Quirky insights to science, art, studying abroad, & other miscellaneous happenings.

Quirky insights to science, art, studying abroad, & other miscellaneous happenings.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Italian Culture: Politics

Disclaimer: As with any culture discussions, this pertains to the general Italian population. Exceptions will always exist, but this post documents what I've observed of Italians as a whole.

I became inspired to write this post when I walked past this street the other night, while on the way to a Greek restaurant. (Speaking of which, was absolutely amazing.. will need to do food-themed posts for a week. Or a month).

For some reason, this graffiti quote fascinated me (P.S. I am by no means supporting the illicit means of graffiti). But it reminded me of home. Besides the fact that it was in English, the statement sounded… American. And it perfectly sums up what many Italians think about the government.

Franca, my host grandmother, can go on for literally hours about the uselessness of the Italian government. If you think we don't respect our American government enough, well, it's definitely worse here. It's a topic of snide comments, sarcastic conversations, and people to poke fun at. Not necessarily in a rude way, but in a normal, day-to-day, cultural way. As if you were talking about the weather.

To help understand how this mindset came to be, consider recent history. After World War I, Mussolini ruled. Then World War II happened, hurting the country even more. However, from 1946 (due to a referendum), Italy became a republic and grew in the post-war period up to the 1960s. This time of peace allowed some prosperity and stability, as with the rest of the world. 

Then we enter into the 1970s. Political upheaval. Uncertainty. Corruption, crime, terrorism, government debt. 
(By the way, the Italian mafia is plenty real and alive, folks. We'll save that for another post).
In 1994, Berlusconi was elected as Prime Minister, but then had to step down after losing support. In 2008, he has somehow reobtained power and is "ruling" Italy, despite the controversies and scandal. Update: the used-to-be-mayor of Florence has now non-democratically become Prime Minister.

That was a very, very brief overview of Italian government, but hopefully gives you some background for understanding the current government.

Last week, a congregation of political figures from all over Italy decided to meet in Rome -- for 30 days, I believe. I'm not educated on the specifics, but to sum up the attitude, there's lack of faith, lots of discussion, no visible results, and not much hope in the government. When we visited Rome last weekend, we passed by a mass of reporters waiting outside a government building, hoping to get a glimpse of one of the mayors. Besides police and journalists, however, there was a surprising lack of ordinary people waiting. 

After explaining to us what the commotion was about, our tour guide (who is also my art history professor) simply walked us on by, acting like it was no big deal that someone politically famous could be exiting, at any moment.
This reaffirms the idea of how Italians identify with their regions (where they're from in Italy), rather national pride with their government.

On a lighter note, here's a video my Italian professor showed us upon our arrival in Italy. I thought it'd be a great intro to my upcoming posts on Italian culture.

(Heads up -- there may be some sound. Adjust speakers accordingly.)

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

What to do in Florence: Flea Market

Franca (my host grandma) told me about a flea market happening at the piazza right around the corner (Santo Spirito). It is there every 2nd Sunday of the month. I wandered there in the afternoon, and really didn't even need to know where I was going -- so many locals were heading there and leaving, you just had to follow the crowd.

I wanted to share this authentic experience through the lens of my camera, showing you the camaraderie atmosphere of the locals in Florence. 

The soaps below are made in Fiesole (see post here).

From my limited understanding of Italian, I'm pretty sure they are some sort of vegan or organic soap.

It was also a little bit of an antique market. Every Sunday presents a slightly different market theme -- organic foods or antiques, for example.

These gummy candies were definitely the most flavorful I've had! The soft, chewy texture lets the fruity taste sink in, while not sticking to your mouth like Swedish fish. 

I loved capturing these photos and had a lot of fun simply exploring the different shops!
The markets in Santo Spirito are worth stopping by and taking a look at.

Here are some more photos of the market, but from the following week:

Placing yourself with the locals will show you all what Florence has to offer -- beyond the touristy places. It's a great opportunity to strike up conversations with new people (mostly Italians, a few Americans) and practice your Italian. 

