UrbanBackpacker.org

Muses of backpacking the globe and other activites of a few outdoor, travel, and adventure loving urbanites. Including travel info on locals we've been to.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

NYC Day 1

NYC  Day 1

I think it would be safe to say that if you polled people from around to World about their #1 travel destination you would probably find New York City in the top 10 responses. It is the city that never sleeps and we did just that.  We had descended on this metropolis of the world with DJ music in mind. Our goal would be to see RJD2 on our first night and than to scope out Quantic the following night.

We started out in Boston, MA a bit delayed without getting on the road until noonish. My day started with the trek from Dorchester over to Roxbury Crossing in order to meet up with Martin and Nate. From there it was over to Brookline to collect Lindsey Martin's girlfriend and the final piece to our crew. After picking up some sandwiches and gas we were finally on the road.

Now as driver and navigator for our expedition I made the mistake of grabbing the first Interstate I saw headed south I-195. While it got us headed sort of in the right direction it was still wrong.  Our detour took in SRT 44 to traverse Connecticut over to Hartford.  Along the way we took in the rolling country hills while taking in some of the greenery.

When we finally started to hit the snarl of the NYC Metro area’s vial traffic we were still way out in New Haven.  We still had time but we were looking at the clock and hoping we would still make our boat.  The RJD2 concert was set for 9 pm and would be held on a boat going around the Hudson and the Verrazano Narrows.  Since it was on a boat we had no option of a fashionably late entrance.

By the time we were finally in the City limits around the north east side of The Bronx we were really getting anxious with the near stand still we found our selves in on the New England Throughway.  The large amounts of ganja were both helping us cope with what was turning into an very long journey, but all the while contributing to our anxiety.  We were even debating getting a hotel in mid town or even parking over night just to guarantee we made our boat.  In the end we made it to Brooklyn our final destination, parked, and made off for the show with some McDonalds in our stomachs.

Hands down I think the Rocks Off Concert Series is one of the best kept secrets in for boat tours in NY Harbor.  For $30 you get a cruise, option of a cash buffet and bar, and finally some relay kick ass music.  To put this into perspective a Circle Line tour will cost ???????????????? While a circle line takes in the other half of Manhattan Island in my humble opinion I think it is well worth missing the beautiful (insert sarcastic tone here) sights of the East River.  As for RJ the

The RJD2 show was nuts!  His set consisted of classic RJ to new RJ and other sick displays of turntableisms like cutups of Jay-Z and the like.  As for the back drop we had Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty with the dramatic skyline of Manhattan on the other.  The crowd was decidedly young, but because we were on a ship the tight limits on its people capacity kept every thing felling nice and personal and with out the need to fight for elbow room.

By the time we got back to the dock it was going on 1 a.m. but it was time to get out and go hit the town.  We snagged a cab and shot down to the East Village.  First stop was getting some food, but we made the mistake of grabbing some falafel first and missed our chance at some Freis Fries.  Freis Fires located just around the corner from St. Mark’s Place specializes in just fries with some 30 different sauces on them.  This is highly recommended for any outing in village.  

Next on the agenda was drinks and that was taken care just around the corner at Jimmy’s.  This little gem tucked into a basement boasts a fantastic beer selection in a neat environment.  The beer selection was given the blessing of those who I was traveling with (Nate, Martian, and Lindsey are all Bartenders) and included highlights like Six Points Cream Stout and plenty of Chimmey.  After getting the boot from the bartender at Jimmy’s we stumbled out in our drunkenness into the street proceeded to smoke a joint, hail a cab, and it the sack back in Brooklyn.  

Monday, August 21, 2006

Ping

Location: Boston, MA

Test of a test

Monday, April 24, 2006

Road Trip Time: With a Little Help From All of You!

Location: Boston, MA

It's getting to be that time again. We have been getting the itch to get back on the road. And that's just what we will be doing. Starting this Thursday we will be going from Boston, MA to Orlando, FL. Stops that have been planned thus far are Woodstock, NY; Washington, D.C.; and North Carolina.

Well that's were we have friends that we were going to stop in and say hi to, but we want to get some feed back from all of you. If you have any ideas for stops along our general way leave us a comment with you sugestion. We are game for most things and are willing to travel with a camera. This way we bring the trip to all of you even if you can't physically come (we are moving a car and an apartment so there isn't much room)!

Some of my thoughts so far have been South of the Border or at least the signs for it(they are really entertaining). Or how about the Outerbanks? We want to know where you want us to travel.

By the way if you haven't figured it you yet the best way to read the most current postings is the visit www.urbanbackpacker.org

Cheers,

Turtle

Friday, April 21, 2006

The apology



Hey no hard feelings about my comment. I figured it was an underhanded comment, but I guess sarcasm doesn't convey to well through this medium. I figured you would have liked the Dave Attel comparison. Both of you are comedians and both of you love late night exploits. Oh well. I will change the wording for you if it helps. You rely have been doing a ton for me. And you are right there has been a ton of activity from you. I am very grateful for all your help




Wednesday, April 12, 2006

www.urbanbackpacker.org Coming Soon!

www.urbanbackpacker.org Coming Soon!

So it has been a bit since my last post. I have started two jobs in the last few months so my life has been a bit chaotic. I do apologize to those of you who have stayed loyal readers since we have forced you to put up with our version of Dave Attell, Andy Jackson.

So my personal life isn't really why you read now is it. So here is the scope with UrbanBackpacker. In spite of all the other things that have been going on have all been happening behind the scene.

