Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Eight Days, Four Cities, One Backpack: Spring Break Part 2, Brussels.

After the long four hour bus ride back to Belgium we made it to our second destination, Brussels. We checked into our hostel and made our way downtown for some Belgium specialties. We found the cute restaurant that had been recommended to us that was top of the line for the famous mussels with fries.

That night we checked out a bar called Delirium Cafe which currently holds the world record for the most beers available, almost 2,500!! It was a very relaxed atmosphere, with plenty of room for people to spread out! My favorite was the Floris Passion a passionfruit flavored beer and the Kasteel Red a cherry flavored beer!  

Their website is pretty cool showcasing all of the beers they make and whatnot, http://www.delirium.be/ and http://deliriumcafe.be/

The next day we got up pretty early and enjoyed the free breakfast at the hostel. Before we moved out to discover Brussels in daylight. We found the famous "Manneken Pis" rumor has a young boy was separated from his father and found much later urinating on the street corner.. There are several different legends about the little boy from an ancient Duke baby to a young boy who peed on a fuse and saved the city from destruction. A very funny but odd statue!

Brussels is a city famous for its food, so eat we did! All the famous foods are sold right on the street in little carts or similar to an ice cream shop window. First we tried the famous belgian fries (they fry them right infront of you!) topped with a zesty cheese sauce, actually I have no idea what it was they just put it on the fries, but whatever it was it was amazing. We also tried out the famous belgian waffles, which they also cook right infront of you and top with whatever you like, I opted for simple nutella. Simple, but perfection for my tastebuds!

It is pretty obvious I have quite the sweet tooth, so naturally I LOVED the famous belgian chocolate. There was a chocolate store every other boutique each offering any kind of chocolate you could imagine! Unfortunately my single backpack was already packed quite tightly with not a ton of extra room for chocolate, so I just had to eat it, horrible I know.. 

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Eight Days, Four Cities, One Backpack: Spring Break Part 1, Amsterdam.

I have an uncanny ability to catch four hour buses at literally the last second. The first leg of our adventure definitely tested that skill. A late shuttle from the airport caused for some sprinting around Brussels Noord in frantic search at 4:29 for a bus that left at 4:30, thankfully waiving our boarding passes at the bus pulling out of the terminal was enough to secure our transportation. After a painful four hour bus ride we finally reached our first spring break destination: Amsterdam. Once we checked into our hostel right off of Dam square it was about 10 pm. Realizing none of us had had a single sip of any liquids or a bite to eat in over twelve hours we just about sprinted to the closest restaurant we could find.

When we booked the hostel we had laughed at the reviews about the treacherous stairs many customers had complained about. We said clearly they hadn't seen the stairs in Italy, clearly we hadn't seen the stairs in Amsterdam.

The original bookcase
The next morning we got up bright and early and headed out in search of coffee and the Anne Frank house. Thankfully we got there early and didn't have to wait in the line outside which is rumored to be longer than three hours on some days! Inside was the best put together and most organized museum I have ever been in. Stepping past the original door that was hidden by a large bookcase, it was chilling to see her diary unravel and come to life right in front of your eyes. Each room guiding you through a segment of their two years spent in hiding. On each wall there were quotes from Anne Franks diary, illustrating how quickly going into hiding forced her to grow up quicker than any child should ever have to. The quotes are enough to send chills down your spine, but nothing can compare to the heartbreak found in the single photograph of Otto Frank in the empty attic after the liberation.

While it was a heavy morning, I can honestly say it was the most memorable thing I did in Amsterdam. From the museum we meandered down one of the canals stumbling upon an authentic dutch cheese museum! In the States I stick to a nice Cabot extra sharp cheddar, in Italy it's usually fresh mozzarella, in the Netherlands I don't even know what kind of cheese it was but it was amazing! Inside we met the delightful cheese man who was eager to teach us about each of the delicate cheeses. We sampled everything from a pesto-pepper cheese to smoked Brie.

The Cheese Man!

