Author Archives: Shannon

“A dopo,” not “arrivederci”

I can’t believe how quickly time has gone by.

It seems like just yesterday that I was packing my suitcase to head off to Italy for the semester, worrying about my choice to live with a host family and planning what I wanted to do over the four months. Indeed, even the last month has flown by, with trips to Rome, visits from my family, and weekend in Cinque Terre all while trying to finish up my final papers and exams. I’m still planning on composing some belated blog posts for those trips, but I wanted to jot down a quick reflection now that my semester just ended.

Hands down, one of the best parts of my experience this semester was living with my host family. Julia and I would repeatedly gush to each other about how lucky we were to have them, and I couldn’t have imagined my semester without them. My host mother, Emanuela, was incredibly caring and sweet, truly playing the role of mother while I was abroad. My host father, Paolo, provided endless laughs and entertainment as he mocked our American pronunciation of words and teased us about “finding a Mario.” Our family dinners each night––Emanuel, Paolo, Julia, Liz, and me––were almost always the highlight of every day, a time to relax and catch up on our daily lives.

Living with a host family also enabled me to drastically improve my Italian language skills over the course of the semester. While I still can struggle to find the words I want, the last four months have enabled me to become conversational in the language and to significantly improve my comprehension skills. It helped, of course, when our nightly dinner conversation in Italian ranged from everything from Italian politics to positive psychology to American geography.

On my final night in Italy, I gave Emanuela the scrapbook I had put together of our time in Italy, with photos of the three of us and thank you notes at that back. I was incredibly touched when she got tearful at seeing it, sparking tears from the rest of us as well.

“This is my favorite thing to receive,” she told me in Italian, “because I can just sit here after you leave and remember all of these memories.”

When Emanuela woke up the next morning at 3:40 a.m. to wake me up and make sure I made my 4 a.m. taxi ride, I again was reminded how lucky I was to be able to get to know such a wonderful individual.

“This isn’t goodbye,” she told me in Italian. “You can come back to visit anytime, and you know that we’ll always be here. This is dopo, until later.”

And truly, I have a feeling that I’ll hopefully be back in Florence someday in the future. And because I hate goodbyes, I’m sticking to Emanuela’s advice.

A dopo, Firenze.

Perché no?

Over the past several months, I’ve quickly adopted a new motto, a handy two-word Italian phrase that fits almost any situation.

“Should I get seconds on dessert?”

Perché no?

“Should we see if this door opens?”

Perché no?

“Should I go walk around the city instead of working on homework?”

Perché no?

Perché no literally translates to “why not,” but it’s become more than that. It’s the kind of attitude that I’ve adopt through the kind of adventures that come while living in a foreign country. In fact, Perché no is a pretty good way to describe how I ended up going to Sardinia in the first place.

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Back in January, Julia and I sat down and started to map out where we wanted to go during the semester. Venice was a must. Bologna and Arezzo were also added since they were close and convenient. by train. Rome was already scheduled as a group field trip for a weekend in March.

While we were planning, I played around with different options on Google Flight Search, a fairly new application that lets you select an airport and your dates then view how much it would cost to fly to different destinations on a map. And so, Cagliari emerged as the cheapest destination for our open weekend in March.

“Hey Julia, what do you say about going to Sardinia?” I asked.

Admittedly, I knew little about Sardinia or Cagliari when it showed up on my search results, but a round-trip plane ticket that cost 50 euros and a quick image search that turned up beaches and mountains quickly sold me on the idea. After all, perché no?

And so, it was the fate of perché no that led us to this beautiful Mediterranean Island for a quick beach getaway. We also got Dimitra, Staci, and Landon to join us, so we had a happy little group of 5 for the weekend.

Where in the world is Sardinia, anyways?

Sardinia––or Sardegna, as the Italians call it––is the second largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, after Sicily and just before Cyprus (where I had a wonderful trip last December). But unlike Sicily, Sardinia is far off the coast of Italy, making it even more isolated from the mainland. Sardinia is an autonomous region of Italy, yet Sardinians have managed to maintain their own distinct dialect and culture. Almost every great Mediterranean power has once controlled this small island: the Phoenicians, Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Genoese, Pisans, and Aragonese. In fact, Catalan is still widely spoken on the island and was once the official language until it was replaced by Spanish and later Italian in the mid-18th century.

