Sunday, July 27, 2008

Things You Don't See in the US #2

Zero o'clock:


(It didn't remain singular. What do you know about that? I know it didn't remain singular.)


Yesterday, we took a day trip to Bologna, one of the culinary capitals of Italy (home of Bolognese sauce, called ragu' there, and baloney, called mortadella), and only an hour's train trip away from Florence. Of course we ate a good lunch there, but most of the day was spent taking in the city's sights, which in typical Italian fashion, consist mostly of churches and other religious sites. I admit that after seeing such a wealth of impressive ecclesiastical paintings and frescoes, I'm starting to tire a bit of them and wouldn't mind seeing some post-16th century art every now and then. But the early art does get quite interesting at times, especially when depicting hell or martyrs, such as in the beautiful Oratory of Santa Cecilia. Other times, there's stuff who's meaning I must be missing, such as the depiction of the heads on platters in the magnificent woodwork in the choir of San Domenico (which houses the remains of Saint Dominic, founder of the Dominican order, by the way).
Also fun was the Medieval Museum, which in addition to more ecclesiastical paintings and sculptures, had some elaborate choirbooks, and a few rooms of medieval weapons and armor, as well as a visit to the oldest university in Europe (dating back to the 11th century), including its anatomical theater, where dissections were carried out in public. The landmark of the city are two towers preserved from the middle ages, one of which is leaning precariously -- maybe they had the same engineers as the Pisans? Finally, on the central plaza is a fountain with a statue of Neptune, on a base of women with water squirting out of strategic places.
So, all in all, Bologna is definitely a city worth visiting, and a nice contrast to the Tuscan towns we've seen so far, with far more red brick and less white marble (which is why its nickname is la rossa, which apparently also applies to its politics). Oh, and did I mention that there were far fewer tourists than in Florence?

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Things You Don't See in the US #1

(This might remain singular, but I'll call it #1 anyway.)

3-wheeled vehicles:

People drive on the street in these things.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

New Music Recommendations

Since CDs are massively overpriced here (17 Euros for a new release?!) and Amazon doesn't exist in Italy, I'm relying on some MP3 blogs and the iTunes free song of the week to get some new music to listen to. Here are a couple of tracks that I've been listening to a lot recently:
  • Rodrigo y Gabriela: "Diablo Rojo"
    I know I'm a few years behind on this one, but I just discovered this song. Catchy, foot-tapping, flamenco and folk-inspired, with amazing guitarwork.
  • She & Him: "Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?"
    Nice, slightly sugary, summery indie-pop.
  • Dengue Fever: "Hold My Hips"
    An American band covering hits of Cambodian pop music.
  • Nation Beat: "Nago Nago"
    I've listened to some albums of Brazilian music recently, such as Forro in the Dark and Brasileirinho, and it's much more than just samba and bossa nova. On this track, Nation Beat combine Brazilian music with... bluegrass?!! Hey, it works. You can download 3 songs on their site for free under "download"

Sunday, July 20, 2008


Yeah, but I had a blog before it was cool.

(Since I think some of you are, sadly, not sufficiently familiar with the Simpsons:
Lisa: You do Yoga?
Jesse: Yeah, but I started *before* it was cool.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Another perspective on Italy

"As for Telecom Italia, it is an entire conglomerate founded on the Mafia principal of extortion. They have been milking their customers since the day Meucci got a dial tone."
-- from the blog Burnt by the Tuscan Sun

I found this blog while searching for other people who have had bad experiences with Telecom Italia (and there are plenty). It does a good job in detailing some of the absurdities of life in Italy and offers a nice counterperspective to the dozens of overly cheerful expatriate blogs.

Saturday, July 12, 2008


Today, we took a day trip to Lucca, another one of those must-see cities in Tuscany. This time we went by bus, which was more convenient, since the bus stop was closer to our apartment than the train station, and more comfortable, since the air conditioning actually worked and the seats were better. Lucca is still surrounded by its city walls, and the historical part is pleasantly without cars. There are also a lot less tourists than in Florence, and the buildings seem in better shape than the ones in Pisa. So all in all it's definitely a beautiful place to visit. Some of the highlights were the elliptical Piazza Anfiteatro, which is probably the best known tourist site in Lucca, the cathedral with its marble inlays in the facade, San Michele in Foro with an equally impressive facade, and San Frediano, which had the somewhat creepy mummified body of Saint Zita, a 13th century saint, exhibited in a glass case. As in the other places we've visited, there's an overabundance of art on display, and I won't even begin to try to remember all the famous and not-so-famous works we saw. In addition, we got a loaf of buccellato, a delicious sweet bread with raisins and anise that's a local specialty, and ate some of that while sitting on the city walls waiting for our bus back.

