Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Random Observations

I'm a little behind in blogging and will fill in the gaps in the next few days. In other news, it's less than a week until Kristen comes! In the meantime, here are some tidbits:
  • Italians must really like their lingerie. Either that or it’s a popular souvenir. There are two chains of lingerie stores in the city, as well as plenty of independent stores, that have to be making enough money to pay the probably not insignificant rents. There are even lingerie stores in the train station!
  • Even though there’s a law against driving while talking on a cell phone, that’s often ignored, as you can imagine. In fact, even the bus drivers can often be found holding a phone in one hand and driving the bus with the other.
  • Quote of the day: “The ‘face of slowness’ in Italy is a negative, outmoded one in Bruno [Contigiani, founder of “L’Arte del Vivere con Lentezza”]’s mind; to him the clichés of the simple Italian way of life are really just inefficiency masquerading as charm.”
    -- New Yorker, April 7, 2008

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Still no internet

A month after ordering an internet connection, the first steps towards that were taken today. Though I ordered DSL from Fastweb, the Telecom Italia had to come and check to make sure that the line is active. I thought this was just a formality and that I'd have internet soon, but this being Italy, I was sadly mistaken. A guy from the Telecom came today (on time!) after having called last week to tell me when he would be coming so I would be at home. After checking the phone jack in the living room, which apparently didn't have a signal, he opened up a box in the entrance hall and found a disconnected cable. He only spoke Italian, but I caught something about 2 people coming back and 5 stories, so I'm guessing they have to lay a new line up to the apartment. He didn't know when he or the other people would be coming by to do that - today, tomorrow, next week, only that they'd call beforehand. In the meantime, I'm still only able to access the internet in the office.

In the evening, I met Max and Caren again, this time to go to dinner, as well as gelato afterwards. Since my apartment is outside the city, I don't see much of the city at night, so it was nice to do that for a change and eat gelato on the steps of the Duomo.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Busy Sunday

My parents came back to Florence yesterday to bring all the things that they took with them from Charlottesville, as well as a table and chairs as well as some herbs for the balcony. Again, their car was packed to the roof. So today, we went to Ikea to buy some other furniture for the apartment, especially a bookcase and a shelf for the bathroom. Since the apartment is still pretty small, storage space is at a premium. So the day was pretty much filled with shopping and then assembling the purchases at home. Now, however, the apartment definitely looks a lot more homely, and will do so even more once my pictures replace the ceramic plates and drawings of plants that were part of the inventory.

After dinner, I took my bike into the city, where I met Max and Caren, two friends from Charlottesville who are doing the typical Rome-Florence-Venice trip in Italy. Since I know them from dancing, it was only fitting that we decided to go to a milonga here in town. Luckily, the milonga I found on Sunday night isn’t too far from the city center, and we were able to walk there. Interestingly enough, the building where the milonga was taking place seemed to be affiliated with the communist party. Inside, there were already several people sitting around the dance floor at small tables, Buenos Aires style. We danced a bunch, even as the dancefloor filled up even more later on in the evening. Around 11:30, a band started playing, though they had to take a break pretty soon because they were having trouble with their bandoneón. Unfortunately, this meant that I missed most of their performance, since I left a little after midnight, since I had to work the next day. Nevertheless, I had fun dancing again, and am sure that I’ll be back there when Kristen is in town.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Graduation Recap

There haven’t been any posts in over a week, not because there was a lack of things to blog about, but rather because I was in fact out of town, more precisely: back in Charlottesville for Graduation. I flew out last Wednesday, waking up way too early so that I could catch the bus into town, and then take the airport bus back to the airport, which is actually located quite close to the apartment, but which has no way of getting there on foot (taxis are quite expensive). The flight itself, via Zurich, was uneventful, and arriving in Washington I saw my parents in the immigration line (they had arrived on a different plane from Frankfurt). We rented the biggest car we could in anticipation of the load of luggage we’d have on the way back, and drove down to Charlottesville.

Thursday, I stopped by the lab and went to group lunch with my labmates, exchanging stories about what we had been doing the past two months. After dinner, Kristen and I went to the weekly tango practica that we had been attending regularly in Charlottesville. I hadn’t done any dancing so far in Florence, so this was a good opportunity to get back in the game. Unfortunately, I think I’ve forgotten all the moves we learned in Buenos Aires. Then Friday evening we had a little party at our apartment in Charlottesville. It was good to see many of the people that had made my time in Charlottesville so enjoyable. Thanks everyone for coming out!

