Thursday, June 11, 2009

A REAL Ice Cream Sandwich



Italians know how to do Ice Cream, or more specifically, gelato. Ice Cream sandwiches in America are, by comparison, punny. It is made with sweet, choclate-chip bread with powdered sugar on top and three heaping scoops of gelato.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The plains of Italy are GORGEOUS


Our destination after the mountains was Taranto, a coastal city. We didn't run into too many problems on the way there, but I did realize driving here has changed the way I drive. We were getting close to Taranto and we were in stop and go traffic. As we neared a stop light the car in front of me was rolling along slowly past a gas station. I saw that the light was green and thought that the car must be planning on turning into the gas station so I hit the gas and pulled around the car in front of me. As I did so the light turned red and the cars in front of me stopped, so I couldn't make it all the way in front of the car I passed, but instead I was kind of caddy-corner. As soon as I stopped I realized I had just been a major asshole, although the car didn't even honk. The next day while we were driving Anson started laughing because I was swearing at the car in front of me (it decelerating as it approached an on ramp ... something I found/find very counterintuative). I even peeled out once when going around a curve. Although, I've also found American traffic frustrating since I've been back I think if I hadn't adapted to Italian traffic at least a little I might not have been able to hack it. I'm sure the same is true of Anson although he's always been more comfortable with speed.

Anywhoo, when we made it to Taranto we parked on the edge of town and started looking around. We quickly stumbled upon a sort of Italian flea market and, before long, Anson found something he wanted to buy. A deck of numberless cards, they simply used symbols. It was only one euro so he bought it right out. We continued on through the crowd browsing. We passed some neat pipes, a sword, and a variety of other interesting things but didn't get any of it. We did, however, discover that Anson's deck of card only had 40 or so cards. They had had another deck or two so we decided to go back and see if we couldn't get one of those and, between the two of them, make a full deck.

This is one of the more, in hindsight, embarrassing language/culture experiences I've had. Anson, after reading a long history of cards, found out that there were only supposed to be 40 cards in the deck. Now the odd, suspicious, sidelong glances they gave us as the looked for the other deck of cards made sense. It makes sense because ... they thought we were crazy. They didn't end up finding another deck of cards so Anson and I set out for our next objective, food.

Anson kept asking for hamburgers and hot dogs in the hope that he would get something crazy and unique and Taranto didn't disappoint. When he ordered his hot dog they asked if he wanted french fries. He did. After a few minutes they served him a hot dog, cut in half long-wise, on a sub with fries sandwiching it on either side. It turned out to be very unique and also very delicious.

After dinner we began our evening search for a campsite. This evening however, we were looking to poach. We wanted something by the road, without much traffic or light. Preferably flat and without grazing animals or trash. It took us a lot of slow driving on back roads and some guts-ing up but we found a suitable place. We didn't find out until after we were laying down in the tent that our spot wasn't as flat as it had looked but we both slept well.

The next morning we got up at 7 and headed out. After getting breakfast we began our search for some archaeological ruins on the coast south of Bari. These too took some searching but these too we found in the end. They turned out to be spectacular. It was a village and burial site that were ~2000 years old. It was neat to see and we even got to walk inside some of the tombs and a large storage chamber. The coast in the areas was particularly
beautiful. It was rocky, which was neat because you could see where the ancient villagers had used the cliffs as a quarry.

By the time we left the ruins it was time to begin our daily ritual of looking for somewhere to eat. After almost an hour and one false start (we thought a pizzeria was open but, upon entering and talking with the management, who were there cooking, we found out it wasn't) we were hungry and frustrated with the whole thing. Just as we were starting to head back to the car to drive somewhere else, we saw a Chinese restaurant. Italians may take 4 hour lunch brakes but I was pretty sure Chinese didn't. We walked into the restaurant and, indeed, someone immediately came out and took us to a table. The food was good and I got to practice my Chinese ... always a bonus.

After a refreshing lunch we left and made for our next destination, the Castellana Grotte. They turned out to be stunning caves but very commercialized. We couldn't even take pictures inside because the city owned the digital rights and would not stand for anyone else trying to usurp them. The cave tour culminated in the 'White Cave', a truly stunning room where the water creating the formations was pure of certain elements leading to completely white stalactites and stalagmites. Another interesting thing in the caves was the effect of the lighting. Previously nothing grew in the caverns because it was dark but now, around the lights, algae was growing. Apparently in some parts of the cave the air was even being turned more acidic by human breath, leading to stalactites being destroyed by the constant dripping of water, instead of created. It was sad and made me wonder what the caves would be like in 20 years.

When we got out of the caves we found that we had gotten a parking ticket. It was a bummer but the main problem was that we didn't know how to pay it. I ended up taking it back to Bologna and asking my Spanish class what to do with it. Then Anson and I took a field trip to the post office, what my class/teacher had recommended, and paid it there. Immediately, however, our concern was to get our car washed and get to Bari. A guy on our tour of the cave was ''backpacking'' around Southern Italy so decided to give him a ride to Bari.

On the way we stopped at a car wash. We had to ask for directions but then we got it figured out and got the car reasonably clean. Anson didn't think it was a big deal but I was paranoid about getting a huge charge after we turned the car in for 'cleaning' (I, so far, haven't). Driving into Bari proved somewhat stressful but we found a parking garage and pulled in there. The parking spots were so narrow that parking was almost more nerve wracking than driving had been but we
made it.

Our main exiting event of the evening was stumbling upon some giant soccer celebrations. We literally rounded a corner and suddenly were confronted by a big screen TV and hordes of people watching, yelling, drinking, and generally carousing. This seemed a little more intense than we were quite ready for so we did our best to skirt most of it, only stopping to get gelato. On the way back to the car we stopped at a Tabacchi (smoke shop) where Anson bought another deck of cards. It wasn't until now that we began to realize the decks were only supposed to have 40 cards, and the used deck he'd gotten hadn't been short at all. It was just Italian.

We had to wake up early the next morning to drop off the car and catch our flight, so we just decided to spend the night in our car. The flight back was uneventful except that the passengers broke out into song a couple of times. The right soccer team must have one the night before. The trumpets sounded again on our landing, promting another round of song. We had made it back to Bologna.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The mountains of Italy are AMAZING

I woke up early (I thought) but Anson was up over an hour before me enjoying the sunrise. It was fully light by the time I woke up and we walked down to the beach again to stretch our legs. It was sunny, but chilly and pretty windy. However, I had wanted to swim in the Mediterranean and I knew this was going to be my last chance on this trip so I went back to the car and changed into my swimsuit. On the way back to the beach Anson advised me to just run straight in so, once we made it there, I sprinted straight in. It was cold but shallow. I swam out about 10' but it didn't get any deeper so I just waded around a little. 

Our campground had showers on the way back in and I started to use one of them before I realized they actually had hot showers too. So I went and tried to use one of those but unfortunately they weren't free. Thus, I trudged back out into the wind and stood under the shower head. I took a deep breath before turning it on full blast. It was as cold as I expected so I scrubbed off quickly and headed back to the car. We cranked up the heat and headed off. 

This day of driving was characterized much less on navigating by map and much more on which mountains we thought we could make it to by taking which roads in our immediate vicinity. By heading towards the steep cliffs, we made finally arrived at Castel Mezzano. The castle part had been built onto/into the rock itself and probably would have been a pretty good fortification. A modern addition that Anson and I were much more interested in was the zip line. It stretched from the top of the highest peak at Castel Mezzano, all the way across the valley, to a mountain on the other side (www.volodellangelo.com). It was, unfortunately, closed. Anson and I looked for food, an occupation that was beginning to become quite tiresome, and, not finding any, moved on. 

Since coming to Southern Italy I had been reminded more than once of Taiwan and now, as Anson and I navigated down the mountain on steep, debris ridden, and frequently one lane (due to landslides) roads the resemblance was overwhelming. In Naples moped use was almost as high as Asia, and I had even seen a family of 5 riding on one moped, something I had thought was distinctly Taiwanese. Squatter toilets and toilets without seats were also in regular use and, furthermore, families that owned restaurants seemed to also use them as their home. The food was even cheaper too. Now, driving along these roads with Anson, I was reminded of driving along Taroko Gorge with my dad the previous year. It was more surprising than anything else. 
Either Taiwan is advanced or Southern Italy is behind. Possibly both.

