The First Formal Dinner and a Jam-Packed Travel Weekend!
Written by John February 10, 2014
There is so much to write about this past week that I do not even know how I am going to cover it all in this post. We began the week with our first of three gourmet dinners. The dinner consisted of the traditional five course Italian-style meal including an aperitif and vast array of foods before the dinner even began. It was comforting to know that Dr. Al trusted us enough to purchase wine for the evening to allow us to fully experience fine dining. Before the formal dinner, which began at 8pm, we attended an Etiquette seminar that was extremely informative as to the do’s and do not’s of European dining. We learned the proper placement of silverware, how to hold our cutlery, learned to never drink from the hand bowl, and were told other odd European traditions such as men walking before women downstairs so that, if the man trips, he does not fall onto her. My favorite was learning the difference between the proper non-eating hand placement for Italian and the French. The French only place their fingertips on the edge of the table. Whereas Italians place their entire wrist on the edge of the table so that they can move their hands while speaking! (I hope those reading this blog understand that Italians ALWAYS move their hands during a conversation so they had to alter the European etiquette to be able to hold conversations!)
As I said, the dinner did not begin until 8pm. Technically it did not begin until almost 9pm because 8pm was solely aperitifs and a large selection of finger foods. As an American, I thought the 1pm to 6:45pm break between lunch and dinner was long, so as you can imagine I was starving by the time the bus dropped us off at the restaurant at 8pm. Thankfully, I withheld my urge to gorge myself on the finger food, as the five course meal included much more food than I expected! The meal began with a savory spinach risotto and bottle of white wine for the table. Even those who were not big fans of spinach found themselves with a clear plate by the time the second appetizer (antipasto) was served. This dish consisted of intricate dumplings. I say intricate because they were filled with a walnut and cheese mix and a flavorful walnut paste drizzle. I really enjoyed their distinct flavor. Following the antipasto we were treated to our meat dish with a side of vegetables. Our meat dish consisted of a local guineafowl recipe that had a savory nut sauce. I would confidently say that eating guineafowl was a new experience for 98% of us and that many of us would have gladly eaten seconds. Finally, we were served dessert and coffee. Similar to my “Add a Seat to the Table” dinner, we were served a sweet white wine before dessert. It was a delicious “Mosto” wine which means that it is created using the grape must from the very beginning of the wine making process, before longer fermentation. Perhaps my favorite part of the evening, besides socializing with my friends, professors, and MBA students, was the dessert. It was the BEST and most textured cake I have ever eaten. It was cold, sweet, crunchy, and soft all at the same time. I am unsure exactly what kind of cake it was, but I included a picture below so maybe you can recognize it and let me know!
Finally, the first formal dinner came to a close and we waddled back to the bus and arrived back on campus around midnight. No amount of espresso could keep me awake as my body was busy digesting a ridiculous amount of food. I think I had my deepest sleep that night!
Wednesday arrived and it was time to travel! We boarded buses that CIMBA arranged to take us to the airport and flew out of Marco Polo to land in Paris by 10:30pm. A few of the more adventurous members in our group decided to venture out into the local town of Montmartre on Wednesday night, but the real fun began Thursday morning. We hopped out of bed bright and early Thursday and jumped on the metro to check out the Eiffel Tower. I was surprised to discover that the Eiffel Tower is not located at the heart of the city nor is it a steel color, instead it seemed to be placed in a random location relative to the city center and was a bronze color. I also never realized that it was such an incredible architectural feat as I was awed by the curves and designs it possessed.
Instead of heading to the top because it was raining, a few of us guys broke off and headed to the Louvre. – Side note: On the way to the Louvre, we noticed that Paris was not dirty or smelly as some stereotypes claim it to be. Contrarily, it was the cleanest city I have seen. On most corners, we found self-sanitizing, free public restrooms. – Okay now back to our day. When we arrived at the museum, we immediately recognized the Louvre glass pyramid from Dan Brown’s book, The Da Vinci Code. A nice couple snapped pictures of us with it in the background which was great. Upon entrance, we noticed the vast size of the museum. It was segmented into different wings and it seemed that we could have spent the entire weekend in the museum and not seen everything. We hustled through as much as we could soak in within two hours, making sure to check out the Mona Lisa, and rallied at a local cafe for lunch. Being in Paris, we decided that we had to taste Escargot (French for snails). I had read a magazine on the plane that mentioned tasting snails and kangaroo while in Paris, but it must have been a rare cafe that served kangaroo because every local we asked told us to go to Australia for kangaroo! We settled for only tasting the snails which were surprisingly delicious! They were served with an olive oil / pesto blend and I would highly recommend giving these a taste if you come to Paris.
