Wandering and Wondering

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Spring Break

The end of exams last week signaled the start of spring break, where we have a week free of study. Most of the other students left Italy and headed to other parts of Europe such as Greece, France and Spain, but I decided to spend the week relaxing and getting to know Florence better.

The first weekend of Spring Break saw Florence play host to a number of different festivals. On Friday I went to Danza in Fiera, which is a huge dance festival that took place at the Fortezza da Basso conference centre. After getting my ticket and heading in the general direction where everyone else seemed to be going, I found myself in the main exhibition hall where exhibitors had on display anything and everything related to dancing, from clothes and shoes to actual dance floors. After wandering around for a bit I headed downstairs to the “Le Nazioni” stage where they were running the “Esibizione Scuole” – an exhibition of performances by school groups:

Esibizione Scuole at Danza in Fiera

Next stop was the “La Ronda” stage where I watched some ballet:

Ballet at Danza in Fiera

After about half an hour I headed next door to the “Rastriglia” stage where they were hosting the “Musical Day” competition. This was a national competition between dance groups from all across Italy, and the performances were condensed versions of famous musicals lasting around 15 minutes each. In the one and a half hours or so that I was there I got to see performances of Phantom of the Opera, Romeo and Juliet, Fame, Cats, Dracula and Chicago.

Performance of Cats for the Musical Day competition at Danza in FieraPerformance of Chicago for the Musical Day competition at Danza in Fiera

The Musical Day competition finally came to an end, and I headed over to the “Cavaniglia” stage to watch the “Maratona Danze Caraibiche”. This was an open event where couples competed against each other in a Latin dance-off. When I arrived the dance floor was full with about 30 couples and as the evening progressed couples were slowly eliminated by the judges until only 3 remained. There was one particular couple who I took by far the most photos of because they clearly stood out from the others. The judges obviously agreed because they ended up winning the entire competition. They must have been extremely fit, because they were on the dance floor for over 2 hours without a break and they never seemed to be lacking in energy.

Winning couple at the Latin dance-off at Danza in FieraDancing on the sidelines at the Latin dance-off at Danza in Fiera

The next day, Saturday, was St Patrick’s day. During the day I went for a wander around town with my camera to do some people watching. I snapped this picture in Piazza Santa Croce:

Guitar player in Piazza Santa Croce

In the evening I went to an Irish pub called “Finnigins” where I had met a few people the previous Tuesday for a Pub Trivia night. It is the kind of pub where everyone knows everyone else, and by the end of my second visit I was already on a first name basis with most of the bar staff and a few of the regulars. The photo below, which was taken at the Pub Trivia night, shows me together with Pasquale, Toby and Chris. I also met an Aussie girl named Sarah who grew up in Mandurah. Being the first Australian I’ve met here, we chatted for most of the night.

3rd place in the Pub Quiz at Finnigins

On Sunday after recovering from a slight hangover I headed to the Taste Fair at Stazione Leopolda, which Sarah had recommended. Food and wine vendors had stalls setup where you could taste their produce. There was lots of cheese, biscuits, wine, olive oil, jam, honey and chocolate. By the end of 2 hours my stomach was beginning to protest so I decided I had better not eat anything more.

Honey tasting at the Taste Fair

During the middle of the week, I decided that it was about time that I went and visited the Academia and Uffizi art galleries. The main thing that had been putting me off visiting them up until now was the long queues to actually get inside, but I figured that the queues are only going to get longer as we move further into Spring. The photo below gives you an idea of how many people there are milling about the streets in the centre of the city. I can’t imagine what it is going to be like in the peak tourist season around June.

