Wednesday, June 30, 2010

I Primi Giorni

So, I live in Italy now. Here's what has happened so far:
My bus from Brindisi got into Lecce around midnight on Sunday. Everyone else on the bus went their separate ways except for me and a random girl. As we both sat there waiting at a dark and foreign bus stop, we figured out that we were both from U of O and doing the Lecce program. She had returned to the airport with hopes of retrieving her lost luggage. Her visit was far from successful. After about ten minutes, a little silver car came tearing into the parking lot and the door swung open, letting out a flurry of giggles and then a very attractive Italian girl. The other UO student and I crammed into the back of the vehicle and I came to be acquainted with Lucia and Desiree our extra-didactic connections in Lecce.
Before long, we made it to my apartment and called up. My Italian roommate, Francesco Pace, let us in. He was in the middle of spending time with four of his friends. As I wandered in, sleep deprived and probably looking like I had just lost a fight, they all greeted me enthusiastically. I talked to them a little in Italian, and they were psyched. Another one of my roommates, Cory, had arrived a week earlier and didn't speak a word of Italian. He and Francesco, who didn't speak English, had been talking using hand signs and google translate. After I met all of Francesco's friends, I honestly couldn't think of anything else to say, so after standing silently in his doorway for an unreasonable amount of time. I muttered something to the effect of , "I need to sleep," and took my leave.
I woke at 7:30 the next morning feeling spiffy. After a shower I had a real conversation with my American roommates, Cory and Zach and then we headed off to school. Our school is about a twenty minute walk from our apartment. This walk takes us to the opposite side of town and passes right through il centro and several important piazze. It was a nice introduction to the city of Lecce. Upon reaching some sort of prison, we entered the gates and headed up to the top floor. As it turns out, the University di Salento building is under construction and the language school has been relocated to this building. We were all sent to different class rooms where we were to take the placement test for the language program. Mine was administered by the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. Luckily, she wasn't too distracting and I was able to do my test.
After we all finished testing, we headed over to the UniSalento student center where we were officially welcomed by a buffet of amazing foods. I tried a little of everything, but I was particularly taken by these little panini. They were just a piece of ciabatta bread, one slice of salami, and one slice of some white cheese, but they were the most glorious things I have ever tasted. My friend Alice and I each had two and were thoroughly contented.
We got back to our apartment after, and I passed out for several hours, while Cory and Zac planned a dinner. When I awoke, they informed me that we were having a couple other people from the program over for dinner later that night. First, however, we headed off on a tour of Lecce. During this time, a bunch of people decided to buy phones. They all grouped up and had one guide translating for them. It was a giant mess and seemed really unpleasant, so I just went and talked to someone on my own. I skipped the line and was able to set up my phone in about ten minutes.
Later that night, five of our new friends came over with a bit of wine. What I mean by a bit is that we ended up with seven bottles of wine and eight people, a slightly skewed ratio, I know. We had a fantastic pasta dinner and we all tried tons of different kinds of wine, including Lambrusco and a wine made at a nearby shop. When we finally finished our dinner (and all the wine) it was about eleven o' clock, so we decided to head into the center of town. We made our way Piazza Sant'Oronzo and then Piazza Santa Chiara where we hung out for a while. Then we all started getting sleepy so we decided to go home.
Cory, Zach, and I, being the guys in the group decided (were told that) we were going to walk some of the girls home. We walked our friend Mary to her apartment with no problem, however, our friend Emily's apartment was a mystery. She had been reduced to tears earlier in the day after searching for her apartment for hours. Being guys, we were sure we could find it without a problem. So we followed our map to her street, where the map promptly ended and we were left to fend for ourselves. We wandered for twenty minutes and Emily was getting a bit weepy, but in the end we found her apartment and felt pretty good about ourselves. Then we wandered back home, taking some strange, winding streets.
The next day was our first day of class. We wandered to the school and had four hours or so of learning time. It was pretty great. In the afternoon, after my now traditional lunch of Nutella and a loaf of fresh baked bread (costing about o,25 E) I got a call from Elisabetta, my Italian friend who I met in Eugene. She took Cory and I out to get some gelato and showed us around Lecce. She showed us her liceo (high school) and a nice little book shop. It was great getting to see her, as she won't be back in Lecce until the end of July.
That night, we had our extra-curricular classes and I was in the sculpture class based on Lecce's famous stone, Pietra Leccese. Our badass teacher showed us some of his works and explained all the basics to us, and next week we're going to start our own works. After class, my friend Spencer and I headed off to get him a phone. While we were at the phone store, we ran into a couple other friends and decided to all get pizza together. We wandered until we finally found a pizzeria and we had a delicious dinner. After dinner, we were able to watch the last several minutes of the Portugal-Spain game. It was beyond sad watching Spain destroy Portugal. Seriously, really sad. So sad that we all just headed home and went to bed early.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Flight

My flight took off on time with a cheery outlook on our arrival time. I was seated next to a nice, middle-aged lady who turned out to be a Cornell professor. We had a good discussion about studying around the world, traveling, and all sorts of things and then we each drifted into travel mode. I read some David Sedaris and watched a movie in Italian to get ready and then, suddenly, it was the middle of the night. So I tried to grab some shut-eye. I actually managed to sleep for an hour two in intermittent ten minute intervals. This made the trip go easier. I awoke in the morning (around 2 AM New York time) and watched as we flew over the Alps. It was absolutely amazing. We were just flying over your generic blanket of clouds, and then the mountains pierced through it for as far as I could see. I honestly thought about taking a picture.

Before long, we landed in Milan and headed off to customs. It was far from a stressful experience, taking about ten minutes all together. I had my first opportunity to use some Italian. An elderly fellow wandered up to me and asked in a heavy accent, “Delta? New York?” I then had to try to explain, that no I was not coming from New York, but Newark which sounds almost identical. So instead I just whipped out some Italian and directed the man to his baggage claim. It pretty much made my day. Then I found the shuttle to the stazione centrale di Milano. It was extremely cheap and the drive was very nice.

When I arrived at the station, I had seven hours until my next flight and decided that perhaps I would explore Milan a little. Unfortunately, several things were working against me. First, it was hot and I was carrying a fair amount of heavy baggage. Second, the area of Milan surrounding the station is unreasonably short on things to see. Third, it was Sunday, the day of the week when Italians don’t even pretend to work. Nearly all of the eight businesses anywhere near the station were closed. My options included two McDonald’s less than a block apart and a ristorante serving meals for about twenty five euro a plate. I returned to the station. Around this time, my body suddenly realized that it was five in the morning in New York and decided to punish me. My Italian and consciousness fading, I managed to buy a bus ticket from a little shop nearby and board the shuttle to Milan Linate Airport.

I then spent the next several hours drifting off in a metal chair and trying to order food and drink in my, by now, almost incomprehensible Italian. And now I’m writing this blog to kill the last of my time before I can check-in and head to Brindisi. I’m almost home.

New Jersey : The Bane of My Existence

It was a day just like any other, except that I was going to get on a plane to move to Italy for a year. Marina was kind enough to offer to drive me all the way to Newark (about an hour and half away) instead of sending me on the public transportation. It seemed like a great idea to me because I wasn’t quite ready to say goodbye to her yet.

We left early enough to drive to Newark and arrive three hours early to the airport. And then it happened; Jersey struck again. Without warning, we ran into an unreasonably large, unexplainable amount of traffic. Our hour and a half drive became three hours and we made it through the twisting maze of highways and toll roads a mere hour and a half before the departure time of my flight. We said hasty goodbyes and I rushed into the terminal, hoping that I could make it through security in time.

This, as I was about to find out, was the least of my worries. I rounded the corner to the international check-in and there seemed to be several hundred people just standing around. As it turns out, it was the line, and those people were numerous and slow-moving. After forty-five minutes, I made it to the front of the line, at which point I was finally able to see the sign that said “For international check-in, you must be here one hour prior to your flight.” Shit.

I spoke with an extremely helpful agent, and she was able to reschedule my flight for the next day and I ran to the nearby seats to try to contact Marina. Of course, I’d left my cell phone (worthless in Italy, helpful in Newark) with Marina, so I didn’t have a phone or her number. So I searched facebook until I found the phone number of someone who would have Marina’s number. Then I skype called until I was able to get it. I called Marina and she was only about half an hour away, stuck in traffic, surprisingly. She turned around a came to get me and we drove back to Connecticut. After seven straight hours of driving in New Jersey traffic, Marina was exhausted and stressed, so I made her some dinner. Shrimp, butter, and garlic, with a bit of salt and pepper of course. It was, I would say, simple yet elegant. We then spent a relaxing evening with Marina’s father and went to bed very early.

The next day, we took the train to Grand Central and Marina left me at the shuttle to Newark. It was, quite frankly, very difficult to say goodbye, but the friendly bus driver helped me out by yelling at me that it was time to go. I took the bus to the airport checked-in and made it through security without trouble. I then enjoyed my last American meal for a year; a burger with cheese, bacon, and onion rings. With plenty of time to spare, I sat around writing blog entries, like this one. And now, I have to go board my plane. See you later USA.

New York

My New York adventure began with a lazy morning. Marina and I were up around 11 and grilled some burgers for lunch. We then caught a train to Grand Central Station. I was really excited to take some pictures on our approach to the city, but it turns out that you approach Grand Central underground, so my pictures left something to be desired.

We arrived in the city and walked out into the main concourse of the station. It was just like all the movies, I suppose. There were fewer people and they weren’t all wearing suits… but, more or less the same. We walked out, Marina pointed us in the right direction and we started walking. We saw some large buildings and eventually ended up in a cute little park. Then, suddenly, we were in Times Square… and it wasn’t that different from any New York street. It was a little wider and had more advertisements. All in all, it was pretty underwhelming. But, there was an M&M store. I have to admit, I was curious as to what that entailed. I thought it would just be an unreasonable amount of M&Ms, and I didn’t want to miss that, so we went in. Like I had expected, many of the walls were covered in giant tubes of M&Ms, sorted by color and contents, but, more than that, in a brazen tribute to our American consumerist culture, there were objects of every variety, shape, and size masquerading as M&Ms. Apparently, putting a face on a beach towel triples its value. I didn’t know this, but I do now and maybe someday I’ll take advantage of it. When we reached the third floor of the M&M store, we found the real money makers. Jewelry for upwards of two hundred dollars and “collectable items”, like a three thousand dollar bomber jacket made of lambskin and bedazzled with jewels.

To revive me from the shock of big city stupidity, Marina took me to Central Park, which is enormous. Marina estimated it to be about twenty-five miles long (which was later proven grievously incorrect). We wandered, enjoying the nature that seemed so real in the midst of Manhattan. Marina informed me that there were polar bears and a castle in the park, and, although I was skeptical, it seemed like a magical kind of place where that could happen, so I believed her (this Marina fact is still unverified. We saw the castle but polar bears are still a point of contention). We then proceeded to do some serious people-watching in the Sheep Meadow. I may post a more complete description at a later time, but believe me when I say, it was intense.

After what seemed like only minutes (it was more than an hour) we were torn from our anthropological studies by a previous obligation. We met up with Marina’s friend Kasey, a twenty year-old Chinese girl with a dry sense of humor and a penchant for meowing. Marina and I managed to convince Kasey to come out to dinner with us and the two girls lead me to Cafetasia (Cafatasia?). It was a nice little Thai restaurant with some serious mood lighting.

After dinner, Marina, Kasey and I went to an open mic night at a nearby music hall. Their friend, Dan (stage name Filippo) was performing he was pretty good and it was quite an entertaining evening. There were two comics who made jokes about suicide and child support. Neither was funny, but it was extremely uncomfortable for the audience. There were also two absolutely amazing acts; one girl who sounded exactly like Nora Jones, and a passionate French girl with an accordion.

