Friday, May 8, 2009

Ten Days and Counting

So, here we go – I only have ten days left in Italy. Ten. A week and a half. Dieci. Eight of those days will be spent doing things like studying and taking exams, one will be spent packing and having a free dinner at study program’s expense (I plan for taking them for all they’ve got, but that’s just me), and two will be spent in Rome, as I can’t stay in the Siena apartment for the weekend (it’s the reason why I’m taking them for all they’ve got at the dinner). Then I get on a plane on Monday morning and get back in Monday afternoon (of course, I, having crossed more time zones than I care to count, will feel like it’s an ungodly late hour of the night). Certainly I’ll be excited to return, to see my family and my friends that I haven’t seen for months. But I will be sorely sad to leave – I’ve made new friends here, done a lot of new things, tasted new foods (penne arrabbiata, yum!), and gone to places I wouldn’t have gone to had I not studied abroad. So, whatever sadness I shall feel when I head away, I shall have even more fond memories and experiences (not to mention a few souvenirs) with which to remember my time here fondly.

I think, now that I only have ten days left, I’m going to miss a lot about Italy when I return to the United States. I’m going to miss a lot of little things, actually. I’m going to miss their sense of political irony, like how the Communist Party’s city HQ is right above the money exchange on the banking square, or how the anti-immigration Lega Nord HQ is right above the foreign foods market. I’ll miss the near-death experiences we have whenever there are Vespas clipping us on the busy streets. I’ll miss that I’m in a country where my nose is considered normal-sized. I’ll definitely be excited to go back, surely, but I’ll be sad to leave Italy behind, to make all the fun memories and experiences a thing of the past. I mean, granted, I really want to come back, and I plan to come back, but leaving for now will be sad.

I do, however, have some things that I really want to do when I get back to the United States – not least of all food. Namely American food. I have been living in the country that’s probably the most famous in the world for its culinary offerings, and I’ve enjoyed every day of that. I love that even the simplest Salami sandwich is leagues above what is usually offered to me. However, I have been without crappy Americanized fast food for almost three months now, and I’m dying for it. I’ve had cravings in the middle of the night – it’s getting scary. I find myself wanting a Five Guys Burger a lot of the time – I even have hankerings for Taco Bell. Taco Bell! I’ve become entrenched, I tell you! I’ll definitely miss the food here, but I think that, having gotten new recipes and new cooking tips, I can bring some of that home. But, with that out of the way, I totally want some terrible, greasy, unflattering piece of Americana inside my belly. In other words: Vandy students, if you need someone to go on late-night fast food runs with you next year, look no further than the DiRienzo.

I’ll write a few more posts before I leave, including a list of the stuff I’ve gotten, what Italians do better, what Americans do better, etc. Till later, ciao!

Friday, April 24, 2009

Less than Four Weeks Left!

The fact that we, at this point, now have less than four week remaining in Italy is quite sad news to me. This semester has gone by so quickly that I feel that, while I have experienced so much here and done so many awesome things, I will have missed something important (although I’m not sure what that ‘something’ is). The semester’s gone by too fast, I think, although I will get three weeks longer than my Vanderbilt buddies (who are now cramming for exams, I take it – I don’t envy them).

I’ve also decided to try a new hairstyle. I figured, hey, I’ve only got a few weeks left here, so I should make the most of it. Since I don’t know the people here as well as the ones at Vandy, it’d be easier for me to change my hair. So, I’ve decided to become even more Italian and get a faux-hawk. Fun fact: in Italian, a faux-hawk is called a cresta. I like that word better – it sounds more potent, and a little less mocking. I do like this new hairstyle, and if it goes well I’ll keep it in the United States, although I have pictures now so you don’t have to wait that long. A picture of me is below (and start chortling…now).

