Two weeks of pure, non-working vacation felt very strange. I've been away from the office for two weeks before, but never away from work. But I guess it was something I needed and in the end I was ready to get back to more constructive things. My vacation ended on a Thursday and I was back on Friday, then ready to have it all stop again by the following Tuesday. Ah, work. The thought of getting back to it is always nice, but I think that in the end it was the atmosphere and company that I missed more than the actual projects. Though I think that's an entirely expected and healthy thing to feel. Point is, two weeks of doing nothing left me feeling slightly out of place, which is probably indicative of workaholicism. Watch out, world
Rome was a fascinating place, though rather dirty. I was surprised by the amount of trash in some areas of the city and the general filth we saw. True, the southern part of the city near the Colosseum was cleaner and seemed a bit more maintained, but this could be because of the mass amount of tourists. I can safely say Rome doesn't make my top five list of European cities, but the architecture was definitely mind blowing. Even considering the straight up massiveness of it all and the grandeur, none of it felt overdone. St. Peter's Basilica, for example. It is the most decked-out church I've ever been in, but I didn't get the same feeling of religious overcompensation that I get from other churches in Europe. It was like the fanciness was well-deserved and that it could really be no other way. Of course there were these random buildings and churches scattered all around the city and it was exciting to turn a corner and have it be BAM! oldest church in Rome! or BAM! Bernini sculpture. A lot of the trip for me was being in a city with such historical artistic and architectural value. The Colosseum was huge and I wanted very badly to go running through the lower levels (where they used to keep the animals before setting them on the gladiators) and climb on the walls. We had a picnic lunch at the Colosseum and it felt unreal to know that we were sitting in such an old structure, enjoying a sunny day and eating sandwiches. In comparison to countries like Latvia, Italy struck me as a very hands-on type of place. If the Colosseum had been in Latvia, there would be barriers and fences all over the place restricting access to about 99% of the structure and, additionally, they'd make you wear torn up slippers to keep you from scuffing up or wearing down the floors too much.
We also took a 13-hour day tour to Pompeii and Naples. We didn't see much of Naples; it mostly consisted of our bus driving a loop through the city centre while our tour guide Monika (who spoke four languages and none of them well) informed us when we passed the Opera house, the City Hall and some house on a hill, which she pointed out about 17 times and, of course, which we didn't remember what it was called. At one point they had us get off the bus and spend 10 minutes taking pictures of the peninsula of Sorento and the island of Capri -- both of which were so shrouded in morning sea mist that we spent the 10 minutes taking pictures of each other standing in front of what we could only assume was a peninsula or an island, but might have just been factory smoke from the port district.
Pompeii, on the other hand, was simply ace. I don't know how else to describe it. Again, one thing that really got me about Italy was how you could essentially go anywhere, touch anything, and not get in trouble for it. In Pompeii, at the old city site, it was all "Welcome to the site of a city buried by volcanic ash in AD 79. This is a mural on the wall of the richest person's house. Go ahead, touch the paint." I mean, FOR REAL? I'm in the middle of what is essentially a living archaeological dig and I can touch everything? It blew my mind. Old Pompeii has these large stones in the middle of its streets, which were used as stepping stones for pedestrians when it rained and the streets flooded. The stones were at least 8 inches high, just huge. And a genius idea. Modern cities should have these. The number of stepping stones at the beginning of a street also indicated if it was a one- or two-way street. You could also see the grooves in the stone made by wagons from way back when. Just amazing. Egypt was old, yes, but this was just.... unbelievable. Most likely because there was proof. We only had two hours to walk around Pompeii and had to follow our second tour guide, an interesting 83 year old man who started telling Ilze and me about the history of the occupation of Latvia. So in Pompeii we only saw the "important" things, like the home of the richest person, the red light district and brothel, the bath houses and the small amphitheatre. Ilze and I also befriended some nappy and scraggly looking dogs while Davids took every opportunity to bask in the sunlight. (The entire week was spent in 20+ºC weather.)
We also took a day trip an hour north of Rome to a city called Tivoli. The city was recommended to us by one of the attendants at the hostel as a great place to get away from Rome and see some fancy villas and nature sites. It was good to get out of Rome and see some of the Italian countryside and the hilly areas. Tivoli as a city is pretty unexciting, but the Villas were something else. The first one we went to, Villa Gregoriana, mostly functions as a nature trail/reserve area and has a lot of caves and waterfalls. We wandered around there for a few hours and then headed to Villa D'Este, which is known for having 500+ fountains, including in some of the halls inside the Villa.
Villa D'Este started out in with a "special" twist. EU passport holders could get a discount, so Ilze used her Latvian passport. The woman at the desk takes the passport, looks at it, then picks up this clipboard with a bunch of papers and starts looking through them. She does this for a few seconds, then looks up at Ilze and goes, "Mmm, no." and shakes her head. So we go "What do you mean 'no'?" She gestures to the list and shakes her head again and then basically proceeds to tell us that Latvia is not in the EU. Because it's not on her list. The guy next to her couldn't find Latvia on the list, either, and the three of us are telling them that Latvia's been in the EU since 2005 and they should just look it up online, but they're sticking to THEIR not-on-the-list story. Finally the other two women working at the front register ask what's going on and, after being caught up on the situation, the younger of the two says in Italian "Umm, yeah. Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia...." and the second woman nods and goes "EU, yup." Then the first two people went kind of silent and the man pointed to a receipt-size piece of paper on the clipboard and goes "Ah, yes, Latvia." I'm still not sure if he actually saw it written there or if he just tried to play off the fact that they made a huge mistake. Trying to tell us our country isn't part of the EU. That was... We were pretty speechless after that. The fountains at Villa D'Este were many and varied and made us wonder what the water bill was like each month. And how much it would cost to throw a huge party there.
