Easter with Tita Sue and Uncle Frank

I’d been looking forward to seeing some family members since my dad had come and gone back in February, so having my Tita Sue and Uncle Frank in Florence for the long Easter weekend was definitely an uplifting part of the semester. All of my roommates had left to go to the Amalfi Coast and I would’ve been alone in the apartment had I not been given the opportunity to run out and about with my aunt and uncle and their choir group, come all the way from Seattle to participate in the International Verona Choir Competition (probably not the actual title, but you get the idea).

Though the main reason for coming to Florence was to allow the students to experience Italian culture, I was allowed to tag along to some of their performances as well as a few day-excursions. The kids sang beautifully at every gig, especially when we went to a cozy little chapel in Bango Rippoli, a little suburb outside the city. I can’t remember the name of the chapel, so if Tita Sue or Uncle Frank could let me know in the comments section, that’d be great. Anyway, since I was just finishing up my midterms, I didn’t miss out on much in terms of day trips. We visited Cortona, sight of the movie Under the Tuscan Sun, though we never did manage to find “Brama Sole” (the villa Francis bought and fixed up). I think it was outside the actual city, which was walled and built up on top of a hillside so as to afford protection in medieval time as well as a great view of Florence.

Unfortunately Tita Sue wasn’t able to join us in Cortona, as a student in the group had come down with some sort of illness, so Uncle Frank and I had a delicious lunch with the teacher chaperones, Beth, Erin, and Mark. The little restaurant we ate at was hidden in an alcove off one of the small streets that run through the town, and the food was fresh, excellent, and beautifully prepared. (I’m spamming you with photos.)

As appetizers, we had a mix of traditional Tuscan pickings, including salame, proscuitto, fagioli, cheeses, tomato, cured beef, truffle shavings, and pesto spreads:

As entrees we all ended up ordering similar dishes, and pasta was included in every one of them, save for the gnocchi dish. Of course, I have a hard time saying no to pasta nowadays, even after eating it for the past year at almost every meal. Hell, I had pasta for dinner last night, and I’m in Spain!

One evening, Tita Sue, Uncle Frank, and I went to my favorite restaurant, “Acqua al 2″ for a little family dinner by ourselves. I was most excited about this dinner because the restaurant had been established after my relatives had moved away from Florence (where they’d lived for some years while my uncle reigned as headmaster at the local American school). It was something about the city that I knew and could share with them. I didn’t take any pictures of the food that are worthy of sharing, due to the lighting being more atmospheric in nature than accommodating to photography, but rest assured that it was all phenomenal. I’ve already made reservations for my upcoming 21st birthday this June to go with my mom, dad, and brother when we visit Florence again. Can you say “blueberry steak”? Be excited.

I have to say, I knew I’d eat well the weekend that my aunt and uncle were here, and the fact that Easter happened to coincide promised a bit of entertainment as well. Every Easter morning, Florence holds a sort of procession through the major piazze in the city, specifically Piazza della Republica and Piazza del Duomo, complete with an exploding cart with fireworks at 11:30 to commemorate St. John. I chose to chase after this parade instead of going to church and listening to the kids sing, and to be honest (no offense), this parade was way more interesting than church. There were flag tossers, white oxen with gold-painted hooves, and a procession of era-dressed men, women, and children. I took so many pictures so here’s a few of them. Despite my majoring in English, I’m finding it more interesting to show you the photos than actually write about it!!

I have some video footage about the actual fireworks and explosions but I have no idea how long it’ll take for me to upload that, seeing as this post is very nearly at maximum capacity with the photos already. I can tell you that the whole piazza was packed tight with tourists and locals alike, and while I was pretty close, I still envy the people who were right up against the barriers. Having my camera with super zoom was great and all, but it would’ve been better to be closer to the action, even if that action could very well have singed my eyebrows off and given me a serious case of black lung. The amount of smoke had me convinced that the wooden cart had actually caught fire from the amount of combustion going on, but once it all cleared with the help of some rain, the cart appeared to have remained intact.

After this event, I returned to my apartment to get dressed for our Easter lunch, which my relatives, the teachers, and I would take at another favorite restaurant of mine, ZaZa’s. We were pretty lucky to get a reservation, I think, but apparently the restaurant grows every year because we were seated in a section that I’d never seen before. That’s not to say I go to ZaZa’s every other week, but I thought I’d seen all their surprises! I was first to arrive due to my lack of car. It’s way easier to walk through Florence than it is to drive, especially on such a big holiday, rain not withstanding. People mobbed the streets and it was a hassle to arrive on time even on foot. I was wearing my white blazer at the time, too, so paranoia of getting knocked into, splashed, or stained in any way, shape, or form gave me both speed and agility that even a ninja would admire.

The lighting in ZaZa’s wasn’t terribly good either, and given the number of photos I’ve already spammed you with, I’ll spare you only three more since I think they’re awesome. We all ended up having the whole nine-yards lunch of appetizer, first, and second courses, though few of us attempted dessert. I had a fagioli-bruscheta, pappa al pomodoro, and lamb chops with rustic potatoes, in that order. I had no idea that lamb was a traditional Easter dish but I suppose it makes sense. Morbid sense. I ate Jesus on Easter. Awkward.

