Sunday, December 4, 2011

Riceballs: Ending where it all began

When I say where it ALL began, it really all did begin with Sicily.  Riceballs originated in Sicily, and while the riceball tradition passed down through the Mucey side of my family, riceballs have adorned the table of many important Ritter family gatherings.  I wrote my Davidson admission essay on the importance and impact of Ritter riceballs, thus I got in, decided to study abroad, started dating James.... the rest is history.  So, decades after the Bondis emigrated from Sicily, twenty-one years of eating riceballs, 2 and a half years at Davidson, and exactly 6 months with James, we headed to Palermo for a quick discovery of a portion of our roots.  But not before a night in Bologna and a 6 AM flight.

James absolutely could explain the origins of the Kappa Sigma fraternity better than I can, since he is now the President-elect, but the best boys at Davidson claim to have ties to a little industrial city in Italy: Bologna. Yes, the originators of Bologna (like Oscar Mayer) AND bolognese sauce (my personal favorite way to eat pasta).  In one meal, James got a taste of both in the fatherland of his brotherhood.  I also saw something these sheltered small-town eyes have never witnessed: street prostitutes.  Yep, standing on the corner as our taxi drove us to the hotel from the airport.  Its one of those things you chose to not believe that it exists until your own eyes force you to.

With a 4:15 wake up call, we headed to a little island just South of Italy.  3 days of 75 degrees and sunshine greeted us to Sicily.  I had "figured out" how to get to the hotel from the airport via a shuttle, BUT didn't quite manage to catch the name of the stop that we were supposed to take.  Fortunately, James had google-mapped it and the shuttle dropped us off around 9 am right in front of our hotel.  Unfortunately, hotel check-ins don't start until noon, but they agreed to let us check in as soon as they had a room clean.  James twisted my arm into a breakfast of riceballs and diet coke to fill the time.  We mozied around the Politeama piazza before crashing for a several hour nap.  Palermo is a big city with big city problems, namingly traffic, trash, and crime, but the tourist area is condensed into a manageable area.  We walked a lot, but we did everything by foot, a way in which you really get a feel for the city and the people.  We found ourselves always surrounded by Sicilians, something I can never say about Florence.  Only the expected folks spoke English (ie-- the hotel staff, other guests, ticket vendors, etc).  Thursday night, we walked to Teatro Massimo and the Palermo Duomo before dinner in a restaurant established in 1890 and a walk through the port.  James said best when describing our different conceptions of a port:  I think Portofino, Cinque Terre, Barcelona... he thinks Balitmore port.

James won that discussion in regards to Palermo.  So, we took a little daycation to Trapani, a coastal town on the west side of the island where I witnessed yet another first: Our bus hit, yes hit, a parked car.  I've been in a lot of buses this semester and while Italian drivers drive terrifyingly close, I've never seen, let alone been involved in an accident.  James and I decided to exit on THAT bus stop as the two drivers stood screaming at each other.  Unfortunately, we had no city map or any true idea of where we wanted to go, so we took a look in each direction and chose the way closest to the water.  We chose the wrong direction for the historical tour, but we had a beautifully scenic stroll down the beach by ourselves with clear blue waters.  Mind you, this is early December, with clear skies and warm temperatures.  After a while of stumbling and being lost, we managed to find the historical city center and the scenic little port where we also met our little dog friend.  Like most women of the female gender, I'm a sucker for animals, especially ones that can't help themselves.  James and I were walking down to take a picture from the port of some ruins before sunset and a stray dog came up close, obviously wanting food.  Not having anything to offer, we were sure that she'd follow us for a few steps, get disinterested, and leave us.  Wrong.  She followed us within two steps the entire way back into the city, passing up homeless men, trashcans, and plenty of car tires to pee on.  Dodging cars and construction workers, she followed us all the way to the Cathedral, and afriad she'd follow us inside, we quickly walked inside.  I told James that if we walked out and she was still there, I was taking her home.  If the US (and my mother) would've allowed, we'd have another addition to the family, because after spending 15 mins or so exploring inside, we were wrong again.  Waiting outside the steps.  Loyalty, that one, and breaking my heart the whole time.  We then succumbed to playing hide-and-go-seek through the narrow streets of Trapani before finally turning around and not seeing our pup.  This is probably 45 mins after our initial meeting.  After a beer and a sucker later, we had to run to catch the bus home, but we made it back to Palermo in time for a nice meal and a bottle of vino.

Saturday, we planned to do all the touristy things that we didn't get to do our first day in Palermo.  Palermo's markets are described more like African or Middle Eastern souks with smells and vendors like you couldn't imagine.  We took an adventurous route through one of the outdoor markets, only to think we were lost and magically land on the main road. We hid behind columns in the cathedral, admired the royal palace, and walked to the catacombs, where we ran into an unfamiliar-but-familiar Davidson face.  Most Davidson students at least know first names, but we definitely know faces.  As we approached, we heard a voice ask "Do you go to Davidson?" Why yes, we do. Who knew that 1700 students could spread so far into the world, even to the catacombs in Palermo, Sicily?  The Cappuccini Catacombs house 9000 bodies arranged by gender or social class from 1599 to the late 19th century.  Definitely one of the weirdest things I've done in Europe, but interesting to this medical nerd.  The city was setting up for an outdoor festival as we walked back, only promoting the hasseling from the "Occupy Massimo" protestors.

