Before I start my post I want to say how lucky I feel to have such a wonderful family. The recent deaths of my mom's uncle, my grandpa, and Owen Thomas, a fellow junior from Wharton, serve as reminders of how fragile life is and how important it is to make the most of everyday. I think that it is really easy to lose sight of what is actually important and meaningful and to let the days go by without consciously thinking about the decisions you make; however, these recent events motivate me to constantly try to be the best person I can be and to constantly treat others with respect. Here is a great picture of my mom, brothers, and me with Dave after midnight mass for Christmas:
While I am writing this blog so that I can come back and read it some day, I know that my mom and brothers read it regularly to see the pictures of me as I travel. I can't wait to see you guys- You mean the world to me and I am very proud of you! Francisco will be here in 3 weeks and I couldn't be more thrilled to be able to share part of this experience with him. Some other good news are that he learned this week that he was accepted to study abroad in Ecuador next semester so I am excited for him to have such a unique experience.
Overall, I am having a good week. I have a cold though, so I have stayed in for the past 4 nights studying for my JPM test. Hopefully I start getting better soon! I am not that sick but I have a cough and am still congested. It probably doesn't help that I had McDonald's for dinner yesterday (with Daniel Kim) and today (with Marine). I literally eat more fast food here in Italy than I did back at Penn which is sad. I should really stop doing that, for the sake of saving money and taking advantage of all the great food! Yesterday after dinner Daniel gave me the music off of his computer and I have been listening to the songs all day. He downloaded the Billboard top 100 for April so I have all the current most popular songs. I am also looking forward to the 2nd leg of the Inter-Barca Champions League Semifinal. It would be incredible if Inter won the Champions League while I was here in Milan. Although the final will be in Madrid, Francisco will be here with me in Milan so we could go to a bar and watch it with all the crazy people! This week is also shaping up to be really busy for me because I have a couple of big group project coming up that I need to work on.
Alright amigos, its time to recount my time spent in Sicily, or Sicilia (Seecheelia) as we Italians like to say. After I got back to Milan from Spain I had to study for my midterm in Alternative Investments but during those 5 'study days' I did everything but! The first day I got back I went to the park with Oscar, Johan, and a few other friends to soak in the sun and kick around a soccer ball. We also brought hot dogs, bread, and chips with us to make lunch since Jorgen brought a disposable grill. We didn't actually end up grilling at the park because not everyone was that hungry, but it was still nice to be outside on such a beautiful day (easily the most beautiful in Milan up to that point for me). The next day was the Milano Marathon and the course went right past my apartment so I went on my balcony and watched people run by for a while! The day before my midterm I really tried to study though and I think the exam went well so I was happy about that.
The trip to Sicily started with a tram and metro ride with Johan to Stazione Centrale (you guessed it, Central Station) to meet up with Johan van Eck and the rest of the gang. Like my roadtrip through Tuscany, the group of people I went on this trip with were very diverse! There were 4 guys and 1 girl from Holland (Johan, Joris, Toine, Jaap and Karolina), 1 from Sweden (Johan), 1 from Iceland (Tomas), 1 from Canada (Oren), and 1 Colombian American (yours truly). Keli (another guy from Iceland) was also supposed to join us on the trip but had emergency surgery to get his appendix out a couple days before. Once we were all there (except for Jaap who met us later at the airport) we took the shuttle to the airport in Bergamo called Orio al Serio. The reason we flew out of Bergamo, is because it is the only airport in the region that RyanAir, the super low-cost carrier, flies out of. The round trip airfare only cost like 50Euros per person so it was a good deal. Unfortunately, the bus ride was terrible. We got stuck in traffic so it took an hour and a half to get to the airport and it was really hot on the bus. I remember I kept telling myself that suffering on that bus was not worth the cost savings of the cheap flight. Needless to say, I will try to keep flying EasyJet for my next trips. Once we got to the airport everything was going well until we got all the way to the front of the security line and they made Oren and I go to the check in counter to get stamps on our boarding passes since we aren't from the EU. Fortunately, we decided to just skip the line and go under the ropes to the front of the line after arriving back to security and no one seemed to care. After we got past security and caught up to everyone, we met up with Marine, Pascal, Rachel, and Sabrina, (all friends from school) who were on our same flight. It was a huge coincidence though because we originally planned the trips separately. We were renting cars upon arriving in Palermo though and they were staying mostly in the city so we didn't see them that much besides at the airport. I sat next to Tomas on the flight and no one sat in the seat between us so it was nice to have the open space there. We talked for most of the flight which I really enjoyed and before we knew it the flight was over! As soon as we stepped off the plane the humidity was very noticeable and you could tell that we were really close to the sea.
