Tuesday, July 19, 2011

A Friend in Padova

Leading up to my final exam week, I decided to head north to the city of Padova. In the midst of exams, I convinced myself that a break from studying to visit a friend from just outside Padova, in Veneto, was acceptable. My friend was a bit shocked at my willingness to take a trip the day before an exam but I had not yet been to Padova, and I was excited to see him before returning to the US for summer.

Shortly after my arrival in Bologna, I encountered my friend Alessandro. The situation was an entertaining one. A friend of his lives under the impression that he's the ultimate alpha male capable of luring in numerous women at will. A friend of mine was his target. As contact was made I began to speak with Alessandro about soccer among other things, but most importantly soccer, obviously. This meeting followed by chance meetings around the city from a bar to Piazza Maggiore, and we always stopped to chat. Eventually, Ale invited me to join him for a game of calcetto at a small sports park just outside the city center. From then on, he grew to become one of my best friends.

One of the biggest reasons for my Italian improving is this friendship. Ale's English is rapidly improving from our conversations but after a few drinks at the bar, Italian tends to flow much more freely off my tongue. It may not be the traditional method of language learning but if it works, it works.

We get along so well that on Ale's last night in Bologna I "forced" him to take a dip in the Fontana di Nettuno in the center of Piazza Maggiore. I think an event like this might usually be designated for the very late night when no one was around, but we endured what he thought was freezing cold water in front of the so called "Revolution." It wasn't a real revolution but Italians sometimes like to make meaningless protests with few goals of actually accomplishing anything. Nevertheless, the revolutionaries, a bachelorette party, and some others watched as we illegally entered the fountain and went for a swim in its shallow waters. We followed up the swim by walking to get Ale's favored crepes with him complaining of being freezing the entire way, but the people there that night know that he loved every minute of that swim.

So my second to last weekend I spent a relaxing Sunday with my friend Alessandro "guiding" me around Padova. I use the term guiding loosely because Ale has possibly the worst sense of direction, and still needs a map to get around Bologna when he is at school. Surely we got slightly misdirected, if not slightly lost at one point during our "giro" around the city, but we both agreed that you can never really know a city until you get lost in it. We got sandwiches and had a couple beers in the beautiful center of of the city, which was one of the more beautiful centers that I have seen in Italy. The piazza is a giant circle with a small park in the middle where everyone can relax in the warm weather. We played a little soccer with a couple of guys who were very awful, and we walked around and chatted some more.

It wasn't the most sightseeing I have ever done but for me it is more important to take in the feeling of a place than every single sight there is to see. I experienced what it was like to be in Padova, and I was able to spend time with someone I consider to be a very good friend. In fact, I look forward to seeing Alessandro when I return to Bologna in the fall. We already have a plan in the works to take a trip to the south of Spain to visit our friend Carlos, and I'm sure we will have many other great adventures. I consider myself very lucky to have met such a person, and began a new friendship like this. I consider Ale to be a very close friend already even in the short time that I have known him. I look forward to him eventually visiting me in the U.S. and introducing him to his future wife that will grant him the U.S. citizenship that he desires...

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Seafood and Sun in Ancona

Bungee jumping, base jumping and sky diving constituted a few ideas swirling through my mind with my last weekend in Italy fast approaching. The end of first semester is in sight and I'll be on my way home working towards my necessary internship hours after exams finish. None of these ideas came to fruition due to limited funds and an equally lacking amount of accomplices willing to join me for a casual jump. A trip to Napoli for to visit Pizzeria da Michele was an option, and we sought out the cheapest flights south to Puglia or Sicily. In the end, due to the relative ease of access, I found myself booked for a trip to Ancona with two of my friends.

