Tuesday, July 5, 2011

New Blog

Attention followers!  I am starting a new creative writing blog at marcnotes.blogspot.com and you're all invited to read it, along with everyone else in the Universe.  Enjoy!

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Ripasso finale: l'esperienza

Now that I finally have some open time (fall break woo!) I'm finishing off this blog.  Four months after the fact, this is the last post.  All my UniBo credit finally got accepted by Cornell, so I guess that's as good a reason as any to bring this to a close.

Let's declare this right now: my cinque mesi bolognesi were the best time of my life thus far.  I've reviewed the previous chapters of my autobiography and nothing compares.  Looking back on the period, the sheer density of awesome stuff I learned, did, and experienced still bowls me over.  I became a travel nut like I didn't know I was before I left, and one of the saddest parts of cultural readjustment was realizing I could no longer just hop on a train to access dozens of fascinating cities any given weekend.  Every interpersonal transaction was a lesson in some way, teaching cultural and linguistic lessons I'm still reviewing.  Then of course there were the totally crazy days that just happened, like Seville and my birthday.  I lived five months of my life where nearly everything was interesting, all the time.  Do you want to feel three years old again, but without the dependency and poor hygiene?  Go abroad.

I know I'm not alone in this.  One of the greatest parts of my program was the group of students I was with.  For whatever reason we stayed really tight-knit, moreso than the full-years, and while I certainly had particular close pals we were all friends.  Anyone could invite anyone else to travel and it wouldn't have been odd: review my photos, and try to find some consistency in who I travel with.  There's hardly any.  We all stay in touch on Facebook, and I can tell everyone was influenced by the trip whenever they post a status in Italian, reminding us all that they're still thinking about BO.  Caroline and I do trivia nights at an Ithaca bar with some of her friends, and we spend basically the whole time boring them with Italy stories they've already heard.

For posterity: one of the greatest tics of our program group was "BCSP-Italian," the Italian-English mixture we spoke, and still do amongst our communications.  Examples:

"Just a po' " = "Just a little." , from Italian "Un po'", "a little"
"Andams to manjams" = "Let's go eat.", from Italian "Andiamo e mangiamo." (this one is gaining traction in my house in Ithaca!)
"Ciao rags." = "Goodbye guys.", from Italian "Ciao ragazzi."

I work for Cornell Study Abroad student outreach now, a job I had been hoping to do since before I knew they paid for it.  I'm encouraging as many people as possible to go abroad, particularly Italian students, and to participate in language-immersion programs.  My academic focus in my government major had always been on American stuff, but after this semester and a course on Europe I'm taking now I'm seriously considering international fields.  If you get the chance to go abroad, do it.  Do it.  I'm not giving you a choice.  It's the right decision.  One of the craziest things about Italy was that it didn't disappoint.  It's as wonderful and beautiful as it's hyped up to be. Literature and  brooding about the Italian countryside, culture, and way of life aren't exaggerating.  Study abroad experiences are the glorious things that professors tell you they are. See for yourself, please, that these are real, accessible places.
If you walk, boat, plane, and train far enough, you can actually see these things.
The snapshots here are little things an amateur traveler took when he noticed them, not professional, edited images.  This is how it is, for real.
This stuff actually exists, I promise!
And it's not just Italy!  Italy's tiny.  It's a corner of a continent that's a part of a whole planet of stuff like this.  Go somewhere, if you can!

Thanks to everyone at BCSP, Professor Ricci and Danielle especially.  You guys are ace at your jobs, always incredibly helpful and friendly, and I'm sure the fall crew is doing great.  Thanks to my parents and grandparents for funding my voyages.  And thanks to everyone for reading and your comments!


Friday, September 10, 2010

Ripasso III: gli italiani e la loro cultura

I'm still here.

I've been neglecting this poor blog long enough.  Most of you probably thought I was done, but no, we still haven't reviewed the very core of my whole experience: the Italian people and their culture.  I've put this off long enough to the point of irrelevance, but I want this all written down for posterity.  Let's travel back in time three months (!) and talk about the society I was in.