After we got everything settled at the airport we headed out to find the cars that we rented for the trip. One of the first things I noticed at the airport was the huge number of police officers and security guards. I know that Sicily is known for the Mafia activity so maybe that's why? The cars that we got were a Lancia (an Italian company) and a Volkswagen Rabbit. Johan, Joris, Johan V, and I took the Lancia and this proved to be a great decision because the leg room in the back seats was truly amazing. The cars and the groups of people in them never changed throughout the trip so we got to enjoy the added space for the duration of the trip (you'll see later why this became so important). Johan and Johan V were the drivers in our car and Oren and Jaap drove in the other car, so we had a good balance of 2 drivers per car. Another thing that was nice was that the GPS that we rented actually worked decently compared to the horrendous one that kept getting us lost in Tuscany. We headed straight to our B&B (Bed & Breakfast) so drop our things off before heading out for a bite to eat. However, making it to the B&B proved to be harder than we first imagined because some of the streets that we drove down were EXTREMELY narrow and we got stuck a couple times. At one point we were holding an Italian man up and he got out of his car to shout "vai vai vai!!" (go go go!!) at us while we were trying to squeeze between two buildings. If not for having folded the side view mirrors in, we would not have fit! After struggling to find the place we finally made it and it was quite a relief. Before I keep going I want to make sure that I mention that the radio stations in Sicily are hit or miss, but when you find a good one they are AMAZING! I didn't think the day would come when I would say that about a radio station but they literally played great songs like non-stop when they were working. After dropping everything off in our rooms (I shared a room with Johan) we all went outside to wait for Karoline to get ready. This proved to be a common occurrence during the trip since the 7 of us guys always got ready really quickly. After walking around and not finding a place to eat we found a nice place to have a panino and beer really close to the hotel near the beautiful marina which we drove past on the way to the hotel. After dinner Johan, Jaap, and I headed in because we were really tired but everyone else wanted to stay out and try to find a club or bar to go to. I honestly am not sure what they ended up doing, but I sure am glad I was able to get some rest that night because I was exhausted.
The next morning I was the first person up and at breakfast so I had to wake everyone else up so they wouldn't miss the free breakfast. Everyone else still had a ways to go before being ready to head out for the day so Johan and I decided to go out and explore the surrounding area while we waited. We headed to the marina next to where we ate the night before and right away we could tell that Palermo had a much different feel to it than the other Italian cities we had been to. In a strange way it seemed less developed and the traffic was completely erratic. It made the driving in Milan and Colombia look tame. There would be 6 cars next to each other on 2 lane roads and this was just one example of things being less organized. Next to the marina is really smelled like fish because there were several vendors on the side of the street selling fresh fish. After walking around the marina we head in a circle to get back to the hotel and walked next to a really really nice park which had the craziest tree I have ever seen. It was huge but the crazy part was that from the branches there would be other trunks which probably started off as vine that grew downward to the ground hundreds of years ago. It is hard to explain but I will post a picture so you can see what I am talking about. In the picture it looks like a bunch of different trees but they are all the same tree and all the small 'trunks' join the main one up higher. After this, we meet up with everyone else and then bought water at a grocery store before basically retracing the same steps that Johan and I had just walked while waiting for them. During this time 2 unfortunate things happened: 1. I stepped on dog poop and 2. Johan lost his sweater. However, 2 miracles also occurred: 1. It was a miracle that it took 3 months for me to stop on dog poop, because it is literally all over the place on the sidewalks here in Italy and 2. Johan found his sweater on the ground near the park. After we got back to the park, we all collectively decided to leave the city and drive to a beach to enjoy the weather. We figured that we could spend the last day in Palermo to see the city before our return flight.
