Saturday, March 31, 2012

Murder at the Four Deuces

Thursday night we threw a 1920's themed Murder Mystery Party, or "Cena con Delitto" at the villa, which was transformed into the opening night of the Four Deuces speakeasy, with many important gangsters, politicians, and lovely ladies in attendance.  The students were such good sports, with each person taking their role in the event very seriously, right down to their flapper hairstyles, rolled cigars, and Italo-American gangster accents.  I'd always wanted a Great Gatsby party at the villa, but this was probably even more eventful than one of those ever could be!

One of my students, David, came up with the idea to do the murder mystery party and was my co-host for the evening.  Of course, this means I took care of logistics and he took care of pizazz, and on the whole I'd say our partnership was the bee's knees.

Everyone was mingling and enjoying their hooch as several shocking confrontations went down between Big Jim Ravioli, the leader of the family if you know what I mean, and various guests.  He soon got bumped off and it was our job as well as that of the inspector (who was just as suspicious as the rest of us) to get to the bottom of it. 


I played the role of Henry Hooch (there are never enough boys in our program), a man eagerly trying to break into the gold mine that is prohibition.  The irony of this character was too hard to resist because generally it's my job to keep hooch out of my student's clutches, not try to arrange business deals with them about how to illegally import it.

I wasn't the only person playing with gender roles this evening, and the congress(wo)man certainly won the crowd's approval with his/her hyperbolic mustache, securing the award for Best Costume!

As the evening progressed, several weapons were discovered and more homicides tainted the party.  Apparently, Big Jim had beef with a lot of people.  The crowd continued to bribe, steal from, and extort each other as suspicions escalated, until finally the inspector came back with the results of his weapons tests and everyone cast their votes for who the original killer was.

As it turns out, Rebecca Ravioli murdered her father, Big Jim, because he disapproved of her relationship.  When I told my own father about the resolution of our little game, he said, "Ok, I'll keep that in mind, thanks."

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Harvard's Villa I Tatti

This week I had the opportunity to accompany Alan to Harvard University's Villa I Tatti, located near Fiesole, for a quick visit.  It was a gorgeous spring day and in addition to the esteemed Berenson library (at which only about 100 fellows per year are accepted to study), the librarian also allowed us to tour part of the grounds.  The primary gardens surrounding their villa were designed by Geoffrey Scott and Cecil Pinsent, the same architects that designed our formal gardens at Villa Le Balze. One can certainly note some similarities! 

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Mo' saics, Mo' beauty

Saturday I resisted the urge to sleep in and instead woke up at the crack of dawn to train to Ravenna, the city of mosaics, in the region of Emilia-Romagna.  I've been wanting to go since I lived in Bologna (when I was geographically much closer) and now that my departure date is approaching, I'm starting to find these destination goals ever more pressing!  

I adore mosaics (but really, who doesn't?) and was thrilled to see so many churches decorated with these tiniest fragments of glass that 1,500 years ago were magically transformed into glorious instructional pieces of Byzantine art.  The mosaics are built into centuries of Ravenna's fascinating history as a crossroads where east met west.

My first stop was the octagonal Arian Baptistry with an awe-inspiring mosaic of Christ being baptized in the River Jordan, surrounded by the 12 apostles.  Jesus is shockingly human (and quite naked in the transparent waters) which exhibited his human rather than divine nature (the main deviation point in Arian Christianity).  Built in 526, it was very controversial and considered heretic in its day.

Aside from its mosaics, Ravenna is famous as the burial place of Dante Alghieri, who was exiled from Florence and later died in Ravenna.  There continues a feud between the two cities to this day, as Florence posthumously forgave Dante his transgressions and still wants his poetic bones back.  I was expecting a bit more pomp and circumstance for the father of the unified Italian language, but at least the fence surrounding the tomb's garden was pretty ornate.

The most spectacular sight in the city is the Basilica di San Vitale, built by Emperor Justinian in 540 as the Roman empire was falling.  The mosaics are overwhelming in their story-telling ability, with beautiful scenes mostly from the old testament.  I can just imagine priests effectively using them to preach the bible to their illiterate congregation.  The art seems perfectly conserved and that in itself is some kind of miracle.

Right nearby San Vitale is the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, whose golden mosaics literally twinkle in the sunlight emanating from the windows.  The most interesting scene was of St. Lawrence looking sprightly as he prepares to be martyred on his flaming grill. 

For a break from all the religiosity, I headed to lunch at a great place called Ristorante la Gardela, where I ate cappelletti in ragu accompanied by a much-missed Sangiovese.  After any Italian lunch, I mostly feel sleepy on account of all the food, tipsy thanks to the wine, and finally somewhat agitated as a result of the espresso.  Then I'm inflicted with the fear of a heart attack on account of mixing said wine with said coffee.  But mostly I'm just content with the ease of the Italian dining process and the quality of the food, until I'm reminded that soon I will be lunching with grab and go turkey sandwiches and Caesar salads.  Sigh.

