It's been a long and wild couple a weeks.
So much has been happening I don't even know if I can write or remember it all. It's been filled with ups and downs.
Spent the night in Rome, walked around the city all night, crashed by the Trevi fountain and watched the sun come up. Haven't slept in a few days and haven't gotten a full nights rest since the trip began.
I am disheartened and sad to learn my Gayla has left. When I return half my home will be gone with her absence.
So many pictures I want to share, but uploading is slow and net is scarce. Text is faster and less intensive on such a time schedule. but I think my next blog will be all pictures.
Now a quick recap started with a half finished blog I started writing the other night and didn't finish, as I have some time while I wait for the laundry to finish.
5th of July
We spent the past few days in Vicenza, then Bologna and now we've just arrived in Tavarnelle in the Tuscany region.
It's been very busy and I'm hard pressed to remember everything. I think I may have to rush through an list it all, just so I won't forget.
In Vicenza we stayed at an Army base and hung out in the USO. It's one of the nicest USO's I've seen yet, or at least most comfortable. The one in Delaware was nice, very snazzy... but the people were hostile. Not so in Vicenza. We had a great time chatting with the volunteers there and exchanging travel tips and stories.
One good tip I learned was, if you're worried about using English (which I constantly am.... I feel guilty every time I open my mouth for not being more fluent in other languages.) I was told that a good way to get around it is to pretend your first language is some unspecified, complicated and obscure language not common in the area you are in, and pretend to want to practice your English. In a heavy accent say "May I have the spagetti, uh, please? Ah, Sorry, I am wanting to, ehh... pratice? Yes... my English." This was demonstrated to me by one of the volunteers and I think it may be quite viable. I may try it the next we are in France- the only place so far I'm truly afraid and worried to utter a single word of English.
Someone brought several platters of Thai food to the USO and so we and the others who were present attempted help keep the food from spoiling by eating as much as we could stomach. A true sacrifice for us, as you might guess. ;D (It was quite delicious).
The 4th of July was a pretty big deal on base in Vicenza and though we left on the 3rd, we got to see the set up from our rooms and experience a few of the festivities before we left. They had carousels, swing rides, bounce houses, a marching band, huge posters, cotton candy- the whole festival fair set up! It was quite exciting.
While on base we enjoyed the good life for a low price. It was unmistakable that we were on a base, all the food was solider sized! The "Sky Soldier Sandwhich" (the local special) was one serving... and as big as my torso! It was more than enough to fill both me and Bill up for the whole day! The 79 cent drinks were a minimal of 2 or 3 liters each, enough to keep us hydrated in the sweltering heat. Somehow we managed to sneak some of these into the movie theater for an 1800 showing of Kick-Ass.
On our last night in Vicenza we ate out at a local pizzeria and I discovered a delicious soda called Chino. It has a sort of ginger-taste mixed with coca cola... and I think I'm now addicted to it. The pizza place was run by three Italian brothers who spent three years in the New York city as children, so the restaurant was a unique mix of true Italian and New York City's version of Italian.
The next morning we caught a train to Bologna and spent a hectic several hours trying to navigate from the train station to San Sisto- the local youth hostel.
The number 21 B bus, as it turns out, is an enigma among buses... and nearly impossible to find. Unlike all the other buses, 21 B is not labeled anything other than simply 21... however.. there are four separate 21 buses.... and all of them will direct you to a different 21 bus... without ever telling you their own letter. We saw 20 A, 32 C.... all the other buses were labeled. Thanks to some helpful locals and a haphazard meeting with a fellow hostel searcher from Budapest we eventually found our way.
So far everyone we've met in Italy has been very friendly and helpful and the more I experience of Italian culture, the more I like it. One thing that needs to be adopted that I've noticed seems to be common in Italy; if they see you need help they offer and if you ask for help, often they will not leave you until they have found you help. One lady at the bus stop saw our confused looks an asked if she could help us, when she couldn't find which bus it was either, she enlisted the help of three others at the stop and all three of them set out asking and looking around for the answer too. When her own bus came she left us in the hands of a very helpful man waiting for his train. He waited with us until the right bus came, making sure we got where we needed to go and while we waited helped us practice counting in Italian.
The next day on our way back to the hostel from town we asked a man if he knew where the bus terminal for San Sisto was, he didn't but instead of walking away and leaving it at that, he told us to hold on and used his cell phone to find someone who did. Thanks to him we got walking directions back to our hostel. These directions turned out to be very useful later, as we ended up staying in town to enjoy the nightlife of Bologna.
