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 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.