Saturday, February 28, 2009

Ciao da Roma!

I thought I'd do what I haven't done in quite some time...write an update of my travels via email! Of course, I have much to write about everything that's been going on for me in France since...oh, about Thanksgiving! But, in lieu of the full update, I thought I would just directly write an email to give you the dirt on my trip to Italy. It isn't over yet, but I've been on the road for 3 days now, and I do have some stories to share. So, go get yourself a cup of your favorite warm beverage and let's get started...

The plan for the beginning of my trip was to fly into Pisa airport around 11:30pm last Wednesday and then be whisked away (free of charge) to my hostel. This is almost what happened, except for the 11:30 part. In fact, my flight was around an hour late. Now, I didn't really care about the time of night...what I really cared about was how this affected the atmosphere at Beauvais airport in Paris. It was almost unbearably fraught with tension and stress. Because my flight was being constantly pushed back, those of us on the flight were repeatedly lining up at one of the three check-in desks, only to have the name of another flight come up on the screen and be forced to disband. And, as I was waiting with a room full of Italians (flights into Pisa and Rome), Spaniards (Barcelona), and even a few utterly incomprehensible Scots, people did not take being disappointed very quietly or patiently. Once, toward the beginning of my three-hour wait, I noticed that a very large mass of swarthy-looking folks was beginning to form in the direction of gate B. Just as I was considering moving to the back of that line to check the departures board near it, the whole group of them shifted, en masse, in the direction of gate D (which was just down a hallway). When I say shifted, really I should say stampeded. In fact, had I been standing about 10 feet to the right, I would no longer be alive in order to write this email. So, as they ran toward me, I impulsively decided to join the heard, almost like running with the bulls at Pamplona. As we all jogged along, I asked an old Italian lady near me, "Is this for the flight to Pisa?" to which she responded, "No, I *hope* it's the one for Rome!" So, I jogged off the right, before I could get all the way down the hallway, and slowly made my way back to the waiting area. Where, it should be said, the overwhelming amount of people were sitting around on the floor, on their luggage, on any available surface whatsoever, looking more like Ellis Island refugees than people on vacation. The one exception being a woman who was on my flight to Pisa, complete with an almost floor-length mink coat and a giant Louis Vuitton bag. At first I was confused as to why such a well-to-do woman would need a 15 Euro flight to Pisa, but then I realized that when you've spent $15,000 on your coat and bag, you could do with a little economy class.

Anyway, my hostel in Pisa was absolutely tiny. In fact, it was little more than a two-bedroom apartment that had been converted into one double room and one room with 3 bunk beds. It was tidy, which was nice, but what was not so nice were the two chicks in my room who were partying all night downstairs at the bars and then coming up every hour for a very giggly pee session. They were Australian and LOUD, although pleasant enough when they talked to me as I was checking my email. Still, sleep was quite elusive for me that evening.

The next morning, sleep deprived, I decided to just skip the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Yes, I know. I was in a town that's basically famous for one thing and I couldn't be bothered to go. Sue me. I just didn't care, to be honest! All I could think about was walking to the train station and getting on a train for Bologna. Still, as I walked from the hostel towards the station, I crossed a bridge and saw an extraordinarily lovely expanse of water and riverfront houses looking exactly like a Pisa Postcard. Pictures to follow as soon as I'm home and able to upload them! It certainly put a smile on my face and some much needed pep in my step.

Buying the ticket to Bologna was absurdly easy thanks to the invention of fancy automated ticket machines with directions available in your choice of about 6 languages. The train between Pisa and Florence was not quite as advanced as the ticketing machine, unfortunately. It rather reminded me of a train one might expect to find in India, the only obvious difference being that no one was hanging off the side or sitting on the roof. The doors were rickety and banging open and closed, the seats were dirty and uncomfortable, and its windows probably hadn't been washed in my lifetime. At any rate, it was cheap. The train from Florence to Bologna was a vast improvement, requiring a seat reservation and the works. Unfortunately for me, my seat was already taken by an exceptionally snotty woman who looked up at me when I pointed out this error with a face that clearly said, "You're actually going to make me move, you worthless piece of trash?" And she was right, I was. With a giant sigh, she heaved herself out of MY seat, and moved her ass and belongings to their rightful place.