We explored the two leaning towers in Bologna, climbing one. Then toured the many cathedrals and churches and squares. We eventually found ourselves on the campus of Bologna University, one of the oldest University's in Europe. Here we stayed and enjoyed more than one of the cafe's. We found an international bookshop with books in Russian, Chinese, Italian, Spanish, English... at least a dozen languages. I was very pleased to see they had some Orsen Scott Card at well. Sadly however, not the particular volume I've been searching for. The search will continue. I check every book store I come across for "Xenocide"... have come close to finding it a few times. One they were out of stock but had it previously, in Gander they had "Children of the Mind", in Bologna they had "Ender in Exile" so close all the time, but no cigar. The search is kind of fun though.
We spent a lot of time at the campus. Since we got there around evening all the locals were just starting to come out. By 9 pm the night life was swinging and an entirely new Bologna was to be seen. Mopeds and scooters everywhere, dogs, students, singles, all of them we on the scene filling the streets with music and drink.
At 10 pm they played a movie on a giant screen in the square, we watched with enjoyment as we attempted to understand what I think may have been a non-existent plot. The square was packed, the entire town, it seemed, turned out to watch. The film was part of a series (as far as I can tell from the posters) that was being shown throughout the summer as a college/community arts activity. All the films (I think...) we by Italian (perhaps just one) directors, and shot locally in Italy, or themed somehow with Italy. We saw "Roma" an artsy film with footage taken from around Bologna (including the very square we sat in) that... stopped making sense about 30 minutes in, but lasted until after midnight. I think the preface given before the film in Italian must have been crucial to understanding the film. Even so... judging from the reactions of the other viewers, I don't think we were the only ones who didn't get it.
The film started out simply enough, (by my observations... I could be way off the mark here. I only had the visuals to go on and a couple words that I understood or deciphered) a boy growing up in a convent or holy school of some sort wants to shake up the strict monotony of the days.... so he swaps out one of the history slides for a slide of a half naked woman and watches as his teachers freak.
Then the boy appears to grow up and go to the big city where he rents an apartment in this madhouse filled with strange eccentric people. He adapts quickly and comes to enjoy the communal lifestyle. The whole town comes to eat dinner together in the square (same one we were watching the film in) and there was a long dinner scene.
Then the film takes a 180. Next scene we're watching a film crew gear up to shoot a road scene. They jump on the road (which appears to stretch from Bologna to Rome) and start fliming the cars on the road. Cars, polize vehicles, tanks, horses, chickens ox's, car wrecks, fires, bombs, a war zone on the road with every conceivable method of transportation ensues.... for what feels like 15 minutes and most likely was about 10 minutes real time. There doesn't appear to be a point to it, and after 4 minutes it's just a cacophony of random sounds and chaotic imagery.
This scene ends and we find ourselves in a town hall meeting, or local play of some sort. For another 10 minutes, maybe 20 we watch talentless hacks perform onstage for the amused locals who shout obseneties at the performers and throw dead cats on stage. The Strange thing is.... this scene keeps going. We don't see snippets of performances, we see each and every horrible performance, just as if we were one of the locals, sitting and watching in the audience. And not just one or two performances, 4, 5, maybe even 6 performances we are forced to watch. This finally ends when a large black-out horn sounds and everyone scatters. There is a shortish scene of the people hiding, then the horn sounds again and they start to go home... then there is a woman running towards them, sirens, the sound of an approaching rebel army, two men run towards it... and there's never any follow up.
We next find ourselves in an underground whore house with topless, uncencored women running about shouting things quickly like auctioneers and dragging men up and down stairs. This lasts a bit, until it's broken up by police, only to commence about where it left off a few minutes later, only now in a much nicer and classier setting, that looks like an ol hotel lobby.
The main character (I assume) returns at long last, after being absent an hour or so from the film, only to pursue one of the prostitutes that caught his fancy.
And then... suddenly we're in a church. The prostitutes are all dressed like regular woman and walking into bleacher stands with priests and bishops and cardinals. They all sit and the room goes dark... before a stage is illuminated in the center of the room. With cardinals looking on, a strange sort of religious fashion show begins, starting with simple nun outfits and continuing on with more and more and more elaborate papal outfits, until at last the things coming down the runway are so outlandish, not even Elton John would touch them.
It was at this point that we left, all hope of making sense of the film lost and the daunting task of finding our way back to the hostel at hand.
