Dumpster Divers Anonymous

The final part of our SU orientation was a question and answer session about adapting to Italian culture. The technology was actually pretty fun. Everybody went to a website on their phones and we “competed” over who got the most answers right. To begin with, the website gave randomly assigned everybody names. My assigned name was Classy Dog.

“That’s not right,” I said, turning to Owen.

“You might be a classy dog,” he returned, with a face like he was seriously thinking about it. “Just not a classy human.”

Seeing as I made us both late (later, we were already late) to Italian class because I stopped and picked three more shirts out of a dumpster, I didn’t feel like I was in much of a position to disagree with him – and, honestly I hadn’t been planning on it.

One of the questions that popped up on this quiz was ‘How do I know when to cross the street?’

There were four responses, most of which I’ve forgotten verbatim, but the general gist was “when the light is green,” “when other people our crossing,” “you should always cross with caution” and “Please don’t ever try to cross the street Italians find it really annoying to find Americans smeared across their windshield.”

The correct answer was the last one. (Okay, it wasn’t quite that intense, but the woman in charge of the quiz did say that a green light didn’t necessarily mean cars would stop for us). Standing at the side of the crosswalk gathering the courage to cross is a lot like trying to prepare yourself to grab onto the bottom of a ski lift as it comes whizzing by. I’ve found the time it takes for me to brace myself to walk in front of a moving vehicle is about how long it takes for two cars to pass in front of me. Of course that’s an average. It depends a lot on the type of music I’m listening to. For my own safety, I’m going to have to restrict the amount of time that I listen to rap.

One thing that I think Americans often have to adjust to are the strikes. On the way to the train station for our trip to Rome, Owen and I ran into someone that he’d gone to high school with (this actually happens quite a lot and is always disconcerting. I’ve run into people that I know from other schools and one guy that I went to high school with and haven’t spoken to in at least 5 years – yes, I know I was in high school less than 5 years ago – and it always takes a mental shake-off after running into one of them because it’s so unexpected).

We asked the boy how he was getting to Rome, exchanging a surprised look when he said “by bus.” All of the bus drivers in Florence were on strike. When we warned the boy that he might have a problem at the station he shrugged it off. “I’ve already bought my ticket, so I think it’ll be fine.” I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure that’s not how strikes work.

Owen and I have friends! I’m very very happy about this. Not only have we started to mingle with the other students in our classes – the trip to Rome in addition to the fact that a lot of our classes have started meeting in places throughout Florence instead of in the classroom – but we’ve actively made the effort to become friends with two girls in our Italian class. Today we went to our favorite gelato (fun fact, I’m pretty sure I’ve misspelled “gelato” every other time that I’ve written it here) place with them and laughed the whole time. We have very similar senses of humor and I’m very happy to have them as new friends.

Today all of our classes were outside – awesome, because it was raining – but still really fun. Our Italian class went to the San Lorenza market where we went cheese tasting and tried different types of truffle oil (ew). Somehow we also managed to pick up a confused Asian woman who followed our class around for about ten minutes before turning to me and asking “Is this a food tour?”

The two big takeaways from our class was that you should be careful where you’re tasting things from because often the vendors have you try things and then slap you with a huge bill at the end. Also, D.O.P on cheese means that it’s from the Parma province. Similarly, D.O.C.G on wine is supposed to be a guarantee that it’s high quality. I’m not sure who in the class looked like they could even tell the difference  between good and bad quality wine, let alone afford it, but there it is.

I know I’ve mentioned the graffiti tunnel that Owen and I walk through every day to get to and from school. Today as we were walking through one of the homeless men locked eyes with Owen and said, (in Italian) “hello pretty,” and then turned to me and said, “hello.” Owen paled, blinked several times, and turned to look back at the man. I laughed, but I think the interaction had us both seriously reconsidering that day’s choice of outfit.

This is a picture of a pigeon I bonded with while walking in the rain

A view on the walk down from Fort Belvedere (my favorite walk in Florence).