Crowded street

I first visited the Academia gallery which houses the world’s most famous marble sculpture: Michelangelo’s David. Even though I had to wait in the queue for half an hour, it was definitely worth the visit. I had previously seen the David when I was in Florence in 2003, but back then I didn’t really appreciate it. Recently, however, I’ve been reading Irving Stone’s biographical novel on Michelangelo titled “The Agony and the Ecstasy”, and this gave me a much greater insight into both the statue and Michelangelo’s life. It took Michelangelo over 2 years to create, and he poured all of his passion and knowledge of the human body into it. The only downside is that now whenever I see other sculptures and paintings, they all look mediocre when compared to the David. Even when I visited the Uffizi gallery the next day, which supposedly houses one of the greatest collections of renaissance art in the world, I wasn’t all that impressed. Maybe I just need to study the history a bit more, but to me many of the paintings in the Uffizi seemed quite unoriginal and uninspiring: almost every second painting was of the same scene (the virgin Mary holding the baby Jesus) and differed very little in style from the others. The thing I admire about Michelangelo is that he strove for originality and perfection in his artwork. I just finished reading the part of his biography where he spent 4 years painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, so I’m looking forward to having another look at this the next time I visit Rome.

Uffizi Gallery at night

You could live in Florence for 10 years and still not see all of its galleries and museums, but as fascinating a city as it is, after 2 months I’ve decided that I need a bit of a change and want to see some of the Tuscan countryside and surrounding areas instead of spending all my time in the city centre. To achieve this I’ve bought myself an 18-speed bike, with a guarantee that the shop will buy it back from me at the end of my stay. On Friday I made the first use of it and rode up to the small town of Fiesole in the hills above Florence. It was an exhausting ride but the views back towards Florence and the Arno valley were worth it. In Fiesole itself I visited the archeological area which contains some ancient Roman and Etruscan ruins. The sun was shining and together with the wildflowers growing amongst the ruins and the Tuscan hills in the background it made for a very nice setting.

View from Fiesole towards FlorenceEtruscan Temple Ruins

Today, Sunday, is the last day of Spring Break. After I finish writing this blog post I plan on heading to Piazza Santissima Maria Annunziata for the Annunciation Day festivities. Annunciation Day commemorates Archangel Gabriel’s announcement to the Virgin Mary that she would give birth to the Christ child. Traditionally, Florentines considered this day to be the first day of the year. On that note, I’ll wish everyone a “happy new year”. Ciao.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Photojournalism Mid-Term Portfolio

The mid-term assessment for my photojournalism class is based on a portfolio of my photos from the assignments we had in the first half of the semester. Here are the photos that I selected:

Piazza Ciompi Antique Market

Nicola's workshop

Applying gold leaf to a statuette

Girl in white coat

Confetti fight

Mother and daughter

Nita walks home with her groceries

On the phone with the office

The editor in chief watches over her team

Urbano's meat and cheese shop

Taste test


For the last half of the semester, we need to choose a single project that we will work on for the entire 6 weeks. My current idea is to document the Muslim mosque that is just a few doors down the street from my apartment. The average person walking down the street wouldn't even know that it existed, making it all the more intriguing for me to get inside and photograph it. Getting permission from the mosque could prove difficult, but hopefully I'll be able to find the right contacts through the university who will help me to pull the right strings.

Wines of Tuscany Workshop

Red wine tongue

The weekend before last I attended a “Wines of Tuscany” workshop that was run by the Apicius cooking school (a sister school of Florence University of the Arts). Representatives from a number of different wineries around Tuscany along with various other food and wine experts gave a series of talks on subjects ranging from marketing strategies and production techniques to the nutritional benefits of wine. The talks were very informal in nature, with lots of discussion between the presenters and the workshop participants. We also had the opportunity to taste a range of different wines and learn about how various factors such as the production techniques, climate and geography all contribute to their taste. To be honest, my palette hasn’t yet reached the level where I could detect all that much difference between the wines, but it was still an interesting workshop. Some tidbits of information that I learned throughout the day are summarized under the headings below.

Question time

The changing drinking habits of Italians:

  • Wine was traditionally stored in large vats and served in carafes. These days, however, wine is stored and served by the bottle and the preference is for quality rather than quantity.
  • Italians traditionally drank their wine together with food, and the wine was produced with this is mind. Chianti wines, for instance, are generally a little sour in taste, but this is the perfect match for a sweet red meat. More recently, wine is quite often drunk on its own (you can see the evidence of this in the large number of wine bars that have opened up around Italy), and this requires the production of different styles of wine.
  • One of the reasons for the changing drinking habits is the changing lifestyles of Italians. Wine was often served together with the traditional midday meal, but these days the main meal is more often than not in the evening.