The madness of the weekend ended with one last day trip up to Antella, a tiny town on the outskirts of Florence in the mountains, where we visited some of Tita Sue and Uncle Frank’s friends from when they lived here. In fact, the little bed-and-breakfast their friends owned gave a clear view of the American school and the house my relatives used to live in nearby. It was a beautiful area, full of flowers and green, not to mention the spare donkey. We enjoyed lunch there and the kids and faculty spent some time sharing thoughts and thanks about their experiences while in in Italy. I think it must’ve been something, coming to Florence on a trip like theirs, a real bonding experience. I remember my first band trip in high school, to the Caribbean on a cruise, but that was more novel-filled than friendship-securing. Sure, we were a tight-knit group, but I don’t think we came together exactly like these kids did.

I had  a great time that weekend and I’m pretty grateful Tita Sue and Uncle Frank came around when they did. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen my immediate family, Dad’s visit in February notwithstanding. Even then, it’s been, what?, four months since I’ve seen him? At least ten since seeing my mom and brother. People always ask me how I can do it. Well, they don’t exactly ask. It’s more of a “I can’t believe you’ve managed it” type of comment. I dunno. I hate to say that it’s not debilitating, and maybe that’s a good thing, seeing as I plan on coming right back to Europe after my graduation next May (and isn’t that a thought??). My parents understand, I think. In any case, I’m looking forward to seeing them once they get here in June! Won’t that be a reunion?

Bosnian Excursion

I know it’s been a long time and my program is actually done now, but I’ll get to that later, promise. I’m spending all day today getting caught up with this blog so hopefully you’ll get two or three updates. Long updates, granted, but they’ll be here. Promise. Maybe. I’m not very good with deadlines as you might’ve noticed.

I’d like to preface this story with the fact that my sense of direction is horrendous. Please keep that in mind.

Anyway, about a month ago I managed to get out to Bosnia to visit a friend of mine studying there for the year. I’ve never been much interested in Bosnia, only knowing the scantest amount about the genocide atrocities committed there in recent history, and seeing as my friend Galen is very much a save-the-world type of guy, it’s not terribly surprising that he landed himself there for study abroad. The trip there was easy enough, minus the fact that I had to skip a day of classes to get down to Rome. From there I flew to Belgrade, Serbia. Being the country next door, for whatever reason the flight ended up being cheaper than a direct one into the capital of Bosnia, Sarajevo. Galen was there to meet me, thankfully, though he’d at first suggested figuring out my own transportation to Sarajevo from the Belgrade airport, ranging from train, international bus, and mini shuttle. This didn’t fly with me for reason stated above, so he made the eight-hour bus ride out to pick me up.

We spent the evening in Belgrade and sampled the local food with much relish. I was pleased to find that it was quite similar to the Eastern European food I’ve had experience with in the past, and I jumped on the prospect of having goulasch again. Unfortunately I don’t have a picture for you as I didn’t think to bring my camera out that night (fail), but I promise you it was delicious. The following day we spent on a bus to Bosnia, getting stopped at border control along the way, at which point my British passport received its first ever stamp. Apparently travelling among EU countries is somewhat like domestic travel. Bummer. We ended up arriving in Sarajevo around sunset, and Galen showed me around some of the city that evening before indulging in more local food and some rose-flavored Turkish delights.

Something I noticed about Serbia and Bosnia both right away was the sheer amount of smoking. Italians love their cigarettes, too, but I’m fairly certain that narrowly avoided lung cancer by the skin of my teeth, if that, during the course of my stay in the Balkan regions. Smoking wasn’t prohibited in restaurants from what I can tell, so there was an effervescent hovering of tabacco in most everything I ate and smelled. What was even more off putting was that the stink persisted for about a week after I returned home.

The following day Galen and I met up with a few of his friends to visit a tiny mountain town, Tuzla, a few hours north of Sarajevo. At this point the weekend is rapidly drawing to a close, and I’m starting to get worried about how I’d make it back to Belgrade for my flight home. I’m terrible with directions of any sort, even in places I’m familiar with, and not having any inkling of the language really bothered me. Luckily, after an seven-hour bus ride and a dubious taxi trip, I made it to the Belgrade airport intact, though not for lack of nerves and irritation.

However, this is where the problems started. My cell phone must’ve run out of money, and I was suddenly out of contact with my parents. I spent the better part of a few hours frantically trying to use both my Italian and Spanish phones trying to text/call the United States. I even bought a Serbian SIM card, to no avail. Suffice to say, I figured that my parents were not pleased at all. I managed to get on my flight and into Rome without any other problems, and since I received calls on my Italian phone for free, my mom managed to get a call through before the damn phone started dying! I only just managed to buy a charger from the airport electronics store before they closed, and by that time I’d missed the last train going out of Roma Termini. I spent the night in the airport before finally catching a train back to Florence, where I promptly collapsed into bed for about a half hour before heading to class.

Admittedly not the best ending of a trip. I wish it had gone more smoothly but I was ultimately glad to get back to Florence at the end of things. It was an interesting trip and fun to see Galen again, but I’m not sure I’d go back to Bosnia without any sort of incentive. Next post: Easter!