Saturday, January 31, 2009

Birthday Tarts (and chocolate)

9:00 PM Jan. 26

We got back to Florence around 1:00, and we were dropped off at the train station, only a five-minute walk from the apartment. Today was the birthday of our friend Jaimie, and it was expected that we’d bring a dish to the dinner that night. Recently at home, I made galettes, a French tart with a flour-cornmeal dough, which came out really nicely. I had made them once before, about a year ago, as a savory dish with roasted peppers, corn, sweet onions, and garlic. This past time, I made some with a creamy mushroom topping and then a dessert tart with apples that came out particularly well. I had been trying to think of a nice apple dessert to make for Jaimie, so I thought I’d give the galettes a shot.

I didn’t have the recipe with me, and although I remembered pretty well how to make it, it seemed a dangerous move to go about making dough without some sort of wet-dry ingredient guideline. Jaimie has a new patent-pending product called MagicJack in her room though, which allows her to plug a phone into her computer, and through the internet, she can call anyone in the United States as if it were a local call. I had used it once before to talk to my parents, and I asked her if I could use it again to find out the recipe from them. Unfortunately, I caught my parents on the rare day when they were sleeping in past 8:00, and I ended up waking them. They were quite amenable though, and soon my mom ran downstairs to find the recipe I was looking for and read off the proportions. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to find cornmeal in Italy though, so I also got the recipe for the straight flour dough and then let them go back to sleep, if possible by that point.

I then went to a local chain grocery store to pick up ingredients and was surprised to find they did not sell flour, let alone cornmeal. They had salt, sugar, and cake-mixes all in different parts of the store, but no flour. I returned to my apartment, dumbfounded and distraught about how I was to make any sort of dough without flour. I double-checked our Italian-English dictionary to find out exactly what the word for flour was in Italian (farina), and under my roommates’ advisement, ventured back out to another branch of the same chain grocery. Funny enough, I found flour in no time, and next to it was a type of cornmeal used for polenta. I purchased both, and set out to whip up some delicious dessert concoction.

As I had realized at the store, we did not have any measuring cups in our apartment, so I came close to buying some, only to find that, of course, nothing in Italy uses the English system of measuring which all of my proportions were in. Thus, I began to improvise in baking, which is generally leads to inconsistent results. I used a small espresso mug we had which I estimated was about a one cup measure, and I used by prior knowledge of the American system to eye-ball all of the measurements. When it came to cutting in butter, I again improvised with a fork, which took significantly longer than it would have with the proper tools. Still, everything seemed to be going alright. The next step was to roll out the dough, and after a thorough search of several stores, I was unable to find a rolling-pin, so I made-do with a half-opened bottle of cheap white wine. And to my surprise, it actually worked quite well. As I placed the two doughs into the refrigerator to cool, I was thoroughly satisfied by my improvised results, so I decided to go out and get some eggplant to make a batch of savory tarts as well.

It was my first time really cooking with eggplant, but I’ve been enjoying it so much here that I thought I’d give it a try. I cut it in half and tried cooking it by two methods to figure out which I liked better. One of them, I sliced and sautéed in a pan with olive oil, while I took the other half and stuck it in the oven on high heat with a batch of slow-cooked onions and garlic.

Everything was settled and ready to go, so I took a brief break and joined Adam and two of his friends who were heading over to the chocolate fair going on at the Piazza di Santa Croce over the weekend. It was unbelievable: tent after tent of chocolate vendors selling fruit smothered in chocolate, spicy chocolate, bitter chocolate, thick hot chocolate, truffles, and chocolate in just about any shape and form imaginable. At the front of the church there was also a marching band of sorts which played music that sounded somewhere in between period renaissance and American college marching band music as a background for a group of flag twirling dancers who regularly tossed their poles high into the windy air, catching them without fail. It was quite a show, and as the sun fell, we headed back to the apartment.

When it came time to making up the tarts, the dough had become much stickier. It was a little more difficult to work with than I’m used to, and after baking the bottom was a bit soft, so I threw down some more flour underneath the dough and let it bake a bit longer. In the end, it was a big hit, and the girls were thrilled that we’d brought more than just dessert because there were more people showing up than originally anticipated.

I can’t say that it was my best effort, but given the circumstances, it tasted quite good and went over quite well. The party was a nice conclusion to the weekend, and I had a particularly good time figuring out how to make an elegant dish in a difficult setting.

Thursday, January 29, 2009


11:00PM January 25

It started out as another dreary day, a bit rainy, but we decided to walk up to campus anyway, after all, that’s where we were going to catch the bus taking us to Umbria. In the end, our inability to sign up for the trip to Lucca worked in our favor because it was this same weekend. Instead of a daytrip to another Tuscan city, my roommates and I opted to take the overnight with the music department to Terni, a small town in the south of Umbria. The head of our music department, Antonio Vanni, and his brother are organizers for the world-famous Umbria jazz festival, which regularly brings in main stage acts such as Keith Jarrett and Wayne Shorter. NYU was treating us to a bus ride and four-star hotel, and Antonio and his brother got us in to view a pre-festival concert and eat a nice four-course meal for a discounted price.

