Wednesday, January 30, 2008

29 January 2008

So yesterday I went to the supermarket, and I had the misfortune of standing in line in front of two ugly Americans. First off, the lines in Italian supermarkets like Standa and Conad are usually horrendous. Especially, it would seem, at 5:30 in the evening. At the most, only four lanes will be open. Since the customers have to both bag and pay for their food, preferably at the same time, that slows the process down even more. And we New Yorkers gripe about the three-person lines at Fairway.

Basically, what I’m trying to say is I had to stand there for a long time listening to their inane chatter and generally ignorant comments.

First the mother gets a phone call. To paint the picture, she’s your average overweight, Middle-American-looking woman—mousey brown, closely cropped hair, small gold-rimmed glasses, humdrum wardrobe. She picks up the phone and starts yammering away about where she and her daughter, who is with her, have visited so far—naturally, the Duomo, Galleria dell’Accademia, etc.—whether they were meeting these people or not tomorrow morning, etc. etc. all in an extremely loud and entitled voice. Then she and her daughter start arguing with each other about who’ll be paying for that night’s groceries. And then, “Oh, look it’s those cute Happy Hippo candies. Grandma would love one of them.” After discussing said item for several minutes, the mom gets irritated that she hasn’t been able to reach over an old Italian woman’s head to grab one yet and makes a comment about pushing her aside, hopefully jokingly. And this when they are still about five people from being at the front of the line. “You’ve got plenty of time, lady” was all I wanted to say.

But I didn’t, because I could tell they thought I was Italian! Which was absolutely hilarious. So I decided to keep my mouth shut. When I started packing up my groceries in the plastic bag I’d brought from my apartment, the mom made a comment about how they “bring their own bags here. We should do that next time.” (You have to pay for plastic bags in supermarkets in Italy.) Of course, tons of people could or should be bringing their own bags from home in the United States too… Maybe if the A&P started charging extra, they would…

Actually, ever since I got this newfangled haircut, a lot of people have mistakenly assumed I’m Italian. Also, I had to buy sneakers, and my new shoes are much classier than my ratty, beat-up, paint-covered ones from New Balance. Now when I walk into stores, I’m always greeted in Italian. Sadly, when I open my mouth and try to speak or hesitate and look confused for a bit, they quickly switch to English.

Personally, I believe one of the best feelings in the world is being mistaken for a native. In the spring of junior year I went to Québec with my French class, and myself and two others were wandering around the lower part of the city in the rain. I needed to find a pharmacy to buy contact solution. So I crafted the question in my head before walking into this small art gallery on the corner, and, after I’d asked, the woman answered me in rapid French. I was extremely proud.

I didn’t get a lot of sleep last night so I decided to get an espresso before the long haul that is video. I was meeting some people at four (class starts at six) to work on the homework—editing some sequences we filmed using the program Media 100, an alternative to Final Cut Pro. I went into one of the many small stores near the school that sell various food items, cigarettes, and coffee. Even after I’d said “ciao” and “espresso” they still spoke to me in Italian! I know those aren’t a full sentence, but it was exciting all the same. The downside was I wanted them to continue to believe I was Italian, so I didn’t ask for milk in my espresso. And since I don’t put sugar in my coffee, I drank a black espresso! Which was an experience in itself. That I’d rather not repeat. I mean, I might as well just inject caffeine in my veins like heroin.

Aside from my hairstyle and footwear, the more significant changes in my routine I’ve noticed are the various Italian mannerisms I adopt up as a means of assimilating into the local culture—drinking espresso instead of lattes, riding a bicycle through throngs of tourists, bringing my own bags to the supermarket, always making sure I’m impeccably dressed.

* * *

What I most love about Manhattan are the small details—break-dancers near Central Park, the man who plays the musical saw in the Times Square subway station, this guy named Lloyd Butler I met with Monica who explained the significance of the number combinations on the billboard in Union Square. Most cities lack that distinct brand of individuality—which is why Manhattan just happens to be one of my favorite places in the world.

But I’ve been witness to moments akin to these in Firenze. Tonight when I was walking home from video at nine p.m., I took my usual route in which I cut through the Piazza della Signoria. In the area behind a row of statues that includes copies of the “Rape of the Sabine Women” and “Jules and Holofernes” the shadow of a man was projected onto a wall. At first sight, he looked like he was fooling around and pretending to be a swordsman. Once I’d gotten close enough to see the actual man, I realized he was a painter doing a portrait of a woman in front of a large spotlight and brandishing his brush energetically.

Earlier in the day at an hour when the Piazza is overrun by tourists, I noticed a blonde woman taking a photo of a similarly blonde man pointing up into the sky. I assume they had set up some visual scenario involving the replica of Michelangelo’s David in front of the Palazzo Vecchio, which was immediately behind him. Manhattanites think they are familiar with the worst sort of pigeon; these people have clearly never been to Florence. Pigeons here are fearless; they have a Hitchcock’s “The Birds” quality. One of these pigeons decided to fly about three inches over the top of the man’s finger while his photo was being taken.

