Monday, April 27, 2009

A bad friend indeed

So, I know my journey is coming to an end and all, but let me sincerely apologize for not having updated everyone in such a long stretch of time. I have done and seen so many things, to recap them here would quite frankly be an injustice to each of you. Rather, I would like to take one person at a time and divulge all the nuances in depth, sharing laughter and tears over the crazy adventures I've had and still continue to find myself tangled up in. Between romping through foreign countries and mastering Italian, to enjoying white wine on the steps of a church designed by Michelangelo and gawking at the Sistine Chapel, my life for the past four months has been nothing less than a fairy tale indeed. So thanks for sticking with me and yes, I will eventually add tons of pictures and stories, but bare with me, for what better way to actually experience and remember things than by living them in the moment? No, I am not becoming some sort of philosophical yuppie, just practical more so. Or maybe, I really need to adopt that New Year's resolution I seem to make each and every year: live each day for what it is and stop dwelling on the future. With that, I take a brief departure and will continue to soak it in and live it up, because as fast as this all came on, the end is near and sadness looms forever near. I love you all and shall bombard your ears soon with outlandish writings of the strangest kind. Stick around, we have places to go...but not alone, always together.


Thursday, March 19, 2009

traipsing about

Ok friends, the time has finally come. I will be departing for spring break TODAY. So, I may not be able to update you all until the final leg of the journey, or more realistically, once I return to Italy. I did go to Verona and Bologna this past weekend, but a quick write up on that will come later. Just know I saw Juliet's famous balcony and took a trolley ride through the city, then did some Ferrari shopping in Bologna. The usual. Anyways, I am often to Edinburgh tonight, where I will stay for four full days, departing Monday for Dublin. After remaining on an Irish holiday, I will hit up London by Thursday afternoon, staying in the land of fish and chips until coming home Sunday. If this all sounds exhausting, imagine how I feel! And since I am flying the ever pleasant Ryanair (you know, the luxury airline provider?) I am taking basically nothing along for the ride. Think two pairs of jeans and several T-shirts. This ought to be interesting, but it's time to be a real traveler. Anyways, midterms are over and life is good, so if only my last load of laundry would finish so I may pack my few remaining belongings...Ciao for now.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Flashing lights

 As you well already know, I have been on hiatus now for two weeks. Where have I been you may be thinking? What debauchery have I gotten myself into this time? How have I managed to survive without updating all you wonderful people who so ardently follow me?  And more importantly, how are my laundry experiences shaping up thus far? Well, the answers to these questions and more (aside from the last one of course) are quite clear: I am involving myself greatly in every aspect of being a foreigner. This, in my opinion, entails taking advantage of all the fabulous places in which Europe seems to keep throwing in my face. Now all this may sound exciting and new, but the process of actually planning and executing said missions is anything but easy, for they take someone with gusto to really follow through with. And I admit, yes, it is taxing, but as I have said in previous posts, someone has to do it, so who better than me. And since it’s my life, I better suck it up and get to it.

Ok, ok, so joking aside, I really have been very busy in the past two weeks and I apologize for not informing all you fine family folk of my incredible experiences sooner. However, I have set aside all night to thoroughly bombard you with amazing stories that will take place in two subsequent blogs; therefore, you can then fully grasp the gravity of all this ‘stuff’ (so much so that when you tell other people, they’ll actually think you were here instead). With that, I implore you to take a seat, make sure the kids have a good movie playing and while you’re up, grab a beer, because baby, this is going to be one long night…

Wednesday, March 4 to Sunday, March 8:

Having booked this Parisian holiday far in advance, the details of the trip became a bit muddled in my mind as the date of departure grew closer and closer. I knew the general days and remember being excited when I first got the flight, but after that, other events seemed to eclipse my initial joy. Now, flash-forward to last Wednesday when I was sitting in class and drumming my fingers in anticipation to just leave, craving to travel and finally take a trip that gets me out of Italy. Well, that is exactly what happened and the occurrences that comprised my four days of travel were anything but mundane.

 Having a busy day Wednesday, one that included two presentations, I was already stressed over school, let alone my night of travel that lay ahead. So, attending class straight from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., I was fidgety and a bit unfocused, but had to remain calm or I would undoubtedly explode. So, leaving my anthropology lecture an hour and a half early in order to run (and I do mean run here) to catch my train by 4:37 p.m., I was made even more nervous because if I missed this, my flight would also be royally displaced. Needless to say, I had my fingers crossed tightly. 

Jogging through the streets, I dodged into my apartment and grabbed my bag before heading to the station, boarding my train minutes before it actually pulled out. I’d like to think I am lucky I actually made this. Sweating and panting a bit, I sat quietly, munching on an apple and banana to suffice my hunger. Arriving at the airport two hours later (this is only after I got totally lost at Pisa Centrale, the stop where I had to change trains in order to get to Galileo Galilei Airport) I was required to go through a song-and-dance-like routine provided by the leading airline in all the land: Ryanair (I am joking, you see).  Battling online check-in fees, checked bag fees and generally having luggage that was overweigh by one kilogram (2.2 pounds), I was frustrated beyond belief. And after having to pay some ridiculous surcharge for a mistake I made, I was not a happy camper. 

