Thursday, June 11, 2009

Report from Italy

I may be a little less organized in this post, as it has been a little while. I will try to include everything that we have been doing. When I left you last, we had just taken our run I believe.

Tuesday: Prato
Tuesday was our last day before class started, so we decided to head up to Prato where the University is and find our way around. We weren't sure what to expect from Prato, as all the kids who studied with this program last year from ASU told us it was a dump and you shouldn't stay there. We walked to the train station (about 15 minutes, but it's a nice walk) and purchased month long travel cards for the train. They were 34 Euro, but a round trip ticket would have been 3,80 Euro, and we have more than 10 class sessions, so it was well worth the money (and the convenience factor).

We quickly found our train--getting much better at figuring out the schedule at the station--and climbed aboard. It was already waiting in the station when we got there. Strange side note: when we arrived at the train station, there were camera crews everywhere. They were filming either an Italian TV show (the acting quality would indicate a soap) or a low-rate Italian movie in the station. They did two takes while I was standing there of a girl walking in from a cab with an older woman. Kind of neat.

And the train is off. On the way up to Prato, the ride is only about 15 minutes. We arrive in Prato and begin walking. For whatever reason, I thought I would remember the exact route from looking at a rudimentary PDF map online of central Prato. Turns out I would not remember the exact route. But our wrong turns (in fact, these were the first wrong turns we have taken since we arrived in Italy, which is pretty impressive I think) took us on a very interesting adventure.

The city is a strange mix of quaint old buildings and newer office buildings. It's considered an industrial town, but we didn't get that feeling. The backdrop, when we could see through the buildings, was set against rolling green hills.

We reached a large stone wall with a 'doorway' for cars to pass through to a bridge and walked through. The river, as all rivers here, was quite filthy. It made Spa Creek look drinkable. There were two guys fishing on the west bank, and a bike path ran along the east bank. We took little note of anything else.

Continuing across the bridge, we began asking people for directions. We had the feeling we had gone too far; this area was almost entirely residential. No one seemed to know where the University was. We turned around to try to retrace our steps to a tourist information kiosk. That's when I saw it. I have an affinity for spotting wildlife, and today was no different. As I gazed over the bridge again, I saw a flock of ducks stirring in the water. Then I saw an otter swimming in front of them. But then I had second thoughts. This might have been a small dog, albeit a mangy one. Then I saw the tail, trailing behind it. And I am convinced that it was a rat. We are still debating this, and minimal efforts at research have produced nothing conclusive. The head and face are somewhat otterish, but the tail is without a doubt rattish.

The only possible explanation is that we discovered the first "Ratter."

Pressing on, we kept asking people where the school was, and most people seemed never to have heard of it. Our final request was to two girls, who vaguely waved their arms and said they didn't know. As they walked away, we rotated about 90 degrees to our right and saw a huge "Monash University" banner hanging over a large doorway. Thank you, ladies.

Inside, the building is kind of a confusing maze. We walked through every hallway trying to figure out how to find our classroom, our text book, where to register, etc. Everyone we asked had a different answer. Eventually, we knocked on the door of an office marked 'administrative' and talked to a woman there with a heavy Australian lilt. She informed us that (1) there was no registration, (2) we could purchase the book from her, but that it was 190 Euro, and she did not expect anyone to buy one, (3) that our professor created to law program here, but is the most relaxed professor in the world. All good news. She also told us where our classroom would be and sent us on our way. Satisfied, we began the confusing trek back to the train station. This time, we walked pretty much due north and made it without much trouble.

The train ride home was much longer, stopping twice as many times. We had a strange group of kids sitting on our car this time around. They were all dressed in suits and dresses. There was a painfully blatant clique-y-ness to them (I say painfully because it was clear that two of the guys in the group had not yet made a friend during their travels). They appeared to be studying music abroad. We actually saw them later on in Florence at a musical performance near our flat that was put on by the University of Michigan.

Back in Florence, we decided to take our first trip to the market. Our American landlord had shown us where to find a decent one, so we went in that direction. We found it, and we found it to be small and somewhat pricey. We hope to find a real super market at some point very soon. We got some basic foods - eggs, fake butter, spaghetti and tomato sauce, cereal, jugs of wine, and I got shampoo because I did not bring any (not as dumb as it sounds, I was dutifully advised not to to save weight/space in my bags because I could buy it here). Lunch meats don't appear to be in the same category here. First, we have yet to see turkey anywhere. Second, it is sold in packs of three or four slices for about 4 Euro ($1.40=1 Euro). We got peanut butter and jelly and some bread.

From there, we walked home (I wish I had a pedometer out here to see how far we have walked so far) and put away groceries. Exhausted, we both took naps and then had spaghetti for dinner. Johnny has turned out to be quite the home body, as he cooked and cleaned happily. The spaghetti was very basic. We didn't get anything really to add to it - spices or vegetables - so it was just noodles and sauce. But it tasted fine, and we got into the 3 gallon jug of white wine that cost next to nothing. We decided to stay in and save money. And that was about the end of that.

