Category: #travels

Little Big Italy: Argentina

Even though by June I had traversed a good chunk of the Northern hemisphere this year, I was really looking forward to crossing down south to Argentina. My friends, this trip had been in the works – at least conceptually – for well over a year. I was crashing John’s family’s vacation down to Buenos Aires and Calafate.

This trip was exciting for three reasons more than usual. First of all, I was finally going to be able to use some Spanish, a language I have been neglecting for several years now. Second, I would be meeting some of my dad’s first cousins and relatives who emigrated from Italy to Buenos Aires and of whom we have only met one, once. Finally, because I would be traveling with 10 others: a mix of John and his cousins/siblings/aunts/uncles. I wouldn’t trade my family for any other but what they say is true: once you have gone to college and started living on your own, it’s very hard to come back and just be at home. Besides, a trip of 11 is always going to be a little extra exciting.

My first impression of Buenos Aires was that it was much colder than expected. We went straight from the airport to the house of a friend of family and a brief meander around her neighborhood left me a wee bit colder than I wanted to be. That didn’t bode well for our trip down to Calafate; I brought layers and not an actual winter coat, and Calafate has glaciers. However her apartment – and the people inside it – was very warm and welcoming. Add to that the spectacular hotel we stayed in right by la Casa Rosada (Instead of the White House like the US, Argentina has the Pink House!), and I was already digging Buenos Aires. That evening gave me an even wider image of the city. An awesome friend from Georgetown was in Buenos Aires for the month, and she brought us to the Palacio Barolo, which has a gorgeous view at the top of its 22 stories. Palacio Barolo was interesting for another reason though. It is suspected and has been extrapolated that the owner and architect designed the building to reflect Dante’s Divine Comedy. While neither directly spoke on the topic, Barolo was an Italian immigrant and the building is full of symbols and decoration that can be interpreted to that effect. The floors are split up into inferno, purgatorio, and paradiso, and the very top is a sort of lighthouse, providing a guiding light for porteños and Christians alike. There’s even a thesis written on the topic! Regardless of how much veracity the story holds, the view alone was worth it and the theme was fascinating to think about.

My initial impression of Buenos Aires remained just that, because 24 hours after we arrived to the city, we left for Calafate. Calafate is a city in the south of Patagonia and home to Argentina’s largest glacier – the Perrito Moreno. The Perrito Moreno is not only significant because of its size, but also because it’s one of two non-receding glaciers in the world. Needless to say, Argentinians are proud of this marvel. In fact, they named it for one of their favorite explorers: the guy who went down south and discovered it. John’s aunt (big shout out to her for organizing the trip) managed to get us on a boat tour to see the glacier up close, and then we strolled along the lake watching and waiting for it to crack. It’s amazing to hear the gun-shot boom when a hunk of ice cracks, but it’s even crazier to hear the sound and then see it happen a split second after.

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A picture can’t do justice to the glacier, but it does still take your breath away

The next day, we saw a marvel of the human nature: cave paintings left (probably) 4,000 years ago. They seemed to depict life, from birth and pregnancy to death. Found on an estancia not too far from Calafate, this little detour gave us something to ponder while we took in more views of the lake. Not to mention that the tour ended with a delicious on site lunch: pumpkin soup followed by stew in a homemade bread bowl followed by chocolate mousse served in a mason jar, because even those eating in a cave deserve to be trendy.

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Unfortunately, we did have some bumps on the trip. Our flight back to Buenos Aires, scheduled forThursday afternoon, ended up being cancelled when fog descended on the airport at the last minute. We stayed another day and just ended up hanging out for most of the time – especially because we were in the airport for more hours when our second flight got seriously delayed. But we did eventually make it back to Buenos Aires late Friday night and checked into the biggest AirBnB/apartment I have ever seen.

From there the trip took a turn from the touristy to the family-oriented. We hosted some of John’s relatives and family friends in our AirBnb, and then I met my cousins on Monday and lunched with them on Tuesday – another highlight. We did get to do some shopping at the ferias – markets with, unfortunately, non-negotiable prices – and we walked a good amount of the city, from our apartment on Avenida Libertador to downtown, seeing the Congress and Teatro Colòn. Buenos Aires is definitely a city I’ll have to return to; I feel like I still have barely seen any of it, even though I do think I ate through enough of it.