Andiamo!

After a quick and easy flight from Pisa, we arrived in Cagliari around 1 p.m. on Friday, taking a taxi to our apartment for the weekend. I had found a place for the five of us to stay on Airbnb in the old part of town––far from the main tourist drag. The taxi driver’s reaction was priceless when we arrived at our place.

“Are you sure it’s this?” he asked in Italian.

He dropped us and our bags off at the address then drove away, likely laughing at the confused Americans he dropped off in the middle of a local neighborhood.

No worries, Mr. Taxi Driver. We picked up the keys from our host’s mother at a house down the street, then walked inside.

The apartment was way better than I expected, complete with a spiral staircase that led up to a roof-top terrace with a beautiful view.

Once we dropped off our backpacks, we headed out to explore the city. Sometimes, the best way to sightsee is simply to wander.

At one point, we came across a glass elevator that took you up to the top of the cliff above.

“Should we take it?”

Perché no!

For a brief amount of time, I was able to convince everyone else that this elevator was indeed the number-one tourist attraction in Cagliari on TripAdvisor, until I hurriedly assured them that I was joking.

But the top truly did have a beautiful view!

PC: Julia

PC: Julia

From the elevator, we headed down the street until we came to a large, palazzo-type building. The outside looked like any other type of government building, with EU and Italian flags on the outside. But there was an open door so––perché no––we went inside.

Turns out we had stumbled upon the Royal Palace. The eery part was that there was no one else in building––no other tourists, no security guards. It was like we had snuck in.

PC: Julia

PC: Julia

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We were mainly excited to take pictures on the fancy couches. (PC: Julia)

Nearby, we walked into a beautiful church, the Cathedral of Santa Maria.

The Castello District of Cagliari sits high above the city, with piazza after piazza with amazing views.

We slowly made our way down to the water. It was so good to be near the Mediterranean Sea again! Seeing it every day last semester from my living room window was one of my favorite things about Alanya.

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Hair buddies! (PC: Julia)

We walked up to Il santuario di Nostra Signora di Bonaria, located up on a hill overlooking the harbor.

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Then it was time to navigate back to the apartment! (Those who know me would be amused to know that people actually think I have a “good” sense of direction here––at home, I can barely drive anywhere without plugging it into the GPS.)

PC: Julia

PC: Julia

We had dinner at a lovely seafood restaurant, then headed back to the apartment to quickly fall asleep.

A “walk” to the beach

The next morning, we got pastries from the nearby pasticceria and brought them back to enjoy our breakfast on the terrace.

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Our main plan for the day was to seek out the beach. Cagliari’s main spot is Poetto Beach, a 5-mile long stretch of sand that Google Maps told us was about an hour walk away from our house. Sure, we could figure out how to take the bus there, but… perché no? We decided to walk.

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Our walk took us down to the harbor, and we figured that if we followed the coast, eventually we’d get to the beach… right? After all, I had a general idea of what direction to go for the beach.

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But soon the path along the harbor ended, so we had to head inland.

As we passed by a military base and an old abandoned cannery, I wasn’t so sure anymore about what direction we were going. But nevertheless, it was important to keep up appearances.

“Don’t worry guys, this abandoned cannery is actually the #3 attraction on TripAdvisor! Isn’t it cool?”

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Julia also played along. “Guys, isn’t this underpass awesome?!”

Except then we ended up on a bike path that seemed to be taking us further and further away from where we wanted to go.

Eventually, after we’d probably been walking for 90 minutes, we asked a runner for directions. You should have seen our faces when he told us that the beach was still around an hour away.

"All right, everyone show how excited they are to be on this bike path!"

“All right, everyone show how excited they are to be on this bike path!”

After following his directions, looking at several maps at bus stops, and walking on the side of the highway, we finally arrived at the beach after about two hours of walking.

It was beautiful.

IMG_8615And oh, we had earned it.

We ate lunch at a surprisingly cheap restaurant on the beach, then spent several hours tanning on the sand. It was a little too cold to go swimming, but we at least put our feet in so we could say that we went into the Mediterranean.

