4 Days to Try to Make Sense of it All, Palermo: Day 1

Brian and I left at 8:30 Wednesday morning for the train station. We said bye to Abby and Kim and walked out of the house essentially signaling the end of a great semester. Luckily, I think for both of us, we had 4 days together to try and break down the “joke” of our lives for the past four months. We tend to use the word joke not in the sense that the time was terrible, useless or any sort of derogatory definition of the word, but instead as a reminder that we spent the last four months of our lives on vacation after taking a summer vacation. In all considerations I have been vacationing since the first week of May when I finished my last final paper of the Spring semester of Sophomore year. What had we done with our lives? What was the point? What had we learned and what would we do with it? How did this experience affect us and how would it continue to affect us? What had we expected and what we lived? How had we lived? These questions endlessly tormented my brain, though not in the painful way; I just could not stop thinking about them. I have endlessly analyzed myself and my experience, but those musings were almost always on my own without the input of a fellow abroad member from my group. Brian and I did here and there, sometimes with Jackie, or sometimes on our own, but having four days afterwards to digest it all was quite the gift. We could have stayed in Parma and mused over it there, but leaving and separating ourselves from the city to try to analyze it seems to have been a blessing. We had four days of sightseeing and conversation. It started with Brian sleeping through the train ride and flight to Palermo…oh well I blogged.

For those who haven’t gathered it from reading my writings, Brian is certainly one of the best friends, and most likely the best, friend that I made on this trip. He is the only member of the group with whom I traveled more than once and after Palermo we had traveled together three times including Istanbul and London. Interestingly we had lived on the same floor Freshman year but on opposite sides of the hall. He associated with other guys from other floors of Hardey (our building) instead of sequestering himself with the basement kids as I chose to do. We played basketball together at the beginning of the first semester of freshman year until he “retired” and I succumbed to a crippling back injury. He loves politics and is well informed about them (even though he is a Republican). Plus, he likes to eat well. In Florence he and I ate out as often as we could manage, even becoming a somewhat joke in the group because we were too snobbish to eat the free hotel food. Our reasoning? We’re in Italy! Why the hell would we ever force ourselves to eat poorly?  To top all of our similarities off he loves to experience culture and refuses to let insignificant desires such as food or sleep or health stand in his way of living Italy. We can, and have, bantered endlessly on topics with lesser significance than our study-abroad world, such as politics or basketball, so imagine what we could do with the massive, and incredibly personal, subject of Italy, one which we had just finished? 4 days was probably not enough.

Palermo Airport

We flew into the Palermo airport without much hassle, except for the disgustingly bumpy landing (thank you Ryan Air!). The airport lies directly on the water and underneath the endless “cliffs” (or inland rocky hills) that line Palermo. Neither of us we’re expecting such a site when we descended from the plane. I had no idea that Sicily was filled with these magnificent mountains which overlook pristine water. I had imagined a beach city without hills or cliffs. The airport, though, showed us that Palermo would be nothing as we had expected. We took the train from the airport into the city which brought us along the coastline with beautiful views of the countryside in the setting sun, but unfortunately it brought us to the wrong part of Palermo. All of my research online had told me that there the shuttle train from Palermo airport brought you directly to the Central Station in Palermo from which our hostel was a five minute walk. Well, apparently not. We were dropped at the other train station in Palermo. No worries, though. I asked the conductor what to do and after some vague directions a nice old lady told us exactly what to do without us even asking. I had heard that the Southerners were much nicer than the Northerners (as can be said about America) but I had yet to fully experience it. We eventually made it to the train station and then walked to the hostel through the towering buildings and crowded streets of Palermo.

