At some point during the overnight flight from Philadelphia to Glasgow I slept with my head against the wall of the airplane. You know how wearing a hat can scrunch up your hair so it won’t sit down straight? That happened to my hair, right in front, and it didn’t go away for six days. Good thing that’s molto sylistico in Brescia these days.
After the overnight flight and a short flight inside Britain I arrived in London in the heart of the financial district. Since I really had no plans except to kill time, my immediate goal became locating the new skyscraper shaped like an extended Faberge egg that I’d spotted on the train into town. Tromping around I saw billions of guys all dressed alike, the bankers. Here are some tips if you want to impersonate them. First, buy a black suit and a blue shirt. Second, choose a suit size optimistically based on your ability to lose those 15 pounds you’ve been meaning to. Third, cut all of your hair the same length. Of course you have options — you can push all your hair straight forward, Caesar style, or you can use gel and push it up in the front. A cleanly shaven head also fulfills the rules. The final tip that probably goes without saying, either spend your time smoking or shopping for cigarettes or more black clothing. While the Italians want their clothes to drape, the bankers want to impersonate a sausage.
Important travel tip: It costs an additional 23 pounds to get to London and back from the Stansted airport. That’s not terrible unless you were really excited about only paying 20 pounds for your flight (yeah, plus another 12 pounds in fees). The low cost airlines could teach our banks a thing or two about charging customers unexpected fees. And while I’m whinging about travel gotchas, there’s no more free booze on international flights. Apparently this happened about a year ago but I didn’t get the memo. And get this: the beer is actually more expensive on international flights than domestic ones (at least USAirways). Possibly my last travel tip is that if you are in a European airport or airplane and you haven’t shown your boarding pass in 15 minutes, find someone in uniform and show them. Here’s the drill: You show your passport at checkin and get a boarding pass. You show your boarding pass at security. You show your boarding pass at unexpected points on your trip to your gate (Glasgow and Stansed airports), you show your boarding pass before leaving the gate, if there is a boarding ramp you show it at the bottom of the ramp too, if there is no boarding ramp then you show it when you get to the plane. The only other time I have seen police on the ramp just before boarding the plane was in El Salvador and it made me think “political repression” not “security”.
Friday evening: Brescia, Italy
The flight from London to Italy was fantastic because for the first time I was able to fly directly into Brescia’s airport. We have previously flown out of either Milano airport, Linate or Malpensa, and travel to both is difficult early in the morning. Brescia’s airport is just 20 minutes or so from Alessandra’s house so it was an easy trip for her to pick me up. The airport, however, has recently been renamed “Verona Brescia Airport” (VBS), so Alessandra was actually driving to the Verona airport to pick me up when Silvia called her and after some discussion Alessandra was convinced to return to Brescia, sparing me the embarrassment of attempting to use a telephone to reach her. Plus she was there with a big smile on her face when I got off the plane, welcoming me to Italy. She had recently been snorkeling in the Red Sea next to Egypt so she was unusually tan for so early in the year. Without delay we dropped my bags off at her apartment and headed to meet more friends who were already out at the nightspots on the Piazza ____ in the center of Brescia. I’d seen the Piazza many times before but I’d never visited it during warm weather. It was teeming with attractive people drinking wine. To that throng I added my baseball hat (remember the hair?) and beer drinking skills. There we found Silvia and she was quite happy to see her new digital camera that I had smuggled through customs. Many pictures were taken that I’m sure will be just fine once I have been photoshopped out of them. We made it an early night and headed back to sleep soundly around 2:30am. No sofa bed in existence has ever felt so comfortable as the one in Alessandra’s apartment after 36 hours of travel, 3 countries, 5 cities, and 4 planes.
I woke early at the crack of 11 when Alessandra returned from the store. Marco had called and was picking up Nico from the train station and they were coming over for breakfast/lunch. In fact this was just one of many times over the weekend when Marco would graciously chauffeur our gang around town and country. While I attempted to form coherent thoughts, Alessandra started cooking some tortellinis with butter, garlic, and salt and Marco started opening bottles of beer. Since it’s already 5am in Pittsburgh I was ready to start drinking. We all catch up on who is doing what and munch on many different snacks that Alessandra puts out to distract us while the pasta cooks. Marco is in charge of remembering the time so the pasts does not overcook but even his fine engineering skills are overwhelmed by the good times and we let the pasta go a bit long. No one complains and there is soon much less food in the house. Nico gets very excited when Alessandra suggests a particular kind of dessert that I cannot remember the name of. It is hard biscotti type cookies with almonds that are dipped into a sweet fortified wine. I have several and they are quite good. I had forgotten that Nico can give even Ken a run challenge in the most-food-eaten contest. He kept up this pace of eating the entire weekend.
