Sunday, March 27, 2011

Winter Wanderlust: Seconda Parte

Without Ana’s influence, I returned to my style of traveling with no particular plan. I started hitting up Italian friends to see if I could crash at their places. The first person to fall for it was my friend Agnese who had been at Benza’s for New Years. She and I hopped in a car with some guys we barely knew and headed up to Genova where we did a quick tour and had fun being derisive about modern art.

We then caught a train up to the coast to Agne’s home town of Finale Ligure which is right on the sea. She was quick to inform me that it’s the same coast that is oh-so-touristy in France and that most inhabitants of the area were a bit bitter at France’s success. Anyway, her dad picked us up from the train station and took us to their house where they were already halfway through a big ol’ family dinner. As soon as I sat down, everyone was talking to me, asking me questions, and most importantly, offering me food. I can safely say that it was the best meal I’ve had in Italy, and some of the best company.

The next day, Agne helped me plan the next step of my journey and she showed me around the town. We also went down to the beach and had a nice walk in the sun. It almost didn’t seem like winter.

That afternoon, I headed off to Parma. I had no idea what I was going to see, but I knew where I was going to stay. There was a hostel just outside of town, about 25 minutes from the train station. When I arrived, I oriented myself and started walking. Before too long, I made it to the hostel. Of course, the internet, while informing me of the location of the hostel, neglected to tell me that the hostel was closed. And I mean full-on closed. The gate was closed, all the windows were covered and if it weren’t for the little sign outside, I would have assumed that it wasn’t a hostel at all. I called Agne and she started searching the internets to help me find another place. I proceeded to wander back to Parma and then wander the streets asking prices at every hotel I came across. After a couple hours, I finally ended up settling because I didn’t want to sleep on the streets. The receptionist at the front desk was really friendly, and while he said he couldn’t offer me a room for less, he did give me a better room for the basic price. I went upstairs and tried to make the best of my semi-fancy room.

The next day, I experienced Parma in the daylight and found it about the same. So I headed up to Cremona to stay with my friend Beatrice. She, like Agne, was a great hostess and showed me all around her town. Cremona is famous because it’s the hometown of Stradivarius, that guy that made nifty violins a while back. We wandered around, looking at all the different parts of town named after Stradivarius and all the statues of Stradivarius. That night we went out to dinner with Bea’s family and I tried a Cremonese specialty, the Torta Fritta. It’s pretty much pockets of friend dough that you put various meats and cheeses inside. So good! That night, Bea’s dog managed to eat my shoes, so the next day involved some shopping before I went on my way to the next stop, Mantova.

Mantova is known for being the hometown of Virgil, most famous for his supporting role in Hell: The Dante Alighieri Story. Despite a statue, there’s not much to show for Virgil because he has been dead for a very, very long time. There is, however Palazzo Te which is a 16th century palazzo with some beautiful frescoes and a museum inside. I passed most of my day looking at all sorts of neat stuff inside the palazzo and then headed off to Bologna that evening.

In Bologna, I had the good fortune of finding a hostel. It wasn’t exactly in Bologna, but it was within a half hour by bus and it was, according to the internet, really easy to get to the right bus stop from the train station. After wandering the streets of Bologna for an hour or so, I finally found the right bus stop and hopped on. As we were driving along, I noticed that there was no indication of where we were or what the stops were. There were no signs at the stops and nothing was announced on the bus. This concerned me because I was counting on my knowledge of the name of my bus stop to facilitate my arrival at the hostel. After a while I decided that it was worth it to ask the bus driver. I had to do this every time I returned to the hostel because there weren’t even any defining characteristics nearby.

When I got to the hostel, it seemed pretty normal, like any imposing compound in the middle of nowhere. I headed up to my room which was your traditional hostel dorm. What was a bit unusual was my company in my hostel dorm. When I entered, I saw the indication of my two roommates. One bed was in a state of shocking disarray. To say simply that it was unmade would not suffice. There were sheets everywhere. In stark contrast, the other bed was extremely neatly made and resting on the floor in a precise ninety degree angle to the bed was a pair of sandals. Before long, the owner of the sandals returned to the room. As would be expected, he was a very courteous asian man. I would say he was middle aged, but he could have been one hundred like those Tibetan monks that look 16 but hung out with Confucius back in the day.