And, with that, I am caught up on my 2017 travels thus far. Now, get ready for the full scoop on my time here with Dilasa.

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Россия||Russia

Flash forward a month or two from April – when I returned from Germany (with a minor pit stop in Italy, of course) – and I finally formally graduated from Georgetown with the whole nine yards: cap, gown, diploma, and way too many events with good food. My mom likes to take advantage of any occasion to travel as much as I do, so in order to celebrate the end of my college career and the start of all of our summers, my family and I went to Russia.

“Russia?!”, you may be asking yourself and you would not be alone. We do, however, have a family colleague in Moscow and so it was another why not moment. We all journeyed back up to NJ from Georgetown and left almost immediately, the day after.

Our first day in Russia was, for lack of a better description, sleep deprived. I may have watched one too many movies on the flight over*, and I completely crashed on arrival. Our hotel, Hotel Budapest, was lovely and located right in the heart of Moscow though, so upon arrival we took a chance to go out and explore.

Somewhat like Germany, I had absolutely no conception of what to expect of Moscow. I of course knew about St. Basil’s Church in Red Square, but that was about it. The entire city, not just Red Square, was much grander than that. Imagine large, Parisian boulevards paired with the famous fashion sense of Milan and the purposeful walking of New Yorkers. While there were not ancient relics at every turn – like Rome for example – there were dozens of statues and small parks. The subway stations were grand, sometimes decorated with marble statues and old-school chandeliers. And the food! The Russians have perfected a combination of two of my favorite foods: ravioli and dumplings. Pelmini, this simple yet sophisticated combo, is a food I think I may have had at a Turkish restaurant as well. Yet it was certainly beloved in Russia. Small pockets of meat, served either plain or with sour cream (don’t go to Russia if you’re lactose intolerant…). I will say that the one particularly comic – or solemn, depending on your view – feature of Moscow was the constant reference to the USSR. Although we obviously don’t speak Russian, we are pretty sure there were monuments to the satellite states with their capitals outside of the Kremlin, and at least some of the subway stations were clearly from the Soviet period. It was interesting as an American to balance possible contrasting visions of Russia glorifying its past with an intent to return to it or just appreciating and remembering it.

Despite my apparent adulation, I actually preferred our brief visit to St. Petersburg. Whereas Moscow was too high fashion for me – heels on cobblestones were the preferred shoe/street combo and I definitely did not fit in with sneakers and jeans – St. Petersburg had all of the imperial charm and architecture of Vienna with the tolerance and diversity of New York. I’m still not sure where regular people live, given that every building we saw was an old palace, but I am sure St. Petersburg has some! Between the Hermitage (art museum+gorgeous palace – definitely a must see and one of the best museums I have seen), street fairs, canal ride, and the Cathedral of Spilled Blood (the walls are 100% mosaic – the interior is much more impressive than St. Basil’s, and the architecture is similar on the exterior), St. Petersburg far exceeded any expectation I had of Russia.

Again, I could write several blogs on all that we did and saw, but for now this will have to do. I will leave you all with one more note though: Russians are apparently famous for their ice cream. As a self-professed connoisseur of gelato and a serious aficionado¸ I can attest that I have had simply sublime chocolate ice cream in the Gum Department Store in a small booth (and I don’t usually like chocolate ice cream), and stunningly good plain ice cream on our flight. I ate my mom’s container of ice cream on the flight, that’s how much I enjoyed it… And yes, it is exceptional if someone eats two of anything on a flight. So, more of the story: see the Hermitage, eat ice cream. There’s Russia!

*side note, I think I have exhausted the list of movies I wanted to watch on flights… have I finally kind of caught up on pop culture??

the post-grad life

My first adventure of the year was to Germany. In a panic to avoid a real job, and feeling pulled abroad for some time, I had been searching for opportunities in Italy and surrounding countries for the latter half of the fall semester – my last. I wanted to find an internship or job related to my academic focus though: food and water security. While Italy is actually a host to a few UN/FAO organizations, applying to them through the UN portal is about the same as sending your resume into the black hole which is USA jobs. AKA, you may or may not hear back within a few months or a few years 😊 that’s not always a problem with long-term career opportunities, but for a few quickly approaching months, it was not ideal. And so, for the first time, I took the stereotypical advice of alumni: be proactive. I stumbled upon the website of the International Centre for Water Resources and Global Change (or rather dredged the UN sites for affiliate centers until I saw the site for ICWRGC), and emailed one of the scientists dealing with GIS data – a technology I was learning about in the fall. In another fortuitous incident, these kind folks at the Centre decided they could use an extra hand in the office and, with a short back and forth, I was officially going to Koblenz, Germany from the end of January to the beginning of April.

