Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Drunken Tourism

Subtitle: Liz, the city of Siena, and a single glass of wine.

On Sunday I was supposed to go to Siena but Cinque Terre pretty much wiped me out so I decided to go Monday after class. There was quite an ordeal trying to find the bus station and buy a ticket, but I eventually succeeded and boarded an express bus to Siena. Siena, the old rival of Florence, is a little city in the mountains to the south of Florence. The bus ride there was incredible. You know how in all those pictures of Tuscany, everything is very pretty and picturesque? It looks JUST like that in real life. Whodathunkit?

Things started to look a little less picturesque as we pulled into Siena because it started to POUR. Like, right when I needed to get off the bus. I took shelter under this little shelter thingie that was obviously intented to provide shade and shelter from light rain to people waiting for busses, but its creators had not given a thought to torrential summer storms. Oops.

More and more people were collecting under this overhanging and i was afraid they would push me out into the rain, so I headed for a little bar where i figured I could grab a coke or maybe- hey!- a glass of wine. As luck would have it the wine and the coke cost exactly the same, so I ordered a glass of white Chianti, which even I (the girl who almost never drinks) have found palatable in the past. But in the past I was not alone, in a strange town, with nothing to do but stare at the rain and avoid eye contact with the guys at the table next to mine. As the storm let up and I continued to do nothing but stare into space I wound up drinking my tiny, tiny glass of wine a lot faster than I might have otherwise. You know me- instantly drunk.

Ok, slightly intoxicated but more than I'm used to. You know how alcohol can sometimes make you make bad decisions? Well (ok this was a fine decision) I didn't have a map or a guidebook, but I knew the two things I was supposed to see, and I figured the best way to get there would be to follow the crowd. The bad decision part here was that I didn't bother to look at the street signs or try to remember which way I was going. No breadcrumbs to follow at all.

At the time I was also wearing all white, and my skirt had gotten pretty wet so I was pretty confident that my underwear was very, very visible (it was dark blue and stripey). But, yay chianti, I really didn't care. This was probably a good thing, because really, who wants to do tourism worrying about people seeing your underwear?

I saw the Campo, where they have their famous bareback horseraces every summer. Talked to myself a good bit there. Then as I was making my way toward the duomo I stumbled across a museum I'd seen advertized but had already decided not to go into-- the Torture Museum. Under the influence, going into the Torture Museum seemed like a perfectly good way to wait out the last few sprinkles that kept hitting me right through that holey straw hat. The torture museum was, um, gross, but I was feelin pretty good anyway.

From there i hit the cathedral. As you may have noticed I have a pretty sweet camera here, and it actually takes pretty good lowlight pictures provided that you hold it very, very still. Somehow I was able to take really clear photos, but I am a little worried that when i look at them sober they won't look as clear. (there are none right now because I forgot my cable).

The pastry is yummy but the pasta wasn't that great.

Yesterday I totally skipped class to go to this museum that's only open in the mornings, and it was totally worth it. Afterwards I found out that this other museum full of SWORDS that I have heard a lot about also closes early in the afternoon, so I caught the bus (it's north of town) and saw it. Pretty swords! My favorites were rapiers made in Venice with these gorgeous shiny baskets surrounding the hand. I'd seen some like them before at RenFaire but these looked much more graceful and elegant. Want.

That's about all. I will post probably just once more before I leave. That will be the one with the pictures of my apartment and school.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Cinque Terre, the vacation you have to earn

The Cinque Terre are a group of five little towns in northwest italy, right on the coast. They are super famous for being very pretty and for not being connected by roads. You can walk along a scary footpath etched into the side of the very steep mountain that takes several hours, or you can take a nice train between each one. I went with my friend Jason (aka Mr. Outdoorsman) yesterday and which one did we take? the footpath, of course.

We arrived in the furthest north (no. 5) of the five towns because the treck between that one and the next one is supposed to be the most difficult. And yeah, it was. We're talkin, steps made of rock that are as high as your knee. You spend most of the time out of breath. At first my very slight discomfort around heights was also a problem, but after about an hour you're just worried about whether your water will last you to the next town (it did). It was rough, but really fun pushing myself.

