"The pages are still blank, but there is a miraculous feeling of the words being there, written in invisible ink and clamoring to become visible." -Vladimir Nobokov

Friday, September 23, 2016

Apartment Life and Other Ephemera

I've been having trouble figuring out what to post here lately. There are so many things I could write about, but none of them seem quite substantial enough for their own post. Here instead is a smattering of thoughts in list form, because lists are great. (Like I said, the blogger in me isn't doing so hot. Please forgive the dumb generalizations like "Lists are great." Right. Moving on.)

1. School has started, and I'm living in an on-campus apartment with my friends. It's the first time we've all lived in the same space and it feels right, like this was how it was meant to be all along. We drink iced coffee in the mornings and marathon animated kid's shows at night. I've scattered some pictures throughout this post, because I know you're all curious.

2. Projects, projects, and more projects. Luckily school hasn't gotten too hectic yet, so I've been focusing on making things. I'm revising a manuscript of short stories for my Manuscript Workshop class. I'm chipping away at a novel, fifteen minutes a day. I'm thinking of ways to spice up Letters to October. I'm working on my bookbinding skills. I'm trying to bring a version of Letters Live to my school. I love having lots of projects going at once. As Annie Dillard timelessly said, "How we spend out days is, of course, how we spend our lives," and I want my days to be a wild kaleidoscope of my multiple loves.

3. While summer is still my favorite season, I have to admit I'm ready for fall. I'm ready to wear scarves again, drink apple cider, and curl up under a blanket with chilly rain drumming on the windowsill. I even made an autumn-themed playlist.

4. Currently Reading: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, The Mirror Thief by Martin Seay, Truth and Beauty by Anne Patchett, Uprooted by Naomi Novik

5. Something I wrote in my notebook recently: "Being a senior in college feels a lot like standing on a very long diving board. I'm safe as long as I stay firmly planted on the thin strip of aluminum, but I have to keep moving towards the edge, and once I reach it, it's into the deep end I go. It's the leap that scares me, that moment when you have to squeeze your eyes shut and plug your nose and step into thin air."

6. Writers I'm most excited to see at The Texas Book Festival in November: Amor Towles, Shanon Hale, Allison Amend, Francine Prose, Carl Hiaasen, Nick Offerman, and Jane Alexander

7. Little nuisances: Dirty dishes that seem to repopulate the sink every five minutes, the price of Ben & Jerry's ice cream, accidentally drinking too much coffee late in the day

8. Little joys: Sharing my favorite childhood films with my friends who are watching them for the first time, pancakes for dinner, meetings with enthusiastic professors, getting letters from friends and family

9. I miss London. Florence will always have a special place in my heart, but London captured my imagination. It's an amazingly vibrant city- constantly creating, moving, and altering your perception of it, even as you learn your way around. It's at once iconic and utterly unexpected and little old Cedar Rapids just completely pales in comparison. Some things quell my London cravings, so I thought I'd share them here: London in Fiction, Daughterland, Marion Honey's Blog, A Sketching Trip to the National Portrait Gallery

10. I'm going to leave you with this video chronicling two friends' trip to Norway. I don't know what it is about this little travelogue, but there's just something so calming and magical about it. It makes me think of Copenhagen, where they put candles on the tables in coffee shops, too. *sigh* Youtube can be really pretty sometimes.

Until next time.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Why I Listen to Podcasts

If you know me at all you know that I’m always talking about this podcast or that podcast, and usually doing a poor job of trying to retell whatever story it was that I listened to. A couple of weeks ago I wrote a review of one of my favorite podcasts, Nocturne. The review was inspired by another podcast review website, The Timbre, that created something I didn’t know I needed: a place for people discuss podcasts in a meaningful, thoughtful way. The writers of that website recently moved on to other things, and the absence they created has been weighing heavily on my mind for a while.

So, what’s the deal with podcasts anyway? Why do I spend time on them when there are so many other forms of entertainment out there? I suppose we should start from the beginning.

