Monday, February 26, 2007

The importance of being (with) Carlos

I've already named a couple of times on this blog a spanish friend of mine named Carlos. Carlos is the perfect personification of the spanish hidalgo: educated, well mannered to the point of looking old fashioned even to someone like me, soft spoken but with a deep laugh. Maybe defining him friend is a bit too much, probably "friend squared" is more like it, meaning he is a friend of a friend, but I like him and even if I didn't, he still would fall in that category of people who are close enough to be entitled to more than general guest' attentions, first of all a meeting whenever life brings us closer than a hour ride.

Carlos happened to come to Rome, at least that I know of, two times.

The first time was one year ago, in a warm july. He came to attend an italian course lasting two weeks but, for a series of circumstances, I only managed to meet him the last day, at his goodbye dinner, or rather at the bar in Campo dei Fiori, where people had moved after the actual dinner. It was one year, seven months and 11 days ago, I can be so precise about the date due a very memorable event happened that night: around the table of that bar, that evening, I met Susanne.

More than a year passed by before Carlos, suddenly, re-appeared in Rome. Seizing the chance given by an Alitalia special offer, he decided to come over from the Canary islands, where he's working as a police officer, and have a roman week-end at the end of november. Once again we met around a table, enjoying a good pizza together (and an awful service) with Alessandro, Ippolito and his argentinian girlfriend Nuria and her friend Mercedes, and Francesco. A pleasant, but normal evening and I didn't think much about it after the goodbyes were exchanged until last saturday, when I accidentally came to know that Francesco and Mercedes are now dating and that, as I'm throttling up and down between Germany and Italy, he's now doing just the same between Rome and Oviedo, where Mercedes is studying.

Now, my single male friends, if you cherish your freedom, you might consider asking me when Carlos will be in town next time, so you would have a chance of moving as far away as you can, he can definitely be that dangerous, that way.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Food for thought

Yesterday I had the rare chance of facing what the foreigners think about my city, in a very candid and unfiltered way. I happened to be invited to a sort of conference organized by the Arcadia University, one of the several american university which opened a campus in Rome over the last year, for his students.

Defining it a conference doesn't actually gives an idea of what it was, as the term makes one think of a speaker addressing a bunch of people lost in a variable degree of boredom. It could had possibly had been like that (or maybe not, considering the speaker who was many things, but surely not boring), but the combined effect of the general attitude of students towards extra-curricular activities not giving you credits and the pouring rain that hit the city yesterday turned the whole thing in a sort of round table, only without the table, by about a dozen people on the students' impressions and the speaker's experience about living in Italy in general and in Rome in particular.

Now, being the speaker american, the students americans and american the university organizing the whole thing, the language used english and english the school that gave us the room (which was, actually, the central nave of a former church), it's no wonder everyone forgot there were italians around and among them a real roman... me. Maybe it's the legendary openness of the americans, which someone less used to deal with foreigners might simply label as bluntness or lack of manners, fact is that the comments were clear, direct and, occasionally at least, bright... just as much as a lightning falling right over your head.

And what was the first thing that left an impression of Rome? The sense of history hovering over your head all the time? The magnificence of the churches interiors? The art hitting you openly in the main squares and jabbing you at the sides when turning less famous corners? Nothing like that, the first thing named was: Rome is dirty. Point taken, it's 10 years this city is turning more and more out of control and the cratered streets and litter everywhere are the most evident signs.

Fine, I took the hit like a boxer who instinctively knows where the punch is landing and had prepared his muscles for absorbing it. But the next one took me so off guard that revived in me one of the most classic stereotypes about americans: their total inability of understanding and adapting to the place where they are, expecting the world to turn around them. Romans, in their view, are "hard to adapt to others", the example given being the fact of being looked down when ordering a cappuccino in the evening.

Now, besides the obvious, english, saying "When in Rome do as the Romans do" which was all but forgotten, the romans tend to be, obviously in my opinion, among the most welcoming people in the world. Two thousands years of dealing with (and admittedly, in some period living off) pilgrims coming from the whole Christianity and having stable communities of foreigners in the city for the last twenty centuries made romans very tolerant, even if probably in a condescending way, towards different habits. We are often amused by foreigners walking around the city and often look at them with the sense of superiority and in the way adults do with children, but just the same way we tend to lend a hand to everyone in obvious troubles. So much that is not rare that people coming for a vacation end up staying here months, years or never leaving again.

