Carnevale di Viareggio

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That is the shadow of a larger-than-life, rainbow-colored papier-mâché elephant (possibly symbolizing world peace, but I’m really not sure), a float in the Carnevale di Viareggio.  Viareggio is a seaside resort town about an hour and a half from Florence, and the location of one of the top three carnivals in Italy (the biggest and most famous being Venice).

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On the Ligurian Sea, with the Apuanian Alps close by, Viareggio is a stately, serene escape.  Or it would be at any other time of year.  During carnival (the month before Lent), it is an incredibly lively night-and-day party that overwhelms the senses.

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This very realistic t-rex came with a banner that said “don’t fossilize us!”  Couldn’t tell who “us” was, though.  Really could have used a cultural interpreter on this trip.

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Pinocchio is surrounded by ringwraiths/dementors, and I don’t like it.

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We’re pretty sure this is protesting construction.  And who doesn’t hate construction?  A+

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Italian PM Matteo Renzi as a “reformer.”  When your reforms remind people of a Michael Bay movie, you know you’re in trouble.

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One of Berlusconi’s many appearances.

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The nightmare float!  While creepy music played, this gentleman’s hands kept opening and closing around the poor ballerina in white.  At first he had a black mask over his face, but it came off halfway through.  The show ends with him dragging her back into the darkness.  The creepy side of Carnevale.

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Eric says this is the Buffalo Bull from UB.

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A bordello full of Italian politicians.

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People are serious about dressing up for Carnevale, as evidenced by the impressive number of people in full-body animal suits.

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The most impressive costume of all 🙂

That’s our tour of Carnevale di Viareggio!  A pronto (see you soon)!
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Thanksgiving in Copenhagen

This seems like a good time to share photos from our trip to Copenhagen in November.  We were alarmed and sad to hear about the recent terrorist attack there, and relieved that our loved ones are safe and sound.  We love you, Copenhagen!

Copenhagen is one of my favorite cities.  I have an aunt, uncle and two cousins who make every visit an absolute delight, and getting to know a city while you stay with family always makes for a special travel experience.

*Note: Normally I wouldn’t include so many fuzzy photos, but since the sun set around 3:30pm while we were there, we took a lot of photos in the dark, and I still wanted to share them with you 🙂

Not long before we visited, there was an article popping up in my newsfeed about the Danish concept of hygge.  Hygge is hard to define precisely, but it basically translates as intentionally creating a feeling of well-being and warmth.  From the article: “It is the art of creating intimacy: a sense of comradeship, conviviality and contentment rolled into one.”

We definitely felt the hygge in Copenhagen, in many ways.  Here we are on a cold, but beautiful walk, happily soaking up a moment of sunshine.  And next to that is a shot of Sasha and I at the coziest, warmest little bar I’ve ever seen.  From the outside it looks like a little fishing cabin, right on the canal.  But you walk in and it’s full of people warming up with gløgg (mulled wine) and Æbleskiver (magical donut pancakes), and just the nicest, friendliest atmosphere ever.

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We explored downtown Copenhagen a bit on bikes, but wimped out after about an hour.  I’m used to putting away my bike once the temperature gets below 50; this was definitely the coldest biking I’ve ever done.  It was worth it though, to experience the super well-organized and efficient bike path system the city is so famous for.  In the shot below I’m totally breaking the rules and outing myself as a tourist by biking on the sidewalk (just for a second, I swear!).  Everyone else kept to the bike lanes (which felt more like bicycle super highways), getting to where they needed to be quickly, safely and stylishly.

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The cow-shaped disco ball below is just one of the many charming sights at Copenhagen Street Food, an indoor food court with a DJ booth and a few dozen mini restaurants serving up everything from surf and turf burgers to Columbian rice and beans.  Delicious and entertaining.  On the right, the corkscrew spire is Vor Frelsers Kirke (Church of our Savior).  We stopped by there on a Friday night and there was a DJ creating very calm, ethereal music and a beautiful light show, while people lounged on bean bags and just generally chilled out in a very meditative atmosphere.

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The highlights of our time in Copenhagen were the great big American Thanksgiving at my Aunt Suzanne’s house and my cousin Danielle’s 30th Birthday!

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We got to meet the cousins’ lovely boyfriends, Adam and Rasmus, have some quality family time (which helped us with our Thanksgiving-related homesickness), and have a fabulous dance party with the coolest Danes around.  Here I am sitting with Aunt Suzanna and her very old friend, Jorgen, who also joined us for Thanksgiving.  And there’s Eric with Rasmus and Adam.  The three of them had decided to have a white shirt party, P. Diddy-style, without telling us.

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Suzanne made her famous panda-shaped chocolate cake for Danielle, and we got to hear the Danish birthday song after the American version.

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Such a fun trip!  Thanks, Streiff and Streiff Møllers!

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Two Days in Rome

I’m just going to pretend like this is a normal post, and not a two-month-overdue catch up… Buon anno and happy 2015!  I hope you’re all having a great year so far.  Eric and I are enjoying Tuscany’s mild winter (mild relatively to Chicago, that is) and some lovely weekend trips.

romavaticanWe “recently” went to Rome (my first time, Eric’s third).  Eric and our friend Aline had a one-day conference to attend at the Italian parliament building, and I took the opportunity to got to the Vatican Museum. Rome was amazing!  Not surprising news, I know.  Here are some highlights.Roma Sculpt CollageI didn’t read up on the Vatican Museums too much before I went, and I’m kind of happy about that.  There were delightful surprises in pretty much every room.  It was incredible seeing perfectly-preserved sculptures from ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome–everything from gods, to mythological heroes to pets.roma painting CollageI wasn’t expecting to see so much modern art, including a pieta by Van Gogh and a crucifixion scene by Marc Chagall.  These rooms were practically deserted, which made for kind of a nice break from the crowds.

I didn’t take pictures of the main attractions, just because I was too busy enjoying them.  The Sistine Chapel was overwhelming (I really wish they had cots you could lie down on while you stare at it).  The Raphaels and Caravaggios, the da Vinci, etc…I don’t have anything eloquent to say about them, I just feel very lucky to have seen them.

romaRome in general was very different from what I expected.  I’d heard about the insane traffic, the hordes of tourists, etc.  I guess it didn’t feel as chaotic as I feared–maybe we just had good timing.  We took some very lovely walks around the city, which is so utterly different from Florence.  Definitely more lively, and more sprawling and open.  There are plenty of narrow, medieval streets of course, but there are also big boulevards and enormous piazzas.  There are lots of places where you really see the different eras of history overlapping, like the fascinating Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli e die Martiri, a church built right into the ruins of a Roman bath, with Michelangelo’s help.

romabasilicaWe were lucky to have a former local showing us around, plus two of her friends who currently live there and took us to eat in really interesting neighborhoods like the Jewish Ghetto, which almost felt like a movie set it was so charming, with winding, narrow, cobble-stoned streets leading from one tiny piazza to another.  roma4

At Ristorante Ba’Ghetto, we ate pasta carbonara with dried beef instead of pancetta, and ravioli filled with zucchini and fish, and fried artichokes.  We also loved walking around the Monti Neighborhood where we enjoyed some delicious and very unique-tasting raw hot chocolate at Grezzo.

roma2I can’t wait to go back to Rome!  There is still so much to see: the Roman Forum, the Colosseum (from inside), the National Museum of Italian Emigration, the Roman rooms at Palazzo Valentini, and all of the other ancient sites we didn’t visit this time.   Let me know if you have any recommendations for next time!

Food!

I don’t know why it’s taken so long to put together a blog post dedicated to Italian food.  The art, history and culture are lovely and all, but if I had to choose just one dimension of the Italian experience, it would be the food.  Which imparts a lot about Italian culture and history at the same time (this is true but also a nice way to justify trying every flavor of gelato).

I’ll start with the produce to establish my virtuous, sensible eating habits before moving onto fried things and pork.

Italian produce lives up to its reputation.  Ninety percent of the time, whatever I buy in the market could be the standard against which all other produce is measured.  The grapes here are sweeter, juicier and have a flavor I can’t quite put my finger on, almost floral.  The tomatoes when we first arrived were out of this world (although as the daughter of an heirloom-tomato grower my standard was already set), especially the cherry tomatoes (pomodorini).  The other ten percent, in case you’re wondering, is the unfortunate result of poorly-chosen produce.  You are usually not allowed to touch produce at the market–the farmer/seller chooses it for you.  You can tell them what you want, but in our first couple of months, a combination of shyness and lack of vocabulary made this challenging, with the result that we sometimes realized we’d bought some very sad produce indeed.  But this happens less and less as we learn to say what we want and politely ask for “le altre uve,” the ones without brown spots, per favore.

