Sunday, April 1, 2012

I've been putting this off for weeks(and weeks . . . and weeks) because the more things that piled up to write about, the harder it was to sit down and get it done, much like cleaning my room . . . or doing reading for class . . . or finishing papers on time . . . or really anything having to do with time management. Can it really have been over a month since I last posted? So much has gone on since then, where to begin . . .?

First, Venice for Carnevale from the 17th to the 19th of Italy. In the never-ending learning experience that is traveling, we foolishly waited until the last minute to buy bus tickets to Venice (only the biggest party in Venice? Sure there'll be tickets left!) and had a few hours of panic before we managed to find cheap train tickets that turned out to be even more convenient than the bus. So, at the crack of dawn that Friday morning (about 8 a.m. for those of us still in college), Hannah, her friend Romain, Ari, Kyle, Rachel, and I began our six hour trip north. After arriving in Mestre, the mainland of Venice where we had booked a vaguely shady hostel from a vaguely shady website, we had a brief moment of confusion when we realized we weren't EXACTLY sure where this place was supposed to be. Rachel took one for everybody and called the pensione, and after what sounded like a confusing conversation, we finally found it and settled in. It was exactly what you would expect a one-star hotel to be but it was clean enough, dirt cheap, and only twenty minutes by bus to the heart of the city. The afternoon that we first arrived could not have been more beautiful, and we were thrilled to discover that our room had an odd, garage-like door out onto a balcony, from which we enjoyed the late afternoon sun until realizing that the weather could be much better enjoyed from St. Mark's. 

We had high hopes of being able to climb the bell-tower in time to watch the sun set over the city, and thought ourselves in plenty of time. Unfortunately, we failed to account for the fact that Venice is absolutely the most maze-like city on the face of this earth. We followed signs (some real, some scribbled on the walls like graffiti) that seemed to be leading us in the most roundabout way possible, but eventually we made it, enjoying views from the Rialto Bridge and quaint canals along the way. By then it was just around six p.m. so things hadn't really gotten started in St. Mark's yet, but that didn't make the atmosphere feel any less electrifying. We wandered around the square for a bit, admiring the sometimes weird, always fantastic costumes and the giant stand of fried Carnevale treats, hot chocolate, roasted nuts, and candy. After watching the dancers accompanying the blasting music coming from the enormous stage that had taken over one end of the piazza for a while, we decided to come back when it was more lively and search for food in the meantime. Not having any restaurant in mind inevitably led to wandering aimlessly but the delicious discovery of mulled wine on just about every small piazza held us over (that stuff was seriously tasty; props to the Germans). We finally settled on a place, and after seafood pasta and lots of wine, everybody was feeling too sleepy and contented to do much else besides stop for nutella crepes on our way back to the hostel. 
The Grand Canal at sunset.
The next morning promised a day even more beautiful that the last, and after a quick breakfast at a cafe, we headed over to the island to take a ferry to Murano for the day. To say that it was exactly how a day-in-the-life of a study abroad student should be would be an understatement, topped by none so far except possibly our weekend in Bologna . . . but we'll get to that. We got off the ferry and were immediately shepherded to a large glass factory where we were able to see a master blow a vase and a horse, both in under two minutes. Needless to say, in was incredible getting to see the ease with which he could create such beautiful pieces. After the demonstration, we wandered around the gift shop, naturally the reason for the free price of the show. The pieces were absolutely stunning, but a room filled with such gorgeous (and expensive) glass made my accident-prone self extremely nervous. After that we wandered for a while, stopping to admire at shop windows and just generally enjoying the sunshine playing off of the canals and colored buildings. Lunch was enjoyed outside and leisurely, with pasta, pizza, and (this time) white wine, fearful of being judged for ordering red with seafood. We thought about trying to explore the glass museum, but decided instead to visit the church that housed alleged dragon bones. Alas, no mythical creatures were to be found, but we did get to see the inside of a beautiful chapel with a class baptismal font and crucifix. 

Back to Venice in the late afternoon to climb the bell-tower at sunset, which we had missed the day before due to our lack of direction. We fought through crowds of people, found the wine-fountain that we'd be searching for, and got in line to go to the top of the tower. Half an hour later, we were finally getting close to the entrance, only to have a rope drawn across our path by an official-looking Italian man, who told us that the tower was closing, and we had just missed the cut. Standing there looking crestfallen did nothing to melt his frosty manner, so we decided to drown our sorrows in wine before dinner. The rest of the night was spent aimlessly traversing the streets of Venice, making friends with Italians and Americans alike, watching bizarre parades of strangely dressed people, finding the crepe stand that we had so desperately been looking for, and dancing in St. Mark's Square until they stopped the music at midnight. 
Only the most delicious crepe in the world.
The crowds at St. Marks.
The next morning was a little foggy and overcast, but we decided to head into Venice anyway and see if the weather cleared up enough to see the bell tower before we left for Padua. We got there early enough to avoid the worst of the lines, took the elevator all the way up, and were rewarded with the massive bells chiming directly above our heads and reverberating throughout our entire bodies. That alone made the tower worth the wait, but we were pleased to discover that the cloudy day hadn't impeded the stunning views of Venice. Being able to see the entire city, and St. Mark's from above, on one side, and the ocean and surrounding islands on the other was just breathtaking. When it was time to go, Rachel and I decided that we would rather stick around Venice and see part of the inside of the Cathedral before heading to Padua and parted ways with the others. It turned out that only the museum portion of St. Mark's was open, but we got to see the four famous bronze horses (the originals, housed in the basilica since the 13th century but likely sculpted sometime in B.C.) as well as many of the original frescoes from the church. Mass was being said as we were exploring and it was pretty cool to hear the ritual in Latin. My favorite part was the amazing ceiling of the basilica, incredibly ornate and gilded with gold. 

We wanted to get to Padua in time to see a little of the town before we trained back to Siena, so we said goodbye to Venice, went back to the hostel for our things, and were on our way. We got to Padua and realized that we hadn't the foggiest idea of where to go, and didn't have a map. We got into a taxi, asked to be taken to the botanical gardens, and were efficiently deposited in front of gates that were very obviously closed. Silly tourists! The gardens aren't open on Sundays! We wandered over to a nearby piazza to check out St. Anthony's cathedral (the patron saint of Padua), saw his tomb, and taxied back to the train station. Next up, Bologna!

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Not dead! Just swamped. I'll post on Thursday (hopefully) with: Carnevale in Venice, That Time I Almost Missed the Train . . . Twice, and Bologna! But first, papers on papers on papers. 

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Fact: Italian love poetry is more beautiful than anything.
"Who is she who comes, that everyone looks at her, 
who makes the air tremble with clarity  
and brings Love with her, 
so that no one can speak, though everyone sighs?"
Learning it in Italian? Tricky, but totally worth it. Plus, it doesn't rhyme in English. Everything is better when it rhymes, right?

When I originally started this post, it was going to be a quick one because it was Wednesday and I didn't have a lot to say, but it seems I have a problem minimizing the time between starting to write and finishing. Now it's Saturday and I should be reading the book due on Monday but I can't resist the urge to commit memories to the internet before they fade. First, food highlights: gnocchi and pork steaks (is that what you call them?); this amazing strata-like dish with eggs, mozzarella, and buttered toast; pici in a red sauce; and the discovery of my first (and thus, favorite) alimentari in Italy. It took me a couple of weeks of getting pre-made sandwiches at cafes before I realized that surely there must be delis around at which I could create panini to my own liking; why hadn't I seen any? There are; I'm just blind. Conveniently, there's one right around the corner from where I live, the owner of which is a kind middle-aged Italian man who politely inquired about our stay in Italy and encouraged discourse in his language as the most effective method of learning. He also had great suggestions for food, telling us that his wife makes all of the dishes at home by hand, and offering us samples of a dish that I had inquired about. In the end, I settled on a sandwich of homemade pesto, some kind of white cheese, tomatoes, and seasoning meticulously applied by his practiced hand. It was delicious, and the nearly foot-long "snack" set me back 2.70 and lasted for two days. This kind of friendship with a local shop owner that culminates in great eats is exactly what I had envisioned when studying in Italy. No, really. It might be the highlight of my weekend. 