After more driving and many split-second navigational decisions we ended up in Tricario. We were still looking for food but we couldn't see anything open so we kept driving. It had started to rain but the scenery was still spectacular. We were in a type of deciduous forest and we began to see stock animals.
 When coming down from Castel Mezzano we had driven through some sheep in the road. Now we saw large grey cows that, at first glance, looked a little like elephants. Only at first glance though. We continued driving when we suddenly saw a restaurant sign on our left. Anson swung the wheel and we pulled up short in a parking space.

Our fist impression on entering the restaurant was that it was probably nicer than what we were looking for but we were seated quickly so it didn't seem like we had much choice. The restaurant was bustling with people, I guessed they were the after church crowd. After a moment the waiter came up to take our order and we quickly found out that he spoke English. And his name was Alfonzo. They didn't use a menu for lunch, instead they just had some things that they recommended. Anson chose lasagna and then it was my turn. Anson told him I was vegetarian (better to get that out early) and his response was not heartening. "Oooh, that is not good, we only work with meat at lunch." Because I had had a good experience yesterday with spinach I decided just to ask for that, or perhaps mushrooms. "I aint got not spinach, I got mushrooms, but I aint got no spinach." I asked for a small pizza but that request was also denied. Apparently they don't do pizza at lunch. Alfonzo then suggested a plate with mushrooms, peppers, and cheese. It sounded good to me so I agreed. 

After he left we observed the decor of the restaurant. It turned out that there was a picture on the wall next to our table, of a whole pig being roasted. I guess I shouldn't have been surprised by the "we only work with meat at lunch" thing. Alfonzo turned out to be very nice and he frequently stopped by our table to talk. He turned out to be a very interesting guy, having lived in Liverpool and London for 6-8 years all told. No wonder his English was good.

Before too long he came out again, this time bringing our food. Anson's lasagna was pretty straightforward and apparently, very delicious. My plate was a bit of a surprise but ... I guess that should have been expected. There were two large (3-4" x 1" x 2 ") pieces of cheese, one mozzarella, which was tied in a knot, and the other was provolone (I think). I also had peppers, and eggplant. The best though, was the mushrooms. I think it is common to cut bell peppers in half, then pack the halves with something and bake them. I had not thought that this could be done to mushrooms but indeed, although they weren't cut in half first, the tops were stuffed and they turned out very delicious. Alfonzo had also talked us into getting some bruschetta (baked bread with tomatoes, olive oil, and spices). Jeannie and I had made it once in Bologna but this was vastly superior, I think because of more oil and more salt. Although eating the two pieces of cheese was sort of intense (it was just a lot of cheese) the meal overall was fantastic. Anson got coffee afterwards and it too was delicious. The best was yet to come, however.

While talking with Alfonzo before, it had come out that Anson and I were driving around and camping where we could. As we were paying, Alfonzo asked if we had a specific camping destination for the night and, when we said we had none, began advising us on camping in the area. After some discussion he said we could camp there if we wanted to. There would be live music at the restaurant and that they served pizza (among other things, they just assumed, correctly, that we would want pizza) at dinner. Suddenly, there were two short and squat (not fat, you could just tell that they enjoyed their cooking) old people wearing aprons appeared. I assume that they were the proprietors of the restaurant and the ones behind the idea to let us camp at their restaurant. 

This whole situation again illustrated how helpful, possibly overly so, the Italians were. We hadn't even asked for directions, let alone any advice on where to camp. However, we had gotten camping advice and more, we had gotten a free place to sleep, with the side offer of more good reasonably priced food and some live local Italian music. The chefs were still by the table, looking friendly and concerned. They spoke swiftly to Alfonzo. Turns out they offered to let us sleep inside the restaurant. We would, of course, have to wait until everyone left, at midnight or so, but then we could make ourselves at home. Sort of. 

The offer was tantalizing, especially since it had just started to rain and, although we would probably sleep fine in a wet  tent, it does kind of suck. We discussed our options and decided to keep moving. It wasn't that we didn't want to sleep there, it was that we were in the mountains and we were pretty sure that if we went out of the mountains it wouldn't be raining.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Pompeii and Sorrento

We got up early (Anson actually got up really early and saw the sun rise on the beach) and went to Pompeii. First, though, we had to stop to pick up more supplies. We had seen signs for a large grocery store (we had actually stopped at it but it was closed). We pulled into the parking lot at 8:30 and found out it didn't open until 9, so we decided to wait. By the time  o'clock had rolled around there were 50 or so people waiting to get into the store. Most of them had carts and the atmosphere was sort of like the beginning of a race. People were not really 'jockeying' but more moving around slowly to try to gain a better position. As soon as the security guard opened the gate those in front shot out on their shopping errands. After Anson and I had gotten our groceries we headed off towards Pompeii. 

Although it was beautiful, and really cool to be able to walk around in that old of a place, it was sort of like a museum. Ie. it was really neat at first but after a while became a lot less exciting. Due to poor planning on our part we didn't bring in food and, because they didn't sell any inside Pompeii, we ended up leaving sooner than we would have liked. After Anson got lunch and I got gelato we walked around to the front and, to our surprise, they let us back in. Having been satiated, we enjoyed our round two entrance a bit more.

Because we were let in again, it was almost 4 by the time we left Pompeii, so we decided to begin making our way south, in preparation for heading inland (and back towards Bari) the next day. In Sorrento we stopped again for food and, to our surprise, we actually found a kebab restaurant. Anson ordered one of those but, because they are supremely meaty, I looked for something else on the menu. I saw savory looking baked goods in the display case and something that had spinach in it on the menu. For some reason (probably wishful thinking) I assumed that they were the same thing but, just in case, I asked if the menu item had meat in it. It did. (I found out later that the menu item I was asking about corresponded to the plate of spinach with sausages on it in the display case. Duh! it had meat in it.) I then asked if the delicious looking item in the display case had meat in it. It also did. After a couple more minutes of talking I began to realize that this experience was exactly what Anson had been talking about when he said 'When you ask an Italian a question, it is not just a question but a problem that needs to be solved.' I had brought up eating spinach and it was rapidly becoming clear that they were going to make sure I ate some spinach, if that was indeed what I wanted. I did my best to convey that that was what I wanted so they nodded and asked me to sit down. By this point Anson was well into his kebab and when, by the time he finished it they still hadn't brought out any food, we began to wonder if I had actually ordered anything. 

It was foolish for us to doubt and moments later they brought out ... a steaming plate of buttery, cheesy, salty, oily, and generally delicious looking plate of spinach. I answered in the affirmative when he asked if I wanted bread. Moments later he returned with bread, which I quickly used to sop up the oil and butter. It was, perhaps, a little to salty but overall good and, most importantly, it was very very Italian. 

After dinner we continued moving south and began to keep our eyes out for a campsite. We were not too excited about the possibility of paying 20 euros to camp so we tossed around the idea of just camping on the beach. However, as we drove along the coastal highway we started to see prostitutes on the side of the road. This only further contributed to a general air of shadiness so we ended up paying to camp in a gated campground by the beach. After we got set up we went for a walk on the beach, which, while nice, mostly reaffirmed our decision not to poach camping.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Heaven Help Us

The only excitement that the morning brought was trying to get onto the autostrada (highway). Anson and I had to ask at a gas station to figure it out but, just FYI, you take the ticket when you get on and give the ticket (and the corresponding amount of money) when you get off. Also, unless you are going roughly double the speed limit, you are treated as a 'grand-ma', dangerous at worst and humiliating at best. For example, as best we could figure out the speed limit on the autostrada was 80 kpm. Although we were doing around 130-140 we felt almost like snails as we were repeatedly sped past. We did our best to take it in stride.

Our destination for the day was Naples. Thanks to the convenience of the autostrada we made it there by about 11:30 and we stopped on the outskirts for lunch. It turned out to be a nice calm before the storm. Traffic had been somewhat crazy on the way into town but manageable. There was one main road with 2-3 lanes on it depending on how the aggresive drivers felt and how small their cars were. There was also a lot of jockeying within the stop and go traffic, which was 
somewhat nervewracking, but mostly harmless if you just let other people sort themselves out.

