Learning Italian

Ciao Readers!  And thank you for the Birthday wishes!

Okay, as you may recall, I am using my returning to Italian school as an excuse for less-frequent-than-usual blog posts.  I honestly had no idea how hard learning a language would be (I mean English was so easy….).  So today I thought I’d give you a peek into my not-very-glamorous attempts to once-and-for-all conquer a foreign language (unlike the baby/traveler Spanish, French and Japanese on which I get by).  It is my goal to be able to honestly say “I’m fluent in Italian” by the time we leave here (whenever that will be).

I believe the correct pedagogical terminology for my precise method of study is “the kitchen sink.”   It involves going to school, reading, watching t.v., conversing with strangers and anything else I can think of (and, as I’ve mentioned before, actually doing my homework most of the time – gasp!).

After tons of research and trial-and-error, I have discovered there are basically 3 types of schools here in Florence.  The first is geared towards tourists.  The good thing about these schools is that you meet people from all over, they are great fun, and you learn a ton about the city (because they include cool tours in the afternoon, as you may recall from many previous posts).  The bad thing is that they are stupid expensive, take up tons of time, are revolving doors (people can start any Monday and stay for as little as a week), and are of varying quality when it comes to the actual language part (there may or may not be a textbook, any organization of lessons, etc.).  I had vastly different experiences at the school I attended in Bologna to the one I attended when we first arrived here in Florence.

The next type of school, and the one I thought I would attend, are the free schools sponsored by volunteer teachers for resident foreigners.  This program is supported by the City of Florence and I think it’s pretty cool that they are trying to help immigrants learn Italian.  Unfortunately, from students and teachers with whom I have spoken, the quality seems to follow the get-what-you-pay-for model (one such school is actually held somewhere on Platform 5 at the train station!).   For a bit I thought these were my two choices and I didn’t know what to do…

I then found my current school, Georgio La Pira (they actually also have a free immigrant program, which is how I found them).  Unlike the come-whenever tourist schools, this school is more geared towards long-time visitors and immigrants, and they have set courses that run for 5 weeks at a time.  And, not only do they have  a book (pictured), but teachers at the school wrote it!  (While they don’t have afternoon touristy things, the cost is about 1/4 that of the tourist schools.)  The book and courses are divided into 6 levels, with each progressing through specific areas of grammar, using conversation throughout.  So, since I admittedly am nowhere near fluent yet, let me explain how the heck I ended up in level 6 this term…

I tested into level 3 last term, but once I attended a class I didn’t feel challenged enough.  One of the main subjects (passato prossimo) was something I had studied in Bologna and I wasn’t sure how much I could learn from folks who spoke less than I did.  So I tried out level 4, and while a bit of a challenge, felt it was a good fit.  Clearly, level 5 follows level 4; unfortunately, only one other level 4 student and I returned this term (other students returned to their home countries – Japan, Saudi Arabia, the U.S.), and none of the new students tested into level 5.  This basically left the two of us with the choice of taking level 6 or missing a term.  We both attended the first class hesitatingly (and she’s decided to wait out this term), but I thought the teacher was great, and I love listening to all the other students speak what I would consider fluent Italian.  So, I am the “slow” kid in the class, but hopefully the challenge of it will pull me along.  I will go back and do level 5 later, as it covers two verb tenses I should probably learn! (School is also the single best place to get to practice speaking for several hours a week.)