It should not be a big surprise to everyone, but cultures do, in fact, have different words for things. Not just different words in languages, however. They have different words for sounds or concepts that we don’t even think about. For instance, an Italian rooster doesn’t go, “Cock-a-doodle-doo!”, It says “Kee-kee-ree-kee!” I know, I agree with you – it sounds nothing like a rooster. These Italians are crazy: believe me, I’ve lived with them. Also, when they hurt themselves, they don’t say “Ouch!”. They say “Ayah!”, which is sort of like the sound Miss Piggy makes when she karate kicks someone (don’t worry, I don’t think that’s how they came up with it). It goes even beyond spoken sayings, too. In email addresses, the “@” sign, for which we simply say “at”, Italians say “Chiocciola”, which is Italian for ‘snail’. It makes for interesting fun facts about different cultures, but it does tend to befuddle foreigners, not least of all me.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Holy Week

I did manage to go to the Duomo for Palm Sunday Mass. As awesome and grandiose and ostentatious as the Duomo is normally, during a mass it’s even better. Because you’re there at an event that the place was made for, it becomes a little more realistic – you realize why it’s there and you realize that the building fits well with its purpose. Some churches [cough any catholic church in the Southeast cough] unfortunately doesn’t really compare. It’s like the Taj Mahal against hobo junction, no comparison.

Also, midterms are done! Over with, finished! It felt so good just to be finished with these. Granted, our work here has been rather lesser than that I do at Vanderbilt (how are those science papers, roomies?) so having to actually study this time was so jarring, so unnerving, that most of us feared we wouldn’t make it. But we did, and it felt oh so good. And it all ended on student night at the local club, which really only compounded the elation (students free on Wednesday and a free drink…joke’s on them!).

Also, I know a lot of people were asking about this, and I just want to publically say that, after the earthquake in Abruzzo, everything’s okay in Siena. Fortunately the earthquake didn’t hit close to Siena, so there were no damages or injuries. There have been lots of news reports, fundraisers, and blood drives by the Italian Red Cross around here to aid the victims of the earthquake (terremoto in Italian). It was kind of weird, though – when you hear about something like this happening outside the US, you’re usually a bit disconnected, because it’s not close to you. But here, it was about the distance from us what Nashville is to Huntsville, so it was quite close. It’s a different feeling, and I pitched in a few euros into one of the fundraising jars.

This weekend, I went up to Hamburg to see the city. It was actually a lot prettier than I imagined – perhaps those Germans weren’t as sterilely efficient as I had once presumed. It was fun, but I did realize one thing during my weekend journey – I could not remember one word of German. I walked into restaurants and frantically asked if anyone spoke English or Italian, all too often only to be met with sad faces and headshakes. I ended up just pointing to things and saying ‘Ja’ or ‘Nein’ to indicate. Hopefully they thought I was Italian, and not another dumb American tourist (to prove I was Italian, I donned a large gold chain and gesticulated wildly. It’s what they do.)

I also saw some cities in the Northwest part of Germany, as I took a quick train to see the North Sea. I saw Stade, Hechthausen, Himmelpforten, and Cuxhaven. Fun note: Himmelpforten, meaning ‘Heaven’s Door’, is the traditional town to which all German children’s letters to Santa are sent. Considering the town only has 3,000 or so people in it, I imagine that’s a tough undertaking for the hamlet that it is.

Now that Lent is over, my fasting of American-style foods has officially ended. So today, Monday, I went to the store, my mind screaming ‘I need some potato chips and Coca-Cola, stat!” (My brain’s a doctor, just so you know). It’s Monday, I thought to myself – the stores will be open. It’s after Easter, after all! But oh, how I underestimated both the Italians’ religiosity and their ability to inconvenience. Not only was the usual grocery store closed, but the back-up grocery store at the train station was, too! Alas, I will have to wait until tomorrow to get my sugary, greasy fix.

It is sort of saddening, however, to note the fact that I only have five weeks left here. I feel that this semester has gone by quickly – too quickly – and having to leave it in less than a month and a half is incredibly disheartening. To compensate for it, though, we all are pretty sure that we’ll be packing in as much Italo-fun as we possibly can before we must leave.

