A Welcome Note: On Filling the Gaps

Dear Friends and Family:

Although I haven't added any posts since the summer of 2007, this blog continues to be a warehouse of my thoughts and experiences from my time abroad.


Wednesday, March 21, 2007

On Italian Bureaucracy

So everyone knows about it. Even the Italians. Outsiders find it difficult to understand why it exists in such a pervasive way, but when you’ve spent a bit of time in Italy and understand the politics behind it, it’s easier to understand. In the United States, when one refers to “government, he or she means the general body of people, and organizations that literally govern the country; when one refers to “administration” he is usually indicating the specific officials holding office. When an Italian says “government,” he is referring to these actual public servants in office, such as the President of the Council of Ministers, his secretary, etc. When Italians speak of “administration,” no longer are they referring to individuals or even a general governmental structure, rather this word simply means bureaucracy.

Here’s a case-in-point: This wonderful example begins months before any of us even made it to Rome, way back in the U.S., when we were required to submit a host of documents and money via Platform3000 (a horrible company in its own right) to the Italian consulate for permission to stay longer than the maximum 90 days as a tourist.
We had been informed that upon arrival there would be a short permit to stay process (usually not taken very seriously by the Italian government as they knew we would only be studying there) and then we would be done with the process. Of course, within the first week, we learned from Manuela, one of the program employees that the entire process had been changed and that now the Italian Postal Service, not the Police, would be administering the process. And, with this new policy, we would have to pay another 56 Euro, wait in a day-long line to turn in even more documents and then wait another few weeks to even receive our temporary permits-to-stay. We complied of course and sure enough, about a month later, received the small slips of paper indicating that we had begun the process of obtaining our permit to stay. So we carried those with us at all times and were assured that since the permit-to-stay wasn’t really necessary, we would probably never have to use it anyway. It was surprising therefore when we were all summoned in late March to actually appear at the police station and obtain our permits-to-stay. That morning, I was to appear early at the Questura di Roma and after a struggle to find the place, tucked in a back alleyway, I stumbled upon the non-descript entrance. I walked in, saw a few other students from my program there to do the same thing, and sat down to wait with them. Finally my name was called, I entered a small room, and sat down across from a jolly policeman. We exchanged a few formalities and I handed over the passport photos and documents I had to reproduce yet again. I was then instructed to leave the office with my documents and make a fourth or fifth (I can’t even remember anymore) set of copies. Once again, I had to shell out money for the copies (because the police must be too cheep to have a photocopier) and when I returned with everything, was attacked by a stern woman in a white coat and gloves who literally covered my hands and fingers with thick, black ink. She pressed and rolled my hand against a handful of papers and I must have used up an entire pen’s worth of ink. Finally, she gave me a cloth to clean my hands and then I sat down with the happy officer to converse once again. He then informed me that I wasn’t even going to be getting my permit-to-stay that day and asked me when I was planning on leaving the country. I briefly gave him my travel itinerary and explained that I would be flying out of Rome on the 9th of June. At that point, he made some notes in his little book and looked up with a smile, “Va be. How about we set that up for June 5th?”

“June 5th,” I replied, “but I’m leaving a few days later, so what does that do?”

“Oh no problem, the officer continued, “It’s not even important if you show up. It’s really just a formality. . .” he trailed off.

Just a formality! I thought. Just a FORMALITY?!?! After all of this waiting and inking and copying and waiting and paying and more copying? What a royal joke (and there was nothing monarchical about it). In fact it’s the complete antithesis of a monarchy, and it’s almost intentionally that way. Why? It’s because back when Italy became a Republic, on June 2, 1946, and the new government was forged, it was designed to distribute power as much as possible away from the top government leaders, and thus, an absurdly bureaucratic nation was born, and with the legacy of the monarchy, it can’t be easily changed. So, as a result, we all know and hear about the incredible inefficiencies which are living and real and for which Italians are famous.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Ryan Air = Worst Airline Ever

3.12.07: This morning, I finished the roll on my camera and made it to school for photo class and history. In photo, I had some fair success with the dark room and ended up with one or two decent prints for the day. We left the school as a class for the last hour and went together to an art store near the Spanish steps where, out of feelings of hand-on-art withdrawal, I purchased some charcoal, conté crayon and sketch paper. At night I chose my courses for next semester and caught up with home a bit.

3.13.07 – 3.15.07: At some point during these few days, amidst researching and writing papers, I had to pick courses for the next semester, quite a strange thing to be doing given how removed I really was from the whole process.

3.16.07 – 3.18.07: Given how many essays I had due over the next few weeks, I decided to stay in Rome for the weekend and get ahead on work. Friday night, however, I took a break from studying and Jenny and I made dinner at the Residence. The next morning, she was supposed to fly to Barcelona to see her friends there and explore the city, however, when she arrived at the airport, the Ryan officials really “gave her the business” and essentially told her that since she was a citizen of the Philippines and not the US or another European country, she would be unable to reenter Italy were she to leave. Despite all the research she had done on visas etc. before leaving the US, it turned out that her perpetual bad luck with flights had landed on her once again. She was really supposed to have been able to fly but since the Italian government was ridiculously slow in processing our “Permesso di-soggiorno” documents or “permit-to-stay,” she was unable to leave. The only good news was that we were able to spend more time together that weekend (which definitely helped break up my studying).

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Firenze Con la Classe della Storia dell' Arte

Friday, March 9, 2007: At 9:30AM, I boarded a train to Florence from Termini with my art history class and Paolo, our flamboyant professor. Nati and one of Rachel’s friends studying in Geneva came along on the trip as well. Upon arrival we checked into Hotel California and began at the Museo Borgello where we saw a number of original Michelangelo sculptures including Bacchus and another smaller young boy who according to Paolo tended to be overlooked by scholars, but was significant because it was the first instant in sculpture in which an artist really conveyed a complex emotion in the subject’s facial expression. After this gallery, we split into our two onsite sections and while the Thursday group had free time, the Wednesday group, myself included, conquered the Uffizi. What an incredible place. To go once is clearly not enough. There are so many impressive pieces of artwork and we only focused on the seminal ones. I am always amazed at the incredible collection of art that is held in this country’s galleries. One could take the scraps from the Uffizi, the storage closet of the Borghese gallery and the Vatican basement and create the most impressive renaissance collection in America. After we finished with the Uffizi, we were free to enjoy Florence at our own will, so Jenny, Nati and I walked around the city a bit and poked in and out of a number of stores until it was time for dinner. I had made a reservation at La Giostra, a restaurant my family and I had been to over the summer, for 8pm, so by the time we arrived, we were getting quite hungry. It was so exciting to be back and we received royal treatment and a wonderful explanation from the head chef (who looks like a mad professor) and his son. The appetizers were incredible as were the main dishes and the wine. After dinner, we went to a bar on the main piazza by the Palazzo Vecchio and after listing to the live music for a bit, returned to the hotel. Jenny and I hung out on the rooftop terrace for a while before crashing.