Because of her early rising, Alessandra took a nap while Nico, Marco and I went up to the top of the nearby mountain overlooking the town. We discussed mountain biking, appropriate places to take a leak in the woods (I advocated the Belgian approach), and visited the summer house of a friend of Marco’s. The views from the top were great and I could see some marble quarries and much of Brescia. When I departed on Monday morning I got to see the same view in reverse as the plane rose above the town and then turned North into the Alps up a canyon. Marco and Nico dropped me off at Alessandra’s then left to take showers around dinnertime (well, US dinnertime).
We went to a different pizza restaurant than Alessandra’s favorite since we’d been to that one the last time I visited. The previous one was fantastic but the owner has to be cajoled into making anything other than a pizza margherita and even then nothing zanier than basil. This place had a similar, extremely thin crust on the pizza and I think it might have been equally good. My pizza had olive oil, roma tomatoes, fresh buffalo mozarella, and oregano and it made me realize how important good olive oil can taste. A cell phone rang and it was Ken calling. It was fantastic to hear from him but very difficult to understand what he was saying in the noisy restaurant. I think I shared my harebrained scheme to move to Italy and study Italian and perhaps he said yes.
After dinner we went to a party / exhibition put on by a local sculptor that Alessandra is now taking sculpture classes from. His work was quite interesting but I think I liked the more traditional pieces instead of the “fiberglass sumo wrestler hanging from thread symbolizing weight of responsibility” or something like that. I was told how impressive his currently exhibited piece at the gallery near Lago di ___ is, a full size fiberglass whale being pulled by a small boy. The name of this show is “sub anime” where “anime” translates to “spirit” or “soul”. Marco bought me a t-shirt that says the same. I had a nice chat with a local doctor, Andy, who was kind enough to practice his English on me.
It had started raining during dinner and while we were hoping to repeat the fantastic outside drinking and milling around experience from Friday night, we found another bar / restaurant and located a table big enough to fit us and the other half dozen friends that showed up. This place had both Tennet’s and Tetley’s on draft. The first is quite strong at 9% and the second quite smooth since it’s on nitrogen, like Guinness. I recommended the nitrogen beer to Alessandra but after a bit of ill communication (we discussed the Beastie Boys during the sculptor party), Alessandra said “why didn’t you recommend the Tetley’s that Nico is having? I like that one much better.” When Silvia arrived I asked her where her camera was, “Dov’e il camera?” She replied that it was in her house. Nico then told me that “camera” translates to “room”. What I want to say is “machina photographica”. OK, so “Dov’e il machina photographica?”. No, it’s feminine. “Dov’e la machina photographica?”. Well, ok, but you really want to say your camera, not the camera. “Dov’e la tua machina photographica?” That translates to something like “Where is the (f) your (f) camera (f)?” Since I’m a quick study this only took a couple beers to get right. I also learned how to say “favoloso” and “favorita” and at some point was able to roll my R’s for a quarter second or so, still nowhere near “Ruffles have ridges; you can’t say it can you?”. Yes, it’s only Saturday night (or early Sunday morning) and we have much yet to do.
‘‘Sylvia tells me that I’ve spelled everything wrong: Dov’è la tua macchina fotografica?’‘
Sunday: Parma, Italy
Sunday arrived like boom of a cannon at the again brutally early hour of 11am. It was like a rerun; Nico and Marco were on their way over but this time they had already eaten. Promising me a panino later, Alessandra ate seven bowls of cereal (perhaps I exaggerate) and we waited for their arrival. At almost one o’clock they arrived and told us that Nico needed to leave shortly to catch his train so that he could catch another bus back home to L’Acquila and would be home by midnight. I repeatedly suggested a massive road trip to L’Acquila but Marco, who would be driving, politely suggested that we take Nico to Parma where he could catch a later train and spend more time with us. We piled into Marco’s parents’ Maserati Quatroporte (well, it was a silver car) and went to Alessandra’s university. We were able to get in part of it but not reach her office. The gods that control the magic card access were taking the weekend off and would not give us a “beep” when the card was inserted, frustrating Alessandra’s plans to do “just 10 minutes” of work. Instead we sped off along the autostrase towards Parma, home of Parmesean cheese and Nico’s train station.
