Have Wine, Will Travel.

Well, well, well… we meet again. I guess you expect me to tell you some more things about being in Italy, huh? Ok, fine, if you insist.

This past weekend proved to be most smashing, actually. Our group from Rome took three days to visit the marvelous region of Tuscany; home to Leonardo, Raphael and the other ninja turtles. Those of you who have already visited Tuscany will know how marvelous it is, and those of you who haven’t, get ready to put your envy pants on.

(Let me just apologize in advance if this post ends up somewhat long, but our trip to Tuscany was so eventful that I feel I’d be cheating you if I didn’t explain some of the finer details.)

The first thing we did was wake up… Pretty damn early, I might add. Our train from Rome to Pisa was at about 8 a.m. from Rome’s Termini station. So we all had to meet at 7:30 a.m. to make sure no one was late. Termini is about a 20-30 minute trip for me (sometimes I have to wait 10-15 minutes for the bus), which means I had to leave my home at about 7. Obviously I didn’t just jump out of bed and sprint to the bus. I needed to wake up with time to brush my teeth and wash myself a bit, because this is what people do in the morning (or at least I thought so, until I got to Rome’s train station, where it seems hardly anyone does). So, adjusting for this, I had to wake up at about 6:30 a.m.

6:30 a.m.

I guess this time would be normal for a lot of people, but, as far as I’m concerned, this is a sick joke. Even in elementary and high school I didn’t always have to wake up quite this early (it was pretty close, though, which, looking back on it, is probably why I hardly learned anything). So, as you can imagine, I was very tired when I arrived for the train.

I spent almost the whole ride sleeping, as did most of the others from my group. But when we woke up, we were greeted by the Tuscan landscape, which is a far better way to do it. If I could look out and see Tuscany every time I woke up, I’d nap 17 times a day just for the view (in other words, I’d nap the same amount that I do now, but for a different reason).

Our train arrived in Pisa, where we immediately began to walk down the main road from the station. We weren’t in a hurry to get anywhere, so everyone sort of split to look at different markets and shops that were around. I’m not exactly sure why, but I opted to go into a bookstore that we were near and buy some books by Italo Calvino. I’ve only read one book of his before called “Invisible Cities”, but I liked the way it was written so much that I thought I should get some of his literature in it’s original language. (What possessed me to do it at this particular moment… I don’t know)

After trying to read some pages from these books, I came to the realization that part of what I originally liked about his writing style was not just his use of words, but that those words were translated into English. I suppose I still have much to learn before I’m fluent in Italian, because my attempts at reading Calvino were just me going: “What the hell is a pianeta!? What’s this guy talking about!?”

Allora… after wandering Pisa’s streets for a little while, we sat down to have lunch at a small outdoor pizza/pasta restaurant, where I had lasagna. It wasn’t anything to write home about (so I apologize for doing so), but I didn’t think it was awful. However, there were some in our group who said they almost gagged on it, so to each his own.

Now came the time to visit the tower.

It’s kinda funny to think that in the modern world, Pisa is best known for its leaning tower, which is an iconic and heroic symbol of failure. But, at the time it was being built, the guy who was doing it had to flee Pisa for his life. Just shows how fickle and interesting history can be. Maybe in the year 2560, students will be reading books about Steve Bartman, one of the best outfielders in American history.

An Olympic God

So we arrived at the Piazza del Duomo, where one finds the incredible tower of human fuck-up, as well the city’s cathedral and baptistry. This was my first time ever visiting Pisa, and I was not at all disappointed by the view.

The cathedral is pretty fantastic, both inside and out. The baptistry is remarkable as well. But, of course, the main event is the Leaning Tower. Our program director had arranged for us to go to the top of the tower, which, obviously, has to be done on foot (the only person with an elevator that goes slantways is Willy Wonka). I was part of the first group to go up.

I guess I should have expected that the Leaning Tower of Pisa also had stairs that lean, but, to be honest, that idea had never really crossed my mind. So, the first few floors caught me off guard when I realized that gravity was shifting constantly as I ascended. Sometimes I was being pulled forward, sometimes I was being pulled back, sometimes to the right, sometimes to the left. It was like some kind of funhouse staircase, or a scene from Inception.

We finally made it to the top, where there’s a fantastic view of the entire city (Pisa, to my surprise, is much bigger than I expected). Depending on which side of the tower you were on, you could look straight down to the ground, or look down onto the tower itself. Neither one was overly appealing, since I’m usually pretty scared of heights, but I kept my composure well enough to make it back down the stairs without a problem.

This pretty much sums up our trip in Pisa, but is only the beginning of the amazing things we did and saw in Tuscany. I should mention that we were not staying in some big hotel or, contrarily, a cheap hostel during this visit. No, that would be too normal. Because our program director (her name is Cathy and she’s great) is good friends with some people who own villas in Tuscany, we were able to stay for free on a farm just outside Lucca, where the view is unmatched.

The goats were fun, too.

There are some who call me... Tim

Maybe I should take some time to explain just how Cathy was able to swing so much stuff for us on this trip. She is a music teacher at DePaul University and, thus, lives much of her life in Chicago. However, during the summer, she and her husband, Jànos (who’s also an amazing person. He speaks about 5 or 6 languages, knows every historical fact there is to know, and teaches computer sciences at the University of Chicago), spend three months living tranquilly at this farm in Lucca, and they’ve done so for the past 15 or so years. Needless to say, they’re in good with the owners.

For our particular accommodations, there were two “small” villas for us to stay in, as well as a pool, a pen for the goats and horses, and a seemingly infinite yard. But this is not the end of these people’s property. They also own a larger villa up the hill that was built in the 1600s, has a ridiculous garden with a pool/fountain, is surrounded by trees that are over 600 years old and has a kitchen bigger than all of my previous apartments combined.