Saturday, March 10, 2007: Since the Thursday group was to do the Ufizzi in the morning, we weren’t supposed to meet up with Paolo until 3:30 in the afternoon. Free to roam, we spent the day shopping at the marketplace and further exploring the city. At this point I was very comfortable navigating. I purchased a scarf and wallet to replace the ones I either lost or had stolen in Rome and found myself very adept a bargaining now that I had Berber training under my belt. For lunch we ate at Café Mario where the food was incredible and very reasonably priced. Full of Florentine steak, we joined our class at 3:30 in front of the Duomo and proceeded to study a few of the remaining important statues and buildings in Florence, excluding the David, which we were to do on our own. We proceeded to the Academia immediately after the lecture was over and saw the David in all its glory, before heading back to the hotel to grab coats and make our way to dinner. Tonight we ate at another place we had been over the summer called Golden View, Open Bar, and had an excellent dinner while looking out over the Arno and listening to live jazz. After dinner, our next destination was gelato, before we returned to Nati’s hotel so she could pick up her bags and make a 10:53 train back to Rome. Unfortunately, the ticket machines can be confusing so when she originally bought the ticket she didn’t realize that it was for the next morning at 10:53 am and not 22:53, that night. Nervous that she’d miss her flight home, we searched for another train that left Florence that night for Rome but found nothing. We even bumped into Paolo and a friend of his who we thought might be able to help, but unfortunately we couldn’t do any better than a 6:40 train for Rome that left the next day and arrived in Rome at 8:30. Nati decided to stay over in our hotel that night and I woke up the next morning at 6AM to walk her to the train station.

Sunday, March 11, 2007: After accompanying Nati to the train station for her 6:40 train, I returned to the hotel and caught another few hours of sleep in my room (that smelled awful (probably thanks to the two other roommates with whom I had been placed) before waking up for our final onsite of the trip at 10:30AM. Paolo took us to the Medici palace where we saw a spectacular chapel and a courtyard designed by Michelozzo. At around 12:30 we were free once again and Jenny and I finished tackling the city before our train left at 5:30PM. We climbed the tower of the Duomo (I had already climbed the dome) did some more shopping, and made our way to Santa Croce and it’s marvelous piazza. It was here that I made my only navigation mistake of the trip and instead of leading us to the giant trapezoidal piazza, I directed us to a giant parking lot, the same shape and size but a few hundred meters away on the map. It should have been more obvious to me perhaps that the giant white “P” in a blue box on the map signaled “Parking” not “Piazza.” After laughing that off, I made it up by taking us by the very house of Michelangelo Buonarotti before finally getting to the square I had originally intended to vist. At 5:31 we left Florence and after a brief train ride on the high speed rail line, arrived in Rome. As we had discussed earlier in the week as a possibility, Jenny and I decided to check out an Italian movie in the theaters, an outing which also happened to be our first official date. We bought tickets to a movie called "Ho Voglio di Te," or “I have want of you,” and grabbed pizza for dinner to satisfy our stomachs and kill time before the movie began. Around 10pm, we returned to Piazza Republica where the flick was showing and massive popcorn tub in hand, entered the beautiful movie theater. Despite my usual distaste for romantic comedies, and the film’s meager quality, the movie was so much fun! It was much easier than I expected it would be to comprehend a film in another language, and the fact that it was a Romantic Commedy certainly helped.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Back in Rome

Monday, March 5, 2007: My first day back in school was difficult to endure. I wasn’t quite thrilled with how I had done on my exams and moreover really just didn’t want to be there; I felt that I could learn so much about the world by just traveling, and that despite my art history on-sites (which were amusing and insightful) I was wasting my time. That night was fun however and gave me the opportunity to hear about some of my other friends’ trips. Nati, Jenny’s friend from Penn was in for the week and the two of them had reserved a hotel room for the evening and invited a bunch of us to party there for the night.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007: This morning I woke up early to meet Jenny and Nati at the Vatican. We covered the museum (and managed to see the Sistine Chapel about 3 times since we kept getting lost on the way to the Raphael Rooms. I hadn’t been since the summer before so it was really wonderful to see the collection for a second time. It is really an incredible display. After finally seeing the School of Athens, the three of us decided to climb to the top of the Vatican and enjoy views from the highest point in Rome. I was especially excited to scale the steps as it was my first time, though my decision to wear a puffy, fur-lined winter coat and lug up my 35 millimeter SLR, didn’t make climbing the dome the most enjoyable activity in the world. After the Vatican, I parted ways with Nati and Jenny and brought my digital to Sabbatini, the sleek camera store with which I had become quite familiar. Unfortunately, they only repair reflex cameras there, so I would have to try with Cannon. While I was there, I purchased a red filter for my photo class. That night, I ate dinner at home as usual, though another one of Elena’s friends came over, and despite Marina’s hesitation, I received somewhat of an education in indecent Romanesque.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007: Against the wishes of Paulo, my art history professor, we were required to meet at 9AM sharp on-site at Campidoglio since there were a few alumni from the Temple Program who had signed up to go as well. Of course, they were the only one’s who arrived late. Although we were let out early from the lecture, I forgot to bring my camera and didn’t realize until I arrived at school for photography class, I had to go all the way home and ended up wasting the whole day on the bus. The six rides I took that day equaled about 4 hours sitting on the 628 bus. Dinner was ready when I arrived home and I lucked out in that only a few raindrops fell here and there, despite the generally miserably foreboding, overcast sky. That evening I researched where the Canon office was located and later that night, after having spent a good deal of time thinking about what I want to do with my life and coming up with very little, Elena and I a discussion in which she made me promise not to be a lawyer (the concept of law in Italy is not quite the same as in the U.S. however). Elena also booked me a haircut with Hadriano, her trusted stylist and former pupil of Paul Mitchel for the next day at 1pm.

Thursday, March 8, 2007: This morning was devoted to Hadriano. His shop, Harumi, was located right at the Cipro metro, so it was very convenient and his entire staff was extremely friendly. I was surprised at the age of most of the guys working there. Most of them were around 19-20 years old and had just finished school. They seemed to be quite fascinated with my “cappelli come un nero” or “hair like a black person.” After Hadriano, I made a mad dash across three bus lines and the metro to drop off my camera and make it back to class before 4pm. Luckily, we were just watching a movie and my professor wasn’t even in the classroom when I walked in about 20 minutes late.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Morocco: Day One

2.23.07 - After shopping on Via del Corso for a new pair of Pumas to replace my old battered and punctured sneakers that had clearly suffered a beating on the streets of Rome, I met up with Brent, Hannah, Mimi, Dianna and Holiday at the Borghese Gardens for a pre-departure picnic. The six of us would be traveling to Morocco together that night. We planned to meet up with Jenny and Rachel, two more members of the Morocco crew who had left Thursday night by the next evening. To protect ourselves against the damp ground, Hannah rolled out the blanket she had bought in Venice the week before that had served us all so well and become the mysterious subject of so many photos. We munched on Italian cookies, gobbled up fresh strawberries and tomatoes and couldn’t get enough of the thinly sliced meats and cheese.
Around 3:00 I left for home to finish packing my bags and book a hostel for three of us via email for that night in Madrid. I managed to stuff everything I had put in my large frame backpack into my regular school bag (so I wouldn’t have to check anything) before hopping into Marina’s compressed car and getting a ride to the Tuscolana train station (only a few minutes away). There I met up with the picnic crew to take the local train to Fiumicinio, Rome’s international airport. We bought and validated our tickets and made it aboard just in time. Thirty six minutes later, in pulled the train and we had concluded the first of many trips together. We proceeded to the Iberia airlines terminal where we checked in and with passports and boarding passes in hand, made our way to the departure gate. At around 7:30PM, we boarded the plane and within a half hour or so had taxied to the runway and taken off for Madrid, the location of our overnight layover.
On the plane, I found myself reading the airline’s magazine in Spanish and was pleasantly surprised to find that I could understand most of the text without even having to peek at the English translation. I tried to refresh myself as much as possible for our sojourn in the Spanish capital but despite my ability to comprehend the text, I was practically hopeless when it came to speaking (in the language I had studied for six years) or deciphering the mess of vowels and consonants spewed from the lungs of the Spaniards we encountered.

