Panties, Panic and Pianos

It’s a funny thing living in the house with Donatella and Enzo because in a lot of ways I feel like they have to get as used to my presence as I do theirs. With Donatella I’m still learning the boundaries – and by that I mean getting used to the fact that there are none. She feels sort of like the crazy aunt that comes over and drinks all the beer. Last night I fell asleep to the sounds of the “Jupiter Space Station” white noise sound track on Youtube because she was up until 2 am watching (and shouting at) the television in the kitchen. I’ve gotten used to the sight of her sitting at the kitchen table in the dark, with her violent red bangs pinned up in a curler with the blue light of the television flashing across her face. I see it every night when I go to the bathroom and, although it might not seem like it from my descriptions, I only have very warm feelings toward her.

Donatella takes about 45 minutes to put her makeup on – if you count standing in the kitchen watching television with the makeup brush in hand as putting makeup on. She has a funny habit of leaving the bathroom light on and then standing in the kitchen in the dark because she obviously doesn’t want to waste electricity and doesn’t want to admit to the fact that she’s actually just watching television. You can go to the bathroom during one of these 45 minute periods, but if you do you’d better expect her to come in when she needs more makeup (spoiler alert: I wasn’t expecting it).

This morning she took off her shirt while I was eating breakfast, which was the most startled I think I’ve ever been while eating cereal. She was getting dressed so she put on another one right afterward but, having just woken up, I missed a few steps and looked up into complete and utter confusion.

Enzo, on the other hand, is clearly not entirely comfortable having me in the house, which I totally get. I wouldn’t be comfortable having a 20 year old girl in my house if I was him either. There seems to just be some inherent weirdness for both of us. Sometimes Donatella goes out and Enzo and I are alone in the house together and it’s always a little uncomfortable – made more so by the mutual knowledge that we’re making the other uneasy.

An unfortunate (and amusing) occurrence happens almost once a day and is a result of the high cost of electricity in Italy. When it’s just the two of us in the house we both try to stay in our default corners – him in his office and me in my room – but, inevitably, we both eventually have to come out. To set the scene, the bathroom is right across from my room and the kitchen a relatively straight line from his office. What’s been happening is that we both attempt to leave our safe rooms at the same time, realizing the other is there a split second before we turn off the lights (like you have to do every time you leave the room). So we’re both standing in the dark, cursing silently to ourselves and too afraid to step out into the main open entrance hall because there’s a strong possibility that we’ll bump into each other.

This has happened about four times since I’ve moved in. There’s always a pause, a moment of internal grimacing on both ends and then, from the darkness I’ll hear him sigh. “Ciao, Becca,” he says, every time, like clock work. And it’s both a greeting and an attempt to find out where I am in the darkness ahead of him like our own form of echolocation. “Ciao,” I return, and then we start to move, carefully inching our way past each other into the rooms opposite us.

There’s a scene in the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice where Elizabeth comes across a soaking wet Darcy, who’s just taken a swim in a state of relative undress. As a child I used to wonder at their reactions, the horror and the embarrassment on both sides. Tonight, I finally understood. I came home tonight after a dinner out with Owen and a couple friends just as Enzo was coming out of his office in his underwear. We both jumped and tried to bolt, but there was nowhere for either one of us to escape to and we froze again in even greater embarrassment than if we hadn’t tried to move at all. The mutual panic was so great that I burst out laughing. Relief flashed across Enzo’s face, followed by a smile.

“Because I just got home,” he said, gesturing to himself in heavily accented English.

“Right,” I said. “Me too.”

We paused for a moment, both trying to figure out how far this conversation was supposed to take us, and then we sped past each other into our rooms and shut the doors.

On a subject not related to half-naked host parents, Owen and I went to a music store yesterday to try and find him a keyboard to play on. For those of you who don’t know Owen he’s pretty impressive with his ability to play everything completely by ear. Freshman year I used to play him a song on my phone and he could play it back to me on the off tune piano in the Jewett main lounge. Music for Owen is a lot like what running is for me so I offered to go keyboard shopping with him and help him bring back whatever we bought.

Nearly everything worth buying was several hundred euros but Lorenza from the Music Store went into the depths of the basement and came out with a full size keyboard and stand that he said he could rent to Owen for 90 euros over four months. (It should’ve been discouraging to us that Lorenzo grunted when he lifted the keyboard onto the stand, but we were both too stupid to think about that until after Owen had paid for the keyboard and we were struggling to get it out the door). Honestly I don’t know how much it weighed. If I had to guess I’d say it started off weighing about 40 pounds and was somewhere near 200 by the time we made it back to our house. I google mapped it after. The walk was about a mile and a half and was uneven parts miserable and hilarious.

P.S. The keyboard broke the next morning.

Owen (post 1.5 mile walk) next to the black keyboard case for scale

A shot from Fiesole, the town that I run to the top of

Bread and wine at the Grande kitchen table

 

Running and Laughter

When I was packing for Italy I told myself to “be real” and not pack clothes that I wouldn’t wear. Now I wish I’d been a lot less real as I don’t have pajamas, sweat pants, a sweat shirt, or more than one pair of running pants.

