Archive for September, 2008


It was Thursday and almost the entire school had signed up for this walk in the Balze, a famous area of landscape near San Giovanni Valdarno that’s been the inspiration for many painters.

We met and left in separate cars with Ed helping out by driving one of the schools cars.  As we started the ride he informed us that he’d never really drove in Italy and if we had any advice don’t hesitate to tell him.   So reassuring!

Then as we hit the first roundabout the covering for the gearshift came right off.  We probably should have been more concerned but it felt like something right out of the three stooges.  We all laughed until we were crying even before he managed to get it back on and each time it came off, which was pretty often, we were roaring again.

Once we stopped laughing we were off to see the scenery.  The crags or balze are really quite beautiful.  After walking out to see them Rossana told us some information about the region and the artwork created in/from it.

Then it was back to the car to drive to a little hill town with a view nearby.  There were of course more fits of laughter but thankfully we arrived just fine behind the others.

Taka, Miki, Alex, Jennie, Me, and Angela

the seminaries

the seminaries

While we were admiring the view and listening to Rossana we noticed some local boys playing nearby.  They were running after each other with toy guns and later when we all huddled together for a group photo they took the opportunity to aim at us.

We walked through town, stopped for drinks and photo ops and then made our way back to SGV laughing and talking the whole way.  It was one of those short but especially sweet trips where everyone got to know each other a little better.

That night Alex, Aneja, and I went back to where we had first met, the restaurant across the river called Las Vegas.  It felt like we were so different from who we were three weeks ago and we had become such great friends we were sad to say goodbye.

Firenze Again and hanging around SGV

Every Saturday San Giovanni is taken over by a street market and since we’d missed it last Saturday we checked it out this time.  I didn’t take many photos but it really is pretty big, the whole main square and three side streets filled with clothes, jewelry, plants, and food.

After that we went to Florence again on Saturday to do some shopping and get out of San Giovanni for a while.

After lunch Aneja went to sight see, Alex went to shop, and I went to visit my old neighborhood.  It was so strange to walk the same roads I’d walked every day two years ago.  It felt like everything and nothing had changed in the way that only a place and your interaction with it can be.

Piazza Liberta

Piazza Liberta

Hotel Meridiana, home for four months in '05

Hotel Meridiana, home for four months in

I stepped up to the hotel and recognized a familiar face behind the counter, it was Fabio and he recognized me.  We chatted for a little bit about how he’d been and how the other guys were doing then about US politics and our countries economies.  Every foreigner I’ve met has given me the same stern face and the same question,

“McCain o Obama?”


“But who will win?”

He told me the latest numbers for the race, Obama 44% and McCain 43%.  He said he really thinks Obama would be better for Italy and everyone but he’s starting to think he won’t win.  I’ve also heard this before.

“Obama! Spero!”

Spero means I hope in Italian.

It’s so unfortunate that a large majority of Europeans have lost faith in Americans because of Bush.  If only the world could vote it would most definitely be Obama.  If only.

The rest of the week was pretty slow so I might as well lump it together with this post.  Anna and I went to another dinner out where she finally got to try pecorino cheese with pear and honey, a traditional tuscan favorite of mine.

That night we were hanging out at il Pozzo when Tacca and some friends came by.  Miki (who is in the beginners class with me) and Taka both only speak Japanese and some Italian so we have to speak only Italian which is good but doesn’t get us into too deep of conversations.  With all the language barriers we decided to do something universally understood.  We played cards.

Taka, Miki, Alex, Aneja, and Anna

Taka, Miki, Alex, Aneja, and Anna

It was great because we spoke Italian and because we weren’t doing anything too difficult we could all understand it, including Miki and I the beginners.
The next day Anna and I went on a walk because we were pretty bored, then we took some photos.

That night Aneja and I went back to Osteria d’Angelo where we had first discovered our mutual love of a nice night out in a restaurant.  I got carpaccio with cured meet and green apples, which, was a first for me.  It was one of those dishes where you combine each element on the plate and get these perfect bites packed with flavor,  I highly recommend it.   Then Anna had pasta with zucchini and I had vegetables and shrimp.  For dessert, I had a fig tart (cause I’m in love with the taste of fig nowadays) and Aneja had the pear tart with roasted pine nuts and chocolate sauce again because it was so delicious the first time.

