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! 

Friday, January 20, 2012

Greetings from Siena! The last few days have been such a frenzy . . . where do I even begin? 

Despite the late start, I ended up getting everything packed in time (and, ahem, under weight). We timed our arrival to the airport about as perfectly as you can, getting to our gate just as they began boarding. We were too chicken to try to con our way into an upgrade, and consequently ended up in the only row in our cabin that was completely full. We ordered champagne for dinner -- no drinking age on planes YES -- feeling very grown up and sophisticated as we toasted to our great adventure . . . and then left the rest untouched on our trays. To be fair, R finished hers, which led to an interesting conversation about twenty minutes later. "Is it bad to mix alcohol and benedryl?" "Probably, but I guess we"ll find out . . ." Unfortunately, far from passing out, neither of us slept much at all, arriving in Paris at the ungodly hour of 5:30 a.m. local time. That whole plan about not napping once we got off the plane to avoid jet lag? R crashed around 9 or 10 a.m. I waited until we got onto our flight to Florence at noon, promptly passed out, forgot I was holding the cup of water they had passed out, and awoke with a start, dumping the remainder in R's lap. What are friends for?

The rest of the trip wasn't particular interesting, aside, of course, from the taxis being on strike when we arrived in Florence, lugging our hundred pounds of worldly possessions to the bus stop, asking in broken Italian if that was the correct bus to the city center (quick aside -- I asked the question TWICE, in my poor accent, to people who didn't actually speak Italian. That's what you get for trying.), and finally boarding the death ride that would take us into Siena. R and I parted ways at the Piazza Gramsci -- separation! anxiety! -- and I was driven to our apartment by my hostess, who had come to pick me up. Amazing doesn't even begin to describe the apartment and our hostess, S. She is a professoressa at the local university and could not be more welcoming. She makes a conscious effort to speak slowly and use simple words with us, but did tell us on our first night "Oggi e domani, parliamo in inglese perchè siete nuove. Dopo, parliamo soltanto in italiano!" (Today and tomorrow, we speak in English because you all are new. After that, we speak only in Italian!) It's a little hard to follow at times, but I wouldn't wish it any other way. It's helpful, too, that G, who is often over for dinner, speaks little to no English. Italian it is! And the house -- che bella! Located about a ten minute walk from La Piazza del Campo, S's home has marble floors and twelve-foot ceilings, each decorated with a different design. My roommate, E, and I each have our own rooms, where I awaken each morning to the tolling of the piazza bells and the chirping of birds outside my window. Breakfast is a homemade cappuccino and bread with butter and jam. Needless to say, life is hard. 

What is particularly nice about the program is that it totals only fifteen students, so class sizes are minimal. R and I are in an Italian class all on our own, and I think my largest course includes only four others. We don't actually begin lessons until Monday, which is nice because it gives us plenty of time to learn the city. We did begin to learn our way around yesterday, when we had a walking tour of the city and then were released to explore and do some shopping. I have to mention that R and I had our first successful shopping experience in an OVS, a local department store here, wherein I did not notice until I got home that I had picked up two shampoos instead of one each of shampoo and conditioner. I could blame it on the language barrier, but let's be real: the bottles very clearly say "shampoo." We also stopped for our first lunch at a bar, where I enjoyed the most amazing sandwich of prosciutto, mozzarella, tomato, and olive oil. Seriously still thinking about it. 

Today we have more orientation and organization and going through the tedious process of applying for our "permesso di soggiorno" -- our permit of stay. After that, we'll be official (temporary) residents of Siena! I feel as if there is so much more that I had wanted to say, but my stomach is telling me that it's time to go in search of pizza. I feel as if I'm mostly over my jet lag, but my body hasn't quite adjusted to the meal schedule yet! I'll post again soon about all of the fascinating things we learned about Siena yesterday. It truly is a city unlike any other, even within Italy. Buon giorno a tutti!

Sunday, January 15, 2012

And by that, I mean I haven't actually started yet . . .
Packing continues to take over my life. That is all.