Wednesday, 6 August 2008

The End or the Beginning? Italy, Part 1

Days, weeks, months later, I finally get around to recording my grand finale of Europe. The last few days in St. Andrews were a strange mixture of crazed anxiety, realizing my year had ended (months too soon!), and a calm acquiecsence to the fact that I was ready to go home. I delayed my travel plans, wasting a plane ticket in the process, to stay in Britain longer. I decided to skip traveling in France alone and go directly to Italy a day before I was to be kicked out of my university owned flat.

A side note for all those wondering what happened in Britain after I left and for more British customs: in Britain it is quite common to rent out university halls as "suites" for the weary traveller. These in fact are flats or dorms that students normally live in and the "staff" is students working for lesser wages than the Polish immigrants. We had to move out on a Saturday by 10 a.m. I later heard from my flatmate who was last to move out that promptly at 10 a.m. a warden walked into our flat demanding she be out right then. She happened to be in her bathrobe making breakfast with her brother and dad, who had driven up to move her out. I thought it was a bit unreasonable they would be so demanding, but then again this was the same warden who we encountered in the Fire Alarm Incident. There are always those who thrive in the power that university housing situations give them and lets just say this guy was the prime pimply example. Not exactly like they were going to turn the flat into for the golf tourists right then at 10 a.m.

Meanwhile, I was sailing away on my EasyJet flight to Milan. There was the usual 3+ hours to get from St Andrews to the Edinburgh airport by public transportation. Then the usual wait around the Edinburgh airport, with the important stop at La Boulangerie de Paul (a Parisian institute right here!) to get my lunch and then the restless waiting at the gate with too few seats. Unfortunately one of Edinburgh's finest rugby clubs was also travelling on the same flight. The thirty or so young gentlemen ambled around, their 20 year old bodies jostling like 7 year olds. "This is going to be quite the flight," I thought to myself.

I sat down in an empty row, observing the rows of rugby boys up ahead. "Should be ok here," but I made too many assumptions too fast. Not only did two of the boys sit down in the empty seats, but across the aisle a hen party took roost.

Now, hen parties are not just another bachelorette party. They are the most godawful British women imaginable - they are loud, hideously ugly and fat, and the most raunchy women (then add 5 hours later when they are all completely sloshed). I've tried to think of an American equivalent with little success. I guess if you imagine an ex-Hooter's woman at 45 crossed with Mae West you are starting to get close. Now imagine 30 of them together. A fair number of British pubs have signs reading "Hen Parties NOT WELCOME" and their reputation far outstrips any American bachelor party. Just do some googling if you don't believe me.

The combination of a group of young rugby players and the Hen party was almost too much. The boys kept passing around porn magazines and talking about various sports, the Italian stewardesses ("She said 'Prego' to me - that must mean she fancies me,"). Then one of them, a very precocious young man, started chatting up the bride-to-be across the aisle and after congratulating her, asked if any of their party was single. One woman was - she was a youthful 38 (the youngest in the party) - and so somehow it a process of witty Edinburgh banter, she convinced him to put her underwear on in exchange for his. So he waddled down the aisle in her panties and decried to his friends the pair he was wearing had streak marks. He was pretty horrified over the state of his boxers considering his outward nature. Eventually he came back down the aisle with his underwear in a ball and gave them to her.

Meanwhile, looking for an excuse to talk to me, one of the guys asks me what time it is and then what time we are supposed to land. Suddenly I have a throng of rugby players surrounding me - they are all about 18 or 19 and want to know where I'm from, why I'm going, what I think about Scotland, how they are going to add me on Facebook - it went on and on. Their coach came by to see if they were harassing me, but when I said no, they all beamed and continued on their tirade of questions. I was honestly enjoying the attention, more attention I'd gotten from British (or Scottish or Irish) men in an entire year, and they seemed pretty good natured. They denied knowing where the porn came from and insisted I would have had a better time at Aberdeen Uni, because of course that's where a few of them went.

Eventually the plane landed and the Rugby players went to join their teammates. I went off to hunt down my luggage and learn how to travel on my own.

Sunday, 20 July 2008

A Night at the Theatre and the Lessons Learned

The other night my family went to see Wicked, the musical based on the Gregory Maguire book. My mother had thought it would be a good way to celebrate both my younger brother's and my June birthdays. Unfortunately, the trip to the theatre was more than a learning experience.

The show itself was not badly done - the cast was extremely good, the production was a glorious fantasy of lights and fabric and set design, and the plotline was a solid reconstruction of the novel. The music itself was absolutely dreadful, recalling the sonorous heydays of Andrew Lloyd Weber and Rent. If I heard one more synthesized piano ballad I might have flung myself off the mezzanine where we were sitting. Early 90's musicals have little musical value (if any), so a 15 year later spinoff is less than enjoyable.

