Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Interim Train/Bus Voyage

This post will probably not be too long, because it doesn’t cover that long of a time span. After the airport, I needed to get to the shuttle train station, located under a tunnel and up a staircase, to get to the bus station. It was then that I encountered yet another anti-reasonable measure the Italians had taken with this airport – there were obstructing bars around the escalator entrances to prevent anything other than people going up them. Therefore, I couldn’t simply take the escalator down into the tunnel, and then up to the train station. Instead, I clunked my luggage down the first staircase, all the while picking up my pace to avoid getting run over by my own baggage (which would have been a betrayal of the highest nature), then I schlepped my luggage up the second staircase, which was equivalent to about three or four stories of marble stairs.

I pitied the people that had strollers that had to navigate that passage. Then I pitied the people in wheelchairs. Then I felt sad thinking about a person in a wheelchair falling down the stairs. Then I laughed about it.

After taking out my first bunch of money from the local bancomat and purchasing a ticket on the train (€5.50 for a train ticket that doesn’t even go into Rome? For shame, old man at the ticket counter, for shame!), I waited on the lonely walkway, waiting for a while for the train to come and hoping that I bought the right ticket. When it pulled up, I was in the front of the line to get on the train. Normally, this wouldn’t have meant anything in Italy, and women and old men (and I would say probably the aforementioned kid in the stroller) would be pushing past me to get on the train. I, however, had the advantage of carrying 60 pounds of clunky baggage and 12 hours of jet lag that would lead to outright aggression against anyone who thought of cutting.

Trains in Italy have the seats arranged in fours, with a pair of seats facing another pair of seats. Normally, four could fit, but I selfishly (and proudly) took an entire quartet by myself by placing my luggage on the other seats. Fortunately, not many people entered at my stop, so there was no hostility or encounters.

At the next stop, a girl my age slowly and with much difficulty got into the quartet opposite me (she had many bags as well). Peering over to see if she needed help, I noticed her nametag, and her name was that of one of my future classmates in Siena. I asked her if she was going to Siena, and in fact, she was one of my Siena buddies.

Anne (her name) and I chatted for the 45-minute train ride, mostly about our excitement of seeing Italy in general and Siena in particular. After getting off at Tiburtina Station, we tried to find the bus station, thinking the ticket booth would be at the train stop. This was not the case. After asking a few people, we managed to find it by leaving the station, turning right, crossing the street, entering the dark portal of Azeroth, and taking the first left to get to the ticket counter. We bought our tickets for twenty euro each (which wouldn’t have surprised me if the bus line’s website hadn’t explicitly, in large and friendly letters, claimed that it was only five euro. I’m calling you out, SENA bus lines!) and then had a quick bite at the sandwich shop across the street. I tell you, salami on white bread has never tasted so good.

We went on the bus, knowing that we would pass through the beautiful Tuscan countryside on the way to the stop. We both planned to watch it in all its beauty. Unfortunately, not five minutes after the bus pulled out to leave, we passed out in our seats and slept for nearly two hours.

When I woke up, my face was compressed, my hair was strewn about, and the sleep did nothing to alleviate my jet lag. Also, I was compressed into one seat, with the sun shining through the window onto my lap. When I woke up, my legs felt warm, wet, sticky, and miserable. I spent my last ten minutes thinking what the feeling was similar too. I finally figured that it would be like if my crotch and thighs were raw chicken, and then someone microwaved them. Sorry to put that thought in your heads, but that’s the only way I can properly convey it.

We got off at Piazza Gramsci, which is named after one of Italy’s most famous communists. I believe one of his greatest works translates as “Capitalism Can Suck It” (I’m paraphrasing). At the stop, we met David, the main director of the Siena program, and he led us to our apartments.

Next time: My apartment, my roommates, and many pictures to come!

Friday, January 30, 2009

Boss, dee plane! Dee plane!

All right, here it is: my first blog post after landing in Italy. I wish I could think of something deep and grandiose to say at the beginning, but the day I left, I felt almost relaxed, at least when I was in the airport. Perhaps it was because I had been in that airport many times before, so the simple act of moving around in it was nothing new. I did feel a little bit sad when my parents wished me well and said goodbye, but I knew that they were happy and I’d be talking to them again soon.

