Arno River, Firenze, Italia

Arno River, Firenze, Italia

Wednesday, September 29, 2010


It’s a record.

Three I killed a little after midnight (I couldn’t sleep unless).

Another died in the morning, buried on the bathroom floor.

And the fourth lost his life to the end of my Sharpie during Italian tutoring (perfect aim and a priceless look on my tutor’s face—I caught him midsentence; some things just can’t wait).

And then the last two joined their comrades during Italian class.  A couple fists to the table, and when my prof raised her head, I was sitting peacefully in my chair, the intended dead on the table, and my classmates laughing silently into their books.

With mosquitoes, I don’t mess around.

This morning was relaxed, at first.  I left for class with plenty of time.  Picked out a calm soundtrack for the walk, aimed in the direction of Neptune’s Fountain.  I was the third to arrive.  And then it dawned on me.  I forgot my to pick up my museum card.  So I took off running, music ignored, racing down cobblestone, jaywalking across streets, cutting off scooters.  All in the name of ART and HISTORY. 

I took the stairs two at a time up to the front desk of Magliabechi, puffing out the words “museum pass” to the bewildered receptionist.  Her face an emotionless mask, she pointed out the door.  “Corso dei Tintori.”  Oh no.  Wrong building.  Wrong front desk.

Once I retrieved the small precious problem (which gets you into every state museum and garden in Florence for free…and also allows you to cut to the front of lines), I began my fast clip back to our meeting spot.  Four minutes to spare.  I probably could have walked. 

And then we waited around for forty-five minutes.  Apparently I wasn’t the only absentminded student of the day.  At this point, I could have crawled. 

The Ufflizi was magnificient.  The two-hour lecture was bound to three rooms.  My prof, the microphone at her throat, spoke in great detail as the tourists cycled around us.  For the first time, pictures from a textbook came alive, details revealed, gold leaf and gilding sparkled, the intricacy of faces and hands were inspiring.

Did you know that Masaccio is a nickname for Tommaso (Thomas in English)?  The beginning part of his name “Masa” is derived from “Tommaso.”  And “Accio” comes from “Ragazzaccio” which means “bad/dirty boy.”  However, the nickname, along with his paintings, became famous.  And so, we call the great artist Dirty Thomas today.

Eventually I will return to the Uffizi on my own.  To venture beyond those three rooms, my nose perhaps glued to a museum guide, hoping not to miss a single piece. 

The rest of the day seemed to return to that precious pace: relaxed.  I returned home and started studying for my Italian “quiz.”  And then mid-studying, I decided I needed chocolate.  Every since I arrived in Italia, it’s been chocolate cake this and chocolate pudding that (and I’m not even a big fan of pudding).  So Megan and I ventured across the street to the Tabacchi. 

I took five euros.  She took two.  And we grabbed a working key this time (we had learned our lesson).  It was supposed to be a really quick trip and then back to the books. 

On the return, as I neared the front door to our apartment, Megan close behind me, I laughed, and jokingly commented, “Just watch; the door won’t open or something.” 

Or something.  I heard a slight jingle of metal.  And then silence.  There was no return laugh to my joke.  I almost turned around to berate her, encourage her to lighten up.

And she was just standing there, frozen, pale face, eyes wide in horror, gaze flickering down to the curb.  “They fell.”

And then I was laughing uncontrollably.  I didn’t know how else to react.  I collapsed against the side of the building and looked back.  “Tell me that did not just happen.  Please, Megan.”

She was sputtering.  “They just fell.  Slipped from my hand.  Didn’t even hit the side.  Just fell directly down into the rain gutter.  And it’s so small.  I don’t understand how that happened.” 

We crouched there, numb, peering into the gutter.  Megan rolled up her sleeve, and, with a slight grimace, reached her hand down.  “I can feel something.  I just can’t get past my elbow.”

She pulled out her arm.  It was caked with black.  I wrinkled my nose and left her fishing at the side of the road in search of another solution.

There is an auto repair shop across the street.  Unfortunately my Italian vocabulary doesn’t yet cover “keys” and “locked out” and “gutter.”  I knew the word for light (luce), and thought a flashlight might help, so I began to convey my request.  And the game of charades began.  I turned my hand, like opening a door with a key.  Then pointed to the ground as my face displayed the remnants of our initial horror.  I spread my arms wide and demonstrated using a long object to fish forth our keys.  And finally, moved my finger up and down, repeating luce, hoping that the idea of a flashlight was breaking through the language barrier.  And lastly, I pointed to Megan, who from the shop window could be seen bent of the side of the road as the gutter consumed her arm along with our keys.

They handed me a flashlight (success) and followed me out.  And then, with pliers, the nice mechanic man began to loosen the cover of the gutter.  And within a minute, our key was rescued.

An easy solution to a complicated problem.  All in the name of chocolate.

And unfortunately, lesson learned, I’m still craving chocolate cake.

Monday, September 27, 2010

There's something about Mondays.

It’s a Monday.  And I keep forgetting.

This morning, I rolled up my boyfriend jeans and slipped on my TOMs, my ipod charged, ready for the forty-five minute to class.  And then I looked outside—dark clouds, hanging so low they crowded the terracotta roof above the Tabacchi across the street.  Another grey and gloomy day.