We boarded the bus a bit after two in the afternoon on Saturday and were soon roaming through the Tuscan farm country. The bus ride was actually one of the best parts of the trip, giving me a chance to finally see the region outside the city. I imagine many centuries, maybe millennia, ago that this was a forested area, although it is still unclear to me whether the trees of the region are naturally coniferous or deciduous. There is an abundant supply of each, and most look native to the Mediterranean landscape that we are accustomed to seeing. Today, most of the land is cleared and held by farms though, largely small, and many still using old systems of irrigation to keep the soil wet, although I can hardly believe the plants would need any extra water if it continues to rain this much. Many of the farms belonged to bare grape vines that looked to be entrenched in the ground for decades. Every once in a while, a dense enclave of houses would sprout up in the distance on some far-off hillside. What a landscape?

Antonio did not travel with us on the bus, but as soon as we arrived in Terni, around five, he popped up to join us. He has a knack for showing up at seemingly random times, and seems to know everybody. Wherever we go, he is thrust into significant conversations with seemingly strangers that suddenly appear to be long lost acquaintances.

While the hotel standards are different here, our space was quite cozy. John and I roomed together for the night, and we were both blown away by the elevator, its shiny black walls providing a cool mirror effect, and its ceiling of flower-like lights providing a cool ambience. The elevators here are smaller, but I found it interesting that, like the elevator at here at school, there was no door-close button, only a door-open one. I guess that is an American concept, as we cannot wait for the door to close on its own, and the doors here do seem to take longer to close themselves.

The room had two single beds, which just seems more economical than the standard double queen formula of most American hotel rooms because most people don’t need a queen-size bed. Another interesting facet of the room was that the lights only turned on when we inserted the key into a special slot in the wall; I’m sure it is a way to save energy. The size of the rooms led some others to complain though, believing that this “four-star-hotel” was no better than a Holiday Inn back in the States. I know John and I had no problem, and it was nice to know we were assured a hot shower in the morning (our hot-water heater hasn’t quite been able to keep up with our consumption.)

Antonio then took us on a walk down the city’s main strip, a somewhat American looking shopping district. As he noted, Terni was one of the main steel manufacturing towns of Italy, and during WWII, we destroyed about 80% of the city, and most of the history was lost. What we see today was mostly built in the 1970’s along with a few giant buildings left over from the fascist period. There are many faux 18th century buildings with the terra cotta roofs that are everywhere here, but it is largely modern looking. Antonio went as far as to call it an ugly city, and he had a particular distaste for the performance venue, which is the best available in Terni during the wintertime. In programming the festival, they aim to put the venues all around Umbria, not just in the cities, but throughout the countryside, including at the Cascata delle Marmore (a huge waterfall created by the Romans, which remains the tallest man-made waterfall in the world, and one of the tallest of any kind in Europe.)

We arrived at the sound check for the concert around 6:30, and as I’ve heard is common in Italy, the band was late (apparently it goes far beyond the whole jazz musician stigma, and musicians are just plainly tardy here.) While we waited for the band to arrive, we got a brief demonstration on piano tuning by one of the world’s foremost piano tuners (routinely requested by the likes of Elton John, Vladimir Ashkenazy, and Martha Argerich.) He blew all of us away, revealing the process to be much more than creating a mathematically determined correct pitch, but rather a process in finding the right resonance for the room and the pianist. On a single note, he showed us how he could create an extra two seconds of sustain. When the trio—led by our Aural Comprehension teacher—finally arrived some twenty minutes later, we watched as they warmed up, and many photojournalists came in to take pictures of the group.

We then went out to dinner at a place nearby, and we dined in a large cellar in the basement. The trio soon showed up, eating at a round table on a platform overlooking our long one. The meal began with a plate of hors devours. It featured little dibs and dabs of quiche, spinach omelet, sausage, cheese, spanakopita, bread with varying pâtés, and a fried piece of phyllo dough at the center, molded into a bowl and filled with beans and olive oil. I think this was my favorite part of the meal. The next course was pasta, a penne alfredo with bits of sausage. I would say this was in the same ballpark as the fusili I had the other day: very good, but a pretty average pasta dish here. The next course we were expecting to be meat, but we were disappointed to find it was a fair fettucine in marinara sauce. The meal was taking a while, and as the time approached 9:15, we wondered if we would make it in time for the 9:30 concert, only to realize that the band was still eating with us. In Italy, concerts are not pre-seated though, and Antonio wanted to make sure we got decent seats, so we practically scarffed down the dessert, a great light custard in a sweet liquor sauce, and then hurried off to the show.

The show was alright but not particularly my taste. It was a piano trio, and the musicians were all great, but it was a bit avante garde. Much of the time it seemed like they were showing off their musical chops and noodling for their own enjoyment without sharing that joy with the crowd. There was one tone poem-like tune where the bass player tapped his instrument and bowed it in different ways above and below the nut and the bridge, which I really enjoyed. Another piece sounded a lot like Vince Guaraldi, which was also great, but even the tune where the pianist played his Moog synthesizer I found to be a little too ethereal and polytonal for my liking. I was surprised to find the concert lasting nearly two hours, but overall it seemed to go by fast, and I had a good time, regardless of my general disinterest with the musical style.

Afterwards we went to a small cafe with a jam session going on in the upstairs portion. This music was more straight-ahead jazz, and I enjoyed it far more. Antonio had informed us we might have a chance to sit-in at the session, so I brought my guitar to Terni, but they did not have an amp, so I decided to leave after the first set, hoping to get up early the next day in order to check out the city more thoroughly.