Till later, Ciao!

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Daily Life in Italy and all its inner oddness

This post won't contain many life-changing events, but rather will cover the more mundane, more common, but still interesting and noteworthy points about daily life in Italy. View...and enjoy.

Remember when I told you about how the contrada is building their local hangout under our apartments? Well, as could be said in many episodes in my life, we’re not invited. Because we are not Italian citizens, and don’t live their permanently, we can’t get in. We tried, but they said we weren’t on the list, unfortunately. We asked our resident advisor about it, who said we could meet with the contrada leaders and see if that works. We figured we didn’t feel like going through that much trouble just to get into some parties. It would’ve been fun, but we probably would be out of place anyway.

Today another ‘first step’ was accomplished because I have started buying train tickets to get to the various airports to do some traveling.

On another, perhaps sadder (or funnier, depending on how you look at it) note, you all, reading this blog by now, probably know that sometimes we go to bars or nightclubs. This happens fairly regularly, especially when we have a long weekend or are going on trips. A lot of the times they’re really fun – if you’re a girl, however, it can get tricky. In that there are scores upon scores of sketchy Italian men who get far too close to you for your comfort. This seems to happen every time we go out, and I’ll tell you something: Italian guys are relentless (although, to be fair, there are a bunch of Albanians and Croatians in there too: creepy aggression knows no ethnicity!).

Now, I wasn’t expecting throes of Italian women to throw themselves at me when I entered a club (though I wouldn’t say no…ladies…), but I and the other guy in the program have learned something very important. At nightclubs and bars, there are NO single European women to be found. Ever. They’re always with their boyfriends or fiancées or whatever. It’s quite frustrating. I’m not asking for much:

“Hi there, Alessandra, can I buy you a drink?”
“Sure! And I think you’re really handsome, too!”
“Oh yeah, big noses are such a turn-on for me!”

Why has this not happened once? Is it so much to ask for? I’ll talk to her in Italian, that’s fine! We go to the nightclubs, I search for that conversation, and I end up getting this:

“Hey, cute Austrian girl who was in my Italian class last semester!”
“Hi, how are you? I just passed an exam and I’m celebrating!”
“Wow, that’s great, you should be proud!”
“I am!” At this point she starts dancing wildly. I look at her hands, and realize she has a drink in each hand.
“Hey, you have a drink in each hand!”
“Yeah, my boyfriend’s visiting from Austria to celebrate!”

I can’t win.

(Note: this last conversation actually happened – last night.)

Ah well, I still have some time here, I just need to keep plugging away. The fight is not out of me yet!

I did another errand today which, in the USA, would hardly chance a second thought, but which here gives one pause. I got a haircut today. Really, it shouldn’t be a problem – I wasn’t looking for anything greatly out of the ordinary for my hair, I just wanted some hair cut. At the same time, when you’re learning a foreign language, none of the lessons you get prepare you for it. How do you say “I only want three inches cut off in the back?” Not only do you have weird vocabulary to figure out, but you have to do English system to Metric system conversions, and who’s got time for that?

Fortunately, the shop seemed to have gotten non-Italian customers before, and so with my only-passably-proficient skills I managed to get through the appointment without them completely shaving some part of my head (I know you’re disappointed, John). Cute hair washers, though…

Also, I’m glad I’ve been keeping up with swimming throughout this semester. There have been times when I’ve skipped, but I think more or less it’s worked out. Giorgio also takes me sometimes for when he works out at the gym (I use the word ‘gym’ loosely; it’s more like a closet with weights). I think it’s helped out:

Yes, it's goofy, but still, there is improvement, no?

Friday, April 3, 2009

Roamin' in Rome

Going to Rome, we were sad to leave Catania. Leaving the land of sunshine, warmth, and arancini certainly wasn’t a welcome sight. At the same time, we were excited to go to Rome. Our hotel was near the center of the city…if by ‘near’ you meant ‘nowhere near a metro stop’. Still, we were excited to spend a few days in a big city with great sights and a bustling nightlife. We were also to be staying in a hostel for the weekend – for many of us, it was our first time in a hostel, so we were pumped about that.