Living in Seattle has given me a sixth sense.  Not necessarily to forecast bad weather, but to at least have the intelligence to take the proper gear.  In a last minute scramble, I dressed for the dreaded precipitation—RAIN. 

Cuffed jeans.  Check.  (Wet pant cuffs are the worst.)  Shoes I don’t care about. Check.  Raincoat AND umbrella.  Double check.  (Pays to be extra prepared.)

And now it’s one of those days, with an eerie and reminiscent taste of Seattle.  Raincoat on, messenger bag slung to one side, ipod in one ear.  Ray LaMontage starts to play. 

For some reason the mellow acoustic sound doesn’t mix well with the traffic noises and low murmur of voices.  But it’s a contradiction that gives me this unreal sense of surrealism.  Colors fade, everything is a bit washed out by the morning light and the reflection of the clouded sun on rainwater puddles. 
I put the other headphone in, and the world is completely silenced.

It’s with music like this---my pace slows as though I have nowhere to be.  I wait until the light turns green before crossing streets.  I fall in step with the elderly walking their grandchildren to school (this is the sweetest part about the culture here).  My heart rate is slow, my hands relaxed at my side.  And the clock is frozen. 

I passed a man with rolled up jeans like mine.  Except his reached mid-calf, and revealed pink and purpled striped socks.  He walked with a bit of a swagger, and pulled off his style with pride, as if intent on starting a new trend.  It was worth a smile.   

And then mid-walk, I stopped suddenly.  Along with the gloomy weather, I felt a moment of panic.  I was so distracted by the music and mood of the day that I had lost track of my route.  Am I heading the right direction?  I looked up at the street sign, gathering my whereabouts.  Via dei Servi.  Nope.  Right direction.  Mondays are always a shock back to reality.

At one point, I decided it was lunchtime.  As I pulled out my sandwich (turkey, provolone, lettuce, and tomato on whole wheat), I watched in horror as my prized cookie fell to the ground.   

Do ten second rules apply to the cobblestone streets of Florence?

I don’t feel like admitting if I ate my cookie or not.  But let’s put it this way:

It was my only cookie.

I’ve eaten worse. (?) Scorpion in China might count, I guess.

It’s kind of like a free immune system boost.

And it fell on a fairly “clean” cobblestone.  No puddle or trash cushioned its land. 

So you can draw your own conclusion.

As soon as class began, the rain came with full force.  We moved from one covered building to another, drawing twenty-minute sketches at each.

While sitting at Palazzi Strozzi, I had the prickly feeling of being watched.  An older gentleman sat behind me, learning forward, his elbows on his knees, peering over my shoulder in interest.  And when I turned towards him, he didn’t hide his invasive observation, but looked me straight in the eyes before continuing to gaze at my sketchbook in expectant interest, as though I had brought a rude halt to “his” entertainment.  I quickly braced myself to ignore the curiosity of the tourists.

And then a woman walked directly in front of me, her face inches from my own, personal space shattered and successfully blocking my view of “The Rape of the Sabine Woman,” the focus of my sculpture sketch.  She stared at my drawing, then peered around in interest at the sculptures.  And then her curious expression degraded to one of sheer perplexion.  No, I was not drawing from my imagination.  I made an exaggerated motion of leaning to the side to look behind her.  And naturally, she followed suit.  A moment of understanding passed over her face.  She looked at the sketch; she looked behind her; she gazed at the sketch again.  But she didn’t move.  I waited patiently.  Set down my pencil.  Folded my arms.  The message was silent, but loud, and insistently polite (I hope).  And instantly, my view was clear again.  Lesson learned:  Body language supersedes the spoken tongue.

Even though it bursts at the seams with high levels of curiosity, Palazzi Strozzi is a beautiful place to sit and draw.  Classical guitarists and musicians play on the corner.  The tourists stare up at David in awe, surprising silent.  I wonder how many know that they are gazing at a copy of the original?  Yes, Michelangelo’s David used to stand there, but to preserve it from the elements, they rigged a set of a tracks that weaved through the city, rolling in into the Accademia, its current home. 

And David, the real one, is still on my list to see.

Friday, September 24, 2010

White paper and tape.

My digital photography class is unstable.  Our second assignment was to focus on light, the use of aperture, and human characteristics: face, hands, feet.  For each assignment, we are required to shoot one hundred, two hundred plus photos before choosing ten finals to submit. 

Upon arriving at class today, I already felt uneasy.  My professor walked in with his hair cut to his chin, his beard trimmed, and announced, “I’m in a bastard of a mood.”

As he worked his way around the room, you could hear his general dissatisfaction with the overall work of the class.

Why do you take these pictures?  This, I like; this, is terrible.  No, get rid of this.  Why always bicycles and pigeons?  Why would you take this picture; what were you thinking?  Why is your iso speed 1600?!  Where is the poetry?  Why did you crop out his little finger?
With a paper and tape method, he silently chooses his candidates, tagging their computers.  Those lucky few get to stand in front of the class and fight for their work.  And by fight, I mean argue why their picture should not be digitally deleted.

I displayed my work last week (following our assignment theme of “home”).  And while I was not publicly crucified, his only photo of choice was a simple shot of my staircase and our laundry drying.  I liked the piece for the lines, the natural light, and clean color palette.  He liked it for the crack in the wall.  “It makes the entire picture good.”  Oh.