I’ve always had a soft spot for public radio. NPR was usually on in my parent’s bedroom when I was little, and on Saturday mornings we would sometimes listen to Car Talk or Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me. Sometimes we would listen to the news in the car. I could be wrong, but I’ve always gotten the impression that people who work in public radio are happier than other people. Of course, you can’t paint an entire profession in a single stroke, but my overall impression was one of a thoughtful, kind, and endlessly curious bunch.

While I had a casual relationship to radio from a young age, I didn’t start listening to podcasts until I was in high school. My mom tried to get me to listen to an architecture and design podcast called 99% Invisible, but I was skeptical. Architecture and design? How could you make an audio show about something so visual? And who’s to say it would even be interesting?

I still remember the episode that got me hooked. It was about secret staircases tucked into Los Angeles neighborhoods. The episode opens with the reporter following directions to a set of partially hidden public stairs. You can hear the surprise in his voice when finally stumbles across them, and the exclamation, "Holy Moly I totally missed this! I almost walked right past these steps." With those words, I felt like I’d been lifted out of my dull life and shown something miraculous. If there were secret staircases in Los Angeles, why couldn’t there be other secrets hidden just below the surface in other cities, in my city?

My favorite books have the power to make me see the world a little bit differently when I'm finished. My favorite podcasts, I've found, share this ability. What's more, I simply enjoy the act of listening to audio. Podcasts fall into the sweet spot between television and books. Like television, you can be doing something else while a podcast is on: making dinner, or doing laundry, or driving (don't drive and watch TV at the same time, kids). Like books, podcasts let you do the imaginative work of putting images to the sounds you're hearing.  I'm fascinated not only by the people who populate the podcasts I listen to, but the sounds, too. How is it that a familiar sound immediately sparks an image in your brain? When you think about it, it's truly amazing that you know exactly what the sound of a car door slamming or boiling water in a kettle looks like. Besides, there's something so very human about listening to another person's voice. Who wouldn't want to feel that kind of connection every day on their drive to work?

Podcasts fuel my curiosity about the world. They introduce me to people I never would have met, and allow me to be privy to conversations I never would have had. I've laughed and cried while listening to podcasts. They are source of knowledge, of comfort, a window into the vastly interesting world we live in. I want to do more podcast reviews on this blog. I want to talk about the things I listen to. Because curiosity is important. Because using your imagination in a world full of screens and handed-to-you ultimatums is so, so important.

If you're new to your own podcasting journey, here are some of my favorite episodes of all time. Pick one. Listen. When it's over, you might just see things a little differently.

"Heyoon" - 99% Invisible
"Things" - Radiolab
"Today's the Day!" - Reply All
"The Living Room" - Love + Radio
"Mary Oliver - Listening to the World" - On Being
"Nothing to Lose" - Millennial
"Some Summer Stories" - Home of the Brave
"Champion of Nothing" - 30 Minutes West
"9 Things We Learned About Phones from a Teenager" - Note to Self
"Wild Ones Live" - 99% Invisible

Monday, July 11, 2016

A Drop in the Bucket: Making a Collage

I've been thinking a lot lately about the way that I prioritize my creative projects. Often I catch myself putting my ideas into arbitrary categories. Writing fiction trumps blogging. Working on the dessert cookbook I want to make trumps painting in my watercolor notebook. I want to do all of these things equally, and yet I still catch myself assigning value to things, often based on what I think other people  expect. I've told people I want to write fiction, so doing anything else feels somehow less important. That's why, today, I decided to make something that didn't have any perceived importance attached to it.

I've been daydreaming about working with paper recently. I love the idea that you can create a picture out of shapes alone, so I decided to try my hand at making a collage. The inspiration for the subject matter came from two of my favorite things: soft, warm light that stretches across a room at sunset, and succulents.


Of course, creating the illusion of light falling on anything with paper alone was an ambitious task for a novice collage-er like me. It took a little while to separate out what papers I should use for different areas (especially that parts that fell into the light), and building a semi-realistic looking cactus out of shapes was no easy task either. Once I had the most important shapes cut out I had to figure out what order to glue them down in. It should have been simple, but one wrong move and I had to peel up the shape and move it without ripping the layers underneath it.

