Wandering and Wondering

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Dinner with an Italian Family (Cena con una famiglia Italiana)

Last night I had the privilege of having dinner in the private home of an Italian family in Florence. The dinner was arranged by the school and together with Kelly, another student, I was invited to the Mascalchi family's apartment. We arrived at around 8.15pm and were introduced to 3 generations of family members: the grandmother, her daughter (the only one who could speak English), and her grand-daughter (who at a guess was around 7 years old). Over the last 10 years the grandmother has hosted countless overseas students and visitors from the USA, Canada, Japan and Sweden. I was the first Australian.

Dinner with an Italian Family

We were invited to sit down at the table for the "primi piatti" (first course), which was a simple but delicious pasta. During the meal, I asked the grandmother "che cosa fai in tuo tempo libero?" ("what do you do in your free time?"), to which she responded with a laugh "non ho tempo libero!" ("I don't have any free time!"). She then went on to explain that all of her time is spent cooking, helping at the family owned market garden and helping look after her grand-daughter. For her generation this has always been the norm.

"Secondi" (second course) consisted of some thin pieces of beef in a delicate crumbed batter. This was served together with fresh salad from the family market garden, bread and pecorino cheese. I knew that pecorni cheese was a specialty cheese of Tuscany, but what I hadn't known was that it is made from sheep's milk. It all made sense when the daughter explained that the Italian word for "sheep" is "pecora". When I mentioned that I haven't seen any sheep in Tuscany, she explained that they are raised in the southern part of Tuscany between Sienna and Rome, and that because most Italians consider the work too physically demanding, the job of raising the sheep was taken over a long time ago by Sardinians (Sardinia is that largish island a couple hundred kilometres or so west of the Italian mainland).

By this time both Kelly and I were feeling rather full, but there is always room for "dolce" (desert). The grandmother brought out a huge chocolate torte (seriously, the plate must have been half a metre in diametre) with a similar texture to brownies. However you call it, it was delicious, with Kelly finding room for a second serving. We started talking about the changing culture surrounding family meal-times. In the grandmother's generation, the family would always return home for a big lunch together. In the daughter's generation, however, very few women stay home to cook during the day, so the main family meal is at dinner time. And even though she didn't like to admit it, the daughter believes that the next generation of Italian families may even end up losing dinner as a family meal time as well, following the trend of many American and Australian families where family members are often too busy to eat together and instead end up eating alone in front of the television. I think it would be very sad if this does end up happening.

At the end of the meal, I asked the grandmother if this was a typical family dinner for them and she said that it was. Personally it was the best meal I've eaten so far in Italy (yes, even better than the 70 euro dinner at Sabatini restaurant). It just goes to show that to make a good meal the main things you need are fresh ingredients, simple recipes, a little time and care, and warm hearted people to share it with.

With my stomach content, on the way back to my apartment I was struck by the realization that after 3 months in Italy I can now partake in a simple conversation in Italian.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Religion in Florence

In a previous post I mentioned that I was going to try and do my final photojournalism project on the muslim mosque that is just down the street from my apartment. Almost 3 weeks into the last half of the semester, however, and I still haven't been able to get a contact in the mosque to ask permission to do the project, so it doesn't look as though I'll be able to go ahead with it. My project will still have something to do with religion, but I haven't really decided on a specific theme yet. In search of inspiration, I've been attending various religious festivities and ceromonies in and around Florence.

On Sunday the 25th of May, Florentines celebrated Annunciation Day in honour of archangel Gabrial's announcement to the Virgin Mary that she would give birth to Jesus. I headed down to the SS Annunziata church just in time to see a parade coming down the street and about to enter inside. Along with other onlookers, I followed them inside to witness a short ceromony in front of a special tribune that was built to house a famous painting of the Annunciation:

Worshipping the Virgin Mary

According to the legend, the artist Bartolomeo was feeling inadequate to the task of painting Mary's image and fell asleep on the scaffolding. Upon awakening he found it finished, and Mary's face has subsequently been attributed to angelic intervention. After the ceremony was finished, the parade left the church and continued on to Piazza del Duomo:

Drummer in the parade

The next big religious celebration in Florence after Annunciation Day was Easter. On Good Friday I headed out to the small hill town of Grassina, 30 minutes by bike from Florence, to watch a historical re-enactment of the Passion of the Christ:

Mourners at the crucifixion of Jesus

At about 9pm people started lining the streets of the town to watch the parade that accompanies the re-enactment. I only got a chance to see the very beginning of the parade before I had to dash off to a hill on the outskirts of town where the actual re-enactment took place. The play started with the annunciation to the Virgin Mary. Following this were various scenes from Jesus' life, such as the sermon on the mound, the trial and conviction by Pontius Pilate, the last supper, and finally the crucifixion itself. It was spoken in Italian, so I couldn't understand all that much, but the imagery was pretty powerful. At the end of the re-enactment, I even got to shake the hand of Jesus himself after he rose from the dead!

