Tuesday, September 23, 2008


I'm sorry for the delay in the blog post about Oktoberfest, but it has been a rough several days. Long story short, I found out when I got home from Munich on Sunday night that my grandfather from Oregon passed away over the weekend. It brings me comfort that it was a very peaceful passing and that most of the family was by his side when it happened, but it has been very difficult for me to be so far away from my family at a time like this. Talking to my mom through Skype (thank God for modern technology) and the supportive e-mails from all of my friends have been really helpful in the healing process. My grandpa lived a good, long life and I will really miss him... I am glad that I was able to talk to him through Skype last week so he knew I was thinking about him--and praying for him in God-knows-how-many churches all around Italy. I know he's no longer suffering, and he's in a better place now... I love you, Grandpa!

Well, in the spirit of living life to the fullest, let me talk about my weekend that was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience. My three roommates and I took the train Thursday night and arrived in Munich at 6:30AM. We stepped of the train into the freezing (well, probably about 45 degrees) cold and were greeted by one of the best sights ever..... STARBUCKS! It has been a month since my last one and while I absolutely adore Italian coffee and cappuccinos, Starbucks feels like home. It's also so much bigger and you can actually carry it around with you! We were so happy, we ordered Ventis to be sure to get our fix. 

My roommate has an American friend from her school that is working in Munich for several months, so it was really awesome having a contact there who could tell us where to go and show us around and provide us with free lodging! Friday, he had to work, so the four of us went sightseeing around Munich. We were totally hardcore and did it without a map, and surprisingly hit up some of the most important spots.

All of us were so taken aback by how clean Munich was, though it made sense after learning that about 50% of everyone's income goes to taxes (maybe the US should do that... j/k). After wandering around for a bit, we found the English Gardens that we had wanted to go to. They were absolutely gorgeous! It was more like a park than gardens though, but still amazing!

The English Gardens, or Englischer Garten:

After our lovely stroll through the park, we went on search for Hofbräuhaus, which is the oldest beer hall in Munich. Thirty minutes later, after asking several people, we found it and it was awesome! People of all ages and nationalities were there enjoying beer, food, music, and a general environment of merriment. The beer was amazing, especially the Hefeweizen I had. Best. Hefe. EVER

Afterward, we took a little rest on a grassy knoll near yet another Starbucks, which was nice because we could use the restroom facilities without anyone noticing. It was still quite cold out, but it was sunny so it was enjoyable. Later, we went to a bar, but we did not stay out too late because we had an early and long day of beer drinking ahead of us!

We planned on meeting our group at around 8AM the morning of Oktoberfest. My roommates and I went with the guy we were staying with, his co-workers, and some of their mutual friends. When we arrived at the festival, it was so cold and there were so many people around... and way too early for me. Anyway, after waiting for a while to get into the Spaten beer hall, we finally got our awesome table--right next to the band!  We got really hooked up for our Oktoberfest experience: one of the guys knew a guy who is very good friends with the waiter who waited our table. This means that we got a sweet table in the most legit beer hall in the festival, which would typically cost 1000 euro ($1500) and it has to be reserved one year in advance. Needless to say, we felt very lucky to be there! W Unfortunately, by this time it was 10AM and the first beer is not served until 12PM, so we idled away the time shivering and talking about how excited we were for the party to start. The beer hall was enormous. I don't know how many people were there, but there were A LOT. Once it was just before 12PM, the mayor of Munich came and gave a speech (though obviously I couldn't understand a word) and then he tapped the first keg of Oktoberfest!!!!! Drums were sounded to signal to the other beer tents in the area that they were allowed to start serving beer. Our first mass (the liter-sized mug) was served!

Enjoying my first mass. 

Hmm... for some strange reason the blog site won't let me post more pictures... like it just keeps loading without ever finishing. Very annoying! Well, I will try again another time. 

So our plan was to stay out all night and go out to bars afterward. However, we ended up getting back to the apartment we were staying at around 10PM and passing out by 11PM. So much for staying out all night! Whatever, we were exhausted. We got up the next morning to go to the train station, had our last Starbucks lattes in Munich, and departed on our 8 hour train ride back to Firenze. 

My roommates and I all have colds now because a girl in our train car on the way up to Munich was sick and we were breathing in her sick air for eight hours... that in conjunction with drinking and not sleeping very well all weekend made us feel like crap! Hopefully, we are better by this weekend because we are going hiking in Cinque Terre and that is not going to be fun if we are sick!

Anyway, I am very glad that I got to experience Oktoberfest. It was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience, especially being able to get such a great table at the main beer hall of the festival. I feel so grateful that I am able to be over here and going to different countries while I am here, but obviously it comes with consequences like being so far away from my family during a saddening time like this. Well, I know for sure that my grandpa would have wanted me to have the best time here because he never got to visit Italy. I am hoping to visit in Bologna this weekend the church of San Giacomo, the Italian name for Saint James, which was his name. 


