The inevitable stories of passport abuse


Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Thanksgiving in Florence

Happy belated Thanksgiving to everyone in the U.S.  I wish I could have been home to celebrate with my family and friends, but as I am half way across the world that wasn't going to happen.  So naturally I planned the next best thing, Thanksgiving dinner with the friends in Florence that have become my family. I must selfishly admit that cooking a Thanksgiving dinner was a lifeline for me; I needed something to take my mind off of the fact that I wasn't at home pouring my Grandmothers several glasses of wine and whipping up a pumpkin pie with my sister. So I invited everyone over to Via dei Pilastri for a home-cooked meal. Let me just say this, I have a new found respect for mothers (or fathers) who have ever cooked a Thanksgiving meal....IT IS NOT EASY! I asked everyone to bring a favorite dish and I would provide the turkey (named Lorenzo). I also ended up making two different kinds of stuffing from scratch, rehydrated dried cranberries so we could have cranberry sauce with our turkey, chopped some veggies for our roasted vegetables, peeling potatoes for homemade mashed potatoes, peeling apples for apple pie, buying a pumpkin pie (long story short.....pumpkin pie without canned pumpkin takes way longer than a day) and more. Oh and did I mention we only have one oven? By the time dinner was served ( much later than anticipated) all I wanted to do was sleep! But alas, then there were the dishes. From now on my mother with NEVER have to do dishes after she cooks; I have learned the hard way that dishes are a cruel and unusual punishment after a long day of cooking. With that said, Thanksgiving Florence style was a success, everything turned out delicious, if I do say so myself, and everyone had a great time. With the smells of Lorenzo cooking, the Christmas music and all of the laughs it actually felt like Thanksgiving, something I wasn't expecting. I am so grateful to have met all of these amazing people that made a Thanksgiving away from home that much easier.


Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Italian Family

I know that I fail at life and have not blogged about any of my amazing trips for the last MONTH but I promise they will be coming soon.  After midterms I left straight for Barcelona and Croatia, got home and had house guests for over a week, so things are finally starting to settle down.  But before I get to my adventures in other countries I need to write about the one adventure that has single handedly made study abroad in florence worth it...the Zuppiroli family.

When first arriving in Florence I signed up for this club my school has called the Italian Family club.  The school finds Florentine families that are willing to adopt poor homesick American students for the semester.  After lots of paperwork, interviews and people thinking I was crazy for giving up my travel weekends to spend time with a family I didn't even know, I finally met my Italian family. To make many long stories short, they are beyond amazing.  I have only known Alfredo, Sandra, Margherita and Amit for a little over a month but I don't think I could ever explain to them how much they have impacted my life.

Tonight for example, Sandra invited me over for dinner. First, she is such a wonderful cook; if only my stomach could speak it would tell you. Second, these dinners that Italians have EVERY night, consist of at least four courses and last for a minimum of 2.5 hours.  At dinner tonight Sandra invited her niece for dinner, who is a little older than I am.  Little did I know (but I am positive Sandra did this on purpose); Sara not only speaks Italian, Spanish and English but is also a swim coach. I had told my Italian family last week how I coach 160 beautiful children and how( it may sound ridiculous) I miss them so much that I feel like part of me is missing when I am not at the Cunningham pool trying to squeeze 40 kids into 3 lanes, listening to Peter tell me some strange story and eating candy by the bucketful. Sara spoke in mostly Italian ( Sandra is working very proactively towards me being fluent and won't let anyone in the family speak english during dinner). And although the conversation was in a language that is still completely foreign to me, I had no trouble following.  The language of the swimming world transcended all language barriers and I felt like I could be talking to any of my coaches about what set to give the 11-12 year olds. Sara even invited me to her team's swim meet in a couple of weekends and I don't know if I have been more excited for anything since I have been here.

