01 December 2011

Rise & fall, rage & grace

"If you’re going through hell, keep going."
-- Winston Churchill


Before Mom & I set off for the city of Siena, we dined on the Hotel Della Signoria’s sunny rooftop terrace. Like déjà vu, the elderly woman with the warm smile greeted us sweetly with "buongiorno". Streganonna (not her real name, she just reminded me of the character from my childhood) was the only server and brought us the same "continental breakfast" which consisted of rolls, condiments and a carafe of arancia rossa juice.

We returned to Stazione di Santa Maria Novella (Firenze’s main train hub) in search of SITA – the regional bus depot. As reported by Lonely Planet it was located "on the western side". On Via Luigi Alamanni we passed a flower shop and a closed general store, but only found another platform – this one for electric trains. Nothing on this road resembled a bus depot. Mom & I wanted to solicit help but after the fiasco in Roma at Stazione Termini we needed to choose a person wisely. We could not ask a tourist (equally clueless), a full-blown Italian (language barrier) or a business man (too busy/usually on a mobile phone). I waited in the shade next to a scruffy man in a wheelchair as Mom approached a rather young, hairy guy. According to him, if we crossed the train terminal we would find the busses on the opposite side.

When we arrived at the opposite/Eastern side we spotted just uno a.k.a one bus and its sign did not read "Siena". Perhaps this too was the depot for the SITA busses so I asked the solitary driver what bus number drove to Siena. I didn’t comprehend much of what the employee said but I gathered from his gestures that we needed to head back to the original/Western side since he kept pointing away and pushing his right arm outward similar to the way someone might gesture "leave me alone" or "get away".

Once again Mom & I crossed Stazione di Santa Maria Novella’s concourse. In our confusion we thought it wise to double-check that the SITA station (or at least a place to purchase SITA tickets) was not located inside the actual terminal. Through process of elimination we wandered around the swarming complex, but found only souvenir stores and magazine kiosks. So, we relied upon Lonely Planet and the local bus driver’s accuracy and retrogressed to the western side. Back on Via Luigi Alamanni and frustrated, Mom waited to speak to the flower shop employee since he was tied up with a customer. I too wanted to get a second-opinion or – at this point -- just a general direction so I diverged further north. I waited by shaded dumpsters and eventually three businessmen strolled by but could not understand my English.

Ten minutes later Mom and I reunited none the wiser. Desperate, we transversed Via Luigi Alamanni/the electric train rails and headed directly toward the only café in sight. I bought a Coke Zero for us to share since the midday heat was intense. To our dismay no one in the café (staff and patrons alike) spoke a lick of Inglese a.k.a. English. Lost beyond belief Mom and I stood outside the café, feeling irritated and defeated. We had scoured everywhere and inquired of everyone within a block radius. If Stazione Termini was my first circle of hell, this misadventure was my second.

Yet, we still did not secede. I was getting pissed off which only made me want to find the SITA station more. We decided to branch out even further and wandered aimlessly in the western vicinity. On a particular road with more dilapidated houses [than the tourist area of Firenze] I saw a lot of people hanging around on the sidewalk. Thinking it may be a bus stop, Mom & I made our way toward the group. We entered a small convenient store where people loitered and asked the first attendant we saw if she had any information. In very broken English, the young woman attempted to explain the bus depot’s whereabouts but neither Mom nor I could decode her Italian. She may have sensed this because she set down a box and lead us onto the sidewalk where she again attempted to relay advice. The woman tried so hard (using gestures and by repeating key words) Mom & I both faked comprehension and thanked her because up to this point, she was really the only person we encountered that was willing to aid us.

Mom & I walked in the direction the lady pointed and agreed that we were still incredibly befuddled. Perplexed and in a funk, I tried to get my bearings as we crossed a side-street. I felt a tap on my left arm and immediately became aware of the tan, dark-haired man who was touching me. I looked at his face as his eyes looked to my right. He waved his right hand outward and gave me a simple nod in the same direction as his eyes/hand. Instantly it dawned on me that he was showing the way to the SITA depot. I was so euphoric for finally receiving a morsel of information I could have kissed that man! I never noticed him nor had I approached him for help but I was so grateful for his unexpected kindness even though he never uttered a word. I smiled and repeatedly thanked him (in Italian) as he continued on his path and we veered right.

Turning right per the man’s directions meant Mom & I were now walking through apartments that swallowed the sunlight and this unassuming driveway. The one-way side-street opened up into a courtyard that was completely enclosed by buildings and there were the SITA busses lined up in a row! Apparently when Lonely Planet published "on the western side [of the train station]" they meant "four blocks away off a secluded driveway". Relieved, I assumed everything from here on out would be all downhill...

Ninety minutes since Mom & I first arrived in the area, we purchased tickets and headed to the tiny waiting area of the sidewalk for bus #6 a a.k.a. to Siena. Except the waiting area was full so we followed the queue to the very end, past waiting areas #3-5 which were scheduled for San Gimignano, Lucca and Pistoia. Go figure, today everyone wanted to visit Siena!

Mom asked the tall, gorgeous backpacker with shoulder-length, dirty blonde hair if he too was in line for a bus to Siena. Why did I have to wear my ugly khaki shorts today of all days? We stood around for another half hour. The SITA depot clearly couldn’t handle the myriad of tourists: the ticketing queue overflowed onto the sidewalk; the waiting areas could probably contain 25 people max; the attractive, blonde male in front of us was nearly run over as bus #4 pulled in.

All the SITA busses were tour busses, meaning they could store luggage on the bottom and had two seats on each side of the aisle. I did some quick computations and told Mom the bad news: there may not be enough room for us on the first bus. We would be pretty close to the cut off point.