Upon arrival in the Madrid airport I was immediately taken aback at the spectacular undulating lines of Terminal four, where Iberia Airlines, Spain’s national carrier, was based. Although the signage was confusing at times, the arabesques of the ceiling and brightly colored Y-shaped beams supporting the structure were enough for me to whip out my camera. A short airport bus ride later, we arrived at Terminal 2, from where were could take the metro to the city center and our hostel. Because I had left Rome prior to receiving a confirmation email, my un-superstitious fingers were crossed as I hoped we did in fact have a place to stay that night. The metro system in Madrid turned out to be fantastic. Although we had to make two interchanges 6-10-5 before arriving at the stop nearest our hostel, the signage was impeccable and certainly made up for this in my mind! On each train there must have been maps every two feet of the whole system and above the seats, one could see detailed routes of every train that connected with the one you were riding at the time. What a difference from Rome! Not only did all the metros come within minutes of each other, but one couldn’t see graffiti anywhere and the cars were extremely clean. Around 11:30, 12:00 we found our hostel and with my very broken Español, checked in with the hostel proprietress who had received my email and set everything up for us. At first, the hostel looked pretty seedy (We shared the elevator up with a prostitute and her client) it turned out to be clean, comfortable, and equipped with incredible views of the city. The other three people were able to get a room at a hostel right across the hall which made coordination very easy.

By the time we finally were ready to eat dinner, everything that resembled Spanish food was closed and we were forced to settle for Döner kebabs and McDonald's (not too much of a concern since I’ll be back of course). Shortly thereafter we set our alarms for the next morning and crashed.

Morocco: Day Two, Part I

2.24.07 - Only a few hours after finally getting to sleep on Friday night, we were up again and ready to go. We began the day at Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts, and although I was content to once again have a coffee that was larger than a single gulp, I was disappointed. I had expected this of course, but not only was I unsatisfied with the watered down taste of American coffee, the gross Americanization of Madrid really made me happy to be living in Rome, where there are only a handful of McDonalds and Starbucks and most other non-Italian chain restaurants are non-existent. Of course I am most definitely biased as I was hardly able to spend any time in the large city which during my short stay felt more like Chicago than any European city to which I had traveled). In minutes we were back on the metro and made our way back to the airport. It was good we arrived with ample time, since we ended up first at the wrong terminal and were forced to backtrack to Terminal Four once again where we had arrived the day before to finally depart for Morocco. Before we knew it (55mins later to be exact), we were in Tangier, Morocco. We set our watches back an hour and stepped out onto the tarmac.

The airport consisted of not much more than a few concrete boxes, which paled in comparison to Spain’s architectural masterpieces, but we were in Tangier which was all that mattered at that point, and duty free shops were the last thing on anyone’s mind. We passed through customs, withdrew our first batch of Dirham from the airport ATM and stepped out into the fresh Moroccan air by the taxi stand. Our first destination was Café Hafa, a seaside local hangout that was once frequented by celebrities like the Rolling Stones according to Holiday. We hired Mohammed, the first of many we came across in our travels, to drive us . On the way there in his beige Mercedes taxi, replete with ochre shag interior, we drove along the outskirts of the town and noticed the incredible amount of development occurring surrounded by at the city edges. High rises shot up from the ground and cranes swung in the dust, schoolchildren walking home and donkeys ambling about. We passed a large circular structure which we had noticed from the air. What we had believed to be an ancient ruin of some sort, an old Roman amphitheater perhaps, turned out to be a modern football stadium under construction with only the concrete foundation and vertical supports already standing. Apparently, the current stadium, closer to the center of town, was no longer adequate to accommodate the increasing number of fans. After flying by a few important palaces (which Mohammed cleverl including a palace once owned by Forbes, and the local university, we woundy pointed out), our way away from the city center and came to an abrupt stop in front of a metal barricade at the edge of what seemed to be a building project. One sun burnished construction worker peered out at us from under a straw hat and behind a wall he was building. Another balanced on a plank spanned across the dirt road on which we stood, painting the second floor of a stucco structure. After paying our drivers 150 dirham each (equal to a little less than 15 Euro—the ratio is about 11 to 1), we asked once again where this café was since there was clearly no indication anywhere around the semi-deserted block. Mohammed confidently pointed down the road and we, despite our skepticism, followed his directions. Sure enough we found it.

Morocco: Day Two, Part II

2.24.07 - When we first stepped though the whitewashed opening of Café Havana we were slightly confused, because the open air space seemed more like a private home than a restaurant. There was no one to greet us and a simple room that served as a kitchen was the extent of this establishment. Inside, a shadowed cook was brewing some sort of soup and in the terraced open space, Moroccans were scattered around blue plastic tables playing cards, smoking, drinking mint tea (the Moroccan staple). They practically ignored the spectacular turquoise sea crashing against the rocks far below and the unparalleled views of the straight of Gibraltar. After managing to grab someone’s attention, we sat down with our bags and ordered the only thing on the menu, lentil soup (what was to become known as “Moroccan soup”). When we attempted to order drinks from the same waiter (if you could even call him that) we soon discovered one of the first novelties of this incredible country: especially in the restaurant business there are often enterprises within other enterprises and here was a perfect example. In order to get a drink, you had to order from the drink man, not the restaurant, who usually has a table somewhere in the greater establishment. So, we hired the Fanta man to secure us some beverages and sooner or later we had our lunch.

When we finished eating, checking our email at a nearby internet café (finding it was an adventure in and of itself) and satisfying our bladders (now full of soup and fizzy orange sweetness), we returned to the café where around 5pm we were supposed to met up with Muhammad once again. Sure enough, he returned and all six of us piled into the car bound for Asilah, a small coast town south of Tangier where we were supposed to meet Jenny and Rachel that day. The drive to Asilah was beautiful with clear blue skies above and gnarled trees along the road side. To our right was the Atlantic Ocean and at one point along the way we saw where the Mediterranean and Atlantic meet. Scattered along the shore were pottery and artisan shops and the occasional group of boys playing soccer in their bare feet as the sea crashed against the fine sand. Along the way, Muhammad proudly displayed his driving license, which hadn't been updated since he was about 20 years old. When we arrived in Asilah and exited taxi, there were a host of eager “guides” to show us around the town and secure us with everything from food to eat to a place to stay. Smart enough to avoid those who simply wanted to take advantage for an extra Dirham or ten, we asked shop owners (with less incentive to ask for money) how to find the Bazaar in front of which we were to meet Jenny and Rachel. It was quickly apparent just how small the old part of Asilah was. Before we even introduced ourselves, we were greeted by a host of proprietors, all of whom knew that we were the six Americans who were supposed to meet up with the two girls who had already come in contact with almost everyone in the city. Although there was somewhat of a misunderstanding about when and where we were supposed to have met Rachel and Jenny we asked one of the shop owners across from the designated Bazaar and within a few minutes the girls came running over to great us with hugs. That afternoon, once we had exchanged travel stories, we dropped our bags at the bed and breakfast where they were staying and walked around the town for a while. We bumped into Abdul, the owner of the B&B who was, as usual, ambling about the winding streets rather than tending to his shop. Our timing was brilliant because the night of our arrival, one of Abdul’s relatives was getting married at his farmhouse out in the countryside and we were all invited to spend the night sleeping at the farm and attending the wedding. In order to be respectful and remain in the traditions of the locals, I purchased a djellaba from Abdul for 90 Dirham and once I put it on, was told that I could pass for Moroccan. We then went to Abdul’s house to discuss a price for the night and have his homemade couscous. This is very customary for Moroccan business, for it is proper to discuss things like lodging and payments only after having been fed. The food was plentiful and delicious and in the local tradition we ate without any utensils other than the flavorful soft pita-like bread one uses to pick up the couscous. After dinner, Abdul began setting up a room where the eight of us could sleep. We were somewhat confused because we thought we would be sleeping on the farm and didn’t understand why he would bother setting up a room in the house. When we asked him about it he didn’t really understand us and was almost insulted. He seemed to think that we didn’t want to sleep at the farm when we really were just wondering why he was setting up the beds in two places. Finally, everything was settled and we were to talk money. Abdul threw out the very cheap figure of 175 Dirham which included the dinner, the farmhouse, a second dinner at the farm, the wedding, and transportation. By that point, we had already experienced a bit of the bargaining culture during the day and Brent became a little aggressive with Abdul, asking for a cheaper price. Much to our amusement, Abdul responded “these things are not important, this is not a problem” which quickly became the catch phrase of our entire trip. Whenever we were discussing something that was serious or important, someone would simply toss in “this is not important, no problem, no problem.”