While school is great, school alone does not a fluent me make.  So this is where the kitchen sink comes in.  To keep me thinking in Italian I try and watch some t.v. in Italian, as well as read books and magazines.  I find that if I watch programs with which I’m familiar (“How I Met Your Mother,” for example), or about things for which I have an affinity (i.e. cooking shows), I can catch up to 80% of what’s said (as opposed to about 30% when I watch out-of-context things like news without video clips).  I especially enjoy Master Chef Italia and listening to Joe Bastianich speak perfect Italian with just a slight New York accent!  I similarly find reading the magazine “La Cucina Italiana” to be a fun way to “study.”  Recently I decided to read one of my favorite childhood books in Italian – “Il Leone, la strega e l’armadio” (can you guess what that is? if not, the photo below will give it away), and that seems to be a similarly effective approach.  Once in a while when I’m feeling very brave (and patient), I pull out a dictionary and attempt the newspaper.  In addition to my solo efforts, I speak only Italian when out and about and politely ask sales clerks, waiters, etc. to please speak to me in Italian if they attempt to speak to me in English.  Other folks find songs helpful, but I find them hard to understand (both literally and figuratively, as they use so many metaphors I am quickly lost).  And, while my initial attempts ended comically, I am still working on finding a language exchange partner (n.b. as of air time, I think I have found the right person…).  Overall, trying to learn Italian has been my biggest project since we arrived (yes, even bigger than waiting at government offices for things).  For a while I didn’t feel like I was getting anywhere, but recently I have seen some progress.  Now, as for fluency….we shall see….

Some of my “kitchen sink” methods of study:

Buon fine settimana!

Eating Out on a Budget in Florence

Ciao Readers!

Today I am taking a little different approach (hey, it’s my birthday, I can do what I want!).  I am going to attempt to play real “tour guide.”  If you don’t know, back when, I bought the domain name “atasteofflorence.com” (I could not believe it wasn’t taken), with the idea that one day I’d know enough about this town to offer tour services.  So, to test the waters, instead of just telling you about places we’ve eaten without any useful specifics (address, hours, helpful hints), today I am going to try and give concrete info for those who may be interested in trying out my recommendations.  Now, if you are not planning a meal out in Florence, have no fear, I will add some fun facts (and photos, of course) to make it amusing nonetheless.

While I’m going to point out a few specific places, overall I can say that the best way to enjoy an affordable meal out in Florence is to make that meal lunch.  The prices of food, oftentimes the same exact food as dinner, are markedly cheaper at lunch time, and since here a 2 hour meal with wine is a very normal lunch, there’s really no need to wait until dinner to enjoy the dining experience (plus, if you’re like me, the thought of just starting a large meal at 8:30 p.m. doesn’t “go down” well).  If you do want to enjoy an evening out, though, I will have future recommendations for you as well.

Italian Lunch Specials – Many of the local restaurants have great lunchtime specials, which gets you a complete meal for a set price.  There are many touristy places that also have “fixed price” lunches, but you can spot those a mile away because 1) the sign will be in English, and 2) the price will be way more than you should be paying for lunch.  Here’s an example of a good lunch deal from one of our local finds….

I had written about Le Stagioni (Via Capo di Mondo 10/12 r, closed Sunday lunch) in my earlier pizza review, and after the enthusiastic comments by a reader, we decided to both give their pizza another try and to go there for lunch as well.  Turns out their pizza since my initial post has been cooked to perfection and they have a good lunch special to boot.   As with most Italian places, the lunch special only applies during the week.  Here you get a beverage of your choice (which includes a tiny beer or a 1/4 liter of wine), a choice off a list of pizzas and pastas, and the requisite after-lunch cafe for 7.50 euros (you can add an appetizer or dessert for another 2.50).  Since this is a lunch special, there is no “coperto” (and of course no tax or tip), making lunch for two exactly 15 euros total.  This is a pretty typical lunch deal and you can find them at many local places.  (For example, La Luna has a similar offer, except with more choices, for 8 euros.)  Here’s Steve’s and my lunch special:

pizza lunch

Foreign Food Rosticceria – Since I already devoted an entire post praising the virtues of these hole-in-the-wall foreign food places, I won’t repeat myself here.  However, I will provide some details.  First off, unlike Italian places, these are almost always open for lunch on Sundays and open every evening by 5:30 or 6:00 for dinner; so if you can’t wait until 8:00 to eat, this is the way to go.  They also have the same exact menu and prices for lunch and dinner (since they are not technically restaurants), so another good budget tip.  (Drinks at these places are usually 1.00 euro for bottled water, 1.50 for sodas; we never have wine with our foreign food, but I’m sure it’s inexpensive.)