A Strange Coping Mechanism

People here really care about clothes. A lot. It’s the primary reason that I feel like I don’t fit in here. All of the Italians think that it’s cold. For me 50 degrees is warm, especially when you’re walking around, so I’m constantly juggling the amount that I want to take off my coat versus how much I don’t want to get ogled in the streets.

I wore a summer shirt and jeans outside yesterday and an Italian man did a triple-take on me. Actually, it was pretty hilarious. While maintaining a conversation with his friend, he turned around looked at me, looked toward the front, looked back at me and then did a full 360 degree turn to look at me from the other direction.

Today Owen and I went out for aperitivo (a very Italian way of eating where you pay $1o or $12 euros for a drink and get three hour access to a buffet). My feet are covered in blisters from my new shoes so I went out in flip-flops and people were actually stopping to stare at me in the street like I was a celebrity.

The atmosphere of aperitivo was awesome. The food was worse. My first mouthful I thought everything was amazing, but with scoop of food I brought to my mouth, my opinion of the food decreased. Also I was dumb enough to mistake the world “pomodoro” for pomegranates when I was looking at the ingredients of a Bloody Mary. The result is that I ordered my drink, took one sip, and gave it to Owen.

Relating to the title: I have a problem. It’s a pretty simple problem. I don’t have enough clothes. I have two pairs of pants, one of which is torn and currently covered in dog poop. The other one is ripped down the crotch. For most people there would be two solutions. 1) Buy new clothes 2) Tough it out. I’ve opted for a third option – I’ve started dumpster diving.

It’s not diving in the sense that I’m actually physically getting into any of the dumpsters, but people leave their clothes and shoes in bags outside the dumpsters that I’ve been picking through. I tried to go shopping like a normal person. Really, I did. But I ended up picking a discarded shirt out from beneath a dumpster and going for a walk instead.

Today on the way home from school Owen stopped outside the front gate, waiting for me to come inside and I said, “Yeah, I think I’m going to walk around and look at trash cans instead.” Which is exactly what I did.  On the bright side, I saw a beautiful sunset. The picture doesn’t do it justice. In fact it does it so little justice that I only have an error message while trying to upload, so I’ll hopefully add a picture of this later.

There’s also a really wonderful phenomenon that happens every night as the sun is setting with the birds. I imagine they’re hunting for bugs (they are birds and not bats, I’ve looked closely, though I know this is common bat behavior). Regardless, they fly in massive numbers around the sky like schools of fish, creating different shapes in the sky.

The theme of this post seems to be all of the ways Becca is a grungy P.O.S. so I’ll keep going. I cut my hair with the kitchen shears this morning. I couldn’t find any normal scissors and my hair was getting gnarly (as a side note, I found a gray hair this afternoon, which I think means it’s all downhill from here). So after my run, I parted my hair and cut off three inches on either side with two snips. If I brushed it you might be able to tell that it was uneven, but I don’t have any plans for that, so I should be somewhat safe for the time being.

I had to walk home alone at night for the first time a couple days ago. I stopped at the store and bought a liter of chocolate milk, which I drank as I was walking. I bought it because I was thirsty, but in retrospect I think it might also have been a pretty good self-defense move as well. All I can say is that wouldn’t mess with the girl drinking chocolate milk from the carton as she walked down the streets at night.

In case anybody is wondering what kind of shoes you can pick up from behind a dumpster. They’re both my size and, although my nose is pretty stuffed up right now, I’m pretty sure neither one of them has any particularly strong odor.

“Is that the Colosseum?”

After Donatella walked in on me shirtless, I got dressed and Owen and I walked 45 minutes to the train station. I’m glad that we’re both motivated (and by motivated I do mean poor) enough to want to walk places instead of taking the buses or a taxi. In a lot of cases buses take as long as walking. I walked for an hour yesterday to get new sneakers. Before I left I checked google maps to see how long a bus ride to the same place would take and it said 56 minutes.

