Friday, May 8, 2009

Ten Days and Counting

So, here we go – I only have ten days left in Italy. Ten. A week and a half. Dieci. Eight of those days will be spent doing things like studying and taking exams, one will be spent packing and having a free dinner at study program’s expense (I plan for taking them for all they’ve got, but that’s just me), and two will be spent in Rome, as I can’t stay in the Siena apartment for the weekend (it’s the reason why I’m taking them for all they’ve got at the dinner). Then I get on a plane on Monday morning and get back in Monday afternoon (of course, I, having crossed more time zones than I care to count, will feel like it’s an ungodly late hour of the night). Certainly I’ll be excited to return, to see my family and my friends that I haven’t seen for months. But I will be sorely sad to leave – I’ve made new friends here, done a lot of new things, tasted new foods (penne arrabbiata, yum!), and gone to places I wouldn’t have gone to had I not studied abroad. So, whatever sadness I shall feel when I head away, I shall have even more fond memories and experiences (not to mention a few souvenirs) with which to remember my time here fondly.

I think, now that I only have ten days left, I’m going to miss a lot about Italy when I return to the United States. I’m going to miss a lot of little things, actually. I’m going to miss their sense of political irony, like how the Communist Party’s city HQ is right above the money exchange on the banking square, or how the anti-immigration Lega Nord HQ is right above the foreign foods market. I’ll miss the near-death experiences we have whenever there are Vespas clipping us on the busy streets. I’ll miss that I’m in a country where my nose is considered normal-sized. I’ll definitely be excited to go back, surely, but I’ll be sad to leave Italy behind, to make all the fun memories and experiences a thing of the past. I mean, granted, I really want to come back, and I plan to come back, but leaving for now will be sad.

I do, however, have some things that I really want to do when I get back to the United States – not least of all food. Namely American food. I have been living in the country that’s probably the most famous in the world for its culinary offerings, and I’ve enjoyed every day of that. I love that even the simplest Salami sandwich is leagues above what is usually offered to me. However, I have been without crappy Americanized fast food for almost three months now, and I’m dying for it. I’ve had cravings in the middle of the night – it’s getting scary. I find myself wanting a Five Guys Burger a lot of the time – I even have hankerings for Taco Bell. Taco Bell! I’ve become entrenched, I tell you! I’ll definitely miss the food here, but I think that, having gotten new recipes and new cooking tips, I can bring some of that home. But, with that out of the way, I totally want some terrible, greasy, unflattering piece of Americana inside my belly. In other words: Vandy students, if you need someone to go on late-night fast food runs with you next year, look no further than the DiRienzo.

I’ll write a few more posts before I leave, including a list of the stuff I’ve gotten, what Italians do better, what Americans do better, etc. Till later, ciao!

Friday, April 24, 2009

Less than Four Weeks Left!

The fact that we, at this point, now have less than four week remaining in Italy is quite sad news to me. This semester has gone by so quickly that I feel that, while I have experienced so much here and done so many awesome things, I will have missed something important (although I’m not sure what that ‘something’ is). The semester’s gone by too fast, I think, although I will get three weeks longer than my Vanderbilt buddies (who are now cramming for exams, I take it – I don’t envy them).

I’ve also decided to try a new hairstyle. I figured, hey, I’ve only got a few weeks left here, so I should make the most of it. Since I don’t know the people here as well as the ones at Vandy, it’d be easier for me to change my hair. So, I’ve decided to become even more Italian and get a faux-hawk. Fun fact: in Italian, a faux-hawk is called a cresta. I like that word better – it sounds more potent, and a little less mocking. I do like this new hairstyle, and if it goes well I’ll keep it in the United States, although I have pictures now so you don’t have to wait that long. A picture of me is below (and start chortling…now).

It should not be a big surprise to everyone, but cultures do, in fact, have different words for things. Not just different words in languages, however. They have different words for sounds or concepts that we don’t even think about. For instance, an Italian rooster doesn’t go, “Cock-a-doodle-doo!”, It says “Kee-kee-ree-kee!” I know, I agree with you – it sounds nothing like a rooster. These Italians are crazy: believe me, I’ve lived with them. Also, when they hurt themselves, they don’t say “Ouch!”. They say “Ayah!”, which is sort of like the sound Miss Piggy makes when she karate kicks someone (don’t worry, I don’t think that’s how they came up with it). It goes even beyond spoken sayings, too. In email addresses, the “@” sign, for which we simply say “at”, Italians say “Chiocciola”, which is Italian for ‘snail’. It makes for interesting fun facts about different cultures, but it does tend to befuddle foreigners, not least of all me.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Holy Week

I did manage to go to the Duomo for Palm Sunday Mass. As awesome and grandiose and ostentatious as the Duomo is normally, during a mass it’s even better. Because you’re there at an event that the place was made for, it becomes a little more realistic – you realize why it’s there and you realize that the building fits well with its purpose. Some churches [cough any catholic church in the Southeast cough] unfortunately doesn’t really compare. It’s like the Taj Mahal against hobo junction, no comparison.

Also, midterms are done! Over with, finished! It felt so good just to be finished with these. Granted, our work here has been rather lesser than that I do at Vanderbilt (how are those science papers, roomies?) so having to actually study this time was so jarring, so unnerving, that most of us feared we wouldn’t make it. But we did, and it felt oh so good. And it all ended on student night at the local club, which really only compounded the elation (students free on Wednesday and a free drink…joke’s on them!).

Also, I know a lot of people were asking about this, and I just want to publically say that, after the earthquake in Abruzzo, everything’s okay in Siena. Fortunately the earthquake didn’t hit close to Siena, so there were no damages or injuries. There have been lots of news reports, fundraisers, and blood drives by the Italian Red Cross around here to aid the victims of the earthquake (terremoto in Italian). It was kind of weird, though – when you hear about something like this happening outside the US, you’re usually a bit disconnected, because it’s not close to you. But here, it was about the distance from us what Nashville is to Huntsville, so it was quite close. It’s a different feeling, and I pitched in a few euros into one of the fundraising jars.

This weekend, I went up to Hamburg to see the city. It was actually a lot prettier than I imagined – perhaps those Germans weren’t as sterilely efficient as I had once presumed. It was fun, but I did realize one thing during my weekend journey – I could not remember one word of German. I walked into restaurants and frantically asked if anyone spoke English or Italian, all too often only to be met with sad faces and headshakes. I ended up just pointing to things and saying ‘Ja’ or ‘Nein’ to indicate. Hopefully they thought I was Italian, and not another dumb American tourist (to prove I was Italian, I donned a large gold chain and gesticulated wildly. It’s what they do.)

I also saw some cities in the Northwest part of Germany, as I took a quick train to see the North Sea. I saw Stade, Hechthausen, Himmelpforten, and Cuxhaven. Fun note: Himmelpforten, meaning ‘Heaven’s Door’, is the traditional town to which all German children’s letters to Santa are sent. Considering the town only has 3,000 or so people in it, I imagine that’s a tough undertaking for the hamlet that it is.

Now that Lent is over, my fasting of American-style foods has officially ended. So today, Monday, I went to the store, my mind screaming ‘I need some potato chips and Coca-Cola, stat!” (My brain’s a doctor, just so you know). It’s Monday, I thought to myself – the stores will be open. It’s after Easter, after all! But oh, how I underestimated both the Italians’ religiosity and their ability to inconvenience. Not only was the usual grocery store closed, but the back-up grocery store at the train station was, too! Alas, I will have to wait until tomorrow to get my sugary, greasy fix.

It is sort of saddening, however, to note the fact that I only have five weeks left here. I feel that this semester has gone by quickly – too quickly – and having to leave it in less than a month and a half is incredibly disheartening. To compensate for it, though, we all are pretty sure that we’ll be packing in as much Italo-fun as we possibly can before we must leave.

Till later, Ciao!

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Daily Life in Italy and all its inner oddness

This post won't contain many life-changing events, but rather will cover the more mundane, more common, but still interesting and noteworthy points about daily life in Italy. View...and enjoy.

Remember when I told you about how the contrada is building their local hangout under our apartments? Well, as could be said in many episodes in my life, we’re not invited. Because we are not Italian citizens, and don’t live their permanently, we can’t get in. We tried, but they said we weren’t on the list, unfortunately. We asked our resident advisor about it, who said we could meet with the contrada leaders and see if that works. We figured we didn’t feel like going through that much trouble just to get into some parties. It would’ve been fun, but we probably would be out of place anyway.

Today another ‘first step’ was accomplished because I have started buying train tickets to get to the various airports to do some traveling.

