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Duomo terrace

1) L’Introduzione: Ciao tutti, come state? Greetings from Firenze! I am well and alive around a month into my year abroad in Italy. I am committing myself to writing one letter per month to the larger majority of my friends, as spending the time to write each of you individually would essentially invalidate my purpose for being away in the first place! But because I enjoy so much taking panoramic photos everywhere I go, and would love to include them in these letters to accompany the descriptions, I can’t send an email due to size restrictions. However, if you have gotten this far, you have been able to follow the link and reach my Cal Poly website! In the future, I will send out a similar email to let you know when another story is up.

2) Come io sono arrivato a Firenze? My Swissair flight left from LAX in the late afternoon, just shortly after the emotional last goodbye to my wonderful girlfriend, Brooke. Let’s just say I didn’t pack lightly, or intelligently perhaps, although to my credit I had to pack nearly a full suitcase with just architecture supplies, books, and my laptop! Getting out of LAX was probably the most stressful part of the trip, even if I was three and a half hours early! First, the Swissair attendants stopped me even before arriving at the check-in counter to let me know my backpack was six pounds over the limit! I was able to, however, convince them that I would take out my six pound laptop and carry it on with me as a personal item (which was the actual truth). After checking in, and luckily passing barely on the weight limit for both pieces of luggage (economy is economy, after all), I had to take my luggage to a special additional security scan right at entrance to the airport. Security seemed extra tight and everything very stressful in LAX, at least compared to anywhere else I have flown out of! I was very relieved finally to be rid of my heavy suitcases, and just have my over-the-limit backpack left to get through the normal security. Finally through security, I was able to relax and start reading “Three Cups of Tea”, a fascinating true-story book my mom recommended to me just before I left (I highly recommend you buy it and read it as well off or find it elsewhere, it is a story you have to read). I got lucky on my long flight to Zurich, with a window seat next to just one other person. Unfortunately, it was one of those business-type, no personality American, middle-age men going across the big ocean for probably the 10th time this year. Typical Florentine Streetscape

Needless to say, he didn’t provide much entertainment, which was okay as I was happy to read my book and eat tasty airplane food for the rest of the flight. After a few hours, I took some Advil PM as part of my plan to sleep the rest of the flight to avoid jet-lag. Well, it didn’t kick in very fast, so I just kept reading. I ended up sleeping maybe 4-5 hours through the night, and as always found it fascinating to run into the sun so soon after leaving in the evening (luckily there wasn’t “that guy” who opens his window and ruins a perfect sleeping mood for the rest of us! Arriving in Zurich, I must admit that the 10.5 hour flight was one of the fastest, most-efficient, uneventful flights ever! Arriving in Zurich, I knew my time in the States was officially over for the time being! The Zurich airport was architecturally, very Swiss, with clean rectalinear lines, smooth concrete, tempered glass, very high-tech… but amazingly enough, no free wifi! I was highly disappointed, so I just kept reading my book. Then, as I was horrified to realize at the time, I had actually forgotten to buy ANY Euro (just traveler’s cheques), and after arriving in Florence I would need an evening taxi ride. About this time, I also realized that in Switzerland they don’t use Euro. So I was in a pickle, but just kept reading (what a good book!). Il Duomo Cupola and Lantern

The flight to Firenze (Florence in case you haven’t figured it out yet) was again short and uneventful, almost surreal. You see, the first time I went to study abroad (In Barcelona), I had a whole different set of feelings, expectations, fears... a mixed bag of blessings and curses. This time I felt numb the whole trip and not in the least worried about things that I actually should have worried about (doesn’t sound like me, does it!). However, the one thing I soon noticed was that on this flight, everyone but me was Italian! And “Mamma Mia”, did they like to talk… everyone just chatting the whole plane ride, and of course I didn’t understand a single word… well not a bad start to learning Italian, I would say! The short flight was beautiful, much like the flight from Seattle back home to Leavenworth, with normally snow covered mountains on the Swiss-Italian border exposed to reveal their incredible depth and beauty, and deep in the valleys between tiny swiss villages appeared amongst turquoise lakes. Then suddenly, we were into the rolling hills of Italy, deep-green with red-roof villages everywhere, and as the hills (nearly mountains I would say from the plane) began to recede into a deep, fertile valley, I realized we were in Firenze! I could see the lazy river Arno, the Duomo and its Campanile, the outskirts (periferia) blending into the city center (centro storico)--It was a beautiful moment, perfect sundown, successful flights, warm weather… aspetta un moment, eh DIO MIO, it is humid here, I mean really HUMID (my exact thoughts walking out of the plane)! Welcome to Firenze!

