Monday, February 25, 2008

18 February 2008

So it would seem a lot of time has elapsed since my last post. And it would also seem people are not reading my blog seeing as my last two entries went essentially unnoticed. Which is perhaps why I’m less motivated to plop down in front of my computer and churn out these things. That, and I’m pretty unbelievably busy.

Intro to Photo has quickly become my favorite class. Not only because everyone else in the class is incredibly chill or because the teacher is interesting (if often too long-winded), but also because I just really love photography. Being afforded the time to schlep around my camera and capture faces, facades, and flora is bliss.

Our first assignment—“Urban Landscapes”—was due on Tuesday. Thus, on Monday, I spent hours in the darkroom printing and reprinting various photographs of Japanese tourists and vaguely lost-looking Americans. During which I became extremely frustrated several times, particularly when trying to perfect a photo in which the main subject had pitch-black hair and was wearing a pitch-black pea coat. Of course, according to Jamie the TA, I had to allow just enough light so that both items remained black (as opposed to becoming the sort of middle grey all B&W photos aspire to) and so that the viewer could also see the seams of her coat and the strands of her hair. In spite of standing for extended periods of time besides the print processor with my head in my hands, when I presented my collection of five photos in class, my fastidiousness and perseverance paid off—Jacopo said that was one of the two best prints of the five.

* * *

This past weekend I joined the High Renaissance art history class in Rome. I’m using the word “joined” loosely here—I only spent one out of three days with the class and its teacher, Helen Watterson.

On Friday morning, surprisingly enough, I missed the 6:40 train to Rome. Since this was to be my second visit to said city, I can’t say I was too fussed about missing the trip to the Vatican and the one-and-a-half hour wait to get in. Instead I knocked off a few chores I had to do in Firenze—buy new laundry detergent that doesn’t turn all my white clothing blue: check—and took my time heading over to the Santa Maria Novella train station.

My train arrived at the Rome Termini at 7:30. We pulled out of the SMN at 5:52, so I was taken aback when we arrived in Rome so soon. I hadn’t realized I was on the express train, and thus, until the majority of the car had emptied around me, stayed in my seat. Walking along the platform to the terminal, I checked everything around me for signs of Rome or “Rome”. It wasn’t until I recognized the main station from the last time I’d been there that I realized I was in the right place and not getting off at Milan en route.

I managed to catch the correct bus to the hotel, and, even more amazingly, to get off at the right stop. Deciding not to pick up a bus map (as well as not knowing where to get one), I had to carefully check the location sign at each stop. Of course that meant if no one requested my stop, I was in trouble. Thankfully, not only was my stop requested, about half the bus got off as well. Which was fortuitous because, for whatever reason, I was zoning out by the time we got to the Lungo Argentina stop, and only realized it was time to skedaddle when two or so people were still waiting to get off. It would seem late reaction time was something of a theme with me that day.

Helen put me in a room with two girls who were out at the time I found the hotel. Dead tired, I immediately threw on my pajamas, brushed my teeth, and turned out the light. Actually, I never had to turn off the light—I forgot to mention that I never figured out how to flick the lights on in the first place. So imagine me doing all the aforementioned activities with only the dim glare of the streetlamps outside. Fun, no?

I’ve been having trouble sleeping again lately, and, luckily for me, at the very moment my hotel roommates returned from wherever it was they were, had someone break down the door for them (naturally, no one had bothered to tell me each room only had one key), and rudely interrupted my attempt to sleep by announcing that I was in the wrong room, I was on the teetering edge of diving into the void of sleep. So I didn’t actually wind up falling asleep until sometime around five. I listened to a lot of Sufjan Stevens in an attempt to calm my mind down.