After one commenter asked for the address of the Sri Lankin place, I thought “why didn’t she just google it?”  After I took my own advice I discovered you can’t actually find it on the internet, so here’s the scoop:  Eagle Food Centers is located at Via Del Moro 67/r (not far from the train station) and is open 7 days a week.  The lunch plate special (white rice, curries and a popadum) is 3.50 euros vegetarian (and maybe with chicken) and 4.00 if you have meat (vegetarian plate pictured).  From their flyer I’ve discovered that they actually have a Sunday special which includes the above, plus fried rice and desserts for 5.00 euros.  We’ll be trying that out soon!  Speaking of not being able to find it on the internet – the Chinese place I’ve spoken about is called Rosticceria Casalinga (Via Del Leone 53/r, closed Monday lunch).  This place actually does have a few reviews on Tripadvisor, but would do much better business if 1) their name gave some indication that it was a Chinese place (it just basically means “home-cooked”), and/or 2) they had a website (I made these polite suggestions when the owner asked me how I had found out about the place, which was pretty empty).  Their prices for typical dishes range from 3.50 – 4.50 (with rice being extra).

sri lankin food

PinGusto Wok – We ate lunch yet again last weekend at PinGusto, an all-you-can-eat sushi buffet (right across from Sant’Ambrogio Market at Via Petro Annigoni 11, open 7-days, Italian hours; you need reservations for dinner).  Now, as with most “Japanese” restaurants in Florence (there aren’t many to choose from), this one is not authentic in the sense that the cooks are from China, not Japan.  (As an aside, Japanese food is so uncommon here that your place-mat at PinGusto actually explains to you what wasabi is and how to use it, pictured).  And, no, they don’t have the biggest variety of fish on offer (almost all salmon).  But to us PinGusto has so many redeeming qualities that we really enjoy our lunches there (admittedly, I’ve talked to others who disagree).  First off, lunch is only 10 euros (even on the weekend) for all-you-can-eat (drinks extra; dinner is 20), and for those of you who know Steve, you know he can do some serious damage (okay, I can also do my fair share).  While there is an entire cooked food buffet as well (pictured), we pretty much stick to the sushi.  One of the great things about the sushi (served conveyor-belt style) is that, unlike every other all-you-can eat sushi place anywhere, they actually send out plates of sashimi, so if you are picky/patient, you can eat tons of fresh fish without getting filled up on rice.   While there are many things we wish they served (tuna, eel), for 10 euros I’ll take a never-ending plate of salmon and seaweed salad any time! (And their lemon gelato isn’t a bad palate cleanser afterwards).  Helpful hint: this place fills up fast and usually has a line – we have found that if we get there about 12:35 (they open at 12:30), we walk right in at the back of the line that’s been waiting since 12/12:15, avoiding that wait and the very long line that follows by about 1:00.

Thanks for letting me be your guide today!

We Just had an Earthquake!!!

Ciao Readers!

Okay, at first we had no idea what was happening, but then we both realized – we just experienced an earthquake – ARG!  The building basically shook (and not too much, everything/one’s fine), but I hate earthquakes – they scare me!  Just now finding information online – looks like it was a 5.0 magnitude originating somewhere in Northern Italy.  Never a boring time here, for sure!

A Plethora of Pasta (A Photo Anthology)

Ciao Readers!

A couple of weeks ago in my dream grocery post I mentioned the countless varieties of pasta they have here.  I thought it would be fun to underline my point by taking my camera into the two grocery stores in our neighborhood (COOP and Conad).  Mind you, this is the pasta at just regular ol’ smallish groceries – not the big fancy groceries and not the foodie markets (where you can find pasta in every shape and color).  The idea is that there is a perfectly shaped pasta for each and every individual sauce out there (the right nooks and crannies to hold sauces of differing densities/viscosities).  I haven’t counted, but I’m guessing you could find at least 100 varieties of pasta in each of these groceries (hey, if you’re gonna eat 51 pounds of it a year, ya need variety).  Notice that there are 3 types each of just the store-brand penne and rigatoni (each just a slightly different size)!   Every store has at least one entire aisle side dedicated to pasta, as well as an entire section of inexpensive refrigerated pasta, then a separate section of various types of locally made “fresh” pasta.  Just a sampling from a trip the grocery…  Boun Appetito!