Our hostel, to me, wasn’t too bad – a bunch of bunk beds in one room, wireless, a decent (if curtain-less) bathroom. It was adequate. For me. However, the fact that it was run by a 36-year-old Romanian man named Gelu who made jokes to the girls about them possibly being lesbians probably didn’t help their perceptions of the place. Well, that and the fact that the eleven of us had to juggle bathroom/shower use. Suffice to say the other boy and I never got much shower time.

Still, Rome proved to be a fun, if tiring, city. We went to the Colosseum and the Roman Forum, which, if you are given the right information, looks truly spectacular (although, if you don’t know anything about it, it just looks like a pile of rubble, really). At the same time, there is so much to see and do in Rome that you can’t get it done in five days. We were all pretty tired by the time we’d get back to the hostel.

And now, promised to you all (and yes, it's late) -- some photos!

The Duomo in downtown Catania. Unfortunately, we weren't able to go inside.

The inside of the Colosseum. The 'floor' part was artificially built to show how it would look in ancient Rome. It's a lot bigger than it looks.

The Trevi Fountain, lit up at night.

Oh yeah, you didn't think about this, did you? We go way back, here. Like 14th century back.

A political rally that I stumbled upon in a Roman square (how fun!). In reality, it was quite boring, with some dumpy lady giving a very un-impassioned speech to about fifty people with flags. But I got a free newspaper out of it!

Monday, March 23, 2009

Wanna Catania? Catania on ya?

Yes, I understand it’s been almost two weeks since I’ve written anything, and yes, I realize that those two weeks were probably the most picture-heavy weeks, making it even harder to convey the events of last week in these posts. As such, I’m going to divide it into two segments. The first will be talking about my five days in Catania, a city on the eastern coast of Sicily. The next will be discussing the five or so days we spent in Rome. I don’t know how long the posts will be, Dunbar, so no promises. We’ll start with the bus ride there.

The bus ride was a bit long (and started off delayed, in typical Italian style) but one good thing can be said about it: the countryside was beautiful. I know it’s been said countless times before, but the Tuscan countryside really is beautiful, and it’s a pretty awesome sight to take in when you’re seeing it for a good two hours straight. In other places a pretty sight may only last a few minutes – here, you have to try NOT to see the beauty of Tuscany to miss it.

Even though I didn’t write about this before, one thing is worth pointing out – it was vastly, vastly better of a bus ride, visually, than the Siena-Venice bus ride. That ride was probably the ugliest route in all of Italy (at least, one hopes). Everywhere, for three hours straight, there are smokestacks, industrial warehouses, parking lots filled with construction equipment. Every now and then there’d be an almost-picturesque town if not for the large corporate warehouse stuck staunchly yet wantonly along the side of the road. I understand that Italy has a rich and long tradition of industrial prowess in Southern Italy (Ferraris, anyone?) but really, why put the ugliest of ugly buildings for everyone to see on the highway? Tourists go to Italy to see the beautiful countrysides of the various regions in their entire diverse splendor, not to see the smokestacks from the headquarters of Alfa Romeo steaming and smudging up the sky. I’m not saying they have to give up the entirety of the industrial sector to please foreigners. I’d personally just have pushed the companies back a few kilometers, so that they’re not directly visible on the autostrada. Putting them behind some hills would probably help things out a lot.

Stopping in Rome, we took a quick (or, at least, as quick as possible) tour of the Vatican and of the Vatican museum. I had been here before in high school, but I still was visibly awed by the sheer amount, detail, and quality of the art here. There’s so much to see that a visitor can’t possibly see everything there is, or even everything they want. Fortunately, and surprisingly, because it was Friday and a later afternoon, the museum was almost completely – completely – empty. There were maybe two dozen other visitors, that we saw, in the entire museum, and our professor (who came with us for Rome) kept remarking on the awesome luck that we had.

