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!