Author Archives: Shannon

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.

That’s Bologna

Last Saturday, we decided to take the train to Bologna for the day, the largest city of the Emilia-Romagna region in Italy. Filled with good food, beautiful churches, and a vibrant population, it made the setting for an absolutely perfect day of exploring. But why visit Bologna, you may ask?

It’s got the oldest university in the Europe.

Established in 1088, L’Università di Bologna is one of the oldest universities in the world. Even today, Bologna itself feels like one huge college town, with various faculties dispersed throughout the city. At night, the piazzas and streets were packed with all kinds of young people meeting up with friends. But this also means that you can easily stumble upon old public libraries, still serving as study spots centuries later.

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A public library off Piazza Maggiore that we found at the beginning of our day.

From 1563 to 1803, the first official home of the university was the Archginnasio, which now contains the main city library. Its hallways are covered with the over 7,000 coats of arms of former students.

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The Archginnasio also houses the beautiful Anatomical Theatre, built in 1637 to house some of the first cadaver dissections. Butchers used to come to the lectures to help cut up the corpses.

The university also means that Bologna has traditionally been one of the most liberal cities in Italy, with strong history of political activism. In fact, as we walked around, we came across a protest in front of the Justice Building .

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And, of course, street artists have their own political message to make.

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It’s the best city to walk around in the rain.

Luckily, we arrived in Bologna on a stunningly clear day. But if it were to rain, we would have been set. Porticos cover almost every sidewalk in Bologna, and the wide walkways contrast with the narrow sidewalks I must squeeze through in Florence.

It’s a gastronomic capital.

Bologna, and the larger region of Emilia-Romagna, is the birthplace of lasagna, tortellini, parma ham, parmesan, tagliatelle, basaltic vinegar, and––of course––bolognese sauce. The rich and hearty dishes that Americans often associate with Italian cuisine are native to this region, and the two restaurants we visited didn’t disappoint. For lunch, I had some handmade torteloni; for dinner, I went with the classic tagliatelle alla bolognese. (Regarding restaurants, I highly recommend Tre Santi and Quadradimezzo.)

It’s cheap to visit.

By train, Bologna is only an hour away from Florence, and our round-trip tickets cost us less than 20 euros. Once there, we visited churches, wandered streets, and visited public buildings, which meant we paid only a nominal amount in entrance fees.

The main squares were filled with all kinds of street musicians––and music is the best kind of public good there is!

Getting lost is an adventure within itself.

We had a list of places we wanted to see, but we also left some time to wander through the streets, explore alleyways, and then try to figure out we were on a map. But this enabled us to discover things we wouldn’t have otherwise seen.

The best views are from up high.

Bologna’s skyline is dominated by two tours––Torre degli Asinelli and Torre Garisenda––which are among the few survivors of the original 200 that once towered over the city. The story goes that two rival families competed to build the highest tower, with construction beginning in the 12th century.

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Today, you can climb the Torre Asinelli, which at 318 ft (97 m) is the fourth highest tower in Italy after those in Cremona, Siena, and Venice. We climbed over 500 steps of this narrow, slightly leaning tower to get to the very top––and oh, that view!

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When you don’t know the history, it’s sometimes just as fun to invent it.

I tore out pages from my guidebook to bring along, but often we would we wonder about the stories behind other  buildings or statues that we came across.

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Take the above statue. When you don’t have access to Wikipedia, sometimes you have to do with your own storytelling, like about the time when Thomas Jefferson visited Bologna and subsequently scandalized the public by writing risqué romance novels. Later, the city decided to commemorate the visit by building a statue in his honor. (After all, he kind of looks like TJ, doesn’t he?)

Of course, even the guidebook can’t always help you. According to my guidebook, the Abbazia di Santo Stefano contains a basin with Lombard inscriptions from the 8th century. However, we weren’t quite sure what basin contained the inscriptions, so we took pictures with both.

There’s art everywhere.

Speaking of which, churches contain some of the great treasures of Italian art. Where else can you ponder the works of Renaissance greats for free?

San Petronio is gigantic, touring above the main square. But my favorite church was San Domenico, a grand airy church begun in 1221 to house the body of St. Dominic after his death. The inlaid wood panels in choir area were spectacular, each portraying a different scene from the bible in mesmerizing detail.

The Sanctuary of Maria della Vita contained some stunning terra-cotta statues of the Compianto sul Cristo Morto.

Anywhere is great with the right people.

