Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Munchen Style

Sitting amongst the Germans in the Haufbrau Keller, the English Garden's beer garden, I was thinking to myself, "I never want to leave this place." Munich was a dream, and my comfort there can only be described as having my roots take hold in the place that called to my soul. Yes, it really was that deep. Beer, brats, and the fall; what more could I need in life?

My journey to this beautiful place was not as enjoyable. In fact, it was a nightmare. Eight long hours sitting upright on a train filled to the brim, so much so, it was bursting its seams. My car was full with six people to a room, none of whom I knew. Next to me sat an older gentleman in his early 50s. Country of origin unknown, but what was evident to the other five of us in the room was he had not bathed in two weeks -- just my luck. The following hours drug on like waiting for molasses to pour, all the while sitting completely upright with no leg room. Obviously, there was no sleep for me on this overnight train to Munich. I was ecstatic when it was finally over.

And was it all worth it? Was it worth going through that torture to be sitting in the crisp, fresh, autumn air in Munich, Germany, eating bratwurst, blaukraut, and pretzels larger than my head, drinking beer in a glass so heavy I need two hands to hold it? The answer is simple: Yes. And I cannot wait to go back. I have officially left my heart in Munich.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Italian Cafeteria Experience


On the ground floor of the PIO building in the Instituti Filipini, I am waiting patiently in line for dinner, not completely sure if I am hungry at all. The unrecognizable smells of cooked vegetables and tomato sauce permeate the air, finding its way to my nostrils, and putting me off from any desire to eat what the cooks serve to me.

The line starts to inch forward, like the movement of a centipede, and I give a big sigh: Another meal in an Italian school cafeteria.

Reluctantly, I grab a tray and a thin, gray paper place mat. I select my glass cup for water, and my silverware. Tonight, I decide to skip the bread rolls because finding a soft one is like searching for Waldo. I set my tray on the stainless steel shelf and turn to face the jolly old man who waits to serve me flavorless pasta. He is dressed in a gray short-sleeved shirt, white apron, and a white cap tied over his grey, balding hair.

Kindly, I ask for “Pasta con pomodoro,”

Buonissimo,” he replies laughing as he darts the bowl away from my hands as I try to claim it. He reminds me of a caring and loving grandfather playing airplane with a grandchild. It works. He gets a smile out of me, and my mood is lifted for the next phase of the cafeteria line: The meat and vegetables section.

I have always looked at this section of the line as the most questionable. The meat is always unusual colors, making it hard to guess what kind it is.

“Could I please have the turkey?”

Turkey? No Turkey, only beef.”

“I will have the hot dogs, then. Thank you!”

And that is how I ended up eating hot dogs and fries.

I sat down and further examined the food that I ended up with, only half wanting. First, there is farfalle pasta, which looks like little bow ties, with tomato sauce placed absent-mindedly on top. My hot dogs are pale as flesh that has not seen sun in 20 years, leading me to believe they are most likely not all natural meat. The only part of my meal I can count on to taste enjoyable are my steakhouse style fries, which I proceed to cover with salt.

I pick up my fork and take a chunk off of the hot dog. I decide it is best not to examine the piece before putting it in my mouth. Adding a dab of dark yellow mustard, I plop the hot dog in my mouth and chew. The taste is there, reminding me of summer barbecues eating Ball Park Franks; however, the consistency is a total miss. It is soft and mushy on the inside, as if it was over cooked. What did I expect? Hot dogs are an American pastime, so I should not have had high expectations. I finish the hot dogs anyway. Moving on, I try the pasta and tomato sauce. The sauce is thick, assuring it is freshly made. The pasta is served al dente; however, the noodles are oily, giving the whole dish a liquid consistency. The sauce is somewhat low on flavor, so, once again, I dump more salt on top, chuckling to myself about the sharp increase in iodine to my daily diet.

At this point in my meal, I am in a food coma. I no longer care about what I am eating; I am just eating it like a drone. My meal is over before I even realized it started, further clarifying how unremarkable it truly was. I slowly grab my tray and maneuver my way to the door, and slide my tray in the stainless steel cart. As I walk away toward my dormitory, I think, “Just another meal in an Italian school cafeteria.”

Train Car Serenade

I was settled comfortably on the second level of a Spanish train from the heart of Barcelona headed for my relaxing day in the beach town of Sitges, about a 40-minute trip south. As I put my feet up on the seat in front of me, I noticed a man standing awkwardly to the right of me. I looked up just in time to see him raise an instrument to his chin and start to play. At first, I was annoyed and prayed his musical tribute to the train car holding seven people, including myself, would be his only dedication.