On another, perhaps sadder (or funnier, depending on how you look at it) note, you all, reading this blog by now, probably know that sometimes we go to bars or nightclubs. This happens fairly regularly, especially when we have a long weekend or are going on trips. A lot of the times they’re really fun – if you’re a girl, however, it can get tricky. In that there are scores upon scores of sketchy Italian men who get far too close to you for your comfort. This seems to happen every time we go out, and I’ll tell you something: Italian guys are relentless (although, to be fair, there are a bunch of Albanians and Croatians in there too: creepy aggression knows no ethnicity!).

Now, I wasn’t expecting throes of Italian women to throw themselves at me when I entered a club (though I wouldn’t say no…ladies…), but I and the other guy in the program have learned something very important. At nightclubs and bars, there are NO single European women to be found. Ever. They’re always with their boyfriends or fiancées or whatever. It’s quite frustrating. I’m not asking for much:

“Hi there, Alessandra, can I buy you a drink?”
“Sure! And I think you’re really handsome, too!”
“Oh yeah, big noses are such a turn-on for me!”

Why has this not happened once? Is it so much to ask for? I’ll talk to her in Italian, that’s fine! We go to the nightclubs, I search for that conversation, and I end up getting this:

“Hey, cute Austrian girl who was in my Italian class last semester!”
“Hi, how are you? I just passed an exam and I’m celebrating!”
“Wow, that’s great, you should be proud!”
“I am!” At this point she starts dancing wildly. I look at her hands, and realize she has a drink in each hand.
“Hey, you have a drink in each hand!”
“Yeah, my boyfriend’s visiting from Austria to celebrate!”

I can’t win.

(Note: this last conversation actually happened – last night.)

Ah well, I still have some time here, I just need to keep plugging away. The fight is not out of me yet!

I did another errand today which, in the USA, would hardly chance a second thought, but which here gives one pause. I got a haircut today. Really, it shouldn’t be a problem – I wasn’t looking for anything greatly out of the ordinary for my hair, I just wanted some hair cut. At the same time, when you’re learning a foreign language, none of the lessons you get prepare you for it. How do you say “I only want three inches cut off in the back?” Not only do you have weird vocabulary to figure out, but you have to do English system to Metric system conversions, and who’s got time for that?

Fortunately, the shop seemed to have gotten non-Italian customers before, and so with my only-passably-proficient skills I managed to get through the appointment without them completely shaving some part of my head (I know you’re disappointed, John). Cute hair washers, though…

Also, I’m glad I’ve been keeping up with swimming throughout this semester. There have been times when I’ve skipped, but I think more or less it’s worked out. Giorgio also takes me sometimes for when he works out at the gym (I use the word ‘gym’ loosely; it’s more like a closet with weights). I think it’s helped out:

Yes, it's goofy, but still, there is improvement, no?

Friday, April 3, 2009

Roamin' in Rome

Going to Rome, we were sad to leave Catania. Leaving the land of sunshine, warmth, and arancini certainly wasn’t a welcome sight. At the same time, we were excited to go to Rome. Our hotel was near the center of the city…if by ‘near’ you meant ‘nowhere near a metro stop’. Still, we were excited to spend a few days in a big city with great sights and a bustling nightlife. We were also to be staying in a hostel for the weekend – for many of us, it was our first time in a hostel, so we were pumped about that.

Our hostel, to me, wasn’t too bad – a bunch of bunk beds in one room, wireless, a decent (if curtain-less) bathroom. It was adequate. For me. However, the fact that it was run by a 36-year-old Romanian man named Gelu who made jokes to the girls about them possibly being lesbians probably didn’t help their perceptions of the place. Well, that and the fact that the eleven of us had to juggle bathroom/shower use. Suffice to say the other boy and I never got much shower time.

Still, Rome proved to be a fun, if tiring, city. We went to the Colosseum and the Roman Forum, which, if you are given the right information, looks truly spectacular (although, if you don’t know anything about it, it just looks like a pile of rubble, really). At the same time, there is so much to see and do in Rome that you can’t get it done in five days. We were all pretty tired by the time we’d get back to the hostel.

And now, promised to you all (and yes, it's late) -- some photos!

The Duomo in downtown Catania. Unfortunately, we weren't able to go inside.

The inside of the Colosseum. The 'floor' part was artificially built to show how it would look in ancient Rome. It's a lot bigger than it looks.

The Trevi Fountain, lit up at night.

Oh yeah, you didn't think about this, did you? We go way back, here. Like 14th century back.

A political rally that I stumbled upon in a Roman square (how fun!). In reality, it was quite boring, with some dumpy lady giving a very un-impassioned speech to about fifty people with flags. But I got a free newspaper out of it!

Monday, March 23, 2009

Wanna Catania? Catania on ya?

Yes, I understand it’s been almost two weeks since I’ve written anything, and yes, I realize that those two weeks were probably the most picture-heavy weeks, making it even harder to convey the events of last week in these posts. As such, I’m going to divide it into two segments. The first will be talking about my five days in Catania, a city on the eastern coast of Sicily. The next will be discussing the five or so days we spent in Rome. I don’t know how long the posts will be, Dunbar, so no promises. We’ll start with the bus ride there.

The bus ride was a bit long (and started off delayed, in typical Italian style) but one good thing can be said about it: the countryside was beautiful. I know it’s been said countless times before, but the Tuscan countryside really is beautiful, and it’s a pretty awesome sight to take in when you’re seeing it for a good two hours straight. In other places a pretty sight may only last a few minutes – here, you have to try NOT to see the beauty of Tuscany to miss it.

Even though I didn’t write about this before, one thing is worth pointing out – it was vastly, vastly better of a bus ride, visually, than the Siena-Venice bus ride. That ride was probably the ugliest route in all of Italy (at least, one hopes). Everywhere, for three hours straight, there are smokestacks, industrial warehouses, parking lots filled with construction equipment. Every now and then there’d be an almost-picturesque town if not for the large corporate warehouse stuck staunchly yet wantonly along the side of the road. I understand that Italy has a rich and long tradition of industrial prowess in Southern Italy (Ferraris, anyone?) but really, why put the ugliest of ugly buildings for everyone to see on the highway? Tourists go to Italy to see the beautiful countrysides of the various regions in their entire diverse splendor, not to see the smokestacks from the headquarters of Alfa Romeo steaming and smudging up the sky. I’m not saying they have to give up the entirety of the industrial sector to please foreigners. I’d personally just have pushed the companies back a few kilometers, so that they’re not directly visible on the autostrada. Putting them behind some hills would probably help things out a lot.

Stopping in Rome, we took a quick (or, at least, as quick as possible) tour of the Vatican and of the Vatican museum. I had been here before in high school, but I still was visibly awed by the sheer amount, detail, and quality of the art here. There’s so much to see that a visitor can’t possibly see everything there is, or even everything they want. Fortunately, and surprisingly, because it was Friday and a later afternoon, the museum was almost completely – completely – empty. There were maybe two dozen other visitors, that we saw, in the entire museum, and our professor (who came with us for Rome) kept remarking on the awesome luck that we had.

Afterward the tour of the Vatican, we went to Termini train station, where we started the long, overnight journey to the city of Catania, in Sicily. To do this, we took a train, which had a series of four-person compartments for sleeping. Naturally, the rooms were more or less gender-divided: due to the odd number of girls, however (not to mention the absolute scarcity of men), it meant that a girl would room with the other guy and me. Also rooming with us, however, would be the program director for the tour. That awkward episode aside, the journey was pretty uneventful and we made it to Catania safely and smoothly.

While on our way to the hotel in Catania, I saw something that truly, truly saddened me. Not sad in the way that, say, a stroller full of puppies driven by a gypsy would make me sad (which I did see, and I was sad…for the puppies). No, what I saw made me a different kind of sad. A Timberland store, fully out there, was on the main street of Catania, not twenty feet from the main city square. Now, I know that clothing stores are common in city squares, and often expensive, showy stores at that; that’s not my problem. Why, in a city so full of history and culture as Catania, would a store like Timberland have the prime real estate? Tourists, especially American tourists, go to Catania to experience the Mediterranean Baroque styles and culture, and that includes the shopping. They don’t go there to buy things they could buy by driving twenty minutes in their car at home (it’d probably be cheaper in the states as well). Again, I’m not saying they have to get rid of the places, but sticking them somewhere not as tourist-treaded might spruce up the place a bit.

One of things that's admirable about Catania (and Sicily in general) is that it's got this sort of grimy charm. It's not sparkling clean or showy, but it's got this sort of feel that they have been through a lot (and, considering the ACTIVE VOLCANO just outside the city limits, they have) and it's something that makes it feel like a real city, rather than a tourist trap. It was a cool visit to a place that I wouldn't have gone to otherwise, and I'm glad that Catania was chosen as a place to go for the trip.