The running pants are the most significant of the things I’m lacking because I’ve decided not to go to a gym and run up our nearby mountain instead – no, it’s not actually a mountain but calling it a hill doesn’t do justice to how much it wrecks me. Technically the run is out of Florence and into a small “mountain” town called Fiesole.

This was taken on the way up the “mountain” into Fiesole. To set the scene picture me bent at the waist gasping for air as I take this shot.

Gyms in Florence are not at all what I was expecting, which is to say they’re not like New York. In addition to needing to pay 40 euros at an actual doctor (not the one appointed by the school) to get a form saying you’re fit enough to go to the gym, they’re expensive – anywhere between 180 and 250 euros for four months, and they have extremely limited cardio equipment. Gyms have anywhere from two to three treadmills and one elliptical. So I’ll be running and hoping my legs don’t fall apart.

I have two Fiesole specific goals. First, I want to be able to run all the way up the mountain without stopping by the end of the semester. And second, I want to be able to beat my father on a run up the mountain when he comes to Florence in the spring. (Yes, dad, I know you’re reading this. Bring your running shoes). Realistically, I’m not sure if I’ll be able to accomplish either goal, but there they are.

The outside of our house (we only live on the first floor)

I have two stories to tell today, the first is my favorite kind of story because it’s both embarrassing and completely true. After dinner Owen and I went on one of our usual walks, (past the Duomo, over the Arno and down by the Pitti Palace). About five minutes in I turned to Owen and said, “I think the Madonna they’re always talking about isn’t the singer.”

Owen, of course, burst out laughing and continued to laugh through the rest of the conversation as I explained my budding confusion with the word, beginning by finding it odd that all of our professors seemed to have clandestinely decided to use Madonna as their example for everything. They kept saying things about how impressive it was that Florence had produced something like “forty Madonnas from such a small area” and I remember thinking “Why Madonna? Why not say they’d produced the equivalent of 40 Beyonces?”

The second story comes from Siena, but it isn’t mine, so I wasn’t aware of it until this morning. In Siena, Enzo, Owen and I paid two euros to walk inside the massive Duomo – the one I described earlier with incredible arches and pillars and a ceiling painted like the stars. As Owen describes it, he was filled with awe, feeling closer to God than he’s ever felt before, and was opening his mouth to say some of this to me when Enzo interrupted with a story of how a couple months ago a piece of stone fell out of the ceiling of the Duomo and hit a tourist on the head – effectively killing both the tourist and Owen’s sentiment.

I’m both impressed and a little intimidated by Donatella’s boldness. On the first evening she came home and changed immediately into a rose covered track suit. This, I loved. What has startled me recently is that she seems to have no problem going to the bathroom with the door open and (once) coming in while I’m in the bathroom with the door closed. In her defense, I just ran into the bathroom to wash my hands before dinner but I don’t see how she was supposed to know that.

Italian Spanglish and Some Art

Although I haven’t written about it yet, I have actually been going to school. The Villa Rosa is a pink building by the Piazza Savonarola where the food at the little cafe is better than every meal I’ve eaten at Whitman. The classes are (mostly) larger and have a very different feel to the classes I’m used to.

As far as the class atmosphere goes, Italian is by far my favorite. There are twelve people in the class and Owen is the only guy. Our teacher is very smiley and warm and quite literally wrote the book on Italian Language Learning – actually, she wrote all three books. Maybe it’s a mark of her abilities as a teacher or maybe I’ve just never learned a foreign language in a foreign place before but the way she teaches Italian makes a lot more sense than than how I’ve learned language before.

In french class there was a heavy focus on grammar and spelling. Here the focus is on being able to say what we’re trying to say. I’ve been largely ignoring spelling and writing down how things should be pronounced instead. For example, cucina (kitchen) is in my notes as [coo chi na] because that’s how it’s pronounced. As a side note, I have enough Italian to tell people that I only came to Italy for the food, which is probably all that matters.

Antonella (our professor) asked us if we had roommates. The point was to practice using the word compagno. Unfortunately for me and Owen, we decided to really stick to the distinction between roommates and housemates – somehow causing the conversation to spin completely out of control. I’m pretty sure compagno is a word that means both roommate and housemate, confusing us, the other students, and our professor who nobly tried to sort through a jumble of English and Italian words to figure out how we were living.

There is both a movie and a phenomenon called “Spanglish” in which speakers talk in a jumble of English and Spanish. Coming to Italy has (uselessly) showed me just how many french words I know. I could communicate everything I wanted to say in French and have begun to supplement french words for Italian words that I’m lacking – for anybody unfamiliar with the Italian language this is NOT helpful. Although Spanish and Italian have quite a bit in common French and Italian have very little. Truthfully, it’d be better if I swapped in English words for the Italian ones I don’t know, but that’s apparently not how my mind works.

Other students in my Italian class may think that I can speak Italian because they don’t understand any of the words that I’m saying except to know they’re in a foreign language. My Italian professor, however, is definitely aware that I’m not speaking Italian and has begun to look at me with an expression of bemused awareness. Truthfully, she might not understand a word of what I’m saying either, though she certainly pretends better than the other students.