In the 4th town, (i should really learn their names, shouldn't i?), we were both starving and exhausted and decided to stop for lunch. Even at the most reasonably priced place, i ate one of the most expensive meals i've had in Italy. The grilled sword fish was 12 euro but worth every penny. Yes, Mom, I ate a fish! There were bones, but the non-bone part was really good. The pic above is town 4, the one on all the postcards. It may be called Vernazza. Look how far down it is- we had to walk that. We had to walk up that high too.

The trip between towns 4 and 3 wasn't as physically challenging as the other, but there was no shade and we did it in the heat of the day, which was awesome. But observe I have brought a bit of shade with me, in the form of a pretty purple hat. Thanks to this hat I am totally not sunburned on my face or ears (let's not discuss the neck or arms, shall we?).

I had to lean out a bit for Jason to take the picture, because the path wasn't wide enough for me to actually stand in front of him. Scary!

In town 3 there was pretty much nothing to do. It's up on a cliff way above the water so you have to work pretty hard to get down to it, and we were pretty tired by that point. We stopped in a bar and I ate a granita, which is basically frozen, flavored ice. Mine was lemon and was soooo good. My tummy felt cool for the rest of the day.

The path between 3 and 2 was much, much easier, though still kind of long. In town 2 we went down the boat ramp and stuck our feet in the water, but didn't take many pictures because we were afraid of falling in. We stopped for another snack and I got a bit of bread and nutella and Jason got foccacia with pesto. That region is supposed to be one of the best for pesto, and it was no lie.

The trek to town 1 was the easiest and shortest of them all, which almost seemed like a let-down. It's called the Via Dell'Amour and there are all these murals that people have graffitied over and benches positioned in such a way that you know they're meant for proposals. Cheesy! Ok, I loved it. Except that I was short a Dave, and romantic stuff just ain't romantic without your Dave.

There wasn't much to do in Riomaggiore, the first town, because it was about 6:30 and in these towns they roll up the sidewalks at 6. I didn't even get to buy any postcards because everything was closed. We took the train back to town 5, from which our train home would leave at 9. At this point there was pretty much nobody on the beach, so we went down on the horribly uncomfortable pebble beach and Jason swam while I, without a bathing suit, dipped my feet in the Mediterranean sea. Check em out:

The water was so clear and beautiful and cool, which felt awesome. After all that hiking in the sun I think I stank more than I've ever stunk before. At least on the way home my feet didn't stink (as much).

I was supposed to go to Siena today but didn't because I was so exhausted from yesterday. I got a few other sites off my list in Florence, and will try to go tomorrow after school.

Monday, July 17, 2006


This post is my general treatise on Italian food. I had been meaning to do it for a while, but an episode last night finally got me going. This is what I had for dinner last night:

In case you do not believe your eyes, that is a pizza with tomato sauce and french fries. This is what happens when you combine language difficulties and pizza.

I went to the pizzeria near my apartment. Most of the time I get the marinara pizza, which has tomato sauce, garlic and oregano and no cheese, because a) I am lactose intolerant b) I love garlic and c) I am cheap, and this is the cheapest pizza. But you can only have so many hundreds of marinara pizzas before you start craving a change. I had seen several times and eaten once a pizza that consisted of the crust, some sliced potatoes and sage or some spice like that, and found it dry but tasty. I walked into Pizzeria San Jacopino. Pretend the following dialogue is in Italian (which it was)

Me: Is there a pizza with potatoes and without cheese?
Girl: Yes, with french fries and tomatoes.
Me: (Thinks to self: french fries!? on a pizza!?! oh crap now i am taking too long and staring blankly, i don't want to look stupid) Sure, I'll take it.
Girl: Ok!

This pizza was not on the menu. There is a chance that she and I invented it spontaneously. I stood by waiting for it to be cooked and as the guy was sprinkling the french fries on the pizza some Italians came in and were like

"What the heck is that?"
Girl: French fries and tomatoes.
Customer A: Wow, crazy! Hey, (friend), check out this crazy pizza with tomatoes and french fries.
Friend: Um. Nice. I'll take the (normal pizza).

By the time I got the pizza I was pretty much cracking up. I took it home and managed to eat about half of it for dinner. And you know what? It wasn't terrible. It pretty much tasted like french fries and ketchup. but I had to eat the other half for lunch, and that pretty much sucked. I mean, everybody loves leftover pizza, but everybody hates leftover fries. The fries were definitely the dominant aspect here.