And finally Anna and I went on another walk, this time over the Arno, and took some more photos.

Per Te

Every two or three weeks Il Sillabo puts together a little student show for the people who are leaving that week and just to bring all the classes together.  Aneja, Gabby, and the seminaries were in the expert class and they sang, “Firenze, SMN” and “Felicita.”  It was so fantastic I had to film it and therefore have no photos.

Alex and Anna were in the biggest class, the elementary class and they sang “Watussi” (the twist) and “Parole, Parole.”  These songs were my personal favorites and the perfect way to introduce you to Tacca, who stole the show with his song.  The song is originally a woman singing to a man but Alex and Tacca (the only guys in the big class) serenaded the women instead with roses and a hilariously dramatic performance.

I am in the beginning class and our song was ‘Per Te’ by Jovanotti.  “For You,” in English; it’s a song he wrote when his daughter was born.   It’s pretty corny but I think some of the translations are really interesting and it helped me remember a lot of Italian.  I typed it up per te:

e’ per te che sono verdi gli alberi (for you the green of the trees)

e rosa i fiocchi in maternita’ (for you the pink maternity ribbons)

e’ per te tutta questa citta’ (for you this whole city)

e’ per te il 13 Dicembre (for you the 13th of december)

e’ per te la campanella a scuola (for you the field in school)

e’ per te ogni cosa che c’e’ ninna na ninna e…(for you everything little girl)

e’ per te che a volte piove a giugno (for you it rains in june)

e’ per te il sorriso degli umani (for you the smiles of man/people)

e’ per te un’aranciata fresca (for you fresh orange juice)

e’ per te lo scodinzolo dei cani (for you the dogs wag their tales)

e’ per te il colore delle foglie (for you the colors of the leaves)

la forma strana delle nuvole’ (the strange forms of the clouds)

e’ per te il succo dele mele (for you the juice of apples)

e’ per te il rosso delle fragole (for you the colors of strawberries)

e’ per te ogni cosa che c’e’ ninna na ninna e…

e’ per te il profumo delle stelle (for you the smell of the stars)

e’ per te il miele e la farina (for you the honey and the flour)

e’ per te il sabato nel centro (for you a saturday in the city center)

le otto di mattina (8 o’clock in the morning)

e’ per te la voce dei cantanti (for you the voice of the singers)

la penna dei poeti (the pen of the poets)

e’ per te una maglietta a righe (for you a striped t-shirt)

e’ per te la chiave dei segreti (for you the key to the secrets)

e’ per te ogni cosa che c’e’ ninna na ninna e…

e’ per te il dubbio e la certezza (for you the doubt and the certinty)

la forza e la dolcezza (the strength and the sweetness)

e’ per te che il mare sa di sale (for you the salt of the sea)

e’ per te la notte di natale (for you Christmas eve)

e’ per te ogni cosa che c’e’ ninna na ninna e…

Afterwards we watched an Italian film at school called “Johnny Stecchino“ with Roberto Benigni (who is quickly becoming one of my favs).  For not having any English subtitles to help me I did pretty well.  Later Alex and I were talking about TV and how much it helps for learning another language; Alex speaks Bosnian, English, German, and now Italian and he’s studying to be a lawyer.  He’s very smart, so it was funny when he proclaimed “I have learned all my English from cartoon network.  You know, ‘Dexters laboratory,’ oh I love this.”   In his thick accent it was perfect, made me smile.

Then it was a goodbye dinner for Gabby who left the next day, it started pouring halfway through the night, and we decided it was Italy’s way of saying it was sad to see her go.

Andiamo nelle Biciclette

Gabby, Anna, and Derek hanging out at the park by the Arno

Gabby, Anna, and Derek hanging out at the park by the Arno

For the next week we stuck around SGV, enjoyed the Festivities.  One night got pretty crazy, there were tons of teenagers, mostly girls, screaming for these singers that came to town.  We just watched from a safe distance and decided to go for a walk instead.

