Thursday, November 12, 2009

Only A Sciopero Could Keep Me Away From Italia

I left Italy today after what has been nearly one month of wine drinking, pasta eating, friend making, wood hauling, church going, and peace finding.

Though I am relieved to be back in Spain (though not in such grand fashion - I am having bank card issues and therefore transportation issues today), I think fair Italia has a competitive place in my traveling heart.

Have I told you about Cinque Terre? I think I have. In Cinque Terre I hiked 10k faster than Pat Kenney could have ever imagined, by myself, without an ipod hooked in my ears. I did it to the sound of my heavy breathing in what may have been one of the last warm days the Ligure had seen this year. It was empowering. My footsteps pounded out the rhythm "I am in Italy and I am doing it alone. I am traveling and I am happy to be here. Look what I can do". I made a temporary friend and ate squid ink pasta overlooking the Mediterranean sunset. The next night I ended up in a hostel in a renovated elementary school (very, very creepy, and I think I was one of maybe 10 people there) and eating an entire pizza, my first in Italy, in a small pizzeria in a small village above La Spezia. Three italian men (the only other people in the restaurant) watched in awe as I devoured the entire plate, only able to shout "Where did it go?" in English and smile at the end.

Those were my first two days in Italy.
It only got better.

I took the train to Venice and had to catch my breath. It seems like I do that a lot these day, step out of a building, a station, around a corner, around a mountain, and just gasp. Things just appear that good to these old eyes of mine. I walked down steps into a film. The Grand Canal and the taxis zipping past and the flatfronted buildings precariously lining the walkways an the bridges over tiny water passages. I think Indiana Jones said it best when he sighed, "Ah, Venice". Well, maybe someone said it better.

And it just so happened that I wasn't alone in Venice. The first night, I met three Austrians and two Australians, who shared their house wine with me (literally from a a water bottle), and they showed me how to navigate the tricky streets of the city without accidentally walking down one of the ungated sets of stairs that lead directly into the canals. My second day, I had a visitor - a friend I had made in Munich. OK, let's let the cat out of the bag. It's a guy. I met a guy in Munich, who met up with me in Venice. And Paris. And Nice, Marseilles and Rome. This information is important to understanding my perspective today.

So this guy, let's call him James, and I decided to skip a 6.50 euro taxi ticket and to walk to a cheap hotel. So, backpacks in tow (four between the two of us), we navigated the slim streets o one of the best cities I have ever been in. We even managed to cross the Rialto (the big white marble bridge), backpacks and all, watching the sad looking coffee drinkers on either side of the canal with their feet dipped in water, as the water has somehow managed to rise up onto the sidewalks at least two inches on this particular day. We dropped the packs and went to St. Marks Square, at which point we looked around and said, eh, another city, another church, and this particular church had a very long line with people standing on raised platforms, just in case the canals rose.

Honestly, what kind of a design genius thinks, I have a brilliant plan! We will build a city on mushy, disconnected lagoons! It doesn't matter, though. I love it

But the best part of Milan was sunset. Bottle of wine (I know there is a trend going with the wine, but I swear its a cultural thing and I just don't want to go against the culture grain), cheese, those great olive oil crackers like you can get at Trader Joes, and the sunset, watching the taxis and cruise ships pass in their lanes, watching the families walk by with gelato. Venice was all about the sunsets.

Rome was a whirlwind of the unexpected. It was unexpected to show up at a hostel (nearly the cheapest available for two people) and be greeted by nuns, only to realize that the actual hostel was across the hallway in a hallway with many rooms off it, where the owner was a rowdy Sardinian in a wifebeater making free sangria for his guests. This would have been pleasantly unexpected had the bathroom had hot water.

It was unexpected to walk to the Colosseum and think, huh, that's smaller than I thought. Similarly, it was unexpected to walk up the stairs of Caesar's Palace (just like Vegas! but real...) and get yelled at for sitting down. Likewise, it was confusing as to why the Spanish Steps were built where they were when they weren't leading anywhere, and why it was impossible to take a photo of the Treve Fountain without someone's head in your way. Watching sunset (you can safely assume there is always a sunset) from the top of the Spanish Steps was a pleasant surprise, as was the fact that it was warm enough to ditch my sweater at dusk. Rome didn't strike me as home, but then again, it was bittersweet because it was the drop-off point for my friend, let's continue calling him James, who had to go home to resume normal, possibly banal life. But that is a story for another time. This is a story about Italy.

On our last night in Rome, we splurged and took a long stroll to Trastevere, the old, very "Roman" looking bit of the city, and found a tiny trattoria (criteria for choosing: had to have candles) and went menu crazy with...oh...three courses? Four courses? Something ridiculous, except that I ended up with seafood gnocchi and saltimbocca and feeling incredibly happy. I have already told my father: the saltimbocca was not as good as his, but still darn good. That same day we had spent at the Vatican. Oh, the Vatican. Aside from the museum, in which I walked through with my neck bent backward the whole time (suggestion: have people lay down and be moved through the Vatican museum on a conveyor belt) because all of the amazing stuff is on the ceiling. Of course, the lovely Italian guards in the Sistine Chapel shouting "NO TALKING! NO PEECTURES!" was a bit unnecessary, but absolutely fantastic. St. Peter's? I wanted to whisper into the walls, I know who's money built you. The money of guilty Catholics, poor and rich. Guilt money built you, St. Peter's. But this is not a story about religion, this is a story about Italy.

I was left in Termini station with a vague idea of how to feel better about my friend going home: I would catch the next train to Naples to visit a friend from Alameda. It was about time, anyway. I had told him I would be there...mid-September. End of October ended up being perfect. Did I happen to mention my new strategy for train stations? I go to the station and in my best accent "Prossima treno a________, per favore!" I just show up and hope for the best. Its a wonderful feeling, to be honest. And that's just what I did for Naples.

Nevermind I got stranded in the creepy train station for 2.5 hours due to a landlord and metro trains, etc. Nevermind the HUGE trek up the hill to the flat I was staying in with my friend. It was fantastic. The first thing I was taught by my friend, let's call him Colin, was to step out into traffic. If you don't step out into traffic, you will never cross the street. And you will probably get yelled at an honked at, but you just have to give them your best "HEY I'M WALKING HERE!" face and possibly shake your hands at them. (I didn't learn the word vafavanculo until later...)

Nevermind any of this because in Napoli there is pizza. And on this pizza there is cheese and tomatoes an one sprig of basil, and in my mouth it is the most fantastic thing I have ever experienced. And we ate many pizzas, and many coffees standing up at the bar. It was one raining night around dinner time that I came across another Italian word for the first time: sciopero. Now, when a man throws his hands up and smiles "Sciopero!" your reaction should be "Vafavanculo!" because this means there is an impromptu transit strike that you probably weren't aware of and is probably going to inconvenience you.

I love this word.

To be continued...

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