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Denise Otero, founder of online based travel and tour company Your Friend In Italy, met me for a chat and coffee at Caffe San Carlo to tell me all about her life in Italy and her transition from European Tour Manager for a London based company, to travel and tourism web entrepreneur based in Turin.
American born Denise had always had a passion for Italy, spending nearly three years of her life immersed in an Italian love affair with Venice, but homesickness and personal issues forced her to return to the States. However, her fascination with Italian culture, its people and lifestyle led her, some years later, to return to base herself here once more.
So, why Turin? She tells me that this was quite by accident. As part of an orientation trip to the Slow Food Headquarters in Bra, she explains that an introduction to Turin city centre was not included in the itinerary – only a trip to the airport! Due to fly out from Turin at 8pm that evening with a whole day of time to kill beforehand, the participants mentioned to the organisers that it would be a shame to leave Piedmont without seeing its capital, and so a van was laid on to take them on an orientation tour of the city.
Denise was immediately smitten with the splendour of the historical cafes Al Bicerin and Fiorio, the opulent grandeur of Piazza San Carlo, the magnificent arcades and the elegant Baroque architecture and porticos…She was struck by the contrast with other Italian cities. Even though it is a tourist destination, it hasn’t lost its character, she says. Turin offers a truly authentic experience. It reminds her of a miniature Paris but with less traffic and noise (and less tourists). She once loved living in frenetic New York and London but finds Turin life much more laid back and less chaotic. With opera, theatre, exhibitions and a regular calendar of festivals on the doorstep it’s the perfect place to live. Another plus is that there are lots of pedestrian areas which some other Italian cities lack. Turin and Piedmont in general have a more unspoilt feel and she loves the gently rolling landscape and vineyards of the Langhe.
So, a move back to Italy combined with setting up her own online business must have been a no- brainer? Denise says she had always dreamt of setting up her own business as a Travel Consultant to help others discover a more authentic Italy. Prior to coming back to Italian shores, she was trying her luck in the UK. After all, she had years of experience behind her in corporate sales and marketing, a Masters degree in Tourism under her belt and new experience in this industry; these were the years prior to 2008 before the global financial crisis began to spiral out of control but the signs were already clearly there.
She explains that in many ways her hand was forced – set up online now or consider moving back to the States to start anew there. Not one to forgo a challenge, and because she knew she wanted to stay on this side of the pond for many reasons, she opted to finally take the plunge, follow her passion and Your Friend in Italy was born.
The concept behind Your Friend In Italy is exactly that – like collaborating with a friend - Denise is a friendly, bubbly and outgoing woman who immediately puts you at your ease. She has the look of someone you can trust and after launching at the Olympia Show ‘Dolce Vita’ in the UK in 2007, ironically, it was the American independent travellers and fun-seekers with high disposable incomes and with very limited time to organise a holiday, who came to her.
As she points out, the Americans in particular like the reassurance of everything being organised; they don’t like leaving things to chance and they are willing to pay for their holiday to go smoothly and to get the most out of their limited holiday time. The British instead, generally travel more, in contrast to their American cousins, and are more likely to organise their own trips, taking the rough with the smooth, but generally go to Denise for more specialised trips or events such as: a glamorous birthday party bash in Sorrento, a tailor made cycling holiday, a study tour for a group of Medical professionals to Rome or a wedding and honeymoon in Venice or Florence.
To find out more about Denise’s services go to www.yourfriendinitaly.com and you can keep up to date with what’s going on in Italy on the Your Friend in Italy Facebook fan page. Just click ‘Like’!