The Star Friends, no lo so.

The Star Friends, non lo so.

Later in the week there was a trip to Sienna with school but Anna and I had waited to long to sign up and couldn’t go so we decided to rent bikes instead.  We had heard it wasn’t far to Montevarchi, another small town nearby, so after marveling at how easy it was to get bikes we were off.

The school has you give them a 10 Euro deposit per bike, they give you the key for the lock and you go downstairs and grab it and best of all when you return it you get your money back, simply wonderful.  We should do it more often in the states, plug for my Dad and his bike co-op plans, which I linked below:

At first it was all gravy, San Giovanni is pretty easy to bike around and there were always other people on bikes to follow if in doubt.  However once we got on the main road out to Montevarchi we ran into some roundabouts, which, with the speed of Italian drivers and Vespas, made us a little hesitant.

The roundabouts seemed to keep getting bigger and the weather was pretty hot but, soon enough we were parking our bikes in Montevarchi and enjoying a stroll.

There wasn’t much to see, we walked around the entire town, stopped in an antique shop, went to the park to refill our water bottles and were back on the road. This time I was much more comfortable with the ride and so I started taking photos while riding (pushing the button while the camera was on my back).

I love the signs when coming into a new town, big red line through the town you were in and the new town is senza the red line.

When we returned we locked up our bikes and went to Gianni’s Pizzeria to meet with the others.

During dinner there was another event going on nearby (part of the festival that I mentioned before) where all the local dance classes were performing.

I thought the outfits for one teen group were a bit too provocative (short black satin slips) but then again I’m coming from American culture where nudity and sex are much more scandalized.  Sorry I didn’t snap a photo of it; I did get a few of the other acts.

kids doing the tango, matto.

kids doing the tango.

The next day after school we decided to go on another bike ride this time with Aneja and Gabby as well.  Not quite interested in another small town with nothing to do we went for the countryside instead, guessing at each fork in the road.  It was a perfect ride, we ended up in a little pack where we stopped to talk about politics (Italian and American) and languages.

Gabby is English but she studied to become fluent in French, Aneja and Anna speak their countries languages (Slovenian and Polish) but also English and Italian.

In American politics we all agreed about Obama and our fears for McCain, with Italy we talked mostly about some cultural clashes.  Gabby was saying her host seemed really liberal about everything but then out of nowhere had this racism against Albanians.  We exchanged stories about our experiences in our home countries and here in Italy.

All of it was really interesting and made me feel fortunate to be around such intelligent and observant women.

After a bit more exploring we rode back singing little pieces of Italian songs we knew.  The next day each class was singing different Italian songs in front of the whole school so we were trying to practice. When we got back Anna and I headed to il Pozzo to practice our songs with Aneja, Alex, and Takafumi.  Then it was home to bed before the big performance.

then we showed each other where we were from with Google Earth

then we showed each other where we were from with Google Earth!


The following Sunday we went to Arezzo for the market and the twice a year jousting ceremony.  If you’re interested in the history please check out the link below, also if you’re in Italy I highly recommend it.  Primo, the market:

the church next to the market

the church next to the market

Then the festivities began; first the men were announced and paraded through town with marching bands and then later the jousting began. There are four different groups/teams each represent a quarter of the town:

  • Porta Crucifera know as Culcitrone(green and red colors),
  • Porta del Foro know as Porta S.Lorentino(yellow and crimson colors),
  • Porta Sant’Andrea (white and green colors) and
  • Porta del Borgo, today called Porta Santo Spirito (yellow and blue colors).

We found out that San Giovanni Valdarno is of Porta del Foro and decided to buy some scarves to represent.

putting up the target for the jousters before the event began

putting up the target for the jousters before the event began

Anna, Aneja, Alex, Carol, and Gabby

After some lunch we were off to the square where we got a reasonably good spot (not in the craziness of the crowd but able to see the jousters run).  Everyone entered and the events commenced.

Flag throwing!

Flag throwing!

look how high those flags go!

look how high those flags go!

enter the jousters

enter the jousters

After the second joust they realized they would not win

Then we headed home on the train, speaking Italian most of the way.

Then we headed home on the train, speaking Italian most of the way.

Primo Gita a Firenze; First trip to Florence

On Saturday after a perfect breakfast and a brief glimpse of the market that over takes San Giovanni Valdarno every Saturday Aneja and I headed to Florence (Anna went early to go to the Uffizi).

It only takes about 40 minutes from downtown SGV to downtown Florence.  Once we got there we decided to head to the Duomo, by way of Promod where I bought a dress.
There was a huge line to the inside of the church so we decided to climb to the top of the dome instead, blissfully ignoring the signs about no elevators. I didn’t take any photos on the way up but here’s one from the way down to give you an idea.

a little terrifying to have to hold on to the ceiling because the stairs are so steep

a little terrifying to have to hold on to the ceiling because the stairs are so steep

There were so many narrow flights of stairs that by the time we got to the top we were red faced and sweaty and not really in the mood to be photographed.  However the view was gorgeous and it felt like a grand accomplishment that we had climbed that high.

After this we met up with Anna and together went over Ponte Vecchio and into Palazzo Pitti to see the Boboli Gardens.  It was a very hot day and we stopped a few times during the climb to rest in the shade and take photos.

The view was gorgeous but we were exhausted, it was so hot and humid.  We went through the museum then back down the hill, indulging in the little breezes that cooled us off.

After wards we walked around Florence window shopping and dragging our sore feet.  This is when I snapped this photo of different types of tights named for different American states.  Who knew Oregon would be the choice for seam up the back tights.

Eventually we decided we’d had enough and headed home to SGV.

Aneja and I decided we were ready for a nice dinner out and headed to Osteria d’Angelo, which was perfect.  I had verdura alla griglia as an antipasto and Aneja had a salad then we shared the plate of fromaggi and two delicious desserts.  I had the pear tart with chocolate sauce and Aneja had the cheese cake with fresh berries and then half way through we swapped which, we think, is the best way to do dessert.

La Scuola, Molto Gelato, e la Festa

I took some photos of my school to give those away from me an idea of where I spend most my time. It’s four floors in total. The lobby is pretty empty, the school has ten bikes that it loans out to students and they’re kept in a little courtyard next to the lobby.

The first floor is where Alex, Aneja, and Tacha live. In an apartment called ‘il Pozzo’ which means ‘the well’ in Italian.

the kitchen window of il Pozzo

Next is the second, the three American girls live here. Jennie, Angela, and Felicia who came together through West Virginia University for a semester abroad.

Finally after many steps, the top/3rd floor, this is where the front desk and all the classrooms are. It’s not very big but I like that it feels so homey.

my school is just to the right

After class, lunch, homework, and dinner Anna and I met up with Alex and Aneja for a walk and more gelato and the place near Coop.

Apparently in August San Giovanni is terribly quiet, most people are away for vacation, but for the first week of September there’s a festival with different stuff happening each night. There was a theater performance on this particular night so we went to check it out.

I couldn’t understand the majority of it but I understood that it was very contemporary. This woman in a beautiful white dress doing a monologue with three different characters using only a white chair as a prop with some lights and an elegantly tied red curtain behind her. As an artist and person from a town about as small as SGV it was really inspiring to see so many people out to see the show and support the artist.

The next day was another concert, this time in the main piazza, with a giant stage and what seemed like everyone in town watching the show. In true Italian fashion they started an hour late. We were hanging out at il Pozzo then went and had some gelato at the gelatoria in the piazza while we waited for the show to begin.

you can tell she's speaking Italian cause her hands are moving so much

Aneja and Anna Maria

Aneja and Anna Maria

I didn’t stay for much of the show but I did hear the first two songs, which were Beatles covers. Not the best but I must admit being able to sing along was nice.


So Monday was my first day of class and Wednesday was my first trip with class. We were off to Chianti after class to a small town with a gorgeous view and a small vineyard with amazing wine.
In separate cars we went drove down and mostly up some very curvy roads. I was lucky to be sat next to Gabby, a wonderful girl from London who was already fluent in French and picking up Italian very quickly.

At the end of the ride Anna and I weren’t feeling so great when we got out.

Then we walked up to this little town and felt much better. We walked around and enjoyed the beautiful view.

Then it was off to Villa Buonasera where the owner led us through a very informative tour through the vineyard (in Italian and English).

These are the containers for the first process of the reds and for the total process of the Rose

These are the barrels used for the red wine, all of different types of oak. She explained that even though they have good oak near by they can’t use it because it has the same flavors as the grapes because it’s of the same earth. So they have different barrels for different flavors; some that are smoked oak from Montana and others from very specific regions in France known for having a high quality flavor in their oak. Very interesting.

Afterwards we sat at a big table under the sun tasting wines and enjoying some apperitivi. We all talked and laughed in a variety of languages and enjoyed ourselves.

When we got back to San Giovanni some of us decided to go for gelato at the gelateria near Coop to see which place in town we preferred. Most of us preferred the one outside of town but would have to do future tastings to make sure.

Anna always catches me taking her picture.

Anna always catches me taking her picture.

Non parlo Italiano bene, mi dispiace.

Also known as my first day of class at Il Sillabo.

I arrived early to take the placement test which basically looked like random letters sprawled across the page with the exception of a few words I recognized. I guessed my way through the first half, forcing myself to take deep breaths. Then came the last question, write…..summer….or description….nflasnflandlkandnnsf. Ok. I wrote about three sentences and then came to the swift kick of a realization that I had no idea what I was doing.

All the while I noticed students walking by the front desk having short quick conversations with the teachers in Italian. I was sweating and overly aware of the clueless look I couldn’t get off my face. I had forgotten how disorienting it is to be unable to understand everyone around you.

Another woman was escorted into the room to take the placement test, I heard her say thank you in English and my ears perked up. The woman was Carol a woman from Australia that ended up in the beginners class with me.

After a short walk for fresh air I realized how utterly dramatic I was being. I opened my note book and glanced at the four other girls in the class. Francesca, our teacher walked in, with a reassuring smile on her face, “Buongiorno!”

classroom with Carol on the left

our classroom with Carol on the left

She led us through completely in (very slow) Italian and at the break we were led to the other school (the new school, another building across the Piazza) where we got to meet the other students. First they gave the greeting speech in Italian, and my dumbfounded face came back despite my efforts to hide it, then (Hallelujah!) she repeated it in English. We were told the activities for the week and then we ate some delicious sandwiches and cake.

I quickly found Anna (my room mate), she introduced me to Alex. Now, in this very unfamiliar situation I must admit I was a bit to quick to cling to what I knew so when Alex said he was from Boston I kind of went without stopping. ‘Oh Boston! That’s where I went to school, I love it there, where in Boston? My school is in Kenmore Square…” Now he looked confused, “Bos-NIA, I’m from Bosnia.” Mortified, I apologized and he, Anna, and I went for a cappuccino before heading back to our classes.

Later we headed to COOP, the grocery store at the edge of town, and I met Aneja from Slovenia, one of Alex’s room mates. We spoke English the whole time.

Later that night we went for the guided walk with Stefania and dinner at a restaurant across the river called ‘Las Vegas.’ She would tell us about each place in Italian and then in English, she was hoarse by the end but I was so thankful.

inside the church

inside the church

my school is just to the left of the man on the bike

my school is just to the left of the man on the bike

One of the main streets

Students around the plaque with the original layout of the city

Stefania telling the Sillabo students about the history of San Giovanni

then we walked along the Arno to go to the resturant

then we walked along the Arno to go to the resturant

Mom, I took this for you.  We have some gorgeous clouds here.

Mom, I took this for you. We have some gorgeous clouds here.

le pizze, at Las Vegas

le pizze, at Las Vegas

Aneja (giving a sweet smile), Angela, and Felicia

Aneja (giving a sweet smile), Angela, and Felicia

we finished with some Limoncello.

we finished with some Limoncello.

After saying good night to the other students Anna and I headed back to our place.  Now when I first arrived it was only Anna at the house and the man that dropped me off didn’t stay to give me any explanations.  So Anna and I were under the impression that it was just the two of us in this apartment that looked like it was often rented out to students.  There are tons of random odds and ends from all over the world; an ashtray from Nicaragua, tea tins from London, etc.  The kitchen was well used but empty except for a half a bottle of white wine so the first night Anna and I had each had a glass and exchanged travel stories (she came by bus from Poland, which took 24 hours!) and back round.  Va bene, everything was great.

Allora, on this evening we came home to a surprise.  One of the doors that had been locked was open and someone was in the house.  All of a sudden a rather tall, thin, and blond woman comes out; she seemed just as surprised to see us as we were to see her.

Turns out we do have a Host, it’s this woman (Tatiana) and she had just returned from her vacation.  She and Anna go back and forth in Italian; all I understand is that she is wondering where her vino went and Anna is saying sorry a lot.  I start saying sorry.  She tells us not to worry, just keep the kitchen clean and make sure to turn off the lights when you leave.  She goes back to her side of the apartment (on the first floor), Anna go upstairs and exchange ‘oh my god’ faces then everyone goes to bed.

Pronto, provo scrivere solo in Italiano.  Mi dispiace perche, non ha molto bene grammatica.  Ma, provo e dopo forza bene.

Allora, primo, vado per una passeggiata con la scuola.  Ha molto informazione di San Giovanni Valdarno, molto interessante.  Dopo andiamo per cena in il ristorante, ‘Las Vegas.’  E buono.

Mi piace San Giovanni molto perche e una citta picolo ma e molto activa, e tutti persone e simpatici.

Grazie per tua pazienta!


San Giovanni Valdarno

As we got off the plane I was having trouble with my heavy carry on bag, which was in the overhead bin.  All of a sudden this arm reached from behind me and helped me lift it down then out of nowhere the arms body said, “Langley? You’re from Whidbey Island?”

I knew there was a reason I kept the Langley luggage tag on my bag; this young girl happens to be the sister in law to a girl I went to high school with!  Her name is Adriana (If I remember correctly) and even more brilliant, she speaks Italian and was just at La Tomatina.  She was on the first leg of a long trip home after living in Sienna for three months where she was learning Italian.

It was the strangest thing to meet someone at the end of what I had just started.  She was incredibly sweet, we caught the train to the Pisa train station then she was helping me buy my ticket and missed her train.

After some lunch we took the next one together, she got off a few stops before me.  I could not have done all of that transferring so quickly without her though.  The girl has some seriously good karma headed her way.

So I get off the train in Florence to switch trains for San Giovanni.  It was so surreal being back in that train station, it felt so comfortable and it was the first time in the last couple weeks that I knew and felt comfortable in the surroundings.  I even knew where the secret bathroom is, in the back corner so I didn’t have to go buy something in the McDonalds.  It made me happy.

Of course I wanted to run out of the train station past the Duomo down Via Cavour to Piazza Liberta and my old home, Hotel Meridiana (where I lived for 4 months when I studied abroad two years ago) but I am not here again for that experience; I am here for the new one.

There were a big group of guys on the train that had just been at a Firenze Futbol game, they were covered in purple and white and still on a high.  They sang songs and chanted.  It seemed like even the older people that were rolling their eyes at the noise were smiling with a sort of pride at the same time.

And finally, only 40 minutes outside Firenze, I arrived in San Giovanni Valdarno.  My first day and the start of the 103 day stay countdown.

San Giovanni Valdarno Train Station

San Giovanni Valdarno Train Station

The room, house, and town are larger than I expected.  Anna from Poland is in the room next to mine.  I have a terrace although it faces the back of another street and is a little dirty.

my super awesome room from the door way

my super awesome room from the door way

from the left side, where the terrace door is

from the left side, where the terrace door is

my terrace door, which is on the left side of the room

my terrace door, which is on the left side of the room

door way with my shelves of random things

terrace, from the half way point, it's pretty big

terrace, from the half way point, it

I took a walk around town, just behind my building there was some graffiti in English:

“Welcome back my Love”

I found a foto booth to take a portrait in my anxious and surreal state.