Il Duomo: Baptistry (do you notice the Gypsy selling posters?)

3) Benvenuti a Firenze! The first thing I noticed leaving the plane and arriving at the airport in Firenze: inefficiency went out the window as we crossed the Swiss border! The customs line took nearly half an hour to process a small plane, as there were only two customs agents working casually. To make up for that, uncharacteristically, all my luggage had arrived, undamaged, and fully intact (I was worried some of my “hazardous” architectural supplies and glue might disappear in LAX). Another huge relief followed, as there was an Italian bank ATM (Bancomat) in the airport! I was able to take out 250 Euro, enough to pay for the taxi ride into the center (just kidding). Waiting outside without a clue what to do, in the waning sunset, trying to figure out where one would find a taxi in this relatively small airport (reminds me of a larger Santa Barbara airport), I was approached by two girls and their father, English-speaking tourists from Lisbon, wondering the same thing I was: where are all the taxis? Together, we agreed to share a taxi into Firenze when we could find one!

The taxi ride into Florence was unforgettable, to say the least. My first impressions of Italy were very positive, almost a six-sense that this was going to be a great year! Our taxi driver was young, tattooed, and impatient, and oh so Italian. He drove recklessly, ignoring almost all stop signs and lights, cutting off other cars…everything I could have hoped for and more! I kept chatting with my new Portuguese friends, and all the while admiring the beautiful outskirts of Florence. And suddenly, the streets narrowed, the tourists increased, ristoranti e trattorie everywhere, as our taxi driver swerved and cursed and honked to avoid tourists. We drove right past il Duomo and the Baptistery, through more narrow streets, getting lost or blocked several times, and finally arriving at Piazza Santa Croce to drop off the Portuguese. The father of the two girls not only paid for the majority of the taxi ride, but also offered to house me if I was ever to come to Lisbon! From there, the taxi took me and actually traveled back outside the centro storico and north to find my hotel. Arriving in the evening, I was ready for bed. Our group hotel was full, even at night, with many of the nearly 100 students representing CSU campuses around the state of California. There was a real sense of excitement in the air!

4) Hotel Meridiana: As part of the program, we had all paid for seven nights in Hotel Meridiana (3 stars, but… not really). Checking into my room (late of course), I was delighted to see it was all to myself! Three tiny dorm style beds packed into an otherwise nearly empty closet! I unpacked as if I owned the place, taking care to conceal my traveler’s cheques deep in my suitcase, then took a well-deserved shower. I just barely made it to the end of the first night’s dinner in the hotel’s basement ristorante (cafeteria really). It was a nice relief to see so many familiar faces from Cal Poly, as well as other American students. The cold food was not the best first impression of Italian cuisine, but then again I was two hours late! I met up with my roommate-to-be, Ulysses Carmona (another architecture major from Cal Poly), and we decided that it would be fun just to go

outside and start walking, to see where we ended up. Welcome to a European city, for the second time, I told myself, as I realized I was about to walk for hours each day, sadly missing most of all my bike (I am not too car addicted in America, thankfully)…We walked aimlessly, almost blindly, admiring the dim-lit Renaissance architecture, narrow streets, crazy drivers in the traffic circles…mopeds everywhere. Having lived in Barcelona, this was nothing new, but still a dramatic change from silent, serene San Luis Obispo. We made it to the Duomo the first night, and I was taken back not only by its size, but its beauty as well--nothing in pictures prepares you for the first real vision. In fact, everything in Firenze (and Italy in general) seems to be at a larger scale than we are used to, for example doors here are often anywhere from 10-15 feet tall and solid. The beautiful white, green, and pink marble, arranged in orderly, perfectly-proportioned geometries, the massive campanile rising into the starless sky, and the youthful crowds, gypsies, and taxis still present at midnight provided spectacular scene. Firenze, immediately, strikes me as a tiny version of Barcelona, but with friendly people, better food, cleaner streets, and yet, unfortunately, really no modern architecture. Coming back to the hotel, excited and nervous for the apartment searching days ahead, I was surprised to hear knocking at the door just as I was about to go to bed. Well, my two “roommates” had some trouble on the flight over, and had just arrived…so much for my own room! I was a little embarrassed, having to reorganized all the stuff I had put around the hotel room, but they were too fatigued to notice or care. We all introduced ourselves, and then off to bed. I didn’t sleep so well the first night, both confused by the time difference and slightly annoyed by the barely-audible noise of heavy rap coming from across the room (courtesy of late-night ipod). View of Southern Firenze and Altrarno (Villas in the hills across the river arno) - Notice on left the white marble facade of Santa Croce

5) La Prima Settimana nella Citta: The first week in Firenze was hectic but very fun, spent finding housing, attending information meetings, filling out paperwork for our residency permits, and adapting to our new home. Each night, I found myself going out with different groups of students, roaming the streets as we got to know each other. One night, we all went to the “Fortezza” to attend the “festa democratica”, which was actually nothing to do with that, rather like a fair, with rides, food stands, art, and music / dancing stations throughout this giant, aged, pentagon-shaped fort. I ended up having my first taste of Italian Gelato (addiction from the first bite) and being forced to dance along with a bunch of children and parents to the inappropriate gestures of a genuinely crazy, Taibo-esque “dance instructor” who intermittently yelled commands to us in Spanish or Italian while showing us which moves to do next. This went on for nearly an hour and we worked up quite a sweat! It was actually a lot of fun, we did a sad version of the YMCA, and shockingly as well, this sweat-covered, leathered pants-adorned, shaved chest-exposed (s)exercise machine of an instructor had a strange obsession with commanding us to do a certain move: asi, asi (in Spanish: like this, like that) while thrusting his hips in a very sexual manner and pumping his fists like a madman... you can probably figure it out (mind you, these were mostly little girls and their parents dancing, besides the five of us awkward Americans). It was at once both hilarious and very disturbing!

Il Duomo: inside the cathedral

Il Duomo: from the terrace

6) L’Appartamento:

I found an apartment the first day, to my relief. I knew of a website online with well-priced student listings, but didn’t think it was legitimate. I kept the address just in case, though, and had two apartments in mind to see if they still existed. We found the place during a break in meetings the first day (Ulysses and I), and to my great surprise it not only did exist, but also still had the apartment I wanted available. Our “agent” Aldo, an youthful ex-patriot Catalan from Barcelona now living in Firenze told us that three other groups had appointments to see it, but if we would go right then he would show it to us. It was only two blocks away from the agency, and immediately I knew it was perfect. It has everything I would have wanted, well almost… while some students don’t have ovens or had to sleep on top of each other in closets, we each have a comfortable, furnished room, lots of windows, a washing machine, dish washer, tiny TV, ample fridge, etc. The best part though, is the location. We can walk to school in five minutes, a park within three minutes has one of the only free dirt soccer fields in town, the grocery store and fresh market are also within three minutes, and downtown is a mere ten minute walk… I couldn’t be happier! I was worried at first about finding roommates and a suitable place, but everything worked out. Our landlady isn’t very nice so far, and doesn’t speak a word of English or slow down in Italian, but we will adapt. It isn’t cheap, overall, but in a fair exchange market this would have been a cheap apartment in San Luis Obispo. Our first conversation was somewhat funny, and extremely awkward, as she tried to show us how everything worked and things NOT TO DO… we just nodded our heads and inside said well shoot, we will have to learn by mistakes I guess! We spent a lot of time that first week finding our preferred atm (Banca Toscana) and going to the American Express office to cash traveler’s cheques (probably wasn’t the best idea to have them…but at least I was able to redeem them for EURO without any charge!… they aren’t excepted really anywhere else it seems! While other students continued to search for apartments, we walked back to the hotel for meals and to meet other students and hang out (oh and use the internet… and what disaster that is in Italy!). We flipped a coin to decide on rooms in the apartment, and although my room has a door and windows (he has a curtain, like me last year!) the noise from the street was so bad the first few nights I slept terribly. Things have been better since. It isn’t too big of a compromise to hang laundry, and as long as the weather is warm enough things dry quickly! We have racks that pop up and stay against the bathroom window. I really like the apartment after one month: we can have people over for smaller dinners, it is spacious for two, everything works, there is even an arsenal of cleaning supplies and tools. Unlike most students, we haven’t had to make a trek to Ikea in the outskirts to get our necessities. The Appartment: Views from the windows

The Appartment: My Room

The Appartment: Living room and kitchen

7) Il Tempo: The weather: This is interesting, as the first two weeks were nearly unbearable, hot and humid to the point where taking a shower was really irrelevant. I sweated, and sweated… and thought it was unbearable (I do live in San Luis Obispo, after all!). Also, mosquitoes find you in the night and everyone was awfully bumpy! Then suddenly, one day the weather just became rather chilly…it rained for a few days, and now it feels like San Luis Obispo in late October or November… on the brink of winter! Good thing I brought a lot of winter clothes! The humidity is gone now, and unlike the first week I sleep under a comforter and another blanket, as opposed to naked on top of the bed without sheets! I hope it doesn’t get much colder too soon, I am not ready for winter (and it gets dark so soon already!). Rumor has it that it even snows occasionally! Il Duomo: Campanile

