A Study Abroad Experience in Florence, Italy

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

La Costa Amalfitana, Le Rovine di Pompei, e il Monte Vesuvio

Buon giorno, buon giorno.  I hope that everybody had a great holiday weekend!  With spring break, midterms, travel and the like, it has been really difficult for me to find time this past month to post. That being said, please excuse the month of hiatus.  I am excited to finally share news and photos from my recent spring break trip! Firstly, though, here are some photos from Easter weekend, during which my friends and I traveled to the beautiful Amalfi Coast.

L'isola di Capri

Pompeii

Climbing Mount Vesuvius


Hope you enjoyed! Be back soon :)

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Vivere alla giornata

         Ciao di nuovo.  It has been an interesting week. I decided to take up a course on museums and museum history during my stay here in Florence, and I’ve been enjoying it so much that I expected to find myself writing about all the things I’ve learned so far in this particular entry, but my thoughts have instead been consumed by something else.
Thursday was Women’s Day — a holiday which began in New York City but is nowadays not celebrated in the states, but other countries across the world, instead.  Thursday also marked the first time I’ve ever given money to a homeless person — a negligible three euro, to be exact.
         Like in most cities, in Florence, one can find themselves walking past dozens of homeless people every day, and Thursday, as I was walking to class with my friend, Carolyn, she a couple paces ahead, a glance at this one particular woman made me stop.  Maybe it was the atmosphere of the holiday floating through my thoughts, maybe it was my mood — I’m not sure what exactly made it impossible to walk by.
         At the sound of clinking coins, Carolyn turned to remark, “You’re so nice.”  It felt so inappropriate to accept her compliment. As I walked away, I began to better understand — money is money is a sandwich is a blanket is an act of kindness all too scarcely expressed by the bulk of passersby.  No “donation” would have made me happier than the other. It was the contentment I felt in seeing a homeless woman feel recognized as a human being — hearing a genuine and fragile, “Grazie, Bella,” was enough for her face and voice to remain at the forefront of my mind the rest of the day… all because of two coins that I would have spent buying myself a coffee.
In this brief encounter, I felt like I was taking a first step toward becoming a better person than I’d been five minutes prior.  I wanted to turn around and give more, but I didn’t have more with me, and even if I had, I don’t think it would have mattered.  It wouldn’t have given her a home or a shower or three square meals a day… For what I could have afforded to give, which wouldn’t have been enough, how much of a difference would it have made?  Money is practical and necessary, sure, but its worth is nonpermanent.
         Even the most generous and compassionate people cannot pledge all their money or time to helping others.  It’s tricky to know when it is right and when it is foolish to give money away. Maybe I was robbed by a fraud and would have been better off throwing my coins in the garbage.  I don’t believe that’s true, though, because the woman I saw, kneeling on cold cobblestone, holding an empty, dented plastic cup in her hand and bowing her head like a battered puppy — she didn’t approach me and shake her cup at me like many homeless people do here, facelessly hounding for cash.  She needed shelter and sustenance, and she needed acknowledgment and warmth.
         I think this experience, coupled with the Joseph Kony documentary I watched earlier in the week, has really reignited my eagerness to pursue volunteer services.  On the same note, I do believe it is equally important to always keep oneself in mind, too.  Even if we goes all-out to be heroes, it may never feel like enough.  It is important to be rational and know that the world is too heavy a burden to carry alone. I think we have to know our limits, and know that it is essential that we remain able to take advantage of the cards we are dealt - to allow ourselves indulgences, a family, a career, love — factors that likewise change the course of our futures, and make the window of opportunity in which elbow-deep volunteering is possible become a dwindling glint of the past.
And so, my promise to myself is to seek out volunteer work while it is legitimately feasible: in my single life.  I’m not certain where I’ll go or what I’ll do or for how long or to what degree of intensity, but I do know that a six second exchange with a stranger in need has made me anxious for more. I feel more driven, like I am beginning to solidify what it is I really want out of life.  I don’t want to wake up one morning able to say only that there were fleeting moments in which I threw somebody a bone, eventually forgetting what they looked like, forgetting how much more in need they were than me, thinking that a cursory reflection of their misfortune should grant me an induction into the good Samaritan hall-of-fame… or thinking it was enough that I did anything at all.  I may never feel like I’ve done enough, but I can give a hell of a lot more than six seconds, three euro, and a vague memory of a woman, a human being, reduced to a homeless ghost whose future was in limbo not because of money, but because of a lack of acknowledgement.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Un pò della Torre Pendente e la meraviglia di Venezia

