My Italian Study Abroad Adventure: Part 2 of 5

Friday, May 28, 2004

Munching Italian McDonald's, waiting for a bus.
Munching Italian McDonald’s, waiting for a bus.

Shel, Margie, and I woke up early and bought intercity bus tickets (“biglietto” in Italian) to Florence. All by ourselves! There are different routes and times for weekdays, weekends, and “festival days” (holidays), but I think I finally have the bus schedule figured out. While waiting for the bus, we met a nice Canadian couple who are also staying in town, so we talked with them for a while. In Florence we decided not to use our Eurorail passes for such a short trip, so we purchased a group ticket to Pisa. The train ride was about 45 minutes, and when we arrived we were instructed to get on Bus #3 for the Leaning Tower.

The Leaning Tower, along with the baptistry and duomo (which are not leaning), stand together in the Piazza di Miracoli (Miracle Square). These are pretty much the only attractions that anyone really comes to see in Pisa, so it was very crowded.

Piazza di Miracoli
Piazza di Miracoli
The Leaning Tower
The Leaning Tower

The Leaning Tower pretty much looks just like every photograph I’ve ever seen, but I was pretty excited to finally see the familiar structure in person. We decided not to bother buying tickets to get inside the buildings, even though it would have been fun to climb to the top of the Leaning Tower — which, by the way, has been stabilized and straightened a bit over the years. The reason it leans is because the soil underneath is not strong enough to support the building’s foundation. Apparently it was quite a feat of engineering to keep the tower from completely falling over!

After we finished looking around, we assumed that if we got back onto Bus 3, it would return to the train station. Well, we got there… eventually. What we didn’t know was that Bus 3 would end up leaving Pisa altogether (seriously, there was a sign that said “Pisa” with a big slash through it) and cruising around the countryside for half an hour. I think we just barely made it in time to catch our train back to Florence. When we got back onto the bus for Montepulciano, we met up with our Canadian friends again! As we arrived at dinner, we discovered that a couple of people were already back from Venice. From what I heard, they had a horrible time because nobody bothered to check the weather (it was raining) and a few people didn’t even bother to make hotel reservations. I definitely want to visit Venice, but it seemed like everyone was so eager to start exploring that they didn’t think through their plans completely.


Saturday, May 29, 2004

We were walking around town as usual this afternoon, and stumbled upon a film crew! A few of us sat and watched a camera mounted on a long crane swing back and forth across a section of rooftops. Dr. Shealy described what he knew of the basic plot of the movie and said they are filming in small towns all over Tuscany. The remainder of the day was uneventful; we mostly just avoided the rain by staying indoors and working on our sketch journals. We set up a few still lifes with fruit we had purchased that week.

Strawberries

Fortunately, since the weather has been warming up, the poppy fields have started blooming. They are sprouting up everywhere, growing all along the hillsides. They have quickly become one of my favorite flowers because of their amazing vermilion color. Ms. Murray says that before we leave, they will be overshadowed by enormous sunflowers.

Poppies

We’ve gotten into the habit of putting on Italian MTV for background noise while we do schoolwork. Our television only picks up a couple of channels, and MTV is the best of what we have to choose from. Sometimes they will air a program in English with Italian subtitles, but mostly they play a lot of music videos from the States. We’ve also been exposed to some catchy Italian pop music too.


Sunday, May 30, 2004

Some things I’ve learned in Italy so far:

1. Just attempt to speak Italian, even completely butchering the pronounciation or sounding like a cave man and most people will just be delighted that you didn’t walk up to them and start babbling in English.

2. Womanizing appears to be the Italian national pastime. Men don’t notice me 99% of the time, so it’s strangely flattering to suddenly be considered “exotic” or something. A lot of it really is just innocent flirting, but sometimes it can border on sexual harassment since there is a stereotype that American women come to Italy to have an affair. If you possess breasts, you might find that random men twice your age want to buy you wine, flowers, and small Tuscan villas.

3. How to use the metric system, read a 24-hour clock, and tell temperatures in Celcius.

4. Italians take a mid-day siesta, so a lot of businesses are usually closed from 13-15:00 (1-3pm), and sometimes even until 16:00. I think Americans could benefit a great deal from daily “nap” time.

