A chill wind is blowing through the trees and rain clouds threaten overhead as I reflect on the past week’s adventures, sitting on the back porch of our monastery-apartment overlooking the countryside of Tuscany. Though the weather has not been accommodatinglately, we did not let it dictate our plans for theweek. Four-fifths of the way through our time in Italy we completed projects on Dante’s Inferno, cooked an entire Italian meal from scratch under the guidance of a real chef,explored the Wednesday market of Siena,and took a weekend trip to Venice, the City of Love.
Tuesday afternoon Dr. Parker gave us an introduction to the poet Dante Alighieri. Native to Florence, Dante wrote his masterpiece the Divine Comedy, an epic three-part poem about a journey through Hell to reach Purgatory and finally Paradise. Because our study time in Italy is limited, Dr. Parker chose for us to study only The Inferno, which covers the arguably most interesting portion of the epic –Hell. Each of us were given about three Cantos, or chapters, to study and present on to the class. We spent our afternoon classes on Tuesday and Wednesday recounting Dante’s travels down through the depths of Hell to the very center of the earth. The grotesque but creative imagery of Dante’s Hell held everyone captivated.
I have to say that one of our class’s most favorite activities so far was the cooking class. Tuesday after class we all trouped down to the kitchen of the school where we were met by our Italian professor, Enzo, and a bona fide Italian chef named Nando. Both were dressed in traditional chefs’ uniforms of white. They provided us each with a disposable apron and a list of the dishes we would be making. The dinner for the evening consisted of a crostini (toast) appetizer with sardine toppings, fresh pasta with tomato and pesto sauce –all made from scratch, a dish of turkey rolled with vegetable paste, and rich tiramisu.
Once we had all heard Nando’s explanations of how to make the varying dishes and sauces, we spread out around the kitchen and set to work. Joe and I watched several of the others start mixing and kneading the pasta dough before we found something to do. By carefully separating the eggs, yolk from white, we started the process of making the tiramisu. Later we traded the tiramisu over to someone else and helped to cut the pasta and lay it out on trays. With great guidance and direction from Enzo and Nando, we soon had an amazing meal prepared and we were all hungry and ready to eat.
The meal was beyond superb. We enjoyed each dish immensely, savoring them with white and red wine. The entire meal must have taken close to two hours just to eat because we all took the time to really taste the food. There is no meal so satisfying as one that you have cooked personally, especially when it is new to your tongue and fills your stomach just right.
The next morning we visited the market of Siena as a class, professors included. Some of us had shopped there on previous Wednesdays, but Enzo wanted the chance to show us around, relating things we saw to what we had learned in class. Markets in Italy are much like flea markets at home. Vendors set up their temporary booths and watch them fill with people, ready to haggle for the best price. It can be extremely hard to move through the market because of the crowds, but if you find something you really like, chances are you can get it for a fairly low price.
First Enzo took us through the part of the market where abbigliamenti, or clothing, is sold. All kinds of styles are represented there, from trendy dresses and shirts, to leather jackets, and lacy underwear. The next section contained scarpe, or shoes. The endless types of shoes have a wide range of prices, but vendors are often willing to bargain with shoppers. I was tempted several times by stylish high heels, but in this case I decided I could get similar prices at home. Last we looked at paste, the Italian word for food. You can buy cooked meats like chicken and rabbit, cold prosciutto, fried potatoes, mozzarella balls, fresh fruits, and more. By this time my stomach was growling so, on Enzo’s recommendation, I bought some small chicken legs and mozzarella balls to share with Joe. We also bought a couple juicy nectarines before heading back to the school for our second class.
At 6 a.m. the next morning, everyone stumbled down the long hill to the train station, backpacks loaded for the weekend trip to Venice. We had to walk because the buses do not run so bright and early. When we reached the station, we boarded a bus to Bologna. Everyone slept for the majority of the ride and continued to do so once we caught the train from Bologna to Venice.
Upon arrival in the City of Love, we all gathered around Dr. Parker as she pointed out the vaporetto station. The vaporettos are like a public bus system, only they are boats. We bought our tickets and boarded awaiting boat for the ride to our hostel. The particular hostel we stayed in was not exactly what we were used to –no toilet seats, males and females separated on different floors, shower curtains and bathroom locks hard to come by. But after the long day of traveling I resolved that if I could just get a good night’s sleep it would be alright. The room was fairly quiet in the evening so fortunately I did indeed sleep well.
