21 October 2011

addio, milano

So maybe I didn't sleep so well. Actually, I'm pretty sure I was up by six, when the combination of cold air rushing in through the open window, the sound of the rain outside, and the light from my charging netbook woke me. I put on another layer, closed the window, and cuddled up in my bed with Role Models.

After a flirtation with disaster in the form of bleach which I had mistaken for laundry detergent, I decided to head out into the city. The rain was a little miserable, but I nevertheless dedicated the day to shopping and saying my goodbyes to Milan. I visited some of my favorite spots, like H&M, and another H&M, and a kebab shop, and Milano Centrale, and a pizza shop next to Milano Centrale where Dave and I once considered eating before deciding it was too expensive. That last one isn't really one of my favorites.

That night, I waited for Sarah at the train station with a bag of M&Ms and an extra Metro ticket so she wouldn't have the trouble getting to the flat that I had. We stayed up late that night, packing all our stuff up and reminiscing. The next morning, I snuck into a hotel down the street to call a cab to take me to the airport. Nearly bought my mother a Missoni scarf with all my tens and twenties, but didn't, because I honestly think they're a bit ugly; flew to Madrid, ate real tortilla with mayo and green peppers; watched a bunch of Mad Men episodes; flew to New York. Around this time I started to have Europe withdrawals. And Europe withdrawals felt strangely like the flu.
The plane was late to New York, but I made it to my hotel by ten or so. While it was probably the smallest hotel room I've ever set foot in, it had plenty of amenities, great climate control, many electrical outlets, and a massive bed. Plus a nice tv. It would have been nice to stay a second night, but $130 a night just seemed like too much after what I've become accustomed to.

I awoke to the dulcet tones of the hotel radio and headed down to the exercise room to try and sweat out my flu. (Hey, it worked when I was a college softball player.) Then I showered and stuffed myself full of hard-boiled egg whites, juice, and English muffins spread with cream cheese. I packed up and checked out.

The hotel's free shuttle took me to the Subway stop I needed. As we drove through Jamaica, I realized that everything everyone has ever said about NYC is true. It's beautiful, complicated, endless, and I absolutely have to devote some serious time to exploring it.

While waiting for my Amtrak train, I shopped a little around Herald Square. Being inside the world's largest Macy's reminded me of my grandmother, who would have loved to see it. I also checked H&M, but of course all their stuff had already debuted in Europe, so I left empty-handed. When I boarded my train to Chicago, the only new things I brought with me were a book from the Met store for my mother and a bunch of drinks, snacks, and magazines for the trip.

That's right, I took a train from New York to Chicago. And not a particularly high-speed train, either. Whole thing took 21 hours. 21 hours of Mad Men and 30 Rock episodes and trashy magazine articles and the cheesy goodness of Chex Mix.

The next few days were spent recovering in Chicago. I got to cook for myself and visit museums and just generally enjoy sleeping on a warm air mattress/couch. Shout out to Kyle for letting me stay in his 33rd-floor apartment with an incredible view.

And then, before I knew it, I was back in Kansas City via another Amtrak train, and back in my own bed that same night, after three and a half months away.

03 October 2011

last tutors standing: roccafranca

The next morning, I took a bus to Udine and a train to Venezia Mestre. And guess who I ran into there? None other than the phenomenal Kat Hall. We recapped our summers, took a couple of pics, and said goodbye until next year.

Then it was on to Roccafranca. I was anticipating an exceptionally awesome camp for several reasons:
  • It was literally the very last camp of 2011, with all other camps ending the week before
  • Tutors had to specially apply and be selected for the camp
  • The directors were actually ACLE office personnel, including our resident Beatles expert Jules
  • It was run during special hours, 8-12 Monday-Saturday, with special activity nights planned throughout the week
I got to Roccafranca and met the other tutors. Surprisingly, I didn't know any of them, although we had a few friends in common. After a bit of planning for the week, I went home with my new host family, the Brocchis.

This about sums it up: their house was a mansion which they shared with two other related families, they had a massive pool which changed colors at night, and their grandmother, who lived with them, was extremely opinionated. Oh, and they lived next door to a dairy farm whose drainage system was malfunctioning, so the stench of rotten milk wafted through the open windows both day and night. So that was cool.

Camp was set up a little differently than normal. We were working at a school that had already started classes, so we had two hours a day to spend with two classes each day. I mostly worked with first years and fourth years. First years are preschool/kindergardeners, and fourth years are. . . about three years older than that. Serious adorability going on up in those classes.

I had some trouble making my dietary restrictions understood by the grandmother. She kept trying to sneak meat into my food, and then she kept trying to feed me more than I wanted, and then she kept trying to give me coffee. Her daughters even told her, "Mom, she said she doesn't drink coffee!" to which she responded with something like, "Well, maybe if she drank coffee, she'd have a little more energy" or something else that was a little rude.

We had daily tutor lunches at a local cafe, and I ordered the same sensational customized sandwich each time. It was on toasted bread, with sauteed mushrooms, lettuce, tomatoes, and mozzarella cheese. I could eat that sandwich every day for a long time to come and still not get sick of it.

On Wednesday, I got a very special treat. My friend Barney, a British musician I'd met in Cusco, just happened to be in Milan to do some studio work. To get to Milan from Roccafranca meant driving twenty minutes to the nearest train station and then taking the train for an hour. Thankfully, host grandmother agreed to pick me up early from lunch, and we even had a solid convo on the way to the train station:

HG: Do you drive at home?
Me: Yes I do.
HG: Doesn't it suck?
Me: I kind of enjoy it.
HG: Man, every time I get into the car, I'm absolutely terrorized. It's even worse now that I'm old. I can barely see the other cars or the signs.
Me: . . .
HG: When I was a young girl, this handsome young man asked me out on a date. I was so excited because I really liked him! Then he said, "You'll have to drive because I don't have a car." I said, "Never mind."

By some miracle, I made it to Milan in one piece, although my train was a bit late. Barney and I had a lovely afternoon. I do wish we lived closer to each other, because I think we'd go out for beers all the time, and I'd have him tell me tales of touring with Amy Winehouse and Rihanna, and it would be wonderful.

One of the nights I was in Roccafranca, I went for a jog with my host brother. He absolutely kicked my butt. I cooled off afterwards in the magnificent pool.

The end of the week came all too soon, and with it came the end of my third Italian summer. I was compensated for my efforts entirely in tens and twenties (incredibly inconvenient, when it's nearly a hundred tens and 58 twenties). Later, we tutors celebrated with organic wine at a farmhouse, which leads me to an important point: if you can see dead bugs floating in your wine, it is definitely too organic. I found that out the next afternoon, when it all came back up again. I maintain that it was the quality of the wine, rather than the quantity, that was to blame for that.

Despite my illness, it was time for me to leave Roccafranca. I said goodbye to the quiet father, outgoing mother, amusing children, and all-too-familiar grandmother and arrived at the train station in plenty of time to make my complicated journey to a company-owned flat in San Donato, a suburb of Milan. And for once in my life, I was actually too early.

If there was one word I learned this summer, it was sciopero, meaning "strike." As in, "Italian train workers are always on effing sciopero." For a time, I thought I'd have to sleep in that station, but I finally caught the ten'o'clock train to Milano Centrale.

From there, I rushed downstairs to the Metro station, where I got on a train bound for San Donato, which is the last stop on the yellow line. It took roughly an hour to get out there. From there, my directions told me to catch a bus, but I seriously doubted there were any buses running at that hour (it was past midnight). I hailed a cab instead.

Neither the cab driver nor I were entirely sure where the apartment building was. We circled around the same street for about ten minutes before deciding on a random building. I checked the buzzers and saw a familiar name, paid the cabbie, and took my stuff. My directions instructed me to ring the buzzer, but I'd been told there was no one else staying at the flat, so I went on to the next line: "If no one is there, hop the gate." I decided to try it first, and lo and behold, it was open.

I continued on to the building on the far left, per the directions (oh, I forgot to mention that I had about five buildings to choose from in the complex). Then it was a matter of choosing the right entrance. Once I found that, I continued to the company garage, which was open, and searched for the keys that were meant to be hanging in an obvious place.

They weren't there.

