Sunday, December 14, 2014

Do as the Romans Do (Part 3)

   The third day was devoted to exploring the Vatican.  Sadly, while waiting in line for entrance, my host family was targeted by recruiters for guide agencies because they were speaking French.  There were employees of various travel agencies talking to the people in line for entrance against the walls of the Vatican, trying to convince visitors to go with a tour group.  The first two tried to communicate with me in English, offered faster admittance and a tour guide if we booked the events of our day through their company.  The person that spoke French came over to our group of four waiting in line, and proceeded to give the same speech, except with different prices.  Due to the long line and full schedule for the day, we were eventually convinced to go with a tour group in order to be admitted with enough time for the museum.  I remained with the French speaking tour, hoping prior knowledge and similar words, along with my expanding skills, could enable me to enjoy the tour.  It began in front of the travel agency, where the tour guide spent an hour and a half speaking over different rooms and objects within the Vatican. Once we finally entered the Vatican, it was apparent why.  Due to the crowds and an invisible schedule only the tour guide was adhering to, the group did not actually stop in front of the artifacts, but instead passed through the packed rooms to admire replicas in the lobbies.  Instead of going into the Sistine Chapel, the tour guide spent forty minutes in the Garden pointing out interesting parts on different pictures, or at least that is what we assumed she was doing.  There was also difficulty with the microphone, and (it wasn't just my French skills that prevented my understanding!) and no one could hear through the static over the radio.  It was at this point my host family and I broke away from the tour group, and while the Vatican was packed with thousands of people, it was much more enjoyable choosing our own paths through the exhibits.  Once again, my advice for any future travelers to Rome, whether they speak French, Dutch, English, Italian, and/or Elvish, is to research beforehand in order to find accommodations to suit your preferences.  When in Rome, do as the Romans do, and conquer/build your own roads find your own path.  It was much more enjoyable using placards, prior knowledge, and curiosity to find our way through the various exhibits.  While a guide would have provided an interaction open to questions, with centuries of material to cover, the tour would be at the mercy of the guide of the particular day to determine the route and artifacts they chose to lead a group past.
On our own, we found our way through the Sistine Chapel.We were not allowed to take pictures or talk, but it was a truly impressive sight.  Of all the things to notice, the ceiling is so much higher than I imagined, but the room was filled to the brim.  Security prevented anyone from stopping in the actual chapel, not that there was a choice with so many people pressing to move forward!  If claustrophobia is an issue, perhaps a different time of year would be better to visit. It was still brilliant wandering though the exhibits on cultures of the world, from ancient Egypt, China, India to the new exhibit in process about the support of the Vatican with archaeologists preserving Aboriginal cultures in Australia.
The best part of the visit was the visit to the top of St. Peter's Basilica.  Though it was a separate ticket, it was worth the trek for the best view of the Vatican, and the city of Rome.

The evening passed with a private show from my host sister on a piano in small seafood restaurant and some browsing around the city.
     The next day, I wandered in the Piazza di Spagna.  Directly beside the famous steps rests the former home of John Keats and the Shelleys that is now a museum.  While my host family shopped in the downtown district, I gleefully explored exhibits.  It took a trip to Italy to learn the origins of a popular English expression.  Apparently, the phrase 'pushing up daises' is derivative of the feverish ravings of Keats in the master bedroom.  Dying of tuberculosis and mad with fever, Keats believed himself to already be dead for several months before he succumbed.  He would often say that he felt the daises growing into him.  The ceiling, with ornately carved daises facing the floor, still has the decorations, despite everything else being burned in the room to prevent the spread of disease.  
     After that enlightening experience, my host family and I spent the last full day wandering around Rome into various churches and light tourist shopping.  We were blessed with beautiful Italian weather the entire trip.  After another day exploring (and eating) Italian cuisine, we departed in the morning the next day for the airport to take us back to our Belgian home.
I've been told this is a natural picture of me.  Be it that I'm always eating, or I usually have a smirk on my face, some people have called it beautiful.  Not to brag about myself, I think the best thing in this picture is the tomato-garlic-gnocchi.  It was my favorite meal in Italy, and I have yet to find gnocchi that tastes similar. 

The Belgian coming out in my host sister while dining in an outdoor restaurant in Rome.  Note the proper way to eat Belgian frites: with copious amounts of mayonnaise and a fork.

Lise was the one outwardly showing what we were all feeling inside.  Taken right before I discovered if I was flagged for travelling through Atlanta and Brussels (TWICE) within the past three months in the wake of Ebola spread.

Friday, October 31, 2014

When in Rome (Part 2)

   On the second day, we explored historical section of the city.  This statement is misleading, because centuries of buildings in the city can be seen from nearly any vantage point.  From old roads, markers, monuments, buildings from the past bleed through to modern day as the city grows around it... well, I think pictures are appropriate in this scenario!

