Read about my trip to Florence, Italy where between my weekend travels throughout Europe, Italian language courses, fashion marketing internship and Tuscan wine tastings on the weekends, I'm not sure if I'll ever want to return to "The States"...

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Hostess with the Mostest.

This weekend Laura and I had our first visitor, Miss Alexis Kuhlman. Alexis is our fellow DG who stayed back home in Madison for the semester but wanted to get a taste of what those of us who chose to study abroad were experiencing via Spring Break 2010. She arrived Friday morning in Rome and after taking a shuttle, a bus and a train, successfully arrived in Florence, much to my admiration. Props to Alexis because I probably would have had a heart attack in that process.

Friday we did a couple of touristy things including a visit to our dear friend, David. Seriously, that statue will never get old. We also went to the leather school where I picked up a couple of goodies for my friends back home (and maybe a little something for myself as well…). Friday night we went out with our friends Aimee, Kate and Sarah for dinner to one of my favorite places in Florence, Il Gato e la Volpe, aka The Cat and the Wolf where we feasted on all you can eat apperitivo such as bruschetta and prosciutto, several different pasta dishes, and of course, as much wine as we liked all for 15 euro. This was great for the wallet but not so great for the waistline. Laura and I were the only girls at this dinner under the height of 5’10” which is random but reminded me of my home life since Nikki and Sam are also right around that height. Miss you guys!

Saturday we forced ourselves out of bed early after a long night of clubbing for more tourist activity. We got a pizza across the street for breakfast (did I mention I’m in Italy?) and ate it outside on our porch to enjoy the warm weather and scenic view. After “breakfast” we headed over to the Borgo San Lorenzo market where Alexis bought souvenirs for what seemed like everyone she has ever come into contact with in the last 13 years and their mom. We then headed over to school to meet for our field trip to the Chianti Vineyards. I’ve been to a Napa Valley vineyard before but unfortunately I was too young to try the wine so I can’t tell you how they compare but this was amazing. We also got to try their special olive oil and I may be bringing back some presents from Chianti when I go home. Keep your fingers crossed!

Saturday night we went to this new outdoor club called Central Park that only opens when it is warm for its premiere weekend. Our friend, Ricardo, “got us a table” aka we paid a boat load of money for it, but it was worth it because we had so much fun, even though it seemed that the average clientele at Central Park consisted of 15 year old high schoolers. We stayed out just a tid bit past our bedtime, especially with the time change not in our favor, but still managed to wake up early enough on Sunday to do some more sight seeing. We went to climb the Duomo but since it was Palm Sunday and the church was closed to tourists, we settled for climbing the bell tower. The climb was just as high but the passageway was wider than the Duomo stairwell so I was happy about that. We were also caged in at the top which my inner fear of heights was thankful for.

Sunday night we went to Piazza Michelangelo for the best views Florence has to offer so that we could watch the sunset. After that we went to Acqua al Due for dinner which is all the rage in Florence guidebooks but a little pricey so Spinks and I hadn’t been yet. Apparently their famous for their blueberry steak so between the three of us we split that and the balsamic steak and then both the pasta and salad sampler. The food was good but I wasn’t as impressed as I felt I should have been for all the hype around it. It was my first steak since last summer and I think being a vegetarian for a semester significantly changed my appetite so that I don’t even crave it anymore. Weird.

After dinner we decided to hit the bars for Alexis’ last night in Florence. We met the craziest couple that were literally the definition of a sugar daddy and super sketchy. They might have been all talk but from what we gathered, she was 32 but had already had some work done to make her look permanently 29 while he was pushing 60. She was American but he was Guatemalan and had apparently “forgotten” to pay his taxes there last year so they’ve been gallivanting around Europe for the last couple of months since he is currently not allowed in his home country. The day before, they spent what they claimed was $100,000 on a shopping spree and over the course of two hours at the Spanish bar we were at (which was empty except for the our two South American friends from our program, the sketchy couple, two English blokes, and the three of us) they paid for multiple rounds of drinks for everyone. They were fun to talk to but I was glad they left when they did since they were leaving the next day for the next European destination.

We rounded off the night with a trip to the “secret bakery” for some freshly baked goodies and then went to bed for some much needed rest. I’ll need lots of sleep this week after that weekend and in preparation of our upcoming spring break to Paris, Madrid and Barcelona. Can’t wait!

Monday, March 22, 2010

Don't Jew Know?

Sunday, our last day in Venice, I went with my Jewish friends to visit the Jewish ghetto of Venice for some matzoball soup. We walked around the ENTIRE city to get there but it was worth it because the food was amazing! I grew up eating matzoball soup every Sunday at Buffalo Grove Diner after Church with my family which is ironic because I had no idea that it was a Jewish tradition until I came to college. This soup definitely met my expectations from my childhood memories. I also got to try latkes and applesauce which were outrageously good. Shout out to Kelsey, my fellow Christian friend in DG. We definitely need to continue our mission to become Jews one day if not solely for the food.

When we got back “home” to Florence Sunday night, Laura and I ventured to an American diner to get our fill of American food before going to an American bar for a very American tradition: March Madness. We showed up at the bar wearing converse and Wisconsin hoodies to support our team and ended up sitting with the four other people there to cheer on the Badgers. Unfortunately, Wisconsin had an embarrassing defeat to my parents’ alma mater, Cornell. I haven’t had a chance to discuss this incident with them yet and I am avoiding it at all costs. I've posted a picture here to reminisce about the season. Better luck next year, Badgers.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

That's amore: Venice

Last weekend our school took us to Venice for a three day trip. Everyone kept telling me that Venice is a city you can do in one day and that we were definitely going to be bored by the end of the trip. False. You can’t possibly not have fun when you put 160 American college age students in a town that has only one piazza to go to for the nightlife. I’d say that about 150 of the 160 students were at the same bar both nights, including one of our teachers, Franz. I mentioned Franz in one of my earlier blogs as the tour guide who could talk for hours. Apparently he also knows how to throw down because he was the life of the party. We all had a blast hanging out at the outdoor patio since it is finally getting warm in Italy and I’d say that this was definitely one of my favorite weekends so far in Europe.

We got to Venice on Friday afternoon after taking a ferry to one of the 118 islands that makes up this town. Yes, 118. We learned that the islands were all just marshlands and that the Venetians brought wood from trees elsewhere in Italy to build platforms on top of the marshes so they could live there to protect themselves from the Huns. This seems like way more manual labor than I would ever want to partake in, but it made for a beautiful city right on the Adriatic Sea. These islands are connected by over 400 bridges and it felt like we crossed every single one of them over the course of the weekend.

Friday we basically went on tours all day. Very exciting. Really, there are only so many churches and museums you can see in Europe. The most entertaining part of the tour was at a museum where we had to have “whisperers” aka headphones that you put into your ears so your tour guide can speak quietly so as not to disturb the other museum-goers. These are also known as dead giveaways for tourist activity. While listening to our whisperers, some very strange man decided to latch on to our tour and try listen to our guide without any whisperers. He was just following us around as our tour guide kept trying to sneak away from him while we all just kept laughing. I don’t know why he was trying to listen in on the tour because if he couldn’t understand that we were all laughing at him then I have no idea how he would be able to follow our tour guide’s speech on ancient Venetian history.

Saturday we decided that it would be more beneficial for us to experience Venice for ourselves rather than be stuck inside museums all day so we opted out of the morning tour and ventured out for probably the most famous activity in Italy-a gondola ride. I had two requirements for my gondola driver: that he be wearing the typical striped shirt and hat, and that he serenade me with Italian love songs while we drove. He met the first requirement but told us that he couldn’t sing Christy and I decided to take over for that part. After getting through the first chorus of “That’s Amore” and realizing we didn’t know any of the other words, we entertained ourselves by waving to all the other tourists riding gondolas. I posted a video here of the multinational tourist groups we passed. During this process we must have been drawing a little too much attention to ourselves because the police ended up pulling us over for having seven people in the gondola when the max is six. We would be those dumb American tourists who get pulled over while riding a gondola. The police actually came up to us on their little speed boat to give our poor driver a ticket! We gave him quite a generous tip after that little mishap.