Later that night, my second roommate came back. He was preceded into the room by his odor. Luckily, he wasn’t selfish and was perfectly willing to share his stink with us for the next couple days. Now, at this point, someone might get offended by my assertion that he was a hobo. Keith, they might say, not all stinky people are hobos, any football player can tell you that. And they’d have a legitimate point. What defined this man for me as a hobo was his charge that he carried with him. He had, on a dolly, what appeared to be a rectangular plastic column in the Grecian style. Every night when he returned from what I can only assume was hobo-ing for the day, he would enter the room with his column and put her gently into his closet, which he would then lock. I had the opportunity, once, to see that the column was hollow. The only object I could easily discern within his column was an almost empty plastic bag of car soap. That’s right, hypothetical skeptic from earlier, he was clearly a hobo.

While I was there, I also saw Bologna.

After three days in Bologna, I headed off for my last night away from home in the famous city of Ferrara. It is not, NOT where Ferraris are from. I got to my hostel, where I was in a room for eight, but literally the only guest in the entire hostel. It was a little spooky. I decided to go out that evening to see a bit of the city and find some food. I walked toward the center of town, and as I rounded a corner BAM, castle. With a moat and drawbridges and everything. The Ferraresi are awesome. It’s like they found this badass castle and thought, ‘How cool is this? Let’s just build a town around it.’ And they did. And it’s called Ferrara.

Then, I went back to Pavia and slept for days.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Winter Wanderlust: Prima Parte

It’s been months since I’ve written, and I figured I should remedy that, so here goes. I’d say I was going to pick up where I left off, but that was quite some time ago. A popular question among Italians I talk to is how long I’ve been in their country. While it sometimes comes off as hostile, I think they’re just trying to make conversation. When I say I’ve been here since June they always ask if I’ve been home at all and then proceed to be thoroughly shocked that I haven’t. “Then what did you do for Christmas?” they ask. Well generalized Italian friends, I will now attempt to answer that question.

First, I’m going to assume that in this case Christmas refers the entire time that the college was closed and, as a result, I was homeless. I had planned a nice week of travel with my friend Ana who I met in Lecce. So, on the day the college closed I headed to Milan to meet her. I grabbed us a hotel room in the slightly sketchy district near the central station and awaited her arrival from Paris.

Before long, she called me to inform me that because of snow her flight had been cancelled and that she hoped to get a flight the next day, the 24th. So, instead of following our previous plan and heading to Bologna, I stuck around Milan the next day as well, but we all know that she didn’t get that flight either. However, the people at the airport were kind enough to inform her that there weren’t any open flights on Christmas.

Since we already had reservations in Siena for the 25th, I caught the 6am train from Milan. I spent my Christmas morning with a nice little Spanish family. Between my elementary Spanish and the massive similarity between Spanish and Italian, we managed to have a nice little conversation and a pleasant little trip.

When I arrived in Siena, in following with my basic practice of poor preparation, I started wandering toward where I remembered seeing our hostel on a map the day before. I had almost arrived when I decided to call the number that I had for the hotel. It turned out that the address that I had was of the booking agency and not in fact the hotel. So, I turned around and headed back to the center of town. I wasn’t too upset, however when I discovered that I was in a very nice Bed and Breakfast right behind the main piazza of Siena (for an extremely reasonable price).

By the time I got settled in and had me a little nap, it was just about time to get dinner so I headed out to see what was open on Christmas. Luckily, I found a nice little place to get a pizza and took it back to my room where I watched reruns of cross-country skiing competitions on TV and went to bed early.

The next morning, I woke up and the sun made its first appearance in months. I’ve yet to find a city more beautiful than Siena on a sunny day. I spent my entire morning wandering the streets in wonder and taking all sorts of pictures. That evening, Ana finally made it to Italy and caught the train down to Siena. We had a dinner at the restaurant attached to our B&B which was clearly something frozen tossed in a microwave. Oh well, at least it was cheap. The next morning, I, now quite an expert on Siena, took Ana for a tour and then we caught an afternoon train to Florence.

