Wednesday, April 25, 2012

ˈɑ ˈkuː ˈpiː

This past weekend we hosted a meeting for the coalition of American university programs in Italy here at Villa Le Balze.  For me, it was a great opportunity to meet some of the big movers and shakers in Italy study abroad, as well as to catch up with old friends.  All three of my colleagues from the UC Siena center were here, all of us now working for different programs since that one closed.  Giuditta, above, and I were mostly responsible for greeting everyone and doing check-in.  That's her at our welcome post.

I had a real blast from the past when I recognized but couldn't immediately place the following woman.  She was trying to figure out who I was, too, when it clicked: she was my Italian professor at the beginning of my year in Bologna!  I remember her being a wonderful, fun teacher and loved being able to reconnect with her.

We held the meeting on the loggia, but the wind proved too strong for the shades, which kept flying up (Alan likes to joke that we almost decapitated our guests; since no one got hurt it was actually kind of funny) so all 50 people had to squeeze into our thirty-person capacity library.  Lunch was catered by Le Lance, the restaurant where Sandra's husband works, and it was a big hit.  She recently told me that she has him to thank for everything she has learned about cooking.  Lucky us!


For me, the highlight of the day was getting to catch up with Vicky, my colleague at UC Siena and a kindred spirit.  She's always been convinced that I would find an Italian guy and settle down here just like she did, so she was shocked to learn that I'm moving back to the states this summer.  She is so encouraging, always having so much faith in me and thanking me for helping her through a difficult summer of life changes while we were working together.  You really never know the effect you might have on people's lives, but I certainly believe we all cross each other's paths for a reason.  Now it's her turn to give me positive mojo.  She instilled her faith in me about the success of my new life chapter.  Citing past examples, her exact quote was, "What Kelly wants, Kelly gets."  I like the sound of that.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Anna and I, deciding it was time for a splurge, went for an after dinner drink at Villa San Michele, Fiesole's exclusive five-star hotel.  It's located right above Villa Fiesole, the hotel where I lived for three months at the start of this job, and I've been dreaming of visiting it for two years now. 

The villa is located in what used to be a monastery, and the lobby is set up in what used to be a chapel, complete with an altar and apses, which now serve as functional hallways, niches for fancy decorations, and a check-in desk.  We were escorted through the dining room (every single pair of eyes turned to follow us as we passed) and out to the expansive loggia where we ordered fancy (and costly) cocktails accompanied by dried fruit and chocolate covered almonds and oranges.  The loggia provides a spectacular view over the city (no different than Villa Le Balze, though!) and is filled with romantic candlelight and bright periwinkle hydrangeas. 

It's rare to find anything resembling customer service in this country; that's sometimes part of its charm.  However, it was refreshing to be referred to in the formal, to have someone escort me around, and so on.  The waiters were cordial and exceedingly impressed by our Italian, which made me reflect on the caliber of people they must usually serve.  Granted, the social and economic level of their guests must be quite high (it costs a minimum of 1400 euro a night to hang your hat at this hotel and a burger will set you back 27 euro, or $35), but perhaps the guests' cultural sensitives are less elevated as it seemed the wait staff had never encountered an Italian-speaking American, not to mention two, before us.  Perhaps an overflow of compliments was part of what we paid for, but they were genuinely intrigued by us, and it was flattering.

The setting made for great people watching, as our main intrigue laid in figuring out what kind of people frequent such an establishment.  One young couple stood out in particular, on two occasions.  First, when asked what she wanted to drink, the bleach-blonde woman proclaimed, "I'm pregnant," as if that's an acceptable drink order.  Then, after drinks, her self-important companion asked the Italian waiter colloquially, "How should we square up the bill?"  Even to an American that sounds weird, but how can one expect an Italian to understand that phrase?  Some people are just clueless.

Despite that distracting and disturbing couple, it was an extremely relaxing evening filled with fun conversation, tasty treats as well as yummy drinks (mine had sorbet in it), and a live pianist.  We decided that while we enjoyed being pampered so, it's not something we could get used to, nor would we want to.  One misses out on so much of the real culture of a city visiting such an isolated, privileged place, so next time we'll have to find a good dive bar!

