Christmas is the perfect time for reminiscing about family and retelling old stories, especially that one about your Nan getting too drunk on Christmas Day.

La Befana
On the 5th January, the eve of the epiphany, a disgusting witch called la befana flies in on a broom and delivers sweets and presents for the nice kids and charcoal for the naughty ones. I have no idea what this has to do with Christmas, but the little witch is everywhere in Italy. Much like our Father Christmas and the Christmas tree, la befana is an amalgamation of pagan traditions, misspelled names and misunderstood history. La Befana also performs a similar role as Father Christmas by delivering presents and scaring kids into behaving of the festive period.
However, there aren't queues of kids in supermarkets waiting to sit on some old lady's knee. And to my eyes it is still strange to see pictures of a witch everywhere over the festive period!

Road Trip in Italy

Marcy and I took a trip to southern Italy to eat the food, enjoy the sun and have a bit of exploration. We jumped from cliffs into the sea and ate tonnes of delicious food. I got burnt to crisp under the sun and I drove on Italy roads for the first time! How will a typical rule-obeying British guy cope on the crazy Italian roads?

I Love Italy! :D (...even the driving)


Italian Afternoon by Twin Musicom is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution licence (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)

Artist: http://www.twinmusicom.org/

The place History left behind

Italy is rich in History, from the Romans to the Renaissance. But between the ruins of temples, the masterpieces of art and scientific discovery, there are places that history failed to touch. Matera is one such place.

The Greeks didn't come to Matera nor the Romans, or even Dante or Mussolini. A small town on the edge of nowhere, its existence forgotten in the metropolises of Milan, Rome and Naples. Residents joked that even Catholicism forgot about Matera with the often repeated phrase 'Christ Stopped at Eboli'.  Matera was finally revealed to the world in Carlo Levi's book of the same name. At the time Matera was a national shame because of its abject poverty. But to many people today it is beautiful, unique and it is one of my favourite places in Italy. What makes it so special?

Travelling through the region of Basilicata and into Matera is nothing spectacular. Open mines and industrial plants scar the countryside and the first thing you see of modern Matera are charmless concrete apartment blocks. But what Matera is famous for is the Sassi, the ancient cave dwellings. We left the modern town behind straight away and made our way towards the Sassi. Walking along Via Del Corso, we began to find baroque churches and the occasional piazza. One of the best examples of Baroque architecture is the Church of San Francesco d'Assisi, with its beautiful stone facade which seems to change colour with the sunset. But as we explored, we were drawn into the narrow streets and suddenly, the view of the Sassi opened up before us.

Matera is built on the side of a canyon, with tiny stone buildings jostling for space. The modern town lies on the flat plain whilst the old Sassi fall beyond into the canyon. We were standing on the edge of the canyon and given a dramatic panorama of the city, where we began to see its beauty. There are little stone buildings everywhere, with narrow streets and stone staircases crisscrossing the valley. An ancient warren. As darkness descends on the town, the sky turn purple and little lights begin to appear in they valley, as if the stone Sassi are trying to reflect the stars above.

The Greeks and the Romans ignored this part of southern Italy, preferring to settle in more hospitable places. The valley is steep and treeless, and the soil isn't of great quality, so it wasn't a natural place for a settlement. But the canyon is littered with caves which could provide people with shelter from the elements. People began to settle in the caves and work the land as best as they could. Eventually, the caves became too small for the families in them and they began to build new rooms on top of the caves. Organically, a town grew alongside its growing population. Eventually municipal buildings and commercial buildings were built. But people continued to live in the caves, in terrible conditions. The south of Italy has always been terribly poor and Matera is remote, far from signs of the modern world. When Carlo Levi wrote about his political exile in Basilicata, he drew the world's attention to the region and in particular, Matera.

People were living in abject poverty, with truly terrible conditions. The cave dwellings had no windows and many had no doors because the door was the only source of light and fresh air. The people had little furniture and whole families would sleep in a single tall bed, with a wooden cot hanging from the ceiling for babies. Their dogs, chickens and pigs would sleep on the floor beneath them. Amongst this filth without ventilation, sanitation or even electricity, disease was rife. The young were decimated by the rampant malaria, trachoma and dysentery, leaving Matera with one of the highest rates of infant mortality rates in Europe. It seemed like a life from the depths of ancient history. It is easy to forget that the book was actually published in 1945, by which time the aeroplanes were flying in the sky, Frank Sinatra's cover of White Christmas was on the radio and Sir Alexander Flemming won the Nobel Prize for his discovery of Penicillin. Matera's situation was almost beyond hope.

