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…

Friday, September 24, 2010

Il mese finsce: le serate con Dario

With only two days remaining in Lecce, Ana and I had made plans to get a gelato with our ex-teacher, Dario. So, while cooking up some beans Mexican-style, we sent Dario a text asking about gelato and he responded by inviting us to a dinner/concert at a masseria in the country with him, his wife Paola and some of their friends. We couldn’t pass up an offer like that, so we agreed. We decided to meet at the school and when we arrived we started looking around for Dario’s giant ginger head. Unfortunately, he had, in a moment of brazen irresponsibility, gotten a haircut and it took us several minutes to recognize him.

So we headed out to the darkened country side, and even though it only took about ten minutes to arrive at the masseria, it seemed like we were in the middle of nowhere. We were surrounded by fields and silence and the stars were so visible that you’d think we were hundreds of miles from any human habitation. We walked in under an arch that was hundreds of years old, from which hung strings of garlic. It made me think of our garage at home where we store garlic from time to time.

We met about twenty of Dario and Paola’s friends and after about an hour managed to start our meal. It started with risotto, pasta, swordfish, and mussels. Then the main course arrived. It was calamari and breaded and fried sardines. The calamari were also whole, tiny squid. For Ana, who doesn’t eat seafood, it wasn’t an especially great meal, but I loved it. From time to time, I’d take a squid or fish on my fork and make it swim into my mouth. I was greatly entertained and managed to further the foreign opinion that Americans are immature and stupid.

After about two hours of dinner, the band started to play. They were a comic band, and most of the comedy was lost on Ana and me because it was heavily cultural. Dario explained some of it to us. They did one song where they took a bunch of love songs and made them entirely first person. Another one they changed ‘Penso a te’ (I think of you) to ‘faccio bidé’ (I use the bidé). This lead to some amusing situations because the protagonist was always thinking of you and some of the instances would not have been ideal for using a bidé. Near the end, they made a brief foray into English music and played some Queen. It was all in English except the chorus which they translated, very poorly, as ‘noi saremmo roccia tu’. This means, roughly, ‘we will be rock (noun) you’. It was worth a laugh.

The next day, we got together again with Dario and his wife for our aforepromised gelato. This time, their daughter Giulia joined us. She was adorable, and seemed shy at first. She then informed Dario that she would present herself to us after getting gelato. So we went to get gelato and she spent the next ten minutes doing her best to coat herself completely in chocolate.

Once we had our gelato in hand, in mouth, and on shirt, we went for a walk. This is a very southern Italian thing to do. It’s true. Italians will go out in the evening just to walk around town. They might not stop anywhere. They just walk around talking and saying hi to everyone they know. It’s fantastic. So, we went for a walk and ended up at a café where Dario and his wife were regulars. We sat, talked and had a couple beers. We had a great discussion about life, culture, and the secret services of our respective countries and how they’re viewed by the populace as a whole. Meanwhile, Giulia was keeping herself busy making sure that everyone had sufficient amounts of water in their cups. She would wander around the table pouring water into cups until someone told her to stop. She would then return to her seat, sit for a couple seconds and then go back to work. When it came time to pay for the beers, Dario decided he was going to pay. We wouldn’t let him, so he only paid for his. When we went to pay for ours, they informed us that Paola had already paid for our beers when we weren’t paying attention. Sneaky Italians!!

Monday, September 20, 2010

Il mese finisce: Notte della Taranta

Being as I’m thoroughly behind, the rest of my month in Lecce will be a bit summarized. The month brought with it some surprises, some new friends, and some interesting experiences. Shortly after our return from Sicilia, we returned to classes; because of the departure of several of my classmates, we were a class of three. By the end of the first week, we had gained a Croatian, a Mexican, a Russian, and a Fin. Interestingly enough, the first three were all named some variation of Ana, just like one of our teachers. This meant that for two hours every day we sat around discussing which “Ana” Anna (our teacher) was calling on. The Fin, my only male counterpart, was named Lauri, but made up for the girl’s name with a rockin’ beard.

Speaking of rockin’ beards, we spent the afternoons with Dario. While he is from southern Italy, he’s a ginger, and he’s not subtle about it. Thanks to wild hair and his aforementioned “rockin’ beard”, his head was a near sphere of ginger. Despite this obvious handicap, he was an amazing teacher and a pretty ridiculous guy.

As far as my extradidactic course, I was subjected to carta pesta (paper mashay for the ‘mericans out thur). As it turns out, carta pesta is an art typical of Lecce. So to experience it, we all crammed into a tiny basement with ceilings low enough that it was clearly made by Italians. Spencer and I did our best to remain seated and save ourselves a headache or two. Our course wasn’t as much of a stretching of our creative muscles as we would have liked. The idea was that we would all make pretty much the exact same figurine. Granted, carta pesta is difficult and, taking into account time constraints, it made sense that everyone be working on the same project. By the end, Spencer, Zach, and I were able to exert a little creative force on our little peasant men. Mine ended up with a giant swooping pimp hat, complete with red feather. Spencer’s had a top hat and was a little bloodied after his fight with Zach’s. Zach’s hat was also particular, but not in a good way. It was the only indication of the day that Zach had a bottle of wine before class.

As the end of the month approached, even Lecce’s most famous man on a stick, Sant’Oronzo decided that it was just about time to celebrate. So, he threw a huge, three day party that involved thousands of lights and tons of live music and street vendors everywhere. It was quite a sight and we enjoyed every night of the festival.

After a festival of that size, you’d think no other in the region would come close, but only days after was the Notte della Taranta, a night of traditional Pizzica music attended by about 100.000 people. Spencer, my Mexican friend Ana, and I headed to the train station around ten to catch the train. When we arrived on the platform, the crowd wasn’t too large but it was thoroughly drunk. By the time the train arrived an hour late, the platform was packed and the rush to fill into the train was terrifying. We ended up cramped into the tiny space between two compartments.