By now, it was half past midnight. My phone was dead, I had no one to let me in, and I worried that the police would be called if I woke the neighbors. It was also a fairly cool and rainy September night. It was looking like I'd be sleeping in a garage and calling the company in the morning. Oh wait, I couldn't do that, because there was nowhere to charge my phone. I checked every conceivable spot in that garage for those keys, even digging through boxes of shirts in case the company was trying to play games with me.

The only thing I could think to do was try the door into the building. Maybe I'd be able to buzz someone from there who would let me in. I dragged my suitcase to the doormat, second-guessed myself for several minutes, sniffled and lamented my miserable luck, and then pressed on the door.

Somehow, whoever had come through it last hadn't pushed it with enough force to latch it shut, as had been the case with the gate to the complex. I pulled my bags up the stairs breathlessly, trying not to wake anyone, and amazed by my luck. At least I wouldn't be sleeping in a garage for the night.

When I was at the door of the flat, I pressed my luck once more. Three unlocked doors in a row? It couldn't be. And it wasn't. I pulled out a bobby pin, tried to pick the lock, but that's not really something I'm good at. I turned away from the door, trying to figure out which flat to buzz next, when, on a whim, I turned back around and pressed the buzzer. No one was supposed to be there, but. . . there was a sound from within. And then the door opened. There was a lone tutor there, with an Italian friend of hers by her side, and they seemed just as shocked to see me as I was to see them.

To wrap things up, I got a full tour of the two-bedroom apartment before settling into my very own room, and slept like a baby that night, with the sweet relief that comes with staring adversity in the face and then sticking an icepick in its eye.

01 October 2011

the far east : gemona del friuli


I walked along the Adda river down to the railway station of Tirano with my host family the next morning. If you remember, I did a camp last year in a town called Cassano d'Adda. It's funny to think that if you dropped something into the river from my homestay in Tirano, it could eventually flow all the way downstream to somewhere else I've stayed. Anyway.

It was strange to be on a train without Jeremy. I could count on him to make me laugh, tie my shoe if I needed it, or put my bag up on the overhead racks (something I'm completely capable of doing by myself, but it would have been a shame to let those biceps of his go to waste). Fortunately though, I had Sarah to keep me company, and she's pretty great. Our transportation sitch wasn't bad either. After our lousy regional train down to Milan, we took a high-tech, international train to Venezia Mestre station. It had a little screen above each of the seats that said when the seat was reserved and when it wasn't. I was lucky enough to have a seatmate that never showed, but not lucky enough to have a working electrical outlet under my seat. After Venezia Mestre, we had to take two more trains before finally making it to our destination.

There we were in Gemona del Friuli. If you're in the northern part of Italy, rather than the peninsula, it's about as far east as you can go before you find yourself in Slovenia. Friuli-Venezia Giulia is the name of the autonomous region (there are 20 regions in Italy, but only a handful are autonomous), and Udine is the name of the smaller province within that region. They have their own distinct dialect like other parts of Italy, but what's interesting about Friulian is how prevalent it is. Many of the young people speak it just as well as they speak Italian.

You can check the wikipedia page like I did, but basically Gemona is a town of about 11,000 people best known for a devastating earthquake which struck 35 years ago (which has its own wikipedia page here). Nearly a thousand people died, and you can sort of feel that hanging over the town even now.

We had a glass of water with our new director, an intimidating, angular woman with Lady Gaga-esque bone structure, and then went off to our new host families. Sarah and I would be living with families in the tiny village of Buia/Buja (yes, it's pronounced BOO-yah, like the SportsCenter catchphrase). I made the mistake of telling my host family that I wasn't that tired because I thought it would mean Sarah and I could hang out that night, but she was smart enough to tell her family that she was tired, so I ended up at a poolside party with a bunch of 14-year-olds who thought it was cool to smoke and brag about how much they drank. I had a drunken middle-aged man buying me and my host sister beers (don't worry, I took one for the team and drank hers) and teenage boys trying to impress me by telling me all the dirty words they knew in English. When host dad finally picked us up, host sis lied to him about smoking, drinking, and getting kicked out of the party for for underage drinking. We were off to a great start.

The next morning, I went into Gemona to meet with the director, assistants, helper, and other tutors. The city center is on the top of a mini-mountain, with other mountains surrounding it, and you have to take some winding roads to get there. We sat in a cafe on the main square across from the cathedral, which has an absolutely gorgeous peak rising up behind it, and we planned for the coming week.

We had a little extra time after our meeting, so we split up to explore the market that snaked along Gemona's main street. My little sister had told me she wanted something random, so I found her an beautiful little teapot, and I picked up an old copy of Julius Caesar in Italian (Giulio Cesare) for myself. Like you didn't already know I was a nerd.

That afternoon my family had a backyard dinner party and invited their neighbors. All of their neighbors had spent significant time in the US, so we had plenty to talk about. It didn't hurt that their neighbors' son was on the attractive side,
either.

The company was good, the food was delicious, but here's what bothered me: once again, the meal took all afternoon. I don't mean to begrudge the family for being friendly, but after I'd spent all of Saturday on trains, Saturday night out late at a pool party, and gotten up early to meet with my coworkers, I was exhausted. Add to that the stress of planning for a high school campus (oh, did I not mention that? My bad), and I needed some alone time to rest and prepare. Thankfully, they encouraged me to go nap when they noticed me falling asleep at the table.

Aaaaaaand then they woke me up from that nap to go to a fundraising concert to oppose the building of a new highway. In the rain. There were some white guys freestyle rapping in Friulian and a Peter Jackson lookalike singing folk songs with a banshee for a backup singer. It was interesting, to say the least. At least the hot neighbor was there.

Next thing I knew, it was Monday and time for camp to start. My class was out of control. I had a full class of 14-18-year-olds, so the atmosphere in the room alternated between hilarious and terrifying. These kids had a passion for English. Combine that with the rebellious attitude that is a highlight of the teenage years as well as their extensive pop culture knowledge, and you've got to stay on your toes.

It started on Tuesday, when we noticed that Leonardo had a penchant for quoting Jersey Shore. "Yeah buddy!" or "I like it!" were his responses to almost everything. Then he added, "It's a good situation." He used these phrases sincerely, ironically, or dryly, depending on the occasion. When we asked him what other English phrases he knew, he came up with, "T-shirt time!" and, "Taxi's here!"

When we went on a mid-week field trip, he and his friends sat at the back of the bus and sang dirty songs in Italian and Friulian. We told Andrea, their ringleader, that they would be allowed to continue singing if they translated their songs into English. Andrea wouldn't hear of it, telling us, "Singing that song in English instead of Italian would be like going to a hooker and asking for a hug." He actually said that. In English.

That's probably the greatest pro of working at a high school campus. Having such advanced and dedicated students means that the lessons can be much more complex, which in turn makes everything more rewarding. We held mock trials in my classroom and it was so thrilling to see the kids get into it. I felt more like a mentor than a teacher that week.

Of course, working with such smart and stubborn kids meant I sometimes had to use different methods to motivate them. When we were rehearsing for the final show and my kids wouldn't take it seriously, I took them out of the auditorium and gently yelled at them, like, "Do you enjoy making me crazy? DO YOU?!" and then wrapped it up by telling them how much potential they had, and how I believed in them more than anyone, and this could go down in history as the greatest show of all time, if they would only focus. It was incredibly dramatic.

We actually had two field trips that week. The first was to a local sculptural garden, where we conducted interviews with the artist, who only spoke Friulian, so that was pretty cool. Probably the only time in my life I'll run a class where the kids have to write questions in English, then translate them into Italian, then into Friulian, then ask them to a wizened old man, then translate his responses all the way back into English.

The second field trip was two a coin museum in my hometown of Buja, which actually had some pretty interesting stuff, as well as an infestation of bees. After touring the museum, we also visited a very old church and did a scavenger hunt in a park. There were a few times that week when I butted heads with some of the older boys, if you can believe that. In those moments, I called on my fellow tutor Ricardo to help me out. I can't believe I haven't mentioned him yet. Ricardo's a rather large man, and he played college football at Lehigh, so the kids were instantly terrified of him. Which seemed silly to the rest of us, because he was actually a big teddy bear. He prepped our kids for the sculpture field trip by getting on the mic of our tour bus and telling them not to touch anything because, "you break it, you bought it." Then he signed off with, "This has been Audible Chocolate." Maybe a little over the kids' heads but we certainly got a kick out of it.