In the afternoon we went to Murano which is famous for its handmade glass. We took what felt like a 5 hour ferry ride there only to be shown a demonstration of glass making that lasted about 30 seconds. Then we set off to go shopping in the town. The shopping consisted of hand made glass jewelry, frames, chandeliers, and little sculptures to display on our mantel. This town had about 100 stores all selling the exact same things so 10 minutes and one small purchase later, I was ready to go back to Venice. Unfortunately we were stuck there for another hour so my friends and I decided to set off in search of a quick bite to eat. Everywhere else I have been in Italy has bars every 10 feet, and by bars I mean Italian bars that serve little paninis and pizzas so we figured we would be able to find something easily. This was not the case in Murano so after 30 minutes of walking around and finding absolutely nothing, I settled for a Twix bar. Good thing I got to experience more Italian food while I was there.

We got back to Venice for dinner and ended up going to the same restaurant as the night before, followed by the same bar. After the bar this time though we went to Venice’s only discoteca and stayed out outrageously late dancing the night away. According to my friends in Barcelona, 4:30am is still early though so I guess this was just a warm up for our Spring Break in just two short weeks. This trip is flying by!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Actually in Villars...

The Swiss Alps are even more beautiful than I imagined. The farthest I have ventured outside the US for a ski trip was in Banff, Canada back in 4th grade and I hate to say it, but these views kicked both Canada the Rocky Mountains’ butt. The first ride up the mountain in the gondola was unbelievable. I just sat there and stared out the window in awe while the other people in our gondola chatted in French. With my obnoxiously large sunglasses and Jordan’s backwards baseball hat and oversized headphones (strictly to keep his ears warm of course) we stuck out like two American sore thumbs. Since most Europeans assume American’s aren’t up to par on second languages, which most of us aren’t, our French-speaking gondola mates were making fun of Jordan’s headphones while we were sitting right there. He was obviously looking way too American for them to think that he would understand everything they said perfectly.

Once we got to the top of the mountain and left the French men behind, we had to stop to take pictures before enjoying the skiing itself. We could not have asked for better weather the entire time we were there. I didn’t get cold or break a sweat once and there also wasn’t a single cloud in the sky. These conditions made for excellent skiing as well as photography. Jordan’s camera is much better than mine (and both breakproof and waterproof) so this picture and any other ones you may see from this trip are stolen from him. He also was able to capture my one big wipeout of the trip on video which can be seen on facebook. I never did thank him for whitewashing me while lying down in defeat. Thanks.

Switzerland overall was absolutely amazing. The only downfall was that it was outrageously expensive. The guy in front of me in line at lunch had a small “salad” aka plate of lettuce, a bowl of pasta, and a coke and spent 45 Swiss francs which are roughly equivalent to American dollars. I stuck to a bowl of mediocre soup and a hunk of bread both days and paid 10 francs each time. Ugh. We also went out to dinner both nights so I had to order the typical Swiss food. This meant that the first night I had a crepe with tomato, onion, cheese, and an extremely runny fried egg on top which was eh. The second night we got cheese fondue which was literally just cheese and bread, split a crème brulee for dessert and half bottle of wine and spent 75 francs. Factor that on top of the outrageously expensive hotel, lift tickets, equipment rentals (including snowpants-best decision of my life because otherwise I would have been wearing my long raincoat over a pair of sweatpants), car rental and gas, and let’s just say I owe a big thanks to my dad for making this trip my birthday present!

The drive home was really fun for Jordan. We were going through stop and go traffic for about 2 hours through mountains while I dozed off. After driving for around 9 hours, we finally got home just after midnight and I passed out as soon as my head hit the pillow. I feel like I still haven’t caught up on sleep since I had a paper due and about half of the kids on my program turned 21 this week. Except my roommate, Michelle. She turned 22 or as I am going to start referring to it as it happens to my friends and I, her second 21st birthday. Tomorrow, I’m off to Venice with AIFS. I’ll tell you how this Gondola ride is and hopefully they aren’t Italians talking behind our backs, or rather in front of our faces on this one.

P.S. Domani e la festa della papa in Italia. Auguri papa! Baci!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Scenic Route.