Walking to the Colosseum gave us the ability to witness the remains of different periods of history.  It was absolutely brilliant for a history nut like me to view the remnants of the aqueducts and marvel at the various remains.
First, we explored the Forum of Augustus which was built in 2 B.C.  It was the area for trials, arranged with a grand sections for Roman citizens and a smaller one for foreigners, the latter of which is ironically captured in the section directly below me in the photo.

The lines for the Colosseum was long, but I encountered two other exchange students from South Carolina!  It was USC, actually, but even though I grew up on the doorstep of Clemson University, I did not hold it against them.  Exchange students need a broad, accepting outlook on all people, no matter their preferred football team.
 After a bit of a wait, we finally procured our tickets and made out way into the Colosseum!  There were people available to help with directions and tickets in multiple languages, but we quickly discovered it was easier for the whole to take advantage of the exchange student with native English to handle appeals.  It was more difficult to find someone who spoke French, whereas the city had adapted to the many English-speaking tourists.  The reputation of English-speaking tourists is infamous, but I will propose that not all of the people speaking English are actually using their first language!  It seems to be a popular language to learn and use for travel.  I'll stop this tangent before it devolves into a chicken-or-the-egg debate of whether many people learn English as another language combined with native English lead to the frequent use of English for international tourism, or whether they chose to learn English because so many native English speakers traveled and places adapted.

Let's set the scene.  The weather is a clear, warm Italian day different than the bone-deep chilly days in Belgium for the past few weeks.  I'm standing in a historical location that has taken on mythical proportions in my mind.  We've finally entered through the overreaching arches and trekked up the stone stairs into the walled hall running around the standing portion of the Colosseum.  The featured exhibits are in English and Italian, but my host family allowed me to go through while they took pictures. The subject was the history of reading, specifically how it evolved to reading for pleasure and libraries in the ancient world, and libraries in the ancient world. My host family graciously let me geek out through the exhibit, possibly removing themselves from the situation and preserving the appearance of not being of any relation to me as I drooled obsessed giggled examined the artifacts.  If I have ever met you in person, then you know it was the perfect topic for my interests. It was surreal to be walking through a museum, examining the ancient tablets and scrolls in the protective cases, and know, if it was possible, the entire building deserved to be in one, too.

We made our way to the center of the Colosseum to view the interior.  With a little patience, we eventually made it to the railings to be able to regard the structure.

 The ground and third level were only accessible to people with an English or Italian tour group, but I enjoyed taking my time through the museum exhibit.
     Twice my host family was taken advantage of because we (alright, they, but I was trying!) were speaking French.  The first time occurred on the second day after the Colosseum.  We were trying to enter the gardens but it was clear admittance required a ticket.  I had not closely inspected my ticket after receiving it to get in the Colosseum, though the information was printed in small print English and Italian on the back.  At the ticket office, my host parents spoke French while I waited with my host sister, and we all were under the impression it required a separate ticket for admittance to get into the gardens based on the conversation with the person at the ticket counter.  We had stressed that we had already purchased our ticket for admittance for the Colosseum, but were instructed to buy a different ticket.  We bought the ticket from the teller, but realized it was exactly the same as our earlier ticket.  We called the teller again and my host parents explained and requested a refund in French while I waited with my host sister.  The woman asked us to follow her in French a few steps over from the office, but we had to go through the admittance.  She scanned the new tickets and we went through the bars while she stood behind them.  It was at this point she started talking in English saying the tickets had already been used.  I started carrying the conversation myself, and asked for a refund.  The teller explained (in English, not the French she had used earlier) that if the tickets hadn't been scanned for admittance, then they could have provided a refund, but because the serial number had been marked in the database, the tickets could not be resold and would not be refunded.  When my host parents tried to speak with the teller, she only responded in English from this point forward, though the teller became flustered when she realized I was fluent.  After the teller had viewed our original tickets, convinced my host parents to buy duplicates, and led us through the admittance when seeking help, we did not get a refund.  I would suggest to any future travelers booking tickets in advance through reputable websites and handing affairs in Italian or English when making arrangements in Rome.
    Despite our issues with the tickets, the ruins were striking and grand.
The birds, too, were willing to strike a pose.

Despite any troubles, it was a brilliant second day!  I am so incredibly thankful to have this opportunity thanks to Rotary and my generous host family!

