Monday, April 30, 2007

Everyday is an Adventure

Piazza San Marco

Grand Canal View from Rialto
Ponte Rialto

Everyday here is an adventure, and some of them turn out to be more than I bargained for! That happened this weekend. The 1st of May is Italy’s liberation day, so Monday is a holiday, school is closed and everyone is traveling! (This is the 3rd holiday in the 3 weeks since I started school) Anyway, I decided to take a day trip to Venice on Sunday.

Venice is one of the most beautiful places in the world, and not like anyplace or anything that you have ever seen in your life! It is "enchanting" in every sense of the word. I feel like Alice in Wonderland stepping through the glass when I am there! Honestly, it is like a dream. I was very excited and got up early to catch a 10:00 train for the 3 hour ride to Venice. When I got to the train station to buy my ticket, the 10:00 train was sold out! That should have been my first clue for what was to come, but I went ahead and booked the next train out at 11:30 a.m.

Since the train I wanted was sold out, I thought I should go ahead and purchase my return trip so that I wouldn’t be caught on that end with a sold out train, and I booked a return trip at 5 p.m. I went and had breakfast, and wandered around the station waiting for time to board my train. As I wandered I decided that 6 hours on the train (round trip) was too long to only spend 3 ½ hours there, so made a change to my return ticket to come back later that evening.

The trip to Venice was very nice. It was a Eurostar train, which is express, and very nice and comfortable inside. I had two seats all to myself, and studied a lot, and did my homework on the way there. When I arrived, I was surprised to find that the train station is right on the Grand Canal, and it is beautiful! I located the vaporetta, which are the ferries that take you up and down the canal, and boarded one. I had decided to visit the Peggy Guggenheim Museum, which has a tremendous collection of American modern art.

When I got to the Rialto Bridge on the vaporetta, I couldn’t stand it anymore and went ahead and got off, even though my stop was further down. I just wanted to be in the city and to take some photos. I walked for about 2 miles to get to the Guggenheim. The gallery is unbelievable! There is a Picasso, a lot of Max Ernst, an entire room of Jackson Pollock, a Dali, Chagall, etc. If you are ever in Venice, it might be something you overlook, because why would an American go see American art is Venice.......but don’t! Believe me, you can only look at so many "Madonna and Child" paintings and stay sane, and this is a great diversion, and really one of the best museums I have been in. It is just the right size also......not so overwhelming!

After visiting the museum, I went through San Marco Piazza and sat down at one of the outdoor cafes and drank prosecco (Italian champagne) and listened to one of the bands that plays classical music on the Piazza. The piazza was crowded, and it was a beautiful day. By this time, is was already 6:00, and I decide to visit a restaurant I had heard about that specializes in fish. I have been craving fish since living in Florence. Florence is land locked (except for the river, which you would not want to eat out of) and they eat a lot of meat, but not much fish. This was the perfect opportunity to get a fix. The restaurant is called Al Conte Pescaor, and is located down a little street, and pretty hard to find. Venice is very easy to get lost in, but thankfully it is small, so you can’t get lost to badly. I found the restaurant, the menu looked fabulous, and I ordered octopus salad (Insalata polpiti) and Branzino Griglia con asparagi. (Grilled Sea Bass with asparagus). It was fabulous and there was an outside dining area, where I could continue to people watch.

All day long, I had been speaking Italian to people and doing pretty well. Being out and having conversations with people is the real test, so I think I will focus more on that than the tests in my classroom! Anyway, people actually thought I could speak Italian! They responded back to me, and most of the time, I could understand them. Progress!

Dinners in Italy take a long time, but because it was early, I finished in an hour and had plenty of time to get to the station for my train. I got to the station at 8:15 for an 8:44 departure. I pulled my ticket out of my bag, and then it struck me! Right there as plain as day, the ticket I had changed was from Florence to Venice, not from Venice to Florence. The ticket that I had from Venice to Florence was there, but that train had already left. I rushed over to the ticket machine to change the ticket for a departure from Venice, but there were no more trains departing Venice tonight! Great! That will damage my budget!

Thankfully, there are hotel booking agents in the train stations, which make it very convenient. I went ahead and changed my train ticket for Monday morning, and went into the office to secure a hotel room. The booking office was a madhouse. Just as I came in, the woman working there said there were no more double rooms in Florence because of the holiday, and the rooms she had were ½ hour train ride away. I thought that would be fine, and since I had no alternative, waited in line. When it was my turn, I told her I wanted a single room, and she was able to secure one in Venice. It was in the area of the Peggy Guggenheim, and cost $100 euro per night for a 2 star, single room. I took the room, and expected the worst. Hotels in Italy are small, and usually old, and not what we are accustomed to anyway. I had never stayed in a 2 star, but what the heck? I got back on the vaporetta and made my way down the canal.
The woman in the office had given me directions to the hotel, and said that if I wasn’t there in two hours, that they would give away the room. Venice is not big, but as I said it is easy to get lost, so two hours could easily be pushing it. It was a 40 minute ride in the boat down the canal at that time of night (9:30 p.m.) Nightlife just beginning.