Our hotel offered us a deal too enticing to pass up.  James said we have been "playing adults" this entire and a classical Russian a cappella concert in a Byzantine Cathedral in a hilltown near Palermo seems like the only appropriate way to finish out on that mature note.  Checking out the 68,000 square feet of glittering gold mosaic in the Monreale Cathedral is recommended in every Sicilian guidebook, but there is no easy way to get there.  Our hotel supplied the concert ticket and a shuttle to and from for only 4 euro.  So, we put on our church clothes and headed to the concert, lowering the average age to about 70.  James and I had front seats and a great view of the gigantic mosiac Jesus in the apse of the church while the Russian singers sang beautiful songs in lyrics we couldn't understand.  Probably one of the more rewarding and unexpected experiences of the semester.  I do love opportunities that just land in your lap.

Our Sunday morning flight back to Bologna came too early, but a breakfast of riceballs and sour spaghetti eased my pain.  Sicily is a hodgepodge of cultures because of the variety of inhabitors that dominated the island for centuries.  Its like a Greek, African, Arabic, Italian, and Norman vacation island -- unlike anywhere I've ever been.  And being the last trip of my semester abroad, I was sad to see it come to an end.  Luckily, James escorted me back to Florence for the afternoon since his flight to Valencia wasn't until late.  I made him and the boys his final Italian pasta supper before saying goodbye for the semester.

Its bittersweet to think that I'll be home in 13 days.  James reminded me today that if you think of Sunday as the first day of the week, I'll be home next week. Crazy!  Gen asked me today what else do I want to do while I'm here.  I've done Italy, completely, and I love it here.  But, I don't need to see another church or another museum (except maybe the new Gucci one), so I'm going to spend my last days indulging in eatingeatingeatingeating and shoppingshoppingshoppingshopping (and maybe studying a bit for finals).  Most every else is over the traveling and over Europe.  While I am one patriotic, capitalist-loving girl, I have been bitten by the travel bug.  I look forward to Christmas in Lincolnton and an amazingly fun but academically challenging semester back at Davidson.  15 page papers and organic chemistry exams don't me all that eager to hop on a plane though, but the thought of Carolina Cup, frolics, formals, the Superbowl, my Mommas kitchen, my bed, and my brother make me realize how long I've been here.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Thanksgiving in Tuscany

I've spent two consecutive weekends in Florence for the first time since our first weeks here.  Our advisors recommended staying last weekend because they were taking our group to the AC Milan vs. Florence soccer game -- which was def worth staying in town for. And, since so many Davidson students migrate to Florence every Fall, it has become a little tradition for all of our friends in other cities of Europe to come to Florence for Thanksgiving.  So, that is what we did.

In the last month that we're here, we are cramming in restaraunts that we want to try, last minute trips, must-see-museums, Christmas shopping, and final papers.  It seems like once we've finally gotten settled and into a routine, it's almost time to leave!  So after a long week of class (seriously, all the way to Friday because of a make-up day), Milva and Lucca drove us to two designer outlets in the suburbs of Florence.  While it was fun to try on 500 euro dresses or fantasize about Prada boots, one had to be willing to spend a small fortune on these "steals".  While they were marked down 50-75% of in-store costs, when you're talking about a 10,000 euro dress, its still expensive.  After a full day of shopping, I came home with only a gold Ferragamo bracelet.  Afterward, we headed to the soccer game via the city bus system.  Earlier in the week, Caroline and I went to the outdoor market to buy something purple with Florence on it to wear to the game.  We weren't exactly dressed to the 9s.  More like sweatpants and UGGS (a big no-no in Italian fashion) and poor Caroline was bombarded by questions (in English) from one male vendor: "Ooooh girl I like your outfit. Next time I see you in the disco, I'll be like 'dammmn, that's unexpected!'"  So with our purple t-shirts, we met the crew and headed to the bus stop.  Apparently its impossible to drive/walk to the soccer stadium, so everyone in Florence hopped on the same city bus as us.  Even though it was sub-artic outside, the windows of the bus fogged with the number of fans crammed inside. Leave it to a soccer player of 14 years to call a 0-0 tie an exciting game... but it was! Europeans indeed love their sport.

A week of school work procrastination followed our lazy Sunday as we waited for a yummy Thanksgiving meal and our friends to arrive on Friday.  James had booked a ticket for Wednesday, forgetting that he'd be on a required trip with his program in Madrid, so he booked another flight for Thursday, which Ryanair kindly moved to Friday.  So, he had two tickets to fly to Florence.  Since his program trip was required, he convinced me that he would be coming on Friday when the rest of the crew was to arrive.  However, around 6 PM on Wednesday night, my boyfriend walked into my apartment.  Surprise!

