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?"

No comments: