Monday, September 12, 2011

Another Blog Post About Driving

While talking to my sister last night, I made a comment about how I've become a more fearless driver since living here and it got me to thinking about my driving progression.  [Enter that dreamy music for a montage of my past driving experiences]  I remember in college when people from Northern Virginia would boast about how they learned to drive in the "mixing bowl" of the DC metro area.  Me?  I learned in Virginia Beach.  Among residential streets and strip malls, a 55 MPH highway and loads of open roads.  Sure there is traffic, but I was 16!  I was never driving in rush hour or trying to parallel park my 1990 Ford Taurus Station wagon.  From this driver haven, I then drove in Raleigh, NC, where rules hardly apply and the speed is so casually slow that if you were going with the flow of traffic it was sometimes under the speed limit.  Like one guy with a pick up truck didn't realize that he was going slow so we all slowed down to fit in with him.  And then I moved to San Diego.

My first driving experiences in San Diego literally, not the Kardashian version of literally, gave me hives.  I couldn't figure out why there were so many freeways and always seemed to end up in the Ikea parking lot in Mission Valley.  Was I ever headed there?  Well sure, like 2 times but every time I'd end up there and think "seriously??  again??"  In time, the late mergers, the Mexican trucks hauling 14 mattresses back across the border and the Coronado bridge became something that I was more comfortable with and seemed significantly less intimidating.

With this renewed confidence in my driving abilities, which Tom will always remind me are sub-par at best, I came to Italy thinking "I can do this!"  And during August, I was awesome!  I dodged the 4 Vespas left on the road and maneuvered around the 14 cars parked on our street and gave myself a reassuring pat on the back regularly.  And then everyone came back from vacation and the "Oh Shit, this actually IS hard" realization hit me.  I've said before that Italians are crazy drivers and it's SO true!  Turn signals are a sign of weakness.  I presume the theory is "I don't need to tell you that I'm coming in, just expect it!"  So when I would cut people off or get let into traffic and gave that little American "thanks!" wave, I got a look of "Put your hand down and drive, Idiot!"  One finger, the pointer preferably, is all that you use, if ever, to show gratitude and/or yielding of right of way.  The latter happens so incredibly rarely that I think I've only seen it twice in 3 months.

The sign to the right means "No Passing."  When Kristine came out to visit and drove around the Panda (further reading available in previous blog post Up and Down the Amalfi Coast), my warning for her was "Be the black car.  Whatever the black car is doing is what you want to be doing.  Don't be the red car."  The exit ramp to Vomero, our neighborhood, off the Tangenziale, the major highway that runs east to west through Naples, is this long, skinny S-shaped bridge.  During August, it was nearly always empty and the merge from the ramp to the street was pretty simple.  Now, all that has changed!  Rounding the corner one day, I saw two lines of cars dead stopped.  "What??  Look at all of these people being the red car!  Don't they know that you are supposed to always be the black car!??!"  The black car rule is dead now.  Yesterday, as I was being the black car, the line of cars beside me growing ever longer, an ambulance came screaming up from behind.  "I'm interested to see how this goes," I thought to myself.  He went down the middle.  Oh my God!  The bridge to my house, which is decidely one lane wide, was three cars of traffic deep.  I was driving the CRV to keep the battery from dying again, and the sideview mirror was hanging over the guard rail, about 500 feet above the ground below.  "Mamma mia..." escaped my lips before I decided to cowboy up and not let something little like this bridge collapsing turn me into a coward!

To help myself cope with the insanity, I took the longer way home to avoid the blind turn of death that I normally take.  It was significantly more enjoyable to take the longer route.  Yes, there's an unyielding traffic circle, about 10 blind curves around which there's normally a pack of Vespas in the middle of both lanes, and cars parked in both directions of the same side of the street with mirrors just waiting to be taken off, but, now I'm the unyielding jerk for those people making the blind turn and that is much better than being the timid car trying to sneak across two lanes of traffic.  Cut somebody else off, buddy!  I'm not making eye contact or even beginning to move my foot off the gas.