When I returned to the room, I flicked through a few of the television channels before landing on, to my surprise, the Sixers-Knicks game. It was even the local Philadelphia broadcast, transmitted overseas in real-time at 1:00 in the morning. It was a treat to watch as Elton Brand got back on the court for the first time in over a month, and the Philadelphia commentators narrated the action.

The following morning I got up by 7:30 so I could see the town, as we were scheduled to depart by 10:00. As I walked down the streets on Sunday morning, I found that nothing was open. It seems that even on a weekday, most of the stores wouldn’t have opened till 9:00. I walked down the main strip and then reached an abrupt end to the city where several cranes were plopped in the ground, promising a continuation of the city’s rebuilding phase. I decided to go back to the hotel and get breakfast before returning to the streets at 9:00. Even then, all I found open was a cafe, two newsstands, and a supermarket. This was more than an ordinary supermarket though, complete with an immense selection of toys, dining ware, and various other home products. I bought two bottles of Umbrian wine to take back for dinner, a souvenir from the trip, and rushed back to the hotel to make it for our 9:30 meeting time, only to find that was also running on Italian time, and the woman chaperoning us on the trip did not show up till it was nearly 10:00. At that time we re-boarded the bus and took in the beautiful sights of the Umbrian and Tuscan countryside on our return journey to Firenze

The Restaurant And The Duomo

4:15PM January 24

As the week came to a close, my roommates and I decided to go out to dinner with the girls Thursday night at a fairly nice restaurant. We’d been cooking for each other all week, and every meal seemed to be based around pasta. Even Wednesday night, when I took the lead in cooking French onion soup and mashed potatoes, we ended up having eggplant parmesan as a side dish.

It has surprised me how much my diet in Italy has changed to reflect the culture, even when I am cooking the meal. A lot of this has to do with what is available at the grocery stores. They simply do not have the multi-ethnic American variety of products. Whereas in America we often distinguish meals by their cultural heritage—eating Chinese food one night and Mexican the next—each meal here is defined by the ingredients that go into to the meal. We may eat pasta every night, but one night it has a tomato pepper sauce, and the next it may have a tomato cream sauce.

There is meat here, but it is not as abundant in the diet. Specifically, the sandwiches do not revolve around various deli meats as they do in America, but rather around eggplants, peppers, artichokes, and if any meat, prosciutto. As we were going out though, it was nice to get a change of pace and have some real meat for dinner. Everyone got some sort of steak, veal, or chicken for as their main dish. The pasta remained though, coming this time in the form of appetizers. I got fusilli with porcini mushrooms in a tomato-mascarpone sauce as an appetizer. In America, I probably would have raved about this dish, but the standards for any pasta dish here are so high that feel it was only average. It was really excellent, but nothing too gaudy or spectacular. For an entrée, I had veal in a creamy lemon-caper sauce. Usually I am not a fan of lemon-caper sauces, and I ordered it quite accidently. Feeling the need to fit in, we chose an authentic Italian restaurant, and none of us completely understood the menu, which had no English. My “lombatina con pepe verde” I had interpreted to be some sort of meat (I asked the server to find out it was veal) in a green, possibly pesto sauce, and I was trusting enough that I would enjoy whatever came out of the kitchen. I was not disappointed, and my veal was extremely succulent and flavorful. I never thought I’d enjoy capers, but I soon got over that. It was probably one of the best meat dishes I’ve ever had.

Friday we did have our regular Monday classes, which we needed in order to make up for the coming Easter holiday, but that did not include any of the Italian courses. As my one class did not begin until 1:30, John and I decided to go with Alex and Jen—two of the girls we’ve been spending time with—to tour the Duomo. We had all been here for a week and a half, passing the Duomo—a large church at the center of the city which soars over the short skyline—countless times.

It was surprisingly empty inside, as there were no pews built into the floor. The floors were in no way bare though, as the large tiled area is as artful as any other part of the church. It was huge inside, not divided into small rooms or floors, and the dome at one end has an amazing fresco at the top depicting the many layers of earth, from hell to heaven. Another interesting facet of the church was the analog twenty-four-hour clock. In Italy, most of the clocks use twenty-four hours, but this was the first analog clock that I had seen to represent this. It not only used roman numerals, which had four “I’s” to depict the number four, but the “one” sat at the bottom of the clock instead of the top.

While the church itself is free to enter, it does cost 8 Euros to walk the 463 stairs to the top of the dome. The Duomo towers over the city though and assured an excellent view of Firenze, not to mention a chance to see the fresco at the top of the dome up close. The climb to the top was a bit daunting, and became distressing in the long spiral staircases, lit only by artificial light, which would end abruptly after showing no signs of an exit. Every once in a while there would be windows, which had to reach some two feet through the outer wall of the church to the various inner passageways. Through them, we got a few fixed glimpses of the city on the way up. As we reached the top, the stairs became more angled to fit along the perimeter of the dome. The 8 Euros and 400 stairs were all worth it though, as the view was truly spectacular. At the top, we picked out our apartments and the various places we’d walked to since we arrived, including the fortress on the on the opposite side of the river. It was a bit cloudy, as it has been nearly every day since I’ve gotten here, and the views might have been grander at other times, but I believe the clouds added to the look of the landscape, covering all but the peaks of many of the surrounding tree-covered mountains. It was quite a sight.

On the way back to the apartment, we passed by a mysterious courtyard full of statues and an orange orchard. I just can’t imagine ever seeing quite a sight in America. It was such a tranquil garden set at the center of this bustling city. (note: all pictures in this post are of or from the Duomo, except this one on the right.)

That night the girls asked us to go dancing with them, so we obliged. We got dressed up a bit and showed up at this club called “Twice” around 10:00 to find it quite empty. As we’ve found out time and again, the Italian day is more relaxed and often runs later. As more people began to show up though, it became quickly evident that Italian guys don’t dance. I felt quite a few eyes on me from the Italian men sitting around on the sides of the floor, wondering why I bothered to dance. It is not in their style, which is particularly interesting because the Italian men are also more flirtatious. At the dance club though, the Italian men watch and then make an abrupt move for a girl, often by grabbing them, especially with American women, whom they know they have a better chance with. I know my friends were a bit put off, and I was asked to step in as their boyfriend a few times in order to keep some of the more feisty Italians away. Everybody returned home safely though, and overall it was another good night. I know I was surprised by how much fun I had myself. And to put a sweet cap on the night, I got to have one of the truffles which the girls had picked up at the chocolate fair earlier in the day at Santa Croce (the biggish white building pictured towards the center of the picture below). It was a delicious end to an eventful day.

My apartment is in the slightly taller building just in front of the big one with the green roof. That is the Mercato Centrale which my apartment's plaza is named for. We enter from the plaza on the right side.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

10:35AM January 22

The weather has been quite dreary this week. I heard that it was supposed to rain a good bit until March, but even the Italians here don’t seem to be used to this much consistent rain. The climate’s been very similar to that of the Pacific Northwest, with the temperature sitting around 50 degrees, and a constant cover of clouds that occasionally breaks out into rain. I believe there’s only been one real day of sun since I got here.

I was fortunate enough to walk back to my apartment two of the last three days in a downpour. Each of those days I set out when it was just a calm drizzle, but halfway down the hill it started coming down much harder. The bus is inconsistent, expensive, and the stops lack shelter for waiting during rain, so I’ve opted to walk back and forth to school each day now. Fortunately my new waterproof jacket has been holding up great, and you can stay much drier here by walking up against the walls of the buildings (which we do most of the time anyways so as not to get hit by cars which drive so close to the narrow sidewalks.)

I did find a bar full of Americans to watch the Eagles’ game on Sunday night. It started at 9:00 PM here and ended a bit after midnight. What a disappointing loss? It’s only a shame that the officiating got in the way of the game (two crucial pass interference calls that weren’t called against the Cardinals and the botched kickoff return by the Eagles.) All in all, the defense had gotten them to the championship game, and the defense gave up far too many points in the first half to give them a chance at the Super Bowl. Well, at least we got one championship team this year, that’s better than the last twenty-five.

Classes began this week, and all of my teachers seem to be really excellent. Many of them travel in from Rome just to teach us. Some of them are Italians who speak pretty good English, some of them are American ex-patriots, and my European Politics teacher is a German who grew up next to the border with Switzerland and Austria, but decided to live in Florence and teach Americans. Politics is the only odd class that I’m taking here that I wouldn’t have done otherwise (it’s taught in the classroom pictured above.) All of my other classes are basic music requirements (i.e.: music theory, aural comprehension, private lesson) and Italian, which meets four days a week.

I also got to watch the inauguration, which happened to coincide with my European Politics class, so our teacher put the live feed on in the background, and we stopped to watch the actual ceremony. I found the speech a bit underwhelming, at least for Obama’s standards. I don’t believe anything drastic has happened in a while though, and his speech just rehashed the broad themes of the campaign. Obama is best at articulating a clear new message, as he did with the speech on race in Philadelphia last April, and I look forward to seeing what he can do now that he’s actually taken office. Only FDR, Lincoln, and Washington probably had as many hopes pinned on them by the American people, and let’s hope, for all of our sakes, that he does as brilliant a job as those presidents.

This Friday we have classes in order to make up for the Monday we get off for Easter later in the semester. Generally, there are no classes on Fridays though because they want to encourage people to travel and explore over the weekends, which I’m sure I’ll be doing much more of.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Over The River And Up The Hill

10:00AM January 18

Yesterday Adam, John, and I got up for the noon walk around the city with our peer advisor who would show us some of the places we might like to know about in our area. We met at the Piazza Liberta, which is on the route to campus each day and has two arches that resemble the one in Washington Square, but bigger, grander, and older. Overall we found our own wanderings just as informative, but we did stop at the end for gelato on NYU’s treat. I had pistachio and coffee crunch. Each was fabulous.

Along the route we were joined by other people from nearby off-campus residences, and we decided to head off wandering with a group of girls towards the Palazzo Vecchio (where the ruling family of Florence used to live). This was the first time I really felt like a tourist and I snapped a ton of pictures, taking in a lot of the high-profile attractions in Florence. Next door is the Uffizi Gallery, which used to be a grand administrative building for the ruling Medici family of Florence. Uffizi is right along the river, and the bridge there, the Ponte Vecchi, is built up with buildings on either side and a hidden passage above which the Medici family used to escape the city in private.

