Monday, January 29, 2007

A Final Farewell and F*** You from Italy

Two weeks back, I sent off a 17kg box of books home, with my textbooks from the semester, the books I had bought, and all the notes I had from class.

Today, the package arrived.

Considerably lighter.

Oh no, what happened? What did they do with my books? My notes? Carrying the box back to my new place, I couldn't help but wonder what was missing. Why on earth was it possible for me to carry this box so effortlessly when back in Ferrara I had had to stop every 20 metres on my way to the post office?

Opening the box I discovered that my photocopies for all my classes was gone, and a great deal of my books had been taken away. I am missing half the tomes for my art history and literature manuals. And I even got a book that I have never seen in my life.

So that's what happens when you trust the Italian postal service: they slash your box, take your books and burn your photocopies (ones over which I pored to glean meaning, ones that I cherished, ones that are now lost). You pay 66 euro to send the package and they screw you over. Maybe the final f-you from Italy was what I need to more fully embrace Cambridge Mass once again.

But if you think of it, it's really quite funny, in that screwed up, chaotic, Italian way. Mamma mia! Non ci posso credere.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Addio a Ferrara

Yesterday I folded up all my clothes, leaving nothing but the chiming hangers echoing in my closet. It will only really hit me once my bags are all packed and the room is all bare as I found it. It's hard to believe that 5 months have passed and I find myself at the end, when at times, I languished waiting for it to be over, aching for it to speed up. And here I am.

I went for a bike ride around the city, joining the 165,000 bicycles in the European bike capital for an hour in my life here in Ferrara. I went to the city walls and basked in the blue skies and the wind. The sun filtered through the trees canopying the path around the walls. I made my way to familiar parts of the city, passing the yoga studio where I experienced the weirdest session ever, navigating down the busy and almost catastrophic via Garibaldi, saluting the spiky palazzo dei diamanti and winding around Piazza Ariostea imagining that my bicycle was instead a horse running the annual Palio. This is the Ferrara I got to know, galant castle, blue skies, pinkish duomo, sunshine, old men grouping in the central square, old ladies in mink coats walking arm in arm and the endless string of curse words intrinsic to the Italian language.

I leave tonight to stay in a hotel in Bologna and then catch my early Sunday morning flight to fly back to North America and the crazy life, reintegrating, relearning, rediscovering what I left behind. I feel older now, not just the superficial one year older I had my birthday in December older but actually more mature beyond my years, ready to affront life a little better. It's been absolutely beautiful and at moments gut-wrenching and difficult but in the end, I am very glad I went through with it all. Grazie e addio Italia...

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Recipe for Happiness

The days are winding down in Ferrara. I can count the days that remain on my two hands. The new students have arrived for the next semester and are taking the same first steps that we students took way back in September. At this point, I try to follow my brother’s advice and my own instinct to soak up as much of Italy as possible. I take walks around Ferrara down quiet medieval streets and soak up the life and the lack thereof. Older men group in the central piazza and chit chat for hours, all types of people zoom through the streets on bicycles, the pace of life promenades at a nice relaxed pace.

Sarah and I find ourselves with less and less to do, as we finish our exams and pack up our academic careers at the Universita’ di Ferrara. But the secret to staying content and satisfied is simple. We’re finding new spaces to hang out, reading in a local tea room for a few hours. We went out to the disco last night, and danced until the early hours of the morning, returning to a deserted, mysterious and memorable piazza della cattedrale. I’m planning on going for a bike ride along the city walls and visit the synagogue and Jewish cemetery. Most of all, however, we are embarking on culinary experiments. We’ll invite a friend over, and try something new. Usually it leaves us feeling quite delighted. This last week, for instance, we decided to make chicken skewers with vegetables in the oven and the spices, and juices just made the whole mix delicious. And then Friday night I decided to venture into Sicilian pesto (sundried tomatoes in addition to the usual pesto mix, a little less basil) which left both of us enraptured. All the while the conversation wanders from past to present to future but is always reflective and philosophical. Wrap up the whole experience with a visit to the Neopolitan gelato-maker down our street who, along with conversation, makes the creamiest, most decadent but light gelato I’ve ever tasted and you have yourself happiness. Plain and simple.

Friday, January 12, 2007

What ora is it?

Starting to think my life was boring, Italy stepped in to shake things up a little. Originally my art history exam was slated for Wednesday at high noon. Incapable of getting up past 7.45, I was in the neighbourhood of the Physics building where my exam would take place and decided to check on the announcement board to see what was up. My exam was there, announcing a 10am beginning. Luckily, I thought, it’s only 9.45 and I can make it back here and kick this exam’s ass earlier than I thought. Heh, I thought wrong.

So there was no sign of the professor after an hour and since I was done fiddling with my computer and my glorious connection to the Internet, I went home for a bit before returning at noon. At this point I waited for about 20 minutes and thought, since I am registered in the 12th position, maybe I should just come back at 2 or so after having eaten. I assumed that the professor would just be going in order, would be operating in some sort of logical American way. Needless to say I thought wrong.

I arrived at 2 to a full classroom and an overspill of eager exam takers. I was to learn that the professor had divided the group in two and would be redoing the exam again tomorrow at 10. See, the thing is, I already had an exam scheduled for the next morning at 9, and my sense of Italian timing told me that I would not be done by 10. Deciding I needed to study, I decided to tempt fate and Italian timing. I was in the second position for the other exam and, by the looks of the proceedings with the art history prof, I would be fine arriving a bit late.

9 am rolled around Thursday morning and still no sign of anyone. Of course. The professor showed up a little later, took attendance, split the group up (because two of his classes were meeting for an exam at the same time) and went to make photocopies. 5 minutes he said. 25 minutes later the exams began. How long could an exam take? My literature exam on Tuesday had only taken about 30 minutes. 50 minutes later, out comes the first exam-taker and in I go, only to be interrupted by two people looking for the professor. By this time its about 1030 (I don’t know if the times add up, but if you’re keeping track, who are you, American?). I just focus take the exam, and kick ass. Once the libretto is signed to track the result of my oral exam, I run over to the other building to take my art history exam.

Of course, I’m not late. I walk in to sit down in and watch as some poor Italian girl talks her way through Pop Art. Right, this exam was public. Public meaning that all those waiting to take the exam sit in a stadium type classroom (think auditorium but with desks too… oy I suck at description). There were a good 10 people to go before me, I was last. How long could it take? I was hoping to have a victory lunch with my dear roommate Sarah but as 1 rolled around and hunger was fat but hope was slim, I decided instead to get a slice of pizza and try to wait it out.

And then there was this girl. This girl knew nothing. This girl neglected the fact that World War I was happening during 1916. This girl thought there was a war going on instead in 1909. This girl couldn’t explain cubism, futurism or dada for the life of her, calling on Marcel Duchamp as an example of each movement. Futurism was an Italian art movement. Duchamp was French. It was torture. I wondered how the hell it was possible that such a person could be confident to take an exam. The silence in the room killed us all as this girl claimed surrealism desire to rationalize the unconscious. I would have sent this girl away after the first question, but the professor was patient… for 40 minutes… and then failed her.

There were wonderfully competent Italian students who simply wowed me but there were so many who showed such lack of studying. The thing is with these exams is that you don’t necessarily have to go to class at all to take them. One would think that such people would prepare. But we’re talking about Italy here.

So 2 o’clock rolled around and we all took a break. I went home to take my laundry out of the washing machine and get a snack to quit me from going nuts. I had been nervous all day and this prolongation of tension wasn’t helping me at all. By this time I was tired, exhausted and wasn’t sure I knew any contemporary art history any more. The thing is with public exams is that you hear the questions and responses of everyone who goes before you. Unfair? I think so. Whatever. Where are we? Italy.

And it wouldn’t be Italy without your professor’s cell phone ringing and her having a conversation in front of the class. At a certain point, I was positively going insane. Perhaps I knew the answers to these questions and wanted to get my word in. I was smiling a lot (and I think the professor is kind of fascinated with me… the Canadian kid, he’s so weird) and she talked about the ragazzo americano to whoever she was talking to and I smiled and saluted. Il ragazzo americano ti saluta.

This is getting sort of long. So basically by 5pm I was out. I had spent more or less 6 hours waiting for my exam to be over. Lots of stress, lots of patience, shows of absolute incompetence, temporary insanity. I don’t know how the Italians do it. Talking with the professor after the exam I think she put it best. Questa e un sistema diverso. This is a different system. Sure is. It’s a different world.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Rediscovering Italy

Returning back to Ferrara, I was infused with a fresh breath of determination. Here I was in not a strange new experience, but a place I have called and still call home. The nervous and tentative first steps trying to find my apartment had been replaced an almost second-nature buzzing step to via Garibaldi 27. So I dragged my suitcases down Medieval avenues ready to say my final hoorah to Ferrara.

I had been home for the holidays, two weeks of rest, food, family, and plenty of sleep. It had all caused me to reflect on the experience of being abroad. My mother and I tried to distill my best photos into a body of work for a possible exposition but I wonder what was the fascination with Italy, why had I become so visually aware in the Mediterranean boot under seemingly always-blue skies?

Being away for two weeks showed me exactly why. Things are not familiar, the architecture is always new, the details always strange and inviting, my eyes are put into overload by the vivacity of the colours, blue skies, bronzed skins, colourful fabrics. The everyday is anything but everyday. My eyes were peeled once again as the bus wound through the streets of Bologna from the airport to the train station, coloured stucco, arcaded avenues and a mix of so much history. Europe may not have seemed like to far a ways to go for a study abroad experience but Italy is not the same at all to North American culture. It is a feast for the senses.

Saturday, for example, was epiphany, a holiday I have never bothered to notice before in my life. The story is that epiphany is bascially a feast celebrating the revelation of Christ to the world which happens at the same time as the arrival of the Three Wise Men. The legend goes that the wisemen had a little navigating troubles, stopped by a house to ask directions but some housewife with a broom answered the door and said she didn't know and didn't want to tag along for the whoel Jesus thing. But upon closing the door she had second thoughts and wanted to see the Jesus child, but, not knowing the direction or who this Christ child was, decided in order to be safe to just give gifts to all the children along the way. Somehow this woman, la Befana, became a witch (the whole broom thing I guess). But it's a bit strange, it's basically Christmas but replace jolly old Saint Nick with the Wicked Witch of the West. So as I walked down via Garibaldi dragging my suitcases, I wondered what the hell was going on, seeing witches every where and thinking that Ferrara must really have the calendar wrong in 2007 having reverted back to Halloween. Not only witches but Sarah and her boyfriend spotted a procession of animals down via dell’Indipendenza complete with Roman soldiers on horseback, donkeys and beautifully groomed camels. All the while I was back in Ferrara, trying to study while the bells went crazy in the town square.

I am attacking my studying, realizing I need to distill my ideas to be prepared for oral exams. I’ve also realized that there isn’t that much studying to do, I have to balance it out with cooking, yoga and leisure reading. But it should be a high paced week. I feel my English being contaminated with Italian, trying to speak to Sarah’s boyfriend and finding the correct word only in my third language. Good thing I am only here for 2 more weeks, or else I may lose my English all together ;). Thus starts to final stretch of the Italian experience.