Mondays and Wednesdays Owen and I have two other classes (we have all the same classes together in case anybody was wondering) Renaissance Art and Art History. The juxtaposition of these two classes led to an interesting discussion between me and Owen about teachers. In a ninety minute class our attention was bound to wander at some point or another but unlike our art history professor who pulls our attention back to him, our Renaissance prof did nothing to bring us back to him.

The first day of class Owen and I both thought that the course matter would be interesting enough to make Renaissance Art worthwhile, but twenty minutes into the second class it became clear that this wasn’t the case. We’re dropping tomorrow afternoon.

My history professor, on the other hand, is awesome. I can’t say I like him more than my Italian professor, because I like them in very different ways. She is warm and happy and seems like she likes everyone. He clearly bestows his approval very rarely, if at all. I’ve never been very excited about art, but this guy makes it cool. He’s very frank and dresses like an Italian man with leather shoes, sweaters and neck scarves (even though the’s originally from the United States). Part of why I like him, I think, is that he so obviously followed his passion. He came to Florence for study abroad, realized it was a great place to explore art history and stayed.

Every Wednesday our art history class meets outside the classroom. Today we met in the Piazza Della Repubblica (Owen and I were late which meant we didn’t get the fancy ear devices that amplified our prof’s voice so we had to stand close to hear what he and our TA were saying over the wind and screaming children – actually I stood close, Owen either has incredible hearing or wasn’t paying attention).

We wandered from there to the Piazza Della Signora (very close to the famous Uffizi museum) and spent the majority of the time talking about the sculptures in the Loggia. The Loggia is one of my favorite places in Florence so far. It’s full of sculptures that anybody can walk through. I’ll post pictures of these later we aren’t allowed to take them during class and our professor highlighted three main themes of the sculpture at this time.

  1. Marble sculptures weren’t actually white. The originals were painted, but Michelangelo and a lot of other people didn’t know this because when they discovered them all of the painting was gone.
  2. There’s a really cool balance between idealism and naturalism that can be seen on the sculptures. For example, many of the sculptures have blank individualistic expressions which is part of idealism, while a lot of the muscles are accurately portrayed – on this subject, actually our prof said something interesting about how the muscles themselves were also sometimes idealized. Although people can get their muscles to look like this today, with gym workouts and steroids etc., that wasn’t the case when the sculptures were made. This might seem self-explanatory to some people but I hadn’t thought about it and thought it was really cool to think of how body image has changed over the centuries. (Our prof focuses on this too and we’ll probably go into this with much greater detail over the rest of the semester).
  3. Okay, so it was pretty windy

Two sculptures from the Loggia dei Lanzi, the greenish one is a replica of a very famous sculpture

A Few Fun Facts, but Mostly Mamma Mia

Fun fact, there is a Whitman College at Syracuse University. Not knowing this, Owen and I made a whole bunch of accidental enemies who thought we were being snobs for not saying we were from Syracuse. Now if anybody asks I’m from Washington State.

I’m not used to being with people from New York. At Whitman I’m pretty unique as an east coaster. Here, unsurprisingly (and yes, I should’ve figured this out before) everybody is from Syracuse or that general area. Personally, I think it’s more fun to be unique.

Also, there are a lot of Rebecca’s here. (I go by Rebecca here because Italians really struggle to say Becca). One Rebecca is in all of my classes. I keep panicking and raising my hand when they call her for attendance, so I’m probably going to end up getting her grades instead of my own and vice versa.

The Grande kitchen

The Grande living room

Some Italian words are easy to pronounce. “Ciao” is easy. It means “hey”. Other words are harder. Spoon for example, is dangerously close to the word “cocaine” and, try as I might, I just can’t master the two of them. Luckily, Enzo and Donatella have a good sense of humor about it and laugh every time I ask to have one of their cocaines with my meal.

I’m trying to keep my room clean. If I don’t clean it every day before I leave Donatella comes in and straightens up. don’t mind at all, but it feels like maybe I should just keep my room clean instead. Some morning’s it’s hard though. This morning I stumbled around trying to get ready for school (okay, so my first class was at 11:15, but I slept in until 10:30 so I still felt pretty rushed) and left my room a total mess thinking I’d come and clean it after school, only to come home and find a cleaning angel had gotten there first.

There are things here that would bother me if I wasn’t a guest in someone else’s house. For example, last night Donatella came in after I was in bed to get a credit card out of my desk for something or other. She was very nice about it, but I can see how American Becca would be irritated to have her in my space. Truthfully though, it’s hard to be mad at someone who cooks your dinners and cleans your room. I think she could probably do a lot more before I got actually annoyed.

I do wish Pauldino hadn’t figured out how to open my bedroom door, however. Sometimes he comes in at four in the morning and confuses the heck out of me.

Another funny thing about Donatella is how LOUD she is. She is awake any time from 11 to 4 am with the tv on full blast, smashing her way around the kitchen. I don’t know how Enzo sleeps through it, but I know he does because I can hear him snoring in the other room! My second night here I experimented with the white noise soundtrack of pounding rain AND the ocean as well as needing to use my eye mask because my room window opens out to the kitchen, bathroom and hallway so I get all the light funneled into my room.

On the one hand, I’d really love to go to sleep in a silent, dark house. On the other, I’m pretty amused by just how much sound a tiny woman can make. She begins every morning by groaning herself awake, with exclamations of “ay! ayyyy!” but when she gets out of bed she’s chipper as always, talking to me about dancing and whatever she did last night. I think she’s a little disappointed that we aren’t wild and crazy like other American students.

When I came to Florence, I was braced for more conventional attitudes about family and home life here. I was worried that I’d be put in a house with a total patriarch that I’d have to go along with because I was living in his house. Enzo and Donatella are not like that. As a couple, they seem to fit perfectly. She’s loud and he’s quiet, but he really seems to enjoy her noise, sometimes ratcheting it up a few decibels to join her.

Also, and this is my favorite thing – he helps her cook. When she’s out late, Enzo cooks the meals. He takes his turn walking the dogs – taking them out at night, when it’s not as safe for her to be out alone – and really really cares about her.

Last night, Donatella and I stayed around the dinner table drinking espresso and watching an Italian movie. (I think she actually likes vaguely translating for me because the position centers around talking). The movie itself was pretty easy to follow – plot wise, obviously, I don’t speak Italian. Even if I did, they were from Napoli and spoke in heavy accents that Donatella could barely understand herself – and it was silly and enjoyable, so I stayed until 11:30 watching it with her while I helped her clean up the kitchen (Owen helped with this too, before going to his room to call a friend. We both take helping Donatella clean up the kitchen very seriously. Enzo goes out with the dogs and we pick up plates and shorten the kitchen table etc. until everything’s done – in reality it’s not that much work, but I think we both really like feeling like we’re helping).

Since Owen and I weren’t going for a walk that evening, I asked if I could walk the dogs with Donatella that night. When Enzo came home from dinner with his mother, he looked me straight in the eye and asked if I was definitely going to walk with Donatella after the film. I said “si. si” (I know I’m so good at Italian) and he looked me straight in the face for several seconds, before nodding and going to get into his pajamas. He clearly didn’t want Donatella going out alone at midnight and seemed to be making sure I took being her companion seriously.

Rat Park

On one of our walks Owen and I had an in-depth conversation about happiness. As a psych major he’s familiar with a study that I’ll only briefly summarize here. Essentially it showed that when rats were alone in a cage they used heroine-infused water until they died but that rats who were in a happy social cage (the “rat park”) used the heroine water less than normal water.

This is a strange way to start a blog post, I know, but it’s both an incredibly interesting study and relevant to traveling. (It is going to lead into a more introspective post, however, so if you want a daily update about the things I’m doing, feel free to skip this one).The conclusion of this study – or at least the conclusion that some psychologist drew in the article Owen read – was that addiction was less of a chemical reaction and more related to what was absent in an individual’s life. (Obviously this is very condensed, but the general gist is the same). Personally, I think there should be more focus on creating our own social “rat parks” in the states.

From my (limited) time abroad, it seems as though this is one of the things Italians do right. There is more focus on the family and on positive social encounters than on many of the things we value in the states – money, success, etc. Again this is based on very little experience and probably includes a lot of generalizations, but of the Europeans I’ve met with both here and traveling abroad, this has been the case.

One way that this can be seen in Italy is with the difference in what they do at night. Americans (here and in the states) do a lot of binge drinking, drinking to get drunk and only partially because it’s social. In Florence, it’s obvious who’s local and who isn’t because the locals don’t drink to get drunk. They don’t go to the electronic disco clubs that a lot of study abroad students go to and they don’t drink hard alcohol. Alcohol is a part of the culture and the life here and their way of drinking with meals might lead to an overall greater consumption of alcohol, but the purpose is different and, personally, I like it a lot better.

Another reason rat park is relevant to my time here is that I’ve been lucky enough to come to Florence with two of my closest friends, one of whom is also my host brother. Unlike many people who have to reinvent themselves abroad and struggle to find new friends (in Florence I can see how this would be particularly difficult because of the huge percentage of Syracuse University students who already have established friend groups) I’ve brought a mini rat park with me. Having Owen in my house has made everything more enjoyable. I feel safe going out at night because I never have to walk home alone (don’t get me wrong, we might still get mugged, but at least we’ll get mugged together, which is something, right? – also, yes, yes we’re being safe) and I always have someone to talk to or go out with.

When I first came to college, I started to realize the value of really good friends and just how important it was to have them. The more I travel and the more I adapt to living in new situations the more I realize how true that is. I’ve adjusted to a fair number of new living environments over the past couple years – New York City and St. Eustatius being the main ones that come to mind – bur I don’t think it was until I had what I needed that I realized how much I was missing it on other trips.

In NYC I was busy enough that it didn’t matter too much, though I began to realize toward the end of the semester how much having intern friends improved my experience. But St. Eustatius is the experience I would really do differently. I went into that experience with only personal goals in mind. I was focused on my work, on exercise, on writing – all good things, to be sure – but what I didn’t put much effort into was building my rat park. If I was going to do it all over again I’d put more effort into the social aspects as well.