First of all, a disclaimer: When I make an observation about the Italian culture writ large, remember that I observed Bologna, a northern student-filled middle-sized city.  Italy is a diverse place, so no promises that what I say is true up and down the boot.  Also, I'm coming from the suburban northeast, so some of my later comparisons to cultural values may be unique to that area.  Anyway...

The Italian culture is social and public.  I don't just mean gesticulating relatives shouting around the Sunday dinner table, though that's a part of it.  The core of the Italian community is outside, in the streets and piazzas, not in the home.  Pedestrians crawl about everywhere, many not to get from Point A to Point B but simply to sit at Point C.  American downtime is spent in the home, and that's the meeting place before an excursion.  Italian downtime is outside, in your city, sitting outside to eat or just sitting outside.  You don't stop by to pick up your morning coffee on the way to a destination, you stop by to drink your morning coffee in the bar.  I think there's a reason the second question asked in an Italian introduction is "Di dove sei?"  Contrary to what Italian 101 teaches you, that doesn't precisely mean "Where are you from?"  Di and from are not perfect translations of each other.  Da is more accurately "from," in terms of place.  Di is really more of an of: "Of where are you?"  See the difference?  "Marc from New Jersey" is a geographic description.  "Marc of New Jersey?" Suddenly I'm intimately involved with the state, like it's a part of my identity.  Origin towns of individuals and families is important in Italy, thanks to the city-state history and the dialect identities, and I think it has to do with the social nature.  People are at home in their town, not just in their house.  And why shouldn't they be?  Everything is so walkable, and there are so many piazze and other public spaces to be in.  Bologna, while a university city, was not an American-style campus by any means, and yet somehow the whole city could feel like one sometimes.  I don't think I felt remotely alone at any time for five straight months; that has its pluses and minuses.  I recall lying in the hostel bed, in the pitch-black, completely silent room on the BCSP Tuscany trip, and realizing that I hadn't been in that setting in an extremely long time 

Perhaps from this sociability comes the notorious Italian laxness.  Professors show up to class 15 minutes late, cashiers will knock a few cents off the price of something if it'll round to a Euro, the immigration officer you're dealing with will go out to get coffee and come back half an hour later.  Have patience: the trade-off to this sometimes irritating custom is that you can act this relaxed as well.  If you're on a strict schedule, you're in the minority.  Before I left, my dad recommended that I get the batteries in my watch change, but I didn't.  My watch died within the first few weeks, of course.  I later realized that this was symbolic.

Italian pop culture is American-imported and influenced.  Most of the music I heard was American, and that which was Italian sounded like cheesy late-90s pop ballads.  I have a problem now that whenever I hear Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance" I get really nostalgic; I'd never ever listen to her kind of music but it was the hit of the season in Bologna.  TV is largely American as well: my roommates would watch The Simpsons, Family Guy, and American Dad everyday (how much of that last one were they understanding?).  The Italian gameshows were hyper-cheesy, and clearly designed to award as little money as possible (Round 1: Answer really hard questions.  Round 2: Answer even harder questions that can potentially decrease your winnings.  Round 3: Impossible all or nothing!)  I'm not sure I saw any original Italian fiction on TV.  See this diagram that my friend Catherine made:

Calcio.  I'd nearly forgot about that.  They love their soccer.  As my friend Brandon once said, as we stood in a packed pub to watch a game: "Watching Italians watch soccer should be a show on ESPN."  One of my roommates was a sports nut, who had money on most games, so I got to witness some glorious fanhood, especially come World Cup time.  I could write a whole 'nother blog, perhaps an academic dissertation, about that roommate, but I'll leave him be; I don't need to write it down for posterity because I will never, ever forget Alberto, his habits, and his tumultuous long-distance relationship with his girlfriend.  That is all.