This week, he questioned each person, “Did you show your photos last week?”  And trying to be fair, he gave opportunities for those critique virgins to participate. 

When he came to my computer, he flipped violently through my photos, at a speed too fast, I thought, to really get a glimpse of the pictures.  And then he asked me:

 “Did you show yours last week?”

“Yes, yes I did.”  I was so relieved.  A lucky break.

“Ok.” And then he leaned down and taped a small piece of white paper to my glowing Apple screen.

“Simone, I showed my photos last week.”  For some reason, I felt the need to remind him, as if he hadn’t heard me the first time.   (This morning, he called me “Brick.”  And when I corrected him “Brie,” he looked at me, gave a slight smile, shrugged, and repeated “Brick.”)  So maybe he just hadn’t heard.

“Yes, yes.  But I like the light.”  And he moved on.

It wasn't too painful a process.  He chose a couple photos he liked, said the light was good, the idea was strong.  I survived.  I survive.  Until next week. 

Next assignment: Street photography.    

Thursday, September 23, 2010

A grandmother in mauve.

On my way to the antique shops, I passed by an elderly woman.  She was standing at the foot of an intricately carved wooden door.  I was drawn to her quiet presence.  She had a sort of maternal appeal, as though she had successfully raised many children and was content to bask in the glory of her grandchildren. 

A mauve (the sort of grandmother dusty rose color) blazer hung on her thin shoulders and was accented quite elegantly by a string of white pearls at her throat.  She hugged her elbows close to her sides as though providing some sort of protection from the elements.  (Although, it was a balmy, warm afternoon.) Her hands, folded delicately, one on top of the other, with long slender and bony fingers, clasped a silver wallet.  She was beautiful.

And she was laughing, her gaze focused on the ground, her eyes following something.  And naturally, I looked down too, hoping to find what so avidly held her attention.

An ordinary pigeon, like all pigeons in Florence, darted back and forth at her feet, pecking at invisible morsels of food.  It had the common grey and white coloring, but like the woman, had a sort of rosy pink cast to its feathers.  (Ironic, that they shared this this color, this maternal characteristic, the one that first drew me to the woman.  And I really despise pigeons.) 

But something about its antics caught me, as though I was able to see it through her eyes.  And I paused to stop and watch it with her.

When I looked up to continue on my way, she was staring at me, her eyes crinkled so deeply they nearly disappeared.  Her lips shaped in the most amused and somehow, grateful, of smiles, as though, by stopping to watch the pigeon, I had shared in something personal with her. 

And I walked past her, between her and the pigeon, following her gaze with my eyes, until I could no longer without physically turning to face her.  But just before I turned my head forward, a few fingers lifted from their perch atop her silver purse.

Perhaps she was merely resituating her hands to continue her wait by the door.  Or, I’d like to think of it as a wave, that since the exchange, we were more than strangers, but friends, brought together by the most common of birds.  

Baking catastrophes.

After finally finding the necessary ingredients: flour, sugar, baking powder, eggs, butter, and the like, cookies seemed like the first natural thing to make.  And, after discovering cocoa in the drink aisle, Chocolate Crinkles were an obvious choice.  (My favorite part about chocolate crinkles are their appearance.  You roll the dark chocolate dough in powdered sugar, and as they bake, the white layer begins to crack creating dark “crinkles.”) 

The mixing of the ingredients was based on estimates.  That looks like a cup.  That should be about a quarter cup.  Four eggs.  Easy.  And the dough looked about right.  So now to chill.

And then the concerns began.

This doesn’t look right.  Put it in the freezer.  It still doesn’t look right.  It’ll do.  Don’t put them so close together.  No, they’ll rise.  Megan, they are running together.  We’ll cut them apart.  It’s starting to look like brownies.  What should we do with the extra batter?  Just plop it on top.  How long should it bake?  I have no idea.  Here, sprinkle some more powdered sugar on top.  Why? I don’t know; I’m improvising.
And then the final product.  Some sort of really thin, fluffy brownies, not at all like the cookies I remember.  But I properly powdered them with sugar, so in my mind, they were perfect. 

Our most recent purchase since: a plastic measuring cup.  Maybe next time we’ll have better results.    


It’s laughable.  I should be above it.  Or immune to it.  Or perhaps just calloused enough not to notice.  But there is something unsettling about replacing the old and the comfortable with a new familiarity.  It’s like having to part with that worn-out, favorite pair of shoes that show no hint of “wearable distinction.”  And then replace them with a new pair, that hold potential, but look entirely too clean and pristine.

Comparing the rugged beauty of Seattle with the richness of Florence is unfair.  And at first, I was too inclined the assume the position of “tourist”: to give a cursory glance over the Duomo, gaze up at the copy of Michelangelo’s David guarding the entrance to Palazzi Vecchio, and snap a few shots of the Arno River at sunset.  Nearing the month mark of my stay in Florence has switched my perspective.  I cannot play tourist any longer now that the “newness” has begun to fade.

It’s at this point you start to notice the simple, easily missed repeats.  The garish graffiti of purple and black that coat the warm, yellow building facades.  The strange baby mannequins, with realistic rolls and wrinkles, in the window of the clothing store.  The fur store with cloaks resembling the White Witch’s attire in Chronicles of Narnia.  The man with a salt and pepper beard diligently grinding heels and fixing shoes from his storefront window.  The Tetris blocks of cobblestone that don’t seem to always fit together quite right, a piece missing here and there. 

