Taming Firenze: Milan

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Fashion, Food, Furniture and stolen wallets. I learned a lot in Milan.

Our trip to Milan was the third of four trips Kent State organized for us. This trip was only for students in the College of Communication and Information. There were about 20 of us spending the weekend with our professors Fabio and Nicoletta.

We spent most of our time taking in the rich and diverse culture of Milan. Unlike most cities in Italy, Milan is a city of progress. There are few remains of history there. Everything is new, modern and stylish.

When we first arrived we toured a little bit of history: The Duomo of Milan. The beautiful stained glass windows towered nearly from floor to ceiling, casting the church in a technicolor glow. The macabre statues and the sarcophagus of Saint Charles Borromeo breathed an erie wind into the gigantic cathedral.

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Even this cathedral is uniquely Milan – it’s flashy facade and it’s imposing size make it a glamorous addition to the modern, high-fashion district in which it resides. Like a queen overlooking a kingdom, she watches tourists, locals and even pigeons fight for the right to bask in her charm.

After touring the Duomo, we embarked on a brief walking tour. We walked through the Galleria Vittorio, a street covered with a large glass roof, toward Sforza Castle, another of the few remnants from Milan’s past.

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As a gesture to ensure good luck, tourists come to the mosaic tile in the Galleria Vittorio. The tradition is as follows: place your right foot in the hole on the bull’s body and pivot clockwise in a full circle. 

We then attended a lecture at The University of Milan. Unlike most Italian universities, which are usually spread out across the city, The University of Milan has a central campus. It is an American style university with all of its buildings within walking distance, dorms and places to eat or socialize.

It was refreshing to step foot on a college campus again.

In the lecture, we learned about society’s fixation with “Anti-Heroes” in modern television. It was interesting to learn about the similarities and differences between Italian and American television.

The next day brought us to the  Porta Nuova District (new district) of Milan. We explored the sleek and modern architecture, finding home in the familiar shade of skyscrapers. The new district had fashion, shopping, food and even an art gallery.

 

We made a pit-stop in Corso Como to visit a photo exhibit, sun bathe in a roof top garden and drool over beautiful (and way too expensive) concept books for photography, art, fashion and design.

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The view from the roof of Corso Como.

Later that day we visited La Triennale di Milano, a design museum featuring work by famous Italian designer Mario Bellini. From the exhibit, we learned about Bellini’s design inspiration and his huge impact on Italy. His attention to detail and his incredible design process reminded me of the importance of design and architecture. It also reminded me that, while they are closely related, art and design are very different.

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At the Armani Silos, I also learned that art and design could not exist without each other.

Condescending glares from museums employees aside, the Armani Silos was an incredible experience. To see gowns, suits and accessories designed and crafted by Giorgio Armani up close and in person is a dream-like adventure into colors and textures. His use of materials brings the mannequins to life. The garments control the room; they dictate the light and hypnotize the viewer.

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Armani’s inspiration from other artists  was beautifully apparent from the thoughtful curatorial decisions, such as the powerful red glow meant to emulate Rothko’s masterful use of vibrant color, or the wallpaper reminiscent of Matisse’s flower paintings.

Armani is a designer whose understanding and appreciation of art builds his platform for creation.

I also made it to two more art museums, Museo del Novecento and Piazza Reale. Museo del Novecento is a museum dedicated to Italian contemporary art, particularly Futurist art.

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In Museo del Novecento, we entered a kinetic exhibit that required viewers to sign a release form. This strange hall of flashing lights and turning mirrors made for a great model session. 

We spent our very last hour (more like 20 minutes) at Piazza Reale rushing through a Keith Haring exhibit. I didn’t have much time to focus on the pieces, but I still took in the bright colors and bold emotion of Haring’s incredible work.

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In between walks through history and tours through museums, we explored the lively city. Despite getting pick-pocketed on the crowded metro, I  felt welcomed by Milan. Its freshness. Its focus on design and aesthetics.

It is a trendy city with a grand future looming not far ahead on its path.

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Milan is a city moving forward ever faster, and it is not likely to stop any time soon.

 

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Taming Firenze: Budapest, Vienna and Salzburg

This weekend I spent a day in Budapest, a day in Vienna, a day in Salzburg and a lot of time on a bus.

My first (and I wish I could say my last) bus trip through Europe brought me through three beautiful cities with rich histories. I learned that I prefer planes to buses, I don’t like group dinners and that in Budapest you do not have to be a good dancer to have a good time.

Budapest

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Budapest’s history is vast. A fairly small city just now finding itself after centuries of being the monkey in Eastern Europe’s complicated game of “monkey in the middle,” it is filled with character.

