Monday, September 25, 2006

quickie: back safe and sound!

The last days in Belgrade were spent at a very lazy pace, and we took a combination bus/train to return (about 24 full hours of travel to make it home!) without any significant hitches. I'm working on sorting pictures, writing up an extended blog entry, and will upload as soon as I have a chance!

Monday, September 18, 2006

quickie: belgrade

We made our way safely out of makedonia and back into serbia. One of our last stops was Vrnjcka Banja (yes, I learned how to pronounce 6 consonants in a row!), a town built around thermal waters, full of spas that charge the insane amount of 6EUR to use the jacuzzi-style pool of sulphuric waters, and 10EUR to get a massage... Next time, I'm spending a week here!!

It was funny how we felt relieved to be able to talk serbian freely again, with no fear of discrimination... Belgrade is going to be our base for the rest of the week. We returned the rent-a-car, so I'll soon experience the ultra-modern rail system. ;)

The only down-side to Belgrade is the insanely heavy air pollution. Cars here are still old-school, you can smell the lead going into your lungs...! Ah, and wait until I tell you of the hotels...

Return trip is set for sat evening, so we'll be back in genova later on Sunday. Another bus trip, diff. company. Let's hope for the best :)

Thursday, September 14, 2006

quickie: onwards to skopje

3 nights in Ohrid, we saw all the churches around, the one gutted-out fortress, the historical center, a town nearby, Saint Naum, at the border with Albania (and technically one of us crossed the border for a minute while chasing a peacock for a photo!), enjoyed the lake, great weather, good food, and we finally managed to avoid looking like serbians, so all is well. ;) We are now headed towards Skopje, the capital, for one day/night of exploration. We've been warned to keep our serbian rent-a-car in private garages... Let's see how we get out of this one ;)

Monday, September 11, 2006

quickie: alive and well in makedonia

the bus trip was 17 hrs, but somehow they went by smoothly and quickly! I would have never believed it... Eurolines service gets my kudos. Belgrade is an interesting town, still recovering from the war in places, and it is a mixture of extreme poverty (gypsies mostly), old grandeur, and modern life. We were there only one night, so we saw very little, but we plan to dedicate some days to it again towards the end of our trip.

This morning we rented a car and made our way to Makedonia, aaaall the way to Ohrid. The only warning we had for the trip was to avoid Kosovo at all costs, and to park overnight in garages (a car with serbian plates can get pinpointed by certain locals...). So we first headed to Skopje using a combination of highway and mountain roads that circumvented the area, then we looked for the next highway to keep going south, to Ohrid. We got on this tiny road, figured it was an underdeveloped section of the country... and all of a sudden one of the guys reads a sign: "Kforce border patrol 1.5 Km" (I'll get back to you on the actual spelling of "Kforce", I forget what it actually was...)and asks us "Kforce? What does the Kosovo military have to do with this zone? Aren't we in Makedonia?" We suddenly realized we had taken a *very* wrong turn north and had headed straight for disaster! We did a quick u-turn and high-tailed outta there. No harm, no foul. But a nice scare to wake us up after the long, boring drive we had gone through.

We reached Ohrid late, found our hostel with some difficulty, but were pleased by the contrast of quality with the hotel we had in Belgrade. That one was a filthy, broken-down, almost scary place. Here, instead, things are run by a family, it smells nice, and even though when u look closely the bathroom is a bit yucky, overall the presentation is so much nicer!

Mistakes not to repeat: even though the languages are similar, do not use any serbian words in Makedonia! Ppl seem to get quite irate and dangerously unamicable when they think you are serbian... So we are defaulting to English, but try to make sure they understand we are Italian. That seems safe... Ah, and learning the cyrillic alhabet comes in very handy... I can muddle my way through it now!

We are keeping a communal offline diary with all the coolest adventures and things, so I'll have plenty to write about when I have a longer chance. Toodles until then!

Saturday, September 09, 2006

center, north, and onwards east!

bdays come and go, but the memories of good times remain... Saturday we had a combination party for myself and another girl who was also turning 30, just 6 days before me! Yummy bbq, good friends, 4 home-made cakes... it was so nice! :D

Then on Sunday I headed off with Claudio to Torino. He had to go for work for a couple of days, so I tailed along and caught the chance to get to know another city closely related to my past. My mother used to live there, I think. A couple of days before going there I mustered the nerve to call a phone number, of a lawyer whom I didn't remember, but my father had told me he used to hang out with my family and was friends with my mother. He was from Torino, so I was hoping to seeing him. His son answered, and *he* remembered me from when we were children and we played together! The father made me feel like it was only last year we last spoke, and was so glad I called, and was looking forward to meeting me to talk. He wasn't going to be there that days I was visiting, but once I return from Macedonia I have that to look forward to! I wonder how many things he will be able to tell me about my mother, my family, my childhood...

