Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Fratelli d'Italia!

This week, I made a somewhat split-minute decision to run away to a foreign country. I realized that I had been in Spain for more than a month and a half and my travel schedule was rapidly filling up, considering that I like to spend every other weekend or so in Madrid. After a week of considering my destinations and agonizing about how my schedule could change if I ever get my mysteriously elusive internship (rumor has it we'll learn something this week), I decided to buy a ticket to Bologna, since Ryanair flew there, I had friends there, and I had never been to Italy. Pretty soon, I was on my first discount air flight.

It turns out that Ryanair is not fun and not quite what I expected. I sort of envisioned an airline with no frills and little service, where they basically run a flying bus. Rather, they cut few of the services, but mostly just use every mechanism available to trip you up with their silly policies, such that they might force you to inadvertently pay more. For instance, Ryanair retains a baggage check, it's just that at €35 per bag, it pays for itself itself. Furthermore, making you print out your tickets in advance doesn't really save any costs, but it means that you'll have to pay them €40 to reprint it should you forget. There are just as many flight attendants as any other flight; they're used to make sure your bag is small enough (you actually need to put it in the box before boarding) and to sell you food, drinks, duty-free items, travel packages, and lottery tickets. Is it worth it for the price? Probably, if you manage to avoid too many additional fees (i.e. €10 to use a credit card, as if there were another option). Will I use it again? Yes. Am I glad my flight to Germany for Spring Break is with Lufthansa? Unbelievably so, especially after David's description.

So, after finishing my flight and taking the bus into the center of Bologna, I met up with my friend Hannah and went back to her apartment. Hannah is one of my suitemates from sophomore year and we will be housemates this coming year. She decided to study in Bologna for fall semester and then take a semester off in the spring to stay in Italy, work a little, and travel around the rest of Europe. She got a room in an apartment with three other college students, though one doesn't leave his room. The other two, Leo and A (who has a real name, but it's not anything I can remember or spell) were really nice guys, even though we couldn't communicate too well. A's Valencian girlfriend, Tatiana, was also at the apartment for the weekend. She was more than pleased to be able to speak Spanish with someone, so we chatted quite a bit. Actually, it appears that she's forcing A to learn Spanish as well, but he's fairly bitter about languages. He went on a rant about how, by his account, no one should need to learn English because it's actually a group of different languages (American, Australian, etc.).

Communication was, it turned out, a central point of the trip. As Pilar assured me (though she's been getting weird ideas lately - like making the same pasta dish more interesting for the second night by literally encasing it in a thin shell of scrambled eggs) Spanish and Italian are somewhat mutually intelligible. That is to say, I could understand most of what Hannah's housemates said, provided I knew the topic. The real issue was that I was completely unable to respond, except by switching to Spanish (weird, didn't always work) or English (elitist, rarely worked). More often than not, I just kept quiet until Hannah or Tatiana were around, and then asked them to translate. I once pulled off a full conversation with Leo, but it was pretty rough.

Friday night, Hannah happened to be having a dinner party for all her friends in Bologna. Most were Americans, with some Italians and a few other nationalities thrown in. Really, a dinner party was a great luxury, since we aren't allowed to invite anyone to our host families or use the house in my program. I tried some Italian wines (not actually that impressive - cheap wine is cheap wine) and had my first of many pastas.

The next morning we woke up pretty late, but Hannah was determined to show me Venice, even if it meant a four hour round trip for four hours to spend there. It was pretty worthwhile. The city is exactly how it seems on postcards. The whole thing feels like it must have been made up just for tourists, but historical evidence (i.e. the dominance of the Venetian Republic over much of the Adriatic) seems to indicate otherwise. While I'm not sure that boats should ever be used as buses (or at least that they should not have floating loading platforms), I will indeed be sad when the city sinks. It joins Paris on the list of cities I really didn't want to like as much as I did, for fear of being an elitist/overt tourist.

Upon our return to Bologna, we had some pizza for dinner, but Leo surprised us with some pasta al forno, which was delicious, though not anything special, despite his claim that it was a special local dish from his hometown. We then went to hang out with some people from Brown, including my friend Lauren, who were in their residence. On Sunday, Hannah attempted to show me the city, but after explaining a few sights, her tour insight began to include lines like, "this is an old, big building. I think it was important for something. It has free wifi," and "this is the Piazza Maggiore. It's a major plaza." It was more funny in the end for it. Perhaps the height was a trip to a pasta restaurant, where I had two dishes with bolognese sauce. Despite the views of some naysaying vegetarians at the party, it is so much better than just "greasy meat". Or maybe greasy meat is just surprisingly delicious. Actually, scratch that: greasy meat is obviously delicious, and it takes a truly enlightened culinary culture to claim it as a native dish.

So, I'm back in Spain. Actually, getting away to Italy made me appreciate Madrid so much more. I really value understanding my environment and people around me again, even if only partially*. Italy was sort of like a dream where everything seemed mostly familiar, but it didn't make any sense. However, my return to surly Mardrile├▒os was not helped by spending time with cheery Italians. Seriously, guys, you don't need to act indignant all the time.

Maybe I just need to spend more time with shopkeepers from other countries. Yesterday , I met Mohammad, my friendly local Moroccan storekeeper. I bought a cheap watch from him, but when he asked me where I was from, we started to have a pretty in-depth conversation. Now I just need another excuse to visit his cheap-junk store, or I fear our potential friendship will never develop.

Another awesome thing I discovered: non-ironic graffiti. There was an ad at a metro stop for a cruise company. Someone then decided to add comments in pen to the pictures. However, the comments (originally Spanish, though I'm listing them in English, as with every other piece of quoted text on my posts where it is not explicitly stated otherwise) were of the most mundane nature possible. On a picture of playing kids, they wrote "kids!!". On a picture of the sea, they labeled it "the sea" in two places. Other comments included "how cool!" and "how relaxing!" We need more non-ironic graffiti in the States!

*For instance: kissing. I sort of get the rules for cheek-kisses in Spain. Unless you're a woman of higher status from certain regions, you always do two kisses, first on the left, then on the right. You do it when meeting a woman (regardless of your gender) for the first time or when saying goodbye or hello if a long time has passed/will pass between encounters. You can shake hands in business settings, but otherwise it's considered weird or stilted. Kisses are expected with a foreigner from another country, but when dealing with someone from your own country, you can use your own customs. Gay men can also kiss, but only (it seems) if everyone in the group is gay. In Italy, on the other hand, kisses are first right, then left. I almost went for the lips the first time as a result. Also, I can detect no rhyme or reason for when people kiss versus shaking hands. They don't do it as frequently, but it appears that it has a lot more to do with the actual relationship you have with the other person. This requires evaluating the closeness interpersonal relationships, which I would prefer to avoid doing.

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