24 June 2008

The End

Good thing I like being busy, because I have been BUSY. So far, no big culture shocks... I've been pleased to see that people really do smile a lot, and thrilled that prices are so low on this continent. (Worried about gas? Go to Europe and you'll feel fortunate to live in the States!) I've eaten about a dozen dill pickles, done a lot of shopping, and had a wonderful time. It feels so good to be home!

I might come back and post an epilogue, so to speak, but for now, this is The End. The story that was my year abroad has come to a cheerful close, and I hope you enjoyed reading about it!

I'm still a verbose person, so I'm going to be soon starting a new blog. There won't be travel photos, but I still have the occasional adventure! The URL is http://kelculator.blogspot.com, and Here is a link. I should have something posted quite soon.

So there we have it... The End.


18 June 2008

Final Departure

Well, my too-relaxing final ten days in Angers have come to a close, and I'm off to the airport to fly home. I have a habit of going through possible scenarios, so that I'm prepared for any situation. I feel totally prepared for departure, and leaving doesn't intimidate me one bit. But arriving... that still hasn't sunk in yet. I know where I'm meeting my parents, and I know my basic schedule over the next few days, but I'm not prepared for how being home will feel. I'm ready to deal with the physical part of being home, but the mental part? I'm not quite there.

At the end of my exchange year in Russia (2005-2006) I filled out a sort of questionnaire that I'd written, to try to prepare myself for reverse culture shock. When you move to a foreign country, you experience a short honeymoon period where you love everything and everything's interesting, then you fall into culture shock, where you miss everything about home, feel out of place, and can literally get sick from the unease of living in a different cultural context. However, with preparation, culture shock doesn't have to be too bad.
When you go home, you follow the same type of pattern: everything's great for a while, and then you crash into reverse culture shock. It's often worse than culture shock, since you don't expect it. No one thinks that they'll be ill at ease at home, but it happens. After coming back from Russia, I wanted to throttle a grocery store cashier because of the way she bagged our groceries (she put one or two items in each bag, but in Russia I was used to stuffing bags as full as possible, since they cost money too). Reverse culture shock takes you by surprise, and it's a strange thing. It is my theory that the exchange student can prepare him or herself for reverse culture shock by examining their time abroad, trying to anticipate what differences they'll see, and reflecting on their personal culture. So that's what I do.

Questions for the departing study-abroader

As I leave, what am I thinking?
I'm trying to answer the question, "Would I want to live in France again?" I love France for a lot of reasons: I love the history, the way towns feel, I love seeing France. I like the food, although since I have a budget it usually comes from my own kitchen. I really liked singing in the cathedral choir, and I like most of the people I met. However, there's a side of French culture that's somehow dark, and after only a few months it started to grate on me. I miss seeing people talk loudly in the streets. I miss people giving compliments, even to strangers. I miss seeing people wearing ultra-casual clothes. I miss smiling at, and being smiled at by, strangers (the French reaction to a stranger's smile is to wonder what's wrong with their appearance). I miss a lot of things about American culture, and although I got by, I'm not sure if I'd want to "get by" full time.

What did I get out of this year?
I can understand French as well as I understand English, I've learned how to cook a lot of stuff, I've learned a lot about myself and what I want (however cheesy that sounds), and I've gotten very good at filling dead time, thanks to my light course load.

How will life be different at home?
I'll be a lot busier! I was so frustrated by the French university system, since the courses were too easy (although whether this is due to the faults of the system or my own merit, I don't know), there was almost no homework (the system for sure), and almost no extracurricular activities. I couldn't work, I lived off-campus (there is no on-campus option), and social opportunities were limited. At home, I'll be back to my wonderful 30-hour days and sleep-deprived nights, and I can't wait! [Note: when, six months from now, I'm complaining about having a lot of homework and barely enough time for the five choirs I'm in, remind my how happy I should be.]

How am I different as a result of living in a(nother) different culture?
I think that while I was in Russia, most of what I noticed was what was different. Now, I tend to notice why things are different.

