Physics in Society

Remember the other day when I said that I remember random topics that I learned about throughout the course of my educational career? A few weeks ago, I talked about remembering the class on xenia, or Greek hospitality, and how it is something that I always think about when I am hosting somebody or somebody is hosting me. Another topic I remember really well is that physics law that states that every action has a reaction of an equal and opposite force. I mean, my passing physics was a miracle in itself, so I have no clue how to actually apply it in a scientific context, but I can apply it to real life when I contemplate good and evil. It’s not that I sit around all day, scratching my head, watching the clouds and wondering about this kind of stuff, but in the recent weeks, I’ve had a few experiences that have made me really think about good people and bad people. Like when I was treated like family by random strangers. Or, when I was assaulted the other day.

Yep, you read right. I got assaulted, mugged– whatever you want to call it. It was my third day here: Saturday, at noon on the busy bicycle path of Praia Botafogo. I was on my way to the bank to withdraw my rent money, so I was dressed plainly:  there was nothing about me that would draw attention from others. Except that I was an unaccompanied female, which is a circumstance that I cannot avoid because I came to this country by myself. Anyways, I was walking on this heavily populated path next to a very busy highway, when I saw two men sitting on a bench watching me. I figured they were just being creepy, so I continued to mind my own business and walk towards them. It wasn’t until I heard one of them say, “Ela, ela. Her, her,” and stood up from the bench that I became a little concerned. One of the guys walked in front of me and said, “Your bag,” so I thought he was telling me that there was something wrong with my purse. I mean, let’s be real here: looking chic and ostentatious are two things that are very important in Rio de Janeiro, and two qualities that I could care less about– so I assumed that he was just pointing out a fashion faux-pas. Until, that is, I saw his buddy brandish a gun and stick it to my back shortly after.

To say that I panicked is the understatement of the century. My throat went dry, my heart and my stomach fell to my toes and I was paralyzed. Weirdly enough, my first reaction was to look up to see if I could see Christ the Redeemer was watching over me. He was nowhere in sight due to the thick storm clouds that are the norm during the summer in Rio de Janeiro. All I could think was, Really Jesus, really? That’s when I mentally started saying my goodbyes. Bye Papi, bye Mami, bye Alex..Here I am, in the city of my dreams after nearly a decade of wanting to come back and visit, and I am about to die. Of course, this would happen to me. This is my warm welcome to Rio, Jesus? I am totally converting to Judaism if I make it out of this alive… I snapped back out of my reverie and back to reality when one of the guys yelled, “Your purse!” Oh yeah, I was being mugged, how could I forget? 

That’s when I heard years, and years and years of my parents and grandmothers saying, “If you ever get held up, just give them your bag, no question. No amount of money is worth losing your life fighting for.” So I gave them my bag. And, not to be anti-climactic, but as soon as they took it, they ran across the highway into a get away car. Simple as that. It was only a matter of seconds, but it felt like I had aged a few centuries. Ok, losers! Have fun with my cheap flip phone and the keys to an apartment that you don’t even know the address of! Yes, that’s all I had in my bag because by the time I was knee high, I had already received tactical slum training by the elders in my family for a number of years. As I watched the hoodlums run away with my purse and my dignity, I stood there like an idiot in the middle of the bike path. I had no tears and no thoughts except for trying to get Jesus in my line of sight. C’mon dude! I am in this country all alone, trying to be independent and responsible and adventurous, and this is how you treat me? 

I was broken from my mental game of hide-and-seek when I heard people yelling at me. It was a couple of cyclists yelling, “What happened? What happened?” I didn’t have words to describe the incredible violation that I just experienced in my first language, much less in my fifth! A few seconds went by and I continued to stare at them blankly and mutely. “Menina, speak!” they commanded, as they grew seemingly more and more irritated by my lack of communication. Then the gentleman asked, “Did you get robbed?” I nodded, and start to say, “Yo…” and I swear for the life of me no more words came out of my mouth. And we all know that if I am unable to communicate in Spanish during a highly emotional situation– then Houston, we must really be having a big, big problem. Big enough to shut down the entire international space station. It was then that the man’s demeanor changed completely, and he asked, “Menina, you’re not from here?” as his voice and face softened as he switched to Spanish. I responded to this, retelling bits and pieces at a time, incapable of forming full sentences. His wife chimed in and asked me where I lived. I said Flamengo. They asked me if I wanted them to accompany me home. And that’s when I started to cry. Not sob, but baby tears coming silently out of my eyes. That’s when they hopped off their bikes and walked me home for an hour and a half.

