Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Padre, Pasqua, and Other Such Happenings

Buona Pasqua! Happy Easter! It certainly was here in Florence this weekend. Dad and Lin made their way through Venice and Rome last week and arrived in Florence on Saturday morning for a weekend of non-stop touring around the city. It was so much fun getting to play tour guide! Dad pointed out that I was particularly chatty this weekend. I have so much knowledge of Florence and Italian culture and no one to share it with since everyone here already knows everything. From art, architecture, and the Medici family to street etiquette (or lack thereof), balsamic vinegar making, and how to spot good gelato, they certainly got their ears full. So, watch out people, because when I get home, I will bust loose on ya!

I took Dad and Lin around to all of the main sights in Florence and explained as much as I could remember about things as we passed them.


The tour began with a stop at the San Lorenzo leather market and the Central Market (see previous posts for the deets on the Central Market). We did some balsamic vinegar tasting, took advantage of the copious amounts of dried fruit, and grabbed lunch. Dad and Lin seemed entertained by the cute man I buy chicken from. He chops meat with more finesse than anyone I've ever seen chop meat; it's a wonder he still has 10 fingers! At one point, he left and came back with what appeared to be the torso of some animal over his shoulder. The Central Market is one of my favorite places to go and I'm so glad Dad and Lin got to experience it!

After our market adventure, Dad and Lin wanted to see Michelangelo's David in the Accademia. The line wrapped around the building but, thankfully, my museum card got us right in. Phew! This wasn't my first time seeing David (he lives about 2 minutes from my apartment and I get in free with my card) but it's always remarkable to visit. It's not my favorite part of the museum, though. In the hallway leading up to the David are Michelangelo's Prisoners of Stone. They are his unfinished sculptures so they look like they are trying to escape the rock (hence the name). Plus, I love seeing the chisel marks because, in many different scenarios, I believe that the process is just as beautiful, if not more so, than the finished product.

A prisoner of stone
No foto!
I then showed them the Duomo, Piazza della Repubblica, (a famous piazza with several caffes that were once frequented only by intellectuals), and the Ponte Vecchio. I finally showed Dad what REAL gelato is. If it isn't made on the premises, it isn't as good and you can DEFINITELY tell the difference. Mmm. Gelato.

Santa Maria Novella was next. It just so happens that, in SMN's piazza, there was a food festival going on. Naturally, Dad bought a Sicilian pastry called sfogliatella (or, lobster tail). I first saw them on Cake Boss and always wanted to try one. Glad I got the chance because, from what I tried, it was quite delicious!

After a break at their hotel, we all went to aperitivo at Kitsch, a bar right across the street from my apartment. Aperitivo is an Italian social gathering in which you pay a flat rate for your drink and have access to all the pasta, veggies, meats, and fruit you can eat (buffet style and all prepared in some typical Italian way). The last time I went, the aperitivo was fabulous but, this time, it wasn't as good. Plus, the waitress asked us to move from our table to a bench in the middle of eating our meal (something that didn't sit well at all with Dad or Lin but, hey, that's Italy). We called it a night after dinner.


I don't remember the last time I went to a non-contemporary worship service for Easter but, when you're in Italy, good luck finding a contemporary, Protestant church. We attended mass at a small American Episcopalian church. It was very intimate but good.

Scoppio del Caro

This is something I'd been looking forward to since coming to Florence. For Easter, a medieval cart, followed by a procession, marches through town to the Duomo. Thousands of people gather around as the cart "explodes" with fire works for about half an hour. It's insane! At the end, a mechanical dove flies out of the cart. Since the tradition dates back to the Middle Ages, it is said that, if the dove returns, there will be a good harvest this year. If not, it's bad news for everybody. Obviously, since the dove is mechanical, it always returns but we didn't see it anyway because of all of the smoke from the cart.