From the intricate architecture, the towering castles and the monuments whispering reminders of Hungary’s complicated past, it became easy to love this city.

Hungary is relatively new to the game of democracy – their democratic system is just under 30 years old – and they still have a lot of wounds to mend.

There were two memorials (more like two-and-a-half) that really struck me. The first was a monument essentially taking the blame of the Holocaust away from Hungary and placing it on Germany.

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This memorial shows a giant metal eagle, representing Germany, attacking a statue of the Archangel Gabriel, representing Hungary. It is meant to honor “all the victims” in the German occupation of Hungary.

Many members of the city believe that the depiction of Germany attacking Hungary is not the whole truth – that this monument is an attempt at covering up Hungary’s role in the Holocaust.

More interesting than this monument is the counter-protest set up before it.

 

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A large barbed wire fence stretches along the sidewalk across the street. Attached to it are pictures, letters and names. Below it are flowers, rocks and mementos of the past. It is a pop-up cemetery reminding the city of the people it sentenced to death.

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Another equally haunting memorial stands by the river: a long line of copper shoes scattered mere inches from the water.

This memorial recalls the brutal murders of the countless people (many of them Jewish) who were mercilessly shot into the river.

A fascist militia, the Arrow Cross, rounded up Jewish people in the dead of night, brought them to the river and forced them to remove their shoes before firing at them.

Our tour guide told us they still found human remains in the Danube river.

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But Budapest is not just a city of blood and carnage. It is a beautiful city investing in art and political reform. Its beautiful churches remain proud and stoic in the middle of its busy squares. Its rolling mountains found on the Pest side of the river keep careful watch over the Buda side. Its famous hot springs flow continuously, refreshing and purifying all who come to visit.

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I witnessed young men drinking beer and laughing with homeless men on the street. I witnessed a gay couple’s bachelor party on the dance floor of a bar. I witnessed a group of pre-schoolers holding hands and walking home in the rain.

I learned about a city with a complicated and tragic history. I witnessed a city with a vibrant and limitless future.

Our tour guide put it best when he told us this: “Our parliamentary system was put together in two weeks. Our democracy is 20 years old. What really takes time to change is this tiny, three-cubic center thing inside our skull. That can take generations.”

A man sits in a car on a rainy day in Budapest, Hungary.

Vienna

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I can say definitively that Vienna is the most beautiful city I have ever been to. With a soft, pastel color palette unifying each and every neighborhood, giant, palace-like architecture on every street, wide, open sidewalks free of litter and large, winding gardens green and blooming with life, no city could ever compare.

Walking through the city felt like walking through a cloud. The air was clear and fresh. The people were kind. The colors were soft and light. The whole city felt like cotton candy and feather pillows.

 

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On our walking tour we learned about Vienna’s bizarre and dramatic history. We learned about cocaine-addict and lesbian royalty, the strange alternate uses for horse drawn carriages and the secret symbols of sex carved into the facade of the Stephansplatz Cathedral.

The most enchanting part of Vienna, though, was our night at the Opera.

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For only four euro, I and a couple friends packed into the standing-room-only section of one of the most famous opera houses in the world. For one hour, we watched music come to life.

The orchestra gave breath to notes on a page, stringing them together into a masterpiece of melody and harmony. They worked like a music box, swinging violin arms in tandem with the conductor. Each instrument complemented the other. They spoke in unison, changing pitch and tempo with the ease of a tumbling waterfall.

The performers onstage were like Sirens. Luring us into their embrace, their voices rose and fell with all the power and all the softness of the sea. As they cast their melodic spell, we had no choice but to listen and to fall in love.

Vienna was a beautiful and inviting city. It gave us new friends, new opportunities and new air. I left with lungs full of breath – feeling light, feeling weightless.

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Salzburg

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When in Salzburg there’s only one thing to do: take a bus to the top of a mountain and yodel your heart out.

In other words, go on a “Sound of Music” tour.

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Even if you don’t like “Sound of Music,” (I’m judging you if you don’t) this four hour trip through the mountains takes you to breathtaking views of lakeside villages, quaint and colorful towns and even the headquarters of red bull.

As we wound our way up the mountains, we sang along to the scratchy CD that our tour guide carried around in her purse. We belted operatic melodies, we learned our do re mi’s and, of course, we yodeled – or tried to.

Along the way we also learned the history of the Von Trapp family and some secrets of the film.

We learned that two different houses were used as the front and the back of the Von Trapp house, the gazebo in “Sixteen Going On Seventeen” had to be built larger in an LA studio to accommodate the choreography and that the Von Trapp family never did escape through the mountains, but took a train to Switzerland instead.