Now, for food in general. I had terrible nightmares before I came of two months of constant gas and stomach cramps because of the aforementioned lactose intolerance. But, surprise! American Italian food and Italian Italian food are completely different! Most of the pasta doesn't have cheese (especially the cheaper flavors like I tend to get). They provide parmesan but if you put too much on and make yourself sick it is your own damn fault (guilty).

Italian Italian food is much, much lighter than American Italian food. My favorite type of pasta here is known as Carretiera or Arrabiata, spicy tomato sauce. The second word means angry. There's also the Spaghettata, or spaghetti with garlic and olive oil. My teacher Claudia says that's what Italians eat when the cupboard is bare. I love the idea because it's something I can cook for one. Italian pizza comes in one size, which would feed a teenage boy and he'd have room left over for gelato. For me it usually works well as lunch and dinner, except that I have to carry the pizza around for half a day and feel like a big dork. In this part of the country it is very thin and hardly greasy at all, even with pork or cheese. In some restaurants they pour olive oil on the Marinara (cheeseless) pizza, which tastes divine but is a little messier to eat.

The Italians suck at bread. The bread has a really hard crust, like in France and Germany, but is much denser inside and somewhat bitter. Bread experts say it doesn't have enough salt. But the bakery next to this pizzeria has baguettes which are great, not as good as the ones i got in Germany but a good sight better than most of the bread you get here. In the restaurants they will bring you bread but only if you ask for it, and you have to ask again if you want olive oil and vinegar. These are given to you without a plate, so I usually wind up spilling olive oil all over the placemat. The stuff is delicious, even if it is quite messy. The olive oil definitely improves the taste of the bitter bread, and if you are fortunate enough to have commandeered a container of parmesan cheese you can make a great concoction of not-so-awesome bread and delicious cheese and oil.

Sandwiches, though economical, are among the least delicious things to eat in Italy. Most of these are kept in cases all day long and microwaved when you order them. The gross bread doesn't help, of course, but the sandwiches are generally dry with a thin leaf of very sad lettuce, some meat that may be turkey but you can't exactly remember the word, and some cheese. They aren't as bad as I'm making them sound right now, but really, would you eat a plain, sad sandwich when you could have fresh oven-fired pizza made right there? I wouldn't.

The Italians are good at dessert. Tiramisu, if you have room for it, is delicious. I mean, really incredible. And the gelato, of course. If you come to Italy and want to eat gelato, look carefully at the way the gelato is piled in the cases. If it was put in there neatly, it is bad gelato that was made in a factory. If it is piled in rather haphazardly it was made in the back and is delicious. If you are lactose intolerant, do not fret! The fruit gelato has no milk and is perfect for a hot summer day. I wonder if I have time for some before class.

There's always time for gelato.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Venice is shiny

Kind of on a whim I went to Venice this weekend. Best whim ever! Venice is shiny.

First, a few notes on the week. The World Cup party madness has continued, and is just as enthusiastic but a lot less frequent. On monday I watched some of the team's triumphant return to Rome. The players kept jumping up and down and singing "Chi non salta, รจ un franchese." In English, If you aren't jumping you are french. Even this homemade soap store got in on the madness.

(the window says "smell of victory")

On Monday I visited the Palazzo Vecchio where Rosella works and she showed us some private rooms that aren't open to the public. The PV has been the seat of city government since the Medicis and Rosella works on the government side, not the touristy side. Her office is a fabulous renaissance creation with frescoes and coffers and fancy everything. I was seriously imagining a "new wing" with your typical off-white walls and cubicles.