Our fourth tutor was Rachel. She was originally from West Virginia, but she'd spent time traveling the world and had taught English in Korea for the last year. She'd last worked with our company the year before I started, so we knew a few of the same people, which was cool. Her style was very cozy bohemian, so we bonded over a mutual love of legwarmers and wool.

Thursday night was fancy dinner night in town, at a place called Frank and Jo's. It had 'Pizza Mood' written on the windows so you knew it was going to be good. There were delicious risottos, tiny beers, and savory pastas to be enjoyed by all. We were right off the main square, so we had a great view to the fireworks spectacular the town put on to honor its soldiers. All in all, a very satisfactory night.

Then it was time for Friday night and another English Camp final show. I'm not going to hold you in suspense or be dramatic or whatever--it was the best final show any of my kids have ever put on. It was about a man who upsets his girlfriend by missing their anniversary. She kills him, he goes to Heaven, gets rejected, then goes to Hell, where he makes a deal with the devil: he must win a best-of-three series of competitions to return to life, or do Satan's bidding forever. The first competition was a singing competition, which he lost. The second competition was a local game kind of like Rock, Paper, Scissors (the crowd loved it). He won that one. The last competition was general knowledge, and he miraculously won and was allowed to return to life. I was basically in tears by the end because I was so happy with my kids.

We took some photos, Ricardo allowed the students to try and tackle him one more time, and then we were off to a bar/gelateria (I'm not sure why this concept hasn't caught on in America because it's brilliant). As always, I was torn between savoring the tastes of Italy and preserving my girlish figure, so I ordered a baby beer and shared a little of Sarah's gelato.

That last night in Gemona was much too short. We didn't want to say goodbye to our students, and we made them repeat our favorite phrases over and over again. Cecilia, our director, paid me a very great compliment when she told me she was inspired by how I handled my class, and what a great leader I was (one of the most beautiful things anyone's ever said to me). But while the other tutors were experiencing the bittersweetness of their last nights as tutors, I at least had one more week of camp to look forward to.

We talked vaguely about theoretical future reunions to take the edge off of the goodbyes, but before I knew it, I was back in my room at my host family's house, packing up my things. I was out as soon as my head hit the pillow, and then it was time for me to make my way to the final English Camp of 2011.


29 September 2011

tirano: in which I reiterate that I fear nothing

The 9:15 train from Sanremo to Milano Centrale takes nearly four hours. I know this because I've taken it several times. This gave Jeremy and I plenty of time to try and figure out exactly what had happened during our last night in Baiardo. Rumor had it he had destroyed the House 12 kitchen looking for food while drunk, and he woke up with junk food wrappers all over him and his bed. More questions were raised when he came back from the train bathroom and told me he'd found his underwear on inside out. I guess some things are just meant to remain a mystery.

Every week that we travel, we receive a packet from our company which includes detailed travel information to make sure we get where we need to be. This week, that information was almost totally wrong. One train was late, and it turned out they were doing work on the rail lines in Sondrio, the region we were going to, so we had to get off the train at one point, then get on a bus, and then get back on a train. This made us about two hours later than we'd expected. And of course I hadn't charged my phone before leaving Baiardo.

But of course we eventually arrived in Tirano, and we met our new co-worker, Sarah, on the way. It turned out that I had a little in common with her--she had studied in Spain, roomed with Josephine for a week at a camp, and she was high school friends with the son of my father's cousin. She also said some really nice things about the H&M purse I'd just bought to carry my tiny netbook. Things were off to a good start.

Our new director put a slight damper on things, however. "Nobody wants this camp to succeed," she told us at the first meeting. Oh. Cool. Good way to start the two-week camp.

Oh! Did I mention we were up by the Swiss border? Probably about a mile or so from Switzerland. My host family took me through Switzerland on our way to Livigno, which is actually a ski town in Italy, so basically I spent less than a couple of hours in Switzerland, and they were all in a car. I spent the night in their guesthouse there, and in the morning I went around with the mum while she cleaned the flats they rent out there and I also went for a little walk with the older daughter. They had a younger daughter, but she was out with friends, and their son was in South Africa for a rugby championship. No big deal.

I won't lie to you: that camp was tough. The director was in a panic over little things, and she wanted to have every second of our day accounted for and filled. She even insisted that we spend our lunch break doing 'light didactic play activities' with the children. That's something I've never come across, and not something that's necessary. The lunch break is in place for a reason--it gives the children some time to relax, and it gives us time to plan, make copies, etc. Then, when we spent the lunch break doing an activity that our director had suggested to us, she complained that a couple of the children hadn't liked it, so we should have done something else. We tried to explain to her that not all of the children could ever be happy 100% of the time, but she was adamant that the camp was failing, and it was all our fault. We tried to keep ourselves sane by hanging out after work, watching movies, going for runs or exercising together, and having the occasional brewski.

Apparently, our director made her concerns known to the company, and they sent Jules out to check up on us. I'm not sure if I've mentioned him or not, but Jules would be the expert tutor who goes around and does Beatles workshops with the children as well as emergency mediation (you may recall that he showed up at my last camp of 2010 to help us out). He's a bit of a saucy Scouser, with a way of speaking that commands attention and a very nice smile.

His visit was all the more welcome because he ended up taking our side (in a very diplomatic way, of course). Essentially, he told our camp director to chill out and back down, and he sat us all down to make a definitive schedule for the remaining week. Before he left, he did a brief Beatles workshop with all the kids. The whole thing was a welcome break for us.

Let's talk about my kids in Tirano. I was teaching ten to 12 year olds, and while that's not my favorite age to work with, these kids were quite clever and entertaining. Sarah was teaching the level above me, and Jeremy's kids were high schoolers. These kids were funny, and Jeremy's kids were making a couple of short films to showcase their English.

On Thursday, our director told me I'd be switching families. I'd known that it might happen, and I'd changed families mid-camp before, but somehow, the way the director gave me the news, just her general attitude and all, made it seem like I'd done something wrong. Voices were raised, words were exchanged, and I stomped off to the grocery store with Jeremy to get something for lunch.

That was another thing. We'd taken to buying our own lunches across the street because our cafeteria selection was limited and both Jeremy and myself are pretty specific about what we eat. The director urged us to reconsider, and when I told her I'd prefer not to eat the greasy, bready pizza or anything else on her menu she asked me, "What are you afraid of?"

Ladies and gentlemen, if you want to know one question that will make me defensive, that's it. (There are actually many, many more, but none that are immediately relevant.) A boy once used that question while I was a bit tipsy to try and get me to reconsider not dating him, and he got the same reaction from me as this director did: My nostrils flared, eyes narrowed to slits, and my response of, "I'm not afraid of anything" came through gritted teeth. So I accepted her challenge, and tried her nasty cafeteria food for one day, and had Jeremy reminding me about it all day: "That thing is inside of you," he kept saying of the roughly one pound chunk of bread with tomato paste and slimy cheese on top.

Anyway, the weekend came, and I switched families. My new family thought that Jeremy and I were 'together,' and we were happy to let them think this if it meant we could hang out more often. We went out with our host siblings on Friday night, and found out that they were truly horrible, dangerous drivers, and I absolutely destroyed all of the arrogant Italian teenage boys at bowling. Then we had to get home early because apparently my host family was wound a little tight. The rest of the weekend was full of whitewater rafting rumors that never materialized, fried cheese sandwiches, and episodes of Mad Men on my netbook.

Week 2 was more of the same. We were still stressed out, but we tried to do little things to keep camp interesting and fun for us and the kiddos. On market day, we took our kids on field trips. Sarah and I did a cooking tutorial with our classes--and they all loved our guacamole. Jeremy bought us friendship bracelets to commemorate our six weeks of working together. After camp on Wednesday, we went out for beers and then to dinner, just the three of us. Jeremy even caught a bee under his water glass for us.

Finally it was Friday, and the final show was over, and Jeremy and I went out for one last night before he had to return to the Republic of Georgia for his teaching gig there. The driving was terrible once again, made worse by the fact that we went on a pub crawl that took us all the way up into the mountains. Jeremy's host brother made us try braulio, a liquor that tasted strongly of local herbs.

That night, Jeremy and I said our goodbyes. He's talked about going on a road trip and passing through Kansas, so I might see him in the spring time. That guy kept me sane for six weeks by being someone I could always talk to. He kept me laughing with little comic strips and constant jokes. And he kept me fit by being my workout and dieting partner. What a gem.