I can’t rave enough about my time in Germany. Perhaps I had heard too many jokes in Italy about Germans, or maybe I had just never given Germany very much time, but my expectations were sort of low for the country. During college I spent a lot of time studying Arabic and, therefore, Arab and Islamic culture and civilization. Previously, my main cultural exposure was to Europe (and somewhat South America) through Italy and a bit of Spain, but still never Germany. After all, we Italians are ~very~ relaxed, and the Germans tend to be more uptight. I guess some people call them precise and punctual instead of uptight, but hey.

But back to the Centre… it was a surprisingly small office, comprised of less than ten full time staff. I had my own office with a window!! (you would be surprised at how rare that is), and my co-workers were incredibly international, intelligent, and interesting individuals (good assonance, right?). The director – Dr. Demuth – was also particularly well-travelled thanks to his UN career. I got to know each of them during our daily excursions to the soup shop for lunch – accompanied by my new favorite of rye bread – and during our coffee breaks.

My German also massively improved. Then again, that tends to happen when you start from absolute zero. The highlight of my trip was when I held a two sentence conversation with a receptionist in German, at the end of my trip. He criticized how little German I knew after two months… In terms of actual work life, I also did get exposure to the water think tank life. I was assisting with a document on water diplomacy (hopefully soon to be published), and I am now an official author thanks to two policy briefs I produced!

A blog post can’t do my experience justice – nor hash out any of the neat stories and details that made my trip so memorable – but at the very least it records how my newfound appreciation for Germany: a massive country, with an admirable devotion to bread, and a fascinating combination of tragic history and hopeful rebirth.

But of course, I did take advantage of my time in Europe to travel. I may or may not have used it as a second study abroad during the weekends. My weekends took me to these places, in order: Cologne/Koblenz, Dusseldorf/Essen, Lucca/Viareggio (carnival round I!), Belgium/Cologne/Bonn (carnival round II!), Aachen/Maastricht/Liege, Luxembourg City/Trier (thanks Mom/Mapi), Vienna, Amsterdam, Berlin, Heidelberg/Wuppertal. Needless to say, my horizons were once more broadened. It’s amazing how little of the world you can see in a lifetime.

These trips were punctuated by many events, but I will simply highlight two. First, on my way to Italy I suffered an unfortunate travel accident: my DeutschBahn train was almost two hours late – enough to make my miss my flight even though, for once, I was supposed to be early. Although I will affectionately admit that the DB works fairly well and the trains are fast, the train system was disappointingly late all the time. Regardless, to make a long story short, I met a lovely woman on the train who witnessed the my flight-struggle-saga as I was attempting to communicate with the airline and let them know that I would be missing the flight. We started to chat and she ended up offering to let me stay at her house that night if I was leaving in the morning. Contrary to all of John’s instincts, I took her advice and survived. It was one of the best decisions I made: the woman and I, along with her husband, stayed up late just talking and I got a keen insight into German life.

Second, the German Karneval was AWESOME. Everything shuts down in the Rhineland for Karneval on the Thursday before Ash Wednesday – the woman’s day (Donnerstag!). While the tradition is that women can just cut off men’s ties that day and they “take over” the town hall, the feature moment for me was leaving work around 10:45 am to head to the official office party. The party, may I add, lasted for the entire day. When a few folks and I left to head to a local bar for the town-wide celebrations – all in costume – we were not the last ones in the room. It was 5 pm at that point. There was a costume contests – offices dressed up in groups – lots of beer, music, dancing, and general happy socializing. I don’t think I ever felt more adopted than tagging along to the bars after the event in my Darth Vader costume. Although I almost got locked out of my office, where I had left my keys, it was still the one day I think back on the most.

There are many more tales I could write about, but I have been told and admit that I tell long and anti-climactic stories, so I will stop. The nostalgia I already feel though is tremendous – who knew an American Italian in Germany would find herself so well?

Tschüss for now!