First up we have secured a proper domain thanks to AdSense sales from the Blog. The URL is
http://www.UrbanBackpacker.org
Most likely by the end of the week I should have the real site live and good to go. You can expect to see our Blog, photo galleries, and video resources. Eventually we will be integrating a Wiki into the mix to allow anyone to share travel resources that they know about.

The responses to we have gotten about our street interviews have been overwhelmingly positive. I promise the video of our Boston ones will be coming out shortly. Thanks to everyone who participated and help give Boston thee unique perspective we were looking for.

Cheers

Turtle

Prodi v. Berlusconi: to care or not to care?


Earlier this week, I started to write a story about the anniversary of Pope John Paul II's death. Thousands gathered at the Vatican, people even slept on the streets to try and be the first in line for the memorial ceremony. There were Polish flags everywhere, military police, and traffic restrictions. I even had a catchy lead: "A funny thing happened on the way to the Vatican". The truth is, a funny thing happened while I was writing the article.

I had nothing. Nada, zip, zilch, niente. Outside of my lead paragraph and my own thoughts on the event, I had no material. Quite frankly, I just didn't care. Neither did most Romans I know. Don't get me wrong, there were thousands of Romans who cared. Shopkeepers hung signs in their windows, churches were crowded, and it was the top headline for all the local newspapers. None of that stopped the bars from running 'til 4am. It didn't ease any tensions. There were no public signs of solidarity outside of the Vatican. Romans just couldn't be bothered.

Ok, so with that idea scrapped, at least the election was coming up. That would be a big deal, right? There were thousands of political propaganda signs littering the billboards and public ad space. The news was covering the event non-stop. It was billed as one of the most controversial and competitive elections in recent Italian history. Every Roman had an opinion on how crazy the event would be, and how polarized and passionate they are about politics. Well, the day came (actually it was a 2 day voting period) and once again, nothing. It was a 51 to 49 per cent victory for Romano Prodi of the center-left coalition, an ousting of the enigmatic sociopath Berlusconi, and a complete shift of power in the country. Reaction....small conversations between coffee, cigarettes and shopping.

I haven't been this let down by inaction since I watched M. Night Shama..whatever's "The Village". I'm going out on a limb here by generalizing, but it has to be said. Romans are all talk, no action. Most of them are just downright lazy. The scary thing is that they actually admit to it. Politically, they remind me of Americans. Lots of talk and debate, but no physical drive to actually change anything.

On Monday night, I got the best explanation of why from a neo-fascist Jiu Jitsu trainer while having coffee (oh, I'll get to that in the next article). "The biggest problem with Italian politics are Italians...", he said, "We expect the same thing from a new president. Honestly, we're too lazy to go out and change anything". Ok, you know you're in trouble when a skin-head neo-fascist gives you the most intelligent quote of the evening.

But that's where I'm at backpackers. I beg someone to prove me wrong on this one. This was a monumental election, and there's little faith that anything here will change for the better. Things will change, that's inevitable, but how and when? Berlusconi represented the center-right coalition. That includes the economic conservatives, religious conservatives, and on the far end, fascists. Prodi's party is the center-left. That includes social reformers, equal rights groups, the Catholic leftists, and on the far end, communists.

Italy will change, but Romans won't care until it actually effects their day-to-day life. Traffic will still be miserable. The cost of living will still be preposterously high. Businesses will still take 3 hour lunch breaks. Transportation strikes will still be a regular thing. Oh, and politics will still be discussed, I repeat, discussed.

As an American I'm aware that the new presidency will have an effect on US-Italy foreign relations. I won't go into how, but it will be exciting to see how the Bush administration deals with the change in power. Prodi's supporters are almost unanimously anti-Bush.

The overall point I want to make is that whining about problems and actually doing something to solve them are two entirely different things. Passion as an ideal is far less effective than passion put into action. The French riot, Ukrainians gather en masse and protest, Haitians burn tires and fire guns at the police. But hey, at least they do something to take a stand.

Unemployement here is hovering near 20%, the economy isn't growing, the social welfare system is in disarray, and immigration is rapidly expanding. Italians took the first step in fixing these problems by electing a new leader. In general, you can tell that people want change. Hold Prodi to the fire, Italy. Demand more jobs, boycott the outrageous taxes, demand a return to the lira, and take to the streets until companies actually pay wages that compare to the cost of living.

I'm not Italian, so what do I know? This is just an observation of what I see. I want people here to succeed, and only they can make it happen. Actions, backpackers, speak volumes over spoken words. There's no better time than now. Carpe Diem Romani. Today ushers in a new beginning for Italy, don't waste it.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

City of Contradictions

The following post was written by Emma Land, a freshman at the University of Washington, and a recent study-abroad student in Rome. She originally submitted this as an essay on Roman culture for her creative writing class.I thought it would give some us a different perspective to the experience of living abroad. Side notes: she's our first female contributor in 2006, she hails from the Pacific Northwest, and her intelligence far exceeds her age. Preach on sista'------Andy

When the plane landed and I walked into the sunlit airport I felt a new kind of awareness coursing through my body. My senses perked up, my heart raced, and I could feel the blood rushing through my veins. The car ride was complete silence, a hazy blur, as I stared, my eyes brimming with tears of shock, at the city of Rome. I checked into my small hotel room, set down my bags and collapsed into my bed. Shock and awe washed over me and I fell into a restless sleep. We toured the streets of Rome that the evening. I was mute. Stunned at the beauty around me, the vibrant culture, the song of the Italian language all of this mixing before my eyes, piercing my ears, leaving me speechless. It was at this point that I fell madly in love with Rome.