How good of a traveler am I?
I'm an excellent traveler. I can navigate airports, train stations, and subway and bus networks without a problem. I can follow a map, if there's good signage and I have some time to study it. However, talented though I may be, I have terrible travel luck. I've had something go wrong on nearly every trip. Thankfully, it's gotten to the point where I find it all hilarious and I somehow look forward to seeing what'll go wrong next! If nothing else, it'll make a good story for the blog :)

Describe France in exactly 25 words.
Centuries of history bring natural pride, but also fear of frightening and confusing change. It takes the heart time to modernize. Lots of bread, wine.

What aspects of France would I like America to adopt?
The French are good at remembering to bring their reusable bags to the grocery store. There are still lots of little, independent stores. There are farmers' markets all year round, not just in the summer (however, the climate easily permits this). People spend a longer time to eat a smaller amount of food, since life isn't as rushed. There's a high speed rail network that's on time 99% of the time (however, the country's smaller and the tickets cost a lot, so there are downsides).

What aspects of America would I like France to adopt?
People are very business minded. When there's a problem, people instantly start seeking a solution. Grocery stores and pharmacies are open on Sundays and at night. Milk is sold in large containers. You can buy sour pickles. People smile at each other a lot, and are more overt with their feelings, which are often very welcoming and warm. Public transportation and cell phones are more reasonably priced. There are lots of comedies and kids' movies made. And don't get me started on the educational system... I would choose America's any day.

What can be done to improve the image of Americans abroad?
I recently saw a commercial for a new morning TV slot of the "best of" American reality TV: the channel was advertising shows like "Elimidate" and "the Bachelorette" as the "best of" American TV! America is built on business, and exporting our media is certainly profitable. However, the rest of the world doesn't realize that a lot of what they're getting is considered junk on our side of the Atlantic. People think that Americans are stupid, egocentric, crass and vulgar. Given the media we share, this isn't surprising. The only European films that become "mainstream" in the States are the artsy type, like American independent films. If we tried to share only the good sides of American culture, maybe the good would be believed.
Another, more difficult problem is the difference in cultures. If Americans go abroad and act like Americans, they won't be received well. Europeans just aren't as open and extroverted in public. If you come to Europe and try to blend into the woodwork and turn on the ultra-polite side of your personality all the time, you're on the right track. Europeans don't realize that Americans are boisterous because of culture rather than rudeness, and Americans don't realize that when they try to be friendly in this way they're making matters worse.

What are the most striking aspects of culture I noticed, both good and bad?
Good: Humor is a lot more intellectual. Getting in a clever, cutting remark is still a respected talent, the sign of a quick mind.
Bad: People are very self-conscious, and it rubs off. After living in France for a while, you really do start to worry more about the way people see you.

What will I miss the most?
Whether people realize it or not, they're a lot more in touch with history here. America is very focused on the future, whereas France is more strongly rooted in the past. Neither's bad, and I won't mind the American mindset, but it's nice to feel a stronger connection to history.

My favorite to figure out: How many miles have I traveled, as the bird flies?
I rounded up by about 75 miles, and got... 25,000 miles. Or about 40,000 kilometers, for any metric readers. Pretty impressive! Of course, I actually covered more distance, since trains and planes don't go in perfectly straight lines. And that's only the big trips.
The cool thing is that, by adding this to the miles traveled during my year in Russia (about 30,000) I figured out that I've traveled as far as the circumference of the earth... more than twice :)

So all in all, am I glad to be heading home?

17 June 2008


Well, over the year I collected enough points with my supermarket fidelity card to get a twenty euro gift card. I used it today to get the three liters of milk I'll drink between now (Tuesday evening) and Thursday morning, some more scratchy sponges to scrub the bottoms of all of my pots (because anything that's not immaculate gets deducted from my security deposit), and whatever else I wanted with the rest of the money. That turned out to be:
- watermelon
- nectarines
- Gala apples
- cherries
- fresh figs
- strawberries

I just got all of the really expensive fruits, basically, and my next few meals will be fantastic fruity feasts. Alliterative ones, at that.

I'm on the road for Chicago in 36 hours, and I can't wait. I had a good year, but it ended a while ago... now I'm just killing time.

