Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Monday's Forecast: Rain, Tuesday:Rain, Wednesday: Fire Storms, Thursday: No Report

At this time of year Perugia--and all of Umbria for that matter--gets a great deal of rain and even though today it is relatively nice out, looking at the "10 Day Forecast" on Weather.com might plunge even the most upbeat person into a bout of Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Seemingly every other day it rains in this city--and for the next seven days it will be EVERYDAY! Now, I'm not trying to be dramatic or whine (after all, there are a lot worse things in the world) but as my time here is coming to a close I would like to enjoy at least some productive days--especially after this Sunday.

While I try to refrain from speaking in absolutes, I think it is safe to say that this past Sunday it rained the most I have ever seen in a VERY long time. So much in fact that Monday, when I went for a ride, I found nearly all of the valley below Perugia to be flooded--there were even roads covered under several inches of muddy water.

After waking up close to 11am (because whats the point of getting up when the rain is coming down so hard you can hear it through a six foot thick medieval stone wall) my roommates and I made our own individual breakfasts followed by the days main activity: sitting around our apartment. Every now and then the silence was broken by either the swapping of various YouTube videos or the telling of stupid stories about who-knows-what. However, most of the time was spent in silence with each of us sitting in our various corners of the room, staring into our computer screens. Pathetic.

The worst part about days like these is that laziness seeps into nearly every activity you do. Even a mundane, simple problem--like having to pick up a dropped pencil--gets boiled down to a level in which a minimal amount of effort (i.e. movement) is exerted to bring about a solution. A perfect example of this came at around 6pm when it came time to make some dinner.

Now, one would think that after hours of doing nothing but sitting the act of actually standing and doing SOMETHING would be a welcomed idea. Wrong. After about five minutes of standing over the frying pan I, inevitably, resorted to this....

And so, I present to you the LOWEST point of my day Sunday--making dinner. No, I am not proud of this, but then again that is probably to be expected.

Hopefully over the course of the next few days, as the rain comes down, I can somehow eek out some form of productivity in fifteen or so hours I am awake. At the very least, I hope to not have a repeat of this...

E

Monday, November 29, 2010

Funny Stories Worth Listening To

Recently I've been really into iTunes podcasts. Over the last few weeks I've amassed quite the collection of "stations" including NPR's "Fresh Air," "Story of the Day," "This American Life," "Wait, Wait...Dont' Tell Me," and "Rick Steves Travel Guide." However, my most recent find is one that I feel the need to share.

While listening to NPR I heard a story about a weekly show called "The Moth" in which members of the crowd came up and--without notes--told stories about their lives. As a concept it seemed rather interesting so I looked it up online and wound up downloading the podcast.

After listening to a few podcasts I'm pretty hooked. The stories are pretty diverse and can range from extremely funny to extremely sad. Either way, by the time one is over you're really looking forward to the next one....like a book you can't put down.

Anyway, I don't know if my description captivated you--I doubt it did--but you can check out the website and make up a decision for yourself.....and, if you're still interested you should get the podcast

http://www.themoth.org/

E

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Where the Hell am I?

As is the case with a lot of my weekends, I spent most of the days on my bike. Often times people ask if I ever get bored or feel like I'm wasting my time simply pedaling around when I could be traveling to other places. Honestly, I don't. I enjoy riding my bike and often times these bike rides are mini day trips in themselves. With that being the case, I can make the argument that I have seen more of Umbria than any other person in our program. Quite the accomplishment if you ask me.

Lately, I've been trying travel to ride to places which 1) teachers have talked about in class or 2) are so far off the map most Umbrians don't even know about them. This weekend, I was somewhat successful in both of those endeavors.

Friday, I made my way to the town of Citta di Castello--about 50km north of Perugia. Citta di Castello was the town in which the Montessori schools were originally founded; however this was not my reason for going there since, personally, I don't care about that sort of stuff. Instead, I was looking to ride into the Umbrian national forest and cut through to the town of Gubbio before heading back to Perugia. This was the plan at least, but as is often the case, it didn't work out.

The initial trip out to the park went very well. It was warm, not many clouds, not many cars, not too many hills...all in all, a good ride. Then, I got to the "entrance" of the park whose sign was so small that, if it were not for a fortunately timed nature break, I would have totally missed. Almost immediately after turning off the main road, the pavement immediately shot up--an I mean UP! Now, at times like these I find the best course of action is to just find a rhythm and just keep on pedaling since, eventually, what comes up will come down.