From the Cheese museum we found The Pancake Bakery where we tested out our first Dutch pancakes. Feeling adventurous I ordered the "Spring Special" of Poffertjes, which are tiny pancakes. I admit that I have quite the sweet tooth, but damn these were sweet! The Poffertjes were topped with chocolate flakes, blueberries, whipped cream, ice cream, and too much powdered sugar, the first few bites were awesome and then it was too sweet for even me. From there we wandered down to the Red Light District, it was so saddening to me to see those women selling themselves in the windows, their faces just looked so empty..

Helping the brewing process
The next morning we braved through the whipping icy wind to the Heineken Experience, a museum dedicated to the history and brewing of the legendary beer. Once we walked through the doors we were handed bracelets that entitled us to two free beers and a bottle opener souvenir at the end. We watched a video that was kind of like a roller coaster and you "experienced" the brewing of the beer. Then we were taught how to properly taste the beer, winning extra taste glasses because we got the questions right. From the tasting we saw the horses that pull the Heineken cart in parades and other fun things about the beer. We finished the tour off with our two beers that we enjoyed in the "World Lounge" received our bottle openers and were on our way. It was an "experience" for sure, if I were to go back to Amsterdam I probably would not do it again but it was fun nonetheless!
The World Lounge

My delicious pancake!
Back through the wind we made it to the famous Pannenkoekenhuis "Upstairs" for our 2:30 reservation. It was the smallest restaurant (you have to make reservations in half hour increments), with the BEST pancakes ever. I went for a savory pancake this time with cheese, bacon, and pineapple, it was delicious! All four of us were completely silent while we inhaled these works of art.

Our last day in Amsterdam we went out in search of the "I amsterdam" sign and of course some last pancakes. Nothing compared to Pannekoekenhuis, but still pretty damn good. The sign was a tourist trap and we had to wait to snag the I for the "must-have" tourist pictures. From there it was back on the metro where another four bus ride awaited us..

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Misericordia di Firenze

Taking a semester off of science and pre-physical therapy courses to finish my other college requirements, it never crossed my mind that I would miss four hour labs and anatomy tests. Boy, was I wrong. After having to rack my brain on how to write a literary analysis on something written in the 1700s (I haven't done that since high school!), I realized it was time to get back to my roots. Lorenzo di Medici does not offer any science courses but API recently set up a volunteer program with Misericordia di Firenze. Misericordia is the volunteer based emergency and assistance service for Florence and its surrounding towns. Italy's government only reimburses Misericordia for gas usage, so all the emts and other people helping out all do so on there own time. I am writing this during my third week of volunteering here, and I can honestly say it is the most rewarding thing I have done in Italy so far.

The first week was daunting, but I stuck with it and showed up smiling and ready for a new experience for the second week. As I pulled on my bright orange jumpsuit I just had a feeling it was going to be a better day, I was completely right. We wait in the lobby for somebody to call in needing assistance, usually I spend this time catching up on the news on my phone, but that day I was blessed with meeting the wonderful Vincenzo. His warm smile and patience with my slowly improving Italian made a world of difference. We spent the whole ride talking about his favorite places to go in Italy and his suggestions on where a student would enjoy exploring around Tuscany. That day left me in awe of the amazing people you can meet everyday. He had served Florence for 40 years enforcing the law and was now guiding his daughter to become a captain for the Italian police force, and still has time to volunteer and help the people in need around Florence. His inspiring character encouraged me to continue volunteering with Misericordia.

The first two weeks my volunteering was solely involved with the servizi sociali (social services). This entails picking people up from treatment centers and bringing them home and vice-versa. But as Florence is a very small city there is not much room for hospitals and care homes, so this means driving to the outskirts and surrounding towns to assist these people. The first week we went up past Fiesole a hilltop town that overlooks Florence, from here we went through minuscule winding roads that would open up and produce the most beautiful views. The second week we spent more time driving closer to Florence which was interesting because it really illustrated how difficult it is to drive in Italy. I always thought driving in Boston was confusing, but wow it is nothing compared to Italy. The streets are so small, just barely wide enough to fit one car and all one-way, making it near impossible to navigate. Going somewhere that is a five minute walk for me turns into a fifteen minute drive because you have to circle around about 18 different streets to get anywhere. You can definitely tell that Florence is an ancient city because its streets are nowhere near automobile friendly but I would've never known that without zipping around in a Misericordia shuttle.