I chatted with a lady from Boston, who is currently studying art history and gallery work. Upon hearing that I was studying with Richmond, she exclaimed, "I almost studied with them back in the day -- but I didn't, and here I am now!" The things I learn and the people I meet continue to fascinate me and deepen my curiosity about the world around me. I hope I've inspired you all and perhaps passed on the travel/culture bug!

"No culture can live, if it attempts to be exclusive." - Mahatma Ghandi

Monday, February 24, 2014

5 Things I Didn't Anticipate About Florence

To clarify, the purpose of this post isn't to complain, but to provide aspects of Florence that aren't as glamorized and praised about. Florence is a real city (with people that work and live here for their entire life), and no real inhabited place is perfect. 

Here are 5 things I didn't anticipate (and don't particularly care for) about Florence, in no particular order, to add a touch of realism whilst portraying my study abroad experience here. 

1. Graffiti
In the back of my mind, I knew I would be going to a city. And most cities display graffiti. But having never lived in a main part of a city before, I didn't exactly expect it to adorn many of the streets. It does, to an extent, detract from the historical atmosphere of the city.

2. Odor
While walking around this beautiful city, you will undoubtedly walk into whiffs of -- no, not nutella and pastries (only sometimes) -- but of sewage, smoke, and trash. That's just the way it is. Trash containers are out, sometimes overflowing, and people smoke everywhere. You can't avoid it. Sometimes it does contaminate the artsy atmosphere of the city (or adds to it, depending on perspective).

3. Creepy men
Granted, not all the men here are creepy. But I'm talking about the older ones, maybe in their 30s to 40s, from whom you would least expect it. They are usually alone, and are on the prowl when it's dark. You reduce your chances greatly of being approached by one if you don't slip up and act like a tourist. Like, for example, having your giant DSLR camera in view. Or looking at a map on your phone (this is more inconspicuous than a paper map, but all it takes is a second for a on-the-prowl man to notice that you're walking slower and looking at your phone's map) and you're caught. Ladies, if you're alone, stay aware of your surroundings in the evenings.

4. Persistent salespeople
This might just be a cultural thing, but I actually don't like walking through the famous San Lorenzo market. If you hesitate, make eye contact, or anything besides ignore them, you run the risk of being pestered and pushed into purchasing something that just happens to be on "sale" and is "geniune leather". I'm accustomed to doing my own shopping in peace without needing to ask to try on shoes and having a salesperson wait on me. But that's just me. 

5. Higher cost 
At least, compared to Ohio. (A girl in my Italian class did say that she pays over $700 in rent per month where she lives in Cambridge, and their apartment total is $2800/month.) But really -- the water's not free. In a restaurant? €3. Sometimes wine is cheaper. Need to use the bathroom? €0,50.

This was expected, but if you're considering where to study abroad.. Choose deliberately. It does make life a lot easier and less stressful if you don't have to think about costs when making a simple snack purchase. Also, things aren't usually returnable. And if you happen to find a store that will take it back, you receive store credit rather than cash back. 

All of these are minor details, but definitely make a difference when coming from America, where the land of plenty has free water and less cigarette smoke. 

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Even the Best Artists Cut Corners

One of the highlights of study abroad is that what you learn in class is complemented by the history itself, which deepens your experience and makes the city much more meaningful to you.

I didn't think I would be this fascinated about the history, but it is inseparable from understanding the art.

Did you know that pigments were made from rocks and minerals, before oil painting? They would grind them into a powder, and use egg yolk as the binding agent. How creative, when nowadays we just buy paint at a store!

We visited the Santa Croce church in town to see in person what we've talked about in class.
Giotto, the most influential painter of his time in the 1300s, changed the way people perceived art and expressed reality. Before, painters did the typical, flat oval face and the frontal view of the body, draped with endless cloth. He was the first artist to break away from this trend, painting figures at an angle and moving closer to realism with shading.

For example, here's one by Cimabue:

And now by Giotto -- notice the use of shading and the various portrayed angles of the people.
So very much improved and breaking away from the flatness trend.

Back in the day, many people involved in the banking field were concerned for their souls: the Catholic church deemed that those who made money off of interest were sinners and were destined for hell. 
However, the concept introduced was that if you donated money to have the church built and the frescoes done, then you could be redeemed from this fate. 

