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.