"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

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Florence, Week #6: My Life in Italy

Recently I realized that for all of the details I've given you about the interesting places I've been in Florence, I've told you little to nothing about what a typical day actually looks like. Firstly, here is my somewhat complicated weekly class schedule:

1:15-2:30pm: Italian
3:00-4:00pm: Art, Artists, and Patrons (In-Class Lecture)
5:00-7:00pm: Drawing

9:30am-12:00pm: Art, Artists, and Patrons (On-Site Visit)
1:15-2:30pm: Italian

1:15-2:40pm: Italian
5:00-7:00pm: Drawing

9:30am-12:00pm: Art, Artists, and Patrons (On-Site Visit)
1:15-2:30: Italian
5:00-7:00pm: Drawing

Free time, weekend excursions with friends (Copenhagen), or weekend trips with the program (Venice)

Here is what a typical Thursday looks like (just because that's when I have all three of my classes):

8:00am: Usually I'm able to drag myself out of bed by this time. I really wish I was better at getting out of bed. Once I'm up, I'm obnoxiously chipper!

9:00am: After a breakfast of coffee, bread, and delicious homemade jam, it's time to walk to my first class. Art history is always held at a different location. We've visited churches, convents, and museums, and they are all fascinating. We've mostly been focusing on the early renaissance so far, and while I've learned about some of the artists in previous art history classes, a lot of them are new to me. Being on site is a new experience for me, and it's amazing what a difference seeing the work of art in person can make. For instance, it's difficult to really understand WHY Ghiberti's test panel for the bronze doors of the baptistery won the contest over Brunilesci's panel until you see them side by side, in person.

The Ufizi

 12:00pm: Class lets out and we head back to Linguaviva, an Italian language school and the home base of our program. We have an hour and fifteen minutes for lunch. Most of the time I eat food from the supermarket that I store in the Linguaviva fridge, but occasionally I'll get a sandwich from the Mercato Centrale. Last week I tried Lamprodotto (stomach). It was good, if a little chewy for my taste. But I had a nice conversation (in mostly Italian!) with the lady who sold it to me!
1:15pm: Next it's time for my Italian class, with one of my favorite professors on the program. He is this ball of positive energy: always listening, doodling on the board, and talking about how much he loves Michelle Obama. We spend most of the class sharing our homework (usually a prompt like "what's your favorite song/poem/film/etc") and then the rest of it learning grammar. My Italian has improved so much! 

2:30pm: After Italian, I usually walk across the river to the British Institute Library, one of the only English libraries in Florence. I like it because it's a library and I love libraries, but also because it's close to the studio where I have drawing, it has great wifi, and every Thursday they serve high tea. I'm not kidding. Imagine a bunch of little old British ladies serving tea and dessert. It's the best.
5:00pm: My last class of the day is drawing. The class is taught by a rotating trio of British guys, and occasionally a girl, depending on the day. Mostly they are there to give pointers and suggestions while you draw. We are learning a technique called "sight size," in which you stand several feet back from your easel to make your observations and use a string to compare proportions between your drawing and the model. The first few days were a bit rough, and I found myself mentally exhausted after two hours of drawing, but it has gradually gotten more relaxing. Considering that this is the first drawing class I've taken since freshman year of high school, and my first time drawing a live model, I'm doing much better than I expected!  

7:00pm: After class I usually catch the bus home. It's always nice to sit and chat with friends or simply have some quiet time to look out the window. I love crossing the Arno river and seeing the lights reflected in the water.

8:30pm: Dinner! This is always the highlight of my evening. My host parents are excellent cooks. We always have a first course of pasta, a main course of meat and vegetables, and coffee for dessert. The tv is usually on in the background and we always watch a satirical news show called "Stricia Noticia." This usually sparks conversations with our host family about current events, or the two ridiculous female dancers they always feature at the beginning of the show, who never say anything and just smile at the cameras. One of my favorite things we've had for dinner was a pan fried cheese dish that I can't remember the name of unfortunately. I literally ate cheese for dinner, you guys. Italy is perfection.
9:30pm: Thursday's are my busiest days, but luckily the next day is the beginning of the weekend. My evenings are spent listening to audiobooks or podcasts, and catching up with friends from home. Occasionally I'll go for a late night gelato run with my friend Rachel, who lives right around the corner. The gelataria in our neighborhood is open until 1am!
11pm: After a long day, sleep is the only thing I need. Buona note!

I hope you enjoyed this glimpse into my daily routine. Note: not all days are this packed!

By the time you read this, I'll be on a class trip to Rome! Stay tuned for a recap!

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Copenhagen: A Love Letter

Dear Copenhagen,
      You and I have been strangers for most of our lives. I heard about you in songs, maybe a passing reference in a book I was reading. I scrolled past you on Instagram. Until a couple of weeks ago, I never thought we would become acquainted, but somehow, at 5:30 am last Saturday I found myself on a train to Rome to catch a plane to visit you.

