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

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

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Spring break Itinerary

Starting tomorrow, students in my study abroad program are embarking on the wonderful one-week journey called spring break. If I had to split it down to percentages, I'd say 94% have booked a trip with student travel agencies (namely, Bus2alps or Euroadventures -- consisting of American students, nightlife tips, and ridiculously long bus rides). Of the remaining 6%, 4% have booked their own trip with friends, are traveling with family, or visiting someone they know in Europe.

From the sound of this post, you can probably already tell that I fall in the remaining 2% -- traveling solo.

Two other students I know of are doing a solo 10-day trip, one of them being my previous hotel roommate, Catherine. (I mentioned her briefly in my post here: First Full Day in Firenze.)

I'll eventually expand more on the whys and the hows of this trip in future posts, but for now, to keep y'all in the loop, here's the WHAT:

It looks like a lot of hopping, I know -- but I plan on seeing Portovenere, Santa Margherita Ligura, (and from there: Portofino, Camogli), Menaggio (from there, other Lake Como towns), Como, and ending up in Geneva, Switzerland to see my friend from high school who is interning there!

[With this complicated itinerary, I'm learning a lot about the non-standardized train system in Italy. I've got 13 transportation hop-on-and-offs. What makes it more fun? I found out this morning that it's supposed to rain starting from my second day. Hooray for more challenges!]

When I chose to do this trip solo, I was confident and had no doubt in my mind about doing this. As it's getting closer, I'm acquiring what I call my panic attacks. Reading up on "female solo travel tips" on Google is not recommended before a trip, as your brain will probably only see the panic-inducing parts. Such as bringing a safety whistle, a rubber doorstop to deter intruders, tales of the danger-stranger-narrowly-avoided, and barricading your room door with furniture in the room.

That's when I quickly realized that I didn't possess as much confidence as I thought I had.

No worries. As I'm still figuring out my itinerary just ironing out the fine details of my trip, I don't regret this decision for a second. I'm experiencing the same jitters I had days before I came to Italy for study abroad, but clearly it's been more than worth it.

I won't be blogging from Friday until Sunday, March 30 -- but I'll be updating my Instagram during this time to take you all with me on my travels (the link is provided on my Connect page here). And if you haven't already checked it out, my Tumblr gallery is scheduled to post pictures from our past weekend in Venice while I'm absent.

I want to thank everyone who is reading this -- for a cliché, I truly would not be doing this whole thing (study abroad, spring break on my own) if it wasn't for your constant encouragement and support for me to pursue this dream. I owe a lot to each one of you -- whether it was forcing you to edit my scholarship essays, listening to me vent about my frustrations and struggles of being here, commenting on my posts so I know someone's out there reading ;) or financial help -- THANK YOU. 

Arrivederci -- and I'll be back at the end of March to play catch up on blog posts for this month.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Reasons for Solo Travel

[Photo taken at the Peggy Guggenheim Museum in Venice.]

There are blogs that exist for the sole purpose of solo travel -- and especially for females, so I'm not going to reiterate what's already been done. Here are my top 3 reasons, in no particular order, for why I'm doing 10 days by myself for sprinbreak -- in areas I've never set foot on in my lifetime. 

1. By design, solo travel forces you to learn how to be alone with yourself. 

For some reason, us females have a tendency to even go to the bathroom in groups starting from middle school. Traveling alone makes you come to terms with yourself and your personality. Are you more introverted or extroverted than you thought? Spend timbeing comfortable alone. Get to know yourself, and what better situation than a challenging one?

