Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Today's lunch. I can feel myself molting into a true Italian. Now all I've got to do is bundle up like it's -10 degrees every time I step outside, and disregard what I thought was a commonly accepted rule of walking. That is, maybe if I stop trying to walk to the right of people approaching me from the opposite direction and just go with the flow, I won't be doing as many awkward "I don't know how to get around you" dances in the middle of the street.


Monday, January 30, 2012

That One Time We Got Lost in Perugia

So, the title of this post has a bit more of a negative connotation than the story actually possesses, because, *spoiler alert*, we emerged from the situation probably better off than we started.

At the end of last week, the group decided to explore a bit of our Italian surroundings by taking an overnight trip to Perugia and Assisi in the neighboring province of Umbria. The journey to Perugia went off without a hitch, and was complete with a windy (side note: just had the major realization that windy (moving air) and windy (curvy) are spelled the same way. mind. blown.) bus ride through the picturesque Tuscan countryside, and two additional train rides. Italy, I found out, is very well connected north-south, but not so much east-west. Thus, what should be only an hour and a half away, took about four hours. We didn't mind the travelling too much though, as we had plenty of homework to do to and it was an adventure in itself- ensuring all the connections were made on time, the correct tickets were bought, etc.

When we arrived in Perugia around 3pm, we slowly began to realize after taking in our surroundings (the center of Perugia is literally on top of a mountain, we were at the bottom) that we had absolutely no game plan. The only things we knew for certain: we had virtually no time restrictions, and we had to go up. With no public transportation system in sight, we started walking. Hiking, rather, I swear the roads were at nearly a 90 degree angle...

After wandering upwards for about 45 mins, exhausted and with screaming feet (I made the completely amateur mistake of wearing my new boots which have about a three-inch platformed heel, my feet STILL hurt two days later), we discover that we have made it. Naturally, beautiful views insued.

I will quote my friend Brooke here and venture to say that we learned a valuable lesson from this bit of trekking: everything happens for a reason. Had we not been completely ignorant to the inner workings of the Perugian transportation system, and had we not taken the completely random path up the mountainous outskirts of the city, then we would not have ran into the fellow group of American students who were receiving a free tour from a young American professor at the University of Umbria, who insisted that we join them on the latter half of the tour! This was such a great experience. Zach, our tour guide, was interesting and funny (he specifically said he doesn't do "the boring shit"), and SUPER helpful seeing as we had relatively zero knowledge of this new city. Fun fact: there used to be a lazy susan-type situation at a Perugian orphanage where poor families could drop their newborn children off, without or without a marker. If they had a marker, the parents intended on retrieving them from the orphanage when the family was in better economic standing. Also, the kids in these places were only assigned a first name, so if they were released without a family, they were given a last name
that indicated their orphan status. I don't remember exactly what it was, but this means that there are lots of people in the region who have the same last name and an ancestor that hails from this orphanage.

Our tour guide, Zach.

We were sufficiently exhausted after another hour of walking on the tour with our bags and my poor choice of shoes. This did not stop us, however, from taking a look around the inside of the beautiful duomo in Perugia's main piazza.

This same church won third place in a contest for Europe's ugliest churches from the outside:

The rest of the evening consisted of shopping at the little markets set up in the center of town, and eating dinner at a delicious restaurant recommended to us by our tour guide. This dinner provides a perfect example of the Italian's culture of time and timeliness in general. After being unable to accommodate a table for twelve when we first arrived at the restaurant around 8, we made a reservation for 9:15, had an aperitif at a nearby bar, then returned to the restaurant precisely at 9:15. Of course, there was still no room for us, nor would there be for another hour. Reservations, similar to stop signs, seem to be merely a guideline in this country. It was worth the wait though, I finally had that life changing pizza. The WHOLE pizza was life changing. Seriously, so much pizza...



The next day started at 8am when we woke early enough to get to Umbria's National Gallery of Art before our 10:30am train to Assisi. This time I can proudly say that we found the "minimetro," the pod-like train that takes you up and down the mountain. UP and down the mountain....right. We'll keep that in mind for next time.

Also, shout out to Ashton who let me borrow his extra pair of shoes for the day. My feet were in heaven seeing as I could hardly stand when I woke up that morning.

Assisi is a smaller, pedestrian town like Siena that is also nestled on top of a mountain. It is surrounded by the breathtaking countryside, and is home to Saint Francis. The main event of the day (other than successfully reaching the top via bus) was touring the Cathedral and Basilica di San Francesco, where his remains are buried.