Sandra Gibbins’ self-determination and entrepreneurial and fiercely independent spirit has taken her on a journey down a varied and memorable career path in over thirty years living in Turin. London born and originally trained as a nurse, life took an unexpected but not completely unpredictable turn one cold, grey November morning in 1970 as she stepped off the train at Porta Nuova. Intending to stay just a few weeks with family friends and working as an English Language Teacher, Turin wove its magic spell and Sandra is still here today. I caught up with her at a talk she was giving about her life to the International Women’s Club in Turin…
Over thirty years ago, Sandra says, Turin was a vastly different place to the one it is today. Once better known for its industrial might, strict work ethic and almost Victorian conservatism that took root in middle class sitting rooms and largely defined local culture, it was a shock for the young woman brought up in multi-cultural London with a deeply engrained autonomous streak. Perhaps it was a surprise she stayed; but it should come as no great surprise that Sandra (along with her Italian husband) pioneered to inject some avant-garde verve and frivolity into local culture through English Language learning. This became hugely popular with left-wing intellectuals keen to try out new ideas and adopt some of the trends already rooted in some education systems abroad.
The almost revolutionary Christopher Robin Nursery School opened in the Collina district of Torino in 1972. Set in a villa it covered two spacious floors and included a garden outside teeming with plants and shrubs and trees to climb. Plenty of opportunity for doing childishly artistic stuff with soil and sand was also to hand for the little ones enrolled. Sandra and her husband employed trained and experienced nursery school teachers from the UK. All activities were in English and the emphasis was on learning through fun, games and entertainment with a well-deserved nap in the afternoon before home time. Many famous left-wing intellectuals enrolled at the school. In the 1970s, during the years of tense political activism, many parents left their children at the school and then went off to occupy university buildings. She also remembers a two-year old Giovanni Agnelli coming to look around with his parents, delicately kissing her hand as he greeted her and as manners and etiquette had taught him.
Sandra reminisces that these were some of the best times of her life. However, the school was not without its controversies. Many parents, despite their liberal leanings, didn’t like the idea of their children getting their carefully chosen threads dirty at playtime and Sandra recalls how they had to dust off soil and bits of twig, and scrub grass stains off trouser knees before delivering the little ones to their parents. Others disliked the school because they said it didn’t go far enough in its liberal approach to language learning…
Unfortunately, Sandra and her husband were forced to close the school doors for the last time 10 years later. She admits that they weren’t business-minded enough and spent most of the profits on the equipment.
Now, of course, Torino has lost much of its grey, industrial image and tempered its conservatism while the Italian state school system and other private nurseries have adopted some of the interactive and fun approach to language learning that Sandra first pioneered locally.
These days, after many memorable and productive years working in the Italian state school system herself, as well as for San Paolo Bank, and the University of Turin, Sandra works as a language consultant at her son’s language school Globenglish in via Saluzzo, 4. Here the emphasis is on keeping class sizes to a maximum of six, careful pricing and a home from home environment in which to learn. In fact, the school is so relaxing and homely I warned Sandra that I might be moving in! The decor is light with warm coloured tones, dark oak desks and coffee tables, transparent, moulded plastic chairs, deep, comfy sofas and home style light fittings instead of the usual standard white walls, grey plastic tables and strip lighting that furnishes so many private language schools. You can even pop round for a cup of tea and nibbles at their monthly evening social event. If you are interesting in signing up for the event you can go to the Globenglish Facebook page. For courses go to www.globenglish.it or contact firstname.lastname@example.org
C/Orto Urbano is a short documentary film directed by Luca Lanni and his team of filmmakers and actors for a local festival called Assaggi Doc and sponsored by MunLab, Regione Piemonte, Provincia di Torino, Piemonte Movie and Strade di Colori e Sapori. They beat six other finalists to win first prize at the festival and recently attended the premier at MunLab’s main workshop, an eco-clay museum in Cambiano, used to promote local events and projects.
I met Luca and his sister-in-law Sonia Rossi to find out more…
The film, affectionately referred to as C/Orto, was the brainchild of Davide Toniolo, whose talents in both journalism and radio inspired him to add another genius to his list of skills, that of writing for documentaries.
