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.


Tuesday, January 30, 2007

On The Colorful Cast Of Characters That Make Up My Local Experience

Marina: My host mother is amazing. Marina, 56, just retired a few months ago from teaching, so she has a lot of free time to speak with me and help me to learn her language as well as spend much of the day buying food and cooking for me. Every day she wakes up at 6AM to “preparare la colazione,” or prepare the royal feast which is my breakfast. She typically does local errands during the day and on Tuesday and Thursday nights frequents an English class with her friend Rosa. Marina tells me again and again how impressed she is with my Italian given how long she has been taking English and how much less proficient she is in that language than I in Italian, which does wonders to boost my confidence! Provided I don’t go out at night, Marina and I usually speak for a good two to three hours a day, during and after dinner. Often, this consists of Marina recounting a vacation, describing a friend of hers, or more likely preaching to me about how it is important to eat slowly and how to twirl my pasta so I don’t end up with a fistful of spaghetti on the end of my fork. You see, I thought I was being very gentile when I delicately cut my pasta with my knife on the first night here as not to make a mess and take to large a portion; however, in Italy it is considered rude to cut your pasta—you must always spin it around your fork like a ball of yarn. Many a night we sit around the modern glass dining room table and share fotographs. From the start I wondered about whether she was divorced, separated, widowed, or simply never married. I learned from her daughter Elena that she and her husband separated 10 years ago and he now lives elsewhere in Rome with another woman. Only the other day, I got the rest of the story from Marina herself. Still married today (since they are Catholic and therefore cannot get divorced), she has been separated from her husband, now a short balding man for 10 years. The separation was the greatest pain of her life and although in the few years leading up to their split there was little affection between them, it was still very hard for her. She is a strong and bright woman however, and with her remaining savings and energy bought a house (apartment really). One day she hopes to purchase a microwave, but at this point, she is putting most of her savings into paying off the mortgage. Marina fills her free hours by visiting museums, reading literature and keeping up with world news. We have had many interesting conversations about the Iraq war and the current global situation. Marina is also a very considerate person. She is always looking out for my well-being and always anticipating my needs and wants, offering to drive me places and run errands for me. (I almost feel like I’m at home!). She really is an intellectual as well and is both open minded and opinionated, the best combination in any intellectual. We often have debates about politics and just yesterday, shared our opinions on the controversial Italian expatriate author, Oriana Fallaci, who lived in New York until she died just a year or two ago. I’m reading one of her later books The Rage and the Pride for my Political Science class here and am quite frustrated with the author’s bigoted and racist litany. I asked Marina if she had read the unabashedly anti-Islamic and violent text and she had. My host mother insisted that I finish the book before completely casting aside Fallaci’s argument, and our discussion went into so much depth, that this morning by my breakfast plate, I found a printout of a piece of literary criticism Marina had found which represented her viewpoint on the matter. Once I had deciphered the Italian text, I began to understand Marina’s viewpoint. Fallaci’s writing according to the critic has changed in her most recent years and though Marina was able to identify with the “pride” the author has for both the United States and her patria, Italy, she was unable to appreciate the “rage” scrawled across the pages. Thanks to our conversation, I now feel I have a much more balanced understanding of the Italian author’s text. Marina even gave me an older book of Fallaci’s to read (in Italian of course). Wow, it’s only been three weeks here and I can already sense how fast this thing is going! I am really going to miss my host family. I’ve only been here 3 weeks and I already feel like I’ve known Marina for years. Better go throw some more change in the Trevi fountain I guess.

