Taming Firenze: Pinocchio and Lemon Trees

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This past weekend I travelled with my Italian Language class to the nearby town Collodi where the famous story Pinocchio was written. There, we explored the very old and very bizarre Parco di Pinocchio.

As with all good stories, it was a cold and rainy day when our Italian class entered the abandoned park. Yes – I said abandoned. The park closes in the winter months and opened just one day in February for us to visit. So on this cold and rainy day we all made our way through the old, abandoned, entirely deserted park filled with small, old statues of scrawny puppets that looked like they were on the verge of coming to life and attacking us all.

Honestly, it was amazing.

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Though old, the park had a very distinct charm. It felt like walking though an old storybook you’d find covered in dust and cobwebs in your grandmother’s attic. The park allowed you to travel through the story of Pinocchio chronologically. You met the characters, you saw Geppetto’s workshop, you even got to walk into the belly of the whale.

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As our Italian professor told us, the story of Pinocchio is deeply engrained in Italian culture. It is a story of great importance to Italians even in modern times. Though this park – with its creaky animatronics that screeched from lack of oil, its arsenal of demonic-looking marionettes, and its rickety bridges that clearly would not support much more than the raindrops falling fast from the sky – was nothing like Disney World or even my beloved Hershey Park, it was certainly unique.

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After visiting the park we stopped for lunch – under lemon trees!

We had the privilege of dining in a lovely family owned citrus garden. After an amazing meal, we toured the garden.

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Many of the plants in the greenhouse were ornamental, meaning the plants were bought and sold predominantly for the sake of aesthetics. This trend was popularized by the Medici family in Renaissance times. They had many ornamental citrus plants in their family gardens.

However, a lot of the plants were still great for eating. We got to try fresh lemons, oranges, kumquats and even a little something called “Vegetarian Caviar.”

The maze of brightly colored lemons and oranges was made even more beautiful by the love given to the plants. The garden belonged to a family. Our tour guide’s father planted the lemon tree that started it all at the entrance to the garden. Our guide spoke passionately about each plant. He had clearly devoted his life to cultivating the beautiful garden.

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His devotion paid off. Not only was the garden enchantingly beautiful, but the fruit was fresh, juicy, sweet and nothing like anything I’ll ever have in America.

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Taming Firenze: Catching Up With My City

Lately I’ve been posting a lot about my travels across Europe. I’ve been experiencing incredible things in the various cities through which I’ve wandered. But I’m not living in Brussels or Rome or Venice; I’m living in Florence, and this is a post about the city I call home.

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The stunning Duomo never fails to impress. It’s always an extra special day when the sky complements her beauty.

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The four photos above show Santa Croce, the beautiful church I live next to. This is my favorite church to photograph. It’s also the church where Michelangelo is buried.

A pigeon flies off the head of a statue at Piazza Signoria on Feb. 13, 2017.

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Two views of the fountain in Piazza Signoria.

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A book seller at the market.

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A glass of wine at our favorite restaurant, Osteria Santo Spirito.

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A delicious treat from the Florence Chocolate Festival.

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Meg enjoying a crepe also from the Chocolate Festival.

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Lottie Doherty outside of Basilica Santo Spirito.

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Mr. Goodman, a street performer, puts on a great bubble show in Piazza Della Repubblica.

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Francesco and Lorenzo play football next to the Basilica Santo Spirito.

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Nicola Cocchi poses in his workshop. Cocchi makes frames and furniture.

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Erica Rickey was kind enough to pose for some photos around the city.

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The end to a lovely Valentine’s Day: Gusta’s Pizza near the Ponte Vecchio. 

Taming Firenze: Roma Caput Mundi

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The legend of the Trevi Fountain is as follows: throw one coin into the fountain and you are promised to one day return to Rome. Throw two coins into the fountain and you are promised to fall in love. Throw three coins into the fountain and you are promised to get married.

Five years ago I happened upon Roma Caput Mundi (center of the world), tossed a coin into a marble fountain and went on my way, never expecting to live the experience of a lifetime all over again.

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The city is magnificent in its pride and in its history. Its ruins make its beauty. From the maze of decrepit, crumbling structures and foundations to the towering, astounding Colosseum, it is impossible to ignore the profound glory of the Roman Empire.