Speaking of Michelangelo’s David—yesterday morning when I was walking to Italian class, I noticed a set of small David figurines in the window of a store on the Via del Calzaiuoli. (Four vowels in a row! Holy mother of God! I didn’t think a word like that existed.) The visage of the David is everywhere, so the mere presence of copies of the statue in a store window is nothing to write home about. However, these figurines were enlarged versions¬—what David would look like if he were fat. I was trying to figure out why anyone would possibly want to buy or sell that sort of item, and I finally decided they’re meant to make insecure men feel better about themselves in comparison to the perfection that is Michelangelo’s David. Now Dario, my sculpture teacher, does not envy the David’s physique, rather he feels inept when he remembers Michelangelo sculpted said masterpiece at the age of fifteen. [EDIT: He was actually 26 when he sculpted the David.]

Now, speaking of Michelangelo, on Monday afternoon my sculpture class went on a field trip to the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, which houses the corner in which scholars believe the David was conceived. But that’s not what I want to write about.

At the top of the stairs to the second floor is a small circular room in which La Pietà di Michelangelo is situated inside a metal barrier. For those unfamiliar with this particular statue (not the famous one in Vatican City), it depicts Mary Magdalene, either Nicodemus or Joseph of Arimethea, and a third unfinished female figure holding up the body of Christ. Dario told us that Michelangelo tried to destroy the statue for religious reasons I cannot recall, so other sculptors finished and restored it in his place.

I love art. Obviously, or I wouldn’t be studying studio art in Firenze. But I’ve never seen a piece of art that stops me in my tracks and makes me feel a tidal wave of different emotions all at once. A sort of artistic transcendental moment, one might say. I am hugely fond of Monet, Degas, Cezanne, and various other impressionist painters, but I’ve only ever been able to appreciate their work; I’ve never been struck dumb by it.

The Pietà is different. Immediately after I first laid eyes on limp and bedraggled body of Christ, I felt I shouldn’t even speak in the presence of such a work of art. There was a woman sitting on a bench in the room. I’d had a feeling that she had been in front of the Pietà for quite some time and that she had no intention of leaving anytime soon. If I hadn’t had two hours left of class, I would have plopped down right next to her and joined in on the revelry.

Anyone who knows me well enough could tell you I have little regard for organized religion. In spite of all that, the story of Jesus has always moved me. When I hear or read it, I become intensely and painfully aware of his suffering. The sight of Jesus pinned to a cross has never stirred anything inside me. The image has become so common and is used inappropriately so often it has become cliché. Instead I found the image of Christ’s body lying limp in the arms of his followers to be much more powerful and to stir many of the same emotions as his disturbing story of betrayal and sacrifice.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Photos of Fiesole

Click to view the full-sized photo.

La Piazza Mino da Fiesole

Etruscan ruins

More Etruscan ruins and the surrounding hillside

Una via

Some delicious-looking meringue birds in a bakery's window

The same via from another angle

A hillside house's garden

A wall that leads up to the highest point in Fiesole

A different wall, I think

The house I intend to own someday

A gathering of old Italian women

A park and a playground

A bell tower that was playing music when this was taken

Lemon tree, very pretty, and the lemon flower is sweet
But the fruit of the poor lemon is impossible to eat

Monday, January 28, 2008

27 January 2008

So, as far as I can tell, the apartment above mine houses a band that only practices late at night. And it seems their friends enjoy dancing along while wearing wooden clogs. But I’m in Firenze, so what do I really have to complain about? Annoyingly loud neighbors is extremely low on the list of “Things that are incredible grievances”.

I bought a bike last Thursday. The man running the store spoke little to no English. I had to resort to flipping through my Langscheidt pocket phrasebook/dictionary, which, alas, was not very helpful. When I was trying to ask which bicycle lock was strongest, I couldn’t even find the word “best” in the dictionary. Eventually I just pointed to the rack of locks for sale and made a vaguely quizzical thumbs-up sign.

Since I had video relatively soon after I wheeled my shiny and new green bicycle (bicicletta in Italian) out of the store, I immediately sped in the direction I thought SACI was in. After five minutes of pedal-to-the-medal biking, I decided to take a glance at my map to make sure I was on the right track. Of course, that wasn’t the direction SACI was in.

Once I had turned myself around and parked by the sketchy leather market near the school, I checked my watch and thought I was 10 minutes late. On the first day of video, Bruno told us we have to bring cookies for everyone in the event that we arrive late. So I bought twenty cookies at the corner bakery because I also hadn’t done the homework, so I thought I should be extra generous.

When I get to the video classroom, not only is Bruno not there yet, the door’s locked, and I’m not even the last person to arrive. At least my classmates appreciated the cookies.

* * *

On Friday I decided to take a bike ride on the other side of the Arno in the direction of Ravenna. There’s a lovely bike path that runs along the river, which is, naturally and thankfully, car free. Even though Florentine drivers are very good at sharing the road with bicyclists and moped-ists, it’s still unnerving to realize that a huge lumbering vehicle is slowly pulling up behind you.