We also hiked up Mt. Etna (not all the way, but enough to get the scope of it all). As the largest active volcano in Europe, it’s something of a sight to see, and we spent the good part of a day just walking around it. It’s a pretty stunning view, and the size of the mountain is something to behold. There are lava flows everywhere (not hot anymore, of course) and so in places, the landscape looks really bleak and lifeless. You can almost imagine the lava flows as they sweeped down the mountainside, taking out everything as they went. Pretty surreal feeling.

I’ve found myself surrounded everywhere I go – gelaterias, cafeterias, stores, parties – by Italian music. Though not that I’m complaining. I like the music: some may find it cheesy, and that’s certainly understandable (although I don’t know how ‘cheesy’ translates…formaggioso?), but every now and then you find one you like. They do tend to overplay the hell out of the songs they like, though…

Here are some examples of those currently strangling the airwaves:

I must go to a quick class now, but I’ll be back – with pictures!

Friday, March 6, 2009

The first month is gone, but so much more to do!

Since we’ve moved here, there has been construction next door to our apartment (in the case of our specific apartment, the construction also cuts directly under our rooms: I’ll get a picture for you guys showing this soon). We’re not particularly sure what the reason for the construction is, since it seems (for the most part) to be a very large, open space, with a few small buildings put in, but nothing big enough to hold anything except people. I talked with Roberta about this, and she thinks it’ll be a società for the Lupa contrada. The società is a place for the people of the various contrade to meet, hold parties, watch sports games, and other bonding experiences between neighbors. The closer it gets to Palio season, Roberta tells me, the more active the place will be. I don’t mind the construction, especially since they seem to be making progress (considering we’re in Italy, I was quite shocked), but they have a terrible schedule of working. Around 8AM, jackhammers, drills, and buzzsaws start not twenty feet from where I sleep. It’s annoying, but at least it makes me wake up at a reasonable hour.

Unfortunately, for the past week or so, the girls’ bathroom in our apartment has been completely broken. The shower works, but the toilet floods the floor every time it is flushed. They determined that much of the problem stems from the fact that they are building something directly next door to (and, in our case, directly under) our apartment, and it’s messed up the plumbing under the building. The plumbers have been coming all day to our apartment (each time it seems to be a different person) and asking us things. I’ve been, for the most part, the only one at the apartment at the time they came – Giorgio was at work and Roberta was at class. I stumbled and tripped through what comparatively little Italian I knew, but after a few minutes of me apologizing and asking what these guys meant in the first place, we managed to communicate effectively and figure out the problem. It is at this time that I’m going to explain the Sienese accent.

The accent here is weird. Quite weird. And, to my buffoonery American ears, it doesn’t make sense. Basically, it changes the ‘k’ sound to the ‘h’ sound. For instance, the normal way to say “My name is Carlo” is “Mi chiamo Carlo”. This accent turns it into “Mi hiamo Harlo.” “Let’s go to the Campo” becomes “Andiamo al Hampo”. It’s another wonderfully exasperating rule about Italians: every city, no matter how close to another city, has their own specific accent. Even if that city only has 1,500 people, an Italian can figure out where they’re from. On one hand, it’s really nice that Italy can have such a diversity, such a plethora, of different aspects that makes every tiny town and city unique. On the other hand, if they’re talking to me, I come across as more of an idiot than I usually do.

And now (finally) some more pictures!

The Piazza Del Campo on one of the warmest afternoons we've had while here. It's a favorite past-time, particularly of students, to just sit on the Piazza in warm times, sit or lie down, and relax.

The statue in the center of the Universita' di Siena (not the foreigners' university, just the regular one).

The MeetLife Cafe, a little hole-in-the-wall place that's really quite nice. The bartender knows our faces by now, and it's a nice place to relax between classes or after a stroll through the city. Plus his TV shows sports games.

The Siena soccer stadium. The soccer team here was established in 1904, and, while they're not going to win the championship this year, they're pretty good.

The Via di Pian d'Ovile, the street on which our apartment is. On the right you can see the Fontenuova, which I took a picture of earlier.

Me with the flag of the Lupa Contrada. I think it's a pretty cool flag, and it's nice and big, so I can hang it up here and when I come back.

I'm also going to stick the text here from my last update of my last post. I just updated it last night, and I want people to read it, since they might not have before this post. Anyway, here it is:

A few days ago, it happened. I thought it'd happen sooner, but I held out. I had my first yearning for American food. We were at a party, and there was a group of guys standing in the corner. Someone said something about 'look at those five guys over there', and it happened. I wanted Five Guys so badly. I still do. I love those little burgers and those exquisitely made fries. I should stop talking about it, come to think of it -- the pain of being without is too much.

Speaking of American food, I've given it up for Lent. I know what you're thinking: "Charlie, geez, you're in Italy, going without hot dogs should be easy." That part is easy -- I love Italian food and I love cooking it. At the same time, I'm also giving up American snack foods, like potato chips, M&M's, Coca-Cola, and other things, which is harder for me to give up. But, hey, I only have 30 more days or so to keep it up -- I can make it. Though I'll probably inhale an entire bag of M&M's on midnight of Easter.

Now that all of us students have settled into the rhythm of things like classes, meals, and the time it takes to get around the city, we've all started planning trips and excursions to other parts of Europe. I should rephrase: I'm starting, everyone else has been planning already. I'm not sure where I'd like to go, but I have a few ideas: France, Germany, London, maybe Prague. I have to start making trips and schedules, and so it's pretty good that I got a three-day weekend here.

I find I'm starting to miss things from home more often -- though not the things I'd expect. I miss my family, yes, but I talk with them fairly regularly, so that's good. I do miss my dogs, though, and seeing all the dogs people have here reminds me of them. I'm also missing Vanderbilt and my buddies a bit, but there's plenty of time for me to get absorbed back into the Vandy culture when I get back.

Finally, for Mike who wanted to know, here are the (rough estimate of the) swim times I had for the swim meet: 1:10.36 for the 100 Freestyle and 41.40 for the 50 Breaststroke. Not the best of my life, but I thought they were respectable.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

On Weather, Dustin Hoffman, and More

I’ve started to see people around Siena that resemble famous people. I’ve seen an Italian Bono, an Italian Mickey Rourke, and an Italian Uma Thurman. The owner of the small grocery stand down the road from me looks like Dustin Hoffman – if Dustin Hoffman were an old, short woman. To be fair, not all of my comparisons are of famous people: I actually have seen many in Siena who look like people I know from Vanderbilt. One guy I saw looks like Benton, another like Brian. I even saw a Dunbar look-a-like. I haven’t seen someone who looks like Guy, yet, though…I don’t know why…

Actually, my Vandy friends are now soaking in some sun and enjoying the sights in beautiful Miami for Spring Break. With upper-70-degree weather, partly cloudy outlook, and thousands of fun-loving kids also undoubtedly in the city as well, what else would they do? Play World of Warcraft on their computers in the hotel room, most likely. I kid, I kid! Okay, maybe a little. Anyway, make sure you guys take lots of pictures, I want to hear about your fun times!

Speaking of weather, this week has been warmer. It’s hit sixty degrees each day this week, which is a welcome switch from the mid-40s we had been experiencing. It’s made walking around town a lot more enjoyable. Unfortunately, the last two days or so have also been filled with long rainstorms, which not only cool the air and make it harder to see, but make the roads more slippery (curse you, Via dell’Abbadia, and your slanted stature!).

A few days ago, it happened. I thought it'd happen sooner, but I held out. I had my first yearning for American food. We were at a party, and there was a group of guys standing in the corner. Someone said something about 'look at those five guys over there', and it happened. I wanted Five Guys so badly. I still do. I love those little burgers and those exquisitely made fries. I should stop talking about it, come to think of it -- the pain of being without is too much.

Speaking of American food, I've given it up for Lent. I know what you're thinking: "Charlie, geez, you're in Italy, going without hot dogs should be easy." That part is easy -- I love Italian food and I love cooking it. At the same time, I'm also giving up American snack foods, like potato chips, M&M's, Coca-Cola, and other things, which is harder for me to give up. But, hey, I only have 30 more days or so to keep it up -- I can make it. Though I'll probably inhale an entire bag of M&M's on midnight of Easter.

