Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Euroblog, Take 9 - Italy, Round 2

The second half that I wrote back when I returned from Italy, but never got around to posting until now...

After Bologna came a parting of ways. Chris left for Rome to fly back to the States, while Steve, Carly, and I went to Florence. Carly's super generous father got us a hotel there as well, which we found eventually after going seemingly every direction but the right one. It was the Golf Hotel, which seemed like a rather pointless name, since the only thing golf thing about it was the key chains, which had a golf ball attached to them. The restaurant of choice was a nearby pizza place that was the European version of Little Caesar's five dollar pizza deal.

Apparently, Florence is so full of art that there is a related medical condition that has been identified. It is known as Stendahl syndrome, where people basically start to uncontrollably flip out after seeing too much high quality art in too short of a period of time. The effects range from euphoria to depression to perspiring, rapid heartbeat, and/or stomach pains, to feelings of omnipotence and/or persecution. All from an art overkill. Our group had seen so much art up to this point that we had kind of an opposite reaction along the lines of, "Oh man, more priceless art. Next." For some reason, a few of the exhibits don't allow photography. I don't know why they try, since people snap pictures right and left anyway while the poor officers run around futilely trying to stop them. Florence also had some impressive displays of architecture, including the aforementioned cathedral and the Piazza Vecchio and Ponte Vecchio, supposedly the oldest bridge in Europe, lined with numerous shops. The statue of David was also much more impressive than we had originally imagined. We thought we'd check out the Pitti Palace and so went looking for it. I kept asking where it was, expecting something visibly impressive. A solid American tourist moment occurred when I asked this one Italian women where it was, to which she replied, "Is that good enough for you?" and pointed right across the street. It was a large, rather plain building, which it turned out was the Pitti Palace. Apparently, its appeal is the galleries inside and Boboli gardens behind.

While in a Florence pizza joint, Steve discovered a bulletin for - of all people - Mike Jones, a rap artist from Houston, Texas. It turned out that he would be performing while we were in Florence. The irony was too great to pass up - in one of the most renowned cities in the world for the classic arts would be performing a modern rap artist from my home state. Even if he was the worst rapper of all time, and he probably is, I felt I had to go. Steve and I went, while Carly passed on the opportunity, although not missing the chance to plead with us not get lost and/or roughed up by Italian hooligans. The event took place at an outdoor club on the outskirts of Florence. Probably 80% of the 250 or so people there were American. It cost 20 euros for the event and one drink. The system was that you received a ticket upon entering, but paid when you left. It was quite possibly the worst musical performance in recent history, if you could even classify it as such. Mike Jones did about 5 of his original songs, a few top 40 rap hits that weren't even his, and then it degenerated into him, his cronies, and some girls grinding on stage. The whole thing lasted a little half an hour, and we observed from a stairway to the right of the stage. There was a patio slightly above the side of the stairway, and drunk people kept climbing over the railing to get to the dance floor, nearly falling all over themselves in the process. One continuing side-story was this poor white guy on the outskirts of the dance floor who kept trying to dance with whichever girls came by. In the end he did end up hitting off with one girl, although most of their dancing consisted of her laughing at his ridiculous dance moves.

Feeling like we definitely did not get 20 euro's worth of entertainment, Steve and I were considering sneaking out of the place. The issue was that they had security guards by every exit. We did notice that the security guard by one of the exits would at times briefly wander down into the crowd. Keeping an eye on him, the next time he went into the crowd, we tried to slip out. I went first, but as soon as I walked out the door, a extra loud siren went off. Having already walked through the door, I had a split-second decision to either turn around or take off. I took off. I was running almost as fast as I could as my jeans did their best to stay on. However, I had an uncanny feeling that someone was behind me. Also, the further away I got, the more guilty I felt for not paying, even though I felt payment was mostly undeserved. So I stopped and turned around, and I saw this little African guy booking it right towards me as fast as he could go. I waited for him to catch up, and then went back and paid, much as I would have rather disappeared among the Florence sidestreets and left Mike Jones without compensation for laying that huge egg of a performance. I learned from Steve later that as soon as the alarm went off, the little African guy went tearing up the steps, fell all over himself, got up, kept running, totally took out the white guy who had finally found a girl who liked his dance moves, and ran out the door. Steve returned to the hotel and got back before me, but didn't have the key. He went down to the reception desk, got a key, propped open the door, and went down to return the key. Carly, meanwhile, woke up and walked over to discover the door was open, and shut it. Steve then came back to find the door shut and locked again. Fortunately, Carly was still awake to hear him yelling and knocking, and let him in. She was then horrified to learn that the last Steve had heard from me, I had run off and disappeared with security chasing after me.

