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!