Luckily, when we got to the next stop, we all knew that there was no more room for people in our compartment. Unfortunately, the people on the platform didn’t know this and seven to ten extremely drunk Italians piled in, despite the protests that there was no room. With logic that only comes after several bottles of wine, they informed us that, clearly, there was room because they managed to make it on. They then proceeded to do the only thing that drunken Italians can do when they’re in a large group, sing soccer songs. As they pounded on the walls of the train so hard I thought they’d break something, the songs got more and more intense. Before long, they were just chanting “Odio Bari, odio Bari,” which means “I hate Bari” (Bari is the capital of Puglia and soccer rival of Lecce). There was a small group of middle aged people pressed against me, who I quickly found out were actually residents of Bari. They were wisely silent.

After about half an hour crammed into one of the smaller places imaginable, I learned that there is absolutely no time when an Italian won’t smoke. When we arrived in Melpignano, we burst from our car in a cloud of smoke of all different varieties. This platform was about as crowded as the one we had left in Lecce and we assimilated ourselves into the slowly moving river of Italians. What we witnessed as we left the platform was something akin to a police state. There were barriers and heavily armed carabinieri everywhere. We proceeded through this makeshift military checkpoint and joined the herd of people walking toward what we could only hope was the concert. Before long, we spotted some street signs and realized that we were on a fairly major road which had been delegated as a footpath for the masses.

We walked for about twenty minutes before we saw real signs of the impending concert and then suddenly we were in the middle of it. We stumbled upon a crowd of 100.000 people and managed to weave our way up fairly close to the front. From there we enjoyed the spectacle that is Notte della Taranta. While it is a festival of the traditional Pizzica music, every year they do something experimental with it. Last year there was full orchestra accompaniment. This year, there was a famous Italian classical pianist, a didgeridoo, an African harp, and African drummers. There was one song that probably lasted about fifteen minutes. Throughout the entire duration, there was a woman onstage spinning, for fifteen minutes straight.

After two amazing hours, the concert ended despite the fact that the crowd obviously wanted more. We were disappointed and were hoping for an encore, but the Italians started to disperse. Many headed over to an area where there were hundreds of people asleep, or passed out, on the grass. Others gathered into small groups and instruments appeared from nowhere. We were surrounded by about ten mini-concerts of people singing, dancing, and playing. It was amazing.

After a while, we decided that we should leave and we headed back toward the train station. Crossing the now nearly empty concert area, we could see the signs of the giant crowd that had been there. Trash was heaped everywhere and at times you had no choice but to wade through it. Of course, being in Italy it was mostly big jugs that had contained copious quantities of wine.

We crowded onto a return train and made it back to Lecce just in time for sunrise. Spencer walked the two blocks from the station to his apartment without difficulty and Anna and I each walked about forty minutes to get to our respective homes.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Ciao Messina

We decided to use our last day in Sicilia to explore Messina during the day because we assumed that’s when all the people were around. This was the case, but “all the people” is about six adolescents and a couple hoboes. We went to the Messina cathedral, which is pretty impressive and houses the largest pipe organ in the world. Unfortunately, it’s only the largest because the pipes are all spread throughout the cathedral; the organ itself is about average.

After spending over an hour wasting time in the relative cool of the cathedral, we headed down to the waterfront and sat in a park. Spencer and I read while Zach played his favorite soccer game on his iPod. After a while, Zach and I got bored of our respective ventures and took to watching traffic. We were really hoping for an accident or at least some major road rage. When a car died in the left turn lane in front of a ton of traffic we figured we had it made. Nothing great happened, but that’s about what we expected from Messina at that point.

After several hours in the park, we headed to a nearby market and bought some beers. Our excitement was quickly diminished when we realized that we had no way to open them. Luckily, we found a nearby pallet and used the edge of it, and our fists, to open them. Then we sat and enjoyed our beers while some sort of strange medieval parade went by.

We found some playing cards, headed to the station and played Egyptian-rat-screw on the platform until the train arrived to take us home.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Dear Mount Etna, You're Our Bitch