Armed with the criteria for the film festival entrants, which was to produce a documentary about organic and sustainable living, Luca and Davide approached Comune di Chieri who had set up a project to turn disused wasteland into productive, community driven vegetable plots.
They asked the Comune if they could film some scenes there to promote the project, which was quickly accepted. The Comune had created space for a hundred vegetable plots lovingly tended by local enthusiasts with space also set aside for local school projects and for community service volunteers. The plots work much in the same way as a condominium. There is a manager and each plot owner has to cover expenses for such things as water and cutting the grass. At one hundred euros a year this is not bad!
And all the better, since tending a plot is indicative of support for a much wider cause: the desire for encouraging and strengthening social relationships and ties, the desire to go back to a simpler, more natural time when people where more in touch with the earth and nature’s natural cycles.
Luca and Sonia tell me that they had permission to film on the land but now they had to come up with a winning formula for the documentary…And here the genius was born that ultimately ensured they would be the winners of the Assaggi Doc competition. A story…
When I first saw the film, I didn’t want it to finish. It is only 15 minutes long but the story that unfolds is entertaining, absorbing, comical, touching, poignant…and at the same time, it is clear that through this story, a serious message is being conveyed.
Local actor Gabriele Bocchio plays the part of Artemio who, in the opening scene, is following a TV cookery show one Sunday and preparing the ingredients to make a quiche. On realising he will need more Tropea onions, the most important ingredient in the quiche and the symbolic element of the story, he despairs…Looking down at the newspaper wrapping for the eggs, he sees a local article about the vegetable plot project. A flash of inspiration hits at the thought of free Tropea onions and he cannily whizzes down to the plot. Armed with plenty of disdainful attitude about getting his shoes muddy and red Vespa dirty he is no match for the plot owners who cunningly advise him that to get his Tropea onions he’ll have to set to work on his own plot…in order to finish the quiche…
In all, Luca Lanni, Davide Toniolo, Gabriele Bocchio, Livio Ninni (photography and graphics), Sharlene and Loris Prospero (production and audio), Sonia Rossi (voiceover) and the vegetable plot owners may be filmmaking amateurs but this short documentary is slick, professional and packs a punch with its message.
I wish them the best for the future promotion of this film, because of the hard work they put into it and for the drive and dedication to local projects and sustainability that makes this an important piece to watch.
C/Orto Urbano will be online soon…
* Photos reproduced with kind permission by Luca Lanni
San Salvario, up and coming district in Torino, boasts a reasonably priced and stylish hotel with a broad appeal. Owner Tommaso (aka Tom) first opened Tomato’s doors at via Silvio Pellico,11 in November 2011.
Turin born but raised by parents who travelled regularly for a living, Tom’s inspiration for Tomato began to take shape while working around Europe to finance his own travels in his early twenties. Struck by the range and quality of low cost, backpacker style accommodation, particularly in Germany, he decided to challenge the often negative image this type of accommodation has in Italy, and opened his own place right in the heart of Torino.
The result is a light, bright, stylish, fun, informative, professional hotel with an informal, friendly vibe. Apart from resting tired heads, you can hang out with an international crowd in the breakfast area, sip local wines under the gazebo on the patio, grab a coffee and a pastry from the bar and use the PC.
Refer to the blackboards scattered throughout the downstairs area to plan your day – the one behind the reception desk tells you they can supply hairdryers, razors, shower caps, t-shirts, umbrellas, pillows, clothes hangers, quilts, adapters, kettles and alarm clocks.
You’ve also got plenty of suggestions for exhibitions: what’s on in San Salvario each evening, museums not to miss, wines that you simply must try and, of course, since this is Italy, land of cuisine that you simply must sample - recommendations for local eats.
However, if you need to, you also have the use of Tomato’s kitchen on the lower floor – and who can tell us who the man and woman are in the plaques on the far wall? Is the man Silvio Pellico himself?
Back upstairs, you can also rent bikes by the hour or for the day or simply slouch on the sofa and leaf through shelves stacked with novels, and plan your next trip by consulting Tom’s huge collection of Rough Guides.