Morocco: Day Two, Part III

2.24.07 - That night, we met up with Abdul’s taxi-driving friend Muhammad (#2) right outside the Medina, (Arabic for wall but referring to old city in modern times). He spent a solid five minutes arranging us all eight of us in the car (plus he), then drove to the edge of the town where we met up with Abdul (out of sight of the police, who tend to enforce the six person limit). There, Abdul made a few futile attempts to ride to the left of Muhammad(!) before resigning and climbing head first into the trunk of the taxi (propped open of course). We couldn’t contain ourselves at this point and laughed our heads off as Muhammad (#2) made his way out of the city and along the dirt roads leading towards the country house. As we hurried along in the dark, Muhammad (#2) called out to Abdul from time to time to make sure he was all right in the back. At one point we went over a good size bump and all communication stopped . . . for the next ten minutes! Finally, we arrived and sure enough, the trunk had slammed closed along the way, but Abdul was safe, only a bit ruffled. At this point, it had become completely pitch black as there were no electric lights around. Knowing it would be muddy, I wore my sandals rather than sneakers. Good move: I stepped out of the cab and into a giant puddle. We walked in complete darkness for 20-30 minutes, doing are best to avoid the massive wet ditches along the ground and cacti on either side of us. When we walked up to the farm house, Abdul’s wife was ready with hot water with which we could wash off our feet and shoes. Out of the darkness we could hear high pitched shrills and loud music. After cleaning up a bit, we all rested up for a while in the farm house, a white and bright blue painted concrete structure. When we were ready to join the festivities, the eight of us adventured out of the small walled courtyard and through the, constructed of various tarps, blankets, and sheets to witness the traditional Moroccan Muslim wedding that was to take place. As we approached, the screams intensified and the music grew louder. Women and young boys only were welcome inside the tent and all men were relegated to the exterior or a small room off to the right. Brent and I shirked off to the mostly empty small room for men only and sat down on a long bench on which a handful of other guests were seated. On the table was a tray of mint tea and a few cookies. We saw that our Italian was more useful than we had thought when we struck up a conversation with yet another Muhammad (#3) and found out that he had worked in southern Italy for a few years and picked up his share of the language. At first we thought he was a guest, but after a deeper questioning learned that he had been hired to drive guests out to the wedding and was simply waiting for the wedding to end so he could bring them back to the city. His life was extremely interesting, for the man had spent his youth trafficking drugs in Germany, been jailed for a few years there, then worked a bit in Italy, before returning to Morocco to resume his drug trading, this time hiring out a number of boats to ship drugs to Spain. According to him he was simply a businessman and never saw the drugs. He was certainly interesting to talk to and more than met the eye. After a while, the conversation died down and Brent and I decided to step outside into the cool, crisp air. As we exited the small “men only” room, Brent stumbled a bit and backed up into an adjacent door, knocking it open and landing us eye to eye with a horrified looking woman, her face covered in white powder. We knew immediately that we had opened the door on the bride-to-be, who for all we knew wasn’t supposed to be seen by a man for a week before her wedding. We quickly apologized and joked around a bit about the incident as we tried, with the other desperate Moroccan boys, to peak through the holes in the tent at the ongoing festivities. I was lucky enough to befriend one of the DJs who let me sit within the tent and help with the music. Hidden behind the CD players and amps, I was able to really get a feel for the celebration and even, two or three hours later, see the bride, weighed down with pounds and pounds of jewelry and makeup, make her official entrance. At one point in the night, I noticed one of the Moroccan girls holding her cell phone up, pointed at me. First, it was strange to see such a modern device in such an environment that lacked running water, internet, landlines, gas stoves, everything. I could tell she was taking pictures of me, but I figured it was harmless and that it made sense she was curious. I was doing the same thing too, snapping photos with my own digital camera. Abdul’s son, a really cute kid wearing a bright orange Italy sweat suit, ironically enough, was obsessed with my own camera and kept wanting to take pictures. I hadn’t really experienced that before however, being the subject, the tourist attraction. After a while, I realized that she was not only taking pictures, but videotaping me, and for a while she stuck her phone right in front of my face! After her film shoot, she stepped behind the DJ booth, really just a low table with a couple of stools, and thanked me, “it’s for my sister” she said in perfect English. I wasn’t really expecting her to be able to speak English, but it really hit me that someone living in such a provincial farm house would not only be totally equipped with the most modern technology, but be able to speak my language as though it were her own, even though it’s not one of the most spoken languages in her country. Finally, around 1AM after the bride and groom made their much awaited and somewhat anti-climactic procession, we returned to Abdul’s farmhouse. After waiting for another hour or so for the promised dinner that never came, we all curled up in Berber blankets (which were more like rugs) and fell asleep. Finally around 3AM, we were woken up by Abdul and his wife with a steaming plate of olives, lamb, beef and chicken with bread, leftovers from the wedding reception. Some of us with room in our stomachs, got up and ate, all crouched around the plate, before crawling back to sleep.

Morocco: Day Three

2.25.07 - The next morning, we woke up late. Within a few minutes, Abdul’s wife, who didn’t speak any English, was in with a hot plate of fluffy scrambled eggs, fresh from the farm, and typical Moroccan bread to scoop it up. When we were ready to leave and had re-donned our muddy footwear, Abdul was nowhere to be found, so one of the younger English-speaking women found a boy in the family who was willing to show us to the main road, a solid 30 minute walk. Finally we ended up at the main strip and despite the difficulty of the task, were able to catch a cab to the local market, or souk. When we pulled up to the souk, it was clear that we were the only tourists within miles, as locals crowded the stalls and ally ways. The first part of the souk was littered with vegetable vendors, usually selling one or two vegetables a piece, spread out right on the ground on canvas or leaves. The flies were everywhere but that didn’t seem to bother anyone. By the vegetable sellers, I browsed tables lined with typical Moroccan products including buckets and sandals made from old tires, and bought a box of henna for one of Marina’s friends.