The train ride from Florence to Rome was not without another dose of ridiculousness from the shady Italian train system. At first we thought there was a fire in the forest nearby. But we along with the other passengers in our train car soon realized that there was no way there could be a fire of that size with no visible smoke on the horizon. Apparently someone had thrown a cigarette into the bathroom trash can, so a couple guys shot it up with a fire extinguisher. Everything seemed fine until smoke suddenly began pouring out of the air conditioning vents. This was followed by the train being delayed half an hour while the mess was sorted out by Italians running back and forth and congregating next to the train. I assume they fixed the problem - we had already moved to a different car far away from the one full of smoke.

Eventually making it to Rome, we were provided with yet another hotel by Carly's super generous father. This offered us another opportunity to find our hotel without taking at least three wrong turns and asking at least three different people where to go. Didn't happen. But we quickly discovered why Rome is so popular - there's as much to do and see there as any city to which I've been. What surprised me most about Rome was it's size. Almost all of the major sites in Rome were within a 20 minute bus ride of each other. We hit the Colosseum, Forum, Pantheon, a few of the piazzas and fountains, and the Vatican City. The Sistine Chapel was incredible. I did find it somewhat humorous that the officers there kept shouting at everyone to be quiet, sometimes over a loudspeaker. We had our worst lunch in Europe that day at - ironically enough - an American diner. It was like the poor man's version of a tv tray dinner. We had a couple bites of our 10 euro ($15) meal and left. Rome did possibly have more street vendors than Venice... whenever it rained there were always suddenly eight Romans trying to sell me an umbrella.

It finally came time for me to catch my flight back to the U.S., and I left in the middle of the night to catch my early morning flight. I was planning on taking a bus, but after getting a taxi ride to the bus station, I discovered that the bus was inaccessible. Unfortunately, the bus station was the opposite direction from the airport, so then the taxi ride to the airport cost even more. But having stayed up most of the night, I was able to sleep most of the plane ride, which I find to be pretty effective in fighting jet lag. I arrived in the U.S. with an indigent handful of dollars to my name, but the experiences were of course easily well worth it. I'd recommend travel for pretty much anyone who has the chance. If you do, perhaps keep in mind an accurate piece of advice I heard from a comedian the other day: if you look really American but still want Europeans to embrace you - pretend to be Canadian.


Carly accidentally kicks over a bunch of street vendor statuettes.
Carly: I'm sorry...
Street vendor: No, five euro!

Me: You're always flailing.
Carly: You're right, I am a failure.

Carly: I never understood the diaphragm. It comes from your... stomach.

Steve: I didn't really think there were Romans anymore.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Euroblog, Take 8 - Italy, Round 1

Wrote this back when I returned from Italy, but never got around to posting it until now...

Italy carried with it the prospect of having to rough it for the first time, which considering how well we'd had it so far seemed like a bit of a foreign experience. But we were actually in a foreign country. So maybe it was inevitable. As it turned out, Carly's super generous father came through and got us a hotel in Venice.