At 5:20 in the morning, all three alarms that we had set went off. I awoke to a Spencer groaning, “noooooooooooooooooooooooo…” which was quickly followed by “Etna, yeah!”. Then he fell back asleep. Approximately five minutes later, we managed to drag ourselves out of bed and stumble our way to the train station. We hopped on our train and headed south along the coast. The view of the sea was fantastic, but we were exhausted, so we mostly watched the insides of our eyelids.
When we reached Catania, we were greeted by some locals. It seems that the Catania train station has the highest per capita dog population of anywhere in the world, with the exception of Labrador. There were all sorts of dogs, mostly strangely oversized (for dogs, they were small for horses). We proceeded outside and found a bar where we could buy tickets for the bus to Etna. We bought the tickets without trouble, but when we asked the lady where the bus itself was, she just pointed us towards a giant mass of buses.
Approaching the mass, we noticed what seemed like a couple bus company employees directing people. To be more precise it was four bus company employees accompanying one attractive woman to her bus (which later turned out to be the same as ours). Since these guys seemed so helpful, we headed over to where they were sitting and asked where we could find the bus to Etna. One waved his hand toward the bus pit and said, “Somewhere over there. It should say Etna on it.” The other ignored us and pretended to read a newspaper. We followed their advice, and after asking another two bus people we came across, finally found our Etna bus.
We walked on to the bus and immediately thought we had made a mistake. While it was the most diverse crowd I had seen since arriving in Italy, no one looked especially ready to hike. A Japanese business man and his wife. A couple of elderly French ladies. A black woman carrying bags of groceries. Two Ukranian women in the back who were barely wearing anything at all. A tiny geriatric Italian chewing on half of a cigar. We settled down in the empty seats in the back and pulled out our yogurt, content to sit on a bus, eat, and try to figure people out.
The first half of our bus voyage was pretty generic: narrow streets, frequent stops, discomfort. The way I know exactly when the first half of our trip ended and the second half began is that there was actually an intermission. We arrived at a tiny plaza in the town of Nicolosi, which is at the foot of Mt. Etna. The bus pulled over, for what we assumed was just another stop. Then the driver informed everyone that we were going to take a thirty minute break. He then had an Italian guy near the front translate this news into broken English. I then translated his English into real English for the other people on the bus who didn’t speak Italian.
Thoroughly confused, everyone got off the bus and started wandering aimlessly throughout the tiny grassy square. One guy, who we assumed was a kick boxer started stretching and then fought a tree ferociously. We were definitely a little frightened. For the rest of the break, we wandered and watched some locals construct some sort of framework out of rusty metal pipes and another who spent ten minutes cutting a piece of wood with a hacksaw.
Before the Italian carpenter had finished his task, we returned to the bus to head up the hill. We left the town of Nicolosi and, threading between some hills, could see Etna rising into the clouds ahead of us. It seemed like we were still kilometers away when we started to climb. The road became steep and then there were switchbacks, then suddenly all the life around us disappeared and we entered a field of volcanic rock, interrupted only by the road. As we headed upward and upward, we passed the remains of a house. Only the roof was visible, and where it had collapsed, you could see the inside filled with lava. It was strange to see such a real representation of the lava flows and the damage they cause. As we ascended, we watched the thermometer as it dropped from 35 degrees to 16.
After about half an hour of desolate black, we arrived at the Etna base camp. There were three or four buildings that looked like old barns, but were actually hotels and a small shack that was the headquarters for the Etna expeditions. There was also a tram for the first leg of the journey, which we found out later cost 50 euro per person. Being as we had no idea where to start, I wandered over to the expedition shack where everyone was gathering. There were people in heavy coats and others in intense hiking gear. I pushed past them to look at the map of the expedition route. It showed where all these well prepared mountain climbers would be getting into big tank-like buses that would drive them up the mountain. So I oriented myself, grabbed Zach and Spencer, and we headed off to the roads.
The roads were steep and made up of loose black rock. It was tough walking, but walking nonetheless. Before long, we realized that the only two other people hiking up the mountain were speaking English as well. We caught up to them and introduced ourselves. Their names were
Bethany and Sean and they were from Philadelphia. They had been staying at Bethany’s uncle’s house in Nicolosi as well as traveling throughout Europe. We quickly joined forces to form quite a
hiking team.
We walked for about twenty minutes until suddenly the road we were on disappeared. We had reached a fairly steep part of the mountain, right beneath the tram porting the wealthy and boring to our next destination. We started up and quickly had to choose a path. On the right side, we had a slope made up of tiny pebbles, almost like sand. It was almost impossible to make any headway, so we chose the left which consisted of jagged chunks of lava rock. We tried to stay on ridges so as not to get stuck. Every once in a while, a piece would break off and tumble haphazardly toward everyone below.
Above us, the trams passed by, suspended as if afraid to touch the scorched landscape over which we struggled. At one point, we heard yells from above. We recognized the language as German and the emotion as anger, or at least mockery. So we yelled some insults back. As the tram passed us by, we saw them give us a thumbs up and realized that these Germans had, in fact, been excited to see us climbing and had been yelling encouragement. I’d be embarrassed at the misunderstanding, but it’s not my fault that the German language can’t sound friendly.
Giving up on the sharp rock ridges, we moved on to the sandy slopes for the rest of the journey. After about an hour and a half in total, we crested the top of the ridge right next to a lodge where everyone was getting off the tram and loading onto their tanks to conquer the next part of the mountain. As we came into view, everyone in the line started cheering for us and some Germans, who we assumed were our supporters from the tram, were filming us. Spencer put up his arms triumphantly and informed us that he felt like a hero. At this point, we took a short break to empty the rocks from our shoes and to take some of the food samples inside the lodge.
Before long, we were ready to commence the second leg of our volcanic adventure. Almost immediately, we ran into a group of Swedish girls who wanted us to take their picture. In return, they took our picture, but wouldn’t give us our cameras back unless we did a jumping picture. It
was not a great success.
Unlike the first slope, the part of the mountain where we now found ourselves was more like a plain of pure black desolation. There was only a gentle incline and the ground was covered in tiny black rocks. Occasionally, you could see the jagged protrusion of a larger piece of rock. Looking behind us, we could see large parts of Sicilia and the tops of the clouds covering the rest. Suddenly, a cloud managed to ascend to our level and came swooping across the barren landscape like a white curtain, bringing with it near blindness and a significant drop in temperature. Then, as suddenly as it had come, it was gone. The next part of our walk was like this; an alternation between warm and black and cold and white.
At one point, we were enveloped in a cloud and could see only each other. From behind us, we heard the sound of an explosion. We all reacted differently. I, for example, was thinking about running, but was confused about which way to run since the explosion was between us and the way down. Zach was busy thinking how crazy it was that Etna happened to erupt the one day we were up there. Bethany wasn’t thinking about much other than fear. We all knew exactly what Spencer was thinking because he told us. It went something like this. “Should we go? We should go.” Silence from us. “We should go, shouldn’t we?” Silence from us. “I think we should go. Let’s go.” Sean, on the other hand, was just surprised that they allow fireworks on Etna. After the cloud cleared, we looked around, and seeing no eruption realized that what we had heard was the sonic boom of a jet passing overhead. Not as cool as an eruption, but I’d never experienced a sonic boom before either.
Shortly after, we reached the tank parking lot at the base of Etna’s summit. There were many signs warning us not to go closer and as we watched a great crevice on the summit’s face
emitted a giant cloud of yellow smoke. We decided that it was probably wise not to proceed further because we didn’t have enough time. So we ascended to the top of a nearby smoking crater where all the tank and tram goers were headed. We stopped at the top to eat some food
and enjoy the view. The ground was very hot, but we’re not sure if it was from volcanic activity or from being black rocks in the sun. As a mob of people approached us, we decided to head down, not knowing how long it would take us and not daring to miss the only bus back.
As we headed back across the black plains, we played one of our favorite games. It’s called “Who can hit that rock over there with a different rock first”. The four male members of our team played while Bethany judged us. I’m not sure who won, but I know it wasn’t me, so I’m going to say that winning wasn’t the point.
In no time, we had made it back to the top of the tram. We went into the lodge to use the restroom facilities and to scavenge some more food. We also tried some Etna liquor which was 80% alcohol. It was kind of like someone mixed cough syrup, rubbing alcohol, poison, fire, and red food coloring. Needless to say, we did not buy any.
Assuming that the descent of the first section would be as difficult or more so than the ascent, we decided to get going. What we quickly discovered is that going downhill on small rocks is not only easy, it’s fun. The five of us ran, frolicked, and tumbled down the slope giggling and, at times, laughing inappropriately. It was unreasonable fun and only Bethany managed to get injured. This happened when she slipped and fell on the only plant on Mount Etna, which happened to be covered in spines. We were almost more impressed than sorry for her.
After unloading eight pounds of rock from our shoes, we made it down to the bottom in about twenty minutes. We had more than an hour until the bus arrived, but we weren’t without something to do. Sean and Bethany led us to a nearby parking lot where there were three or four giant trailers selling specialty honey. The best part was that if you went up to their stand, they’d give you samples until you had tried every single kind. We tried peach, strawberry, blackberry, eucalyptus, hazelnut, and pistachio. There were probably others, and they were just as amazing. It was the perfect after-hike snack. We then headed into the lodge and had a beer to celebrate our victory over Etna.
We rode the bus back down the mountain, said our goodbyes to Sean and Bethany in Nicolosi and passed most of the rest of our trip back to Messina in a coma-like state. When we got back, we stopped by our favorite kebab place and returned to the hotel to pass out.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Sicilia: Taormina