Afterward the tour of the Vatican, we went to Termini train station, where we started the long, overnight journey to the city of Catania, in Sicily. To do this, we took a train, which had a series of four-person compartments for sleeping. Naturally, the rooms were more or less gender-divided: due to the odd number of girls, however (not to mention the absolute scarcity of men), it meant that a girl would room with the other guy and me. Also rooming with us, however, would be the program director for the tour. That awkward episode aside, the journey was pretty uneventful and we made it to Catania safely and smoothly.

While on our way to the hotel in Catania, I saw something that truly, truly saddened me. Not sad in the way that, say, a stroller full of puppies driven by a gypsy would make me sad (which I did see, and I was sad…for the puppies). No, what I saw made me a different kind of sad. A Timberland store, fully out there, was on the main street of Catania, not twenty feet from the main city square. Now, I know that clothing stores are common in city squares, and often expensive, showy stores at that; that’s not my problem. Why, in a city so full of history and culture as Catania, would a store like Timberland have the prime real estate? Tourists, especially American tourists, go to Catania to experience the Mediterranean Baroque styles and culture, and that includes the shopping. They don’t go there to buy things they could buy by driving twenty minutes in their car at home (it’d probably be cheaper in the states as well). Again, I’m not saying they have to get rid of the places, but sticking them somewhere not as tourist-treaded might spruce up the place a bit.

One of things that's admirable about Catania (and Sicily in general) is that it's got this sort of grimy charm. It's not sparkling clean or showy, but it's got this sort of feel that they have been through a lot (and, considering the ACTIVE VOLCANO just outside the city limits, they have) and it's something that makes it feel like a real city, rather than a tourist trap. It was a cool visit to a place that I wouldn't have gone to otherwise, and I'm glad that Catania was chosen as a place to go for the trip.

We also hiked up Mt. Etna (not all the way, but enough to get the scope of it all). As the largest active volcano in Europe, it’s something of a sight to see, and we spent the good part of a day just walking around it. It’s a pretty stunning view, and the size of the mountain is something to behold. There are lava flows everywhere (not hot anymore, of course) and so in places, the landscape looks really bleak and lifeless. You can almost imagine the lava flows as they sweeped down the mountainside, taking out everything as they went. Pretty surreal feeling.

I’ve found myself surrounded everywhere I go – gelaterias, cafeterias, stores, parties – by Italian music. Though not that I’m complaining. I like the music: some may find it cheesy, and that’s certainly understandable (although I don’t know how ‘cheesy’ translates…formaggioso?), but every now and then you find one you like. They do tend to overplay the hell out of the songs they like, though…

Here are some examples of those currently strangling the airwaves:

I must go to a quick class now, but I’ll be back – with pictures!

Friday, March 6, 2009

The first month is gone, but so much more to do!

Since we’ve moved here, there has been construction next door to our apartment (in the case of our specific apartment, the construction also cuts directly under our rooms: I’ll get a picture for you guys showing this soon). We’re not particularly sure what the reason for the construction is, since it seems (for the most part) to be a very large, open space, with a few small buildings put in, but nothing big enough to hold anything except people. I talked with Roberta about this, and she thinks it’ll be a società for the Lupa contrada. The società is a place for the people of the various contrade to meet, hold parties, watch sports games, and other bonding experiences between neighbors. The closer it gets to Palio season, Roberta tells me, the more active the place will be. I don’t mind the construction, especially since they seem to be making progress (considering we’re in Italy, I was quite shocked), but they have a terrible schedule of working. Around 8AM, jackhammers, drills, and buzzsaws start not twenty feet from where I sleep. It’s annoying, but at least it makes me wake up at a reasonable hour.

