Sunday, March 8, 2009

Small Town Italia

Ever since the first week I came to Italy, my roomate, Jess, was talking about how her grandparents live in a small town, near Naples, call "Miranda," a short car ride from Isernia. Jess has being coming here throughout her childhood and has a lot of Italian friends/family here and last weekend, our friend, Shinkia, and I were lucky enough to go with her this time.

I was really excited to experience a small town in southern Italy (especially to experience the home-cooked food!). We took the bus there from Perugia and Jess had some funny stories about Italians. The bus came over half an hour late (because everything is a "suggestion" she said) but no one seemed to care. There are two bus drivers "to keep each other company" she said, and they always stop at this cafe where one flirts with the barrista and has an espresso and everyone waits for everyone else to have a smoke break...everything's at a leisurely pace here. We did go to a rest stop at an autogrill and for those who haven't been to Europe before, it completely destroys any rest stop that American has - it's just so nice!

The bus took us to Isernia where Jess' cousin picked us up. I was really scared as she was whipping through all of the tight turns on the way to Miranda but it was beautiful as we started approaching this small town on a hill (oh, also, Jess said that Italians don't really have traffic lights because they don't know how they work and are more cautious when they don't need to follow colors that they don't understand).

Miranda was so quiet and seemed covered in a golden light with all of the street lights out. Her grandparents lived in the United States for a little bit but missed Italy - having more personal attention from doctors with house visits, a quieter way of life, always people in the town to help them get something if they need it since they can't drive, etc. It's just a better life for them here. Her nonna made us the best dinner (and the best everything after that for the rest of our visit) and afterwards, we went to the 1 hangout spot, the pizzeria, at around 11 where it seemed like everyone was. [By the way, I don't think the town has a supermarket, or a bank, it used to have 2 bars but they may have closed down. You need to go to Isernia for everything.] It was a great small town feel because everyone was coming over to Jess and pinching her cheeks and asking how her family was. But basically, everyone was just sitting around socializing, maybe having a drink, and watching TV.

The next day, we made a day trip to Napoli. I was happy because I briefly got to visit when I went to visit my aunt in Ischia, but by briefly I mean take a taxi from the train station to the port. I'm surprised we hadn't gone to previous visits but a lot of southern Italy is still foreign to me and I really want to drag my family down here when we visit Pompeii. It was really funny because last night, at the pizzeria, when Jess was asking relatives or friends (there are supposedly only 12 families in the city, Jess' grandparents each coming from one of them) how to get to Naples/what to do there, they *all* warned her to not bring anything valuable, not wear necklaces because they will get ripped off, that we're all going to be pickpocketed etc. They were all so paranoid and, what I still feel, for nothing. But it's that Italian paranoia that we were laughing about.
Jess' cousin told us that you either go to Naples for shopping for for sightseeing if you are doing it in a day, but you can't fit in both. Shinkia had gone to Milan the previous week (which I also still haven't been to yet!) and, for that being the fashion capital of Italy, we were both surprised to learn that Naples has a lot better shopping.
I stupidly forgot my camera, but have to say that we kind of causally walked around and didn't do major sight-seeing (I'm going to steal pictures for you guys from Jess and Shinika's camera and post them for you after this so you can see). What was great, though, was that Jess is doing a project on pizza for midterms and so we had an excuse (like we would need one?) to go to a very old pizzeria and have some original, Neapolitan pizza. I learned that the only true recognized forms of pizza are Margherita and Marinara and that they have to be a certain thickness and diameter and cook at a certain heat for a certain amount of time (I'll learn this in her presentation on Wednesday). Ahhh, but it really was the best, and maybe even the cheapest!? pizza I've ever had.

The sun came out in Naples and we just ate the whole time (gelato, arranciatas? I believe they're called [little fried rice balls]) etc. I feel like there's nothing more to say than the little domestic side streets were filled with stacked apartments which all hand laundry hanging outside of their balconies and it was just the perfect day.