Surprised as I was, it's not without a bit of discomfort that I observed the talk moving towards more stereotypes spaced out with experiences' tales by the speakers, those often making a long wide sweep before getting to the point he meant to do. So it came the one about italians being able to forget about any trouble as long as their soccer team wins a major game, being very concerned about the way they dress and conformists too at that and so on and so forth.

So I was there, wondering if that's really the way we are perceived even by foreigners living among us, and that much more surprising from someone, the speaker, who had been doing that for the past three decades, when realization did hit me.

First of all, that the journalist was doing, I do not know how much unconsciously out of an unconscious habit and how much on purpose, his job. During the conversation, while discussing how the students kept track of the news, he had pointed out, not without an apparent regret, how the media tended to channel towards the audience the news they thought their readers wanted to read about and that would had met their already formed idea of the fact so that they could related to them. And wasn't, maybe, what he was doing as well, channeling to the students anecdotes about the stereotypes about italians, to have them echoed back to him?

The second thing is, I realized I had done much the same during the round table and in the past as well. Me and most of everyone here. After all, with our idea of americans as uneducated, goofy people with their own standards of morality, didn't we laugh with gusto at the news of Cheney shooting his pal by mistake, Bush almost chocking to death with a peanut or the whole Clinton-Lewinsky affair and how americans took damn seriously something that we would had dismissed with a chuckle and a telling glance?

So I was left with a dirty town, the stereotypes and their creeping appeal, an obviously smart journalist with very interesting stories to tell and a slightly too self-centered and theatrical way of doing that and a bit of thinking to do. An interesting evening, and the pizza in the end was for free...

Btw, the journalist, Christopher Winner, is the editor of an online magazine, The American, which, for the little I could see for now, looks as an interesting read, even if not necessarly one to agree with...

VCN Ethnic Dinners go to Greece

Now that I've 5 minutes, here we are (oh, and you can, as usual, click on the pics to get a larger version).

The last VCN dinner was slightly more difficult to organize than the previous ones. On one hand, someone decided to pick exactly the same day to have a VCN carnival party (well, ok, it was fat tuesday after all), on the other hand, for the first time, I had to pick a restaurant without any external suggestions and with no previous first hand experience, or so I thought, given that eventually it turned out I had been in the restaurant I had chosen, even if a whole 10 years ago.

Anyway, my worries turned out to be unjustified, as eventually 19 people showed up, from Italy (5), US (4), France (2), Canada, UK, Philippines, Sweden, Belgium, Hungary, Croatia and Serbia (those two happily sitting next to each other), with only one person missing, making it one short of the number I set myself as the maximum.

The restaurant was small, cozy and even if not terribly atmospheric, it still gave the people a nice feeling and I must say the crew there was beyond praise as they dealt, first or all, with an unexpected number of vegetarians (I had signalled 2, when indeed we had three) and then with another couple of people changing their mind at the very last moment about the pre-arranged menu. Speaking of which, also the food turned out to be very agreeable, even if I made the bad mistake of serving myself of tzatziki twice before realizing it had cucumbers inside.

Time passed quite fast, helped by a very quick service and interesting talks. The ouzo (the typical Greek liquor made of anise) was not that great and mixed opinions were raised by the also typical white aromatic wine with pine's gum.

To make things even better, the final bill was not that expensive (for an ethnic restaurant in Rome, that is). So, I think I can honestly say, a very pleasant evening. Now, for the next time, we are heading to Africa... and once again I have no clue about which restaurant...

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Happy Blog-Birthday to me

One year. One year ago I started, out of I do not know what strange impulse and with little confidence that the experiment would had lasted more than a few days, this blog. Well, against my own expectations, one year later I'm still here writing, this being the 183th post, making it exactly one every two days.

And what a year it has been, with travels, music, a relationship developing despite distance and objective difficulties, some friendships strengthening and some vanishing, dozens of books, movies, dinners, happy hours kilometers of swimming and, at the very end, changes at work. A very interesting year, all in all, and despite the fact that in China the "May you live in interesting times" is considered a kind of a curse, I somehow hope the coming year will be just as full of things (yes, I know, beware what you wish for...).

