Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Italy: No Better Education Than A Cultural Education

About one week ago, I woke up in the middle of the night and as I peered out of the window from my bed, I was struck by the beauty of the contrasting colors of the apartments across the street. For inexplicable reasons, the image of reds, oranges and yellows under the light of the moon and street lamps was imprinted profoundly in my memory. A seemingly meaningless moment became the culprit for intense introspection and contemplation of how I arrived at the current moment in my life.

Initially, I intended to create a post that detailed one full day in Italy. I prepared throughout the day to tell of my adventures including the immigration office, an outdoor movie and interesting interactions with strangers, among other experiences which also always include food. I had intentions of depicting the simplicity and beauty of my life in relation to where my life could have been back home. As I began to write, my personal development came to mind amid the colorfully ingrained memory of my early morning awakening one week ago.

Less than a year ago, I felt like a desensitized person going through the motions of life as if I was following some plan written for me from birth. I was born and raised to go to school with the notion of one day attending college. At no point was I involved in education for my own personal curiosity, rather it was a means to an end that was college and a good job. I was quite typical in that I loved sports and spent time playing video games or watching TV. Somewhere along the lines this typical suburban American livelihood bred desensitization. Every culture has it's own positives and negatives but the American understanding of friendships and relationships is much inferior to that of Italians as a generalization. Online relationships are not the norm in Italy and apps aren't used to make introductions. Functional relationships have been blurred and my relocation to Italy reignited my passion for life and people. I'm constantly busy and interacting, and I haven't watched TV outside of a sporting event in a bar. I regularly interact with one, and only one person through electronic communication. I already mentioned certain memories being imprinted in your mind and another strong one from my summer back in the US was a father ignoring his wife and kids at a beach in Connecticut to stare at the screen of his cell phone. Watching his children call out for attention and interaction while he blatantly shrugged them off was both disgusting and disheartening, and you would be hard-pressed to find such an occurrence here in Italy.

I have begun to be reinvigorated by Italian relationships. You walk the streets where fathers and sons hold hands with no worry over masculinity, or anything else entirely immature for that matter. Lovers are so openly affectionate that they'd often be interrupted by some authority if they were transported across the Atlantic. There is almost a sense of reckless abandon in love and relationships that is both refreshing and straining; but nonetheless, it is invigorating in passion and intensity. Even my own conversations among friends have been more intimate in recent months that I have ever had in the previous 25 years of life. I could begin to think that maybe that is just me, but I don't believe that to be the case or else it wouldn't have changed so abruptly.

My personal development obviously goes beyond daily life into the perspective with which I see the world but it is my new found enjoyment of life that I wish to share. So often we debate the effects of TV and computers as it has become a standard to stay indoors in addiction. Having begun to experience a different life, I now feel an internal sickness when stuck indoors and a constant desire to escape my confines. If I have nothing better to do, I exit for a walk in which my many walks have helped bring clarity to numerous moments in my life. I have great difficulty with routine and my respect for the rigidity of life I was brought up to follow has receded into the background of my consciousness. We tend to stay inside our own designated comfort zones in regards to everything I mentioned above but my most important development since moving to Italy may have been nearly eliminating the comfort zone altogether. In eliminating this comfort zone, I have begun to discover the beauty in every aspect of life around me.

I arrived in Bologna as a scared boy who always wanted to believe in his own open-mindedness. As I walked through the streets today, I recognized a process of growth and intellect developing outside of the classroom. I had intended to learn inside the classroom but all of the true learning was happening everywhere else. An appreciation for life had been planted inside of me and continues to grow into a true happiness. In that happiness, I will always remember looking out my window in the early hours of the morning and appreciating being awake to encounter a beauty that has always existed.