 Although the personnel were not understanding in the least with how heavy my bag was (you see this is how the company makes all its money) they did provide me with some much needed humor. Helping me sift through my bags, they pointed out objects I could jam in my pockets, making everything work without me having to open my wallet yet again. Several high-fives later and after the exchange of some Italian ‘goodbyes’ I was off. Security was a breeze and afterwards I had ample time to contemplate life, learn a fourth language, read a book, discover why giraffes’ tongues are black and generally stare off in to the distance, because my plane was over an hour late in boarding.  Sarcasm aside, I was pissed. But, that’s just what you get for having to pay such cheap airfare rates (by the way, if you were wondering, I am no longer angry. I was just really hungry and not prepared to spend money on cheap airport fodder when Parisian delicacies such as Duck Confit and Nutella crepes were but hours away).


My plane did eventually come and after boarding in a torrential downpour, I was on my way to the lights of gay Paris. Although rough at moments, the time we actually spent in the air was quite enjoyable. I accomplished some Sudoku and took a breather as several rows of Italian girls screamed behind me about how this was their first flight ever, meaning they were all more than a little nervous. And to make things even better, when the plane rocked and shook (and let me say, I was convinced at one point we were going down too) the woman beside me began praying and crying a bit. Couple all the aforementioned instances together with flight attendants trying to sell scratch-off lottery tickets, pre-packaged foods and overpriced beverage cards, and you had a rip roaring good time. You can understand my delight when I actually arrived in Paris.

But if running, a train, and a flight weren’t enough modes of transportation for you, I then had to take an hour bus ride in to the actual city. Quite queasy at this point and feeling the effects of an empty stomach, I was really, really ready to settle into my humble abode, nestled in the center of Paris’s red light district. How cozy. However, seeing the Eiffel Tower poke up in the distance, blazing in hues of gold and orange, was enough to make any famished traveler alert and fully awake. I had, finally, arrived.

Taking a metro (yet ANOTHER transfer, gah!) I was at my hotel in less than ten minutes and ready to go out and see what Paris was all about. I met Emily, a good friend from Pittsburgh who I was rooming with, and we began making all these lofty plans to really begin to experience the European nightlife. However, after wolfing down some pizza (I know, I was in Paris and ate Pizza) and some French fries (at least they have French in the title?) Emily and I decided to just hit the sack. Hey, I was exhausted and needed my rest for Thursday. Leave me alone!

Our room, quite small and with several stray hangers, walls caked in yellow paint and two single beds, was a far cry from four-star luxury, but after awhile I did begin to actually like it (especially our small ledge off the two French windows, the place where we stored food that wasn’t supposed to be in the room. Oh well, we weren’t allowed wine either, but we snuck that too!). Rebels.

Now, the following four days were truly a blur of activity and I have the blisters on my feet to prove it. But instead of recounting every minute detail, I will hit the highlights in my favorite way imaginable. A LIST! Are you ready? I know I am…

Thursday: Emily and I awoke to breakfast at the hotel (which they provided every morning and of course, we ate every morning) and consumed croissants, bread, jam, juice and tea. Afterwards, we headed to Sacre Coeur (you know, where the movie Amelie was partially filmed?) and strolled along beautiful walkways to this gorgeous church and overlook for all of Paris. Afterwards, we made our way to Notre Dame, where we awed in the absolute grandeur that is this magnificent church. Taking a million pictures and walking around a bit, we then met another friend from Pittsburgh (this one studying in Paris) for lunch. Following some pretty badass food (I ate a Croque-Monsieur, basically ham and cheese, but so much better than that) we headed back out into Luxembourg Park and the surrounding beauty for the day. Hiking nearly all afternoon, I bought Emily a yellow rose for her twentieth birthday, which we celebrated later that night with wine, coconut bon-bons, fruit and homemade sandwiches in our room. So classy. Also, we managed to get at Musee d’Orsay, a great museum housed in an old subway station and complete with priceless Monet’s, Van Gogh’s and anything else you could dream up for sculpture and paintings.

There was so much art and beautiful scenery surrounding us, but at this point we were really feeling the effects of a rather long and overly involved day. However, we did pull ourselves up in order to go to the Moulin Rouge, which was literally two steps from our hotel. Beautiful, but not that similar to the movie’s portrayal. We did think about seeing a show there, but the cheapest was 89 euro and I was NOT prepared to drop that kind of money. The outside was just fine for me. Also, if you were wondering, our area was not that bad at all. Yes, there were some sketch people, but mostly just a lot (a lot) of sex and drunkards. Hey, it made for some amusement at least.

Friday:  Rising again at 8:30 a.m., after going to bed at 2 a.m., we were ready for another day of fun and traveling. Today, my friends Lauren and Traci joined us and we again walked the city and hit some major spots every tourist has to go. In the afternoon, we headed towards the Eiffel Tower and upon exiting the metro station, saw the looming beauty right in front of us. It was awesome. I never thought I would think something like that was so cool, but let me tell you, it really was. Climbing the nearly 600 steps to the middle of the tower, we decided to use the stairs in order to make the experience more personal. Boy, did our feet hate us. However, the views were amazing and after we made it up, we were thankful we had the memory. Taking an elevator to the very top (visitors weren’t allowed to walk any further) we gawked in amazement at how tiny the city looked from such a high point. Everything was gleaming and despite the frigid temperatures in Paris, the sun felt so good.  

