I managed to fly out to Milan on Thursday in between all the ash chaos. I’m not staying in Milan, though. The competition I’m participting in is in a small town about the size of Sligo or Athlone, about half an hour’s drive from the Swiss border. Needless to say, getting here on public transport was… an experience. Most people here don’t speak very good English and some get downright irate at the notion of speaking anything other than solo Italiano. I got a bus from the airport, a metro to the north and then a regional bus further north again. The bus stop for the last bus was a pole, nothing more, lying against a wall. I walked past it four times until some people gathered and I figured that it must be the stop. Sigh!
I have no good pictures of the nice little square of the town because – and I’m not exaggering (oh, I wish!) – it has been cloudy with intermittent torrential rain ever since I got here. Yesterday was the best day yet so, when I was finished with my appointment in the morning to try out the competition piano for a few minutes, we went to the nearby city of Como. It is about the size of Cork and very famous for its lake. With all the rain recently, there’s been a lot of flooding along the prom.
We walked through the city and all through the market. It has a very large market for everything from wellies to wallets and it attracts a lot of people from Switzerland when the exchange is good. So it was funny to hear a lot of Swiss German all of a sudden. The market takes place on the border of the old town. The old part of the city is very well preserved and also a very upmarket place to shop. We just went to look. In the middle is a spectacular cathedral.
This is only a tiny part of it. At the front beside the door in, there is a statue of the man who documented the eruption of Vesuvius and destruction of Pompeii. I can’t remember his name but he was born in Como. Inside, there are many tapestries that were woven by local women during the last millennium depicting scenes from the Bible. They were really faded so I didn’t want to take a photo but they were huge and very detailed.
Erminia, my “host mother”, showed me a shop that sold Como silk. Apparently the place is very famous for its quality of woven silk fabric. They don’t grow it here, they just weave it. They sell it to the big Italian design houses and there were many spectacular Valentino ties for sale. I explained to Erminia how most Irish men simply cannot wear ties like that. She looked sad at the very idea. She brought me up the wee train that goes up the mountain so we could see across the lake into Switzerland.
Close by is a lighthouse in memory of Alexandre Volta, also born in Como, who figured out the Volt. The lighthouse shines green, white and red at night…
The host family I am staying with are great. It’s a quiet house with a piano and I can practice as much as I want, so long as it’s not in the middle of the night. I was concerned about the cooking arrangement because I have allergies and really didn’t want to be annoying, but Erminia insisted that she cook and we all eat together. Lunch and dinner consist of many small courses, especially dinner. Typically you have pasta or rice first, then the meat (by itself), then cheese, then fruit, then dessert, then coffee. Friday night, we had company and a local licquer emerged, called grappa. The skins of of grapes that were used for wine are fired in a kiln and left to ferment. Often it is fermented with blueberries and lemon or orange.
Needless to say, they are very proud of their local produce and have made it their mission for me to taste the local cheeses they like best. Yesterday, I was presented with a whole ball of mozzarella from their local mountain, made from buffalo milk. You put oil and salt all over it and cut it up into tiny pieces. Delicious – but a bit strange! Another favourite so far is gorgonzola. Very like Cashel Blue only creamier, almost like a cream cheese. Because I couldn’t eat it with bread, I was given walnuts as the only sensible alternative. Again, strange, but delicious.
I play tomorrow morning and have spent most of today practising and listening to the others play. I find out Tuesday evening if I get into the next round. If I get in, I play again on Thursday or Friday with orchestra. Then the final is on Sunday. If I don’t get through, I will probably come home on Thursday. This gives me time to listen to most of the others in the first round. I have much more news and funny things to tell but they’ll wait until tomorrow when I’m finished. Ciao!