I asked Tom where he had come up with the idea for the name Tomato. I didn’t see it at first, but it’s a play on words - Tom at Torino (Tom-a-To). He chose the word ‘backpackers’ for the informal, youthful atmosphere he wanted to create and ‘hotel’ to emphasis the fact that this is not simply for travellers, backpacking around on a budget but it has a much broader appeal, with business people, band members and theatre companies having all enjoyed Tom and staff Annalisa and Ben’s hotel hospitality.
In fact, so successful has the hotel been that Tom is already looking to expand in the San Salvario area. His pet project is sustainability and so he chose the new windows and heating system with this in mind. Through a project called ‘eco-label’ he also plans to eliminate the plastic used for the toiletries and the breakfast jam containers and biscuit wrappers with the ultimate aim to have a functioning hotel that produces as little rubbish as possible.
Photos reproduced by kind permission of Tom, Annalisa & Ben at Tomato Backpackers Hotel
Flair is obviously something that Mark has in abundance, and not only in the workshop and on stage. Anyone who chooses to travel to South Africa from the UK on a container ship clearly has an eye for the unusual and creative.
Mark Charnley came to Turin just two years ago but has already made a big impression with his creative credentials as Cabinet Maker, Specialist Painter, Design and Restoration Services and…actor. With a background in Graphic Design from Northampton University, Mark spent his years prior to landing on Torinese turf working as a Kitchen Fitter for prestigious UK firm, Mills & Scott, specialising in hand-painted cabinets. Lucky enough to be born at the right point in history for honing his craft; Mark learned highly specialised techniques and tricks of the trade from a dying breed of traditionalist cabinet-makers, and now links that with the production of 3D graphics, giving the customer a highly professional impression of their final designs.
Creativity is something that Mark appears to have been born with. It courses through his veins with a passion and he confesses to me that when he’s working on a design project, he gets totally revved up with artistic vision, almost scaring his customers with his bursts of inspiration. Ideas pour forth for transforming an old, tired looking wooden cabinet into a Chinese crackle-glazed vision of sleek sophistication, and a rather serious looking wrought iron bed was brought happily back to life with delicate swirling motifs of vines and birds in subtle earthy colours. Mark can also do practical: DIY jobs don’t phase him, custom-built shelves – no problem, decorating – nothing to it.
Mark has also discovered the theatre. Not only did he create the hand-painted theatre backdrops, and do the graphics for the promo leaflets and posters for the English Theater Torino (ETT) production of Only Yew in December 2012, he also starred in one of the lead roles.
His newfound talent for treading the boards has taken him completely by surprise. It’s something he admits he would never have done if he had stayed in the UK; but a desire to meet new people and a few contacts later Mark found himself firmly ensconced at ETT and of course, found that he had quite a flair for it!
Contact Mark Charnley at: email@example.com
Rehearsals are getting well underway at English Theater Torino (ETT) where preparations for Little Red Riding Hood got off to a raucous start. Organiser Sally Rava has prepared an alternative take on the original story by peppering it with plenty of well-known songs to rouse the hopefully rowdy audience of children on October 5th.
The production will be put on for the Moms and Tots Group, part of the International Women’s Club Torino (IWCT). On Monday, there was some concern about how the weather may affect the casts’ voices in October. The set will be installed in the middle of the generous host’s garden, so they’re hoping that Indian Summer days will not send the audience fleeing for the shady trees on either side of the lawn, which means they’ll have to find even more energy to make those voices carry; they may well have to once the kids catch sight of The Big Bad Wolf, who was getting right into character during script reading on Monday!
There are over 20 active members of ETT including around 12 or so actors. The amateur theatre group though, is always on the lookout for enthusiastic theatre lovers who would love to join the cast or crew. On Monday, it emerged that they are in urgent need of a Woodsman (male or female) whose role it will be to save Little Red Riding Hood from the drooling jaws of The Big Bad Wolf.
