Labour Day

Place: Rome, Italy

Date: 1 May 2012

People: Daniel, Corradino, Gio, Sierra and her boyfriend

Lessons Learned: When in Italy, try the fish, the sangria, the risotto, especially when they’re made by loving hands at home.  Music is a force that connects people from all ends of the globe with each other.  Be mindful in large crowds.  It’s ok for men to have Monroe piercings in Italy.  Be careful with the Spritz! Gelateria Petrini has the best gelato ever!  No amount of money can buy a truly authentic Italian experience.


It was a beautiful morning on the first of May, it was a public holiday and as such, the vibe was very chill and relaxed. When I woke up I went to the kitchen and Corradino was there eating his breakfast.  I sat at the table with him, he then offered to share his breakfast with me.

I accepted his offer.  So he began to take a pear and peeled and cut it up and put it in plain yogurt with granola.  I had never eaten plain yogurt before.  My family usually buys fruity yogurt from the grocery store, which is loaded with preservatives and sugars.  It was a new way to eat breakfast for me, but it was probably healthier too.

Gio and Daniel came to the table as well and joined us.

“Sierra and her boyfriend will be coming over this afternoon for lunch,” Gio announced, “Afterwards we will go over to San Giovanni.  There is a big free concert there today in front of the basilica for Labour Day and there will be people there from all over Italy.  It’s a public holiday today so everyone has the day off work.”

With that Gio pulled out his breakfast, which was smoked salmon and cream cheese on a rice cake.  “Here try some,” Gio offered.

Now normally I hate fish and avoid eating it at all costs.  But I didn’t want to come off as rude and picky so I decided to give it a try and if I didn’t like it I figured I could just stop eating it and that would be that.  However, despite my reservations, I was pleasantly surprised how tasty the salmon was and I found myself eating more and more of it.  For the first time in my life I was eating fish and genuinely liking it.  I’ve later come to realize that places close to the sea offer much better and fresher seafood than back home.  Although I technically live in west Canada, I am still over 1000 km away from the Pacific coast in British Columbia, so the fish we get is not very fresh and it’s really smelly and rank and I’ve never enjoyed it.

While I was enjoying the salmon, Daniel turned on the small TV in the kitchen and flicked through the channels and settled on an episode of the Simpsons, but it was all in Italian.  The episode was about American pioneers, something that hits close to home.  In Canada, like in the States, we’ve had our share of pioneer stories of hardship, working, clearing, and taming the land.  It was funny for me to see something so familiar, the Simpsons, pioneer stories, but all in a foreign language that I couldn’t understand.

While we were watching TV, Sierra and her boyfriend came over with bags full of groceries and a large pitcher.  “We made you sangria,” Sierra announced.

She poured it into cups and passed them around the table.  It was so delicious.  It was the perfect mixture of red wine, fruit juice, with chunks of real fruit floating in it.

“We made it the night before,” Sierra told me proudly, “It takes at least 8 hours for all the ingredients to absorb the flavour.”

I felt so honoured and touched that they did something so labour intensive and special just for me.

Before I came to Italy I had no idea what real sangria was.  My first encounter with the word was on New Year’s 2012.  I was out pre-drinking with my cousin and her friends in Calgary and they poured red wine and ginger ale together and told me it was sangria.  I now know that what I was drinking was a really lame knock-off the real deal.  In Italy I learned that real Sangria cocktail comes from Spain and it can be made with a variety of ingredients but typically is composed of red wine, fruit juices, sugar, and chopped up chunks of fruit, usually citrus.  Maybe if I go to Spain I will taste much better authentic sangria, but I think that this homemade sangria was really good.

While we were drinking the sangria, Sierra and her boyfriend started taking out the contents of their grocery bags and began cooking.

“Have you ever had risotto?” Sierra asked me.

“No,” I shook my head.

“Not  to worry, we’ll make you some, in the authentic Italian style, you’ll try and see, it’s really good.”

While Sierra and her boyfriend were cooking, the boys noticed my Pink Floyd shirt my Mom gave me for Christmas one year.  These boys were really into classic rock and when they saw my shirt, they began to sing “Another Brick in the Wall.” Then we got to talking about music from our countries.  I noted some of our famous musicians.  They were surprised to know that rock legends like Neil Young and Rush were Canadian.  They knew the song American Woman but they didn’t know that it was originally performed by a Canadian band, the Guess Who.

I didn’t know any Italian artists except for Il Divo.  But they had no idea who Il Divo was.  I showed them the video of Il Divo performing “Adagio”.  They then showed me a video of the original song by Lara Fabian.  It turns out that Il Divo merely specialize in song covers.  Oh the things you learn when you travel.

“They’re not real Italians,” Sierra commented.

“How can you tell?” I asked.

“Their accents,” she said, “You can tell from how they sing that they are not native Italian speakers.”