Basilica di San Francesco.

We then spent the afternoon wandering through the cute little streets, eating amazing pasta and gelato, and generally enjoying the sunny afternoon in this incredible country that I love more and more every day that I'm here.

Some of the girls enjoying our gelato :)

View of the country from the hills of Assisi.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Back to the Books

Yesterday was the first day of school. School = what I think is meant to be an apartment (it's in a building with other apartments) converted into 4 classrooms and an office. It's pretty cool. Also, random side note: Italians love graph paper. I don't get it. I bought two notebooks the other day without realizing they were filled with graph paper, and had to scour the cartoleria (paper store) for quite some time before I could find any with ruled paper.

Anyways, I had Italian with Evan and our professor, Ida Ferrari (yes, Ferrari), in the morning for an hour and a half. Then a 30 min. break until Italian Cultural History in which we ran across the street to Pizzaland for a snack. Eric and I ventured to try the "pigs and chips" pizza- pizza with hotdog and french fries and ketchup on it. Eric seemed to like it, but me, not so much. I was just craving french fries ok!

Both were pretty much just introductions, but I can tell having a two person Italian class will be very useful. Our language teacher speaks to us only in Italian, which will be yet another great opportunity for practice.

Yesterday we saw a taxi strike out the window during Italian class, which was a pretty cool experience. There was a bunch of honking and we went to the window to see that there was a parade of taxis winding down the tiny streets. Our cultural history professor warned us to expect a lot of strikes while we are here, as Italy's government is going through a huge transition right now.

The cultural history class seems great, our professor is an American who has lived here full time for about 20 years. I am amazed at how much I found out about Italy in only one session! This is the class we will be going with on our wine and cheese tasting field trip soon, and on our trip to Sicily.

Speaking of Siciliy...I watched The Godfather last night for the first time. What better place to experience it, right? :)

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Un Piccolo Ripasso

A quick review of my weekend: it was quite lazy, sleeping till noon and wandering/taking pictures all day (we're in Italy, this is ok, right?), but I must point out a few milestones that occurred. I am just now realizing that they all have to do with food. Hm...

1. I had my first gelato. Now THAT was a life changing experience. Seriously. Who knew ice cream could actually taste so much better here? And the sizes are much smaller so you don't feel like you're gorging yourself as you do at Cold Stone or Ben and Jerry's, but they do take care to pack it as densely as possible. They know what's up.

2. I had my favorite meal thus far. Overpriced pears and cheese. But not just any overpriced pears and cheese, ITALIAN pears with pecorino cheese all drizzled in honey. Words can't even describe. The setting I was in probably added to the feeling of pure happiness I experienced while eating it. It was a gorgeous, warm day on the Piazza del Campo, and I was excited about the prospect of having absolutely nothing to do but take in the amazing city around me. It was...perfetto.

3. I had my first encounter with olives. I hate olives. I'm in Italy...this is a problem. Luckily it was only in a Sicilian salad with fennel and oranges, so they were easy to pick out. But, it reminded me of the looming inevitability of having to eat one. I dread the day.

Sienese Nightlife

As the weekend comes to a close, I can proudly say I have made friends with REAL Italians my age! All thanks to Gianluigi, of course, the Italian roommate living with some of the girls in the program. And, I've heard this before but I've noticed how true it actually is, Italian girls our age are very closed off, and it is much harder to befriend them. Our resident director, Christina, who has lived here on and off for years still has no real girl Italian friends. Her friend, a native Italian, told us that the friends you make in high school here are your friends forever, (you also probably meet the person you will marry in high school) and that girls don't let people in very easily.

Friday night started out slowly, beginning with a few of the students meeting at a restaurant for an aperitivo, a five dollar charge for a drink and a plate of little sandwiches and snacks. We quickly realized this was not the place to be (despite the DJ who was playing, seemingly just for us) when we saw that even though it was midnight, everyone around us was ordering gelato, not drinks. Awkward. So when the place closed, we wandered a bit looking for something to do, because honestly, none of us had any idea what people did in Siena on the weekends.

Evan, Faith and I out on Friday night.