Honestly – and I hope people challenge me on this if/when they disagree – I think the American education system (middle and high school predominately) is not consistent with building and maintaining a rat park. One of my friends went to an alternative high school that was focused on fostering positive social interactions and learning together instead of the competitive atmosphere that I was taught in where kids have little or no incentive to work together on anything.

I was lucky enough to have a rat park at home and through athletics, but I think there are a lot of kids who don’t have that growing up. In college I was away from my family and not playing volleyball, which is how I started to learn the importance of building a friend rat park. I’m not sure what the real world will be like, though I’m worried it’s more like high school in the competitive sense, but regardless, I feel insanely lucky to have my friends with me and not have to worry about that here. Having some of my friends with me and a wonderful host family has enabled me to focus on other things, like exploring a new city and really getting into my time abroad.

 

Immersion Weekend Part 2

Left to Right (Including dogs) this is Camilla, Donatella, Pauldino and Owen walking with the Siena city sprawl in front of them

Again, sorry I can’t right these. I’ll get better at this technology stuff, I promise. This is the Siena cathedral

A very important part of the introduction into the host family is family immersion weekend. Unlike the other weekends, where host kids are on their own for meals and everything else, family weekend is designed to help students get to know their host parents. I didn’t feel like Owen or I needed this very much to get to know Donatella and Enzo, but was happy for the time with them anyway.

As a side note our host parents are incredibly warm and have a lot of experience with host students – Donna told me she and Enzo have been taking students in for fall and spring semesters for about ten years now, which means they’ve got the drill down. The thing I like most about them is that they seem to have mastered the dynamic between caring about what we’re doing and not changing their own schedules for us.

Enzo wanted to go on a hike, but decided Owen didn’t have the right shoes – I thought he was seriously overestimating the importance of good footwear until he started showing me pictures of the hikes he’d done and I realized he was literally scaling glaciers. Apparently there’s a big mountain just outside Florence that he goes to every Saturday and climbs with a pick ax and crampons (I thought it was hilarious that of all the English words Enzo doesn’t understand, crampons was one he knew right away) but I think I’ve gotten him convinced that I know how to hike and he’s even started to talk as if he’s willing to take me on a hike (not a glacier, just a normal mountain) with him sometime this semester.

I had to try not to be offended when Enzo was asking if I got tired after two or three miles of walking. It felt a little sexist. Hopefully he’s just really intense about his hiking, though I wouldn’t be surprised if that wasn’t totally the case.

We decided on Siena instead and piled into the car at a ripe 11:45. I know Enzo thinks all of the other drivers in Florence are the worst drivers in the world – maybe he’s right, I don’t have enough data to say one way or the other – all I know is that I was nauseous in the first five minutes of driving with him and spent the majority of the drive both there and back with my head between my legs.

The dogs were with us, which meant we walked slow and watched Pauldino try to fight dogs triple his size. It was fun traveling with Donatello because she either knows or thinks she knows everything about everything, so we got a lot of information. The coolest thing that came out of the trip was learning about the Palio de Siena, a horse race that takes place every year between the eighteen different contrades of the city. People take it seriously. In the weeks before a race, people who support different teams (neighbors, family members, etcs) won’t even talk to each other. Unlike our horse races in the states, riders in the palio di Siena don’t use saddles and they’re permitted to hit both one another and each other’s horses. Peta’s not a fan, but I think it’s super cool!

We got a tour of an old synagogue and learned quite a bit about Jews in Italy. Most of the synagogues actually look like churches because Jews back then were only allowed to have two professions – money lender or merchant – and had to pay Christians (or Catholics? Ah, that part I don’t know) to design the churches for them.

Then we walked inside the Siena Cathedral with Enzo. It was insanely beautiful from the inside, with huge walls and striped marble pillars holding up the ceiling which was covered in stars.

By the end of the day Enzo was clearly done with the three of us (though to be fair to me and Owen, it was mostly Donatella). We were slow and stopped all the time for the dogs. Before we got in the car I had to go the bathroom, but we couldn’t find a place, so I took a host-mom sanctioned pee behind a parked car. Apparently that happens a lot here. She says she does it whenever she’s too far from the house.

We took a long, equally nauseating drive back home and had a late dinner in front of the television. Dinners are my favorite part of the host experience. Not only does Donatella make some of the best homemade food I’ve ever eaten, but it makes me feel like an Italian. The television is blasting in Italian and Donatella and Enzo occasionally “bicker” (I don’t think they’re every actually angry, but they talk really loud and fast) about some thing or another.

Family Immersion Weekend

There are many little things to get used to here. We have about 27 light switches in the bathroom and no trash can so I have to apply my camping “pack it in pack it out” mentality for contacts. Dinners are late. Owen and I have figured out that in order to make it to dinner we can’t each lunch before 2, so we’ve been pushing each other to eat later (sort of like workout buddies, but more hungry).

The first day I buckled and had a Lindt chocolate, which at least gave me the illusion of being full. Owen cracked a few minutes later and got a panini. But we’ve been getting better. Yesterday I bought oranges and ate one before dinner and we have a ridiculous amount of saltines between the two of us – though I have the sneaking suspicion neither one of us is going to eat them. The bag advertises 750 for each of us, which is a total of about as many saltines as there are Whitman students.

