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!

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Spring Fever

Some friends!
The sun is finally shining again after a week-long hiatus and I couldn’t be happier at such a sight. Italians are out, children are running through the streets and flower vendors have taken root on nearly ever corner. However, forecasters are predicting snow come Friday, something that rarely ever happens in the city of Florence. What a buzz kill. Yet I could care less about this recent observation, seeing as how I’m a native northwestern Pennsylvanian and all too familiar with a brutal winter season. Regardless of temperatures, the mosquitoes have still been out in full force.
I am continuing to adjust well, besides the absurd amount of time it takes to do laundry (Remember? Two hours a load. Florentine apartments have VERY old plumbing) and the disarray of our disgruntled little flat. Living with four guys has been a challenge, especially with the cleaning schedule, or, in this case, the lack of one. Everyone seems to just eat, leave dishes and never touch them again. I know we are on a vacation, but common sense is clearly taking a break too. We have also gotten in trouble for the amount of noise radiating from our apartment several times, mainly because of the late-night gatherings of over 10 people who all want to talk at the same time and disclose their outlandish experiences of gelato and cheap liquor. Oh, Americans. I just sit in my room and read for class.
Speaking of class, I have absolutely nothing but positive remarks. My teachers are amazing (Especially my contemporary Italian literature one, a true Florentine who livens up class by making us read absurd works out loud) and the classes themselves are actually rather insightful too. I never thought I would say this, but my time spent learning is actually one of the better parts in my day. Who knew? They are all so unique and each professor brings a different perspective into the mix. Also, each seems to love what they do, which is a big plus when you have to do the job daily!                                 Homemade pizza in Pisa!
Aside from classes, I signed up to volunteer in the city during my time here, seeing as how I have no Tuesday, Thursday or Friday classes and don’t plan on traveling every bloody weekend like everybody else (I mean come on, half the students studying here haven’t even discovered Florence yet and I’ll be dammed if I deprive myself of not full knowing this city by the time I leave). As of right now though, I’ve signed up to archive material at the British Institute Library (One of the biggest collections of world literature in all of Italy) and also serve as a tour guide at the various churches in the area. No, don’t worry, the tours will be conducted in English and to people traveling from the states, but I would get to learn some fun facts and in addition, obtain a fancy ID card that would admit me to lots of things for free! Score! I might also decide to help teach Italian children English, and easy task that would not only benefit the kids, but myself as well I’m sure. In addition, I may also inquire after a small position at The Florentine, a little English newspaper highlighting the going-ons throughout the city. Even across the ocean and thousands of miles away, I can’t really take a break. But hey, I like keeping busy!

So to update you all a bit, since I last wrote, I’ve traveled to the small city of Pisa, you know, the one with that famous leaning tower which so many tourists try to hold up and then capture via digital camera? Yeah, that one. And yes, I was one of those silly, silly tourists. Oh well I suppose, you’re only here once, right? Back to the trip itself, I went with two friends this past Saturday and we departed by train from the Santa Maria Novella station, literally one block from my apartment. Hopping an afternoon departure, we sat for an hour in anticipation of good weather and beautiful scenery. However, shortly after arriving, there was a horrible rainstorm and we had no idea where this structure we had waited all day to see was hiding. I guess I was naïve to think we would pull up beside a grassy knoll and there, atop a field of green and a backdrop of mountains would be the tower. No. We had to trek miles through the quaint city of Pisa (Not so bad, seeing as how the layout and look was quite similar to Florence and there was some little festival happening) only to arrive at a pizza place where we gorged ourselves on delicious creations of homemade cuisine. Following a talk with the owner about the success of Obama, we left and finally found what we were looking for. Despite rain clouds and soggy shoes, the tower was gorgeous, as was the cathedral and baptistery that flanked it on either side. Following some rather cliché snapshots, we got dessert (Some wretched cake that we assumed looked good enough to eat, but was really some terrible concoction we still have yet to figure out!). After all of this hustle and bustle, we thought it best to head home.