So naturally I was unable to make it to breakfast the next morning at the ungodly hour of 7:15. Instead I slept in until noon and went leisurely about my day. I read some Harry Potter in French, took a shower, brushed my teeth, the usual. My plan for the day was simply to go out, get lost, and bring my camera with me. I managed to achieve two out of three goals because, strangely, when you are trying to get lost, it becomes impossible to actually do so. Somehow I always knew where I was even when I thought or hoped I didn’t.

Being as in love with nature as I am, I immediately made a beeline for the Tiber River. Or as they call it here, il Tevere. Once I felt sufficiently frozen by the combination of shade and wind, I allowed myself to be swept away by the tides of Rome. No pun intended. Seriously.

Our second photography assignment—“Portraits”—is due Thursday, March 13. And since Jacopo is obsessed with photographing people, I figured it was time to overcome my fear of potential public humiliation and start inching closer to my subjects. So I went to a small park I’d spotted near the hotel and just sat down on a bench and waited. After thirty minutes of sitting and occasional photo taking, two Italians came over to my bench and plopped down right next to me. They’d brought all the fixings to make sandwiches and immediately started hacking away at some Parmesan cheese with a large Swiss army knife. Suddenly the perfect opportunity to take extreme close-ups of preoccupied subjects had presented itself. I pointed my camera towards them and surreptitiously clicked away.

I subsequently journeyed through a farmers’ market that was closing for the day, along several small side streets with quirky cafes and stores, and across various picturesque bridges from one side of the Tiber to the other and back. Somehow I managed to end up in Saint Peter’s Square right around the time I’d decided to head back to the hotel, grab a soda, and put my feet up for an hour or two.

My camera was out within several seconds; the square was filled with bustling, incongruous tourists and the lighting was great, so opportunities for candid shots of unsuspecting foreigners were abound. I headed over to what is essentially the only place to sit down in the entire wasteland that is St Peter’s Square—the stone ledge around the central fountain—intending to sit there for thirty or so minutes and to take photos when good ones presented themselves.

Unfortunately, I was derailed in the process by a forty-something male, wearing a black beanie with a small, embroidered Italian flag front and center, who pointed in the direction of the Pope’s bedroom and said I should take a picture. Since I had no intention of wasting one of my 36 frames on said image, I just humored him by nodding and glancing at the unremarkable set of windows on the top floor of an ordinary looking building, all the while hoping he would go away so I wouldn’t lose a lot of the late afternoon light.

Of course, I was not so lucky—he asked me where I was from, and when I said New York, he treated me to a long rant about how New Yorkers are so unfriendly, so isolated, and everything is about money, and Italians are so much nicer and sociable. You know, the stereotypical B.S. you hear from foreigners who are just jealous of New York and the United States and, thus, try to convince themselves they’re somehow better than us. Typically, at one point in the conversation, he made the mistake of saying he’d never been to the U.S.

Interestingly enough, in spite of his claim that Italians were superior beings, he never once let me defend my hometown. He talked over me every time I tried to say something, and, in my opinion, that was far more rude than any of the behaviors he was accusing me of embodying. Personally, I believe allowing people privacy and not bothering them when they’re clearly occupied is far more polite than engaging them in pointless, irritating conversation. Quite honestly, I’ve had it up to here with people hassling me when I’m sitting on a bench with my camera.

Nonetheless, I was still pleased with the course of my day. I finally returned to the hotel around six. At about 7:30, I went to dinner with a friend at a salad restaurant. Around nine we parted ways, and I walked back towards my room planning to get some well-deserved sleep. On the way I ran into a bunch of people in the lobby and instead decided to go out with them for a few hours.

The seven of us went to a pub called Sloppy Sam’s, which was not only your conventional American bar, it was also crowded as hell and extremely loud, the two sensations combining to make the place extraordinarily good at inducing claustrophobia. A friend of mine, Libby, and I slipped out within three minutes.

* * *

And now a special announcement about something of little to no importance whatsoever: Since I’ve been banging out this entry over the course of a week, naturally I’ve been mentally compiling multifarious observations about Firenze and other facets of life, the universe, and everything, and I just felt like sharing this one.

