Tuesday, August 24, 2010

German Physics Class

(Notes from my journal)

Monday, November 23, 2009:

I sat in on a class at the University of Zurich today. It was one of those impulsive, not-so-well-thought-out decisions that ended in more than a little embarrassment and what I’m sure will be a few recurring nightmares. Not that I wouldn’t totally do it again if given the chance. I’m beginning to think that it’s just my nature to head straight into situations that are guaranteed to be uncomfortable. Maybe I should see a shrink about my destructive tendencies...

Anyway, when I passed by a sign proclaiming the stern grey building that I was about to pass to be the Universität Zürich, I couldn’t help myself: the Swiss happen to be my intellectual idols, so any chance to get behind the scenes is like dangling a cake in front of a fat kid. I remember thinking “So this is where all the Swiss learn their tricks, huh?” The next thing I knew I was inside, trying to look as academic and inconspicuous as possible. I casually asked a student where the largest classroom was. She looked a bit confused for a few seconds (she must have been a newbie), but she eventually pointed me towards a set of large, imposing wooden doors. Luckily it was just about 11 am, so people were starting to file in for the next class. I moseyed on in (casual and cool as always), and was relieved to see that there were a few hundred seats in the classroom. Perfect, I thought, this will be a piece of cake: I’ll blend in at the back of the class and watch my very first Swiss lesson. I instantly imagined myself as a cool, sophisticated EU representative, able to speak at least 10 languages and heading up the intercultural relations department. I could see myself looking back at this moment and laughing. “It all started with that random class at the University of Zurich” I would say with an ironic smile when the press asked how I’d come so far.

Then I snapped back to reality when it dawned on me that they would probably be conducting the lesson in German, of which I only know three words total: “Guten tag” and “Bier.” These are the minor details that usually get me into trouble. It’s ok, I told myself, I’ll just pretend to understand and try to make it through one hour. No one would be the wiser, since it was such a large class anyway. Right? Right? Wrong again, Captain Nincompoop.

With a few misgivings, I settled down in my usual spot: back row, closest seat to the door. Ah, it brought me back to the old UW for a few seconds. I waited for the room to fill up, but to my increasing dismay, after the first twenty people filed in the doors were shut. I gulped so loud that someone in the front row turned around to give me a curious look. This was not good: I’d assumed it would be safe to crash the party since it was a 200 person classroom, but 20 people does not a party make. Before I could pull a runner, the professor looked right at me, spouted off an impressive spiel in what could only be German (the spit was flying- I’m sure the front row caught the brunt of it), then motioned for me to join the rest of the students. Great, I thought, I’ve gone and done it now. At least I have protective eye gear, to shield me from the worst of the spray.

As I slowly made my way to the front of the class, debating the likelihood of making it to the door without falling back down the stairs and making a donkey out of myself, the professor turned and wrote a series of what looked a lot like physics calculations up on the board. Oh, goody; physics, my favorite. Could I have possibly chosen a worse class to sit in on? Try as I did, I couldn’t think of anything more agonizing. But I sat down closer to the front, calling myself all different kinds of idiot.

The clock struck 11, and class began (right on time, of course. This was Switzerland, after all). Luckily the professor launched into a lengthy explanation of the alien drawings that he’d written on the board. I felt like a cave man trying to grasp the concept of the internet. It just wasn’t going to work. I really wish I spoke at least a little German, so I’d have a fighting chance at comprehension. But hell, even an English Physics class would be well beyond my intellectual capacity, so I really had no chance at all here. I made it 35 blessed minutes before getting called on. The kind-looking professor spit a series of what I can only assume were questions at me, and I panicked. All I could think to say was “I’m sorry, I didn’t understand” in Italian. There was a split second of complete silence after I spoke. The professor looked at me quizzically, then burst out laughing as understanding dawned. Of course, everyone in the room understood what I had said, even though I was in the dark the whole time. The professor said something that sounded suspiciously like a sarcastic pun at my expense, and then the rest of the class was torn up laughing all over again. Thanks, guys, I’ll be here all week.

I took that as my cue to leave, so I quickly gathered my things and left with my usual grace and poise (and by that I mean that I tripped my way up the stairs, just managing to avoid the classic book-dropping move). I heard the professor shout a parting comment as I left, but I was too mortified to turn and address it. When I reached the door five years later, I tried in vain to pull it open before belatedly realizing that you had to push it. Thank God- for one horrifying second I thought that I was locked in. Free at last, I made it out of the building in under five seconds.

Well, that was joyful and all, but I think I’ll stick to teaching English from now on. It turns out that German physics is not my cup of tea. Who knew? So much for my daydreams of ruling Europe. That’s ok: I’d settle for being a chocolate taste-tester.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Misguided Queuing

It occurred to me today that if the frequency of an action is any indication of preference, then one could assume that I really LOVE standing in the wrong lines for everything. I have adopted a policy of just heading towards the longest row of people and hoping that it's the one that I need to be in, when more often than not it’s the worst possible choice that I could have made.

Example #1: I waited in line for at least 30 minutes at the Carrefour in Orleans just to get some cheese (it’s an addiction, ok?) only to find when I tried to pay that they only accept a special Carrefour card. Not only was my credit card no bueno, but they wouldn’t accept cash either! The ruthless employee pointed me to another mile-long line one cashier to the left, at which point I dropped the cheese and walked out. Even the toughest fromage addict has her limits.

Train stations are also guaranteed to raise the blood pressure. When trying to catch a train from Paris I spied a line of only 3 or 4 people waiting at an automatic ticket machine, so I gamely joined in the fun. Since I have danced this dance before, I made sure to check the list of cards accepted by the machine, and Mastercard was definitely on there. I had enough cash on hand as well, in case that failed. I got to the train station with a full hour to spare before my train left, so I anticipated having the time to leisurely get my ticket, then maybe get a little shopping in before my train. Oh Cassie, you silly, silly girl. You see, I am learning how to play the game, but I’ve definitely got some more studying to do.

I was getting a bit nervous, as even though the line was only 4 people long, each person took (no joke) 10 minutes to finish their transaction. Even after I stepped up to the machine I couldn’t tell you why they were so slow. And they had an advantage over me: they were locals! Anyway, by the time I got to the machine I only had 20 minutes until the train left, but I wasn’t worried yet (only disappointed at the loss of shop-time). I went through the screens and shortly came to the payment screen. Here’s where the problems always crop up, this being no exception. Apparently even though the machine said it accepted Mastercard, they really meant Euro-Mastercard. I could do nothing but shake my fist at this blatant show of favoritism. Of course the machine didn’t take cash either, which eliminated my backup plan. So I sighed and resigned myself to performing yet another episode of the chicken with its head cut off.

In the end I managed to get my ticket from the cashier just in time to run and jump onto the train, narrowly avoiding my second favorite pastime (if judging by rate of recurrence): Missing my plane, train, or automobile by seconds and watching it slowly pull away without me. Yep, that one is right up there with misguided queuing, but for some reason it is exponentially more frustrating. Just one more side effect of blonde traveling, which I have yet to discover a way to avoid. That’s right: if you expected to learn anything from this tale, think again. Well, I guess you could conclude that the moral of my story is to never travel with a blonde (unless you’re looking for an adventure, of course ;).

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

A New Form of Public Humiliation

I often pass by one of the multitudes of scales on the streets of Torino and wonder why they are there. I mean, why would anyone possibly want to pay one euro to endure the painful process of weighing themselves in the middle of the sidewalk for all to see?? Maybe it’s just me, but even in my skinnier days I wouldn’t be caught dead doing that. I’ve never seen anyone actually using the scales, but I know they must be used, because they are everywhere. I’ve seen them in other parts of Italy as well, so it’s not just a local phenomenon. If you have any insights to this puzzle, feel free to let me in on the secret.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Challenge of Porta Susa

I find it highly amusing that every time I try to get out of Torino’s Porta Susa (the train station closest to my apartment) I get lost. No exaggeration: I have literally never made it out without wandering around for at least fifteen minutes to an hour. The ironic part is that the Porta Susa is the smaller train station in Torino. Porta Nuova is the main station, but it is much easier to navigate. You can just walk up from the metro and enter in the front doors of the station, and there are all of the tracks. If there was a god, this is how all train stations would be.

Not so with Porta Susa: it is a verifiable labyrinth of long hallways and stairs, complete with signs that no matter how carefully one follows, inevitably lead to further disorientation and confusion. Well, this time I decided to put my faith in the crowd that got off of my train and follow them to the exit. “When in doubt, follow the crowd” is my recently adopted credo, and it usually steers me in the right direction. However, this time even the crowd got lost! I laughed out loud when I reached the top of one set of stairs to see the leading group of Italians paused there, looking at the signs with bewildered expressions. They recovered relatively quickly, heading down another flight of stairs, then up the correct ones and out into the long walkway that eventually leads to the street. This time there was only that one minor detour, and I still made it out in under 10 minutes (a record-breaker for me). It was good to discover that I’m not the only directionally-challenged one out there, though.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Parliamo Italiano? Espanol? Deutsch?

Question: if you were fluent in 5 different languages (and we’re talkin' totally fluent), what would determine which language you would speak in at a given time? With the Swiss, they are all proficient in a number of languages, so I am wondering which ones they choose to speak in, and why? I overheard a couple of different conversations when I was there, and it seemed like they switched through languages at random. As I really have no idea what it would be like to be so amazingly multi-lingual, I’m curious as a kitten about how it works. What language do they think in, dream in? How are they taught so many languages as babies? Jeez, how do their parents do it? Hmm, tricky business, these childhood geniuses.

Italian trucks

Every time I pass an Italian truck I can’t help but giggle. Anyone who has seen one knows what I’m talking about: they are so tiny that they don’t even need 4 wheels. So I feel justified in saying that they should not be referred to as trucks so much as covered tricycles. Seriously, my 10 speed mountain bike is bigger than one of them. And taller, too. I don't think that I could fit into one to save my life, but it must be possible. Maybe I could special order one with a sun roof that I could stick my head out of. It's something to ponder, in any case...

Thursday, April 15, 2010


At first, my spur-of-the-moment trip to Parma was a bit of a disappointment: I was hoping to catch a Parma Panthers game, tour a Parmeggiano-Reggiano cheese factory, or watch an Italian 'football' game at the very least. But when I showed up at the tourist information booth I was doomed to failure: apparently it was the off season for football Americano, there were no football Italiano games scheduled that weekend, and you needed to schedule a cheese tour 4-8 weeks in advance. 4-8 weeks! That one caught me off-guard: isn't Italy famous for last-minute adventuring, I wondered?