Both sections of our Art History class were there so we had to wait for 40 kids to dribble into the station. I really like our professor. He has a very dry sense of humor and I think he likes me and Owen the best. We joked around while we were waiting for our train to show up. The train ride might’ve been my favorite part of the whole day. The countryside of Italy is beautiful. Owen and I took turns telling stories and laughing for the first half of the ride and then settled down to listen to music and look out the window for the second half.

I don’t love the other people in my program. They spent the majority of the day complaining. Our professor has a rule that you can take pictures before and after he’s talking, but please not while he’s actually lecturing about something. Which seems to make sense, but the people in my group reacted like he’d asked them to cut off one of their hands. At the end of the day, our professor took us into one final church for about ten minutes and I overheard one of the girls behind me say “this is my worst nightmare”. In my worst nightmare Lord Voldemort was chasing me around a ceiling fan, but whatever, I guess, to each her own.

Our trip started in the Palazzo Massimo, a museum of ancient art. My favorite sculpture was a bronze statue called “the boxer”. Contrasting to the other sculptures which showed athletes and gods in various poses of glory. The Boxer was exhausted, having just finished a fight. I loved the emotion and the fatigue. Stupidly, I didn’t take a picture of that so here’s a picture of one of the most famous pieces in the museum instead.


We spent about 3 hours in the first museum, which went quite a bit over both my museum and my social quota for the day. Knowing that we had about five more hours of the same thing that afternoon, Owen and I set off to get drunk. We walked into a restaurant and bought pizzas and ordered two of the cheapest drinks on the menu – shots of Jagermeister. Unfortunately, and also hilariously, our professor and two TA’s walked in just as the waitress was delivering them and sat down at the table just behind us. “Cheers!” she said, as Owen and I cringed behind the pepper grinder.

Of course, we weren’t so ashamed that we didn’t order two more shots later on. After that I had a really great time. We went to four more churches, the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore, the Church of San Pietro in Vincoli, the Santa Maria della Vittoria and the Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli.

Church of Santa Maria Maggiore (I think)

To use the phrase we’ve coined, Owen and I got Duomo’d by the Colosseum. For those of you who haven’t read past posts, or didn’t understand my initial description of the “verb” to get Duomo’d by a building is to have it come looming out of nowhere in such an obvious fashion that it leaves you feeling both startled and pretty stupid. It’s the equivalent of a building shark attack. Owen and I were walking down the street looking to the right (because I was like “I think the professor said the Colosseum was over there” and Owen replied, “that seems right”) and then I glanced to the left and there it was, in full view and about thirty feet away.

Owen and I have a running joke that, to everyone else, makes us seem absolutely stupid. We point at something, usually a lamp post or something along those lines and ask, “do you think that’s the David” to which the other replies “almost definitely”.

We did that with the Church of Santa Maria. Owen pointed to it and asked, “Do you think that’s the Colosseum?” And I said, “Yeah, or the Parthenon. I think that’s in this area”. Causing half the class to look at us in abject horror. Only the teacher smiled.

“We should really stop talking in front of other people,” I said, when everyone had looked away again.

“Yeah,” Owen agreed.

The Incredible Hulk Does Firenze

The thing I’m definitely struggling most to adjust to here is the concept that it’s okay to do nothing. Before I got to Florence I was backpacking, in a new city every other day. Then I was doing everything. I was walking all hours of the day, collapsing into bed exhausted each night, and I think that’s just as it should’ve been. But there’s a big difference between traveling through somewhere and living there. Predominately – and I’m just starting to realize this now – the fact that you can’t sustain the kind of energy output that you need when you’re traveling.

Maybe this is only coming up because I’m sick (thanks Owen) or as a result of the fact that I’ve walked between 13 and 22 miles every day since arriving in Florence, almost twenty days ago. I was mildly hallucinating last night in bed enough to see…well, not the face of God exactly, but the combination of my jacket hanging over the stained glass window bore a remarkable resemblance to Johnny Depp.

There are moments when the language barrier is absolutely hilarious. At dinner last night Donatella was vividly acting out all of the ways in which she had knee pain and trying to explain to us the doctor?/masseuse?/physical therapist?/surgeon? she was going to. I’m sure the actual explanation of what she was doing was quite normal, but the words that made it few the language barrier gave the impression that she was going to a doctor three times a week to get shots of acetic acid into her arms and legs.