The area where the hotel was located was absolutely beautiful. It is a residential area, very quiet, and near the Accademia and the galleries. There are beautiful homes and gardens there and even at night it was gorgeous. I found the hotel easily enough, and was very pleasantly surprised! I don’t know why it is rated as a two star, because it is much nicer than some places I have stayed. Anyway, I checked in, put my bag and jacket in my room, and then went back to the bar for a glass of wine. (Surprise!)

At this point, I am pretty happy. I have had a nice day, good entertainment, good weather, great food, and good luck with the hotel, so aside from being out a little more money than I expected, everything is good.

The next morning, I get up early, head to the station (take a lot of photos along the way) and wait for my train which is to leave at 8:45 a.m. and arrive in Florence at 11:30. When you are at the station, they post the track that the train will depart from about ½ hour before departure. At 8:20, there was no sign of my train on the postings, so I went to ask about it.

The ticket agent looked at my ticket and told me that the train I had booked left from the other Venice train station, and that I had to take the regional train there, but that I wouldn’t make it in time. Great! Here I am luck with these train tickets! I had to purchase another return ticket (this one could not be changed for some reason) for 37 euro, and change trains 3 times to get back to Florence at 1:00 p.m.! Ok, what else?

I board the train in Venice San Lucia, went to Venice Mestre, traveled from there to Bologna, and changed trains in Bologna to get to Florence. One thing that is odd about Italian trains, is that you have to know the routes. For example, the train that I got on in Bologna said that it was going to Napoli, and said nothing about Florence. There is a train number on the ticket, but they do not post them with those numbers which would be helpful. I started asking questions when I got to Bologna and didn’t see the Florence train, so that I was instructed to the Napoli train.

So, everyday is an adventure and out of every mishap, you can learn a few things. Here’s what I learned:

1. Book your ticket ahead of time on the internet if you can.
2. Pay attention to the stations in cities that have more than one train station
3. Get a train route map so that you know what the "end of the line" is.
4. You can get by wearing the same clothes for two days.
5. You can live without a comb and toothpaste.
6. If you laugh and learn and go with the flow, everything will turn out okay.
Oh yeah, when I got to the station, and ate breakfast, I really wanted to brush my teeth, but couldn’t find anywhere to buy a toothbrush so I opted for gum out of a vending machine instead. I had just enough change to put into the machine, and I put it in and pressed the button. The gum got hung in the machine! That was my laughing point.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Fountains in Florence

Florence has its share of fountains like every other Italian city. My favorite here is the Neptune Fountain on Piazza della Signoria. Unfortunately, the weather here has been so beautiful, with no rain that there is the danger of a drought now, so the fountains are turned off! They are still very beautiful and lit up at night.

The fountains in Florence are modest compared to other Italian cities, particularly Rome, where my favorite, The Trevi Fountain is located. I will be traveling to Rome in a couple of weeks to meet Amy, and will definitely visit the Trevi Fountain.

Here are some photos of the ones in Florence.

The brass wild boar in the photo is located in Mercato Nuovo, It is called Il Porcellino. It is a 17th century copy of a statute in the Uffizi. Notice that the nose is very shiny compared to the rest of the body. That is because of the superstition that any visitor who rubs it will return to Florence some day. Laugh if you want, but it worked for me!

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Pedestrian Road Rage

Italians are very fun loving, easy going people with minimal space requirements. I think that is a function of the way they live. Space is at a premium in the city, and having a lot of space is expensive, so most people don’t. If you see a group of Italians standing in line.....well, there isn’t one. They just kind of group together. They do respect "taking turns", but apparently don’t see the need to be in an organized line to do so. Public transportation is crowded, so you are side by side. Americans personal space needs are much broader, and I see a lot of American tourist become very uncomfortable in situations were a lot of people are standing, walking, etc.

I bring all this up, because of my own personal problem, that I have not yet been able to overcome, and in fact it gets worse by the day......pedestrian road rage. As you know, I walk everywhere. At certain times of the day, I am walking with a purpose: get to school, get home from school for lunch, go to the market, etc. During these times, the tourists who stroll along the sidewalks, or even worse, who stand on the street corners with gelato in hand gaping at a church, fountain, tower, statue, or whatever drive me NUTS!

I have asked Italian people who I have met what they think about these tourists and how they block the sidewalks and streets, and they laugh and say that without the tourists there would be no jobs! What a great attitude! This road rage of mine is a part of my American aggression and type A personality that I am trying to lose. Wish me luck!

Just so you know the extent of what I am talking about, I included a photo....