I did not come to Rome with expectations or preconceived notions. Of course I came wary of Italian men, but that is to be expected. I came with a child’s notion that this might be fun, but not with an adult’s expectations or prior knowledge. With this as my starting point I was able to view Rome as it is, my own ideas not combating what I saw.

By 4am the skeleton of the market is already up, a few dedicated sellers cleaning and arranging their wares. The Plaza del Biscione is littered with broken bottles, cigarettes butts and the stench of marijuana. The young Italians, a medley of bad asses, who frequent this small plaza leave not only remnants of the nights’ activities, but new graffiti appears nightly. New tags, names, symbols, drawings and incorrectly spelled American swear words cover the stone walls and wooden doors in the plaza. Standing at the door, hunting through my bag for keys, I can hear the heartbeat of Rome: the noise of the market, the clinks and bangs from people already rising from bed, the noise of the few cars littering the streets. The sounds of Rome breathe a life into the city that can be found no where else.

Mornings in Italy force even the most fatigued to rise, not simply because the noise is deafening, but because the sounds are riveting. As my alarm abruptly breaks my dream state I immediately hear the conversations and laughter of construction workers, the honk of car horns, the dropping of construction material and the cries of vendors in the market. If it is a weekend I often hear the crying lady, or as Lisa has dubbed her the Biscione crier. She is a large, rotund woman, swathed in layers of black and dirty orange cloth. I often hear her screams during the day. No one knows why she yells or who she is yelling at so vehemently, but everyone in the Campo de’ Fiore knows who she is. If I am not awake by 10am I often gently nudged awake by the sounds of the Campo.

I sip my morning coffee at Cafe del Biscione, un caffe macchiato, and listen to conversations around me. Two Italian women sit smoking cigarettes inside, even though it’s not allowed, the rhythm of their conversation a melodic up and down song. A group of giggling American girls, who share the first floor conference room with me, stomp in a cacophony of noise, clicking of flip flops and bad Italian as they ask for their lattes to go. The owner of the cafÈ smiles graciously at everyone, but I realize as the American girls go to pay he has charged them an extra 10 centisimi. The owner and the tall, imposing, dark haired barman sing in harmony to the opera music cooing softly in the background. After I have paid, said my goodbyes (a volley of ciaos, buongiornos and gracious smiles) I enter into the plaza.

The fountain giggles as I walk past, the water splashing into buckets put out by the men at the butcher’s shop. My mornings are filled with walks through Rome. The more we stomp around this city the more I realize that there is a never-ending noise to the place, a hum that fills your ears and remains there long after you have left the street. The car horns, the clicking of heels against the cobblestone, the constant mutters of Italian men as high heels pass, the opening and closing of shop doors. These noises make Rome. They are the song that pieces together the streets of Roma.

On our walks through Rome churches loom on every street corner solemn and silent, standing as reminders of one’s duty to God and the Roman Church. As you pull back the heavy wooden doors you enter into a new world. The interiors are gilded, the ceilings high, and marble coats the walls. Within churches there are new sounds: the awe-filled gasps of tourists, the banging of heels against marble floors, the echoes of mass wafting from small chapels to your right and left, the constant mutter of students and teachers and the silent whispers of prayers. The universe within the walls of the church is different. The air is musty. The lights are dim. There are constant reminders to devote oneself to God, to give to the Church. The place wreaks of guilt. The opulence is often overwhelming, blurring and confusing the Church’s message of piety.

In the afternoons the city shuts down: doors close, shutters click shut, the traffic slows and the streets seem bare. Restaurants fill with hungry customers the buzz of Italian coupled with wild hand gestures makes every meal an adventure. Schools also have adopted this break. The Pantheon fills with youngsters: laughing, eating and playing in the piazza. Slowly the streets begin to fill again as everyone leisurely strolls back to work. This abrupt stop in the day took me a month of adjustment. The idea that life could slow for two hours, that lunch could be eaten at a leisurely pace instead of a quick run to McDonalds, shocked me.

After the break shops grind back into action, the city picks up again, cars bustle down the streets. As the sun begins to go down there is a new buzz to the air. Students are done with school. Jobs end. Restaurants open their doors. By 8pm the city is a bustle of hungry people either on their way home or on their way out to eat. This is when Rome is filled with laughter. From every restaurant the clink of silverware on plates can be heard. The hum of laughter, raised voices, the whoosh in the air of wild hand gestures all blend into to a cacophony of joyous sound.

As the sky becomes filled with stars, the moon glistening down on the ancient roads a new life emerges: the nightlife. By 10pm the Campo is filled with Italian and American voices. The bars filled with chatter and noise, music from each restaurant and pub echoes through the Campo mixing and melding together with the conversations happening throughout the square. Men and women dressed in their best coming home from dinner. Teens stand smoking in the Plaza del Biscione. The girls fix their hair, snap their gum, stare with looks of superiority at the foreigners, and giggle at the boys as their young suitors make fools of themselves. The boys roll joints, drink beer and play fight. They are loud and excited, constantly acting up for the attention of the surrounding girls. The Americans stick out in the crowd: stiletto heels stuck in the cobblestone, short skirts, sweats and drunken behavior. By midnight the Americans can be spotted drunkenly stumbling out of the Drunken Ship giggling and falling over one another. By two the Campo is filled with the remainder of drunken Americans, most of the Italians have left for home. By three the Campo is silent, the tourists have left, the Americans have stumbled home, the pubs all closed.