Victoria prepares the mini panini

Wine production:

  • There are no set rules for how to make a good wine. Instead, it is very experimental in nature and requires lots of measurements and adjustments throughout the entire production process. This is where the small wine producers have the advantage over the large producers (where much of the process is automated and less capable of tuning).
  • There are many different variables that determine how a wine will turn out. When growing the grapes you need to consider the climate, altitude, soil type, moisture level, etc. When fermenting the wine an important factor to consider is the amount of skin from the grapes that is present, since this will determine how strong tasting the wine is (the more skin, the stronger the taste). Finally, during the aging process when the wine is stored in barrels, you need to consider the ambient temperature at which the barrels are stored and the thickness of the barrels (which determines the amount of oxygen which reaches the wine).

Comparing wines

Nutritional benefits of red wine:

  • As well as lowering the risk of heart disease, studies have shown that drinking moderate amounts of red wine can reduce the risk of lung cancer and diabetes and improve your eyesight and cognitive abilities.
  • The “French Paradox”, which refers to the low incidence of heart disease in France despite their high level of fat consumption, has been attributed to their high level of red wine consumption: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/French_paradox
  • Apparently, a Danish study has found that wine drinkers are smarter, richer and healthier than non-drinkers and beer drinkers: http://www.c2ckru.com/html/drink_smart.html

Getting comfortable

The full set of photos from the day can be found here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/global-wandering/tags/winesoftuscanyworkshop/

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Exams (L'esame)

This week we have our mid-term exams, so I'll find out how much I've learnt over the past couple of months. Given that I shouldn't really care about my final grades, I've been stressing out more than I should. Old habits die hard.

I'm expecting the Photoshop exam to be quite simple, and for photojournalism we need to put together a portfolio of our best photos which I've pretty much already done. The World Religions exam should also be relatively easy - I just need to remember a lot of dates and terms such as "samsara" (which in Hinduism means the endless cycle of death and rebirth).

The Italian language exam will be the difficult one. I went to see an advisor after my last test, but she didn't really tell me anything that I didn't already know - basically I just need to spend more time studying and memorizing the conjugations of the key verbs.

For our latin dance class, the mid term exam will consist of doing a small dance routine. The routine itself is pretty easy to remember - the difficult part being to make it look smooth and natural, rather than tensing up all my muscles.

The internet connection in my apartment has been down all week, so I'm actually writing this blog entry from a bar that has free wireless. Given that I had to pay 4 euros for a can of Sprite, however, I wouldn't really classify it as "free". Next time I may just see what the reception is like from sitting on the steps of the church just outside...

Monday, March 5, 2007

Smashing Pumpkins: Grunge is Back

When the Smashing Pumpkins split up in 2000, I was disappointed that I hadn't had the chance to see them play live. Five years later I was extremely privileged to be able to see Billy Corgan (the lead singer) play an intimate acoustic show to an audience of only 400 people in Sydney, which I would rate in my top 3 music gigs of all time (the other two probably being the U2 Vertigo show in Sydney, and the Foo Fighters "Skin and Bones" acoustic show at the Sydney Opera House).

You can thus imagine my surprise when I saw the Smashing Pumpkins on the front cover of a music magazine while browsing through a music store in Vienna over the weekend. I wasn't sure if I was reading correctly, but yes, the Pumpkins are going to be touring various locations around Europe this summer. I may try and get tickets to the concert in Venice. Anyone going to be in the region who wants to join me? [Sorry Keong, I know you're going to be jealous. Hopefully they'll make it to Oz soon].

Weekend in Vienna

I just arrived back in Florence this morning after spending the weekend in Vienna for a school fieldtrip. Our group of about 15 students departed on Friday night on the sleeper train, but the compartments were rather cramped so I didn’t actually get much sleep.