At this point, because I get all confused with what stuff happened when, I’m going to reproduce three days in Florence in a one day format. So, prepare yourselves.

We woke up early because we had reservations at the Accademia. If you’re not sure what that is, it’s essentially a big building with plaster casts of unimportant statues. Oh, yeah, and then there’s the David, Italy’s huge, naked, marble superstar. To be honest, I was a bit skeptical going in that this statue could so easily spawn obsessions in some people I know, but when I saw him, I totally understood. There’s this unexplainable wonder that comes with standing right next to… well, shit, it’s unexplainable. I never got up the courage to covertly snap a forbidden photograph, but it was ok ‘cause we had to hurry off to the Uffizi.

The Uffizi is one of the most famous museums around. It’s like Italy’s Louvre, but way more disappointing. From what I could tell, they gathered every mediocre religious painting from the last thousand years and stuck them in a building. Walking through the rooms, it goes a little like this: Christ, Christ, baby Christ, San Sebastiano(who is super famous because it was an excuse to paint a guy full of arrows), Christ, Mary, random member of the Medici family, martyrs, Christ. I have to admit however that Botticelli’s Venus is right on par with David and, in itself, pretty much made the entire visit worthwhile.

We then decided to follow the advice that our friend the internet had given us and check out a local gelato place. It was a bit pricey, but as it turned out, the best gelato of all time. For the first time, I was thankful for the bitter cold as it preserved my dear gelato so I could eat it ruhl slow.

Seeing Florence from street-level was getting a bit boring, so we climbed a big ol’ hill nearby up to Piazzale Michelangelo which overlooks the entire city. From our nifty vantage point, Florence looked even cooler and we noticed that there was some nice countryside and some sort of sketchy tower nearby. And so began our quest for la Torre del Gallo. We pretty much just walked toward this cool looking tower until we found out that it was on private property and we couldn’t go see it. At that point, we were already outside of Florence, so we just kept going. We wandered country roads for the next couple hours and found some neat little frozen-in-time type towns.

After a couple worrisome moments in which we might have been lost, we managed to get back to Florence and find our way through the streets to our hostel. They were more psyched than me that it was my birthday and offered to take me along for the evening’s pub crawl for free. Seemed like a good idea, so Ana and I went and had a night on the town with random hostel members. We made some friends, and laughed at some people singing karaoke and had an all around good night.

The next day, we headed off to Pisa for some New Year’s festivities at my friend Benza’s house. We had a huge dinner, laughed a lot, drank a lot, and then went to go dancing in a piazza. I, losing interest, managed to wander off and get lost on the streets of Pisa. Luckily, Benza was able to find me and steer me back to civilization.

The next morning, I woke up early to accompany Ana to the train station. As we walked through Pisa, we saw some heavy duty cleaning crews trying to restore the city after the chaos of the night before. Without any problems, I sent Ana on her way.

Here, I find it prudent to take some time to describe another Italian tradition. When you go see a movie at the theatre, any movie, there is an intermission exactly halfway through. It doesn’t matter what’s happening, explosions, important dialogue, they can and will take a ten minute bathroom break. That’s more or less what I plan to do here.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Pisa: Where Even the Tower Leans Left

I’m not exactly sure why, but last minute, irresponsible decisions have always appealed to me. To this end, I recently embarked upon a journey. The backstory goes like this: I had been thinking about going to visit my friend Benza in Pisa. Talking to her online late one night, I decided to do it. The next morning. So, about six hours after making my decision, I hopped on a train and my journey began. Of course, I’ve always loved the idea of just disappearing, so I didn’t tell anyone.

Six hours later, I arrived in Pisa. I followed the street to where I knew Benza’s house to be. At that point, it seemed prudent to call her and inform her that I hadn’t been joking the night before. She was a bit surprised and informed me that I was crazy.

We then hit up the famous sites of Pisa. These included that tower that’s falling down, some cathedral thing, the Jewish cemetery where people do drugs and the carefully manicured lawn where the high school students go either to play soccer or have sex, depending on how many of them there are and how they’re feeling on that particular day.

