January 19, 2009

Playing a bit of catch up

I'm really late with this - if you read any other blogs from anyone living in Holland, I'm sure they've already mentioned that for the first time in 12 years, the Netherland's canals froze this month. I didn't take any of my own pictures, if you follow that link you'll see a great photo on the International Herald Tribune.

There were a lot of reasons to be excited about the frozen canals, but one of the highlights for me was the fact that no one complained about the weather. Seriously. Every single person I know and work with, Dutch and foreign, from warm climates to cold climates, was completely charmed by what was happening outside. It was the most proper winter weather imaginable - bright, sunny, blue skies, cold and clear, the only thing we were missing was snow. And with all the ice and excitement about skating on the ponds and canals, no one minded the lack of snow.

I didn't manage to get out and skate myself (I'm crossing my fingers that I get another opportunity this winter), unfortunately. For the few weeks that the cold snap stuck around, I was mostly in the city center - which was still a beautiful sight. As I rode along the Prinsengracht one morning on trash day, I saw the coolest thing - Christmas trees that people had place out on the curb had blown into the canals overnight and froze! I cursed myself for not getting any pictures, but my friend Zoe came to the rescue with some great shots.

Just a few random things and links - during the road trip from Amsterdam to Italy, one of my travel companions (and friends) filmed the experience and cut together a little video. Watch it on youtube!

The International Rotterdam Film Festival begins on the 21st of January. Here's a tip if you're trying to buy tickets online but you're using the English version of the site - click on the Nederlands version, and the first change that you'll see from the English version are the words "Tickets Kopen." Click there, which will take you to the ticket sales page, and then you can switch to English (by clicking on the British flag). One more tip - most of the foreign films are shown with English subtitles, but there's about 20-25 films that are only shown with Dutch subtitles - the list is here. Tickets are selling out quickly!

And one final link - if you're looking for someplace to watch the Obama Inauguration tomorrow (and let's say you live in Europe and don't have a TV, like me), it's showing live on Joost at 17.00 CET (Central European Time, or GMT+1).

January 7, 2009

The highlight was, of course, the people

The biggest highlight of the Italy trip was the people and friends I met along the way, both old and new. I spent Christmas with very good friends in Rome, enjoying a gigantic and wonderfully traditional Christmas Eve dinner. Through the magic of facebook, I re-connected with an old friend from New Paltz - someone I haven't seen in at least 9 years, maybe longer, and we spent a great night and day together, wandering around Rome and taking trains all over Italy (that part was actually a mistake, but a funny mistake that allowed me to see Fabriano and meet some interesting characters along the way). I shared some meals and drinks with a lovely couple that I met for the first time on Christmas Eve, I caught up with another friend from Amsterdam who bought me to a bar where they allowed us to stay past closing time and drink grappa - and that was only the beginning of the trip.

In Naples, I met up with Italian friends I know from Holland - two girls that I had only met once or twice previously in Amsterdam - and they offered to show me around their home city. Of course, you can't see all of Naples in one or two days, but man, I sure did give it a shot. They walked me all over the place, took me directly to their favorite pizza place and restaurants, told me stories about where they used to hang out when they were kids, and I was even introduced to one of their families. The same thing happened in Sorrento - without making any effort to make a lot of plans, I stayed at the home of a good friend and enjoyed a big dinner with his parents before wandering around the town with two wonderful people at night.

I could go on and on like this - every place I went has a great story, all made possible only because of the people that were there. What was truly one of the most special nights was New Years Eve. I went along with some friends to a party in Taranto at a beautiful house where I was the only non-Italian guest. Almost no one there knew me, I certainly had no frame of reference for where I was or what was going on - and I had a spectacular time. As everyone shouted Italian around me all night, I felt more and more at home. Anyone who did speak English sought me out at some point during the evening to introduce themselves and talk to me, and I kept convincing myself more and more that I could understand this beautiful language that had been filling my ears for the past week. Many of the people at the party had known each other for a long time and were clearly so happy to be together, and it was just simply the best atmosphere to be around. There has really never been a time in my life when language was so entirely unimportant for having a really good time. When the countdown to 2009 took place, I was hugging and kissing old friends, new friends, and strangers - the same way I would have done if I had been in Amsterdam or New York or anywhere in the world.

Up in Conegliano, I stayed with some new friends and their family for a couple days, again, welcomed with unbelievably warm hospitality, and again, unable to even approach the point where I might get hungry (the food... the food!). I loved exploring the town that these new friends grew up in, going to their neighborhood bars, admiring the view from the top of the castle, and just listening to the stories that came up. I managed to spend almost no time by myself until I got to Siena (on the evening of the 4th). And even in Siena, there was always someone to talk to at a cafe or shop. In Pisa, I had a lovely conversation entirely in Italian with the nice guy who owned the sandwich shop across from the place I was staying. I'd like to reiterate, I don't really speak or understand Italian, but after a couple weeks I had enough of a collection of badly pronounced words to have entire conversations that somehow happened with no problem.