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Awe and Wonder

I have been to almost all of the tourist sites in Florence, at least once, some of them more. If you visit me, I may accompany you on some of your trip to the sites, and some probably not. The Uffizi is magnificent, and I have been there 3 times in 3 years. Once per year is enough for me. It is huge and overwhelming, and much of the art is not to my taste, although the age and the artists amaze me.

There is one "sight" that when you come to visit, I know you will go to see, and I will accompany everyone each time. It is the one that strikes that childlike "awe and wonder" in me, that I thought was lost......David, by Michelangelo. I think the effect is very much the same for everyone, although no one ever thinks it is going to be.

By the time you go into The Galleria dell’ Accademia, you will probably already have seen so many photos of David, and even the replica (full size) that stands in Piazza della Signoria that you will think that it will be the same thing, and not so much after all, but you will be wrong. Maybe it is the "presentation" a long hallway flanked by other sculptures of Michelangelo’s, the sunlit dome over David’s head, or the lighting, I don’t know.

If you don’t remember what "awe and wonder" feels like, you are in for a treat. After having been struck twice by Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, and David my "awe and wonder" have transferred now from the art to the artist.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Italian Men.................

Once when I was vacationing in Italy......I think it was last Fall, Doug Gray asked me what was attractive about Italian men. At the time, I couldn't quantify or explain it, but I have been paying more attention, so that I can answer that question now. Granted, the sample size is not valid (contrary to what some of you think!) and I am speaking in generalities based on my own experiences, but here are the answers.
For my family members who are reading, please censor accordingly for my nieces and nephews!

1. Italian men are more demonstrative-in the way they speak and listen, and use their hands (that joke about "Roman hands" was not written for nothing!)

2. Italian men dress nicely even when they are casual. The polo shirt has not disgraced Europe yet

3. Italian men wear nice shoes-all leather, all the time-no tennis shoes, except for playing soccer
4. Italian men know about and enjoy wine

5. Italian men will chose wine over beer almost every time. (Even with pizza)

6. Italian men know about and enjoy art

7. Italian men know about and enjoy classical music and opera

8. Italian men speak Italian.

9. When Italian men speak English they have a beautiful Italian accent.

10. Italian men appreciate age and experience.

11. Italian men are not intimidated by American women.

12. Guns are not Italian men's best friend and favorite toy.

13. Italian men don’t "go huntin and fishin’"

14. Italian men only like soccer as a sport. One sport, one season. YEAH!

15. Italian men like women with big asses! What luck. (And isn’t it ironic to that I am losing mine now?)

16. Italian men like to leave the lights on.

17. Italian men like to cook.
18. Italian men have fabulous names. Here are some that I know so far: Bruno, Raffaele, Francesco, Enrico, Luca, Marco, Luciano, Andrea.


Monday, April 23, 2007

Scuola Leonardo Da Vince part due

Well, I am beginning my third week of school. On Friday I had my first test covering the first 2 weeks of material, and I made an 86. I was happy with this given how the day went, and the fact that I don’t know prepositions. I missed a couple of other things on the test which were primarily nerves, but the prepositions, I just don’t know. We knew there was going to be a test, but had no information on the format etc. When we arrived for class on Friday, we had a "substitute" teacher for grammar. This really threw everyone for a loop! The way that she spoke Italian was very different from our usual grammar teacher.....probably a different dialect, but I could not understand a word she was saying! She went through the exercises very quickly, and did not give time for us to correct our responses. All of us in the class were looking at each other and thinking "What the hell?" Needless to say, my confidence was greatly shaken at this point. We had our break and I looked over some of my material and tried to calm myself.

A man came into the class and asked in Italian who was leaving the class after today. Again we all looked at each other as none of us were planning to leave. He continued to talk to us in Italian, and started passing out a paper. We were surprised because at this point, we had not seen either of our regular teachers, and were unprepared for this. At that point, Francesca, our conversation teacher came into the room. The man was in the incorrect classroom!

I can’t really remember the last time I had to take a test, but I do know that I have never been very good at it. I sometimes rush and overlook details, and other times get so nervous I can’t think. I had both of those things happening, but it turned out okay.

I bought two text books in English covering Italian Grammar to help me with the prepositions, but still no luck. The teachers responde, "piano, piano, prepozitiones e molto difficile". Yes, I agree with that!

Anyway, the score of 86 officially gets me into level 2. My classmates are all the same. There have been a few students who did not start with the class that have "popped" in for a day or two at a time. I think this is because if you have had Italian Language courses before, they test you and then place you in a class, if the class is not a good "fit" for your skills, then you can change classes.

The Australian girl in my class is a real annoyance! She is very young, probably 21. She says she is there because she just finished university and she doesn’t know what she wants to do, so she is traveling. Please! The reason she is an annoyance, is because she comes to class once in a blue moon, always late, and leaves early. She didn’t take the test on Friday, but is moving on through the class as if she did. My personal issue with this is that when she doesn’t understand something, which is often since she is never in class, I have to explain it to her because I am the only other English speaker.