13 June 2008


I had a fun day today: slept in, went to a movie, did some errands, went to choir practice. But at the end of choir practice, I had to say goodbye... and that's no fun. I hate goodbyes, because I always cry, and crying's not the most fun thing to do. I am going to miss this choir SO much. The music was good and the singing was good, but the people are incredible: they're the most welcoming, kind group I met in France. This choir is, without a doubt, the one thing I will miss most about France.

I leave in six days. In about 127 hours. I can't wait to get home, but I wish that I could bring France with me.

09 June 2008

Final Days in Naples

Here's a selection of my travel problems so far this year:
• Chicago-Paris: bag got lost; I didn't get it back for three weeks.
• First trip out of Angers: apparently we had the wrong ticket and were traveling illegally, but we talked ourselves out of a few hundred euros worth of fines.
• Lyon and Avignon: I got lost EVERYWHERE.
• Milan: flight back got cancelled, replacement flight was delayed, there weren't any more trains, and I had to stay in a hotel in Nantes for the night. Also missed two classes because of Air France.
• Metz: train was late, missed the next one, got soaked wandering around in the rain in between.
• Hungary: both my flight and Kristen's flight were late.
• Ireland: we missed our stop getting off the bus and had quite a walk to the hostel.
• Portugal: the taxi cost twice as much as it was supposed to.
• Geneva: Switzerland costs five times as much as it should :) I also got lost and had tram mishaps several times.
• Disneyland: our train back was delayed an hour.
• Chiavari: Nothing much went wrong, but the elevator did break (with me and a nun in it) when I was checking into the hotel. They got it fixed within a few minutes.
• Coming back from Naples: Well, something disastrous has to happen almost every time I travel, or this blog would be boring! I found the bus to the airport without mishap, arrived at the airport with a bit more than two hours to spare... and that's where things started to go bad. The flight was supposed to leave at 11:35... and it left at 1:00. It was supposed to get in just before two, but arrived at 3:09. My heart sank very fast when I saw us taxing past Terminal 2, because it takes ten minutes to get from Terminals 1 and 3. We got into the baggage claim at 3:30, my bag came out at 3:40. Trains are often late at the airport, so I decided to hurry anyway and hope for the best... which made me look really suspicious to the customs officer. He stopped me to ask where I was coming from and such, and I said, "Naples, but I live in France, and my train is in two minutes in Terminal 2. I'm hoping it's late!" He seemed reassured that I wasn't creepy, and wished me luck. However, it took five minutes to walk to the train station to take the little train to T2, then I had to wait four minutes, and my train had been on time. Grrrr. For once, I'd been praying that it would be late!
So I went to the ticket office to change my ticket, and only had to pay 15€ for the exchange and the more expensive ticket. Brilliant. I will, of course, arrive in Angers an hour before the next bus, so I'll have to take a taxi. I don't think the 25€ worth of damages is enough for me to write a really angry letter to Eurofly: even if they were willing to reimburse me, I wouldn't have an opportunity to use the inevitable coupon, since they wouldn't send me cash.
Anyway, from my experience it appears that flying from Italy to France is frustrating.

Before the travel misadventures, however, I had a wonderful few days in Naples. There isn't a huge amount to see: once you've gone to the Amalfi Coast and Pompeii, you've got one day of tourism in the city and at most one more day trip. I didn't really want to go to Capri, since it's another set of touristy villages along the beach and cliffs like Amalfi and Cinque Terre, so I just spread out the Naples sights over a fews days, and did a lot of sleeping in and relaxing. [Note: sleeping in, since I had morning sun through the windows and was going to sleep around midnight, meant getting up around 8:30.]
• I went to the Contemporary Art museum, which was hilarious... I love this kind of ridiculousness. They don't allow photography, so I don't have pictures of the four things I would have liked to photograph:
1) Upside-down art: the guy featured in their temporary exhibition (who has a name) liked to paint things upside down. He actually painted them upside down, he didn't just paint them normally and then flip them. I can sort of understand why this would open the mind, since it forces you to think in an unnatural way. There was one of a bird in a tree that was particularly good.
2) A tube of air... hard to describe. There was a square tube made of very reflective glass. Most of it was suspended from the ceiling, but one end went out of the building through a hole in the window. Therefore, there was fresh air coming in through the hole. When you looked at it from the side, you saw the tube, but if you looked into the tube, you suddenly saw nine squares because of how reflective the glass was. It was pretty neat.
3) Another piece was made of fluorescent lights, and spelled out "Five words in five colors." Each word was a different color. That made me chuckle.
4) I actually looked in the gift shop for a picture of my favorite, but couldn't find it. It was along one long wall, and had panes of glass set vertically into a long pile of what looked like dirt. The panes of glass were closely spaced at one end, and got further and further apart as they went. Each had a white fluorescent lightbulb number in the corner representing the distance to the next pane of glass: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34... [The Fibonacci sequence] That made me laugh out loud. I like mathy art.
Naturally, I wouldn't allow any of the "art" in this museum into my house, but I love going to see it.