We had hitched into town with a young german linguist we met at the hostel. But now it was night and that would be no good. The buses we almost done for the night and the last one wasn't due for over 40 minutes. Following the route we began hoofing it back. In the end, the bus beat us by three minutes.... we had consistently stayed 10 mins ahead of it for nearly the whole way, but lost time when we got confused by a fork in the road.... we watched as the bus passed us. We shook our fists at it. So close.
In the morning, Christopher (German linguist), Bill and I packed up Chris's small car and set out for Florence/ Firenze. We searched for a hostel we thought was in Florence but turned out to be in Tavarnelle. Had we known we never would have come to it, but in the end, I'm really glad we did.
This place is beautiful. The people are friendly, the hostel comfortable and the reprieve from the cities is welcome.
We ate dinner in the park with the local community at a fund raiser for the local co-op. Delicious volunteer made pizza and beer for just 8 euros, conversation and the open sky. It was here we met two other hostel stayers, a pair of Norwegian brothers we soon made friends with.
The next day we took off for a day trip with the brothers and visited Machiavelli's house before they dropped us off in Florence on their way to Pisa.
On day three we checked our bags in the hostel closet and headed to Rome. We arrived around three or four pm. Just long enough to tour the Roman Forum and Colosseum before night fell. Then we enjoyed the night life, walking along the Tiber, observing the various vendors peddling their wares.
We crashed an invitation only party (we thought it was just another movie in the park type thing), taking some of what appeared to be complimentary o'derves, only to be told after the fact that if we ate the o'derves we had to buy a drink. That's how it worked, food is free, drinks are not. We thought that sounded fair, considering we had partken of the food, so we picked up the drink menu to order something.... the cheapest drink was a coffee at 6 euros... all the other drinks, no matter how small or simple, were 10 euros or above. Not worth the crappy (and they were crappy) orderves, or even the drink it'self. So.... we skipped out quickly and did not return. For the best. We had scene the other things being offered in the invitation only Isla, and it was all terribly over priced and snobby (it was all very posh), we were happy to be away. No one stopped us either way and the only way we knew what we had wandered in on was on accident, when a security cop pulled someone else aside and asked to see their invitation.
By now night had fallen and we decided to tour the city's fountains, which we were told were more beautiful at night when they were all lit up. We got lost in a residential section for a bit and after only making it to two or three of the fountains on our list, gave up and took a nap near some old ruins we dubbed "The cat Box" because lots of neighborhood cats had found and apparently made the ancient sacred temple ruins into a huge litter box and playhouse.
Our feet were hurting from the cobble stones that line all the streets and we needed the rest.
Around 3 am we recommenced our journey, deciding to forget the other fountains and just make it to the Trevi fountain, hitting as many other monuments and landmarks as we could along the way. We reached the fountain around 5 am and watched the sun come up.
Some highschoolers came near and a couple of the boys in the group stripped down and jumped in the fountain, only to be caught by the police a few minutes later.
We headed for the bus station to try to make it to the Vatican before crowds appeared and tour one or two more land marks before heading back on the morning train.
The rest of the day was high and low. Mostly just a pain and disillusionment of Rome.
Rome truly is an impressive city and the ruins and archaeological stuff truly amazing and awe inspiring. Unlke Florence, which did not live up the hype was was really, more or less, just another city, albeit with a few more pretty statues than most cities and a couple extra museums, Rome does live up to the hype.
Walking into the city you can feel the life, the history and the imposing architecture. All the buildings, old and new, are HUGE and made of great stones. Most of the streets are cobble stoned and people and vehicles are zooming about everywhere, just vibrating with activity. There are massive curtains of vines and foliage spilling over walls and creeping along buildings and you can't walk more than a city block without stumbling on some interesting ruin of some kind or another.
However, it doesn't take long for some of the less awe-inspiring details of the city to encroach on the wayward wanderer.
For one, you are charged for everything. There are fee's to use restrooms, fees to walk certain places, fees for entrance to just about everything... so many fees, it's difficult to do much of anything unless you don't mind being broke just to be able to walk down a city block. Most of the fee's seem exorbitant and unnecessary. It's understandable to charge a couple euro's to help for restoration costs and generate city revenue....it's ridiculous to charge 2-10 euros to use a public rest room or 7 euros just to gain entrance to a church. Also, charging 10 euros min. for every museum... especially when they tend to go together is also silly, considering many of them are only one room or so with just one or two pieces of rubble.
The commercialism is stifling.