On other news, yesterday was VCN Ethnic Dinners' night at a greek restaurant. Later on, if I get the time, I'll post a comment and some pictures of what has been a very pleasant evening.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Carnival and new experiences

After 5 weeks since my last visit to the city and just as long since I had seen my girlfriend, this past week-end I've been in Germany again, bringing with me, as a present both for the missed Valentine day and a particular anniversary we had the 15th, the result of my artistic inspiration of the past week-end, the two venetian-style masks on the left.

uniforms of Right, because Mainz is famous (well, relatively so, I had no clue until Susanne told me) for its Carnival and I must say that, although I could see only a bit of it, the spirit of the period can be found everywhere, included people of all ages going around masked as just about anything, from Prussian Frederick the Great (very popular and much envied by me) time to... a flower in a vase.

Susanne, the poor thing, is swamped in studying for her exams and, while I think I managed to have her forgetting about the coming onslaught and relax a bit, I sure didn't help her with her studying schedule. I feel guilty, actually.

Anyway, to celebrate the above mentioned "special days", we headed out for dinner, finding our favourite restaurant once again closed and looking as it had been so since our previous visit and making us believe it could be closed for good. We found a suitable, even if less atmospheric, alternative and had a pleasant meal, the proceeded to head out and have a little walk in an unusually busy and colorful Mainz (only at Christmas I had seen so many people around, whereas the general feeling is the one of a militarily imposed curfew at 19.30). More dye the curiosity of the moment than anything planned, we entered one of the several big tents raised in the main square and alleys around the cathedral, finding ourselves in an improvised disco where, again, people of all ages (I've seen kids of perhaps 12 together with mature couples in their fifties) were enjoying the disco music, the occasional beer and dancing. So it happened that we danced without interruption (except for drinking a beer and avoiding a brawl suddenly exploded and quickly extinguished just a few steps from us) from 9 until 2 am.

Sunday passed, as always when in Mainz, in talks of impressive depth (this time, about the objectivity or subjectivity of a system of ethics and moral values), dozing off (at least for me, considering that I had slept less than 9 hours in the previous two nights) and glances full of hate to the (three) clocks of the room and, as usual, way too soon it was time to head to the station and get the bus back to the airport and then the flight home, during which I finished the disappointing or, rather, dull "Romanitas".

Today, I'm back to my new work, only slightly less frenetic than it has been the last week (one of my missed colleagues made it back, considerably relieving a bit of the pressure) and with an unannounced news: in 20 minutes I'll be heading off (with a taxi paid by the firm) to some ministry as part of a delegation to I have no clue which authority for I do not know which business: another new experience.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

A brand new world

I realized, not without some degree of surprise, that a whole week has passed me as a wink of an eye and that I hadn't time to even think about writing something on my blog. The reason is simple and it's indeed a good reason: my new job.

It's surprising how time passes quickly when you have something to do, I had forgotten the feeling of discovering it's past lunch break not because you have been staring at the clock every five minutes or so, but because your stomach is sending noisy protests (not that he stops afterwards, considering that until I' allowed to be back to the pool, my lunch consists of one banana and a yogurt, but that's another story) or the surprise of rising your eyes from a paper or a PowerPoint presentation to realize it's time to go home or that, as it has happened the last two days, that you should already be there.

Now, to be honest, it could not be always like that. For a series of delays of the HR department I happened to start the new job much later than the date planned, which originally should had been the 1st of January and then was moved to the first of February, just in time for me to be in hospital. That, in turn, made me start the new work two days before the new Board of Directors took office and in a week where, for one reason or the other, the personnel of my department was reduced from 6 to 2 members, one being the totally inexperienced me. So it happened that I had my baptism of fire in the worst situation possible (I didn't even know where the documents were stored, not to mention how) and to make things even heavier, 2 senators and a member of parliament chose exactly this moment to start asking things to the Government about us and on, obviously, who's asked elements about the answer if not the "Institutional Relationships" department?

And yet, despite a lingering feeling of being inadequate, or at least totally unprepared to face the situation, it was exciting to deal with all of that and I probably have spoken more with my new boss over the past week than I did with my former one over the last three years. All in all, I still have no clue for real about what I'm doing in a general prospective, but in the specific I'm pretty happy, even if, having lost totally the habit of working, days of intense use of the brain for 8 or 9 consecutive hours left me exhausted in a way that I hadn't faced since the last weeks of thesis redaction at University.