Thursday, July 10, 2008


In chapter three of the never ending story of trying to get an internet connection in our apartment, we've had some success... at least partially. After hearing from Fastweb that Telecom Italia had told them that they couldn't activate a line in the apartment, we went directly to the Telecom and requested a line from them. That was then actually activated a week and a half later, giving us hope that our situation would soon be resolved. So last weekend we went to Vodafone, which had a good offer for DSL and phone service. Since they didn't have any of the hardware there at the moment, they said they'd call back, which they did yesterday. So Kristen went to pick up the DSL modem, though again a problem arose. Vodafone can't actually give us DSL service at the moment, since for some reason the Telecom is needed for the activation, and their site tells Vodafone that DSL isn't activated in our apartment. Of course, they offered us their own DSL service several times, and inserting our telephone number into their online site shows that it is available, so it's pretty clear that they're simply lying to us and Vodafone (as they did to Fastweb). If in the future anyone has any reason to get Italian phone or internet service, please boycott Telecom Italia at all costs!
Luckily, the people at Vodafone were quite helpful, and we now have internet via their cell phone service. It's the same price as DSL but has some limitations, such as having to sign in, having a maximum of 10 hours a day and not having quite the same speeds, though for now it's fine. If we can somehow convince or bribe the Telecom to allow us to have DSL, then we can switch over to their DSL service without any problems.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Danger... Scientists!

A break from the heat

As a little break from the summerly heat, here's a video of the Perito Moreno glacier, which we saw in Argentina in March. The ice bridge that forms periodically is now breaking apart, making for some pretty spectacular glacier watching.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Conclusions about Florence after a month here

1. the concept of customer service is nonexistent
2. everybody smokes
3. Italians like to talk
4. they use "permesso" more than "scusi"
5. they speak slowly enough to pronounce every syllable, unlike the Spanish speakers I've encountered, who can't get through the words quickly enough
6. apparently they don't consider sliced bread the best thing
7. they don't have portabello mushrooms. It's all about porcini.
8. the fake meat products in the US are far superior (especially, and you should try these, Morningstar Farms "grillers prime" veggie burgers, Veat breasts, and Quorn chicken nuggets, chicken tenders, and "grounds")
9. they capitalize only the first letter of acronyms, e.g., "Usa"
10. I have seen very few Vespas. The motor scooters are other brands.
11. I have been asked for directions 4 or 5 times by Italians
12. I would describe Italian fashionable clothing, as in the rest of the world, as "ugly." The standard procedure for dressing yourself, I imagine, is to take 8 or 9 pieces of fashionable clothing from your closet that don't match, and put them all on together. You must include large plastic jewelry that is not necessarily the same color as anything else you're wearing. I was excited, however, that Converse- and Keds-style sneakers seem to be popular. Also, the hot weather clothing seems to be better, except for the face-engulfing sunglasses, since it generally consists of a tank top, shorts or skirt, and sandals.
13. The city is more racially diverse than I expected
14. English is used in unhelpful places like T-shirts. Some text on T-shirts I've seen: "Wild Monkey High School," "I'll come right to the point," "you drive me crazy," "monster on the dance floor," "I play in a garage band," and "now give mummy a smile." There is also a store called "Sexy Shop Kickdown," which recalls: "I know those words, but that sign doesn't make any sense." -Lisa Simpson. Actually, sex stores are usually called "sexy shop"s, but I can't explain "kickdown."
15. Despite the exchange rate, you can still find things that cost the same amount as they do is the US.
16. "Old" here is pre-1600, in contrast to the "historic" items in the US from the 18 or 1900s.
17. I have killed an average of 1 or 2 mosquitoes a day since I've been here
18. cashiers will always ask you if you have some amount of money other than the amount you're trying to pay with. They don't seem to like to count more than one coin or a couple of bills for change. Unlike the Central and South American countries I've been to, however, they will accept units of currency larger than one.
19. McDonalds is the only American fast food chain I've seen so far. And they have "McDrives" (drive-throughs).
20. I don't think they have crickets
21. cranberries are solely a US/Canada thing

Friday, July 4, 2008


As you might have guessed from one of the previous posts, we went to visit Pisa last weekend, where one of the most popular activities is having your picture taken with the perspective so that it looks like you’re holding up the famous Leaning Tower there. But first things first – we took the train to Pisa, which is only about an hour away from Florence, and the first thing that struck me as we walked into town from the train station was how empty it was. Sure, it was Sunday morning, so all the shops were closed, but even on a Sunday Florence is packed with tourists and locals downtown. Now that summer holidays have kicked in, there’s almost no getting through the crowds anymore. We had come that day because we read that the Game of the Bridge was happening, and we saw people on the Ponte di Mezzo setting everything up, but the person we asked said that the procession and game wouldn’t happen until sometime that evening (we were not able to find any information on the timeplan online). So we walked around a bit and saw the sights of Pisa, saving the tower and cathedral for last. Though there are some nice piazzas and old churches, there is by far not the abundance of sights that there is in Florence. It turns out that all the tourists were assembled in the one square with Leaning Tower, cathedral, baptistery and Camposanto. We joined them, and though we did not climb the tower (expensive and you have to make reservations a few hours ahead of time), we admired the Pisano pulpits in both cathedral and baptistery, as well as the old sarcophagi and frescoes in the Camposanto. Since we were done with our sightseeing several hours before the Game of the Bridge was scheduled to start and it was very hot and sunny (as it has been the last weeks), we decided to simply return to Florence, and took the train back.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Beethoven in Florence

Tonight we went to the Piazza Signoria after dinner for the closing concert of the Maggio Musicale, a yearly music festival. Zubin Mehta was conducting Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, which seemed to be popular enough for several thousand people to crowd into the piazza (and remain standing for the whole concert). Unfortunately, the sound system was pretty bad and the balance of the instruments lacking, though Beethoven's mastery shone through even these difficulties.