Italia Week 5

This past week has been packed with all kinds of new and incredible experiences. I've been keeping quite busy and attempting to stay somewhat sane - after all, after a while the brain goes, "" and the stomach, "too...much...flour..." But all is well! There have been minor frustrations, such as the 90+ degree weather for much of the past week, with no air conditioning in most places including the apartment. Said weather has apparently also attracted mosquitoes, who have been so kind as to pepper me with bites all over. This, coupled with a bit of itchy sun poisoning, means I am currently restraining myself from scratching about ten different places. Still, things could be a lot worse and it's all part of the experience, I suppose!

Monday was the birthday of one of my friends from our group, and so her host mother had told her to invite friends over for dinner that night. The apartment was absolutely beautiful, with formal table settings and perfect background music. We had pasta, a sort of quiche with a croissant-like crust, and tiramisu. Given the special occasion, the presence of plenty of food, and the good company, this seemed like an excellent occasion on which to not refuse wine for the first time. I did enjoy it, even more so because it is such a cultural thing here, although having happily lived this long without it I don't foresee myself partaking terribly often in the future. My second wine experience came on Wednesday when our group took a trip to the Chianti region (which is the region between the cities of Florence and Siena) for a tour of a winery and a wine tasting. Accompanied by toasted bread with olive oil, cheese dipped in balsamic vinegar (delicious!), and almond biscotti, we tried a bit of four types of wine. The setting and experience was a lot of fun, with some really beautiful views of the Tuscan countryside.

On Friday afternoon, I took a lovely walk back up to the church that our group had visited previously, called San Miniato al Monte and located on a hillside that overlooks Firenze (near Piazzale Michelangelo, which is where most of the famous pictures of Florence are taken). I did a bit of shopping in the store, which sells products made by the monks there, and then sat in the church for a while and read. It was beautiful, quiet, and peaceful. Other little activities of the week included a brief tour of a leather school (we got to see someone use gold leaf to gild a pattern onto a leather coaster), wandering around two art galleries and the Royal Apartments in the enormous Palazzo Pitti, and seeing Un'Idea di Bellezza (An Idea of Beauty), a contemporary art display featuring eight different artists' ideas of what beauty is.

On Saturday, I was fortunate enough to spend most of the day on a miniature tour of Tuscany whose selling point for me was an hour-long morning horseback ride in the Chianti countryside. We took an easy pace through some vineyards and forested areas, which were incredibly peaceful and somehow so much cooler on horseback. The horses pretty much all followed each other, so there wasn't a whole lot of navigating to be done. The trail wasn't very smooth and I had to remind myself to trust that my horse knew how to walk on uneven terrain. (He did, at one point, seem to forget that I was on his back, and rammed one side of me into a tree, but no harm done.) He also briefly accelerated to a trot a couple of times, which to me was the same sensation I had when I drove at 20 miles an hour for the first time - you feel really out of control, but it gives you an exhilarating little thrill. This experience definitely cemented my wish to someday get better at riding horses! After the ride, we made a brief stop in a walled medieval town called San Gimignano (long enough to visit a gelateria that had won the honor of Best Gelato in the World for two recent years), and then to another winery for lunch and a second wine tasting (and yes, it felt a bit excessive). My favorite part was hands-down a piece of the best lasagna I've ever had, topped with an olive oil that was flavored with truffle mushrooms. Absolutely sublime!

On Sunday, four of us from our group went with a student travel agency to Cinque Terre, which is both a national park and a small region home to five small, quaint, colorful towns located on the coast of the Ligurian Sea. We got to spend some time in four of the towns, including a stop for lunch (the area is known for seafood, a fact I proved true with some excellent salmon penne), views along a little rocky coastal area in the second town, and a walk along the beach in the fifth town. Some of us also took the option to hike from the third town to the fourth, which lasted about an hour. It was relatively challenging with lots of stone steps uphill and downhill, but absolutely worth it, both for the endorphins and for the amazing views. It was so nice to get out of the city for a day and see a little bit of the more northern coastal area.