I took the funicular up to the top of Naples' favorite hill, where St. Elmo's castle offers a great view of the city. You can see very far, and it's colorful and beautiful. The gelateria didn't have any of my favorite flavors though, so I didn't stay on the top of the world for long. I took the funicular down on the other side of the hill, and successfully navigated the way back to my hostel, via gelato.
Here are some pictures from the top:

Here's another of Naples' castles: it has about four. This is the "New Castle," a.k.a. the French Castle, which was built when the French borrowed (my favorite way to say "briefly conquered") Naples. But see, the empire that borrowed Naples was Anjou, which has its heart in Angers. This castle looks quite a bit like my local château.

Sunday, I went to Mass at the cathedral. In Italian, the word duomo, which literally means "dome," has been adopted to mean "cathedral." Naples' cathedral doesn't have a dome, but it's called the Duomo nonetheless. No pictures on the inside, but it was BEAUTIFUL. So beautiful that it deserves all-caps. I walked around for half an hour before Mass, and there's so much to see. There's a chapel on one side, and a little basilica on the other. There are tiny chapels all around the whole cathedral, and the ceiling has some of the most beautiful frescoes I've seen. There are mosaics on the floors, various colors of marble covering the walls, lots of gold... it's lovely. A lot of cathedrals display their treasury as a sort of museum, but this cathedral just has all the fancy stuff packed into the chapel on the side, and most of the relics in a chapel to the side. [Relics are pieces of saints' bodies... in the early Church, people hoped to feel closer to God by keeping relics, since they knew that the souls of these über-holy people were in Heaven. Christians face the challenge of believing in someone without a whole lot of physical evidence, and having something tangible helped them to feel close to God, who can feel so far away.]
The Mass wasn't as impressive as the building it was in... I seem to have chosen the old people's Mass, with a small congregation and no music. I should have gone to the noon one... oh well.
No pictures of the inside of the Duomo, but here are two of the outside. The second is a good representation of Italy: kids playing football (soccer) in front of an impressive landmark.

Now, I'm back in France for a mere ten days, and then I head back home. There are certainly things that I will miss, but I'm looking forward to a return to the fast-paced, busy life I lead in America. It'll be interesting to see how things have changed... and how I've changed. And this last flight will be one last chance for everything to go perfectly!

07 June 2008

A few bits and pieces about Naples

• In the basilica (courthouse) of Pompeii, they painted stone to make fake marble. Ha.

• Naples street vocabulary is a little different: [Note: this section is dripping with sarcasm]
- what I would call "crosswalk" is a place for cars to zoom through, or park
- what I would call "intersection" is the part of the street where pedestrians cross to the other side
- then there's the street art, which are decorative luminescent art installations on many corners which alternately show red, orange and green male stick figures. Since they have no discernable purpose, they must be modern art.

• I haven't seen "Neapolitan" ice cream, but I have tried a few of Naples' specialties. One is pizza: modern pizza is most closely related to Naples' invention. Neapolitan pizza is large and has a very thin, moist crust. You have to eat it with a knife and fork or fold it, since it's too floppy to eat like American pizza. Two pastry classics are babà and sfogliatelle: babà is a sponge cake soaked in rum, and I didn't like it too much-- possibly because I don't like rum :) Sfogliatelle is a filled pastry, and has a vaguely orange flavored paste inside filo-type pastry (the type used in baklava).

