Wednesday, December 26, 2007

So turns out that Paris is a more popular vacation destination than I had thought. I booked all my hostels, and had my eurail pass itching to be used. Unfortunately, there are no spots on any the 40 trains leaving from either Rome or Milan to Paris in the next 4 days. Paris cannot be that cool. This unforeseen cosmic punishment for lack of initiative or organization leaves me stranded in Rome for the time being until I can figure out a better plan of attack. Presently I'm consulting Donald Rumsfeld.

Rome, though, is not a bad place to be stranded. The Israeli-Palestinian border is. And so is McDonald's. Or trapped in a room with Pauly Shore. But not Rome. I was able to go to the Vatican's midnight mass, which was incredible. We waited in line for 4 hours beforehand, and when the doors were finally opened, the masses swarmed the Swiss guard like my brother Jack Jack to his new Xbox 360. I've never seen any one treat religion like that before. Literally, it was an all out sprint. As gorgeous as the mass was though, it also was kind of a spectacle. Camera and camcorders were going off the entire ceremony, and nobody (including myself) hesitated to stand on their chairs to get a better view of the processions. It was still a very beautiful ceremony though, and I was extremely blessed to be able to go.

I just got back from Dublin this weekend, which was relaxing and revitalizing. I love Ireland. I can't overemphasize how great the people are there. There's not much to see in Dublin beyond the Guinness Factory. The real draw of Ireland is the culture. The Irish are responsible for the pub. Other cultures have no concept of anything like it. A traditional Italian pub is a fluorescently lit café that slowly drains the life from you, and can only offer liquor in return. You get in and get out. The French café is somewhat comparable, but is more conducive to quiet, intellectual conversation, rather than a fun night out. It's just an interesting point to note, because in America, we steal all other cultures and mold them into one amalgam golem with fried egg rolls for arms and legs, sausage for a torso and sadly, undercooked spaghetti for brains.

Consequentially, Berken and I spent most of our days jumping from pub to pub. The guinness was great and the people were better. Maybe it's because of my Irish roots, but Ireland just feels like home to me. I love the weather, I love the people and I even love the city, and I generally can't stand cities. We did however go to a restaurant called Captain America's, which took a slight swallow of pride. I will admit though that they made a burger that would make America proud. Honestly, there's not much else to tell. Ireland is a place that just has to be experienced.

I've recently had some interesting conversations with my roommates. As we all know, Europe is slightly more "progressive" than the States (although I've always wanted to ask a progressive what they're progressing towards. I think the euphemism has lost its meaning. While I make no claim to sway towards one side or the other, I always found it funny that the left wing always chooses euphemisms that not even Hitler could disagree with. Pro-choice. Progressive. Liberal. No I say! I prefer an obscurantist, narrow-minded life in prison! Anyways...). European government has virtually no checks or balances, so they are as fickle as the people they represent. Case in point, Italian government has changed 51 times in the 52 years since Mussolini fell from power. It makes France's 5 since Napoleon look like genius. When people want something done and can't get it from their present government, generally they just have to wait a year.

Italy, however, is slightly different than the rest of Europe, because Italian government has a much more difficult time suppressing the Church seeing as they're here. Italy is one of the last European countries that hasn't legalized homosexual marriage, and the "progressives" lay the brunt of the blame on the Pope and his power over the people and the government. My immediate reaction was to defend the Pope, citing that he has no social power and merely delegates over the Church, but then I realized that he was probably right. The Church's presence is probably the reason that Italy is considered one of the most "backwards" countries in the civilized Western world (although some of it has to be attributed to the fact that the Italians are just plain lazy).

There's always existed a tension between the Pope and the people, whether it was due to corruption in the highest ranks as in the 15th century or the restriction of social advancement as in modern times. One would think that Italy would be one of the most Catholic countries in Europe, but in fact, it's one of the most secular. The Church has always had a global presence and is never more focused on its own nexus, unlike the United States. So the tension between the Church and the people is perpetuated, and it can be really felt amongst the people. The few people with whom I have had conversations about the Church, who are rational, composed people, generally passionately resent it.

Eppure, tonight I have a train that leaves for Nice, France, and from there I'm hoping to catch a train to Paris. It's unbelievable what a popular destination Paris is for New Years. After New Years, I'll be meeting Fr. Avram in Engelberg, Switzerland for what is forecasted to be a much less painful excursion on the slopes. But weathermen always lie. I hope that everyone had a great Christmas, and is enjoying time with family and friends. I wish I could be there with you all. Cheers!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

A Belated Buon Giorno

Ciao a tutti,

I was making myself some homemade pasta and sipping a glass of limoncello when I realized that now would be a perfect time to mend our neglected relationship. I never thought that I could do so much while accomplishing so little. I've become truly Italian. The last few weeks have been filled with traveling and recuperation from traveling and/or snowboarding soreness, and the next few weeks should be just as busy. Tomorrow morning I fly out for Dublin.

A few weeks ago, the planets aligned for a day of the most random encounters that I've had since I arrived here. First, I met up with a Minnesotan guy who I just found out is studying here, and also happens to know most of my cousins. We went out for some spaghetti alla carbonara, a Roman favorite, in cultural Trastevere, and afterwards he invited me to a Papal ceremony in which Pope Benedict had named 23 new cardinals. Their promotion took place that morning in the Vatican, but afterwards, the Papal palace was opened in celebration of the new cardinals. It's a big deal because the Papal palace is rarely opened to the public. So I accompanied John to the Vatican, and on our way, we happened into Byake, who was just on his way back from the Vatican museums. He tagged along with us, and at the Vatican we ran into the entire St. Thomas program and joined them in the 2 hour wait for the commencement of the celebration.