We arose early the next morning with the humble goal of climbing Europe’s most active volcano. We headed over to the nearby supermarket to buy foods. Spencer and I combined our hiking experience to think of what foods would serve us best on our adventure. We couldn’t find peanuts or sardines, so we settled for inferior hiking food.
Once we bought our food and several liters of water, we headed to the tourist office near the train station to ask which bus to take to Etna. The people there were kind enough to present us with the bus schedule to Etna. There were only two buses each day, one at 8:30 and the other at noon. There were also only two return buses, one at 10:30am and the other at 4:30pm. Being as it was already ten in the morning and we would need to catch the morning bus to have any time to climb, we decided that we weren’t going to Etna. Just so we would be ready the next day, we asked the helpful ladies where we could meet the bus. It was quite simple, the Catania train station which is about two hours from Messina.
We decided not to waste our day, so we headed to the train station to see about going to Taormina. After a while, we found a bus headed to Taormina. We sat down on the sidewalk to wait and ate our yogurt. Of course, we didn’t have any spoons, so by the time we were finished our faces and fingers were covered in it. If we were in America, I’d say that passersby were probably wondering where our parents were. Of course, Italians tend to have free range children. It’s far from uncommon to encounter a child wandering the streets alone at two in the morning; and more often than not, when you see families walking with strollers, they’re inexplicably empty.
That being said, we cleaned ourselves up and hopped on our bus. The bus drove through the streets of Messina for what seemed like hours. We scanned the area for signs of life. Seeing none, we tried to get some sleep. Luckily, just about that time, we exited Messina. Of course, we didn’t head for a freeway or anything of the sort. The bus descended into every single costal town. The streets, of course, were barely as wide as the bus, had cars parked along them and were two way. This meant that every two to three minutes we had to pull over to let a line of cars pass us in the other direction. With all the stopping, going and car dodging, it was impossible to fall asleep. We were able to settle into what Italians call “dormiveglia”. It’s that halfway point between asleep and awake.
We had endured what seemed like an eternity of this torture, when suddenly we found ourselves on top of a rise looking out over the sea. We continued to climb until we were driving along cliffs that fell several hundred meters to the sea. We could see the coast, with beaches that were mediocre in comparison to Salento and the Calabria coast across the water. Before long, we reached the base of Taormina and began to switchback up the face of the mountain. With every switchback, we could see farther in every direction. We could see the beaches, cliffs, coves, and caves beneath us. We could see the mountains of the Calabria coast in the distance. And looking inland, we craned our necks and strained our eyes, desperately trying to catch a glimpse of the elusive Mount Etna. No such luck.
The bus pulled into an unimpressive parking lot and we disembarked. The three of us wandered about a block and found an overlook. We settled down, pulled out our bread and prosciutto cotto and made some panini. After our modest meal, we decided to head into central Taormina. We were walking through what seemed like a fairly normal Italian mountain-top town when suddenly we ran into the tourist center. It was as if someone had turned an Italian town into Disneyland. There were shops in every direction and there was no indication that we were on top of a mountain, no overlooks or anything. Also, there had been a sudden shift of lingua franca from Italian to English. Suddenly, we were some of the most experienced Italian speakers in the area.
Deciding to make the best of our time, we started heading down the mountain toward a nearby beach that’s also some sort of national park. We wandered back roads and nearly hidden flights of stairs for nearly an hour. Once or twice, we found ourselves in someone’s yard and had to turn back. When we finally reached the bottom, we were tired and sweating to an unreasonable degree. We arrived at the beach and quickly became aware of several important facts. First, the beach was made up of rocks; hot, hot rocks. Second, we weren’t the only ones enjoying the water at this beach. From what we could tell, a flock of jellyfish were also vacationing in Taormina that day, making the water hazardous, if not hostile. After returning from the water’s edge in disappointment we discovered a third thing. This particular beach has the highest representation (per capita, of course) of attractive women in Italy. So, we decided to partake in a Italy’s second largest pastime (after public arguments) and watch beautiful women.
This only entertained us for so long, and after a while we were looking to return to Messina. We had heard that the train station was at the bottom of the mountain, just like us, while the bus stop was on top. That, combined with the far from forgotten misery of the bus ride moved us to seek the train station. We asked a shop keeper near the beach how to get to the station and he sent us off down the road. We walked along a busy highway for something like thirty minutes until we finally reached the station.
As I went to buy the tickets, we had yet another everyday Italian experience. There were two ticket machines. One didn’t accept cash. The other had a sign on it informing people that it didn’t give change. Of course, all Italians are accustomed to carry cash and people rarely use debit or credit cards, but thanks to these two machines, working in perfect tandem, the trend was being changed.
We made it back to Messina without difficulty, and bought our tickets for the next morning. We got kebabs at the place near our hotel and decided to give Messina night life another chance. We headed back to the place to be, finding it almost twice as full this time, meaning almost no one. We decided to get a second dinner at a nearby restaurant.
We ordered some pizzas and waited at a table outside for a long time as the table next to us was practically showered with all sorts of food products. Finally the pizzas arrived and we got ready to eat them. The suddenly annoyed busboy asked us if we planned to eat there. We were sitting, hungry, and had food, so we responded in an affirmative fashion. At this point, the guy got really fussy and took our pizzas back. As we looked at each other in shocked confusion, several people came out and put down full place settings for each of us. They then offered us drinks, but it was the kind of offer we just couldn’t refuse. Our options: water? Whiskey? We ordered a bottle of water to appease him. Then we were told something incomprehensible. It sounded like it wanted to be in Italian, but it just wasn’t. Maybe our server was sucking on marbles, or maybe he had suffered some blunt head trauma, but it just wasn’t coming out clear. After he repeated himself for the third time, we realized that he was telling us that we had to pay something like six euro extra for a cover charge and water then he instructed his female companion to stand there and wait until we paid her. Sicilians are rude. Maybe that’s why no one likes the Mafia.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Scilia: l'Arrivo