Thursday, as planned, I had my first experience teaching English to a class of Italian third-graders. It was amazing, exhilarating, terrifying, frustrating, hilarious, nerve-wracking, uplifting . . . too many adjectives. It was a lot of things at the same time, but on the whole, extremely satisfying. They spoke less English than I had expected and consequently I spoke more in Italian than I had intended. I had a lot of trouble slowing down my speech and watching out for contractions -- especially when singing If You're Happy and You Know It.  "How did I not realize there was a contraction IN THE TITLE OF THE SONG. Game time decision: teach them about contractions, or split the word up? Go with the latter, arrrrghh no, now I'm off tempo! It's fine they won't notice -- of course they will, because they're not singing along! Man, I really wish I had started in a lower key, my voice can't go this high. Am I singing too slowly? Why are they all just watching me? Okay, I'll slow down. Geez, this sounds awkward . . . " Phew. I think I'll have to be better prepared next time, even if that means singing them out loud beforehand. Sorry, Eric, you're about to discover that I have the voice of an ANGEL. 

Taking the bus to the school where I taught was extremely easy: get on at the piazza near the school, stay on the bus until the last stop, get off. Done and done. I was feeling so accomplished that on the way back, I decided to take a bus tour of the Sienese countryside and surround towns. No, really, I voluntarily stayed on the bus for two hours, just to see the sights. What's that? Okay, you got me. I got lost, big time. The embarrassing part is, I actually got on the right bus coming back into Siena, and I actually got off at the right stop. The trouble started when, looking around the correct bus stop, incidentally the one from which I had departed a mere hour or so before, it looked different. I got confused, panicked, and got back on the bus. "What's the worst that can happen?" I thought. "If this is the right stop, I'll just follow the same route as earlier and only spend an extra twenty minutes riding around. Class isn't for two hours, I've got time." Except, of course, that the bus didn't follow the same route as earlier. I watched out the window as the hills became steeper and more covered in snow, and the houses farther and farther apart. Class was a still a long way off, and having nothing better to do, I didn't really think much of what I considered "the scenic route." We made a lap around some of the quaint smaller towns and approached a crossroads, one way taking us back to Siena, the other back whence we had just come. The bus chose the latter. Okay, NOW I'm worried. Time to call Christina, our resident director. "Hi, uhhhh Christina? Um, I may have not gotten off at the right stop, and now I'm in the middle of nowhere. What do I dooooooo?" I asked the driver, who informed me we'd be back in the city center in a mere half an hour, but that there was a bus change that I would have to make. As per Christina's instructions, I practically glued myself to the pole as close to the driver as I could get, watching his gaze in the mirror to make sure I didn't err again. Fortunately, he was very helpful in indicating where I should change, and I arrived at the school, harried but in one piece and with a full ten minutes to spare before class. Hopefully, this week will be easier. There's no way I can make the same mistake twice . . . right? 

The rest of the weekend has been pretty quiet. We were instructed not to travel too much this weekend since the weather was supposed to be nasty, but we haven't seen as much snow as was originally predicted. We experienced "college night" at the local disco here, and suffice it to say, once was enough. Yesterday and today have been spent lazing around on the couches in the living room watching movies and reading for class. Sometimes Silvia comes in to amiably tease us about not moving all day, and she's totally right: I haven't set foot outside once today, and it's seven p.m. I'm blaming it on the cold (high of 32 today!), but it's going to get warmer as the week goes on (up to 46 by Thursday, break out the sundresses!) and I plan on fully taking advantage of the nicer weather. Eric thinks I'm crazy, but I swear the city is coming alive as the month goes on, with more and more shops opening their doors from the winter vacation and the streets staying busier later into the evening. It's amazing how much a difference it's making in the atmosphere around here. Or maybe it's just anticipation of the "best gelateria in Siena" opening in a mere four days. Whichever. 

Sunday, February 5, 2012

There's a certain kind of satisfaction that only comes from thinking that you have to do some unpleasant task, and then discovering that you don't. As in, Wednesday when we woke up, the ground was covered in a thick coating of snow, but our CET director had ASSURED us that we would be able to make it to class. I received a phone call from her just to confirm that our lessons were in fact still being held, only to be followed by a text message a few minutes later: "No school!" Excellent. Time for some romping in the snow. With the excitement of a five-year old, I bundled into all of my warmest clothes, forewent my boots in favor of more practical tennis shoes, and ventured out into the great white beyond -- by that time, the few cars that were brave enough to try the streets had really turned the white to gray, but that just doesn't sound as good. 