I was flipping through a copy of Esquire my dad had bought me in the Logan airport before my plane departed for Italy, and I stumbled upon an article about Bob Dylan’s influence on male clothing. I absolutely cannot believe I’ve never made the connection between Dylan and that hipster style of clothing I loathe so much. It’s so obvious now: the skinny jeans, the vaguely formal jacket over a cotton t-shirt, the Ray Ban sunglasses (or $10 local drugstore sunglasses for those who can’t afford to pony up that much money for a pair of shades…so 99% of America). The bulky Bose headphones that scream music aficionado, however, were probably the personal touch of the first hipster from Greenwich Village to adopt Dylan’s style. Naturally, it would be illogical for Bob to wear a pair seeing as he’s the one under the bright lights. But, I bet, when our mumbling friend sports headphones—in the studio, at some posh cafe that smells more like weed than coffee beans, at home, wherever—they’re Bose.

* * *

And we’re back! (Does anyone else remember the radio show character Jimmy Fallon created who uttered that particular catchphrase after every commercial break during the sketch?)

So there Libby and I are, in Rome at 10 p.m., and neither of us has any particular desire to return to the bare bones hotel. First we went to this coffee place near the Pantheon called Sant'Eustachio Libby and the HR class had frequented earlier in the day—one that Mimi Sheraton, formerly of the NY Times, called the city’s best—and ordered caffeinated beverages close to midnight. Of course we weren’t the only ones; the coffee bar was packed despite the lateness of the hour. My caffè latte was very good, but it was by no means transcendent. My expectations must have been a little too high.

For whatever reason, Libby really loves taking photos after nightfall, so we made our way towards some of the many ruins in Rome. From there we ventured to Michelangelo’s Piazza del Campidoglio, the Coliseum, and a lovely but deserted park. When trying to cross this street that more closely resembled a highway, I pointed out a crosswalk we could use, and Libby said it was “stained with the blood of many tourists”, which is probably one of the greatest one-liners I’ve ever heard. In case you were wondering, we didn’t cross there.

We particularly enjoyed going to places that appeared to be off limits. Through a gap in a wire fence to photograph the silhouette of what was quite possibly the only flowering tree north of Sicily against the magnificent grandeur of the Coliseum, over a short iron and stone fence and down a flight of meter long stairs that dropped off suddenly and which was set between a patch of trees and a stucco, three-story building to photograph the perilous mini highway of Rome.

Our own Rome by night. I can’t even begin to explain how incredible and occasionally frightening those three hours were. (So you don’t worry, Mom, by frightening I do not mean axe murderers chased after us, simply that our imaginations ran aground once in a while.)

At 2:30 we returned to the Hotel Smeralda (yes, I thought it was called the Hotel Esmeralda at first too), exhilarated and very ready to go to bed. Once I got to room 302, I was stunned to discover that my roommates weren’t kidding when they’d said they wouldn’t be back until four a.m.

* * *

On Sunday I had to go with the group because they were my ride home. At about 8 a.m. we hopped onto a charter bus and pulled out of Rome listening to the incessant chatter of Helen trying to squeeze in every last detail and fact she could pull out of her hat about the various places we were passing. Our first stop was the Galleria Borghese.

Okay, so there is a very good reason why I am not taking art history. Which is I don’t have any passion for Renaissance art. Pretty much anything pre-Impressionism bemuses me. Except for the Pietà. And several other statues. Actually, most other statues. Let me revise my original claim: I don’t like Renaissance paintings. Thus the charm of the Galleria Borghese was sadly lost on me. There were many excellent statues; I was particularly charmed by Bernini’s Pluto e Proserpina and this one of a messenger pulling out a splinter from his foot.

