"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

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Florence, Week #3: Gratitude, Gelato, and Galileo's Finger


In the days leading up to my departure for Florence, one of the many questions that came to me uninvited while I was trying to fall asleep was "Will I make friends?" I only knew one other person from my school going on this trip, and at the time we were just friendly acquaintances. Three weeks in, I'm proud to announce that I had absolutely no trouble making friends, and they are some of the most kind, interesting, and curious people I've come into contact with. These are people who are unafraid to take silly photos with you at beautiful scenic overlooks. People who will laugh with you for ten minutes about some silly Italian phrase, and who will never judge you for eating gelato twice in one day. I've been thinking about the word gratitude, lately. Maybe I've seen it too many times in hashtags like #dailygratitude, but it's a word that's always felt a bit trite to me. I could tell you I'm grateful for my friends, for this opportunity to study in such a fascinating, beautiful county. What you wouldn't see is the stupid smile I get when it suddenly hits me that I'm here, walking on cobblestone streets with my freezing fingers wrapped around a cup of gelato. You wouldn't feel the same immense comfort I feel at being around people who really listen to what I have to say and always offer some new insight in return. It's not always easy to feel this way. Now that the newness of being here has worn off a bit, I have to fight to keep from taking things for granted, settling into too much of a routine, thinking I've seen everything when really I've barely scratched the surface. It's human nature to adapt to new places quickly, to connect the dots while skipping over some of the more nuanced points. Seeing everything anew is a daily choice, and one that so far, I think I'm doing an ok job of making.

Last Saturday, my friends Lia, Rachel, Ciera and I took the bus from Piazza San Marco to Fiesole, a small town nestled in the hills above Florence. We wound through the outskirts of the city and then up, higher and higher. The view grew more breathtaking with each glimpse we caught through the trees. Fiesole was sleepy when we got there, and stayed that way all afternoon. We were dropped off at the center piazza in front of a structure with a tower much like the one attached to Palazzo Vecchio. We immediately climbed a steep hill, Rachel and I complaining loudly all the while. We explored a small park at the top, and I couldn't help thinking how nice it would be to live in one of the cluster of houses that populated the surrounding hills. We stopped for lunch at a cute place near the center of town. The staff was lively and friendly, and I had some delicious (and reasonably priced) lasagna. The waitress made fun of me for eating slowly: "We're open until 8pm, you know!" and my friends and I laughed for way too long at the mis-translated sign on the front door advertising "Hot Chocolate with Ron" which was supposed read "Hot Chocolate with Rum." From then on our waiter was dubbed "Ron."As the sun dipped lower in the sky we climbed yet another hill, until we stumbled on a lookout point even more beautiful than the first. Florence lay below us, already in shadow, while a small group of locals gathered to watch the spectacle of the clouds rolling in over the hills. It was stunning.

Another highlight of my week was visiting the Galileo Museum. It's full of scientific instruments from medieval times to the 1700s, and it all comes from the private collection of two families, which just goes to show how powerful the wealthy families of Florence really were. Our tour guide was a lively woman from California who reminded me of a cross between Mary Poppins and Mrs. Frizzle. She carried a cloth, over-the-shoulder bag, and every so often she would rummage through it and pull out a rubber ball, or kaleidoscope, or even a tiny plastic globe to illustrate what she was talking about. Her tour was energetic and a little sporadic, and every so often she would stop mid sentence to comment on how much she loved someone's sweater, or recommend a gallery show she'd seen recently. In addition to learning fascinating information about Galileo and the objects in the museum, she also told us the best way to pace yourself at dinner so as not to offend your host family (The trick: take a small serving first so that you can ask for seconds later), where to find non-Italian foods like peanut butter and tortilla chips, and what pharmacy to go to if you're sick. All in all the tour was a lot of fun, and the museum was so interesting and there was so much to see, that I might end up going back. My favorite items were the pocket sun-dials carried by the wealthy before there were pocket watches, this giant globe in which each rotating ring represents a different planet with the earth (instead of the sun) at its center, and a giant static electricity machine which seemed like it could have come right out of Frankenstein. The museum also housed Galileo's only surviving telescopes, as well as his thumb and index finger, preserved in a glass jar like a relic. Creepy, but cool!

