Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Italy: Three friends, three backpacks, and a whole lot of adventure. Part One.

Pisa: Specificity and aggressiveness
Our adventure began like most good adventures do, or at least, should: in a train station. The train took us from Sevilla to Madrid and we watched the sunrise over the slowly changing landscape. Rolling fields covered in olive groves were replaced by rockier terrain and then after two hours, we entered into the capital. 
After successfully navigating the labyrinth of Madrid's train system, we were on our way to the airport and then sitting in the terminal, contentedly munching on a gigantic bar of dark chocolate. 
"Guys...we're going to Italy!" We kept repeating the same line, but I still couldn't grasp the reality of it. Italy is one of those places that's always on the "To Go" list. For as long as I can remember, it's been on mine. Before too long, it was time to go. 
The plane soared across the rest of Spain and over the azure Mediterranean and into the great boot of Italy. We touched down in a cloudy Pisa to the sound of...trumpets. 
"Congratulations!" the enthusiastic Irish recorded voice trilled. "This Ryanair flight has arrived early! We pride ourselves on excellent service...Thank you for choosing Ryanair." 
I'm not really sure why they were offering us congratulations (we were ten minutes early), but we all burst out laughing and the passengers gave the flight a round of applause.
In the airport, all of the signs were in Italian. We had arrived.
Now this, dear readers, is the beginning of what we like to call the Series of Fortune Misadventures. You'll understand soon. 

The confirmation for our B&B instructed us to take "the bus" that met "in front" of the airport entrance. When we walked outside, we saw no bus, and three entrances. Uhhh...
"Maybe we should ask someone," I suggested. 
"I'm pretty sure it's that one," Erin said, pointing to some people congregating near a bright orange bus stop. 
"But we don't want to get onto the wrong bus," I pointed out. Barbara was still looking at the piece of paper. Specificity. 
Fortunately for us, a bus (the only bus) pulled up to the orange station and we all climbed aboard. The bus rattled into the city center and we caught our first glimpse of an Italian city. It was beautiful; red, green, yellow buildings lined the riverbanks, just weather-beaten enough to stay charming. 
As the bus wound out of the center, we entered into a more residential area. Apartment building, apartment building, Pam Supermarket, roundabout...
"Where is this place, anyway?" I asked. 
"Here!" Barbara said, and we hopped of the bus. We were right across from the Pam Supermarket, and I didn't see anything resembling a bed and breakfast. 
"It says we have to walk down the road a little," Barb told us and we finally stumbled upon the B&B--at least, that's what the sign said. All I could see was a tiny office attached to a cheery yellow house.
"Are you sure this is it?"
"Yes," Barbara said. So we walked inside to an empty kitchen, where we were soon greeted by a friendly Italian man who spoke very little English. Our room was right off of the kitchen, with pictures of adorable Italian children and a replica of the Last Supper hanging on the wall. 
"So where are we on the map?" we asked him, spreading it out on the table. 
He pointed to a spot farther down on the kitchen table. Right. 
"Here's the bus schedule," he told us, and explained the best way to come home. The last bus left at 9 o' clock from the center of the city. I wasn't too worried--after all, I was experienced in extreme bus-catching.

As we walked through Pisa, I experienced something very strange--the complete full-fillment of expectations. It was exactly as I had always imagined it...exactly as it had always been portrayed to me. It was like Busch Gardens!  The worn-out paint marks, the windy streets, the outdoor café was great. I kept expecting to see Escape from Pompeii around the corner. While that never came, there was something else that we couldn't seem to find...the Leaning Tower. I, who prides herself in navigation skills, declared myself the map-master and had set us down the path that would surely lead to the Tower. But it was no where to be found. 
"We can't just miss it," I said, looking at the map and then looking down the street. "Where is it?" 
"Oh my God, Shannon," Erin said beside me. I was still looking the other way.
"It's right there!" 
I turned my head and literally down the other side of the street was the top of the tower. A woman (who must of have surmised the whole situation) began to laugh at us as she crossed the street. I shrugged sheepishly...maps are helpful, but sometimes you just need to use some common sense. 
But no matter, we passed through the giant gate of the old city wall and right before us was the famous Leaning Tower of Pisa. I am pleased to report that it does, in fact, lean. Quite a bit, actually.