We didn't have school on Monday because it was the Festa di San Giovanni, or Festival of St. John the Baptist, who is Florence's patron saint. I went to a beautiful morning mass at the Duomo and to lunch with some friends. Later we all met up again for the final match of Calcio Storico (historical soccer), which to my understanding is some kind of traditional, rather violent mix between soccer, American football, and rugby, with pretty much no rules. Though the starting time for the game was 5:00, the teams had been parading through the city and didn't arrive until about 5:30, which is also when it started to rain with a frigid vengeance. The announcer, probably pleasantly warm and safe under a canopy or something, continued to announce names and titles of the historically dressed team members, "band" members, and flag tossers (sort of a forerunner of color guard?) who paraded into the makeshift stadium (located in a piazza) as if nothing at all was out of the ordinary. All this ceremony lasted until about 6:30, until right before they were finally about to start playing, one of the teams apparently decided that it was too muddy to play, and thus the game was postponed until next Sunday. At that point, we were all cold and wet enough that going home sounded like a fabulous idea anyway, but it would have been nice if they had come to this decision about an hour earlier! There was, however, some kind of strange exhilaration from being in the stadium in pouring-down rain in close quarters with a bunch of excited fans. And it certainly was an experience! Several hours, it did stop raining in time for a lovely fireworks display over the river.

On a bit of a cultural note, I have to say, I'm not much of a fan of the complicated system present in most cafes here. This involves deciding what you want, telling the cashier, paying for it, taking the  receipt to one place to get your pastry, taking it somewhere else to get your bottle of water, being reminded that you can't sit down because the prices are higher, and so awkwardly standing at the counter to eat - behind which, of course, are several waiters who seem quite disapproving of how tourist-y and ignorantly American you apparently look. I suppose that's a pretty minor issue, though. I do love the atmosphere of the piazzas, the ability to walk pretty much everywhere, the delicious food, and the ever-present old-fashioned beauty of the architecture. An interesting thing, though, is that being here for so long has also made me appreciate American culture more, perhaps in particular the variety we have of people, cultural input, products, and food from all over the world. Though I often tend to think that America doesn't really have an interesting culture or history in comparison with Europe, being here has reminded me that we do have a lot of things to be proud of, and some astounding natural beauty of our own. This, I think, is a major advantage of travelling: the ability to truly appreciate another culture, which then often causes you to understand and value yours even more. And of course, it allows you to take the things you like from other cultures and incorporate them into your life. (For me, for example, this would include the emphasis on community, pride in handmade things, and tradition of long meals with family and friends that I've perceived here.)

One week left! Still many things to see and many experiences to be had.

Italia Week 4

Have I mentioned that despite its occasional difficulties and inconveniences, this has been a truly incredible experience so far? It's hard to believe I'll be leaving in just over two weeks already. Items from my rather long "Florence bucket list" (helpfully divided into categories of "Do", "Shop", and "Eat") are gradually getting checked off, but there's still a lot I'd like to do.

Classes this week have still been good, with nothing much in particular to report. We still have the same half grammar/half conversation set-up. The grammar usually comes pretty easily to me, but I'm still not a great conversationalist. I tend to do a lot of listening, smiling, nodding, and agreeing, rather than making much of a useful contribution to the discussion. Still, as I mentioned last week, I think I can get around here pretty well with what I do know, which is at least a good place to be.

I've had some lovely food adventures this week (can you tell that food is one of my favorite subjects?). A couple of us went to a little bagel place I'd heard about for lunch one day. I was kind of expecting Panera-style with lots of different varieties, but it turned out to be cheap and delicious sandwiches with any ingredients you wanted on a choice of two savory bagels. According to posters inside, it's a popular place for American students and I can see why! That same evening, our group went together to an Italian cooking class, which was super fun. We made an antipasto (appetizer) consisting of eggplant slices layered with parmiggiano and a potato/zucchini/oregano mixture, baked for about twenty minutes. For the pasta dishes, we actually got to make the pasta itself for tagliatelle with a spicy tomato sauce, as well as ravioli stuffed with a potato/tomato filling and topped with meat sauce. We also made a simple tiramisu to top it off. It was all delicious and so much fun - though I'm not convinced I would necessarily make my own pasta in the future! I noted with some amusement how the chef giving us instructions would note that the next step was to add "a little olive oil" and then proceed to add probably about half a cup of it. Let's just say that eating here for the past four weeks, I haven't lacked for monounsaturated fat (oil), lycopene (tomatoes), carbohydrates, or cheese!