Moving further into the market, we found mounds of milk sweets, sesame seed candies and a whole host of baked goods. In the center of the mess were two tents, supported by the same wooden poles from which hung the bloody carcases of the cows the resident butchers were using to make the grilled beef lunches they were serving to everyone. After passing the rows of butcher shops out of which hung real camel heads and racks of meat, I remember seeing one stall by which a gallon water jug had been sliced horizontally at the bottom and was fastened to a short wooden pole sticking out of the ground. The mouth of the jug was open and facing the parched earth below, quickly absorbing the blood, pouring out of the bucket as the headless chickens, kicking upside-down inside. Across the way, carpet and fabric vendors were stationed in front of huge mounds of trash rotting next to the meat vendors. We walked back to the vendors cooking the fresh meat and had a quick snack before meeting up with Muhammad #2 and driving back to Asilah proper to spend the afternoon. We haggled a bit more and I purchased some gifts for family at home and around 10PM, the eight of us boarded a night train to Marrakesh. We quickly fell asleep to the sound and rhythm of the train.

Morocco: Day Four

2.26.07 - At around 5AM I woke up and noticed we were stopped at a station along our route. We had been stopped for almost an hour there and I struck up a conversation with Ted, a guy traveling with his friend through Spain and Morocco. Out the window was a landscape completely different from the lush, beachy feel of Tangier and northern Morocco. Rocky hills and sparse terrain made for a complete change in atmosphere and signaled a quickly changing climate as we moved south. After a short exchange I returned to the cabin to catch another few hours of sleep before we arrived in Marrakesh. A few hours later our night train pulled into Marrakesh and the conductor unlocked our cabin. We disembarked and made use of the station restroom to wash our faces and try and wake up a bit. We hadn’t made any reservations at hotels, but one of the girls had bought a guidebook before we left that gave a number of suggestions for places to say. From the station, we grabbed two petite taxis and made our way to the Medina. Apart from the sheltered Club Med at the Medina entrance, the main square was open to all sorts. One could see old men carrying stacks of chairs on their backs, cart after cart of oranges and grapefruits, nuts and dried fruits, snake charmers set up on the ground, sellers of all kinds of wares, filled the square, not to mention the people ambling about, lying at the base of buildings in misery, begging for a Durham, and the comically large bubbles of British and American tourists, herded along by their slick tan guides. We found the hotel without much trouble and checked in. The rooms were beautiful and on the roof was a spectacular terrace. The hotel set us up with Sahara Expeditions, a company that leads tours of the Sahara desert and after a quick lunch including tagine (actually the name of the plate in which the meal is cooked) and of course, mint tea made our way to the tourism office. 7 of us (Rachel not included) booked a two day excursion through the Moroccan landscape and desert stopping in Zagora where we would ride camels into the desert and sleep in tents among the dunes, before waking up the next morning and returning to Marrakech. Ironically, Andy and Ted, the two guys from the train, also reserved spots on the same excursion. After booking our trip, we naturally split off into groups to explore the city based on what we wanted to see most (it’s a tough city to get around in large groups so it worked out better this way anyway). Jenny, Rachel and I stuck together and spent the majority of our day losing ourselves in the incredibly expansive and maze-like souk. At one point, Rachel wanted to buy a pair of sunglasses and when she was hesitant over the price, the shop keeper said “These glasses good quality, see not Chinese imitation, Moroccan imitation, so cost more.” Well, for that fantastic explanation she had to go for them. I acquired a whole bagful of gifts including the bag with which I carried them, and a hat to go along with it which all in all contributed to my increasingly unshowered and generally leathery, scruffy appearance. That afternoon, Jenny, Rachel and I enjoyed tea overlooking the main square, Djemaa el Fna, and for dinner we all decided to experiment with the many outdoor restaurant vendors in the main square. Given that we had had pretty decent experiences with the food courts up to this point and the open kitchens looked both legitimate and very clean, we decided to give it a go without thinking much about it. However, by the time I bit into my last slice of grilled eggplant, I did feel a bit queasy. That night was fine, and I thought it had passed. That night before I went to bed, Jenny and I decided to hang out on the roof (where some guests were sleeping in warm wool blankets) under the stars. At one point this crazy man who was woken by some loud noise on the street began grabbing mulch from one of the planters and chucking it down at the voices below. I thought this a most comical way to deal with such a simple ordeal. We were there so long talking, gazing up at the sky and down at the streets below that by the time we realized the time, it was already 4 in the morning.

Morocco: Day Five

2.27.07 - This morning I woke up with the worst diarrhea ever. I mean total blowout. From the moment I got out of bed I had to run for the toilet and went two times before we even left the hotel. I felt O.K. but had very little control over my bowels and knew immediately that my dinner last night was at fault. Even worse, I wasn’t about to shower in the ice cold shower and we had to go immediately to the Sahara Expedition office to leave on our journey. So squeezing my buttocks and hoping for the best, we trotted off to catch our bus. One more pit stop on the way and I felt better already. By the time we were underway I was much better. The trip was long, six hours about, but we did occasionally stop along the way at various cafes and sights along the way. We checked out some Kasbahs and gaped at the incredibly varied landscape in between naps. That evening, around 5pm we arrived in Zagora, a town at the edge of the desert and took only our bare necessities before getting outfitted in Berber gear and getting suited up for the much anticipated camel ride. It was truly incredible to see these powerful animals stand up and crouch as their legs had two joints each. Finally we were linked up and ready to move out. As we began our journey through the Sahara with the sun setting to our backs, the local young boys ran along side us throwing woven grass camels at us, desperate for a Durham or two. Finally we made our way out of the village and came upon the dunes. They just came out of nowhere and it was incredible to see the sun setting over the mountains on all sides. When the sun set completely, we arrived at our campsite and took our shoes off to enter the tent. After taking a breather, the Berber guides brought out dinner, the amazing couscous that we had come to love. We all ate with our hands out of one big dish and when the food was gone, the Berbers brought out the drums and tambourines. We were serenaded for about half an hour and then invited to join them outside to dance among the dunes. Foolishly, I took my camera with me outside (forgetting to replace it in its case and that it was even in my pocket) and with the other “Saharans” danced around in the sand for hours. That night, when I returned to the tent, I realized I had severely damaged my camera with the flour like sand and frustrated with myself, went off to sleep, rolled up in a Berber blanket.

Morocco: Day Six

2.28.07 - This morning, I woke up freezing in a traditional Berber tent in a valley of sand dunes in the Sahara Desert. What a contrast to my typical Roman existence. It was cold but beautiful, and with no clouds and a horizon stretching as far as one could possibly imagine, a truly incredible event to see the sun peak out over the distant mountains and dance over the dunes. Before eating, I wandered around the wind-blown hills of sand and marveled at the delicate footprints of birds which skipped over the dunes. After a quick breakfast of bread and honey, we packed up and mounted the caravan of camels. A bit more sore than the day before, we rode back to Zagora proper where we climbed back into our expedition bus and began the six hour drive back to Marrakesh, stopping along the way for sites and bathroom breaks (of course). The trip here fit in nicely with everything else in Morocco. Everyone here is in cahoots with everyone else, the bus driver included. He would only stop at certain places (probably because he got kickbacks from the restaurant owners) to let us use that bathroom, no matter how badly people in the bus had to go! Most of us slept much of the way back, peaking out of the windows from time to time at the spectacular views, always changing with the sun. Finally, around 7PM we arrived in Marrakesh proper and continued on to the train station where some of us were going to buy our tickets for the next morning and others were planning on leaving that night for Tangier. Just as we were passing through the main wall separating the Medina from the Ville Nouvelle, we noticed white smoke billowing from the front of the car. The van driver, swerved to the side of the road and jumped out. He ran over to the other side, slid open the back door and as we hurried out of the smoking vehicle, popped open the hood. Clearly the engine had overheated after a long day of driving in the heat. At this point, we were close enough to the station to walk the rest of the way, so after removing the remainder of our bags and tipping the driver, we headed for the station and left him to deal with the vehicle. How lucky we were! Had we overheated and broken down at any other point in the journey, we would have been really up the creek! It would have taken at least another three to six hours for another bus to come and pick us up if the one we were in was unable to be restarted safely! Unable to fully comprehend how close we were to being stranded in the desert, we made our way down Muhammad I, then Muhammad IV, the V, the VI and finally to the station where we purchased tickets and saw off Jenny, Mimi and Dianna. The rest of us, four now, booked rooms at a nice hotel for 30 euro and took the best showers of our lives. By this point my beard had really grown in and I felt pretty grubby, so when I finally had soap in my hands I was quite content. After cleaning up we grabbed a quick dinner and got to sleep early to make our 5:00 AM train to Fez that left the next day.

