5 Cups of Heaven

The fourth of October was marked on my calendar with bright yellow highlighter and pink arrows because it was a very important Sunday, at last to me. That day marked the day of the Festival del Gelato that began in Florence in May, makes its way down the boot of Italy and ends in Florence at the beginning of October. Anyone who has been to Italy knows just how heavenly gelato can be and anyone who knows me knows my obsession with ice cream. So this was definitely right up my alley.

This Sunday was the same weekend as the archaeology excavation of Roman ruins in Fiesole, so this was the perfect way to end the weekend.

My Australian roommate, our new-found friend Randi, and I marched our way up to Piazzele Michelangelo and were greeted by throngs of people and a plethora of gelati to try. When you bought your pass for twelve euro, you got a gelati card that was good for five samples. When Americans think samples our minds immediately go to Costco samples, which are small, however abundant. The Italians have a different definition of sample apparently, because the cups of gelati we were given were completely overflowing and well worth at least two euro each.

There were tons of people and trucks, like food trucks, lining the piazza where you could line up to get gelato. The trucks were white like American ice cream trucks and had television screens that showed the name of the flavor and the ingredients. Also, each flavor had been the winner of the gelato contest that had been held in all of Italy. Each TV screen then showed the name of the creator of the flavor and where in Italy they were from, most were from Milan, Naples, Rome and Venice.

Taste One: We went with a semi-adventurous flavor here that consisted of pistachio, peanuts, hazelnuts and a cream base. It was a lovely combination of salty and sweet from the sugary cream base and the salty nuts. Solid 7/10.

Taste Two: This was completely decadent; cream base with homemade salted caramel and peanuts. The cream base tasted like a good simple sugar cookie covered in homemade salted caramel with roasted peanuts. Solid 8.5/10.

Taste Three: This flavor was so completely necessary because it was Nutella. Nutella comes from Italy (and is so much better here!) but this was Nutella gelato with warmed Nutella on top. This was by far the biggest cup that we got and at this point all three of us started to slow down. Nutella doesn’t even need a rating because it is just a staple here.

Taste Four: This flavor was straight up strawberry cheesecake. Creamy vanilla base with homemade strawberry jam mixed into it. Fruity and light. Solid 7/10.

Taste Five: We went out on a limb here which was very odd. It was a flavor that was in its own truck and being promoted. It was a lilac color with cereal on top. We thought we would go for it. The best way to describe it was that we were eating our grandmother’s houses and drinking their perfume. It wasn’t bad, however, it wasn’t good either. It was just something so odd that it was basically indescribably until you tasted it; all three of us agreed that it was like eating perfume.

The thing about gelato is that it’s the furthest thing from American ice cream, but also the closest thing. It is so creamy and decadent that it doesn’t melt in your mouth right away, it takes a moment and then it begins to melt on your tongue, the different flavor combinations spreading on your tastebuds making each one explode. Most gelati are pretty simple combinations but that just makes them so much better than American ice cream because you taste each flavor and how they interact with each other. It creates pure heaven in a cone.

All in all the gelato festival was a complete success and worth the twelve euro. By the end of it, we were all holding our stomachs and walked slowly back to our apartments, sluggish and lethargic. An end to a great Sunday.

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Inhaling Ancient Roman Dust

The first weekend of October, my archaeology class, co-taught by famous Italian archaeologist Dr. Carolina Megale, went up to the village of Fiesole, just outside of Florence to take part in an excavation. Fiesole is a pretty cool place, it was first started by the Etruscans in the early 9th century BC, so it predates Ancient Rome. Then the Romans conquered it and created a small Roman city just outside of their Roman city of Florentia. (today known as Florence!) Then after the western Roman Empire collapsed, the Lombards took over around the 6th century AD. As a result, Fiesole has many layers of soil that belong to many different cultures and time periods.

The place where we were excavating had been covered by Lombard tombs and those had been covered by modern day soil layers. These soil layers are called strata, and the most recent is towards the top with the most ancient layers at the bottom. So, to get to the ancient Roman layer of strata, we were continuing an excavation that had began in the 1980’s.

