Labour Day

Place: Rome, Italy

Date: 1 May 2012

People: Daniel, Corradino, Gio, Sierra and her boyfriend

Lessons Learned: When in Italy, try the fish, the sangria, the risotto, especially when they’re made by loving hands at home.  Music is a force that connects people from all ends of the globe with each other.  Be mindful in large crowds.  It’s ok for men to have Monroe piercings in Italy.  Be careful with the Spritz! Gelateria Petrini has the best gelato ever!  No amount of money can buy a truly authentic Italian experience.

 

It was a beautiful morning on the first of May, it was a public holiday and as such, the vibe was very chill and relaxed. When I woke up I went to the kitchen and Corradino was there eating his breakfast.  I sat at the table with him, he then offered to share his breakfast with me.

I accepted his offer.  So he began to take a pear and peeled and cut it up and put it in plain yogurt with granola.  I had never eaten plain yogurt before.  My family usually buys fruity yogurt from the grocery store, which is loaded with preservatives and sugars.  It was a new way to eat breakfast for me, but it was probably healthier too.

Gio and Daniel came to the table as well and joined us.

“Sierra and her boyfriend will be coming over this afternoon for lunch,” Gio announced, “Afterwards we will go over to San Giovanni.  There is a big free concert there today in front of the basilica for Labour Day and there will be people there from all over Italy.  It’s a public holiday today so everyone has the day off work.”

With that Gio pulled out his breakfast, which was smoked salmon and cream cheese on a rice cake.  “Here try some,” Gio offered.

Now normally I hate fish and avoid eating it at all costs.  But I didn’t want to come off as rude and picky so I decided to give it a try and if I didn’t like it I figured I could just stop eating it and that would be that.  However, despite my reservations, I was pleasantly surprised how tasty the salmon was and I found myself eating more and more of it.  For the first time in my life I was eating fish and genuinely liking it.  I’ve later come to realize that places close to the sea offer much better and fresher seafood than back home.  Although I technically live in west Canada, I am still over 1000 km away from the Pacific coast in British Columbia, so the fish we get is not very fresh and it’s really smelly and rank and I’ve never enjoyed it.

While I was enjoying the salmon, Daniel turned on the small TV in the kitchen and flicked through the channels and settled on an episode of the Simpsons, but it was all in Italian.  The episode was about American pioneers, something that hits close to home.  In Canada, like in the States, we’ve had our share of pioneer stories of hardship, working, clearing, and taming the land.  It was funny for me to see something so familiar, the Simpsons, pioneer stories, but all in a foreign language that I couldn’t understand.

While we were watching TV, Sierra and her boyfriend came over with bags full of groceries and a large pitcher.  “We made you sangria,” Sierra announced.

She poured it into cups and passed them around the table.  It was so delicious.  It was the perfect mixture of red wine, fruit juice, with chunks of real fruit floating in it.

“We made it the night before,” Sierra told me proudly, “It takes at least 8 hours for all the ingredients to absorb the flavour.”

I felt so honoured and touched that they did something so labour intensive and special just for me.

Before I came to Italy I had no idea what real sangria was.  My first encounter with the word was on New Year’s 2012.  I was out pre-drinking with my cousin and her friends in Calgary and they poured red wine and ginger ale together and told me it was sangria.  I now know that what I was drinking was a really lame knock-off the real deal.  In Italy I learned that real Sangria cocktail comes from Spain and it can be made with a variety of ingredients but typically is composed of red wine, fruit juices, sugar, and chopped up chunks of fruit, usually citrus.  Maybe if I go to Spain I will taste much better authentic sangria, but I think that this homemade sangria was really good.

While we were drinking the sangria, Sierra and her boyfriend started taking out the contents of their grocery bags and began cooking.

“Have you ever had risotto?” Sierra asked me.

“No,” I shook my head.

“Not  to worry, we’ll make you some, in the authentic Italian style, you’ll try and see, it’s really good.”

While Sierra and her boyfriend were cooking, the boys noticed my Pink Floyd shirt my Mom gave me for Christmas one year.  These boys were really into classic rock and when they saw my shirt, they began to sing “Another Brick in the Wall.” Then we got to talking about music from our countries.  I noted some of our famous musicians.  They were surprised to know that rock legends like Neil Young and Rush were Canadian.  They knew the song American Woman but they didn’t know that it was originally performed by a Canadian band, the Guess Who.

I didn’t know any Italian artists except for Il Divo.  But they had no idea who Il Divo was.  I showed them the video of Il Divo performing “Adagio”.  They then showed me a video of the original song by Lara Fabian.  It turns out that Il Divo merely specialize in song covers.  Oh the things you learn when you travel.

“They’re not real Italians,” Sierra commented.

“How can you tell?” I asked.

“Their accents,” she said, “You can tell from how they sing that they are not native Italian speakers.”

I later Googled it and sure enough Sierra was right.  The four group members have different nationalities: French, Swiss, Spanish, and American, not a single Italian, despite belonging to a singing quartet with an Italian name.  They also sing in languages other than Italian such as English, Spanish and Latin.  Oh the things you learn from Google.

While we were looking up music on YouTube on Gio’s computer and singing along in his room, in particular to “Bohemian Rhapsody”, I thought it was special and spectacular how we were from different ends of the earth but something simple as common music tastes linked us together and sparked a common interest and excitement.  While we were listening to music, I sat on the window ledge with the shutters opened up into the street and painted my nails with the new Dior scented green nail polish I bought the day before.  Classic rock, Italy, Dior, mint green nailpolish, life felt great at that moment, I knew it was a sign of a great day unfolding.

They had a map on the wall of the world.  My city was on there, “Edmonton,” I pointed it out to them and put my finger on the dot where it was marked, “That’s where I’m from.”

“I would like to do a roadtrip in North America and go from one side to the other,” Gio told me, then asked, “What’s the fastest you can drive?”

“In Canada the fastest speed is 110km/h.”

“Really, that’s it!?”

“Is that slow?”

“Yes, the fastest we’re allowed to drive is 140km/h.”

I thought back to my drive from the Fiumicino airport to San Giovanni and it all made sense to me now.  It wasn’t just my imagination at the time, the shuttle bus I took did drive faster than what I was used to back home.

As we were staring at the map on the wall, Sierra interrupted our thoughts by announcing, “The food is ready.”

With that, we all sat around the table and ate this lovely risotto with cheese and herbs. It was so delicious. Daniel was the only one who didn’t join in.  He made his own food.  The only thing I remember of what he ate was a massive helping of veggies.  I had never seen anything like it.  If only people back home ate like him, maybe we wouldn’t have so many health problems and overweight people.

I was so full from all the food we ate that I was unable to finish my risotto.

“Come on you have to eat more,” Gio and Sierra insisted.

It was such a stereotypical Italian thing to say to a dinner guest.

“We’re just kidding,” Gio laughed, “You don’t really have to finish it if you don’t want to.  Besides we should head off to the concert before it gets too late.”

Even though I was stuffed to brim with all this delicious food I ate, I felt privileged to have such an opportunity to eat real homemade Italian food in a normal Italian apartment with actual Italian people.  I wasn’t in some kitschy tourist trap restaurant, I was in a real home and it was the most special feeling to experience something normal that not every tourist gets to be a part of.

I was also excited to be taken to this Labour Day concert with these lovely people.  Without them telling me about the concert, I probably would have been oblivious to this public holiday.  It was a cloudy day so I wore jeans and I brought my track jacket. I had ten euro in my pocket, just in case, and my camera.

So off we went to San Giovanni.  The usually noisy streets full of people were empty and quiet.  The shops were closed up, it was Labour Day in full force.  The closer we walked to the basilica the louder the roar of people grew.  The music echoed through the still neighbourhoods and became clearer with each step.  When we walked to the other side of the city walls we could see the large crowd that had amassed in front of the basilica.

“There’s so many people here,” I commented awestruck.

“There are people here from all over Italy just for this day,” Gio informed me.

The closer we got to the front of the stage the thicker the crowd grew.  The statue of St. Francis of Asisi had people sitting and standing all over it, it was so surreal.  There were people going in all directions.  There was garbage everywhere and it was the mass chaos that one would expect to find at a free nationally acclaimed concert.  There were police men on the edges of the crowd.  There were a couple instances where I saw girls screaming and crying with security personnel or their friends dragging them away from the crowd.  Clearly something bad had happened, as they are prone to at large concert events.  There were so many people around and I had never seen anything like it in my life.  At paid concerts, yes, but not for a free event.

Daniel scanned the crowd with suspicion then he leaned over to me, “Be careful and watch out for robbers.”

“It’s ok,” I replied, “I only have a few euros with me anyways.”

“Right,” he nodded, “You see the weird looking people? They’re from Naples.”

“Which weird looking people?” I asked.

“All of them,” He responded.

There were some strange looking people but I didn’t know what qualified as weird in Daniel’s eyes and who knew if they were actually from Naples.  I did see some strange looking people in the crowd.  One weird trend that stood out to me was the amount of guys with Monroe piercings.  Back home I had only ever seen girls with Monroe piercings so it was strange to see guys try and pull it off.  I thought they looked kind of stupid, but then again maybe I’m just biased in thinking of that style of piercing as purely feminine.

As we stood there watching the concert I realized that I had to go to the bathroom.  I told the others so they came and walked with me down the street.  We had to walk quite a ways away from the basilica until we came to port-a-potties.  “Thank God,” I thought to myself, “What sweet relief.”

But when I walked in there was no toilet paper in the stall and not in the next one or the other one.  It took me ages to find a stall with toilet paper, it was appalling to see such ill-preparation for a big public event.

When I came back the boys decided to buy beer at the convenience store next door.  It was the first beer I ever bought in Europe and it was such a strange experience for me to buy it at a regular store instead of a liquor store.  The liberal approach to alcohol in Italy is certainly one of my favourite parts about the country and how easy and cheap it is to buy it.

Cheers from Italy!  First beer, rocking a Pink Floyd T-shirt and green Dior nailpolish.

As we were drinking Sierra saw a couple of her friends in the crowd.  They were walking around with their bicycles.  After talking to them for a few minutes Sierra and her boyfriend decided to take off with their friends.  They said goodbye and kissed everyone on both cheeks, including me. Even though I had barely talked to him, Sierra’s boyfriend came up to me and hugged me and gave me two kisses on the cheek.  I was taken aback since it was the first time a boy had ever done that to me.  Sierra laughed at my reaction, “There’s no reason to be scared, it’s alright.”

“It’s fine, I’m sorry,” I blushed, “I’m just not used to it, we don’t really do things like that in Canada.”

Shortly after Sierra left Daniel, Corradino, and Gio decided that they were too old for the Labour Day concerts.  They were all in their early thirties and they were quite a bit older than everyone else who looked to be in their early twenties, my age group.  I was reluctant to leave but I didn’t want to be left alone in that chaotic scene by myself.  So off we went back to the apartment in San Giovanni

Later that day Gio asked me if I wanted to go out for a drink.  I accepted and went downstairs with him.  Corradino had already settled into a table on the sidewalk outside of the restaurant and was taking a drag from his cigarette so we joined him.  Like typical Italians, Gio and Corradino smoked, a lot!  Corradino had a coral red drink in front of him, Gio asked me if I would like the same.

“What is it?” I asked.

“It’s called The Spritz, it’s from Venice,” Gio explained.

“Sure,” I decided, “Why not.”

I had tried so many new things earlier this day, it only seemed reasonable to keep going and expand my taste buds.

Gio walked over to the bar and in a few minutes he came back with two wine glasses in his hand with the same drink as Corradino’s.  I sipped at the substance thoughtfully and although I had mixed feelings towards the drink, I kept consuming it.   For those of you that don’t know what the Spritz is, it’s an aperitif typically composed of white wine, Aperol, or a Bitter Campari, with a dash of seltz or sparkling mineral water.   The bubbly sensation from the sparkling water and the flavour of the white wine felt grand, yet at the same time I tasted a hint of bitterness and it took some time to warm up to the taste.  Nevertheless, I was a good sport and kept sipping away at it and like many alcoholic beverages, the more that went down my throat, the easier it became to consume.  By the time I finished the first drink the boys offered to buy me a second.

“Sure,” I replied once more, “Why not!”

There I was on this lovely street in San Giovanni, close enough to the excitement of Rome, but at the same time I was removed from the hysteria and cheap tourist thrills, I was living in pure Italian authenticity that no amount of money can buy.  There were people eating and drinking slowly, sitting leisurely conversing whilst smoking, it was the sort of experience that one dreams of being a part of while seeing scenes of Italian life in pop culture.

As we were sitting and enjoying our Spritz and talking, this gentleman carrying a hoard of roses walked around to all the diners sitting outside, trying to get them to buy his flowers.  It reminded me of being back home in a nightclub, where the same immigrants come every weekend to sell roses to obscenely drunk buffoons who’ve had their share of thrills for the night.  But Gio and Corradino were not drunken idiots; when the man came and started heckling us to buy his flowers, Gio merely stuck his hand up to silence the man and, without even looking at him, said, “Ciao, grazi!” What a brilliant statement, what a marvelous phrase.  With that, the gentleman shrugged off this rebuff and went off to heckle other patrons.  And that is the story of how I learned how to tell hecklers, homeless people, and gypsies in Italy to “Fuck off” in Italian.

For the rest of my trip I used that phrase generously.  Putting up a hand and saying in a stern manner, “Ciao grazi!” whenever someone strange asked me for money or got up in my space.  In fact, I used it so much that when I was back home and crazies and homeless people heckled me, I had to restrain myself from saying “Ciao grazi!” and instead had to re-learn to say “No, sorry” in English and/or merely walk by in silence.