A few of my favorite Jeremy quotes:
"The children is in the gym."
"Can I have another bourbon?"
"And what's WOW upside down? MOM."
"That thing is inside of you. . ."
"I'm not wearing hockey pads."
Until we meet again, friend <3

goodbye to the cloud village

As a person who savors change and loves to travel, I am rarely in the same place two years in a row. And yet, that's exactly where I found myself when I returned to Baiardo. It had been exactly 52 weeks since I'd sang karaoke with the boys on Children's Night and stolen a Bajardo hat in the process. Although almost nothing about Baiardo itself had changed, I was the only person from previous summer who was around to appreciate that fact (besides Jimmy of course, but he's as much a part of Baiardo as anyone could ever be, and I have a feeling he'll be there forever).

Fortunately, I was surrounded by new friends who kept my focus on the present. Lewey was still in Baiardo, and we happily resumed our roommate-ship. My darling Kat Hall returned to me on Monday, and Jeremy showed up the day after that.

We spent our days down in Sanremo, swimming out as far as the buoys in the bay and sunning ourselves on the beach. Occasionally, we made a big day of it and accessed the internet to see what was going on in the outside world, but of course we weren't in much of a hurry to do that.

In the evenings we ran down to the main square of Baiardo to stock up on wine, sometimes returning to the top of the mountain with a crate full of bottles. Eventually the restaurant stopped selling us the red because they didn't have enough for their dinner service, but I kind of preferred the white so I wasn't bothered.

Later on, we'd have dance parties at a few of the different houses, or sing-alongs, or we'd play King's Cup. Everyone brought something to the table in a very literal sense, which meant that sometimes you put down your glass and found it filled with something very different than what you'd been drinking before. More than once I started to take a deep drink of what I thought was refreshing white wine, only to find that my glass had been refilled with something much stronger, like limoncello or whiskey. Jeremy ran into the same problem with grappa, which led to him standing on a stone wall overlooking a steep drop down the side of the mountain, saying, "Don't freak out guys; I got this," as he nearly lost his balance.

I got a pleasant surprise in the middle of the week when I checked my camp assignment for the following week and found that I'd be working with Jeremy again. We hadn't really expected this just because the odds weren't in our favor, but our company always seems to know who to place together (i.e. me and Josephine, coworkers for something like seven weeks in our first summer).

On Friday night, Kat and I mixed up nearly ten litres of authentic sangria. Believe you me, that girl and I know our sangria. She's worked as a barmaid in England, and I worked as one in Peru, and of course I did study in Madrid. I was even using the time-honored, traditional, top secret Cova recipe. As we mixed in bits of fresh fruit, and sugar, and rum, I pointed out that we had first met one year earlier, when I'd returned to Sanremo from Nice and stopped in at new tutor orientation to meet my team.

We listened to music, painted our nails, and watched episodes of Community on my laptop as the sangria matured in the fridge all afternoon, the strong aroma tempting anyone who passed our house. Oh, what's that you say? You don't usually put a fifth of rum in your kettle of sangria? Well you're lame.

And that was the night that nostalgia truly set in. I swear, it wasn't just the sangria. Standing upstairs in House Four, hanging out with Kat and getting ready for the evening, I couldn't help but remember that I'd been in the exact same room one year earlier. That was where I first started to think about going to Argentina. For better or worse, that room was an important setting in the more recent events of my life.

The next morning I took the early bus down to the train station, then spent an hour anxiously waiting for Jeremy to take the second bus down. He managed to make it just in time, although he was a bit worse for the wear. I saw a few friends and managed to take a cute picture with my Josephine before heading out on the 9:15 to Milano Centrale.

One last thing to wrap up Baiardo for 2011--I've said it before, and I'll say it again: that wine, three euros or not, was probably the best I've ever had.

25 September 2011

return to that village in the sky

"Let's dance to Joy Division, and celebrate the irony that everything is going wrong, but we're so happy. Let's dance to Joy Division, and raise our glass to the ceiling, cause this could all go so wrong, but we're so happy."
-The Wombats

After a couple hours of sleep on a row of seats in Heathrow (that's my bed in the photo to the left), I got my ticket, went through security, and spent my last few pounds on a breakfast sandwich. In a few short hours, I was back in Italy.

This is where things started to get hectic. I took the first shuttle possible from Malpensa airport to Milano Centrale, but it didn't arrive until 11:07, and the train I wanted to take from Milano Centrale to Sanremo was scheduled to leave at 11:10. I sprinted down the platform and across the station, but my plans were foiled when the conductor told me that buying a ticket on board the train would cost me an additional fifty euro.

I did that sad Charlie Brown walk with my head down and my heels dragging over to some chairs, and called Jimmy to double-check that there was actually room for me in Baiardo (there was). Then I tried to buy my train ticket and got another lovely surprise: out of the dozens of automatic ticket kiosks in that train station, none were working properly. With the line for the ticket desks stretching out the door and across the lower level of the station, it was more than an hour until I actually had my ticket in hand.

I finally arrived in Sanremo on the six'o'clock train. I didn't mention this before, but the primary reason I was hoping to get there early was to run into some of my favorite returning tutors as they waited to welcome new tutors to the final orientation of the year.

My dear Josephine was there. If you remember, we spent seven weeks working and vacationing together in 2009, but I hadn't seen her since July of 2010, so we had a lot to catch up on. And then there was Laura, who had been my partner in crime last August in Baiardo. She was also the person who kept me sane through Facebook messages when I hated everything about Argentina. They're wonderful girls, and two of the most hilarious people I've ever met in my life.

But all too soon I had to take the bus up the mountain. When I got to the top, I found things more or less as I'd left them: there were only a handful of people, but they were people I knew from before; I would be staying in the loft once again; and the wine was still three glorious euros. We made a quiet night of it by watching a movie all together in the loft. It was a great start to another great week.

15 September 2011

foggy london town

"You sound like you're from London!"
-Paul Rudd in 'Forgetting Sarah Marshall

Panic hit me as I waited for my train in Milano Centrale. I had heard that there were riots happening in London, but as I connected to a wireless network outside of Burger King, I found that things were really getting out of hand. A couple of my British friends were even urging me, via Facebook, to forget about the plans I'd made and not fly over.

But what are you gonna do when Baiardo's been closed down for a few days and the tickets to London and the hostel there are bought and paid for? So I took the fast train to the airport and flew into Heathrow. That was uneventful. Then I had to take the Tube (do you capitalize that? I'm going to, just out of respect) to King's Cross/St. Pancras, and then a cab the rest of the way to my hostel.

Cue reunion with Les. It was just about midnight when I arrived, so we only had a couple of hours to catch up over beers in the hostel bar. We attempted to keep the night going by wandering out to find greasy food after that (if I weren't a vegetarian, I think I would have wanted a burger), but hostel security warned us to stay inside. The only people out on the street at that time were rioters. You could tell them apart from regular people by their all-black attire as well as the fact that no one else was stupid enough to be out that late while there were riots happening.

The next day, we embarked upon a whirlwind tour of London. First, we had lunch at an Asian place where everything, even the 'meat,' was vegetarian. (Les hated this.) Then, in rapid succession, we saw: London Bridge (overrated), the Eye (been there, done that), the Houses of Parliament (boring), Big Ben (not a misnomer), Westminster Abbey (not tryna stand in line for that), Buckingham Palace (okay cool, what's next), Hyde Park (so many squirrels and pigeons!), Piccadilly Circus (is that it?), Leicester Square (see: Piccadilly Circus), Trafalgar Square (actually pretty sweet, with all its columns and lions and buskers), and the National Gallery (I thought it was amazing, but Les got bored). I think there were actually a few other places thrown in there that I can't remember, but that's the long and short of it. And it was exhausting. We hit up Tesco on our way back to the hostel and picked up some sandwiches/cheap samosas and ate them for dinner in the common room while watching terrible music videos. I was so tired, I didn't even try to find a microwave to heat up my half-frozen Indian appetizers. Lazy? You betcha.