After my cultural philosophizing I jumped right back into my mosaics, visiting the Archiepiscopal Museum (with the Chapel of Sant'Andrea), the Neonian Baptistry, and the fantastic Basilica di Sant'Apollinare Nuovo. 

The Basilica di Sant'Apollinare Nuovo had wonderful art, but it was harder to appreciate because everything was very high up on the walls and dimly lit.  One side of the basilica is lined with a procession of virgins and the three kings (check out the fabulous pants) delivering gifts to the Madonna and Child. 

Later in the afternoon I sat on the Piazza del Popolo drinking a coke and reading my book until I got the itch to be more active (big mistake).  I checked out a too-big but free bike from the tourist office and attempted to navigate my way through the town, without fail heading the wrong direction down every one-way street, hitting every pothole, and frightening hoards of people as I almost crashed into them and once even a baby stroller, too.  So after a very short while I returned the bike and went shopping instead, where I bought a beautiful mosaic cross from a local artist before heading back to the station.

It was a colorful day, and this picture of me crashing on my (super cheap regional) train is just to prove that I really was there, since I was too focused on documenting the art to get any shots with my mug in them!

Sunday, March 25, 2012


Anna, my friend from Siena who now works in Florence for another American program, and Anna Maria, my friend from (can I say here, "being Alan's wife?"), yes, well, from that, and I finally managed to get together for a ladies' night out.  We decided on Mexican at a place called Tijuana, which despite the snooty waitresses had delicious food (granted, after three months without burritos, one's expectations and impressions become more desperate than accurate-but it really was surprisingly good).  It was was great to munch on guacamole and nurse my margarita, but the real treat was spending a couple hours with these two lovely ladies.  I'm sure going to miss you two!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Lucca Love

We went on our annual field trip to Lucca this weekend, but believe me when I say I don't mind the repeat.  Lucca's meandering streets filled with friendly Lucchese, generous offering of great shopping, and unbroken walls on which to bike easily make it my favorite town in Tuscany.  The fact that the Degl'Innocenti clan is from that neck of the woods might play a bit on my nostalgia as well.

There were two definite highlights to the day, and unsurprisingly each involves one of my favorite Italian products: leather and gelato.

By a stroke of luck, we landed in Lucca on the day of their monthly antique fair.  During our long lunch break, I strolled through the gigantic market that filled several large piazzas, overflowed into smaller ones, and continued still to fill in the cracks of small alleyways.  There were loads of beautiful paintings and masterfully crafted furniture, heirloom jewelery and precious silverware, and a whole lot of junk.  My point of no return was at a vintage leather booth, where I fell in love with and purchased a tan leather satchel from the 70's.  I paid less and the leather is already broken in-what a deal!

Later, while biking the walls, Fabrizio, the history professor, and I came across a man both peddling and pedaling his gelato cart through the groups of jolly weekend customers.  We took a break to enjoy our refreshing snack, and when Fabrizio went back for a second cone, an old local nonna plopped down on my bench, gelato in hand.  When I asked her what flavors she had selected, she mumbled with a certain careless attitude that her selection had been, "Basta che sia gelato."  She couldn't have cared less about the flavor; the fact that it was gelato was enough for her.  Not much for conversation, that one, but I understand the need to be left alone with one's gelato.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Who gnows how to gnocchi?

This weekend I had the opportunity to make gnocchi for the first time at a cooking class with the students in Montespertoli.  We cooked in a family's large private kitchen at their country house in the hills outside Florence.  They broke us into groups to prepare several traditional dishes.  Here's what our menu looked like:

Crostoni misti con cavolo nero, broccoli e cavolfiore
Gnocchi al sugo di pomodoro
Ravioli spinaci e ricotta al burro e salvia
Arista al latte

For many of us, making gnocchi was the highlight of the evening.  It's a pretty laborious procedure (although not to the extent of filled pasta) and it was so interesting to follow it from beginning to end.  My favorite parts were rolling the dough and marking it with a fork to achieve those well-known grooves that help attract the sauce, as well as cooking the gnocchi by plopping them into boiling water and plucking them out when they begin to float.

So now I can add gnocchi to my repertoire of future dinner party possibilities.  Get ready.

Alan's Birthday

March 14th was my boss Alan's 41st birthday.  I told him he had just had a birthday, in fact I remember bringing his "Big 4-0" tiramisu out to him and singing "Tanti Auguri" with the students once before, and it must have been just last month.  He said this terrifying sensation gathers momentum each year.  I joined him, his wife Anna Maria, and some family friends at the relatively new Hard Rock Cafe in central Florence, housed inside a really cool old theatre, to celebrate with nachos, burgers, and 90's alternative rock music. 

