Ich bin ein Berliner or Ode to a Taco

I recently traveled outside of Italy for the first time in a few months and experienced a much welcomed reprieve from pasta. Berlin is a city I wanted to visit because it is refined while at the time being gritty and punk. Getting to see the Reichstag building and visit the Berlin Wall, I was astounded by the intensity of the history and how near it felt. Its history is indeed a complicated one, but it has left in its wake a place that seemed to me to be unflinchingly cool.

It was a weekend trip and I arrived with my friend on Friday morning so we would have until Sunday to visit as much of the city as possible. We didn’t have a set itinerary or anything explicitly planned. So, being unfettered by any logistical constraints, we decided to start on our way. The metro system was precise and easy to figure out, living up to the stereotypes of German efficiency. It was very much the opposite of the chaos that is in turn the hallmark of any and all Italian transportation options. We wandered through the glory that was Berlin at the turn of the century and the hip neighborhood which was at one point the home of both David Bowie and Iggy Pop.

Then we went on a quest for tacos. Yes, tacos in Berlin, Germany. I live a sad life in Florence without the simple joy of the taco. My friends back in Seattle haunt me with pictures of the tacos that they devour at our favorite hole-in-the-wall joint every few weeks. The only bit of research I did end up doing before leaving was looking up to see if I might be in store for a delectable taco in Berlin. I found a place that appeared to be up to snuff, and so one night my friend and I hopped on a train and  went. It was a glorious pilgrimage in which wrong turns were taken, but we succeeded in claiming our savory prize. Needless to say, I was in a taco-induced euphoria for the rest of the night.

My life at Holy Cross, and back at home in Washington, seem very far away right now, I have to admit. With only two more months left in Florence I feel like things are about to start going by very quickly. It’s a strange feeling that I just can’t shake and I think it’s because I know that once I’m on my flight home all of my time here will start to fade into a dream. But with that in mind, I hope to make the most out of the rest of my time here as summer returns.

Exam season in Florence

One of the most challenging parts of studying abroad for me has proven to be navigating the Italian university system and the main source of stress for myself and the other students has been the looming date of our oral exams. Unlike at Holy Cross, the exam period for our university here lasts about a month and a half. During this month, our time is devoted to attending in-depth tutoring sessions and full of studying. I never thought I would miss the whirlwind that is finals week at Holy Cross, but at least that whirlwind is an organized one!

Going into study abroad, I was anxious about the idea of doing oral exams in a foreign language. The content of my classes here has been stimulating, but that also means that they have been difficult. Going into my first oral exam, I was probably the most nervous I have ever been for a test. It was quite the combination of nerves considering the exam being in Italian, being a one-on-one conversation with the professor, and being something unknown. However, I really felt a kinship with the other Italian students as we waited for the professor, who was an hour late, to arrive. It turns out that the plight of the neurotic and over-stressed student is not unique to the American college experience.

I had to do three oral exams in total, and some were easier than others depending on the professor.  After a month long haze of studying, I finally completed every exam and am happy to report that I passed each one. I never thought that I would be able to actually take courses, let alone exams, at a foreign university, but I’ve somehow managed it.  I have to say that when I look back on my career as a student, I think that this is the accomplishment that I’m the most proud of.

Lucca in a Day

With my course load increasing at the Università di Firenze, taking a day to visit the nearby Tuscan hamlet of Lucca was an enjoyable reprieve. Leaving many photocopied packets and notebooks behind, myself and a friend hopped on the train early Saturday morning to leave the hustle and bustle of Florence behind us for a few hours.

Lucca perfectly encapsulates the charm and atmosphere of everything that is quintessentially Italian.  A centuries old wall surrounds the city and its many piazzas, cafés, and cobblestone streets. One of the perks of being in Italy for me is that I have the chance to step inside so many historic and masterwork-filled churches, much to the amusement of the other students here. The city of Lucca was especially up my alley because Romanesque churches are quite literally around every corner.

