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

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.

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.


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).