It turns out that there's more planning involved in Italian touristing than I'd anticipated. However, being the resourceful young sprite that I am, I decided to make my own tour. I started by gorging myself on Parmesian cheese straight from a street market that I discovered, to be quickly followed by handmade ravioli in a cute little riverside ristaurante. After that lovely heart-attack inducing morning, I happened to pass by a sign pointing me towards a theater (the Theatre Farnese, which the tourist guide had suggested in an attempt to ward off my crushed expression). I changed course and headed towards it, taking the sign for what it was: a sign.

And oh, what fun times were had! There is one inarguable perk to traveling in the off-season: I was the one and only tourist inside the theater that day. Little did the smarmy receptionist know that it was a huge mistake to give me free reign over the place. Did they really think that a little portable fence would keep me out? OH no, that only made me more determined to go into the rafters and check the view from there. Of course, you shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that I’m a complete thieving troublemaker: my heart was pounding from the moment that I decided to jump the fence to the moment I returned to the right side of it. Sure, it wasn’t enough to stop me, but it’s got to count for something, right?

Slowly I realized that although this was an originally an ancient theater (as I'd assumed it would still be), it was rebuilt in the 1950s. Which is of course a detail that the receptionist neglected to tell me before I paid my five euros to see it. In fact, I didn’t get around to reading the little informational plaques until well after I’d decided to break all the rules. I spent the first 20 minutes wondering at how new everything looked, and suspiciously eyeing the wooden rafters.

At first I assumed that they still held events in the theater, but after hopping the fence and treading along through an inch of accumulated dust I realized that I was the first to walk down those aisles in a long time. At some point I decided, "screw it, I’m already breaking the rules: I might as well go all the way up!" So I jumped up the curiously steep stairs, finally reaching the first tier of balconies. I spied a rickety wooden staircase along the back wall, so I headed up it quickly, before I lost my nerve. It was not at all the kind of staircase that I would expect to see in a famous theater; it looked like it would be more at home leading up to a hayloft in an old barn in the Midwest. The stairs were again very steep (a fact which I failed to fully appreciate until I came back down them), and were made of plain unfinished wooden planks. I reached the top, glanced around the dusty floor, then walked up the very last set of narrow wooden steps to the top balcony of the theater.

There was absolutely no furnishings on this floor, further solidifying my impression of an empty hay loft. I don’t know what I had been expecting, but this was not it. I almost just turned and walked back down, but then impulsively walked to the edge and looked down. It was amazing. The rebuilt wooden areas gave the room a warm feel, and the original stone walls and floor added that mysterious aura that seems to pervade Europe like a fog. I could almost see the ghosts of figures dancing and singing up on the stage...at which point I realized it was time to get out of there before I rounded the last bend into insanity.

The return trip to ground level was no easy feat: there were no hand rails on the wooden staircases, and what had seemed “a bit steep” on the way up now looked like a suicidal descent for an established klutz such as I. My mind briefly revisited my trip down from the highest temple in Angkor Wat in Cambodia, the last time that my legs actually refused to follow the instructions from my head. Somehow I made it down without acquiring too many more bruises, and I was back on the main floor innocently reading an informational plaque when the receptionist popped his head around the corner to check up on me.

The moral of my story? There's nothing like a rich, dairy gut-bomb and a little rule-breaking to spice up a mini-adventure.


Don’t you hate it when you've just sat down and gotten nice and comfortable, and then you realize that you need something that happens to be on the other side of the room? Then there's the eye-twitchingly irritating outcome when you finally muster the energy to drag your ass over to get it, only to find that what you needed was actually right next to you the whole time. Yeah, that’s my life. In my humble opinion, lazyasses just aren't shown enough sympathy these days.

An Interesting Night at the Opera

During my last week in Torino I decided to hit up the opera. I'd wanted to go at some point during my trip, but that point kept getting pushed further and further off, until my last week came around and I had yet to go. Unfortunately I couldn't convince any of my friends to join in the fun, but I wasn't too worried. Even with my dubious Italian skills I figured I could muddle my way though the plot of a slow-moving play. It's all in the visuals anyway, right?

Well, it was not exactly what I pictured it to be to say the least. The name of the play was Idomeneo, and all I knew of it going in was that it was going to be performed with Mozart. I figured, you can’t go wrong with a Greek play and classic music, right? Well, the old Teatro Regio got very creative with the plot of the original story. The opening scene was of an older man leaning over a fairly large fish tank, then throwing several objects into it. In the next scene I assume we were now looking at the perspective from inside the tank (judging by the air bubbles on the walls and enlarged objects). The objects thrown in were a car, a TV, a bed, and a Greek column. Lying on the floor were about 20 people wearing togas. Then in walked the main characters; a woman wearing a rhinestone-studded dress and a man with a plastic-covered suit. That’s right: the suit was covered in a giant, thick, plastic-bag-like layer. Why? Even long after the opera has ended I still have no clue. All I know is that they sure didn’t break the bank with the clothing budget in this one: everyone was either wearing bedsheets or plastic bags.

The first 30 minutes or so looked more or less like your average Greek tragedy: two people fall in love, but can’t be together for some Italian reason unknown to me, so they each threaten to kill themselves. The bubbles certainly mixed it up a bit, I have to say. The crowning glory was when what looked suspiciously like a 1970s Chevy was lowered onto the stage full of togas. I've always said that the opera could use a little horsepower to spice things up. (And who says the world doesn't value American-made cars?) After that a TV was added to the fray, complete with bunny ears. What these two things had to do with a Greek story evolving in a fish tank I cannot even begin to fathom. It was quite entertaining to speculate, though. My final analysis is that the director of the Teatro Regio was on mushrooms when he interpreted this play.

Of course, I had about a snowball's chance in hell at figuring out what was going on, but at least I wasn’t alone. One of the little old ladies sitting next to me (the place was chocked full of them) said more than once that it was “Impossibile! Troppo strano!” Whew- it's always good to know that I’m not insane, or have been slipped some kind of psychedelic drug.

At the end of the opera I still had no idea what I had just watched for 3 hours. So naturally I was a bit curious. As soon as I got home I looked up a synopsis of Idomeneo online, and what do you know? It actually was a greek tragedy. There was no mention of fish tanks, chevies, or TVs at all, which only goes to show that one should never indulge in illegal substances on the job. Che strano!

Monday, March 15, 2010

Winter Driving

December 17th, 2009:

Dear sweet lord, why did I leave the apartment when there is snow on the ground? The answer: I wanted to make pumpkin pie, and as you may know I will brave just about anything for baked goods. I was also curious as to the effect that snow would have on Italian driving skills, and now I know. Ask and you shall receive. They are bad enough on solid ground, but when you add ice to the mix, the effect is truly terrifying. Walking down my little street I heard nothing but the sounds of cars intimately getting to know each other as drivers pushed, shoved, and coerced their little vehicles out of buried parking spots. There wasn’t even the superficial façade of trying to avoid the other cars. It’s every man for himself here, take no mercy.

When I made it to the main intersection I paused to consider my options. Normally my policy is to just dart out in front of traffic and to hope that they stop, but I thought it better to abandon that today, as they probably wouldn’t stop for an armored tank, let alone me. So I decided to take the bus to the market, for some reason thinking that that would be safer than walking. I have such a propensity for bad calls in Italy. After four months here you would think that I would learn...

The bus driver was having a grand old time navigating the icy roads, careening back and forth over the train tracks. I think his official intention was to stay on the tracks, but in reality he was having a blast thoroughly rattling all of the passengers. Have you ever tried to drive a car on train tracks? If so then you know that it’s no picnic, even in the best of circumstances. Standing up while the bus is swerving left and right over them the whole time, with the tracks coated with two inches of ice; the overall effect was bone rattling. For a second I flashed back to a mosh pit scene from when I was a teenager: there were people falling into each other everywhere I turned, spreading out their arms in an attempt to regain balance that was hopelessly lost, pending our release from this death trap.

No one will believe me, but I swear that when I chanced to look towards the front of the bus I saw the busdriver grinning gleefully as he wildly turned the wheel. He saw me looking at him and quickly hid his maniacal smile, but his secret was out. I feared the worst: they have let the mentally infirm out of their straightjackets and onto the roads of Torino.

Finally the bus screamed to a halt in front of the grocery store. After getting out and kissing the ground, I decided to walk back after all. If given the choice between being buried alive under a human dogpile or flattened by a Fiat, I choose the Fiat. They are so small that there’s a chance I might live to tell the tale. I scurried into my safe, warm apartment, vowing not to emerge until springtime.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Musee d'Orsay vs The Louvre

During my week-long sojourn in France I was able to visit both the Louvre and the Musee d'Orsay. Of course I have heard all about the Louvre, so I considered it a definite must-see while in Paris. It was my roommate, Olga, who insisted on seeing the Musee d'Orsay. I hadn't heard much about it, but was willing to go along anyway.

So on our first morning in Paris I dragged Olga out of bed bright and early (7am), in order to make it to the Louvre before the hordes of other tourists got there. I had heard that it was only open for a few hours every day and that the lines could be daunting, so it was best to make it out early. In the end it didn't really matter: it turns out that there aren't that many people there on a snowy Thursday in January. Who knew? But I was glad that we got their early anyway, as there was so much to see. I hadn't realized that the Louvre was more than just "art" as I define it. I was imagining hall after hall of famous paintings, and not much else. In fact the paintings were just a small part of the art on display. The Louvre had an entire wing devoted to Greek and Roman sculptures, another one for Egyptian art and artifacts, rooms and rooms full of Iranian and Middle Eastern antiquities, and countless other priceless pieces. It had a sample of artwork from every major era and area around the globe, basically. The overall effect was stunning, and a bit intimidating. I'm a little embarrassed to admit that it was mostly the Italian and French paintings that held my attention. Sculptures are all well and good, but after a few minutes my mind started wandering.

Olga and I spent all day exploring and getting thoroughly lost inside the halls of the Louvre. In fact, even when we wanted to leave to get some lunch, we couldn't manage to find our way out for at least a half an hour. It seemed like the "Sortie" (exit) signs were everywhere, completely contradicting each other. The worst part was that we could see the outside, but there were no unlocked doors to let us out. I started pounding on the windows in frustration, which effectively grabbed the attention of one of the guards and earned us a guided escort from the building. Free at last! I should probably avoid the Louvre for a while until they forget about that incident...

Anyway, the next day we hit up the Musee D'Orsay. I wasn't expecting much after seeing the Complete History of the World the day before, so you can imagine my surprise at seeing an entire room full of my fave artist of all time, Claude Monet. I felt like a kid granted an unexpected pass to the candy store with $20; it even felt like candy for the eyes as I looked around the room. But that wasn't all: Monet was followed by Van Gogh, Manet, Pissarro, and thousands of other classic artists.