• You may have heard about the trash situation in Naples... basically, what happened is that all of the dumps for the Campania region filled. There's only one open dump, and it's not enough. There are several incinerators in construction, but since the mafia has indirect (or even direct) control and the government isn't efficient enough, they're not yet completed. The mafia makes a lot of money from illegal dumping, so they're in no hurry to finish the incinerators. There have been some particularly bad times (like in December) when there was no trash collection and piles of rubbish lay in the streets, but it's not usually that bad: you see more cigarette butts, napkins, and empty cups blowing around than in the average city, and the occasional very full dumpster, but that's the extent of the trash problem. The EU and the Italian government are cracking down on the situation, and there is progress.

• Counterfeits are everywhere, mostly sold by...

• African immigrants. Naples has ferry connections to Tunisia and Morocco, and seems to be a "first destination" for a lot of immigrants. They seem to be trying to integrate and be productive, although the new populations do change the "feel" of the city. One of the reasons people want to go to Europe is to see different, distinct cultures with that old world charm. However, now that they're all becoming more multicultural, it feels more homogenized. Strange paradox, isn't it! (Please don't read any racist or otherwise close-minded tendencies in my comments... I feel that change is inevitable and neither positive nor negative, I just like to try to figure out why that change happens.)

• I've often wondered, over the course of the year, what would happen to the pigeons if nobody dropped cigarette butts on the ground anymore. Can pigeons develop a nicotine dependency? They certainly eat a lot of it...

• Sirens are common, since it's a big city. However, traffic doesn't cede much to ambulances or police cars. Some cars may aim for the edges of the street and slow down, but others will take advantage of the newly open space in front of the ambulance to zoom ahead in traffic. Those lucky cars who are right in front of or behind the siren get to go faster than other traffic. All in all, ambulances and such don't go much faster than the general flow of traffic.

A few of my recent adventures:
• I went to the gelateria which is supposed to have the best gelato, and has won several contests. I actually wasn't very impressed: it was a lot creamier and less refreshing than I like my ice cream... just too heavy for my taste. And most of their flavors had dark chocolate in them, which I avoid.

• I did laundry at the hostel, which was nice because it was convenient. Italy has a nice enough climate that people don't use dryers, so I hung everything out on lines on the balcony to dry. Naturally, it then rained overnight, so my clothes were wetter in the morning than they had been at night.Another girl had the same problem, but she had to leave that morning: the closest laundromat with a dryer was a bus trip plus a ten-minute walk away.

• I went to Naples' best pizzeria with a couple of American girls staying at the hostel, and it was incredible. The crust was the best I've ever had, the toppings were perfect, the sauce was delicious... it was wonderful. I will probably go back today, on my way to the contemporary art museum (I was going to go climb Vesuvius, but for the third day in a row this plan has been put off because of rain).

04 June 2008

Napoli, Amalfi, Pompeii...

Last week I visited lots of places ending with the letter a, and this week it's i. Monday, I woke up unreasonably early to go to the train station, where I embarked on a cramped, though pleasant, eight hour train journey. Surprisingly, there was a direct train from little Chiavari to big Napoli! Naples is in the south, on the Western side of the boot... about at ankle height. I came here knowing very little about the city except that Anjou (the empire that Angers was the heart of) took it over for a while and that it's close to Pompeii-- I'd wanted to visit Pompeii since I was very little! Two good reasons to decided to visit a city, I suppose... an obscure historical fact and proximity to another city.

Honestly, Naples isn't the most beautiful of cities... most people go through it rather than to it. It has a lot of monstrous cement buildings, and most could use a coat of paint. It has a gigantic port, and ports aren't too pretty. There has been a big influx of immigrants, and there's a more obvious level of poverty than in a lot of other cities. But, there are several palaces and castles, a big historic district, a beautiful view of the sea and surrounding volcanoes and mountains, and the food is great. Neapolitans seem to be very welcoming, and there's a lot of fascinating history in the area.