Riding up this hill I was in my own little world--focused on the task at hand and fully determined to make it over this hill. Then, almost without warning, a piece of crap Fiat 500 which very well may have been older than me pulls up next to my left. It was red (though given all the dirt on it you couldn't tell), extremely beat up, and the noise coming from the car could only be described as sounding like a large un-greased textile machine on the verge of implosion. After a few second the man inside rolled down the passenger window and, with the use of hand gestures, pointed up the road frantically and mumbled the name of some town (or what I assumed to be the name of the town). He was asking for directions. Now it should go without saying that I have NO CLUE where the hell I am, let alone where I'm going and/or wherever this town was that this guy was trying to get to. Either way, I was in no mood to waste my breathe to explain to this man that 1) I didnt speak Italian and 2) I didnt know where this town was. So, after a short pause I simply replied "si." Seemingly content with my answer the man smiled, thanked me, rolled up his window, and drove off (I use the term "drove off" very lightly since the car was barely beating me up this hill). Once the car was out of sight I returned my attention to the task at hand and almost instantly forgot about the incident.

Following forty-five minutes of steady climbing on the same road I found myself--quite literally--in the middle of nowhere. From my high vantage point some 2700' up I could see barely any towns and it dawned on me that--other than the guy in the Fiat--I had seen no people. Still, undeterred I pressed on with the thought that, eventually, this road will have to lead somewhere. Making my way up the road some more I turned a corner only to find the road make an abrupt change from pavement to dirt. End of the line. For a moment I contemplated continuing down the road to see where it led, but the numerous frost heaves and loose rocks signaled that it would probably not end well. Straddling the line between dirt and road with my bike I looked over my map and came to the conclusion that I had no clue where I was. Awesome.... Making matters even better, the only way home was back the way I came--a trip of some two and a half hours. Fortunately though, much of that time was spent going uphill and therefore--due to the laws of gravity--would take much less time going the opposite direction.

Under a slight drizzle of rain and overcast skies I began my descent back to Citta di Castello when I remembered the guy in the Fiat. Since I hadn't seen him driving the opposite direction on my way up I can only assume that the guy must have continued down the dirt road. Looking back to the condition of the road and re-thinking the condition of the car an image of this guy standing in a ditch with his car partially decomposing next to him popped into my head. I laughed.

It seems though that karma would get the last laugh as I wound up riding all the way home in rain and forty degree weather. Oh well...life goes on.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

An Italian Thanksgiving

About a week ago a familiar feeling came over me as I was making my morning cup of coffee. While watching the water boil (yes, every now and then I watch the coffee pot) it hit me pretty unexpectedly. I was homesick. The main driver of this feeling was the fact that I wasn't going to be home for Thanksgiving--my favorite holiday.After talking to a few other kids in the program, it became woefully apparent that I wasnt the only one with this feeling.

My reasons for liking Thanksgiving is pretty simple. Unlike Christmas, birthdays, or other holidays, Thanksgiving is a day in which there is very little expectation. You dont need to buy gifts or wrap anything. All you need to do is show up, eat, and be around family. Sadly, given that all of our families are an ocean away, being with them probably wasn't going to happen. To make up for this, my roommates and a few of our friends from the program decided to stage our own "Italian Thanksgiving." Fortunately for me, I live with two enthusiastic cooks and have friends who were just as willing to make this event happen.

To be honest, the dinner came out much better than I thought it would. Obviously, it wasn't the exact same as the Thanksgiving we had at home. For one thing, we couldn't find a whole turkey. Actually, that isn't true. We could find a turkey, but it was--unfortunately--living. All that was required to get it to the table was killing it, feathering it, gutting it, and last but not least cooking it. While my roommate Stephen was totally ready for the task, I doubt Umbra would appreciate us getting blood all over their apartment. Plus, I wasn't going to clean up the mixture of blood and feather which would undoubtedly have resulted. Therefore, it should come as no surprise then that we didn't have a whole turkey, but instead dined on some fine turkey breasts. Personally, I didnt mind.