The experience of Pisa was beautiful, even through Mother Nature woes, and only made me appreciate coming back to Florence, my home, even more. In relation to trips, I have some rather exciting news! I have scheduled, for the first weekend in March, a four-day excursion to the city of lights, Paris, France. Once there, I’ll shack up in a hostel literally steps from the one and only Moulin Rouge and dine on snails, caviar, and a selection of cheeses while gaping in awe at the Eiffel Tower. Perhaps even enjoy a cancan show, who knows? I’ve also booked my spring break trip, which, get ready for this…(cue dramatic music here)…includes an 11-day sprint across Ireland, Scotland and London (APPLAUSE!!!!). This, my friends, will be an adventure! In addition, I plan to hit Barcelona, Greece, Munich, Prague, Rome, Siena, Assisi, Milan, the Almafi Coast and maybe schedule some added day trips. I also plan to be poor for the rest of my life.C’est la vie.

More good news! I’ve also managed to take tons of pictures everywhere I go, ones I will certainly be sharing upon my triumphant return. Oh, and I forgot to mention I also went to the Uffizi Museum in Florence, a magnificent structure hundreds of years old and housing priceless works such as Botticelli. Sorry, no pictures allowed inside. Dammit! I know. But take my word for it, you would have loved it. Other than this, no new Florence stories, besides the usual nighttime adventures walking through Piazza Della Repubblica. This square, complete with merry-go-round, lovers tangled in a sea of knots and vendors selling roasted nuts, is a hub in the city and always full of people eating, shopping and engaging in acts of random love. I am also captivated by the window displays here. All of them are beautifully maintained and switched according to month and season. Like pieces of artwork themselves, store owners spend hours configuring them and making sure they appeal to the masses. I mean, in this square alone you have (throat clear) Fendi, Dolce and Gabbana, Louis Vuitton, Zara, Bvlgari, GianFranco Ferre, Gucci, Roberto Cavalli and a host of others making it some prime real estate. There is also a new Ferrari store opening, one of only a handful worldwide. Wowza.

Yet in addition to all these beautiful things, I’ve too enjoyed some of the rather eccentric people who call this city home as well Such as:
-The man who plays Christmas songs on his flute all evening for spare change, even though it is now clearly February
-The man who dresses like a bird and has faux wings, a shaved head with a single curl and an unusual bird call that attracts awkward stares
-The two women who have the best food ever, which I get every Thursday, because Thursdays are for laundry and after almost five hours of waiting for clothes to be finished, I need a little homemade pizza with prosciutto or sausage, three chocolate cookies and a refreshing Coke in my life
-The suave Italian men catcalling women and using cheesy pickup lines to attract their attention. Like this one: “Excuse me Miss…You seemed to have dropped something….It is my heart” (I kid you not, I heard this one used! HA!)
-The 'creature' dressed in fluorescent gold spandex on the corner, impersonating an Egyptian goddess (wtf?) and twisting his body into various shapes. I got scared, so walked on the opposite side of the street
-And countless others who make this city a diverse breeding ground for creativity and abstractness. I love it here. 
I also have a new addiction, besides white wine. Espresso. Lots and lots and lots of delicious espresso. I do not know why, but it seems to taste different here and I drink it at least three times daily. A wired jolt for those study sessions let me tell you. Speaking of chores, my laundry is telling me it’s done, which means, I can finally go get espresso, walk along the Ponte Vecchio and gawk at amazing jewelry and buy a new scarf for the upcoming chill that’s about to hit! Sounds like a hard life, I know. Well, it is, but someone has to live it. Love to all.

P.S. While coming to the school to upload this blog, I bought Italian leather shoes. It was not an expected purchase, seeing as how everything I do is obviously on a budget. But real Italian leather shoes. They don't have those in America! Come one! I have wanted them since I got here and finally caved. They were worth it I must say.

ALSO, I have made lots of friends. Actually, really good friends. Some that are great for conversation, a good time out and a full night of fun. They are hard to find back home, so I feel lucky. Also, I met some authentic Italians who have taken a liking to us Americans. This, too, is fortunate for us, because they show us all the REAL Italian hotspots and are great company.

