Thursday, September 30, 2010

Oktoberfest 2

We arrived at the Oktoberfest grounds just as they were clearing the last of the previous night's festivities, mess and trash away. The carnival grounds, complete with roller coasters, rides and games were ready to open for another day of Bavarian revelry.

Klaas, Leah, Alyssa and I chose a tent almost immediately. We had a good feeling about Schottenhammel and got in line. Immediately behind us in line was a group of guys, around 17 - 18 years of age. We introduced ourselves to them and discovered that they were a Bavarian hockey team bent on picking up girls at Wiesn. I showed the loudest of them (his name was Ferdinand, I believe) my songbook and soon we were singing German songs while the rest of the sleepy, cold people in line looked on. After about an hour, the doors open and we were able to secure a table in between the hockey players and a table of Italians.

After sitting at the table for a few minutes, servers began to come by with all the things we could possibly want: sweet pickles, different types of sausage, pretzels, and of course 1 liter mugs of Paulaner beer. Our chatting and joking with each other and our neighboring tables was periodically interrupted by cheering as someone in the huge tent would stand up on their table and raise their arms above their head. We would all then stand up and cheer as some macho German would down a whole liter of beer (we would boo when they failed). After a very successful morning, we bid our new friends goodbye and decided to ride a carnival ride before checking into our hotel.

Upon arrival at our hotel, the all-night drive and sleepy warm feeling of beer and sausage caught up to us and we napped for a few hours. We awoke in the early evening refreshed and ready for round 2.

Our return to Oktoberfest around dusk was exciting and we decided to try a new tent, this time the Ochsenbraterei tent. I can barely describe the sight I saw when I entered the Ochsenbraterei tent. The morning was fun, but this was what every stereotype and Oktoberfest dream was about. Imagine walking into a tent full of thousands of people, every single one standing on their table, arm-in-arm, singing along to a polka band and raising their glasses to the ceiling. The feeling of extreme mirth was overwhelming. The four of us easily found a table, ordered beers and chicken, and made friends with an inebriated Norwegian family at the table next to us. As the night when on, the lines between our tables blurred and I ended up arm-in-arm with an old Norwegian man (who spoke no English) and Klaas, singing "Hey Jude" at the top of my lungs.

Hey Jude? Wasn't this Germany? Turns out this polka band played joyous Oktoberfest versions of American and international hits in addition to tons of German songs that I didn't know but sang loudly anyway. We stood on our tables and sang and laughed for hours.

Most of my Sunday at Wiesn defies photographic or written description, but after such an amazing day, I definitely plan on going back, and you should join me.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Oktoberfest 1

Beer. Sausage. A German Hockey team. A drunken Norweigan family. Naps. Loud singing until the wee hours. A poor lost Australian. Extremely polite but firm police encounters. Dancing on tables. Lederhosen.

I have just returned from Oktoberfest (Wiesn) in Munchen (Munich) and it was the best thing I could have possibly done in Europe.

This all grew out of a conversation I had on a beach in Cinque Terre where I randomly ran into some other SAIS students and had lunch with them. I shared with them my dream of going to Oktoberfest but lamented that my roommates weren't really interested in going.

Fast forward to last Monday when I got a text message from one of those students, Alyssa, asking whether Oktoberfest was still in the books. It was. I immediately started doing research and Alyssa and I picked up two other adventurers as we made a cheap hotel reservaton and reserved a rental car. Is that all you need to plan a trip of this magantude? A car, a room and 4 excited people? Well, turns out, yes that's all you need.

Well, that and songbook full of Wiesn songs. I learned a few before we left:

We left for Germany at midnight on Saturday. I took a 2 hour nap earlier in the evening in preparation for our all night drive. I was the only one who could drive a manual transmission, so I had a 6 hour drive ahead of me. We drove through northern Italy and Austria and reached southern Germany just as the sun was coming up.