I was thoroughly amused by the whole evening and as I got deeper into my second Spritz, it was obvious that the alcohol was starting to affect me.  I was more boisterous than before and was also more bold.

I noticed that Corradino wore a ring on his left ring finger so I finally asked him about, “Hey Corradino! Are you married?”

“No,” he responded with a laugh at having been asked such an unusual question.

“Well then why do you have a ring on your left hand?” I asked clutching my drink with one hand and pointing at his ring with the other, “Do you have a girlfriend then?”

“No I don’t have a girlfriend.  I don’t know, I just like to wear it that way.”

“Well you better be careful,” I joked, “Some women will see that ring and they won’t come after you because they’ll think that you’re married.” Having said that I grinned bashfully and took another sip at my drink.

As I was loosening up and letting the alcohol go through me, the boys thought it was hilarious to see me in this new light.

“Amie,” Gio warned wagging a finger at me playfully, “You have to be careful with the Spritz. You’re getting crazy now.”

With that Gio and Corradino laughed at me and my blushing face.  I laughed too and blushed some more as I kept sipping my Spritz.

As we neared the end of our second round of Spritz, Gio asked me, “Amie, would you like to try real authentic gelato?”

I immediately perked up at the mention of such a suggestion.  “Would I ever!” I responded with a big grin.

“Great, I’ll asked Daniel if he wants to come,” with that Gio went upstairs to the apartment and in a few minutes returned once more with Daniel by his side.  From there we walked quite a ways to this gelateria but once I got there I realized that it was worth the walk.

The gelateria is called Petrini and its on Piazza dell’Alberone.

“This is the best gelato in Rome,” Gio told me upon arriving.

Coming from someone who grew up in Rome, I knew that this wasn’t a statement to be taken lightly.  I tried three flavours in a cup, it cost a euro per flavour, so three euro for the whole thing, which is quite reasonably priced.  Even though I had money to pay for my gelato, Gio still paid for it, just as he had for the two Spritz I drank.

One of the flavours I tried was a lemon cream and it was the most delicious thing I’ve ever tasted.  It was creamy with a bold lemon flavour that was just the right amount of tart and sweet.  Every now and then when I think back to Gelateria Petrini, I think of the lemon cream and salivate with desire, it was that good!  I also haven’t encountered any other gelateria in Rome that had a lemon cream flavour and it made me realize how special and unique Petrini really was.

After ordering our gelato we sat on the sidewalk in front of the gelateria and happily ate our gelato.  As we were eating our wonderful and delectable bites of heaven, we got onto the topic of university.  I was in the middle of my studies and I talked about how unfair it was that in Canada we have to spend so much money just to go to university.  I asked the boys what university was like in Italy.  They told me that public universities are free in Italy however, if you go to a private university, you have to pay for it.  I asked what the difference was between the two.  They told me that in a private university you are almost always guaranteed a job at the end of your studies, whereas in a public university you do not have that guarantee.  Before I came to Italy I had never heard of the concept of private and public university.  In Canada we have private and public schools, but all of our universities are “public” but you have to pay a lot of money to attend these places so they are “public” to a certain point.  At the same time our higher education system does border on exclusivity and bureaucratic privilege that not everyone has.  I found it strange that Italy has a system where higher up privileged individuals can gain an upper hand in higher education, yet at the same time the system is open and free for the general public at large.  It was a strange and contradictory concept that puzzled me.

Eventually after conversing about the higher education systems in our countries, we got to the end of our gelato.

“Well I’m going to have some more,” Gio declared, “Would you like some more Amie?”

“Sure,” I responded, “Why not?”

So we walked back into the gelateria and ordered some more.

“You have to try this flavour,” Gio pointed at the orange chocolate gelato, “You cannot miss out on it, it’s so good.”

I’m not one for orange and chocolate together but I gave it a go to appease him.  Again Gio paid for my gelato, he was such a gentleman that night.

I tried the orange gelato and tasted alright but again I’m not an orange with chocolate type of person so I wasn’t as blown away by it as I was by the lemon cream.  After having two helpings of gelato I was completely gelato-ed out.  We weren’t the only ones who were enamored with the shop.  The whole time we sat there, there were people constantly coming and going into the shop, always a good sign that a place is worthwhile, when it’s constantly busy.

Walking back to the apartment I was completely exhausted, but in a good way.  I got to eat enjoy so much amazing Italian food and drink in an authentic way that isn’t experienced by many.  I felt special and lucky to have such an amazing couchsurfing host, like Gio, to offer me a place to stay with friendly roommates in a beautiful and somewhat central neighbourhood, who was so generous and giving.  It was with a heavy heart that I went to bed that night realizing that it would be the last night I would spend in this amazing flat with such amazing people.  I was especially going to miss Daniel and his gorgeous face.  He was so handsome and attractive, I wanted him to have me that night, right then and there as he showed me his collection of vinyl records that was amassed in his bedroom.  But like a scared puppy I ran off shy and bashful to bed, when he told me that he was going to sleep and I should probably go.  It was for the best anyways that I didn’t make a move on him.  A few days later I texted him telling him that I thought he was cute and he never responded.  I guess it was never meant to be.

In my next post: How I went from one adventure to the next.  From saying goodbye to my first couchsurfing host to starting my 21 day intensive study tour in Rome.

My Icelandic Food Adventure

When one thinks of Iceland, many things could enter a person’s mind: open spaces, hot springs, fresh air, and an abundance of nature.  But one aspect of the country that I personally feel isn’t talked about enough is the food.  Usually when Icelandic food is mentioned, one would think of cooked up exotic sea animals such as whale, puffin, and shark; dishes that perhaps Inuit people would also eat.  But there is more to Icelandic cuisine than strange seafood that you normally wouldn’t eat back home, so much more.

Although I would have loved to have gone to a restaurant and eaten exotic seafood, when I went to Iceland I was a student travelling during my summer semester break so I was on a budget.  Restaurant meals were too far out of my price range to even consider.  When it came to food I was limited to the grocery store or take-away places.  Luckily I did get to stay with an Icelandic family for a few days during my week-long stopover so I got to sample some of their cooking, and yes they did serve up some fine and tasty Icelandic food.

I was only in Iceland for a week, but I still sometimes think back to some of the food I ate there and my heart fills with a longing to go back.  If you’re a foodie like I am, next time you make a trip from North America to Europe or vice versa, take the time to stop in Iceland and give the local cuisine a try, you won’t regret it. Icelandair offers cheap flights between North America and Europe and free stopovers in Iceland for up to seven days at no additional cost to your airfare. Icelandair unfortunately no longer offers complimentary meals on their flights so you either have to buy food on the plane or wait until you land.  If you are stubborn like me and choose to wait until you’re on the ground to eat, you will have a beautiful country with delicious eats waiting for you to discover and with that growling tummy you will be hitting up the closest restaurant sampling Icelandic cuisine sooner than later.

I did my Icelandic stopover while flying over from Canada to Germany and it was a great way to experience a new country and culture, whilst on my way to mainland Europe.  If you’re on your way to Europe to hit up a major foodie destination, such as France or Italy  This northerly island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, a bridge between Europe and North America, has much to offer and is a perfect place to feast your senses and sharpen your palate.  Here is my personal list of Icelandic food that I enjoyed during my trip:

 

Licorice:  Now some of you might be thinking, “Ew, licorice!” For some, especially North Americans, licorice is an acquired taste but I’ve always loved it even as a kid.  If you are a licorice-aholic like me, you have to go to Iceland!  Icelandic people are proud of their licorice and if you go there you will see for yourself why they have a right to be proud.  There is vast amount of licorice in the candy aisle of an Icelandic grocery store.  Licorice and chocolate together especially are a loved combination for Icelanders.  Combining these two ingredients might seem crazy to some, but it’s not as bad as it sounds and it’s quite tasty.

Before I came to Iceland I had never thought of mixing licorice with chocolate but after this trip I was hooked. My personal favourite is Freyju Djúpur.  With a licorice center and milk chocolate coating surrounded in a white candy shell, you can’t go wrong.  The candy coating adds a pleasant crunchy outer texture and gives you a satisfying first bite.  An Icelandic friend first introduced me to them in Canada and I couldn’t stop thinking about them. When I went to visit her in Iceland, I was determined to buy a bag for myself.  I brought a bag of it with me to Germany and by the end of my five week trip in mainland Europe, I found myself buying these candies again at the Duty Free Shop in Keflavík International Airport. I also bought a bag of Þrista kúlur to try.  A candy similar to Djúpur, it has licorice center covered in chocolate, but there is also a caramel filling as well and these delightful sweets have a yellow candy coating instead of white. They taste amazing on their own or dipped in peanut butter, which I did on occasion. I happily munched on these chocolate covered licorice wonders back home and it was sad to see the last of them go, but I know that on my next trip to Iceland there will still be plenty of licorice and chocolatey goodness to be had.

 

Yogurt:  Icelandic yogurt is unbelievably creamy.  I find our yogurt in North America can be a bit watery at times and what you get in Iceland puts our yogurt to shame.  My favourite yogurt in Iceland is produced by the company Skyr.  It’s so smooth and creamy and full of flavour.  This brand follows traditional yogurt making methods using low fat milk that have been a part of Iceland’s history for over a thousand years.  You can find this yogurt in any Icelandic grocery store and it is a great snack and a must try for yogurt lovers.

When I was doing a road trip through south Iceland, I picked up a hitchhiking couple from Switzerland and we spent the next couple of days hiking together.  After hiking through Skaftafell National Park we all coincidentally were eating Skyr yogurt at the end of this hike, which led to a conversation of how good this yogurt was.  This Swiss couple, like me, were smitten with this yogurt.  Coming from people who live in a country like Switzerland, where their dairy products are world famous and renowned, it further proved to me that this yogurt was indeed exceptional.  I also found this article by the Huffington Post which further proves that it’s not just me, this Icelandic yogurt is delicious and not to be missed.

 

Fish:  Through my travels I’ve noticed that the closer you are to the sea or the ocean, the fresher the seafood is.  Iceland is certainly no exception to this rule.  I only had fish once during my week in Iceland, but it was fresh and tasty and something that I will eat more of the next time I make it out to this island country.  Growing up over 1000km inland from Canada’s Pacific Coast, the seafood we have is usually frozen, smelly, and unappetizing, long story short I don’t like eating seafood at home, except for sushi, and I usually avoid it like the plague.

However, since Iceland is renowned for its seafood, I knew that it would be worth my while not to turn my nose up to the idea of eating Icelandic salmon cooked by my Icelandic friend on my last night of an amazing week spent in Iceland. This beautiful home cooked salmon served on a bed of rice with a creamy sauce was a simple but memorable experience that to this day, which I still cherish.  Normally back home when I eat cooked salmon I take a bite and gag.  But this salmon was exceptional and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  When you go to Iceland it is in your best interest to try some of the local fish at least once during your stay, regardless of whether you like fish or not.  Iceland has some of the freshest water and air in the world.  This peaceful Atlantic island doesn’t face pollution problems that many other countries in the world currently deal with.  With such optimal conditions you don’t experience the nasty smelling fish that you might be used to.  Icelandic fish is top quality and a delicacy worth sampling.

 

Lamb Boats:  Lamb boats are delicious sub sandwiches filled with thinly sliced fried lamb meat usually accompanied with a mayonnaise based sauce and an assortment of veggies, red cabbage and friend onions are quite common.  Most people get these lamb boats at the Hlölli restaurant in Reykyavik.  I first tried the lamb boat while on my road trip on the south part of the island in Selfoss.

I had this American guy in my car, he was an annoying and irritable hippy guy that I met in my hostel in Reykjavik.  He insisted on joining me on my road trip and offered to pay for half of the car rental and he had a tent and extra sleeping bag to boot, sweet.  Well later once I got to know him better and discovered the annoying side of his personality it wasn’t so sweet. But he had one redeeming quality, he introduced me to the lamb boat. While we were driving he insisted on pulling over to buy a lamb boat at this food truck and splitting it.  He paid for the lamb boat, which was nice, free food woot! But he never gave me any money for the car rental.  Even though I am pissed about having to endure his annoying personality for a whole day, I think he was meant to come into my life to show me these tasty sandwiches.

I would love to post a link of this little take-away place just on the side of the highway we visited, but I can’t find this place on google.  At any rate it was so delicious and I was pleasantly surprised by how good this sandwich was.  Is it as good as what you get in Reykjavik? I have no idea, nevertheless if you are in Iceland and you have a hankering for a decent sandwich, especially on the highway in south Iceland, give the lamb boat a try.  I know I will be eating more of these delicious sub sandwiches when I’m back in Iceland.

 

Hot Dogs: So this one night I was partying with these German guys that I met at my hostel, who were super nice and insisted on paying for all of my drinks (thanks guys!).   We were at this awesome hip hop bar called Prikið (so fun!).  After a night of drinking the guys insisted on getting hot dogs from the late night super market, 10-11 on Austurstræti.  At first I was grossed out by the idea of eating a hot dog.  In North America our hotdogs are so nasty and made from the weirdest animal bi-products.  Before Iceland I usually associated hot dogs as an unhealthy and trashy substitute for proper sausage meat.  Walking through the airport in Keflavík I saw signs advertising Iceland’s famous hot dogs, which made me gasp in horror (has American culture had that much of an effect on Iceland?).  But once I had a hot dog in Iceland I realized that they were nothing like what you get in North America.

