Thursday, April 25, 2013

Italy Part I - Couchsurfing, Learning a Language, Milan, Venice

It was a two weeks trip to Italy with 3 uni classmates when I discovered a lot about myself as a traveller. 8 months before I left for the trip, I got to know an Italian through Couchsurfing portal.

Couchsurfing is a social networking and hospitality exchange portal. You set up an account and create your profile for other users to view. If you travel to another country, you can search for Couchsurfer there who are willing to open their homes for you. On the other hand, travellers coming to your country can send you Couch Request and you can choose to host them in your home. 

Staying at strangers's homes and having strangers staying at your home sound like a cause for concern. Is it safe?

Nothing is 100% safe. Even walking on the pedestrian walkway can get you knocked down by a car, what is ever safe? Selecting your host/guest is to be decided at your discretion. However, there are certain measures on the sites to help you better decide if you can trust your host or guest.

1. References

Couchsurfers who have met and interacted with the member through hosting or meet up can leave a positive or negative testimonial on their profile page. Judging from the type and number of references left by other couchsurfers, you can roughly judge if your host or guest is of integrity.

2. Location Verification

This is to verify that you are a real person, staying at the place you registered and would require a small fee through payment from your credit card. Upon payment, Couchsurfing will send a postcard to the registered address with a verification code. Just enter in the code and your location will be verified.

3. Vouching system

To vouch for a member is to declare your trust in that member. Vouching is not to be taken lightly. The two member must know each other in the real world and have a high degree of trust. To be able to vouch for others, you must have been vouched for by 3 other vouched members.

There have been both positive and horror stories about couchsurfing. A Hong Kong woman was raped when she took accommodation at a Moroccan couchsurfer's home in Leeds. Although I have read more positive experiences than horrible ones, it cannot be helped that the above headline was flooding the search engine results.

Yes, it is free, you save on accommodation, know the locals during travel. However, all these should not cloud your consideration of safety. If you are a solo woman traveller, it is recommended that you find a female host.

There are also members who have a Couchsurfing account for clinching easy one night stands. So it is very important to go through the  members' profile and references carefully. I have ever came across a profile asking Couchsurfer to write what they think about "Swinging" in their couch request. It is not the playground kind of swinging, go check it out on Wikipedia if you are unsure. Accept the request and you may find yourself up for a mass orgy.



Learning a Language

After completing my final examination, I have no more night classes, only left with my dissertation to complete. I find myself having more time so I decided to learn language! Being a pasta enthusiast, a fan of an Italian rock band, Lacuna Coil and a Vespa lover, I chose Italian.

I looked to up Benny Lewis, the writer of Language Hacking Guide, web owner of Fluent in 3 months. This guy is amazing. He has been on the road for 9 years during which he learnt shortcuts to learning languages. Then, he challenged himself to learn a language within 3 months in each country he travelled.

Forget about attending class to learn formal grammatical rules, the trick is to just speak it! 

I browsed the Language forum on Couchsurfing and found Francesco, who wants to improve his English and can teach Italian in return. 

We added each other on Skype and began introducing ourselves. He was 56 years old, a retiree living in a small town called Barile. He owns a vineyard and has a daughter and a son. At that time, my grasp of Italian language did not go beyond a few common greetings and numbers. I spoke word by word, at times pausing, trying to recall the word, if I still cannot find the word for it, I use Google Translate. 

Sometimes when Francesco could not explain something in English, he would say "Aspetti, scrivo," meaning "Wait, I write." He was really patient enough to type out the entire sentence so I can copy and paste it into Google Translate. 

We spoke a few times a week. Despite our language barrier, it seemed like we have so much to talk about - about happenings in the days, road trips, work, about the weather, the heavy snow storms that blocked supplies to his town, his support for Marxist-Leninism, the revolutions in the 70s when he was still a student. He said he was crazy as a young man but I could see he is very passionate person.

Overtime, we used less and less of translation aid during our conversation. Francesco also agreed to host us when we come to Italy. Before the trip, I also arranged for my friends to chat with Francesco on Skype.