The most shocking exhibit was without a doubt Gustave Corbet's "The Origin of the World" which depicts a detailed image of a woman's vagina. Despite being a woman myself, I have to say that I found it a bit egocentric to insinuate that the world came from female genitalia, but that's art for you. To each his own, I say.

All in all, while I was far more impressed with the Louvre, I thought that the Musee D'Orsay was much more to my taste. It was smaller and thus more personal, and for me it doesn't get any better than a room full of Monet's. Seeing both museums was an experience I'll never forget, though. It made me realize that art is like a gift. It gives you images of different situations and time periods that you could never otherwise see or really imagine. Then, rather than limiting the imagination, art inspires it to go to new heights by providing a springboard to start from. Yes, I definitely think that art has grown on me, despite the fact that I'll never be able to truly appreciate the type of art that Corbet produced.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Christmas in Polania

Christmas Eve 2009, 9:35 pm:

Good golden panty hose, I LOVE Christmas in Poland! Olga’s family is so amazing, I almost never want to leave. If it wasn't ten degrees below zero ouside there would be no contest. Of course, if they keep feeding me like they did tonight, they are going to have to roll me out of here using heavy machinery after only a week.

When I finally arrived at the nearest train station to Lodz, Poland (Olga's hometown), Olga and her father were waiting for me. After fifteen minutes of driving, we pulled up into the driveway of her family home. It was quite a plain, square building without much to recommend it from the outside, but on the inside it was nothing but warm coziness. It reminded me of visiting my grandma's house as a kid. Her parents welcomed me with open arms, as if they had known me for years. In fact, I felt like I already knew them as I have talked to them on Skype a few times, using my few phrases of badly accented Polish to entertain and amuse.

By the time we got there I was all in a tizzy in anticipation for Christmas dinner. Olga told me that her mom had been cooking for days for tonight’s grand event, and I’ve got to say that it lived up to my wildest expectations and then some. At first I was a bit nervous when Olga told me that they don’t eat meat on Christmas. Ever the carnivore, I joked “Jeez, I sure wish you would have told me that before I came all the way out here!” But then I was relieved to discover that the Polish don’t include fish in their definition of “meat” so we had a few varieties of salted and fried fish for one of the main courses. I say “one” of the main courses because there were seven courses in this dinner. That’s right: seven. For a girl who’s used to having all of the food put in the center of the table and everyone just going in for the kill, this was a definite change.

Before we started the meal Olga’s mother handed everyone a large wafer. Olga explained that it was tradition to go around to everyone and exchange good wishes for the coming year. These mostly related to health and wealth, but I thought it was a sweet way to begin Christmas dinner. So I went around exchanging pieces of wafer with Olga’s family and wishing them all well. It didn’t seem to matter that most of them didn’t speak a lick of English; somehow we managed to get the main points across. Her present family included her grandparents, her aunt, parents and her sister.

Post-wafer sharing we all sat down and Olga’s father served everyone little pieces of fish along with some hardy bread (which I’ve been sorely missing since living in Italy; the only pane that they have seems to be the fluffy white bread that goes stale in a day. Not that I’m complaining-there’s a time and a place for all types of carbs in my book). After that followed some mushroom noodle soup, which was amazing in and of itself. I had to hold myself back from taking more of everything, as I had been warned that there was a lot more coming.

I think my favorite part of the meal was in the next course: it had all of the ingredients of a fish stew, except everything was captured in a clear gelatinous substance. Carrots, peas, some other types of nuts, and fish were all floating around inside a rounded blob of jello. Have no fear: I promptly shook my piece as soon as it was given to me, and it definitely jiggled just like jello. I was intrigued. They then dipped this into a sauce made with horseradish, which I used very sparingly as I am not the hugest fan of all things spicy. To my surprise, the mixture of all of these flavors was amazing. I love discovering new combinations and methods of eating food. It’s truly mind-blowing how many different flavors go together that you never would think to try. In fact, I think I invented a few new combinations in my naiveté that Olga’s family had never tried.

Along with copious amounts of wine there was a jug of dark brown liquid put on the table. When I asked what it was Olga’s father happily poured me a glass while Olga frantically shook her head at me and whispered “It’s awful. Don’t drink it if you don’t like it.” Well, now I had to try it. I could never resist a good challenge. Everyone was watching as I took the first sip, so I carefully controlled my expression to conceal the automatic grimace that wanted to form. It tasted like pure smoke with a mild fruit aftertaste. I couldn’t figure out how they were able to capture smoke inside a drink…actually, now that I think about it, bong water probably tastes quite similar to this traditional Polish drink. I described the taste to them (minus the bong comparison), and apparently I was spot on: they made it with a mixture of smoked fruit, sugar and water. Olga’s mother informed me that no one was a huge fan of the bong water, but as it is a tradition on Christmas they always serve it. This strict adherence to tradition was new to me as well: in my family, if we don’t like it, we don’t make it. It’s a simple creed, and it works well for us. It’s refreshing to look into the other side of the spectrum, though. As long as you know which things are just for show.

After the jello course we had fried fish and a kind of chick pea/sauerkraut paste that also went together beautifully. By this time I was starting to feel my stomach protruding at alarming levels, so I was relieved to hear that from there on out we would be switching to desserts. And OH what desserts! They were all homemade, of course. There were a variety of cakes and pastries with fruit and nuts baked inside, as well as a chocolate walnut cake with at least 5 types of alcohol added to it (they had to conform to the stereotype somehow, I was informed). The cake had Bailey’s, rum, and Polish vodka in the center layer, and even after being baked it packed quite a punch. I limited myself to one piece of the booze cake, figuring that I should wait until I get to know everyone before making a fool of myself.

Finally, when I was just about to pop, they announced that it was time to open presents. I had bought Olga’s immediate family all little gifts, and was expecting nothing in return. So I was surprised to find that they had bought me a few really thoughtful gifts, given the fact that they hadn’t met me until a few hours ago. Olga’s grandpa was adorable; someone had bought him big fluffy white slippers for Christmas, so naturally I had to break out the big white polar bear hat and make him a polar bear ensemble (not to worry:there are multiple pictures).

After around three hours of eating we all collapsed in a food+wine-induced coma on around the fire. That's when Olga felt it was a good time to tell me that there would be two more days of Christmas merrymaking, and much more food to go along with it. Instead of just celebrating Christmas Eve and Day, in Poland they take 3 days to celebrate. I'm not sure what the official reason for the third day is, but I'm not complaining. I do think that I may need to invest in some stretchy pants, though.

Saturday, December 26, 2009:

Not surprisingly, the abundance of food has continued. Now we are on to Christmas Day #2, which Olga’s mother happily informed me in so many words that it would be a Day of Cheese. The first day was fish and vegetables, yesterday was meat, and today will be cheese. God I love this place. Despite it being the Day of Cheese, there was still a plate full of meat on the breakfast table, along with at least 7 different types of cheese, bread, fish, and my favorite plate of cakes. How are all of these people so skinny??

We took Pogo (Olga's adorable terrier) for a walk up Lodz’s only “mountain” today. According to Olga’s father it’s a whopping 220 meters high at the top. For some reason that I can’t really explain, I feel embarrassed for Lodz. The hill looked quite barren as it only had deciduous trees dotting it, and the leaves have long since died. That and it’s been raining for the past few days, so the trail up it was muddy enough to rival old Lake Alice. The view at the top was less than inspiring: I do love Poland with a passion, but that love does not extend to their architecture. Even Olga’s family house is just a big square block, with no visual enhancements to speak of on the outside. The inside is beautiful, spacious and homey, but you would never know that looking at it from the street. That is how almost every building that I’ve seen here is like: a big square cement block. The effect is quite desolate, purtroppo. It’s a good thing that the people are so warm and friendly.

11:00 pm:

Just wrapped up the last day of Polish Christmas, and it was another doozy. So much food...today one of the new dishes was kind of like an egg salad; with hard boiled eggs, sweet corn, pineapples, chicken, and some other spices mixed together. A strange combination that made me pause before I took my first bite, but the flavors actually complemented each other well. We also had a soup with some variety of spinach, fish stock, and hard-boiled eggs cut into fourths. If someone told me that those ingredients combined into an edible dish (let alone good) I’d call them a freaking liar. But somehow it worked! I'm taking Olga's mother home with me.

Wednesday, December 30th 2009:

We have just left the much-loved land of Polania and set off for the Northern shores of Scottyland. I can only hope the next leg of this mini-adventure will be as cool as the last. Poland was definitely the highlight of my Grand Adventure thus far. I haven’t had that much good food with good people in a long time, and I’ll always remember it fondly.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Christmas Travels

Christmas Eve, 2009:

I am currently riding on a hundred-year-old train in the MiddleOfNowhere Poland, on the receiving end of strange looks delivered by two curious older Polish women probably wondering what in the world I’m doing here. I don’t blame them: I find myself wondering the same thing. It was an unfortunate (but not altogether surprising) combination of events that led me to this point. It all started three days ago when I left Torino….

Despite the fact that I often tell people that I love traveling, it would actually be more accurate to say that I love being in different cultures and meeting people from around the world. Unfortunately the actual traveling part of this compulsion is a chore at best and at its worst is like the seventh circle of hell. Traveling in Italy never fails to lean towards the latter tendency, and traveling during Christmas, I have discovered, is the worst possible time to attempt it. Not that I hold anything against Italy: I’m sure that every airport around the world is no picnic during the week before Christmas. The constant chaos and mob tendencies of Italy just exacerbate an already difficult situation. Here is the extended story of my three-day endeavor to get to Lodz, Poland from Torino:

Monday, December 21, 2009:

Well, I knew going into it that today would be a shitshow, and I was not disappointed. After much deliberation, I decided to stay at a hostel in Bergamo the night before my early flight to Warsaw so as not to pull another Barcelona (where I fell asleep at the airport and missed my flight by minutes). It would have been too close of a call to take the first train out of Torino in the morning, so I did the responsible thing and stayed near to the airport the night before. Was I rewarded for that? Quite the opposite. I have concluded that I must have done something terrible in a past life to have earned my current stretch of luck.