When Siena’s bus boarded the line moved for the first time in 30 minutes. Everyone scooted forward like herded cattle. As we drew closer, a SITA staff member closed the door to the stuffed baggage compartment and the Dutch-looking backpacker commented that he would not be making this trip (since he was traveling with a large duffel and shopping bag containing a puzzle). With only five passengers ahead of us, the bus was completo a.k.a. full. A brunette, young woman approached the driver and asked him quite a few questions in Italian – I guessed she was trying to squeeze on because the staff member continually said "no". The bus door closed and I suspiciously watched as the Italian lady non-chalantly lingered by the front of our line. Oh I had my eye on her. Over my dead body was that shyster cutting in front of me!

The number of people that loaded onto the bus was less than the number of people wanting to visit Siena that day so the line continued to grow. Mom & I settled in for another wait. After 30 minutes I became aware of commotion as a bus da a.k.a. from Poggibonsi pulled in behind me. Unannounced, the bus’ sign changed from Poggibonsi to Siena before my eyes. Immediately a mob of people converged at the door and I found myself in a shoving match against everyone else. All of the sudden, Mom & I went from being 6th and 7th in line, to the outskirts since the bus pulled into spot #5 (not designated #6). I was outraged! When traveling I’m typically more relaxed and polite, but I had earned my spot in Siena’s queue!

I grabbed Mom’s hand and commanded "come on" as I started thrusting through the crowd with my shoulder. There was validity in the adage "nice guys finish last." I made a little progress but the army of people barely moved since everyone was bottle-necking at the bus’ door. I could feel the adrenaline surging through my body because – again using mental math – I knew we weren’t going to make this journey either! Like hell I was going to give up now without a fight! Panicking I looked around for an alternative (like running around the backside of the bus to avoid the massive crowd approaching the door head-on). To my left I saw a SITA employee wearing a navy blue blazer with red piping amidst the sea of bodies. I screamed for him and – as concisely as possible – yelled how we (and I circled the 6 people ahead of me in the original line) should be first on the bus but that we were now last. The employee turned away.

I had no idea if the man understood my English or even heard me but he was my last resort. Other riders – with the same "every man for himself" mentality – continued to fill the bus as Mom & I inched our way closer. As we rounded the corner of the bus, I saw the SITA worker shove himself into the horde with arms extended. People continued to climb onto the bus but the employee helped stop the flow just enough so that a few of us at the corner could propel ourselves toward the door. I watched the tall backpacker emerge from the masses as he made his way toward the luggage chamber. We were so close to the threshold but I knew the bus would be at capacity any moment so I extended my left arm, grabbed the interior railing, and made a clothesline with it. Using my appendage as a barrier, and for leverage, I hoisted myself onto the steps and pulled Mom behind me even though the crowd was squishing together, swallowing Mom and making it difficult for her to move forward. Still, we were aboard.  Relieved, I plopped down in the second available seat next to a quiet man probably in his early 50s. Mom rested next to a young Italian who looked like a college student.

Sweating, I put the air conditioning above me at full blast. Two rows ahead of me the student turned on Mom’s and his air-conditioning. Then I watched him redirect the two vents that belonged to the passengers in the front row onto Mom and himself. His sneakiness made Mom laugh and he smiled. I sat there and watched only sei a.k.a. six more people load the bus, the last being the mother-daughter duo who was first in the original queue to Siena. I felt sad that the blonde backpacker didn’t succeed in his efforts and thought it was probably because he had to leave the line to stow his possessions. I became livid when I recognized the shady punk who tried to butt in earlier. She obviously had acquired a seat before any of the six of us did. I thought it very unfair that she had a seat but the handsome backpacker had to wait for yet another bus. With my eyes, I shot daggers into her back the entire roadtrip.

The SITA bus winded its way through the tight turns of Firenze, which eventually opened up as we escaped the city limits and sped down the Raccordo Autostradale. The bus had only made two stops thus far, at which the slinky young lady and the student exited so I moved up to sit next to Mom. Back on the highway I read a sign that stated we were only 13 kilometers from Siena. However, the bus turned off at the next exit en route to Poggibonsi (the bus’ initial destination). It weaved through the small, lackluster town with tall white buildings which started to make me nauseous. A few more riders disembarked then we set off again. The bus swerved around two roundabouts as it returned to the highway. By now I was holding my head, massaging my temples and trying to breathe to quell my sick stomach. I just wanted to be in Siena. I imagined this was how Mom felt a week prior on the curvy descent from Mt. Vesuvius.

21 November 2011

The same but different

"The Fire, Air, Earth & Water did contest
Which was the strongest, noblest and the best,
Who was of greatest use and might’est force..

That Fire should first begin, the rest consent,
The noblest and most active element..

I'le say no more, but this thing add I must
Remember Sons, your mould is of my dust..

Ever in craving from the other three
But thou art bound to me [Water] above the rest,
Who am thy drink, thy blood, thy Sap, and best..

I am the breath of every living soul
Mortals, what one of you that loves not me
abundantly more than my Sisters three?
And though you love
Fire, Earth & Water well
Yet Air beyond all these you know t' excell.."

-- Anne Bradstreet from The Four Elements

Mom & I awoke to another day with ideal weather. As part of our daily routine we descended a floor to the garden terrace of Hotel Della Signoria. The same, friendly, older woman greeted "Buongiorno." She wore the same blue dress, white apron, black sneakers and white nylon socks as days past. The sprightly lady reminded me of the title character in the book Streganonna. Since it was our third day at the hotel she remembered us… more accurately, we probably separated ourselves from the masses by being the only guests to not drink café. Although her gait was not quite erect, she came to the table with the usual bread basket, the usual condiment basket, and the usual urn of arancia rossa juice.