Fountain near the Hostel

The place is decidedly dirty, but in a beautiful, old city kind of way. The buildings were coated with a black sheen of smog and litter seemed omnipresent. The streets were filled with parked cars, travelling cars and cars stuck in between parking and driving. I honestly have never seen a city more crowded with cars. The traffic looked terrible and indeed was some of the worst that I have ever experienced when we actually drove through it two days later. Despite the numerous cars, though, the city felt empty and deserted. There were few people walking the sidewalks or shopping the stores. Many places were closed and nothing actually appeared to be happening. In fact when we got to the hostel (located in what looked like a sketchy alley, but which would turn out to be the normal for Palermo) we appeared to be the only ones in the entire place and I would not venture to say that the workers outnumbered us. The hostel cost us 15 euro a night, but was more like a hotel! The bed was the most comfortable on which I had slept all semester and the bathrooms were singles. We were in a 4 person room, but obviously no one else was there so we had the place to ourselves. The best part of it, however, was the location. We were within a ten minutes walk of all of the important Palermo sites and, after using the New York Times Travel Guide for Palermo (praise that establishment!) we realized that we were within 15 minutes walk of any number of supposedly fantastic restaurants in the area. We had the hostel make us a reservation at Belloterò for 8:30, but spent the hour we had before dinner wandering the streets of Palermo, without a map of course.

The city is obviously beautiful, but in a very post-apocalyptic, last city standing, barely inhabited kind of way, at least during winter. It was only 7:30, but the sun had set and most stores were closed up. We encountered few people and few cars driving around. We felt alone in the city, observing its pancultural architecture and feel. Sicily has, at one time or the other, been dominated by every major civilization in the world from the Greeks to the Romans to the Muslims and the French and the Spanish. Its architecture reflects this dynamic, most extremely in the Duomo which was influenced by all of the above cultures so much so that it looks like a hodgepodge, “best of the best”, combinatory construction. Besides the physical, the feel of the city reminded me of Granada, thrown together with a little Paris and Madrid, a lot of Istanbul and a lot of Italy. What better city in which to end my travels than one that felt as if I were experiencing them once more? When we got to the restaurant the door was security locked, which seemed odd at the time, but would make perfect sense afterwards.

We had joked on the way that the restaurant would think that we were a couple, and we were right. We walked in to strange glances (the restaurant was fancier than anticipated and we were not dressed appropriately) and then even stranger glances when we went to sit at our table which was located at the center of the dining hall, with a flower in the center, the two chairs on the same side of the circular, small table and a wine bucket on the other end. Obviously Brian and I were going on a date. I asked the couple next to us if they wanted to switch tables, but I don’t think they really understood why I was asking (they were French and didn’t speak much Italian and apparently my English got lost in translation). Well, what were Brian and I to do? We laughed it off and proceeded to enjoy our first of many great meals in Sicily. For the first course I had some stacks of ginger scented veal in between puff pastry with marinated eggplant and other vegetables and a basil sauce that was simply fantastic. Brian had shrimp risotto with buffala mozzarella. Odd to put mozzarella in risotto, especially a risotto of fish, but the dish was delicious. For our main dishes I had some sort of fish of which I had never heard prior in a clam and mussel broth and he had bluefish stacked with tomatoes and with that same basil sauce from my appetizer. My dish was significantly better so we shared. How cute! Desert, however, was a disaster. I tried to order us a cannolo, but apparently the waiter heard wrong and brought us little balls of some sweet ricotta DRENCHED in chocolate. Great.