In 1950, the Italian Prime Minister Alcide De Gasperi visited the town and Matera became infamous as la vergogna nazionale, 'the national shame'. The Government devised a plan to evacuate the people, rehouse them in modern apartment buildings and destroying the Sassi.  The Government hired prestigious architects and engineers to build modern concrete apartment blocks with windows, electricity, plumbing and bathrooms. They had Modernist ideals to pursue and careers to build. They began the process of rehousing and moved people out in phases. The people who had moved had the basics of a healthy life but quickly became unhappy. Sure life in the Sassi was difficult, but in the apartments they felt isolated from their family and friends. They couldn't see the kids playing in the streets or gossip with the old lady next door while putting out the laundry. When they relocated the community en-masse, it simply disintegrated. They'd lost that intangible essence of fraternity. 'Top down' planning had failed.

Meanwhile, a group of students in Matera had organised themselves and began to ask themselves about the fate of Matera and in turn their own fate. Instead of forcing abstract extrinsic ideals upon the community, they sought to discover Matera's intrinsic qualities. They unearthed unique layer after unique layer of beauty. they found Byzantine frescoes, churches carved out of bare rock, marvellous architecture (with as much as 75% hidden beneath the surface) and ingenious water collection methods. They employed three different types of cistern systems to collect rainwater and had done this for hundreds of years. It was these methods of water collection and storage that eventually saw Matera being classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993. The students began the process of repopulating the Sassi and eventually convinced the Government to protect the Sassi and provide funds for restoration.

The unique ancient architecture and townscape had been saved from modern obscurity. Compared to its Modern cousins everywhere else in the world, Matera looks magnificent. And the film makers began to notice. Matera feels antique, of another time. It has lent itself to many famous films, often replicating Jerusalem. Some of the most famous movies filmed in Matera include Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (2004), Alberto Lattuada's La lupa (1953) and the modern remake of Ben Hur (2016). It is now a town thriving on tourist money and will become the European Capital of Culture in 2019. Matera's time has finally come.

We learnt about all of this in the great tourist attractions in Matera. You can learn about the history at the Casa Noha Documentary Museum on Recinto Cavone and explore a traditional cave dwelling at Casa Grotta del Casalnuovo on Rione Castelnuovo. You can even try the traditional food in the restaurants, but seeing as this was such a poor area don't expect too much! A traditional dish was puree di fave e cicoria 'mashed broad beans and chicory'. Marcy enjoyed the food but I thought it was a little plain!

What's fascinating to me is that today the Sassi are full of homes and business and life because local people organised themselves and took direct action to preserve their homes and their identity. It wasn't the Government or Developers that revitalised the place, but the residents. Its a wonderful example of community action, or 'bottom up' planning. Today we have a wonderful town that is the complete opposite of the identikit cities we live in today. But more personally, its is a town that is completely beautiful and unique, somewhere to get lost in and fall in love with.
Thanks for reading my blog! If you liked it please leave me a comment and let me know what you liked! If you've got any questions please ask them and if you've got any amazing travel recommendations please let me know, I'm always looking for somewhere new to explore. Ciao for now!

Mezzogiorno Road Trip

Via Appia, the road to Rome. After foreign campaigns in Greece, North Africa and Asia Minor, Roman ships would dock in Brindisi and disembark their soldiers. The soldiers would climb Virgil's Steps and march onto Rome. Perhaps to a celebratory Triumph, perhaps to overthrow the Government. Marcy and I began our journey in Brindisi, underneath those same steps. We weren't heading to Rome, we were heading to Napoli - the beating heart of southern Italy.

Over breakfast, Marcy told me something I was shocked by. Mozzarella isn't cheese (formaggio). Ricotta isn't cheese either! In Italy, they fall into their own group, Latticini. Mind blown.

We moved onto the beautiful city of Lecce in the centre of the Puglia region. A baroque masterpiece constructed out of brilliantly white stone. At the centre of the town there are the remains of a Roman Amphitheatre. The tigers, elephants and other exotic creatures captured on foreign campaigns would be brought here to be proved and tested. The best went on to the Colosseum in Rome. I was also going to be severely tested in Italy - Would I be able to survive driving a car in the crazy south? And would my Italian show any improvement?

Before we hired a car, we got ourselves a Vespa for a few days. I bloody love riding Vespas. Especially in such a beautiful city full of great architecture and lots of narrow alleyways to explore. We headed off to explore the Ionian coast and soak up the sun. After leaving the city, I expected to ride on country lanes. Instead we ended up on the SS101 which was basically a 90kpm motorway. It was a bit scary on the bike, especially when the wind picked up. Italian drivers make their manoeuvres very late compared to the British, so the cars behind me were often filling my mirrors before they overtook me at the last possible moment. I filled my pants every time. There is also no room for consideration, it is every man for themselves on the Italian roads. In England, flashing the headlights means 'please go ahead', in Italy it means 'get out of my way. Actually, beeping the horn also means 'get out of my way', as well as a million other hand gestures. Thankfully, the roads weren't to busy and I had time to get used to the roads.
We reached the rocky coastline at a village called Santa Caterina. We bought ourselves some fetching plastic shoes for the rocks and dived into the crystal blue sea. We did some cliff diving and a bit of snorkelling until I couldn't take the heat any more. Despite the lovely sunny weather, the village was ghostly quiet. It is the off-season at the end of September and the Italians are surprisingly regimented about when they take their holidays. We had the village to ourselves and we made full use of it on the Vespa.

