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!