Needless to say dinner tonight made me appreciate being here in Italy and experiencing the language and culture first hand.  As I was walking away from their house, in the complete downpour that I have come to expect everyday in Florence, I couldn't help but close my umbrella and spin around in circles in the storm thinking of how blessed I am and how happy I am the the Zuppiroli family decided to adopt me.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

San Gimignano and random activities in Firenze

I have been in Italy for 38 days and this country continues to surprise me with all it has to offer. Por ejemplo, after an 8 hour day of class and a quiz on Wednesday, the roommates and I embarked on the ultimate food adventure.  This other-worldly experience is called an Apperitivo here in Italy and it honestly is the best invention EVER! Most restaurants offer Apperitivi from 7 to 10 pm, and is meant to be experienced before eating dinner.  Basically, you pay a fixed amount (usually between 3 and 4 euros) for a sizable drink of choice and an unlimited buffet.  Seriously there is so much food, I was in heaven. Apperitivi are supposed to open up your stomach for the regular Italian 4 course meal ( these Italians are challenging my status as a champion eater, my stomach needs to double in size asap).  But for the struggling...aka student, a buffet of unlimited food and a drink for under 5 euro acts as dinner and completely fills up my tummy.  I have vowed to find an Apperitvo at least once a week in order to "fully immerse myself in the Italian culture" from this point forward :]

This weekend was nothing too exciting in the world travel department.  I am trying to keep my travel bug under control so I don't miss out on actually living life in Florence.  The roommates, Brock, Mari, Sam, Kelly and I did manage to take a day off from studying to find the small town of San Gimignano. Before I go any further, let me help you with the pronunciation of this beautiful city's name. I still have trouble saying it and Elizabeth affectionally refers to it as San "Jiminy- Cricket".  In Italian "gn" makes the same sound as the Spanish "ñ".  I am constantly being tripped up by the silly "gn"s in this language. Anyways, on Friday, after yet another late start, we arrive at the bus station to find the other 4 people we were traveling with already hopped on a bus to San Gimignano, and we were left to pout and wait an hour for the next bus.  We got really lucky however, and in Poggibonsi (where we change buses) somehow managed our way onto a bus that was leaving to make the mountain trek up to San Gimignano 45 minutes early.  We arrived only 20 minutes after our other friends and were able to meet up for lunch.  At this point is was very cold and rainy, so everyone has a nice bowl of hot soup, or in my case, steaming hot crepes. We barely walked 20 feet before we found a sign advertising wine tasting of the white wine San Gimignano is famous for.  The owner of the shop, Lorenzo was such a cute older man who was so happy to have us! He gave us all samples of his personal production wine and balsamic for free, as well as free bruschetta. Anyone planning on going to San Gimignano find Lorenzo ( he may or may not have a picture of all of us saved on his computer!). We spent another couple of hours just exploring the small town, famous for its 14 towers.  Apparently it is a big deal that 14 out of 60 are still standing, as most of the ancient city towers in Italy were destroyed in WWII. Brock and I were the only ones that conquered a huge hill to climb to the top of one of the towers to find the most amazing view of the city as well as the surrounding vineyards.  The view was definitely worth the lactic acid build up and my legs were happy to have a rest on the bus ride home. 

After a long day in San Gimignano, the roommates and I ate brunch at an American diner (to get our pancake fix) and sat around the house before heading to Piazza Santa Croce.  The famous Santa Croce is less than a five minute walk from our place, which works out quite nicely for us.  Since we have been here, there has been a concert, a breast cancer walk, a beer festival, and most importantly an International festival held in the piazza in front of the church.  We spent a good 3 hours at the International festival last night.  I did my best to try foods from as many vendors as humanly possible.  I had a GIANT cinnamon pretzel (Germany), sangria (Spain), a jamon e formaggio crepe (France), and chocolate (Belgium). I also bought a glass christmas house thing- similar to the Department 56 houses we set up during Christmas time at home.  I spoke the little German I know to the vendors and they were grateful that I even tried.  I found out my cute little house was handmade by Lithuanian friends of theirs! I am so excited to put a candle in my house and see how it looks all lit up! Needless to say we went back to the international Market this morning to cross another country off the list; we ate apple strudel from Austria. It was so fun to hear all the different languages and smell all the amazing foods.  It was a strange sensation going from smelling bratwust to nutella crepes and then to seafood paella. 

Although we didn't head out of town for the weekend, I am so glad we experienced more Italian culture here, as well as other European cultures/ foods. I just hope that Piazza Santa Croce can top this last festival for the other weekends I am planning on being in town!