We had only been driving in Munchen for about 5 minutes when our car was pulled over. This story could have ended very poorly, but two jolly German cops got out of the car, somehow could immediately tell we were Americans and asked, "Shpreken ze ingish?"

Me: "Ah! Yes!"
Police Officer (In perfect English): "Could I have your car's papers and your driver's liscense please?"
Me: "Sure. May I ask, what did we do wrong?"
Police Officer: "Oh nothing, it's just a random stop. Can you get out of the car please?"

The smiling police officer asked a few polite questions and seemed very amused that I was a Californian driving an Italian car in Germany. Then she breathalyzed me. At this point, the girls sleeping in the back of the car woke up and looked out the window to see me being breathalyzed by two German police officers.

I blew 0.0 of course.

On our way again, we realized that our directions had done a great job of getting us to Bavaria, but weren't so good a getting us to our hotel. We pulled over a few times to ask people, but none spoke English and it was 7 in the morning. We finally ran into a french dude who gave us a printed out Google Map of Munich. We thanked him in broken French, parked the car and headed to Oktoberfest!

To be continued...

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Parma Prosciutto and Mobile Home Festival

Disclaimer: It seems like all I'm doing is traveling and having fun (which is pretty much true), but that's only because actual classes haven't started yet. After October 4, this blog will get a lot more boring, don't you worry.

Last weekend I boarded an early morning train with some other SAIS students to Parma. Parma is pretty close (45 minutes or so by train) so I thought a day trip would be nice. Last weekend was the Parma Prosciutto Festival. Apparently, in addition to parmesan cheese Parma is well known for its delicious prosciutto (thinly sliced ham-type meat).

We arrived in Parma around 9:30am, which gave us about a half-an-hour to catch a bus out to a prosciutto factory out in the suburbs where a lot of the events were occurring. We walked from the train station to the city center where we boarded a bus going to the exposition. The bus was a bit crowded as our large, awkward group of mostly American tourists piled on. One of the girls in the group got kind of nervous, so as one of the better Italian speakers in the group (sad isn't it?), I asked a guy on the bus if we were in fact going to, "La festa di prosciutto." I didn't catch all he said, be pretty much assured me that yes, we were on the correct bus for prosciutto.

We got off about 10 minutes later at a giant factory-looking building with lots of people all around. I was so excited about prosciutto, I didn't even notice that at the entrance, the fliers they handed us at the entrance were RV ads. Once inside though, we quickly realized that we were not at a prosciutto factory at all, but a giant RV exposition. We laughed for about 10 minutes because:

1. We were at a mobile home convention in the suburbs of Parma.

2. Thousands of excited Italians were excitedly flocking to all the RV exhibits. We still have no idea why they love RVs so much.

After a few photo ops, we re-boarded the bus and went back to the Parma city center. The PR people for this prosciutto festival did a great job, because they really talked it up and it ended up being pretty much on large tent with one line selling some prosciutto. We ordered some and some wine and watched a medieval parade for a nearby renaissance festival. Afterwards, we wandered around Parma, visited the famous church there (il Duomo) and had lunch.

My thoughts on Parma? Meh. I do like prosciutto, though. And RVs.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Via Toffano House Tour

Welcome to my humble abode, 5 Via Vicenzo Toffano. Vincezo Toffano was a leader during the Italian Risorgimento and therefore national hero (kind of like a Patrick Henry figure). My house is located on the eastern side of Bologna, near Strada Maggiore, which has lots of awesome shops, restaurants and pizzerias.

I live with 5 other dudes that I met last spring: Ezra, David, Wil, Zach and Jake. Although my Italian teacher laments the fact that I live with 5 other Americans, I really appreciate the diverse perspectives they all bring to our house and the overall relaxed and fun atmosphere that we've created.

Our kitchen is one of the house's big selling points. I really like to cook and this kitchen has more than enough room to operate. The other guys like to cook to, so the kitchen has really become the main common area of our apartment. We've decided to have house dinners multiple nights a week and I'm really looking forward to 9 more months of amazing pasta (and other) dishes.

