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.


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!

Sunday, February 4, 2007

A Day in the Life: Wednesday, January 31, 2007

My day began among the fresh vegetable, fruit, and fish stalls of the open marketplace in Campo dei Fiori where I was to meet my art history class for one of our weekly outings. I arrived especially early on this particular morning. The bus—which last Wednesday took over an hour to arrive at the stop and transport me to my desired destination—was actually running on schedule (as if that word existed in the Italian lexicon) for once. The chilly morning air was crisp, and sidestepping around the discarded milk crates and mini “Teveres” flowing from the public fountains, I made my way over to the bronze Giordano Bruno statue, set squarely in the piazza’s center. Perched on the martyr’s pediment, I occasionally snuck behind the stalls to warm my frigid fingers over the flickering flames that were consuming the hot coals and dismantled produce crates in one of the cylindrical metal basins the vendors use as makeshift space-heaters. Finally, my class and professor arrived. We made our way to a piazza created by the Palazzo Farnese (the building’s finishing touches were done by Michelangelo). After spending about 30 minutes in front of the fa├žade, we moved around the building to a beautiful street created in the 1500s by one of the Farnese Popes to connect the various business centers in Rome. My art history teacher, who like most of the Italians (especially professors) I’ve met, is not one to be shy about his opinions, and bluntly scorned the solitary detractor from the historic street’s sublime beauty, the Cavalieri Hilton, that ugly, boring monstrosity that when built in the 1950s on a distant hill, contaminated the would-be-picturesque-view through an archway on the avenue. The Italians are also quick to point out how much they despise the monument to Vittorio Emanuelle II, the king who reunified Italy in 1870. This gaudy, eclectic . . . thing is also known as the typewriter or wedding cake, built with no connection to Mussolini, contrary to popular belief. Considered one of the many “rapes” of Rome, part of the reason the Romans can’t stand it, is because it was built out of ultra-bright white marble found in the north of Italy, and not the soft Travertino, the marble used in the Colosseum and found locally in the Tivoli region. We later crossed the Tevere and visited the Farnese summer home, which reminded me of the house on our old street, Auburn Road, where there lived a family that had its “summer home” just down the block, though sans Raphael frescos. We learned that the same Pope who built the road for commerce, built a parallel road across the river, Via Ostia, or “road of leisure”.

When the class ended, I wandered back to school, through Piazza, Navona, by the Pantheon, through Piazza Popolo, and finally to Temple Rome. There, I grabbed my camera to finish the 20 or so exposures left on my most recent roll of film. I headed down to the Tevere and at the very end of the roll, came across a sort of floating social club, a boathouse that served as both a launching point for rowers and a clubhouse. Opposite the boathouse was a set of concrete stairs, and above I could hear voices, so I ventured up, ignoring property rights as usual (oh well). At the top I discovered 15 or so Italian men, almost all over the age of 60, fiercely engaged in an incredibly captivating soccer game (I later learned this was actually calcino, a variation on the sport) on an overgrown, caged-in, shrunken field. After asking permission from one of the spectators who looked as though he had some authority, I snapped a few shots and hurriedly popped in a second roll to capture the excitement. I took an entire roll of the game, and got some spectacular shots with my zoom lens. I ultimately failed myself however, because in my rush to load the second roll, I carelessly forgot to make sure the fill caught and ended up exposing nothing! Well, at least I have some inspiration for future pictures. I must return!

Wednesday night, I saw my first real soccer game in all its glory. What a match! For 10 euros each, Hannah, Brent, a girl named Christine and I got a true Roman experience. It was Roma v. Milano in the enormous Olympic Stadium just outside Rome proper and a quick (though crammed) tram ride from Piazza Popolo. At least it was easy to know when to get off—everyone going to the game was wearing a Roma scarf and the whole tram emptied out when we arrived. And the game? Incredible! There were 3 goals in the first sixteen minutes and Roma won, 3-1. And even more crazy were the fans: They were climbing over the glass partitions in the stadium, shooting off flares and smoke candles that the Vigili di Fuoco stood ready to extinguish. They even fired blank cannon shots that shook the whole stadium and sang from a whole repertoire of cheers and songs. When a few days later I read online in the Italian newspaper that during a game between two teams from Sicily a similar show of spirit had turned sour and caused a major fire and a number of injuries I was hardly surprised. Unfortunately this catastrophe has prompted the government to halt all future games indefinitely until further investigation. Hopefully the actions of a few overzealous fans won’t ruin it for everyone and I’ll be able to see another game soon enough.
Thanks for visitng!