Another moment like that happened today. I walked an hour out of the city to buy new sneakers (not because I stepped in the largest pile of dog crap that’s ever existed, but that certainly sped things along). When I brought my sneakers up to the register the man greeted me in Italian. I repeated the greeting back to him – I’m good like that – causing him to let off a chain of Italian sentences. I gave him my best “panic look” and he sighed, “English?”

“Yeah, that’d be good”

He finished ringing me up and said what I imagine was supposed to be something along the lines of “you have thirty days to return your shoes” but what he actually said was, “You have thirty days to change everything.”

On an unrelated note, I feel like the incredible Hulk in the ironically named “Grande house”. Some of the stone counter tops in the bathroom aren’t stuck to the counters with anything but sheer gravity. Nearly every time I walk in, I end up knocking at least one of them over and sending absolutely everything on it tumbling to the floor. Also, there’s a little glass shelf in the shower which might be at shoulder height for the Grande’s but is exactly the height of my elbow. The shelf is slanted and wobbles, so that when I accidentally knock into it – at least twice a shower, the little glass shelf jumps and sends all of Donatella’s shampoos crashing to the floor. The Grande’s have gotten used to the “Crash! CRASH! Ow! Sorry!” Combination of me trying to get from the door to the shower, which is comforting, because the first couple times I was worried Donatella would come busting in the door.

Related to that, she walked in on me topless yesterday. It was 7:30 in the morning and Owen and I had to leave for our Rome trip at 8 (More on Rome in the next post). Owen was awake, showered, dressed and eating breakfast, which is unsurprising since he has a habit of both waking up earlier than me and, unsurprisingly, getting to places on time more often than me. It was my intention to smear out of bed and roll down the street to the bus station with a couple seconds to spare. In the kitchen I heard (you can hear absolutely everything in this house) Donatella ask Owen “Where’s Becca?”

And I thought, uh oh.

Owen’s answer of, “She’s probably asleep, but that’s okay…” was already trailing away when it came out of his mouth and I could tell by the sound of footsteps that Donatella was veering toward my room. I sat up and reached for my shirt just in time for Donatella to come walking through the door.

Damn, I thought, too much asleep to do much more than blink at her in confusion.

“Owen is eating breakfast,” she announced.

“Um, yeah. I know.”

She nodded and left the room.

When I came home that day there were curtains over the glass paneling of my door, giving me privacy from everybody coming through the entryway. I feel like knocking would’ve also been a solid way to keep Donatella from walking in on me naked but the curtains are nice too. Actually they’re really great because they block out the light from Donatella’s 3am television watching and prevent innocent passer’s by from watching me change so I suppose I’ll chalk the whole interaction up to be a win.

There’s an issue with the shower in that it only drains when I’m not using it. The first time I showed Donatella she said “this has never happened before” and I thought “great” because I feel like people have been saying that a lot to me lately – the landlords of my house in Statia were like “wow, we’ve never had a tree grow into the plumbing of the house before” and my landlord in NYC was like “I’ve never had the entire ceiling come down on one of my renters before” etc. etc. I’m not saying I don’t trust her. I’m just saying I’ll be keeping all of my things in an emergency preparedness bag so I can just hop onto Noah’s Ark with the rest of the animals when the next great flood comes.

The Italian Mom Clean

Last year I began to learn the difference between “kid clean” and “adult clean” – routed predominately in the lack of crumbs in the latter. This semester I’m learning an entirely new type of clean: “Italian mom clean.” I try to leave time every morning before school to clean my room so that (theoretically), Donatella won’t have to. But clean for me means all the covers are on the bed, all of the trash is in the trash can and – I added this last one after the first week of living with Donatella – everything is off the floor. Sometimes this means I pile my textbooks on my desk, or my bed, or the little footstool that might be intended as a chair for my desk though it’s about six sizes too small.

