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, "too...much...art..." 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.