Friday, January 13, 2012

Sometimes you need to journey far away to find your way back home

With the modern and abnormal mode of transport nowadays, I was able to fully appreciate culture shock, as on the same day that I left Rome with the taste of a cappuccino still in my mouth, I stepped foot onto the rich soil of Uganda and upon my first breath, promptly got a mouth full of dry-season African dust. Flying is so weird. Back in the day before planes, trains, or buses, I would have had something like 5 years on the road and sea to adjust from Europe to sub-saharan. Now I have a few hours, and I spend most of them watching new releases on a tiny screen on the seat in front of me and getting served complimentary drinks. Maybe I shouldn’t complain. The only things you could get from traveling a couple hundred years ago, were probably typhoid, pregnant, robbed, marauded, or dead. But if you made it the whole way, just imagine the stories!

Italy was wonderful. I saw 5/6th of my nuclear family, although that 1/6th was sorely missed. I also met the newest member of our family, my niece Lia Sofie, who I instantly fell in love with, and more slowly learned how to interact with. Turns out she does enough interacting for all of us, so I was able to just sit stupidly in a corner and stare at her for hours, as she discovered, and subsequently destroyed everything surrounding her. For the first week in Rome, we lived like princes in a rented apartment close to the Vatican with my family, walking around everyday to see and eat the wonders of Rome. Promptly upon my family’s departure, Tom and I turned into gypsies. Because I live in an enforced state of extremes, after having a comfortable and pleasant and organized week with my family, I had to immediately switch over to living like a belligerent, rambling vagabond, with my life in complete shambles. That’s not to say that I was constantly drunk (don’t worry mum), more that with our combined resources, neither Tom or I have a stitch of “planning” or “common sense” between the two of us. In short, we are the kind of people who would rather let the day take control of us, rather than the other way around. Because, “maybe something CRAZY might happen!” This is a terrible outlook when traveling in Italy in the winter. I think our motto for this trip, and probably for our lives, is that “we/I can’t guarantee anything,” so really, you can’t expect things to ever go smoothly or as expected. We probably won’t manage to find that restaurant, or that monument, we probably will miss our train, we will most likely get hopelessly lost and marauded by gypsies, and on and on. At least, this outlook can only lead to exceeded expectations and hidden wonders instead of disappointment! It’s a great feeling when you think, hey! I actually did somehow make it to Venice! Or, hey! We are actually going to make our plane! Fantastic. The only downside to this style of life and travelling, is that it keeps our family and loved ones in a constant state of turmoil, as they try to keep track of safety, security, and wellbeing. Despite the obvious challenges of travelling during the high season in Italy and trying to scrape up some last-minute rooms in hotels, and the lack of a dependable source of money (because of an actual gypsy incident), we somehow made it. We also realized that the downside of living on a last-minute un-planned basis, is that it can unfortunately add unwanted stress to our lives, such as epic sprints to catch departing trains, and very cold fingers and toes when looking for a place to stay after arriving in a town at 11 pm at night. We also packed like complete dolts, thinking hey, we can layer, right? I guess winter still exists even when you live on the equator and haven’t seen an ice cube in a year. Oops. Thanks for the jackets, Vincenzo and mom and dad!
Our plan changed shape many times, and instead of going to Sicily for a week and couch-surfing for our entire trip, we ended up going to Northern Italy and only managed to couch surf on two occasions. This was slightly disappointing, especially because it was my first time couch-surfing, but the two couples that we stayed with were incredible. I think the vast majority of couch surfers in Italy are young men who only really want young, single, attractive women to stay with them, so they don’t really go in for hosting couples. Go figure. Our first night in Rome, we arrived a day before anyone else, we stayed with a Roman couple (Leonardo and Serena), who live in a beautiful artsy apartment in Trastevere. We arrived late in Roma, and upon my insisting that I had everything under control and could totally find our way to Trastevere using my foolproof Italian and sense of direction, we set off blindly into the night. I learned several valuable lessons that night; firstly, that Italian don’t go in for greetings and friendliness (at least not always and certainly not the way that Ugandans do), and that I actually don’t have any idea of what I’m doing (even though I lived in Rome). We got there though, and although we were exhausted from several days of traveling from our village, Leonardo was incredibly friendly and welcoming, and immediately started to make us a three-course Italian meal, using three different burners, and the oven all at the same time as talking to us over his shoulder. It was damn good to see a male (besides Tom) cooking after a year in Uganda. I had gotten sick of hearing, For us Africans, cooking is women’s work. Leonardo’s girlfriend Serena, and roommate Francesco came home, and we all had an Italian meal together in their beautiful apartment, Tom and I in full culture shock as we enjoyed fresh parmesan, red wine, and homemade pasta. It was a wonderful introduction back to Italy.