My third day in London was a rainy one. Les and I got out our umbrellas and went shopping on Oxford Street for a few hours. Because I'd been wearing the same black dress to tutor dinners for the last few weeks (and Jeremy had started teasing me about it) I ended up getting a floor-length blue dress at River Island. Then I picked up a couple of cute tops at New Look to try and mix up my wardrobe a little bit. And then I felt kind of guilty for not seeing all of the great things there are to see in London, so we got lunch at Pret a Manger (I went with gazpacho and a wrap) and then ran on over to the British Museum for a couple of hours.

The British Museum was a little more Les' speed. I mean, it's only one of the greatest history museums in all the world (probably because most of its stuff was stolen or acquired shadily). And I get really excited about ancient treasures too. Even though I sometimes felt like I was drowning during my college Art History classes, it was so amazing to be so close to some of the world's greatest artifacts. Rosetta Stone? Check. The Mausoleum at Halikarnassos? Yep. Temple of Artemis? Yeah buddy. Those part-human, part-lion/bull things that used to stand next to gateways. Yes. The Elgin Marbles? Oooooh yeah.

When the museum closed, we went back to the hostel and grabbed a pint at the pub across the street. Then we did what I'd been hoping to do from the moment I arrived in the UK--we found an Indian restaurant and I ordered a vegetable curry. The restaurant didn't have a liquor license, so Les ran out to a shop and brought back some beer and wine, but that was no indication of how good the food was. It was actually really amazing. Pilau rice and vegetables in a lovely curry sauce, with lots of cilantro and so many incredible spices. . . I officially love Indian food. Then we had a little dessert before heading back to the hostel, where we crept on a tour group and had paper airplanes thrown at us by a German girl, a French girl, a Norwegian boy, and a guy from New Zealand.

The next morning, I got up early and went back to the British Museum. There was still so much I wanted to see, and Les wanted to sleep in. This time, I checked out a whole different section of the museum, starting with the Americas, going through Africa, and then Asia. I think I found some inspiration for when I finally return home and start painting again.

Back at the hostel, I finally watched Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 with Les. It was pretty exciting to be right down the street from King's Cross Station while watching it. We went by there afterwards so I could take pictures at Platform 9 3/4. Les was a good sport about it even though he could not have been less interested. Then we took the tube (too lazy to capitalize it a second time) to St. Paul's Cathedral, which is so much more massive than it looks in pictures. We capped off this lazy day with burgers and fries (and the worst barbecue sauce I've ever tasted), and I fell asleep early.

Saturday was my last day in London. I had seen just about everything I'd wanted to see, so I went shopping early, ate some more Indian food with Les (I'm obsessed), and then watched my first three episodes of Mad Men ever (also obsessed now). Then it was off to Heathrow, which would be my hotel for the night. If I had a dollar for every night that I've spent on the floor of an airport or train station. . .

30 August 2011

little village in the sky

For me, it is becoming a time-honored tradition to flee to Baiardo when I have nowhere else to go. Really, it's the only place that will take me in when I'm out of both money and energy. It also happens to be one of the most awesome places I know. The wine is cheap (like seriously cheap, like three-euros-a-bottle cheap), there's always good company to be found, and you can't beat the view.

I was one of two tutors on the last bus up to the little town, and I had plenty of time on the way to reminisce about my last stay there. It had been exactly 50 weeks since my last stay--350 days.

I found Baiardo relatively empty. I'm not sure what I'd expected, but maybe I'd been hoping for a repeat of the year before, with the same people and same weather and same food. Because that wasn't an option, I acquainted myself with a few new people and enthusiastically greeted those I already knew (including British Will, my coworker and darling from earlier in the summer). Then I made an early night of it, climbing up into my little bed on the floor of a wooden loft in a house that was built, oh, just a few centuries ago after watching a film with a couple of other girls.

Despite the inconsistent temperatures, rustic furnishings, and high probability that I had insects traversing the landscape of my body the entire night, I slept like a rock. I imagine my sleep would have been perfect if not for one tiny incident: At approximately four in the morning, one of my loftmates, Lewey, drunkenly crawled back up the ladder to his pillowless bed and, in his confusion, attempted to rest his head on the side of mine. It was an honest mistake, as our beds were quite close together and both on the ground, and the poor boy just wanted a pillow, but I still haven't let him forget about it. I know I have chipmunk cheeks, but my face is not a pillow.

I spent the next day searching for internet down in Sanremo. When I arrived back up at the top of the mountain, there were a few new guests drinking wine by the fountain in the piazza, so I joined them. There was a girl who could read palms, and Jimmy was around as well, but the biggest surprise was probably Derrik, who was one of the guys I sang karaoke with at Children's Night last year. Within a few hours, we were all drinking three euro wine and listening to music in one of the more cave-like houses. I even rapped a little bit and had a drink thrown on me by an Irish girl. The night ended well after the sun came up.

The next day was an unusually productive one for me. I woke up around midday, washed all the dishes (not just my own--take that, Mom and Dad), cleaned the stovetop, rearranged the bookshelves, did my laundry, laid out, and painted my nails. Massive success.

Monday night was more of the same. We had dinner together, and then those of us in Casa Due hosted a little get-together. Enrique from San Diego acted as our deejay, but the best music by far that night was provided by a German guitarist, who was recording some promotional videos in an alcove next to the old church. It was well past midnight, and we sat there listening to him play flamenco tunes, and I felt that peace that you feel when you're happy and surrounded by good people. I saw the sun rise again a few hours later, but apparently I missed Enrique doing sprints around the old church, shouting about how his head was hurting.

Everything would have been absolutely peachy had I not discovered in the shower that I'd only managed to shave one of my armpits the morning before. That's what I get for staying up all night. It's not like I was trying to impress anyone or anything.

What can you do? That's Baiardo for you.

23 August 2011

gianico


So Trento was great, and my host family was incredible, but as Amanda Bynes says in 'She's the Man,' "the time comes for a man to move along." So I boarded a train with Jeremy (my P90x partner) and we managed to transport our mildly hungover selves to Gianico (but how we got to be hungover is another story for another day).

At Gianico, we were just a couple of players in a camp full of big personalities. Combine that with the fact that it was a one week camp, and we barely had a moment to relax. There was something to do almost every day after camp. On Wednesday, for instance, I got to see some prehistoric rock carvings, which are actually right up my alley, and on Thursday, we went swimming in an ancient lake on top of a mountain. Do you like pictures? Because I got 'em.

Friday was all about the show. Mine was about the Little Mermaid and the drama that ensued after the infatuation between her and Eric wore off. He sat around the house all day, watching tv and yelling for her to make him a sandwich--in short, he was a triflin' fool. Finally, Ariel kicked his sorry bottom out because he couldn't help her pay the bills. I actually had the kids learn and rehearse an a capella version of Destiny's Child's 'Bills, Bills, Bills' (a la the Warblers from Glee), and it was sounding pretty good, but I ended up cutting it because I knew it would go right over the audience's head. Still, it was a pretty creative show, and a couple of the kids went all out with their costumes.

The best part of the night, though, was probably when we went out for drinks afterwards. I was totally not prepared, to the point that I was wearing my tutor shirt and Chucks. Fortunately, a few of my quick-thinking lady tutor friends managed to make me over in the bathroom, and I emerged looking pretty decent. We danced well into the night--or at least until 10:30, when I had to be home.

And that's Gianico for you.

28 July 2011

trento: highest quality of life of all time

First off, props to you if you noticed the child on the ground in an asparagus costume in the last picture.

And now, the long-awaited Trento.

Trento is an ancient and beautiful city nestled in the lower Dolomites. Its name comes from the Romans' original name for it, Tridentum, which was a reference to the three main mountains, or teeth, surrounding it. Today, Trento consistently ranks at or near the top of the polls for things like quality of life and education among Italian cities.

Somehow, even with all of its modern convenience and whatnot, it still takes a hella long time to get there. I spent more than six hours in transit, leaving my Morgano home at 8:45 and arriving in Trento after three in the afternoon. That was annoying.

My streak of amazing host families continues here, with Francesca, Luca, a
nd little Giulia and Cecilia. Francesca speaks English really well, and Luca knows more than he lets on. The girls are adorable (when they want to be).

The day after we arrived, we went up into the mountains to see the tiny town of Lavarone and my extended host family. This next part is a little tough to explain so just bear with me: my host mother's father and his brothers and sisters own a couple of adjacent apartment buildings in Lavarone. Each of them has a different floor, consisting of a two or three bedroom apartment, to his or herself. In the summer, that generation, and/or their children and grandchildren, stay up there for at least a few weeks.