It also came up that the lead male role in their big production of the year Blithe Spirit (written by Noel Coward) has recently transferred to Varese and so has had to step down from the role. This means that ETT is making a casting call for the role of socialite and novelist Charles Condomine who invites the unconventional clairvoyant Madame Arcati to his house to conduct a séance, in the hopes of gathering material for his next book…
If anyone would be interested in either part, you just need to have the enthusiasm and commitment to be able to attend rehearsals on Mondays and or Wednesdays…and a good ability in English. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org or simply turn up at rehearsals at Corso Casale 112 on Mondays 7.30-10pm or Wednesdays 7.30-10pm. However, before you do check the website www.englishtheatertorino.com before you venture out, as sometimes there are changes to the schedule.
Following closely after the success of “I Mille Volti del Piemonte, Crocevia tra Storia e Letteratura” by CRAL Sezione Visive della Regione Piemonte at Ufficio Relazioni con il Pubblico (URP) in via Arsenale, 14/g Torino, the VI Mostra d’Arte Figurativa ed Astratta was the third in a series of four exhibitions this year by the group of artists and ran from 5th-20th July at Palazzo della Giunta Regionale in Piazza Castello 165, Torino.
Curator and exhibition organiser Gianfranco Gavinelli, once again did an excellent job in presenting a rich mix of paintings and sculptures by local artists, which was free of charge to the public. I was lucky enough to be given a guided tour of the exhibition by Gavinelli himself whose commentary, observations and evident love for art brought the pieces vividly to life; even one of the security guards quipped how a commentary about the artists, their inspiration for the paintings and some guided information about their techniques, made you see the paintings from a completely different perspective.
Among some of my favourites during the tour were: Dede Varetto’s delicate charcoal and vibrant oil panels that had real “wow” factor and made their presence felt in the exhibition room for their size, use of colour and the sheer skill in producing such a life-like piece of her daughter. Family was also to be found in Rosa Prestigiacomo’s “Eleonora” and “Marilyn”. The earthy reds and yellows of the oils and pastels on canvas produced fresh, modern portraits of her daughter and the global icon.
For a summer theme, Natalia Alemanno’s “Castello a Licata”, a night scene using acrylics on canvas, and Sergio Bilucaglia’s “Minorca” brought back memories of Mediterranean holidays. “Riposo al Casolare” by Gianfranco Gavinelli evoked mental pictures of lazy summer afternoons. Two truly refreshing paintings, appropriate for a hot summer’s day, were Paola Porta’s dewdrop kissed “Orange” and “Red Apple”, both looking succulent enough to eat.
Umberto Zullo’s “Balconata sul Po”, “Autunno” and “Rustico” were a definite nod in the direction of Piedmont and a reminder that autumn is just around the corner… Autumn was also represented in Umberto Viapiano’s “Quiete all’Alba”, a stunning painting which was quite rightly chosen for the exhibition posters and leaflets.
On a more miscellaneous note, and demonstrating the open theme of the exhibition, Paola Targa’s “Cavalli nella Prateria” oil painting on canvas made you want to reach out and stroke the horses. Franca Pessone’s intricate “Viso di Donna Liberty” painted on ceramic was wonderful not only for its subject but also for the intricacy of workmanship and, we couldn’t fail to mention Nicoletta Pizzetti’s set of four still life paintings of three dimensional jugs, fruit and glasses that really brought the “life” back into the still life theme for their composition and vibrancy of colour.
We will also be fortunate enough to see CRAL Sezione Visive della Regione Piemonte return to exhibition space from 26th September, at Museo di Scienze Naturali di Torino. This time there’s a theme and the artists’ brushstrokes will be inspired by local subject matter: “Natura e Tradizione del Paesaggio Agreste Piemontese” (Nature and Tradition in the Rural Landscape of Piedmont). See you on 26th September.
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