Friday, March 23, 2007

Travels? We don't need no stinking TRAVELS!

We sent a postcard from Venice to our landlords/neighbors in Binghamton. Our landlords are an older couple in their 70s who suffer from the same condition that many people around here seem to suffer from: even though they have some cash to spend on travel, they cannot imagine going someplace as exotically crazy as, say, Italy. Las Vegas? "It's our favorite place! We've been four times." Sacramento to visit the niece? "Several times." Cooperstown (an hour away) for the long weekend? "Absolutely." I think they even drove to Ohio over the holidays to visit family.

But, between this trip to Italy and the trip to London last year, they think we are borderline wacky that we'd go so far away. Heck, you'd need a passport!

The best, though, is what happened a couple days ago. I got a call at work from the landlady, which usually means she has been cooking at her church (yes, the same Slovak church where she was baptized and where she got married 50 years ago and still calls Bingo every Thursday night). The food she offers us is usually pretty weird stuff, by Los Angeles standards- stuffed cabbage or stuffed peppers. I've always liked that stuff and John seems to finally be coming around to it.

Anyway, this time she caught me off guard a little bit and almost caught me: "Annie, you remember the buchta (I have no idea how to spell it, but that's what it sounds like) I gave you at Christmastime?" The "buchta" was some apricot and/or nut loaf that was wrapped in several layers of aluminum foil and plastic bags and went DIRECTLY into the freezer, where they still rest quietly. We were too scared to open them.

"Which one did you like the better, the apricot or the nut?" UH-OH! Busted. I stammered and thought quickly- John hates nuts, let me see, "The apricot, of course." I replied. "OK, well I've got another loaf for you- and it's a big one!" Great. Can't wait. Our freezer will be full of freakin' buchta by the time we're ready to leave here. It's so yukky sounding I don't even want to bring it to someone else's house- too much like the fruitcake that gets passed around.

The icing on the cake: When I ventured next door to collect my latest instalment of "buchta," the neighbors told me that the POSTMAN ASKED "Who is in Venice???" I'm surprised it didn't make the local paper: "Local couple ventures to foreign land!"

p.s. In all fairness, we ventured into the apricot buchta over the weekend, and it wasn't bad at all- kind of a loaf of bread with the jam already wrapped up inside it!

Thursday, March 15, 2007

ever wonder where the pope gets his undies

never fear, i'm here to tell you the answer. gammarelli's, that's where. gammarelli's is a tiny little store off of the piazza minerva, just behind the pantheon, that has been making the pope's clothing since 1798. cardinals and bishops also come from all over the world to visit this rough equivalent of versace couture, but for the catholic ruling class.

consider this; when the world was about to receive its brand spankin'-new pope in 2005, it was somewhat scandalous that gammarelli put 3 new cassocks in its window, even before the new pope's official public 'coming out' ceremony. this was roughly the equivalent of giorgio armani doing something crazy like putting katie holmes' wedding dress in the catalog for his spring collection, even before her wedding.

it's not really correct to call it a 'store,' not only because 'institution' is more accurate, but because 'store' is an overstatement and also misleading. gammarelli's consists of just a window with a very formal popey-looking vestment in it - when we visited there was a suspicious-looking lace under-layer to the cassock, not joking- a few pairs of socks and an old-school cardinal's hat peering out at the window shopper. a peek inside reveals only a bunch of bolts of extremely ornate and heavy looking gold-infused and brocade fabric, located up high, with only aged wooden drawers at eye level and below. add to this forbidding mix the two cranky-looking older gentlemen working there, and you don't exactly have a tourist draw. in fact, it's more like a brick wall.

but i'm not shy, to say the least, and i had read about gammarelli's in the new york times. i was determined to, first, find the darn place, which is obviously not in any guidebook, second, get the nerve to enter and, third, to buy something. come on, i mean, this is the tailor to, aruably, the most powerful man in the world, and i needed to investigate. i had questions that needed answers. do the tailors have to go through some sort of purification ritual, or at least background check, before touching/taking the pope's measurements. i mean, the pope is a lot more important than the president, and you can't get into the white house, or even the old executive office building, without coughing up your social security number at least a day in advance, so the secret service can sniff you out. do these guys see the pope naked. does the pope have body odor as bad as the average italian man. the world needs to know, but sixth-generation popey-tailor annibale gammarelli isn't talking.

