Arno River, Firenze, Italia

Arno River, Firenze, Italia

Sunday, October 31, 2010

There was a tornado.

October 22, 2010

A tornado swept through my room.  It scattered papers on the floor.  It gathered dust bunnies in the corners.  It left behind a trail of books and sticky note lists.  It was an absolute disaster.

And then as quickly as it arrived, it left.  Four days, and I was left staring at the mess.  In complete shock.

Such is the tone of midterms. 

So here I am, repairing the damage from storm.  Refolding clothes.  Doing laundry.  (Regretfully watching my only sweatshirt struggle to dry, after three days.)  Cleaning bathrooms.  Scrubbing floors.  Windexing mirrors.  Putting everything back in its rightful place.  And placating myself with the ugly truth that sometimes life takes over.  One priority supersedes all others, and you consequently have no choice but to wait until the balance returns.  Or in this case, scrub the 3x3 white tile floor until every speck of dust and dirt is gone, and it’s all at peace again.

Along with the storm of midterms came the cold.  They walked in together, uninvited, hand in hand, much too comfortable in “my” home.  The apartment is still without heat for another two weeks, the temperature dipping below 60 at night, the damp air soaking into the plaster walls and coating the tile floors.

And so I boil water for tea, or just to heat my hands from the steam.  I regret military showers, for as soon as the hot water stops, the cold seeps in with extreme insistence.  I feel chilled to the bone.  I sleep with as many layers as I can comfortably manage, waking up at regular intervals to readjust the covers that I’ve thrown off in my sleep. 

But despite the cold and the tornado, I’ve survived.  I finished. 

The highs of the week:

Of my two-midterm projects for Florence sketchbook, my graphite drawing of San Lorenzo was chosen, the only submission from our class, for our school’s exhibition in November.  Below are pictures of my two finished midterm assignments (which are currently stuffed in a folder in the art building, much to my alarm…). The first is of the paw of a lion statue that guards the loggia in Piazza della Signora.  You can see part of Palazzi Vecchio in the background.  The second is the chosen piece, a graphite drawing of San Lorenzo, a cathedral renovated by Brunelleschi for Cosimo de' Medici.  

Lion Paw of Piazza della Signora, Firenze, Italia

San Lorenzo, Firenze, Italia

My digital photography midterm was successful, if not long.  I arrived at nine in the morning and didn’t get home until five that evening (we were told that if we left, we would fail).  But the prof, Simone, seemed pleased with my work.  Our exam was in-class, under pressure; we had two hours to shoot and one hour to edit our photos before a private critique with Simone.  The theme for the shoot was inspirational song lyrics, a photo to correspond with each phrase of a song.  Below are my prof’s favorites from my visual interpretation of “Beautiful Day” by U2

You're on the road

You're in the mud

But you love this town
As well as few black and white portraits submitted for the "Strangers and Portrait" section of my midterm.  Although I was nervous at first, this project has been my favorite so far.  

And now for a week of traveling and new memories.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Nobody likes loose change.

I came to Italy with a messenger bag.  And I take it everywhere.  It’s perfect for school, fits my laptop and books.

But when it comes to those fast errands or sightseeing, I must look like quite a sight.  Messenger bag on one hip, camera case (which is awkwardly large and squeaks) hanging from the other shoulder, my Camelbak waterbottle slapping against my leg as I walk, my ipod cord tangled in the numerous straps around my chest.  And when I get to my destination, I always forget which layer to remove first, creating quite a scene, before dumping everything on the floor in a tangled mess.

So I decided to buy a purse (side satchel is a better name), something very small to fit my wallet (with the necessary safety zipper to protect against pick-pocketers), and, that coupled with my camera bag, just might lessen my status as “socially awkward” or, even worse, “tourist.”

I had ten minutes before my cathedral tour training at Sante Croce.  I was all business, running around, brushing past people, gathering information, learning prices.  The lowest offer was 20 Euros (the original starting prices were all over 30 Euros).  I offered him 15, but he brushed me aside.  I had 20 Euros.  I could spend 20 Euros (I mean, it was a sheep skin leather satchel).  But I didn’t want to spend 20 Euros.
So I stepped away from the market and began distributing all my change throughout the pockets of my jeans.  5 cents here, couple 10s there, a 1 Euro in this pocket, and so forth. 

When I approached the stand, I started the act, the clock ticking as I worked my magic.  (Forgive me if you think this is unfair, but I’m positive 15 Euros was an adequate offer.)  I pointed to the same bag I had viewed before, first revealing a ten Euro bill to the shop owner and then a couple 2 Euro coins, increasing the contents of my open hand to 14 Euros.  And then I began dramatically digging through the pockets of my jeans, juggling my bags, as I “searched” for more money.  I acted apologetic, continually recounting my offer.