Thursday, we had to "pick up" our Permit of Stay from the Police Dept (yes, 23 days before we leave...).  Our appointment time was at 2:15, but we weren't seen until 4:45, leaving James to his own devices for the afternoon.  Before we left for Milva and Luca's house for Thanksgiving dinner, he spilled exactly how he had spent his afternoon.  My birthday is tomorrow, and while James is a great gift-giver, he isn't a good secret-keeper.  He couldn't contain himself.  In 9th grade, he came on a school trip to Florence and they went to a leather factory and learned about the tanning process, how to evaluate nice leather, etc.  He found their showroom in the Piazza near Santa Croce on his last trip to Florence and made his way over there while I was stuck in the Police Station.  I now have a beautiful chocolate brown patent leather bag.  James forgot to mention the coolest thing about the purse in his description, but Keena informed me that the style is called the "Grace Kelly" because it is the same bag she carried on her wedding day.  Thoughtful boy. And did I mention the gold-leaf monogram? Oh yeah, he knows me all too well.

Thursday night, we took yet another city bus to Milva and Lucca's house for an American Thanksgiving meal.  Milva is a cooking professor at LdM, so we knew we were in for a treat.  We ate pumpkin soup, turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and cranberry sauce, along with some side dishes that had an Italian flare before apple and pumpkin pie for dessert.  Certainly not a meal from my Mother's kitchen, but it made the day feel more like home nonetheless.

Our friends arrived mid-afternoon on Friday, which only created a more familiar atmosphere.  We gave them a quick walking tour of the city before a dinner of pizza and pasta at Gatto e Volpe, one of our favorite spots. Myki will never again confuse rigatoni and rissotto.  We hung out at the boys before heading out to the discotecas.  I'm not sure Europe was ready to handle a Davidson court party.  An agressive bouncer, tears on the curbside, and a 4 AM bedtime summarized our night.  By popular demand, I made loaded grits on Saturday for everyone, followed by gelato from our favorite spot on our street.  We sent our friends off to do some touristy things while I indulged in a much-needed nap.  Before dinner, Elle, Carlin, Meredith, Caroline and I grabbed some baguettes, olives, and a variety of cheeses and sat on the Duomo steps.  Good thing too.  We decided not to eat at the resturaunt we made reservations for, so trying to find a place that could seat 14 at 9 PM on a Saturday night proved to be challenging.  After more gelato and a sit on the bridge facing the Ponte Vecchio, James and I called it a night.

Sunday, we walked around only to find the Florence marathon blocking nearly every street in the city.  Luckily, we grabbed some lunch just in time to get Elle on her bus to the airport.  Naturally, there was a train strike, but James made it on his train to Bologna for his flight home.

The last 2 weeks have been a whirlwind and its hard to believe that we have less than 3 left.  2 papers and my 21st birthday stand in between me and Sicily this weekend.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Sangria-filled fin de semana

Everytime I leave Italy, I find it hard to break the "grazies" and "ciaos" that so eagerly and naturally flow from my mouth.  It takes a good 24 hours before I can start with "gracias" and  "holas".  I flew to Barcelona this weekend for a relaxing weekend on the coast with James.  This blog post will be brief only because we had a quiet weekend of eating and enjoying each other's company combined with a little touring.

Ryanair flies from Pisa to Girona, two cities (cheaper, I'm sure) with small airports not far from the larger cities of Florence and Barcelona, respectively.  So, I took a train from Pisa early Thursday morning, a flight to Girona, and a bus to Barcelona where I was supposed to meet James.  After a fun night out, the boy overslept his alarm and had no way to get in contact with me. I am known for my plans, and in this case, third-back-up plan.  I found myself at the bus station only with my luggage and some free wifi.  After an hour of waiting around and a quick-address-look-up, I hailed a taxi and went to our hotel.  Only 30 mins of Spanish MTV had to occupy my time before I got a call from James at the bus station. To the average reader, this seems like no major feat, but a diversion in a plan can send this Type A personality over the edge.  And I could've taken this stress out on James when he arrived, but he brought Geoff, a Davidson Kappa Sig studying in Barcelona, with him to buffer the brunt of my wrath.  In reality, we had only missed each other by a few mins, but I was proud of myself for being resourceful and not getting upset or angry. #abroadlessons

The three of us headed out for a 3:30 lunch.  Luckily, this is almost appropriate in Spain. We spent the rest of the evening getting settled and taking a walk down Las Ramblas to meet Geoff and Myki for a late Chinese dinner.  You'd think that by now I would have learned not to wear shoes that I am not certain of their comfortability out on what could've turned into a long night.  After a 5:45 AM wake-up and a 6 blister evening, I pooped out on our "night out".  Friday, we found a cute little lunch place where we spent all of our lunches in Barcelona testing out different cuisines.  We decided to tour the city on one of the hop-on, hop-off buses.  A tour of the port and some of Gaudi's architecture filled our afternoon followed by a night of people watching, 11 euro glasses of Sangria, and tapas on Las Ramblas. Saturday, we took the bus that takes tourists out of the city center to La Sagrada Familia (Gaudi's famous and unfinished church), Park Guell, and the Barcelona Club Stadium.  We ate a yummy seafood dinner in the port (and a chocolate crepe if that wasn't enough).  Sunday, my flight wasn't until around 7, but because of the additional transportation, I had to head to Girona at 3:30.  We enjoyed a quiet lunch in the rain. Otherwise we had beautiful, sunny, 75 degree weather all weekend -- that's the kind of November I like.  We tried to fill the time between check-out and bus-departure with some Spanish TV watching in the lounge of our hotel and we ended up on a cooking channel. Truly, food is universal.

I wasn't expecting the vastness of modernista architecture around every corner.  Even our hotel boasted a modern white and black theme with red-lighting.  Definitely a modern yet cultural city.  I told James Barcelona seems to be a bustling city with a productive economy (unlike the rest of Spain unfortunately) but somehow able to preserve its rich Catalan culture.  Barcelona proved to be the perfect place for a relaxing weekend without the overwhelming number of must-sees (like Paris or Rome for instance).

This weekend (and the next) we are in Florence! Our group heads to the Designer Outlets and the AC Milan vs. Florence soccer game on Saturday before all of our Davidson friends come to visit for Thanksgiving, a weekend I've been looking forward to all semester. Like I said when my family visit, it'll be nice to share all the reasons we love Florence with the people that are important to us.  After that, only a few days until my 21st birthday, Sicily with James, finals, the back to the States.  A little over a month to go and I'm appreciating everyday that I have here.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Paris: Must Bring Baguette

After 10 days in Italy with my family and a brief week of class, I find it hard to break myself out of "vacation-mode" since fall break. Four and half days in Paris with James did not help.  For the first time during my semester abroad, I've finally fallen in love with a "big city".  Don't get me wrong, I've enjoyed everywhere I've been (other than maybe an unimpressionable and crowded Venice), but Paris fully lived up and exceeded every expectation I had. I was pretty sick last week and hoped to rebound before taking off but Paris seemed to be my cure.  We hit the highlights, but I could've spent weeks enjoying French cuisine and architecture.

Everything in Italy is old.  Like, really old, and boasting centuries of history.  And by American standards, Paris is too.  But, Napolean's Arc de Triomphe is only 300 years old.  A modern, but classical city with a rich and beautiful history. And great food. That's my take-away message from Paris.

So, yes, we arrived Wednesday night and after an hour or two of walking the streets of Paris, we navigated from the nearest metro stop to our hotel.  We began Thursday with a 80% chance of rain all day, so we decided to try and stay indoors, but since the Arc de Triomphe was just down the road.... we couldn't resist.  So, we climbed to the top (a surprising number of spiral staircases!).  The view from the top is a unique one: Upwards of 6 or so roads converge in Place Charles de Gaulle.  Not only can you see the layout of the city, but you have a perfect view of the Eiffel tower.  Once it started drizzling, we ducked into the metro and made our way to the Louvre.  Another nice aspect of Paris: its very student-friendly.  Other than the Arc and Eiffel tower tickets, we got into most places free simply for being students living in Europe under the age of 25. Don't hate that.  Like the Uffizi, the Louvre is massive and simply impossible to take in in one afternoon.  After nearly a semester of museum or church boasting famous religious art after religious art after reglious art, we walked through the Louvre, pausing at interesting pieces (and of course the most famous ones), but we didn't spend the entire day being art critics.  Amoung the many things that I love about James, one of my favorites is his ability to whip out names and dates and stories throughout history by the end of my question.  He's like my personal tour guide, and if we both are stumped on something that interests us, we've both, nearly in unison at this point, say, "We'll look it up when we get home."  He's taught me to have an even more inquisitive mind and here, you can learn everywhere.

One problem with France.... is French.  Having taken Spanish and grown up with a couple of Italian pharses tossed around, I was not in the slightest concerned before coming to Italy or traveling to Spain.  I'm familiar enough with "food words" and I can always point to a map or in a direction, but in France, James and I were both completely clueless.  On our first night, we stopped at a small mini-market to grab some waters.  The owner told us what I hope to be "thanks, goodnight." James and I replied the only way we could, with a smile and a wave.  Translated menus or understanding waiters with broken English became my best friend.  And once we found a good thing, we didn't let go.  We ate at the same lunch spot 3 of the days we were there and at the same place for dinner twice.  Luckily, we were looking for typical French cuisine.  We managed to try onion soup, chocolate mousse, escargot, crepes, and beef tartar during our weekend, as well as American, Japanese, and Italian meals.

Friday, we went to Notre Dome where we happened to catch a service.  The incense burning and sounds of a children's choir singing, the Gothic church was awe-inspiring.  After a Nutella crepe and a "35 minute walk" along the Seine River, we made it to the Eiffle Tower for a trip to the top.  After several days of pestering James about making reservations for the Eiffle Tower, he finally succumbed, and we were both satisfied to see the line wrapped around the tower.  Bypassing the crowds, we headed up quickly to the top where we snapped a few photos, enjoyed the view, and became infected with hypothermia.  While the ground temperature was pleasant in a sweater, I was frigid at the top.  A brief lightshow and sushi later, we navigated the metro and called it a night.

Saturday, we went to the ornate Versailles Palace.  The only comparison I can make is that of the Biltmore, but the lavishness of the King and Queen's quarters, the Hall of Mirrors, and other rooms on display accurately depict the wealth around 17th C France.  The audiotour was managable and informative which I very much appreciated.  We walked some of the famous gardens before sunset and headed back for our final night in France.

One final observation of Paris: Everyone is either carrying a baguette, pinching off bites as they walk, on their way to a bakery, or wishing they had one.  We saw lines wrapped around street corners of the bakeries.  France wins, I will admit, in the bread department.

Monday, October 31, 2011

volcanic_ashton takes mt. vesuvius

Who knew that one could see so much history in one week?  My family flies home from Rome this morning, but I am back in Firenze after a wonderful 10 days of fall break in Italy with them.  We began on Friday morning in Florence, when their flight was delayed from Frankfurt because of fog, leaving me with several hours to myself at the Florence airport.  Peanut M-n-M's and a Coca-Cola Light later, Mom, Dad, and Ross made it to Florence.  We did, however, make it out of the terminal before Mom could stop the tears and catch her breath to say anything.  8 weeks is the longest I've probably ever been away from home, and certainly the farthest.  Indeed, the invention of Skype has allowed me to stay in better touch with everyone, but it's certainly not the same.

In Florence, we visited the heavy hitters: the Uffizzi, the Accademia, and the Duomo as well as indulging in some of the best Tuscan cuisine.  We ate well in Florence.  I wanted to give my parents and brother a true taste of what/how I've been enjoying Tuscan cuisine for the semester.  With all the walking, I can't say that I've sent them back with any lighter, but maybe on a diet instead. Something I will never be in my next life: a tourguide.  After a night's sleep on a trans-Atlantic flight, I had my poor family walking all of Florence in my eagerness to show them the city that I've fallen in love with.  Needless to say, they needed a nap after some pizza from my favorite spot.  The beauty of Florence is, though, that you can walk everywhere.  The birth of the renaissance is within one-square block.  And the circumference of the ancient city walls, one can stumble upon all the treasures and masterpieces that Italy has to offer.

Siena is much of the same, only smaller and less famous.  On our way to Siena, we stopped at two famous Tuscan towns: San Gimignano and Monteriggioni.  Spending only a few hours in each spot, you can get the feel of each medieval town.  I had visited both of these spots before, so my parents enjoyed the luxury (or curse) of once again having me as their tourguide.  We then spent one day walking around the city and the campo of Siena before heading out on a tour with Gianni of the Chianti region of Tuscany.  We visited several tiny towns (one with only 23 inhabitants!), a Baron's Castle, and a winery, before heading to the capital of the Roman empire for a few days.  Mom decided that rather than having a driver, they needed to experience the European train system (something totally foreign to North Carolinians).  So, by train, we made our way from Siena to Rome.  This is the point in the trip in which I stop being familiar with the area and the cities.  I consider myself pretty well-traveled in Italy by now, but I haven't made my way south enough to get to Rome or Sorrento, so my days as a tour guide ended.  They did not, however, end as translator to taxi drivers, map dissector, or metro navigator.  We arrived to our hotel in Rome (where the famous Rick Steve's son was also staying) mid-week with a precarious weather forecast.  We visited the two sights that Mom had not scheduled in our tours: the Spanish steps and the Trevi Foutain.  Both beautiful, and both extremely crowded.  Mom had beautifully planned everyday of this vacation with a guided tour or a pre-planned means of transportation, so torrential downpours could have put this planning to waste.  It did rain the morning of our scheduled Classics Tour of Rome, but our guide luckily switched our tickets and we headed to the massiveness of the Vatican.  On Wednesday mornings, however, the Pope gives an audience to pilgrims and because of the weather, this was held in Saint Peter's Cathedral -- as the largetst church in the world, its one of the highlights of the Vatican, if not THE highlight behind the Michelangelo's Sistine chapel.  Luckily, our tour of the museum and the chapel lasted long enough that the cathedral re-opened.  I was not prepared for the extravagence of the Vatican.  I had no idea of the amount of the Vatican's collection: priceless Renaissance masterpieces, ancient Roman statues, or Egyptian artifacts.  Each corridor rivals any noteworthy museum.  The day turned out to only be drizzly, so we walked around Rome, grabbed some pizza, indulged in a siesta, and shopped in the best shops that Italy has to offer. I may or may not be returning with a new Gucci purse. Splurg!  We woke up with clear skies on Thursday morning to juxtapose the famed beauty of modern Rome with that of the Ancient Empire: We had guided tours of the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, Palatine Hill, and the Pantheon.  Everything is as impressive as one would imagine.  The major walk-away message I took from the Ancient Roman Empire: Some of beautiful, detailed, elaborate, and massive structures were built before the birth of Christ.  And not just a handful of buildings. Countries and countries worth.  That's hard for me to fathom.