In the end, the result of the meal was the same as it would have been back home. Everyone was slouched over our couch moaning in agony due to their impending food coma complaining that they couldn't fit in any more food--only to eat one more piece of dessert. It was perfect and perfectly American. Adding to the "American-ness" of this meal--beyond the fact that we had stuffed our faces--was that, due to running all four stove burners, the oven, and the washing machine SIMULTANEOUSLY, we consumed enough energy to blow the fuse to our building. AMERICA!

I'll put up some photos when I get them.

Happy Holidays.
 

Saturday, November 20, 2010

So I've been really lazy at updating this thing....mainly because not much has been going on. School is school. Italy is Italy. So on and so forth.

Monday, November 8, 2010

L'Aquila

"In the end everything is OK, and if it's not OK, it's not the end."

Good words to live by if you ask me. After all, how many situations in your life have you encountered that seem--in the moment--to be all consuming dilemmas only to have them become trivial a short time later? If you say never, then you're lying. Even if the disaster is on a massive scale, (i.e Katrina, 9/11) there is comfort in knowing that, over time, some semblance of normality will return. At least we all would like to think so...

L'Aquila is one of those places that makes you re-think such statements as the one above. For those of you who don't know, L'Aquila suffered a pretty serious earthquake 18 months ago which killed roughly 300 people. Now while the death count may not seem astronomical as compared to other natural disasters, the destruction leftover could challenge the likes of most. Stepping off the train it became woefully apparent that this place had recovered very little since April of 2009 when the earthquake struck. Instead of solid flooring, the train station had a series of wooden planks which were used as "temporary" surfaces to walk on. Additionally, yellow caution tape lined most of the building and scaffolding covered nearly the entire front facade. This would be the standard for nearly the whole of L'Aquila. After waiting an hour or so in the station for my roommate Stephen to arrive from Perugia, we got on a bus and--following a whirlwind bus tour of the city--finally arrived at our hotel.
 
L'Aquila itself if located in the very mountainous and beautiful region of Abruzzo, and sits in a valley below some of the highest peaks in all of Italy--even when compared to the Dolomites. Like Ascoli Piceno, the mountains in this region were covered in fall colors trees like those found in New England. Even some of the city parks--which were relatively untouched by the earthquake--could easily have been confused for ones back home.  Sad to think that someplace so nice could fall victim to such disasters.



The next morning--with the advent of sunlight--we could finally see the full extent of the damage to the main city center. Looking out the 4th story window of our hotel room we could see a jungle of metal scaffolds, crumbling buildings, and debris scattered along the streets. Even the building next to our hotel--which, luckily for us, had been completely fixed--seemed ready to collapse at any moment. Adding to the bizarre nature of the city, there was nobody in the streets--like a ghost town in an old western film...only this time it was real.
After a  morning ride to the Parco Nazionale del Gran Sasso e Monti della Laga (the same park which I rode though in Ascoli--more on this some other time) Stephen and I met up to go find lunch and stroll the town. Leading to the main piazza there was only one street which had been opened to the public. Though given the military guards at its entrance and the scaffolding which lined the buildings on either side, you would have thought otherwise. Walking through these empty, "dead" streets was pretty surreal and often gave the feeling that one was trespassing.



Coming around one corner Stephen and I even found two crushed cars and a building with furniture still sitting inside as if the owners just one day decided to get up and leave.



                                                A church entirely surrounded by scaffolds

For nearly the whole day we walked streets like the ones seen above. Street after street, block after block, nothing changed. At some point you would have expected to come across some area of the city that maintained some level of normalcy. But nothing seemed to.

As night fell, we decided to slip into a cafe for some bottles of water. By this point, both of us were pretty depressed about what we had seen that day. While we both knew the earthquake had struck, the scale of the devastation was something neither of us were really prepared for. Making things worse was the fact that zero construction seemed to be happening during our time their and beyond the erection of some hastily made scaffolding, nothing else seemed to have been accomplished in terms of restoration or clean up. Storefronts still had shattered windows, glass still lined the streets in some parts, and rubble still lay strewn in alleyways. It was bizarre...very very bizarre.