Finally, around lunchtime, we arrive at the Villa d’Este. This is why I signed up for this trip. The garden was saturated with beauty. Fountains that looked straight out of Peter Pan were hung with icicles and swathed in moss. Formidable marble statues enclosed by canopies of ivy appeared to be on the verge of wrenching one of their feet out of the ground after thousands of years of staying put. The unperturbed surfaces of the square pools were as smooth as glass and hundreds of little fish wiggled around in the water. Even the few dying trees seemed majestic, albeit sickly and unstable.

Like so many towns and historical sites in Italy, I was in awe of the idea that someone had once lived here. That this was what they returned home to after vacations and trips, not the destination in itself. If the Villa d’Este had been my home, I’d have pitched a tent outside and never entered the house. All three meals would take place in different parts of the garden. I’d settle in a sunny spot and spend hours writing and reading every afternoon.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

13 February 2008

Even Italian movie theaters are more civilized and humane than those of the United States! Insane. And I thought this country couldn’t get any classier.

I went to see Charlie Wilson’s War at the Odeon, a cinema that shows films in their original languages: The seats were covered in a gorgeous gold velvet, the floor was spotless, the concession stand looked like a counter at a posh café, the theater itself had a balcony reminiscent of those in Lincoln Center, and there was even a five-minute intermission! And, best of all, the film started on time sans previews at the beginning. It was cinematic bliss.

* * *

After several weeks of perfecting, reshaping and carving my clay version of the Degas dancer, it was time to pour on the plaster. At the end of class one day Dario gave us a step-by-step explanation of our task at hand using a PowerPoint slideshow that visually depicted how to make a waste mold. The general rundown is this: first the sculptor pours a coat of dyed plaster on the clay, then a white coat, then you scrape the clay out of the hardened plaster shell, then you fill the mold with yet more plaster and then, after that’s dry, you use a chisel and hammer to carefully break apart the waste mold leaving a lovely plaster rendition of your original clay model.

While some members of my class incredulously pondered why we didn’t just fire our clay pieces in a kiln, I was having far too much fun making a tornado-esque mess. As someone who believes there is no better way to spend the afternoon than rolling around in mud flats with friends, I was unable understand the disgust that played upon the faces of some of my classmates when they were mixing plaster and cold water by hand.

Chiseling the final sculpture out of its shell proved to be much easier than I thought. Thanks to the media we applied between each layer of plaster, the whole process went smooth like butta’, save a few minor nicks here and there. I felt like something of an archeologist, unearthing an artifact preserved by sediment for thousands of years (or, in my case, for a couple of days).

I’m quite proud of my piece. But I cannot say I’m too jazzed about transporting it across the Atlantic.

* * *

Last Thursday, my photography class went on a field trip to the Casine Parco, which essentially means Central Park Firenze. And yet it’s in the farthest west section of the city. Go figure.

On Tuesday, Jacopo had mentioned that we would be going somewhere as a class, and another student asked if we needed to bring our cameras. The rest of the class laughed at this, but, of course, I left my camera in my apartment on Thursday morning. In my defense, I never heard him say on which day this outing was to occur. Thankfully, I hadn’t laughed when she asked the question; otherwise I’d be a retroactive hypocrite.

At 8:45 a.m., I spent several minutes making sure my light-sensitive photo paper and negative binder were safely secured to the back of my bike. When I got to school, I locked my bike up, went inside and, several minutes later, flew back out and sped home. Thoroughly pleased with how the morning was going, I ran up the stairs of 14 Via Castellani, grabbed my camera, gulped down a glass of peach juice, and took a quick glance my pink-tinged visage in the mirror.

Firenze was clearly never meant to be anything but a city for pedestrians. And chariots, I suppose. Whoever tried to make this city mechanized-transportation-friendly did a fantastically poor job. Which becomes especially irritating when I’m trying to bike somewhere and suddenly, out of nowhere, the street on the opposite side of the intersection is sporting a no entry sign. These befuddling intersections are all over the place. One evening I spent fifteen minutes trying to find a route home even though I was only about five blocks away. Since the streets are so narrow here, it’s inadvisable to try and bike against the flow of traffic, although many Florentines do. I, however, have no intention of meeting my death head-on.

