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?

Carnivale in Venice

This past weekend I finally got the opportunity to attend Venetian Carnival, an event that blows “Phantom of the Opera’s” masquerade scene out of the water with the number  of people, costumes, and frivolity that occurs in the span of a few weeks. Supposedly put into place upon the victory of the “Repubblica della Serenissima”, the festival became official during the Renaissance and, after a long absence, the Italian government reinstated the celebration of Carnival as a way to pay homage to the history and culture of Venice. Apparently, nearly 3,000,000 tourists visit Venice EACH DAY for Carnival. I definitely didn’t see that many people when I was there, though Piazza San Marco was always packed despite the cold and snow.

I decided to stay overnight, though most of the kids I knew only planned a day trip through some of the travel agencies catering to students in Florence. I wanted to experience as much as possible from Carnivale, and my friend Nick and I took a train at 4:35AM to get into the city before the rush of people arrived later in the morning. Unfortunately, Nick and a few of our other friends left early the following morning for a soccer match in Milan, and I ended up heading out to the islands with a few girls from UConn. I didn’t know them terribly well, but apparently we liked each other enough to plan a trip to Amsterdam together in April! I’m really excited for that trip. Hopefully the cold will have worn off by then and we get to see all the tulips that Holland’s so famous for. Oh, and the windmills. I really want to see the windmills.

 

The most famous event of the Carnival season takes place this weekend: the contest for the best mask (La Maschera piu bella). Since I went last weekend, I forwent attending today and tomorrow, so I’m sure that I’m missing out on some awesome photos, but I collected quite a few while I was there. Enjoy!

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Venetian New Years

A lot has happened since Christmas updates and admittedly I’ve been sleeping a lot recently, thereby neglecting my blogging duties. I’ll do my best to recall what we did (because we did a lot) before Danielle left for Spain again, and I’ve been scolded by my mother for not being very detailed in my recent postings. Seeing as most of my followers also follow my cousin, I felt like I was being redundant in my content, since we’re talking about the same events. Anyway, I’ll be as thorough as possible, but be prepared to read, okay?

For the New Years we stayed in a hostel called the Venice Fish. I’d heard mixed reviews about it from kids in my program last semester, citing the atmosphere in both positive and negative contexts, but the price ultimately won Danielle and I over. The same could not be said for the train tickets from Florence to Venice. Stupid us, thinking that we could purchase the reduced price tickets at the actual station. We ended up paying double what we thought for a one-way ticket to the city, which neither of us was particularly pleased with, but the ride was pleasant (in that I slept the entire way there). Roughly two hours later, we were in Venice.

I just have to say, I’m so glad that Danielle was there to get me to that damn hostel. I’m horrible with directions, and despite having been to Venice before in the past, I get lost so easily. The entire city structure is so convoluted, not to mention sinking. Anyway, we made it to the hostel without losing anything and promptly began mingling with our fellow hostelers. The Venice Fish was clearly English friendly, the staff manager Chris being from England, and we ran into two more girls from the States spending their last few days abroad in Italy before going home. There plenty of Australians about as well since this time is the middle of their summer holiday season.

Seeing as we arrived on New Years Eve, the drinking started almost immediately. Danielle and I visited the local grocery store with new friends Brenna (of San Fran Marin County) and Ed (of Newcastle, New South Wales) to fetch the booze and picked up two bottles of prosecco to celebrate with later in the evening. Everyone in the city had apparently decided to convene on that grocery store though, and even though Danielle and I had maybe four items between the two of us, it took us about half-an-hour to maneuver the store and pay for safe passage onto the street with our goods. Upon returning to the fish, we got drawn into a game of King’s Cup (my first time playing) with Rue and Drew (also of Australia), Cori and Ray of Harvey Mudd/UCLA respectively, and a whole slew of Brazilians, Mexicans, and Koreans. We all paid in for the communal 10 liters of sangria, and that puppy was drained by the time we all left for Piazza San Marco to watch the countdown.

Communal Pot of Sangria. Yeah, it existed.

Our new lot of friends.

We headed out to the Piazza with Ed, Brenna, Chandler, Cori, and Nick, joining the stream of people also on the way to the center of the action. There was general excitement in the air, people randomly bursting out into songs both foreign and unintelligible. The piazza was packed full to bursting, ever nook and cranny filled with kissing couples and empty wine bottles. We needed to form a sort of conga line to stick together. There was no way to get close to the front or center of the mob but once Ed and Nick put us up on their shoulders a few times we could get a good view of the concert deck and plasma screen showing the count down to midnight.