Friday morning we all met up in front of the bell tower in St. Mark’s Square, famous for beautiful architecture and legions of pigeons flocking to bread crumb-throwing tourists. According to Mike, one of our classmates from the Prescott campus, the pigeons were not nearly so bad this year as they were the year before. Next Dr. Parker led us into St. Mark’s Basilica where we were enthralled by the famous mosaics that cover the majority of wall, ceiling, and floor space of the entire building. What added to the experience and made it different from all the other churches we had seen was the eastern influence of the architecture. Rather than Gothic spires and scenes of the Crucifixion, we saw pointed arches and windows and scenes of a resurrected Christ.
Entrance to the main area was free but certain interesting sections cost an extra couple of euros to visit. I paid three euros to see relics and treasures from the days during which the Basilica was built. Among these were boxes and chalices covered with gold plating, pearls, and beautiful stones. One box was said to even contain a piece of the true cross of Christ. Also present were bones and even skulls that supposedly once belonged to some of the saints. I paid another two euros to go up behind the altar where I saw a great golden scene of Christ and his apostles surrounded by angels and hundreds of emeralds, rubies, sapphires, and pearls. Behind this lay a decorative coffin that was claimed to hold the body of St. Mark himself.
After the Basilica we all boarded a vaporetto for another island. One of the great charms of Venice is its handmade glass, attributed to the skillful glass-masters of Murano. When we arrived on the island, a shopkeeper informed us that most of the glass-masters had stopped for lunch. We took the waiting time to find and eat our own lunches. At this point Joe and I decided to split off from the others. One of the hazards of sight-seeing with a large group is the tendency for a few to slow the rest down. It was fortunate that we did separate because it turned out that no one saw the glass-making except us. Several furnaces charged for the viewing, but we wandered on until we found one for free. The show was very brief, less than five minutes, but mainly because the glass-master was so adept and quick with his work. In that short amount of time he used one technique –not actual blowing but sort of waving the glass around on the end of a pole—to make a clear vase, and another technique done with hand tools to create a red-orange horse figure. The crowd was in awe of his speed and agility and I barely had enough time to get a semi-acceptable photo.
After Murano, Joe and I took the vaporetto back to our hostel for a quick rest. We met up with a few of the others there who told us the rest were all planning to eat dinner near the train station in a short while. We joined them for the boat-ride back to the other side of Venice for another delicious Italian meal. I had spaghetti and a thin steak while Joe ate lasagna with his meat. For whatever reason, perhaps just the grandness of the city around me, I was feeling generous and bought a bottle of merlot for my table.
Later that evening, as we wandered back towards St. Mark’s square wondering what else we should do, someone suggested taking a magical gondola ride. Unfortunately our group contained thirteen people and the most that can ride in one gondola is six. Either one person would be left behind or someone else would have to make a sacrifice. We ended up going in two groups of four with the rest staying behind. The evening was calm and quiet, the waterways between buildings absolutely lovely. It would have been a perfect ride if only one of our group had been a little less enthusiastic. He was so excited to be aboard a gondola that he couldn’t help but talk loudly and lean from side to side, rocking the little boat from time to time. Even so it was still magical and fantastic and a ride I will never forget.
While most of our classmates headed back to Siena on Saturday morning, Joe and I stayed around a little longer to do some shopping. Accompanied by our friend Nick, we explored the shops around St. Mark’s square and down a couple side streets, doing our best to stay out of the pouring rain. When we were getting close to time to catch our train, we had each bought quite a few gifts for friends and family at home, and were plenty ready to get away from the rain and rest on the ride home.
One week left to go and I am anxious to get home. I have had an amazing time in Italy but I miss many things from home like cheeseburgers, terry-cloth towels, and queen-sized beds that are not made out of two smaller mattresses. In my final week abroad I plan to take as much advantage as I can of the things that exist here but not in the U.S. Delicious gelato and copious amounts of pasta aside, I look forward to boarding the plane for Florida.