 Making our descent, we made our way to the Champs Elysees (fancy shopping street in Paris, framed at the top by the Arc de Triomphe) and wondered a bit before I separated from the group and forged my own path. Strolling along the streets, I saw Paris by night and everything was just spectacular. I even bought a CD at the Virgin Mega Store, which was actually quite mega. Happy as a clam and with my new ‘Israel in Egypt’ soundtrack (I couldn’t find this ANYWHERE in America, yet discovered it in the first store I entered in France) I made my way back to the Eiffel Tower for some nighttime fun. The tower, which lights up and sparkles every hour on the hour, was absolutely breathtaking (I had Kanye West’s song “Flashing Lights” in my head the whole time). And people were just so happy, sitting in patches everywhere and generally being content with their lives. So after taking some pictures, I had to just sit and watch as the whole scene unfolded before me.

 Staying downtown for a good two hours, I met up with my friends to go salsa dancing later that night, which didn’t prove to be that fruitful. I did attempt this style of dance however, but for those who know me, I am awkward enough when not moving around like a fool, so I enjoyed a beverage. Afterwards, I slept well, very, very well and dreamed about all the amazing things the following days would hold.

Saturday: Today, the four of us had plans to go to Versailles, the ostentatious palace of Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette, which was, as I just said, quite palatial. Dripping in gold and stretching miles and miles, the whole estate was like something out of a fairytale. We spent much of our time just wandering outside, but to actually enter cost a bit much for my blood (13.50 euro), so Lauren stayed, Emily and I went to visit Pere Lachaise Cemetery and Traci, well, she needed a nap. So we all parted ways and met later that night for Traci’s twenty-first birthday extravaganza! Jumping a metro, we picked up two more of Traci’s friends, also in Paris, and living in a horrible part of the city. After we got nearly accosted on the street and virtually killed (details can be given upon request), we chose a restaurant suitable for the birthday girl herself. With a view of the Eiffel Tower, I dined on steak and tap water, as we talked and laughed throughout the night. 

 Quickly paying and wanting to stake our spot for the light show, we headed out and bought a bottle of champagne to ring in the big day. Popping the cork in front of the Eiffel Tower as it lit up on the hour, we drank and had our pictures taken by some German people who were kind enough to document the night for us. The whole experience was quite magical and definitely something I will remember forever. We then watched some break dancers get down and again, had to eat some crepes. God, this city rules.

Sunday: For our last and final day, Emily and I again went to Pere Lachaise Cemetery, because previously it had been closed, and we just aimlessly wandered around through such graves as Jim Morrison and Oscar Wilde. It was raining pretty hard, but this just added to the ambience of the whole scene. Afterwards, we headed to Shakespeare and Company, a tiny bookshop selling all kinds of titles and genres, and quite frankly, this was one of my favorite parts of the trip. I loved rummaging through stuff like this and the whole place was quite small and confined, with books just scattered everywhere. Leaving the shop, we then headed to The Louvre and viewed priceless artwork such as the Mona Lisa (which wasn’t that great, because it is really small and quite frankly, not as beautiful as everything else in the museum).  Spending almost four hours there (I kept looking out for Tom Hanks and the rest of The Da Vinci Code crew), we decided to grab a fast dinner at Quality Burger (so much better then American fast food) and got out bags to head home.

The whole four days was one of the most memorable experiences I could have ever had and there are tons more stories, but I am sure by this point you are quite overwhelmed and ready for a break. So, I’ll leave you for now, but get ready for more outlandish episodes to come soon, because next week starts spring break, and that includes London, Ireland and Scotland. I am sure, as you can imagine, I will have loads to say. But for now, go rest your weary eyes and remember how much I love all of you. And, if you think I am ever doing too much, just remember I am having all this fun for each and every one of you too. Miss you all so much...

The Cadillac of Bikes

(This is the second post in a series of two blogs. Enjoy!)

Friday, February 27 to Sunday, March 1:      

This weekend, like many others, started in the train station of Santa Maria Novella (a mere stones throw away from my flat) and the place where trains can transport a traveler just about anywhere in the region of, oh, say, all of Italy. So, deciding to go to Verona earlier in the week (this you may recall from my last passage) I went to the area where tickets are sold and information can be obtained. Stepping up to the bigliterria (or ‘ticket window’ for all you English speaking folk) I inquired after when the next train to Romeo and Juliet’s iconic setting was due to depart. However, after speaking in some broken Italian and learning that the next train wasn’t for two hours, myself, Traci and Lauren (comrades in all my escapades throughout Europe) settled on a destination a little closer to home and quite frankly more suitable for a day trip starting out at around 2 p.m. (hey, don’t judge us, we went out the night before!)

Deciding on the small city of Lucca, we jumped a train for a mere five euro and headed, once again, through the rolling hills if Tuscany. However, after arriving some two hours later, we departed the station and quite frankly were clueless as to what to expect of the day (because let’s remember, we picked this place on a complete and utter whim and had no idea what we were getting ourselves in to). I’ll be honest, my first impressions, though limited, were dismal, mainly because there appeared to be one single street, framed by quaint houses and leading, well, to no where. We walked for a bit and entered a rounded archway, which of course meant we were now actually entering the city through the old “city walls.” Yet once again, we encountered a single street, in addition some sad little house hanging laundry from the windows (it haunts me everywhere I go!) and a few people strolling about. Not much excitement to be seen here, seeing as how I view these things on a daily basis here in Florence. Nevertheless, we persisted, but it was at this point I began to regret coming to Lucca in the first place, because while I don’t need some thrilling experience everywhere I go, It would nice to have some entertainment to fill up the day. So, in asking some locals where the best place to eat was, us vagabonds made our way around a corner and there, we finally saw what Lucca was all about.