Piazzale Michelangelo

After the grand explosion ceremony, I took Dad and Lin on a second tour around the city. We started with Santa Croce, a beautiful church wherein lies the tomb of Galileo. This was follower by Piazza della Signoria and the street performers of the Uffizi gallery. Then, we walked down the river Arno, across a bridge, and up tons of steps to Piazzale Michelangelo for a great view of the city. I'd been there before but I never tire of its views. If you ever go to Florence, you need to endure the trek up to the top. It's so worth it!
Cupid at the Uffizi
Piazzale Michelangelo
Trattoria al Trebbio
Easter dinner was at a Tuscan trattoria that my cooking teacher recommended. It was probably one of the best meals I've had since coming to Italy. We all got something (most things typical of Tuscany) and shared.
Risotto di Verdure
Crespelle alla Fiorentina

I've mentioned Ribbolita before (it was the first meal I had in Florence) but, it is so delicious, I will explain it again. It's basically Tuscan vegetable soup/stew with cabbage, lots of seasonal veggies, beans, and combined with what was, at one time, stale Tuscan bread. Dad ordered Florentine crepes (crepes with ricotta and spinach) as well as pork with a balsamic vinegar sauce. Lin decided on eggplant parmesan and, since it is Spring, I ordered vegetable risotto (a VERY typical Spring dish in Tuscany). All was delcious and it was a MUCH better dining experience than the previous night!


Since Monday was a national holiday, Liberation Day (Italy's "Independence Day"), we took a day trip to Cinque Terre (Literally, 5 Lands), 5 small fishing villages built into the cliffs along the coast of the Mediterranean. It took us 4 hours by crowded train to get there but, as Dad put it, the juice was worth the squeeze.

First, we took the ferry to the largest and farthest village, Monterosso. We hiked a bit then climbed a huge rock and chilled on the beach after wetting our toesies in the Mediterranean.

We hopped on the ferry again to go to Vernazza. We spent some time there then headed to Manarola. From Manarola, we walked the Via dell'Amore (Road of Love) to the first village, Riomaggiore. All of it was so gorgeous. Everywhere you looked, it was like you were looking at a post card. I am SO GLAD we got to go and see such a breathtaking place.

Via dell'Amore

On the way back from Cinque Terre, we stopped in Pisa to see the infamous Leaning Tower. It's close to Florence but I hadn't been yet. Of course, I couldn't leave without taking one of those cliche, forced perspective pictures with the tower.


Pisa's Duomo
By the time we got back to Florence, it was pretty late, my legs felt like jello, and I was exhausted. It didn't help that I had to wake up early again today and hit the schoolwork hard but I survived.

Buon Viaggio

After class, we all took another stroll through the market for some dried fruit and a look at it during its less-crowded hours (It's a zoo on Saturdays!) then I escorted Dad and Lin to the train station. It was a fabulous weekend and I really enjoyed getting to spend time with the both of them and show them around my home away from home.

This week is going to be filled with nothing but schoolwork! I have so much going on in regards to papers, presentations and projects, and it seems like there isn't nearly enough time in the day to get it all done! But I can't believe this semester is almost over!


Monday, April 18, 2011

Here Comes the Sun...?

My trip to the Amalfi Coast this weekend was my last overnight adventure of the semester. It's hard to believe that there are only 3 weekends left! The weather wasn't as warm as I would've liked for a trip to the beach (it ranged from chilly and cloudy to partly least it never rained!) but the southern coast of Italy is breathtaking. 

It was my 3rd trip and final trip with Bus2Alps (I also went with them to Interlaken and on my Spring Break adventure). We stayed in a hotel in Sorrento and visited different coastal towns each day. 


Our Friday excursion was to the island of Capri. We took a ferry from Sorrento and, when we arrived, we boarded private boats for a tour around the island and a rowboat voyage into the Blue Grotto. 

The entrance to the Blue Grotto is just big enough to get a tiny rowboat through. Even then, the four of us in the boat had to lay on top of each other. When we glided through the hole, the driver laid on top of us and pulled us through using a rope. Inside the Grotto, it was pitch black and all of the drivers were singing in Italian (but we still didn't tip them!). Our boat turned and we gazed at the blue water that was illuminated by the light shining through holes of the cave. It was gorgeous. Unfortunately, cameras tend to dislike dark caves and my shutter spazzed out. Regardless, you should get some sense of the grotto's beauty. 

