Amsterdam

Amsterdam had to be the most international city I’ve ever visited. It was also the busiest in terms of nightlife and general tourism, not that this is surprising given the reputation that city has picked up over the years. That being said, the weekend after Easter, two friends and I got ourselves on a plane and headed out to this magnificent city to spend a long weekend enjoying ourselves. That weekend was probably the most relaxing trip I took during the Spring semester. While we got a lot done, saw what we wanted to see, I never felt rushed.

Getting to Amsterdam was something of an adventure, (un)fortunately. We literally got to the airport via taxi (the bus was taking too damn long to show up) a half-hour before the gate closed, and while I had checked in online the night previously, Michelle and Francesca had not. Francesca managed to get her boarding pass just fine but, for whatever reason, the machine refused to read Michelle’s passport and didn’t give her the boarding pass. Arguments with most unhelpful ticket ladies led to the threat of tears and finally one saint of an attendent made some calls and got Michelle her boarding pass. We booked it through security and to the gate, fairly throwing ourselves onto the plane in sheer relief. Too say we started off like nutters would not be an understatement. It’s a good thing that none of us really put much stock in our public image (not that anyone was ever going to see us ever again) because we looked ridiculous.

Our first day in Amsterdam was spent on the free walking tour that took us through the main part of the city, including part of the infamous red light district. I won’t elaborate too much on that portion of the tour, even though we took a specialized red-light tour later that evening, because we learned that a lot of the stereotypes and “common” knowledge is in fact false. However, I’m not entirely sure on the actuality of the situations, whether the girls in the RLD are under madams or essentially freelancers, so don’t quote me on any of that! That being said, the city was definitely more picturesque than I expected. I had heard that Amsterdam was very clean, beautiful, and the people friendly but I was blown away by the buildings and canals and the people were great! Food was pretty good, too, though we were a bit more international in our food choices than usual, going for Chinese and Thai rather than typical Dutch food.

Oh dear, I’m looking through my photos now and of course, I’ve put them all up on FaceBook but they aren’t in my iPhotos albums. Naturally. Hopefully they’re of the same quality.

We had three target locations that we wanted to visit this weekend: Anne Frank’s House, the Heineken Factory, and the House of Bols. Unfortunately, we were forbidden from taking photos in Anne Frank’s House, so all I have to offer you is the sign outside of the building:

Having been to Auschwitz in my fall semester, it was interesting to see the living situation of a family that had been subjected to the horrors of the Holocaust, and being able to see original copies of Anne’s diary, short stories, and novel was bittersweet. Apparently she’d wanted to be a famous author, and it’s ironic that her trauma and death ultimately made that dream come true. Horrible irony, but true.

Our experiences with the House of Bols and the Heineken Factory were somewhat similar, though I enjoyed the prior more than the latter. I’ve become more partial to liquor over the year, and I still can’t stand beer in any shape or form (though I spent a bit of time in Dublin recently trying to get over that with my friend Guinness). However, we spent more time in the Heineken Factory due to it being massive and more historically based than the House of Bols. We were taken through the entire process of brewing, getting tastes along the way that ended in two “free” pints of Heineken at the end of our tour. Apparently hops is what makes the beer bitter, but before that’s added, it’s actually relatively sweet. I’d drink beer if it tasted like that!

There was also one of those 4D rides that put us in the perspective of the beer as it went from grain and hops to the can. Of course, our expectations for this ride had been built up by other friends visiting previously, so I was thinking that we were in for a beer-can rollert coaster. It was a bit of a let down to be sprayed in the face with a bit of water and “boiled” under infrared lights.

Going to the House of Bols was something like entering a fun house that could kill epileptics. There were so many multicolored lights everywhere! Our entrance fee gained us two shots and a cocktail at the end of the tour, and the innovative part of the House of Bols is the number of liquor flavors they boast, over 300 developed and counting. One of the rooms had bottles lined up, stripped of their labels, and you were supposed to try and identify them by smell alone. That was the trippy room. It looked like a mad scientist’s lab met gay pride parade. I was pretty impressed.

At the tasting bar, I decided on a Pomegranate Collins as my cocktail of choice, given the option between nearly thirty different kinds of drinks from the automated machines. We were provided with a recipe for every drink we were interested in trying, but since all of them have Bols liquor in them (it’s frustratingly difficult to find in the States, only in NYC or San Fran), I don’t foresee making any of them in the near future. I also picked the blood orange and butterscotch liquor taster shots. Butterscotch was definitely my favorite. It tasted like candy!