5. Italians smoke like volcanoes. “No smoking” signs appear to be just there for decoration.

6. I’m glad I don’t have to drive here. Often there are no marked lanes on the roads. Motorcycles can go wherever they want, including the sidewalks and between lanes of cars. Red lights and stop signs appear to be just suggestions? And don’t expect anyone to stop or slow down for you just because you’re walking across the road, or even on the sidewalk (where motorcycles like to go). Also, Italian road signs appear to be just clusters of arrows pointing in random directions. Gas might seem cheap at 90 eurocents a liter, until doing the math: that comes out to almost $5 a gallon. (Curse you, metric system!)


Monday, May 31, 2004

Today was fun! After class, Dr. Shealy led a small group of us into a wine cellar belonging to Cantina Redi, one of the local vineyards. We descended a spiral stone staircase into a hollowed-out portion of the mountainside. We were told that when the soil oxidizes it becomes an almost concrete hardness, creating natural underground rooms. Inside the cellar were stacks of giant oak and cedar barrels, each carrying hundreds of liters of wine. The entire cavern had the pungent aroma of fermenting grapes. This cellar was constructed during the Renaissance, but has only been used for storing wine since the 1940’s. When we finished our tour of the cellar, we climbed another set of stairs and exited through a sliding glass door that brought us into the Redi wine shop. Dr. Shealy spoke to the woman behind the counter and she set up a free sample of about six different local wines, including five reds (vini rossi) and a white (vino bianco). I don’t know enough about wine to really comment on the flavors, other than simply say that I liked them! I think the white was my favorite. Unfortunately, we consumed just enough that we giggled the whole way back to our apartment! There is no real drinking age in Italy, but public drunkenness is frowned upon and considered quite tacky.

Wine


Tuesday, June 1, 2004

Today our sketchbook class visited the Tuscan capital city of Florence. Ms. Murray almost put us on the wrong bus, but she finally listened to the three of us who actually took the bus to Florence last week. We ran into our Canadian friends again at the bus depot. They mentioned that they were going to the Uffizi Gallery, but didn’t have reservations. Since that’s where we were heading too, Ms. Murray said she would try to pull some strings so they could get in with our group. Without a reservation, the wait could be anywhere from one to six hours, because it is such a popular attraction. When we reached Florence, we walked through an underground tunnel, which led across the street to our first stop: the church of Santa Maria Novella.

Santa Maria Novella
Santa Maria Novella

The art majors from VSU were excited because nearly every square inch of this building was sandblasted into our brains in previous classes (if you’ve had Dr. Davis, you know what I mean). I finally appreciated all the art history tests I crammed for because now the information was actually useful; not just words and pictures in books, but actual, tangible objects. The non-art majors and everyone else just kind of stood around looking bored. Ms. Murray talked about Masaccio’s Holy Trinity fresco, and the gilded altarpiece by Giotto. We were also told that the placement of the interior columns creates an illusion, making the cathedral appear longer than it actually is. Black and white alternating stripes seem to be a recurring design motif in cathedrals from this time period.

From here we dashed across town to the Uffizi Gallery. We had reservations for a specific time, and Ms. Murray didn’t want them to give our space away because we were late. We were told it was easier and quicker to navigate the city by foot rather than bus, which didn’t make a lot of people happy. I love walking around because you get to see a lot more that way!

Uffizi Gallery
Uffizi Gallery

“Uffizi” translates to “offices,” because the building was used by the Florentine government before it became a museum. Outside the building are marble statues of many famous people, including Leonardo da Vinci, Plato, Galileo, Donatello, Machiavelli, and Giotto, among many others. Our Canadian friends were able to get into the museum with us, thanks to Ms. Murray’s powers of persuasion. (I think she told them that she forgot two students who needed tickets. Every once in a while it’s okay to play the “oops, I’m a stupid American” card.) The Uffizi has several floors, each with interconnecting rooms in the center and a main hallway along the perimeter. In most contemporary galleries, paintings are hung in a single-file horizontal line, but here the walls are literally stacked floor to ceiling with paintings, where it seemed as though they were trying to cram in as much art as possible. The result is such a visual cacophony that it’s hard to even figure out where to begin enjoying pieces individually. One of the non-art majors in our group wondered why Artemisia Gentileschi’s painting of “Judith Slaying Holofernes” was so graphic, so I told her the story of how Artemisia was raped, and painted her attacker’s face onto the severed head of Holofernes. Thanks, art history classes!