It's not all sunshine and fioriI'm going to write now about the problems ailing Italian society, if only so I can get it over with before ending on the highest of high notes.  You know how I feel about the education system and its teachers, but the students have problems too.  We discussed in my culture class there that many young people, particularly the boys, don't move out of their parents' homes until very late, and many don't work.  There was definitely a lack of motivation with my roommates- they spent way too much time in front of the television, and led very, very repetitive routines.  They are not lazy, they did any task they had to do pleasantly and well, and as I'll discuss were extremely, extremely helpful and friendly  They just clearly weren't concerned much for their futures, not interested in all in their approaching adult lives, or even livening up what's left of their youths.  I had a discussion with my grandfather about the American and Italian education systems: he said that ours is less like the real world because we live on campuses with an imposed structure, but I disagree: the Italian students may be living with everyone else in a city and society, but they've got no thoughts toward the next era of their lives, whereas much of the American college experience is career preparation and planning, albeit from a separate location and culture.

Everyone smokes.  My other roommate did in the kitchen next to my room, and some nights it was terrible for me.

I felt that the society was very racially segregated.  All of the African men I saw were street vendors, all of the little grocery stops were run by Pakistanis.  When I say "all" in each example, my generalization is very, very near to being literally true.  There were some minorities in the student body, but other than that each non-European race seemed to have there niche in the society and no mobility out of it.  I didn't see any of it, but some of my friends reported that their roommates made some offhand remarks about blacks.  I remember noticing several interracial couples and minorities in business suits in London, and realizing I hadn't seen many of either in Italy.  Only Italians staffed the main businesses.  Middle-aged adults filled the jobs we'd typically see teenagers and immigrants doing here (cashiers, for example), and perhaps that contributes to the youth stagnancy I mentioned above.

Sexism is also a bigger problem there than in America.  A huge number of ads were just women standing next to products, and every game show host seemed to have a harem.  I realize that this is true here, to an extent, but our relevant examples are much, much more reserved.  Vanna White never wore a thong and stopped the show to dance for Pat Sajak.  I don't know how that translates to the workplace, because it seemed to me that there were just as many women as men staffing the businesses and in my classes.  I've already told you that girls were sometimes graded based on their appearance by professors.

Those are the issues I observed, but of course there are others that are more national in scope: northern regionalism, southern poverty, the Mafia, Berlusconi, etc.  But don't let that bring you down.  Never, ever forget that...

Italian people are the nicest people in the worldI have never, ever, ever encountered the sort of gentility that I did on a few of my adventures in Italy.

When I first met my grandfather's friend Sciortino, he gave me a tour of the city, introduced me to his daughter, gave me the phone numbers of his friend and his mother, and later met me for a lunch on him, with drinks on the house from his friend the restaurant owner.  I had never met this man before in my life.

Over Easter in Milan, I was treated to three days of meals and tours in Genoa, Milan, and on the coast, and was finally allowed to pay for something on the last day because Ettore ran out of cash.  I'd met him once before, very briefly in Brooklyn.

The day I met Antonio, he gave me (and a friend) a tour of Naples, a fantastic dinner, took me to the small nothing town of Camposano just because I wanted to see the sign, drove me up Vesuvius and back to my hostel, all because I called up one day and claimed to be a relative.  I didn't know he existed before I arrived.

When my friends and I visited Vignola, we asked for directions from two people standing around.  They pointed us in the proper direction, and fifteen minutes later, as we walked, pulled up beside us to give us a map.

When program director Ricci had us all over to his house for pizza on a whim, his wife (American, but she counts!) apologized that they weren't prepared to feed twenty-five students at half-hour's notice.

I don't know how to respond to all this, how to analyze it, or what I could possibly do to pay this kindness forward.    I'm essentially speechless about this topic, three months after my return.  I'll just let those stories speak for themselves.  Grazie a tutti.

One more post before we retire this blog.  It'll be an easy one.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Ripasso II: La lingua

This post will focus on what I learned about language during the semester.  My Italian comprehension did improve quite a bit over the course of the semester.  Case in point: I read my history of the family professor's over the course of two weeks at the beginning of the semester, and understood it fairly well.  In the week before the exam, I took notes on the book over the course of 5 days, with what I'd call 95% comprehension.