The villa where I slept both nights

Dining room of said villa

Driveway to the 'Monster Villa' up the hill

Outside the 'Monster Villa'. The man in the foreground is Jànos

Path leading to the garden outside the villa

As if this wasn’t enough, we found out when we arrived at the large villa that there wasn’t going to be any furniture for us to sit on in the main living room.

Why?

Oh, just because they were hosting an art exhibition of some of the most famous people in recent history. Apparently, this Tuscan family is important enough to have a traveling art exhibition stop by in their home.

I guess the idea of the exhibit was that, sometime in the last few decades, someone started a collection for which they would mail postcards to famous artists and have them design the card however they so wished, then they returned the postcards to join the collection.

Among the artists who took part in this project were Picasso, Warhol, Pollack, Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, John Cage and many many more important figures of art, who, as you can tell, didn’t have to be visual artists to be invited to join the collection.

I don’t have any photos of the exhibit, but I know for certain that others took some pictures. So, once these are loaded to facebook and available for my theft, I’ll be sure to add them to this post.

We were given a small tour of the area, then we were invited into the kitchen to drink some wine and see how they were making the evening’s dinner. Some people even opted to help roll out the pasta or bake the pies. I just stuck to the wine and looked on from a distance.

Our friend, Poppy, helping roll out the pasta to be cut

Once everything was ready, we gathered in the dining room for our dinner… Our amazing dinner.

We started with the homemade pasta, then chicken with potatoes, followed by salad, then some pie and fruit as well as cookies that you dipped into this special wine in a shot glass.

Yeah, I know, right?

I don’t think I can say enough good things about the people who were pampering us in their villa. They offered seconds on all the food they served, which I definitely took advantage of. Whenever the wine ran out, they had more brought by their servants… or butlers… or whatever the proper term is. Actually, the second night we were there, they apologized when there was no more wine and brought in a giant case of beer.

Yeah, I know, right?

Both mornings, they served us breakfast in their pool house, which was also a limitless feast, compared to other Italian breakfasts I’ve seen. There was meat, cheese, bread, crescents, cereal, yogurt, orange juice and coffee. Again, whenever one of the offerings was spent, they simply brought more.

Yeah, I know, right?

In terms of comfort, on a scale from 1 to Bill Murray, I was definitely at a Murray for the whole weekend.

For our second day in Tuscany, we took a trip to Florence, the birthplace of Michelangelo. Maybe you’ve heard of him. I’ve visited Florence in the past, but, really, it’s not the kind of place that I could ever get used to. The city is so gorgeous that even the parts that stink of urine are worthy of an Elton John ballad (‘Goodbye yellow brick road… wait, why is it yellow?’).

Of course, we saw the major attractions while we were there: The Palazzo Vecchio, The Duomo, Piazza della Signoria. But, for me, the thing that must always be visited when in Florence is La Galleria dell’Accademia, to see the statue of David. It’s always a remarkable feeling when you walk into the museum, take a right and immediately get slapped in the face by the towering behemoth at the end of the hall.

(You may have to put your face very close to the screen to get the full effect.)

Something about standing 10 feet from the most famous sculpture in the world gives one a feeling of transcendence. It’s almost like the century in which you’re living does nothing to separate you from the millions upon millions of people who have come before and stood where you’re standing. You can almost imagine the people of the Renaissance, casting their eyes upon the naked marble man, gazing with the same awe that you gaze with now. However, there have since been people hired to yank you out of this by snapping their fingers and barking “NO PHOTO! NO PHOTO!”

At any rate, our trip to Florence was certainly a lovely one. And, I’m pleased to say that, as I had hoped, I was able to buy a nice leather jacket in the short time we were there. I’m really proud of it, too. It’s sort of a darkish-reddish-brown (I should work for Crayola, no?) And, if I may be so bold to say, I look damn good in it. Just look at these before and after pictures:

Nice, huh?

Anyways, our adventures in Tuscany continued on the final day when we took a trip to a vineyard just outside of Lucca. The guy who owns the vineyard is also a friend of Cathy and Jànos (I’m telling you, these people have the best connections) so we were able to visit and get a personal tour from the owner, who showed us the barrels in which the wine is aged and some of the grapes that they use for the juice.

The vineyard, so he says, is 100% organic and natural, in that they don’t use any kind of chemicals in the soil or on the vines, and there is no yeast added to the fermentation process. It’s natural yeast that comes with the grapes when they’re picked. We were able to drink some of their wine with the lunch they provided us, and, I have to say, that was some tasty hooch. I decided it might be a nice gesture to buy a bottle and bring it back for my host family. It’s my special way of saying: “Thanks for the bidet!”

On our final stretch through Tuscany, we went within the city walls of Lucca to explore the town a little before heading back to Rome. Lucca really seems like a nice place, aside from all the bugs that were in the air (seriously… millions). We walked around the city center for about an hour before joining up to walk along the wall that surrounds the town. It’s a very pretty thing to look at, when you see across the city from the perimeter, because the entire city is located within the wall. It doesn’t extend outward. It also seems like there are a lot of very wealthy people who live there. Some of the mansions were ridiculously nice. But, like I said, it had a serious insect problem in certain parts, and that is just something that I cannot abide.

We made our way to the train station in Lucca and caught a ride back to Florence, where another train to Rome awaited us. Actually, it didn’t await us, because it was late and not even at the tracks yet. So we had a short time to grab some McDonald’s in the station. Not a fact I’m proud of, but what’r’ya’gonna’do?

Some of us had mentioned during the trip that, somehow, after spending the weekend how we did, it almost seemed like a burden to return to Rome. You know, The Eternal City. But, now that I’ve re-situated myself in my home, it feels good to be back.