Afterwards, we walked to a gelateria that we had passed along the way. The unassuming establishment turned out to have the best gelato that I’ve had in Italy thus far––a flavor called Torta Paradiso that tasted faintly like key lime pie.

Staci and Dimitra went pack for a second scoop.

Afterwards, Julia and I wanted to check out another beach nearby, while the others took a taxi back to the apartment for a well-deserved nap. (Turns out the taxi only costed 10 euros… Oh well.)

It was probably best everyone headed back, because Julia and I managed to get lost once again. We debated just heading back, but decided to preserve. (Mainly for the sake of our pride over anything else.)

Eventually, we turned down a road that led us through the countryside, and finally, to Calamosca Beach.

It was so worth it.

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Afterwards, we ambitiously decided to walk all the way back. (Again, there was a slight matter of pride.)

An hour and a half later, we finally made it back to the apartment. At last!

We all ate dinner at a restaurant nearby, then watched The Lizzie McGuire Movie in honor of our trip to Rome next week.

Because, after all, why not?

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You’re going truffle hunting?

As part of our City of Florence class, we’re each supposed to create some kind of final project that investigates a particular aspect of the city. The guidelines are pretty open to encourage us to take whatever direction we want, and projects in the past have ranged from cooking classes to interviews with the artist behind all the graffitied street signs in Florence.

Julia and I played around with several ideas, until I was browsing TripAdvisor one day and inspiration struck. A company offered Truffle Hunting Tours just outside of Florence, and for whatever reason, people were raving about their experience on the tour. I love the taste of truffles, and I was always curious how these mushrooms could be so expensive. In Florence, truffles show up quite frequently on restaurant menus when they’re in season, and the area of San Miniato just outside of the city holds a famous truffle fair every November. So why not see what this whole truffle business is about?

And so, we booked our tour and arrived in San Miniato on a Sunday morning after a short 30-minute train ride from Florence.

Our guide, Francesca, picked us up at the train station along with another couple from the Bay Area, and drove us to her family farm, Fattoria Collebrunacchi. We quickly met our truffle hunting dog for the day, a shaggy 7-month-old Lagotto Romagnolo named Ciocco.

We then headed out into the woods to let Ciocco do his job.

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It was such a beautiful day!

Once we got to the woods where truffles tend to grow, Ciocco began putting his nose to work.

Quickly, he found his first truffle. They grow just below the surface, so Ciocco would sniff out the scent then begin digging towards the truffle until Francesca distracted him with a biscuit.

Once Ciocco found one, he kept finding more and more––lucky for us, because it’s not always guaranteed that he’ll find them that day. March is just the right season to find Tuscany’s bianchetto truffles, which are smaller than the more expensive (and larger) Italian white truffle. Even right out of the ground you could already smell how it would taste! The dirt around it also smelled like truffles, full of spores that would hopefully then grow into another truffle later on.

Good dog!

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We ended up finding around 8 or so truffles before heading back through the Tuscan countryside.

Back at Fattoria Collebrunacchi, Francesca gave us a tour of her family’s farm, where they produce a wide variety of products: wine, grappa, olive oil, honey, and, of course, truffle products. Francesca and her mother do most of the work on the farm along with two other employees, and her father and brother help out on the weekends.

The farm sits around the ancient manor of the beautiful Villa Formichini. The Villa even has its own chapel, dedicated to San Jacopo al colle.

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We got to take a look at an old beehive.

They also had a small circular grove of trees, used for to keep birds for hunting. Different types of trees were planted in concentric rings: pine, oak, then hazelnut.

We also got a small tour inside the Villa as well!

Then it was time for our “tasting,” as the tour website had called it. In actuality, this “tasting” was quite the feast––first, a gigantic spread of antipasti! There was all types of prosciutto, sausage, cheese, and a wide variety of different types of crostini, with both white and black truffles.

Then, we got a heaping serving of pasta with truffle oil and gigantic shavings of the truffles we had just found in the forest before.

Afterwards, we got dessert! (And caffè, of course.)

Once we were done with our leisurely lunch––or, I mean, “tasting”––we had time to explore the grounds a bit more.

