Monday, June 23, 2008

Il Dolomiti

Yesterday I spent the day in the mountains. I had to take a two hour bus ride there and back, but oh my, was it ever worth it. I think you'll agree when you see the photos. Besides the amazing scenery, the great thing about the Dolomites is that I felt at home. I didn't have to worry if I was going to break the tiny glass figurines with my overly bulky Mountain Smith pack or stain a 100 Euro dress just be being near it. I didn't have to worry if it was kosher to order a cappuccino after 1 in the afternoon. I didn't have to blindly guess from a menu or dumbly point through the window in order to scrounge up a snack. I didn't have to feel foolish trying to ask someone how to buy a ticket or where to catch the train in Italian. And while all of that stuff is exactly why traveling is fun, being entirely out of your element for a while, it was so nice to have a break and be transported home, just for a day. If I ever come to Italy again, I will spend much, much more time in Il Dolomiti.

The town square in Trento

A view of the Brenta Dolomites from the bus

The hiking trail
(noted time 6 hours, my time 3.75--and I wasn't hurrying!)

Italian Food

Obviously, no matter where you are in Italy you can find pasta, pizza, cappuccinos, and gelato. Gelato is particularly refreshing at this time of year when temperatures soar to 90-100 degrees regularly. The trick becomes to eat your gelato (and maybe photograph it) before it becomes just another puddle on the sidewalk. I've largely been unimpressed by the bread. It usually doesn't have any flavor and is often unsalted or hard. The Brioches are very good though, especially for someone with a sweet tooth like myself.

I had some great dining experiences in Venice. The first night there Kevin and I randomly chose a restaurant near the Ponte Rialto. Our criterion for choosing it was based on two things: 1) that they were willing to serve dinner at the early hour of 7, and 2) that they had risotto, an Italian specialty. We sat down and ordered the Black Cuttlefish risotto, the raviolis, a dish of fried vegetables, and fried calamari. The raviolis were AMAZING, the risotto was also very good, but had an unexpected side effect, the calamari was very salty, so I loved it and Kevin thought it was OK, and the fried vegetables were not great. When Italians do vegetables, they don't flavor them and they cook all the juice right out of them. Mostly when the menu says vegetables it means eggplant, and in my opinion, there's nothing worse than dry, unsalted eggplant. Maybe I'm just spoiled having tasted the wonder of chinese eggplant dishes. The risotto was really good, but neither Kevin nor I were really ready for the fact that the ink from the cuttlefish would end up all over our mouths. Silly, in retrospect, but unexpected none the less! The photo is slightly blurry, because of the lighting, but you get the idea...

I had two other notable dining experiences in Venice, both at similar "Osterias." Defined by splendid table, an Osteris is "A tavern or humble restaurant where wine is served as the main attraction and tasty food is prepared to wash it down". It is a perfect description. Both Osterias I tried were small, one had only two tables and the other none, with customers instead utilizing a long counter attached to the wall. I was at first intimidated and almost decided to go elsewhere by both places as they were crawling with old, Italian men. But I garnered my courage and am so glad I did. The panini, or little sandwiches, were the best I've had anywhere. So tasty. I wish I could tell you what they were but everything was in Italian so I just pointed randomly. If ever I go back to Venice, I will certainly be going to those Osterias.

The food in Parma is very good. You may or may not know, but Parma is famous for its Prosciutto, thinly sliced pig, and Parmesian Reggiano, which we all put some form of on our pasta at home. In fact, all types of pig meat are very popular in Parma and every dinner that I ate at a restaurant (three) started with a monstrous plate piled high with at least 5 types of pig meat. At first I eagerly tasted them all, but then I got kind of sick of it. One particularly interesting form was the thinly sliced pig fat--it looked just like someone had opened a can of Crisco and delicately shaved some layers off the top. In fact, it tasted a lot like it too. I didn't eat much of it. The pasta was delicious, usually in the form of ravioli and bathed in olive oil and cheese. Along the same lines, I had some amazing gnocchi. Again, the vegetables were not great, and if the menu said the pasta came with vegetables, you could expect one tiny cube of eggplant swimming in your bowl of pasta.

