Tuesday, January 18, 2011

My Italian Family, and home away from home

My Italian Family
Florence University of the Arts, the school I attended while in Italy offered a special program called the “Italian Family Club”. The organizer of the program receives application from both students, and families who are willing to participate, and match you up together based on what you’re looking for.  They said it is their most popular extracurricular program and it is hard to find a match for all those who would like to participate. Although it sounded like a long shot, I decided to turn in an application in hopes of getting a match.

About 3 weeks later, I received an e-mail from the coordinator of the program informing me that they had found me a match and there was a mandatory “pairing dinner” the next week. I was so excited! Our first dinner was fine, but a little awkward as we were just meeting and didn’t speak much of the others language. The mothers English was very good, and the father had a pretty good grasp of what I was saying most of the time. We were sitting with another family and their new “match”, and did not speak English near as well as my family. We planned to meet up the next week for a carnival in their hometown.

To get to their town, I had to walk to the train station, which was about 15 minutes from my apartment. Then I had to hop on the city tram that goes to the other cities outside of Florence. It took about 25 minutes to get to their town, Scandicci. The first night we decided to meet, I got off at their tram stop, the mother and twin ten year old children, Bianca and Lorenzo, were waiting for me with a big red balloon. They were in an argument about something, which just goes to show that 10-year-olds are the same just about everywhere you go.

We walked around the carnival, scoping out the rides, food, outdoor market (similar to a flea market), and indoor market selling food from all over the Tuscany region. After this, we headed back to their apartment for dinner.

Every night after this, it was just about the same routine. I would ride the tram out to their town, walk to their home, and just hang out in a real Italian family atmosphere. Most nights, I would play card games with the kids, help them with their English homework, play Wii and help cook dinner. My Italian really improved the first few weeks with them, as I had to think of words in order to have a conversation with them. The mother’s English was really great and she was always willing to help. I often had questions on words, phrasing, and my Italian homework that they were all able to answer. That was such a big help!
One thing that was cool about the Italian culture was how big of a production every single dinner was. I was excited to learn that my Italian mother made every meal from scratch and also served it in the typical manner of Italian tradition. I was able to cook with her and learn to make many great dishes, which was one of my goals before going to Italy (learn to cook from a real Italian).

My family's tiny apartment
Each dinner consists of 5, or even 6 courses and you are so full by the end without eating too much of any one single thing. They would always start with pasta (my favorite was a beet spaghetti, it doesn’t sound or look particularly amazing, but it was!), after pasta, they have salad (no dressings for salads in Italy. They just use olive oil, vinegar, and sometimes a little salt). After salad, they sit for a little bit and just relax and then have a meat. Our family usually had pork, or some kind of beef (steak or roast). Next, they rest for a little bit and then have bread, cheese and wine. Then, for dessert, they have either some kind of cake or bar (my Italian mother did all of her dessert cooking with chestnut flour, which I am not sure is typical of all Italian families or not) and fruit. Now if that doesn’t put you into a food coma, I don’t know what would!

My favorite meal we had, beet pasta
It is crazy to think that all Italians are thin when they seem to eat so much at every meal. I believe there are a few reasons for this. Most food in Italy, and other parts of Europe, is bought fresh. They go to the grocery store every day to buy their food for the night, and the next days meals. Therefore, they are not packed with preservatives like a lot of the food here in the U.S. Another reason they are so thin is portion control. They are able to eat smaller amounts of each food and get every food group into their daily meals. Another reason is all the walking they do.  Not all families own their own vehicles, so you end up walking everywhere, especially if you live in the city center of town.

I also learned a lot about the school systems, sports and other things the children were involved in. I learned that every public school in Italy has catholic religion classes. Although they are usually optional and can be replaced with another class, I found it odd that they offer religion in schools. Having the pope in your country sure changes many things.

I became really close with the 16 year old, Tomasso, who really liked American music and playing the guitar. He was pretty shy in the beginning and wouldn’t talk much, but really opened up in the last few weeks I was there. He understood my sarcasm, which is not something that all foreigners caught. I taught the kids how to play the card game “spoons”, which is pretty popular with my family at home. We had so much fun with that game and played it almost every time we were together.
Their 16-year-old son, Tomasso
Top 5 things I leaned from my Italian family:

1: most Italians live in apartments, as the cost of living is so high and they don’t see sharing close quarters as a problem.