On Friday I went to Costanza's band's first ever concert. They were so good! Their music is kind of Irishy so when we got home I played her some Flogging Molly. They have two guitars, a bass, a drummer, a violinist and a flautist, all teenage girls. It was funny to hear an Irish-style song about Ireland sung in Italian.

ok ok, here's the part you came for: the Venice. I had originally planned on going to Cinque Terre, this very quaint set of five towns on the coast, with a group of girls from the school, three of whom I'd never met. I decided I would have a better time doing that kind of thing on my own, so I bought tickets late Friday afternoon for Venice. I couldn't get a train until 10.30, which meant i could sleep in a little (which was good because the concert Friday lasted kind of late). The bad part was that the parting train left at 7, and I'd only have like six hours to see the city. The worse part was that the train was 30 minutes late to Florence and got to Venice 40 minutes late, which meant I only had about five hours to see the city. I packed myself a picnic lunch of excellent french bread (from the "housewife" bakery, I swear that is actually the name of the bakery) and cream cheese and some cookies, which I wound up not eating. Ate the bread and cream cheese on the train and got to Venice ready to go.

The city is beautiful. It is clean. It is quiet. There are NO CARS. Florence is a very, very noisy city. In Venice there are no streets for cars, only those for pedestrians. The residents do have motor boats, but they can't go very fast so you don't even have much noise from those. Every time you cross a canal on a beautiful white marble bridge a cool breeze comes by. Florence is hot and even the breeze is hot. Venice was so fresh. I really think I was more impressed by the temperature and lack of car and vespa noise than anything else in the city.

I walked around the north side of the city and hit a couple of the major sites: Santa Maria dei Miracoli, the hospital (which was actually a fer real hospital and not, like, an old hospital you could take tours of) and the cathedral of John and Peter. (or maybe paul). Then I went to Piazza San Marco and Basilica San Marco, which is very fancy and shiny. The outside has several shiny golden mosaics and lots of ornamentation.

The inside is stunning. The inside of the five domes are covered with these very byzantine-lookin mosaics. I loved the floor, which had the most amazing intricate marble and precious stone designs all over, but we weren't allowed to take pictures. I did manage one clandestine photo of the ceiling.

There's gold in them thar mosaics!

The color of pilgrims at San Marco is orange. You may or may not know this, but in Italy they are very strict with rules for dress when entering churches. Your knees and shoulders (and boobs) must be covered- no shorts, no mini skirts, no camisoles, no wife beaters. The line to get into San Marco was not to pay for tickets, but to have an inspector make sure you were properly covered. I had come prepared (I always keep a cover-up when I'm wearing a cami, just for this reason) but many others had not. If you were immodest but within certain boundaries, they would give you orange wraps to help you cover your nakedness. It was amusing to see so many people dressed in the same color, like pilgrims of some crazy religious order.

I found a decent jewelry cart near the basilica and picked up a fabulous murano glass bracelet for myself and a surprise for Mom. Sadly my economic shopping has not paid off, because I am a little green around the wrist now. Anybody know how to make cheap silver not do that?

Venice is very tourist-friendly, much more so than Florence. It is much more centrally located (thank you geography) and everywhere you go there are signs pointing you to the things you ought to see. I gave up on the total crap map I bought and just followed the signs to San Marco. As I was going I kept seeing signs for this other thing, the "Rialto" which I had never heard of. After San Marco and the jewelry cart I decided to find the thing, and i did. Here it is.

It's Venice's version of the Ponte Vecchio- a bridge with cute expensive little shops on it. The shops face the center of the bridge, which is why you can't see them. I was running out of time but wanted to look around a bit and found the PERFECT little venetian glass clock for my fabulous new living room. I bought it, waited for the bus-boat thingie, and rode down the grand canal back to the train station.

When I came to Italy I'd decided not to travel alone, but at this point I've gotten pretty confident in my ability to avoid dangerous situations. Plus the North is supposed to be safer. Doing Venice alone was great. If I had been with someone else there is no way we could have seen as much as I saw in five hours. And I am so glad I went because it was gorgeous and COOL! I didn't regret not staying the night until I got back to my oven of a bedroom and had to fall asleep in the 90 degree heat with no breeze and the roar of the traffic below. Today was furiously hot in Florence and the whole time I was like, "but it's so nice in Venice!"

Monday, July 10, 2006

Siamo Campioni del Mondo!

Just a quick update because I am short on time today. I am headed to help some friends celebrate their mutual half-birthday. Woo hoo!

Italy won the world cup and it was FRIGGIN AWESOME. Here are some choice pics from the event.

