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.

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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.

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