The palace was finally opened, and we soon found that you needed to know a name of one of the cardinals to enter or the Swiss guard would throw you out. So we did some quick thinking and pointed to one of the cardinals in the corner. We really stuck it to the man. Except...the man is the I guess that's not really a good thing. Sticking it to figures of Divine authority can't end well. Anyways, the Papal palace is about as regal as...a really regal palace. I swear when everyone leaves, Big Baller Benedict rolls out his Papal Lazy Boy and watches Chuck Norris flicks on a projection TV. Throughout the palace, each cardinal waited to greet the public, and we were able to meet the two newly elected American cardinals, Foley and DiNardo, as well as a few others. We tried to meet Bargnasco, who I guess is a leading candidate for the papacy, but his line was filled with too many pushy Italian spinsters. And nuns. Small Italian nuns give elbows like you wouldn't believe. You never see them coming, and by the time you figure out that you were just elbowed by a woman of God, she's already on her 6th victim and left you in her dust.

After the Papal palace, the group of us went out to dinner at a Chinese restaurant, and were joined by several other priests and an American soldier stationed in Pisa. Fr. Avram joined us later as well, and of course, he had picked up someone along the way. Not only was the food good, but the restaurant also embraced its own stereotypes, which made me happy. On the wall was a large 3-dimensional recreation of the Great Wall of China, and on the opposite wall was a poster of Bruce Lee. What are the two things that come to mind when you think of China? The Great Wall and Bruce Lee. Well, and eating children and making them into fur coats, but that doesn't count. It gets better though, if you look closely at the picture of Bruce Lee, you'll see holy cards of Pope JPII, Benedict and Mary! I promise you that you will never see those two side by side again.

The reason I mentioned all that is that at the restaurant, the person that Avram picked up decided to join us on our snowboarding excursion, aptly named Peril in the Alps - It's Nasty (or PAIN for short, yeah I had to work hard for that). Fortunately, Ryan had never snowboarded either, and I say fortunately, because Byake and I wanted our natural God-given talent to remain untainted by the stain of external aid. The three of us met in Innsbruck, the extreme snowboarding capital of the world, and checked into our apartment that overlooked the Alps. Innsbruck has held the Winter Olympics twice, and is surrounded on all sides by the Alps.

I plan on doing a lot of things in my life, but standing at the top of an Alp, looking down at the mile and a half long, former olympic course, and saying "well, here goes nothing." was not one of them. Haha, but it took me two days to get there. Now, there is a way to learn how to snowboard, and then there is the way that I learned how to snowboard. Normal beginners would learn mechanics first, and then speed. I, however, being the non-conformist that I am, learned speed and then mechanics. This doesn't seem like a bad combination, but I tell you it is the reason that I couldn't get out of bed the next morning. My body contorted in ways that I thought were impossible. Falling off a snowboard is way more painful than falling off skis. When skiing, you can foresee your fall, and tuck and roll. When snowboarding, you turn, catch an edge, and BAM, faceplant. Not even a Chinese ping player would have the reflexes to get his hands out. However, I did perfect several unorthodox snowboarding techniques, such as face to hill technique, as well as tailbone to hill, face to hill followed with a slide and flip to tailbone to hill, and the dangerous face to elbow to hill technique.

Day 2 begin great outside of the fact that I couldn't move. After debating at the top of the hill whether I could survive the day, I told myself that I would regret it forever if I gave up. So I went down headstrong aaaaaand faceplant. I laid on the hill for literally 5 minutes. By the end of the day, we had it down though. So much so that we graduated the beginner's hill and headed up for the next easiest course, which just happened to be at the top of a mountain and a former Olympic course. The course began with a steep drop and then planed off. Where the course planed off was about 15 ft wide, and on either side it was a straight drop down the mountain. Literally, if you fell, you would die. No question about it. Fortunately, at this point I had no turning capabilities. The remedy was to slide sideways, much to the chagrin to anyone with any talent on the hill, which I guess was everyone. I survived the hill, even though it took me 4 times as long as anyone else, and decided that despite the torture and the fact that my face was bloated like a tomato, I would go back. So after Christmas, I'm gonna go to the Swiss Alps with Fr. Avram.

There's more to tell, but I have a plane to Dublin to catch in the morning. Then it's midnight mass and Christmas in Rome, followed by New Year's in Paris, and finally snowboarding in Switzerland. I'll make sure to keep you all updated though. Consider our broken internet relationship resumed though! You're all still in my prayers, and will especially be this Christmas season. Spero che tutti abbiano un Buon Natale e un felice Capodanno. Cheers!

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Divine Malfeasance

Ciao a tutti!

It has been too long my loving reader. I swear, every time I tell myself that I'm going to write more, I always find myself in the midst of a Mafia style shootout. Ma che si puó fare? (What can you do?) This is my favorite Italian phrase, because it is applicable in any possible situation. If the train breaks down, che si puó fare? If the museum is closed, che si puó fare? If the Pope refuses to give you a high five on the grounds that if he were to give you a high five, he would have to kill you, che si puó fare? It truly is an all encompassing phrase.

These past couple weeks have been packed with activity as usual. A few weeks ago, I ended up at the Legionaries of Christ school to meet with some brothers for adoration and Belgian beer. It's a somewhat long and random story, but essentially, Brother Felix told us that the Belgian beer that we had revered was utter crap, and decided to introduce us to the real stuff. The funny thing is that I have a friend whom I haven't seen in 9 years, and it turns out that he was staying at the same school. I surprised him there and shared beer and cheese with a completely eclectic group. The strangest part of it all though was afterwards, we were trying to catch our train, but the door to the train station was locked. So Brother Felix helped us jump the fence, and make our train. I have to say that it's only the second time that a man of God has helped me break the law.

For the weekend, King Blarken and I took a train to Firenze (or for historocentric Americans, Florence), and spent the weekend soaking up the birthplace of the Renaissance. Da Vinci, Michaelangelo, Donatello and Macchiavelli were all born there in a 100 year period. Not only was the Renaissance born there, but also, there lies the fertile inceptive spawning grounds of the most Leviathan calzone that mankind has ever produced. Truly, it is of biblical proportions. Let's just say it owned me. I haven't felt that sick since I challenged the king of the giants to a drinking contest, and he handed me a large stein. I begin to drank heartily, but, unbeknownst to me, the other end of the glass was furtively connected to the sea. Malignant giants! Oh how I yearn to see the fateful morn on Ragnarok when I shall cleave your head from your body with ease, and triumphantly watch as warm life ebbs from your bones! Oh that was Thor...nevermind. Anyways, the artistic apex was seeing Michaelangelo's David. David is one of those works of art that you see depicted countless times, but then when you finally see it, you say, "Huh...that is pretty good." The sculpture stands on a 4 ft. platform, and David himself is at least another 15 ft. tall. It is the most masculine figure I have ever seen. The museum also held the Quattro Prigione (the four prisoners), which embody Michaelangelo's ideal of freeing the man from the stone. They were originally intended to stand in Julius II's excessively ornate tomb, but because of complications, were left unfinished. I personally think they're breathtaking. They truly seem as if they're desperately writhing to break free from the stone prison, but are eternally doomed to fail. There's a very interesting human allegory there. Also, one of the most famous galleries in the world is in Florence, The Uffizi. The height of the Uffizi is definitely Botticelli's "Birth of Venus." It's another painting that can only be appreciated up close. He does a remarkable job capturing motion.

Beyond the two major art museums, there are also some really interesting sights, one of which is the Church of San Marco where over 40 Fra Angelico frescoes are held. Fresco is an Italian word short for affresco, which mean "on the fresh." A fresco is done on a specific type of plaster that only allows the artist to work for about 14 hours. Once the paint dries, the artist can't make any changes. If he does, he has to destroy the work and start over. There are several famous frescoes, but the most famous is his Annunciation. Seeing all the paintings is almost like a religious experience, because each fresco is in its own cove, and you walk through seeing them one by one. Also, several great Florentines are buried in Florence (go figure). There is a church where Michaelangelo, Galileo and Machiavelli are buried. Galileo's burial in a church is strange, but Machiavelli's is even stranger. Neither were on good terms with the Church. Machiavelli hated the Church, and the Church put Galileo under house arrest for heresy. Still, seeing the burial spot of sinister Machiavelli is pretty cool.

This past weekend, Byake and I were going to travel to Münich, but after a few unforeseen complications that came in the form of us going to the wrong airport, we had to improvise our plans. Because I already had a flight home, I decided to continue to Münich via train, but Byake opted against it, and woe is he now for doing so, because Münich was incredible. I met with a friend from Firenze, and because there is nothing to do in Münich, we held 24 hour prayer vigils with the locals...right. The famous (or infamous) Hofbräuhaus is in Münich, the most famous beer hall in the world. In the hall there are long wooden tables, filled with rambunctious Germans as far as the eye can see. You have to find a table and hope the Germans let you sit with them. There is a band in the middle that plays traditional oompa music, and all these old men (and slightly intoxicated) in lederhosen dance in the middle of the hall. The first night, we ate with three German guys who barely spoke any English. However, we quickly found that the only necessary German is "Prost," which means cheers. We were finally able to get some good meat too. They don't serve you pints of beer at the Hofbräuhaus, they serve you liters. And the Germans drink like mad. The guy next to me was on his 8th liter of beer! DO YOU UNDERSTAND HOW MUCH ALCOHOL THAT IS?!? We even broke a stein because they were such voracious prosters.

Anyways, we had so much fun the first night that we decided to come back again, and this time my friend and I were the sole Americans at the table. We met some more German guys, and some Bavarian girls who were dressed up in tradition Oompa Bavarian outfits. It was great. And even the petite women are bottomless beer pits. I think Germans have second stomachs...or livers...

The second two days of my trip were much more relaxed. Joe went home for class, and me, being the devoted and assiduous student that I am, decided that my education would be much better served studying at the fount of experiential wisdom, rather being inundated with crack-fueled philosophical arguments from Schopenhauer and Kant. Bloody categorical imperative... The first day, I saw all that Münich had to offer, which included two surprisingly eminent museums. They had several Raphael's, Da Vinci, Monet, Degas, Caspar David Friedrich, and a lot of Rubens. I used to despise Rubens, because I thought he was famous only for painting fat people. But now I see I was wrong. His paintings are remarkably dramatic, with rippling, muscular figures contorted in the strangest fashion. There was a very shocking painting of judgment day. He captures drama extremely well. Münich is also home to several magnificent churches, but no more magnificent than any other European town. The Marienplatz was is interesting because of its architecture. It still is an operating federal building. Also, the Englischer Gartens, most famous for their beer gardens, is twice the size of central park, although not nearly as interesting.

My last day in Münich, I ventured two and a half hours by train to Füssen, which is home to two important castles from the late Holy Roman Empire. One is particularly famous, because, as mom told me, is the model for which Walt Disney modeled the Disney Castle after. Both castles are situated in the Alps, and have an incredible view of the countryside. The view is absolutely breathtaking, and I took way too many pictures.

Yesterday was Thanksgiving and it was the first time that I've been slightly homesick. I missed the Thanksgiving family football game. I was able to get some friends together and have a small party over some turkey (which is far too complicated to make), pasta, potatoes and wine. I hope everyone's holidays are going great. This is the first weekend I've been in Rome for a while, so I don't know what to do with myself. Next weekend, Byake and I are venturing to the Alps for some early December snowboarding in the extreme sports capital of the world, Innsbruck. It should be an exciting and pleasant disaster.


Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Too Much to be Contained in One Title

Ciao Dearest Reader!

It's been some time since my last post, because relaxation and I have not been on good terms lately, and I think our relationship may be on the rocks. I finally have a free night tonight, and I'm not quite sure what to do with myself. I guess the only logical conclusion would be to dance in my underwear a la Tom Cruise. Illogical then is the route I chose, because I am fully clothed and it is beginning to get chilly in Rome. I would place it at a frigid 65 degrees. Watch out Minnesota, here we come. Before I dive into the last few weeks, I should begin with a disclaimer: Those of you who become nauseated when reading long, but extremely well-written and witty commentaries on life abroad, please step away from the computer, because this post is gonna be pretty long.

Two weeks ago, the Vatican held a special mass for the beginning of the academic year, so while most of you have been in school for over two months, Rome, in typical Italian fashion, just now got around to beginning the year. There were whispers from the depths of Vatican security that the Pope would be making a special appearance. In bizarre string of events, a Swiss guard was found to have leaked the information for a mound of Swiss chocolates and Belgian pancakes. Berken and I met up with Fr. Avram and a friend who was in from Florence with his family. We took our seats on the right side of the altar, and enjoyed the 2 and a half hour mass. It may seem long, but with the majesty of the Vatican it felt like minutes. After the mass, people waited anxiously for Pope Benedict to arrive. They brought out his special Pope, and he entered with a resounding roar behind him. I actually had never heard the Pope speak before. Knowing that he was German, had grown up in a Nazi training camp and was known for his rigidity in Church doctrine, I expected his voice to be extremely harsh. Not only was he not harsh, but he was the polar opposite. He was very contemplative and there was a tenderness in his voice. I was taken aback by how sincere he was, and of course the whole experience was heightened by the fact that he was a mere 100 ft from us. His speech lasted about 15 minutes, and while I could understand very little of what he said, it was still very moving.

Then for the weekend, Byake and I jetted for Siena...and by jet I mean took a long arduous train ride that could only be sufficiently explained by calling it Italian. Not only was the train slow, but it was actually the wrong one. While waiting for the train, the sign changed from Grosseto (where we wanted to go) to Civitavechhia (where we did not want to go). I asked an Italian what the deal was, and he told us to wait for the next train. Turns out he was wrong, and we had to take 3 different train to get to Grosseto. By the time we finally got to Grosseto, we had missed our connecting train to Siena. There were no more trains for the night, so we were stuck in the unknown city of Grosseto. We didn't want to rent a hotel room for 70 dollars, so we decided to stay up all night and catch the next train at 6:30 am. Our original plan was to lay around the train station all night, but after finding some decadently greasy pizza and some live music, we thought we may actually find enough to do to keep us busy. We met an Italian guy who turned out to be a political ambassador to Rome (he was noticeably inebriated), and he invited us to join him at a local bar. I'm so glad he did, because we never would have found this place. It was in a dark alley, and the door was hidden under some construction. It looked like it was going to be a hole in the wall, but it turned out to be a great bar in a cellar that was packed with 25 Italian guys and one Austrian girl. It turned out to be a great night. I spent 2 hours talking to 6 or 7 Italian guys about American politics, George Bush and the problems with Italian economy. And none of it was in English. Barely anyone in the bar spoke anything but Italian, which swelled me with pride. We even met a Buffalo Bills fan. Of all the sports teams that an Italian would like, the Buffalo Bills? C'mon. We spent the entire night with them, and then hopped on a train to Siena.

Because we didn't get any sleep, and for some strange reason, the hostel refused to accept my expired driver's license as a form of ID, we ended up sleeping for the first time in 36 hours on the famous piazza in Siena. It's the most famous piazza in Italy, because it curves downwards in a bowl shape. After some precious sleep, we went to The Church of St. Catherine's to see the place where she received the stigmata. Also, her head is on display in the Church. It's kind of creepy. She's not incorrupt, so her skin is clinging to her face, and there's an eerie yellow glow around her head. I got an illegal picture to the right. I guess she's in good shape for being that old. After long night of sleep, we saw Siena's D'uomo. The orange and purple ninja turtle helped design the Church, and Bernini had a hand in it as well. The floor of the Church has a long set of cool engravings that chronicle philosophical thought beginning with the Greeks and culminating in Christ and the altar. The church itself is lined with the heads of Popes, but there are so many Popes that the last one displayed is Lucius III who died in 1185. Shows how long the Church has been around. As a side note, there was a tablet inscribed above a tomb pictured here. If you look really closely at the bottom left hand corner, you'll see the word saltis. But if you look even closer, you'll see a small "u" inscribed in between the l and the t. YOU CAN'T SCREW UP!! YOU'RE DOING THE D'UOMO!!

This weekend, I had friends come in from France. I gave them a whirlwind tour of Rome from Friday until Monday. Also, a friend of Fr. Avram's stayed with me for the weekend, so we had a whole crew. After a 6 am Thursday night escapade, we spent Friday taking it slow and eating. Saturday we spent the whole day at the Vatican, and I did my best Vatican tour guide impression. Afterwards, we begin waiting in line for the Vatican Museums, which was literally over a mile long. Now I know why they call it the most daunting line in the world. We got a tour guide and were able to skip the line. So we began the 3 hour long tour by dancing by the 4 hour line of tourists. Inside we saw one of the most extensive art collections in the world, which is capped off by Michaelangelo's Sistine Chapel. The Chapel is amazing. Michaelangelo, even though he wasn't a believer, spent 14 hours a day standing to finish the ceiling. He spent so much time painting that he was blind for months after he finished. It's remarkable how extensive it is. I think, though, that the Frenchies were impressed mostly with the gelato. We went to a particular one at 6 times, and I introduced them all to bandana man, pictured here, who is the greatest Italian ever to live.

I actually met some genuine Italians Thursday night from Sicily, who spoke barely any English. They met up with us Saturday night, and we went out to one of the fabled Italian clubs. We were denied by the first club, because our dude to chick ratio was too high...not even kidding. But at the next club, Alessandro worked his God-given Italian charm to get us in. As usual, we practiced our repulsive dance moves that inevitably end in a dance circle, but even the Italians got into it. It was a lot of fun, and I may meet up with the Italians in Sicily for some supposedly famous "Cucina Siciliana e vino rosso." That night, we all slept in my apartment, and because the floor was freezing, we ended up fitting in 5 people in the bed, sardine style. I slept divinely, but I think it was only because I had two exemplars of Divine sculpting beside me.

Yesterday, we did another day of sightseeing that began in the Forum, and moved onto the Pantheon, the Spanish Steps and the SS. Apostoli where St. Philip and St. James the Lesser are buried. That night, we met up with Fr. Avram and had a great meal at the Abruzzi restaurant. There was some great conversation that ranged from theological debate to discussion of the Ninja turtles. And of course, Fr. Avram showcased his impeccable puns at any appropriate moment. Once he gets started, stopping him is like standing in front of a cement truck and stopping the flood of cement. It's just not going to happen. I bid farewell to my friends as they prepared for a night of sleep in the airport, because their flight left at 6 in the morning, and all transportation closes at night.

If anyone is left at this point, I hope all is going well back in the States. I'm keeping you all in my prayers as I hope you're doing with me. If God cares any about prayers said in holy places, you all should be sitting on a mound of grace in the bank. Let me know about anything that's going on back in the States. Oh, and GO VIKINGS! I can be this enthusiastic about Minnesota sports teams only once in a blue moon, so I plan on savoring it. Ciao!

Monday, October 22, 2007

The Mamertine and a sweet festival

This past week I visited the Mamertine prison, which historically is the place that Peter and Paul were held captive. The prison itself lies just outside the grounds of the Forum, and was first constructed in the 4th century B.C. It was generally reserved for higher profile prisoners such as foreign commanders. The prison itself is extremely small, and is only one room with a ceiling barely taller than I am. It would not be a pleasant place to be held captive. In the center there is an altar with an upside down cross symbolizing Peter's crucifixion. Legend says that a fount of water came spewing out of a hole in the ground, which allowed Peter to baptize his fellow captives.

This weekend, Byake and I went to the salsa club with some friends, and I think our experience can be summed up in this one picture. But oh dearest reader! You may be asking yourself, "Was this excursion aided by copious alcoholic beverages?" The answer is: slightly, but not as much as it appears.

We're also planning some big trips over the next month. In three straight weekends, we are going to Vienna and Innsbruck (to snowboard and likely break our pelvises), Dublin and Munich.

As a final note, I've been recently looking up festivals in Italy ever since Fr. Avram told me about a festival where the fountains literally run with wine for the fall harvest, and I came across this peculiar, but ever-so-awesome one. It is a Carneval celebration that has its origins in Pagan tradition, but became adapted to Christianity for the time leading up until Lent. This particular festival involves 3000 people, 9 teams and an endless barrage of oranges being hurled everywhere! How awesome is that?!? If I am not one of those three thousand, I will never forgive myself.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Cinqueterre e i corpi dei santi

Buona Mattina!

It's been a while since my last entry, because I've been so busy, but I'm going to change that...the former not the latter. Since my last post I have crossed the threshold of no return; I'm now the ripe old age of 21. I think 21 may be the only birthday where you actually decline in maturity. And hey! Today's St. Luke's feast day! Double whammy! This past week has been loads of fun. Byake and I traveled to Cinqueterre, I celebrated 21 with Johnny, Cindy and Father Avram, I moved into my new apartment, and I've been pushing forward in classes. Technically, I should be in my Italian philosophy class, but alas, I am not because of the faulty transportation system. The Italians take a different attitude than Americans towards machinery. "Beh, we'll fix it when it breaks" (or more authentically, "Beh, lo riperemmo, quando si é romputo"). It's a wonderful attitude when you're the one assuming it, but when you're the one who was torn from the womb of your bed at 7:30 only to stand in the rain for 45 minutes and realize that there was no way that you could make it to your 8:30 class, then it's not so great.

This past weekend, Byake and I traveled to Cinqueterre, which is a constituency of five quaint villages on the coast of the Mediterranean. The villages only began to communicate with each other recently, and while it is a growing tourist attraction, Byake and I visited during the offseason and were able to avoid the stampede. We planned the trip just how every trip should be planned...with absolutely no planning. We didn't book a hostel and bought our train tickets at the terminal. After getting some dinner at the only restaurant open in all five villages, we sneaked on a train to the village with sandier beaches (because that was our bed for the night). Sleeping on the beach seemed like a great idea in theory, and it was until about 3 am when the temperature dipped below 50 degrees. Of course we had no blankets, and two pairs of jeans and three track jackets proved not enough to weather the night. But it was all ok, because we woke up to this sight.
We got in some much needed hiking between the villages, which begins with ever so treacherous Via Dell'Amore (Lovers' way), emphasis on the not treacherous at all. By the time that we reached the third village, Corniglia, we had brewed a lumberjack-sized hunger worthy of Paul Bunyan. Because we had no friendly villagers to put on butter skates and make us oversized pancakes, we had to settle for a small joint called Cecio. Oh by the way, when I say settle for, I mean couldn't have been happier. We ate on the completely empty patio that sat on a hill in front of the Mediterranean. The patio overlooked two other hills and watched them dive down to the face of the sea where they met at a single point. I could describe to you what we ate, but I think the picture says it all. Tuscany, the area around Cinqueterre, is revered for creating pesto and for its excellent white wine. I think this was the most relaxing meal I've ever had. We ate for 2 and a half hours, and only left because they were closing. With full bellies and copacetic spirits, Byake and I continued on our trek, only to find that our bodies seemed to like sitting on the patio much more than hiking. Not to be fools and disagree, Byake and I grabbed a train to the last village and laid on the beach. But fear not my dearest reader! For after our afternoon nap, we continued the hike back to the third village, and were able to watch the sun set on the Mediterranean. Intelligently, we booked a hostel for that night and stayed in a warm bed. Our trip home, though, was sullied by more Italian inefficiency, because our train broke down. Now you might be saying, "Wow, what are the chances?" Well, the answer is very high. This has happened to several people that I know, and people just get used to it I guess. We did make it home though, after nearly 8 hours on a train.