The countdown ended in an explosion of cheering and popping champagne/prosecco bottles. We’d brought one to share around the eight of us and it was so bubbly and sweet that I couldn’t handle much of it. The crowds definitely put me off any desire to go to Time’s Square for a New Years celebration. Once people started heading for the docks to watch the fireworks, the center of the Piazza turned into a dumping ground for broken bottles, exploding crackers, and fireworks. Of course, this didn’t stop some of the girls in our group from rushing out to dance! By the end of the night we all ended up beating off drunk old men in the middle of the impromptu dance party in front of the stage and finding our way back to the Fish for some well-earned rest.

New Years Day saw Danielle, Ed, and I making our way to the island of Murano, famous for its glass products.

The artists there are clearly very good at what they do. We spent most of the day looking through the various glass houses for a demonstration of glass blowing and we finally came upon it at the end of our trip when we were tired, cold, and hungry. The entirety of the showroom had been on sale and Danielle bought herself a beautiful yellow-orange spotted clock. Afterwards we watched the master glass artist blow a vase and sculpt the Ferrari horse in under a minute, and Danielle got the chance to blow a massive glass bubble. I caught it on video and I promise it’ll be up eventually! I think it’s already on my Facebook, so go take a look if we’re friends.

Taking a water taxi was almost as debilitating as the initial train ride. It didn’t cost as much but our first taxi broke down after two stops, leaving us stranded on a remote side of Venice for over an hour. The ride back was much easier, though, and the sunset was lovely, illuminating the cityscape of Venice in a bright orange haze.

 

Next: The Conquering of Rome!

Christmas in Florence

Merry Christmas, Feliz Navidad, Joyeux Noel, Buon Natale, etc everyone!!!

I’ve been pretty busy since our last update, getting everyone moved out of our Via Giusti apartment and moving into my new Borgo Oggnisanti apartment, traveling to various countries (or country as is the case), and making sure there’s food on sale during Christmas Eve day. You never know in a religious country like Italy. In any case, I’m spending Christmas away from the family here in Florence, but my cousin Danielle has come out for her winter break. We’re taking the country by storm (and eating more than our weight in delicious food of course). Before I get to Christmas celebrations, I should probably give you a run-down on everything that’s happened in the past few weeks.

The move-out of the fall semester Palazzo Ruccelai students was something of a nightmare. We had to get the apartment cleaned up, furniture returned to original rooms, and garbage removed in entirety. Nightmare. Not to mention the tension between housemates leading up to the actual date. I swear, girls are vicious. I realize that the last time I wrote about my roommates, I got in “trouble” with school administration (because heaven forbid I tell the truth on an obscure blog easily lost in the catacombs of the Internets), but I’m sincerely glad I’m not living in that environment anymore. Passive aggressive behavior pisses me off. Problems should be addressed promptly and with honesty, but apparently this is beyond certain persons. Never mind the fact that we’re unlikely to ever see each other again, some students not even attending the same universities as each other. Even the girls who attend ASU are unlikely to ever see me, unless they’re interested in 400-level English lit classes (which they aren’t) or have a sudden urge to grace Barrett with their presences.

It’s astonishing, the growth rate of maturity. As in, stagnation seems disgustingly prominent.

Anyway, with the leaving of my former roommates came the arrival of Danielle and our trip to Reit im Winkl. We were set up for our very first White Christmas in Pension Louise with Rudi, Kornelia, Alexandra, and Mikel. Behold the view from the second floor!

Very Winter-Wonderland isn’t it? This was my first time I’d been in snow, and man, was it cold! Of course, with the proper attire, there wasn’t much of a problem, but I don’t think my face has ever been quite so freezing. Wearing a ski mask all the time wasn’t exactly prudent. Not to mention it’s creepy.

Rudi and Kornelia stuffed us stupid. Italian food culture and German food culture are drastically different, the latter more like the American mentality of “eat a lot.” That being said, after eating relatively balanced meals here in Florence, going to Germany and gorging on heavy comfort foods like potatoes, goulasch, schnitzel, and hot wine probably dropped about ten pounds on every part of my body. I can’t even bring myself to step on a scale. Ugh, I’m looking at a new pants size, I know it.

You'd get fat if you ate stuff like this, too. This is Kaiserschmarrn.

