Monthly Archives: February 2014

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The Church of Soccer

For most of the world, the soccer/football/calcio pitch is a sacred place. With its packed pews and ritualized chants, thousands of fans fantasize, fret, curse, and pray together as they watch their team play.

Soccer, or calcio as Italians call it, is by far the most popular sport in Italy. I can vividly remember the Italian national team taking home the World Cup in 2006, Italy’s fourth FIFA championship that made it only trail Brazil in World Cup wins (with 5).

Unsurprisingly, Italy’s strong history in the sport has been closely intertwined with religion in a fervently Catholic country. Beginning in the early 1920s, Church clergymen helped organize teams and leagues for young people to play in. Nowadays, many professional matches are held on Sundays so that it’s now a day of the week for both mass and soccer.

Eager to experience an Italian professional game myself, I bought tickets to the Fiorentina v. Inter game for last Saturday night. Armed with our newly purchased purple scarves, we showed up to the game, ready to be inducted into the world of Italian soccer.

IMG_3174We ended up sitting on Curva Ferrovia, in the lower section closest to the field. Our section was one of the closest to the plastic box for Inter’s fans, which made for some very entertaining exchanges between those around us and the Inter fans in the box, as each group yelled out insults and team chants.

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The box for the opposing team's fans. They keep the sections next to them empty and patrolled by security. They're also not allowed to leave until everyone else leaves the stadium.

The box for the opposing team’s fans. They keep the sections next to them empty and patrolled by security. They’re also not allowed to leave until everyone else leaves the stadium.

Apparently, it’s a common thing to just set off fireworks and smoke bombs in the stands to show your support. No one seemed too shocked even though there was sparks and flames shot out aggressively into the seats nearby.

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Fiorentina ended up losing 2-1, but the experience in itself was a lot of fun. Despite the 90 minutes of secondhand smoke (the man in front of me managed to chain-smoke his way through six cigarettes in the second half) and risk of catching on fire, where else can you watch grown men yell the dirtiest profanities at each other? Oh, all the new Italian words and phrases I learned!

I also spent some time last weekend at a real church as well. One of the special parts of Italy is that even your neighborhood church is a work of art.

La Chiesa dei Sette Santi Fondatori is just a short 5-minute walk from my apartment, across the street from the soccer stadium. Though the mass is entirely in Italian, they had a pamphlet that I could follow along with for that day’s readings and responses, so that at least I could stumble through the Nicean Creed and Our Father in Italian along with everyone else.

Once again, I picked up on some new words in Italian––when else would you learn adulterio but when that happens to be the topic for one of the readings that week?

Now I’ve just got to throw out these new words sometime during Italian class.

Time, Money, and Crocodile Skins

On Valentine’s Day, we had our second City of Florence field trip. While the last trip took us into a funky artist studio all the way over in the Oltrarno, this trip took us to a much bigger business: Scoula del Cuoio in the city center.

Looking up at Santa Croce in Florence.

Looking up at Santa Croce in Florence.

The Scuola del Cuoio, or “school of leather” for my Anglophones, was founded in 1950 in the old monastery behind Santa Croce. A family of Florentine leather artisans collaborated with Franciscan friars in order to open a school that would allow orphans of the war to learn a practical trade so they could earn a living. Santa Croce, which lies on the banks of the Arno River, had been a center of leather manufacturing in Florence since the 13th century, due to its amble supply of water needed for tanning.

Over years, the school and business has grown. While the Scuola del Cuoio still offers courses for aspiring leather artisans, it also specializes in creating quality, hand-made leather goods: wallets, handbags, jackets, and so on. Today, the business is highly profitable. Nevertheless, the same family owns and runs the business, ensuring that the focus remains on creating a limited number of quality products.

The current day school operates on the lower level.

The current day school operates on the lower level.

Just like with the other artists we met, TIME remained a theme stuck in my head as we toured the workshop and school––as in, how much time it takes to choose the right materials, how much time is required to construct every piece by hand in limited quantities, and how much patience all this time ultimately necessitates. On the limited occasions that I’ve sat down to draw something or create something by hand, I remain solely focused on the finished product. I then do what I need to do to get there in the most efficient way. As a product of the 21st century, I think efficiency is of prime importance, and I don’t have much patience if I believe things could go a faster way. Nevertheless, these conversations with artisans who unabashedly embrace the time it takes to create quality have encouraged me to question my own mindset.

A master artisan was constructing a handbag from pieces of ostrich leather.

A master artisan was constructing a handbag from pieces of ostrich leather.

