la Storia ed i Sapori dalla Bella Città

In the past I have traveled to many cities in a short period of time. On each of these vacations, I have fallen specifically in love with one of these cities. The only problem with loving every piece of a place so much is that I am unable to fully enjoy the city succeeds it.
Six years ago when I went to Italy, the first city I visited was Venice. The charm of the canals, the grandeur of the Palazzo Ducale, the quaintness of Murano and Burano, and the friendly, convivial nature of the Italians all sponsored my adoration of Venice. The next city on the itinerary, Florence, just didn’t compare.

But now, I’m beginning to second guess the validity of that assertion. Although I still have beautiful memories of Venice locked away in the corner of my mind, my current experiences in Florence are causing me to become even more attached to this city than I ever was to Venice. The way Florence manages to be simultaneously religious and civic, historical and hip, and quaint and bustling with activity, is just so tantalizing. It literally seems as though every corner I turn leads me to experience a new, beautiful piece of Italian life. (Or maybe that’s just because there are so many side-streets…)

Anyway, my first week here has been equally spectacular and exhausting. I have made plenty of time to explore the historical center of Florence, the surrounding areas, and the Villa Natalia at the expense of sleep: Between hours of walking around, early morning classes, and late-night studying, I’m not sure sometimes whether jet lag is making me sleepy or if I’m just physically tired. (However, I am sure my best friend’s name at the moment is Espresso.)

Although class starts di buon’ora della mattina, the greatest thing about my Art History lessons, is that classes are held “on-site”– in other words, in the various museums/churches of Florence. My classmates and I meet Silvia, our professor, in the Piazza San Marco at 8:45 am (prima che il tempo diventa piu caldo). She walks us to different areas of the city, and acts as a sort of human audio-guide along the way. It’s exciting to learn about the history of the city. Walking around, not only the contrast between Gothic-aged and Renaissance-aged buildings becomes more apparent but also the significance of the path you walk takes on a greater meaning. For me, it was once easy to look at an intricately constructed, yet massive piece of architecture and think — wow, whoever made this was a genius. But now, when I see these buildings I wonder — How did this building come to be? Did the artist actually get to construct his vision, or rather was his creativity constrained by the desires of his patron?
The religious and civic conflict that once occurred in all cities of Italy, for example, became literally apparent to me after learning the history behind the buildings constructed in different sections of the city. The separation of the Duomo and the building where the Guilds would meet literally displays the struggle and separation between city and state.

This is where the guilds once met. Interestingly, this building used to hold grain before it was a town-hall! (It had a monolithic, crude design before the embellishment of the arches and addition of the statues)

This is where the guilds once met. Interestingly, this building used to hold grain before it was a town-hall! (It had a monolithic, crude design before the embellishment of the arches and addition of the statues)

The Duomo at night-- because it was too beautiful not to share.

The Duomo at night– because it was too beautiful not to share.

This weekend, I went hunting for a supermercato, because I needed conditioner, laundry detergent, and hand soap. After walking into a new section of the city with some friends, we found “Esselunga,” and had a great time looking around the poorly-organized aisles for the items we needed, and translating the Italian display cards. (I personally got stuck in what is comparable to King Kullen’s sweets aisle, trying to decide which biscotti looked the most delectable.)

Yesterday, I explored the side streets of the historic section of the city with some friends, and searched for non-touristy gelato places. (If you ever do end up in Florence, you must go to “Perché no?” because the gelato is so fresh, and not overly creamy. (The name of the gelateria is as great as the gelato itself: In Italian, the response to the question “would you like dessert” is not usually “Sure”, but rather, “Why not?”– Perché no?).
On our hunt for gelato, I also found a little fresh fruit stand.

Thank goodness my handbag is too small and too stuffed to fit any fruit in it, otherwise I may have spent an excessive amount of euro on everything here.

Thank goodness my handbag is too small and too stuffed to fit any fruit in it, otherwise I may have spent an excessive amount of euro on everything here.

I spent the greatest 30 cents of my life on the juiciest, sweetest peach.

