A taste of home in Padova

It had been quite a confusing day, first with the difficulty of orienting ourselves in Trieste long enough to catch some of the sights before afternoon, when we stumbled through the town in search of the train station, where we’d catch a regional train to Padova. Our confusion was only temporarily abated on the short hour-and-a-half train ride between the two cities; at the Padova station, it all started again. We were to catch bus number 19. I couldn’t remember how to say “nineteen” in Italian. Lynn and Mark couldn’t find the bus stop. If we ever got on the bus, we realized we wouldn’t be able to find the “big blue bridge”, our cue to request a stop, in the dark of the night.

A half hour later, we stumbled down a quiet alleyway a mile outside the city center, with very little streetlamp light to guide the way, to our bed and breakfast. An Italian couple greeted us at the door in broken English, and I greeted them back in the best Italian I could muster in my exhausted state. Ten confusing and not entirely grammatically correct minutes later, we had our room keys and directions to two of the nearest restaurants: a traditional pizzeria and Le Chevalier, an Irish pub that also served Italian food and cheeseburgers.

Somehow the idea of a French restaurant with an Irish theme serving Italian and American food didn’t seem appetizing, so we opted for the more predictable option. Though it was 9 p.m., a fairly typical time for Italians to eat dinner, the pizzeria was almost deserted; as we ate our pizzas and sipped on our two-euro water, we couldn’t bring ourselves to talk above a whisper for fear of disturbing the two other couples quietly eating near us. I glanced wildly around for something that might inspire a conversation topic, but only one sentence came to mind: “This is good pizza.” Lynn and Mark nodded. That was the end of the conversation.

The next day was a whirlwind of churches, outdoor shopping, public transportation and frescoes; it was a day in which we explored all that was unfamiliar to us. We returned to the bed and breakfast with the collective desire for a louder, less strained dinner than last night. We were wary to try the pub in all its cross-cultural oddities, but we were so hungry that we went anyway.

We were greeted warmly by a twentysomething Italian woman in Chanel glasses who was pouring beer from the tap into four two-liter containers. It was fairly early for Italians to be eating dinner, but at least half the wooden tables and benches were filled to capacity with young people. We took seats at a table and gazed at the menu: Cheeseburgers! French fries! Fried mozzarella! Chicken Caesar salad! Fruit bowls! On television: American pop stars! Was this home?

No, but it was a taste of home. I realized that this weekend, and this entire semester, I thought I’d completely immerse myself into the unfamiliarity of Italian culture as entirely as possible. I wanted something new, something un-American—and I got it. But even though I was willing to throw myself completely to the mercy of foreign people, places, and things, I needed that little bit of familiarity to get myself through the day.

Guys’ night out

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Fabio drives his taxi-van like a high-powered Silicon Valley software executive might drive his Ferrari. Even when navigating around the sharpest of hairpin turns, the speedometer doesn’t dip below 110 kilometers an hour. All the while his favorite Italian radio station blasts its ballads and American pop tunes, and over the din it’s hardly possible to hold an ordinary conversation.

But we try. “THIS IS WHERE I ATE DINNER WITH MY ADVISORY GROUP,” I shouted to crazy-eyes Mike as we drove through the outskirts of Bassano del Grappa and passed El Rancho, a lively and brightly-colored Mexican-Italian restaurant. “WHAT?” Mike said. I shook my head as if to say, “It’s no use,” and he once again fixed his eyes on the road nervously.

The group of us—five boys, one girl—was glad to be out of the van when we arrived at the traffic-laden center of Bassano, not only because we’d feared for our lives the whole ride but also because we’d clearly left the provinciality of Paderno del Grappa, population 2,002, far behind in just a 15-minute car drive. Just seeing the hordes of glamorous Italian sidewalk wanderers and the handfuls of Smart ForTwo cars hurtling at top speed through roundabouts and thoroughfares was alone worth the five euro price.

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Our first stop was Bassano’s historic center, just a few narrow and crooked blocks off the modern artery from which we had come. Right at the base of the huge, centuries-old white cathedral was a car show of souped-up Honda Civics revving their engines and backfiring with a loud CRACK every few yards. The main attraction, though, seemed to be a bar on the square where at least a hundred Italians in pressed Lacoste polo shirts and mile-high suede boots gathered at outdoor tables. The bar itself was smaller than my prison-cell college dorm, and once I was in the door, someone smashed me into the bar and within two feet of the bartender’s face. “Tre spritz!” I managed to yell before I was swallowed in a sea of leather jackets.

