From the Renaissance City to the Big Apple

New York sure as hell isn’t Florence…and I mean that in both good and bad ways: there wouldn’t be modern skyscrapers, there wouldn’t be laws against drinking outside, there wouldn’t be free tap water in restaurants, and I wouldn’t be designing mobile apps as a job. It’s easy to list the differences between my surroundings, culture and lifestyle from a couple months ago compared to now, but it’s surprisingly easy to find similarities as well. My Florentine life has fortunately carried over to my New Yorker life in many big and little ways.

A city of many languages. Every day I find myself surrounded by different languages no matter where I am in the city. Just thinking back on today–I heard Spanish in the subways and from the door woman of my office building; I heard German in Madison Square Park; I heard Chinese in a cafe; I heard French in Penn Station; I heard Hebrew in the streets. I deeply miss hearing and speaking in Italian–a beautiful language I don’t hear nearly as often as others–but I love this soundtrack of diverse tongues.

A city of architecture. I’ve never been so attentive to the older architecture abundant throughout NYC. The city is full of stunning buildings and architectural decorations–they just need to be found among the clutter of run-down buildings and monstrous, modern skyscrapers. There is plenty to visit and admire.

A city full of tourists. Manhattan is always swarming with tourists, just like the center of Florence is. In both cities, I find myself annoyed at their slow walking, amused at their awe, patient with their oblivion, and pleased to help them out.

A city full of beggars. Unfortunate, but true. Same goes for pick-pockets. I am less scared about getting gypsied now, though…

A city that beats up your shoes. From cobblestone to concrete, my shoes still take a bad beating every day. Both Florence and New York require lots of walking, and high-intensity walking for commuters like me who are walking with a purpose.

A city that’s traffic could kill. Buddy the Elf got it right: “The yellow ones don’t stop.” European driving is pretty crazy–especially in a dense city like Florence with its narrow streets, weaving of mopeds, herds of pedestrians, and risky driving regulations. While New York and its vehicles are much larger, the traffic is just as congested and wild.

A city with nice, mean, crazy and creepy people. I suppose this goes for all places, but it’s an important similarity. Both Firenze and New York have many nice people who will hold the door for you, mean people who will bump into you, crazy people who will shout random things, and creepy people who will use very bad pick-up lines. Except instead of pretending that I don’t understand Italian, now I can pretend I only speak it–“No parlo inglese!”

A city of spontaneity. Running into surprises was a wonderful aspect of Florence–an aspect that I’m often experiencing in New York as well. From a swarm of people in costumes doing a pub crawl, to a guitarist jamming out on a corner, to funny graffiti in the subway, to the sudden outburst of a flash mob–New York is gem-full of fun, spontaneous acts of surprises.

A city with cheap Mediterranean food stands. New York may not have the classic kebabs we saw all over Europe, but there are many similar stands with cheap Mediterranean food like felafel and gyro. I have yet to try, but it’s certainly nice to know the option is there.

A city with illegal vendors. I’ve told many tales of the illegal vendors in Italy who sell everything from bizarre glowing toys to umbrellas to roses. Well, they’re all over the streets of NYC as well…although, they don’t chase guys with bouquets of flowers or do the classic sales pitch for putty (smack the odd gooey toy on the ground, show Abra Kadabra gestures, smile and ask “You want?!”

A city that drains my bank account. $12 cocktails, $3 slices of pizza, $20 of Metro rides that don’t last long enough…This city would really wipe me out if I wasn’t making such an effort to save up right now (to make up for all the spending in Europe). At least I don’t need to convert Euros anymore!

A city of endless exploration. As I’ve shared in past posts, some of the best discoveries and most rewarding experiences in Florence came out of a wrong turn. “Get lost in Florence” become an inspiring way of thinking, because exploration usually led to incredible sights, awesome adventures, warm friendships and new discoveries. There was always more to encounter. New York is the same way: the city is a playground that can always offer something new and exciting. I find myself meandering different ways to work, trying new places, and fearlessly exploring new areas just to observe new territory and welcome the chance of something good.