Today in class I had a conversation in Italian with a German and a Japanese person about cities in our respective countries that we like. Amazing!

Friday, April 20, 2007

Food in Florence

Well, what can I say about the food in Florence other than magnifico, tutti buono!!? First of all, we have to start with the ingredients. Fiorintines use all fresh ingredients. Occasionally, on a menu, you will see a frozen item, but it is always noted. In the grocery store, the frozen food section is very limited. Some prepackaged foods, but mostly vegetables. No TV dinners, Lean Cuisines, or anything like that.

Fast food doesn’t really exist. Italians do not "take out" very often. Occasionally, you will see a pizza go out, and there are fresh sandwiches that you can buy to eat while walking, but you never see anyone carrying a paper cup of coffee, or soda (maybe a bottle of wine or a beer).
Menus consist of several categories: Antipasto, which is an appetizer, Primi-which is the first course, usually a pasta or risotto, Secondi-which is the main entree, Insalata-the salad course, which is eaten after the meal and supposed to be better for digestion, and then there are the Pizzas (not usually eaten in a several course meal) Contorni-which are the side dishes, and Dolci-or desserts.

Let me tell you a little bit about what might be in each category. Since I am not a "meat eater", sometimes my choices are very limited. Florence is not near the ocean, so their fish dishes are not abundant. They do however eat almost every other animal known to man, and all of the pieces and parts of those animals!

The Antipasto course may be something like bruschetta, crostini, caprese, cheese. The bruschetta is somewhat similar to what you might find in an Italian restaurant at home, but it will only ever have fresh tomatoes on it! No canned, and the most excellent olive oil.
The Primi Course will be pasta, gnocchi or risotto. These are relatively small portions, but could easily be a meal. I like to share these if I am with another person. Some of the most popular ones are Porcini risotto, Quattro Formaggia Gnocchi (4 cheese) and this is my personal favorite, Spaghetti with meat sauce, or Bechamel Lasagne.

Secondi consists of the famous Bistecca Fiorintina, which is at least a 1 kilo (2.2 lb) T-bone, of the most excellent Italian beef, grilled and cut into pieces and served on a wooden platter. I, of course, haven’t eaten this, but the boys did when they were here, and they did not leave any of that 2.2 lbs to waste! It looks delicious and I could consider being a carnivore over it!

Additionally, on menus you will find hare, chicken, fillet of beef, tripe (cows stomach), and calves liver. Sometimes fish, although rare, and usually Gambrini (shrimp)

The salads here are extraordinary. I have commented before on the quality of the tomatoes in the area, and that pretty much applies to all of the produce. I think that most of the produce that is used is grown in Italy (Southern) so it doesn’t have far to be shipped. It is always so beautiful and fresh and tasty. Italians do not appear to have ever heard of iceberg, which I think is a blessing. Or if they have heard of it, they have the good sense not to eat it and instead use all types of other greens like rucola, arugula, spinach, white and red leaf lettuce. They use yellow kernel corn in most of their salads which adds a nice color, grated carrots, tomatoes of course, and then top with avocados, shrimp, tuna (which is canned and packed in olive oil, and unbelievably delicious) olives, cheese, or peppers. All of these ingredients would probably never be found on one salad. They use them in different combinations that are extraordinary! Let me tell you something about Italian Dressing. That stuff we use at home is not it! The only dressings that Italians use for their salads is Olive Oil (and they make some of the finest in the world-and you can tell the difference!) and vinegar (either Balsamic-again they make the best! Or Red Wine)

Next we have the pizzas. I swear I eat this almost every day! They are about 12 inches in diameter, but one person can easily eat the whole thing because the crust is so thin and light and the ingredients used so fresh and delicious. You will never find anything appalling like "the meat lovers" or the "cheeseburger explosion", or a "supreme" here. Most pizzas have 1 to 3 ingredients on them. They usually contain the usual tomato sauce, and some type of cheese (with fresh mozzarella or buffalo mozzarella) then you can have porcini mushroom, olives, tuna, sausage, salami, ham, onions, artichokes, feta cheese, fresh tomatoes, spinach, garlic, to name a few. The Margarita pizza is a popular one from Southern Italy which has only fresh mozzarella and basil on it.

Contorni, or side dishes consist of sauteed spinach, patate frites (friend potatoes, but unbelievably tasty and not greasy!), roasted potatoes, beans, etc.
Dolci-which I have not been able to eat because of the egg issue, usually consist of Tiramisu (of course) a type of cheese cake, a chocolate torte, and gelato.