As we got further into town, however, things got much worse. The streets became more and more packed with cars, honking increased, and any forward progress seemed based on how willing you were to cut off the guy next to you in traffic. In some places traffic was completely stopped and people were getting out of their cars to shout. Then, suddenly, traffic was moving a little more and Anson and I came up on what looked like a sort of roundabout. I have done my best to accurately recreate how the street sign looked, although I was stressed at the time and didn't get much chance to ponder its intricacies because there were many cars behind me, all rip-roarin ready to go.
 Furthermore, although all I really remember is that it was a confusing jumble of circles, my model is probably more simple than the real thing was because mine is just one road going in a wierd sort of cursive J while the real sign probably depicted more than one road. 

Anywhoo, because there were cars behind me rarin' to go, Anson and I had no real objective inside Naples to see, and the sign would have been a terrible indicator even if we had known which way to go so ... I went right. I don't know if any other direction would have been better but I do know that I certainly would not got right again. We ended up getting funneled up-hill onto narrower and narrower streets with progressively more pedestrians. They eventually became so thick on the road that I could barely move forward. 

Nudging is  a sort of theme in Italian driving. Anson and I had begun to notice its use at intersections in alleys (where there frequently are no signs indicating right-of-way) or when merging onto heavily trafficed roads. People just keep merging out until the oncoming cars actually have to swerve to miss them, then finally one car slows down and they make it out. It is more dubious in alleyways because cars sometimes begin to nudge out right as one is coming up on them. 

So we had begun to notice the nudge and, seeing as pedestrians were thick as flies, I decided to try to nudge through them. I eventually made up to another alleyway. I was forced to stop again, but this time not by pedestrians. There was a car (car A) coming out of an alley to my right. It wanted to turn left onto the street I was on, but another car (car B) wanted to turn into the alley it was coming out of, and had pulled so far foward that it couldn't pull out. Before I clearly understood the situation I had pulled forward far enough so that we were all basically stuck. Fortunately there was a member of the local police force there to help us out. I had previously wondered if we were doing anything wrong by driving in an area with so many pedestrians but either, we weren't or this police officer didn't care. He just got car B to back up so car A could pull out. It was then my turn and the only place I could go (not that I particularly wanted to) was up the alley car A had just come out. The police officer waived me on so I started to nudge forward. 
I immediately ran into a wall of pedestrians. I honked, but all that got was one or two looks and 0 people willing to move so I could go. The police office again stepped in to smooth out traffic by stopping the pedestrians. I had to drive over the curb to get into the alley but destiny appeard to be forcing us in that direction so I drove on. 

Car B had pulled in behind me so even as the alley narrowed and steepend I was forced to drive on. The alley ended in a sort of dead end. There were two guys standing in front of me with not way to go on in that direction. One of them pointed off to the right, where there were two other narrow alleys basically going back in the direction we had come. I took the left one in hopes that it would get us out of the maze. As we drove past him the guy shouted that we should turn left at the end of the alley. We did make it to the end and turn left, but the way there was not only really narrow, but also littered with debris such as a mattress and a car engine. 

The left at the end of the alley pushed us further uphill but we ended on an actual two lane road that wasn't a tiny alley. The sketchiest part of the drive was over although traffic remained so thick and the mopeds in the other lane were nudging so aggresively that I hit one with my mirror. The mirror bent out of the way and the mopeder seemed not to notice so I refrained from yelling at him to get in his on lane. We finally made it down somewhere and (hallelujah) found a parking place. It seemed to good to be true since we had not only seen none up to that point, but we had also seen regular double parking, leading me to believe that there were no available parking spaces in the whole city. However, there it was so I pulled in. Ah!! Heaven helped us!! We made it through Naples on what was the heaviest traffic day in 10 years. (I found this out later from Niccola, the dad in the famliy Jeannie babysits for.) Apparently spring had come late and it was European Labor Day so everyone in the country had gone to the coast. 

Beacuse it was Labor Day very few of the shops were open and, after walking around for a while, we decided to head on out of Naples. We briefly considered going out to one of the nearby islands but decided to check out the castle overlooking the harbor instead. Alas it was closed so we contented ourselves with looking at the outside before getting back in the car and heading down the road. It was about 3 so we decided start thinking about a campsite, in which vein we decided to head towards Sorrento. We stopped for food once and Anson got an Italian style hamburger. The traffic continued to be bad the whole way but it was all pretty mellow compared to what it was like in Naples. Once, traffic was slow and I let another car in front of me. The driver did not even wave a thank you but instead turned away and honked once, teaching us a little more about the acceptable uses of honking.

We finally saw a sign for camping so we swung off the road to the right and began driving down a narrow and steep road. At the bottom we found the advertised campsite and turned in. I steeled myself for another conversation in broken Italian and got out of the car. I went over to the proprietor and (I'm pretty sure) said "I would like ... (dramatic pause for effect)  ... CAMPING!" He responded, somewhat disappointingly, in English, so we got everything taken care of pretty quickly. Although the campsite was more expensive than the one we had stayed at the night before, it was very nice. 
There were orange trees everywhere and some roses and it was generally a very pleasant place to be. After Anson and I got set up we walked down to the beach, then up to the next town (Vico Equense) for dinner. 

Friday, May 8, 2009

I LOVE ITALY!!

We neared the runway. The wheels touched down and I heard a sudden noise. Music. Trumpets playing triumphally. Many of the passengers broke out in applause. As Anson and I grinned and looked at each other inquisitively, wondering why a normal plane landing warrented such celebration, a voice came on over the intercom and annouced happily that we had arrived on time. Furthermore, so the annoucement said, Ryanair flights were ontime more than 90% of the time (the best record in Europe) and that because of this, and the cheap fares, we should continue flying with Ryanair. A damn fine argument if I've ever heard one. 

Anson and I had decided, while he was visiting me, to fly to Bari (on the Adriatic in southern Italy) and there rent a car. Now that the flight was on the ground, the next thing to do was rent the car. It took a little bit of waiting and some finagling, involving going to another rental place, but we did get a car rented. Now came the fun part ... driving. We drove straight out of the parking lot and ran smack into a roundabout. We took it and went straight back into the parking lot. We took a break, got our bearings more firmly settled, and headed back out onto the open road. The roundabout didn't manage to foil our exit this time and we headed for our first destination, an old castle built by the Holy Roman Emperor Federick the Second in the 
mid 1200's called Castel del Monte. Getting there didn't prove too terribly difficult but it was a sort of sink or swim experience. 

Anson was driving first and had had no chance to familiarize himself with the road conditions of Italy (a quasi complete lack of obeyed traffic laws). Although he was able to swim fabulously, avoiding all collisions and managing to pass a bike while being passed by a car in the other direction and being flanked by two parked cars, we did have to take an early brake. I went into a grocery store to get some supplies and Anson headed into a cafe for a sandwhich. After I got the groceries I decided (having brought the map into the store with me) that asking for directions would be good. The supermarket seemed to have a slight excess of staff and when I pulled out my map they materialized from all directions to provide assistance. I pointed to Castel del Monte on the map and did my best to communicate that I wanted to know how to get to the road that led there. I think they got it but none knew which road to take, so my cashier led me out of the store. 

We headed across the street to what looked like an abandoned gas station. There was nothing inside the store and all the pumps were wrapped up in paper. There turned out to be a middle aged man sitting in a plastic chair out front with his hands in his pockets, apparently not doing anything. The cashier began to talk to the man and show him the map. A near by German Shepard stood up and barked liesurely. 

The man began to speak to me rapidly in Italian. I gathered that we were looking for highway 95, that we should take a couple turns, and that there would be railroad tracks involved at some point. With these directions in mind, Anson and I headed back to the car. I decided that I loved Italy and asking for directions. I hadn't understood most of what transpired but everyone had been friendly, and it seemed like I had learned some things that would help us  get out of town. 

We headed off in the indicated direction and did take some turns and find some railroad tracks. We crossed them, but ended up pulling a U-ey (an art we would become practised in over our trip) and heading back into town. We had a map of the country which was reasonably detailed, showing major roads and some secondary ones. However, it completely lacked maps of cities; something that turned out to be a serious deficit. We did devise a strategy to cope with it which was, although not perfect, certainly adequate. We just drove around turning onto the roads that were bigger than the one we were on until we were on a road large enough to have signage directing us to the next town. Many of these towns were not on our map, but we usually could make an educated guess, and we always ended up somewhere.

