From Milano to Natal… or from pizza & pasta to coconuts & feijoada!

It is my first week in Natal, but I still have the ‘smell’ of Milano on me.

My last days in Milano were so hectic, with back-to-back projects and me wanting to fit in as much as possible in very limited time. I am already missing the friends I made there. A lot. Living in Milano for almost 2 months brought new people to my life, new experiences, new skills, broadened up my horizons and enriched my vocabulary in many ways 🙂

I arrived in Milan with a vague idea about Italy, Italians & Italian stuff, and I fell in love. In love with the culture, the openness, the food, the coccole (hugs), the random bacini (kisses) given so openhandedly but also with the loud laughter, the accent of Italians speaking English, with lake Como, the favors, the cannoli, the coffee, the Milanese CrossFit community. I was lucky to cross paths with openhearted & open-minded persons, generous in every way.

I can now say that I finally started to grasp the differences between North and South Italians, although I still need to taste the ‘south’ cuisine to get the full picture. Yeap, I can now distinguish a scooter from a vespa (God forbid you mix those up!) and I can drink a coffee (i.e. an espresso shot) in 5” just like a proper Italian – although I still prefer a cappuccino!

Lunch-break workouts were my favorite and I had more pasta in a couple of months than I had during the whole 2015. I learned how to make pasta al dente and to appreciate the less complicated flavors, not mixing up too many ingredients. I’ve had home-made tortellini, loads of panettone and mascarpone, bresaola, prosciutto crudo and buffalo mozzarella, pomelo (not Italian, but it was here that I tried it for the first time in my life – thanks Sy!). I learned how to prepare the perfect moka-coffee from the night before – like a true Italian, but keep drinking it a big cup, like a true Greek!

I wandered in the streets of Milano, used all possible public transportation but also enjoyed driving my little Fiat 500 (hope no fines are waiting for me in NL, I now know I should not have entered the Area C zone, I’m so sorry! I won’t do it again, promise!). It was 2 very full months, not only full of delicious food, wine and coffee but also full of emotions, sweaty workouts, PRs, laughter and tears, new friends, hours of long conversations and deep thought… and as I am writing these lines, my thoughts go back to my beautiful flat at Via Stephenson, with the huge map on a wall in the living room where Valentina and Gabriele marked for me the must-visit CrossFit boxes although I didn’t get to visit as many as I would’ve wanted.

I spent my last night in Italy with the people that embraced me on my first days in Milano without whom none of this would have ever happened. It was Sasha that so spontaneously invited me to visit her during the Greek Throwdown where we met. One moment that changed my path and brought people in my life that will never be forgotten. Some things you can only see the significance of after those moments have passed… the way in which they marked your life, forever.

My sweet , Gianlu, Palmi-flex, Marianna and the whole CrossFit Darsena famiglia made me feel at home. THANK YOU, you are missed and will never be forgotten! J

My mind drifts to Milan to easily, but… hey! I’m wearing shorts and a tank top and the sun is shining and a nice breeze makes the heat bearable… this ain’t no Milano, I’m on the other side of this planet!

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Bom dia, Brasil!

A new chapter in the book of my life. A new adventure.

My flight left Milan on 21.1 at 12.21 for a 12-hour journey, which I found to be nice for no reason whatsoever. The first leg of my flight got me to Fortaleza International Airport, after a long 9-hour flight most of which I spent working. I got off the plane and waited for my flight to Natal to be announced while scrolling on my phone, responding to emails and chatting to friends when a girl came up to me and said “Excuse me, are you Ioanna?”. The last thing I would expect would be for someone to come up to me in freakin’ Fortaleza knowing my name, to say the least. I can only imagine the look I gave this girl, I was pretty shocked, hehe. A plain “Yes” was all I could say while staring at her completely dumbfounded. She gave me her brightest smile and said “I am Laura, I train at CrossFit Lambrate and I follow your blog!”. It is such a small world!! We spent the limited time we had chatting and although it was the first time we were actually talking, it felt like we just picked up a previous conversation. What a wonderful surprise, really 🙂

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So, I flew in Natal at around 20.30, got my luggage without any issues and passed all control, no problemos! I was afraid that maybe my supplements would cause trouble or the fact that I was entering the country without a return ticket. I was even making up stories in my mind of what I would tell the police in both cases, but there was no need to explain anything. It was a nice and relaxing welcome!

