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.

Monday, November 9, 2009

"Clan Fitness"

I survived my first and last Italian workout class today. I've been feeling a bit "fluffy" around the midsection lately, so I finally bit the bullet and decided to try this new form of public humiliation. I normally avoid exercising in public like the plague, since it never ends well for me, but I really had no other choice: the weather in Torino has been frigid and rainy for the last week, so I am more or less confined indoors. I did make a few solid attempts at hiking, but I prefer not to become a human popsicle if I can possibly avoid it. A gym began to sound more and more appealing, despite the fact that I knew it would be full of tiny, perfectly made-up Italians.

I should have known something was off the minute that I read the name of this particular gym; Clan Fitness. I don’t care who you are, that just sounds creepy. But it was close to my apartment, and they offered a lot of different classes, so I decided to give it a try. I showed up in my baggy sweats to find that my first assumption had been right: the gym was full of beautiful, skinny, perfectly composed Italians in expensive, clingy workout gear. I looked down at my shabby outfit (usually reserved for sleepwear) and noticed that I had a big chocolate stain on my sweatshirt. Typical.

The next class that they were having was called “Total Body.” I didn’t really know what that entailed, but I figured that I could use a whole body workout, so I signed up for it. Just my luck, it turned out to be a step class, which as we all know is a klutz’s worst nightmare. Seriously, I can’t imagine anything more torturous than trying to maintain the appearance of coordination while being instructed to jump around an unsecured box on the floor, arms flailing, to the beat of a bad pop remix. Sounds fun, huh? Oh, but it gets worse.

The trainer happily bounced into the room (the prerequisite five minutes late, of course) sporting a pair of workout pants that could have been painted on, and a low-cut tank top complete with spaghetti straps across the chest to further emphasize her, ahem, assets. Naturally I disliked her immediately. I was prepared to be entertained, though, as I was curious to see what would happen to all of these perfectly poised Italian women once they actually had to sweat. Would they call for a break to go fix their makeup? Would they freak out and leave the class? Or would they compromise their flawlessness by staying and sweating it out. Well, they did stay, and they made it through the class with infinitely more dignity than I did, unfortunately.

Someone had tipped the instructor off about the Americana in the class today, so she wasted no time pointing me out to everyone right from the beginning. I had been hoping to discretely hide in my corner until the hour was up, but luck was not on my side today. I was obliged to tell the entire class my name, where I was from, and that I didn’t speak a lot of Italian. This was followed by what I am assuming were numerous jokes at my expense, but I didn’t catch most of it. I did understand, however, when the instructor shouted out “Lei non capisce niente!” (“She doesn’t understand anything!”) during one of the frenzied pop-techno songs that she persisted in playing. Silly woman! I may not know much Italian, but of course I know how to say that I don’t understand Italian. Ironically, the next song that played was the highly inappropriate “I wanna f#%k” which is very popular in the clubs these days. As our trainer sang along to the explicit chorus I couldn’t help but laugh out loud. And she had accused ME of not understanding- at least I wasn’t coming on to a room full of people!

Don’t get me wrong; this was all delivered in fun, and I’m sure it wasn’t intended to offend. It was the combination of that and being forced to see myself exercising (naturally the room was covered in mirrors) that made me want to crawl into a dark hole and never come out. I have never understood how aerobics instructors do it; they somehow make these complicated series of exercises look easy and graceful. No matter how hard I try to emulate them, I come out of it looking like the bull in the china shop. Even if I hadn’t been the only non-Italian in the class, I would still have been one of the “special” students. I am always told that my posture, positioning, and timing are off during these little lapses in sanity that I call working out in public. I’m fine as long as they stick to one movement at a time, but unfortunately it’s rarely that simple. In today’s class we were expected to somehow dance on and around the boxes while simultaneously waving our arms around like it was going out of style. Who can blame me for falling off of the step a couple of times? The instructor traded off from trying to help me to just laughing at my natural inabilities, which is totally understandable. I was laughing at myself most of the time, so I can’t really fault anyone else for doing the same. Finally the hour came to an end, and I felt bruised and broken, but still alive. The Clan hadn't gotten to me this time. The instructor came up and asked what I thought of her class. “Era facile,” I replied in Italian. Piece of cake.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Italian Punk Rock

Why is it that after a long night of drinking I involuntarily wake up at the crack of dawn? Oh, yeah, because my body hates me and wants me to suffer. Either that or I’m just a sado-masochist that likes to go through life hungover when I should be sleeping peacefully. I can’t decide.

So, last night Ola and I went out to the much-loved (and loathed) Murazzi strip on the river. We love it because it's a quarter-mile long strip of clubs, which never fails to entertain, but we hate it because it is invariably full of malacas. Last night, however, it was pretty much dead, probably due to the sub-zero temperatures that Torino has reached. Can it please snow already so that I can at least get some snowboarding out of this deal? Sheesh!

Anyway, we decided to head down to the Parco Valentino to check out the Chalet (a new nightspot that we’d never been to before). To our relief, the Chalet was packed full of people, and the venue was huge, which always helps. We waded through the crowd, scoping out the scene. Right as I went to pull Ola up onto the stage with me (I just wanted a better view, I swear!), a grumpy middle-aged bouncer started kicking everybody off of it. Dangit, plan foiled. We stayed close to the stage anyway, to see what the fuss was about. We quickly discovered the reason; there was a band about to take the stage. I got to see what an “Italian punk band” looks like up close and personal, and it was about what I would expect to see after living here for two months; the lead singer, while suitably emaciated according to the Rules of Punk Rock, was sporting knee-high boots with black fishnet tights, a plaid kilt complete with cumberbund, and a tight tank top. Oh, and he was male, of course. The backup singer was wearing a gold lamé jacket and a cowboy hat. Ah, Italy, ti amo! Pictures to follow.

What was even more hilarious was the fans. There were several male groupies that kept jumping onto the stage and grabbing the singers, prompting my fave middle-aged bouncer to keep throwing them off. We had no idea what the songs were about, but whatever was being said up there had everyone in a tizzy. Ola and I had a first-hand look at an Italian mosh pit, and let me tell you, I almost wet myself. It was like watching a group of high-maintenance cheerleaders at a Korn concert; they were all too concerned about messing up their hair to do much more than bounce up and down. It was cute, really. You can't pay for entertainment like that, I tell you. I think I might have to go to a real concert at some point, if I'm ever in need of a pick-me-up.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Conception of the Grand Adventure

Prior to my flight across the pond, I worked as an AR Accountant for the Pyramid Breweries back in Seattle, Washington. I had just turned 25 when I had a mini-quarter life crisis. What was I doing with my life? Why was I slaving away in accounting when I really just wanted to see the world?

To tell the truth, my job wasn't that horrific; it was just an uncomfortable fit for a girl who, despite what my resume says, just doesn't have an eye for details. Luckily, AR accounting is very simple once you get the routine down, and after a year and a half I could do it half-asleep (hypothetically, of course ;). But finally I became fed up with the redundant, cyclical nature of accounting. I felt like a hampster huffing and puffing away on my spinning wheel: like there was really no point to it at all. No matter how hard I worked, the bills would just keep coming in and going out. In other words, I was about ready to snap.

Then I spoke with a couple of people who have taught English abroad, and it immediately sparked my interest. I had never considered teaching before (in fact, I was always sure that I would never have the patience to teach), but suddenly it represented a full-proof way to travel the world while getting paid, and a ticket out of my tedious job.

So I researched. And researched. I studied every avenue of teaching abroad with an intensity that would make my high school math teacher proud. I finally decided to take the month-long TEFL course in Limassol, Cyprus, and head back to Europe from there to look for a job. Many people have since asked me why I chose Cyprus, and the only answer that I could give is that it looked like the best place to be a beach bum for a month. In between study sessions, of course.

One of my best friends, Laurissa, decided to join me, as she was having a similar quarter-life crisis. So with much relish and reckless abandon we both quit our jobs (I narrowly refrained from putting photocopies of my butt into various mailboxes at my work) and we made our way over to Europe. And thus, the Grand Adventure was born.

Friday, October 30, 2009

The Italian Library

When my roommate Olga invited me to go with her to the student library, I was thrilled. I know it’s beyond nerdy, but there’s nothing that I love more than to wander through the aisles of a good library and glance through random books that I would never think to read on my own. I had been curious about the student library, as I am not officially a student and could not technically go into it. Being the natural rebel that I am (har, har) I jumped at the chance to sneak in under the guise of a student and wreak havoc on the academic world of Torino. Ok, it wasn’t as dramatic as all that, but it was different than I expected all the same.

From the outside, the library entrance looked exactly the same as all of the other apartment entrances that surrounded it. In fact, had Olga not known where to go I’m sure I never would have found it. The ground floor was actually underground, so we had to go down a flight of steps to get in. When we walked in, we had to deposit all of our bulky outerwear and bags into one of the lockers that lined the entrance hallway. That done, and feeling quite naked and vulnerable without my trusty Mary Poppins purse, we entered another room, passing through imposing magnetic detectors on the way. Finally, I thought, as we reached the other side, let the library shenanigans begin!

I was doomed for disappointment. We came into another room with the Italian version of an information desk in the center, and a set of student computer stations scattered around it. Olga immediately went to the card catalog, as she needed to find a book for school. I had intended to wander around the bookstacks (my favorite pastime), but there wasn’t a book in sight! What kind of library is this? I wondered. There was nothing but a few computers lining the walls and a shelf holding the card catalog, which appeared to be at least 100 years old.

After fifteen minutes of searching for her title, Olga gave up and asked for help at the information desk. One of the staff members told her to fill out a request form for her book, and they would go find it for her. The form was very specific, asking her not only the author and title, but the ID number, publisher, date of publication, and numerous other questions. It almost seemed like they wanted her to compile all of the book’s information for their records, instead of doing it themselves. I didn’t see why it was all necessary, but I kept my mouth shut and watched politely (even though tact has never been a strong suit of mine, I can utilize it from time to time). Ever the curious cat, I sneakily followed the staff member (or I guess you could call him a librarian) when he went to retrieve Olga’s book. We went up a flight of stairs and down a long hallway full of what looked like offices. Each office had a row of books lining the walls around it, but that was all. All of them had desks in the middle, each with one computer and an assortment of papers strewn around it. They could pass for my old desk in Seattle, really.

Finally I found an empty room and was able to scour the shelves to my heart’s content. It only took a few minutes to realize that every single book in the room was on the subject of corporate law. Scintillating reads, I’m sure, but not quite my cup of tea. The line was drawn when I saw the title “Bankrupcy code, rules and forms.” I’ll pick up a legal thriller now and then, but there’s nothing worse than an 800 page book on specialized legal codes. I could barely keep from sprinting out of the room. I was attempting to look graceful yet swift, but I think I came off looking more like a startled giraffe. Oh, well, it's an inescapable casualty of long legs and big feet.

I gave up on finding a good book and headed back down to the reception area to pester Olga. When I told her about the law room and she almost fell over giggling. “This is the law library!” she managed in between wheezes. Ah, and the world made sense again. That explained the general dreariness of the place. I am not jealous of law students, that’s for sure.

At that point the librarians still couldn’t locate Olga’s books, so they told us to come back in a few days. I’ll take a rain check on that, I thought as I dragged Olga to the exit. I’ll leave the detail work to the professionals and stick to John Grisham from now on.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Missed Opportunities

We are living in a world of missed opportunities.

Missed opportunities occur all of the time - almost daily, in fact. Most of them pass unnoticed because they are such small, seemingly insignificant acts. For example, when you are walking down the street by yourself and you pass someone heading the other way; you both avert your eyes, as if making eye contact or (gasp) smiling at each other would be too uncomfortable to bear. Or when you’re driving to work and you pass someone whose car has broken down, but you don’t take the time to stop and help them. It was after an incident similar to these that I first began to notice these lost opportunities, and since then there have been many more that have passed me by. I was standing in line at the grocery store, and the harassed-looking mother ahead of me had to put a toy for her little girl back on the shelf because she didn't have the money to pay for it. I wanted to offer her the money to cover the rest of it, but I hesitated (I thought “what if she becomes offended?”), and the opportunity was gone. She left the store toting a bawling, disappointed toddler, never even realizing that I had wanted to help. Not as an act of condescension or charity (as it might have been perceived), but just out of kindness. I started to think about how these missed events must happen to everyone, and how it might affect our society on a global level.

It’s almost as if our first instinct is to help other people, but we learn to suppress this instinct as we become older. Children, for example, rarely hesitate before going with their first impulse and reaching out to anyone, indiscriminate of race, religion, beauty or social standing. For some reason, as children grow older they lose that “innocent” or “naive” trait and become more guarded and suspicious. It could be the fact that we are bombarded with news of violence and hate crimes in the news every day. Or it could be a larger social phenomenon that has taken root. We tell ourselves that it is safer to be on guard with the people outside our immediate social circle (which is likely to be true to an extent), but this safety comes at a high price: the sacrifice of a society where people can freely interact without fear or hesitation.

Occasionally you will meet that extraordinary person who is able to act on impulse and grab those opportunities as they come. They act with a complete disregard for the many doubts and insecurities that plague the rest of us mere mortals. Naturally, these people lie at each end of the moral spectrum. At the lower end, there are the cutthroats, who don't hesitate to take an opportunity to act in their own self-interest at the expense of others. Then there are the high-end opportunists, who constantly go out of their way to help others and better the world. Then there are the majority of us, lying somewhere along the middle of the line. We feel the temptations of each extreme, but for one reason or another we remain within our own sphere of influence. This has created an increasingly restricted social situation, where people tend to withdraw into their limited social group.

The biggest consequence of this type of humanity is that people are generally less trusting and open with other people. As the number of random acts of kindness dwindles, so does the amount of goodwill that people hold for each other. This leads to a more individualized society, where most citizens choose to cut themselves off through various mediums in order to avoid contact with others. The latest means of accomplishing this is the iPod.

There is no denying the strong cultural impact that the iPod and similar devices have had on our society in the last few decades. These days you can’t go anywhere without seeing someone rocking out in their own, private reality. Public buses, which used to be an environment of interaction and debate, now stay silent. The obvious exception to that would be the occasional person loudly chatting on a cell phone (the only one oblivious to the unspoken rule of silence). However, the iPod sensation is not only contained to transportation: some people have insisted on staying plugged in to their music throughout all of their daily activities, including work, grocery shopping, eating at restaurants, and even during concerts! Soon we will start seeing signs asking to “please turn off all musical devices” instead of just the “no cell phones, please” signs currently posted in restaurants and other public places.

This is not to be interpreted as a personal attack against the iPod. I am guilty of owning one myself, and I use it in some of the previously described situations. This is partially what caused me to notice the overwhelming percentage of people who don their headphones whenever they are out in public. While I agree that it is handy to have every kind of music available to you whenever you desire, I would also argue that the incessant use of iPods (and other electronics with headphones) essentially cuts people off from each other and prevents the social interactions that enrich our culture. This phenomenon has undoubtedly increased the number of missed opportunities exponentially, further exacerbating the problem. People are now simply walking down the street with their heads down and headphones blasting, not even aware of the possibilities that they are passing by.

However, the iPod is not a cause of the shrinking of our social sphere, but was developed as a result of it. This movement has been slowly building momentum for many years. Prior to the invention of headphones, listening to music was more of a collective experience. Even in the boom box phase of the ‘70s and ‘80s, experiencing music was a shared event (either by choice or by force). Whether it was Led Zeppelin or Michael Jackson, it was blasted as loud as the speakers would allow. Strangers could join in on the fun with little effort. It is true that this still happens today during concerts and live shows, but it is much more limited now that people primarily listen to their private playlists. Despite the Apple advertisements depicting people dancing together on the street to their respective music, I can’t imagine this happening very often in the real world. The fact that only one person can hear the music intrinsically limits the experience to just themselves. The iPod sensation is a very telling illustration for the overall individualistic trend that our culture has been taking for a long time.

So what can be done to combat this world of increasingly limited interactions? Are we doomed to live in a culture where people are incapable of kindness towards anyone outside of their social bubble? Luckily, the truly amazing aspect of this predicament is that in a world full of insurmountable problems, here is one with a very simple solution. If everyone were able to listen to their instincts and follow their impulses, we really could make our culture a better one to live in. I am not suggesting that everyone should devote their lives to volunteer work and prayer, but if everyone were to indulge in an unsolicited act of generosity (no matter how small) it would make a huge difference in our quality of life. I know that the next time I see someone short of change at the store, I won’t hesitate to offer them a hand.