I woke up early today (9am) in order to catch the 11am train; the next train was 3 hours later, and I figured that if I was going to pay for a hostel that I might as well see the town a bit. So naturally when I got to the train station I sat around and waited for 45 minutes, watching the sign move from “10 minuti in ritardo” to 20, 30, then finally when it switched to 40 minutes late I gave up and went home. At that point I wouldn’t have made the connection anyway, so why should I wait around in Milano for an extra two hours when I could be making a pie at home? No good reason, I decided, and headed back to my casa dolce casa. There I whipped out the quickest pumpkin pie ever made, but still it wasn’t quite done when I had to leave for my next train. Luckily Olga was home, so I relied on her to take the pie out…I hope she remembered, and that our apartment won’t be a charred black mess when we get back. That girl is just as blonde as me, which is no easy feat.

Anyway, to my surprise the 2:00 train was actually on time, so I hopped on and set off for Bergamo. I was a bit nervous to see that there was a blizzard raging outside the entire train ride, but I soon forgot about the potential consequences and just enjoyed watching the snow fall. It wasn’t until I stepped into the middle of the storm at Bergamo that I realized just how much of a pain in the ass this would prove to be.

Don’t you just love how instructions can look so simple and easy online, but then when you go to carry them out everything just falls to crap? This NEVER fails to happen to me. I’ll write down a set of clear, straightforward instructions only to find that 15 unanticipated dilemmas crop up in the live show. Today there were numerous complications to liven up my trip to Bergamo. As it was 5pm and getting dark when I got into town, I decided to head straight for the hostel and to skip the sightseeing. Any attempt would have been a joke anyway, as the only “sights” that I could see were occasional Christmas lights through the sheet of snow and sleet.

I was proud of myself for finding Bergamo’s Porta Nuova (is there one in every Italian city?) in the storm. For once my dubious directional abilities came through. I impressed myself further by locating the bus stop for Bus #6, which would take me to the hostel per my online instructions. However, after waiting there for around an hour with no sign of bus #6 anywhere, I gave up and went back to the train station to ask for directions (or to hunt down a taxi, whichever came first). When I finally trudged my way back to the information booth it had just closed (typical), but there were still two people standing outside smoking. So I begged for their help, asking where I could find a taxi, and if they knew what happened with the bus. They just laughed at me (in what I’d like to think was a sympathetic way, but I know better) and said that since it was snowing the buses were all delayed, so I would just have to wait. They pointed me towards the taxi stand as an afterthought. I feel that here it should be noted that there were NO taxis at that stand for my entire sojourn in Bergamo. I don’t even know why they put the sign up, other than to entertain the locals when unsuspecting tourists line up by it.

So back to the bus stop I went, fighting sheets of ice-cold snow the entire time. I was beginning to have very violent feelings towards this little town that I had once thought was so cute. Luckily there was a covered waiting area where other unfortunate souls such as myself were huddled for warmth. Over the next two hours I made quite a few friends (or rather, fellow commiserators waiting for #6). We kept seeing the other bus numbers go by (bus #11 in particular), but ours never came. Finally a short official-looking man in a blue metro suit came over and asked which bus we were all waiting for. “Sei!” we all shouted in unison. Then a very peculiar thing happened: he went over to a bus that had been out of service, talked to the driver, and within five minutes the bus pulled up, sporting the joyous #6 sign across the front. I couldn’t believe it; I guess you just have to be loud in order to get a bus in this country. So we piled in, and I managed to snag a seat in the front. Unfortunately the fun wasn’t over: the traffic was so bad that we were repeatedly passed by people walking down the street. Pretty soon my Italian comrades got fed up and debated loudly whether or not to get off and walk from here. It was at that point that the busdriver decided to inform us that he would not be able to make it up the hill to where, ironically enough, I needed to go. Luckily some of my newfound friends gave me instructions, and I joined forces with an Italian ragazzo that was also heading for the hostel. Our new route took us up at least 100 stairs, which would normally be no problem but proved tricky given that they were covered with six inches of snow.

Despite a few close calls, I made it all the way up without a concussion. Of course I did manage to run into a snow-laden branch and coat myself with even more snow, but that’s normal. It’s now 9pm, roughly four hours after arriving in Bergamo, and I have finally made it into the hostel. Unfortunately I have to get right up and leave it bright and early tomorrow morning.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009:

Gawd, I just LOVE this country! And by love I really mean hate with a fiery passion. If the damned airport wasn’t shut down I’d hop the next flight back to the US, but that is the root of my whole current problem. Let me start at the beginning:

I woke up at 6am, an hour I had deemed to be more than early enough for me to make my 8:50 flight. The hostel was only 7 km from the airport, so I didn’t think it would take very long. You would think that I would have taken a lesson away from my 4-hour commute last night, but nope! I remained optimistic, as well as unwilling to get up any earlier than my 6am cutoff. I briefly checked the Wizzair website to make sure that my flight wasn’t delayed, but to my relief it said nothing about any problems in the Bergamo airport. I had checked the status last night as well, and there were no notifications of any delays. So I set off for Operation: Poland.

After trudging down the perilous stairs, almost dying and getting soaked through with melted snow in the process, I still had to wait about a half an hour at the bus stop. Come to think of it, I probably ran into the very same snow-laden branch that attacked me last night. And to think I used to actually like the stuff. At the bus stop I asked the man and woman waiting with me if I should just walk it, but they just laughed incredulously (I get that reaction a lot here, I’ve noticed), and told me it would take at least an hour to go “a piedi.” Just as I was about to do it anyway, the bus pulled up. It’s almost like this place is testing me to see how much it can get away with before I snap, then it gives in right at the breaking point, only so that it can torture me again and again.

Once on the first bus I started to allow myself to feel cautiously hopeful. I only had to catch one more bus to get to the airport, which comes by the train station every 20 minutes, so I didn’t anticipate any problems. Then I’d be at the airport, and outta this place! Oh, if only…I sat at the train station for one entire hour, getting more panicked every minute that the bus didn’t show. I needed bus #1C, so of course I saw #1A come by 3 times while waiting. Which brings me to pet peeve #4: Why would you give buses going completely different routes the same number? That’s just begging for confusion. And then they treat me like an idiot when I ask if they are going to the airport. “No” the busdriver’s say in the tone of voice reserved for special people “E 1A, non 1C.” Oh, of COURSE! So sorry to bother you, signore.

At 7:20, with an hour and a half until take-off, I got desperate. I started asking cars parked by the station if they could give me a ride to the airport. I offered to pay, but was refused both times I tried. You have to love that Italian hospitality; it’s there for me every time, merrily waving its middle finger. Of course there wasn’t a taxi to be found, still. But luck was with me (or so I thought) and I spied a taxi dropping a family off at the station. I was in the taxi almost before the family got out, insisting that I would pay anything for a ride to the airport adesso. The cabbie shouted out “20 Euros”, which I would have gladly paid to make my flight, but fortunately another three people jumped in with me to share the fare. They commenced chatting away in rapid Italian, most of which I didn’t catch. I was so relieved to be making progress that I easily tuned them out and started daydreaming about the fantastic Polish meals that I knew were coming my way.

About twenty minutes later we stopped outside of a hotel. “Un momento” the driver assured us as one of the passengers hopped out and ran inside. At this point I started to get a bit agitated. “Ma sono in ritardo!” I protested clumsily. That’s when the man to my right informed me that the airport was closed anyway, so I wouldn’t be missing anything by waiting a minute. For a split second I was relieved that I wouldn’t miss another flight, but I then began to realize the implications of a closed airport. When would I be able to get out of here? I wondered.

When we pulled up to the airport, from the outside everything looked more or less normal. People were milling around, sure, but you see that at any airport. Then I stepped inside to a rendition of chaos that would make Hollywood proud. The first thing that I saw was that there were several hundred people gathered around the information desk and ticket stands, loudly demanding refunds as they pushed and shoved their way to the front of the line. I picked my way through the crowd looking for my carrier’s gate. When I finally made it to the area normally reserved for check-ins, it was a truly surreal sight that greeted me. It looked like the check-in area had been transformed into a bomb shelter. There were people passed out left and right, not just on the floor but on and behind the ticket counters, on the conveyer belts, even in the flight attendant chairs. Every available space was covered by people making themselves comfortable. This was my first clue that it was going to be a long day. I had been hoping that my flight would just be delayed by a few hours, but no such luck. The screen on the wall listed my flight as “CANCELLED” in big bold letters. I found that I had no choice: I was forced to join the throng gathered around the ticket desk, hoping to find out where to go from there.

After an hour of being pushed, shoved, battered and bruised, I finally made my way to the front. I wasn’t even sure which question to ask, I had so many, so I just gave the agent my boarding pass and looked at him questioningly. He told me that the next flight into Warsaw wasn’t for two more days, on Christmas Eve. I was devastated. There was no way I could wait that long to get to Poland. So he told me that my other option was to file for a refund. I took the sheet and retreated from the mosh pit as quickly as possible. What to do next? I had to find another flight into Warsaw, and quickly. I texted Olga to let her know what had happened, but she was unable to help as she didn’t have access to internet. I was on my own and flying completely blind. Have I mentioned that I hate going into hellish situations unprepared? I felt naked, with no idea what to do. As I sat in the airport contemplating, I overheard some women talking in Polish. I rushed over to them in the hopes that they would have a better idea of what to do than I did. It turns out that they had been on the same flight I was, and they informed me that all of the nearby flights were booked for the day. They were waiting in the same line I had just left, to take the offer for the Christmas Eve flight, and they advised me to do the same.

Crap. I sighed in resignation and rejoined the mob. This time the line was longer, as more people had arrived at the airport. Of course by the time I reached the front the flight to Warsaw was full. The agent told me that the only other flight open was to Katowice, and tickets were going fast. So I booked it, despite knowing that it would be a hellish ordeal to reach Lodz from an airport even further away. Great. The worst part was that I could have taken the Warsaw flight, but I’ve never been the quickest horse in the stable, so I have once again made life harder than it needed to be. Oh, well; there comes a point where you can only smile wryly and shake your head.

Now I needed to decide what to do for the next two days. I could return to Torino, but there wouldn’t be much point, as no one was home and it would cost me just as much to get there as to stay in a hostel for a few nights. That’s when I read the fine print on my refund slip: Wizzair was offering to pay for accommodation fees caused by the delay. Hmm… I automatically started scheming. I’m never one to let a good offer go to waste. If they were willing to compensate me, I was going to take them for all they were worth. As I considered my options, I realized that I could spend a miserable two days traveling to and from Torino, or I could take advantage of the situation and see somewhere new and exciting, staying at ridiculously expensive hotels while doing it. I chose option two, and hopped on a bus headed for Milano. I’d heard that Lake Como was gorgeous with the snow, but I hadn’t visited yet as there were no cheap hostels in the city. And here I was with a free pass! It was like a sign, and who am I to ignore advantageous signs?

However, I hit another complication when I got into Milan: Olga called and said that she had found a flight out of the Milano Malpensa airport leaving later that night that still had seats left for around 200 Euros. She left the choice up to me, as that was a significant amount of Euros. After thinking about it a minute, I decided “Screw it- I desperately want to get out of here, so I’ll take it.” Changing plans yet again, I hopped on another bus to the Malpensa airport, grimacing as I handed over another dozen euros for the bus fare. Running around like a chicken without a head was starting to add up.

When I got to this airport it looked a lot like the first: complete chaos. I wasn’t too worried, though, as I had a little over four hours until the flight was scheduled to leave. So I located the ticketing booth and took a ticket. I was impressed with the fact that there even were numbered tickets here; it went against the Italian way of ruthlessly cutting in line. Then I noticed that my number was a good 60 numbers after the current one listed. Yikes. I was hoping that the numbers wouldn’t be in order (don’t laugh- this has actually happened to me in Torino), but no luck. After sitting and watching for a few minutes I decided to explore the airport to see if I could find another ticketing agent, as this one was a general one for all of the airlines (hence the line). For about 15 minutes I wandered, stepping over people and luggage that were strewn everywhere. Unfortunately I didn’t see anything promising, so I returned to the ticket booth, hoping for a huge jump in numbers. Ever optimistic, I hurried back around the corner, only to discover that it was the exact same number as before! Oh, joyful day. I resigned myself to waiting, even though I had a feeling that the flight would be sold out when I got there. I found a seat close to the ticket window and watched the show.

It was definitely entertaining: I saw numerous Italians attempting to cut, then angrily storming off when asked for their ticket. One guy just lost it on the poor ticketing agent when she didn’t let him cut; he was shouting swear words in Italian that I’ve never even heard before. I felt sorry for the woman. How miserable would it be to work in an airport on a day like today? You couldn’t pay me enough. I did wonder why they didn’t have more people helping with issuing tickets, though. There was one woman who looked like a supervisor just standing in the back with her arms crossed. I thought, you know, you could considerably lessen the chaos here if you just stepped up and helped out a little. C’est la vie.

As anticipated, two hours later when my number was called the flight that I needed was sold out. I couldn’t help but laugh when the agent offered me a flight on Christmas Eve for “only” 250 Euros. Thank you SO much, I told her, but I’ll pass.

Well, back to the Como plan. I waded my way through the mess of humanity and into the train station to book a ticket to Como N. Lago FN. There was a transfer involved, which caused a twinge of nervousness as I don’t do well with those. But what choice did I have? I hurried onto my train. I wasn’t paying too much attention to the stops, to be honest, as I figured by the ticket prices that the transfer would be at least an hour in the making. Luckily I looked up at the right moment at one of the stops and saw that it was the one that I needed to get off at. Merde! So I gathered my things and stumbled my way off of the train just as the whistle sounded and the train set off. Again, this is one of the reasons that I like to be prepared for train travel: it’s so much easier if you know the times that you need to get off, instead of just the name. By this point I was so far beyond flustered and frazzled that I couldn’t even see them anymore. I caught a glimpse of myself in a stray mirror and groaned: my hair was one small step away from a giant dread lock, my makeup was smeared all over my face from rubbing my eyes in exasperation, and the 15 layers of clothing that I had on (more to be able to be able to close my overstuffed backpack than for warmth) made me look like a giant, frazzled-librarian style Pillsbury doughboy. Perfetto. No wonder that little girl had started crying when she saw me.

After a half-hearted attempt to scrub off my face, I boarded my last train of the day and made it into Como without further incident. Which was fortunate, as I was a hairbreadth away from snapping. It would only have taken one little thing more…one thing thrown onto the already towering pile of crap that was this day.

To my surprise, I felt a little of that long-lost exhilaration as we pulled into Como Nord. I saw the town duomo all lit up with Christmas lights and couldn’t help but feel a small tingle of excitement. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad after all, I thought. When I stepped off the train I immediately noticed that it was warmer here than in Milan. The snow was melting into big slushy puddles, the biggest of which I stepped right into as I walked off the train. Fantastico.
At this point I only wanted to find a hotel and crash, as the mad dashes of the day were finally getting to me. So I walked into the first Albergo that I saw, which was about a block from the train station. I asked how much one night would cost (not really caring as it was on Wizzair, but curious), and he gave me a quote for 40 Euros. Not bad, actually. It was way better than expected. So I dropped off my bag and then I decided to wander around town to find food and/or whisky. Whichever I came across first, really.

After checking out some of the ridiculously overpriced lakeside restaurants, I was about to give up. Then I spied a small hole-in-the-wall place that several people had just walked into. The crooked sign hanging over the door announced it as “Luca’s.” I could see foozeball and a few pool tables inside, so I decided to check it out. I immediately felt at home: they were playing “the Simpsons” on the wall TV, and it smelled like what can only be described as dinginess (the product of smoke and stale booze, along with some other component that I can’t define). I loved it. It reminded me of a local dive bar back in Seattle called Earl’s. That’s when it occurred to me that maybe in Italian “Luca’s” has the same connotations as “Earl’s” does in English. It’s funny how the Italian name sounds so much more graceful. Good to know that these homey places still exist on this side of the pond, though. I was getting worried.

By then I had all but given up on the idea of food and just wanted a drink. A whisky was sounding better by the minute, so I ordered one straight up. Then I looked around a little more and noticed a table full of little sandwiches and plates of vegetables; Aperitivo!! For once luck was on my side. I had walked in at just the right time for the nightly aperitivo (which is like the classy Italian-style buffet that comes with your drink). I was in heaven: I had a stiff drink and a plate full of food for only 4 euros. Good old Luca’s, ti amo!

After gorging myself and engaging in some small talk with the locals, I skipped back to my albergo and was out by 10 pm.

Wednesday, December 23rd, 2009:

Today I took a long, slushy walk around the shores of Lake Como. The reviews were right: this place is amazing in the snow. I’ll bet it’s even better in the summertime when you can feel your toes, but I’ll take whatever I can get. I wandered around taking pictures like a madman. I swear, this place is like a photographer’s wet dream. I’m definitely no expert, but for some reason I kept finding myself crouching down, trying to get the best angle for my award-winning shots. I couldn’t help it; everywhere I turned looked like a postcard come to life.

The town of Como itself is something to see as well. The duomo was just as impressive during the day as it had been when it was all lit up at night. And then there was the Christmas market….you know I can never resist a good market, this being no exception. And who doesn’t need a life-sized stuffed Santa Claus? I’m sure it’ll come in handy some day, you’ll see.

Well, the fun is over and now I’m off to Bergamo to spend my final night there before flying to Poland at 8am. Hopefully I’ll have better luck in round two.

Thursday, December 24, 2009 (Christmas Eve):

Merry freakin’ Christmas! I feel like the Bergamo airport staff all have hearts of stone. As did the policeman checking tickets on the train last night…he gave me a ticket for an honest mistake! Ok, so it wasn’t entirely honest. I had bought a train ticket from Milan to Como and then never used it, so I wanted to use it to get from Como to Bergamo, but the policeman didn’t see my way at all. I tried to use the fact that it was the same price to win him over, then when that failed I pulled the Christmas card, but he simply would not listen to reason. Oh, well. One more thing to put in the old scrapbook. It’s not my first ticket in a foreign country, and I’m sure it won’t be the last.

So apparently the Wizzair flight restrictions are even more strict than Ryanair, which was a shock to me as I thought you couldn’t get any more anal than that. Proven wrong yet again. They made me weigh my carry-on, then when it was 3 measly kilos over the limit the flight attendant told me I had to check the bag or leave it behind. Sure, I thought, I’ll just leave my $900 laptop here with you, why not? I explained that I couldn’t check the bag, as it had my computer in it. I tried once more to use the “but it’s Christmas Eve” card, but it fell on deaf ears. Hearts of stone! 3 kilos? Come on now. I was eventually forced to take out my laptop and check my backback, after being warned that I was only allowed one carry-on item so I would have to fit everything in the laptop case. “Sure, no problem,” I ground out sarcastically between clenched teeth. I usually try to be extra pleasant to people in the customer service field, as I’ve been in their shoes a time or two, but sometimes it’s a strain just to remain civil.

Instead of stuffing my purse into my tiny laptop case, I thought I’d be extra cunning and hide it under my jacket, thus passing it off as just another stomach roll. I thought it looked pretty convincing, up until I spied myself in the mirror. It looked exactly like what it was: a girl trying to smuggle in her contraband purse. I briefly considered putting it over my stomach and going for three months pregnant, but decided that it wouldn’t be worth the bad karma points earned.

It was all very ridiculous, especially as the total amount of my carry-on was now a lot smaller than the allowed amount. Does it really matter if it’s in one piece or two? I wasn’t taking any chances with these retentive discount carriers, though, so I stuffed like there was no tomorrow. I got a few strange looks in the bathroom, but what can you do? In the end I made it through without detection, although I’m not entirely sure how. I think the flight attendants were just in too much of a hurry, as I’m sure they would have liked nothing more than to make my life a little more hellish today. No, that’s not fair; I’m sure they’re just doing their jobs. Although I did get the distinct impression that Wizzair has it in for me.

The flight didn’t start boarding until after the scheduled take-off time, so I had no hope of making it into Katowice on time either. I was so relieved to finally be on the damn plane that I didn’t really care about the delays. The pilot tried to assure us that the winds were favorable, so we should still make it without too much delay, but we later discovered that he had made a slight miscalculation with those wind patterns. As we started to descend, suddenly the plane jerked back upward and the pilot laid on the gas pedal. Apparently he had been faking us out with the “prepare for arrival” announcement. A few minutes later he announced that we were circling the airport, waiting for the winds to change to a better direction. I recalled his “favorable winds” comment earlier with a smirk. It looks like I’m not the only one who can summon bad karma with one sentence.

Have you ever gotten the feeling that the entire cosmos is focused on preventing you from getting somewhere? I was starting to notice a pattern in all of this. How many more signs could there be telling me not to go to Poland? I glared at the sky and thought “Too bad! I’m going even if it kills me!” and then I hurriedly looked for some wood to knock on. Superstition may be regarded as silly, but I always feel that it’s better to error on the side of paranoia than not.

So now here I am on the last leg of my trip to Poland, in a cute wooden cabin car in a rickety old train. I was mildly scared for my life for a bit there at the train station, but managed to avoid any major incidents. The station was the kind of place that I wouldn’t want to be in after dark. It was only noon and I saw at least 3 disheveled drunk men stumbling around. One of them tried to sit on a bench next to me but missed and sat on the floor instead. I feel you, buddy, I thought. Then I got up and hurriedly walked away. Note to self: avoid troppo Polish vodka.