Here are some lovely tomatoes and pears (note the saucy Sicilian lady on the pears), from earlier this fall.

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Here’s a typical daily haul from Il Mercato Centrale, from about a month ago.  It was still so warm out, it didn’t feel that weird to still be buying fresh, beautiful tomatoes.

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Here we have some beautiful, sweet but also quite tart, clementini.  The woman at my favorite stall offered me a taste since I didn’t know what they were, and laughed at the face I involuntarily made when I bit into it.  But when you know what to expect, they’re delicious.

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Moving on from produce to seafood…risotto is not a specialty of Tuscany, but they sure know how to make it.  If you look at this octopus risotto, you can see how firm each piece of rice is.  The rice is al dente, just like the pasta, never mushy.  I rearranged this dish for maximum tentacle action.  I really like octopus and calamari, but I have to admit this was a lot of octopus for me to handle.

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At the very same restaurant, a very popular, touristy, yet good-quality lunch place called Mario’s, the kitchen and wait staff are experts at charming tourists.  Here I am basking in the love (spelled out in oil on my soup), sent from the chef.  He came over to make absolutely sure the message was received, and to ask Eric if he was jealous.  Such pros!

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Entering into more indulgent, less balanced territory, we have some gorgeous carciofi fritti a la giudìa – Jewish fried artichokes – which we eat at Ristorante Ba’ghetto in the Jewish Ghetto neighborhood in Rome.  Such a cool area, which I’ll share more about in my next post.  We also had pasta carbonara with dried beef instead of bacon, and some amazing grouper zucchini ravioli.

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I feel like my meat consumption has gone up in Italy, even though I order mostly seafood and vegetable dishes when we go out.  It’s the sandwiches that get me I think.  The selection of artisanal cured meats at our favorite sandwich joints is just hard to pass over.  This gigantic hunk of meat is porchetta, which is a kind of roasted pork.

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I know I’ve mentioned it in previous posts, but the gelato obsession continues.  Aline and I are trying out some Sicilian gelato in this picture, and laughing because we know Eric is taking our picture while we’re trying to eat.  But I feel like it also captures the happiness I really do feel every time I have another tiny cup of gelato (which is not super frequently anymore since it’s colder now, but still every couple weeks or so).  The flavors are so delightfully intense.

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That’s it for food right now!  Let me know if you have any questions about what you’ll be eating when you come to visit us!  I’m happy to go out and do more research anytime.

 

A Few Days in Poitiers, France

About a month ago, while Eric was unveiling the World War I exhibit he curated with our friend Skye back in Madison (to great acclaim, by the way), I took the opportunity to finally visit my friend Elizabeth in the lovely and charming town where she’s lived for many years: Poitiers, France.

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It’s pretty obvious why it has been named the most pleasant place to live in Europe recently, and why Elizabeth has decided to settle there.  Poitiers is fun, walkable, rich with history, and beautiful, plus it’s full of interesting shops.  And very interesting bakeries which required a lot of investigating on my part.

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Elizabeth and I spent most of our time wandering around, with frequent breaks for pastries.  I loved walking around at night.  It’s very serene, and the city does a great job with lighting.  Here’s the gorgeous Hôtel de ville at night.  The colors of the lights changed every few seconds–definitely the only city hall with a light show I’ve ever seen.

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Here I am in the remaining entrance of the Amphithéâtre de Poitiers, constructed in the 1st or 2nd century back when Poitiers was part of Roman Gaul.  It seated 30,000 people!  Just outside the frame of this photo, the ancient ruins gradually blend into another building (maybe an apartment building–can’t remember).  That was what struck me as the most fascinating aspect of the city–how seamlessly the old and new blended together.  Monuments are repurposed in all sorts of ways.

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Here’s Elizabeth inside a Zara clothing store/ former monastery.  Pretty grand compared to your typical suburban mall.

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And here’s a lovely restaurant in what used to be a stately church.  There were many more examples like this dotted all over the city.  Poitiers is full of surprises.  Including…

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…the Statue of Liberty!  Much smaller than ours, but with a very large lamp to hold up!  It turns out there are four statues of liberty in the world.  Elizabeth didn’t warn me, so seeing her in a little park in the middle of Poitiers was a delightful surprise.