We left Rome on Friday morning in need of a little R&R after the touring and chaos of Rome.  We headed south to the beautiful Sorrento to stay in a hotel with a terrace that opens out to the "puerta grande" and looks directly at the active volcano of Mt. Vesuvius.  If I were to live anywhere in Italy, it would be on the Amalfi Coast or around Cinque Terre.  The taste of the Italian cuisine (with plenty of Mediterranean frutti de mare), the pace of Italian life, and the natural beauty of the cliffs plummeting into the crystal clear blue waters creates an atmosphere in these two regions that is unparalleled in any vacation spot I've ever been in.  We ate, we drank, and we relaxed.  On Saturday, we had a tour of the Amalfi coast, stopping in Positano, Amalfi, and Ravello.  The coast is another UNESCO World Heratige site for the same reasons I loved Cinque Terre.  We had a delicious meal in Ravello on a terrace that overlooked the coastline from 365 meters high (that's nearly 2000 feet of a straight dropo to sealevel) before heading back to our quiet Sorrento.  Unknowingly, my family booked our trip to visit during my fall break, but most of the coast towns' businesses, restaurants, and tours close shop on November 1st.  So, we had nearly 80 degree weather, sunny skies, and no crowds during the last days of the tourist season.  Because this is my Dad's first trip to Italy, the country of 3/4 of his heritage, and with uncertainty of when he'll be back, he plunged into what he called warm waters of the Mediterranean.  Yesterday, I had to say goodbye to Sorrento, our vacation, and my family, but not before visiting Pompeii and the crater of Mt. Vesuvius on our way back to Rome.  Pompeii was a slight disappointment, but I was surprised by the vastness of the town that exists.  I expected our driver to stop, say "Here is Pompeii, an ancient Roman city that was covered in 50 feet of ash when Mt. Vesuvius last errupted seriously in 79 AD" and for us to hop back in the Mercedes and head on our way.  Instead, we had a 2 hour audio tour of the grounds.  After about the first hour, I had grasped the feel of the place and felt ready to go.  Luckily, my family had the same feeling.  So, instead, we spent our last hour freely walking around and marveling at what still existed from 2000 years ago.  Then, we headed to Mt. Vesuvius, one of the highlights of the trip for me.  How often in one's life can he say "Hey, I'm standing in the crater of an active volcano."  You can drive the majority of the way up the mountain, but the final stretch (about a 30 min steep-incline hike) can only be done by foot. I nearly jumped out of the car in excitement, but Dad and Ross did not match my enthusiasm.  Ross can attest that I practically ran up the side of the mountain, leaving them both in the dust.  We took some great shots from the smoking crater.  From the 1,281 meter height, we had an amazing view of all of Naples and the port beside it.  From the volcano, we headed back to Rome where we said our goodbyes and I hopped on a train to Florence.

With only 6 short weeks left in Italy, I feel like I need to enjoy every single day left.  I have a busy November... leaving for Paris on Wednesday with James, Barcelona with him the weekend after, and then some special Davidson visitors for Thanksgiving weekend (and my 21st Birthday weekend, naturally).  Having some quality family time was just what I needed to miss home, but be homesick.  Still no bouts of that illness yet.  I was also thrilled to share some of the experiences of my semester abroad with them.  Neither of my parents had the opportunity to basically quit their lives for a few months and live in Europe, and who knows where or what Ross will end up doing in the next few years.  I took a hiatus as photographer and handed the responsibility to my Mom, who will certainly post the 1000+ photos she took in our 10 days together as soon as possible.  I'm a lucky lucky girl to have the life I do and the best part of experiencing it is sharing it with the people you love.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Laying like a Starfish