The part of Firenze below the Arno is called “Firenze Sud”, which is a verifiable community with parks and schoolyards and children kicking soccer balls against walls. It was a refreshing change from the Duomo, all the Piazzas, and various other touristy locations. Wanting to carry as little as possible with me, I jammed 30 Euros, an I.D., a cell phone, and a map of Firenze into the small pockets of my camera bag. I also schlepped along several rolls of film.

After biking for about thirty minutes downriver, with a few stops to photograph various waterfowl and Homo sapiens, I decided to hop off my wheeled transportation in favor of my feet. When I got to a park I sat down with my camera and stayed there for several hours. Nature, even human-informed nature, is my lifeblood. Even when surrounded by beautiful old architecture and gorgeous hallowed halls of stone, I’m not content until I notice the flock of birds flying in a V-shape overhead.

I haven’t settled into the role of being a photographer yet. I still feel awkward trying to capture the visages of people I don’t know. Some people are thrilled to be followed by a camera lens; others turn their backs and tense their shoulders. As an ardent viewer of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, I feel especially peculiar when taking photos of children or playgrounds. I know I don’t look like your average child molester/fetishist, but the association creeps me out as much as white vans do now.

Once the sun started sinking below the mountains that encircle Firenze, I decided to make for home. On the way to retrieve my bicycle, I stopped to take a few photos of what appeared to be a broken-down community center. At one point, while the viewfinder was pressed against my left eye, I heard a rolling sound coming towards me. After taking the photo I lowered my camera cautiously, and on my right stood a very short, extremely sketchy-looking fellow and his wheeled, black suitcase. He started talking to me in Italian, and I quickly sidestepped around him and walked away briskly. He yelled angrily after me, but since I don’t understand that much Italian, I just assumed the worst and went a little faster.

* * *

On Saturday I took bus #7 to Fiesole with my roommate Sarah, and two of the girls who live across the hall, Alexa and Stephanie. The ride took about 15 minutes, and we ended up pretty high in the mountains. I took my digital camera with me this time and started snapping photos the second I stepped off the bus. Fiesole is beautiful. The streets wind up and down and houses have lemon trees in their front yards.

The view was expansive and probably incredible. Unfortunately, because of the bright sunlight and the pollution that rises from the city like steam out of a boiling pot of water, we couldn’t see much of anything by way of Firenze. I could make out the vague outline of the Duomo and the flashes of the sun reflecting off moving cars, but other than that, everything was just a haze of white smoke. I took several photographs of the supposed view, but unless iPhoto has a feature that eliminates smog like it does redeye, I doubt they’ll be worth saving.

At about three, the four of us had lunch at a restaurant called “Etruscus”. I had, surprise surprise, a pizza margherita! I am, if anything, predictable when it comes to ordering food. We also got a half carafe of white wine to share. Sitting there with my bubbling wine and pizza, I felt like a real Italian donna (woman) soaking up the rays and listening to the chatter of my fellow diners.

* * *

On Sunday I overslept and immediately headed to the darkroom when I awoke. I took my two finished rolls of film with me and hoped for the best. I’ve only developed one roll of film since eighth grade when I took photography with Mr. Stracke, and I did so under the strict and watchful eye of Jacopo.

For me, the hardest part is transferring the film from the roll to a reel and putting the reels into the light-tight bucket. All of this occurs in utter darkness. It’s uncanny because your eyes can’t adjust to the darkness.

I’ll save you the extremely tedious specifics and just give a rough overview—first the photographer must open the roll of film with a can opener. Both Jacopo and our TA Jamie commented on the behavior of other students while performing this particular task. Apparently a lot of blood is involved.

Then you remove the film from the canister and have to roll it around the reel with minimal fingerprint interference. And by minimal, I mean none. I always get stuck on this one because you have to insert the end of the film into this little slot on the outer rim of the reel that feels pretty much like every other part of the rim, and if you insert it incorrectly, it won’t catch and you’ll just be winding and winding fruitlessly.

And now class, we get to leave the darkroom and head out into the light. Developing the film is an eight-step process. So you have to really love photography to sequester yourself in the darkroom for hours upon hours. Or perhaps the chemicals addle one’s brain just enough to make one crazy enough to spend copious amounts of time in the darkroom.

* * *

Because my only food in the refrigerator was half a container of yogurt and some fizzy water, I headed over to the Grana Market. The ingredients I can buy here are light-years better than anything I could buy in the United States. Today I had a definite mission—in broken Italian and broken English (the latter referring of course to the woman packaging the food, not me) I managed to procure five balls of mozzarella di bufala, some sun-dried tomatoes, several ounces of pesto, and half a loaf of pane (pronounced pon-a). And when I got home, I made the best sandwich I’ve ever had in my life.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

20 January 2008

My only plans for Saturday were to sleep and go buy some stuff I needed. Or “run errands”, as my roommate Sarah dubs it. (In my mind, “running errands” is something 39-year-old moms do while their twins are learning the ABCs in kindergarten.) At 3:15, when I finally forced myself up and out of the house, I decided to head across the Arno instead of wandering around the more familiar downtown.