The way this trip came about is fraught with turmoil and lots of stumbling. My friend Ela does a great job of recounting it in a recent blog post, but here's the short version: We were looking for a place to go to for a weekend, and we wanted to go out of the country. After looking at Malta, Sicily, Croatia and more we settled on Brussels, Belgium. The catch? As it turns out Brussels is under a high level terrorist watch and travelers are being discouraged from going there. Cue a frantic scramble to find an interesting place that we could exchange our tickets for. That's where you came in, Copengagen, with your palaces and your gardens and the prospect of exploring the same city that Hans Christian Anderson grew up in.

You certainly stole my heart. I love your broad boulevards and your colorful buildings. Your beautiful people with their flawless style and welcoming smiles. The candles on the tables, in the windows of cafes. The glow of warm light onto a cold, dark sidewalk. I love that in the basement of the Christianborg palace, next to the ruins of the fortress walls, is a room for children with crowns and swords and costumes to play dress-up in. My friends and I were kids again in that room.  I love your gardens. The huge greenhouse with the spiral staircases that we arrived at ten minutes after it closed (my only regret). The green statuary, the hedges, the forlorn beauty of it all on a cloudy day. I love that swans are not an uncommon sight. I love that Rosenborg castle still has a moat. You will always be the place where I learned that travel is not for the faint of heart, but also worth all of the stress that comes along with it.

So thank you. Thank you for the laughs and the beauty and the best chicken salad I've ever had. Thank you for the joy of admiring a small but famous statue with 20-some-odd strangers. Thank you for the mall food and the chai latte (the first one I've had since December!), and most of all, for that moment when we first climbed the stairs out of the underground platform and into the heart of the city. Nothing can top the feeling of being in a new place for the first time and the mixture of giddy excitement it inspires. I'll be back someday.


Photo by Rachel Lynne Witzig

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Florence, Weeks #4 and 5: In Which I Fall (even more) In Love with Tuscany, Discover Magic in Venice, and Overthink Everything

Sienna and San Gimignano 
A couple of weekends ago we took a group trip to Sienna. I was excited simply for the fact that one my favorite pieces of artwork is there,  which I love for its wonderful strangeness. In the city hall is a room where council members would meet, surrounded by frescoes that depict, rather explicitly, the results of good and bad government. Though it might seem strange today to have images of angels, demons, and hypothetical cities on the walls of a government office, in the renaissance this imagery would have been extremely powerful. On the two longer walls, two cities mirror each other. One is an example of what a city might look like under good government, and the other imagines a city under bad government. In the "good government" fresco, women dance in the streets, buildings are being constructed, and children go to school. In the "bad government" fresco, someone lies dead in the streets, the buildings are crumbling, and thieves run rampant. Ironically, this fresco has been badly damaged, and you're only able to catch glimpses of what's actually happening in the painting. In the other panels, good and bad virtues sit enthroned, personifying the values the council members should adhere to or avoid. I love this fresco for its complexity and all the layers of meaning it holds, but also for it's simplistic view of the world. Good vs. evil, virtue vs. vice. The council members of Sienna would have been deeply familiar with the symbolism in this painting. Unlike our class, which spent twenty minutes figuring out which figure represented which virtue, they would have immediately understood the painting's message and their role in carrying it out. I like to imagine one of them, at the end of a long day, looking up at the walls of this room and thinking to himself, "Don't mess this up."

Sienna is also home to one of the first gothic churches in Italy, and boy was it spectacular. Outside, pink, white, and green marble seems to be pulled upward by stone statues that almost make it look like the building is being held up by people. Inside, grey stone towers above you, with striped columns going all the way down. The church is larger than I expected, and off to one side is an incredible Renaissance chapel. The adjacent museum houses the originals of many of the statues on the facade, as well as one of the oldest intact stained glass windows in the world.

After a long, lovely day in Sienna we stopped over at the small medieval town of San Gimignano. Like most medieval towns, it is built on a hill, and it's isolation has kept it relatively intact, so that many of the structures look just like they did in the 12th century. After passing through one of the main gates into the city, you walk down tiny cobblestone streets to the small center piazza, and then back out the way you came, taking short detours down roads that lead you right to the edge of the hill. The views of the beautiful tuscan countryside alone were enough to win my heart. We unfortunately didn't have time stop for "The World's Best Gelato," but I did get a delicious mystery pastry that I wish I could remember the name of.

For our program's first weekend outside of Florence, we caught the 8:30am train to Venice. Coming into Venice is probably one of the coolest entrances into any city that I've experienced. The train tracks go over the lagoon that separates Venice from the mainland, but unlike in America where bridges have trusses and guardrails, there was nothing to obstruct our view. It was a foggy morning, and all we could see on either side was a few feet of water, and then a dense, mysterious fog. Boats came rising out of the mist like ghosts. As the edges of the city came into view, I felt like we had traversed some kind of no-man's land in order to arrive in this beautiful place.