Monday night I was lucky to meet Julia, who is a Canadian with a fascinating job and travel history... she's lived and traveled all over the world, but this is her first trip to Europe. Since both of us are traveling alone, we decided to join forces for the next two days to visit the Amalfi coast and Pompeii. Which brings us to...

Tuesday morning we left bright and early for the port, to get tickets for a ferry to Amalfi. I don't have sea legs (or a sea stomach) so this was an interesting voyage... not the most comfortable way to travel, but certainly beautiful! Rocky islands, sparkling sea, Mount Vesuvius... the views were great. We got to go out onto the back deck of the boat for a while, which was an experience. Incredibly windy, because of how fast the ferry moves, and very salty. Good thing I like salt, because if you spend time near the Mediterranean you taste it in the air and on your lips! Here's a picture of the boat's wake and the mountains:

And here are some more views from the boat:

One of my favorite insignificant things about Europe are the lizards! They're everywhere, although they're very quick and hard to spot. This guy paused long enough for me to get a picture. Lizards are so cute.

We took a bus up the mountain from Amalfi to Ravello, which is another cute town in the area. There is a bright white basilica in the square, which had a lot of these dragon-like creatures in its art... we saw them in several places in the area, but they remain a mystery.

We got pizza in Ravello, since it's close enough to Naples, which is the home of pizza. I got a pizza that had mushrooms, proscuitto, and artichokes. It was so delicious! Apparently, the region grows thornless artichokes, which sounds like a brilliant idea. After lunch, we wanted to hike back down to Amalfi, but it was so hard to find the beginning of the trail! We asked about six people for directions to the top of the trail indicated with the black line on our map, and everyone told us something different. Two people pointed out the top of the red trail, which isn't supposed to be as picturesque... but since we could tell that it existed, we took it. Still great views of the coastal villages, though!

Since Amalfi had a beach and it was hot, we took a few minutes to dip into the sea. It's unbelievably salty! Once you put your head under, you even seem to be breathing salt. But the water was beautifully cold, and once you cool down, the sun is a lot more bearable.
After our swim, we got gelato and tickets for the bus back to Sorrento, which is a beautiful drive all along the coast. It rivals Cinque Terre as the most beautiful place I've been. Such a peaceful place, with a mixture of natural beauty and man-made charm. From Sorrento a short train trip brought us back to Naples... a trip by ferry, bus, feet and train!

Wednesday I had another of those days where I got to visit something I had always dreamed of seeing, but never thought I would see: Pompeii. Pompeii is the most well-known of a handful of cities buried in the 79 AD eruption of Mount Vesuvius, the local volcano. It was buried in pumice stone and ash, trapping plenty of the 20,000 citizens inside the villas, marketplaces, and temples of the city for more than a millenium. Thanks to the ash, the city was still in remarkably good condition once it was discovered and excavated. There are intact frescoes and mosaics, statues, and trinkets that have been discovered, and walking around the gigantic ghost town is fascinating. After you've walked through a few houses, the atriums and gardens and frescoes become a bit of a blur, but the scale and grandeur is amazing. For a city that was destroyed, it's in great shape! Here's a picture of a typical block.

Most of the statues and art have been moved to the archeological museum in Naples, so there are lots of empty plinths. Every so often though, you see something charming:

Looks a lot like me :) Here's the big theater: there's a big one, a small one, and an amphitheater. The public areas in Pompeii are as interesting as the private houses.

But the villas are just as neat! Most have an atrium, which usually had a downward sloping ceiling with a hole in the middle, which filled the little pool with rainwater. Bedrooms and the kitchen would be off to the sides, and a large courtyard was past the atrium. The houses usually were flanked by two stores, which provided the family income and a "day job" for the slaves.

Many of the frescoes are in remarkably good condition:

Here's the forum. The temple of Jupiter was in the middle, which was the most important, if not the biggest, temple.

And here's the view from Pompeii. It's such a beautiful area, as long as nothing's erupting!