Morocco: Day Seven, Part I

3.1.07 - At 4:30 we walked over to the Marrakesh train station and climbed aboard the train for Fez. Still exhausted from our adventure, we slept for part of the ride, although a Moroccan man with repulsively putrid feet in the same compartment kept us from relaxing entirely. At one of the stops along the way, he left the train and for a bit we had the cabin to ourselves. Olfactory functions back to normal, we met a boy named (wait can you guess?) Muhammad along the way. He told us that his father owned a hotel in Zagora (from where we had just come) and that he was visiting his uncle for a few days in Fez. He seemed pretty legitimate, especially since he was wearing a t-shirt with the said name of his father’s hotel embroidered on it and was about our age, so it seemed he had less of a motivation. He offered to help show us around a bit but wasn’t the pushy type like many other Moroccans we had met on our journey so we were inclined to trust him, at least for the time being. Moreover, he made a big deal about how you shouldn’t trust the old fat men who offer to help you since according to him, they enrich and engorge themselves at the expense of naïve westerners. Much to our surprise, though little surprised us anymore in Morocco, a few minutes later, a massive man in a suit walked by in the aisle of the train and right in front of Muhammad warned us not to trust him, that he had seen him on the train before and that he was up to no good. Regardless, the married couple in the train across from us seemed at ease with the boy and since he hadn’t asked for any money, we figured we had little to lose by following him at least to check out the hotel he recommended that was cheaper than anything we read about in the guidebook. Hotel Royal it was called, and it was supposedly 60 Durham a night for each of us, the equivalent of about 7 US dollars. The train pulled into Fez around 2pm and we left our seats to disembark. As we descended onto the platform, once again we ran into the corpulent suited man who yelled at us “don’t trust the little boys!” quite an ironic antithesis to the earlier advisory of Muhammad. Thrown for a loop by the conflicting messages circling around us, when we made it out of the station and two more young guys on a motorbike offered us help and repeated Muhammad's line about the fat men, we were really confused. At the time being, we figured we’d at least check out the Hotel before passing off what could have been an amazing price. As Muhammad said, it wasn’t too far, though when we arrived it was clear that access to the rest of the city from the hotel was limited. The price was as quoted and the owner was ready to collect our money when we insisted that we’d like to see the room before staying there. The four of us trekked up the stairs to find a sparse sweltering room which would have been o.k., save the cloud of fleas hovering over the bed. We declined the room and were very ready to give up Muhammad's “help” and resort to finding a room on our own (Rachel had taken the guidebook with her once again so we had nothing). However, Muhammad, clearly making some commission by the hotel owners said to our amazement “oh, so you want a clean hotel? I know just the place. Follow me.”

Morocco: Day Seven, Part II

3.1.07 - Of course we declined, and after spending 10 minutes trying to shake him and the other scammers off, we found cabs for the Medina. When we arrived at the edge of the Medina, we came upon an incredibly intricate blue gate. The exterior was all done in blue and white and the inside was blue and green. We later learned that green was the color of Fez and was reserved for inside-the-wall colors. When we had to pay the cab driver, Holiday and I realized we only had a large bill, so the cab driver, to who we had just passed off a 200 Durham bill, ran off down the street supposedly the change the bill. For all we knew he had simply escaped with our money, but sure enough, a few minutes later, he returned with our change. Once our business with Mohammed number who-knows-what had been concluded, Holiday and I met up with Brent and Hannahl, who had shared the other three person “petite” cab and walked under the blue portal, entering what quickly blew our minds. Completely diverse from the other cities we had seen in Europe and Morocco, Fez was like a jungle. Buildings were crammed so close together that the sun didn’t reach the ground, wooden support beams spanned the distance between apartments keeping the walls from caving in; restaurants and shops lined the dirty streets with framed pictures of the king everywhere. Clearly in-tune with royal politics, I was amazed to notice that all the standard pictures of the king we had seen had been replaced in the past 24 hours by glossy new prints with the King and the newly born prince, only news as of the day before. Our first order of business was to find a room for the night and we started by checking out the hotel that Rachel, who had gone on to Fez a day or two earlier had supposedly been staying at and waiting for us. When we arrived however, the men lingering outside the hotel indicated that she had left that morning. Unfortunately, she had taken the book with her once again so we were at a loss for hotels. One of the hotel operators seemed slightly more slick than the others and spoke excellent English. He first offered for us to stay the night there. At that point we were pretty skeptical, but trusted Holiday to check it out for us. She came down minutes later shaking her head no. Flies, bugs, no shower, no western style toilet. So we were about to move on, when our new guide, Abdul (#2) recited the famous line “Oh, I see, so you want a clean hotel?” “Well yes,” we replied, “of course.”

Morocco: Day Seven, Part III

3.1.07 - So we followed him as he began leading us down the winding crowded streets towards hotel Kawtar. We passed a slew of sneaker stores hawking pumas and brand names for 300 Durham before ducking through a leather store and completely losing our orientation. Soon enough however, we landed ourselves in front of Hotel Kawtar and despite the “druggie” green lantern illuminating the room in which we were supposed to stay and the stained sheets, we figured that we had better not waste any more time and dropped our stuff. The only window in the room was about six inches across and eight inches high and the lock on the door was a simple luggage lock that could probably be snapped in two with one hand if one really wanted to get in. I put the sliver of a key into my money-belt so as not to lose it, and went downstairs with the rest of the homestay crew to pay. Our slick guide began offering us a tour around the city. We had read before that it is necessary to hire a licensed tour guide to see Fez, but this guy seemed pretty knowledgeable and had grown up in Fez his whole life so he certainly could give us a good tour. Although we were skeptical, Abdul’s offer was to tour us without accepting any money until the tour was over and in the case that we were not satisfied, we simply did not have to pay him. It all seemed pretty risk-free, so despite the guidebook warnings, we let him take us around. We began on the street by the hotel and he really seemed to know everyone. We learned that every main street in Fez has five things: A hammam, a place where young children can learn to recite the Koran, a bakery where women can bring pre-made dough to be baked, a mosque, and a fountain. Sure enough, each street had one of these and as we meandered along the dusty alleyways, our guide stopped in a number of shops and allowed us to take pictures, something we were unable to do on our own. He also brought us to an amazing white palace with intricate woodcarving and tile-work where they teach traditional Islamic music. From there our guide began directing us towards the infamous tanneries of Fez via the maze of the souk. Confident and debonair, Abdul walked a few steps in front of us with his head up and shoulders back. We were somewhat at a loss when by the souk entrance, another guy in a black jacket came out of a mosque and confronted our guide. The two men had a strange encounter and a hushed dialogue, resembling that of friends or family. Before we knew it, our guide began walking away with the man into the mosque and told us he would only be a minute. Confused, the four of us stood there hypothesizing about possible mob dealings or scams this guide was involved in, but soon enough one of the men in black coats came out of the mosque, radio in hand, and explained to us in French “faux guide.” Holiday, our unofficial French translator, spoke to the undercover policeman who had apparently just arrested Abdul and learned that we weren’t allowed to continue with him and were required to move on alone. We explained that were without a map and totally lost, so the officer allowed Abdul to come out for one last time to point us in the right direction. Completely hunched inward and seeming on the verge of tears, Abdul walked over to us and pointed in the direction of the souk. Without a guide or map (Which wouldn’t have done us much good since there were no marked street names anyway) we decided to give it a go and get lost, the only way to really get to know Fez. That we did, and ended up on the outskirts of town in an Internet café looking for some sort of direction. There, a boy who looked younger than us, offered to take us back to our hotel. He and his friend walked us back without asking for any money at all, and promised to take us to the tannery the next day if we were interested. And so, we made “reservations” with our second faux guide and stayed within the confines of the few blocks (if you could even call them that) we knew within the area around our hotel. Dinner was more Moroccan soup from Chez Rashid (House of Rashid) and more infamous mint tea (made buy another guy across the street) and procured by Rashid himself who spent more time running around the small network of shops and gathering ingredients than cooking in his own kitchen.

