Monday, April 14, 2008

"The south of Italy will never be the same"

Our benevolent, but bumbling USAC leaders recently took all us 'bambini,' as they like to call us, on a tour of southern Italy. Our first stop, after a six-hour drive through Italy's greening hills and olive trees, was Napoli ("Naples").

Pre-USAC trip, I was pretty excited to see Napoli. Sure, they've been having problems disposing of garbage. Sure, their major export--buffalo mozzarella--was recently recalled because of garbage contamination. Sure, the mafia runs everything in the dirty port city, including the non-disposal of garbage, but still! Naples is a tourist city. There has to be something there. At the very least, I hoped to see some Cosa Nostra activity.
I was disappointed. Napoli was filled with wild packs of family dogs and garbage. Mike, USAC's intern, and I discussed Napoli's similarities to bad parts of San Francisco and Oakland. Still, Aine, Natalie and I managed to have a pretty good, cheap lunch of pizza in the birthplace of pizza before our leaders took us on a tour of the palace. Napoli was, for the most part, ruled by viceroys, or stewards, not kings or doges, so this palace was slightly unimpressive. Comparatively speaking, that is.
The entry way, all in white (demonstrating the lack of money. Otherwise, it would have been guilded) was pretty majestic:

I never saw anything Mafia-related go down. Sadly.

Post-palace and some free time, we departed for Sorrento, our home base. For the rest of our trip, we stayed in a hotel surrounded by lemon trees, with a view of the coast (that's the Mediterranean, baby!):

My feet above our hotel's private lemon and orange grove:

Lonely Planet calls Sorrento "an unabashed resort town," which may be true, but it's also the slice of Italy everyone's looking for: White buildings, blue waters, sun, clean streets peppered with little trattorias and souvenir shops selling limoncello. Natalie and I opted out of climbing Vesuvius one afternoon and spent it walking around and sipping white wine on our hotel's rooftop solarium. In Amalfi, after another breathtaking tour of a cathedral, Aine, Natalie and I sunbathed on pebbly beaches and collected sea glass.

A shot of the Amalfi coast, including the beach we spent some hours on:

Natalie, Aine and I, cute as a Christmas-card, on the beach:

The cathedral in Amalfi:

The church, as Amalfi was a maritime republic in the days when spice trading with the Orient was like oil trading with the Husseins, has a lot of Moorish influences:

Sight-seeing wise, we also hiked around the nearly perfectly preserved city of Pompeii. I'd learned about Pompeii as a child and, after seeing tons of ruins while being led around by a tourguide, was still blown away. Pompeiians not only invented curbs, speed-bumps, fast-food, indoor plumbing and brothels, but were clever enough to get blasted by a volcanic eruption, so it could all be viewed by us later. The brothel (stone-beds and frescoes advertising specialities) was, of course, a high point for a Nevadan, but I personally enjoyed the plaster casts of bodies:

Our tourguide, Barbara, informed us they suffocated to death. I don't know how anyone could tell:

This is a picture of Pompeii's old boat dock. The blast moved the water outward several meters, as well as changing the shape of Vesuvius itself (which is the mountain in the background):

Also, on the tourist-y agenda was Caserta, a royal palace built in the countryside for hunting and based off Versailles in France (ironically, Marie Antoinette's ugly sister, Maria Carolina, built and lived in this palace). It's one of the biggest tourist attractions in Italy (for Italians.)

In WWII, the Allies used this as a base of operations. In addition to furniture looting, they cut the ornate doors, so they would open two ways (Italians like to point out Allied damage to Italy, while convieniently leaving out their own cooperation with the Nazis, but you know, whatever):

This entryway was also where George Lucas shot scenes of Queen Amidala's palace

Aine taking a picture of a throne at the end of a typical room inside the palace:

The palace had magnificent gardens, including Baroque fountains, statues and reflecting pools like in Washington D.C. that we got to walk around:

I spent the days in the sun senza sunscreen, working on my tan (and by tan, I mean "sunburn and freckles"). After saying, "People's feet never get sunburned," this is what I looked like back in Viterbo, city of rain and pigeons:

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

I'm not dead

Sorry I've become such a bad updater. A quick update.

I've now seen the Colosseum by day,
by night, which, given its history, was an oddly romantic sight:
But my favorite was watching it turn sunset pink in warm, spring weather:
Also, in Rome, we saw the Pantheon, the Roman forum (a mall of ruins, including where Ceasar was cremated), the palace, the catacombs, the Vatican and the Pope:
We happened to catch his weekly address to the world and, because of a recent protest over him speaking/not speaking at a university, all of St. Peter's Square was filled with people supporting Il Papa. The next day, it was on the front page of all Rome's newspapers.

On a whim the following weekend, we decided to take a train up to Venice for the last weekend of Carnevale. Carnevale is where Mardi Gras in New Orleans came from, except Carnevale has been going on for centuries and it lasts a month before Lent, not just a week. Everyone wears masks, elaborate costumes and parties. I have never seen more tourists. Sadly, however, it was extremely cold and rainy and we had trouble on the trains getting back. But it was still amazing.