We returned to the comfort of Benza’s house where her mother was in a rage because of the broken water heater. Despite her anger, she was very kind and cooked us dinner, spaghetti with pesto. Of course, she assured me, I’d never had pesto before. I shocked her by informing her that we actually make pesto at my house in Idaho every year. Thinking I’d found some common ground, I was pretty content. She, however, just seemed confused. How is it possible, she asked. I told her all about how we grow our own basil and garlic and all that. When asked where we grow our basil, I responded with a simple ‘in the garden,’ which I thought was pretty clear. At this point, she sighed with relief. ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘that’s not real pesto. You have to grow it in a small town just outside Genova.’ Despite how much this appeased her, I was a little upset that my parents have been lying to me all these years about what we put on our pasta.

To further my education of the real world, that night we went out. Going out in Pisa is what I would call a unique experience. Pisa has the most interesting people ever. Despite never meeting Benza’s next-door neighbor who was a retired prostitute, I was lucky enough to meet the other grand characters of the town.

We headed to the Piazza where all the young people, communists, and hobos hang out. It was here that I encountered the first character, ‘That hobo that hits everything.’ Benza’s friend, Giulia, calmly pointed him out to me and we watched as he weaved through the crowd hitting anything that came within reach, be it table, backpack, or child. He then headed to his home, a cardboard box right near our table which was nicely decorated for the holiday season with some random stuff hanging on the wall.

We returned to the same beautiful piazza the following evening, this time also in the company of Benza’s friend Saverio who had just come from a massage class. Upon first meeting, he was visibly upset. He explained that after a demonstration of a breast-massage, the teacher had decided on Saverio as the object of his ass-massage demonstration. The poor kid was so traumatized that he could barely speak, but once he did, we got along famously. He even told me about his acting career which included a brief foray into the field of film as a naked extra in a beach scene.

All that I’ve told you up to now, pales in comparison with what happened next. We met a celebrity. He’s a far from successful musician/hobo/comrade who played a fairly important role in Italy’s communist movement. His name is Pino Masi and he has an enormous head. Luckily, he didn’t discover that I was an American capitalist pig. In fact, he took quite a liking to me. He decided to talk to me, and almost exclusively me, for a good half-hour. The only problem was that he had not one, but two fairly strong accents (that of Pisa, and one from Sicily) and was fairly drunk. I did my best to understand and when it seemed like he wanted a response, I mirrored whatever he was doing. This made him happy and he proceeded to tell us all about the glory days, sell us a cd, and then ask us for money. We passed the rest of our evening having a great time in good company.

The next day, after grabbing breakfast around noon, Benza walked me to the station and I grabbed the train back to Pavia. Upon my return, I had to explain myself and my disappearance to my friends. They thought it was strange and irresponsible, in a word, Keith.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Cafonalparty 2010 : No tact, No taste, No problem

The following story hinges on the understanding of a famous member of Italian society, the Cafone. Now, over the course of several weeks, I’ve managed to get a fairly good idea of who the Cafone is, and he can be summarized fairly easily. If you imagine the whitest guy you know and imagine him trying to be a pimp from the seventies, you’ve created the Cafone. But the Cafone doesn’t need your creation, so get lost.

To celebrate one of the most beloved Italian characters of all time, four graduates of the Collegio Ghislieri decided to hold a festival in homage to the Cafone. It was called, and shall forever be remembered as, Cafonalparty 2010.

The entire day was colored by nearly childish excitement on the part of every member of the college. The normally boisterous Italians were able to reach new heights of noise, laughter and general joy. After dinner, everyone went their separate ways, cognizant of the transformation that was about to take place in every room in the college as, one by one, people set aside their pride and good taste to don the traditional garb of the Cafone.

Our little group of foreigners, consisting of me, two English, an Anglo-American, a German, and a Swiss gathered in the Anglo-American Ashley’s room before to wait for the arrival of the shuttle to get to the party. After a while, we headed outside to wait on the front steps of the College. My British little sister Emily showcased her questionable intelligence by asking why everyone was wearing coats and then proceeding to shiver for the next half hour.