Saturday, September 13, 2008

una bella città

This week was pretty relaxed. I've been getting settled into my classes and they are going fairly well. The teachers are nice and the material is interesting, though it has definitely made me appreciate my past classes at Cal because the high quality of the teachers and the interaction with students of high work ethic is not something I would really get anywhere else except a top university. I guess it's okay in the sense that I won't have Berkeley-sized workloads, but I think it might also mean that I need to take my education into my own hands so that I can get out of it what I want. A lot of the people in my program (not all, thankfully) are much more interested in Long Island Iced Teas than Leonardo's Ginevra de'Benci, which would be fine if those people didn't come into class the next day and ask a million questions and have the professor repeat herself ten times because they are too hungover to absorb the information. I am happy that my roommates and my next-door neighbors are not some of those people, but rather they are mature and interested in academics. 

Anyway, I've been quite busy this week still getting settled and accustomed to going to classes after having a whole summer and couple of weeks in Italy doing nothing but having fun. Last Sunday, two of my roommates and I went to Mass at Santa Maria del Fiore (the Duomo). It was in Italian and there were actually a lot of people there even though it was an evening Mass. That cathedral is very beautiful and huge. It's not nearly as big as Saint Peter's (the Vatican), but my professor told me that it's the third or fourth largest in Europe. I am planning on going to the 10:30am Mass tomorrow because it's supposed to be in Latin and there will be Gregorian Monk chanting. I'm not quite sure what to expect, but I know I want to do it at least once while I am here and since I didn't do any traveling or partying this weekend, I figured tomorrow would be one of my only chances. 

On Thursday, my program took us on a boat tour of the Arno River. Unfortunately, I am an idiot and I forgot my camera, but I think I would have been too nervous to take pictures anyway... we were so close to the water, that I would have been scared that I would drop my camera in the disgusting swamp water. Anyway, we piled into a 100 year-old boat and I was sitting on the end of my row and I was freaking out for a bit since I was about 3 inches from the gross water. Thank God no one fell in! The views were beautiful because we were going along the river as the sun was setting and the lights in the city began to turn on. It was a good experience followed by a great pizza at a place suggested by a local who thinks it's one of the best pizza places in Firenze. 

Yesterday, I hiked up the hill to Piazzale Michelangelo, where the other fake David is. At the top of that hill, there are also a couple churches, including San Salvatore and the beautiful San Miniato. The hike through the hills of the city across the Arno was kind of intense in the heat, but one of my travel books mapped out this cool path where I went the back way around the city walls. 

View of the Medieval city walls on my hike.

After about 45 minutes, I finally made it to the top of the hill and the view was amazing! It was totally worth looking like a hot sweaty mess:

Unfortunately, it was a rather overcast day, so it would look better on a nice day or at night, but it was still an amazing view. Luckily it wasn't raining because about 10 minutes after I got home it started POURING. Anyway, also on the hill near the Piazzale Michelangelo, there were two churches that I went into. The first, San Salvatore, was simple, small, and not overly-decorated. The second, San Miniato al Monte, was very beautiful and ornate inside. It was interesting because there were three accessible levels and two altars. Most churches I have been to have only had one accessible level and one altar. In this church, you could walk downstairs to a catacomb-like area and you could also walk upstairs to basically another church with it's own altar. Maybe that's where the rich people went to Mass.

San Miniato al Monte.

Building on the church began in the 11th century and the marble facade on the front was added in the 13th century. There was also a huge cemetery outside and apparently some of the sculptures out there were made by Michelangelo himself. It was a very beautiful church... and it's called "al Monte" for a reason: because it's up a freaking mountain! Haha... it was definitely worth it though. I would like to do the hike again at night and be able to see the whole city lit up from the hill. 

Today, it was all rainy and gross so I decided to cancel my solo trip to a garden outside Florence and instead I slept in and went to the Boboli Gardens again. When I went the first time with Valerie, it seems that we only went to about one-third of the whole gardens because they are so huge. Today I meandered around the places I hadn't explored and everything looked even more beautiful because of the rain and the left-over dew. Even though there were many people visiting, the property is so big that there were few people in my general vicinity, so it was nice to have some time alone in such a beautiful place. 

L'Isolotto (little island). 

Pretty trees.

There were these French girls petting a cat in the gardens, so I went to go pet it too and it was so sweet! She wasn't a gross feral cat, but a nice one that looked clean and normal. She followed me to a bench and jumped up on my lap and purred on my lap for about 20 minutes while I petted her. I named her Juliet and I wanted to take her home with me, but I'm pretty sure she belongs to someone who lives on the property. I saw three other cats that were friendly and wanted attention, but Juliet was my favorite. 