Since my arrival in Florence, I’ve had to make some concessions.  Most are of little importance, but, to be fair, when in a state of “homesickness,” trivial things seem magnified. 

1. Peanut Butter. And apple slices with peanut butter.  A stellar combination.  They have peanut butter in “international” grocery stores, but at 6 Euro for a tiny jar, it’s severely taking advantage of my American craving.  And, upon closer inspection, you will find it’s a poor substitute—hastily mixed ground peanuts and oil (with perhaps a pinch of salt).  George Washington Carver would be offended.

2.  Starbucks.  Starbucks is really missing out on an Italian monopoly.  “Coffee to go” with recyclable cups and cozies would forever change Florentine culture.  And it’s not that I want to really change anything, but on my forty-five minute walk to class, a steaming cup of heaven would nicely compliment the soundtrack of speeding scooters and the near-death moments of side-stepping buses and misjudging traffic. 

3.  Index Cards. Supposedly, supposedly, they are sold here.  Somewhere.  But that’s just a myth floating around.  My sticky note plan is not a complete fail, but due to the thin quality of sticky notes, I must constantly remind myself not to read through the translucent yellow squares and cheat at my own self-imposed “must be fluent in Italian” regiment.  And there is something about index cards that scream intelligence; I feel as if by just holding them in my hands, I’ve already achieved half of my studying.  It’s revolutionary, I know.

4.  Eavesdropping.  A strange loss to mention, I know.  But rarely do I find this source of entertainment in English.  And it’s not that I’m nosy, but sometimes I crave my native tongue.  And after nearly a month of hearing everything but English, I fallen in the habit of getting lost in my own, English, thoughts.  To a point, that it catches me off guard when someone actually speaks to me.  On my way to class, an Asian tourist with a British accent asked me for directions to the Uffizi.  It took me a minute to kick my mind into gear: I can understand him, I realized.  And then, without premeditation, I began to speak to him in broken English, short phrases, and a couple Italian words thrown in for fun.


“I’m looking for. The. Uffizi.” He pronounced the last two words very deliberately. Probably thought my English wasn’t very good.  I smiled.

“Allora.  Keep walking.  Fifteen.  Twenty minutes.”  I waved my hands for emphasis in the direction of the museum.

“That close?”

“Uhh. Walk fast…?”

“Oh.  I’m a very slow walker.” He laughed nervously.

“Twenty minutes.”  I gave him a slight, affirmative nod. 

A slight pause.  “Are you going to. The. Uffizi?”  Again with the strange emphasis.  At this point, I had started to replace my headphones in the ear closest to him as he attempted to keep up with my pace.  I wasn’t trying to be rude, but walking along the Arno River is a danger zone of tourists.  (They disembark the buses with force, the inertia of the ride ploughing them into any unsuspecting persons, such as myself.  I had learned to brace myself for walk, and music was part of this.)  Plus, what a strange and personal and completely irrelevant question.   

“No. Class.”  And I left him behind in my wake.  Poor guy.  I should have told him thirty minutes.  He did walk very slow.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Cappuccino tuesdays.

Carmel and I have started this tradition of finding a new coffee shop to try every Tuesday mornings before class.  Our choice this week was based on its visual appeal (ie: it looked cute), and we found that the coffee matched: it was excellent! (especially according to Carmel, the resident barista).  In Italy, coffee “to go” doesn’t exist.  And it might even be frowned upon.  Italians enjoy their coffee standing at the bar, socializing with the baristas and other customers.  They take their time, adding sugar, sipping slowly, considering their surroundings.  There is no rush. 

Payment is not received until after this process is complete.  In fact, it would be quite simple for one to walk out of a crowded bar without having paid at all.  But this is not their culture, unlike the US where you pay first and then wait as they prepare your drink. 

A cappuccino costs 1,10 Euro and the money is collected at a cash register at the far end of the café.  An honor system, you simply repeat what you ordered and hand over the correct change before leaving. 
Following our weekly tradition, we explored the streets of our neighborhood, already having discovered two more café’s that we would like to try as well as the cutest bakery, filled to the brim with pane (bread), cornetto (croissants), pizza, and more. 

We have recently discovered a fresh food market just around the corner from our home.  In addition to the tables of fruit and vegetables outside and the collection of fresh meat and cheese inside, tables and tables are covered with garage sale finds, from clothes (especially bras, underwear, and boxers…not really sure why these are such a common articles) to household goods to furniture.

And lastly, our stop for the morning, the plant stand.  Italians have an affinity for gardens and greenery.  Perhaps this is because there are few trees or grassed areas in the city.  On any street in Florence, you need only to look up and see the dozens of potted plants that hang over the edge of railings or are balanced precariously on roof ledges.  Some rooftops boast complete gardens with tomatoes, bright flowers, and small trees.  Carmel purchased a little peach potted flower for our own balcony.  Perhaps our attempt to promote nature will help us better fit in with the Florentine community. 