I think Donatella thinks we’re losers. She keeps trying to get us to go out. We don’t finish our dinner ordeal until around 10 (there are multiple courses and we talk about the news and watch television shows together until Donatella gets up) and we’ve been walking between 12 and 16 miles a day around the city, but we’ve been going out anyway and walking around from 10 to midnight or 1 in the morning before coming back and falling asleep.

We keep getting “duomod”, this is the expression I’ve made up for when we think we’re lost and then the duomo ends up being one street over, or behind us, or – sometimes at night – right in front of us. It’s a rather comical phenomenon because the Duomo is ridiculously large and we’re always a little relieved to find out we’ve been exactly where we were supposed to all along.

For orientation, we were told that we should be extra vigilant because it’s easy to miss cultural or language cues and not know when/if you’re in a bad situation. That happened last night a little. Owen and I were walking (we took an unintentionally scenic route to the Duomo last night) and were followed for several turns by three Italians. One was a woman, so we didn’t panic too much, but we definitely panicked a little. They were talking in Italian and were probably talking about something totally normal but because we couldn’t tell, we were both a little anxious.

On our way home from one of our walks, however, Owen and I stumbled across one of our favorite moments since getting to Italy. There was a group of Italians in one of the piazzas (there are about 60 piazzas in Florence, Owen and I are still trying to remember their names) trying to light a paper lamp – the kind they have in Tangled, that fly into the sky like hot air balloons – and we stopped and watched them try to light it. The best part of it was that the Italians could clearly tell we were American and they were inclusive in their fun. They smiled at us and said things in Italian that we smiled and laughed to (without understanding anything but their expressions, of course). The got the lamp into the air and everybody sang something in Italian, to the tune of Happy Birthday, and then we went on our way.

I asked Donatella for a good running route and she gave me a few quick instructions to what sounded like a park but turned out to be a mountain. For the first 10 minutes I was like “whew” this is a big hill and then I slowly started to realize that each turn only revealed steeper angles. I ran to a beautiful little village on the top of the mountain where people openly ogled me for my shorts and t-shirt. In their defense it was freezing up there! But it was also my favorite place that I’ve been since coming to Italy. There were warnings on the streets for cars about the steepness of the grade and I couldn’t run the whole way so I alternated with sprints and walking until I felt like my heart wouldn’t explode. It took me about 45 minutes going up and only 20 to come back down.

Then I took a quick shower and Owen and I went walking. We wandered through a dozen piazzas whose names I forget before getting paninis at a little place on the other side of the river. I ordered one because I recognized the words for arugula and Parmesan. There was a word I didn’t know at all, which turned out to be thinly sliced meat that tasted a little like a combination between ham and salami. At dinner that night Donatella asked what we’d eaten and when I said the word she informed me that it was horse…

More than I’ve ever had before, I want to be part of the culture around me. When my suitcase finally arrived (about 5 days later) I opened my bag and was disappointed to find that all of my clothes were American. I love their style here and the way they eat meals so spaced out throughout the day.

This is a picture of the Arno, a river that runs through Florence and the famous Ponte Vecchio bridge

This is my room before Donatella cleaned (Yikes, I’m trying to be clean I swear)

Hmm, so I can’t figure out how to spin this around but I’ll get better I swear. This is an (involuntary) shot of me and Owen on one of our walks. At this moment we are in the Piazza della Signoria

I have given up on decaf coffee (mostly, I still have some left over from backpacking that I drink when I want to really drink coffee instead of sip on the little espressos here) and now join Donatella and Owen in drinking an espresso every night after dinner, which for us is at 9 or 10 at night.

First Real Day in Italy

Owen and I are already like brother and sister. He came in while I was on the toilet to ask how to get the front door open and laughed instead of apologizing. We ate the breakfast our host mom had laid out for us and had a very serious debate about whether or not we were allowed to eat the last slice of cake (we decided that the answer was no). Pauldino and I have bonded. He came onto my bed the moment my door was open and flopped down on my pillows. The bed itself is tiny, I can get one leg around each side while lying on my stomach. Of the people I’ve talked to it sounds like my room is the “small” version of the small, medium and large Italian rooms. Yuli has an enormous room with a balcony. We all laughed this morning when she told us that her family had served box wine for dinner.

Donatella has about sixteen different bottles of lotion and salve in the bathroom, one of which I thought was face moisturizer until I actually put it on and realized it was most definitely hand lotion.

I still have no luggage. It’s becoming more upsetting as I have nothing to move in. This morning as I was getting dressed I was emotionally incapable of putting on the same pair of underwear that I’ve worn for the past five days straight so I laid them out with all of the rest of my nasty backpacking clothes on the floor to dry…so Donatella thinks I’m a slob – I am – but I wasn’t ready for her to know it yet.

My room has a bunch of antique seeming decorations like old paper fans and stuff that I really want to take down, but am afraid to touch. This morning I folded up the tiny strip of fabric that was on my desk (desk is a super exaggeration, it’s about a foot wide – also neither Owen or I have chairs) and put it on the little counter, which felt like my first step toward making the room my own. I’m going to wait a while before I make my second.