We crossed the bridge, famous for its jewelry stores, and began to wander on the other side of the river when I noticed an entrancing alleyway with stairs that led up the hill on the other side. We were all captivated by this sight, and decided to journey up the hill through a quiet neighborhood along the opposite side of the river. As I noticed, without any front-yard, these city-dwelling Italians put a special emphasis on their doors, which are all huge and generally have nice carvings and great door-knockers on them. It is a way of expressing some pride in the curb appeal of their homes. We walked up this hill until we reached an old fortress at the top, all the while looking for the great view from above the city. At the fortress was an entrance to the Medici Family’s botanical gardens where they could escape the city. We decided not to pay the entrance fee in this off-garden season, opting to take in those sights another day.

We then crossed back over the river further east and went to see the Santa Croce by daylight. It is amazing how many buildings there are here of that high quality that have been preserved into these times. We had been walking all day, and so decided to head back to the girls’ apartment for a large dinner. We cooked some fettucine in marinara sauce with a tomato-bread salad on the side. It was a great meal that we all lingered over for some time, opening several bottles of wine and talking for hours.

We then went back to the Jazz Club to see a group called I.F.S. (Italian Funky Sound.) This was much better than the group we saw the other night. They were quite funky for some Italians, with two saxes, three trumpets, guitar, bass, drums, percussion, and accordion going through wah pedal. That was something new to me, but it really worked; the accordion somewhat resembled Stevie Wonder’s clavinet, and the guy who played it would have fit right in with Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters. They didn’t play anything particularly difficult, (the hardest tune was probably Herbie’s “Cantaloupe Island”) but their sound as a group was solid and groovin’. A good time was had by all, as many of the girls were interested in going back to the jazz club again soon. I know I’ll be back on either Tuesday or Wednesday night for the jazz and blues jam sessions.

Uffizi Wandering

1:00AM January 17

When I awoke this chilly morning, I found that all of the heat was off. It made for great sleeping weather, but was quite a shock when the shower would not reach above 50 degrees. I braved the frigid water just long enough to wash up and then realized that the towels were no longer heated as well. We’d been told the day before that if your heat went out on a Friday, you probably wouldn’t get it back till Tuesday, and we all braced for what looked to be a long weekend.

As the orientation seminars were optional today, my roommates and I decided not to show up until lunch. We had rigatoni in a marinara sauce with mushrooms. I still have a hard time believing this is school food. After lunch we found that the internet was working, and each of us scrambled to look at the email that had built up over four days. By the time we were finished, a huge line had built up outside to sign up for the day trips to Lucca next weekend. As I approached the other jazz studies students I knew in line, they informed me that I had won the raffle for 30 Euros at the bookstore. As I was not around to claim it, they had called another name and given it to someone else.

As we waited in line, the time approached 3:00, when we—all but one of my suitemates is majoring in music—had to meet with the head of the music department, Antonio Vanni. With some twenty people still in front of us, we left the line to sign up for the trip to Lucca, knowing we’d have an opportunity to do it after the meeting. Antonio only spoke to us for about three minutes though, going into no detail about the program, but insisting we would have a great time. He informed us he was a curator at the Uffizi Gallery as well, and we were soon aboard a bus that would take us to view some of the greatest art of the medieval and renaissance periods in order to inspire our musical palettes.

A half-hour later we were looking at the famous sculptures which line the gallery. Antonio had a great knowledge of the works at the museum at took us on a personal tour, giving us background on many of the important pieces we saw; among them were Boticelli’s famous Birth of Venus and Primavera which I’d viewed countless times before in the classroom of my 10th grade English teacher. Now seeing them in person made it all the more clear why she had hung these paintings.

Adam and I journeyed back to the apartment with Sean, our suitemate who plays bassoon. Being stubborn, and trying not to stick out as tourists, we did not look at the map and soon got lost. It was when we passed Santa Croce and headed down Via de Malcontenti that we knew something had to be wrong, so we studied the map to put us back in the right direction. When we got back, we found that the heat had returned, and John speculated that it must have been turned off during the construction in the lobby to our apartment.

Tonight all of my suitemates and I went out for pizza. It was the first time we’d all dined together, and we toasted to a good semester in this wonderful town. As expected, the pizza was better than nearly any found in America, but it was not quite as good as that which I had had at Tacconelli’s the week prior back in Philadelphia. It seems that the Tacconelli family lost none of the pizza touch when they emigrated from Italy.

John, Adam, and I decided to walk around tonight, eventually choosing to go see the river Arno. Along the way we became horribly lost though, walking west when we thought we were going south , and we ended up in a pretty shady part of town. Even with a map we found it hard to get oriented though, and the more we checked it the more confused we became. Eventually we did find the river, and we walked back east along it, watching the ducks swimming in the opposite direction. We took some solace in having been asked for directions in poor Spanish by a group of clumsy American girls who thought we were Italian. We took it as a first step into being recognized as members of the Firenze community.

Orientation: Day 2

1:00AM January 16

Today we had more orientation seminars. The first one was about how to get around and live in Italy, getting along with neighbors, and maintaining the apartments. Afterwards we were treated to another delicious lunch, this time I had an artichoke and arugula sandwich. While eating outside, my roommate Adam and I noticed that oranges were growing on the side of one of the villas. Although they were not yet ripe, it promises to be a pleasant spring with fresh fruit.

