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


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.

15 June 2011

there's no place like. . .

After Cusco, I took a bus up to Lima (word to the wise: Cruz del Sur is the way to go) and then flew home the next morning.

I arrived bearing gifts, such as headbands and t-shirts and alpaca wool socks and random jewelry and lots of ticket stubs that I probably should have thrown away a long time before. I met our family's exchange student, Theresa from Germany, and spent lots of time with my family.

It was a little weird being called by my proper name, instead of Dorothy, or Betty, or Kansas, or any of the other nicknames I picked up during my travels.

I looked at real jobs for a bit, but the idea scared me a little. Found my dream job, and it involved driving around a golf course all day in a cart full of beer. The tips were unbelievable.

For a while, I waffled on whether or not to go back to Europe. Was the cost worth it? Was I just trying to keep from growing up? Would my friends here remember who I was when I returned?

But I can't keep traveling forever, and I might as well do as much of it as possible while I'm young. So I bought my tickets back to Europe, and gave my boss one week's notice. I said goodbye to Kansas, which I genuinely believe is the greatest place in the world, and prepared to return to Europe.

01 June 2011

farewell to cusco

"We gain strength, and courage, and confidence by each experience in which we really stop to look fear in the face. . . we must do that which we think we cannot."
-Eleanor Roosevelt

There were a few surprises in store for me when I returned to Cusco. I had new coworkers to replace Chris and Uly, which meant new roommates in the staff dorm. Some of them were cool, and some of them were not so cool. Assaf was one of the good ones. My first day back, I went with him and another Israeli boy to try and see the ancient site of Sacsayhuaman and the modern sculpture called the Cristo Blanco.

We trekked up cobbled streets, to winding paved roads, until we got a little sick of walking and hailed a taxi driver. When we arrived at the entrance to Sacsayhuaman, we found out it cost far more than we'd budgeted for, and so we decided to cut our losses and just head up to the White Christ.

Of course, in typical Cusco fashion, the skies darkened almost immediately, and it began to sprinkle just as we were getting out of our taxing at the top of the hill. We shelled out a few soles for cheap ponchos, got in a few pics, and waited twenty minutes for a bus to stop for us. Then we took that bus back to town, took another bus to our side of town, and ducked into an Israeli restaurant for a hearty lunch of creamy soups, pastas in rich sauces, pita bread in hummus and green dip, falafel, french fries, and refreshing mint lemonade.

When we returned to the hostel, I began to limber up for my final drinking games night. I had never been defeated at the cereal box game, and my reputation as some kind of legwarmer-wearing, limboing goddess was growing at the hostel. Because my life is basically a movie, my last time participating in the cereal box game was of course the most dramatic, and I found myself facing the stiffest competition yet. (I blame this on Mitch and his habits of a) tearing off nearly two inches of the box at a time, giving participants fewer opportunities to fall over, and b) allowing cute drunk girls three or four attempts to pick the cereal box up, hoping that they'll be grateful for it later when he invites them back to his room.)

Finally it was just me, some midget chick, and a tall guy who was basically a freak of nature. Mitch brought out the broom to serve as a limbo pole. We ducked under it time after time, until the girl was out, and I saw that my final opponent was actually a mutant who possessed the ability to walk on the insides of his legs. I think I put up a pretty tough fight, if I do say so myself, but I am sorry to say that I did not take home a seventh trophy shirt that fateful night.

Thursday was my final night at Loki, and it was also karaoke night. As usual, Mitch and I started off the night with 'Airplanes,' Jamie rocked a little U2, and there was some Tom Jones, Britney Spears, Queen, and all the other karaoke night classics. I was feeling such a rush because it was my last night, and my coworkers let me know that they would miss me: Assaf would not stop hugging me, Mitch threw in a few last minute compliments, and at one point I happened to glance to my right and found Jamie staring at me, looking forlorn and holding up a napkin upon which he'd written 'Don't go!' with a sad face.

Jeremie, of course, couldn't have cared less that I was about to leave, but took advantage of the occasion to get drunk anyways. At one point I found myself having to show him how to properly mix Angel Piss.

But the most magical moment of the evening had to have been when I ran out to use the bathroom (keep reading please). As I was washing my hands, I heard the beginning of 'Don't Stop Believing,' and rushed back into the bar. I came through the door and found Jamie looking right at me, singing, "Just a small-town girl. . ." It was perfect.

We went out to Africa for one last night, and Jeremie did not disappoint, wearing only his tired jeans and a pair of suspenders. Friday was devoted to picking up some last-minute gifts at the market and packing up a storm. Then I said my goodbyes to my friends and the place where I'd spent six of the best weeks of my life.

It was pure chance that brought me to Loki. I was at a low point in my life when I arrived, feeling alone and afraid and forgotten. But the six weeks I spent there changed me in so many ways.

I mean, who would ever have thought that the quiet girl in high school and college would become a karaoke fiend? Who could have guessed that I'd gain the confidence to go out to the clubs every night with no makeup on? How does a shy kid end up as a bartender? Where did I gain the audacity necessary to trek to Machu Picchu on my own? Somehow I overcame my apprehension, challenged my own perception of myself, and came out on top. I met the greatest people, saw the coolest things, and enjoyed once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Loki--and Cusco--definitely changed me for the better.