Friday, January 29, 2010

Snow and more food

Mini update! Things are going well here in Bologna. Everyone is having a difficult time choosing case you missed this info: we're still in orientation, which lasts a whole 4 weeks, taking language and history classes offered by the Brown program in cooperation with the Univ. of Bologna. Real university classes don't start until early February, with the exact dates depending on the department.

So Italy is a balmy Mediterranean paradise, right? WRONG:

This is the first snow, and it makes my 2+ hours of walking per day kind of unpleasant, but it's an interesting change. It's kind of melting by now though. Another update that I'd like to post is the lovely dinner that Christina and I made for our guests: two Brown in Bologna friends Vinny and Jessica, and Christina's language partner Luca and his friend Giuseppe. Language partners are the people that Brown pays to be our friends and speak Italian to us. Some of them are really awesome and bring their American buddies to parties and such. My language partner is also named Luca, as is approximately 90% of the male population of Bologna, as it turns out. So anyway, our dinner was as follows, with pics of course:

Primo piatto - tagliatelle alla pink vodka sauce
Secondo piatto - breaded chicken cutlets with scalloped potatoes
Dolce - A bunch of pastries provided by Luca


From left to right: Vinny, Giuseppe, Christina, Luca, Jessica. I am taking the picture.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Ravenna and Verona

As part of our orientation package, the Brown in Bologna program organizes a few excursions to nearby Italian cities complete with guided tours and reservations at delicious restaurants. In this post I will describe the two important and historic cities we have visited so far: first Ravenna, and then Verona. This should really be two separate posts, but I'm going to do it all together. All photos included are from my own camera!


Ravenna was a city that flourished back in Roman times, but it's real historical significance comes from the fact that it served as the capital of the Western Roman Empire from 402-476 AD. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, King Theodoric the Great of the Ostrogoths ruled over Italy from Ravenna. In the 6th century, Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian retook Ravenna and the rest of Italy from the Ostrogoths and attempted to obliterate them from all memory. Today the city is famous for its dazzling and numerous mosaics, which tell volumes about the history of late Rome and early Christianity.

Pictured above is the Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo. The church is renown for its mosaics, which initially depicted various scenes from Christianity mingled with images of Theodoric and his court. After Justinian took over, he had his men remove all of the Ostrogoth images from the mosaics and replace them with more pictures of saints...or curtains. If you look at the middle and right images above, you can see that at one time there were people depicted standing in each one of the archways were but removed and replaced with black tiles and curtains. Whoever did this job, however, neglected to do anything about the disembodied hands that you can still see overlapping with the columns!

Another interesting fact about Ravenna is that in Roman times, it was a port city. Now, Ravenna is 10 km off the coast. It has also sunk 1-2 meters over the past 2000 years. This is highly evident in some of the old churches, which over time have built new floors at higher elevation because the original floors are underwater! In the photo above at left, you can see that the ordinary water level sits above the original floor. You might wonder, as I did, how people can just raise the floor of a whole church. Above at right is a comparison of the past and present in the Church of San Francesco, and you can see that they actually cut new, higher arches into the interior walls of the church, so that they could raise up the columns without changing their height and without touching the ceiling.

The tomb of Dante Alighieri, Father of the Modern Italian language, author of the Divine Commedy! Dante was not from Ravenna, but he did die there, because he was exiled from Florence on some fraudulent charges of corrupt practices. His bones have been relocated 4 times over the ages. Ravenna monks once moved his bones to the adjacent courtyard to prevent the Florentines from getting him back. He was later rediscovered and returned to his tomb, only to be moved back and forth again to protect him during the bombings of World War II. Poor poet.

Above is a beautiful mosaic from the Church of San Vitale, depicting scenes from the life of Abraham. Below is my favorite mosaic of Ravenna, from the Baptistery of Neon. Depicted is an innocent enough looking scene from the baptism of Jesus by St. John the Baptist in the River Jordan. If you look to the right, however, you can see a random pagan river god hanging out in the background!

The verdict on Ravenna was that it's a lovely historical city - but, although it might have been exciting back when the Ostrogoths were invading, it's sort of a sleepy peaceful little town nowadays.

left: political protests in the main piazza
/ right: shopping district


Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,

Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life;
Whole misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents' strife.

The fearful passage of their death-mark'd love,

And the continuance of their parents' rage,

Which, but their children's end, nought could remove,
Is now the two hours' traffic of our stage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.

The city of Verona is hands-down the most beautiful part of Italy that I have visited so far this semester. Everybody knows that Romeo and Juliet was set in Verona, but few people see just how enchanting and impressive Verona is. Looking over every street are rows of colorful old buildings, vines hanging from their balconies.
Verona is nestled in a loop of the Adige River (above), the second longest river in Italy. The city's trademark pink marble, or marmo rosa, is ubiquitous, forming the churches, palaces, monuments, streets, sidewalks, and even the gutters! The city's wealth and power in the early Middle Ages, when it dominated over a large portion of northern Italy, is very evident. Today, the city's two largest exports are its marble and its delicious wines: Amarone, Valpolicella, and Soave.

The first place we visited in Verona was called Piazza Bra....seriously. It is the site of the Roman Arena where the Veronesi watched animals kill animals in the morning, animals kill people around lunch, and people kill people
later in the afternoon. What fun.

Shopping district. Note: street paved with marble.

The next big attraction was Juliet's house, with the famous balcony (shown above). Couples can get married here for 1000 Euro, and can spend a romantic night here for 1000 more. People come from far and wide to view Juliet's balcony, tack up love messages on the walls inside the gates to the courtyard, and, lest we forget, to touch Juliet's breast (shown below), which is said to bring good luck in love! I don't see how that makes any sense though, considering how Romeo and Juliet ends...

The sad truth is that Romeo and Juliet were not real people, Shakespeare never visited Italy in his life, and Juliet's famous balcony was actually a sarcophagus that was shoved onto the wall of an old house. Romantic, huh? Here's the truth: like Bologna, medieval Verona was also dominated by noble families. The Capulets and the Montagues really existed, and they probably did hate each other. Why? Because the Capulets were Guelphs - supporters of the Papacy as a secular power - and the Montagues were Ghibellines - supporters of the Holy Roman Emperor. So although the characters of Romeo and Juliet were invented by William Shakespeare, the story is based on historical context, and there is every possibility that there may have existed a pair of star-cross'd lovers after all.

"First base"

After eating an insanely large and delicious lunch, we toured the city a little more on our own before taking the train back to Bologna. Highlights are shown below.

Left: Statue of Dante and tower
Right: The ladder, icon of Verona and symbol of the most prominent family, della Scala.


Overlooking Verona from Roman amphitheater

Another shot from the Roman theater showing the bridge Ponte Pietra

Basilica of Sant'Anastasia

Night-time view of the city from atop the tallest tower.

The verdict: Verona has a perfectly harmonious and elegant beauty, and it is the most romantic spot I've ever visited. I highly recommend it, and I'd love to go back!

Friday, January 22, 2010

Close Calls

Great victory! Near defeat! It's been an exciting 24 hours to be sure. After my Italian class yesterday I walked over to the Teatro Comunale to see if I could get tickets to the opera that was performing last night: Salome, by Richard Strauss. My housemate Christina and I put our names down as #40 and #42 on the list posted on the wall outside the opera house even though they said they only take the first 35 people. While we were waiting for them to call names, we made friends with a Japanese man named Kenji who is from Tokyo and studying music in Bologna. He's an opera singer, a bass, and likes Verdi and Puccini. He may also be the missing link between Italy and Japan that I've been searching for. Stay tuned.

Fortunately, there were enough no-shows that we got into the opera! Yay! It was 1 hr 45 mins with no intermission, and we had to lean like 3 feet over the balcony to even see the stage, since our seats were way up in the nose-bleed section, practically on the roof. Pictures below!

Gorgeous opera house.

Huge bad-ass axe thing.

Overlapping with this joyous occasion was a personal crisis. I had put my opera ticket in my wallet while standing outside the theater, and then walked the mile back to my apartment with Christina. A couple blocks before we reached the apartment, I reached into my coat pocket to pull out my wallet and look at my ticket. No wallet. I checked my backpack and all my pockets and couldn't find it. Given my usual tendency to move erratically, I figured it was probable that it had slipped out of my pocket somewhere along the way, so I retraced my steps all the way back to the theater, running the whole way. No wallet.

My friends Caroline, Wendy, and Samira were outside the theater because they had also tried to get opera tickets, but without avail, and they were nice enough to buy me gelato, beer, and espresso--or, the trifecta, as Dave Jenkins put it. The lady in the box office at the theater recognized me from earlier and so gave me a pass for the opera in the same seat I had reserved. I also called Christina and had her email my mom telling her to freeze my credit and debit cards. So we saw the show at 8:30 PM, went out afterwards with Christina's language partner Luca and his friend Giuseppe, and then I went back home intending to go the police station the next day to report the missing wallet.

While I was at the Brown office the next day, waiting to walk to the police station with Anna Maria, the coordinator for the Brown in Bologna program, I received a phone call on my cell. I'm not very good at conducting phone conversations in Italian yet, so it went something like this:

Me: "Pronto" (Hello)

Man: "Pronto"

(long pause)

Man: "Pronto?"

