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.

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.