Icelandic hotdogs are made mostly from lamb rather than beef.  At 10-11 they also served bacon wrapped hotdogs, which were so delicious! The toppings are completely different.  Instead of Heinz ketchup and French’s mustard, I was presented with an array of hot dog toppings that I had never seen before. There was a European style potato salad, crispy onions, Dijon-style mustard, and this white hotdog sauce, I’m not sure what was in it but it was good.  They also had raw onions but I’m not a fan so I passed on those, but it’s a nice option for those of you who like that sort of thing.  All the hot dog toppings were presented in a serve yourself condiment table so you put on whatever you wanted, it was awesome! As a bonus, these hot dogs are cheap and are usually under 400 ISK. These hotdogs were the best I’ve ever had in my life and are a staple food in Iceland that is not to be missed! When I had a stopover for a couple of hours in Iceland after flying back to Canada from Germany, I made sure to pick up a hotdog and a container of Skyr yogurt from the cafeteria in the airport because I had missed these foods so much! *sigh*.

Cinnamon Buns: When I stayed with my Icelandic friend and her family in their country home on the Hvalfjörður (the Whale Fjord), they decided to make me an Icelandic treat, which was cinnamon buns.  They were smaller than typical cinnamon buns in North America.  They were about as big as the bottom of a cup, but they were delicious and highly addictive, without being overly sweet.  Unlike what you commonly get in North America, they were not overly loaded with sugar, icing, or cinnamon.  The sweetness and cinnamon were subtle, but sufficient to satisfy a sweet tooth.  I was lucky enough to try the real deal made from loving hands at home.  If you aren’t lucky enough to try them homemade, you can easily pick up Icelandic cinnamon buns at any grocery store.  I never tried the store bought ones so I don’t know the difference (probably a lack of preservatives?).  Since I got to try them homemade I didn’t see the point of buying them at the store.  But I’m sure either way they will be good.  However way you get these cinnamon buns, they will without a doubt be a delightful treat for your sweet tooth cravings in Iceland.

Carbonated Orange Juice: My last night in Iceland my Icelandic friend and her boyfriend told me that I had to give Egils Appelsín a try.  So on my flight back to Canada I gave it a try when the stewardess offered me a drink.  Appelsin literally means orange in Icelandic.  The drink itself is kind of like Apfelschorle but with oranges instead of apples.  It’s a refreshing citrus drink that has delightful carbonated bubbles that tingle in your throat and give one the sensation of drinking pop.  But at the same time it tasted more like actual oranges rather than Orange Crush soda, which has a nasty artificial orange taste that is nothing like the fruit.  I’m more of an apple juice person but this fizzy orange juice wasn’t too bad and it will certainly be a delicious treat for those of you who are more orange than apple.

Water: Now I know what you’re thinking, water isn’t a food.  But trust me when in Iceland, the water will be the best part of your culinary journey.  Whilst chowing down on scrumptious food that leaves you salivating and wanting more, it is essential to take a sip of water here and there and it will be just as good as the food itself, if not better. In Canada we have decent water for the most part, but Icelandic water blew me away.  It is so fresh, pure, and tasty.  The water tastes so good on its own, you won’t need to put in crystals or fruit flavoured drops in it to make it drinkable.  The abundance of high quality fresh water is so well known in Iceland that it’s not uncommon to see posters like this one, in Reykjavik, arguing for the banning of bottled water in Iceland.

Iceland has some of the freshest and purest water in the world due to its low population density, close access to glaciers, and its minimal to nonexistent level of pollution. Bottled water isn’t necessary in Iceland because there is so much natural fresh water that can be found all over the island in great abundance and there is more than enough to go around the island.  When I was hiking with my Icelandic friend on a mountain in the Hvalfjörður we were tired and exhausted once we got to the top.  My friend in her exhaustion drank directly from a stream of water that was on top of this mountain.

I gave it a go but was a bit hesitant.  In my part of Canada we would never think to drink untreated water from the ground, it’s usually a guaranteed way to make yourself sick.  But nothing happened to my body, I was completely fine afterwards.  The water was also pure and clear and did not contain any funky particles that one can usually find in untreated water sources. It was an amazing experience and it made me realize how special Iceland is.  There are many places around the world where fresh clean water is difficult or nearly impossible to come by.  Iceland does not have these issues and hopefully it stays that way for a long time.  If you appreciate a glass of fresh and pure water, you must have the tap water in Iceland, it is a delight for your senses and is probably the best water you will ever have.

What’s worth missing out on?:

Beef: I bought minced beef from the grocery store to add to my pasta sauce.  It was alright but nothing to write home about.  Coming from Alberta, a Canadian province that is famous all over the world for its exceptional beef, it’s hard for me to eat beef in other countries, especially when they do not have a reputation for good beef.  Iceland is one of those countries and if you go there, you’re better off avoiding the beef.  I met an Australian girl in my hostel who also thought that the beef wasn’t too good in Iceland, so I know it’s not just me.  When traveling it’s best to eat meat that a country is best at producing; I learned that lesson in Iceland.  Iceland isn’t known for its cows, it’s the land of sea creatures and sheep, so it’s best to just stick to lamb and seafood.

Now get on your Icelandair flight and eat your heart out in Iceland!

 

A Roman Evening

Place: Rome, Italy

Date: April 2012

People: Daniel, Corradino, and Gio

Lessons Learned: If you love drugs, go to Spain.  Romans love to go out and party to celebrate a beautiful day, regardless of how early in the week the day actually is. Rome is stunning at nighttime and much more peaceful.  When at the Trevi Fountain, throw in a coin and make a wish.  Seeing Rome on a moped is the most special experience, and it’s a very Italian and authentic way to discover the city.

When I was back at the flat I again had troubles opening the door but luckily someone was home when I got there.  Daniel* and Corradino* were sitting in the kitchen and talking after a long day of work.  Once I had all my shopping bags stored in Gio’s bedroom I joined them.  After some time of chatting and regaling them with stories of my adventures that day of exploring the basilicas and shopping, Gio* entered the flat.  He had been gone the past few days on a trip to Spain and although I had been sleeping in his bedroom for the previous two nights, I never made his acquaintance until that day.  Like any face to face encounter with someone from the internet, it was mildly awkward at first but the conversation became more easy going the more we got to know each other.  It was intriguing to see what he looked like in true actual reality.   He had reddish brown curls and amber eyes, he was tall but trim with very thin legs.  He was much older than me, 13 years to be exact.

He had interesting stories of his time in Spain.  One of the country’s appeals is it’s convenient location to Morocco.  With the two countries nearly touching each other, Spain has always enjoyed the privilege of being first in line to receive Morocco’s drugs, such as marijuana and hash, and pass them on to the rest of Europe.  With that privilege, the Spanish are able to buy at a cheap price and upsell to other countries.  The further down the line it goes, the more expensive it gets; such is life in the drug world.  Gio told me about how expensive marijuana is in Italy.  On average it goes for 5€ a gram, but in Spain it is much cheaper.  Gio certainly took advantage of the discount during his time there.  He grinned and chuckled as he told us, “You have no idea how much marijuana I’ve smoked these last days!”

He was a funny guy with a free spirit and a good sense of humour.  When I told him of the basilicas I visited, he smiled and placed a hand on his heart, “So you visited San Giovanni? Since I am also Giovanni I like to call it Saint Me! But…” He paused to take out a bag of loose tobacco and measure out chunks of it onto a cigarette paper and roll it into a cigarette, “It is actually one of the uglier churches, there are much more beautiful churches in Rome.”

I was blown away by such a statement.  I had never before witnessed so much art and detail in an interior of a religious institution.  Growing up protestant, the churches I went to as a child were minimalist and bare and seemed to pale in comparison to what was found in San Giovanni.  To call it ugly seemed to me a blasphemous statement.  When I told him this he responded with a smile, “You just wait and see the other churches in Rome, you will see what I’m talking about.  It’s a nice church, but Rome has much prettier churches.”

I later did see many other churches in the city and they were indeed pretty, but San Giovanni still holds a special place in my heart, since it was my first experience visiting a religious institution for the sake of its art and wares, rather than for a religious purpose such as mass, baptism, funeral etc.

As we were discussing the art and beauty of Roman Catholic churches, Giovanni momentarily slipped into his bedroom and presented me with a book he had on the sculptor Bernini.  The book contained an array of images of the many works he had done in his lifetime scattered across Rome.  It was inspiring and it filled me with excitement and euphoria for the coming weeks ahead, which I would spend discovering this ancient and wondrous city.

As I was flipping through the book Gio asked me what my plans were for the evening.  I had none.  He then invited me to go on a trip with him on his moped to see an important work of Bernini’s that was not to be missed.

I accepted the offer and tucked my camera into my track jacket pocket.  Gio gave me his extra helmet to put on and I sat behind him clutching his waist as he drove his moped onto the street in the direction of the city centre.

We went past all of the sites that I had visited the first day I explored the city on my own, but at a much faster pace, now that I wasn’t on foot.  The sites had a different appeal to them as they basked under their lights placed around them, so that they could still illuminate and shine for visitors regardless of the time of day.  The streets were much more peaceful with less tourists and commuters in the city centre.

When we got to the end of Via dei Fori Imeriali, Gio stopped the moped and showed me a section of the street right of Il Vittoriano that was covered and closed off for construction.

“You see the construction there,” He looked over his shoulder at me to see that I noticed where his finger was pointing.  I nodded. “This will be a stop in the new train line.  You see that, the balcony there?” He now pointed to a large building left of Il Vittoriano on the Piazza Venezia.  “That is the balcony where Mussolini gave many of his speeches to the public.  You see this place where we are standing right now? This is the heart of Rome, the very center of the city, so this spot is very important.”

As he told me this everything began to make sense.  When one observes where the ancient remains of the city are and how close they are spatially from each other, from the various Fora, to the Pantheon, the Coliseum, Palatine Hill, Circus Maximus etc. everything becomes more comprehensible once you know where the center is.  The forum as a center of business and commerce and the heart of any city, is at the very center of it all and everything else is organically built and extended from this center.  Like a heart in a body, I could understand and feel how the blood and life force of this settlement flowed out in all directions with everything flowing back into the center and once more flowing back out.  It was a smart move for Mussolini to deliver speeches right in this heart.  In the heart of the heart of Italy.  It’s deeply symbolic.

It was exciting to have an actual Roman as my personal tour guide.  Shortly after we reached the end of Piazza Venezia, Gio parked his moped and we took off our helmets and saw the rest of the city by foot.  My hair was a little messed up from the helmet but I was happy to have experienced what its like on a moped.

I asked Gio why we parked the moped instead of driving.  “Because I want to show you something and it’s nicer to go there by foot,” he answered.

As we walked down the street I noticed that there were many bars and clubs full of people.  The patios full of chairs and tables were massive and extended far out onto the cobblestoned street.  I had never seen such large bar patios in my life.  In Edmonton most patios have limited tables and they are much smaller and more confined to our narrow footpaths.  I was also surprised to see these patios full and bustling.  It seemed like the whole city was alive and partying.  Such a sight wouldn’t have surprised me had it been a Friday or Saturday but it was a Monday.  I had never seen so many people out on a weekday, especially a Monday.  I asked Gio why it was so.

“Well there was a lot of rain the last few days and now that the weather is finally warm and sunny again people want to enjoy it.”

I found this mentality intriguing.  My city’s nightlife is almost always dead on a weekday, especially on a Monday, no matter what the weather is like.  I liked this carefree attitude of the Romans.  When your city experiences a beautiful sunny day, why not celebrate and enjoy it for what it’s worth?

As we walked further on Gio paused, “This is it, we are nearly there!” He exclaimed.

“What do you mean we’re nearly there?” I asked.

“Let me show you, but you can’t peak it’s a surprise!” He then put his hands over my eyes as we turned the corner.  “Count to ten,” he ordered.  I did as I was instructed.  As we walked on, I began to hear the sound of falling water. When I got to ten Gio removed his hands from my eyes and showed me my surprise: Trevi Fountain, or as the Italians call it, Fontana di Trevi.

It was such a lovely surprise.  Before I came to Rome, I was told by a friend that seeing the Trevi Fountain at nighttime is much better than in the day and one of those must see experiences, although it’s best to go accompanied rather than by yourself for the purpose of safety and company.  I was excited to be able to experience it.  Later on in my trip I did go and visit the fountain during the day.  It’s beautiful no matter what time of day you go but I personally prefer it at night.  It’s less crowded than during the day and it feels more peaceful and special to see the fountain illuminated against the night sky and to hear the water lapping against the stone and not feel crammed in at all sides by hordes of people.

Trevi Fountain during the day

“You know what you have to do now?” Gio told me, “You have to throw a coin in the water with your back to the water and make a wish, it’s tradition.”

I awkwardly searched through my money belt tucked safely away beneath my jeans and procured a small coin.  I must have looked silly rifling through my money belt, which was placed under my jeans just above my crotch, but I figured it would be the best hiding place for my money and passport.  Besides, if someone were to try and steal it, I would know right away since it’s close to a “sensitive” area.

I felt a little silly and bashful about throwing a coin into a fountain and making a wish, I hadn’t done anything like that since I was a kid when I would throw pennies into tacky shopping mall fountains in Canada.  Nevertheless I did what I was instructed.

Gio kindly bid my request of having a photo at the Trevi fountain by taking these pictures of me.

He then brought my attention to a large stone piece on the right side of the fountain that seemed to jut out and rise up and out from the fountain.  “You see how that stone is carved taller than the others, it was a design of Bernini.  Pope Urban VIII thought that the design of the fountain was ugly so Bernini made sure that this section of stone was tall enough to block his view of the fountain so he wouldn’t have to see it.”

I’ve later tried to look online for information about this fact of the fountain’s design but I wasn’t able to find anything so I’m not sure how true it is.  But I think it’s an interesting story that adds a quirky element to the fountain’s overall structure.

