Shopping in Cinque Terre

View of roof-top Vernazza (Cinque Terre) and the Mediterranean from our room.

I am aware that I often blog about cultural difference. Since I am making confessions this bright-blue-sky Sunday morning, I will also admit that I talk, at considerable length, about this theme when my mind ought to be on other things, like my work or the US Primary race. (Political systems are also anthropological constructs but I am “primaried” right out even though the election is still more than a year away.) The thing is that I am endlessly, irrationally fascinated by the ways in which people are different from each other, and the ways in which we are same, and how we have developed as “peoples” which is to say in communities, cultures and civilizations. DP commented recently that I am an anthropologist and I believe he is right.

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines anthropology as “the science of human beings; especially: the study of human beings and their ancestors through time and space and in relation to physical character, environmental and social relations, and culture.”

Actually, my field is applied anthropology and the whole world is my classroom.

One of our favourite travel destinations, thus far (and I am not going to say San Miguel de Allende although I adore that precious little Mexican town) is called Cinque Terre (pronounced CHINK-weh TAY-reh) comprised of five small, medieval towns hanging off the cliffs of the Italian Riviera, directly across the Mediterranean from Barcelona.

I like Rick Steves’ description:
“The rugged villages of the Cinque Terre, founded by Dark Age locals hiding out from marauding pirates, were long cut off from the modern world. Today the villages, linked by a milk-run train, a ferry, and a spectacular trail, draw hordes of hikers. To preserve the character of the towns and the area’s natural beauty, the government declared the Cinque Terre a national park a few years ago. Visitors pay a small entrance fee, which stokes a park maintenance fund and helps to maintain the trails.” From:

Last Christmas, a trip to the Cinque Terre formed the second leg of our “Wow! I LOVE Italy!” Italian vacation. We took the train up from Florence and spent five cold but deliciously starry nights falling in love with Vernazza, the smallest of the towns, and our home base in the Cinque Terre. From the main street of town – which starts up at the post office, dips under the train station and ends in the sea – the mythic journey to our rented room took us 119 precarious steps up into the sky. I was literally shaking the first time we did the walk to our room and DP probably had my bag. By the end of our stay, however, my legs were no longer trembling and the muscles in my bottom were harder than they have ever been in my life; still, we made no unnecessary trips up to the room. Forgot your camera in the room? No worries! Just use the other person’s!

One of my favourite things about the Cinque Terre is the train route that connects the five towns. For much of the two-minute trip from one town to another, the train travels inside a tunnel but, periodically, the train shoots out into the dazzling sunlight and the sunlight is reflected by the sea and the dizzy train passengers declare, “Ahhhh” as in the sound that is made every year by a million people, their heads tilted back, watching the Canada Day fireworks in Ottawa. Then, without warning, the train plunges back into the darkness of the mountain.

Riomaggiore, Manarola and Monterosso del Mar were, as Rick promised, beautiful variations on a theme and, within two days of our arrival, I was able to identify Monterosso as the town with the greatest ceramic bowl buying potential. We never did reach Corniglia (pronounced Cornelia), the Cinque Terre town nestled in a ridiculously high-home, 370 steps above the train station. I am fairly certain that the pirates never made it to Corniglia either! (To put this journey in perspective, it has three times as many steps as the pyramid at Chichen Itza in Mexico and is probably not much safer.) We will take the little shuttle bus next time.

It was late December. I wore, as always, my MEC shell and my heavy MEC fleece and was was toasty-warm (especially by step 100). There were no “throngs” of tourists in late December… there may have been a grand total of 15 foreign travelers staying in the little town of 600 residents. The food was amazing; the seafood was beyond fresh and we learned that the Cinque Terre is the home of pesto. We slept late in the mornings and took photographs and wrote in our journals and explored the little towns and their harbours. We were especially tickled by a town in which the people living on the main street had parked their boats (not cars) in front of their houses. We ate the most incredible take-out pizza – the real Italian “Margherita” deal – out of the box in our ramshackle room and licked our fingers clean. I forgot that I was a teacher and became, instead, a private citizen of the universe.

The great news is that we are returning to the Cinque Terre in early December but this time, to make things really interesting, we are taking nine students from our school: four 8th grade girls, one 8th grade boy and four 9th grade boys. No… this is not a punishment of some kind. It was my idea! I am running the “Travel Club” as an after-school activity this year and D. is chaperoning with me. We all meet on Monday afternoons after school and plan the trip: the destination, the flight, the food/restaurants, our itinerary… all of it. We are also learning together and our topics include a digital photography workshop, basic Italian words and phrases and tips for traveling in Italy. It’s such a cool idea that we have had other teachers and parents say, “Can I come too?” (We are pretty sure they are kidding).

Last Monday, we were talking about food that is indigenous to the Italian region of Liguria: wine, olives, pesto and anchovies. The kids were brainstorming lists of the kind of meals that might be served at local restaurants and sharing their ideas. I was amazed by the kids’ response to this activity; it felt just like Christmas morning as the students read off their lists of anticipated meals. A hand shot up – a hand belonging to a girl who had really REALLY wanted to go to Milan for the shopping. We are, in fact, flying into Milan on a late-night flight but will be leaving on a (very) early morning train to the Cinque Terre the following day.

Is this going to be a shopping question, I wondered. “Yes?”

“Miss, is it okay if we buy a REALLY big cheese?” Her arms flew up into the air where they formed an enormous lop-sided circle.

“Sure. If you can find one.”

“Cool.” Four Spanish girls nodded their heads in unison and dreamed of the really big cheese.

This is a cultural difference to love.

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