Tag Archives: Florence

“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.

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.

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 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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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.

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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