"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, 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.

Florence, Week #7: Roman Holiday

When I first heard that our program would be taking a weekend trip to Rome, the first images that flashed through my head were of wearing beautiful 1950's dresses, spontaneously cutting my hair, and escaping prying journalists on a moped. Yes, I'm referring to Audrey Hepburn's character in Roman Holiday.  The film is such a big part of my consciousness that before actually being there I could hardly imagine Rome in anything other than crisp, beautiful black and white.

My own roman holiday was not quite as romantic and bittersweet as Audrey's, but we did so much that weekend that I don't know how I'm going to be able to encapsulate all in a single blog post. Here goes!

The Forum
A few hours after arriving in Rome we made our way to the roman forum, where we met our tour guide. She was very lively and knowledgable and navigated the sea of tourists like a pro. The forum is fascinating because you can really see the stratification of the buildings. In Rome everything is built on top of everything else, so any important building might have an Ancient Roman foundation, Medieval turrets, and a Renaissance facade. It was so surreal to be walking on the same ground as ancient roman citizens, and at the same time being surrounded by the modern city. One of the things I am constantly having to do on this trip is allow both past and present to exist in my mind at the same time. Though it may not seem like it, they are influencing each other all the time, and the way a modern city chooses to display its past is no less important than the way the past shapes the modern city. (I may have to write a whole other blog post on this topic, because I think it's fascinating to see how past and present interact!)

The Coliseum
After the forum, we made our way to the coliseum. The most interesting thing about it, for me, was seeing the bare bones of the structure beneath the floor of the stadium, where the gladiators would have waited, and live (and often dangerous) animals would have been kept. I still can't imagine how hot and dark it would have been underneath the floor, with only torches to see by. Another thing I learned about the coliseum is that it was occasionally filled with water in order to recreate naval battles. Crazy! As a structure it is truly impressive, and it's fascinating to see how its influence manifests itself in later architecture and painting all over italy.

The Pantheon
I thought I was ready for the Pantheon. I had seen pictures of it in art history classes. Maybe the reason I was so awestruck was that we came upon it so casually. Suddenly you round a corner and their it is. It's kind of like the Duomo in that a picture will never fully capture what it is like to stand underneath the coffered dome. You think about all of that weight, suspended over your head, with the occulous like a single eye at its center. It's humbling and incredible, and even though we spent less than fifteen minutes inside, it remains one of my favorite places in Rome.

Trevi Fountain
That night my friends and I made a trip to the Trevi Fountain. It's one of those landmarks that begs to be seen at night, what with its crystalline water reflecting on the white marble horses above.  I don't think I ever saw it with less that twenty rows of tourists around it, but it was beautiful all the same. We did the stereotypical things: tossed a coin in, made a wish. Afterwards we wandered around until we found a reasonably cheap restaurant. Even though it was cold we sat on the patio underneath a terrace of fairy lights. I distinctly remember talking about books, especially Harry Potter and To Kill A Mockingbird. Harper Lee passed away the next day. Funny how life can be strange like that.

St. Peter's Basilica
One of the things I will always remember from this trip is coming up out of the necropolis and into the very center of St. Peter's Basilica. The first word that comes to mind when I think of it is overwhelming. It's not just the crowds. Everywhere you look there is a statue or a painting or some bright gold ornamentation. The sheer grandeur is almost too much to take in at once. The best you can do is wander around with your mouth open, wondering how on earth a place this massive and ornate could even exist. I've seen a lot of cathedrals, and while I've been awestruck several times, St. Peter's feels like another beast entirely. Maybe it's because it's the seat of the entire Catholic faith. Maybe it's that in addition to having incredibly high ceilings, its floor plan is sprawling. While Notre Dame was impressive for its towering, gothic height, St. Peter's feels more overbearing and stately. (Which I suppose makes sense seeing as the Vatican is its own state). Maybe it was the tourists, or my own lack of faith, or the dramatic baroque architecture, but there was almost something unsettling about being in that space, a little like standing at the foot of a mountain: both incredibly beautiful and mildly frightening.

The Vatican Museums
The Vatican Museums are equally overwhelming. Around every corner is some new wonder: statues from antiquity, huge history paintings, grecian urns, egyptian mummies, mesopotamian earthenware. We took the long way to the sistine chapel (it felt as though we walked for miles - we probably did). There was so much to see that I felt guilty for choosing to spend time in one room and passing over others. As you get closer to the chapel the architecture gets progressively more ornate, until you're standing in, say, the Gallery of the Maps. You also pass through Raphael's rooms, where I got to see the famous "School of Athens." And then, after going through a convoluted set of passageways and staircases (I swear we went up and then down and then up again), you're in the Sistine Chapel. It's difficult to summarize monuments that everyone knows, because we are inundated with images of them constantly. The ceiling is amazing, of course. I marveled at the sheer amount of faces Michelangelo had to paint, which seems like a dumb thing to marvel at, but when you think about it, it truly is incredible. Afterwards we stumbled blindingly into the afternoon sun: dazed, confused, and completely in awe.

The Opera
The vatican was not the only item on our agenda that day. That evening we piled into taxis in our finest clothes and went to the opera. We saw a production of Cenerentola (Cinderella). I'm not a huge fan of opera, but I must say this was pretty enjoyable in parts (and pretty weird in others). The weird included things like this:
-Cinderella had a bunch of "clones" (that's the best way to describe them) that accompanied her in a lot of her scenes. Their jerky, mechanical dancing was supposed to be representative of their status as essentially wind-up versions of Cinderella, but their frantic movement around the stage got old pretty quickly.
-There was also a scene in which the other women at the ball do a jealousy infused dance number with guns pointed at each other (yes guns) and at the end of the number (after Cinderella captures the prince's attention) they all commit mass suicide. It was meant to be comic, but it was all so out-of-the-blue that I don't think any of us knew how to react.
The music was largely enjoyable and as far as spectacle goes, this opera had it in spades. The costumes were incredible. Overall, it was a fascinating experience, and hey, you can't go to Italy without seeing an opera! (This is actually my second!)

The Borgese Museum
On our final day in Rome, we visited the Villa Borgese with the same tour guide we had on the first day. I had been looking forward to this all trip because the Borgese houses many of Bernini's most famous sculptures. My favorite is Apollo and Daphne, which captures Daphne at the exact moment she is being transformed into a tree. Her fingers extend into leaves, and even her toes are actively transforming into roots right before your eyes. Truly incredible.

In all honestly, I liked Rome much more than I thought I would. I never really had a burning desire to visit it until this trip, and now I hope to come back someday and explore it even more. There are times when Florence feels trapped in time- as though the city is perpetually in the renaissance and hasn't quite caught up to the modern era. Rome, on the other hand, somehow balances its ancient past with its modernity in ways that are truly fascinating and occasionally confusing. Also, the traffic (or maybe the pedestrians) are crazy. People just walk out in front of cars an hope that they stop!

I hope you enjoyed my thoughts on Rome! For more on Audrey and Italy, check out this photo set, and this wonderful article written by her son.