Pocket Sundials 

Yesterday we visited the Tuscan towns of Sienna and San Gimignano, but I have so many beautiful pictures that I think it deserves its own post. In other news, next week we begin regular classes instead of our three week Italian intensive. I'll be taking an art history class about patronage and the arts (specifically the Medici family) and a drawing class at an old fashioned studio in Florence. I'm excited and a little nervous about that one, but I couldn't pass up the opportunity to take a drawing class in Florence, the birthplace of the Renaissance. Week three has been the best so far, and I can't wait to see what the next has in store!

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Some Late Night Thoughts on The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer

It's 1am here and I just finished listening to Amanda Palmer's The Art of Asking on audiobook. Amanda is a cult-y, free-spirited musician with painted on eyebrows who, I have to admit, I wrote off for a while because I thought I didn't like her music. I was wrong. I thought that I wouldn't really like her book, that it's subject matter, which as the title suggests, is about asking people (friends, family, audience members, fans, strangers) for help when you need it (in the form of money, places to stay, or just a hug), wouldn't be for me. I was wrong again.

The Art of Asking is a fantastic book. Listening to Amanda read it on audiobook was kind of like sitting down to a long conversation with a friend - those conversations where you share deepest fears, insecurities, and dreams, and the only thing that matters is that you are two people in a moment, connecting. According to Amanda asking for things and being willing to accept the answer, whatever it may be, is the basis for all human connection. If this book were a person, the idea that people have an innate ability to really, truly understand one another, even in seemingly contrived situations, would be coursing through its veins. Amanda writes about her time working as a living statue in a public square in Boston, her marriage to Neil Gaiman, her crazy, exuberant fan base and the shenanigans they get up to, and her best friend Anthony. Though the anecdotes seem disconnected, they somehow weave themselves into a network of interconnectedness, which is fitting because it's exactly how Amanda believes the world works. I was struck by her bravery and her trust in strangers, when so many of us are taught to fear even our next-door neighbors. I admired the way she wrote about friendship, because it's something I always struggle to put into words. The bond I have with my best friend feels like it has to be witnessed in person for you to really understand it, and yet as I read Amanda's account of her life-long friendship with Anthony I saw a lot of the same qualities in my own friendships.

I think The Art of Asking should be required reading for everyone. Especially artists, for whom asking support from their audience is doubly important. It's one of those books that will make you a better person, and teach you something about human nature that you might have thought was possible, but didn't believe yet. I recommend the audiobook, not only for Amanda's deep, soothing voice, but also because you get to listen to her songs every few chapters. I listened to the entire 11-hour audio book in the span of three days. But anyway, it's late. I'm glad this was my first read (listen?) of 2016. It was a good start.

If you want a taste, watch Amanda's TED talk, which was the inception for the book, and equally fantastic.

Florence, Week #2: In Which I Go Exploring, Discover a Kind of Time Travel, and Spend A Lot of Time Looking Up

Last Sunday I found myself with a rare day to myself, and mustered up the courage to strike out on my own. I decided on an oddly shaped patch of green space that google maps assured me was a ten minute walk from my host family's apartment building. One thing you should know about me: I love gardens. Especially European gardens. Most of the parks in America (and I'm generalizing here) feel flat and uninteresting, with concrete sidewalks and maybe a collection of trees for shade. In the States, you go to the park for a purpose: to exercise or walk your dog or play frisbee. European gardens feel like a place for wandering.Wether it's a maze of square trees in Paris or the more wild landscape of the Italian gardens I've seen, European gardens feel more like an escape.
The walk to the park was a little confusing, what with the slightly harrowing traffic signals and a couple of narrow tunnels under the rail road tracks, but when I arrived, I knew it was worth it. After passing through the wrought-iron front gates, you climb a set of cracked stone steps up to the Villa Fabbricotti, a small but impressive-looking building who's purpose I'm not sure of. From the top of the hill you get a nice little view of the city in between the trees. The narrow streets and rumble of traffic feels miles away.