I later Googled it and sure enough Sierra was right.  The four group members have different nationalities: French, Swiss, Spanish, and American, not a single Italian, despite belonging to a singing quartet with an Italian name.  They also sing in languages other than Italian such as English, Spanish and Latin.  Oh the things you learn from Google.

While we were looking up music on YouTube on Gio’s computer and singing along in his room, in particular to “Bohemian Rhapsody”, I thought it was special and spectacular how we were from different ends of the earth but something simple as common music tastes linked us together and sparked a common interest and excitement.  While we were listening to music, I sat on the window ledge with the shutters opened up into the street and painted my nails with the new Dior scented green nail polish I bought the day before.  Classic rock, Italy, Dior, mint green nailpolish, life felt great at that moment, I knew it was a sign of a great day unfolding.

They had a map on the wall of the world.  My city was on there, “Edmonton,” I pointed it out to them and put my finger on the dot where it was marked, “That’s where I’m from.”

“I would like to do a roadtrip in North America and go from one side to the other,” Gio told me, then asked, “What’s the fastest you can drive?”

“In Canada the fastest speed is 110km/h.”

“Really, that’s it!?”

“Is that slow?”

“Yes, the fastest we’re allowed to drive is 140km/h.”

I thought back to my drive from the Fiumicino airport to San Giovanni and it all made sense to me now.  It wasn’t just my imagination at the time, the shuttle bus I took did drive faster than what I was used to back home.

As we were staring at the map on the wall, Sierra interrupted our thoughts by announcing, “The food is ready.”

With that, we all sat around the table and ate this lovely risotto with cheese and herbs. It was so delicious. Daniel was the only one who didn’t join in.  He made his own food.  The only thing I remember of what he ate was a massive helping of veggies.  I had never seen anything like it.  If only people back home ate like him, maybe we wouldn’t have so many health problems and overweight people.

I was so full from all the food we ate that I was unable to finish my risotto.

“Come on you have to eat more,” Gio and Sierra insisted.

It was such a stereotypical Italian thing to say to a dinner guest.

“We’re just kidding,” Gio laughed, “You don’t really have to finish it if you don’t want to.  Besides we should head off to the concert before it gets too late.”

Even though I was stuffed to brim with all this delicious food I ate, I felt privileged to have such an opportunity to eat real homemade Italian food in a normal Italian apartment with actual Italian people.  I wasn’t in some kitschy tourist trap restaurant, I was in a real home and it was the most special feeling to experience something normal that not every tourist gets to be a part of.

I was also excited to be taken to this Labour Day concert with these lovely people.  Without them telling me about the concert, I probably would have been oblivious to this public holiday.  It was a cloudy day so I wore jeans and I brought my track jacket. I had ten euro in my pocket, just in case, and my camera.

So off we went to San Giovanni.  The usually noisy streets full of people were empty and quiet.  The shops were closed up, it was Labour Day in full force.  The closer we walked to the basilica the louder the roar of people grew.  The music echoed through the still neighbourhoods and became clearer with each step.  When we walked to the other side of the city walls we could see the large crowd that had amassed in front of the basilica.

“There’s so many people here,” I commented awestruck.

“There are people here from all over Italy just for this day,” Gio informed me.

The closer we got to the front of the stage the thicker the crowd grew.  The statue of St. Francis of Asisi had people sitting and standing all over it, it was so surreal.  There were people going in all directions.  There was garbage everywhere and it was the mass chaos that one would expect to find at a free nationally acclaimed concert.  There were police men on the edges of the crowd.  There were a couple instances where I saw girls screaming and crying with security personnel or their friends dragging them away from the crowd.  Clearly something bad had happened, as they are prone to at large concert events.  There were so many people around and I had never seen anything like it in my life.  At paid concerts, yes, but not for a free event.

Daniel scanned the crowd with suspicion then he leaned over to me, “Be careful and watch out for robbers.”

“It’s ok,” I replied, “I only have a few euros with me anyways.”

“Right,” he nodded, “You see the weird looking people? They’re from Naples.”

“Which weird looking people?” I asked.

“All of them,” He responded.

There were some strange looking people but I didn’t know what qualified as weird in Daniel’s eyes and who knew if they were actually from Naples.  I did see some strange looking people in the crowd.  One weird trend that stood out to me was the amount of guys with Monroe piercings.  Back home I had only ever seen girls with Monroe piercings so it was strange to see guys try and pull it off.  I thought they looked kind of stupid, but then again maybe I’m just biased in thinking of that style of piercing as purely feminine.

As we stood there watching the concert I realized that I had to go to the bathroom.  I told the others so they came and walked with me down the street.  We had to walk quite a ways away from the basilica until we came to port-a-potties.  “Thank God,” I thought to myself, “What sweet relief.”