I closed my eyes for a few minutes trying to ignore the musical notes dancing around my ears, but my curiosity got the better of me. I opened my eyes to get a better look. The man I saw serenading the train car on his violin was dressed head-to-toe in black. His skin was the color of milk chocolate, and his dark, balding hair was peppered with bits of grey around his temples. His one accessory of frill is the large, monogrammed gold ring on the pinky finger of his left hand, clenching the neck of his violin.

As his eyes were closed in concentration, I noticed how much his dark skin hid his true age. His face had minimal wrinkles, but his eyes gave him away. Underneath them were dark circles making him look sad and exhausted, as if he has been riding this train for days trying to earn some spare money for dinner. Framing his eyes were deep wrinkles creasing around the outside corners, revealing the effects of living in a sunny climate and squinting into the sun. Looking at his eyes made me feel sympathy for him, and curious to know his story.

As his slow, sad song drifted on, I noticed the poor condition of his violin. There were obvious dings and dents flawing the wood, and the sheen of its lacquer coat was faded. The chin rest was falling off from use, and was held onto the instrument with shiny, clear packing tape. The physical state of his violin revealed how hard the two of them worked: The violinist and his violin together. The musician supplied his own amplifier to help carry the music throughout the small train car, which, as I turned around to see the reaction of my fellow passengers, annoyed them more than pleased them. He rolled his amplifier around on a rickety metal rolling cart in a black, faded, and worn Nike duffel bag.

As the ballad comes to a close, the violinist kindly says, “Gracias” to the crowed, still avoiding his gaze, packs up and hurries out of the train car. He earned no money from the passengers in the train.

Photo 1: The group in Sitges. Aaron, Stephanie, Jimi, Myself, Scott, Tom, Paula, and Seitel
Photo 2: 2 euro beers on the beach... before we discovered the 40s for about 1.60 euro

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Whole Blog Thing Has Been Harder Than I Thought

Who would have thought this would be a hard thing to do often. I have missed so many things, so I will try and remember as many as I can.

I think I left off after the weekend in Ljubljana, Slovenia, which was fantastic with a lot of interesting things to see. The city center along the water, and the castle with five wedding parties. It was a good day, and to make it that much better, we found a mexican restaurant to have dinner at that night. The food was good, but different. The spices were different then I am used to at home. They were more bland then spicy. It was still nice to have regardless. 

The next weekend a large group of about 47 people rented a bus to take us to Cinque Terre. The cities were gorgeous and looked even better then any pictures. We ate tons of pesto and seafood, which was a much needed break from our usual boring pasta dishes we get at the cafeteria at school. That Saturday, we hiked the 5 towns. It was the hardest thing I had done in a really long time. It took about 7 hours. Our group decided to get the hardest legs of the hike over with first, which is the legs between 5 and 4, and then 4 and 3. From the town we were staying in, Riomaggiore (town 1), we took the ferry all the way to the end to town 5, Monterosso. We ate something quick there (focaccia, pesto, tomato and mozzarella, SO GOOD), and then started our journey. I thought about quitting after climbing stairs for 45 minutes, but then we started to gradually head back down. The views were also remarkable. Along the way, the park attendants (I assume) set out feeding stations for the "wild" cats that live along the trail. Of course, I wanted to stop and pet/feed them, but no one in my group would let me. Oh well. Cinque Terre has the most cats I have seen wandering around, and even a few little dogs as well. All in all, it was a beautiful and picturesque place that could be seen in a day. 

After Cinque Terre, we had class for a week, and then we had our week off of school to travel. A group of 10 traveled to Barcelona, Spain and Lisbon, Portugal. Barcelona has been my favorite city so far. It is fun, lively, and has a lot of history. The first day, the girls all went to Las Ramblas, the famous city street with lots of shopping opportunities. It leads down to the port, so we wandered around there for a while. The second day, we hit all the rest of the historic site seeing places to see: Sagrada Familia and the Parc Guell, the Block of Discord. It was all so cool to see and so colorful, unlike anything you see in Italy. For lunch, a guy in our group, Scott, had a friend who had studied abroad and then decided to stay for 7 more months. She worked at this little restaurant she recommended. We all headed there, and from the moment I walked in I could tell it was going to be an authentic meal because at the majority of the tables little old men sat by themselves. They did not need to order, the waiters just brought them their food because they went there every day. I got Patatas Bravas and mussels in a tomato sauce. It was unbelievable. The potatoes are made cubed and cooked, but they are topped with a red sauce (somewhere between ketchup and salsa) and mayonnaise mixed with garlic. It was so good, I tell you, I'm mixing garlic and mayonnaise from now on. Try it Dad! The third day we were there, half of the group wanted to go shopping and the other half wanted a relaxing day at the beach. I chose the relaxing day at the beach. 4 of us hopped on a train and travelled to a little beach city about 40 minutes south called Sitges. It was so cute and quaint. It was 9 different beaches in a row, a castle in the middle of them all. A family friend of Scott's lives there, so we met up with them. Their names were Tom, his wife Paula, and a friend whose name I forget. However, the friend had the cutest dog I have ever seen. It's name was Fendrix, but I just called him Jimi and taught him English. The friend was Norwegian, and had hitch hiked all the way from Norway to Spain, just him and little Jimi. Anyway, the day was so nice. Laid on the beach all day and drank huge beers for 2 euros. I had a really amazing sandwich as well the Spanish called a bikini. It's just a ham and cheese but it was so good, the cheese was melted just the way I like it, and all for 1.50. For dinner, we wandered to a little pizza joint Tom and Paula love. I was a little hesitant about having pizza because of eating it so much in Italy, but it was completely different. They were small, and they actually had pepperoni (aka chorizo). They also introduced us to empanadas. So delicious, they are like little pastries with meat and spices. After dinner and chatting, we got on the train to head back to Barcelona.