Torino gave me the impression of a quietly grand city. The center is all old palaces, but besides a couple of markedly different buildings, or churches, they are a bit homogeneous. It could also be that we arrived before everyone returned from vacation, so the city was emptier than usual. The northern part has succumbed to the onrush of poor immigrants from all countries, so it is a bit unsafe, but overall it has a good atmosphere. I finally got to see the Po, the biggest river of Italy, and the first you learn about in school.

I only spent 36 hours there, 'cause I returned reeeeally early to Genova Tuesday to meet with the Social Services about the residence thing. I explored another section of the city, but besides that, I didn't get much more out of the deal. It seems they will do anything for hoboes, but a clean, educated professional in limbo like myself doesn't really "deserve" assistance, I can manage on my own. The girl I spoke with put in my application anyways, to see if I slip through the cracks, but she suggested I take up residence with a friend and get health papers like that. I hate to be in this limbo where I know I could use some help, but I'm just intelligent/able/energetic/educated enough for people to think I don't need it. I understand the nicety of helping the less fortunate, but the country would benefit a lot more from helping me out a little now, than helping a druggie hobo for the rest of his life..

Ah, and I looked into getting a medical check-up privately, and it's indecent the amount of money doctors ask for, even here. I guess since I am in no bad health, I just need routine maintenance, I can put it off for another couple of months. Ah, and I barely started to fully consider the implications of having worked and contributed to social security in the US for 10 yrs, which I'll never see, while in Italy I have no right to a pension 'cause I never worked here... *grumble grumble*

Anyhoo, the rest of the week was spent here and there about Genova, running errands and getting ready for the next leg of the trip: Serbia and Macedonia! We are leaving this evening around 8pm with an Eurolines bus, that goes almost non-stop to Belgrade. 16 hours (if all goes well) in a bus!! I've never done something like it... 'Hope it won't be a horrible experience... Once there, we are spending the night to recover, and then we are renting a car to go south to Ohrid, a city on a lake, famous for a monastery and some other stuff. I'll learn things along the way then write about them, I am totally depending on the other two to be fully prepared (and they are...) ;)

From there we will lazily make our way back up north, stopping here and there. The guys want to pass by Sarajevo... I am a bit nervous about the area, these are places where not long ago war and massacres were at play... There is still much political tension.

Wish me luck and look forward to hear back from me in 2 weeks! There should be internet along the way, I might be able to put up a quick update once in a while. Until then, here are the latest pics.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Genova, city of possibilities

[original snippet written Aug. 27]
Sunday afternoon. A lazy Sunday afternoon. New setting: the balcony of an apartment in Genoa. Gorgeous sunny day, it's still summer, but it's not as hot as Crotone. The breeze is cool. It caresses my body while I read a book about Calabria. A book of a passionate man and his family, his history, his traditions and focus on rebuilding a legend. The rumors of life bubble around me. Snippets of conversation. A child crying. A dog barking. Planes overhead, far away. Going to other places. And for a moment, I am still. Amid such movement, mental, physical, my emotions are quiet. A sense of peace. A hint of possibilities. The constant doubt of the future. But I feel the ghost of a life. Or rather, the soul. A ghost is of things gone. A soul is of things to come.
[end snippet]

Many things have accumulated since my last full entry. Let's pick it up again from Crotone. I realized I should write down something about the places I've seen...

Crotone itself is a small town, but its historical center is built over and around a castle/fortress on a hill. In the last blog entry where I posted pictures you can see some of that. As far as beaches, once you have a car it's an easy thing to take on of the winding coast streets and stop anywhere, and hike down the semi-cliff to the water. Many small beaches dot the coastline, and the locals know and use them all. They also have this habit of taking along tents, tables, even portable gazeboes, and set up an all-day eat fest. And we're not talking sandwiches... They take along lasagna, eggplant parmesan, sausages... and they'll offer you it all if you get too close, forcing you to fill up until you can't stand anymore, and then you lay in the heat for hours, comatose... The friends we visited, who had a camping spot on a private beach, were more reasonable than that. We ate cold pasta and watermelon. 'Til we burst, too, but at least it was healthy food :)

A couple of days we drove around to nearby towns to see some sights. Among them: Le Castella, a much-visited castle on a tiny island (pic was in last blog). The gorgeous thing about that place was that we witnessed a huge storm approaching from the sea. The lightning was so violent and there were so many hits, that I managed to take several pictures of it! I also took the stormy clouds behind the castle, the look of the rain approaching, the boats running away from it all... We had to run, too, into a bar, to escape the violent downpour for the 15 minutes it passed over us. I love storms. Such power!