2. You can do whatever you want. 

That's not completely true, if you consider extremes, but you are the only one making choices. You decide when to eat, what to eat, where to go, how long to stay. You have the world in front of you, and no one is restricting you but yourself. This sounds selfish, but here's a counter argument to that -- it's actually scary to be this selfish. At least in my experience, my life revolves around a schedule that is indirectly determined by others. Getting to work at a certain time, class schedules have set times, and you have filtered choices. When I am on my own, I always struggle with the endless options. It doesn't help that I'm already an indecisive person, and figuring out what to do with yourself is one of the hardest parts for me. To quote a fellow study abroad student's reaction to my trip: "I wouldn't even know what to do if I traveled by myself!" Well, that's what I'm trying to learn, old sport. :)

3. You get more connected with the world around you, including meeting interesting and kind souls (and sometimes, not-so-kind). 

Without the distraction of someone else traveling with you, you can put your full attention into taking in the atmosphere and beauty of a place. You'll appreciate it in a deeper sense for yourself. When you're on your own, you are also more approachable to strangers (compared to traveling as a couple, family, or group of friends, since no one likes to intrude). There's a certain indescribable feeling of peace and freedom. You're more open to meeting strangers, and vice versa. 

I'm not above saying that I don't have it all together. I hope to conquer all these reasons and more -- I can't recall ever eating out on my own, or arriving at a new location to find my hostel when it's dark. There's still iffy details that remain elusive -- bus timetables, for example. I'll learn to improvise and take the fast trains by myself. And hopefully, my Italian skills will improve by a million. 

I signed up for this because I felt ready to tackle this trip. Taking a trip with friends will be more likely down the road than doing a solo trip to areas of Italy that are more inaccessible. 

Bring it on, world. I'm prepared. 

Thursday, March 13, 2014

When In Rome, Pt. 2: Then Tivoli

Here's Part 2 of our weekend in Rome. See Part 1 here

What would you do if you had an afternoon free in Rome?
The possibilities = endless. 

Of course, when you place a few college students together, the first destination is --- gelato. 
My art history professor/tour guide/knowledgeable German/Italian, named Angela, told us about the famous gelateria, Giolitti. 

Giolitti is the oldest ice cream parlor in Rome (quite a feat in itself), founded 1890. The same family still owns it and keeps their secret recipes hidden, refusing to sell out to larger dairy companies. It's far from those self-claimed hidden, "unknown" gelaterias, being packed with locals and tourists alike, but I tell you -- it's worth the wait. ;)

Being here in Italy, away from your normal routine, per say, has allowed me to recognize my priorities and what I truly enjoy. I've begun to accept that I'm drawn to nature, landscapes, and the outdoors, as well as art. Museums and historical landmarks do make an impact also, but usually it costs money and unless there's particular interest, I usually head straight for the beautiful views first. As a result, I realized that with my few remaining daylight hours in Rome, I wanted to really explore solo and visit the Villa Borghese gardens. 

Traveling tip: google maps is probably your most efficient public transportation resource. 

So off I went, equipped with my sense of freedom and adventure. I took the bus for the first time in Rome (their system is slightly a hot mess compared to Florence). With fairly few glitches -- witnesses watching me struggle with validating my bus ticket (until someone had pity and assisted me), squeezing onto a metro and being smushed by five random American students until I could barely breath and fall twenty stories without being injured, needing to use the bathroom very badly and for the first time in Italia, purchasing something to use the said bathroom -- I think I did pretty well. 

It's exactly what Solena mentioned before: that "rewarding feeling" of getting a stronger grip on the culture and navigating a different city/country. 

These were everywhere, throughout the gardens!

This is the beginning of my creeping adventures  portfolio of people photography. Simply Italians enjoying a typical Saturday afternoon.  

On our 4th day, I opted to go on the optional trip to the nearby town of Tivoli. It's known for it's villas, and we visited Hadrian's Villa (aka Villa Adriana), as well as Villa d'Este -- both of which are UNESCO World Heritage sites. 

When in Italy, a villa doesn't merely refer to a mansion -- Villa Adriana (pictured below) has over 30 buildings, including palaces, thermal baths, theaters, temples, libraries. . . This villa was a retreat for the Roman Emperor Hadrian, but when the Roman empire declined, it became neglected and ruined. 