I have so many big, long term ideas in the works, that I think I'd forgotten you could still make something in a single day. By all accounts, this little project should have been last on my list of priorities. It has nothing to do with anything else I'm working on. I don't know what I'm going to do with the finished product. And yet, I got to reconnect with what it feels like to make for the sake of making. One of my favorite quotes about the creative process comes from the writer Brenda Ueland, and while it's specifically about writing, I think it applies to all creative acts: "I learned that you should feel when writing, not like Lord Byron on a mountain top, but like a child stringing beads in kindergarten: happy, absorbed, and quietly putting one bead on after another." This is how I felt while I was gluing paper today. And if I can feel that way while gluing paper, then maybe I can feel that way while writing a novel and making a cookbook and juggling all the things I want to do.  We all have to pick and choose how we spend our time, so there should be joy in the decision making, and joy in the doing.

** A Drop in the Bucket is a series of posts where I complete one item on my creative bucket list, and share the results **

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Podcast Review: Nocturne

Nocturne is the kind of podcast that begs to be listened to in the dark. Not just because its focus is the night, but because it captures the atmosphere of those lonely, quiet hours between sunset and sunrise.  Nocturne was created by Vanessa Lowe, a self-proclaimed morning person, as a way to combat her own uneasiness about darkness.
While it would be easy to speculate that a show about nighttime could be especially dark and brooding, Lowe presents a broad range of nighttime experience. Episodes about the wonder and awe of stargazing sit comfortably next to the story of a father's terrifying night-time walk with his infant son.
What I love about Nocturne is the way that Lowe is able to weave her own self discovery into the episodes. Some are profiles of people who have a unique relationship to night, while others feature Lowe facing her fears and challenging her own preconceived notions about what it means to be awake in the dark.
What Nocturne does especially well, however, is go beyond simply talking about the subject matter, but evoking the feeling of night as well. The theme song for the show is an open, atmospheric piano melody, prefaced by the sounds we unconsciously associate with night: a symphony of crickets, the hoot of an owl, the mournful bellow of a distant train whistle. The best episodes of Nocturne capitalize on this atmosphere throughout the entire show, the most notable example being Episode 3: What the Baker Saw.
I've listened to this episode probably ten times since it came out, and it still gives me chills. It's a simple story- a baker, working late into the night at a remote art center, witnesses an encounter between two animals and feels somehow pulled into their world. I am fascinated by the way sounds can evoke feelings without needing an explanation or modifier, and the sound design of this episode somehow evokes the isolation of the Marin Headlands, as well as the narrative tension that drives the story forward.
Pegged on its website as "radio essay: a hybrid form of radio storytelling that blends elements of documentary, fiction, and sound art," Nocturne is the atmospheric, sound-rich podcast I'd been waiting for. Wether you listen on a crowded commuter car at eight in the morning, or to stave off insomnia in the wee hours of the night, Nocturne is a treat for anyone who's ever been captivated by darkness.

Recommended episodes:
Episode 3: What the Baker Saw
Episode 8: Into, Under, Through
Episode 9: Forward Momentum
Episode 11: Triumph's Ring
Episode 15: To a Distant Continent

Sunday, June 19, 2016

London Patchwork: Walking

London Patchwork is a series of blog posts devoted to some of my favorite experiences in London.

This is an excerpt from an unfinished blog post:

"I've been in London for two whole weeks, however did I manage that? Seriously though, these two weeks have passed like lightning. Firstly, impressions:

I love London. I immediately felt at home here (shout out to the amazing cab driver who spent fifteen minutes off-the-clock helping me look for the door of the landlord's office where I was supposed to pick up the keys to our flat!). I was worried that London would feel overwhelming, but so far it feels amazingly manageable. I'll admit: rush hour is tough, and so is navigating when a tube line is down (which is always). Other than that, though, I find myself more curious than overwhelmed. Every tube ride is an opportunity to people-watch, and every journey into this huge city brings new discoveries. One of my favorite things is when I force myself to pay attention while my friends and I are rushing to get to a specific place at a specific time. Even though I don't have time to stop and explore, I can still notice, and noticing makes all the difference.