The funny thing is that in less than a week I already established myself as the computer-savvy guy of the department, especially when it comes to PowerPoint presentations and graphical editing (which, considering we are also a PR department, come handy) and that without doing anything really special but revamping the limited knowledge I had acquired and then never used again since University time, but such is life I suppose.

On the wrong side, because there's no rose without thorns, I've just arrived there that rumors about my boss being removed by the new CEO are spreading around and a few, older, members of the department (even if not of my same area) more or less evidently feel threatened by me. once again, I might be facing in the near future a cold war I did nothing to provoke.

A brand new world, in the end, but with some elements of the old one indeed.

Monday, February 12, 2007

My last two weeks (and a 110/120)

It's scary how easy is to summarize the last two weeks of my life in just two words: surgery and recovery. Indeed, that was almost all that took place in the week, with a couple of notable exceptions tho.

Monday I checked in at the clinic early, had the various analysis done and then waited and kept waiting for the surgeon to arrive. From late morning, when the surgery should had taken place, we moved to lunch time and then early afternoon and, considering I hadn't drunk or ate anything since midnight, it wasn't easy. Then the moment came and I found myself nervous, not so much for the pain to come, but the idea of being put asleep and being helpless, possibly never to wake up again always deeply troubled me. I did wake up, obviously, little more than one hour later, to find myself no so much in pain, but unable to speak due my nose being totally filled by tampons. The day went on well and without incidents, if we exclude my fainting to the ground in the evening (my fault, I had been warned it was too early to stand, luckily, despite my "I'm perfectly fine", I was wise enough to have my father close).

The problems started the day after, when I got back home and I had to start eating something, rather then being fed by flebos. Then I found out that swallowing, that at the beginning was a nuisance, as time progressed became painful and then a torture, just as much as the sore throat and bruised lips caused by days of continuous mouth breathing. Yet, the worse moment was undoubtedly friday, when the tampons had to be removed in what turned out to be the second most painful moment of my entire life and a really traumatic experience as three balls made of 1,5 meters of cloth each were removed from my nostrils. It took a good half a hour before I was able to stand properly again and another quarter of hour before I could walk to the car and make it back home.

The following days were easier, mostly spent in or over the bed reading (and in fact, after months, I finally managed to finish my book about the Russian Revolution), reading, watching tv and playing with computer games. Strangely, I found myself exhausted most of the time and sleeping during the day has not been an uncommon occurrence. I also managed to make a couple of attempts of drawing with my new graphic tablet, but the results were... well,worse than horrible. At least some good news came in the form of Susanne being accepted for an internship in Rome, which means she will be here for a whole month in March, and my TOEFL result, scored a pretty good 110/120 (30/30 reading, 29/30 writing, 29/30 comprehension, but a meagre 22/30 speaking).

Being discouraged to drive (apparently, nose surgeries can have some temporary effect on balance), there was not much I could do. Once I went walking around with my father, discovering things about the place I live I could had never guessed, while on thursday I visited Liesbeth at her working place (making a good 7 kms walk while at that) and had lunch together.

By friday, I had enough of staying home and decided to go to the VCN Happy Hour, unexpectedly receiving a kind of a award, but ending up stuck at the bar for hours waiting for the weather to improve enough to allow me to drive back home. Saturday I started preparing the room for Susanne's future visit, freeing up space for her in my wardrobe and going out to buys some staples and, finally, sunday my artistic side once again emerged while I prepared something to take to Germany next friday, which I cannot write about yet, should Susanne happen to come reading here, being it all a surprise.

And so two weeks passed.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Nova Roman days

I've said over and again what Nova Roma is and who novaromans are and the fact they can be the most different people put together by their love for ancient Rome. Recently, a new member joined who happened to be the owner of a hotel in a touristic place on the Adriatic Sea and who invited over any Novaromans who would had liked to go there. Chance was seized and it was quickly organized a national meeting which was joined by a bunch of representatives of Dacia (ie, Romania). Of course, Murphy's law (renamed for the occasion Murphii lex) struck and we happened to schedule the meeting in what turned out to be the week-end with most catastrophically bad weather of an otherwise insanely warm and dry winter.