A few months prior Mom & I pre-paid for a guided tour of the Medici palace (comprised of courtyards, chapels, apartments, laboratories, balconies, salons and more) and lunch. We called to confirm -- since the tickets emphasized the importance – but the line continued to ring and ring and ring. Mom inquired at the front desk about an alternate telephone number for the company. The helpful staff member internet searched for the company and dialed a new number. The hotel clerk was prompted to wait for assistance and dutifully did so for an hour! Outraged, Mom told the sweet man to forget it and hang up. She thanked him profusely to which he replied "prego" a.k.a. "you’re welcome."
Without confirmation, we showed at Palazzo Vecchio at our scheduled time but there were no other foreigners hanging around. The staff there had no knowledge of our booking despite our confirmation code. Furthermore, they could not add us to a group until 16:00. Until then, we had free-time and had to redeem our pre-paid lunch on our own without the group.

Mom & I walked about six blocks to the so-called "authentic" (per Expedia’s website) Italian ristorante. However, it was jammed between a hundred other ristorantes near Il Duomo so we both questioned the validity of Expedia’s claim. To start, the waiter asked "rosso" a.k.a. "red" or "bianco" a.k.a. "white?" It was difficult to understand the man’s English so we assumed – once again, like during the tour of Mt. Vesuvius/Pompeii – that we would be served nasty pizza. The menu was predetermined so Mom & I were displeased to have paid money (as part of Expedia’s package) for terrible food we could have found on our own on the main drag.

Anyway, to sample both pizzas I chose red and Mom chose white. Our server returned with bruschetta and again Mom was let down since she does not like raw tomatoes. I was a happy for a different dish because I probably would not have ordered bruschetta off the menu. However, since it was placed here in front of me, I was going to devour it. I coaxed Mom into trying the appetizer and she actually enjoyed the bread and oil.

Surprisingly, our waiter returned with two glasses of wine and two entrée-sized plates. Mom received fettucine with red meat sauce and I received rigatoni with garlic-pesto sauce instead of pizza! We were both puzzled but then it dawned on me that red & white did not refer to the type of pizza, but the type of wine. Jubilantly we took spoonfuls of the other’s plate. Both entrees were delicious but I ended up enjoying Mom’s entrée more and vice-versa. We were sated and expecting to pay using our meal vouchers, when our server returned with two plates of dessert! Now this pre-paid meal was worth its weight in gold.

We weren’t sure what the dessert slice was, but it had the consistency of a pudding. From the first bite I definitely tasted Nutella – which was ubiquitous in Italia. Again, we had no idea what we were eating but we continued. Then I remembered a type of gelato I had seen in our wanderings that was labeled "Pear + Nutella + Mascarpone"… which must have originated from this popular Italian delicacy.

Mom & I returned to Palazzo Della Signoria and entered the elaborate vestibule. Much like The Uffizi the walls, parts of the columns, windows, and ceilings were decorated. We met up with our group and cute tour guide who – in my mind – was an Italian version of my American boyfriend. His chin-length, dark curly hair was tousled like Justin’s. He was skinny and rather short. He wore dark green, cargo pants and a plain t-shirt that (I think accidentally) showed his pale skin and hairiness when he lifted his arms. For a millisecond I missed home.
We started our "secret passages of Palazzo Vecchio" tour on the second floor in one of the Medici son’s bedroom. It had one large window and simple furnishings, but – like so many of the rooms in the palace – was interconnected through a hidden stairway in the wall. In a line, each member of the group passed from Francesco’s (pronounced "fron-chess-ko") bedroom into his alchemy-themed studiolo a.k.a. study. The room was windowless and shoebox-shaped with a semi-cylindrical ceiling. The floor was like the same red tile used on Florentines’ roofs, except it was flat instead of convex. Alcoves were built into the walls for displaying statues and busts, but the majority of the walls were covered with wood veneer.

A door was closed behind us the last person and suddenly, all the walls looked anomalous. Where was the entrata a.k.a. entrance to the studiolo? Behind us, instead of a door, were panels portraying The Fall of Icarus & Daedalus and Diamond Mine. The walls and ceiling of the barrel-vaulted room were covered by paintings, making it look seamless. Our guide told us there were actually three doors hidden within the studiolo. Each of the four walls represented one of the four elements: Fire, Air, Earth & Water. Although the canvases in each row all related to the same element, they hinted at the contents hidden behind the paintings in recessed cabinets. For example, one Water picture depicted a mermaid sitting in an oyster. Thus, that cabinet was rumored to have stored a fine string of pearls. Furthering the theme, the Water panels were opposite the wall of Fire panels, and likewise for Air and Earth. Mom said the room reminded her of my newest tattoo: an ambigram for the four elements.
The [original] ceiling was the melting pot for the tetrad and pictorially described how the elements manifested themselves in common lives i.e. the four seasons, the four humors, the four compass rose points – and nowadays – the four houses in Harry Potter novels, the Preferiti a.k.a. favorites in Angels & Demons. The center of the ceiling merged religion with science in Nature Donating a Gem to Prometheus. I was not expecting to see so many Greek deities in the studiolo, especially because the city – and the Medicis – were devout Catholics.

Yet, that’s why I adored the room so much! It – like Francesco – had so many qualities I saw in myself. First, the paintings’ allusions to the items within the hidden cabinets was such a puzzling and captivating idea. Second, Francesco was introverted like me (an only child who can stay in her apartment for days). Third, I applauded Francesco’s boldness to push humanity’s way of thinking further by creating such a heretical room that thoughtfully united the very different fields of religion, science, and art. This feature spoke to me a lot because the majority of my family argues that tattoos are trashy and blasphemous (vis-a-vis 1 Corinthians 6:19 "What? Know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own?") Yet, I see tattoos as body art and a media for displaying one’s beliefs and passions. To me I am Leonardo da Vinci & the ink on my skin is my Mona Lisa. Ironically, both of my tattoos are a testament to my Christian faith. Furthermore, the studiolo dealt with a subject constantly on my mind and dear to my heart: the juxtaposition of religion and science. I delve into Greek mythology despite considering myself a Christian. Many times I’ve heard people debate divinity vs. evolution, and while I identify with Christian values I simultaneously side with the scientific research. I have always had a difficult time sifting through my feelings, the physical evidence, my intuition and the dogma regarding this controversial subject… until I read "‘Show me proof there is a God’, you say. I say use your telescopes to look to the heavens, and tell me how there could not be a God! You ask ‘What does God look like?’ I say ‘Where does that question come from?’ The answers are one and the same. Do you not see God in your science? How can you miss Him! You proclaim that even the slightest change in the force of gravity or the weight of an atom would have rendered our universe a lifeless mist rather than our magnificent sea of heavenly bodies, and yet you fail to see God’s hand in this? Is it really so much easier to believe that we simply chose the right card from a deck of billions? Have we become so spiritually bankrupt that we would rather believe in mathematical impossibility than in a power greater than us?" from Angels & Demons.