LANGUAGE LESSON 1:  Comprehensive and expressive abilities are not the same thing.  I am much better at reading and listening to Italian than I am at writing and speaking it.  That's more or less true of my English as well; I don't speak with the vocabulary of the texts I read for school.  I can listen to someone speak to me in Italian or read middling-level Italian texts without much of a problem.  My own speaking did not improve as much as I would like; my relationship with my roommates wasn't one of close friendship so we didn't speak very often, and the Italians I befriended later on spoke mostly in English.  I think I underestimate myself here though: I was able to hold conversations about non-mundane topics like culture and politics in Italian with Italians with mutual understanding.  Bologna is a great city to study Italian in, as it is very populous but without the tourists and thus demands use of the language.  I did find it a bit irritating, though, when some cashiers immediately addressed me in English, before I said anything, because they could tell by my dress that I was foreign.

LANGUAGE LESSON 2:  Thought is not strictly words.  This is going to be hard to explain.  When I'm preparing to say something in another language, there's definitely a moment when my mind needs to prepare for it.  Whenever I entered a bar (a bar is a general snack/coffee* shop, the drinking establishments we call bars are usually called pubs in Italy) there would be a brief moment of mental focus as I prepared to speak in a way that wasn't quite automatic.  This actually lasted for a few days after coming home, during which I would pointlessly feel a tiny bit apprehensive before making an order at Zita's ice cream shop at home.  I've passed the phase of learning Italian where I think in English first and then translate in my head, I can think in Italian for simple things without first preparing an English transcript.  Gaining this ability has a side effect: if I'm not in English mode, but the Italian words aren't coming to me, I won't have any words to say at all.  Imagine this thing:

Your mind immediately says dog.  Mine does now too.  There were times, however, when I'd be in the middle of an Italian conversation, more or less thinking in Italian, and I'd need to express that thing, but my mind couldn't decide whether it wanted to label it dog or cane.  I'd be without a word, with nothing but the essential concept of that dog-cane in my mind.  Ideas can exist in your mind without the words to label them.  Imagine the tip-of-your-tongue feeling.  This brain torn between two languages would affect my English as well.  I definitely had a bizarrely difficult time expressing myself in English sometimes.  I recall once forgetting the word left, as in the opposite of right.  I had to say "that side" and point.

On that note, let me comment on the amount to which I've internalized Italian.  I have some simple thoughts in Italian: I often think "Ho bisogno di..." instead of "I need..." or "Non posso..." instead of "I can't..."  Pronunciation when reading English is a bit off.  "CH" in Italian is always pronounced with the hard "K" sound, so words like "Chinese" and "church" look a bit off to me.  I'm getting used to silent vowels again: a few days ago I read about a product called "Sense," and thought it was a foreign word pronounced "sensay" before remembering that that's a basic English word pronounced "sens."  I said "Ecco la!" ("Here it is!") to point out to one of my friends a few days ago, thoroughly confusing them.

*Upon reviewing this post before publishing, I found that above I wrote "caffè" instead of "coffee" without noticing.  There you go.

LANGUAGE LESSON 3: Mentally distinguishing between foreign languages isn't as hard as I expected.  This is more or less the opposite but what I just wrote, but oh well.  When I traveled to Spain, France, and England, I had no problems adjusting to using the basics for simple exchanges.  Spanish, French, and Italian are nothing but poorly-spelled versions of each other, and yet I was able to distinguish between different " mental modes" (mind you, I know very little Spanish and about three words in French) in each country.  The point is that at a shops in Paris, I said "Merci" after each exchange as if it were automatic, with no inclination to say "Grazie" or "Thank you" instead  (saying "Merci" actually carried over a few days into Italy after I returned).  In Spain, "Donde esta la estacion?" came easily without the urge to say "Dov'è la stazione?"  Despite their similarities (my travel mates' conclusion was that Spanish simply sounds like fast Italian, with more Ss), the languages were distinct in my mind.  I used to think it'd be very hard for me to learn Spanish because my Italian would creep into it, but now I think I could probably keep them apart.