We took our time enjoying the drinks—we’d earned them—but noticed something peculiar almost right away. “Has anyone else wondered why there are so many men here?” Mark asked. Indeed, at least three-quarters of the crowd gathered around the closet-sized bar was made up of sweater-vested men in black frame glasses and carefully gelled dark hair. Within seconds of Jake’s murmur of the words “gay bar,” the historic center’s heterosexual American contingent was gone and never to be seen at that bar again.

Photo by Jill Kimball

The weekend’s whirlwind tour!

Being a student in the CIMBA program means you’re constantly throwing yourself into one thing after another. This weekend, Lynn, Mark and I threw ourselves into Trieste, Padua and Venice. When we returned Sunday night, we threw ourselves back into homework and haven’t had time to breathe until now.

The first leg of the trip was a CIMBA-run Friday trip to sights near Trieste. First, our super-touristy buses stopped at Redipuglia, a World War I memorial and former battleground. It’s a huge, concrete-and-marble expanse that holds all the graves of the 40,000 known soldiers who died in the war, plus the remains of 60,000 unknown men, in a terraced motif. What struck me about the memorial was the stark contrast between its very white and cold expanse and all the trees and little houses dotting the countryside around it. After staring at a sea of green interspersed with little yellow and orange houses, the brightness and unnatural quality of the memorial was a little shocking–appropriately so.





Next, the bus stopped at Castello Miramare, built right on the cliffs overlooking the Adriatic Sea in the late 19th century. We didn’t get to go inside (we were only there for an hour, so the 4 euro admission price didn’t seem worth it), but we saw the pretty grounds via many staircases and even a little tunnel, and we made our way around the perimeter of the castle to the expansive balcony overlooking the ocean. The view of Trieste from the castle was outstanding, if a little hazy.

Photo by Jill Kimball



Photo by Jill Kimball

Then, after the bus dropped off the 3/4 of the student body who had decided to visit Ljubljana, Slovenia, three of us strapped on our backpacks and wandered around Trieste proper for a while. The city was full of beautiful, crooked alleyways that were perfect for the casual wanderer. The city clearly bore the mark of many different Western cultures, as it should given its location and involvement in so many land disagreements. In the same square was a canal that recalled Venice’s reign over Trieste, a church with Roman columns that hearkened back to its Roman roots, and a Serbian orthodox church, which reflects its interesting east-meets-west geographical position.


Photo by Jill Kimball
Photo by Lynn Hurley

In the late afternoon we caught a train to Padua and got to our B&B by nightfall. The couple who owned the little hotel, a large converted house, barely spoke any English–good news for me, because I got to practice my Italian; bad news for my friends, who knew not a word. Also staying at the hotel was a handful of students from Cal Tech, backpacking around Europe before the school year began. (I still can’t believe that most of the CSUs, UCs and U of O haven’t even started yet!) One girl was originally from Bucharest, Romania, but in the first five minutes of conversation with her we could barely pick up any accent at all.

When we woke up in the morning, we set off for the Cappella degli Scrovegni, where we had to reserve tickets online ahead of time to see Giotto’s famous frescoes. Much of his art had been damaged by a combination of centuries of neglect and exposure to polluted air, which caused the paint to peel. Since the 1960s, preservers have been trying to restore the frescoes. They’ve set up a complex system of air-churning machines and special waiting chambers to make sure the doors of the chapel aren’t opened and exposed to the elements for extended periods of time. They only open the doors for visitors every 20 minutes, and photos aren’t allowed…although we took a ton in the chapel’s lovely green grounds while we waited.

Photo by Jill Kimball
After the chapel, we found our way to the historic city center and took to street wandering for a few hours. We stumbled upon a few blocks of the biggest Italian names in fashion–Prada, Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana, etc.–then found more affordable goods at an outdoor market in Piazza delle Erbe, one of the city’s main squares. I was glad to see there were very few tourists; everyone in the city center seemed to be locals or area visitors taking a day trip to go shopping.

Photo by Jill Kimball
Photo by Jill Kimball

We saw and went inside several churches, but the most impressive by far was the Basilica of St. Anthony, where the actual remains of Padua’s patron saint sit in a tomb inside the sanctuary. The church, as you can see from the picture, is impossibly huge inside and out. It had about 20 chapels inside, and at every one there was at least one person kneeling or stopping to whisper a “Hail Mary”. The basilica is obviously considered a sort of Catholic pilgrimage destination to Italians.

Photo by Jill Kimball
Photo by Jill Kimball
Photo by Jill Kimball

Hilariously enough, we were so sick of Italian food that night that we decided to forsake pizza and pasta for bar food at Le Chevalier, an Irish-style pub with a French name, Italian menus and good ol’ American food. We watched a pathetic Rome soccer game while we munched on french fries and burgers.