I had a fantastic time in Amsterdam. The city was beautiful and even though we stayed out late every night, I never felt unsafe. There were so many people around all the time and no one begrudged us asking for directions, even at 3 o’clock in the morning. Our tours were informative and entertaining, and the red-light district was not nearly as sordid as everyone makes it out to be. In fact, I think every woman could do with a glow-in-the-dark lingerie set at one point in her life! Christmas present, anyone? It’d be a riot. In any case, my time spent in Amsterdam has put it at in the list of my favorite cities, and I would love to go back one day. I certainly wouldn’t mind living there, if given the opportunity!

PS: You notice I don’t mention another major aspect of the Amsterdam reputation. Don’t worry. It was around and definitely . . . interesting. ;D

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A Spanish Spring Break

I have to say that my decision to take spring break on my own was probably for the best. I mean, I like hearing about my friends’ trips and I think it would have been fun to have gone along for the ride, but at the same time the time alone was such a respite. I didn’t have any homework to worry about, no cares as to how loud to play my music (the weird Japanese stuff, not the American pop that’s acceptable to most kids my age), and I got to laze about all day without anyone walking into the room. Not that I was terribly bothered here in Italy by roommates or otherwise, but sometimes it’s just nice to have a self-centered lazy week.

That being said, the trip started off as something of a nightmare. A fair warning to all you looking to take RyanAir flights in the future: weigh your bags before you leave your house. I had foolishly thought that I would manage a 15 kilo checked bag and be under or just above the limit. Incorrect. My bag ended up being 22 kilos, and RyanAir’s “friendly” policy requires each extra kilo above limit to be compensated by an additional 20€. Guess who ended up forking over 140€. *points at self* Yeah, great start, right? Getting onto the plane proved to be an ordeal as well. I was still upset over paying so much money that I kept forgetting to keep my boarding pass out of my backpack, and I’m sure that the check-in ladies were that close to just booting me into the runway so they wouldn’t have to deal with my fumbling. Once on the plane, I cleverly seated myself behind a woman having a panic attack from the heat in the very full plane. Needless to say the flight was delayed about twenty minutes.

I finally arrived in Alicante, Spain around the proper arrival time of 11PM and was picked up by family friend Mayeyes. I was worried about how my Spanish would be, since learning a new language sort of trounces any other language that you don’t have a full handle on,  but I managed to understand well enough to formulate some sort of response, though Italian made more than its fair share of interruptions. Mayeyes left me at the family apartment to my devices, and I promptly crashed into bed, not even bothering to throw some sheets over the mattress and making do with a pile of blankets.

The following day was partially spent at the beach. I stopped by a local bar to pick up my favorite summer lunch, a Spanish tortilla sandwich with plenty of olive oil and a Fanta Orange. The weather was lovely for most of the morning until about 12:30-1:00 when the wind picked up. I made my way back to my apartment and wiled away the rest of the afternoon on my computer, shortly discovering a pathetic fascination with Judge Judy episodes, courtesy of YouTube and a lot of time on my hands. I spent the evening watching Jurassic Park on TV, which was cool since I haven’t really used a TV for a while.

Day Three found me handling an exchange of sorts. I didn’t get much out of the deal, but eh. Such is life. My friend Nick had left his debit card in Florence, and since he knew I’d be in Spain (where he and his friends had decided to travel for the week), he begged me to bring it with me and he’d pick it up. Due to close proximity, him being in Valencia, the hand-off was made, and we ended up having lunch at a family friend, Maribel’s, house downtown. It was nice having someone else cook for me for a change, and a home-cooked meal by someone who has been cooking for years definitely made a difference in my eating standards. Since I was trying to conserve my money after that debilitating RyanAir charge, I resolved to take advantage of hospitality and had lunch with Maribel again the next day.

Day Three’s evening had me in the city with Mayeyes hunting down a pay-as-you-go phone for my stay and for my return in May. It’s important to have some sort of contact device not relying on WiFi, so we got me an international SIM card and Mayayes offered me one of her old mobiles that she no longer used. I’d also picked up an old phone from Maribel’s daughter, Maria, which no doubt will be used by my brother whenever he gets to Spain. All in all, it was a productive day once I saw Nick back to the train station. I crashed around 2AM after long Skype chats back home and no dinner, since lunch pretty much added an extra ten pounds to digest for the remainder of the trip.