Venice is definitely in a league of its own. To begin with, I've never seen so many girls wearing aviator sunglasses. No one drives cars there - if you don't like sailing or walking, forget it. Here are a few rules by which the Venice urban development council abides:

- ordinary neighborhood blocks are forbidden. I have never seen so many randomly situated streets. The Google Maps team must have broken down crying trying render the place. I looked up top 10 things to do in Venice, and one of them was getting lost in the maze of streets.
- no two buildings can be the same color. The Rainbow City.
- there must be a pizza restaurant and a tourist street vendor within 100 paces, no matter where you are.
- nothing can look modern. Which isn't a bad thing, necessarily.

It was a great place to visit - very culture rich and a lot of impressive architecture, especially in St. Mark's Square. There is no way I could live there, though. I have to be able to get places fast, and your odds of doing that in Venice are slim to none.

While in Venice I tried to buy a purse/bag as a gift. It seemed good to Chris and I at the time. But when I got Carly's opinion while we were on the train later that day, I realized otherwise:

Me: "So, what do you think of this bag?"
Carly: *blank look followed by flustered demeanor* "It's nice... It's... woven..." *runs fingers over it while offering me a fake smile that would put politicians to shame*

So there went five euros down the drain as I discovered that I had bought the revolting bag in Venice. This was also a continuation of the running joke that being called "nice" is actually an insult. Let's be honest, no one want to hear about themselves: "He/She is... nice." or "He/She is... cool."

One thing we were introduced to in the Venice train station was an LG commercial for one of their new phones. It became a theme throughout Italy - every major train station was full of flatscreen LG monitors replaying this one minute commercial ad infinitum. It was the most Euro commercial I've ever seen. A guy stands in a circular room, and to the tune of an alto opera voice, is covered in some black substance. He then explodes and reassembles as an LG cell phone, still to the tune of alto opera.

Next up was Tuscany, where Steve had a gig to write a review of the newly opened golf course of a five-star resort in Saturnia, in return for a free couple nights' stay with amenities. The only problem was that the resort was expecting two people, while our group was comprised of four. It was agreed that Steve and Carly would go for sure, and Chris and I would do our best to get in also. We went through about ten different versions of plans for how that would work, which included various versions of us trying to sneak in after Steve and Carly had checked in, and possibly sleeping on the golf course Donnie Darko style if that failed. It turned out the resort sent a taxi, so in order for Chris and I to remain in cognito, Chris and I were at first planning on taking a bus to the resort after Steve and Carly got situated. We ended up all cramming in the taxi though, since the driver wasn't associated with the resort, and thus probably wouldn't report anything. It was fortunate (or so it seemed at the time) that Chris and I caught the taxi, since the resort was out in the middle of nowhere. We got out of the car looking like the bums we were, while immaculate butlers bustled around us. It quickly became apparent that they weren't going to be cool with Chris and I staying in the room, and trying to find somewhere to sleep outside was becoming less and less appealing. That, and Carly was terrified of us getting wrecked by random Italian hooligans if we slept exposed out of doors. The only problem was that it was now dark, and we were in the middle of nowhere with the only lodging being a five-star resort starting at $300 a night. Which was about all the money I had to my name at this point.

Chris and I, with the help of the hotel staff, managed to charter the same taxi to the nearest civilization - a small town of a few hundred people. We arrived late in the evening with no place to stay, and wandered into the hotel to which our taxi took us. In rural Italy your chances at finding an English-speaking person go way down. The hotel clerk spoke almost no English - it took a good 10-15 minutes to find out how much a room cost, if the front desk would be open all night, and where the bus station was (we planned to take a bus in the morning to Bologna, where a family friend of Chris lived). About two minutes into the attempt at communication she went and grabbed an English-Italian dictionary, and we did our best trying to find the right words to trigger an understanding for whatever it was we were trying to say. Starving and thirsty, we walked over to the nearest restaurant, where we consumed two pizzas and two bottles of wine and decided that we definitely were not paying anything for lodging, even if it meant sleeping on a park bench.