Fortunately, Rachel, Faith, and I were some of the earliest visitors to the Campo, which meant that we had the privilege of playing in the pristine white expanse before it got slushy and gross from too many visitors. We made snow angels and started a snow fort until the cold got the best of our determination. The rest of the day was spent enjoying the snowfall from the warmth of my apartment, now satisfied with winter and ready for spring. . . except that it snowed again on Thursday, and Friday, and there's a bit more in the forecast for next week. Apparently this much snow hasn't been seen in Italy in over 20 years, and there's no proper infrastructure for handling it. We've been lucky in that we haven't lost electricity or heat, but others haven't been so fortunate. 

With the volatility of the weather in mind, we decided that traveling too far this weekend would be too much of a hassle, especially given than 9 of 13 of us had a field trip on Friday with the art history class. It's not a course that I'm enrolled in, but with nothing better to do, I thought I would see if I could tag along on the trip, with the plan that we would then all stay the night in Florence to enjoy the nightlife there. I showed up with the rest of the class and the professor kindly, if confusedly, agreed to let me take the tour with them. Easily the best decision I've made in Italy so far. The professor is German-born but speaks fluent Italian and English and she is so knowledgable and passionate about her subject that the enthusiasm is absolutely infectious. We toured the Palazzo Davanzati, an almost perfectly maintained 14th century house originally belonging to the wealthy merchant family Davizzi. It was incredible to be able to see more or less how such a family would have lived back then, in a multi-story house with an open courtyard in the center to let in light and fresh rainwater. 

From there we went to the Bargello, the first civic palace in Florence which now houses such masterpieces as Donatello's St. George Tabernacle, David, and Bronze David; one of Michelangelo's earlier statues, Bacchus; and the two finalists for the competition to design the second set of doors of the Florentine Baptistery: depictions of Isaac's sacrifice, completed by Lorenzo Ghiberti and Filippo Brunelleschi. To say that it was all fascinating would be a gross understatement. I really loved the effeminate, apparently contradictory nature of the Bronze David -- David, being traditionally a symbol of Florentine strength, was usually depicted as strong and confident, not impish and slight as in this version of Donatello's. Bacchus was another favorite, and we all appreciated the impressive way in which Michelangelo had managed to perfectly capture the essence of an inebriated man in stone-cold marble -- at the age of twenty. Feeling unaccomplished? Just a smidge. 

Our final stop brought us to the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, where we saw choir-lofts designed for the cathedral by Luca della Robbia and Donatello, St. John the Baptist's finger, Donatello's haunting Magdalena Penitent, and, my favorite, a pietà designed by Michelangelo for his tomb that was partially destroyed by him in a fit of depression. In the end, it was such an intellectually satisfying day. I could have seen all of these works on my own time, but having a guide to explain the meaning and motives made all the difference in the world, and made it a much more rewarding experience. The class is going to the Uffizi in a couple of weeks, hopefully the professor won't mind one more . . .  

By the time the field trip was over, we were sufficiently starving for a hearty Italian lunch. We wandered away from the Duomo to find cheaper eats and settled for a place on a side street that was exactly what you would expect an Italian restaurant to be: small, over-crowded, plainly dressed, and delicious. I absolutely gorged myself on amazing spaghetti carbonara, experiencing the kind of full you get when a much smaller amount would suffice, but it just tastes too good to leave any behind. 

From there, we found the market which we had passed briefly earlier, wandering among the rows upon rows of leather (belts, bags, gloves, you name it), scarves, touristy trinkets, and carnival masks. We each purchased one of the latter in anticipation of our trip to Viareggio to celebrate carnivale next weekend, but they were so gorgeous that I could have easily walked away with six more. Hungry again, we contemplated finding the "best gelato in Florence" as named by my guidebook (SO helpful, grazie papasan!) but a sharp burst of wind killed that idea. Which brings us to the weather. My mother told me before we left that the coldest she's ever been was in Florence in January. It was February for our trip, but I think I can second the notion. Florence hadn't received any kind of substantial snow like Siena had, but managed to make up the difference in temperature. Seriously, the kind of cutting wind that tears through every layer of clothing at whips at any exposed skin. It got so bad that as we entered the Duomo museum my nose started bleeding. Thoughts: "man, it is SO COLD I can't stop sniffling . . . seriously, why is my nose running so much . . . oh, DAMMIT that's blood." The man working the ticket counter looked seriously concerned that I was going to bleed all over their priceless relics, but Rachel and the others found the incident quite funny (thanks, guys). 