When the shuttle arrived (half an hour late) we, according to our ancient Anglo-Saxon traditions, lined up (queued up if you’re British). Unfortunately, we forgot that we were not in Anglo-Saxia, but Italy. The Italians lined up in their distinctive fashion which involves a lot of crowding and pushing to the front. Not surprisingly, we were the last to reach the door of the shuttle and by that time it was already full. A regretful Cafone at the door informed us that the Cafonalshuttle was already full of other Cafoni and that we would have to wait for our Cafonalturn to go the the Cafonalparty. Heads low in Cafonalshame, we headed back inside to sulk and make sure that Emily didn’t actually die from hypothermia.

We waited a bit inside and then returned to the steps for the next shuttle. We got to meet up a with a whole new group of Cafoni, and I have to say that these ones were more entertaining. For starters, there was Gaia la Romana who is a girl from the college who is almost incomprehensible because she speaks half in Roman dialect. She was dressed pretty heavily Cafone, but it was hard to tell because it was strangely akin to what she wears every day. There was also Amar, who wasn’t dressed up at all except for a pair of sunglasses. Most strikingly, there was Alarico, a really big friend of my who reminds me of my brother. He was wearing a mechanic’s jumpsuit, a beanie, a bandana, and sunglasses. I looked at him, started laughing and didn’t stop for quite some time. Throughout the evening, he was a constant source of entertainment for me.

When the next shuttle arrived, even later than the previous, we managed to make our way on board and we were off to the party. We drove for about half an hour until we finally reached the turnoff for the party, marked by a piece of cardboard stuck to a signpost that said simply ‘Cafonal’. The bus turned onto the narrow road that seemed to head off into a field. Before long, we were on a dirt road and seemed dangerously close to falling into a canal. We assumed we had arrived as the bus pulled into what looked to be some sort of poorly lit abandoned compound. Despite the fear we probably should have been feeling, spirits were high and we disembarked and headed toward the music.

I would have been about the fifth to enter the building, but after the first three entered, they came rushing back out looking extremely embarrassed. At this point, I noticed that the music coming from the building was not the normal house music of an Italian party, but fairly heavy rock music. Apparently a band had been practicing in this building and we’d given them a temporary audience. We retreated quickly, not wanting to encourage that particular genre of music and crossed the compound to where we could only assume the party would be.

We pushed our way into the building hoping the door wouldn’t fall off its rusting hinges and found ourselves in what appeared to be an old house. Despite its state of disrepair it was quite charming and it was full of amazing people. We quickly assimilated into the crowd waiting at the bar to grab some drinks. The ‘line’ was moving fairly slowly and when we finally made it to the front, we figured out why. The two bartenders, who resembled Eugene locals, were busy smoking a joint while they slowly and carefully made drinks. Despite the time and effort invested, the drinks were mediocre. Luckily, the Italians once again proved my theory about alcohol tolerance and were all drunkenly content.

Now reunited with many, many Italian friends, I made my way into the other room where the party was. My friend Caparezza, who had given me almost every piece of clothing I was wearing for the evening, was the DJ with the help of Sacco who was playing the part of MC. The two of them are an amazing team and I felt like I was in the best discoteca ever. The music was fantastic and everywhere I turned I ran into a friend. It was truly wonderful.

Before long, Stasi the clever Italian made a reappearance in my life. He showed up wearing a rabbit-fur coat. It was so soft that I couldn’t help but stroke it. After several seconds of stroking, he had the good sense to suggest a deal: I could stroke the coat as much as I’d like, but the stroking had to stop after that night. I was down. The coat stroking held a prominent place in the rest of my evening, right alongside laughing at Alarico every time I saw him.

After dancing for a while, I decided to head back to the bar. I had the good fortune to receive what I maintain to this day to be the worst cocktail of all time. I went around making people taste it until it was gone. Everyone was as disgusted as I was and I felt vindicated.