Growing up, I've always heard my dad paraphrase John F. Kennedy’s famous theory-of-being:
“All of us have in our veins the exact same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean, and, therefore, we have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears.  We are tied to the ocean.  And when we go back to the sea — whether it is to sail or to watch it — we are going back from whence we came.”
         I returned to Venice this past Saturday and Sunday, and it was, as I’d hoped, so much more fantastic than the Carnevale fiasco I wrote about a few weeks back. I wonder if JFK ever ventured to Venice, because beyond doubt, his words are perfect in describing the magic of this city... 

The swashing of green waters against decayed wood and sinking foundation, smelling the sea, watching the city’s seafaring residents from afar, finding yourself happily and purposely lost in the vacant maze of narrow backstreets… Venice is magnetic and eerily capable of pulling at your soul.  I had a truly wonderful weekend.  All of Saturday felt dreamy and fascinating — whether I was learning of the city and its history by day, or ambling by moonlight amidst perfect company, mind full of wine and wanderlust.
         Sunday was spent visiting Murano and Burano — two islands nearby the center of the Venetian Lagoon. During our visit to the former, we got to watch a glass-making artist create four works in his factory, followed by a trip to the shop to peruse the famous glass masterpieces. Absolutely gorgeous.
         Both places seemed really lovely, but due to schedule constraints, we had hardly any time to see either città as one should.  In fact, we were only able to spend an hour in Burano.  I would love to revisit this adorable little seaside town!  It is known for its handmade lace, and every building is bright and colorful.  Really, though, that's all I was able to learn... for now.
         In other news: Friday, my friends and I took a day trip to see-and-climb the leaning tower of Pisa! If you ever get the chance to visit the one-and-only Leaning Tower, do wear slip-safe shoes.  The stairs are made of marble, and become more and more narrow the further up you go (not to mention the added vertigo from ascending at a crooked angle), so it's easy to feel dizzy and lose balance - but the view from the top is amazing (see photos below).


         Pisa is actually quite small, but there’s still a lot to see other than just the Torre Pendente.  From its botanical gardens to its churches and renown architecture (though we weren’t able to visit too much in just an afternoon), it’s an easily navigable, lovely little city whose monuments deserve a weekend of exploration, for sure. Specifically, the city is know for the Field of Miracles (attenzione, Pinocchio fans). It is where the leaning tower resides, and it has its own museum, a basilica, the city’s duomo, and a beautiful cemetery.  In short, Pisa is a tourism hot spot for a reason.
         Moreover, to revert back to last weekend — I was unfortunately unable to visit Rome. I came down with strep throat the day before our scheduled leave and ended up having to stay in bed for 48 hours. I knew the cold weather would catch up with me at some point!
         In retrospect, I am really bummed I missed this particular excursion, although I wouldn’t have been much fun anyway. The fever, coupled with general fatigue (and the subsequent horror-dreams I experienced while trying to break said fever), would not have fared well with travelling.  I was better off.  I WILL get back to Rome at some point… if only to see il Colosseo and la bellissima Cappella Sistina!
P.S. Adding pictures to the middle of my blog makes it difficult to format text appropriately.  I am working on creating a public website so that I can show more photos with less hassle.  I'll be back with more in-depth news and thoughts on recent museum visits later this week, as well.
In the meantime, please enjoy some photos, anyway! They seem to work better at the end. :)
 
 

 

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

La Reggia di Caserta e un po' di Roma

Greetings from atop La Grande Cascata!

This weekend, I took a trip to Caserta (Napoli) to visit La Reggia and my Italian friend, Giulio.  Forty-eight hours of straight Italian — and it was awesome. While I still need quite a bit of time and practice until I reach relative fluency, after two days of forcing myself into Strictly-Italian, I felt like I had officially added a new layer – like the English speaking version of myself laid dormant in the back of my mind, and in the meantime I got to feel, for the first time, natural in a second language.  In a nutshell, that is what my studies have provided me, and I think this weekend proved so all the more.

