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Basilisks and culture shock in Northern Italy

Last updated 10 November 2020

In Trentino in Northern Italy, there are stories from the distant past telling of a basilisk living in the mountains, the young man that went to kill it and the fertile land sprung up where its blood fell. This local legend is about one of the ruins that rises high above the village of Mezzocorona, our home for our first week in Italy.

Mezzocorona is in a valley not far from Trento, with the Dolomites rising high all around it. Renowned for its hiking trails, bike paths and wine, it seems like a pleasant place to spend a week. While the weather prohibits our outdoor activity, we experience full cultural immersion in Mezzocorona and every time we emerge from our lovely AirBnB apartment we have to put our Italian language skills to the test.

And it is a test for me. Learning Italian in a classroom situation hasn’t prepared me for North Italy, where people are more likely to speak German than English, and I find words leaving me when I least expect it. We struggle through buying groceries and ordering pizza, confused by the offer of plastic bags and the colloquial use of the word “subito” while any requests for “Inglese?” leave locals floundering in a state of panic.

Our language difficulties come to a head when we attempt to catch a local train and find ticket machine on the platform was out of order. Summoning all my composure, I walk over to the nearby café to see if I can buy a ticket there.

I hear the bell chime as I open the door. There’s a brief intake of breath and the chatter hushes, as heads turn to look at me. I hadn’t expected to be faced with an audience, but I open my mouth and my rehearsed question fell out into the perfect silence, in Italian – could I buy a ticket there, please? There’s a scramble as people try to explain (with no English, of course, but lots of hand gestures), that there’s a machine on the platform where I can buy tickets.

Somehow, I manage to explain it’s broken, and then understand that I need to talk to the conductor on the train. Leaving the café in a small state of shock, we sit on the platform and try to find the words to explain our problem to the conductor. He ends up being charming, smiling at my broken Italian and giving us tickets, by far the easiest part of our day.

Despite the occasional awkwardness, our week in Mezzocorona is good for us. We drink espresso overlooking the mountains, sample wine from local vineyards, and cook at home. We explore a bit further afield, visiting Verona and Trento. Mezzocorona is a lovely little town, but small, and we feel slightly uncomfortable in local spaces. Staying there, we learn how to talk in Italian first and English second.

And the Northern Italian countryside is beautiful, peaceful and quiet, with an intriguing mix of cultures. It gives us a chance to just be. But perhaps the most interesting thing about Mezzocorona is the fossilized dinosaur footprints found near the ruin, high in the hills. Perhaps there’s a bit of truth to those old stories after all.

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