Morocco: Day Eight

3/2/07 - This morning, we woke up and grabbed breakfast before meeting up with our new young guide who was faithfully waiting outside our hotel to take us to the tannery. Much more cautious than his older, now imprisoned counterpart, our young guide named Mohammed of course walked much farther in front of us and despite his explanations which were more less the same as Abdul’s (perhaps there’s a sixth place on each street we didn’t learn about where young kids learn to be tour guides) took us a very back way where the teeming secret police were unlikely to catch him. At the end of our walk, we had to move off the street and trample over excess fur and skins strewn alongside a narrow canal that passed the tanneries. Unlike the large clusters of British tourists led around by smooth-talking official guides, Mohammed led us through the tanneries themselves; we had to step on bags of animal fluids and jump over vats of urine, feces and dye; we held our breath and couldn’t believe our eyes as we saw the extensive system of pits and waterwheels, littered with skins and color; workers were standing right in the pits and working the leather. We learned that most of these jobs were family jobs and passed on from generation to generation. Finally we arrived at the top of the tanneries, where yellow dyed skins were being dried on the hot flat roofs. As expected, Mohammed had led us to his friend at the cooperative who sold leather goods produced at the tanneries. Holiday and Hannah made a few purchases and when we were done, despite expressing our desire to return via a less putrid route, our guide insisted we take the same trek back to the hotel (to avoid the secret police I suppose). Finally we returned to the hotel and I gave him some of our extra Durham (although he didn’t seem to want it). There we picked up our bags and caught a cab to the Gare (train station) where we caught a train to Tangier. That night we arrived in the city where we started and found a simple hotel by the port where we would be taking the ferry to Spain the next morning. We grabbed a quick dinner by the water and hit the hay.

Morocco: Day Nine

3.3.07 - This morning, we woke up in Tangier and quickly packed our bags and walked to the dock. There, a number of passport officials (often contradicting each other with their directions) eventually directed us to customs, but by the time we made it all the way to the gate, we had missed our boat, so we had to wait another hour for the next ferry. An hour later we boarded a boat to Tarrifa and already running late, when we arrived found out that we missed the free bus to Algezires (which only comes every 2 hours). Furious, Brent and I conversed with a Ferry Operator, explaining that there were a good fifteen other ferry passengers who had also missed the bus. Eventually the arranged for another bus to take us to Algezires. When we arrived there, we were supposed to take another bus to Malaga. At the station, we purchased tickets for a 5pm bus to Malaga (from where our flight to Madrid left) and since we had a good hour to spare, decided to grab a nice paella lunch at the adjoining café. About 15 minutes before our bus was scheduled to leave, we made our way to the bus only to realize that we were still on Morocco time, an hour behind, and that the bus we paid for had left an hour earlier. We ran back to the woman who first sold us our tickets and when we explained our situation, she replied “this is not my problem.” “Yes it is your problem” we retorted and argued with her until she issued us new tickets without making us pay extra. When the next bus pulled up, the driver got out and opened up the doors. We boarded and Brent and I dropped our bags on the bus. Clearly upset about something, the driver began hauling off 800 km a minute in the most violent Spanish I’d ever heard. After a tense exchange, we finally understood that he wanted us off the bus and we had to disembark for him to check our tickets. A few minutes later we were on our way once again and drove alone the Spanish coast toward Malaga. The trip was beautiful and the landscape incredibly rich, spotted here and there with wind power plants. Finally we arrived in the Malaga bus station and bumped into none other than two hippies we had met on our Sahara Expedition trip. From there we took a city bus to the airport and checked in. We met up with Mimi and Dianna who had spent the past few days with Tall Ted and Awkward Andy in Seville and readied ourselves for the flight to Rome via Madrid. That night we boarded Iberia Air to Madrid and within an hour, landed in the beautiful terminal 4 of the capital city. Much to my delight, every time the plane landed the signature Iberia lute song and the Spaniards burst into applause. In most countries it’s expected that the pilots land the planes successfully (I mean that’s their job), but in Spain the people always get so excited when the wheels touch the tarmac. Maybe they just have less faith in their pilots. Anyway, since we had to take a flight from Madrid to Rome the following morning at 7AM and we landed already really late, we figured it didn’t make any sense to go all the way though security, get a hotel, and wake up really early to get back to the airport. Also our bags were all carryon so we didn’t even need to collect them and re-check them. We simply did dinner in the airport and after a few card games, passed out on the random couches in the terminal. Despite the incredibly annoying announcements in Spanish that literally said “We will not be making any announcements until the morning” that kept waking us up, we did get a few hours sleep.

Morocco: Day Ten

3.4.07 - At 6AM, I rolled over and shook myself awake. I was miraculously still on the bench upon which I had fallen asleep only a few hours before. Before long, the six of us reconvened and located our departure gate, only a few people movers away. We ate an overpriced breakfast at the only thing open and boarded without much talking. Soon we were in the air and on our way back to Rome. When we arrived at Fiumicino, we grabbed the regional rail line to Tuscolana and parted ways at the station. Loaded with gifts and my bag of very dirty clothes, it took me a bit longer than usual to reach Marina’s apartment. When I made it to 56 Via Lidia, as always, I awkwardly positioned myself inside the elevator and pressed S for Superfloor. When I entered the apartment, Elena was there to greet me, and after I had dropped my bags and hosed myself down, the two of us (I hadn’t seen her for over a month since she had been traveling Europe performing) caught up on life. After a while, one of her enthusiastic, chain smoking friends came over and the three of us began clamoring away at all aspects of life, from my trip (I made sure to share the photos) to spirituality and extra-physical forces. I had a fantastic time explaining my morocco pictures in Italian, and to my great satisfaction, I was immediately comfortable with the language. It was as though I had been practicing the whole time I was in North Africa. Pretty soon thereafter, Marina walked in the door and we were a family once again. Food was put up for dinner and all of us (with the exception of Elena’s friend who had left by this point) sat around the table and just enjoyed each other’s company.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Campagia Class trip and Carnivale in Venice

So first off, I want to apologize to those of you who have been checking my blog and leaving empty handed for the last month or so. No excuses, though the good news is that I have been writing, but just haven’t had the time nor the patience with the internet here to post anything. Let’s see where I left off . . .