Photo by Jill Kimball
Photo by Jill Kimball
Photo by Jill Kimball
Sunday’s adventure: Venice.

Photo by Jill Kimball

Let me just preface my impressions of Venice with this: we knew from the beginning that we were crunched for time and that we’d only be able to spend four or five hours in the city. On top of that, the weather was crummy and prevented us from doing some things we had planned, like wandering around for hours and grabbing a coffee in St. Mark’s Square.

That said…Venice is overrun. It’s Disneyland. While it looks exactly as I pictured it, and while no other city looks anything like it, there are so many people there that it’s hard to remember to look around you when you’re pushing through the crowds. There are lines everywhere: we waited 20 minutes to check our backpacks for the day at the train station, 10 to get tickets for the vaporetti (water taxies), another 10 to actually get on a vaporetto, 20 to go up the bell tower in St. Mark’s Square, 10 to get into the Doge’s Palace…and the line was so long to get into St. Mark’s Cathedral that we skipped it altogether, something I wish I hadn’t had to do.

Photo by Jill Kimball
Photo by Jill Kimball
Photo by Jill Kimball

I sincerely hope anyone else who goes to Venice has a better experience than I had on Sunday. It’s a beautiful city, and I think if I’d had more time to enjoy it, I would have found different parts of the city that were less crowded by foot traffic. I also would have found places where English was not the primary language, since the whole point of visiting a foreign country, to me at least, is experiencing a culture different than your own. I didn’t get that foreign experience in San Marco, or on the Rialto Bridge, or on the vaporetti, so I hope to return closer to winter and find that Venice really is the beautiful, romantic city I always pictured it to be.

Photo by Jill Kimball

UP NEXT: A NIGHT OUT IN BASSANO DEL GRAPPA

Photo by Jill Kimball

…But I’m not a business major!

Our second week at the Istituto Filippin has been as crammed with business-related leadership seminars as it was last week. On Tuesday we had to sit through a “basic beliefs” seminar in which we determined what was most important to us–learning, love, spirituality, what have you–and how that tied into the decisions we’ve made in our lives. It encouraged us to use our core values to solve tough problems. One question the lecturer fired at us: would you rather be a hangman, someone who electrocutes convicts on death row, or a member of a firing squad? My answer: no.

The most painful seminar, though, was Wednesday’s lecture on strengths. We were told we’d be more successful in business if, instead of focusing our energy on improving weaknesses, we put most of our efforts into honing our strengths. It was all going well until the lecturer split us into groups, gave us a tricky business scenario, and asked us to figure out how we would handle it based on our greatest strengths. When one of the groups went to the front of the class and gave their presentation, the lecturer paused and said, in the most condescending way possible, “Sorry, my bullsh** detector’s going off.” We all looked at each other, horrified.

Luckily the day got better from there. The entire American population turned up for the CIMBA vs. Istituto (us vs. the Italian high schoolers) soccer game on what we call the Jesus field. Needless to say, we got stomped; the ending score was something like 9-0. The fans in the stands, however, stayed enthusiastic to the end.

Photo by Jill Kimball

The “Jesus field.”

That night, I also experienced my first Italian language-barrier problem since arriving. We were at a cafe, and I thought I’d order a “sorbetto”, a lemon drink I remembered one of my teachers recommending to the class. I went up to the woman at the bar and asked, in my best accent, for the drink. She threw her head back and laughed, and I was confused. She explained to me, first in Italian and then in English when I began to look confused, that “sorbetto” wasn’t considered a cocktail drink; it was a palette cleanser that Italians drank between meals. Oops!

I got another chance at Italian on an impromptu afternoon walk to nearby Crespano del Grappa. After we saw some of the sights in the tiny town, we stopped by a gelateria to finally get some Italian gelato–and I totally blanked on all the Italian words I knew that related to ice cream. After I ashamedly ordered two scoops of Nutella and Wafer-flavored goodness in English, I realized all the vocabulary I needed was written down on a menu two feet from the counter. D’oh!

Photo by Jill Kimball Photo by Jill Kimball
Everyone’s looking forward to the weekend, when we can escape tiny Paderno and finally start to see the world beyond. Almost the entire student body is heading to Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia. We had initially thought of going there, but we didn’t want to get to the Trieste train station and find out the train ticket would cost us upwards of $100 each–and now we’re glad we didn’t go, because all the trains are full and the entire hostel will be flooded with crazy Americans! We’ll hold onto our B&B reservations in Padova, thanks very much!

Read next: Adventures in Padova, Trieste and Venice

Photo by Jill Kimball

The Foreignness of Home

“I think about four or five.”