As for beverages, of course, the wine was good (as far as I could tell). I tried my first bubbling red wine--the equivalent of champagne but red. It was ok, refreshing, but not really my idea of wine. As for other drinks, I typically downed around 4 cappuccinos per day. I am used to taking a full cup of drip coffee and nursing it for about a and a half hours, especially when attending classes. The cappuccino does not allow for such luxury. Even if you nurse it it's gone in about 2 minutes. Also, I learned halfway through the week that Italians find it very distasteful to order a cappuccino after 10 in the morning. One of my classmates went as far as calling my roommate Jessica and I "barbarians" for doing it so frequently (joking, in a serious way). To avoid the dirty looks, we instead ordered caffe freddo, or iced coffee after 10. Although it was good, I'm really looking forward to my regular old drip coffee.

The last notable food to describe is the pizza I ate for lunch nearly every day. At the university's cafeteria (albeit the fancy one for rich students) you have the option of ordering an entire, freshly made pizza. AND, you get to watch it made, starting from a ball of dough right in front of your eyes. I was astounded by how well the woman behind the counter could whip out 5 pizzas in close succession. And they were really good too--the crust was thin, but that was good because you got a whole medium sized pizza. I can't imagine eating it if it had a thick crust.

Trento had nothing really extraordinary food-wise, EXCEPT, a street cart that was a block from my hostel. There I got the best kabob I've ever had. Well, it certainly was good anyway. Partly, I think it hit the spot because so much Italian food is rich, cheesy, or oily. I find myself really craving spicy flavors, or just anything that isn't creamy and rich. The kebob did the trick.


The course I attended was held at the University of Parma. Upon hearing that I was headed to Parma, every Italian I spoke to inevitably said "Parma is nice. It's small." They were right on both counts. One of the first things that struck me on my arrival to Parma was the river that runs through town. Coming from Venice, the sight of green grass and trees was a little shocking. The hotel I stayed in was only a block from the river so I got to see it a lot.

The center of town, just east of the river, is small and full of shops and restaurants. The absolute center of town (I overheard a tour guide claim it as such) is marked by an interesting building. It is rather out of the typical Italian style. Rather than a Duomo, it is a sort of bland building with a little tower. But the tower has some really cool stuff on it. I couldn't really figure out how to read it, but besides the time, it told things like the year, and what I assume is other astrological data. If you click on the picture you may be able to see it.

Of course, just because it wasn't distinguished as the "center" of town, Parma does indeed have a Duomo. I found the square in front of the Duomo much nicer than the actual center of town precisely because it wasn't the center of town and was therefore more peaceful and quieter.

Another cool place near the Duomo is the Piazza della Pace, which boasts a large grassy area for people to picnic and just generally hang out. It even had a reflection pool (that on both occasions when I visited didn't have any cool reflections).

I notice a lot more people on bicycles in Parma than anywhere else in Italy. Perhaps because it's smaller than other towns it is more feasible to bike everywhere. The bus system seemed pretty good too, although that I think is common in all Italian towns. One interesting thing we noticed while walking home late from dinner one night (dinner is apparently never to be eaten before the hour of 10:00 pm--a real trial for me) was a bus with a strobe light inside and thumping music. I later learned that this special bus is the "movido" and it is meant to encourage people who are out drinking to take the bus rather than drive! The bus was rather empty, so either it doesn't work too well or people don't start going home until after 1:00 am!

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Food Webs are Pretty

The reason I am here in Italy is to attend a short course on food-webs. The organizers of the course have invited 6 of the top (or near the top) scientists that study food-webs to give substantial lectures both on the history of food-webs and current research. Ftor those of you that care, the list includes the likes of:

Jennifer Dunne
Neo Martinez
Mercedes Pascual
Jane Memmot
Andy Dobson

In exchange for a tuition waver (which is the equivalent of 500 euros), all I had to do was give a short presentation on my research. I gave said presentation yesterday, so it's all downhill from here. So far I have learned quite a bit, including how to use R (a popular data analysis program) and how to make pretty pictures of food webs. Isn't it great?

Venice in photos

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Italy--Getting There

Even though it was only 24 hours, it seemed like an eternity. The day started of course at the Detroit airport around 10 in the morning and ended in Venice Italy the next day at about 3 in the afternoon (9 am Michigan time). The trip went fairly smoothly. I say fairly because there were a couple of glitches. First I left my phone on the first flight from Detroit to Philadelphia. I guess I should say “lost” instead of “left”—it fell out of my carry-on when I rudely shoved it under the seat in front of me. By the time I realized it was missing I was all the way across the airport in Terminal A—a 15 -minute shuttle ride. I hurried back, but alas, the plane was already pulling away from the gangway. So then I had to go out to baggage claim, file a missing item report (which went surprisingly smoothly thanks to a wonderful US Airways representative), walk al the way back to Terminal A, and get through security yet again. I guess it was a blessing in disguise because my layover in Philly was 4 hours long. I was intending to spend the time chatting on the phone with my sister and whoever else was willing, but instead, I was “entertained” by trekking all over the airport and back. I boarded the flight to Italy around 3:40 pm with no big problems. I spent the flight watching movies on the tiny screen about 20 feet distant and 10 feet to the right. Not the best view in the house. They played “The Golden Compass” and “PS I Love You”. I managed to sleep about 2 hours or so, but I was really cold, so it wasn’t a fitful sleep. But honestly, can one ever expect fitful sleep sitting in a vertical position with your head unnaturally twisted next to a stinky Italian man? The plane landed in Milan at about 6:30 am. I wandered the airport a few minutes to find an ATM and then headed for the shuttle. That’s where the other glitch comes in. I had read about two possible shuttles—one is a bus that goes to Stazione Centrale in Milan and the other is a train that goes to Sazione Nord in Milan. The first one is called Malpensa Shuttle and the other is Malpensa Express. I wanted to go to Stazione Central to catch the train to Venice, but in my dazed state, I saw a sign for Malpensa Express and thought that was the one I wanted. So I ended up on the wrong side of Milan and had to walk a significant distance to get to the other train station. No big deal really because I built in plenty of time for mistakes, but with my backpack on it felt like a long way. The good news is my trek took me past one of the cafes recommended by lonely planet and I got a delicious cappuccino and brioche to fuel my journey. I ended up waiting at the train station for a good 3 hours despite my mix up. When I got on the train it was all I could do to keep my eyes open. In fact, I didn’t. I think the scenery was nice, but I’m not sure! Finally, I arrived in Venice. I bought a vaporetto ticket (which, contrary to the images conjured by the name, do not move so fast that the water turns to vapor—they are in fact painfully slow) and headed for the hostel. As I stepped off the boat I heard someone yell “Susanna!” What? That’s right, Tory’s good friend Kevin just happened to be staying at the same hostel at the same time!! Wow. I dropped my bags in my locker and we took off to explore. All in all, not a bad travel experience! I want to post more about our explorations, but that kind of thing needs pictures and the internet connection in the room is not up to par for that kind of thing. Hopefully later in the week!

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Copy Cat

It's been raining here for a day or two now. This afternoon when I went out to pace around and think about my paper I noticed beautiful rain drops on the lilies by our house. Inspired by Liv, I decided to try a few photos.

They're not nearly as good as Liv's, but I was working under difficult circumstances:

Monday, June 2, 2008

It's Rough Out There

So now that I have this bike, I've been thinking about doing a triathlon. Our friend Dave does triathlons and he told me about this clif bar commercial on youtube. I don't know if I want to do a triathlon anymore.