We finally came across this PACKED bar, with people standing all around it on the streets. There is a university in Siena, so we figured this was the cool place for college kids and decided to try it out. Upon our arrival, we found Gianluigi standing with many of his friends outside the bar, and we took this as our way in. He speaks very good English, so he is very easy to talk to and a great resource for learning about the language and culture, but when he introduced us to his friends, it was a bit more difficult. Evan and I ended up having particularly long conversations with two of his friends who spoke about as much English as we do Italian, so it was great for both groups to practice the other's language.

The experience here, though, was pretty shocking. After an onslaught of "Are you American? Where are you from?" etc. while attempting to order drinks from the bar, we couldn't help but just look around and laugh. Groups of boys were loudly singing drinking songs, or maybe team songs, because there is a soccer game today against Naples. I couldn't understand them either way. Once we ordered drinks, we learned the thing to do is just stand outside and maybe take a walk to the piazza, because there's a. no room anywhere inside to stand comfortably, and b. it's totally normal to walk around the city with drinks in hand! Something that doesn't go over so well in Charlottesville...

Last night we all tried to see a live play of Breakfast at Tiffany's with Christina, but unfortunately it was sold out for the entire weekend. Instead, we got gelato and she and her friend showed us some bars that are cheap and usually have a lot of young Italians in them. We hung out on the piazza, a very popular pastime, I've come to realize, and finally met up with Gianluigi and some of his friends at his apartment he shares with the three girls in the program.

Faith and I also went to a concert of the band that Stella's son, Francesco, plays in for a bit. They were very good! Granted we couldn't understand their lyrics, but the music was rock n roll and great. There we met up and danced with Francesco's partner and mother of Cosimo, Natasha, who is incredibly nice and who we spend a lot of time with at home.

I am very excited to continue to make friends with Italians and to see where my new friendships will go! I'm also, surprisingly, excited for school to start tomorrow. A whole new adventure begins...

Friday, January 20, 2012

I Primi Giorni Della Mia Avventura

Ciao! I'm a bit late starting my blog, as the first few days here in Siena have been very busy and overwhelming (and wonderful, of course). Also, please excuse the highly unoriginal blog name. After days of brainstorming, I ultimately gave up. So, here's a bit of a recap of "the first days of my adventure."

Evan and I departing on our journey.

After a fairly easy journey to Italy (a six hour layover in Paris, a taxi strike at the Florence airport and an airplane champagne toast to our new lives are the only notable events of the trip) Evan, a roommate and friend of mine from UVA (visit her blog, eeminitaly.blogspot.com for a more detailed recount of the trip over), and Brooke, a fellow Siena student we met at the airport, arrived successfully at the bus stop in Florence for our hour and 15 min. ride to the beautiful, walled, medieval city of Siena. To describe the ride there is nearly impossible, "quaint Italian villas dotted the countryside" is an understatement. But, picture that, and that's about as close to the real thing you can get.

Once we arrived inside the walls of Siena, our fabulous resident director, Christina, greeted us and sent us to our respective homes. She walked me to Via Montanini, the street I have declared permanent residence on for the next four months. My roommate, Faith, arrived before me, and she and my host mom, Stella, greeted me at the door. Stella's apartment is so charming and, well, Italian. It even smells Italian, if that makes any sense. The window in Faith and I's room overlooks the georgeous hills of Chianti - wine country! After chatting a bit in a mix of broken Italian and English, I set off for my room to unpack. About an hour later, dinner was ready. My first authentic, home-cooked, Italian meal. What an experience. In retrospect, I wish I had taken a picture, but I was too hungry to think about that at the time! First, we had pumpkin soup, followed by "polpeto" a mixture of different meats rolled into a patty-like shape, with delicious tomato sauce and mashed potatoes (nothing like American mashed potatoes, by the way). Three things that are guaranteed to be on the dinner table : olive oil, bread, and red wine. No surprise there, right? The mix of Italian and English conversation continued through dinner. Stella told us about her one and a half year old grandon, Cosimo, who will be at the apartment a lot, and how he is already taking after his father in playing the drums. Needless to say, he is the cutest thing on the planet. We met him two nights later, his blonde hair and blue eyes, although a bit of a surprise, are absolutely heartbreaking. I may come home with an Italian child, watch out. She also gave us a bit of history on the famous summer time horse race, the Palio, and the contradas, or neighborhoods, of Siena, hers in particular - dragon, although we now live in wolf. I will get more into this later, but, Stella described it the best I have heard thus far, saying, "la contrada è più della madre," or, the contrada is more than the mother. It's a way of life. There is even a separate baptism within the contrada. Faith and I promptly went to bed, full and happy, after the dinner. My 30 hour day had come to a close.

