Auf Wiedersehen

I seem to not have the greatest track record for actually performing in choir concerts. I can go to rehearsals no problem, but as soon as the day of the concert arrives I either come down with a plague, almost fainting mid-performance, or sprain my ankle the night before the ball. Here’s hoping to having better luck in Padova.

Yes, as of two days ago I have now moved to Padova, my second destination of the AstroMundus programme. I am already madly in love with Italy, never having been here before (Südtirol doesn’t count). I could immediately sense the chaos in the air, something which Austria certainly lacks, and I hadn’t realised I’d missed. Cars speeding down cobbled streets, swerving around corners whether or not a Homo sapien might be trying to get to the other side. The little alleyways, set up in a confusing maze like structure, vintage lamps and cobbles distinctly remind me of Oxford and make me feel strangely at home. There was a mixup concerning when I was supposed to be arriving at my new abode, so no one was expecting me when I turned up on the doorstep, luckily someone was in! I’ve instantaneously fallen in love with my new housemates, who are eager to learn and practice their English, and happy to teach me Italian in return. They have no problem with having random guests appear (hint hint wink wink) and they are creative, love music, love food, and of course Italian coffee. They also organise a festival every year, taking place in May. I feel like I have struck gold!

Since it is currently Carnival, it seemed only probable to go to Venice and explore. As I had been warned, if you go to Venice during Carnival, you are not going to see Venice, but you are going to see a hell of a lot of people. Never have I seen so many: traffic jams and bottlenecks of tourists as they tried to cram across bridges, slowing down to take selfies – with their newly bought selfie sticks – of yet another canal. The masks make people seem strangely lifeless, devoid of emotion, some dressed in garishly gold polyester capes, others covered head to toe in red velvet and jewels, and everything in between. Gondolas with men in black and white striped shirts and an occasional extra singing with an accompanying accordionist. Occasionally I’d happen upon a square, whilst meandering aimlessly without a map, containing vastly intricate structures that are ever so aesthetically pleasing. I cannot wait to return on a day when there are less people, preferably coinciding on a day when the sun successfully manages to appear from behind the clouds.

My goodbye to Innsbruck was to go sledding. I always thought that sledding involved getting a bin bag, or a plastic tray, and going up and down a little hill multiple times. But oh no, us Brits have been doing it oh so wrong all along. The proper way to do it is to hike up a mountain for about 2 and a half hours, whilst trying to defend oneself from snowball attacks from friends. Such a hike concludes in collapsing at the top of the magnificent mountain, surrounded my more peaks all around, where there is a guesthouse providing an assortment of knödels and beer. When satisfied, one has a choice of two options. Either walk down, or rent a toboggan sledding all the way down the mountain, crashing ever so dramatically and getting snow in every nook and cranny. Presumably one does the latter. It’s kind of like a real life mario cart. All in all a phenomenal experience, and as well as feeling somewhat initiated into the Alpine culture, I simultaneously felt like I had permission to leave.

In between Krampus and Carnival I went to London for an Astronomy Camp reunion; went home to Hawick for my birthday and Christmas for which I brought back a gift of stollen with me, which actually turned out to be the worst, driest stollen ever, having spent an hour trying to find it, paying for it with an arm and a leg, however it did make great French toast, I suppose they call it “lost bread” for a reason; experienced New Year in the Basque Country, Spain, with friends; unexpectedly met a friend of my Grandmothers on my dormitory doorstep, whom she met around 60 years ago(!); celebrated Ukrainian Christmas; saw Don Quixote in German at the Landestheater; went bowling then dancing in a gay club; went Swing Dancing; had unexpected coffees with friends from Vienna; went for snowy walks along the river; became obsessed with the Green Party; saw Birdman; and studied for endless exams whilst procrastinating by trying to compile the most comprehensive list of astronomical opportunities ever…

The Basque Country deserves a paragraph (or several) of its own. Vitoria is the capital, in which I stayed, where we went on a fantastic tour of the Cathedral of Santa María de Vitoria, unlike any other tour I have ever come across. We had to don hard hats (it is currently under renovation) as we explored underground and over. The tour began with a video explaining some of the history, with heavy metal music playing in the background (an inherent part of their culture). We also visited the card museum, i.e. playing cards, which was surprisingly fascinating! Particularly the British cards depicting countries from all over the world with quintessential British comments from centuries of old.
What sticks most in my mind is the avalanche of food, every seafood you could ever imagine, from squid cooked in its own ink to octopus and eel. We also ate our way through an entire kid (no, not a child, a baby goat). It was all incredibly tasty, and I felt like I had pretty much acquired a permanent food baby. At New Year there is a tradition to invite a homeless man for dinner, we first met him at a bar before the festivities began, and were warned that we should make sure the doors were all closed in the apartment, just to be on the safe side. He had a suitcase wrapped in bin liners and scraggly stubble. We were very confused when my friends Aunt started flirting with him, saying that he had nice eyes, making him blush. A few more glasses of wine and she kissed him! We were astonished! Apparently the look on our faces was priceless, for it turned out that they were actually married and had planned the entire event just to fool us. The Spanish (sorry, Basque) are crazy, and I love them all! Another tradition involves eating 12 grapes, one grape for each dong of the bell leading up to midnight. It’s much harder than it sounds, I almost gagged, but I managed! Afterwards we experienced everything from cheesy pop clubs to heavy metal pubs until 6am, enjoying it all immensely.
We also went on an excursion to San Sebastian by the sea, reminding me of St Andrews. We went up the funicular, enjoyed the views and went back down again in search of pintxos, the equivalent of Spanish tapas. We also dressed up in traditional Basque clothing and took silly photos! For our final farewell to the Basque Country – and because we clearly hadn’t eaten enough yet – we went to a cidery where we could have died and went to heaven. Pâté, omelette, steak (oh my goodness the best steak I’ve ever eaten, covered in salt flakes!), crème brûlée, cheese, wine, cider cider cider…

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