The shop owner’s face was a range of emotions, first slight annoyance and then growing amusement before settling on alarm.  He stopped me at 17 Euros, waving his hands, saying “Basta basta!”  I left the other 3 Euros of change to rest in my pocket. 

You see, nobody likes loose change.  And this simple fact about any denomination, Euros or USD, saved me 3 Euros!

It was a good day.  

Wednesday, October 6, 2010


Night at the Piazza Il Duomo in Ortigia.

Wrapped up in cannolis, handcrafted in almonds, and ground up in granita is Sicily.

My first experience of this Sicilian culture: the airport.  And not just for arrivals and departures.  Waiting for a delayed plane in Italy is like watching something grow.  Always that question in the back of your mind: is this a waste of time?  So we waited, wandering around, thoroughly scouring the half dozen stores and wondering, “Where is Sicily?” 

Once released, we drove an hour from Cantania to Siracusa.  Hotel Posta was situated on the water, part of the cultural center, Ortigia, a tiny island in the heart of Siracusa, connected to the mainland by several short bridges.
Coast of Siracusa, standing on Ortigia.

The island was a perfect size.  Within an hour, we could walk the coast in a full circle.  The feel of the town reminded me of South Carolina.  Charleston, specifically.  Pinks and creams with palm trees and outdoor cafes.  The architecture was spectacular.  It lacked the finished quality of Florence and possessed that old, small-town charm that seems to have disappeared amidst the sea of tourists in Firenze. 

Early in the morning, as Megan and I walked along the streets, we heard voices.  Women, neighbors, lounging on their balconies, sipping coffee, talking back and forth, conversations floating across the streets and back.  And then, an older woman, looked down at us, calling out “bella” and blowing us kisses.  And I fell in love with Sicily and its people.

Our trip revolved around food and wine.  Dinner is an enormous four-course affair, lasting for three hours, the plates of food endless and yet, unfortunately, all delicious.  With the antipasti (appetizer, which seems to include the largest spread of food):  breads of every kind soaked in olive oil and spices, sundried tomatoes, roasted peppers, olives, cheeses, salami, eggplant carpaccio, breaded shrimp, arancini di riso (fried mounds of rice stuffed with any combination possibility: formaggio, prosciutto, carne).  And the list, as you can imagine, goes on.

 And then, new plate, new silverware.  The primi piatti (first course).  Pasta galore.  Red sauce. White sauce.  Embedded with fish and meat and cheese and capers and pine nuts.  And then, as you start to drift off into a food coma, they take your plates again, to reveal a third underneath.  And a fresh set of silverware.  The secondi piatti (second course) with contorni (side dishes).  Platters of rosemary and olive oil baked potatoes and sausage and grilled pork. 

And finally the last course, Dolce.  A champagne glass filled with lemon granita.  Or perhaps some fruit: persimmons, baby pears, grapes, apples.  To, according to Sicilian chefs, cleanse the palette (for more food?!?....please no) and aid in digestion (after that meal, yes). 

Saturday we spent most of the day at a ranch on mainland Sicily.  Another four-course meal was followed by horseback riding through the rocky and wild terrain, skirting olive trees and cacti.  My horse Sera, which means evening, was indeed as black as night.  And like our guide, I don’t think she spoke English.  In fact, I’m certain of it.

“Whooo….try.”  Our guide pulled on the reins to show us how to stop.

Now I know how to stop a horse, but after trying every variation of “whoa,” “whoo,” and “whaa,” I was content to let the horse journey on its own, pausing at unfortunate moments to eat from the trees, pulling me violently through foliage as olive branches tore at my hair. 

To be honest, I haven’t ridden a horse on my own without landing on the ground.  And as I clutched my Canon Rebel to my side, I realized the mistake I had made.  And then I reasoned with myself.  No one will fall.  I like horses.  This is fun.  I’m safe.

I could hear Megan behind me.  Her horse was Stella, the stubborn one.  Stern faced, she repeated over and over, “Andiamo, Stella.  Andiamo!!!”   While my horse was linguistically challenged, Megan’s horse was just deaf.  She would stand there and not budge an inch.

Megan and Stella

At one such moment, the guide started babbling in Italian, motioning to this hand and pointing to Megan, whose horse was resting with its head in a tree.  I picked up two words “essere sposato” (to be married).  And then it dawned on me; our gray haired and scraggly bearded horse guide was asking if Megan was married.  I shook my head no, and he smiled, kicked his horse, and yelled “Andiamo!”  (Sorry Megs.  Just telling the truth.)