Back in Naples, we found some lunch (I got prosciutto and melon, which is a delicious, classic combination) and then went to the archaeological museum. A lot of the frescoes and mosaics at Pompeii are replicas, and the originals are preserved in the museum, along with lots of smaller things that were found on the site. Among these discoveries are a lot of graphic NC-17 type art, which is housed in the "Secret Room," apparently because it used to literally be secret, and you had to apply to the emperor owner if you wanted to see it. The art from Pompeii's brothels made it here, among other things.
This mosaic reminds me of the Nightmare Before Christmas sector of pop culture.

My favorite thing in the museum was a statue of a lion, whose face is just so cheerful looking. It looks like he's grinning, and I find it charming.

This is the museum's 1/100 scale model of Pompeii as it is now: it's accurate even down to tiny frescoes on the minuscule walls! This will perhaps give you an impression of the size of the place... we walked around for four hours, and didn't see all of the places of interest, let alone everything there is!

This fresco may look familiar... it's one of the most famous from Pompeii.

The building that houses the museum is quite impressive. The ceiling of this room is all painted, none of what looks to be sculpted actually is. It makes you do a double take, but then you realize the perspective is a bit off. From the exact center of the room, it looks most convincing.

This pig statue is really cool. I assume that the head and body must be hollow with all of the weight in the back legs, but unfortunately you're only allowed to examine with your eyes in museums.

And here are five (or seven?) statues.

Last week I was glad to have solitude and time/space to think, and this week I'm thrilled to be surrounded by lots of interesting people in the hostel. Traveling alone isn't bad, since you meet people to travel with, like Julia. Everyone's been to interesting places and has stories and recommendations to share, which is so much fun. Last night, an Australian couple who are retired and travel five months out of every year invited me to share their dinner (they'd made a massive pot of pasta and sauce and had more than they would eat) and we chatted for a long time. When I meet people my age, I get ideas for things to do, and when I meet people who have accomplished those things, I get ideas for the kind of person I want to grow into. Active, intelligent, and globe-trotting as much as possible! I have a good start, I think :)

01 June 2008

Gelato Everywhere!

Well, now I've eaten gelato in Milan and Verona (in November), Pisa, Chiavari, Corniglia, Vernazza, Monterosso, and Genoa. And this is only the halfway point of my Italian vacation!

The past few days, I’ve visited several little towns and one city. Friday, it was yet again raining, so I decided not to go to Florence. Instead, I went briefly to Santa Margherita, which is a little town by Portofino, which is a slightly bigger little town. Both are really touristy, so I didn’t want to stay long. I walked around Santa Margherita for about half an hour, admiring the colorful buildings, numerous statues of Columbus (the whole region is very proud of him) and shops that I don’t have enough money to even contemplate going in.
Here’s a picture of the sea. I’m a big fan of the Mediterranean.

Then I went back to Chiavari to change into beachier clothing, since it had gone quickly from “chilly and rainy” to “hot and sunny.” I took the train to Monterosso, the fifth of the five Cinque Terre villages. Naturally, as soon as I arrived, the clouds and rain came back. I decided to have lunch while waiting for the good weather to come back, and picked a small restaurant along the coast. However, it was really disappointing... I ordered lasagne ragu, which is hard to mess up. I’d had the same thing in Chiavari for about half the price, and it was wonderful. Here, it was just about the worst lasagne I’d ever eaten. It was worse than the store brand microwaveable lasagne I buy in France. I also got mushroom soup, which was virtually flavorless, and easily the worst mushroom soup I’d ever had. Luckily the place was cheap!
Walking in the rain is warmer than not walking in the rain, so I ignored the drizzles and went to get gelato. That, at least, was excellent as usual! When the rain slowed down, I walked around the beach and looked at stones. Monterosso has a sandy beach, but there are tons of stones of all sizes, colors, and shapes. What intrigued me most, however, was the large quantity of ceramic fragments, mostly terra cotta type tiles like the ones used for roofs and construction in this part of the continent. Some were as large as a deck of cards, some were barely large enough to tell if they were man-made. I kept one fragment that has two green stripes on it, and a few little pieces of sea glass. I was very tempted by a chunk of mosaic (just white stones in cement like an Italian sidewalk, nothing interesting) but I can’t justify bringing back rocks that weigh about five pounds. I do like rocks though, so walking along the beach was fun.
Saturday, I went to Genoa, which is called Genova in Italian. It’s the hometown of Christopher Columbus, and is a big port town. It has a large historic district (i.e. small streets and old buildings district), Europe’s largest aquarium, and is close to Chiavari. I brought, but didn’t even open, the Italy guide book I borrowed from the library. Genoa’s architecture is pretty neat:

