A couple of months after finishing school, and turning 18, I got on a flight headed to Milan where I met the family I would spend the next 8 months working for (and becoming part of). Butterflies filled my stomach and I was terrified, excited and so ready to hop straight on a flight back home, but I persevered and in turn, was rewarded with finding my own little slice of Italian paradise.
In October 2012, I began my job as an au pair for a lovely little Italian family, I had dreamed of a life in continental Europe with all the cliches attached: riding my bike everywhere, knowing everyone in the neighbourhood, buying fresh bread each morning and eating pasta like it was going out of style. I found that life. Cremona was where I lived for 8 months; working, exploring and learning how to speak Italian.
I loved living in a city which encompassed so many different cultures but was small enough to use only bikes to get around (the whole historic centre was pedestrianised) and everyone knew everyone. There were grey haired men playing chess at the picnic tables in the park every evening, ladies cycling home with a babe on each end of their bikes, tour groups looking up in awe at Europe’s largest brick bell tower while students from the violin makers academy tackled their projects in the workshops visible from the streets. Music drifted out of open windows as I cycled around the city; choirs rehearsing, violinists performing and pianists practicing; it always felt like the city was buzzing with sound and music with buskers on almost every corner. I got involved by joining a choir made up of mainly Italians but we sang in seven different languages (including English) and performed in beautiful ancient churches and chapels at the weekends. My choirmaster was named Gloria and lived up to that name by her joyful conducting and everlasting commitment to translating every word of an Italian song into English for me in case I didn’t understand.
Each morning I would take the boys to school, stop on the way home at the bakery for a practice of my conversational Italian and to pick up a bag of the local delicacy: foccacini (which can really only be described as a ‘little bite of heaven’ or more accurately some sort of savoury bread donut), then I’d head to language school with my classmates made up of 14 different nationalities, before exploring the city in the afternoon by bike or meeting a friend before work began. I’d then go and pick up one of the boys, we’d play in the park for a few hours before picking up his brother and going home. Pasta was usually on the menu for dinner along with some kind of sauce. I loved all the little cultural quirks; like how each sauce had a specific shape of pasta that went with it, or how every Sunday was pizza night and rather than picking up a takeaway pizza hot, the family would buy the pre made slices from the take out shop raw and cook it at home, relishing that it wasn’t soggy and cold by the time it reached us (actually a pretty good system!). How everyone rode their bikes no matter what the weather was like, how there was always something random going on; like a water polo flashmob or a vast lego exhibition or a herd of horses gallivanting around the park. It was honestly a wonderful place to be.
Weekends consisted of an assortment of random things; usually a dinner party with friends, a bike ride or long walk to watch the sunset in the park by the side of the River Po, a snowball fight if it was winter and always some sort of Gelato! The Italians are obsessed with their gelato I tell you – even in temperatures as low as -9, they would still be eating a big ol’ cone of gelato in the parks. I had a fun group of friends in Cremona; some were violin makers, others language assistants at schools and even another au pairs. We’d meet up and sip tea catching up on the week’s events, sharing stories about work, host families or students while also exploring new parts of the city or having multi-lingual guitar jam or harry potter marathons at someone’s apartment.
I just loved the way of life there and how carefree it felt to be able to live in a place where everything was so close. I miss how simple it was there; how Italians take great pleasure in the small intricacies of life that make us happy; something we could all learn from. Meals were an occasion and never to be missed. My host father used to get up an hour before he needed to leave for work in order to cycle in to the city and get an espresso with his friends at a local cafe; they’d chat for about an hour and then he’d hop in the car for his hour commute to work. My host mother would leave the roses outside on the tables until all the petals had fallen. They took great pride in family, fresh food and taking time to enjoy the simple things. I loved how much emphasis they put on the little details that make up everyday life.
I lived through the four seasons in my 8 months there; arriving in the autumn as the leaves were turning brown and red, witnessing the heaviest snowfall I’d ever seen in winter, beautiful pink blossoms in the spring and hot sticky summer days where all you want is an ice cream cone and a swim in some sort of body of cold water! I feel like it was the first place besides London (where I grew up), that I became independent and made a home and a little life for myself. Everyone was so passionate about their lives and to be living in a place like Cremona.
To truly experience a visit to Cremona, you must wake up early while the bakery bread is still warm, grab some to go and sit on the cathedral steps people watching, groups of retired men come to meet each other there and it makes for some fun eavesdropping, once the Torazzo opens, buy a ticket and climb to the top taking in views across the city before the climb back down. Next, grab one of the city’s bike rentals and cycle out to the river side and perhaps even across the bridge to explore the cycle trails that lead to hidden restaurants and villages. Your evening should be spent in the one of the alleyways off the main square sipping a glass of wine and enjoying the views of the historic buildings all around you and then sampling some authenic Italian pizza. Just soak up the city and life in a traditional Italian town.
I loved my time there and wish to return, to see the friends who live there and revisit old haunts. It’s true I guess, that I left my heart in Cremona.
This post was written to enter in Get Your Guide’s #Ileftmyheartin competition – But also it was lovely to reminisce about my time in Italy.