My Italian Study Abroad Adventure: Part 1 of 5

Last summer marked a full decade since my study abroad experience in Italy. Surfing a wave of nostalgia, I dug through my closet and unearthed the handmade journal that I bought from a little leather goods shop in Montepulciano, the Tuscan hill town I called home for five weeks. As a fine arts major, one of my classes involved creating a sketchbook journal during the time we spent in Italy. In the journal I had saved everything from receipts to ticket stubs to pressed flowers. In addition to taking hundreds of photos, I also typed out all of my journal scribblings (I tried to write something every day) and scanned a few of the finished sketches, which were all saved on my backup hard drive. In honor of the 10-year anniversary of my trip, I thought I would upload the compilation of my study abroad memories. Read on if you would like to hear my tales of eating ridiculously good food, meeting colorful characters, traveling on my own for the first time, and seeing iconic works of art and architecture. (Just keep in mind that I did this when I was 22, and some of the writing definitely reflects my age!)


Friday, May 21, 2004

The adventure begins! Michelle, a good friend of mine, is also doing the study abroad program. I feel more confident knowing at least one person. The flight to Italy would be leaving from Atlanta, and since Shel’s parents live about 10 minutes from the airport, I stayed the night there. We awoke bright and early, like kids on Christmas morning, even though we didn’t even have to be at the airport for hours yet. Our flight would be departing at 4:00 pm, so we were told to arrive at least 3 hours early so to have plenty of time for airport security. We decided to have lunch at Olive Garden before we left, and halfway through the meal I realized how funny it was to be eating at Olive Garden on the day we’re flying out to Italy. Soon it was time to bid Atlanta a fond farewell, and before I knew it we were waiting at the boarding gate! We would be flying Lufthansa airlines and making a layover in Frankfurt on the way to Rome. The plane was a lot bigger than any I had flown on before, but I still wasn’t looking forward to being in that seat for the next 8 hours.

I'm on a plane!
I’m on a plane!

Dinner was served, and for the next few hours I was either reading or drifting in and out of a nap. Meanwhile, the sun was doing crazy things outside the window. We had darkness for what seemed all of five minutes before streaks of pink and orange started fanning out over the horizon.


Saturday, May 22, 2004

Arrival!
Arrival!
After crossing a few time zones, Friday became Saturday. The clock said 5:00am GMT, but my body was still on eastern time. Breakfast was served, and after passing through one more time zone, the plane slowly began its descent into Germany. I leaned over a sleeping classmate to peer out the window, as the plane sliced through the clouds and the German landscape came into view. (Little did I know, this was the first of many breathtaking landscapes I would be enjoying for the next five weeks!)

When we reached the Frankfurt airport, my virgin passport was unceremoniously deflowered by a German customs agent. After finally boarding an hour behind schedule, we settled down for our short flight to Rome. Unfortunately, this ride turned out to be not nearly as smooth as our trans-Atlantic flight. It seemed that our pilot did not have his morning coffee, and we were all relieved when we finally touched down in Rome.

I'm very happy to no longer be on a plane!
I’m very happy to no longer be on a plane!

After gathering our bags and making sure nobody got left in Germany, we piled onto a charter bus that would take us the remaining distance to Montepulciano. The city is located about an hour southeast of Siena in the province of Tuscany, close to the border between Tuscany and Umbria. While traversing the winding mountain roads, I took some time to admire the landscapes. I’ve lived in south Georgia my entire life, so I’m absolutely enthralled by any scenery that isn’t completely flat. When we arrived and got off the bus, I noticed the weather here was a lot cooler than the sweltering temperatures I left back home. We waited while Dr. Shealy (program director from Kennesaw State University) made arrangements to take us to our new homes. We would be living in fully-furnished apartments; some simply a few years old, and some dating back to the Renaissance!