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Autumn in Florence

September 21st marks the official first day of autumn and I think Mother Nature must be really strict when it comes to Florence; barely three days later and fall has arrived.  It is not that the weather is much colder than it was three days ago, but I can just smell autumn in the breeze, hear it in the birds chirping see it in the leaves in our backyard. I LOVE autumn. Every single thing about it.  The rain, the smells, the clothes, but especially the food. Only 4 days until October and all I am thinking about is cinnamon, chili, and PUMPKINS.  Today I have had an overwhelming desire to bake; candy-corn cupcakes, Graham cracker s'more cookies, pumpkin cinnamon rolls, pumpkin chocolate chip bread...comfort foods.  Needless to say I am missing home a little bit, all the things that accompany the taste of cinnamon and the smell of fall.  I have been in Florence for a month and don't get me wrong, I love everything about this city.  But I miss the laughs of my family, I miss cooking with my mom, I miss my dog laying on my lap.  I never really considered that by being across the globe I would be missing my favorite season with my favorite people. I am trying to figure out how to embrace everything autumn has to offer in my new home and I am loving the process.  Yesterday I sat with the doors open to our backyard ( risking many bug bites), wrapped up in my sweats, just so I could smell autumn in the wind. Even across the world fall smells the same but I am however, missing baking with pumpkin.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Amalfi Coast

I am shamed to admit that I had honestly never heard about the Amalfi Coast of Italy before my roommate Kierra mentioned she was planning to go. I had heard of the Island of Capri only because a couple of my swimmer (Kara, Blake and Colin) wrote me a note asking if it was possible to "swim with seahorses off of Capri".  Colleen, Kierra, Elizabeth and I (along with about a million other USD people I don't know), took a weekend trip to the Amalfi Coast through a program called Florence for Fun.  FFF as it is affectionately known, is designed for American college students studying abroad, which means they provide transportation, accommodations, breakfast, dinners and other minor travel costs.  I booked this trip because all of my roommates had done so, but I was nervous.  I have found I like to travel in a different way than most of the people I am here with.  I am not looking to go to only the big name sites for cheesy tourist picture, I am not down to eat at the first restaurant we find. I actually enjoy getting lost in the streets of a new city, using my (very) limited Italian to ask locals where the best place in town to eat is, and I laugh  when a car drives by me on a rainy day and the typical movie scene moment of getting sprayed with dirty rain water (yes, actually happened and I loved every soggy moment of it).  But I was pleasantly surprised by our trip to the towns of Sorrento, Capri, Positano and Pompeii.

Our trip began at the train station in Florence, where 2 FFF buses were waiting for the one hundred students that invested their money in this trip. We began out 7+ hour bus ride to the beachside town of Sorrento at 7 o'clock at night, which meant we arrived at our 3-star hotel (aka a hostel) at 2:30 in the morning.  After a crappy gas station dinner of pasta with tomato sauce, and bus ride full of college students, I collapsed on the top bunk and fell straight asleep. Unfortunately our "good nights" rest that night barely counted as a nap, as we needed to be in the hotel lobby for breakfast at 7 am. Two rolls with jam later, I enjoyed a 30 minute walk down to the ferry port.  When I say I enjoyed, I mean that I and ONLY I enjoyed this walk.  Everyone was expecting a bus to drive us the 2 miles down the hill and bitched and moaned about it the entire walk, and the other two days of the trip.  However, we were walking along the edge of a cliff that looked over the town of Sorrento and the Mediterranean Sea and the view was breathtaking. (P.S. fun fact about this trip, I learned how flexible I really am/ how I enjoy being flexible.  I also learned that other people that I love to death are the complete opposite of flexible. I just hope it doesn't ruin their travel experiences in the future as it is inevitable that something will go wrong.)  We took a ferry to the Island of Capri, and then hopped straight on a smaller boat to give us a tour of the perimeter of the Island.  We saw several different grottos, including the blue grotto that I did pay the 11.50 to enter and I am so glad I did.  Venturing into the blue grotto is something that has been secretly on my bucket list since around 6th grade.  It is amazing how these men get the tiny boats through the even tinier entrance to the grotto without cracking their heads open.  Inside the blue grotto, you actually feel the blue light move through your whole body. The experience is something hard to describe, just an experience you need to feel for yourself. We also saw Sandra Bullock and Mussolini's houses on the tiny island.  Our FFF tour guides brought us up to the center of town and then walked us down a VERY steep path to a very secluded beach.  On the way we found a fabulous restaurant were we all got pizzas, and it was the best pizza I have had here in Italy.  My mouth is watering just thinking about it!  We laid on the rocky beach for about an hour before it was time to catch to ferry back to Sorrento.  Back in the hotel, since all 100 students were trying to shower before dinner the water literally didn't turn on, which made for more interesting moments of flexibility.  But we made it to dinner where were served by our rude waiters at the hotel, spaghetti and tomato sauce, salad and fruit. All of my roommates drank their boxed wine and went out to an English pub while I stayed in and started a new book (one for class that I ended up loving. If you haven't read Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by John Perkins, and are at all interested in the economic politics in America since WWII, read it!)

The next day was a beach day in the seaside town of Positano.  Our bus traveled down a very curvy mountain road, and we traversed down about 2000 steps to get to the beach, but it was worth it.  Elizabeth and I laid on the beach all day, spent a couple of hours looking through the art galleries and clothing shops of the small city, and of course, eating gelato.  Positano was the perfect relaxing day needed to recover from all of our walking! Positano is beautiful and my words are not doing it justice.  Just imagine those pictures of the beachfront grecian towns, but with buildings that are slightly more faded but with much more greenery and you have Positano.  Dinner that night was a seafood dish, so naturally I didn't eat anything besides the caprese served with it.  The next day we were off the the ancient city of Pompeii, which I had also never heard about before.  Our tour guide showed us all of the ruins of the brothels and the bodies that were molded by the ash from the Volcano explosion, something I feel very blessed to have seen. The the roommates and I decided to hike up the side of an active volcano, the one that completely destroyed the town we just saw. The hike was tough, but it was worth it! I did expect to see more than a crater at the top but it didn't matter to me. 1. I can say I have hiked up an active volcano and 2.  I accomplished another thing on my bucket list- touching the clouds.  The clouds were literally hitting us in the face as we hiked, which made for streaming eyes and a cold nose.  But this has been something I thought up in 2nd grade for my bucket list, and didn't have the heart to take it off in order to preserve the naiveté of my childhood, and I am glad that I didn't.

After such a amazing weekend and so much walking, I couldn't wait for the 7 hour bus ride to be over.  I will be revisiting the Amalfi coast sometime in my life, the views were breathtaking and there is so much there to explore.  As for my reservations traveling with such a group as FFF, they exceeded my expectations with great tour guides, free limoncello tastings and much more. From what I am seeing of Italy so far, I may never want to leave.

Visiting Pisa and Lucca

I apologize for the delay in updating my blog.  It is hard to force myself to sit down and write about my adventures when I would much rather just continue to live them. But so many exciting things have happened in the past two weeks and as I am just sitting on the couch, breathing in the first smell of autumn in the air I will write about my trip to the Italian cities of Pisa and Lucca.

Two weekends ago, my roommates, Brock and I left on a Saturday morning to explore the two cities mentioned above.  After missing the train we originally planned to take, we found a quick snack and caught the next train... an hour later.  The train ride to Pisa is a little over an hour long and only costs 2 euro, a very good deal in my opinion.  I had heard from both my parents and other friends that Pisa is not impressive, the only thing to do in the famous city is the see the bell tower that some poor contractor built on sand and now leans away from the spectacular church it was built to accompany. Thank goodness I had such low expectations of Pisa; I was fortunate enough to not be disappointed by the fact that it took us over an hour to find a restaurant that was barley semi-decent or that there literally is nothing else in town beside the leaning tower.  After walking in almost a complete circle around the tower, we found our perfect picture spot and took the infamous pictures of each and everyone of us using our "muscles" to hold up the leaning tower of Pisa. We walked around the church and the baptistry, trekked back to the train station and caught the next train to Lucca.

The train from Pisa to Lucca was less than a half hour, but by this point it was late in the afternoon and the roommates were less than enthusiastic about seeing a city we knew absolutely nothing about. I am so happy we were able to convince them to visit this mysterious city.  Getting off the train all I could see in front of me were the large wild grass lawns( dandelions and all) surrounding the ancient city wall of Lucca. Did you know that Lucca was the capital of Tuscany before Florence was, and said walls are the only remaining medieval walls fully intact in Italy? We spent the rest of our afternoon wandering around a city that has nothing spectacular to see, but gives you a feeling of being bear hugged. It as if the city uses its walls to envelope you and make you feel completely at home.  Lucca lacks the hustle of bustle of the big cities like Rome and even Florence.  It is the kind of place where neighbors smile and wave to each other and the local children run around amongst the trees laughing; and it is their laughter that guides you into a sense of belonging.  I honestly could live in this city, one that I know nothing about, just because of the feeling I got when I stood in the main square looking at the carousel hidden in the trees. We only spent a couple of hours in Lucca but we found an amazing street market selling everything from food to scarves to toy cars.  We witnessed an Italian wedding celebration in the local church and ate a Frate- a local pastry famous in Lucca (think a doughnut, with a hint of lemon, covered in sugar and nutella....HEAVEN!)

I am so glad I was able to mark 2 more destinations off of my list of places to see in Italy, and that I flew by the seat of my pants for what seems like the first time in a very long time.  Thank you Pisa for letting me touristy and thank you Lucca for showing me the lesser well known things Italy has to offer me these next 3 months.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Eating Gelato in the Rain

I am smiling from the inside out and I don't know why.  I am in love with Florence. I have officially been here for one week and it feels like I have lived here my whole life.  There is something so comforting about Firenze. like no matter where I go throughout the city, Firenze always has me tucked in it's warm embrace. I have no class on Thursdays, so today was my errand running today...and believe me I need a full day (or two) to run every errand.  I ventured out with my list this morning all alone.  It was while getting lost in the narrow streets that I realized I had been smiling from the moment I left our apartment this morning.  No wonder everyone was giving me strange looks!  Something about being here just makes me happy (like eating gelato in the streets during a downpour...without an umbrella).  But discovering the city all on my own brought everything into prospective for me. Let's just say I plan on traveling as much as I can on my own.

Enough rambling about nothing, I finished my first full school week (a whole 3 days long).  Classes yesterday weren't bad!  I had Symbols and Symbolism in Western Art with Elizabeth.  Our Professor kind of looks like Ms. Hooch from the Harry Potter movies (she teaches the first years how to fly a broom stick, in case you didn't know).  We spend half of class listening to lectures about how peacocks are early Christian symbols of Jesus's sacrifice, and then spend the other half of the class actually going to museums and finding said peacocks in Renaissance art.  I must say that art is much more interesting when you are looking at the little detailed things...and the putting those details into prospective while standing in front of a famous piece of artwork. After class, Elizabeth and I got a quick lunch before heading to our next class, the Ethics of Globalization (yay another poli sci class...not).  Our professor is strange, there isn't a better way to describe him.  He completely disregards the rules of the school, which I love ( no participation points; I am incapable of saying anything intelligent in a political science class so this works out great for me!). I think it will actually be an interesting class.  We spent a good half hour discussing if McDonalds was going to take over the world or not.  That class went by surprisingly quick!  Then off to Italian for the second time this week.  Our teacher is moving VERY slowly through the material. I am baffled by the people who still can't pronounce boun girno, even though we literally have spent 2 days on that single phrase.  I wish the class was a faster pace.  Have I mentioned that I REALLY would like to be fluent in Italian by the time I leave.  I plan on participating in a conversation exchange though, which will hopefully help.  And the school here offers this "adopt a family" type program as well.  I will be set up with a local Florentine family who I will be able to babysit for, cook with and just be with during my time here.  Fingers crossed I get a family that speaks no English ( like I said I am desperate to learn Italian).

As far as traveling goes, I don't particularly want to do a lot of it.  Most of the places my roommates want to go I have been to already.  And as I have been to most of the famous major cities, I want to go to the less popular places like Croatia and Prague.  If anything goes my way, I will be traveling to Ireland, Prague, Croatia, Greece, London and Interlocken.  ( I have already been to London but I desperately want to go to the premiere of Harry Potter :] )  We are also going to the Amalfi Coast next weekend through a local travel program.  Now that I type it out, that looks like an awful lot of traveling, but compared to the rest of people here who will be traveling every weekend, my schedule in mellow!

Instead of planning out my travels I should be trying to read my 40 pages of International Terrorism reading...boring!  But there are so many exciting things to see in the World that I cannot hold still! Until manana....