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I ducked into the Église Notre-Dame-la-Grande, a Romanesque cathedral built in the 11th and 12th centuries, during a rainstorm while I was doing some exploring on my own.  It was incredibly dark and a little spooky, and I wasn’t able to get great photos, but you can kind of get a sense of the atmosphere, and see the cool painted walls.

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The view from my bedroom at Elizabeth’s apartment was the humble Bank of France.  It also looks like an old repurposed cathedral.

I’ve always been happy to know that Elizabeth found a place she loves, but after seeing it for myself I’m even more thrilled for her.  I’m also thrilled that she started blogging herself.  Check it out! — Learn to Land —

Her first post is full of interesting historical tidbits about Poitiers, and I can’t wait to read more!

p.s. Eric didn’t take too many pictures stateside, but he did document an important moment in his trip: chicken wings with the O’Connors.

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Unique Views of Florence

It’s hard to believe it’s October 19th already, partly because we’ve been so busy that time is flying by, and partly because October in Florence doesn’t feel anything like October in the midwest.  There’s no crisp feeling to the air, and very few trees seem to change color.  There’s quite a bit of rain, and the nights are cool, but otherwise it still feels like summer to us.  So, no complaints here!

We’ve been keeping busy with work and exploring the city, and luckily the other Max Weber fellows and their partners are an incredibly fun bunch of people–there always seems to be someone who wants to get an aperitivo or check out a new part of the city.

Our friend Michael invited us to check out an event at Sant’Orsola, which is an enormous vacant former convent and tobacco factory right around the corner from our apartment.  It’s been empty for quite a while, and some concerned citizens are trying to get the city of Florence to develop it.  So they managed to clean part of it and make it just safe enough inside to hold an event that was open to the public.  The Florentine has more photos and info, but here are a few I took.

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It’s hard to see in the photo above, but the little pieces of paper stuck to the side of the building are hundreds of fake bills, which I believe was part of an earlier attempt to get the city’s attention.

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Here’s a shot from the inner courtyard.  An abandoned convent at night is, not surprisingly, a touch creepy.  But luckily there were lots of people there, not to mention…

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…a clarinet duet!  You don’t hear that everyday.  There was also an amazing cellist, and the acoustics were fantastic.

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A week or so later we spent our Sunday morning walking across the river and up the hill to Forte di Belvedere, which is right next to the Boboli Gardens and the Pitti Palace.  According to the brochure we read, “Belvedere” means panoramic terrace, and that’s an accurate description of the place (I think of it as Fort Good View).  Apparently when the Medici built it in  the late 16th century, the fort was meant to protect them, not necessarily from invading armies, but from their fellow Florentines.  It never actually had to withstand an attack, unless you count the hordes of tourists or celebrity weddings (it only costs 300,000 euros to rent out, fyi).

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You really can’t do much better as far as views go.  And it hosts interesting art installations that interact with the landscape.  My favorite was the lightning-struck tree cast in gold.

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Back into town, through the charming Oltrarno streets…

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Ever wonder what it would be like to belong to a boating club located on the Arno, in the basement of the Uffizi Museum?

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Turns out it would be pretty sweet.  EUI’s rowing club hosted an aperitivo there in order to give everyone a chance to join if they were interested.

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It was so lovely we were about ready to take up rowing, which is not something that has ever been on our radar.   I decided to stick to yoga and hiking, but Eric may join once his schedule calms down in the winter.  They have a cafe, so if you’re still on the fence about visiting, just picture yourself having a cappuccino right here on the water.

And here we have proof that PhDs know how to party!  Especially freshly-minted ones like Juliana (top left) and Lian (bottom left).

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Italian phrases of the day: 

Chi lo sa?  Who knows?  (kee sah)

Ho fame.  I’m hungry.  (Oh fah-may)

Ci vediamo!  See you/Until we meet again!   (Chee ve-dee-ah-mo)

 

 

Sun, Snow, Honey & Olive Oil

The “snow” in the title is a little bit misleading, but not entirely…

We’re used to pretty extreme weather in the midwest, but this storm still managed to astound us.  The sky was a yellowish-gray and it had started to rain when we ducked into the basement level of a shoe store to try on some hiking shoes.  It took 20 minutes, tops.  When we emerged, this is the winter wonderland we found:

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Okay technically it’s not snow.  It’s just the largest quantity of hail I’ve ever seen.