I spent my first full day in London in much the same way I spent my last day in Florence. Not wanting spend twelve pounds on a day pass for a subway system I had no idea how to navigate, I opted for good old-fashioned wandering. I wandered through Hyde Park and stumbled across, guess what, Buckingham Palace. After taking a stroll through St. James park, I glimpsed the top of Big Ben through a maze of buildings, so I decided to go see it for myself. Like so many of the monuments you see a million pictures of, Big Ben is so much more impressive and ornate in real life. Then I crossed the Thames, stumbled across a market, rested my feet in a Starbucks, and began the long, long walk home. I calculated it later, and it turns out my little jaunt was a total of 8 miles! There's something so much more tactile about exploring a new city on foot. You see things you wouldn't see if you spent most of your travel time underground, and you get an immediate sense of where things are. Win win!"

Because of its size, London isn't as walkable as Florence. A 30 minute walk could get you halfway across the city in Florence, while the equivalent in London might get you between neighborhoods. Still, I prefer seeing new places on foot, and so I spent my first full day in London walking. Since the above description is pretty self-explanatory, I'll leave you with some photos from my long walk.

St. James Park

My first glimpse of Big Ben

I love London's little side streets.

Neal's Yard

View of the Thames

Friday, June 17, 2016

On Creative Guilt

I have a lot of creative guilt. It sounds like this:

-Why haven't you written anything today?
-When was the last time you made something?
-How long has it been since your last blog post?
-You're adding another project to your list? What about all the unfinished ones?

And so on. Creative guilt doesn't just show up when I haven't made anything in a while. It rears its ugly head at the precise moment when I need it to shut up: when I'm about to start. That can be embarking on a new project or just trying to fit in thirty minutes of work. It's the voice in my head that says, "You haven't been able to keep this up in the past, so what makes this time any different?"

It's true that my track record for follow-through is pretty lousy. Even this summer, when I have the gift of free time, I haven't been able to consistently keep up a creative practice. And while, yes, I could really benefit from less daydreaming and more doing, the voice that makes me feel bad about myself and discourages me from getting back in the game is textbook creative guilt.

That first hint of failure - the first day you didn't write after a multi-day streak, the day your enthusiasm ran out, the day someone asked you a question you couldn't answer and it threw the whole project into question - is most often when creative guilt pounces. It's one thing to feel restless, to want to make something after a hiatus; it's another to feel like every setback is magnified because you can't seem to get your act together.

The guilt is a liar. I could agonize for days about how little I've accomplished, but would it help anything? Of course not. And what I have to remind myself, over and over again, is that past failures  have no bearing on my ability to do the work. It doesn't matter how many days it's been since I've written. What matters is that I write today. It doesn't matter how many projects I've left unfinished. What matters is that I finish this one.

My advice (that I'm still trying to follow) is this: Take a deep breath. Push the guilt monster out of your head. Begin.

**When you need a break, or an extra kick in the pants, check out the links below**
An Invocation for Beginnings
Chuck Close on Inspiration and Work Ethic (via Brainpickings)
Austin Kleon on Learning Creative Habits from his Son

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Coming Home

I've been back in the US for a month now. That's enough time to recover from jet lag, fall back into old routines, and forget about my time abroad (not!). Being home has been a bit of a roller coaster. I attended University of Houston's Boldface writing conference, went on a family trip to Joshua Tree National Park, and I've spent a lot of time figuring how to not waste what is conceivably my last summer to fall between two semesters.

This summer, my friends are scattered across the country. Most of them are busy with summer jobs or internships. Me? I'm taking this time to work on the projects that have been bumping around in my head for months. I'm writing. I'm brainstorming. I'm creating something out of nothing. It's a little chaotic and a little slow, but I'm discovering that I get bored working on just one project at a time. I like the challenge and variety of having several plates in the air. It's been working out, too, as long as I don't spend too much time deciding what to work on first ;) (Ah, indecision, the devilish cousin of procrastination).