As I sat down in the airport at my gate, preparing myself for a 15-hour festival of monotony and boredom, I couldn’t help but overhear three other college-age students who were sitting with their parents and giggling loudly. At first I had planned to simply sit there, minding my own business and waiting for the plane. I started, however, to pick up some of the words they were using, like ‘study’ and ‘abroad’. A-ha, I said to myself, perhaps they will be doing the same thing I will be doing. So, taking a page from Jessie Capps’ book and ‘just-doing-it’, I got up and introduced myself to them. It turns out that they are a few students who, while they live in Alabama, go to Harding University in Arkansas and are going to study in Florence for the semester. I think we were all relieved to see each other and talk to someone else. I was incredibly happy that I wouldn’t be doing this trip alone and bored (since they were going to Rome as well from Atlanta), and they seemed happy to know someone else who not only is studying in Italy, but who also knows some Italian (they didn’t know too much, but they seemed really interested).

We chatted for a long time before we got on the plane to Atlanta, and when we got to Atlanta, another surprise waited for me – Atlanta was the meeting group for all their other student friends. There were 40 in all, and so when I went to the airport cafeteria to get some lunch with them I was soon surrounded by dozens of them, all carrying heavy backpacks and chatting happily.

When we got on the plane (which was quicker than expected, since the plane arrived early and I forgot about the time zone difference), it was pretty hilarious that the entire rear section of the plane had to house all of our loud, excited bodies. A few of the people I met were fascinated by three tween Italian girls near us. I must admit, it’s pretty funny to see girls, iPods in hand and braces strapped, discussing things in Italian with their surprisingly-but-not-complaining hot mother.

I couldn’t sleep on the plane. I think I did for about an hour before I woke up with a neckache and a want for landing. We went over the mainland of Europe (specifically Spain) at approximately 3 am local time. We managed to fly directly over Barcelona, and it was a nice reassurance to see the city up in lights as well made our way to Italy.

As we landed in Rome, although we didn’t see the city proper, we managed to see a lot of the adjacent farms as we descended. Looking at the incredibly picturesque scene was incredible, and made me want to stay for more than three and a half months. It must have been even more exciting for the people who’ve never been to Italy before.

In the airport, it took a bit of time to find our luggage station. Ours was at the end of the line, and since no one else understood any Italian, they just followed me. It’s a lot of pressure to have forty students following you, all counting on you to lead them well. Now I know what Moses felt like (because, really, the promised land and the land of our luggage was the same importance at that point). Fortunately we found our station and all got our luggage sooner or later.

The Fiumicino airport in Rome is really, well, jumbled. Unlike American airports, there seem to be absolutely no order, no error-less way of doing things. Everything was cluttered and disconnected, but it was in a very amiable, lovable way. You like the airport, but you really shouldn’t. You should want to yell and shake the nearest airport employee and say “Why don’t you organize this place? I know five-year-olds who are more organized!” But you don’t. You go through with a nervous smile on your face, a sense of both enjoyment and fear.

After we got our luggage, we went through customs (not really – since we had nothing to declare, we just went out and caught our respective trains). I said goodbye to my new friends, but not without taking a picture first:

From left to right: Meredith, Kelsey, me, Robert, and Katherine (I hope I spelled them all right).

Although it was kind of sad to see them go, we were all in a hurry, and I figured I could see them again, since they were going to Florence, only an hour from Siena by bus. Fortunately, we’re now Facebook friends, so it’s all good in the end.

My next blog will be about my first day in Siena – and all the confusion, tiredness, humiliation, and frustration that that carries.

A piĆ¹ tardi…Ciao!

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Ahh, the memories of my pre-Italian world...

My last weekend at Vandy was very pleasant. When I got there and sat my stuff down, most of the guys were still at class or studying, so there weren’t many people there. I did, however, have a few people there, and myself, Benton, and Dunbar had a good lunch at Cheeseburger Charley’s before Benton had to leave for the airport.