I have to talk about Tuscan bread. I hate it. It is dry and tasteless because they do not use any salt in it. Italians do not use butter, and they also do not mix olive oil and cheese and dip bread in it like they do at Macaroni Grill! Go figure! The bread is only useful, in my opinion, if you have a sauce on your dish that you want to sop up!

Aside from the bread, I have not put one bad tasting food in my mouth! Of course, I have the wonderful wine to accompany every meal! And still, I have managed to lose 7 kilos (15.4 lbs!)
I wish I had some photos of the food, but that would be just too odd, wouldn’t it?

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Studio Italiano es Molto Dificile!

Dusk view of Firenze from the Arno
How long has it been since you learned something new? I don’t mean the trivia and minutiae that we all hear and pick up on an everyday basis. I am talking about REALLY learning something. Something that you know little about, have some interest in, have to read, memorize, study, etc? It seems to me like it used to be a lot easier than it is now!

The first half of my class every day is grammar. Grammar in Italian is somewhat different because they have feminine and masculine applied to everything, including inanimate objects, so first you have to figure out whether the word is masculine or feminine, singular or plural before you know what article and preposition to use with it, and what letter the verb that accompanies the noun ends with. Really, it’s a lot to think about! And who ever cared or thought about whether a table or a door was masculine or feminine, and how would you begin to figure out "the sex" of those things?

Then there is just the regular vocabulary. I am in the process now of making "flash cards". Remember those? I spend hours a day conjugating verbs. I don’t think I even remember how to conjugate English verbs, which might make it easier.

The second half of the class is conversation. I like that part much better oddly enough. You know I am not a big "talker". I seem to retain more when speaking and definitely build my confidence around pronunciation, etc. I have been taking a poll, and the good news is that Italians cannot tell that I have a Southern accent. In fact, they sometimes have difficulty discerning British, American, and Australian. I bet that pisses off some Brits (huh, Linda?)
Really it makes sense because in Italy there are a number of dialects as well, which I cannot discern. The best thing about Italian is that every letter they use in a word makes a sound. That seems to be a real difficulty for them when learning English because of all of the "silent" letters that we have.

On Friday, I have my first test. I know it will not surprise you to know that I am as compulsive about learning Italian as I am about other things. Even though it has only been 8 days, I feel like I should be further along than I am. My teachers are constantly saying to me, "Tranquile, Karen, tranquile. Piano, piano" (Translation: Relax, Karen, relax. Slowly, slowly) I guess some things never change.
Wish me luck, I need it.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Sidewalk Art

Mona Lisa-Leonardo Da Vinci Primavera-Sandro Boticelli

Girl with a pearl earring-Vemeer

Birth of Venus-Sandro Boticelli

Okay, here is my idea for my second "coffee table book,. Sidewalk art. Some of you know that I like to paint. I am not very good at it, but I enjoy it. Being in Florence, I have lots of time to paint, but, I haven’t done much of it. (See Painting in Florence) Anyway, the reason I don’t paint much is because when I do, I stay in my apartment. I haven’t ventured outside to attempt painting yet, for a variety of reasons. 1. I am too self conscious, 2. There is a lot of stuff to carry. 3. I am totally intimidated by other artists living (and dead) in Florence.

There are many galleries and art schools in Florence. The amazing thing to me, which further adds to my intimidation is the "sidewalk art" that happens every single day near the Porcalleno Mercato. There are 3 spaces available, and artists work on their hands and knees all day long to recreate some of the most beautiful and famous paintings in the world, in chalk. At the end of the day, the street sweeper comes by and washes their work away.

They do this for 6-8 hours a day for the coins that people put into their baskets. The photos are some of my favorites, but they are all incredible!!! I will take you to see them when you are here. I go every night to take my photos of the finished products.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

A Trip to the Laundromat

Okay, I’ve already admitted I hate doing laundry. Washing clothes and hanging them out to dry is the pits! I prefer dry cleaning only, but here in Italy, I just can’t afford that. To be honest, regular laundry is expensive. The electricity that a washing machine uses is costly! My electricity for one month was 87 euro. I have gas appliances (water heater/stove/heat), so electricity is only for lights, washing machine, etc. Eighty seven euro is about $125.00. Remember that I live in 450 square feet, and don’t stay home very much at all!

Today, I made a trip to the laundromat. I can take off the jeans that I brought without unzipping them. Yes, its true what they say about exercise! I have lost 18 lbs! That’s the good news, but the bad, is that most of the clothes that I brought don’t fit. Since I wash my jeans in cold water and hang them on a line, they don’t shrink up.........and I need them to shrink! I had the great idea of taking them to the laundromat to put them in hot water and dry them in an industrial strength dryer.

Thankfully, it has been since I was in college that I last went into a laundromat. This one is not too far from me, and is very nice. Very modern, clean, but soooo expensive. It’s true that the last time I visited the laundry mat it cost 25 cents to run the washing machine and the dryer. Here it cost 7 euro for the washing machine and 3.50 euro for the dryer!!! That is about $15.00. Fortunately the machines are very large, so I could do all of my jeans in one load.

