15 November 2007

Buongiorno, Italia!!

I went to Italia!! Ho studiato un poco di italiano my freshman year of high scuola, but mi ricorto only a few parole e useful phrases. However, capisco molto bene when people parlano lento enough. Sorry for the delay in my blog, these past few days have been very busy, and I knew I'd need to set aside a whole afternoon to do justice to my week-end. However, I'll condense it as much as possible so it won't take as long to read as everything took to happen!

- Getting up at seven for traveling is a lot easier than getting up at three.
- I took the train to Nantes, took a taxi to the airport (if I had taken the shuttle I would have arrived 45 minutes before my flight, and I was worried about that), and was creeped out by the lack of lines. No line at the information desk when I asked where desk U was, no line at U, no line at security... it was seriously unnerving. I had absolutely no confidence, not having a crowd to follow. I had three security people all to myself. One of them took my coat off in a gentlemanly manner and folded it for me.
- The flight to Milan was fine except for extraordinarily terrifying turbulence over the Alps. (p.s. I saw the Alps!!)
- I took the train from the airport in Milan to the center, where I met Stefan. [Sidenote: Stefan also goes to Truman. He's a Romance Languages major, and he and I had a few classes together last year. He's studying abroad this year in Milan, so when I found out that Air France had a cheap flight I asked him if he'd like to play tour guide. It was so much fun to travel with Stefan: we never lacked for conversation the whole weekend.]
-On the way towards his dorm, we stopped in a church dedicated to... St. Lawrence, one of my patrons! I was excited. He's a really cool saint. General Italian churches have much simpler architecture than French ones, and they use more colorful stones and bricks. Whereas French churches were just decorated with frescos and stained glass, Italian ones are fundamentally colorful as well.

- We went to my hostel to drop off my bag, and stopped at a café where I had Italian hot chocolate for the first time. I've now had three distinct types of hot chocolate:
1) "European" hot chocolate in Russia, which is essentially melted dark chocolate and is virtually undrinkable. It's very thick and very strong, and is best eaten with a spoon. It's served with a glass of bubbly water to cut the sweetness/bitterness.
2) French/American hot chocolate, which is liquidy, comes in varying levels of sweetness, and can be drunk.
3) Italian hot chocolate, which they make with frothed milk and which has the same consistency of warm pudding. It looks, tastes, and feels like warm pudding. It's easiest to eat it with a spoon, and it's good.
- We then walked over to the Duomo, which is Milan's cathedral. Despite the name, there isn't a prominent dome, which was surprising when I got my first view:

It's a truly amazing sight. Not what I expected, since I know that duomo means dome. It's incredibly ornamented, and incredibly big. Incredibly [insert adjective here] in general.
- We walked around Milan a bit more, then went grocery shopping to get ingredients to make fajitas with Stefan's friends Lucy and Stephanie. They're both really nice, and we had a great time chatting. However, when making fajitas, ignore the instructions if they say to put the vegetables in last.
- The only unfortunate thing about Friday was that I realized something annoying: there must have been some powdered laundry detergent left in the machine I used to do my laundry, because I'm allergic to all of my clothes. Luckily the undershirts I packed seemed to be from another load, but my legs are itchy.

- This time, getting up at seven was decidedly Not Fun. Everyone in my dorm at the hostel was sleeping, so I had to tiptoe around getting ready, trying not to wake anyone up. I got the bathroom to myself, which was nice. There was a bidet, but I've heard explanations ranging from "You use it to clean... well... private places" to "Actually, I've found it's very handy for washing mud off shoes." In addition to the regular toilet, there was also a squat toilet, which was even more confusing. This is the 21st century, after all. The hostel was really nice though, and if I remembered what it's called I would recommend it.
- After picking up a pastry for breakfast and reserving a hotel for me for the other two nights of my stay, Stefan and I headed off to... Verona! Yes, as in Romeo and Juliet. The view from the train was beautiful: Verona's even closer to the Alps than Milan is, so there were frequent "Ahh" moments. However, unlike a train ride in France, there were no random castles to be seen. In the Loire valley, there are castles seemingly everywhere.
- Verona is absolutely charming. There's a neat wall around the center, there are beautiful towers and steeples, and the buildings somehow feel both historic and modern.