Shrimp Risotto

After dinner we strolled down the street and stopped by one of the few places we had seen in the city in which there were actually people! It was a bar and we got a couple of beers, went outside and commenced to discuss abroad. Our first topic: the group and how much things could have been different with a different set of people around us. This will sound like complaining, and it is, but both Brian and I agreed that if were to have had a more solid group, one which truly enjoyed each other’s company or one that really wanted to go out and experience the world than our own experiences would have improved. This is not to say that we had a bad time or that we allowed other people’s decisions to stay in their rooms and remain closed from the world of abroad affect our time abroad, but it inevitably changed it. Abroad throws together a small group of people that are forced to spend lots of time together. In situations like Parma, during which there was little time to meet Italians or few opportunities to do so because most of our classes were independent studies or BC only, one has to rely on the people in his group for most of his companionship. He looks to those people to experience the world with him because the world is more often more enjoyable in groups and there are simply social scenarios in which it is unacceptable to be alone. In other words, having a group that is willing to do things, regardless of what those things are, is crucial to the abroad experience. Unfortunately many of the people in our group did not want to do that much. They made little effort to integrate themselves into the world of Italy, staying home often. Brian and I were quite confused about that kind of decision. It wasn’t as if we tons of responsibilities hanging over our heads like we do at Boston College. Why not get out and see the world? And because of their unwillingness to open up from the comforts of English speaking TV shows and friends through the computer or whatever, Brian and I suffered. It would certainly have been nice and beneficial to have a more social and more together group. We joked that BC should have an interview process to decide if people are socially capable of going abroad…but seriously…can that happen?

We continued to talk despite the chilly night and moved on to discussing our reasons for going abroad and our expectations of the experience. Since this conversation evolved out of the prior one it began with a breakdown of why we thought of many of the other people on our trip made the choice to spend a semester across an ocean and we came to the answer that a lot of them needed to get away from BC. Ok, Brian and I also needed a bit of a break from the monotony of the school, as I have discussed in prior entries, but they REALLY needed to get away in the sense of a having a fresh start in life. They used abroad to reinvent themselves and to try and break from whatever habits they had had at school. Mostly, it seemed, they came for the social aspect of meeting a new set of BC, or hopefully Italian, kids. This is not to say that we knew that the girls came abroad for these purposes, but they genuinely talked about and seemed to care more about meeting Italian men and hanging out with each other than with living life in an entirely new culture. Brian and I, on the other hand, had come for the entirely opposite reason. We both came with the same philosophy that we would do as much as possible, see as much as possible and live as much as possible despite our group. We had no intentions of meeting people and even expected to not meet lasting friends. In fact, before coming abroad I made the comment several times that I could care less about becoming close with my group because I would be doing as much as possible, whether they wanted to or not. I would be traveling. I would be eating, I would be going out and I would be living. Sure there were personal roadblocks to this along the way, but for the most part I stuck to the desired effect of living my abroad experience based on what I wanted to do and not what others wanted to do. Brian did the same, and at times this made us clash with the rest of the group who preferred to stick together in a closed, BC group in Parma, instead of as BC kids actually in Parma. We wanted the latter, but were sometimes held back by the others lack of desire to do so. We expected to see a lot and travel a lot. We did not expect to spend all of our time with the same people and certainly did not expect to be limited to our group of BC friends once in Parma, but due to several reasons that is what generally happened.

Teatro Massimo

One of the biggest regrets of the semester, for the both of us, was the actual lack of interaction we had with Parma people. Yes I had two great friends in Giordano and Andrea, but I did not hang out with them with their friends enough. It was a rarity, unfortunately, when I would go out with Italian kids. I recognize that this is partially my doing because I traveled a lot and was not always around on the weekends or available weekday nights for aperitivo. Another roadblock, at least for others in my group through whom I could have met more Italians, was the language barrier. The lack of people in the group who spoke Italian surprised me from the beginning, especially since I had expected to be the worst speaker by a long shot since I have not taken a class of Italian at BC. For a program that claims to be intensive, it certainly lacked a certain amount of intensity. Brian does not speak much Italian and he bemoaned its ability to inhibit him from meeting people and from extending himself outside of our group of BC students. And, since I did genuinely enjoy hanging out with several people from the group, the fact that they could not meet Italians except for those creepy guys at clubs, meant that I would find myself limited in the Italians I met outside of a few people here or there. But, most of those were personal decisions or results of the situation abroad and I’m happy that I at least came out of Parma with a few lasting friendships.

Beautiful

It was still relatively early (about 12:30) but Palermo was dead outside of that bar so Brian and I called it a night and went to sleep.

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