Even with my new-found determination, and certainly enough projects to keep my hands busy and my mind in the present, I still find myself longing for the old-world charm of Florence and the vibrancy of London. The answer, I think, is appreciating the little things that make home, home. Things like iced coffee (the staple of every good summer). The way the light falls at golden hour. The warmth of my living room. My huge, beautiful, mess of a desk. So yeah, sometimes I wake up feeling homesick for my dream-scicle colored bedroom in Florence, and my too-warm flat in London, but these are the side affects of leaving my heart in too many places at once.

Coming home hasn't been easy, but a month later things are finally starting to fall into place. I'm happy to be here. I'm happy to have the incredible gift of time, support, and resources to do the things I love. I'm happy to have a head in two worlds, a heart in two or three or five places. Stay tuned for updates on what I'm working on, and a couple posts on my time in London!

Taken on my last day in beautiful London, at our home tube stop

Friday, March 25, 2016

Florence, Week #10: In Which I Ride a Carousel, Get Serenaded by a Professor, and Have a Perfect Last Day in Florence

Veiw from the Bardini Gardens
 Summing up my last week in Florence is going to be difficult. We did so much with so little time: we saw Michelangelo’s David, said our thank-yous and goodbyes to professors, host parents, and the students on our program who are not going on the London part of the program, wrote papers and took final exams, and tried to fit everything else that we hadn’t yet experienced in Florence into the cracks. While it was an emotional week, it was also made me more aware than ever of the wonderful opportunity I’ve been given to live and study in this beautiful city, in this beautiful country.

On Monday night my friends and I fulfilled a bucket list item that we’ve had since the beginning of the program: ride the carousel in Piazza della Republica. We must have walked by it countless times, but we didn’t get a change to ride it until our last week in Florence. We paid our two euros to the bored teenager at the ticket booth. It must have been around 10:30 at night, and we were the only ones crazy enough to be out on this drizzly Monday night. Let me just say this: it was a magical experience. I forgot how much I love carousels. Yes, they go slow and they’re kind of anti-climactic as far as rides go, but there’s something beautiful about being on a bright, spinning platform, riding brightly colored animals, the likes of which you will never see in real life. It’s almost as though, for those few moments, you’ve entered some of kind of fairy tale. They’re definitely best at night, when you can’t see the judgmental stares of people wondering why a bunch of twenty-somethings are laughing hysterically on a carousel. Afterward, we wandered back towards our houses, past the Duomo, lit from below. There are some parts of me that like Florence best at night.

One Tuesday we visited the Galleria del Academia to finally catch a glimpse of Michelangelo’s David. The statue is monumentally impressive in real life, and I don’t think you understand just how large it is until you see it in person. The strange proportions of the hands also make more sense when you’re standing under it, looking up. Considering that Michelangelo was given a defective piece of marble in order to craft this statue, makes it even more incredible.

On Wednesday we had our final dinner and reception at the art studio. Students, professors, and host parents were all invited and we stood around drinking champagne and admiring the art we completed throughout the semester. Seeing as I haven’t taken a drawing class since freshman year of high school, I’m honestly amazed that mine didn’t look terrible next to some of the more experienced students. The best part of the evening, by far, was the moment when our opera professor (I wasn’t in his class, but I’ve had conversations with him several times) got down on one knee and serenaded our two program directors, Jodie and Rosita. It was beautiful and a little dramatic and unexpected, and it was the best thing that happened all night. Then came the cascade of thanking, congratulating, and tears. Jodie and Rosita are the life of the Florence program. We call them Mom and Dad, and Jodita, for short. The amount of work, patience, and joy they bring to their work is truly inspirational, and I'm going to miss being able to say hi whenever I pass their office.

I spent my last full day in Florence by myself, because most of my friends had either already left for spring break, or their family members were visiting. That's not the say I was lonely: on the contrary, a quiet day wandering the city I love was exactly what I needed. I started by heading to a coffee shop I'd heard about called Ditta Artigianale. It was a nice mix of Italians and other Europeans and they serve blueberry pancakes and chai lattes which was all the persuading I needed to check it out. 

