Friday, September 21, 2007

Arrividerci, Roma (Part III)

The next day I went throught some more of the city, mainly more parks on the west side of the center, before ending up at St. Peter's again. While I was standing around, a girl came up to me and asked if I went to Stony Brook, indicating my bag. I said yes; we chatted for about 2 seconds (she was from East Islip, and asked where I was from) before she darted off. Hm. Even so, it was the most I'd heard in native English in weeks. I wanted to see if the cupola at St. Peter's was open today, as the notice that I'd seen the previous time I had been there implied that the closing was only that one day (of course). It was, so up I went - 550 stairs (or so) each way. What a terrific view!

Subsequently I was to meet Lidia and have dinner with her family - while I waited to meet her, I saw another student of the "keep going until you hit the car in front/behind you" school of parallel parking. As her mom drove us, we stopped occasionally to see views of the city. Lidia showed me around her apartment a bit; there was a Ukranian woman staying with them for the time being. We had some pizza and spaghetti (and bread), a combination which Lidia said was not usual for them to eat, but so that I could have some of each. Her sister joined us; Lidia said she had made the sauce. We talked some more about language (she speaks nine), and they drove me back to the hotel; on the way we saw some more sights, including the Circus Maximus, now illuminated, and much to my surprise the lights were all different colors. She and I agreed to meet for lunch the next day, and I bid farewell to her mother and sister.

By now I'd seen most of what I wanted in the center, so I bought a day-ticket for the metro and decided to just go around; my first destination was St. Paul's cathedral. This was my first excursion on the "B" line of the metro, and it was quite a contrast to the clean, modern "A" line (which was reminiscent of Prague) - the wagons were old and almost completely covered with graffiti. St. Paul's cathedral was also amazing. Subsequently I stopped at the adjacent "Piramide" station, where there was indeed a pyramid. I looked around there for a few minutes before continuing on and meeting Lidia. We got some pizza and walked to Piazza del Popolo and chatted while we ate there, before heading back for some ice cream and looking in vain for somewhere to sit as my two cups of ice cream begain to melt. Afterwards we headed back to the metro and bid each other farewell; I walked around a little longer before taking the train to the airport, which was a nice ride at sunset, with a rainbow in the distance.

The flight was fairly uncomfortable; fortunately it was only little more than an hour. It was an MD-80 with three seats in each row, and not enough room in the overhead bin to fit my backpack. Coincidentally, the Alitalia inflight magazine also featured St. Petersburg as the cover story.

Oh, and in addition to popped collars, I hate sweaters tied around people's necks.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

More in Rome (Part II)

The next day, I again missed the morning shuttle; I thought it finished at 10:30, but no - that was the last departure from the metro. Arg. Lidia and I were going to meet in the evening and join her friends to watch a Russian movie, so I again explored the city during the day. I saw the Circus Maximus, which was filled with lights for some reason - later I found out that there was a, well, wouldn't you know it, "La Notte Bianca" (White Night) festival throughout the city. I also walked through a lot of the nearby ruins before making my way up to a park near Villa Medici and Piazza del Popolo, whereabouts I later met up with Lidia and we walked around a bit, with the festival now in full force. We took the subway (free now) to her friend's flat, where there were three of her friends, one of which was from Ukraine. Who'd have guessed. While Lidia and I walked to the metro we had talked about various things, including 9/11 (that day was the 10th). Thinking back, it was hard to know exactly how we had all found out (a classmate told us while we were in math class, but I don't know how he himself found out; I think he had seen it on TV in the library), but further, it was hard at first to remember whether I had indeed seen the towers fall live, because of the endless replays on the news throughout that day and the following few days. I remember having read Newsday that morning and noting the date was 911, like the emergency number. Hm. How little I knew how the world would change a few hours later?

Right, so we went to her friend's house, where Vladimir and I cast our votes for Операция "Ы" ("Operation "Y") to which I was introduced in the culturology class. Parts of it involve last-minute preparation for exams, about which we later had to write an essay, "От сессия до сессия студенты живут весело" ("Between exams students are carefree"). I agreed with this in my essay, saying that it was universal, or at least that students in the US and Russia were the same in this respect, and now Lidia was providing evidence for it in Italy, having a few hundred pages of text still to read before her test. I really enjoyed the film and thought it was terrific - just purely funny, good-natured humor. I loved it, and look forward to watching other Shurik films (I had earlier seen one thanks to an assignment for Russian class back home, wherein I had to watch a Russian film and talk about it in class; my roommate and I had watched one where Shurik makes a time machine and ends up switching time periods with Ivan the Terrible. I had really enjoyed it but didn't realize there were other Shurik films. I also learned the actor had a sad life, unsuccessfully trying to avoid being typecast, and then becoming an alcoholic and living in poverty after the welfare system disappeared, before dying of a heart attack.) Shortly after the movie we went home, and as I walked back from the metro (this was about a half-hour trip now that I knew where I was going) I saw a fairly suspicious car fire. Hm.