Although I showed up to Bologna second-to-last in the house, I somehow managed to get by far the awesomest room. I think the other guys didn't see the room's full size and potential, but I have an eye for turning spaces into great hang out spots. After a little rearranging (why do most adults insist on putting their beds in the middle of rooms? All you do is sleep in them), I am now the proud owner of an amazing lounge, complete with a couch and two chairs around a coffee table, more closet space than I've ever had in my life, and the house's secondary common area. We've already had a few fun nights just hanging out and chatting in my room.

Our house is very... Italian. The toilets flush with a chain that comes down from the ceiling. There's a contraption next to the main toilet that might be a bidet (it has hot and cold faucets), but might also be a urinal (it lacks a hose or any kind of bidet mechanism).

We also have a state-of-the-art Italian washing machine that we can't really use because the instructions are in very complicated Italian. We've managed a way to keep our clothes laundered by pressing random buttons, but avoiding the 12 hour wash cycle option is always a plus. Italians apparently aren't really into dryers so the house came with a ton of drying racks.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Through Cinque Terre

Last weekend I traveled to Cinque Terre for a weekend of hiking, swimming, food and relaxation. After a pretty fun adventure, that's exactly what I found.

The house we stayed in was atop a hill, overlooking the Mediterranean and the seaside town of Vernazza in the distance. The house had an amazing deck facing northwest with one of the best views I have ever seen. After arriving on Friday night, we just sat on the deck, drank wine and enjoyed the stars. The view the next morning, however, blew my mind.

After a leisurely morning of ocean-watching, we hiked down to the town of Corniglia and began our hike along the Cinque Terre trail. Beautiful vistas and steep climbs were the dual themes of the trail, both of which I really enjoyed. We had lunch along the beach in Vernazza, where I was able to try some of the region's famously buttery foccaccia bread. We continued on to Montesorro where 4 of us broke off from the group and swam out to a rock of the coast. The rest of the day was spent sunbathing and people watching (tourists are entertaining, as are Italians). That night for dinner, we ate ate a restaurant called Ristorante al Carugio in Montesorro before returning by train to Corniglia and hiking back up the hill.

Sunday, I woke up at nine, put on a sweatshirt and just relaxed on the deck, talking international relations and class options while soaking in the horizon.

So what is Cinque Terre? It's beautiful. You should go.

To Cinque Terre

A friend of mine apparently has a family friend who has a summer vacation home in Cinque Terre. When I asked other people (like my little sister) what Cinque Terre was, the response was always, "Oh! It's beautiful, you have to go!"

Very convincing, but not very explanatory. Cinque Terre is a group of towns (5 towns in fact) that line the northwestern coast of Italy on Ligurian Sea.

The towns are built between large striking cliffs that remind me of stretches of the California Coast between Santa Barbara and **Muir Woods**. The idea is to hike to each of the towns, swim in the beautiful Mediterranean, enjoy amazing views and eat tons of food in restaurants in an area known for its seafood, pesto and foccacia bread. Turns out, that's exactly what a group of us did, but I need to rewind for a second and talk about my adventure getting there.

My friend Elizabeth, (the one with the vacation-home friends) rented a car with 6 other people and drove up to the house on Friday afternoon. Unfortunately for me, they were all in economics, which gave them a free afternoon, while I had an Italian test in the afternoon. I google-mapped the house and saw that while it was at the top of a hill, it was only about 3 miles from a train station. After my test, I ran to catch a train out of the Bologna Centrale station, armed with only 2 weeks of Italian, some printed maps and a good sense of direction.

If you've ever traveled with me, you know that I don't stress about getting lost or being late, and things usually work out for me. This definitely came in handy for me as I missed the train I had researched but was able to find another train that arrived 15 minutes later that would have me arrive at the same time.