Monday, June 27, 2011

La Vita É Bella in Tuscany

There are some days when it just seems like nothing will go to plan but, somehow, everything works out just as it should. This was the case of the typical tribulations of traveling through touristy Tuscany. Italian word of the day is "sciopero." Every traveler navigating Italy makes an early acquaintance with this important noun; in fact, it was one of the first Italian words that I acquired in my arsenal of vocabulary. Strikes are common in Italy, and are as close to a sure thing in Tuscany as sunshine in the arctic during summer. After your first, you will forever remember, and never forget the word sciopero.

Traveling south, we were forced onto one of the few inter-city trains in operation. We coasted through the Tuscan countryside for nearly two hours to the south of Florence. My group of four, including myself, was met by two friends at the station in Arezzo. Both of these friends were previous students of my Master's program who now reside at a "cittadella" just outside Arezzo. They are taking part in a community for individuals from conflict zones throughout the world called Rondine. The two friends we met were born and raised in Kosovo and Israel respectively. Rondine is a community that promotes peaceful dialogue and cultural interaction. The campus is a small castle just outside of Arezzo, and it's home to college students from all over the world including Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, the Balkans, among many others.
Ponte Buriano (Home of the Mona Lisa)

During the car ride we learned about the history of Rondine, a town abandoned and left unclaimed in the midst of World War II. It remained desolate until the current organization took it over and rebuilt the castle into the cultural crossroads that it now is. I can imagine the town was no more than a few families previous to the war. Some went off to fight and the war must have drove the rest off leaving it deserted. The castle rests on top of a small hill above with a panorama of the river and the stereo-typically picturesque Tuscan countryside below. We toured the grounds meeting interacting with the variety of students and cats that had re-inhabited the once deserted town. If wine is your thing, then Rondine may also be the place for you. Over a buffet style lunch we were informed that wine flows freely from the sponsors of the project, which even include the Vatican.

Best train car of the day
Well oiled machine
After lunch we ventured out to the site where da Vinci created the famous Mona Lisa. Ponte Buriano is visible in the background of the painting in the bottom right corner. A festive weekend atmosphere swept through the modest park along the river bank. Cotton candy and fair food vendors had children running around enjoying the afternoon. Bottles of wine came made the trip with us from Rondine. Our group of multiple mixed nationalities laid out by the water's edge enjoying the wine, weather and company. I enjoyed learning that the main conflict at Rondine usually emerged from someone neglecting a responsibility of which the famous chore of doing the dishes seemed to top the list. Despite the fact that many of the students arrive from countries in direct conflict, politics were overshadowed by dirty dishes in the sink, as is the case in the life of many a normal American college students.

I think those are Donald and Mickey?
Love on a park bench
There was also a main attraction in the park, at least in my opinion. A small kiddie train made a journey from the river bank around a field passing the occasional cartoon character. It reminded me of my childhood at Seabreeze amusement park praying to get the caboose every time i boarded the mini train. It's one of the few rides I made certain to board every time I went to the park. So, my two friends and I made sure to board the train, the only one that remained on schedule on the day due to the efforts of its elderly conductor. I will also remember this ride for the adorable elderly couple sitting on the bench next to the train enjoying their ice cream and the youth around them. Another beautiful picture, and memory, on this beautiful day in the park with new friends.

Faster, faster, faster...
From the park in the countryside we traveled into the centro of Arezzo. A city that some may recognize from the movie, La Vita è Bella (Life is Beautiful). If you have not seen it, then I insist that you watch this classic immediately. It is a captivating story of a hysterical Jewish man who wins over a wealthy Italian woman. Years later they end up in a work camp during World War II where the father, Guido, pretends that the whole thing is a game to protect his son from reality. As I walked through the piazza I could picture Guido carrying his family by bike speeding down hill into the piazza; his wife screaming slower, while his son urges him to go faster.