The rest of the week sort of languished in a haze of beachy contentment and (lots of) Judge Judy. I took advantage of the DVD player to watch more Jurassic Park and the concert DVDs of my favorite Japanese artist, Gackt, since his DVDs are Region 2 coded and therefore incompatible with USA devices, damn them. I checked through the apartment inventory for anything my mom might need to bring with her later in the summer, chucked the spoiling food, and settled the winter clothes I’d brought with me into their drawers to await my return.

Soon enough I was packing up my things to get ready to return to Florence. I wasn’t really raring to go back, since school can be monotonous and the relaxation was well appreciated. I also knew that I might have a bit of trouble with getting back to Florence from Bologna. The last train out of the station that night would be at 9:30PM, and my flight was due to arrive at 8:30. Hardly enough time to collect a checked bag, get to the station (that was a half-hour’s bus ride from the airport), and safely get onto my train. Nonetheless, I was willing to give it a go, since I really had no choice.

Of course, as fate wills it, my flight ends up being delayed about 45 minutes. So much for making my train. By the time I arrived in Bologna and collected my baggage, it was pushing 9PM, and there was no way I’d make it to the station on time. I went to the help services in the station and learned that the earliest train leaving for Florence Santa Maria Novella station would be at 2:17AM, and the waiting room was just around the corner, thank you for your patience. My mother and I both figured that this would be my best bet, even if I had to wait in a room filled with homeless people and creepy drunks. I went to purchase a ticket, but lo and behold, the train was booked up entirely. Unless I wanted to pay for a sleeper compartment, which was more than double the price of an ordinary ticket, I would have to wait until the 5:15AM train.

Suffice to say, I bought the 5:15AM ticket. In lieu of staying in a hotel for one night, I schlepped back to the airport and made a long night of reading Game of Thrones and drinking disgusting hot chocolate from a machine. At 4AM I investigated the shuttle bus station only to find that the earliest running time was at 6. More than a little irritated, I managed to secure myself a cab. I arrived at the station well ahead of schedule and found myself a spot in the creepy waiting room. Twenty minutes before boarding time, I made my way to platform and sat there. For nearly an hour. Yes, my train was also late. By the time the damn thing finally arrived, I’d almost resigned myself to being forever trapped in Bologna. I got on and had to stand for the entirety of the hour ride back to Florence, since the train had come from Vienna and everyone was sleeping. I arrived at around 7:15, booked it back to my apartment, and barely managed to kick off my shoes before falling into bed and crashing.

I did not make it to my 9AM class that morning.

I’m fairly certain that this was the worst travel experience I’d ever had, and I suppose I’ve been really lucky in the past to avoid these sorts of situations. And to think, I’m taking the same route again in May when term lets out, and I’ll have 2 bags this time! Ugh. There are maybe six weeks left to my Italian year abroad, and it hasn’t quite hit me yet that I’ll be leaving back for ASU soon. It’ll be interesting to see how everyone back home has changed. I’m sure I’ll blog about my musings sometime soon, though I haven’t been very good at consistency lately.

That being said, I’ll be going to Bosnia next weekend to visit a friend, and that trip promises to be something interesting. I’ll let you know how it goes. Ciao~~

The Conquering of Rome

WARNING: LONG

That title is not to be misconstrued at all. This trip was literally an epic conquering of a massive city, and we did it under 48 hours. I remember hearing from my Uncle Ian that he saw all the sights in Rome in two hours, though he claimed this was at night with considerably less tourists around. I didn’t believe him.

Now I do.

After a night’s recuperation back in Florence, Danielle and I headed out the next morning to Rome. This train ride, four hours long, cost a measly 38€. Both ways. As in, we paid 17.50€ for a one-way ride to Rome. Venice screwed us. In any case, I managed to get some sleep on this one, proving once again that I can fall asleep in any moving vehicle (including water taxi, by the way), and we arrived at the Freedom Traveller Hostel around 5:30PM. I wasn’t quite as impressed with Freedom Traveller as I was with the Venice Fish. The atmosphere was definitely one of individual travel, lacking the mingle-y feel that we found over the New Years. We had a private room for the three nights we stayed, and while all we did was sleep there, I think we both were hoping for another experience similar to the Venice Fish.