In the afternoon we had to meet with more immigration officials, but I had forgotten to bring my original passport to school, so I took my first walk back to the apartment from campus. It took about eight minutes to reach the bottom of the hill (it's pretty steep, but not like anything in San Francisco), and then I spent another twenty-five minutes wandering through the city mostly in the right direction. I overshot my apartment by a block, ending up in the Piazza de San Lorenzo which sits just beyond my building. I was happy that I was able navigate these streets for the first time without looking at a map though, as each block looks quite similar, and street signs are often unclear. Most streets extending more than three blocks change names, sometimes several times.

As I entered the apartment, I found my suitemate Dallas just getting up and heading off to school, having missed the morning seminar. Rather than taking the bus, we decided to walk back up the hill to school as well. A half-hour later I ran into another of my suitemates, John, at campus. It seems he too had overslept the seminar that morning and we vowed to check on each other to make sure it wouldn’t happen again.

After showing my passport to the immigration officers, I went to the computer lab to check my email for the first time in several days, only to find it was not working on campus either. In our apartment we do not have internet access. As we were told that morning, the internet in Italy is run by one company with a state-granted monopoly, so they don’t particularly care about providing good coverage because they have your service either way. And apparently if you call and complain enough times they’ll simply shut off your phone lines too. Many of the off-campus apartments are supposed to have internet, but when one of my suitemates inquired about whether we would ever get service at Piazza del Mercato Centrale he was laughed off.

Tonight Adam, John and I decided to make some dinner ourselves, and we went to the store to buy some tomato sauce, buccatini, fresh parmesan, some spices, and a cheap but tasty bottle of wine. We quickly realized that what we thought was tomato sauce was purely crushed tomatoes, as they do not sell ready-made tomato sauce in the grocery store here. We did not think to buy onions or garlic at the time, so our sauce had a very raw tomato flavor, but it has been hard to complain about anything right now in this environment.

After dinner, Adam--who majors in classical clarinet, but also enjoys playing tenor sax--and I decided to jam. It was the first time in several days that I’d touched my guitar. It was a good time, and the first of many I’m sure. We then decided to go check out a place that NYU recommended called “Jazz Club.” Again, showing up to the jazz club at 10:00 was early, so we decided to take a small loop around the Duomo at night. It was the first time we went to see it up close, and it was quite a sight. The building seemed so much bigger up close, its green and white stone detailed with gargoyles and biblical figures. The jazz club itself was a good time, although I can’t say the group was particularly good. All five of my suitemates decided to come, and all were pleasantly surprised by how much they enjoyed the atmosphere: chatting and listening to some jazz late at night. I’m sure we’ll be back plenty more times.


9:00AM January 15

Of course I did not get nearly enough sleep after my flight, so I went back to bed by 7:00, and then overslept the first class of orientation, waking up at 10:30 just as the seminar on the academic standards at NYU Florence was beginning. All five of my suitemates were gone. I rushed out the door with one of the two bus tickets they’d given us to get started, and surprisingly found the bus stop quite easily (about four blocks of winding streets away.) It was here I met two other girls from NYU who hadn’t seen the bus come for the past 40 minutes they’d been standing there, while numerous busses from other lines had stopped two or three times already. Thinking the stop may have been changed, we walked down the street asking for some direction, but as we wandered the bus passed right by us, and we returned to the original stop. Eventually, some 30 minutes later, I spotted our bus across the street at the train station, and we boarded, waiting on board for another ten minutes in the station before departing for school.

When we finally arrived at campus, the guard at the entrance where we were supposed to access campus would not let us in, with little explanation why, and he told us to enter the campus at the top of the hill by the villa where we’d checked in the day before. Once there, we were eventually admitted, and then wandered across to the other side of the campus through the olive orchard, arriving just in time for the last twenty minutes of the orientation. It does not seem I missed much after all, and I received a stamp for attending this seminar, four of which I needed in order to be entered in a raffle for 30 Euros of credit at the bookstore.

It turns out I showed up just in time for lunch, which I ate with two of my roommates which I’d met the previous day. They served eggplant and mozzarella sandwiches on fresh bread with little apricot tarts for dessert. It had to be one of the most delicious meals I’ve ever gotten from school.

In the afternoon we had more seminars about health and safety with a representative from the state police and the U.S. consulate, followed by a quick crash course in Italian.

I headed home with my roommates on the bus, and then we went out to eat at a nearby restaurant. I ordered some bruschette con pomodora for an appetizer and was surprised to find that it came as one big slice of toast instead of the several crostinis we usually see in America. The tomatoes were quite tasty, even this time of the year, and they were coated in some fabulous olive oil. For an entrée I had the most amazing gnocchi I’ve ever tasted. The potato was so soft it practically melted in my mouth as I ate it. As much as each of us did not want to stick out as mere tourists, we could not help showing off our origins by dining around 6:00. We were not joined by anybody till nearly 7:20, and then as we left around 7:40 the restaurant was just starting to pick up.