(If by chance you are thinking “hmmmm, this post seems a bit thin,” you’re not off-base; I started back to Italian school last week, and for reasons I will explain in a forthcoming post, ended up in level 6 of 6, so my brain capacity and blogging time are seriously hampered! I will likely only be posting 2 times/week for a while.)  In any case, there are pics of cute little mini pastas, too….

pasta isle

“Lo Hobbit” (or “going to the movies in Italy”)

Ciao Readers!

Today I am going to give you a peak into the local theater here in Florence – the Odeon.  While not entirely dissimilar, going to the movies in Italy is a bit different than going to the movies in the States.  First off, the theater here is located in a palace that was built in 1462 (Palazzo Strozzino) – a far cry from a theater in a shopping mall, to say the least!  The inside of the palace was renovated into a theater in 1922 and decked out in the art nouveau style.  (My pics weren’t coming out good inside, so the nice photo is taken from their website).  You can take a virtual tour of the Odeon here (if you do, check out the ceiling).

On Mondays, Tuesdays and (some) Thursdays, the Odeon has its “Original Sound” program, where the films are shown in their original language (whatever that may be), with Italian subtitles.   A few weeks ago The Hobbit was here for only a couple of days, so we went to the movies on a Monday night (we are such party animals here!).  Well, there was one big difference we noticed immediately (after noticing the amazing building we were in) – no fresh popcorn!  I have to admit, my heart sank a bit as a bucket of movie-theater popcorn is an indulgence I learned from Steve, and one to which I have grown accustomed.  We settled for a bag of popcorn from the snack counter (pictured).  On the other hand, had we wanted (we did not) a lovely glass of red wine to bring into the theater, that of course was available.

Another interesting thing was the not quite complete “originality” of the language.  For those of you who have not seen it, in The Hobbit both Elvish and Orkish (is that a word?) are spoken.  Since most of us don’t speak those made-up languages, subtitles are provided.  However, as with the rest of the movie, those subtitles were also in Italian, not English (as the subtitles are in the original movie), requiring me to do my best to translate out-loud for Steve (not that Orks have anything very intelligent to say).  I thought it was an interesting glitch in the “original sound” idea.

One very cool thing about this movie-going experience was that the movie started right away at the time scheduled – no previews and no ads (yay!).  (I actually have no idea if this is because it was in English and all the ads/previews would be in Italian, or this is the way all movies here are – if anyone knows, please post a comment).  Other than that, the movie-going experience was fairly similar.  The prices were about the same (a far cry from the 36,000 yen we unwittingly paid in Japan to see a second-run matinee!), and it was seat-yourself (also unlike Japan where you get assigned seats).  The only other surprise was that, unlike the 2 other movies we had seen in other theaters in Italy, there was no intermission.  We enjoyed the movie and were treated to a caught-just-in-time bus-ride back home.  Thanks for coming along!

odeon

A Town Called Lucca

Ciao Readers!  And Happy (early) Birthday Selma!

The last weekend of Steve’s break we took a trip to Lucca, a little less than an hour and a half by train from Florence (thanks again for the spare ticket, goal42). Lucca is a lovely little Tuscan town, completely encircled by a wall (built for defense purposes in the 1500 – 1600’s), and laid out in its original ancient Roman street plan (rectangular grid).  You have to walk through one of the cool “portas” (gates) to enter the town (the one we walked through is pictured).