After a few detours, we made it to Castel del Monte. It was neat to see but ... perhaps not as neat as one would hope. You couldn't even get on the roof. So we kept moving, heading north towards the Gargano Peninsula, the so called 'spur' of Italy. We stopped along the way in Barletta and ended up finding another castle. This one was much more like a fortification and less like a hunting home. Although we were able to get up on the roof, this castle seemed to have been partially turned into an office building. We checked out the dungeons too, where we stumbled upon an echo chamber. All in all, the second castle was much more fun to see, but after  a bit we decided to keep moving. 

Our destination for the night was Manfredonia and, without too many wrong turns, we made it. We were starting to get hungry but, in what was going to be a trend for the trip, there were no stores open. It was about 6 pm, which is earlier than many restaurants open but, we hoped, not too late for the tourist information office to be open. So we went there. The front door was locked, but the lights were on, so Anson and I hesitated outside the door wondering if there was anyone still inside. A man rounded a corner in the building and came over to open the door. He said something I didn't understand, so I just sort of looked back at, smiling stupdily. He repeated it, and I guessed that he was asking what we wanted. I don't know how to express 'can' so I asked where it was possible to eat. Then I rubbed my fingers together to indicated that money was a consideration. Here our man started to show his true mettle. Anson later observed that when you ask an Italian for something they treat it as a problem to be solved instead of a simple inquiry. This observation was to be proved again and again over our trip, but this first time was one of the best examples. Our man didn't just point us 50" down the street to a random cafe. He wanted to get us the best possible Italian food we could while meeting our cost considerations. He also wanted it to be easy for us to get to. Immediately, after I asked the question our man stepped outside the door and began to ponder. We could see that we were in for something good.

After thinking for  a moment our man invited us inside. He took us back to his office and offered us seats. While looking at his office we realized that he was a city employee, i.e. he didn't even work for the tourist office, but he just wanted to help us out. He did most of the talking and a lot of repeating,  but I gathered we were supposed to go to 'Leclerc'. I asked if it was a city. He said no but then got up and went to a map in the corner of the room. He then began to ascern where we had come from, where we were going, and where we were going to sleep that night. 

During my time here, my Italian has progressed significantly from nothing to ... descent tourist Italian. I can ask where things are, how much things cost, make sure that there is no meat in foods, and that sort of thing. However, my Spanish has gotten a lot better and whenever my Italian breaks down I try to slip in a Spanish word or two without anyone noticing. If that doesn't work I resort to English and more enthusiastic gesticulations. If this doesn't work ... I repeat myself a few times with different inflections and gesticulations. Between all this I can usually get my point across, and I actually enjoy it, partly because I think its just sort of fun and challenging in and of itself, and partly because I am putting myself in their shoes. I can only guess at how crappy my diction is, and it makes me laugh to think about asking someone the Italian equivalent of 'wheeere is posseble eating?'.

Our man also seemed to enjoy communicating and definitely one-upped me with the gestures. We where planning on heading to Naples the next day. When he found out he took his glasses off and rested them on a table. He looked deep into my eyes and slowly raised his hands towards his face. He gave Anson the same penetrating stare. Then he started to smile, pulled down his bottom eyelids, continuing to stare at us and smile happily, and said slowly 'o c c h i   a p e r t i'. Then he took his hands down from his eyes and held them in front of his chest with the fingers of one hand spread wide and the other hand in a fist. He said something in Italian and then, whistling slowly, he began to close the fingers of his open hand one by one until it too was a fist. He then pulled his eyelids down again and repeated 'occhi aperti'. Apparently, Naples was dangerous, and we should not only watch out for people stealing things but keep our eyes open. Ah, the joys of communication. 

These two warnings were repeated frequently thoughout our whole interaction. Indeed, they were repeated frequently enough that, when we did get to Naples, I was really worried about our car getting stolen. Our man continued questioning us and seemed concerned about where we were going to spend the night. We told him we were planning on camping and managed to gesticulate across that we had sleepings bags. Also tent is 'tenda' in Italian so ... we got that idea across too. He recommended against camping because of the weather and told us to sleep in our car in the parking lot just outside. I'm pretty sure he said he would have let us sleep there except that he might get fined. After 'discussing' this some more we moved back to where we would eat. 

He said 'Leclerc' again and then wrote it down for us. 'Le  cle  rc' He held up the piece of papers and read slowly for us emphasizing the spaces so we would be doubly sure to understand. He went on to discribe this place to us. Apparently it was a mall of sorts but there was a good restaurant there that was not only cheap but was also very good. Our man began to expound the virtues of this store, good pasta, good meat, lots of fruit, good appetizers, and on and on. I'm fairly sure that he said he'd go with us, except that he had work to do. I told him I was a vegetarian but that Anson could eat the meat dishes. A few days later I was thinking about it and I'm pretty sure I called Anson 'she' on accident a couple of times, but our man didn't make a fuss about it. Our man continued to talk about Leclerc and even wrote down directions (frequently repeated) on the same piece of paper that he had written the name on. 

When we finally left, our man walked us out and shook hands with us. He pointed to the parking lot and told us we could sleep there if we wanted and it would be safe. We could close our eyes without worrying there. As we walked back to our car, Anson and I shared our mutual astonishment at how nice our man had turned out to be. He certainly wasn't the first Italian to be nice to me, but he genuinely tried to help us find a place to eat good Italian food. Despite how good his directions were we still took a wrong turn (although we noticed it quickly) on the way there. In the parking lot we got honked at for stopping at a stop sign, reminding us to keep on our toes.

We were quite hungry by this point, but when we went into the mall we were quickly disappointed. We saw a restraunt dead ahead. It was, however, all shut down. A small sign on one of the doors explained, it was closed for renovations, but only for one day. Our man must not have known. We walked around the corner and found a pizza place. We would've thought this was the place our man meant, but when I had mentioned pizza he had shaken his head, disappointed. Pizza, he informed us, was okay if you were in America but in Italy ... :( ... we should eat good pasta. We ended up eating pizza anyway, but ...  at least we tried to follow his advice.

We camped at a roadside campsite and were on the road early the next day.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Vacation and Spring Time

The hallowed holiday of Spring Break had come to Jeannie's school. She and I combined our interests and crafted a trip wherein we would backpack from Lecco to Mandello del Lario, to a house a classmate of Jeannie's rents out. The trip was, initially at least, stalled by one of the last things humanity has not yet learned to control, Mother Nature.

Either we haven't found the right website for weather or the meteorologists in Italy are especially crappy but they are consistently wrong. I mean, I know that everyone talks about how bad people are at forecasting the weather, and everyone likes to poke fun at their local weather man. However, I usually like to cut them a little slack because ... they are predicting the future. The ones here, though, can't even get the present right. I lost all confidence in them when once, earlier in the year, Jeannie checked the weather and informed me that it was 9 degrees Celsius (48 Fahrenheit) and snowing. I knew this for a boldfaced lie because I had just been outside (the sun was out and it wasn't snowing) and so it took me a minute to catch the incongruity. Jeannie had to help me but I finally caught it ... it can't snow when its that warm.

Anyway, the weather was forecast to rain the whole week of our vacation. I am highly skeptical of the weather service here but as the time neared for our departure, and I realized that we weren't that well prepared for rain (I didn't have a pack cover and Jeannie didn't have anyway to keep her feet or legs dry), I began to get nervous about the forecast. Furthermore, we had had a string of beautiful, blue-bird, days an I was worried that we were due for some rain.

My worries turned out to be ill-founded. The sky, as far as we could see from the train, was again blue and the temperature was warm. The train ride to Lecco was about 4 hours and we wanted to get there with enough time to do some hiking so ... we got up at 5 am. Our train left Bologna at 7 and, after a short connection in Milan, we got to Lecco at about 11. I couldn't find any maps before we left so all we knew was that we would, hopefully, find a tourist information office and it would, hopefully, have some maps which we could use to hike from Lecco to Mandello del Lario.

In Lecco our first reconnaissance only revealed what seemed like a dozen travel agencies. They, however, only had maps for remote destinations. We kept on, though, and we finally found the tourist information office. It turned out to be a goldmine and receptionist was perfect for her job. She was super friendly and when I asked if we could camp anywhere, although she said most of the land was private, she still recommended we give it a shot. "They aren't going to come and put you in handcuffs, and if they try to you can always say you don't speak Italian." In the end, gave us maps and advice o'plenty, and sent us happily on our way.