After some time of gazing at the fountain and taking pictures of it, Gio offered to take me out for gelato, his treat. We came across this sign on the way, which made me die a little inside.

Ew corporate evil!! 

We went to the gelateria Blue Ice.  It’s a chain found throughout Rome and they have really good gelato at a decent price.  As you can tell this gelateria had a lot of Nutella, lots and lots of Nutella…yum!

Any decent gelateria will have a Nutella gelato and a Kinder gelato.  This gelateria certainly did and since I was in a mood for chocolate that night I got a scoop of each of those flavours.

Once we bought our gelato we went for a walk and saw other sites around the city, such as this building with large ancient looking columns.

I still have no idea what this building is called, if you know please tell me in the comment section.

We went to the Pantheon.

It is such a large and impressive building and it is wonderful to walk around the building and around its columns in order to get a sense of its sheer size.  It’s especially special to see it at night because there are hardly any people around compared to in daytime.  If you see the Pantheon during the day it can be so uncomfortably full and busy even outside of the building.  Of course the rotunda is only available for viewing during the day, but I think the having a good look of outside of the building is just as important to see as the inside and serves as a fine example of architectural feat and ingenuity.  One other reason why visiting the Pantheon was special for me was because I chose to do my course presentation on the Pantheon and I had read and written a lot on the building.  But no matter how much I read or wrote about the Pantheon, I never truly appreciated the size and scope of the building until I saw it with my own eyes.

This building is massive! 

We then walked further and came to Piazza Navona.

We found this random wall of butterflies at Piazza Navona

Although there were people walking around the piazza it still was nowhere near as full as during the day.  Later on when I did my course we did have a lunch break at the piazza during the day and it was a much different experience than during the night.  During the day it is full with art vendors and hawkers.  At nighttime the art vendors are gone and the square is much more open for people to walk through uninhibited.

 

I love Piazza Navona, I think it’s such a beautiful place.  Bernini sculpted the fountains there and they are sculpted with such detail and emotion.  My personal favourite is the fountain of the four rivers, Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi.

As you can probably tell from these pictures, the piazza is much different during the day than in the night

After Piazza Navona we then walked on to Largo di Torre Argentina, which contains an archeological site where remains of four ancient Roman temples were found and unromantically named Temples A,B,C, and D, which were first excavated under the patronage of Mussolini’s government.  The archeological site is also a cat sanctuary for Rome’s many wild kitties.  It is quite common to see cats stretching themselves under the sun on ancient remains and roaming around the site.

I didn’t take any pictures of Largo di Torre Argentina when I was there at nighttime, but here are some pictures of what it looks like during the day

Petting a kitty at Largo di Torre Argentina.  I know I shouldn’t, but they’re so cute!

I asked Gio what it was like to have grown up in such a city full of artifacts, history, impressive artwork, and architecture.  He told that when he was younger he wanted to leave Rome and experience other places.  He did a big trip around Europe and became well-travelled in the Continent.  He saw and did many things and had an abundance of unique experiences and stories.  But when he came back he realized just how special his home city was and how lucky he was to grow up there.  For him Rome has a lot of life and a lot of history.  It’s a city that’s always surprising and never boring.  Now he is happy and content to be in such a city.  Not many cities in the world are like Rome and when you are in such a place, it’s easier to stay.

I asked him, “Do you ever wonder what it might have been like for your ancestors who grew up in the days of the great Roman Empire?”

“You know I don’t think that our human memories extend that far into time.  Our minds are not that powerful,” he responded, “I feel like humans can only have a memory of the past that extends to a couple hundred years, that’s it.  To be honest I’m not even sure if my ancestors were in Rome during the days of the Empire.”

In my head I was imagining what it would look like to see any one of Gio’s ancestors in ancient Rome.  I pictured them walking through the city with its original public works and monuments in their former glory, before they crumbled and became fragmented artifacts; guesswork for archaeologists.  It was a shame he didn’t want to collectively imagine this whimsical fantasy with me.  Although I’m sure at some point in his life the thought must have crossed his mind.

Once we were done gazing at the excavation, we left Largo di Argentina behind and made our way back to Gio’s moped.  On the way back to the apartment we went past the Coliseum and turned onto Via Labicana, Gio stopped driving momentarily to show me a street that ran parallel to Via Labicana.  It had a bunch of bars and clubs.

“So this is a gay part of town,” He explained, “One time I walked into one of the bars to ask for directions and I didn’t know that it was a gay bar.  My friends knew it was a gay bar but they didn’t tell me because they wanted to play a joke on me.  So when I was in this bar the men there were looking at me like they wanted me sexually it was really weird.  When I walked out of the bar my friends were laughing hysterically.  They sure got me good with their prank!”

In later walks down Via Labicana, I would gaze down that street and always remember Gio’s funny story.  It always makes me laugh and smile inside.

Once we were back in the apartment I was so tired from such a long busy day of sightseeing and walking.  Before I went to bed Gio warned me, “I’m not sure what the English word is for this is,” he made a snorting sort of noise. “Do you mean snoring?” I asked.  “Yes snoring,” he replied, “If I am snoring please wake me up and tell me, ‘Gio shut up your snoring’.” This warning made me giggle.  Right duly noted.  I had a peaceful sleep and thankfully I was not woken up by any snoring. Instead I fell into a sleep full of sweet dreams of gliding down the streets on a moped, discovering the heart of Italy in a very Italian way.

 

10 Unique Things I Discovered When I Lived in a Neues Bundesland (A former East German State)

I spent four months living and working in Leipzig, Sachsen (Saxony) on an internship alliance program between the state of Saxony and my province in Canada, Alberta. Through my time there I have learned so much about what life was like in the former Deutsche Domokratische Republik (DDR) and how there are still differences that exist between states in Germany’s east and those in the west, which have never experienced communist rule. There are of course typical things that all Germans seem to enjoy and have in common no matter where they live such as relaxing with a beer at a beer garden, grilling in the park, eating a variety of sausage, cheese, and brötchen (bread rolls), and never leaving the house without Taschentücher (pocket tissues). Nevertheless, there are still some differences that exist between the two sides of Germany, which tell a story of each sides unique history and what they have experienced and endured in the twentieth century. I have traveled extensively around Germany and have visited 10 of Germany’s 16 Bundesländer (States), 4 of which previously belonged to the Soviet Union. There are six Bundesländer, which fell under communist rule from 1949-1990: Mecklenburg-Vorpommern (Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania), Brandenburg, East Berlin, Sachsen-Anhalt (Saxony-Anhalt), Sachsen, and Thüringen (Thuringia); I have been to all of them except for Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and Brandenburg.  However, I do hope to visit those Bundesländer in the near future. Here are some of the unique things I’ve discovered so far about the neue Bundesländer:
1) The Food: In east Germany they still market and sell products from the DDR such as Vita Cola and Halloren chocolate. Most West Germans, or Wessies as they’re sometimes called, have never tried these products but they are oh so good! Vita Cola is like any regular cola but it has a refreshing citrus twist. Halloren is a chocolate company based in Halle (Saale) in Sachsen-Anhalt. Their claim to fame is being Germany’s oldest chocolate factory and has produced chocolate since 1804. They have a wonderful chocolate museum you can visit and a large store where you can sample their famous Kugeln, which come in a wide variety of flavours such as coffee, Irish cream, straciatella, blackforest cherry, raspberry yogurt …yum!

Chocolate samples at the store in Halloren’s chocolate factory

Still selling products from the DDR in Halloren

A room made completely out of chocolate at Halloren’s chocolate museum

There are also regional foods that are produced in East Germany and are harder or impossible to find in the west such as Dresdener Fleischsalat (Dresden Meat Salad), Eierschecke (a tasty sugary egg dessert from Dresden), Spreewälder Gurken (Spree Woods pickles), and beer such as Sternburg (produced in Leipzig), Leipziger Gose (produced at Bayrische Bahnhof in Leipzig), Lausitzer Porter (produced in Löbau, Sachsen), Ur-krostitzer (produced in Krostitz, Sachsen), and Hasseröder (produced in Wernigerode Sachsen-Anhalt). However my favourite Sekt (sparkling wine) Rotkäppchen (Literally: Little Red Riding Hood) produced in Freyburg (Unstrut) in Sachsen-Anhalt, is quite popular and thankfully is commonly found across Germany.

Eating Eierschecke in Dresden

Many dishes found in the neue Bundesländer are also heavily influenced by other countries that were in the Soviet Union. There are so many restaurants where you can eat a tasty goulash, lots of cabbage, and potatoes. My favourite restaurants that I visited that had delicious food with eastern flair were Vodkaria in Leipzig and Wenzel Prager Bierstuben, a restaurant chain, which has tasty Czech food and is located in various cities in Sachsen, Sachsen-Anhalt, and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. Germany’s famous Döner Kebab (donair), invented in Berlin, usually tastes better in the neue Bundesländer than in the west, I have no idea why they just do. There are many good places to get Döner but my personal favourite Dönerladen (donair shop) is Tamers in Leipzig.

mmm Döner nom nom!

2) The People: The older generations who spent their early lives in the DDR have such interesting stories of what life was like when East Germany was a part of the Soviet Union. Security was intense and very invasive. People weren’t allowed to leave the Soviet Union and were barred from visiting relatives in the west. What one could study in university was limited under the regime. Children were forced to learn Russian at schools. Many of my colleagues had taken Russian for eight years or so at school but most of them don’t speak it anymore. The current chancellor Angela Merkel grew up in East Germany, in Brandenburg, and she still speaks fluent Russian and has had many meetings with Vladimir Putin, where the two have bilingual conversations in Russian and German. Freedom of information was limited. When I did my internship at the Deutsche Nationalbibliothek (German National Library), formerly the Deutsche Bücherei, in Leipzig, several of my colleaugues who worked there before and after the fall of the Soviet Union told me how certain books forbidden by the regime had to be locked up in a forbidden wing of the library. Because East Germans grew up in such oppressive times, many of these people have come to value basic freedoms that we often take for granted such as freedom of speech and the ability to freely travel around the world.

Picture of the main reading hall in the German National Library

East Germans, or Ossies as they’re sometimes called, are also the friendliest people I have met in Germany. Because they lived under a communist system, they are more community minded than West Germans, who are more individualistic. My roommate in Leipzig let me use her spare bike for the entire four months I was there.  My roommates would also share treats with me that their Moms gave them in care packages.  When I lived in Sachsen there were bad floods in the area and many of my colleagues spent their holidays helping out family and surrounding villages with cleaning up the mess left by the floods. A lot of my colleagues spoiled me with baked treats and tea that they made or bought me lunch even though I had the money for it. Some of them bought me chocolates when I switched to a new department, one colleague gave me a coconut chocolate bar from Halloren as a thank-you gift for bringing home made Nanaimo bars to work, it was so delicious! When I had my birthday they showered me with treats and presents. I was so overwhelmed and touched by such generosity and kindness that I bawled my eyes out on my last day of work and I was very sad to leave and go back home.

3) The Lack of Tourists: If a tourist visits any of the neue Bundesländer they will usually either go to Dresden or Berlin, that’s it. Many of the well-known cities in Germany that tourists typically flock to such as Köln (Cologne), München (Munich), Hamburg, Frankfurt am Main, Hannover, Heidelberg, Düsseldorf, Stuttgart, and Nürnberg (Nuremburg) are all in the west. These cities are very lovely but I find that they can be overcrowded and stifling at times. Since the neue Bundesländer have received a lot of taxes from West Germany after reunification to help build up East German cities, which were falling apart, these cities are now more beautiful than ever. Dresden is one fine example of a city that has regrown and flourished from nothing. Although I do have a fondness for Dresden and Berlin, I’ve found that in my travels there is so much more to see in the neue Bundesländer than just those two cities. There many other beautiful cities scattered across east Germany such as Potsdam, Leipzig, Weimar, Halle (Saale), Erfurt, Schwerin, Rostock, and Magdeburg. Most of these cities aren’t clogged with tourists and it is much easier to walk through and enjoy them rather than feeling crammed like canned sardines in a popular west German city.

Halle (Saale)

In addition to its cities, the neue Bundesländer also offer lots in way of stunning nature and quaint villages full of Fachwerkgebäude (timber framed houses) and are nowhere near as full of tourists as in other places in Germany such as the Schwarzwald (Black Forest) or the Alpen (the Alps). My favourite places to hike and see cute villages are in the National Parks: Harz Moutains and the Sächsische Schweiz (Saxony Switzerland). I absolutely adore the countryside of Thüringen with its famous forest, the Thüringer Wald, and it’s rolling hills full of castles and vineyards. There is also the idyllic Spreewald in Lower Sorbia in Brandenburg and the beaches and islands, such as Rügen, on the Ostsee (Baltic Sea) in Mecklenburg Vorpommern. No matter where you go in the neue Bundesländer, there will always be lots to see and do!

Mist over a river in the Harz Mountains

The unique mountains found in Sächsische Schweiz

One of my favourite villages in the Harz Mountains, Stolberg

4) The Traffic: Living in Germany you will come to realize that every weekend there is a consistent flow of traffic moving from west to east on Fridays and east to west on Sundays. Many East Germans spend their weekdays working in the west, where they have the ability to make a higher wage than in the neue Bundesländer and often times they will spend their weekends back home.  When I lived in Leipzig I had a boyfriend living in Münster, Nordrhein-Westfalen (North Rhein-Westphalia) so I would often times get a Mitfahrgelenheit (ride share) to see him. It is easy going in the opposite direction of the traffic jam and if you go east to west on a Friday and west to east on a Sunday, you will most likely have no problem going to and from your destination with little reason to stop. However, when my boyfriend came to visit me on a weekend, he often complained of the traffic jams and how much longer it took to go to and from home than it did for me. In addition to the weekend traffic jams, my boyfriend would also complain about the lack of gas stations along the Autobahn as soon as he went into the neue Bundesländer. This is a real and genuine problem in Germany so plan your trips accordingly.
The cars of choice in east Germany are different than in the west. Many east Germans still prefer driving Skoda cars from the Czech Republic and they are usually not as fond of expensive west German luxury cars such as Audi, Porsche, Mercedes Benz, and BMW, whereas in west Germany, where people are much wealthier, these cars are more commonly bought.
The pedestrian lights are also completely different in east Germany than in the west. The east German Ampelmännchen (little traffic light men) look so cute and cartoonish and you can only see them in the former East German states. It is also now a notorious figure found on various tourist memorbilia.

The top of the photo says: Be an example for children.  Only go when it’s green!

The man with his hat is a very androgynous looking figure but he looks manly enough that some feminists complained and argued for the inclusion of females on pedestrian lights. So every now and then you can find an Ampelfrau (traffic light woman) wearing a skirt and pigtails telling you when to steh (stand) and geh (walk). Yay for gender equality!

5) The Beaches: East Germany is notorious for their FKK (nude beaches) stemming from the Freikörperkultur (free body culture) and swimming nude is very much a part of East German culture. In Leipzig I would often visit the lakes Markkleeberger See and Cospudener See just outside of the city. These lakes are awesome, they used to be open mining pits and they have since then been re-naturalized and turned into lakes. The water is clean and clear and it is illegal to have motorboats on these lakes so they are very fresh and unpolluted and are so refreshing on a warm sunny day.

Swimmers and sailboats at Cospudner See or “Cosi” as the locals call it

However, where I’m from in Canada no one swims nude so I had never seen people swim naked until I visited these lakes. It is not uncommon to see women tanning topless or men and women dashing into the water in their birthday suits, even on regular beaches. Parents will also let their children run around completely nude and nobody bats an eye. Initially I was shocked to see nudity on a beach but over time you do get used to it. Personally I find it very inspiring to see how secure people are with their bodies and loving and embracing wholeheartedly what God gave them.

6) Religion: Speaking of God, the neue Bundesländer have a very unique religious history. Martin Luther started his Reformation movement in Sachsen and Sachsen-Anhalt and from these regions the Reformation spread out across Europe, permanently dividing the religious landscape of Europe. You can still visit the Schlosskirche (All Saints Church) in Wittenberg, Sachsen-Anhalt, where Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses onto its front door. You can also visit the Castle Church at Schloss Hartenfels in Torgau, Sachsen, which became the first protestant church in Europe. Martin Luther’s town of birth and death, Eisleben, Sachsen-Anhalt is also another town worth a visit to learn more about Reformation history. One of the things that make the neue Bundesländer stand out is how overwhelmingly protestant they are compared to Bundesländer in the west, which have much higher percentages of Catholics and have nearly all of Germany’s bishoprics.

However, many east Germans are also more atheist and significantly less religious than west Germans. The Soviet Union sought to eradicate religion altogether and strove to create a completely secular and atheist society and this has certainly had an impact on individuals who grew up in this system. Many people were persecuted for their religious beliefs and many churches and places of worship were destroyed. In Leipzig the Paulinerkirche (Church of St. Paul) on Augustusplatz (main town square) was one of many churches, destroyed by the Soviets. It was demolished in 1968 and a new church was built in 2007 called the Paulinum, which belongs to Universität Leipzig (University of Leipzig) and pays homage to the former church that once stood there. The new church is very unique looking and boasts a modern blue glass façade.

The Paulinum in Leipzig

7) Young Alternative Culture: The neue Bundesländer are seemingly much more alternative compared to those stiff conservatives in the west. You only have to look to Berlin to know that the vibe is much different in the east than in the west. Berliners just do not care what others think of them, they are all about free expression and being as quirky and lively as possible. There are so many hip bars and clubs that are opened all day and all night. I went into a pub at Kottbuser Tor and it had real candles everywhere. I can guarantee that sort of thing would not fly in Canada for so many safety reasons. There were hippy communal gardens at Tempelhofer Park and a random art installation serving as a memorial for refugees who lost their lives on the external borders of Europe.

Hippy gardens at Tempelhofer Park

Art installation called House of the 28 Doors commemorating refugees who have died in Europe’s external borders.

The graffiti and public art all over the city and on remaining pieces of the Berlin Wall is extraordinary.

Berlin street art

One of many amazing artworks on the Berlin Wall at the East Side Gallery

There are loads of DJ parties and concerts held in old factories and drug use is as commonplace as seeing a multitude of Donärläden in your favourite party district. Drug use also seems to not be condemned as much in the east as it is in the west. I met a few west Germans who refused to associate with anyone who does drugs, even marijuana. Whereas many east Germans I met were largely indifferent to the subject and would never think to condemn a person because of drugs. The phrase that the mayor of Berlin, Klaus Wowereit, used to describe his city, “arm aber sexy!” (poor but sexy) could also certainly be used to describe the rest of the neue Bundesländer, they are indeed poorer but they are so gorgeous!

Where I lived in Leipzig, I learned that this bustling student city was becoming a place where hipsters too hip for Berlin prefer to live. Like Berlin it has many alternative and hip places to party. The city also turns black overnight at WGT (Wave-Gotik Treffen), the largest Gothic festival in the world, which has been a yearly event since 1992. There are loads of antique street markets, festivals, and plays happening frequently. If you check Kreuzer magazine’s website on a regular basis, you will see that this city is a very happening place to be with loads of underground culture. I had never been to a film screening in a park or eaten a “pay what you feel like” meal until I came to Leipzig. At the sub-culture punk bar, Atari, people sign up every Monday to cook a large vegan meal and tons of people come and line up for this food and pay whatever they want for it, usually a euro or two euro. Most people there also prefer sitting on the sidewalk rather than eating on the many couches inside the bar. My best friend in Leipzig also is a lovely alternative hippy and she’s introduced me to a few of the underground and alternative places around the city and showed me just how radical it can get. Dresden, another bustling student city, also has an alternative and youthful vibe to it. You only have to spend an evening in Neustadt to see what I mean. The two times that I stumbled on a gay pride parade in Germany was in Leipzig and Dresden. Many other university cities in the neue Bundesländer such as Chemnitz, Jena, Erfurt, Leipzig, Rostock, and Halle (Saale) are full of young students and also encapsulate the fun youthful alternative vibe that can be found wherever students are in east Germany.

8) Costs of Living: Living expenses in the neue Bundesländer are significantly less than in the west. As a result, many students flock to these cities with their lower costs of living. All of the cheapest cities to rent or own property are in the east with Dresden, Chemnitz, and Erfurt being the cheapest with an average rental price of 235 euro a month. The most expensive cities to live in Germany are in the west with Hamburg, Munich, and Cologne rocking the highest rental prices with an average around 356 euro a month. Even Berlin, Germany’s largest city, is cheaper than other big cities in the west.

Dresden is such a cute city and it’s not even that expensive!

One of the best things about apartments in the neue Bundesländer is how old and pretty they are.  Many apartments are over a hundred years old and are historically protected.  In east Germany they didn’t have as much money as in the west so they didn’t have the resources to tear down and rebuild like they did in the west, where new modern buildings were erected in the 1960s and 70s replacing older buildings that were seen as outdated.  However, in Dresden there aren’t too many nice old apartments because of how badly the city was bombed.  Leipzig wasn’t as badly bombed so there are many gorgeous cheap old apartment buildings all over the city and they are my favourite part about the Leipzig.  There are also loads of plain and ugly communist buildings all over east Germany, which you won’t find in the west.

Above and below: Pretty apartments in Leipzig

In Leipzig I lived in a three bedroom WG (Wohngemeinschaft; shared housing) with two other roommates. Everything had been newly renovated. My bedroom was massive. There was no dirty carpet anywhere and instead we had chic wooden floors. In Canada I have never rented a room that wasn’t carpeted. The bathroom was huge and had a washing machine and both a tub and a walk in shower. There was an attic upstairs with lots of available space to hang clothes and it was always warm so everything dried quickly and I didn’t have to worry about pesky drying racks taking up space in the hallway. The kitchen was a bit small and didn’t have much in way of appliances, but it had a basic oven, stove, fridge, and freezer. We had a big courtyard and our flat was in close distance to many grocery stores and businesses. My work was an 8 minute bike ride away and it only took 15 minutes by bike to get the Innenstadt (city center). Total price for everything including internet and amenities: 240 euro. That’s only 344 Canadian dollars. In my city in Canada it is nearly impossible to find such a nice apartment for that price. A lot of my friends are really surprised when I tell them that the nicest and cheapest apartment I’ve ever had was in Germany. When my boyfriend came over to Leipzig to visit me, he was always amazed at how cheap everything was compared to in Münster and was jealous of how nice my apartment was and how little I had to pay for it.

9) DDR History: In the neue Bundesländer no matter where you go, there will be plenty of historical sites and museums to visit that showcase pieces of DDR history. Berlin of course has its wall and the Brandenburg Gate.

Berliner Mauer (The Berlin Wall)

Brandenburger Tor (Brandenburg Gate)

In Chemnitz, formally named Karlmarxstadt (Karl Marx City) during the DDR, you can still find a large statue head of Karl Marx in the middle of the city. In Leipzig there is the Zeitgeschichtliches Forum (Contemporary Forum), which is a free museum and has tons of interesting information about the DDR. I was so happy I took the time to visit this museum because it really does a good job of giving visitors a glimpse of what life was like in the DDR. There is anything and everything displayed in this museum such as statue heads of Karl Marx, children books about Sputnik, household products, banners from anti-regime protestors, and old street and border signs. In Leipzig you can also visit Nikolaikirche (St. Nicholas Church), which was where the Monday Demonstrations started. These were the first protests against communist rule and eventually spread across the rest of east Germany leading to the fall of the wall and the opening of east Germany’s borders.

Nikolaikirche in Leipzig

Leipzig is often called the Heldenstadt der DDR (hero city of the GDR) because its citizens started a movement that led to a united Germany. When you visit the square you can see a plaque between the cobblestones with the date 09 October 1989, which was when the demonstrations started.

There is also a circular fountain that has water constantly brimming over the edge. The fountain is a symbol representing people’s feelings at the time of the demonstrations as they brimmed over the edge and could no longer be supressed by the regime. Leipzig also has a restaurant called IL-62, which is in an old DDR airplane. There is also a piece of the Berlin wall that is now in Leipzig’s southern suburb Stötteritz.

A piece of the Berlin Wall in Leipzig

In the Harz mountains I hiked up its tallest mountain, the Brocken, which is divided between Niedersachsen and Sachsen-Anhalt. The tallest point of the mountain is in Sachsen-Anhalt where soviet border control used to have a lookout tower to make sure no one crossed the border into West Germany and shot anybody if they did. When you hike up to the top there are plaques commemorating the opening of the Brocken after reunification. There are also signs, which display pictures of what the Brocken used to look like with its large barbed wire fence and guard towers. It was one of my favourite hikes in Germany and you truly learn to appreciate how wonderful it is to freely walk up to the mountaintop when so many others before were disallowed.

The sign says: Here during the freedom revolution in the DDR on December 3rd 1989 around 12:45pm, the wall was forced opened around the restricted military area “the Brocken Summit”

The Brocken is free again! Wall opening after 26 years here on December 3rd 1989. (Excuse the rain it wasn’t the sunniest day)

10) Language Barrier: Before I went to Germany many people told me that Germans speak really good English. I would have to agree when that statement is applied to west Germany, but not to the east. The younger generations do obviously speak better English, but I found that in east Germany many people, especially the older generations, did not speak English. When I called the Stadtbürgeramt (city offices) about visa issues, the person on the other line didn’t speak English. When I asked several people “Sprechen Sie Englisch?” (Do you speak English?) I often got a “Nein” in return. Although I had taken two years of German at my university before I went to Germany, I still had a hard time communicating when I first came to Leipzig. Many of my middle aged coworkers spoke no English since they took Russian in school, whereas west Germans have learned English in school for much longer. A lot of them could read English but when I asked what an English word was in German I would often get blank stares back. I brought a pocket sized English-Germany dictionary with me for my first month of work and it was such a lifesaver. I found it hard to have conversations without it and when I thumbed through the dictionary it often helped keep my conversations going rather than having them awkwardly end. One of my roommates was very shy with English and for the first few weeks I lived there we would have conversations where she would talk in German and I would respond in English. When my other roommate realized that I was able to speak and understand German well she then stopped talking to me in English and only talked to me in German from that point forward. Many of my younger coworkers preferred talking in German and pretty soon I got to a point where I was talking more German than English. However, when I went to the west I noticed that more people would try and talk to me in English when they realized that I wasn’t German. I am personally very happy with my choice to live in a neues Bundesland, rather than in a city in the west. Because of the my coworkers, my roommates, and where I lived and worked, I was able to speak fluent German at the end of my four month stay. For anyone who wants to speak German well and be truly immersed in the language, I would recommend living in any of the neue Bundesländer. However, if you don’t speak any German and you only want to get by with English be aware that it might be a bit harder to find people to talk to in the east than in the west.

A Day of Religious Contemplation and Conspicuous Consumption

Place: Rome, Italy

Date: April 2012

People: Annoying peddlers, a confused cafe worker, a sweet old man, silly American tourists, vision savers at the Ottica

Lessons Learned: Don’t give your money to those annoying peddlers, just don’t!  If you want to look at beautiful churches and their artworks, dress for the occasion.  Catholic Churches are decked out to the nines. There is a difference between Panino and Panini.  UPIM is awesome! Government tax is already included in the price of goods sold in Italy, yay no headache calculating GST/PST!  Bring your eyecare prescription with you before going overseas.  Don’t buy shampoo and conditioner at the Farmacia, it’s anything but a bargain.

The day was bright and sunny, full of more promise than the cloudy day before.  I had no idea what I was going to do or where I was going to go, all I wanted to do was explore.  I walked in a different direction than the day before and it led me towards the bustling Via Gallia.  I left the apartment that morning without any breakfast so when I came upon a gelateria, I couldn’t resist.  When I went to the counter to order a little boy came to help me.  When he realized that I was an English speaking tourist he ran to the back of the restaurant calling, “Mammiii!” This middle aged woman came to the counter and she made me this lovely gelato.

It was the first of many to come.  As you can tell from the photo, it is quite common to have some sort of biscuit with your gelato as edible garnish.

As I walked down the street I saw this great white building with statues of Catholic Church leaders adorning its rooftop.

I was curious as to what it was so I kept walking in that direction.  I came across market stalls selling cheap wares of everything under the sun: shoes, socks, pantyhose, clothes, underwear, nick knacks.  These types of markets are a common sight in the city and you can find them on many streets.

At the end of the street I came once more to the Aurelian walls and walked through them and saw this interesting statue of St. Francis of Asisi

On the other side of the street from the statue was the entry of the Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano (The Papal Archbasilica of St. John and the Lateran).  As I walked towards the basilica I was hassled several times by these North African peddlers selling everything under the sun.  They are very common around the major tourist sites in Rome and they buzz around and bother tourists like flies on a carcass.  I personally find them annoying. They heckle tourists to no end and a lot of the things they sell look really cheap, but they try and offer them at a high price to rip off those who are stupid and don’t know any better.  You’re supposed to barter with them, which is an absolute headache.  They sell anything from hats, umbrellas, scarves, jewelry, tourist trinkets, and this squishy ball thing that goes completely flat when you throw it down on the ground.  Since I don’t like them and wish that they would go away, I never bought a single thing from them.  I treated them like I treat gypsies, I didn’t give them any of my money and I didn’t support them. The local Romans treat these types of people like a pest.  If you give them money and support their sketchy livelihoods, they will come back healthier and stronger and in greater numbers.  The best way to get rid of them is to weaken them and not support them with your money.  Unfortunately though there will always be dumb tourists out there who throw their coins at these annoying people.  Alas I had to endure the pesky peddlers until I stepped into the basilica.

Thankfully I took the time that day to dress more appropriately so I could enter enter this fascinating religious site and was glad I did.  It was my first ever experience in a European Church and I was absolutely blown away.  In Western Canada the churches are quite plain and unspectacular.  The only nice church I had been to at that point was St. Joseph Basilica in Edmonton (the largest basilica in Western Canada) for my high school graduation and it seemed so plain and basic compared to this basilica.  The gilded and coffered ceiling had many intricate designs etched into it.  There were marbled statues of various saints lining the main hall.  It seemed like every available surface was decorated from the floor to the ceiling, I had never seen anything like it.  There were so many intricate and ornate designs everywhere I turned and I was overwhelmed.  I spent a considerable amount of time in the basilica taking pictures of the impressive art and detail that caught my eye, which was a lot.  It seemed like there was always something that I missed capturing.  From scenes of Stations of the Cross sculpted into stone, large sculptures flanked by Corinthian marble columns, richly detailed paintings, to large windows high up lighting up the basilica with the light of God, I felt deeply impressed and moved.  I felt that surely God would look favourably upon all this beautiful, well thought out art that was created in his name.  I felt like I wanted to convert that minute and become a Catholic so I could always be in the presence of such beauty.

I personally do not belong to any religious denomination, nor do I want to, but I still am to this day impressed by the amount of art and detail that goes into Catholic Churches in Rome and across Europe.  Love or hate the Catholic Church all you want, but you have to agree that they have commissioned a lot of fantastic art and architecture throughout their history.

Once I walked from one end of the basilica to the other, I decided it was time to leave and go see more of the city.  Once I walked out of the back door, I realized where I was, the piazza San Giovanni, where I first started my journey.

Once more I walked down Via Merulana but instead of turning left onto Via Labicana, I went straight and continued down Via Marulana, where I came upon this lovely shrine, one of many throughout the city dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

During my walk I came across many quaint looking cafes and eateries.  It was overwhelming to determine which ones were good and which ones weren’t.  They all had that charming European style to them with their fancy tables and chairs spilling out of the restaurant door onto the sidewalk with their large umbrellas shielding customers from the sun.  It was hard to commit to a lunch location once the gelato wore off. I eventually picked a decent looking café and ordered a panini to go.  When I ordered my panini, the waiter seemed confused that I only pointed to one sandwich and stopped ordering.  He probably then realized that I was one of those silly North Americans, who do not know the difference between panini and panino.

The English language is very funny in the way in which we have adopted and used Italian words.  Usually in Italian if a noun ends in –o it’s singular, if it ends in –i, it’s plural.  Think for example of the words gelato, cappuccino, espresso.  Usually when we pluralize these words we just add –s to the end of them (with the exception of gelato) so when we want more than one of them we would say cappuccinos, espressos, paninis etc. But in proper Italian you would say rather cappuccini, espressi, gelati, panini. Think of all your favourite Italian pastas: spaghetti, fusilli, gnocchi, fettuccini, linguini etc.  They all end in –i.  Why? Because you never just eat one noodle of pasta, they are always referred to in the plural since they almost always exist in the plural, so it just makes sense to refer to them in their plural form.  For some odd reason in English we’ve used some Italian words correctly and in other ways we’re completely off the mark and the word panini is a prime example of that.

For those of you English speakers in Italy who have a hankering for a panini, you have to say it properly otherwise you will get a lot of funny looks and someone will correct you, these people at the café where I ordered the sandwich certainly did, much to my embarrassment. It’s a panino.  If you want multiple sandwiches then it’s appropriate to say panini.

After I had finished eating my panino, I continued walking down Via Merulana until I got to the end of street, where I saw another beautiful white basilica with statues of Church authority figures adorning the front edges of its roof and a large brown brick bell tower emerging out of it, which apparently is the highest in Rome.

It was the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, another major Papal basilica just like San Giovanni.

Like San Giovanni, it had a large piazza outside of it with an obelisk in front of it.  However, unlike San Giovanni, the obelisk is not Egyptian, but rather a large single Corinthian column with the virgin Mary perched on top of it with her child.

When I entered the basilica I was once more blown away by all the ornate detail and intricate thought and planning that went into it.  The coffered ceiling was embellished with the first boat load of gold that came from the Americas to Spain and was graciously given as a gift to the Church by Queen Isabella I of Spain.  I learned that fact when I came to the basilica a few weeks later with my study group, when my professor gave use a more in depth historical explanation of the site.  She also showed us the Bernini tomb and told us of the foundational Catholic legend of the basilica.  The story goes that Pope Liberius saw the Virgin Mary in a dream instructing him to construct a church on the Esquiline Hill and it would be marked by snow.  This was in August and apparently the dream came to pass and the site was indeed marked by snow by way of a divine miracle.  So every year on August 5 the snowfall is commemorated by the community and white rose petals are thrown from the dome to represent the falling snow.

Although the historical proof of this legend, like many others, is debatable, I still like hearing lovely stories like these.  Every religion is based on a collection of stories and I think it’s so fascinating to listen to them and discover the various ways religions explain why things are the way that they are.

As I walked through the basilica I went into the side rooms located on the wings of the basilica to see what was inside.  As I was about to enter one, an old man with a walker was having trouble stepping down from the raised platform at the entrance, so I went up to him and helped him by moving his walker to the lower level and offering my hand so he could get down.  He was very thankful and he asked me where I was from, “Canada.”  He was from Slovakia, the birthplace of my grandparents on my father’s side, both of whom are now dead.  He asked me if I was Catholic or not, I said no.  He went to sit down on one of the chairs in the main hall and he urged me to come and join him.  He told me in his broken accent about the Church and the Saints.  He had a few things stowed into the basket of his walker.  He looked through one of his many bags and he pulled out a small plastic pouch with a medallion of St. Peter with a piece of paper talking about the life story of the saint and he gave it to me, to this day I still have it.  I thanked him and he kept talking and talking. Although I did not understand everything he said because he was old and his accent was very strong, it felt nice to be in his company.  I had lost my grandpa, the father of my father, three years before and when I am in the company of old men, who remind me of my grandpa, like this man did, I feel happy in their company.  It’s hard to explain the feeling but it almost like they bring back memories of how good it was to have my grandpa around.

After a long afternoon of snapping photos of beautiful art and religious iconography in the basilicas, I decided to check out this interesting looking department store across the street from the piazza, called UPIM, an Italian midmarket department store.  I loved how the store was decorated and there so many cute things for sale, like this funky pop art picture of Audrey Hepburn.

Many items weren’t too badly priced.  I purchased earrings for my cousin, a sun dress for my niece, who was not yet two at that point, and a Winnie the Pooh teether for my other niece, who at the time was unborn.  A teether is always a good present for a new baby with a toddler sibling, who likely already has hand-me-downs from their older sibling.  Nobody keeps the teethers and they are always useful.

As I was looking through a tower of earrings, this group of American girls came up to me, “Scuzi… do you speak English?”

“Yes I’m from Canada, I speak English.”

“Oh!” They exclaimed “We’re from the States!”

“Which state?”

“Michigan!”

Oh… I’ve never been there before.  But I was surprised to hear a bit of twang in their voice, which I found quite odd, usually Americans from states bordering Canada talk kind of similar to us.

“Do you know where are the hair straighteners are?” They asked. I had no idea.  They apologized for bothering me and told me that they thought I worked there and that I looked like I was Italian.

I have gotten that a lot during my trip.  I’ve had a few incidents where people went up to me talking in Italian thinking I was a local.  Those girls probably also asked me about the straighteners because I also have naturally straight hair and many people think I use an iron on it, which I don’t.

When I went to pay for the items I was calculating the cost of GST in my head, which in my province is an extra 5% that you have to pay on top of the base price of the good.  To my astonishment there was no extra tax on the items I bought and the price was literally the price.  I’ve later learned that in Europe the tax is already included in the price, which I think is much nicer.  I detest the headache of trying to calculate how much more extra I will have to pay when I buy something and I’ve always been rubbish at math.

On the walk back I came across the Hotel Montreal.  Why they have a hotel named after a city in Quebec? I have no idea.  I was also baffled that their signage had the crest of the Northwast Territories.  They’re only in completely different parts of the country, same thing right!?

I also went for a walk through this park, Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II, which also contains the Metro station Vittorio Emanuele, and saw this really awesome kids ride called Bobsleds.  I’ve never seen anything like it before.

The park also contains the ruins of Torfei di Mario, which was once the fountain at the end of an aquaduct.  The ruins can be seen in the background in the right half of this photo I took of this pretty fountain

Once I walked through the park I found my way back to Via Merulana and followed my exact steps back to the apartment.  However, on the way back I did come across the upscale department store Coin on Via Appia Nuova and I couldn’t resist but to go inside.

Now I have to confess, I am a huge fan of Dior make-up and I was very excited to see a Dior make-up counter in this store.  I’ve been buying Dior make-up since I was 15 years old and when I’m in Edmonton I regularly go to make-up appointments and I love checking out new collections and seeing what colours are in each season.  It’s such a guilty pleasure.  Before I left Edmonton I wanted to buy the new mint green shade of nail polish that Dior released as part of its Garden Party Collection for Spring 2012.  Mint green was a really hot must have nail colour that was so popular that year so it was sold out across my city.  So when I saw that this Dior make-up counter still I had the shade, I had to buy it.  It was a few dollars more than in Canada but I didn’t care.  I had to wait a few minutes until a lady came round to help me; In Italy the customer service isn’t as good or as prompt as it is in Canada.  But once I had paid and went out the door I was elated.

Although the colour clashes with the only watch I brought with me I still think it looks awesome!

On the way back to the apartment I also came across an Ottica and I was so happy to see that it was still open.  I told the sales assistants about how I needed contact lenses for my left eye.  I do have astigmatism on that eye and my prescription is quite high, around -5.5 to -5.75. The sales associate looked through their stock and they weren’t able to find anything that was strong enough.  If they were to get something for my astigmatism, they told me they would have to order it and it would take up to two weeks to get it in.  I told them that I couldn’t wait that long and that I would be in the city for a month and I needed something. So one of the sales associates looked through the stock again and he found me a pack of dailies that would last me the month that were -5 strength.  Although it wasn’t exact, it did the trick and I was able to see well enough that it got me through the month.

As sketchy as this contact lense purchase sounds, I was very lucky that I was able to buy these contact lenses quickly and without hassle even though I didn’t bring my prescription with me to Italy because I was stupid enough to think that I wouldn’t need it.  If you have an eye prescription from your optometrist, bring it with you!  You never know when you’ll need it and it can be so handy in situations like this.  Some countries could also refuse to give you anything for your vision unless you get an eye exam and procure a valid prescription, which will cost extra money.  Luckily Italy is a lot more casual about that sort of thing otherwise I would have been so screwed.

While I was walking down the street, I also went into a Farmacia to buy shampoo and conditioner because I had only brought mini travel sized bottles with me and they were not going to last me the month.  I was able to figure out which bottles were shampoo, since shampoo is still called shampoo in many European languages including Italian.  However, conditioner is one of those words that changes from language to language.  I stood for a while looking confused at the hair care bottles since none of them said conditioner out rightly on their packaging.  One of the ladies working there came up to me and asked me if I need help.  I asked her where the conditioner was.  She had no idea what conditioner meant.