Now, on to La Reggia!

Dreamt up by visionary Luigi Vanvitelli, La Reggia (which means ‘palace’ in Italian) was modeled after La Reggia of Versailles—except, supposedly, even more luxurious.  The palace itself has sixty some odd rooms, all embellished with gold and marble, portraits of its royal inhabitants and floor-to-ceiling windows that heighten the perfection of the palace’s architecture. It is only possibly to visit two-dozen or so rooms, so after spending some time looking around, we started our walk through the rest of the grounds.

Which look like this:

All man made. All stunning.

It is about ten kilometers from La Reggia to the top of La Grande Cascata (which we may or may not have trespassed to get to…), and, on a cloudless, perfect-weather day, it was totally worth it once we reached the end.


Before I caught the train back to Firenze, we spent a few hours on Sunday sight-seeing in Rome with Giulio’s hospitable Roman friends, Concetta and Carmelo.  They took us all around the grande città.  It was heavily raining all day, though, and with a time limit, an umbrella blocking my gaze, and crowds that would make even the most imperturbable person feel a sense of claustrophobia, it was hard to give any sight or monument the time it deserved.  Further, the places I was most eager to visit — La Cappella Sistina, Il Colosseo (closed and closed), and Il Vaticano (brimful with people waiting in a line that wrapped around the entire piazza almost twice), I did not get to see the greater parts of Rome’s claim to fame.

The program is returning to Rome this coming weekend, and just like Rome wasn’t built in a day, Rome can’t be experienced in a day, either, so I am happy to go a second time.  I will head back there with optimism for a more fulfilling (and hopefully less wet) trip.  I do think that I got a proper impression of the city itself, however, and what I have decided: Rome is not for me.  If there is one word to sum up Italy’s capital, that word is chaos.  Crowds of thousands are inescapable even in the off-season, and it makes for an overwhelming experience.  On the same note, there is no denying Rome’s enormous beauty, both literally and figuratively.  It is an absolute must-see for many reasons, but I don’t think I will find myself anxious to return a third time.

Also, in traditional fashion, I can now say: back turned, eyes closed, coin in hand and a wish in my head — I have officially thrown my moneta into La Fontana di Trevi! Because everybody’s gotta do it, right?

On my downtime the past couple of weeks, I have also been visiting lots of churches.  What I have noticed upon my visits is that, while each church is uniquely beautiful both with respect to architecture and art works, all of them are oddly chilly, even on warmer days.  The vast emptiness leading up to the cathedral ceilings is an obvious factor, but really, it feels separate.  Every time I have walked into a church here (and I have been to five now), I can feel a change in my breathing—as if the air is somehow unsoiled by life outside.  It is easy to feel lost in thought, and it isn’t exactly an effect of the surrounding religion.  In fact, for me, it has been the silence - that same silence that one feels when in a library or museum — a place that lends itself concurrently to thoughtful clarity and the flight of imagination, a place meant to be appreciated with all of the musing that went into its creation, and a place that evokes curiosity even in the most unbelieving of people — not because it is where religion dwells, but because it leaves you dumb-founded, swallowed up by the genius of an era long past.

La Piccola Santa Felicità

Anyway, neglected homework awaits,
Natalie



Tuesday, February 14, 2012

"La vita è teatro. Tutti (non) in maschera."

Sorry for the delay! I was a bit sick earlier this week and have skipped out on the posts because, truthfully, I haven't gathered enough new information to write up a full report... until this past weekend, that is.

What I expected to blog today was a glorious review about how I spent all of Saturday having the time of my life at Carnevale in Venice. Instead, the day went almost exactly opposite to what I had imagined.

Allow me to rant and rave:
 
The day began bright and early (6:00 AM, to be exact), where my friends and I grabbed some breakfast and headed toward the train station to start exploring the most beautiful city in the world! It was pretty cold in Florence, so, as we were headed farther north (and to a city cocooned by water), everybody made sure to dress well bundled, especially since we would be walking around outside all day.  I went all out - two pairs of pants, three pairs of socks, thick-soled boots, two shirts, a sweater, my heaviest coat, two pairs of gloves, a scarf, hat — literally ready to brace the arctic.