For those of you who’ve been unfortunate enough to see a room that I’m living in you know that in addition to not typically doing any of these three things, I also like to leave my clothes (clean and dirty) on the floor along with everything else of vague importance. However, this is not Italian mom clean. Most days I come home from school to find that my bed has been made, my papers stacked on one corner of my desk, my hair brush has been moved somewhere that I need a treasure map to find, and my gum has been arranged in color order against my wall.

I don’t really mind the lack of privacy. Actually, it’d be great if Donatella could Italian mom clean the saltine crumbs out of my bed. It’s a little strange and a little uncomfortable – mostly because we never talk about it so I can’t tell if Donatella is ultra-cleaning my room because that’s just something that she does or if she has any irritation about feeling like she has to do it. I’m hoping it’s the former because if she’s expecting me to color coordinate my own packages of gum on my way to school every morning I can say right now that she’ll be disappointed.

In most cases, Donatella is extremely relaxed. I learned in Italian that, although adults will greet you with “ciao” both when you enter and leave a shop, you’re supposed to answer with “Buongiorno” or “Buonasera” depending on the time of day and leave with “arrivederci” (the formal version of ciao in both senses). At home, Owen and I both tried to adapt our language to the more respectful version of greeting and did it about two times before Donatella scolded us for being too formal. I think the real reason I’m not bothered by the lack of privacy is that it’s offset by a clear recognition of mine and Owen’s independence. Donatella doesn’t care where we’re going or when we get back. Both she and Enzo really care about us having a good time. Last night at dinner, when Donatella was out dancing, it was just me, Owen and Enzo at dinner (meaning it was mostly, and peacefully, silent) Enzo finished the meal by reiterating how much he and Donatella really wanted us to enjoy ourselves here and it was clear how much he meant it.

As a side note, Donatella has started leaving her clothes on my desk stool with mine and I can’t tell what secret message I’m supposed to take away from the gesture. I complimented one of her sweaters a couple days ago because I thought it was silly and today it was on my pile of clothes.

Not exactly my style.

Other things in the Grande household are clearer. The rules about Enzo’s wine are perhaps the most clear. The best thing about these rules are that they’re completely unspoken. At the dinner table there will either be one or two bottles of wine. If there is one bottle, Enzo keeps it in front of his plate. Neither Owen or I are permitted to touch it until Enzo has finished his third glass and then, without a word on either side, he’ll stand up and move it to the center of the table. Then we can serve ourselves. After a bottle of wine has been used for one meal, Enzo will bring it out and put it in the middle of the table, opening a fresh bottle for himself, which he’ll drink for the majority of the meal before permitting us (and mostly Owen, because I still don’t love the taste of wine) to try some.

The rules of ordering food outside of the house are also still forming. Today our Italian teacher took the whole class to buy gelatto so that she could show us how to pick a real gelatto store. What she taught us was that if there are huge mounds of ice cream or if there are unnatural colors, light blue being the most predominant, even offered in the store, then you should leave because it’s only for tourists. As we were leaving she asked, “Who wants to practice their Italian with the cashier?” Everybody averted their eyes. “Becca!”

I had to memorize the sentence “pago quindici gellati da due euro” which I repeated to myself the whole way there. Essentially I said, “I would like to purchase 15 gelattos at 2 euros a piece”. I felt better halfway through the walk when Antonella (our Italian prof) turned to Owen and impromptu ordered him to ask two Italian women for directions to the ice cream store.

We’re also trying to figure out the best places for lunch in the city. My favorite place so far is a sandwich store called “amici di ponte vecchio”. There are a lot of things that Florence does really well. Bread is not one of them. The “amici” is the only store I’ve found so far where the bread added to the sandwich.

At another sandwich store the guy behind the counter asked “parlo italiana?”

To which I responded, “poco.” And didn’t realize until Owen started grinning that I’d said “A few” instead of “a little” (which would’ve been ‘po’). Though, in retrospect saying that I speak a few Italian probably got the message across better than if I’d answered correctly.

The view from the Piazza de Michelangelo (a ‘must walk to’ if you ever are in Florence)

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.