My first train, I was invited into a cabin by a friendly old Italian man who I was able to ask in broken Italian where I had to change trains. I was able to understand that I should switch trains in Parma, but then he kept telling me to *verb* a train conductor to get onto my next train. It took about 3 or 4 minutes for me to realize that he was using "chiudere" which means "to ask" while I had learned the verb domandare, which also means to ask. I help his wife carry her luggage of the train at Parma and bid the friendly couple farewell.

In Parma, I encountered a group of loud, giggling American undergrads who I was able to follow to the correct platform. The train ride from Parma to Spezia was beautiful - it goes through northern Italy's central mountain range, the Apennines. In between naps, I watched as the sun set over the Italian countryside and picturesque old ruins on mountaintops.

I reached La Spezie at twilight and asked a friendly looking Italian man where I might find my third and final unlabeled train, this time to a small seaside town called Vernazza. I was able to find it with minutes to spare. On the train to Vernazza, I met two American students studying music in Milan, which sounds super-awesome. Remind me to go to Milan. Anyway, they hadn't been as lucky as I had, and had missed La Spezia and were now on this train without the correct tickets. The train conductor gave them a little bit of a hassle but instead of a ticket, they just had to pay about 5 euro each.

I got off at Vernazza at 8:45pm. It was a cute little tourist town that was filled with Americans, wining and dining and enjoying the sweet life. I was able to flag down a local and ask where the beginning of the road I had mapped was. With a strange look, the local pointed in the direction, but assured me that it was "molto lontano."

The next 45 minutes was my favorite part of the trip. Under the light of the clear Italian sky, I hiked up a steep and windy mountain road toward an unfamiliar location. In all my years of being a Boy Scout, I'd never actually used the north star to orient myself until that night. It was peaceful and beautiful. Unknown to me, the house was not actually visible from the road, but off a small unlabeled dirt path that I would have never seen in the dark. My luck decided to kick in again and just as I had walked 10 meters past the house without knowing, an Italian mini-van full of my friends crested the ridge as they returned from an expedition to buy gelato.

They were pretty surprised to see me walking along the side of the road in the dark, that's for sure.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Buongiorno Bologna!

As my plane descended into Bologna, my window revealed a picturesque scene of rolling Italian hills and little farms and vineyards. Stepping out of the airport, I realized I didn't speak a word of Italian and didn't know where my school was, so I walked up to the friendliest-looking cab driver and asked, "Johns Hopkins SAIS?"

"Si si!" he replied, and so began my Italian adventure.

We arrived at school just in time for the weekly happy hour that occurs at the cafe/bar located in our school. I met up with my roommates and some old friends and hung out a bit before I headed to my new house.

I've been pretty bad at taking pictures since I've gotten here, but I'll take some later of my house. It is huge and awesome. More on that later. I spent the weekend exploring Bologna and meeting the incoming SAIS Bologna class, which consists of about 50% Americans and 50% Europeans with a few Latin Americans, Africans and Asians sprinkled in.

Back to my first night in Bologna. After dropping off my luggage in my room, I went with a group of about 30 other students to a restaurant where one of my classmates knew the owner. We all paid a flat fee and then they just came out with plates and plates of delicious pasta and tons of bottles of local wine. We all sat around talking and joking and then stared in awe as they came around with MORE pasta platters and then platters of lamb and pork.

I have yet to learn the language here, but I already appreciate the food more than I ever thought I could appreciate food.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

London for Six Hours!

I had the grand wisdom of scheduling my flight through London and not realizing until a month ago that my arrival airport was different from my departure airport. Luckily, I had scheduled a 6 hour layover in the city, originally in the hopes of exploring for a bit, but in the end, this just gave me time to get from Heathrow Airport to Gatwick Airport on the other side of the city.

Even in a country where I spoke the language, I felt like a total idiot. I was able to negotiate the transfer successfully, but made the poor choice of attempting to eat some Japanese food in the Gatwick terminal. Do not eat British Japanese food. At least not at the airport.

Britain is like I imagined it would be. Kind of rainy, but mostly friendly people. I'm sure I'll be back to have a real experience instead of a stereotyped layover.