Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Travel Edition Ricochet - Week 2

This week was somewhat more sedate, what with the school, the homework and the eating but there was still a lot to see and do.

19 Oct - First thing in the morning we toddled around the corner to the school we were attending to take our placement tests and find out which class we would each be in. I started the test cheerfully filling in answers, slowed down frowning at some of the trickier tenses, got completely lost on a couple of grammatical points and got placed in a class with students from all over the place: a Kiwi, a Russian, a German, a Norwegian, a Mexican, a Spaniard and me.
Our teacher Monica was a lovely woman who rolled her R's so much it sometimes sounded like she was speaking under water.
The first day was an exciting lesson in exactly how much Italian I've forgotten and how quickly I could pick different parts of it up again. When you're a foreigner learning Italian you start waving your hands around a lot, this is an attempt to distract people whilst you try and remember the word or conjugation you're looking for as an effort to fit in.
We had an Art History Class in Italian in the afternoon which was spectacularly baffling* but which included a slide-show of paintings to admire.
We went out for a stroll around town, stopping to stare at the river and Piazza Signora before returning to the apartment for dinner and to meet Paolo again so he could turn on the heating.
Most Italians don't turn on the heating before 1st November because the charges are significantly higher out of season but we'd been damn cold the night before and were willing to take that chance!

Hannibal Lecter and now Darth Vader!?

20 Oct - In the break between language sessions we headed down to our local café to get our daily hit of coffee and pastries *drool*, ran out of time to pick something up for lunch and sat back expecting to starve.
We did not starve.
Today was the first Cooking Class.
Holy Crap.
Our teacher Agostino is a middle-age Italian man who knows his way about the kitchen but who leaves you in no doubt that you are in a man's kitchen - flinging ingredients into bowls, flinging used bowls into the sink, opening packets with a Stanley knife**.
We learned how to make traditional lasagne and a grape torte which was ridiculously tasty.
I know this because at the end of the class we all whipped out plates and got to dig into the prepared food.
Best. Class. Ever.
Once we could face the idea of walking again we hauled our stuffed stomachs back on top of our legs and staggered off to do a lap around the Pitti Palace and over and around the Ponte Vecchio.

21 Oct - By the third day I was remembering more but also remembering how bad I am at doing homework. I am woeful. I get the homework. I take it home. I go 'Eh, later', 'Eh, dinner first', 'Eh, don't feel like it', 'Eh, bed time', 'Argh! Class is in 5 minutes!'.
Our regular café is shut on Wednesdays so we went for a walk around to Piazza Santa Croce and found a coffee and flaky indulgence there before remembering we still needed to go back for some advanced bilingual thinking.
Another round of semi-incomprehensible but still pretty Art History followed by a long stroll around town, admiring the Duomo and rolling our eyes at the people complaining they couldn't go in because there was some damn ceremony on or something. The damn ceremony is called Mass people, it is a church - doi!

22 Oct - After surviving another round of language class, conversation sessions and warning my fellow students to remember that 'preservativi' is a 'false friend' and doesn't in fact mean 'preservatives' and if you ask the baker if there are 'preservativi' in your bread you are asking them if it is full of condoms***! Don't trust internet translation programs people!
At Cooking Class today we made Ignudi Alla Fiorentina which is a spinach and ricotta version of gnocchi and a Torta di riso (it's a cake made with rice! Oh the insanity!).
When we could waddle away from Agostino's kitchen we turned ourselves towards the Galleria Dell'Accademia to go see that big naked fame-whore Michelangelo's David.
He continues to be large, made of marble and entirely awesome.
I will never get over the surprise of walking into a room and HOLY CRAP IT'S DAVID!
Look around at something else, look back and HOLY CRAP IT'S DAVID!
He's one of the things that don't disappoint when you see them in real life, he really is that great.
They also had a Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition running which had some excellent photographs, they didn't have any of his more risqué pieces on display but the ones on the human form were already too spicy for some of the visitors. Despite the fact they'd come to stare at a bunch of paintings and sculptures of naked people...

Yes I know the last two photos have had nothing to do with what I was talking about but I like them so nyerh!