We wandered aimlessly through the charming streets of the city until settling on an outdoor aperitivo in an inviting atmosphere full of people sitting outside. From there we journeyed over to the duomo arriving in the midst of Sunday evening mass. This moment was another of the memories that will remain with me forever. Entering this cathedral had a chilling effect impossible to recreate with words. The atmosphere inside was unique to anything I had felt inside any of the many cathedrals I'd visited in Italy. Upon our exit, the two girls with me on this trip began to talk about a similar feeling which one claimed was to the point of almost causing tears. I don't have any explanation for what it was but there was some sort of special feeling for all of us as we wrapped up our day in the Cattedrale dei Santi Pietro e Donato of Arezzo.
Sun setting on the duomo in Arezzo

In the most abrupt fashion, the previously described beauty finished with the continuation of the lovely sciopero. Our train was sitting idly at the station conductor on board, but it had no intention of departing the station. We were fortunate to catch a faster train into Florence at the same price. Our tickets went unchecked most likely due to the strike and sometimes you wish you didn't waste your money, but that is the way of the world in Italy. A method of living that is better to accept sooner rather than later.

Music on the Ponte Vecchio
Arriving in Florence, there was a break between our arrival and next departure. We embarked on a quick "giro" of this city close to my heart. A small live concert was in full swing in the midst of the closed jewelry shops on the Ponte Vecchio. Our brief layover followed suit for the day. We could have enjoyed more of the city than the quick tour of music and gelato as we returned to the station to watch our train delayed in increments of five minutes to a total of over thirty. There's an Italian proverb that advises one how to deal with these such situations that I truly enjoy, "Siccome la casa brucia, riscaldiamoci." Literally translated it means "Since the house is on fire, let us warm ourselves. No need to stress. Life is defined by the attitude in which you approach it just as this day, and the delays, were beautiful for me...

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

South Beach, Emilia-Romagna

Last weekend's adventure brought us to the beach locale of Marina di Ravenna, Italy. Warning: this is not the Amalfi Coast or Capri. Censorship will be kept to a minimum but that means readers must recognize that I'm only partaking in the local culture. That being said, bits and pieces may be omitted for obvious reasons which include friends, family and future employers. I'll employ every effort to make my limited writing ability enjoyable, and my account as truthful as possible.

Marina di Ravenna is renowned, by college aged students of Emilia-Romagna, for it's "camping" and beach parties. It's accessible for day trips but celebrated, also by college students, for the overnight weekend camping trips. After class on Friday we decided on an overnight Saturday trip without missing "Super Happy Hour" at Bagno Toto or Sunday Funday on the beach.

Departing at 11am by train, followed by a bus to the beach, and finally we hit the ground running at 2pm. Naturally, we sought out one of the free beach areas as most of the beach is pay for use; meaning, not in the interests of college students.  In addition to being free, the beach was stocked with crisped, rather than sun-kissed, bodies. Each tan undoubtedly achieved by a sufficient commitment to the sun coupled with a lack of commitment to sufficient clothing. Being bashful is as uncommon as a noticeable tan line along the beach of Ravenna. My only advice is don't be shy and join in. Men, feel free to bring your Speedo out of the closet and color those man-thighs; women, a little cheek never hurt anybody, I don't think.

Reality began to shift away from relaxation around 6 in the evening when a different atmosphere began to make its debut. 2 for 1 specials and pop music invigorated the mass of tan into a mass of song and dance. Groups celebrating bachelorette parties and graduations force their newly engaged, or newly unemployed victims into embarrassing situations in the traditional Italian fashion. Whether it be dressing like the opposite sex or approaching strangers to ask the most inappropriate of requests, accomplishment means enduring some form of entertaining humiliation. Meanwhile, heavy drinking ensued all around until 11 at night when the 2 for 1 piadina special ensured party goers would endure the night  Once your tongue detects the first morsel, food becomes the new focus of consciousness. I inhaled four piadinas made of a variety of delicious ingredients including porchetta, proscuitto, peppers, zucchini and more. Between piadianas, I found myself situated on the ground Indian-style in complete ecstasy. I needn't concern myself with the beautiful girl sitting Indian-style in mirror image across from me sharing this next meal. My only concern was the cardboard container between us filled with heavenly fritto misto (fried mixed seafood). This brief respite further enhanced the bar hopping along the beach while reveling in this beautiful escape. Aimlessly wandering along this coastline devoid of hotels, but filled with beach bars, will forever reside in my mind as a wild memory of uninhibited youth.

