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!