In any case, we dropped our things in the room and promptly left for a rather sketchy pasta dinner at the restaurant across the street. The food was fine, but the drunk guys oggling our fellow females all over the creepy back room was not so nice. We headed out quickly enough to the Metro to purchase a three-day ticket. Wasting no time, Danielle shuffled us off to the first stop on her list, the Colosseum.

Taking photos at night is bleeding hard, you know? Everything comes out blurry.

We spent a bit of time just staring at it, munching on some proscuitto-mozzarella calzoni, before heading onwards to our next destination, the Pantheon. On foot. There’s no Metro to the Pantheon/Piazza Navona. It’s too close to the Spanish Steps. Close being like a twenty minute walk. Rome made up for the distance with plenty of lit streets and copious amounts of people. Unlike Florence, Rome seems to be alive at all hours of the day. It was somewhat refreshing to know that somebody else, more like a city full of somebody elses, actually stayed up late to go out to dinner.

We passed all sorts of ruins and modern buildings, a strange juxtaposition, and Rome seemed equally ancient and futuristic at the same time unlike Florence, which seems to ooze “I am Renaissance love me for I’m old.” Something like that. Our walk led us down the backstreets and the promenades, but we finally made it to the Pantheon, bypassing Piazza Navona for that night. Unfortunately we couldn’t go inside, since we’d missed closing by three hours; however, the view from outside was just as good as the Colosseum. The next stop was the Trevi Fountain, predictably crowded with tourists and Italians both, and its surrounding cafés were full to bursting. Danielle and I obligingly threw our coins into the fountain (over our left shoulders), and I made yet another promise to return to Rome. That fountain will know if you don’t.

We then made our way to the Spanish Steps, where we ended our evening. Not as crowded as it usually is during the day, the Steps were still a sight to see, being the location of Rome’s haute couture shopping strip. Danielle and I made a pact to come back the next day and indulge in some McDonald’s like every other Italian person did on the Steps. I kept thinking about my Food Culture professor and what he would say to me. I’m definitely not telling him about that! After a few lingering looks at the frightening Prada prices, we trooped back onto the Metro and made our way back to the hostel for a good night’s rest. After all, we had to tackle the Vatican the next day!

Our first stop was the Vatican museums. Luckily we’d thought to buy tickets ahead of time and we got to skip the line going into the building. Even on an off-season, there were plenty of people eager to see the Vatican’s treasures. Unlike the last time my family and I went, we made it through the entirety of the museums, seeing every department and even stopping at the pizzeria for a taste of how the Vatican feeds its visitors. Apparently they save the best pizza for the pope. My favorite department was probably the Australian Aboriginal exhibit, photos and artifacts alike, but it was nice running through the Egyptian department again. Of course, we couldn’t skip through the Vatican without seeing the Sistine Chapel!

Post-Vatican saw us hunting through the city for all the sights we’d seen the previous night. By the time we’d actually left the museums and basilica, evening had fallen and we stumbled upon Piazza Navona in the throws of an outdoor market-fair complete with a merry-go-round and carnival games. Since the Pantheon was right next to the Piazza, we poked our heads in for a look-around before heading to a recommended café called, “Tazza d’Oro.”

That evening we decided to spend a nice evening at another recommended restaurant, Maccheroni. Without a reservation, though the manager put us on a time limit, wanting us out by nine for his reservation at 9PM. Danielle started with a cheesy prosciutto pasta and I chose a pasta-garbanzo soup. Our entrees were stuffed zucchinis and chicken cacciatora respectively. I realize you’re being bombed with photos so I won’t put dinner up, but you can see the entirety of my Rome and Venice albums on my Facebook page. Hope we’re friends!

Our last full day in Rome was spent at the Colosseum. We got up bright and early to arrive on the Metro around 10:00AM. The line was already massive and we were herded on all sides by tour guides attempting to sell their services for a “cheaper better price” than the official ones. Fool that I am, I forgot my British passport when we went to buy our legitimate tickets from the Palantino and had to pay full price, and for whatever reason they didn’t offer student prices, which was also unfortunate. However, for the 12€ we did pay, we say the Palantino, the Roman Forums, and skipped the line into the Colosseum as well. It was a pretty good deal. I forked out a little extra to get an electronic guide for the Colosseum itself, since the history of that was more of interest to us than the ruins just across the street.