Life in Rome is an amazing adventure full of interesting and shocking surprises. One of the greatest changes for me was the way Italians approach time. Drinking small, quick cafes in the morning, a two-minute event. Then in the evenings or over lunch you are never asked to pay or given the bill until you are ready. The pace contradicts itself. One minute you are rushing to finish your cafÈ in order to make more space at the bar and the next you are leisurely enjoying a 3-hour dinner not once thinking about rushing. The same is true with traffic. Drivers in Rome like to drive with minimal notice to laws: cutting corners, running red lights, and speeding are their main pleasures. On the road Italians are maniacs, but on the streets they stroll, walking as though they have no where to be in the world but right there. This contradiction is a pleasure to me. There are certain activities that deserve the time taken to truly enjoy the experience. Dinner with friends is a pleasure that should be enjoyed. Walking the streets of Rome there is so much to see that taking the extra minutes to get from point A to point B is worth it. Coffee drinking and driving are activities dubbed less important and therefore the time spent on them is less.

Romans also have a unique friendliness. Store owners, workers and every once in a while fellow occupants of my apartment say hello and goodbye at every meeting. At the grocery store or the market Italians meet and make small talk with the workers. I am never treated poorly for not speaking the language or laughed at for my unique miming technique. But, this friendliness only reaches so far. It is a surface friendliness. When I walk around the streets of Rome I am accosted by stares, not simply of men, but also of the haughty Italian women. The teens sneer as I walk out of the building into the plaza at night. I am constantly aware of the piercing eyes of Italians, summing me up, coming to conclusions. The contradiction between friendliness and coldness is about Italian’s pride. The hellos are a friendly gesture, something ingrained in the culture. The haughty response to foreigners comes from a love of Italian culture and a desire to maintain that vibrancy and life with minimal outside interference.

Rome is a beautiful city, filled with antiquity and yet the city is dingy. The streets are dirty and grimy, although every 12 hours the street cleaners appear and sweep the streets with their witches’ brooms. Minutes after the streets are freshly cleaned the trash begins to pile again, the cigarette butts litter the ground and the trashcans start to overflow. At night the streets fill with the younger Italian crowd, who jeer, sneer and yell at the Americans. They stand outside my big, green door and break bottles, chant communist sayings and from time to time riot in the Campo. Graffiti covers the walls of many buildings, a mixture of American and Italian sayings and swearwords. Italians have such a love for their city and culture and yet they disrespect the city they live in. At the AS Roma games the stadium reverberates with Roma cheers, Roma pride bubbles over the edges of the colosseum. But, when you leave you see the youth tagging buildings and the crowds dropping their trash on the ground.

But, the greatest contradiction of all is that while this city is grimy, the younger crowds can be menacing and troublesome, people can be rude and pushy there is never a moment that I do not feel safe and in love with this town. There has not been one moment in my trip that I have not rejoiced at the inconsistencies of this place. That I have not simply laughed at my grocery store being closed at five for no reason or smiled and waited patiently in line at the Post Office for an hour and a half. Rome teaches you to slow down, to learn to smile at contradictions, laugh at closed doors, revise schedules and never once complain. Rome wants you to fall in love with this lifestyle, to embrace the three-hour dinners and long walks through the crowded streets. Rome asks that you choose to slow down and appreciate life and learn to live it to the fullest.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Lost in Translation


My life here is made up of extremes. If I step back to examine my time in Italy as a series of moments and experiences, they often don't make sense. Sunday was a great example of this.

Starting the day off with a trip to McDonald's automatically puts you in an American mood. Although in the 'states I can't stand the place, I've grown to really appreciate living across the street from the golden arches in a foreign county. Plus, when you eat pasta and pizza about 15 to 20 times a week, it's nice to break the monotony with a Chicken Premiere (sounds lame, but it rocks the shit out of a Big Mac), Maxi Fries, and a Fanta Orange soda. So far Sunday was great. No work, American fast food, and an evening full of NCAA Tournament basketball. Forget Rome, I took the night off from Italy and lived like a yank. At least that's how the day started.

After a late lunch it was off to the Abbey for UConn. Vs. George Mason. The Abbey is the bar I work at. It's technically an Irish pub but it's run by Italians, and frequented by American college students. It's also one of the few pubs here that shows every major American sports match and has legitimate American cheeseburgers.

The game was great. Probably the best college hoops game I've ever seen. I felt like I was in Boston again. Cold pints of beer, the smell of french fries in the air, yelling at the big-screen TV after every missed shot. At the final buzzer it was upset city. The little school from Virginia, George Mason, took down the mighty UConn. The Abbey erupted with a collective scream. High fives circled the bar as wolf-like yells were projected in every direction. Seconds later my American night was over. My night as a yank, cancelled, and I was on a theoretical express flight back to Rome.

"Andy!!!...", said Chilleste, the owner of the bar, "...Please tell American students that if they yell crazy for the games, we turn them off!". As the token American employee present-albeit my night off-I accepted this responsibility. It's been my job since the Super Bowl. Minimum collateral damage is how I look at my role as my boss' American bar ambassador. You see backpackers, cultural exchanges, body language, regional idiosyncrasies, and vocal intonation cannot be easily translated.

People feel more comfortable with their own cultural familiarities. A small fat man named Alberto serves you fettucine and overpriced Sicilian wine at an Osteria (small Italian eateries, like the one in "Lady and the Tramp"), I tell you to get lost after college basketball. It just works better that way for some people. Be honest, you wouldn't exactly feel comfortable with a Chinese-run taco stand. You don't want a Brit to give you dental advice. And you'd probably stay away from a flight school called "Air Allah".