Today was a bit a of twist. As I said before it was mostly picking people up and bringing them home or to a care center, today I got to assist in a medical transport! Since I am still a student I just help carry the patients and open doors and what not, but since it was a transport I got to go into the hospital which was so cool! I have never been in a foreign hospital so it was really interesting to me to see how it differed from the US. Mostly it was interesting to see how much technology we have and rely on in the States for our hospitals and here that seemed to be less prevalent, but there were definitely more caregivers and doctors present.

Being inside the hospital gave me another insight to Italian culture that I would have never seen normally. Spending time with Misericordia I find myself understanding Florentines and their laid back lifestyle on a much more personal level. I've come to realize and appreciate that my weekly volunteer hours are my weekly direct cultural lessons.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

A Dream Come True: Venezia

Ever since I saw the Angelina Jolie movie based in Venice in 2010 or something, I have had this longing to visit the beautiful city built on water. So during my time in Italy it was one of my top places to visit, and even if it was only for a day I was completely satisfied. 
Taking a ferry from the "mainland" to the major island of Venice I immediately knew I had found one of my new favorite places. This island only accessible by boat (no cars allowed) was captivating to me. I felt like I was wandering through a postcard it was so magical and beautiful. 
Before our tour the leaders reminded us countless times to stay on the right side of the streets because they are so narrow and Venetians are quickly annoyed with tourists taking too much room...they weren't kidding! Several of the streets we found ourselves walking in single file lines because there was truly no extra room. Thank god we had a tour guide because apparently Venice is notorious for its maze-like setup and it's ability to keep tourists wondering around lost in circles for hours or days. On our tour I was beyond delighted to find that the symbol of Venice was a winged lion, so everywhere you turned there were large lion statues, as if this Italian gem needed another way to win my heart. Everything about Venice was just completely fascinating to me. There was the local obsession with carnival and the extravagant and delicate masks worn to hide identities in the weeks leading up to lent so the Venetians could truly do whatever they pleased. Every other shop highlighted these masks, and nestled in between the mask shops were small boutiques presenting another Venetian specialty: glass blowing. I had been to glass blowing demonstrations in Bar Harbor, Maine before, but they were nothing compared to the detail and elegance of the pieces I found here. One of the most popular items was the tiny beads and pendents made with the craziest but best put together selection of colors. However my favorite was the glass blown balloon the size of a basketball, all I could think of was how difficult it must have been to create this masterpiece. Finally my favorite trademark of Venice, the canals. 

Throughout the city these canals are dotted with gondolas surrounded by the most beautiful brightly colored buildings, the most perfect set up of anything I have ever seen before. Being in Venice I felt like a kid in a candy store, there were so many beautiful and delightful things that I wanted to admire and try but there was not nearly enough time or money for all of it. Next time I go back, I plan on riding through all of the canals in one of the gondolas with a picnic and some good wine. The gondolas were the cutest things I have ever seen, they just looked so perfect against the azure colored water. Most of the boats were painted black with gold trimming and seats for couples or families and then there was room in the stern for the gondola captain. Standing in his blue and white stripe Venetian uniform topped off with a captain hat, he would row/paddle the boat through the canals and under the bridges--heaven for any hopeless romantic!Alongside the canals were the extravagant arching bridges for pedestrians leading around the minuscule streets. Aside from being so small the streets were cool because they were very uneven due to the fact that they were built on top of the water. So the constant flooding causes them certain tiles to rise or fall. The buildings try and overcome this movement by placing arches over the streets between two so they don't collapse into each other. It's amazing this city has lasted so long! I think that is my favorite thing about Venice, it has been here for hundreds of years, is completely illogical, but so magical and perfect at the same time. I felt like I could spend days just getting lost around the winding streets, some day I plan on doing just that.