At the same time, I was surprised to find myself getting uncomfortable with the discussion of how they buy the leather and what kind of animals they use. I understand the use of animals such as cows or sheep. I’m not a vegetarian, so I cannot draw any double standard. However, the workshop also constructed handbags of crocodile, ostrich, and stingray. These animals make for beautiful leather, but there’s something wrong about using endangered or exotic animals for handbags. Even if all the animals were farmed, the continued use of such skins creates a market for the illegal poaching of these animals in the wild––especially when a small crocodile skin can easily garner a price of several thousand dollars.

Looking at the different kinds of leathers they use.

Looking at the different kinds of leathers they use.

Furthermore, while TIME was prominent in my thoughts on the field trip, MONEY was another. I couldn’t stop seeing dollar signs––or euro signs––flash everywhere throughout our visit. That baby crocodile skin in the photo above? It easily cost over 3,000 euros, wholesale. I may appreciate skilled craftsmanship, but there’s no way I can afford it. Why spend 300 euros on a handbag when I could fill an entire closet of handbags for the same price? In this sense, I was reminded of my own priorities: I’d much, much, much rather spend money on traveling or food or to a good cause than an expensive handbag that I’d be too scared to take outside.

In the end, our lunch afterwards was much more my style: a chaotic, busy trattoria in the middle of the market where only locals go and dishes cost 4 euros.

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That’s what I’m talking about.

Creeping on Valentine’s Day

Perhaps because it’s so close to my birthday, but Valentine’s Day has always been one of my favorite holidays. I can’t tell you how many Valentine’s-themed birthday parties I had, and I always consider the holiday to really just be an extension of my own birthday. Valentine’s Day was always one of the best days in elementary school, when classmate would fill your milk carton mailbox with all kinds of superhero Valentines and candy.

Despite all this, February always lies in the part of the semester where it’s easy to fall into a funk. The weather can be dreary, and midterms loom dark like storm clouds overhead. Granted, life here  in Florence is pretty peachy. I love February, but I can’t help but notice others falling under this month’s dark spell.

And so, I decided to take action.

I’m incredibly grateful for my experiences thus far, and I wanted to thank the staff here in some small way. I enlisted my roommate Julia to help me make Valentines for the professors and staff here. We then decided to expand it to make Valentines for the rest of the students.

After buying a couple bags of Baci from the grocery store, Julia and I sat down after dinner to begin composing our Valentines.

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We searched for Italian love poems on the internet, and wrote them out on one side of the Valentine. I then drew random pictures to accompany the poems: zombies, a surfer, a bird, a caterpillar, an old man.

Once we compiled all of our Valentines, we went through and wrote a personalized message to each person.

Some were outright creepy.

For others, we relied on horrible puns.

As the night went on, our Valentines only continued to get weirder.

Julia even wrote one for me!

Three hours later, we finally had completed all of our Valentines along with smaller notes to give the professors and staff. The next morning, we arrived early to the Villa to put them on the desks in the classroom before hiding out in the main building so no one would know.

We had a moment of panic when our City of Florence professor announced we would be meeting in the library instead––how would everyone get their Valentines?! Luckily, we whispered our plan to her and got everyone to the classroom. We didn’t want to be the first ones in the classroom, but everyone was taking forever to get ready that morning. Julia and I kept trying to delay going to the classrooms ourselves, walking around the gardens while simultaneously fretting that maybe everyone would just find our Valentines really, really creepy instead of comical.

Luckily, it all worked out! Everyone was surprised to find the cards and candy in the morning, and it put a good start to our early field trip out into the city. Despite our attempts to remain anonymous, pretty much everyone knew right away that it was us––I mean, who else would go to such lengths to make such elaborate Valentines?

Now we’ve got to start planning for the next holiday… St. Patrick’s Day, perhaps?

Tanti Auguri to Me!

I always thought I shared a birthday with a pretty cool bunch of people: Abraham Lincoln, Charles Darwin, Judy Blume, Arsenio Hall––to name a few. Yet, as odds would have it, there were three of us out of our group of 14 who had the same birthday at the Villa this semester. This year, February 12 was time for some real celebration.

In the morning, Julia and I headed up early to Fiesole to get a cappuccino before class, then my Italian professor brought us some brioches and juice for a small celebration for my birthday. She even gave me one of my favorite candies––a Kinder Surprise! (My dad always used to bring these back from Germany for me and my siblings.) The other Italian professor gave me a small sketchbook as well. Julia gave me a wonderful card and candy, and Elaina had gotten a cannoli for each one of us birthday girls. So thoughtful!