The Colosseum was, of course, colossal and magnificent. I can only imagine how it looked in its prime with gladiators, wild beasts, and savage hunts on display for all the public to see. In honor of our visit, Danielle and I even watched “Gladiator” with Russell Crow once we returned to Florence. The CG version of the Colosseum didn’t measure up to its real-life splendor. Though it’s ultimately falling to pieces due to centuries of neglect, I’m glad that it’s been preserved as much as it has. Hopefully I’ll be able to go back at some point. My Ancient Rome class will probably land me there again in the coming months.

Danielle left back for Spain on the 7th, so I know that this blog post is coming very late. The semester is starting up soon and I’m working through orientation and brand-new roommates. This semester has so many new people and even a new building to get used to; I hope everything works out as planned and not like last semester. The group living with me seem good thus far. We’ll see how things progress as the time goes on. I’m sharing a room now so I’ll have to keep careful track of my things. It’ll be strange not being able to just drop my books and bags wherever I like. Again, we’ll see.

Updates on classes to come. I get my schedule tomorrow! Ciao!

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.

Fall Break: Vienna, Austria

This may take a while . . .

Okay, the long-awaited discourse on my fall break: The Best of the East. Daniel and I decided to take advantage of tour-company, Euroadventures, during our fall break to explore some countries neither of us had encountered before. The trip spanned Austria, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic in only 10 days, so we were definitely in for some fast-paced travel. Packing for this was definitely an issue. For one, I’ve never really been in a “winter” country. You know, where it snows. It snows in Eastern Europe. Luckily not while I was there, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this. My fingers would’ve fallen off. Anyway, while it never snowed, temperatures flirted with freezing, so thanks Mom for that down jacket. I used it every day.

Vienna, Austria was our first stop and it’s the one I remember least. I’d heard prior that it was a very beautiful city with plenty of culture and opera and ballet and beautiful museums. The people weren’t terribly friendly, though. Then again, we were 40+ screaming American college students. It’s hard to find anyone anywhere that would look at us with anything other than disdain. A wild pack of students on break is often akin to a manic tribe of monkeys, and students abroad are one hell of a monkey mania. Once we managed to break off of the group, though, we were able to m eet some pretty cool people, namely the “Clique.” We’ll get to that.

We were only there for a day and a night (we really hit the ground running for this trip), so we didn’t have much time to see anything outside of the walking tours we were provided. Daniel and I became friends with two girls from the group, Monica and Tara, both studying in Florence though not at Palazzo Ruccelai. Together we had lunch at a tiny hole-in-the-wall off the main strip near the cathedral and then hunted down the Belvedere Palace to see the art museum, mainly for the famous “The Kiss” by Gustav Klimt. Unfortunately photos weren’t allowed and I hadn’t thought to be sneaky about getting one. Sorry guys. It was beautiful though, very sparkly.

What I remember best from Vienna is the food. You’ll find that’s a common theme for this trip. Food, food, food. I didn’t do much shopping, so photos really take up the majority of my memory cache. Vienna’s food was pretty familiar: bratwursts and potatoes and heavy gravies. Very homey food.

Next stop: Bratislava, Slovakia!

Milan

Fashion is raging here in Italy right now with the start of Milan Fashion Week. Cities around the world are staging their own massive showcases of the latest moda, London prominently displaying bursts of color and vibrant sprays of feathers and fur, Milan parading the knit woolen parkas and high-heeled boots of winter time. This past weekend I was lucky enough to give Milan a bit of a run through, even though my friend Daniel and I really only had about five hours to do the city.

Day started at 6:00AM. Despite waking up on weekdays at the usual 7:30, that 1.5 hour difference nearly killed me. The ways of the college student demand being at least conscious at 2AM, so I think I only had about four hours of sleep that day, maybe a little less. Regardless, the train ride from Florence to Milan took nearly four hours due to delays, so I got plenty of sleep in before we made it to the city. Daniel managed to sleep some, too, though I think I got the most of it. I’ve always been able to sleep well in moving vehicles. Save planes. Planes are weird.

