Italy, Keeping Score

I have a question: when is a nap not a nap? In other words, if I were to hypothetically have fallen asleep for three hours and forty five minutes this afternoon (give or take), does that still count as a nap? Or is it more a half night’s sleep that happened to take place in the middle of the afternoon?

I suppose the answer to that question will become apparent in about a half hour, when I try to fall asleep again. My prediction right now is that it’s not going to be too hard — this conference is exhausting. Non-stop talks all day + social events with free wine = one very sleepy science journalist.

Today, for example, we attended something called a “Bio-lunch,” a special meal where Italian biologists gave presentations about their work as we ate some sort of related food. For example: tomato and bean salad for a guy who studies legumes. A mound of truffle-coated raw beef (verdict is out) for a woman studying the truffle genome. Veal for a guy studying an extinct type of cow (unclear if the irony was deliberate). It was a great idea and a great experience, but it also took place in an unairconditioned dining room, and our table — at which there was only one other person — came with four bottles of wine.

You do the math. By the end of the meal, the room’s mood had shifted considerably  — I felt bad for the guy who had to talk about fish reproduction during the dessert course — and Peter and I had become fast friends with our table mate, Luigi, who writes for La Stampa and was once declared an honorary citizen of Texas by George W. Bush.

But what seemed like a great idea at lunch was less enjoyable when we decided to take a post-lunch stroll to the Turin Museum of Human Anatomy, a collection of desiccated body parts from the 19th century. (Its weirdest part? The skeleton of its founder, who requested that he be put on display along with his brain, which was preserved by his own methods and is resting at his feet.) The Anatomy Museum happens to be in the same building as the crimonology museum (more preserved brains, death masks of inmates, and the skeleton of its founder), which happens to be in the same building as — naturally — the Turin Museum of Fruit. (Thousands of amazing wax models of apples and pears, located directly across the hall from criminology.) It was about as bizarre a combination as it sounds.

Then it was back to the hotel for a four-hour nap.

Anyway. My impressions of Italy so far are mixed, and I’m realizing

The Anatomy Museum -- pictures were forbidden, and the guard was watching us like a hawk

that, just as travel expands your understanding and acceptances of other cultures and countries, it also can make you really judgmental.  So in that spirit, here are the pros and cons of Italy so far:

Pro: Mozzarella cheese, good wine, balsamic vinegar with the consistency of maple syrup.

Con: Four different registration desks at the conference, staffed by people who send you on endless quests for “colleagues” who supposedly can answer your tough questions (i.e. “Where do the buses for the field trips leave from?”) — but instead just send you to someone else. It’s an endless circle of colleagues, each of whom knows nothing. The German organizers of my fellowship program are getting quite annoyed.

Pro: Unlimited free cappuccinos. Forget water — you can have an espresso drink between every talk if you like. This leaves me stressed out about logistics, and also extremely wired.

Con: Needless rules. Why does the Italian government require an ID number in order for you to get an internet password? Why can I not sit in the back row of the conference room, but can sit in the second-to-last row? Why can I not order food in the lobby, next to the kitchen, but can have it delivered to my room? Why is there a museum guard trailing me so close that he can read the placards over my shoulder? Why must I sign up in person for an event if I already did so online — and how would I have known that if I had not asked you? WHY?

(Another) con: A lack of understanding on American bathing suits. We tried to go to the hotel spa the other day (a definite pro) and the woman at the desk looked absolutely horrified when, in response to her suggestion that we change in our rooms, we announced that we already had our suits on. It was as if we had showed up at the pool in our pajamas.

Con: Gender roles. Why, if I was the person who made the reservation, corresponded from my email address and showed up to get the key, is the room under Peter’s name (a fact I discovered when I tried to sign on to the internet and couldn’t get my last name to work as the log-in)? I’ve never even mentioned anything other than Price — they needed to get that from our passports.

Pro: Did I mention the balsamic vinegar?

You may have noticed that the cons on that list seem to outweigh the pros, and that most of the pros have to do with food. The solution is, I think, obvious: I should eat more. Stay tuned.

(Speaking of which, here is another pro: our favorite Italian commercial. No idea what it’s for.)

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