Me: "Si! Ciao! Hi!"

And then he said he was calling from the carabinieri, Italy's military police, who were in possession of my wallet. Yaaaaaaaaaaaay!!! So I got the address, got on the city bus, got off at the wrong stop, walked the wrong way from the wrong stop, and eventually I found the police station and identified myself and got my wallet with EVERYTHING in it! I am still not sure if the carabinieri found the wallet themselves or if some good Samaritan picked it up and turned it in. I didn't want to ask any more questions since I was already not understanding some of the things the officer was telling me. We had an interesting exchange in which he told me he liked the picture of the eagle on my passport, I told him that I was studying with Brown in Bologna, I explained what and where Rhode Island was, and he told me to put a contact information card in my wallet for the future. The police were only able to contact me because I had left the plastic card that I got with my new SIM card in my wallet, which had my Italian cell phone number on it. I went back to the Brown office, arranged for my credit and debit cards to be reissued, and then went home and ate pasta. All is right with the world.

The law is the true embodiment of everything that's excellent.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Intro to Bologna

Apologies for the lack of updates in a while! I am very busy with classes and adjusting to living on my own in Italy. By the time I get back from class, prepare and eat dinner, it is almost 10 PM. And since I've been waking up freakishly early every day (5-6 AM), I collapse right after dinner and have to finish my homework in the morning. Blogging therefore gets pushed to the side.

My room. Notice that the blinds (le persiane) are on the outside of the window,
but can be raised or lowered from the inside.

But although I am kept busy, I am really enjoying living abroad so far. My housemates are awesome, the other American students are really fun, and I love my teachers. But actually my real classes have not started yet - this is still orientation. The students at the University of Bologna are currently in the midst of their final exams for the previous semester, and the new semester does not start until about February 5th. In the meantime, the Brown program conducts a 3 week long orientation for us and we take a contemporary Italian history course and an intensive language course. Our history professor is an extremely passionate teacher, and our language professoressa is very helpful as well. We also go on organized trips to Bolognese museums and nearby cities such as Ravenna, Verona, and Mantova, and the guided tours are fascinating. All classes and tours are conducted solely in Italian, mind you, so I am absorbing like a sponge.

Now I am going to present to you a long overdue introductory tour of Bologna. As I mentioned in my previous blog post, Bologna originated as an Etruscan city called Felsina. A Celtic tribe called the Boii took over the city in the 4th century BC, and the two cultures were thoroughly mixed. Then the Romans conquered the city in the 3rd century BC and named the city Bononia after the Celts who lived there. Over time the city came to be called Bologna, as we know it today.

Here is the city layout, complete with all of my color-coded labels which I am about to explain:

Yellow circle = boundary of the ancient Roman city
Orange circle = boundary of the early medieval city
Bold red outline = boundary of late medieval city/modern city
Red box in center = Piazza Maggiore
Purple star = approx. position of my apartment
Pink star = Brown in Bologna office
Blue star = Mercato della Montagnola (open air market for clothes/accessories/misc. house wares)
Green star = Mercato delle Erbe (covered market for fruits/veggies/meat/cheese/dry goods)

The first thing to note is the expansion of the city over time. Each city border that I drew was once the site of a wall that surrounded the whole city. Unfortunately, only pieces of them are still in tact. The Bolognesi will be sure be sorry when the Ostrogoths attack again. The next thing to notice is the street layout. The Romans built their streets in a grid, which sounds logical enough, and their city center was roughly the location of the modern heart of the city, which is Piazza Maggiore.

Left to right: a municipal building, a financial building, and the Basilica of San Petronio.

As the city expanded in the Middle Ages, it expanded radially outward from two points on either side of the piazza (the yellow diamonds). The radial streets, shown as red lines starting at the yellow diamonds, can be thought of as the spokes of two great big bicycle wheels. The diamond at the right is site of Bologna's famous Two Towers (due torri), which are two of many towers constructed by noble families in the Middle Ages for defense and display of power.

Oh, and they're both leaning. Take that, Pisa.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Delays and Porticos

At last I have arrived at my destination! I endured a series of delays and setbacks, but I made it! The first was a 2 hr, 25 min delay in my flight from Boston Logan to London Heathrow airport. The reason was because I was flying into THIS mess:

Britain was experiencing the worst snowstorm in 50 years, and of course it was the day I wanted to fly through London. I passed the time in Logan by eating with my family, moping around for a while, calling people, and struggling to find internet. Finally I got on the plane and flew over the Atlantic. British Airways, it turns out, is a great airline with fantastic customer service, and the flight attendants were really nice. British people are also generally really funny to be around, so I was entertained, and the plane was comfortable.

Next setback was in Heathrow, where it took 1.5 hours for my luggage to show up on the belt. With a total of 4 hours of delays, I had no more hope of catching my connecting flight out of Gatwick, London's other airport, which was a 50 minute bus ride away. Luckily, the British Airways people were extremely helpful and they got me on a flight at 19:20 (Europeans usually use military time). So I got on the next bus to Gatwick and wandered around/slept like a hobo in the airport for the rest of the day until my flight.

At the gate, I was suddenly surrounded by Italian people, and as far as I could see, I was the only non-Italian on the plane with the exception of the (still funny) British flight attendants. There is an obvious absence of tourists in Bologna, which is quite different from most other Italian cities which are practically overrun with them.

I took a taxi from the airport and arrived at my apartment at about midnight. My housemate Thomas (who is Italian even though he has an English name) and his 3 friends were hanging out in the kitchen, so they fed me and we talked about things like movies and politics in Italian for a while.

I will make many more updates about the city of Bologna, but for now, I just want to show you the defining characteristic of the city in my opinion: i portici. Over 40 km of portici (porticos, or arcades) line the streets of Bologna, so that every sidewalk is underneath these massive colonnades and arches of varying elaborateness. Two examples are shown below. It's therefore possible to walk through the entire city while it's pouring rain, without an umbrella, and remain almost completely dry. All of the restaurants and shops are under the portici.

Why does Bologna have 40 km of porticos, you might ask? Well, apparently there was a major housing crunch in the 1200s as the University brought more people and commerce into the medieval city, so the Bolognesi began to expand the upper floors of their houses and buildings laterally outwards towards the street, supporting them with wooden beams. The government of the city saw that this was structurally unsound, so they made laws regarding the construction of portices. Eventually, they realized that they could tax this, so they started to require that the buildings all have porticos. And thus Bologna is the most porticoed city in the world, and when you walk its streets you get the unique feeling that you are walking through an elaborate medieval maze.

Monday, January 4, 2010

List and learn!

Benvenuto! I have created this blog to share my international experiences with you. I will be spending the next 5 months in Bologna, Italy, with hopefully many excursions to the surrounding areas in Italy and greater Europe. I just bought a shiny new camera, so expect lots of photos!

Here is a quick overview of my study abroad program. The University of Bologna, founded in 1088 A.D., is the oldest university in the Western world. There are about 100,000 students in the university and 23 faculties or departments. Notable alumni include:
-Dante Alighieri (wrote the Divine Commedy)
-Francesco Petrarca (aka Petrarch, a poet)
-Paracelsus (alchemist)
-Leon Battista Alberti (wrote the book on perspective painting)
-Albrecht Dürer (German artist)
-Nicolaus Copernicus (realized the Earth was round)
-Luigi Galvani (discovered that the muscles of dead frogs twitched when electrocuted)
-Camillo Golgi (as in "Golgi body")
-Pier Paolo Pasolini (20th century Renaissance man)
-Romano Prodi (Italian prime minister)

I will be studying at this prestigious and historic university, which gave the city of Bologna the nickname la dotta, or, the learned. Bologna has two other nicknames as well: next is la grassa, or, the fat one, for it's fine gastronomical heritage. Bologna is considered the culinary capital of a seriously food-centric country. I've heard that there are something like 450 restaurants in the tiny, medieval city, and that even the smallest holes in the wall have amazing food. The third nickname is la rossa, or, the red, which stems from Bologna being known as one of the more historically socialist parts of Italy. Today, Bologna is the most liberally minded of Italian cities, and a center of art, history, music, cuisine, and people who like to talk about politics.

Here is an aerial view of the city. In the center are Piazza Maggiore and the Basilica of San Petronio.

In the bird's eye picture below, you can discern the hexagon-like outline of the walls that used to surround the city.

Bologna is a very old city with a fascinating history, like most of Italy. It was founded by the Etruscans, conquered by the Celts, conquered by the Romans, conquered by the Lombards, conquered by Modena, conquered by Milan, and even conquered by the Pope. Finally, the Pope gave Bologna to the Royal Crown of Savoy and then it became part of a unified Kingdom of Italy. The thing to remember about Italian history is that it is really an amalgamation of a whole slew of unique histories. Between the fall of Rome and unification in the 1860s, Italy was composed of many diverse city states, all with their own unique governments, customs, languages, and, of course, food.

So this brings me to my two main goals for the semester: (1) to hone my Italian language skills, and (2) to experience first-hand some of the unique regional differences of Italy.