Milan was much more industrialized than I thought it would be. Granted, I hadn’t know that it was the industrial capital of Italy before I got there, so in hindsight the numerous plants and gaping steel wiring that seemed to be everywhere isn’t so strange. The contrasts between Milan and Florence were nearly staggering. Florence just seems to have a much more relaxed air to it. Not in so much of a rush. Of course, the crowds could definitely be attributed to Fashion Week craze, and when Daniel and I were spat out of the metro at the foot of the massive white cathedral, we were nearly run over by a gaggle of painted ladies dressed to their ears in animal print. I’ll admit, I was sporting a pair of snake-skin print jeans too…

In front of the Milan Duomo

Daniel and I wandered into the high-end shopping district, completely aware that everything would be well above our practical price range. Try as I might, I could never justify buying a purse of any brand for more than 30€, and even that price is pushing it. When the Gucci and Prada bags are going for at least 300€ for a decent sized one, I’d rather buy that military-style trench I’ve been eyeing at Zara for the past couple of days… Hmm… Of course, looking at everything was fun, and we discovered that Gucci has made a foray into the realm of chocolate. The guard kicked us out before we managed to get a picture of the gourmet, “G”-stamped bars. I bet Milka tastes better.

After a bit more trawling of the likes of Louis Vuitton and Swarovski, we stumbled upon a side alley that led to one of the many public fashion shows set up around the city. We managed to get some seats (but no goodie bags, since those were for the lucky ones who registered) and saw a showing for Paolo Casalini. Have no idea who he is, but his clothes were cute and as usual the models all looked the same but distantly gorgeous.

The show lasted hardly twenty minutes. I’m not sure if that’s average length, since one can only design so many outfits before repeats start showing up on the runway, but it seemed as if we were walking away from the piazza just moments after we’d sat down to watch. Regardless, it was awesome and I now get to say that I’ve seen a fashion show in Milan during Fashion Week. Shortly after leaving the venue, Daniel and I stumbled upon a hole-in-the-wall bakery teeming with Italians, all squabbling for a place in line and shouting back and forth between each other, obviously regulars for the lunch rush. Not about to let an opportunity pass, we shoved our way inside and snagged ourselves some dessert calzone stuffed with peaches, almonds, and ammaretti. Didn’t think to take a picture, and they were gone by the time I remembered that I actually owned a camera.

We had about an hour before we had to catch our train back to Florence, so we decided to head into the Duomo and get some photos with our newly fostered knowledge of the manual setting on our SLR cameras. The white spires cut starker lines than the generous curve of Florence’s domed cathedral, but it suits Milan’s sharp and modern splendor, though the inside looked like every other cathedral I’ve ever seen. Having seen many cathedrals, I’m still awed by the magnificent architecture and the sheer magnitude of their age. These things have been standing for hundreds of years, some not even fully completed yet, and previously without the use of mechanical cranes or other modern technologies. I learned recently that the Florentine Duomo’s dome was built prior to its being placed on the actual church. I can’t imagine how they could have done it.

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Milan was an experience, and I’m glad I went even for such a short time. I want to go back to see the Last Supper fresco, but I’ve got a while left yet. I can’t believe that I haven’t even been here in Florence for a month yet. Granted, it’s been a while since being in the continental US, but I still feel like I just got here. The workload isn’t heavy, so it doesn’t really feel like school, just an extended vacation with a bit of side-study. We’ll see how things pick up around midterms. I recently discovered George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Fire and Ice” series, including the HBO adaptation of “Game of Thrones,” and I’m hoping that will keep me occupied for a while. It’s been so long since I’ve read a good book series!

Food Paper Topic: Blood Wars Paid in Chocolate AND Modern Science and Cooking. I’ve been given leave to write them both, though only one will count for credit. My prof said he’d be a bit more interested in the Chocolate one, which I’m pretty okay with, seeing as I have the International Chocolate Festival in Perugia coming up in a few weeks and my subscription to Harvard’s YouTube channel just popped up a lecture on “The Many Faces of Chocolate.” Signs? Oh, yes.

Finally in Florence

So I’ve been in Florence since Wednesday, and I can’t even describe how busy I’ve been. Even at ASU, orientation didn’t take three days. Then again, we spoke the same language in Arizona (if not the same slang), usually ate the same food, and couldn’t get arrested for making a bunch of noise in our dorm rooms at three o’clock in the morning. Florence is a big cultural shift from college life at Barrett. I expected no less, but I think my roommates are still reeling from the differences. I can’t say how often I hear the word “America” or “American.” They miss home. Rather, they miss the fixings of home.

Orientation covered a lot more than I thought it would. Aside from the copious amounts of paperwork to fill out, we were introduced to all of the professors, administration, and locations for classes. We got our books, schedules, and signed up for some September extra-curricular activities. All in all, it seems a lot like school. Nothing’s terribly different, save for the fact that we’re in Florence. We have three day weekends with the promise of attendance the other four days of class. I’m looking forward to the routine of classes. Honestly, this floating around with no set plan is starting to get old. I’m not sure what to do with myself. Definitely glad that classes start tomorrow.

My door on Via Giusti!

Anyway, I’m living in Via Giuseppi Giusti, 30 for this semester with six other girls. They’re good fun, though a little more interested in the bottle than I am. I don’t think they’ve done a lot of traveling outside of the US, so I sometimes feel like I’m imposing my knowledge on them. I do mean well, but I can see how my interest in helping could be taken as condescending or patronizing. Not that it matters, I’m sure we’ll all know the city equally well by the time they leave. Oh, I’m the only student staying for the academic year, by the way. As a result, the entire administrative staff knows who I am. Awkward.

Today was our first free day and I was the only one up at a reasonable hour. I decided to take a little stroll through the city, and since I had to buy an umbrella, it was a great opportunity to do a bit of shopping. Unfortunately, I hadn’t counted on it raining before I could get to a shop with a reasonably priced umbrella. Luckily, though, I’d just ducked into a little cafe to have a drink and snack when the downpour started. I had a front-row seat to the Duomo’s piazza emptying as people scurried for cover under massive stone eaves and the awnings of pizzarias. A bellini and chocolate bigné and I was set.

After the rain let up, I did a bit of shopping at Zara and H&M. I bought some perfume, my umbrella, a pair of black flats, and some nail polish to cover my horrendous fingernails. I’m flattered (and kind of embarrassed) to say that I got a lot of looks/whistles from various men, thereby disproving that only blonde ladies get catcalls here in Florence, but it definitely brightened the overcast day. Every girl could use a self-esteem boost in the form of a hot whistling Italian man. On the way home I went to the San Lorenzo marketplace, where all of the leather goods are sold, to pick up some wine toppers since the corks never seem to fit back into their bottles once we open them. I really hope they don’t break. We’ll see. If they do, I know the stall where I can get them cheap.

Tomorrow classes start, and Palazzo Rucellai is a fair walk from Via Giusti. Add to that my first class starts at 9:30, and I have to be up freakin’ early. Ugh. My dad got a kick out of that, though. Back at ASU, I’ve made an effort to schedule my classes as close to noon as possible. I’m not a morning person at all. Anyway, class update on Tuesday after I’ve been to all five of them! Hope everyone’s having a good day. Bye!

Composite: Spain, Italy, England

Wow, how long has it been since I’ve updated? A week? Maybe two? I’ve been without internet for a while. A lot has happened since then. It’s actually hard to believe that so much has flashed by in under a month, and as I sit here in Sheffield, England, writing to you, I’m still having a difficult time reconciling that just last week I was in Florence, Italy and the week before that Alicante, Spain. Food for thought.

Leaving Spain every year is met with dread by every member of my family for various reasons: the end of summer, the beginning of school, the nightmare of packing, the sudden lack of sun and available beaches, etc. The list could go on forever. I don’t want to bash the United States, but really, after languishing on a Spanish beach for the better part of two months, California/Arizona just doesn’t measure up. Sorry. I’m sure that my friends who take off to the lake for the summer would have the same opinion. After all, leaving the lake (or beach) means going back to school.

This year, however, the family got a bit of a reprieve before the mad rush for school supplies, talking to teachers, and preparing the classroom. Unlike most trips that end in a flight out of Madrid, we decided to spend our last summer week in Florence, to get the lay of the land as it were. After our week, my parents and brother would travel to Milan for their flight back to San Francisco and I would head out to the East Midlands airport to stay with my aunt and uncle in Birmingham. I think I’ve said all that before?

In any case, getting a peek around Florence before the start of term was a golden opportunity. Granted, Palazzo Rucellai has yet to tell me where exactly it is I’m living or who I’m living with, but the administration staff was kind enough to point out the central locations where the apartments would be situated. Piazza San Marco and near the Duomo. Prime spots, right? Now if they’d just tell me the building… Not knowing aside, my family and I took the time to traipse through the city and, of course, eat our way through some delicious Tuscan food.