I returned to the writhing mass in the other room and proceeded to dance the night away with a hundred of my closest friends. I’d have to say that, all in all, the evening was a huge success and that the people here have a way of making me feel unreasonably welcome at all times. I can’t stress enough how eternally grateful I am to my fellow Ghisleriani for being generally amazing people, despite how ridiculous they all are.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Cena Goliardica : This Shit Happens

Last night was a grand night for the Collegio Ghislieri. It was the infamous Cena Goliardica. We took part in the way that Ghisleriani have been doing for centuries. At first, the evening unfolded in the traditional Italian fashion. We all gathered in Portineria a good half hour after we had agreed on and mulled about talking for another half hour. Our intimate group of fifty-seven friends headed out from the college and along the streets of Pavia. It must have been a terrifying sight. Of course, as we passed other colleges, everyone did their best to remember fun little songs. One goes “Ignoranza sempre presente.” Clap clap clap clap clapclap clapclapclap. Clever Italians.

After a good half hour of seemingly aimless wandering, we stumbled upon a quaint little trattoria. I’d like to point out that I use quaint here to mean run-down. We crowded into the poor little business which I’m sure just wanted to die peacefully. In the back room, there was a table set up for us. All the older students set to squabbling over which matricola (freshman) they would own for the evening. I was surrounded by yells of “Cagamerda!” or “Furby!” or “Jar Jar Binks!” I guess it’s important here to take a tangent and explain that every male member of the college has a nickname. When the new matricole arrive, the older students assign all of them nicknames. The names are usually based on resemblance, and as evidenced above, are rarely nice.

After the older students had secured their new wards, we finally all sat down and got ready for dinner, and by this I mean that we chanted “Vino, vino, vino, vino” while pounding on the table. Before long the wine arrived. It was, it seemed, a special variety of wine. On first taste, it seemed kind of like gross water, but the more you drank, the more it tasted like a rich bouquet of autumnal flavors and industrial cleaner.

To avoid boredom while we waited for our meal, the Italians engaged in some other ancient traditions. These ranged everywhere from stealing articles of clothing from the matricole to making them stand on chairs and sing to other, less mentionable things. After twenty minutes or so, our antipasti arrived and the dinner got into full swing. The next two hours were a frenzy of eating, yelling, and above all, drinking.

When it comes to drinking, Italians are interesting. I’ve come to the conclusion that the Italians have the absolute lowest alcohol tolerance of any people. After a two glasses of wine, or a glass of spumante, or a good grappa, they get pretty goofy. When this happens to Italians, who are goofy genetically, the goof factor can get a bit out of control. This is what happened last night. There was an excess of goof everywhere.

I was seated next to a matricola who had a bit of a weird habit. The more he drank, the more he wanted to speak in English. The only problem is, the more I drink, the more I want to speak in Italian and the better I speak in Italian. I wanted to take advantage of my, by now, kick-ass Italian skills, so I was talking to every other Italian in Italian while an Italian talked at me in English. It was pretty ridiculous, kind of like that last sentence.

Our bottles of wine had a nasty habit of emptying themselves. After one such occasion, I finished my glass and was feeling a bit unfulfilled. Suddenly the Italian across the table from me, Stasi, miraculously had a bottle of wine. Proving his genius, he had hidden a bottle under the table to for our end. I was a little over-impressed and complimented him thoroughly for his cleverness. After several of the matricole had vomited (charming, I know) we had a little exodus and headed off to cause some trouble.

The now drunken gang of Italians marched through the streets singing some more clever songs. Before long, we arrived at our rival college, Borromeo. There was a phalanx of Borromaici out in front of the college, prepared for our approach. The others manned the windows ready to throw all sorts of disgusting things on the approaching army of Ghisleriani. The matricole were forced into a formation and almost all the male Ghisleriani surged forward toward the bastion of Borromeo, despite the rain of liquids from above. At this point my compatriots convinced me to do my sacred duty to fight Borromeo. So, like any good person, I went to pee on the side of a four hundred year old building. As I approached the building, a cute girl rounded the corner. I quickly zipped my pants back up, pretending to do anything else. As it turned out, the girl was a Borromaica. We had a good conversation while she waited for the entrance to be free of mildly epic Italian struggle. At a certain point, I had to excuse myself and ask that she didn’t look while I peed on her college.