At the end, Francesca drove us back to the train station, where we said our farewells.

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In the end, truffle hunting could possibly be the best thing that I’ve done so far––when else can I stomp through the woods, find some mushrooms in the ground, then eat them in a gigantic lunch?

Until then, I’ll just keep on forging far from the well-beaten tourist path.

Have your gelato and eat it too

I spent a lot of time traveling as a group in Turkey––beginning with our 2-week orientation tour at the start––so it’s been strange that we haven’t really done any out-of-town trips as a group here in Italy yet. Traveling with a group can be hard; itineraries are often jam-packed and people can only stand on their feet for so long before they get tired. At the same time, there’s nothing like traveling to bring people closer together, like the time we had to walk for an hour to detour around a giant protest in Istanbul or the time we traveled for hours to make a 45-minute long meeting with a village women’s theater group. I think it’s good to be put in uncomfortable situations and go to places that you wouldn’t otherwise have gone on your own. Over the past year, these experiences have taught me to learn to let go––something that doesn’t naturally come to someone who’s slightly Type A like me.

And so, the whole Villa le Balze crew piled in a bus early Saturday morning, made a pit stop to pick up someone who overslept, and headed off to Siena and San Gimignano for the day.

Siena

Siena is only about a 90-minute drive from Florence, but Sienese will fervently assure you of the differences that run between them and the Fiorentini. The rivalry between these two Tuscan cities runs deep, dating back to the 12th century. During the 13th century, multiple wars were waged as each fought for more influence in the region, though Siena ultimately fell under the power of Florence during the time of the Medicis.

Map of Siena by Matheus Merian (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

As a whole group, we spent our Saturday under the guidance of my history professor, who travels back and forth every weekday from Siena to Florence for work. After a bus ride through the beautiful hills of Tuscany, we met Professor Brizio near the city walls.

PC: Will

Photo Credit: Will

The center of Siena sits on top of a hill, with the rest of the city fanned out below. Siena was actually one of the first cities to ban traffic in its center back in 1966, making for quiet and pedestrian-friendly streets that you can wander.

We first visited Siena’s Duomo, also known as Santa Maria Assunta. The white, intricately carved edifice rises dramatically from the square. It was originally intended to be built to a size larger than that of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, though they ended up only constructing one branch of the planned cruciform shape.

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PC: Will

We also managed to snap a group picture, at last.

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PC: Will

We also visited the Palazzo Pubblico, which has served as the seat of government in Siena since 1297.

The Palazzo Pubblico sits in the Piazza del Campo, the famous piazza in Siena where twice a year they hold the famous Palio di Siena on July 2 and August 16. The Palio is a crazy horse race held in the square where each of the 10 contrade or city wards enter a horse and jockey to win.

Before the race, the horses are taken into the church where they are blessed and have a chalice of wine held up to their lips. If the horse poops while in the church, it’s supposed to be a sign of good luck.

We ate lunch in Siena at a charming––though overpriced––trattoria. The whole group of 19 went to the restaurant, but we ended up splitting the bill evenly. That means that athough many of us opted for the 7 euro pasta, we each had to pay 16 euros at the end––yikes!

Price complaints aside, however, this tiramisu may have been the best tiramisu I have ever had.

Price complaints aside, however, this tiramisu may have been the best tiramisu I have ever had. So good, in fact, that I almost finished it before I remembered to take a picture.

San Gimignano

After lunch, we got back on the bus to drive to San Gimignano, an absolutely beautiful medieval walled hill town in Tuscany. When we arrived, we were treated with this view:

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The entire town is surrounded by sturdy old walls. Medieval towers still stand watch over the city.

My only complaint about San Gimignano is that we didn’t get enough time! I could have spent a whole day wandering through its streets. Nevertheless, we had an itinerary to stick to.

The Church of San’Agostino may look unassuming from its exterior, but its interior was elaborately and beautiful decorated.

PC: Will

PC: Will

We also visited San Gimignano’s town hall, the Palazzo Communale.

PC: Will

PC: Will

Near the end of the tour, we were given a choice: gelato or climb the tower. San Gimignano is known for having some of the best gelato in Italy, but I couldn’t turn down an opportunity for a view.

