The World at Large

Moving to the US

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Going Home

I didn't expect my last day to be noteworthy, but if I expected everything that was going to happen to me in life then it would be terribly boring.

Unical

I had spent the day at the University of Calabria, doing my work there. I'm finally getting involved with more of the interesting work they do, which has me feeling much more satisfied about work. I was getting frustrated with my job having nothing to do with what I'd been hired for, and being dragged away from those areas in which I've developed some expertise. Even worse was when we'd partnered with Unical (actually, the company spun off from the university, which commercializes their research) and I had to sit back and watch them doing all the work that I thought I would be involved with. Now I'm finally getting involved in this work, and everyone there is very happy to have my participation, given my experience with the other systems I've worked on. I'd better not disappoint!

While being driven home I had an interesting conversation with Massimo about my postgraduate study in Australia. My degree out there is entirely thesis based, and Bob (my soon-to-retire supervisor) has little-to-no interest in an actual implementation of my ideas. Unical is different, in that the implementation can form a much more significant part of the program.

The other interesting aspect is that my current supervisor thinks that a more practical orientation, such as the program I am pursuing, is really at the Masters level, though other academics (and students) in the university have said that it is more PhD material. Bob really knows his stuff, but the inconsistency I'm hearing has me wondering if his standards are a bit high. Normally that would be good for me, but I have to try to keep balance in my life, with work and children having to take priority. Besides, if I'm doing more advanced work than other students (which is what they've been telling me), then surely I should be aiming for the same degree? On the other hand, maybe those other students are all just being nice to me because we're friends. :-)

Massimo pointed out that Unical is very interested in students working in my area. The fact that I am already working with their group is a big consideration. Also, I will be coming to Italy again for work, weather I like it or not. Even if I weren't, the trips are relatively affordable. Going to Australia on the other hand is extraordinarily expensive, and would require significant time off work.

I didn't make any decisions, but there was certainly some appeal in dropping my MPhil in Australia and starting a PhD in Italy. The specific topic would change, but that may even work out, since it would be in a field I'm about to start working in at work. Food for thought anyway.

Nerves and Food

I finished work last night full of nerves and anticipation. Flying does not bother me, but the effect of traveling on my physical well-being is always difficult. At the same time, I've missed Anne and the boys quite a lot, so I've been really looking forward to getting home. The result was a mix of dread and excitement.

My first priority was dinner. Before now, this has always been with at least 2 other people from work. While none of us knows Italian, there is still some confidence in numbers. I didn't realize how much I relied on this until I went looking for a place to eat. I realized that the simple act of sitting down to order was intimidating. Had I gone to one of the places we frequented, I'm sure I would have been fine (since they recognize us by now, and I know the drill there), but I prefer doing new things, so I found another place instead. However, the first couple of places I saw were laid out in a way that made me wonder if I'd ever eat without knowing the language, so I opted for a more traditional looking restaurant.

The reason we go to the same places over and over is because the other guys have said they are the best places around the hotel we stay in. Judging on my pizza last night, I understand what they were talking about. In fact, I seem to recall a disparaging mention of a particular restaurant in the vicinity of where I was last night. So I suspect that I happened to find the very restaurant that I'd heard about.

While the pizza was ordinary, I was pleasantly surprised when the young waiter halted me in my stammering Italian, and told me to speak English. I need all the Italian practice I can get, but it's still nice to get through the simple tasks of the day without it.

Back to the hotel room, I opted not to blog, so that I could get a good night's sleep before my 3:00am wake up call. Unfortunately, that didn't work out as anticipated, as I couldn't sleep, despite taking 2 of my remaining Temazepam. Maybe I should have just saved them for the flight. I eventually got to sleep around 1am, and woke on my own at about 5 minutes to 3. I suspect that I'll find it easier than usual to sleep on the flight back to the USA.

Driving

The Airport at Lamezia Terme is about an hour's drive away, and I had arranged to meet the hotel's taxi driver at 3:45 in order to make checkin with plenty of time to spare. The driver was 15 minutes late (something I'd taken into account when ordering the taxi), and did not seem particularly perturbed by this, immediately taking the time for "un cafe". I have encountered this laconic delay for a coffee on numerous occasions, with many different people, so I wasn't surprised. I'm even a little envious of this attitude. Everyone always seems pushed for time in the USA, and Australia is going the same way. Regardless of time pressures, several of the Italians I know will stop to take the time for un cafe, refusing to rush the experience. Despite myself, I've always found these enforced breaks a pleasant way to make me take a breath and relax for a few minutes.