Day One:

We were told to take bus number 7 up to Fiesole, which I had done before so I knew which bus stop to go to in Piazza San Marco. Carla and I got there early and we waited by the stop for the rest of our class. We saw a few buses pass, however, none of them were bus 7. We soon found out that some of the bus drivers were on strike. Apparently, that is just a thing that happens in Italy, especially on Fridays. So we contact our school and they had to call a van to take us up and pick us up later that day. We were supposed to be there around 10:00, but did not get there until around 11:30. Once we got there, Carolina showed us the site and where we were to dig, then gave us trowels and gloves and we got to work. It was hard work, digging through Tuscan clay and soil on your knees while also being aware of what you were digging through. We found bones of animals, presumably pigs and chickens, charcoal leading us to believe there were ovens there, tiles of mosaics, pot sherds and a few coins. We later learned that we were digging in what used to be the ancient Roman marketplace. It was pretty awesome, tiring and dusty, but rewarding.

Day Two:

We took the bus on Saturday and we were actually on time which was great. We all started off with digging and some were cleaning pot sherds and bones from the day before. I found a game piece made out of bone that was completely found on one end and flat and smooth on the other. It was very rewarding and so exhausting. We got time for lunch and Carla, Randi, and I walked down the hill and found a great view of the entire city of Florence; we had a great lunch with a great view. At the end of the day we went into the museum to look at Etruscan, Roman, and Lombard tombs and pottery.

I would definitely do a dig again; the class is actually planning on going to Rome in November to dig in Ostia, the ancient Roman port. It was one of those experiences where it was so physically and mentally demanding that by the end you feel so accomplished.

Archaeological excavation in Italy? Check.


Catholic Cats and Leaning Towers

On Friday, 25 September, we had a class trip planned. It was for my history class, Story of Florence and we were going to Santa Brigida. To be completely honest, I did not know where Santa Brigida is and I’m still not quite sure, but I do know that it is in the beautiful Tuscan countryside. So we met our British professor, Simon, at the Santa Maria Novella train station and went on our merry way. The trip only took about 40 minutes to get up into the country and it was truly beautiful. We then get the village and he says that we’re going for a walk. (This is a trend with this class, we go for walks up hills.) So we all hesitantly follow him up a gravel pathway. Soon we see a castle like building way up the hill in the middle of a wood and we all jokingly say that we were headed there. However, the joke was on us, we were headed up there. The walk was short, but it was steep, although, so worth it. We get up to the stone building and Simon says that it is still a working monastery with six brothers living in it with their cat, whom we met later. We go inside the courtyard of the monastery and it is a spectacular panoramic view of the Tuscan countryside, unlike anything I’ve ever seen. The breeze was crisp and cool, much welcomed after our hike up. The air smelled like thyme and olive trees. The monastery was quiet and so peaceful, surrounded by trees and hills with a small village down the medieval road. The tranquility that we all felt left us in awe and I truly felt the presence of God, it was so surreal.

After relaxing on the grass and enjoying the view, we moved into the cathedral itself which was modest, but beautiful, built in the baroque style. We looked at the crypt and different parts of the church. We then moved just outside the walls of the monastery because one cannot eat in sacred holy ground. Our professor had bought us lunch which consisted of focaccia bread with numerous toppings like tomatoes, mozzarella, arugula and olives. We also got panini of different kinds, mine had a spicy tomato sauce with pecorino and potatoes. Yeah, it had potatoes in it, but it was so good, highly recommend it. So our class talked and ate lunch outside sitting along the stone walls and we were soon greeted by small meows. We all look and see this adorable cat that was looking at us like he wanted us to share. Simon told us that the cat belongs to the monks and enjoys the company of the villagers and occasional tourist. We check the time and see that our bus was coming in about 20 minutes so we make our way back down the hill to the bus stop. Time ticks by and no bus. Then the bus is about 20 minutes late, which is unusual. Simon realizes that it’s Friday and the bus drivers sometimes go on strike to get a three day weekend. What.