I have, however, hopefully managed to make up for all the deliciously rich food with a LOT of walking. I've been in a bus only twice round-trip since I've gotten here, because the city is relatively small and easy to navigate (thanks, of course, to my handy laminated map, which I had to start using after my paper map fell apart). The streets are pretty narrow and often crowded, mostly with tourists and students. This is actually a good thing, though, because it means I almost never feel unsafe. The main crime here is apparently theft in crowded tourist-y areas, so we've been warned many times to keep our bags close at all times. So far, so good!

Other forms of exercise have come from the ballet classes I'm still taking twice a week, as well as an awful lot of stairs. I kind of wish I'd kept a running tally of how many I've climbed, what with the Duomo's 463, Giotto's Campanile (bell tower) with its 414, stairs in the surrounding hilly towns we've visited, stairs in pretty much every museum, stairs at the school, stairs to get up to our apartment...I'm pretty sure they're going to either do me in or whip me into serious shape!

 On Tuesday some of us went to a lovely little botanical garden, and on Wednesday all of us went to the Uffizzi gallery for a guided tour in Italian. It was a neat place with a large variety of paintings and art, the most easily recognizable probably being Birth of Venus and Allegory of Spring by Botticelli. We spent Thursday afternoon in Settignano, a town up in the hills surrounding Florence, having lunch together and visiting a villa that can be rented out for weddings or other special events. It was unoccupied at the time, so we were able to walk around inside and in the gardens, with their most advantageous views of Florence and the surrounding countryside.

On Wednesday night, I went to a dance program entitled "Grandi Coreografi" at the nearby Teatro Maggio Musicale Fiorentina. It was comprised of four contemporary ballet pieces, including ones by Balanchine, William Forsythe, and Jiri Kylian. The choreography was certainly very interesting (if not always sensible!), and the dancers were very talented, with a guest appearance by Sylvie Guillem. I actually don't know that much about her except that one of my college dance professors refers to Sylvie Guillem all the time as basically the ideal dancer. She was indeed amazing and made everything look ridiculously easy, including 6 o'clock extensions. Her bows were the first time I'd actually seen bouquets of flowers thrown onto a stage for someone, and they reopened the curtain four times for her. The problem for me with this show was that it started around 8:45, at which point I was already tired, and then there was an intermission between every piece, with very long bows for each one (see: Sylvie Guillem). That was kind of a shame because I think I would have appreciated it more if I was more awake. Still, I'm glad I went!

I had my second interesting Italian performance experience on Friday, when eight of us from the Alabama group went with a student travel agency to Verona to see the opera Aida in the third largest Roman arena that still exists. After about a three-hour bus ride to get to the city (which had a lot of old-world charm), we did a walking tour of some of the highlights, including the legendary house of Juliet. Of course it's just a tourist ploy, but it was still fun to see "the balcony". We had dinner and then headed to the arena, where we sat right on the big stone steps. This was actually great because it meant we could bring food in, take our shoes off, and stretch out a little. It was fabulous venue and the weather was perfect - about 65 degrees and slightly breezy. As for Aida itself, the music was really nice but the presentation was really odd. Instead of the expected ornate ancient Egyptian set, the sets and costumes came off as a strange combination of a futuristic archaeological dig, Tron Legacy, and the Klu Klux Klan. In addition, it began at 9:15 with four acts, each of which was punctuated with a twenty-minute intermission. Hence, it did not end until 1:30 a.m. I couldn't help wondering if super long shows with long pauses are simply the norm here? At any rate, I definitely enjoyed the venue and setting. After the show, we hopped back on the bus and arrived back in Florence around 5 a.m., at which point I was able to get several hours of real sleep!

 After said sleep yesterday, I had yet another adventure involving a supposedly uneventful outdoor lunch at a restaurant in the Piazza della Repubblica. I ordered some lovely risotto with cheese and zucchini and took my time eating while reading my book. Then, when I asked for the check, I realized to my great dismay that I had managed to forget my wallet back at the apartment. I had no choice but to apologize profusely, and explain that I lived ten minutes away and would be right back with the money. Fortunately, the waiter was far more understanding than I expected, and so I spent some of the most stressful 20 minutes of my life in a power-walking quest to fetch the missing wallet. When I returned, they were again very kind upon noting my harried and rather warm state, and offered me a glass of water and a seat again for a few minutes. Thank goodness for kind people when I do something that idiotic!

Today I went back to the English-speaking Episcopal church, this time to the 11:00 service with a couple friends from our Alabama group. The service was really nice with beautiful music, and afterwards we talked to the reverend and his wife (who actually graduated from UA - small world!) for a while. They were kind enough to invite us over for dinner next week too. We all went to lunch after, and then I decided to visit the Museo del Bargello, which houses mostly sculptures. I can't truthfully say it was terribly exciting, though it does have two other famous statues of David - neither of which can at all compare to Michelangelo's. Still, I was glad I saw them and it was another item off my list!

I believe that's just about it for this week, with lots more to come to fill out the next two weeks. The adventures only continue!

Italia: Week 3

The first official week of the study abroad program went super well. I had language classes each morning, part grammar and part conversation, and I feel that I am in just the right level. The grammar has mostly been a review of what I learned in the two years that I took Italian at community college a while back, but I don't mind since it has been so long. I feel like I need to catch up a lot more in conversation. I can generally understand the gist of conversations, but don't pick up well on details and often can't think quickly enough to respond. The conversation class has been really good to help with that, and obviously just being here and listening helps a lot as well.

Each level lasts for two weeks, and we happened to come and begin in the middle of a two-week session. We had a short test on Friday to finish up the level, which went really well, and now I'll move up to the next level starting tomorrow. I will thus be "graduating" from the designation elementare to the first part of intermedio in terms of what seems to be the national language testing levels. That means I still would have quite a ways to go to get to a level of fluency, but hey - it's at least a step in the right direction!

Some afternoons we have planned trips as a group, while other afternoons as well as our weekends are free. This week, we got a walking tour of the city, hiked up to the Chiesa di San Miniato (one of the oldest churches in Florence, near Piazzale Michelangelo, from which one can get a marvelous  view of the city below), and visited the Galleria dell'Accademia, which houses the original famous David statue. We had an excellent tour guide from the language school who told us some interesting things about Michelangelo's work. Several of his statues depict people trying to come out of a block of marble, part of which has been left in its original form. Apparently that idea was based on an idea of Plato's where the soul is trapped in the body, and then escapes when the body dies (not exactly an original idea, of course). In these statues, Michelangelo was trying to portray the soul leaving the body by having the people in the process of leaving the marble. Another interesting act was that the statue of David portrays him right after he had hit Goliath with the stone, and he's looking with concentration in that direction to see if Goliath will get back up again. This was apparently politically symbolic, portraying the government of the time "checking" to make sure that the powerful Medici family weren't going to rise up again and come back after they'd been exiled. David's head is disproportionately big to symbolize intellect and his hands big to symbolize the government's strength. This of course goes even beyond simply the amazing visual details of the statue, down to the veins in his arms and the determination in his expression.

One day a few of us went to the Mercato Centrale, which is sort of like a big indoor farmer's market with cheese, meat, produce, and also some prepared food such as bread, pizza, and pastries. We got lunch there and walked around some. My other free afternoons this week were spent wandering around with different people or by myself, finding various spots in which to do homework and spend time just being - including a multi-level library with outdoor terraces around a courtyard, a beautiful historic Catholic church on the street I live on, and a couple of the piazzas. Piazzas are great places to people-watch and rest, and sometimes there are live musicians to listen to. One day, I made a group of pigeons very happy by feeding them crumbs from a bag of stale bread I had. It's also fun to watch male pigeons spreading out their tails, fluffing their neck feathers, and scuttling around trying to impress the females.

Even though I'm not here specifically to dance, I'd really been missing it and so was able to get a recommendation for a local dance studio from someone at the language school. The studio offers open adult ballet classes twice a week for a very reasonable price, so I went both times this week and loved it. Taking ballet again, I think, really helped me adjust to being here and settle in better. There's just something about all that soreness, sweat, hard work, and beauty that makes everything better for me! The class is in Italian, but since ballet uses so many French words and thus has kind of a universal vocabulary, it's not difficult to understand. I definitely plan on going for the rest of the time I'm here.

One of my best friends from home whom I've known for over 12 years, Julie, is on her post-graduation celebration trip in Europe with her housemate Carolyn, and yesterday we were able to meet up here in Florence. We had a fabulous time having lunch (complete with a very charismatic Italian waiter) and delicious gelato, visiting the Basilica della Santa Maria Novella, and shopping in the open-air Mercato di San Lorenzo. We all found some treasures and gifts for decent bargains, and enjoyed talking, reminiscing, and laughing. It was so great to see them!

Today I went to an English-speaking Episcopal church for their 9:00 service, which I quickly discovered to be the smaller of the two services: including the minister, there were only four people there! That was a little unexpected, particularly because I'm not Episcopal myself and thus not familiar with the liturgy. If I'm in a larger service and miss a set response, or don't know exactly when to stand or sit, it's not usually a problem - but that's a little harder to hide when you're one third of the congregation! Still, they were all very nice and welcoming, and if I'm free next Sunday I'd like to try to the apparently larger 11:00 service. After that, a couple of us took a bus to Fiesole, a small city about a 20-minute drive away up in the mountains surrounding Florence. The view from up there seriously put the one from the Piazzale Michelangelo to shame. It was incredible and so worth it, and the cool, breezy, overcast weather was perfect. Another notable event was that yesterday, I bought a ticket for an upcoming dance performance whilst speaking in Italian the whole time. Now, I can't truthfully say I was forming long and eloquent sentences, but I felt pretty successful nonetheless and now officially feel like I can communicate enough to survive!

I have been enjoying different aspects of Italian culture, perhaps especially the art that is just EVERYWHERE, the piazzas, and the food. Today I wandered into a supermarket and bought some decently priced whole wheat pasta to take back with me (hello, college cooking!). I searched unsuccessfully for peanut butter, because apparently Nutella is peanut butter here. As I mentioned, I have two meals a day provided where I'm staying. Breakfast is a choice of yogurt, bread, cereal, cheese, and fruit. Dinners vary, but there's always fresh veggies and salad accompanied by pasta, quesadillas, chicken and potatoes, etc. It's not exactly what I think of as Italian cooking, but it is nice to not be eating so richly all the time. (So. Much. Cheese.) Lunches are on us, and sometimes I've gotten just a sandwich, and other times I like to try new things at a nicer place. Yesterday I had my first gnocchi (pasta-sized potato dumplings), this version with pesto, and though it wasn't my favorite dish ever, I definitely enjoyed it. Today a friend and I split a Pizza Napoletana that was topped with cheese, lots of oregano, capers, and anchovies. It made for a very salty and somewhat fishy flavor, but it was pretty good! There are so many varieties of delicious-looking desserts and pastries here, what with cafes, pasticcerias, and gelaterias on every corner. I've had some excellent tiramisu, cannolli, and gelato so far.

It has taken a little while to adjust, but I'm really enjoying being here. Yesterday I consolidated all of my recommendations, brochures, and "must-do's-while-in-Florence" lists onto one sheet of paper of all the things I want to see before I leave, and so I'll start working on that along with our group outings. There is certainly a lot to observe, a lot to learn, and a LOT to be thankful for. Until the next time...ciao for now!