You know why they like to hang out in Lavarone in the summertime? Because it's COLD. I made the mistake of wearing shorts on my first trip up there, and I was chillin' like a villain during the quaint little stroll my host mother and I took around the volcanic lake. Was it worth it to see a beautiful, scenic lake nestled amongst picturesque mountains, surrounded by warm and welcoming Italians? I'm still not sure.

I ended up teaching a red class (something I more or less vowed never to do after my first summer) because it was the most convenient choice for the group. (What can I say? That's just the type of person I am.) While the class received red books, they range in age from seven to 11, and their skill levels are all over the place. But I love a challenge (that's also the kind of person I am).

Week one in Trento was pretty laid back. The kids aren't crazy about the warm-up circle, so there's been a lot of repetition and games. Bananas of the World has been met with a tepid response, and The Chosen One bombed altogether. Sometimes kids just sit down while they're supposed to be dancing around in the circle.

We did have one boy, however, who probably had more energy than all of the other campers combined. His name was Michele, and he was unfortunately only around for that first week. He spent breaks and recess popping and locking to rap music. When he needed a break, he'd stand still and put his hand on his chin or his hip and stare off into the distance, not unlike a male model. "Pose some more," I joked. I didn't expect him to get on the ground and strike a pose, announce, "January," and then change poses before saying, "February," and so on for all twelve months.

Michele also had quite a few fantastic one-liners involving poo, most memorably: "Can I go to the toilet please because the poo is now exits my bum." It was obviously funny, but after a few days of hearing about how he had pooed on the way to the bathroom, we began to feel a little concerned.

The weekend was spent up in Lavarone. I did my best to prepare for the weather, but that was a bit difficult, as the only long pants I have from home are leggings. Along with those, I took my purple waterproof jacket, an old softball sweatshirt, a cardigan, and a couple of tops. It wasn't enough to protect me from the 40 degree temperatures and constant freezing drizzle.

Whenever there was a lull in the precipitation, my host mom and I went for walks through the countryside. It helped to keep me warm, but the steep hills were mildly brutal.

Week two has been good. I've been doing a little P90X with my coworker Jeremy after camp, which means I'm roughly twice as tired as I should be, but I feel like it's worth it to have ripped abs. Definitely worth it.

The final show is this afternoon, and my children will be presenting a sketch about the Quidditch World Cup, where Shakira will perform Waka Waka. I'm excited about it, but who knows how it will actually go. After camp, we're going out for drinks, because two of our tutors will be finished after today. Jeremy and I are going on to Gianico tomorrow for a one week camp. This will mark my first camp in Brescia after two years away from there. Weather.com says it's going to be hot.

26 July 2011

quidditch

Before I describe Trento, did I mention the fantastic game we 'invented' for Harry Potter Day in Morgano? It's really a twist on a couple of old favorites: you teach the kids handball, and then on top of that, two tutors run around throwing a couple of volleyballs at them, just to get in the way. The first ball is the Quaffle, and the other two are Bludgers. We tried to work in a Golden Snitch but we thought it might complicate things just a little too much. Anyway, I am more or less a master of this game. To shake things up, I waited until the Quaffle was in the air on a long pass, and then I tried to hit it with my Bludger. I actually managed to do it quite a few times. The kids hated it.

And I really have to include this: in Morgano, they love asparagus so much that they hold an annual festival dedicated to it. The children dress up as asparagi and dance around. Guess where they store the asparagus costumes? That's right, in the school where we held English camp. You can probably imagine what went down when we tutors got a hold of these costumes, but fortunately, you don't have to.

Also, we had family friends over for dinner one night before we all went out to--wait for it--sagra. The host dad showed up in a red dress shirt, with only the middlest button buttoned. He had a delightful combover and a significant gut. I wasn't really paying much attention to the conversation, but I definitely noticed when he went on a rant about how GPS systems are robots living in your car, and someday soon they will all rebel against us and rule the world. Yep.

Seriously though--time to talk about Trento.

19 July 2011

more mosquitos than you can shake a stick at

The title of this post just about sums up Morgano. I'm not sure I've ever killed so many mosquitos at a camp, and I'm actually applying mosquito repellant regularly this year. (I'm also using sunscreen semi-regularly on my nose and forehead. . . is this what growing up feels like???)

When we chose our classes at our first staff meeting in Morgano, Liam and I were the last to select, and we were left with a white/yellow group and a purple group--two extremes. The decision was finally made when I realized that my host sister was in the purple group, leaving me with the babies.

I forgot what short attention spans little children have. Really tiny little attention spans. And sometimes they just choose not to listen to you. And sometimes they grab your chest, or if you're a boy, they grab your boy parts, or they just pinch your bum. Yep. I'm talking to you, Marco.

We played water games and had Pirate and Harry Potter-themed days. Guess who has two thumbs and showed up to camp dressed as Bellatrix? That's right, this girl. I lost my patience with the kids and Avada Kedavra'ed roughly all of them by the end of the day. Don't hate me. (Or was I just method acting? Something to ponder. . .)

I made a desperate attempt to teach my students to sing Proud Mary, or at least sing backup while I danced around in front of them like Tina Turner, but it didn't work.

My weekend could not have been more low-key. I stayed in bed until one on Saturday (after waking up at 7:30 in a panic, thinking I'd missed my alarm), and then lounged by the pool for most of the afternoon. Host mom got her thinking cap on and came up with a little excursion that turned out to be way more interesting than I expected: we (host mom, host sis, and myself) drove an hour west-ish to Possagno, where a famous sculptor named Canova had built a massive temple and had left a museum of his works.

Because there was a special CanovaFest on, the museum was offering guided tours at 9 and 10 at night. We jumped on that, and got to see plaster casts of his art, and some of the final products. The guide was careful to explain the entire sculpting process, and I understood it, because I've had the same concepts and methods explained to me in English and Spanish. I had originally worried that my familiarity with art and sculpture would make the trip boring, but as it turned out, I was in my element. I felt like I was back in the Prado again, listening to another one of the Jefe's passionate lectures with JaNae by my side and a notebook full of backwards notes in my hands. I was shocked when I looked at an info card for a plaster cast of a seated man with a book in his hands and read 'Giorgio Washington.' I did a double take--yep, still George Washington in Italian. The tour guide talked to me specially about the piece after the official tour, and paralleled the story of George Washington turning down extra time in office to a Roman leader who had done something similar. He said some really nice things, too. Unfortunately, the actual statue had been destroyed in a fire in the capital building in Raleigh, so only the plaster model was left, but it was still one of those moments where I felt like I was just meant to be there.

Sunday was pretty chill. You can't call me lazy, though, because I was told that the train workers were on strike and I couldn't make it to Venice or Verona or anywhere cool.

Week Two of Morgano camp was good, overall. We all got along fantastically, and the only bumps in the road were the occasional gropings, courtesy of Marco, and the world's blandest food, courtesy of the camp's catering company. (Seriously, I had plain rice for lunch one day.) We had Band Hero parties, a birthday party for Tess (where she was hit in the face with a shoe) and gelato dates after school. Most annoying thing to happen to me: breaking my toe during a barefoot handball match with my students. Believe it or not, because I'm so injury-prone, that was probably the least painful injury I sustained in Morgano.

My final show was decent. Really, though, what can you expect from six- to eight-year-olds? Not a lot, I say. Beforehand, Giulio, Marco's doppelganger, spent a few minutes touching himself inappropriately, and things got a little bit out of hand. (Thanks, camp director, for laughing at the whole situation. In 40 years, that little boy will be a creepy middle-aged man on a bike harrassing some innocent English tutors walking down the street in Milan.) Post-show, Marco ran around with a sanitary napkin in his hand, waving it in the faces of anyone near him. We sat back and watched and enjoyed no longer being responsible for these children.

We spent Friday night at Sagra once more. While we had every intention of blowing our cash advances at the bar, we instead spent all the tokens donated to us by children on bumper cars. When midnight rolled around, we all shared an emotional goodbye, because I would be leaving for Trento the next morning, while Tess and Li were off to Asola, and our two coworkers would be setting off on their own adventures. It was a good, if bittersweet, way to end a very good camp.