But when I walked in there was no toilet paper in the stall and not in the next one or the other one.  It took me ages to find a stall with toilet paper, it was appalling to see such ill-preparation for a big public event.

When I came back the boys decided to buy beer at the convenience store next door.  It was the first beer I ever bought in Europe and it was such a strange experience for me to buy it at a regular store instead of a liquor store.  The liberal approach to alcohol in Italy is certainly one of my favourite parts about the country and how easy and cheap it is to buy it.

Cheers from Italy!  First beer, rocking a Pink Floyd T-shirt and green Dior nailpolish.

As we were drinking Sierra saw a couple of her friends in the crowd.  They were walking around with their bicycles.  After talking to them for a few minutes Sierra and her boyfriend decided to take off with their friends.  They said goodbye and kissed everyone on both cheeks, including me. Even though I had barely talked to him, Sierra’s boyfriend came up to me and hugged me and gave me two kisses on the cheek.  I was taken aback since it was the first time a boy had ever done that to me.  Sierra laughed at my reaction, “There’s no reason to be scared, it’s alright.”

“It’s fine, I’m sorry,” I blushed, “I’m just not used to it, we don’t really do things like that in Canada.”

Shortly after Sierra left Daniel, Corradino, and Gio decided that they were too old for the Labour Day concerts.  They were all in their early thirties and they were quite a bit older than everyone else who looked to be in their early twenties, my age group.  I was reluctant to leave but I didn’t want to be left alone in that chaotic scene by myself.  So off we went back to the apartment in San Giovanni

Later that day Gio asked me if I wanted to go out for a drink.  I accepted and went downstairs with him.  Corradino had already settled into a table on the sidewalk outside of the restaurant and was taking a drag from his cigarette so we joined him.  Like typical Italians, Gio and Corradino smoked, a lot!  Corradino had a coral red drink in front of him, Gio asked me if I would like the same.

“What is it?” I asked.

“It’s called The Spritz, it’s from Venice,” Gio explained.

“Sure,” I decided, “Why not.”

I had tried so many new things earlier this day, it only seemed reasonable to keep going and expand my taste buds.

Gio walked over to the bar and in a few minutes he came back with two wine glasses in his hand with the same drink as Corradino’s.  I sipped at the substance thoughtfully and although I had mixed feelings towards the drink, I kept consuming it.   For those of you that don’t know what the Spritz is, it’s an aperitif typically composed of white wine, Aperol, or a Bitter Campari, with a dash of seltz or sparkling mineral water.   The bubbly sensation from the sparkling water and the flavour of the white wine felt grand, yet at the same time I tasted a hint of bitterness and it took some time to warm up to the taste.  Nevertheless, I was a good sport and kept sipping away at it and like many alcoholic beverages, the more that went down my throat, the easier it became to consume.  By the time I finished the first drink the boys offered to buy me a second.

“Sure,” I replied once more, “Why not!”

There I was on this lovely street in San Giovanni, close enough to the excitement of Rome, but at the same time I was removed from the hysteria and cheap tourist thrills, I was living in pure Italian authenticity that no amount of money can buy.  There were people eating and drinking slowly, sitting leisurely conversing whilst smoking, it was the sort of experience that one dreams of being a part of while seeing scenes of Italian life in pop culture.

As we were sitting and enjoying our Spritz and talking, this gentleman carrying a hoard of roses walked around to all the diners sitting outside, trying to get them to buy his flowers.  It reminded me of being back home in a nightclub, where the same immigrants come every weekend to sell roses to obscenely drunk buffoons who’ve had their share of thrills for the night.  But Gio and Corradino were not drunken idiots; when the man came and started heckling us to buy his flowers, Gio merely stuck his hand up to silence the man and, without even looking at him, said, “Ciao, grazi!” What a brilliant statement, what a marvelous phrase.  With that, the gentleman shrugged off this rebuff and went off to heckle other patrons.  And that is the story of how I learned how to tell hecklers, homeless people, and gypsies in Italy to “Fuck off” in Italian.

For the rest of my trip I used that phrase generously.  Putting up a hand and saying in a stern manner, “Ciao grazi!” whenever someone strange asked me for money or got up in my space.  In fact, I used it so much that when I was back home and crazies and homeless people heckled me, I had to restrain myself from saying “Ciao grazi!” and instead had to re-learn to say “No, sorry” in English and/or merely walk by in silence.

I was thoroughly amused by the whole evening and as I got deeper into my second Spritz, it was obvious that the alcohol was starting to affect me.  I was more boisterous than before and was also more bold.

I noticed that Corradino wore a ring on his left ring finger so I finally asked him about, “Hey Corradino! Are you married?”

“No,” he responded with a laugh at having been asked such an unusual question.

“Well then why do you have a ring on your left hand?” I asked clutching my drink with one hand and pointing at his ring with the other, “Do you have a girlfriend then?”