What shocked me most was the audience. Now, I understand that while at the places like the Pantages, which produce the grand cult status musicals (The Producers, Mamma Mia, Legally Blonde, you get the idea...), they attract a crowd that might not normal vacate the theatre, I did not expect the chaviest American audience possible. "Not the usual theatre going crowd," I comment to my brother as we watched the parade of strangely dressed women (its about 65 % women there) and their entourage.

Not only did the usher proceed to scream at everyone "No cell phones, no talking, no photos, no singing!" up and down the aisles as if we were at a Hannah Montana concert, but when my mother leaned over to tell him how she thought this was inappropriate theatre tactics (her words were "In any other theatre we don't have someone yelling at us like we were a crowd of monkeys or groupies, especially not in Europe"), some woman walking by said, "This ain't Europe. This is LA, baby!" The way she emphasized "baby" made me wonder how long she had been practicing that line.

The women behind us were equally ridiculous, complaining extremely loudly about the light being emitted from my mother's cell phones as she was trying to turn them off and then proceeding to chew gum through the entire show. Every denouement was accompanied by a loud "SMACK SMACK SMACK." One of the women was also deaf and had her companion repeat every line. "What did they say? What did they say?" Unfortunately her companion was either deaf herself or extremely obtuse and would repeat incorrect lines and information. "He's an antelope," she said right after the goat character mentions he is a goat. This went on for the entire performance.

I also now understand why formal theatres refuse to seat patrons during the middle of the show - watching lights and heads bob up and down aisles during the middle of the show is extremely distracting and ruins parts of the performance.

I guess I've complained enough, but I wasn't ready for this to be the equivalent to going to a 2 p.m. matinee for a Disney movie. Lesson learned.

Friday, 11 July 2008

Oh July

A million and a half apologies for the lack of anything. I think the internet needed a break though.

I do have lots to write about regarding my trip to Italy and my last days spent in Britian and of course, returning a solidified ex-ex-Patriot now. Woe! This new job and working over 40 hours of week kills my drive to sit down at my laptop and type out my sweet nothings to a blank page.

Soon! Soon! And a new sub-heading with it.

Sunday, 25 May 2008

Coffee Ratings Revised

I almost forgot to rate the coffee in Budapest! I had heard so much about Budapest coffee houses (they are similar to the Viennese ones) and while atmosphere was abundant, the coffee was unfortunately lacking.

Here is my new international rating of coffee so far (Note - I will be in Italy next week and am expecting greatness):

1. France
2. Germany
3. The Netherlands
4. Poland
5. Egypt
6. Hungary
7. United Kingdom

France has moved up since my earlier ratings in February due to the excellent cappucinos I had along with their atmospheric cafes. Although Germany has excellent coffee that is cheaper than France, it does not have the same cafe atmosphere. The Netherlands have good cafes, but nothing extraordinary. I did not have much coffee in Poland (besides at homes or in the hotel that my friends parents own) but overall, they also had good coffee. Egypt made good turkish coffee and Hungary's coffee was drinkable. I have found one place here in St. Andrews that actually makes a real latte, but it is off the beaten track (and they get extra points for an attractive barista who is overly attentive). Otherwise most coffee in Britain is a weak mixture of bad coffee and too much milk.

Thursday, 22 May 2008

Budapest, Part 4: Miscellanea

Some leftover thoughts on Budapest:

One of my favorite fixtures of Europe are the unique architectural oddities that each city or region has. While cellars are numerous in other cities, Budapest has a special claim. They are bars and tea houses and restaurants. There was a very traditional, yet utterly un-kitsch Hungarian cellar restaurant we went to one of the last nights I was in town. I was able to try a lot of specialties in restaurant form. I had venison stew with potatoes and a tomato salad. Then I ordered dessert, crepes Gundel, which was a wonderful flambed crepe filled with walnuts, raisins, and chocolate floating in a walnut (?) liquor (that the waiter lit on fire with quite ceremony).

The Hungarians believe in dessert. Not only did I have the excellent crepes Gundel, but I also sampled various pastry at several Viennese coffee houses (one was in a cellar!) and various poppy seed creations. While I was not very fond of generic Hungarian cooking, at least they do enough correctly - wine, dessert, and tea. They're already outdoing the British by at least one.