As per usual, it was a wonderfully frigid afternoon, and, since I had yet to buy gloves and a hat, I was pretty cold. Sporting my new bizarrely colored LeSportsac bag (unlike my old purse, this one zips, which is a very important feature of gypsy-proof luggage) and camera bag—both of which were looped across my chest to protect them from the dreaded purse snatchers, and talking on the phone with my mother, I headed across the Ponte Vecchio.

The difference between the two sides of the river is pretty striking. The area I live in, near the Duomo, is super tourist-oriented. Most everyone speaks English, and lots of restaurants have names like “Snack Bar”. Across the river, shops sell only cheese or only wine and are all called “Italian word” or “Other Italian word” or “Trattoria”.

There are trees and gardens on the other side of the Arno. On the Duomo side, there is no flora whatsoever, which, even for a New York City kid, seems kind of weird.

The first store I went into was kitchen/hardware store fusion. The woman who was running the place didn’t speak English, so I had to whip out my Langscheidt pocket phrasebook to look up the word “dishtowel”. Amazingly she understood me and I walked out of there with a 1,50 Euro towel to wipe my hands on after doing the dishes.

Later I entered a shoe store and greeted the manger by saying “Buona Sera”. He later asked me if I spoke English, which may not sound all that exciting, but usually people here just immediately respond in English. It was like that one time in Paris when a woman in a department store started speaking to me in rapid French and I unfortunately had to tell her “Je ne parle pas Français”. (For those who know me and my love of injecting French words into everyday conversation, this was the summer before ninth grade—I had only been studying the language for two years at that point.)

I happened upon a fair-trade/eco-friendly store that sold various cosmetics, honey, tea, tchotchkes, and, to my extreme pleasure, hats and gloves. I bought a pair of llama wool gloves and a llama wool scarf that were hand knitted in Bolivia. Unfortunately, to my extreme displeasure, the set cost 27,50 Euros. But I’ve learned that the conscious consumer has to shill out extra cash, which is perhaps why there are so few.

While walking down some via or another, a group of EMTs exited from a very small door right in front of me. No longer quite so surprised by sudden arrivals in this city, I only jumped about two feet in the air. My jumpiness, although fascinating, I’m sure, is not the reason I wanted to share this anecdote with my adoring fans—incredibly, all the EMTs were wearing super bright neon orange pants with three reflector strips around their ankles. The shock factor was somewhere between 120 volts and seeing Elvis’s ghost. Which is probably helpful if you’ve just had a stroke? (Insert observation about how the color probably makes the EMTs more visible amid a busy crisis scene here.)

After two hours, I found myself back at the Arno. The sky was growing dark quickly, so I figured it was time to get back to my apartment because Sarah and I had plans to have dinner with the SACI students across the hall. When I was on the downtown side again, I turned around to take a panoramic shot. As beautiful as Firenze is, it really is amazingly polluted. I could see the thick smog settling among the churches and apartment buildings. While looking through the photos I’d taken later, I could tell that the haze had even affected the color quality.

* * *

Today I woke up at 2 p.m. At 4 p.m. I hopped on bus #14 and was on my way to Fiesole. Which I hadn’t known at the time. Armed with my camera and one roll of black & white film, I was ready to tackle my photography assignment.

Jacopo told us that people would stop noticing the camera pretty quickly. In my opinion, that’s a lie. One passenger even switched seats because she didn’t want to be in my direct line of sight (I think). Another passenger kept looking over at me every time I lifted the viewfinder to my eye.

I’ve always been afraid of getting old. I think every young person who has grown up in the youth-obsessed United States feels that way, whether they admit it or not. But while I was sitting there across from a pair of old people, I noticed how striking their wrinkles were. Years of experience had formed their features. And there’s something really beautiful about that. When they smiled, I could tell they still possessed some genuine childlike wonder. From a photographer’s point of view, I consider older people and children the best subjects—for different reasons, the two groups don’t cringe at the sight of a camera.

Having lived in Riverdale for the last four years, my opinion of seniority is skewed. I’ve come to associate age with grouchy customers who argue with cashiers over every cent they think they’re being cheated out of, women who yell at family members in the street, and Mrs. Katsoris. It would take me some time to explain that last one—let’s just say she’s pretty wretched and leave it at that.

I think there are definitely more wonderful people in this world than terrible ones; the latter are simply more ubiquitous. There will never be a story about a fireman saving some kid’s cat above the fold of The New York Times—instead whatever any given dictator did yesterday will claim that particular spot of honor. After all, no one needs to be warned about respectable fireman.

When I got to Fiesole, I discovered that my second favorite group of subjects was roaming the streets in full force. Tons of kids were running about in various costumes—Ninja Turtles, princesses, Pooh Bears, and puppies—celebrating what appeared to be Italian Halloween in January. Just without candy. But not without silly string, shaving cream, and confetti.

It was about 4:45 by this time, so the daylight was fading fast. Unfortunately, this meant I had to use a lot of the 1 second, ½ second, and ¼ second shutter speeds even with the F Stop (which measures the amount of light the lens of the camera lets in) on the lowest setting. To give non-photographers a good idea of what this means—the ideal shutter speed is in the neighborhood of 1/60 or 1/125 of a second. So we’ll see Tuesday if I came up with anything even remotely recognizable.

Because darkness was sweeping over Fiesole with alarming alacrity, I didn’t get to explore the town all that much. But now that I know which bus to take, I’ll definitely return another weekend. Instead I spent the majority of my time in the neighborhood photographing signs of decay brought about by neglect and bad weather. I’ve decided to call my (hopefully discernible) set of photos “Behind Bars.” Actually that wasn’t the name I came up with while in Fiesole, but I’ve forgotten that one.

After about ten minutes I found the local park, which is where I took most of my photos. There was graffiti all over the two small playhouses. Gardens outside people’s homes were overrun with weeds and dying perennials. A lot filled with construction materials appeared to have been abandoned. And the smog added to the effect by giving everything a Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd-ish appearance. (Which I discovered will be playing at the Odeon—a cinema that shows movies in their original languages—as will several other movies I’ve yet to see: American Gangster and Charlie Wilson’s War.)

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Photos of Firenze

Click to view the full sized photo.

The Arno

View across the Arno River

The Duomo

A building near my street

I suppose this picture is kind of labeled already

I liked the people playing guitar out in front of this church (chiesa, in Italiano)

An apartment building across the Arno


Another sunlight-inspired shot

A statue in the Piazza Mentana which is near the Ponte alle Grazie (The Bridge of Thanks?)

18 January 2008

So my first week of classes is over! I now have three whole days to do whatever I want.

I’ve flipped my schedule a bit, so now I’m taking video, sculpture, photography, and Italian. I wasn’t given permission to take intermediate drawing, and, since I really wasn’t fond of the beginning drawing teacher, I decided to drop that course. I had to eliminate at least one class or else I’d spend the next three and a half months running around like a chicken with my head cut off. Or some other equally unpleasant image.

* * *

When determining which class would be sleeping with the fishes, sculpture was the only class I absolutely knew I wanted to continue with. For one, the class is wonderfully small, which, after attending Fieldston for the majority of my life, I know is key to a great learning experience.

On Wednesday we took a field trip to an old haunt of Michelangelo’s at 70 Via Ghibellina, a street which happens to have a delightfully confusing numbering system. These small museums are part of what I really love about Italy—what looks like a normal building in Firenze (my photography teacher told us not to call it Florence; he believes you can’t translate names) will wind up being a sanctuary for beautiful old sculptures and art. And because art is so well preserved and in such abundance here, the city doesn’t feel the need to set these places aside as “culture”. Culture isn’t something separate from the everyday. Italians don’t have to go to the Metropolitan to experience the extraordinary because they live the Metropolitan.

Upon our return to the SACI main building, we spent the last two hours continuing work on our first project. All of us had to make a lovely flat slab of clay (as I mentioned in my last entry) upon which we will construct a drawing by Degas, a detail from an Egyptian pot, an Escher-esque scene, etc. Due to my minor obsession with all things French, naturally I chose to make a three-dimensional version of a Degas. After chicken scratching an outline on my slab, I began to pile and shape small amounts of clay to build my dancer. So far everything is going really well (knock on wood), and I’m quite proud of my work. If I get the chance, I’ll take a photo and post it. Of course, I’ve already said I would post multiple pictures that have yet even to be transferred onto my computer, so don’t take my word for it.

* * *

My photography teacher, Jacopo, is easily one of the most interesting people I’ve met in Italy, if not ever. He has such interesting views on local culture, lifestyles, and politics. He can talk for an hour about something totally unrelated to photography, and we’ll listen the entire time, completely spellbound. To paint a picture of his storytelling ability—I’ve tried to type several of them here, but since I can’t even come close to emulating his diction, I’ve decided not to do them injustice by inflicting my own phrasing. Besides, you need to hear his quiet but commanding voice to get the full effect. He’s not unlike Mr. Reyes in that way.

Our first photo assignment, due Tuesday, is to expose one 36-shot roll of black & white film. Jacopo wrote down seven numbers on slips of paper and had us select one out of a box. The number we chose was the bus we’d ride to the last stop, all the while taking photos of fellow passengers, of the view from the window, and of our eventual destination. Firenze has about 40 bus lines. The line I hoped to get was #25, which ends at the cemetery just outside the city. Instead I drew #14. All Jacopo said was that it would take me south.

* * *

Bruno Spinazzola is the real deal. He even gave us all a snazzy business card with the name of his production company on it. He’s Franco-Italian and speaks in an even more stereotypical foreigner-trying-to-speak-English way than Dario. And there’s a girl in video named Silvi, who speaks roughly six languages fluently (I asked her to name them recently, let me see if I can remember them all—Albanian, English, Portuguese, Italian, French, and possibly Spanish, maybe Greek), and who has absolutely no inhibitions about correcting Bruno’s English. Which becomes even funnier when she corrects him and he doesn’t realize she’s correcting him. As you can see, these conversations often occur in a roundabout fashion.