“No I don’t have a girlfriend.  I don’t know, I just like to wear it that way.”

“Well you better be careful,” I joked, “Some women will see that ring and they won’t come after you because they’ll think that you’re married.” Having said that I grinned bashfully and took another sip at my drink.

As I was loosening up and letting the alcohol go through me, the boys thought it was hilarious to see me in this new light.

“Amie,” Gio warned wagging a finger at me playfully, “You have to be careful with the Spritz. You’re getting crazy now.”

With that Gio and Corradino laughed at me and my blushing face.  I laughed too and blushed some more as I kept sipping my Spritz.

As we neared the end of our second round of Spritz, Gio asked me, “Amie, would you like to try real authentic gelato?”

I immediately perked up at the mention of such a suggestion.  “Would I ever!” I responded with a big grin.

“Great, I’ll asked Daniel if he wants to come,” with that Gio went upstairs to the apartment and in a few minutes returned once more with Daniel by his side.  From there we walked quite a ways to this gelateria but once I got there I realized that it was worth the walk.

The gelateria is called Petrini and its on Piazza dell’Alberone.

“This is the best gelato in Rome,” Gio told me upon arriving.

Coming from someone who grew up in Rome, I knew that this wasn’t a statement to be taken lightly.  I tried three flavours in a cup, it cost a euro per flavour, so three euro for the whole thing, which is quite reasonably priced.  Even though I had money to pay for my gelato, Gio still paid for it, just as he had for the two Spritz I drank.

One of the flavours I tried was a lemon cream and it was the most delicious thing I’ve ever tasted.  It was creamy with a bold lemon flavour that was just the right amount of tart and sweet.  Every now and then when I think back to Gelateria Petrini, I think of the lemon cream and salivate with desire, it was that good!  I also haven’t encountered any other gelateria in Rome that had a lemon cream flavour and it made me realize how special and unique Petrini really was.

After ordering our gelato we sat on the sidewalk in front of the gelateria and happily ate our gelato.  As we were eating our wonderful and delectable bites of heaven, we got onto the topic of university.  I was in the middle of my studies and I talked about how unfair it was that in Canada we have to spend so much money just to go to university.  I asked the boys what university was like in Italy.  They told me that public universities are free in Italy however, if you go to a private university, you have to pay for it.  I asked what the difference was between the two.  They told me that in a private university you are almost always guaranteed a job at the end of your studies, whereas in a public university you do not have that guarantee.  Before I came to Italy I had never heard of the concept of private and public university.  In Canada we have private and public schools, but all of our universities are “public” but you have to pay a lot of money to attend these places so they are “public” to a certain point.  At the same time our higher education system does border on exclusivity and bureaucratic privilege that not everyone has.  I found it strange that Italy has a system where higher up privileged individuals can gain an upper hand in higher education, yet at the same time the system is open and free for the general public at large.  It was a strange and contradictory concept that puzzled me.

Eventually after conversing about the higher education systems in our countries, we got to the end of our gelato.

“Well I’m going to have some more,” Gio declared, “Would you like some more Amie?”

“Sure,” I responded, “Why not?”

So we walked back into the gelateria and ordered some more.

“You have to try this flavour,” Gio pointed at the orange chocolate gelato, “You cannot miss out on it, it’s so good.”

I’m not one for orange and chocolate together but I gave it a go to appease him.  Again Gio paid for my gelato, he was such a gentleman that night.

I tried the orange gelato and tasted alright but again I’m not an orange with chocolate type of person so I wasn’t as blown away by it as I was by the lemon cream.  After having two helpings of gelato I was completely gelato-ed out.  We weren’t the only ones who were enamored with the shop.  The whole time we sat there, there were people constantly coming and going into the shop, always a good sign that a place is worthwhile, when it’s constantly busy.

Walking back to the apartment I was completely exhausted, but in a good way.  I got to eat enjoy so much amazing Italian food and drink in an authentic way that isn’t experienced by many.  I felt special and lucky to have such an amazing couchsurfing host, like Gio, to offer me a place to stay with friendly roommates in a beautiful and somewhat central neighbourhood, who was so generous and giving.  It was with a heavy heart that I went to bed that night realizing that it would be the last night I would spend in this amazing flat with such amazing people.  I was especially going to miss Daniel and his gorgeous face.  He was so handsome and attractive, I wanted him to have me that night, right then and there as he showed me his collection of vinyl records that was amassed in his bedroom.  But like a scared puppy I ran off shy and bashful to bed, when he told me that he was going to sleep and I should probably go.  It was for the best anyways that I didn’t make a move on him.  A few days later I texted him telling him that I thought he was cute and he never responded.  I guess it was never meant to be.

In my next post: How I went from one adventure to the next.  From saying goodbye to my first couchsurfing host to starting my 21 day intensive study tour in Rome.


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