Living Leeside: Sicilian Valentina makes Cork her home by design

Living Leeside: Sicilian Valentina makes Cork her home by design
Valentina Gambardella, Costume Maker and Fashion Designer with her son Frank, Cork / Photograph: Jed Niezgoda _

THE weather can be challenging but the Cork sense of humour keeps her smiling. That’s the mantra of Sicilian Valentina Gambardella, who has been living in Cork for the past 13 years.

A creative soul, Valentina works as a costume designer for theatre and last year she started her own fashion business, redesigning and restructuring outfits from old items.

The designer, 38, who has studied textiles and fashion design in Cork colleges, said she loves being creative and working with fabrics.

“I make kimonos out of trousers and waistcoats out of jeans, things like that,” Valentina explained.

As well as making clothes, Valentina used to foster puppies from the Irish Guide Dogs.

“We fostered two. One we ended up keeping because he finished his training but he had epilepsy, so he could not be given to a family,” she said.

Their labrador is called Quilan, and was named by the charity.

Now, with a three-year-old boy called Frank, Valentina and her partner, Jed Niezgoda, cannot foster guide dogs for a while as the charity does not send dogs to homes with young children, but they plan to volunteer with the organisation when their little boy is old enough.

An integral part of the local community, Valentina volunteered as a costume designer for the Dragon of Shandon parades for a number of years. She also worked as a mentor at Mayfield Art Centre, teaching a woman with intellectual disabilities how to sew and cut fabric, to make a number of designs.

“I was looking for something to do with my skills, so I reached out to the Dragon of Shandon and they were delighted to have me,” she said.

Valentina said that she was disappointed the parade would not be going ahead this year, but said she was even more disappointed that The Everyman pantomime has also been cancelled.

“I understand the reasoning for it and I know it is the best thing to do, but you can understand the logic and still be upset emotionally,” she said.

The fashion designer, who has worked on the panto costumes for a number of years, said she loves live performances. While she used to take to the stage as a teenager, nowadays she enjoys being behind the scenes.

“I really miss the joy of attending an event in a room full of people. There is so much excitement in an auditorium which is buzzing before the curtains open,” she said.

After studying at Palermo University, Valentina was sponsored to come to Ireland and spent time living with a family in Bandon before moving to Galway. There, she worked as an intern for an art gallery, organising openings and photographing exhibitions.

“When my internship ended I somehow landed in Cork. It was not the plan — there was not too much of a plan anyway — but I love it here,” she said. “It’s a small city with an international vibe and a vibrant creative community.

“Usually, you find these characteristics in big cities where you get absorbed by the city itself.”

Valentina feels Cork people are very much team players. “I don’t know if it is an Irish thing or a Cork thing, but people are very supportive in Cork. Maybe it is all the GAA!”

Despite loving the team-player vibe, Valentina said she has little interest in sport and does not go to watch GAA games. Instead, the Sicilian said she has followed in her father’s footsteps and developed a deep love of farmers markets, particularly in the city.

“My Saturday appointment at the Coal Quay farmers market fits everything I want from life: Good healthy food, local businesses selling products which are good for us and for the planet, and conversation with friends. Who needs more?” she asked. Valentina said going to the market is a very social occasion as she has got to know many of the traders and customers.

“I love it — it is my favourite thing to do,” she said. “I sometimes stay in on a Friday night, just so I can go on a Saturday morning!”

While Valentina enjoys the Cork lifestyle she admits she does struggle with the weather.

“From October to January, it can be very hard. I used to make sure to get to Italy for some sun in the summertime, but sadly not this year.”

She said while the soft weather can cause some discontent, the Cork sense of humour never fails to put a smile on her face.

“Cork people make me laugh a lot. It’s the sarcasm and the way you tell stories — you are real storytellers,” she said. “If it was not for the people of Cork I would not have stayed so long. I found the weather really challenging when I initially moved here. People’s friendliness and their sense of humour helped me to see further than the Irish cloudy sky.”

Valentina also enjoys the relaxed attitude of Corkonians.

“Where I come from, life seems to go from one altercation to another,” she said. “Sicilians are fiery and cannot keep their mouth shut when they disagree. I was pleased to come to Cork where composure is so regarded.”

Valentina said she sometimes yearns for the fabulous food of Italy, such as arancini or ice cream.

“Things taste different at home,” Valentina said.

Before Covid-19, Valentina and the family would head for Sicily about twice a year, but that has not been possible this summer due to the pandemic. Her parents, grandmother, and sister are in Italy, but Valentina said while she likes to visit, Cork is home. “When I go back to Sicily, I say to my grandmother, ‘my flight home is tomorrow’ and she will say ‘but this is home’. But I say, for me Cork is home now.”

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