8) Il Buon Cibo: The Food: MA CERTO, it is great here! A little expensive for some things, other things not as much. I don’t eat out much, but have had a pizza or two that have changed my life. Yes, thin crust can be amazing (can’t wait to go to Sicilia and Napoli). I have eaten pasta, in some form or another, for every night but one or two since being here…… it is getting old! Cereal and milk are expensive, as is soda, beer, some types of meat, and deli items. Cheese is well-priced for the extreme quality, pasta is everywhere, and wine (decent wine) gets on the table for between 5-10 USD. It is sometimes annoying to always have to convert EURO to realize how much everything costs, but I think it isn’t too dramatic at this point to worry (hopefully no more banks collapse!). I have found, so far, many varieties of horse meat in the grocery store, as well as cow stomach (trippa), animal brains, whole squid, and bull testicles at the fresh market. The fresh market is an amazing experience, getting basil and fresh parmigiano-reggiano, tasty salsiccia, il pane fresco, etc… I am in love with the whole experience. As I love food, it is a shoppers (even visually) paradise. I was also extremely happy to see avocadoes do exist in Italy, and will soon do a Mexican night to get away from eating pasta.

9) Il Parco ed Il Calcio: The Park: I go to the park a lot with my roommate to play soccer (calcetto) with the youth there. It is a lot of fun, and very third-world quality. These piccolli Italian monsters are pretty good at soccer, and we get to practice our language skills and school them around for a bit. It is dirt, with rocks, two net-less goals, and holes in the fence so when you score you have to chase the ball out near the street! Sometimes when it rains giant holes open up in the ground (ankle-breakers). It is nice to stay in shape, as I also walk a lot, and run occasionally into the outskirts. It is never quite as pleasant as a nice run in San Luis Obispo, between dodging the tourists and cars. However, a very nice run up to Piazzele Michelangelo offers me a wonderful view of the entire city. The Arno also goes on forever, which provides another scenic, and relatively quite , run.

10) L’Universita:

What else? Il Duomo!

School: I have morning classes all week, and a few night classes as well. For now, this is the PLP: preparatory language program… intensive Italian all morning, and naked drawing and a culture class at night Tuesday and Thursday. I love my Italian class, my teacher Iacopo Berti is very funny, helpful, a typical Italian-and we are learning a lot! I am well ahead of the other students because of my previous studying this summer, and in general my previous experience learning Castilliano in Barcelona. I hope that when school starts, perhaps, I can pass into a higher level class as I am started to get a little bored. It has been nice being more relaxed, but architecture is just around the corner! The nude drawing class is sometimes fun, other times awkward, and trying. It is hard to draw the human body! Also, we often have homework to go out and sketch famous statues amongst the tourists, which is a disaster (si dice, “que disastro” here, which is hilarious to say for pretty much anything that goes wrong in life)…The culture class is great, we have learned so far about Milano and its environs, Sicilia and the Mafia, and basic things about how Italy works (or doesn’t). Overall, homework is increasing in all classes, so the free time is starting to fade. Oh well…it was great while it lasted. My Italian is coming along well, although not at the pace of Castilliano. I don’t speak it all day, of course, but have been able to have decent conversations with our new Italian friends Suaro and Ivan, who often come over for dinners or go out with us to play soccer at the park. I can understand a lot better after a month, and feel confident that in a few more months I will feel fine talking if I have to! Our friend Ivan is out of high school, and has gone to a cooking school, so he often offers to make us dinners if we chip in money… who could say no! It is very interesting watching him cook, and tell me the differences between what American’s perceive as Italian cooking, and the reality. Unfortunately (for us), he is moving permanently to Minnesota in a month, to work at his uncle’s Italian Ristorante near Minneapolis, so our friendship remains short-lived. In the meantime, however, we have decided to help him learn L’Inglese once a week in exchange for a little Italian dialogue. Artistic Expression

Il Duomo: Lookiing down


i ag g i

f i n o




View of Firenze from Fiesole

Fiesole (Toscana Centrale): A nearby Etruscan hill town, overlooking Firenze. Quiet, beautiful, nearly void of tourists. We spent a day up there exploring (my roommate and I), sketching, and taking photos. There is a small church, picturesque cemetery, art museum, various cafes, and ancient Etruscan ruins to view. Through the olive trees: Duomo in distance

Typical Florentine Window

Viareggio (Costa Mediterranea Toscana): A coastal resort beach town: we just wanted to go swim in the sea, but upon arriving by train we had to walk several miles up the coast to find the first public beach (not umbrellas and cabanas and Gucci stores)… it was 50 ft. wide and packed! The water was amazing though, salty, with stormy waves… really beautiful. I had my first pizza there...yum! Lots of Speedos and tan Italians, of course. From the beach we could see north towards Carrara, famous excavation site for coveted Italian marble. Farther up the coast, although I didn’t know it at the time, would be the region of Liguria (capital: Genova) where Le Cinque Terre are found. Viareggio: a panorama

Viareggio: Cool Boardwalk Architecture (look James, a glulam!)