Breakfast of champions

After breakfast I headed to the Bardini Gardens, which are similar to the Boboli, but smaller and with a better view of the city. I bought my ticket and actually understood the woman behind the front desk when she gave me directions in Italian. The Bardini was peaceful and beautiful, if a little sparse. Apparently, in the spring, the covered archway blooms purple, and you can stroll under a canopy of flowers. I stopped for a few moments to sketch the view from the overlook point, and then made my way to the Boboli. I know, I visited the Boboli last week, but can you really spend too much time in a garden? It was just as gorgeous as ever and this time I checked out the costume exhibit in the Palazzo Pitti, which had elaborate dresses from several different eras, and even the fragments of renaissance clothing! I then retired to my favorite coffee shop in Florence, La Cite, for an afternoon pick me up. Here are some gems from that day: 

Thing to do in a garden: take selfies with the statues

La Cite

This is my favorite place to get pastries and pizza-by-the-slice in Florence. Oh, and they serve fresh donuts daily at 4pm.

After lots of letter-writing and people-watching I made plans to meet up with my friend and her parents at Piazzale Michelangelo, the best place to watch the sunset in Florence. The sky certainly put on a show.

What can I say about Florence, to sum it up? It's a city that feels like it's trapped under glass, a relic of the renaissance. I'm finishing this post miles away in my London flat, in a city that is in some ways Florence's opposite. London feels like it could change at any second- there's just so much going on. Florence is a fairy tale city, old and a bit worn but still pulsing with whatever magic made it the birthplace of the renaissance. And if the city is still and ancient, the people are vibrant and joyous. I've learned so much about how to live here: how to laugh and savor and appreciate. I'm not usually one for nostalgia, but I do believe that we leave pieces of ourselves in all the places we've ever lived. Cities are living, breathing reflections of the life that inhabits them, and I feel so, so honored to have been part of Florence's reflection, if only for a little while.

Ciao for now, but not forever!

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Florence Week #9: In Which I Stroll Through Magic Hour, Get Silly in the Boboli, and Eat the Best Sandwich Ever

**Before I jump into last week, I feel I should mention that I am writing this from a cafe called Le Murate. It took forever to find because it is in an enclosed piazza, but I enjoyed an early morning walk across town. I'm now savoring a cappuccino and a chocolate croissant in the mostly empty cafe, and the only other people here are Italians. Score! I've officially found a local hang-out spot. But more on Le Murate in my next post. **

As my time in Florence draws to a close (how it pains me to write that!), I've been thinking a lot about what I want to do that I still haven't done. It's funny how time can make your priorities very clear. Luckily, this week I was able to check off a lot of things I've wanted to do since the beginning.

On Monday morning I stopped by Paperback Exchange, the English language bookstore near the Duomo. I'd been there once before, but as we all know, I can't stay away from bookstores for very long. There's a feeling of coming home whenever I walk into a bookstore, and it's nice to know that no matter how far I roam I can find that sense of belonging somewhere. I bought a used copy of The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt. It's set in Edwardian England, around the formation of the Victoria and Albert Museum. I'll be taking a class on museum studies in London, and one of my passions is British children's literature, so really, could there be a more perfect book for me to read while I'm there? I'm really hoping it's good!

That night my friend Rachel and I went out for gelato (because who doesn't love a late night gelato run?) only to discover that our local gelataria was closed. In a moment of weakness (or perhaps stubbornness) we decided to take a bus the altroarno (other side of the river) to get gelato at one of my favorite places, Santa Trinita. I had my usual favorite, Nocciola (hazelnut) and I tried a sesame flavor, which tasted a lot like peanut butter. We then proceeded to get lost on the way back, and the wrong bus, a tram, and a fifteen minute walk later, we were home.

