Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Last Few Hours

Calm, happy, scared, sad, ready, excited, giddy, nostalgic.

What have I learned this year, what have I gained, what have I lost... wow. It's been crazy, ups and downs and in-betweens, excitement and wonder and adventure, heartbreak, sadness, travel, beauty, friendship, love, sunshine... Bologna has given me so much, this year has given me so much. This summer was the best of my life, the best experience I could have hoped for this year.

Walking through Bologna today was surreal. The town is practically empty, of course, because it's August and in August all the Italians run to the sea. I wandered through the streets, saying goodbye to Piazza Maggiore, le due torri, the fountain of Neptune. Wow. I have a few more hours in my apartment, which is also empty. I came home to find everything changed. My walls, which used to be filled with posters and photos, are now bare. Marta moved back to Portugal, leaving behind a sad and empty room. It doesn't feel like my home anymore. It feels strange, foreign. I'm saying goodbye to this place and coming back to my old life, the "same old" but never really the same at all. Wonderful. Oh, side note: I decided to spend my last evening watching Indiana Jones and eating fish sticks. The fish sticks were definitely a mistake, and Indiana Jones was definitely not.

In just a few hours I'll go to the train station, train to Milan, bus to the airport, flight to London and then flight to home sweet home, San Francisco Berkeley Grass Valley California United States here I come!!

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Innamorata della Sicilia

I've fallen in love with Sicily. I wake up every morning and feel so, so lucky to be here. After a long and wonderful year, it's the perfect place to end up, the perfect way to say goodbye to Italy.

The only thing I can imagine which might be more beautiful in Sicily... would be a giant burrito, filled with delicious guacamole and salsa and beans and cheeeeeeeeeeeeeese. I honestly think that Mexican food is the only thing keeping me from being sad about leaving Italy.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Farming in Sicily

I am currently working on a farm outside of Catania, which is on the eastern coast of Sicily. I thought it was hot in Tuscany, but as I got off the train in Catania I realized that Tuscany was practically a winter wonderland. Working on the farm here is really difficult sometimes, but we usually avoid the hottest hours of the day. We wake up at 6 or 7, work until it gets too hot to work anymore (usually happens around 11) and then rest or work inside until the evening. Yesterday, though, I woke up a little late and ended up working into the afternoon - burning wood. Yep, I was in charge of the burn pile, at noon in July in Sicily! I walked into the kitchen after several hours of that, covered in sweat and grime and dust and ash, and the other American WWOOF volunteer looked at me with an expression of complete horror, as if she'd never seen anything so awful in her entire life!

The funny thing is, I felt great. There's something really satisfying about being completely disgusting after a long day of work. If at the end of the day, I still look clean and smell nice, that means I didn't accomplish much!

Don't get me wrong, I'm not going to come back to work in Berkeley and stop bathing, or start rubbing food all over myself at the end of a work shift to feel like I worked hard. Haha! No, in fact probably the best part of being so incredibly filthy was the feeling of being clean again after a nice, long shower. This farm is less rustic than the one in Grosseto, so I have the opportunity to bathe every once in a while.

The name of the farm here is "Casa delle Acque" which would means "House of the Waters." The reason is that they collect all of their water from the river running down from Mt. Etna. To water the orange and olive orchards, they use an ancient irrigation system - it's over 800 years old! It consists of a network of stone canals which send the water from the river rushing through the orchard. It's really beautiful because since the orange orchard is on a hill, the water cascades down in tiny waterfalls, and forms little rivers leading to each individual tree. It's amazing that without using any hoses or sprinklers, it's possible to water hundreds of orange trees this way, using just the water from the river!

In Grosseto, the family does something similar, in a way. During the winter, they collect rainfall in huge tanks and then use it to water the garden. It's just such an easy way to preserve water and the rainy season in Tuscany gives them enough water to get through the summer. Imagine if everyone in the world collected water from a natural source like they do on these farms!