Having been here for a little over a month, I have all my regular routes planned out in a way that ensures expediency and efficiency. Unfortunately my daily activities have never taken me to far west Firenze. So I’m on my own, peddling along unpredictable roads, with only a hazy mental image of the route Jacopo showed me on the map back in the photography classroom. I decide to stick to the bike path along the Arno, thinking that would be the most consistent way to go. And yet, several minutes down the road from my apartment, the path suddenly veers off towards the left and over the bridge to Firenze Sud. Then, after finding my way to the point where the bike path restarts, I’m faced with the choice between heading left into town and joining the cars on a freeway of sorts. Naturally I chose to dip and dodge among the cars. I’m totally kidding, Mom; I went into town.

After rather a lot of frustration and rerouting, I finally wound up at the Casine Parco, although only after swallowing my pride and asking several people for directions in broken Italian. Then I had to find the rest of my photography class. On the phone Jacopo vaguely informed me that they were all spread out, taking pictures in “the garden” (for the record, the Casine is just a whole lot of trees; no recognizable garden was to be found).

A few (okay, many) wrong turns later, I found myself on a path akin to that which had been described to me on the cellular. I decided not to wait until I bumped into one of my fellow photographers and whipped out my camera and started snapping photos right away. Several hundred meters of walking and 36 frames later, my film was still advancing. There was no film inside. The vivid memory of loading my camera a couple days beforehand was probably just a replay of one of the many other times I’ve done so over the past four years.

Could this day get any worse? Thankfully, that was the last of the really great errors made on my part. With only about an hour or so left, I took one and a half rolls of film in the Casine (I am, if anything, an expeditious photographer) including some really excellent ones of a closed carnival.

And now the hour is late, and since I have photography at 9 a.m. tomorrow morning, I believe it is time andare a letto (to go to bed). In case you were wondering, yes, I do have an Italian quiz tomorrow.

Friday, February 8, 2008

3 February 2008

As far as I’m concerned, Carnevale is just much ado about nothing. An enormous crowd, mostly made up of abhorrent American tourists, marches from square to square, buying various Venetian doodads, wearing ugly wigs, bizarre though occasionally elegant costumes, and those felt stovepipe hats you won at the Westchester County Fair way back when. And the costumed appear to take themselves far too seriously.

Our train from the Santa Maria Novella station left at 6:28 a.m. I had a hard time sleeping, so, at that point, I’d been awake since 3 a.m. A friend of mine, Silvi, and I were supposed to be joined by three other people, but they ended up missing the train by about 30 seconds. We switched trains at Bologna Centrale, and at 10 a.m. we got off at Venezia San Lucia.

If anything, the costumes were certainly novelties. We followed a mother wearing a neon pink clown wig down the platform and into the station. A girl wearing a giraffe outfit with the neck growing out of the top of her head put me in mind of a line Harry Potter utters in the fourth book about walking around with a periscope sticking out of his head after contemplating employing human transfiguration in the second task.

Standing yawning in line to buy tickets for the ride home, Silvi and I were forced to stand in front of yet more obnoxious Americans. (Yes, they aren’t in short supply here in Italia, not even in February.) This time it was a loud group of twenty-something females. A short, curly-haired one ducked out of line and squealed something about wanting to take a photo of “Dino”, whatever that meant. I rolled my eyes, embarrassed to be associated with them even if only by nationality.

It was raining like the devil. Stepping onto the square outside San Lucia station for the second time in my life, I was disappointed to see the view marred by furious torrents of water. And me without any rain gear. As Ryan Howard from The Office says when Dwight abandons him in a beet field, “Of course”.

As per Silvi’s orders, we followed the signs pointing in the direction of the Piazza San Marco. We were swept up in a veritable tide of bodies, seething and undulating in and out of the numerous side streets. Many puns about cattle and various other livestock ensued.