05.22.04-3 05.22.04-4

We were given city maps and told to get settled into our apartments, then we’d all meet up for dinner later. The program director from Il Sasso (local Italian language school and sponsor of our visit) drove my group of roommates and me to our new home. We were told that non-residents of Montepulciano were not allowed to drive within the city walls. The reason, as we would soon discover, was because the roads were all single-lane and one-way. It seemed difficult if not impossible to navigate, because there were no stop signs, traffic lights, or directional arrows to assist traffic flow. And some of the roads were so narrow I didn’t think cars could even fit!

In front of the entrance to our apartment building.
In front of the entrance to our apartment building.
Our apartment is located on the second floor of an older building, and the entrance is found down an alleyway accessible from ‘the Corso’ (Via Gracciano nel Corso, basically the city’s Main Street). The interior had been recently renovated, but the building itself was erected during the 15th century. The apartment has a shared common area, bathroom, and 2 bedrooms for the four of us to split. We were given keys and a sheet with some general house rules, ranging from common sense (“don’t leave without locking the door”) to slightly bizarre (“place your trash outside the building between 6-8:00am only, or you’ll get a citation”). Our kitchenette had only a gas range, small sink, and mini refrigerator. Later we would find out that some of the apartments apparently had laundry facilities, but ours did not. We did, however, have a color television — and so we became the envy of many. Had I been given a choice, I think I would have gladly traded the TV for a washing machine.

Finally, it was dinner time! I hadn’t eaten since breakfast on the plane, so I was just about delirious. Our study abroad program fees included evening meals, which would be served at a little restaurant called Trattoria di Cagnano, located just a short walk from the apartment. I wasn’t sure what to expect, as I had never had real Italian food before (Olive Garden was about the closest I’d ever come). In the back of the restaurant and down some stairs was a cute little private underground room where our group would be eating dinners for the duration of our stay. Every night we’d get a freshly-prepared, authentic Italian 3-course meal. What a treat! The servers were all very nice, even though they did not speak a lot of English.

The trattoria where we'd be having our evening meals.
The trattoria where we’d be having our evening meals.

What a long day! After dinner it was definitely time to crash out.


Sunday, May 23, 2004

It is extremely cold today; much colder than anyone told me it would be. Apparently it’s not supposed to be this cold in late May, so I was told to bring a light sweater and expect “hot days and chilly evenings.” So, that’s what I brought… a light sweater. Now it’s 10 degrees Celcius (about 50° F) and the wind feels like nails on my skin! The worst part, though, is that we’re not allowed to touch the thermostat. It just sits there on the wall, taunting us. We were told that electricity is expensive, so Italians usually turn off their heaters in spring, even though this is definitely not spring weather for this Georgia girl! Last night I slept with three quilts on my bed. Fortunately, we do have hot showers.

Standing in the Piazza Grande.
Standing in the Piazza Grande.

Today we were given a tour of the city. We were told to meet in the Piazza Grande, which involved hiking up a 45-degree incline! I was nearly out of breath by the time we got there. Fun fact: this plaza is where the flag-throwing festival scene was filmed for the movie “Under the Tuscan Sun.” The piazza is home to a cathedral, which is currently undergoing restoration and partially concealed by scaffolding; also facing the piazza is the town hall with its prominent clock tower.

Entrance to the Fortezza.
Entrance to the Fortezza.
From the piazza we were were led up to the fortezza, a castle left over from when the city used to be at war with Siena in the 14th century. This is where we’ll be meeting for our first class tomorrow. From there we were escorted around town (we block the already narrow roads like a herd of lost sheep) and shown the essentials for daily life: bank, post office, pharmacy, grocery stores, laundromat, tobacco shops, supermarket, bus station, and where to take our trash if we don’t set it out in the mornings.

City gates.
City gates.
Montepulciano is built into the side of a mountain, where the bus depot is closer to the base, and the fortezza is at the very top. The pre-Renaissance city center of Montepulciano is surrounded by a wall with a large gate. The city itself has since expanded out beyond the ancient walls, but the majority of our time would be spent within this older part of town. Some of us got lucky and were assigned older apartments inside the city walls. Others got the newer apartments even further down the mountain, past the bus station. It turned out that our apartment is in a fairly centralized location; we only have to walk uphill to reach the fortezza. I feel bad for the people living outside the city walls… everything is an uphill climb for them.