We had lingered awhile in Franceso Medicis secret lab listening to tales, trying to make sense of the 34 panels, and asking questions to our attractive guide. The day was already hot and the palazzo already stuffy, but I could feel the temperature rise inside the cell from the group’s body heat/breathing. Mom started to feel it too and became claustrophobic.

Before Mom experienced a panic attack we left the studiolo via a different, hidden uscita a.k.a. exit. The stairway lead to Grand Duke Cosimo’s master bedroom. From there the group ascended two stories to the raised walkway at the back of the glamorous Salone dei Cinquecento a.k.a. 16th Century Room. I’ve been to the extensive hotels in Las Vegas, Nevada and the Hearst Castle in California, U.S.A. but still had never seen a single room – or painting – so mammoth. The people on the ground looked Lego-sized from my vantage point and put the frescoes’ size into perspective. The ceiling was covered in wall-to-wall, individual portraits in thick, gold coated frames. Although each frame was titled I don’t see how anyone could enjoy the art since it was probably unnoticeable from the ground floor. Front and center on the udienza a.k.a. raised stage a fencing competition was underway. The nostalgic room was the perfect backdrop for the medieval sport.
Afterward, one by one, each person in the group ascended another story, but now we were above the salon. We saw the network of thick, wooden support beams and the roof to the palazzo. The group descended one story again and stowed away to "Bianca’s room". It was dinky and apparently served more as a storage room. Outside, on Bianca’s private balcony that overlooked an interior courtyard, it was quiet (I assumed because no visitors were permitted to this private area of the palazzo). Yet, Bianca’s room had a secret too. Through a tiny, sliding piece of the wall, we were able to peek into the Salone dei Cinquecento and spy on the fencing contestants.

From there, we visited one more area of the palazzo. Two, smooth, green marble columns adorned the doorway to the Stanza della Guardaroba a.k.a. Hall of Geographical Maps. The centerpiece of the room was the mappa mundi a.k.a. map of the world with iridescent, Mother of Pearl inlays. In addition, rows of two large, wood cabinets were stacked. These lined three of the four walls and on the front of each cabinet door was an ancient map. Mom & I studied them carefully. They were in sepia inks and written in calligraphy. I saw former names of countries and it reminded me of the old world. Deep down I secretly hoped to see a map that suggested the Earth was flat. Allegedly, this stanza was meant to be very flashy and a way for Grand Duke Cosimo Medici to impress guests. Our young tour guide bid us farewell and disappeared through one of the cabinets (it actually was a façade and the two stacked cabinets were a life-size door) leaving everyone with the notion that nothing was what it seemed here.
Since Mom & I did not pay for general admission to Palazzo Vecchio we were expected to leave… but you should never give two curious women like us an inch or we’ll take a mile. So, Mom & I watched more of the fencing competition and wandered around for another hour. We passed through the Sala degli Elementi a.k.a. elemental room (not to be confused with Francesco’s studiolo) that was void of furniture and one of the few chapels within the palazzo.
Before calling it a night, Mom came with me on a personal quest. It was great to have a hotel in the heart of Roma and Firenze, but the downfall was all the restaurants were tourist traps and had the same menu. In the States, eggplant parmesan is one of my favorite Italian meals. Since arriving in Italia I had been scouring menus to find this dish that is so common in the U.S.A. One night in Firenze, Mom and I wandered all the streets/alleys in a three blocks radius of the hotel to find eggplant parmesan. Tonight, I continued my mission and finally found a ristorante near the Duomo that served it.

We opted to sit inside to avoid the constant walkers, possible mosquitoes, and Mediterranean heat. I ordered the so-called eggplant parmesan and Mom ordered the whole, roasted chicken with potatoes. I was taken aback when the aubergine a.k.a. eggplant parmesan arrived in a bowl!? There was no breaded vegetable patty similar to the way the meal is prepared in America. Yet, the top must have been baked hot enough because it was crispy.  Although it wasn't the American counterpart it was equally delicious.  To top off the great evening, Mom & I stopped at a different gelateria and split a scoop of Arancia Rossa (the same taste as the juice I downed every morning since arriving in Italia) -- that flavor turned out to be Mom's favorite gelato of the entire trip.

17 November 2011

...& night

"Here’s to the crazy ones; the misfits; the rebels; the troublemakers; the round pegs in the square holes; the ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules and have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. But the only thing that you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do."
-- Jack Kerouac from On The Road

Now we were starting to see the less glamorous parts of Firenze.

As Mom & I walked back to the Hotel Della Signora for a nap and snacks, we walked through Piazza della Repubblica alongside its towering arch. Sadly, there was a merry-go-round that stuck out like a sore thumb and little seating in the wide-open piazza.