Today I became an even bigger part of the Florentine community (beyond that of purchasing and raising plants) by volunteering as an English tour guide for the four Cathedrals of the Historical Center: Cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore (Duomo Cathedral), San Lorenzo, Santa Maria Novella, and Santa Croce.  Ars et Fides Firenze is part of an international association through the archbishop of Florence that promotes the sharing of church and art history to visitors from around the world.  Basically: they provide the training, and I provide the free tours in perfect English.  As a student of art history, I am beyond excited to learn more about this city (and, I have to admit, I’m kind of excited to wear the fancy little microphone :-P). 

Another day in Firenze complete, I am sitting in my room, the squished mosquito still on the wall behind me, reading from my textbook “History of Italian Renaissance Art,” and feel entirely blessed to be here.

my home, the attic.

Mosquito wallpaper.

I’ve been fighting jetlag like the plague.  I stay awake for hours past the typical bedtime, my mind racing through a million things.  But finally, for the first time since my arrival in Florence, the clock read 10:30 pm and I was ready to turn out the lights to sleep.

And then, I woke up at 2:30 in the morning only to turn them on again!  The room was still, but I could hear it loud and clear.  This annoying little buzzing noise.  Un zanzara (mosquito)!  It was nestled on my pillow directly next to my ear.  Perhaps it was innocently and quietly snoring.  Or maybe it was eyeing me as its next meal, debating where to land.  Either way (even though I tend to gravitate towards the latter) it was disturbing my sleep!

Now let’s be honest.  Doing laundry in Italy is a process.  The washing part is simple, but drying something takes time.  Especially if you come home from class to find your clothes and sheets soaked with off-colored rainwater and have to start the process all over again.  So option #1: “Squish mosquito against pillow” was out. 

And for option #2, “squish mosquito between hands,” I was at a slight disadvantage.  Waking up so startled had temporarily dampened my motor skills.  I nudged my pillow, causing my prey to lift into the air, and then proceeded to clap like an idiot several times in an attempt to kill it.  The noise of my hands hitting each other broke the silence of the room, cutting through my sleep-filled foggy mind, and I could feel my frustration mounting.

The mosquito landed on the wall in front of me, challenging me (or maybe it was laughing at me).  In our orientation seminars, we learned about Italian walls. Made of plaster, they are very susceptible to cracks and staining.  One of the leaders from our program made it very clear: do not smash bugs against the walls; you’ll have to pay for paint.  However, at this point, all reason went out the window as I resorted to option #3: “squish mosquito against wall.”  And smack.  It was dead.  Stuck to the wall in all its glory, antennas and legs sticking out at odd angles.

And it was still there when I woke up in the morning (and is still there tonight), my very own mosquito wallpaper, warning to the other Italian insects: Don’t mess with me.  I’ve had enough! Basta!!

the evidence.

Tuscan vino.

Tuscany was a relief.  Quiet and green, it was a much needed vacation from the hectic and busy streets of Florence.  The countryside was a bit repetitive, but before you think I’m ungrateful, consider this.  Our bus driver, a Tuscan tour guide, felt it all the looked the same too.  Even with signs pointing towards Pienza, our first destination, he still drove an hour out of his way before realizing his mistake and turning around.  And then the green rolling hills and vineyards were the same for the entire hour back to Firenze.  From there, we began our original two hour drive to Pienza, a small town located south of Siena.
Pienza is known for its cheese, especially pecorino formaggio, one the best in Italy.  Aged from two to twelve months, the most famous pecorino cheese is “sotto cenere” or “under the ashes,” and is aged in such a manner to give it a wonderful smoky flavor.  Our tour of the town included a cheese tasting of four different pecorino cheeses, the sweetest and mildest aged only a couple months and the strongest and harshest aged over a year.  Our vote: right in the middle, around six months is perfect, with just the amount of flavor while still remaining soft and moist.

From there, we traveled to Azienda Agricola Bindella in Montepulciano for lunch, a wine tasting, and a tour of the vineyard.  The food was simple but eagerly received (Especially after our slight detour, it was definitely needed.  I went through two granola bars and a kit-kat bar on the bus. With all the walking here, food is essential!)  Bruschetta, fresh cheese, rice with olives and tomatoes, and some other baked goods lined the table.  And as soon as we entered, they started pouring wine.  The first, a light and fruity vino rosso (red wine) was served with lunch.  And then when a lemon torte appeared, a stronger red wine was introduced, “Bindella,” my favorite of the wine tasting.  As the meal finished, a third wine made its rounds, very dry and very strong.  At that point, my plate was empty and the strength of the wine was hard to stomach without food.
Our resort, Borgo Pian dei Mucini in Massa Marittima was in the middle of green and more green, absolutely breathtaking.  The rooms were simple and comfortable.  I was with three other girls from the program, one a classmate in my Florence Sketchbook class.  After turning in for the night (early to bed according to most standards), I left the only key on the front table of our room, expecting the girls to lock it behind them when they returned for the evening.

At three in the morning, we all woke in a panic.  Two Italian men had broken into our unlocked hotel room.  One of the girls slammed the door shut on them, holding it shut against their advances as we rushed around, looking for the key.  Once it was locked, we wedged a chair under the handle (which wouldn’t have done a thing really) and took a moment to regroup.  #1: Lock your hotel door.  It’s simple really.  But really important!  #2: Hotels in Italy don’t have fancy phones with buttons that say “front desk.”  So if by chance something does goes wrong, you have no choice but to return to bed and resolve it in the morning.  And we did.  The other girls were upgraded to a villa, and I remained in the “dangerous” room for the second night with Carmel and Megan.  And just for the record, I locked the door and no one broke in!  What a miracle.