My wandering talents are fairly impressive, since I managed to find the sea and the aquarium, the two things I really wanted to see. I ate lunch at a little restaurant by the waterfront, figuring that it would be a good place to get seafood. I ordered pesto lasagne (pesto was born in Genoa) and calamari, and both were superb. I do prefer meat lasagne, but the pesto was really good.
The coolest outdoor thing I saw in Genoa was a life-size ship, I’m assuming of the style used by Columbus. However, I can’t imagine the explorers needing this many cannon, so I’m guessing it wasn’t a replica of the Santa Maria!

The aquarium was really neat. Smaller than the Shedd, but it had a lot of neat things. It did cost a lot, so I read every single sign to get as much information for my money as possible! I learned that there’s a fish in the antarctic that doesn’t have any hemoglobin in its blood, that aquariums get their sea turtles when they’re confiscated from tourists who illegally exported them, that Nile crocodiles can grow to more than 20 feet long, that Mediterranean crabs have really long legs to allow them to walk in the sand and muck, and that morays are only poisonous if you eat their meat raw. Like all aquariums in the post-Nemo era, any time you see an anemone, you hear a child say, “Look, it’s Nemo’s house!” The Genoa Aquarium had an interesting response though... they had clown fish in other places, but they also had a tank of only fish found in Finding Nemo. It was easily the most crowded area in the place.
Here he is, the movie star himself... sort of...

This sign made me laugh out loud, which I usually try not to do when alone in public in foreign countries. I admire their desire to protect aquatic turtles, but their method seems a bit gruesome... I’d prefer if they returned the turtles to the environment in one piece. (Click on the picture to enlarge it and read the explanation of their methods.)

Amphibian exhibits are always fun, because they’re like playing Where’s Waldo. Find the chameleon in this picture:

They have a tank of sting rays to look at, and a tank of nice rays to... pet! I pet a guitar fish and one particularly friendly ray. Most of them were really antisocial, but one swam back and forth at the edge of the tank for quite a while. Rays’ wings feel strange... the five year old in me says “slimy,” but the geek in me says, “almost like their skin is frictionless.” However, their spine is rough and very solid. Once you pet a ray, you want to stick around to pet it again, because the sensation is so strange.

On the top floor, they have a neat set-up: you can walk over the tops of the tanks, so you can see the seals, dolphins, and sharks from above. I got there just in time to watch the dolphins be fed, do a few tricks, and then have play time. There was one dolphin who liked to punt the ball as high as possible, one who just pushed around a ball, and one who had figured out the most fun way to play: grab the volleyball in mouth, swim down twenty feet of so, then let go and swim up to the surface to watch it rocket out of the water. I do the same thing at the pool, although I usually hold the ball in my hands and don’t swim down more than six feet...
After leaving the aquarium, I looked for the center of the historical center. However, I wasn’t really in the mood for more museums and churches, and all the interesting stuff was at the top of a hill. Yuck. So I just got my day’s gelato, headed back to Chiavari (via Zoagli, by accident... I just climbed around the rocks on the coast while I waited for the next train), and lay on the beach while the sun began to set. I like Italy.
Today (Sunday) I went to Mass, and it was somewhat strange... it was the fastest Mass I’ve ever been to. There was very little music, and the priest and the congregation seemed to be having some sort of competition to see who could get through the prayers first. Instead of getting out, “Let us pray in the words our Savior gave us...” the priest would manage, “Let us pray in the words our Sa...” before the congregation cut in with the Lord’s Prayer. Odd. The Mass was over in forty five minutes.