I spent a good hour and a half exploring the park, which is divided into two sections. The most impressive section was the grounds of the Museo Stibbert, which was full of mysterious ivy-covered walls, pathways guarded by statues, and even an imitation egyptian temple on the bank of a pond. Maybe it's because I'm listening to it on audiobook, but I couldn't help feeling like Mary Lennox discovering the secret garden. There's definitely something to be said for wandering for its own sake, especially when you're traipsing along muddy paths and pretending to be straight out of the pages of an edwardian children's book.

On Monday we visited the Palazzo Vecchio. The amazing thing about so many monuments in ancient cities like Florence, is that a lot of them are built on the sites of old roman structures. The Palazzo Vecchio was built on top of the Roman theatre. Amazingly, you can walk around below the Palazzo and see the ruins of the theatre. There were places where medieval stone work gave way to the ruins of ancient structures. Jodie, the director of the program, always talks about "reading buildings" in order to understand their history, and looking at the layers of stone underneath the Palazzo Vecchio felt a bit like seeing time itself layered in physical space. The Palazzo itself was absolutely stunning. Jodie told us how it had oscillated between being a public building to being the palace of the Medici family, and it was interesting to see how the decorative frescoes or intricate ceiling murals reflected the passing between families and generations, and how their meanings changed with each new inhabitant. We stood in the grand hall where frescoes by DaVinci and Michelangelo had once been displayed side by side (though neither were ever completely finished), and stood in the atrium for ten minutes "reading" the multiple architectural styles that had been added on over the centuries. One of the most amazing things about the Palazzo Vecchio is that even though the majority of it is a museum, it's still Florence's city hall building, and the back rooms house the mayor's and city council offices.

On Wednesday we toured the Duomo and baptistery. Like the Palazzo Vecchio, these buildings were also built on top of ancient structures, and underneath the duomo you can still see remnants of pre-Christian mosaic floors, and parts of the smaller romanesque cathedral that stood before the new one was built. Both buildings have stunning ceilings, with the breathtaking mediaeval mosaics of the baptistery and the Renaissance fresco on the inside of Brunilesci's dome. Needless to say, I spent a lot of time with my head thrown back, marveling at the sheer beauty of it all. It's interesting to imagine what these spaces must have looked like to a renaissance Florentine, and how powerful these images would have been. (Not that they are any less moving today, but to watch the cathedral being built and to experience the power of Vasari's frescoes for the first time would have been amazing). Seeing these places and understand their history from their foundation up, it's easy to feel strangely timeless, as though you can jump centuries just by shifting your gaze.

So far I've been learning and experiencing so much that it's hard to distill into words. I'm not sure what memories will be more important to me: the things I learned about history and culture, or the little moments and inside jokes I shared with friends between classes. As of right now, I'm just trying to document everything as best I can: keeping a journal, writing things people say in my notebook, and publishing on this blog. I've also been feeling the itch I get when I haven't written creatively in a while. Stay tuned for a post next week about staying creative while abroad. (Hint: it's not easy, but it's doable).

Until next time, ciao!

Incredible early-morning view from my Italian classroom

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Florence, Week #1: In Which I Watch a Medieval Parade, Meet my Host Family, and Have a Food Epiphany

My first glimpse of Firenze

Despite all of my fears leading up to this trip, the morning of my flight to Florence dawned along with my acceptance that yes, I was actually going to spend an entire semester away from home, and yes, everything would be ok. The flights and arrival were pretty uneventful. I took a cab to the hotel where we stayed for the first few days and lucked into meeting the director of the London part of the program. She was just as excited to be visiting Florence for a few days as I was to be visiting for two months, and we hit it off immediately. I also happen to be in her London theatre class for the second half of the semester, which I am super excited about.

