The sights in Firenze (Florence)

On the advice of our excellent local guide, we took the train to Florence on Sunday. It was just over an hour’s ride through a series of small towns (Empoli seemed to be the largest one). After arriving, we walked straight over to the massive Cathedral (Santa Maria del Fiore). It was closed (having mass) so we walked around some more and admired the absolutely awe-inspiring exterior (composed of different kinds of stone/marble in white, red, and green and with much elaborate carving). Words really cannot capture just how magnificent this building is. I bought some writing paper for friends back home (questi, per favore), and then sat down to write postcards. The wind was kicking up and it was a bit chilly in the shade. We got lunch at a pizzeria, and for dessert I got to taste absinthe-flavored chocolate for the first time (I have no idea if this is common in Italy). It taste like a spicy kind of licorice.

We then entered the cathedral (which, surprisingly, did not have an entry fee). The inlaid stone floor was breathtaking, with a variety of different geometric and flowery patterns. There is also a 24-hour clock! (It wasn’t set to the right time, though.) The famous frescoed dome was difficult to get a good view of because the front of the church was roped off for the 6 p.m. mass (we think). We did see a painting/homage to Dante Alighieri, and we went downstairs to the giftshop next to the tomb of the dome’s architect. Sadly, a new archaeological dig area, also downstairs, was not yet open to the public.

We exited and wandered over to a plaza where there were many statues (copy of David, Neptune, others) and annoying American music blasting from a tent. We went into an art display which was by Jorge Eielson, mainly about knots (best approximation I could find online). I’m not a huge fan of modern art, but knots intrigue with their combination of very organic appearance and mathematical/topological properties.

From there, we wandered some more, past a series of excellent statues (Leonardo! Galileo! Macchiavelli!) and to the Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge), which has buildings hanging off it over the river, and seems mostly to be very old storefronts that now feature only jewelry. We crossed to the other side of the river and had some divine (and expensive) hot chocolate (cioccolata calda). We saw a carousel, street performers, street hawkers, and chalk artists. We had dinner at a nice place with a somewhat snooty waitress. I ordered in Italian (yay!), ravioli di ricotta e spinace with butter and sage (memory fails me now, sigh!).

We headed back to the train and discovered that the one we’d wanted to take at 8:27 p.m. didn’t run on Sundays. But we got a slower train at 8:37 that got us into the Pisa station at 9:59 p.m. One challenge with Italian train travel seems to be that they don’t bother to announce stops or put signs at all of the stations… and especially at night, it can be difficult to know if you’ve reached your stop yet. When we got off at what we figured was Pisa, I quickly asked someone “Mi scuzi, dove è?” (“Excuse me, where is?”) because I couldn’t remember how to conjugate “to be” (essere) into the plural second person to ask “where are we?”. I got a blank look and then a response: “Dove siamo?” which of course is the correct way to say it, and I nodded and said, “Pisa?” and he said, “Si!”, so we didn’t need to jump back on the train. :)

Another highlight of the train trip was observing an argument between one passenger and another, who was inebriated or otherwise impaired and about to light a cigarette underneath the vietato fumare (no smoking) sign. I couldn’t understand at all what was being said, but body language and tone of voice and gestures said it all. The argument grew increasingly vehement, until the train stopped at the next station and the complainer stood up and physically escorted the smoker off the train. The complainer returned and the train moved on… leaving the smoker out in the cold. I was in awe. :)

A short walk back to the Hotel Bologna, and I was able to check in at last. I almost managed this in Italian, but choked on pronouncing bagaglio (luggage). Anyway, I ended up in a fantastic room, which came with slippers. Luxury!