When in Rome..

The Pantheon
The Spanish Steps
A few weeks ago API took us on a three-day excursion to Rome, it was amazing. When they say Rome wasn't built in a day so you can't see it all in one day, they aren't kidding. We started out with a walking tour of the city, running to the top of the Spanish Steps, making a wish in the Trevi fountain, and admiring the beautiful ancient architecture of the pantheon. There is so much history in one place it is just mind blowing. 

Our wonderful tour guide Giacomo ended the tour in the campo dei fiori, the local market, filled with fresh fruits, vegetables and handmade pastas. From there my housemates and I wondered off to St. Peter's square. Pictures and words cannot even begin to give this breathtaking church justice. Once you step foot into the square its perfection and beauty take over and you cannot help but feel lost in time. As the sun was soon setting we quickly went to get some Old Bridge gelato that is apparently the popes favorite, and now mine. I'd never had gelato until I got to Italy so I'm nowhere close to being an expert but wow, it was definitely in the top five best things I've ever eaten! Three flavors, bigger and creamier than a small at trails end--and all for 1.50 euro, almost better than the chocolate festival!

Castel Sant'Angelo
The next day was filled with more planned tours, we first checked out the Castel Sant'Angelo, which was a circular castle that overlooks all of Rome. Back in ancient times if the Vatican was attacked there was a secret passageway that the Pope could run through and stay safe in this beautiful castle. The castle had more defense mechanisms in place then I even thought possible. My favorite was the plan if attackers had breached the outside boundaries and reached the door, that didn’t mean much because above the door was a small hole which soldiers could drop large rocks onto intruders, quickly ending their plans to attack. The thought and planning that goes into each inch of every building is just astounding, no words can even explain it. From the top of the castle there was 360 degree of views of the intriguing city of Roma.

After the several photo-ops Giac took us to tour St. Peter's. I thought the outside was beautiful; I cannot even begin to explain the outstanding elegance found once you get through the crowded doors. Every inch is so delicately planned it blows my mind that a building with this much architectural and artistic beauty can even exist, and been around for centuries at that. Once I stepped inside the large doors I’m not lying when I say my breath was legitimately taken away. Even the floor has the most intricate decorations but it is nothing compared to the never-ending ceiling. I have never seen a place so stunning and divine in my entire life. The artwork that is found on every inch of the walls is just so interesting, it's almost like you can see every inch of effort, every drop of sweat and tears, and time put into each piece. The entire cathedral is truly a work of art made up of millions of separate masterpieces. What I enjoyed the most was you could truly feel the love and emotions put into the art around the church but into the entire church itself. Everything was so unique but so unified at the same time. It's fascinating to see such a impeccable structure filled with so much history and emotions, my descriptions cannot even come close to give this breathtaking church justice.