The view out Evan's window is ah-mazing.

The next day started at 9am, and after 11 hours of sleep, I wasn't too jetlagged. There was quite a nice surprise on the table when we sat down for breakfat, Special K with Red Berries! My favorite cereal! That paired with butter and marmellata and tea, I knew it was going to be a good day. We started by meeting the rest of our group, there's 13 of us, in the Piazza del Campo, the main piazza of Siena for meeting, eating, or just hanging out.

Piazza del Campo.

Fontana in Piazza del Campo.

From here, Christina took us on a tour of the city, showing us important places like where to find the best gelato and cheapest wine, and other things like the pharmacy, grocery store and school. The best way to get to know Siena, though, is to just get lost. Ok you can't actually get lost here, because it's about a 25 minute walk from one end of the city to the other, but you get the idea. The plan this weekend is to wander through the winding alleys of Siena to find the heart of all 17 contradas, where there is a church and a fountain, and the stalls where the Palio horses are kept around race time in the summer. We got to tour one of the churches and museums of la contrada della Selva, or the forest contrada, with a woman from the contrada who was given the key to the very private contrada church, one that is not open to the public, and only used for special occasions like weddings, or the blessing of the Palio horse. A side note about the horses - they are selected at random from the surrounding countryside a few days before the race, and are considered a hero if they are the victor.

Inside the church of La Contrada della Selva.

In the museum of the contrada churches are every Palio ever won by that contrada, the Palio being the name of the prize as well. They are paintings done by a different artist every year, and they are stored in the crypt/museum of the church after a year of being displayed up above. The Virgin Mary is featured on every Palio, as the race, and Siena in general, is dedicated to her.

Some of la Selva's Palios.

Life in the contradas is very special. Each one has its own capitano and priore, the main organizer of the Palio and the governor, respectively. They have their own colors, flags, and animals to represent them, and they also have allies and enemies, some of which go back centuries. These relationships are either a blessing or a curse when it comes to the random placing of the horses at the start of the Palio. If you are placed next to your enemy contrada, you will have a hard time even starting the race.

After our tour Evan, Faith and I found a little bar near my apartment to eat lunch, and I had a delicious plate of tortellini and a prosciutto, mozzarella, and olive oil sandwich, then we had an orientation meeting at the CET Center. This meeting was just to go over logistical kind of stuff, including our schedule for the semester, which involves a wine and cheese tasting field trip, and a traveling seminar to Sicily! I also learned that Evan and I are the only two in our Italian class, hello private tutor! That evening, we had our welcome dinner at a wonderful restaurant called Fonte Giusto with everyone in the program, as well as the Italian roommates of the rest of the group! There were courses and courses of salame (different slices of meats) and fried artichoke and bruschetta, then lots of different pastas! And bread and wine, of course. For dessert was an interesting cider-like wine called Vin Santo, it actually almost tasted like whiskey. You dip your cantucci (a type of cookie) into it, but honestly none of the Americans were too fond of it.

Evan and I outside the Fonte Giusta restaurant.

Now, on to today. After a late start (Stella came into our room an our after we were supposed to have breakfast and informed us it was 10am, our meeting was at 1030), we rushed out of the house to school for more orientation meetings. Then had a couple hours in the afternoon to ourselves, when I had my first piece of pizza! I'm not going to lie, it didn't exactly meet my expectations. Although it was from a place called "Pizzaland." Probably not the best choice on my part. It was good, of course, but I'm still waiting for that piece of pizza that changes my life. The afternoon held more orientation sessions, then finally we were free for the day. Faith, Evan, her roommate Eric and I, went to the Italian grocery store, Conad, for snacks and chocolate...and Nutella :) Nutella is HUGE here. Stella even said "if you are sad, eat Nutella." Then we decided to just wander a bit, walked the backroads and the alleys of Siena, and found gorgeous views and the soccer stadium! Unfortunately I didn't bring my camera with me, but I may steal some of Evan's pictures and post them on here. We came home to a dinner of lentil soup, bruschetta, salad, and a veggie and potato omelet, yum! For dessert was ricciarelli, a delicious almond cookie made only with almonds, flour and sugar. Now I am at my desk, writing and debating what to wear out on my first night out in Siena...this will take my full attention. A presto!