At lunch, the kitchen made us three cakes––one for me, one for Fabiola, and one for Autumn. After one big rendition of the Italian birthday song, it was time for the cake!

It also happened to be one of the most beautiful days we’ve had in Fiesole so far. So nice, in fact, that I was able to sit outside to do some reading.

After class, Julia and I went for a long, long walk around Florence, hiking up to Piazzale Michelangelo then walking around the other side of the river. We even stumbled upon a chocolate festival going on this week.

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For dinner, we had another celebration with my host family. It was so much fun!

And, of course, another benefit of your birthday is receiving Snapchats like this:

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Primavera

I hope I’m not jinxing it by proclaiming a start to spring at the Villa. But truly, it doesn’t get much better than this:

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It’s warm enough today that I’m finally able to take advantage of the gardens.  As I type this, I’m nestled between the trees and sipping my tea, looking at a 180-degree panoramic view of Florence down below.

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Moments like these allow me to reflect on how lucky I am to be here and to live abroad for the entirety of this academic year. I turned 21 last week, an occasion that might be marked by Las Vegas trips or bar hopping back home, but instead was a relatively quiet affair, surrounded by my Italian host family singing “Tanti auguri” to me at dinner that night. I liked it better that way.

This week was full of experiences that humbled me with remembrances of my gratitude: my birthday, Valentine’s Day, our City of Florence fieldtrip, and a professional soccer game. Posts on that will come later, but for now, I leave you with this:

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Lost in Venice

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Ah, Venice… The magical sinking city that seems to float on water, where residents still need boats to get around and where visitors unfailingly get lost in its winding maze of alleyways, bridges, and canals.

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Venice has always occupied a special place in my heart. In elementary school––and still today––one of my favorite books was The Thief Lord by Cornelia Funke, a story of two brothers who run away to Venice and are taken in by a group of street children who live in an abandoned theater. (That description may not do it complete justice, but Cornelia Funke is truly a master in children’s literature.)

Julia and I arrived in Venice on Friday afternoon by train at the Santa Lucia station, where one immediately walks out the doors of the station to see the Grand Canal.

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Beforehand, I had found out that the cheapest way for us to get a vaporetto pass was through a Rolling Venice card from the tourism office. Tip: If you’re under 29, you can purchase a Rolling Venice card for only 4€ to get huge discounts on many attractions in Venice, such as a 3-day vaporetto pass and half-price admissions at the major museums and attractions.

With our vaporetto pass in hand, we boarded the No. 2 vaporetto to take us to the island of Giudecca, where our hostel was located.

After dropping our bags off at the hostel, we took the vaporetto over to San Marco, which was only two stops away by boat.

It was already getting dark, so we wandered around a bit in the rain, winding through alleyways and climbing over bridges. For dinner, we stopped by a tiny restaurant that specialized in cichetteria, little small dishes you can combine to create a meal.

Once back at the hostel, we ordered some hot chocolate from the bar and sat down in the common area. Now, hot chocolate in Italy is completely different from what you experience stateside––instead of a watery mix of chocolate power and sometimes milk, Italian hot chocolate is like a melted chocolate bar: rich, smooth, and thick.

For my first hostel experience, Ostello Venezia was awesome. The building was recently remodeled in October, with a funky common area and cool furnishings.

In the hostel, they were setting up for a “Neon Party” that night, complete with guest DJ performances. Considering that I usually can barely stay up past 11, we were only there for the first hour or so, when there were only two guys swirling around on the dance floor by themselves, so I can’t speak much for the event. But the set-up looked impressive!

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By hanging out in the common area, we met a bunch of travelers from all over: Belgium, England, Scotland, and Canada, to name a few locales. Julia and I passed around a blow-up ball with a backpacker for a bit, then pulled up a bunch of chairs with a group to meet new people.

Fairly early, we headed back to the dorm room since we planned to head out early the next morning. While the atmosphere in the common area of the hostel was great, the vibe in our dorm room was very… strange. A woman had lost a pouch with a bunch of her cash in it, so she spent over three hours crying during the night and talking loudly to her friend and on the phone in Spanish. At first I felt bad––I couldn’t imagine if that happened to me––but by 1:00 a.m. and hour 2 of this, I was wishing she’d leave the room.

Despite all of that, I slept surprisingly well, armed with an eye mask and a pair of earplugs. My top bunk was even more comfortable than my bed back in Florence, and I awoke to discover that the window in the room had a fantastic view of Venice’s main island.