Now I have only two more hours until my stop at Koluszki, where Olga will pick me up and take me to her home sweet home. Oh, I can’t even describe how excited I am to finally be here. Three days of complete and utter hell have led to this moment. I can only hope that the end was worth the means....

Friday, December 4, 2009

Italian Fashion

I am continually struck by the fact that Italy challenges all conventional wisdom on gender-related fashion that has been instilled in me practically since birth. They should post signs at the airport saying that all traditional rules about what men and women should wear do not apply here. Nothing is sacred: Italian men wear more pink and purple than any other color, tighter pants than a hooker in Hollywood, they pluck their eyebrows with reckless abandon, and they wax every other part of their body. It makes for interesting people-watching, I tell you, but enough is enough.

I'm from Seattle, where you can wear a Santa suit in July and no one would blame you. Ok, yes, it would be strange and cause much laughter, but you wouldn't be judged for it. Here I can't walk down the street in flip flops without earning disgusted glances.

As a result I am starting to think that I am in the wrong country. It would be one thing if it were truly a culture where “anything goes.” But in fact the culture here is just as judgmental as anywhere else, if not more so. They just have a skewed view on what is appropriate for public apparel (aka neon-colored jeans and down coats that look like cheap black plastic interspersed with rubber bands to hold everything together. Seriously).

The other day I popped into one of the local clothing stores which looked about right for my style (ok, my price range). However, I was shocked and appalled at what I saw inside. It was a very gruesome sight, and I’m not exaggerating. On first glance I saw rack after rack of moderately cute collared dress shirts. But on further inspection I saw that the shirts went down and included snap-on underwear. That’s right, snap-on underwear attached to the shirt, known to babies the world over. The Italians have combined grunders and business shirts. Sweet Jesus, I dropped that shirt like a hot potato and ran for the door. I left feeling very disappointed with Italian style, as well as very nervous for the future of American fashion. The US tends to echo the Italian trends after about a 6 month delay, so maybe I’ll just have to move to Asia for the next year or so until this storm blows over. Or maybe Brazil: they seem to be very fashion-conscious there.

I do love a lot of things about Italy (the amazing food, generous people and the well-trodden atmosphere that permeates the air here to name a few) but the preoccupation with fashion is not one of them. A sweatshirt and jeans is my favorite winter ensemble, and although I consider myself to be a reasonably flexible person, I refuse to ever subject myself to purple pants. It's never going to happen. Oh, well. At least there's pasta.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Cypriot Football

When living in Cyprus I happened to make friends with a player on their national football club. Unfortunately I never got to see him play, as the official season didn't start until after I left, but I was able to finangle an invitation to an unofficial regional match. I wasn't expecting a big game, as Patrick referred to it as just a small "friendly" match, but it could have passed for a Real Madrid game based on insanity-level alone.

I could see that the football match was crowded from about a mile away, as the streets were packed with cars parked in every available space. Patrick found (or rather, created) a spot close by, and we all piled out. When I walked through the gate, a woman searched my bag very thoroughly, pulling every item out and examining it before putting it back. Of course I had packed a box of tampons that day, which are always fun to air in public. Those she inspected extra carefully, as if suspecting that I had slipped a lethal weapon into the padding. I wasn’t worried, as I couldn’t think of anything in there that would be a problem. But lo and behold, she eventually confiscated a ballpoint pen and a wine glass left in my purse from the previous night's wine festival. I was a bit flabbergasted, for lack of a better word. I asked her why I couldn't take them in, and she demonstrated (speaking very slowly, as if to a small, slow child) that I could stab someone with the pen, and break the glass on someone’s head. I felt my first twinge of nervousness. This was my first clue that I had inadvertently walked into a den of lunatics.

Before the game I had confidently told Patrick of how I’d been to a football match in Brazil, and I didn’t think this could be any crazier than that. Well, it turns out that Brazil has nothing on Cyprus. Who knew that this little island in the Mediterranean would harbor a large concentration of possessed football nuts? I was told that this was a “friendly regional” match, so it shouldn’t be too out of control. It turns out that “not too out of control” involves riot police, fires started in the stands, and fans attacking the players. I will not be attending any higher level football matches in Cyprus, at least without a hazmat suit and a helmet.

Let me explain: we ended up sitting in what I would assume were the cheap seats, as there were still a few empty when we got there. It was at one end of the field, but the view was still good. I’m glad we were out of the main action, really. It got pretty dicey at the other end of the stadium. At one point during the second half I looked up to see black smoke billowing up from one of the grandstands. Someone had started a fire! They cleared that section, put the fire out, and re-seated the fans all within 10 minutes, never pausing the game at all. Business as usual, I assume.

After the fire, the rest of the game was relatively event-free. Even so, just before the game ended the riot police started circling the field. They were wielding shields, tasers, and the whole enchilada, much to my amazement. Looking back, I don't know why I was shocked, given the previous display of pyrotechnics. Then again, I'm not the quickest bunny in the forest. I asked Patrick what they were there for, and he told me that it was to protect the players. I still couldn’t believe it. Why would anyone hurt the players? Didn’t they have any loyalty? Then he told me a heartwarming story about how one time when his team lost a game, the fans actually stoned them! The players had to make a run for their bus, then the "fans" broke all of the windows with rocks as they were leaving. These people have lost their minds, all over a sport. I mean, I enjoy watching soccer with the best of them, but it would never occur to me to attack someone for missing a shot or losing a game...at least not in a local match.

In any case, the game came to an unremarkable conclusion: there were a few failed shots at the goal, and the final score was 0-0. I was somewhat relieved: if there weren’t any goals scored, and no one really lost, then the fans wouldn’t have anything to riot over, right? Oh, Cassie, you silly, naive girl. Apparently those failed goal shots pissed some people off enough to take their frustration out on the players. We ended up getting locked in the stadium for at least a half hour after the game, as a fight had broken out outside. I’m not sure why the police thought that locking a huge group of people inside the stadium would help; I could think of a few holes in their plan, but I refrained from pointing them out. I had already lost my pen, and I didn’t want them to confiscate my tampons as well.

Finally we were let go, free to sit through hours of traffic trying to leave the crowded parking lot. As we waited I pondered over the reason that some people have completely lost sight of the fact that sports are supposed to be played for fun, exercise, and entertainment. At what point did regular fans turn into rabid, fire-starting, rock-throwing fanatics? This is not life or death, people. In Seattle we joke about “fair-weather fans,” but these guys invented it! I can only imagine what an “unfriendly” game is like in Cyprus…no thanks, I choose life.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Attack of the Italian Shoes

We've all heard the stereotypes about Italians and their shoes. When I lived in Perugia, I didn't see that many people noticed what type of shoes that I wore. Here in Torino, though, flip flops are looked at with unveiled disgust, and tennishoes are barely tolerated. Every time I pass people on the street, they never fail to look down at my shoes before usually dismissing me and walking on. I don't know if it's the proximity to Milan, world fashion capital, or if there is some peculiarity to Torino that makes people judge each other by their shoes. Either way, it drives me insane. However, being the ever-practical person that I am, I decided to bite the bullet and buy some Italian shoes, in hopes of deflecting the attention from my not-so-stunning feet. Seriously, I was starting to get a complex. I had to go shopping, for my own mental health, I tell you!

At the end of the day I may have gotten a tad over-excited...ok, ok, I bought 3 new pairs of shoes in one fell swoop. I told myself that it was an investment, for the teaching interviews that I needed to go to (two of which I had the following day). So what if it cost give-or-take 100 Euros? You have to spend some to make something, right? I was able to thoroughly justify my shopaholicity, and therefore keep the happy glow that comes with acquiring new toys. Oh, I was so innocent, so unaware of the horrors of Interview Day.

Monday, October 5th:

The day started out with so much promise (new shoes and two interviews), and ended in so much pain (mostly from said new shoes, aka Devil’s Handiwork). It now looks like I was mauled by a bear from the ankles down, I am so covered in bandages and blisters. And those weren’t even from my new heels!

I woke up around noon, had a leisurely breakfast and shower before belatedly realizing that I still needed to print out copies of my resume before heading over to the other end of town for my first interview. The subsequent panic-induced flurry of activity led to the biggest mistake of my day: not taking a pair of flip flops with me for transit-wear. I got ready as quickly as possible, then off I went, sporting my new stylin' black Italian flats. I managed to print off some copies of my resume with time to spare, but as I made my way towards my first interview I couldn’t help but notice that my feet were starting to really feel the new shoes. Hmm, curious, as they felt so comfortable in the store. By the time I got there I was working on at least 3 blisters that I could see, and I could feel at least 3 more on the way. I panicked: what to do? I was across town from my apartment, and even if I was right there I didn’t have any comfortable shoes that were suitable for an interview. So I told myself to suck it up (the first of many times on that hellish day), and I bravely forged on into the first school.

I waited to cross the street, as is my usual habit, to see when the women with strollers would choose to challenge the relentless Italian drivers. I figure that if they can take their child’s life into their hands, then I’ll go with them (see The Stroller Rule for more details). Usually this is a pretty good rule of thumb that hasn’t led me too far astray. Today, though, I was totally unable to keep up with two momma's pushing their sizeable strollers. That’s right-I was limping along so badly that even strollers were passing me like I was standing still. This made for a harrowing experience crossing the street. At every intersection I had to carefully plan when to step out into traffic, accounting for the extra time that it would take. So this is what it’s like to be 80 years old, I thought to myself as I shuffled across yet another busy street after taking too long to make the green light. There was just no way to walk at a normal speed. At one point I stubbed my toe on an upraised cobblestone and screamed like a little girl. I wondered what would happen if, God forbid, someone stepped on my whole foot right now? I’d probably pass out from the pain! As it was I was seeing red and hyperventilating. I started daring the cars to hit me, just to end the agony.

At long last I made it to my first interview. I limped up the stairs into the school, not noticing much about the décor as I was quite consumed by pain. When I sat down in the waiting room I had a chance to look around, though, and I was surrounded by beautiful, familiar books (all in English!). There were shelves and shelves of them, and not just dusty old non-fictions: there were slacker books, too! Danielle Steele, Wilbur Smith, and Stephen King novels lined the walls around me. Yep, I could fit in here, I thought.