My afternoon in the city yesterday ended with two more savory flavors: the tastes of home and coffee. Earlier in the week Mena, my Italian professor from Brown, emailed me to say that she would be in Florence; in the late afternoon we met up and drank cappuccinos on a rooftop building overlooking the Piazza delle Signorine. Through our conversation, we realized that we coincidentally are living right down the street from each other! As Mena said to me in English through her Italian accent, “It really does seem like a small world, Emily. First I am teaching you Italian at Brown, then I am seeing you in Italy, and now we are living so close together.”

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Arriving in Florence.

Ciao a tutti! Sto adesso a Firenze. Finalmente.

Leaving my house at 3:30pm on July 29th, I’m writing to you at 5:37 pm on July 30th from my desk, while I look at the city of Florence from above through the window that is shining slanted rays of the mid-afternoon sun on my desk.

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But before I get ahead of myself, my flights here were relatively painless. In JFK, I met up with another girl in my program who had the same travel agenda as I did. We made fast friends while waiting out the hour delay of the first leg of our journey. Once the plane tooke off, the 8-hour flight seemed much shorter than I thought it would: this is probably thanks to both the movie screening of Silver Linings Playbook, and the fact that I missed my afternoon coffee and was actually tired when the cabin lights went off.

Arriving in Rome at 8:20, Maya and I made the executive decision that an espresso stop was worth power walking to the gate of our connecting flight.

At 10:30, we were in a taxi on our way to Villa Natalia.

I’m not sure what I really expected this Villa to look like, but I can honestly say that even if I had imagined a beautiful image, that the Villa in real life would have surpassed it.

The estate is absolutely gorgeous:

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I hope to find the time later — or more realistically, tomorrow — to explore more of the grounds, because the estate really is too beautiful to not examine every nook and cranny… on our way back to the Villa Natalia, I found a pea (or lima bean?) garden!

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My room was equally perfect. With ample closet space, air conditioning, and an airy, spacious feel, I am thus far very satisfied. (Although I suppose anything that closely resembles/ contains a bed looks good to me after only a short 2 hours of sleep…)

After unpacking my (less than 50 lb!) suitcase, Maya and I headed into Florence via bus from the Villa to Piazza San Marco. It was surreal to walk around the city with the simple agenda of finding a place to eat. With 6 weeks ahead of me to hit all the must-see, touristy spots, I rather paid attention to the Italian people as I strolled: listening to the beautiful Italian language envelop me, I was surprised and excited to understand drips and drabs of conversation. Although I did accidentally misdirect a tourist who was looking for l’Accademia…

We finally chose a lunch spot an hour later and dined with margherita pizza in the back of a hand-painted ristorante off the Piazza San Giovanni. I managed to carry on conversation with the waitress in Italian, and successfully relate that we were two students studying abroad for six weeks etc. etc.. Although, I wasn’t able to understand what Za – Za (il nome della ristorante) meant — I feel as though it imitates the buzz of a bee in Italian, but you can let me know if you think otherwise!

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We decided to walk back to the Villa instead of taking the bus, as to further explore the side streets and get a better idea of the layout of the city. In reality we explored the shops and street markets…

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But all in all, it was a beautiful afternoon. Even more beautiful was returning to my room and realizing that when I woke up the next morning, I would still have oodles of time in Florence.

Arriverderci for now, I have to run to my first Orienation dinner.

But I’m looking forward to showering in this cute little contraption afterwords,

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and even more so, I’m excited to sleep soundly, and wake up in the morning refreshed and ready to start my studies.

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Rides, Relaxation and Reading.

Beginning early last Friday morning, I have been traveling around New England. A book has been my faithful friend when I was in limbo between destinations. Taking a bus to Boston to visit friends from school, and later the ferry from Woods Hole to Oak Bluffs, my book accompanied me.