After accidentally terrifying a girl on my way to the bathroom (apparently, when I ask someone “Are you done with the shower?” in my pajamas and glasses it is scary enough to warrant a reaction straight out of a horror movie), we headed back to San Marco in the morning to begin our full day of sightseeing.

After a mesmerizing walk through the Basilica of San Marco––perhaps the most beautiful church I’ve ever seen––we bought tickets for the Secret Itineraries Tour of the Doge’s Palace.

Unfortunately, they don’t allow cameras on the tour, but it was completely worth the 14€ ticket price. Our tour guide enthusiastically led us through the parts of the palace not open to the general public––old prison cells, torture chambers, and archival rooms––while telling us stories from the past, such as how Casanova managed to escape from prison using a bible, plate of pasta, and a small shovel.

After the tour, we then had time to tour the grand public rooms of Venice, where the huge councils of nobles used to meet to govern the powerful republic. For centuries, Venice was governed by a kind of oligarchical democracy, where 2,000 noble men voted in the Grand Council––pretty impressive for a state that never had a formal written constitution. The Doge himself was elected from one of the leading Venetian families usually around the age of 80, then would serve in the position until his death. However, the position itself didn’t have much political power beginning in the 1200s, when the Rialto families controlled the government through various levels of Councils.

 

Afterwards, we got lunch at an amazing take-out pasta place named Alfredo’s then wandered around and got lost––which, truly, is the best way to spend your time in Venice.

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On a small side street, we found a beautiful bookstore, where books lay stacked in precariously leaning towers. I bought some postcards to send back home.

We jumped on a vaporetto to take a look at all the palazzos along the Grand Canal by water.

We pondered some modern art at the Guggenheim.

Then we managed to get so completely lost that a kind man asked if we needed help and pointed us in the direction of the old Jewish ghetto in Venice.

For dinner, we sought out a place where we could try the Venetian speciality of spaghetti al nero di seppia, dyed black by squid’s ink.

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Exhausted from a full day of walking, we finally made it back to the hostel for another round of hot chocolate and where we met a group of American students who were visiting Venice for the weekend. Then, we headed out early the next morning to make our train back home.

All in all, I couldn’t have asked for a better way to kick off my birthday week. The Venice of reality was even more charming than the Venice of my dreams.

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I can’t wait to return some day.

“Life is Beautiful” in Arezzo

 

Buongiorno, principessa!

In 1999, Life is Beautiful won big at the Oscars, taking home the awards for Best Actor in a Leading Role, Best Music, and Best Foreign Language Film. In addition, it was nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Film Editing at that year’s awards. Indeed, Life is Beautiful, or La vita è bella as it’s called in Italian, is a masterful film, combining comedy and tragedy to follow the story of a Jewish man who uses humor to have a wonderful romance, yet must use that same quality to protect his son during the Holocaust.

The beginning part of the movie is set in Arezzo, a town in Eastern Tuscany that often gets overshadowed by its more famous tourist destinations in the region. However, at one time, it was one of the wealthiest cities in Tuscany, producing gold jewelry for shops all over Europe. Today, it’s well-known for the gigantic, sprawling antiques market, when over 500 vendors set up shop in the city for the first weekend of each month.

What kind of place is this? It’s beautiful: Pigeons fly, women all from the sky! I’m moving here!

Several weeks ago, the owner/artist of a recycled furniture shop recommended that Arezzo has the best market around, so we added it to our list of day trips for the semester. The night before, Julia, Liz, and I watched Life is Beautiful to prepare, before catching a train the next morning to the town along with Staci. And, needless to say, la vita è veramente bella when you get to spend in wandering alleys in a new town.

We wandered the streets, ducked into churches, browsed the hundreds of tents, and ate at a wonderful trattoria for lunch. What more could you want?

After an afternoon of walking around, we caught the train back to Florence and ate dinner in the city.

La vita è bella, no?

Captured by Cameraphone

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From the days of the half-megapixel camera on my old middle school flip phone, cell phone cameras have come along way over the past several years. I’m constantly amazed that my iPhone can often capture a better photo than my Canon point-and-shoot can, without the fancy lens or mechanical zoom.

And so, over the past month or so, I’ve captured a good amount of photos using my phone. While I’m still using the indestructible Samsung phone that I bought in Turkey last semester––sans camera, a pain to text on, yet comes with a nifty Bejeweled knock-off––I tend to often have my iPhone on me as a portable way to connect to the internet or take photos on the go.