- The first thing you notice when walking into Verona is the arena. I've never seen the Colosseum, but this arena is certainly Colossal. If you've ever seen illustrations or pictures of an arena and wondered if they're really like that, I can tell you that yes, they are.

- While walking around the arena, I spotted a solar clock on a building wall! It was pretty, easy to read, and completely accurate if not extremely specific.

- We had to pay to go inside the arena, but it was worth it. The view from the top is amazing: you can see the mountains, neighboring towns, the river, the hills, all of Verona. Here are some pictures of the arena and the view from the top, a self-portrait of me and Stefan, and a picture of me at the arena.

- No arena would be complete without a guy dressed as a Roman soldier. And no photo of a tourist area in Italy would be complete without at least one Asian tourist.

- We went to lunch at a little restaurant that had an inexpensive looking menu, and I got tortellini. The filling tasted just like tortellini filling I'd had before, but the pasta was obviously a lot fresher than you would be able to get in the States. Stereotypical Italian Meal #1.
- After lunch, we wandered around completely aimlessly. We figured that we'd be able to find all of the touristy places without trying, and we did. We also came across pretty little courtyards, a few markets, a few churches with tombs outside, a section of a street that had been excavated to show the Roman road and fountain below, and interesting statues and monuments.

- We also managed to wander to Verona's major tourist attraction, "Juliet's House." Obviously it's not, but it's still neat. There's a little balcony (supposedly the balcony), and a statue of Juliet in the courtyard. According to tradition, if you rub Juliet's right breast you'll come back to Verona one day. I suppose I won't be going back...

- The walls outside Juliet's courtyard are part of another Verona tradition: they're covered with names and hearts that people have written there, and love notes stuck on with chewing gum. Gross and annoying in a way, but also charming.

- Near the excavated bit of road we got gelato, which was delicious. The place didn't serve it nearly as soft as gelato is supposed to be. But honestly, I prefer my ice cream pretty hard so that it doesn't melt too quickly, so this was ideal.
- Next the the river we found the basilica, which I had admired from the top of the arena. It isn't anything like French basilicas I've been to: it isn't white, isn't on a hill, doesn't have a dome, and costs money to enter.

- We walked over to the river, which of course provides a wonderful view. From there we walked towards the castle-like buildings we'd been able to see from the arena, and then back to the center where we window-shopped.

- We took the train back to Milan, and ate dinner at Stefan's university restaurant. My ticket was kind of pricey at nine euros, but they neglected to take it so I got two meals out of it.
- After dinner we went to a movie (my suggestion: I like seeing movies, I like seeing movies in foreign languages, and I understand enough Italian that I wouldn't be completely lost). We saw the Bourne Ultimatum, which fits my ideal of a dumb action movie. I'm sure the plot is very complex, but there are lots of explosions and car chases that don't seem to be necessary. Like in Russia, the seats were assigned, and the theater was sold out. The line to get in was a mass of people who didn't seem to be moving at all, which was really annoying. They could have designed the system a lot better.
- Italy runs a lot later than France, so I can understand why Stefan and his friends are frustrated with their 1:30 a.m. curfew. I got back around one, and the streets were packed. Our 10:30 movie was one of the early showings.
- My "hotel" (guest rooms in one of the university's dorms) was really nice. Private bathroom, a thermostat, a TV... a bit pricey, but safer and more relaxing than the hostel, which was full anyway.

- We got a late start, which was nice. We took the metro to the Duomo, to climb to the top. The climb is long and tiring, but the view if worth the effort. (I'm positive that the view is less impressive if you pay extra to take the elevator) The church is even more intricate than I had imagined. From the ground you can tell that the top is covered in statues, but there are even statues within pillars and hidden in nooks that would be impossible to see from the ground. The weather was clear enough that we could see the mountains. Across the street, we could see a rooftop café on top of Milan's Marshall Field's type department store.