Still, the idea that anything could make Rome seem inadequate gives me a lot of anxiety about eventually returning to Alabama or even Chicago. I’m not quite sure how I’ll be able to cope. It’s like trying to use generic toilet paper after having experienced the wonders of Charmin. But, I suppose, if life’s going to give me lemons, I’ll just have to make limoncello.

Until next time,

Dominic

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The Tourist and the Hare.

*Update: After reading this post, my Italian language teacher informed me that the Italian profanity I used was misspelled as ‘cazza’, when, in fact, the word is ‘cazzo.’ The error has been corrected, and I apologize for any confusion. Grazie Andrea!

Buona sera, e benvenuti ancora!

I finished my last post in a rather good mood, if you recall, and I’m happy to say that my mood remains chipper. As a matter of fact, if you ever expect my will to break, this may not be the blog for you (consider following my other blog where I attempt calculus).

The truth of the matter is, I can’t imagine a situation that would discourage my optimism during my time here in Rome. Every day is a new adventure, even if that adventure is simply sitting around watching the Simpsons in Italian (happens more than you’d think… unless you know me… then it happens exactly as much as you’d think). Because, as far as I’m concerned, there’s something in the Italian air that does not allow you to feel down. Even the Italian people seem this way.

Now, I’m not saying that Italians are always happy… oh, no no. In fact, the people of Italy are probably as likely to skip down the streets as the Amish are to skip down the escalator, but it’s true that you never see them morose. Their emotions are always strong (one need only mention the name Berlusconi to realize this). So, when an Italian has had a bad day, they don’t hang their head and mope. They slam their fist and yell “Che cazzo!”

So, whatever is in the air, it’s potent. It gives the people vitality. It gives them purpose. And, in my opinion, keeps them gorgeous until the age of 55, when they become only mildly attractive. This lasts until the age of 60… when they die from lung cancer.

Must have been something in the air.

At any rate, there are just a few things I would like to mention in this post that I think some of you may find interesting. First of all, my communication skills continue to advance every day. I might even go as far as saying that tonight was a breakthrough.

Usually, during the week, the only time that I really get to speak much Italian with my hosts is during dinner and just after dinner; however, after dinner is actually their “movie time” when no one really talks, they just sit around and… well, you can probably guess from the name that this is when they knit sweaters.

So, since there’s much time in between interactions, I’m usually able to gauge fairly accurately how much Italian I can understand, compared to how much I understood the night before. In this way, I can assess my progress and adjust the intensity of my studying accordingly.

On occasion, there have been nights when I will actually understand less than I did the night before. But, in true Italian fashion, I don’t hang my head and mope, I slam my fist and yell “che cazzo!” At which point the table falls awkwardly silent and no one says another word… problem solved.

But tonight was really something special in that, not only did I understand about 85-90% of the conversation, but I actually took an active role in creating it. I gave opinions… explained some differences between American cities and Italian cities… asked for more wine… told them about what I’d done over the weekend… taught them a few phrases in English… asked for more wine. It was really an exciting dinner.

Not only that, but the words that I didn’t know I could easily pick out, then ask for their meaning. For example, the meat we were eating. They referred to it by a name I had never heard before. This is nothing uncommon, I don’t have a very large vocabulary, especially with regard to food.

Caterina: “Ti piace coniglio?”

Me: “Non sono sicuro. Cos’è?”

Caterina: “Franco, come si chiama in inglese, coniglio?”

Franco: “O! In inglese si chiama RABBIT!”

Yup, so not only was this night a breakthrough for my Italian, it was also the first time I’ve eaten rabbit. And, the family all seemed perfectly cool with it, so, I figured “Che cazzo, when in Rome!”

Mmmmmmmmmmmm!

After dinner, as always, I helped put away the dishes and clean the table, then asked: “Tutto a posto?” To which the response is always: “Sì, Dominic, grazie!”

That sentence always makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside… or maybe it was the rabbit.

Anyway… Ok… So… Now that I’ve told you the happy part of this my post, I can tell you the other thing that’s happened to me recently as well.

If you’ve seen my status updates on facebook, you may already know the basic story.

But over the weekend, as you may expect, I went out on the town with others from my group to explore some of Rome’s night life. On this particular night, we wanted to venture near the Italian university here in the city (surely there’s only one, right?), so that we could encounter actual young Italians in their element, rather than going to places that pander to Americans.

We succeeded in finding the area, and, of course, it was everything we hoped it to be. Streets crowed with Italians in their early twenties, drinking beer and wine in the road, telling jokes, singing songs, dancing… fun time.

So, we found a bar to go into and ordered two liters of mojito to share between us as our first drink. Tasty tasty. I think it was mojito with blueberry or something, but, either way, they didn’t short us on the rum.

We left this bar and were walking to another when our story took a turn.

You see, Rome is a city where everyone is susceptible to pick pockets… not just tourists (though tourists seem to have some recessive gene that makes them particularly vulnerable). So, in this case, we were not walking through a touristy area or doing anything to make us stand out as particularly American (apart from speaking broken Italian with thick American accents), but something about me must have screamed: “Jackpot!”

While we were crossing through a pretty crowed little crossroad, a young Italian guy came up to me, looking kind of wasted, and asked me in a giggly voice: “Hey! You smoka tha ganja? Smoka tha ganja?!”

It suddenly made sense: “Oh he’s just high, and doesn’t know how stupid he’s being!”

So I said no and tried to walk by him, but, continuing to act out-of-his-mind and giggly, he put his hand on my shoulder, lifted his knee between my knees and started jiggling it and laughing while saying: “Come aaaan, smoka tha ganja, smoka tha ganja!”

I wish I could say I pushed him forcefully and stormed off, but I was actually too shocked and confused to really know what to do. What made things worse is that the people I was with did not say: “Hey man! What are you doing! Leave him alone!” No, they doubled over with laughter at the sight of a wasted Italian doing a leg tango with me.

I’ll give all of us the benefit of the doubt and blame our reactions on the mojito.

Either way, the guy quickly stopped his bizarre charade, and I made for the exit (the metaphorical exit, we were still outside).

We hadn’t walked too far from the guy when his friend (whom we had seen, but who had seemed to be acting more normal than the other) came up from behind and said: “Excuse me. This is yours. I think you left this.”

What had I left? Well of course… it’s my shitty little pay-as-you go cell phone. But, how could I have left it anywhere? It was literally in my pocket about 20 seconds ago. And my pockets aren’t shallow, so it didn’t fall out.

Yup, that’s right, this guy had reached in my pocket while his buddy distracted me with his “Ganja” rant, and, upon seeing that what he had taken was basically a plastic toy, decided to give it back to me and act like I left it somewhere.

You may be saying to yourself: “Well, maybe it really did fall out of your pocket. I mean, the guy was shaking your leg, right? Could have been an accident.”

But when we walked back through that same area later in the night, we saw the same two guys pulling the same scam on other people walking by. They definitely had a system of pick pocketing. But, luckily for me, they also had moral standards. If it’s not worth stealing, it’s worth giving back. And I like that attitude.

I guess I should consider myself lucky. I mean, most people who get pick pocketed never see their possessions again. But, I must also say that it wouldn’t have been too crushed if they hadn’t given me my phone back. Sure, I wouldn’t have been able to call or text anyone. But that’s a small price to pay for an entertaining story and a valuable lesson. Also, like I said, there’s something in the air here, and it always reminds me to keep my chin up.

Between being almost robbed and finding out “who fried Roger Rabbit,” I’ve decided that every experience I have will come with a silver lining. I’m in Rome, so what reason is there to ever be upset? The only one I can think of will come in a little over two months, when I have to pack my bags and leave.

Well, I hope you’ve enjoyed yourself, but, I must say, the Italian air is now making me drowsy, so I’m going to head to bed. I hope that, wherever you are, the air is also inspiring and potent, and, if it is, I hope it’s not because you’re near a septic water treatment plant.

Good night everyone, Sogni D’oro! – Dominic

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There Once Was A Man From Nantucket… He Moved For Obvious Reasons

Ciao tutti!

Tonight I will simply make a short post to describe the things that have been stimulating me lately… apart from all the espresso.

I’m very pleased to say that I’m making great strides in my ability to communicate in Italian (a lot of it is in the hands). The transformation has been especially apparent in the past few days. Not only am I speaking more clearly and precisely, but I’m getting much better at understanding the things people say.

Tonight, while my host family was having one of their heated conversations at the dinner table, I realized that I was keeping up with more than half of what was spoken. What was once pseudo-gibberish is now a pseudo-language. And the feeling is strange.

I’ve heard about theories of psychology which state that the way a person views and constructs the world around them has much to do with the way that their own language is constructed. Therefore, someone who speaks only Italian will fundamentally see the world in a different way than someone who speaks only English. I’m starting to believe it.

I’m not to the point yet where I can think whole thoughts in Italian, but I’m able to visualize simple ideas, and it has a funny way of changing your perspective on things.

One consequence of this is that there are certain sentence structures in Italian that make perfect sense to me when I hear them, but, when I try to translate them to English in my head, they no longer work. I’m not able to think of a specific example, but it’s ok, because, apparently, I wouldn’t be able to explain it in English regardless. Non importa!

What’s fascinating to me is that I can go to bed one night completely befuddled by the language, but wake up the next morning able to explain ideas in Italian that I’ve never spoken about before. Obviously, I’m not learning completely new words as I sleep, but there’s surely some kind of synaptic extravaganza taking place, which doesn’t occur so much during the waking hours.

A strong barrier that I’ve encountered, though, in learning this new language is that, even when I can understand how a sentence has been formed and which words are verbs or nouns or prepositions, there is a greater vocabulary going on to which I’m not yet savvy. But the beauty is that, once you can truly hear the language and how it’s spoken, it’s not so hard to pick out the individual words that confuse you and ask what they mean… then forget them 5 minutes later.

It’s just like hearing a word in English that you don’t understand, buried between several words that you do understand. Sometimes the context gives it away, and sometimes you’re just left guessing. But it’s like a fun word game (Scrabble without the triple word bonus).

And there is one thing about which I’m especially excited. Starting tomorrow, I will spend every Wednesday morning doing service work at a recreation center for the elderly. This is the part where you expect me to say “just kidding, that would be ridiculous,” but it’s true. Now, I should explain that this center is not a retirement home… THAT would be ridiculous (I never had younger siblings, so I wouldn’t know how to change diapers).

The people who frequent this establishment are elderly Italians who are retired, but live at home and take care of themselves. They simply come to this place to pass the time… maybe playing bingo or something… don’t really know.

And the reason I’m excited for this is not simply because I was the Alabama state champion in high school bingo (I won by default… I was the only player in the league who wasn’t disqualified for their age). But it’s because these people don’t speak a lick of English, from what I’m told. Obviously, this means I have no choice but rewire my mind to understand what these old people are saying.

The thing that’s most exciting to me is that, after working with these people, I should have no trouble understanding the things any common Italian would say (because, who slurs their words more than the elderly? Their synaptic extravaganzas are probably more like synaptic anniversaries at this point).