LANGUAGE LESSON 4: Attitudes towards English.  This is the less theoretical of the three.  English is the global language at this point, and you can get around in any of Italy's major tourist cities (Rome, Florence, Venice, Pisa) with it with no problems.  Many people in Bologna spoke it; as I said, they'd sometimes speak to me with it before I opened my mouth.  I was discussing this with an Italian girl I was paired with for language exchange, and she surprised me by saying that she felt it was a point of embarrassment not to know if if you were spoken to in it.  She seemed to imply that not knowing English made you uncultured or unworldy.  This was a shock to me: if I'm in a foreign country, it's certainly my problem if I don't speak the local tongue. I didn't expect anyone to speak English in Spain or France, and accepted that I'd be at a disadvantage before I left.  The French definitely had a different attitude about this than my exchange partner: I'd heard they were less receptive of English-speakers (Emily says they're very proud and protective of their language, with their language authority actively promoting unique French versions of modern English words like "computer," though it's been a losing battle), and while English was certainly the second language of Spanish and Italian signage, Paris was much more adherent to French, despite its booming tourist business.  The Louvre, the world's most visited museum, has most of its exhibit labels in just French.

That said, Italians who didn't expect us to speak Italian were delighted when we did.  I recall a waiter in the modern city of Pompeii who approached us and said something bizarre in English we couldn't make sense of, probably gotten from Google Translate.  When we said "Parliamo italiano," he breathed a sigh of relief and congratulated us.

A lot of exchange programs (those based in the touristy cities, like Rome and Florence) don't require language knowledge to study there.  Personally, I think that attitude is disrespectful, and despite its limiting effects I think Cornell's got a sensible policy in that you can't study abroad without studying the local language for a few semesters first.  To spend that much time in a country without being able to communicate with its people is to view the whole place as a museum and to effectively ignore the millions of lives around you.  Short bursts are reasonable, or else no one would ever be able to travel, but to effectively be a tourist for six months is unappealing to me.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Ripasso I: L'istruizione

I left Italy about a month ago, for some inexplicable reason.  I had planned on writing up some "review" posts to capture the whole experience upon my return.  This blog ended up being somewhat of a travel blog and thus excluded the details of my day-to-day experience, so these posts are intended to really capture the meat of the experience, concentrated down into somewhat of a flimsy, tofu-like meat substitute for your consumption.  I sat on the assignment for a while, so I hope that now that I've started I'll be more inclined to add on to this.

One last journey: in the last week I spent in Bologna after returning from Paris, Bianca and I took a trip to Rimini and San Marino.  Rimini as a city didn't particularly stand out in my mind, except that it had a beach, which doesn't stick out in my mind among all the various beach's I've seen.  San Marino was neat; for those out of the know it's an independent republic within Italy, just like the Vatican.  It sits on a mountaintop, and Wikipedia tells me it's the world's oldest state, and that it owes its longevity to the fact that whenever an aggressive Pope or Napoleon came knocking, they simply welcomed them with open arms, made nice, and were allowed to stay.  There were great view from the height, and the whole thing is basically a fortress-city built into a mountain.  Cool.

The core of this post is devoted to the Italian education system (istruizione means "education," not educazione, which refers to the way a person is raised in terms of things like manners and ethics.  Language teachers call traps like that "false friends," and they lead to hilarious mistakes.  Most famously, preservativo does not mean "preservative.")  I took five courses this semester:

- BCSP's pre-session grammar course
- BCSP's main grammar course
- BCSP's history of Italian politics course
- Unibo's history of the family course
- Unibo's history of the Italian language course
(Unibo = University of Bologna)

I won't talk here about the BCSP courses, as they were more American-style and largely unlike the Italian courses, except for the grading scale.  Italy (and Europe in general?  I'm not sure) grades on a 0-30 scale, just like they do with their temperatures.  My debate club at Cornell does the same thing, so maybe there's a common root there.