Met at first by a large piazza, complete with merry-go-round and gigantic statuary, we soon took in all the sights and sounds as we chose a place to stay for lunch. Settling on a small pizzeria and trattoria, we sat and relaxed for a good hour, conversing over calzones, pizza and Coca Cola light, all things Italians seem to obsess over. And upon referencing a map hanging on the wall for some direction, we made our way back out into the city to explore. However, we soon find out we had been strolling on the outskirts of town and in reality only had to jump over two streets and a roadway to actually get at the city. Silly, silly tourists we are.

Ok, so after heading to some gorgeous churches (St. Michele most notably) and peeking through gates and hidden doorways, we decided to get some dessert. Rummaging around a bit and getting sidetracked by nearly every new window display I met, we settled on a sweet little escape offering nearly everything under the sun. What was my poison you ask? 

Well, I chose a coffee and cream filled pastry topped with a single coffee bean, so delicious. However, after gorging ourselves on beauty and Italian delicacies, we departed the main area of Lucca, which was bustling with people and activity, to head towards the sprawling green park that lay just beyond the city center. Once there, we took refuge on a stone wall and could quite literally see into the distance for miles. Rolling green hills, warm sun, people chatting and a wonderful panoramic view of the entire city of Lucca. “Perfetto,” as the Italians say. Perfect. However, it wasn’t until after some sun bathing and a light stroll that I spotted how we could spend the duration of our day in Lucca. Bicycles.

Taking note of the various visitors and city-dwellers all on bikes, it seemed like a good idea to explore via and alternate mode of transportation.

So, descending our precipice, Lauren, Traci and myself headed for the nearest rental spot and made our selections. For less then three euro, we had an entire hour to use and abuse these bad boys and let me tell you, mine was definitely the Cadillac as far as bikes go. Cream and brown, it came complete with a leather seat AND working bell. I was in heaven. Traci and Lauren? Not so lucky. This was due to the fact that they initially chose a two-seater (hilarious to witness, let me tell you) but not quite so practical. And after only riding nearly a foot, they toppled to the ground, prompting them to give in to choosing two individual bikes for our jaunt. Now, we were ready to hit the road. Circling the city by way of a giant, two mile-long path, the three of us passed historic edifices, beautiful city views and picturesque countryside’s spotted with homes; all scenes which made riding a bike totally worth the little money we had paid. Although the trip was not entirely smooth, because Traci and Lauren almost crashed several times (they claim to have forgotten how to ride bikes!) but aside from this, we had a blast and made the loop twice before returning with some beautiful memories and what’s more, a refreshing day. Following the retreat, we of course had to get gelato and snap several more pictures before catching a train back to Florence and preparing ourselves for Saturday’s festivities, which included a ballet in Milan. Thrilling, I know.

Waking up at the crack of down, I headed to Santa Maria Novella at 6:30 a.m. in order to meet the group of local university students who were also attending the trip. Once there, I met Angela, a sweet Italian woman from Pisa who said she would be joining us for the day. Excited and a bit shy, she and I waited for the rest of the students who arrived dressed to impress and ready for a day at the ballet. However, little did Angela know, she would not only be a guest, but also lead the entire day, due to both Francesca and Cristiano (organizers for the excursion) having to take a ‘personal day.’ Almost missing the train because we didn’t have tickets, Angela hurriedly made some calls and met Cristiano in order to obtain some details pertinent to our plan. I knew it was going to be a long day after this. From the station, we made the nearly three and a half hour trek to Milan for a day sure to be full of excitement. 

 Resting on the train and preparing mentally for the chaos that was about to ensue (it was fashion week AND carnevale in Milan) I anticipated a fun-filled time, even though the morning had already proved to be a bit crazy. Ready to escape Florence, I knew everything would be just fine. Boy, was I wrong. Exiting the train, we were immediately swarmed by people and had to rush to the metro in order to actually make our way to the theater. Traveling with a group of nearly 15, it was rather difficult to all remain together, but somehow we managed the feat. Crammed on the subway, we held on for dear life as we continued on to the main piazza in Milan, one crowned by the main cathedral in the city, a stunning beaut bathed in gothic architecture. Rushing off the subway and up several flights of stairs, I was met head on by the giant beast, stretching nearly an entire city block and gleaming after an extensive renovation project that wrapped recently in earlier years. The square, jam packed with people in costume and with confetti hanging in the air, seemed to me, insanity personified. I took one picture before a man grabbed my hand, slapped some kernels of corn in my fist and held my wrist to the sky. What the hell was happening here? Suddenly, I was swarmed by pigeons all eating out of my hand. Flying rats I say.