We spent the rest of our time like this in Lecce. Exploring by bike, hitting the beaches and soaking up the sun. This is what's wonderful about Puglia, a wealth of different places and activities which are all relatively close together. We picked up out car and Marcy drove us to Otranto - my turn to drive would have to wait.

We were lucky enough to be in Otranto at the same time as a Steve McCurry exhibition. He's the only photographer whose name I've ever bothered to learn and the exhibition was great. It was held in the Castello Aragonese which looks out over the sea. His photography is so colourful and striking and every picture tells a fascinating story. I was really happy to see the exhibition and I left feeling motivated to travel and experience more new cultures. When we left the Castello, we could hear music coming from across the bay. We followed the music until we reached a bar on the seafront where the people had all spilled out into the street. The locals were singing songs and dancing together to the sound of tambourines and an accordion. The whole street was partying and singing along - with one particular song very popular - a funny song about wishing your mother-in-law would spit blood. It was wonderful to see such a spontaneous burst of life. This wasn't for tourists,  it was locals enjoying themselves and I'd finally felt like I'd began to see through Italy's stylish surface and glimpse it's warm heart. I'd travelled only a few minutes away from the exhibition and already discovered the culture I was hoping to find.

The following day came and it was my turn to drive. I'd never driven on the opposite side of the road and I was a little nervous. Italy is known for it's crazy drivers. I needn't have worried, it was fine. I occasionally hit the door when I tried to change gear, but that was it. I had to be so vigilant though. The road layouts are seriously complicated and the local Council's only seems to bother painting lines on the road while they were digging them up. Italian drivers drift in and out of lanes at random and constantly try to overtake whoever is in front of them. They also drive with one hand holding their phone and their other hand holding a cigarette. I had to adapt quickly.

We arrived at Grotta della Poesia, a natural swimming pool that's connected to the sea. It's famous for cliff jumping, but we were the first ones there so we had to judge by ourselves where to jump. We climbed down first to investigate the depth of the water. The water was crystal clear but not much deeper than my own height. I was a little nervous - I wanted to jump in but I didn't want to break my legs! Anyway, I jumped. It was so high that after my feet left the rocks I still had time to think "Sh**... I still haven't hit the water yet!" my heart raced and then I crashed into the water. Bubbles and sea water everywhere. In the excitement I'd forgot to hold my nose and got sea water up my nose and right to the back of my head. It was fantastic. Filled with excitement, I dived in a few more times and and even Marcy joined in. She was really pound to be the only girl that dived while we were there. By the time we left there were a few locals doing flips and twists, but that wasn't the most amazing thing to see. The locals would dive in and come back with whatever litter they could find. They'd even brought bin bags so everyone could dispose of their rubbish without littering their favourite natural spot. They really cared about this place.
Our next stop on the road trip was Alberobello, to see the famous trulli. The town itself was pleasant but overrun with tourists. We'd had enough foresight to arrange to stay in a trulli in the countryside and it was beautiful. These little houses are built from stone with large cone roofs. They sort of resemble a stone igloo and could be easily at home on the set of Lord of the Rings.
We also visited Matera. I didn't know what to expect for the town, but I was blown away. I have decided to write a whole separate article about Matera.

Santa Maria di Castellabate
Out final stop was Santa Maria di Castellabate. It is a beautiful little village in the Cilento region. The village is split between the seafront and the local hilltops. The views were stunning and we spent all our time enjoying the sun and letting the sea wash away life's stresses and strains.

We'd originally seen the village in the film, Benvenuti al Sud, a hugely successful comedy in Italy. Marcy and I love the film and were so happy to be there in person. However, we had to drive all the way to the top of a monstrous hill, climbing up winding trails with hairpin turns, with the sun shining directly into my eyes. Throw in a couple of Italians driving towards us on the wrong side of the road and I'd had the most difficult driving experience of my life. I swore a lot, Marcy laughed a lot, and the car's poor first gear got revved a lot.
The driving was great fun though. The south of Italy is truly beautiful too. It has a rich history, wonderful scenery, warm weather, lovely locals and amazing, affordable local food. But the things I'll remember most are those moments that came in the spaces in between the big tourist attractions and the dramatic countryside. At Grotta della Poesia I saw how Italians will really care for a place if their are emotionally connected to it. In the bars and cafes, I occasionally began listening to people's telephone conversations (when I could understand them) and every single time the person on the phone was speaking to their Mum or Nan and describing the food they were eating. The conversations were genuine and heartfelt. Families really care for each other in Italy. And they really love their food too, whether it is talking about it or eating it.