Overall, I had a wonderful day exploring Bologna––ducking into courtyards and savoring every bite of my pasta. But the truth is, what really matters is finding the right people with whom to explore.

Next Saturday, it’s off to Arezzo to tour its famous antique market. But that’s more for next time!

They say a picture’s worth 1,000 words…

I finally uploaded a slew of photos from my camera on this rainy Friday morning. So, what better way to catch up then to show it through pictures?

For example, I found all the photos I took with paint-covered fingers when we decorated scarves for our City of Florence class.

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Landon, me, Janhvi, and Julia B. in the art studio

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Demonstrating the different techniques we can use to apply the stencils to the fabric

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My scarf in progress

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The finished product!

I also found some snapshots of the different places we’ve found while exploring Florence, such as this church we stumbled upon during a walk:

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Look at that fresco!

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Or the amazing graffiti you’ll find on walls throughout the city:

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Or the buildings themselves:

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Or the time we spent a whole day at museums. Our first stop was the Museo delle Piedre Dure, where they showcase the traditional Florentine art form of creating elaborate designs by inlaying different kinds of semi-precious stone:

We also went to the Museo di San Marco, where you can peek into the former cells of monks:

And lastly, I was reminded that there’s no better view of Florence than from Piazzale Michelangelo.

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Coveting the Handmade in Florence

Once again, I’m participating in the Berkley Center’s Junior Year Abroad Network this semester, where I’ll be posting two academic blogs on my experiences here in Florence. I’ve included my most recent blog below, although the original can be found here.

Enya playing in the background and hands covered in paint, I put the finishing touches on my work—dabbing red and blue paint on the stenciled flowers that I had painted on the scarf. As part of a fieldtrip for our “City of Florence” class, we were crowded into an artist’s studio in Oltarno, the neighborhood of narrow streets that lies on the south side of the river in Florence. The studio itself was eclectic. A nude cartoon baby statue sat near the front window next to a gigantic traffic light. Canvases in various stages of work leaned against the walls next to containers of half-used tubes of oil paint.

At Villa le Balze, the “City of Florence” class provides students with the opportunity to further explore aspects of the city itself. Last Friday, this kind of exploration took us to Le Zebre, a small shop owned by a couple that specializes in handmade garments and accessories. After touring their shop, we had the opportunity to create something of our own by using stencils and paint to decorate a scarf.

In a time dominated by huge department stores that demand cookie cutter mass production, it is refreshing to find artisans who put time and thought into each work. Art requires a type of patience that seems increasingly hard to find in our automatized and factory line world. This makes handmade works even more of a treasure.

Florence, after all, is a city of art. Every year, millions of visitors flock to the Uffizi, the Accademia, the Bargello, or one of the many museums in the city to gaze at the famous works of the Renaissance masters. Yet I found it surprising to discover how much the tradition continues to thrive.

After our time in the art studio, a couple of us wandered the streets nearby, ducking into the tiny shops and workshops that line Via Romana. In a store called Reciclò, we met an artist who constructs innovative pieces of furniture out of salvaged parts from eBay—a bedside lamp made out of a retro hairdryer, a chair made out of a Vespa, a table constructed from sea wood. The artist took the time to talk to us, showing off his various creations and recommending a flea market in Arezzo to visit. Further down the street, an artist named Gianni Silvestri encouraged us to not only look but also touch his oil paintings. In another boutique and workshop, an artist named Chiara invited us to come back for a jewelry making class.

Repeatedly, I was struck by the openness of the artists and how willing they were to listen to our questions in halting Italian and to let us to peek around their studios. They were proud of their work, and they wanted to share it in whatever way they could. Quickly, we figured out that if we stayed in the shop long enough and attempted to speak Italian, they would return the efforts. In a specialty chocolate shop, another customer commented to the owner in Italian that we wouldn’t understand because we spoke English. After responding in Italian that we could—somewhat—understand, the owner graciously warmed up to us, describing the different types of chocolate and giving recommendations on what she liked best. At the end, she asked for our names, and we promised to return again.

Globalization may be changing the kind of products we use and how they are made, but there remains value in the kind of handmade work that can never be replaced by mass production or factory lines. It’s the difference between receiving something off a shelf and knowing personally the individual who made it. The latter requires patience, skill, and care. It necessitates love.

And that, after all, is the beauty of art.

A public art installation in Florence, depicting a modern take on some of the iconic figures in Renaissance art.

A public art installation in Florence, depicting a modern take on some of the iconic figures in Renaissance art.