In the future, I'll know I'm more Neopolitan when I remove the break completely from my car.  For now, I still use it.  Though, the other Neopolitan trick is to use your breaks in conjunction with your hazard lights, that's how infrequently they are used...

More tales of crazy to come soon!

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Italian Living: Lessons Learned in the first 3 months

Before we left the States for our great Italian adventure, I had a lot of perceptions about Italy, having never lived here before.  After three months, I have come to understand some of the Italian customs a BIT better than I did before.  Here are a few lessons that I've learned for other inquiring minds!

1. Italians are crazy drivers.   Italians are crazy but Neopolitans are WAY crazier!  There are two situations in which I am normally terrified when driving around town. 
  1. The traffic circle leaving my office.  It's the entrance to the airport and the exit of everyone who works for the US.  The general rule when entering the circle (and this is just my understanding of the rule) is that you sneak your nose in and then when someone else is trying to get in, drive with wreckless abandon, don't make eye contact and don't even think of touching the break.  This defies every instinct that I have about driving in traffic circles, especially considering that I took a week long seminar in design traffic circles before I came out here.  [Insert jealously over the level of awesome of my coursework here] 
  2. Turning onto my street.  Two weeks ago, our street was completely empty.  I drove with the leisurely joy of being back in the States in a normal, cobblestone street.  I looked at the boats, the relative smog and my ability to see Capri and sang along to my 1997 Dance Party mix with joy.  Oh what a difference two weeks make!  Now cars line both side of the street, all of those on the left, illegally.  But it's also a two way street.  So, we are now up to 4 lanes of traffic in what would typically be one way with parking on one side in the US.  I just keep hoping to not take off someone's side view mirror!!
2. Always carry travel sized Kleenex tissues - I was told this early on, with the note that Italian bathrooms rarely have toilet paper and pushed it aside as mere guidance.  Oh Lynne, that was foolish.  Street vendors sell them for 1 Euro in super touristy places, though the guys that stand in the street to wash your windshield will give you a wash AND tissues for less than a Euro.  Bargain!  The same theory applies to hand sanitizer...

3. Window Washers - At busy stoplights, there are window washers that will race up to your car, plop a psuedo-clean squeegy on your windshield and start washing.  It's not dissimilar from TJ, if you've crossed the border in the last 15 years.  I've heard that you can give them somewhere between 30-50 centi (the Euro change) for this service OR to avoid it, you turn on your windshield wipers when they are approaching.  If you turn them on WHILE they are actively plopping the squeegy on your windshield, they get pretty pissed!   

 4. Italians clothing is... different.  I haven't been overly impressed by the styling habits of most of the Italians I've seen on our street.  Granted, I see some people and think "Wow, they look really nice."  But, I have noticed a lot of:  monochromatic styling (purple shirt?  Purple pants go perfectly!!!), strange combinations (lilac shirt?  red pants go perfectly!!), muffin tops (oh the humanity!!  muffin tops everywhere!), affinity for spandex leggings, affinity for those clear plastic bra straps that were really popular in like 1996 and of course, things being about 2 sizes too small.

5. PDA - it's not just the old term for SmartPhone.  Public displays of affection among angsty teenagers in the US always annoyed me.  Really?  You had to make out here?  But Italian PDA puts American PDA to SHAME!  SHAME, I say!  The level of making out is so advanced, so unabashed, so unapologetic that I often want to break the make-out session up to provide both parties with a piece of gum and some Blistex.  "You'll thank me later."  Or provide them with a helpful lecture about the time I got mono after making out on a band field trip when I was 16.  I'm a cautionary tale, really... 