I deeply miss Firenze. And nothing could ever compare to the kinds of sights I saw, interactions I experienced, and challenges I overcame on a daily basis. But New York is indeed a wonderful city–one in which some of my favorite aspects of Florentine life can live on, and one which can offer plenty of other great opportunities. Now I have the right attitude to take advantage of everything this city has to offer.

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Climbing out of the rabbit hole…

I didn’t mean for my last [depressing] post written on my final night in Italy to be so, well, final. In fact, I’ve tried writing a follow-up post several times since I returned to the US–now over one month ago. But reflecting on my time there and looking at pictures just spirals me into this abstract realm full of both good and bad feelings, both concrete and intangible memories, both gratitude and desire. Abruptly ending such a distinct, significant life experience has made this a confusing, apprehensive transition back.

Transition back….Back? Or forward? Or just onward? (And down the rabbit hole of feelings and wishes and realities I spiral…)

Every time I try to make sense of all these thoughts, I find myself with an overload of memories, observations, discoveries, ambitions and missing pieces. It’s why they all end up chaotically spiraling into nothingness; it’s why I feel completely disconnected from my own present life.

So, I’m gonna start taking some time now and then to just focus on one aspect at a time. Starting now, I’ll be posting some articles about different aspects of my experience–whether it’s reminiscing on a memory, contrasting Italian and American culture, voicing observations I never expressed, digging up a gem of a photo, or telling a story I haven’t yet shared. Once again, I thank everyone who kept up with this blog during my time in Italy, and I hope some of you will still enjoy its continuation 🙂

One of my memorable moments during my last week in Florence was acting as Alice in Heather’s Alice in Wonderland Florence photo shoot for her photography class, which my housemates and I had a blast modeling for. I’ve left our Wonderland, and now time’s-a-tickin’ to climb on out of that rabbit hole…

Photo Credit: Heather Ayvazian

A fragmented sense of political issues in Italy

As a Communications student interested in people, culture and art, I’ve done my fair share of attempting to delve into the minds of the locals surrounding me. One type of observation that always stands out to me are political issues prevalent in Florence (or in Italy in general). Through my cultural encounters, discussions with Italians, and lessons in class, I’ve developed a fragmented sense of five political issues in particular:

Snapped a photo with this street art for you, Dad.

  1. Silvio Berlusconi–that’s a funny joke. As I already knew before coming to Italy, the last prime minister was absolutely horrendous. He overstayed his turn, poorly used his power, contributed towards the European debt crisis, and, uh, touched young girls. Fortunately, he finally resigned in November 2011, but he sure is still spoken of today. Sometimes his name angers people, like the way one of my professors spoke about him. But sometimes his name is just a funny joke–like the “Bonga bonga” theme night at a pub that was all about mocking their ex-prime minister.
  2. Immigrant, shimmigrant. Acquiring your Permit of Stay is an expensive, annoying process demanded by the Italian government in order to stay here legally past a certain number of days. Likewise, it is mandatory to carry around your passport (or a copy) to prove your approval to be in Florence. However, complying with these perturbing tasks will feel absolutely useless as you pass illegal vendors on every main corner of this city. During our orientation, we were told what a major problem illegal immigration is in Italy right now–particularly from Eastern Europe and Africa. Many of these people make a living illegally selling goods on the street, and it’s amazing how it seems to just be accepted. It’s not like you see police going after them or asking for their documents. At night, I once passed a group of them sprinting to their van with their merchandise carried in blankets, so maybe they do get caught at late hours. The crime rate of illegal immigrants is high as well. Between the illegal selling and the crimes, it’s a shame that all immigrants here seem to be discriminated against by Italians–even if they’re legal. I’ve not only learned about it in my class, but have even talked about it with legal immigrants themselves, who are thankful for the better life here but are negatively affected with this. I guess these immigration issues are universal among different countries, because it sounds an awful lot like the US situation.
  3. What “mafia?” Especially in Southern Italy, you will find a complete denial that the mafia exists. It exists. That is all.
  4. American health care doesn’t just upset Americans. From the locals I’ve spoken about politics with, Italians seem to despise American health care. Their proposed solutions, to me, sound so socialized that it’s scary. The difference in philosophies doesn’t surprise me, but what did surprise me is how passionately angry they feel about the issue–even though it’s not even the health care system of their own country. So, be careful when talking about this issue with Italians!
  5. Youth in revolt. Every day I pass posters or street art with political messages–particularly anti-fascist messages. Sometimes, I even see protests of young Italians revolting against these issues. My generation here seems to want a more democratic government, and I’m not sure what they’re going to do about changing it.