I was skeptical about sticking with video—I’m not really a film person like my sister Woo is, so endless shoots and reshoots generally bore me—but ultimately the eccentricities of the other students in the class and the personality of the teacher swayed me to choose it over drawing. It’s like picking a college—a lot of people ask which school is “better for your major” (again, whatever
that means, since so many of those judgments, like grades, are terribly arbitrary). I generally prefer drawing, but if I’m going to spend three months taking a course with either a genuinely interesting teacher or a didactic, uninspiring one, I’ll choose the former any day.

The first homework assignment was to film a sequence. That was due Thursday, but thanks to my previously whirlwind schedule, I’ve been given an extension until the next class on Tuesday. (By the way, if anyone has any ideas for me, I’d be happy to hear them.) While I paddled my boat against the current of time, the rest of my class hopped into a proverbial motorboat and is speeding along without me. (And that, thank you very much, was my horrific attempt to reference one of the greatest passages in all of literature—the last few paragraphs of
The Great Gatsby.) And by that, I mean, I have more than one assignment due Tuesday. Why didn’t I just put it like that before?

Our second task is to film and insert more shots into our sequences. Together as a class, we nominated three of the more promising ones to flesh out. The group I’m in is working on a scene in which a stationary camera records a girl’s feet running around getting ready to go out, and while she flies out of the door, she knocks the wonderfully heavy
Anna Karenina onto the floor. Which is an oh so subtle way of implying that our ballet-shoe-wearing protagonist is cheating on her husband. By means of augmentation, we filmed the husband coming home and discovering his wife’s infidelity by watching the tape in the camera he planted by their bedroom door.

Since I have little to nothing to offer my group by way of experience, I decided to come up with as many
Anna K references as possible to pepper our extended sequence with. My two best (or worst, depending on how you look at it) suggestions were turned down. First I suggested we name the wife Kitty; one of the other group members who hadn’t read the novel thought I was just being hilarious. Sadly, I was not. Then I suggested we have the husband try and fail to kill himself with a homemade black-painted toilet paper gun (an art project which I only came up with after the director asked where we’d get a fake gun from). That idea, surprisingly enough!, was also vetoed. However, my suggestion that the email the husband discovers on the computer say that the two clandestine lovers should meet at the train station was approved. So I figure if we add credits, mine should say “Train Station enthusiast” or “Consultant on all things Anna Karenina”.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

14 January 2008

Well, since there are actually few endeavors I prefer to writing, and my cell phone died while I was talking to my mum, I decided to eke out another entry. Besides, this was my first day of classes, so I’ve got plenty to talk about.

I woke up super early this morning (and by super early, I mean 7:30) and had mozzarella, olive oil and vinegar on bread. Not orthodox, that’s for sure, but certainly better than anything else I could have eaten.

Since we didn’t have class until noon, my roommate and I finally went on the cleaning supplies run because we’re just cool like that. We went to Conad, the Fairway of Florence, and spent about 30 minutes trying to figure out what we needed and what all the products even were. When you don’t know the language, even identifying toilet bowl cleaner can be difficult. We eventually went with the green bottle with the toilet bowl on it. My roommate also bought air freshener and sprayed it all around the apartment when we got back. Which made me gag a little.

My noon class was Italian. Our teacher’s name is Marta Martini. Which is one of the best names I’ve ever heard. That and Coco Crisp, the guy on the Red Sox. We went over the extreme basics—greetings (Buon Giorno! Buona Sera!), pronouns, and the verb avere, “to have”. We’re supposed to memorize all that for tomorrow’s class, but, honestly, I’d rather not. After all, there is a very important reason I’m taking four studio art classes. Little to no homework.

Then I got lost trying to find my way back to the main building, for a class I should have been at five minutes before I was let out of Italian. So I was about 20 minutes late for beginning sculpture. The teacher’s name is Dario, and he’s a pretty cool guy. He’s small, looks at the ground a lot when he talks, and speaks English in that stereotypical foreigner way.

After Dario treated us to a long spiel, he took us to the San Lorenzo church to look at some Donatello works. While we were walking across the San Lorenzo Piazza, I kept thinking about the part in A Room with a View when Lucy witnesses a murder. I wonder if can figure out where that scene took place. Well, according to someone online (so, clearly a reliable source), the square was the Piazza Signoria. Which is about three blocks from my apartment. Score!

Back to the field trip—it goes without saying that the church was amazing, but I might as well say so anyway. The church was amazing. Dario told us how, in Florence, most architecture is in various hues of grey, whereas in Venice, everything is bright and cheerful. Having witnessed both, I’m surprised to say that I prefer the understated beauty of Florentine carvings. I feel there’s more profundity in making something beautiful out of something that would otherwise be drab.

In one side-chamber of the church, we stared up at some of Donatello’s carvings that had been partially painted. Dario told us that Donatello had a disagreement with the painter (whose name I have unfortunately forgotten—actually, I don’t think I ever heard it; Dario mostly whispered in the church) because he thought the color messed up the lines of his carvings. Apparently the two never spoke again.

On our return to the sculpture classroom—which is on the edge of the garden in the main SACI building—we started work on the first of two big projects. The seven of us spent roughly an hour and a half pounding out large flat slabs of clay. It was fantastic. I often forget how much I love those basic elements of art. Working with one’s hands is really one of the most vital parts of life that we, as a technologically advancing species, have really lost touch with.

When sculpture was over, I went upstairs for beginning drawing. Because I’ve never taken a “college level” drawing course, I was told I couldn’t enroll in intermediate. I had resigned myself to the beginning level because I figured drawing is drawing, one can make it as hard or as easy as one wants. And then I looked over the syllabus. So currently I am trying to skirt that “college level” roadblock.

Now that I’ve successfully talked about my drawing prowess in a conceited way, I believe it is time to cut this entry short. It’s getting late, and I’m really tired. As per usual.

13 January 2008

Day two of me chronicling my adventures. I won’t update quite so often in the future—but today is Sunday, nothing’s open, and I haven’t started classes yet. For those who are interested—which is probably not many—I got a lot of sleep last night! Without sleeping pills! Very exciting and pretty much a first. At least since elementary school.

My two roommates were out late last night—one of them super late, she got home at 8 a.m.; if she hadn’t shown up by 9 or 10, I planned to call the cops—so they slept in today. While they were in dreamland, I took a self-guided tour of Florence, in search of food and beauty. Which, obviously, are both in abundance here.

The sun was out in full force; the first time since I’ve been here. Florence is so beautiful it’s almost unfair. The whole city has this great organically grown vibe. And by organically grown I do not mean they don’t use pesticides; since the city was built over thousands of years, the streets are all different lengths and sizes and many appear to come out of nowhere, which can be confusing to a New Yorker who is so used to the urban grid.

The haphazardness, while so refreshing in comparison to strip mall America, is not without its downsides—Thursday night when I was wandering around in a vain attempt to find my way home sans map, a minute car coming from a minute side street squealed to a halt so as not to run me over. The cars are so small here! I’d say the distance from the front hood to the trunk is shorter than I am. Parking must be a dream. Or maybe it's just like parking large cars, only on a smaller scale.

I started out my day walking along the Arno River, which is very wide across and actually pretty dirty looking. So that was kind of disappointing. I was hoping for a beautiful, blue, crystalline current, and instead I was privy to a stagnant, brownish-green body of water. But it was the Arno, and E.M. Forster wrote about it in A Room with a View so that’s good enough for me.

I ran into more trouble on the restaurant-ordering front. Locals love to stop and chat, and I don’t know if it’s rude to interrupt the conversation to order food or not. The woman behind the counter of the first café I walked into didn’t speak very good English, and it took me awhile (if ever) to figure out what she was trying to say. First I thought she was telling me I needed two people in my party to sit outside. Then I gathered she meant I could sit outside and someone would come take my order. So there I was, sitting at one of the patio tables, wondering whether a waiter would come take my order. After five uncomfortable minutes I decided to jet.

At the second café I felt brave enough to enter, I’m pretty sure I paid 2,50 Euros for a can of soda. Not because a can of soda is that expensive here, but because it seems the cashier thought I was planning to pull a 0.5 L bottle out of the self-serve fridge instead. That’s still a bit expensive, but not quite so outrageous. I decided not to say anything and sat with my 2,50 Euro Coke at a table by the window.

Later, back at the apartment, I ate some pistachio gelato my two roommates had bought for me. Supposedly it came from the best gelateria in Italy (or perhaps just in Florence), but it wasn’t that delectable. My search for iced bliss continues.

As for amazing mozzarella and bread, these have been ascertained. The three of us went on a search for cleaning supplies and instead bought olive oil, vinegar, buffalo mozzarella, focaccia, and prosciutto for the meat eaters. Which I personally preferred spending my money on. Everything was deliciously fresh, and I’d rather not think about my inevitable return to processed food.

So, dinner! My two roommates, another student I just met today, a SACI staff member, and I went to this somewhat Americanized pizza place called Gusto Leo. Too tired to be original and wanting to experience the pure simplicity that is bread topped with tomato sauce, basil, and mozzarella, I ordered what I usually do—a pizza Margherita. But, of course, this is Italy, so even plain pizza here is much better than plain pizza in the U.S.

At the table next to us, four older, rather rotund men who looked like they came straight out of The Godfather or The Sopranos sat down. Naturally this spurred a conversation about Mob members and where to find them in Italy. As if they were a sight to see—“And on your left, you can see four members of the Italian mob from the Strachiatelli family. Remember, do not feed the mobsters.” Yes, Strachiatelli is the name of an Italian soup. With spinach, egg, and chicken broth.

So tomorrow is my first day of classes. A seven-hour day! But it’s art, which definitely beats sitting through biology, history, calculus, etc. for seven hours at Fieldston. And, on that note, I bid you adieu.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

12 January 2008

I’ve been in Florence for three full days now. Naturally, not that much has happened yet, but I do have some thoughts to share with those who will hopefully be my loyal readers. And I know that’s probably just Monica and my family, but a girl with journalistic aspirations can dream, no?

People aren’t kidding when they say living in a foreign country is an adjustment. Right off the bat, my sleeping schedule has really been thrown off, for various reasons, the least of which being jetlag and the most of which is just the ol’ insomnia kicking in at top speed. Which does not surprise me in the least. I hardly expected my body to think, Dorothy, we’re not in the United States anymore; let’s fall asleep normally! (Yes, my body is an “us”.)

About an hour or so ago, I was walking around in the pouring rain, saying, “No, thank you” (Note to self: Learn how to say that in Italian. Also, “please”.), to all the peddlers who kept pushing their umbrellas at me, and, in the hopes of not coming off as an “Ugly American”, I pondered how many of my behaviors might be seen as offensive in Italy. For example—Am I allowed to eat or drink while walking? So far I’ve seen nothing of the sort. Can I wear my headphones in public? Probably not, and I probably wouldn’t want to anyway; that’s only for places like Manhattan where I feel less desire to observe my familiar surroundings.

I’d say the biggest test of my Americaness (or as Michael Scott from The Office might say, my Americanity) so far has been ordering coffee at a patisserie. Due to the rain outside, I had this lovely mental image of sitting down with my novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being while sipping a steaming hot latte and listening to classical music in the background.

Having found a waitress who spoke English, I asked if I could have a latte. She asked me if I wanted just milk or milk and coffee, and of course I said, a tad incredulously, milk
and coffee. But then when she told the barista (do they call them that here?) what I had ordered, she said “caffè latte,” and I realized my mistake. Unlike in the U.S., Italians (and other Europeans too, I suppose) aren’t in a rush to get their words out. And that even shows in how they order coffee. The way I (and most other New Yorkers) abbreviate our drink orders at Starbucks just won’t work here.

She also asked me whether I wanted my coffee to sit or to stand, which was not a question I expected. When I said to sit, she informed me that my drink would cost quite a bit more. Thus dissipated the dream of me sitting with my book.

So I stood awkwardly by the gleaming marble counter, shifting from one side to the other, hoping I wasn’t in anyone’s way. When I realized what music was playing in the background, I was very disappointed. Over the loudspeakers Bonnie Tyler was crooning “Total Eclipse of the Heart”.

My coffee appeared before me in a tall glass adjacent to a long spoon. First of all, no one serves hot drinks in glasses in the U.S. (Something to do with convection or precipitation or some physics term that ends with “-tion”.) Secondly, I couldn’t figure out what the spoon was for. Was I to spoon the coffee into my mouth? I never put sugar in my coffee, so there was nothing to stir… Fortuitously, a man in a similar situation who was standing next to me knew what to do with said spoon. I surreptitiously watched him stir sugar into his coffee and waited to see if he picked up the glass or not. Of course, he did. Feeling a little foolish, I lifted my own drink to my lips and sipped.

In terms of the atmosphere—well, naturally, the place was very charming. No one does interior design like the Italians. While eating my cookies that looked like Madeleines but weren’t, I heard someone say “chocolate”. Amazed that I recognized a word of someone’s conversation, I looked at what the man was indicating to his friend and discovered there was a short fountain flowing with dark chocolate sitting on the far end of the counter. Seeing as I’d been in there for about ten or so minutes at this point, the fact that I hadn’t noticed said fountain on my own was a little depressing. A future journalist should be unnaturally observant, no?

Unfortunately, since the two-hour speech about safety and other basic rules I’d heard Thursday afternoon had scared me to death, I did not have my digital camera with me for fear of purse-snatchers (the Florentine equivalent of body snatchers, just less murderous). But since the coffee was indeed amazing and since the patisserie is only two blocks from the building most of my classes will be in, I definitely intend to return, and, once I figure out how best to protect my baby (yes, that’s what I call my digital camera, if you weren’t already aware of how eccentric I am) from thieves and vagabonds, I’ll snap a photo and post it here. Assuming I can figure out how to do so.

To wrap up this overly lengthy description of my stop at the coffee shop, I needed to figure out how to pay. Being super polite and not knowing any Italian, I asked the woman who had helped me before what I should do. Then, while I was rooting through my wallet for €2,50 in change, the older woman who rang up my order just walked away and started talking to other customers. Not wanting to bother anyone I just stood there, again, awkwardly, with a five Euro bill in my hand. Thankfully the barista who brewed my coffee took pity on me and took the money.

Now that I had some caffeine in my system (in a possibly interesting side note, during the past few days I’ve realized I have three vices, if you can call them that—orange juice, coffee, and shopping) I decided to get lost in the streets of Florence. Due to the soon to be torrential rain, all I actually did was pass a store and notice that there was a gorgeous deep purple jacket in the window on sale (saldi in Italian). So I bought it. If this fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants brand of shopping becomes habitual, I may be in trouble.

And then I walked around in the freezing rain. And didn’t get lost. And now I’m in my apartment listening to the sound of the rain bouncing off the roof. Which, if I were at home, would soothe me. Here it just puts the kibosh on exploring.