so i stood outside and looked into the window, trying to devise a plan for what i was going to do once inside. i needed a mission, so as not to get kicked out immediately. a-ha. i had an idea- i'll ask them if they have any sort of 'souvenir'- an internationally-known word- for my monsignor at home. 'just buying for a friend,' basically, since clearly there's nothing for a young woman in a catholic popey shop. i spied some socks in the window, and they came in some fun colors- bright red, snappy purple, and basic black.

so i entered, leaving a somewhat horrified john outside to let me make an ass of myself in the popey-shop. i entered, asked for any type of small souvenir for my phantom 'monsignor at home,' and they looked at me like i was crazy. socks, i said, like the ones in the window, can i buy some of those, please. what color, they asked. hummm, i like the red and the purple. now the old man is really getting annoyed with me. after some minutes, as he is wrapping up my 2 pairs of socks- bright red and snappy purple- it finally becomes apparent to me that he is pissed off at me because i cannot get it through my think skull that the socks are bishop-purple and - literally- cardinal red. not only am i actig ridiculous by not knowing my monsignor's size and yet trying to buy the smallest available size of socks- because they are secretly for me- but when/if i give these 'souvenirs' to my 'monsignor at home,' he's going to be wearing the official colors of a bishop or a cardinal. ugh. good thing i didn't really realize all of this until my purchase was finished.

anyway, not only do i now own two slammin' hot pairs of super bright, silky socks that are going to go all the way up to my knees and keep me warm under my boots in the winter, but i have such a great story, and john as my witness. much better than the pope-snow-globe that i could have purchased for the same ten bucks.

p.s. not only does 'gammarelli's' answer the 'where does the pope buy his socks' question, it will also come in handy for 'what thriving business, with the bulk of its customers hailing from all over the world, in 2007 still does not have a website.' now you know.

p.p.s. the internet era again leaving gammarelli's back in 1798, there is no wikipedia entry for 'gammarelli,' something i may do something about, after i catch up with blogging. interesting to note that the polish version of wikipedia does have an entry;

you heard it here first; orange is the new pink. er, i mean black

again, pardon the lack of capitalization and punctuation- i cannot figure out this euro keyboard and/or it may be busted in a way that prevents accessing a lot of the keys. that said, . . .

every time i travel to europe, something strikes me as funny and i cannot stop noticing it. in college when i went to germany, it was all the ladies with this horrible red wash in their hair, that we ended up calling 'freiberg red' after the bavarian city where my buddies and i noticed it. the only thing more apparent, and an observation which has been consistently true and even helpful for at least a decade, is that germans also have a predilection for this horrible lemon/lime color that shows up on everything from cars to houses to socks.

seriously, try it some time. if you see someone in the airport or something, wearing any article of clothing that is a god awful yellowish-green color not found in nature nor in any american store, do a little reconnaissance and see if they are speaking a gritty-sounding language; chances are, they are german.

in italy, i immediately noticed a certain fashion 'miss' that has repeated itself hundreds of times in the past week; men wearing orange pants. the shade of orange ranges from a bright 'men at work'-sign color ornage, to a dark persimmon color, and just barely, but not completely, almost all the way to red.

the weird thing is, i cannot figure any rhyme or reason to who is wearing this awful color. the only apparent parameters are that it is only found on men, and almost only in pants-form. but as far as which demographic is zeroing in on this trend, it's not clear. if i saw them a lot on teeneagers, it would make sense that it's a trendy thing, but no, not the case. we've seen them on all kinds of 'regular guiseppes'- from the middle aged guy on his vespa to the old man wearing the corduroy/fancy version with a blazer and smoking a pipe. i guess it's just so pervasive that it transcends all demographics. but man, is it bad. i'm hoping that this fashion statement remains within the confines of italia.

p.s. confession; europeans have a 'thing' for jeans in funky/bright colors, like this orange i'm speaking of, and like the gross green color in germany. i do have to admit, though, that, when i studied in england for a semester, i, too, came home owning an awful pair of red jeans. yuk.