When we awoke, we explored another different subset of the city. On the street now named after him, we found Casa de Dante a.k.a Dante [Alighieri]’s house. Who would have suspected that the modest home on an unassuming street was the birthplace of one of the most enduring poets? Moving on I rounded a tight corner but noticed Mom had stopped to read a small plaque next to a closed set of doors. She said "awww" before summarizing that this tiny parish from the 10th century was devoted to sheltering and feeding recently broke Florentines who were too ashamed to ask for assistance a.k.a. poveri vergognosi. Mom dropped some Euros in the discreet, outdoor box for the Oratorio dei Buonomini di Santo Martino a.k.a. Oratory of San Martino and we continued to walk toward the river. As sunset approached, we again passed through Palazzo Vecchio – which reminded me of a fortress – with its unmistakable Torre a.k.a. Tower d’Arnolfo.
24 June is always a notable occasion in Firenze because it is Festa di San Giovanni a.k.a. Feast of St. John -- the city’s patron saint. When we arrived at the Fiume Arno a.k.a. Arno River it was packed with Florentines (and tourists) who wanted to partake in the local culture like us. In an effort to find more standing room, Mom & I walked toward Piazza Santa Croce and eventually found space on the Ponte Alle Grazie. The day’s heat was starting to fade and the street lights reflected on the river. Although we were an hour before showtime I was a bit surprised that this particular bridge had more space available since it was actually closer to Piazzale Michelangiolo (the site where the fireworks would be launched). I also noticed a white banner hanging from the ponte. It was difficult to make out the phrase since it was large, upside-down and in Italian: TUTTI LIBRERI. I tried to decode the words in my head. I thought "tutti" meant sweet… sweet library? Sweet freedom?
As the night drew closer, Mom and I both felt the bite of mosquitoes. Now, a tall rendition of St. John was projected onto a tower wall further upstream. Also, I started to become more aware of the people around us. Most seemed clad in dark colored clothing and less lavish clothing (which seemed a bit atypical based on what I had seen so far in Firenze). One had a mowhawk; a few had facial piercings; one woman had a purple highlights. In most civilized nations, I believe this cohort would be identified as "the misfits." Most of the bystanders seemed to know each other since they candidly conversed in Italian to pass the time.
As the sky darkened, more people crowded the bridges and streets along the Fiume Arno but Mom and I had a front row view. To my direct right, an energetic young man with a shopping bag and a glass of red vino a.k.a. wine cheered simultaneously with the hundreds of people as – section by section – all the lights along the Arno were turned off.

As soon as the city was in total darkness, I was surrounded by fire and light. Two people – one 10 feet to my left, the other 10 feet to my right – lit a red and green flare. I was so close I could see the sparks and feel the heat coming off of them. Most of the so-called misfits around me started chanting "tutti libreri" a.k.a. all free and jostling the white banner suspended from the bridge. For a second I panicked as I imagined my Mom & myself being blown up on the bridge as part of a political demonstration. Instead, the banner was snatched by one member of the zealous party and most of the misfits dissipated.

The empty spots were quickly filled by eager viewers. To start, a single red, white, and green firework exploded overhead and the people hailed. Soon the show expanded to fireworks that looked like dust, spheres and textured lines. The imbibing young man next to me exhaled "Dios mio". Some changed color; others wriggled like worms in the sky. Anytime the crowd saw a new style of firework they would let out a long inhale or "ooohhh". Plus, there was always some action going on. For example, when there wasn’t a large firework clamoring above, there were six smaller ones closer to the ground launching. I was also reminded of looking through a kaleidoscope because every scene in the night sky was mirrored in the river’s reflection.

The spectacle drew on for an hour, much to everyone’s awe. Towards the end the smoke was clouding the backdrop so I could just identify the outline of the hillside of Piazzale Michelangiolo. Mom & I instantaneously knew when the show reached the finale because it looked and sounded like World War III. We could see bombs of light being consecutively fired upward for five minutes. At the same time, fireworks were bursting faster than a strobe light. It was so bright I could see every ripple on the water and person on the Ponte Alle Grazie. Climactically everything went quiet and dark again, but the people erupted into a frenzied roar.

Right after the finale, as Mom & I waited for some of the crowd to disperse, I noticed a few luminaries along the banks of the Arno. They were obviously released because they caught wind and height. As they drifted overhead I began to notice more and more clusters of luminaries rising in the sky. I stopped attempting to count at 42. By this time the first group of luminaries was far away with all others in following its heavenly path.

16 November 2011

Day...

Mom & I were up early according to Greek/Italian standards. At 7:00 we moseyed onto the garden terrace of Hotel Della Signoria for the complimentary breakfast. There were around ten tables outside on the garden rooftop and eight more inside the albergo a.k.a. hotel, all with pink tablecloths. Lush plants -- some potted and some growing in a box – lined the railing. The awning was retracted, letting the morning sun graze the tops of our heads. Atop, Mom & I watched storeowners wipe down their windows and brush off the sidewalk/entranceway before Firenze started to crawl with tourists.
A short lady in a pastel blue dress (that stopped at her shins) and black sneakers approached our two-top and – in the absolute sweetest voice – greeted us "Buongiorno" and asked "café?" "No, grazie" a.k.a. "No, thank you" was our synchronized reply. She set down a covered basket. Inside were pastries and breads, along with individual jam, butter and Nutella (an Italian staple) packets. We must have been spoiled at the Royal Marcella Hotel in Roma because this hardly seemed like the advertised "continental breakfast". The little, old lady returned with a pitcher full of arancia a.k.a. orange juice. Like in Greece, it was not the typically American, full-of-pulp Tropicana. It must have been a regional variety of fruit because it tasted like an orange mixed with a grapefruit and was delicious (in fact, I had been chugging it at the continental breakfasts daily)!

Not full, but not hungry we walked for not even five minutes to the world-renowned Palazzo degli Uffizi (pronounced "ooh-feet-zee"). Mom & I had pre-purchased tickets that allowed us to skip the line (and si a.k.a. yes, there was already a line). It was surprisingly warm and stuffy inside the galleria a.k.a. gallery. We both thought a museum of such importance would take better care of its exhibits.