The best one-idea summary I can give of the Italian education system is as follows: The students are not part of the university.  In America, we definitely consider the students to be a part of any college or university, if not the core of it.  Cornell students are considered a part of the university just as much as the faculty.  In Italy, the faculty is the university, and the students are merely clients.  There is a substantial divide between students and faculty to the point of animosity.  Films about Italian college life always portray students up against an unfeeling, egotistic bureaucracy.  In class, the professors seem to talk at you, not to you,  My history of the family teacher, I eventually realized, was reading practically verbatim from her book.  There was no effort to be engaging, their only job is to present information.  That isn't to say they aren't sometimes better than that- my history of the language professor was a better lecturer, but more on him in a moment.

The students, not a part of the university, have no sense of class.  I don't mean that in that they have no sense of taste or style, I mean that our idea of the "Class of 'XX" has no meaning there.  They graduate when they individually finish, not together.  I don't believe there are any university-sponsored clubs.  The university is simply an institution that provides professors who lecture and offer exams, that is all.  You get an email account as a signing bonus.  Within this structure, each individual facoltà (schools within the college, like Cornell's) is highly autonomous, and the professors are further autonomous within that structure.  We were told by the program that professors were masters of their classes.  They decided the schedules, when the exams would be, and the appropriate workload.  They were free to begin and end within the allotted time: both my professors never used their full two hours, and frequently showed up late.

Not that you're required to attend class.  Your performance in the course is graded entirely on the final exam.  You're free to just do the readings, or none at all, and show up as you please.  I'm fairly certain one of my roommates never went to class, though he was a science major so the textbooks were probably better than rote lecture.  The exam dates are more or less independent of the course's run, and there are several held a year.  If you screw up once, you can try again next semester (though "semester" is also a nebulous concept).  My family professor seemed to offer an exam session every month, a single block of time during which any students from any of her courses could stop by to take the test.  The exam (with exceptions, though both of mine were like this) are oral and incredibly subjective.  The professor sits you down and you have a discussion with them about the topic, and then you get your grade.

My exams were a best-case and a worst-case scenario.  My history of the family exam was as follows: I was required to read a certain amount of pages from the professor's book and a list of others.  I read her book and two others.  At the exam, we didn't discuss her book (the content of the lectures) at all, and thank goodness because it was impossible to pay attention to her, and I was more or less free to discuss anything I wished from the books I elected to read.  I impressed her and got a good grade.

The history of the language professor was not so kind.  He had a separate exam day and reduced reading for the foreign students, and a number of other BCSP students and I studied together for the exam.  He asked very, very precise questions about his book.  In my case, he started broad (Why is Petrarch important?) before narrowing down to absurd levels of detail (Where was the book we just mentioned published?  What was its author's first name?), and we discussed only one part of a single chapter for the whole exam.  The professor, now a notorious villain among our circle of students, had a massive ego, a rude temperament, and a grudge against foreign students (despite his separate exam day and lessened workload).  I escaped with a respectable grade: I was told that I clearly knew the content and had studied, but didn't speak the language well enough, which has nothing to do with his course.  The man was a linguistic egomaniac.  Others were clearly treated extremely unfairly, graded based on his mood or their appearance (that happens to girls a lot, the culture is quite sexist).  Upon hearing of our problem, our program director spoke to him and somehow managed to touch the heart of the Grinch and get us all a grade boost.

The Italian education system works as follows: they don't teach you very well, and then they roll a die for your grade.  You may be asked anything; if you've memorized every sentence in a book except for the one you're asked about, you'll get a bad grade.  Apparently this creates problems at med schools, as some unprepared students retake exams until they get a question they know and are then allowed to move forward int eh medical field.  The method's only good quality is the amount of detail I had memorized for the exams: I haven't studied that hard or known a course's material so well since I took the AP exams in high school.  Of course, all that's gone now, but I've still got the books.

The next post will be a bit more positive, I promise.  The Unibo way of teaching might be the only dark spot in the whole experience.

Friday, June 18, 2010


(Nello stile di Goodnight, Moon)

Goodbye Bologna.

Goodbye Vespas and tiny cars.
Goodbye Bulmer's at the bar.