Me and the crowd, check out my awesome Toni shirt

A guy with a fake trophy gets the crowd all frenzied before the game even starts

Some of the chaos after

That blur is a big parade of crazy fans walking along the Arno

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Week 5, 3 weeks to go

I have obviously been very bad about the updates lately, so I am probably going to forget some stuff from the week, but here goes.

We have a new girl staying with us, a girl from Germany who is very nice and speaks great English but not as much Italian. She got here Sunday and will be here for two weeks. (Edited because I am a dumbass and got my countries and languages confused)

On Monday I went to school and took a test that was corrected right away, and I was promoted to level 2. After the test I wanted to go to the Uffizi, one of Florence's most important museums, but it is closed on Mondays so I decided to see the Duomo instead. First on my list was to climb the dome. I think I am developing a creepy old staircase phobia, which is bad because that's pretty much all there is on the way up. I did get to see some awesome stuff because you get to walk around the inside of the dome which has amazing frescoes.

Monday evening Andrea and I joined Mark, Jason and a girl whose name I have forgotten watched XMen at the English language movie theater. Yay for no dubbing. It's in this old theater that looks soooo nice. The funny thing is that they have an intermission, so halfway through the movie the lights went on and we were like, WHAT? My teacher said it was because Italians couldn't go that long without smoking.

Tuesday was a big day--the day of the World Cup Semifinal, Germany vs. Italy. It was madness. This is the enormous crowd watching the screen that looks like a PSP:

We managed to avoid some of the madness by getting these sweet spots overlooking the crowd, a much smaller screen, and a projection onto a tower that was once part of the city fortifications. Check it out.

In case you didn't follow the game, it was 0-0 the whole time. At the end of 90 minutes, if nothing has happened, they play for two more periods of fifteen minutes (somebody correct me if I'm wrong). If nothing happens then, I think there's one other period or something and then they do penalty kicks to decide the winner. About three minutes from the end of the second overtime period, Italy scored. Madness! Jubilation! Screaming! Airhorns! Waving of Italian flags! And somehow, just as we had finished hugging and high-fiving and jumping up and down, Italy scored again! Holy crap! The game ended and the Italians got in their cars and on their scooters and started honking and didn't stop until around 3am. Andrea was not particularly overjoyed about the whole thing so we went to a bar to get some wine to "help us sleep through the noise."

Oh, I almost forgot. Tuesday was also the 4th of July. To celebrate I decided to do the most American thing I could think of: I ate lunch at Mcdonalds. It was terrible, as good mcdonalds should be. The main differences between McDonalds in Europe and in the US is that there's more on the menu in America and in Italy sometimes gypsies will come up to your table and beg. Weird. For dinner I found this bizarre little "mexican" place. These people obviously have no idea what they're talking about.

Wednesday I went to watch the other semifinal with some friends, which was not nearly as exciting as the Italy game since, well, it did not involve Italy. The Italian players are such drama queens that I suspect there may be an audition along with the tryouts. Every time someone is anywhere near them they fall down and OHHHHHHH my LEEEEEGGGGGG! Drama, drama, drama, and then if nothing gets called on them they just get right up- healed, it's a miracle! The France-Portugal game went much faster because those guys were all busy trying to act like they weren't hurt.

I can't remember what happened Thursday so it must not have been very exciting. On Friday after class I went to the Uffizi, Florence's big honkin museum. The cool thing about museums in Florence over most places in the world is that all this amazing art by really famous artists is local. How sweet is it to see something by some famous dude and in the info it says "this was in Santa Maria Novella" and you're like dude, I have totally been there! My favorite thing was the gallery, which isn't really the main deal there anyway, but there are little portraits all along the walls of every pope, king, cardinal, saint, author, artist,and sheik you can think of. Attilla the hun was there. It was freakin sweet.

Today i finally got my Italia shirt to wear to the big game tomorrow and a spiffy shirt for Dave. I saw Santa Croce, which was nice but all the impressive bits were covered up with scaffolding. Note to self: come back to Santa Croce when the restauration is over, because from the picture it is gonna be incredible. Saw the tombs of Dante, Michelangelo and Gallileo. Trivia: the latter two were born three days apart.

Well i hope you are still reading this and i hope you liked the pictures. Sorry for the infrequent and overly bloated updates!

