Shopping at the Mercato Centrale in Florence

Even though I was tempted to sleep in Friday morning, I am glad I got up early to go on a two-hour food and tasting tour at the Central Market before I went off to work. I am not usually a chipper person in the mornings, but there was so much to see and taste that even I had a smile on my face by the time we were done and I headed off to work on a very brisk but sunny morning.

Florence is really at its best in the early morning before all the tourists are out and when the city wakes up and bread, wine and water, cheese, table linens and more are delivered to stores and restaurants. The Central Market, Mercato Centrale, is north of the Duomo in the San Larenzo neighborhood, which also meant another gorgeous view of the Duomo’s cupola glistening in the morning sun on the way to the market.

Ceiling of Mercato

Top of the Building from 1874

Mercato Centrale, built in 1874, is packed with stalls selling fish, meat, cheese, olive oil, wine, fruits and vegetables, bread and sweets and more. The top floor used to be reserved for fruit and vegetable stands but is now full of little restaurants that serve the Italian version of “fast food” which is still wood-fired pizza and fresh pasta or fresh fish.

Our tour allowed us to stop at some stalls and taste the ware. For example, we stopped at a bakery and tried different pastries. I loved the fried rice balls called “frittelle” that are a specialty for Father’s Day on March 17 and are thus also literally called “St. Jospeh’s Balls.”

The fish stands highlight that Florence is not far from the coast and that fresh fish is an important staple.

Fish Monger

Fish Monger

Of course, there is also olive oil and balsamico. We got to try unfiltered olive oil as well as balsamico of a variety of ages: ten, 15, 18, 20, and 25 years old. The 25-year-old balsamico was thick and syrupy and it was recommended to put it over large shavings of cheese and just enjoy. We did not get to taste the 40-year-old balsamico but it was interesting to know it even existed – I always thought age was just important for whiskey and wine.

The fresh pasta was really made fresh just in front of our eyes:

The butchers offered not only the typical cuts but different parts of the cow’s stomach, including tripe, which is a local favorite and at every butcher stall. Most offer organ meat including brain but also bull testicles and penises.

Since it was still barely above freezing this morning, we also stopped for coffee and hot chocolate at a stall in the market. I am usually not a fan of either; hot chocolate is either too milky tasting or too watery, but this one was rich and thick and decadent. It tasted and had the consistency of a molten expensive European chocolate bar. I hate getting up early but this hot chocolate could turn me into a morning person – it is that good! Good thing it is served all day long.

I enjoy shopping for food at the little supermarket around the corner, but I look forward to coming back to the market and do more shopping here. The tour guide also taught us some basic phrases to ask for specific amounts and to interact with the vendors, which definitely helped ease any apprehension we may have had to shop at the market and actually have to talk in Italian (I am sure plenty of the sellers do speak English).

 

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New and Improved Commute

After a few days of getting my bearings in Florence and finally getting over my jet lag, I had to start going to work, and even though I had to give up the unscheduled days of a tourist, I have gained a wonderful commute.

Living and working in a walkable old European city definitely changes my commute. I am going from being stuck in bumper-to-bumper California traffic on four-lane freeways for 30 minutes or more to a leisurely walk of a few minutes. No more worries about whether heavy traffic or an accident will endanger punctual arrival at work. Now I have much better views than a car ahead of me and a car on each side of me. No more frayed nerves because of near accidents or other drivers’ road rage.

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A Small Street near the Uffizi Gallery

Since the Italian mentality has a different definition of “on time” than my German/Austrian one, it also means that I usually leave the house at the time when I am supposed to be at a meeting and I am still going to be the first one there most likely. If I leave early to consider the time for my 2-3 minute walk, I am just going to be the first one there consistently (several Italians have pointed out how “German” that is of  me).

