Thursday, August 12, 2010

Back in the U.S. of A.

So I have finally returned to my home state of North Carolina, and my experience of reverse culture shock has been just AWESOME! When I first landed at the airport and was riding in Martin's car back to Chapel Hill, I was absolutely astounded at the size of the vehicles. On the highway I would consistently spot giant Suburbans and even Hummers with the only occupant sitting in the driver's seat. The first time I stepped back into the grocery store I wondered where the pasta aisle had gone and why there were not enormous salamis and hams hanging everywhere in the butcher's corner. Finally, when I went to Elmo's diner last week my friends were wondering when we left the restaurant why I hadn't tipped (tipping is very uncommon in Italy except among tourists)! Where is my mind?

As far as my knee goes, I feel like I am well on the road to recovery. After getting back to Chapel Hill and meeting with my study abroad advisor, I went to my parents house in the mountains of Western Carolina for an appointment with the orthopedic, a meeting with a physical therapist, and a week in which I devoted myself to nothing but getting this knee better. Basically what I have is a bruise and some scar tissue right under my patella, and the therapist gave me some great exercises and advise. I went all the way trying to get it better and bought orthotics, started taking anti-inflamattories and fish oil (like my dad, so I guess I am getting old like him :) ), and began writing romantic sonnets and whispering secrets to my knee in this hope that this influx of positive energy will heal it completely.

The knee was a great excuse to rest and kick back to enjoy some of the amazing fruit and vegetables that are in season right now in Cullowhee, where my mom teaches nutrition at Western. There were homegrown tomatoes, homemade pesto, beets, and blueberries gathered from a farm right near our house where there is a bumper crop and plenty left over even for the bears! When I get settled in Togo I am going to start a garden to grow some fresh fruit so I don't have to bike a long ways to the market as often, but I doubt it will ever get near the beautiful garden my mom has going or the organic garden that our friend has by the stream down the road. Honestly, despite all of the dishes I tried travelling through Italy, Spain, Germany, and the rest of Europe, the food I eat at my house is still the best. Period.

Right now I have come back to Chapel Hill and am trying to get graduation worked out. Transferring courses from Bologna to UNC has become (of course) more difficult than I thought, but at least I have orthopedics to go on as I skip merrily from office to office to meet with advisers and professors. I really enjoyed meeting with my Italian adviser the other day because we had our whole meeting in Italian! Abbiamo fatto tutto il nostro incontro in italiano! Most nights I have been hanging out with friends that I haven't seen for a long time past and will not see for a long time hence. I am trying to connect with them but some have moved on to other states or countries and others are constantly 'impegnato.'

As far as preparing for the Corps (that's right, I'm usin' the slang word like a cool cat), I am planning on making several big purchases (an external hard drive, hiking back pack, new perscription glasses and perscription sunglasses) that are promising to further put to the test the decrepit state of my already withering bank accounts and a million smaller purchases, like massive amounts of ziplock bags or duct tape or spices, dishtowels, seeds. The list is growing, and there are probably more forms to get done for the Corps which I have forgotten in this jumbled mess.

My plan was first, take care of knee, second, get graduated, third, prepare to go to Togo. Plans are made to go astray, but I always feel better when there is a plan. Some of the other volunteers have started finding me on email and facebook, and it is nice to read that they are having many of the same problems I had (when I was in Italy) so that I don't feel like I'm charging into this solo.

Time is flying by, and the day I take off for Togo is getting closer and closer. My mind keeps repeating 'I am going to go to Togo' until I can't say it any longer (it is also a tongue twister). But thinking about it is far different from the real thing. For now, I look at what the next step is to get accomplished and try to head for that.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Coming Home