The evening was slightly marred by an extremely persistent emergency alarm that told us repeatedly in Italian to remain calm and proceed toward the exits.  The Americans looked around confused, not understanding the message, and the Italians just ignored it and continued nursing their frilly cocktails.  The waiters continued business as usual, explaining there was a problem with the alarm and no emergency (other than the impending psychological damage of the exasperating announcements).  This jarring bulletin continued mostly on and rarely off for an hour, and Alan, unable to take it anymore, went outside for some fresh air where I witnessed a group of 20 twenty-year-olds sing him "Happy Birthday" to make up for Hard Rock's shortcomings.  Thankfully, the manager wasn't Italian so she gave Alan some birthday ice cream and us a hefty discount on the bill.  Needless to say, none of us see ourselves returning to Hard Rock any time soon.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Glad You Came

Madrid was even more relaxed this time around, since I visited almost every museum, monument, and central neighborhood last fall, then thinking I wouldn't be returning so soon.  This trip I only had but a few days to spend with Shawn, so we capitalized by dining and going out, often returning to some of our favorite locations that we'd discovered, including Teatro Kapital.

Before Kapital, we went with his roommates to a small jazz lounge where there was a sweet live band.  It seemed like for each song a new person in the audience (supposedly known by the main band) would jump up, grab an instrument, and jam.  This included a charismatic black man who crooned a variety of random doodle dee doos, much to my enjoyment. 

I also went back to the Prado museum to get a second look at some of my favorite paintings, particularly by Goya and Velásquez, and also had a chance to visit the Hermitage exhibit with pieces on loan from St. Petersburg, including ancient gold, a spectacular Caravaggio, and other paintings by artists including Picasso, Rembrandt, and more.  Inevitably, I've since added Russia to my travel list.

After a day of shopping in Salamanca (did someone say spree?), we swung by the all-inclusive superstore Corte Inglés for groceries, where we made sure to pick up some jamón.  The butcher hand-sliced us some of the most premier jamón iberico (I believe the label is silver and black) which was conveniently on sale, making a great appetizer slash 6am post-clubbing snack.

One afternoon we went to a northern area of the city to get a drink and enjoy the sun with Emily, a girl that studied abroad with us in Bologna.  I hadn't seen her since then and it was neat catching up and comparing what everyone's been doing the last few years.  It was surprising to hear she doesn't keep in close contact with much of anyone from our program, which is such a striking contrast from me, since many of my closest friends are from that experience.

The rest of our time naturally Shawn and I spent contemplating life and what we're doing next with ours.  Thankfully, life seems less daunting over a couple beers, or with Whitney playing in the background, or while strolling the vibrant streets of such a fun-loving city.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Non-Edible Paris

I fear the cleverness of my last blog's title was lost on a number of people believing I have a spelling problem, so I decided to keep this one simple.  Contrary to popular belief (including my own), it turns out that we did do things other than eat in Paris, evidenced solely by the few photos I have exhibiting non-restaurant scenes.   This one, to be fair, is at a restaurant, but we did not eat a thing there, I promise.

Letizia swung us by Pompidou Center and I got to see the Stravinsky Fountain with all its colorful and imaginative sculptures for the first time.  I was most delighted by The Firebird, a piece of art extremely reminiscent of UC San Diego's Sun God statue, and while many other UCSD graduates have probably already made this connection, I did not realize until researching this post that they are in fact by the same artist, Niki de Saint Phalle, and now my mind is officially blown by the connectedness of the world around me.

I looked through my own photos to find one of UCSD's Sun God, but the only one I have is marred by a prosthetic penis that graced the statue's loins on the day of the festival named in his honor, so I googled y'all this one instead.  Brotherly love.

Much time was dedicated to strolling, and we strolled right through Notre-Dame, over a series of bridges, and past cooky street musicians placed too closely together to distinguish terribly well any one song.

I got a little intellectual with a Frenchman at the famed Shakespeare & Co. (ooh la la), walked through the Flower Market on Ile de la Cité which I remember vividly visiting with my mom and tia, and bought a couple baguettes (along with paté, cheese, and veggies) which we would later devour at Leti's place when the rain and the urge to be in sweatpants both became too strong.

I only visited a few hot spots this time around, including the Musée d'Orsay, the Conciergerie prison, and the church of Sainte-Chapelle.  I tried to balance revisiting my favorite sites with trying some new ones, but one place I had to return to was the d'Orsay, which is wonderful not only for its impressive collection of impressionist art (and then some), but also for its architecture, as it is hosted inside an old train station that retains many qualities of its previous life, including huge clocks that are still keeping travelers on time after all these years.

While I enjoy the gothic churches in Paris, Sainte-Chapelle has to be the one to have left the biggest impression on me, with its spectacular stained glass windows and vaulted ceilings, so I decided to return there as well.  

Here's a collection of non-edible photos from our night out with Cecelia.  After dinner we contemplated going Everywhere, but instead we went up to Place du Trocadero to catch a glimpse of the Eiffel Towel lit up at night.  A particularly cheesy love scene was being filmed with the tower backdrop, in which a couple repeatedly got engaged, gave each other chocolates, and spun around in mushy-gushy kissy circles. 


I told Letizia that I'm not returning to Paris until I have a special someone myself, because that city is too damn romantic to spend it acquiring random stalkers and being hit on by obnoxious immigrants.  So while I'll surely see Letizia before then (she's coming to California this August!), au revoir, Paris-until we meet again!