That evening, we relaxed and watched Italian television. I barely watch any in my apartment, though it would probably be a good learning tool, but I don't think I've mentioned yet how Italians don't use subtitles but dub everything ("they don't want to go to the movies to read"). So, basically, yes, there is an Italian Leonardo DiCaprio who does all of his parts. Personally, I think that's a very strange idea and much prefer subtitles. I also think it would be easier, for me, to learn the language that way. But we had fun watching dubbed American crime shows that I don't know but Jess seems to really like. What's the best, though, is watching Italian knock-offs of American shows. I don't remember if I mentioned this when I visited my aunt in Ischia, but she laughs when she says that they copy everything we do. We saw a version of Deal or No Deal but it's soooo drawn out. They have really cheesy music and sit and talk about everything forever and the suspense just kills you, on top of Deal or No Deal just being a horrible show to begin with. When I was in Ishcia we watched Who Wants To Be A Millionaire and it was the same thing, talking talking talking. Jess said, jokingly?, that they don't even call "talk shows" that here. There was also a popular show called Amici that seemed to be a version of American Idol, except, silly Italians..., instead of three judges they have a panel of 10! How many opinions do you need!? And everyone behind the scenes is just trash-talking each other. It's hilarious, and her grandparents seem to be really into it.

That night, we tried to go out but everyone seemed to want to just hang out at the pizzeria and have a late dinner. There was a concert in Miranda that night at the big stadium down the road and, supposedly, the population of this 1,000 person town doubled that night with concert-goers. We laughed at how completely unnecessarily the policemen guiding traffic seemed to be, but it was quiet an excitement for this small town and everyone went!

The next day, we took a tour of Miranda, which only took about 15 minutes. There are ruins of an old castle though, and the most gorgeous view. Jess is lucky that her grandparents have put so much work into their house (actually a few houses that are all connected) and that she'll always have this peaceful retreat to go back to with her family.

It was the perfect weekend before the stress of midterms and I really liked her grandparents. (Her nonno called me "bella kara" :)).

What In The World Was Going On In Venice!?

Two weekends ago (I'm sorry for the delay) I was lucky enough to return to my favorite Italian city, Venice, and even luckier to be there during Carnivale! I was pretty sure that this was going to be the absolute highlight of my trip...and so far it still stands up to that. Either way, it was completely crazy, beautiful, celebration.

We got into Venice Friday afternoon to go the weekend before Fat Tuesday. I love getting into the train station in Venice because you get to see the first stores with Venetian glass and then, right as you walk out, you're *right* at the Grand Canal. It's such a perfect welcome.

Now, here's more of the reality of it all. Venice is very expensive, and I'm sure they jack-up the prices during Carnivale. So it goes either way. I think you just need to realize that (I'm completely paraphrasing Rick Steves again) these group of islands have always been a tourist refuge and just give into it. Spend a possibly ridiculous amount of money to have a drink on the Piazza San Marco (which I don't know why I didn't do!). I guess I was so in love with it in middle school that I didn't really notice, or care about the crowds, but a lot of people I've met complain that Venice is extremely touristy and that the food is awful. I've read that a lot of locals are leaving Venice because it's hard to raise children and it is an expensive place to live. There are a lot of foreigners there making Italian food. Oh, and it's sinking...

But it's the most beautiful, romantic place in the world!!! :)

We took our first short ride down the grand canal to the Rialto Bridge where our hotel was (great location right?). While it was frustrating that no good pictures were coming out at night, there's nothing like riding under the Rialto when it's all lit up.
We went out for dinner at one of the cheaper restaurants we could find (yes, the food wasn't that good, and the wine was supposedly awful but I don't love wine that much anyways so it was just an excuse for me) and then we headed over to Saint Mark's Square. What's funny, for the directionally challenged (me) is that, as completely ridiculous as Venice can be with all of it's little side-streets and impossible maps, you only really need to follow the signs that either lead you to the Rialto or lead to you Saint Mark's.

When we got there, instead of the huge piazza, full of pigeons and string-quartets that I lovingly remember, there was a huge stage and...a drag show performance! (Excuse my french mom and dad) but all we could say was "those men have balls"....they were pretty into it [I have some bad pictures in the begining of my album]. But it was actually a really fun time, though very strange and we didn't understand a lot of what was going on. I think it was a contest for the best costume or something.
Afterwards we wandered the streets between the Rialto and Saint Mark's, where there are little squares randomly placed inbetween, and came across all different types of street-parties (techno raves?, bar crawls, live bands, etc.). Every had a mask on and was drinking and dancing and making-out. It all felt like one small, hometown party. My friend Anna and I, in our nights here, tended to settle around the square where the fisherman's market is next to our hotel where there was a cheap hot dog stand and our favorite band (that sounded like Man Man but looked like the Flaming Lips...if that makes any sense). It was a fun, mostly percussion, band, with a sax and a whistle-blower who played some popular, and traditional, Italian songs and lots of other fun, easy-to-pretend-you-know-the-melody-to, songs.