As for museums, I wandered in several history museums, all of which have such vaguely similar names. However, the National Museum was my favorite, documenting the history of the cities of Buda and Pest, starting with neolithic carvings and ending in the modern era at the fall of the communist regime. Not only did they have historical items of interest, but they incorporated clothing, furniture and standard objects in their displays. Unfortunately only half of the signs were in English and my general lack of Hungarian history left me curious and dissatisfied. The Historical Museum was very similar in themes, but with less objects and more English signs with repetitive and useless knowledge. They did have a portion of the old palace that it is housed in open and I was able to wander in the cellar, built sometime in the 1500s, I believe. Not only was it deliciously cool and crisp inside, I felt I had discovered some hidden passage in the tradition of Indiana Jones. With the lack of tourists, besides two older British women wandering away, for a moment it was as if I had my own castle.

I did not have time to go to any art museums unfortunately. I tried to go into the National Art Gallery, but I walked in through an unlocked side door. There was a sign outside saying it was the National Art Gallery, but as soon as I entered some woman came up to me and started to say something to me in Hungarian. I said in extremely broken Hungarian, something along the lines of : "I No Speak Hungary." She then asked if spoke either German or English and then explained that I had to go through the main entrance. After escorting me over to the pain entrance, I was too confused (and tired of museums) to bother figuring out the proper way to get in. I wasn't particularly interested in any more medieval carvings, which is the brief glimpse of what I saw when coming in through the side door.

I did go to the Terror Haza, or Terror House, which was once the headquarters for the Hungarian Arrow Cross Party, the Hungarian Nazis, and then the later communist terror organizations, the AVO and the AVH. As it was a museum of "terror", they tried to document the crimes of both organizations against the people of Hungary. After reading the guidebooks, I was not sure I wanted to go as they described it as a shocking exhibit of past crimes against humanity. But I felt I should go, if for no other reason to see the building. I did take an upper division history class on the history of the Soviet Union at Berkeley after all.

The museum itself was one of the most beautifully curated museums I've ever seen. It is visually stunning, in its subtly vibrant colors that all seem to accentuate each other. The displays were simple, but aesthetically pleasing, and the orientation was easy to follow. I think what I enjoyed best was seeing the various memorabilia and objects from the communist era. The stairwell of communist art was incredible - the busts of Lenin and Stalin and others moving spirally upwards.

What struck me as strange though was the fact that the museum was not that shocking, at least in the terms the guidebooks used. Perhaps it was because I knew a lot more about the specific "terrors" of communist regimes in Europe. Compared to visiting the Nazi work camp Dachau, it was not even as close to being as horrific. The other thought I had while walking through the museum was the extreme bias. I understood and in many ways agree that the museum was an attempt to create a remembrance for all those who were persecuted then. But the general sentiment was that everything the communists did was evil (they did not focus much on the Nazis, besides including some uniforms and relating how many Nazi Arrow Cross members became part of the communist secret police). One of the things I realized while taking the history of the Soviet Union class was that although there were many things done as a means to solidify communism that were horrendous (ie. Stalinist purges), we have a hard time differentiating the propaganda we were fed against communism. The Soviet Union was one of the most progressive places for feminism and literacy, two things a lot of people don't realize. I am not trying to suggest communism is the means for a successful government, far from it actually, but I think as an American I long thought of that "great Communist evil" which I am now unsure exists or ever did. Rather, it was a much more complicated process, one in which communism folded in on itself.

One aspect of communal living I did enjoy while in Budapest was the Roman baths. At first I was a little nervous about parading around in early April in a bathing suit. But the baths are extremely user friendly - old men were playing chess in the outdoor bath while drinking beer, Italian tourists running around in droves, the one little boy kept narrowly missing other bathers when jumping into the pool, and of course there were the euro trash couples making out in broad view. But this just made it more comfortable to be there. I also learned how to properly enjoy a sauna, moving from it to a cold pool and then back again. It was extremely refreshing, unlike the claustrophobic experiences I had as a child in random hotel saunas.

I'm sure there are a million other things I am forgetting about my trip to Budapest. But at this point, with another trip, looming on the horizon, I feel like I've covered enough of it. Lena will have to remind me if I forgot anything.

Soon to Be an Ex-Ex-Patriot

It's hard to believe that exactly four months ago, I was anticipating my trip to Cairo. It's even harder to believe that less than a year ago I was anxiously awaiting the beginning of a year in Scotland. Now, I'm approaching my last final exam here and my next adventure.

Lately it seems that the general preponderance is the uncertainty of what waits ahead. There are the usual anxieties of starting another year or a new job or moving to a new place. But what is stranger is to return to a place, a very familiar place, knowing it will not be the same. In my Scottish literature class, we read several short stories that dealt with Scottish ex-patriots returning home and what they found on arrival. Now, I'm neither Scottish nor from some tiny island village nor have I been gone for thirty years, but I think the sentiments and underlying emotion are similar. There are times that I feel that I have to glorify everything here. I must be the Roman returning victorious from battle and I am not sure I can always keep that charade up. Not to say that there haven't been many wonderful experiences, but they have been fully tempered by the difficulties.

