Archive for the ‘Italy’ Category

I pufi sono communisti

We had our Italian friends over for dinner last week. We made them a
five-course dinner in an attempt to repay them for the five-course, five hour
dinner they cooked us a few weeks ago. It took me a full week of wandering the
city to find all of the necessary ingredients for chocolate chip cookies. The
Italians loved them though. There aren’t any cup measurers here(duh) so I just
sort of guessed, but when one of the Italians asked me for the recipe I said
that there was a problem because it used weird “parole americani”(american words.) He was convinced he could figure it out, so I copied the recipe for him
but when he looked at it he asked, “what’s a cup?.” Somehow, during dinner, we
Americans got on the topic of Smurfs. The Italians asked what we
were talking about so when we described them they said, “oh, si, i pufi. I pufi
sono communisti.” When we asked for an explanation as to why the smurfs were
communists they explained that there was one leading older man, only one girl
and she dressed in red, none of them ever used money, their enemies were the
capitalists and they ate their babies. I’m not sure how this rumor got started,
but it sounds like the result of a fascist government to me. When we asked another Italian about the communist pufi he said, “well, yes, but not all communists eat their young, only some of them, and only during this one time…” So, there you have it, I pufi sono communisti.
We had an interesting conversation with Willy Wonka this week, the man who owns the candy store by our house. The store sells only candy and alcohol so we go for gummy bears and beer about once a week. He asked us why we were learning Italian, when we said it was fun he didn’t understand. “so, you guys have how many states in the united states, 40 or 60?” We told him 50. “Well, you guys have 50 states and they all speak English. We have 25 states in the EU and we speak 23 languages.” Turns out that he was very bitter that the EU was agreeing on 4 governing languages and Italian wouldn’t be one of them. Even though it is the language “il piu bella”. He claims that if the
EU is going to refuse to use Italian, it should at least use Latin because it
is the language that everyone learned in school, and the language “degli arte e
medicina”. But alas, it looks like he will have to learn French, Spanish,
German or English.
Only other big event this week was going to a disco outside of town Saturday
night. We danced all night and took the bus back to Perugia at 5 in the
morning. I decided that we should stay up to watch the sunrise, so we wandered
around town and found some kids from Barcelona hanging out by the fountain.
They are studying in Perugia. My roommate asked what they had done that night
and one of the girls said that she had stayed in. Apparently, she had just come
out to dance and sing with her friends in the streets at 5:30 am. We got bored
waiting for the sun so we asked a garbage man, “Cuando arriva il sole?” he said
that we were crazy and still had an hour, so we should go home a take a nap. We went home to eat breakfast. When we went back outside a fog had settled on the city so we never even saw the sun come up, it just went from a dark cloud to a light one, but we did put in a good effort.
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My hands are red and swollen. A bank sign blinks a red -14˚, as if it is trying to rub it in. How cold is negative fourteen degrees Celsius in Fahrenheit? It’s really cold. I have gloves in my pack, but somehow it didn’t occur to me that I would want them en route and I buried them near the bottom. I think that I could stop on the side of the road and dig them out, but I have images of freezing to death here at the base of the Italian Alps. ‘A girl found frozen to death hunched over her pack, a pair of Burton gloves clenched in her right hand’. And, I can’t figure out what I would do with all of my clothing and gear as I emptied my pack searching for my gloves, the roads are wet and snow-covered. I do not even think that my fingers would obey my mental commands well enough to undue the plastic clips on the top of my pack. I just keep walking.