The next day we traveled to Lisbon. In retrospect, Lisbon was a cool city to see and go to, but we did not need 4 days. That is my only regret. Lisbon has the sights and the culture, but my group of 4 (by then we needed to not travel in a group of 10 for obvious reasons) saw it all in about a day and a half. The city was much dirtier then I would have thought, so that was a downer. My friend Lindsay and I explored the nightlife more in Lisbon. We did a little in Barcelona, but our hostel was further from it. In Lisbon we were only a couple of blocks from the area where all the bars are. They are all very small, but its bar after bar in the 5 block radius. No other businesses there, only bars. One night, we found a fun bar with lots of American music and 1 euro mixed shots... let's just say the next day we ate lunch and McDonalds and felt no guilt about it. 

Highlight of the trip occurred in Lisbon the very last night. After dinner, three of us girls took the Metro back (my fault, my stomach was not happy with me at all) so we didn't have to walk. Lindsay decided to get a water out of the vending machine. Laying in front of the vending machine was this little man. It looked like he was trying to fix it, so she waited patiently. He got up, and motions to her that he will get the water for her because the vending machines are a little complicated. He takes the euro, slides it in, and it falls out. He turns to face her, and we all get to see what he looks like. Picture the Portuguese version of the Hunchback of Notre Dame, the hump the facial structure, everything. He was being very helpful, so in no way am I trying to tease him, it's just he was clearly not all there. He tries to convince Lindsay that he can run to the next track and get her water out of that vending machine. By now, we can hear our train approaching in the distance, so she just asks for her euro back. He runs over to Stephanie and I yelling "Agua! Agua!" and points to the vending machine at the next track. 
I try my best to motion to him, "Our Metro is coming, give us back the euro." 
He responds "Si, Si! Rapido!" and takes off running up the stairs.
At this point, Lindsay is like whatever, it is just one euro, and we hop on a train. Seeing that little man run up the stairs was hilarious, and we were still laughing about it on the train. That is when we noticed something wrong. In the distraction of the whole episode, we got on the wrong train. That was all fine, we got off at the next station and waited for the train going the other way, the train that came from the station we were just at with the little Portuguese hunchback. I bring up how funny it would be to see him on the train approaching, drinking a bottle of water. As the train comes on the opposite track we all look for him. We found him spinning around a tall metal hand rail like a monkey without a care in the world. Granted, this train was packed full of people and he was running into them with every turn, but he didn't care. The man just loved to spin! It was a great end to the week and a great story. 

Since then, I have not done anything exciting. Last weekend my roommate and I decided to stay in Paderno to give our wallets a rest and our bodies. It was great, we slept a lot and watched movies all day. Definitely needed a relaxing weekend. 

Tomorrow we have an advisory night. Our advisory groups are a group of students paired with a teacher we do not have for any classes in order to get to know more teachers and more students. I have a finance teacher from Oklahoma. He and his wife have been here for 7 years. He teaches in either the fall or winter terms. He is actually from Corvallis, Oregon, but his wife is from the south and he boasts about her chili. So, that is what she is making us tomorrow and I am so excited! Warm, hearty comfort food. Yumm Yumm.

Next weekend I am off to Munich and Prague. We tried to go to Switzerland, but I guess it takes forever to get there so it would be a waste. I'm excited about Prague, but plan to go there for my weekend travel break in November as well so it's a little bit of a bummer. I just do not think I would have the courage to take off somewhere on my own yet, so that is my only choice right now. I am still looking forward to it!

Picture 1: The view from our hostel in Riomaggiore, Cinque Terre
Picture 2: Me during the hike of death
Picture 3: Part of the longest continuous bench in the world and the Parc Guell in Barcelona, Spain
Picture 4: Me on the bench