Day two included visits to Pitigliano and Sovana.
Pitigliano is a work of art.  Completely built of “tufa”, a variety of limestone native to the region, the little town of Pitigliano rose out of the mountain, one seeming to blend into the other with little distinction.  Protected by three rivers at its base, this castle-mountain city was refined by the Renaissance art movement, blending paint and stone and Roman aqueducts to create a protected and isolated little town free from the modernity and graffiti of Firenze.  Yet there was a sense of entrapment, with cliffs on every side plunging into forest below and only one road leading out.  The castle town, while beautiful, felt forbidden and strange, almost ghost-like.  Streets seemed deserted.  Houses were quiet.  And no kids played in the road.  I was almost relieved to leave.

From there, we stopped for a short while (meaning ten minutes, no more no less!, compliments of more detours and time delays) in Sovana.  We really didn’t get a chance to explore this little town.  I saw the inside of a bar and a church, and wandered down this back street, following signs to a “WC” or “bagno.”  My impression of the town: I have absolutely no idea, but I would love to go back if given the chance.

Our final day was spent at the beach.  Men in speedos loitered around.  Rocks littered the sand.  And the weather was perfect. Carmel, Megan, and I, along with two of our friends (or perhaps only close friends on the trip), Cody and Kait Raak, ventured down a gravel path in search of a pizzeria.  On Sundays, closing times and opening times are a bit confusing.  Many restaurants are closed at the typical lunch/dinner period.  As we followed the strange signs around corner after corner in search of food, we started to question our actions: Was there really a pizzeria? Would it be open? And what kind of food does it serve if it takes ten minutes of backpacking through the woods to reach it?  However, despite our hesitancies, the pizzeria was indeed open for business, with clean facilities and good food.  The five of us split two pizzas, quite proud for finding a “local” spot.  We were all convinced other students would be boarding the bus hungry for the return trip.

As we made our way back to the beach to collect rocks and find gelato, we stumbled upon the main road of the little beach town and the rest of the American students.  They were not going hungry at all, but had at their fingertips dozens of open establishments serving food, gelato, drinks, and snacks.  Our pride was shattered. 

On this street we discovered the best gelateria yet.  For 2 Euro, I got a cone piled high with three types of gelato: Mascarpone (a sweet cheese), Cioccolato Fondente (dark chocolate), and Pesca (peach).  The combination was delicious. 

We walked home that night and had a most unbalanced meal of cheesy penne pasta, garlic potatoes, and green beans, the remaining contents of our fridge and pantry.

Me, Megan, Carmel, Kait

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Cough drop candy.

I’m not super big into vitamins.  I realize that they are important, but I tend to take them in waves.  I’ll remember and advise myself, Brie, be healthy, and not miss a single day for weeks.  And then, I’ll skip a couple doses, start feeling guilty, and slowly it will trickle off into nothing.  Of course, as I packed for Italy, I was in a healthy mood and counted out the exact number of vitamins to last until December 20th, my last day in Florence.  I sealed them in Ziploc bags, wrote down their names in Sharpies (so the airport wouldn’t be suspicious, I guess), and packed all five pounds of them in my bag.  Five pounds.  And now, I’m here.  And my guilty conscience is nagging at the back of my mind to not skip a day.  Because here’s the problem: Vitamins are expensive and heavy.  If I don’t take the vitamins everyday, I have to transport the extras back to the states.  And that leaves less room for the art supplies and books I’ve had to purchase.  So I’m slowly wading my way through the sea of pills, hoping that possibly, for some reason, I miscounted. 

And after vitamins, I am left with medicine.  I brought along a compact first aid kit with band-aids, Neosporin, Ibuprofen, Sudafed, some Emergen-Cs, cough drops/throat lozengers, etc.  I started to get the beginnings of a sore throat a few days ago (I think it might be the air, everyone smokes), and sat there, debating whether I should take some meds.  Normally at home, I tend to wait for a while until I make the decision to self-medicate.  My general attitude is to tough it out or wait until I’m as sick as a dog.  But, again, that first aid kit took up a good deal of room in my suitcase.  So I’ve been happily eating my cough drops like candy, and am relieved to say that the sore throat has almost completely disappeared.  Who knows?  They might have just done the trick.

Sticky notes.

It has been a crazy few days.
I’ve been chasing classes, supplies, and textbooks all over the city.
I’ve signed up for meetings and accumulated enough handouts and forms to start a small fire. 
And it hasn’t stopped yet.

Mixed Media class was a disaster.  A glorified paper collage studio for aspiring contemporary artists, the six hour class seemed never-ending.  And when the professor mentioned our 100 plus Euro class fee for supplies, I knew the answer.  Drop the class.  I haven’t quite accepted this loss and spent some time researching replacement options such as “Pairing Food and Wine” or “Travel Writing.”  However, no matter what I decide, I can’t seem to escape the enormous class fees and cost of supplies.  With my other four classes, I won’t have enough funds to sponsor museum visits and day trips to surrounding cities.  And that is part of the reason why Florence, and Italy itself, attracted me.  The history and culture is free (not monetarily of course) to explore, but I need to have some time and energy left over after classes to walk the extra mile or two. 