Italia 2013: Weeks 1-2

My parents, sister, and I began with three days in Venice, which is utterly unlike any other city in the world - amazing simply for its sheer uniqueness: narrow alley-type streets, winding canals, charming shops and restaurants on every corner. Thank goodness for maps, though they didn't always do us a whole lot of good; we got lost on a number of occasions. Once, around 10:30 p.m. after a concert, we discovered that the streets flood when the tide rises at night, meaning you have to wade in water up to your knees to get home! Piazza San Marco was totally flooded as well, and as we made our way through it, we passed someone taking full advantage of the situation by navigating in a canoe. Thanks to a few wrong turns, partly trying to avoid the water and partly out of disorientation in the dark, we didn't make it back until almost midnight that night. Moral of the story: don't stay out too long after sunset in Venice! It was, however, quite the adventure.

Highlights in Venice included a gondola ride down the canals; a concert featuring Vivaldi's Four Seasons; visits to two of Venice's islands, Murano (famous for glass-making) and Burrano (famous for lace-making); stops in several churches, including San Marco and the church Vivaldi attended; and lots of gelato.

Ever the tourists, we managed to squeeze in visits to the Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon, the Vittore Emmanuele II monument, the Chiesa di Santa Maria Maggiore and multiple other gorgeous churches, the Colosseum, the Vatican, and the Basilica di San Paolo Fuori Le Mura, where Paul is buried. One of our days consisted of a tour to Pompeii, the Amalfi coast, and the charming little towns of Positano and Amalfi. A fun event in Rome itself was going to a concert of highlights of opera arias with some ballet. 

Next and final stop was Florence, where I'll be camped for the next four weeks of my study abroad program. We saw a lot of the main sights, the highlight for me being the 463-step climb to the top of the famous Duomo for breathtaking panoramic views of the city with Lindsey. 

Mmm...delicious. I haven't eaten this many bread products in a long time. The pasta has been amazing - particularly sea bass ravioli, penne with prawns and shrimp in a tomato cream sauce, and pasta in a pesto sauce. So far my favorite flavors of gelato have been coconut, pistacchio, and dark chocolate (so yes...I've eaten a lot of gelato).

General observations...
All of these enormous, incredibly ornate churches have at times overwhelmed me with their grandeur and majesty. I have felt very small and very inadequate in them, and I understand why I need an intermediary before a God who inspires, and is honored with, such beauty. I have been reminded that God is holy and set apart beyond what I can even comprehend. For many of these places, the intermediary is a somewhat impersonal priest sitting in a wooden box ready to hear confessions, but in one of the churches was written across the top: "Credi nel Signor Gesu Cristo e sarai salvato" (believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved). I thought that was a pretty cool reminder of the hope I have, and that I can stand in these beautiful places with confidence.

One of my favorite things was the Sistine Chapel, which was absolutely amazing. (Unfortunately, pictures weren't allowed.) I think I could have stayed there all day just staring up at the ceiling. The perspective and illusion of three dimensions were simply phenomenal. 

The formal study abroad program officially starts tomorrow morning with orientation and language placement tests. It will include Italian classes at a local language school every weekday, with some afternoon "field trips" and cultural experiences. I'm staying in a large apartment with a host mother and seven other international students, two of whom are in the same program as me. We'll eat breakfast and dinner here, and go for lunch on our own. With pizzerias and cafes on literally every corner, I'm quite sure I won't starve! The city is very charming and easy to walk around. 

Since my two years' worth of college Italian was two years ago, I'm a little rusty but am gradually adjusting to hearing and seeing it everywhere. There is, of course, still a lot of vocabulary I don't know, and I'm far more comfortable with reading and writing than I am with conversing. My brain doesn't seem to process fast enough to hear accurately, translate to English, think of a response, and translate back yet, though I assume that will start to come more easily. I'm hoping that this trip will be a generally grand adventure that I can grow from in many ways. Updates will hopefully be coming semi-regularly; until the next one, arrivederci!