Great Newmini (newmini) wrote,
Great Newmini

I'm typing this from the lobby of the Palazzio Ognassanti, Florence, Italy. I hope I get to pretty this up, so let's keep our fingers crossed.

My Trip to Italy: February Break, 2008


February break has arrived, and there's nobody to play with. Everyone in Saratoga is off at school because Brandeis has the best-timed vacations to get homework done. Last year I went with Mama and Papa Newman to Montreal, which was bitterly cold yet still a good vacation. I don't remember, but I might have backlogged a journal entry detailing it. Regardless, this year we planned to go a little further than a couple hours north- Italia!

Travelling with my parents is nice, because I get to eat in fancy resturants, go see lots of art, and get plenty of walking exercise, but of course the downside is that I'm with my parents. Vacations end up a little on the tame side, but hey, it's Italy rather than American Gladiator on TV. A couple frustrations occur, but I bet the same would happen to you if it was you and your parents. Let's get to the meat of the tale, bene?

Chapter One

Saturday morning the 16th we loaded up our suitcases into the family car and drove to Jersey. Whoopee! I slept. We managed to get ourselves to Newark Airport and find the right gate, the right security line, the right plane, and the right seats. One takeoff later, we were over the Atlantic on our way to The Boot.

The plane ride wasn't bad, though I had trouble getting comfortable in coach seats, but I got some shut eye. I think for some dietary choice my dad made weeks ago, we got served slightly different meals, and we were served first. Excellent choice, father. There was some lumpy Italian woman across the aisle from me that kept glancing over at my fold-down tray table and my steaming food while the airline attendants were quite a ways down the aisle. I wanted to catch her eye, glare, and say, "This chicken is delicious." Schadenfreude.

The airline entertainment was meh (the attendants were medium-attractive, I watched Mr. Magorium's Emporium, which was medium-bad), but I made it and landed in Rome. We had to transfer to a plane set to Florence, and for a genuine surprise, everything was going on schedule. NO DELAYS. People must still be "motivated" by Mussolini. That, or Alitalia doesn't suffer from the US Tardy Airplane Syndrome.

We tried to get a snack at a kiosk while waiting for our flight, but of course people speak Italian and have Italian labeled products in Rome, so I drank a bottle of nasty something-or-other soda and my mom thought the "coffee" (which in Italy is a shot of espresso, like in France) was terrible. Snacking aside, we bounced up in our plane and landed in Firenze (Florence!) on a 0-4 C Florence morning. Mind you, we took off Saturday evening from Newark and landed in Florence Sunday morning. Crappy jet lag.

Our taxi driver from the airport to the Palazzo Ognissanti was gregarious and had poor English, which was awesome!! You can imagine a loud, joking, and Italian taxi driver (the cabs here are rather nice) that speaks a little English and thinks his butchered English jokes are hilarious. It was a great welcome to Florence. The concierge at the hotel was also a qintessential Italian concierge- cute young woman, popular Italian glasses (large frames, yet made with fine lines), speaks at least four languages, congenial, and checked us into an Italian hotel. You can't get any more Italian Concierge than that. The hotel room was small- one double bed, one fold out bed, tiny bathroom complete with a bidet and no shampoo- but we just dropped our bags and went out to lunch.

For me, real Italian pizza with proscuttio. Water in Florence is not free, but comes in glass bottles sized by liter and half-liter. Seltzer is just as popular as aqua naturale, and you need to specify when ordering. Fortunately for me, my instruction in French is very transferable to Italian (Love the Romance Languages!), so I was able to butcher out menu items and not be stuck with pointing like my parents. Also, the food here is phenomenal. Who saw that coming, delicious food in Italy?

After lunch, naptime. After naptime, my parents and I walked around the city a bit; along the river Arno (our hotel is two streets away), on the Ponte Vecchio (a bridge across the Arno that is usually thronged with people), up and around the city piazzas, and up and down streets trying to find a resturant that is open around 5:30 (we were hungry again). Welcome to Italy- dinner begins late, usually around 7:30 or later. Hence, no resturants were even open prior to 7 or 7:30. We chanced upon one that was open at 6:30, so we hung around the hotel waiting to go there.

Dinner at a little ristorante was delectable. I don't remember my first course, but I had this delicious beef in a phenomenal gravy (perhaps the best I had here) that had balsamic vinagrette and cream and gravy simmered so beautifully. A tasty caramel custard creme finished the meal, and we retired to the hotel and bed.