The past walks with you in this city; it becomes your shadow; it wraps around your ankles and leads you backwards through time.

The art sings from the city’s soul. The captivating Bernini sculptures at the Galleria Borghese, the marble masterpieces in the Vatican Museum and the breathtaking Sistine Chapel all inspire and impress the humble eyes that stand before them.

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And there is something even more impactful about seeing the city a second time. My first Roman Holiday came in a humid July between middle and high school. Something in my stubborn blood drove me away from the city. No matter how the ghostly whispers of history presented themselves, I refused to listen – I plugged my ears – I would not be impressed here.

But this ancient city was determined to win me over, and the magic fountain worked its charm.

My new image of Rome is standing on top of the world over and over again, feeling more powerful each time.

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My first ascent came with my small cohort and my professor who knew where to be when golden hour hit. We spent our first Roman sunset in an orange garden at the top of the city, watching a warm day close its eyes. We felt like lovers, like dreamers, like artists. We basked in the type of light that shines through your skin and sets your bones aglow. Already, we knew we could love this city.

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rome51.jpgThe next day we ended in the Roman Forum, standing above a different city – or a shell of a different city. After weaving through the old city we stood like retired kings over the great successes of our reign. And we sighed proudly, knowing we had been a part of something great. A part of something glorious.

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Our last sunset fell slowly as we walked up the Spanish Steps. We stood for thirty minutes, stalling until we reached a socially acceptable time to eat dinner. We watched the pink and orange sky bleed gently into blue. We watched the city light up beneath our feet. This time we were students learning that miracles always happen at sunsets, but only when you’re watching.

 

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Greedy for more of the Roman sky, we did not stop at collecting sunsets. Each night we climbed to the rooftop terrace of our hotel and laid down on the scaffolding of the slanted roof to watch the clouds and the stars battle like gladiators in the Colosseum of the sky. Here we were kids. Celebrating birthdays and watching water vapor transform into imaginary animals. Our bodies were heavy with the weight of the world below us. Our lungs were light from the air flowing above us.

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In Rome history repeats itself everyday. The sun rises and sets on the same table, set with fine china and rusty silverware – with some plates full and some left with only the crumbs of a meal too good to forget.

Whether it was an act of magic, an act of god or a mere coincidence, my own history repeated itself in Rome. At 19 years old, I retraced my steps through the Colosseum, the Sistine Chapel and the Roman Forum. I felt my old self next to me on the hotel rooftop. Saw her in my shadow. Like the old city, she was gone but not forgotten – she still had something to teach me.

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I threw my second coin in the Trevi Fountain. As the legend goes, I am now promised to fall in love.Though I would say this has already happened. Already, I have fallen in love with Rome. “Oh Rome! My country! City of the Soul!”

 

Taming Firenze: Brussels

“This city of contrasts, symbolic of the surrealist spirit, which continually challenges the confines of seriousness and enchants us just as much as it annoys us.”

Exhibit description at Centrale for Contemporary Art

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If you had asked me what trips I was planning while studying abroad in another country, Brussels would not have been on my list. But for my first trip out of Italy it did not disappoint.

Of course the beauty and innovation of the city was stunning and well worth the trip, but we visited Brussels with a very specific purpose: to see the Philadelphia band Modern Baseball on their European tour.

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My tip to anyone planning to study abroad: if a band you like is going on a European tour, go see them. No matter what city they’re playing in, go see them. Chances are, you’ll end up front row in the smallest, coziest and weirdest venue you’ve ever seen jamming out to your favorite songs with about 50 other audience members – none of whom are from America. You might even get to meet the band.

Aside from the coolest concert ever, it is worth mentioning the incredible food Brussels had to offer. Waffles and chocolate everywhere, fries (or “Frites”) to die for, and beer that puts the U.S. to shame (not that that’s saying much, but, really, this beer was good). Though I will never stop loving Italian food, it was refreshing to trade wine and pizza for beer and sausage.

 

Brussels is a modern city sprinkled with reminders of the past. Yes, there is the ancient beauty of Grand Place and the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula, but there is also the modern beauty of crisp office spaces and innovative design.

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It is a creative city investing in art and progress.

