June 10th, 2008

Pisa and Lucca!

This weekend, I went to not one, but two Italian cities! Here’s the obligatory photo of the leaning tower of Pisa:

I think this picture looks like it could be on a postcard- the weather was so beautiful when I took it! But as the next photo shows, the weather was pretty variable that day:

Yes, it really does lean that far! Pisan architects have devoted a lot of time and money into making sure that it doesn’t lean any further than that, going to the extent of which, for several years, there was what looked like a catapult attached to a rubber band around the middle of the tower! But right now, the tower is safe, even to walk around inside of. We saw tourists going all the way up to the top! But my group didn’t do that. We were busy seeing the other sights of the Piazza Dei Miracoli, or Miracle Square. These included the church, the baptism dome, and the cemetary, because apparently in the middle ages, the three stages of life (birth and baptism, life and mass, death) had to be kept in separate buildings. I took a lot of video, but I’m still figuring out how to upload it.

And of course, some of my favorite sights in Italy are the ones that remind me of home, like this lovely storefront:

Cool huh? When I see stuff like this, I remember my Italian heritage. While a lot of things weird me out here, a lot of things remind me of home, like graffiti of my Dad’s name, making pasta, and the way that on Sundays, we eat a big lunch with a small, late dinner afterward.  In fact, one of my teachers, Roni, told me that if I wanted to, I could go to the post office and apply for Italian citizenship just by proving that one of my parents or grandparents was Italian. There are a lot of benefits to being an Italian citizen, such as being able to live, work, and travel anywhere in Europe with minimal hassle, but I’m not going to apply because 1) it wouldn’t be recognized by the US, and 2) any transaction at the post office takes a minimum of 6 weeks. It was really neat to hear that though, it made me feel more connected to Italy.

In the evening, we attended a live concert with the band Assalti Frontali (Frontal Assault), who perform all over but are native to Pisa. There was a big protest that day- Doctors Without Borders was protesting in the streets that they ought to have the right to treat immigrants for free in a public building, but the Pisan government was not cool with the building they were using. Assalti Frontali was the perfect band for this kind of activity, since they’re very political. They remind me of a cross between The Beastie Boys and Rage Against the Machine: white people rapping about left wing politics. Here’s a video clip of one of their songs, “Zero Tolleranza”:

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For those of you who understand Italian, sorry- there’s a little bit of bad language. But you can see that the main point of the song is that war is stupid (especially the wars being waged by the US, if you listen closely) and we should really all have peace talks instead.

The next day, we went to Lucca, a small town thirty minutes from Pisa. Pisa and Lucca used to fight a lot in the middle ages, because Pisa was always very Italian, and Lucca was always very Jewish. I took a picture from the top of the tallest tower in Lucca, which was privately owned by a nobleman when it was built in the middle ages. As such, it has 6 trees growing on top- one for each child he had lost. It’s beautiful that he was able to build a tribute to them in that way.

That is why you see a tree at the top of this photo, even though I climbed up ten billion stairs to get there.

A lot of people were tired, and the weather was bad, so I didn’t get to see much of Lucca. I did however, see the black jesus, who is a huge deal because he came here mysteriously from the Orient on an empty boat with no crew. We weren’t allowed to take pictures though, hence the link. This might explain why racism against black people is almost nonexistent. Here, people simply are racist against the Albanians for the same reasons people in America are racist against Mexicans- they think they are stealing their jobs. Seeing the same phenomenon in two different countries really makes a person put their countries own beliefs in perspective. For example, Italians think Albanians are taking their jobs, but Albanians only take jobs that Italians wouldn’t want to do anyway, like work as janitors and fast food workers. And isn’t that what many Mexican immigrants do in America, too?

I’d like to say a lot more, but I have to have a quick lunch and then get to class. Next post- cooking class!

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June 3rd, 2008

Bella Siena

Sorry there wasn’t a post yesterday! Not only was it raining and a bad day to take pictures, but I’ve been very busy with schoolwork. But as promised, here’s some pictures of Siena!

Here’s the gorgeous campanile, or bell tower, that’s on top of the Palazzo Pubblico. Yes, this is the same photo as on the top of my blog. I took this photo the first day I got to Siena, but hadn’t had a reason to post it until now.

Here’s the cobblestones I was warned about! Good thing I only brought comfortable shoes on my trip! I’m always amazed when I see women wearing high heels in Siena- I’m surprised they don’t topple over! Speaking of shoes, footwear is very different here. For example, Crocs are condoned, even popular! My professor Fiora told me that once when she was in college, she had to write a paper about whether teenagers could be identified by their shoes. At first she thought it was a stupid prompt, but then as she looked around, it turned out to be true. Teenagers usually wear colorful tennis shoes from Nike etc. or “skater” shoes, like Etnies sneakers. Younger kids wear shoes similar to the kind *I* wear: sneakers, sandals, and ballet flats. Adult women wear heels and adult men wear leather shoes that encase the whole foot.