The galleria was cavernous with connected rooms branching out from the main, U-shaped hallway. Like in Greece, I looked at paintings and distinctly remembered seeing these same masterpieces scaled down to fit onto a page in my Art History book at Miami University. In addition, every corridoio a.k.a. corridor was lined with busts and statues/sculptures. Though captivating, after some time the Madonnas and Caravaggios started to look alike. Unfortunately, the room with Boticelli’s famous Birth Of Venus was closed. In between the stampede of guided tours, Mom and I mostly had the loggia to ourselves. We saw Firenze with all its red-tiled roofs spread out towards the hills, steeples constantly breaking the horizon. Facing the Arno we followed the river as far as our eyes could see and counted six bridges to the north.
Obviously there were heralded pieces of work in the Uffizi but Mom & I agreed the unsung, most beautiful feature was its ceiling. Each fresco was at least 20 x 20 feet long but had a theme like ships, saints or sea shells. Some had odd designs, most were ornate -- like everything thus far in Italy. One ceiling in particular had a centered shape that was reminiscent of a large Spirographic drawing, but my favorite fresco was the trellis (Google it since pictures were prohibited).

A few hours later when Mom & I exited the Uffizi groves of people milled around Piazza della Signoria: Firenze’s civic center. A fontana and numerous statues were littered around the courtyard of the piazza, including a replica of David by Michaelango (the original stood there until 1873). Inside the Loggia dei Lanzi – an open-air, covered courtyard – were various statues like a bronze Perseus.
Given the minor breakfast and amount of walking that morning, Mom & I returned to the albergo for a nap. We re-emerged onto the city streets refreshed and ready to continue exploring. We were excited to see the second of Italia’s "Big Three": Il Duomo/The Cathedral of Santa Maria dei Fiori a.k.a. The Dome/St. Mary of the Flower. Ten minutes later Via de Calzaluoli opened up to the swarming Piazza del Duomo.
Giant, both in height and area was an understatement -- just like Il Colosseo a.k.a. The Colisseum. Even taller to my right was the silent campanile a.k.a. bell tower, reaching for the sky. It was distracting to look at the Duomo because it was so ornate, like frescoes above the doors and bas-reliefs of numerous saints (which you can hear Mom counting in the video). Plus, the undulating red, green and white marble lines of the western and eastern wall made me feel like I was tripping.

To me, the shining, golden sphere with the cross atop the monumental, red-brick roof was characteristic of Firenze’s pride in the aesthetics. If Italy were a high school, Roma was the stocky bully and Firenze was the pretty Prom queen.

10 November 2011

Tribulations

"So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservatism, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more dangerous to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future. The very basic core of a man's living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun."-- Chris McCandless

Partiamo aggi a.k.a. We're leaving today for Firenze a.k.a. Florence! It was now 23 June 2011 and we could tell we had been in Europa a while as we emerged from the air conditioned lobby of the Royal Marcella Hotel. The days no longer were sunny with a refreshing breeze… they had become sweltering with stagnant air.

Mom & I were headed to Stazione Termini a.k.a. Termini [train] Station to catch a train to Firenze where we would spend another five days. I figured since we would be doing little walking and sitting on a train I wore a tank top, light pants, and – for the first time since chasing beaches in Greece – sandals. I felt a tad underdressed because Roma is filled with so many skinny and stylish people.

The great thing about a touristy area in a large city is the access to resources. I purchased a Coke Zero from a random store on a random block and checked my email at an internet café. The downfall of being in a touristy area would soon be made apparent.

Mom & I chose to walk the 10 blocks from Via Flavia to Stazione Termini. As usual we only traveled on the shaded parts of the street, however our loaded backpacks and 15 kilograms a.k.a. 35 pounds of luggage coupled with the summer heat quickly had us drenched in sweat. Why did I wear pants?

We sought shade in wide-open foyer to Stazione Termini. However, there was hardly any airflow which made terminal seem warmer than outside in the sun. It was hot as Hell. Dripping sweat, Mom & I approached the automatic ticketing machines since there was a train leaving for Santa Maria Novella (Firenze’s main station) in 45 minutes. At first, we were unsure if we wanted first or second class seating. Mom told me supposed horror stories of being in second class with goats where it was standing room early. Our worry was in vane because – for some reason still unknown – the machine would not confirm that option.

So Mom tried again but changed from direct to a non-express train (which stopped at most regional stations en route to Firenze). Again, we were denied by the machine. We asked a customer next to us how he received his ticket. He went through the exact process we did and equally received the "Unable to process your request" sign. In broken English, he told us to try the last kiosk in each row because they usually accepted both money (which was our method of payment) and credit card. We thanked him and tried a third time on a different ticketing machine (even though it was identical to the rest). No go.

Down to 25 minutes, we realized we had to wait in line for a ticket. Although there was a TrenItalia worker in the crowd to help, the woman was so overwhelmed with questions from tourists there was a line just to ask her if you were in the right line! I entered the queue – still not knowing if it was the correct one -- while Mom stayed with our luggage in the lobby. The minutes ticked by as I inched closer to an attendant at a window. I fanned myself and continued to sweat despite standing still in the line. Flummoxed, Mom walked around hoping the answer would become apparently clear. In her optimism she tried the self-serve kiosk one more time.

To our surprise, Mom emerged with two, first-class tickets to Santa Maria Novella! With 15 minutes until departure we made our way to the concourse. It consisted of rows of trains and seemed relatively well marked. We looked at the electronic schedule. The train to Napoli left from platform 24. The train to Milano a.k.a. Milan left from platform 16. Why then, was there a symbol that resembled a Greek letter under the "platform" column for Firenze? Every other train in the entire nation had a numbered platform except our train!

We skimmed the rows of trains looking for any sign that had our destination. Perplexed, Mom & I asked a bystander. He was Asian and did not speak any English. We thought we had identified an Italian businessman & asked him as well. He looked at the electronic board but shrugged. Mom inquired of another businessman who coldly brushed her off. We were running out of time. With 10 minutes left we wandered around like chickens with our heads cut off. Each minute my optimism turned to rage. Mom stopped two police officers who were doubly clueless and redirected us to the information booth but the line was ten people deep.