Elena: Marina’s daughter is a gem of a person. She is the y encounter. A dancer by profession, Elena subconsciously incorporates the fluidity of her artoungest 32 year old I have yet to into all aspects of her person. She twirls over to the dinner table, gracefully tilts her head to kiss me hello and goodbye, spins around and dips at the waist when washing dishes and balances on her toes when she gets excited or worked up about something. Elena speaks excellent English, a bit better than my Italian, and travels around Europe performing. I am sad to say I had to say goodbye for a while as she is in Holland for the month of February. Although she still keeps a room at her mother’s house and often stays there, she also has her own apartment in Trastevere. Elena loves music and even recorded an album of her own with friends when she was hurt in a motorcycle accident and couldn’t dance for a year. She has an incredible voice, especially for someone who only sings as a hobby—when I heard her singing along to one of her recordings, I first thought it was a professional musician on the tape! Elena is a bit more difficult to understand than Maria since she is younger and speaks more quickly. However, she very bubbly, and like her mother, never tires of conversation. As part of her weekly regimen, Elena also attends martial arts classes and does yoga late at night before going to bed. I already miss her now that she’s in Holland, and can’t wait to see her when she returns.

Rosa: Although I have never met her, I have heard plenty of stories from Marina. First off, she is the mother of two girls, Germania and Francesca, both friends of Elena. (Germania is incredible in the kitchen—she made an apple strudel for us the other week which was unbelievable). Anyway, Rosa is a great friend of Maria, but she’s going slightly out of her mind. She insists that someone has hired a secret agent to follow her, and that this man, his identity unknown, has been sneaking into her apartment for the past 30 years! Maria has tried to rationalize with her and explain how absurd it would be for someone to pay all kinds of money to hire a professional investigator to monitor someone like her. Rosa, sadly, to the amusement of all, will not give up her story.

Marco: So next door to the apartment where I live, Via Lidia 56, is an old theater called the Stellarium, long abandoned and boarded up. It’s a colorful façade, a relic of years ago, and tells of time when this area had a greater cultural draw. But what is most interesting about this conglomeration of aluminum, steel and glass, is that it has been recycled into the winter home of a man named Marco. Marco moved in, according to Maria, just a few days before I arrived in Rome. A regular passerby would identify him as simply another homeless Roman, barely getting by day to day on the generosity of others. But I could tell within a few days, that this man was somewhat different. He doesn’t press his skull to the pavement in prayer for charity, he doesn’t tote around a child for sympathy, he holds no sign which reiterates his misfortune, nor does he have mangled appendages or head tumors like many of the other unfortunate souls in this city. Marco lives under the canopy of the Stellarium by choice, not inside the building, but out front. According to Maria, who used to give him money until she spoke with him and learned his story, Marco has two sons who own restaurants in Trastevere and do quite well for themselves. However, when he and his wife split up, Marco went slightly mad, took to drink, and sold his apartment. With the money, he has chosen a life of leisure, albeit an unhealthy and difficult one, and for the past two years has been homeless. Last winter was his first on Via Lidia, and this winter, his second. Maria has explained that in the summer he leaves, but where to she is unsure. Even more strange, Marco has so established himself in front of the Stellarium—a place no real bum would chose as there is minimal foot traffic here on the outskirts of Rome—that he has his own sleeping bag, suitcase of belongings, camping stove, folding table, blankets, and a modest amount of utensils, plates and bowls, etc. He even has regular visitors who frequent his perch and stay to chat for hours at a time, and wait (you won't believe this) he even has a cellphone! Marco is more friendly than the other homeless men and women in Rome, always smiling and seemingly content with himself, despite his deteriorating health. I haven’t made up my mind whether or not I feel for him or not, but I think one of these days I will take the time to sit and talk with him for a bit.

Alessandro: When I toured La Sapienza, the largest university in Europe (and 2nd largest in the world), located in Rome, just northeast of Termini, the train station and above San Lorenzo on the map, I left a message tapped to a window in one of the buildings offering to meet up with a student looking to practice his or her English in exchange for help with my Italian. I received an email last week from a guy named Alessandro, who offered to meet up and accepted. Last Thursday, we got lunch at the University and the 23 year old grad student in languages (English in particular) and economics was extremely nice. He spoke in English the whole time and I in Italian. I love practicing my Italian with Marina, but it was so much fun to speak with someone close to my age. I plan on meeting up with him again to practice my English some more over the next few weeks.