A picture of soggy Venice:
Below is (l to r), Natalie, me and Aine in front of The Grand Canal and the Rialto bridge in our Carnevale masks. We searched long and hard for the perfect masks and finally found them in a little upstairs store, where the artist was working. She shook our hands and thanked us over and over again for coming into her shop and loving her masks (which we did.)

Later, we would come back to Venice with USAC and that bridge behind us covered in tourists would be completely empty. That night, however, we had to walk single file, holding on to backpack handles because there were so many people. Here is a photo of the Rialto on that later trip. Every single one of the people in that photo is part of USAC (look for Natalie and Aine being silly):
At night, Carnevale really came alive. We watched acrobats, live music, thousands of people dressed up, drinking and dancing in the famous and historical St. Mark's Square. If you've ever seen pigeons flying up out of a giant piazza in Italy, that's probably St. Mark's, site of public hangings, people dangling in cages, Doges, Lord Byron in cafes and us.

Here are just a few of the costumes we saw. Carnevale costumes tend toward the historical, even children are dressed up as musketeers and princesses, not Spiderman and Barbie. These first two were my absolute favorite. Aine took the picture and, if you look closely, you can see me and Natalie (sans masks) peeking our faces over their shoulders.

This picture came out a little blurry, but there is a man (on the left) dressed as a woman and a woman (on the right) dressed as a man with dogs in a baby carriage. Very absurd and very Carnevale.

This cafe full of revelers was spotted just as we left the square to catch our train back home. Most people (as you can tell by their expressions in the earlier photos) were completely deadpan, gazing around calmly at all the people taking their pictures. It was as much performance art as it was about their costumes. In this last picture, the man on the left is grinning because I stuck my tongue out at them when I took the picture.This stage was set up on one end of the square and just sat there glistening all day.In the evening, we left the square to find a bathroom and came back to see everyone singing along wordlessly to a cover of the White Stripe's "Seven Nation Army" while lights flashed all over.

Some part of the crazy light show. The theme for Carnevale was the senses: each part of the city was supposed to represent one of the five, with the busiest center of party activity being the mind, hence the brain. These lights and images were projected on all the buildings around the square, as well as the famous clock tower and basilica.

These are the acrobats that later performed, leaping and somersaulting off a platform on the stage. They vaulted around on trampolines and all the while, crazy techno music played and lights flashed everywhere.

St. Mark's Basilica in the lights of Carnevale:

Below is St. Mark's lit up by sunlight, on our return to Venice. Below that is the square, stripped of its stage and filled with disgusting pigeons instead.

And finally (for today), some incredibly annoying and crappy videos of the Pope and the Carnevale performance from my digital camera. (Stephen's answer to my question during Carnevale, lost to dying batteries was, "Badass.")

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Rain in Orvieto

Last weekend, we were supposed to go on a field trip to a dying city (I can never remember its name.) This city was built on volcanic earth. Over time, erosion took the middle away, so now one half of the city is on a cliff face and the other half is on top of a mountain. They've built a bridge between the two, but either with erosion or one earthquake, the city has a short timeline.

Unfortunately, both for the fieldtrip and the general atmosphere of Viterbo, it was raining. Pouring, really. After we had already gotten on the busses and started moving, Frankie, our USAC representative turned around and said, "Oh, because of the rain, we're going somewhere else."

We got to "somewhere else" by taking a charter bus, hoping on a ski tram and walking: bienvenudo a Orvieto. Our first stop was St. Patrick's well, designed in 1537 as a Papal escape plan. There was one spiral staircase going up and one going down, neither which connected (I didn't realize this until I started going up.) Here's a shot from the top:
And the bottom:

Those dungeon-y little windows run alongside the staircases and were probably about four or five feet tall, to give some idea of scale.

The other nice thing in Viterbo (besides a cheap, nice lunch and a shop where a lady talked to us about learning Italian) was a cathedral:

That kid in the foreground is a USAC student, Anthony. The cathedral was started in 1208 (that's about all the information I could learn: Everything else was in Latin or Italian, alas.) The stripes in the bricks on the sides run all the way around the building. I think that must be regional or something: There is a building in Viterbo with the same layout.

We stopped at a Etruscan museum which was also, sadly, only in Italian. But I do understand the pottery pieces, small coins and figures were very ancient and incredibly detailed, so it was mildly amusing.

The coolest sounding thing about Orvieto, however, we didn't have time to see: An underground Necropolis! Perhaps, we'll go back for a day trip.

Here's a photo of rainy Orvieto, seen from near the well:

The hills, the greenery, the villas at the bottom are all very typical Italy, as is, so far, the rain. (well and landscape photos courtesy of Aine.)

Oh! I bought gold boots today:

10 euros, baby!

Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Apartment and The Internet of the Damned

Before it's too good to be true, I'll start posting. somehow, I've hacked into a wireless network in my apartment that my computer's never picked up before. It may be coming straight form Hell, it may be The Internet of the Damned, but I'd still use it. Nothing, including my school Internet ID, works the first (or in the Internet case, third or fourth) time in Italy. Viterbo's been wonderful, though rainy, cold and everything seems to take twice as much effort as it normally would. Naturally, the language barrier slows things up (the other day I got kindly coached by a waiter on how to say 'spinache' [meaning spinach] correctly), but so does walking everywhere in the windy, crazy, completly non-sensical old part of Viterbo. I live, as people--or at least the other Americans--seem to say, 'inside the wall.' Viterbo's wall, unlike Pink Floyd's, is pretty sweet. It's huge, way less crumbly than I expected and Medieval. It circles a large portion of the city, much like Mccarren Boulevard, for those familiar with Reno.

I'll post more pictures at some point ... perhaps. Natalie and I, before spending the day adventuring around mysterious parts of Viterbo with two other girls: Aine ("Anya") from New York and Amy from Reno, took a bunch of pictures of my apartment.

This is my front door and, coincidentally, me.
Natalie turning on the light in the crumbly lobby. They work on timers. The bottom switch also turns on the light in my lobby two floors up.
Natalie took a picture of my ass climbing the first set of stairs. Right above me on the landing, the sign says, "Academia de bella arte" and below my bottom, there's another sign above a door saying, "laboratoria." My Italian is pretty bad, but I'm thinking this used to be a school of some sort.

Here's Natalie in the courtyard. This is completely open, i.e., there's no roof. Pigeons poop here and stuff, but it's still rather pretty. The dead plant in the corner is particularly picturesque. My favorite thing about the courtyard is the well to Natalie's left. There's an inscription above it that I'm convinced, for no particular reason, is Roman. I have no idea what the pyramidal shaped thing by Natalie's feet is, except made of glass.

Here's the "Roman" inscription. I don't know if you can read it, but the word "AQVA" really gave away the well and founded my beliefs that it's Roman.

Here's Natalie on my second set of stairs. I thoughtfully did not focus the picture on her bum.
Here I am in my landing, literally saying, "I have no idea what I'm supposed to be doing in this picture." I share this landing with three other apartments--two are other USAC students and one is an art studio. The one by my hand is my front door.

This is Natalie in the front room that we never, ever, ever spend time in. There are pieces of wheat glued to the yellow canvasses hanging up. The door in the picture is my roommates', likewise the umbrella.

This is teeny tiny me in the teeny tiny kitchen cooking on the teeny tiny stove with the teeny tiny dented pan. The little white counter actually houses a propane tank, like the green space heater in the foreground. There is no centralized heating in my apartment, or generally speaking, hot water. It looks like I don't have legs, but if you look carefully, my pink socks are visible.

This is the view from my kitchen window. Very typical Viterbo, everything has these shingle roofs, cobblestones, stucco and greenery. If you scroll down, I took a picture of my street and that gives some more of an idea about Viterbo in general. There's also pigeons, they're all over my house.

The other half of the kitchen. Once again, the green propane heater. A pint-sized fridge and woodstove (the latter does not work.) I love the red, vinyl couch in the background, but it's pretty uncomfortable. The door on the right leads to the front room and the door on the left leads to the bathroom. I'm eating apples.

I accidentally walk in on Natalie in the shower. The behomoth, white tank hanging by the ceiling is the hot water heater, which needs to be on for about an hour if you want a hot shower. If there are too many other appliances plugged in when this is on, the whole flat will short out. I've already done it once (breaker boxes are in the crumbly lobby.) I'm standing right by the toilet, so that's not visible, neither is the bidet. (A funny story: Natalie told me some year-long students shaved their legs in the bidet last semester. I told her that's too gross because people's "dingle berries" have been in there. Yulgh.)

Here's me in my bedroom. Now that I've had the dangerous, metal radiator on for the better part of a week it's pretty warm. My bed is actually a European version of a futon. The green back is a giant pillow that I can remove and Viola! A twin-sized bed. Underneath this marvel of modern bed design is a trundle bed, which is not attached to the bigger bed. Natalie sleeps there sometimes. My coat is on a clothes drying rack. Nobody here dries their clothes (if you noticed in the bathroom, we only have a washer). There are clotheslines and clothes outside people's windows all over the old part of town. Perhaps, in the newer, more prosperous part of Viterbo people have moved out of the 1940s. Heil Mussolini and all that.

As much as I bitch, I really enjoy my apartment and living here. I feel like I'm getting more of an experience than, say, the people living in brand new, heated apartments about a block away from me. Here's the other half my room, with Natalie visiting. I'm pretty sure you can see my books and a water bottle. I don't drink tap water except when I'm eating because it tastes like minerals and pipes.This is the view from my window, including my very own laundry line, which I may use when it gets less rainy/cold.

And lastly, the view down the street from my front door. At the end of this street is a sort of square called a piazza. My piazza has a fountain with lion statues in it. Today, after our adventures (we followed the wall a little ways, finding the Mideval cathedral, a little garden and climbed a fence that gave us a really incredible view), we headed home and people were playing folk music in our Lion Fountain Piazza. More or less incredible.