Our trip to Sicily, like any good adventure, started early in the morning. Zach and I stumbled out of bed and gathered our bags we had packed the night before. He had an oversized backpack and a duffel. I, following my tradition of packing light, was porting simply a tiny backpack. With our eyes barely opened, we shuffled our way to the Lecce train station, where we met up with Spencer. Within minutes, our first train had arrived, and we headed off to Taranto, a nearby port city. We alternated attempts at sleeping and pointing out cool pieces of graffiti. Before long, we arrived in Taranto and hopped on our train to Catanzaro Lido to head from the heel of the boot to the toe. As we traveled, we watched the landscape slowly change. The flatness that is Salento gave way to hills and the olive orchards were replaced by actual forests.
After many hours, we arrived in Catanzaro and checked the schedule board to see what platform our next train was departing from. It didn’t say and there was a note that read ‘soppresso’, which means, literally, suppressed. Obviously, we were confused, so I decided to go in search of answers. Nearby, I spotted an Italian in casual attire, thoroughly enjoying a popsicle. He seemed like the type of person who could help me, so I asked him. His response was ‘Quello treno, non c’è più’. That means, ‘That train isn’t around anymore’. Being as I was holding a ticket for that train in my hand, I was a little bit confused. Luckily, he had just been taking a break to enjoy his quickly melting popsicle. After he had averted danger of drippage for a little longer he thought to fill me in on another important detail; there was a bus which had replaced the train and it was waiting outside the station.
We hopped on the bus, on the outside of which was advertised air conditioning. After living in Lecce for a month, we’ll go anywhere with a sign that promises air conditioning so we were psyched that it corresponded to our current plan of action. We made our way onto the bus without even having to show our tickets because the driver was lazing around outside smoking. Shortly after we found seats, we realized something awful; air conditioning doesn’t work if the bus isn’t on. Unfortunately, we’re also lazy, so we sat on the bus as it got hotter and hotter and more and more people got on.
We had each claimed a set of two seats so we could spread out and not have to deal with anyone else’s body heat. There were enough people on the bus that people were starting to take empty seats next to strangers. It was at this point that Spencer decided to teach Zach and me a lesson. Each time a new person got on the bus, he pretended to be asleep; not a fitful sleep against the window, but head back, mouth open in the aisle seat. It was unreasonably effective. Although, after a close call, Spencer imparted us with a bit of wisdom, ‘Never open your eyes before the person passes you.’
We all managed to keep our seat-holdings and the bus took off to cross from the east side of the toe to the west. As we drove along, we noticed that there was construction everywhere. Seriously, I saw at least four new overpasses being constructed in a span of ten kilometers. I couldn’t help but wonder how many of these things ‘Ndrangheta (Calabria’s very own mafia organization) had their hands in.
The bus ride was uneventful and relatively short and we arrived just in time to catch our last train, straight to Messina. This train ride seemed more or less like the others until we went into a long tunnel. I was afraid, from past experience, that I would end up in New Jersey, but this day I was fortunate. We came out of the tunnel along the side of a mountain. There were trees to our left, and to our right was the Tyrrhenian Sea in all its splendor. The sun was just low enough to light up the water and make it look like a sea of gold. With sunglasses, its beauty was breathtaking. Without, the pain was breathtaking.
As we rode along, Zach napped and Spencer read, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the sea. Then the coast turned and I saw it, Sicily. It was so close that I assumed I was just looking at some peninsula that we had yet to pass. After twenty minutes or so, I was starting to think it was actually Sicily, so I pointed it out to Spencer. He was as impressed and unsure as I was.
As our train started to slow, we could see the straight separating us from our destination, and then the unthinkable happened. The train, oh so slowly, oh so gingerly, eased its way onto a ferry. After our excitement finally subsided a little and we waited another twenty minutes for the train to be secured in the underbelly of the ferry, we ventured onto the deck. The ferry, like most, was pretty impressive, but the view took our collective breath away. On one side of us, we could see Calabria, on the other Sicilia and to the north, the Tyrrhenian. We stood on deck for the entire journey and as we arrived in Messina, descended to the bowels of the ferry and reboarded our train.
Our train pulled off the ferry and, within ten minutes, into Messina Centrale Station. We disembarked and realized just how little preparation we had done for this trip. We had pretty much no idea where we were and absolutely no idea where we were going. Undaunted, we set off into Messina. After a couple of blocks, we encountered a Kebab shop and stopped to sate our raging hunger. After we had inhaled our Kebabs, we asked the lady working there where we could find cheap lodging. She pointed up the street and said that there was a cheap hotel nearby.
We walked a couple blocks and discovered the hotel, and at this point, being both clever and cheap, we decided that we would rent a room for two people and sneak the third person in. Spencer and I went into the hotel while Zach staid on the nearby side street. I asked the man at the desk if we could rent his cheapest room for the night for two people. He thought for a while and checked a register and pulled out a little piece of paper. Instead of telling me the price, he wrote ‘XYZ 80,00’. He then proceeded to cross out the eighty and write ’65,00’. We’re still not exactly sure what this meant. Some sort of secret hotel language? Anyway, the deal was good enough so we accepted readily and headed up to the room. We opened the door and noticed immediately that our room had three beds. It’s almost like he knew. Spencer tried to convince Zach to throw his bag up to our room on the third floor, but it was just not going to happen, so I went out and retrieved his bag. In retrospect, this made our plan really obvious.
To celebrate our arrival in Messina, we decided to go experience the night life. I asked the guy at the front desk where the people were and he gave us some directions to a main square where people gather. So, we headed off and within ten minutes had arrived at Messina’s night life hot spot. It was a big, open piazza in front of the cathedral and an extremely strange clock tower that depicted all sorts of astrological things and had all sorts of moving parts. The piazza was occupied by somewhere between eight and ten people. We searched around, hoping that we were in the wrong place. After a little while, we found a bar, went in ordered beers and asked the bartender where we could find people. His response was something like, ‘People? Well it’s Tuesday…’. We wandered the empty streets of Messina for a while longer, dearly hoping we’d come across the place where everyone was hiding, but we did not.
When we got back to the hotel, we had to figure out a way to sneak Zach in. So, we decided to just be confident. Zach and Spencer headed toward the room and I stopped at the front desk to ask for our key. Before I even said anything, the man at the desk was kind enough to inform us that if we wanted to have a third person stay, we had to pay. It was at this point that I realized that we were renting one of two occupied rooms in the hotel. To avoid any problems, we quickly acquiesced and paid for Zach to stay as well. We then returned to our room and set an alarm for early so we could head to Etna the next day.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010


In a nice little dovetail with my last entry, on the day of the beer fest, my French sister Laura arrived in Lecce for a couple days of vacation. We had a great dinner when she arrived and enjoyed a bottle of Champagne. I’d like to pause here to clarify that this was Champagne from the Champagne region of France. Classy shit, amirite?!?! After dinner and some sparkling conversation, Laura was exhausted from two hours of sleep and twelve hours of travel, so she headed to bed as we headed to the beer fest.
The next day, Laura and I wandered centro a bit and bought some typical Leccese food for her to try. Then, being French, she complained a little. It was a great time and it didn’t seem like that long ago that we were living together and arguing all the time. We did, however, discover that it has been seven years since Laura lived in the states with us.
The next day, we decided to take Laura to one of the many famous beaches surrounding Lecce. Unfortunately we were just a little too late to catch a bus to any famous beaches and had to settle for Lecce’s local beach, San Cataldo. After a bus ride that lasted all of fifteen minutes, we arrived at the beach which was absolutely deserted. The three Senegalese guys on the bus with aims of selling their cheap shit on the beach looked crushed. They dismounted with us and spent the rest of the afternoon wandering aimlessly and trying repeatedly to convince us that we needed plastic watches and bracelets made out of beads and twine. We, however, had different aims and spent the day basking in the sun and enjoying the exfoliating effects of sand in a strong wind. The water was fairly chilly and fully of bits of wood. I’m not sure where they were from. Laura was the only one of us with the desire and dedication to submerse herself fully in the water.
We returned to Lecce in a timely fashion so Laura had plenty of time to purchase some gifts for the important men in her life. She then had a nearly sickeningly amorous phone conversation with her boyfriend and I caught snippets like mon cheri, and mon amour. Then we had a conversation about love approached in a logical fashion, which was just as silly as it sounds. We had dinner at the apartment and, per usual, headed to centro to enjoy Laura’s last night in town.