Monday, January 29, 2007

On Food

Every day I am learning about new fruits, vegetables and methods of food preparation. I eat at home with my host family four days a week, and three weeks into my stay, have yet to repeat a meal. Marina is an unbelievable cook, and has a very clever way of rationalizing food. She believes she is health conscious and is always quick to point out which foods help eliminate gas, purify your system, protect against sickness, reduce stress, help digestion, etc. On the occasion that she serves something that tastes incredible but should only be eaten once in a long while because it is either very fattening or only healthy in moderation, she is quick to point that out as well. Ironically, there is one dish that usually falls into this category every night, so she is able to rationalize serving these unhealthy foods every day by alternating them! Of course, I have to try everything so I’ve probably put on a few pounds since arriving here. They also make everything here with olive oil; Maria even put olive oil in my soup! She seems to cook up complex dishes effortlessly and at a whim. She doesn’t even care about knowing when I am getting home each night, because she will often throw something on and have it ready within 10 minutes. In fact, I prefer eating at home than at restaurants since there is so much food and it is all top notch. There’s one vegetable called finocchio, that looks like an artichoke heart but is more or less tasteless as it’s mostly water. You have to be careful about context however because finocchio is a derogatory slang word for homosexual. In the morning the entire kitchen table is covered in food for me to eat. Dried and fresh fruit, cookies, crackers, bread, toast, breakfast meats, eggs, fresh squeezed orange juice, coffee, tisana (infusion), tea, cheeses, homemade marmalade, pastries, the list goes on. . . This past weekend I went to Bologna. My God. The food was incredible. Each restaurant was better than the next and we didn’t even get into the ones listed in the guidebooks, already booked weeks in advance. The bread, the pasta, the sauces, all incredible. I had gnocchi, eggplant parmigiano, some of the best pizza I’ve ever tasted, and of course Parmigiano Regiano, the crème-de-la-crème of Parmigian cheese from Parma. The food there is much less oily then the rest of Italy because the region was never an olive growing region and only recently have the transportation networks developed enough for its importation from other Italian regions.

Friday, January 19, 2007

On Pickpockets

So I've been robbed, hoodwinked, pickpocketed. Where? Yesterday, on metro A. I was doing everything right too. I had my wallet in my front pocket where I had been instructed to keep it and still, it was not safe. Here's my theory on why it's no longer in my hands. So I have this weekly metro pass right? Well, not anymore, but I had it. Normally, as you might have read in my previous post, the Italian A.T.A.C. controllers never check for your ticket, but this time, there was a guy asking for it right before the escalator which leads down to the platform. I was keeping it safe in my wallet and when I took it out to show the metro worker, I am almost positive now that someone saw me return my wallet to my front pocket. When I went to board the metro, it was packed and Hannah (another student on the program) and I could barely get on. Now I also had my digital and manual SLR cameras, my laptop and my backpack with me and was accutely aware of any suspicious movement around me given the things I was carrying. Nevertheless, when I routinely patted my front pocket one metro stop later, it was gone. I felt nothing! I have heard that the thieves will even use razorblades to slice your bags and clothing and slip out your valuables. Anyway, the good news is that I only lost some money and my credit cards, which were easily cancelled. Given that this happens to most Romans at least 3 times in their lives, I can't get too down on myself about it. That's all for now. . .

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

On Transportation

The challenges associated with living in a somewhat isolated area have forced me to spend much of my time and energy in this first week or so simply getting to know the incredibly complex and seemingly irrational mess that is Rome’s transportation system, the ATAC. The metros here are easy enough: Linea A, one of the two main arteries that runs northwest to southeast and vice versa, is the line I use most frequently to travel to and from home, school and many of the major piazzas in this expansive city. The other main line, which I use less frequently and runs northeast to southwest and vice versa is, as one might guess, named Linea B. Rome is currently constructing two new lines, Linea C and Linea D, that will further connect the city by as early (relative to the length of Rome’s existence anyway) as 2016.
Due to the fact that modern Rome was built on top of the foundations of the ancient empire’s capital, construction workers are forced to suspend work for archeological inquiry at every step of the way. Miserable traffic and limited metro hours are some of the consequences of these much needed civic improvements, and when the metro shuts down at 9PM we are forced to befriend the bus system, difficult enough for the Romans to figure out in their native language. I am only now becoming comfortable with the 628 bus line, the route that takes me to and from school and into other parts of the city as well. When midnight comes around however, one must then rely on the night busses, another tricky system.
One can purchase a 75 minute bus/metro pass at any Tabaccheria for €1, but to save money, a €30 monthly metro/bus pass is much better. It’s quite easy to get a free ride on the ATAC (you don’t have to swipe anything to board a bus or metro), but the consequences for being caught without a ticket can be quite steep. Some Italians take the risk and never get caught, but most seem to be pretty honest about it. However, from time to time, buses will randomly stop, 3 policemen will board and the driver will lock the doors and shut of the ticket stamping machine. If you are caught without a pass, you can be slapped with a €100 fine or even brought to jail, enough of an incentive to pay for a ticket.
The taxis can also be tricky if you don’t know what you’re doing. First of all, it is important that you take a licensed cab. If not, you will undoubtedly be in for a surprise when you reach your destination and have to pay. My friend Hannah made this mistake when she first arrived in Rome and was charged over €150 for a ride that should have been only €60. Also, the central zone in Rome has a different fare rate (1) than the outer ring (2). Cab drivers have been known to try and charge the number 2 rate in the number 1 zone to passengers they know are tourists or Italians from outside of Rome. It is therefore important that you check the meter early on to make sure the driver is not cheating you. Also, you can’t hail a cab in Rome like you can in any U.S. city. Either you can pick up a cab at a taxi stand (usually near main piazzas) or you can call a cab from any other location. You have to be careful when you call cabs though, because their meters begin when they leave their location and if it takes the driver more than 3-5 minutes to reach you, the cost of the ride could start somewhere around €10 before you even go anywhere.
The bottom line with transportation is that if you don’t know exactly what you’re doing it is likely that you will end up waiting for a bus that never comes, or as I experienced one night last week, waiting for the metros to start up again at 5:30 in the morning before you are able to return home. The good thing as that when you start to become better with the system, there is an incredible feeling of pride every time you step on a bus, knowing that you have mastered a small part of your experience.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

On Writing

Dear Friends and Family:

I can’t quite pin it down yet, but there is definitively something inherent in an abroad experience that provides all force required to overcome the usual inertia of writers block. For someone who has made several failed attempts to keep journals in the past, I am finding it effortless and gratifying to jot down my daily thoughts and activities. Perhaps, I have been so concerned with the final product in the past that I was unable to let myself go; perhaps my atrocious handwriting, which more closely resembles the Linea B metro graffiti, rendered me unable to reflect upon my illegible scrawl, effectively eliminating my audience and therefore any real incentive to put pen to paper; but perhaps—and I am becoming ever more convinced of this theory—it is simply the lack of easy communication with my usual contacts that has propelled me to write. Although I have a wonderful Italian host family and plenty of students with whom I can converse throughout the day, dialogue with friends and family from home is limited, due to the time difference and cost of communication. So here I am typing away on my laptop, actually able to decipher my words, displayed neatly and efficiently in Arial, size 10.
Don’t feel obligated to read this blog by any means as I know you are all very busy, but for those of you who make it past the subject line and can find the time in your hectic schedules to shoot me a quick email update about your lives, I will be forever grateful. Ciao!

Thanks for visitng!