After saying our goodbyes to Nico at the seedy train station (Brescia’s train station is not the highlight of that town either) we wandered until finding the center of Parma. Marco and Alessandra had been here years before but it was my first time. Despite being about the same size as Brescia it had many more large and historic buildings in the center of town. Using her keen senses, Alessandra determined that they were built no earlier than the 1500’s and Nico confirmed this by actually asking an information booth. There is a large and well-planned park that reminds me of French gardens on the other side of the river from the center of downtown. Since it’s been tended for centuries, it has gigantic sycamore and walnut trees that tower above you providing shade and quiet. The effect is wonderful when matched to the geometric pathway designs paved with crushed stone and fine gravel. The park was alive with people playing, walking, or just sitting and enjoying the afternoon. It was indeed one of those “perfect afternoons” that you cannot plan but the temperature was just right and the sun sank low in the sky. We walked around the park for a bit because it was much too early for dinner but I convinced the others to let me have a quick bite to eat since it’s about 6pm and I’ve only had a bowl of cereal. Afterwards, there was more walking around and commenting on how comfortable the city is and some grand plans to tear down buildings in Brescia to build a similar park. We ate dinner at a restaurant outside town called El Grillo (the cricket) that is famous for proscuitto and gnocci fritta (fried bread, not like the other gnocci). Marco again suffered on the long drive back to Brescia because we were all quite tired after a fantastic day.
Monday morning was a true shock to the system as we awoke at 7:45am to get me to the airport and Alessandra to the university to teach class. At the airport, I watched everyone in front of me at security set off the metal detector and be wanded down personally. I decided to see if the machine was really broken, as I suspected, and removed all metal from my body save the lead fillings in my teeth. Amazingly, I was the first not to set of the beeping so the other guard motioned my bag to be hand searched, the first I had seen of this. After giving my alarm clock some scrutiny they x-rayed my bag again and very politely let me go. I should have gone through with my keys in my pocket, eh? The rest of the day was boring travel on Ryanair out of Brescia to London Stansted airport and then on Easyjet to Edinburgh. I did see some funny socks (they had toes in them) with monkeys and bananas stitched into them that I considered getting for Marianne, but they were too small.
Monday: Back in Edinburgh
Owen met me at the Edinburgh airport and we took a bus into the center of town. Two Americans who had been on my flight were also on the bus and I discovered they’d been on a round-the-world trip for nine months. Since I was wearing the same shirt for the third day, I noticed particularly his travel clothing and learned that he had just 2 pairs of pants and two shirts. Despite being washed in the sink at night his clothes looked fine and I would not have guessed they’d been traveling so long. Perhaps I will get a couple of the travel shirts despite their price. I’m getting a bit ahead of myself but our apartment had a washing machine that also dried clothes, but despite attempting to set it for cold water wash I managed to ruin the shirt I was wearing by making its colors bleed — surprising since I’ve had it for five years at least.
Edinburgh is centered around the massive castle in its center. The castle is built on top of a huge natural rock base and when we walked around it we were glad we weren’t trying to take it by force (though put enough beers in us and ya never know). The downtown, where we were staying and attending the conference, is built of heavy stone buildings and they are stained with soot. Most buildings are 2-4 stories so it’s human-scale and comfortable. Near the Royal Mile you can see some quite impressive architecture that is the only real indication of how important this town is to Scotland. We had a grand time the whole week walking around on the stone paved sidewalks and cobblestone streets.
We had two jobs: attend the conference and drink beers. Actually, that can be simplified to one job: drink as much beer as possible yet remain coherent during the conference. That was easier to do because the sun stayed up until 9:30pm or so and then came up again by 4:30am. Though the sun, well sunlight anyway, made it easier to get up in the morning, I can’t imagine how much I’d be dragging in December during the very long nights. The first evening of beer drinking and camaraderie with Owen, Vahe, Vamshi, Ginger, and me was particularly enjoyable, but that proved to be just the honeymoon as Owen started stressing about his thesis proposal the next day.
The other memorable evening was my last evening. My advisor David Garlan was honored with an award for the best paper at the conference 10 years prior. He gave a great presentation, really the best I’ve seen him deliver, with great composure. At the end of the presentation, the large audience was invited to ask questions and David adeptly fielded one from his 8-year-old nephew about “how do the symbols know what they mean?” His family came to Scotland to see his presentation and he took all of us out to dinner at Jackson’s. I found out later that evening that David had also recently been promoted to full professor at CMU, so there was plenty to celebrate. Even better than dinner with his whole family was when the women-folk peeled off to go to bed and the guys stayed out for a drink. The posse was three of David’s current students, his brother, and a former student who had co-written the distinguished paper. Swapping stories with the guys and meeting some of them for the first time, I knew then it was an evening I would not forget.
The next day started early and I began my trek home down the elevator (I include this only for completeness), then by foot, then taxi in Edinburgh to the bus station, then bus to Glasgow, then another bus to the airport, then moving sidewalks in the airport, then a 7 hour flight to Philly, then a 1.5 hour flight to Pittsburgh, then a bus ride, then a half hour walk home. My cat Isabelle will be waiting and ready to tell me about her big adventures while I’ve been gone and I’ll find some tuna in the fridge to treat her.