When we arrived back at Marina Grande, we hiked about 20 minutes up some stairs to the town of Anacapri. If you're unfamiliar with the products of this region, Capri and Anacapri are famous for lemons and custom, handmade leather sandals. In just one little shop, you could sample lemon-infused chocolates, sip some limoncello (an Italian lemon liqueur), and have a cute, old Italian man make your sandals right in front of you. Unfortunately, the simplest of sandals were about €60. No thanks. 

I erroneously choose to believe that old Italian men like this
make the shoes that I buy at Target. Ignorance is bliss.

On Saturday, we visited the town of Positano. It's mostly a beach town but has many cute, handmade dress shops. We were supposed to take a private boat to a secluded beach to do some 40-foot cliff jumping but, much to my disappointment, the waters were too rough for safety. Apparently, you only land about 5 feet from the rocks and the Mediterranean is just too strong for its own good. 

It was partly cloudy all day so we laid on the beach for a bit but, by mid-afternoon, we were freezing and decided to go exploring the dress and ceramics shops of Positano. I didn't fulfill my goal of swimming in the Mediterranean this weekend but there's still time. Just putting my feet in the water nearly gave me hypothermia! 


On the way back to Florence on Sunday, we stopped in Pompeii. Last week was Culture Week in Italy so all museums (including the ruins of Pompeii) were free! It was interesting but, after about an hour of walking through the park, my roommate Ella and I were ready to get out of there. Being the morbid person that I tend to be, all I really wanted to see were the dead people. It's insane to look at the frozen figures and wonder what was going through their minds right before they died of suffocation. I thought, "How scared would I be if I saw Vesuvius erupting? How would it feel, knowing that my death is imminent and that there's nothing I can do about it?". Pretty profound to think about...

Southern Italia (Generally)

-Something you notice when traveling through Southern Italy is the fruit trees. There are lemon and orange trees EVERYWHERE! Moreover, all of the towns we visited had these GARGANTUAN lemons at the markets. We called them "Mutant lemons" and they were about as big as the average human head. I have never seen anything like them! 

To put things into perspective, to the left are avocados and
to the right are normal sized lemons. 
-Southern Italy (more specifically, eastern Sicily) is known for a frozen fruit drink called Granita. It's just fruit, fruit juice and ice and they are delicious! A typical combo is lemon granita topped with fresh squeezed blood orange juice. You haven't lived until you've eaten a blood orange. I'm planning on smuggling some through customs when I leave Italy and I PRAY that I can find them in the states. 

-Southern Italians are MUCH more friendly than Northern Italians. The relationship of Southerners and Northerners in Italy is almost a mirror image of the relationship between these 2 groups in the US. People in the North see themselves as more refined, intelligent, and mature. They are a bit rude and see those in the South as lesser Italians. Southern Italians tend to be more religious than in the North and they are also much more hospitable. Yeah, the southern men are more forward towards women, but it's nice to walk down the street and have people say "Buon Giorno" to you. You don't get that in the North of Italy. If I ever moved to Italy permanently, I'd definitely stay in the South. 

Il Capitano! Looks like a Luigi to me!
Dad and Lin come to visit this weekend and I will be playing the role of tour guide! I could not be more stoked to see them! Dad is bringing gum and that is a VERY good thing...I'm going through withdrawals. 
I can't wait to see this goofy lookin' guy!
Just kidding, Dad. You're a stud. 

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

European Censorship, Howard Stern, and More Political Pensiveness


I'm missing the blog that I keep when I'm in the States, so get ready. It's about to get political up in here. 

There is something that all Europe-dwellers must deal with on a daily basis that I love and loath simultaneously. If you have ever spent any significant amount of time on this side of the Atlantic, you have undoubtedly encountered the lack of censorship that Western European nations enforce. Allow me to illustrate what I'm talking about using some situations that I have encountered...