Ah, I'm already regretting what I said in my last post about enjoying the fall-like weather. Caroline and I need a space heater in our room. We're barely making it to 70 degrees these days in Florence and I've broken out and broken in my favorite Saturday morning at Davidson outfit: the Connor zip-up, yoga pants, and UGGs.  In the weekend before midterms, I have not cracked open one book, but instead spent a few days in the Florence and a few days on the coast with James in Cinque Terre.  We both ended up with beautiful schedules that leave us free by mid-afternoon on Wednesdays until Monday mornings, so James arrived to a meal of penne with meat sauce and a table full of Davidson friends on Wednesday evening.  Another typical Davidson Wednesday found us ending our night at the Lion's Fountain, chowing down on burritos, and mozing across Florence to JD and Dugan's apartment.  Thursday morning, James and I hopped on a train (No, James, not in a fast car) and headed off to Cinque Terre, a series of 5 towns along the Italian Rivera with trails connecting each unique seaside town through the National Park.  We stayed in Riomaggiore, the first of the 5 towns, on the hillside.  After attending a "Drink Like An American Party" in Valencia on Tuesday night, James forgot to print out a map of the town, so lacking direction, Wifi, and mastery of the Italian language, we hopped off the train and luckily found the hotel after climbing a only a few hundred sets of stairs.  A water-facing terrace proved to be the perfect location for sunset-gazing both nights before heading down into the town for dinner. Porches of the American South have always been a weakness, and even if I had to be curled up in a huge blanket to star-gaze later in the evenings, terraces on the Mediteranean coast of Italy will definitely suffice for the semester. Known for its seafood, Riomaggiore has a small marina and rocky beach area that only adds to the atmosphere for eating.  Luckily, James is an adventurous eater as I am, and we indulged in stuffed anchovis, seafood salads, mussels in marinara, seafood spaghetti, and pizza al mare for the entirety of our stay.

Friday, we hiked the Via Dell'Amore between Riomaggiore and Manarola and the trail between Corniliga and Vernazza.  In my group trip to Cinque Terre with 90 degree temperatures and massive crowds, the chill of the October air under a cloudless sky made the day memorable.  We picked up some faccacia (with pesto, my favorite) in Corniliga and ate some lunch by the water.  By the time we made it to Manarola, I was in need of gelato after a 3 day hiatus.  Without my usual peanut butter and chocolate go-to, I selected what I thought to be the next-best flavors: Nutella, Chocolate, and Mint Chocolate Chip.  The nutella scoop was a warm scoop of nutella rather than a nutella flavored gelato. Not my best selections.  We spent some time on the beach in Monterosso al Mare and grabbed a beer and prosecco by the water before escaping from the flies and heading back to our Riomaggiore.  In need of a late-afternoon snack, James picked up a piece of olive and anchovi pizza while I grabbed a bottle of prosecco and two riceballs, a famous Ritter favorite and the topic of my admission essay to Davidson.  We followed the pre-meal snacks with another beautiful sunset and another amazing meal.  Afterwards, I PASSED out, arms and legs outstretched and told James not to touch me while I was "laying like a starfish, only, I must've had my 5th apendage cut-off, since my head was shorter than my limps".  You can take the girl out of the science classrooms, but you can't take the science nerd out of the girl.

Cinque Terre provided the perfect setting for several of the best days of the semester, hands down.  The towns combine outdoorsy with beauty, seaside with mountains, making our experience romantic, intimate, and breath-taking. Its easy to see why the region is an UNESCO World Heritage Site. Saturday morning, we thought about doing some more exploring North of Cinque Terre, but after an hour of rocky relaxation literally sitting in the sea, we decided that we'd head on back to Florence so we could indulge in another Florentine dinner with our friends.  That's the thing about Italian culture -- it all revolves around meals, something I've quickly adopted into my life.  I love nothing more than a several course meal, a glass of wine, and some engaging conversations.  I said it in one of my first posts, but it does force you to take a step back, relax, and genuinely get to know people.  After a 100+ decibal country concert in my apartment, we ended up back at Lion's Fountain, per usual, and finding people from all over the country that knew people from Davidson, per usual.  Meredith and James marked the walls with some Kappa Connor graffiti before we headed to the Hamburgler's and back the boys' apartment.

After a few verses of John Denver's "I'm Leaving on a Jet Plane", James headed back to Valencia on the 1:30 flight yesterday, and I ended up sleeping until 12:30.  Not that a shorter day made the day go by any faster.  Something about Sundays really make me miss home.  Keeping with the musical theme, I should start singing "That's what I love about Sundays" right now.  It must be how I usually spend my Sundays: with my family watching football.  Mom always makes something yummy and I always end up napping through at least 1 half of one of the games.  Needless to say, after this week of "midterms", I'll be more than ready for Mom, Dad, and Ross to arrive Friday morning and spend 10 days with them exploring Florence, Siena, Tuscany, Rome, the Amalfi coast, Mount Vesuvius, Sorrento, and Pompeii!

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Venetian Weekend

On Wednesday night, we went to a recommended resturaunt with the crew for a quiet night before our early train to Pisa. Ended up not being so quiet when we overindulged in the "Free House Wine to Students" deal that Dante's had. Needless to say, our 7:30 Meet Time came way too early. JD made the ride memorable to all aboard.