The plan she had laid out for us was incredibly simple. 'Walk through this piazza to the newspaper stand. Buy 2 bus tickets. Take bus number 1 to the last stop.' Buses have always been a mystery to me and the system in Taipei was complex enough that I never took the bus more than a 10 times the whole year I was there. Bologna's bus system, though it is smaller, isn't much better, and I don't really use it either. In this light, it was refreshing to be taking bus number 1, especially in a town that appeared to only have about 5 bus routes. Added to that was that the weather, despite forecasts of doom, was sunny and warm.

In Italy hiking appears to be rather different than in the US. In the US, for the most part, the trails are not steep, steep, or really steep, but there are usually trail construction standards and even in the extreme the gradient of the trail is limited by how steep dirt can be before it just erodes itself away to a lower angle. Trails could be steeper if they were on rock, but rock is usually not part of hiking paths. Italy, however, appears to have devised a couple of ways to circumvent this.

I had heard of one called, Via Ferratta before. It is basically iron rungs attached to the rock, resulting in a ladder. The other kind I was less familiar with but my impression is that it is for lower angled rocks and it is basically just a chain handrail. The tourist information advisor had initially suggested we take a couple of trails that left immediately from Lecco. However, upon further investigation, she found that these included sections of Via Ferratta, or at least required equipment. We weren't quite prepared for Via Ferratta, especially because this was Jeannie's first backpacking trip.

So, our advisor had chosen a new trail, which she said was 'facile' (easy). She said it only took a couple of hours and, as our bus zoomed up a large hill, it confirmed my suspicion that our hike would be a walk in the park. Because our plans mostly involved taking it easy, resting, eating, napping, resting, taking it easy, and eating an easy hike seemed to fit the bill perfectly.

However, after the bus driver pointed us in the direction of the trail and we got started, we soon found that 'facile' was not going to be as easy as we had thought. During one of our eating/resting breaks we examined the map and found out that, to our surprise, 'facile' was intermediate level difficulty. The easiest was 'elementari' and the hardest (usually requiring equipment) was 'impegnativi'.

Although the trail was steep (much steeper than we'd expected), we managed to make it up it and the views were stunning. We were heading for the 'Piani Resinelli' which is a small city and had
prompted my question about where we would camp. We ended up finding a camping spot on the downhill side of the 'Piani Resinelli' and, though we could see a couple houses from our tent, we were reasonably well secluded. Furthermore, we hadn't seen more than 10 people the whole day, including walking through a small town and asking two women for directions.

I was a little worried about cooking dinner with my stove because I had had to procure some gasoline from a local gas station and, because I didn't do enough research before hand, I was only somewhat sure that I had gotten the right kind of gas. Furthermore, when testing out my stove before we left a small fireball had erupted from the stove when I lit it and, even more distressing, the fuel bottle had leaked and the fireball had caught it on fire. Most distressing, however, was that, because I had decided to do this test on our stove top (it seemed like a fire-durable surface), I was also worried about the cabinets catching on fire. I had managed to keep anything from getting burned, but the stress from the incident had kept me from doing anything more mentally strenuous
than listening that whole afternoon, and I was nervous about using the stove again. Fortunately, although the flame was dirty, there was no fireball and our pasta boiled up right nice.

The next day we hiked down into Maggiana Crebbio and thence on to Jeannie's friend's house in Mandello del Lario. From then on we, continuing our trend, mostly spent our days resting and eating, with regular walks down to the lakeside before or after meals. Other than that only a couple interesting things happened.

The first interesting thing was: we tried to cook pizza. We decided while we were hiking that it would be pleasant to cook ourselves a pizza. After ascertaining that the house had an oven we went to the store and bought all the fixings. We then prepared one pizza without thinking to pre-heat the oven first. When we tried to do this we found out that something was wrong with the oven. Gas would come out but it wouldn't light. So I reached in with a lighter and lit it. The problem appeared to be solved but we decided to ask the neighbors for help just in case (I was still gunshy of possible fireballs). The neighbors proved of little help when she tried to use the timer to light the stove, then told us that it 'non funziona'. So, we thanked her and smiled and said we'd figure something out. After she left I took another look at the oven and found another heating unit on the bottom, that I had not lit before. We had not smelled gas, but I tried lighting it a couple of times, to no avail. Because we already had a pizza prepared we decided to go ahead try to bake it, lighting the oven by hand. We, lacking a pizza pan, had prepared the pizza directly on the rack. When we first put it in the ends of the pizza had flopped down and the ingredients were falling off of the pizza. In a moment of brilliance and idea sprung to me, "We'll prop up the ends with crackers!!" We we put crackers on the bars of the rack and under the ends of the pizza so that they couldn't fall down. However, after a couple minutes of backing the dough (store bought) was in the phase where its hot, but it hasn't been hot long enough to have baked into something firm. Which meant that the whole pizza was sinking through the bars.

We took it out of the oven. We decided we didn't really want pizza, we wanted a calzone more. To this end, we decided to roll the pizza up, put it on a plate and bake that. This went off about as well as one could expect and we ended up with a pile of dough, mozerella, spinach, mushrooms, olives, and tomatoe sauce. We put it back in the oven and crossed our fingers. Meanwhile we had prepared a second pizza in a 11" x 6" x 2.5" rectangular pan, which was probably more suitable for baking maccarroni and cheese but ... beggars can't be choosers and we didn't have anything else to work with.

Now commenced a long period of waiting broken only by trips to the oven to see how our pizza was doing. In short, the pizza-come-calzone ended up getting burned on top so we took it out and spread it around into more of a pizza-pie. It still got burned and, in another stroke of brilliance, we decided to flip it, so we took all the hard/burned pieces and flipped them over revealing the doughy-mozzarellay center. At this point we decided to start using a timer and cycling the oven: on 2-3 minutes and off 2-3 minutes. We also decided to put in our second pizza, on the next-to-bottom shelf with the pizza pie beneath it. Everything still burned. Just before we were about to give up we had our final stroke of brilliance. We could 'fry' the good pizza to cook the dough on the bottom. This worked ok but by this point we were both full from testing dough to see if it was cooked and we weren't really hungry. The upside of all this is that the fiasco was so ridiculous that we couldn't help but laugh. Also, we had basically had plain pasta for dinner the night before so this was a step up from that.

The second interesting thing that happend was that: we discovered we have become gelato snobs. The logic goes like this: gelato is an inherently Italian creation and so it must, naturally, have the worlds best gelato. Within Italy Bologna has, with the only exception, perhaps, of some places in southern Italy, the best gelato. Furthermore, within Bologna Jeannie and I have scouted out the majority of the gelato places and we happen to live a quarter mile from the place that we believe is the best. This is also subject to debate but the place we like (La Sorbetteria) is recognized to be very good, if not the best. Therefore, Jeannie and I live only a few minute walk away from the best gelato place in the world. This has obvious benefits but one of the drawbacks is that mediocre gelato doesn't really cut it anymore. So in Mandello del Lario, after the second time we got warmish, sugary, and bland gelato we just gave up. I feel sort of bad about being a gelato snob but ... the best is just so good.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Friend Festival!

We had a full house this weekend. Kathryn (a friend of Jeannie's from her undergrad) got here, from Japan, on Thursday night. Jeannie and I busted out our Italian cooking skills and made eggplant Parmesan. Jon (pronounced 'yon') and his girlfriend Meredith (Jon was visiting her while she studies in Geneva) got here on Friday morning at 5:30. So I got up at 5:10 to go meet them. I was 10 minutes late, but I had planned on that cause I figured either their train would be late or they would be dazed enough not to really care. And in the end their train was late. 

We spent most of Friday eating pizza and gelato. I tried a new flavor (La Maria) which has rum in it and is incredible. In the evening we went to see a blues band at Jeannie's school and after that we went to a sort of local 'bar', for lack of a better word. It is a basement apartment that some of the professors at the University of Bologna own/have permission to use. Every Friday night these professors play classic American rock for a couple hours. Its b.y.o.b. which is sort of nice, but its also really smoky. This is even more unpleasant because smoking is banned in all bars and restaurants in Italy (which, in itself, is miraculous because there are so many smokers here, they even have cigarette vending machines on the streets.)

On Saturday morning my friend Ben (who I went to the Fireworks Festival with) came in from London. All 6 of us decided to go up to San Luca, a basilica on a hill. Apparently it is featured in the climactic ending seen of a John Grisham novel but we went because there are portico's the whole way (it was sort of a rainy day) and there are excellent views from the top. 