After ordering a bottle of water and sitting for a few minutes, Stephen and I decided to stick around the cafe and watch a local jazz quartet which had been setting up their instruments outside the front door of the cafe. Shortly after ordering a bottle of wine from nearby Teramo, the cafe owner surprised us with a dish of  cheeses and meats to accompany our drinks. As the music started to play, people slowly started to file into the cafe and for the first time we actually felt as though we weren't alone in this city.
Perhaps the best way to describe what happened next can be summed up by something read about one of my favorite female jazz/folk singers--a woman named Eva Cassidy. While reading a review of one of her albums published in the Washington Post the author commented that ""she could sing anything...and make it sound like it was the only music that mattered." In a way, listening to this band play in some no-name bar gave the same impression. Sitting there and listening I can honestly say I forgot about the earthquake. I forgot about all the destruction I saw that day and how depressing it was. I have a feeling the locals sitting in the bar felt the same way too. For them, life just went on and even though it was probably hard to get by and cope, here they were laughing amongst friends enjoying a nice evening "out on the town."

Walking out of the cafe and back to the hotel a few hours later, Stephen and I once again found ourselves surrounded by the scaffolding and wooden braces which seemed to accompany us everywhere we went. However, this time was different. This time, it didn't seem as sad or traumatic; and for the first time, I finally felt as though--in the end--everything would be OK.


Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Fall Break: Perguia & Orvieto

        For the first few days of my break I spent relaxing in Perugia. Additionally, I had a few day trips planned which--up until now--I hadn't gotten around to.

Day 1:
        The first day, I made a late afternoon excursion to the town of Orvieto--a short hour long train ride out of Perugia. Orvieto is famous for its unbelievable cathedral which took roughly 300 years to build (1290-1609) and includes both Romanesque and Italian Gothic architectural forms... or at least that's what the informational brochure said. To be honest I really don't know much about architecture but still, as I said in my previous post, I like to think that  I can still appreciate it. Thankfully, the church itself is so awesome I didnt really need to investigate the finer details to really find something amazing. Pretty much the only effort required to appreciating this structure is opening your eyes.

This photo just happens to be the only one I have which includes the largest area of the church. Like the Duomo in Florence, this church also includes the alternating stripe patterns, composed of white travertine and green-black basalt, for the flanks of the building (again, this is the brochure talking)--I find this design to be pretty cool. It is only after facing the church from the front though that you can really see why people flock to this church.
         While it may not be noticeable in this photo, each one of the images done above are mosaics. Additionally, there are thousands of sculptures which line the spaces between the mosaics--some of which are no more than the size of my head while others stand over six feet tall. With this much detail its easy to see why it took almost 300 years to build.
     





DAY 2:

     After riding and then walking around Orvieto for almost six hours, I woke up this morning with very very very sore set of feet. Luckily however, this is nothing a few gallons....I mean, cups of coffee can't fix. Eventually, I worked up the motivation to go out for a ride. Sadly (and I don't know why) I forgot to bring my camera which really sucks since I took a nice excursion into Tuscany whose border is just a few miles north of Lago Trasimeno. This was nice, but the real highlight of the day came at night when my friend Elise and I went looking for a new place to get dinner in Perugia. At first our plan was to check out a new pizza place a few kilometers outside the city center. Instead however we--by pure chance--stumbled into this small store as a way to kill time before going to dinner. Inside was a bunch of local Umbrian products (wine, truffle oils, olive oils, balsamic vinegars, pickled produce, etc.). Shortly after entering we struck up a conversation with the store owner--a young Italian woman who didn't speak much English. Our conversation varied for a few minutes but eventually settled on the products and some of the dried meats she let us sample. After a while she invited us to go upstairs to look around which surprised me since the place was so small I didnt really think an "upstairs" existed. As predicted, the upstairs was pretty much a crawl space with the ceiling only a few feat above out heads. However, packed within this small space were three tables and an older man serving wines and cheese to two patrons already seated. To make a long story short (b/c this is getting long winded) we wound up talking to this guy who gave us a bunch of free wine samples. Eventually, we decided to just stay there for dinner and over the course of two hours we had this really simple (but really good meal) accompanied by several glasses of wine, cured meats, cheeses, and an awesome bruschetta (and i mean awesome!) When it did finally come time to leave, Elise and I were really worried the meal would be really expensive.

It came to 15 euros....total. Awesome.