Or so I thought…

Problem #1: LAYERS DON'T MATTER WHEN IT'S THAT COLD.

The train took about three hours in total.  A little while in, we had to switch to a separate train: a train that we would be sitting on for an hour and a half, which also happened to be a train that was NOT HEATED. AT ALL.  As we were traveling, we noticed that the snow along the scenery of Bologna was accumulating pretty rapidly. Every time we spoke we could see our breath, and, as I am a cold person by nature, I felt the lack of heat immediately. Toward the middle of the ride, I was so cold that I couldn’t even stop my legs from jerking.  I knew at that point that it would be a miserable ride, sure, but a) I couldn’t exactly get off the train, and b) VENICE CARNEVALE was waiting on the other side, so I was ready to deal with the conditions.

Once again: Or so I thought…

We made it through the hour and a half of sitting on the Polar Express, but as we started walking toward the next track to wait for the last leg of the trip, I realized I had completely lost feeling in my legs.  I knew we would be able to warm up soon enough, so I tried to ignore the discomfort as much as I could.  My body, on the other hand, had a different plan in mind.

Immediately after we found the track, I felt a sudden wave of heat rush through me, followed by nausea, disorientation and dizziness, until I finally collapsed in a pile of muddy snow.
It was seriously one of the more painful moments I have experienced in my life.

My friends, who were obviously concerned, ran to find juice and crackers, making it back in the nick of time for us to board.
  I had to be helped up the steps, and thank you, angels from above, for swooping down the moment before I fell into what was probably mild hypothermia.

When we settled into the last train, I had the crackers and juice and passed out until we got to Venice, still debating whether or not to even go for the day at all, considering how ill I felt. It took the entire two hour ride for me to feel defrosted (the third train was well heated), and once we got into the city itself, I felt mostly okay.  It was hard for us all to stay outside for long, though, because it was just so damn cold — cold enough that Venice, for the first half of our day, was a complete ghost town.

Problem #2: Carnevale was… not fun?

Perhaps the first day of Carnevale is the wrong day to go (unfortunately, it was the only day we were all free).  There just wasn’t much going on, even during the nighttime. Only about a third of the people walking around were wearing masks, and there were hardly any people actually dressed up for the festival.  I spoke with one of the local shopkeepers, too, and even he told me that the unfavorable weather caused for a scarce amount of visitors.

At nighttime one thing they did have was a huge concert in the Piazza San Marco.  Initally, I was pumped! I have barely heard authentic Italian music since arriving in Florence, and I love live music in general, so it seemed like a great way to redeem the day.  Instead, though, the “band” on stage played nothing Italian and everything that belongs at a horribly cheesy American wedding.

Examples: “I Will Survive,” “YMCA,” “Grease Lightin’ (this one was truly a shocker),” and the most perfect song to narrate the day in its entirety: “I’ve Had The Time of My Life.”

All and all, I (obviously) didn’t much enjoy myself at Carnevale.  We were all frozen and cooped up inside for the majority of the day, the food was terrible and pricey (probably because we were only willing to walk to nearby, touristy-type restaurants), the coolest thing I saw all day was two men walking around on stilts, oh, AND THEN we missed our train back home and had to wait at the station for four extra hours! Yeah…

Even with all the complaints, Venice was still breathtaking and wondrous (although I didn’t get to take in nearly as much as I would have liked to).  We are headed back there in three weeks with the program, so I am planning to somewhat erase this weekend’s trip from my mind and start anew when I return to visit the city itself. Moreover, this experience does not suggest that I won't try Carnevale out again in the future if given the opportunity.  Judging by what I have heard of the festival, it is actually incredible.  I think I just had bad timing and a stroke of bad luck, too. Can't win 'em all, I s'pose!

P.S.  The one AWESOME aspect of the trip: Mask shopping!  Venice is full of unique and gorgeous handmade masks around every corner.  We spent a couple hours just perusing the different shops until we all found a mask that we thought fit our personalities.  It took me forever to pick one out! (Plus, some masks are pretty costly.)

