Overwhelming is one of few words appropriate to describe our first week of classes in Florence.
Everyone was running around every day trying to get housing and classes settled, which consisted of a lot of bitchiness and a lot of crying (although not on my part). I love having a big group of friends, but a lot of the time it is tough to satisfy everyone’s specific wants, needs, and complaints. We all wanted to make sure that we were able to do the excursions together, such as going to Pisa, Siena, The Uffizi, the David, etc., but when all 180 of us are swarming around the sign-up table four-year-olds, it makes the coordination difficult. Everything worked out in the end, and we all signed up for the things we wanted to do.
On Monday, all absolute beginners started their Italian classes, while anyone who was trying to place into a higher level took the written and oral placement tests. The grammar was challenging because my Italian class last semester was oral expression, therefore we did not review much of the grammar. The guy who I talked to for the oral part of the exam said my Italian was good, which was nice to hear. I was one of five people in our entire program who placed into the highest level.
We had a meeting about our housing, which was a bit pointless—we knew everything already. They had gone over most of what was in the housing handbook they gave us at our orientation meeting, which all of us actually read rather thoroughly. But the way they do the housing is ridiculously chaotic. They do a great job of trying to place us together based on the housing forms we sent to the housing director back in November, but in the few short days we have known each other, everyone has made friends and formed groups of people who they would feel comfortable living with. Then, if we were not happy with the people we are living with or where we are living, we had a week to finalize our living situation by moving names around on the board where our apartment assignments were posted. Most of the guys did not have a problem with their housing because they are a lot less catty than girls. Many people feel like they got screwed over with housing and some people are just so stingy and cannot accept where they are placed to live, therefore they HAVE to live move to be closer to their friends otherwise they will not be happy. Fortunately, I was placed with one of my roommates now, Sinead, and another girl named Katherine, who seems to be really nice. We are living on Via del Boschette 21, which is apparently near the Colosseum, so that will be fun.
The program set up a welcome cocktail for us on Monday night at a restaurant called Colle Bereto in the center of town. We all went and had little appetizers and wine and I was able to relax a little bit.
We started our classes on Tuesday, except no one informed us that Advanced Italian starts at 9 instead of 9:30 like the other classes. It was embarrassing to walk into class thirty minutes late on the first day, and is considered rude by Italian professors. My teacher, was very cool about it, and just chuckled at us when we walked in. This class is a lot like the classes I took when I was in Florence two years ago: in addition to the seven American students in the class, there are about ten other students of all ages from other countries, which adds a fun atmosphere to the classroom. They are from Switzerland, France, Portugal, Spain, and Brazil, and range in age from 20 to 60ish. Most of them speak French (Switzerland and France), but it amazing to hear the different accents from the different parts of the country, and sometimes they do not all understand each other. To me, the two women from France have the strongest difference in accents. Celine is from Southern France (I believe) and has a deeper, more throaty accent than Maria Elena, who hails from Paris. Her voice is high and squeaky, her posture is rigid, and she is very fashionable. (The best way I can describe her will only make sense to Harry Potter readers: She reminds me of Dolores Umbridge in The Order of the Phoenix. It is quite hilarious, actually—she make those squeaky coughing noises when she says something and I cannot help but laugh).
While we are in Florence, our classes run from 9-12:45 every day. They are divided into conversational and grammar, with a half-hour break in between because Italians love their coffee (but only in the morning). Rosanna explained to us on the first day that Italian is mandatory for the duration of our stay in Italy because it is integral to know the language of the country we are living in (of course I agree with her). I like the conversational part of the class better (which is pretty standard), because it is more fun and I like that professor, Paolo, more. The grammar class is tedious and boring, and my professor, Ugo, is sarcastic and sometimes unforgiving of mistakes. Most of the other European students in the class know their own language, English, speak Italian very well, and probably know another language or five. All of this grammar is review for me, but I am finding myself having to relearn the rules of the tenses and there are SO many of them. I know it will make my Italian that much better, but getting to that point is pretty taxing.
After our classes on Tuesday, we had a meeting with Rosanna (our director) about academics. She just gave a brief overview of where our classes are held, what classes are like, and what we should expect from our Italian professors. I will be taking an art history course on the High Renaissance, a communications course on the History of Italian Cinema, an English class on Greek and Roman Mythology, and Advanced Italian. Classes in Rome run Monday through Thursday, and Fridays are reserved for mandatory class trips to museums and things. All of my classes sound really cool, and they are all mostly subject I have not studied before.
For our first Italian excursion, we went to Siena on Wednesday. I went to Siena once when I was in Florence before, but I did not explore it as thoroughly as I wanted to. It is a tiny, hilly, walled-in city surrounded by five miles of brick walls. Siena is made up of seventeen neighborhoods, or contrade, in Italian. They are each represented by an animal, which range from a goose to a rhino to a unicorn. They each have their coat of arms and the lines of their neighborhoods are clearly defined by plaques where each begins and ends. Twice over the summer, once in July and once in August, Siena holds the Palio, a horse race between the contrade, in the Piazza del Campo (the main town square). This is when the neighborhoods are able to duke out their rivalries that date back to the foundation of Siena. Each contrada has a jockey and a horse, and if they win the coveted title of Palio champion, they earn bragging rights and a flag (aptly called “the Palio”) for the year.
We headed towards the cathedral, which literally appeared out of nowhere. We were walking up a hill and came to a sudden clearing where we were faced with the ornate façade of the Siena Cathedral. The white, green, and red marble is similar to that of the Duomo in Florence but the front of this cathedral is softer and more delicate: overall it is just prettier. Inside the cathedral was even more impressive than the outside. Strangely, however, the nave is lined with massive black and white striped pillars, which have an extremely looming effect and I felt like they completely dwarfed my existence. The floor is tiled with red, black, and white marble that tell stories of the Bible in a beautiful way. This was my favorite church thus far.
We climbed a few more hills and out of nowhere appeared the gigantic Piazza del Campo. It is a lot bigger than you would imagine, especially for being in the middle of such a tiny city. The last time I was there it was full of people, but this time there were only a couple of college students sitting in the sloping center doing their homework in the twilight. We went into the main building, the town hall (with the famous clock tower) and looked around in there, which was not very exciting.
(I apologize for this anecdote, but I must make another Twilight reference. Il Piazza del Campo is exactly what I picture for the scene in New Moon where Edward is hiding in the shadows and about to step out into the sun. And by the way, Shash, they are filming New Moon in Italy while I am here—we are going to find out precisely where they are filming and are going to stalk them and meet Robert Pattinson if it the last thing we do).
On Thursday we went to the Galleria dell’Accedemia to see the magnificent David, who is most definitely the most beautiful man I will see while I am in Italy, and there are hardly words to describe the experience. He was just as breathtaking as the first time I saw him: I sincerely doubt a sculpture with that kind of brilliance will ever be duplicated in anyone’s lifetime.
It rained again on Friday, surprise, surprise. It was my friend Brenna’s birthday, so we decided to go to go on a program-sponsored trip to Chianti to go wine tasting. Just like everything else in Tuscany, the castle where the wine tasting took place was beautiful. We tasted five different kinds of wine, and were served garlic and olive oil foccacia with pecorino cheese, which of course were delicious.
We had planned to spend the day on Saturday shopping, and surprisingly the driving rain did not deter us from spending all day diving into shoe store after shoe store until we had been in every single shoe store in the greater Duomo area. My Uggs were soaked by the time we returned to the hotel: they had transformed from chestnut to dark brown. Unfortunately I did not find what I was looking for—I had this perfect vision of camel-colored boots that I wanted to find and would not settle for anything less.
We celebrated Brenna’s birthday on Saturday by going to my favorite restaurant in Florence, Trattoria 4 Leoni (Four Lions). I went three or four times when I was in Florence last time and have been dreaming about their food ever since. We had a party of eighteen and an entire room to ourselves, and raised the volume of the restaurant as we ate and drank the best of Florence. I had been talking about my favorite pasta since we arrived in London: fiochetti (which look like little sacks) filled with pears and drenched in a creamy cheese sauce. All six of us sitting at my table ordered the pasta, and basically died and went to heaven when they ate it. As my friend Carly took the last bite of her pasta, she said “Ciao mi amore,” and consequently we all laughed hysterically. Dinner ended with what I think is the best tiramisu in the city and a bottle of Prosecco (Italian champagne). I could eat that meal for the rest of my life and be perfectly content.
Albeit hectic, the first week here has been great.