Thursday, October 30, 2014

An Evening in Roma... Part 1

      It is a known fact that my host family is incredibly kind and generous to me.  Read any of my blog entries and the effusive praise is only a slight indicator of how amazing they really are.  They welcome me in their home, endure my massacre of their native tongue, try to understand my stuttering comments, correct me, feed me delicious family recipes, and invite me with them on family vacations.
   The Belgian school year has more holidays than what I am used to, and I will not complain when it presents opportunities to travel with my host family.
   We went to Rome, Italy!
      We left from Brussels International for a 7:30 AM flight to Rome in order to arrive about 9:30 AM.  This was very optimistic after the evening at themed dinner Friday night about a Belgian singer.  It is possible, I can testify, to sleep through anything on a plane.
This is what I call the 'Imagining Exchange Life' photo.  It is more or less the perfect image of what I think we typically look like on trips.  Packing a life for the next year teaches one how to downsize.   I've got five days of essentials in the blue Rotary bag!  Note the jacket, glasses, water bottle, practical tiny purse that conveniently holds a dictionary, notebook, assorted maps, tickets, train passes, writing utensils, aged American mints, a camera, and probably the TARDIS somewhere in its depths.
  In Rome, I took the metro for the first time to downtown, where we made out way to the hotel.  It was disorienting going through a large demonstration of protesters dressed in red, but it seemed civil and we passed through the crowd without any problems.  My fellow exchange student from 7750 and great friend, Morgen, is completing her exchange in Italy this year.  She warned me protests are very frequent in Rome over Skype.  This was normal for the city.  Apparently the spirit of expression of discontent from the citizens is still alive and well in Rome today!
We ate at a tiny Italian restaurant we found off one of the main streets after exploring for a bit that night.  Near the center of the shopping region, a street or two over from the tourist shops, this was one of two restaurants that had a French menu for my host family.  Unsurprisingly, all spoke Italian, and catered to visitors with menus also available in English.

This is the first of many pasta dishes in Italy.
   Rome is absolutely filled with breathtaking cathedrals and magnificent churches.  We examined and contemplated marvelous, centuries-old buildings and works of art.
From the smooth floors, the ornate banisters, marvelous paintings, detailed sculptures, to gilded ceilings, the churches were grand!  
   Prepare for many photos!  
Here I will put a confession:  I forgot to mark the path of our journey.  Next time, I need to take a picture of the entrance or one of the informational signs in order to mark which church holds the object of my photographs.

The grand fountain was, sadly covered due to renovations, but people could walk past it over the where the water usually is and take pictures!

   It was interesting having so many different statues everywhere.  
I don't think it's possible to appreciate how difficult it is to find a statue fully clothed in Rome for a photo.  They can have halos, togas, robes, crowns, tridents and even battle serpent creatures, but only if they are at least partially in the nude.

This one seemed sassy to me.  He's on a street corner overlooking a busy intersection, just holding his sword but not particularly inspired to do anything with it.  He's even got attitude-pose, with his legs slightly bent and hips and an angle.  How did he end up on the side of a building? 'This is my city! If they think they can give that building a face lift, I'll tell you, I was here during the last face off! It was a ruin then! Even Nero thought it would be a superfluous expense of wealth to renovate!  Does anyone listen to me?'  The answer is no, because you are a statue, and I spending too long waiting at a stoplight breeds fictitious conversation.

The first day, we viewed the three fountains in a plaza before searching for the restaurant.
 Between my host father and I, we probably have twenty photos of this plaza.  However, to post on the blog, it's come down to three photos taken at the right angle to hide... certain aspects...

One of the delights of travelling is to discover all the nuances that hadn't been reported about the location.  In my attempt to leave my mark on the reputation of Roma, I will report an obvious secret that has been overlooked for too long....
Birds are everywhere!  From the streets, to the alcoves, and especially on the statues, pigeons claim the city as their own also.  Perhaps they are searching for historically valuable roosts the same way we many prize property values.  Perhaps the stone is a different temperature than the trees.  Maybe I spent a little too long waiting in lines to ponder the residential priorities of birds and wondering if they follow the same pattern every year when migrating.  

On closer inspection of the photos, I'm annoyed at my skills of deduction for not supplying my imagination with all the birds when picturing Rome.  The statues looked remarkably clean, considering the number of winged-beasts through out the Eternal City.
 It was wonderful being able to wander from sight to sight and walk in ornately decorated churches!

 I was able to see the Pantheon!  The crowd inside and around it was typical of most churches.

     From the time I was a child, my favorite part of any trip was to wander and discover an attraction not on the map.  The first day, I spotted an exhibit for Leonardo Da Vinci.  He has always been a historical figure who fascinated me, so I asked my host parents if we could view the exhibit of some of his various inventions brought to life.  Lise said it was her favorite part of the trip!  I think a crucial part of the soul of an exchange student is the desire to wander and find new things.

  The first day concluded with a lovely Italian meal before preparing for the second day in the Eternal City!