A couple minutes before we arrived back to the stables, Indos, the only male horse in the group, took off running, throwing his rider to the ground and spooking the other horses.  For the first time during the ride, I nailed the “whoo” and managed to land my horse in yet another olive tree.   Thankfully no injuries were sustained, and we spent the remaining afternoon sleeping in the sun and playing on a wooden seesaw. 

 The last day in Sicily, Sunday morning, was a tour of an archeological park in Siracusa.  We hiked to the top of a Greek Amphitheatre.  As you can see in the pictures, the theatre is in ruins, the stage missing, the seating scarce.  The Spaniards, upon conquering the island, began to build fortifications.  And instead of quarrying their own stone, recycled the limestone slabs from the theatre, removing the upper tiers of seating as well as the stage.

The Greek Amphitheatre.
The Archeological Park in Siracusa is referred to as Latomia del Paradiso (Gardens of Paradise), and is truly beautiful, dressed in magnolias and oleanders.  However, this ravishing garden grows out of the floor of the great quarry, the quarry that provided the limestone to build the Greek city of Siracusa.  This “Garden of Paradise” was not always a parallel to the pearly gates.  It was once a concentration camp, home to over 7000 Athenians, who, after losing the sea battle of 413 AD, were sent to the prison Latomie to quarry limestone (Latomie is Greek, meaning"to cut stone").  The 40 meter walls closed the prisoners of war off from the world, entombing them in a world of darkness and harsh physical labor.  Many died from hunger and exhaustion, the quarry a mass grave.  Those who survived for at least seven years were branded and sold as slaves. 

Another site, Orecchio di Dionigi (Ear of Dionysius) is a masterful feat.  This cave, 23 meters high, was carved from the mountainside by the slave quarry workers.  Caravaggio, who visited Sicily in 1608, named the cave after Dionysius the tyrant.  The legend tells of a man who would sit high above the floor of the cave to eavesdrop on the slaves while they worked.  Due to the strange shape of the cave, even the quietest whisper is amplified as though it was a shout.

Ear of Dionysius.

Sunset in Sicily

The step back.

Digital Photography.  Portrait day.  Location: Santa Maria Novella Train Station. 

“You have forty-five minutes to take portraits of strangers.  Interact with your models.  Play with the light.  Be aware of the background.  Ask them to move or angle their head.  Be smart.”

One after another, a shake no, a hand up.  My broken Italian.  “Scusi.  Io sono studentessa fotografia.  Uhhh….  (My Italian fails.) Can I take a foto of you (point to person).  Progetti, classe.  Grazie.”   And, within ten minutes, all I had were a few poorly lit shots and a great deal of disappointment.

One was of Giovanne.  A seemingly nice man. 

“Como ti chiami?”



“Brie.  Umm.  Formaggio. Brie.”  I smiled, proud.  I remembered the word for cheese in Italian.

“Ohh…. Brie.”

“Si.”  I nodded, ready to move on, turning slightly to leave.  Giovanne was undaunted.

“Formaggio bello.  Brie.”  He gave me a goofy grin and held out his hand.  I shook it politely.

“Piacere.  Ciao.”  And left.

My professor Simone walks past.  He begins explaining a concept to me, “the step back.”  I thought it would be regarding photography.  But “the step back” is for self-defense and protection.

“We had this incident two years back.  One girl.  She didn’t step back.  I don’t want the school to ban this project.”


As we regrouped for the remaining class time, Giovanne walked up to me.  He began speaking quite passionately in Italian, emphasizing with his hands.  I stepped back.  And he stepped forward.

Simone interceded.  And the two of them stood in front of me, conversing rapidly, an occasional hand swept in my direction.  A word here and there.  Formaggio.  Dolce.  But in truth, I was lost.

And then Giovanne glanced at me, shook his head, and walked away.

The recap of their conversation in English:

“Brie.  She is a beautiful, sweet cheese.  She shouldn’t be out in the sun.  Good cheese needs to be refrigerated.” (According to Simone, Giovanne’s attempt to be witty.)  “And I really like sweet cheese.”

“Too much cheese can make you sick.”  Simone was amused.

“No no.  I only want a little taste of the sweet cheese.”

“No.  You can look but you cannot have.”

And then the shake of the head.  And Giovanne left.

“See.  That is why I tell you.  Always do the step back.”

So I've learned to step back.


My favorite shot of the day-- the only woman who let me take her picture.