I’m going to try to record some of the fantastic details and highlights about our trip without writing 10 more pages. In Rome with my family, we walked up a storm, hitting all the well-known and not so well known places in Rome. We saw the Cappuccin crypts in a little church, where the bones of hundreds of monks are displayed artfully and eerily to remind visitors of our mortality. I watched Tom see Rome for the first time, the moment that he entered St. Peters, the first sight of the coliseum as we turned a corner. I think his mouth was wide open for the majority of our trip. My favorite part of Rome was when we left for a day trip to Ostia Antica, the remains of a 2,000 year old port city that has been amazingly well-preserved. We brought along a picnic, and drank red wine out of plastic cups as we sat on the top row of an ancient theatre, looking out over the ancient city. Tom somehow got lost in the ruins for a few hours, so that was kind of awkward until we finally found him. After my family left, Tom and I replicated this picnic, but this time sitting under the colonnades by St. Peter. I think my favorite parts of Rome are the days when you sit somewhere beautiful with a bottle of wine, and watch as the city breathes and the people move around you. One night, we sat under a 3,000 year old obelisk that had been given to Rome by ancient Egypt. Awesome. Christmas was great with all the Italian family; I was so happy to see Silvana again, and to witness Lia’s baptism into the church and also into her big multi-cultural family. It was really beautiful to see how Erin has connected these two very different families, and how fluidly she moves between both of them, English and Italian flying left and right, and the way that Lia is clearly adored by all of her different aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents. I find that you don’t need much translation once you are a family—all we needed was the ability to smile together as we watched Lia explore the world. For New Years, we had a traditional meal at Silvana’s house and then at precisely 11:53 we decided to drive to Gianicolo hill to witness all of the fireworks that everyone in the city sets off at midnight. This was somewhat of a last minute decision, and so we piled into Silvana’s tiny red car, and sped through the deserted streets of Rome, and managed to park a minute or two before midnight, and then had to sprint the remaining quarter mile to reach the top of the hill…as we ran past the crowds of people and the jammed cars, a very inebriated celebrator sprayed a bottle of champagne in our faces while yelling something, but this didn’t slow us down (well except for Erin and I who were several yards behind the boys and on the verge of collapse/illness). When we finally made it, it was just turning midnight, and before us, the entire city exploded into light. In this moment of high confusion, exhaustion, and exhilaration, I simultaneously burst into tears, and then almost vomited. The vomit would have been my contribution to the spectacular display of fireworks, but I managed to lock it up. I had been getting annoyed of fireworks the days leading up to New Years, because everyone and their grandma had been gearing up for New Years by throwing experimental and random fireworks out of their windows at innocent passerbyers and scaring the bejeesus out of them, but now seeing this climactic display, I was completely blown away and literally in tears. These were no professionally-done fireworks, these were 10 year old boys and baristas and grandmothers setting off fireworks, sometimes even right behind us! Even Vincenzo got the spirit in him, and proceeded to set off a series of terrifyingly loud fireworks, sometimes even throwing lit ones under cars. Although I at no point felt safe during this magical midnight, I truly saw 2012 in in Roman style.

After Rome, we headed up to Florence to meet with my friend Russ. We only spent a night and part of a day there, because we were more eager to check out smaller towns and get away from busy cities. In Florence, the most notable thing to happen, besides seeing Russ, was that the owner’s of our hostel were spectacularly drunk throughout our stay, and alternated between forcing guests to drink vodka, and hitting on any girl who entered. It sort of made me thankful for all the Bed and Breakfasts that we had been staying at. I don’t know if I can handle hostels anymore. After Florence, we headed to Bologna, where Tom and I spent the night with another couch surfing couple, Giulia and Marco. They picked us up at the train station, cooked us a great meal at their apartment, and then took us on an evening tour of the city center- showing us the highlights of this ancient university town. We were especially happy that they showed us the more unsavory parts of Bologna, such as the phallic illusion that one receives when they view Neptune’s statue at a certain angle (this was the artist’s retort to the pope’s conservative view on nudity in art), and also some ancient graffiti that says, “Enjoy Wine. Eat Bread. Protect Cannibus.” Words of wisdom, from thy illustrious medieval scholars of Bologna! I really liked Bologna. I love that it is the oldest university in Europe. I loved the porticos, the graffiti, the radicalism, the art! I love that I entered a church with 7 churches inside of it; starting from a pagan temple all the way to renaissance chapel! It was in this church that Dante used to come and sit in silence, and his vision of purgatory was inspired by the art within. The best part about Florence and Bologna were the people, though. It was great catching up with Russ and spending quality time with him, and the couch surfers in Bologna were so welcoming and kind.
After parting with Russ, Tom and I went on to see Ferrara, which, if it were not for the castle, was a bust. Nothing notable to say, besides that this was the first city where we developed our “nose” theory, namely that in order to find a good place to eat, we literally must follow our noses and see where it leads us. After Ferrara, we went up to Venice and spent one day and one night in the city of lights. Venice was undoubtedly beautiful and unique, but there were so many people there that it was hard to relax. They call it the city of love, a romantic place to go with a special someone, but I think that it is really the city of lost lovers, simply because every couple that I saw was standing at a corner with their map or i-phone out, trying to figure out where the hell they were in this winding maze city of canals. Tom and I also got quite lost several times, and we tried to enjoy being lost as much as possible, until it would suddenly become too cold to be lost. For this entire trip, Tom was our “chief wheredafuckarewe”, a role championed by my Uncle Tom so many years ago in Rome, and a role quite necessary to have if you are travelling with me. Because I have a directional disability. Something to do with an imbalance in my ear drum, that leaves me completely unable to read maps, understand directions, or get anywhere in a timely or efficient fashion. I don’t like talking about it. So, even Venice defeated our chief, notably on one evening when we were trying to get home after dinner. I was gently chiding chief, trying to assess if we were indeed lost, and he responded sharply by grabbing my arm and saying, “do you trust me?” Well, sure. After a brief glance down at the map, he triumphantly led us around the corner saying, “trust me Ilse, I know where I’m going,” and we abruptly ran into a dead-end. This was rather disconcerting, because I basically was laying my life in his hands, but we managed to find the way home. When we got home that night, I topped the night off by striding into our tiny bed and breakfast and saying in wine-enhanced Italian that we were staying in room 249, in order to receive our keys from the owner. He looked at me for a minute with a huge grin and then finally said, “we have only 9 rooms here.” Sounds like a victory.
After Venice, we finished off our tour with two nights in Siena, a small walled medieval town on top of a hill in Tuscany. We wanted to spend more time here, because it was so relaxing and beautiful. This was the city where we arrived at 11:00 pm at night without any idea of where we would stay, but all turned out well. Siena is now one of my favorite places in Italy; it’s like stepping back in time as you walk through the absurdly angled and narrow streets, and the view of the Tuscan countryside is stunning. The only awkward things about Siena are the relics. The catholic church REALLY goes in for relics. You know, the stray dead finger left over from some old saint, or something equally revolting. In Siena, the patron saint had left not only one, but two relics behind her. Saint Catherine’s head AND thumb are both proudly on display in the basilica there. It is probably a majestic site to the devout, but to me, it’s just an instance of morbid fascination. You know, like, oooh! Cool! An old rotting head! So at a certain point, I feel like I need to leave the church because to many people, this is something holy. But to me, it’s just gross. And therefore, awesome.
This brings me almost to the present. After Siena, we had two days more in Rome, which were not as enjoyable as our previous time there, probably because we were near-frantic with trying to enjoy ourselves as much as possible before we left. I tried taking us out for aperitivo (read: happy hour) in Trastevere, but we both felt completely out of place and ignored by the ultra-fashionable and cosmopolitan patrons, not to mention confused. I think that was the point when we started to miss Uganda. We still had fun seeing the Vatican and Pantheon again, but I think we both felt a pull to leave, because after all, Italy isn’t home. Adumi village is. We missed the friendliness of the Lugbara, the sunlight, the relaxed nature of our lives in the village. The true tragedy that came out of our time in Italy, was the fate of my sriracha bottle in Rome’s airport. My parents had given me a giant sriracha bottle for Christmas, and I carried this bottle around in a separate plastic bag throughout Italy, using it as much as possible. I knew that in the back of my mind, I couldn’t carry sriracha on the plane. Something about liquids. But sriracha isn’t a liquid, is it? It’s so much MORE than a liquid. It’s a way of life. Airport security had to understand. So, instead of gifting this sriracha to someone in italy before we left, I held on to the bitter end, as we were being herded through security in the airport. I turned on the charm, asking a guard if the sriracha was small enough to take on in perfect Italian, and he laughed in my face. “No. E’ troppo grande.” (No. It’s way too big). In a moment of selflessness, I asked him if he wanted it. It was either that, or the large trash can that everyone was throwing their stray bottle of shampoo, peanut butter, and water before going through the gates. He laughed again, in my face. So, my half-full bottle of sriracha joined the ranks of the refuse, the forgotten, the fallen soldiers of international air travel. I’m glad I had Tom along for moral support. SO…if anyone has any bottles of sriracha hanging around that are interested in a cross-cultural exchange, then they are most welcome to live with me, and compliment my bland African meals. Please???