Since we were hungry after the tour and didn’t want to make the climb back home on empty stomachs, a few of us continued wandering and found a pizzeria called Papri-Ka. When we sat down we realized the menus had not a single word of English. After fumbling through our phrasebooks, we finally managed to order two pizzas: a quattro formaggi (four cheese) and quattro stagione (four seasons: artichokes, prosciutto, olives [I’m trying really hard to learn how to like olives while I’m here], and mushrooms). I assumed we were ordering by the slice, so I was a bit surprised when we got two massive pizzas that were spilling over the sides of the plates! Good thing we all brought our appetites. Later I was told this is what you normally get when you order pizza at a restaurant in Italy; however, fast food pizza is sold by the slice.

My first real Italian pizza!
My first real Italian pizza!

After lunch, I had my first interaction with an Italian ATM, called a bancomat. After trying to tell the server at Papri-Ka how to split our check, I figured things might be easier if I started carrying cash. Thankfully, the machine had an option to display everything in English. The euro-to-dollar exhange rate at this time was about $1.20 to every €1. I miss those 20 cents. We also explored one of the many tobacco shops, which obviously sell cigarettes but function mainly as convenience stores; they sell postcards, stamps, and other souvenirs, and some sell packaged food as well. Two of our roommates went back down to the bus station with Dr. Shealy for a briefing on how to read the schedules and where to buy tickets for both the local and the intercity buses. The group caught an intercity bus to Chiusi, where the nearest train station is located. Everyone living at the bottom of the mountain is very excited that they can pay 80 eurocents and ride a local bus to the fortezza every morning. (Why can’t I pay a dollar for a bus to come pick me up and take me to school in Valdosta?) Our roommates tried to explain the train and bus schedules, but I found it confusing. I have no experience with public transit, so everything is very new to me.

Home sweet home for the next 5 weeks!
Home sweet home for the next 5 weeks!

Today was my first full day in Italy! Aside from the obvious language barrier and the chilly weather, everything wonderful. I really didn’t know what to expect because I have never left the country before. My only points of reference for Italy are movies and Disney’s Epcot!


Monday, May 24, 2004

Classes begin at 9:00am today! I don’t know how long it will take before I can get used to leaving my warm, cozy blanket on mornings when it feels like Siberia in our apartment. It only took us about 5 minutes to walk up to the fortezza, but on our way to class we stopped to admire the amazing view of the Tuscan countryside. We are so high up that the horizon extends for miles across the rolling green hills, dotted with groves of olive trees and pinstriped with rows of grapevines. The morning mist lends the appearance of an Impressionist painting with its hazy, muted colors.

This view does not suck.
This view does not suck.

I’m taking two classes: Drawing (recording our trip with a sketch journal) and Art History (focused on the Italian Renaissance). Drawing meets from 9 to 11am, and Art History meets from 1 to 3pm. Classes are on Mondays and Wednesdays, with Tuesdays and Thursdays reserved for field trips and weekends left open for independent travel! Ms. Murray, one of my professors from VSU, is my instructor for both classes. This morning for sketchbook journal class, it was so cold in the fortezza that she suggested we go sit outside in the Piazza Grande to draw instead. Unfortunately, we were all instantly miserable again because of the wind whipping through the piazza, so she excused us from class early.

Class meeting in the gardens below the fortezza.
Class meeting in the gardens below the fortezza.