Disgusting. And if that wasn’t enough, he wanted money following the act, thinking me lucky to have gotten the chance to partake in such an activity. The nerve. After him came a street seller who grabbed my other arm and proceeded to tie a bracelet on around my wrist. He had an arm covered in them and though I persisted, he wouldn’t take “No” for an answer. And yes, if you are following along with the main theme here, he too wanted a little something. I declined, and after he got huffy and pleaded a bit more, he left to try and pursue some other naïve tourist for their spare change. Che stress. After battling through the crowds, we entered the huge open-air shopping district and stopped to spin on a spot in the floor that was supposed to bring good luck. From there, we headed towards the theater and waited in will call for our tickets. After receiving our stubs, we were given some free time for lunch and general wandering (which is something I have become quite good at!). Sitting down for a quick lunch, my friends and I met with a rather rude wait staff that informed us Coke was six euro and water was five.

I was parched and just ate a sandwich. But this is Milan they said. Our main waitress also tried to steal money from us, but I guess this is Milan too? Hm. After leaving, I walked around and did some window-shopping, which proved distressful because I am poor and having money is an integral part of living in this city, but that’s besides the point I guess. Now, to answer the all-important questions: yes, people in Milan are all beautiful (young and old) and yes, they all dress impeccably, but they have absolutely no manners. Bumping in to me and throwing glares, I felt totally unwelcome and the several stores I did enter, I felt as if I was being measured by the amount of status I seemed to possess. This whole scene was not to my liking. Besides, Milan is a very industrial city that is much bigger than Florence and quite frankly doesn’t employ that quaintness which captivates me so much here. Oh well, I suppose.

 Returning to the theater, the group of us found our seats (nosebleed section and behind giant columns) and decided to stand for the duration of the performance.

On a side not however, the ballet was a beautiful piece of work. Acted out in the Scala Theatre, we enjoyed the spectacle of Coppelia by Leo Delibes. The story, quite fanciful and full of drama, was split in to three acts, with two twenty-minute intermissions breaking up the length of the score. Yet, in picking my favorite scene, this would definitely have to be when all the puppets in the doll maker’s house came to life and began dancing together with the central ballerina. The whole show was just magical (think Tim Burton, with composition by Danny Elfman a.k.a. Edward Scissorhands).

Following a standing ovation, we had to book it to the metro in order to catch our train back home, so running once again through the crowds of people, I stopped to take several pictures before I was shooed into the subway by Angela. From there, we boarded the train and had a very lengthy and somber ride home. I was thankful, to say the least, to return to Florence.

The whole experience I must say was quite enjoyable, but looking back, the day was a hectic mess of occurrences which make living abroad all the more stressful and frankly, more real. Angela handled everything like a pro, however the chaos read on her face all day long. I think she needs a good glass of wine and some down time to recuperate fully.

 As for me, I am planning to head to Paris this Wednesday, so no rest in the coming days. But I suppose I wouldn’t have this any other way. It just makes me wonder at times,  ‘is my life real right now?’ And then, I just look around.



Thursday, February 26, 2009

Mango in the night

A revelation has struck me since last time I’ve written: I don’t have to waste all day Thursday (today) doing laundry! Why, you may ask? Well, I just have to put a load in the night before to avoid losing my w hole day Thursday. Wow, what a fool I’ve been. Anyways, a lot has happened since last week (as always) and I am prepared, before I get out into this sunshine and enjoy the splendid day, to share with all you good people some of the more memorable moments I’ve encountered. So here goes:
Last Friday, several friends and myself hopped a 5:47 a.m. train to Venice (Venezia) in order to partake in some of the outlandish festivities that constitute a one, Carnevale. Now, I know I have mentioned several times before that I’ve went to neighboring towns to celebrate this glorious feast, but when one thinks of Carnevale, the epitome lies in sweet ‘ole Venice, baby. So after staying out until 2 a.m. the night before (a poor decision I thought I would regret the next day, but surprisingly didn’t) we ran to the train station to board. However, after being delayed for almost 45 minutes, we decided to take up residency in the station’s café, gorging ourselves on delicacies such as doughnuts, Pringles and espresso. Oh, the good life. Our train did (eventually) arrive, but upon boarding, we realized we would have to make several transfers throughout the course of the trip. Now, not having any clue what we were doing and since there is no monitor to inform passengers what particular city your in (that would be far too convenient), we got more than a little nervous for the trek that lay ahead. So fidgeting a bit, we latched on to a group of foreigners (also going to Venice!) who we thought were Italian, but turned out to be Spanish, yet really were French and in the end, turned out to be Mexican. Confusing I know, now imagine our surprise! Traveling some five hours (we took the slow train, ugh) we made our way through Tuscan hillsides and past small cityscapes, oftentimes running to our transfers when we arrived in the next station. Persevering through, and following some much-needed catnaps, we finally made it to Venice. Mask in hand and camera slung over my shoulder, we exited the station for one of the most glorious sights I’ve seen thus far. A city, literally floating on the water, and people dressed in the most elegant costumes parading through the streets, bridges and canals as if every day were exactly as this. Past face painters and musicians we scurried to find a place to eat, distracted by every new storefront offering some highly Venetian novelty we wanted to buy. And after filling our tummies and taking some 200 pictures right off the bat, we decided on a gondola ride to ease the stressful, and disillusioned, mood. Floating through the thousand-year-old canals, we were afraid at times the boat would tip (it was leaning severely to the right!), but saw, by way of alternative transportation, a different perspective of the city most never even dream to see. Our guide, pumping us full of history, said Venice would be lost if regulations on the speed of boats wasn’t mandated, the main cause for such fast and highly destructive erosion. Just think, palaces, art and history at the bottom of some mucky green water, lost forever in an abyss of stinking rot. However, in addition to such melancholic information, our gondolier (I can’t remember his name) would NOT sing for us (he said he needed some alcohol first and even though we offered, he declined), so this put me into a position where I had to fill in. Rattling my voice in a mock operatic attempt to sound Italian (think Pavarotti mixed with some Ricky Martin) I sang some illegible words, gaining the delight of all my friends. And though it was embarrassing enough, someone, I felt, had to do it. Following our 80-euro gondola ride (80-euro! I know!), we made our way to the main square where Renaissance costumes, highly ornamental masks and delicious decorations reigned supreme.This year’s theme, one of “gardens,” brought in tons of plants and greenery, some of which had people in them and actually sprang to life! Walking around, some trippy music filled our ears as we watched a trapeze artist way above sway with the music in some giant air-filled balloon. It was ridiculous and I hate saying this, but you really had to be there. Compared to Viareggio (remember, where I went the weekend before?) Venice was a classy ball fit for any entertainer willing to strut their stuff. Heading through the mob, we also found the Murano glass factory, Venice’s claim to fame (besides Carnevale) and toured the rather small plant where they fabricate some of the most colorful and expensive glass I’ve ever seen. Stopping in the showroom to look around, a mere prism of different hues bombarded the eyes and really made you stop to look around. It was nice, and way, way too expensive. Heading back out, we found some cheaper remnants in the stores surrounding (Murano glass is sold in almost every store there, some even in Florence) and made our way to dinner. Wolfing down some pizza, we were ready for the ride back and our next day of fun that would lead us to Parma and Modena, two Tuscan cities famous for their Parmigiano Reggiano and balsamic vinaigrette.

