Monday, June 30, 2008

Seven Hundred Years Ago, I'd Have Been Neighbors with Dante (A Very Long Italian Story, Part Three)

Our apartment, on an alley-like side street in Firenze, was nestled amongst a fine pasticheria and restaurant, a few shops, and a residence or two. Just a few housefronts to the east, on the corner, stood a structure that claimed to be the home of Dante Aligheri, Firenze's most famous literary son. I thought it would be an excellent opportunity, to tour the house of the author of the Divine Comedy, but, upon further investigation, Monkey and I discovered that the house was actually built in the 1970s, in the style of a 14th century Fiorentine house, on the foundations of Dante's house. We'd found our first tourist trap! We took it as enough to say that we were dwelling on the same street and, perhaps, trodding some of the same cobblestones as the great writer. We did not visit the Dante simulacrum.

However, on our first full day in Firenze, after a small breakfast of cake and coffee at the apartment, we were off to adventure and a trip back in time to Renaissance Italy! First, we returned to the Duomo, which we had perused from the outside the day before. With its accompanying Baptistry and Campanile, this Renaissance cathedral is the pride and joy of Firenze. After all, even if every semi-major town in the region has a cathedral they might call the Duomo (which just means "house of God"), few have such a magnificently realized, domed cathedral, and Firenze has the first octagonal dome built without the use of any scaffolds!

In addition to the architectural marvel of the cathedral, which also hosts some amazing sculptural work inside and out and a beautiful fresco inside the dome, the Baptistry, just across the piazza, is bedecked with gilded bronze doors sculpted by Ghiberti over the course of 21 years in the middle of the 15th century. Of course, the doors currently on the Baptistry are replications. The originals, after being restored, are displayed in the Opera del Duomo Museum, just across the street from the Cathedral (we'll visit there, later).

After spending the early morning inside the Duomo and outside the Baptistry, we walked around deciding what to do next. We had several hours to kill before our 2pm reservations at the Uffizi Gallery, so, we thought we'd warm up for that museum inside the previously mentioned Duomo Museum.

The Duomo Museum contains (as you may have gathered) many of the works from the Duomo and related buildings. Modern Italy has been hard on marble statues left out for five hundred to seven hundred years decorating building facades, so, they've gathered many of them, restored them, and brought them inside various museums. The Duomo Museum, which is located in what used to be the workshops for sculptors of the Duomo's facade and other decorative structures, is unique for another reason, also. Michelangelo's David, which used to reside in Firenze's Piazza del Signori, was scuplted in the courtyard of this workshop. Everywhere, the footprint of art and history.

The museum housed some pretty cool stuff, including the Pieta that Michelangelo sculpted for his own grave. The freakiest thing we discovered was a number of reliquaries, which are ornate silver and gold boxes, with glass windows in them that house the bones of saints or pieces of the cross upon which Jesus was crucified (at least, that's the claim). It was equal parts cool and creepy, looking at the leg bone of Saint What's-his-face, but it was nothing compared to some later morbid sights of Christianity (stay tuned!). We saw quite a number of these reliquaries over the course of our trip, probably somewhere in the hundreds, but this was our first real look at them. They are very beautiful things. They just hold thousand-year-old bones. Momento mori, baby.

We were then off to the Uffizi, the home of Botticelli's Birth of Venus and Primavera (Spring) , among other masterpieces. The museum used to be the offices of the Medici's, the ruling family of Florence. It became a public museum in the 1700s. It is an interesing building, as well as a museum, with long corridors and lovely views of the river and city. A museum highlight for me: Artimesia Gentileschi's Judith Slaying Holofernes. It's sort of down in the basement, almost at the end of this long room of seemingly random stuff. But, it's such a beautiful painting. The colors in it really jump out at the viewer. The action in the work is so brutal, but the colors and the use of light make it so beautiful, it's captivating. Why they have this gem stuffed down in the basement, I don't know.

After nearly four hours at the Uffizi, we paused at the casa and then were off to dinner at La Giostra, another Monkey-certified recommendation. It was awesome, people. I know Monkey will read this and think that I skimped on the meal's details, but, it's enough for me to say that I had some kick ass spinach ravioli, and Monkey had a spectacular papardelle with ciangale (boar) ragu. Also, the complimetary antipasti plate, filled with crostini and bruschetta and prosciutto and such--wow! It was a great meal.