Juliet the kitty. I couldn't get a good one of her face... she's camera-shy.

Well, it's getting quite late and I think the people upstairs have finally stopped their dance party of the most RANDOM music I have ever heard. The played a mix of 90s and 70s including the YMCA, Men in Black, Mambo Number 5, and the Macarena. I don't know who these people are, but they should be fined. Now without Euro-pop or songs from my middle school days blaring into my window, I should go to sleep.


Sunday, September 7, 2008

this must be dante's "paradiso"

Now that our dear wireless network that we use illegally (grazie, "Francesco") is working once again, I will write about the utterly amazing meal that I had on Friday night. 

Included in the price of our program was a day trip to Siena and the Chianti countryside. We left in the early afternoon and took a chartered bus to Siena where we toured around for a few hours. We went into the Museo Civico where we viewed some of Siena's most prized works of art, including a beautiful altar piece by Duccio. 

Then we got back on the bus and drove an hour and twenty minutes into the gorgeous hills of Chianti. Literally every view of the surrounding area looked like a postcard:

When we finally reached our destination, Castello di Verrazzano, everyone was amazed by the beauty of the property and the surrounding area. Everyone was also very hungry and dying for some food and wine. Now for a bit of history: the Castello di Verrazzano is the oldest documented maker of Chianti. The castle was an Etruscan and then a Roman settlement before becoming the property of the Verrazzano family in the 7th century. They have been making wine here for approximately 1000 years. The wine itself is made in a very "green" way because of the cultivation and irrigation systems that are purely natural. They depend only on the rain to irrigate the grapes and they use no chemicals or pesticides. They also do not buy any grapes from other growers, but only use the grapes grown on the property.

So, basically, I want to live and/or get married here. The grounds were BEAUTIFUL. Everything was lush and green and they have lovely gardens and even a herd of wild boars that we got to taste later (eek!). There was a nice English lady giving us a tour of the grounds and the many many wine cellars that they have on the property. We also got to see where the proscuitto and the olive oil are aged. I was already in heaven, and the best part (the meal) hadn't even started yet.

A glimpse of the grounds before my camera died.

We were led into a reception room and began our "aperitivi" of a tasting of delicious sparkling wine and black olives soaked in oil and lemon. Already we were off to a great start! We then sat down at our tables and the lady gave us a short lesson about wine tasting (most of which I already knew, because I am such a connoisseur... just kidding... she gave me a couple tips I hadn't learned before). For each wine we got a good 1/3 of a glass to taste with because each table got a bottle and there were 8 per table, so it was actually a fair amount. And then began the courses that launched a thousand groans of delight:

First course: wild boar salame and prosciutto and garlic bread made with estate-made olive oil. The prosciutto was the most tender and best-flavored one I have had so far in Italy. 
Paired with: Rosso Minituscan table wine, 2006. Some of you would be interested to know that this is made up of 30% Malvasia grapes (yaaay, Blackstone!). 

Second course: penne pasta in marinara. They also gave us a bowl of fresh parmesan and another bowl of the most amazing dried herb mixture I have ever had in my life that made the pasta utterly to-die-for. It was a mixture of dried oregono, garlic, red pepper flakes, and who knows what else... maybe crack? The lady advised us to put a sprinkle of cheese, then a sprinkle of the herb mixture and then a few drops of olive oil. I cannot stop thinking and dreaming of this pasta. How could something so simple be so utterly amazing?
Paired with: Chianti Classico, 2006. I bought a bottle of this wine (as well as the previous two) and the lady said that it will be the best it can be in two years. I am looking forward to that! 

Third course: slices of rosemary-seasoned roast pork and salad tossed with estate-made red wine vinegar and olive oil. Hands down the best pork I have ever had in my life. 
Paired with: Chianti Reserve, 2004.

Fourth course: cheese course. First, a triangle of pecorino toscano cheese. I was actually able to identify it as pecorino thanks to my mom's many trips to A.G. Ferrari. Second, we each got a teaspoonful of 12-year aged balsamic vinegar (heh.. balls-matic) and a hunk of parmigiano reggiano. We were told to take a sip of the balsamic vinegar and then a bite of cheese. WOW. The balsamic was thick and sweet and not too bitter and the saltiness of the cheese contrasted very well.
Paired with: Sasello Supertuscan, 2005. This was the best wine by far... and of course it was the most expensive! It was 45 euro, which is approximately $70. A bit too expensive for me, especially because I wanted to buy a few different bottles.

Fifth course: (though, not really a course) almond biscotti.
Paired with: Vin Santo ("holy wine"). This golden-colored wine is a bit sweet and very strong. We were told to dip the biscotti into the wine (à la Oreos and milk) and then suck the wine from the biscotto. It was quite tasty and the wine was a little too strong to drink by itself. 

The finale to our meal was a taste of grappa, which is a kind of grape-based brandy. It was very very strong, though I guess it was better than vodka. I don't think I would ever drink any again, but it was nice to get a taste of it once in my life.  

The whole night felt like my dream come true... I was seriously in heaven. I think taking into account the tour of the gorgeous grounds and wine cellars, the ambiance of the reception room, the wine, and finally, the brilliant food, this was the best meal I have ever had in my life...


P.S. HAPPY BIRTHDAY to my wife ALEX!!!!!!!!!! I am so sad I had to miss your birthday celebration, but when I get back home we will have a real celebration.... Vegas, anyone?

Saturday, September 6, 2008

cin cin!

Ciao! I am drinking wine with my roommates and neighbors in my apartment and I am very excited to get internet for a couple hours! I thought I would make a post while we are preparing to go out dancing tonight. People go out super late here... it's considered very early if you go out at 11pm. Yikes! I need to be rested for my IKEA trip tomorrow. I am psyched because there is a free shuttle from the train station, which is only a 5 minute walk from my apartment! I need some basic stuff like hangers, another set of sheets, some kitchen towels, and a good paring knife (we only got a bread knife and a dull chef knife. LAME! Especially in Italy, the food capital of the world). 

The pizza Margherita with buffalo mozzarella I had the first day I was in Florence. 

I will post about my Siena and utterly AMAZING meal (one of the best meals/nights ever) on Monday when I have more reliable internet. 


Wednesday, September 3, 2008

ciao firenze!

Now that I finally have internet, I can make a post about Florence…

Valerie and I arrived in Florence on Saturday afternoon after a confusing and stressful experience. It was our first time with taking the train in Italy, so we didn’t really know how things worked (I mean, we were used to BART). Basically, after enjoying a McDonald’s Egg McMuffin (blasphemy, I know, but it was our first non-Italian meal), we got on the wrong train at first and realized it when we were confused as to why people were sitting in our seat numbers. Thankfully, we were able to get on the correct train with time to spare (after running down the platform with all my luggage). We were drenched in sweat, but we made it. The train ride was fine… it was nice watching the Tuscan countryside out the window. Except for the Cyprus trees and the hilltop villas, it seriously looked close to Northern California.

Our hostel was nice, and very close to my apartment, which was useful when I had to move in so that I didn’t have to take a taxi and we could just walk one block up and one block over. The two days that Valerie was here, we crossed Ponte Vecchio and went to the Palazzo Pitti, where the Medici family used to live. There are beautiful gardens there called the Boboli Gardens that are terraced on a hill so that by the time you get to the top, you have a pretty good view of Firenze. We also toured the Medici apartments and saw some of the museums in the Palazzo Pitti. Though I never thought I would EVER say this, I was kind of tired of pasta and pizza (I mean, I had been eating one or both every day for the past 2 weeks!) and so was Valerie, so we found a nice Greek restaurant to eat dinner at after not being able to locate a Mexican place recommended by the Lonely Planet book. It was a nice change of pace.

Inside the Boboli Gardens at Palazzo Pitti & view of the Tuscan hills.

A view of Firenze.

As for my apartment… there is so much space! I would never have imagined that I would be living in an apartment this huge! Especially in Italy! We have an enormous living room, a dining room, a good-sized kitchen, two bathrooms, and two bedrooms that aren’t huge, but they are big enough and there is a whole wall of closet space! The only thing that really sucks about it is that it looks onto the street and there is SO MUCH noise ALL of the time. 

Here is my part of the room. The other bed is on the wall to the left. 

Monday and Tuesday we had orientation at 9am. Yikes! It sucked having to sit still for an extended period of time, especially because I have spent the last two weeks walking literally all day. I haven’t done very much sightseeing in Firenze because I have had so much stuff to do with my program and I’ve been trying to get my bearings, but since I have four months here, I am not too concerned that I won’t see everything. Plus, I will be taking trips to the museums for my art history classes.

The Arno River and Ponte Vecchio.

View of Firenze from the Boboli Gardens. 

I begin classes this afternoon. I only have one class on Mondays and Wednesdays from 12:30pm to 2pm, but Tuesdays and Thursdays I have class all day from 9am to 2pm (with two 15 minute breaks). Yikes! Fridays are free, but some of them will be used for class trips (like going to Vinci for my Leonardo daVinci class). This Friday, we are going on a day trip to Siena and having dinner a winery/medieval castle called Castello di Verrazzano. Sounds like my kind of thing, no? Well time for class to start!