Most of the sites are roped off in any case and there are so many restrictions, they're little use in bothering to pay to see them because the price is too high for so much stress and crappy treatment. You can't sit here, you cant say that, you can't wear that, you must cover this, no pictures with flash, no pictures period, that part is only for official tours, don't go here, get out now. When you're not being yelled at about some new restriction, you're being hassled by street peddlers and people in roman costumes trying to trick you into taking a picture with them (with your own camera) and then charging you 5 euros for the shot.
A lot of the sites are unrecognizable because of all the alterations for tourists.... things I saw pictures of in history books or travel documentaries were commercialized beyond repair it seemed. Like St. Peters Basilica. The Basilica has metal detectors (they took my camera batteries and made me drink my tea in front of them to prove it wasn't a harmful liquid but didn't even notice my pocket knife... ) to gain entrance and once inside... there are no pews.... just barricades everywhere, routing you to only certain places of the church. You get shuffled in and then shuffled out... whatever sacredness their might have been in the church, seems gone now. True, there were a few bodies of dead popes stowed in the corners and nuns walking around and one or two priests (also in corners) whispering services and prayers to themselves... or maybe the dead popes, but trying to pray in such an environment, with tourists and uniformed guards everywhere making sure everyone obeys the dress code (heaven forbid a centimeter of bare elbow or shoulder show in this heat), seems like more than a little bit of challenge to me. I wasn't really feeling the spirit.... as I hadn't in any of the other Cathedrals I entered, with their oppressive tourist regimes.... so set were they on tourists the purpose of the churches seemed to me, irrevocably lost.
Nearly all the sights or really, anything in the city had this feeling. They obviously wanted the money of all the visitors, their bread and butter, but didn't want to deal with them. Not that I can blame them, dealing with so many tourists a year must be exhausting. Having to share their city with thousands of foreigners who just want to oogle and snap pictures of all their priceless historical artifacts.... that would be tough to deal with after a while. But the feeling of hostility and treatment of person to person just seemed to inhuman. It was all about money, and that killed something of the city and the feeling of the history for me. Like a cut vein, these once beautiful things were reduced to nothing but a dollar sign.
There were a couple sites I wanted to see that had special appeal or significance to me because of things I read or envied as a child, but everything was so high priced, I couldn't afford to see much more than the outsides of them. When I did spring for a ticket inside, more often than not I felt cheated out of my money and severely disappointed, the site I wanted to see was either gutted or so full of restrictions it was just as good as staying outside.
I walked from one end of the city to the other, desperate to find something to see or experience.... and finding it all the same. In the end I saw very little worth mentioning and left exhausted, with sore feet and a feeling of disillusionment.
There were a few bright spots however. Though the Trevi fountain was anti-climatic and much smaller and closed in than I expected, it was still gorgeous. The night life was fascinating and sometimes fun. The Ville Borgehse /sp?/ has one of the most spectacular views of the city I think you can get, and the hike up is lovely as well. And finally, the Roman Forum and Pantheon are worth the money (the Colosseum is not) and remain rather authentic feeling and solid. The only restrictions imposed on visitors make sense- they restrict you to preserve it, and the fee goes towards restoration. What they do let you see sets the imagination on fire and brings back dozens of grade-school history lessons from years past. You can see where they've been excatvating and once or twice I even caught glimpses of archaeologists walking in the restricted sections with tools and clip boards. It made me think of when I was a kid and dreamed of standing on these very sites, participating in archaeological digs. The feeling with immense and indescribable and so very, very worth it. Walking amongst those particular ruins was certainly a highlight.
Finally, the food. It is possible to find low priced edibles in Rome and we did. We stumbled on a local dive with the most delicious, flavorful bread (big too!) and oil I've ever tasted. The stuffed hot dog I got looked greasy and unhealthy, but it tasted wonderful and held a hidden surprise of carrots, potatoes, olives, mushrooms and spinach tucked away under the flaky crust. All this deliciousness for under 7 euros, a steal for a meal in Italy and Rome in particular.
It was so good, we went back to grab some more before going leaving on our train the next afternoon.
Now we are back at the Chianti hostel and not a moment too soon. Mere hours after arriving off the the train and bus from Roma.... we've been informed there is a strike and no more buses or trains will be going anywhere for at least a day.
Thank GOD we did not get stuck in Rome!
Thank God we got stranded in a place of such beauty.
Night before last we enjoyed a farmers market here I Tavarnelle and soaked up some of the night life and community and took dinner in an excellent local restaurant where I had real truffles (not the chocolates) for the first time and "Strong, Sweet Wine." Best meal I've had in a long, long time.
Now, I've updated as much as I can....I must now pass out. Sleep deprivation,