Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Monday, January 26, 2009


The following day we took the train to Ferrara, a little over an hour away. Walking from the train station into town, it seemed a bit like a repeat of Ravenna -- somewhat industrial, not too attractive, but then in the center things got significantly better. The main attraction here was the castle of the Este family, who ruled Ferrara and the surrounding area in the Renaissance. Complete with towers, drawbridges, and moats, it's everything you would imagine from a castle. In the interior, we visited the royal apartments, some with some rather intricate ceiling decorations, as well as the dungeons, complete with centuries-old graffiti on the walls and ceiling (there are some good stories about the Este family... for example Ugo and Parisina or Giulio). From there it was not far to the Duomo, of which the facade is the main attraction. Finally, we walked a bit through the alleys of the city, ending up at the Palazzo dei Diamanti, with an interesting stone decoration on the outside. Finally, we walked back to the train station took the train back to Florence.


Last weekend we took another trip, this time to two cities in Emilia-Romagna (the region north of Tuscany). Italy has its wealth of UNESCO World Heritage sights, and we were able to cross two off of the list this time.
First up on Saturday was Ravenna, to which we took a regional train that left way too early in the morning. It's not really a particularly attractive city, but maybe because of this, its treasures shine much brighter -- a wonderful collection of 6th century mosaics in its churches. Maybe it's also the fact that it was raining the whole time we were there that made it somewhat unattractive. Anyway, after arriving we dropped our bags at the hotel and then took the bus to the Basilica di Sant'Apollinare in Classe, a few km outside of town. This is probably one of the more beautiful churches I've seen so far, but then again I'm drawn to the more simple Romanesque style. In the apse was a giant mosaic of Sant'Apollinare (the patron saint of Ravenna) among many sheep, and Jesus simply symbolized by a cross.
From here, we made our way back into the city, again by bus, and stopped by the Basilica di Sant'Apollinare Nuovo. Here the mosaics were more golden, and on the side of the church -- The altar area was done in a clashing baroque style. The was a group of American students there (some of the few tourists we encountered these two days), and the guide pointed out that the word "palazzo" -- "palace"/"large building for living" -- came from the Palatine Hill in Rome, where many of these were located (there was also a mosaic of a palazzo). After a visit to the tomb of Dante Alighieri, we got some piadina for lunch and then checked into the hotel.
After warming up a bit, we went out again, stopping first at the Battistero degli Ariani, with mosaics depicting the baptism of Christ. Next was the Basilica di San Vitale, which still had some mosaics on the floor. On the walls were some of the most colorful mosaics in town, depicting biblical scenes, the usual array of evangelists and other saints, animals, as well as the court of Emperor Justinian and his wife Theodora. Next door was the Mausoleo di Galla Placida, with a blue mosaic ceiling studded with stars. Finally, we walked to the Battistero Neoniano, another baptistry, again with a mosaic of the baptism of Christ (do I sense a theme here?). Cold and wet, we returned to the hotel and took advantage of the TV before going out for a pizza and pasta dinner.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

You know you're in Italy...

...when the power suddenly goes off if you're using the oven, your laptop, and some lights, and you decide to boil water. In Italy, you only use 3kW of power at any given time, as explained by expatsinitaly.com:
The company that handles electricity in Italy is ENEL. Electricity in Italy is not like in the US where you can use as much as you need and then just pay every month. Instead, here, you are allotted 3.0 kW. If you use more than this at any one time your power will shut off. That means no running of the washing machine and a hair dryer at the same time. Because of this, looking for appliances with an A or A+ rating* is even more important. You can increase your usage, to 4.5 or 6 which works well but you do pay more per unit of measure. I have 4.5 and am able to run 2 large things plus 2 TVs, 2 refrigerators, a computer, a freezer, a fish tank and lights but if I try to turn on anything else the power will blow. Because we have a water pump (autoclave) we do have to be careful as this consumes a lot and we tend to forget when we have a few things going at once that if we flush or wash our hands the power may go off.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

More Observations

The bus drivers must be engaged in an ongoing contest to see who can wear out the brakes the fastest. They're all doing pretty well, because 95% of the bus brakes screech loudly.

Also regarding buses: no matter what stop I go to or at what time, I have to wait at least 15 minutes for the D bus. It's supposed to come every 12 minutes.

A little more on fashion (from previous posts): apparently heels go with everything. Also, in the winter, it seems the only accepted footwear for women is boots. It was kind of impressive to see stores go from selling nothing but sandals one day to nothing but boots the next.

Two projects that were progressing surprisingly rapidly for Italy were the renovation of the Santa Maria Novella piazza and the building of the tram lines. Then the SMN project ran out of funds and was temporarily halted, and the tram line installation was put on hold for a month around Xmas, because the store owners by the lines complained it was affecting business. That's more like it. Another funny thing about the tram lines is that some people don't want them running near the duomo, even though there's a constant stream of buses and cars there now.

The concept of customer service is still not known here, especially at Vodafone, which is the worst company in the world. It now out-ranks U-Haul's terrible policies, Bank of America's lying employees and website, and Telecom Italia's terrible policies and lying employees and website. When we were in the Vodafone store recently*, where the totally incompetent employees were not able to do anything for us again, a number of other people were in there with complaints. I overheard a conversation in English wherein a woman was explaining that she had recently bought a pay-as-you-go internet "service" from Vodafone, but when she tried to use it, she was only able to send one email in 4 hours. The response from the employee was that the woman should bring her computer in to the store to be tested, because the Vodafone service is "very good." The only accurate thing that employee said the whole time was when the woman asked for a refund for the time she wasn't able to use Vodafone's crappy service, and the employee told her, "In Italy, we don't give back money."

Italian mosquitoes don't die. It's freaking winter.

Something positive: I like the Teatro della Pergola.

* There are several episodes in the Vodafone saga we've skipped so far in this blog. Maybe eventually we'll post the whole thing.

Things You Don't See in the U.S. #5

This mess:

Monday, January 19, 2009

Paris Mécanique

Yesterday we went to another chamber music concert at the same old theater that we went to in December. Again, I subjected Kristen to clarinet music, this time by the Trio di Clarone (Sabine Meyer with husband Reiner Wehle and brother Wolfgang Meyer) as well as guests Michael Riessler (also clarinet) and Pierre Charial on mechanical organ. If you're not familiar with this instrument, it's what you might expect to see at a fairground or a European pedestrian zone, not really in a high-brow concert. Basically, the music is stamped onto large sheets of paper that are read into the organ while the player turns a wheel to pump air and progress the music.
Tonight's program was a dedication to early 20th century French dancehall and jazz-inspired pieces, so it featured works by members of 'Les Six' and others, as well as some virtuosic compositions by Michael Riessler and some crowdpleasers by Leroy Anderson. The playing was all on a high level, as can be expected by musicians of this caliber. At times, everything seemed a bit hectic -- many of the pieces segued into each other without time for applause, the mechanical organ meant that everything had to be played above a certain volume threshold, and there was no intermission (as a clarinet player myself, that was one of the things that impressed me most -- you try playing for 90 minutes straight!). For my taste, it could have used a few more quiet moments, such as in the sublime Sonata for two clarinets by Milhaud or the Three Pieces for clarinet by Stravinsky, but I guess the excitation was in the spirit of the roaring twenties.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Things You Don't See in the U.S. #4

Wine for a Euro (or $1.33).

wine wine

(I scanned these from a grocery store flyer.)

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Palazzo Vecchio

Taking advantage of the fact that the density of tourists is at a seasonal low, we decided to visit the inside of the Palazzo Vecchio, the town hall of Florence for the past 700 years or so. Like most places in town, there's an abundance of art. Here, the frescoes by Vasari, Ghirlandaio and others stand out. For example, in the mayor's office, there's a fascinating fresco of the siege of Florence which shows the city as it was in 1530, and in the impressive Salone dei Cinquecento, the victories of Florence over surrounding cities are documented. Here, there's also a statue by Michelangelo symbolizing the victory over Siena.
One of the most interesting rooms for me was the map room, where the knowledge of the world in the 16th century was on display. For example, here's the section containing "Spira", "Ogersehem" and "Mens".

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Three Kings

The holidays just keep coming... after Christmas and New Year's Day, today was Epiphany, another Catholic holiday. Since we flew back to Florence yesterday, after spending two weeks in Germany, we got to have one free day before it's back to work tomorrow. In the afternoon, we went downtown, where we watched the parade of the three kings make its way towards the Duomo. Not only was it the three kings, though (in Renaissance costume), but they were followed by costume groups, flag throwers and drum corps from seemingly every small town around Florence. What Civil War reenactors are in the US, Renaissance reenactors are in Tuscany.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Happy New Year

Best wishes for a healthy and prosperous 2009. For all of you who don't know German New Year's traditions, one of the most beloved is watching "Dinner for One". Enjoy!