Judith and Holofernes / photo via Wikipedia
Judith and Holofernes / photo via Wikipedia

Eventually a few of us went off to explore on our own. A room near the entrance was full of pencil sketches by Da Vinci and Michelangelo. In one of the larger rooms were the famous works of Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli. Among them included “Pallas and the Centaur” and the famous “Birth of Venus.”

Birth of Venus / photo via Wikipedia
Birth of Venus / photo via Wikipedia

Botticelli’s art has such wonderful movement and elegance, it’s awesome to see these paintings in person. The colors are still incredibly vivid even after so many centuries. “La Primavera” is another of my favorite Botticelli paintings, portraying the Roman goddess Venus surrounded by other deities and playful woodland spirits in her sacred garden on the island of Cyprus.

La Primavera / photo via Wikipedia
La Primavera / photo via Wikipedia

Annoying tour groups would congregate directly in front of the Botticelli paintings, keeping the rest of us from getting a clear view, so we explored and found a few lesser-known Botticelli works, and some by Raphael, Michelangelo, and El Greco.

The Laocoön
The Laocoön

At the end of a hallway, we found a copy of The Laocoön. This piece is a Hellenistic sculpture portraying a scene from Homer’s “Odyssey” in which the soothsayer Laocoön and his three sons are killed by Poseidon’s serpent after Laocoön warns the Trojans against “Greeks bearing gifts.” The original is actually somewhere in the Vatican museum, though I didn’t get to see it. After we were finished at the Uffizi, we met up in the Piazza della Signoria, which is home of the “Rape of the Sabine Women” statue, the Neptune fountain, and a copy of Michelangelo’s “David.” I didn’t feel like battling the crowds to see a copy when we’d be seeing the real thing later this month.

Piazza della Signoria, now featuring even more tourists!
Piazza della Signoria, now featuring even more tourists!

We walked to the Ponte Vecchio, which is a famous bridge across the Arno River (and it’s flanked entirely with jewelry kiosks).

Arno River Arno River

From the Ponte Vecchio, we walked back in the direction of the bus station, stopping by Piazza Duomo to visit the church of Santa Maria del Fiore and the Baptistry of San Lorenzo. The cathedral was designed by Filippo Brunelleschi, and inside the church is the tomb of Brunelleschi himself. It is capped by a slightly conical dome almost 140 feet in diameter. At the very top is a lantern, which admits light into the interior of the church. After the dome was completed, a decree was issued to ensure that no other structure would be built higher than the church. The result is a dramatic and easily recognizable skyline belonging to Florence alone.

Church of Santa Maria del Fiore.
Church of Santa Maria del Fiore.
Baptistry doors.
Baptistry doors.

The baptistry is on the side of the plaza opposite the duomo. It is known for its famous bronze doors, designed by Lorenzo Ghiberti. Panels on the doors portray scenes from Bible stories, including the life of Jesus and the four evangelists. The panels are all three-dimensional relief sculptures, and very detailed for their size! At some point we realized that a few people were missing, so Ms. Murray went back into the church to find them, while the rest of us waited outside. We might as well have been wearing neon signs advertising our fat pockets, because almost immediately we were approached by women holding infants and shaking cups in our faces (their way of asking for donations). When we shooed them away, they were replaced by men who kept trying to sell us knockoff designer sunglasses. It got to the point where we would walk away from them, and they would collectively pick up and move over to keep bothering us. I accidentally made eye contact with one of them, and he would not get out of my face until I physically walked away. Despite the crowds, aggressive grifters, and the occasional bad smells, Florence is one of my favorite places so far.


Wednesday, June 2, 2004

Happy Italian Independence Day! Fun fact: Did you know that Italy has 16 different political parties? I often wish that United States had more choices, since neither of our two accurately represent me.

Almost every afternoon between classes, a few of us will eat lunch sitting on steps of a church near our apartment, but today we got kicked off by a gigantic group of tourists. Even though we are technically tourists here as well, we have started thinking of Montepulciano as “our” town because it seems like we have been living here for so long. I’m sure I’ll be homesick when I return to my actual home. I’m actually glad to have a break from the American news media, but it feels so strange to be out of the loop. I wasn’t even aware that President Bush was visiting Rome until almost every building in Montepulciano was displaying a very specific flag, a rainbow pattern emblazoned with the word PACE. Dr. Comerford explained that the word means “peace” and the flags are being flown to show President Bush that they are protesting the war in Iraq. While Americans seem to be split in half over the war, the overwhelming majority of Italians seem to be adamantly against it. I don’t think a lot of Americans really care about what happens to the rest of the world, or what the rest of the world thinks. I feel very fortunate to be traveling abroad, in hopes that it will help expand my horizons beyond what happens within United States borders.