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We also learned that Maria and The Captain never really did fall madly in love, but that the Von Trapp children played “cupid” and convinced the two to marry because they wanted her to be their new mother.

But that wouldn’t have made for a very good movie.

Our tour guide told us that Maria Von Trapp decided to join the convent as a way to thank God for the beauty of the mountains in Salzburg. It was said that after she travelled there from Vienna for the first time, she fell madly in love.

The mountain views of the crystal blue lakes and colorful houses dotting the dips of the valleys cannot be recreated by photos.

As our bus began to carry us on our journey home, the sun wove through the crests on the mountains. It shone bright, casting golden light on the tiny, snow-covered neighborhoods.

The world there was quiet. Life was small. Days were always peaceful. And everything was beautiful.

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Taming Firenze: International Women’s Day

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Florence, Italy, celebrated International Women’s Day by granting  women free access to all the government-run museums across the city.

Unfortunately, Kent State University did not celebrate International Women’s Day by giving us a day off of class, so I only had time to visit one museum. The museum I chose was the Uffizi Gallery.

My initial desire to spend free museum day at the Uffizi was sparked by Botticelli’s famous “The Birth of Venus.” Commissioned by the Medici family, “The Birth of Venus” is a sparking gem of Florence. What better way to spend International Women’s Day than hanging out with the goddess of love herself?

However, the Uffizi hosted an even more interesting exhibit: an exhibit for Florence’s first female painter, Plautilla Nelli. A nun and a self-taught artist, Nelli was a highly skilled and dedicated artist who took inspiration from male artists before her.

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Nelli’s work falls in line with the themes of most Renaissance art. She painted religious and biblical scenes and portraits. In looking at her pieces, however, there is a slight feminine touch.

For example, Nelli’s “The Last Supper” has a distinctively different table setting than the other well-known Last Suppers of history. Art historian and founder of The Advancing Women Artists Foundation, Dr. Jane Fortune, speculates that Nelli’s upbringing in a convent gave her a different perspective than the male artists before her. Fortune wrote in an article of The Florentine “She actually wanted the Apostles to eat!”

Nelli also depicted strong emotion in her paintings, especially in the women she painted. She often painted women with tears rolling down their faces. Perhaps this was an emotional outlet of her own. Perhaps she was more empathetic than the male artists before her. Perhaps she wanted the subject of her paintings to be the emotion rather than the events depicted.

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Nelli has been criticized throughout history for her tendency to copy rather than create. She tended to put her own spin on old pieces rather than produce totally original work. This can be attributed to the restrictions placed upon her due to her status as a woman.

Nelli was self-taught. She learned only from the sketches of old masters that fell into her hands. As a nun, she could not use men as real-life subjects. Her paintings of men often appeared more feminine because she was unfamiliar with the male body.

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Despite her gender and her status, Nelli produced enormous, well-crafted art pieces that still garner respect today.

Spending International Women’s day in the presence of a great woman’s spirit and dedication was an honor and an inspiration.

The world of Renaissance art is dominated by men. Their legacy shouts throughout the streets of Florence. But women did not spend centuries lingering on the sidelines. Their voices deserve to be heard too, and, though it’s a few decades too late, their legacy is finally becoming apparent in this beautiful city.

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Taming Firenze: Much Ado About London

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London, England. So much to say about this city. From the art to the food to the sights, we fell fast and hard for the United Kingdom’s beautiful capital.

The most refreshing part of our trip was the thrill of understanding locals. While Italy is a beautiful country with an equally beautiful language, there is something incredibly alienating about living in a country where you cannot easily communicate.

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Overhearing conversation is such an integral part of city life – of life in general. It is a quick and fast way to make a connection – as brief and fleeting as it may be –  with a stranger.

As a journalist I am a natural communicator. Without the ability to speak to others, I find myself lost and lonely. I have spent hours scouring Florentine streets starving for little crumbs of English to fill my empty stomach. In London, I was finally able to feast.

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After our initial shock and excitement of understanding the crowds of people around us, we took to the streets to take on our London bucket list.

Item number one: Abbey Road.

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My roommate, born to a family of hardcore Beatles fans, was named after the famous album. So naturally, we risked death multiple times, dashing frantically across the busy Abbey Road intersection, struggling to capture the perfect re-creation of the album cover.

This photo is not as easy to shoot as most would believe. The famous intersection lies on what seems to be the busiest street in this district of London. Commuters don’t care about your Instagram shot, they care about getting home as fast as they can. So they honk, they yell and they do not stop.

We were lucky enough to happen across the world’s most dedicated Beatles fan who was also willing to risk life and limb to help us get the shot we were looking for. He was so prepared he had printed out a picture of the album cover to use for reference.

After my roommate Abbey tried nearly 100 times to take his perfect photo (barefooted and all) he returned the favor.

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Note my roommate Abbey’s bare feet. We were not messing around.

Later that night, I had the opportunity to see one of my favorite Shakespeare plays in the Theatre Royal Haymarket.

Not many people can say that they saw their first live Shakespeare production in London. But I can. And it was as amazing as it sounds.

“Much Ado About Nothing,” a brilliant comedy packed with wit, strong women and Shakespeare’s signature foolishness, never fails to make me smile. This particular production was reimagined in the context of World War I. Jazzy, flashy and glamorous, this interpretation brought out the best in the characters and the plot.

I laughed, I cried and I ate ice cream (intermission ice cream is definitely a trend America needs to adopt). A perfect end to day one in London.

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Florentine street artist Clet made an appearance in London.

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We spent the next morning rushing through the galleries of the Tate Modern.

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Inside the walls of this beautifully curated and wonderfully inclusive museum, I found my old favorites and discovered new ones. I found inspiration from the stunning, mammoth-sized Rothko pieces, the tranquil Monet, the clean and crisp Mondrian, the colorful Matisse, the spirited Guerrilla Girls and so many more.

The Tate reminded me how diverse and impactful art can be. Artists from all over the world found their places along the gallery walls. I saw documentaries about public protest, photo stories about the fight for women’s rights in India and colorful portraits celebrating women in history who spoke out for equality.

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Through the shouts of the artists I encountered, through their bold movements and their loud cries, I began to find my voice as a photographer again. I was reminded that art and journalism are not always separate – in fact they work better in tandem, each one complementing the other.

I am incredibly grateful to the Tate Museum for reminding me that I am an artist, and that in my field “art” is not a dirty word.

After the Tate we took a break from reality and embraced our inner-children at a vintage tea party.

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In the basement of Betty Blythe Vintage Tea Room, a quiet cafe nestled on a street corner in the outskirts of London, we spent two hours swapping hats, throwing on dresses and drinking obscene amounts of tea.

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An aesthetic diptych shot in the quaint neighborhood where Betty Blythe  Vintage Tea Room was located.

The pink flowery china, the steaming hot earl grey tea, the crystalline sugar cubes and the closet of clothes and accessories at my disposal took me back to tea parties with my grandmother. Sipping imaginary tea out of plastic cups believing I would one day be royalty – or that I already was.

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Portraits at tea by my talented roommate Gina DeSimone.

It wasn’t exactly tea with the Queen, but it certainly felt like it.

From tea we made our way back to the theatre to see “The Curious Incident of the Dog In the Nighttime.” A phenomenal play with an interactive and breathtaking set, this play follows a boy with autism as he tries to uncover the mysterious details behind the death of his neighbor’s dog.

The play invited the audience into the mind of Christopher, the main character. Through beautifully designed sound, lights and other effects, viewers began to see the world the way Christopher did.

If you ever get the chance to see this incredible play, do not pass it up.

With only one day left, we knew we had to continue the trend of embracing our inner-children at King’s Cross Station.

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Waiting in a line for an hour to get a picture in front of a wall may not sound appealing, but when everyone else in line has shining smiles, Harry Potter costumes and the giddy excitement only found in first-years about to get sorted, it is absolutely a necessary experience while in London.

After watching people of all ages run through the wall to the magical world of Harry Potter, I finally took my turn. Slytherin scarf wrapped around my neck, I grabbed my cart and my wand and prepared for Hogwarts.

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London was a long, deep breath. Like stepping off the tube (be sure to “mind the gap”) onto the solid, stable platform in the Paddington Underground Station. Our weekend in London felt like a refreshing pause.

I managed to escape the pressures of internship applications and resume writing with dress-up games and day trips to Hogwarts. I found inspiration again from the beautifully crafted plays and the breathtaking Tate Modern.

London reminded me that communication is easy and people are nothing to be afraid of.

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I have often used the Italian language barrier as an excuse to not do good work. In reality, I was just scared. Scared that Italians hated Americans. Scared that I would bother everyone I met. Scared to make my voice heard.

I learned from the Irish woman next to me at the theatre, from the college boy who stopped to talk to us near Big Ben and from the  friendly German girl in our hostel that we all want to listen and to be heard.

Sharing a language might make this easier, but language barriers do not make it impossible.

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