- We ate lunch at a café that had pizza, my Stereotypical Italian Meal #2. The crust was thin and very floury. I got a "terra e mare" pizza, which had mushrooms, dry beef (thin slices, nothing like jerky) and shrimps. It was delicious, though I couldn't really taste the shrimp.
- We walked through the Galleria, which is the mall where THE designer stores are. As in, not a Gucci franchise per se, but the Gucci store. On the other side of the Galleria is la Scala, which is the most famous opera house in the world. Their tickets cost an arm and a leg, and were sold out, so no I didn't go to an opera. The museum, however, costs only a finger and wasn't sold out, so Stefan and I went. I'm sort of a classical music freak. If you can imagine the reaction of a 1950s girl to a portrait of Elvis, you can imagine what I did when I saw one of Rossini. The opera house itself is very pretty and rich-looking, although I prefer the shape of American opera houses. European opera houses were built so that the people in the boxes could watch each other, and I have the strange opinion that you should be able to see the stage. In the museum, there was a special exhibition on Maria Callas, who is one of the most famous sopranos of all time. She was known for being incredibly expressive, both in her singing and in her acting. There were several of her costumes on display, which were impressively intricate. The museum has portraits of lots of Italian composers, posters from world premieres that happened at la Scala, and all sorts of other memorabilia. I nearly jumped out of my skin when I saw the original score of Verdi's Requiem Mass, which I'm singing with the UCO Vocal Ensemble this year. His notes were legible, but his handwriting was atrocious. "Dies Irae" looked more like "Gwf Inœ." I wish the museum allowed photos...
-Next we walked to the castle, which to me looked like a brick monastery because of the style of its arches and courtyards. Where French castles tend to go for height, this one covered a huge amount of ground without being immensely tall. There was somewhat of a moat though!

- After going back to the dorm to check e-mail, we went over to an enormous park. There were several playgrounds inside, as well as ponds, statues, a little waterfall, a very large natural history museum, and several other large palace-like buildings. Stefan and I sat and chatted while watching kids play on the playground until a really annoying rose-seller inspired us to leave. Around the center of Milan there are lots of African/Indian immigrants who try to sell bracelets, roses, and other little things to tourists. Usually they'll go away once you say no, but this one wouldn't. After he had spent about four minutes trying to get us to buy a rose and refusing to leave, we just got up and left.
- We went to the university restaurant again, which is really quite good. Europe does cafeteria food well :) Then we went back to Stefan's dorm (accompanied by Nicole, another exchange student) and watched "The Science of Sleep," which is an indie film about half in French and half in English.

- Checking out of my room was somewhat of a challenge, since the receptionist on duty didn't speak any English. I understood everything he was saying, but I just don't speak enough Italian to be able to respond well. Apparently there was a phone call made in my room a bit after midnight on the day I checked in (i.e., the night before I was there) and I had to pay ten cents for it, and that it wasn't logical but the computer system did everything automatically and that's how it was. Silly.
- We started off the morning at St. Ambrose's basilica. He's the patron saint of Milan, and his church is appropriately impressive. The courtyard is really big, and has various pieces of carved stones set into the wall in a Chicago Tribune building style (if you haven't gone to the Trib building in Chicago, you should). The inside is bright and old-feeling, which I like. Several of the chapels around the outside are particularly lovely, and the altar is incredibly shiny. It's covered in precious metals and jewels. One side, in gold, chronicles Jesus' life, and the other side, in silver, chronicles the parallel events in Ambrose's. Behind the altar you can see St. Ambrose himself, in the decomposing flesh. In the picture here, he's the one in white. There are two other martyrs in there with him, but I don't remember who they are. They look good for being dead 1,510 years though! St. Ambrose's brother and sister are also saints, and their bodies are in chapels along the side. Quite a family!
The courtyard:

The altar, and you can see part of the mosaiced dome:


His sister:

His brother:

- We window-shopped a bit more and then went to the rooftop café we'd seen from the Duomo. It’s a very designer department store, and it really does remind me of Marshall Field’s. There was even a gourmet food section on the top floor. I don’t know who would pay two hundred euros for a small bottle of balsamic vinegar, no matter how good it is. We had decided to eat at the little café, since the breakfast menu isn't too unreasonable, and I needed to eat something before my 2:30 flight. Got that? 2:30 flight? OK. Just after we had sat down and I had taken these pictures...