The ruins are, unfortunately, rapidly deteriorating, but the architecture interestingly resembles Greek and Roman structures. Pictured below is the Maritime Theatre.

Our next stop, Villa d'Este, was equally impressive. This villa serves as a lasting example of the Italian Renaissance garden and architecture. 

This villa contains an impressive amount of fountains, grottoes, and music -- but it doesn't end there. As an early model for European gardens, an aqueduct also runs through underneath the city to harness waters from the Anio river (1560s). All the water supply that goes to the fountains, ornamental basins, and grottoes, reaches through by natural gravity, which is unbelievable engineering. 

Having a weekend dedicated to seeing and experiencing Rome helped put all the history I'm learning into a greater perspective. To begin recognizing names, accomplishments, and dates really causes you to appreciate where you are much more. It's like a sixth sense added to your being -- you're taking it all in through seeing, smelling, hearing, touching (sort of), and tasting (well, at least the food) -- but this is all reinforced and supported in your brain by your knowledge and understanding of what you're taking in. 

Also, I've recently been asked about posting more photos, so in response to that -- take a look at my "Connect" page at the top to see where I'll be posting my photos and paintings. 
For more photos of Rome and Tivoli, you can look at my Tumblr gallery.  This way I can preserve my writing space on this blog. :)

To sum up my current experience with blogging and social media -- "If things seem under control, you are just not fast enough." Study abroad changes you in more ways than you can think of. . . 

Monday, March 10, 2014

What To Do In Florence: Making Masks For Carnevale

This past Sunday, our school gave us the opportunity to go to the famous Carnival in Viareggio, as a day trip. 

What is the Carnevale in Viareggio? 
In 1873, some wealthy people in Viareggio decided to have a parade of floats to celebrate carnival in the town square. Today, it is one of the grandest carnivals in the world. The large floats were originally built with wood and plaster, constructed by carpenters and ironsmiths. What's unique about Viareggio's carnival is the satirical depiction of political and daily life. It adds an extra level of depth, allowing us to reflect on societal problems as well as
The artistic craft continued to evolve, and in 1925, sculptors initiated paper mache -- thus allowing huge but lightweight figures to "float" in the air. I've never see anything like this before (more pictures to come soon) and the entire carnival's a thing to behold. There now exists a site that houses the floats, a laboratory where children can come learn the basics of paper mache, as well as a museum that houses historical carnival materials. In 2002, the Viareggio Carnival earned the title of "The Carnival of Italy and Europe."

To prepare for this experience, I participated in a workshop last week to make my own carnival mask -- guided by master artist Elena Bianchini. She introduced us to traditional paper mache techniques, teaching us about the history and culture of the Italian artistic craft. 

First, you take thick paper (originally made from melted clothing scraps -- the same kind used during the Renaissance) and lay it down with water + glue onto a face mold, which Elena can customize for different faces.

After 3 layers of this soft yet thick paper, Elena lets the mask dry for a few hours (or days, depending on the weather). This is the starting point, where we all received our own masks to work on.  

The next step was to take the glue+water material, and lay on some tissue paper to create a Renaissance effect. [Sidenote: These masks can be used for anything -- theaters, carnivals, etc.]

 Here's mmask after that step:

Then, a layer of white acrylic paint… and then we painted our masks from creativity. I did look up some images for some artistic inspiration!

The final art product! Artistically asymmetrical, which was unintentional. . .

And here are some photos of masks that Elena has made. Contrary to what most people would think, the simpler the mask, the classier. Elena describes to us the unfortunate degrading in the quality of masks -- the ones that sell for a few euro on the street, are extremely elaborate, and are made of plastic. Her masks can last years upon years of use, if taken care of properly. 

Being able to work with my hands to craft a mask was such a fun and unique experience! By participating in this workshop, I felt even more connected to understanding the value of masks in Italian history and culture. Not just learning about, but also participating in these Italian traditions (as well as getting a glimpse of the life of a Florentine artisan) was such a enriching experience. 