Peace


Thursday, June 3, 2004

Today we visited the Etruscan museum and Christian catacombs in Chiusi, located a short distance from Montepulciano near the border of Umbria. It turns out there is more in Chiusi than just a train station! Shel, Margie, and I were among the students who would be leaving for the weekend, so we had our bags all packed — and they were heavy. We innocently assumed that we would be able to check our luggage at the station like everyone else did last week, so Shel and I decided to cram all our clothes into one suitcase. As luck would have it, the lockers at the train station were broken, so we were told that we would have to carry the overstuffed bag around with us the entire day. Thankfully, the people who ran the catacomb tours offered to watch our bags while we were visiting.

Death march!
Death march!

We hopped on a bus that drove us around for a while until Ms. Murray finally instructed us to get off. We ended up about a mile from where we actually wanted to be. We trudged up and down the hilly terrain, which provided a lovely passing view of the countryside, punctuated by everyone with a hangover saying they were going to die. The temperature was rather mild so walking actually wasn’t so horrible for those of us who got a good night’s sleep. When we arrived at our destination, we realized that our bus actually passed by here earlier in the route, but Ms. Murray didn’t realize it was our stop.

To reach the catacombs, we were led down into a thicket, where we were greeted by a large brick entryway in the hillside. Our guide only spoke Italian, and since Dr. Comerford is the only one of us who is fluent, she provided the translation. The guide explained that the tombs were constructed in the 4th century and hidden away due to the persecution of Christians at that time. Monks in the 1500’s unearthed the tombs when they were breaking ground for a basilica (which no longer stands), and put up the entryway and gate that still remains today.

Entrance to the catacombs.
Entrance to the catacombs.
Walking through the catacombs.
Walking through the catacombs.

The interior of the tombs was basically a series of cave tunnels; very dark and humid, lit only by halogen lamps placed every few meters. Baby stalactites hung from the ceiling like little fangs. Because of the humidity, there were mosquitoes everywhere, and they were enormous. At first they didn’t bother me, but when the ceiling dropped and they started flying into my face, it was pretty gross.

Writing on the catacomb walls.
Writing on the catacomb walls.

The guide led us to an area where along the walls were dozens of hollowed out indentations where bodies would have been placed. Some of them were child-sized, and many even had bone fragments remaining in the graves and words carved in the walls. She led us to one particular burial site where, according to history, an unnamed person was laid to rest and since at the time it was considered disrespectful to leave a grave unmarked, someone had written “God knows his name” (in Latin) into the wall.

After lunch, our next stop was the Etruscan museum. The artifacts were similar to those we saw in Orvieto. This museum contained a wider array of pieces, including ceramic vases painted with intricate designs and marble sarcophagi covered in delicate sculptural relief. I’m constantly amazed by how well-preserved these objects are, considering how ancient and fragile they must be.

In the museum.
In the museum.
Waiting for the train to Sorrento.
Waiting for the train to Sorrento.

A group of us were heading south to the Campania coast, to visit Sorrento for the weekend. From there we would be visiting the ruins of Pompeii and the island of Capri. We didn’t have any definite travel plans, but Ms. Murray said both places are easily accessible from Sorrento. Our train ride from Chiusi to Naples was almost four hours, and in Naples we had to catch the local ‘Circumvesuviana’ train to reach Sorrento.

Sunset in Naples.
Sunset in Naples.

We arrived in Sorrento around 21:00. By this time it was dark and pouring rain. We were all soaked and tired. After what seemed an eternity, some buses pulled up, and by some stroke of luck we encountered a British couple and they directed us to the right one — the very last bus of the night.