Never had one sentence, especially one said so off-handedly, made me want to scream in agony and burst out laughing simultaneously.

I thought this whole day—which included a weepy goodbye to my parents, two international flights totaling 13 hours, and luggage-hauling at the Venice airport and train station in 80-degree weather—had toyed with my emotions enough. I thought once we got on the train bound for our ultimate destination, I might feel some relief. I was wrong.

Waiting for a train at Bassano del Grappa Italy

According to Mandy, the resident intern who guided our group of eight to our train in Venice and filled us in on the specifics of our study abroad program, “about four or five” was the number of journalism students enrolled; business majors outnumbered us at least 20 to one. Was this statistic frustrating? Disappointing? Humorously endearing? My mind wasn’t sure; it was 6 a.m. Pacific Standard Time and I hadn’t gotten a wink of sleep for 24 hours.

On the one hand, I thought, the notion of spending three months with close to a hundred people whose class titles I did not understand sounded horrendous. On the other, suggested the glass-half-full voice in the back of my mind, being in the minority would give me a chance to learn more about the kind of students I never befriended back in the United States.

Almost all of my travel companions, who I’d met on the flight from Frankfurt to Venice, were from the Midwest. They studied finance, accounting and strategic communication, three subjects I couldn’t define. Their conversations seemed to revolve around chain steakhouses I’d never heard of, closets full of shoes I couldn’t afford, and social and political commentary I didn’t agree with. What was I, a vegetarian left-winger who didn’t even own a decent pair of pumps, to do?

I sat in silence for most of the hour-long trip to Bassano del Grappa. I didn’t have much to say about steak. Instead, I thought about the Italians I’d encountered so far. I overheard a young woman riding the bus to the train station talking to a friend on her cell phone. “I’m on the way to the train station, but I’ll be back tomorrow,” she said. “Let’s have dinner. OK. Ciao Ciao.” The man at the train station’s ticket counter asked me how I was, and when I said, “Bene, fa bel tempo (I’m doing well; the weather is nice),” he smiled and nodded. And when the old man with the cane spotted an old friend in the same train car, he slapped his pal jovially on the back the same way any American man would.

They spoke a different language and a few of the illustrations on their road signs confused me, but I felt very few barriers between these foreigners and myself. Their conversation topics were familiar; their mannerisms were surprisingly similar to my own.

As I sat pondering my odd familiarity with foreigners, I could not have felt further away from the Americans in the seats across from me. I suddenly understood just how much studying abroad demands exploration outside one’s comfort zone. Before, I considered the U.S. to be my official comfort zone. But on my first day in Italy, I learned more about my homeland than I did about the Veneto.

Photo by Jill Kimball

First post!

My overseas flight was four days ago, but I’m still wrapping my mind around the fact that I’m in Italy. The evidence is all around me–beautiful landscapes, little yellow-, orange- and whitewashed houses, scary drivers and crucifixes everywhere–but I’m still catching up on sleep, so half the time I forget where I am because I’m so focused on just staying awake.

Photo by Jill Kimball
The Istituto Filippin, an Italian boarding school where all of us American students are also staying and taking classes, is beautiful and a nice change of pace from the expansive University of Oregon campus. It used to take me 20 or more minutes to walk all the way across campus; now it hardly takes me five. Our dorms are expansive, with tall cielings, huge old-fashioned windows with thick wooden shutters, and a private bathroom with a bidet (?!). Once a week, maids come to change the towels and linens. There’s also a dining hall that serves all three meals every day, but so far it isn’t very popular with students–most meals consist of pasta, some sort of pork dish and a cup of pudding or yogurt. We may never eat pasta again once we leave here.

Photo by Jill Kimball
The campus is divided in two: one half is for dorms and classrooms, and the other is for athletics. Today I spent most of my day in the latter half for the Da Vinci Challenge, a leadership and team-building series of exercises that demanded cooperation, trust and all the strength I could muster. With my team of ten, I climbed over a 15-foot wall and made my way through a tangled web of ropes. I even fell from a high tower to demonstrate that I trusted the eight boys below to catch me.

Going through the day, which included other difficult strength exercises that tired us all out pretty quickly, was difficult, but I felt proud at the end. All those trust and group exercises proved to me that I’m no longer that shaking sixth-grade girl who can’t muster the courage to complete the ropes course at science camp.

The rest of the week, including Saturday, will be taken up by seminars and leadership workshops. Two friends and I hope to take a day trip to Venice on Sunday, but it may rain, so we may stay in the area and go somewhere closer instead.

READ NEXT: TALK OF TRAVELS AND RAIN