Coming back to Florence meant getting ready for our meagre Christmas away from family and friends. We had no Christmas tree aside from the six-inch tall decoration sitting on our kitchen table, but luckily I’d made a reservation at a cute, Tuscan restaurant called “Acqua al 2″ for actual Christmas dinner. Unfortunately, we had to figure out what to do with ourselves on Christmas Eve. With the heating out in the apartment (and still not functioning btw), we were so cold that we didn’t even bother with a conventional dinner and just made soup from a packet. I slept hard that night. Travel in any form is tiring, and even though the flight from Germany only took a collective three hours, I was ready to sleep well into the next day.

Christmas Day was as satisfying as it could be. Sitting and opening presents by ourselves at noon couldn’t really compare to our home traditions. Apparently my brother woke up at 4AM raring to go and my parents finally obliged him at 7:30 before going to our neighbor’s place for Christmas breakfast. I missed that. I’m certainly not sorry to be here, but I’m glad for the advancement of technology. FaceTime has never been used for such a long period of time. I think my parents called me four times that day and Danielle and I definitely presided over whole-family-clan-Christmas-activities for nearly four hours. It was almost like being home again. This wasn’t my first time missing a big family gathering. I spent the Easter of my high school junior year in Japan, and I can say with certainty that I might miss a few more holidays in the coming years. Maybe Apple will invent hologram technology by then?

Dinner at Acqua al 2 was splendid. I’d only been there with my friend Daniel once before, but I’m glad we went again. Danielle and I indulged in three course meals, but we skipped dessert. I couldn’t find room anywhere to fit it! I don’t have any pictures for you. The lighting is kept low in the dining rooms, and taking photos with my camera at 1/2 second or even slower is incredibly difficult without a tripod. You’ll have to do with my description. I started with a carrot salad (just carrots), primi piatti was farfalline (bowtie) con zucca (pumpkin), which was to die for, primi secondi was fillet mignon with reduction of balsamic vinegar. Previously, I’d had fillet mignon with blueberry sauce, and I can’t make a comparison of the two. Both were absolutely delicious. I’ll just have to have them again. Oh well.

Danielle and I have also done a bit of post-Christmas shopping. We hit H&M with all the combined might of our credit cards (not really) and picked up a few things for New Years, which we’re spending in Venice this year. I bought a cute little black dress, a champagne scarf, and a new pair of high heels. I won’t be going shopping for a while. It’s so hard to resist, though! Fashion’s so accesible here.

Now that the Holiday craze is settling down a bit, we’re not doing much by means of site-seeing. We’ll hopefully be able to drag ourselves out of bed to climb the Duomo tomorrow. Hopefully. We haven’t been doing a good job of getting up early. I don’t have the best track record for being an early riser, but this is just ridiculous.

Hope you enjoy these Christmas lights! I definitely do.

Rificolona – The Lantern Festival

Man, I’m really slackin’ on getting these posts up! I swear, I’ve had this one ready to go for a few days now. Real life has a bad habit of eating my time. Not that real life is bad. It’s just busy. Really busy.

Anyway, last Wednesday I had a chance to see one of Florence’s annual spectacles: the Rificolona. It’s essentially a festival by children for children. Granted, there’s a bit of adult fun later in the evening involving a cultural dance performance and street vendors peddling their delicious wares, but all in all, it’s for the kids. Now, that is. There are plenty of origin stories for this festival, which includes the toting of lanterns through the city streets, ranging from the triumph of Florence over Siena to celebrating the eve of the Feast of the Madonna. I didn’t see much of the actual procession, but apparently the Cardinal led it. I knew that those guys dressed in ceremonial robes were important!

While the cultural aspects of the festival were not lost on many, I’m fairly certain that the real allure was watching all the little boys running around with blow guns trying to pelt the lofty lanterns. The goal was essentially destruction. Not even going into the possible fire hazards this could be sanctioned for in the States (the lanterns are lit with candles), a bunch of rambunctious boys with permission to spit-wad anyone in the vicinity is just asking for trouble. But it was good trouble. Girls gave as good as they got, and everyone really just wanted to see the paper burn into a heap on the ground once the night was through.

Prior to the Rificolona, though, I saw with my new friend, Daniel, an exposition of some dance studio out in the square behind Piazza della Republica. I’m not entirely sure where they came from but I was excited to see some Argentine Tango. Maybe this weekend I’ll hunt down that studio. I’d be totally remiss to stop dancing. (I’ve been dancing the Argentine Tango for nearly two years now.) This show was interrupted by moments of crowd dancing led by the professionals and everyone really got into it. I had a hard time of it, seeing as dancing with an expensive camera around my neck is not the best of ideas, but photographing everyone else making fools of themselves was excellent fun. They even played “Bomba,” a song I recall fondly from our earlier years in Spain. I definitely danced to that one!

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