...my phone rang, with a call from an unknown number. It was Air France, informing me that my flight had been cancelled. “Cancelled?!? Are you serious?” “Yes, I'm sorry, Madame. Our next flight is at 5:20.” “Don't you have anything earlier? I'm a student and I have class tonight.” “Only through Paris- can you be at the airport in less than an hour?” “No, that’s impossible… OK, 5:20 it is then.” “Thank you. Goodbye, Madame, and I apologize.” Lovely.
- After a breakfast/lunch of Italian cold meats (which would have been Stereotypical Italian Meal #3 if they had had melon) Stefan and I thus headed back to his dorm rather than to the train station. I e-mailed my professor to let her know that I'd be missing class, and we hung out for a couple extra hours before I needed to head off towards the airport.
- The bus from the train station to the airport got there 25 minutes before my boarding time. I got my boarding pass 18 minutes before. I found security and got in line ten minutes before. I got to the gate two minutes before. A big sigh of relief and thirty minutes later, they bussed us over to the plane. I spent the time chatting with a really nice French couple. They have a son and grandchildren who live in Virginia, and he is a Rotarian (district governor last year) and heavily involved in youth exchange! It's a small world. They're really nice people.
- The plane first flew to some city I'd never heard of, where we all had to get off, go into the airport, and go through security again. FYI: dry stick deodorant is apparently a liquid in France, so pack it with your travel-sized shampoo. Once the security person had finished going through my bag and telling me to pack my deodorant with liquids, the rest of the group had disappeared. I was told to take the escalator up one floor and walk down the hallway to the gate. I did so, and literally felt my heart contract as I saw a plane pulling away. Let's call this "Bad Feeling Number One" for later reference. Luckily, my plane was at the next gate, and they were waiting for me and the other two people held up at security. This flight was running a bit behind as well, but an hour later we finally arrived in Nantes. I took the shuttle to the train station, went to the ticket window, and was told that there were no more trains to Angers. That was so much worse than Bad Feeling Number One. Number Two was about eight times worse, and it took me a moment to force back the need to cry. I was able to be relatively calm as I asked for the earliest train the next day, and where I could find an inexpensive hotel. Despite a wonderful start in Milan, the day hadn't been one of my best, and this was the poison-filled icing on the stale cake. The hotel I found was nice and pretty cheap, but that shouldn't matter since I'm going to make Air France reimburse me. I got all the way to my door before I burst into tears, and I had a good, long, cleansing cry. After I felt better, I turned on the TV and had a great time watching France's versions of "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" and "Ten Years Younger."

I took a 7:30 train back to Angers, and it felt so good to be finally at home. I had about two hours before class, so I showered and ate and unpacked and got a chance to feel calmer.

- In French yesterday my group gave our exposé on religion in France. It's a very taboo subject, and people try to avoid the topic when possible. Some of the statistics I found for my section of the presentation (statistics and other illustrations of the state of religion in France now) were particularly interesting. The general point I made was that there is a big difference between "croyant" (believer) and "pratiquant" (practicing) and between "foi" (faith) and "religion." There are lots of people who believe in God but never go to church, and there are people who participate in religious activities as a simple part of culture without believing in it.
- I ran into Becky after class, and invited her over for dinner. I had misestimated when making soup for lunch, with the result that I had twice as much as I had intended to make. I've been adding olives to my vegetable soup, and they're a nice addition.

Today in Linguistics we had a guest lecturer who is a French linguist who's been working with businesses in Quebec for the past few decades. She did an overview of the history of Quebec, and explained where some of the major linguistic changes began to occur. I think she'll go into more detail tomorrow when she talks to my other linguistics class, so if people express interest by commenting I'll tell you more about what makes québécois a different language.


Jakob said...

Amazing pictures! I am extremely jealous.

Kristen said...

Grrr...I shake an angry fist in the general direction of Air France. But I am glad you had a good cleansing cry - they're the best.