I had a brief moment of panic when I realized my computer wouldn’t start. The fact that I have my laptop with me instead of having it lost somewhere in the void was one of the most important things. I tried turning it off and on again but that didn’t work so I took the battery out and let it sit for a while. When it finally started working after that I felt like Mark Zuckerberg.

It rained intermittently today, which would’ve been totally fine – Florence is still Florence in the rain – except that I have one pair of clean clothes and they all got pretty wet walking around today.

We had a short Italian Language Meeting, which felt unnecessary. The woman was talking about which different skill levels should go in each session in case people needed to get one on one advising later, but since Owen and I had absolutely zero Italian language skills (that’s not entirely true, we each know one sentence “Il regatso mangia une melo” I have no idea if the spelling is right for that, which means “the boy eats an apple”. It hasn’t come in handy yet, but I’m sure a boy will eat an apple at some point from now until when we leave Italy.

The main goal of today was finding a gym. I signed up for the doctor to check if I’m healthy enough to go to a gym – this feels a little strange to me, since if I’m not healthy enough to go to the gym I probably really need to go workout – but whatever, I signed up anyway and will pay a whopping 40 euros tomorrow to get that done. Yuli and Owen walked with me to a list of gyms that Donatella had given me yesterday. Each gym has a maximum of two ellipticals and no more than 4 weights. I’m not sure if going to gyms is less of a thing here or of cardio isn’t as much, but they were all very small and expensive. Finally we found one that was empty (so nobody on the cardio machines) and cheaper than the others – roughly 100 euros for 3 months instead of 250.

They provided us with lunch as part of the program, which meant we went and sat at a restaurant and were served 5 pieces of ravioli, one cross section of eggplant and a slice of zucchini. From there we walked toward the Duomo to supplement our meager lunch with Nutella filled croissants (amazing!).

Since dinner wasn’t until 8:30, Owen and I bought something at the grocery store (along with shampoo and soap) which turned out to be saltines. Then we came into the living room to relax while Donatella took the dogs for a walk – she asked if we wanted to come but we’d walked 10 miles already – and Enzo listened to some cool music in the other room.

Before we came to Italy our program wrote to tell us that it was culturally unacceptable to go around in bare feet inside the house. So far as I can tell it’s not unacceptable at all it’s just really freaking cold! If I had any clean socks at all I’d have about six of them on right now. The floor is freezing – maybe because it’s not insulated and at least looks like a colder version of wood – but I don’t know.

So far the biggest adjustment has been crossing the streets. There are green lights for pedestrians and cross walks but Italian drivers only stop if you’re literally standing in front of their car.  The attitude is basically, “I know you want to cross and I know that I might have to stop, or if I don’t someone will have to stop behind me, but I’m not even going to slow down to try and help you make the decision”. It totally cracks me up – and terrifies me, I’ve done quite a bit of “squirreling” (running into the middle of the road and freezing up/panicking and trying to go all directions at once) – but in general, I love the cut and dry attitude.

I’m used to some heavy traffic in NYC but this isn’t like that. Enzo says Florence has the worst drivers in the world because “they’re all drunk”. I don’t know about that, but they definitely have a way of making it seem like there are a lot more cars on the streets. The combined fear of getting hit by a car and getting yelled at in Italian (it’s going to happen, I can just feel it and am terrified for when it does) makes crossing the streets a little difficult, although I must say there’s something sort of empowering about walking out in front of a car that has no real intention of stopping.

A woman came into a cafe that a group of us were in and stared at me. There are actually no red heads here (not that I would look Italian otherwise). I said “ciao” which means hi and she came over and started talking to us. The conversation began normally, she asked if we were from England or America. We said America. Then she remarked on how large it was, saying that Italy was small having 700 miles of coast. We were nodding and smiling along until she transitioned from there to immigration and started talking to us about how troublesome all of the African immigrants were. I think we were all pretty taken aback. I’m not sure if this was just a random occurrence or if things in Italy are different, but we would never talk about politics like that with a stranger. Most people avoid doing it within their own families. I liked it though, despite the fact that I didn’t have much to say.

There are places in conversation where it seems natural to laugh and smile along with the Italian speakers even when you have no idea what they’re saying. I’ve been working to stop myself from doing it though because it makes people think I understand what they’re saying and it only makes things confusing for us all later on. I feel bad though, when I can’t communicate with people. Everyone is so nice and I can tell a lot of them are inconvenienced or just less happy when they realized I only speak English. Because of this I’m actually really excited to start Italian classes this coming Monday.

Late dinners are an adjustment. We’re all sitting in the living room (I’m playing with the dogs – need to get one of those when I come back to the States) and I keep thinking that there’s clearly time to make dinner now. Then I have to remember that we’re actually trying to eat dinner late, which is new for me. It’s not that we don’t have time to eat dinner until 8:30, it’s that eating that late is actually the point.

I had 8 saltines and a cup of coffee around 5 to try and hold myself off.

I’m extremely wary of the microwaves here. They don’t run on as much power so there’s no assurance of when my coffee will be warm. I’ve been putting it in for about 5 minutes at a time and it comes out lukewarm. Mostly though I’m just happy that we’re allowed to use the microwave. It’s the only kitchen appliance Owen and I are allowed to touch.