The drive to the beach was very nice but none of us were prepared for how beautiful the beach was!
I can't remember the last time I had seen water that looked so blue/green and it was just beautiful. It was the closest I had been to paradise in a REALLY long time. We parked the cars and walked on the boardwalk toward the water but it got cloudy while we were walking and the water was still quite cold so we didn't get to swim in the sea like I was hoping. After a few hours at the beach (unfortunately I don't remember what it was called) we headed to Catania which is the 2nd largest city in Sicily. Palermo is located in the NW part of the island while Catania is on the West coast so it was a hearty, but beautiful drive along the coast. We stopped along the way for a coffee (in my case a Gatorade) and it was nice to not have any worries since I had already taken my only midterm. Now that the exam was not looming over my head, the only thing I needed to worry about for the time being was relaxing and enjoying the trip. When we finally got to Catania we had trouble getting to the B&B because the GPS kept trying to lead us down extremely narrow streets that we would have never been able to drive through. We finally made it though and the lady that ran the B&B was extremely nice and also very beautiful. She also had a small child (I am guessing around 12-18 months old) named Ricardo who might have been the cutest baby I have ever seen. Okay maybe the 2nd cutest after Francisco, I remember he was quite the looker back in the day. The best part of the place was the fact that our room had a huge balcony facing a very nice square in the center of the city. As we stood out there and looked down at all the people it was like being on the Pope's balcony at the Vatican.
Once we were all settled in we asked the lady from the B&B if she knew of any nice places where we could have dinner and she recommended a place so I made a reservation for us. Before dinner we headed to the grocery store to buy drinks for later in the evening and then headed back to the hotel. On TV they were showing the top 50 soccer goals of the year so we watched that until it was time to go to the restaurant. We ended up taking a long-cut to get to the place because on the way home it took a fraction of the time to get back but we are glad we went because we were not expecting the dinner to turn into such a memorable experience. The restaurant was called Tratoria Casalinga and its specialty was seafood. Right away we were greeted by an extremely energetic older man who called himself Nino (short for Antonino). It turned out that he owned the restaurant and his sons were the waiters. None of us knew what to order for the primo piatto (first plate is usually a pasta) so Nino just said he would give us his specialty. We all hesitantly agreed but he was so confident in the way he said it that we all trusted him. WOW!!!!!!!!! My taste buds have still not recovered from Nino's specialty; Everything I eat still tastes bland in comparison. The plate came with 2 different kinds of pastas and sauces but the pasta with the red sauce was easily the best I have ever tried. I had previously said that the pasta in Siena was the best but this was on a completely different level. I have no words to explain the flavors. It was like adding a different dimension to eating, like seeing a 3D film for the first time or seeing TV in color for the first time. As the meal progressed Nino began to talk to us more and he really took a liking to Johan V. He kept teasing him and asking him where he was from and from then on, the rest of the dinner was more of a show than a meal. Nino and Johan V. kept going back and forth jokingly giving each other a hard time. At one point they were using a pepper grinder/shaker and a coat rack as props for their jokes. Nino also opened up 2 bottles of wine and drank them with us. He would pour us a glass and then toast and have us drink them quickly and then do it over again. For being so old, he sure was full of life! I made several videos of him so I wouldn't forget his way of being.
Halfway during dinner I received an unknown number from the US so I stepped out to answer in case it was my family or JPMorgan and I was surprised when it was Joanna from the Wharton Council. She called me during the weekly WC meeting because they were about to vote for co-chairs for next year and wanted me to talk about myself so the new members could learn a bit about me. I wasn't expecting to be put on a conference call in the middle of dinner in Sicily but it was really nice to hear everyone. The next morning I found out that I was voted co-chair and it is truly an honor to lead such a fine group of individuals. I want to work really hard next semester so that I can make those that came before me proud! After 4 hours at the restaurant and 4 bottles of wine we decided to head out and see other parts of the city. It was a Thursday night so we figured there would be a lot of young people out looking for something to do. We found a bar with tables outside so we sat and talked for a while. Afterward we headed into an Irish pub and were surprised when it turned out to be a gay bar (the lady who recommended it is probably still laughing) so we called it a night since nothing else was open (of course we stopped for a kebab on the way home though).