I wish I had enough time to post pictures of the amazing countryside, to write about everything I'm learning and experiencing, to say all the things I want to say... but I need to get back to work! There's actually no internet on the farm and the closest internet point is in the nearest town of Paternò... an hour-long walk from the farm! Today Caroline and I made the journey for an almond granita (frozen almond milk) but it's getting hotter every day so I might not be able to post again. I love you all, though, and I can't wait to be home... just 2 weeks from today. Every day I feel just a little more excited.


Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Lightning Speed Update

Working on a farm in Grosseto, that is, Southern Tuscany. Harvesting wheat, which we then use to make flour and then bread in an outdoor wood-burning oven. It's very rustic, no electricity and no running water but a few small solar panels so there's a little bit of light in the evening. Organic vegetable garden and olive grove, and I can't even describe how well I've been eating because it would take hours and I would drool all over the computer.

I haven't showered much (at all) since I've been here. There's a water tank which I can occasionally use to splash myself, but I'm still pretty gross. For example, today I was working not far from a pile of donkey poop and realized that there were more flies on me than on donkey poop. I am trying to convince myself that since donkeys eat mostly hay, their poop can't smell that bad...

The family is amazing. Riccardo and Caterina are the parents, Maya (10), Blu (6) and Lumi (2) are the kids and there are 3 goats, 3 donkeys and a crazy old cat named Chili. We all get along great. There's also another American volunteer named John who has been trading books with me. Right now I'm reading Pinocchio in Italian, whenever I don't know what a word means I just ask Maya. She's my 10-year-old living dictionary.

The work is hard and it's HOT but we take every afternoon off to either laze around in the shade or go to the beach. There's also a (relatively) cool wind coming in over the hills so it's not too bad.

Wish I could write more, but there's no time! Gotta go hit hay with sticks (more on that later)!!

Friday, June 19, 2009

Grand Adventures in Germany!

Are you all tired of my grand adventures yet? :)

Immediately after taking my exam, I ran to the train station, took the train to Milan, bus to the airport, flight to Berlin, bus to city center, then walked to Sonya's house. Sonya is one of Ryan's friends who studied in Rome last semester and is studying in Berlin this semester. Somehow we never met when we were both in Italy, even though we meant to - but she was nice enough to let me stay at her house in Berlin for almost a week. I arrived just in time for a dance party and her house, and a pancake breakfast the next morning. I don't think my timing could have been any better.

Then, joy of all joys, beautiful Joy from Berkeley flew into Berlin to meet me. Joy is one of my all-time favorite people and I was so happy to see her I was barely able to speak! I just kept squealing like a very happy little piggy who hadn't seen her favorite piggy friend in almost a year.
Then, to add to my state of piggy ecstasy, the very first thing we did was go to Sonya's favorite burrito place. Italians don't know the first thing about burritos. They don't even have tortillas. So, this burrito became so much more than a burrito. It was a life-changing burrito revelation, a burrito epiphany. It was burrito nirvana. The perfect state of burrito being. I can remember very few meals in my life that were as satisfying as that delicious, perfect, beautiful burrito. It was a vegan burrito, with black beans, brown rice, lime-marinated tofu, all sorts of grilled veggies, salsa and as I realized in one of the happiest moments of my life, fresh guacamole. Ahhhhhhhhhh.

What's funny is that it was a "gourmet San Francisco style burrito" so the restaurant was completely San Francisco themed. Remember, Joy had just gotten off an 18 hour flight from San Francisco... so it was kind of like she just went in a big circle.

Enough burrito-talk (who are we kidding, you can never have enough burrito-talk but I'll move onto another subject anyway). Sonya, Joy and I got along great - even though I'd never met Sonya before it felt like we'd all already been friends for a long time.

Sonya was an amazing guide and took us to all her favorite places in Berlin. As an artist herself, she knows of all the best galleries. She took us to an amazing installation exhibit, made entirely of those little plastic ties that you'd find in a grocery store. It was like something from outer space, and we were allowed to play all over it! It's not every day you find an art exhibit you can climb on.
I fell in love with the city and I know that I'll go back. I know I say that often but there is just something about Berlin that captured me. I honestly think that part of me is still there, probably enjoying a burrito as we speak. How I envy that part of me!