Since our kitchen has been empty for three days, us roommates took a walk down to the supermarket. I’m so excited to be able to do that! Going back is uphill, but a trip to the supermarket and back is only about half a mile. I wish I could walk to the store in Valdosta. The first thing we discovered at the supermarket is plastic grocery bags cost extra, and nobody bags groceries for you. The cashiers are quite adamant about customers having exact change, and they don’t like to break large bills, which is a delimma because the bancomat only spits out increments of 50! The produce section has plastic gloves for shoppers because it’s considered unsanitary to touch the fruit. (At the little fruit stand on the Corso, you have to tell the owner what you want so she can get it for you; you’re not allowed to touch at all — “Non toccare!” This proves to be a daunting task considering she does not speak much English. However, we do know enough fruit nouns to tell her what we want to buy.)

After our afternoon classes, everyone was instructed to gather again in the fortezza for a group meeting at 4:00pm (oops, I mean 16:00). Dr. Shealy explained that we would be meeting here at the same time each Monday so he can make announcements and answer any questions we might have. Dr. Trendell, one of the other KSU professors, gave us a debriefing on several aspects of Italian culture. Shel and I don’t seem to be among the students who are coping with “culture shock”. I actually like how so many aspects of life here are so different. I’m sure it will help change my perspective on life in the US when I return home.


Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Excuse me, can you tell me how to get to platform 9 3/4?
Excuse me, can you tell me how to get to platform 9 3/4?
Today was our first field trip! I went with my drawing class to Orvieto, located in the neighboring Umbria province. The morning started off with an early bus to Chiusi where we caught the train to Orvieto. The first thing I thought was that the train platform looked like the Hogwarts Express scenery from Harry Potter. I guess it’s extra amusing for people who have never been on trains before.

When we arrived in Orvieto, we learned that it’s built on a lava rock plateau that was originally inhabited by Etruscans (the ancestors of ancient Romans). We had to ride a cable car to actually reach the city, since its elevation is over 1000 feet high, then ride a bus to the city center, where we were given some time to eat and sketch.

View from Orvieto's city wall.
View from Orvieto’s city wall.

Gelato selfie!
Gelato selfie!
After drawing, Shel and I explored the town and I had my first experience with gelato. I liked getting to choose three flavors in a bowl, and my kiwi gelato even had seeds! While strolling and eating, we ventured inside Orvieto’s Il Duomo, which is a very ornate Romanesque Gothic cathedral built in 1290. Florence also has an Il Duomo, and apparently the church in Montepulciano’s Piazza Grande is also called Il Duomo. This is when I found out that Il Duomo simply means “the cathedral.”

Il Duomo 05.25.04-2

Later in the afternoon, our group convened again to tour the Etruscan museum. It consisted of a few floors showing mostly ceramic artifacts that had been unearthed in the surrounding area. Ms. Murray told us that the city is sitting on lava rock that is gradually eroding, so the government is trying to save both the city and the tombs underneath.

Me being silly in the museum.
Me being silly in the museum.

Orvieto is such a quiet, charming little town; there even appear to be fewer cars here than in Montepulciano! I’m really enjoying this whole “public transportation” thing.


Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Another cold morning in the fortezza. I’ve started bringing a blanket with me to burrito myself in during class. Did I also mention I’ve been wearing the same jeans and sweater since we arrived? I decided to finish a few of my Orvieto sketches with colored pencils and watercolors.

Orvieto

Shel and I decided to go check our e-mails today between classes. Everyone from our group has been using a little internet cafe (the only one in town) on the Corso.

Internet cafe.
Internet cafe.

The owner is a gentleman named Flavio, who deals mainly with tourists, so his English is very good. The computer time that we purchase takes the form of a little plastic card that we insert into the computer when we want to use it. At the bottom of the screen is a timer that lets you know how many hours you have left. Italian keyboards have the QWERTY rows in the same positions, but the punctuation marks have all been moved around. I have to press ctrl+alt+a to get the “@” symbol.

Shel sneaked this picture of me while we were walking around.
Shel sneaked this picture of me while we were walking around.
Sometimes I think there are more foreigners living and wandering around here than actual residents! I’m sure the residents can easily pick out us Americans, because we’re the ones gasping for air as we walk home from the bus station. We’re struggling to just climb the hills — meanwhile, a group of elderly men smoking cigarettes and carrying on a full conversation pass us without so much as a backwards glance. And women wearing 4-inch stiletto boots practically sprint around town!