At any rate, after shopping all we wanted to do was warm up at our free-breakfast, free-dinner, free-linen, free-wifi, free walking-tour, seriously-what-is-this-place hostel. Check in, find our room . . . heat's not on. But, being out of the wind was a good place to start. 2.50 for a bottle of wine? Yeah, that'll warm us up. Later that evening we braved the arctic weather to experience the nightlife with some friends from UVa studying in Florence. It was fun, and nice to have a bigger social scene than what Siena provides, but I'm glad that I'm not studying there full-time. It just felt too . . . American. Not that that's a bad thing, but I don't think I spoke more than five words of Italian the entire time we were in the city. 

The next day we explored the San Lorenzo market, one of (if not THE) biggest markets in Florence. Kyle and I got sucked in to a leather shop by the charismatic salesmen, who told us that we had "the perfect bodies for Italian leather." What does that mean? That we're short. Ah. The jackets really were stunning though, and I'll probably return to buy one when stripping out of my layers to try them on doesn't put me at risk of hypothermia. 

Eric and I got home around two or so and were greeted by Silvia's kind offer to make us some pasta for lunch. A big bowl of spaghetti with meat sauce and leftover veggies was all I needed to put me to sleep . . . for three hours. And speaking of food, I have to include a section on what I've been eating recently. You certainly don't care, but this is just as much a journal for me as it is a way to let you know what I'm up to. So: about four different kinds of delicious soup, all with beans or barley or something to make them hearty, artichoke frittata, the most incredible peas I've ever tasted (because they were cooked in chicken juices, yum), saltimboca (beef rolled with prosciutto, something green, and feta), roasted peppers with potatoes and mushrooms, grilled cabbage, squash, broccoli, polenta, and of course, a ton of bread and pasta. Silvia says that she tries to cook things without a ton of fat in them so that we don't gain weight while we're here. I told her that's a good thing because I eat at least one croissant or pastry every day.  Plus, she keeps the biscotti jar well stocked and gelato in the freezer. I'm okay with that. 

Coming up this week: my first English teaching session (last week was cancelled because of the snow), our wine and cheese tasting field trip to Montepulciano on Friday, and Viareggio for carnivale on Sunday! 

Monday, January 30, 2012

Siena - Chiusi - Terentola - Perugia - Assisi - Terentola - Chiusi - Siena, and all in just about 36 hours. Phew. We actually only visited Perugia and Assisi (unless you count the three hours spent in a cafe in Chiusi) but such is the size and situation of Siena that we forced to take a rather circuitous route to our not-so-distant location. But let's back up a little bit. 

Friday morning we all met at school -- on our OFF day! -- to go over schedules and planning with the guy who's organizing our volunteer teaching. Did I forget to mention that? Why yes, I do get to teach adorable little Italian bambini how to speak, read, and write English one day a week. And they're third graders, which means I get to throw all of my best summer camp songs and games at them. Too young for cows and the chickens? I think not. 

Later that afternoon we all met up again to finally wander into the duomo. We only had about an hour and half before it closed, so we decided to only visit the cathedral portion, and save the rest for when we had more time to appreciate it. It really is a gorgeous building, but I wish I had known more about it before we went in. Ah, there's always next time. After a little art appreciate, the choices of time-killing options before dinner were down to two: homework or boot shopping. Obviously the latter won out. There are these amazing sales going on all over Siena right now, in which one can buy a gorgeous pair of Italian leather boots for around half their usual price. Brooke and Mallie started the trend as soon we got here, and once they had some, everybody wanted a pair. Ari and I actually found the most beautiful shoes at a shop in Chiusi, but forgot to go back before we got on the train home. Consolation: more money for gelato! 