Overall the interview went well, and I relished the chance to rest my feet for a half an hour while chatting with the program director. When we were finished, I rose off the comfy chair, stiff and painfully aware of my new shoes. I limped back down the stairs, whimpering at the injustice of it all, and as I hit the sidewalk an extra-sharp spasm of pain radiated from my feet. I knew I couldn’t make it across town to the next interview without some serious patchwork. Unfortunately I had no idea where to go. What I needed was a pair of stockings, but where to find them? At the point my feet were at, I needed some nice fluffy bandages, but I’d settle for a pack of bandaids. The one that I had donned at the beginning of the day was already ripped to shreds. So I stopped into a farmacia that I had spotted on the way in and hoped that they would have something.

It turns out that they did have something similar to bandaids (for an outrageous fee of 10 Euros), but it turned out to be one huge strip that you could tape on. I bought two, then staggered out the door. I looked in vain for a public bench to sit at in order to don my new bandages, but of course there were none to be found. After a brief hesitation I sat on down at one of the cafes, with no intention of ordering something. I hoped to only be there for a minute or two, but naturally it wasn’t that easy. I opened up the packet, which contained one huge bandage. I tried to rip it in half with my hands, but it didn’t budge at all. Teeth couldn’t get the job done, either. Hmm…I looked through my purse for something sharp. First I tried cutting it with one of the horns of my little Viking key chain (it looked decently sharp) but the bandage broke the horn clean off of the poor Viking! Next I tried a bottle opener, but that didn’t have a chance either. Finally I was reduced to poking little holes in the bandage with a ballpoint pen. I can only imagine what I looked like, hunched over and frantically poking at my huge bandaid like a madwoman. Finally my hard work paid off, and I almost cried in relief. I quickly put one half on one of my blisters, then the other on the worst one. I was already dreading how much it would hurt to peel these off of the blisters later, but I didn’t have time to come up with a better plan. I stuck the second one around my whole heel, then carefully donned my Satan-shoes again.

As I gathered my stuff together to leave I looked up and noticed three of the waitstaff looking at me curiously. Flushing beetred, I apologized and tried to collect myself enough to casually saunter off down the street. I don’t think I quite managed to achieve 'casual' status (surprise surprise); I looked more like a 90 year old war veteran with a peg leg. All I needed was a cane.

Thankfully my patch job worked pretty well; I could still feel the blisters, but at least they weren’t getting any worse. I made it to the next interview right on time. This one didn’t go so well; they weren’t willing to hire me on without a work visa (which is impossible for an American to get), and they weren’t crazy about me leaving in February either. But we went through the motions all the same, and I said my goodbyes. Eh: win some, lose some. At that point I was beyond caring anyway. It was all I could do to keep coherent, when every cell in my body was screaming at me. I'm lucky that they didn't lock me up, really.

I staggered home as quickly as my bloodied stumps (formerly known as feet) would allow, with as few steps as humanely possible, then threw my shoes off the balcony. Well, at least I have unmasked the secret of the slow Italian pace; it’s because they’re all in too much pain from their shoes to walk any faster. Mystery unveiled! I think I'll stick to my flip flops from now on, thank you.

Friday, November 13, 2009

My philosophy on Talent

I was thinking about my incredibly talented friend Tamara today, and started thinking that it’s just not fair for one person to have so many natural abilities, while the rest of us are left floating in the breeze with no discernable talents whatsoever. But then I decided that everyone must have SOME talent in some area. I mean, theoretically I could be extremely gifted at playing the bagpipes, but I’ve never tried it, so it’s just lain there undiscovered my whole life. That’s the tricky part about talent: people don’t come with any instructions as to what we’re best used for, so we just have to get out there and try to figure it all out ourselves. The ones with the obvious talents (such as vocal and musical abilities) have a much better chance of figuring it out than those of us with bagpipe talents. So I guess that my solution, conveniently enough for me, is to go out and try as many things as possible until I find my talent. Nothing personal against bagpipe players, but I really hope that that isn’t my true calling.

The Stroller Rule

What I have determined after months of battling the Italian way of life is that you just have to know how the system works, and then life is infinitely easier. Take crossing the street, for example. For my first two months here I utilized the Stroller Rule: When the women with strollers cross the street, I cross the street (preferably with the stroller in between me and the oncoming traffic). I’ve found that this is the safest bet, though there is the occasional suicidal mother that darts in front of the screaming traffic, wielding her baby like a baseball bat. You would think that when the older people cross the street that it would be a safe time as well, but that is definitely a myth here. The elderly have nothing to lose, so they’re crazier than the rest (which is really saying something).

I still follow the Stroller Rule whenever possible, but there’s always the predicament of what to do when there are no strollers present. I always try to wait until there are no cars coming, but even then as soon as I hit the pavement a little Fiat will come racing towards me as if by magnetic pull. I swear they speed up for pedestrians, just to see if they can provoke noticeable signs of terror. The other day, after waiting for about 10 minutes to cross a busy intersection, I had a breakthrough: to cross the street in Italy, you have to be willing to die. I was so exasperated that I thought to myself “Cassie, you’ve led a decent, fulfilling life, so if you happen to get run over right now, it wouldn’t be that terrible.” After this realization, I stepped unflinchingly down onto the crosswalk and the most miraculous thing happened: the cars actually stopped to wait for me to cross! I couldn’t believe it. I felt like they must have sensed my new indifference towards life and slowed down, perhaps out of deference to my instability. Oh, mio Dio, I am becoming Italian.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

A weekend in Thessaloniki

(Notes from my Journal)

Sunday, August 16th 2009:

I’ve heard before that Greeks are generally a very loud and expressive bunch. After 3 days in Thessaloniki I saw nothing to contradict that statement. I stayed with my Greek friend Sofia, and was able to catch an inside glimpse of how they live there. Sofia and her family kept getting into these huge, loud conversations in Greek, complete with lots of hand motions and shouting. When I asked her what was wrong, she just looked at me in blank surprise and said “Oh, nothing! My mother just wanted to know what we wanted for dinner!” I quickly found out that this was the norm.

Sofia's parents were simply adorable. I quickly learned a few good Greek suck-up phrases so that I could compliment her mother's cooking, which resulted in ever more food being piled onto my plate. I think I gained about 5 pounds in three days there, as the pictures will show.

Sofia and her older brother both still live with their parents (as is the custom there) in a small flat in a well-off part of the city. When I told her mother that I no longer live with my parents, she became visibly upset. She started muttering in Greek, and Sofia just shook her head and told me "I never should have translated that. She's very worried about you now." Her mother just had no idea how families could move away from each other like that. It was at this point that Sofia's mother located my parents' phone number from when I had called them the night before and took the liberty of calling them again for me. This would normally be fine, but then I looked at the clock and did the math: it was about 3am in Seattle. I quickly hung up, hoping that the call hadn't woken them up. I tried to explain to her that it's normal in the US for kids to move out of the house when they turn 18, and the idea was just inconceivable to her. "I would miss my children too much if they ever left me," she said. Momma mia!

I asked Sofia if it ever felt a bit claustrophobic, living with her parents at age 26, but she seemed very content with the situation. "Why would I want to leave?" she asked me, "My parents cook for me all of the time, and it's so much cheaper this way. My mom even does my laundry!" Hmm. I began to see where our differences lay. I can't speak for all other Americans, of course, but I know that MY mother would never put up with doing all of my cooking and cleaning if I still lived with my parents. I would get a swift kick to the rear for even trying that one. Hell, she didn't even do that before I was 18! We all had to pull at least some of our own weight, which I can now appreciate. I wonder if Sofia's parents ever resent their continued responsibilities for their grown children, or if that's just what they expected to do. Either way, it was interesting to see the different mentalities between Greece and the US.

Every time we left the apartment in the next three days, Sofia's parents were there waving goodbye to us over the balcony. It was so sweet; I just wanted to put them in my pocket and take them home with me. And if they wanted to cook and clean for me that would be fine, too.

Every night Sofia took me out to someplace new. The first night was pretty slow: we just sat at a bar all night with two of Sofia’s friends and chatted. I visited in August, and apparently most of Thessaloniki was gone that particular week on vacation, just like in Cyprus. And here I thought I was going to one of the exotic locations that people vacation TO, but apparently not. So they leave tropical Cyprus and beautiful Greece - where the hell do they all GO, I ask you? I wasn't surprised, to tell the truth; I have terrible timing when it comes to planning anything, so it would stand to reason that I would visit Greece when most of the actual Greeks are gone.

Well, we managed to cause a decent amount of trouble without the crowds. We stayed out til around 5am every night I was there. I’m still trying to adjust to waking up before 3pm (rough life, right?). The second day we went to the beach. I tried to tell Sofia that we didn’t need to go, as I lived near the beach on an island, but she would have none of it. I was going to a "real Greek beach", not some Cyprus wannabe, and that was that. So we went, hung out and drank beer at the beach all day while I snickered at the fantastically colorful speedos that were on display. One of my long-lasting grievances about living in Europe is the prevalence of speedos on every beach that you go to. Back home, I was only occasionally accosted by the sight of a pot-bellied old man in a bright red speedo, but unfortunately it's in fashion for all ages here. I strongly believe that male butt-floss should be avoided at all costs, for the good of humanity. They don't look good on anyone, so why people persist in wearing them is a mystery to me. Maybe I should make protest signs for my next beach day. Hmm.

2:00 pm:
As you may know, I detest blanket statements. So I am saying the following solely based on my limited 3 day exposure to Greek culture. Everyone that I met was very fond of saying that “all good things come from Greece.” I thought it was cute, and also incredibly arrogant at the same time. I feel like serious national pride like that is virtually unknown to the US (at least in Seattle). Sofia kept telling me that certain things are only found in Greece, but I learned to take that with a bucket of salt. For example, Greek “Frappe’s” (literally just coffee with ice in it), and the Bozooka (concert with people sitting around tables eating), didn’t seem terribly original to me. Don't get me wrong; I had a blast there. It was definitely fun, but it just didn’t strike me as being terribly different from other parts of the world. The pompousness started to annoy me.

On Saturday night, we started out at a bar around 9pm. As soon as we ordered drinks they brought out complimentary plates of food to munch on. This time there was a banana-split-like concoction! It's a good thing that I was only there for three days, or they would need a forklift to get me out. Anyway, Sofia’s friend Christos (that’s right, Christ) met up with us around 11, and they all proceeded to talk in rapid Greek for the next two hours. I try to pay attention and look interested in these situations, but there’s only so many smiles that you can fake when you don’t understand more than five words of the language. I tried using some of my newly-acquired Greek lingo, but unfortunately “Hi, nice to meet you, I’m hungry” only gets you so far. Who knew?