We’ve finally grown accustomed to the ‘quirks’ in our apartment, including how to use the stove. I wanted to boil some water for spaghetti, and could not figure out how to turn on the burner. Keep in mind that I’ve only used electric ranges my entire life, so I didn’t make the connection with the cigarette lighter sitting by the stove. Shel finally realized that you had to push in the dial, turn it ever so slightly, listen for the gas to come on, then hold the lighter next to the, um, highly flammable vapors. One roommate burned her finger a couple of times, so I finally just ripped a page out of my sketchbook and made a torch. Thankfully, we’re not having the other problems some folks are having with their apartments, such as no hot water, no water at all, leaking roof, or broken appliances.

Apparently at some point everyone in our group decided that they are going to Venice this weekend. Shel and I only just now found out about it from our roommates — after everyone has already made their group travel and room arrangements, so we’ve decided to stay here this weekend and take day trip to Pisa to see the leaning tower. Our classmate Margie decided not to go to Venice either, so she is going with us to Pisa. The more, the merrier!


Thursday, May 27, 2004

Today our art history class along with Dr. Comerford and her literature class, plus Dr. Shealy, took a field trip to Citta del Vaticano (Vatican City). I finally had a reason to change my clothes, since it was supposed to be warmer in Rome.

The day began with a 6:45am bus to Chiusi then a train to Rome. At Chiusi we had to stand in line to validate our Eurorail passes. These were included in our study abroad program fees, and they provide us with eight days to use separately or consecutively on any train in Italy. The train ride to Rome was about two hours. When we arrived, all 3 of us who were not going to Venice decided to take a bathroom break while everyone else waited in line to have their luggage held at the station for the day. This is when I had my first experience with the now dreaded pay toilet! I had to give a guy a handful of coins (60 eurocents!) so he would let me pass through the turnstile. The bathroom was impeccably clean, and all the lamps were black light so the toilet was glowing blue-violet. I guess to make it easier to see dirt? We also noticed that there is an entire underground shopping mall in the train station!

After everyone dropped off their bags, we piled into a bus. Dr. Shealy informed us that buses aren’t allowed within one mile of Vatican City, so we were going to be dropped off and had to walk the remaining distance. I wasn’t aware that the streets were so dirty, and since I was wearing sandals, my feet had developed a lovely brown crust by the time we reached Saint Peter’s Square. The Vatican Museum security guards all spoke English… well, sort of. We told them we were from Georgia and I think they thought it was someone’s name. “Welcome, Georgia!”

Entrance to the Vatican Museum.
Entrance to the Vatican Museum.

Following admission into the museum, a lot of us expressed hunger since we had not eaten anything since 5 or 6am, and it was already nearing 13:00 by this time. The hungry kids (Margie and myself included) went with Ms. Murray to find food, while Shel and everyone else went with the other professors to begin their tour of the museum. After several slices of overpriced pizza, we went to the early Christian art exhibit. I recognized quite a few of the paintings from my previous art history courses. What I really noticed was how most of the art focused on suffering and the crucifixion. There is so much emotion; the artists were able to capture pain and anguish so vividly. The macabre themes of Christian mythology are in stark contrast to Renaissance art with its lighthearted depictions of playful Roman deities.

School of Athens / photo via Wikipedia.
School of Athens / photo via Wikipedia.
Next, we entered a hallway filled with marble sculptures from the Hellenistic and Classical periods. The ceilings were frescoed in amazing detail with rosy-cheeked cherubs floating in cornflower blue skies. After the sculpture hall was yet another hall frescoed with enormous maps of Italy. Then we entered a series of chambers that used to be the Papal library, and inside these rooms were Raphael Sanzio’s well-known frescoes “The School of Athens” and “Dispute Over the Blessed Sacrament.” I had only previously viewed these paintings as images in my art history textbooks, so viewing them in person added a whole new dimension. I was very surprised by how well they have stood the test of time.