2: Kids are kids everywhere you go. They can be crazy, spoiled, whiney, and immature. That is not just an American thing. They do however have a much wider scope of the world and other countries. I was surprised at how much they knew about the American culture and history.

3: Great cooking techniques and amazing recipes that I can carry with me for the rest of my life.

4: All about European football (soccer). Tomasso and the father were football fanatics and I typically got the low down on the rankings for the week for both Italy and the rest of Europe. Soccer is a religion in Europe unlike any sport we have here. 

5: There’s no place like home, but having people who treat you like family sure makes a big difference! 

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Italian Opera

 Thursday, December 9th

The amazing orchestra and subtitles above the stage.
On Thursday night, we had the opportunity to attend the Italian Opera with our program. We went to see “Toscana”, which is a love story about a man who escapes from prison, and a woman from a royal family. Basically, there is a lot of drama and most of the characters end up dead. Typical love story, right?

It was so much fun getting all dressed up and going to this beautiful opera house with my friends. The Opera was completely in Italian, but had subtitles for all the words (in Italian as well) over the stage. This was actually pretty helpful in figuring out what the heck they were singing. Their voices were amazing and the orchestra was out of this world. What a great cultural experience! `

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Bern, the capitol city of the most beautiful place i've ever seen!

Oh Bern... You're pretty great...
Rows of pretty snowcapped houses along the river
On Sunday, we headed to Bern to be tourists for the day. Bern is the capital of Switzerland and is known for being the city of bears. I didn't really understand this until we were walking by the river and saw two huge bears just hanging out in the snow. Pretty cool!
Scenic river walk
One of the bears near the river, just hanging out..
We basically just walked around and stopped at the various Christmas markets they had throughout the city.  Bern was all decked out for Christmas with lights above every street and lots of huge wreaths and other decorations. All these decorations and traditional holiday music is making me more and more excited for Christmas, but I don't think I will be in my usual Christmas spirit until I am back in Wisconsin.
The cool trees in the middle of the Christmas market.
You can see the tents around the square. Many cute things!
We took the train back to Interlaken, walked down ANOTHER long christmas market (I'm about all Christmas marketed out at this point) loaded our things on the bus, and headed back to Florence. What a weekend, huh? I can't believe everything that I saw and experienced in just 4 days! I can't wait to return to Switzerland, that is for sure!
Christmas market (in German/Swiss), this sums up
most of our day on Sunday
Story of my life: A swan living amongst a bunch of ducks...
haha, only joking! 

Happy Birthday Grandma Saltzman! I hope you had a wonderful day and can't wait to see you in just over two weeks for christmas! I love you! 


Zurich, Switzerland
Beautiful river on a beautiful day! 
Saturday morning, my friends Taylor, Alyssa and I boarded a bus en route to Zurich, Switzerland! The ride there was so scenic. Actually, scenic is kind of an understatement. I’m not even sure what I would consider this. Something out of a storybook, maybe? Anyways, we arrived in Zurich and our guide pointed out all the “hot spots” (Christmas markets, shopping districts, best cafĂ©’s, and most importantly chocolate stores) and we were on our way. We spent most of the day wandering around Zurich and admiring the beautiful river, bridges, shops, churches, and overall happiness of the Swiss culture. I don’t know what it was, but everyone was SO CHEERFUL!
The river running through the historic center of town
was so picturesque! There were even swans! 

The buildings all appeared to be right out of a book! So
colorful and cute! The christmas decorations were also
a very nice touch! 

For lunch, we decided to get Sushi (don’t ask me why. It was really calling our names I guess.) we went in and were seated at a table with a husband and wife, and their three kids (twin 2 ½ year olds and a one year old, it was a crazy lunch!). they were SO nice and were very interested in hearing about our time abroad. The husband was born and raised near Zurich and spoke 7 languages! He went on to explain that because Switzerland doesn’t have an official language, most people know four or more languages. We found this pretty crazy, but I suppose most people in Europe are like that. The wife was from the Denmark and was a little more shy, but very sweet. As the family got up to leave, they told us our bill had already been taken care of. Our mouths dropped and we tried to tell him NO WAY, but he said we were so sweet and he wouldn’t want us getting a bad impression of Zurich and Switzerland because it was so expensive. WHAT?!? These people are so nice! Who does that?! Seriously! THEN, to top it off, he said someday one of us can come and repay them by being their au pair. WHAT?!?  This was a little freaky because just 20 minutes before going into the restaurant, I was telling my friends about how I would love to be an au pair overseas for a summer sometime and how amazing it would be. So, I obviously got his card and tucked it safely in my wallet. What a productive lunch! Oh the people you meet (in sushi restaurants in Zurich, Switzerland).
An outdoor festival with hot wine and
christmas music. It was so relaxing!
A frozen fountain we found in a little square
After lunch, we walked around a large indoor Christmas market (actually the largest in all of Europe) and had some bratwurst before heading back to Interlaken. It was a beautiful (and chilly) day in Zurich that I am so glad we had the chance to experience. 
A huge tree in the indoor christmas markets
that was covered with Swarovski crystals

Winter Wonderland

Interlaken, Switzerland
a.k.a Most beautiful place I've ever seen
On top of the mountain right before I went Paragliding
This weekend was the best weekend of my life! (yes yes, I know I’ve said this before, but this is a serious thing! Switzerland was completely amazing!) Three of my friends from Florence and I took a trip through “Bus2Alps” up to Interlaken, Switzerland for some beautiful snow and mountain time. We left Florence at 7:00 pm Thursday night and arrived at our hostel in Interlaken at 3:00 am. We were pretty exhausted from the long day and bus ride and had no trouble falling asleep. We went right to bed so we would be able to get up early and not waste a day in the alps.
A cozy little mountain side village! 
Friday morning, we woke up at 7 and walked to the ski rental shop to book our activities for the weekend. There was already a long line waiting outside the door, so I’m glad we decided to do this early. My friends signed up for cliff jumping (yes it was just as scary as it sounds) and I signed up for paragliding in the afternoon. We also signed up for night sledding on a mountain followed by a fondue dinner. After this, we went back to the hostel for some breakfast and then relaxed until it was time for our activities!  
Waiting in line at 7:00 am at the ski chalet to book our activities
(we were a little tired, and grumpy, and not wearing much make-up)
A shuttle bus came to pick me up at the hostel at 1:30, and I was off to paraglide! Paragliding is a free-flying, foot-launched aircraft, a lot like hang gliding. The difference between the two is how you sit. When you paraglide, you're sitting upright in an actual little seat where as hang gliding is done on your stomach. It was a very comfortable ride and seemed easy to maneuver. It was basically like the second part of skydiving because its just a big parachute.
Me and my pilot Tom, gliding away!
I met a new friend who was also on her own for the afternoon, which made the experience much more fun. We picked up a couple guys at the next hostel, and were off to the mountain! Our four “pilots” had just gotten down from their last “flight” and rode back up to the top of the mountain in the van with us. They were all Swiss and were having a big laugh about something the whole way up the mountain. I think I could listen to Swiss/Germans talk all day! I love that language! We got a little bit of a crash course which included: "We drive up the mountain, we run down the hill, we fly, easy!". Oh boy.....
Our pilots getting the parachutes ready to take flight
Once at the top of the hill, we got out of the van and had to walk up yet another hill (as if we weren't high enough already!). The view was SO beautiful! It was one of the most amazing sights I’ve ever seen! Our pilots began to lay out our parachutes as we snapped endless pictures of the beautiful snowy mountains, enormous sparkling lake, and cute town of Interlaken below us.
One of the guys running down the hill for "take-off"!
Then the pilots started hooking us in our seats. The thing we sat on was actually pretty cool. It looked like a big backpack with a seat in the front for me, and a kind of sling behind it for him.  We stood on the side of the hill and my new friends started taking off one by one. Basically, you just start running when he tells you, (the parachute was dragging behind us) and all of a sudden, the wind from the top of the mountain picked us right up off the ground, and we were gliding away! It was such an incredible feeling!
All the suspension ropes! Pretty cool picture! 
We floated over a little village right in the mountainside, and then down over the lake. We floated way down, and then back up (I’m still not sure how that was even possible!) He swooped so close to a Cliffside that I could touch the trees with my feet! Then we started soaring down towards Interlaken as I got my own private tour of the city, from the sky! We did a couple loops and spirals, and then it was time to land. What an amazing experience that was. SO INCREDIEBLE!
Interlaken and the lake that borders it