Jon, Meredith, and Kathryn all left on Sunday. Ben (who just finished his semester) and I took this opportunity to sleep till about 1. The rest of the day, as per its start, was really lazy but we did make one important decision. We were going to go to Venice on Monday. We got up at 6:30, had eggs for breakfast, and headed for the train station. Its 2 hours by train to Venice and we got there a little after 10. Neither of us knew much about Venice, and the little that we did know was gleaned from a 4 year old travel guide while we were on the train. Apparently the site to see is Piazza San Marco and San Marco's Cathedral. Maps were out of our price range (2 euros) but we had  read that you can take water buses to see these things. We decided against this in favor of walking and following discreet yellow signs. 

In Bologna the streets are mostly on the narrower side and the buildings are mostly on the taller side. This, in combination with the porticoes (ie. covered sidewalks), go a good way towards preventing the average pedestrian from seeing the sky and completely prevent him/her from getting his/her bearings on anything. Basically, unless you know your way around, things can be a little confusing. Venice is similar, but about 5 times worse. There are lots of nice, wide streets but some of them are only as wide as a normal sidewalk, but with buildings towering up on either side.

Anyway, we got 'lost' a couple of times, although there are limits to how lost you can get, ie. if you go to far in one direction, you'll just get to the ocean. We stopped once at a grocery store to get supplies (bread and cheese) and once to sit by  the canal and eat our supplies, but we did make it to a major thoroughfare near San Marco's. So we sat down to snack a little and enjoy the sunlight. Because the alleys are too narrow to let in much light every one that walked out of an alley immediately crunched up their face and went into full squint, which was very amusing to watch. We did get bored after a while, so we walked down to check out the cathedral. It was crowded. Ben rated his desire to go in as a 3, which decreased to a 2 (on a scale of 1 to 10) after seeing the line, so we decided to walk around some more. 

At this point, the fates aligned. It was after noon, we found another grocery store, and a large piazza with nice benches. And the sun was still out, or at least trying to peak through the clouds. 
So we bought some beer and sat on the benches. We spent most of our time talking about how much we loved Italy and Venice. We found all sorts of good reasons to love Italy, delicious coffee and food being a couple. Another was that all Italians all seem to be really friendly. I hadn't had a conversation, with an Italian, in English yet (I even found out there were no free maps in Italian) and Ben, who had only gotten to Italy 2 days before, could order coffee without the host slipping into English (something that frustrated us to no end in Taiwan).

The one reason that surpassed all the rest, though, was how happy and mellow everyone seemed to be. By just sitting on a public park bench and drinking beer Ben and I were doing something that would get us arrested in the States. And, despite the fact that it was early Monday afternoon, there were crowds of other young people drinking and singing. One group even set up a sort of gauntlet that reminded me of something I had read the Iroquois Indians or medieval knights used to do. One guy wearing a wreath of leaves as a sort of crown ran through a sort of tunnel of his friends while they all slapped and hit him. When he made it out he tumbled to the ground, but everyone was laughing and having a great time (I later found out that the people wearing wreaths had just graduated). These groups often broke into loud song, but despite their antics the worst looks they got from passersby were just 'Ah, look at those young kids ... I remember when I used to be young.' 

So basically, we were enjoying ourselves. At the 3rd beer we realized that this was basically the same thing that we had done in Taiwan, ie. drink beer outside and talk. However, the reason we drink beer outside and talk is ... it's a lot of fun. We kept hanging out until we got hungry and then we went in search of cheap food. The rest of the day was mostly uneventful except that we didn't get a train back to Bologna until 11:30 and we almost missed Bologna when we got there. The train had sat for almost an hour in a station along the way so I assumed it was going to be late and set my alarm for later than our original arrival time. We ended up getting to Bologna early and sitting there too, which was fortunate because it gave me time to deliriously open my eyes, stare at a sign that said 'Bologna' for 5 seconds while the information processed, then rush off the train.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

My Apartment



I previously mentioned how sketchy my  shower is ... so here're some pictures, although I don't know if they do it justice. Its like showering in a big rectangular bowl. Every time I move it reminds me of slab climbing because thats the kind of climbing where the rock isn't vertical so it is, in theory easier. However, what the rock lacks in vertical-ness it makes up for in a corresponding lack of handholds. So you have to move carefully and place your feet delicately. I feel like that almost everytime I shower. The other pictures, as you could probably guess, are of the bedroom and kitchen. 

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Hooray for the International Atomic Energy Association!!!


We were in Vienna. We got off the subway at the 'Stephansplatz' station, with the intention of seeing St. Stephans cathedral. The station was indeed well placed because the escalator we rode to the surface put us out about 30 feet from the front door. The cathedral, in all its gothic majesty, loomed up in front of us. Much of the stone was black (presumably from age and mold)  giving the cathedral an even more powerful presence. Apparently the building has been under construction almost continuously since the 1100's and, true to form, one tower was still under construction. The inside was just as formidable with thick pillars rising to the dark recess in the arched ceiling. 

Jeannie and I were in Vienna not to see St. Stephans cathedral, but to attend an Austrian Ball. The two of us, and Jeannie's entire class had arrived in Vienna that morning after an all-night bus ride from Bologna. The entire trip had been organized by Jeannie's Austrian classmates. They had bought the tickets to the ball, booked hotel rooms for the 200+ students and partners in our group, and rented 3 big busses to get us there. Jeannie and I had chosen to book our own hotel room for two reasons. The first was, to save money, and the second was, because we like to do our own thing. 

I'm pretty sure that Jeannie and I are basically the perfect travel partners, which is lucky cause we're going to get married. We share an ~hour long tolerance for museums and a sweet tooth. Additionally, we both like walking and hate spending money. These trends have made themselves felt in recent trips to Florence and Rome. We usually see maximum 4 sites per day and spend the rest of the time walking around looking for gelato, falafel (so far, all the European cities I've been to have Bangladeshis by the dozens making cheap kebabs and falafel; except the ones in Bologna don't seem to make good falafel), cheap beer and sites that don't cost money to see (like parks, cathedrals, or old buildings instead of museums). We also spend a lot of time walking from restaurant to restaurant trying to find a good deal.

The only difference to our travel in Vienna was that instead of looking for gelato we looked for 'sachertorte'. Torte just means cake and sachertorte is a traditional Viennese chocolate cake with fruit thrown in in a delicious way. Also, because it was cold and we were running on very little sleep (the bus seats were smaller and more uncomfortable than airplane seats) we spent more time in coffee shops relaxing.

After we saw St. Stephans cathedral we moved on to the Hofburg (the Imperial Palace and the former center of the Holy Roman Empire). For our one museum of the day we toured the Imperial Suites and got to see the very rooms from which emperors had coordinated their empires. We managed to make it for about an hour and a half in this museum (we had gotten the audio guide for free so we had to get out money's worth out of that). After a gelato stop in the afternoon we went back to the hotel to take a nap before the big evening of the ball.

Vienna is a very agreeable and progressive city with wide pedestrian friendly sidewalks, bikes everywhere, and some completely car-free streets near the cathedral. They even have bike stoplights. Another aspect of this progressive attitude is aggressive government support for the arts, specifically modern art. Apparently the city government frequently buys art and, periodically, puts on themed displays. One of these exhibits was kind enough to invite our entire group (all 200 something of us) to a cocktail reception.

We had to be there at 6 pm and we were almost on time. However, we (or at least I) ran into a hitch when getting ready. I was dressed and I looked in my suitcase to get out my shoes. I didn't see them. I swore. I dumped everything out on the bed. I swore again. Apparently the dress code for this sort of thing was very strict. I quote from the ticket ''Ladies: Formal evening dress or national costume    Gentlemen: Dinner jacket/tuxedo, smoking, formal evening attire with bow tie (no neckties!) 
or national costume" Everyone had made a big deal about the bowties and I assumed that sneakers were not a part of 'formal evening attire'. However, by the time I found out that all I had were tennis shoes and boots it was about 5:45. Jeannie and I decided that I should just wear my regular shoes (fortunately they are black) and hope for the best.