Monday, April 16, 2012

à la mode

Sunday I finally experienced my long-awaited day of fashion; my day à la mode, if you will.  For two years I've meant to visit both the Ferragamo and Gucci museums, but it took having just two weeks left here to light a fire under me.

The Ferragamo shoe museum is an offshoot of the store housed inside Palazzo Spini Feroni, the original headquarters and workshop of the company since 1938.  Salvatore Ferragamo (1898-1960) was the most influential shoemaker of the last century, being one of the first, and certainly the most successful, to fuse creativity, craftsmanship, and comfort.  Having studied the anatomy of the foot, he invented the wedge heel as well as many other innovations and artistic creations that made him practically an overnight success in Hollywood, where he quickly became known as "shoemaker to the stars."  After his returning to Italy and opening this flagship store, the location became an international fashion hotspot for the rich and famous.

It was so neat to learn about how all the famous actresses came to him, including Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, and Marilyn Monroe, as well as about the films that featured his shoe-making skills, from Evita to as recent a film as The Iron Lady.

The black shoe above, from the 1930s, is almost identical to a Furla pair I own from just last year.  It's amazing how these fashions recycle themselves.

The Gucci museum, in Piazza della Signoria, was filled with beautiful items but was a bit too stuffy for my taste, feeling more like a showroom than a museum.  There was a Gucci Cadillac Seville in the museum, trimmed with that classic Gucci stripe.  This Cadillac was packin'-packin' more Gucci luggage, that is. 

In addition to the car, there were other truly spectacular items featured, including this beautiful golden clutch with a serpent clasp, and real celebrity gowns worn to awards shows.  I had to exercise the utmost self-control to not reach out and touch them-I felt just like I was in a store!

Then, on my way home, I stopped into a cute vintage store and found myself a silk dress that I'm in love with, and back at the villa dessert that night was gelato cake, so it really was a day à la mode.  The only downside is that now I want a pair of Ferragamo shoes and an ostrich leather Gucci handbag.  God help me.

Snooze You Lose

Friday night Anna and I met for aperitivo at Obika', a mozzarella bar, before heading to the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiori for an organ concert by the German organist Klemens Schnorr.  I'm not usually one for organ concerts, but the Duomo is not usually one to put on any concert at all, so it seemed like an opportunity worth grabbing.  The experience was a bit of an enigma, as we both realized that we have no idea how an organ works.  It seemed as if the musician was playing from one keyboard, but with sound emitting from four different sets of pipes.  Anyone adept at organs can feel free to explain this phenomenon to me.  Listening to classical music in such a beautiful church after two glasses of wine was very peaceful, and we even had the added pleasure and contrast of comedy, provided by the lady snoring obnoxiously next to us.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Benvenuti al Sud

I wrote my last blog in Italian so that Azzurra's family could read and appreciate the stories of our Easter weekend together, and appreciate it they did: Mamma called me to say that I had both her and her husband in tears.  Letizia told me I should put on my resume the skill of "making grown Calabrian men cry"; you never know what might make you stand out to an employer.

This being my first Easter in Calabria, I got to try all the special homemade Easter treats, including this baby with an egg baked in for a head spread with Nutella.  To add to the celebrations, Azzurra's birthday fell on Good Friday this year so we indulged on a delicious fish feast, including "spring flower" filled pasta that mamma and Azzurra made, octopus with potatoes, and cheesecake, which was a new arrival to Castrovillari and everyone just had to try.  Giuseppe, her brother, was at first skeptical of a cake made out of cheese, but expressed the most incredible joy after his first bite: he looked just like St. Teresa in Ecstasy. 

Flashback to Christmas 2010, when I told my mom that I couldn't come home for Christmas and would instead be spending the holiday with my adoptive family in Calabria.  This was all a trick of course in an attempt to surprise her when I showed up on her doorstop in December, but not knowing this she dutifully sent me a package of gifts for the family, lovingly sent all the way from California.  Well, not having had the opportunity to visit Calabria since summer 2010, I'd held on to those gifts all this time, and thus had the opportunity to play the role of Babbo Pasqua, or Father Easter.