Sylvia and Gianni had a party of some sort to attend on Friday night, leaving Eric and me to fend for ourselves, and by that, I mean that she set the table and laid out all of the food before she left. All that she left for me to do was boil the water for the ravioli, about which she seemed very concerned. I brushed her off because, seriously, it's boiling water, but I regretted it a half-hour later when I couldn't figure out how to light the stove. I may have done irreparable damage to by body from the amount of gas I inhaled in the process, but in the end, the ravioli got cooked. Best discovery of that night: wine is cheaper than soft drinks and much, much more delicious. 

Saturday came too early and after a grueling five hour journey -- only made so because of our frequent stops and transfers -- we finally arrived in Perugia, with plenty of daylight with which to see the city. Traveling for Dummies Rule #1: when arriving in a foreign city, it is best to come prepared with at least minimal knowledge of the public transportation system. Lacking that, and with no blatant signs to guide us, we chose (sprightly, clever, young 20 year olds that we are) to walk to our hostel. Here's a fun fact about Perugia: the city center is at the top of a mountain. Okay, maybe just an enormous hill, but still. About halfway through the 45-minute (steep) climb, I really regretted not having my inhaler, having foolishly assumed that it wasn't possible for a city to be hillier than Siena. It all worked out quite well, as we were repaid at the top with a view that we surely would have missed had we found our way to the bus. Even more fortuitous was the American tour guide leading a group similar to ours around the historic district who spotted us wandering and INSISTED that we join them on his "no-facts tour." It was a great way to learn about the city in a fun way: from the old orphanage with the lazy-susan in which parents could deposit their children, to the reason why Perugian bread doesn't use salt, to the society formed to help families pay for burials on holy ground (and which subsequently filled one of the   vaults under the church with bones after bodily decomposition to maintain the availability of space). 

The tour guide also gave us a great recommendation for dinner, a restaurant off the main street called "Al Mangiar Bene," at which we expectantly showed up around 8 p.m. A reservation? No, Zack had said we wouldn't need one. Size of our party? Thirteen . . . Come back in an hour? Okay, worth it to eat good, local food. We split a bottle of wine and aperitivi to tide ourselves over and headed back to the restaurant, a little late to appease Italian standards of time. We then discovered that the word "reservation" has a much more fluid concept in Italian than it does in English, but when we were finally seated 45 minutes later, nobody was sorry that we waited. Rachel and Hannah laughed at me for scarfing all but a few pieces of crust of my first REAL pizza margherita, but the joke was on them when they each cleared their plates too. 

A quick stop at the National Gallery of Umbria to see some Perugino and we were on our way to Assisi. We really only had time to see the double basilica of San Francesco, but even just wandering the quaint little town was a pleasure. We found ourselves the sole occupants of a small restaurant for lunch (noon being far too early for an Italian "pranza") at which we each enjoyed "the best pasta ever." I chose ravioli stuffed with cheese and tomatoes but others had far more interesting dishes, all comprising homemade pasta. Quick gelato (even though it was frigid), back to the train station, and homeward bound. We made quite the sight on the train, thirteen American students all furiously reading the same book which was assigned to be finished the following day. 

Finally arriving in Siena was perhaps one of my favorite parts of the weekend, being greeted with that satisfaction of feeling that indicates enough familiarity with a place to consider it home, however temporary. It also helped that Sylvia and Gianni had waited for our return to eat and then shooed us off to bed as soon as dinner was over. Today has been more about relaxing and re-settling in (and okay, appreciating a return to internet) but tomorrow my painting class is taking its first visit to the pinoteca, which I'm really looking forward to, despite the inevitability of my (this time public) embarrassment. 

On a final note, I'll say that all my gloating about the fabulous temperatures in Siena has come back to bite me, as the next ten days isn't going to be above 43 and snow is in the forecast. Huzzah! 

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Nom nom nom. Good day for food. Finally tried the pizza place that Sylvia suggested that is both cheap and very close to our apartment. Delicious, and definitely a step up from Pizzaland (at which one can buy something called a "pig and chips": pizza with french friends, hot dog chunks, and drizzled in ketchup) but maybe not quite up to par with what I remember. Dinner began with a traditional Sienese vegetable soup that included, among other ingredients, black cabbage and bread. Incredible, especially with the olive oil that Italians seem so fond of pouring on EVERYTHING. I don't hate it. After that came more cardi, which is rapidly becoming my favorite vegetable, some other veggie dish that I couldn't identify but gladly ate anyway, and chicken stuffed with prosciutto and eggs. More important, I got to play with Miriam, Sylvia's granddaughter, again today. I met her for the first time on Tuesday and she . . . just . . . no words. She's only one and doesn't know any words yet, and as I don't know how to coo at a baby in Italian, she's getting a healthy dose of English. She loves Eric best, but we'll see how long that lasts . . .