Chapter Two

Early mornings!!!! My dad woke up at 5:30 for most of his life, so my parents are much more used to waking up early than I am. However, the phase delay of my circadian cycles (yes, I have been reading my behavioral neuroscience book) allowed me to wake up earlier than even I wake up without too ill affects. Breakfast served by the hotel was rather diverse and oh-so-European. It had some standards, like cereal, juice, fresh fruit salad, but it also had some less ordinary fare like proscuitto, an Italian version of Nutella, four FORMATS of cheese (Not four flavors or types, but different packages, some spreadable, some as a block...cheese!), and more. I gorged myself. I was happy. Also, one of the waitresses asked if I would like some coffee or tea (I picked tea), and she remembered every morning henceforth that I like tea with breakfast. Excellent job, hun.

Our first business of the day was to meet an Elaine Ruffulo (self described as a cross between Catherine Zeta Jones and Monica Lewinsky) who was giving us a tour around the city of Florence. She was a true-professor type, which turned out to be her profession; she taught art history in Florence as part of Syracuse University for the past 20 years. My parents and I definitely got an education in architecture, art, politics, economics, and more of lovely Firenze. We visted a still-in-use church that was off the beaten track, very medieval, and acoustically ripe for Gregorian chants. We compared the juxtaposition of Medieval, Gothic, and modern towers. We learned about the Medici family who had built an enclosed pathway above the Ponte Vecchio so they wouldn't have to walk with the common folk from the Uffizi to the Palazzo Pitti. (this picture is looking out from one side, you can see the overpass begin with the arches on the left)dsc01775We saw how the city hall was a result of political battling, and the tower left behind from the losing political party was still there, inside city hall in the Piazza Senoria. dsc01799The famous art dichotomy of Michaelangelo's David and the Slaying of Medusa statue. Lots of cool stuff!

She also took us through the big-big-famous Chiesa of Florence, the one with the giant dome and was coronated with music by Josquin (studied it in Medieval Music History! So much stuff in that class was handy on this trip). dsc01783dsc01785Some ceiling, eh? dsc01792We also took a jaunt through the Opera della Duomo, which had lots of the cooler art pieces that used to be in the Cathedrale, including the Gates of Paradise. After the museum of cathedral works, we concluded out time with Elaine in the Bapistry, across from the Cathedrale. dsc01787She had her daughter Lia baptized there (which took some serious string pulling, since they only baptize one child a month), but the roof of this place was fantastic. dsc01796

Bye bye Elaine, a scrumptious lunch, and the Newmans went to the Convent of the Santa Maria Novella. dsc01800 This was a real-in use- convent, complete with giant church and lots of artwork in it. Least to say was that it was giant, more to say is that there were some interesting scenes in the aspes. We were only granted access to the chiesa proper (the grounds and cloisters were closed by the time we got there), but we saw plenty. But hold your horses, the cool thing about Santa Maria Novella was not the church...but the pharmacy!

As a working convent, Santa Maria Novella originally was a like all other Medieval and Renaissance churches- a center for healing as well as prayer (this trip really brought home the concept of in fantasy games, the cleric does what...). The convent had a pharmacy- from ages ago- that dealt with herbs and tinctures, and it was still open now. We walked in, and was assailed by the most beautiful smell of sandalwood...and that was only the entryway. Inside (amidst marble statues and decor) were three rooms, each one which was dedicated to a different fare of oldskool pharmaceutical goods. The first one had perfumes and scented soaps, the second room had incense and essential oils, and the third had all forms of herbs, teas, and tinctures. It was like Harry Potter, but real and awesome and smelling great. I made sure to grab each list of merchandise from each room, took a picture or two, and bought Karen some fine-smelling Italian perfume, called Hay. It was a very nice place- I highly recommend visiting it!

We went back to the hotel and rested until resturants opened up again around 7:30. We booked it to a famous little resturant on a side street that served "the Best Steak in Florence," according to the contact my dad had here in Florence. We waited outside for it to open with a French couple and a group of five English speakers, then the gate opened and we went in. The ristorante was like someone's kitchen- not super fancy but quaint with checkered tablecloths and a simple tile floor. The decor on the walls wasn't impressive until I took a closer look- there were receipts signed by loads of famous people saying that the resturant was the best they ever had. One of the bigger receipts was signed by Tom Brokaw, another by David Letterman. This little bistro was like Bartley's Burger Cottage in Harvard Square, if you've been there my dear reader.