Most importantly, though, Sunday was Graduation. In previous years, I had done everything I could to get out of town on Graduation weekend, but this time it was the whole reason for being here. I walked with Kristen to the Lawn before the ceremony and then made my way to the meeting place for the Graduate School, where I found a few other physicists already hanging around. Unfortunately, it soon started raining some, though luckily we were waiting underneath the covered area in front of the lawn rooms. At 10, the procession began and we made our way through the light drizzle down the Lawn. After getting to our seats near the front, we had to wait some more for the thousands of undergraduates to make their way down from the Rotunda. The speeches that followed were okay, I guess. The graduation speaker was Hunter Rawlings, a classicist and former president of Cornell, who did have a lot of classical references in his speech and complained about Wikipedia. That’s pretty much what I remember of his speech. UVa does not pay the speakers or give out honorary degrees, so you won’t see too many celebrities at Graduation. Afterwards, I made my way to the Physics building, where the diploma ceremony had been moved to due to the weather. Here I got my diploma and was hooded by my former advisor. Now I can fly! In the evening, we went out to dinner with my parents and Kristen’s parents to Mono Loco, which was one of the few restaurants that did not have only an overpriced fancy graduation menu.

The rest of the time in Charlottesville was mostly spent packing. Even though I had already taken three suitcases of stuff back with me in March, I still had a lot of books, CDs, kitchen equipment and other things in the apartment, of which I wanted to take as much as possible with me. Luckily, my parents had used their frequent flyer miles to get business class seats, so they had a higher baggage allowance, but still we had to buy an extra suitcase and send two packages of books. You can imagine that the rental car was filled up quite high with all that luggage. In the end, it all fit, and Tuesday we got it all checked in and flew back. This time, I did take a taxi back from the airport, which was around 11 Euros for a 3 minute ride, since there are extra fees for leaving from the airport and for every piece of luggage that you bring.

Monday, May 12, 2008


Already last week Marco, a colleague of mine, had kindly offered to take me to a bike shop he knew so I could look at some bikes. After Friday’s experience with the buses, I knew I couldn’t wait any longer to take transportation into my own hands. So this evening, I set off on the back of Marco’s ‘motorino’ (scooter) towards the store. The salesman there was quite helpful after Marco explained what we were looking for and fixed up the bike to make it ready to ride. After all, there was the small matter of getting from Calenzano, where the bike store was, back to my apartment in Florence. Since the sky was turning darker by the minute, I stepped into the pedals a little harder than I normally would have. Astonishingly quickly, I was back at the apartment – sure beats those buses!

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Iris Garden

Another beautiful spring day today, and I took the bus up to the Piazzale Michelangelo, from where there's one of the best panoramas of the city (the picture on the banner at the top of the page was taken there). It's definitely getting more and more crowded in the city as the high season of tourism has arrived.
But I was not primarily here for the view, but rather for the iris garden, open for only a few weeks in the spring. The iris is a symbol of Florence, having been the inspiration for the fleur-de-lis, and can be found on the city's emblem. There were truly hundreds of varieties of irises there in all colors imaginable. Apparently, there's also an iris competition, and some of the entries for 2010 were already planted.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Rant of the Day

This week I’ve been working in the lab and am being introduced to the experimental apparatus. This means that I’ve been staying at work later. I can’t stay too late, though, because otherwise I don’t have a way to get back home. The problem with having a science campus like the one here is that the bus connections aren’t all that great – for example the last bus towards the city center leaves at 7:45pm, and the absolutely last bus is at 8:30pm. Or so it stands written on the schedule.

Today, I needed to get some milk before the stores closed (most stores close at 8pm, others are open until 9pm), so I looked up the bus schedule and went to the bus stop at 7:30pm, which should have given me enough time, since the trip has been reduced to 20-30 minutes to the new apartment. The bus at 7:30pm didn’t come, but that wasn’t a problem, since there was a bus at 7:35pm (different route, but I take that one as well). That one didn’t come either, same as the ones at 7:39pm, 7:45pm, and 8:05pm. Since there was now only one bus left, and it was close to sunset, I decided to walk, at least to the place where I would have to change buses. After a little over 20 minutes of brisk walking, I came to the bus stop with a few minutes to spare before the 8:35pm bus was supposed to come. I guess you know what’s coming – that one didn’t show up either, so I walked for another half hour back home. Good thing too, because the next bus 15 minutes later apparently didn’t come either, since it didn’t pass me. Of course by now all the stores were closed.

