Sunday, June 29, 2008

Roma: La Città Eterna

June 30, 2008

Ciao da Roma! I’ve been here for a little over a week now, and I thought it would be a good idea to start a blog to keep track of all the adventures, challenges, and experiences I am sure to encounter during my 6 months in Italy. I left California on June 18 at 6am. As excited as I was, I couldn’t help but get a little teary when I left my parents at the security checkpoint. The flights were long to say the least; I flew from Oakland to Phoenix to Philadelphia, then finally to Rome. My friend Carly was supposed to meet me in Philly where we had the same flight to Italy, but she missed her first flight so I was all alone : ( Fortunately, I sat next to a really nice man, who happened to be a law professor, on the flight to Rome, and since I couldn’t sleep we ended up talking for hours. We finally got into Rome the morning of the 19th. Walking through the airport, I was shocked that Italy really doesn’t have a customs; they stamp your passport when you get off, and then you just walk right through customs. Luckily my baggage made it, too. They told us before we took off that a lot of luggage from connecting flights had not made it onto our flight, but I guess that didn’t include mine. I took a taxi to the study center to check in, and let me just say drivers in Italy are INSANE. I honestly thought we were going to crash numerous times. As crazy as they are, I think there are some rules; the roads seem to have a “controlled chaos”.
I managed to drag my luggage to the study center, where I was given a bunch of papers and maps, as well as keys to my apartment. A note on the keys: two of them look like something out of a history book, long with only like two teeth; very strange. I took another taxi to my apartment in the neighborhood of Aurelia, about a mile west of Vatican City. The apartment was a lot bigger than I thought and really nice, too. I share it with 5 other girls, and there are two single rooms and two doubles. I share a double with Carly of course. Among my other roommates, two are from UCLA and two are from Berkeley, and they are all really nice. Most of them have been to Italy and Europe before, so I do feel a little behind and inexperienced. Also, we luckily have two bathrooms, which is nice since there are so many girls! The neighborhood we live in is kind of lame though. There isn’t much around us to do or places to eat, and we are about a 20 minute bus ride from the city center where our classes are. Most of the others in the program are in apartments in Trastevere, which is right along the river and one of the best and coolest places to live in Rome, not to mention is a lot closer to everything. Also, we live on this awful hill that we have to climb up everyday, which sucks, but I guess with all the walking we can work off all the pasta and gelato we’ll be eating!
On a not so pleasant note, Rome is stiflingly HOT!! A heat wave started as soon as we arrived, and has been unrelenting since. It has been in the 90s everyday, but the worst part is the humidity – it’s around 75% everyday, and it doesn’t let up at night either. We sleep with the fan on, which is the only way we can survive the hot nights. Going outside is awful, but you don’t have a choice if you want to explore Rome. Sweating has become the norm; and walking everywhere, being crammed in buses like sardines, and not having A/C at home makes the heat even more unbearable. The time change has been tough to adjust to; I seem to get super tired at random times, and I wake up much earlier than I ever did back home. Friday and Saturday we had orientations for ACCENT and EAP, which were full of info but also quite boring. Saturday night my roommate Kathryn, Carly, and I went down to Lungotevere, along the Tiber River in Trastevere, where about half a mile is lit up and has bars serving drinks and food, tents selling clothes and other trinkets, and music. It was really fun just to people watch and explore, but no Italians would talk to us, presumably because they didn’t think we knew any Italian. We sat for a while at a bar, laughing and drinking the most delicious sangria, my new favorite drink! Then went up onto the bridge over the river for a while, where we had to use the “turn and roll” technique when creepers got increasingly closer to us. Just as we were about to leave, three Italians, Marco, Federico, and Antonello approached us and we started talking, and they were actually really nice. After a while, they invited us back to their friend Carlo’s apartment where he was cooking “funny” pasta. Mind you this was around 1:30am, but I guess Italians just like to eat late : ) We decided to go, and we had an amazing time. We all crammed into a little Honda, and when we got there we were greeted by Carlo. The guys were so cute - they set up a little table, complete with tablecloth, for us to eat at. The pasta was great, but we’re still not sure why they call it “funny”, maybe it doesn’t quite mean the same in Italian. It was really fun to talk to actual Italians, try speaking the language a bit, and just experience. The guys were all super nice and funny, and the conversation was never dull. During the course of the night (or maybe morning?), I learned that Carlo had been to Santa Barbara! Definitely a small world… Around 5am they drove us home, which turned out to be an experience itself. The drive was amazing, with empty streets contrasting the traffic of the day, and driving past monuments like the Coliseum, uncrowded with tourists. Needless to say, we were exhausted when we got home at 6am, and slept until 6pm the next day.

Carly and I decided not to waste the whole day, however, and got a jump start on our sight-seeing. We took the Metro to the Piazza di Spagna first to see the Scalinata della Trinità dei Monti, or Spanish Steps. Not surprisingly, they were overrun with tourists, but it was still fun to walk to the top and see the beautiful view. Unfortunately, there was a scaffolding at the top in front of the church, which kind of ruins my pictures : ( Then we walked to La Fontana di Trevi, aka the Trevi Fountain. On our way, we passed a little cafè with a bunch of Italians outside gathered around a TV watching Italy play Spain in the European soccer tournament. I couldn’t help laughing because honestly, what could be more Italian than that? This is definitely one of my favorites in Rome so far; we got there right about dusk, so we were able to see the gorgeous fountain lit up. The intricacies and details of the fountain are unbelievable, and it is so much better to see in person than in pictures. While we were there, a guy proposed to his wife and the entire crowd started clapping. It was quite romantico. We got gelato on our way back, but I was a little disappointed. I think I need to try somewhere better, but I’m certainly going to taste a lot while I’m here! The Metro line that we had to take back home stops at 10pm to do construction, so we had to take the bus, and we got a little lost. We made it home eventually however, but were quite exhausted. Class started Monday. We take the bus to class, which sucks because we have to leave so early, and also because we have to buy a buss pass every time. Honestly, I’ve spent the most money so far on passes for the bus and Metro. Thankfully, we can buy a month pass for July, which will make getting around the city so much easier. I was put in the advanced class with Carly and my other roommate Gabi. Advanced pretty much just means we’ve had two years of Italian instead of one, like most of the others in the program. I have to say I don’t like it so far. I feel like there is no order for what we do in class, and I’m not learning anything new. I really don’t like our teacher either. She speaks really fast and has a lisp, so it’s hard to understand her, and she doesn’t really know English so she can’t really explain anything to us except in Italian. I’m just having a tough time because I don’t feel like I know Italian as well as should; I don’t understand a lot of the things she says in class, which is frustrating, and I feel like some of the other students know a lot more than I do. Also, it’s tough for me to practice speaking outside of the classroom, because I get so nervous, partly because I know my accent is terrible, but also because whatever I’m thinking in my head never comes out right. I guess I’m scared to make mistakes or sound stupid, but I think those things are synonymous with learning a language. We are actually reading an Italian novel, called Io Non Ho Paura (I Am Not Afraid). It seems pretty interesting, and there is actually a movie of it, but it is really tough to read. I can get the gist of it, but so much of the vocabulary is unfamiliar, and it would take forever to look up every word. Hopefully things will get better since this is only the first week.
After class on Wednesday, Carly, Siana, and I made a trip to the Coliseum, Palatine Hill, and the Foro Romano, or Roman Forum. It was fun walking up the hill, where there was a great view of the Coliseum and the Forum to reward you. It was amazing to see the Forum, where so much history lies among the ancient ruins; if only stones could talk. The more of Rome I see, too, the more I am convinced of their ingenious architectural abilities, both in antiquity and presently. The arches and temples in the Forum were breathtaking. I have to say I was especially excited for the Coliseum. We went about an hour before it closed, so it wasn’t too crowded. Although I am not so fascinated by the fact that the Romans used it for entertainment in the form of death, it is still incredible to walk in something so old, with so much history, and to think of the people who once walked the same steps as me. I find it ironic, too that all these ancient monuments, art, and architecture are surrounded by such a bustling, urban, city. I just find it strange that these people drive by the Coliseum or the Vatican daily on their way to work! On another, less touristy note, here are some things I’ve learned about Italians so far. First, they don’t buy groceries in bulk like Americans do; they go to the store every couple days to buy what they need for a few meals, and they often frequent open-air markets to get super fresh food. This has been pretty easy to adapt to, unless you don’t have time to go the store and don’t have food. The quality of the food here is much better, too, and pretty affordable. Things like olive oil, bread, cheese, olives, tomatoes, basil, and wine of course are especially delicioso. We don’t really eat out much because there aren’t many places in our neighborhood, so I have been cooking my own meals primarily. Also, the Italians stare. A LOT. But unlike in the States, it isn’t meant to be rude, it’s just what they do, men and women. Personal hygiene isn’t quite as high a priority here as in America, which is only made worse by the heat and crowded buses : ( Women seem to dress the opposite as American women, in that they wear small shirts and large pants, while we usually wear smaller bottoms and looser tops. Public transportation is huge here, and is pretty reliable. I’ve used it in one form or another basically everyday, multiple times. Meals are an entirely different thing here; eating is an experience, about socializing and enjoying the flavors of the food. It is usually done with company, and always with a glass of vino. On that note, drinking here is very different, too, especially to what I’m used to in Santa Barbara. No one drinks to get drunk here, wine and alcohol are drank as a complement to a meal. There is no legal drinking age, so kids are exposed to alcohol early and learn to appreciate it in the proper way. I must say that it is very nice to be able to by a bottle of wine for myself to enjoy with dinner each night! I’m sure I will discover much more about Italians and their culture, both good and bad, in the coming months.