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

So this whole blogging thing is trickier than I anticipated . . . how do you take these incredible experiences and translate them into words? Here goes:

Sunday evening marked the official end of our first weekend in Siena. How is that possible? Surely we've been here at least a month already. We finished orientation mid-afternoon on Friday and from there decided to check out the major local grocery store, Conad. There must be some secret to eating around one or two and then not again until eight or so, but if there is, we have yet to discover it. Thus, snacks were necessary. Biscotti and nutella successfully procured, we discovered a small set of stairs leading down into a picturesque neighborhood. From there we simply wandered . . . and wandered . . . and wandered. Three hours later, we thought it safe to say we had a substantially better understanding of the city. It's hard to describe exactly what we saw because mostly it was just a series of beautiful Sienese views and even pictures don't do them justice. We did, however, find out way to both la chiesa San Domenico and the soccer stadium -- two different houses of worship, perhaps? 

Eric and I returned home around six and had just enough time to relax before we sat down to enjoy our second home cooked meal in Siena: pasta con pomodori, followed by lemon chicken and some yet to be determined vegetable. Despite the lack of nomenclature, it, along with the rest of meal, was delicious. (Update: found out what the vegetable is called and why I didn't recognize it: because it doesn't exist in the U.S. Roughly translated, it's called a thistle, but it's more like the stalk thereof. So. Much. Love.) For dessert, Sylvia brought out a bottle of limoncello and insisted that both Eric and I try it. My milliliter sized sip (hah! metric system, I am sooooooo Euro) was enough to convince me that I'm better off sticking with wine.

Speaking of wine, a few hours later found Eric, Rachel, Faith, myself and several of the other CET students sitting in what can best be described at a gelateria that also serves drinks. We probably could have taken a hint when the bartender seemed perplexed by our request for bottles of wine costing under 10 euro, but it wasn't until after we were seated with our 13 euro prize that we realized we had clearly, and typically, chosen the wrong place. Here was the place to enjoy a nice after-dinner drink or gelato before heading home, not share a bottle of wine with friends just beginning a night out. What can I say? The clean white walls, roving colored lights, and the DJ playing American pop music lured us in.

From there, we made our way down one of the main streets, waiting until something more appealing presented itself, which it did in the form of one of the program's Italian roommates standing outside a bar with some friends. For those of you college-aged, American, and familiar with Siena, you'll recognize this bar for its (infamous) 3 shots for 5 euro deal. The place being too crowded to accommodate people not actively waiting for service, the alleyway next to it is filled with with (mostly men) milling around enjoying their drinks. Consequently, both to get to the actual bar and the door itself, one has to walk the gauntlet of Italian college students. Not that I stood even the slightest chance or blending in anyway, but it was slightly unnerving to be approached directly with "You're an American, yes?" Why yes, what gave it away?

Those of you who know me well know how much I hate -- HATE -- waking up late in the morning. Having stayed out till three or so, I was obligated to sleep in until noon the following day or sacrifice precious hours of sleep, lack of which being foremost in the list of things I despise. Considering the Italian practice of not really beginning an evening until 11 or 12, I have the unfortunate impression that this is something I'm going to have to get used to. Despite my late rising, Saturday afternoon turned out to be my favorite day in Siena so far. Rachel and I met a friend studying in Florence for lunch on the piazza, enjoying for the first time since our arrival warm sunshine and crowds sitting in the square. The day just screamed for ice cream gelato. Eric came to join us and we wandered over the our first bar from the previous night, the bartender of which seemed to pleasantly recognize his favorite member of our group. The night before, Eric had been the sole male in a group of at least eight girls; when we ordered our wine, he received a bigger glass than the rest of us. Guys get guys . . . or something.

The rest of the afternoon was spent with more wandering and playing with all of the cool features on my camera (thanks, Gary!) and taking pretentiously artsy pictures. We walked along the road that, literally, leads to Rome. Sylvia told us that taking it for miles in one direction leads you to the Eternal City; in the other, to Florence. From there we found our way over to the Porta Romana (Roman gate) which was definitely cool to see, but I preferred the side trip that introduced us to a very friendly (and jumpy) Sienese dog, with whom we played until the owner came out and we made our awkward retreat.

Sunday was mostly spent lying around the house being lazy and reading. We finally managed to drag ourselves out into what little sunlight remained around five p.m., with the idea of going ice skating. Eric and I met Faith and Rachel at the piazza near the rink and wandered over to the charmingly small, Christmas light-bedecked skating rink . . . where Rachel discovered she hadn't any socks on. That activity now impossible, we fell back on the old stand-by of taking a walk around the city. This time, however, we were brave enough to actually leave the walls of Siena. We enjoyed being outside for all of about ten minutes (look! real stoplights!) before deciding to turn around. A quick stop at Nannini's, the name of one of the largest cafes here, held us over until dinner, which began with one of my favorite dishes so far: polenta with certainly the best bolognese sauce I've ever had. That one's definitely going on the list of "learn-how-to-make"s.

On Monday we finally began our lessons. Good, because I desperately need a schedule in my life. Bad, because, duh, homework. I only have two classes every day, Monday through Thursday. Each morning begins with Italian language which has so far proven to be awesome, and great for asking all of those questions that I would feel bad posing in a larger class (sorry, Rach). After a cappuccino break comes either Italian cultural history, painting methods, or Italian love poetry, the latter of which I have yet to experience. Painting methods seems incredible aside from the fact that I am EASILY the worst in my class. Today, we drew cubes and rectangles. Well, everyone else drew cubes and rectangles, I drew . .  . geometric shapes that resembled toy blocks. It's .  .  . good. It's going to be good. Bonus points if you get the Arrested reference. 

On Tuesday evening, Eric, Gianni (Sylvia's compagno), and I went out to dinner with several of Sylvia's friends, with whom she had taken a trip to China several years ago. The restaurant could not have been more picturesque, located about a ten minute walk outside of the city down what was either an incredibly romantic or utterly terrifying tree-lined lane. Inside, the walls were covered in brightly-colored murals depicting the Italian countryside, but the real beauty came when Sylvia uncovered a window from which you could see back up into the city, with the entire Siena skyline illuminated against the sky. And the food . . . delicious, but still authentic tasting in its simplicity, if that makes sense. We started with hands-down the best pecorino I've ever tasted, with prosciutto and drizzled honey; some sort of sausage and chickpea salad in a kind of lemon dressing; and bruschetta . . . with pork fat. I know that I'm supposed to try new things here -- and I have, and loved them -- but I just could not bring myself to taste it. 

That finally -- FINALLY -- brings us to today. We've officially been here a week! After our morning lesson, Rachel, Faith, Kyle, Hannah, Ari (look, Margaret! friends on friends on friends), wandered over to the market that takes over the park outside the fortress every Wednesday. Overwhelming doesn't even begin to cover it. Sweaters, jackets, scarves, shoes, even underwear are for sale each week for typically under 10 euro -- happy birthday to all of you. After finding out that my afternoon class was cancelled, I headed over the piazza to meet up with Hannah, Ari, and Faith to "work on some reading for school." While they did that, I napped in the sunshine . . . this feels like a dangerous habit to initiate. For dinner, I tried veal for the first time (uh, YUM) and afterwards headed over to meet everyone for dessert at The Tea Room, a small, eclectic place behind the piazza that inexplicably played "Jingle Bell Rock" during the course of the evening. Tomorrow we have our last day of school for the week, which is great because I'm already behind in work -- who's surprised? There are strikes of all the public modes of transportation on Friday, but I think we're going to try to do a day trip somewhere on Saturday. Arezzo, perhaps, or maybe Lucca? 

If you've actually made it this far (hi, Mom and Dad), many apologies for the length of this post. I really did intend to submit on Sunday, but one thing came after another and here it is early Thursday morning. In the future, I'll have more regular and (hopefully) shorter posts. Buona notte!