Santa Severina is a medieval stronghold town built over a hill further inland. It also has a small castle in it, and we found our way to a small hostel known to our hostess, where she had simply called the night before saying "prepare a meal for 6, of Calabrian specialties". For a couple of hours we sat and kept passing around plates of cheeses (eaten with honey!), assorted cured meat, olives, pasta with mushrooms, a home-made fruit tarte dessert, and several bottled of "digestives", which are a staple at any italian table. Amazing all the different herbs, fruits, and veggies you can add to alcohol!

Back near Crotone is Capo Colonna, an archeological site where both the Greeks and the Romans established temples and residences. A new museum opened just last month, with artifacts found during excavations. Such richness of culture and soil in those parts. Unfortunately, much of it goes to waste, unorganized, unvalued, and unpublicized. The "Colonna" (column) that gives the name to the place is the single remnant of the temple to Hera that used to be there. It is a solitary sight, but the stories behind it, all nicely retold within the museum, talk of much prosperity in the past.

We visited several other places, but the names escape me at the moment. The book I mentioned in the first paragraph talks of the whole region. Alexander Dumas was said to have passed through it, and the book kinda revolves around that. Don't know if there is a translation, but the original is titled "Tra Due Mari" by Carmine Abate.

After the week spent with the group of friends, I spent the couple of days before my own departure organizing my things and my thoughts. I clocked in several hours at my trusty internet spot, the "Maxim Cafè" [ciao Antonio!] and basked in the last of the heat. By some weird law of impossibility I managed to pack my luggage with the couple of extra things I bought while I was down there, and it all fit! I even seemed to have some extra space!! One of them mysteries of life...

My friend accompanied me to the train station on Thu morning... and I nearly didn't make it back north! Out of 3 trains I had to take, the first was cancelled altogether. Loosing all my connections and seat reservations, I had to re-form my travel plan. The original 14 hours of estimated travel time became 22. The wonderful thing about this trip is that I never have to be anywhere at any specific time. So I sat back and relaxed in the chair of the customer services office, while I observed an interesting exchange of thoughts between the local employee and a yelling girl that was upset 'cause her train had left exactly on time, leaving her behind. She kept yelling things like this was outrageous, how dares a train leave on time, here in Italy! No, this isn't Italy, this is Northern Africa! She demanded her money back, and an apology! The employee, a philosophical fellow, had a very unhurried manner, and insisted on taking time to explain to her his thoughts on the matter. Lucky for me he pushed her aside (with a humorous "since you're already upset, let me make you even more upset, sit there and wait while I take care of this lady...") and sat me on the next train going in the right direction, with some sketches of possible schedules I could take, if I found space.

Lightly worried, but still unhurried, I carried on. Had I stayed, it would have been a week before I found a spot. End of august the population that migrated south for the holidays migrates back up, so trains are overbooked... The first train became a combination local train and bus. Then I had to spend the trip from Lamezia to Naples on the floor at the entrance of the wagon, 'cause all the seats were sold out. At Naples I sat around for 3 hours waiting for the overnight to Genova. This was a claustrophobic "cuccette", a 6-seats-turned-beds where all sorts of women travelers played tetris with their luggage and bodies. Nothing like the happy experience I had coming south...

I finally sat foot in Genova around 5:30am. Still pitch dark, I spent the 15 minutes previous looking out the window to a gorgeous sight of a storm over the Ligurian coast. Genova, here I come!! ;) At the station was my new friend and host Claudio. New city, new set of keys. To a gorgeous small apartment in a nice neighborhood just outside of the city center. First order of the day: focaccia! Second was a shower and some sleep... then we spent a long weekend going out and about, visiting Genova, meeting friends, getting to know the neighborhood... I have no clue what the names of the streets are, but I finally know my way around :)

The time here has been great. I have savored some more of the local life, shopping at the indoor markets, learning about food, eating more than I should but loving every bit of it. (I finally bought a scale today to keep track of the belly... lol) The map I have of the city is a flat rendition that gives no justice to a land that winds its way up the hills through narrow streets, stone stairways and even "funicolari", mini trains used to simply go from one level of the city to the one above it. A plaza reached that way gave us a gorgeous overview of the center. I took some pics at sunset, on a clear day. Beautiful thing.

Tomorrow night, Sat, we are having an actual bday party at my friend's home. Tonight it's "aperitivo" time! This is another custom that seems particular to Italy: you go for a drink before you go to dinner. Kinda of the happy hour we used to do in NY on Fridays, but it's a lighter deal. Just one drink, some munchies, and then you go eat real food. If you meet up with friends during the evening, you usually go for an aperitivo. Drinking yourself stupid doesn't seem to be a widespread custom. Munchies are served as part of the drink order, for free. So the smart thing is to know which bars give you the best/most munchies :)

Aaight, it's pictures time. This is Genova!

PS) After many phone calls and visits around several city offices, it seems there's a way for me to become a resident without having an actual home... My being in limbo poses bureocratic questions, I can't even visit a doctor for routine check-ups, 'cause I don't appear in the system... more on this next week, after I go to my appointment!