Leaving the restaurant, we happened to meet up with one of the chefs, Leonardo. After hearing our predicament, he offered us to stay at his place for the night, after he went to what turned out to be a going away party for a couple of his friends. We took him up on the offer, of course. The event was in and around a small square with a bar opened to the street, and a buffet laid out nearby. We ended up meeting a guy from Georgia who had married an Italian girl from the town and was there to visit. His Italian father-in-law, who spoke no English, continually motioned for Chris and I to go have part of the buffet, but unfortunately we were too full from dinner. We met a few of Leonardo's friends, and hung out late into the night - a lot of fun. There was one girl we talked to who it turned out was going to the same college in Scotland that two of our friends from LA were going to also. Another girl I never saw or spoke to except when she would randomly bring me these strange European alcoholic drinks. One thing I found surprising was how up on American music everyone in this remote Italian town was - several of them were playing pieces of classic American rock songs on their guitars.

Eventually, things began to wind down, and we headed back to Leonardo's. We stayed in his loft, which was decorated with numerous Egyptian papyrus paintings. I felt a strange connection to this Italian family, having bought one of those myself while I was in Cairo. I left the bed for Chris and slept in the wooden chair, which was good enough for me. Chris thought the bed was Leonardo's and consequently slept on the floor until he woke up in the night and discovered Leonardo still wasn't there. In the morning, we got up early and eventually found the bus stop, only to discover that the next bus wasn't for four hours. The combination of pizza, wine, and strange European alcoholic drinks had left Chris feeling sketchy, so I went and found food myself. I found what I thought was a great deal on pizza and bought an extra large, only discover after it was cooked that the price was per kilogram, not per pizza. Screwed. We had taken up temporary residence at an outdoor restaurant across from the bus stop, but I went across the street to eat my pizza after the owner hollered at me for eating other food at his table. As I sat across the street eating my pizza, I heard someone saying something right behind me. It was some mumbling which turned into, "DA, I don't feel so good. I think I'm going to throw up." I turned around just in time to see Chris throwing up into a gutter behind a tree next to the street. I must admit I was a little incredulous as to why he would walk over to me while I was eating and throw up right next to me. It turned out he had unsuccessfully tried to several times in the bathroom, but was tired of asking the increasingly agitated owner for the key to the bathroom. Eventually the bus came and we made it to a larger town that had a train station.

Ironically, that whole time Steve and Carly were busy reclining by the pool, relaxing in the spa, golfing, getting massages, and eating thousands of dollars of free food. Chris and I finally met up in Bologna with Chiara, his family friend. It being one of Chris' last days, Chris and I decided to try to go to Florence for a day. Unfortunately, we had to rely on the horrific Italian train system. We had throughout the trip been warned about the severe lack of punctuality of Italian trains, and now it proved true. Our train was delayed for about a couple hours, and then didn't show up at all. We finally managed to get to Florence, but by the time we got there, the last train back to Bologna left in 45 minutes. Determined to see something cool, we quickly looked at tourist maps at the train station and discovered that Florence's most famous cathedral, the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, was only a few blocks away. So we ran through the streets to the cathedral, walked around and took pictures, and rushed back to the train station and left. I think that might be the record for shortest tourist trip to Florence, where people spend weeks visiting everything. Later, Steve and Carly arrived in Bologna, where we all were able to stay with Chiara and her family. They literally redefined hospitality. We were served the most lavish home-cooked Italian dinners that took quite a good while to prepare. There was one interesting night where we all slept in the same room, Carly, Steve, and I on the same mattress. Up next was Florence, and then finally (for me), Rome. Yes, my road led to Rome. Coincidence, subconscious influence of the phrase, or some mystical hand of fate... who can say?


Chris (seeing a street musician): That's an awesome song and I feel like someone should give that guy some money. But not me.

Carly: Why do you downplay everything I do?
Chris: Ah, a little girly vent.

Italian girl: I went to an American baseball game and no one watched the match. Why?

Me (when a train didn't arrive): That train just disappeared, like into another dimension.
Chris: The dimension of inconvenience.

Me: Carly, did you see a yeti taking a shi shi in the bidet? (inside joke)

Steve: I sang a few notes on key the other day, and I got chills. I was like, "Is that what that feels like?"