We prebooked our accomodations and trains online via Hostelbooker, Hostelworld and Trenitalia website respectively. Booking inter-cities train tickets was a lot more complicated than I thought. There are so many types of tickets with different pricings and conditions. My friends and I were doing all these on budget so we chose the cheapest option of buying the scheduled train in advance but lacks the flexibity of changing the train. Once we missed the train, we cannot even get a refund. The inter-cities tickets are most expensive if you buy it on the day itself.

Alternatively, if one is using the train a lot in a day, he/she can opt for the railway pass which offers unlimited train rides in a travel day and flexibility. In our case of 4 days travel between major cities, the Eurail pass cost 160. The equivalent of what we paid for the 4 train rides between cities were only 88.50. Trying to cut cost for our trip involved lots of homework to be done.

Milan

Our first top. From the Malpensa Airport to the city centre, we had the entire train cabin to ourselves. Embedded in the seat arms were some power points that allows us to charge some our gadgets during the 50 minutes train ride.


The train then stopped at a station for a good 5 minutes. We waited in the cabin like a bunch of imbeciles for another 5 minutes before we felt something was amiss. After alighting the train, we realised that we have actually arrived at the train terminal, the tracks ended there.

First attempt in putting my past 8 months of Italian practice to use, "Stazione Cadorna è qui?" Cardona station is here? I was not sure if I got the order of words right, but heck, as long as they understood. We confirmed our destination at with a group of locals enjoying their morning coffee at the caffeteria.

The first thing we did upon touchdown was to get a local sim card so that it is cheaper to contact each other and our families via Whatsapp. It was a Sunday morning, the shops in the vicinity were closed.

We asked the tabacchi aka tobacco shops, they are found almost everywhere, equivalent to our Mama shops except that they also sell bus and metro tickets. Next challenge in speaking Italian, "Do you have SIM card? Where can I buy SIM card?"

I realised that my listening comprehension of Italian was very weak. I could only catch sporadic words that I knew. For a few seconds, I froze there in my own musing, brain engaging programme Google Translate, translating those words into English, then trying to string those words up into a intelligible statement. Then, a response of  "Grazie" Thank you spurt out from me.

OK. They only sell top-up card. We must go to the Central station to buy the SIM Card.

The grandeur of the train station caught me in awe. Intricately carved pillars, walls and celling adorned the station, hardly a single square metre of the space was left unembellished. It was my very first time in Europe and I have never seen such dedication to intricacy in architecture. I lamented about the closure of KTM station back in Singapore. It was the closest thing we have to this.

The grandeur of the Milan Central train station compared to our MRT stations.
"Buongiorno! Vorrei comprare una carta SIM," Good morning, I'd like to buy a SIM card, I said to the lady at the counter.
"Quale tippo di carta?" Which type of card?
"Con (with)... eh... Data roaming", I stumbled, resigning to my feeble grasp of the language as I switch to English mid-way.
"You speak English?" she asked with a girlish smile.
"Yes." I was relieved that someone could explain the technicality of SIM card purchase in English.
She took out a brochure and went through all the different plans available.

We selected our plans and she proceed with the paperworks. She seemed to enjoy her job alot, perpetually wearing her girlish smile, humming as she filled up the forms and copied the passports, patiently guiding us on the topping up the cards.

Another customer interrupted us as we were chatting in the shop.

"Are you from Singapore?" he asked.
"Yes, how do you know?"
"I could tell from the way you speak. By the way, I'm from Malaysia."
"Oooohhhh... Hi..." We exchanged conversations and learnt he was there on a business trip. I did not know there is a distinction in the accent of Malaysian and Singaporean.

Once my phone was ready, I sent a message to Whatsapp group chat called "Family Conference", informing them of my safe arrival in Milan. Next, I called Francesco. He was very elated to hear from me. I shared with him our plans for the day and ended the conversation with "Ciao ciao, non vedo l'ora di conoscerti." Bye bye, I look forward to meeting you.

Having heard the conversation in Italian, the cordial lady at the counter turned to me and said, "Brava!" Nice!

"Grazie," I thanked her for the compliments.

We did not stay in Milan for long as we have to catch a late afternoon train to Venice. Half the Sunday was spent exploring the vicinity of the train station and filling our stomachs. The beauty of all the major train stations in Italy is that they have luggage deposits. It save all travellers the hassle of lugging around their suitcase/bagpacks while sightseeing.