Barbara with the obligatory pose. 
They say that it leans because of the earth beneath it, but don't worry yet. The tower has stood for over 800 years and will probably be around for at least another century. Whew.
While the Tower is incredible and gravity-defying, the tourists steal the show. Lined up in every possible space are rows of people pretending to hold it up, push it over, lean against it. I have to say we took greater pleasure in laughing at the interesting poses people came up with, which are just so much entertaining when you take the Tower out of the frame.

Sadly, I'm ashamed to say that we also took these clichéd pictures...come on, wouldn't you?!
Besides the tower, there isn't much else to see in the old center of Pisa. There's a baptismal building and an old church (both very pretty), but after an hour or two, we were done. We found a restaurant and ordered our first Italian meal: pizza! 
We learned two things from that first meal: one, "caprese" in Italy means an ordinary cheese pizza and two, there's a little something called a "cover charge." It's a fee they charge you to sit at the table. 
After dinner, we wandered back toward the river, through the dark streets lit by hanging lanterns. Our hearts were happy as we strolled down Arno and found our bus stop. Or so we thought.

"Wait a minute...what was the bus number?" 
"Are we sure it hasn't left yet?"
We debated for a few more minutes and then decided that this was the stop. We wanted to be sure because it was 9 o' clock. 
At 9:15, the bus rolled up. The doors opened and a woman got out. Barbara and I moved to enter the bus, but before we realized what was happening, the doors closed and it drove away. The last bus. 
We were all speechless. Was that even allowed? 

After we recovered from our shock, we realized what we'd need to conquer Pisa: aggressiveness. We remembered that our host had told us there was a night bus that ran after 9 and all we could do was hope it'd drop us off close to our hotel.  
We devised a plan; Erin would run from the two bus stops that lined the street, making sure that we'd know which bus to choose. Barbara was to stand on the corner, searching for taxis if they drove by. I was the one who walked into a gelato shop and ask about the taxis. Apparently, they all gathered on the other side of town. Of course. But the woman gave me the phone number and Erin dashed back, announcing she had found the stop. 
Across the street, we noticed a little supermarket and decided to stop in and get some food for tomorrow. As we passed the rows of Nutella and boxed pastas, a singular bag caught my eye. It was an unassuming bag of decent size; yellow and white with the name: Riso e latte. Cookies. Everything was in Italian, but the picture looked pretty good, so I bought them. (Remember these cookies. They're important.)

We readied ourselves at the bus stop, spread at equal bus-length distance to run into all doors when it pulled up. We weren't letting this one get away. 
But when the bus came, it calmly pulled up and opened its doors. 
"Guys..." Erin said as we climbed aboard. "We had to wave it down..."
Apparently the 13 year old boy to her right had signaled at the bus driver to stop. Well. I'm glad someone knew how the world worked. 
The bus rolled away, rumbling down the street. I mean literally rumbling. I'm not sure if it was the road or the internal structure, but with every acceleration, the bus would shake violently and toss you to the side if you didn't have a good handhold. 

And if all of this wasn't enough, we made a friend on the bus.  A man heard us speaking English and started chatting, informing us he was from Mexico, but studying his masters in Pisa. Huzzah, fellow North American! He was very friendly and it was all well and good until he asked, "So what are you guys doing tomorrow?" 
As if this night hadn't been bizarre enough. 
"Going to Cinque Terre," we told him with faux-sadness. 
"Where are you guys staying?"
"Oh, this B&B," we answered vaguely. Thankfully, before any more awkward conversation could continue, the bus had reached the faithful Supermarket Pam. We bid our new friend farewell and hightailed it out of there. 

The eventful day was finished off by learning a truly intriguing fact: 
the movie "Elf" in Italian is "Elf di elfo nome buddy." 


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