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Cab drivers, paintings, ants and Catholics

Cab drivers: On Friday Italy played Ukraine in the quarter-final of the world cup. I went and met up with some friends from school at the end. Italy trashed Ukraine 3-0 and it was madness. I was at one of the big screens and there was a parking lot behind it where people spent about 30 minutes honking horns. Most of that was celebration but after a while I started to suspect that they were also frustrated at not being able to leave. We spent a while hanging out in the city center and then I went to catch a cab as it was very late and the busses had stopped running.

When I got to the cab stand there was a bit of a line. I also saw about 15 empty taxis. Apparently every cab driver in the city was on break right next to this cab stand, getting a coffee. It took probably 20 minutes for one cab driver to come out and take a fare. I stood there for probably 40 or 45 minutes waiting. The great part was that towards the end of my wait a cab drove up, to take a break of course, and the only place to park was in the line. It looked as if he was trying to get in line too. The whole thing was so ridiculous. Only in Italy.

Paintings: Yesterday when I woke up i sent a message to my friend Ani, who had said she wanted to do the museum thing with me over the weekend. A little later I got one back saying she wanted to go and which was i going to see? We decided to go to the Pitti Palace, which has an amazing art collection and a medici costume collection as well, so I headed over to meet her there. When I got there I started looking for her and this other guy Mark came up. Mark and I had also discussed doing the museum thing over the weekend, but he had my number and I didn't have his. It turned out that Ani had never replied to my text message, Mark had sent me a message that looked like it was Ani's reply. Needless to say I was more than a little confused, but once we got it all sorted out we headed in. Mark is an artist and it was really neat to do the painting museum with him because he knew every painter and could point out different techniques. The costume gallery had so few costumes in it I have no idea how it justified the name, but those that they did have were absolutely gorgeous. Our tickets also got us into the huge Boboli gardens, but I had forgotten my sunscreen and our passes get us in free anyway, so we decided to save those for another day. All in all a fun time, but I am a little curious about what happened to Ani.

Ants: On Thursday morning when I woke up I noticed some ants in my room. I told Rosella and she said she would buy some poison for them. The ants were coming in through the balcony door so I vanquished them and shut the door. No problem Friday morning, so I figured maybe Rosella had gotten the spray. She and the girls are all out of town this weekend, and I woke up in the big empty apartment Saturday to find hundreds of ants marching all the way across my room, out the door, and down a crack just outside the door. I spent about 20 minutes killing them and didn't manage to finish the job, I was too worn out and had stuff to do. When the door is closed they can't come in, but I also can't breathe. I opened it for a while last night and saw that they had started coming in again, so I took matters into my own hands: I picked up my pillow and alarm clock (no sheets necessary) and slept on the couch with the FAN ON! Best sleep since I got here, it was the perfect temperature and the fan kept the mosquitos off, which was awesome. Might not be able to pull that off tonight though, since they should be back by now.

Catholics: I wanted to go to Mass today so I got up kind of early, but didn't wind up getting out the door soon enough to go to San Miniato, this little church on a hill that has mass (I think) at 10. I decided to go see if they had mass in the Duomo. I should say that I had decided to do a Catholic mass because Catholic churches are much easier to find than Protestant ones, and if I'm not going to understand anything anyway what does the denomination matter? The duomo did indeed have mass and I was not late yet, I was actually a little early, so I decided to circle the place once to keep from being too early. As I began my walk I saw two people I recognized from school, one of whom I had actually met for the first time on Friday. that guy is a Franciscan monk, the other woman works at the school. I asked if I could come with them and they said yes. We sat down and they were saying something vaguely rosary-ish. Graham, the monk, ducked out. Maria was really nice and tolerant of my ignorance of all things catholic. We didn't see Graham again until the procession of the head dude and three other dudes in green, one of whom was Graham. Surprise! He apparently had important priesty type things to do like wipe down the cups that held the communion wafers, all of which was done with a great deal of ceremony. Except for the incense, kneeling, and signs of the cross, oh and the fact that everything was in Italian, it was all very similar to a Methodist worship service back home. We do have better music though. The head dude who gave the homily spoke really clear Italian though, and I was able to understand him very well. The readings from the bible were easy to get too, they were pretty common passages.

In all it's been a good weekend despite the ants.