I'd never experienced a more joyous gift-giving ceremony, with everyone being so extremely excited and gracious about the small tokens we wanted to give them.  Giuseppe smothered me with kisses, Silvia jumped around like crazy, and mamma displayed her California-themed dishtowel as a tablecloth in the kitchen, showing it off to every guest that visited over the weekend.  After things calmed down Giuseppe said, "Ohi, ma.  It's not just that it's Ralph Lauren.  It's came from California."  I want to give them everything.

We spent lots of time over the weekend hanging around the house as a family, laughing over shared meals and making fun of my accent, playing poker (perhaps the proudest moment of Giuseppe's life when he beat me), and catching up on our lives.  It's so easy to forget the wonder of these simple moments at home, and I loved being a part of theirs. 

Friday night we went out on the town for Azzurra's birthday and ran into almost everyone we know from Castrovillari.  It's such a small town and by now I know a shockingly high percentage of its inhabitants.  I felt like a townie, and considered becoming one.

We did our best to make visits to see all the families, but it was hard in such a short amount of time.  I got to meet Cristina's parents finally, and we also went with Alessandro to visit his grandparents and his dad.  His grandfather asked me what my plans were, and when I said I was soon headed back to California for good, he simply shook his head and said, "That's a shame."  It was so sincere that I foolishly teared up and got Azzurra going with me.  He's right-it is a shame!

Saturday night we went to the small hill town of Civita, to eat at Agora', one of my favorite restaurants in the whole world.  This is the place that has thus far made three appearances in my blog, as we make a point to eat there every time I visit.  Yes, it's the place with all the appetizers.   I finally succeeded in learning my lesson and ordered nothing more than the shared appetizers, and was still stuffed on my way out!  Check out all those stickers in the window of this renowned yet hidden gem of a restaurant.


Easter Sunday we went to a morning mass before heading to Lungro for lunch at the grandparent's house.  I already posted our group photo in my Italian post, but these following ones give you more of an idea of the meal and the music and the family love we shared!  Zio Roberto played the guitar and the accordion while Azzurra's parents polkaed around the room.  Lots of family members dropped in to give their best wishes for a Happy Easter to the grandparents, including the sweet twin baby cousins. 

I made quite a spectacle of myself on two occasions: one, when I had the honor of cracking open the family's chocolate egg and had to hit it several times until success, and two, when saying goodbye and leaving their house crying like a bumbling idiot.  It was nonno's fault, again.  I swear, these sweet old men really pull on my heartstrings.  

That night, just before my departure on the night bus headed back to Florence, my family called to wish me a Happy Easter.  I got mamma (adoptive, Italian) and mama (biological, Portuguese-American) talking, with me attempting to translate (I could hardly speak English anymore after my three days there), and mamma had all three of us in tears when she said, "At this point, I consider myself to have four children."  I get a little verklempt just thinking about it.

Every time I go to Calabria I don't want to leave, but somehow it gets easier and easier to do so with each visit, because each time I go it seems more and more likely that I will make it a priority to return. Their love showers me so completely when I'm there, how could I not come back for more?

Monday, April 9, 2012

Ohi, Ma

Scendendo in Calabria per la quinta volta, mi sentivo questa volta una vera Calabrese, anche Castrovillarese, tranne quando le poche persone che non conoscevo nel paese mi fissavano per strada.  Pero' siamo usciti ad un locale e conoscevo un sacco di gente li'-stranamente ma sicuramente piu' di quanto avrei riconosciuto a Vacaville.  Magari sono cresciuta nella citta' sbagliata!

Durante il weekend il fratello di Azzurra, Giuseppe, ha provato di insegnarmi qualche parola in vari dialetti, incluso savuziza (sausage) e rrikiet (shut up!) e il suo padre ci ha fatto ridere ogni volta che mi ha fatto recitare quello che ho imparato, come un studente della scuola elemementare.  Abbiamo riso un sacco questo weekend (fa sei gradi!).  E' troppo facile dimenticare le cose simplice di essere in famiglia, e loro mi fanno ricordare con tanto piacere!