Italian class is fresh and fun.  The prof, a 27 year old Florentine, with spiky bleach blonde hair and a thick accent, is very relaxed in his teaching style.  Our assignment for next class: “Write some numbers.”  We asked, “What do you mean? What kind of numbers?”  He only repeated, “Write some numbers, in Italian.”  He already forgot about our textbook, spending his time pointing to objects, making us guess their spelling, laughing at our attempts, and then writing their names on the board.  The only problem is the discrepancies in these words.  For example, during one class, he placed both his hands under his head, closed his eyes, and rattled off a word in Italian.  For the entire hour and a half, I juggled my Italian-English dictionary in one hand and a pen in the other and tried to keep up, feeling completely overwhelmed. Did he mean “to sleep” or “tired”?  And when he pointed to the clock, was it the word for “clock” or for “time”?  Since I have pages and pages in my notebook of new words to learn, I decided to make note cards to aid the memorization process.  However, after walking through a half dozen school supply shops and paper stores, I have resorted to the sad truth: Italy doesn’t have index cards.  Therefore, in the coming week, my room shall be properly sticky noted.  A sticky note for every new Italian word.

**Side note.  My new word of the day is “fede,” which means both faith and wedding ring in Italian.  It interesting to learn about a culture based on word connections.  Perhaps this describes an Italian view of marriage under the umbrella of the church?

When purchasing school supplies, I also found Italian copies of “Green Eggs and Ham” (a Dr. Suess favorite) and Disney’s “Lady and the Tramp” (it takes place in Italy with the cute meatball scene, classic).  These are to become my nighttime challenges: to slowly read through them out loud, looking up unfamiliar words as I go (which would be every word right now) until I can read them without hesitation. 

Lastly, my art history course, “Renaissance Art in Florence” was absolutely amazing.  My prof is a dream come true.  She sat calmly in front of us, hands folded, legs crossed, and began to talk, weaving stories of ancient Florence and the birth of humanism.  I was captivated.  I only managed one page of notes in the entire two and half hours.  Our class meets in museums and cathedrals around Florence and the surrounding cities, stressing an idea that art should be learned outside of the lecture hall, forcing students to engage and participate in the art itself.  It makes art so much more of a surprise, to see what was once a colored picture in a textbook as something tactile and real with three dimensions, a length and a width and a height.  Unless you are able to perfectly envision the piece in your mind, how are you to understand the purpose and influence of art if you don’t know whether it is three stories tall or three inches tall?  David (the fake one standing in the Piazza) was definitely taller than I had imagined.  Our prof, with short spiky gray hair (again with the short spiky hair, I don’t know), was excited about these opportunities to see everything firsthand.  And let’s face it, art history can be extremely dull if you have the wrong person teaching it.  I am beyond thankful to have been gifted with a professor who has a passion for her career.

And then, Digital Photography is my last unknown, my other six hour studio taking place in the digital media lab of Via Magliabechi 1.  Thankfully, there is a really good and inexpensive caffe’ down the street for our break (that is, if we get a break?).

Monday, September 6, 2010

A green David.


First day of class.  Yes, the profs speak English.  But it is incredibly hard to understand them.  My first class was Florence Sketchbook.  It takes advantage of the city, the architecture, gardens, and beauty of Florence, and allows us to use different medium and emotion to capture it.  Or so the class description said. 

I was slightly dubious of the class at the start when a book and vase was placed on the desk beside me.  I thought, Oh no, here we go again with the still-lifes.  As I angrily drew the items beside me, I started scheduling in my head when I would go to the front office to cancel the torture.  Don’t get me wrong, still-life has its place, but in a beautiful city, it isn’t my intention to sit inside and miss it all. 

Thankfully, the man instructing us was not our prof.  She came an hour late.  And I love her.  All smiles and extremely helpful, she outlined our syllabus, setting up the semester for us.  Still-lifes are only for the rainy days.  And even then, she would rather us go to a museum to draw than sit in the studio.  The class will use graphite, charcoal, pastels, watercolors, Chinese ink, gouache, and more.  Definitely beyond the simple HB graphite pencil I had been given.

As I read through the class supply list, I realized I have nearly everything required.  Minor detail.  It’s all locked in a storage unit in Seattle.  Art supplies are expensive.  Although I had no way of knowing exactly what I would need.  Guess I have a lot of drawing and painting to do.

The pictures are from our night stroll last night to the Piazzale Michelangiolo which overlooks the city and has its own David (a green David, that is).  We hiked up to the top just in time to see the sun set.  There was a bar (doesn’t just serve alcohol, but is almost the American equivalent of a caffe with sandwiches, gelato, and snacks) and quite a few vendors in the area.  One restaurant with seating overlooking the entire city was playing Frank Sinatra and other smooth jazz classics.  Couples and families sat all over the stairs, some with picnic dinners or wine, enjoying the music and the view.  It was so peaceful, above the city noise of bars (the ones serving only alcohol, confusing, I know), scooters, and cars.  

The fire department and their red truck.


It was Saturday night.  We had planned a nice dinner.  Bruschetta with tomatoes and palamato olives.  Turkey and green beans sautéed with red peppers.  We had splurged and bought a bottle of lemon iced tea instead of the usual “aqua naturale” (still water). The meal went well.  A few minor bumps here and there: some of the bruschetta got burnt (still getting used to the stove) and the turkey was over-peppered (really really strong pepper).  And then for dessert we bought ice cream sandwiches at the supermarket.  Our big spender of the meal, they were brand-name “Nestle.”  And they tasted like sawdust.  Feeling undettered by the poor end of our own “welcome dinner,” we decided to go out for gelato as well as buy “bigliettos” or tickets for the bus in the morning. 