First things first, I needed money. Local currency, Reais. It was funny the message I got on the ATM screen before completing my transaction “We offer you very needed service. The fee for this transaction is 19,99 Reais. Would you like to complete the transaction?” hehe, say ‘No’ if you dare, that’s should be their closing line!

Diego, one of the owners of CrossFit Capim Macio had given me the heads up telling me I should not pay more than 120-150 Reais for the ride to the city and that I should negotiate to take the price down to 100, if possible. So, I walked out of the airport and up to the taxis determined to bargain! A lady standing there with a notebook at hand seemed to be in charge of the taxi drivers, so I asked her how much it would cost me to get a taxi to Capim Macio. When she said 85 Reais I just jumped in! No, I would not negotiate, too tired and too happy to get a ride home at such a good price already!

It took us around 40 minutes to get to the box where Diego was waiting for me with the key to my studio. Oh, that feeling of being among ‘your’ people… Priceless!

It was only 10pm local time, but for me it was 2am already and I was very tired from the trip so all I wanted was to go to bed. Gladly, the box is only 4 blocks away from my studio – which is a very big change from the 50’ it took me to get to the box in Milano, but hey, no complains! I had a great apartment 🙂

So here I was, my first day in Natal. I woke up at 5.30am and finished up what I had to deliver in the morning and then went off to the box. I thought no one would be training at 1pm given the heat and all, but the class was quite full! I was lucky enough to be invited to a midday pool-barbeque on my first day in Brazil, with the promise to hear lots of Brazilian music and taste one of the local specialties, feijoada – a stew of beans with beef and pork. Would YOU say no to that?

I enjoyed the afternoon so much! A bunch of smiling faces singing, dancing and making jokes (which I couldn’t understand, still it was funny to be part of it) was the best intro to Brazil! I was still jetlagged so I was more laid back and watched them, trying to grasp the basics of the language, the rhythms, the flavors. I love the feeling of tasting a new food having an absolutely new flavor hit you! Eyes wide open and all your senses try to understand what it is you are eating! Feijoada was one of those foods. At first I couldn’t tell if I liked it or not, but yes, it was good and when combined with rice and farofa, another local carb (this looks like yellow flour and is cooked with butter and bacon) and fine-cut tomatoes, the combination was delicious! Add some beer and music to the picture and all you have is FUN! Have a peak… this is the Brazilian way!

I also learned how to dance the basic part of swingera (still need to find out how to spell this one) which I hope to master by the time I leave Natal! You should see the men move to that tune! Yes, it’s fun (and sexy – especially when danced shirtless) and it’s sooo Brazilian! I love the fact dancing is in the Brazilian DNA, it’s just such a big change from my European reality…

My first week here passed very, very quickly with my mind and body still confused, not knowing how to cope with the weather and time difference and doing CrossFit workouts in 30 degrees. Thankfully, it is always windy in Natal, all the more so in my small studio, so at least when I am home it’s nice and the breeze allows me to sleep. The only problem is I need to make a routine that will be somewhat adjusted to London time because of my work. What I am trying at the moment is to wake up at 6am every day, check emails etc. and, if there’s nothing urgent needing my attention and time, train at 7 or 8, then continue with my day depending on my workload and train again in the evening around 7pm or do a yoga session (yes, there are Yoga classes for Crossfitters at the box 3x week!). Thing is, the heat and sun are adding up to my tiredness and laziness, so it seems that everything is being done in a much slower pace than I’d want. I guess this needs time. I have time. 😀

So far I met a few people at the box, but the language barrier causes significant communication issues. I have mastered speaking English very slowly using the simplest of words in combination with body language, but still this is not enough. I already started my first attempts in learning Portuguese, which for now seem more like Chinese in terms of difficulty! Thankfully, everyone I’ve met so far is keen to help me learn and are telling me little phrases and words in Portuguese, so I hope I will pick it up fast. At least at the box where I can imagine more or less what the coach says, I can grasp some words (feeling damn proud!). I also find some similarities with French, so I hope all the years I spent learning French will at last find a good use 🙂