Following the advice from my favorite travel guide and fellow Washingtonian, Rick Steves,  my friend and I decided to climb up a tree-topped tower in order to get a better view of the city. After catching my breath and repressing a slight fear of heights, I looked out at the stunning panorama of the Tuscan countryside. So much of travelling in Italy is like stepping back in time and experiencing history in a tangible, concrete way. Looking out from the top of this tower, I couldn’t help but pretend the miniature figures strolling below me were actually Renaissance nobles or something of the sort.

For lunch, we happened upon a quaint restaurant at the end of an inconspicuous side street filled with locals. The pasta was superb and the environment had a friendly and communal vibe that made the meal unforgettable.

Visiting Lucca was a dream and definitely a highlight of my first semester abroad. Travelling locally and getting to see different facets of Italian culture has deepened my passion for it even more.


Bonus Pic: Thanks Michelle for fueling my addiction to Gorgonzola gnocchi!

All Souls’ Day

The next day, All Souls’ Day, is day that is draws a higher degree of participation from the local population. It is a day to remember those who have died in one’s family and to visit their gravesides. The previous week I had asked my Italian teacher where I should go if I wanted to be an observer to the rituals of this day and he told me that the best place would be il cimitero di Trespiano, Trespiano cemetery. Trespiano is the largest cemetery in Florence and was opened in 1784.

My journey to the cemetery on il giorno dei morti consisted of a bus ride up the steep hills that surround Florence. The city of Florence is actually in a valley and so when traveling outside of its confines one has the chance to enjoy views of the winding Tuscan countryside. Luckily I knew I had gotten on the right bus after seeing a pair of nuns and other individuals clutching flowers to bring with them to the cemetery. Snaking up the hills and leaving the city I felt like I was on some sort of strange pilgrimage taking on the role of a quasi-pilgrim and quasi-observer to this solemn task.

There was something about travelling up and being high above the city that made me feel isolated, as if I was crossing the barrier into some ethereal realm. I got off of the bus and followed the throngs of people into the cemetery whose gate is marked by monumental walls and a row of Cyprus trees that line a narrow path toward its main entrance.

Reaching the end of the Cyprus path, I was taken aback by the absolute immensity of the cemetery. It was utterly staggering as hundreds and hundreds of graves erupted into a panorama of hills. The sense of immensity and depth of Trespiano is created by the fact that each section of graves or mausoleums is stacked upon the next.

The first thing that every visitor did before moving on to the cemetery proper was entering a small chapel to offer a quick prayer. Everything was done in a subdued silence with nothing louder than a hushed tone ever reaching one’s ears.

Almost every grave in the cemetery was adorned with flowers. It did not matter if the grave was new or dated back from the turn of the century. The sheer amount of bouquets in every color and variety made for a true feast for the eyes.

The atmosphere of the day was one of an unspoken sense of community as couples and families milled about the white tombstones, the majority of which had been stained by time. But, these stains were not an ugly thing. I think that they were instead rendered sort of beautiful in their juxtaposition with the brightness of the offered flowers. The existence of both elements side by side, one death and the other life, seemed to attest to the delicateness of the line separating one from the other.

Later that day at dinner I was talking with my host mother and telling her about my outing. She then told me that she had gone with her sister earlier in the day to the same cemetery to bring flowers to the graves of her deceased family members. She told me about how going every year to Trespiano was an important way for her to reconnect with the history of her own family.

This idea of reconnection is at the basis of these two holidays. Both Ognissanti and Il giorno dei morti provide platforms for reconnection, whether that be spiritual, historical, or cultural. My own observance of these days, as an outsider, gave me the chance to not only become more in tune with Italian cultural life, but also to deepen my understanding of the Catholic tradition that lies at its core.

Celebrating All Saints’ Day

One of the reasons why I wanted to study abroad in Italy was the promise of experiencing a country whose culture is so steeped in a single religious tradition. Walking around Florence for the first couple of weeks was surreal because my sight line was constantly being dominated by religious imagery, from shrines to saints in the niches of random buildings to the hundreds of year old churches around every corner. Living within this new type of religious sphere made me even more curious about participating in an Italian feast day or festival firsthand. With this in mind, I decided to set out to experience how All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day would unfold against the backdrop of Florence.

All Saints’ Day, commonly called Ognissanti, and All Souls’ Day, Il giorno dei Morti, take place on the first two days on November following Halloween. In Italy there is a “ponte” or long weekend where there is no school or work so people are free to observe these days.  Ognissanti is celebrated in honor of all known and unknown saints. Its date of November 1 can be traced back to the papacy of Gregory III (731-741) when he dedicated a chapel at St. Peter’s in Rome to all saints. The festivities for Ognissanti are more subdued than the following day and usually involve attending mass.

Il giorno dei morti marks a transition from the commemoration of the intangible lives of saints to that of the more tangible deaths of one’s loved ones. My only frame of reference for understanding Il giorno dei morti was what I learned about the Mexican Día de los Muertos in my high school Spanish class through the vibrant images of ornate altars and graveside decorations. The Florentine iteration of this feast day is more restrained, but is still centered on making the trek to one of the city’s cemeteries to tend to the graves of family members with bundles of flowers in tow.

Because Ognissanti seems to be overshadowed by Il giorno dei morti, there was not a clear of a path to follow in order to observe the holiday. But, I thought it would be appropriate to visit the church in Florence that is dedicated to all saints: La Chiesa di San Salvatore di Ognissanti. On my way to the church, I noticed that there were many more families walking around together than usual and people socializing in the streets. It struck me that this ponte had a social dimension that went alongside its overt religious one.

La Chiesa di Ognissanti is situated in a piazza that looks out across the Arno River that runs through Florence. The church itself was built in the 1250s by a lay order called the Umiliati and was later taken over by the Franciscan order in 1571, but its most famous historical detail is being the resting place of Sandro Botticelli. I made my way into the church surrounded by other small groups, some tourists and some Italians. The Baroque architecture of the church’s interior was staggering with my gaze being drawn first to the framed altar and then up to the painted ceiling. The sides of the nave were flanked with frescoes by such masters as Giotto, Ghirlandaio, and of course Botticelli.

Interspersed between these works were extremely lavish shrines to a handful of different saints. Each had fresh flowers before it in honor of the feast day, a foreshadowing of the use of flowers the following day. A statue of Saint Anthony was particularly striking as it rested behind a glass sealed alcove which was decorated with swirling marble details of flowers mimicking the real flowers that had only been there a day.

After exiting the church and I was greeted once again by the sight of many Italian families out for a stroll together in the dusk. Visiting a church like this one on Ognissanti is a way to quietly reflect on the holiday itself, but for me was also a catalyst for thinking about how occasions such as these are truly a window into the subtleties of an unfamiliar culture.

“In fair Verona…”

Most well known for being the backdrop of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Verona is an idyllic city situated in the province of Veneto in Northern Italy.  Although the existence of Romeo and Juliet is still debated, the names of their families, in Italian the Montecchi and the Cappelletti , belonged to real aristocratic families from Verona.

The major tourist attraction is the supposed Casa di Giulietta. There one can find a small courtyard filled with tourists craning their necks to see a make-believe version of Juliet’s balcony. The walls are crammed with love notes and pleas for advice appealing to the ill-fated Juliet.

One such supplication reads: “Siamo una cosa sola da Dio creati per amore, per amarci per sempre. Che l’amore possa accompagnarci per il resto della nostra vita. -Luca e Serena” (We are a single thing created by God for love, to love each other forever. That love can accompany us for the rest of our life. -Luca and Serena.”)