A few of us were staying at a hostel called Campogaio Santa Fortunata. When we got off the bus, the first thing I saw were tents. I thought, “I’m so glad we’re not staying in a tent!” because yesterday I had reserved a cabin for the three of us. We approached the desk, and fortunately the guy working the desk spoke English (and as it turned out, he also spoke Italian, German, and something that sounded like Swedish). Our luck took another wrong turn when the clerk could not find our cabin reservation. He said something about how normally when this happens, he gives people a “present” (upgrade) but tonight he “ran out of presents.” He said there was a single cabin and a double cabin available, if we didn’t mind being split up. He gave us the keys to our cabins and told us where to find them. We found one with no problem, but we could not find the other — keep in mind that it is dark, still raining, and we are hungry and really tired. We went back to the desk and he looked a little suprised. “Of course it’s there. You must not have looked in the right place.” So we went back to look for a second time. When we returned to him again, he suggested that we go have dinner before the dining hall closes, while he goes to make sure the cabin didn’t wash away, I guess. When we were finished with dinner, he admitted that he couldn’t find the cabin either (I think it got sucked into a black hole) so he said he would give us one caravan instead of two cabins. That seemed fine to us, we weren’t picky as long as there was a place to sleep. When we found the caravan, it turned out to be a small aluminum camping trailer with a flimsy plywood door. We barely had enough room to move around without hitting our heads on the ceiling (even though none of us are tall by any means), and our beds were two wooden platforms with sheets of foam laid on top. The “four-person caravan” only had two beds so Shel and I finally decided we’d share. The window over Margie’s bed was broken and had been hastily taped back together. We had to take the sheets off our beds and create makeshift curtains for the windows so we could change clothes. All this time, my inner monologue kept repeating, “At least it’s not a tent.”

It was hilarious.
It was hilarious.

After taking a hike to the bathroom I was happy to find the showers were at least hot, but I had to use my own towel and the bathrooms didn’t include toilet paper. Now I realized why youth hostels are so cheap. Don’t expect much for €12 a night. All we really needed was a place to sleep and shower, and that is pretty much all we got.

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. [2014 update– This is also where the Volterra scene was filmed for Twilight: New Moon. Apparently now you can do a Twilight themed tour here.] 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 is 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 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.

Run Like a Girl: My First Half Marathon

Because why else would you go to Disney World at 4 in the morning?

I’ve liked to run since I was a teenager, but I’ve never competed, never joined a team, never trained for anything, and never really run more than perhaps 5 miles at a time without walking or stopping to rest. For the last few years I’ve been running with the Hash House Harriers, a “drinking club with a running problem” — which gives you an idea of how seriously I take fitness — so I never really thought I’d ever bother doing any organized races at all.

Last year, a friend of mine was going through cancer AND a divorce at the same time. In an effort to take life by the proverbial balls, she decided to start actively pursuing goals to cross off her bucket list, and one of those was to run a half marathon, so another friend suggested that they get a group together to run the Disney Princess Half.

As it turned out, only four of us were able to actually sign up for the race, either due to website malfunctions on registration day, or simply due to cost. It was pretty common to have this exchange —

Me: “Wanna run the Disney half with us?”

Friend: “Sure, how much does it cost?”

Me: “Why, merely a hundred and seventy five of your hard-earned American dollars.”

Friend: <nope, nope, so much nope>

Let’s be honest, it really is kind of a ridiculous amount of money to consider when the fee doesn’t even get you admission to the park after the race. You do get a spot in the race, a souvenir t-shirt, and a finisher’s medal… plus all the Powerade and Clif products you can consume, I guess. In the months leading up to the race I would sometimes look at my credit card statement and be like, “I paid how much??

Bridesmaids-poor

However, if you like to run and you like Disney parks then I think it’s definitely worth doing at least once.

I had enough experience that I didn’t feel like I would pass out or give up during the race; however, I also wanted to actually run the whole thing. I did a lot of training during the months leading up to the race, including signing up for a 5k and a 10k. I re-discovered why I love running (adrenaline highs are fun, but for me it’s more about the solitude; long runs are about the closest I’ve ever come to being able to meditate), but I also discovered that there is a giant difference between a 10k and a half marathon.

In the weeks leading up to the race, I felt some of the most crippling exhaustion I’ve ever felt in my life. I “hit the wall” almost every time I went for my weekly long run. And between the four of us we had a broken toe, an injured foot, and several temperamental knees.