Beyond that, I have completely exhausted myself with this blog. I am back in my village now, and couldn’t be happier. The first day back in Uganda was pretty rough, considering our plane got in at 3:00 am, and because Uganda is sketchy until about 7:00 am, we had to hang around the airport for a few hours before we left for Kampala. That first day back in Kampala was awful, between being exhausted, too hot in our European layered clothing, and completely overwhelmed by how dusty, dirty, and crowded the capital city is. At one point as we were walking down the hectic streets of Kampala trying to find our way to the Peace Corps office, I felt wracked by culture shock, in a way that I never had before here, and I had to quickly guide myself to a western style restaurant and have a milkshake before I could get myself to face Kampala again. But that’s all just a preamble to the revelation I had upon returning to Arua after 8 hours on a bus….I LOVE it here. Kampala is certainly not home and in fact, I want to avoid it as much as I possibly can, but Arua…Arua is home. I was nervous about my culture shock, that it would only increase as I got further and further from civilization and closer and closer to our village, but I shouldn’t have worried. We have been warmly welcomed by what seems like the entire town of Arua, we have received countless hugs, smiles, and exclamations of happiness upon our return. I think some people thought we were gone for good, that once we left Arua, we would never come back. It makes me laugh when I hear that, because for us, Arua is home now. Nowhere else will do. Yes, it’s true that now we have to fetch our water again, bucket bathe, and do our business in a latrine, and that we suddenly have to cook our own meals again, but it’s entirely worth it.

I must now go fetch our new kitten from the mayor's wife! Wish me luck!
Love and Lurking,

1 comment:

  1. Ilse - this is my second try at responding to this utterly wonderful blogpost! I loved every minute with you a Roma - our first hug in months, sipping wonderful vino rosso in Ostia Antica in the ruins, watching you glimpse Lia for the first time and break into smiles of delight, seeing you laugh with your siblings .... great memories. I am most happy that you return to Uganda with a full heart. Love you muchly, Mumsy