A premise must be done: on friday, after months of absence due by conflicting scheduling with my travels to Germany, I had finally returned to a VCN happy hour, eventually making it back home at around 2 am. That was probably the cause that made me live the traveller nightmare: having accepted a ride and having set an alarm clock after having said to my mother to wake me up at the established hour, I was indeed brought back to life by my mobile ringing and my ride announcing me he was basically under my house. Obviously, my mom had overslept and my alarm hadn't fired or I had simply ignored it. If you consider I still had to do my bag, you have the complete picture.

Anyway, I managed, skipping breakfast, to be down in less than 20 minutes and after having recovered the other representative of the roman novaromans we were set to cross the Appennini mountains and facing the snow in what was a travel that I spent mostly sleeping. After arrived in Vasto and got our rooms (single ones, the generosity of our host was incommensurable), we had just 15 minutes to say hi to the others as it was already time to go eating.

Indeed, the whole week-end was a never ending series of eating and visiting of monuments or museums, but especially saturday the eating surpassed anything else. After a gargantuan banquet in a farm and a few hours spent in the ancient part of Vasto (interesting especially for the newly discovered roman baths and for the odd facade of a church, only thing left standing when the rest of the building fell in the sea), it was once again time to eat, this time in the hotel, but with a dinner prepared for the eventuality that the mayor would had attended (which means, even richer than the lunch) and completed with a cake prepared for the occasion.

The day after, rolling rather than walking so full our stomachs still were, it was the time of Chieti, the famous (for the ones into such things) Capestrano's warrior, it's twin temples and the theatre, the visit made somewhat harder by a vicious wind blowing from the north. After the thorough visit of Chieti, in which we were taken by an uncommonly cute archaeologist, we Romans decided it was time to leave and avoid the ice and possible snow that was forecasted for the night and so we parted, regretting not being able to have such week-ends more often and inviting everyone to be in Rome the 21st of april (Rome's birthday).

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Back to running... no, writing

Writing a blog is, in a way, very similar to jogging or swimming in that you need daily discipline. You can cover easily a long distance if you do it every single day as a routine and even skip a day or two without consequences, but if you stop for a prolonged period than, unless you are one of those people with an iron will, it can be quite hard to get back to it.

That's precisely why it has been, besides the little message that makes the previous entry, two whole weeks now since I've last written. Yes, I've been down with a surgery and the consequences of it (and, let me tell you, the extraction of the tampons from my nostrils has been the second most painful and physically shocking experience of my life). Yet, it has been days now that I've been fine enough (if for "fine" you mean feeling like having been punched hard squarely on the nose and having a heavy nasal cold at the same time) to write.

And is not even that there are not any news, because in fact there are some news that are of, relatively of course, great proportion, but it was the simple will of sitting down and concentrating enough to put down thoughts in a written form that was lacking. But I know that the more I keep myself from returning to the daily exercise, the harder it will be to do that and so, here I am.

So, where to start, I wonder. From where I left, I suppose, and that was the tuesday of the ethnic dinner. Wednesday was a calm day as the movie evening at the cinema that had been planned was called off. Thursday, on the other hand, was interesting as, after almost a year, I took part once again in the Arcadia's tandem program. The Arcadia is one of the american universities which have opened a campus in Rome over the last 5 years and they try to pair up their students with some "locals", meaning romans, in order for them to practice italian and learn a bit of the local culture.

The first time I took part in this exchange it was a total disaster, as the person i was paired of and myself turned out to be totally incompatible. Since then, apparently the program changed and is now based more than on pairings, in groups around a table with some good wine in front of us (funnily enough, several of the students around the table would be forbidden to drink back home). It was a pleasant evening, all in all.

Friday (the 26th) was also a relaxed day, marking my last day working for the department I have been part of for exactly 3 years. There was an odd atmosphere and I spent my time sorting out papers, some of which had to stay with me, some had to be passed to the colleagues, but thmost part was shredded as useless. There I realized how much time and energies I've wasted over the last three years, since I started working where I work (1st febraury 2004). Yes, that did allowed me to have a bit of money and (thanks to the italian way of life of staying with my family) even to save a bit, it did allow me to travel and see my girlfriend, but on a purely professional level, I feel like three totally wasted years which are pretty much symbolized by my closet, which after the cleaning up was for two third empty.

And the week-end came, but that will get its own post (later today or tomorrow) as it was spent away from Rome with a somewhat odd bunch of people, known as Nova Romans...