Before we get to food, though, I have to mention the Uffizi. The Uffizi is the largest museum in Florence, famous for housing Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus” and “La Primavera” among others. It costs a bit of money to get in, and I’d advise buying tickets in advance to escape the massive line that loops the building and the piazza. It might be an extra €4, but it’s definitely worth it, especially since temperatures were soaring to 40˚C the day we went.

Uffizi exterior

Though we all saw the same paintings and sculptures, I’m sure that Dad is the only one who could reliably give any explanations about them. I have no idea how Mom manages to see everything since she’s exiting the room ahead of us when we’re just starting the previous. Moves like lightning that woman. Ian and I were lost causes after a while. After being battered with masterpiece after masterpiece, I regret to say that they eventually blend into one massive blob of ink and oil color. I can say, however, that there were only three Caravaggio’s in the entire museum and I was MOST disappointed. He was my favorite when studying Renaissance Art in high school.

Having taken in a bit of the visible culture, we were all set for some great Italian food. I’m sure everyone automatically thinks pasta and pizza, and I won’t lie, there was a lot of that going around. I think I had at least one pasta dish every day. Mom keeps telling me about the different tastes of the noodles themselves, but honestly I can’t tell. They all taste the same to me. I’m more concerned with the stuff they put on the noodles, be it green, red, white, or all three. Pasta’s just pasta. Of course, I run the risk of being lynched by my Tita Sue for saying that, but don’t worry! I’ll figure out the differences eventually!

Tagliatelle with wild boar meat sauce

I have to extend a big “thank you” to my cousin, Rafael, for telling us about the “Eat Florence” app for iPhone/iPad. That app was a goldmine. An overview for you curious kids out there: Eat Florence provides a list of easy-to-find, cost-ranked restaurants, food stands, kitchen suppliers, and gelatarias all across the city. You can view the inventory of locations by neighborhood, type, and cost, and with location activated on your device, you can calculate how long of a walk you have in order to find someplace to eat. I think we managed to hit about five of the places provided out of nearly thirty. It’s a great jumping off point for people interested in good Tuscan food, but sometimes wandering the streets proves lucky too.

The time finally came, though, that we had to pack off to Milan and Pisa airports respectively. There wasn’t a tearful goodbye, but I wasn’t in the car off to Milan so I can’t speak for my parents or brother. I didn’t cry, though. Sorry Mom. I think it was harder to leave Florence than it was to leave Alicante, despite knowing that I’d come back in just a few weeks (ten days now, but who’s counting?). The city captures you very quickly and I find it’s reluctant to let go. Not that I mind of course, but it’ll be hell trying to go back to States after this year, I think.

Staying in Sheffield was strange when compared to Florence. Everyone speaks English, for one (and isn’t it strange that it’s strange?), and the food doesn’t nearly measure up to Italian standards. It’s also cold. Very cold. Arizona definitely did a number in conditioning me for hot temperatures. That being said, however, Sheffield is a charming little city. The houses are typical English houses, and I had fish and chips the other day wrapped in newspaper, still greasy and hot from the frier. There’s an element of gentility here in England that doesn’t match the flamboyant rush and color of Italy or the leisurely beach life of Spain. I can’t say that I’d live here, but I wouldn’t mind visiting once in a while.

Now I’m in Birmingham with my Uncle Ian, Auntie Ruth, and cousin Stephanie for the remainder of my holiday. It’s been years since I’ve seen them and succinctly: they’re a riot. I don’t think I’ve ever had so much fun being teased for my American-ness. It definitely puts a spin on the idea that my friends think I’m very European and British. Ha. Haha. I’m VERY American, but that’s alright. I might be somewhat Italian by the end of this whole junket.

Tomorrow I’m heading back to Italy for the start of term and orientation. I’m not quite nervous, but sometimes I’ve woken up in the morning and mentally double check the contents of my suitcases. I’ve been lucky to have had help in preparing for this year abroad, but preparations can only get you so far. I’m not concerned about the year at large but the start of it. So long as I hit the ground running, I’ll be fine, I think.

PS: I have three videos for you all, but since I restored my computer, iMovie has been taking a long time to finalize its projects, so those’ll be up within the week. Hopefully.