Now, I’ll admit, it will probably take some time for me to get oriented to this (mostly because I’ll have to wake up before 8 a.m. Ay ay ay!) But, in the end, I’m sure it will prove most rewarding. I’m not too sure what my responsibilities will be at this center. Perhaps there are no real “responsibilities” other than keeping these people company while they play games or tell stories (not gonna lie, I’m a little worried that some of these Italians may be WWII vets). But I’m eager to see what comes of it. No matter what happens, I will consider this undertaking a success if I walk out of it speaking Italian.

Ok, I think you may have an idea of where I’m at right now. So, I’ll leave you on this happy note and hope that you are also gleaning pleasure from your own lives as well.

Love to all,

Dòminic D’Annistòn

 

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Short Reflection On Ten Years

Hello everyone, hope you’re well.

If you’ve been following this blog in the short time that I’ve been keeping it, you’ll know that I like to joke around a lot, while hopefully providing a little insight into my lifestyle studying here in Rome. But, tonight I thought I would be serious for a moment to reflect on the tenth anniversary of September 11th, 2001.

As you know, the 9/11 attack was not only a tragedy for the people of the United States, but for people all over the world. So, despite being thousands of miles from home, the feeling that this date brings resonates across oceans and cultures into the lives of people who, to us, often seem worlds away.

Many specials have been airing on Italian television in remembrance of that day, as you would imagine. And, while watching one of these television memorials with my host family, Franco (the father) turned to me and asked if I could remember the morning that the attacks happened.

I find it hard to believe that anyone over a certain age could forget it.

I was eleven years old, sitting at school during my computer class; a class I never took too seriously… one of many, in fact. The class had barely begun before one of our school’s faculty members wheeled a television into the room so that we could watch what was happening in Manhattan. It doesn’t feel like ten years.

So, after Franco asked whether or not I remembered, I immediately responded: ‘Sì, certo. Come ieri.’ (Like it was yesterday.)

And it’s true. I remember that day more vividly than I remember most days from this past month. It’s interesting how that can happen. I suppose it’s the same for people who were alive when Kennedy was killed, or when man first walked on the Moon. Some images don’t leave us.

It’s also interesting to think how many children are now old enough to not only walk and speak, but also to read books, use computers, think critically… but, will never remember September 11th, because they weren’t alive yet.

Some of my friends here took a cab ride last night, during which the driver pointed out a monument in the middle of Rome that was built three years after the attacks. It consists of two tall pillars (one slightly taller than the other), divided by a plaque with the inscription: ‘Coloro che non sanno ricordare il passato sono condannati a ripeterlo.’ (Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.)

It’s strange to me that none of us had any knowledge of this monument. Perhaps you already did. But, it’s located in the heart of Rome; maybe 10 minutes walking from the Colosseum. So, naturally, my friends and I decided to visit it tonight. The journey to the monument took a little time, but it was worth the traveling to see.

We stayed there for probably 20 minutes (it was a long day, so we didn’t stay out too long), talking about where we were on 9/11, and how much our lives have changed since.

I’m not quite sure that I really understood it when I was 11, or that I fully understand it now. It was a tremendous day to be alive on and to now look back on. But today has helped remind me how fortunate I am to have been born and raised in a country that offers me privileges and freedoms that many people in the world don’t have. Certainly, the chance to travel across half the globe to study a new language and culture is one of these remarkable privileges. And I try hard not to take that fact for granted.

September 11th was a day that helped us to realize a little better where our home is and brought us closer to it. Tonight I’m typing in a room in Italy, very far from where I grew up, but I feel close to home, nonetheless.

Good night all

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Wherever I may Rome.

Ciao again, everybody.

I hope you’re all well, and I apologize that you’re not as well as I am.

At the beach in Sperlonga, about an hour outside Rome.

Today marks the two week point since the beginning of my journey to Rome. Well, okay, I didn’t actually start this way until last Wednesday (and didn’t arrive until Thursday), but I left Alabama two weeks ago, so I think that counts.

Since I’ve had this much time to soak in the landscape and the culture, I thought I might take this opportunity to explain a few of my observations of Italy, rather than bore you with specific details about my day (which I will do at the end of this post).

So, let me begin.

One of the first things one notices when engrossed in Roman culture is that the people of Rome (and, I would assume, most of Italy) live in a somewhat regimented fashion. Not to say that it’s restricting, but it is certainly different from the U.S.

For example, Italians take their food very seriously (and if this surprised you, you may just want to stop reading now). But it’s not just that they are proud of their recipes or strict about how you hold your knife and fork… It’s more that their food is like their job, thus it requires a specific schedule and structure.

Living in Chicago, I became very accustomed to eating haphazardly. A salad between classes. A sandwich for the bus ride home. A burrito at 3 a.m. while ‘studying’.

Italians don’t play that… at all.

In Rome, when you sit down for a meal, you SIT DOWN FOR A MEAL. In fact, our group has been told on a few occasions that a great way to show you’re not Italian is to eat while you walk (Not speaking Italian also gives it away). Any cafe or deli that offers grab and go snacks is usually geared specifically toward tourists. (Oh, and another thing about Rome… it’s FULL of tourists).

Furthermore, their meals are planned out in advance. What I mean by this is that, even if you don’t know what you’re having for dinner, you KNOW what you’re having for dinner.

You may have read my last post entitled ‘Espresso and Sandwiches.’ Well, that pretty much sums up my diet during the day. For breakfast (‘colazione’ in Italian), I usually have a small cup of espresso and a peach. It may not seem like a lot, but, in truth, I never eat breakfast. So this is my way of fitting into the Italian regimen. But even this doesn’t suffice, because Italians usually eat bread and biscuits for breakfast, not fruit.

Whatever.