When we returned to the apartment, each of us was ready to crash, as we were still recovering from jet-lag. I did make sure to switch the batteries in my alarm clock though, and I woke up in plenty of time for day two of orientation.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Florence Arrival

4:30AM January 14

The flight to Florence was on an Airbus RJ85, and this plane was notably smaller. We took a small bus across the tarmac to reach the plane, which we boarded through a fold out set of stairs on the door’s inside. There were about 20 rows, each with 2 seats on the left and three on the right. I had the window seat again on the left side halfway back, directly underneath the wing. It seems that non-American airlines haven’t made the same drastic cuts to in-flight amenities as they again served complimentary beverages and a Swiss milk chocolate on this one-hour flight.

The flight went directly over the Alps, as you might imagine. There was ridge upon ridge of mountains with steep drops, and rocky snow covered peeks that reached well beyond the tree line. As we reached the Italian side, more lakes filled the valleys between these mountains, and towns sprouted up along the waters’ edge, squeezing in between the water and quick ascendance of the mountain side. As we moved further south, the mountains became less numerous, and even more towns filled in the valleys and shorter hilltops. The snow covered mountains remained though, reaching well into the heart of Italy and only stopping in the two or three minutes before landing in Florence. The towns, much like in Switzerland and France, were arranged in clusters, ending abruptly and seemingly randomly, while other clusters popped up only a few hundred feet away. Farms filled the land between these villages, but unlike the Swiss/French towns, these did not have winding streets, but each town followed a more strict grid of cross-hatched roads.

The airport itself was tiny, with all flights requiring a bus ride form the plane to the terminal. Surprisingly, customs took little more than a glance at my passport, and no questions were asked. The baggage claim was only a step beyond the customs window, and representatives from NYU were waiting in the adjacent room along with people from James Madison and Syracuse.

The bus ride through the city and off to campus was everything I’d imagined. It looked like the Italy of The Godfather and countless other films. The tiny streets were populated by mostly compact cars (Priuses and smaller) and scooters. Although they are small, the cars generally did not look aerodynamic: trading in size for boxiness, which I imagine would help them to conserve more energy. The buildings along the route were mostly old, and some decrepit, while others showed signs of quite un-historic restoration. On either side, they reached no more than four or five stories, creating a cavern of yellow stucco extending right up to the streets edge, leaving room for skinny sidewalks barely able to accommodate a single person, forcing (or allowing) many people to walk in the streets on the less-trafficked roads.
The campus itself is gorgeous, or at least the little I saw of it was. 57 acres of legendary gardens are accompanied by 5 historic villas overlooking the city from the hillside to the north. The various preliminary orientation procedures took an hour or more and then it was off to my residence in the heart of town.

The city reminds me so much of New Orleans, the most European of cities I’ve visited since I was in England 18 years ago. It has the charm of the French Quarter, but it is distinctly Italian, defined by a more reserved architecture.

By this time, close to 5:00 locally, 11:00 EST, it was getting dark. My apartment sits on the southwest side of the Piazza del Mercato Centrale. It is a great building, and quite modern on the inside. The rooms are huge: double the size of the dorm I had in New York. A long hallway connects the two bedrooms by the door to an adjacent bathroom and kitchen. The hall opens up into a sizable living and dining space which abuts the third bedroom. The common area has two sofas and a coffee table furnished with an immense number of old textbooks and magazines, and the kitchen comes complete with new appliances including a dish washer and clothes washer. Each bedroom accommodates two people, and I have one of the two by the door. The other two bedrooms each have adjoining bathrooms, complete with a nice shower stall, a heated towel-rack, and a separate low-sink basin I was informed you may opt to use instead of toilet paper. All of the rooms have the classic Italian shutters, and we are supposed to open them at least twice a day to ventilate the apartment in this humid climate. Each one opens onto a small courtyard where clothes hang out to dry on many lines. I can’t help but thinking about the consequences of having clothes fall into the dirty alley below.

I put away my things and then quickly fell asleep around 7:30 local time, 1:30 EST, in my first bed in some 28 hours. Of course, this led me to wake up by 4:30 the next morning, at which time I decided to get up and write.

Zurich Airport

11:00 Swiss Time

This is certainly Switzerland: filled with all of the kitsch and brilliance that I’d imagined. The airport is nice and spacious, and there is a great shuttle between the two big terminals. I was sitting in the smaller one, where my flight came in, for a while, but then I decided to ride the shuttle while I was waiting for my gate to show up on the departure screen.

This terminal, the bigger one, has all of the shopping and superior seating areas. What I can see of the hillsides beyond the airport looks perfect: forests and towns woven together with a crisp layer of snow over the trees. There’s a restaurant with what is supposed to look like mountains on the back wall, and the chef cooks from inside this mountain, with a window cut out of one side. Next door is an equally touristy restaurant that’s supposed to resemble a Swiss cottage. Coats of arms coat the walls, and you might expect a yodeler to walk in at any second. My favorite though was one of the jewelry stores. My friend Aaron had told me before I left that Zurich is that city that nobody really knows but seems to show up in every spy movie. Well, behind the counter of the jewelry store was a large picture of James Bond from the new Quantum of Solace and the slogan “James Bond’s Choice.”