To add to the romantic atmosphere of the experience, my friends and I got to witness a proposal take place on the balcony itself. The crowd below erupted into cheers as the couple attested to their love with a kiss. Even the greatest skeptic would be enraptured by the sweetness of it all. However, I’m not sure how good of an omen the doomed story of Romeo and Juliet is for a prospective marriage. Nevertheless, making the pilgrimage to Juliet’s house is a must-do when in Verona.

Verona seemed a bit more tranquil to me than Florence, and it was easy to wind up walking on scenic streets with very few people in sight. My favorite part of the day-trip, other than the giant whale bone hanging in the main market, was looking out on the river that runs through Verona and the countryside in the distance. Everything looked liked a delicate painting, whose dreamy romanticism matched the feeling of the city as a whole.


Feasting in Florence

Food is the foundation of most every culture, providing a path toward decoding a place’s heritage and social rituals. The case is no different in Italy where life revolves around good food. Pizza and pasta are the life blood of the Italian people and signify a food continuum that goes back hundreds of years.

I made the mistake a week ago of asking an Italian student what he preferred more, pizza or pasta. It seems an innocuous enough of a question, but I was met with an animated response where he proceeded to explain, through ample gesticulation, that choosing one or the other would be like cutting off an arm. Passion such as his about food is something universally shared by Italians.

Unlike Americans, Italians have a very clear culinary identity and this seeps into all aspects of everyday life. There is not much snacking going on in Italy so one’s day is marked by a small breakfast of most likely a caffè and some sort of baked good, a medium sized lunch of a panino or equivalent, and a large dinner with a few different courses, or piatti.

One of the things that I’ve become accustomed to since arriving in Italy is the rhythm of eating. At Holy Cross and when I’m at home, I feel like each day I eat at a different time and am devouring snacks sporadically. But here my schedule stays the same and, at least in my head, has become synced with the inhabitants of the city.

Out of all the other Holy Cross students here with me, I think I have developed a reputation for being a hedonist when it comes to food (the following pictures are a testament of my addiction to cheese and prosciutto). If I could do anything other than be a prospective devotee to the study of religion, I think I would want to be a chef or explore food in some way. But alas, I will have to be content with the mere consumption of copious amounts of Italian delicacies.

I’ve always had an affinity for Anthony Bourdain and have been trying to tap into his perspective on food here where, “Food is everything we are. It’s an extension of nationalist feeling, ethnic feeling, your personal history, your province, your region, your tribe, your grandma. It’s inseparable from those from the get-go.”

In Italy, this could not be more true. The cooking and later communing in the presence of a good meal is like a combination of art and religion. It’s as if a true Italian feast is one that unfolds in accordance with past traditions while still feeling new each time. Every night my host mom, the Italian grandmother I never had, cooks dinner and presents the fruits of her labor with an impish smile.

Food carries a special weight in Italy and like Bourdain said, it also carries a special feeling. There is a feeling impossible to articulate that comes along with breaking bread with people from a different country and being welcomed into their secret world of food. There’s a crossing over an invisible cultural threshold. It is an intoxicating and mesmerizing experience, and I can guarantee that I have a dumb smile on my face each time I get to do it.



Una bella gita: Bologna and Tuscany

My past two weekends have been spent going on day-trips first to Bologna and then to a tiny village in Tuscany named Buonconvento. I knew that before coming to Italy that one of my priorities would be to try and travel around the country as much as I could. Because there is such a convenient train system, it has been much easier than I expected to plan short trips.

A nagging impulse of wanderlust is somewhat of a prerequisite for a prospective study abroad student; to draw back the curtain of familiarity to reveal a wealth of new experiences. One of which is without a doubt being faced with a sharper degree of independence.

Traveling without any type of supervision has been a little strange in that there is no teacher or parent to hold your hand or to keep you on schedule. While this may involve getting lost (temporarily), it has allowed me to really take my time to explore the place that I’m in.

I didn’t have any idea how Bologna would compare to Florence before going, but after spending the day there I noticed that the energy of the city was unique unto itself. Bologna is more provincial and spread out, with its portico-ed  promenades and neighborhood streets dotted with restaurant after restaurant. It exudes a humble charm. On the other hand, the combination of Florence’s staggering architectural masterworks and narrow alleyways lends itself to a more eclectic sort of chaos.