Then, I usually have lunch around 1-2 p.m., which consists of another cup of espresso and a sandwich (‘panino’ in Italian). For the most part, I just get sandwiches with prosciutto, mozzarella and tomatoes (one of these words isn’t Italian… can you spot it?). And this holds me over through class. We have a small break at about 5:30, during which I get one last cup of espresso, usually because I have a spare Euro in my pocket. And, if I’m feeling really frisky, I’ll also order a small pastry.

Now, I’m not usually one for pastries, or any dessert (except creme brulee. Mamma Mia!), but this pastry shop where I buy my espresso is truly something special. It’s very new. About a month old. And it’s owned and operated by a little Sicialian family from Palermo. We were told at the start of our trip that if you find a bar that you like (the Italian word for cafe is bar. It’s nothing to do with alcohol), then you should go there frequently, and after 3 or 4 visits, the owners will remember you and treat you like family.

And, brother, they was right!

This little Sicilian family is very friendly, and, now that they know my face, they always smile and shout ‘cioa!’ when I come in… Ok, I can’t take all the credit on this one. It’s not that they recognize ME, but they recognize me and my group of friends who always go there with me. So, they don’t shout ‘Ciao, Dominic!’, they shout ‘Ciao, ragazzi!’ (hello kids!). Either way, Sicilian pastries are phenomenal and, sometimes, I just can’t help myself.

Anyway…

Dinner (‘cena’ in Italian) is served much later in Italy than is normal in America. Usually, it starts around 9 and lasts indefinitely. Now, sometimes they will sit around for hours drinking wine and eating olives and cheese before dinner, but in Italy, this phase totally doesn’t count. Despite consuming several serving of cheese and drinking aperitifs, no one’s appetite is ruined for later. And dinner is truly something to be admired here.

As everyone knows, pasta is only the first course in an Italian dinner. But that doesn’t mean you can’t eat your own weight in it. Every dinner that we have starts with a giant bowl of pasta for the whole table. Some nights it’s pasta with tomatoes (not tomato sauce, but sliced tomatoes cooked in oil then added at the end.) Some nights it’s pasta carbonara, made with bacon and egg (to make up for the lack of breakfast I guess). Other nights it’s pasta with pesto, or pasta with peppers, or pasta with more pasta… the point is, they don’t short you on the pasta.

After that, they bring out the meat. And, let me tell you, the Micozzis (my hosts) love meat! Meatballs, chicken, roast beef, ham, a baby goat… if it was once alive, but now dead, they go crazy for it. We haven’t had fish once since I’ve been here. I’m certainly not complaining, but I’ve been told by my fellow classmates that their families regularly cook fish… Not mine.

And, I must say again, everyone still has room, so we eat the amount of meat it would take to tranquilize Andre the Giant (rest his soul).

Now that you’re stuffed and ready for bed, they bring out the salad. Because, honestly, no one wants to stop eating, but there’s no room for anything else. And the salad is very plain. It is simply lettuce and arugula with olive oil and vinegar, which is perfect for me, because I don’t prefer most salad dressings.

The salad goes down easy and puts you in a happy place. But still, no one wants to stop yet… so, what else can we eat? “Matilde, check the fridge! What do we have? Holy shit, there’s fruit! What are you waiting for, hand it over!”

So, everyone gets a big piece of fruit or a handful of grapes to finish off the meal. And, yes, this is every night. It’s something that I look forward to from the moment I wake up.

I guess I should clarify though. This isn’t always the way Italians structure their three meals. It is also quite common for people to have this great feast for lunch (‘pranzo’ in Italian), but, when this is the case, they don’t have a big dinner. You get one or the other, and, since my host parents work during the day and I’m at class, we just wait for the dinner to gorge ourselves. Still, the order of operations is the same… appetizer, pasta, meat, salad, fruit, remove belt.

This should give you an idea of how I get along food-wise. Three times a day, with no snacking in between. It’s taken some getting used to, but I enjoy it.

Another aspect of Italian life that takes getting used to is their traffic. In the U.S. we have stop signs, traffic lights, crosswalks and lanes. They have these in Italy as well, but in the U.S. these things actually mean something.

Of course the cars stop when the light is red, no problem. However, it’s a different story for the scooters, and there are an ass ton of scooters. You come to realize that, if you ever want to cross the street to where you’re going, you have to step firmly into the street, look for a person on a scooter and, if you see one, stare them dead in the eye and continue to walk. They’ll stop. But if you hesitate… get the hell out of the way!

Once you learn it, it’s no problem. But tourists aren’t aware of this fact. The same middle-aged couple from Wyoming has been waiting to cross the street outside my apartment for 4 days. (Good thing they grabbed their food to go).

I hope I’ve given you a decent idea of my daily routine. Most days are very much the same, but, when you’re in Rome, and average day is never an average day.

Of course, we see new things each time we go out. In fact, Monday through Wednesday, my class doesn’t begin until 4 p.m., which allows the whole day for exploring. And exploring Rome for an afternoon is like walking through a living museum.

Seriously, the fact that my host siblings got to grow up here baffles me. It shouldn’t be allowed… If walking through these streets past all of this architecture and art is something you dread doing in the morning, then there’s really not much left for you in the world. Disneyland won’t have quite the impact.

Still, there is more to the Earth than just Rome, so today, my classmates and I made our travel plans for our free week at the end of October. Some of us will begin by going to Barcelona for a few days, while others will go to Germany or Sicily. But we’ll all meet up in the middle of the week in Paris, where, hopefully, we’ll get to catch the Pitchfork music festival that will be going on.

Ironically, Pitchfork is a festival that, up until now, has only taken place in Chicago. But the organizers have decided to have one in Europe this fall to expand their influence across the Atlantic. I’ve never gone to Pitchfork in the three years I’ve lived in Chicago, but suddenly, it seems like a good idea. Something about Pitchfork in Paris has a nice ring to it.