View from the train

There's a famous quote from Alice and Wonderland that goes, "I try to believe six impossible things before breakfast." I saw at least three impossible things before dinner on that first day.

Impossible Thing #1: Light
The light in Venice was unlike any I've ever seen. Mist draped itself over the city like a shawl. The truly spectacular moments happened when the sun came out. Golden light filtered through the fog, casting everything in a hazy, unearthly glow. It was as if the whole city was trapped in a perpetual sunset, even at 2 o'clock in the afternoon.

Impossible Thing #2: Glass
One of our first stops was Murano, an island off the coast of Venice where all of the glass-making workshops are. Despite being surrounded by water Venice is extremely fire prone, and after several devastating fires it was decreed that all glass making workshops be moved off of the main island. We stopped into one of the workshops for a free glass blowing demonstration, where I saw someone make a tiny glass horse in about thirty seconds flat. It was probably the closest thing to magic I will ever experience. A glowing, moving ball of heat. A flick of the wrist, a crimp of the tongs, and wala! A tiny glass creature is born.

Impossible Thing #3: Gold
This last one is probably my favorite memory of Venice. It is the moment that I find myself returning to again and again because I will probably never have another experience like it. Somehow, our amazing program director, Jodie, was able to get us into the Basilica of San Marco after hours. Myself and fourteen other people alone in a multi-domed, Byzantine cathedral that seats hundreds.
When we entered the church, it was almost completely dark. There was just enough light to make our way down the center isle, and above us the ceiling arched into nothingness. We were told to sit in the first couple of rows, and wait. Instinctively, we fell silent. At first, it was just darkness, and then slowly, slowly the domes above our heads filled with light. With each new clang from an invisible switch a new part of the shimmery gold sky was illuminated. The ceiling grew from dusty to brilliant right before our eyes. Mosaics floated above our heads like constellations, greens and blues and whites against sea of gold. I got the same feeling I get looking up at a sky full of stars. Suddenly I am insignificant, a body with a head tilted back, shocked into stillness. We stayed this way long after all the lights had come up.

This was not the end of the wonders of San Marco, however. One of the professors on our program (he teaches a class on opera) had gathered a group of students together to sing a canto. They performed it at the front of the church, and the music filled the five domes of San Marco like water. When we were all sufficiently awe-struck, Jodie took us around the church and told us how each part of it was constructed over centuries, with columns from Constantinople and renaissance mosaics placed right next to medieval ones. We were able to stand inches away from an altarpiece that is usually reserved for feast days, and is probably one of the most valuable pieces of art in the world.

The rest of the weekend was wonderful. We were in Venice during Carnivale, which turned a city which is always on display into even more of a spectacle. In one hilarious instance, myself, my friends, and about 200 other people spent forty minutes waiting for fireworks which, when they finally occurred, were on the other side of a wall. I saw beautifully outlandish costumes, and I found myself unexpectedly pining for a green velvet cloak. (Don't ask me where I would wear it - I still want one). Venice, despite its crowds and inescapable self-awareness was absolutely magical.

Lately my brain has been a tangled mess of ideas. I have big plans for 2016. At the beginning of January I made a spreadsheet with my quarterly goals. Quarterly Goals. I don't think I've ever made quarterly goals in my life. Of course my ambition and idealism would manifest itself when I have the least time to devote to random acts of creation, and I'm already trying to adjust to a new place, culture, and language. Nevertheless, for a little while, I was actually keeping up with my overly optimistic schedule. I was making time to write regularly, research summer internships, and post to this blog once a week. All of that changed when I got sick again. It turned out to be less severe than the first cold I had at the beginning of January, but the symptoms were more mysterious and the whole thing messed with my head. I spent a week feeling anxious, isolated, and completely overwhelmed. What I've noticed about studying abroad, and I suppose this is also true of life in general, is that the things that bother you the most are never the things you expect. I expected homesickness, loneliness, even. I didn't expect to feel crazy for panicking over some nonexistent affliction, or to be so exhausted that I missed class in a desperate attempt to catch up on sleep. I'm telling you all of this, not to complain or seem ungrateful, but show you what the happy, idealistic pictures above don't show. Study abroad isn't always fun and it isn't always easy. You have to make the most of your situation, roll with the punches, and know that even the most unpleasant circumstances are only temporary. (And probably not as bad as you think). I'm happy to announce that I'm feeling much better and more like myself as I write this. My head is back to buzzing with ideas, and as usual, I have little to no idea how I'm going to accomplish them. Guess it's time to pull out the spreadsheet.

ps. For the adults reading this, especially my parents, don't worry. I'm not going to overdue it and get sick again!

Ciao, until next time!