Education On A Subject I Know Nothing About

Featured

Rows and rows of blooming sunflowers make for a beautiful train ride through the Tuscan countryside. The rolling yellow fields outside the window are dotted with white villas and decrepit ruins, which leave my imagination confident that they must have been built in the days of gladiators and emperors. Sometimes all that is necessary to experience something amazing is to watch it fly by out an old, dusty window. So, a four-hour trip from Naples to Rome is spent mostly staring out the window. But when the warm sunshine hits that sunflower field just right and reflects a golden glow into the train cabin, everyone gets a second wind.

When we were growing up, my sister and I were never close friends, or polite acquaintances for that matter. We would fight and argue all the time. I didn’t want to share my friends, she cried to get her way, I bullied her with deception and she used her feet as battering rams aimed at my most crucial body parts. And then when I went to college, this all changed; like someone flipped a light switch. The day I left, we realized how much we loved each other and how hard it would be to live 1,000 miles away for the next four years. At her high school graduation, I sported a thick, red beard. It was massive by college sophomore standards. I tried so hard to be a man when she graduated. I went down to the front so my parents weren’t sitting next to me. I looked off into the distance as if pensive. My friends couldn’t see the vibrating smile, shaking a single tear down my cheek, a sharp left around the nose and settling into the tight curls of my mustache. Later, I made fun of my parents for crying over her graduation. When we dropped her off at Chico State in August, it was her turn to cry. She wasn’t ready, she didn’t like the school she chose, and she wasn’t going to make any friends. It was like leaving a puppy at the pound; she was hopeless and lost. On the way back, we passed a huge field of sunflowers. The car was silent as I marveled at the sunset dropping below the horizon, pulling a pink and orange hood over the sleepy yellow field. I remember thinking: Lexie would like this. Damn I wish I had a camera.

Tim and I are brushing up on our Italian in the train cabin, so we can woo local women we hope to meet in the Roman bars. Just as Tim loudly recites how to say “Would you like to play my skin flute?” from his Dirty Italian dictionary, a new traveler cautiously approaches our train cabin. The Italian man who has slept the entire time, wakes up and scrambles to his feet and immediately makes the plastic tray in the hall his new seat. The new guy is a monk carrying a faded backpack and dressed just in a brown robe, a dangling beaded rosary and brown sandals. He bows his head at the Italian man and smiles before taking the seat.

I’ve seen many people dressed like this in Italy; all around Europe, really. In Rome, there was an old woman lying face down on the sidewalk, hands clasped in prayer in front of an empty change tin. She was begging a monk to donate coins. I’ve never been a religious man myself. I’ve got too many fingers to count the times I’ve attended church in my entire life. A couple weddings or funerals, one favor to a friend, and one time doing community service in San Francisco. There is no call to prayer in my life. My mom tried to raise me Jewish. We had Passover and Chanukah, and I learned to spin a mean dreidel. But by age seven, I told my mom I didn’t believe in what the stories told. I still know the menorah-lighting prayer. You could say I’m atheist. Or agnostic; whatever term you see fit. Either way, there is no God to me. I’m more of an “I’ll believe it when I see it” type of guy. I tend to not have faith in in anything outside the scientific realm of possibility, but I still find religion an interesting topic. I wrote a term paper in my Rhetoric class, senior year of college. It covered whether or not intelligent design should be taught in public high schools. I argued that it should be taught. That was my first and last time getting an A+.

The monk and the man strike up a conversation through the open door. Both are clearly Italian and seem to like each other. They are both no older than 30, though the monk’s shaved head makes him look younger than his counterpart. They both seem very pleasant and I regret taking French in high school because I can’t eavesdrop on a very intense and enjoyable conversation. Still, I imagine I can understand what they are saying – a smile and a nod here, a hand gesture there. Just as I am sure about the architecture of rural Tuscany, I am sure they are speaking about religion. I want to be friends with them. They could be talking about the merits of Nazism for all I know, but it’s amazing what a lack of verbal communication and a light brown robe will do for our judgment of strangers.