Saturday afternoon I met my family at my grandparents’ summerhome in Martha’s Vineyard. Luckily, the weather was in our favor, and we made it to the beach each day of our vacation. A true Long Island girl, I know how to pack a beach bag efficiently– and by efficiently, I mean one that is neither jammed with crap I won’t use nor too heavy. Essentials include:

  • my book (of course!)
  • sunscreen (of various SPF depending on the current condition of my tan)
  • bobby-pins (gotta keep those pesky fly-aways back!)
  • a water bottle (hydration is key for an enjoyable few hours on the shore)
  • a beach towel (…obviously)
  • any chapstick that is SPF 15 (nothing–I repeat, nothing, is worse than sunburnt lips)
  • my ipod & headphones, and
  • snacks. (add lunch, if you get an early start)

Anyway, spending so much time at the beach also gave me plentiful hours to kill as I baked in a golden glow. For the majority of that time, I read.

Accompanying me in spirit throughout my aforementioned journey and on the beach was the Joad family, from The Grapes of Wrath. I have to say, as much as I sympathized with their struggles, I didn’t love the book all that much. In fact, I appreciated more Steinbeck’s prose than the plot itself. Although I suppose that the slow progress and banal repeated events that created the ‘plot’ mirrored the migrant worker’s lifestyle during that time period.

I spent this morning in a car for 6 hours as my dad drove home. During some of this time, I learned of the fate of the Joad family: or more accurately, learned of an event that gave somewhat of a conclusion to one of the character’s life trajectories. (Sorry for the crypticism, don’t want to spoil the book!) During another sector of this time, I began Animal Farm, which hooked me much more than the documentation of the life of the Joads.

Arriving home before I was able to close the short fable, I quickly unpacked before beelining my couch to finish it. I suppose that’s the avid reader’s lifestyle, though. Traveling by ferry, bus or car, my books travel with me. Relaxing on a beach towel or the couch, I’m bound to read.

Getting Crafty

About two weeks ago, the laziness of my weekend days caught up to me Sunday afternoon: soaking up the sun all day Friday, Saturday and Sunday doing nothing more than breathing (and getting a tad bit burnt) made me antsy to do something.

I first solved this by finishing A Farewell to Arms. (It was spectacular and I highly reccommend it: Hemingway’s beautiful prose detailed a plot blending history and the emotions associated with love during war and made the book a simultaneously fascinating, vivid, and informative read.)

Having done a fair share of reading for the day I searched for things to do. At one point I contemplated cleaning, and stood in my family room looking at the little piles of junk that had accumulated on the ends of shelves, and were now acting as bookends.

One of such piles was holding up photo albums from past vacations — this gave me a brilliant idea. Late last summer, I traveled in France for three weeks with my family: it was the most specatular trip of my life, yet there was no album of photos by which to remember it. Photo albums for me though are a bit impersonal — its like, you have all the pictures there, but they’re jammed into pre-made slots and forced into groups of six on a page…

I decided instead of a photoalbum, to compile a scrapbook.

Anddddd (drumroll please…..) that’s what I’ve been doing for the past two weeks instead of blogging.
I finished the book just earlier today, and I’m actually quite happy with the way it turned out.
After tying a sparkly green ribbon around the book to hold it closed (and simultaneously showering my dining room table with sparkles), I hid it away until Father’s Day, when I will give it to my Dad– what could be a better way to say thank you for the trip and for being the best father in the whole entire world?

On Exercise.

Sunny mornings make me think about tanning.

Tanning makes me think about bikinis.

Bikinis make me think about rock-hard abs.

Where do you go to tone abs? The gym.

When I awoke this morning, the sun shone brightly through those bothersome gaps where my window shade doesn’t quite meet my window frame. So, I quickly washed my face, threw my hair into a pony, ate a banana, drank my espresso like it was an actual shot, and headed to the gym. 

At 8:12 I swiped in and checked the class scheduled for 8:30. The schedule read: “On the Ball – This class incorporates traditional body sculpting exercises using the stability ball. You will burn, sculpt muscles and get a great comprehensive workout! (All levels)”

It sounded perfect. It always amazes me how upbeat class descriptions at a gym are. They skillfully mention the burn of fat, not the burn you feel after reps on reps on reps of exercises… that “great comprehensive workout” is great till you feel like roadkill and notice the class is only halfway through.

I will admit though, theres nothing like that feeling of fatigue the next morning that makes you remember that you did something the day before. No words are as inspiring as that pain you feel when you take the first step out of bed, having temporarily forgotten the great workout you had yesterday, or at some point in earlier in the week.

With words in the class description that optimistically indicated I would feel that great feeling after a good workout, I decided to take the class.

Okay. To be fair, what really made me take the class were my memories of exercise balls from when I was younger. My mom never purchased an exercise ball for her home use, because she always made time to start her day at the gym. My friends’ moms however did own exercise balls. Kids that were allowed to play with the ball were privileged: playdates were always at the house of the kid with the exercise ball. I mean, what’s more fun than rolling around on/with the ball, seeing who can stand longest on the ball, sitting crosslegged on it… etc, etc.

This class On the Ball wasn’t as much of a ball (excuse the pun, it was just too tempting) as those playdates were: I definitely got a comprehensive workout– one that fatigued me enough to make me too lazy to get up off my lawn chair from tanning. The thought of walking back inside to shower was less appealing than the escape from the 94 degree heat that going into the cool A/C posed.

Early visiting hours

My grandma is the only person I know who is both up early and eager for guests before 10am.

So that Tuesday morning when I woke up and wanted to talk with  listen to the funniest / inspiring / tear wrenching / adorable / factual / downright crazy stories of my Italian grandmother, I drove over to her house. 

When I arrived she was still in her bathrobe, and was sitting in her chair near the window, a bowl of peaches on the table to her left. She turned her head to look at me as I entered the sitting room and smiled that genuine smile of gratitude and happiness that only grandmothers seem to have.

Did I ever mention how much I love genuinely nice, happy people? Maybe that’s why I choose to share my precious morning hours with my grandma of 92 years.

It was the first time I had visited her since returning from college and so there was much to talk about. Not necessarily in order of importance, below are the subjects of conversation that filled the room, my heart, and the morning.

  • the Italian cookbook in her bedroom that she wanted to give me (which I gladly took, of course)
  • my babysitting experience from the week before
  • her babysitting experience as a teen (she got paid with a fudge pop, not cash)
  • the time someone tried to pay her 34 cents to set a sleeve in a men’s jacket (a stingy compensation especially considering the context of the war)
  • the extra 6-pack of paper towels she accidentally ordered from Peapod and hence needed to give my mother since she had no use for them
  • the beauty of the Sicilian dialect, and the story (that I was hearing for the third fourth[?] time) of her conversation with a group of little Sicilian children and their surprise at her knowledge of the dialect despite her American appearance
  • her misunderstanding of the continued segregation of the South when she was there with her husband, and her mistake in sitting on the “black people’s” bus.
  • the things I needed to see in Florence before I left. 
  • that there was something wrong with her refrigerator: the milk was spoiling after a day of sitting on the shelf. (In reality, it was because she had too much food in the fridge…)

Leaving my grandmas, I felt hopeful that when I was her age, I would remember the experiences of my youth with the clarity in which she remembered her own, and still be able to take life’s challenges in stride and with a chuckle. Being in her company allowed me to imbibe some of her cheerful spirit, and put the bounce in my step that carried me with a smile through the rest of the day.

the sight of sunshine after another day of rain.

Q: What is the best way to spend a rainy Saturday morning?

A: The NY Times Crossword Puzzle.

Actually, I guess that would be my answer on any Saturday morning. I looveee me some crosswords. I’ll admit though, the Sunday Times puzzle is especially difficult — I usually start off with some educated guesses, wait for my parents to fill a large chunk in, and then re-attack it in the afternoon.

Keeping with the news trend, I also read some an Italian news article during my Saturday am hours of solace. I had plans to read a bunch, but the one I read took me long enough to get through that I called it quits after finishing. Oh Madonna mia! Guess I should start brushing up more on my Italian…

Q: What is the best way to celebrate much-missed rays of sunshine?

A: Sun salutations, of course!

Before Memorial Day company arrived on Sunday, I began my morning with some Yoga.

Later, I did laundry and put the finishing touches on a coconut-berry tart I had prepared the night before for dessert. Laundry definitely isn’t an activity that allowed me to enjoy the sun, but hey. I mean, it had to get done at some point.