Thursday, January 31, 2013

Walking the streets and feeding my face in Bologna

I fetched up in Bologna with only a hand-drawn map showing me how to get from the train station to my nearby hotel, having failed to get online and look up a map the whole time I was in Padua. This turned out not to be a problem, but it was a much bigger concern when I reached the hotel and found instructions to dial an Italian number in order to get inside. My stupid cellphone doesn't work outside of France, and no-one answered the doorbell, so I had visions of being stranded out on the street for the duration of my Bologna sojourn. Luckily, however, there was a deli next door and a very nice Italian man let me use his phone to call up and ask the hotel owner to come open up, so I was saved from a likely future as a Bolognese prostitute (I believe that's how Moll Flanders got going).

Having duly checked in, I set off again still with no map and no clue where I was going. Luckily enough, there was just one straight road to follow to get into the city centre, the Via dell'Indipendenza. It was early Saturday evening by this time, and after somnolent Padua, I was shocked by the buzz on the street. It almost seemed to have a festival vibe to it, or the feeling when a big concert or sporting event lets out and everyone takes to the street en masse. It seemed like everyone in Bologna was there. When I managed to pick up a map from the tourist office, I read that it is in fact a tradition in Bologna to promenade up and down this street on a Saturday night. It was amazing how energetic and lively it made the city seem.

Via dell'Indipendenza

I spent that first evening just walking around, and particularly admiring the many colonnaded walkways that line almost every street. It was at one point compulsory to have these built on every street, so they're an ubiquitous feature of the city. Unfortunately, it rained for much of the time that I was there, but if you want to be anywhere in rainy weather, it's Bologna, since you can get from A to B all over the city without getting wet! Many of the colonnades also have pretty decorated ceilings or other interesting individual flourishes as well.

This was something like out of The Birds - look how they're all flying straight at me!

Statue of Neptune by day

And his lounging shadow by night

The two towers of Bologna - they seemed to be leaning at much crazier angles than this photo shows
I'll put a bit more about what I actually did in Bologna next time, but you can't talk about Bologna (or visit Bologna) without focusing a bit on the food. Even within Italy, Bologna is famous for its good food, and of course we all know Spaghetti Bolognese.... Or do we? I didn't try, but apparently if you ask for spaghetti bolognese in Bologna you'll get anything from a facepalm to an expression of horror. Ragù alla bolognese is a real thing, but this meat sauce is traditionally served on tagliatelle, not spaghetti (or in lasagne of course). I also found that it tasted subtly different. The traditional variety is made of a blend of three meats (I'm guessing beef, lamb and pork but not sure) and has a real melt-in-your-mouth quality to it. It also seemed less tomatoey than what I'm used to. In any case, the two lasagnes (made with green pasta) and the tagliatelle I had while there were very yummy!

I also tried another speciality, tortelloni, served in a broth and filled with what seemed to be a sort of pork filling. Another dish I had was a bolognese cutlet - veal covered with prosciutto and parmesan. I only had this because it was on a fixed-price menu, it's not the sort of thing I would normally order. It was okay, but not my favourite thing I had in Bologna. There's one other speciality I read about, mortadella, a sort of pork sausage, but I didn't get to try that.

And talking of looks of horror - I asked a waiter if he had rosé and he said no, but they had white and red and he could "make me some" if I wanted. No thanks!!

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Radio Gaga

I know, I know, I'm behind with my posts... While you wait though, you can listen to me shooting the breeze on Tours' own Radio Béton with some of my pals! Topics include how to make friends with a New Zealander (or piss one off), the cat vs. bird showdown brewing in my home country, and what my good friend Laura won't miss when she leaves France (sad face!)

I thought going in that I'd be a complete disaster and really hate the way I sounded, but other than the fact that I was still a bit croaky due to an all-nighter at Laura's leaving party on Saturday, I don't think I sounded too rubbish really!

The show (awful, awful name by the way) can be streamed or downloaded for your listening convenience via this link or if I work out how to embed it, it'll appear below like magic:


Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Testing times at the IIO

I still have to write about my bologna trip, but I can't resist a wee post about Day 1 of my job interview at the IIO (Important International Organisation).