On Tuesday I got coffee with one of my favorite professors from Coe, who is on sabbatical in Florence. We had one of those meandering, wide ranging conversations that lasted long after we had finished our cappuccinos. One of the things I love about her is her unyielding enthusiasm. Every time I talk to her it's like some sort of well has been filled, and I'm suddenly bursting with curiosity about everything. (Which, in a perfect world, is how all teachers should make you feel).

I left the coffee shop around 6pm, which I've decided, is my favorite time of day in Florence. The sky was a delicate, translucent blue, tinged with gold. As I walked towards Santa Maria Novella I heard a cacophony of sound. When I finally made it to the piazza I discovered the source. In the courtyard of the church were hundreds, probably thousands of birds. They filled the trees until there were more feathers and than leaves, and they wheeled through the sky in undulating black clouds. I probably stood there for at least ten minutes, just marveling. If you ever come to Florence, take a walk at magic hour. You will find a city transformed.

I don't go out much at night, mainly because after two hours of drawing and eating a two course meal for dinner I'm pretty much exhausted. (Unless, of course, there's gelato involved ;)) Wednesday, though, I decided to go out with friends. We chose a touristy bar in the center of town, with craft beer and live jazz on Wedenesdays. The musicians had set up in the basement, and the crowd (of maybe 20 people at most) was half band members and friends and of the band. The musicians rotated throughout the night, and innocent looking people from the audience would suddenly join in, pulling a trumpet or a guitar out of a case at their feet. It was fascinating to watch them improvise up close, with the trumpet player signaling just slightly when to switch solos or when to go into the final stretch of the song. It all flowed together seamlessly. Amazing.

Friday was the first day in a while that it's been relatively sunny and warm. I didn't even need to wear my heavy coat. We decided to take advantage of the nice weather and head to the Boboli Gardens, a place I've been wanting to visit since arriving in Florence. In my own excited words (ones my friends won't let me forget), it was "like all of my Secret Garden dreams on crack!" Which is true, it was. There's something beautifully melancholic about a garden, especially one that isn't quite in bloom yet. You wander through a maze of hedges and trees, stumble across statuary half hidden by vines, and walk around perfectly still reflecting pools. Walking into a large garden is like entering another world. One where the drum of traffic fades into the background, and tiny, cramped sidewalks transform into a wide dirt paths.

One of the things I love about my friends is that we can go from contemplative and philosophical to perfectly silly in about five seconds flat. I think that it's possible to marvel at the beauty of a statue AND take a selfie with it. And my goodness, we took a lot of selfies. I'll just leave some of these here:

Over all, my Boboli Garden experience was equal parts tranquil and exciting, and we could not have picked a more perfect day to go. I've been told I MUST also visit the Bardini Gardens, so hopefully I will make it there sometime this week.

The rest of my weekend was spent in various coffee shops, working on the final paper for one of my classes. There is one incident worth mentioning, though. I finally made it to another destination I've been meaning to go to all semester, the hallowed sandwich shop, All'Antico Vinaio. For five euros you can get the best sandwich of your life, and it's gigantic, too! The place is so popular that the owners opened two locations right across the street from each other, and you'll spot the lines out the door long before you get close enough to read the sign, but oh my goodness is it worth the wait! I had one with fresh ham, mozzarella, a slab of eggplant, and delicious truffle sauce. I wish I had gotten a picture, but I guess that means I'll just have to go back.

Until next time, ciao!

Florence, Week #8: In Which I Take A Lot of Trains, Momentarily Own A House in Levanto, and Run Around in the Rain

Last weekend, my friends and I found ourselves in Cinque Terre, a quintet of towns along the southern coast of Italy. Even if you've never heard of the Cinque Terre, you've probably seen pictures of it. Imagine a cluster of colorful buildings precariously perched on a cliffside, looking as if they might suddenly slide downwards into the sea. One of the towns is also featured on the cover of Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter. (Great book, btw). Anyway, after taking a train to La Spezia, then to Corniglia, and finally to Levanto (a town adjacent to the Cinque Terre) we found ourselves at our air b&b, a beautiful pink house deep in the hills. We spent most of Friday afternoon marveling at how adult we felt: the six of us with a hilltop cottage all to ourselves. We drank tea and chatted, and we even managed to make a real, honest-to-goodness dinner complete with pasta (with olive oil and garlic!), caprese salad, and white wine. We lost some of our dignity when we all freaked out over a sudden downpour of rain, half of us thinking there was someone outside, rattling the door, and half of us mistaking the noise for the terrifying crackle of a fire in the kitchen. Momentary terror aside, it's nice to know we'll at least be able to survive in London, where we'll be living in flats and cooking our own meals.