They made conversation as we walked, asking me about my life, where I was from, who I was staying with, what I studied. They were so sweet to me; unfortunately, I was too stricken by what had just happened to even feign interest or put on a smile. When we finally got to my apartment, the lady I live with was nowhere to be found. So the couple walked me to a restaurant where they offered me something to eat. I had no appetite and no personality, but they were as kind as can be, talking about how brave I was to be in Rio all by myself and how proud of me my parents must be. I started to cry again. And to make matters worse, a street band started playing an array of happy samba songs that I know because my father has been playing them my entire life. So there I was in this happy restaurant, with happy people and happy music and I was sobbing like a baby. People were looking at me like I had five heads. After a few hours, they walked me home and even came up to the apartment with me to explain to the lady I live with what had happened. And then just like that they left. Monica and Oscar. I will never forget those names for as long as I live.

This brings me back to the aforementioned Newton’s third law… Even though I never understood anything that was taught in my junior-year physics class, I can now see the value in learning about it. Every action has a reaction of equal and opposite force, okay. On February 12, 2013, I had a pair of beasts literally scare the wits out of me and cause me to lose my faith in human kind. A negative force. Conversely, I had a couple of perfect strangers go above and beyond to care for me and restore my faith in humanity. A positive reaction of equal and opposite force

I guess I finally understand what Newton was trying to say all along.

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Pão de Azucar and Cristo Redentor

This weekend I went to see two of the world’s (and Rio’s) most amazing sites: Pão de Azucar (Sugar Loaf Mountain) and the statue of Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer). I woke up before sunrise both Friday and Saturday to be able to see both landmarks before the crowds arrived, and it was so worth it because by the time I was leaving both places, the lines and the heat were unbearable!

I hope these pictures will inspire you to visit this marvelous city. If you need a tour guide, you know who to call.

A Taste of Carnaval

It’s nearly 2 AM here and the reason I am up is because I just finished working on a presentation that I have to give in about 5 hours from now. It’s about a topic I love: samba. Unfortunately, that is also the reason I am still awake when I have to wake up in about 3 hours to get ready for school. The more research I did, the more I came across amazing music that I had never heard before, and, well… I am still here in front of my computer half a day after I first started my research. Papi, I can see you making your grumpy face right now, but you know you would have done the same!

For the past 13 hours I have been listening to samba enredo, which is the type of samba that is played by the samba schools during the Carnaval parade. Every year, each samba school performs to a different song, and the outfits and movements of the dancers in the parade are coordinated to match the song. There’s very interesting logic behind the Carnaval parade that I had no clue about until I started doing this project. I’ll be sure to elaborate later. Right now, I will talk to you about the most experience I have ever had in my life.

So we all know about the huge Carnaval parade that goes on in Rio de Janeiro, right? If not, you are missing out. In a nutshell, Rio de Janeiro has 13 samba schools that are made up of about 5,000 students and each year, they parade through the Sambodrome Marques de Sapucaí, commonly known as the Sambódromo, and compete against each other. Tickets for the Sambódromo during Carnaval week are worth more than your first born child, but given then chance, I would definitely give up at least my first two for a chance to see the parade in person. I know Mami is cringing at the thought that I would give away her much-anticipated grandchildren, but I am just being honest… Anyways, I won’t be  here for Carnaval because I am going to the northeastern city of Recife, but I have already gotten a taste as to how amazing the parade will be and I am so jealous of everybody who gets to experience the real deal.

Every Sunday leading up to Carnaval, a different samba school practices its routine at the sambadrome. These practices are free and open to the public, so I went with my friend Juan Pablo a few weekends ago and I was absolutely blown away. The practice wasn’t even supposed to start until 8 PM and the stadium– which seats about 80,000, at least– was absolutely packed… by 6:30! Not only was the stadium packed, but there were so many people that they were flowing out onto the streets nearby, including the highway. I’m just going to go ahead and say it right now that I was definitely one of those people standing in the highway for a while. Whatever, it’s done and over with and I didn’t get hit so I can’t get in trouble for it! Eventually I elbowed my way to the stands, so all’s well that ends well.

As soon as the music started, I got goosebumps and chills that didn’t stop until I went to bed nearly 5 hours later. The two schools that performed that night were Mangueira, the oldest of all of the schools and the overall favorite, and Grande Rio. I don’t have words to describe the magnificence of what I experienced, so I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

View of the Sambodromo from the highway.

View of the Sambodromo from the highway.

The middle stands.

The middle stands.

It was absolutely packed.

It was absolutely packed.

One of the wings of dancers from the Mangueira samba school.

One of the wings of dancers from the Mangueira samba school.

Mangueira samba school on it's way out of the Sambodrome.

Mangueira samba school on its way out of the Sambodrome. The little lights in the background belong to a favela.

I can’t wait to come back one day with Patica (my paternal grandmother/best friend), I just know she will love it. I have no doubt she will be the only person in the Sambódromo with a bigger smile than mine. I hope this video is a decent enough sneak peak as to what we will see in person some day. Filming with a point-and-shoot camera while dancing is pretty tricky business, so please excuse the awful quality of my video. I promise the experience was infinitely better live. The first part of my video is pretty slow, focusing only on a Samba queen, but if you skip to 5:00, the batucada comes in and it gets more fun and loud!

I’m off to sleep now. Até logo!

Hospitalidade e Respeito (Hospitality and Respect)

You know those random memories you have that you never seem to forget, no matter how much time passes, or how many other important events go on in your life? When I was in ninth grade, we studied Greek mythology in English class for just about the billionth time over the course of my schooling. And to be honest, even though I repetitively studied every aspect of Greek mythology for a number of years– history, geography, literature, etc.– I can’t recall any of the gods in the Pantheon except for Zeus (because he was the Big Papi) and Athena (because she was the daddy’s girl and tomboy, so I could relate). What I do recall, however, is the class where we learned about Greek xenia, or hospitality. We talked about how Greek hosts would welcome guests into their homes and provide them with the utmost splendor, comfort and respect– even if they were complete strangers. We discussed how the Greeks would give their guests luxuries that they sometimes could not afford, just to make them feel as special as possible. That’s basically all I remember from 9th grade English class, but quite frankly, that’s really all I think I need to remember. I experienced this xenia, when I went to Greece a few years ago. And I experience this hospitality and kindness every day here in Rio.

In the US, for the most part, there is no concept of hospitality. Yes, people welcome their friends and family, but how many people go out of their way to help strangers? We hear the term “southern hospitality” used to describe the warmer, welcoming attitudes of people in the southern states. People who go to Elon from the northeast are dumbfounded and even creeped out when locals say hello to them at the store or on walks around the neighborhood. Does nobody else think this is tragic? That people are shocked when strangers give them the most basic element of respect, like a simple acknowledgment of their presence? And what’s worse is that we defend people who are rude. How many times have you heard, “Oh well, he/she is from New York/Boston/Washington D.C./some other big city, and they have a different, more fast-paced lifestyle…”? As if you know, the fact that you work on 60 hour weeks means you can’t spare .0005 seconds to smile at somebody.

So, I am here to shed some light on this myth: just because you live in a big city does not mean that you have to be impolite and hostile by nature. If you need proof, just come to Rio de Janeiro.

Over the past two weeks, I have had some of the most pleasant encounters with the most perfect strangers. Here are a few little synopses of run-ins that I have had with random cariocas:

a) On my first day of class, I had to ride the bus across town to PUC. My bus driver, who caught on to my being a foreigner because I had no clue how to pay for the bus, told me to have the seat closest to him, and proceeded to ask me just about every question under the sun concerning my life story and how I ended up in Rio de Janeiro. “I thought you were Brazilian, but you’re not. Where are you from? Why are you here? Do you like it here? Would you ever live here? Have you danced funk yet?” were just a few of the questions he asked me during the course of my hour-long bus ride. When he found out that I was of Dominican origin, he excitedly switched to speaking Spanish and said that he would speak Spanish to me and I would speak Portuguese to him, and that way we would mutually help each other. From then on, every time I get on his bus, sure enough, we converse 1/3 in Spanish, 1/3 in Portuguese and the rest of the time in a beautiful fusion of both of our languages, known as Portuñol. Not to mention that instead of dropping me off at the bus stop where I would have to walk a few blocks to get to school, he drops me off right at the gated entrance. Door-to-door service and free language and culture lessons: there’s no better way to start the day.

b) The other day I had a 50R bill and no change (don’t get too excited, it’s only $25). When I got on the bus and tried to pay the 2.75R fare with my 50R, the cashier told me that he didn’t have any change for me. Nothing. So, he wouldn’t let me sit on the bus. Buses in Rio are divided in two, the first 20% consists of the driver’s cabin and the entrance to the bus, and the other 80% of the bus is for passengers. It was about 6:15 am, I was trying to start my week off right, and there I was hanging out in limbo with no way to pay for my bus fare. The bus driver repeatedly told the cashier that I am a regular, to let me sit down and I could just pay double the next day, but the grump was being a major stickler. Out of nowhere, a lady who was watching this ordeal came and paid for my fare and rebuked him for being so rude to me as I headed to sit down. When I got off the bus at school, I went to the usual stand where I buy my breakfast salgado and drink my guarana, but when I finished eating and tried to give the salgado man my 50R, he told me that he didn’t have change, that I could just pay him back tomorrow. Oh my gosh, I wanted to die of embarassment, but he was fully confident and trusting that I would pay him back. Of course I did so a few minutes later after finding a friend to break my bill, but I was still blown away by his trust in me after only a few short encounters consisting of me sleepily ordering my breakfast before school.

c) Another bus story… I don’t know what bus I have to take, ever. I basically ask every bus that stops at whichever stop I may be if he is going in the basic direction of where I need to go. The other day, I stopped a bus and asked the driver if he was going to PUC. As another bus zoomed by, he said, “No I am not, but that bus is, and the driver didn’t even stop here! Que falta de respeito! Hop on.” As I jumped on the bus, we started tailing the bus I was supposed to be on. Every time we drew closer to the bus I was supposed to be on, the stop light would turn green and we would speed after it again. This persisted for at least a dozen miles until both buses managed to stop at the same red light. As my bus driver opened the door for me to get off of my bus and run to the other one, he said, “Have a great day, princess, I am sorry you had to deal with such rudeness so early,” and proceeded to reprimand the other driver for leaving me behind. And when I got on the other bus, the driver apologized and didn’t make me pay for another ticket. Proof that chivalry isn’t dead, it’s just aging with the older generations…

I have a lot of other examples of carioca hospitality, but this is all I will write for now because some friends of a friend have invited me to lunch at their house, and I have to go soon… But back to my main point: here are the populations of some of the biggest cities in the U.S. compared to Rio. I am comparing it to big cities on the east coast, because that area is especially notorious for its bad attitude:

New York: 8,244,910

Rio de Janeiro: 6,323,037

Philadelphia: 1,536,471

Boston: 625,087

Washington, D.C.: 617,996

Miami: 408,750

As you can see, Rio is much bigger than almost all of the largest cities on the east coast. The difference is, most people here actually want to be kind to others, help them out and make them feel welcome. I mean, do you think any of these experiences would have happened on the DC public transportation system? … I am actually laughing at the thought. So, the moral of the story is that if people are jerks, it is because they want to be, not because their city, lifestyle, etc. makes them that way.

Who wants to be a billionaire?

This is not a trick question. We all do. Want to know how you can make more money than you’ve ever imagined? Start an airline that travels to Latin America that actually leaves and arrives on time. In other words, be the opposite of American Airlines. You see, us Latin people, we may be late to school, work, birthdays, weddings, and even our own funerals, but when it comes to getting home, we do not mess around! Unfortunately, however, even when we finally leave our cultural norms behind and show up to the gate the recommended three hours before departure, American Airlines lets us down. Every. Single. Time. Especially with flights going to and from Miami. It happens every time I travel to and from the Dominican Republic. And it happened with my flight to Rio.

Yesterday, flight AA901 was supposed to depart to Rio from gate D44 at 8:25 PM. I got to the airport at around 4:00 so that I wouldn’t have to worry about getting stuck in any Miami traffic. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Miami airport, it is ginormous. I mean, it could be a country in and of itself; it’s definitely bigger than Monaco at least… Anyways, I hike my way to gate D44 and it probably takes a good hour of walking. When I finally get to my gate, just as I start cooling off from the intense cardio workout I have just undergone, they switch the flight to gate D1. If you’re a logical human, you don’t really stress about this, since you’ve already walked a marathon just to get to your first gate, schlepping to another one 43 gates away is no big deal, at least it’s in the same concourse, right? Wrong. So wrong. Gate D1 was miles, lightyears, away from D44. I had to take about 6 different mile-long escalators, a ten-minute train ride and walk another half marathon to get there.

I eventually get to gate D1. At 8:00, you know, 25 minutes before we are supposed to be taking off, we are alerted that the flight will not take off until 9:30. Then they switch it to 9:15. And then back to 9:30. We actually boarded at 9:30. And then sat. And sat. And sat. And then I hear, “Slight mechanical error, we will only be 10 more minutes, folks, thank you for your patience.” 10 minutes go by, and we are still sitting. And we keep sitting for about another hour. Let me just mention that this whole time, American has not even offered us snacks or water, or anything for that matter. And then, someone came on the PA system again and said, “Hi again, folks,  there seems to be  a problem with the coffee machine in the middle galley. We are just waiting until they fix it so we can take off…”

As soon as heard that I did not know whether to laugh or cry. Why? When I pay for a plane ticket, I pay for it to get me from Point A to Point B, safely, soundly and on time. I am not asking for a full-service Dunkin’ Donuts, I just want to get to Rio! Especially American Airlines coffee, right? Who cares about your coffee? I mean how arrogant can you be to think that your broken dirty water maker is worth delaying a flight? And the best part of it is, that for once I wasn’t the only one brutally speaking my mind. The Brazilians agreed with me! People started talking about how they would prefer to have real coffee in Brazil if the plane would ever just take off; and how American Airlines has never cared about providing optimal customer service before, but now all of a sudden they were trying to provide the utmost customer experience on our dime/time. I mean, these people were verbally murdering the airline; the crew lucked out that none of them understood a lick of Portuguese. Anyways, after further waiting, at around 11:30, we are asked to unboard the plane due to extensive mechanical issues, and that we would board another plane at 1:00 AM… about 5 hours after our initial departure time. Let me mention once again that American Airlines did not provide us with a snack or beverages, and by this time all of the airport restaurants and shops are closed. I just don’t understand why you would let your customers be grumpy, tired and hungry at the same time, but American Airlines knows it can be awful and still make money because nobody else flies so much to Latin America.

Anyways, we finally get in the air at about 1:30 AM. By the time the hostesses start going down the aisles with beverages and food, most people are passed out due to exhaustion or starvation induced coma, but not me. If I couldn’t get my coffee, I sure as heck was going to get my freeze-dried ravioli. As I mentioned before, those hostesses were just zooming down the aisles since nobody was awake to answer their, “Pasta or chicken?” question. You could see how excited they were too, to get the job done nice and easy and go back to reading the latest issue of Cosmopolitan. A Brazilian boy who was sitting in front of me got skipped over because he had been napping when they were serving us, but as soon as he smelled the food, he woke up and asked the hostess– who was at that point, no more than three aisles away– if he could have some dinner. And this hostess’ partner said in a super nasty tone, “What? Do we do personal request dinners now?” I really wanted to give this guy a piece of my mind, and say, “Hey dude, he wasn’t asking you to give him escargot with organic pesto, he was merely asking for the nasty dinner he paid for!” I held my tongue for once because the flight still had 6 hours to go and I wanted to make sure I would be served my fair share of the disgusting food that was included in my ticket fare. I finally got to my destination at 2:00 PM, nearly 24 hours after I started traveling.

Long story short: if you want to get rich, start an airline that travels to Latin America with the most basic services: cheap airfare, timely departures/arrivals and friendly staff. I am pretty sure that this is what most people in this customer sector appreciate and value above anything else. Just give us cheap tickets so we can afford one for ourselves, our parents and siblings, our cousins, our cousins’ cousins and anybody else who may want to join us. Give us on-time flights so that we don’t have to hear about how indebted we are to our family members for making them wait 4 hours for us at the airport. And supply us with friendly staff, so that you, the airline, don’t get aggressively verbally assaulted in a language that you don’t even know. The food and beverage options are hardly a priority. What we eat when we finally arrive at our destination is far better than anything that could ever be served on an airline, anyways.

Thanksgiving in March

As Americans, we have this wonderful tradition of Thanksgiving where we take one day out of the year to relax and reflect on all of the things we are thankful for in life. However, this week was so great that I’m going to make today an honorary Thanksgiving, and take a break from my homework to think about all of the things/people I loved (more than usual) this week.

Here’s my top 3 power players of the week:

1. My godmother. Just about a month ago, my wonderful godmother sent me a package knowing that I would greatly appreciate the emotional support from my good friend Ghirardelli on Valentine’s Day. Unfortunately, the package didn’t get here in time, so I spent the day of romance wallowing in self-pity as I watched Italian couples participate in PDA as if it were a national sport. It finally arrived this weekend though, and it brightened my day! Moral of the story: who needs a boyfriend when you have Tia Maria?

2. Brette. My little friend sent me a letter (of epic proportions, right there with Homer’s Odyssey, I’m sure of it) via snail mail! I’m pretty sure we’re the only people of our generation who still do that! Since I know you’re reading this, Missy, I’ll be sure to respond as soon as I’m done with my Italian homework today!

3. My big cousin Yadi. She’s working towards her master’s in Barcelona and she took a plane and a bus just to see me this weekend! I’ll let you in on a few of our adventures…

Thursday: I was on my way to pick Yadi up from the train station in the afternoon, when all of a sudden, someone pulled my hair. Just when I was about to go Kung-Fu Panda on the perpetrator, I turned around to see my good friend and classmate Camila grinning at me from ear to ear (here we are in Florence learning a new language, but sometimes a good jalon de moño is the best way to get someone’s attention). I’d been telling Camila about how my big cousin was coming to visit every day for the past three weeks, and I guess I’d built her up so much that when I told her I was on my way to pick Yadi up, she linked arms with me and didn’t leave our side until six this morning… Anyway, we went to dinner at Gusta Pizza— which, in my opinion– has to be one of the best pizzerias in the city. After dinner, we went out, and ended up going to sleep very early (en la mañana).

Reunited at last.

Friday: We had kind of a late start, but we woke up just in time to watch the sunset from San Miniato al Monte with Camila, and my two other classmates, Gabriela and Marie Ange. Two Dominicans, two Brazilians and one French– it was like a mini United Nations. Do not ask how we communicated with each other, because I can’t explain it, just know that we understood each other enough to have awesome conversation for a good five hours as we watched the sun set on the city.

At San Miniato al Monte.

Saturday: Camila, Gabriela, Yadi and I made it all the way to Cinque Terre. Even though we spent more time on the train than we did exploring, it was well worth it. The weather was quite chilly and overcast, but it was still beautiful. I am definitely going back at least once before I leave. Unfortunately, we were short on time due to somebody’s dire need for beauty sleep, but we were able to walk through three of the five coastal towns: Rio Maggiore, Manarola and Corniglia. I’ll have to save Vernazza and Monterosso for a nicer day when I have more time! When we got back to the city, Gabriela went to bed and left Yadi, Camila and me to fend for ourselves on the Florentine streets. I wanted to go dance, but my companions are the only two of their kind who do not like to dance, so I settled for drinks and walking around the city. I’m pretty sure the bartender switched the cachaça that was supposed to go in my caipirinha with some sort of hallucinogenic drug (Papi, so you don’t fly here and demand his head on a stake, this would be an example of one of my embellishments), but we had a nice night that ended with us Skyping our grandmother and her showing off her Portuguese skills to Camila.

Mermaids.

Camila and me at Rio Maggiore.

Yadi and me.

Warning: Mami, if this shows up on our Christmas card, I am blocking you from this site!

Sunday: Yadi, being a genius, had bought a bus ticket arriving in Pisa fifteen minutes before her flight was set to depart to Barcelona. So, after pondering whether or not this was cutting it too close, we came to the agreement that she should probably get on an earlier bus. Needless to say, we were kind of in a hurry this morning, but I was still able to take care of her and supply her with a hearty breakfast. Forget Wheaties! Beer and chocolate: the breakfast of los verdaderos verdugos!

It's not a Presidente, but it will have to do.

And so concludes my awesome week. Not a bad start to March, huh?

Up next this month: adventures with Tia Maria and Max, baby Lina and… my golden birthday!

The best anti-depressant out there

Chocolate makes me happy. In fact, it makes me so happy that it has been the panacea for my self-diagnosed seasonal depression that I’ve experienced during these dark and gloomy days in Florence. Luckily for me, I’ve had easy access to my remedy because for the past week and a half because La Fiera del Cioccolato Artiganale (Artisanal Chocolate Fair) took place just three blocks from my apartment. And I have no shame in admitting that I attended  the festival just about every single day that it was here.

I know that as my parents read this, they are having two very different panic attacks: Mami is already on the phone with the airline to inform them that her obese daughter is going to need a double seat reservation for the flight back home; and Papi is panicking that I’ve sold my soul to an Italian chocolatier in exchange for unlimited free chocolate for the rest of my life (he knows me so well). As sweet as it would be to not be packed like a sardine for the eleven hours home, the one hundred steps I have to climb to get to my apartment have prevented me from getting any more ciccona (chubby) this whole time– so a second seat will not be necessary. And as heavenly as it would be to have chocolate for the rest of my life– to have and to hold, for richer and for poorer, until death do us part– all of the chocolatiers who tried to sweep me off of my feet were my father’s age: dinosaur status. And at this point in my life, I can safely say the only things I like to be that old are cheese and red wine. So sadly, chocolate-induced love handles and a chocolate-maker boyfriend will not be among the souvenirs that I bring home in May. Well, who knows? I do still have two and a half months here…

I made sure to take full advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity in honor of my loved ones who so wish they could do the same; so, you’re welcome y’all. Unfortunately, however, yesterday was the last day of the fair, and had I not decided to give up chocolate for Lent, I would be devastated. Don’t get me wrong, I was near tears as I watched the chocolatiers pack up their stands, but I know that both my bank account and my pants are praising Jesus for salvation right now. Plus, it’s not a huge deal because in forty-two days, I’ll be getting a VIP customercard at the Lindt store down the street anyways…

Carnavale Season in Firenze

Carnival Season would probably be my favorite, happiest time of year if I lived in a country that actually celebrated it. Actually, forget that– it is still my favorite time of the year, but it is also the saddest because instead of being able to take part in Carnival festivities, I can only stalk Carnivals from all over the world and cry about the fact that while everyone else is dancing in the street, I’m writing papers and studying the imperfect tense in Italian (if only it were exactly like Spanish, instead of being a knock-off of it…). This year, however, I am in a country where Carnival is celebrated, particularly in Venice and Viareggio– two towns that aren’t too far away. And had the Ice Age not decided to make a comeback this month, I would have gladly payed a good amount of money to see it. Since the thought of turning into a popsicle isn’t exactly appealing to me,  however, I stayed put in Florence and decided to get ahead in my work.

Yesterday, I was doing research for a paper when I started hearing a loud, rhythmic banging noise. I’ve become quite accustomed to these kind of noises because after traveling to dozens of ancient European towns, I’ve realized that something is always getting rebuilt or restored, so I figured it was just construction. I ignored it for a good fifteen minutes until I realized, as the sound became louder, that there were drums being played outside of my apartment! Within seconds, I had run outside to realize that there was a parade going on in the middle of the city. And like any good Dominican, I joined la chercha.

The people in the parade were dressed in medieval jester-like garments, and they were either playing trumpets or drums, or bearing flags. The streets were crowded with spectators, including young children dressed in costumes and throwing confetti to celebrate Carnaval. The procession continued in front of the Duomo, and finally ended at La Piazza della Repubblica.

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During the hour and a half that I watched the parade, I noticed that it was different from parades that would go on with Latin Americans. First of all, people in the parade here were more clothed, I attribute this to the weather and the fact that the celebration took place in front of a cathedral… Also, the Italian spectators actually focused on the spectacle, rather than trying to a) either become a part of it, or b) make a spectacle of themselves and steal the show. And lastly, the biggest culture shock of my life: with drums and trumpets playing, nobody danced! At all! To be fair, it was kind of bizarre medieval music, but to have instruments playing and not one person tapped a foot? Even legless people in the Dominican Republic would have found a way to move…

All in all, it was a joyful experience and people were in great spirits, so I am content with my first Carnival celebration. Next time, it will hopefully be in Rio, Recife or with my family in Santo Domingo.

Travel Plans for My Semester Abroad

This semester, my personal travels will be slightly less frequent than during semester in Paris. All of my trips will be taken in search of the island girl’s holy trinity: sun, sea and sand. No, I don’t mean I’m going to bum on the beach in Ibiza every other weekend– I’m looking to go to places with more culture… and okay, maybe more appealing beaches and fewer drunk coeds.

My excursions will be either to coastal towns and/or islands that I have never visited.

Mainland Italy (weekend trips): Viareggio, Cinque Terre, some place in the southern  region of Calabria

Vernazza, one of the five towns of Cinque Terre.

Sicily (spring break): Palermo, Messina, Cefalu, Siracusa, Catania, Agrigento, wherever my budget allows me…

Houses on cliffs in Cefalu.

Sardinia (Easter break): Cagliari… wherever Mami wants…

I have a full nine days off in May from the end of class until my flight home, so I’ve been trying to make up my mind about where to travel then. There are a ton of places “relatively nearby” that I would love to see, but at the top of my list are the Croatia, Cyprus, Morocco, Tunisia, Lebanon and the Canary Islands. I know you’re thinking that I need to go back to grade school and take geography class because none of these places are actually near Italy except Croatia (kind of), but I say they are close because they’re more accessible from Italy than they are from the US.

It’s really hard to make up my mind about which place(s) to go, but I’m leaning towards the Canary Islands for a few reasons:

1) Mami has yet to go there. And there are so few places that she has yet to go, that my beating her to some place would make me essentially a demi-goddess. It would be such a great feat that I’m pretty sure the Greek pantheon would be recreated to include me as their very own Goddess of Travel (and Broke-ness).

2) One of my favorite songs of all time– Decimas, by Carlos Vives— talks about how Latin people from the Caribbean and people from the Canary Islands are the same. I’ve heard that we look alike, eat alike, act alike and talk alike, and I would love to see it for myself. I mean, how cool is it to find someone like you halfway across the world?!

3) Last but not least, since Papi and Mami are eleven hours away, and it would take at least a good twenty hours of travel to get to the homeland, the seven hour flight to the Canary Islands is the best option I have for eating some decent platano.

All day I dream about... (if you don't know what these are, you have not lived)

Freezing in Firenze

Ciao, i miei amici e la mia familia (hi, friends and family)! I must apologize to those of you whom I promised I would keep you up to date as soon as I arrived in Florence, but I swear I have a legitimate excuse for keeping you out of the loop since I got here: technology problems. I don’t know how I fixed my tech issues without my computer engineer by my side (baby Alex), but let me just say that I just showed my Mac who’s the boss… and leave it at that.

Let me start from the beginning of the journey… On Thursday, January 26, just four hours before my flight from Dulles to Munich was supposed to take off, it occurred to me to start looking for my winter coat, so that I could wear it to the airport. Considering the fact that I usually sleep with at least one of my three ski parkas on when I am at home (if not all three)– due to Mami’s desire to make our house an eternal winter wonderland– you would think that one of those things would be somewhere easily that is accessible, right? Wrong. Just moments before I was to embark on my international excursion, none of my coats were anywhere to be found. So, Papi and I ended up going to four different stores looking for winter coats, but since McLean decided to have subtropical weather when I don’t live there any more, the only clothes on the racks were itty bitty shorts and bikinis (uhh…it’s three months ’til spring break people!). Anyways, I ended up finding my coat after a couple of hours of running from store to store and managed to scramble to the airport in time to catch my flight to Munich.

Much to my dismay, I wasn’t able to sleep a wink on the flight to Germany. I did, however, manage to watch Puss in Boots four times in a row and laugh my tail off every time. The flight went smoothly for the most part, but when we did have a few turbulent spells, I just pretended I was on a really expensive massage chair to help soothe my nerves.

After the nine hour flight, we finally made it to Munich. This was my first time ever being in Germany, and within five minutes of being in that airport, I could clearly see how it’s the only country in the EU that has its act together. All of the personnel that I encountered– from the airline employees to the Customs and Immigrations officials– were efficient. No Immigrations officer tried to pick me up, like when I went to France; and no Customs official joked with me about what young, solo Dominican women are known for in Europe, like when I went to Holland (we’re talking being holy… in the Mary Magdalene sense). They just went along with their jobs mechanically and productively. And at six in the morning, there were several shops, cafes and restaurants open– something that is rare enough in the US, and especially in Europe. On top of that, the airport was spotless to the point where one could eat off the floor… trust me, I tried it.

Another shocking thing that I was shocked to find out while I was in Munich was that unlike the States, Europe is not undergoing global warming, but quite the opposite! I went from being in a sunny, 60 degrees to a freezing blizzard in a matter of nine hours– never have I ever missed McLean so much.

I was liking Germany, until...

After a slow, painful, six hour layover, we finally boarded the plane to Florence. I was very happy to be on my  way until I heard somebody scream the awful “S word” at the top of her lungs. No, not the dirty one you’re thinking of– get your mind out of the gutter. I meant SNOW. So much snow.

If the glaciers in the North Pole keep melting, I am sure the polar bears would love to make their new home in the Alps.

Granted, I know I was flying across the Alps, and they’re supposed to have snow, but just looking at it gave me the shivers. Little did I know what was waiting for me in Florence. Oh, just the coldest winter that Italy has faced since the 1920s! Seriously, it has not been above freezing since I got here, and it has snowed every day. Check out this slideshow of frozen Italian landmarks, if you think I’m joking… I don’t play games when it comes to the cold.

Anyways, despite the pneumonia/hypothermia/home-sickness inducing frigid temperatures, I love being here. I live on the fifth story of an old apartment building with no bloody heating… but it’s in the middle of the city, so I can’t complain. I have about half a dozen significant others coming to visit me over the course of my stay, and I’ve made a few travel plans already, but since I have been up for the past day, I’ll continue to fill you in on all that fun stuff later.

Alla prossima!