23 Oct - Today after we chattered through our classes and ordered our coffee and increasingly decadent pastries in broken Italian we went to see the inside of the Duomo and the Battistero. When you have a good look at the Rennaissance and Gothic churches in Europe you begin to understand why the people of a few centuries ago were so devout.
First of all, big ridiculously ornate buildings are quite intimidating.
Second, the art. Dear lord, look at a couple of the paintings of the Last Judgement and you know that you do NOT want to go to Hell! The paintings of demons eating lost souls at one end and pooping them out so they can eat them again are not very welcoming!
The mosaics in the Battistero are amazing, even with the 'Beware Your Sinful Ways You Bastards!' section, especially with that section, I can't lie, I love that stuff.
They also have a lot of floors tiled to emulate the patterns of arabian rugs in Florence, the artisans were brought in from the Christian Middle East at the time and obviously did a lot of work whilst they were over.
We went out to dinner at a restaurant called Osteria del Gatto e la Volpe which takes its name from the characters in the Pinocchio story. The pizza with the bresaola and rocket was really really good, almost supernaturally good.

24 Oct - Slept late this Saturday, shouldn't have but we remain unrepentant, once we had come to terms with our deviant ways we spent a few hours exploring the Boboli Gardens, took a pass on the museums inside the Palazzo Pitti this time (being slightly museum-ed out for the time being), staring at some of the creepier bits of porcelain in the one museum we accidentally wandered into because it looked kind of like a gazebo.
We had to hotfoot it from the gardens back to the school because they were running a walking tour of the city we wanted to take. When we got there it turned out it was just us three and Donato the Art History teacher who was going to be running the tour. So he decided to take us up to San Miniato Church, one of the oldest and most important churches in Florence and we got a personal guided tour of the church and the area leading up to it complete with history and art commentary. As we were walking along the hill Donato pointed out the wild laurel that grows everywhere in the area and picked some to use in his kitchen the next day. I would love to have the knowledge and confidence to pick ingredients straight from the world around me but I'm sure I would end up with poison ivy in my mouth or something so I leave it to professionals and cheerful art enthusiasts.

25 Oct - We got a little overambitious with today, the original plan was to see both Pisa and Lucca but we got rather distracted by the parade that we came across in the Piazza Duomo on our way to the train station - men in tights, ladies in period dress, flags and drugs and trumpets! All the things that you think are now relegated to sappy movies about going to other countries to 'find yourself' and have sex with their men and/or ladies and find the happiness that does not exist in your own darn country.
We finally broke free, found our way to Pisa on a train with a super stinky toilet, survived the rather excited bus ride to the Piazza Miracoli and immediately had to fortify ourselves with lunch. We'd all been up the tower before and the wait was somewhere around 5 hours so we passed on that and went to admire the Cathedral and the Battistero of Pisa instead. The Cathedral in Pisa is in some ways more impressive than the one in Florence, more ornate, much more busy and it just feels older.
In contrast the Battistero was a lot simpler than the one in Florence but had such well balanced acoustics that a person standing in the centre of it can sing rounds with themselves as an employee demonstrated for us whilst we were there.
It was dark by the time the train headed home and all the little houses on the hills and the church with a timely tolling bell were being lit from within and below. It was nice.

*For some silly reason I completely forgot to brush up on my art criticism vocabulary before we arrived!
**You know, one of those box-cutter dealies.
***I didn't do this but I saw another English speaking lady ask that very question and the baker laughed so hard he almost inhaled his stylish 1970s moustache!

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Travel Edition Ricochet - Week 1

Listen as I sing the deeds of Ricochet Abroad!

Bright was the sun and high were our hearts when we set out on our... Eh, when I say me and really my heart wasn't high so much as going gang-busters in my chest...

Alright I'll start again!

11th Oct - The trip official didn't start until the 12th of October but the bitching starts on the 11th.
I'd just spent a rather nice 5 days away for a work thing in Adelaide which was, as I have mentioned lovely, but we had booked it quite a while before I decided (twitching and daring people to challenge me on the point) that I was going to go to Italy for three weeks.
So on the evening of the 11th my workmates and myself landed at Tullamarine airport, fought through traffic and distance and an hour and a half later were back where we all live, then I loaded up my car with all my 'crud to pack later', drove another hour back to my parents' house, almost hit a kangaroo, seriously, I was less than 5 m from the damn thing when it finally decided to hop out of the way, got home, unpacked, sat up until 3:00am packing my bag, stared at the darkened ceiling for 2 hours commanding myself to sleep dammit and finally somehow drifted into an unconsciousness of a jittery, unsettled type.