The next weekend we exchanged our modern train for another mode of transportation prized more its form than its function: un treno a vapore. Taking a steam train from Siena to the tiny Tuscan village of Buonconvento for the day was like something out of a movie.

It’s impossible to not become swept up in the romanticism of such a place, which appeals to sensibilities that stand directly opposed to those of the modern world.  I felt like a disguised observer to a time-honored ritual as the town was filled with Italian families out for their relaxing Sunday.

We later had the chance to enjoy a traditional Tuscan feast. Eating and socializing in the Italian atmosphere par-excellence was an unforgettable time. The rhythm of lively conversation punctuated with delectable plates of food seemed both orchestrated and impromptu at the same time.

On the train ride home, I was struck by a feeling that I was starting to become more in tune with the Italian way of living. And looking out the window at the Tuscan countryside passing by, I allowed myself to melt for a moment into the fantasy of it all.


Forza Viola!

One of the most vibrant cultural pastimes in Italy is the game of socceror calcio. The national obsession with what is popularly known as “the beautiful game” is a real one and is something I was hoping to see first hand during my time here. Luckily I had the chance to go to see Florence’s soccer team, La Fiorentina, play at the city stadium. Going to a soccer game is a big production so myself and the other students attending were happy to be accompanied by former Holy Cross Italian foreign language assistant extraordinaire, Rachele.

The walk to the stadium in a mass of purple-clad fans and the climb to our seats took on an almost ritualistic character. Many Florentines make the trek to the match with children in tow and there’s a palpable camaraderie in the air.   As the game begins, there’s intermittent chanting and singing from the opposing fans with the majority of the crowd joining in.

La Fiorentina dominated the field scoring three goals with each being met by standing up to cheer the name of the goal scorer and chant “Forza Viola!” The atmosphere was overwhelming, and I can see why such passions can flare in the midst of the historical rivalries and athletic skill that have come to define Italian soccer.

L’università di Firenze

My feelings about where I’m at in my study abroad experience so far is that everything is becoming more familiar as the initial shock of my arrival is wearing off. I’m getting to know my host family more and have a better feel for the city. Even though this is part of the natural progression of things, it’s still hard for me to believe.

One of the things that I was the most apprehensive about before going abroad, and is a big concern for most students, was what college would be like in another country. I knew that I would be attending an Italian university alongside other Italian students my age, but it was impossible to picture what that would actually like. It’s quite the daunting task and seems even more intangible before arriving in one’s host country.

For the first part of my semester, I’ll be taking an Italian literature course and meeting with tutors weekly for that as well as for two additional religion courses that are slated to begin in early November. The University of Florence’s campus is scattered across Florence and the location of the classroom’s building depends on its respective department. My literature class happens to be a pretty quick walk from my host family’s home through a quiet part of the city.

The prospect of heading into a foreign school and into an unknown environment was definitely nerve wracking. My expectations for my first day of classes were a tad low because I didn’t want to overestimate my Italian language prowess. I walked into the classroom and a part of me was expecting that I would not be able to understand what the professor would be saying. However, after the first hour I noticed that I was able to comprehend more than I initially assumed I would be able to, although it did require a lot of concentration to keep my head from spinning.

When your class is entirely in another language it is difficult to get away with daydreaming without completely missing the points of what the teacher is saying. As a result of this, I have to shift my brain into a different gear in order to follow along and to take notes in Italian.

I think I also went into the class with the assumption that I would need to mentally translate everything into English so that I could actually get it. However, one of the things that I have noticed with learning a language is that there comes a point when one just knows what some words mean without having to complete any mental gymnastics.

This doesn’t mean that I’m in any way fluent in Italian, but I think it does mean that I’m starting to reap some of the benefits of being immersed in the culture of the language I’m trying to learn.