Saturday, August 17, 2013

La Vita Bolognese

Quick update from my last post - I passed my online calculus course which frees up about 6 hours a week in compulsory math tutorials. Whew. This online math course was probably the most helpful math course I've ever taken. It's the first online course I've ever seriously used and I can see the attractiveness of online courses; specifically, you can pause, rewind and watch sections as many times as you like. I think the lack of that feature in high school math classes contributed to my poor math performances. How might my life be different now if I had been able to take all of my high school math courses online...

Anyways, much more exciting developments than calculus have occurred in the past week. Namely, we arrived in Italy and have settled into our new life in Bologna. Of the 200 or students that will eventually be enrolled in my program here, there were maybe only 20 here when we arrived last week. That number may be up to 50 by now. It's been nice to have a week before classes start to get all of the bureaucratic stuff out of the way. We've also used the time to explore around Bologna.

View from the farmhouse in the Apennines
We arrived on a weekend in the middle of August - peak vacation season here. We were fortunate to get an invitation from a Rotarian here in Bologna to join him and his wife out at their summer home in the hills southwest of here. We spent about 3 days out at his renovated farmhouse in the hills to decompress after Asia. It's amazing how friendlier the air and the sun seem here compared to southeast Asia. I suppose I've read about it at length, but the sharp contrast of feeling both within a 24 hour period is very dramatic. The air in the hills felt neutral - it was so comfortable that you didn't even notice it. But we noticed it because in Asia, it just clings to you and constantly reminds you to take showers and change your clothes. It was an amazing experience to not feel dirty and gross after just going outside, so we noticed the neutrality of the air as a welcome void.

1775 meter high Lake Scaffaiolo
On Tuesday we came back down to the city, where the air purity decreased a bit, but there were actually fewer people in the city than the countryside. Ferragosto, an Italian holiday marking the middle of August, pulls everyone out of the city and to the hills or the beaches. People are starting to come back into town now, but on Thursday (the official day of Ferragosto) Bologna was a ghost town. We walked up and down entire streets in the middle of the day without seeing another soul. The only stores that are open are those run by south Asian immigrants who were a kind of familiar reminder of where we had come from. It's funny how, for the first few days at least, we felt more familiar with the fruit seller from Bangladesh than other Italians because a) he was pretty much the only person we saw in town; and b) we had just spent 6 months in the region of the world he came from. Helpful tip to those travelling to Italy who don't speak Italian: the south Asian shop owners speak English. It's very easy to buy from them. But then, most shop owners speak a little English, so it's not a huge advantage.

Our apartment is within the ring road, making it a part of the old city. The apartment itself has a lot of character. It's small and a little eccentric. Being on the top floor, the ceilings are sloped so that, for example, our bathroom door is only about five feet high. We've both hit our heads a few times already ducking in at night. The bumpy scab on the top of my head is a powerful reminder to crouch even lower when I go to the restroom now.

First view of our apartment when we moved in
But our place has plenty of great attributes, too. We get tons of natural light so that we don't even have to turn on any lamps during the day. In the middle of the apartment, the ceilings are high and spacious and the wood beams that hold up the roof serve as rustic decoration for the place. Plus, it's only a 5 minute walk to school and it's cheap.

Speaking of school, I'm already underway with studies. Like I said at the beginning, I just finished my online calculus course, which gave me all the math I need to know for my intermediate microeconomics course starting Wednesday. I'm reading about the "revolutionary era" of early 19th century Europe right now in preparation to attempt to test out of one of the required courses, Evolution of the International System; and I continue to read my German novel (translated from the Spanish) in the hopes of testing out of my foreign language requirement. Graduate school is all about focusing in on a specific field of study in order to be a better experienced and qualified professional. I'd like to avoid as many of the basic level, required courses as possible in order to focus on the more advanced coursework - the whole reason why I'm here.

I find that this discussion is naturally leading me towards an explanation of what it is specifically that I want to do here and that's a story I'd like very much to lay out. But not now. That will have to wait for the next post.

Buono Ferragosto!