6. Italian Phrases that I didn't know but now love and use frequently:
  • Mamma Mia! - It's amazing.  I use it SO often!  Something tastes good?  "Mamma mia..."  Something's not going your way?  "Mamma mia...."
  • "Basta!"  - This means "that's enough" and like "prego" can be used in multiple situations.  Ordering food, when you're done ordering = basta.  Getting food heaped onto your plate, when you're done = basta.  When the waiter tries to bring you MORE food, "No, no, no... basta!!" [pats belly to show fullness].  And my favorite: A baby crying on the train, the dad looked at him and yelled "BASTA!"  I wanted to start crying for the child, though I've tried this technique on my cats to see if it's more effective than saying "stop it!"
  • Buona Sera or just "sera" - This means good evening and covers pretty much any greeting from 4 pm until you leave at night.  I love it!  I say it to random old people on my street, hoping that they will think I'm adorable and make me food.  Still keeping my fingers crossed that this plan will pan out, but for now, I'm hopeful.
  • Not so much a phrase, but if you take your index finger and kind of wiggle it into where a dimple would be on your cheek, this means "It's SO delicious!"  When words fail and delicious has overcome my ability to speak, or my mouth is so full of said delicious food, or if the mere memory of something delicious comes to mind, this comes in incredibly handy. 
  • "Aspetta" - Silvana in my office ALWAYS says this!  She's adorable and laughs at me all the time and is just super sweet.  But when people start talking too fast or bug her, she'll just say "aspetta!" 
  • I don't use this, but it's been very helpful: "sciopero."  It means: strike.  I hear this word on the radio ALL the time to let people know who's striking and when.  The strikes are very well organized and pretty well publicized, if you can understand more than zero Italiano.  Mostly it's gas stations, buses or the maintenance people who started a picket line that wouldn't allow vehicles into the base for a few days.  That was fun...
  • "Allora" - this is one of those filler words and means anything from "so..." to "well" to "ok"  My Italian TA in college used to sigh and say "allora" whenever he was ready to change the subject and I find that it's probably because he spent any serious amount of time here that he learned it.
7. The Camorra is no joke.  People warned me that the mob is pretty prevalent in Naples and I laughed it off thinking "Yeah and the Godfather was based on truth."  But, being married to a guy from Jersey, my southern naivety seems to shield me from the fact that there is very much a mob above the Mason-Dixon line and that the Italian mafia is pretty legit.  They control the trash which is the biggest reason why Naples has trash everywhere!   While it isn't quite as bad right now as this picture would lead one to believe, there is a lot of trash on the side of just about every road, with the exception of our neighborhood, which is apparently rich enough to have the trash taken out regularly.  I think we've had the only empty trash can in a few mile radius...  Or maybe we live in the mob town.  I'm not really sure, but I do like that my trash goes away on regular intervals.

8. Surefire signs that you're American: You're wearing running shoes.  You're wearing un-decorated flip flops.  You think Ashlee Simpson is a style icon. Hats, fringe, Pat Benatar inspired shirts, pockets hanging out the bottom of jorts.  All of these are no-go's.  You look foolish.  This may be my general feelings about apparel, but it's doubly true in Italy! 

9. Italian water makes my hair feel like straw.  That's just a fact.  I don't know why.  In multiple parts of Italy the water has not improved my hair situation.

10.  Buying a device with a European outlet does not insure that it will fit in a European plug.  My hair dryer is the prime example, it has the two weird plugs but I have to plug it into an adapter to have it fit into the wall.  Our refigerator, microwave, and my cell phone charger all have adapters to fit into the correct plugs.  And they are all EU specs!  It's weird.  I think there may be a side-post that discusses the importance of reading power maximums on every electrical component, but that's for another time...

11.  There may not be room for dessert, but there is ALWAYS room for limoncello!  I remember having limoncello back in the US and actively thinking "why would you drink that after a meal??"  We even went out with a group of Americans who had not been here long and they took their limoncello as a shot and then did the "ooooo it burns face" that you do did after taking a shot of Aristocrat in college.  Limoncello is so delicious and sweet, though, that it's MUCH better to just sip it while it's still cold.  Even as it warms up.  Just sip it, silly!  This is one instances where "basta" should only be used sparingly. 

12.  Everyone is best friends with or is related to someone with one or more of the following:  Gianni, Gino, Ciro, Guiseppe, Mario, Maria and Lucca. 