I've already taught one lesson on the sciopero, mainly its prevalence in Tuscany. The next lesson in Italian transportation is to beware of the regional trains along the coast come summer. The route from Bologna heads directly east to Rimini before turning down the Adriatic coast south to Ancona. Bologna to Rimini is an hour long ride that took us two hours and thirty minutes. Time was only a small portion of the inconvenience served up to us. We boarded a full train. The breezeway was our seating area, and a bag of luggage was my seat; meanwhile, this meant surviving the sweltering heat with no AC and barely an inch to move amid the pack of people. As usual, I made use of this miserable time in the best way possible. A few bodies over was a Basque girl from Bilbao equally suffering in sweat but so stunning at the same time. She had gorgeous, long dark hair and piercing green eyes that instantly seized my attention they made contact with mine. Despite the mass of bodies between us, we spent a good portion of the trip catching each other's glances. Knowing that I would probably never see this girl again, I semi-jokingly wrote her a note, which was encouraged by the two girls traveling with me. I arranged it in half Italian and half Spanish but I refused to disclose the contents to my friends, although it was probably the most romantic few lines that I've ever written or said . As my crush left the train, I quickly slipped the note into her hand. She gazed at me quickly, but with such a striking confidence. With a smile she replied, "grazie," as she exited the train with her friends. Knowing how childish this all was, I laughed with my friends knowing that she probably did the same, but that I'd never see her again.

The train began to clear out past Rimini so we found some seats and some comfort. The train made a little better time but we never imagined that it would take us nearly five hours to arrive. We made our way straight to the hostel where our inviting host set us up with everything we needed, and presented us with information on where to go. Our first stop was one of the first restaurants we encountered, and where I tasted rabbit wrapped in porchetta for the first time. Finally, we did what we came for and made way for the closest beach.

It wasn't the most picturesque of the bunch, but we wanted to soak up as much sun as possible before seeking out better scenery the next day. As I lie on the beach, I requested my phone from my friends bag. The sun became even brighter when I discovered a message had already be sent from my morning crush. My Italian is still inadequate, and I haven't used Spanish in years which made this encounter even more exciting in my eyes. The girls with me tried to pry into my conversation as it was made into even more of a childish joke. Only one thing was important though; that we wanted to meet and would do so back in Bologna after the weekend.

I'll leave the love story behind there rather than write a romantic novel. Or maybe I'm just beginning a new love story with a new antagonist called food. I had already hesitantly endured my initiation in the form of rabbit. Up at plate next was fresh seafood at a restaurant recommended to us by the locals. It was right on the water but we were skeptical of the decor, then more so when we were presented with a menu in English. Once the waiter was addressed in Italian the Italian menu appeared, and it was more than welcome. The poor typical tourist would have had nearly a third of the choice with the tourist menu. This is also the case for train destinations when purchasing tickets using the English option at the kiosk, and it is so typically Italian. Our seafood dishes arrived and they were fish, like, real fish. It was the first time I'd prepared to eat something that was looking me in the eye. As a matter of fact, I had another type of mixed seafood dish, so I had dozens of fish looking me in the eye. I began picking at the fish to dispose of the bones until the waiter returned and advised me that the bones were edible, and that the proper way to eat this dish was to leave nothing behind. Only one year ago, seafood was not a part of my diet. A summer in Martha's Vineyard initiated my seafood renaissance but it was a miniature one. I was a fish out of water when it came to seafood, but this night I found myself devouring them whole. One might argue that it wasn't a big deal because they were fried, but I''ll have you know that some were so lightly fried that the breading wasn't noticeable. It was a battle of land vs. sea and the home team took all the points in this encounter.

After the savory seafood experience, we wandered up through the hilly town of Ancona. First stop was ancient Roman ruins and the remaining pieces of a preserved Roman amphitheater. From there we found a roundabout way into the center of Ancona despite not having any definite idea where we were headed. Ancona was a ghost town when we arrived but it transformed by night as everyone gravitated inland from the beach. The definition of dichotomy presented itself in Piazza del Papa where the streets were filled with people drinking and partying. Women were scantily dressed as debauchery ensued, all under the watchful eyes of the former Holy Father. There's a strange phenomenon in Italy. It seems like religious sites are centers for drinking. Two of the biggest outdoor drinking spots in Bologna are on the doorsteps of churches, but this was even more strange with a statue of Pope Clement XII literally looking down on the people as they partied below.