We arrive in Venice around 11 to find 50 degree weather and torrential downpours. When I told James that they were calling for rain while I was in Venice, he wittily replied, "Hope it doesn't flood." We were supposed to walk to our hotel in San Marco Square, about a mile and a half from the train station. With our bags and without our rainboots, this proved to be too big a feat.  Lucca hailed a water taxi for the 15 of us and we arrived at our hotel the only way appropriately: by water. Our hotel was in PRIME location, surrounded by the high fashion stores and less than 100 feet from San Marco Square, the largest square in Venice.  And when I say hotel, I mean more like apartments.  Caroline, Keena, Emily, and I had a 2 bedroom, 2 bath apartment with kitchenette.  We had a few hours of free time so that we could circumvent the rain for our 4 hour walking tour scheduled for later in the day.  Lucca warned us that the Venetians aren't particularly known for their hospitality and advised us to stay around the tourist resturaunts.  We may have taken this a little too literally in our lunch date at Hard Rock Cafe on Saturday, but on Friday we ate a pizza, had a rude man yell at JD, and have a waitor who very well could've been on drugs put ketchup on the other table's fries, for them.  After a 20 min nap at the hotel, we met in the lobby for a walking tour... in the sun.  Although it remained windy and chilly, Caroline commented that it felt like football weather. I couldn't have agreed more.  In a Florence "Fall" where high temperatures haven't dropped below 85, the football weather was refreshing. But after 2 days of it, I'm glad to be back with the warm Florentines.

Lucca strolled us around Venice, stopping at a few locations to explain the importance, but for the most part, our tour gave us the ability to get a feel for Venice at large.  Afterward, we took a promised gondola ride.  We had been going since 7 am that morning, and finally sitting down to relax and enjoy our surroundings made me realize how freakin' lucky I am. Gondola rides, as cliche as they are, are something that everyone who loves Italy has to do once in a lifetime.  Well, as we were riding along, we were finally doing it. 20 years old in Italy for 5 months. Pretty awesome.

Afterward, Milva and Lucca had arranged aVenetian meal for us. 5 courses. Seafood platter (obvi my favorite), bruschetta, vegetable lasagna, veal, salad, and potatoes, and gelato and fruit to finish! When you start a meal off with 3 pieces of bread, 5 courses are a lot to manage.  We then headed back to our "apartments" where I decided to relax in the bathtub, go find some WiFi, and watch some CNN before heading to bed.

Another early morning greeted us with a free breakfast buffet. We then met a spunky little tourguide and headed to the Doge's Palace,  San Marco Cathedral, and the Prisions. I've never so many gold ceilings in my life than in the Palace and the Cathedral. Absolutely beautiful. Afterward, we headed to a Murano glass factory, ironically in Venice, to have a glass blowing demonstration, listen to a mini-lecture, and visit the showroom.  If the glass wasn't so expensive, I would be coming home with Christmas ornaments for all. That afternoon, we were left to fend for ourselves for about 5 hours.  With our subpar experience at lunch the day before, we decided to cut our losses and indulge in some American cuisine for lunch.  I happily hate buffalo tenders and french fries on the second floor of the Hard Rock Cafe that overlooked a canal full of gondolas.  The girls then went for an afternoon of purusing the narrow streets of Venice, stopping in any shop of interest. After an assortment of afternoon snacks we headed back to the hotel to meet the rest of the group to walk to the Jewish Ghetto.  In the Venetian dialect, "gheto" means to sequester, throw away, or set apart, a definition that coined the usage of the word "ghetto" all over the world.  During the early 20th century, the Venetian ghetto appealed to Jews all over Europe who were living in isolation and injustice.  Venice separated the Jews, but offered them financial opportunity and protection.  Although Venice wanted to be the Christian city model, officials also wanted the revenue that the Jews provided.  Venice is a city founded on commerce with truly capitalist tendancies, and when they thought of the Jews, they saw dollar signs.  We happened to tour on Yom Kippur so a few children were playing in the main square, but for the most part, the ghetto was quiet.  With only 2 exits, the Venetians used to force the Jews to lock themselves in at night and Venetians patrolled the canal surrounding the tiny island.  It was an eerie feeling to be walking through there, like I was infringing on someone else's space, although it is now open to all.

We made it back to the train station an hour before our train left, so we say on a ledge beside the canal and people and boatwatched. I didn't find Venice to be as intimate or romantic as I had expected.  The narrow streets and hundreds of small bridges were packed with tourists and sometimes we literally had to push our way through the crowd or simply stand in line.  October is high season in Venice and we could definitely tell by the number of people.  Our tourguide said that she's been giving tours for 11 years and 11 years ago, there were 11 million tourists to travel to Venice. Last year, there were 22 million.  In a decade, the number has doubled and unfortunately, Venice doesn't have the space for them to spread out.  It made us all appreciate to be living in Florence, still a small city in comparison to Rome, London, or Paris, its comfortable but not claustrophobic. Less than 2 weeks until my Mom, Dad and Ross arrive! Ciao!