Because Benton was leaving for the inauguration weekend, I, being the only one both with a car and without classes, drove him to the airport. It was the first time I’ve been to the Nashville airport, but fortunately Benton gave good directions. It was nice to have a good last chat before we both left. After that, I went back to the suite. Friday was a very video-game-heavy day, not that I’m complaining. I figured that, since I wouldn’t get to play video games for a good long semester, I might as well get some good practice in.

Saturday was actually a really fun day, a day filled with seeing friends and wishing people well. We had a party that night, which was incredibly fun – we stayed up for a long while and just had usual guy-fun activities (I will fill in the details soon). That way, on Sunday, when I had to leave, I wished everyone well and headed out. All in all, it was a really fun way to spend my last American weekend.

I’ll put up pictures and more information in the late morning my time (really early morning your time). I hope everyone is well, and I want everyone to know that I’m safe and doing great. I’ll get you guys some great pictures!

We gathered before the party started. As you can see, it's hard to fit so many people into our suite, but we manage. And we manage well.

When I got there, and even before the party, there are always people playing World of Warcraft on their computer. While it saddens me, they seem to be having a good time.

The girls at the party.

All of us hanging out.

I'm glad I got to spend my last weekend with my Vandy friends, but I was very excited to get going to Siena. With bittersweet goodbyes and a double chocolaty chip frappuccino in my belly, I set back for Huntsville, ready to start a new voyage.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

One Week to Go (well, less, but who's counting?)

The feeling that I’m leaving still hasn’t sunken in. That’s probably because, with less than a week to go, I don’t have much diversion from the activities I normally do when at home. I still walk the dogs, vacuum the house, watch TV, talk with friends, and eat quick (and probably unhealthy) lunches. The only difference is that now, for about ten minutes or less a day, I stick something else in my suitcase to pack. Not much has changed yet, and so perhaps that makes it more difficult for me to say, “Ah, that’s right, I’m about to leave!”

One of the most difficult things about packing, for me at least, are the packing of hygienic and medicinal stuff. Because any prescription orders can’t transfer to other countries, I needed to get three or four months worth of any medication while I’m here. Not only do I have to get 3 refills at once – a difficult and bureaucratic task in itself – but, since I don’t live in Nashville, I had to transfer the order to a Huntsville pharmacy, where I could pick it up.

After what felt like three hours on the phone talking with various clinic clerks and pharmacists, I managed to get the order transferred to a pharmacy at a local grocery store, so I drove quickly there and headed to the pharmacy section, said my name and my prescription order, and waited while she typed it up to send it in. After a few minutes, however, the pharmacist came back to me, telling me that I needed to give my information again to verify.

“I just need your doctor’s name from Vanderbilt.”

“Oh, it’s Wilford,” I responded helpfully.

“Okay…” she said as she typed it in, then a perplexed look came on her face. “Sorry, there’s no Wilkor in the directory.”

Now, she was about ten feet away, so I forgave her and just repeated it. “No, no, it’s Wilford, with an f.”

She gave an “Ah, I got it now,” look, and typed it back in. She frowned again. “No, there’s no Wilson here either.” Fortunately, she was looking at the phone, then, so she didn’t see my utterly exasperated look. “I’ll just call up the clinic and see if I can find the name.” So I sat down in the waiting area – a tiny space with four chairs, some ladies’ magazines, and Dr. Phil on TV. Imagine my joy.

She came back after ten minutes, wrote down an order, and said to me like in a very victorious way, “It turns out it’s Wilford, with an F-O-R-D.” I decided not to correct her – why not let her have that little victory?

Unfortunately for you readers (and for me) that’s been the most exciting part of my week.

I’ve been trying to pre-assimilate into the Italian culture for the past few days. I’ve watched some soccer clips on the Internet, news feeds, and the like. For the most part I don’t understand what they’re saying, but I can get the gist of it most of the time, which is a good thing. It does seem that, in their TV programming, the Italians have been very crafty in culling any and all ugly people from the television screen. Watching TV in Italy must be like staring at a moving fashion ad for a good half hour. I’ve also started listening to some of the music that’s popular right now, and I’ve got to say, I think I like it. One woman, Giusy Ferreri, sounds a bit like Amy Winehouse, but without the odd makeup and crack addiction, so, you know, good for her.