To start with, on the weekend of February 9th, I went south of Rome on a class trip to the bay of Naples with my ancient Roman history class. We visited the towns of Terracina, Cumae, Baia, Paestum, Pompeii, Pozzuoli, and a few more along the way. It was truly incredible to be among some of the most ancient temples and city structures of the old Roman empire. It is so difficult to conceptualize just how old everything is especially when so much of it seems so modern. To be there with a professor who not only knows his stuff, but speaks with a Belgian accent and with his eyes closed made it even more entertaining and brought the entire scene to life. We moved at quite a pace, but since the areas we were visiting were more or less isolated and most of our energy had left us after the 8AM-7PM lectures, just hanging out at the hotel at night was enough for most of us. Three pens and a few notebooks later, we finally returned back to Rome, after making sure to stop at a buffalo mozzarella convention in Campagnia (mmmm) and picking up a few specialities for our tastebuds.

The next weekend, a group of seven other students and I left for Venice at 7AM from Ciampino airport. I had planned to take the night bus to Anangina, the last stop of line A, but my effort to flag it down failed; the driver was flying by so fast, he didn’t even see me. Luckily, Marina, who had driven me to the stop, had not yet left and was able to take me the rest of the way to the airport. The flight was incredibly quick, and for the first time, I really understood how lucky I was to be living in Rome. From here it is so cheap and simple to jump from one European city to another. It was chilly in Venice, but by the time we arrived at the island by way of an hour long airport shuttle (we didn’t fly into the main airport which is much closer), the weather had improved and it was beautiful outside. Our first order of business was to check into our hostel, which ended up being a rustic old building hidden by a large wooden door on the main square in the Dussosoro district. The location was incredible and the proprietor was very accommodating (despite the fact that we all had to share one towel).

Once we had dropped our stuff, the eight of us, Brent, Hannah, Jenny, Maddie, Rachel, Holiday, Alicia and I, began to navigate our way throughout the narrow passageways of the city. We purchased masks and hats for later that night as part of the Carnivale tradition. At one point in time, you could don a mask and literally do whatever with whomever from whichever social class or family you desired. Today, the festival is dominated by tourists (the locals often go skiing or chose to remain and dress to the nines to impress their foreign guests). That day we visited St. Mark’s Cathedral, a thirteenth century Byzantine creation. Covered in golden mosaics, this spectacular space is clearly evidence that the Middle ages weren’t so dark after all. After the church, we traversed the piazza and ascended to the top of the Campanile, or bell tower which shoots up across from the church. With an incredible angle of the sun, we were really able to get some great shots of the city below. At that point, we began working our way back to the hostel via the Rialto bridge area, and a few Euros lighter and pounds of Gelato heavier, we returned to the hotel to spend the night eating dinner and dancing around the Dussodoro area.

The next morning, the eight of us began at the train station and tried to figure out what to do for our second night. Originally, since we had been unable to find a room for the second night of carnival in our price range, we had decided to simply stay out all night and check our bags at the train station. However, when we found out that the station opened at 6:00 AM and that the last bus we could take to the airport and still catch our plane was at 6:10, we were a bit wary to check our bags knowing we would have only 10 minutes to make the bus. Instead, after a fruitless search for a cheap single hotel room where we could all store our luggage, we decided to carry everything with us, which made for an interesting, yet memorable night. First however, after the station, we split off into groups for the day. Some of us went to Murano to see the famous glass blowing shops; others spent the day wandering and getting to know the city better; the rest of us, myself included, decided to visit the Doge’s palace. What an amazing place. I had already been over the summer, but it really takes another (if not another two or three) times to truly appreciate how incredible the building and architecture truly are. It is here that I part with Rick Steves who says to ignore the art and just enjoy the building. What a spectacular display! There is one space that houses the largest oil painting in the world and almost every room has an incredible carved and painted ceiling all hung without the use of a single column. After the Doge's palace, we roamed around the piazza for a while and snapped away at the incredible costumes that were just everywhere. On our way back to the hostel at around 5PM, we ran into some difficulty however, the only bump in a relatively smooth road (or shall I say canal?). When we reached the main waterway, with ten minutes before we were supposed to be at the hostel to meet the others, we were shocked to see that the Traghetto operator (the guy who takes you across the canal where there are no bridges in a gondola-like skiff) was nowhere to be found and that his boat had been locked up at the dock. With no bridge even close feet about to fall off, we were all pretty frustrated. First I asked a water taxi how much it would cost to go across the river (a 45 cent ride on the Traghetto) but when he replied that 30 Euro was the minimum, we quickly declined. No way were we going to pay that much! We thought we would have to walk all the way to the nearest bridge, but while I was looking at the map to orient myself, a pouting Jenny gained the sympathy of the taxi driver and within no time, we were across the river, free of charge!

That night, we began the festivities around St. Mark’s square where hoards of people packed the largest open space in Venice in celebration. The light shows were just spectacular and changed all throughout the night. When the music ended around 11:30, we recharged our batteries in a bar/restaurant close to the main piazza. From there, we decided to slowly make our way towards the train station over the next six hours, stopping in and out of bars/clubs on the way as we pleased. Just as we were approaching one of the bridges that crosses the grand canal, we ran into a small food and hot wine stand where we stopped to warm up and socialize. Hannah, Rachel, Brent and Holiday took the opportunity to fall asleep for a bit against a nearby stone wall. One minute all four were peacefully asleep; the next, it was only 3 of them! We looked around and spotted Rachel sprinting over the bridge on a mission. Jenny, Maddie and I took off after Rachel with only a vague idea of where she might be headed. We soon came upon a club where we expected she had gone and after a strange interaction with the club owner, an older heavyset woman (who we all had to kiss on the cheek to get in) we were admitted to the establishment, where sure enough, we found Rachel. Lucky for us, we were able to check our bags along with our coats and enjoy the dancing and warm space before having to venture back out in the cold when the club closed at 4AM. It was finally time to make some headway in our trek to the bus. On the way we met up with Brent, Hannah and Holiday in a small coffee shop before finally getting to the bus stop from where we were to leave for the airport. We slept for about 45 minutes with an alarm set so we wouldn’t miss the bus and at 6:10, boarded the shuttle to Treviso. Haggard, sweaty and cold, we boarded the plane and drifted off to sleep. We landed smoothly and began taxiing to the terminal, when the pilot’s voice came over the intercom in Italian. He explained that Ciampino security had discovered an unattended piece of luggage and was therefore prohibiting us from deplaning until it had been cleared. Seconds later, the English translation came on over the intercom “There is a bomb threat on the airport so just stay put.” Those of us who understood Italian remained completely calm, though the many American students on the trip with only a few weeks of Italian under their belts began to flip out. People were running over to us to ask us if we had just heard the bomb scare announcement as the Italians on the plane, clearly amused and aware of what had been lost in translation were laughing out loud. Minutes later we heard another announcement “the package has been removed from the airport and exploded.” I guess they take these things pretty seriously, something that certainly made me feel more comfortable to be traveling in Europe (though I’m not sure the traveler who’s toothbrush had just been vaporized was as pleased).

The week after Venice (mid-term exam time here) was pretty quiet and my time was more or less consumed with studying. Unfortunately the classes here do not compare to those I have taken at Penn and require one to focus his energy on memorization rather than analysis, interpretation, or hypothesizing. The good news was that at the end of the week, I along with seven other friends were to depart for Morocco for spring break!
Thanks for visitng!