greetings from rome

if there is one thing i learned in law school, it is that one who studies for months and takes a bar exam has a constitutional right to take a vacation immediately following. if that bar exam happens to be california or new york, that vacation may, at the test-takers option and at no additional charge, be upgraded to a trip to europe.

i am cashing in on that law right now, as john and i are on day 7 of a 10 day trip to italy; 3 days in venice where we stayed here;, 2 in florence where we stayed here;, and now 5 in rome at this funky place; i researched a ton so i'm not surprised, but still happy to report, that all 3 places we've stayed have been excellent; super friendly, great locations, perfectly clean, unique, and amazing rates, to boot.

i am presently using a euro-keyboard and cannot, for the life of me, figure out how to make capital letters on this screwy keyboard, and can barely figure out how to access the punctuation marks, so please bear with me for the 'flat' tone of these things. also, all the blog commands are in italian, and some appear to be missing, so i can't even figure out how to upload photos or even make links that don't show, so please also pardon the messy looking blogs. i'll see what i can do to clean it up and add some photos when we get home.

note to anyone who is thinking of traveling to europe, italy in particular, in this shoulder/'off' season; we highly recommend it. the weather could not be more perfect- not rainy nor too hot- and there are a zillion tourists but only a fraction if what will come in the next few months. oh, and the hotels are slightly cheaper than peak season. viva italia in march, we say.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Syracuse: giving "upstate New York" a bad name

The week before the bar, I spent three looooooong days in Syracuse (about 60 miles north of Binghamton), taking a bar review course at Syracuse Law School. It was pretty cold in Binghamton when I left on Sunday (maybe 25 degrees? and not snowing or anything), but nothing like Syracuse. By the time I got to Syracuse, the snow was many feet high and was freaging COLD. I arrived at my gross $45 per night interstate-adjacent Red Roof Inn on Sunday evening and needed some toothpaste. The front desk told me that there was not any kind of convenience store anywhere nearby, but that I could use my key-card to get into the tiny vending machine room next door, where I'd find myself a tiny tube of $2 toothpaste. When I got there, however, it was apparent that I would have to have purchased 3 $2 condoms in order to get back to the little toothpaste tube hiding in the rear of the vending machine. GROSS. Who is buying THOSE? in a dump like THAT place? ew. enough already.

I got to my room, which was very basic and serviceable enough, with a decent work-desk. Most importantly- a strong deadbolt lock on the door, which was critical because it was a motel-type set-up with my door facing the sketchy parking lot. Walking into my room, I immediately noticed something sparkly on the floor, under the desk area- the metal cage top of a champagne bottle? Who is celebrating in a dump like this place? Probably the same guy (and his truck-stop hooker) who is buying the 9-year-old cracked condoms in the vending machine downstairs. again- Ew. GROSS.

It snowed non-stop throughout the night, and I thought for sure I was going to be snowed in, but when I woke up on Monday morning the parking lot had been plowed, just enough to let me go out into the NEGATIVE SEVEN DEGREES. Not joking- it was a new record for that date in history. Apparently Syracuse is substantially colder and gets much more snow than where we live. I tell ya, Binghamton seemed downright balmy compared to Syracuse. The photo above is of a 20-foot tall icicle that ran the full height of a two-story building- these were a common sight all over the place.

And the law school? Yuk. All concrete and depressed looking students sitting in the hallways. Apparently they don't even have proper study areas. No wonder they had an "ire department" in one of the stairwells!!!

New York Bar Exam: Fading from memory like a bad ex-boyfriend . . .

FINALLY! I'm back at the ol' keyboard after my traumatic bar exam experience. I spent Sunday through Wednesday of last week in Albany (about 2 hours northeast of Binghamton, and New York's state capital) taking the test. I had been studying since October, and stressing about it since I got my law firm job in June, so needless to say I'm extremely pleased to put this long chapter behind me and get back to having some sort of a life again.

The test itself was pretty uneventful so I'll just give you the low-lights of it. Basically, I showed up at the testing site on Tuesday morning for the first day of the exam. My testing room was in the Albany convention center, which is a massive subterranean cavern below Governor Rockefeller's Empire State Plaza government complex, a striking 1960s-era modern marble and concrete edifice that must be seen to be appreciated.