Here’s Piazza San Lorenzo.

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And here’s a close-up of the hail.

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We heard from friends who were caught in the storm that it hurt quite a bit!  And we heard from friends in Fiesole (a 15 minute drive from where we were) that they didn’t get hail at all, just rain.  Crazy day!  It was sunny again within half an hour.

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Anyway, after we recovered from our shock, we hopped on the train to Rufina, about 50 minutes east of Florence, and then drove about 15 minutes up into the mountains to Castel d’Acone, an agritourism lodge.  Here’s a map if you’re curious.

Some of the 2nd-year fellows had kindly made arrangements for us all to spend the weekend there at a big discount and have a chance to get to know each other and relax after the first few strenuous weeks of orientation.  My first few weeks were less than strenuous, but I still appreciated the chance to get out into nature.

So we went from a freak hailstorm downtown to this:

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I didn’t really know what to expect, never having stayed at an agritourism resort before.  It was rustic as far as amenities go, but utterly luxurious when you consider the setting.  Also, each apartment included a free bottle of the house olive oil and a jar of honey from their own beehives.

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We took a long hike and passed through beautiful olive groves and orchards.

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As promised, it was a great opportunity to get to know people in the Max Weber program.  Nothing like hiking, cooking, eating, and playing intense games of UNO to really bond with people!

The week after that was full of more orientation for Eric, including ten-minute presentations by each fellow in the program, which took about 2 hours per day, three days per week, over three weeks I believe.  In the little spare time he had, he worked on job applications.  Just one of the odd things about academic life, having to apply for jobs as soon as you start your post-doc/lectureship/fall semester (explained in great detail in this article-but Eric is handing it really well).

I kept very busy working on the new Artterro website (coming soon!) and gearing up for another great holiday season.  I also joined the EUI choir and signed up for yoga.  We did more aperitivo and gelato research (for your sakes, future guests of Casa MO’Connor!).  We experienced our first bus strike and long walk home from campus (it only takes 45 minutes actually).  Feeling more like locals everyday.  Except for the days when we feel like total tourists.

After that busy week, we joined our friend Aline for a day at the beach in Castiglioncello, Livorno.  It took a little under 2 hours via train, changing in Pisa.

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So beautiful!

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So Italian!

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It was a lovely day and we have Aline to thank!  Now we know how to get to the beach, and if we have another warm weekend before autumn really starts up, we’ll be back.

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Italian update: In our last Italian class, someone asked the teacher how to say, “I plan to do something.” She laughingly said there’s no way to say that in Italian. You may hope to do something, but “we do not plan.”

Until next time!

The First Few Weeks in Florence

Buonasera friends and family!  Jessica here.  Eric and I have been in Florence for a little over two weeks now.  We miss you all!  I hope this blog will be a place where we can stay connected for the next year, along with email, Facebook, Skype, Face Time, Google Hangouts…it sure is a lot easier to connect now than it was the last time I lived abroad!  I ran up some pretty big phone bills if I remember correctly.

Eric is pretty busy at the moment, between his orientation to the EUI, meetings, research projects, job applications and our Italian class.  He will probably write more on the blog after job apps are turned in next month.  So for now, I’ll be doing most of the posting.  I haven’t done much non-professional writing  since college.  This should be fun!

Back to Florence!  I’m just starting to feel like I know my way around the city, and it seems like everyday we stumble upon something beautiful or unusual we haven’t seen before.  It might be difficult to remember everything I want to share with all of you, but I’ll try.  This might be a long post.

A Few of My Favorite Things

1. The EUI Campus

Getting to the EUI campus means a 20 minute bus ride up into the hills to the northeast of Florence (or a slightly longer bike ride once we get bikes).  It’s a little bit of a haul, but I love going there.  I love Italian class, the free wifi, the great people, and it just happens to be located in a stunning Renaissance-era villa.

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This ceiling is a beautiful work of art!  It does amazing things with sunlight.  It’s the best ceiling I’ve ever seen in my life, hands down.

If you’re standing where I was when I took this picture, you just take the second door on the left to get upstairs to Eric’s office.  If you walk to the end of his hallway, this is the view you’ll see:

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I forgot how much bigger the sky looks when you’re up in hills or mountains.