So we wait, getting more anxious as time goes on. Simon was simply going to walk home, he lived only about 10 minutes away on foot, so he was not going to come back to Firenze with us. Much to our hearts content, our bus came and we made it back just in time for aperitivo. My wonderful Aussie roomie, Alex, and I cleaned up a bit and went and got aperitivo at a bar down the street from our flat. We both got small beers and sampled local goodies from the buffet. We laughed and talked for almost 2 hours without realizing how much time had gone by.

Saturday, I had a plan to meet up with a guided tour in Firenze to go up to Pisa and Lucca for the day. We took a bus over to Pisa, it’s only about an hour and a half to get into Pisa from Firenze. When we got there, we walked to the Piazza dei Miracoli or Miracle Square where the three main monuments are. Going under the arch and realizing you’re face to face with the Baptistry, the Cathedral and the Leaning Tower. We had a wonderful tour guide from Madrid, Spain named Andrea who spoke fluent Italian, Spanish and English. She and I got to talking after the tour and she actually studied Art History like I am. She was great, we exchanged numbers and she invited me back to Pisa anytime to have drinks with her. We then had about an hour of free time which I used to go get a panino. I found a very small trattoria that had a Trip Advisor sticker in the window. I squeezed through the very small open door and walked up to the counter and looked at a menu. Soon, a very elderly Italian man, probably in his 90’s, greeted me. I ordered in Italian and he started talking to me in Italian and I gave him a very apologetic and puzzled look, but asked him if he spoke Spanish. He said yes, so we continued our conversation in Spanish while he made my panino. It was incredible and, as my roommates and I say, made with love. Panino in hand, I made my way back to the piazza and sat on the marble steps of the cathedral facing the Leaning Tower. It was really surreal, especially with all of the tourists and all the languages that I was surrounded with. I soon heard Boston accents behind me and some Boston fireman were behind me trying to figure out where to go next. I approached them and asked them to take my photo with the tour, which they kindly did. (Although, I did not do the touristy photo.)

Once our groups met back at the gate into the city, we then took the bus over to the small village of Lucca. Luca is absolutely stunning and was originally a Roman city. There are three sets of walls, the Roman ones underneath our feet, the Medieval ones that have also been built upon except for a few towers and the Renaissance once that are still the village walls today. The Renaissance walls are also now a promenade for cyclists and pedestrians. There is also a very famous piazza that isn’t square, it’s completely round because it was built upon the ruins of the Roman amphitheater where gladiators used to fight. Our tour also got to taste bucchelato which is a Lucca speciality cake. Once we made it back to Firenze, I was exhausted and had walked about 8.5 miles. All in all, a pretty solid weekend.


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Famous Food and September 11

On this past Friday, my roomies and I had decided to go to Bologna for the famous cuisine. I mean, Italians are known for their food already, but Bologna is the food capital of the country, where bolognese sauce, balsamic vinegar and parmesan cheese reign supreme. We took an early train from Santa Maria Novella Train station in Firenze to Bologna Centrale, only about an hour north of us. Once we got there, we were starving. We walked a bit of a ways away from the train station to get away from the tourist places and stumbled upon this beautiful cafe called Naam Caffe. The pastries were beautifully crafted and coffee was tastefully done up with foam, espresso and complete with a flower on top.

After walking a bit more, we came upon the city center and took photos of Neptune’s Fountain. But again, we weren’t there for the fountains, we were there for the food. (We have no shame!) Our Italian professor, Carlo, had recommended this small restaurant that makes homemade tortellini. His wife used to work in Bologna, so we took his advice. The pasta was fresh and the sauce was amazing. They were homemade morsels of heaven. The older women that worked there only spoke Italian and there were only locals, so we stood out a bit. For dinner, we found a small place that looked good and had good reviews on Yelp. It was delicious, as expected.