That’s the great thing about Semester at Sea. I mean, sure. It’s my first time traveling to Europe and I’m getting to do some amazing things. I can go home and show my friends a rug from the Grand Bazaar and a rock from Mt. Vesuvius. But what really amazes me is the social dynamics of a ship cut off from Facebook and text messaging. When we are forced to communicate old school and really get to know each other in-depth through conversation. Some people know me as that guy. The one who added over 100 “friends” on Facebook from the ship before the Bahamas was even on our radar. Oh, we met on Facebook! But I can confidently say that I did it just to meet people. I never spent a night stalking walls and pictures deciding who would be my friend in real life. I’ve met tons of amazing people on this trip, because I put a lot of effort into meeting and conversing with everyone I came across. And it’s revitalized how I approach my relationships; there is a huge difference in the personality of most people from when I met them on Facebook to when I met them on the ship. Never judge a Facebook by its profile picture. This is a family, and I will forever love Semester at Sea for allowing me to be involved in it. Where else could I sit with my new brother Tim and watch a monk take a train through Italy?

A dark-skinned man slides between the monk and the Italian and apologizes to the Italian for interrupting. He is here to sell newspapers and make a few extra euros while traveling. The Italian shakes his head no, and the dark-skinned man turns around to try to market his product to our cabin. He holds up the newspaper and opens his mouth to speak, but spots the monk to his left and quickly tucks the newspaper away under his right arm. Mi scusi he says genuinely before bowing his head and moving on to the next cabin. I look at Tim and we marvel at the respect the monk has of everyone he encounters. This is a real live cultural experience.

In America, we are expected to say yes or no, and then move on. At a baseball game: peanuts, get your peanuts! If you say yes, you hand over half your life savings and get a big bag of too-salty nuts thrown at your head harder than a Nolan Ryan fastball. If you say no, you don’t exist. There is no in-between. Here, you can either admire the work ethic of the fake Rolex salesman as he follows you four blocks, chattering about best price, very nice watch and good gift for lady! Sister! Like all women love plastic timepieces. Still, it’s admirable that they have so much energy and passion for making money, which at the root, is based on bettering their lives and their family’s life. On the other hand, the customer service here is to be applauded. You say yes to the human megaphone from the kebab stand, and they will treat you to a five-star meal. Welcome, welcome! as they pull out your chair. No kebab lover gets by without trading family trees, favorite music or intimate secrets of their love life with the megaphone before the kebab even gets to the table. In America, we are expected to say yes or no, and then move on. These people here? They know how to be human.

The monk catches me looking at him. I look away quickly, but not before he can nod and smile at me. I look down at his feet to avoid the awkwardness of just being publicly busted and wonder why his small backpack is rounded at the back. Just a couple minutes later, he answers my question by unlatching the top and turning the bag to show the Italian what he is traveling with. It’s a familiar sight; in fact, I spent most of my childhood carrying one too. The entire contents of the monk’s bag are a shiny new, black and white soccer ball. He laughs at something the Italian says and puts the bag back at his feet. Tim leans over to whisper to me. This is awesome he says, before I shush him and continue my corner-of-the-eye observations.

I remember one soccer game in particular. I was 12 and my dad was still the coach. This was the end of the bookend for me. By that, I mean it was before I let life take me by the throat and make me its bitch. I lost that innocent sense of determination that made me such an easy kid to raise. The teenage years and most of college was when I was just part of the herd and never tried to stand out. This soccer game pitted the best of the best. My team, the Sting against the Scorpions on a local football pitch (as they call it on this side of the world). The game went down to the wire, knotted at zero. Then tied at one. The equalizer at two. And with ten minutes to spare, I took a shot and it hit the crossbar, bouncing into the net in slow motion. I told you I’m not a religious man. But for a moment in this game, I felt like I was floating through heaven. Waiting out the final minutes was agony; purgatory if you will. Nothing in the world was more important than beating the Scorpions and securing middle school bragging rights for years to come. The whistle blew. Sting 3, Scorpions 2. I ran like crazy toward the sideline, celebrating with my teammates. I jumped into my dad’s open arms and pumped my fist in the air as he held me, yelling like I had just knocked out Mike Tyson. I know my dad loves that moment. He talks about it all the time. Not the game, or the win, but the moment we shared on the sideline after one of the most memorable days of my life. When I tell that story, I shiver. I get that pre-tear feeling of moistness developing deep in my stomach and slowly, painfully, slithering up my chest and through my skull into the back of my eyes, before I clear my throat and kick the ladder back into the depths of my manhood. What is heaven like? Who can tell me? Got any photo slideshows? Perhaps an autographed halo? Well, I imagine that day, that victory, that paternal embrace; is what it feels like to be saved.

