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.