Now that all of us students have settled into the rhythm of things like classes, meals, and the time it takes to get around the city, we've all started planning trips and excursions to other parts of Europe. I should rephrase: I'm starting, everyone else has been planning already. I'm not sure where I'd like to go, but I have a few ideas: France, Germany, London, maybe Prague. I have to start making trips and schedules, and so it's pretty good that I got a three-day weekend here.

I find I'm starting to miss things from home more often -- though not the things I'd expect. I miss my family, yes, but they call me and send emails, so there's still communication. On the other hand, my dogs, sadly, can't call me. I don't blame them -- with four of them, it'd be pretty expensive for all of them to talk to me. I'm also missing Vanderbilt a bit, but there's plenty of time for me to get absorbed back into the Vandy culture when I get back.

Finally, for Mike who wanted to know, here are the (rough estimate of the) swim times I had for the swim meet: 1:10.36 for the 100 Freestyle and 41.40 for the 50 Breaststroke.

Friday, February 27, 2009

The Week in Review

As I near the end of my first month here (time has flown by, in a bittersweet way), I think I’m realizing yet more things about the beautiful city in which I reside. The first is that it is, in Italian terms, a precious, precious city, because it doesn’t have the usual tourism acne that inhabits larger Italian cities. Going to Venice for Carnevale showed me that. Siena doesn’t have people sitting on the street begging for change (well, I’ve seen one guy, but he’s only done it for, like, a week), there were no street vendors pushing cheap knock-off watches onto me, there were no crowded main streets filled with huddled groups of tourists. While there are certainly tourists that come, they’re not filling the streets, and any tour groups are inconspicuous enough that they don’t affect your day in the slightest. It’s really quite a nice diversion, I’d imagine, than from the five or so huge Italian cities that constantly get tourists.

Another thing is how comparatively safe the city is. That’s not saying that big Italian cities are really violent, but I mean that I haven’t heard about any pickpocketing. For instance, take yesterday: As I walked back, alone, from my oral exam in the early afternoon, it was a very crowded street. It’s about a 10-minute walk back to my apartment from the university. When I got back, I realized that I had left my backpack completely unzipped for the entire walk back. In my backpack were my school supplies, my camera, and my iPod. No one had taken anything, and I walked almost the entire length of the city. It helped me realize the actual safe quality of the city. Still, I’m never leaving my backpack open again.

Our exams were Thursday, and everyone in the program was a bit nervous, some moreso than others. For some students, just passing was enough, since their home institutions had a ‘pass/fail’ bit with their study-abroad classes. Note to Vanderbilt students: this is not the case for us! Our courses translate directly, so all of the Vandy kids needed at least a 29 out of 30 to get an A. So, you know, no pressure. Still, the written exams seemed fine, and the oral exams did well, too. All in all, I got a 30 ‘e lode’, which is, loosely translated, an A+. As far as I know, everyone in the program did well at the exams, and we have a three-day weekend to celebrate! Weeee!

A priest came to consecrate our apartment today. It was put up in a notice in advance a few days before, but it still threw us for a loop. Apparently it’s something that happens in Italy a lot, so Andrea and Giorgio weren’t really altered by it. They didn’t understand that a priest showing up at your residence is usually not a routine thing in the US. He showed up with his priest garbs and a Billabong sock hat (hey, it was chilly!), said a Hail Mary, and left. It was an interesting experience, I guess, but you can definitely sense the cultural distance there. But, hey, I got a picture of a Virgin Mary statue out of it, so a net gain, no?

Andrea, my roommate, left last night to study abroad in Germany. It was kind of sad to see him go. He was a cool guy, and it was through him that I met a lot of other Italian people, particularly through swim practice. Hopefully he’ll visit over the semester, but still, it was cool having him as a roommate.

As for the weather, it’s recently been getting warmer. I mean, it’s not exactly t-shirt weather, but it’s getting to the point where coats aren’t always necessary during the day. On Sunday we’re heading to the stadium for a soccer game (I’d have gone to a game two weeks ago, but the tickets are pretty pricey). Siena’s playing Genoa, which is ranked 5th in the Italian league (Siena, on the other hand, is ranked 14th). That’s all for now, but I’ll write soon!

Monday, February 23, 2009

Carnevale, Prato, and Swim Meets, oh my!

I know I haven’t written a blog post in many a day. Between classes, now swim practices, and other social events, I perhaps have been neglecting it. I thought I could write something yesterday afternoon, but given that I had done Venetian Carnevale and then a swim meet in Prato (an early morning swim-meet, mind you), I couldn’t find the energy to publish a post that night. I hope that it is not too much of a disappointment, but fear not – this time I bring pictures!

Because my week was fairly uneventful (not to mention loaded with rather monotonous classes), this blog is going to focus almost solely on the weekend that just finished. Without a doubt it was the most packed and busy of my weekends, and I’m so glad I actually did it. I haven’t seen the movie, “Yes Man”, with Jim Carrey, but the ‘lesson’ seems to ring true – if you do something every day that scares you, and just say ‘yeah, sure’ when something is offered, perhaps you’ll learn something great.

We all probably should have gone to bed earlier than we did on the night before Venice, but we were all so excited to be going to Venice for Carnevale, we stayed up and talked until about midnight or so (keep in mind that midnight was less than six hours away from leaving). We went to a Bavarian pub that’s right next to our apartment, and everyone had a drink or two before leaving.

This is another thing that is great about living in Italy (and probably elsewhere in Europe): the alcohol is so much better. Ordering actual Bavarian beer, I sat down with everyone, had a sip, and became extremely content. It’s also very reasonably priced (at the local supermercato I could probably by 2 liters of decent wine for less than 4 euro, or less than 5 dollars). Perhaps it’s because I’ve been subsiding on Natty Lite for the past three years of my life in terms of alcohol, but really, after that stuff, this is heaven. The Italians are very proud of their wine, and even of wine in general. Today, one of our classmates asked the teacher, jokingly, what the Italians thought of boxed wine. The teacher, to quote author Bill Bryson, looked at her 'as if [she were] an imperfectly formed turd,' and replied that true wine lovers, and true Italians, would be disowned if they ever touched the stuff. Hilarious.

We retired around midnight or 1am, only to wake up at 5 to get ready to meet at Piazza Gramsci to leave on the bus for Venice. I walked up with my two roommates to the piazza. Here’s a note: If you don’t want to get the Evil Eye shot at you, don’t smile to anyone who just had 4 hours of sleep in 40-degree weather. We got on the bus, which was comfortable enough, and I managed to catch a few z’s, then listened to some music. I didn’t listen to music necessarily because I wanted to, but because the guy behind me snored like someone blowing his nose into a mud puddle.

After about four hours we finally reach Venice. I was not disappointed. Just the ferry ride to Piazza San Marco was fantastic. We were all tired and hungry, but we were all happy to finally see the city, I think.

The city from the ferry, just a quick snapshot before we hit the square.

Basilica San Marco at Dusk, near the end of our stay in Venice.

We got off at Piazza San Marco, and quickly tried to make our way around. Unfortunately, other people knew that it was Carnevale, too, so no matter how tiny or off-the-beaten-path the street was, it was crowded with people, just like us, trying to find our way. Still, we managed to get around, and there were enough things to do on our way trying to get around. Lots of vendors selling masks, and since we were only going to be here once, why not get some? I bought two: one that just covered the eyes, and one that was a full face mask. I thought the second one looked really cool, but apparently everyone else thinks it’s creepier than Frank from Donnie Darko. We had a quick lunch (note to college students: the tourist’s menu is your friend!) and resumed our journey.

All of us near the city center.

One time, in order to quickly return to the Piazza for one of the shows, we had to use a traghetto to cross the canal. Basically, you pay 50 cents to get on a gondola, and you cross directly to the other side. Twenty of us get on this gondola, huddled like Titanic survivors, and the boat seems to tilt and list unhealthily far. After too many scary tilts, we made it across safely.

And I’m glad we did. The Carnevale show was fantastic. Although it was preceded by an unofficial Hare Krishna dance party in the square (to which my mind responded, “um, what the f***?”), the Carnevale Fairy appeared! I kid you not. A woman, suspended under a giant colored balloon, floated over the crowd, spinning and waving and dipping to shake the hands of children. It was magical. I think that it was a nice end to a hectic yet fun day in Venice. I think Sean might have enjoyed it more, but that could be because he was hammered off of nearly a liter of home-made liquor punch.

The Carnevale Fairy graces the crowd with her presence.

We got back home at 2am and, all tired, we immediately went to bed, and most people had a long, nice sleep.

Everyone, that is, except me.