“Ugly American” students in Italy

Warning: Incoming rant!

This morning I spent two hours waiting in the Italian Immigration building to have my number called so that I could be fingerprinted for my Permit of Stay. No, I’m not going to rant about this process of red tape similar to going to the DMV. But, I am going to share some thoughts about the “Ugly Americanism” that I see too much of in Italy–the blatant insensitivity and even disrespect towards the Italian culture that is too-often demonstrated by American students here. Remember–as sitting in the Questura this morning reminded me–we are foreigners here, and foreigners who have been here for enough months to understand respectful etiquette and behavior. There is no excuse for the blatant obliviousness, obnoxiousness, insensitivity and lack of effort to respect Italian culture that portrays you as an “Ugly American” student.

Stop expecting Italians to speak English. If someone walked into a shop in America and asked for something in a language other than English, the shopkeeper would be annoyed and look at that person like he or she is crazy. Believe it or not, this concept works in other countries too! If you are in a country which speaks Italian, then you should expect that the people speak Italian. After months of taking an Italian course [and living in Italy], you should at least know how to say the simple phrases that you need in order to get by…and you should actually use them. It blows my mind when American students capable of saying something simple like “Buon giorno. Posso avere il panino con mozzarella e pomodori, per favore?” will instead ask “Hi, can I have [points to desired sandwich].” Some students will even get frustrated and annoyed with the shop keeper if he/she reacts in a confused manner. You’re in a different country that speaks a different language: why the hell would you just expect them to gracefully receive your speaking in English? Just TRY to speak the Italian you know!–A failed effort at Italian is much better received than an ignorant assumption of English. Furthermore, if you don’t know how to say what you need to say in Italian, then you should first ask if the other person speaks English. “Parla inglese?” is all–hell, even just “English?” can communicate that question. Stop walking up to a front desk and immediately speak in English without any respect for the possibility that the Italian you are speaking to in Italy might only speak Italian and therefore not understand you.

Stop getting frustrated with people for cultural differences. Once again, you are in a different country, so some things will probably be different. No one can make you stop being frustrated with adjustments you can’t handle, but you need to stop attributing your own culturally-conjured “faults” towards the people from another culture. That barista is not a horrible employee for not serving you coffee in a to-go cup: to-go cups for coffee are not the norm here. That waitress is not giving you bad service for not bringing your bill yet: the norm is to not rush your dinner, and to wait for the customer to ask for the bill. Stop evaluating people based on your own cultural norms.

Don’t parade effusive American patriotism. The other night, a bunch of students threw an “America Party” at an Italian bar I was at. They piled in with their red, white and blue and exerted their American pride, even with Italians in the same place. Another night, someone kept hollering an obnoxious “TO AMERICA!” at dinner in a quaint Italian restaurant. Stop making us all look like arrogant assholes, please…

/endrant

Italian cuisine [in casa]

Allora, as I shared in my last post, I’m house-bound for a few days until I get well. But even within il casa, there is plenty of culture to talk about….like the differences between my cooking/eating habits here in Italy versus back at home in the US:

1. Oldschool coffee-making

This interesting little contraption brews a mighty strong coffee in a magical way. It’s a small, three-part metal device. Water is poured into the bottom, coffee is scooped into the filter that is placed on top of the water, and then the pitcher-like layer is screwed on top, empty. I turn on the gas valve and light up the stove (yes, that’s oldschool as well), and after several minutes of heat, coffee magically starts emerging in the top. I still haven’t mastered the proper quantities to make a perfect cup of coffee, but at least I learned how to actually make it!