Disney Half Marathon 2
Before…

We runners picked up our race packets the afternoon before the event, and afterward our “support crew” (friends and significant others) decided to it would be a great idea to get day drunk. Just imagine if Patsy and Edina from ‘Absolutely Fabulous’ became Disney Princesses, and instead of a glass slipper it’s a glass of whiskey (with a pickleback), then you might have an idea of how the afternoon devolved.

Hangover be damned, we soon found ourselves standing outside in pitch dark at an unholy hour of the morning, wearing ridiculous outfits, huddled in a corral and staring down 13.1 miles. My “instigator” friend turns to the rest of us and says, “The only reason I signed up for this is because I thought there was a good chance I’d be dead and I wouldn’t have to do it!”

Three hours later, we are all drinking post-race mimosas and talking about signing up for our next half.

Disney Half Marathon 3
…and after!

My Time: 2:58:05 (including bottlenecks and a bathroom break, but not too shabby!) / Overall Place: 9746/20215

It’s amusing how my attitude changed… 3 months ago, I was thinking “how could anyone possibly run a full marathon?!” and now I’m like, “26.2 here I come!”

Top 10 things (in no particular order) that I learned from the Disney Princess Half Marathon:

  1. “Winter” means nothing in Florida, trust me. By the time we finished the race it was 80 degrees and the sun was blazing. It’s a little chilly at 4 in the morning, so wear a jacket you don’t mind throwing away. I ditched my jacket before the first mile marker. I saw some people sweating their faces off in wigs and polyester Halloween costumes, including floor-length gowns. I saw other people shedding their (likely expensive) costume layers and leaving them along the course.
  2. The race is really more like a 13.1 mile “fun run” — on one hand, there is absolutely no pressure to compete, so anyone of any fitness level can participate and enjoy the experience. On the other hand, expect lots of people taking selfies and very little runners’ etiquette.*
  3. Energy gels at mile 8 were the best thing ever. A friend told me the trick to eating them is put a little in your mouth and mix it with your spit until it dissolves, that way it gets into your system faster. I think it saved me from having to walk at all, except for the part where everyone stopped, as the race bottlenecked in Cinderella’s castle.
  4. It’s really cool to run through the parks, including “backstage” Disney World. I didn’t want to wait in line to take my picture with any characters, but it was awesome to see them there.
  5. Speaking of waiting in line, there’s a lot of it. Wait in line to pick up your race packets, wait in line to use a port-o-potty, wait in line to get through narrow parts of the course, wait in line to wait in line.
  6. And speaking of port-o-potties, if the condition of the toilets was any indication — please y’all, poop before you run. Coffee and high fiber foods help.
  7. Disney really does not disappoint when it comes to the overall experience; even the people who hand out race bibs make you feel like a celebrity, and everyone working the race was super friendly, including the folks handing out water.
  8. No matter how slow you feel, there is always someone slower than you. I was running about a 12-13:30 minute mile and was still flying past people. I started running faster near the end because the sun was ascending very quickly and I didn’t want to get burned.
  9. Running a half marathon with other people is a lot more fun than pounding pavement for 3 hours by yourself.
  10. If a bunch of drunks can run a half marathon, so can you!

Disney Half Marathon 01

My mini “Maleficent” horns were made by Trish Dobson Designs on Etsy! They are lightweight enough to comfortably wear while running, small enough to not be cumbersome but big enough to obviously be horns. (They also come in other sizes and a whole spectrum of colors!)

The amount of planning and execution that must go into organizing a race with 20,000+ participants is beyond my scope of understanding, and honestly the overall experience was really great, and everything from packet pick-up to meeting our friends at the finish line was pretty close to flawless, all things considered.

*This was my first time participating in a race this size, and I really do wish there had been more information about race etiquette and the “do’s and don’ts” of running in a group that large. There were large groups walking 3+ people abreast, evidently unaware (or unconcerned) that it’s hard for others to get around them. In addition, I almost plowed into so many people because they would just stop in the middle of the race to take a selfie or tie a shoe or look at something or adjust their costume. They’d run up to the water station, take a cup, and just stop to drink it. I have nothing against walkers or people who want to take selfies, but maybe Disney could do something like have signs or verbal announcements in the narrow bottleneck areas to politely remind people not to block other runners. This isn’t enough to discourage me from recommending the race to other people, but just be prepared for it, or try to be fast enough to avoid getting placed in the bottom corrals.