Sunday, 4 November 2012

La dolce vita

We have spent a lot of time at airports and on airplanes, these past couple of years. As a transnational couple living in a third country, we have to get on a plane whenever we want to visit our families. We also have to take the plane for work (research and conferences) and holidays, as travelling overland from Norway to other European countries is generally much more expensive and time-consuming than flying. As a result, travelling by plane has long lost its appeal, as have airports. I prefer travelling by train, not only for environmental reasons, but also because I find it much less stressful. But alas, there are no fast trains connecting our current home city with other cities, so if we want to travel abroad we have little choice but to fly.

We could of course spend more time travelling in Norway. It is a beautiful country, after all, and we still have not seen much of it. But for all the good things of Norway, there are some important things we miss there: fresh and tasty vegetables, affordable restaurants and bars, hot and sunny weather, and, of course, our friends living in other countries. Hence, we do want to travel abroad every now and then.

In contrast to most other airports, the coffee at Florence International Airport tastes good and is fairly cheap. I enjoy a last cup of cappuccino. The café is noisy and crowded, but we have a great view of the planes, landing and departing against the background of the Tuscan mountains. We have just spent a wonderful autumn holiday in Italy, and are now waiting for our plane back to Oslo. After ten days of soft sunlight, fresh pasta, rolling hills with vineyards, impressive renaissance art and delicious gelato, our batteries are charged, and we are ready for Norway’s dark season.

Our trip started in Rome, where we attended a friends’ wedding. We had been to Rome before, and have many good memories of the place. It was good to come back. The wedding was great – the mass took place in a lovely little church in Ostia Antica, followed by a dinner party somewhere in the countryside – and we were happy to see our old friends. We also spent a relaxed day in Rome, visiting the Colosseum and strolling around the Palatine (where I got a spontaneous eureka-moment, and decided to change the structure of my dissertation), and enjoying some nice food.

After three nights in Rome, we took the train to Tuscany. We had rented an apartment near the town of Empoli, halfway between Pisa and Florence, at a place called Villa Somelli. The apartment was basic, but fine, and wonderfully quiet (it was low season, after all). The surrounding landscape was magnificent: rolling hills with vineyards, olive trees, patches of woodland and blue skies. It was sunny most of the time, and around twenty degrees, so we could still enjoy the outside swimming pool. Here we spent a long week with my family, to celebrate my parents’ fortieth wedding anniversary.

Boarding time. In addition to my backpack, I carry two transparent plastic bags, each filled with three bottles of wine. I get many strange looks. "If you need help with that, just let me know," a Canadian tourist jokes. I try to explain that I am not allowed to open the sealed bags because of security reasons, but he does not seem to understand what I am saying. Thinking that he has found a fellow alcohol-lover, he starts talking about the great port wine he had the other night. I try to explain the reality of life in Norway: how we can’t buy wine in the supermarket, as only state-owned liquor stores are allowed to sell it; how these stores are closed on evenings, on Saturday afternoons, Sundays and Saturdays preceding religious holidays; how the cheapest bottle there costs about twelve euros. He looks at me pityingly, then tells me that, in his country, one can buy delicious local wine for less than five dollars a bottle. Canadian wine…?

He is not the only one interested in my bottles, though. When we get off the airplane in Frankfurt, the stewardesses look at my bottles eagerly. "Was hast du heute Abend vor...?" one of them asks me, somewhat inappropriately. Apparently, for some people the mere suggestion of alcoholic overconsumption is enough to forget decorum. I cannot help smiling. Importing a few bottles of chianti turns out to be quite an ordeal.

We could have easily spent a week at the swimming pool and in the kitchen, enjoying the landscape, autumn sun and fresh food, not really doing anything. But this was the first time we were in Tuscany, and we had rented cars, so we made a lot of day trips. We spent two days in crowded Florence, where we visited the Galleria Uffizi, walked in the historical city centre and the not-so-touristy-yet-very-pretty neighbourhoods south of the river, and bought nice clothes. We went to the lovely walled town of Lucca, where we climbed a tower and visited an excavation site. We also went to the mysterious hilltop town of Volterra, the strange medieval skycrapers of San Gimignano, and of course the tower of Pisa. We had a delicious dinner in Greve in Chianti, and explored beautiful Sienna, with its extraordinarily richly decorated cathedral. And we ate lots of ice cream.

When we arrive in Oslo, it is already dark. It is about twenty degrees colder than Tuscany. Before long, the year’s first snow will fall, and we will struggle to stay awake during long, dark afternoons. The contrast is striking. But then, the grass is always greener on the other side. And we only have to endure the darkness for about two months – in January, we will take an extended ‘working holiday’, spend a couple of months in a faraway country, and continue writing our dissertation (respectively thesis) there. Thus, for the time being, we will keep on travelling, moving from place to place, and dividing our time between different countries. More planes, more airports, and more passport stamps. But I am not complaining. I am grateful I can travel, and get to know many different places. I am glad I am one of those people with multiple homes.

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