Goodbye street parties while I'm in bed.
Goodbye dreadlocks on students' heads.

Goodbye self-important profs.
Goodbye roommate's smoker's cough.

Goodbye Torre Azinelli's steps.
Goodbye my sweet Bombocrep.

Goodbye Osteria dell'Orsa.
Goodbye ruins beneath Salaborsa.

Goodbye Independenza, Zamboni, Ugo Bassi.
Goodbye Cafè Paris- stay classy!

Goodbye roommate's psychotic ragazza.
Goodbye Neptune in the piazza.

Goodbye Europe.

Goodbye London and your rain.
Goodbye bizarre parades in Spain.

Goodbye screaming soccer fans.
Goodbye warm baguettes in France.

Goodbye Alhambra and the Moors.
Goodbye Westminster's cluttered floors.

Goodbye Shakespeare on the Thames.
Au revoir Paris- je t'aime.

Goodbye Louvre, goodbye Versailles.
Goodbye Granada and London Eye.

Adios, español, que no hablo.
Goodbye plates of escargot.

Goodbye euros, pounds, and pence.
Goodbye metric system- good riddance!

Goodbye BCSP.

Goodbye Ricci, wife, and Ray.
Goodbye Hotel Holiday.

Goodbye Lillo, goodbye Danielle.
Goodbye "Chi è?" when I ring the bell. 

Goodbye Botta, goodbye Dodd.
Goodbye Benevolo, art history god.

Goodbye forty-five-cent caffe.
Goodbye Malcontenti 3. 

Goodbye Cornellians, see you in fall.
Goodbye amici, miss you all.

Goodbye Italy.

Goodbye high mountains between flat lands.
Goodbye speaking with our hands.

Goodbye Ravenna's blocky faces.
Goodbye prosciutto on a regular basis.

Goodbye Parma and your cheese.
Goodbye Neopolitans and Veronese.

Goodbye to all five Cinque Terre.
Goodbye hostels in monasteries.

Goodbye tiny coffee drinks.
Goodbye relatives who eat like kings.

Goodbye gelato, goodbye gelato,
Goodbye gelato, goodbye gelato. 

Goodbye immigration hassles.
Goodbye ruins, goodbye castles.

Goodbye Romans trapped in soot.
Goodbye stivale, goodbye boot.

Goodbye cities in their muri.
Arrivederci Italia, e forza azzurri!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

What part of "JAY NAY PAH PAH FRANCE-AY?" don't you understand?

The evening of Saturday the 5th I arrived in Paris and met my Cornell friend Emily (last seen on this blog in March) at the station.  We took the Metro to my hostel near the Bastille and got some crepes.  I think my roommate at the hostel (for that night, I had to change rooms every day) was native Chinese, and he didn't speak English very well, so the next morning rather than saying "Have a nice trip" he uttered the far more epic "Good luck on your quest."  Thank you, fellow traveler, and may the wind ride on the heels of your steed.

I met up with Emily we went for a walking tour of the city.  The first thing of interest she showed me was the Pompidou, a hideous building in an otherwise quaint neighborhood whose gimmick is that all of its infrastructure (water, heating, escalators, etc) is visible from the outside.  That sounds cool on paper, but...

Dear Europe: Stop building things.  You lost your touch with the Industrial Revolution and now you look ridiculous.  The same is true for most of your art.

Next we went to the Tuileries (twee-luh-ree, not too-ler-eez), the expansive gardens near the Louvre.  The line for the Louvre was the single longest queue for anything I've ever seen (first Sundays of the month are free admission), so I postponed that for a later date and went to see Monet's water lily paintings at the nearby Orangeries museum.  (Yes, Monet is industrial-era.  I said most art.)
Our next three stops were more or less Paris's greatest hits.  We've got the Arc de Triomphe...

...followed by Notre Dame...

(Tourists are allowed in while Mass is being said.  I found it very awkward.)

...and finally the Eiffel Tower.  It was much, much larger than I imagined and is quite the engineering feat.