In addition to saving time, I get to stroll past some of the best-known sights and meander through tiny alleys that are picturesque enough to feature as backdrop in a movie set in  Tuscany. One of the best gelaterias is near my workplace, so a new ritual is to swing by and pick up a cone of gelato for the way home – I have to walk a long detour so I do not get home before I am done with my gelato since I cannot unlock my temperamental door with cone in hand . (Gelateria dei Neri; Via dei Neri, 9/11)

I have a feeling that this commute/stroll is what I will miss the most when I will leave at the end of the stay.

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Basilica di Santa Croce – I pass it every day on my way to work and back home.

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Even stores that are still closed in the morning are interesting to look at on my “commute.”

 

 

First Impressions of Florence

I have been in Florence for about five days now, so here are some of my first impressions as I start my three-month stay:

A lot of people – I cannot believe this is so busy in a month that is considered the off-season. I am surprised how people can make it through the streets during the busy summer tourist time. How do the guidebook publishers get those empty shots of sights on perfectly sunny days when I assume even more tourists are out and about than there are now?

A lot of large guided tours that take up the whole sidewalk and get in the way when I am carrying back my groceries or carrying my garbage down the block (see previous post).

Not only do large groups take up the sidewalk, but in addition the sidewalks are so tiny sidewalks that they do not seem to be large enough to even hold one person let alone two or three which would be needed with the amount of pedestrians.

Narrow streets and every inch is used for parking – I am amazed at the skills in parallel parking and fitting buses through streets that seem slightly larger than a bike lane in Sacramento.

Not much green in the city center – all trees and green lawn space seem to be on the other side of the river. This is quite different from Sacramento, which lauds itself the City of Trees, and it is easy to get used to how many trees there are even in downtown Sacramento. Here it is either no trees or only trees and lawn in large parks but not much intermingling of buildings and trees.

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Typical Side Street in Florence

A lot of small dogs that do not seem to be phased by the busy sidewalks.

It does not matter if you know where you are going, you will end up seeing several famous sights even if you were not planning on doing any sightseeing (sometimes I will figure out much later what the name of the sight was when I look it up on Google). On my search for a tea kettle and large bath towels, I passed by many sights before I even found a tea kettle (leather goods, postcards, and souvenirs are easy to find – more everyday items were a little harder to find in the city center).

It does not matter what building or street you walk into, it is most likely going to be pretty. It is amazing how many beautiful views there are around each corner. Picturesque is the perfect word to describe Florence.

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Piazza della Signorina – I walk past her several times a day either from and to work or to a restaurant.

How much walking I do – I thought I did plenty of walking with my dog at home but this is not even close to it. And since there is so much to see, it is easy to not notice how far one has walked over the course of a day. I have gotten used to the feeling that I can walk anywhere I want – no need for a car or bus; everything I need on a daily basis, I can reach by foot (I have not had any reason to go into the suburbs of Florence yet).

How good the food is – even fresh pasta from an ordinary supermarket tastes better to me than pasta I have had in other countries. And I never knew tripe and octopus can be such popular dishes that they are on many restaurants’ menus. I have enjoyed some amazing dishes here and I have been here for less than a week. I am pretty sure I will be so spoiled by good food by the end of the semester.

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Ceiling of the Wine Bar at the Hotel Alfieri and the View for Lunch

Italian MTV actually plays music videos! No weird reality shows; no movies. I can’t remember the last time I saw an hour of music video on the U.S. MTV station.

It is humid – especially in contrast to the very dry air in central Northern California. I never really notice how dry it is in Northern California/Central Valley until I leave.

The students have arrived from California and from London (those that went on an optional pre-tour). Everyone seems to be in a great mood and excited to get started. I have never seen any students that excited for the first day of a semester and to see their instructor again!

So far the first impressions are very promising!

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Just a small street and a small restaurant and still so picturesque

 

 

 

 

 

Quirks of an Apartment

My apartment in Florence is in an old building – a very old building – and I have realized that living in the U.S. I have kind of forgotten how different many European buildings are because of age as each apartment and building has its own cute quirks or annoying oddities – depending on what mood you are in and what you are trying to accomplish. My apartment had plenty of quirks for me in store.