It was supposed to be a quick trip.  Both destinations were within our neighborhood, one across the street, the other two blocks down.  I stuffed a 10 Euro bill in my pocket and grabbed one of the extra keys, a copy we had made, from the table.  The girls followed with some money of their own.  We left behind IDs and cellphones.  I mean, who were we going to call on such a short trip?

Italian doors are anti-theft masterpieces.  As soon as you close the door behind you, a key is needed to open the automatic deadbolt.  Locking the door requires two turns to the left, which slides another four deadbolts into place.  When I turned around to lock our apartment, I realized, with an incredulous laugh, that I could neither lock the door nor open it.  We stood there silent for a minute until the frenzy began of shaking the door, wiggling the key, and feeling the panic of what had happened beginning to rise.  We assessed the situation.  We had fallen into the habit of locking the windows when we leave as well, just in case.  Even if we could climb up to our second story balcony (which we considered), there would be no way to get in.  Essentially, we were locked out, with a key.

During orientation, we were told that even if we were locked out, it is not considered an emergency.  We ought to find a hotel room for the night and call the school in the morning for assistance.  Only problem was that we only had around thirty Euros between us.  And none of us had passports which you are required to produce upon check-in.  Italy has a strict anti-terrorist law that everyone staying overnight in the country must submit to the government where they are staying.  If you stay at a hotel, the hotel will send copies of your passport to the police.  No overnight guests are allowed unless the owner of the house or lessee of the apartment takes on the task of reporting to the police on their own.  Thus, legally, we could not stay at a hotel.  In the back of my mind, I had just pictured us all sleeping in the stairwell for the night.

We walked across the street to the Tabacchi, trying to explain to the man, who had a limited English vocabulary, how we were locked out even though I held the key.  It is really difficult to explain, especially when my prized English to Italian phrasebook was locked in the apartment.  He replied in short phrases, “Left. Walk two. Left. 5 meters!”  We left, all of us wondering where his instructions were leading us; we missed that in the exchange.  Unfortunately, the final destination, a locksmiths shop, had closed ten minutes prior to our arrival.  Typical.

We had passed a hotel named “Hotel Jane” on the way and figured an establishment catering to foreigners and Americans might have someone who spoke a little more fluent English.  The woman inside was beyond helpful.  First, before she took any action, she asked us a series of questions: “Are you sure that is the key to your apartment?”, “Do you have the right apartment?”, “Does your door have two locks?”.  We weren’t idiots, but perhaps we looked the part.  Unfortunately, the fire department in Italy, much like America, cannot open a residence unless the inhabitants can show legal representation that they live there.  Umm.  That too was locked inside. 

Lastly, she gave up here reasoning and called the fire department, explaining the situation.  We would have to provide passports and our apartment contract as soon as they opened the door.  We waited outside our apartment on the front stoop for the “big red truck” to arrive.  I remember feeling slightly uneasy about the whole thing, racking my brain, trying to remember where in the world I had stashed my passport and the housing contract.  It was a really safe location, I thought at least, but with the mixture of jetlag and overall exhaustion, I couldn’t quite remember. 

Finally, help arrived.  Six men in full gear crowded our stairwell, chattering in Italian and smiling, or maybe it was laughing (?), at us.  Not one of them spoke English.  I held up the key, and the leader of the pack looked at me as though I had lost my mind, until he tried for himself.  I could only imagine my embarrassment if, for him, the door had opened.  I was glad, for the first time, that it has remained locked and kept us honest.  The experts shook the door, just like us, realizing that it wasn’t locked but just shut.  Then they produced a plastic folder and slide it up between the doors, rattling the handles a bit more, and opening the doors.  Just like that. 

My passport happened to be in the first place I looked.  I’m glad that I know myself well enough to answer the question, “If I were to hide something really important, where would I put it?”

We took a minute to de-panic before gearing ourselves up for the anticipated gelato.  This time, we all took keys, cellphones, IDs, and a good supply of cash.  Let’s just say we’ve learned our lesson.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Ponte Vecchio at night.

Our walk along the Arno River to Ponte Vecchio gave us a spectacular view of the sunset.  Blues, purples, and pinks outlined the cityscape and mixed with the city lights.  Ponte Vecchio (Ponte meaning bridge) is the oldest Florentine bridge of the eight spanning the Arno River.  Ponte Vecchio is an ancient structure, reconstructed from its own salvaged parts after the Nazis destroyed it in 1944.  It’s original structure, however, was built in 1220 by the Romans, part of the ancient road, Via Cassia, which led to Rome.  During the Middle Ages, it housed the center for leather goods as well as fresh fish and meat.   However, due to the horrible stench, fishmongers and butchers were evicted from the bridge by Ferdinand de’ Medici and replaced with a more refined market, jewelry, in his efforts to promote the important of artisans and their trades throughout Florence.  Crossing this bridge enters a visitor into another world—the Hollywood of Firenze.  High-class wine bars, specialty stores, and restaurants with beautiful views of the city line the streets.