Here’s a selection from my January photo stream:

In the air

The tundra of Chicago on my layover from San Francisco to Frankfurt on the flight out.

The tundra of Chicago on my layover from San Francisco to Frankfurt on the flight out.

Apparently, this was enough snow in Chicago to delay transferring the aircraft from the hangar to the gate by two hours...

Apparently, this was enough snow in Chicago to delay transferring the aircraft from the hangar to the gate by two hours…

WHOOHOO! Look at this leg room! I think I could get used to this.

WHOOHOO! Look at this leg room! I think I could get used to this.

Chasing the sunrise.

Chasing the sunrise.

On my Lufthansa flight from Germany to Italy, the flight attendant handed me this. I guess I looked like I was/could speak Italian? (Score!)

On my Lufthansa flight from Germany to Italy, the flight attendant handed me this. I guess I looked like I was/could speak Italian? (Score!)

Now too shabby of a view: sunrise over the Alps.

Now too shabby of a view: sunrise over the Alps.

Strange chocolate/nougat dessert popsicle thing that Lufthansa gave me for dessert after breakfast.

Strange chocolate/nougat dessert popsicle thing that Lufthansa gave me for dessert after breakfast.

In Fiesole

The view from the lookout on my first day in Italy.

The view from the lookout on my first day in Italy.

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After every pranzo (lunch) during the week, we have espresso and dessert––my favorite part!

After every pranzo (lunch) during the week, we have espresso and dessert––my favorite part!

What my everyday walk to school from the bus stop looks like.

What my everyday walk to school from the bus stop looks like.

Sunset from the Villa. (I have a feeling this will be a theme this semester.)

Sunset from the Villa. (I have a feeling this will be a theme this semester.)

Not a bad view for a Monday morning.

Not a bad view for a Monday morning.

The best cappuccino I've had so far from my favorite bar in Fiesole, named Alcedo.

The best cappuccino I’ve had so far from my favorite bar in Fiesole, named Alcedo.

 

CAFFEINE.

SO GOOD.

The burning of the olive groves around this time of year make for some beautiful sunsets!

The burning of the olive groves around this time of year makes for some beautiful sunsets.

In Firenze

Poetry street art posted on some city walls.

Poetry street art posted on city walls.

During the first week, I tagged along with the Art History class on their field trip to the Bargello and Uffizi.

During the first week, I tagged along with the Art History class on their field trip to the Bargello and Uffizi.

Someone get her some clothes.

I think someone forgot to get dressed this morning.

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Awkward Medieval wooden statues.

Awkward Medieval wooden statue. (Almost as good as the many mannequins I photographed last semester in Turkey… maybe this should be my new theme.)

At home

Every morning, my host mother puts out a breakfast spread for us. We eat the traditional Italian way--with a light breakfast of tea, yogurt, cookies, or a pastry.

Every morning, my host mother puts out a breakfast spread for us. We eat the traditional Italian way–with a light breakfast of tea, yogurt, cookies, or a pastry.

Another view of the kitchen.

Another view of the kitchen.

The refrigerator and TV, which we usually have on in the background during dinner.

The refrigerator and TV, which we usually have on in the background during dinner.

Cabinet in the kitchen. So homey!

Cabinet in the kitchen. So homey!

Photos from when I first moved in... Here's my desk.

Photos from when I first moved in. Here’s my desk.

Surfboard on the wall. (So I can pretend that I'm a surfer even in Italy.)

Surfboard on the wall. (So I can pretend that I’m a surfer even in Italy.)

Some of the CD collection in my room. Iron Maiden, Radiohead, Pearl Jam, etc.

Some of the CD collection in my room. Iron Maiden, Radiohead, Pearl Jam, etc.

My adopted dog for this semester! She's named Iside (EE-see-day), after the Egyptian goddess.

And lastly, my adopted dog for this semester! She’s named Iside (EE-see-day), after the Egyptian goddess.

Music in the Library

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Our Italian professors arranged for a singer and guitarist duo come perform at the Villa last Tuesday night. They played both Italian and American songs––the girl had an incredible voice, à la Joss Stone––and we had an opportunity to sing along with a song that we had practiced in Italian the week before, “Ma Che Freddo Fa.” Our Italian professors invited some guests to the concert, and it was a lot of fun to talk to them (in Italian, too!) over dinner.

Cos’è la vita-a-a, / senza l’amore-e-e, 

è solo un albero che foglie non ha più.

E s’alza il vento-o-o, / un vento freddo-o-o,

come le foglie le speranze butta giù.

Ma questa vita cos’è se manchi tu.