Doors and locks seem to be pretty temperamental around here as I have heard several people comment on this. My lock seems to have a mind of its own and needs to be approached like a horse ready to bolt at any time. It can take anywhere from half a minute to several minutes to figure out the right combination of key pressure, jiggling, turning, and pushing or pulling at the handle to get the door to open. Every time I think I have finally figured out the right combination, it won’t work again the next time.

Another surprise for me was that buildings in my area do not have individual garbage cans that are stored in an interior courtyard or cellar or something but only communal underground garbage with collection points every few blocks. This makes sense to a degree since the streets and sidewalks are so narrow, I cannot imagine where to put the garbage cans on the curb and how a truck would fit through. New morning ritual – do not forget to take the trash with you on your walk to work.

My apartment does not seem to be designed to have a bathroom in the place it has one now, which means there is no plumbing for a toilet and I guess opening the floor to add sewage pipes is not always an option. So the solution is a Sanitrit toilet that pretty much acts like a food disposal in American kitchen sinks (I spare you the detailed description), but this means that the plumbing is temperamental (there seems to be a theme here) and nothing – not even toilet paper – can be flushed. A large sign in the bathroom warns about this. This might be a unique trait to my apartment though since it seems this is not always the case with all these set-ups.

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Doors, window frames, and flooring all already have that worn look that is so popular in design and photo shoots (shabby chic) and is often tried to achieved artificially especially in US décor. Well, here there is not really another option – everything is old and even with good maintenance, it will show some age and wear. In addition, ceilings are very high, walls are a foot thick, and doors and windows are tall – again, all traits that many new houses try to emulate but are just standard here.

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Slanted ceiling, marble floors, large French doors in the bathroom make the design style eclectic.

Another quirk of my apartment has to do less with its age but with its location and use. Since it is right next to one of Florence’s famous sights, it is often rented out to foreigners, who are staying here for a few weeks or months. So the apartment includes signs of its previous occupants. For example, I have now five umbrellas; I brought my own, and I am sure at my departure, I will leave my umbrella behind and pass it on to the next renter, who will then own six or more umbrellas. The apartment also includes a large easel and a collection of watercolors and colored pencils – I guess a previous renter was an artist, but now it seems that the apartment is telling me to go out and draw. I have an odd collection of books on a variety of interests and in a variety of languages – mysteries, Italian opera, poetry by Michelangelo, home décor, guidebooks to various towns in Italy. I also have a choice of six different comforters – I am assuming that previous renters were picky about their comforters and decided to buy their own. Similarly, I have bought a tea kettle and will leave it behind at the end of my stay and pass it on to the next renter.

The apartment has much to explore and still provides surprises each day. For example, what seemed like a large broom closet and was stuffed with several buckets, a handful of brooms and another handful of mops turned out to be a second half bathroom (unheated but a bathroom). I did not feel the same sense of individuality and surprise when I moved into a typical apartment complex in the US where every apartment looked the same. I feel as if my apartment should have a name because of its individuality.

When the Travel Gods Smile upon You…

When the Travel Gods Smile Upon You, …

 

You make it to the airport without traffic jams even during rush hour;

Actually, you arrive at the airport so early that the check-in counters are not even open yet, but the staff at the business class counter offers to check you in, so of course there is no line;

Your suitcases are below the weight limit even though you packed everything you wanted and never checked the weight at home;

You have time to wander the airport to look at art installations;

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Display about Pixar’s Toy Story at San Francisco International Airport

There is only one person in the security check line in front of you, so you are not rushed to unpack your laptop and take off your shoes (but a smile from the TSA staff is still unrealistic even in this scenario);

The whole terminal seems empty and you find a recliner next to an outlet to relax and charge your electronics;

Boarding is completed in an orderly fashion and no one tries to cut in line;

You are seated in an exit row with extra legroom and no seat that can recline into your space in front of you;

The seat next to you stays empty and you have room to spread out;