And so, with a week to go, I’ll write back after I meet up with my friends again this weekend. This time, I’ll bring my camera, and that way I can get some good pictures in before I head out.

PS – The inauguration ceremony today was pretty legitimate, I think. Although I know not everyone voted for him (I did, but I’m pretty sure everyone could figure that out), the ceremony was very nice, and seeing all those people out on the National Mall was pretty astounding. It was pretty cool to watch a good bit of history in the making, regardless of your political leanings. So congrats, Obama -- I'm pretty excited.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

My (Less Than) Two Weeks Notice

Today is January 14th. I leave the country from Atlanta (what a nice place to have my last sight of the USA!) on January 27th. If you can't do the math (I'm looking at you, Alisa. I kid because I care!), that means I now have less than 2 weeks before I depart for Siena, Italy. There are, of course, a lot of things rushing through my head at this point. What will it be like? Will I be able to navigate the airports and bus stations on my way there? Will I forget to back something drastically important, like my flight information or shoes? (the answer to the last question is definitely yes, but the terror is in not knowing exactly what I'm going to forget).

Still, though, I'm very excited, and today, as I start to pack, there is that sort of feeling that it's so close. Until a few days ago, I hadn't really thought of it as something coming. Sure, I knew of it, but I had never actually realized that, yes, in less than two weeks -- less than the time it takes to order something from the internet and have it shipped to your house -- I would be on a plane over the Atlantic Ocean, probably watching some heartwarming family movie and munching on airline pretzels, then getting off in Rome, the road to which all roads lead, before I take the long bus ride to Siena.

Last weekend I visited my friends back on Vandy campus for a few days. When I got there, most were out at classes, out at lunch, or out because they hadn't gotten out of bed yet. I really do have lazy friends. Still, it was a lot of fun. We did the usual guy things. We played video games, we watched TV, we played poker. Overall, it was very relaxing and fun. I felt bad for Mike after he got food poisoning from some bad mayonnaise (although, to bounce off of that, is there really such a thing as good mayonnaise?), so hopefully he's feeling better by now. Another thing I'll say is that I definitely appreciate meal plan and meal money a lot more now, given that I spent a good $50 on meals during the 2.5 days I was there (really, 10 dollars for mediocre chicken fingers and fries? An atrocity, I say.). It was also a nice way to end the weekend, my losing five dollars playing buy-in poker (Just be glad I'm not the gambling type, or I'd have lost ten). At any rate, I'll be heading back to Nashville in two weekends to visit my buds one last time before I head out, so I'll see them then. Next time I'll head up, I'll bring a camera so I can take some pictures.

I may write again before I leave, if I have anything to write about. Until then, see you later.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Inaugural Post

So, here it is. My first post on my first blog.

The reason I started this was as a sort of high-tech journal, allowing me to share moments, stories, and hopefully even multimedia with the rest of the world while I study abroad. After all, what's the point in going to Siena if you can't rub it in other people's faces? Still, I wanted to show things that I experience and events that I am part of with other people. It's a lot easier than really long phone conversations or really dense text messages.

Of course, this won't be one-way. Thanks to the beauty of the interwebz, people can comment when I post. It'll be more fun when I see comments on my page, things that'll mostly be saying, "Wow, Charlie, you're a moron," or "Damn, Charlie, you suck." At least that way it'll be like I never left.

This weekend I'll be driving to Nashville to visit my friends for the weekend. Considering that this is the first time that I won't be living within ten or twenty feet of my former roommates, this trip is a good way to transition from Vanderbilt to studying abroad. It'll also be nice to have a few last nights with my friends to do the things we did during the past semesters. Those things were always fun, why not continue while I'm still able to do so? I imagine the next few nights will be filled with soda, bad food, video games, and regret. Always make sure to bring in the regret.

Things will go here, soon.