So, the two wealthiest families (who were coincidentally funding the wars of the King of England at the time) poured their finances into this. What is shown below tells the story of St. Francis and his life.
Several chapels are paid for in advance to have the family buried there.

Because they are so monstrously wealthy, only the best artists were hired to do the work: namely Giotto and his apprentices. What is interesting is that the money ran out -- the king of England never paid them back, of course -- Giotto rushed to finish them. 

Now, frescoes are done on freshly laid wet plaster. That's how the color is stained and it will remain for ages. It takes a very long time (perhaps one head painted a day). However, as the title of this post indicates… the famous Giotto, who basically instigated the Renaissance, did the second chapel work on dry plaster to speed up the process! 

When you do work on dry plaster, it just peels off over time. Very evident when you compare side by side. He probably was thinking, I'll have been dead for a hundred years before anyone notices what I did…

Hence, the title of this post: even the best artists cut corners. 
As much as we look up to these famous and influential people who changed world history (so to speak), the pedestal is not without its imperfections.

And to conclude, I present to you:
the tomb of Michelangelo. 

And the tomb of Galileo.

Rather than learning by hearing or writing, I am learning by doing, seeing, experiencing. 
I'm able to have glimpses of insight of what Florence was like hundreds of years ago, and how it has changed to what it is now. Each day is a new opportunity, and I'm looking forward to seeing so much more!

Monday, February 17, 2014

What To Do In Florence: Artisan Chocolate Fair

If you ever happen to be in Florence in February, check out the Fiera del Cioccolato Artigianale (aka, the chocolate fair). It lasts 10 days and is an exhibition of Italian and foreign chocolatiers. With samplings (that I happily participated in), shows, and workshops, this is quite the event in Florence. 

Drool over these pictures that I took on Valentine's Day and discover your inner chocolate-loving self.

(In case I didn't mention it, Italians have a minor obsession with pistachio. It's a common flavor to find for gelato (haven't tried it yet) and is on the equivalent level of, say, hazelnut -- or in Italian, nocchio. So pistachio is a common theme you'll see.)

Walking closely to the chocolate ensures that you'll get plenty of sampling offers. Try them all! The rich and flavorful chocolate will get to you through a variety of textures, sweetness, and meltiness in your mouth. Fortunately, that was enough for my taste buds, and I miraculously survived this without making any purchases. It wasn't as pricey as it could've been, but it definitely wasn't your average affordable chocolate. :)

The pistachio with chocolate is surprisingly a great combination. 

As we venture on, the chocolate starts getting more specialized. 
Chocolate in the form of guitars, scissors, tools...

As usual, technology is not too far away. A chocolate iPhone or tablet? Check.

Beautiful macaroons were not exempt from this fair. They're €1 each, which is almost half of what it costs at the L'Audre here in Florence.

Want chocolate that looks like pizza? Don't worry, they have that, too.

Now, these strawberries. If you are within 8 feet of this stand, you will smell them. Fresh, ripe, and sweet strawberries at their finest moment. It was a tempting €4 to spend for a cup with chocolate and whipped cream!

At this point, I've become the extreme tourist, getting into all sorts of awkward photography positions to capture these photos. So focused on my lens, I didn't realize the guy at the stand was trying to also get into the photo…

… so I took another one with him in it. Like most Italians, he was very enthusiastic and friendly.

I might be turning into a chocolate snob. The chocolate fair really set the ambiance of Valentine's Day here in Florence. Coincidence? I think not.
Now go and eat some chocolate. San Valentino felice!

"Chocolate is the first luxury. It has so many things wrapped up in it: Deliciousness in the moment, childhood memories, and that grin-inducing feeling of getting a reward for being good."

Friday, February 14, 2014

Where's Vinci?

Last weekend, I searched around for nearby towns to visit, and a few of us ended up going to Vinci, where of course, the famous Leonardo Da Vinci was born. I absolutely made it a priority to go (see #5 in this post here: 5 Things I Want To Accomplish in Italy).
We took a train, then a bus -- first time navigating this type of transportation on our own in the Italian countryside, about an hour away.

I'm pretty sure that when I looked up the town on tripadvisor, there were literally 2 attractions listed for the town. I'm not even sure you can call it a town, considering that there were less than 10 streets on this elevated hill. We went to the Leonardo Da Vinci museum and also visited his house. We saw less than 20 locals all day --- and this was a Saturday. The only other visitors was a group of British tourists, which we ran into only a few times.
(I apologize in advance for the quality of these photos -- I brought my great and mighty DSLR camera…and upon arriving, realized that I had left the battery back in Florence.)

The views were gorgeous, as the area is agricultural and the rain and sunshine alternated all day.

We took an intense hike to get to Da Vinci's house, passing by a number of houses…as well as chickens! This is someone's yard. We did not notice he was there until after the 5 of us had already taken a number of photos.

Everywhere we turned was so beautiful, and Vinci served as a beautiful day trip away from the busy streets of Florence. Wandering throughout the town made me wonder what it was like for Da Vinci to grow up… and how he became so motivated and inspired.

Vinci is so paint-able and seemed to be the Italian countryside at its finest. The museum had a number of his inventions and drawings, and it didn't hit me how practical and realistic Leonardo's innovations were until this trip. Everything he designed was meant, in some way, to make life easier at the time: navigating the Arno with a boat, using physics to design machines to manufacture textiles and wool. 
I wonder if, at the time, his community looked down on him at all for not doing "typical work." While everyone else was busy doing manual labor in agriculture, he was busy designing parachutes and inventing machine guns.

Such an interesting town to visit -- I highly recommend going off the beaten path a little and visiting the town of Vinci. It's probably not in your guidebook (it wasn't in mine) but it is worth going out of your way and is one of the most beautiful towns I've seen.

"The noblest pleasure is the joy of understanding." - Leonardo Da Vinci

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

5 Things I Want To Accomplish in Italy

"Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover." - Mark Twain

1. Take the path less traveled (both literally and figuratively).

Make the study abroad experience your own. Don't just do what everyone else does -- tailor it to what you want out of it. Group activities are great, but you have a limited amount of time. Having some degree of vision of why you are here will help direct your choices and how you spend your time. Make wise decisions. Don't be afraid to travel solo. Visit the neighboring smaller towns, and focus on traveling locally to really know Italy.

2. Get involved in the community. Meet the locals.

I didn't anticipate the amount of effort it would take to break out of the "study abroad bubble" -- the comfort zone that has formed with all the other American students. It's easier to want to adjust and find a routine, as well as being around people that speak English, than those who are different from you in culture, lifestyle, and background. Volunteer. Join a choir. Spend more time with your home stay. Go to the local flea market and talk to people. Accidentally go to a church service in Italian. You'll be surprised at all that you learn.

3. Push myself to learn as much Italian as possible.

Especially in Florence, you probably could get by without speaking any more Italian than "ciao" (I only wish I was kidding). It isn't because Italians speak fluent English -- although some do -- but more of the fact that it's easier for us not to try and learn. It's going to take practice and brainpower, and you have to make a conscious effort to speak it. But do so, and you'll be rewarded with appreciative Italians and a better knack for learning new phrases. It also will better enable you to do #1, 2, and 4 on this list.

4. Continue to try new things. Be more outgoing.

Take different routes to school. Discover a new cafe. Go to the chocolate festival on the other side of town. It's natural to want to find a routine, but getting too comfortable will defeat the purpose of studying abroad. Whether it's braving the bus system without knowing what stop you're getting off at, or trying a gelato flavor that sounds atrocious (pistachio, anyone?), you're abroad to try new things. Don't let fear stop you.

5. “Study the science of art. Study the art of science. Develop your senses – especially learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.” - Leonardo Da Vinci

I spent a pretty insane amount of time in undergrad studying science -- virology, anatomy, microbiology, chemistry, etc. All my jobs were science-related: nursing, teaching health/biology, tutoring chemistry, working in a chemistry lab. I've only taken 4 liberal arts courses: a religion class taught by a Jewish rabbi, a drawing class (from when I thought I would also major in studio art), an English class, and a regional studies on Africa course.