At any rate, I should probably end here while there’s still time to watch t.v. with the family before bed (a surprisingly effective way to learn Italian without thinking too hard.) Hope all is well stateside… give my regards to the Golden Gate Bridge.

Buona Notte – Dominic

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Espresso and sandwiches

Hello, and welcome back to our exciting saga: Dominic Goes To Rome (in 3D).

When we left our hero, he lay in bed, lonely and defeated by the Italian language and its minions. But never fear! Rome wasn’t built in a day… in fact, they’re still working on it.

But before we dive into tonight’s installment, perhaps I should explain something to which I did not devote much time in my previous post. You see, the institute that runs this program, Italiaidea, puts the students with their host families based on certain needs and preferences that the student might have. For instance, a student who is allergic to cats would be put in a home without cats. A student who doesn’t eat meat would be put with a family who cooks a lot of vegetables. And a student who doesn’t like pasta would be put on a flight home.

Several months ago, when I was filling out my form for family placement, I really didn’t put too many stipulations on it. In fact, my only request was that there be no dogs… Actually, I think my phrasing was that there ‘be no dogs for the love of God!’ (If anyone is reading this and doesn’t understand, I say this because my family has 7 dogs. My mother is a health guru, and her favorite vitamin is K9).

As a result, I was placed with a family that eats a lot of meat, drinks a lot of wine, and… get ready… lives in an apartment worthy of Il Duce!

And there are no dogs in sight. È La Dolce Vita!

As you can imagine, not every student was given the same accommodations. So, when I told my classmates how lucky I was to be placed here, they, of course, wanted to see pictures. So, yesterday morning, after my host mother left for work, I grabbed my camera and began to shoot.

It’s important to realize that I’ve only lived in this place for 4 or 5 days, so I’m not entirely keen on when everyone in the family leaves in the morning. I was under the impression that Franco, the father of the house, had already gone.

Boy, was I wrong!

While I was standing at the end of the hallway, getting ready to flash another picture, Franco emerged at the other end… wearing only his underwear.

I’m not sure which of us felt more awkward: the one holding the camera, or the one in front of it. I did not take a picture of him, of course, but I certainly wish that we spoke each other’s languages a little better so that I could properly explain myself. As it was, we simply said ‘buon giorno’ and went our separate ways.

Understandably, I wasn’t really in a picture-taking mood after that, but, just for your curiosity, here are the ones that I took before Franco’s entrance:

The 'view' from my bedroom

While you look at those, I’m just going to keep talking over here on the right.

So, aside from my little embarrassment yesterday, everything else has been going pretty smoothly. We’ve finally begun our Italian courses, which are taught by a man named Andrea. Like Andrea Bocelli, but without the fame to make up for having a woman’s name.

The dining room? We always eat at a table in the kitchen, though.

I rather like him, though. He speaks slowly and clearly, so it’s easier for me to understand him, since I’m not great with the language yet.

Another thing about this program is that I’m one of only two guys who came on the trip. The other sixteen are girls, which was gruelingly apparent when I had to help carry bags at the airport.

The living room.

Yes, indeed. Given the situation, it is very common for my classmates to say “Could you please carry this,” or “Do you mind lifting that,” or “Would you stop staring at those!” But I’m getting along, nonetheless.

The first hall upon entering.

There’s not too much more to tell, since, much of what I do here is explore the city, and exploring isn’t as fun for those who don’t get to do it. But, as time passes, I will try to post pictures of what I see and do. To be honest, I’ve held off on taking pictures most days because I would like to soak in and appreciate the city before I go around photographing it.

Another thing is that most of what I would photograph can be searched on Google very quickly, so why bother? But, I promise that if I see something interesting, I’ll at least try to blog about it.

To home, from Rome – Dominic

 

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All roads lead to Rome… Hardly any will get you out.

Ciao and welcome, any and all who do not value their free time as much as they probably should. This is your friend, Dominic… or maybe your sibling, cousin, acquaintance or child (probably your child, if you’re reading this).

The reason I’m keeping this blog is to chronicle my thoughts and adventures in Rome, Italy, for the next three months, and as a way to help me find myself on this personal journey through life without compromising my ability to feed my overinflated ego with a little help from the internet. So, let’s get started, shall we?

My group and I arrived in Rome this past Thursday, August 25th, heavily jet-lagged and mildly lost. For those of you who don’t know, I am here studying language for three months through an institute called Italiaidea, which works in collaboration with my college, DePaul University, to provide students with the opportunity to look at their own lives and cry.

The program that DePaul offers for Rome not only sends students to a magical wonderland of art, history and gelato, but also places them with magical, wonderful families who give each student love, knowledge and gelato. Micozzi is the cognome of the family with whom I’ve been placed, and, to be honest, I couldn’t be happier. Let me introduce you to them.

Caterina Micozzi: The loving mother of the family. Caterina is about 50 years old and is a doctor… I think… (Sometimes I honestly don’t know what these people are saying.)

Franco Micozzi: The kind-hearted father who, from what I’m told has a passion for photography. Franco used to smoke cigarettes, but now he only smokes cigars, because he wants to inhale less smoke, while his family inhales more.

Giulio Micozzi: The 18-year-old son who loves soccer and, most likely, will be my best bet at ever learning to speak Italian. My ace in the hole.

Matilde Micozzi: The 15-year-old (I think?) daughter who hasn’t really told me much about herself, since her English doesn’t seem as good as the rest of the family’s… Either that, or having a 21-year-old foreign boy living in her home made her flustered and tongue-tied, but I’m willing to bet that this isn’t the case.

These four people will spend the next three months trying to help me fit in with the people of Italy, and significantly reduce my chances of being pick pocketed. Let’s have a round of applause for the brave Micozzis.