There are so many myths and expectations of studying abroad. This year has been the strangest, loneliest, most adventurous year yet. And for all of that, I wouldn't take it back. However, as the Chart of Emotions that one of my friends was given (in the conclusion that a visual bell graph would help explain what to expect while studying abroad), I am now approaching the reverse effects of studying abroad. What are those? Tune in next fall.

I think I might delaying travelling for 2 or 3 days and enjoy some more time in the company of people here. Not that I have money to waste, but the extra expense of changing a plane ticket seems well worth it at the moment. Then I'm off to Italy for about two weeks and then a quick jaunt to the isles of Ireland and Britain before I sail home.

Strange how the time flies in a foreign country, even when every moment isn't necessarily fun...

Friday, 16 May 2008

Budapest, Part 3: Night

There is a gentle intensity about the Hungarian nightlife. It is similar to its Eastern European neighbors in that Budapest loves a good night out, drinking and dancing until the sun comes up. But the Hungarians have a spirit about them that seems more easy going and less intense than the Polish or Germans. They are definitely not pretentious like the French.

When I was in Budapest, Lena made sure I saw all the various aspects of the nightlife. Well, I will specify that we did not go to any strip or sex clubs, a reputation that Budapest somewhat encourages due to the number of tourists. However, despite being named the "Sex Capital," the streets were remarkably safe and as long as you stayed away from the crazy winos and alcoholics like the one we encountered on the airport bus, you were fine.

Enough about the merits of walking on Budapest streets at ungodly hours!

The first night I arrived I was too incapacitated by lack of sleep (I'd woken before dawn) to do anything. However, the next night Lena took me to a party in a friend's flat where I promptly met her international crew of friends. I was informed by the Hungarian that the wine label Danko was "a lifestyle" and given the quality of Hungarian wines, I would fondly join this lifestyle. (Note: Danko is only a lifestyle for those who can afford bottles of 3 euro wine or less) We then all went to a student night at a club called Living Room. Let's just say it was like a student night at any club anywhere in the world. Too many bodies, one "free drink," bad music, and guys to avoid. However, it is in someways both better and worse when you can't speak their language. They might actually be interesting people in their own right, but there is no way to ever figure it out. However, it also becomes an easy escape mechanism when there is no way to communicate. After several hours of this, Lena and I decided to go back to her apartment.

The next night proved better, or at least made for a more interesting story. We had been invited to a Polish dinner party - Lena's Polish friends were throwing a dinner party for their friends to introduce them to their native cuisine. That said, what I did eat was excellent. I can always go for a good pierogi. However, what we had thought was a sit down dinner became much more of an epic battle to get food. The Polish group had originally only invited their Polish and Slavic friends but it quickly morphed into 35 people for dinner and food for 10. Luckily, one of the skills I have mastered being a poor undergraduate is how to quickly navigate a buffet of free food. Of course, there's also an art to being polite at the same time. Another point of interest: there was more than plenty vodka to go around multiple times for everyone.

Afterward, Lena convinced half of the dinner party to join us at Szimpla, one of Budapest's "found bars." By "found bar", it is an old decaying building which is now a bar and that has been decorated by objects found around the streets. I believe I've seen these kind of establishments in various German films. Think found art plus cool hangout and a little post-communism mixed in. Clubbing seems to be the preferred option among many Europeans, but I absolutely adored this place. It was artlessly cool and had the perfect mix of ambience and people. No one was too hip or too touristy or too anything in particular.

Of course when we went to a jazz club, Fat Mo's, later on, we encountered a completely different environment. This place had once been a sleek bar of the 1920s and still looked so. The jazz band was remarkably good and the Hungarian twist to the music was all the more interesting. Unfortunately Scotland is a bit of a wasteland for music unless you like Brit rock or traditional Scottish music, both of which are fabulous. But forget about jazz. And if I hear another cover band playing "Sweet Home Alabama" in a Scottish accent, I am going to kill someone. The folk/rock band we heard at some other bar also was surprisingly good and they were singing in Hungarian. Europeans seem to think that if they sing in English it makes the music better. No comment.

I'm sure there are other things I'm missing from our night adventures. There are still plenty of other things I haven't even gotten around to like going into a random side door of a museum and having to be escorted out, or the adventures of the Roman baths. But all in good time. I must get back to reading Ian Rankin's Black and Blue for my Scottish Culture and Society final. Now that I'm on page 311 it's getting pretty good, however it's not exactly high brow literature. However it is Scottish:

Glasgow wasn't such a bad place: he'd been to cities in the States that could eat it for brunch.