After arriving we dumped our bags at the hotel and grabbed a quick bit to eat at the breakfast buffet before heading off to visit downtown Vienna. We got the subway train to Karlsplatz station and started walking along Kärntner Straβe, which is one of the main pedestrian malls. Compared to Florence, Vienna is a much more modern looking city, with wide streets and footpaths, but it still has lots of nice old churches and palaces as well.

Kärntner Straβe

Our guide for the weekend was Francesco, but “shepherd” is probably a better term to use than “guide”. His favorite phrase over the two days was “come on”, as he guided us around the city like a flock of sheep, talking about the history of Vienna and pointing out some of the cafes and restaurants he used to frequent when he was living here as a student.

The first stop on our tour was St. Stephen’s Cathedral (aka “Stephensdom”), which is a huge gothic church that was built in 1147. Providing a nice contrast between old and new, there is a very modern looking building directly opposite the cathedral. If you look closely, you can actually see the reflected image of the church in its glass windows.

St. Stephen’s CathedralReflections of St Stephen's Cathedral

Our next stop was the Hofburg Imperial Palace, which has housed a number of important people in Austrian History over the years, and is currently the official residence of the President of Austria. We visited both the Imperial Apartments and the Silver Collection, which houses a ridiculously large amount of silverware, crockery, cutlery and glasses. The imperial family obviously used to have a lot of dinner parties.

Horses at Heldenplatz (Heroe's Square), just outside the Hofburg Imperial Palace

By this time we were starting to get hungry, so it was off to a restaurant that Francesco used to eat at quite a bit during his student years. Austrian food is very similar to German, and very different from Italian. I ended up having the wiener sausage.

Lunch, Austrian style

After lunch we had free time, so I wondered around the shops for a bit and visited a couple of churches before heading back to the hotel. In the evening we headed to a restaurant in an outer suburb of Vienna called “Grinzling” for a traditional Austrian meal, consisting of plenty of veal, pork, sauerkraut, schnitzels and apple strudel. Since I’ve been in Italy, I’ve only eaten Italian food, so it was good to try something different for a change.

Meggan, Darren and Stephanie

After dinner we headed back into the centre of town for coffee. It seems like everyone else in Vienna wanted to do the same thing, because after running in the rain between two cafes which were already full of people we ended up at Starbucks.

Starbucks in the rain

On Sunday we were up early again for our visit to Schoenbrunn Palace. The inside of the palace was pretty similar to many other palaces I’ve seen in England, France and Italy, so it wasn’t overly exciting, but it was interesting to think about how these people used to live. Outside the palace there is an expansive garden. In the spring-time I can imagine that it would look pretty spectacular, but in winter when all of the trees have lost their leaves it is a little bit eerie. At the end of our tour I walked up the hill towards the so called “Gloriette” to get a nice view back towards the palace and the rest of Vienna.

Cuddle with a view

In the afternoon we had more free time, so I headed to the Museums Quartier to see some modern art. The first gallery I visited was the Kunsthalle Wien. This was housing a special exhibition called “Elastic Taboos”, highlighting the rapid cultural changes that Korea is currently undergoing as it sheds many of the taboos of the past. The second gallery I visited was the MUMOK. In terms of strangeness, it doesn’t quite out do the ZKM museum which I visited in Karlsruhe, Germany a few years ago, but it comes close. Let’s just say that the Germans and Austrians have very open minds about a lot of stuff.

At that point, my visit to Vienna came to an end. We boarded the overnight train back to Florence, and this time I did manage to get some sleep before arriving at the bright and early hour of 6.30am. Given that I was wide awake by the time I got back to my apartment, I made productive use of my early awakening by heading to the San Ambrogio market to get some photos for my photojournalism project. More on that soon, but for now, Ciao.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

School Newsletter (il giornale di scuola)

The second edition of the school newsletter is now out. You can read it here:

I contributed 3 articles to this edition: "Carnevale in Viareggio", "Movie Night: L’Ultimo Bacio" and "Monday Night Sports". I also contributed the photo for the "Ristorante Sabatini" restaurant review.

In case you missed it in my previous post, I also contributed a couple of articles to the first edition of the newsletter: