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.