There was no shortage of art in this city. In fact, this city seemed to be made of art. From open air galleries, to the Centrale for Contemporary Art, to a Cat Art Museum, one could not miss the creative spirit of this city.

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We understood its diverse and contrasting history from its vibrant art scene. At Centrale for Contemporary Art, we saw pieces about the Manneken Pis, the famous statue of a little boy peeing. We saw pieces about the Atomium, the large structure designed for the 1958 Brussels world Fair. We saw interpretive pieces embodying the spirit of Brussels from artists’ points of view.

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At MIMA, we saw accessible and relatable art. We saw contemporary art from across the world. We saw art from various cultures that all spoke the same message: question everything.

At The Royal Museums of Fine Art Of Belgium, we saw old masters and new. We saw work from every era. We saw realistic works documenting Belgium’s rich history. We even saw a Rene Margritte exhibit, allowing us to see the city through the eyes of one of Belgium’s most famous artists.

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From all of this stunning art I learned that Brussels is a city with Identity. Though it has struggled throughout history for autonomy, it now understands itself. It understands how to balance multiple languages and dialects. It knows how to balance history and modernity. It knows how to balance reflection with progression. It knows itself even if the rest of the world doesn’t.

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Taming Firenze: Venezia

“To live in Venice, or even to visit it, means that you fall in  love with the city itself. There is nothing left over in your own heart for anyone else.” – Peggy Guggenheim 

 

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To put it frankly – and to risk sounding cliche – Venice stole my heart.

In second grade I remember spending my library visits hoarding travel books from the “Culture” shelves and blockading myself with a wall of hardcover books featuring photos from the world beyond Homestead Wakefield Elementary School.

I remember my favorites, the books I would always return to when my wanderlust could not be quenched: Seoul, Tokyo, Paris and Venice.

Venice. My most favorite. The book my Librarian could never pry out of my pudgy seven-year-old fingers.

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Captivated by the long, slender men gliding across turquoise water, the brightly colored buildings mismatched in a hastily stitched quilt of neighborhoods, the alleys, the bridges, the boats, the beauty – all of it rippled through my mind like the crinkled waves of the lagoon.

My mind was made. I would go to Venice.

More than 10 years later, I finally got my wish.

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Beyond the churches, the Piazza San Marco, and the beautiful Gallerie Dell’Academia, I discovered a familiar modernity in the folds of the city. Unlike Florence, a city obsessed with Renaissance, Venice seemed to balance the old with the new. We spent most of our free time exploring contemporary art galleries featuring artists like Enzo Fiore, Julio Larraz, and Robert Indiana.

We got lost in the mesmerizing Peggy Guggenheim museum, understanding her own life through the lens of her art collection. I marveled at the incredible works of Jasper Johns, Piet Mondrian, Man Ray, Mark Rothko and so many more.

We also happened upon a photography gallery depicting the story of an African village uniting through the power of Yoga. The Venetian photographer shared with us his secret spots to find the best photos, and we immediately planned a second trip back to his beautiful city.

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We found ourselves exploring the night life (or lack thereof) and casually wandering into Harry’s Bar, the birthplace of the famous Bellini, in jeans and tennis shoes – severely underdressed compared to the suits and dresses of the beautiful Venetians around us. Embarrassed at first, the smiling bartender excused our attire and served us as if we belonged to the surrounding Italian elite.

The four of us agreed to share two of the famous – and expensive – cocktails, until an old man at the end of the bar offered to buy us two more. So, we all enjoyed authentic Bellini cocktails thanks to the courtesy of a man who wanted us to have a true Venetian experience.

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Realizing Harry’s Bar exceeded our price range, we made our way to the more familiar Hard Rock Cafe to hear Arsenals, a local Italian band, perform.

From the juxtaposition of old art and new, the Harry’s Bar elites and the Hard Rock Cafe middle class, the man powered gondolas and the motor powered taxi boats, we began to understand this city. We experienced the opposing ends of its cultural spectrum, realizing its cultural fluidity in contrast to Florence’s cultural structure. And as Peggy Guggenheim predicted we would, we fell in love.

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I may not have seen the Venice I saw in books, but what I saw will stay in my mind and in my heart forever.

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