With 5 minutes until departure I tried to gain my composure but I was confused, roasting and bothered. In my minute of doing nothing, out of the corner of my ear I heard a young woman (who had been in the ticketing line with me) ask where the train to Firenze was. She received vague directions and started running. I screamed for Mom to follow and sprinted after the young woman. I arrived a few seconds after her to an area with no train. I could see the puzzlement on her face too. It now dawned on me Mom was not trailing behind. I scanned the concourse but did not see my 5 foot tall mother with her bright red backpack. I detached from the young woman and frantically looked around. With probably one minute to spare I found my mother. As I ran closer, her eyes were wide and she hurriedly waved me on. The conductor yelled for us to get onboard and we literally climbed over two, older Italian women with monstrous suitcases, but we made it! I seriously felt like I had escaped the first circle of Hell.

I could barely sit in the cushioned, first-class chair because my back was soaked from sweat. The bottom of my pants and feet were incredibly dirty and I was emotionally bankrupt. I watched Mom nod off then I did the same.

We emerged from Stazione Santa Maria Novella into the afternoon sun and tried to get our bearings. We were starving. We set off on the main road of Via degli Avelli on foot with my overstuffed suitcase toppling twice. By Via de Tornabuoni I was cursing aloud at the damn wobbly bag. I did not have this much trouble wheeling it around Roma. We made our last turn onto Via delle Terme which was the most narrow, cobbled street yet. I was so aggravated I was ready to either cry or punch someone. Mom sympathized and walked behind me so that every time my suitcase overturned, she would kick it to its right position and continue down the road.

You can’t even imagine the relief I felt as I hit the hotel bed. The room wasn’t the prettiest but it had an authentic Italian feel, air-conditioning and windows with awnings so we could hang our wash out to dry. I wasn’t sure what was most important to me: food, rest, or a shower. Neither of us had eaten so we went for the closest/quickest ristorante we could find which – thanks to Hotel Della Signoria’s prime location – was just across Via delle Terme. We could see the outdoor tables from our window.

We were eating at an odd hour -- too late for lunch but too early for dinner – so we had the entire patio to ourselves except for a pretty, blonde college student (that the waiter relentlessly flirted with). We needed sustenance but Mom was abhorred that 550 ml. a.k.a. 20 oz. of Coke Zero cost €7 a.k.a. $9.50. Still bent, Mom and I agreed to seek a grocery store and store the food/beverages in our mini-fridge. On our quest we passed over the Arno River via the famous Ponte Vecchio. The bridge has long been lined with jewelers since the 16th century.  It was difficult to distinguish one jeweler's collections from another’s since each displayed gold necklaces and rings, but one store in particular was noteworthy since it announced my grandmother’s last name.
It was amazing how the shops on the bridge hung over the river. From far away, the floors were supported by only one beam, yet the bridge had survived since 1345 and was the only one in Firenze saved from destruction in World War II. As we crossed the Ponte Vecchio Mom told me about the Corridoio Vasariano (the hidden, covered passageway) that ran along the top of the shops and connected the Palazzo Vecchio, Uffizi [Museum], and Palazzo Pitti.
Oltrano a.k.a. Beyond the Arno [River] Mom and I bumped into Palazzo Pitti a.k.a. Pitti’s Palace with its unmistakeable, gigantic, mosaic statue of a person sitting frog-legged in the vast courtyard. Palazzo Pitti had little curb appeal but – as we later discovered – housed many important artists’ work and groomed gardens.

We found a local Conad's grocery store and returned across the Ponte Vecchio but were sidetracked by a sweet, vanilla smell that came from a gelateria on the main drag. Enticed, I bought Mom & myself a thick waffle with a scoop of banana and a scoop of mango gelato (respectively). To my disappointment, the total came to €20 a.k.a. $28 for dessert and the waffles weren’t half as delicious as they smelled.

Oh well. Where we spent money on the outlandish cost of food, we saved money by walking everywhere and buying groceries. Despite the trying day, I was happy to be in Firenze and have a new city to explore!

07 November 2011

Art & architecture

"Congratulations!
Today is your day,
You’re off to great places!
You’re off and away!

You have brains in your head,
You have feet in your shoes
You can steer yourself
any direction you choose
You’re on your own, and you know what you know"

-- Dr. Seuss from Oh, The Places You'll Go

Sadly, it was time to wrap up Roma. Five days flew by and now Mom & I were trying to squeeze every attraction into one last day. After our complimentary breakfast (courtesy of Royal Marcella Hotel), Mom & I made a pit stop at the gelateria recommended and near by our hotel. I ordered "Cassata" although I had no clue what was in it since the young woman spoke broken English with a thick Italian accent. It ended up being one of my favorite flavors of gelato that I tried because it was similar to a sweet cream base with chocolate chips and different, fruit gummies. The dessert really hit the spot in the midday heat!

Afterward, Mom & I strolled hopped on the bus (we were more familiar with the route now) and departed at Piazza Venezia. What was great about this short ride was that the bus weaved around tight corners, then opened up to – in my opinion – the most beautiful, polished landmark in Roma: Altare della Patria a.k.a. Altar of the Fatherland. As host of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, mammoth Italian flags flapped in the Mediterranean breeze. This was the epitome of a monument with its clean lines, crisp white color and spacious composition. It reminded me of an overzealous wedding cake, with tier stacked upon tier stacked upon another layer of marble. Despite its parallel and perpendicular lines, my eye was constantly being pulled upward. For example, the charioteers on the roof had wings extended and the angels lofted on pedestals.

Starstruck from the Altare della Patria, Mom & I strolled along Corso Vittorio Emanuele. One side of the street lead to the eclectic markets at Campo di Fiori and the other to Piazza Navona. We opted to see both!