The last week of classes was definitely a bittersweet one. We, as usual, had a great time in all my classes. We discussed our favorite Italian songs in conversation class and how to use the periodo ipotetico in indirect discourse in grammar. So, pretty awesome. When Tuesday rolled around, we headed off to our extra-didactic classes. I sculpted the hell out of my bowl and it turned out slightly better than half-decent. I was just as surprised as the overly-critical Austrian.
Anecdote, go! So, in our last sculpting class, nearly everyone was seated on the step outside class. We had all finished and we were trying to escape the oppressive heat of the workshop, when who should come along but critical Austrian’s overweight Russian friend. Of course, saying hello would’ve seemed ridiculous so this tubby snow-dweller decided to comment on the fact that we weren’t working; something to the effect of “Oh, I see only Diana [the critical Austrian’s name] is working anymore.” Being decent human beings, we didn’t respond as we should have; something to the effect of “Sorry we set reasonable goals and have finished our projects. Notice how they don’t resemble the left side-view mirror of a Fiat? Also, why are you even here??”
Of course, we later found out that the Russian had fled her cooking class after an incident with our friend Vivian. Each member of the cooking class got to make a pizza. Vivian had gone first. As soon as it was finished, the Russian tried to trundle in and grab a piece. Vivian kindly explained that everyone got to make their own pizza. At this the Russian said, “Oh. It’s too much,” and bolted elsewhere so she could judge someone. What’s the moral of this story? I’m pretty sure I don’t like Eastern Europeans.
On Wednesday and Thursday, we had exams. I was fortunate enough to have Dario proctoring my oral exam. I had never had him as a teacher, but he was a legend among the others. He’s a silly looking readhead with a mane of hair and a beard for the ages. Also, as it turns out, he has one of the most charming personalities I’ve ever encountered. He and Shelby Joy (my classmate), and I had a great conversation about fashion, music, and books and that (and a listening activity) was the extent of our test. Facilissimo! The next day, we had our grammar test which proved to be, more or less, just as easy as our conversation test. I got an Ottimo!! (Direct translation: optimal, useful translation: A)
That night, came the first bitter of the bittersweet. We had a party to celebrate those of our friends who were only staying for one month. Of course, because I have such discerning taste, I was very close to all three of them. Quick descriptions!
Mark was in my class and we bonded over being shocked by the antics of the rude Ukrainian in our class. He’s a 41 year old drummer from Philadelphia. He’s been playing for 35 years and plays with a successful rockabilly band called the Razorbacks. He’s visited Italy 13 times in the last 10 years and loves it more than most things. He’s also extremely youthful and has a way of saying whatever is on his mind, no matter how inappropriate it may be.
Vivian was a 17 year-old from Chicago who came to the program alone and was staying with a couple of Italian girls. She was, as would be expected, mature for her age and we got along famously. It wasn’t long before I thought of her as a little sister. If I ever wanted to go out, I knew she’d be up for it.
Finally, there was Alice, the Brit. She was nineteen and had come to the program because she’s studying Italian and French at Uni (British for university). If you couple our similar interests with her unreasonably strong sense of sarcasm and infinitely charming accent and personality, it’s easy to see how we’d be pretty close.
So. We decided to celebrate the month we’d spent with our amazing new friends. Of course, being mostly American college students, this meant a party. Now, that seems reasonable, but I don’t mean a classy dinner party; I mean thirty Americans knocking back bottle after bottle of wine on a rooftop and then storming centro like a drunken stampede. Being as I knew that time was short with my friends on the cusp of departure; I abstained from the alcohol so I could appreciate their company and so I could be damage control for the American herd.
The next night was even sadder because it was actually Alice’s last night in Italy. Many people had already left for their week-long vacations, but those of us who were still in town spent our evening with our British buddy. Around midnight, I walked Alice home, as had been the norm for several weeks. This time the long walk seemed much shorter. Now, Alice isn’t much for goodbyes, and I had to convince her to even say anything to the others; so her goodbye to me was, more or less, telling me to get lost and pushing me down the stairs. I’m pretty sure she meant well…
Despite how much I already missed Alice, I was determined to make the most of my time with Mark and Vivian. The next night we went to a beer fest. There were about twenty different kinds of beer, live music and about one hundred drunken Italians. I was greatly amused to see that some Italian had snuck a bottle of wine into the beer fest; classic. The music was a sort of reggae mixed with awful. At times it was pretty straight reggae and was quite enjoyable, but then an enormous black man wearing a LeBron James jersey would appear out of nowhere and start angrily yelling nonsense words. It sounded like, “Awakadabakadabakadabaka…” It would last about thirty seconds and I spent most of that time shielding my ears and looking around in bewilderment. This was a great opportunity to bond with some new friends, Chris and Lindsay. They were visiting from Ohio and we were thick as thieves in no time.
After the beer fest, we all returned to centro (some of us by car, some by 45 minute walk). We returned to our old watering hole, Nene and shared a pleasant evening together. I also met some of Mark’s friends. One bought me a drink and I had a great time talking with all of them. One of the guys, Michele lives in northern Italy, Como to be precise. We got to talking about skiing and he offered to take me skiing in the Alps when I move up there this fall. AWESOME!
The next night, we all had dinner together, walked Chris and Lindsay to their train and enjoyed the rest of our night in centro. I said my goodbyes to both Mark and Vivian and headed home.

Catching Up

Two weekends ago, we got to know the region of Salento a bit better. First, we started with a culture lesson, explaining a strange tradition called Tarantismo. A long, long time ago, residents of the Salento region were often victim to the bite of a local spider. The strange thing was that this spider’s venom manifested itself every year at the same time and recurred annually for its victims. Despite the lack of anything like medicine, I Salentini figured out a way to cure this disease; music. And so was born the legendary dance, the Pizzica. It’s a bit silly to watch. Long story short, the person rolls around on the ground for a while and people spit on them. Then, they get up and do a nifty dance. The music is really intense and the most important instrument is a big, low-pitched tambourine. In these modern days, the tradition is preserved and everything culminates with a huge festival at the end of August that draws 40.000 people to a town of 2.000.
In preparation, we had a class. Being as we hadn’t been fortunate enough to be bitten by spiders, we learned the stylized, romantic version of the pizzica. This involves the woman dancing around seductively waving a scarf and the man dancing around after her with arms outstretched as if to capture her. We all had to give it a try, and I have to say my friend Alice and I were definitely the best.
After we had become dance experts, we needed to learn a little more about Salento, so we visited a very particular region called Grecia Salentina. It consists of something like eleven towns where they speak a dialect called Griko which is very similar to ancient Greek. So we loaded onto the bus on our only excursion that didn’t include a trip to a beach. Not long after we started off on our trip, the temperature hit 40 degress (104F). Every town we visited was absolutely barren and we saw maybe four people all day. They knew to stay out of the heat, but we persevered. We went on a tour of a palazzo (a really fancy house) from the 18th century. There were all sorts of fancy beds, and kitchens, and whatnot to see and we had quite a fine time.
We also visited, surprisingly, several churches. One of them absolutely blew my mind. It was a church from the middle ages, and almost every wall was covered in frescoes depicting the stories of the Bible. It’s hard to imagine, but I bet I would’ve been more impressed if I knew any stories from the Bible. To give you an idea of how impressive this tiny little church was, my friend Spencer said he was equally impressed by it as he had been by the Sistine Chapel.
After a while, we stopped for lunch at a little old building where they produced olive oil. We all hid in a dark, air-conditioned room until we were sure that the risk of heat stroke had passed. We then toured a crazy, half-subterranean oil press and saw how olive oil used to be produced. Then, we did the only thing that made sense and headed into a tiny church nearby. As our guide was explaining the history of the church, the temperature rose steadily until we could barely stand. I don’t really remember anything he told us because I was focusing on staying standing. I succeeded.
The next day, we headed to the beach. On this day, I decided not to partake in my tradition of going to the beach and burning, so I hid in the shade with my friends Mark and Lucia. It was at this point that I received my second nickname of the trip. This one was, if possible, more offensive than the first. Lucia dubbed me, Vampiro. See if you can guess what that means. She then assured me that it was a good thing and linked it to Twilight. So I’m either cheese or the undead… I haven’t decided which I prefer.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Lecce a Pezzi