I ended up getting this one:

Pretty cool, right? :)

Anyway, I will be updating more about Florence shortly.  Headed to Caserta this weekend, too, and I still need to touch upon the ballet we went to last week - Swan Lake!

For now though, buonanotte,
Natalie


Thursday, February 2, 2012

Tirarsi su le maniche

Ciao all. It has been a much calmer (and colder) week here in Florence.  Allow me to begin by stating that, after these past two weeks, I can confidently confirm my truly impressive lack of direction.  One might think being a Rhode Islander gives me a leg-up on the whole learning-directions-by-landmarks business, because, so far, it seems that Florence works sort of similarly — For example: When trying to get to the Oltrarno, look for the Ponte Vecchio.  When trying to get to the city center, look for the Duomo. When trying to get to other random-named streets, look for the nearest piazza or mercato.  For most locations around here, it really seems to be that simple.  Alas, however, I have managed to get lost on my way to the SAME destination not once, not twice, but five. times.  Yesterday, I even broke my time-being-lost-record and found myself totally off the map for AN HOUR AND A HALF. At which point I ended up…. here:

I should have expected this, in all seriousness.  Most of the people reading are probably laughing, unsurprised by my unrivaled ability to be a complete space cadet in the face of anything remotely related to directions. …I blame the left-handedness.

On a brighter note, classes started this week, and I feel that I have come back down to Earth a bit.  Although it’s great to dream, I can appreciate a spell of normality amidst the jam-packed weeks-to-come, too.  My courses, thus far, have been much like those at home (with respect to assignments, expectations, and the like), and I am finding myself (like most semesters) immediately charmed by my professors and the knowledge I hope to absorb from them.  They are going to be a lot of work, however! Details to come.

Oh, yeah, and this man draws in the street every day.  Seriously? Incredible!


Lastly, this weekend will be full of Florence exploring!  A few friends and I are thinking of visiting the Uffizi, the Boboli Garden, maybe try out an apertivo.  I have also planned out most of my travel itinerary for the semester, and it looks like I’ll be able to see most of Italy AND four other countries during Spring Break! (Locations TBA)


P.S. / Note to self:  It isn’t enough to have all your ducks in a row.  It’s really amazing how money finds a way to blindside you, even in the event that you’ve organized your finances many months in advance.  My point is: the dollar-to-euro exchange rate is ridiculous.  Good thing I came prepared.

Forgot to mention how much I dislike pigeons - more on that later,
Natalie

Friday, January 27, 2012

Buttati!

              Dear friends: Yesterday, my roommates and I moved out of the hotel and into our apartment in Borgo San Jacopo.  As we were led up the winding marble staircases by our tour guide, Raffaela (who is truly an incredible human being that I will never forget for the rest of my life), it even took her, a pure-bred Florentine, quite a few moments to unlock the door.  The keys look as if they belong to some secret medieval passageway - so completely separate from America... When we finally got in, she hurried us over to the window and, well, that was the moment we all lost our breath and nearly started crying...

Please behold the indescribable view from our apartment windows:



Spellbound. I don't think even heaven is this gorgeous.

I am still drowning in a flood of information—every minute and from every angle.  Today we spent almost ELEVEN hours outside—walking, sharing stories from our lives at home, scattered across the States.  I have never talked or laughed so much in my entire life.  Raffaela, who so invitingly walked us arm and arm through the mercati, took us all over the Oltrarno and let us call her by her nickname, Raffi.  We stopped for cappuccino, where she gave us a candid glimpse of typical Italian coffee-conversation: “Here in Italia, girls, all-a we talk about-a is-a sex, religion, and-a politics!”  It just cannot be real…  Oh, can’t forget my favorite part: Spending almost an hour learning from these two gentlemen how to make hand-made leather wallets....


My roommates are so, so terrific, too.  Since they all know very little Italian and are eager to learn, I’ve already had countless opportunities to translate—from asking for directions to help make our way through the maze of streets, to spending hours after dinner gathered around the kitchen table, labeling everything in our apartment with Italian vocabulary.  Venturing out into the city for our first dinner together!

Still honeymoonin',
Natalie