The plane is half empty and fellow passengers seem to be in a better mood because of it;

The in-flight program includes several “newish” movies you have not had time to see in the movie theater but wanted to;

The flight arrives a little early and thus a rather tight schedule to meet the connecting flight is now much more relaxed;

Only two people are in line when you get to the passport checkpoint;

You find another cozy recliner and as promised (but never tested before you left the country), your cell phone works in the foreign country;

The connecting flight is also half empty and once again you have a row all by yourself;

Your luggage arrives at the final destination, intact and complete;

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Display/Art at the Sacramento Airport Showing what I Am Convinced Will Happen to my Luggage

You can walk right up to the taxi stand to get into the first vehicle;

There is no traffic to slow your taxi down into downtown.

For someone who does not like flying (especially on those long cross-Atlantic flights) and is too impatient to not be affected by large crowds and odd procedures, such as I, smooth travels cannot be appreciated too much.

Inspired by my recent trip to Florence.

Themed Christmas

Themed Christmas trees seem to have become more popular, and if you can think of a theme, you can be sure that it has become the basis for Christmas decorations. Shopping for ornaments can be pretty overwhelming without a clear theme in mind. Every large Disney movie or actually any classic movie or movie franchise has its own line of Christmas ornaments, and then of course all major sports teams do as well.Recently, I was fascinated by a tree with a mermaid theme, another with a Disney theme, and another based on the Wizard of Oz (and all three trees were actually in the same home).

The ornaments based on an international theme in a store actually highlighted what stereotypes a country can be compressed to: Ireland is all about clovers, leprechauns, and beer; Italy is represented by a Vespa, Chianti, and a gondolier; England has its bulldog, red phone booth, and teapot.

 

Windmills, wooden shoes, and a Dutch boy represent Holland while a pretzel (or some boxes actually had a Bratwurst instead), beer, and lederhosen sum up Germany.

 

The symbols for Germany are really more about Bavaria than all of Germany, so I am wondering what the manufacturer/designer would choose for Austria (I did not see any Austrian ornaments in the “international collection”). Since beer and lederhosen are already taken by Germany, what would Austria have? Mozart, the Lipizzaner (white dancing horse), and a snow-topped mountain? A waltzing couple, a coffee cup, and St. Stephen Cathedral? A skier, a girl in a traditional dirndl, and a cow? What would make the cut to represent the typical Austria?

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A Lipizzaner Performing in Vienna (photo found on: http://www.srs.at/en_US/vorfuehrungen-en/ which also lists performance dates and prices)

“Protect Your Panther”

The U.S. is usually thought of as a rather conservative country in contrast to most European countries, and it is often true, so I was surprised when I came across a “condom cart” at a college campus. While condom vending machines in public bathrooms or in pubs are pretty common in Europe, they are much harder to find in the U.S. and I know plenty of people who would not want such machines to be installed.

Condom Machine (photo by Sebastian Hartmann; found on Pinterest)

Condom Machine in Europe (photo by Sebastian Hartmann; found on Pinterest)

Thus, the re-purposed golf cart of Sacramento City College is a nice change. The condom cart is called the Condom Connection and drives around campus – especially at events – to offer free condoms, lube, and information concerning the spread of Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs). The program is mostly run by students it seems but supported by a faculty member.

Photo of the Condom Cart on the SCC Website

I loved the cart design, the name “Condom Connection,” which reminds me of the local bakery called the Cookie Connection, and the entertaining  double entendre/slogan of “Protect Your Panther” (the college’s mascot is a panther) – although I think the slogan “Wrap Your Panther” would work well, too. So maybe the U.S. is not quite as conservative as stereotypes make it out to be – or at least not on college campuses and in California.

Close-up of the On-Campus Condom Cart

Close-up of the On-Campus Condom Cart

T-Shirt of the Condom Cart Staff -

T-Shirt of the Condom Cart Staff – “Protect Your Panther”

Find out more about the Condom Cart at Sacramento City College on its Facebook site.