More gelatto, at a place called Vivolui (chocolate and pear, I think), which was not as good as the first. Then, it was prep time for tomorrow's big museum, the Accademia, current home of Michelangelo's gigantic masterpiece, David.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Living on Italian Time (A Very Long Italian Story, Part Two)

Monkey and I woke in our plush accomodations in Newark (home of Cory Booker--good luck, man) and shuttled back to the airport to check in on the status of our flights. After multiple visits with multiple airline ticketing agents and other officials, we got our boarding passes for our afternoon flight to Milan and then spent some time hanging out in the spacious Newark International Airport.

The weather seemed fine in Jersey, and we boarded our flight and took off with no hitches at all. The flight, which I was not particularly looking forward to, while long, was pretty comfortable. I read, listened to some music, finished a game of travel Scrabble with Monkey, slept a bit, and generally managed to occupy my time and emerge at the other end of the trans-Atlantic leg of our journey, having passed from yesterday afternoon in Newark, New Jersey, to this morning in Milan, Italy, feeling relatively refreshed.

Once we passed (effortlessly) through customs, we found the bus that would take us to the train station, boarded it, and rolled away from the terminal of Malpensa Airport. Within minutes, we pulled up to another travel terminal-type building. Monkey was perplexed. The bus tickets had cost 7 Euro apiece. Monkey felt that this was too high a price for a five mninute bus ride, even on a double decker bus. I assured her that this was merely the other terminal of Malpensa Airport, which it was. She was happy to hear this.

The remainder of the bus ride took about 45 minutes. We sped down the autostrade, and winded (wound?) our way through the grafitti-filled streets of Milan to the train station, where we purchased our tickets on the next train to Firenze. The wait for that train was about 45 minutes, and the train ride was to be about 2 hours. It was strange and wonderful to stand in the station as the trains pulled in and out, watching the people come and go, and hearing the smattering of indecipherable conversations as people passed.

Once aboard the train, we rambled through the urban Milan and then the countryside of the Emilia-Romagna region and Tuscany. Arriving in Firenze with walking directions to our B&B, we wheeled our luggage through the cobbled streets of the central city, and, with some debate and distraction, found our address.

It was hard to stay focused on where we were going for two main reasons. The first, I was wary of ne'er-do-wells (whom were NEVER a problem on the entire trip, but, I've told you of my "urban area paranoia" before). The second, everywhere you looked, there were amazing things to see: people, eight-hundred-year-old buildings, churches with gloden doors and marble facades, restaurants, store fronts, signs, scooters and motor bikes, carabinieri, polizia, Ethiopians selling hand bags and sunglasses, tour guides carrying around all manner of things on sticks in order to maintain visiblity for their tours among the throngs of other tourists in the crowded piazzas and streets. Wow!

After we checked in, we stowed our gear, checked our maps, and strolled the streets to get a taste of the place. We had decided on a place for dinner and our host had made reservations for us (at the ridiculously early hour (we learned) of 7 pm). We strolled past the Uffizi Gallery, past the pink and green Duomo (Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, whose dome was designed by Brunelleschi and whose campanile was designed by Giotto. We meandered the winding streets to the Ponte Vecchio bridge. We stopped at a little focaccieria for lunch and had some pretty mundane sandwiches.

Dinner, on the other hand, was great. Trattoria Cibreo, where we ate, is a little place that is served by the same kitchen as a larger restaurant owned by the same folks. The menu is about the same, with fewer choices at the smaller place, and (even better) more affordable prices. We dined on a crostini with pate, a bread soup, a mushroom soup, and a polenta that were all phenomenal. We also enjoyed the house wine (no idea what it was). We probably would have ordered more food, but, our mediocre lunch had been quite late, and we didn't have a huge appetite. This was poor planning on our part, but, it was a mistake we never made again!

After dinner, it was gelatto time. Monkey, as is her inimitable way, had done quite a bit of homework on restaurants and gelatterias, so, she knew where she wanted to go. We found Gelatteria Neri right where we expected it to be on Via dei Neri. After a few tastes, Monkey decided on her flavors. I forget what she got, but a good bet would be chocolate and banana. Whatever they were, I do remember that they were very good.
A leisurely stroll back to our home base, and, with no real feeling of jet lag at all, we brought our first hours in Firenze to a dreamy close.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Things Do Not Always Go As Planned (A Very Long Italian Story, Part One)

As is our usual habit after long journeys in which we do not take the time nor make the effort to blog in real time, we'll be visiting Italy in episodes. Our first episode begins:

Travel is an adventure. Always. Even the most mundane trip to a nearby city can be filled with wonder and unique experiences. Any time we set our feet on a path with expectations of arriving in a certain place at a certain time, there hangs the possibility, even the likelihood, that all will not go as planned. A flat tire will slow one's journey. A diversion will cause an unanticipated delay. Some form of weather will hinder one's means of transportation. It happens.

Monkey and I rose early on Sunday (the 8th), packed up the Penguin, made our way through our departure checklists, and began our journey with a short drive to Eppley Airfield in Omaha. As luck would have it, it poured buckets as we drove, but as we arrived at the airport and boarded the shuttle for our terminal, the storms abated.

We were scheduled for a flight from Omaha to Chicago, then, after a three hour lay over, or so, we were booked from Chicago to Newark. From Newark, we had a 9pm flight to Lisbon, and then a short flight to Milan, where we should have arrived at around 3pm Italian time (15:00, as they like to say). Our flight in Omaha was delayed about an hour (word on the tarmac was that one of the flight attendants was late for work), but we made it to Chicago with plenty of time to spare. Unfortunately, our flight out of Chicago was delayed. We had time between flights in Newark, so we weren't too concerned.

We boarded the plane in Chicago, where, by the way, it was also pouring buckets. We pushed back from the gate, and taxied out to the runway. The pilot told us that departures were stacked up, due to weather, and that we would leave as soon as we could (like, maybe in an hour). The plane groaned, but, we kept our cool, mostly. About two hours later, we were still sitting on the runway, and the pilot told us that departing flights had been suspended. After another hour, he said we were not going to take off, and he taxied back to the gate.

After we got to the gate and everybody started to gather their stuff, the pilot said that we were going to take off, so don't go anywhere. At this point, we had been on the plane for several hours, and there was no food on the plane. People were getting grumpy. Particularly the two kids with the young mother who had expected a short plane ride home to Newark, so didn't bring any food. Monkey offered her one of her protein bars, which she always takes for us on trips. The mother took it and thanked Monkey.

After taking on fuel or something, the pilot backed us out of the gate, but, fifteen minutes later, he pulled us back in, because the crew had gone into overtime, and, by some FAA rule or something, they had to be replaced. He gave us thirty minutes to jump off the plane and get some food, then said we were leaving, no matter what. The foodless mother hopped off and bought a bunch of bagels, which she distributed to everyone within two rows of her. That was thoughtful. But, of course, thirty minutes really wasn't as hard of a deadline as the pilot made it out to be.

Eventually, after six hours on the ground in this plane, we finally got airborne, but, by then, we had already missed our connection in Newark. We got in at about 10pm and made our way to the ticket counter to book our new flights for tomorrow. The fellow at the counter was very helpful, and, after a bit of a disagreement (a friendly one, of course), he made reservations for us on a non-stop flight the next afternoon to Milan on Continental. However, due to some wierd airline alliances or something, we had to come back to confirm our reservations before the flight. Then, he gave us a meal voucher and a free night in the local hotel.

Monkey wanted to make sure we were all set to fly, so, we planned to come back well before our scheduled flight, and hang out at the airport after we'd gotten our confirmations and boarding passes. I thought that was a fine plan. For the moment, however, we took the shuttle to the hotel, bought a couple of hotel restaurant cheeseburgers with our meal voucher, and hit the hay.

A night in Newark. We hadn't planned on that, and it certainly wasn't Florence, but, it was out of our hands. We slept, hoping that tomorrow would be a better day of travel, and knowing that, most likely, our next night's fare and lodgings would not be a cheeseburger and an Embassy Suites hotel room.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Getaway Day

Well, I guess the title is a bit off, since getaway day, technically, is tomorrow, but, with an ETD from Omaha of 7:56 AM, I don't expect to have time to post in the morning. Preparations here at Monkey House Nebraska have been pretty steady, but low-key since early in the week. We look pretty set. Our lists are mostly checked off, our bags are mostly packed, the house is mostly secured. All we need is calm weather for tomorrow (about a 50/50 chance). Some easy flying would be nice, since that is all we will be doing tomorrow (that and riding trains in foreign countries (yes, Fashionista, validate the ticket--got it!)).

Our trip will take us to Florence for a few days, to the rural regions of Tuscany for a week, and to Rome for a few final days. I am as excited as you might expect, and a bit apprehensive, too. It's a daunting thing to fly across thousands of miles of ocean and spend time in a place where you are a stranger of the highest order. Of course, that is what makes it exciting, as well. I just need to make sure that I keep the anxiety at bay. I will not allow it to get in the way of having an amazing trip.