But now I'm here in Italy to play catch up as an artist to match my science-oriented brain. I know about the individuals that dedicated their lives to deciphering DNA, but what about those that spent 27 years on a set of bronze doors for a city? (Lorenzo Ghiberti)
Human abilities and talents vary immensely, and we need to study both the sciences and arts to better understand the world we live in. Florence has a unique history with both foundations.

A fascinating example would be the Black Plague. Many believe it delayed the start of the Renaissance -- which probably would have started in the 1300s with Giotto (the most influential artist at the time, breaking away from the mold and depicting reality more than idealism). But it didn't because of the plague, thus wiping out the population and putting a halt to art development.

Or when painting, how to use colors with our perception of light. The science in colors (black absorbs, how our brain interprets via the rods/cones of the retina) determine how to apply the theory in painting.
It's all related -- you just have to look for it!

Here's to a semester of artistic and scientific insight with some Italian in the middle. I'm looking forward to sharing experiences of the above accomplishments in future posts!

Friday, February 7, 2014

Day in Florence: it's a small world

Florence never ceases to amaze me with its multitude of unique little shops.
So many artisan shops exist here and have such history connected with them. Yesterday, I decided to explore Florence without a destination in mind; my goal was to simply to soak in the atmosphere, as I had a free morning before class.

I ended up meandering into the Bargello Museum -- which focuses on sculptures and houses works by Michelangelo and Donatello. Although I'm not into sculpture as much as painting, I garnered a greater appreciation and was in awe of the works displayed. 

At the end of my perusing, a group comes in and I recognize my tour guide from Fiesole, Paola, who lives in Firenze. It was a pleasant surprise to run into an Italian that I knew, and she explained that she was taking a class -- this was a field trip. It's interesting because I knew she had already finished school, and worked in the tourism business. It seems like everyone here studies art and tourism in school as a basic curriculum.

After some more wandering, I happened to see a cafe that I recognized would take our meal cards, so I went on in and ordered a cappuccino and croissant. Can I just say -- delicious? What a wonderful way to start a mid-morning. My first cappuccino in Italy did NOT disappoint, and it's no wonder they don't have Starbucks here (or even Subway, for that matter). I don't know how I'll survive when I have to go back to Ohio...

The croissant isn't much to look at, but when I asked them to pick for me, he deemed this one his favorite. There's this raspberry jam in there that has the perfect sweetness and balanced texture. Most of the food in Italy is just so fresh and delicious! 
(I'll need to practice my food-describing skills..)

What's coincidentally weird here, is that I recognize and see the man who works/owns this printing shop near school (who I just saw the day before). He's chatting with the owner of this cafe, and all I'm thinking is, what are the odds…

To me, Florence seems like a city, bigger than my hometown, and I never happened to run into people I  know even in my town. Later in the day, I run into another guide I had just met that day, but at the Leather School in Florence. It was just one of those days!

I actually enjoyed spending my morning alone. I didn't think I would like sitting in a cafe by myself, but I stayed busy and really got to reflect and enjoy the experience without the distraction of someone else. I'm learning that although I'm a huge planner, I do enjoy being spontaneous and venturing off without a destination sometimes. :)

This, by far, is the best panino I've had in my life. It doesn't look like much, but it's from a shop called La Dispensa. Everything is simply there: bread, meat, cheeses, etc. You simply ask for a panino, and choose what you want. It's all fresh: you get to watch him cut the cheese of your choice, the turkey, tomato, etc. There are so many options that it's actually quite overwhelming!

I wasn't even hungry when I got it, and was intending to save it for later. Let's just say that I completely devoured it within the next 15 minutes! :)

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Doing laundry and groceries like a pro

Part 1: Grocery shopping like a pro

Remember way back, in this post here, where I explained about our meal tickets and a few grocery cards?

The Esselunga (where we have €50 of grocery cards) is a 20-25 min walk. This was my second trip here, and I smartly brought a backpack this time and my own grocery bags. [You have to pay for bags otherwise.]

I spent €20 this time to obtain what is pictures below: cereal, yogurt, sandwich-making products, etc. and also detergent for clothes. 