The city is huge but somehow still feels intimate, like you're a part of a community. It's a feeling that reminds me of being in San Francisco - depending on which district you're in, it's easy to forget how big the city actually is. It's filled with tiny cafes, art galleries, markets, and squats (buildings taken over by artists after World War II). It's also an incredibly green city, and even the busiest streets are lined with trees.

The most famous squat in Berlin is called the Tacheles and is an old department store, now filled with small galleries and exhibits. I guess it was supposed to be demolished but then a group of artists took over and completely transformed it.
In addition to the amazing art and music of Berlin, the city has an incredible history. I've always been fascinated with World War II history and it was interesting to see where everything actually took place. We took a free 3-hour walking tour of Berlin and by the end of it I was completely overwhelmed. We saw a beautiful holocaust memorial, the site of Hitler's bunker, the former SS headquarters, Checkpoint Charlie (a famous crossing point of the Berlin wall), and Bebelplatz, where a group of nazi students burned over 20,000 books. Now, Bebelplatz contains a memorial which consists of a window in the ground, looking down into a chamber filled with empty bookshelves - enough space for 20,000 books.

There are dozens of memorials scattered around Berlin but my favorite is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe which is a huge space (about 5 acres) filled with concrete blocks of varying heights but the same horizontal dimensions.

There are many interpretations of what the architect may have had in mind when he built the memorial. In fact, there's no description written anywhere around the site, not even to explain what the structures commemorate. Everyone draws their own conclusion. Some think that the blocks represent grave stones. Others think that the varying heights of the blocks represent standing up for one's individuality under an oppressive regime of uniformity. For me, though, the most interesting part of the exhibit was walking through it. As you walk through the exhibit, surrounded by these huge blocks, you catch quick glimpses of other visitors to the exhibit. You only see them for an instant, and then they're gone. It felt like I was catching glimpses of ghosts wandering through the aisles of the memorial.
Almost every city in Europe has its own rich and incredible history. What makes Berlin so different is that it still feels so recent - the Berlin wall fell in 1989 and before that, thousands of people were held prisoner in their own country, in their own city. Families were actually divided, friends and family members weren't allowed to see one another for 28 years. Huge portions of the wall are still there, and there's a brick outline on the ground showing where the rest of the wall used to be.
Then there's all the World War II history, which is still so raw for some people that they feel the need to make up for the actions of their parents or grandparents. Students gather every day at Bebelplatz and hold a small book fair, selling copies of various books that were destroyed during the book-burning that took place there - it's a small gesture but I found it incredibly touching.

Sonya took us to a huge flea market and then to see the East Side Gallery. Another of the most beautiful memorials in Berlin, the East Side Gallery is a large portion of the Berlin Wall (about 1.3 km), covered in beautiful murals by over 100 artists. It's now considered a memorial to freedom.

While we were in Berlin we also met up with Kevin, one of the Americans who stayed at my house back in November. The other American, Jeff went home in February but Kevin fell in love with Berlin (and a beautiful German girl!) so he is still there. He and his girlfriend Sima took us to a place called Teufelsberg which is by far one of the most interesting places I've ever seen. It's an artificial hill constructed completely out of rubble, after Berlin was practically destroyed during the war. The NSA built a radar station on top of the hill which is now completely abandoned, so we spent hours wandering around in the buildings and climbed up inside the radar domes. Sonya and I (both photography nuts) had a field day wandering around the ruined station.
There are all sorts of rumors about the hill of rubble being constructed to cover up secret Nazi bunkers, training camps - we heard about a secret escape tunnel but unfortunately didn't find it. It's a very eerie place though, filled with broken glass and graffiti along with old military equipment. The domes were by far the best part, because every single sound echoed dozens of times. Even a tiny footstep or my camera shutter would create an eerie effect so we immediately started making singing and making rocket noises. Also, the lighting inside the dome was perfect, and there were beautiful views of the city!

Finally, we watched the sunset from the tower and headed back into town.

I really, really didn't want to leave Berlin but Joy convinced me that I should give the rest of Germany a chance. So, we met up with Patricia, a German girl who actually studied abroad last year at Berkeley and lived in the coops. She took us to Göttingen, a small University town where she and several Berkeley students are studying this year. It was amazing to see some familiar faces, and while Göttingen isn't quite as impressive as Berlin, it's hard to imagine a more adorable town. Joy and I spent all day wandering around the narrow streets admiring the architecture.
At one point we asked to climb to the top of the old church tower but were told that we couldn't because we'd disturb the birds who were nesting there! We were allowed to climb about half way up though, and wandered around the rest of the church. Outside, it seemed like any other church but inside was decorated like something out of Willy Wonka's chocolate factory - then, ironically had the following sign (not very Wonka of them at all...):

Later on, while wandering around the quirky little town of Gottingen, we found these signs... I'm not sure exactly what they mean. No child zone?

After Göttingen, our next stop was Munich. To get there, we had originally planned on taking the train but when we found out that it costs 100 euro, we had to find another option. Patricia recommended that we try to find a "carshare" which is basically organized hitch-hiking, usually with a small fee for gas. She searched the website for us and found a girl who was heading to Munich and still had seats available. So, for 20 euro each we went on what was the most terrifying drive of my entire life.

At this point I'd already driven on the autobahn (German highway) - Patricia had taken us from Berlin to Göttingen. This time, though, I found out what all the fuss was about. Our driver averaged between 180-200 km/hr which is 110-125 mph. I tried to convince myself that I had messed up the conversion in my head, that there was just no way she was driving that fast, weaving in and out of traffic, dodging semis, in a construction zone where the lanes were extremely narrow... and it wasn't even just the speed that was the problem - she was an awful driver. Every lane change felt a near-death experience, and then every once in a while she would let out kind of a squeal when she did something especially terrifying, like narrowly avoid being merged into by a semi truck as the passing lane was ending or get distracted and almost run into the center divider. To make things worse, the whole time she was driving she was also sending text messages, playing with her stereo, digging around in her purse, eating - at one point she actually peeled a banana and ate it while driving 125 miles per hour AND talking on her cell phone.

I was in the backseat actually praying for my life, and every so often she'd catch a glimpse of my terrified expression in the rearview mirror and turn around in her seat to make sure I was doing alright. Um, of course I was not doing alright. The woman was turned around in her seat asking me if I was doing alright while driving at a speed that would be considered 1) a felony and 2) legally insane in the state of California!!!

Needless to say, I was incredibly relieved when the four hour car ride was finally over. When we stopped for gas, I seriously considered refusing to get back in the car. I was terrified the entire time and at some points on the verge of tears. It might sound silly to someone who wasn't there, but I actually felt like my life was in danger.

I keep thinking that I'll be able to tell the story and laugh, that thinking about it won't make my heart race. As of now, it's still too soon!

Munich. Oh yes, eventually we arrived in Munich (alive, thankfully!) and went to meet our couchsurfing hosts, German twin brothers named Tom and Jerry! They were both very odd, very shy but we ended up having a great time. Also (and this was not explained to me before we arrived in Munich), there wasn't quite enough space for us, so I slept in a hammock that Tom hung across the bedroom. It was one of those hammocks that closes up on you, so I felt like I was sleeping in a caccoon!
Munich was my least favorite city that we visited, except for the incredible beer. Joy and I loved a beer called Augustiner, apparently it's the Pope's favorite! Other than the beer though, I just didn't like Munich that much... It was huge and overbearing, filled to the brim with tourists and everything was expensive. Since we didn't have much time, we spent all of our time in city center. It's possible that the less-populated areas are more interesting, so maybe I'll give Munich a second chance some day, and I'll definitely just take the train next time. I'm sure that Munich would grow on me eventually - it is a beautiful city but it just couldn't live up to the amazing Berlin!

We were in Munich for just two days and then headed to a small town called Heidelberg. The only reason we went there was to catch the shuttle to the airport, but we ended up loving the town. We got in just in time for lunch at a great little Indian food restaurant (it had been way, way too long) and ordered everything extra spicy. It was extra spicy which left us with stomach aches but it was definitely worth it.

Heidelberg is another adorable University town, but a little bigger and more crowded than Göttingen. There's a beautiful castle overlooking the town, and a river running parallel to the main street. Coincidently, we arrived on one of the three days per year in which the city puts on a fireworks show over the river. I wish I could say that they knew we were coming, but it was just a nice coincidence.

Our shuttle didn't arrive until around 2 AM, so we slept for a little while in the McDonalds in front of the bus stop. Have you ever slept in a McDonalds? I wouldn't recommend it.

After I awoke from my McDonalds nap and convinced myself that no, I did not actually want a Big Mac, we took the shuttle to the airport to catch our flight to Croatia. Since our flight wasn't until noon and check-in wasn't until 10, we slept in the lobby until they let us check in. I think we might be the first people in history to show up at the airport 10 hours early for a flight. That was our strategy though, to sleep in McDonald's and the aiport to avoid paying for a hostel. It worked out fine, and after only a tiny bit of sleepy grumbling, we headed to our romantic island getaway.

To be continued :)

Oh, but first - one more thing!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Grand Adventures in Spain and Sardegna!

Welcome to Part 2 of Kalen's catch-up blogging!

After leaving Marrakech, Kat and I left for Barcelona where we met up with an Italian friend, Francesco. He's studying in Barcelona right now so we stayed at his place and hung out with his friends. He probably thought I was kidding when I said I was going to post this picture on the internet:
Haha, someone took over my camera while I was still sleeping so I am not responsible for the taking of this photo. I am, however, responsible for posting it on the internet for the world to see!

While I've been to Barcelona twice already, Kat had never been. So, I was dubbed the official tour guide of the trip. I took her to my favorite places and showed her my favorite Gaudí buildings. I told her about how La Pedrera inspires visions of myself as a lizard-person climbing up the side of the building... she didn't seem to think that was as normal as I thought it was. Hmm.
We also went to Parc Güell, where I'd never been before! It's basically a huge park filled with works by Gaudí. I felt like Alice, walking through Wonderland - the place is crazy! I think Gaudí toned his artistic impulses down a little bit when designing the buildings downtown but here he was given basically free reign to do whatever he felt like doing. The result is a collection of beautiful but strange mosaics, long serpentine benches surrounding the main square, asymmetrical pillars, buildings with roofs and towers that look like gingerbread houses, and a huge dragon sculpture at the entrance to the park. What's interesting is that despite the strange architecture and bright colors everywhere, the park is still a peaceful place. The architecture almost feels like a part of the nature itself, with pillars that look like tree trunks leading up to huge sculptures resembling birds' nests. It really is an incredible place, and I stand by my previous theory that Gaudí was taking lots and lots of drugs...

My favorite area of the park was the huge open space underneath the main square, filled with pillars. It was perfect for hide-and-seek, and we had a great time running around and taking goofy photos.

After wandering around the park for a few hours, we met up with Francesco and his friends for a festival and parade. His friend had the honor of "pulling the dragon" which I thought would be just a normal float in just a normal parade. I was so wrong. This was the scariest thing since Krampus... first of all, the dragon was shooting off fireworks from all over its body. Second of all, there were demons with fireworks that they would shoot at the crowd. Then, there were the fire-breathing demons. Yeah, that was cool. Not to mention the scary drum music.

The parade is supposed represent the journey into hell, and probably did a pretty damn good job about what that would be like. Granted, I'm a wuss but at one point a demon cornered me, a mother and her small child against the door of a church and sprayed sparks in our faces! By the end of the parade I had tiny little burns on my arms and face but it was worth it for all the photos that I took. Fire-breathing demons might be scary but they're awfully fun to photograph!

We had a great night out (after the demons stopped chasing us) and I made a lot of new friends. Hopefully I'll be able to see them again someday!

Our next day in Barcelona was a much more peaceful one - we walked to a hill called Montjuïc which looks over the entire city and the sea. I expected more of park than what the hill has actually become which is a collection of Athletic stadiums and museums. The 1992 Olympics took place there, and you can tell that they're very proud of it. There are dozens of fountains, sculptures, incredible landscaping, there are even armed guards overlooking the city. Someone stole this one's pants, though...

The best part of the trip to Montjuïc was our ride on the Gondola to the top of the hill where we wandered around the Castell de Montjuïc. I'm not which part I enjoyed more - the fortress, which was built in the 17th century and is on a cliff overlooking the harbor, or the gondola ride itself!

It made me feel like I was flying and made Kat feel like she was on Star Trek. It was especially cool when I learned how to control the gondola with my mind.

I'm just not sure the fortress could compete with that, although I did take a cool picture of a seagull.

One of the funniest things about Barcelona, which I'd never noticed before, is the abundance of outdoor escalators. Apparently they don't think we tourists are capable of climbing the hill to Parc Güell or to Montjuïc. I boycotted the escalators (I called them "ridiculous") and walked instead. This experience gave me a new appreciation for the outdoor escalators...
We had a great time in Barcelona (my third visit!) and but were really excited to be back in Italy when we got off the plane in Sardegna. For those of you who don't know where Sardegna is, it's an island off the west coast of Italy. We spent most of our time in Cagliari which is on the southern coast of Sardegna and absolutely gorgeous! We got to see even more of the city than we normally would have because every morning our couchsurfing host got us up at 7AM and dropped us off in the city center where we groggily moaned and groaned until we either woke up naturally or drank enough coffee to induce a state of full awareness. Kat came up with another, more creative method to wake herself up:

The best part of Sardegna is definitely not the cities (although they are beautiful) - it's the beaches. Oh my word. The water is incredibly clear, and if you go even a small distance outside of the city, the beaches are almost completely deserted.

Somehow I forgot to mention that while in Morocco I managed to burn myself (well, just the back of me) to a crisp. The ironic thing is that it didn't happen in the desert, or in Fes where we spent all day walking around in the sun. Oh no, I managed to burn myself to a crisp while I was studying on the roof of our hostel, recovering from all my other ailments!

You'll be happy to know that I evened myself out in Sardegna and burned the other half of myself just as badly. The thing is, I was constantly applying sunscreen, but when you're as fair-skinned as I am there's just not much that can be done. Since the trip with Kat was essentially the first time I've been in the sun this year, there was no escaping my red, itchy fate.

Even though I was pretty badly sunburned, I spent most of my time at the beach, wandering around the rocks while Kat worked on her tan like a normal person who can be exposed to direct sunlight without bursting into flames! I enjoyed wandering around the rocks though. It gave me time to think, and I stumbled across lots of tiny, beautiful coves that were completely isolated from the rest of the beach.

I also discovered this cool rock, which I named "Kalen rock." I did discover it, after all.

Since we were exhausted from the rest of our trip, we spent most of our time relaxing on the beach. Not too many exciting stories, just three days of relaxing and getting ready to come home to Bologna. I was actually only in Bologna for 6 days, and it was just to take an exam. During those six days though, my friends Amanda and Carmen visited me for a weekend. We've been friends since high school so it was great to see them again and catch up. It's amazing how much can happen in a year, so we spent hours exchanging stories, reminiscing and laughing over a bottle of wine.

After they left, I spent 3 straight days studying for my Sociolinguistics exam. Luckily, I'd spent every minute of down time on the trip studying as well so I was already pretty well prepared. I went to the exam with my backpack, ready to take take off for my next trip. I was afraid that the professor would be upset by that, but he was just amused by it and the exam went incredibly well. I usually hate the exam system here, because the professors are in such a hurry to get you in and out of there that the whole process usually takes about 5-10 minutes and then they just hand you a grade. An entire semester of work boils down to how much information you can cram into a 10 minute oral exam! This time, I was one of the only students taking the exam that day, so the professor wasn't in such a big hurry to get rid of me. We ended up discussing the material for 40 minutes! I'm extremely interested in the Sociolinguistics so I had a great time. It became a conversation about what I found the most interesting and why, and at the end of it he gave me the maximum score! Woo! It gave me a little more respect for the Italian exam system because now I understand that in theory, it should work like that every time. The problem is that 99% of the time, it doesn't. Ah well, in less 2 months I'll be back to what I'm used to - essays and written exams. I can't believe that I'll be back so soon! I'm trying to find somebody right now to take over my apartment and then I'll be doing volunteer farm work for about 6 weeks. Then it's home sweet home!