Our bus, leaving at 6 a.m. Saturday (now if your keeping track, that’s 5:47 a.m. the first day and 6 a.m. the next) took us first to the Parmesan cheese factory in Parma, where we had a guided tour and personal tasting. Walking through the plant, we saw the giant copper pots where curds formed and the fresh milk and other ingredients which all go in to making the perfect round of cheese. The employees, not allowed to miss a single day because production can't halt in the least, worked effortlessly combining all the necessary materials to make a perfect tasting piece of formaggio. Seeing them separate the curds, put them in molds, stamp with the seal and then let them sit for almost a year, I was amazed. An entire room, full (and when I say full, I mean everywhere you look) with Parmesan cheese. Glorious, glorious cheese. And as cliché as this may sound, I half expected the Hallelujah Chorus to begin reigning down from the ceiling, sung by a choir of angels throwing chunks of cheese into my lap. Fancy that! As you can imagine, this didn’t happen, but we did get our own private tasting with two different aged cheeses, complete with wine. Hey, I’ll take that any day!

So, after gorging myself on said cheese, we made our way to the city of Parma for lunch, a quaint little town home to Verdi and a plethora of interesting architecture I couldn’t help but snap pictures of. And lucky for us, we arrived right in the middle of a chocolate festival! Parading the streets, I got lost in the historic setting, walking through alleyways and under arches that were, I’m sure, older than most things I’ve ever seen in the United States. Basking in the warm sun, I decided not to eat, but instead to listen to an accordion player pumping out classical tunes you wouldn’t believe. This day was shaping up finely. And it wasn’t over yet. Making our way to Modena, we passed sprawling vineyards that I’m sure were the source of the glorious vinaigrette I was about to taste. Arriving at the Acetaia Malpighi plant, we were given a guided tour through all the rooms and allowed to see the very barrels housing that precious liquid. Ranging in size, and thus age, we saw vinaigrette that was anywhere from six to 100-years-old. Now take a guess at how much a small bottle of the 100-year-old, aged in an 1880’s wooden barrel, would run you? 50,000-euro. These people don’t mess around. So after posing with some of the more expensive bottles, I made my way downstairs for a tasting of 6, 12 and 25-year-old vinaigrettes. Amazing. The taste, similar to molasses, but with a potent after kick, would be perfect on any fish, meat or salad and I wish I had the dough to drop on a little bottle. Nevertheless, I settled for my small spoonful and called it a day. But oh, what a filling day it really was.
Not too much else has been happening in Florence besides the usual class schedule and discovery of new and exciting places. I did go to a Carnevale parade here on Sunday, which was interesting and on a much smaller scale than any of the other places I’ve visited thus far. I also went to an organ concert in the church of Dante, which was amazing and quite eye opening at that. And besides homework and my daily jaunts through the city center to discover new buildings, architecture and hidden gems, I’ve pretty much been recuperating from my long, and very tiresome, weekend. I did go out to a discothèque last night, where my friends and I met 40-year-olds from Jersey looking to have a good time. So, being the cordial and ever friendly hosts that we are, we led them to Twenty-One (a club they laughed at, because they’re twice that age) and showed them a good time. We also saw a celebrity on the street. Mango? Everybody was crowded around him and taking pictures, so, intrigued, we stopped to ask whom this mystery man was. The Italians next to us said “Mango” with an air of mystique and we knew from their excited speech, he was somebody (besides, the posters people held of him looking all suave really gave it away too) Unfortunately, we couldn’t get a picture with this Mango character, because he was ushered away by his wife into a dark van, but hey, it made for a good story, no? I also went to Ash Wednesday mass here, which was quite interesting, because it was all in Italian and Latin and a bit difficult to understand. But like any Catholic Mass, we exchanged Peace, said the “Our Father” (in Italian of course), and received the usual Communion. However, the ashes were placed in our hair, which is quite contrary to our foreheads, the usual place they’re placed in the states. It was also neat, because we were in a tiny chapel in Santa Croce, jammed with people, surrounded by marble statuary and in the next room, lay Michelangelo and Galileo’s tombs. Wow, it’s hard to forget we’re in Florence around every turn.
Well, I’m off to browse some windows and perhaps accomplish some homework, but that’s always a chore when there is so much else to be doing. The schedule for this weekend includes day trips to Verona (you know, Romeo and Juliet?) and possibly Milan for an opera. Paris in one week! Wish me luck.