Our original plan was to walk the five cities of Cinque Terre, a feat which might have been possible if the weather hadn't intervened. We were able to catch a train to Rio Maggiore before the rain started. This is probably my favorite memory of the whole trip. After getting out of the train station, you walk through a long tunnel that gets you to the marina, which is a small inlet that is surrounded on three sides by brightly colored buildings. They look a bit like colorful wooden blocks a child would play with, and they're arranged in much the same way. There are a set of stone steps that lead down to the water, and a curving arm of rocks that I assume protects boats during rougher weather, which my friend Lia insisted on crawling all over like the little adventurer she is. After being totally undignified tourists (we practically had the whole place to ourselves!), we wandered along the coastline to a deserted beach.

Actually, it was less of a beach and more of a pile of rocks that happened to occur along the shoreline. To one side was a railroad bridge that looked like it could have been a repurposed aqueduct or else some kind of mediaeval structure. We took more ridiculous pictures, and I sat on the boulders overlooking the sea, marveling at the fact that this place even exists. I seem to have these kind of moments a lot now.

The landscape of the Cinque Terre is completely different from Tuscany. Wildflowers grow along the rocky, steep hillside, and the landscape is punctuated by palm trees and prickly pear. In some places the landscape looks more like Hawaii than Italy. Unlike the sun-kissed tan of Florence, the Cinque Terre is a symphony of color. Almost nothing is painted tan or grey, and even Levanto, which isn't technically part of the five famous cities, had a pop of yellows and pinks and blues. The ocean, too, was a different beast entirely. Even on the overcast weekend we were there it was a beautiful, deep blue or a startling green.

By the time we finished exploring Rio Maggore, the rain had started. It was a downpour that would continue pretty much all weekend. We tried to not let it deter us, but the Cinque Terre was pretty much shut down in a lot of places. The walking paths were closed, so we took trains between four of the five cities. We ate lunch wherever we could find an open restaurant.

We were supposed to catch our train home in Corniglia, the highest city in the Cinque Terre. We arrived a couple hours before our train to Florence was supposed to leave so that we'd have time to explore. What we didn't realize was that the city center was reachable only by way of a 365 step staircase (and, apparently, a bus which was nowhere in sight). It was rainy and cold and we had all of our luggage with us, but one of my friends had been told that she had to try the lemon basil gelato in Corniglia. So, up we went. (If you haven't noticed this by now, most of our decisions are heavily influenced by gelato)

The hike up was pretty brutal. Each time I thought I could see the end, I'd reach the top of one flight only to discover another. Thankfully, the steps were shallow and wide, and it wasn't as bad as it could have been. (Although I think I would have preferred not climbing in the rain). Once we got to the top we followed a short, winding road and found ourselves in the center of Corniglia...which was completely deserted. Imagine for a moment, five girls with huge backpacks huddled in the middle of a deserted town square in the rain. We found the gelataria. It was closed. We saw a couple restaurants. All closed.

I must say, the walk back down the 365 steps was much more enjoyable. I has able to appreciate the view this time, and my goodness was it an amazing view. The rain had turned everything an impossible shade of green. Flowers clustered along the edge of the steps. The coastline melted into the sea, and the sea into the sky. In the distance you could just barely make out a splash of color on a hillside: another town in the Cinque Terre.

The whole time I was there I couldn't help imagining these tiny little towns inundated with tourists. I imagined that the people who lived here, the shop and restaurant owners, were cherishing the silence that both the cold and the rain brought. Even though I would have appreciated a couple more hours sans-rain, the weekend was in many ways just what I wanted: a relaxing holiday on the coast.