“You know, not shampoo but the thing you put in your hair afterwards…”

“Oh” She exclaimed, “We call it Apres Shampoo.  Apres means after.”

I thanked her for her help and bought the overpriced shampoo and conditioner.  I later found out from Gio’s cousin Sierra that you shouldn’t buy shampoo and conditioner at the Farmacia, since it is much more expensive.  There are stores I later found that are similar to Shoppers Drug Mart that sell more recognizable brands like Pantene Pro-V, Herbal Essences, Garnier, Dove etc.  I also later found out that the conditioner I bought was more like a leave-in conditioner rather than just regular conditioner.  I like the thought of putting extra time in your hair but I never do it.  I much prefer putting my conditioner on and rinsing it off quickly afterwards.  I hate waiting in the shower with leave in conditioner.  What is a girl to do in that situation? Turn off the water and wait in a cold wet mess to save the environment, yet at the same time ban anyone else from entering the bathroom because you’re hogging the shower? Or would it be better to chill under the hot water but awkwardly avoid getting your hair wet, which is really hard to do.  What is the solution I don’t know!?

After a long day of walking and shopping I was happy to be back at the flat so I could sit down and relax.

In my next post: The unforgettable evening I spent with Gio

My First Couchsurfing Experience Without my Host

Place: Rome, Italy

Date: April 2012

People: Daniel, Corradino, a Catcaller, and a lost French lady

Lessons Learned: Maple leaf cookies are a hit!  Don’t expect your host to always be available to show you around their city.  Italians speak the language of Romance, nothing more! If you are going to enter a church, make sure you’re dressed for it.  Taste the fountain water.  There are way more Americans out there than Canadians.  When in Italy, take care of yourself by eating regularly.  The best Italian pizzerias are in the most unassuming places.

I woke up at 4am and nobody was up. The noisy street was finally silenced and I knew that my body was moving to a different time.  I paced the halls and went to bed and forced myself to fall asleep again for a couple hours more. I woke up once more at 6am and this time I couldn’t force myself to go back to sleep, despite my best efforts. I walked to the window and undid the shutters and looked out onto the street. There were a few stragglers out going for an early morning jog or doing morning errands, but compared to the evening it was a lot quieter and peaceful. I went to the kitchen and sat on the couch there. Nobody was up and I didn’t know what to do or where to go. I was in Rome all by myself and I had no desire to leave the apartment until I received some guidance and advice. I had left my maple leaf cookies on the table before I went to sleep and noticed that several of them were eaten already. I guess they were a good choice for a “thank-you for letting me crash here” gift from my country. I looked at the courtyard and marvelled at the open blue sky and the lush green coutryard garden below.  I had never seen such buildings in my life until I had come to Italy.  In Canada we do not really have many courtyards.

Gio’s other roommate, Corradino*, was the first to get up.  I asked him if he was alone.  He looked at me with a blank stare.  I asked him again.  “I’m sorry” he stammered, “I do not understand you.”  I realized that communication in English wasn’t going to work with him and since I didn’t know Italian, I admitted defeat and went into Gio’s room.  I brushed my hair and put on my best makeup and perfume.  I paired my pretty face with my most romantic looking white ensemble.  I love my white flowy clothes, I like to think they help someone remember the feeling of falling into a young innocent love again.

I don’t know how long I sat there and waited, but Daniel* eventually got up.  I walked back into the hall and exchanged Hellos and Good Mornings. I told him how awful my jet-lag was. He confessed to me how much he enjoyed the cookies and had already eaten many of them. I was hoping he would have had time to come with me and take me on an adventure through Rome. He was so handsome and having him as my guide and companion all day would be a dream. Unfortunately he had to work again that day. Before he made his way to work, he walked with me downstairs to the front entrance of the apartment and showed me the general direction of the major sites.  He then proceeded to walk over to his car, which was parked by the single gas station on the street. I had never seen such a tiny gas station before in my life. It was literally a small hut/shack like building that maybe fit two people inside and didn’t contain any sort of food or snacks.  It was merely a single gas pump on the edge of a street. It was so small and primitive looking compared to our large spacious gas stations, I had to laugh.  I walked with him up to his car hoping that he would offer me ride but he merely told me to have a fun time and perhaps we would see each other again this evening.  Much to my dismay he drove off tending to his conventional responsibilities.

I was left with no other choice but to discover the city by foot with my money belt under my skirt, towing my camera and backpack, as well as the apartment keys that Gio left for me and my guidebook of Rome.  I walked a couple streets ahead until I was standing in front of the Aurelean walls.

There was a grassy patch in front of it that stretched from one end of the wall to the other, serving as public park space called Parco Lineare Integrato della Mura.  There were men sitting on benches reading their papers and smoking and old people walking their dogs.  I followed the walking trail that went through this small park to a noisy street with arches cut into the wall to accommodate the traffic driving in and out of it.

I kept walking straight crossing over a busy street onto a quieter street and I had no idea where I was going.  I walked into a bakery to look at my city map in the Rome travel book I brought along and I asked the man sitting in the shop if he could show me where I was.  He just shook his head and sent me away, “No Inglesia” he said.  “Deutsch?” I asked, he looked at me as if I was crazy and shook his head.  I realized later on that Italians are not keen on learning Germanic languages and prefer rather to have a romantic language such as French or Spanish as their second languages.

I made my way back to the busy street, Via dell’Amba Aradam, and proceeded to walk down it.  Eventually it led to the same piazza behind the basilica where I was first dropped off.  I wandered around the piazza and began taking pictures, such as this one of the roof hanging over the rear entrance of the basilica.

I wanted to enter the basilica, but when I walked up to the rear entrance I noticed the sign beside the door, which noted prohibited dress and behaviour.  Like all Catholic religious sites, no one was to enter scantily dressed.  Bare arms, midrifs, and legs were strictly prohibited.  I looked at what I was wearing, a tank top and a skirt that fell above my knees, and cursed myself for not remembering to bring a sweater and wear a longer skirt.  We were told at our class orientation that we would have to bring a few conservative outfits for when we visited the Vatican and other holy sites. But the day was so hot, despite it being cloudy, that the thought of covering myself in full length clothing had not crossed my mind.  Thus, I had to save the trip to the basilica for another time.

Once I was satisfied with my attempt to capture the outside of the basilica in photographic form, I walked once more down Via Merulana turning left at Via Labicana.  As I rounded the corner I saw a small public fountains.

It was gushing a never ending stream of water and I took my water bottle out of my backpack and filled it.  The water was cold and sweet and I had never tasted anything so fresh. Every now and then I miss that water and the fountains scattered across the city.  It’s such an accessible resource, a gift left over from an ancient Empire, that harnessed resources through the use of sophisticated aqueducts.  Throughout my trip I saw the local Romans regularly using the fountains, they are so dear to the city and they were very dear to me.  The water is of such a high quality it is remarkable to find it in abundance in such a large city.

As I walked on I noted to myself how nice it was to walk down Via Labicana with a feeling of ease carrying only my backpack instead of the feeling of stress and frustration that I experienced the day before with all of my luggage.  I would have walked past that same bookstore had I not been distracted by this stone staircase that led up to these beautiful apartment buildings.  I walked up the steps and admired their colorful facades and elaborate use of decoration.

The street eventually led me to a massive park which was full of life.  There were several soccer games going on in these interesting looking soccer pitches that were there.  Instead of the usual grass fields, the game was being played on dirt fields with some painted lines and soccer nets.  As I walked past the fields I saw a man standing thirty feet in front of me whip out his penis and start peeing, it was obvious that he was playing soccer as well and was merely having a pee break but I found it quite odd that he did it right in the open instead of being discrete and going behind a tree or something.  I guess they are more culturally open about that sort of thing than in Canada.

As I walked through the park I found the remains of the baths of Trajan (pictured below), which sadly doesn’t contain a whole lot.  Nevertheless it was very cool to have stumbled upon them by chance.

At the end of the park was a staircase which led down to the Coliseum.

Here the area was thick with tourists and it was at that point I judged it best to flip my backpack around onto my stomach before I went any further.  In passing I heard a Filipino man mentioning my city, Edmonton, in conversation.  “I’m from Edmonton!” I exclaimed,  perhaps it was rude to butt in someone else’s conversation but he didn’t seem to mind.  He told me about his daughter was living there and he seemed really excited to find someone from Edmonton in Rome.  After chatting for a bit we went our own separate ways.  I proceeded to walk around the Coliseum and began taking pictures of all the sites.  I wandered with abandon.  I went anywhere that looked pretty and intriguing, a feat that wasn’t hard to do since there were so many old buildings and churches along the way.  I followed my hungry eyes snapping pictures every which way.  I heard the buzzing sound of tourists, each speaking in a different inarticulate tongue.  They came from all over Europe and the rest of the world.  I said hello to some German tourists here and there and tried to strike up a conversation with some of them.  However, my one year of German instruction didn’t get me too far beyond the usual niceties.  I had also never been to Germany at that point so I had no idea at the time that Germans are not very sociable when they travel, especially not with other German speaking people, so naturally the conversation was quite awkward and lacked the excited flow and charisma of a typical Canadian conversation.  When I did hear English, none of the people speaking it were from Canada.  People who seemed to have a hint of my accent turned out to be American and in closer examination of their speech, I realised that they did indeed have a different accent than me.  Through my travels I have come to realize how large the American population is compared to Canada’s.  When I am abroad I will meet numerous of Americans until I meet a Canadian.  The fact that the American population is ten times greater than Canada’s had never been apparent to me until I found myself walking the streets of Rome unable to find a voice resembling home.

I came across many beautiful sites on my random and unchartered walk.  I came across the Arch of Constantine (Arco di Constantino)

I walked down the Via dei Fori Imeriali (The Road of Imperial Forums).  I saw the remains of the various forums commissioned by various emperors (Augustus, Trajan, Nerva to name a few).  I didn’t know whose was whose until I went back there with my study tour and was given a very in depth orientation and explanation of the sites.  Sadly the forums had been reduced to piles of rubble from all the years of Romans pilfering the marble and other valuable building materials and using them for other structures.  All that remained were random fragmented sections of standing buildings and scattered remains of stones and columns.

I came across the Column of Trajan…

…and the Arch of Septimius Severus (Arco di Settimio Severo).

After wandering around for some time I found myself at the famous Piazza del Campidoglio designed by Michelangelo on the Capitoline Hill.

I was taking a picture of the statue of Marcus Aurelius perched upon his steed when an older man started chatting with me.

He asked me where I was from and whether I had been inside the museum yet.  I later found out the museum he was referring to was the Capitoline Museums (Musei Capitilini).  He told me that I had to go there in order to see the real statue of Marcus Aurelius, the one that I was currently taking pictures of, was in fact a copy of the one inside.  Although he seemed nice I felt nervous talking to this man and I was unsure of whether he was a genuinely nice person or if he was just preying on me because I was a woman traveling alone.  I have been told by others to be careful who you trust in Europe.  It was different than in Canada and you always had to be on your guard.  I didn’t know what to do or say so I thanked the man for this advice and continued walking on taking more pictures of the statues placed around the piazza.

I walked down the steps onto the sidewalk and made my way to the large white building situated on the right side of the piazza, a looming and dominating structure that demanded attention and acknowledgement, Il Vittoriano.  As I walked up to the top of the building’s steps I came across a long line up of people waiting to board a glass elevator, which apparently takes you to the top of the building and you get a good view of the city.  I didn’t bother to wait in the lineup, it seemed like too much of a wait and hassle, but I’m sure it’s nice to see.  Although I was not at the very top of the building I was still quite high above the buildings, enough to look at the skyline of the city around me.  There wasn’t any trace of a modern skyline with ominous steel and glass skyscrapers.  I saw the outline of a city that had so many churches.  It felt to me that there were more churches here than people.  One would have to spend ages in the city in order to visit them all.  As I was marveling at all the sites around me, I came across an open door leading into Il Vittoriano.  My curiosity got the better of me and I couldn’t help but to walk inside.

The innards of the building revealed a beautiful museum full of quaint artifacts.

I started taking pictures until I saw two curators look at me.  They seemed to be walking in my direction and in my scared state I thought that I had done something wrong by trespassing into this museum and I walked hurriedly along to avoid confrontation.  I later found out that on the last Sunday of every month all the city museums in Rome are free, including the Capitoline Museums,  where the old man suggested that I check out the museum because it wouldn’t have cost me a thing.  Silly me, I had done nothing wrong and yet thought that I was a rebellious badass for walking through an open door that signalled to the general public “Come inside, have a look!”  When I walked out of the building I came across the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier which is guarded 24/7 with a flame by it that never goes out.

I walked all the way down Piazza Venezia and made my right down to Piazza Santi Apostoli and came across Museo delle Cere, Rome’s Wax Museum.  I took pictures of all the funny looking statues in the museum’s front windows and lobby, but was too cheap to pay admission to go in.

I had to save my money for the museum admissions I would have to pay throughout the duration of my course.  As I looked at myself from the shop window I realized to my horror that the hot weather had my caused my make-up to melt.  My once pretty face now looked clownish and I had to go over my lips and eyes with my fingers and smudge everything back into something more normal and presentable.  I felt so embarrassed that I had walked around looking like a hot mess the whole day.

At this point in my walk my feet were getting tired, I was starting to feel hungry, and my jetlag was starting to kick in.  Again I took out my book with its map of the city centre and tried to navigate where I was and how I could get back again and again I found it hard to figure out where exactly I was.  I asked these ladies having a smoke if they knew where the nearest Metro station was, which would take me to San Giovanni.  They pointed me in the direction of the next A Line station, but it was quite far away and in the opposite direction of where I had just walked from.  I didn’t want to walk any further north, so I decided to turn back in the direction I came from and retrace my steps back to Gio’s apartment.