Monday, September 17, 2007

A Rough Start in Rome

The next day I took a cab to Kiev's airport (which was about an hour away), as the constantly slow and overcrowded public transport didn't fill me with confidence. The airport was interestingly (read: badly) designed: it was bizarre, confusing and inconvenient - arrivals and departures were mixed, and there was nowhere to sit as customs control was before check-in, and so you had to wait for your flight to be checking in before you were able to pass, so there was of course a colossal crowd standing outside this barrier. After that it wasn't so bad, but somewhat delayed. I worred as I wasn't sure how much time I had for my layover, and I hadn't packed my luggage for contingencies, almost begging for such a fate. Fortunately that worked out. I had a brief stay in Prague airport, and then was off to Rome. Czech airlines has terrific legroom (obviously an important factor when you're 6'+), so the flights were very comfortable. The inflight magazine, coincidentally, had St. Petersburg as the 'cover story.'

Upon arriving in Rome, there was apparently a large Asian plane that had preceded ours, based on the massive queue for immigration, and Lidia had said she'd meet me so I looked around for a while before finding her and her mother. I was worried they'd left or something, but they had hit traffic. She said she'd mixed up the dates of her exams, which were not the 21st as she originally thought, but rather the 12th, so she was going to need to study for the first two days I was there. I assured her that it was fine, and that she should of course do as convenient for her. They drove me to the hotel, with some difficulty as it was far from the center and hard to find. We had to ask for directions a few times. The first time we saw someone standing on the side of the road and slowed down as to pull over - it was a prostitute. We sped back up and mused that she had different questions in mind. We asked police at some point - it was strange to be in the mindset of being able to trust them again. Eventually we made it to the hotel, and I expressed my gratitude as we agreed to meet up again in a few days.

A man and a woman were working at the reception desk. As I was checking in, the man asked if I spoke French. I said no, and half-jokingly offered Russian instead. Ha ha. Well, the woman spoke Russian, so we indeed completed our business in Russian. Who'd have thought. Of course, Lidia and I communicated mainly in Russian as well, and indeed we met in St. Petersburg last year as I introduced myself with my incipient Russian skills. The hotel seemed nice; I was practically in my own little bungalow. Working the lights was mystifying initially. I had to insert my keycard into a slot in the wall. And keep it there, I learned, after the lights went out a few minutes later. There was another airport nearby, so I had the roar of airplanes to lull me to sleep. Right.

Breakfast the next morning was included, so that was nice to have again. Of course, it consisted of the apparently universal ham/cheese sandwich and cornflakes, although there was a satisfying array of desserts here as well. The contrast in wastefulness between Russia/Kiev and here was also apparent, with plastic cups at breakfast, and the daily replacement of my plastic cup in the bathroom as well as the bar of soap I would end up using maybe twice.

The hotel had a free shuttle to the metro, which was fairly far away. The hours were fairly inconvenient: from 8 until 10:30 in the morning, and from 5 to 9 in the evening. So I thought, anyway. I was flummoxed when I got to the metro, as all they had were automatic machines that took coins, and all I had were 10 euro bills. I finally found a cashier and waited in line for about 15 minutes only to find out, sorry, he had no change. I looked around in vain for an internet cafe for which I'd earlier seen a sign, figuring I could get change that way. It seemed to not exist, and I grew very frustrated and angry that I apparently had no way to solve this problem, so I decided to walk, dammit. There were some ruins I explored along the way, and then ended up having to backtrack in lieu of climbing the fence next to the fairly busy road I'd been walking down. I made it to the next metro stop, or rather, a metro stop, and resigned myself to buying a water to break the 10 euro bill, and made damn sure to stockpile coins from that point on.

So I finally made it to the center, and all my frustration evaporated as I walked through the city, seeing all these amazing things from history, ruins mingled with modernity, mixed with monuments. I saw the city from the top of Vittoriano, offering a terrific view, and then went to the Colosseum, which was amazing to see for real! It began to rain while I was there. I had pizza and pasta for dinner, relieved to finally be somewhere where it was natural to eat Italian food all the time. I went to an internet cafe and, due to terrorism laws, had to show my passport. I wondered how that could possibly help unless they monitored you, and then drew the unfortunate conclusion. I wrapped up and returned by 8:30 and called the hotel for the shuttle by payphone, as I'd not succeeded in finding a SIM card yet. The phone was really quiet and the volume button didn't work.