Thursdays, in addition to having class in the morning from 9:30-1pm, we have an afternoon class meant to expose us to various cultural aspects of Italy. During the morning session, we walked to Campo dei Fiori, where there is an open-air market everyday selling a variety of fresh produce and other goods. During the afternoon session, we went to a restaurant called Spirito di Vino, where the owner gave us a tour of the wine cellar, which dates back to 82 B.C.!! Then he and his wife, the chef, talked to us (in Italian of course) about wine and food. The little I understood was quite interesting : )
During our lunch break Friday, we randomly saw Carlo in Piazza dell’Orologio, where the study center is located. We said ciao and talked for a bit, and decided to meet later for an aperativo (basically like the American happy hour, you buy a drink at a restaurant and get to eat from a buffet they set up. We went to a very hip place outside the city center (aka away from tourists) called Momart, which was a restaurant/lounge with great art decorating the walls. Carlo also happens to be an amateur sommelier, so he ordered our wine for us, which was quite tasty, as was the food. Afterward, we drove to Trastevere, spending about an hour looking for parking, and then went back to the place that had the amazing sangria. Carly and I called it an early night because there was a lot planned for Saturday. One of the optional activities ACCENT planned for us was a guided tour of Ostia Antica Saturday morning. Ostia Antica was a city near the ocean during antiquity, about a half hour by train from Rome. The city is unique in that much of it is still intact. Our tour guide compared it to Pompei, in terms of how preserved it is (albeit for different reasons). We spent a few hours walking through the city, on the original stone roads, going into buildings, onto roofs, and into bathhouses. Speaking of bathhouses, they were basically the Roman equivalent of spas today. They somehow engineered ways to have steam rooms and large pools to bath in, and could event get massages! Ostia Antica also had a lot of mosaics, and some of the best lined the floors of the bathhouses, with a water theme including images of Neptune. Some interesting points included: the “fast food” building, where Romans went to buy snacks and food during the day to take with them to eat (they used pictures for their menu, which are still there!!); the bathroom, aka a room with holes in a stone bench (hygiene wasn’t so pleasant…they used a communal sponge on a stick for their toilet paper!!); and also the fact that the city was overrun with beautiful wildflowers. Afterward, a bunch of us took the train a bit further to the beaches of Ostia. Most are private and thus cost money, but we finally found a public one. Not surprisingly, it was packed with Italians and tourists alike, all trying to escape the relentless heat. We went for a quick swim that was unbelievable after such a hot morning. The water was super warm and salty, and it was great to swim out and just float. Italians are so much freer in terms of their bodies; I don’t mean in the sense that they all go to the beach nude (although there were a few topless women!) but rather that they are more comfortable and accepting of the body. I don’t feel like they have as strict of standards for what is the “perfect” or ideal body, which is an incredibly refreshing change from the States. We didn’t have much time there, so we are going to plan a day trip to the beach later. That evening, we had signed up for a cooking class that ACCENT offers, so we had to rush back from Ostia, shower, and try to find it. It was at the flat of this eccentric Italian signora, who didn’t speak any English, but taught us to make the most delicious food! The recipes were actually pretty simple, too, so I plan on trying to make them on our own later. The menu included:
Il primo piatto:
- pasta with eggplant, tomatoes, bell peppers and bread crumbs
- rice with zucchini, tomatoes, and gorgonzola (my favorite!)
Il secondo piatto:
- cous cous alla Romana with zucchini, tomatoes, and LOTS of cheeses
- chicken stuffed with mozzarella and prosciutto
- bruschetta with fresh tomatoes
La dolce:
- una crostata, a thin cake with almond and topped with powdered sugar
- homemade sangria!!
- espresso, of course
It was honestly one of the most delicious meals I’ve ever had. Everything was buonissimo! We ate out on her patio, 7 stories up with a great view, where she set a cute little table for us and served us each course. We spent the next couple hours enjoying the food, talking about Italy and EAP among other things, and just relaxing. It truly was an amazing experience that gave us an authentic look at one of the most important aspects of Italian culture – food! I haven’t gotten too homesick yet since we’ve been so busy, and it certainly helps to be able to Skype my family and friends. There are definitely things I miss, but I’m trying to adjust and make the most of my experience. I really want to improve my Italian, travel throughout Italy as well as Europe as much as I can, and also grow as a person from this experience. I’m really happy that I’m doing this blog, and I hope I keep it up. I know this entry is super super long, but keep in mind it is covering a week and a half!
Abbraci e baci (hugs and kisses)


Sam said...

Hi Rachel. This is Sam. I enjoyed reading your second post —will read the first later. Will you be able to go to Florence before starting classes in Padua? If so, try to go to the Uffizi Gallery. It's my understanding that it can be difficult to get into because of its popularity. The "Birth of Venus" by Sandro Botticelli is in their collection but my faves would be Caravaggio (sp) and Raphael. Here's a link to a site with ticket information, etc.
Uffizi Gallery Tickets Reservation, Uffizi Prices, Timetable..

Anonymous said...

Il Bel Paese.....