Another interesting facet of the Swiss airport is the smoking accommodations. There is clearly no smoking in the main terminals, but as opposed to the current American solution of kicking smokers outside, the Swiss have given them a long room that extends the length of one side of the smaller terminal, not in the middle, but right against the wall, so a non-smoker trying to view the outside has to look through two window panes and the smoking room in between. There are more smoking rooms in the larger terminal, sponsored by Camel, each with a reception desk where I imagine you can purchase cigarettes. Overall, the feeling I got was of a society that doesn’t want to impose smoke on the non-smoking population, but tolerant of those who choose to: a balance that we have not found in America as smokers are continually demonized.

Modern European energy-conscious design was also evident at the airport in the form of smart escalators and moving walkways, each of which came to a stop or near-halt when not being used. Not only did it save energy through weight or motion detectors, but it made me more conscious of the energy I was using. If I was the only one ascending to the next floor, I felt compelled to take the stairs, not needing to use the energy that was solely devoted to transporting me. Although, I was disappointed they did not have the two-flush toilet system I have heard so much about in Europe.

Well, it seems my flight will be departing from the bigger terminal after all. The flight itself should be quite small though, to accommodate the small airport in Florence. I’ll be writing from Italy next time! Ciao.


The time is approximately 10:10 locally on Monday, January 13, and I’m waiting to find out which terminal my plane to Florence departs from.

In retrospect, I thought the service at JFK was really smooth. Of course I wasn’t there at peak morning hours, but I was impressed with how well the “air train” shuttle system worked and how efficient and inviting the airport was as a whole. I don’t think I’ve seen an airport where you could walk that close to the gates before going through security, which seems even more surprising given that it was the international terminal. If only PHL were so spacious...

Upon takeoff, I was a bit disappointed that I was on the left side of the airplane, denying me the aerial view of Manhattan. I was quickly assuaged when I realized that we would fly almost exactly parallel to Long Island, and that was viewed by my side of the aircraft, a jumbo jet with a seating arrangement of two people on each side and four in the middle. It was such a cool sight, first coming out of the little bay where JFK is situated and then along the island. Although I’m sure it’s a great view by day, at night the whole island was lit up in various grid patterns based on the housing developments, each of them becoming more and more sparse the further we progressed. The barrier islands were particularly interesting as they were completely illuminated closer into the city, giving a detailed outline of the island, while the various straits and sounds weaved through them. The further along though, the barrier islands were much more sparsely lit, not for lack of people willing to live there, but due to the parks that line the ocean. In these parks, a single road would wander out into the black night, protruding from the great dark surrounding them.

As we ascended, it became clear where Long Island ended and Connecticut began on the other side of the Long Island Sound. The crosshatched grids of Long Island gave way to a long dark length, with lights creeping up on the other side. Unlike the island, Connecticut was only lit along the coast, fading into darkness in the forests and mountains beyond. I watched the lights until almost the very end of our flight parallel to Long Island, giving way to the two peninsulas at the eastern tip of the island, although, by this point, the island was relatively sparse in its’ lighting, only revealing enough to make out the general shape of these points.

I was pleasantly surprised by the complimentary service of food and entertainment on the plane, which is rarely seen on American airlines today. I had a tasty pasta dish while watching Woody Allen’s new Vicky Cristina Barcelona, yet another of the disappointing films this year that have come so close to being great, but have stopped just short.

After the movie I checked the window again over the ocean, and it was quite a sight. It looked like the “A Whole New World” magic carpet ride sequence from Aladdin, stars as bright as ever, and a thick bed of clouds some thousand miles beneath us. It was quite magical. The flight attendants had asked us to close the windows earlier in the flight, so I did not leave it open long, but every once in a while I peeked back in on the stars. I soon fell asleep for two or three hours listening to the music and sweet voices of Joni Mitchell and June Christy.

I awoke when the flight attendants turned on the light some time after 2:30 EST, and they began to serve breakfast: a decent croissant, yogurt, and orange juice (in one of those containers that is the same as the yogurt: who ever thought of that, and why do they still use them?) When I checked back in on the monitor, I found the next movie, Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day, was well under way, so I opted for Pink Floyd’s Meddle and a view of the clouds over the English Channel as we passed over the beaches of Normandy and the Channel Islands. I closed the window again though as there was little see but clouds.

When I reopened my window some thirty minutes later we were in the foothills of the Alps. It looked a lot like West Virginia actually: farms carved into the hillside and deciduous forest taking up any unused land. Snow covered the settlements on the hills, while the valleys one or two thousand feet below remained clear. The big difference was in the development of the towns, which are everywhere. I didn’t see any metropolitan centers, but rather town after town (or development,) all small, and each only hundreds of feet from the next. These little centers of houses were built up everywhere, not covering the land as our suburbs do, but dense in small portions, while farms took up any semi-flat land in between. The settlements themselves were also European in their use of winding streets as opposed to thought-out grids. Each settlement did not appear planned but had simply sprouted out of the farmland centuries before.

We made one turn of the plane that revealed much taller mountains (Rockies compared to the Appalachians I’d been seeing.) It must have been the real Alps, but that was all I got to see of them, as the plane turned back around and we circled for a landing. We descended into a thick cover of clouds that lasted all the way down to the runway. Here, snow covered the ground all around. It looked to be only an inch, but an inch that is a permanent fixture in winter, not melting away quickly as it does near us. We got in at 3:50 EST, 9:50 locally, an hour ahead of schedule, giving me a chance to write more while waiting for my next flight to Florence.