Anyway, around 1:30 am we left the bar to go watch a “Bozooka” performance. Sofia reassured me that this was one unique aspect of Greek culture that I had to experience, so I was game. It turned out to be a concert, led by a singer called Nikos Mecropolis, where people were sitting around dinner tables. They ate and drank, and occasionally got up and danced on the tables. The problem was that we couldn’t get a table for a group of 4, so we stood in the aisle the whole time, which kind of diminished the experience. Still, I genuinely like traditional Greek music, and this was no exception. I must remember to pick up a CD from good old Nikos at some point.

16:30 pm at the airport:
Do you know how many Greek singers are freaking named Nikos?? I am looking through the CD store, trying to find Nikos Mecropolis, but everyone and their mom has that same first name. It doesn’t help that everything is listed in Greek. Oh well, I’ll have to look for this CD when I have more time and inclination.

16:55 pm:
By Superman’s panties, these Greek’s crack me up. I’m now more or less positive that the concept of cutting is completely lost on this culture. I had no less than six little old ladies toddle over and blatantly cut me off in the line to board the plane. I mean, really? We’re all getting on; it’s not like they shut the doors after the first 50 people! At first I was very annoyed, but after little old lady #4 cut me off I decided to be amused. This is just too ridiculous to be taken seriously.

17:05 pm:
After staying with Sofia and using her shower, I am eternally grateful for the previously scorned trickle of a shower that’s in our Cyprus apartment. At least that shower is tall enough for me to stand up straight in, even if it takes a good 20 minutes to get enough water out of it for a rinse off. Literally, Sofia’s “shower” (and I use the term loosely) was raised up off of the ground so that it couldn’t have been more than 5’7” high. Good times for the Amazon, I tell you. To top it off it was incredibly narrow and slippery to boot. It was on shower #3 that I discovered that you’re supposed to sit down in it. Euww-talk about gross, try putting your bare butt to Greek porcelain. Needless to say I decided to forego the whole debacle today and remain stinky and hairy. Come and get me, boys!

17:10 pm:
Absorptive towels are also an undiscovered jewel in Greece. Must remember to bring a cartful next time.

17:12 pm:
Walking around Sofia’s neighborhood, it became clear that they have a very close-knit community. We saw her dad hanging out with his cronies in the town square twice in two days. I thought back to Seattle where things are, well, a bit different. The two cities are roughly the same size (~1 million) but Thessaloniki felt a lot more intimate. Sofia knew all of the shopowners, and a good deal of the people on the street as well. That occasionally happens with my parents out in the FC, but rarely do I recognize people in the streets of Seattle.

17:30 pm:
Don’t you just love it when you break down and run to catch a plane/train/bus because you think you’re late, then it turns out that you had time after all? I feel like I’ve done that a lot on this trip, and it never fails to turn me into a flustered mess. Running = bad. That is the basic moral of this story.

17:32 pm:
Moving on up in the world: usually the screaming obnoxious brat is in the row ahead of me on the plane, but this time I’m the lucky winner who gets to sit right next to it. I’m learning new things, though. For instance, did you know that a 30 pound toddler can shake the entire row when she jumps up and down repeatedly? Thank Dio for IPods, that’s all I can say. Well, that and “where’s Jack when I need him?” At least I can drown out the screaming, even if I’m bouncing up and down the whole flight.

18:00 pm:
You have to love mystery meat. I feel like all airplane food should come with labels. It’s only fair.

I think I am developing a notable caffeine addiction. Eh, what’s another vice to add to the list? Oh flight attendant, can you please add some coffee to my Bailey’s?

20:00 pm:
Everyone in the plane burst into applause when we hit the runway. I am so reassured.

22:00 pm:
I'm back at Home Sweet Swepco (that's the curiously unidentifiable name of our apartment complex. Is it Greek? Is it Cypriot? Or just a random correlation of letters? We may never know). Sofia and her parents all cried when I left, which of course caused me to start crying. It was a messy scene. Her mother stuffed two jars of homemade jam into my bag, as well as a packed lunch (the jam was of course confiscated by the heartless airport security guards, who are probably enjoying my homemade jam as we speak. Jerks). I asked her if she was sure she couldn't just come home with me, but she just laughed. I don't think she knew that I was serious, but I didn't insist. I guess I'll just have to settle for coming back to visit them as often as possible. Sofia's parents waved from their balcony as we pulled out to go to the airport. I kept waving until they were out of sight. I think I am quite in love with Greece.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Nicosia Escapade

In our month of living in Limassol, Cyprus, Laurissa and I had plenty of adventures (when we weren't studying for our TEFL course, that is). The "intensive one-month course" that I had read about online translated in island lingo to two and a half hours of class starting at 3pm during the week. Needless to say we had adequate time to cause trouble.

One of my favorite escapades was when we visited Nicosia, the divided capital city. I had been hoping for a crazy, possibly illegal mini-adventure (preferably with guns and pretty soldiers ;). Well, we did see a few busloads of soldiers (not to worry, I got about 5 pictures of them - subtly of course), but they looked like they were sightseeing. No shooting or guns involved; just uniforms. That’s really the best part anyway, right?

We started around 10am, when our delightfully unlovable school director Antonis dropped us off at one end of the old city. We headed straight to the dividing wall between the Greek Cyprus and the unrecognized Turkish occupied side. We followed our little map through these dingy back roads and eventually found the fence, which was made up of plastic water barrels strapped together and barbed wire on the top. As far as intimidating barriers go, this wasn’t at the top of my list. I guess it did the trick, though. We followed it for a few blocks, looking for an entrance. There were signs up saying things like “Danger! No trespassing or photography!” Of course, that only made me want to take a picture even more. Just when I went to pull out the camera I noticed that a guard sitting in a rickety tower was watching us like a hawk. He could probably tell that I was the criminal type; I might have infiltrated their water barrel defense system if left to my own devices.

Since my dastardly plan was foiled, we decided to head back into civilization to get some lunch. Right away we ran into a big, arrow-shaped stone wall. There was a monument on top (no idea what for, as ushe). We finally figured out that it was part of the old town wall, which went in a circle around both the Turkish and Greek sides of the old city. It was pretty cool: the circle had arrows pointing out of it about every few hundred feet. Between two of them was a soccer field. Yep, still in Europe. I love the endless ways that the old is blended with the new here; it seems like every time you go around a corner you see an ancient monument next to a quintessentially modern object (like a Prius).

Well, we were having no luck finding a good place to eat, so, to my utter embarrassment we ended up going to a Chili’s chain restaurant. This is especially sad because as soon as we had sat down and ordered we discovered that there was a nice little Greek restaurant attached to it. Ah, well, that’s how it always goes. We were sitting right outside on the patio, and this older man came up and asked us if anyone had been there. I was totally confused at first, then I figured out that he was asking if we had been helped yet. We told him yes, we had, but he ended up sticking around to chat anyway. It turns out that he was the restaurant owner. He owned the Chili’s and the Greek restaurant next door. Over the next 20 minutes he not only told us his life story, but his father’s and grandfather’s as well. Damn, these Cypriots are chatty! He was very sweet, though, and entertaining. Apparently one of his sons went to college in Washington DC, and the other in Minnesota. And his wife worked at a souvenir shop down the road. (I know you were curious). We took pictures with him, then at his request went and showed them to his wife. She looked mildly amused, but like she had played this game before a time or two.

Then we headed back toward the occupied side, which apparently was a cinch to get into if you just followed the main road that we were originally on. So we continued down it, then came to a small sign that said “the last divided city”. We went past, and got in line to enter the Turkish side. I noticed that there wasn't a water barrel in sight. They had totally classed-up the public parts of the dividing wall with actual cement walls. No wonder they didn't want pictures of the rest of the fence-I'd be embarrassed too.

Anyway, after about 15 minutes we were all stamped and approved to go in. We wandered down a colorful alley full of candid little shops. Now, Laurissa and I are both avid fans of the sport of shopping, so we are easily distracted in these situations. We quickly realized that the shopping there was way cheaper than on the other side of the border, which made it even more impossible to resist the call of the materialist. Eventually we made our way to a little café, so we decided to sit down and have some Turkish coffee. We sat by a group of older gentleman, who told us which coffee was the best type to get there (the Turkish coffee, obvi). The waitress brought out two small shot glasses of coffee with two cups of water. I had no idea how to handle this, so I looked at the old men for guidance. They said to take a sip, then add a little water to the cup. I thought that sounded a tad strange, but I'm not one to look a gift horse in the mouth when he's offering coffee advice. I needn't have worried about watered-down coffee; this stuff was good and strong, without any of the usual trappings. One shot was definitely enough.

We started talking to our neighbors, who were all quite nice. Right away I could tell that they were regulars, since they knew everyone who walked in, and most of the people walking by. They were all around 60-70 years old, so it was like hanging out with my grandpa. When I was done with my shot, one of them (Costas was his name, like practically every other Greek male) came over and told me that he could read my fortune from my coffee cup. The coffee grinds were at the bottom still, so he told me to put the saucer over the coffee, then flip it over. After a little while he flipped it back over, then looked into the cup. It reminded me of reading fortunes from tea leaves, which I have never bought into, but it was all good fun so I went along with it.

Well, this fortune took at least 20 minutes for him to read. Needless to say the man was longwinded. He talked about how I needed to let someone go, and how I will look at a map of the world and randomly choose where I head to next. This is a definite possibility at the rate I’m going. Then he read Laurissa's coffee grinds, and (what do you know?) her fortune was much the same as mine had been, and just as long. I think his fortune-telling skills would be more effective if delivered one at a time, so people don't see how similar they all are. All the same, it was entertaining.

Anyway, after coffee they invited us to join them. At first we declined, saying that we wanted to go see some sights first. We checked out a cool-looking mosque near the café, then dabbled in a few more shops. Eventually we did meet up with the Turks again, at a little restaurant on the main street. It was different kinds of Turkish and Lebanese food. My fave was what they called a Turkish pizza, which was flat bread with minced meat, garlic, and diced tomatoes. Yum! Of course, we had just eaten about an hour earlier, so we were planning on only getting something to drink, but they would have none of that! We were given the whole extended meal, complete with Baclava and Turkish beer. I enjoyed the bottles, which were squat and fat. We finally had to leave and meet up with dear Antonis, but they insisted on paying for everything. How's that for hospitality?

So, as far as danger and excitement go, Nicosia was a definite bust. But the people were amazingly nice and generous on both sides of the border. Of course, it doesn't hurt that Laurissa is thin, tan, and could be a supermodel if she wanted to. This tends to make people a lot more friendly than they would otherwise be (i.e. when I am by myself). In any case, I will definitely have to go back there someday.