Anyway they informed me that the shuttle stopped at 7. What? (There was an airport shuttle from 9 to 9, and I mixed up the 19:00 posted at the desk). I asked how to get back but couldn't hear and ran out of money. I paced back and forth for a while, hoping for a taxi but not succeeding, and strongly missing gypsy cabs. I asked a few stores/restaurants if I could call a taxi, but they either had no phone or refused outright. Desperate and out of ideas, I decided to walk. That I didn't know where to go did not deter me; the map I had only covered the center, so I was literally wandering the streets, at night, in a foreign country, where I didn't know the language, and tried to head in the direction I thought the hotel was in the vain hope of finding it. Life's full of small challenges. I actually reached the street, but my address was 95 and this only went up to 91; it continued on the other side of the highway which I couldn't cross, so I had to find my way around. I had to backtrack quite a bit, and then overshot when walking around the cloverleaf-esque thing, and found another hotel and asked how to reach my street, but he didn't know (nor did the guests that had just entered), thinking it was somewhere in the center (yeah, I wish). I didn't really have enough money for a cab (those 50 euros went really quick), so I backtracked and continued, and after three hours or so I actually made it; I tried not to entertain the million what-ifs that came to mind throughout. I saw the sign at the desk for the shuttle and it indeed said 19:00, and so I asked how to get back otherwise, and was told to take a cab. Nice. So that meant I had to be back everyday by 7 PM. What crap!

So the next day I overslept and missed the breakfast and the shuttle bus. Nice. There was a map on the wall in the hotel, so I prepared to set out on foot, as I (sort of) knew where I was going this time. (I asked, but they didn't have any maps for me which had the hotel or its surroundings. Nice). A cab arrived as I was leaving, and after it had dropped off its passengers I asked the driver if he could take me to the metro for less than 5 euros, as that was practically all I had - the hotel, of course, conveniently lacked an ATM. He said yes, although it was metered and came to 5.50 or so, so I gave him 6 euros (I had a grand total of 9). So I took the metro and withdrew a lot more money this time as I reached the center, and got a SIM card from a place that had been closed by the time I had reached it the prevous day.

I got some brunch - a small pizza, water, and ice cream. The total: 18.50 euros. What? The small gelati was not 3 euros as I thought (which was still pricey) but rather 8. Whoa. I mean, it was delicious, but $10? Clearly the era of cheap ice cream was over (but it was delicious, so I had more throughout the day). I walked through the city, seeing, among other things, the Pantheon and Castell Sant'angelo on my way to the Vatican to see St. Peter's Basilica. Being there was also unbelievable. It was amazingly big, grand, opulent. I also visited the papal tombs, which included that of John Paul II. It was quite a magnificent church, probably dwarfing every other one I've seen (or close to it). I was irked that all the churches here, especially this one, were turned into tourist traps with little pay-kiosks for information or to turn on the lights or such things, along with large crowds of people just talking loudly and taking pictures and videos; at least in Russia there was some semblance of respect.

I then went up to the cupola, which, due to repairs, was partially closed. I could only go up to the terrace and the inner ring (inside the church) which was still amazing. I wanted to see the Sistine Chapel but it was closed by then, so I got dinner and went home. I just made the last shuttle, the route of which I carefully noted. I had scheduled my follow-up language evaulation for the Russian program for 11 PM that night, so I had several hours to kill and so I listened to music and napped. I was relieved that that had actually worked out (ensuring that reception was aware and was able to forward the call and so forth). This time was far, far easier than the pre-program evaluation, although the line was still extremely noisy as it had been the first time (in spite of assurances that the problem would be fixed this time), so that messed things up a lot. Still, it was very much easier than the first one, so the program (and/or the 10 weeks in Russia in general) had obviously helped a great deal.

No Soviet Pensioner Left Behind

Two other aspects of Kiev were transportation and beggars. The metro and the bus may have been cheap, but the cost was that of time: the metro, during my travels, came only every five minutes or so (compared to 1 or 2 minutes elsewhere) and sometimes as long as eight minutes elapsed between trains! Consequently the trains were almost always packed. And as for the buses, in busy areas, the bus stops would actually have lines extending down the sidewalk/street.

Most of the beggars I've mentioned outside the churches were not run-of-the-mill bums (on that note, while I was in walking around in Manhattan the night before orientation - nearly three months ago! - one such bum was carrying a sign: "Give me money for drugs, booze and hookers - hey, at least I'm not bull___ing you." This led to many onlookers, of course, and he started yelling, "hey, this isn't a ___ing press conference, where's the ___ing money?"). Anyway, they were not run-of-the-mill bums were rather old babushkas, victims of a world that changed too late for them; when the Soviet Union collapsed and was replaced with new fledgling capitalist societies, it may have opened up the future for coming generations, but it pulled the rug out from under this one. They will probably not live to see a benefit from the change, but rather will eke out their days in poverty, abandoned and sacrificed to the future, their world having simply changed beneath their feet and left them behind through no fault of their own. This was not the case just in Kiev, of course, but elsewhere in Russia as well, as prices rise while "New Russians" prosper (Moscow is the most expensive city in the world), but of course pensions are what they are. Countless others despondently sell fruit or flowers outside metro stations. I think men have largely avoided this problem because they're already dead by this age; in Russia the average male life expectancy hovers around 60.

On a lighter note, I did manage to get Chicken Kiev at the airport - as Anna put it, the equivalent of finding French fries in France!