You do have to wonder how something like this could happen. It’s not like there was a strike, since the buses that morning were running properly, and plenty of buses were heading into the bus depot, which is near the stop where I transfer. Maybe the bus drivers simply decided they didn’t want to work on Friday evening? I don’t have too much of a problem with buses being late on occasion or even the occasional bus not showing up, but at the end of the day when the bus schedule is pretty thin anyway, I need to be able to rely on public transportation to get home. And that simply does not seem to be the case here. The public transportation systems I encountered in Latin America were more efficient than this. And at least you knew in advance that you couldn’t rely on Charlottesville buses. Well, now I know that about Florence buses as well.

What I’ve learned is that I need a bike as soon as possible.

Sunday, May 4, 2008


Artichokes are in season, and are therefore plentiful and cheap. Enjoy this recipe.

Medici villas and sightseeing

The weather has gotten warmer (no more jacket needed, not even a rain jacket), and I’ve mostly finished with organizing the apartment, so I decided to do some sightseeing today. I decided to visit two villas of the Medici located on the outskirts of town. These were originally country retreats, but are now situated in the suburbs (and importantly, close to bus lines). Also important, they didn’t charge admission. The first place I went was the Villa La Petraia, dating to the 16th century. I guess nobody read the note in the Lonely Planet that “May is an exceptional time to visit,” since I was apparently the only person visiting. I wouldn’t call it exceptional, but the gardens were quite pleasant and offered a nice view of the city (and the airport), and plenty of shady benches on which to relax. The gardens could probably have used a little more care, but I guess that’s what you get for free admission. A short walk further was the Villa di Castello, also with quite a nice garden. A few more people had discovered this villa, but all in all it was still quite empty, which was a relief compared to the situation in downtown Florence.
I did venture into town afterwards, taking the bus back. First I visited the Duomo, which I hadn’t seen from the inside yet, if you can imagine that. I had been under the impression that it charged admission, but that’s only if you want to climb to the dome. I think the most impressive thing about the Duomo is it’s size (apparently the fourth-largest cathedral in the world), whereas the interior decoration is rather sparse. After a quick gelato at Grom (it takes a while to sample all the different gelato places that come recommended), I went into the Chiesa di Orsanmichele, which is located between the Duomo and the Ponte Vecchio. The building was originally a grain market with an altar standing under the arcades. After a while, people decided to convert the building to a real church, walling in the altar, and creating the somewhat strange shape of the church. This church boasted more decoration, with several interesting frescoes.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

A couple of days off

Due to an abundance of non-working days, I had ample time to get things organized and settled in the new apartment. Thursday, May 1 was Labor Day, a holiday so important that not even the buses were running (except for the ones to the stadium, since Florence was playing Glasgow Rangers in the semi-final of the UEFA cup). Therefore, I decided to walk into town, mostly in the Cascine park, which stretches along the Arno river for quite a few kilometers. Interestingly, the paths and piazzas in the park are named for American presidents, e.g. Piazzale J. F. Kennedy, Viale Giorgio Washington, or Piazzale T. Jefferson. Somehow I doubt that there will be a Viale Giorgio W. Bush anytime soon. Friday was officially a work day, but since most of the people in the lab took the day off, I only went into work for half a day, mostly to use the internet, since I don’t have that at the apartment yet. I did order it, but apparently that can take up to three months, since they first have to activate the telephone connection. That’s also why these blog posts pop up at random times, since I’m writing them, saving them to my computer, and posting when I have an internet connection. Unfortunately, I haven’t found a wi-fi hotspot like at Starbucks (no Starbucks in all of Italy!), so weekends and holidays are internet-free for now. Finally, today was a shopping day – Mercato Centrale for produce, Natura Si to check out the selection of fake meat products for Kristen, and a regular supermarket and Lidl for everything else. Afterwards, another short trip to Ikea to get some more stuff from Ikea. The apartment is slowly coming together, and I’ll definitely post a picture once it’s presentable.

It definitely is nice to have a place to call one’s own again (a feeling that I didn’t really have in the temporary apartments), and I’m quite happy with the apartment I have. There are however a few details that I can complain about:

  • A bright red couch/sofabed (definitely not my color)
  • No dishwasher means endless rounds of cleaning dishes after cooking (or postponing it and having to do it before the next meal)
  • No dryer means hanging everything on a drying rack on the balcony, which in combination with the extremely hard water means that even with fabric softener, the clothes end up hard as a sheet of metal
  • Gaudy blue glass fruit bowl and fake flowers that have to be packaged and moved out of sight