It’s funny how I am reminded so often lately that it is such a small world we live in. I knew before getting here that CrossFit Capim Macio is somehow linked to Sweden having seen the Swedish flag on their website, but I had no idea that one of the owners is the family of Amanda Fränden, whom I met in Greece back in November 2015. Gabriella and Igor, two of the three owners of the box are her siblings, and her parents Hokan and Ilva are also at the box every other day doing CrossFit and giving yoga classes! Diego, the third owner, also lived in Sweden for a few years. Can you imagine I also met a girl at the box that speaks a bit of Greek? In Natal, out of all places 🙂

On another note, I am lucky that Eddie (the surfer) is my next door neighbor. The first day I came to the studio, Diego told me that there’s no internet but maybe I could get a signal from Igor’s wifi (who lives in the same building as me, one floor up). When I tried looking for networks on my phone the strongest signal I could see was that of some ‘EDDIESURFER’ and Diego told me it’s the next door neighbor. I joked about knocking on his door to ask for his wifi code, but Diego said “Sure, why not, he’s a cool guy!”. Well, I was too embarrassed to actually go and knock on his door, but didn’t miss the chance to introduce myself when I met him the next day in the hall. No Inglais for him, no Portuguese for me… it was a veeery long talk! When you need 30’ to find the words to communicate a phrase like “I am a translator doing CrossFit and travelling the world”, you can imagine how little things we managed to talk about using translation applications on our phone (using his wifi, which he was happy to share with me). Still, when there’s a will there’s a way and I am thankful Eddie (who turned not to be a surfer after all) gave me so much of his time always with a big smile on his face and was willing to do his best to communicate with me! It’s very comforting to know I can count on my neighbor if I need anything!

On Sunday we went to Ponta Negra the beach where I met a couple of his friends and we had lunch at a local restaurant. There was a big buffet with all sorts of local foods, which of course I wanted to try as I was starving and I wouldn’t miss the opportunity to dive in the local cuisine. So, Eddie told me to take a plate and choose what I wanted to try. So I did and the first thing i put on my place was something like a spring roll (x2), but then he came up to me and suggested I should first have a look at everything that was served and then choose what I’d have. I started walking around the buffet area with Eddie and he was explaining to me as best as possible what every dish was. I was drooling already, so I just ate the two spring rolls I already had on my plate and kept going…  I would go back for more later 🙂 What I hadn’t realized was that it was not an ‘all-you-can-eat’ type of buffet but it was all charged per kilo… great deal in terms of price, but I realized I shouldn’t have eaten those spring rolls without weighing them first 😀

Oh well, not much harm done. I don’t know if anyone noticed and even if they did no one said anything. It only then made sense that I was seeing people with only a bit of this and that on their plates and not filling them with heaps of food as we usually see ‘in all you can eat’ restaurants… Smart people!

After lunch it was time for a short tour around the city and açai ice-cream (the best in town apparently!). Eddie took me to a place where they sell home-made açai ice-cream and granola. I had the house special: açai with granola and pieces of fresh pineapple and he had a combination of açai, granola and some other ice cream made of a fruit which I’d never tasted before and whose name I’ve completely forgotten . I actually liked his more than mine and was being a bit spoiled by being allowed to eat more of his too. Thankfully the portions were quite big, so I didn’t feel too guilty for eating some of my neighbor’s ice-cream 🙂

Sunday was such a nice day… especially given that Saturday had given me a hard time!

You know, everyone here keeps telling me to be very careful, to not wear any jewelry or walk with my mobile at hand, or have too much money on me because it’s dangerous. I was also told that if someone comes up to me with a gun, I should just give them everything I have, money, phone or whatever without any argument cause human life is not valued here and people do get killed quite often. Lastly, it was pointed out to me that I should try to be home by 6 pm as that’s the time when it gets dark and I should also avoid dark streets when walking alone.

