Italy! Land of delectable food, birthplace of the Renaissance, and home of great design – I believe it is one of the greatest places on Earth. My “soggiorno torinese” began in August 2005, but my journey had actually begun at McGill University, six months earlier with an acceptance letter from Italy for a student exchange. Growing up, I had always hoped to live in Italy. Being of Italian descent, I wanted to better understand my heritage. This semester-long exchange was a chance to expand my cultural knowledge and finally fulfil a lifelong dream.
I have to admit that Torino was not my first choice. Like many Italo-Canadesi, my notions of Italy were based on the country’s more popular cities: Rome, Florence, Milan, Venice. The only thing I knew about Turin was that it was home to the very popular Juventus soccer team who, at the time, had my favourite player on their roster: Fabio Cannavaro. Otherwise, I knew nothing about the city. My dream had been to live in Milan, where I hoped to immerse myself in fashion and design. Turin had no such appeal. After many failed attempts at entering a university in Milan, a school in Turin became my only option. So I took it and hoped for the best. What I didn’t expect was a city so beautiful and rich with culture that it would change my understanding of Italy, and of myself, forever.
In my first few weeks in Italy I was overwhelmed by an intense culture shock, that I hadn’t expected. As someone of Italian heritage, I thought I understood Italian culture – I was not ready for the major lifestyle differences I witnessed. In Canada, we normally work from nine to five and take a short lunch break. Italians do no such thing. Even after having lived in Italy, I have trouble grasping how businesses, both big and small, can close their doors from one to three in the afternoon. I have vivid memories of running to the panificio at a quarter to one to buy bread for lunch, and praying that they hadn’t yet closed.
In Italy there are no such things as twenty-four hour convenience stores. At first, I was shocked. But once I got used to this reality, it occurred to me that maybe we, in North America, might be putting too much emphasis on work. People in Italy work to live (and not the other way around), and they enjoy a month-long vacation in August. I think this makes them more fully appreciate what life is about.
By the end of my first month in Turin, I started to find my place in my new home. My two roommates, Patricia and Melanie, became like sisters. We started to take advantage of Turin’s great location, and we began to explore Europe. Being at the foot of the Alps, we were a short train ride from many major European cities like Nice, Milan, and Genoa. And the train gave us the chance to travel inexpensively.
Although I visited many great European cities, some of my favourite moments happened right in Turin. The city is packed with great museums and fabulous restaurants. Being there on the eve of the 2006 Winter Olympics, also allowed me to benefit from the sporty side of the city that emerged as a result of the games. We skied in the Alps, we watched preliminary Olympic sporting events and, of course, we went to see the legendary Juventus soccer team. Watching Fabio Cannavaro play at the pinnacle of his career, at the Stadio delle Alpi surrounded by diehard fans, was one of the highlights of my stay. I didn’t think so at first, but watching Juventus and Cannavaro gave me a greater appreciation for soccer – a passion that remains to this day.
My love for Turin continued to grow, as I discovered the incredible food culture that exists in the Piedmont region (the birthplace of the Slow Food movement). Some of my best memories involve a cup of gelato from my favourite gelateria or a Liguria-style focaccia from the small shop in the Piazza Castello. I remember gushing at the sight of the Asti food and wine fair. Asti, a small town about thirty minutes from Turin, is known for its sparkling wine, Spumante. That day, my friends and I drank some of Italy’s best wine and ate at a feast of Piedmont food. The food fair was like a concert, with local chefs, home cooks and their dishes acting as the stars of the day. Living in Turin exposed me to a food culture where slow food is king and fast food is rare.
By end of my exchange, I realized that although Turin wasn’t my first choice, it was the perfect choice. I had been afraid of not being able to find my way through Italy and of not fitting in. But before I knew it, I was having the time of my life and, for the first time, I felt like I had found myself. All it took was a small apartment on the Corso Giambone and two great roommates to help me realize it. Although my experience wasn’t what I expected, in its imperfections, it turned out to be perfect.
Jacqueline De Stefano is a second generation Italo-Canadese. She holds a Bachelor of Commerce degree in international business with a focus on Italian culture and marketing from McGill University. She is currently completing her Masters of Science in Administration.
Originally published in Accenti Magazine, Issue 26