Uncle taking advantage of the summer sun for a tan in the Piazza.
Castello Sforzesco
Tapestry depicting the Pope






Duomo Cathedral

Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, the oldest shopping mall in Italy. 

A generous serving of gelato that provided some respite from the summer heat.

Venice

The journey from Milan to Venice took only less than 3 hours. We had booked two tents at located in the mainland for only €9.80 per pax . We followed the directions stated in the booking confirmation slip and boarded the mentioned bus. Now the question, where to alight?

A young man noticing our blur faces, took a glimpse at the paper we were holding and said he was on his way there too and would inform us where to alight. Great! Another two Caucasian teenage girls in the same bus looked just as equally lost as us.

Maybe we were going to the same place, I hoped they overheard our conversation, I thought. The next thing I saw, they alighted. As if immediately realising they were at the wrong stop, they turned back to the bus. Too late, the bus moved off as I watched their distressed face ebbed away.

And so, we checked in at Camp Rialto. The tent was smaller than we expected, there was no space to place our bags except on the bed. Well, the camp site had a bar, pizzeria, communal toilets, laundry facilities and Wifi, I cannot expect much from €9.80.



We had our much needed shower after 17 hours of flight, entire morning of exploring Milan in scorching summer heat, 2 and half hours of train ride to Venice. On the way to the toilets, I bumped into the two girls from earlier and smiled.
Margherita Pizza, simplicity is still the best.
Cheap beer, cheap wine, they are so cheap here! Everything else is expensive.

The Vespa serves as a tool to zip around cities and also a towel hanger/dryer if engine is warm.
That evening was the Euro Finals between Spain and Italy. The pizzeria were thronged with resident, football fanatics and non-footballs fans who like us just soaking in the atmosphere.

A girl next to our table was boasting to the other guys where she made out and other incoherent prattling. I was not being impolite by eavsedropping. She was speaking so loudly that the surrounding tables could clearly hear what she said. Geez... too much drink? After the match ended, she scratched her back and butt against a tree as if to mark her territorial scent like an oversized raccoon! Alcohol brings out the best, or in this case beast, in us.

In my beastly stupor, I shouted, "K** N** N* B** C*** C*** B**, Italy lost!", just for the fun of it. This is one place where I can blurt out Hokkien profanities without anybody else understanding it.


While exploring the campsite next morning, Nadia and I saw a little boy playing with his father. As we walked by, the father taught the boy to say, "Ciao bella." Hello, beautiful. A little bit shy and reluctant in the beginning, the boy mustered up his courage and cuteness and said, "Ciao bella."

We spent the rest of the day exploring Venice and also made a really quick visit to Murano. We wanted to visit Burano island initially but we would be late for our train if we went. One day is enough to explore Venice itself, but if you would like to visit other the islands, 2 days is suffice.

Waiting for the bus, noticed the Ducati logos at the back building? I saw two topless guys on a Ducati earlier. 


Bellissima!
Rialto Bridge
Remember the movie The Tourist? Johnny Depp's character was bouncing on the market roof.


St Mark's Basilica

The bell tower of St Mark's Basilica.
Piazza San Marco
Not too keen on gondola ride initally, but it took us away from tourist crowd into the serene canals. 


Dogde's Place, where it had one of the most guarded prison. Guess who managed to escape from it? Casanova


Bridge of Sighs. The last bridge prisoners saw before they got locked up. Sigh. 
Camping Rialto
Via Orlanda,16 Campalto, Campalto, Venice, Veneto, Italy
Tel/Fax: +39 041 5420295
http://www.campingrialto.com/en/

View Camping Rialto in a larger map

Italy Part II - Vespa Birthplace, Pisa, Siena, Florence
Italy Part III - Rome and Vatican City, Encounters with Pickpocket Syndicates
Italy Part IV - Pompeii, Herculaneum, Naples, Plastic bags as Decoy against Snatch Thieves
Italy V - Couchsurfing in Barile and the Remarriage Proposal
Italy Trip Aftermath

1 comment:

  1. WOW!!! A world of information. Love to have stumbled upon ur blog :)

    ReplyDelete