Imagine you're at a supermarket in the United States. Cee Lo Green's most popular song is playing in the background but you notice that the lyrics have been changed. Instead of being in full, F-bomb dropping form, its chorus is now "Forget you." Not so in Europe. Here, the F-bomb would explode all over the produce section, blasting through the hairy ears of the elderly and little ears of the young. What say you of this? Which situation is better? 

You're walking through a Beatles exhibition when, right in front of you, in a large photograph, John Lennon and Yoko Ono are standing completely naked. The exhibition has no age restrictions and has given no prior warning about the full frontal nudity contained in the picture. 

You plan to have a pleasant day at the beach with your family. As you begin to trudge through the sand looking for a place to set up camp, you notice that almost everyone at the beach is completely nude. 

I don't think that these things would ever fly in the United States but, in my opinion, they should be able to. 

First of all, let me say that I do not like profanity. I don't like hearing it and I don't like using it. I'm not morally opposed to it (there is nothing innately offensive about curse words) but I do believe that it is trashy and people, especially women, who curse do so at the expense of their own image. 

Secondly, during my time abroad,  I have seen more naked people than I had ever seen in my life previously (and definitely more than I ever cared to). I do not believe that there is anything wrong with nudity as long as it is not sexual. We are all created anatomically similar and, if you are comfortable enough in your own skin to go free willy, more power to you. The problem lies in society's sexualization of the human form. Unfortunately, it's difficult in today's world to be nude without being seen as an object. 

I love the lack of censorship here because it allows freedom of expression. I hate it because of the things that children are constantly exposed to and, because of the increased secularization of Europe, they are not taught where to draw certain lines. 

That said, I do not believe that governmentally-enforced censorship should exist in the US. It negates one of the fundamental rights found in the Constitution. The First Amendment states: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press...

The FCC and other such bureaucratic creations contradict this right. It is NOT the government's job to regulate what private enterprises and people can/cannot do, say, or write. I believe that, in a capitalistic society, the thought of losing money would motivate private businesses (particular in the media) to remain somewhat censored without any government intervention. For instance, if NBC started allowing extremely explicit content in all of their shows, they would most likely lose viewers and, in turn, they would lose advertising dollars.  The thought of this would scare companies away from becoming too inappropriate (but, then again, what is appropriate for some is not appropriate for others. Where do we draw that line?). 

I do not agree with many things that come out of Howard Stern's mouth and, frankly, the man repulses me. But the shock-jock has the right to say whatever he wants because that is a privilege that all of us share as Americans. The Left and the Right are both guilty of picking and choosing what the government should censor. The Left prefers to suppress certain religious and political expressions while the Right attempts to restrict what can be transmitted through the media in an effort to maintain "traditional American values". Neither should be so. The only entity with the right to suppress freedom of expression is the individual. 

If you do not apply the First Amendment of the Constitution to every American citizen, business, and situation, you might as well throw the entire Constitution into the garbage. 

French writer and philosopher Voltaire famously said, "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

I hate to admit it, but the Europeans got this one right. What do you guys think about the issue of censorship, both in Europe and the US? 


Monday, April 11, 2011

Under the Tuscan Sun

Being stationed in Florence this semester, I have been living in Tuscany for the past 3 months. After my program took us on an excursion around the hills and smaller towns of Tuscany, however, I realize that I am just now meeting the real Tuscany.

About an hour outside of Florence is the medieval town of Siena. I absolutely fell in LOVE with it! Since it is medieval, it is built on a hill and fortified with a stone wall that circles the city. It's exactly what you think of when you imagine a town in Toscana.

The society of Siena is based on 17 different neighborhoods dating back to the middle ages. Each neighborhood is represented by a different animal and that animal is displayed on placards, statues, flags, and signs throughout that particular community. Among the 17, I loved the unicorn, rhino, snail, fish, dolphin, and owl. They were so cute! The neighborhoods exist to make a larger community smaller. Our guide described it as being a part of a big family. There are pretty strict rules regarding the symbols but the bottom line is: once a panther, always a panther. You're actually baptized a second time into the community in which you are born. I love this concept!

Siena is also very well known for its cookies and cakes. I had the pleasure of eating 2 of the most famous cookies at one of the oldest pasticceria in the town, Nannini.

Panforte (literally, strong bread) consists of honey, chopped nuts, and dried fruit. It was given to armies during medieval times to sustain them during battle. If you've ever eaten a Clif Bar, that's kind of what it tastes like...but way better!

Ricciarelli were my favorite of the 2. It's basically a simple almond paste cookie sprinkled with powdered sugar. It's hard on the outside and soft on the inside!

And I have to mention the Pici. It's the handmade pasta typical of Siena. I got mine all'arrabiata (basically, with a spicy red sauce) so it ended up looking like bloody worms. Mmm.

Fonteverde Spa

After Siena, we drove through the hills to a spa resort where we were treated to their thermal baths. There were A LOT of old people. And many of them were wearing very unflattering swimsuits. Despite that, the baths were very relaxing. They are, in essence, giant bath tubs filled with a bunch of things that are good for your skin. The water was so hot and thick that it felt like I was submerged in pudding. I didn't like it at first but I warmed up to it (pun most definitely intended).

After a night in a 4-star hotel in the hills of Tuscany and a 4 course, 2.5 hour Italian meal (don't get too excited. It wasn't that great but it was free.), we drove to Perugia, a small, medieval town in the Umbria region (so, not technically Tuscany) that is considered the chocolate capital of Europe. Our guide seemed nearly senile so we ditched the tour and explored on our own.

We weren't incredibly enthused by the city. For one, it was Sunday so almost nothing was open. Secondly, the town seemed mostly residential so there probably would not have been much to do if things WERE open.

What I DID love about Perugia, however, were the views. It was situated on a hill and overlooked the beautiful region of Umbria.

After Perugia, we were taken on a 2 hour bus ride through the hills and valleys of Tuscany to Chianti, home of some of Italy's most famous wines...and Sting. I promised myself that I would live here one day. It was exactly what I was hoping Tuscany would be, and knowing that it is basically in my backyard is so ridiculous to me.

Our destination was Castel del Verrazzano, a castle and vineyard that produces Verrazzano wine (as well as olive oil and balsamic vinegar). Our arrival was overwhelming. The views were incredible. The compound contained gardens, fountains, and beautiful trees. Gino, the man that runs the vineyard and lives in the castle, was one of the coolest people I have ever encountered in my entire life. He gave a 20 minute spiel mostly about life in general, and let me tell you, this man has the answer to life. Basically, his philosophy is: Drink good wine, eat good food, and love strongly.
The castle. 
After hearing the hilariously entertaining yet wise Gino, we toured the vineyard and the cellars and were treated to a dinner and wine tasting.
Silenzio! Il vino sta riposando. Silence! The wine is sleeping!

The owner's reserve. Holy crap. 
Obviously, I have always said that I would NEVER drink alcohol as long as I live. Like my "no red meat" rule that was temporarily broken in Berlin, I decided to bend a little bit on this one as well. We were given 4 wines to try, 3 different types of Verrazzano Rosso (red wines) and Vin Santo with dessert. They taught us the different characteristics of wines as we tasted them: what it means to have "legs", colors, acidity, etc. I barely had a sip of each and that was already too much for me! I honestly don't know whose fruity legs I was supposed to be tasting but they definitely have a hygiene issue. My decision to abstain from alcohol was most definitely confirmed by the fact that I am absolutely repulsed by the taste (and smell) of it. Grody to the max.
This was the before picture. You would NOT want to see an
after picture. 

After the wine tasting, we drove through the wine country of Tuscany at sunset and arrived back in Florence. What a beautifully relaxing weekend! Thanks, API!
At the vineyard. 

This weekend, I am going to the Amalfi Coast with 2 of my roommates. It's the last major trip of the semester! I can't believe it!

Ciao Tesori!