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.