We were seated at a long-ish table with the five english speakers, who through the dinner conversation we learned were principals from Long Island on school break. We all chatted about Florence and other small conversation while a tasty meal with the most succulent steak I've ever had went into our bellies (Yes...collective bellies). It was the best steak I ever had, but it was awfully pink and red, which was a little disconcerting. But when I closed my eyes, it went down so smoothly, so little chewing, such good flavor. So good. After dinner we waddled back to the hotel and bed.

*As a side note, the only TV channels that were in English was CNN and Sky News (Brit news). I think I learned more about world news when I was in Italy than I learned at Brandeis, since we just watched the same stories come back up again and again. Yes, I know about the stuff in Kosovo, thanks, and the string of suicides in Wales. I want to see Jeopardy!

Chapter Three

Again, another ealy morning, this time around 8 so we could start our ROAD TRIP early. After breakfast, the Newmans went to a Hertz dealer across from the hotel to rent a car for our road trip to Greve in Chianti and Siena. Look at a map, and you can see that Siena is south of Florence about an hour and a half; Greve in Chianti is halfway between those two points. Greve is a picturesque area, a cute town, with lots of villas and other typical Italian Countryside things. Rolling hills with grapevines, olive trees, breathtaking views, etc. We were to take a windy road through the Tuscan countryside, stop in Greve to snap some great pictures, go to a wine tasting at a highly recommended villa called Castello Verezzano, and then go to Siena for fun and hijinks. Well...things didn't quite go like that.

We managed to rent a small four door stick-shift (my poor father, so spoiled with automatics...) from the Hertz people. In Florence, the chaotic, to say the best. Lots of people ride scooters all over the place, there are some three-wheeled cars (yes! I know! It's weird!), some very small four wheeled cars, and a couple small trucks with small wheels. Now, lots of these little cars and scooters are zooming about the non-grid streets as fast as they can with people walking willy-nilly everywhere. Florence is a very walkable city- lots of streets are just taken over by pedestrians and there are lots of back alleys that look unbelievably sketchy but are rather safe and very clean. However, driving in Florence is a test of skill, knowledge of the one-ways, and a need for speed.

Needless to say, it was very stressful getting out of the city in a four person vehicle, but with superb directions and not-too shabby signage, we got on the right road to Greve. Phew. The day was cloudy, which was a little bummer, but beside that the driving was fine. We made it to Greve, drove through, found some really great photo ops, and got lost. According to our directions, we were supposed to go through Greve, then about halfway to Siene was Castello Verezzano, off of the San Caciano exit. Somehow the Hertz people who gave us directions and Elaine got it wrong, and we ended up on some very high hills, surrounded by grape vines and an excellent view, but no Verezzano. Fortunately, we got some local directions...back to before Greve. W/e, we got there, hoorah.

Castello Verezzano is a winery in the most authentic Italian countryside sense. It's up on a hill, surrounded by grape vines and trees. The villa is light brown, with tiled roofs, and a building design that has passages and spiral staircases and multiple levels. When we arrived, we met up with Gino, our affable and culturally authentic Italian guide for the tour. A family from Staten Island came along for the beginning, but peaced out near the beginning. They were also stereotypes in action: a mom who was disinterested in the "authentic Italian experience", a paunchy dad who smiles all the time but doesn't seem to know anything, a son who doesn't talk and has shoes that are those never-tied super loose-laced shoes, and a daughter in a tracksuit, valley girl accent, and sorta ditzy. They were gone before half an hour had gone by.

Gino gave us a wonderful tour. Since we were the only visitors for the day and all Gino does is give these tours, he made it very personalized and very personal. He talked and talked and talked and was so animated and cracked lots of jokes with a dry wit. He talked about how his life was wine, how "vino" was the blood of Italians. He talked about real tomatoes, the boars kept on the property that end up on the table, the memories of keeping wine, the details of what made Chianti Classico wine Chianti Classico with the little pink tag...all before we even went into the cellars. This guy was such a talker in the most Italian sense, it was SMASHING!