School of Athens, Raphael
From the amazement's of St. Peter's we continued to spend time in the Vatican, and we wondered over to the Vatican museum, stopping for gelato first of course! We were surprised to find no line, which was so lucky. We walked right into the museum and got right to exploring the ancient history and artwork of this captivating state of the Vatican. We admired several famous pieces of art that decorated the ceilings. It is just so unbelievable every time you see an image that is reprinted all over the place--The School of Athens for example, and then to finally be able to appreciate its beauty in person. Once we reached the Sistine chapel, it was like stepping back 500 years in time. I am so glad I watched a documentary on this monument before stepping foot inside because I would have been completely lost otherwise. It is so interesting to feel the change of atmosphere when you enter such a significant place rather than the rest of the museum. Nobody can help but be in complete awe of Michelangelo's work and attention to detail. There is a wonderful hush that hangs over the entire room reminding you of the perfection of this chapel but also to give the work the admiration and praise it deserves.
Victor Emmanuel Monument
After the museum, still on a roll we decided to walk over to the fascist monument on the other side of Rome. This white wedding cake building sticks out like a sore thumb around the famous ancient buildings and ruins. From afar you can catch a slight glimpse of the coliseum but that is an adventure for the next day. Anyways, this monument to Victor Emmanuel, the first king of unified Italy was completed in 1935, during the fascist regime. According to Giac this building outraged several locals because it tore apart the local ancient history attempting to bring the old and new together..
Our final day was reserved for the coliseum, but we had some time to kill before the tour so we figured we could try to see the Pope give one of his final public addresses. However we had to leave an hour early to make the bus in time so we just missed it...It was so intriguing to see all the signs and posters proclaiming people's love per il Papa. Since it is such a controversial topic it was nice to see that people still declared their love and admiration to the leader of the Catholic Church. It was amazing to just observe the strong emotions of all the Romans and visitors present in the square preparing themselves to witness a moment to be marked in history.
So we left in the midst of a historical blessing and made our way to the Coliseum. Seeing these true ancient ruins I felt like I had just stepped into my high school Latin textbook. This stadium is one of the coolest things I have ever seen, one of my housemates joked that humans could not have actually made this work of art it was really aliens. Seeing pictures of this place the joke does not make too much sense, but once you step through the arches it is seems impossible that this monument was built by ancient Romans. As we wondered through the several levels Giac told us all the stories of the Gladiators and the dramas that the fighting would ensue. After spending so much time learning about the ancient Romans in high school it was all coming to life in the Coliseum.

No matter how much my feet were killing after Rome, I was so glad I got the opportunity to explore this fascinating ancient city. There is no city in the world like Rome, that holds so much history but also so much mystery. I hope that one day I can go back and spend a little more time appreciating and understanding this marvelous and enchanting city.

San Pietro Square

Making a wish at the Trevi Fountain
Inside St. Peters

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Delayed First Impressions

I cannot believe that it has already been a month since I first stepped foot into the beautiful city of Florence. The first few days were filled with long orientation meetings and overpriced meals, but once we finally moved into our apartment the many true colors of Florence began to shine through. The area of Florence that I am so blessed to be living in is right in the heart of the city. About two minutes from the Duomo--completed in the 1400s, it has the biggest dome made out of brick in the world, it used to be the largest dome in the world period but some new modern churches have surpassed it. It is a large and very beautiful cathedral with the most delicate and intricate exterior decorations, that still takes my breath away each time I walk past (which just happens to be everyday!).
 Going the opposite direction from my apartment you quickly run into fake David and then the Ponte Vecchio. Standing on the Ponte Vecchio, which overlooks the Fiume Arno, I am so quickly and often reminded of how lucky I am to have the opportunity to study abroad in such a beautiful place.
            Italy completely blew my expectations out of the water. I had imagined breathtaking views, delicious fresh food, and refreshing vino, but nothing can even compare to the real thing. Most importantly the food is nothing I can even explain, it’s almost like my taste buds are enjoying this trip more than I am! Every Monday I go to the Mercato Centrale, a daily farmers market with everything from butchers, to cheese makers, to bread, to the freshest vegetables and sweetest fruits I have ever tasted. It is going to be so hard to go back to Northern New Hampshire and Boston and try to eat as luxuriously as I do here..
The second and third week of being in this Tuscan paradise, Florence hosted Fiera del Cioccolate, a chocolate festival with chocolates from all over Italy! Needless to say I was in heaven. There were about 20 different tents all serving up their own original chocolate treats, from cremino (a thin soft hazelnut and almond pastry layer between two sweet chocolate cream layers--AMAZING!), to strawberries and waffles dipped in chocolate fountains, to chocolate rum. There was anything and everything a sweet tooth could desire. I was so sad when it ended but my wallet and waistline are probably relieved. 

The city of Florence is one that I could not even try to explain through a blog post, but it is by far one of my favorite places I have been to on this earth. It's breathtaking beauty, cheerful and loving locals, the phenomenal food, and it's ability to be so old but still hold so many unknowns, have all taken me over. A month later and I'm still in love and completely blown away by this amazing and captivating city..