As I had stepped off the bus in the town center of Canazie I had noticed the familiar scent of grilling meat drifting through the thin mountain air; the scent was rare in Italy. I had glanced across the road and seen a man selling hot dogs and hamburgers at a small stand. The address of my hotel listed it in Canazie and I had thought that it must be close. I had figured that of all people, the vendor was likely familiar with it. I had showed him my piece of paper with the name and address of the hotel. ‘Oh sure,’ he had replied in Italian, ‘it’s about five kilometers up the road, but another bus will be coming soon, the stop is just over there.’ I had boarded the bus, crammed full of tired skiers making their way back to their hotels. My sense of kilometers is not very strong; I stayed on the bus until I saw the sign indicating that we were leaving Canazie. In Italy these signs are large rectangles with a white background and large black letters showing the name of the town, with a red circle and an X drawn through the name. I had panicked as I saw that sign through the frost covered window of the bus. It had not felt like we had gone five kilometers, but maybe we had, or maybe the hot dog man had been mistaken. The sign had made me acutely aware of being on the edge of town, far from where I assumed my hotel to be. Frantically I had looked for the button to push to indicate to the driver that I wanted the bus to stop so that I could get off. Clumsily, I had pushed my way to the open door, knocking the men in their ski boots off balance. I had spun a panicked circle in the light dusting of powder on the road and then seen the light of a café.

I had walked into the café with tears forming at the corners of my eyes. My fear of walking alone and lost through the freezing dark mountain valley, not even knowing if I was still headed in the direction of my hotel, had consumed me. I had lost all ability to think rationally about my situation. I was angry at myself for not having planned things out more completely, more carefully, for not having prevented being lost at night. I was angry that I could not fully communicate with, and get help from, the people around me.
My usual optimism had abandoned me. The lump in my throat swelled, making any sort of communication difficult, and I had found it impossible to speak Italian. ‘Does anyone speak English?’ There was not a single nod or comforting word in my native tongue from the clientele. As demoralizing as it was, I figured that this made a certain amount of sense. The Dolomites were originally part of Austria and given to Italy only after World War II, at the Paris Peace Conference in 1947, as a reward for Italy switching sides of the conflict and joining the allied forces in 1943. There is still a strong Germanic culture in the area. The people in that café had learned German as their second language. A few of the old men sitting at the bar were probably born speaking German, and learned Italian only after the war, and only ever to a minimal extent due to the resentment they must have felt as their homeland was handed over to the conquerors.

Once it had become clear no one would be able to help me in English, I had mustered my Italian. ‘Conosce Santa Maria e Nives?’ I had pulled out the sheet from the Internet that showed the hotel and its address. The woman behind the bar had been concerned and eager to help. She had questioned the men sitting at the bar. One of them had been familiar with the hotel. ‘Sí, diritto, due kilometri.’ He had motioned with his hands indicating straight up the road. My face had dropped; the man could read my disappointment. ‘Forse solo un e mezzo, facile, non é lontano.’ Only one and a half kilometers — easy.

I had smiled and said ‘grazie,’ as I hurried toward the door attempting not to allow the lump to explode which would have forced the tears out of my blinking eyes and down my cheeks. Now I am walking along the road, alone, in complete darkness in negative fourteen-degree weather with a forty-pound pack stuffed with ski gear strapped to my back. I try to recall my optimism, it is possible that I am just walking slow kilometers; I haven’t ever timed myself walking with this pack. Maybe the hotel will be just around this bend.

This is my present to myself for my twenty-first birthday, a chance to ski the Alps. I am studying in Perugia, the capital city of Umbria, located between Rome and Florence. I had planned to arrive in Canazie while it was still light, but several transportation delays, including one because the train tracks were ‘broken,’ had delayed my arrival by hours and the sun had set while the bus was on the highway.

When I made the reservations as the hotel, I had not asked the woman that answered the phone for directions. I was certain I would not have been able to understand them even if I had received them. Making the reservation alone had stretched my Italian capabilities. ‘Vorrei fare un prenotazione.’ The women responded in several fast Italian sentences; not understanding, I repeated what I had opened the conversation with, ‘Vorrei fare un prenotazione.’ By the end of our conversation, the woman had taken my first name and said she would see me Friday. I had already called a dozen other hotels in the area and none of them had had any availability, so I hoped that I had successfully made this reservation. My American cultural understanding prevented me from feeling secure in having made a reservation until I had given someone all of my bank account information, my social security number, and promised them my first-born son.