I got up at 6am. Tired, I took a shower and walked out to the bridge where I was to meet Andrea’s friends. Around 7am, Luca and Alice, the two who were going to drive me to Prato, met me and we started to drive. There were two other people in the car, Valentino and Gabriella, so they had other people to talk to. I started to nod off during the entire 1-hour drive, which I felt pretty embarrassed about (but they were very nice about it).

Fortunately, the 50-degree pool woke me right up.

I swam the 100-meter freestyle, 50-meter breaststroke, and the 4X50-meter freestyle relay. Suffice to say I didn’t win any medals, but I did better than I thought I’d do, and it’s cool that I can now say I’ve done swim meets in two different countries.

A snapshot of the tiny, but adequate, Prato swimming pool. Note that there are only 6 lanes, not 8: these crazy Europeans and their conversions rates!

I stayed awake for the trip back, in part because of the still-cold feeling from the pool, and partly because I chatted (or, at least, attempted to chat) with the other people in the car this time. When I got back, it was about 2:30 in the afternoon. I cooked up some pastafagioli, did my homework, and took a nice, 2.5-hour nap. It was a really good way to end the week.

Unfortunately, this week brings the dreaded e-word to everyone’s lips: exams! Wednesday is my written Italian exam, with Thursday morning being my oral Italian exam. Terrifying? Possibly, but the professors have been noted to be rather flexible in grading, and I feel good with the material that we’re going over. Still, I tend to get nervous even for the simplest of tests, but that’s just me.

Now for a request for you guys: Ash Wednesday is this Wednesday, but I don’t know what to give up for lent! I’m thinking something like chips, since I’ve been eating those every day here (they go well with sandwiches). Any suggestions?

That’s all for me today. I’ll try to write more often soon. Ciao!

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

A Long Absence, But I Return!

Valentine's Day is a pretty big thing here, and there were lots of parties at the local bars celebrating it. Instead, the students of the program decided to have a potluck dinner. We would all cook something and bring it to one of the student apartments. It ended up being really great, and I ran into Alexandra, who was in the weekend on a trip from Florence. It was really cool to see someone I knew before this started.

Some of the people gathered at the dinner. In reality, there was probably twice this number.

All of the food at the Potluck dinner. Everything was fantastic, and we all left full.

Classes have also being going better as of late. I’m not overcome by allergies anymore – in fact, I haven’t sneezed or sniffled in class for a few days, now. I don’t know if they cleaned the room, or maybe I just have so many residual antihistamines flowing through my body that there’s no possibility of an allergy attack. Either way, I like the results, and class is a lot more bearable now.

This weekend was the trip to the Carnevale in Foiano, Italy. Foiano itself is a small town, but we were making a 2-hour stop in Arezzo, a capital of one of Italy’s central provinces, so we were able to walk around and see some sights. Unfortunately, I fear my picture-taking skills need work, but I managed to snap a few photos of the city, which is fairly large but manages to retain its simple, antiquated charm.

One of the wings of the Arezzo Cathedral. It's far too big to get the entirety in one shot, and I was quickly ushered out due to the large crowd. Sorry about the shaky image.

A statue outside the Arezzo Cathedral.

So we get on a bus and get to Foiano. A tiny provincial town, I go into the center with some of the other students, looking at all the large floats and people (mostly children) in costume. I take a few pictures, I’m excited…and the camera’s battery dies. Dies. Done. È morto. I cried out in despair as children sprayed silly string all around me and the smell of hazelnut candy filled the air. Then I realized that I had already gotten some good pictures out of it.

The rest of the day went uneventfully, but smoothly. We bought bags of confetti and proceeded to pelt each other with them. The next seven hours were spent trying to pick them out of our hair and clothes (two days later, I still find bits in my pockets). The candy that I got was also pretty good, if a bit expensive, and it was fun to go somewhere for a day instead of staying in Siena, and being outside.

On the bus ride back from Foiano, I was looking out in the countryside at all the vineyards and olive tree orchards. I remember, before I left, my parents said that they thought it would be good if I worked come vendemmiatore (as a grapepicker) over the summer or something. I didn’t really think it was a great idea when they told me, but looking over the orchards and along the Tuscan countryside, I’d say it wouldn’t be too bad of a fate.

One of the floats at the parade during the Foiano

Swimming every day (or almost every day, weekend practices are lame) has been pretty good. Other than the aforementioned Speedo issue, I’m glad I get to go out and exercise every day. It also helps with my Italian when I talk to other swimmers. At the same time, now is when I add another stereotype-which-is-true to the ever-growing list:

Are many Italian men very hairy? Check. This is especially noticeable when these Italian men are in the pool wearing speedos, and I’m stuck behind them in the swimming order. When I say they're hairy, I mean hairy. They make Brian and the twins look like newborn baby girls. Hopefully it prevents kids from drinking the pool water -- certainly didn't my swim practice any nicer to look at, I'll tell you that much.

While I was changing after practice, Andrea called out to me through the locker room.
“Com’era la tua lezione oggi?” he asked.
“What?” I replied, because he had spoken quickly.
“How was your lesson?” he said in English.
That I understood. “Oh, great, a little long, but it went well,” I answered.
“I signed you up for a swim race.”
“What?” I replied, because he is a crazy, crazy person who says crazy, crazy things.
“I signed you up for a swim race. Now you can compete!” He seemed very excited.

And so, Sunday after my Venice Carnevale trip, I am going to Prato with some of Andrea’s swimming friends (I’ve met them, nice people), and I’m going to swim in two races. I’m pretty excited about it. At first I was anxious – after all, this is just me going with some Italians, what if I get lost or something? But I feel like it could be a really cool experience. Plus I’ll be sure to get some good pictures of both the swim meet and of Prato, so I’ll keep you guys filled in on that.

And now for some comment feedback:

First, I want to thank Dad for the simple yet effective breaded chicken recipe. It’s been a big hit – everyone seems to like it. It also goes really well with soup or pasta. I’ve also started making some Pasta Fagioli, which is really good, and quick to make for late dinners.

Brian – I miss you guys too, but I’m sure you all are having a lot of fun at Vanderbilt. Also, per Corrinne’s request, I have sent a postcard. Tell me when you guys get it!

Guy – The meaning of life in Italy is to walk around, chat with friends, drink some wine and coffee (though not at the same time), eat good food, walk around some more, and be merry. This isn’t an exaggeration; it’s what they do here. I’m pretty sure that if the Italians had the work ethic of the Americans or the Japanese, they’d be on top of the world. But then, they don’t seem to mind their situation as is.

Okay, that’s it for now. Hopefully I will write another blog post before Saturday, and then after the weekend is over I will write one about my combined Venice Carnevale / Prato swim meet weekend. Ciao!

Friday, February 13, 2009

I Write This as Giorgio Sings 'American Boy' Behind Me

I’ll start off light-heartedly. I saw something on Wednesday that I’ve never seen before: I saw a nun driving a car. Pretty quickly, actually. I was walking up the street to get to the supermarket when a car driven by a tiny nun stopped in the road. I stopped walking to let the car pass, which is more than I can say for an equally old, tiny woman next to me, who simply kept trudging along. After she passed, the car started again, the nun smiling to me as she drove past. It brightened my day.

I also think that I haven’t yet determined just how small and wonderfully compact Siena is. I think that because I always overestimate the amount of time I need to set aside to get somewhere. For instance, I wanted to check out the opening hours of a restaurant, but I didn’t have much time before I had to meet up at the student center for class. I gave myself twenty minutes, thinking that’d be enough time to go across two-thirds of the city. I went to the restaurant – they were closed – and made it to the student location with ten minutes to spare. I had crossed almost two-thirds of the city in less than ten minutes – and that was going up and down hills, too. I think this overshot of time just shows how very compact and tiny and comforting Siena can actually be.

I’m also definitely glad that I started going to swim practice with Andrea last week. Since then, I’ve probably met (by name) five or six Italians, all of whom are adorably ashamed of their English skills (although they’re not really that bad). Alicia, Luca, Alessio, and Cesare, just to name a few, are all a little older than me, but they’re very nice and were patient when I fumbled my sentences. Since Andrea knew them, we were able to get rides back to our house, which saves us about one euro per drive. Talking with them is helping my Italian speaking skills, so it’s nice to network with people who I had no idea existed a week ago.

Tuesday night we went to a modern dance exhibition as part of the study abroad program’s events. I admit, going into the theater, I was incredibly skeptical. I envisioned myself sitting, bored, for two hours while women in dressed waved their arms and jumped around. I was, however, pleasantly surprised. Although I couldn’t take pictures (durn nosy usher) the performance was great. There were a lot of acrobatics, and the dancers, male and female, did some pretty amazing gymnastic feats. Definitely glad I went.