The last supper

On Easter Sunday I attended the Scoppio del Carro, or "explosion of the cart", in front on the Duomo in Florence. It was due to start at 11am, and when I arrived at 10.30am the Piazza del Duomo was packed with people:

The crowd awaits the "explosion"

I didn't have my telephoto lens with me, so I didn't manage to get any close-up photos of the cart when the fireworks where set off, but the following photo was taken by bootsintheoven:

The explosion of the cart

Even though the fireworks weren't anything as spectacular as those you'd see on Sydney Harbour on New Year's Eve, it was interesting from the perspective of how different it was to any other fireworks show I've seen and the fact that they've been doing this for hundreds of years. After the fireworks ended, I headed inside the Duomo for the Easter Sunday service:

Easter Sunday Sermon

Kind of like the Pope in the Vatican, the head bishop here in Florence is somewhat of a celebrity, waving to the faithful at the end of the sermon:

Bishop of Florence

Not yet having had my fill of Easter ceremonies, on Sunday evening I caught the train to Prato, 30 minutes from Florence, to witness an interesting ceremony known as the Display of the Holy Girdle. The main church in Prato, Santo Stefano Cathedral, claims to own the Holy Girdle that once belonged to the Virgin Mary. On Easter Sunday every year the bishop of Prato retrieves the girdle from its vault and holds it up for the people to see from a specially built pulpit on the outside of the church:

Holding up the Holy GirdleA crowd gathers

The ceromony ended with a parade through the streets of Prato:

Parade in Prato for the Display of the Holy Girdle

All in all, my easter in Florence was much more religious than any easter I've had back home. I was so busy attending all the festivals and ceremonies that I didn't even get time to eat a single easter egg! Not that easter eggs are any less popular here than they are back home. Indeed, this blog article by bootsintheoven shows a photo of a 250 euro easter egg, so it seems that they do in fact take their easter eggs very seriously here.

Even with the Easter festivities and ceremonies over, it is hard to escape from religion in Florence, and it obviously plays a big part in people's lives here. From most parts of the city you only need to walk a few blocks to get to a magnificant church such as Santa Croce, Santa Maria Novella, SS Annunziata or Santo Spirito. And not to forget Santa Maria del Fiore (aka the Duomo), whose huge dome towers over the whole city. As well as the churches, there are also the many small shrines located on street corners, most of which are dedicated to the Virgin Mary such as this one just around the corner from my apartment:

Taking a break to admire a Virgin Mary shrine

The other big religion in Italy apart from Christianity is football, or "calcio" as it is called here. On Sunday the 29th of April I'll be going to a match between the local team, Fiorentina, and Chievo in the Seria A league. Fiorentina also have a home ground match this coming Sunday against arch-rivals Sienna, so I may go to a bar near the stadium to witness the action on the big screen. If I can get some good photos, I may end up doing my photojournalism project as a comparison between the religion of soccer and the religion of Christianity.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Happy Easter! (Buona Pasqua!)

As you can imagine, Easter is a pretty important celebration in Italy and there are a number of different activities happening in and around Florence over the Easter weekend. When I was riding my bike home this evening I stumbled on a parade of people carrying a cross into the SS. Annunziata church. Tomorrow, for Good Friday, I plan on heading out to the small town of Grassina, just outside Florence, to watch a parade and re-enactment of the Passion of the Christ. On Easter Sunday there is a ceremony that is performed in front of the Duomo in Florence called Scoppio del Carro, which means "explosion of the cart". Basically, they parade a cart laden with fireworks through the streets of Florence, and when they reach the Duomo they set it off (I know you'd like it Ben). Sounds like fun.

Italy kicked Sicily into the sea

Last weekend I went on a field trip to Sicily, hoping for some warm weather which until then hadn’t yet arrived in Florence. As per the Vienna trip we travelled by overnight train and once again I didn’t get much sleep. The most interesting part of the journey was when the train carriages (with us still inside) were loaded onto the ferry for the short trip over the water from mainland Italy to the island of Sicily:

Train tracks on the ferry

On Friday morning we arrived at the train station in Catania and transferred by bus to the town of Taormina, which is up in the hills with a great view out over the Mediterranean. Francesco, once again our guide for the trip, explained the history of Sicily to us and the important role it played as a trading post in the Greek empire.

Church in the main piazza of Taormina

After a brief wander around the town, we stopped at a small cake shop to sample some of the local cannoli that Sicily is famous for. They are basically tube shaped shells of fried pastry with a filling of sweetened ricotta cheese. I went out the back to have a sneak peak at how they are made:

Making Cannoli

Sicily is also famous for its fruit and vegetables, which are exported all around Europe. One of the main reasons for this is the rich volcanic ash that is deposited on the soil from Mount Etna. Unfortunately the weather was too cloudy for us to get a good view of the volcano, but occasionally when the clouds parted we got a glimpse of the snow on its upper reaches.

Giardini Naxos

In the afternoon we visited the beach-side town of Giardini Naxos, where we had some time to go for a swim and laze on the beach. This is one of the few places in the world where you can go skiing on Mt Etna in the morning, and then go swimming at the beach in the afternoon. Not a bad lifestyle. When we were there, however, it wasn’t the best weather for swimming so I only had a quick dip and then spent the rest of the time playing soccer on the beach.

In the evening we headed to our hotel in Siracusa, and after a dinner of seafood (the first I’ve eaten since being in Italy) we checked out one of the local pubs before calling it a night. The next morning we were up early again for a full day visit of Siracusa. The first stop was the archaeological park, which is home to a spectacular Greek Amphitheatre:

Ancient Greek Amphitheatre

We then ventured underground into the catacombs beneath the San Giovanni church:

Catacombs beneath the San Giovanni Church

In the afternoon we had a look around the island of Ortigia, which is the historical heart of the town. The fish markets showed a very interesting array of fresh seafood:


After walking around all day, we finally got a chance to give our feet a rest when we went for a short cruise on the Mediterranean:

Mediterranean sun

On Sunday we visited the world heritage listed town of Noto. After the old town was completely destroyed by an earthquake in 1693, many famous architects and sculptors were invited to help build a new town. Many of the buildings and palaces of the town are decked out with ornate adornments such as the following:

Fancy balustrades on a balcony in Noto

In the afternoon we ended our stay in Sicily with some more time at the beach before boarding the train back to Florence.


As I write this, it seems that Spring has finally arrived in Florence, with some warm weather and the first green leaves starting to appear on the trees. To make the most of it, I plan on making some excursions out into the Tuscan countryside over the next few weeks, so stay tuned for the photos.