12 Oct - I woke up at 6:30am (briefly convinced I had missed my flight) TO DO MY TAXES because otherwise the damn things would be late and I would be fined or something, finished packing, said goodbye to my sister before she went off to work, rang my friend who had offered to drive me to the pick-up for the airport shuttle, rang her again, started to get worried, checked her other phone, several times, started getting panicky, woke up my confused and grumpy brother, rolled him out of bed and into a car and commanded him to drive me to the shuttle, got onto the shuttle, breathed a sigh of relief, received an apologetic phonecall from my friend who had left her phone in the bathroom over night and not heard my calls*, fell asleep on the shuttle because buses are my narcolepsy zone, arrived at the airport a good 3.5 hours before my flight, got rid of my little suitcase, changed some money, gummed a sandwich, had a quick expensive flutter on the internet and then got on a plane to be plied with food and drinks for hours on end.

13 Oct - This involved a bit of time zone swapping, I stubbornly stayed awake as long as possible to try and minimise jetlag, landed in Milan, braved the metro system, found my hotel, checked in, had a shower and actually started looking around.

Milan is pretty. I don't give a damn about fashion** but the city itself is quite lovely. I decided that either I could curl up in a little jet-laggy 'Dear God I'm by myself in a foreign country!' ball of panic or go outside. Before I could think too much about it I quickly went outside and found myself at Castle Sforzesco which is a huge beautiful old building crammed with museums.

Oh and there was a market between the castle and the metro station, the food was delicious, yes it was.

If I'd known how many museums the castle contained I might not have gone in but luckily I was blissfully ignorant as I forked over my ridiculously small entrance fee and then spent the rest of the entire day wandering through museum after museum, level after level, gawping at paintings, sculptures, armour and weapons! Oh how I love ye olde armour and weapons, they're so fancy and yet the dings and holes in various pieces show they were definitely for business as well as pleasure.

Once I staggered broke free of the endless tempting succession of museums and staggered weakly out of the castle, I loaded up on bits and pieces from the market, found my way back to my hotel, gorged myself on my finds and then lay there in a coma like state watching BBC News on how we're all terrible and the world is going to hell in a handbasket.
But it's hard to be too bothered about that when you have arancini and dolci.

Oh and here is a statue of a fat guy with his brains scooped out just because it is excellent.

14 Oct - I woke up, remembered who I was and where I was and went to have a proper look at the Duomo***. From the outside the church looks like a cake. A giant elaborate marzipan monstrosity.

I honestly spent the best part of a day walking around the church, in the church, on the church roof.
I find that I miss the smell of churches. I miss the ritual and the responses. I don't miss the religion so much, not at this point, but I miss the familiar scents of frankincense, linen and years.
The rest of the day was spent wandering up and down some of the streets just enjoying the unfamiliar familiarity, the people and the coffee, oh the coffee!
Just in case you're getting worried and you're not sure you're still in the right blog here is a photo I took of a bronze horse butt!

I also bought a mobile telephone so I'd be able to contact my Italian rellies and my parents and then shamefacedly had to ask the receptionist at the hotel how to open the damn thing so I could put the battery in. He was very sympathetic, very tall and had a lovely pony-tail. That is all.

15 Oct - It was time to move on so I checked out, found my way to the train station and got the train to Verona, the home of 'Romeo and Juliet', also the home of a delightfully flustered and slightly embarrassed gay B&B owner. Turns out the room I'd booked was in the B&B he was in the process of repainting (as evidenced by the paint smudges on him, his boyfriend and their two dogs) but he had another B&B around the corner they could accommodate me in.
I walked all over town, went to visit the amphitheatre which would have been a lovely place to watch gladiator fights back in the day and which now offers opera, just as bloody in its own way.

I also had a trot up the tower and went to see 'Juliet's House'
which was covered in excited love notes, surrounded by people who were frantically rubbing poor statue Juliet's breast into a concave for good luck and general jollies and full of period furniture and quotations. I've always hated Romeo and Juliet for it's 'everybody is an idiot and if you'd just run away properly you wouldn't have ended up dead like a pair of assholes'-ness**** but I can't deny I love Shakespeare's way with words and I'll be re-reading my collection when I get home.
I picked up a take-away panino and an aranciata from a bar near my B&B to take home for dinner - onion baked into the bread, tuna, cheese and capers *drool*.

16 Oct - I'd cheated actual jet-lag but still woke up at a few odd times during the night and then early enough in the morning to get out and about, this time to spend most of the day in another castle *glee*.

I went for a walk down by the river, visited the Castelvecchio, had another art trawl through a maze of levels and corridors, took far too many photos, including this one of a child with their drawing (the more things change, the more they stay the same)...

... and then continued on over the bridge for a quick geek out over the pattern of the cobbles...

... before going for a wide-ranging ramble about town that ended in me eating an entire large mushroom and prosciutto pizza by myself. I regret nothing!

17 Oct - I sort of crapped up the start of this day, I had a luxurious sleep in which I rather enjoyed but which meant I didn't get into Bologna until about 2:00pm, a ridiculously easy amble into the centre of town later I found my hotel, checked in, popped into the Piazza Maggiore to get a map from the Tourist Information Centre just in time to join in on a walking tour run by a local lady. It was full of contradictions (eg. Bologna has never been conquered! Except for by the Pope, the Germans, a few other people...) and I have to admit I spent a bit too much time looking at this tiny dog one of the other ladies had brought along with her...

The different churches, the parts of the university, the fact that they built the famous arched walkways just so they could house university students (at least according to our guide), the two towers built by competing powerful families (one more successfully than the other, unless leaning is a sign of power) were all lovely...

...but I have to admit I got a little bit more excited by the view out of my hotel window...

This is the first time I've travelled with money not budgeted down to the last cent and I've been able to stay in hotels instead of hostels, less people to meet but it has its compensations.

Sorry, I'm sounding weird again. Here is a picture of Neptune with his willy out and a pigeon on his head.

18 Oct - Today was a bit of a jumble, I spent the morning wandering about taking photos of arched walkways...

... and buskers playing tiny electric guitars with their speakers/amps/whatever mounted on their motorbike...

... before heading back to the train station to meet up with my parents who were swapping trains on their way from Venice to Florence.
We're all 'functionally fluent' in Italian - which means we can ask for directions, hold halting and slightly stilted conversations - but Dad had apparently been unable to get any information out of the disinterested Venetian train station employee they'd bought the tickets from. Based on information Dad has SMSd me I'd worked out they'd been sold regional tickets which would mean an unnecessary 4 hour stopover in Bologna before a regional train to Florence was due so when he and Mum turned up I stole their tickets, upgraded them to a direct service and we all headed off to Florence to find our apartment and prepare for the 2 week language and cooking course we'd signed up for.

The first thing we did to prepare was stop in at the closest café to our apartment for coffee and the start of what looks to be a pastry splurge, before Paolo came to meet us with the keys, then it was time for dinner and a bit of light collapsing and blissful slumber.

*To be fair we hadn't set a time or confirmed but she had said 'Call me if you need a lift' which I think is fairly clear cut.

**Whilst at the same time admiring people who have their own style.

***As last time I was in Milan we carefully went to see The Last Supper (woo!) then had a quick decko around he middle of town and quickly ran off to another city/country/everywhere else.

****It's not that I'm NOT romantic, I just think that there are better ways to go about things than sucking and dying.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Right Place, Right Time

This week was work-lite for a work week as a handful of us got to go to Adelaide on a work trip that involved meetings, presentations and very little actual participation on our part.

This was excellent.

It also managed to bring together a range of things I'm very fond of. Dining out, good wine, amazing bookshops, trawling for quirky cafés, graffiti and street art...

And the other...

Well I will set the scene thusly.

It was Saturday night, the work commitments were well and truly behind us, a friend and I decided to take a leisurely stroll down the street, admiring the way Adelaide's weather had remained stable the entire day - and indeed the whole time we'd been there - and generally putting it on the list of places we wouldn't mind living at some point.

The evening was balmy and pleasant, the light was fading, a little take away noodle place was sending out come hither odours, a local bottle-o promised chilled beverages.

As we were negotiating which dishes we would each get so we could divvy them up like the indecisive scavengers we are, a terrifying shriek filled the air, multiplying and reverberating and growing and echoing until the whole street seemed to be wrapped in it.

And then they came.


At the front quick figures in black, belts and straps, side-arms and quickly improvised weapons.

One long-legged female figure in a slinky red dress and solid black boots, stopping coolly to aim behind her when the moment presented itself.

And behind them.

The horde.

Shambling, running, staggering, falling, clothes torn, limbs bent, intestinal integrity compromised, blood smeared and dripping from foaming mouths.

They lunged uncoordinated at gawping pedestrians, only stopped by barriers that separated the street from alfresco dining areas.

Policemen tried valiantly to herd them away from witless onlookers, twisting out of the way of open jaws and reaching hands as they went.

The Adelaide Zombie Walk was upon us.

We were right in the thick of it.

And it was glorious.

The photos I took were terrible and blurry so here is a link to a site which has much much better ones.

Keep your eyes open for Zombie Ghandi, Zombie Stormtrooper, Zombie Jesus and Zombie Panda amongst others!


Adelaide, I will be seeing you again.

The first wave of undead in the zombieapocalypse will have its ranks primarily composed of people who stopped to take photos and admire 'costumes'.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Get Over, Get Over The Third Of October

OK, that's it!

If anyone else wants to celebrate their plans to be happily entangled for the rest of their lives they will have to offer me bribes or hold the celebrations in my backyard!

Look, I know that people face far more complicated and serious dilemmas every day and that I'm a huge crybaby but I get a bit stressed about other people's exciting days going right and like them far apart so I can help, can go months without any big events or demands on my time cropping up and then this happened...

Saturday was the day of my cousin's wedding - aw! *cue ecstatic aunts!*

It was also the day of my mate Awesome's engagement party - aw! *cue overexcited friends!*

Both events were on at almost exactly the same time... in two different towns... two hours apart... *cue freaking out and screaming!*

Crud! Crud! Crud! Crud! Crud!

I didn't want to miss either event but going to both was going to be a bugger.

Not to mention I was in charge of organising the cake and signature book for the engagement party from a third and completely unrelated town and was doing the Prayers of the Faithful during my cousin's wedding ceremony.

Things sort of shilly-shallied about for a few weeks leading up to the wedding/engagement party weekend.

The cake was fine.

The people at the shop decided that the picture that was to go on top of the cake was too dark and wouldn't turn out.

I found a new picure.

They were no longer accepting pictures by email, the picture had to be printed on photo paper and brought in personally.

Oh and the day you leave work early and drive an hour to bring the photo in we will have closed early.

Eventually I got the bloody cake squared away, found a dress for the wedding, hand-cut 80 pieces of ornate cardboard for the engagement party signature book and bought metallic ink pens and badass stickers for them to decorate them with, explained the situation to both occasion-stressed women without being torn a new one, looked at transport options and then began Operation EVERYBODY STOP TELLING ME THAT THIS IS IMPOSSIBLE! WHAT ARE YOU A BUNCH OF QUITTERS!?*

Step One. Wake up, get preliminary dressed, go pick up cake.

Step Two. Drop off cake with another friend, hand over cards, pens and stickers.

Step Three. Drop car off at the train station, get sister's fiancé to pick me up and drive us back to the house.

Step Four. Collect clothes and sundries for the wedding, herd entire family into cars and drive for two hours.

Step Five. Get changed into wedding clothes at a relative's house, herd everyone back into cars, have argument about best way to get to church, misidentify church, have another argument, find the right church, get everyone out of the car.

Step Six. Find the other cousin who I am doing the readings with, find a seat, sit down and make chitchat.

Step Seven. All agree she looks lovely and he is probably not a serial killer and can be let into the family, realise the priest is mental as he starts rambling about changing the wording of 'what God has joined let no man put asunder' to gender-neutral because 'people are running off with all sorts these days', ruins part of the service by trying to make comments addressed to the the groom and bride separately gender-neutral and then forgets to ask the bride to say her vows before being reminded by the wanting to be happy couple.

Step Eight. Deliver prayers without saying a swear or making any embarrassing noises, agree everything went very well except for the mental priest.

Step Nine. Get back to the house, change again, drag my father away from all the cheerfully enthusiastic family shouting, say goodbye to my parents as they happen to be flying to Italy after the reception, drive to a train station, get a bit lost, use logic to find track, use track to find station, get out of the car, leg it through construction works, find ticket counter, buy ticket, get to platform at the same time as the train, get train, collapse.

Step Ten. Spend two hours thinking 'this is stupid, if we had teleporters I would be there by now'.

Step Eleven. Arrive at station, get changed in the bathroom, get into car cleverly left at station earlier, drive to engagement party, spend the whole drive hoping I hadn't confused the location with another.

Step Twelve. Arrive in time to preside over the revelation of the cake, be crowned Dëity Mønarch of Cake and join the party.

Step Thirteen. Help pack up, drive people out to the bottle-o for some travellers as I'm the only person who hadn't been drinking**, drive back to Awesome's place and spend the rest of the evening*** having a drink, eating chips and watching Wayne's World and Wayne's World 2.

Step Fourteen. Finally relax and realise that I've enjoyed myself.



OK, OK, I'll probably come to your bloody wedding/whatever but at least have it in an area well served by public transport!

Remember! No teleporters yet!

PS. An engagement party might not seem very important compared to a wedding but it is going to be a few years before Awesome and her fella can afford the wedding and what with all the going out of her way she does for other people she deserved something nice dammit!

*I'll be the first to admit it doesn't really roll off the tongue...

**Or eating, no time dammit!

***And some of the morning