Wednesday, April 30, 2008

depressing romania and spectacular budapest

Romania's reputation for being one of the most depressing places on earth is well deserved. So, so well deserved. I didn't know about this at first and I got myself all psyched up about the idea of going to Transylvania to the point that I stuck my head out of our train window in the black night to freak myself out a little. I imagined being a slavic peasant and being afraid of these dark wildernesses that surrounded my village and making up stories of vampires and such. (Dracula did, in fact, exist. In the form of Vlad the Impaler whose father was Dracul and he, in turn, Dracula meaning son of the Dragon. But he wasnt a vampiure, just a cruel dictator).

But then I actually arrived in Brasov. No buses were running and three taxi drivers stood outside the station with a gleaming look in their eye, like they were ready to con. The distance to town was too far to walk, so we were forced to deal with these sleazy men. They tried to charge us exorbitant amounts of money and called us all sorts of Romanian curses when we refused. Ugh. The worst of people. We ended up paying and cursing from the back seat.

The morning made the town seem slightly better, but not much. The skies were grey, the town deserted, everything we tried to see or do was closed up or moved away or just never existed. Needless to say, I would not recommend Romania.

Yet, as much as Romania was bad Budapest was spec-tac-u-lar, amazing, fantastic. 18th century baroque architecture everywhere, city parks, beautiful statues, blue skies, cheap prices, friendly people, good food and Hungarian baths heated by underground hot springs! Oh, and tall people! I am beginning to find the places of my ancestors. Not quite yet, but I am getting there. Off to Austria, where I might be getting even warmer.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

the guises of istanbul

Ahhhh, Stambul! The eastern Rome, the center of the byzantine empire, where gilded christian mosaics meet flavored smoke meets bare feet on mosque carpets and turkish tea rolls around on your tongue. As you make your way around the modern-rome-esque cobblestone streets you'll find a new amalgamation of east and west around every turn. Wooden victorian houses and lush and manicured city gardens, centuries-old churches-turned-mosques-turned-museums and underground cisterns holding nourishment for this vast expanse of people that has been called many names: Constantinople, Byzantium, Istanbul. A metropolis with many guises, now removing its masks for the world to explore in its modern form.

Oh, and did we explore. This morning we had a breakfast overlooking the blue mosque on our rooftop terrace, then to the Aya Sofya with its uncovered golden mosaics. We wandered into a few other mosques (oh, how I love the plush carpet between my toes!), one with particularly beautiful and expensive islamic tiling. Then through the grand bazaar, which was less authentic and localized then Morocco's souqs, but interesting nonetheless. Then we went underground into a huge ancient cistern, complete with fish in the water and atmospheric lighting and music. We then went to our new favorite restaurant DoyDoy ('fill up! fill up!') and finally to a super local and legitimate hookah bar where we drank mint tea and smoked orange-flavored tobacco and played backgammon looking out onto the blue bosphorus and the up into the chilly night sky of the east.

ah, stambul.

Monday, April 21, 2008

murdered expectations in athens

So, Athens is sort of the murderer of our expectations and alex and i are its cunning little accomplices. I'll explain.

We came to Athens with pretty low expectations. We know its dirty, there is terrible air pollution, most of its ruins have been plundered over the centuries, it was in the middle of an extreme heat wave for this time of year. We knew all of this. Yet, we knew that were still nice neighborhoods and at least there's the acropolis and the parthenon and Socrates once lived here and democracy was born here, right?

Well, the major turning point in murdering these expectations came this morning when I put on my sweatshirt to head out for the day and a cockroach fell out onto the floor. yeah. But, let me back up, before that there were countless mosquito bites through the night, 'free' internet at our hostel on computers that dont load any pages, air pollution so bad it makes your throat hurt, a metro line built over where socrates gave his most famous apology (!!!!!!!!!!!!), scaffolding on the only building on the acropolis worth looking at - that parthenon, and heat so hot that walking makes sweat burst from your every pore.

As for Alex and I being accomplices: I chose the dingy hotel with pickpockets and prostitutes outside, and he chose to stay here two days. We tried desperately to change these two facts, running to the train station this morning to change our tickets, trying 2 days ago to change hotels, but athens slammed down our expectations like hulk hogan in his best years.

Nevertheless, at our lowest of lows, coming down from the acropolis with sweat in our eyes and disdain in our hearts, we began to love again. We saw some poppies on the way down and went into the agora, found a reconstructed stoa, shade and relaxation, famous sites not completely ruined and way less crowds. We found a wonderful greek restaurant with food you just wouldnt believe. Stuffed tomatoes and lamb with pasta and spinach rice and greek beer and cucumber and tomato salad, yummmm. Then we retired back to our hostel, but in a different room this time with (hopefully) less cockroaches. ::fingers crossed::

Sunday, April 20, 2008

fortuitous circumstances in ostia

On my second to last day in Rome, Alex and I took a train out to what is now ostensibly the suburbs to what was then an ancient port town, Ostia Antica. We ambled around this poor-man's pompeii, exploring through the ruins like the lost boys in their treehouses and forts. After the capital fell, the arms of roman power began to wither away. This port town slowly crumbled with time and elements, leaving outlines of walls and grass for floors. We found what was the equivalent of the pantheon in this town, a circular and domed temple, and sat there to rest. This place of once grand importance, sitting directly across the via from the senate house and the forum baths, now had long grasses and spring flowers growing untended at its altar. We laid on the soft earth, under the clear and bright italian sky, and closed our eyes. The sun warmed our skin and the lightest breeze kept us from getting too warm. I couldn't help but think that all of the sacrifices done on this spot had motivated the gods to give us such fortuitous circumstances.

It was an entirely new way to understand Rome, and in a way allowed me to be at peace with trying to recreate my experience studying abroad here.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

releasing nostalgia in rome

When Romulus defeated his brother Remus and founded this all-male city along the Tiber river, he created the love of my life. After a series of attempts to find a legitimately priced place to stay, and subsequently realizing that I have an amazing room for the price, I began to feel home here again. As soon as my eurostar pulled into termini, I wanted to rush to my old haunts: trastevere, campo de fiori, largo argentina and the pantheon, the ghetto and the villa bassi, but I soon realized that I am not studying abroad here anymore. I am here and older and wiser and in a different situation this time, creating new memories, a new Rome. The first day Alex and I wandered around the centro storico and ended up at trajans column, the site at which he presented and knew so much that I fell in love with his intelligence and confidence (i know, gag), and there happened to be an Americans for Obama in Italy rally. I know, right? So, I stuck around, listened to a historian from the American Academy in Rome compare Obama to Trajan (gasp!), and some Chicago jazz singers belt out some tunes across the Piazza Venezia, into the bluest roman afternoon sky, and I felt my homes and my associations collide. Chicago and Obama, Rome and Travel, Politics and Alex and Jazz singers from the south side. Only Rome can make magic like this.

As I wander through this city, its different this time. I let my old associations with places be inserted into my experiences, but I am less naive this time, less aghast at the wonder and glory and constantly changing beauty of Rome. I am confident here and blazing a new trail towards a future, and hopefully before my time here is through I will be able to release the nostalgia and be in the moment, breathing in the scent of the cyprus trees among monuments to the long dead but not forgotten.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

grandeur in venezia

So, venice is great. Neptune, or whomever the venetians and their grandiosity deems responsible for rain, cannot stop the helpless beauty and destruction that is venice. They may create frescoes and personify every city and steal the bones of important saints (st mark as the lion with wings?), but building a city on water takes gumption, and these venetians, they have it. Really, they were just forced by atilla and turks onto this lagoon as these conquerors kept trying to invade, but it turned out to be a pretty sweet place to live. I mean, if you would rather use a boat than a car to get around (who wouldnt?), then this is your place.

Prego, on top of all of this... today alex and i found a store that will fill up your water bottle with wine for 2 euro per liter. Thats one euro for filling up my water bottle with the sweet sweet fruits of the grape. Oh, italy. How I adore you.