Catania's central square and duomo are a World Heritage Site so we got up early to go out and see the parts of the city we still had not seen. On the way there we walked through a nice outdoor market where you could find anything from watches to scarves to CDs and cooking pans. Once we got to the piazza at the Duomo it was really beautiful. Johan, Tomas, and I arrived first so after taking a look around we headed to the fish market which is renowned world wide.
Besides all of the really big fish that we saw, we also ran into this guy!!! :
It was actually really nice to see Nino again to kind of get a last goodbye since the night before we left kind of quickly. He was extremely nice and everyone at the market knew him! He said he was there to buy fish for his restaurant so it was apparent that buying fresh food was really important to him. No wonder his pasta was so good. After we left the fish market we met up with the rest of the gang and Oren & I went to a pastry shop near the Duomo for a famous Sicilian treat: the Cannolo, or Cannoli as Americans call them. These special pastries are famous and I could definitely tell the difference between that one and the other ones I have tried before. It had pistachio shavings on top which made it even better. For those of you who aren't familiar with this tasty creation, it is a "pastry horn filled with cream cheese, candied fruit and chocolate". Believe me, they are delicious but they are so sweet that you can't eat more than one.
Leaving Catania was hard because it was so beautiful but we were all very eager to travel to the next location on our itinerary: Mt. Etna, the largest active volcano in Europe. The drive to Etna was nice because it was very hilly and it almost reminded me of being in Colombia. When we got to the point where you can take a gondola up we were appalled when it cost over 50+Euros to go up. Instead of paying an arm and leg to go up we decided it would be a better value to climb a nearby hill on foot and still get some spectacular views. The trek up this mini mountain was much more difficult than I was expecting because the ground was so unstable due to the loose lava stones. My boat shoes & no socks were also not the appropriate shoes to wear for such a hike but I survived nonetheless and even got my family lava stones as souvenirs (shhhhh don't tell them though because I haven't told them yet).
The final night of our trip was approaching so we drove to Cefalu, the last city on our schedule. The drive was also nice but the highlight was when a Lamborghini flew past us on the highway. After seeing that I was tempted to move the Lambo above the Ferrari on my "to-get" list. Cefalu was a very special stop because it is truly an oasis.
The next day we began to hear about more and more airport closing due to the Volcano eruption in Iceland which resulted in a huge ash cloud over much of Europe. Needless to say that morning was pretty crazy once we heard our flight was cancelled because we weren't sure when the airport would be re-opening. It turned out that flights were cancelled for like 5 days in Italy and even longer in other places like England so that was pretty crazy. We decided to drive the rental cars all the way back to Milan and it was a huge relief for me, because I was worried about missing the HUGE Champions League Match that I had been looking forward to going to so much. After buying a chicken and splitting it with Johan for lunch and sitting out with the whole group in the sun we decided to head out. It was going to be a really long drive to Milan and we wanted to drive non-stop so we wouldn't have to pay for an extra days car rental. The drive home took 19 hours in total and we drove onto a ferry to get back to the mainland. The drive to get to the ferry however was really memorable because it was composed almost exclusively of bridges and tunnels. I have never been in or seen so many tunnels in my life. It was incredible. Something else that was really crazy was that the ferry had train tracks on the bottom floor and a train drove into it!! I made a video because I couldn't believe it.
To ensure that the drivers wouldn't be too tired to stay awake we had a system where the driver and co-pilot pairs would switch every 4 hours so the others could sleep in the back seat. This is why the huge amount of leg room in the car turned out to be so great! Whenever Johan and I would drive we constantly talked and I had a wonderful time. I am actually really glad our flight was cancelled because that was one of the most fun drives I have ever been on. Unfortunately we never got to see more of Palermo but I did get to ride through practically all of Italy! When we finally got back to Milan the next morning it was so nice to be back in my room and have my own bed. The drive was really exhausting but I had an amazing trip.
Many thanks to Johan V. for organizing such a nice trip. All of the places we stayed at and visited were very nice and I am really glad I was able to go on the trip.
It is getting late and I have class in the morning so I should get going to bed!