Friday, December 18, 2009

Florence, Post-Script; And Some Other Notes on America

Part I: Trippa al Fiorentina and Holy Land Epiphanies

I have just returned from a week in Florence, Italy with my good friend Anna whom I'd met while studying in London. Originally from Italy, she spent the week sharing her culture with me. The significant difference between this trip and my others is that I didn't travel solo. As a result my memories are shaped around conversations and observances between the two of us and my own inner dialogue.

Besides spending time with Anna, what I really looked forward to was the food. Everyday we ate something fantastic in a range of places. I learned that Anna decides where to eat by taking a peak inside to see if it inspires her. I indulged myself throughout the week with chocolate, Florentine tripe, lampredotto, saltimbocco, rabbit, ham, gnocci, and for some reason, lots of potatoes. Our favorite restaurant by far was 'Marino', an old, oddly decorated little place seemingly meant to detract visitors rather than welcome them. We were served by an old man who looked like Pinocchio's father, Gepetto and who agreed that Spanish and Italian are "practically the same language".

Food aside, Florence is a spectacular city. Its city center is actually smaller than we thought, so we covered a lot of ground and saw many of its splendid sights. I admired the facades of all the buildings each telling a different story and showing a different character despite being attached to one another. I did feel a bit of church overload about midweek, but I must admit how beautiful they are and what amazing propaganda pieces they serve as. I imagined being a 16th century peasant wandering into the enormous chapels and looking around at the masterpiece paintings, gigantic columns and domes, and shiny stuff everywhere. If this is what heaven might look like, why wouldn't I want to be a part of this? Alas, I am not a 16th century peasant.

During our week we visited a couple of museums including the Galleria dell'Accademmia, the Galleria Uffizi, and the Palazzo Pitti Galleria Palatina. I was surprisingly impressed by Michelangelo's David more for its asymmetry than anything. The rest of the paintings at each museum mostly consisted of "Adoration of the Magi" and "Crucifixion" images, themes that were clearly very important at the time in Europe. I think what stood out most to me were the inaccurate depictions of Bethlehem and Jerusalem. This is easily explained by the fact that many, if not all, of these painters had never travelled to the Holy Land thus they had to imagine for themselves what it might have looked like. And since the work revolved around Jesus, they wanted it to appear as magnificent and majestic as possible. Which led me to my next thought, that I'm really truly lucky to live in Israel.

About two weekends ago, I spent some time in Jerusalem and Bethlehem because I felt the need to be somewhere lost in time. I cannot really explain in this post why I love Jerusalem and all its quirks but I will write about how fortunate I feel to live approximately 2 hours away and can pretty much visit whenever I like. I receive a strange joy when riding in a car on the freeway and seeing a sign towards Jerusalem. It could be Silverlake, Kansas City, San Bernardino, Barcelona, or any other city in the world; that it could be that simple to continue along the road and wind up in Jerusalem is exciting. It is something special that I can view a masterpiece painting with Bethlehem or Jerusalem in the background, however inaccurate it may be, and know that I've been there and will continue to visit these wondrous cities.

I discussed kibbutz life with Anna and described in detail the goings-ons of the sedna. I told her about my classmates, our work, our teachers, our schedule, and the way things are generally run. Its a massively different place than what we were used to, whether in London, Venice, or LA. In discussing such differences and their positive and negative points, I came to reach some clarity about my place in the sedna and what I hope to achieve while being there. If my original reasons for coming to Israel were aimed towards one thing, my reasons for staying are aimed at something different. I realized that I am in fact where I need to be.

***

Crossing the River Arno one day, we found ourselves on a pleasant walk through labyrinth streets, hillside promenades, and among ancient ramparts devoid of pedestrians. The scenery unfolding before us of the Tuscan landscape was surely a highlight of our trip. No picture or words could properly do it justice so all I'll say is that its ridiculously calming, gorgeous, and endless.

During what seemed to be the coldest day of our trip, we spent some time in the nearby cities of Siena and San Gimignano. Regardless of the weather, we truly enjoyed the new scenery and atmosphere. We found Siena to be a rather sophisticated city with festive Christmas decorations lining every street, storefront, and piazza, and beautiful windows. Yes, I love the windows of Siena. We descended to the main Campo of the city somewhat submerged as if pinned to the center of the earth and enjoyed the emptiness of it, but could easily imagine the place completely filled with thousands during the famous Palio race. Our last activity in Siena was a visit to the Duomo, a church that left us astonished and speechless. It was possibly the most beautiful church we had seen in all our trip and of the most beautiful churches I've seen anywhere.

In the late afternoon we continued to San Gimignano, a city known as the "Manhattan of the Middle Ages" for its distinct towers poking up throughout the city on the hill. When we arrived the sun was setting and only a few minutes later the sky was completely blanketed in a deep, dark blue with black clouds perfectly framing the tall towers. The city took on a magical and timeless quality that Anna and I could not believe our luck in seeing. I felt like I was in a storybook that took place in the Middle Ages, and even found the whole thing to be reminiscent of the first couple of scenes in the 'Pirates of the Caribbean' ride at Disneyland. Furthermore, the place was practically empty. If we wound up on a street with no one in sight and no signs of modernity, it looked as if we had actually stepped back in time. It was magical. Our last stop in San Gimignano was a Romanesque church steeped in silence, save for the old couple bickering over bus fares.

***

Part II: Proud to be an American...or something like that?

Anna and I talked about American culture a lot. It so happens that she is very fascinated by it all and wants to visit those middle states, the ones no one seems to really think about, even Americans. Places such as Idaho, Minnesota, Alabama, Wyoming, etc. But how can one hope to see and experience such places, especially if from another country? Surely no tour company operates trips in America that extend beyond California, New York, Orlando, the Grand Canyon, and/or New England. We concluded that the best way to see and feel the country was by road trip. I truly believe that America (as in, all of the continental US) is best seen on the road, through and through. I think its the roadside cafes, 24 hour diners, mom and pop shops, cheap motels, and all the quirky characters residing in these places that truly personify the country. Because America is so large, American culture is something that cannot be so specifically identified. Sure, there are a number of characteristics and flaws we all tend to share regardless of where we're from, but to really capture the different essences of the country, one has to dig deep and search for the things that don't really stick out. And this means going to places that aren't California, New York, Orlando, the Grand Canyon, and/or New England, though these are great places to visit as well.

***

All this conversation about American culture inevitably led to the discovery of my American complex. Its something I had been thinking about for some time and became more clear when discussed with Anna. Since I began travelling internationally about 3 years ago, I started to really see the stark differences between Americans and everyone else, mainly Europeans. I began to understand anti-Americanism and saw in myself and other Americans abroad this strange sense of self-entitlement, crass and obnoxious behavior, that horrible, nasal voice we have, and the sartorially suicidal tendency to wear sweaters bearing the names of various universities. It wasn't that I was ashamed, it was more that a clear distinction had been made. Throughout my travels I realized that no matter how much you took me out of America, you could never take the American out of me. I became increasingly self-conscious and almost apologetic just for being. As if my innate American-ness could somehow take over any situation and cause for my own ostracism. This is when I realized something else: Upon first look at me, most people immediately assume I'm Japanese or from Asia anyway. This was yet another thing that puzzled me. Sure, I'm half Chinese and look predominantly Asian, but I'm an American dammit! I don't have the fantastically ultra-modern dress sensibility, small strides, gentle mannerisms, or speech habits of most young Japanese women, so I found it hard to imagine why anyone with basic observation skills would mistake me for anything but an American. I found myself clinging to the very American-ness I was apologizing for. Even though I'm Asian, I'm not a continental Asian and have a very different approach to life than they have. If anything, I wish I could spend some time in China or Japan amongst real cultural Asians and experience life as they do.

Its ironic how things work out. When in Europe or the Middle East, I'm quickly assumed for a continental Asian. But in Tokyo, no one ever mistook my sister and I for such. Right away, people asked if we were American, then if we were of Chinese descent. We thought we might blend in better, but this was not the case. In Jerusalem and Istanbul, I'm constantly greeted with konichiwa's and ni hao's. Perhaps even in my own country people aren't really sure anymore.

***

Part III: A Farewell to a Friend

I truly enjoyed my week in Florence with Anna, it was one of the best trips I've ever taken. To experience a country with a local is something I could never take for granted. Mostly, I will miss our conversations. Who knows when I will next see her again? It could be a few months, another year, or perhaps many years. But I am incredibly thankful for the past week and for her immense hospitality and generosity.

***

Part IV: The Balagan that was Thursday

We woke up Thursday morning around 4:30 to go to the airport for my horribly early flight. Anna decided to come along to see me off, which I appreciated. Check-in and security were rather quick and painless so I sat at my gate for quite some time. I wasn't awake enough to read, and my pens ran out of ink while writing, so I opted to sit and stare. I noticed I was completely surrounded by Americans. After eavesdropping on various conversations, I learned they were part of a study-abroad program and were heading home or wherever for the Christmas holidays (this being December 17th and all). I looked at each and every one of them and noticed all the familiarities of being in an American mall, a movie theatre, at school, or even a Starbucks. There were a few Europeans here and there, not many, we definitely outnumbered them. It was sitting here at this gate I could really make out the distinctions between Americans and Europeans: (Note: I might change between we/they, so bear with me)

-Wear what where?
Americans are used to flying long distances. To us, a 5-hour flight is not long. It takes that long just to get from one end of the country to the other. So to fly to and from the European continent always takes a minimum of 10 hours. Thus, we like to be comfortable. This is evident by the our chosen outfits, usually quite unfortunate looking I must confess. Ugg boots, sweat pants, said university sweater, hair up, and ginormous (American lingo for you) handbags. Then you look at the European passengers, especially Italians. No matter how long the flight, they are immaculately dressed. Women in heels, men in fitted trousers, hair styled, makeup applied, jewelry worn, and other fashionable choices. So even though we may look pretty crap, we will ultimately be the ones more comfortable on board.

-Seriously, do I sound like that?
What is with our voices? I can always hear an American (or occasional Canadian, sorry folks) from a mile away. Its that long, nasal, drawn-out inflection we have, the tendency to make every sentence last longer than it should and every story we tell sound oh-so dramatic, as if summarizing last night's episode of Gossip Girl. I cannot complain so much about the loudness, since pretty much everyone from everywhere is loud, too. Except those Scandinavians. I hardly notice them in airports that I often wonder if they're even there. Yes they are, and that's the point.

-Cliques
We are such clique-ish people. Enough said.

-Lets complain and make fun, shall we?
What is with middle-aged and old American men? They're such smart asses and always have to make some kind of snarky comment about everything, whether from the recorded announcements, the poor English of the airport staff (well yeah, its not an English speaking country, genius), and general comparisons to the airports back home. I didn't just hear this stuff in Florence, I've heard it everywhere. Actually, the British are guilty of this, too.

-I'm American, you're American, let's be friends!
When abroad, we become very chummy with one another. There's a chummy camaraderie when you put a bunch of Americans together. Though the same can probably be said for just about any group of people. I remember being stranded at the airport in Malaga (oh, there's that drama) due to a massive delay and finding a group of young American girls similar to my age, mostly exchange students, and sitting, talking, laughing and even singing with them whilst complaining about the situation. It was fun and it made the delay bearable.

***

I eventually boarded the plane and fell asleep right away. I expected to wake up in Vienna, but instead awoke to realize the plane hadn't even taken off. We were 2 hours delayed because the de-icing truck (more like a man with a hose) failed to show up with the adequate supplies (the hose, perhaps?). Consequentially, I missed my connecting flight to Tel Aviv.

When I arrived in Vienna, I spent a most pleasant hour in line at the re booking counter. Too bad you can't sense my sarcasm. I somehow ended up in the slowest line, with the slowest employee, behind a group of British-Iraqis trying to go to Jordan but having trouble due to being a large group. Also in line were two Indian families, very upset and understandably tired being offered what seemed like terrible alternative flights. Fly to Bangkok tomorrow? With a 10 hour layover? Arrive in New Delhi in, what, 2 days? Really? I'll take it! In the next line was a man trying to go to Cairo who kept yelling at the employee in Arabic. She profusely apologized for the inconvenience while adding, "I don't understand you!" The British-Iraqis in front of me listened to the altercation and couldn't help but laugh. Finally an Arabic-speaking man showed up to the rescue.

When I realized my line wasn't moving, I practically begged the man in the next line over to let me go ahead of him, since I had been there long before everyone else but made the mistake of being in the slowest line. He didn't seem pleased but since I was practically crying and a lone female, I think he knew what he had to do. Ah, gender equality my butt. The lady at the counter offered me a flight to Tel Aviv in 12 hours. I would've considered going into the city and whatnot during this time, but it was snowing out, so I needed something sooner. She had a flight leaving in an hour with a 50 minute stopover in Budapest. Oh pleasant, I've been to Budapest. Wait, what? Oh no, she meant Bucharest. As in Bucharest, Romania. Ummm, okay if it'll get me home sooner, I'll go with that.

I headed to the part of the airport with destinations such as Sarajevo, Minsk, Belgrade, Athens, and Istanbul. Ah, Eastern Europe. Which brings me to my next point, Eastern Europeans (minus the Turks, they don't count in this one).

***

Part V: Where the FUCK am I?

Sitting at yet another gate I noticed I was amongst a whole lot of Romanians. Which makes perfect sense since we were flying to Romania. Who were these people? Where have they been? Have they been around all along but I failed to notice? Perhaps. They are very distinct looking, quite beautiful in fact. Tall, skinny, dark-haired folks. A bit grizzled, but years of oppressive Communism can do that to you. I quickly ran through the list of random things I knew about Romania in my head to see if I could somehow understand these people a little better. What did I know about Romania? A lot of famous gymnasts came from there; gigantic Parliament building; the film 4 Months 3 Weeks 2 Days; Dracula aka Vlad the Impaler; and that horrendous tyrant with the unpronounceable name, Ceaucescu. With this information, I couldn't do much I was afraid. All I could think was how these people, even some of the younger ones around my age, knew some form of governmental oppression. It reminded me of my observances of the Hungarian people when I was in Budapest. That's when I felt lucky to have been born in America. I suppose Communism, in theory, wasn't a terrible idea, but in practice it ruined lives and tore people apart. Eastern Europeans view life in a way I could never understand, but that's because of different life experiences and expectations. I've lived way too easily in comparison, and for this, I am thankful.

***

I arrived in Bucharest 2 hours later and ran through the terminal to catch my connection. I was stopped at a security line and shouted at the guard that I had a flight to Tel Aviv leaving in 30 minutes. He told me to wait while he called someone. The next few moments played out like an episode of "I Love Lucy". He picked up a phone, dialed a number, received no response, hung up and shrugged his shoulders. Then he picked up another phone and did the same. Whilst on this phone, the other phone rang. He hung up and picked up the other phone. He began yelling in Romanian (I soon learned that this is just how they talk) when the other phone began to ring. He hung up and picked up the other phone, but I guess no one was on the other end, so he hung up. I asked him if I could move, but he just shrugged and told me "it's not my problem". Just then another Californian showed up also flying to Tel Aviv, so I didn't feel as bad anymore. The three of us stood there staring at each other, confused. Finally someone showed up to help us, and by help I mean some sort of vague action that suggested this man actually had a job. He looked over our documents so many times as if some miracle would reveal itself to him. It turned out that I didn't have a boarding pass. I was told back in Vienna (remember, I was there?) that I would acquire a boarding pass in Bucharest. Well, no one told this to anyone in Bucharest.

I made it through to the gate where I was yelled at (or spoken to) by the Tarom Airlines staff who couldn't understand my position. It began to dawn on me that I might not actually get on this flight and would have to spend the night in this god-awful place. It was snowing out, dark, and unfriendly. Finally after a light shouting match (or conversation), an employee wrote my seat assignment on a piece of paper and this was my boarding pass. Goodbye, Bucharest.

***

Now I'm home at Gaaton. Thankful for the incredible week I've had and for getting through yesterday despite being under a blanket of snow. You're a funny continent, you are, Europe.

And now I'm in the Middle East. Let the balagan continue...