IMG_8362 We raced up the stairs, two at a time, to get to the top. And my goodness, it was worth it.

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We managed to race up and down fast enough––with plenty of photos at the top––to have time for gelato too.

Because sometimes, you can have it all.

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More art than they know what to do with

Our City of Florence class has been one of the highlights of this semester thus far, giving us the opportunities to try our hand at painting in a local artist’s studio and examine how the Scuola del Cuoio constructs leather goods by hand. This time, however, our City of Florence class took me back to one of my favorite museums in Florence, the Opificio dell Piedre Dure. By the recommendation of our host mother, Julia and I visited this museum during one of our first weekends in Italy, and it’s one of my favorite museums in Florence.

However, this time we were granted special access to the restoration workshop and school that accompanies the museum. At the school, a select number of students learn the traditional Florentine practice of creating mosaics with delicate pieces of semi-precious stone, an incredibly demanding craftwork that requires a ridiculous amount of patience and exactitude.

First, we met our guide, who graduated from the school and now works full-time as an artisan. Funding from the state is shaky and never guaranteed, so artisans like her are often hired for short contracts to restore a particular piece of artwork. “But this is my passion,” she told us.

We huddled into the workshop itself, where the artisans were diligently hard at work.

In their spare time, the artisans are currently working on recreating a painting into a mosaic comprised of countless tiny pieces of stone. There’s another one like it in a vault somewhere in a collection, though none of the artists have ever seen it. Once they finish this mosaic, they hope to compare it to the older piece to see what was done differently.

Interestingly, the best way to cut out the tiny pieces for the mosaics is by hand––machines cannot yet achieve the exactitude or carefulness that the artisans can achieve themselves. Though they also have top-grade stone cutters, they often stick to the old-fashioned method since it’s less likely to crack the pieces.

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After touring the school, we then visited the restoration workshop, where unfortunately no cameras were allowed. They were currently working on restoring an old Roman mosaic floor that was found underground the Baptistery. It was only accessible by a narrow, deep hole, so they had to break up the mosaic to restore it once they realized that it was suffering from water damage. However, there’s no space for the mosaic floor in any museum in Florence. So once it’s restored, it will go back underground––never to be seen by the public.

But really––restore a Roman mosaic floor so it can go back underground? Couldn’t something else be done?

It’s strange to think how countries like Italy have such a wealth of art and archaeological artifacts––way more than can ever be on display in its many museums. We came across that in Turkey, too. Many of the archaeological sites we visited had way more to be uncovered, though it will take huge amounts of money and time to finally uncover what treasures may still lie there, like in EphesusPamukkale, or Laodicea.

Our group then headed into the museum, where once again I got the opportunity to admire this beautiful craft.

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So impressive!

So impressive!

There’s a lot of directions you could go with a class called the City of Florence, but I appreciate how our professor chose to focus on the art scene that’s still very much alive in the city. You can stare at masterpiece after masterpiece of centuries-old art in Florence’s many museums. But art is also alive today, kept in practice by the many artisans who are still very much engaged in the city’s past and making it the city’s future.

The Luck of the Irish

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Several years ago, my family traveled to southern Ireland for a vacation amidst the overcast skies of mid-February. But although February can be gloomy in the Emerald Isle, its countryside is anything but: dramatic, chiseled cliffs rising above the sea; shockingly green hills and valleys; and charming rural towns. Though getting my passport stamped at Shannon Airport was definitely one of the highlights, my favorite moment was tracking down the farm where my great-grandfather grew up near a town far outside of Dingle. My father stopped at a gas station to ask directions, where the baffled attendant’s surname was Galvin as well. She directed him to the house of her great-aunt nearby, where it was clarified that they were from a different branch of Galvins, though she remembered hearing of a Timothy Galvin who left for America and could direct us to the old farm.

And so, it was wonderful to return to Ireland once again, where everyone vaguely looks related to me and I look at home among my pale and freckly folk. Shawn and I arrived on Thursday evening on a quick RyanAir flight from Bristol, then took a bus to get to our Airbnb rental on the northern side of the river. Our stay in Dublin encompassed everything that is wonderful about Airbnb: our hosts were friendly and full of great recommendations, the cost was low, and the house was ideally located.