So, campus is wonderful, and we still have a lot of exploring to do.

2. Biking in Florence

One of the first events I heard about in town was Bike Walk.  It was really a bike ride, but I guess Bike Walk made it sound more intriguing.  It was a free guided ride around Florence, rental included, with some local bloggers.  Since Eric and I definitely want to get bikes, it seemed like a great way to get a feel for riding in the city (and getting acclimated to cobblestones and Vespas).

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We had a blast.  Riding on the bike path along the river was our favorite part, but it was fun going on all the narrow little alleys as well.

3. Aperitivo!

Italians (and other Europeans as well) have a beautiful concept that takes Happy Hour to the next level: aperitivo.  Between about 6-9pm (pre-dinner time for Italians, dinner-dinner time for us), lots of bars will offer a free buffet with the purchase of a $7-9 drink.  Admittedly, this is a much better deal if you like fancy cocktails or top shelf liquor.  But even if you get a mineral water like I do, if you’re hungry enough, it’s an amazing deal.  Tonight we had rigatoni, salad, roasted potatoes, some kind of roasted pork, baked mushroom pasta and fresh veggies.  One tiny plate at a time.  Three trips to the buffet later, we were very happy and full, but not too full for gelato.  Which brings me to…

4. Gelato

There’s not a lot to say.  It’s amazing, and we’re very lucky to live in the land of gelato.  My favorite flavors are pistachio and lemon.

5. Accademia (David)

Last night we went for a post-dinner walk in our neighborhood around 8.  We were heading towards Piazza della Annunziata when we realized we were passing the Accademia (we knew when we rented the apartment it was close by, but for some reason hadn’t walked by it yet).  We peaked our heads in and noticed it was almost empty.  So we went in and spent half an hour with Michelangelo’s David.  He is every bit as impressive as you’d expect.  We got to take our time walking around, looking at the sculpture from every possible angle.  It was so nice not to have to fight crowds.  Do you know what is not quite as nice?  Entering the room next to David, which I like to call the Hall of Nightmares.

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First of all every statue is a let down after seeing David.  Second of all, if you have an overactive imagination like I do, this is so very creepy.  Eric didn’t feel the same, but I’ve seen enough scary movies to know what’s up.

6. The Arno

I was afraid I’d feel water-deprived moving away from the isthmus, and I do miss the lakes a lot, but Florence is right on a beautiful river.

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It’s hard to believe the Arno flooded in the 60s.  Right now it’s pretty serene, even after a couple of good storms this week.

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7. via Santa Reparata

Via Santa Reparata seems like a very typical Florentine street.   It’s about five minutes north of the Duomo, but seems much further away, noise- and activity-wise.  We love it here so far!  Our apartment has a big window over an inner courtyard.  It’s nothing fancy, but I really like our view.  Here it is in the morning and evening.

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Here’s a mystery tower a block or so from our place.  It’s on a gated, private lot with no sign, so I have no idea whose tower it is.  But it’s a very nice tower.

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8. il Duomo

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9. Espresso

Quote from Eric: “I love espresso.  Un lungo is my go-to order.”

I’m just relieved that tea exists in Italy.  I read something about how they only drink tea when they’re sick, so it’s hard to find.  Not so!  Tea is everywhere, probably because tourists are everywhere.

10. Piazza della Santissima Annunziata

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My favorite piazza so far.  Here it is during the once-monthly Fierucola market, which made me feel like I was back in Madison a little bit 🙂  It was like an art fair and a farmer’s market in one.  Anyway, this square is so elegant and lovely.  And it has this very odd fountain.

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And now a much shorter list of things we don’t particularly care for, but they’re not going to keep us from having a great time while we’re here:

1. The sidewalks.  They’re super narrow, made of broken bricks and cobblestones, with lots of little deposits of dog poop.

2. Public urination.  Also related to sidewalks.  Somehow the women of Florence always manage to find a bathroom, but the men just can’t make it.  We’ve seen a few guys peeing so far, during the day.  I knew about this before I got here, but it is still shocking.

Those are the only serious things we can think of at the moment.  Other than the fact that the people we love are not here with us.

By the way, “mangio la mela” was the first Italian sentence we learned on our Duo Lingo app.  It means “I eat the apple,” and it is very fun to say.