Ciao for now.
(So cheesy. No pun intended.)
P.S. I got my first haircut here by Nicola (owner of Nicola Hair Salon), an awesome place with vintage razors and memorabilia adorning the walls. He didn’t speak ANY English, so I had to communicate entirely in Italian and he said, “I spoke great!” He also said I should visit Lucca and Siena soon, and said he is originally from the small city where Mel Gibson filmed “The Passion.” He talked about Mel Gibson a lot actually. I just nodded, a bit confused. Ha. Ha. He even cut my sideburns with a straight razor, so I knew that he was definitely a professional. And after learning he’s been in the business 30 years, I knew I would be back. I love this city.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Handmade in Venezia

(This blog should have been posted last Thursday, but due to slow, very slow, Italian internet, you get to reap the benefits of such stories now. So, pretend it's Thursday.)

Today when I awoke, we had no hot water. None. My roommates said it was acting up last night, but for some reason (by the grace of God) I thought it would work for me instead. Fat chance. It was freezing, so instead of getting a shower, I just splashed some of the frigid stuff on my face and called it a morning. Oh, to be so primitive. But now, as I’m sure you all know, I’m doing laundry. Eff my Thursdays.

The past week has surely been full of some interesting scenarios, from which I have some great stories that will undoubtedly be good for a laugh. Whether it’s jumping trains and heading to the countryside or partying with costumed adults in a seaside resort…there’s really something for everyone here. So hold on to you hats ladies and gents and get ready for the ride:

The weekend started Friday with a walk to Piazzale Michelangelo, a scenic overlook of all of Florence that is a must for anyone with a good enough camera to capture the panoramic shots. Lucky for me, I have just that (thanks to my more than generous family!). Traci (a good friend I’ve made who’s every bit as off as me) and I left with the group around 2 p.m., trekking through the city center and off the beaten path as we climbed past some truly beautiful scenery. This particular Piazza, etched into a hillside watching over Florence, sits atop a number of stairs and is flanked on either side by quaint shops, sprawling villas and an obscene amount of lush green (something unfamiliar in the city, seeing as how there is not a single tree, bush or blade of grass anywhere). Making our way under the old city walls that protected Florence in case of war or attack, we passed by some ancient fountains emitting water that has been running since the Roman Empire. Now that’s what I call an antique (by the way, if you’re wondering, on the way back down the hill, yes, I did drink some. I recommend it actually). 

However, after reaching the top, we partook in some gelato eating (mine? Mint and chocolate mixed) and then made our way to a rather old church and graveyard. The views were breathtaking. Tiny buildings all perfectly placed in the city below, an organized chaos to the truly crooked streets and jutting storefronts I was all too familiar with. This must be love. And after snapping, oh, 200 pictures or so, we descended to meet the bronze copy of Michelangelo’s David. The sculpture (in hues of sickly blue and grungy green) stands at an amazing height, chivalrously peering over his land below. It was rather majestic I must say. And even though there were tourists everywhere (in addition to men selling “My own David statues” and aprons emblazoned with his nude body on them) I found a moment to reflect once more on the city I now call home. Home. It was a nice feeling. How I can get lost for two to three hours at a time in a city that looks so small from above is amazing, but I’d have it no other way. 

Once we finished gawking, Traci and I began our descent (but not after finding a small fish pond and snapping yet some more pictures). I’ve also decided to do a photo essay entitled “Lovers,” because quite frankly they are everywhere here and being the creep that I am, I want to capture their love by way of film. Anyways, once we made our way back down, Traci and I stopped in a small park to swing, abuse jungle gym equipment and generally look like five-year-olds, as serious park goers simply looked on in amusement.

That’s when we met James. A gorgeous dog owned by Francis (but goes by Keika) and being walked at that very moment through our park. We played, made friends and discovered Keika lives bicoastal in New York and Florence, working as a designer in the fashion industry. Her wealth and status were rightly proved when we saw James (a big dog covered in mud and muck) jump in the back of her brand new Mercedes Benz. She didn’t even flinch. My Dad would have had a heart attack! We laughed and continued on, making some friends at a pizza place and enjoying a huge pie before returning for the night of debauchery that was about to take place that evening.

And so the story continues…(feel free to go to the bathroom or grab a snack if need be).