I could stop with that romanticized view, but there was more fun to be had. A friend and I gathered the troops for a bit more free-spirited fun before the end of the night. Clothes were shed, some more than other, and a late night dip in the Adriatic ensued. Planning was not carried out to the fullest extent and our clothes were left a decent distance up the beach. Although, I have experienced a quick rising tide while in Oregon that left an entire soccer team scrambling to retrieve their belongings from the Pacific; so, maybe it wasn't the worst planning after all  Unfortunately, this time a form of beach security stood waiting by our clothes with flashlight exposing us as we trod back up the beach. We never made it to the parties at centro in Ravenna that night as we planned. This beach trip must seem like quite a marathon and I guess it was because I haven't even explained in full, nor have I finished yet.

The night also included a moment of misfortune as a friend and I took a love tap of sorts from a car. I was unhurt but she had her foot run over and spent the next couple weeks enduring the effects of the incident like a real trooper. When the night came to an end, it came in fitting fashion. I never carry my passport when traveling in Italy but it turned out that it was required for the campsite where we set up earlier. Another calculated risk was met with fortune when I successfully sneaked into the campsite among a large group of friends. I guess my luck couldn't have been any better after because I had the fortune of sharing a tent with 3 girls and all the room in the world to sleep on the hard earth beneath me.

Morning broke and more relaxation followed in the form of more beach and sun. Tanned bodies had returned to bake as the Marina di Ravenna marathon slowly came to an end.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Up, Up, and Does It Ever End?

One of the first activities to peak my interest upon arriving in Bologna was the grand trek to the Church of San Luca. Passing through Bologna by train or car, San Luca has an enchanting aura, especially lit up in the dark night sky, as it watches over the city below. Approximately 300 meters above the city, rests this beautiful baroque church containing nearly a thousand years of history. This church is more than an architectural and religious relic because of the legend that accompanies it and the internal conflict it endured between Catholic religious groups.

666 numbered porticos spanning 3.5 kilometers, entirely uphill, and a cross marks the end of this sacrificial journey. The salvation of the cross represents a symbolic end to the suffering for the out of shape penitent. Unlike at its inception, the church is now accessible by car but the suffering is more than worth the experience, sights and achievement of taking the three and a half century old route under the sinister 666 porticos. There is so much history in the walk which also has sweeping views of Bologna and the countryside below. At worst, it is a 40 minute conversation or break for contemplation. The history of the sanctuary itself begins with its founding in 1143 by the daughter of a wealthy family on the Monte della Guardia where a sanctuary for nuns was created. In 1160, a painting by Saint Luke of the Madonna was brought to this place from Constantinople by a Greek pilgrim. The entire legend contains a power struggle within groups of the church all the way up to the Pope, but I'll leave the whole history to your own research. The important "Miracolo della Pioggia (Miracle of the Rain) occurred on July 5, 1433. The image was brought down in a procession to plead for the end of an extremely rainy spring. Legend says that the rain broke as the image descended without getting wet, and a three day feast was declared that is still carried out in a yearly procession to this day.

An additional significance revealed itself to me during my first walk to San Luca. I observed people utilizing the natural incline for exercise. A select number of these fitness fanatics employ the entire 3.5 kilometers in their routine but before I had even contemplated it, I had already committed to running it in its entirety. I introduced the idea to my Spanish friend Carlos, a friend I met through my passion for calcetto, of course. Procrastination slowed the scary process of carrying out this commitment. Carlos contacted me on Tuesday and presented Thursday of this week as our day of suffering, and I committed with hesitation. At no point did I believe that my body was prepared to endure the exercise but I've always had difficulty saying no to a friend, and Carlos was quickly becoming a best friend.