The name of the place we went to was called "Il Tempio." The name probably comes from the fact that it's right across the street from the Tempio di San Michele Arcangelo (pictured here: http://rete.comuni-italiani.it/wiki/Perugia/Tempio_di_Sant%27Angelo

Anyway, if you're even in Perugia and looking for a good "aperitivo" you need to check this place out. The guys name is Claudio...really nice. http://www.iltempiodiperugia.it/


Day 3:

        Other than the days spent traveling on trains, today was probably the worst day of the vacation. While riding, it rained the whole time and in the span of 2.5hrs I got 4 flats before ripping my tire--forcing me to take a train home. Boo. Luckily however, all my sorrows were quickly forgotten by the best pizza I've had in Perugia yet. After missing out on going last night, Elise and I finally made it to a small pizza place called "La Casetta"--a small 'hole-in-the-wall' pizzeria about a kilometer away from Perugia's school for foreigners. This place is so small in fact that you can only order out from there since the space is only big enough for the 4-5 people ordering at once. Both of us ordered the house pizza (apply named "pizza la casetta"). I'll let the pictures do my talking for me since my weak grasp on the English language will do the real thing no justice. 
Please note how the pizza was not cut for us--prompting us to rip it apart with out bare hands. It was somewhat barbaric...but when pizza tastes this good, you too would do anything to get it into bite size pieces. 

Day 4:

        Today was a day which was dedicated solely to riding and finalizing details for my trips to Ascoli Piceno and L'Aquila. Fortunately to counteract the monotony of travel planning I had an AWESOME ride around Lago Trasimeno to the town of Castiglione del Lago. The first third of this ride was done on the same roads as the one which brought me into Tuscany just a few days before. However, instead of heading north towards Cortona, I instead went south--thereby remaining in Umbria. Along the way I took some pretty cool photos of the the lake and the surrounding small towns. Since its no longer the summer season, this part of Umbria is pretty empty of both cars and people...two things which I could go without. Here are a few of my favorite photos:






Day 5:

        I wont go into a lot of detail about my use of the Italian public transport system. The one point that I will make though--for any future travelers reading this blog--is that TrenItalia (the major train service in Italy) is ALSO a bus service. How do I know? Well, let me just say that it took a few shouting matches with conductors and ticket agents to figure this out. Ill leave out the finer details of our conversations....just know hang gestures were involved. This shouldn't come as a surprise though since ALL Italian conversations involve hand gestures--some nicer than others.
        However, even though a bus is a much less efficient form of transport, it did offer a better opportunity to see the landscape. Notice how the trees are starting to change colors--like back home. It was images like these that made me realize I picked the right place to travel.


Since moving to Colorado I haven't really experienced a good fall like those back in New England. That all changed when I got to the Marche region though since this place could easily be described as the "Vermont" of Italy.
 Here is the actual town of Ascoli Piceno. This is the Piazza Del Popolo (Piazza of the People). I'm no photographer, but I somehow got this photo to look GOOD! As a way to celebrate my new found art skills, I decided to indulge on the local specialty of lamb stuffed fried olives pictured here about the regional seal. A perfect way to end the night...and this post.

Until next time,

E

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Fall Break

Last week was the Umbra Institutes fall break. While most kids were planning intensely for excursions to other European countries I decided to spend my time solely in Italy. Now, I feel the need to defend myself form those who say I'm merely wasting a perfectly good opportunity to see other parts of the world. Yes, it is true, there are places in Europe other than Italy which have a lot to offer in terms of culture and experiences; but since I chose to study in Italy I figure I might as well "see" Italy. Therefore, I decided to split my ten day vacation in half and spend the first five days in Perugia/Umbria and the other five days traveling and riding in the surrounding Italian national parks. Why the national parks? Well--to be honest--while I do really appreciate art and architecture what really attracts me to places is the natural terrain and the people--frescoes are really of second importance.

So, in the blogs that will follow I will attempt to cover all the adventures I had, the places I saw, and the people I saw. The first of my posts will cover the first five days in Perugia and the next post will include the days I spent traveling in Ascoli Piceno and L'Aquila.

Anyway, this post wont cover either of those. Instead this is a prologue to my future posts...an "Episode1: The Phantom Menace" if you will. Speaking of "The Phantom Menace," in the time it takes to write my next post feel free to entertain yourself by watching these--a seven part review of "The Phantom Menace" which i stumbled upon while being "productive."


http://techland.com/2009/12/16/the-best-review-of-phantom-menace-ive-ever-seen/

Enjoy