It took us about an hour—not including two stops, one at a coffee bar for “due caffè latte”, the other at a small sandwich place for two vegetable and cheese paninis—to get through all the crowds to San Marco, my favorite place in Venezia. After ogling the Basilica—which, I believe, rivals the Duomo for the title of most beautiful building in Italy—and the view of Lido, we hopped onto a waterbus.

Since the winding streets and the large number of bridges in Venezia cannot support cars or any other land vehicles, there exists an infrastructure of boats, water taxis, waterbuses, and gondolas, the last of which are only frequented by tourists. Boats labeled “Polizia” and “Ufficio Postale” roam the high seas as well.

For €6,50, a person and his or her suitcase can ride a waterbus for sixty minutes. So we rode the boat to the Ca D’Oro stop and back. For the first leg of the trip we stood on one side of the boat; during the second, we switched to the opposite side for a new perspective.

In my opinion, riding the waterbus is really the best and only way to see Venezia. The wind whips gently across your face, the view from the boat is phenomenal, and friendly Japanese tourists smile and wave at you from their seats in smaller, more expensive water taxis.

Once we were back on land, we went in search of more food. We stopped at a gelateria; I ordered a waffle cone filled to the brim with stracciatella and mint gelato. Since Venezia, save the Piazza San Marco, is significantly lacking in benches, we decided to lean against the wall of a side street whilst hacking away at our ice cream with tiny plastic spoons. Apparently this sort of behavior is considered just as shady in Italy as it is in the U.S.; we attracted a lot of blatant stares from passerby despite the fact that we weren’t passing a joint back and forth between us.

After eating dessert, we searched for a place to eat dinner. After rejecting several possibilities, we settled on a restaurant called Pane Vino e San Danielle. Almost all of the clientele were Italian, which I took as a good sign. Our waiter, whose name was Omar, was both wonderfully cheerful and annoyingly laid-back. Since Silvi speaks Italian fluently, she and Omar joked around when he came to take our order while I sat idly by, staring off into space, hoping I’d get to eat before I died. Eventually I got a pizza Italia—which was ostensibly a pizza margherita topped with fresh tomato, arugula, and mozzarella di bufula. If it sounds delicious, that’s because it was.

At the end of the meal, Omar took yet another century to bring the check. Used to the Speedy Gonzales pace of American waiters and waitresses desperate for mass tips, the sit-back-and-enjoy-yourself attitude of the restaurant threw me for a loop. (Although personally I think Omar slowed down twice as much because he didn’t want Silvi to leave.) Until I came here, I never realized how accustomed I am to the way I live in New York. And how unusual that lifestyle actually is.

Upon leaving the restaurant and realizing that we’d spent a total of two hours there, we decided to return to the train station under the mistaken impression that we had just over an hour until we were to depart. Venezia under the influence of Carnevale (much like its attendees under the influence of alcohol) gets rowdier and more difficult to push through at night. And there I was, mistakenly believing the throng couldn’t get any worse than that of the morning.

After various disagreements, swallowing our pride and asking for directions several times, we found our way back to the San Lucia train station. Upon which we discovered we’d completely misconstrued our time of departure, and that we now had roughly an hour and a half to kill.

Luckily, the Venice train station is not without quirky personalities. After Silvi bit the bullet and paid .70 euro to go to the bathroom, we found two seats in a waiting area and were entertained by two boys showing off for their friends with a concealed whistle and some silly antics. Silvi said she wished they were her friends so they could make her laugh all day. I wasn’t quite as fond of them as she was because, regrettably, I’m über sensitive to sharp, high-pitched noises.

The ride home was relatively uneventful. Silvi befriended two Turkish boys while I, having been awake since three a.m., desperately tried to fall asleep. Unfortunately I don’t have the best track record when it comes to sleeping in moving vehicles.