People actually put their clothes in the washers and leave them there to go get coffee, or whatever. No real fear of them being stolen. I waited on mine, and studied Italiano, while I was there.

The machines are fast...20 minutes to wash and 20 minutes to dry. The shrinkage factor was not as great as I had hoped, so this is not going to be a good long term solution, but it was worth a try.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Painting in Florence

I thought that I would do a lot of painting in Florence. So far that hasn’t been the case. The first month I was here, of course I had plenty of time to paint. I bought supplies the first week I was here, and had brought my brushes from home. The weather was so beautiful, and I was so excited to be here that I couldn’t bring myself to stay inside and paint. There was one rainy cold day that I did pull out the brushes and paints and started on a self portrait. It is inspired by "The Angel of Courage" that a friend of mine gave me when I left.

For me the painting can be interpreted a few ways: 1. I’ve died and gone to heaven, 2. I’ve arrived, 3. I am the angel of courage (Well, I guess those of you who know me well realize that using me and angel is the same phrase is blasphemy). Anyway, it’s still unfinished, as most of my paintings stay (Leonardo and I have that in common!). If you have any other interpretations of my self portrait, I would love to here them.

As I have said, painting in the town of Bottecelli, Leonardo, Michelangelo, etc, etc is intimidating, but inspiring.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Elvis is Alive and Well, He Lives in Florence!

Well, the mystery is solved. Even though he has aged, and lost a lot of weight, he is clearly recognizable and still making money on his past hits and fame by singing in trattorias throughout Florence.

When you come to visit, I will take you to Trattoria Birreria Centrale (The Central Pub). It is a restaurant now, but claims to be the oldest pub in Florence. When I visited Florence a couple of years ago, this was the location of my last meal here, which was the most outstanding grilled duck breast that I had ever put in my mouth. They marinate it in Balsamic Vinegar and serve it over bitter greens. Served with a great bottle of Chianti and Quattro Formaggia Gnocchi, it is superb.

Anyway, when I returned to Florence, I was on a mission to find that restaurant. I could not remember the name, and had some vague recollection of where it was and what it looked like. The memory of the duck was very strong and compelling. I must have told Amy (my partner is gastronomic fantasies) about it a dozen times. I located it about a week after I got here, but I was afraid to go in and eat and order the duck because I had such good memories, that I was sure it wouldn’t live up.

Long story short, it did live up to my memory and more so, it is fabulous, and if you have had duck and didn’t like it, or never had duck, or had duck and love it, you have got to try it here! Well, on to Elvis.

I took Nick and Will to this restaurant at separate times during their visit (That way I got an excuse to eat the duck twice). Nick and I went there first and had a fabulous meal. I, of course, had the duck and he had a steak, prepared in the same way, marinated in Balsamic Vinegar and grilled. We were enjoying our meal, when who should walk in but Elvis! Black hair coiffed and so shiny it is blue, sunglasses, a gold lame cape, and a flashy guitar. Before we knew it, the restaurant was a buzz and Elvis was singing Heartbreak Hotel. You will have to see this to believe it, because I can’t explain how funny it is when someone doesn’t really speak the language the song is sung in and has just memorized the words.

If you have little kids who have learned songs, you know how they will say what they think they hear, but it is not always right? Well that is what he did. Anyway, it was good entertainment, and we both laughed as he sang. I got this chance to get Nick and Elvis together for a photo when he was finished!

Friday, April 13, 2007

Hair Italiano Style!

Michele's Bday-Hair by Lisa Before-Hair by Lisa

After-Hair by Simone

Thanks to Lisa (everyone who is anyone’s hairstylist in Nashville) who hooked me up with a Redken stylist in Florence. His name is Simone, and he is molto bello! The salon is very modern, and there are only male stylists. It is set up pretty much the same as American shops and the equipment and products in this salon are familiar to me.

Simone cut my hair dry, which was a different technique than usual. The first appointment I made, there was a communication error, so I only got it cut and not colored. I had to make another appointment to go back, as Simone did not have enough time on that day. Will took the before picture, but I had to take the after since Will had already gone. Do you know how hard it is to take a picture of yourself? Try it sometime!

The cut is similar although shorter and more blunt in the back, and more layered on the sides, with a short top. (The same only different!) The color is redder, with red highlights vs. blonde. Since I am outside so much, my hair lightens up very quickly! There aren’t many redheads in Italy, so I get a lot of attention. You know how I hate that!

Here are the before and after shots. Can you believe how long my hair was? Let me know what you think. Ciao!

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Tip for viewing photos

Did you know you can click on the photo to enlarge it?