We had not yet done any walking around in Florence, so before our 4:45 class, we decided to tour the area a little. We did not rush to get going, ended up leaving the house a little after 11. Johnny made eggs with spinach (forgot to mention we got spinach) and I toasted some bread. The eggs were really good, and I complemented them with toast and blueberry jelly. We found 'peperoncinos' in the cabinet and Johnny threw some on his eggs after cooking them. If you have ever had General Tso's Chicken, you will recognize these as the dried red spicy peppers that is often cooked into stir fry. Generally not to be eaten straight. He learned his lesson.

So we hit the old dusty trail to central Florence. We saw the Ponte Vecchio (Ponte = "bridge"), which seems to be little more than a tourist trap. It is pretty--and famous--but it is covered with people, jewelry shops, tee-shirt shops, street vendors, etc. We wound our way through town to the Duomo, which is actually called the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore. It was designed by Arnolfo di Cambio, but it took about 200 years to complete. Brunelleschi designed the dome, which is the second largest in Italy behind the Pantheon (which I think is second largest in the world behind the Superdome). The Duomo is the largest brick dome in the world. The outer facade is built with green and white marble in a Gothic Revivalist style.

From there, we went to the building that is thought to have been Leonardo da Vinci's workshop, though it is now a church. There was service in progress when we went in to the lobby, and nowhere really to go once inside, so we left disappointed. We saw several piazzas and wandered through a street market where tons of vendors were peddling all sorts of things, from leather jackets to shirts to souvenirs, hats, belts, shoes, paintings, you name it.

With little knowledge of what to do in Florence (next time we will bring our guide book, courtesy of Barb and Jonathan, to make sure we are hitting the right spots), we headed home to eat lunch and get ready for the first day of school.

Lunch was uneventful. We had PB & J, got showered up, and headed to the train station a little late. It was a 15 minute walk again, but we found a more direct route. We arrived at 3:45, but our train didn't leave until 4:08, which was pushing it. We waited, both reading our respective copies of Angels and Demons (can't remember if I mentioned this, but we both bought this book to read on this trip without discussing it). The train arrived at Prato Centrale at 4:30, giving us 15 minutes to find our way to the school and be in our seats.

We headed straight to where we hoped the school was at a decently quick walking pace. Somehow, despite taking the least direct route the previous day, we made a beeline for the school and didn't make a single wrong turn. Instincts are impressive. We sat down in our chairs (back of the classroom) at 4:44. The professor arrived around 4:55. Oh well.

Our professor, Judd Epstein, seems like a very cool guy. He is originally from California, went to Stanford, but has been living and teaching abroad for 30-some years. The other professor is from the University of Paris (I think that's the name, but whatever it is called it's a university in Paris). His name is Christophe but I didn't catch his last name, though he gave it to us in three languages. He has a heavy accent, while Epstein, despite being somewhat Australian, does not.

Our class has about 10-15 Australians, 5-6 Israelis, 8-10 French, a couple Canadians, and two Americans--that would be yours truly.

The course is called international commercial arbitration, and we spent the entire first day discussing what exactly that means. Pretty basic stuff. International, meaning that it involves parties from different nations, parties of the same nation with the subject matter in a different nation, parties of the same nation who agree to govern their contract under international law, or other variations of those scenarios. Commercial means what it sounds like, involving the exchange of goods and services. And arbitration itself involves an unbiased third party hearing both sides and making a decision that is binding and not subject to appeals. Should be interesting. We're looking forward to learning more, though we are not particularly happy about the reading load. But it is class, what can you do.

Class got out early so that we could go to orientation and meet all the students and faculty. They had wine, 'champagne' (in quotes because it was not French, much to the dismay of the Parisians), beer, and some cheese and fruit and crostinis, as well as some bulk sandwiches that were not good at all.

Many of the students already know one another from other classes here or from their native lands. We sat down with a couple of the French girls (they were the only ones not sitting in a huge group) and were shortly thereafter joined by maybe seven Parisians. Their English is good, but not great. My French is experiencing a resurrection. It has been 8 years or so since I spoke any French, but I am remembering far more than I expected to. I can't understand their rapid tongues though.

After orientation, a group of about 20 of us headed to Florence and went to an Irish pub that seemed very Americanized. It was full of American students, one of whom was from Ellicott City and went to Spalding. I can't remember her name, but we knew one or two of the same people.

The bar was very cool, but a little pricey. We kept our drinks to a minimum and just got to know everyone. The Israeli guys were very cool. We didn't talk much with the Australians. The French girls are cool as well. It looks like we should have a pretty solid group in our class. Everyone we spoke with was at least 21 or 22, so our fears of a class full of 18-year-olds have been quashed.

Nothing to report today. We have class at 4:45 again. We were hoping to go to Paris this weekend for our one big trip, but it looks like the cheapest round trip ticket (flight or train) is about 300 Euro at such short notice. That is very unfortunate. But we will figure something out. I guess we will stick to travels within Italy.


1 comment:

Lisa said...

Sam, skip Paris and head to Siena (2-3 hours), Pisa or Lucca (1 hour). Heck Bologna (also 1 hour) is an outstanding town. If you want to somewhere for the weekend head to La Speza (2 hours) and take the town train to the Cinque Terre (Monterosso is a nice beach town, Vernazza is touristy by nice).