The Wood Family has always been big on skiing. I knew that coming to Europe, I would definitely need to check out the Alps so that I could compare it to my favorite place in the Rockies, Copper Mountain. Luckily for me, my friend, Jordan, (a fellow student at both Wisconsin and Florence) has been spending his summers in the French part of the Swiss Alps at a camp since he was nine years old. We decided last semester that we were going to rent a car a drive up there for a ski trip and it finally happened last weekend.

Unfortunately for Jordan, the only cars available to rent in Italy that have the ability to make it through the rugged terrain of the Alps are manual. The only experience I have had with stick shift is from my dear friend, Nicole Applegate, who drove me around in her manual car during the summer of ’04 and I could guarantee that pretty much anytime we drove we would stall and get honked at by the line of cars that would steadily lengthen behind us. I knew I wanted an automatic car when I got my lisense after those entertaining experiences with Nicole so I never got the chance to learn stick. Jordan was therefore stuck driving the entire way which GoogleMaps predicted would take about six and a half hours…funny.

I warned Jordan in advance of my lack of navigational direction and ability to differentiate between my right and left but I don’t think he realized that it was going to lead us on a minor detour before arriving at our final destination in Villars sur Ollon, Switzerland. I believe the quote that came out of his mouth as we missed our exit somewhere around Bologna, Italy was, “I feel like I’m in a horror movie where you know you aren’t supposed to go that way because the bad guy is there but you do it anyway.” On this trip however, instead of a bad guy we got BEAUTIFUL views of Lake Como and most of Switzerland. Yes, most of it. I’ve drawn lines on the map above of our route. The blue one is the route GoogleMaps gave us and the green one is the route we took. Wow. We stopped in some unknown town to take a picture as the city skyline could be seen across an enormous lake at night. The was even a swan just chilling by the dock-so serene.

We grudingly jumped back in the car for a few more hours and after a solid ten hour trek, we arrived completely exhausted to our hotel where Jordan continued to impress me with his language skills. He spoke fluent French to the receptionist while I just stood there and smiled before going to our room to pass out from the exhausting journey. Riding in a car is surprisingly draining but I couldn’t say that to Jordan after he had just driven across a country and a half. We attempted to set alarms for midnight after a quick cat nap to hit the town but ended up just getting a good night’s rest so we could hit the slopes early in the morning. This was definitely a good decision since the skiing was AMAZING! I’ll go into more detail about it in my next post. Bonjour!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Vagina Monologues.

In honor of "La Festa delle Donne" aka International Women's Day, my roommate, Marissa, and I decided to go see "Monologhi di Vagina" last night. I wasn't really sure what to expect since I've never seen The Vagina Monologues in English, let alone half in Italian, but the show ended up being amazing.

The Vagina Monologues is literally a collection of monologues based off of the author's interviews with hundreds of women of all ages, religions, and nationalities about, you guessed it, their vaginas. The show is performed by amatuer actors but some of them gave absolutely beautiful performances. It written to raise money for VDAY which is the day that women will be victorious over the sexual violence that happens all over the world. This year's theme was about The Democratic Republic of Congo where women are brutally raped and murderd every day so that soldiers can collect the mineral tin from their villages and sell to companies that use them for cell phones, computers and mp3 players. It terrified me to think that my iPhone could potentially be contributing to these horrific events that women are experiencing because the documentary we watched on it had me crying within the first five minutes.

Fortunately, the show also had some hilarious monologues which were delivered by some very talented Italian women. OK, so I cheated and looked at the subtitle screen to understand what they were saying, but it was worth it because they had us all crying with laughter.

Marissa and I decided after the show that we definitely want to find a way to participate as a performer one day. It would be so much fun and it goes to a great cause. However, I would definitely have to practice a couple of times before I was comfortable enough to say some of the vocabulary they were using on stage in front of an audience...Buona festa delle donne!

Saturday, March 6, 2010

The time I went to Milan for 5 euro.

Yesterday, I got to take a trip to Milano. That’s Milano the town as the Italians say it, not the cookie. I jumped at the opportunity to tag along with the field trip organized for the students in the “Da Vinci” class when we were told there were ten extra spots because I paid a grand total of five euro for round trip transportation and entrance to three different museums and churches. Compared to the 140 euro round trip trains I was looking at just to get to Milan, this was quite the steal.

I was disappointed that I was visiting the “Fashion Capital of Europe” and didn’t get to see anything but the inside of old buildings (except for a gelato shop during our lunch break of course) but I got to see the Duomo di Milano (stunning), the Da Vinci museum, the original “Last Supper” fresco, and the old castle of Milan. While inside Milan’s famous church, our teacher attempted to give us some background information but this was taken by security as an attempt to give us an illegal tour (which it was) so our threatening looking teacher, who was about 5’0” and 100 pounds, was escorted off the premises, leaving us to browse the church by ourselves for a few minutes before meeting up with our B.A. professoressa.

Next we hopped on the bus for a trip to the Da Vinci Museum. I am a huge Da Vinci fan and think he is absolutely fascinating so I was excited to see the museum dedicated to him and his work which included actual pages from his notebooks. Anyone who has read Dan Brown’s widely famous novel, The Da Vinci Code, can appreciate the fact that we were able to see the original Last Supper as well. Because it is a fresco and painted directly on the back wall of a Monastary, they have to be very careful about preserving it. Apparently you have to make a reservation to see the painting six months in advance and if you are late to your reservation time, there are no second chances at getting in. Since our appointment was at promptly three o’clock, our group of about 20 was patiently waiting outside the first of three sets of sliding glass doors to get in at five minutes till. One girl almost didn’t make it through the initial set of doors the first time around but luckily, after she stared at us with her sad puppy dog eyes while receiving no remorse from the grumpy old guard, they opened again after a few minutes to let her in. Once we got to the final set of air-tight doors to the room with the painting, we were herded in like cattle at exactly 3:00 before the doors quickly sealed behind us.

Though The Last Supper was very faded compared to the hundreds of images I googled on the internet after reading The Da Vinci Code ( apparently the reason for the mad amounts of security), it was amazing to see in person. It was painted on what was the back wall of a Monostary dining room so that while the Monks dined, they could look at the image and be reminded of the significance of communion when it originated at Jesus’ last supper before he was betrayed and crucified.

After our allotted time of 15 minutes to look at the painting was up, we headed over to the Castle where we basically ran around for awhile before viewing what must have been the torture chamber they used hundreds of years ago-quite disturbing. I was exhausted after our day of touring so I passed out for the entire four hour drive home while sprawled across the backseat of the bus. After waking up energized and ready to hit the town of Florence for what might be my last full weekend here, we headed off to a bar so “Americanized” that they took dollars for payment. The bar had different shots for college campuses across the US but they were missing the most important one. Since there were five of us there from Wisconsin, including Laura’s boyfriend who is visiting for the week, we created one and took the inaugural shot which consisted of tequila and grenadine. Yum? At least it reminded me of home even though we are on the other side of the pond.

Lots of activities in this upcoming week including two plays and two exams. What? Exams? Ugh. At least I’ll be rewarded with my trip to Switzerland this weekend! Baci!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Since this week hasn’t been too adventurous, I am going to take this opportunity to rave about my internship. I LOVE MY JOB. Seriously, I could not have asked for a better experience. I work for an event planning company called Pirene, named for the mythical water fountain that Pegasus used to drink out of. Cheesy, I know, but it sounds much better when Italians say the name-kind of like everything else romantic or poetic. The title of this blog is the website if you want to check it out. For those of you unfamiliar with the Italian language, just click on the icon of the British flag in the top right corner to translate the page (some of which was done by yours truly).

I’m learning absolutely everything, from designing pamphlets, to writing press releases, to fund raising through sponsorships, and even how to speak Italian (solo un po’). My boss is great, my co-workers are awesome, even my boss’ “slave-man”, for lack of a better term, is fun to talk to. He is Indian (I think) but thinks he is fluent in both Italian and English. Funny thing is though, only the Italians can understand his English and only I can understand his Italian because he obviously speaks like someone who is no where near fluent, like all of us.

I’ll stop raving now, but I just thought you should all know (and by all, I mean the five of you who actually read this) that I am being productive here and not just gallivanting around Europe for four months. But don’t worry, I’m making time for that too ;). For example, tomorrow I’m going to Milan to visit the fashion capital of Europe…yay! Buon fin de settimana!