In Rome, like in most big cosmopolitan cities-see New York, London, LA-these lines of distinction are becoming increasingly blurred. In fact, after the Abbey, I spent the rest of the night hopping between four languages and just as many continents. There were the girls from Bavaria who laughed at my jokes (English) until I called them allied spies. I had a discussion on fashion and soccer with an Italian. I said hello to a couple I knew from Barcelona. Ran into a little Bangladeshi rose vendor who I used to kick out of the bar when I was a bouncer. And finally to cap the night off, I ran into Joao (Brazilian) and some friends at the all-night coffee bar and had an hour-long conversation about, you guessed it, languages.

Joao was with a beautiful blonde American girl, her friend from Pennsylvania, and a young looking Italian. With a big Brazilian smile, I was greeted with Portuguese, my adopted third language. Joao knows this, and always talks to me in Portuguese, no matter how bad I tell him I speak it. Then without a pause, he's facing the blonde, all English. Back to me, Portuguese, and then Italian. I join in the melee of languages as best I can, we've got a rhythm going. There is actually a coherent multi-language conversation going on. Everyone's cool but the guy from Pennsylvania. What preceded really put my night into perspective.

"ENGLISH!!!" he yelled drunkenly, "Can't we all just speak English for the love of God. Ever since I've been in this fucking country it's nothing but blah blah blah in other languages. I know you all know English, so why are you trying to be a pain and not speak it?". Joao's smile faded fast. I could tell he was controlling his anger. He wanted to score with the blonde. He's lucky she was there, Joao would have plastered him all over the Piazza. Instead, he took the high road. "When I speak to you, I speak English" he said to the kid, "He (pointing to me) make a little easier with me to speak Portuguese. I make easier for him (pointing to the Italian) to speak Italian". Here we go, the cultural gloves are off.

The guy from Pennsylvania shrunk back in his seat a bit. He then turned from critical to admirational. "I can't believe you guys are actually having this conversation right now" he said, "I really wish I could just understand everything. I feel stupid that I never had to learn how to communicate in anything other than English". He was right, he never did, and neither did many Romans, Parisians, New Yorkers, or Londoners. In many circumstances you don't have to learn speak anything outside of your native tongue. In other circumstances it's a necessity.

We weren't speaking like this because it was a necessity. It just made things run smoother. It made Joao feel comfortable to hear his native tongue, and gave me some much needed practice with it. When he went into the small details of his stories, he spoke with me in English. We both spoke Italian with the Italian guy. Being multi-linguists broadened the level of the topics of conversation. We could use our own idioms, our own body language, our own accents.

Cultural rules were being stripped away by a lively chat, 22oz. Peronis, a bag of chips, and a hot blonde. Nothing was being lost in translation, and we still got to be ourselves. I was the same guy who started my evening with a Value Meal and NCAA basketball. Joao was still going to get laid in whatever language he felt like. We parted ways after some pizza and I walked home. Time to close up my culture passport and call it a night. I felt like there was a lesson to be learned from all this. Cultural judgments will fade when we communicate better with each other. I really believe that.

Maybe next time I see a Chinese taco stand, I'll grab a bite to eat. Lesson or not, however, I'll still never fly "Air Allah".

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Persona non Grata


On St. Patrick's Day I wake up, get some pizza, make espresso, complain about my women problems, and go out to paint the town green. Sometime after a beer with Basam and flirting with Valentina at Blockbuster Video, I get a free turtle. Not just any turtle though. I get a plastic, Senegalese (ahem...CHINESE) turtle for good fortune. "Uno regalo gratis per te" said the man who gave it to me, "Africano per buona fortuna". In other words, a free gift from Africa that will bring me good fortune. Why me? Why a turtle? Why free? Ok, so he tried to sell my a watch first, but when I said no and started to walk away he insisted that I take the turtle.

In Rome it's normal to be approached by recent African immigrants who try with all their might to sell you goods. In fact, it's normal in many big cities all over the world. Hell, they've perfected the practice in New York. "Rolex, Rolex...cheap Rolex mister", they say in English soaked in a thick colonial French accent. Here it's much the same. They work the same types of areas (tourist-filled pedestrian thoroughfares), have the same grueling hours, sell the same shitty goods, and come from the same countries; mostly north and west Africa. People here treat them the same too. Most ignore the sales pitch, some check out the merchandise, and some buy. Others shoot slight glances of fear and disdain, subconsciously showing their disapproval with their body language.

theoretically I should be used to this. I've seen the same guys, same sales pitch my whole life. They're the same here but I'm different. It affects me differently here. In a bizarre way we actually share a part of the same experience. Our lives and backgrounds are extraordinarily opposite but yet in simple terms we do the same thing. Let me explain. I left my country with two bags and a plane ticket. I couldn't speak the language. I needed work badly. I have no visa, no work permits, pay no taxes, and make my money off of tourists.

African politics aside-although it's shameful not to acknowledge this as the impetus for them coming here-they're here to work. They're here to survive, to keep a sustainable life for themselves. They eat pasta, drink espresso, and go to work every day like most other Romans. In Rome though, they're not welcome.

Berlusconi's government sees these types of immigrants as a social and economic cancer. Many Italians decry them in public. Rowdy sections of soccer "ultras" (hooligans) taunt African players on the field and even throw bananas at them during play. My question is, why not me? Why don't I get taunted or scoured at while I'm at work? The answer unfortunately is tragically simple: racism. In Italy the difference between a working tourist and an immigrant is the color of his/her skin.

Racism breaks down reason. Racism is why I work less than these guys and make more money. Racism is why I don't hide from the police when they come around. The real tragedy is that their negative reputation is almost entirely undeserved. I've never had a bad interaction with an African immigrant in three months here. On the contrary, I've been an accessory to petty burglary with Italians (not voluntarily), seen British brawls, American vandalism, and Venezuelan drug trafficking. That's not to say that crime doesn't exist amongst African immigrants. I'm sure it does. But they have more to lose if they get caught. With these guys there's no "plan B".