Day -1 was, unsurprisingly, marred with transport chaos since a bit of snow had fallen across France and Belgium. My train to Paris Montparnasse was about 25 minutes late, so I was relieved when I got to Gare du Nord 15 minutes before my next train left. There was a huge queue of people waiting in front of the entrance to the platform, but a worker I spoke to said they were just waiting to allow people on. It was, therefore, a bit of a surprise when the train just pulled off with no one on it and the information disappeared from the displays. Typically, no one told us anything that was happening, and I had to chase down several workers before someone told me to get in the queue for a different train that was headed to cologne via brussels. This wasn't leaving till 12 pm, 1 1/2 hours after my original train. I was nonetheless relieved to be allowed on this one, even if it meant sitting on a flip-down seat in the corridor (along with a family of five from New Zealand, funnily enough). Speeds were reduced because of the snow, so I ended up finally getting to brussels about 2 1/2 hours later than planned, but I was pretty happy that this had all happened the day before my test at the IIO, not the day of, so I wasn't too upset.

After getting lost slightly and trudging through the snow in my slippery tennis shoes, dragging a suitcase, I made it to the luxury suite of a nice hotel located in a lovely central square not far from the Grande Place and the central station. (Thanks IIO!) I'm definitely enjoying the huge bed, jacuzzi bath (complete with jets which aren't actually all that strong but which create a helluva splash all over the floor) and swanky surroundings! It is not like me to travel in such style, so I'm making the most of it!

Anyway, after experimenting with the trouser press and hair dryer (I despise drying my hair, which is probably part of the reason it's always such a mess) the night before, it was up bright and early this morning for breakfast at the hotel (which I was too nervous to eat, I should go on the stress diet) and a taxi to the IIO (which of course was late, so thankfully I left plenty of time to get there). I would love to give all the details about the IIO - it's somewhere that I would never have dreamed of visiting behind the scenes, and it was really quite exciting as well as intimidating to go inside - but I don't want to put too much out there on the blog. (If any of you whom I know are dying of curiosity, feel free to email for more details.)

I will say I had to go through airport-style security to get in. It was quite funny, because the woman who took my bag to go through the X-ray machine asked if I had a cellphone. I said no, but I had an ipad, which she took out to go through separately. When I got through the metal detector, the guard on the other side of the X-ray was talking to the woman about my bag, and he asked me again if I had a cellphone. Still no... Then he poked at the iPod sticking out of my bag. "Oh, that's an iPod", I said. He picked it up and looked at it suspiciously as though it were the first time he'd seen such a thing (maybe I'm the only hillbilly left without an iPhone for my music needs) and asked me if it took photos. "Nope..." I replied, "oh, but I do have a camera!" The camera was swiftly confiscated (although not the iPad, strangely enough), but I had to laugh at how long it took us to get there!

On to the test - first up was a 3 hour written exam (on a computer) which was mainly questions to do with information management, unsurprisingly. I thought it all looked hugely daunting when I first looked at it, but after some initial hiccups with not being able to say what a whole bunch of acronyms stood for, I managed to take some deep breaths and give at least adequate, I think, answers for the other questions (one of which had to be answered in French). I was expecting there to be some on the IIO specifically, but I think I managed to work in some of what I studied up on along the way. After lunch, there was a one-hour French multiple-choice french test, which involved listening and written comprehension/grammar sections. The good part about this is that it gave you your grade straight away, and I pretty much aced it :) It said I had near-perfect grammar and excellent comprehension (although clearly it's never heard me speak or seen me try to write). Hopefully feeling like I did okay will help with some confidence for the one-hour panel interview coming up tomorrow.

It's really hard to know where I stand - of the other two candidates I had lunch with, one was only doing a studentship, while the other seemed already to be in a very similar post. I guess I'm somewhere in between, so who knows. I feel like I've already done really well to get this far - I had to pass an online test already as well as the usual application process - so I suppose I can just cross my fingers that the interview goes okay tomorrow and see what happens. Whatever happens, it probably won't be quick, sinc I applied for this back in August!

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Fair Padua, nursery of arts

I woke up on Friday morning practically hopping with excitement over my trip to Italy, and despite the all-day travel required (train to CDG, flight to Bologna then train again to Padua), I arrived in the city ready to be charmed. Even if this hadn't been the case, it's easy to be seduced by the narrow cobblestone streets, medieval buildings and picturesque squares of the city. I headed out from my hotel near the train station to the city centre at around 7.30 pm, too late to do anything except wander the strangely quiet streets and grab a bite to eat.

The food I had in Padua (a pizza and a calzone - not at the same sitting) was notable only for its blandness, but that was forgivable since food was on the agenda in Bologna, my next destination, whereas I had only one reason for coming to Padua, and that was art.