Volterra, San Gimignano, e la casa di Machiavelli (Toscana Sud): Our first class trip: we traveled in charter buses to the nearby (relatively) Tuscan hill towns of Volterra and San Gimignano. Volterra was a small, medieval wall-enclosed city with a nice art museum and a spectacular view of the surrounding valleys. San Gimignano, which had at one time 70 towers, and now has around 15, was more touristy, but beautiful, again walled-in, and had its own special wine called Vernaccia (varnish). The story goes something like this: the town was being controlled and taxed by another (probably Firenze, as always) and so when they had to give up their wine, they put varnish in it to make it taste bad as a way to get back at their oppressors. Today, it stills tastes this way! Afterwards, we took a bus and visited the house of Machiavelli outside Firenze, where the famous political thinker was exiled by the Medici. It had an amazing wine cellar with the strangest enormous oval barrels I’ve ever seen, that were over 100 years old and still used! Afterwards, we had our first meal at a restaurant! Antipasto: 6 types of Tuscan crostini… with bruschetta of course, but also duck liver pate… tastes like cat food! Primo piatto: ribolitta (reboiled), a bread and vegetable stew (simply amazing). Secondo Piatto: chicken, sausage, pork ribs, potatoes… all covered in oil (delicious). Dolce: Vin Santo (amazing desert wine), with biscotti (twice cooked). Plus, of course, amazing wine from the house of Machiavelli vineyards and unsalted bread with olio e aceto balsamico! I was full and awfully happy 4 hours later! San Gimignano: View of surrounding countryside

San Gimignano: View of the towers

Volterra: View from atop museum terrace

Volterra: Art museum cortile

San Gimignano: Ulysses and Me

Volterra: Amazing fresco in art museum

Volterra: Architectural roof details

Volterra: Typical door

Greve in Chianti (Toscana Centrale): Chianti Classico Wine Festival: A few weeks ago, the harvest festival occurred in Chianti, in a small town called Greve. I went with some friends, it rained the whole time, but we had a blast. Basically unlimited sampling of the best of Chianti (if you like Chianti) and Vin Santo. We met a few friendly wineries, and others that were like car salesmen. Wine is huge in Italy, if you haven’t realized by now! I also had the best pizza ever at the lunch-time break between tasting. The bus ride was insane, carsickness inducing, through the hills and cliffs of Tuscany. I would love to go back with Brooke just to see the town and the quaint wine shops! No pictures here, but check on! Cornigila

Le Cinque Terre (Costa Mediterranea Liguria): Cinque Terre: It would take too long to sum this up, but by far my favorite place in Italy so far! A full day of hiking covers five amazing coastal towns, views you can’t believe (like Big Sur in Italy). Warm water (barely now), a mountain hike to a monastery, thousands of stone steps and walls and terraced vineyards with juicy grapes ready for the harvest (which did occur in part that Sunday we were there!). I can’t recommend this enough for a nature enthusiast, food lover, etc. I can’t wait to return! Vernazza

Vernazza from afar

View from the Monestaro Savioro

At the monestary Chapel to the virgin of Savioro

The climb to Corniglia

Parking expert

The terraced vineyards and landslides

Room with a view

Vernazza from somewhat afar

Take a load off...

Chiesa at Manarola


Vernazza rooftops

La Vendemmia (harvest) above Vernazza

The “Vineyard Rollercoaster�

End of the line...

Il Duomo

Cosi, oggi diventa domani... Well, as you can see, things here have been busy. This is arguably the first day off I have taken since arriving…in the meantime, I hope all is well with you. Let me know what you have been up to by email if you have a moment (though please don’t write as much as me!). So far, Italy has been all I hoped it would be, I am very content (although the honeymoon is starting to be over). I miss you all, especially my lovely girlfriend (who I will seen soon enough). This next month holds for me a charity run through Florence, the start of our school’s soccer season against other American Universities, the end of PLP, a trip to Barcelona during the break, and many more busy days for sure! Until next month, Arrivederci e ciao


Sincerely Yours,

Chris Wagner (ps write me with questions in case I haven’t covered something you wanted to hear about, or want to know more in depth about).

Settembre 2008  

Stories from Florence and Abroad

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