Nevertheless, we did take an hours worth of ferrys to get to an island that we deemed too rainy to walk around on and turned back around. However, after that water-into-wine experience, a too large pizza for a not so large price, and then watching the lights of the night dance on the black liquid, i am converted into a true worshiper - like tintoretto - of the venetians. Its not rome. Oh, no. It will never be rome. And, as the band the mountain goats put it:

I'm going to get myself in fighting trim,
scope out every angle of unfair advantage.
I'm going to bribe the officials.
I'm going to kill all the judges.
it's going to take you people years to recover from all of the damage.

our mother has been absent ever since we founded rome.
but there's going to be a party when the wolf comes home.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

on politics

So, we are going to be in italy for their parliamentary elections on april 13th and 14th. The italians have a man named berlusconi running against a guy called veltroni. berlousconi is like what you would think of rupert murdoch running for president, and veltroni has likened himself to our wonderkinz, obama. even adopting his little chant in the form of "si puo fare," or - yes we can.
i have been wearing an obama pin around europe thus far (except when i was sick for a while and didnt want to strike up conversations) and i have gotten so much positivity from people. from older american rich liberal women in line at the alhambra to bartenders at 150 year old taverns in madrid to bookshop keepers in florence who talk about the amount of books obama is selling abroad to young italian boys who love to yell "yeah, obama" to look cool and educated to the girls they are with. it is quite amazing to me how much american culture and politics is known throughout the world, and i think this is something we, as americans, take for granted. we still set the pace. our mcdonalds and our video games as well as our political leaders are known and a part of quotidian for people across the world. my self-loathing as an ugly american tourist is starting to overturn more and more with every response i get to my pin. every smile or prolonged glance makes me feel privileged and aware, but cautious. i am not proud of american idol being exported into the minds of young people across europe. (alex and i watched the french version - nouvelle star - and the cheesiness and the sheer amounts of cuts and camera angles literally made it physically difficult to watch). so it is a careful line i toe, knowing the ugliness that america brings, but the hope that brings us together.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

the mediterranean coast

nice was nice, not very nice, just nice. we got there in the evening and everything was lit up in the glow of neon, which is always a bit shady looking. the beach is really just black stones, not sand, but i think the europeans will take what they can get as far as beaches go. the water, though, was as blue as any i had ever seen. we decided to take a day trip from nice to monaco and see this little ritzy nation, that of princess grace kelly. it was also nice, but somewhere where the only way to get your foot into any worthwhile door is to have billions (or maybe just millions) of dollars in a bank account under your name. so, we just climbed around in their gardens and tried to go to their aquarium, found out that they wont accept our student ids unless they said 2008 on them, and then we refused to pay 12.50 euro each (!) for entrance. Overall, the french coast is just not for budget travellers.

Well, neither is the italian coast, but its a bit better and more necessary to see. After nice we hopped on multiple painstakingly slow regional trains (6 hours to go 120 miles) to get to vernazza, rick steves favorite of the cinque terre towns. it was home to me. the peaches and pinks and salmons of the walls stacked on top of one another and the sheer rock cliffs. the house wine and the pasta and pizza and the frutta di mare. oh, italy! the first day we sat around, savored our first italian meal and relaxed. the second day we took a train to the furthest town away and planned to hike back to our town, vernazza. the sun was at our backs, the water was sparkling like a moonless northern sky and the towns sat atop their hilltop homes like proud soldiers on the lookout. after we got back we made ourselves some prosciutto sandwiches and laid out on our patio, overlooking the sea on the opposite side of the town. lying there, the sun laid atop my closed eyes, making me see pink, and the wind kissed my cheeks and i heard the waves crash stories down below. i met an older lady there, a former travel writer for all the major us and canadian newspapers, who told me to follow my bliss and i will find work that i love. she said it is not a moment of epiphany that finds it for you, only a slow construction of a lifestyle, and then you find your work on the front page of the la times and you know this is where you want your life to be. well, lady, i hope im as lucky as you were. but it was great advice, and i am just beginning to understand this statement - follow your bliss - and my understanding is coming through moments like these.

overall, the coast was too expensive for us, but well worth things seen and done. and italy has my heart, sorry france.