Another beggar walks by moments later, this time an older woman with long, tangled hair. She waves a small piece of paper with a picture of her hungry children on it above her head and says something in a curious tone. Her gaze lands on each passenger one by one until finally resting on the monk, who also kindly refuses to donate money. Whereas the newspaper seller saw a respected man of God, this woman saw a generous, empathetic opportunity for success. The variety in their attitudes catches me off guard. The woman mimes what I believe to be You think about it, I will come back. And when she does come back, the monk apologetically hands the paper back to her. She contests his decision and begs him to reconsider. The monk puts his hands together as if in prayer and softly says something to the woman. She smiles, nods and walks away, seemingly content with his reason. And I see why. Because this time I’m sure of what he said: Instead, I will pray for you.

Advertisements

Italia

Well, my back and legs hurt, I’m dead tired and I can’t eat pasta or pizza anymore…but Italy was the most amazing week of my life! First thing when we ported in Naples, a few friends and I grabbed a taxi and went up to Mt. Vesuvius, the volcano that famously destroyed Pompeii long ago. Our driver, Giuseppe (pronounced, according to him, “Josep”) was the coolest guy ever – he drove us around for eight hours, waiting for us to climb the mountain, explore Pompeii and even eat authentic pizza for the first time. He sang for us, let us stop to take pictures, and everything in between.

We trekked up Mt. Vesuvius and got to look into the crater and all that jazz, but it was a little disappointing until the very top – that’s when the fog miraculously lifted and gave us a 360-degree view of what felt like the entire country of Italy! What a great way to start our trip to Italy. Next, we were whisked away to Pompeii, where we were greeted with a few testers of local alcohol (I believe it’s spelled lemoncello?). I’m not going to lie, most of the testers tasted like crap, but it was still fun. We brought a bottle of wine to Pompeii and sipped it while exploring the awesome ruins.

Later in the day, we saw the coliseum of Pompeii, the only structure that seemed to still be somewhat intact. We also saw some bodies trapped in plaster, an old brothel and the community baths. After running through a closed-off vineyard and hopping a brick wall to meet Giuseppe on time, we headed back to Naples.

Naples itself wasn’t that impressive to me – the garbage workers are on strike right now so there are garbage piles everywhere. But even more than that, it just was a creepy, crowded city; which is unfortunate, because all the surrounding areas (Vesuvio, Capri, etc.) were really cool! But the one thing I can definitely say for Naples is that the pizza is freaking amazing! Best pizza I’ve ever had in my life, hands down. No more Pizza Hut for this guy…

The second day, I went to Capri with a huge group of Semester at Sea kids…we took a 45-minute ferry there and rented a little boat. We grabbed some HUGE, cheap bottles of wine and got an hour and a half long tour of the coastline of Capri. That little town is absolutely gorgeous – unfortunately the world famous Blue Grotto was closed due to high tides, but we still got to get out and swim, see a natural arch and other cool things.

On the third day, I did Mt. Vesuvius again because some of my friends hadn’t done it yet and wanted to…once again, it was awesome! Then, we caught a train to Pisa that night and got in around midnight. It was actually a really cool little town in my opinion, but I could definitely see why you would only go there for the leaning tower. After eating and wandering for a bit, we found a hostel called the Pisa Hostel and got some nice cheap rooms for the night (we only slept for a few hours…). We got up around 6 am to trek over to the leaning tower and got some awesome pictures of it as the sun was rising!

As soon as we could, we got on a train from Pisa to the Cinque Terre. For those of you who don’t know, that is a succession of five little cliff side towns on the west coast of Italy. They are absolutely gorgeous – we took the whole day to hike through them. Some of the most amazing views and pictures were captured here, and I can’t wait until I have a good internet connection so I can show everyone!

After a horrible (to say the least) overnight train ride from Monterosso to Civitavecchia (where we ported for our days in Rome), we finally got to explore the big city itself! Our first day, we explored the Spanish Steps, went down to the Trevi Fountain and the Villa Borghese. All three were pretty incredible sights. The second day in Rome, we hit the Colosseum, the Roman Forum and Vatican City. I loved all these places, and the Sistine Chapel definitely was worth the visit (yes, I snagged an illegal picture with my camera in there).

On the last day in Rome, we visited the Pantheon, then took the train back to Civitavecchia for one last pizza/gelato meal. Overall, my visit to Italy was an absolute blur, and despite all the sore muscles it was worth every Euro spent! I cannot wait to go back, especially to Rome and the Cinque Terre. Stay tuned for a brief recap after Croatia, where we are porting tomorrow morning!

Why I Want To Do Semester At Sea

I consider myself a pretty well-traveled person…at least here at home. I’ve lived in California and Washington state (for school…), visited Nevada, Arizona, Florida, Oregon, Idaho, New York, Massachusetts, Vermont, Florida and Hawaii, been to Mexico a few times, even up to Canada. But one thing I’ve never, ever done, is cross the Atlantic, or even leave North America for that matter. I have tons of friends who have studied abroad in places like Spain, England, Greece and China. I almost took my 2nd semester of sophomore year to study in Chile and Argentina…unfortunately the credits didn’t transfer and I know hardly any Spanish so it never happened. Ever since researching studying abroad, I have been interested in going to South America. Ever since talking to my friends who have been to Europe or Asia, I’ve been interested in going there. Ever since I can remember, my dream vacation has been New Zealand/Australia. My point is, I’ve had my fair share of vacations, but never to a country or culture that I consider vastly different from my own. Doing Semester at Sea this summer would give me the perfect opportunity.

The 2011 summer voyage is supposed to go to the Bahamas, Barcelona, Naples, Athens, Istanbul, Morocco, Croatia and Egypt. Wow. So many different cultures, so much history, so much to do and see over 66 days! Plus, the voyage ends in Boston, one of my all-time favorite cities, so maybe I could swing spending a couple days there as well! Anyway, my time to earn school credits while traveling is running out. I don’t know if I could put myself in any better situation after this year. A huge cruise ship with hundreds and hundreds of college students with similar intentions to me, hanging out all day and then exploring Europe and parts of Africa and South America? Don’t even get me started on the opportunities this trip would give me to further my cultural knowledge and therefore expand my ability to write!

Obviously, there are a couple of roadblocks…

1) COST – my god…including all the fees, airfare, personal money for expenses, textbooks, etc., I would want to budget around $15,000 for this trip. In the end, money is just paper…but it is really hard to move around without it. I’m avidly searching for a job on campus right now to start saving. I know my beautiful, wonderful, loving parents would throw a small bit of money my way, but realistically I’m looking at around $10,000 otherwise. This is where selling drugs comes in…JUST KIDDING. This is where financial aid, scholarships, work study, grants and loans come in. Luckily, Semester at Sea offers a 10-month payment plan option. So basically, starting in January (I believe…), I would pay around $1,200 to them every month to cover the basic trip fees. Along with saving up that extra $500 or so to set off to the side each month for extra expenses. I know for sure that I can get a $2,000 work-study scholarship…basically I agree to work 2 hours a day on the boat and they give me $2,000. According to a friend from University of Washington who did the trip a couple years ago, that’s a really good, easy way to cut some costs. He told me that the work is simple and that it allows you free internet access on the boat (not usually free). Also, I can apply for need-based and normal financial aid. And I’m curious to see if I can keep a travel blog to promote Semester at Sea with all my experiences. That would give me practice as well as giving them free advertising? That warrants knocking off a good five or six grand, right? But in all honesty, I’m going to work my tail off to make this happen. I have a meeting with the abroad office here at WSU in a couple weeks and will be emailing my academic adviser this week with questions. Lastly, I’m in contact with the Semester at Sea “recruiter,” so I should be able to ask him a few questions tomorrow over the phone.

2) CLASSES – Probably even more important than the money is, will my credits transfer? Will they have English and/or Communications courses on the ship that will transfer back into one of the 8-10 remaining courses I need for my majors? Will any of it count as English 498 “Internship” credit? (Ugh, that would be amazing, what a pain in the butt to get out of the way!) My parents are worried that even if they do transfer back, that if I still had to go back to Pullman for Fall semester 2011, it would be a lottttt of money to spend, and rightfully so. Factoring in a new house lease (current one expires August 2011), paying for more classes, etc. it may just not be worth it. That’s why it all comes down to the classes. If I can get 2 courses knocked out on the ship, or 1 course and English 498 credit, that would be ideal. This is why I need to meet with so many people. I have one full semester of college left, no matter how I look at it. Classes are harder to come by in the summer, so I want to be able to plan my registration for this Spring as best as possible. But, ideally, I will take 15-16 credits at WSU in the Spring and be left with 9-10 that I can take on the boat…

Either way, the application is going out tomorrow and we’ll go from there. I understand the financial and logistical constraints of this possibility, but the adventure bug is calling and I really want to answer it. Unless something goes absurdly wrong, hellooooooo Bahamas, hellooooooo Europe and helloooooooo Africa! Pencil me in for summer!