Once in Bologna, my nightmarish encounters with the Bolognese bus system began. The hostel I chose (for reasons of economy and high ratings of other tourists) was not in the center of Bologna, but rather about a 15 minute bus ride away. This isn't terrible if the bus system can be managed. Now, Bologna's is incredibly comprehensive, but also incredibly poorly marked. Not to mention the fact that I was working with an abysmal set of directions from the hostel people themselves. I went first to the bus office to procure a bus map, but the guy didn't really speak English. He did understand me enough to help me figure out where the bus stop was that I wanted. Then I went back into the tourist office to find a map of the city so that I could figure out how to get to that bus stop. In between the two stops, I was walking on the sidewalk by an old lady who slipped and fell and suddenly had blood spurting out of her face. It was almost like fake blood, it was so red and squirting...I almost wanted to laugh. In fact, if I hadn't been afraid that passersby would think I pushed her, I might have. Instead, I, with others, helped her to her feet. She tottered off with her friends to find some medical attention, and I fled the scene as quickly as possible.

Once I had the directions to the bus stop, I set off. It was about a 15 minute walk, alongside noisy traffic and bothersome crowds. Not a great first impression. Still, I found it with little difficulty. The great difficulty began when I got on the bus and then had to figure out when to get the heck OFF the bus again. I was so lucky, in retrospect, that this was the only bus in all my time in Bologna where there was a verbal announcement of each stop. Never happened again. Still, I couldn't really understand the announcer, so it was almost a wash anyway. I was able to read the bus stop signs (when there was a sign, it was not a guarantee) and the little schedule I got from the bus office. Eventually, I figured out that I missed the stop. By about 5 minutes worth of driving. Yeah, oops. So, with the heavy knowledge that this was inevitable in the story of my life, I got out at the next stop and waited for the bus going in the opposite direction. It came in short order and I was eventually able to get the right stop.

Anyway, I followed an Asian-looking woman across this vast field towards what looked like the Hostelling International sign on a fence. It was indeed the right direction, and I was soon settling into my room. It was nice, clean, and bright. The bathrooms were really decent, too. I was pretty exhausted from my afternoon exertions, so I just sat around for awhile, rubbing my feet, until I was rested enough to go out on the town in search of dinner.

I got off the bus in the center of town and immediately headed towards a bread/pastry/pizza shop for a slice of margherita. It was a revelation. The crust was puffy and yet so light that it almost melted in my mouth. With a better sauce, it would have been perfection. Anyway, from that point on, I rambled aimlessly, looking vaguely for a homey establishment to enjoy a nice pasta dinner. I eventually found a trattoria, but it wasn't open for another hour and a half. So, with time to kill, I ended up stopping for a 1.50 Euro glass of wine at Gino's Vinos. I had the pleasure of drinking this wine in the company of a grouchy old woman and scowling Gino himself, so it was a real treat. I tried to stretch it out as long as possible, though, thinking of that pasta dinner and the lack of benches in the vicinity. Still, I could stand the scowls no longer and eventually retreated to the street. Walking through the busy urban neighborhood, I crossed the street only to be accosted by a crazy reggae-themed man who stopped next to me in the street so that he could laugh and shake his booty at me. I am not joking. He was clearly mentally unhinged, as I saw him laughing and pointing at every person he passed on the street. I was the only one he danced for, though. :-)

Eventually, I walked by a gelateria, so I decided to have my dessert before dinner in the name of killing time. The bitch behind the counter was clearly angry to have chosen customer service as a career, and decided to take it out on me. Still, the chocolate was tasty. Not earth-shatteringly delicious, but tasty. I sat on a chair out front, eating my cone and watching people go by for as long as was decent. After awhile, however, it dawned on me that I was a fat girl sitting in front of an ice cream shop. Alone. And so I moved on.