Interior courtyard of the museum.
Interior courtyard of the museum.

We met up with the rest of our group in the courtyard, and all went to the Sistene Chapel. No photographs allowed, but being inside the Sistene Chapel was quite an experience. Michelangelo’s talent and patience is truly evident here. “The Last Judgment” is an awe-inspiring scene that covers the entire wall behind the altar. Since I’m preparing a presentation on Sandro Botticelli for my art history class, I learned that he helped paint some of the scenes on the walls. The ceiling frescoes were actually smaller than I had anticipated, and the famous “Creation of Adam” was not the most prominent one; I actually had to search for it.

Creation of Adam / photo via Wikipedia
Creation of Adam / photo via Wikipedia

I’m now convinced that photographs and postcards simply can not do any justice to the work of Michelangelo. At one point I slipped off my sandals so I could touch the floors with my toes and say, “My feet are on the same floor as Michelangelo’s were!” I hoped there was some residual talent that could somehow transfer to me! I had forgotten that not everyone in our group was an art major until someone asked who painted the ceiling. I guess I thought everyone knew who painted the Sistene Chapel. I suddenly wondered if they all thought Leonardo, Michelangelo, Donatello, and Raphael were just ninja turtles. I was very thankful for all my past art history classes, even if we did have the information practically drilled into our skulls.

St. Peter's Square and Basilica
St. Peter’s Square and Basilica

After the Sistene Chapel, we toured St. Peter’s Basilica. It is the major church of Vatican City where Papal audiences are held in addition to regular Catholic mass. One of our students wasn’t let inside the church because he was wearing shorts. They are very strict about that; most churches here won’t let tourists inside if they’re dressed “immodestly” (shoulders and knees not covered). A couple of us followed Dr. Shealy around since he was a fountain of knowledge. The original basilica was built by emperor Constantine and had later contributions from Donato Bramante as well as Michelangelo; it was not deemed fully completed until the Baroque period of the 17th century. The main altar was constructed by Gianlorenzo Bernini, and beneath it is where St. Peter’s tomb is supposed to be located. Dr. Shealy pointed out the recurring imagery of the bumble bee, which was the Pope’s insignia at the time of construction. Directly over the altar is a majestic dome, which I believe is one of the biggest domes in the world; amazing considering that it was built before the aid of modern architectural equipment!

Pietà
Pietà / photo via Wikipedia, since the protective glass made it impossible to get a good photo.
Inside the cathedral, safely behind a glass wall, is Michelangelo’s Pietà, a marble sculpture showing the graceful form of Mary holding Jesus. This piece is incredibly detailed and skillfully crafted: every crease their faces and fold in their clothes is shown in lifelike dimension. I find it hard to believe that Michelangelo completed this piece when he was only 25 years old!

Before we left the church, we stopped to rub the foot of the bronze statue of St. Peter, since it’s supposed to bring good luck. His foot was worn down to a smooth, shiny nub! I guess lots of folks need luck.

Outside in St. Peter’s square, we caught a glimpse of the Swiss Guards, who are the Pope’s personal “secret service” and wear brightly-colored Renaissance era uniforms. I’m still a little overwhelmed at the sheer volume of art I saw today. For someone who rarely ever has the opportunity to visit museums, it was quite a sensory overload.

Exhausted but loving it!
Exhausted but loving it!

At dinner, the three of us and the professors had the whole back room to ourselves. We got pizza and chocolate mousse! It was so good it actually made me glad that I didn’t go to Venice this weekend.

One Reply to “My Italian Study Abroad Adventure: Part 1 of 5”

  1. Ok kids after reading yur blogg from Tuscany I udanrstned that we need to go back there for a month or two. The summer came to Scandinavia today. 30 degrees in the sun. Hope it stays for you guys!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *