Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Pesce di Aprile!

The night before April 1st, we were asking our host mother during dinner if Italians do anything for April Fool's Day. She told us they do play a certain type of joke, which includes putting paper cutouts of fish on people's backs when they aren't looking, usually with funny names on them. "Pesce di Aprile" is what she said the day was called, because of these "fish jokes" people make. Kind of absurd, but fun.

Nicole and I saw a perfect opportunity. We decided to get our friend Alex the next day with a bunch of these paper fish, and went to work drawing and cutting out fish that said things like "Debole!" (Weak!) and "Stinky Stank" (a nickname we have for Alex, since his last name is Stankiewicz).

The next day, we all teamed up and put some on his back during Italian class. He found them pretty quickly, but wore them to the mensa (cafeteria) anyway, getting lots of chuckles from Italians passing by us in line. Photo evidence of our handiwork:

Alex still uses the fish as bookmarks.

Feasting and Slumber Parties in Tuscany

(March 27-29th)

For our art history class, the program took us to Florence for the weekend-and that included another one of those delicious free (sort of) lunches.

Before lunch we went to see Masaccio and Masolino frescos in the Brancacci Chapel of Santa Maria del Carmine. We also checked out the Gates of Paradise and the Duomo, which I had seen before (over the summer with my family) but which took on a new meaning having learned about them in class.

Then it was FEAST TIME. For the first few free dinners, we were shy about ordering a lot. Yeah, it was free, but we didn’t want to seem too greedy or anything. But the professors told us that money wasn’t a problem. So this time, we went all out. Several jugs of wine, three hefty courses, and a panna cotta later, we were tipsy and bursting out of our pants. Our friend Alex really wanted to take a shot of grappa with our art history professor Luigi (who is quite the drunk himself...though he’s so scatterbrained anyway that you wouldn’t know the difference). He asked Luigi, who didn’t seem too keen on the idea. Alex ordered an espresso instead. A few minutes later, Luigi popped up behind Alex  holding a small glass full of clear liquid. He leaned his ear to the glass and said slyly: “Mi ha detto che forse...e’ grappa?” (It told me that perhaps...it is grappa?) He took about half of it and then poured the rest in Alex’s espresso. Alex, of course, was delighted.

We made our way to our hostel after some more exploring and shopping, which turned out to be quite an adventure. We found the building where our hostel was supposed to be located, but the name of the place wasn’t on the plaques outside. Then we spotted a small handwritten note taped to the door that said “For youth hostel, call this number.” We called, and the man on the other end said “I’ll be there in five minutes.” He showed up, didn’t say a word, and gestured for us to follow. We wound down side street after side street with no idea where he was taking us. “I think he’s bringing us to a brothel!” Meagan whispered to me. He brought us to a place that looked a lot like an apartment, but which ended up looking pretty nice inside. While we stayed there, we occasionally saw some old guys sitting at the communal computer video-chatting with girls that looked like they could be their daughters....and tried our best to assume that they were, in fact, their daughters. All in all though, the hostel was really fun. It ended up feeling like a big slumber party. Meagan and I shared a big bed in the middle of the room with the guys on twin beds on either side, and Nicole took the twin near the foot of ours. There was a lot of bed hopping, throwing things at each other, and late night giggling. No pillow fights in our underwear, I swear.

We took a trip the next day to nearby Siena, a beautiful medieval town. We hung out for a while in the half-shell piazza, climbed the tower there (the guys, being typical males, thought it was fun to spit off the top), and went to the museum to see Simone Martini’s “Maesta” and the Lorenzetti brothers’ “Allegory of Good and Bad Government”. The Maesta was way bigger than I expected it to be, and was so much more impressive in real life than on the slides in class. Had an amazing lunch and dessert pizza (?!) with nutella on it, and eventually made our way back to Florence for the night.

We meant to go to Assisi on Sunday but it poured (wah wah!) so we just hopped a train back to home sweet home in Padova.