At the cocktail reception our friends assured us that they didn't notice my shoes and that if it came down to it we could just get a few girls with long dresses to walk in front of me. Someone else suggested that if I got turned away Jeannie could go in and find another guy with black shoes and bring them out to me, so that I could wear them in. I found this particularly funny because that's what people do with drivers licences to get under-21-year-olds into bars. Despite the number of excellent and creative solutions proffered by our friends, no one hassled me when we went in. Although this was a weight off my shoulders, I still felt a little like an idiot for wearing running shoes to a formal ball but then again ... meh, aint no thang. 

The place was hoppin. The ball was at the Hofburg and, although it was in a different wing than the Imperial Suites, its seems likely that we were dancing in the very rooms where emperors and empresses had previously danced. Anyways, Jeannie and I went into the bar area and ran into a couple of our classmates. Apparently the opening ceremony was about to kick off, so Jeannie and I decided to go see that. We saw what looked like the main room, walked in, and found ourselves feet from the main stage. 

I think the opening ceremony was about an hour and a half long but here is the short of it. The ball was hosted by the International Atomic Energy Association (a UN organization) and the head of that organization was retiring. So there were a number of speeches (including one by the head, a Nobel laureate), 1.5 opera pieces, some traditional dancing, a performance by a mariachi band, and a waltz by the young debutantes to kick off the dance.

After the opening ceremony,  which seemed to fly by, we made our way to the bar again where we paid an exorbitantly high price for a glass of wine and a beer. Luckily, the bread was free. So we loaded up on that. Additionally, the Austrian Ball Committee (aka the Bologna Center Austrian students) had fundraised to such an extent that they were able to provide multiple glasses of champagne for everyone. Needless to say, we had a lovely time. 

There was live music in every room of the palace- we stopped by the swing, rock, and reggae rooms. Unlike some of our more energetic classmates who were closed down the palace, at around 2 am we were ready to call it a night. 

We both slept very well and were ready for another day of sightseeing by the time we woke up. The first thing we did was go to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's house. Well, one of them. Mozart never lived anywhere for more than two or three years. It was interesting to see how he lived. He apparently made tons of money, but spent it more quickly than he could make it. By seeing the place, I had hoped to imbibe some of his musical talent, but alas, I still can't play the violin. It was really neat see how a genius like Mozart created music and lived. 

After that, we wandered around Vienna for the rest of the day, going into various coffee shops and enjoying (or not) various good (and bad) desserts. We finished our day with delicious Austrian beer, and the first and only Taiwanese vegetarian restaurant in Vienna. Which, interestingly enough, is not staffed by Taiwanese. After talking to our server some I asked which part of Taiwan she was from and, in an awkward turn of the conversation, she pointed out that she was from southern China. So that's weird. 

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Addendum to Post 2

I forgot to write the funniest part of the story about having dinner with Jeannie's babysitting family. So here it is: Jeannie and I are vegetarians and our vegetarianism was a semi-frequent conversation topic. Niccola (whose English is actually pretty good) has gotten the words 'vegetarian' and 'vegetable' confused. Therefore, whenever we talked about being vegetarian and Niccola needed to say something like 'So how long have you two been vegetarians?' he would instead say 'So how long have you two been vegetables?'. It made the whole night a lot funnier (although not until after we'd left). Also, Jeannie and I didn't have the heart to correct him so, if we go over for dinner again, we will almost certainly get called vegetables repeatedly. 

Friday, February 6, 2009

The High Life: Eating Gelato and Riding My Bike

I've been enjoying myself so far. I ate gelato the first day I was here but I didn't really like it. It was too creamy and sweet for me, which was kind of a bummer because Jeannie eats it pretty much everyday. We kind of decided though that beer was like my gelato. Jeannie could eat gelato with lunch everyday and not think about it and I could drink a beer every day with lunch and not think about it (if money grew on trees that is). Anyway, gelato has been growing on me since I found the 'Sorbetteria'. Its not quite as creamy (which makes sense because we ate at the 'Cremeria' the first time) so I like it much more. You get two flavors every time and so far I've tried white choclate (fantastic, way better than vanilla), dark chocolate (darker than the darkest chocolate bar I've ever had ... almost too dark for me), strawberry (delicious in small quantities), Dulce de leche (caramel, and officially my new favorite flavor), vanilla with pine nuts and caramel, and this other flavor I don't remember the name of that was made with ricotta cream and had little candied fruits in it, which I wasn't the hugest fan of. Anyway, strawberry with white chocolate was my favorite until I found out about Dulce de leche. 

Aside from eating gelato, I've also been able to get out riding my bike, and I even went on one overnight trip. It was during Jeannie's finals week so I decided to make myself scarce and I had been wanting to do an overnight shake down bike trip for a while so I went for it. I had bought a map a while ago and using google maps (very detailed and helpful) in combination with my map I planned out a route. If all went well, I would bike out in a large circle and stay on mostly small roads.

I had been planning for weeks about how I would pack for an overnight trip (I have a rack on my bike but no panniers) and I finally ended up bungeeing my tent on top of the rack and Jeannie's small backpack (good because it has a stiff plastic frame) to the side of the rack. I figured my sleeping bag would be to bulky to attach to the rack so I decided put it in my backpack, carry my backpack like normal and call it a poor mans pannier. Once equipped with my route (street names written on paper with my map as backup) and once my bags were packed I set out.

I retraced part of my route from my last biking trip so I was on pretty major roads. I went through a couple round-a-bouts, which I was a little nervous about, but which really weren't that bad. I was also excited to pass a Carrefour (because I'm always excited about cheap food buying places). Anywho, I started to keep my eyes out for my turn off (Via Gesso). I almost missed it because it was a one way road going onto the street but I looked back after I had passed it and sure enough, it was Via Gesso. 

Via Gesso turned out to be a beautiful interlude in my trip. The sun was shining, the traffic had died off, and I was surrounded by fields (if only on one side). After this short rest, however, Via Gesso emptied back onto a large road. It was only a two-lane but traffic was just buzzing along and there didn't appear to be a shortage of large trucks either. I didn't really see any other options so I waited for a lull in the traffic and then rode on, while keeping a sharp eye out for my next road (Via Lavino). Google maps had made it look like Via Gesso just turned into Via Lavino, so perhaps this was Via Lavino. There had been no street sign at the intersection. I decided to stop and look at my map. During my planning I thought it would be prudent to choose a road that was on my map. Now, sitting by the side of the road looking at my map I realized that route I had chosen, while being, theoretically on the map, was not labeled. I found out later that I was on the right road, but because my map didn't label the road I was on, I was clueless about where I was. I decided my only option was to keep riding and keep looking for Via Lavino. After a while I saw a sign for Via Lavino. I was thrilled and quickly turned off the main road. Via Lavino turned out to be a muddy dirt road. I decided moderate traffic was preferable to mud on a road bike and turned back to the other road.

This proved to be a good decision because I quickly saw another 'Via Lavino'. This one, however, appeared to lead to a small factory so I again avoided it. I ended up seeing 12-13 more Via Lavninos. After a while I saw one that was only about 30' long and just led to a house. I started to wonder if Via Lavino wasn't actually Italian for 'driveway' and somehow google had mislabeled something. After I got back I tried to translate 'via lavino' and apparently it means 'wash away' (at least according to www.google.com/language_tools). Traffic had been gradually dieing off and the vineyards had been becoming more common so I decided just to keep with the road I was on. 

The road had been going slightly up-hill almost the entire time but now it began to steepen. It continued to steepen until I had shifted into my lowest gear. This, unfortunately, caused my rear derailleur to hit the spokes on my back wheel, so I stopped to do some maintenance. Once that was sorted out I moved on. I passed through one small town and had to get off and walk a couple times, but I finally made it to the top of the hill. 

I hadn't left Bologna until about 2 and by the time I made it to the top of the hill it was exactly 5 so I started looking for a good campsite. I was surronded by fields with small copses of trees interspersed therein. Despite the abundance of 'No Trespassing' signs (they were put up on posts about every 20') I decided to camp in one of the small copses of trees. I was pretty close to a road and, because I didn't want to have an awkward confrontation with a possibly irate Italian farmer (and possibly one or more of the dogs I could hear barking) I didn't set up a tent right away. I hadn't planned on setting up my tent at all but, during the night I noticed that there were no stars out. I got worried about getting rained on and figured, because it was dark I probably wouldn't run into any Italian farmers, so I set up my tent. 

In the morning after I had broken down camp I realized that I had a flat tire. I attributed this to the fact that the spot I was camping in would, in the summer, be a narly patch of brambles so my front tire must just have gotten caught on a stray thorn. I walked out to the road and set about changing my tire. I had never actually changed a tire before but this experience turned out to be glorious. The sky had cleared up and the sun was shining down warming my bones. I was (thanks to yesterday's climb) on one of the highest points around so the view was beautiful. And, aside from cold fingers, the tire changing went off without a hitch. There were even birds chirriping melodically in the trees.

After I got my tire sorted out it was, both literally and figuratively, 'all downhill from there'. I bundled myself up, rolled down the hill. By the time I had to peddle much again I was halfway to Bologna and I used the rest of the ride back to think of ... Lessons Learned: 1. You aren't as strong as you thought you were and biking uphill with food and a tent is harder than you thought it would be. 2. Maps suck (I kind of already knew that) but writing road names on yours would make it a lot better. 3. Poaching camping is as sketchy and unenjoyable as you remember it being, especially because you don't speak any Italian.

Hair Cut!!!








I had to put it in pony tails because I was donating it to locks of love and they want it to be in a handy donateable format. Also, I look pensive in the next to last picture because I had just heard a 'snip' and then Jeannie say "Whoops! maybe could have done without that" But then she laughed and I figured it was ok.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Biking!

I almost hit a pedestrian the other day. She was very apolegetic though. I was cruising along in the (I think) bus lane and she stepped out in front of me. I slammed on my brakes but still came up right beside her. Then she noticed me and started apologizing fervently. I didn't realize until I was biking away that I hadn't even said one word. I would have said "I'm sorry" but I don't eve know how to say that. I really only know how to say please, thank you, and your welcome. And 'Preggo' means please and your welcome, so I pretty much only know two words.

Anyway, not discouraged by my last almost-accident while biking, I got a littel stir-crazy today and decided to go on a longer ride. I glanced at a map decided to head south-east (sort of towards Florence) and try to get out into the mountains.  On my way out of the city I passed the stadium where, I deduced from the masses of riot police loitering around, there was a game going on. I later confirmed this with Jeannie, apparently David Beckam was there, which I guess explains the riot police. 

At one point I had sort of a Taiwan flashback. There was a line of cars at a stop light and I went ahead and pulled up all the way to the front. Cause I'm on a bike and I get special privaleges. After I had been there for a second a moped pulled up beside me. Then another one pulled up in front of both of us. Then a Mercedes pulled out into the intersection and stopped in front of all of us. I realized I probably should have been wearing a helmet. The light turned and I pulled out into the intersection. I was in the center of the intersection and it seemed much more prudent to be on the right side so I decided to merge. I looked over my right shoulder to check for traffic. All I saw was my hair. I looked again and saw mostly hair but it seemed clear and I was starting to lose intersection so I went ahead and moved over. Apparently I don't just need a helmet, I need haircut too.

It seemed to take a while to get out of the city but once I did the mountains were very scenic. I could even see, off in the distance, snow on the hills. I only consulted the map once after I made it out of the city. However, after I saw two bikers ahead, I quickly disregarded the knowledge gleaned from the map though, and decided to follow them. I turned too late and missed them but, after a brief period on a road, albiet a 2 lane road, with higher speeds than I would've liked, found my way out into the mountains. It was gorgeous, quite, and virtually car-less ... everything I had wanted. Unfortunatley it was only about an hour before dark and I felt like I should turn around so I didn't make it far enough to be turned around by snow (which had sort of been my vague goal.) 

On the way back I saw 2 more bikers turn into the same road that I had followed bikers down before, which leads me to believe that there is either a good biking trail down there. That or some kind of wierd commune where a bunch of bikers live. I also ran into a police road block near the stadium on the way back. Really it was just a small car and one cop blocking off half of the road, but I was worried that he wouldn't let me pass and that we would have an awkward half Italian and half non-communication conversation. So, doing my best to smile nicely, in hopes of avoiding any awkwardness, I biked past. The cop, however, didn't even appear to notice me. The reason half of the road was blocked off quickly became apparent. It was filled with busses, presumable those of the football team. I did my best to ride along unperturbed with busses towering over me on my one side and traffic zooming past on my other side. I ended up making it home without incident.

Other interesting tidbits:

Our kitchen is tiny. Tiny enough in fact, that I can touch both of the sidewalls at the same time. There are benefits to the tiny kitchen though. For instance, if I sit in the right spot at the table I can reach the sink, the food cabinet, the refrigerator, and the oven without getting up. So thats pretty handy. Heck, if the kitchen was any smaller I could do all my cooking from a sitting position. 

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Post 2

In some ways a lot has happened since my last post, but in other ways nothing has really happened. I am going to be taking Spanish and I now have the textbook for the class but it isn't actually going to start until mid February so, right now, I don't have anything that I have to do. I usually go to school with Jeannie in the morning and apply for jobs in the DC area or read. Then I come home in the afternoon and practice playing the fiddle because, if I'm going to go play on the streets in the spring to try to make an extra buck, I figure practicing is really just like increasing my job skills. So that has been the more boring/routine part of my life.

Jeannie babysits here and she and I had dinner with her babysitting family last Thursday, which was one of the more interesting things. It was actually very enjoyable and, although the couple's English isn't perfect, there were no real problems in communication. Both Nicola (husband) and Federica (wife) have very good senses of humor. Federica had already given Jeannie an Italian name (apparently Italians have a hard time with the 'j' part of the name) and she also wasted no time in giving my own Italian name, Gaspare, so I felt like the evening was off to a good start. Also, when they were asking why I chose to study Chinese, I paused before answering and so Jeannie stepped in and said "Jasper enjoys challenging things." This was a perfect set up so after a moment I pointed out shrewdly "That's why I'm dating Jeannie!", which Nicola and Federica had both been thinking, so I knew they had good senses of humor.

From talking with Jeannie I knew that their child (Matilda) wasn't entirely planned and that, although he loves her very much, sometimes Nicola doesn't recognize that he can no longer do all of the things that he wants to. This was illustrated clearly at dinner because he was, apparently, staging a major offensive, the goal of which was moving the family to the UK or the USA for a period. Although it was clearly doomed to failure, I felt out of a sense of fidelity, that I should support him. So when he started jovially using me as an example of someone who travels frequently, I did my best to go along. Federica, on the other hand, continually rejected all his attempts even though some of them, being able to make more money in other countries for instance, didn't seem entirely unreasonable.

Hearing Nici and Fede (as they refer to each other) tell the story of how they met, turned out to be another high point of the evening. Apparently they were both going to a summer retreat at a school in Sicily. Nicola and a friend didn't get to the campus until very late and there were no rooms left. The desk clerk asked if they would mind sharing a room with two girls. (At this point in the story Nicola opend his arms wide, shrugged his shoulders, and smiled in the worldwide gesture of "Of course we wouldn't!") So the clerk gave them the key and they went up to the room. Federica and her roommate were out on the town at the time, so Nicola and his friend had time to scout it out. Nicola began looking around the room, trying to find out what he could about his soon to be roommates. He noted that one of the girls had huge shoes ("A tall girl," he thought). The same girl also had skinny clothes ("A thin girl," he thought). But the thing that caught his eye most was a book by the German philosopher/scholar Goethe ("A smart girl?!?!?!" he thought). At this point, Federica and her friend returned from their night on the town. They had been warned at the front desk that two men would be sharing a room with them, so they, rightfully so, stormed off in a fluster to reclaim their room. As Federica said, "We were girls! We couldn't stay with boys!" Federica decided she would do all the talking (because her friend was shy and Federica is a better talker). When she got to the room she threw open the door and found Nicola. To her chagrin she accidentally blurted out "Che buono!" (so beautiful) after which she quickly slammed the door. And the rest was history.

Another fun point of the weekend was a birthday party Jeannie and I went to on Saturday night for one of her classmates. The most interesting thing was that he lives with two Italians, which opened up the possibility of a real cultural experience. This revealed itself later when it came time for cake. I saw one of the Italians put what looked like a piece of bread (presumably cake) in a bag and pour white stuff on it (presumably sugar) and start to shake it. "This is great Jasper, you're getting a cultural experience." I asked Jeannie what was actually happening. "It's a traditional Italian birthday cake where they put bread and sugar in a bag and shake it. DUH!"