After the pitch fails, some guys walk away. Other guys will actually walk and chat with you. It's not always for the sale either. My first month here I had breakfast with a Nigerian man who gave up on trying to sell me socks. We got a coffee and a cornetto, split the bill 50/50, talked about music and parted ways. I have a friend from Cameroon who sells CD's in front of the grocery store. He calls me his brother and practices English with me every time I go shopping. I've never given him a cent.

On St. Patrick's day I got a turtle. No bargaining, no hustle, no tricks, just a turtle. A man I didn't know gave me a gift for good fortune. Good fortune that he probably needs more than me. I almost felt guilty for taking it. Three days later though it finally hit me. Giving makes a person feel whole. Giving is what truly defines our character and connects us as human beings. I'll never look at African street merchants the same. I'll always look them in the eye and acknowledge them as hard-working equals. In my own way, that's the turtle I can give back to them.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

The Ugly American


Pale faces, eager eyes, a sense of enjoyment, adventure, independence. Americans in Rome are as omnipresent as Pizzerias and motorini (mopeds). In the center of the city they're catered to as if they were personally invited to come. Some restaurants have an english menu. Bars play American pop music and show college basketball on satellite television. T-shirts are sold with American phrases written on the back. You can even get a budweiser and a hot dog from a street vendor.

Day-by-day and week-by-week new people cross the pond to envelope themselves in the vast complexity that defines Roman culture. They come for the monuments. They come for the bars. They come for the women, the men, the language, the food. In an odd way they come to say that they came.

We get a bad rap here. Sometimes it's deserved and sometimes not. The problem is that we behave as if life outside of the US exists without consequences. Americans often take the "When in Rome..." attitude a little too far. We do things that we'd never dream of doing back home. We drink in the streets, urinate in public, litter, and mock Italians in their own country, Romans in their own city.

Not all of us, however, are like that. Some of us revere the same culture that others mock. Some of us get swept away in the romance and blissful chaos of the Roman atmosphere. Some of us stand breathless in front of the Pantheon, gaze humbly at St. Peter's Basilica, and marvel at the fortitude and longevity of the Coloseum.

I use the term "we" because no matter what type of visitor you are, good or bad, to Romans you're just American. We're a nation of 250 million people, but to them we're but a single entity. We all represent the ugly American. Ugly or not, I'm always going to be who I am. I'm always going to be an American. If others choose to label me that's their business. The best I can do is stay true to my beliefs, respect those around me, and respect the culture I live in. After all, incincerity is the ugliest sin of them all

Sunday, March 05, 2006

"Ada" Moment's Notice, Anything Can Happen


There's a cliche saying that states, "when life gives you lemons, turn them into lemonade". But what happens when the lemons are women, and the lemonade you make out of them tastes more like old bar mix that's turned because you left it out for too long? In an odd and somewhat tragic way, (bear with me, I know the analogy's a stretch) this seems to some up my luck with women in Rome. Out here I am the "Cooler". I'm the black cat that crosses the road, the spilled salt, the shattered mirror. You get the point.

Now I'm not beating myself up, as much as it sounds like I am. On the contrary, my luck with women here is so bad that I find it funny. I'm even smiling and laughing while writing this article. I think it's karma because I've been so lucky with everything else here so far: two jobs, lots of friends, good roommate, great apartment. Women however, are another story. Lauren and Ada are the only two stories worth actually telling. I'll skip Lauren for now, and I'll just go straight to Ada.

If you had read my previous post "Nothing is Ever as it Seems", you'd know that Ada is the southern Italian girl who works at the hot dog stand near my pub. For weeks now we've been chatting with each other in a mixture of broken English and my white-boy version of sloppy street Italian. Each time we would talk, we seemed to get closer and closer. Finally I ponied-up and asked her out via e-mail. I used a webpage to translate text from English to Italian to make it easier. After a day or so, she agreed to go out to dinner and dancing with me and my friend Jason. Hallelujah, my first successful attempt at courting an Italian woman!!!

We agreed to meet on Friday night in Piazza Risorgimento at 8:30, and then walk to small Italian restaurant in my neighborhood. I met up with Jason at 7:00, got dressed up, and walked with him down to the Piazza, 5 minutes late for our agreed upon time. We took a seat on a nearby bench and began to wait. First it was 10 minutes, 20, 30, and eventually 45...no Ada. Just as we were ready to throw in the towel she sent me a text message. "Ciao Andy, I'm Ada....I'm have an problem so no dinner...I come to your house with a friend....and then for dance...ONE BIG KISS".

Jackpot baby, jackpot. Jason and I met up with another friend, grabbed some Egyptian food at "Mr. Kebab", and went home to drink some "Vodka Lemons" before the girls arrived. She got to my house shortly after with her roommate, a beautiful Roman girl named Emmanuella. We flirted, drank, played music, and practiced our respective new languages. Then it was off to the club. As we walked down the street Jason was flirting with Emmanuella and I was singing "Temptations" songs to Ada as she mumbled what she thought were the lyrics to "My Girl". Oh irony, how sweet you are. But I'm getting a little ahead of myself. Next stop, the "Cantina Messicana" salsa club.