The trattoria, once open, proved to have a great atmosphere and quite good gnocchi, but horribly curt service. It occurred to me that I hadn't really had friendly service since arriving in Bologna...which made me sad, to be honest. Anyway, I ate up quickly to get the heck out of there, and then I caught the last bus back to the hostel with a feeling of dread. Got the right stop, though, so it was all good. I got into my hostel room to find out that the Asian-looking lady I had followed earlier was now, in fact, my roommate, and also Italian. And about 50. She had skinny legs like a flamingo, and clearly a lot of problems in her life if she's living at a hostel in the middle of nowhere. God bless. My other roommate was a pleasantly chubby Italian girl closer to my own age, and thankfully, she spoke a little English. It should also be noted that, at this point, my Italian was coming back to me. So, I was able to confidently tell her my name and the fact that I like spaghetti and eggplants. Very useful stuff.

The next day was my pasta-making course, and frankly, the thing I was looking forward to the most on this trip, bar none. It did not disappoint, thank god. I got there early, to suss out the location, and so ended up getting a cappucino and pastry from a local caffè, where I *finally* had pleasant and helpful service. Then, I headed straight to the school and about 4 hours of grueling, back-breaking work. It was fantastic. Stefania, my teacher, was a girl a little younger than me, and I had seen her on the episode of "Passport to Europe" where I had first seen this school. What a personality! Anyway, she immediately put me and the older couple, Donna and Frank, to work making our dough. The egg yolks were so orange that the dough came out a deep, deep yellow. Just beautiful. I found it fairly easy to follow her directions and please her as a teacher (as ever, the teacher's pet!). It wasn't exactly hard to do in comparison to Donna and Frank's bumbling, I must admit. Still, she did comment on the fact that she could tell I was a good cook. :-)

The really hard part was rolling out the dough. What an amazing talent one must have in order to do this correctly. Stefania showed us how to do it step by step, with these very long rolling pins on huge boards. It's a three-step process, and it took us about 20 minutes to roll our dough out to a medium thickness. When she showed us later how she rolls it out to an incredible thinness for making tortellini, it took her all of about 2 minutes. I got it on video; it was shocking after all our hard work.

Still, we didn't even understand the meaning of hard work at that point because we hadn't yet started to make the various pasta shapes with our dough. First, was tortelloni. Big, stuffed with a ricotta filling, and tricky to shape and pinch closed correctly, even as big as they are. Then were bowties (very tricky to pinch) and then another one that I can't remember the name of, which uses a board and stick to make. I really liked that one. Finally, we used Stefania's ultra-thin dough to make tortellini stuffed with a pork filling. Wow. They are so tiny, and you have to have such nimble fingers to make them. Let alone to make them well!! It was so hard to figure out a good method for my fingers, but once I did, I was able to make them well and at a modest pace. Nothing like the speed with which Stefania and the members of the professional class that were working in there with us, but still pretty good. After we were finished making them, it was time to sit down for a bit while Stefania's mother made us lunch. What a lunch... I felt like a farmhand being fed after the morning's chores. Huge, steaming bowls of our freshly-made pasta, vegetables in various forms, bread, mortadella, and a tureen full of tortellini in broth to start everything off. Amazing. With a chocolately dessert to follow and wine throughout. I took bunches of pictures and videos, so I'll get them out to you as soon as possible. Anyway, after that day, I was too exhausted to do anything else, not to mention tired of dealing with Bologna, in general. I high-tailed it back to the hostel and ordered pizza with some of my roomies.

The next morning, today in fact, I headed to Rome. Unfortunately, I'm using the free computer at my hostel in order to write this, and I'm getting dirty looks for being on here so long. So, the story of my Roman holiday will have to be told another day. Besides, it's really just beginning, anyway!

I hope all of you are doing well. I really missed everyone today. I was on the train to Rome this morning, and I thought about how excited Grandpa would be to know that I was sitting there on that train...and knowing that I wouldn't be able to tell him all about it made me cry a little. Since I've been in France, actually, I feel like he's been watching over me, and never more so than today. Anyway, enough of that moping around. Grandpa wouldn't allow it!

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