The rest of the trip involved gelatto, wine, seeing many of the "important" sights of Rome, lots of walking and LOTS of bread. Oh god. I hadn't eaten that much bread or meat in months. By the end of the week I was feeling almost possessed by carbs. I was overall not impressed with the food in Rome, at least not with the taste. The best tasting food we ended up eating was at this semi-hidden restaurant by day, club by night, place that had umpteen types of pasta in a buffet set-up. For EUR 5.90 you could choose three types of pasta dishes (risotto included) and they would put a large amount of this food onto a plate, microwave the plate and bring it out to you. Sounds kind of gross, but it really was the best tasting food we had all trip. We also put our hands in the Bocca della Verita (think "Roman Holiday") and tossed coins over our shoulders into the Trevi Fountain (well, Ilze and I did, so we're apparently going back to Rome, but Davids isn't). Maybe the city will be cleaner next time. We also saw the Pope on big-screen TV in St. Peter's square the Sunday morning after we flew in, but that's as close as we got to him.
For family, Italy will be an ask-and-tell trip, since we saw and did so much. This also includes making a trip to the Rome IKEA and seeing a woman pee into a plastic bottle behind and trash can located on the median of a busy street.
For the second week of my vacation I rented a car and did some decent roadtripping around Latvija. Two friends (both here on the Fulbright research scholarship) tagged along a few of the days. With them I hit up Ventspils, Liepaja, Tukums, Dobele, Salaspils, Jelgava, Aizkraukle, Ogre and Daugavpils, to name a few. Driving was alright, though I'd forgotten how sore your legs can get from driving stick shift without cruise control. Two straight hours of pressing on the gas pedal? No, thank you. I also think that I was the only person in the entire country of Latvia driving the legal speed limit. Call me a grandmother, I don't care -- I'm not going to be the one to get pulled over by the cops and end up paying a 5-er or a 10-er to get out of a LVL 30 ticket. One of the days I got to spend some quality me-time, driving around Vidzeme and listening to my new German CD (Peter Fox; Stadtaffe). Cities I roamed through on my own included Sigulda, Valmiera, Smiltene and Rauna. I really liked Daugavpils and Liepaja, but Vidzeme... Vidzeme is wow. The people seem nicer and the countryside is stunning. It kind of reminded me of the Midwest. Even though there wasn't much to see other than cows and hay-bales (which I've decided I like very, very much), it felt good being there. Daugavpils, on the other hand, was extremely creepy driving into at night. Even though it was only 6 p.m., we almost didn't want to go back out until the next day. However, the next morning (it had also snowed) everything looked much better and by the time we got to the centre it was good times. I know some people who make gagging or shuddering noises when Daugavpils is mentioned, but I thought it was a nice place. Earlier in the week the Fulbrighters and I also tried to find Kandava, but it was like it had been spirited away. For real. We turned at a sign that said "Kandava 1,5 km" and after 1.5 km there was a sign pointing in the other direction that said "Kandava 1 km". And no Kandava inbetween. Throughout the travelling it was good to have a range of cities I completely disliked, to so-so cities, and ending with cities I really liked.
Most of my reason for the Latvija road trip was to get more photographs of Latvian graffiti. So far, it's going well as a pending serious-type project. I'd like to turn it into some kind definite project, though I'm not sure what, yet, or how. But I'm definitely having a good time seeing the different types and levels of graffiti and how it changes from region to region. Most cities had a good amount of graffiti to photograph, but Smiltene, for example, was 99.9% clean. I almost didn't find anything there. It's also interesting seeing someone's tag in several cities, especially when those cities are far apart.
Nyargh. Why is it that the return from vacation is always the most brutal time period? I have a big project going on right now, which will be followed by another big project for the month of December. Busy, Busy.
I also learned how to bake pumpkin pie from scratch. It's much easier than I had thought it would be, and I'm excited to keep using pumpkins for all kinds of baking delights. In addition to the pie, I experimented with pumpkin bread, which ended up looking and baking a bit better than banana bread does. This I attribute to the fact that pumpkin is more moist than banana. Either way, I brought both the pie and the bread to guinea pig on people at work and was asked to cough up recipes for both. I also made cranberry sauce from scratch, which worked out well as expected. It's not that different from making rhubarb compote.
The pies and the cranberry sauce are all for the "American Culture Night" event at work. Everyone seems to have faith in me and my baking/cooking, which is flattering, even though I keep reiterating the fact that back in the States, Thanksgiving comes in cans. This weekend will most likely be spent visiting with a friend flying in from Brussels, making more pumpkin goo for pie and pre-making cranberry sauce. I should also invest in a pie pan and reinvest in a rolling pin. Mine seems to have gone missing.