As with many of the smaller towns we’ve visited in Italy (Orvieto, San Miniato), Lucca had a much friendlier and more relaxed vibe than Florence.  I can’t help but think that if we were living in one of the smaller towns we’d be having a different (i.e. less stressful) experience.  Part of the charm of Lucca is its wall, the top of which has been turned into a tree-lined park, complete with running trail.  More of the charm of Lucca comes from its nearly car (and dog poo) free streets; you can actually take a leisurely stroll without fear of being either being run over or of taking your eyes off the sidewalks to admire the amazing architecture.  Ahhhhhh…..

Of course, it never hurts adding a fabulous lunch into the mix.  I had found Piccola Osteria Lucca Drento online, and it had glowing reviews in both English and Italian.  While it is a tiny place (hence the name), the quality of food was suburb and we had a long, relaxing and delicious meal.  Below is a photo of our gorgeous salumi and cheese antipasti (which came with the first multi-grain bread we’ve been served in Italy).  Now, I’ve had my share of pork products since we arrived, so believe me when I tell you the charcuterie on the platter was exemplary – even the two prosciuttos had completely unique flavors from one another.  Add in a couple of secondi (pork with mushrooms for Steve, baccala [cod] with ceci [garbanzo beans] for me), some vino, and finish with the requisite cafes – YUM!

After lunch we strolled the town for a while, encountering winter festivities including an ice-skating rink, and happening upon several interesting churches (every town in Italy seems to have these cool old churches, Lucca just seemed to have more than usual, and they are really old – 11th through 13th centuries).  Notice the interesting detail in the columns and the mosaic (both created in the 13th century!)…. (as usual, it was cloudy/hazy, so forgive the flatness in the photos):

As always, thanks for coming along on our trip!

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Ciao Readers!

Today I delve a bit into cultural differences (though hopefully in a humorous and entertaining way).  While the title is meant to grab your attention, I’ll try and be a little less judgmental as I explore the things I appreciate about living in Italy as well as the “things I have yet learned to appreciate.”   As one commenter has pointed out, people in other cultures have been doing just fine for millennia – it’s our own perspective from a different culture that creates our discomfort.  So, when you hear my surprise/dismay (usually indicated by “seriously!?!!?!?”), please understand, as I do, that this is just one person’s attempt to understand a culture not her own.  (However, it is my blog, so enough with the disclaimers already!)   Onward.

THINGS I APPRECIATE ABOUT LIVING IN ITALY

  • Of course, the food (the Italian food) and the art (which are both fabulous and really big deals here).
  • The fact that I can walk the streets by myself at night and feel safe.  This is pretty darn cool.
  • My health card.  This is truly amazing – I’m an immigrant without a job and yet I have this nifty little card that entitles me to free/cheap health care.  I haven’t used it yet, so I can’t speak to the quality/wait times, but I can say that compared to the 450$+/month we were paying for employer-subsidized health insurance back in the States (not to mention the very high co-pays) it’s pretty darn civilized.
  • The fact that prices are what prices are.  For example, when I signed up for the basic 19 euro cable package I just naturally assumed that (like in the States) with the added inexplicable fees and taxes we would be paying about 31 – 33 euros/month.  Nope, every month I am equally surprised to see exactly 19 euros on the bill.  Not sure if it’s just Italy, or perhaps part of the Euro Zone strict financial laws, but I like it!
  • Not having to tip.  Almost everywhere we eat here we’re served by the mom & pop owners themselves, or, if there are employees, waiting is their real job for which they are paid a minimum wage.  Now I know your guide books may encourage you to at least round-up and leave the change, and maybe that’s expected in touristy places, but I promise you, I have never seen an Italian leave a tip and if you try to leave one they will yell at you (a habit I have adopted when dining with visiting Americans).  The only tips I have ever seen here are left by American tourists.  Which brings me back to my previous point – as long as you pay attention to whether there is a “coperto” (cover charge) listed on the menu (usually 1.50 – 2.50 euros per person), then you will know exactly how much your meal will cost as there is no adding tax and tip (exception being super touristy places like Venice where there may also be a “service charge,” though always listed in the menu).
  • Not waking up to news about another local or national shooting.  Since we’ve been living in Florence I haven’t heard of a single murder occurring here (In Albuquerque it is statistically a weekly occurrence).  There was apparently a murder of two African immigrants in 2011, but overall violent crime here is rare.  It’s hard to get exact numbers, but Italy has at most 1/7th the violent crime of the States.
  • The festivities.  It really is a treat to be able to walk out your front door and happen upon a street market, festival, musical performance and more just about any weekend year-round (and some weekdays as well).  I do believe the festivities (and the food and art) are what keep people (mostly) non-violent amidst the things in my next list….