The next day, I just wanted to get lost. Yes, there are definitely sights to see in Venice (and I'm embarrased and not going to to admit what I *still* haven't seen there yet because I'm really frustrated), but the real joy is just walking along the small streets and window shopping. There is just entirely too much charm here. Probably my favorite thing, next to Venetian/Murano glass, is to walk into an old mask store that's completely, completely cluttered with masks with the artist sitting at a little table in the back covered in paint. I like to think that I went to Pittsburgh because I guess it's the closest American equivalent to the number of bridges in one city...not that it gets anywhere close.
And I bought a beautiful, but expensive, mask! (It's the white one in my photo album) I unfortunately realized that I have very expensive taste when it comes to masks, I think because I've bought two masks in my previous visits from stands and wanted a nice one from a shop, but I was stupid enough to forget to bring my contacts and had to tie it to the top of my head so I could still wear it out! (don't try putting glasses over a doesn't work)

I should say something about the costumes. The whole fun of Carnivale is that you get to hide behind a mask, gain a little confidence (not when it's stupidly sitting on the top of your head!), and go out. Yes, it used to be an excuse, years and years ago, for people to run around and get with whoever they desired, married or not, BUT now I saw it as a wonderful way for people to get into character. The highlight of the highlight of my trip may have been when, during that saturday, we were walking around Saint Mark's for the first time in the daylight and the square was *filled* with couples (I appreciate any man who will powder their face, wear a wig, tights, and maybe even heels) completely decked-out in matching costumes. They would come out of nowhere, mute and in character, and would passively pose while groups of tourists frantically took pictures, and then casually stroll until they were stopped again by mobs. And you hate being that person just joining the crowds, but I got some amazing pictures and I really hope, if anything, you just look at those.
Not all of the characters are as pristine as I just mentioned. Some of the guys were a little mischievious and, even though in their respectable period costume, they would nudge you with their walking stick and stand next to you and surprise you while you were trying to take pictures or drag you into pictures, etc. etc. It was just all part of the fun.

I didn't realize this, but Venice is shaped like a fish, and the next day, Sunday, Anna and I decided that we wanted to explore the "lower fin" down to the coast and then take a boat up the full grand canal. I don't think I had ever strayed the Rialto-Saint Mark's area before and this was a nice change. We were in much more of a residential area and discovered churches and squares (with little street shows continuing for Carnivale) that we had never seen before. It was also a nice way to get away from the crowds and spend a quiet Sunday.
We came upon a bigger square where there was an outdoor market and I was in heaven! Venice + flea market!? Unfortunately, Mom, I guess you're right, that there was just "junk" there, but maybe next time. It definitely got me extremely excited though.

That night, there wasn't much going on but we were able to peek into, off of Saint Mark's Square, fabulous, and high-class, tea rooms. They are these huge-windowed cafes where supposedly you could only get in if you had a costume. It was like we were peering back hundred of years ago! And of course it's all show and extremely expensive, and such a paparazzi moment, but it's all a little bit of show and fun.

The next morning, we went to an island off of Venice, Murano, where all of the Venetian glass is made in factories. I was sorry to say that I really felt like it was in the off-season because not as many stores or factories seemed to be open. I would have liked to stay there more and explore though, but sometimes, all of the glass stores can be completely overwhelming. We got to see a demonstration though and I was very happy.
I knew I wanted to come back to Venice and invest in a good glass piece ever since we came the first time. I shopped around in Murano but I couldn't forget this glass wire-hanging lamp I saw near the Rialto and went back there, the next day, to buy it. Maybe all of my speeches about "giving in" to how expensive Venice can be are because I feel a bit guilty about how much I spent on it, but I look forward to having this in my house/apartment/box where ever I end up post-college. It's a beautiful, single piece of hollow blown glass in millefiori style in red and orange. I've never seen a piece like it and think it's very Venetian-looking. I'm very happy and sorry I don't have a picture to show right now (currently, it's all sealed up in a box right now).

Our complaint was that there wasn't a schedule of events going on for shows and such this weekend (especially in Saint Mark's like on the first night with the drag show). But maybe there really isn't too much of a schedule and you need to stumble upon things. We unfortunately missed the opening show earlier the previous week, where, I believe, they release doves and someone dressed as an angel being lowered down?, and also boat races down the grand canal on a later night...
After the excitement of Friday and Saturday night, things seemed to drastically slow down and when we went to Saint Mark's on Sunday and Monday night, to our amazement there was nothing going on!
But, on our last night there, Monday night, on the fringe of Saint Mark's, behind the Campinile, there was a piano bar where this old couple were energetically dancing to Mamma Mia together outside, and it was the perfect, romantic way to end this crazy experience :-D.