Il Duomo, beautiful cathedral in the center of town (under renovations of course, as everything here seems to be)

Thursday, February 5, 2009

"Du hast pee pee in augen?"

    I’m here. But what can you really say about one of the most beautiful cities in the world? It’s been a week to the day, almost to the exact hour, that I arrived here and I am still, if you can imagine, at a loss for words.

            Flying over Florence and seeing the red roofs, rolling hills and spotted vineyards was invigorating enough, but actually stepping off the plane almost left me on the floor.

            Lucky for me, all my bags made it safely to the airport, which is more than I can say for most students, because almost 20 lost all their belongings. Fortunately, everything was found within two days and soiled clothes were finally able to be changed.

            Enough about planes though, it’s time to start spilling about the details, and let me be the first to say, there are quite a few. So, I will do what I always do when I have an abundance of information…MAKE A LIST!

-While arriving Tuesday night, I saw so many beautiful things, including the Ponte Vecchio at night (old, very historic bridge crossing the Arno River, which runs through Florence). In the midst of gawking, our cab driver pointed out numerous sites, including Dante’s Pizzeria and the old justice building. I was too engrossed to notice though.

-My apartment is from 500 A.D. and includes three huge windows along the front wall, which faces my street, Via Dell’Albero. A man makes bread every morning at 7 a.m. and I can see him from the living room, sometimes I sit on the ledge and speak to him in Italian. His name is Ricardo and he makes the best apple deserts.  His wife is Carmella.

-I have a single room and share the apartment with four other guys, Giuseppe, Mitch, Hunter and Hunter. To distinguish between the Hunters, we call one Uzelac and the other Carmichael, hence, by their last names. The Hunters are from Alabama and say “Fixin” and “Y’all” in every sentence. Mitch is from Long Island and has a girlfriend. And Giuseppe speaks fluent Italian and is from sunny L.A. They are an interesting bunch. But we’ll leave it at that.

-The wine here is incredibly cheap. Everything is for that matter. Except alcohol at a Discothèque (you know, those Italian equivalents to an American bar, but here people rave and drink Absinth. The usual.) I have grown accustomed to drinking wine, especially vino bianco (white wine), which is something I never thought I would like. But hey, when in Rome, err, in Florence.

-It rains more than I ever thought. The first several days it was beautiful, but now the sky just opens up and pours all the time. Which is also beautiful, because I am in Florence and it is hard to forget that around every corner. Speaking of corners, NOTHING is straight here — all the roads bend slightly to the left or right, making finding out where you really are, terribly difficult.

-The food is incredible. INCREDIBLE. I have had calzones, pizza, gelato, Panini’s, Coca Cola (the only beverage they have here besides water and espresso), sausage, biscotti, chocolates, coffees, exotic beers, and the like. There are just too many to name here, but trust me, I am eating right. And while we’re on this topic, let us touch on the outdoor markets. The food, as I said, is relatively inexpensive here, but the freshest I have ever seen. Breads made daily. Squash, cucumbers, carrots, peppers, onions and bananas in the most radiant colors. Markets overflowing with vendors selling their wares, including meat and cheese cut to your specifications, nuts and grains, desserts and an incredible selection of fresh spices. And these small storefronts are on every corner. No, you don’t have to seek just one out in the city. There are literally hundreds. And I couldn’t be happier. So far, the meals I’ve made at home include salads with fresh lettuce, bleu cheese, walnuts, sliced apples and balsamic vinaigrette, hamburgers made-to-order at a butcher with fresh cheese, basil leaves and red onion, pasta with real parmesan cheese and flakes of fresh parsley and prosciutto sandwiches on wheat slices. I would go on, but I know you’re salivating.