I want to say that class has been going well, and, academically, it has been. Unfortunately, I dread going to Italian class because of the actual, physical classroom. Let me explain. The class is a large, white, nondescript room with tiny plastic chairs and no wall decorations. The fold-out desks that the chairs have are insufficient for all the books and notes we take, so most just end up writing on their laps. But that’s not the problem for me.

The class is, depending on the day, four or five hours, so you’re there from 9am to 1 or 2pm, with no chance for leaving. We get a ten-minute break in between to get a drink of water or go to the bathroom, but that’s about it. Many students don’t even show up, because they don’t have attendance requirements. The American students, on the other hand, do, so we go every day. Unfortunately for me, the classroom is covered with either dust or mold, both of which I’m allergic to. No matter how many antihistamines I shoot into my system, I end up sniffling and sneezing throughout the class. It’s really not a pretty picture (which explains why I haven’t taken photos of my classes). I only use this class for a week and a half more, when we move to other classrooms; when that day comes, oh, what a sweet day that will be.

Unfortunately, I have no pictures to show you this time. However, I have good news: I’m going to Foiano’s Carnevale on Sunday, said to be the world’s oldest Carnevale. I’ll definitely bring my camera, take lots of pictures, and put them up. The Saturday after that, we’re heading to Venice for their Carnevale. Again, pictures and fun times galore. Suffice to say, I’ll have a pretty loaded blog in the next few posts, and I hope you guys will all enjoy it. I’ll write soon, later!

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Observations, Resolutions, Institutions, and Friend...itutions.

I’m starting to find myself talking like the Italians, even when I speak in English. For instance, one of my roommates, Giorgio, listens to music while he does household chores, such as cleaning the kitchen or doing laundry. A few days ago, while I walked into the kitchen while he did his laundry, he said “Charlie, do you like this song? It is jezz moozeek.” At first I didn’t understand, until I realized that he was saying “jazz music”, and I said that yes, the song he was playing was nice. The next day, during a walk with classmates, we were talking about the Italians we lived with and I said, “Oh, yes, Giorgio, he’s very cool. He listens to jezz moozeek, too.” Perhaps what’s even worse is that I didn’t catch my own mistake, and had a group of girls laughing at me. It was like I was back at Vandy. Hey-o!!!

I’m going to make it a point, starting tomorrow, to try to limit, or stop completely, the amount of napping I do in the afternoon. While napping may feel good in the short term, I feel like it’s really unproductive. Not only do I waste two or three hours in bed, during the (mostly) pretty Sienese afternoons, but I end up just sitting around for about a half hour after that, debating what I should do, since my homework is quick. Really, when I’m in Italy, I probably shouldn’t be using up my time sleeping in my apartment.

Still, I feel good, and I’m trying both to eat healthily and keep up with my budget. So far I think I’m doing well, but I know I need a contrada flag for my room. That much I know.

Now for some pictures:

Some friends outside the Baptistery of the Duomo.

This is the Torre di Mangia, the big tower in all the pictures.

This is the main shopping street, Via dei Montanini (which morphs into the Via dei Banchi di Sopra, but this picture is of Montanini). It's very nice at night, as well, but I have only gotten good pictures during the day.

As posted earlier, this is Chiara, Giorgio, me, Chelsea, and Eden.

All of us in our kitchen, just relaxing on a Saturday night.

Eden, one of my American roommates. I'll get a picture of Chelsea, my other roommate, soon.

The girl is Roberta. The guy is Andrea, my actual, same-room roommate. They're both very cool people.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

An Update! (Sorry, I don't have a creative title today)

It rained today, and I didn’t wear the proper jacket for it, so I ended up walking back a bit wet. At the same time, I didn’t really mind. Seeing Siena in the rain changed it for me: it made it more real. When you see postcards of the Piazza del Campo or of the Palio, you think about it as this wonderful, almost imaginary place, a place where people go to vacation, see the sights, and then come home. But seeing it rain, in a weird sort of way, makes you realize that this, too, is a place where people actually live. People go shopping, they do their laundry, they pay their taxes, all under the shadow of the Torre del Mangia or the Duomo. I knew that this was the case, but only yesterday did it really hit me; that this is still, in essence, a city – it’s just a really old, interesting one.

My new roommate, Andrea, moved in about three days ago, in the evening after I got back from classes. He’s my age, from Lombardia, near Lago di Como (the lake where the famous Star Wars love scene was held, as well as the last few scenes in Casino Royale). He’s very athletic, and I’ll get to that later, but he’s a very nice guy, and very cool. He doesn’t speak much English, and, since I don’t speak that much Italian, that gives us both a lot of chances to practice. He’s also very tidy, and very neat, so I end up feeling that I always seem to get the tidy roommate of the group. It’s a plot to make me look messy, I’m sure of it.

Andrea invited me to go to swimming practice with him two days ago. I wasn’t sure at first – I didn’t know what it would be like, and since I’m still learning the language, I wondered if I would be out of place. He assured me not, and since I did not have any prior obligations, I decided to go. After all, what’s the worst that could happen? I don’t fit in, they don’t like me, I feel embarrassed, and I never see those people again. I packed my things in my large, clunky duffle bag (it gets the job done) and hopped on the train with Andrea. It is here that I will add another stereotype-that-is-true:

Are all Italian things late? Yes. Buses, taxis, even just people meeting each other – everyone and everything is late in Italy. Always. Andrea and I waited for the bus for over half an hour past its expected arrival time before it came to the Piazza. The next day (yesterday) when I had to catch a bus, it was twenty minutes late. Unfortunately, this is the norm in Italy, such that when something arrives on time, everyone’s really excited and talks about it all day (‘Oh, Giovanni, you won’t believe it, the bus was on time today!’)

When we got to the pool, we both changed into our swimsuits and went from the locker room (which wasn’t really cut off – the front desk could look right in if they wanted to) to the actual pool area. What I discovered was a bit awkward for me, even though I should have expected it. Everyone – everyone – was in speedos (here, they call them ‘slips’). Tiny, revealing speedos. No one looked really out of shape, but it was very, well, new to me to see grown men, of all ages, in little speedos, and apparently not embarrassed at all about it. I suddenly felt out of place in swim trunks.

We got in the pool, and he introduced me to the other people, who were very friendly and tried to speak a little English with me (their English is actually pretty good). It was only after we started actually swimming that I realized how out of shape I am. After a straight 400 of freestyle, I found myself very tired. We did a few 50-meter sprints of varying strokes, and after that I had to take a break and cool myself down. Fortunately Andrea understood that I was just starting to swim again, so he was very nice about it, which almost made me feel even more guilty. The next day, the swimming was more relaxed, and I was able to swim the entire time without having to get out of the pool. Still, I feel very sore today, and it is only through good Italian food that I can feel better, I think.

Today, so far, has been very nice. Waking up at 10 am felt so good, and Roberta, another Italian roommate, cooked us all a traditional Sardinian meal (pasta with oil, garlic, and fish eggs). After that, some of the girls in the program and I walked around the city. It was a really nice walk – unlike the past few days, today was warmer, and the sky was sunny during the afternoon. We got a quick gelato near the Piazza Salimbeni, and then got some groceries (and wine!) at the supermercato.

I also have started to get homework from my classes now. It’s unfortunate, but I almost welcome it, because I’d much rather have something to do, or else I will get bored and do something unproductive, like surf the Net, or eat snacks, or even just sleep. Also, the homework is not much, and it’s just some nice, short, easy exercises to improve my language. If it starts getting to be too much, though, I’ll definitely complain about it. But not to the teachers, more like to you guys.

Also, this is directed to my college friends, but, really, where are the phone calls I have been expecting from you guys? I’ve been really looking forward to them, and so far nothing! I’ll be very upset at all of you if my entire semester goes by and no one has called me. Even if it’s John at 4am, I’ll take it.

Now to answer some comments:

Benton and Brian – I didn’t want to wear a scarf when I was back at Vandy because I knew that, no matter how cool my scarf was, or how well I wore it, I would never look as snazzy and smart as you two do. I would be constantly humiliated and diminished; here, however, I can dress like you and I won’t have to compete with both of you in the good looks department.

Dunbar – Having looked up what it means, I’m very upset. Of course, my talking about your comment on my blog post just makes my succeeding blog post longer, making it less and less likely that you’ll read it anyway. It’s so sad – I’d cry, but I don’t want to get tears in my beautiful Italian dinner.

Dad – that sounds like a good idea. We bought some more meat today, including chicken breast and salami, so that will be good. I do have to find some beef consommé, though, because I still want to make the curried rice that I have the recipe for.