2. Low-quantity/high-frequency grocery shopping

In the United States, I tend to grocery shop once per week or so, buying items in bulk and stocking up to last a whole week or more. Here, it’s totally different. My housemates and I find ourselves going grocery shopping about every other day. We have a small fridge that isn’t as cold as in the US, we usually are paying in cash, and there are so many grocery stores just a quick walking distance away. There is also a great selection of fresh food, which is best to use right away.

3. Fresh, flavorful ingredients & Less processed foods

We succeeded in making the perfect sick meal 🙂

I am thoroughly enjoying the quality of most ingredients here. My meals feel more nutritious and wholesome, revolving around fresh vegetables, olive oil, fresh herbs, and delicious cheeses. This is my preference at home too, but it’s too-often dominated by the readily-available quick-and-easy processed fixes.

This afternoon, some of my housemates and I made a delicious chicken noodle soup from scratch. While it wasn’t difficult at all, it’s something I’ve never done at college in New York because there is always a colossal collection of canned Progresso soup in the closet, which would only take a few minutes to make. I’m not only learning to cook more home-cooked meals, but learning to appreciate them more, too!

4. Fancy cooking fancy

...The first pasta dish I made here. May the last one be 10x more delizioso!

Taking the time and creativity to prepare a delicious dish has been an enjoyable requirement here. Maybe it’s the availability of great ingredients; maybe it’s the pleasure of having more free time in my day; maybe it’s the inspiration of the cultural love for food here. Whatever the reason may be, I find myself constantly attempting to level-up my cooking skills and invent interesting variations for meals.

6. Vino, vino e vino

There are bounteous places that sell cheap bottles of delicious wine. I’ve found some excellent red wines for only 2 to 5 Euro per bottle. My housemates and I are enjoying trying different Chiantis (a key wine of Florence) and various Tuscan region wines with our dinners. Sometimes I’ll even make a meal out of wine, cheese, antipasti and bread. Mi piace molto 🙂

Credit: Heather Ayvazian

Superbowl MONDAY: Only the hardcore survive.

I experienced the most American Superbowl while in a foreign country last night.

Chelsea and I knew we'd be packing our jerseys the moment Big Blue made it to the Superbowl 😀

Madonna's half-time show briefly united our mixed bunch of Pats and Giants fans

The Superbowl was like a mass summoning of American people and spirit last night. Bars airing the game required reservations–some of which were already sold out over a week in advance. Five of my housemates and I (4 Pats fans; 2 Giants fans) ventured out in the cold at about 11:45pm to The Clubhouse–an “American sports bar” that bartender Matteo had so kindly given us the grand tour of when Chelsea and I bought our tickets last week.

Coronas, wings and football. 'MERICA!

The venue had a lively atmosphere, with a good balance between a cozy, old feeling and modern, clean look. The TVs are rather small, but we landed a spot right up at the bar in front of a screen. What we really appreciated is how, well, American the owners managed to make it feel. Already, the room was swarmed with Americans all gathered in the wee hours of the night to celebrate our cultural holiday. But in addition to that, they served wings, hotdogs, hamburgers, buckets of beer, and colored shots to match the teams. They also broadcasted ESPN America so it was good coverage in English. (Commercials weren’t shown, but they did show flashbacks inbetween–like that other time we beat the Patriots at Superbowl :)). Other than the gorgeous Italian bartenders, who seemed to be amused by our passionate heckling and yelling, it was like we really were back in the United States.

I would LOVE to spend some time talking about how awesome my Giants are and how they have, at this point, completely annihilated the Tom Brady / Patriots dynasty. But I shall refrain 🙂 …That was an incredibly intense fourth quarter, though, which apparently lots of Americans here couldn’t power through to. When we arrived before 12:30am kick-off, the bar was packed: it had dwindled down to only a few hardcore groups of fans by the 3:45-4am end-time, though–a small but mighty crowd which still produced more noise than a fully-occupied room. The celebration in the bar was followed by a small rush of Americans all about the streets of Florence–some rejoicing, and some silently hating Chelsea and me for rejoicing.

Waking up for classes this morning wasn’t so lovely, but it was well-worth it!