Italy works in a way that is the total opposite of Holland. You must talk to people, there's no other way of figuring out what's going on. Trains and buses are always late, track assignments get changed, the signs aren't correct, the clocks all say something different, it can be hard to find street signs, the menu will be totally wrong, the buses don't indicate what stop is coming up or have a route posted inside, there's often no train conductor that comes around to take tickets, etc. I got on a train going the wrong direction at least twice, and both times there was a team of people who wanted to help me out when I asked for assistance. I never, ever had to worry that I wouldn't eventually get where I wanted to go. During my ride from Conegliano to Siena, my train compartment filled up with 6 people and 2 dogs. Within minutes everyone was sharing food, I had pizza and coffee more or less forced upon me, and everyone knew my destination - so when we approached and I wasn't paying attention, my seatmates grabbed my bags and said "this is your stop!" (I'm assuming they said something along those lines, it was all Italian) and shouted directions at me about where to transfer and to have a good trip and everyone shouted ciao! ciao! as I squeezed my way off the train. No one ever checked my ticket, some of us had seat reservations, others didn't - it didn't matter. Whenever I was with my Italian friends at a bar or restaurant and we were speaking English, the server or bartender would ask "where is your friend from?" and then often continue with "are you having a good time? Where have you been?" in a way that felt really genuine.

I guess that's what I'm trying to convey by going on and on with this sentiment - I felt genuinely welcome everywhere I went. I never just crashed at someone's house, I always shared food and wine and coffee with them. I wasn't just shown around to all the major touristy parts of various cities, I was given stories and saw the back streets and the views from the top. I didn't plan things out in advance, I was generally always late for whatever I wanted to do, and I feel like I found a country where that attitude works just fine.

January 5, 2009

La Fiaba

Let's say you've been on holiday for a few weeks, and it's gone a million times better than you ever expected, and the whole thing has you so happy and optimistic about what comes next that you don't quite know what to do with yourself. If you should happen to find yourself in that position, then please, get yourself to Siena, Italy.

When I arrived in Siena last night, it was dark and cold and I didn't really do much exploring. Waking up today to bright blue skies and blinding sunlight was perfect, and I went about a morning routine that I've become quite used to. First, open up the blinds that keep the rooms in Italy pitch black at all hours of the day if they're closed. Then, go for a coffee at whatever bar happens to be closest. Today I started with a macchiato, which I already knew would cost 90 cents. They're all 90 cents, seriously, every place I've been. I stood at the bar, drank quickly, and headed out.

My first stop when I got into the center of the city was at a supermarket for some practical supplies and food. I stood in line at the meat/bread counter waiting for my number to be called. DIECI! the woman yelled a few minutes later, standing about 5 meters away with a million people between us. DIECI! I yelled back, and she ran over. I asked for a small donut, which I ate for breakfast outside.

I don't usually like sweet stuff for breakfast. I've always preferred plain, simple foods like breads or cereal, yogurt, fruit, etc. After a a couple weeks in Italy, I'm now reaching for cookies, croissants, donuts, anything that has sugar in it. If I manage to sleep past an acceptable breakfast time, my first meal of the day becomes lunch, and my first beverage of the day is wine.

Anyway, this town - Siena - is the most perfect backdrop to go along with my mood today. Completely different than anywhere I've ever been. Absolutely beautiful. Peaceful, when I walked down the side streets where there were no shops. I bought a map but never bothered to look at it. When I got tired of walking, I would sit down on church steps or benches or on the ground in a pretty spot in the middle of a city square. Sometimes I would snap out of my daze and try to have a short conversation in Italian with someone at a cafe about travel or coffee or food. My very, very limited vocabulary has not yet stopped anyone from making small talk with me.

So a trip that has felt like a fairy tale the entire time ends appropriately. Tomorrow I'll go to Pisa in the afternoon so I can catch my flight early Wednesday morning to Amsterdam. I'm hoping to go back and fill in this blog with bits and pieces of this trip in the next few days - I think it will take a few days to get back into the swing of Amsterdam anyway. But on that note, I saw a Dutch bicycle in Treviso, and I excitedly took a picture of it, even though I'm about to go back to a city full of identical looking bicycles. I'm looking forward to seeing my friends, even feeling good about returning to work, it's just always hard to end a vacation.

January 3, 2009

Happy New Year from Italy

Since I've been traveling I haven't had much time with my computer, which isn't a bad thing at all. I've managed to explore Rome, Fabriano, Naples, Sorento, Bari, Talsano (well, at least the inside of a house in Talsano), Venice, and Conegliano. I've traveled by train, car, bus, and ferry. The best thing about this trip is that I very easily stuck to the only rule I made for myself: no planning more than a day or two in advance.

I'm updating from lovely Conegliano, a town about 45 minutes from Venice. A town I had no idea that I would visit - when other people asked me if I would go to Venice or Milan, I actually said no, I'm not really planning on going north at all. Yet here I am, having just had a big lunch with a very friendly Italian family, feeling incredibly at home in this house with people I've only just met. During this entire trip, in fact, I've always felt welcome and relaxed anywhere I've been, despite language barriers or anything like that.

The plan is to end the trip in Sienna and fly back to Amsterdam from Pisa on the 7th (of course, if you asked me yesterday, I would have told you that I was going to be in Sienna already this afternoon, and I'm 6 hours away). It's always nice to return to Amsterdam, to my apartment and my bike, but I just wish I could take all to the people (and food) I know here in Italy and bring them with me.