After lunch, we navigated the metro without rest to explore the key sights. We checked out the Church of St. Pierre de Montmartre, located on a high hill which gave an exceptional view of the city, then we visited Notre Dame Cathedral, stopped for some gelato and crepes on a crowded side street, and went back to view the Eiffel Tower after dark. After a much needed rest back at the hostel, we regrouped and fought off fatigue to meet another CIMBA travel group that night. On our way back to the hostel, we met a French student and he invited us to follow him to some local hangout spots near our hostel in the Montmartre region. After nearly a full day awake, we called it a night and took a brief snooze before waking up for breakfast to recover for our flight to Barcelona. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention that I fell in love with the French language! I do not know exactly what it was, but there was just something about the French accent that I really enjoyed listening to. They say it is the romance language, so perhaps it was for me!
There was no time for a nap in Barcelona. We exited the airport and were welcomed by a gust of cool air and bright sunshine. We arrived at mid-afternoon on Friday, checked our bags in at St. Christopher’s Inn Hostel (my recommendation if you travel to Barcelona) and strolled down La Rambla. La Rambla or Ramblas (in Spanish) is the main street in the city center. We stopped by the local market, “La Boqueria”, which is a must in my opinion. The market was massive and included magnificent meat stands, fresh fruit shops, colorful candy and spice stands, and the wildest assortment of ocean creatures. We treated ourselves to local food customs for dinner: Paella and Tapas. Paella is a blend of rice, vegetables, and meat in a zesty sauce that tastes fantastic when you squeeze lemon on top. The Tapas are small finger foods that are great for large groups because they allow you to switch and swap so that you can taste many different flavors without breaking the bank. Following dinner we continued to walk down La Rambla and take in the culture. I noticed that Barcelona was very diverse. It is a blend of cultures. We met many Swedish individuals living in Barcelona because they fell in love with the warmer climate and friendly atmosphere. Whenever we asked for directions, the locals were quick to help and did not seem to have the “personal space” boundary I notice in other countries. For instance, if you are in Barcelona and ask someone for directions, do not be surprised if they place their hand on your shoulder while showing you which way to go. That evening, we checked out the hangout spot attached to the hostel and the variety of nationalities we met there was exciting. We spoke with an Irish man about St. Patty’s Day in Dublin (which I am doing during our travel week!), an Australian girl taught us some hilarious Australian phrases, and a Swede, working as a bartender in Barcelona, informed us of popular sites in the city and where to go off the tourist path to meet locals. It was a great night that ended in the early morning for two of us as my fellow Blue Hen, Seamus, and I decided to go for the full experience and attend Opium, a popular discoteca in Barcelona.
Needless to say, Saturday was a struggle to wake up, but I feel that is part of the independent travel experience. We ate a hearty breakfast for free, courtesy of the hostel (another reason why I recommend St. Christopher’s Inn) and Seamus and I proceeded to do a free day tour of Barcelona while the others took the metro to Park Guell (Gaudi park). I highly recommend doing a free city tour as the tour guides are very passionate about their cities and you can decide how much to give them as a tip that works with your budget. The most interesting information that I learned on the tour was that Spain is still very much composed of quasi-independent territories and that there is an awesome origin for the four red stripes on the Catalan flag. Following the tour, we indulged on a typical Barcelona treat: melted dark chocolate and churros. The sugar rush gave us the energy to walk almost three miles to see Gaudi’s famous La Sagrada Familia (Holy Family Church). We chose to walk instead of taking the metro to get a more whole view of Barcelona’s culture. Walking the city, instead of becoming a metro wiz (as I became in Paris) is another thing I will recommend, if your time permits it, while traveling. The Basilica was breathtaking as I have never seen architecture as unique as La Sagrada Familia in all my travels across Europe. This is definitely a must see if you are in the city. We planned to walk to Park Guell afterwards, but after a local confirmed that it was at least an hour walking distance further, we hopped on the metro. Park Guell was fascinating as well and offered a fantastic view of Barcelona. Originally, it was intended to house the wealthier families in the city, but they gawked at its unique architecture and thus it became a tourist attraction many years later. It cost a decent amount of euros to enter the park, so I recommend walking around the hills above the park for free. By now, the sun was fading so we returned to our room, ate and prepared for the night. Saturday night we met up with Ricky’s (one of the CIMBA guys in our group) friends who are studying abroad in Barcelona and they took us to a neat bar frequented by locals. We had a glass or two of Sangria and called it a night. Sunday we returned to Paderno and I began catching up on a rather large homework load!
With the first travel weekend completed, I am realizing how quickly my study abroad experience with CIMBA is passing. So far, it has been nothing short of amazing. I just wish time would slow down! This past week taught me how impressive of an effect that proper table manners can have on others and that it is worthwhile to invest some time to learn important phrases in the language of the country that you are traveling to before you arrive. I also learned to push your comfort zone and you will get much more out of a travel day than you ever imagined. Next weekend, I am heading with a group to Slovenia after a jam-packed week of school work, KT workshops, and LEAP seminars so be sure to check back next week!