We saw the cellars, the aging cellar, the casks and the giant tubs of wine (I asked Gino, "Where do you get your barrels from? Do you make them here too?" His response, with his head hung, "France. Mamma mia."), as well as some of Verezzano's other products like their olive oil and balsamic vinagrette. After seeing all of these things (about an hour and a half), we went to the dining lodge which was decked out with flowers, tables prepared for about fifty guests, a roaring cooking fire, and our wine-tasting experience.

We were instructed- in Gino speak, so it took a while- on how to look at the wine and test the cork, smell and open the wine, and taste it. We had four different wines to taste and drink with the meal. Then came the six course meal. Yes, six courses. The first was meats- such as fennel salami, boar salami, proscuttio- with the first glass of wine, a low quality Rosso. Then Gino left us to tend to his kid's lunch while we ate the second course of tomato and mozzerella with the second lowest quality wine, and then the third course of beans in olive oil with the third glass. The fourth course was sausages and pork roasted over the open fire with fresh lettuce in olive oil and another type of beans, and this was paired with the fourth and highest-quality wine (Note, we had tasted and compared all the wines at the outset and just had the glasses sitting there, so we mixed up the wines and food for some bites to see how the wine worked with the food. It was very interesting!). Gino returned partway through the fourth course and joined us for the fifth course of (I forget what kind) cheese and parmagiano cheese blocks. This was the most interesting part of the meal: Gino showed us to take a bite of the parmagiano block and then a drop of Verezzano balsamic vinegar...dear readers, you would not believe how good this tasted! The balsamic vinegar was distilled over ten years, and was so rich that it was a little sweet and syrupy. It was precious, just a drop was enough to accompany the bite of cheese. Gino called it Liquid Gold- it was like a delicious oil, literally. The sixth course was some Verezzano vino sante and biscotti (vino sante is a sweet and very powerful wine, amber colored, that is a dessert wine), and to our surprise, the owner of Castello Verezzano (who was dining a table away from us doing some wine tasting of his own: business of course) Luigi gave us a decadent chocolate cake with morsels inside to have with our dessert. Gino even remarked, as someone who doesn't like cake, that it was magnificent.

The meal took about two and a half hourse. Yeah. Long time. LOOOOONNGG time with Gino. At the end of the meal, my parents bought six bottles of the finest quality wine (Supertuscan Chianti Verezzano), three bottles of olive oil, and three bottles of the balsamic vinegar (the most expensive thing that could be ordered), to be shipped to Saratoga. Because Gino enjoyed our company so much, he gave a bottle of the Supertuscan to my parents for free, as well as a jar of Verezzano honey (and he gave me a fancy wine opener! I'll show you when I get back). I shoudl've snapped a picture with Gino- my time with him was the highlight of my Italy trip.

So by this time we had spent more than four hours there. Time to leave, but not enough time to go to Siena and get back at a reasonable we went back to Firenze, accidentally got on the freeway but I got us back on track all right, and we made it back to the Hertz garage intact. Or so we thought. This is the debacle with Hertz.

We took the car out, new. We brought it back, after driving very cautiously and at a villa where we were the only guests the entire day, and it was still new. However, when we went to return the papers and "check in" the car, they reported damage. There was an itty-bitty dent on the back bumper, and they wanted to charge us for it after "consulting with the mechanic." Uh huh. Damage. Bullshit. It was a scam which we, as tourists, fell right into. We were so hurried to go out on our road trip that we didn't inspect the car beforehand. We trusted the "new" label. It wasn't "marked" on the papers when we went out, so it "must have" happened while we were out. My parents were aware, and we plan on calling the Hertz company when we got back to the states, as well as cancel the charge on the Visa. Travellers beware, this is a trick trick trick! Be sure to inspect the car beforehand and make sure that all scratches, marks, and dings are recorded faithfully on the papers, because you'll get back and a new guy will be behind the desk and say, "It's not on the sheet, must've been your fault." Beware, ooga booga!

We went back to the hotel, rested from our trip, and went out to a nice ristorante for dinner. I had a calzone (mozzerella, tomato sauce, and ham), which was ok but a little greasy. After dinner we scoped out the Uffizi, where we were going tomorrow morning. On our way there, we ran across a violinist who was playing his violin (out in the cold!) extemely well. I got it on video. We went back to the hotel and rested for the next big day.

Chapter Four

All these early mornings...when do I get to sleep in on this vacation? Breakfast as usual (with tea, thank you ma'am), and then we left the hotel at 8:10 to go to the Uffizi Museum. We got there...and they were closed until 10:15 due to a staff meeting. Bollocks. So, my parents and I flip flopped our plans and went to the Academia della Arte, rather than wait for later.

We got some audio guides at the Academia so we could get a good explanation of what we were seeing, but after the first room and a half, I realized I was too impatient to hear about things I didn't care about. This musem used to be a school of Arts, then was converted into a museum of the works of the artists who had learned there (and beyond). There was a nice exhibit of old musical instruments (A three string double bass?! The Medici violin?! The first spinnet piano?!), but of course, people go to the Academia della Arte for one reason: David.

Yes, the original David by Michaelangelo was there. It was big, and neato.Yup. That was it. There was a replica placed outside of Palazzo Senoria (city hall), which looked just as good. Uh huh, I saw "the most beautiful statue in the world," and it was HUGE.

So that was that. We left after seeing the rest of the exhibits (churchy stuff, mostly), and then went to the Convent of San Lorenzo. Outside the convent was a nice statue and a pigeon guy. You know, that bum who feeds the pigeons and has a bajillion surrounding him. I got a picture. Inside the convent...I remember an old online text-based MUD called Dragonrealms that I played when I was a kid. This was back when the internets was accessed by Compuserve. It was a fantasy RPG, all text based, and I loved it (so much that when I get time later in my life, I want to play it again. Yes, I checked, it's still there and kicking). When I walked into the front courtyard of the monastary, I was suddenly reminded of that MUD because it looked just like a guild hall. The first courtyard had a big talltall tree in the middle of it, with grass surrounding it. There was a covered stone walkway around the courtyard, with artwork on the roof. It was such a rush- I just wanted to play that game again.

We walked around the convent, saw some artwork and old stone things, and went upstairs where the nuns lived. We were allowed to look into all the rooms (each with some churchy painting on the wall), and even see some of the excavation in the rooms. A treat was to see the presiding bishop's chambers, who was none other than...Savanarola. Anyone remember their history? Savanarola was a crazy religious priest who said the people of FLorence were sinful and had tons of sin lying around, like books and musical instruments and babies and stuff. He made a big bonfire, and lots of stuff was destroyed. Summarily, the city hanged him right in the middle of the Piazza Senoria, and I got a picture of the marker that marks where he was hung. Anywho, we got to check out his quarters and his stuff.

Also on this floor was something that would make my Medieval Music History professor, Professor McGrade, leap for joy. There was a large library that was converted into a museum of music manuscripts. There were lots of tomes of original 14th century music, and I felt totally confident in assesing how they worked and how they fit into history. I felt so schwa, being able to recognize the illuminations, what breakthroughs in history allowed the words to line up under the notes, the semi-rhythmic notation, and more. It was quite a treat for me!

We finished at the convent and went to lunch at a highly recommended resturant, Frescobaldi (at the Piazza Senoria, with red awnings). All i remember was a fantastic gnocchi, which weren't ravioli or noodles stuffed with potato but actually small potato balls cooked so delicately and with such a smooth sauce. It was very tasty, of course. We then walked to the Ufizi Gallery, which was a GAUNTLET of art. Seriously, a gauntlet. The Uffizi used to be the offices of the Medici family, then was converted into a museum. Needless to say, it was a very large, very opulent, and very well stocked art gallery. It took several hours to run past everything, let alone stop and appreceiate it all. I managed to see a lot of famous works, and ended up buying a print of one of them. You'll have to visit my room and see what one.

We headed back to the hotel, stopping at a Gelateria and got a sweet afternoon snack of real Italian gelato, and then rested for the evening. Wednesday evening was a fancy dinner on the other side of the Arno with some coworkers of my father, from GE. One of them, Paul Fama, was our majordomo for the trip and gave us the suggestions which made up our itinerary (Verezzano, Elaine, Siena...). Mama, papa, and I taxied over to a kitschy Mediterranean resturant where none of the chairs matched and it made the ambiance better. We arrived a little early, were given three glasses of champagne, and were shown to a table in the way-way back, at the end of the resturant. Let me describe the ambiance of this place:

Thrift shop decor. Lights hanging with circular shades, allowing only circles of bright light scattered on the table. Cushions on the side which could be used in addition to the chairs. Waitress in a snazzy black shirt and pants and a red apron. Are you there? Great.

Vim, a Belgium who worked with my dad on some projects ago, arrived first. He was very witty, and made some bitingly funny comments. I instantly approved of him. Eventually, Paul and a coworker of his (who didn't know my dad at all but was an interesting lady nonetheless), Caesalinna arrived and filled out the table of six. And we had a gregarious dinner, amen. Paul reminded me a lot of a less academic Michael McGrade, strangely. Anywho, we had a delovely dinner, several hours long, with lots of wine, tasty food, gourmet dishes, and some thanks from Paul and Vim for my dad being a great guy and all, now that he's retired. They got him a box to store wine, with a fancy wine opener and pourers, and some very nice comments. I had a great dinner, and all it needed was some smoke to be straight out of the movies.

Dinner over, bedtime. One more full day in Italia!

Chapter Five

Early again, and tea at breakfast again. This morning we walked across the Arno to visit the Palazzio Pitti, a giant palace dedicated to many of the rules who lived in Florence. To boil it down, it's the Italian Versailles. Huge, opulent, full of artwork, large gardens behind it, etc. We went on a tour of the rooms of the Palazzo, which was another gauntlet of beautiful art everywhere. I really wish I could have taken pictures, because the ceilings in this palace were breathtaking. They took my breath away, for realz. Here's a picture of one of the ceilings:

I wish I could talk on and on about how amazing this palace was, but I can't express it in words. You'll just have to put it on your itinerary! After an hour and a half, we booked over to the bus station and booked a bus to Siena, which was a nice hour-and-change ride. We got there...and realized we had no idea where or what we were. We managed to scrounge up a map of the city from four separate tourist maps, and make it to a semi-sketchy resturant on one of the side streets for lunch. The food was alright, not spectacular (I had a plate of tomatoes+mozzerella, and a flat noodle pasta with boar meat in a red sauce), but I managed to order everything in Italian, even the water and the check. The waitress spoke no English, and the menu was all in Italian- I was very proud. My parents got pizza 'cause they could read "pizza."

We ended up after lunch walking towards the city center, the Piazza del Campo. Siena is a cute town, in a way similar to Saratoga. It was a medieval town that got hurt bad by the plague, and it was kept in a very good medieval style to become a hot-spot for tourists. The streets are windy and sometimes very narrow, and the landscape curves up and down quite a bit. There are also several universities (we walked past them, so I know), as well as some interesting sights and places. We made it to the Piazza del Campo, which looks like this: (PICTURE). It's in the shape of a half circle, with the curved edge on top of a hill which arcs around to the center of the half circle. There are lots of places to eat along the edge, and the half circle is all covered in brick, so you can sit down anywhere and it's a good view. A big annual event called the Palio horse race, where they truck in lots of dirt and horses race around the track (which isn't that large of a track). You can see on the buildings surrounding the piazza some walkways and bleacher-style seats, in anticipation for the horse race to get a very close up view.

After strolling the piazza, we went to the Duomo Cathedral, a very spectacular cathedrale (PICTURE). It started construction before the plague, and then was hit so badly that it was left unfininished. Fortunately, they managed to build the facade, a whole mess of marble statues and cornices. Even unfinished, it looked pretty grand. We didn't go in since by Thursday we've seen tons of churches, so we didn't anticipate anything brand spankin' new worth spending the Euros on. My mother and I, however, went into the Santa Maria della Scala, which used to be a medieval hospital, church, catacombs, and even modern day hospital (it was in use until the 1990s as a hospital, then was converted into a museum). We saw some nice statues and artwork, the old dormitories, and some medieval artwork of the building, but the real surprise was the catacombs.

Underneath the main building are extensive catacombs that took about half an hour to stroll through. The catacombs looked late medieval, and they were brushed up a little because the catacombs served as a labrynthine ancient artifact museum. It was certainly believable that this was the oldest hospital in Europe! My mom loved it- she's a big fan of archeology- and I also enjoyed imagining what the passageways originally held. After Santa Maria della Scala, we wandered the streets of Siena, which afforded a very nice surprise- the Synagogue of Florence.

By sheer luck of wandering, we came across a sign pointing us to the old synagogue, which was down a narrow side street that was so narrow, you could barely walk two abreast. Down the hill, past a niche bistro (full of Italian college students- I could really go to a place like this for Grad school), we came across the main door of the Synagogue...and it was locked. Oh well, photo op, click. I tried the door one last time, and an Italian woman came up and asked if we wanted to get in, in English. H'okay, but it's locked...and she pulls out a key and opens the door. By utter luck, we ran into an Anna Maciano, the historian for the Synagogue! She led us down the opening hallway (marble, very posh), up the stairs, and right into the sanctuary.

(PICTURE) This sanctuary was unlike any I've seen before. Swooping high ceiling, with engravings and hebrew adorning it. Tall columns and fine decor all on the walls. There was a central raised pulpit, with electric candles and gold-leaf decorations. The ark was flanked by two heavy Jerusalem marble columns, and lots of fancy decor surrounding it as well. Our conversation with Anna was quite intriguing- she told us about her role in the 40-member temple as the historian/researcher, the state of Judaism in Florence and Siena, the history and honors surrounding the temple, her work in Israel and the States regarding the study of Italian Judaism, and more. I thought she was very hip, so we got her name and email to contact her when we got back to Saratoga. What luck!

Mama, Papa, and I, after leaving the temple, managed to catch the bus to Florence just in time, and then headed back to the hotel. We rested and starting to pack for the ride home, and then went out to eat at the same resturant we went to on Sunday (but without the jet-lagged haze, making the food taste much better-if that was even possible). I had a good gnocchi- though not as good as Frescobaldi's- and a great pork chop, and a glass of the house wine (red) to down it. I went into dinner knowing exactly what I wanted for dessert- gelato- so after my parents had their dessert at the resturant, my dad and I got some gelato at a place near the hotel. Oh...gelato is so wonderful! I had a scoop of mint and chocolate and a scoop of dark chocolate with milk chocolate covered rice crisps...delightful! A great way to finish my last night in Italy.

The hotel gave us our breakfast for the next day in little baggies (since we were leaving before breakfast was served), which contained a totally European breakfast: hard roll, apple, jar of fruit juice, pastry, crackers, and packets of jam, honey, pate, and cheese. We managed to pack two bottles of wine into my suitcase and secure them with dirty clothes...and wishes that they didn't break open and spill wine over my clothes and souveniers. Nighty night (though my dad snored ALL night long and I barely got any sleep).

Chapter Six

Woke up at 5. Yup. 5 am. Finished packing, cleaning up, and hopped into a fast-as-balls taxi at 5:45 to get to the airport for 6 am. We cruised through security, everything, got on the plane, and bounced over to Milan. Again, cruised through everything, got on the plane, and sat for 8 hours flying back. Instead of a lumpy Italian woman staring at my food when it arrived first, I had a younger and cuter Italian. Upgrade. This flight was also unremarkable save for that it was full of Italians that all seemed to know each other...they were walking all around the plane, stopping and chatting, and I felt a little outsiderish that I wasn't just schmultzing around, chewing the fat with everyone. Meh.

Landed in snowy Newark in the early afternoon, which really sucked. Snowy and icy conditions, plus Friday rush-hour traffic, made a 3 hour ride into a 4 or 5 hour ride (I lost track). Fortunately, wonderful English radio was entertaining, and the thoughts of Chinese food for dinner made it all the more bearable. Made it home, ate dinner around 7:30 (about par for Italy dinnertime, except the time in Italy was 1:30), took a bath and called the belle, and slept peacefully in my heating-blanketed bed. Ahh.

All in all, I think I had a great vacation. I got some good school reading done, I had a great experience in Italy, and I have a week of hell next week to realize how carefree my past week has been, relatively. I wish I had done a little more research on the places and things we were seeing, but I had ne'er the time nor the plans of what we were seeing, so I think it all worked out for the best. If you've read my little novella, I hope you enjoyed the ride through my vacation. If you're Dan Newman, years and years from now, reminiscing about your trip to Italy...wasn't it fun!?!

I hope you enjoyed the retelling of my February break! Arriverdecci!

[Aside: My camera fell while I was leaving Italy, and the little door that keeps the battery in fell out and wouldn't go back in. The camera is going in for repairs, but all the pictures after Monday are stuck on my memory card until I hit a Wal-Mart or get the camera back fixed. Also, my parents took lots of pictures, and when they get those uploaded, I'll incorporate them into this tale]
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