Transportation in Florence

Florence is small, so the primary means of transportation is walking. You can walk from one side of the city to the other in about 20 minutes. When I speak of the city, I am speaking of the Historic Center. Florence does spread beyond this area, but consists of newer areas, and "suburbs".

Many of the people who work in Florence live outside the Historic Center, so public transportation is a major means of getting around. Some people have cars, and the Smart Car is very popular here. Florence has a very good bus system that runs the perimeter and inside the city, as well as a smaller line that goes inside the Historic Center. There is also a great train system that runs throughout Italy and all of Europe. Many people commute from outlying areas into Florence.

In a lot of areas in the Historic Center, cars are prohibited, and it is strictly pedestrian. That does not mean that you will not see the occasional "errant" vehicle, who is usually promptly chased by El Carabinieri. Police officers also patrol Florence via seque, horse, and on foot.
One of the most popular types of transportation is the scooter. The bicycle is also a hit. You can see these everywhere! They are parked in groves along the sides of the streets. High gas prices, narrow streets, lack of parking make these vehicles the vehicle of choice among Florentines!
For me, I have used the buses, taxis, trains. I had a scooter experience in Rome, but none yet here in Florence! Walking is my preferred method. I walk between 4-8 miles per day, not counting my 50 steps which I go up and down around 3 times per day! The odd thing is, I like it!

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Scuolo Leonardo Da Vinci

View out my classroom window Sign at the front door
Student Lounge
Student Lounge

I started school today. My head is spinning! Why is it that I took Spanish 20 years ago, and all of a sudden, it comes immediately to mind when I am trying to speak Italian? I hadn’t realized what stress the anticipation of school was causing me. I am happy to be starting because my Italian has reached its peak on my own. I am very good at ordering off a menu and saying daily pleasantries, but can’t string together the nouns that I know because I don’t know enough verbs, and the ones I do, I can’t conjugate properly. I am pretty good at understanding....if they speak slowly enough.

Anyway, the sign outside my school threw me for a loop the first time I saw it. It says Scuolo Leonardo Da Vinci, School for Foreigners. I don’t know why, but I was slightly offended by this at first. The thought that I was a foreigner and others thought of me that way, had not occurred to me before. I guess that is a part of my own "American arrogance". I think it is more a sense of how much I feel like (or want to feel) that I belong here. Anyway, I accepted the fact that I am a foreigner, and started in to the school.

There are 10 people in my tiny class room. I start school each day at 9 a.m. and it lasts until 1:00 p.m. The schedule goes like this: 9-10:45 Grammar with Vittoria, 1);45-11:15 Break, 11:15-1:00 conversation with Francesca. The 10 people are from all over the world. To my surprise and delight, I am the only American. There is one young Australian girl (about 22) One girl from Switzerland (about 25), 4 Japanese, (1 woman, and 3 men-late 20's to early 30's), 1 Korean man-very young (20?) 1 gorgeous Austrian man (28?), and 1 German lady (about 45). We are all beginners so our conversation time here at first is very limited. We are spending a lot of time learning vocabulary, and of course it takes each of us a long time to say anything.
The school is in the shadow of the Duomo, as is everything in Florence, but I have a beautiful view of it through my classroom window.

We work out of a work book, which at this point is very elementary. I have homework everyday, and at the end of 4 hours, my head is spinning with words. I am very excited, but question my ability as a student. As I have said on more than one occasion, my "hard drive" is full, and this does require a lot of memorization

The photos are of the "student lounge".

Here is a sample of what I have learned so far:

Ciao! Sono a Firenze per Una mesa. Abito in centrale sulla via Torte. Studio il italiano all Scuolo Leonardo Da Vinci. Classe comencia all 9 y finisce all 13. L’insegnanti chiami Vittorio y Francesca. Ci sono 10 studenti in la classe. C’ e’ una americana, 5 giopponese, 1 austiaco, 1 suizzera, 1 australiana, y 1 tedischa. Arriverderci, Karen

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The "Downside" of La Passieggetta

You’ve heard some of the wonderful things that happen on La Passieggetta, but none of the not so great things. So, in order to provide a balanced perspective, let me share some of those. In the evenings there are a lot of street vendors, who can drive you totally crazy. They sell purses, sunglasses, scarves, toys, and art. I guess they do not have licenses, or permits, or something to make this entirely legal because they wrap their wares in sheets, set them down and start to sell, but something triggers a mass exodus, and in the blink of an eye, they grab the ends of the sheet and bundle their wares off down the street. Someone or something gives them the signal that the police are coming and they move on and then back again once the coast is clear. You can get some good deals from these vendors, although I think it is also illegal to purchase from them, but everyone does anyway.

They don’t bother me much anymore since they have seen me around a while.

There are always men walking alone in the evenings, and they always want to talk. By now, I call Piazza della Signoria, "Pick up Piazza". There are a wide range of types of men out there all wanting to go for coffee or a glass of wine. I have met a lot of people, but some that I must say, I did not care to spend time with.