We also stopped by a noted English-language bookstore called Shakespeare and Co, which has a very cozy upper floor from which you can't buy the books but are free to browse, write at their typewriter, play their piano, or sleep in their bed.  My grandfather would never leave if he ever visited.

That night we went out for French cuisine.  I ordered the escargot just so I could say I've eaten it.  It was really quite good, and definitely better than Seville's calamares con tinta.
The next day I went to Louvre by myself in the morning.  According to Dan Brown's entirely factually correct guide to Paris, the Holy Grail is buried there so I was really excited.  [SPOILER ALERT.  SORRY.]  The line was much shorter than the day before and I got in for free as a student.  I set out to find the Mona Lisa so I could report that I'd done that.  I wasn't particularly overwhelmed or underwhelmed by it; I was perfectly whelmed at an average level.  It's exactly as you've seen it in photos, and to be honest it's a far more interesting painting of a battlefield that takes up the entire opposite wall.  I remember that one of my SAT reading passages was about a visitor not understanding what's so great about the Mona Lisa, and I see her point.

Art is great and all but I've seen quite a bit of it this semester, so I spent most of my remaining time at the Louvre looking at their ancient collections.  I've seen quite a bit of that too, so I guess I don't get consistency points here.

The Louvre is truly massive, and there's no way you can see the whole thing in one day without losing interest.  I left in a few hours after seeing but a fraction of their collection.  I met Emily back at the Tuileries and we walked to Sacre Coeur, a church on a hill with a fantastic view of the city.

Back down the hill we went to Sante-Chappelle, famous for its stained-glass windows.
That ticket included access to the nearby Conciergerie, the prison where Marie Antoinette was kept, but that wasn't particularly impressive.  We capped off the day with baguettes at the geographically-misleading Gardens of Luxembourg.

MISADVENTURE: Upon getting back to the hostel and entering my new room on the fourth floor, I put my towel over the window banister to dry.  A few moments later, it was gone.  It had been blown off by the wind and fallen three stories onto a flagpole.

It was lots of fun trying to explain this to the hostel staff.  I got it back the next day after having had to dry myself with a T-shirt.  Douglas Adams would have been disappointed in the whole ordeal.

I took the regional train to Versailles the next day.  There were two massive lines here, one of which I was able to skip.  I didn't need to buy a ticket, simply flashing my Italian student visa got me in through the gate (once I reached it).  Versailles is everything I was told it was in high school: the most over-the-top luxurious estate imaginable devoted to its resident.  Louis XIV was absolutely nuts.  His luxuries had cushions and there were mirrors to reflect his reflections.

I trained back to Paris and met up with Em again to tackle the city catacombs.  She'd never done this, so she was excited too.  We entered a fairly unremarkable building to the south of the city and went down a long, tight spiral staircase.  We walked along some cold, stone corridors for a while.

That's nice and spooky.  Dark, damp, okay, I've seen it, I'm ready to go.  I'll just turn this corner up here and-



So in the 1800s there were some "leakage" problems at some of Paris's cemeteries, and by "leakage" I mean "moisture was exposing cadavers and they were spreading disease."  The OBVIOUS solution to this, of course, was to build walls out of their bones in a vast network of tunnels beneath the city.  Clearly, this was the necessary solution.  The transition from stone tunnels to bone labyrinth was truly sudden and unexpected, and the whole experience was really eerie, and it was sort of harrowing to imagine myself tripping, outstretching an arm, and lodging my fingers in someone's eye socket for balance.  We equipped our Lens of Truth (this blog post is a record-setter for geeky references) and pressed onward, and emerged three blocks away from where we started.  The creepiest part?  The office at the end checked Emily's bag before we left, and there were skulls on a nearby table.  Some people actually try to take souvenirs.

That night Em went to go see Les Miserables, but at the hostel I was roomed with two boys about my age from America and Canada who are traveling Europe for the summer.  We went out together to go see the Eiffel Tower at night.  At exactly midnight, the whole thing lights up with a sparkly light program.  Here's my artsy shot of that:

The next day I flew back to Bologna, where I find myself faced with a serious problem: I am leaving for good in two days.