Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Weather

A little over two weeks ago, it was in the 90s. Then one day it dropped to the 70s. Then, and this is the strange part, it stayed in the 70s. Every day for the last two weeks. Weird.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

More Italian

Speaking of Italian (a few days ago), here are some verbs I've found massively useful.

potere = to be able to (posso = I can/can I?; potrei = I could/could I?)
dovere = to have to (devo = I have to; dovrei = I should/should I?)
volere = to want to (voglio = I want; vorrei = I would like)
avere = to have (ho = I have)
essere = to be (sono = I am)
andare = to go (vado = I go)

Monday, September 22, 2008

Hiking the Cinque Terre

This past weekend, we spent a weekend in the Cinque Terre, a National Park consisting of five villages on the Ligurian coast. We made our way there early on Saturday (it's about 2.5-3 hours away by train) and got off in Monterosso, the northernmost of the 5 towns. The weather was ideal -- partly sunny and not too hot, and before setting off on the trail to the other villages, we got some delicious focaccia (a Ligurian specialty) for the trail. Monterosso has a pretty attractive beach (even the free part), so it was a bit unfortunate that we had left our swimwear at home since the weather report hadn't predicted very high temperatures. Actually, we separated for the first part of the hike, with Kristen opting for the train to the next village (she had read that this first part was the most strenuous), whereas I hiked through terraced vineyards and olive groves to the next village, Vernazza. There, we sat by the harbor for a while and adored some of the many cats we saw before heading out towards Corniglia. We arrived there a little after 3pm, and found the owner of the bed & breakfast we had booked in a bar near the village center. Since it was earlier in the day than we were expecting to be there, we spent the rest of the day sitting on the balcony of our room, reading and enjoying the view before going to see the sunset on a terrace at the end of the village. Dinner was in one of the restaurants of the village -- fresh seafood for me, and pasta with pesto (another Ligurian specialty) for Kristen.
The next morning, after an al fresco breakfast from the same bar, we headed out on the trail again, this time with much less climbing than the day before. We therefore arrived in Manarola, where we walked up and down (literally!) the main street, before settling down to a good lunch, again with fresh seafood and pasta with pesto. Strengthened, we walked the last, easiest bit to Riomaggiore along the Via dell'Amore. There, we burned some more calories by walking up to the small castle at the top of the town, and to the marina at the seaside, before negating all that with some gelato. Content, we walked back to the train station to take the train back to Florence, along with the hundreds of American college students (probably on "study" abroad) who had had the same idea of spending a weekend in the Cinque Terre as we did.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Learning Italian

One of the things hindering my ability to feel fully at home in Florence has surely been my inability to speak Italian. I didn't speak any Italian before coming here, after all, I chose Italy because of the job, not vice versa, and I didn't have much chance of learning the language beforehand since I was busy finishing my dissertation. I did manage to pick up a couple of phrases during the time I've been here, but those have been limited to absolute basics, and definitely not enough to carry on even a simple conversation.
Back in May I found the website for the language center of the university and emailed them several times, but never got a reply (their website is not very helpful). Now that the new semester is starting again for the students, I thought I'd give it another try. This time, there was an online form with which you could register for the classes, so I did that, not actually knowing anything about the classes. But I got a confirmation email soon thereafter, and so I had someone to contact. I soon found out that the classes were starting later that week and that I needed to send a fax from my institute confirming my employment and that I should come the next day for a consultation. I showed up the next day and talked with a friendly person at the language center, who told me that they didn't actually offer total beginner's classes, but only post-beginner (level A2 in the European classification), but that I could probably take those. He said I should take a language/grammar test the next day, though, for which I'd have to register with the secretary. Being the bureaucratic country this is, she absolutely couldn't register me, though, since she hadn't received the confirmation fax, and since the next grammar test would only be held end of September, I wouldn't be able to register for this round of classes, either. Somewhat discouraged, I nevertheless ended up getting the confirmation letter from my institute and tried faxing it to the language center, but that never worked. A few days and many unsuccessful faxes later, I emailed the secretary again to confirm that the fax number they had given me was correct. I now received three emails in rapid succession: 1. I would need to come in for another consultation end of September, 2. I could bring the letter to their office in person, and 3. An apology for the previous email, and that I was now registered for the classes, of which the first one had already taken place and of which the next one was the next day.
The next day, I arrived at the class, and it seems like I wasn't the only one who had had trouble -- all of the classes had been reshuffled after the first lesson. Luckily, I don't seem to be the only one there with very little previous knowledge of the language. So now for the next five weeks, three mornings a week, I'm off taking these classes, and hoping to become at least somewhat conversational.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Getting some gelato

We're slowly working our way through the gelaterias recommended in the Food Lover's Guide to Florence. Today, we biked to the other side of the city to Badiani, where the main attraction was a flavor called Buontalenti, which is some sort of very rich cream. It was quite good, and I'm glad we biked there, because it was probably loaded with all kinds of unhealthy ingredients! The weather didn't cooperate completely, since this weekend has been somewhat rainy and cool, but then again, that shouldn't keep us from eating gelato.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Victory Is Mine

I have not been charged any fees by Capital One to withdraw Euros from an ATM here. Though, I've only tried getting money from Deutsche Bank so far, because I heard Italian banks charge high fees for everything. So if you want to withdraw money in a foreign country without fees (or just withdraw money from other banks' ATMs), I recommend Capital One. They say they also don't charge fees to use their credit cards overseas, but I haven't tried that yet.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Sunday, September 7, 2008

A day at the beach

Even though we've spent the whole summer in Italy, sweating most of the time (no air conditioning in the apartment), we had not seen the ocean yet. So after another week of sunny 34 degree days, we decided to spend a day at the beach in Viareggio today. Of course, once we'd made that decision, the weather forecast changed to cooler and rainy, but that (as well as a look out the window this morning) didn't deter us from taking the train to the seaside resort this morning. After a walk to the oceanfront, we were faced with the difficult decision of choosing a bathing facility. In Italy, most beaches are private property, and so you have to pay to use it. We ended up comparing prices, and in the end, 20 Euros got us two beach chairs, an umbrella and a changing room/locker for the day. This being towards the end of the season and a somewhat rainy day, I think we got a slight discount. After changing, we were shown our chairs -- sixth row, not bad -- and could then start our relaxation. It drizzled a little bit, but then the sun came out and we went into the water, which was pleasantly cool (refreshing, not icy) and choppy. Actually going into the water does not seem to be the point of going to the beach for many Italians, though. I guess working on their tan is more important. After reading some and taking a short nap, a wind came up and the weather became more cloudy, so after a while we left and walked along the oceanfront promenade with many 1920's buildings and then back to the train station, from where we took the train back to Florence.