A couple of months ago I happened to watch a BBC documentary on depictions of the devil in Western art (don't worry, this sort of thing is balanced out with plenty of less intellectual fare such as Top Chef and Project Runway), in which they visited the Scrovegni Chapel (or Arena Chapel) in Padua, site of an earlyish depiction of the devil. The documentary pointed out that he is blue, not red, since that was formerly the colour associated with darkness and evil, and hence the devil.


The Scrovegni Chapel bit lasts for about 5 minutes from 34' in - worth a look for the panoramic view of the chapel

As soon as I set eyes on the chapel in the documentary, I knew I wanted to go there. I didn't expect to have ,my chance so soon, but once I worked out that Bologna was a feasible destination to go with my expiring air miles, and that Padua was only about an hour away by train, I decided I had to make the detour.

Stupidly, since my trip to the chapel was the only reason for going to Padua, I forgot that you're meant to book tickets in advance, only realising this on Thursday night when it was too late. The joys of travelling in the off season, however, ensured that when I turned up at 9 am, when the ticket office opened, I was the only person around and the friendly staff quickly booked me in for the 9.25 timed visit, before seeing me on my way with a chirpy, "Let's go! Keep it up!" (Okaaay, will do...)

Before being allowed inside the chapel, you have to spend 15-20 minutes (depending on the season) in a climate-controlled lobby which somehow adjusts you so that your moisture levels or something (???) don't damage the frescoes. I was the only person in my 'group' (up to 25 people are admitted at a time), although when I got in to see the chapel there were three people from the previous group still in there. In summer, you're only allowed to stay inside for 15 minutes, which they extend to 20 in winter. When the buzzer sounded and the other three people left, I just stayed put, on the logic that they'd obviously got a double go, so so should I. Luckily enough, the guard let me stay (the next group were not so lucky, and were made to leave at the same time that I was), so I ended up with a whole 40 minutes to admire the frescoes in relative tranquility. When I first stepped inside, I felt a sensation almost like panic that I wouldn't be able to take in all of the chapel's beauty in such a short space of time, it was just overwhelming, but the 40 minutes gave me plenty of time to really look at the details. I was actually glad that photos weren't allowed, since that forced me to really look at it rather than just snapping pictures.

Best of all, when the first group were going out and the next group was coming in, the guard stepped out to accompany them and I was left all alone in the chapel. It was only for about 30 seconds, but it felt magical. The experience of being all alone contemplating a masterpiece of Western art dating from the early 14th century (entirely the handiwork of Giotto, by the way) made me feel like a millionaire. I can only imagine how immeasurably better the experience was than it would be at the height of summer with 25 people talking and jostling in that small space.

This experience is fresh in my memory, so it might be an unfair comparison, but for me this was at least as good as the Sistine Chapel (which was full to the brim when I went in September 2009).

As for the rest of my time in Padua, I looked around the attached museum, which was huge, but which to be honest, I probably could have skipped since it didn't really have any stand-out pieces. I then wandered around the centre again, going by the same places I'd seen at night. Other than the chapel, I didn't really have any ideas on what Padua had to offer or plans of what to do, so I ended up just having lunch and then hopping on the train to Bologna, where I was booked into a hotel for the next few nights.

So I left feeling that there was probably a lot more I could have seen while I was in the city, if I'd had longer, or even if I'd had a clearer plan, but very happy with my visit to the chapel, so it's all good really.

This building doesn't look very special in the photo, but I loved its elegant harmony

That awkward moment when you're caught sleeping with your horse for all eternity

The astrological clock - impressed it still tells the right date

Lovers in a Paduan square

Square with the astronomical clock and the pretty building above

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Festive frolics

Alright, the dust of the festive season has settled and I've recovered enough to recap the events of the last couple of weeks.

I celebrated Christmas without my family for only the second time this year. The first time was in Moscow in 2006, where the 25th of December is just another working day. I did have a Christmas dinner on the 24th with a bunch of teachers, but otherwise it was not particularly exciting. This time round was also pretty quiet, but enjoyable (and not marred by teaching English!) I went around to my friend Laura's place for Experimental Chicken and other delights. Experimental Chicken, you ask? Laura's a scientist, and our 3.30€ Christmas chicken was fresh from her lab. That may be enough to put off the more queasy among you, but she did assure me they only sold chickens from the Control groups of experiments, so they were unlikely to be pumped full of weird substances. In fact, I think they're quite possibly better in that respect than normal chickens from the shop. They do come, however, intact, complete with heads and internal organs. I respectfully requested that the one of us who spends her working days chopping up mice brains dealt with the chicken prep, so by the time I turned up it was looking just like what you'd buy at the supermarket. She did say, however, that the lungs are particularly difficult to extract. Yum!