Hm.. that was quite a lot for a newbie like me. It made my first days here very stressful and I was even questioning my decision to come to Natal (or Brazil for that matter). So, back to Saturday, when I decided to actually get out of the house in the afternoon to take a break from work and go down to the beach.

I was told that almost all buses stopping at the stop nearest to my house would take me to the beach and back. It was indeed a piece of cake to get to the beach. It’s only 5km from home and a mere 10’ by bus (I will write about buses in another post – there are things to be said!). So I spent a couple of hours walking around the beach, very aware of the fact that I was standing out, too much maybe, and having on my mind all the things I had been warned about. I’m telling you that was no walk in the park (or beach!) more of an attempt to cope with my fears and convince myself I can walk alone and that it will be all ok. But anyway, just before 4 o’clock I thought I should head back. My train of thought went something like: I need to find the bus stop, I need to catch a bus, it gets dark around 6 but let’s make sure I’m home by 5.30, also make sure I have some time if I get lost or anything… So I thought it was a good decision to leave the beach just before 4 pm so that I would be home at 5.30 (although it’s only a 10’ ride by bus).

And I was right! When I got on the bus, I asked the driver whether the bus would pass by Capim Macio, my neighborhood, but I hadn’t realized Capim Macio extends to several kilometers and of course the driver asked “yes, Capim Macio, but which part of it?” Don’t ask me how I know, I just know. He spoke in Portuguese but I got this much. I realized then that I knew nothing but the name of the district I lived at, no street name… I know, I should’ve been more prepared and careful, but somehow this small detail slipped my mind. The only thing I could remember was that there was a big supermarket close to home, so I asked whether the bus would go to a ‘supermercado?’ … He said yes, so I jumped on and waited to get to the supermarket. I now know there are a dozen supermarkets on the same avenue, and evidently the one I had in mind was not the one the driver thought of. It all seemed to go well and I was on familiar territory until the bus driver took a turn and drove off the avenue I knew. Ok, I thought, don’t panic, you’ll get off at the first stop and walk back to the avenue. Yeah, right, the next stop was, like, 2km away on a deserted road with no human presence within my field of vision…

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My view from the front seat… in the bus

No, no, Ioanna, you’re not getting off here! So, I decided to stay on the bus until the end of the ride and wait till it would pass again from the avenue I wanted to get off at. So I tried to think of it as an opportunity for sightseeing and what a sightseeing it was! I had seen neighborhoods as poor and dirty as the ones we passed by only on TV and this was the real thing… and I was all alone. Oh, did I tell you I was also warned I could be robbed while on the bus? Yes, that was an option too. It was in my mind all the time, especially when the people on the bus were becoming less and less. At some point, the driver looked back and saw me still sitting there… He put his hands on his forehead, stopped the bus and started saying stuff which I assumed meant I had missed my stop… Really? You think I haven’t noticed??? That’s what I thought but I didn’t say anything, gave him a smile, made a round sign with my hands trying to tell him I will wait until he does the whole tour and gets back to Capim Macio… He kept talking things I could not understand, but at least I thought that now he will keep it in mind to tell me where to get off, which was exactly what he did – about ONE HOUR LATER!

This meant I was on the avenue I knew at 5.45pm , and it was already too dark for my liking. I still had to walk around 1km to get home, which meant it was around 6.15pm and pitch dark by the time I was finally sitting on my bed… and that was when I burst into tears releasing all the stress of the day. I knew I was probably exaggerating and tried to calm myself down, but it was so relieving to be home and I needed to get it out of my system.

Now you know why Sunday spent with my neighbor, driving 5’ to the beach felt so good!

Oh well. Shit happens, and actually thinking about it now nothing bad happened after all but in my mind I was expecting the worst and it felt like I was in real danger. Now, a few days later, I am trying to blend in a bit more, actually be more relaxed rather than try to look relaxed and so far it’s all working out. Who knows maybe in the coming days I will be lucky enough to make some friends and go out for a drink in the evening at the beach, and stay out well beyond 6pm! 🙂

For now, I focus on my work, my training, my tan and I will start learning Portuguese. It’s enough on my plate already!

Ate mais! (or.. Laters!)

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