We retreated in a strangely triumphant fashion, chanting and cheering in generally good humor. Before we made it even half a block, we encountered the female Ghisleriani who had just finished their Controcena (counterdinner). The two masses merged and the Ghisleriani army returned to Borromeo twice as large. There was more general struggle and everyone had a great time.

The second retreat was even more triumphant and all hundred and something of us walked down the main street of Pavia singing and dancing. Sure, it seems like I’m exaggerating, but I’m not. This shit happened.

We returned to the college and I retrieved my jacket from Jar Jar who had been dying from the cold. A bunch of us ended up in someone’s room enjoying warm beverages. We all talked and enjoyed each other’s company late into the night.

Just as it seemed like the evening was ending, we went to the room of my half British, half American friend Ashley. She, Harry, and I talked about life, love, and all the things that matter most. Being a bit of an exhausting subject, sometime around six in the morning I decided to return to my room where I promptly fell asleep.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Arrivo a Pavia

I arrived at the collegio a couple days before my trip to England, but so little happened that it’s almost not worth mentioning. When I returned from the Motherland, the collegio was still almost completely empty. Because the mensa (cafeteria) wouldn’t open until the end of the month, I decided to do some shopping. As I passed through the portineria (entrance where we go to get mail) I decided to ask the porter at the front desk where a supermarket was. As he was explaining it to me, a small Asian girl came in. I say small in reference to normal people, as far as Asians go, she was average height. She overheard our conversation and invited me to go shopping with her. As we walked to the supermarket, I talked with her and learned all sorts of things, like her name, Valentina. She also informed me that there was a group of students who had returned to the college to study for and take exams throughout September. She invited me to dinner and I got to meet tons of Italians, who over the next three weeks would become my good friends.

I’d love to recount all the good times we had, but I’m lazy, so instead, I’ll give a brief summary. We all met up every day for lunch and dinner. We never had a meal that took less than three hours, so this didn’t leave much time for anything except getting to know my new friends. They’re an interesting bunch. Here at the collegio, every guy has a nickname that was assigned to him his first year so I learned quickly to only ask for nicknames and not real names. To this day I could probably call five guys by their actual names. Over the following weeks, our group slowly grew as more and more collegiates returned and came to join us.

Then came the day when our world turned upside down. An Erasmus student had arrived, and she was (according to our sources) hot. The excitement was tangible, especially when the most outgoing member of our group, Sacco (Short for Mano in Sacco, which means ‘hand in the bag’), invited her to dinner. That night, our normal table settings were made a bit more sophisticated by the addition of a table cloth. Here I should specify that the table cloth was in fact, just a blanket. In true Italian style, everyone dressed a bit better for this dinner because they wanted to impress the hot German. When she mentioned that she was 26 and had a boyfriend, the conversation slowed and I watched everyone’s disappointment. Everyone, that is, except for the 21 year old Sacco who proceeded to learn how to say ‘I’m 23’ in German.

The next Erasmus student that arrived, Harry, was greeted warmly, but without flair because he was male. He assimilated into our group without trouble because, despite the fact he studies at Oxford, he’s quite friendly. His part in this story will be short, because his arrival and that of the next Erasmus, Philippe (French) were overshadowed by the arrival of another figa (literally: vagina. Figuratively: hot girl). The girl frenzy recommenced. This time, it was a British named Emily, a student at Cambridge. Once again, the crowd was disappointed by the news of a boyfriend, but Sacco was not daunted by such an easily surmounted obstacle and continued to throw down some heavy flirting.

Over the next several weeks, the college came to life. After a strike at the university, which lasted two weeks for some departments, everyone had finally returned and started classes.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

England: Borders of Steel

Following my trend of writin things down a month after they happen, here’s a recap of England. It was awesome. It’s grey and rainy and everyone has fantastic accents. They drive on the wrong side of the road and use all sorts of silly words. The humour is questionable at best and their spelling is worse. The food, believe it or not, is actually fantastic and the people are quite welcoming. I think I’m going to live there someday.