                I have to admit I’m looking forward to the challenge of cultural readjustment. After being in Italy for almost a year, I have found startling differences between this country and the US. It will be strange to come back to a place where there is not a train station right in the center of every town. Everyone talks English! What, you understand me the first time I say something, no way!?!  Not having gelato, bread, and groceries less than 2 minutes from my front door will also be hard to adjust to, since my happiness is correlated with the distance between me and food. Harder still will be readjusting to the distances between places and having to take a car or a bus to get just about everywhere.
                However there are also things that are, at the bottom, the same in the US and Italy. In Italy there are still giant supermarkets where you can buy products from around the world. There are still nice people and mean people, good professors and poor ones, slow food and fast food. Underneath the shiny cover of red tiled houses and narrow streets that has come to be known as Bologna there are a lot of similar economic and personal desires driving what goes on in people’s lives.
                I have just completed my last trip through Europe with my best friend Martin and am flying home to the States for the first time in a year. I remember the long flight over 12 months ago, the emotional stress and the final decision to jump on the plane, the tired arrival in Bologna and immediate onset of confusion and the struggle to do ten million things at the same time. Now, however, I feel amazingly at peace, like returning to the United States is going to bed after being awake for a long, long time. I know that I will be working a ton when I get back and have a long (very, very long) list of things I need to get done to finally graduate (about that…) and to prepare myself for the Peace Corps. But now I can think.
                The biggest thing I think about is my knee. Now I have had this knee problem for over 7 months and when I arrive in the US I am going to really have to get it taken care of. It will mean a lot of time, money, and patience, but I am only 22 for crying out loud and I refuse to believe my knee will be like this forever. Problem is, I am supposed to leave for Togo in the middle of September, and if my knee does not get it’s act together by then my departure will be delayed and worst case my service will be cancelled. I informed the Peace Corps about my knee problem a month ago because I would hate to fly to Africa and then find out that I can’t help because this one small part of my body is hurt. My body is a lot like trying to get anything done in Italy: one part breaks down and nothing moves forward. I have an appointment with an orthopedic on Aug. 4 that will decide my fate, and I am feeling pretty scared.
                Despite the physical pain in my knee and the emotional stress from leaving behind the only country in the world that talks Italian, my last tromp through Europe was amazing. My friend Martin and I spent 5 days in Paris, 1 in Belgium, and 5 in Amsterdam. Paris was full of beautiful views, enormous dinners, and endless hallways packed with art. In Belgium I managed to get my point across in French while tasting some traditional sausage. And in Amsterdam I rode around on the back of a bike while Martin pedaled (with great strength, I might add) and got a moving tour of the buildings lining the canals. All in all, it was fantastic and would take me at least a hundred years to fully describe, so let me just go ahead and give the highlights.
                Last thing first: Guiness. Last night we were in a hostel in Dublin on a lay over before heading back to the states, and while we were there we went to a 500 year old joint called ‘The Temple Bar’ to have the greatest, best, most astounding, most amazing, proud supporter of the Irish Rugby Team, basically liquid butter beer that I have ever, ever, ever tasted. The swill in the bottle does not even come close to the real Guiness. Martin and I sat down at the bar and the barrista brought over a pint for each of us. After the first sip, which went down like melted sugar mixed with butter and irish whisky and manna that falls from the sky and I don’t know what, I promptly decided to empty my wallet and fill my belly with deliciousness. I then realized that my wallet was already empty and soundly resolved to devote my life to the amassing of great amounts of money with which I will buy great amounts of Guiness. I sipped the beer slowly while me and Martin recounted our trip to each other and listened to the Irish with really red faces talk in an English accent that I did not understand. It thought that only happened with Italian! But oh my goodness that beer was… you really need to find out for yourself. I will have daydreams for the rest of my life about that beer.
                Other than that Dublin was pretty much a mixing pot for tourists and a wasteland for the locals. Amsterdam, however, was fantastically organized in every way, shape, and form. The apartment where we stayed with one of my Dutch friends was actually an old red shipping container stacked on the bottom of a stack of shipping containers set next to other piles of shipping containers, each outfitted with bathroom and kitchen. While these apartments were a tad small, the advantage was that all the students were set close together. This was nice when, for example, we threw an enormous barbecue party which brought people out of their respective shipping containers and into mad disco craziness

                That barbecue was epic in every sense of the world. I danced and talked and cooked and ate until the wee hours of the morning. To ward off the rain we slung enormous tarps over the green area between the shipping container buildings and when the rain poured down it added a nice rhythmic background to the music. One of the guys brought his dj set down from his shipping container and spun mad records with his friend. We all ate good Dutch sausage while the night wore on and we put up outdoor lights from another shipping container. There is a word in Dutch, ‘hezzeluh’ pronounced his- zeh-luh and untranslatable in english, that describes the cozy, comfortable, happy atmosphere of the party. Unforgettable.
                Then there was Paris, where I saw the Code of Hammaurabi in the Louvre, Sacre Couer from the Eiffel Tower, and an exhibit at Pompadou, the modern-art museum, on artwork made from the visualization of fantasy worlds. We walked around a lot and drank wine with our French hosts and spent at least half the time on the metro or in a supermarket. The last night we went with this amazing girl Nina and her friends and had a real French dinner over the course of 3 hours and I had: coffee, beer, escargot (snails with some kind of sauce), wine, various cheeses, tartar (raw meat with all kinds of sauces on salad), dessert, more wine and more coffee. Afterward we moved (I don’t know how) to a terrace overlooking the Eiffel tower and at the stroke of midnight all the lights on the tower sparkled like fireflies in the clear night sky. That night we talked until 4 in the morning (a pretty European thing to do) and finally collapsed into bed.
                It was an amazing trip, but  now I feel the need to return to my patria (something Dante was never able to do).I now have an idea of what I should be doing and when after this plane lands in known territory:
July 31 - Return to Chapel Hill, NC
Aug. 3 – Go to Cullowhee, NC for orthopedic appointment
Aug. 8 – Return to Chapel Hill
Aug. 11, 12, or 13 – Return to Cullowhee
Aug. 20-24 – Beach with Alex
Sep. 11 – In Chapel Hill for Carolina Navigators presenter training
Sep. 16 – Leave for pre-service orientation in D.C. (?)
Sep. 17 – Take the plane to Togo (?)
Send me a message at if you would like to meet up when I get back. I will be quite busy getting my courses straightened out to graduate and working to heal my knee but I hope to stay in contact with previous friends and professors. Now I have finished my vacation and I am ready to step out into the daylight.