THINGS I HAVE YET LEARNED TO APPRECIATE

  • To quote the Grinch – “All the NOISE NOISE NOISE NOISE.”  Seriously – people here are loud.  They yell.  And they honk.  And not the little quick tap of the horn to get someone’s attention, I mean the loud, incessant, you’d-be-too-embarrassed-to-honk-that-way-back-in-the-States (or too scared of starting a road rage incident) honk.  My latest theory is that all the honking and yelling is folks’ way of releasing pressure (as everyone seems friendly and happy a minute later), and when combined with the festivities, explains why the violent crime rate is so low.
  • The inefficiency of offices (post, government, bank, etc.).  You usually have to wait between 30 – 90 minutes to accomplish most things (much more for big tasks like immigration – I have heard stories from folks who waited 7 hours at that office), due to the fact that everything is run like a mom-and-pop operation without any thought for efficiency and other folks’ time.  For example – if it’s someone’s turn at the post office and they are trying to send mail in some special way, there will be 3 forms to fill out, but instead of having them stand off to the side while they do this, the worker will have them remain there at the window the entire time (I once clocked one person at a post office window for 25 minutes).  I suppose it would be too complicated to let the next person come up because then the “take a number” system will get out of whack – but seriously?!?!?!  Of course, when it is finally your turn, you will get to spend as much time as you need accomplishing your task, which may help deescalate all the “ARG” you’ve been building up watching those before you.
  • The fact that I have to be careful not to get run-over on the sidewalk!  I have seriously almost been hit by a car several times as I walked down the sidewalk, never mind the number of times by motorini.  This goes back to my “Sure, Park There” blog post where I shared that just about anywhere is fair game for parking here.  I can’t tell you how many mornings there’s been a car literally parked in the middle of the running trail (which is several feet off the street).   Trying not to get run-over crossing the street is a whole other level of challenge (think “Frogger”), though we’ve learned the secret – people here are very gracious to folks with baby strollers – if you cross the street with one you’ll likely make it to the other side unscathed.
  • And speaking of the sidewalk – the fact that there is dog poop all over it!  It really cuts down on my ability to appreciate the beautiful architecture as, should you take your eyes off the ground for a minute, you will surely step in it.  Between the dog poop, the traffic, and the fact that folks just stop suddenly and chat on the sidewalk, a leisurely “stroll” feels more like an obstacle course test for some very demanding military assignment.
  • Smoking.  I honestly don’t know why everyone here doesn’t just keel over from lung cancer.  Smoking here is so prevalent (though not quite as much as in Japan).  You can’t walk down the street without inhaling second-hand smoke (add that to your obstacle course), and even your own home will eventually succumb due to all your neighbors who smoke, including in the hallways.  Maybe pasta and wine counteract nicotine and tar….

So, that, dear Readers are a few of my (admittedly) ethnocentric thoughts on the good, the bad and the ugly about living in Italy.  I have left out many things from both lists, so will look forward to sharing those in the future!

N.b. – after rereading this post about a week after I wrote it, something struck me as interesting that I hadn’t realized at the time…it seems many of the things I appreciate are huge (healthcare, lack of violence), and the things that drive me nuts are small (noise, smoking)….so you would think that the big good things would “make up” for the small annoying ones, but it doesn’t feel that way….hmmmm…….

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