And that’s just while we’re out of the house. At home, everyone wears shoes, too. In America, when I get home I take off my shoes. It’s just to be comfortable, but I know some people take off their shoes at home as to not scuff up the floor or carpet. But here, the first time I took off my shoes, my host family was very confused. They asked why I was walking barefoot. It was actually sort of humorous to them. At home, Italians wear slippers, clogs, or other comfortable shoes. I think it’s because people don’t clean the floors as often here- before I started wearing shoes full time, the soles of my feet would get black with dirt.

Animal statues like this elephant one can be found all over the city. They serve as markers so you always know what contrada, or neighborhood, of the city you are in. There are 17 in all, each with its own animal or mythical creature mascot. Each contrada of Siena gets a chance to choose a horse for the Palio each summer, and in the May election, three contradas are selected. My family’s contrada is Bruco, the caterpillar. All over the house we have caterpillar ceramics, paintings, and a flag out front. We don’t even *live* in the Bruco contrada- people might choose their contrada by being born into a family that has habitually cheered for a certain contrada. I didn’t choose Bruco, but since I live with a family that has, now its my contrada too. I am genuinely happy that Bruco was one of the three contradas to win the lottery this year, and will get to select a horse and jockey for the Palio.

My goal right now is to take a picture of all 17 contrada markers, but I’m only at 8 or so. When I’ve got them all, I’ll do a more detailed post on what each contrada stands for.

My feet again. I took this one while sitting in the Campo. It’s actually less busy than usual in this picture, because the weather hasn’t been very nice.

There has been a lot of rain this summer: only half of the days I’ve been here have been sunny. But there’s a benefit to this- because it doesn’t usually rain much in Italy, by June all the countryside is brown. Because of the rain, it’s stayed green all through May and into June. But it’s still a but dreary. So in order to add some color to my life,

I bought this beautiful scarf!  I fell in love with it a few days ago, but was shopping around to make sure there wasn’t a better deal than seven euros. I bought it in the non-touristy part of town, quite a hike but great for shopping for things that would otherwise be very expensive, like for example, shower gel. Sick of using my family’s smelly bar of soap, I went to the Italian version of K-Mart, called UPim, and bought some coconut scented shower gel for a couple euros. I’m so cheap, and so wary of the euro, that these have been my first purchases in Italy besides tickets and water bottles! Well, and gelato. But gelato is more of a necessity than an expense.

Speaking of water bottles, the best thing about Italy is that you can refill your bottle anywhere, whether from a water fountain or a bathroom sink. All the tap water here comes from the mountains, is packed with calcium, and tastes ten times better than American tap water. And much better than bottled water, too!

I especially liked this piece of graffiti, which is written on the side of the aquaducts that surround the Sienese walls. It really fits with my visit to Siena right now; while I’m learning a lot in class, I learn the most from being in the city. From walking around, learning to read signs and ask for directions, talking to people… The city itself really IS my teacher.

I really wanted to post a video I made today while sitting in the Campo, but I’m having trouble uploading it onto YouTube. I don’t see why a 50 second video is taking fifteen minutes to upload! Any suggestions?

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June 1st, 2008

Come era il vostro fine settimana?

Or, in English, how was your (polite) weekend? Mine was pretty darn eventful. And I have pictures to prove it! First, I went to a haunted house:

This is Lavinia’s house. She’s the woman behind Siena Italian Studies: the whole program was her idea. Unfortunately, she wasn’t there (she’s in America right now), and I haven’t met her yet. I can’t wait to- she’s an incredible woman who speaks more than five languages! Even though she wasn’t there, we all (the students, professors, and guest students from the Italian university) had a picnic in her backyard. All of us students took a group photo, and here it is:

I am sooooo short! Anyways, back to the house.

This house is actually a reformed nunnery from the middle ages. It’s been in Lavinia’s family for generations. As we walked around the grounds, my professor Mike told us some scary stories about it. For example, when Lavinia’s mother was renovating the house, she had construction workers rebuild the second floor so that it would be more stable. And there, underneath the floor, they found the skeleton of a baby! It was very very old, and it was easy to guess why it was there. A mile away, there used to be an abbey for monks right by this nunnery. And of course, you can’t have a baby and stay in a nunnery. Lavinia’s mother had the construction workers replace the body back into the floor, as not to disturb the dead.

Then, we came to this spot in the backyard that was sort of on raised ground. Here it is:

Mike told us that it actually is an Etruscan tomb! And since Etruscan necropolises (cemetaries) were placed in the centers of their cities, it was likely we were standing in the middle of an Etruscan city. There are supposedly lots of things buried underground besides Etruscans- when Lavinia’s mother inherited the house from a great aunt, the aunt supposedly wrote in her will, “Happy Treasure Hunt!” implying that there was lots to dig up around the house. Can you imagine living in a house this old with this much history? That’s why I tagged this post with Only in Italy.

And as we were wandering around exploring, we met this creepy guy:

Man, was that scary. You don’t notice him at first, and he just sort of pops up in the woods! I don’t know if this is a half buried full statue of a human body or just the bust. There might be others around the grounds, but I only saw this one. Look at that creepy smile!

Then, the next day, we all got up early and went to see San Gimignano! (I cannot pronounce “Gimignano” for my life!) San Gimignano is sometimes called “The Medieval Manhattan” because it has 13 preserved original skyscrapers from the middle ages! Here’s a picture of the skyline (I didn’t take this photo, but I think it’s important that you see how modern-city-like it looks):

These towers are seriously huge. I went up in the tallest one, Torre Grossa. Here’s a picture of it:

The view was amazing! Here’s one picture I took from the top:

The Tuscan countryside is truly beautiful.  As you can see, you don’t have to be an expert photographer to take postcard worthy pictures in a place as gorgeous as this. It is so wonderful to have the opportunity to be in Italy to see all this- many thanks to my family!

Tommorrow, I’m finally posting photos of Siena, the city I’m actually staying in. Stay tuned!

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June 1st, 2008

My Room

When the Ducci family (who I live with) first showed me around the house, I was glad to discover that I would have my own room. After exhausting myself all day trying to communicate even the smallest of things (for example, even sentences like “can I take a picture here?” use enough verb conjugations to fill my mental capacity), it’s nice to have somewhere to go to reflect and perhaps think some thoughts in English. Here’s what it looks like:

Here’s my desk and part of my bed. The desk and beds are the only new pieces of furniture in the room. My host mother, Christina, collects antique furniture. This family is big on collecting: Christina and her antiques, Francesco and his sports memorabilia, Constantino and his million stuffed animals!

And here are the beds. I sleep in the blue one, and use the red one as an extra desk to organize all my homework. I have a lot of homework here- more than the other students because I’m taking advanced classes. On Friday, I gave an oral report on ancient Etruscan culture, and on Tuesday, I have a report on Julius Ceaser- all in Italian! They’re really pushing me here: before, I wouldn’t have imagined I would ever be able to complete all my homework in Italian instead of English. Sometimes I make mistakes, usually by putting Spanish words into my essays, but my teachers correct them as soon as they hear them. When I’m with my family, they never correct me because they want to encourage me to speak more with them and not discourage me, so it’s helpful to get some constructive criticism. Don’t you love that Kermit has his arm around the stuffed pony in this picture? They were like that when I got here.

Here’s a picture of me and the antique armoire that I keep my suitcase and clothes in. It’s very heavy and I have to pull the handle while holding the side to keep the whole thing from toppling over! This was a gift to Christina from her mother in law, Francesco’s mom, who lives right upstairs from us! She’s very nice. While I don’t always understand her Italian, we knit together sometimes, and crafts are universal.  I LOVE the lamp you can see in the reflection of the mirror. It’s my favorite blue-green color and it’s something I would totally decorate my own room with.

Here’s a picture of what’s right outside my window. You can even see my bus station from here! It’s very nice not to have to walk far to the bus- one of the other students who lives in the country has to walk ten minutes! I take the bus when I’m going into the middle of the city, but when I’m just going to school right on the edge of town, I walk.

If you want to see more photos that I didn’t post, check out my flickr photostream. And look forward to more posts today- it’s Sunday, so I’m taking the day to do homework and post pictures from the places I’ve gone this weekend. Ciao!

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May 30th, 2008

Walking Home

Before I left, my dad mentioned to me that the concept of time is different in Italy. When you agree to meet a friend for dinner at 8:00, she might show up at 8:30 and not consider that to be late at all. This same concept of time goes for the bus schedule. I assumed that the 9:15 bus came at 9:15, so was I surprised when it came at 9:30! And of course, I was late for my 9:30 class. Of course, everyone elses’ bus was late too, so it didn’t matter. Because that’s Italian time.

Anyhow, I’ve started walking more often than taking the bus, because it’s a guaranteed ten minute walk (instead of an unreliable 5-20 minute wait). Here’s some pictures I took while walking home the other day:


This is the street I take, via fontebranda. It’s an enormous, steep hill. I think I’ll have great legs by the time I get back from Italy!

This line of Vespas goes all the way down the hill.

Some roses growing on the wire fence in front of a restarant. Everyone has roses around here. They look a little different than American roses though.

That area on the side of the road behind the white line is what passes for a sidewalk here.  These poppies are in bloom everywhere! That sign says “turismo”: I live right next to a station for tourism buses.

Up the steps is where I live with my host family. Downstairs are shops- a salon and a movie store. Upstairs are more houses, all connected. It’s not quite like townhomes, because each house has only one floor. We spend a lot of time outside in the garden you can barely see here. More pictures later!

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May 29th, 2008

Remember Lauren Goes to UMW?

You watched me as a I, a bewildered freshman, slowly learned how to adapt to university life. Now why not join me for a month in Siena, Italy, as I learn to function in italian daily life! I’m going to use this blog to post photos and share events that could happen Only in Italy (OI).  It’ll be just like my freshman orientation, only I have a hunch that the meal plan will taste a lot better.

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