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Naples Underground

We have decided that we've gone on one of our last USO tours after doing the Underground Naples tour.  Now, don't get me wrong, the USO can be great and gets you to and from the location with relative ease and provides you with a tour guide.  But this tour also had the 10 most annoying people that have been put on this planet.  I think the loudest woman alive was on our trip and I really fought to not tell her to shut the F up about 20 times.  Alas, ladies don't do that and while I wasn't wearing pearls at the time, I did think "If I were in pearls, I'd do something classy and just shrug off this most annoying woman." 

Anywho, Naples has an entire underground section that used to be the cistern for the city under the Roman empire and had individual family cisterns under the Greeks.  Thus, there are all of these underground rooms that have tunnels that lead between them and used to provide drinking water.  In the mid-1800's, some bacteria got into the touffa (which I'm sure I'm mispelling but is basically the volcanic rock left over from Vesuvius exploding and is found just about everywhere here) and made everyone sick.  SO!  They kind of stopped using it.  Then in World War II, when Naples was getting bombed til Kingdom Come basically everyone (can you even imagine why Italians wouldn't LOVE us??!  Weird...), people actually moved down into the cisterns and lived there!  There were children's toys and type writers, beds and luggage all over the place.  We only saw a small portion, but our tour guide said something like 1,000 people lived inside each cistern during the bombing and some stayed down there as long as five years while they rebuilt the city!  Also, Julia Roberts went down there in Eat, Pray, Love and it's pretty famous for that, too.  I think Naples has like 4 total references in American pop culture, so they are all pretty well marked.  Anything Julia Roberts did for a total of 7 minutes in that movie is documented and now a tour of some kind.

Afterwards, we followed our tour guide to an old apartment under which archaeologists found the ruins of a Roman theater.  Someone's cellar was the back stage and a carpenter's shop was the seating area.  A Vespa parking lot or dealership was some other part....  I'm not sure.  At this point, I kind of spaced out and thought "aren't we eating pizza soon?" 

We did eat pizza, not the best we've had, though the tour guide claimed it was where the Margherita pizza was invented.  But, like 1,000 pizzeria's in Naples claim to have invented the Margherita pizza, so you take that for what it's worth!

Fearing that we might have to sit and listen to more asinine conversation, Tom and I snuck out of the dining area and went to buy cool looking pasta, orange flavored cookies and other Neopolitan things.  For dinner tonight: truffle spaghetti!  Mmmm!  Can't wait!

Labor Day Getaway: Cinque Terre and Pisa!

With the holiday weekend approaching and the knowledge that we had a pack of Virgo birthdays to celebrate in our group of friends, Team Keenan, Team Jacobsen and Team Julie Holland decided to take a trip up north to Cinque Terre! 

For clarification, and my personal hatred of reading about places which I know nothing about, the Cinque Terre are five little villages that are located in the northern portion of the Italian Riviera.  I've included the Wiki Link for further information and inquiring minds.  Anywho!  The five of us piled into Gabby, our Honda Civic, and off we went!  Well it turns out that a 5 person road trip in a Civic is probably more fun when we were all in college and not accustomed to leg room or packing our own wine keys and that kind of stuff.  Needless to say, poor Gabby was loaded to the gills and on the bumpy Italian roads our tires rubbed against the car every time we hit any significant dip.  I cringed and foresaw the five of us taking everything out of the trunk to get the spare, put it on and pop it again within 5 KM.  But, positive thinking prevailed and 7 hours later, we made it! 

We stayed at the Hotel Al Terra di Mare in Levanto, not *quite* inside the Cinque Terre but deceivingly close on a map.  We all decided to take the train to Riomaggiore, the southern most town.  There are hiking trails that connect the towns, though one had been washed out by a landslide this spring.  Following the herd, we walked along the Via Dell'Amore from Riomaggiore to Manarola, the second town.  All along the way, there were locks on fences, hand rails, even the erosion netting, which are meant to signify young lovers "locking their love in."  We weren't sure at the time, but there were two men who were trying every combination lock.  I guess that love didn't work out and they didn't want it locked up anymore??  Non lo so...

For lunch,  we followed Rick Steves' recommendation and stopped in at Il Porticciolo in town #2, Manarola.  The place was packed and deservedly so!  I got the local fare, the squid ink pasta with clams.  Mamma mia!  It was so good!  Mmmmmm......