Next up: the very clean city of Trento.

the great naval battle of 1668

In case I wasn't clear in my last post, Morgano is one of several tiny towns around Treviso, which is a fairly prominent city in the Veneto (the region of Venice). It was even smaller than my hometown. The primary entertainment for our host siblings was to attend the traveling carnival, which was in the area the entire time we were. Yep, we went almost every night.

The best night at the carnival, or sagra, was its last night in Quinto di Treviso, when there was a massive fireworks display. Tess (Liam's lovely lady) and I were there, trying to keep each other entertained while we were surrounded by Italian teenagers with bad hair and tee shirts bearing English slogans that didn't make sense.

The fireworks spectacle began with a strange array of bobbing lights on the lake we were facing. At first I thought they were in boats, but we realized that they were actually being held up by people walking towards us in the water. Being the imaginative, theatrical types that we are, Tess and I started improvising a story about this grand Venetian tradition, and it goes a little something like this:

Many, many years ago (nearly 500 years ago, in fact), a group of travelers were sailing in search of a new land. Their cargo included a great deal of explosives, and in hindsight, that was a really horrible idea. Suddenly, they were attacked by a pirate ship. The pirates fired upon the travelers, resulting in a fantastic fireworks display. Eventually, the travelers were completely disarmed (by this we mean their actual limbs were removed, not their weapons), and had to swim ashore, waving their burning arms (yes, their own limbs) above their heads to light the way. Once they made it to dry land, they walked until they could walk no more, and when the finally collapsed, they named the location 'Morgano' after the pirate who had attacked them--Captain Henry Morgan.

Now, the descendants of those first settlers commemorate their ancestors' struggles annually by first reenacting the abandonment of the original ship and the subsequent march to shore, and then the naval battle. No one knows why the order has been reversed, but it's tradition. They reenact the battle by shooting fireworks across the lake to the other side, rather than straight up in the air. It was a pretty one-sided battle from what I could tell. They even set the cattails in the lake on fire to show us what the ship would have looked like as it sank.

Tess and I also considered the possibility that the fireworks tipped over, and that's why the cattails caught on fire and why the rockets were a little bit crooked, but we think our story offers a more interesting explanation.

Maybe the whole thing was a little silly, but do you know what I noticed on the wall of the staircase to my bedroom when I got home? A framed, completed jigsaw puzzle of a painting depicting a great naval battle, complete with burning ships.

Yep. The Great Naval Battle of '68.

07 July 2011

morgano

Did anyone else, after reading over the last post, think that the creepy biker might possibly have been the legendary Bruno, from my very first English camp two years ago? Anyone?

Anyway, I just thought of a couple things I forgot to mention about my time in Milan:

My coworker Kelly (a former competitive swimmer) and I (a former lifeguard and also an awesome swimmer) got into quite a little debate with our camp director last week over whether or not our students should be allowed to swim after lunch. She assumed that we would want to take the children to the pool in the morning, because an afternoon at the pool was out of the question, and when I said that swimming after eating wouldn't be an issue, she said that maybe in my country, we don't eat large enough lunches. Excuse me, have we met? I'm from America. Forget that there's been no documented case of anyone drowning due to a post-meal cramp. Forget that Michael Phelps somehow found time to eat, according to some reports, 12 THOUSAND calories while training for the Olympics, and miraculously managed to never drown. Seriously. It's 2011.

On a brighter note, I had the coolest host family last week. At least, one of the coolest. Ever. I just really connected with them. The mom was so funny and real, kind of like Lynette off of Desperate Housewives. She would always make weird faces at me when no one else was looking during dinner, or do random things like move her plate so that the waitress would get confused when she was clearing the table at a restaurant. Maybe other people would find those things strange, but I do that type of stuff too, so I got a kick out of it. The host dad was generous with compliments, but still managed to make them all sound totally genuine, which is a talent I wish I possessed. He complimented his wife and her cooking constantly, and I thought that was really beautiful. The two of them were treating me like a daughter after the first week.

Anyway, I made a successful escape from Milan (after hitting up the sale at H&M and spending way more than I should have), and am now chillaxing in Morgano, a little town outside of Treviso, which is near Venice. My house has a pool and a pretty sweet room just for me, with my own half bathroom (which is always nice). I've been reunited after two years with Liam, who has brought his lovely girlfriend with him this summer, and our group is rounded out by another American and a Canadian. I'm working with the little ones this week, and it's been a great camp so far.

This weekend should hopefully include a reunion with Josephine and a day trip to an exciting and as-yet-undetermined location. Stay tuned!

02 July 2011

when it's hot, the crazies come out to play

So. . . sometimes things get worse before they get better. Or they get a little better, and then worse, and then better again. Either way, there was no obvious change in camp come Monday. I will say that I had a pretty good weekend, largely filled with procrastination of the 'let's plan to go to the swimming pool/park all day and then not actually leave until 5 in the afternoon' variety, and--here's the best part--I got to see part of an Italian baseball game when we finally made it to the park on Sunday afternoon! The pitching could not have been any faster than 60 or 70, and I could easily start in the outfield for the teams we watched, but it was still really cool.

But back to camp.

The children came back on Monday with just as much unharnessed energy. I pushed for no water games, worried that it would get out of hand, but in the end we decided to keep the pace of the games slow and make sure that the children had no access to the balloons. In the end, I think we were able to manage it well.

As it became more and more obvious that the kids weren't going to change their attitudes (even though we thought they needed to), we decided that we would have to change ours instead. I instituted a policy based on a philosophy of a friend of mine: we, the tutors, were only allowed to have good days or great days, and that choice was up to us.

A large part of our will to survive came from our after-work excursions to the brewery around the corner. It became something to look forward to, and it also encouraged team bonding and good communication. And the drinks were top notch (two words: free pour).

It was on our way to this brewery Thursday afternoon, sans Will, that Cat, Kelly, and I got a huge (not literally) and completely unwelcome surprise. We were walking down the sidewalk, discussing the day that had been. The graffiti around us was beautiful, we were in the shade, a man on a bike wearing blue spandex did a double take in our direction as he swerved off the street and onto the sidewalk, before vanishing into the distance--everything was as it should have been. We walked and talked and were off in our own world.

But Kelly's panicked voice brought us back. "Um, WHAT?! What was that man doing?" We had just passed the cyclist in blue spandex.

"Was he doing something weird?" I asked, as we stopped. I already had an idea of what she was going to say, even though I hadn't seen anything. And according to Kelly, the unfortunate eyewitness, I was correct.

By this time, we were about ten feet past him. I turned around, stared him down, and said, "What the [swear word here] do you think you're doing?" He looked back for a second, decided we were too much trouble, and rode off on his bike.

There was no one else on the block for us to shout to or get help from, so we just watched helplessly. We were kind of in shock. I felt all of this adrenaline inside of me as I grabbed Kelly's arm and asked her if she was all right. Then I insisted she let me buy her a strong drink when we got to the bar.

In hindsight, I'm really annoyed that I didn't act immediately. I've been looking for a valid reason to get in a real, live, prison rules fight for a long time, and I think I could have taken this guy. Or at least gotten a couple good swings in, or scared him off with my crazy lady vibes and lots of shouting. I'm pretty sure I can handle a 40-something in bike shorts (consider that your warning, Lance Armstrong).

A couple rounds of Long Island Iced Teas helped to numb the pain, but we decided that maybe some days can't be good, or even great, and Thursday just couldn't be salvaged. We didn't get a lot of support from the Italians around us, either. "It's very hot out; he was probably out of his head," was one excuse that we heard from multiple people. Someone else even asked us if it was just too urgent for him to wait and that's why he had to do that right there, in front of us, on the sidewalk. There is no excuse for this, but at least this article helped me feel like we're not alone in being victims of harrassment/sexism in this country.

Saw a rat on the way to school on Friday. Yum. The final show went off very well, however, besides the parents talking all through it and babies crawling across our stage. The kiddos gave us very sweet cards they'd made. (Mine said, 'You are the best!')

To sum up Milan: there are parts of this city I'll miss. I've had a great host family, with a host mother who's agreed to share the newly single George Clooney with me, and I've worked with some wonderful people. Overall, however, I'm so excited to head east to Treviso today.

Pictures soon.

23 June 2011

italia, take four

I slept like a baby. . . until a phone alarm went off at 6:30 am. On top of that, it had been packed into a suitcase, so not even its owner could find it. But that got me up and ready to run.