There are 4 or 5 testing sites around New York state, and Albany is in my region so that's why I was there, but it is also the catch-all testing location for all the out-of-state and out-of-country test-takers. This would explain why the huge line of people included tons of people who looked more to me like cab drivers (sorry, that probably sounded un-p.c., but it's true!) than the traditional law students I grew used to. It also explained, I think, why the overall stress level in the room was lower than I had expected- foreign/non-traditional February (i.e., off-peak test date of July) just don't bear that uniquely American brand of "oh my God I'm $100,000 in debt and I won't get a job or my firm will fire me if I don't pass this thing NOW" mentality.

So you show up at the exam, and you are only allowed to bring in a 1-gallon (max) sized ziploc bag that has your #2 pencils, pens, Excedrin and ear plugs. There are only a few items you are allowed to bring into the test room, so purses and things like that are strictly prohibited. God forbid you might have a contraband cell phone in there that rang during the exam!

This strict ban means that test takers are easy to spot- we were issued green wristbands on the first day that we had to wear both days to identify us, and carry around that stupid ziploc bag. The worst part is at lunchtime, when you try to blend in with the thousands of government workers who fill the concourse outside the testing room on their lunch hours (and these are government employees, they ALL take a lunch HOUR, at least!).

After you suck down some soup at the cafeteria, you have a whole hour left to wander around in a stress-and-study-induced-daze that is made all the more apparent by the fact that you are carrying a ziploc baggie with your creepy-looking earplugs visible ("No, as a matter of fact, I CANNOT be trusted with sharp objects or anything that does not fit into a transparent pouch, thank you!")

And there are really only a few benches to sit on in this massive underground concourse that seems more like a really busy airport terminal at lunchtime, so the bar takers, wearing jeans and sweats and such comfy things, tend to cast propriety aside and sit on the ground against the wall along the wide enclosed walkway.

I admit it, I did it, too. I pretended it was like in the days when I backpacked around Europe and this was the train station in Prague and I just had to get a little rest before going off to the next fabulous location. (OK, so this was upstate New York in February, but I had to make it OK in my head that I am 33 years old and sitting on the ground while people in suits and nice shoes stroll by on their way to their formal government offices.)

So I turned my parka inside-out and crumpled it up, not unlike the way a homeless person crumples their soiled "bedding" after a long night, and sat on it to keep my butt warm and off the marble floor. I even found a (used, of course!) newspaper and was just settling into my new "home" at knee-cap level, seriously hoping I wouldn't see anyone I knew because I looked so trashy, when I glanced up from my paper to see a couple of well-dressed men walking by me, one looking at me. Oh my god, it's the former Deputy Mayor from Binghamton and the President of the local Community College (which is a big deal around here).

My secret was out. I had been spotted.

"Shpare any shaange?" I asked in my best skid row impersonation as I put my hand out from behind my newspaper. Rich, the ex-deputy mayor, was already on his way over to me and greeted me with a hug when I stood up. Larry, the community college exec, didn't recognize me in my "Binghamton Yacht Club" t-shirt and jeans, even though I've been in small and intense meetings with him in the past (when I was wearing a suit, of course).

Oh well, I also ran into a lawyer I knew from my days as the Vice President of the Downtown Los Angeles Neighborhood Council, and that was REALLY random because he moved out of LA four years ago and doesn't even live in Albany. I also saw my state senator the day before the exam, as I was scoping out my test site, so I caught up to him on the sidewalk and introduced myself (old habits from lobbying are hard to break!) He was nice enough to show me to the room. Talk about "constituent services."

Anyway, I was at work on Thursday morning and, by Friday, my work buddy (yes, I really have one!), Delphine, told me that I was dwelling on the bar too much. Reliving the bad memories and beating myself up about the answers I got wrong. She told me that I need to think of the bar like it was a bad boyfriend- that I needed to forget what it had done to me and just move on with my life because I can't change the past and I need to embrace the future. I think that was great advice- we're going to Italy on Wednesday- woo hoo!