Onward we went to Corniglia and then hiked for two hours to get to Vernazza.  Oh my goodness.  That hike was tough!  It was up the face of a mountain and pretty challenging at times.  Julie, the gazelle that she is, sped off ahead of the four of us slow pokes, who took pictures and strolled a bit more casually.  Once in Vernazza, we decided that hiking further would be far too masochistic, even by Julie's standards, and enjoyed some pesto and gnocchi and my ill-fated carrot salad, which turned out to be a large bowl of carrot shavings.  I mean, if ordering something completely different from what you thought you were getting only happens once on a trip, that's pretty good in my book!

Day three, it poured.  Poured and poured and poured!  The place was a ghost town!  We stupidly wandered about, getting more and more drenched, before deciding that a large meal and waiting out the clouds was the best bet.  Onward to Monterosso, the northern-most town.  Ol' Rick Steves had HIGHLY recommended Miky Ristorante and after his first suggestion was so delicious, we couldn't skip it!  Miky's was by far our fanciest meal in Cinque Terre and every dish came out better than the last.  The most exciting was the local pesto which came lit on fire!  What?!?!  Each pasta dish comes "pizza style" which means that the dish is wrapped in pizza dough and then lit on fire!  Then the waiter very carefully peeled back the dough and with more care than I've ever seen and personally dished the portions of pesto out in perfect little twists of the fork.  It was magical! 

We left with full bellies and the sun in our hearts to see that the sun had peaked out from behind the clouds as well!  Our group went into one of the private beaches, which turned out to be much cheaper and cleaner than the ones here in Napoli, and swam for a few hours. 

On the long ride back to Napoli, we decided to stop in Pisa to check out the Leaning Tower and stretch our legs for a short stop.  Julie had recently been there with a tour group and said it was worth seeing but maybe not worth a completely seperate trip.  The Field of Miracles, where the Leaning Tower is located, was packed!  We took the obligatory pictures of either holding up or knocking over the tower and strolled around laughing at other people's attempts.  The best, in my book, was the most dedicated German woman stretching and straining in her picture.  Muscles were flexed for like 3 full minutes!  She was really determined to push that sucker up in her picture!  We all marveled at how beautiful the whole town was.  It was so bright and clean compared to the sites of Napoli and so amazingly maintained.  The detail work around the Leaning Tower was phenomenal!  Truly breath taking! 

At length, we arrived back at home and fed our affection-starved cats with an evening snuggle.  It was definitely a great birthday celebration for Nathan, Julie and I to share.  A special thanks to Tom and Kim for getting us all the most amazing birthday meal at Miky's!  And to the entire group, you are fabulous travel companions!  It was a great time for sure and especially so with such wonderful friends to share the experience!

Monday, September 5, 2011

Amy Lynne Robinson

While the past few days have been exciting for us, they are nothing compared to the blessing and joy that my sister, Christy, and brother-in-law, Todd, have experienced. On September 2nd at 12:42 AM little Amy Lynne Robinson came into this world!!

We have only gotten to talk to the new parents for a few minutes, as life with a new-born surely changes ones free time, but mother and baby are doing well. Christy admitted that the whole "motherhood thing" was trickier than she had anticipated and that labor was indeed as painful as everyone said it was. Regardless, I cannot imagine her being anything other than a compassionate, patient and loving mother and this picture of Amy melted my heart the second I saw it!

It's times like these, seeing only a picture and hearing stories, that I feel the farthest away. For all of these times, Amy, when I could not hold you and help your momma out, I'll promise to be there for you ten-fold in the future. And to my sister, my dear friend, I am so proud of you. You and Todd have brought the most darling little angel into this world and will shower her with you love and affection, your knowledge and humor. She is the luckiest girl in the world to have you both and maybe is just normal levels of lucky to have the rest of us crazies for her extended family!!

Overjoyed out here in Napoli for Momma and Papa Robinson and cannot wait to meet our niece, Amy Lynne Robinson!!!