Day 1

We got up early the next morning for a walking tour of Dublin run through Sandeman’s, which offers a number of free (or tip-what-you-want-at-the-end) walking tours throughout Europe. Our tour guide, Brian, took us to a number of the major sights in the city center while regaling us with centuries of stories of foreign invasions, famous figures, and those pesky English.

After lunch, we stumbled upon St. Stephen’s Green.

We then jumped on one of those hop on, hop off tour buses to ride around the city. (Shawn especially enjoyed all of the bus driver’s horrible, horrible jokes.)

We got off the bus to partake in one of Dublin’s biggest tourist attractions: the Guinness Storehouse.

The whole set-up was pretty overwhelming, considering it’s like a Disneyland devoted entirely to beer. For example, at one point in the museum you go through this room that has different characters talking about Guinness makes the world a better place. I didn’t really buy it. I mean, okay, it’s just a beer company…

At the end of the tour, however, the Gravity Bar had fantastic views. I had my first pint of Guinness, and also got asked for my ID for alcohol for the very first time in my life, since I’ve been abroad for the past year and haven’t been back to the U.S. since I turned 21. (Although I still get asked for ID for R-rated movies and frequently get confused as the younger sister, so I’m surprised it doesn’t occur more often.)

Afterwards, we jumped on the bus again for its last run of the day, as the sun set.

Day 2

On Saturday, the first item on our itinerary was to visit the Kilmainham Gaol, which is one of the largest unoccupied jails in Europe. Since it was built in 1796, the jail has figured a role in some of the most heroic and tragic events of Ireland’s history, especially during the repeated attempts at independence.

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Our guide led us through the decaying, narrow hallways of the institution as he told us stories of the different inmates who once spent time in these cells.

We then spent the rest of the day walking around the city, jumping on the bus, and wandering through the Irish Museum of Modern Art and the Irish National Archaeological Museum.

We ate dinner at a restaurant near our house, then wandered by the Temple Bar area to get a taste of what Dublin was like at night. There were all kinds of live music acts, and we came across a fantastic band that was playing some Irish rock music.

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We were watching for a bit, when suddenly some people started dancing in the middle of the circle. Quickly, it turned into a dance-off between a teenage girl and an older man, like some crazy combination of Stomp the Yard meets Riverdance.  It was one of those surreal moments where you think to yourself, Am I really watching this?

Overall, it was the perfect ending to a lovely spring break. Shawn and I departed for our respective cities on the following morning, though I had to sit through a 4-hour layover at London Stansted before finally making it back to Italy.

On our way back home at the Dublin Airport.

On our way back home at the Dublin Airport.

It was fun to get a glimpse at what Shawn’s life is like this semester in Bristol, but as I walked home on Monday afternoon through the winding streets of Fiesole, I couldn’t help but think:

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It’s good to be back.

Pip pip, cheerio!

You find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.

That quote from Samuel Johnson is oft repeated about London, with its masses of people and never-ending pulse of life. Despite the characteristically gloomy weather of this grand city, you can’t help but feel yourself pulled into its energy, as you too push through the tunnels of Tube stations underground or jostle on its packed sidewalks.

But first, I owe a little explanation. A stubborn head cold put me out of commission of writing about my spring break until now, and there’s also been the scary realization that I’m over half-way through with my semester. Time is running out, so every moment is precious: to wander through the gardens, to visit that museum, to enjoy a leisurely dinner at home. It’s strange to think how quickly this semester has already gone by––and really, how fast this year has gone by.

And when you’re with the people you care about, it’s even more shocking how the minutes seem to whizz on by. For spring break, I jetted off to the British Isles. Though I’ve been to London and parts of southern Ireland before, this time it was to reunite with Shawn, who is studying abroad at the University of Bristol for the semester. I met Shawn in London for the weekend, then traveled to Bristol, Bath, and Dublin over the course the week. It was cold––and sometimes rainy––but I loved playing the role of tourist once again.

First stop, London!