-To take a detour from Italian cuisine briefly, I’ll also say my classes are amazing. I have an architecture course on Mondays, which includes visits to museums all over Florence. Not just pictures in books. But the real thing. Wednesday’s include contemporary Italian literature, a class covering diverse authors. Following this is writing about Florence, taught by a rather enthusiastic British man with spectacles and a pinstriped suit. Lastly, Wednesday rounds out with an anthropology class, led by a rather plump woman with a slightly German/Swedish accent. Everything is over my head, but I grit my teeth for 2 ½ hours until I can once again just get lost for the whole night in the streets.

Ok. So you’re exhausted, I know. But let me throw you a couple more observations that will help sum up my trip thus far. I will try to remember all the wonderful experiences and conundrums of Italian life, but let me be the first to tell you, it is a difficult task and one I am willing to take head on. I will surely update you further, but here is a rather quick snapshot of what I see every day:

-The streets are cobblestone. Only cobblestone. Which means I have blisters all over my feet.

-The first five days, it took me two hours to get anywhere. Florence isn’t big, but when you’re lost. That’s it. Making giant circles is the norm for me.

-I saw an elderly woman buying a double-sided, well, you know what. There are strip clubs everywhere and sex is not taboo.

-There are NO driving rules. People get by where they can and you get the hell out of the way. Besides, everyone has a Vespa, little tiny motorcycle-like scooters that fly down streets. They certainly outnumber cars and so do bikes. I would like to have one.

-There are at least four Gucci stores within walking distance from my house. That is how Florence is. Designer is everywhere.

-People here are beautiful. And this is not an understatement. Men in scarves, nice shoes and suits, women in furs, leather gloves and shades. You go out in anything less, you’re obviously American. Obviously.

-In connection with the last point, I bought a scarf, tie and knock-off Ray Bans. I want to be Italian, but my literature teacher said I have red hair and will never fit in. Fuck.

-I speak Italian. Everywhere, or I try. I bought a pillow in Italian and used no English, leaving the man helping me to look surprised and keep responding in his native tongue. I was never so happy. (guanciale=pillow!)

-People don’t smile here. On the streets at least. And don’t look people in the eyes.

-I introduce myself to restaurant owners and bakers alike, they like me and at times give me free food because I attempt speaking in Italian.

-There are a lot of tourists here, but you can distinguish the true Florentines. They all wear black and are usually the ones hitting me in the head with their umbrellas.

-I paid 10 euro for ice cream (more specifically gelato) and that translates into around $14 American money. I died a little inside. But it was oh, so sweet.

-Dogs poop and pee in the streets and no one cleans it up. They wait for rain. Speaking of dogs, they all wear fancy little sweaters and go into stores with their owners. Every store allows them.

-I climbed over a bridge to sit on a ledge and watch the sun set over the Ponte Vecchio with some Germans. They asked me “Du hast pee pee in augen?” (which means, “Are you crying?”) and then recommended I go to a strip club with them. I declined.

-If you don’t turn your mirror in when parked on the road, you risk getting it ripped off by a passing car due to narrow streets. (DAD!)

-Leather and wine here are like water in America.

-Women of all shapes, sizes and nationalities are prodded like meat on the street by Italian men. They should take caution.

-It takes literally two hours to wash one small load of clothes. And that doesn’t include drying time.

-No one speaks fluent English. Not even professors.

-Life is slow here, stop walking, eating and talking fast.

-Two hour breaks in the middle of the day are normal here, Italians “work to live,” they don’t “live to work.”

-I’m learning how to rave. Badly.

For now, this seems to be an exhaustive list to help you understand my life a bit better.  I have to go buy groceries at an open-air market and dry my laundry, which has been washing for four hours. Besides, I am sick of being indoors, despite the overcast skies and rain. I’m going to Pisa this weekend. Amsterdam or Prague next week and then Paris in April. I will be poor soon, but memories are priceless. Perhaps I’ll try my hand again at raving tonight? Bottoms up.



Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Verity from Mallorca

(Let me preface this blog by saying "I'm sorry" for not posting in such a ridiculously long time. I have not had internet and feel horrible for not updating all those I love. I am alive. And well. And ready to tell you my stories. Once upon a time...) 