We got away a little after 4am, which I figured was just going to get me there in time. However, I didn't take into account Italian driving at 4am. It seems common here to avoid any rule that doesn't have immediate significance. So while my driver was cautious at "Give Way/Yield" signs, and slowed down on blind corners, he routinely travelled at 140km/h, pushing it up to 160km/h on the straights. Of course, this was when the speed limit was 100. When it was reduced to 60 (due to roadworks, for instance) then he slowed right down to 120. While this was sufficient to overtake the various trucks which were out at that time, our poor little minivan was left in the dust by many of the other cars on the road. In the end, the trip took an impressive 30 minutes. He seemed to appreciate my comment of, "Temporale magnifico," which was about all I could think to say, beyond "Grazie, arrivedeci." It was just as well, because he didn't understand anything else I tried saying to him on the way.

While significantly slower, city driving in Cosenza seems to have a similar disregard of the rules of the road. Line markings, one way streets and no-entry signs are more of a general guide (and an often ignored one) than a set of rules to be adhered to. However, the guys at work tell me that the traffic in Cosenza is significantly calmer and slower than Naples, where a similar attitude towards rules prevails, but at high speed, in narrower streets, and with greater traffic density.

Perhaps the common disregard of rules is also a part of that general laconic attitude that I run into here?

With the sun still down, and the lack of conversation in the taxi, I was tempted to watch a movie on my iPod on the way. However, the moon was out and nearly full, so I tried to look at some of the landscape along the way.

The Calabrian area has many hills and mountains, but it seems that every piece of ground vaguely level enough to build on has some kind of structure on it. This still leaves a lot of open space, but it's often on a 60 degree slope or more. At night it makes an impressive view from the air or up in the mountains, as the lights stretch everywhere.

As we were rounded a hill halfway through our trip, I realized that I was looking down at the sea. The moon was still relatively high, and it lit the sea spectacularly. As we moved down out of the hills, my view lifted to include the clouds in the distance. The scene and lighting brought to mind a painted movie backdrop from the 50s. It was one of those scenes where the artist appears to have stylized the image so much that it appears obviously fake. But once you see if for yourself you realize that the artist was spot on.

I had a similar experience when I drove into Chicago for the first time. Coming in from the south, we had a impressive view of downtown. There was low cloud cover this night, lit with the city lights, which had a kind of orange/sepia tone to them. The tip of the Sears tower disappeared occasionally into the mist making it look even taller than ever. This was the kind of image I've seen in paintings and on film, but until I saw it for myself, I never dreamed the city could look like that it reality.

Impressed as I was with Chicago that night, none of this compares with the Mediterranean sea with a full moon over it. This has been the subject of many songs, poems and paintings, but I suppose I always associated this with a cultural familiarity and dependence on the sea, rather than it having such inherent beauty. Sometimes it's nice to be proven so ignorant.

Flying

Checkin was quick and uneventful, and I started writing this while waiting for the flight. Of course, we had our mandatory 50m bus ride to the plane. They nearly had me when we drove several hundred meters down the tarmac. Just as I was starting to think there was a purpose to taking the bus after all, we rounded a barrier, and went all the way back to where we had come from. We ended up immediately on the other side of the barrier from where we had started. Note, that when I say, "barrier", it is really more a set of a sight screens, with gaps that passengers (or vehicles) could proceed through. These bus trips make sense in Rome and Milan, where you travel for over a kilometer, but Lamezia Terme makes me wonder if they were perhaps budgeted the vehicles by some guiding authority, and now it is mandatory to use them.

My flight was next to an elderly man who had a smattering of English, and wanted to practice it on me. I wouldn't have minded, except that I had to strain to hear his voice over the engines. The conversation did have the benefit of him showing me when we were about to land in Milan. There were clouds just below us, and I thought we must still need to descend through it before we would see the landscape. It was at that point that my neighbor invited me to lean over to see through the window, and I saw we were about 100m above a smoke stack peeking through the fog I had mistaken for a cloud deck.

The view coming into Milan is spectacular. The Alps stretch across and define the horizon. You see this when you walk out of the airport, but I forgot to mention it when I was last here because I didn't see the mountains at all when I was within the city. This morning my neighbor and I had the extra treat of seeing the full moon coming in to set over the Alps. I'd like this trip to be over already, but there have certainly been moments that I've appreciated and will always keep with me.

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