As I walked down Via Labicana, all the stores were closed up since it was a Sunday, so I was not able to go back into the book store.  A creepy dude on his bicycle took notice of me and liked what he saw enough to shout out “Ciao Bella” at me.  Italian men love their catcalling and this guy was just one of many I would later encounter on my trip.  I was nearly back at the apartment going down Via dell’Amba Aradam when a French lady came up to me asking me for directions in broken English.  When I told her I was Canadian she hoped that I was one of the French-speaking ones.  Embarrassingly enough I do have French Canadian heritage, but I don’t speak a word of French.  She showed me a map and pointed to where she wanted to go, the basilica.  I pointed down the road, “You’re nearly there, go straight” I said.  She nodded her head and went in the direction I showed her.  I felt good that I was able to help someone that day so that they wouldn’t have to walk around aimlessly and scared like I had done a few times earlier that day.

When I was back at the apartment I shoved the key into the lock and had the hardest time unlocking the door.  Both the key and the door were hopelessly old fashioned and I had never encountered such doors in my life.  I banged on the door hoping someone would be there but all I heard was silence.  After much trial and error I finally was able to get into apartment.  When I looked at myself in the mirror I saw more of my makeup had melted.  In addition to this, my left eye had now become red from the strain.  For those of you curious what happens when you walk around wearing only one contact lens as your only source of vision, that is what happens, you get one red nasty eye.  I took out my contact lens and poured solution onto my poor red eye.  Thankfully the red was not permanent and it went away quickly once I doused it in contact solution.  I cursed the Catholic Romans for having not having any businesses open on a Sunday.  I badly needed to go to the Ottica (optometrist) but none were opened that day.

I didn’t want to leave the apartment again since I had such a difficult time getting back in the first time, so I waited until Daniel came back from work.  He asked me how my day went and I told him of my sightseeing adventures.  I’m sure he has heard from countless other people by now of the same experiences as mine, seeing the Forum and the Colisseum.  Everyone did it, I was no different.  He asked me if I had anything to eat.  I admitted to him that I had not.  He then scolded me for such carelessness.  “That is so unhealthy, you have to eat! That is no way to live life.” He then proceeded to ask me what I wanted to eat.  “Pizza” I said, “I want to eat real authentic Italian Pizza.” “Ok” he said, “There is a pizzeria downstairs but I don’t like going there, they are always so loud at night so I don’t want to support them.  There is the restaurant downstairs, they make an alright pizza.” He brought me the menu to look at, but it was all in Italian.  I asked him what everything meant.  After discerning what was what, I settled on something simple and basic, ham pizza.  Once I made my decision, Daniel was on the phone with the restaurant downstairs and ordered the pizza for me.  “It will cost 5 euro” He told me once he hung up the phone.  As we waited for the pizza to be ready Daniel cooked supper and told me a bit about his life.  He was 31, ten years older than me.  He was originally from Bologna, in the north, and he came to Rome to study. He worked at the hotel and was good at it because he was able to speak five languages.  Although he was a student he never went to class because he was too busy working so that he could get the money he needed to pay rent and afford to live.  All he did was teach everything to himself by reading his textbooks in his spare time.  He showed up to the tests and was able to pass them.  It sounded like such a hard and strenuous lifestyle.

After several minutes of talking we went downstairs to the restaurant called Romole E Remo to get my pizza.  I paid the 5 euro and went up with my pizza and ate it in the apartment kitchen.  The ham was so different from back home.  It was very thin, the crust was thin too, but nevertheless tasty.  For my first Italian pizza I must admit this pizza was the best I had throughout my trip.  I got it at the most unassuming restaurant in a little neighbourhood tucked away from all the tourist commotion, and I later came to learn that all the best Italian food can be found in such areas.

Once I was done my pizza I was very tired and exhausted from the jetlag as well as from all the walking I did.  It was just the beginning of a new world experience and I was excited to see what else this city had in store for me.

In My Next Post: How I spent my day looking at basilicas and enjoying Italian cuisine and shopping.

A Hunt for the Key

Place: Rome, Italy
People: Sierra and Daniel
Lessons Learned: In Italy you enter the bus wherever you want, don’t wear your money belt like an idiot, never trust restaurant doormen, do not take hot water for granted.

I had entered the train station across the street from the Coliseum and I wanted to call Sierra* again to see where she was. There were so many people around the station that it made me feel nervous and worried that I wouldn’t find her. I looked at the payphones and I had no idea how to use them. I realized that I had no change for the phones so I asked an English speaking tourist if I could split a 5 euro bill for some coins. Just as he was about to count out change for me, I heard a voice behind me, “Amie!?” I turned around and there she was in real life form, Sierra. She was medium height and thin. Her brown hair was tied up in a chignon and her forehead was fringed with bangs. She had soft brown eyes and a warm smile to boot. She was wearing a relaxed white off the shoulder top with jean shorts worn over top a pair of black leggings.  The thing that I liked the most were her shoes, she was wearing a pair of black Superga canvas sneakers.  I had never seen that brand of shoes before and they were really interesting and unique compared to all the other usual brands of canvas shoes that I had encountered in Canada.  She gave me a hug and welcomed me again to Rome.  She admitted to me, “I do not have the key to Giovanni’s apartment but we will go there and meet his roommate, Daniel*, and he should be able to let you in.”

We walked to a bus stop and caught a bus that took us to the apartment.  When the it pulled up to the street, it stopped a bit further than where we were standing.  I ran towards the front of the bus because I was so used to do doing that in Edmonton.  I’m not sure about other Canadian cities, but in my city, the front of the bus is where you always go to pay and show your pass.  Little did I know that things are done a bit different in Italy.  Sierra stopped me and said, “No, no you don’t have to do that, you can enter here,” she pointed to the middle door of the bus.  “Really!?” I exclaimed.  I was blown away by the fact that the bus driver didn’t care whether you had a pass or not and nobody checked whether we did.  Anybody could have walked on and not paid.  I learned later on that they do have officers that check, but when I was there I never encountered them.  I wished that the system was like that in Canada.  It can be annoying at times to run all the way to the front of the bus and not be permitted to enter the back or the sides even though they may be closer to where you are standing.  From the bus I saw so many beautiful buildings and I was filled with awe.  We drove past the Palatine Hill where the ruins of ancient Roman elites still stand.  I also saw Circo Massimo (Circus Maximus), which contains nothing of the original Stadium but the mere outline of a track.

Eventually we arrived at Gio’s apartment and tried ringing the bell to get inside but no one was there.  We sat on a bench outside of the apartment and Sierra started calling Gio and Daniel so she could figure out where to get the key.  While we were waiting I looked at my surroundings and I was in awe.  I was finally here in Italy and I was in front of Giovanni’s apartment on his street.  He had given me his address on Couchsurfing and I had googled it and checked it out on street view.  It was nearly the same as portrayed on google, but like all images, you never get a true sense of the actual surroundings until you are there in person.  There was the church dividing two streets and underneath Giovanni’s apartment there was a Farmacia (pharmacy), a restaurant, a produce store, and a pizzeria.  The sun was out and the weather was hot. The square was bustling with people including a woman wearing a trench coat.  Ciara looked at her in disgust, “How can anyone wear something like that in this weather!?” I myself wanted to take off my track jacket but I was wearing my money belt under my shirt over my stomach and it was slightly concealed under my track jacket but I figured it would look weird and bulky if I wore just my t-shirt.  I put up with the heat and my sweat, but I was anxious to get inside the apartment so I could take this money belt off. That was the one and only time I was ever that stupid to wear my money belt on such an awkward spot on my body.  I now am smart enough to wear it under my pants or skirt, or exposed around my waist if I’m in a dress.

We sat on the bench for a while chatting, waiting to hear back from both Giovanni and Daniele.  In this time I got to know how strong willed of a woman Ciara was and it seemed to be something that was passed down to her.  She told me about how parents were a part of the resistance movement against Mussolini back when he was in power and how she herself was running late for a bicycle protest, I think it had something to do with Critical Mass.  She had studied in university and had also received her Master’s Degree, but she told me she didn’t have a good job despite her education.  Italy was hard that way.  Gio had a good job though, he worked with computers.  While we were talking an old lady had dropped her shawl on the ground and Ciara paused the conversation to run over to her and help her.  It was a sweet gesture and it showed me how nice and helping Italians can be to each other and the respect they have for their elders.  We did finally hear back from Gio and Daniel.  We would have to go and meet Daniel at his work to get the key from him.  Again I had to hop on the bus, but this time I didn’t have to drag my luggage with me.  Ciara took me to the one restaurant on the street and asked the people working there if they could watch my luggage for me.  They were fine with it and I was too exhausted to care whether or not it would still be there by the time I got back.  It felt nice to no longer be weighed down by my possessions.

We got on the same bus once more, but this time it was traveling in the direction of the city centre. Again, I saw so many beautiful buildings and I began to brandish my camera and snap photos on the bus with glee. I was excited but at the same time I blushed and felt shy and slightly embarrassed about my behaviour in front of Sierra.  I was one of many silly tourists who were captivated by Rome and Sierra had likely seen hundreds of thousands of people like me, people that crowd their streets and make the beauty of the city and it’s tourist spots somewhat unbearable and annoying for locals.  I myself felt that feeling later on after having spent a month in Rome and it’s one of those feelings that one always feels once they become more localized and familiar in such world renowned city.  On the bus ride the one building that really caught my eye was Il Vittoriano (pictured below), I looked at Ciara with awe, “This building is so beautiful.”  She responded quietly, “It was built by Mussolini” her gaze dropped to the floor. The light hearted feeling inside went away and I felt a twinge of guilt.  The structure was a product of sad modern history and like many other people I was captivated by its form without realizing the true implications and meaning behind its beauty.

 

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We got off the bus and we had to walk a few blocks to Daniel’s work.  We saw many interesting things along the way.  I was so excited to see a United Colours of Benetton store, I had never seen one in Canada before.  Sierra smiled, “Of course we have it, it’s an Italian brand,” a fact I never knew before. On the way, we walked passed the Pantheon and I was awestruck.  I’ve always been fascinated by its architecture and I wanted to go in.  Sierra said that I could if I wanted to but I saw how overcrowded it was at the entrance and so I decided I would enter it some other time and merely admired its outer structure from the piazza.  We walked on and I saw the big Zara shop that is several stories high. It made me giggle to see beside it another Zara store in the shopping centre across the street.  I guess Italians really love their Zara, so much so that they need two shops within a block from each other.  We eventually got to the Piazza Barberini in front of the Hotel Bernini where Daniel worked.  I loved the beautiful fountain and it was there that Sierra took the first picture of me in Rome (pictured up top).  As we walked closer to the hotel, Daniel approached us.  I was taken aback by his good looks.  I had no idea that Gio’s roommate would be so attractive.  He said hello, introduced himself and shook my hand.  I felt so ashamed to have met another cute guy in my sweaty dishevelled state wearing nothing but sport clothes.  He gave Sierra the key and from there we walked back to the bus stop.  As we were walking I was snapping photos and my tourist behaviour caused the doormen of the restaurants to call after us in hopes that we might enter their restaurant.  They were always there in the touristy areas and they always put on a sweet demeanour which was fake and annoying once you see it in all the tourist traps. They always try their best to convince you that their establishment is the best in Rome and from my experience I would say that their food is almost always crummy and overpriced and never is true authentic Italian cuisine, which to me is made with time and care with only the freshest ingredients.  I’ve also noticed that real authentic Italian restaurants that have good food inside do not have doormen at all. Sierra rolled her eyes at these men, she told me, “They see you taking photos so they know that you are a tourist. They want you to eat in their restaurants, saying they’re the best in Rome, like we don’t know any better, it’s so annoying.”

We caught the bus for the third time that day and again I got to see these beautiful buildings and again I was standing there in front of Gio’s apartment.  We got my luggage back from the restaurant, which was sitting in the same place where I left it.  We dragged it up to Gio’s floor, which unfortunately was only accessible through stairs and had no elevator access.  Here I got a glimpse of how Italian apartments typically look like.  There was a large courtyard with a beautiful garden in the middle, the kitchen was tiny and there was a laundry machine in the bathroom.  Gio’s room had beautiful latched windows that weren’t restricted by a pane of glass nor a screen and opened up to the street below.  Like most men, he had a messy room but it was a nevertheless a place to sleep.  Sierra opened up the little cot which would be my sleeping area for a few days.  She showed me a picture of Gio, although I had already seen photos of him on his Couchsurfing page.  Once I got to see the whole apartment Sierra left me so that she could meet up with her friends at the bicycle protest.  I sat on the cot for a few minutes and decided that it would be best to quickly shower and go to sleep right away, I was so exhausted and I felt so dirty and sweaty from such a long flight.  I went to the bathroom and there I saw how different things are in Europe compared to North America. It took me a few minutes to figure out how to flush the toilet.  I eventually realized that the flusher was merely a button on the wall.  I had never seen anything like it in Canada. And to my displeasure, in the middle of the shower the hot water was gone and I had no choice but to endure the last few minutes under freezing cold water.  It was so different from North America. I was used to always having a plentiful supply of hot water and it definitely made me realize how much I took that for granted.  When I met Gio a few days later, he showed me how to turn on the heater so that the water would stay hotter for longer.  But in the meantime I was alone and I was tired.  It was not yet 6pm but I didn’t care, once I was washed and dried off I slept the deepest sleep of my life and endured my first ever experience of jet lag.

*Names have been changed

In my next post: How I met Gio’s other roomate Corradino.