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!