I actually love grocery shopping here. It's crazy, crowded, hectic, and most things are in random order so you can find socks by the vegetables or toiletries next to chocolate. One thing that was different was getting fruit: you have to put on a plastic glove, put your fruit in a bag, then weight it. Consequently, a sticker will print out the cost/barcode when you choose the fruit (or vegetable) so they don't have to take time to weigh it when you check out. 

Part 2: How my towel heater turned into an unlikely dryer

My socks being dried by the towel heater. 

Doing laundry is a fascinating experience at first, let me tell you. They don't have dryers in Italy (except perhaps at laundromat-esque places). What you see above is what I've deemed to be a "towel-heater". You usually have your towel (or in my case, my pajamas) so it's warm when you use it after the shower! It's a great invention. And it's really hot! (Upon first discovering it, I thought I burned myself). 

So after using an interesting washer, I thought -- why not hang up my hard-to-dry items on the towel heater??

Absolute brilliance. Jeans and cotton socks are dry in hours. Why did I deem this method faster than the other students'? 

1) Those who don't have a towel heater, those unfortunate enough. 
2) They share their bathroom, so there isn't enough room on one heater to dry a substantial amount of clothes. 

Many of my peers are telling me it takes days for their jeans to dry! 😱 I have heard of people putting their clothes over the heater though...but the majority just hang it up to dry, which equals a long drying time. 

And that's how I do my laundry efficiently in Italy in the winter.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Gelato -- finally!

Recently, I've been trying to figure out the balance between maintaining a tight budget while spending smartly, when warranted. I held out for two weeks until I tried my first gelato ever in Italy.

Before coming here, I researched 3 main places that were recommended in terms of price, whether it's for locals or tourists, and of course, how good the actual gelato is.
The one most highly recommended was La Carraia, and I'm telling you -- it's fate. It happens to be a 3 minute walk from my home, and it was actually closed with traditional steel doors… until February 1st.

Prices start at €1,50 here, and I am quite impressed! I've heard many disappointing gelato stories (the touristy, expensive, not-tasty kind) and I am so glad I waited! 

I chose the flavor that seemed to be popular (looking at the amount that's already gone -- in the photo below). Torte e formaggio: otherwise known as cheesecake. It was so soft and creamy and comparable to Jeni's (for my Columbus/Ohio readers) with an Italian twist to it. Absolutely amazing.
You just have to savor it.

I'll probably end up trying just about every flavor here by the time I have to leave. Money is tricky thing, everyone. Save a few euro by walking (versus taxi or bus) and spend it on gelato! It'll be so worth it. :)

For my fellow study abroad students: once again, this is La Carraia. Come out from the school, but instead of crossing the bridge, turn left. You'll see it on your left, adjacent to the following bridge, aptly called Ponte La Carraia. :) 

Edit: You know it was good gelato when that night you dreamed (literally, as in after falling asleep) that you went back multiple times already...

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Fiesole (on the outskirts of Florence)

Fiesole is a town located on a hill overlooking Florence. You can take the local bus for less than €2 to get here, and they are known for some amazing restaurants and views.

We visited an archeological site, which had Etruscan and Roman remains. The Etruscan settlement in Fiesole was conquered by the Romans back in 90BC, so many buildings were burnt or abandoned. The Roman culture influenced the buildings more, and the Etruscan culture gradually disappeared.

This used to serve as a gymnasium, and there are thermal baths here.

The Roman theatre below is one of the best preserved structures in Fiesole. They still use it for performances locally, and it can seat up to 3000. Quite mossy and slippery!

A small archeological museum exists here and holds bronze votive statues found near the sites.

A gorgeous view over Florence.

Nowadays, I've been busy planning the rest of my semester. I improvised and made my own planner (because the only ones I can manage to find here are extremely pricey). Everyone's planning their weekend trips, spring break trips, etc.

Time for me to decide what I want to do!

Any suggestions for where I should go? 
(Exclude Ireland/Scotland -- that'll be later when I fly back from London).
(Probably exclude Eastern Europe -- save for a future, cheaper backpacking trip?)

I'm thinking Switzerland…or the Northern Lakes in Italy… perhaps Genoa? So many possibilities -- only financial limitations. :)

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