Tuesday, January 31, 2012

A Whirlwind Tour of Perugia and Assisi

Ciao, wonderful readers!

This past weekend I went on my first trip outside of Siena, to Perugia and Assisi! For the geographically challenged (like myself), here is a little map of Italy.

See Siena in the middle-ish? Directly to the right you'll find Perugia and Assisi sandwiched right next to each other all cosy-like, in the region of Umbria.

12 out of us 13 CET students (Kyle was visiting a friend in Florence) decided to take a little weekend jaunt to explore the two cities. So, on Saturday morning bright and early, I stepped onto my first vehicular transportation since arriving in Siena, and endured four hours of travel to Perugia. Once at the Perugia train stop, being the intelligent college students that we are, we decided to eschew the difficult task of finding a bus to take us into the city center, and instead decided to walk to our hostel. This doesn't sound like a very daunting task, but we quickly realized that Perugia is at the top of a mountain! Ok, maybe not a mountain, but it is an extremely large, steep hill! Here's an idea of the incline we were up against.

However, 45 minutes later, we found ourselves at the top, and were rewarded for our labours with this view.

Definitely worth it.

As we attempted to find our hostel, we found ourselves enveloped by a group of American students on a tour of the city, and the tour guide, history professor Zach, asked us to join in. Naturally, we said yes. Zach gave us his free, "no facts" tour, and we learned such things as the fact that Perugia has the proud distinction of owning the 3rd ugliest cathedral in Europe.

I'm going to have to say that yes, it is one of the ugliest cathedrals I have ever seen. Almost like an enormous stone barn.

Here's a totes gorge (yes I did just abbreviate totally gorgeous as totes gorge) view of Perugia extending into the Umbrian countryside.

After a night of delicious food and a very clean hostel, we were off to Assisi! I do believe I enjoyed Assisi more than Perugia, simply because it is one of the more charming towns I have ever had the pleasure to visit. Plus, um, St. Francis hails from Assisi, and thus Assisi has San Francesco.

Boom. How do Assisians (Assisites? Assisinians?) handle so much beauty staring them in the face every day? Pictures were not allowed inside the basilica, but I can tell you that the walls were lined with frescoes depicting St. Francis' life, that the ceilings were covered in one of the most beautiful azure colors I have ever seen, and that the whole place resounded with mystical loveliness.

On that note, it is highly possible that Italy may give me a new appreciation for the country. I have never seen such a lovely countryside before, and after spending all of my time sandwiched between stone houses and stone streets, with only a sliver of sky above me, I want to explore the country more. How could you not, when the country looks like this?

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Benvenuti a Via Montanini!

Who's ready for an introduction to my homestay? I live with the lovely Stella Palazzolo (and Rachel, of course) on Via Montanini 28, and it is wonderful, particularly as regards location. We are 5 minutes from school, 5 minutes from the Campo, 2 minutes from the grocery store... you get the point.

The view from the street...

If you're wondering why there is a giant green neon sign above the archway, that is because the Albergo hotel lives right next door to us. If you go down this tunnel and open the door on your right, you'll be in Stella's apartment building; if you go the tunnel and open the door on the left, you'll be in the Albergo.

Stella lives on the 2nd floor, and her apartment actually takes up the whole floor, consisting of 3 bedrooms, 1 bath (we think... ), a teensy kitchen, and a dining/living room. (side note: Stella owns a piano, so I'll be able to keep my fingers from getting too itchy while I'm here!)

Here's our room...

This used to be Stella's son Francesco's room, and apparently he is the one who painted the wardrobe. My bed is the one on the right!

The view of the other side of the room, with desks, window, and the all-important radiator (no central heating in Italian houses... brr)...

Here's my desk, complete with pictures I brought with me to stave off homesickness...

Now, you may be asking, "why is this room so neat and clean? Faith must have taken these pictures the first day she moved in. There's no way her room is this clean after a week."

Wellll, firstly, my roommate is a clean person, so I feel bad letting my messy nature show. Secondly, and most importantly, Stella cleans our room every day. Seriously. She comes in, makes the beds (remakes them if we attempted to make them ourselves), straightens our desks, hangs up any stray jackets... it's ridiculous. So, we feel really terrible if we leave our stuff around, and then any stray mess is taken care of by Stella. She even does our laundry for us! This gets slightly awkward when it comes to washing underwear and the like, since Europeans are not so into using clothes dryers - they hang their clothes up to drip-dry, generally on a line outside the window of the apartment. I could show you a picture of the laundry outside the apartment right now, but I really feel no desire to show the internet my underwear, so here is a random example from Siena.

It's quite picturesque when it's not one's own laundry.

And that is where I spend my time! At least, it is when I'm not in classes, wandering through Siena, or soaking up the sun in the Campo (I plan to spend a lot of time lizard-ing it up in the Campo - it's wonderful there, and a perfect place to people-watch).

Ciao a tutti!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

La Vita Italiano

Some notes on Italy after a weekend in Siena:

1. The names here are so Italian it's hard to believe they are real - during the past two nights of going out on the town, I've met an Antonio, a Luca, a Flavio, a Guiseppe, and a Fabio. Yes. His name is Fabio. Then there is Gianluigi, one of the Italian roommates that some of the CET students are living with, and of course we know Stella, Francesco, and Cosimo. Cosimo's mother is Natasha, because she is English, but Francesco's step-brother is Gabriello, and Stella's ex is Lino. I love it. It's so Italian.

2. The Italians don't binge drink, and the women hardly drink at all. This is why American girls have a bad reputation abroad, because not only are they binge-drinking Americans, they are binge-drinking girls. Instead, Italians tend to drink enough to loosen up and get tipsy (although I've seen plenty of soaked Italians at the bars), and the women typically stick to 1 or 2 drinks.

3. Italians stay out late. In America it's typical to go out on weekends around 10:30 or 11, but here the bars are empty until around midnight, and the bars don't close until 3. Thus many Italians stay out until 5 in the morning every weekend. Perhaps this is why they love their midday nap so much!

4. Wine is ever-present here. Rachel and I slept until noon today, seeing as we had been out until 3 last night, trying to be good Italians. Stella came into our room to tell us that we had missed breakfast, but that lunch would be ready soon, so we ventured into the kitchen/living room area, where we saw that Lino (her ex) and Cosimo (the grandson) were there as well. We sat down to eat, and Lino promptly tried to pour us wine... keep in mind that we had been awake for about an hour! Rachel made a tricky maneuver and quickly grabbed the water before Lino could get any vino into her glass, but alas, I was too slow. I attempted to slowly drink my wine over lunch, but I have decided that I am not hardcore enough to drink wine so early in the day. However, we are used to having wine every evening, as they told us that it is not dinner unless there is wine.

5. Guys. I don't like cheese. This is a problem in Italy. I can handle the mild stuff like mozzarella (which I actually enjoy eating), but the more intense cheeses are pretty difficult for me. I haven't told Stella that I don't like cheese, because I want to try to expand my palate and eat what the Italians eat, but lunch today was pretty cheese heavy. There was pecorino, a hard, strong cheese that they drizzle honey on top of - I got about half a slice down. Then we also had crostini, pieces of bread with some sort of cheese spread on top, plus dried tomato or eggplant or pesto. I was expecting the cheese spread to be ricotta or something of the sort, so I took a big bite. Alas, it was something awful, akin to bleu cheese. Ick. I forced a couple more bites down to be polite, then concentrated on the prosciutto and the salad.

That's it for now - Rachel and I are off to meet up with some of our friends to go ice skating in the park!

Friday, January 20, 2012


Today my roommate and I decided to hit up the Conad, Siena's grocery store, after we finished with orientation for the day. We aren't quite sure what the snack protocol is for homestay students, so we wanted to get some food for our room, seeing as our stomachs aren't quite used to the Italian eating schedule yet. The Italians generally have lunch around 1, but they don't eat again until 8 or later, so us silly Americans keep getting hungry between lunch and dinner.

Italian grocery stores are much smaller than American ones, and instead of 8 bajillion brands, they only have 1 or 2. However, they have everything necessary for daily life, and they're pretty darling to boot. (Random note: I bought shampoo, etc. at Siena's department store yesterday, but it turns out that the "lotion" I bought is actually body wash, as I discovered when I tried to put some on and couldn't figure out why it felt so gross. So, I bought real lotion today at Conad. :P )

Here are a couple of pictures of the selection at Conad. They have some lovely produce...

Stella told me that the most important part of the meal is olio, olive oil. They put it on everything, even on top of soup before serving it!

Have I talked about the bread here yet? Because it is fantastic. Every single kind of bread I've tried has been amazing. I don't care what the French say, the Italians have the best bread. There is a paneria that is dangerously close to my house - I plan on frequenting it.

And what would Italy be without cheese? I'm attempting to expand my limited cheese palate and to try different cheeses while I'm over here (actually, I'm just trying everything - I ate mushrooms yesterday, Mama!). Stella gave me the best mozzarella of my life the day I arrived.

And finally, Nutella. Italians love their Nutella - Stella was telling us that they eat Nutella straight from the jar when they have a bad day, much like us with our Ben & Jerry's.

Here is what we ended up buying to split - some kind of cookie deal and Nutella to dip it in. We're very excited. :)

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Arrival, Or, A Very Long Post


I have arrived and I am well! :) Actually, I'm far more than bene, I'm molto bene! Italy is wonderful. I can't believe I'm actually here, and that I will be living here for the next four months. It still has not sunk in completely (or at all, really). Right now I feel like I'm on a wonderful vacation, but I will be going back to the US in a couple of weeks. I am interested to see how I feel when my brain finally figures out otherwise.

All right, I'm going to give y'all a rundown of what has happened since I left the Land of Liberty. Here's a picture of me that Mama insisted I take as I was about to head through security in Houston.

My flight to Paris went very well, aside from lots of turbulence (I actually think turbulence is kind of fun, so I didn't mind it). I had a whole row to myself, as the plane was fairly empty. I do think I was the youngest person in economy, though.

Guess who still can't sleep on planes, even after learning how to nap any time and any where? That's right, this girl. I slept for about an hour total, and watched movies the rest of the time.

I had an hour between flights when I got into Paris, but I only made it to my terminal 15 minutes before take-off, seeing as the Paris airport is enormous and scary... it took me 45 minutes of walking and taking 2 shuttles. It was ridiculous.

Once I finally got to Florence, I found a girl that's in my program, and we took the bus to Siena together, so that was nice to have someone who, if not familiar, was at least a friendly (English-speaking) face. I tried oh so hard to stay awake and watch the scenery on the bus ride, but alas, my jet lag caught up to me and I fell asleep.

Then Siena. Oh my goodness. Siena is beautiful. Siena was founded a millennium ago, and is a walled city, so it is absolutely gorgeous. It actually originally was larger and more important than Florence, but it took a fatal blow when the Black Plague hit, and Florence took over. Thus the Sienese and the Florentines have a bit of a rivalry going on - the Sienese aren't such fans.

I met my host mother, Stella, who is simply lovely. She is talking to me so far in about half and half Italian and English, and I understand most of it, happily. I'm excited for classes to start Monday so I can start actually learning the language. I also met my roommate Rachel - we share a cute little room (pictures later) together in Stella's apartment. Seeing as the name to my blog is a nod to Forster's A Room With A View, I thought it would be appropriate to give y'all the view from my room. My apologies for the quality... the light was iffy, but I plan on taking more pictures when the weather is better and you can see the lovely hills in the background.

We went on a walking tour today to get the feel of the city, and to see the important sites. The most beautiful thing I've seen in Siena so far? The Duomo. I'm ever so excited to get to explore it more - we simply passed by it on our walking tour of Siena this morning, but I plan to thoroughly tour the place. Several times.

One of the most important areas (or perhaps the most important area) in Siena is the Piazza Del Campo.

This is where the people of Siena go to meet each other before going out, this is where they come to chat, to hang out, to picnic, and most importantly, this is where Il Palio takes place.

Il Palio is the famous horse race that takes place in Siena twice a year, and which dates back to the Middle Ages. The Sienese are REALLY into this race. The city is actually split up into 17 sections, called Contrade, and horses from these sections compete in the race. Whatever Contrada you are born in kind of dictates your social life, and as Stella said, "Your Contrada is more than your mother."

We got to visit the heart of one of the Contrade, Contrada Della Selva (Contrada of the Forest), and we visited their fountain, their church, and their museum. I think it's so interesting that the Contrade play such a large role in the lives of the Sienese - there are bitter rivalries between them, you marry in the church of your Contrada (preferably to someone in your Contrada), and there is even a special second baptism into the Contrada for children.

After our walking tour, we went to a Trattoria, called Fonte Guisto, for dinner, and had mounds and mounds of food. Italians typically eat 3 courses in a meal (and apparently take 2 1/2 hours to eat it), and lots and lots of wine with the meal.

We must have had 6 or 7 different types of salami and prosciutto for the first course, along with bruschetta, fried artichokes, and some sort of mushroom thing.

For the second course we had 3 or 4 types of pasta (including gnocchi, one of my favorite kinds of pasta), and for the dessert course we had biscotti and this strange dessert wine that I drank about two sips of before deciding it was nasty. You were supposed to dip the biscotti into the wine, but that was disgusting, so I drank the wine straight, but even so it didn't taste that great. I think it must be an acquired taste, as almost none of us Americans liked it.

And now I'm off to bed, to sleep off more jet lag. Buonanotte!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Salutations, and Packing Woes

Buongiurno, oh brave readers of this blog! Be prepared for much rambling, much excitement, and many pictures.

(A note on the name of this blog. Yes, I used two different literary references. Yes, in one of them I reworked Virgil to suit my needs. I have no shame.)

In this, my inaugural post, I am a mere 8 hours from leaving the ol' U.S. of A., and I have just finished the marathon event known as "packing." I was instructed to pack only one bag, as I will not want to be the lame girl carrying 5 bags around Europe, and I must also leave space for my Italian souvenirs in this bag. HA! That's funny.

Let me show you a picture of about half of the items that need to go into said suitcase.

I am incapable at packing lightly.

This is my face at the prospect of fitting everything into my poor, abused suitcase.

And this is how I felt after 2 hours of packing, and after realizing that I will have to take significantly less stuff than I would like.

However, everything finally fit, even if it did seem to magically gain 10 pounds overnight. Happiness.

Now, as scary as it seems, I am off to the airport, ready to bid America goodbye for four months! I'll see y'all on the other side!