This last Sunday, we went to our usual pub downtown to watch the finals of i mondiali (the World Cup). The place was absolutely packed and there were some Spaniards and a very friendly Dutch man who, due to his lack of faith in his team, had planned his vacation very poorly. It was an amazing game and the teams were so evenly matched that every moment was a nail-biter. In the end, the Spaniards prevailed and and our local Spaniards bought our local Hollander a drink.

I've become a veritable sculptor. I'm nearly finished with and exceedingly plain and unadorned bowl made of the local stone, Pietra Leccese. After sinking about six hours into it, I've managed to make a chunk of rock look like a chunk of rock with a dip in it. I never thought I'd be a craftsman of such impressive ability, but Italy is a land of surprises.

My life has been a veritable drought when it comes to nicknames (you can't shorten Keith much), but, thanks to the ingenuity of the Italian populace, the rain has come. My friend Desiree has imbued me with the most charming of nicknames. As of last weekend at the beach, I've become Mozzarellino (a cute, masculine version of Mozzarella). This, not surprisingly, refers to the nearly translucent tone of my skin. Of course, long nicknames serve no purpose, so a drunken Spencer in a nicknaming frenzy truncated my name and I've now become, for better or worse, Mozz.

I've made my first enemy, and it's not an over-dressed, heavily muscled Italian man, but and older Austrian lady who seems to be able to understand words, but has no idea how to control which ones spew from her mouth. She's more like a caricature than an actual human being, because all of her faults seem exaggerated to the point of hilarity and I've yet to find redeeming qualities. She is, without a doubt, the most critical woman on this planet. Someone will walk by her and, in her thick German accent, she'll ask, "But vy are zey valking so quickly? Zey must realize how ztupid zey luk." Responses laced with sarcasm, irony, or even pure rage seem to be unable to penetrate her sphere of judgment and may not even be heard at all. Of course, she will inform you just how stupid you look when you talk, or that your hair looks like some sort of German dish that when searched on Google, doesn't exist.
For me, my casual enjoyment of her offensiveness was heightened to dislike during our sculpture class. I had just finished scraping a dent in a chunk of stone that would later become the inside of my bowl. She stopped her work on what seemed to be a perfect rendition of a chipped piece of stone and, with a sharp intake of breath, said, "Oh. I don't like ze looks of zat." Forgetting what it was adressing me at the moment, I got a little concerned, so I asked what was wrong. With the smug smile of someone from a country whose greatest achievement was making bad sausages fit in a tiny can, the Austrian turned back to the rock she was currently pulverizing with a hammer, saying ominously, "Oh. Ve'll see how it goes..." I returned to my beautiful piece of mediocrity, assuring myself that at least it would be a recognizable bowl and that her stone would finish in ruin.

There's a cafe near our school where we go on our break. It's always busy, and kind of a fight to get an order in. Luckily, the barista solved this problem for me by knowing just what I want every day. When he sees me, he grabs me a croissant with nutella and starts making a caffe macchiato, and without missing a beat, takes care of eight to ten more orders.

Every week, our school shows an Italian film. The film is, of course, in Italian, but they turn on Italian subtitles so we can follow better. Of course, technology and Italy have always been, more or less, mutually exclusive; so the subtitles are below the visible screen. Only if there is a lot of dialogue do we get to see any subtitles at all, and these are usually unimportant, like, "Yes, I saw him... No, he didn't!... In fact, yes... Yes, a pizza please." While it seems as though something compelling has just happened, we really have no idea. We have learned however, that you can assume that the plot of any Italian movie is centered on infidelity. In the most recent movie, we only learned of the husband's gay lover after he is shown being knocked in the air and hit by at least four cars. I think it's safe to say that the high point in Italian art was probably the last 2,000+ years, and that it's coming to a sad, sad end.

I've made friends with several street vendors from Africa. Whenever I see them, they greet me with a hearty ciao, hello, or bon soir and we proceed from there with conversations in Frenglitalian (French/English/Italian). It's always a challenge, but I like getting to practice my French and they like speaking English. And we use Italian to fill in the gaps.

An interesting thing happened today when Spencer and I went to the Macelleria (fresh meat shop). Spencer was handing some coins to the proprietor when one fell into the meat case and landed on some meat. Spencer and I yelled in a concerned fashion and started reaching for a new coin to replace it. None of the Italians in the shop seemed at all upset about the incident, and the proprietor grabbed the coin and put it in the till. It was nice that it wasn't a big deal, but after that I couldn't help but wonder how much of the money I handle every day has been in intimate contact with raw meat.

Yesterday, I went to the cafe' on my break. When I entered, I passed a barbone (literally: giant beard, colloquially: a homeless guy). He was talking to himself and keeping a careful eye on his shopping cart adorned with a string of cans. I had my usual colazione and headed inside to pay. There was all sorts of ruckus and I realised that they were discussing the barbone. "Is he breathing?" "I don't think so." "Call an ambulance." As I left the cafe, the ambulance arrived and the paramedics started performing CPR on the collapsed man. My friend Shelby Joy and I watched in shock, until the point when the paramedics stood up, defeated. And, for the first time in my life, I saw someone die. I had no connection with this man; I hadn't even wished him a good day as I entered the cafe, but I can't say I felt nothing. And I definitely couldn't stop thinking about earlier that day when I told Mark that it was so hot I could just die.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Photos of Otranto

I haven't quite mastered posting pictures yet. These were supposed to be attached to the last post.