Friday, August 9, 2013

Leaving Asia

Only one hour left in Singapore before we set off for Italy! Singapore has been an amazing last stop for the trip. We had planned it that way in order to reward ourselves after six weeks of hardship travelling. It's the little things that make Singapore so much easier; the sidewalks are clear and unobstructed, making walking a more passive activity. In Myanmar, Malaysia and the rest, sidewalks are obstacle courses that get so jumbled that it's usually just easier to walk in the street and dodge the cars and motorbikes. It's nice to be able to walk in Singapore and engage your brain in thoughts other than negotiating a path through the chaos.

I was also blown away one night and stopped to stare as a garbage truck passed by us on the street. I can't say when I last saw a real live garbage truck. In China and most of the rest of southeast Asia, the waste removal vehicles are bike carts and rickshaws. Seeing that truck in Singapore brought home that we were back in the first world. I read an interview in The Atlantic recently about the depths of America's sanitation infrastructure.  Seeing that truck in Singapore emphasized to me how waste removal is one of those unacknowledged but crucial divisions between developing and developed world.

More examples of first world indulgences: yesterday, we really wanted to swim so we started searching online for lap pools and ended up finding a "community swim complex" that was basically a water park. It had three slides, a lazy river, a wave pool and, oh yeah, an olympic sized lap pool, too. All for only $2.00 admission. The pools were packed with South Indian men. In fact, everywhere we went seemed to be packed with South Indian men, which was strange for a city that is 80% Chinese. We later found out that they were day laborers. Yesterday was the end of Ramadan AND the beginning of Singapore's National Day celebrations so everyone had the day off. Whole regiments of laborers abandoned their construction sites and took the opportunity to enjoy the town - everything from the bars to the wave pools.

Being in a city made up of so many different types of people creates interesting festival overlaps. Wednesday, for example, was the beginning of Chinese "Ghost month" where many people of Chinese origin here set up mini-alters out in front of their homes and businesses loaded with food and incense for their ancestors. They jokingly told us to stay inside that night to avoid "the ghosts". (The woman who cut my hair that day compared it to Haloween). Meanwhile, in the Muslim community, Ramadan was coming to an end and the fast-breaking and all-night binging was at it's peak. So the night belonged to the Muslims on Wednesday while the Chinese left it to the spirits of their ancestors. Both groups share in common use of the lunar calendar, which I'm sure leads to many more interesting combinations all throughout the year.

I'll do a longer post looking back on this trip once we get more settled in Italy, but there have been two sub-plots developing during this trip. The first has been an ever growing collection of complimentary toothpaste. I'm leaving Asia now with more toothpaste than I left China with two months ago. Down to the cheapest hotels, they all provided complimentary toothpaste, so if you're planning a trip here, leave the toothpaste at home and save your money. You'll still come home with excess. 

The second sub-plot has to do with my preparation for grad school. I've been doing an online calculus course throughout this trip and miraculously made it through 21 lectures and five chapters of lesson. I don't necessarily recommend trying to learn calculus while travelling through south east Asia (or anywhere else) and I feel like it took away from the experience. But I have to take a test by Aug. 21 an there was no way I could put off studying until I got to Italy.

Also, I didn't spend as much time reading about the region as I'd like. Again, grad school to blame. I have to take a German language placement test soon after arrival and so I've prepared by reading the fattest German book I could find - a 700 page surrealist novel about Barcelona written originally in Spanish and then translated. Not my first choice, but I found it used and cheap in Battambang, Cambodia. It's a perfectly good book, it just has nothing to do with southeast Asia. Between math and German reading, I've been less aware of my surroundings which has taken away from the trip and probably is one of the reasons I didn't write more posts. It's reinforced for me the importance of learning about the region I'm in at any given time by reading about it simultaneously. If the selection of second hand foreign language books available along our route is any indication, very few people actually read about where they are. European criminal and mystery novels are way more heavily represented. By the way, if anyone has any good suggestions for Bologna, please send them along.

My parting advice before we leave Asia: if you're ever in the Singapore Changi International airport, there's allegedly a really cool, three storey high slide in the basement of terminal 3. However, it is outside the immigration/security checkpoint, so go to the slide BEFORE you go through immigration. They won't let you out in order to go to the slide. Even if you promise to come right back. We made that mistake and were disappointed (even if it gave me more time for calculus). I wouldn't want anyone else to go through that ordeal unnecissarily. Other than that little snafu, Singapore has been amazing and surpassed all expectations.