Some of the ones that I say no to are very persistent and get angry. I have learned to stay calm and just as persistent with my "no" and even add a "Basta" which means, "that’s enough." This definitely gets the message across. In every piazza there are foot patrol police officers. I don’t know why they are there. I have not seen any crime or mishaps, although the tour books speak a lot of pick pocketing and petty theft. Anyway, a walk in their direction usually gets rid of the undesirables.

You have to be prepared for showers when walking around town at night. There is no cover should it start to rain. You also have to look out for dog poop. There are a lot of dogs in the city and people walk with them and take them everywhere (in stores, restaurants, etc) Most people are pretty good about bringing along plastic bags for disposal, but not all. Between the cobblestones and dog poop, it can be like a mine field out there.

Aside from the "hazards" of "la passieggetta", it is still one of my favorite things. Can’t wait for you visit to show you what it’s like!

Monday, April 9, 2007


Roman Theater
Fiesole Duomo Bell Tower
Roman Aquaduct
View of Florence (Duomo in the distance)

When you come to visit. I will take you to Fiesole.

Fiesole is a small village about 5 miles north of Florence. You can get there for 1 euro by bus. Will and I took a day trip while he was here and it took me by surprise! It is so beautiful and the views are unbelievable. I was surprised at how nice it was to see the countryside! I had not realized what a long time it had been. Living in Florence is like any city in some ways. There is a lot of concrete and not much green! The Tuscan countryside in the spring was awe inspiring!
The bus ride up was very crowded. There was a mix of locals and tourists, although when we actually got to Fiesole, there were not a lot of tourists there, so others must have gotten off at stops along the way. It was Good Friday when we went, so many locals had been into town for Mass at the Duomo.

Immediately after you get out of the city limits of Florence, you head straight up into the hills. The road is windy and curvy and the views become beautiful right away. There are so many idyllic Tuscan villages, just the kind you imagine would be there and wonder who lives in them. They are beautiful colors with red tiled roofs and lovely gardens with wisteria, cypress, and palm trees.

The bus lets you out at the main Piazza in Fiesole. Fiesole was founded in the 4th century B.C. and has Roman and Etruscan ruins dating back to 1 B.C. They were not excavated until 1870, and are in great condition. There is a Teatro (Roman theater) there on the hillside, which is gorgeous! I hope to go back this summer when they do live theater. Hopefully by then, I will be able to better understand the language, but if I can’t, I will amuse myself with the view.
There is an archeological park which we spent about an hour and a half in, along with a museum of Etruscan and Roman artifacts that have been found on the site. We had lunch at a small cafĂ© of the piazza called BluBar, with an incredible view of Florence. It was so hazy that day! I don’t know if that is usual or not. It could be pollution from the city, but given the few number of vehicles and no industry, that would surprise me.

Up on the hillside, there is a nice little wine garden where you can sit in the shade, and have wine cheese, or a sandwich. Heaven!
Enjoy the photos. They say more about what’s there than I ever could.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

My Wine Pallett

OK, my wine pallet is forever altered! As most of you know, I love wine, but do not have a very discerning pallet. My ability to distinguish between wines range from "1. I like this, to 2. I like this one better, 3. This one is great, and 4. This one is my favorite. " If I say that I don’t like a wine, that means that I probably would not buy it, given other options, but usually means that I will drink all of mine, and anyone else who decides they do not want to. (This has been witnessed by those who I have traveled to Napa with...Amy, Michele, Denise, Linda. Right?)

Since I have been here, I have had nothing but "This one is great". I usually order the "vino della casa" in restaurants. It is a good quality Chianti, which all of them bearing the DOCG label for Chianti are excellent. I have not bought one bottle of wine in a restaurant since I have been here! You can buy the house wine by the glass (bicherrie), or by the 1/4, ½ or full liter (Quartro, mezzo, litre). At lunch, I try to take it slow and stick with a ½ liter.

The wine that I do buy in the bottle (bottiglia), I bring home for myself and the occasional guest. I never spend over 15 euro, which is about $20, but most of the time stay in the 10 euro range. My absolute favorite has quickly become the Rosso di Montalcino. It is a light red wine, very fruity and sooooo delicious. Other popular wines of the area are of course Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino, and vino Nobile di Montepulciano. All of these are made from the sangiovese grape which is grown inland on the hills of Tuscany.

I have learned that Italians drink as much water as wine with their meals, which is another good habit to have. The wines here have lots less sulfites as preservatives than in the U.S. Which in combination with the water makes the mornings after painless!

I have tried lots of new wines since I have been here. Most Italian reds are made with Sangiovese grapes. My favorite type of wine is Rosso di Montalcino, followed by Chianti, Nobile di Rosso, Sangiovese.

In vino veritas!