I look forward to amazing sights, amazing meals, new experiences around every bend. I hope to keep a pretty thorough written and photographic record. Obviously, I will be observing radio silence until later this month, but, upon our return, I will have much to tell you. Expect, as always, a multi-part recap.

Take care, all. I'll be communicating again with you real soon!

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Mother Nature Owes Me Thirty-Five Bucks

We have had some heavy weather here in Nebraska the past couple of weeks. We have had serious rain, some places have had hail, many have been visited by twisters, all have experienced strong (60-75 mph) winds. We've lost many trees right here in the Monkey Hood, and some local shopping centers have had to put on new roofs.

Last night, however, was a pretty impressive display in these parts. We had a tornado warning for the first time since Monkey and I have been here. At least, it was the first time I have heard the sirens. The sky was darker than I have ever seen, and the clouds had a sort of green hue to them. Nothing touched down, and I was safely ensconsed in the basement gym of Basketball Church, so, no real worries, there.

However, when I got home, Monkey showed me a recent email from our CSA farm, where we have paid for a share of the fresh-picked crop this summer. They had been bombarded by heavy rains and large (baseballs, I heard) hail, maybe even a tornado. There buildings were not very damaged, but the crops were apparently wasted. No harvest this week--no veggies for you! So, unless we get an extra week at the end of the year, that's one less crop we get for our "investment." So, the way I figure it, we're out thirty-five bucks (at least--who knows what other long range effects the stom will have on the fields of the local producers).

It's been a rough spring for the ag business. It has been cold and wet. Nothing can be planted on time because it's so muddy, and nothnig is coming in on time because it has been so cold. This latest waether was just some poo icing on a crap cake. The farming life is tough.

Before Monkey showed me the email, I watched the sky the whole way home from basketball. It had been about two hours since the tornado warning, and a tornado watch had just expired. Above, while little or no rain was falling, the sky was an electric light show. I took a two minute video of some of the sublunary action. I hope it posts (Thanks, comoprozac.). It was like Nature was listening to Dark Side of the Moon and throwing lasers in the clouds. It went on for hours, until, at about 11:30, the skies opened up and dumped on us until 3:30 this morning. With acompanying scary winds.

Lucky for us, this morning, while windy, is clear (for now), and I see no damage on the grounds of Monkey House Nebraska.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

The Campaign Ends

The 07-08 "Teach the Churlen" Campaign has drawn to a close, friends and neighbors, and not a moment too soon. Our last day of finals was Friday. That went swimmingly. I manged to get all of my grading and end of the year checklist-type things done by the end of the day. That meant I had a weekend of practice for the summer.

So, Saturday and Sunday saw the Monkey and I doing a lot of reading and sitting around on the patio, as well as some additional yard beautification (a lifetime project, it appears). The Monkey Grounds are certainly looking good. Perhaps a few pics are in order, but, that will have to be later.

Monday was a cake walk. We had an awards breakfast (I didn't get an award), followed by a final faculty meeting. After that, I had three hours to kill before I was off to join in the sixth annual faculty golf extravaganza!

After a lunch with my foursome (and a few other department folks), it was off to a local course for a quick nine holes. Let me tell you up front: I have never golfed in my life. I have hit a ball around on th eputt-putt course, and I have gone to a driving range a couple of times. Hell, I even have five clubs that I bought at Play It Again Sports about six years ago. But, I have never actually tried to hit a golf ball toward a three inch hole 300 yards away. So, I wasn't expecting to impress anyone.

Lucky for us, it was a team game, so, we got to use everybody's best shot each time down the course. Believe it or not, I'm not too bad at hitting off the tee, but the short shots are impossible for me. I shot so many putts about fifty feet past the hole it wasn't funny. But, our team had a lot of fun (and drank a lot of beverages). We came in last, but, we got a prize for that! And, we all got major league sunburns! It was a great way to end the school year.

Of course, the end of one year also marks the beginning of the next, so, tomorrow, I will attend my first professional development workshop of the 08-09 "Learn the Churlen" campaign. A Wednesday morning of multicultural breakout sessions (I don't really know what that means, even after being in hundreds of them), and then I can not think about school for about three weeks, since Monkey and I are off to ITALY on Sunday morning!

I hope to communicate with y'all before then, but, let me tell you, there is some serious excitement in the Monkey House, right now! Ciao.