I was perched at my computer Wednesday, pretending, as most students do, to be doing something of importance when Carlos sent me a message. His plans had changed and Thursday was no longer a possibility so he made a preposterous proposition; let's run in a couple hours. If I could be classified as nervous previously, then I was nearly petrified now. My pre-run jitters were entertainment for Carlos; as a result I kept them up for his amusement and my own weird form of comfort. As we boarded the bus to traverse the city where the porticos began, Carlos showed his true colors. His trepidation became my amusement but, nonetheless, it seemed as though death was upon us.

Surprisingly, the run started relatively easy until around the halfway point when we approached a curve with a nearly vertical incline. I can imagine us suffering for speed at a snails pace, although speeding up was not a viable option. It took every positive force of mind and body to move an inch. Suffering, struggle and fear transformed to joy as we reached the summit in thirteen minutes. Carlos was struggling mightily at the top. I felt okay so I'll let the reader, and Carlos, determine who the better athlete is. Accomplishment morphed into motivation to go further and finish faster. Maybe I'm a glutton for punishment, but this won't be the last time I set out to conquer the road to San Luca.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

An Everlasting Reminder of First Love in Urbino

Years of education have taken their toll on my brain function, and those who know me best understand the degree to which my memory tends to fail me. Therefore I'm presented with an equally high degree of difficulty in the late introduction of this blog. As a result, I may sometimes write in order of inspiration rather than chronology. One memory that I will never forget is the beauty of my first road trip to Urbino and the countryside in the Marche region. Maybe I'm experiencing the onset of premature nostalgia but I fell in love with Urbino much quicker than Bologna. I'll perpetually insist that Urbino is the greatest place on earth, something that I can guarantee will frustrate my trip mates.

The small Renaissance city roused my understanding of Italy often illustrated in the arts, be it literature, painting or film. A city crowning the eternally rolling countryside below. I had camera in hand the instant Urbino came into sight, failing to adequately capture the essence of the jewel towering overhead from our moving car below. My impatience was only rewarded by my dying battery later in the trip as I chose carefully which shots to attempt, and those which were unworthy of a possible last photographic memory.

Eventually we reached the summit of the winding road and found a parking spot just outside the city walls, although not nearly quick enough to satisfy my amateur traveler's excitement. One step inside Urbino and it's quaint beauty was instantly breathtaking, at least that was the case for me. On account of our parking spot atop the summit, we entered the city to a view of the steeply descending street set to the background of the rolling countryside peaking out from between the buildings lining the narrow street. The streets, many seemingly unable to even accommodate a car, were lined with little shops and homes. As we began our decent, each petite gap to the sides produced either another majestic view of green at the end of the cobblestone street or a winding path filled with inviting antique wood doors.

Voices of Italian school children rang in the Piazza just outside the song filled Palazzo Ducale, further enamoring me to this small city. The Palazzo now serves as a museum filled with Renaissance art emanating from this birthplace of the Renaissance. Maybe the one thing more impressive than the art was the size of the dining room. I harbor no doubts that it was impossible to maintain a conversation between the heads of whatever table occupied this room. I was barely able to make out the face of my friend in the opposite corner. The real marvel was discovered when we ventured into the basement. I apologize to the art aficionados by my appreciation for the dining room and basement over the art, and I promise that I'm an aspiring, yet talent-less, artist myself. But, it was in the basement that a certain art and ingenuity exposed itself to me in the form of medieval innovation. The plumbing systems and washrooms beset in the maze beneath this fifteenth century palazzo were nothing short of a wonder to explore. It was quite inspiring to contemplate their creation and implementation in a time of what we would recognize as limited technology.