I ended up near the canals in the northeast corner of Milan, where I could run along paths and do pushups, crunches, pull ups, and other exercises on a playground. (It is possible to get a great workout in outside of a gym if you're willing to improvise a little.)

My afternoon was devoted to searching for Inca Kola in Milan's Little Lima or whatever you want to call it, finding an ATM, and meeting friends at the train station. I reunited with Kat Hall, and we spent the rest of the day wandering and causing mischief, most notably when we went out to eat at a Chinese/Peruvian restaurant and got hit on by some Peruvian men who thought I was Spanish because of my accent (win) and bought us something like 8 beers. We did our best to politely decline and tell them we had to be up too early to go dancing with them, but in the end, the only way to escape was for Kat to take a fake phone call from her fake boyfriend, make a massive scene in the middle of the street, and for both of us to run for our lives once we were out of sight.

We hit up the usual spots in Milan the next day--Duomo, Galleria, Scala, all of that, and then got on our separate trains. I found my future co-workers almost immediately, and we talked for the entire 40-minute journey. There were two boys and four other girls.

When we arrived in Romano, we were picked up by our very enthusiastic director, Pinuccia. She whisked us away to her home and served us the finest meats and cheeses in all the land while giving us a rundown of the week that was to come. After that, she took us to meet our host families.

Lemme tell you a bit about my host family. The father was a Sicilian man who looked like a skinny George Lopez. His surname meant 'War Winner,' and he has multiple pictures of himself hanging out with Totti, a legendary Italian footballer. They had a dachshund named Otto and a 12-year-old daughter with hair as long as mine used to be in high school (long enough she could sit on it). The town they lived in was tiny, but it boasted a castle, a church, and a football field.

We established a rapport at our very first dinner together, and made good conversation despite the language barrier. They asked me if I was a singer, due to my 'powerful voice' (not-so-subtle hint that I'm too loud?), and of course I thought that would be a good occasion to break into 'That's Amore.' What. Is. Wrong with me.

In spite of that, they actually seemed to like me. I had a great little room with a beautiful bathroom to myself and the wireless router literally under my bed, which is of course my dream come true. Things were off to a good start.

We all went up to the high city of Bergamo on Sunday, and that was awesome too. If you remember, I went up there one evening with a coworker last summer and saw all the sights, but it was good a second time too. (Would like to point out that host dad drove through town on the way up there with the sunroof open, windows down, and 'Baby Got Back' at top volume.) Once we took the cable car up the mountain into town, we were met by the sight of men dressed up in the Alpine uniforms from when they used to fight the Austrians or the Germans over the territory, and we got gelato, and then we took some group pics.

Things got even better when we started camp. Specifically, my class were an absolute dream. Brilliant, hard-working, respectful children. There was this girl Anita who looked like my sisters when they were little, and she could go on and on in English about how much she liked studying science because it was so interesting, and she also liked French, and if she won the lottery the first thing she would do would be to give her grandmother some money and then she would pay her parents back for the braces she was about to get and she was so excited to be at English Camp and she was just so happy about everything and her favorite actor in the world was Johnny Depp. Did I mention that she was 10? Easily one of my favorite students of all time.

Throughout the week we had two tutor dinners, went out for drinks/gelato (sometimes both in one cup) twice, I hit up the mall with my host family, and had a mani/pedi party with the sister and mom. One afternoon I came home to find that the host dad had set himself up a home gym and was blasting 'Don't Stop Me Now' while doing curls with extremely low weight (I guess he's going for definition, not bulk).

My group's final show was about the Yule Ball at Hogwarts, with the Thriller dance cleverly included. Anita was my Harry Potter, because she brought such enthusiasm to everything she did and she just looked so darn cute onstage. All the kids were great, and the show was a success. I was on the verge of tears as I said goodbye to my students afterwards, and I'm not really sure how to explain why. It was just the kind of week that, after seeing the promise and joy that the children had to offer, made me want to be a teacher full time. I tried to express to the kids, especially the girls, that they can be whatever they want to be if they just keep working hard and have a good attitude, but I think my emotion freaked them out a little bit.

Covo Camp was an absolute dream, but of course Saturday was inevitable, and we had to move on. (I moved on with two practice football kits in my suitcase, thanks host fam!) Six of us were sent back to Milan to work in two separate city camps. I found myself with Kelly from Florida and English Will, plus a new tutor, Catherine.

Once again, I lucked out with a fantastic host family. My room is a loft, with two twin beds up above the rest of the room. I can look out the window and see into other apartments in our little complex, which is think is pretty cool.

My host mother has an intolerance to some grains, so she's very careful about what she eats. She's also careful about what I eat, which is great. There's always plenty of protein in whatever we're eating, and it's never short on flavor.

Everything was going well until we met the children on Monday. These kids are a world away from our last camp. Some of my kids have climbed over their desks to fight each other while I'm in the middle of teaching, and it takes forever to quiet them down enough to get anything done. Plus, they're way behind where they should be, and they have a very different idea of what is an acceptable amount of personal space. During the first week I was stung by a wasp, nearly started crying from exhaustion caused by projecting my voice so much, and had a bottle of nail polish break in my bag. (Not all of those are the kids' fault, I know, but still.) The best news? It's a two-week camp.

We got a nice break last night when we went out for dinner and took a little walk around Milan. Our dinner was at a restaurant near the canals by Porta Genova on the green line, where I went out with friends a couple of times last year, and then we headed to San Lorenzo's Columns and on to the Duomo, which looks pretty cool at night. Today, I'm staying in bed for as long as possible, then eating and heading to the pool with my host brothers, Tommaso and Pietro. Hopefully I can recharge this weekend and return to camp on Monday with the attitude and energy necessary to turn this camp around.

20 June 2011

ritorno

So I found myself rushing to see as many people as possible, catch Royals games with my friends, and tie up loose ends before making my return to Europe. And before I knew it, I was on a flight to New York City.

Did you know that NYC has multiple airports? I did. And yet I still managed to book a flight into La Guardia while simultaneously booking a flight out of JFK only three hours later. Yep. I noticed this about three days before flying out, and then found myself in the middle of an Expedia and Delta hotline frenzy.

To switch my ticket to an earlier flight, the Expedia operator told me, I would have to pay $150, plus the difference in ticket prices. This worked out to around $300. I told him I'd call him back but never did.

The Delta operator was a little more helpful. I could call in early to check for availability on the flight before mine, but even that service would cost me $50. Not really wanting to wake up that earlier, I decided to chance it.

New York City was a balmy 92 degrees when I deplaned on the tarmac and boarded a bus to take me to the terminal. I race-walked inside, through the maze of gates and restaurants, past a lonely-looking guy in a Dustin Pedroia jersey (almost yelled out 'Laser show!' but didn't want to draw attention to either of us), to the baggage carousels.

And here's one of those stories of a time in my life when, for once, everything went exactly as it should have. I grabbed my bag right away, ran out to the taxi stand where there was NO line, hopped in a cab and got my very first glimpse of the city (besides the flight in, which had offered spectacular views of the Statue of Liberty and lots of other stuff I didn't really recognize). I saw some sweet houses along the expressway and we passed the Mets' stadium, which I thought was pretty cool. I'd been warned that traffic might be an issue, but it wasn't at all, and I was at international departures terminal of JFK within 30 minutes. So relieved was I to have arrived with so much time to spare that I tipped the cabbie generously and shook his hand.

Security was a bit of a hassle, and spilling sauce from my Chinese food on my top was a bit of a hassle, but overall, things went really well in New York.

The flight to Dusseldorf was uneventful, and I actually had the best airplane food of my life during those eight hours. I've forgotten it by now except for a really delightful piece of pie, but it was top-notch, overall. Unlike the in-flight films.

Landed in Dusseldorf and tried my best to amuse myself for 13 hours. I took a walk outside, sampled some chocolate, flipped through some magazines, rode the connecting train from one end of the complex to the other for 30 minutes, and slept on a bench near my gate. Finally I was on a plane bound for Milan's Malpensa airport.

The flight was uneventful, besides the complimentary chocolate given out by AirBerlin at the end of the flight. (It might not have been complimentary but I just grabbed it like it was.) I found my bags, declined to declare anything, and took a train into Milan, where I hailed a taxi and finally arrived at my hostel, and went to sleep after something like 60 hours awake with no more than two hours of sleep at a time. And I slept like a baby.