Friday, January 21, 2011

Back To Italy (The 32 Hour Day)

1 / 12, 13 / 11

Originally I was planning on taking the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) from Penn Station out to JFK. About five days ago though, one of my classmates emailed to see about splitting a cab with a few people from NYU. Having to be at JFK—an airport that the three of us who decided to ride together had little experience with—between 6:00 and 6:30PM, we decided to meet for a scheduled cab at 4:30. About a day later I thought about the potential for traffic around rush hour and the impending snowstorm, especially considering that Mayor Bloomberg notoriously mishandled the blizzard a few weeks back. I thought it best we move the cab up to 4:00.

I'm glad I bagged the LIRR idea because that got cancelled with the snow. Then, of course, after all our planning, it only took twenty minutes for the cab driver to get us to the airport. Our driver said it was the quickest he'd ever gotten to JFK from Manhattan. We weren't the only ones who coasted through traffic though. About three or four people were already waiting at the terminal, and by 6:00 the preponderance of the group was getting impatient waiting around for the last stragglers—who were actually arriving on time.

The benefit of being early was getting to finally interact with other members of the class who, for the most part, I'd only seen during our five classes spread across the last semester. If I had a complaint with the class, I think it would be that we had so few classes and for longer scheduled periods where we had little to no discussion amongst us. This was, after all, supposed to be a "seminar." As a consequence, I only got to chat with a handful of people in the class prior to the trip, and then only minimally. (Learning names has been difficult.) The time in the terminal—five hours before actually boarding the plane—worked as a great icebreaker in getting to know other people on the trip.

This was my first time flying Alitalia, of which I'd previously heard horror stories about lost luggage and bad service. It was definitely more cramped than the Swiss and Lufthansa flights I had last time I went to Italy. Legroom was minimal, and the Italian in front of me had their seat cocked back deep into my space for all but a few minutes bookending the flight. Fortunately I had an aisle seat and was able to stretch my legs in that direction. Of course, this led to one leg being relaxed and calm while the other was cramped and sore.

I wasn't able to sleep on the flight either. I've been staying up late in America. Some of this is because my shifts working at Moore Brothers Wine are in the evening, but I'd also been setting up my internal clock for Italy. By the time I would have gone to bed the night of the flight, it was already 10:00AM in Spain, where we saw the first daylight shining on the Basque hillsides.

I did try to go to sleep a few times, hoping to preempt the inevitable drowsiness I would get the next day or two. I asked for red wine both times the beverage cart came around, as a few glasses will usually make me a bit sleepy. Alas, it didn't work as planned, and considering this was the Italian airline, I was surprised at how putrid the wine was. One would think they'd like to represent their country better than that.

I passed the time listening to some tunes and watching two movies. The first was The Social Network, which was featured first on the overhead monitors—a definite sign of the aircraft's origin in the early 90s, along with inputs for the old two-prong plastic headsets. Having previously seen the film, I picked up on some nuances and underlying shadings I hadn't gotten in my first viewing, but this time around I didn't feel the emotional gravity that I remember from the theater.

The second movie on the flight was in Italian, and I didn't feel like testing myself
at the equivalent of 2AM either by listening or reading the subtitles on the 17" monitor four rows and the ceiling's distance away. Instead I watched the critically acclaimed breakthrough for mumblecore directors Mark and Jay Duplass: Cyrus, starring John C. Reilly, Marisa Tomei, and Jonah Hill in a very strange and wonderful indie romance flick. I'd downloaded a copy onto my ipod anticipating my predicament, and the movie was of the right scale to be enjoyable in that format.

We touched down at 11:30 AM Italian time and spent a quick hour in the Rome airport before boarding a smaller jet to Palermo. On this flight I had significantly more leg room: I sat in the first row of seats grouped in threes with only two seats in front of my row, so there was no seat in front of me at all to inhibit my legs. Of course the Italian man across the aisle from me was less fortunate, as the American woman in front of him had extra leg room in front of her, being in the first row of economy seating, and yet she decided to recline her seat back into this frustrated older gentleman who struggled to read the newspaper for the hour duration of the flight.

Actually, I was supposed to end up with a window seat on this flight—which would have been spectacular—but I decided not to ask the family of three (including a baby whose diaper was changed midflight) to move. I tried my best to watch the views out both sides of the plane during the flight, picking out Mount Vesuvius sticking out alone through the clouds—it definitely helped that I'd been to the volcano before and knew exactly what it looked like or otherwise I would have had no way to know what I was seeing.

What I didn't realize was just how stunning Sicily looked. As we first got a glimpse of the island I could make out small white chalky cliffs with several century's old watchtowers scattered along the precipice. The land then went very flat inwards for less than a mile before rising into jutting steep rocky hills. Many of these had open faces similar to El Capitan. These rock formations didn't seem to connect either, as the hills didn't follow a ridge. Each stood more or less on its own towering over the grassy plains below.

The first hills I could see from the Palermo Airport

More open face peaks on the drive into Palermo's city center

Coming into the airport, everybody found their luggage fairly quickly, and we met our tour guide for the trip, a Los Angeles transplant now living in Sicily: Jackie. The whole way into town, she pointed out things to look at, and just as she began to talk about each one, she would cut herself off, saying, "but I'll tell you more about that tomorrow." The rest of the evening many of us joked about whether she would ever tell us anything interesting or simply note that she might discuss it in the future.

After checking into the hotel, where I was assigned a room with a fellow music major I'd studied with in Florence, I went out for a stroll around the town. I was immediately struck by how few older buildings there were. The whole city, at least in the district where we were, seemed to have been built in the last half-century. There wasn't a lot I felt compelled to take pictures of, and there weren't any shops that looked different than the chains I'd seen across Italy in my past travels. At this point, I'm holding out hope that the tour guide will reveal the more compelling underlying features to the city that the laymen might not pick out.

I went out for about a half-hour in a smallish loop to the south of the hotel, getting a map along the way, and then I met up with one of my classmates, Kevin, to go on a slightly longer stroll north to the Mediterranean port. On this walk, I saw a few more older buildings, but mostly we got some nice views of the boats docked along the shore.

The port near the new Palermo town center

The class was treated to dinner this first night at a trattoria across the street from the hotel. We got the full four-course Italian treatment with antipasto (ham, salami, olives, and cheese) a pistachio-arugula pesto pasta dish, fried fish rolls, and parfait for dessert. We all agreed the pesto was really different from anything we'd had and great; most were less pleased with the fish dish though. We were all a bit stumped by that one—by that time I was pretty stuffed and didn't mind leaving plenty on my plate. It appeared to be like a fish sausage rolled in a pretty flavorless piece of prosciutto. For me, the dessert was definitely the highlight, with nice thin pieces of almond adding a wonderful texture to the thin block of gelato and chocolate drizzled overtop.

You would think that by this time we were all pretty tired and needing to crash, but it was one of our classmates' birthdays and we all wanted to make the most of our time in Sicily. A group of about twelve of us—the more talkative and older half of the class—went out for drinks. We had a few bottles of prosecco between us, and it was mostly just a good time. We've all really bonded pretty well, and I'm looking forward to spending more time together for the duration of the trip.

It was 12:30AM on Friday morning in Italy before I got to bed, which I figured worked out to about 32 sleepless hours. It's just like old times here in Sicily.

Santa Maria Della Catena, one of the few older buildings I saw in my first walks around Palermo.

The church was apparently built between 1490 and 1520

Il Convento Di San Domenico

No comments:

Post a Comment