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.


  1. Wow you have such a wonderful and animated way of writing! And funny :) I loved reading this, and yes, now I am going to be a creeper and keep up with this blog when I am procrastinating. You did post it on your facebook, yah know ;) Hopefully we'll get to take another trip together soon, Parma and Modena was a frikken blast!