This particular evening I avoided joining the debauchery because I was tired, and Clement XII told me to. Plus, I couldn't possibly encounter any young ladies when I had already discovered my love earlier that afternoon; it just wouldn't be right. Instead, it was early to bed and early to rise for our trip to Parco del Conero in the morning. The park is a 40 minute bus ride from Ancona through small towns and a sunflower filled countryside. The beach at Sirolo is a magnificent rocky beach on the Adriatic. The rocks were smoothed out by the sea to the point that they were perfectly comfortable to lie on. Cliffs surrounded the beach with a small town crowning each separate cliff. The sea was clear and enticing, inviting us to take breaks from obtaining the perfect tan in the sun, to refresh ourselves in the water.

The train ride back to Bologna passed in a similar manner to the one in the opposite direction. It often occurred to me that trains were meant to move; obviously, this hadn't occurred to those running the train. Although I didn't have the same pleasure as on my ride down, an eighty five minute delay wasn't nearly enough to ruin a great weekend of sun and relaxation.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Outdoor Italian Summer Fun

An Italian summer is in its essence, a contrast of extremes. Italians spend August hiding away by the sea while tourists descend upon the famous Italian cities, most notably Rome, Venice, Florence and even Milan . The weather is almost unbearable in a country where central air is far from the norm. Summer temperatures range from 85-95 degrees with 95% humidity. Sweating is the only true guarantee. The sun is nearly ever present and days are scheduled around showers. As uncomfortable as the inland weather may be, the atmosphere that permeates through Italian summers fills the air with a new life.

The air is occupied by humidity and music. Summer is the season of festivals like last night's Notte Bianca in Bologna. Through Porta Sant' Isaia to via Andrea Costa, the entrance to a 1.5 kilometer party began just outside the wall of the city center. Music, dancing, food and wine were in full capacity, and the only thing in sight along this stretch of road. DJ's, bands and singers lined up at a rate of about one every twenty meters. Numerous styles of dancing including belly dancing, hip hop and even the tango entertained festive onlookers. Even better, pocket change was all that required to purchase food and wine at any of the dozens of stands mixing in among the performing artists.

The best part about these festivals is that they aren't an annual affair. They are regularly occurring parties of thousands of people in every age range. Bars, restaurants and shops remain open along the designated strip throughout the night to take advantage of the endless herd of consumers. Wine vendors sell wine for one euro and barely seem to concern themselves with whether you've paid or not. Street food vendors prepare delectable treats including sausage, porchetta and the local specialty, piadinas. Walking down this alley of fun, I was filled with jealousy and desire to emulate some of the exquisite dance; although, a handful of dances inspired a bit of laughter.

The night culminated in a thunderstorm fitting of the raucous occasion. The masses didn't run for cover, as you might expect. Instead, people slowly dispersed from the street while continuing to drink and party amidst the pouring rain. This night could have been a tourist advertisement for the beauty of life in Italy. Party goers embraced the natural spectacle in the sky rather than attempt to escape it. My 9 Euro espadrilles were soaked entirely through, and so I walked a couple kilometers barefoot back to the apartment as I watched lightning illuminate the numerous colors of my magnificent city. Even disinfecting the cut on my foot with gin couldn't take away from the perfection of this night of Italian summer fun.

The following night may create a fuller picture of what summer is to Italians. When school closes, a local elementary school in Bologna transforms its courtyard into a popular bar/disco for the remaining university students. The school becomes summer home to American music from the 70s, 80s, and 90s. The Sex Pistols and Beatles blast from giant speakers completely ignoring the neighboring residents. It's far from the same old repetitive scene when it comes to summer in Italy. I feel blessed to enjoy, and sometimes endure, each new opportunity of fun that presents itself.

If you feel at all jealous, then you only have to remember how profusely I'm sweating as I write this from my sweltering hot apartment...