Wandering and Wondering

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

My University (La Mia Universita)

I attended university orientation last week which was a little boring. To be fair, it was obviously aimed more towards younger students who have never left home before, not someone like me who has travelled the world. I had to laugh when they warned about the culture shock of “not being able to buy peanut butter at the supermarket”. Try travelling through the remote parts of western China and you’ll know the true meaning of the phrase “culture shock”!

I hadn’t studied up on my Italian at all before I arrived, and it showed when I only got 14 out of 30 questions correct on my multi-choice placement test, many of my answers being guesses. However, they still let me enroll in the intermediate class, and the instructor told me that if I find it too difficult in the first week I can drop back to the easier class. Since I don’t really have anything riding on my final grade, I would rather do the more difficult class than be stuck in a simple beginner’s class.

My first day in class didn’t turn out to be too bad. The class size is very small (only 7 other students), and I think most of us are at about the same level of understanding. Our first assignment was to write a couple of sentences describe what we did on the weekend:

Sabatto sono visitato il Palazzo Vecchio guardare l’art e l’architettura.
[On Saturday I visited the Palazzo Vecchio to look at the art and architecture].

Domenica sono camminato lung oil fiume Arno prendere alcuni I fotografi.
[On Sunday I walked along the river Arno to take some photographs].

I haven't really tried to speak much Italian yet, except for asking directions once or twice (“dove la stazione”) and ordering coffee (“un cappuccino per favore”, not all that difficult).

Apart from Italian language, the other units I’m studying are World Religions, Latin Dance, Introduction to Photojournalism and Introduction to Photoshop. I originally wanted to do an art history class, but the only timeslots available clash with my Latin Dance course. If any free spots open up by the end of the week I may be able to swap my Photoshop class for an art history class, so we’ll wait and see.

I had my first Latin Dance and World Religions classes today. As I kind of expected, I’m the only guy doing the Latin Dance class, along with 9 other girls, which isn’t so bad I guess. The World Religions class was also pretty interesting, so I’m glad I picked it. We’ll be covering Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Hindu and Islam.

My Neighbourhood (La Mia Quartiere)

My apartment is located in the “Sante Croce” area of central Florence, so called because it contains the beautiful Sante Croce church:

Sante Croche church

My street, Borgo Allegri, contains lots of shops that sell and restore old furniture. The area would be an antique furniture lover’s dream. My apartment actually has a lot of old furniture in it as well.

I spent my Australia Day going for a wander around my neighbourhood, including a visit to the Palazzo Vecchio museum. There are so many museums here, I’ll be able to go to a different one every week. I’m trying not to look like too much of a tourist but it is unavoidable with my large SLR camera draped around my neck coupled with my occasional stopping to check out my map. Hopefully I’ll blend in better with the locals as time passes.

On Sunday morning I was woken up fairly early with the sound of lots of commotion on the street. I looked out the window to discover that the street had been converted to a big marketplace, with vendors selling everything from clothes to porcelain to wooden sculptures that looked like they originated from somewhere in Africa. I ended up buying a scarf and beanie because the weather was so cold, and then going for a walk down to the Arno river to escape the crowds.

Sunday Markets

My Apartment (Il Mio Appartamento)

Having only seen a few small photos and a brief description of my apartment on the Internet before I arrived, I was somewhat apprehensive to find out what it was like in reality. As it turns out, I couldn’t be happier with it. It is a good size, is nicely furnished, and has beautiful wooden floors and ceiling. It is also in a perfect location only a few minutes’ walk to university.

Living room

My landlord is a very friendly signora whose name is “Martelli Ferrari”. I’ve always wanted a Ferrari, and now it seems that I have one! She was there to greet me when I arrived and show me around the apartment, pointing out all the little idiosyncrasies such as the fact that you need to press the flush button on the toilet 3 times before it will work. It is a very old apartment, so a few minor issues are nothing to worry about. Testament to how old it is, is the fact that the power outlets require a special adapter to adapt them to the European standard (and I then need another adapter to adapt to the Australian standard). It also has no ceiling lights in the main living area and bedroom – just free standing floor lamps.

My neighbor Nita is also very friendly. Originally from California, she has been living in Florence for around 3 years, and is the editor of an English newsletter called “The Florentine”. When I told her that I am studying photojournalism, she asked if I would be interested in publishing any photographs and/or articles in the newsletter. I jumped at the opportunity, so in the not too distant future I may have my first published article (providing that my writing is good enough)! I may also end up doing some writing for a small newsletter that is published by students at the university.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Visited Countries

Found this site on the web that allows you to generate a map of all of the countries in the world that you've visited, so I generated one for myself:

It may take me a while, but eventually I aim to have most of the map in red.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Arrival in Florence

Woohoo! After my initial idea to take a year off to study and travel over 12 months ago, I’ve just arrived in Florence, Italy, for the first part of my adventure. I had been umming and aahing about my decision for a few months, and it wasn’t until my friend Anna (another avid traveler) came to visit in Easter last year that I finally committed myself to making it happen.

I aimed to start writing this blog over a month ago, but trip planning along with Christmas and New Year’s celebrations all managed to get in the way. Even though I managed to squeeze in a bit of time for lazing around watching the cricket and tennis, it has seemed almost like a full time job over the last month just to get everything organized.