Yes, I did go to London, and it was pretty sweet. I also saw Oxford in all of its snooty, self-involved wonder. And, we went wandering in the British countryside, which is as amazing as it sounds. And now that I’ve thoroughly explained why I love England, I’ll share one anecdote, my first experience with the country.

After leaving my place at 4:30 in the morning and walking the empty streets of Pavia to the train station, I caught the 5am bus to Milan. As soon as I arrived at the airport, I did the only thing that made sense and got an espresso at the airport bar. Feeling a little more awake, I headed through security and tried to go to the British Airways area of the airport. It wasn’t open yet, so I went elsewhere and entertained myself for an hour or so.

When the plane arrived, we all lined up Italian-style; everyone pushed forward in a sort of mass reminiscent of a school of fish or a herd of lemmings rushing to the cliff. Luckily, there was no cliff, just a bus that took us to our plane. Somehow, despite a two thousand year-old tradition of being late for everything, our plane managed to take off early.

We made it to the foggy isles in almost no time at all. As we landed, I prepared myself to clap, but there was no applause. I guess the plane was mostly full of Brits, because Italians like to show their appreciation of pilots. We disembarked in a slightly orderly fashion and headed into the terminal. I was psyched to be in England and excited to see Alice, but what I hadn’t counted on was British immigration.

I came around a corner to see a giant mass. This mass was my mass. All the other people from the plane skirted it and headed to the EU citizens line which was moving in a brisk and orderly fashion. I, on the other hand, took my place in the line that would inevitably steal forty-five minutes of my life. I resigned myself to a bit of line-time and listened to music while I waited my turn.

Finally, I reached the front and it was my turn. I headed to one of the little glass cages where they keep immigration officials. The lady was cold and far from polite, but it was about what I’d expected from England, so I went with it. She asked me why I was in the country, and I told her that I was there to see a friend. In response, she stared at me blankly. I tried again, thinking along the lines of business or pleasure, I threw out “pleasure?” This didn’t please her, so she asked me again. I told her I was going to visit a friend and it sunk in the second time around.

Having passed the test, I watched excitedly for her to stamp my passport and let me go. But she was far from finished. The interrogation had just begun. She proceeded to ask me Alice’s name and citizenship, how we met, how long we’d known each other. Luckily, I was able to answer these questions. The problems arose when the lady asked me where I’d be staying for the week. Being a college-age student going to visit a friend, I had no idea about the specifics. This vexed the immigration witch to no end and she got very upset. After asking me how much money I had on my person (uh, dunno, 20 euro), she decided to make sure that IF she did let me into the country, I would at least leave. It went a little something like this:

“Do you have a ticket to leave in a week.”

“Well of course.”

“Can I see it?”

“Oh, sorry, no it’s…”

“An e-ticket?”

“Yeah, an e-ticket.”

“So can I see it?”

“Uh… no, it’s… online…”

Despite my impertinence, she was forgiving and offered a solution. Ten minutes later, I returned after having gone to stand in another line to wait for a print-out of my receipt from the British Airways counter. Unfortunately, my favorite inquisitor was busy emotionally destroying an African man. His interrogation was proceeding much as mine had. His problem arose when he didn’t know what his cousin did at the bank that he worked at. Let’s be honest, no one knows what a relative does at a bank, not because it’s complicated or secret, but because it’s unreasonably boring.

Unfortunately, another man in line was a good person and decided to help. He approached the beast’s pen and tried to say something. This was not a good idea, as the power-mad official flew into a rage and sent both men to the ‘departures lounge’. I’m, luckily, still unsure of what this lounge is. I imagine it as a well furnished lounge that looks vaguely like a hospital waiting room, but with refreshments. The only thing you can hear over the general sounds of sadness is the elevator music that’s not calming anyone down and that one guy yelling to his lawyer on his cell phone about how he has rights and how they can’t do this.

Returning to the matter at hand, after the expulsion of the two friendly African men, it was finally my turn to try again. Luckily, her rage was so profound that all she could do was mutter, be unfriendly and stamp my passport. I sprinted away covering my ears so she couldn’t call me back for more torture.

It took several days for England to redeem itself after I got to meet the hellspawn with which they man their borders. I’ve gotta say, it’s more effective than minutemen…