Abbiamo girato i paesi vicini provando di dare i saluti di pasqua a tutti, ma con cosi pocho tempo, non sono riuscita a vedere tutti.  Almeno ho conosciuto finalmente i genitori di Cristina, e sono anche riuscita a vedere i nonni sia di Alessandro che Azzurra.  Ho pianto davanti di entrambi perche siccome' non ho piu' i miei nonni, i sentimenti e l'amore da loro lo sento ancora di piu' nel mio cuore.

Mi ha fatto propio piacere scendere a vedere tutti, mangiare bene, migliorare ancora il mio italiano (infatti quando stavamo sul telefono con la mia famiglia la domenica di pasqua, non sono riuscita a tradurre per la mia mamma-si, quella americana-perche' non avevo parlato inglese da tre giorni!), e passare una pasqua con la famiglia Giorno e tutti quelli a Lungro.  La loro ospitalita' non finisce mai, e il loro amore e' ancora piu' abbondante!  Mando tantissimi baci e abbracci forte forte da parte mia, e anche dalla mia famiglia per avermi ospitato.  Spero di riscendere il primo possibile!

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Vasari Corridor

My students and I yesterday had the fantastic opportunity to tour Florence's Vasari Corridor, which was built in 1564 by Giorgio Vasari to serve as a passageway for the ruling Medici family between the Uffizi, were they worked, and Palazzo Pitti, where they lived.  This way, they could show their superiority by walking literally above their subjects, they never had to mix with the populous, and they had an escape route in the event of political turmoil.  The corridor is almost a kilometer long and starting from the Uffizi, weaves along the river Arno, over the shops of the Ponte Vecchio, around the Mannelli family's tower, through the interior of the church of Santa Felicità, and finally spits out in the Boboli Gardens of the Pitti Palace.

Living in Florence, I've always been very aware of this secretive corridor and wondered what it would be like inside, but in practice it was even cooler than I'd imagined.  People on the Ponte Vecchio were looking at us through the windows and waving and I'll be darned if we didn't all feel like the Florentine royal family. 

I was absolutely not supposed to take the above photo, but I had to show you guys what the corridor is like on the inside.  I was surprised by its width as well as its simplicity, and was shocked to learn that the corridor houses more than 1,000 paintings that are only accessible to 150 people a day.  The corridor is famous for its unique and unparalleled collection of self-portraits, including that of Vasari himself, as well as hundreds of other artists including Rubens and Chagall.

Despite the abundance of rarely seen art, it was the view that really took our breath way.  The Arno, the jewelry stores, Santa Felicità-it was our city, but from a completely different and spectacular perspective.  The oohs and ahhs from the group continued their melody throughout the entirety of the corridor.  We couldn't help but feel very lucky to have access to one of the city's most exclusive and beautiful museums.

At one of the angles weaving around the tower, there was a great view back over the length of the Ponte Vecchio, which originally was the location for the meat market and butcher's guild.  However, during the building of the corridor it was decided that the market's odor would be offensive to the Grand Duke, so the butchers were transferred elsewhere and the more appealing (and necessarily odorless) gold stores moved into the neighborhood.

The church of Santa Felicità can be seen through the corridor's window, providing the Medici court with an ironically exclusive way to be pious. 

At the end of the Ponte Vecchio, one can see the corridor weaving around the Manelli family's tower.  One can also see hoards of tourists, a reality check between the 16th and 21st centuries. 

That evening I met up with Cristina and her beau Giulio for an aperitivo at the aptly named Dolce Vita in Piazza del Carmine.  It's always fun catching up with Cri, and I love hanging out on the other side of the river, where there's more of an authentic Italian feel to all things.  Plus, it marks my first outdoor aperitivo of the year-spring must be upon us!

Later, as we strolled back to my bus stop, we paused in Piazza della Repubblica to enjoy this great band that seems to have made the piazza its permanent stage.

To cap off the evening, we swung by the ever-fabulous Duomo.  I swear the last picture looks like a 3-D pop-up puzzle-it's simply perfection!