My last weekend in Sydney was particularly hectic, making sure I had everything packed up and stored away. After a final farewell dinner in The Rocks, I was up until 1.30am packing my car for the big road trip back to Perth. I finally hit the road at around midday on Monday the 18th December with my car fully loaded. There were a couple of boxes I had to leave behind at my flatmate’s place because there was absolutely no room left in the car.

Farewell dinner in The Rocks

It felt good to be on the road again. Must be my restless soul, but travelling is when I feel my happiest. Leaving the traffic of Sydney behind, I made my way to Dubbo where I met up with a good friend Geoff (aka “Horny”) who I used to play hockey with. Showing some country style hospitality, Geoff took me out to dinner (refusing to let me pay) and then let me stay the night at his place.

The next day I was up early for the long 9 hour drive to Broken Hill. The effects of 5 years of drought in New South Wales were glaringly obvious as I passed dry and dusty farmland. A few farmers had attempted to grow crops, but the results were saddening to witness. Broken Hill, on the other hand, was obviously doing well as part of the current mining boom. There were a lot of interesting attractions to visit in and around the town, my favourites being the Sculpture Symposium and Pro Hart’s art gallery.

Broken Hill sculpture symposium Pro Hart's car

The next stop after Broken Hill was the little country town of Melrose in the Flinders Ranges, which my parents had recommended. After spending the night in the caravan park, I got up early to hike to the summit of Mount Remarkable, which ended up being a 4 hour round trip.

Boxing kangaroos at Melrose Caravan Park View from Mt Remarkable

The next few days were fairly uneventful – just lots of driving across the wide open landscape of the Nullabor Plain. The coastal cliffs near Eucla were an interesting diversion from the flatness of the plain. On the last leg of my journey I stopped off at Doodlakine to visit the school where I attended year 1. Unfortunately the school was closed down a couple of years ago. I also stopped off at Brett (my Dad’s cousin) and Kris’ place in Kellerberrin, and they provided great hospitality as always.

Coastal cliffs near Eucla Nullabor Highway

I finally arrived in Perth on Christmas Eve. The next few weeks were spent catching up with family and friends and lazing around watching the cricket and tennis (gotta love summer in oz). I also did a lot of shopping, mainly stocking up on new gadgets – two new camera lenses (an EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 to use as a general walkabout lens, and an EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 telephoto for wildlife photography in Africa), a new mobile phone and a new camera/laptop backpack to carry it all. I tested out the 17-55 lens in Wellington National Park while visiting my brother in Bunbury, and I tested out the 70-300 with some macro shots of animals and insects around the house.

Leschenault Inlet at dusk Bob tail goanna

My 4 weeks in Perth flew by quickly, and I spent my last few days packing. After my last couple of overseas trips where I was up until 2 or 3am in the morning getting packed, you would have thought that this time I would leave plenty of time, but true to form it wasn’t until 2am on the night before by 9am flight that I finished. My check-in luggage weighed in at a hefty 27kg – 7kg over the advertised limit for economy class. Add another 9kg or so for my carry-on luggage and I was a bit concerned that I may need to pay a hefty excess baggage fee, but in the end it didn’t turn out to be a problem.

On my way to Florence I stopped off in Singapore for a few days to catch up with Ash, Tara and Omar. Shortly after I arrived we hit the town for dinner and a few drinks (the tastiest being the lychee martinis at Harry’s Bar, mmm) before turning in for a relatively early night. The next morning I had a mild hangover, but we decided to go out to a Dim Sum restaurant for brunch. I then spent a few hours at the Botanic Garden’s with Omar and Omar’s/Ash’s mum. As per the usual after any sort of outdoor activity in Singapore’s heat and humidity, I arrived home nice and sweaty. The next day I headed out to Singapore Zoo to test out my new telephoto lens.

Ash and Darren in Singapore Otter at Singapore Zoo

After a final dinner of chicken rice at a hawker centre, I said my goodbyes to Ash and Tara before heading to the airport for my midnight flight. Coincidentally, Ash and Tara are moving to London in March (everyone is moving to London these days), so I’ll be able to catch up with them again at the end of my stay in Italy on my way to Africa.

The flight from Singapore to Florence via Frankfurt wasn’t the best of flights. No personal video screen and a lack of any decent movies on the shared monitors meant that I spent most of the 14 hour flight in complete boredom. At one stage I lost my glasses when they fell behind my seat. Searching for something in the dark and crowded cabin of a plane would be difficult enough normally, but without glasses it was even worse. I asked the cabin stewardess if she could broadcast a message over the plane’s PA system, and luckily enough the guy in the seat behind me found them before they were trampled on.

While transferring at Frankfurt airport I shared the departure lounge with a big group of students who were obviously headed to the same university in Florence as I was. Being almost 30 myself, while the majority of the other students were probably still in their late teens made me wonder how well I would fit in at the university. Am I too old for this? What was I thinking quitting a well paying job and leaving the country where all of my friends and family are based to go to a city and country where I don’t know anyone?

Most of my fears evaporated, however, when I arrived in Florence. It is such a beautiful city. I was picked up at the airport in my own private limousine, and we drove through the small winding streets, past the famous Duomo, and on to my apartment in the Sante Croche district. And so begins my slice of “la dolce vita”.

Ponte Vecchio