My fingers are dreadfully cold, I attempt to clench my hand into a fist, but my swollen fingers bend just slightly. Then, at last, a series of road signs stuck on a wooden post that leans with the weight of the snow appears on a corner. My heart races as I approach the signs, hoping that they list my hotel. My eyes rush down the long list of signs; I am holding my breath in anticipation. At last, the second slab of wood from the bottom displays the name of my hotel. It points up the hill on the side of the road. I begin to climb the steep, icy slope. I lean forward hard attempting to balance the weight of my pack. At last, the hotel appears before me. There are lights inside, people in sweatpants, their hair a mess, sweaty, having been covered by wool caps all day. I cannot find the entrance, just wall after wall with windows but no door. I just want in; desperately I want inside. I consider knocking on what is clearly only an emergency exit; I approach it but at the last minute change my mind, convinced that surely the front door is just around the next corner, it is. I walk in, overwhelmingly relieved.

‘You must be Erin, we’ve been waiting; dinner is ready.’ The woman at the counter greets me with some of the most beautiful Italian words I had ever heard. She suggests that I put my pack down in her office and go straight to dinner. I explain that I need to go to my room first; my Italian is insufficient to explain that I need to rub my hands under warm water for a few minutes to see if I can get them to work again. Once I explain I will be to dinner very quickly, she reluctantly agrees, and shows me to my room. I allow my hands to thaw. I put long underwear on under my jeans and slip on my wool socks. I am terrified of becoming that cold again, even though the warmth of the hotel attempts to convince me that the fear is unrealistic. I go down the stairs to dinner. Along one side of the dining room was a large table full of people speaking English, at least what seems to be English through their thick Irish accents. Never being much of one for dining alone, I ask if I can join them. A redheaded, fair-skinned, button-down-shirt-and-sweater clad twenty-something man glances up, meets my eyes, and replies, ‘of course.’
Italian Alp Hotel for web.jpg

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Sinking tower of Pisa

Here is your weekly update from Perugia. The train strike did happen and
travel came to a complete halt all over Italy. Teachers cut their classes
short in order to get back to their homes in Florence etc. before the strike
began. Friday felt like a holiday. The labor unions had planned a 24 hour
strike, and seemingly held one, but the government maintained before and
during the strike that it would only last 8 hours. So, the trains were on
strike from 9pm Thursday to 9pm Friday, but the government still maintains
that the strike went only from 9am to 5pm Friday. It’s a cute system. The
government guarantees certain routes (Rome to Florence etc) even during a
strike, but it only maintains those routes during the 8 hour period of the 24
hour strike that it recognized. I was finally able to determine the reason for
the strike. Apparently, some months ago, two trains collided near Milan on a
one track transfer. The trains hit head on, as they were traveling different
directions on the same track. The train operators took this collision as a
sign of poor government oversight. They stroked in an attempt to negotiate for
greater oversight in order to guarantee the safety of themselves and their
passengers, and accordingly, asked for the public’s cooperation and
understanding. Sounds like a noble cause, especially considering our
National Hockey League is striking for an entire season in order to not have a
limit put on their multi-million dollar salaries.
Last weekend I traveled to Pisa and Lucca. In Pisa, someone built this medium
height, though very heavy tower, on ground that wasn’t stable and now the
tower leans over to the right (or left, if you come from the other direction).
They have done some construction to stabilize the tower. They did not,
however, fix it and put it upright, just stabilized it’s lean to the right. The
only reason that anyone ever goes to Pisa is to see this leaning tower and a
straight tower would have ruined the tourism industry in the city. Due to this
newfound stability, for the low price of 15 Euro, one may climb to the top of
this tower that still appears as if it might fall over. 15 Euro is enough for
a very nice 3-course dinner, so we declined the opportunity to climb the
tower. We were talking to some Australians on the way out of Pisa and the
Australian man said, “15 Euro, that’s like 40 Australian dollars, they can
take that 15 Euro and shove it up their arse.” But, if you’re a wealthy
European and enjoy climbing towers that lean to the right (or left) then Pisa
is the place for you.
We stopped by Lucca on the way back to town. I rented a cruiser bike (with a
bell) and rode several times around the city’s fully intact walls, which have
been made into a city park. It was a very pleasant little Italian town,
surrounded by green hills. On my way back to the train station, I saw 4 small
parades, each with 2-4 drummers and people dressed up in various outfits. I
never really understood the reason behind these parades, but it was clear that
the people in Lucca had a lot to celebrate.
Happy Giorno di San Valentino!
(the Italians never really enjoy hearing that the holiday was in fact adopted
from Roman paganism and was a festival in which highly powerful political men
were able to get inebriated and run around in the nude.)
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Buon Carnevale, Venice

The big adventure for this week was a trip to Venice for the biggest party in
the world, Carnevale! Carnevale is Mardi Gras Italian style and Venice is the
New Orleans of Western Europe. Venice is an amazing city, the canals and
gondolas add a distinct charm to the place, though they also seem to make it
OK (it’s an Itlian phrase too) to charge 11 euros for a cup of coffee. We took
a ride in a gondola and the gondolier sang to us, very romantic. He also told
us that he took Julia Roberts and Matt Damon for a ride when they were in
Venice for the filming of Ocean’s 12. We were all quite impressed
with the story until I learned that the gondolier that took my little sister
on a ride in Venice last year told her the same thing. Venice is sinking
a little every year. While on the gondola I couldn’t help but wonder why
anyone thought that building a city on this town that is cut through with
canals and 417 bridges was a good idea.
On Saturday, the Venice train station exploded and the streets filled with people
wearing masks and costumes. That night Piazza San Marco was filled with disco
fever. A horrible band played American disco songs all night, and the place
was packed with people in costume. We ran around causing a general ruckus. Its
amazing how much one is able to get away with while wearing a mask. We are
pretty convinced that we were at the biggest party in the world. After the
disco, I went to a real discoteca in the city. I was nearly the only American in
the place and talked to and danced with people from Greece, South Africa, New
Zealand, Spain and Mexico. Not a person left the discoteca from the time I got
there around 1 to to when it closed at 4 in the morning, at which time I
walked back to the apartment we had rented in the city.
I have been learning some Italian history and culture since my English classes
started last week. Carnevale is derived from carne — the Italian word for
meat. Everyone tried to eat all of their meat stores during carnevale because
they would not eat it during lent. The only explanation I was able to get
about why the Italians gave up meat during lent came from my Italian teacher.
She explained that the Italians ate so much meat all year that carnevale
provided a “pausa” for the sake of one’s health.
Now, onto the sciopero — the Italian word for strike. Since the late 1800s
when trade unions formed all over Italy during the socialist movement, a
strike has been the laborer’s best bargaining tool. There is a train strike
planned for this Friday, to last 24 hours. My teacher explained that the
strike may happen and may not, but that if you are on a train when the strike
begins, they will leave you wherever the train is when it stops. Well, they do
take you to the nearest city, the don’t just leave you in the “compagna”
(country). Now, the government is concerned with the threat of a strike and is
attempting to negotiate in order to limit the strike to a mere 8 hours.
There’s an Italian solution for you. They are not attempting to advert the
strike altogether, but merely to limit the amount of time passengers are
stranded in random towns like Chiuso.
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Nevica in Perugia and Firenze vs. Roma

Buona Sera!
Italians say buon giorno (good day) until about 6 in the evening when it
becomes buona sera (good evening) it remains good evening until midnight or 1
am when it changes to buona notte (good night). The entire day is shifted
later here. People finish dinner around 11, families perhaps closer to 9 or
10, but kids my age finish around 11. Classes start and stores open at 8 so
the entire country is rather dependent on the pausa (Italian siesta). Good
luck trying to buy shoes here between noon and 4. It is snowing in Perugia (nevica). It has been snowing in flurries for the
past couple of days and it is pretty darn cold, but at least our apartment,
unlike so many others, still has heat. The drifts sometimes reach depths of a
half inch, and everyone from high school kids to the bread delivery men and
construction workers are throwing snowballs, racing to gather the three
possible snow balls in each parking lot. Everyone would be smiling if you
could see their faces buried under their scarves and coats. Most Italians wear
these winter coats that look like sleeping bags covering from their head to
their knees, but they still manage to look stylish.
I read the newspaper this morning at the cafe that I always stop at for my
morning cappuccino. I arrive at the cafe every morning around 8, so that I can
be at my 8 o’clock class on time, just alittle before my professoressa, at
8:20. From my reading of the Italian paper, (which was less than precise, I’m
sure) several schools in the area were cancelled and traffic was a mess all
over Umbra due to this winter blizzard.
My big adventure for this week was a trip to Florence with my roommates. We
hit all of the major attractions: the Uffizi, which houses some of the best art
in the world, the Botecellis are particularly well noted, and the Academia
Gallery, which houses the David, which is big. We also
toured the Duomo, which was impressive, but like many things it was under
construction during the off-season. We also payed 6 euro to climb the 414 steps
to the top of the clock tower for a view of Florence — money well spent. We
all stayed in Florence Saturday night. Sunday night one of my roommates and I
went to the soccer game (partita del calcio) between Roma and Firenze. It was
some crazy fun despite the rain and cold, but from what I hear, the Perugia
fans are even crazier. Firenze managed to hold their own for the first half,
but in the second they went down 2-3 and pretty much gave up. They seemed to
have been surprised that they managed to last that long. The fans sensed the
lack of enthusiasm in the players and sat down or left. The final score was 2-
3, but it didn’t seem that close. My roommate and I spent the night enjoying
Florence, because the first train, after the end of the game, was not until 5
am. Luckily, the hostel we had stayed at was going to be renovated and they
allowed us to store our luggage in the hallway and sleep for a few hours Sunday night for free (without heat and on the floor.) I hope that you are all enjoying the weather wherever you are.
florence from clock tower 1.JPG

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Highlights of Italian life and Sienna