Traci and I, alone for the weekend because our roommates had left for Milan, Prague, Switzerland and Vienna, decided we needed to treat ourselves to some fun of our own. Polishing off a huge bottle of wine, we were ready to get the night started, but not before watching some hilarious videos on the Internet (this was, of course, to prepare for the night of dancing that lay ahead). The videos watched included, but were not limited to, Thriller, MGMT and the evolution of dance. And after nearly an hour, we were ready. Stumbling to a local bar (we have several favorites, they include Loch Ness, Naima, Twice and the Old Stove) we met our Italian friends. Now let me state, these are some great people and really take care of us we hang out, making us feel welcome whenever we come. Our group, consisting of Daniele, another Daniele (we call him Daniele Numero Due), Claudio, Nicola and Francesco, are a trip and always the life of the party. We dance. Act a fool. And generally behave like locals, which is a welcomed relief to our otherwise touristy-like lifestyle. However, on this particular night, we really let loose, staying out till 5 a.m. and roaming the streets in search of McDonalds’ hamburgers, a compact Ford car, Shia LaBeouf and a Valentine’s Day lover. We’ll leave it at that, but know it has been one of the most fun nights yet.

Recovering with some sleep, Traci and I decided on Saturday to go to the train station, pick a random city and spend the day wherever we ended up. Now this may not sound like an excellent idea, but at the time it was the best plan we could think of for a lazy Saturday afternoon. Leaving around 2 p.m., Traci and I decided on Arezzo, a small town that ended up being two hours from Florence and one of the most beautiful places we’ve seen thus far. The town, quite different from ours due to less noise, tourists and more charm, was a getaway with its historic architecture and authentic eateries. And after devouring a cupcake I had bought for Valentine’s Day (it read “Ti Amo”), we decided to get pizza and walk around for several hours exploring this great place. We found ceramic shops, parks, scenic overlooks to the countryside, tiled roofs, churches, statuary and basically a wonderful place to get lost. And that we did. However, after some time, we made our way back to Florence to prepare for our Valentine’s Day evening out, which didn’t really consist of anything all that exciting. We drank some, got separated from our friends, made some rice and called it a night. Uneventful, I know. But compared to Friday, we were ready for a night in. Besides, I was leaving early Sunday for Viareggio, a small seaside town holding an enormous Carenavle celebration that is famous throughout all of Tuscany. Needless to say, I was excited.

Boarding the bus Sunday morning, I didn’t know what to expect. Our tour guide had said dress-up, but to me this meant maybe a silly hat or a mask, nothing more. Some of those going donned crazy sunglass, mismatched clothing and outlandish headgear, but I opted for comfortable clothes good for walking in. Boy was I going to be an easy target. Getting to Viareggio some two hours later (everything seems to be two hours from Florence, right?) I exited the bus and laid eyes on the biggest mess of people I’ve ever seen. Carnevale, actually derived from religious roots, once meant to finish off all the meat and butter in ones house to prepare for the forty days of lent that lay ahead (celebrating by basically eating all the leftovers.) Yet nowadays, the meaning has been laid aside for outlandish costumes and ridiculous amounts of fun held by anyone willing to partake. By myself on this trip, I started walking, getting pelted with confetti and hosed down with silly string and shaving cream on every corner. 

The streets were barely visible through the bits of paper and the laughter ringing out with a backdrop of the beach, made this an idyllic setting for me. Carnevale, basically an excuse for adults to dress like fools, was a riot. People were costumed in the most ridiculous getup and in a mere five-minute time span I saw: Spiderman, a family of cows, three Batmen and Jokers, a cross dresser, Goldilocks, a family of chefs, soccer players, a gypsy, a belly dancer, clowns, more clowns, oh, some more clowns, skeletons, a fish, a mummy and his bride and countless others that would have any trick-or-treater stateside, green with envy. But I haven’t even mentioned the floats. Oh, the floats. Made in the city, they are giant papier mache beasts that are merely works of art on wheels. Adorned with music and dancers, they shoot silly string and throw confetti as the crowd roars below with approval. The floats included giant monkeys, geese, a tribal princess, Italian politicians reduced to mere caricatures of themselves and a plethora of other designs that had me laughing for hours. And after being doused with confetti (I’m still finding it in my pockets and shoes) I watched the sunset on the beach and then returned home. What a day.

Speaking of Carnevale, I bought my authentic mask made in Venezia (Venice) and booked a day trip for tomorrow. VENICE. Just think, gondola rides, classy parties and fooooood. MmmmMm. This will undoubtedly be much more proper than Viareggio though, mainly because it’s Venice and they certainly don’t party as much as other Tuscan towns. My friends and I are out at 8 a.m., only to return later that night and hold our own party in Florence. Gotta love Carnevale I must say. Then it’s off to Parma and Modena Saturday to see a Parmesan cheese and balsamic vinaigrette factory. And it that’s not enough, Florence has its own parade Sunday for Carnevale which should be every bit as interesting as all the others. But don’t worry; I’ll certainly have enough fun for ALL of you back home. J

Ok, I am off to bask in the sun at Santo Spirito and possibly fill out some postcards for all you fine people. Then it’s off to window browse and be suave in the streets with my new cashmere scarf. I’m not joking, it’s what I do. Perhaps a bottle of wine and some nutella covered apples tonight? I think so!

Buona Sera!