Unfortunately, for the past week or so, the girls’ bathroom in our apartment has been completely broken. The shower works, but the toilet floods the floor every time it is flushed. They determined that much of the problem stems from the fact that they are building something directly next door to (and, in our case, directly under) our apartment, and it’s messed up the plumbing under the building. The plumbers have been coming all day to our apartment (each time it seems to be a different person) and asking us things. I’ve been, for the most part, the only one at the apartment at the time they came – Giorgio was at work and Roberta was at class. I stumbled and tripped through what comparatively little Italian I knew, but after a few minutes of me apologizing and asking what these guys meant in the first place, we managed to communicate effectively and figure out the problem. It is at this time that I’m going to explain the Sienese accent.

The accent here is weird. Quite weird. And, to my buffoonery American ears, it doesn’t make sense. Basically, it changes the ‘k’ sound to the ‘h’ sound. For instance, the normal way to say “My name is Carlo” is “Mi chiamo Carlo”. This accent turns it into “Mi hiamo Harlo.” “Let’s go to the Campo” becomes “Andiamo al Hampo”. It’s another wonderfully exasperating rule about Italians: every city, no matter how close to another city, has their own specific accent. Even if that city only has 1,500 people, an Italian can figure out where they’re from. On one hand, it’s really nice that Italy can have such a diversity, such a plethora, of different aspects that makes every tiny town and city unique. On the other hand, if they’re talking to me, I come across as more of an idiot than I usually do.

And now (finally) some more pictures!

The Piazza Del Campo on one of the warmest afternoons we've had while here. It's a favorite past-time, particularly of students, to just sit on the Piazza in warm times, sit or lie down, and relax.

The statue in the center of the Universita' di Siena (not the foreigners' university, just the regular one).

The MeetLife Cafe, a little hole-in-the-wall place that's really quite nice. The bartender knows our faces by now, and it's a nice place to relax between classes or after a stroll through the city. Plus his TV shows sports games.

The Siena soccer stadium. The soccer team here was established in 1904, and, while they're not going to win the championship this year, they're pretty good.

The Via di Pian d'Ovile, the street on which our apartment is. On the right you can see the Fontenuova, which I took a picture of earlier.

Me with the flag of the Lupa Contrada. I think it's a pretty cool flag, and it's nice and big, so I can hang it up here and when I come back.

I'm also going to stick the text here from my last update of my last post. I just updated it last night, and I want people to read it, since they might not have before this post. Anyway, here it is:

A few days ago, it happened. I thought it'd happen sooner, but I held out. I had my first yearning for American food. We were at a party, and there was a group of guys standing in the corner. Someone said something about 'look at those five guys over there', and it happened. I wanted Five Guys so badly. I still do. I love those little burgers and those exquisitely made fries. I should stop talking about it, come to think of it -- the pain of being without is too much.

Speaking of American food, I've given it up for Lent. I know what you're thinking: "Charlie, geez, you're in Italy, going without hot dogs should be easy." That part is easy -- I love Italian food and I love cooking it. At the same time, I'm also giving up American snack foods, like potato chips, M&M's, Coca-Cola, and other things, which is harder for me to give up. But, hey, I only have 30 more days or so to keep it up -- I can make it. Though I'll probably inhale an entire bag of M&M's on midnight of Easter.

Now that all of us students have settled into the rhythm of things like classes, meals, and the time it takes to get around the city, we've all started planning trips and excursions to other parts of Europe. I should rephrase: I'm starting, everyone else has been planning already. I'm not sure where I'd like to go, but I have a few ideas: France, Germany, London, maybe Prague. I have to start making trips and schedules, and so it's pretty good that I got a three-day weekend here.

I find I'm starting to miss things from home more often -- though not the things I'd expect. I miss my family, yes, but I talk with them fairly regularly, so that's good. I do miss my dogs, though, and seeing all the dogs people have here reminds me of them. I'm also missing Vanderbilt and my buddies a bit, but there's plenty of time for me to get absorbed back into the Vandy culture when I get back.

Finally, for Mike who wanted to know, here are the (rough estimate of the) swim times I had for the swim meet: 1:10.36 for the 100 Freestyle and 41.40 for the 50 Breaststroke. Not the best of my life, but I thought they were respectable.