Italians are very proud of their food, as they should be. It’s like the ultimate comfort food, even in America and other parts of the world. So, as a result, the eating of a meal is not just consuming food, it’s the process of savoring the food itself and enjoying the company of those around you. As I sat at the wooden table eating pasta and homemade bread with my roomies and our new found friend Christy, I found myself torn between my two places. It was September 11 that day, which holds profound significance for Americans, however, it is not commemorated in Italy, why would it be? I found myself wanting to be back home in my good old US of A, but at the same time, these people from such different walks of life have become my own version of an Italian family. We had bound ourselves through our mutual love of food, like the Italians intended, and it made me grateful for other cultures despite the fact that we do not get along all the time.

Bologna was amazing and beautiful, but part of my heart was back in the USA. Never forget.

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Opposites Attract

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There is the age old saying that opposites attract and it has become an inside joke for humanity, an “-ism” of sorts. Now Firenze is a perfect example, a paradox. She is a city built upon the ruins of an Ancient Roman city called Florentia from around 59 BC. It also went through the Dark Ages where Europe went downhill, to put it simply. Then, in the 15th century, something miraculous happened, and it happened here. The Renaissance was born here, raised here and blossomed here. The rebirth of what we now call high culture, of art, of music, of education. It became the center of something so beautiful that even now, the art is considered some of the best in the world by people of all ages, backgrounds, and knowledge. Afterwards, Firenze entered into what is considered the Modern Age that continues onto the present. As a result, Firenze gracefully combines Ancient Roman ideologies, Renaissance art and modern technology.

Anyone can see this, if they know where to look, of course. Walking down any of the streets, beneath your feet are cobblestone roads, narrow and straight are the more ancient ones. The buildings are beautiful, ranging from lining the streets that mirror the ancient walls, to ones that were restored after bombings during World War II, with tall windows and wooden shutters. The stores are small because owners pay for street view, so they build back into the building. If you look closely, amid the details, there is local street art by different artists. One of my favorites so far is Clet. He mainly does street sign art.

But it’s stuff like that. Simple, yet so complex. Everything combining to create this city, that is so small, you can walk everywhere. It is so modern, but has the soul of an ancient city lying just below our feet.

Another example, is the parade last night. Every year, on September 7, there is the Festa della Rificolona or the Festival of Lanterns. It comes from the tradition of the peasants would bring agricultural gifts to the city for the Virgin Mary in honor of her birthday on September 8, according to the Holy Catholic Church. The peasants would leave at night and light their way with lanterns on long sticks. Now it has become a parade that starts at Piazza Santa Felicita and ends at Santissima Annunziata, going through the Piazza Signoria by the Uffizi Gallery and by the Duomo, all while being led by a Cardinal. Then September 8 is Market Day at Santissima Annunziata. The parade if full of young and old alike, all singing and laughing, holding lanterns. But this wasn’t just an ordinary parade, no, no, not in Italy. You don’t just watch the parade, you join it! You march along with them trying to sing the words and doing the hand motions. It was something that I will never forget. It was the best combination of old traditions and a modern day interpretation.

Day 14, check.


First Weekend

I survived my first week of classes! Even though it was simply syllabus week, it was still stressful, trying to figure out if I want to change my classes or keep what I got placed in. I decided to stay with the classes I have because I get credit for all of them. So that means I have an Art History course on purely Florentine art from the 1400s to the 1600s. Then a History course on the politics of modern Italy and an archaeology course. The last two include a course based solely on the history of Florence and then an Italian language course. It was all pretty straight forward, they are classes in English after all.

This weekend started on a Friday for us and our university here provided us with a free trip up to Chianti for wine tasting. All we needed to hear was the fact that it was a free trip. We decided to go and we met them over by the train station, Santa Maria Novella at 9:15 Friday morning. We rode a bus through winding streets through gorgeous vineyards and Tuscan hillsides. It took about an hour for us to get up to the Castello di Verrazzano in Chianti. It is an old castle that is surrounded by vineyards and countryside alike. When we walked off the bus and stepped onto the gravel pathway, the air was crisp and clean and smelled faintly of grapes, basil and rosemary; all of which were growing in the gardens around the castle. The castle, owned by the Verrazzano family, has been self sustaining for almost 500 years, growing grapes and making fabulous wine. Our tour guide who was from Florence, named Gino, was an older gentleman who took his wine and food very seriously, as most Italians do. He said that the wine and the food that we would be tasting were all grown on the acres of land owned by the Castello and that it would give us truth, life and love. I swear, for even just a moment, we all believed him. We toured the cellars and saw the giant barrels of wine and learned about the strength, color and flavor of the wine depending on the grapes, the skin and the height of the hill they grow upon. When we were standing on the terrace, overlooking the view, Gino told us to take a moment and stop taking photos and to just enjoy the view, just simply look and coexist with something so naturally stunning and realize what we were in the presence of. We all stopped snapping photos and stood quietly gazing at the vineyards and he started to recite a poem. It was in Italian, of course, but beautiful nonetheless. The last line stated, “M’affaccio di quassù, su questo mare, socchiodo gli occhi. E rni smarrisco” which translates to, “I look out at the sea of land and smile. I get lost in it.”

When we finally got to have our lunch, we were all so hungry from walking and smelling all of the grapes, vegetables and herbs in the gardens. We went through the process of tasting wine, looking at the color, smelling, swirling, and tasting. The first course consisted of a penne pasta with a simple tomato sauce with basil. The second course, however, just kept coming, it was homemade bread, salami, prosciutto, cooked pork, an egg dish, cheese with balsamic vinegar, salad, and finally almond biscotti with a dessert wine. Everything was delicious. We then took photos around the vineyards and got back on the bus and snaked our way back to the city. It was a great way to begin a first weekend.

Day 9, check.


The First Day of School Italian Style

The first day of classes always brings the jitters, the excitement of a new environment, new subject material, new professors. This time, however, it’s loads different. Like “I am attending classes in Italy” different. (It still blows my mind that I am living here, I’ll elaborate in a minute.) I walked with my one of my roommates, Kelley, to one of the buildings that we have, Palazzo Rucellai, which was built in the 15th century. We attended our art history class: Renaissance Art of Florence. Talk about heart eyes to the max! Going over the syllabus, our professor told us that we are going to be attending lectures at Palazzo Rucellai on Mondays, but on Wednesdays we are going to be “on site”. On site, what on earth is she talking about? I gave Kelley a quizzical look and she raised her eyebrows back at me. It means that we are going to be having lectures in front of the works we are studying, meaning museums, cathedrals, churches and piazzas. Later in the day, I walked to the other building, Palazzo Bargagli off of the Arno River for my Italian class. This was the one I was most nervous for because English is my professors second language. My professor is actual wonderfully patient and comical, his name is Carlo. (That’s a thing in Europe, you call your professors by their first name?)

Fast forward a few hours, I’m back in my apartment, sitting on my bed placing papers in folders and organizing my books. The sun is going down and my windows are open for some fresh air and the street below me is bustling, as usual. All of the sudden I hear an accordion and realize there is a man playing “Time to Say Goodbye” by Andrea Bocelli and Sarah Brightman. I stand with my elbows on the railing of my room and gaze out of the window at the bell tower with the sun hitting it beautifully. I hear Italian from the locals down on the street and the music floating in with the breeze, all with this fabulous view from the apartment I get to call mine for the next four months. I couldn’t help but smile and think that this is why I am here. Enjoying another culture that has engulfed half of my family is now such an important part of my life right now and I need to make the most of it.

However, I should make the most of everything, I shouldn’t forget to step back and smell the espresso once in a while. I think a lot of people forget that when they travel, they all want to take photos and move on, but that becomes the need to impress people with where they had been. In reality, I want to be here and take tons of photos and videos, but enjoy it, embrace it and remember it. I can’t take this [expensive] experience for granted. That I must remember. My roommate Victoria lives by the mantra that life is too short to just survive; I should remember that too.

Day 6, check.