In addition to the picturesque countryside, the other most inspiring aspect of Urbino was the restaurant that we discovered for lunch, La Fornarina. A small door leading to a quiet restaurant with exposed brick walls and ceilings took all four of us on a heavenly trip consisting of four delectable dishes of food including the special strozzapretti. This was my first real taste of Italy outside of the known routes, and it left an impression that will last forever. For the rest of my life I will be able to go back and picture myself indulging in a peaceful life in beautiful Urbino with the vast rolling green below. I fell in love in a day, and I've never failed to remind those who experienced this place with me how deep in love I was.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Even A Blog is Better Late Than Never

Hello everyone. This blog is my way of inviting everyone to follow my life in Italy for a year. I arrived in here three months ago to embark on an educational adventure at the University of Bologna, and I'm finally taking my chance to share it with the world. My hope for this blog is that'll provide everyone interested with some insight into the beauty and bureaucracy of the bel paese.

Bologna is home to one of the oldest universities in the world, of which I'm a student, and the city has the thriving heartbeat of an authentic Italian city. Sitting central to Milan, Venice and Rome, it has somehow remain undiscovered by the infamous tourists that inundate its surrounding neighbors. Combined with the vibrant university lifestyle, this makes the medieval city of Bologna one of Italy's true gems. Foreigners are required to adopt the language, culture and world famous food in order to navigate life in the this thriving political capital where my new life has begun.

Arriving in Bologna, I was unprepared for life despite a previous trip to Florence and Rome only a few years prior. Italy should be classified as a bureaucracy at every level of life from private to public. Obtaining a visa took more trips to the consulate than I can count on one hand and even some strategic finagling. Entering the apartment hunt is a lesson in being taken advantage of, and even worse as a foreigner with beginner language skills. Internet can take months to install in an apartment and even the salesperson at the store fought TIM customer service on my behalf. My first couple weeks in Italy nearly drove me to a dive off the famous Ponte Vecchio, although it may not be high enough. Anyone who has spent an extended period of time living in Italy can relate. For those who haven't, I recommend a short vacation or maybe a vacation home by the sea. Some Italians will attempt to convince foreigners that the slow and faulty systems in Italy are part of its charm, but for the rest it's just the way it has always been. Life here is like a gondola ride in Venice, slow and steady. Sometimes you'd like to dive overboard and swim to freedom only to realize you are surrounded by water.

Eventually you adjust to everything. The residents of this beautiful country find ways to overlook its flaws and find the happiness in Life. Love, friendships, and food flow intravenously through the body of this deeply historical and romanticized country of which Bologna is no exception. The Bolognese food is acclaimed throughout the country and, I will confirm, it doesn't disappoint. I'm ready to offer a money back guarantee to any traveler who encounters a bad meal in this city. And always remember, if a waiter orders your meals for you, then do not under any circumstance protest. Accept what will be nothing short of inspirational in his ability to satisfy every inch of your stomach and soul.

Relationships are as central to my new world as the fulfilled stomach is to every tourist in the city of Bologna It takes little time to notice the vibrant and lively aura that engulfs this city. The streets and piazzas seem eternally full at nearly all hours of the day. People and friends are valued much more than the latest reality TV show. Sometimes it's more difficult to make an acquaintance than a friend. Relationships are filled with passion and openness that can be so foreign to an American such as myself. Emotions are not taboo, nor are political beliefs. Sometimes I wonder if arguments are something to strive for rather than avoid, but it seems they ultimately strengthen the bonds of unwavering commitment and friendship required of every Italian.

My true introduction to Italian culture and friendships results from my true love, soccer My involvement in calcetto, a five against five brand of the sport I love has helped me plunge deeper into Italian relationships and culture. There is nothing better than the beautiful game weekly with Italians who cherish every aspect of it. I have made my best friends in Italy during competition on the pitch. I have learned the most with the ball at my feet, and I will share all of my experiences with you through calcetto, culture, and food.

This is my new beginning in Italy, and the start of my blog. Let's hope there will be more to come as you accompany me on my journey through the cities and countryside of La Bella Italia. Stay tuned for more...