Up in the air, doing a few loops before landing. 
In the evening, we rented our gear for night sledding and hopped on the bus to the sledding mountain. It was very cool to see all the different Christmas decorations throughout the town that come alive at night. They really go ALL OUT with Christmas lights, which reminded me of home.  We got to the sled chalet and unloaded the little sleds from an attic area. I have never been so excited to see a sled before! I felt like I was about 10 years old again! We then got on a little gondola that took us straight up the mountain to the very top.
My friends and I all geared up for night sledding! 
Once everyone was at the top, (there were about 30 of us) we got blinker lights to hang on our backs, got a 2 minutes briefing on how to steer, stop, and emergency stop (more important than you think!), and headed down the mountain. It was such a cool experience, speeding on a moonlit pathway down a mountain in my snow pants, laughing until my stomach hurt with my friends. Probably not something I will ever do again! We stopped on the way down a couple of times for the leader to tell us about something or point something out. At one point, we walked into the woods a little ways to see a huge frozen waterfall and unfrozen river flowing underneath us.
Night sledding!
My friend Katie and I 
Once we were down the mountain, we put our sleds away and drove to a little restaurant for a traditional Swiss meal. The restaurant owners were the cutest Swiss couple I have ever seen! We had an amazing warm meal of hash browns, beef in a creamy mushroom sauce, and salad (very different from all the pasta we’re used to). After this, they brought out big pots of fondue for every table. So tasty and filling after being out in the cold all day! 
yummy fondue!
After a long day of many fun and exciting activities, we all took showers, and grabbed some huge mugs of hot chocolate for a little treat before bed.  We were out pretty quick after a very satisfying day in the Swiss alps.  J

Our hostel in Interlaken. So cute! 

Tuesday, November 30, 2010


Beautiful, beautiful view of the ocean, coastline, mountain
and winding roads. Totally in love! 

On Sunday, we decided to take a bus tour into the Sicilian countryside, and I am so glad we did. The tour included the four of us, an older Brazilian couple, a driver, and 21-year-old English speaking guide named Antonio (who was adorable). We first drove to an ancient ruins site that reminded me a lot of the structures in Rome. We took a shuttle bus way way up a hill to another site, which included some more smaller ruins and a huge theater that overlooks the countryside, as far as you can see. It was such a beautiful day, although the wind was a bit strong when we were so high up.

ancient ruins
amphitheater on the top of the hill
After this, we hopped back in our van and headed to our next location. We had no idea that when it said “salt lakes” on the tour pamphlet, it literally meant “salt lakes”, where the make salt by evaporating sea water from little pools on the coast, until they’re left with sea salt. It was actually kind of cool to see hundreds of these long pools along the ocean. There was also a “salt museum”, which we all opted out of. Who knows if we will someday regret that, but I’m fairly confident it was a good decision. Our guide, Antonio, was so funny and spoke English very well. He is actually traveling to the United States in 2 weeks for over a month. We got a picture together and the brazilian couple said it was our engagement picture. From there on out, we spent the rest of the day planning our wedding and life together. I told him he could meet my family when he is in the U.S. over christmas. I can about imagine the looks on everyones faces! ha ha. It was all pretty funny. I suppose it wouldn't be so bad marrying someone from Sicily. I will have summers free, you know.  :)
Our tour guide, Antonio 
a couple of the salt lakes
Our third and final stop was a medieval village at the top of a mountain. It was a little eerie when we first arrived as it had just began raining and it was a bit of a ghost town. We walked around the little village, admired the views, and beautiful brick streets. There was also a huge castle up on the hill that we came across. It reminded me of scenery you would maybe find in Scotland or Ireland. With so much green grass and beautiful castles and views. After too short of a time in this medieval town, we headed back down the mountain and through the countryside to Palermo. Sicily was such a beautiful place and I would love to rent a car and spend a couple of weeks here at some point in my life. The people were also really distinct and were everything I had pictured when hearing about Sicilians in the past. When we returned, we decided we were a little sick of pasta and pizza every night and went to a cute Chinese restaurant for dinner. We had such a fun meal and ate WAY too much. It sure was a nice change though!

Castle in the medieval town of Erchie
The next morning, we took a very interesting taxi ride back to the Palermo airport, a plane back to Pisa, and a city bus to the leaning tower. We decided we may as well check out this world famous monument while we were so close. It was pretty funny to see all the different families and groups of people lining themselves up to take  the famous picture, holding up leaning tower. We follow suit and snapped a couple of our own. You can’t go to Pisa and not take the picture! I was also very surprised at how beautiful the tower was. The pictures really don’t do it much justice and it is much taller than I had expected. We decided not to climb the tower (you never know when its actually going to fall!) and just take the pictures for today. I was happy to have finally done this, as Pisa is only about an hour from Florence.
What would they do without me, right? 
We had such a great and relaxing weekend in Sicily. I am so glad Kara and her friends had the opportunity to come visit me. Their visit made my time in Italy move a little quicker, and gave me something to look forward to. It was sad to see them leave, but I am so thankful for our time together. 

Tuscan wine tour with Kara

Just a few hours after my parents left, I met my cousin Kara and her two friends, Shannon and Rachel, at the train station. They had been traveling for almost a week before coming to Florence, stopping first in Paris and Venice. They had an amazing time in Venice and all thought it was a really great place. We hopped on a bus and headed out into the Tuscan countryside for a little wine tasting. It was the first beautiful sunny day I can remember in a few weeks, so we really lucked out. The bus took us to a little Tuscan town, and then to a castle which is where we had our tasting. We took a tour of the estate and inside the castle, where the family who owns the vineyard still lives today. The family also made olive oil and it was very cool to see that whole process as well. After returning to Florence, we got settled at their hotel and then headed out for dinner, which consisted of huge bowls of yummy Gelato. What a beautiful day!
The four of us in Tuscany.
Me, Rachel, Kara, and Shannon
Beautiful countryside and Beautiful sunshine!  :)
A couple of the huge storage vats.
They use oak to give the wine a better taste. 
Kara and I with Lorenzo, an 80-year-old man who has lived
and worked in the castle for 60 years and only took off one
week for his wedding and honeymoon. Pretty
spectacular story. 
On Thursday, I had class all morning so they hung out, checked out the leather markets, and went to see David at the Academia Gallery. They too thought it was a pretty incredible sight and much different than they expected. We took a hike up to Piazzale Michelangelo to enjoy the sunset. I'm so glad the weather was so pleasant! 
Kara and I at Piazzale Michelangelo 
The next morning, we got up early en route to Palermo, Sicily. We took a train to the Pisa airport and then a flight into Palermo. We took a taxi from there to our hotel in the city center of Palermo, which is a huge, urban city located on the North West side of the island. The weather was beautiful and much warmer than the weather in Florence. What a nice change to see this bright sun! The landscape outside the city was amazing. Huge cliffs that jutted almost out of nowhere and long mountain ranges in the distance. This made me very excited, as we really had no idea what Sicily had to offer. We spent most of the afternoon relaxing at the hotel after our long day of traveling, and then went out for a nice dinner in the evening. It was so nice just to hang out with Kara and her friends as I haven’t seen her since my birthday in July.
One of the crazy trees at the English Garden
in Palermo, Sicily
one cannoli, two cannoli, three cannoli, four!
On Saturday, we explored Palermo for most of the day and took our time walking around and seeing all the sights. There were beautiful churches and cathedrals, huge grassy parks, and a beautiful coastline. We had no idea Palermo had such a large city center and so many things to visit. We also stopped for some huge Cannoli’s and were on a bit of a “sugar high” for the rest of the night because of it. We ended the night with a  bottle of wine back at the hotel. What a perfect ending for such a stress free day.