The Land of Beer and Sausage

(March 20th-22nd)

Our first trip out of the country: Berlin, Germany.

We had our first Ryanair plane experience, which was, to say the least, chaotic. Plane tickets through Ryanair are cheap, but they seem to sometimes go out of their way to make clear that you have indeed chosen a budget airline. Ryanair security is scarily easy to get through. They don’t make you remove your shoes (even when you walk through beeping), and let you pass your bag through with all sorts of potentially dangerous materials-including tweezers and razors. Alex even got through with a corkscrew that has a small knife at the end. Also, customs in most European airports is a joke. We never once had to answer any questions, and began wondering where exactly customs was anyway. Ryanair flights also don’t include assigned seats, which means that everyone stands in a hot, crowded line 20-30 minutes before boarding and then rushes to the plane outside, pushing past everyone else. The inside of the plane reminds me vaguely of a McDonald’s, with lots of bright red and yellow and advertisements. People are way louder than on other flights, and they all clap when the plane hits the ground (as if pleasantly surprised that the plane actually made it to its destination).

Once we made it, we realized we had all packed too lightly-it was COLD. We met up with Kate’s friend from home, Jane, who is studying in Berlin and acted as our super talkative, German-speaking, fun tour guide for the weekend. We made our way to our hostel via subway. When we got to our stop, we suddenly found ourselves in a dark, narrow alleyway lit by a reddish light. We were surrounded by a few punks dressed in black clothes with spikes around their necks, waving beers and yelling at each other in German while their dogs barked pretty ferociously at our sides. We stepped out of the alleyway onto the main street (which was considerably calmer) and broke into nervous laughter. “Welcome to Germany!” we said to each other. What an introduction.

Our hostel was run by this cool cross-stitching guy with amazing dreads. He told us that the area we were in was popular with punks (the guys we saw in the alley) and hippies (him). He let us know that we didn’t have to worry about getting into any trouble though, because the punks would usually never even give us the time of day. “Only if you run into any skinheads, because they hate the skinheads,” he said. “If those guys mess with you, the punks will help you out. You’ll have a common enemy.” Good to know.

After a good night’s sleep, we got up and did some sightseeing. Went to the Reichstag, which has an impressive glass dome on top (that you can climb!) and a lot of cool photos of the building over time (some really interesting ones from after World War II). Afterwards, we checked out the Holocaust Memorial, a big maze of concrete slabs in varying sizes. It was fun to play around in-we spent a while chasing each other through it and trying to sneak up on each other behind the slabs. The exhibit underground was amazing (but put us in a more serious mood), with so many stories of Holocaust victims and a long timeline of the events. We saw a few other sights, like the book burning memorial and Checkpoint Charlie.

Meals in Germany were amazing. That night, Jane brought us to a traditional German restaurant-cozy wooden tables and heavy, heavy food. We gorged on grilled vegetables, potato dishes, and more meat than anyone should be allowed to order. By the end of the dinner, Adam’s head was about to hit the table-and he wasn’t the only one. The food comas were intense. Despite our drowsiness, we decided to go out that night. We ended up at a weird but funny club, took a bunch of yager shots (partly because my friends thought it was hilarious when I told them I secretly liked yager bombs) and almost passed out (actually, at least two people did fall asleep). Lesson learned. No more coma-inducing dinners before a night out.

The next day we spent mostly in museums. Wandered through the Pergamon, which houses an impressive Greek collection and an even better Islamic art section. The Ishtar Gate was gigantic and awesome, and the other beautifully ornate Islamic pieces were a nice change from all the classical European art we were used to.  We ended up at a contemporary art museum as well-another nice change from the Renaissance. They had some great Fluxus stuff, a lot of Joseph Bouys and a fun installation called “The Murder of Crows.” It was a big auditorium with a semi-circle of seats surrounded by a bunch of interspersed, suspended stereo speakers. The speakers played a mixture of natural noises (crows flying, the ocean, etc) and nightmarish tales. If you closed your eyes, sometimes footsteps seemed like they were actually approaching you or that birds were really fluttering above your head. Plus, the nightmare about uncovering a detached leg in a bed culminated in a strange song that went something like: “Where has my leg gone? She’s lost her leeeeg!” Weird, and great.

Dinner was street food: the most delicious donor kebab I’ve EVER had and a taste of currywurst. This quicker, lighter dinner allowed us some time to pregame in our hostel-and not fall asleep in the process. We bought beers (mine had a picture of a monk on it, which Alex claimed meant that it was “holy beer”) and watched Adam and Alex do a silly rendition of “Mo’ Money Mo’ Problems” while playing the song as loud as possible (read: very softly) from Adam’s iPod earphones. Absurd dancing, and Alex knew none of the words except “I’m coming out.” In short, the lamest but most memorable pregame ever. We ended up at a stock exchange bar, where the beer prices changed based on supply and demand and were updated on screens around the room. It was fun and different, and every “crash” was exciting. We bought gigantic pints of beer, dangerously close to being larger than my own head. One of the highlights of the night was when I (notoriously the slowest drinker of the group) finished my pint before Kate (the most enthusiastic beer-lover of the group). Alex and Becky secretly egged me on while Kate wasn’t watching, held the glass up to my mouth for me, and then made a big show of it when the last sip was gone. Since it’s the only time I’ve won, we milk it for all it’s worth.

German culture isn’t exactly suited to me (too much meat for a carb-lover) but there were definitely some things I loved about Berlin. The fashion sense was cool and different (shorts over bright tights, etc), vibrant graffiti decorated the city, and even the language started to grow on me. Berlin, as I saw it, has attitude and is a place that makes you want to do something edgy and unique. And then settle in with some currywurst and a beer.

Monday, May 18, 2009

GTB: The Bike Saga

It all began with a bike.

From the study abroad program handbook, I quote: “Boston University does NOT recommend bicycle use due to heavy traffic and past accidents involving students.” This part of the guide is underlined. And bolded.

My friend Alex, who wants more than anything to be as cool as the Italians, decided to ignore this warning and buy a bike from one of our Italian friends. It cost ten euros, which is a great deal, according to my host mother (who has had seven of her family bikes stolen). Though, the price may have had something to do with the fact that the bike was on it’s last leg (or...wheel?) so to speak.

Considering most bikes in Padova have probably been stolen at least once before, we told Alex that it was pretty much a definite that his was a stolen bike. He adamantly denied this, saying “What? No! This is a virgin bike, guys!” Of course, this just gave us more ammunition to provoke him. Our Italian friends loved joking about the bike too. One Wednesday night, our friends Alessandro and Federico suggested we make a movie entitled “GTB” (Grand Theft Bicycle) starring Alex and his bike. Alex immediately started thinking of a backstory to rival The Godfather.

I won’t lie, I was happy to score rides home on the maybe-stolen-maybe-not bike once in a while, cutting my usual 30-40 minute walk down to 10-15 minutes. Most of these rides home were drunken (driver included), with me either clinging to the wobbly seat with Alex standing in front or trying to keep my butt balanced on the front frame while Alex pedaled behind. When I wasn’t my most sober, I had a bad habit of getting my feet caught in the wheels. When Alex wasn’t his most sober, he had the bad habit of trying to squeeze between parked cars and jump over tram tracks. At one point, the brakes broke and Alex could only stop with his feet. I’m pretty sure we were the perfect bad example for the program handbook.

Flash forward a couple weekends. Kate and I are at the grocery store, when I feel my phone buzzing. It’s a text message from Alex. It reads: “My bike got robbed.” I turn the phone to Kate and she crumples in laughter. “I have to get out of here!” she says frantically to me before running to a nearby cafe. “I’m going to pee my pants!”

Alex, still trying to be a “real” Italian, now insists that since his bike was stolen, he’s “in the system.” According to him, now that he’s in the system, he can steal someone else’s bike to replace his. I gave him an eye roll and an “oh please”. “I’m like a mother who’s lost her child,” he said. “I keep looking at every bike I see, hoping it’s mine. I’m down -1 in the system and some sonofabitch is +1.”

I and our other friends, however, can’t imagine a more perfect ending to the GTB bike saga. It really has come full circle.

At one point when I made fun of Alex’s dramatic bike comments, he came back with an even more dramatic: “It’s the system. We’re living in it.”

The perfect tagline for our movie? I think so.

Bolzano or The Day I Lived “The Sound of Music” Plus Mummies

(March 15th)

You may not know this about me, but I’m a little obsessed with mummies. I’m not sure if even I was fully aware of it before this study abroad program, but Bolzano confirmed my mummy obsession for sure.

My friend Kate (an archaeology major and also obsessed with dead bodies) and I were talking about the famous Otzi Ice Man mummy one day, and realized that he was supposed to be somewhere in the Alps in Italy. After some research, we learned of a small town in the mountains called Bolzano, where Otzi rests in his temperature-controlled capsule. We also discovered that the Otzi Museum was having a special exhibit in March featuring over 60 mummies from around the world. That sealed the deal.

For some crazy reason, we decided to trek to Bolzano right after Napoli. Since they’re on completely opposite ends of the country, we had to take ANOTHER overnight train (13 hours long) to get there. It was a little bit insane. We also almost got robbed on the way. A seedy guy who had been eyeing us through the window stopped in the car where Nicole, Kate, and I were sitting and tried to talk with us. We ignored him, but it still took him a while to leave. We ended up having to move cars eventually anyway, and we settled into our new spot, turned off the lights, and prepared to go to sleep. Suddenly our door opened and the same guy poked his head inside, looked around, said nothing, and then closed it again. That happened twice. We realized he was waiting for us to go to sleep, probably so that he could take our stuff (Kate caught him looking upwards at our bags one time that he poked in). Freaked out and frustrated that we wouldn’t be able to sleep (and boy, we were tired), we were hoping the conductor would come by to check tickets so we could tell him about the situation. Even better, the police ended up stopping by to check up on us (we think they had gotten complaints already and were on the lookout) and we were able to explain to them what he looked like and what was going on. They found him in the car right beside ours, which just confirmed our suspicions. The police were incredibly nice and stayed around our door until our stop, which was several hours away. We made it to Bolzano with all of our belongings, and that was when the fairy tale began.

Bolzano is a quaint, but beautiful, little town nestled in the mountains. It’s the closest place I’ve ever seen to the set of The Sound of Music. And we literally did this when we got there, because we were so overwhelmed by the amazing scenery and adorable houses. It’s a mix of German and Italian, and we could hear both languages being spoken everywhere. This also means Bolzano has a fantastic food selection. We immediately found the closest cafe and ordered warm apple strudel. Lunch included sausage, delicious meatball soup, and big glasses of German beer. The place we ate at had a pretty fun song selection too, which consisted of about eight American songs on repeat. We still got excited about the Weather Girls each of the four times throughout the meal that we heard them, dancing in our seats, waving our arms, and making the waiters laugh at us.

Every place we went, we insisted on posing like Otzi, which made for a very silly final album. You can see the full collection on facebook. We came across a playground-one of the best I’ve ever seen. The view of the mountains surrounded a collection of trampolines, jungle gyms, slides, a zip-line, and swings. Even though we were the only people between the ages of 10 and 40 in the area, we hopped on the playground equipment and frolicked like the carefree kids we felt like. We think the trampoline guy got a bit freaked out by us over-aged playground-goers. When we walked by the trampoline area and looked hopefully up at them, he gave us a stern look and closed the door. Oops. Really though, kids in Bolzano have it made.

We finally made it to the Otzi Museum, took far too many pictures of ourselves making the Otzi pose in the lobby, and overwhelmed the museum staff with our extreme excitement and enthusiasm. The exhibit was even better than we expected. A couple of floors included mummies from all around the world and in various states of decay. A range of Egyptian, South American, Asian, and European bodies were included, all with interesting stories. My favorites were the South American mummies. They were so well-preserved, with entire braids of hair and intricate decorative clothing left intact. Another highlight was reading about a specific sect of Buddhist monks who eat tree bark during the last few years of their life in preparation for their own mummification. 

An entire floor was devoted to the Otzi mummy. We wandered around and avoided his chamber until we had looked and read about all the tools and clothing they had found and put on display. Visitors have to stand in a line and file past to see the actual mummy through a small window. We went up twice and got, as we had throughout the entire trip, overly enthusiastic about seeing a preserved dead body.

The exhibit had a great video featuring the curators at the end, and it spurred a lot of thought about death and preservation of the human body. We ended up discussing whether we would be willing to be mummified (Kate said definitely, I said probably, and Nicole said hell no) and the benefits and downsides to it. Just the idea of looking at other people’s bodies, and the voyeuristic side to it, was interesting to think about. One thing I really loved from the video was when one of the curators explained how observing mummies makes us contemplate not only our own inescapable death but also the ways in which mortality (among countless other things) connects us to people from all parts of the world and from all ages in human history.

Since then, I’ve told everyone who mentions visiting Italy: “Screw Florence and Rome. Go to Bolzano.”

Down to the Dirty South: Adventures in Napoli and Pompeii

(March 12-14th)

I know I haven't updated in a very, very long time. As in, two months of a long time. As my favorite cousin often says "I am the worst". So here are all those missing blog posts, beginning midway through March. I’ve included dates for the trips to make things easier to follow.

After Conegliano, we hopped a train to Napoli for the weekend. And what a train ride it was. We took an overnight (which lasts about 10 hours) on Thursday night. Finding a car was hard enough. You can fit three people lying down in one car and six sitting, but some people decide to take up an entire car to themselves on the train. We attempted to take over one such car. After turning on the light, laughing loudly, and yodeling (not even kidding) the guy still wouldn’t budge. Eventually we found two rooms to accommodate the six of us and settled in to sleep. Nicole, Kate, and I were in one car, which we quickly realized had a broken thermostat. At one point in the night I remember turning over to Kate and saying “Gah! We’re roasting alive in here.” She agreed: “It’s a human oven. We. Are. Going. To. Die.” At one point during the night, Kate couldn’t stand it anymore and just took off her long johns (which she sometimes wears as if they’re legging...don’t ask). Our friends Alex, Adam, and Becky told us that when they woke up and walked past our car, they immediately spotted a passed-out Kate, showing her underwear off to the world. Ironically, their car had a broken window, so they froze instead of roasted during the ride there. Overnight train=maybe not the strongest choice.

When we finally got there, Napoli proved to be a completely different region of Italy than the northern Veneto (where Padova is located). Everything in Naples is louder, dirtier, and more overwhelming-at least at first. The best way I can describe it is: Napoli is what happens when Italy doesn’t hold back. Traffic is nuts, with vespas zooming through pedestrian-packed streets and some pretty expressive Italians letting you know how they feel with yells or catcalls. Laundry hangs everywhere, which I love. Napoli overwhelms all your senses, including your taste buds. The food there was some of the cheapest and best we had eaten in Italy. Heavenly pizza (it really is the best I’ve ever tasted) costs only one euro, and was invented there. They make it with very little cheese, letting you fully appreciate the amazing tomato sauce and the dough wrapped up into a little pocket. Arancini (fried rice balls full of meat, cheese, etc.) are also cheap and delicious.

We did a little sightseeing, mainly at the archaeological museum and underground in the “subterranean tour”. The underground tour was pretty cheesy, but it was cool to explore the area beneath the city and see some old military stuff. The archeological museum was impressive-lots of statues, Pompeii mosaics, and even the famous “penis room” with all of the naughtier art found in the ash-covered city. At night, we finished up with a big dinner and juice box wine (classy) from the grocery store, enjoyed while exploring the docks and the castle. As my friend Becky loves to say (and did say at the time) “Oh, the places we get drunk in!”

The next day we took a bus to Pompeii and spent several hours exploring the ruins. It really is incredible. So much is preserved, from the structures themselves to mosaics on the floors inside of them. There are still some bodies on display, preserved by the ash. The figures are haunting, twisted in positions of struggle and agony. More than the impressive city itself, those bodies give you a real feel for what happened and what was lost under the ash.

After Pompeii, we ended up eating what might have been the worst pizza ever (ironically in a city which also boasts the best pizza ever). Exhausted, we gave in and stopped at one of the touristy places right outside of Pompeii, only to find out that the pizza was microwaved and...just disgusting. An Italian couple sat down at the table behind us, after we tried to silently communicate to them that they should get the hell out of there before they fell into the same tourist trap. The man took one bite of the pizza, shook his head, and didn’t touch it after that. The worst part is, we paid more for the bad pizza than for the good kind. What a cruel joke.

All in all though, Napoli and Pompeii were incredible and a different atmosphere than the Italy we were used to in the north. And we were about to head even further north to Bolzano...

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Over the Hills and Through the Vineyards

We had the day off from classes on one Wednesday afternoon and decided to take to the hills for a biking adventure in the vineyards. La Strada del Prosecco is the oldest wine route in Italy, nestled in the hills near a cute little town called Conegliano (which is a bit further north from Venice). We bought loaves of bread, cheese, and olive oil at the supermarket and rented bikes-which was actually a pretty big ordeal.

Most people we talked to in Conegliano were shocked when we told them that we wanted to bike the trail. "Ma, le colline! E troppo difficile!" (But the hills! It's too difficult!) We got a lot of hand motions showing us the steepness of the hills and the length of the course. Pretty much, they thought we were crazy.

Luckily, my friend Becky and I had scoped out the situation the previous Sunday. We went to a bar and got a glass of prosecco each, and chatted with the bartenders in Italian to get a better idea of what the Strada del Prosecco is like. The guy we spoke with gave us a detailed map and told us the best places to go. He assured us that if we just biked part of the route and not the whole 30 miles, we'd be okay. Plus, he explained that the most difficult uphill battle would be to the castle just outside of Conegliano, and after that it would be pretty easy biking.

Even though some of them thought were crazy for wanting to bike the hills, people in Conegliano are some of the friendliest I've met in Italy so far. Not only the bartenders, but also the people we chatted with in the market, were incredibly welcoming and encouraged us to practice our language skills. Maybe this has something to do with the lack of a big tourist presence in the town. I've found that in smaller Italian cities (like Padova and Conegliano), people are much more receptive to Americans, especially those genuinely interested in their culture and language.

We wound up finally getting bikes (after thinking the only bike rental place in town was closed, considering a guided bus ride, getting a call back from the bike rental guy, and canceling said bus ride) for about 9 euros each. It was ABSOLUTELY worth it though. The scenery was idyllic, the weather was sunny, and we could spend all the time we wanted taking photo stops. The climb to the castle was, as warned, a bit strenuous. I'm not sure if it was the adrenaline or the impressive view, but once we reached the top, we all hopped off our bikes and started frolicking in the grass.

Back on the bikes, we made our way over to a vineyard cantina to try some prosecco. Prosecco is by far my favorite Italian wine. It's a bubbly, dry white wine made from a particular white grape typical of the Veneto region (and more specifically, of the hills near Conegliano of course!) We taste-tested some, and I bought a couple bottles to bring home. They were super cheap in the hills (around 3-4 euro for a good bottle!). Nicole and I brought our host mother a bottle, and I overheard her talking to her daughters later about how "carino" (cute) it was that we thought of her. Suck-up points received!

On a bike-related but not wine-related note, people in Italy are bicycle MASTERS. In Padova, it's pretty common to see someone zooming through the Prato on a bicicletta while talking on a cell phone with one hand and waving their other in the air. Mad skills.