I arrived in London on Friday afternoon, after an uneventful flight from Florence to Heathrow and a train to Paddington Station. I met up with Shawn at the McDonald’s––not because we were stereotypical Americans (or maybe we are), but because (pro tip) it’s the most reliable place for free WiFi at Paddington. On the first night, we waded through the rain to find our Airbnb host in Tooting before eating a wonderful dinner at The Laughing Gravy.

Over the next couple days, it was time to hit the museums! It’s not a trip to London unless you visit the British Museum, the gigantic building that houses all of the precious archaeological artifacts that the English looted from other countries. As such, when we weren’t taking pictures of ourselves mimicking statues, Shawn and I spent most of our time at the museum arguing whether the artifacts should be returned to their home countries or not.

We also spent an hour or so wandering through the halls of the Tate Modern, pondering the meaning of life (or why some things are considered art).

We also walked around the city itself, a worthy attraction all on its own. There are truly few other things like watching the light in St. James’ Park at sunset.

During the weekend, we also took the Tube everywhere. London has the wonderful privilege of having the most beautifully designed public transportation map I’ve ever seen––something we dutifully studied over the weekend whenever we’d have to make our long journey back to our home base at Tooting Broadway.

We also made sure to take advantage of the many food options in the city! Asian fusion, anyone?

Bristol: Writing on the Wall

On Sunday night, we took a late train to Bristol, where Shawn is living for the semester. Bristol is a large city in southwest England, with a population around 430,000. It’s also home to two universities: the University of Bristol and the University of the West of England.

The coolest thing about Bristol is its huge street art scene. There are a number of active street artists in Bristol, and the city is also the hometown of the famous street artist Banksy, who was made famous in the documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop.

It was Shawn’s reading week when I visited, so we spent lots of time in coffee shops as he worked on midterm essays.

There was lots of procrastinating involved.

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I enjoyed meeting his British university friends and seeing what his life is like in England. Luckily, the University of Bristol campus is beautiful!

Plus, the British have a way of saying things just so.

I especially found it entertaining how Brits greet their friends with a somewhat indifferent “You all right?” or “All right?” instead of the usual American “How are you?” While that’s a perfectly normal greeting in the U.K., I kept thinking that people thought there was something wrong with me. Nope.

Bath: The city, not the room

One day, we took a day trip from Bristol to the city of Bath, which is about an hour away by bus. It’s a beautiful city, full of gorgeous blocks of houses, a meandering river, and quaint neighborhoods.

And apparently bath stores...

And apparently bath stores…

Right off the bus, we found a beautiful, grassy park by the river.

Along with sightseeing, I played paparazzi for the week. I present The Many Faces of Shawn:

Of course, the main attraction in Bath is the site of its ancient Roman Baths.  The city was first established as Acquae Sulis around the 60s A.D. over a natural hot springs in the area. For centuries––and even today––visitors came to the city seeking out its special waters, throwing money and objects into the pools as an offering to the gods. In Georgian times, the spa garnered popularity once again as a resort town.

At the end of the museum, you could taste the water from the hot springs itself! (Though my expression can tell you how that water actually tasted.)

For several quid more, we purchased our ticket to the Roman Baths with an entry to the Fashion Museum, which houses one of the largest collections of historical and fashionable dress in the world. The museum started out with several exhibits on historical fashion from the Georgian Era, then ended with more contemporary collections. Each year, the museum selects an individual to chose the Dress of the Year, which is selected to reflect that year’s fashion trends.

My favorite part, however, was the dress-up section full of Georgian-era garb. Jane Austen, eat your heart out!

Step 1: The undergarments.

Step 1: The undergarments!

#georgianselfies

#georgianselfies

We also spent time wandering the city itself: churches, gardens, and boulevards, oh my!

Near the end of the day, we found a park with this fantastic bucket swing. A perfect way to end our day trip?

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I sure think so.

Next post: Spring Break, Part 2 – Exploring the city where everyone looks like they’re related to me… Dublin!

Wishing on Il Rottamatore

I just got back from a wonderful trip for spring break to the British Isles, where I met up with Shawn and explored the beautiful (yet cold) cities of London, Bristol, Bath, and Dublin. Blog posts on those adventures are forthcoming, but for now, I’ve posted my latest blog post from the Berkley Center below. Enjoy!

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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.