I'll be sharing pictures of the Viareggio Carnival soon -- and I promise, the pictures will NOT disappoint. (I may or may not have taken over 350 photos in under 5 hours. . . )

Thursday, March 6, 2014

When in Rome, Pt. 1: Be A Tourist

As we're trekking across the streets of Rome, my anticipation shows as I'm walking with an awkward blend of a bounce and a skip. It's our second day of the 4-day Rome trip with the school (Feb 20-23), and we were walking briskly hiking with my art history professor, Angela.

To be honest, Rome didn't impress me at first. Cigarette smoke filled the alleyways. I felt like I was "just" in another city in Italy. And I didn't have much appreciation for it before -- my studies and interests never went too far into the architecture scene, and the last time I studied Roman history (albeit I found it fascinating) was in 8th grade. 

But look past the graffiti, the gypsies, the tourists (why yes, I've felt so cushioned by people that I could have fallen from 20 stories and been perfectly safe), and you'll see a well preserved city of culture and history where Italians live from day-to-day.
For me to sum this up in one blog post is impossible for me -- hence, there are multiple posts. Here's a glimpse of this beautiful city that combines ancient and modern like it's nobody's business.

What they don't tell you is all the (re)construction that is going on in Italia! History cannot remain preserved forever, and things are slowly falling apart. I didn't expect the Colosseum to be -- excuse my bluntness -- the crumbling wreck that it was, and I had to mentally envision what it would have been like back then. Taller, fuller, complete, with sculptures in between. Crowded, full of various entertainment (of which I won't name), and most obviously, the stench of blood (both animals and humans). Contrary to popular belief, a number of Romans volunteered to be a gladiator. With winning came popularity, fame, and possibly freedom for foreign prisoners, if you will. Also, "losing" did not always mean death. It depended on how well/beautifully you fought -- quite a subjective judgment -- and they would not force you to fight to the death.

When I saw the Colosseum in person, 'twas difficult to believe it was built in less than 10 years. The intricate and structural design of it was not only on a massive scale, but deliberate in pairing detail with function. Absolutely unbelievable.

Pictured below is the Roman Forum (a forum being similar to a plaza) which started out as a marketplace but became the town center and hub for everything political and economical in Rome. For centuries, it was the site for public speeches, gladiator matches, and criminal trials. Of the many old and important structures, one that was new to me was the House of the Vestal Virgins. 

Who are they, you ask? Similar to a cult, vestal virgins were females who were priestesses of the goddess Vesta, designated to cultivate the sacred fire. It was a high privilege to be chosen, and basically, you received the best education offered to women for 10 years, then you served as a priestess for 10 years, and the remaining 10 years, you trained the future vestal virgins. All you had to do was remain a virgin.

If you broke this rule, you were, in short, buried alive. They put you in a prison with a loaf of bread and a cup of water, then would ignore your existence. You starved to death underground. Aside from this, life was pretty wonderful for them -- they didn't have to marry, and as free women they could go about as they pleased. To give you an idea of how powerful they were, if a condemned prisoner saw a vestal virgin on the way to their execution, he was automatically pardoned. There's so much information out there about this tradition that lasted for 1000 years -- I highly recommend looking more into it, if you're interested.

Of course, we visited the famous Trevi Fountain (Fontana di Trevi). Why Trevi? Merely a combination of two italian words: tre+vie, which means 3 roads, referring to where the fountain converges. The water is supplied by an aqueduct that is almost completely underground. If you decide to visit, be forewarned that this is one of the busiest tourist spots in Rome. If I could do it again, I'd come in the evening or sunrise for some great photos!

Recognize the Pantheon? Commissioned by Marcus Agrippa during Augustus' reign, then restored by the famous Hadrian. It is one of the best preserved Roman buildings. Quite an experience to be standing here and seeing something so ancient in history standing amidst modern Rome. The strategic and well-designed architecture paved the way for the Renaissance and hugely influenced how Brunelleschi built the famous dome of the Duomo (Cathedral) here in Florence.
A perfect sphere could fit perfectly under the rotunda/dome of the Pantheon.

In our free time away from major tourist spots, a few of us decided to search for the elusive keyhole. (Read more it with this article I found online here.) We stumbled upon this panoramic view of Rome, taking our time and savoring the moments.

(In case you were wondering, the girls above are triplets. So you're not really seeing double or triple ;) Thankfully, the weather was cooperative most of the time.

We did end up finding the elusive keyhole, which ended up not being that elusive because of a line of 30 people standing behind this keyhole. Apparently, you can see St. Peter's Basilica through it.

I thought my photos were great until I saw the website I linked you to above.. Take a looksie if you want to see what I actually saw when I looked through (and not a blanked-out, white view). Here's the site again: The Story of the Rome Keyhole Photo

And… Vatican City. The country within a country, separate from Italy. People who work here do not pay taxes to the Italian government, and have much better-paying jobs. It's difficult to obtain one and quite prestigious to work here. Only about 900 people live here, and the main income for the state is the sale of postage stamps, souvenirs, and museum admission fees. (I mean, consider it. About 25,000 tourists pass through the Vatican museums per day… do the math?)

The museums are magnificent. I know you aren't supposed to use generic words when describing amazing things you see when traveling, such as beautiful, gorgeous, amazing, good, etc. but nothing else is coming to mind! I see all these wondrous (there I go again) works of art, especially, amidst this historic hub of art, Catholicism, and politics. Saw the Sistine Chapel, School of Athens, and the Gallery of Maps -- to name a few highlights.

Speaking of the Sistine Chapel, the backstory behind Michelangelo's world-famous ceiling fresco deepens your appreciation for the piece. In short, Michelangelo was a sculptor. The pope at the time commissioned him to work on his large and elaborate tomb. Reluctant to work on the Sistine Chapel, when the pope was momentarily diverted in attention by a war with the French, Michelangelo left Rome and went to Florence. By some threatening to the Florentine government, the artist was coerced to come back to Rome and work on the ceiling. He hadn't done frescos for years and wasn't properly trained -- so it was a long process of frustration by trial and error. To say the least, Michelangelo had to design his own scaffolding system and worked from a standing position.

When his work was condemned for having nude characters (not suited for a church), Michelangelo displayed the god of the underworld as having the face of his accuser Cesena, with his genitals bitten off! Artists are quite creative with retaliation -- shows you how human these great artists are. (Fun fact: it was painted over after his death, and in 1993 -- so recently -- during restoration, they discovered this original depiction..).

The fountain above is located in Piazza Novana, called the Fountain of Four Rivers (Fontana die Quattro Fiumi), with an Egyptian obelisk. For a long time, Romans avoided walking near the fountain because they were afraid the obelisk would fall off at any moment. This was one of many "firsts" of architecture, and no one's sure yet about how Bernini was able to place the obelisk there in the first place -- it's immensely heavy. (This is one thing that is so amazing -- the artists back then were also engineers by profession..) It wasn't until an earthquake many years later until they trusted that the obelisk would stay solid there.

It's all a part of the counter Reformation movement -- where many, many public works of sculpture and architecture were strategically commissioned to redirect people to the papacy: that the Catholic church held the world together.

In Part 2 of the Rome posts, I'll be sharing rest of Rome in less-touristy photos. We did an unbelievable amount in a mere 3 days, as the 4th day we spent in Tivoli, Italy -- an UNESCO World Heritage Site. I'm giving Rome more credit now. It surpassed my expectations and there's always more to see!

"Rome is the city of echoes, the city of illusions, and the city of yearning." - Giotto di Bondone

Monday, March 3, 2014

The People You Meet: Solena Cavalli-Singer

This series will be about the people I meet, whether they're my fellow students or -- if I ever make it to this point -- random strangers on the street. This post features Solena Cavalli-Singer, a year-long study abroad student from Minnesota, who is with me in Florence. 

Solena is currently a sophomore majoring in art history at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. Her favorite gelato flavor (so far) is biscotti della nonna (grandmother's cookies) at a gelateria in Bergamo, Italy. 

Here's what she has to say about her experience:

"Choosing to study abroad is hands down the best decision I ever made. Coming here made me appreciate my [Italian heritage] even more. Last semester I learned more about myself, who I want to be and how I want to live my life. It has been a great eye-opener. 

It's not necessarily slow here, but the laid-back lifestyle makes you more appreciative of the everyday things. It's less media social here, and more face-to-face social. Almost old-fashioned in a sense -- for example, the passeggiata (going for a walk after dinner) with friends is a very common thing here."

Do you have regrets from last semester, anything you wished you had done?

I wish that the first month, I walked around more .. Simply doing more things. Just being in the city, even for a quick little walk. You keep thinking you have time, but really, time flies.

How has living in a home stay made your study abroad experience different?

In my home stay last semester, my host lady did not speak English. I didn't have the cushion of being surrounded by Americans, and I felt more immersed. This semester I'm actually living with an Italian family, so I get to see how that works. 

What is the most fascinating thing about studying abroad in Florence?

Walking and living in a place where important history happened is so interesting! For example, to be able to see the place where Michelangelo worked, and knowing others who have walked through the same streets. The school we go to used to be a house commissioned by a lady, who may have been the model for the Mona Lisa. That's pretty cool. 

What has been the most challenging aspect so far?

Having self control when it comes to eating. I'm a food snob now. There's just so much good food!
(She answers this question as I am eating a sandwich at 3 in the afternoon…)

What is the most important piece of advice you would give to students who are planning to study abroad in Florence?

Put in an effort to learn the language! Don't NOT take advantage of the opportunity. At least attempt to learn the language. Immerse yourself as much as possible. What's the point in coming here if you aren't going to try?

Would you recommend a semester or a year abroad?

I would recommend a year, if it's possible. I totally believe in [the culture shock curve]. It starts with you being overly excited and happy to be in a new place, then after a while, you experience a dip in your emotions, and finally, once you have a grip on the culture around you and are enjoying everything again, it's time to go home. So I would recommend a year because once you figure everything out, you are able to experience the culture with refreshed eyes. I think what I've gained the most is an appreciation for myself. I know that sounds kind of weird and maybe conceited, but it's true. I become so proud of myself when I know how to get to a place without looking at a map, I'm proud of myself when I understand and can have conversations in Italian, and I love that I feel completely comfortable in a city that I've only lived in for 7 months. It's a very rewarding feeling.

What is one of your favorite things to do in Florence, that you recommend that people should do when they are here?

I like walking around and observing people. One day we walked around and discussed clothing and shoes. Shoes especially are a huge giveaway as to who is an American and who is Italian. You get firsthand knowledge versus looking up and reading about the differences online.

You know you've changed since coming here because. . .

Walking by people, I'm now able to pick up and understand the conversation in Italian. I also now dream in Italian. 

When an American mistook us for Italians, that was also a defining moment. After attempting to speak Italian with us, we said we spoke English and helped him out. He said we had an American accent, and that our English was pretty good -- he thought we were Italians! 

Solena will be here until May, with everyone else in our program. You can tell that she definitely has experienced what it's like to live as a Florentine. She has clearly learned a lot and is almost fluent in Italian!
I definitely agree about putting forth the effort about speaking the language (see goal #3 in this post), and it was great getting another perspective of Florence from another student, especially from one who's been here much longer than me. 

"Each art piece in history tells a story, and we get to decode the puzzle."
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