Dancing was a lot of fun. Ada and Emmanuella both study dance at La Sapienza University, and previously attended Italy's National Dance Academy for high school. Those girls could really move. Jason and I weren't humble either, we're both avid dancers, and I think the girls were impressed by our confidence. Yet again, same pairing as earlier. Emmanuella-Jason, Ada-Andy. We took pictures of the four of us and decided to leave around 1:30. Emmanuella told us she had to wake up at 7 and abruptly decided to go home, much to Jason's dissapointment. The rest of us were going to "The Groove", a late-night hip hop spot that's almost as infamous as it is popular. Ada was willing to ditch her friend and go with two Joe Shmo Americans to an after-hours hip hop club that was a 15 minute cab ride away. We kept hugging and flirted like adolescents do; first funny faces, then tickling, pinching, nose grabbing, and noogies.

I was in like Flynn backpackers. Jason knew it, and he acknowledged me with a wink and a smile. When we hit "The Groove" we headed straight for the coat room, Ada's hand in mine, Jason not far behind. Then disaster struck. On our way to the coat room we ran into two girls from Los Angeles who had been drinking at the bar I work at the night before. "Andy Andy..." they shouted drunkenly, "....we're so glad to see you. What are you doing here?". Then one at a time, they leaned over to me and planted a drunken sloppy wet kiss right on my lips. Both of them. This was followed immediately with, "come back home with us, we're leaving right now." We had just jumped from a category 3 to a category 5 disaster, and I could see that Ada's face was not smiling.

I politely declined their request (it takes a brave man to decline that kind of request) and we hung up our coats without much discussion of the incident. Luckily for me, Ada didn't speak enough English to understand what they were saying. Jason split and Ada and I sat and chatted, then danced, then chatted some more. In the smoking room I went in for the kill, I tried to kiss her. She pulled back immediately and in her best English said "NO...you kiss every girls here before me. Why you do that?". The eye of the storm had passed and we were back to a category 5.

"No no no," I said almost desperately, "I'm not like that". Panicking, I grabbed my Cuban friend Ony who could speak Italian fluently. "Dude, I'm in trouble. You have to explain to her that I only want to kiss her, the other girls were just joking". It took him 10 minutes, but Ony got the job done. She was back to smiling and looking at me with widened eyes. Then I tried to kiss her again. "NO Andy, I can't. I can't kiss you" she said again. Now I began to speak Italian with her. "Why, what's the problem, I thought you liked me". "I do.....but I can't, I just can't," she said. Forget a category 5, the next words out of her mouth were like Hiroshima. In the next four words I saw our whole night vaporize before my very eyes. "I have a fiancee," she said, "so I can't kiss you". It was 3:30 in the morning.

The only word which could have been worse than that would have been husband. My face turned pink with embarassment. She apologized repeatedly and said that she still thought I was a great guy. She knew exactly how I felt and it showed. I think she was embarassed too. Apparently he's from her home town in Puglia and he studies economics in Milan. She showed me a picture of them kissing with a heart drawn around it and the words "Ti Amo" or "I Love You" written on it in black ink.

The next few minutes were really awkward. We took a shot of Jaegermeister and hit the dance floor again. We were both trying to pretend like none of that just happened. I began to scour the room for the girls from LA, no luck. That ship had sailed.

After a good dance to ease the tension we went to Dog-Out with my friend Ty who I saw at the bar. She gave us free beers and hot dogs. We said goodbye as if nothing had happened, and Ty and I split a cab home. I was exhausted, it was 6:00am at this point. I smiled, laughed to myself, and grabbed some pretzels from my kitchen. So ends another day in the eternal city. At least I had a fun night. I started out with a lemon, and in the end, this was my lemonade.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Berlin: Some Reminders of the Brutality of Goverment

Berlin Some Reminders of the Brutality of Government:

The NY Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote in the Lexus and the Olive Tree that the worlds “New Economy” and the concept of Globalization in the modern era began on Nov 9, 1989 (in his new book he pokes fun at the irony that this date is 11/9 and has far more significance to the world than 9/11) with the fall of the Berlin Wall. With the collapse of the worlds most heavily monitored and fortified boarders signaled the collapse o f Communism in Europe and the end of the Cold War.

Never has any place stood out to me as a lesson in the follies of control. The obvious atrocities committed by Hitler and the Third Reich are the first to come to mind but that was only the beginning of the control exerted on Berliners in the last century. Three sights illustrate these follies perfectly. They are the Reichstag, The Empty Library, and of course the Berlin Wall. All are with in a shot walk of each other with a number of tours operating in the area (the best is the New Berlin Free Tour leaving from the Starbucks in front of Brandenburg Gate).

The Reichstag is where the control stems from Hitler’s use of the burring of the Reichstag as his opportunity to seize power. He claimed that the arson was actually a communist plot and a signal for revolution. Hitler said he was the man with the plan and persuaded the government into giving him absolute power for 30 days. Those 30 days turned into 12 years of World War and one of the darkest moments in the history of civilization. It was this centralized concentration of power that allowed Hitler’s dictatorship to rise and take control of Europe. The Reichstag remained in its burned shell state up and until just after the fall of the wall. The architect Norman Foster patched the dome with a glass top as an obvious reminder for the past. In addition a spiraling walk way that serves as an art gallery winds up along the dome. From here citizens can look down upon the government in session and elected officials can look upward to the people for inspiration. A fantastic physical analogy for how government should function, for the people.

The Second sight is the Empty Library. This is a subterranean library serving a a memorial to the Nazi book burring. You know that seen in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade where Indy needs to go to Berlin to get back his father’s diary. When he gets there he saves it from a book burning and gets it singed by Hitler himself in the process. Well that burning is what the Empty Library is memorializing. Thousands of books by Jewish authors, liberals, foreigners, communists, and basically anyone Joseph Göbbels deemed unfit to read were tossed from the top window of the Berlin Library and onto a massive bonfire in the middle of. This included authors like Hemmingway, Kafka, Marks, and many others with some of the only copies in existence destroyed. The memorial is a completely empty room with empty white shelves enough to hold about 26,000 books or just ½ of what was burned. You look down though a glass panel in the middle of the square. There is a marker next to the window into the library that has a quote from Heinrich Heine another author whose works were burned. Although the quote was written in response to another book burring 100 years earlier, the words are a chilling forecast of what was to come.

“This was just a practice run. For those who burn books also burn people.”

The final sight is the one that dominates the central Berlin landscape at almost every turn. This of course is the Berlin Wall. Erected in 1961 by the soviets as a means to better control the population of Deutsche Demokratische Republik and in particular the population of East Berlin it quickly became the symbolism of the metaphorical Iron Curtin. Eventually the wall really became two walls with a “killing zone” located in between both. The Soviets made sure that it was secure and employed highly sophisticated security measures to thwart would be defectors. If trying to cross you were forced to one of the 3 designated crossing points Alpha, Bravo, and Charlie. The latter being the most infamous of the three. If trying to cross on your own you would be meet with attack dogs on guide wires, land mines, machine guns designed to fire at sound and motion, and of course armed soviet boarder guards. Within the confines of the wall your every as a citizen your every action was monitored, regulated, and controlled. The Gestapo had some 1 agent to every 400 people during the Nazi era. By the late 1970’s the KGB was in the range of 1 agent to every 8 East Berliners. The state knew when you farted. This was all at the fore front of an effort to shape and control German thought into the perfect socialist state.

By 1989 the relaxation of media regulations in the Soviet Union two years earlier had started the disintegration of the Eastern Block. By Nov. 1989 and with the help of a few blunders on the part of the East German DDR government the border was open and the wall was coming down. I was 9 at the time but its significance is clear. Few other events have shaped our world like this and it has defined the world I will grow up in and the differences between the one my parents did.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

English by Intimidation


"Forget the Grammar, Learn to Speak!" is the motto of the Callan method of teaching English. And at the Eil School in Rome, we do exactly that. From the moment you step into the classroom until the moment you leave you are inundated with nothing but English. Not just regularly spoken English though, that would be too soft, leave too much room for error. No, at the Eil School we yell. We stand up, look you right in the eyes, and assertively give you the English language as if we were your drill sergeant, and you were Private Pile in "Full Metal Jacket".

A typical class sounds a little like this. "TOMORROW I WILL GO TO THE CINEMA!...WILL I GO TO THE CINEMA TOMORROW!?!?", then without giving them the time to think or even move, we lead the student's answer along with ours. In unison this time, we both yell "YES, YOU WILL GO TO THE CINEMA TOMORROW!!!!" Any error in pronunciation by the student is quickly corrected by repetition from the teacher. For example, if the student struggles with the word "cinema", we repeat it louder and slower with a bit more annunciation. We say, "CI-NE-MA, CI-NE-MA, CI....NE....MA!!!!!!", and eventually they get it.

As my first teaching job in Rome, or anywhere else for that matter, I found this method of teaching to be rather shocking. Don't get me wrong, I'm one of the loudest people around. It just seemed a little bit too forceful for me at first. I thought, "why would anyone subject themselves to being screamed at in a foreign language for weeks on end, and to top it off, pay about 30 euros an hour for the privilege???". Then it hit me when I met students who had worked their way up through the ranks to the higher level classes. They all spoke English. It worked. It worked in the same way training a dog does. Your puppy doesn't know what the fuck "sit" or "stay" or "good boy" means. If you yell it at him/her enough times and show it what to do however, it will. The difference is that a dog can't speak it back to you, people can.

The human brain is a lot more perceptive than we give it credit for. We innately learn what we feel we have to in order to survive or succeed. For example, I live in Italy, I want to order food, no one in my neighborhood speaks English. After 2 months here I can now order food, make variations on my order, and flirt with the girl serving me. Survival baby, survival. I also do my work schedule (Bartending) in Italian, tell Gypsies to fuck off in Italian, explain my illnesses to the pharmacist in Italian, and make sorry attempts to get laid in Italian (almost never actually works but it's worth a shot). You get my drift backpackers? We learn what we have to and not what we want to. That's the brilliance of the human mind.

The irony of the whole matter is that I've lost my voice after teaching for 5 days with bronchitis. I'm on the sidelines for now until my vocal chords heal a bit. But rest assured I'll be there bright and early on Monday morning, ready to scare the English into a few more Romans. In a sadistic way it's fun. And who knows, maybe someday someone can scare some Italian into me.

Friday, February 24, 2006

What we got in the works for all ya'l.

So we got a few things brewing up right now. Here's a quick run down some of the things we have coming your way.

First up we have some stuff from the vault or Germany. We have "Lost in the Walled City" a tour of Rothenberg and a bunch more on Berlin. This is one European capital that I think deserves far more coverage than we have given it so far. It really is rare that a capital can so rapidly reinvent its own center.

Second up we have thrift shopping in Vienna and its emerging independent fashion scene. Afterwords we will jump continet and give you the skinny on Orlando, FL.

And of course more tales from the Eternal City from our man in Rome, Andy Jackson.

Finally we are working UrbanBackpacker TV. Our first installment featuring Boston will air on our site within a few weeks. So keep your eyes on us or you may just miss out

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Comment issues

We have had a bit of a problem with our comments as of late. I should have the problem smothed out so comment away. If you have posted a comment in tle past week or so I should have it up. If not I apologize.