The merits of a local guide

Today I was lucky enough to meet up with a friend of a friend to introduce me to Pisa. Despite the rain, I had an absolutely wonderful day. We met up for lunch, and she read through the menu and translated it for me, teaching me a variety of words along the way. She was very encouraging and patient with my attempts to speak Italian, and as a result I had a great time practicing with her. I learned:

  • Sono abstemia: I don’t drink [at all]; useful as a reply to the ubiquitous queries about wine with every meal.
  • Io prendo…: I’ll have (lit. “I take”), for ordering food.
  • orecciette is female and plural, so to order my pasta at lunch I said, “Io prego le orecciette con pesto e pomodoro” (with pesto and tomato).
  • Sono finita: I’m done/finished.
  • Euro is invariant. It is Euro in the singular and Euro in the plural (I’d been trying to figure out if I needed to say “3 Euri”).
  • The streets that parallel the Arno river both begin with Longarno because they go along the Arno.
  • sinistra, destra: left, right

After lunch, we went to a special cafe that serves panna, a local specialty that is a very thick whipped cream. I ordered a cioccolata con panna that was absolutely to die for. The hot chocolate was thick and rich and not-so-sweet and more the consistency of mud than water, and the panna sat on top and made for a heavenly cream experience.

We then met up with another friend and continued walking around the town (the Arno, outside the (closed) Botanical Garden, back to the Leaning Tower, etc.), getting lots of local tidbits not found in my guestbook. At the Tower, I glanced around and saw three different people simultaneously posing for the obligatory “I’m pretending to hold up the Leaning Tower” shot. Yes, they really do this!

I ordered dinner mostly in Italian (from the English menus we were given): Io prendo le pappadelle con… come si dice “rabbit”? The waiter said, “lepre,” then paused and called over a colleague, who launched into an explanation that the wild rabbit mentioned on the menu was a lepre but the tame form of the rabbit is a coniglio. “Ah, like coney!” I said. Turns out that the dictionary translates “lepre” as “hare”, so it’s possible that what I actually had was pasta with hare sauce. At any rate, it was a little gamey at first, but it definitely grew on me; I liked it! The waiter asked if I wanted cheese on it (in English). I’d been told at lunch by my local guide that Italians never refer to “cheese”, because that’s too generic; instead they refer to all cheeses by name. So I asked, “Quel tipo?” which I actually made up but turns out to be correct (I think), aside from me giving it the French pronunciation (“kel”) instead of the Italian (“kwel”). Live and learn. The waiter’s response was “Parmesan”, so I figure I successfully asked the question.

Back at my B&B, I composed what I think is my longest sentence in Italian to date: “Posso pagare per la mia camera?” (Can I pay for my room?) and took care of my bill. Time for bed now — we’re thinking of a trip to Florence tomorrow!

Using Italian is harder than you think!

Buongiorno and hello from Pisa! (In fact, it’s more like “buona notte” in this time zone.)

I arrived into Pisa about 5 hours ago. Let me say once again how much I love Air France. I wish they operated domestic flights in the U.S. I’d fly with them over United or US Air or just about anyone (except maybe Southwest). Their customer service is invariably cheerful and polite, they give you useful things like eye masks and ear plugs on long flights (hear that, United?), and they serve you A++ food (on the airplane food scale). None of the “I’m sorry your overcooked pasta is ice cold, our food heater isn’t working” excuses I got from United when I flew to Japan earlier this year. No, Air France gave us flavorful chicken, roasted potatoes, veggies, a salad with what I think was pate, juicy grapes, and chocolate dessert for dinner (plus bread, of course) and then sliced meat, cheese, yogurt, fruit cocktail, and a croissant for breakfast. Yum!

My language efforts have been less satisfying. I essayed some exchanges in French with stewardesses, with mixed success. Once reaching Italy, though, it’s been even harder. I’m very, very slow with the very, very little Italian I know (made even slower because French keeps popping into the forefront of my mind when I try to compose in Italian). By the time I get halfway through a sentence, the other person has already switched to fluent English. It’s easier that way, of course, but I also feel embarrassed at making them use my language in their country. (However, I suspect that they don’t really care and just want me to hurry up and order my pizza.) The owner of my B&B picked me up at the airport and offered English smalltalk. He asked me where I worked, but didn’t recognize “NASA”, “space”, or “rockets”. It was surprising to realize how difficult it is to explain where I work even in my own language! I finally hit on “we send people to the Moon”, which he got.

Google, however, recognizes that I’m coming from Italy and is automatically using Italian to communicate with me. Yikes!

I had some excellent veggie pizza (artichoke hearts! zucchini! by the way, I find it funny that my dictionary translates “zucchini” (Italian) into “courgette” (English) — courgette? I had to look it up. My online dictionary claims it’s British, of all things (not French?) and refers to… zucchini.) and then walked over to the Leaning Tower. It is beautiful at night! (Thanks to Alberto Mayer for this photo; the tower is at the far right.) They have a floodlight illuminating the lower side, and lights on all of the other fantastic old buildings as well. Despite the darkness and hour (probably 8:00 p.m.), there were quite a few people strolling around the wet grounds, including a large Chinese tour group. Tomorrow I plan to go back, this time with a camera… and maybe I’ll get to use some Italian at some point!

Learning to Teach to Learn

I’ve been making steady progress with my Italian podcasts: please (per piacere or per favore) and thank you (grazie), days of the week (oggi è giovedì!), numbers (up to 100), Merry Christmas (Buon Natale! Clearly I’m still working my way towards the present in podcast-land). I’ve also been picking up more vocabulary through‘s Rosetta-Stone-like lessons. They step you through six phases, in increasing difficulty: learn (look at pictures, read the caption, listen to it spoken), reading (match pictures to text), listening (see picture and match audio to text), magnet (drag and drop word tiles in the right order to form a correct caption for a picture), writing (compose your own sentences based on the new vocab), and speaking (record yourself reading a passage aloud).

I finished the first six-part lesson and ran straight into a huge potential time trap. You see, once you submit your writing and speaking “lessons”, they are posted for others to comment on. This is absolutely fantastic, as you can get feedback (for free) from other users of the site, and generally from those who have more expertise in the language you are studying than you do. But once you submit a lesson, the site lists for you the last few entries other people have made on that same lesson. And since it’s fresh in your mind, of course you might click through… and then you might start spotting small mistakes… and writing little helpful comments. And then the teacher in you roars to life and you start clicking through all of these entries, because, well, you can’t let this happen. Not only that, but you get “mochapoints” for commenting on others’ submissions, and extra points for being the “first to review” anything. (Mochapoints aren’t worth anything, they’re just a status marker indicating your level of activity on the site. But apparently this is still motivating on its own.)

An hour later, you realize that you’ve just spent an hour grading other people’s rudimentary Italian essays (e.g., “The woman is tall. The boy is fat. You are rich. I am poor.”). While this is undoubtedly yet another useful way to reinforce your language learning (you end up checking extra-carefully before posting a correction for anyone else!), it’s not clear that this is overall the best use of your time. You step gingerly away from the site, but not after listening to (and commenting helpfully on) one of Vitor-from-Brazil’s spoken English submissions. Sigh.

P.S. Vitor later “friended” me, apparently in gratitude for my comments. Awwww.

Italian Greetings

I listened to a few more lessons from I like the dialogue, but the female speaker is much clearer than the male speaker so I tend to prefer listening to her. Also, three (slow) repetitions of everything is about one more than I need at this point (this may change as we move away from cognates :) ). And finally, I really wish that the transcripts of the dialogues were freely available; to get access to them, you have to pay a monthly fee. This means I (instead) end up digging around to find how to spell everything, since I’m definitely a visual learner and I don’t remember things well unless I know how they are spelled. That isn’t necessarily bad, since the extra searching provides additional reinforcement. However, it did lead to a mistake I made in my last post: “Pleased to meet you” should have been “Piacere di conoscerti” (the informal version), not “Piacere di conoscerla” (the formal version). This explains the apparent inconsistency in the level of formality. Personally, I’d rather learn the formal since it is more likely to be useful. But I’ll try to be patient and wait for it. :)

New phrases today include:

  • Buon giorno! Good day!
  • Arrivederci! Goodbye!
  • Come ti chiami? What is your name?
  • Io mi chiamo Kiri. My name is Kiri.
  • Così e così. So-so. (Response to “come stai?”)
  • Io sono ocupado. I’m busy.
  • Io sono felice, perché mia mama è a Venezia. I’m happy, because my mother is in Venice. (That’ll be handy!)

I also got the full “to be” conjugation:

io sono noi siamo
tu sei / Lei è (formal) voi siete / Loro sono (formal)
lui/lei è loro sono

Michelle’s comments on my previous post now make more sense. :) Interestingly, capitalization matters here — the formal “you” pronouns get capitalized regardless of sentence position. (That way you can tell them from the third person pronouns, presumably.)

Another useful resource:

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