Meeting the Host Family!

I got into the Florence hotel right at 2pm. My travel mate, Noah, and I chose to make the two and a half hour walk to the Delta Hotel Florence (the original hotel we were scheduled to be in went bankrupt before we showed up and we all got an email to show up at a different hotel instead), so I showed up sweaty and disgusting – actually we got rained on for the first hour of our walk so I was feeling pretty mildewy by the time we got there – and came face to face with about a hundred pretty, clean Syracuse University students.

One of the Whitties who’d gone to this program before had warned me that everybody was SU and most people were already in cliques but I was surprised at how many there were.  I feel super lucky that two of my friends are on the program because I think otherwise I would’ve felt super alone.

The photo credit for all of these photos go to Noah Young. This is the outside of the Duomo 

This is a picture of the Ponte Vecchio, a very famous bridge in Florence

This is an image of the cityscape of Florence

Somehow I ended up getting assigned to a room with my roommate from college. There was supposed to be a third girl in our room, but because we weren’t sure if she was coming or not we snuck our other friend, Owen, into our room and slept with all three Whitties side by side in the three different beds.

This morning all anybody wanted to do was meet the host families, but first we had to sit through about 3 hours of orientation. The SU speakers did a pretty good job of switching up speakers so that it didn’t feel insanely boring but the majority of the students were jetlagged and the rest of us were just too antsy to do anything but wait for our homestay assignments.

One thing that I thought was funny was that the woman speaker said that they were only going to teach us the vital things so we wouldn’t learn how to cross the street for another two or three weeks and I couldn’t help but thinking that a) I’d already nearly died trying to cross the street and b) I felt like most people in the program would cross a street at some point before that meeting two to three weeks from now.

Another thing about the SU kids is that a lot of the guys seem really “cool” in a way that my Whittie friends are not. We nicknamed one of the guys the “King of the Bros” because that’s sort of how he holds himself.

OWEN AND I GOT PUT INTO THE SAME HOST FAMILY.

We really didn’t think that we would, because they get so many requests but they might just be really good about putting you with friends because we got put together and all of the other people I know that asked also got put with their friend.

Our family is just a husband and a wife, Donatella and Enzo Grande. I looked at their year of birth and said, “they’re so old” before realizing they were about two years older than my parents (sorry mom and dad). Donatella is 61 and Enzo is three years younger. He works at Florence University and she used to work with something related to cancer but I didn’t totally get what. She’s retired now and likes to dance. She invited me to one of her salsa classes with her.

I hadn’t bought a gift so I bought her a potted orchid at a store near the duomo and Owen gave them chocolates he’d brought from Portland.

All day I was hoping that my stuff would arrive (I backpacked so I have two pairs of filthy clothes, my passport, and thankfully, my laptop) but everything else I have is in a suitcase that my friend was going to check with her luggage to Florence. Except that her flight got delayed and somehow my bag ended up in Zurich. It’s okay though because I hear if the airlines lose your bags you get a Delta airlines t-shirt, which is probably just as good.

Our host parents are cool. Like, really cool. They went out at 9:20 when Owen and I wanted to go to bed. Enzo went to hang out with friends and Donatella went to dance class. They’re very friendly and they have two dogs! I’ve always wanted a dog and this feels like my best chance. Camilla is a bichon frize (I think) and Pauldino is my favorite. He’s a very bouncy Jack Russel terrier.

Donatella took us (and the dogs) for a walk into Florence to show us around and then we came back and had dinner watching Italian television.

On the television she taught us a little bit about Italian politics. They’re both liberals and really like Obama. Apparently in Italy they have about 40 political parties instead of two. There’s also a huge ordeal going on right now about the artwork of a guy named Miglio (or something like that) because some specialist just discovered that a bunch of his artwork had been faked by someone else. Then we laughed about a tv show where a famous biker went around trying to get cocaine dealers to dust his cake with cocaine instead of sugar. It’s probably not as funny reading about it as it was experiencing it, but it felt like a really good bonding experience with the family.

There are two separate rooms in the house. Owen has one outside with his own bathroom. It’s larger, but I’m happy with my little one because it’s in the house where it feels happy and warm. I believe they’re one of the wealthier families because they have a dryer which apparently is pretty unheard of here in Italy. They also have a b-day which stares me in the face every time I use the toilet. One day I’ll probably give it a try, but today is SO not that day.

They really like music and play cool, cultural music while they’re cooking dinner or just hanging out which I love. Also, Donatella says “Mamma Mia!” completely seriously and Owen and I have to try not to crack up each time, because it was a joke we made before we came here.

 

On our walk Donatella took us into this “tunnel system” which was all graffiti that people use to travel beneath an intersection. The walls were all painted, but it was incredibly clean. When I remarked on it she said there was a homeless man who lived down there and kept it clean. The city didn’t pay him, he just cleaned it which we thought was so cool.

Overall I couldn’t be much happier with my situation. We live a 15 minute walk from the campus and Donatella’s already given me a list of about 10 gyms that I can check out tomorrow morning. After so much traveling I’m happy to finally have a place that’s home, although I do wish I had a few more things to put up in it (or to change into).