It was late afternoon (~14:00) when we arrived at Campo di Fiori but a lot of the kiosks were closed or in the process of closing. At first we wondered if we accidentally stumbled upon a tourist area, because the marketplace consisted of the same shops that we had seen throughout Roma that sold chintzy scarves, souvenirs, bags, leather goods, and sandals. Mom – who had been quite eager to see the markets with their supposed variety of local foods and goods -- was quite underwhelmed.

So, we crossed over Corso Vittorio Emanuele into Piazza Navona a.k.a. square of the big ship. It was the site of the element water in Dan Brown’s novel Angels & Demons and furthermore, the novel/concept that sparked my recent tattoo.

The plaza was not as large or open as Piazza del Popolo. Instead it resembled a narrow oval and was completely encircled by buildings and with a single church that towered above the cityscape to our left. We were welcomed by a smaller, single story fountain at south side the Fontana del Moro a.k.a .Moors’ fountain which had four triton sculptures and a Moor wrestling a dolphin. Opposite the piazza on the north end was another fountain, similar in size: Fontana del Nettuno a.k.a. Neptune’s fountain.

Yet, nothing stood as superior as the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi a.k.a. the Fountain of the Four Rivers in the middle of the plaza. Like all the previous fountains, there was an Egyptian obelisk as the centerpiece. However, there were two features that set it apart from all the other fountains I had seen so far thus, making it my favorite. First, there was a dove with an olive branch in its mouth atop the obelisk (unlike the usual crosses or spheres). Second, the obelisk was actually mounted on the statue. Gianlorenzo Bernini had to put more thought into the design of this fountain as opposed to the others where it seemed like the obelisk was placed first, with all other ornaments added around it.
As jazz music played in the background, I inspected the fountain more closely and was still impressed. The Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi was definitely my favorite! I liked that it stood alone & could be looked through. I did not expect a free form rock to jut upward between the four main supports. I enjoyed the various animals around the structure – like a serpent, horse & lion just to name a few -- and their symbolism. Although Bernini built the monument with stiff travertine marble it exuded movement as seen in the palm tree bending from wind and the horse galloping out toward the crowd. He also carved different levels of the rock faces which gave it more depth. All in all, the fountain was simply planned and built thoughtfully.




Not far from Piazza Navona was the famed Piazza della Rotonda -- again with a fountain in the square and an obelisk topped with a cross.
A somber mood (for me, it was out of respect) permeated the interior. Mom & I stepped through the portico with eyes drawn upward. Our eyes moved in unison from the vastness of the round building to the oculus letting in bright, summer light. Once again, Roman design proved supreme as the Pantheon a.k.a. the temple for all the gods continues to hold the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome.
Mom & I visited each of the recesses within the Pantheon. Clearly, the most popular one displayed the tomb of Raphael (and two lesser known kings). Yet we spent the most time examining the area by adyton where Mom pointed out a major difference. This was the only recess in the monument with embossed figures inlaid in the marble floor. Again, I remembered author Dan Brown [in Angels & Demons] referenced the Pantheon and how the large, decorated tiles could be removed and lead underground to a crypt. At the time I read the novel I thought the description was fictitious and to heighten the spookiness of the scene. Now memory and reality merged and the truth was directly in front of our faces!
En route to the most famous fountain in Roma -- although not the most beautiful in my opinion – Mom & I passed quite a few palazzos. We arrived at the piazza to visitors overwhelming the Fontana di Trevi (derived from "tre vie" a.k.a. "three roads") so much so that it was difficult to see the lower levels even from atop the steps of the church caddy-corner to the site. Visitors also overwhelmed most of the shaded sections of the road and the seating areas – like the church steps. Still, the fontana’s façade consumed most of the piazza so everyone was appeased although getting an individual photo proved nearly impossible.
As Mom & I headed in the general direction of the Royal Marcella Hotel we walked alongside a tall-walled building with bars over the windows. The soft yellow color toned down its steadfast appearance. Minding our own business we passed two police officers chatting at the gate of the only break in the wall. It was like a double-take moment one sees in cartoons. Mom & I both glimpsed to our left and continued walking, and about five feet past the opening we both stopped, looked at each other cock-eyed, and inquired "Did you just see that?" We had both been captivated by the aesthetic beauty of the scene. I was too elitist to backtrack but Mom turned around for this eloquent photograph of a guard (who later saluted her) wearing pastel yellow and protecting the [backside of the] Palazzo del Quirnale a.k.a. Presidential Palace.
As suggested by the Italian, there were four small, dingy fountains recessed into each corner at the intersection of Via delle Quattro Fontane and Via del Quirnale. Although I was wrong, I thought the images depicted the four seasons. Along some other block was a triptych fountain.
A hop, skip, and a jump away was another well-known roundabout in Roma: Piazza della Repubblica. Although not as breathtaking as Piazza Venezia, this square’s towering, semi-circular design demanded respect as well. The ground-level windows consisted of gigantic, tall panes. I also liked the Fontana delle Naiadi a.k.a. Fountain of the Naiads because it was the only fountain I had seen in Roma with upward flowing water. In fact, the spray from the fish’s mouth would change with the wind direction and often created a faint rainbow.
Famished, our final stop in Roma was for dinner. Mom & I both ordered meals but ended up eating a little bit of both plates. We feasted on homestyle lasagna and Quattro formaggio a.k.a. four cheese pizza. Apparently, the ristorante did not stock to-go boxes so Mom’s request was appeased with a piece of aluminum foil. No problem! Oddly, the waiter took both pieces of pizza from the table and only wrapped one of the two in the foil. We were so flummoxed that we chuckled and discussed possible scenarios… did the server not get dinner so he devoured the other piece? Why did he assume we only wanted to keep half of the leftovers? Was the other piece not worthy? Perhaps one fell on the floor. Was it customary to only take home half of a meal? Mom & I did not reach a logical conclusion but did add the misadventure to our mental list of European oddities.

Ciao a.k.a. Goodbye Eternal City!