Before I move on, I snapped this picture of Byake to the left, and I think it bears a striking resemblance to this painting. It's by Caspar David Friedrich and it symbolizes man's imperious domination over nature. Don't they look similar? What say ye? Either way, I think it's safe to assume that this picture of Byake embodies unmitigated beauty.

On Monday afternoon I moved into my new apartment, which is working out really well. I share the apartment with two other people. They're kind of strange and are pictured here. They seem like nice enough people. There's only one room and it's sort of an all-purpose room. In one corner there's a mini fridge, which also functions as our dining room table. Next to the fridge is a toilet with a shower curtain around it for the bathroom, and in the other corner we all sleep on the ground in sleeping bags. There's a firepit in the middle of the room, because I guess the room doesn't have heating. And I hope that nobody believed that. Hahaha, no we all have our own rooms and mine is larger than the average room with a double bed, desk, tv, etc. I don't spend much time here and rarely run into the guy who owns the apartment, so it's all working out so far.

That night, I met up with Johnny, Cindy and Father Avram. It was great to see those guys! It gave me a little piece of home to celebrate on my birthday. We wandered around town for a bit and found one of the slews of nice restaurants in Rome. Il vino did flow. As did the great pasta. Also, I had my first potato since I got here, and while the Italians got nothin' on the Irish when it comes to potatoes, it was still a potato, and that appeased my red hair and freckles. We ate for about 3 hours, and I'm pretty sure I drank a whole bottle of wine myself. After some gelato and the Trevi fountain, we said goodbye. My friend and I were going to hit up the hot Italian discoteca with a group of people and revive disco, but it was too late, so he and I just went to an Irish bar and celebrated our heritage in a foreign land with some bad Irish beer.

This week I've also discovered just how many saints are buried here in Rome. The other day, I went to SS. Apostoli Church where St. Philip and St. James are buried, both disciples of Christ. There is a crypt in front of the altar that you would find in many churches in Rome, but this one is open to the public. It is an absolute gem. It's not a main tourist attraction, so when you walk down into the crypt, you're the only one there. It's almost eerie. And then as you walk down the stairs, right there is the tomb of St. Philip and St. James. It's unbelievable to think that you're standing on the same ground that these great followers of Christ stood 2000 years ago. Very humbling. I've also found that St. Ignatius of Antioch, and apostolic father of the Church and martyr is buried here, as well as St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, and St. Jerome, the first man to translate the Bible into Latin and introduce scripture into the Western world. That's not to mention the countless popes and other saints, whom I have not discovered, that are buried here.

This weekend, Byake and I are traveling to Sienna and Assisi, which should be very cool. We have a packed schedule of traveling over the next few weekends. This weekend is Sienna and Assisi, then either Prague or Germany, then Florence, the Milan and Lake Como, then Ireland or Venice, then Austria. Pretty sure Byake and I are gonna go snowboarding in the Alps. "I didn't know Luke snowboarded?" Well I don't. And neither does Byake. And that's why snowboarding in the Alps is a brilliant idea. I'm not sure if any of this post made sense, because I'm still shedding the cobwebs of sleep. In the future, I think I'm going to do smaller, more manageable posts, and do them more often. Stay tuned for virtual innovation!

Monday, October 8, 2007

The Vatican, Fascism and the Pluperfect Subjunctive

This week has just flown by (I know, I know, I shouldn't end my sentences with a preposition). I found an apartment, went to Mussolino's EUR, finally visited the Vatican and had my first class. I'm really getting settled in here and beginning to enjoy my time much more. So many things to talk about, where to begin?

Earlier this week, Byake and I headed down to the EUR, which stands for the Universal Exposition of Rome. Mussolini built it to celebrate 20 years of fascism, and he equipped it fully with a square lake, square buildings and square people. Why? Because curves are for sissies. It's essentially the anti-Rome (most likely intentional). The center square is filled with tall, imposing, austere buildings of a dirty white that are riddled with square arches throughout. The city was completely dead, and oddly enough, there was ash falling from the sky. No fire to be seen. Just ash. I felt like I was walking through Silent Hill. The streets were lined with dead plants (how hard is it to walk down the street with a hose for 30 seconds?). There were fliers all over the city that appealed to societal improvements such as, "Improve the safety of our neighborhood" and "Help lower taxes." But then I noticed that it also said, "Eradicate the Yugoslavian question (a thinly veiled allusion to the language of Hitler), so I guess fascism is a little more prevalent than I thought. In the center of the city stands a towering obelisk, which seems to say, "This is the center of the world." Pretty eerie stuff. Dante was Florentine, which means he would not have been Rome's biggest fan, so I thought to myself, "Perhaps this is the real gateway to Hell." Either way, Benito did a great job in sucking the life out the land. Oh and to add to the horror, the only restaurant we could find was McDonald's. I don't know which is more terrifying: Mussolini's fascism or the intercontinental expansion of corporate America.

To juxtapose the terror of the Eur, I was later able to see the Vatican at its best. Fr. Avram invited me to join him and a few others at the Vatican to say mass and to soak it all in (preposition at the end again! I am off my game today...). I woke up that morning at 6 to beat the flamboyant throngs of tourists. Walking into the Vatican is an incredible experience regardless of the amount of tourists, but it is a truly a sacred experience when there is no one there. I got to go into the priest-only zone, which is essentially a priest locker room, and then Fr. Avram said mass. Afterwards, a British priest gave us a great personal tour of the Vatican. It was cool because he was able to tell the stories behind everything in the Vatican rather than just telling what it is. Imagine how much time and care was put into each statue and mosaic, and then try to understand it with a simple glance. It's impossible. The height though was seeing Michaelangelo's Pieta. It is a moving experience. There is a palpable difference between a good sculptor and a great sculptor. A good sculptor replicates reality, but a great sculptor recreates reality and reinfuses it with new meaning. There is so much emotion in the sculpture that it takes your breath away. After a quality tour, we all went out to lunch. After Fr. Avram and Fr. David left, I joined some of the people who took the tour with us and gave them a tour of Rome (they were from Florence). It was nice to meet some Americans, especially a fellow Irishmen. We spent our time commiserating about the burden of being Irish, because as Irishmen, we are granted not only with physical perfection, but with mental and spiritual perfection as well. Perfection is a burden, not a gift. Not many people understand our plight, so some sympathy was just what the doctor ordered. It was nice because we're gonna hook up with some of these guys in Cinqueterre, Prague, Florence and maybe Ireland.

This Friday I'll be moving into my new apartment, which is in the southernmost part of Rome. It's well connected with the center of the city and not far from my school. The room itself has a double bed, italian tv (to help me learn the language), and internet access. The owner of the room is kinda strange, and we should have an interesting time together. He's very soft spoken, and when we came to see the room, he was wearing extreeemely short shorts, emphasis on the extreme. I'm just praying that this is not a common occurrence.

I had my first class tonight - History of Contemporary Philosophy. It actually seems a little boring. My professor is half German half French, which is a strange combination. I'm easily the youngest person in the class by at least 5 years, because I think most of my classes are doctorate level. Definitely did not know that when I registered. Either way, the material doesn't seem too difficult, and I'm really looking forward to the rest of my classes.

I'm still in the process of becoming an actual citizen, which is way too complicated. But I'm almost done! Tomorrow, hours of frustration and 200 euros later, I'm mailing in my application. Oh yeah! I used my first pluperfect subjunctive! While I was doing some final preparation for my permit application, I was at a photocopy shop. When I finished printing my one photocopy, the woman told me "dieci centessimo" (ten cents), but I heard "dieci euro." And all of the sudden WHAM!! I dropped the pluperfect subjunctive!! I said, "Io pensavo che Lei avessi detto dieci euro" (I thought that you had said ten euro). At that point it was game over. I was a pluperfect subjunctive virgin no more. The naïveté of innocence had been washed away as I began to look at the world through the eyes of a man. She was in pure shock as the power of the pluperfect subjunctive hit her like a freight train. Bwaha. I stood proudly over my conquered foe and laughed heartily as I drank my ale. Not since Thor's bellow against the giant serpent, Jorgumandr, had the world been privy to a laugh like this. I did an interpretive dance to express my emotions and strode proudly from the room.

This week should be packed with more excitement since Byake and I are traveling this weekend. Plus John and Cindy are coming into town and Fr. Avram and I are going to meet them for dinner next week. On top of that, I'm turning 21 in a week, which may not mean as much here (I said that I would celebrate the eve of my birthday with a bottle of wine), but it's still been embedded in my head as a huge birthday. You're all still in my prayers as I hope everything is going swimmingly in the States! Ciao a tutti!

Friday, October 5, 2007

Not only are they inefficient, but they're nonsensical too...

I just got back from doing more paperwork. I start classes on Monday, and only just now did I get registered. It is a strange strange process over here. The deadline to apply to the school is three weeks after classes start. I was hoping that people would be a little more helpful and understanding, but that's about as far from the truth as possible. Also, in order to be a legal citizen here, everybody has to apply for a permit of stay. Applying for the permit is just another convoluted, disorganized process, which neither surprises nor disturbs me at this point. What does disturb me is that they require me to provide all the same documentation that I provided to get my Visa, such as a notarized bank statement proving that I have adequate means to support myself. Now if I needed to show this to get my Visa, shouldn't my Visa be enough to show that I've already provided this info? Well, the answer is no. Why? Nobody knows. Literally, nobody knows. If you asked them, they wouldn't have a reason. But I guess you have to take the good with the bad here.

In the past couple days I've been able to meet more people. I met with Father Avram this past week and he showed me around his university, and gave me a free meal (always appreciated). I've also found that my Italian is good enough that I can meet some actual Italians, as long as they're patient enough to not talk 100 mph.

I'm still looking for an apartment, and it is a difficult process. I've been in contact with a lot of people, but actually closing an apartment is hard. Oh well. I'm starting to make a groove in Berken's loveseat.

I'm just now starting to get to see some of the sights. I was able to track down a couple of Caravaggios, who by the way is the greatest painter ever, which was very cool. I saw the Santa Maria Maggiore, where St. Jerome and several popes are buried. As well as the place where St. Ignatius of Loyola held his first mass. I wish I could post some pictures, but I can't find my camera, so hopefully that'll turn up. The other day, I met up with a friend of mine's parents (Kelly, for the Musketeers in the crowd), and hitched a ride on their tourbus for the day. We were able to see the Domine Quo Vadis Church (Lord, where are you going?), which is supposedly the spot where Peter saw an apparition of Christ as he was fleeing from Emperor Nero in Rome. He saw Christ walking back towards Rome and asked him, "Domine, quo vadis?" and Christ said, "I am going to be crucified a second time." Peter took it as a sign, and walked back to Rome to be crucified. It was a very quaint, but serene church. We also saw some catacombs along the Appian Way. I guess there are about 17 km of underground tunnels, which is roughly 8 miles. Pretty crazy. When a Spanish explorer first discovered the tunnels, he didn't emerge for three days because he couldn't find his way out. There is just so much to see here it's unbelievable. And I haven't even been to the Vatican yet.

The Roman experience is a strange one, because there are so many different cultures that coexist here, plus tourists who seem to comprise half of the population. Walking down the street, you will hear Italian, German, English and lots of Chinese. It's kind of disappointing, because if I wanted, I would never have to use Italian. I'm still trying to find a way to fit in without succumbing to the dreaded pink popped collar or the sweater tied around the neck, but it's not too easy. Everyone has an attitude here. Nobody wears shorts; nobody runs because its too disgraceful; everybody wears tight jeans and absurdly huge sunglasses that swallow your face; nobody smiles. In fact, if you bring up sopranos with an Italian, they'll scowl and think you're an obnoxiously robust American, but the stereotype didn't arise from nowhere.

Even though I'm halfway around the world, I'm still remembering you all in my prayers, as I hope you're doing with me. Feel free to leave comments about life in the States. I'd love to hear all about it.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Buon giorno a tutti!

I'm finally in Rome and it has been a whirlwind of activity! I've barely been able to rest (literally, I'm sleeping on my friend's stiff loveseat), and I haven't even begun to see the Roman sights. My first few days here have been spent wandering around Rome, getting lost on some cobblestone road, and then being spit out by some colossal monument and finding my way home. It's incredible how much history there is here. You really cannot get a sense of it until you come here, because we have nothing of the sort in America. Modern buildings stand side by side with Medieval churches and ancient amphitheaters, and the best part is, the Italians don't even pay attention to them. For them, walking by the Colosseum is like driving down 494.

It's nice to be a student here though, because I don't have to rush to see all the sights. It's a completely different perspective. Honestly, walking by the Colosseum is not a big deal for me either. Also, I've learned to hate tourists. It's extremely annoying to be walking through il centro and to hear in a Southern twang "Hey Maude! These are just dang rocks!" I went to mass yesterday at Santa Maria in Trastevere, which is a gorgeous church, but the experience was sufficiently impeded by a flood of tourists meandering throughout the church, pointing at the ceiling and muttering in different languages. At the offering, beggars would come in off the street and ask for "un offerto" trying to dupe the tourists into thinking they were giving money to the Church. It was more of a circus act than a mass.

The first day I was here, my friend and I were lugging my 200 pounds of luggage back to his apartment. We finally petered out in front of a cafe when an Italian man called us in to have a drink with him. At first we refused, but then decided, hey, what could be wrong with free drinks? His name was Stefano and he spoke only Italian, so relayed the conversation between him and my friend. It was about 10 am and he was slightly inebriated, but coherent enough to carry a conversation. We had a fine time with him until he began to tell us that he was a fascist and that he wanted to gun down Yugoslavians because they were unhealthy. Mild culture shock. At that point, we just finished our drinks, told him "Gli Stati Uniti sono molti differenti di qui" and walked out the door. It's pretty eye-opening to see that people can still hold these opinions.

The city is covered in graffiti and pickpocketing is a big problem, but beyond that there is barely any crime to speak of. Crime rates are remarkably low. I can walk around the city at 4 in the morning through dark alleys, and not worry about my safety. It got me to thinking why this was the case (because there are no coincidences, only unintelligibility), and my theory is that the people here enjoy an entirely different quality of life. In the States, capitalism places such a heavy emphasis on money that if you don't fit in the well-oiled business machine, you're cast to the streets as inefficient and therefore useless. Now I'm not saying that there are no homeless in Rome, because that is far from the truth. However, I think because there is less emphasis put on grinding yourself to the bone to make an extra buck, the homeless here are not forgotten by society, and realize that efficiency is not the key to life. Conversely, of course, nothing ever gets done here. So pick your poison.

And don't worry Vikings fans - last night I was able to suffer with you from half way around the world. We found an Irish bar that plays American football every Sunday, and the Vikings were on the main screen. Even though watching the Vikings is like sticking my head in boric acid, the place was still really cool. We watched the game with some other Vikings and Packers fans (who would've thought?) and spent the night fruitlessly arguing why the Vikings are the best team in the NFL with Packers fans, Jets fans or even South Africa rugby fans.

As far as fitting in goes, I've given up all hope. Not only do I lack the bronzed bod and slick black hair, but I don't have the attitude, the tight jeans or the pink popped collar to match. That's ok though, because I refuse to emasculate myself by popping a collar of any sort.

There really is just so much to say; I really can't tell it all. I'm having a wonderful time here. Oh! I didn't even mention the food! I ate a three course meal for 10 euro! And three scoop gelato is 1 euro! It's amazing how good and inexpensive everything is (except the clothes, they care way too much about how they look). The Italians definitely have something good going on over here.

I'll be sure to continue posting to keep everyone updated. I hope everything in the States is going well. I'll keep you in my prayers if you keep me in yours. Deal? Deal. I miss you all.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Olson has Landed!

I've arrived in Italia and am enjoying the late mornings and Italian inefficiency. It's been one day and I've already had drinks bought for me by an Italian fascist who said that Hitler was great. The drinks were good.