Anyway, we had a nice dinner, watched Love Actually (I'd seen it before, but didn't remember anything about it, which is apparently shocking to everyone for whom it's practically a religion) and played charades, at my repeated insistence that Christmas wasn't Christmas without a parlour game or two. I ended up getting home at around 4.30 am, so we must have had fun!

Quick quiz #1: What is this?

If you answered anything other than "extremely strong 2 year-old Gruyère", then you would be wrong. It doesn't even look like cheese!

Christmas markets in front of the train station

Quick quiz #2: How many exposed breasts should be on display at a Christmas market?

If you answered "none", then clearly you are from some puritanical English-speaking country.

The correct answer, of course, is six
Our Christmas dinner. I think we did quite well!

Laura and I just before digging in
A week or so later, it was of course time for New Year's celebrations. I was a little bit pissed off going in, because we had been all messaging back and forth on Facebook about a joint budget to buy wine and food and party supplies and pretty much everyone said 20-25€. Then on NYE itself, the message came through that it came to 33€ per person. Which is a pretty big increase on that. Why bother asking people's budgets if you're going to go about 50% over what was agreed on? Anyway, what can you do? It wasn't worth getting upset about, even though I still think there was no need to buy 15 bottles of sparkling, an unknown quantity of still wine, beer, vodka, rum, gin etc. etc. for a dozen people. If we'd actually drunk all of that we'd probably all be dead.

But grumbling over, we had a lovely evening, and I must say the extra touches of decorations, party poppers, hats, sparklers, confetti etc. did make for a more special vibe than your average party. Just before midnight, we played charades (theme of the season it seems) amid concerns that things needed livening up before 12 (not sure if charades did the trick or not, tbh - especially with the francophones!) and then there was dancing and confetti throwing and suchlike. I almost caused a riot by scheduling several NZ tunes one after another on the party playlist. All my shrieking of "cultural imperialism" didn't save me from being officially banned from commandeering the laptop again. Ha. We were also hanging out the window at some point yelling at men passing by, since there was a distinct dearth of single men at the party (slash of our collective acquaintance). I'm pretty blind, it was dark, and they were wearing hoodies, so I couldn't really tell what they looked like, but after a short conference it was decided that they were not good looking and therefore would not be invited into the party. So my shouting out the window at them went along the lines of "Eh, les mecs! Les mecs! ...... Continuez!" ("Hey, guys! Guys! ..... Carry on!")

I fell asleep on Caro's couch at about 5 am, I think with the distinct idea in my head that I was just taking a little nap before continuing to party. In actual fact, I woke up freezing cold around 9 and crept into the spare bedroom to continue my "little nap" until around 1 pm, when I woke up to find that Caro had already done almost all the cleaning up. Oops! Ironically, I was the only one who slept there, and I probably live the closest. At least I didn't have far to walk of shame it in the morning, although pretty much everyone I came across on the short walk home was looking remarkably chipper and not like they'd slept in their clothes at all. Unfair!

A quick selfie before heading out for New Year's Eve. It's the only time of the evening where I can be sure my hair and makeup look okay

Party group shot

Philippa and Caroline on the dancefloor

Me and Caroline shortly after midnight, shortly before man-hassling

If this were America's Next Top Model, I'd probably be told off for looking shorter than I am, and possibly like I have a wasting disease in my lower limbs. Other than that, good photo

Just chillin during a round of charades

Post-confetti attack. As you may be able to see, it got in all the drinks as well, but I vowed to make it my personal mission to drink them all anyway

Me and Laura

Jen, Laura, me and Marcia at around 4 am when the weak-willed were heading home

I seem to be a fan of photos leaning over. I did actually receive complaints that my dress wasn't as low-cut as usual (for reals), so this may be making up for it

Philippa the confetti fairy

Rudi, one of the 3 men (all partners of other guests) attending our soirée. Where the single men at, Tours?

Ladies in black - Véro, Marcia and Caroline

The aftermath
Anyway, hope you all had a fun time too and Happy New Year!