When Kasey got tired shortly before midnight, Marina and I walked her most of the way home, then headed over to the apartment of Lauren, another of Marina’s friend, with whom we’d be staying. Lauren wasn’t home yet because she was working late, but she had left us her keys so we moved right in. Since it was still over ninety degrees, we quickly became acquainted with Lauren’s air conditioner, which we would later name Fanny. Marina and I bummed around the apartment until Lauren arrived. She had been at an art gallery opening and told us several important details. First, John Mayer and several other celebrities had been there. Second, she was exhausted. Third, there had been free wine and she was a bit drunk. According to Marina, Lauren can be a bit introverted, but she was very outgoing and she and I got along great.

Over the next two days, Marina showed me all around the city. We went to the castle in Central Park, we explored all sorts of little cafes and parks, and we walked across the Brooklyn Bridge and cavorted on Wall Street. She also took me to see the main buildings of her school (NYU) and we went to the nearby Music Inn, a legendary music shop with hundreds of instruments I’d never seen before. It was amazing. We walked in an elevated park and down by the Hudson. I got to meet Marina’s extremely charming friend Jake, who later described me as “surprisingly nice”. We got along great.

Our last night in the city, Lauren joined Marina and I in the living room so she could sleep nearer Fanny, the air-conditioning unit and only hope for temperatures below ninety. We had a fun little sleep-over that highlighted the similarities between Lauren and me. To put it simply, she’s enough like me, and I like myself enough that we could probably be best friends.

The next day, after a dinner of a new dish named “Chicken with Bacon” (chicken, bacon , and Meunster cheese) and my best rendition of my mom’s cauliflower Dijon, we headed back to Connecticut. We arrived around midnight and crashed.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Jersey Sucks

Alright. So this blog begins where my journey begins, a little place called Newark International Airport. I arrived in Newark after a seemingly endless plane ride next to two very excitable twenty-somethings. They had just discovered that airlines that overbook flights often offer vouchers to people willing to give up their seats. Of course, that just wouldn't do on the way to the east coast, but they were totally going to do it on the way back. I was happy for them... I suppose. But my enthusiasm dwindled much more quickly and I sank into the travel coma. You know that one where you're not awake, you're not sleeping, and, somehow, when it's over you're more exhausted than when you started.
Anyway, I arrived in Newark and proceeded to retrieve my baggage which consisted of a mid-size backpack containing 7 shirts, 1 pair of pants, 1 pair of shorts, some flip-flops and a frisbee. My life in a bag. The plan was to catch the train from Newark to NYC and meet my friend Marina at Penn Station (the one in NYC, not the one in Jersey). So I headed to Jerseys crowning technological achievement, the AIR TRAIN! It's a monorail that moves slightly faster than walking pace, has large windows, and doesn't include ventilation. I was psyched to discover these things, as it was over 90 degrees out (31-32 for all you Europeans).
After my adventure in the sauna on rails, I made it to the Newark International Train Station where I hopped on the train to NYC. As I was riding along, I was very excited to take some pictures of my crazy east coast adventure. Unfortunately, I was going through Jersey, which seems to have hit it's peak sometime during the industrial revolution. I quickly decided that everyone was right about Jersey. Pretty disappointing.
I made it to NYC without a problem. I made it to street level and was buffeted by a wave of heat and car horns. It was very much like the movies and I couldn't help but laugh. After wandering several blocks with fairly vague instructions, I made it to Marina's vehicle and we were reunited at last. She told me, among other things, that we were heading back to her home in Connecticut for the evening and we'd get a chance to see the city later. So she set off through the NYC traffic. After two to three blocks, confusion set in and we found ourselves locked in to a street that just kept turning right. Suddenly, it entered a tunnel and when we emerged I found myself, once again, in the cesspool known as New Jersey. By this time, I had concluded that the only way to enter or exit Jersey was through tunnels. It was like some sort of alternate reality that thoroughly sucked. But, I was in a good mood and decided to give it another chance. After twenty miles of bread factories and cemeteries, to my great chagrin, I once again had to declare New Jersey a piece of crap.
After escaping the dark recesses of Jersey, we made our way up to Connecticut which, as it turns out, looks like Oregon. But with big, old houses. I met Marina's dad and extremely charming dog Pele (like the soccer player). All went well, and I settled in for the night in a room decorated only with baby pictures of Marina and her brother. Under their thoughtful gazes, I drifted off ready to begin my great adventure in the big city the next day.