Dear beloved friends and family,
I just wanted to share a few highlights of Italian life here in beautiful
1) Kisses on both cheeks. It is how people greet one another here. Mostly
boys to girls and vice versa, but also same gender couples. Anyway, I have
decided it is one of my favorite parts of Italy. A kiss on the cheeks makes you feel so loved, welcome, and important, like you’re part of the in-crowd. Plus, I
have had several very good looking guy’s lips on my cheeks. You guys should
all start the tradition in the States and see if you can get it to become a
normal thing there by the time I return.
2) the view. The view from my city is amazing, you can see all of the
smaller village towns from the street by my house. I’m not sure that it beats the
flatirons, but it is pretty cool. One of the things that you miss out on in
most American cities is that they were not built on a hills for
fortification. All of the towns around here were built on hills. If you ask a local how to get to the city center they say, “Salita salita salita, sempre sempre
sempre” (up, up, up, always, always, always).
3) the wine. It’s great, and it’s cheap (unfortunately not calorie free).
Each town specializes on a certain kind. And, it doesn’t give you headaches the
way it does in the US because the thing that is most responsible for the
headache is the preservative they put in it to transport it, which isn’t added here.
4) the Language. Italian is beautiful. Our teacher keeps telling us to make
it sound like a song, because when locals speak it, it does. I also love that
people around here expect me to be proficient in it, which will encourage me
to pick it up. Now, if only I understood all of it….I go through my day
constantly understanding about half of what is said to me and having about
half of what I say understood.
5) the lifestyle. The pace of life is slower. Everything closes for 3 hours
in the afternoon (for naps, of course) it’s called pusolino (the Italian
version of siesta). Everything is also closed on Sundays. No putting off your
grocery shopping till the day of rest, unless you enjoy shopping at the only store
open on Sundays, the Bangladesh grocers. It’s ok to be late to class because
you had to stop on the steps to talk to your friends in the sun. And if you
tell an Italian friend you can’t talk because you are running late for
class, they won’t understand because here nothing is more important than stopping to talk to someone you enjoy. And likewise, it is not nearly as much of a faux pas if your cell phone rings in class. The professor’s rings on occasion.
There is also an interesting Pagan church in town. It is
shaped like an octagon and full of pagan imagery, like something right out
of the DaVinci code. At some point some Christian came in and put a cross on
the top of it this octagon shrine to pagan gods. It’s pretty funny.
My big adventure this week was a Saturday trip to Sienna. Each of the
roommates picked a place to travel and created an itinerary. Then we picked a
destination out of a hat after this mandatory school breakfast Saturday morning, and went running to the train station, only to discover that the girl that planned
this particular trip, hadn’t checked the train times. So we ended up taking a 3
and a half hour route to a destination 2 hours away. We got to ride through some very small, industrial towns on “ghetto” trains, but it ended up being like
only 12 Euro round trip, which was cool. We saw the Campo and the Duomo in
Sienna. The Duomo was truly breathtaking. There was a Donatello statue of an
emaciated John, and a cross that the Siennese had looted after winning a war
that were neat to see. The tile frescoes on the floor and the stain glass
were my favorites. The frescoes had a mix of Roman and Christian ideologies,
including several depictions of Remus and Romulus suckling from a wolf. We
managed to get into the church just as the sun was hitting the highest
stained glass. Then we stopped by a wine shop where the owner let us sample several wines, mostly Chiantis, the specialty of the region. We had to run to the
train station to catch the last train back to Perugia. It took us 5 hours to
get back (piece of advise — always check train schedules) But it worked out
incredibly well because we had a two hour layover in Chiuso and ended up in
this local restaurant where for 12 Euro I had what was probably one of the
best meals in my life. Now it’s time for my evening stroll around the city.
the clock tower Sienna.JPG

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Il Fumo Uccide

Il Fumo Uccide: Smoking kills — it is what is written on the front of all
cigarette packages here. Much different than our American warning which seems
to say something along the lines of “someone, somewhere once found out that
smoking might be bad for you.” Along those lines, two days after my arrival in
Italy the Italian government banned smoking inside all public places. A study
came out finding that living in some major Italian cities, without smoking, was the equivalent of smoking ten cigarettes a day, and so the government
banned it. Pretty cool, I think. My clothes no longer smell after I leave a bar.. I have heard several Italian bar tenders complain about the measure. The
police have flocked to the cities, including Perugia, in order to enforce this
new law and have been fining bar owners. You know you live in a rough area
when the biggest crime in town is smoking in a public place.
An interesting thing about Italians is that they actually eat a lot of Italian
food. Pasta, Pizza, Pasta, pasta, panini, pasta, pasta. It’s weird but I
thought that Italian food was this weird American conception, but it seems to
be pretty true to form. Not a whole lot of vegetables, fruits or dairy in your
diet unless you work for it. There are fresh fruit markets around, but a lot of
people here seem to go days without vegetables. As I was eating all of the dried cranberries off our cheese and meat platter, I told an Italian that they were the first fruit or vegetable I had had all day. He looked at me and said “just one, just one day….oh you’re ok.”:)
A note about politics and the Iraq war.
One of my good friends here is from Buenos Aires, Argentina. She
told me that she, and most Argentineans, did not really like Americans. Not
that they had anything against individual Americans, like me, but that in
general they really didn’t like them. She said that she could not believe that
Bush had won. I told her me neither. She explained that in Argentina, they see
shots of bleeding, dieing children and mothers screaming as their houses
burn to the ground at the hands of Americans on the news. She said that her
other American friends had told her that most of that stuff was censored in the states. I guess that those kinds of images would make it hard to like us. She also commented on the irony of our country’s generosity and willingness to help the victims of the Tsunami, when our country had killed half the number of people killed by the Tsunami in Iraq.
Anyway, just something to think about.

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