The time has finally come and I’ve departed for Florence via plane. If you were wondering, yes, I did eventually pack, but it was an exhausting experience I don’t wish to repeat any time soon. I took two huge suitcases, a backpack (stuffed with socks and books), my camera bag and another small boarding bag. I couldn’t look more like an American tourist navigating these huge beasts through three different airports, but what’s done is done. Yikes. At least I finally made it out of the house though, departing at 1 p.m. Monday with my Dad (making random business calls for his work while en route to the airport) and pulling in to Pittsburgh International near 4 p.m.

(I’d like to insert a quick observation here: never before have I seen so many people crying and hugging in one place (besides a funeral), but I suppose not everyone is flying to beautiful things hundreds of miles away. Che triste.)

Emotions aside, one bowl of cream of broccoli soup and sauerkraut hotdog later, I was passing through airport security and being frisked by men who looked all too familiar with touching their passengers. I was clean, if there were any reason to ever worry I wouldn’t be? But my assumption lends on the side that red heads usually aren’t terroristic in nature. However, I did have to open my carry-on for all the cologne bottles I’d expertly packed away. And after a pair of gloved hands dislodged the entire thing, I had a second chance at re-packing everything. Lucky me.

Some hours later, I board the plane, fly to Philadelphia and live to talk about the experience. Afterwards, I run through the Philadelphia Airport (sweat pouring all over my body because of the heat and my worrying I was going to miss the flight – I was two hours early mind you) only to sit for another hour with hundreds of other pissed off, sweaty people. But there is a silver lining as they say, because this is the part where I wolf down a McDonalds hamburger (even though I never eat there) and make friendly with a girl serving in the U.S. Navy as an MP, stationed in Madrid. She was nice and told me I should travel to Spain. Maybe I will. I also had to check my small carry-on, which was a tender goodbye, seeing as how it held all my extra clothes if the other two checked bags were ever somehow mysteriously lost (as they always seem to get for people). It appears my backpack and camera were the only two items allowed. Bogus, but I didn’t want to start a ruckus, seeing as how being frisked by one unfriendly airport employee was enough to last me a lifetime. Nevertheless, I conceded and went to board, sitting by the window (which I presumed was mine). Yet to my surprise, a woman (speaking in a mix between British and Spanish accents) told me in proper form I was in fact sitting in her spot. I reluctantly slid over and she moved in.

Verity was her name. Not virginity, or vanity, or even variety (as some people like to call her). But alas, if you can’t pronounce Verity (VER-IH-TEE), simply refer to her as “Susan,” the name she provides to people who need a little “aide.” Verity from Mallorca I call her and we chatted for some time about the following topics:

-The separation of first class passengers and coach by way of some smoky gray, translucent curtain

-Our favorite plays/playwrights (she did drama and preferred Henrik Ibsen, whereas I like a good Sam Shepard play)

-Favorite composers (mine, Handel, hers, a combination church hymn and Mozart twofer)  

-Yoga (she would at times exit her seat and head for the rear of our lumbering plane, only to perform certain moves I Imagine included the downward dog, etc.)

-Meditation and the meaning of life (this is where it got deep and we agreed people enjoy being negative far too much, concurring it’s as if it they get some sick pleasure from it)

-And countless other mementos that occupied our seven-hour flight, including Sudoku, people watching and bonding over tea served from Styrofoam cups.

However, after nearly an exhausting flight, complete with a bit of light-heatedness, shitty plane food and watching “Baby Mama” (*Bitch I don’t know your life! WooWooOO!*) I touched down in Spain, more than ready to reach my final destination. Verity and I parted ways of course (after she invited me to stay with her any time this semester on her organic farm/ranch in Mallorca, complete with cats, a huge garden and scenic panoramic views) and I boarded my last plane. 

How I ever managed the last two days is far beyond my realm of reasoning, but I have the next four months to pour over all the details. Or maybe, just maybe, I’ll take it for what it is.

(Madrid airport.)