Right now, my first week feels like a blur of introductions, orientation meetings, and lots and lots of walking. Breathtaking is the only word I can think of to describe seeing the Duomo for the first time, and even that doesn't seem to do it justice. If you've seen photos of the Eiffel tower, you can kind of get a sense of what it's like in real life, but the Duomo is a different beast entirely. It is altogether more colorful, intricate, and imposing than any photo of it I've ever seen. In photos the facade looks flat and smooth, but in reality each section is carved with stone lattice work or statues of important figures. As you walk away from it down one of the narrow cobblestone streets, be sure to turn and look over your shoulder. It looks as though you've entered some alternate dimension, and all that's left where you were standing is a towering wall of marble.

My first glimpse of the Duomo

On Tuesday (my birthday!) we moved in with our host families. My host parents are named Christina and Bruno, and they couldn't be sweeter. We sit at their kitchen table every night with Italian television murmuring in the background, and try to make conversation in Italian. Everyone says that Italian is similar to Spanish, but my five years of Spanish hasn't helped me with vocabulary one bit. I suppose grammatically the two languages are comparable, but that doesn't make remembering that "very" is not "muy" but "multo" any easier. Despite this, I think I'm picking up Italian so much faster than I thought I would. Even the first night with my host family, while trying to form dinner conversation on exactly two days of Italian class, went smoother than I imagined. It helps that our Italian professor, Luigi, is one of the best language teachers I've ever had. He's sharp and funny, and entirely un-intimidating. His enthusiasm makes you want to speak up in class, and in another language no less!

View from the Piazza Michelangelo
Me in front of the view from the Piazza Michelangelo

Wednesday was Epiphany, a christian holiday celebrated in many parts of the world. The main event in Florence was the Parade of the Magi (which dates back to the 13th century), in which Florentines dressed in medieval attire wound their way towards the Duomo. They carried flags and banners representing the many important families and guilds of Florence, lead by the three wise men on horseback. There were flag throwers and falconers complete with live falcons and owls. The surrounding streets were crowded with people, Italians and tourists alike. It was truly a grand spectacle. We joined the masses in front of the Duomo to watch the final ceremony (a nearly impossible task because it was so crowded), and eventually we made it to the front. The ceremony wasn't entirely enjoyable because it took place completely in Italian, but at the end they released a flurry of balloons into the air while a choir belted out the hallelujah chorus of Handel's Messiah. The blur of color against the creamy marble of the Duomo was simply spectacular.

One last experience deserves mentioning: my first gelato. You guys. It was so good. I got a scoop of Panna Cotta (which I'd never heard of), Coffee, and of course, Pistachio at a place a couple of streets down from the Ponte Vecchio. While all three were amazing, the Pistachio was unlike any other pistachio ice cream I've ever had. It was the perfect balance of sweet and salty, with a hint of nuttiness. It wasn't even green. And with that first bite, just as - inexplicably - Bob Marley started playing over the speakers in the gelataria, I became enlightened. I actually teared up. Seriously. Food has never made me cry before. I reigned my emotions in before my friends saw, but the experience still remains one of my favorite so far. I think it was a combination of being happy to be with new friends in a beautiful city, and eating incredible, perception-altering food. I've had gelato since then, but it hasn't been the same. (Always delicious, though!)

Lights along the Arno river

Not everything has been as great as my first experience with gelato, unfortunately. I am writing this from my bed after spending an entire day (a day, in fact, in which everyone else went on a day trip to Pisa) recovering from an awful cold. I spent most of my nights this week coughing, and most of my days running around the city and eating a delicious (but not very balanced) diet. As much as I hate missing out on an excursion, I feel so much better after giving my body time to recharge. It's been an incredibly wonderful, messy week, and I can't wait for more. Ciao!

View from my bedroom window