That’s all for now. Later tonight I will put up some pictures of my roommates and some more of the city, because today was a good day for picture-taking.

Here's me in the middle, my two American roommates (Chelsea and Edin), and Giorgio, one my Italian roommates (I'll get pictures of Andrea, my actual roommate, and Roberta soon). To his left is Chiara, his girlfriend (and also a CET roommate for the Vanderbilt Florence program).


Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Classes are Underway!

It’s been a while (okay, like two days) since my last blog post, mostly because we started classes since I wrote last, and that’s been a bit of a draining experience. Not necessarily because it’s been academically difficult (more on that later) or that it’s a far way away (it’s not and is actually a nice walk from my house; again, more on that later), but rather that it’s been a draining classroom experience.

The class is four hours long, and with only a fifteen-minute break in the middle to give us time to get a drink or walk around. I was placed in level 2 (I said more on that later, stop asking!) and the professor, Prof. Guasparri, is absolutely crazy. No question. We didn’t have books, and therefore we didn’t have problems, so for 4 hours he talked. He talked and talked and talked. Then he stopped, asked us a really odd question, and then talked to us some more. For instance:

“It’s cold today. Why is it cold?” [points to some hapless person in middle of class]
“Uh…Uh.,,because there is no sun?”
“No! Because there is fog!”

Keep in mind this is all in fast Italian, such that many of my classmates had absolutely no idea what he was saying, particularly those who didn’t take Italian within the last semester. We did go over some actual language stuff, but it was all stuff I had covered a year ago (past tense, prepositions, etc.) and so today I moved from level 2 to level 3. Apparently their professor isn’t as clinically insane.

Still, even though the class is four hours long, the class is very interesting simply because the lingua franca has to be Italian. The professor can’t speak English and talk about what Italian is like because there are many there who don’t speak English. The class holds a lot of ERASMUS students (which is the EU study-abroad program) as well as many Naghreb, Arab, and Asian students. Speaking in English isn’t an option, so the professors speak, for the most part, only in Italian. While it can be difficult at first, particularly since mine spoke pretty fast, it does help you to understand inflection and syntax really quickly.

Also, the simple walk to get to the classes is quite nice. Apart from a 30-second steep uphill climb up Via dei Vallerozzi, the rest of the journey is taken on the Via Montanini, Via dei Banchi di Sopra, and the Via dei Banchi di Sotto, the three main roads in the city. There are always lots of people out, at any hour of the day (and most hours of the night), dressed smartly with their black coats and boots and hip hats and glasses. The shops are elegantly placed (and apparently all having sales, although they’re still really expensive. I’m not going to go ‘Wow, seventy-five euro, what a steal!’), and the roads and building faces look antiquated and cozy as always. It’s been raining for the past few days, but it has gotten warmer, which is a nice silver lining, and it makes the trips to class a lot easier.

I’m going to take a moment here to add to my list of Italian-stereotypes-that-are-really-just-facts:

Do all Italians wear scarfs? Yes. Man or woman, you are not dressed well at this time of year unless you have a snazzy scarf around your neck. Fortunately, these Italians have learned how to tie and display their scarfs well. This also means that, if I want to fit in, I must wear one. Oh, the burdens one must take to be Italian.

Do all Italians drink espresso and eat little biscotti? Yes. Espresso is very nice here, but served in very small quantities to people. It’s just a shot of caffeine before people get out. They also eat small pastries and cookies – the local delicacy is panforte, which is like fruitcake if you made fruitcake fantastic. I’m also really itching to try some of the local riccarelli, because those look both delicious and affordable (a potent combination!)

Now onto answer some of my viewer questions and comments!

Josh, I’m glad that my blog post is fun to read. Hopefully it’ll stay that way, and I’m sorry that your class is boring. But thanks for reading!

Mike…oh, Mike. I hope you like your single and the other four suite-mates aren’t too messy.

Vince - I appreciate the compliments. Unfortunately, I don’t have any good pictures for this blog post, but we can hope for next time. I’m sorry your penis got darted by cartoon Guy, and hopefully we’ll all find somewhere to go for dinner soon.

Dunbar – Unfortunately, I don’t get what the ‘dr’ means in your comment, so I’ll pretend it means “damn right’”, and you’re cheering me on. Thanks, dude.

Brian – Actually, yes, our kitchen, being super nice, will mean that I will move past pasta and peas. For the time being, however, given my currently constrained budget, I have had pasta with peas, oregano, salt, and pepper for the past few days as a meal here or there. Fortunately, I’ve also had other stuff, so it’s not just a one-track deal. We cooked stir-fry for our Italian roommates on Sunday, they certainly seemed to enjoy it. I can’t wait to get more ingredients and start cooking more stuff. I’ll keep all you guys posted.

That’s all for today, but hopefully I will write you all tomorrow and hopefully that post will have pictures! Ti parlerò più tardi, ciao!

Monday, February 2, 2009

Sienese Musings

In the past few days, I’ve made a remarkable discovery. There are many qualities about Italy and Italians that are considered funny, if slightly demeaning, stereotypes. Throughout my ambling through the town and dealings with the locals, I can say that, with a pretty decent amount of certainty, these Italian qualities and characteristics aren’t stereotypes.

They’re facts.

Everything you hear is true. Completely true. Here, I'll list them off:

Do Italian all dress smartly every day? Yes.

Do all Italians use their hands when they talk? Yes.

Do they talk really loudly on their cell phones? Yes.

Is everything in Italy ill-organized, jumbled, or delayed? Yes.

Do Italians smoke? Like if they keep doing it, they’ll win something.

Do Italian men act really sleazy toward American women in nightclubs? Absolutely – and it’s hilarious to watch.

Are Italian drivers incredibly reckless and push the boundaries when they drive. Yes (The same actually applies to Italian pedestrians: there is no unspoken rule ‘walk on the left/right side of the road’. It’s more ‘I’ll walk where I damn well please.’ If you are on a collision course with an Italian pedestrian, it becomes a sick game of chicken. Unfortunately, because Italians don’t seem to have nearly as much personal space as Americans, they almost always win.)

In spite of all of these characteristics (or perhaps because of them), Italians are incredibly amiable and approachable. It’s very easy to get by and talk with Italians, particularly the younger ones, who tend to know slightly more English if you get stuck.

When I got to my apartment, at about 2 pm local time on Wednesday afternoon. I was tired, I hadn’t showered in a while, and all the while I was stumbling through my Italian trying to get to my address. Fortunately, my new Italian roommates, who were there when I arrived, greeted me warmly. They introduced themselves (Giorgio and Roberta) and made me a quick snack of some cheesy risotto. They introduced themselves and what they did – Giorgio just finished with his schooling and now works at one of the local banks (he also bartends occasionally at night at a nice hotel). Roberta is studying languages, and is working her way to speaking five languages (Italian, English, French, Spanish, and Arabic). They seemed to understand that I was tired and worn out, and so they allowed me to unpack while they worked in cleaning the apartment. I was afraid that they would take my general drowsiness as apathy, but fortunately they were understanding, and once I got fixed to their time schedule (aka, the next three days) I realized that they didn’t care and were just happy I was here.

Now to the apartment. It’s amazing. We’re situated on the Via del Pian d’Ovile, in the heart of the Lupa contrada (the She-Wolf). It’s far larger than the suite at Vanderbilt, with nice hardwood or tile floors, and high ceilings. My own room is about the size of the small double, but it is a single for right now (I’ll have a roommate for a few days coming tomorrow). My room has a nice view, with a bunch of houses and a church out the window. The only problem (and really, it's just a little thing) is that there's some construction going on outside on the ground, like they're building a new underground entrance piazza to the buses. They start working in the morning (apparently their version of 'work' is to do nothing but break ceramic tiles all day), so I manage to get up early.

The view from my bedroom window (there is a simplistic church to the right). Note the construction below. Fortunately, if you look up, the view is nice.

The bathroom is small but accessible, and the kitchen is not only large, but fully functional and equipped. There are all manners of pots, pans, strainers, silverware, spices, and other assorted equipment that it meant I could try out all I wanted to with cooking. Our street is located on the northern part of the city. It’s not a bad spot, but unfortunately it’s downhill, so if you want to go anywhere in the city, you have to walk a few blocks on the Via dei Valerozzi, a steep uphill climb. There is a produce store very close by, and the main shopping street and market are not far away.

The view from my kitchen window. To the right is Fonte Nuova (next picture).

The Fonte Nuova, heart of the Lupa Contrada. It's simple, but it's got a lot of importance in Siena.

Siena the city, I’ve found out, is even tinier than expected. I’d estimate the entire city as being about 1.5 times the size of the Vanderbilt campus, and certainly no bigger than twice the size, but in that size it holds 55,000 people. It’s very dense, and while it is modern enough, the architecture and aura of the area would not have you believe it. You automatically feel comfortable and charmed in Siena, which is good. It could be because, even if you get yourself hopelessly lost, as long as you keep on a road you’ll end up somewhere familiar within a half hour.

Once I can get pictures of my classmates, I’ll get you all posted on that. Two days ago we all took a hike to Monteriggioni, a picturesque castle-town on top of a hill about twenty minutes away by bus. Here's the city in its entirety:

I also took my Italian placement exam today. I don’t know why I was so stressed about it. It wasn’t for a grade (only for determining what level of class I’d be in) and it honestly wasn’t that difficult (not even because I had taken Italian before, but because the test was so goofily easy). Tomorrow’s my first class, so I’m pumped up for that.

I’ll write soon, guys, ‘till later!

Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Interim Train/Bus Voyage

This post will probably not be too long, because it doesn’t cover that long of a time span. After the airport, I needed to get to the shuttle train station, located under a tunnel and up a staircase, to get to the bus station. It was then that I encountered yet another anti-reasonable measure the Italians had taken with this airport – there were obstructing bars around the escalator entrances to prevent anything other than people going up them. Therefore, I couldn’t simply take the escalator down into the tunnel, and then up to the train station. Instead, I clunked my luggage down the first staircase, all the while picking up my pace to avoid getting run over by my own baggage (which would have been a betrayal of the highest nature), then I schlepped my luggage up the second staircase, which was equivalent to about three or four stories of marble stairs.

I pitied the people that had strollers that had to navigate that passage. Then I pitied the people in wheelchairs. Then I felt sad thinking about a person in a wheelchair falling down the stairs. Then I laughed about it.

After taking out my first bunch of money from the local bancomat and purchasing a ticket on the train (€5.50 for a train ticket that doesn’t even go into Rome? For shame, old man at the ticket counter, for shame!), I waited on the lonely walkway, waiting for a while for the train to come and hoping that I bought the right ticket. When it pulled up, I was in the front of the line to get on the train. Normally, this wouldn’t have meant anything in Italy, and women and old men (and I would say probably the aforementioned kid in the stroller) would be pushing past me to get on the train. I, however, had the advantage of carrying 60 pounds of clunky baggage and 12 hours of jet lag that would lead to outright aggression against anyone who thought of cutting.

Trains in Italy have the seats arranged in fours, with a pair of seats facing another pair of seats. Normally, four could fit, but I selfishly (and proudly) took an entire quartet by myself by placing my luggage on the other seats. Fortunately, not many people entered at my stop, so there was no hostility or encounters.

At the next stop, a girl my age slowly and with much difficulty got into the quartet opposite me (she had many bags as well). Peering over to see if she needed help, I noticed her nametag, and her name was that of one of my future classmates in Siena. I asked her if she was going to Siena, and in fact, she was one of my Siena buddies.

Anne (her name) and I chatted for the 45-minute train ride, mostly about our excitement of seeing Italy in general and Siena in particular. After getting off at Tiburtina Station, we tried to find the bus station, thinking the ticket booth would be at the train stop. This was not the case. After asking a few people, we managed to find it by leaving the station, turning right, crossing the street, entering the dark portal of Azeroth, and taking the first left to get to the ticket counter. We bought our tickets for twenty euro each (which wouldn’t have surprised me if the bus line’s website hadn’t explicitly, in large and friendly letters, claimed that it was only five euro. I’m calling you out, SENA bus lines!) and then had a quick bite at the sandwich shop across the street. I tell you, salami on white bread has never tasted so good.

We went on the bus, knowing that we would pass through the beautiful Tuscan countryside on the way to the stop. We both planned to watch it in all its beauty. Unfortunately, not five minutes after the bus pulled out to leave, we passed out in our seats and slept for nearly two hours.

When I woke up, my face was compressed, my hair was strewn about, and the sleep did nothing to alleviate my jet lag. Also, I was compressed into one seat, with the sun shining through the window onto my lap. When I woke up, my legs felt warm, wet, sticky, and miserable. I spent my last ten minutes thinking what the feeling was similar too. I finally figured that it would be like if my crotch and thighs were raw chicken, and then someone microwaved them. Sorry to put that thought in your heads, but that’s the only way I can properly convey it.

We got off at Piazza Gramsci, which is named after one of Italy’s most famous communists. I believe one of his greatest works translates as “Capitalism Can Suck It” (I’m paraphrasing). At the stop, we met David, the main director of the Siena program, and he led us to our apartments.

Next time: My apartment, my roommates, and many pictures to come!

Friday, January 30, 2009

Boss, dee plane! Dee plane!

All right, here it is: my first blog post after landing in Italy. I wish I could think of something deep and grandiose to say at the beginning, but the day I left, I felt almost relaxed, at least when I was in the airport. Perhaps it was because I had been in that airport many times before, so the simple act of moving around in it was nothing new. I did feel a little bit sad when my parents wished me well and said goodbye, but I knew that they were happy and I’d be talking to them again soon.

As I sat down in the airport at my gate, preparing myself for a 15-hour festival of monotony and boredom, I couldn’t help but overhear three other college-age students who were sitting with their parents and giggling loudly. At first I had planned to simply sit there, minding my own business and waiting for the plane. I started, however, to pick up some of the words they were using, like ‘study’ and ‘abroad’. A-ha, I said to myself, perhaps they will be doing the same thing I will be doing. So, taking a page from Jessie Capps’ book and ‘just-doing-it’, I got up and introduced myself to them. It turns out that they are a few students who, while they live in Alabama, go to Harding University in Arkansas and are going to study in Florence for the semester. I think we were all relieved to see each other and talk to someone else. I was incredibly happy that I wouldn’t be doing this trip alone and bored (since they were going to Rome as well from Atlanta), and they seemed happy to know someone else who not only is studying in Italy, but who also knows some Italian (they didn’t know too much, but they seemed really interested).

We chatted for a long time before we got on the plane to Atlanta, and when we got to Atlanta, another surprise waited for me – Atlanta was the meeting group for all their other student friends. There were 40 in all, and so when I went to the airport cafeteria to get some lunch with them I was soon surrounded by dozens of them, all carrying heavy backpacks and chatting happily.

When we got on the plane (which was quicker than expected, since the plane arrived early and I forgot about the time zone difference), it was pretty hilarious that the entire rear section of the plane had to house all of our loud, excited bodies. A few of the people I met were fascinated by three tween Italian girls near us. I must admit, it’s pretty funny to see girls, iPods in hand and braces strapped, discussing things in Italian with their surprisingly-but-not-complaining hot mother.

I couldn’t sleep on the plane. I think I did for about an hour before I woke up with a neckache and a want for landing. We went over the mainland of Europe (specifically Spain) at approximately 3 am local time. We managed to fly directly over Barcelona, and it was a nice reassurance to see the city up in lights as well made our way to Italy.

As we landed in Rome, although we didn’t see the city proper, we managed to see a lot of the adjacent farms as we descended. Looking at the incredibly picturesque scene was incredible, and made me want to stay for more than three and a half months. It must have been even more exciting for the people who’ve never been to Italy before.

In the airport, it took a bit of time to find our luggage station. Ours was at the end of the line, and since no one else understood any Italian, they just followed me. It’s a lot of pressure to have forty students following you, all counting on you to lead them well. Now I know what Moses felt like (because, really, the promised land and the land of our luggage was the same importance at that point). Fortunately we found our station and all got our luggage sooner or later.

The Fiumicino airport in Rome is really, well, jumbled. Unlike American airports, there seem to be absolutely no order, no error-less way of doing things. Everything was cluttered and disconnected, but it was in a very amiable, lovable way. You like the airport, but you really shouldn’t. You should want to yell and shake the nearest airport employee and say “Why don’t you organize this place? I know five-year-olds who are more organized!” But you don’t. You go through with a nervous smile on your face, a sense of both enjoyment and fear.

After we got our luggage, we went through customs (not really – since we had nothing to declare, we just went out and caught our respective trains). I said goodbye to my new friends, but not without taking a picture first:

From left to right: Meredith, Kelsey, me, Robert, and Katherine (I hope I spelled them all right).

Although it was kind of sad to see them go, we were all in a hurry, and I figured I could see them again, since they were going to Florence, only an hour from Siena by bus. Fortunately, we’re now Facebook friends, so it’s all good in the end.

My next blog will be about my first day in Siena – and all the confusion, tiredness, humiliation, and frustration that that carries.

A più tardi…Ciao!