As you can imagine, there is a certain anxiety present when one is quickly and drastically taken out of their own environment and thrust into another. For the most part, I’ve been able to avoid this anxiety about coming to Rome. Quite the contrary: I’ve eagerly looked forward to it ever since… well, I don’t even remember when.

So, it was somewhat strange to me when I saw the other students from the program hugging and kissing their families goodbye in the airport, as if they were being sent off to war. Some were sobbing (both parents and child). I was forced to have a reflexive moment, since my goodbyes had mostly been done over the phone or in short, tender exchanges of: “I love you. I’ll miss you. Now, let go so I can get the hell out of here!”

My logical side can certainly see how some students would be scared by the whole experience. Yet, my visceral self couldn’t help but be overjoyed by the thought of not only seeing, smelling, hearing, tasting and touching another culture, but getting the rare chance to let go of my old identity for a time and truly become part of the culture. After all, I’m in Rome, and I’ll be damned if I don’t do as these Romans do.

With all this being said, I couldn’t remain suspended outside of the real world forever. There had to come a time when my feet were firmly dropped back onto solid ground (terra firma) . My moment came when the Italiaidea institute placed all of the students into a room and had us wait for our host parents to arrive and deliver us to our new homes. Some of us felt like puppies in a pet store, ready to be bought and loved by a new family. Others of us felt like the dogs at the pound, waiting our turn to get the gas. Either way, there’s no one whose heart was not beating like a poodle.

It was at this time that I finally swallowed reality. I was no longer going to have these comfortable people, who spoke comfortable English, telling me comfortable stories about their uncomfortable hotel beds. I was going to be with completely new people, in a completely new home, eating completely new food, in this completely old city.

A feeling of, shall we say, mild panic ran it’s way up and down my legs. Worse still was that, not long after they told us to wait for our families, I was one of the first people to be called. Not only was I facing the unknown, but I was facing it knowing that the others hadn’t faced it unknowingly yet, as I was about to. There would have been a certain, strange comfort in that fact, similar to the comfort one takes in knowing that others have done the cinnamon challenge, and, therefore, you could too. But nay… I was about to stand and walk boldly toward my gallows as a symbol of courage for those who were to follow.

And why not? What’s the worst that could happen? I’ve been studying Italian for over a year now, and I should have no problem at least expressing that I don’t fully understand when something has been said. So, grabbing my valigia and heading for the door, I walked the hall and entered the room where my host mother awaited me:

Caterina: “Dominic? Ciao!”

Me: “Ciao!” (Fuck! I was supposed to say ‘Buona sera’, because ‘ciao’ is informal, and you should never use the informal when addressing someone older than you if you’ve never met. Panic!)

Caterina: “Come stai?”

Me: “Bene. E tu?” (FUCK! I did it again. You can’t address an older person with ‘tu’, that’s totally informal also! It’s supposed to be ‘Lei’. We seriously just went over this stuff in the class! She hates me now!)

Caterina: ‘Bene, bene. Piacere.’

Me: ‘Piacere!’ (Good save, old boy. Good save.)

It didn’t take long for me to work up my courage after this interaction. Caterina and I got into her car and began our short drive home. By the time we arrived at their apartment, I had calmed down to the point where I could make rational sentences in Italian without my voice cracking. At least, not any more than it usually does.

It was now time to meet the family. Franco was first. In fact, it sort of seemed like he was waiting like a troll behind the door when I entered, but we had a friendly interaction nonetheless. Next was Matilde, who was standing in the hallway as we entered, so it was easy to force her to shake my hand and say ‘piacere.’ Then, finally, Giulio came in without a shirt on and introduced himself. His reason for having no shirt is that Rome is ‘caldo’, which means hot. I agree; however, I was standing there in a button-down shirt and jeans, not feeling too uncomfortable. So, I think Giulio was just trying to show of that he’s still 18 and isn’t out of shape yet (you just wait, Giulio. You just wait.)

As my confidence grew, so did my lungs, and I began to really show off the Italian skills that I had spent the last several months honing. The Micozzis were very impressed by the A-game I brought, and, I must say, I was a little surprised with myself as well. So much so that, after a while I realized I had to stop, because I was giving these people the false impression that I can actually understand them when they speak. One comes to realize that there is a giant difference between speaking words that you have practiced for months, and responding to questions that you’ve never heard before in your life.

By the time dinner rolled around, Franco seemed absolutely convinced that I was following everything he said. And, to be honest, I was leading him on a bit. Instead of saying “non ho capito” when something was confusing, I simply nodded and said “certo”, which means “of course!” You can probably see how this becomes a problem after a while.

When dinner ended, the family put the dishes away and gathered in the living room to watch the Gerard Butler movie, ‘Law Abiding Citizen.’ It was hardly a family movie, but it’s blindingly apparent that Italian families and American families do not share the same modesty about certain topics… for instance, a man chain sawing the arms, legs and, ultimately, head of another man clean off. The movie was dubbed in Italian, thus, I could only understand a third of it. But the Micozzis took mercy on me my first night, and put the English subtitles on the screen. I could now understand what was being spoken when two men raped and murdered a man’s wife and daughter right in front of his eyes. Pretty relaxing night, all in all.

When the movie ended, I was very tired and, to be honest, at an overload of Italian. Though I had been spitballing all my wonderful phrases for about 3 hours, I was now to the point where I could only look at the family and say ‘buona notte.’ No other words would even dare enter my brain. Hopefully this overload will be a good thing as I stare into a future of wonderful bilingual abilities, but, for now, it’s made me drowsy. I’m off to bed, but I will continue to post as time goes on. If you’ve made it all this way through, I say congratulations. If you plan on reading my future entries, I take pity.

Good night all! Buona Notte!

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