Saturday, June 26, 2010


Siena is a small medieval city in the heart of Tuscany. I’d first heard about Siena when I decided to study abroad in Italy. I was wavering between Siena and Rome, and in the end decided to pursue my classical education as opposed to my Italian language and culture, and I applied to the Rome program. The situation was moot after a while though, as Andrew and I decided to instead study in Denmark. Even after all these years, Siena still held a fascination for me, but upon arriving, I was happy that I didn’t end up there: the whole city is a labyrinth of winding streets that climb and drop, worse than San Francisco. It’s a real strain on the muscles as anywhere you go requires both climbing up one street and then down another to reach your destination.

Our arrival in Siena was a little disappointing as there was a bus strike. This meant that even though our hostel was less than 2km away, we couldn’t reach it as 1) we only had directions by bus and 2) we had way too much baggage to be attempting serious hiking in the heat. Luckily there was another couple traveling to the same campsite as us, and we commiserated together about the horrors of European strikes, which happen frequently and always inconveniently. After 1 ½ hours of waiting, we had just decided to get a taxi when the bus showed up. Figures. We rented a mobile home for the weekend, which was a nice change from the hostel, even though it was obviously more expensive. We spent some time around the pool before heading into town. The walk into town was about 40 minutes by foot, and a little taxing in the heat. I really liked the old medieval walls, the tall buildings, and the winding cobblestone pedestrian streets that make up the city. We stopped by the town hall and city square, El Campo, to find that they were setting up for the famous Il Palio horse race on July 2nd. We’re a little disappointed that we won’t be there for the race. We also drooled over the Duomo, or cathedral, with it’s green and pink façade and black stripes that make me think that if ever Tim Burton designed a cathedral, it would look like this. It’s simply one of the most amazing churches I’ve ever seen.

For dinner that night we stopped at the nearby grocery store and stocked up on sandwich fixings. We had salami, prosciutto, and smoked mozzarella cheese, and added in the sun-dried tomatoes and basil olive oil our French friends gave us as a parting gift. With a nice bottle of white wine and blackberry pie for dessert, we stayed up late talking to two Australian travelers in the camper next to ours.

Our 2nd day in Siena was a lazy day. We slept in late and then headed to town around lunch time, where we took advantage of huge slices of pizza for only 1.50. We headed to San Domenico church, where Saint Catherine took her vows and left pieces of her body. She died in Rome, but Siena felt left out so Rome sent the city Saint Catherine’s head and thumb, as well as the whip she used to flagellate herself. I have to say, Catholics are strange people sometimes. We hope to see her body in Rome when we visit next week.

The highlight of our day was a visit from Meagan, a friend with whom I worked at the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles. Meagan has also been trotting around the world, and has been in Italy for a couple of months as her fiancé Keith was signed to the baseball team here. She lives near Bologna, but was in Tuscany for the weekend because Keith had a game. She drove up to Siena to wander the streets with us and eat dinner. Tomorrow we’re heading north to her place to visit, relax, and hopefully take some day trips to Verona and Mantua.

Sidenote: My spellcheck won’t accept “prosciutto” as a word. It keeps trying to change it to “prostitute.”

Wednesday, June 23, 2010


After two drizzly days in Venice, we headed south to Tuscany. Known for Chianti wine, medieval hilltop castles, and Renaissance art, the Tuscany region has been on my to-do list since I saw “Under the Tuscan Sun” so many years ago. We couldn’t find a CouchSurfer to host us in Florence, but we did find a cheap hostel, centrally located, called Ostello di Rifiorenze. For only 15 euros a night, we got to stay in a converted convent. Because the hostel is a cooperative, they’re also CouchSurfers (which is where I found them) and they allowed us to stay one free night! The second we arrived in Florence, we dropped our bags off and immediately headed back to the train station to go to Pisa. We had been told by many people that Pisa wasn’t anything special, and that it wasn’t worth it, even to see the famous Leaning Tower. Thus we were pleasantly surprised to find Pisa a charming little town with many pedestrianised streets, cheap food, and a marvelous square that holds more than just the tower, but two other stunning attractions set against the backdrop of old medieval walls. The Tower itself was very interesting, but I found the cathedral and the baptistry equally beautiful.

After a couple of hours in Pisa, we returned to Florence late and slept the first of three mosquito-filled nights in a tiny cubicle that reminds me of a shipping crate. The next morning, we got an early start to Florence and began our tour at the Piazza della Signoria. Here you find the world famous art gallery, the Uffizi, and a replica of Michaelangelo’s David standing outside the square.

For us, the replica was enough, especially since it’s standing in the exact same spot it stood hundreds of years ago before Italy decided to capitalize on every single piece of art and charge a ridiculous admission fee to see it. Nearby we stopped and visited the Porcellino and rubbed his snout for good luck.

We then headed to the Duomo, or cathedral, to bask in the over-ornately gilded interior and to make the really long trek up the stairs into the dome for a great view over Florence.

Along the way we got a close look at the frescoes decorating the ceiling, which shows some interesting torture methods.

In need of refreshment, we stopped for our daily gelato and then did some more uphill climbing in the Boboli Gardens. Not so much a garden as an exercise in climbing stairs, we had some more great views but not enough shrubbery to satisfy my definition of a garden. The nearby Garbini Gardens were much better at fitting this description, though at this point I was really sick of climbing up and down (little did I know the torture was to intensify in Siena).

Since Andrew and I are on a strict budget of 66 euros/day, we saved on dinner by buying some pasta and cooking it in the microwave. I had no idea this was even possible, and while not the tastiest thing I’ve ever had, it was one of the cheapest, bringing our dinner total to about 2 euros. Until you added in the bottle of Chianti we also bought.

Day 2 in Florence began by standing in line at the Uffizi. Despite our lack of interest in Renaissance art, we knew that if we didn’t visit we’d probably regret it later. Thankfully, armed with our teacher cards from France, we scored a 50% reduction on our tickets, thus only paying 5 euros each. We also downloaded a free audioguide by Rick Steves, which was excellent and worth paying money for. We understood a lot more of what we saw, and his sense of humor and appreciation for his audience was nice. He told his what rooms were completely boring and useless to see, and he explained the reasons for which so many of the paintings were world famous. Among the jewels of the collection were Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus and Caravaggio’s Medusa.

It happened that that day was the festival for St. Giovanni, or St. John the Baptist, and thus there were parades and fireworks throughout the town.

For lunch that day we stopped by a cheap panini place called Fratellini, where we received sandwiches stuffed with ham, cheese, eggplant, and tomatoes for only 3 euro. They also had wine by the glass for 1.80.

Refreshed, we continued our walking tour of the city. We had another microwave pasta dinner and headed to the famous Ponte Vecchio for sunset.

The bridge used to be a marketplace, but the noise and smell were bothersome so the vendors were cast out and a new law was created, making it illegal for vendors to sell their wares on the bridge, with the exception of gold merchants. The law still stands today, and all the shops that hang periously over the side of the bridge are jewelry stores.

Around 10pm the fireworks started, which were really beautiful and fun to watch as they cascaded over the River Arno. We spent one last night at our wonderful hostel, and in the morning we continued our journey to Siena.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Au revoir France and Buon Giorno Italia!

We finished American Village on a good note. The kids were sweet, even if they didn't really want to speak English. For our last Carnival night, Easy E made us all into Question Marks. It was a little bizarre but kind of fun. The kids weren't too freaked out.

After finishing AmVil we headed to Lyon to the night and stayed in a very cheap, interesting hotel. The room was tiny, and at first we were confused as to where the toilet and shower were located. But like something out of a sci-fi futuristic movie, our closet swivelled open to reveal a toilet and combination shower/sink. Weird.

Saturday morning we headed to the train station to catch our train to Venice.

Despite the fact that our tickets said "train" on them, we were in fact on a bus that took us to Turin, or Torino in Italian. There we had a short break before transferring two more times, through Milan and Verona, to get to Padua, or Padova, just outside of Venice, where our couchsurfer was located.

Alfredo was an older gentleman who cooked us a big plate of pasta and then took us on a tour by car of Padova since it was raining. The next morning we left early and took the short train ride into Venice. As soon as we arrived, there was a massive torrential downpour that soaked us through and through on the 50 minute walk to the center of town, St. Mark's Square.

We were completely unprepared for such weather, and we spent the rest of the day wandering around trying to keep warm and dry. We even popped into a cafe for drinks, only to find that one espresso and one tea were 7 euro! Lesson learned: always ask the price before ordering, no matter how cold and wet you are.

We then forked over even more cash to visit the much acclaimed Ducal Palace.

13 euro for one museum seemed really steep to me, and the visit didn't come close to making up for the cost. It was nice to see the prisons and some of the artwork, and Andrew particularly enjoyed the map room, but I've seen nicer castles in France that cost half the price. After a couple of museums, we headed back to Padova early to prepare chicken pot pie for Alfredo. After dinner, Alfredo took us to two nearby villages in the countryside to see a lovely villa and a medieval walled city called Cittadella.

Monday morning we dug out our jackets and water-proof shoes and headed back into Venice, determined to enjoy the city despite the dire predictions of more rain. Probably because we were so prepared, it didn't rain all that much yesterday, though there was a steady drizzle the entire time we were there. We visited the Basilica, which was pretty for all its gilding, but again, not as impressive as some of the churches I've seen in France. My favorite part of the day was wandering amongst the canals, getting lost and admiring the beautiful architecture.

We did a pretty good job of avoiding the souvenir markets, though the gorgeous Venetian masks kept calling to us. We kept it simple and bought birthday presents for my mom and sister and something for my grandmother since I've been so bad the past three years about sending gifts for special occasions.

The best part about Venice was the delicious, cheap food, and the cheap clothes (though I haven't bought anything yet). Trains are also cheaper than in France, though you pay more for faster trains, which makes sense but is annoying. It sucks having to transfer three times to go to a city that's not that far away. But it's worth it to save some money because we haven't had any luck finding couchsurfers in Florence, Siena, or Rome. We're really stressed because we won't get our AmVil paychecks or Andrew's university check until the first week of July. We'll eventually have money to pay for this trip, but in the meantime we have to use credit cards and lots of places don't accept them.

Venice is such a beautiful city that we were disappointed to have to hide indoors all day. I can only imagine how beautiful it must be when it's not pouring rain. Today we're leaving Venice and heading to Florence and Pisa.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Last Weekend at Tour de Buis

The Rhone River

Ok, I lied. No photos of cute kids this week. Why not? Because they were monsters!

These were the smallest kids we've had so far. They were between 7 and 8 years old, which means they've only had about one year of English. Surprisingly, they all had a better level of English than most of my kids back in Orleans! I guess it's because they go to an international school in Lyon and have an American as a teacher. Anyway, I *thought* they were adorable, and a lot of them were, but they were uncontrollable! They went crazy during every activity, every class, every meal. It was like living in a zoo for a week. And I never before realized the needs small kids have until this week. Every five minutes someone needs to go to the bathroom, someone needs a tissue, someone is crying because of something someone else said. It made teaching a class almost impossible. Also, I'm not sure if this is normal but they seemed really rude to me. At meals, they would all shove their plates in my face and ask for food, even though I told them every single time that they had to wait their turns and I would come around to everyone in good time. I never got to start my meal until a good half hour after them because they were so needy and always needed an extra napkin, more bread, another bathroom break, etc. But again, maybe all little kids are like this at this age???

It also didn't help that I was really sick this week, with a nasty flu that thankfully only lasted a couple of days but made me want to shrivel up and die anyway.

This weekend was a really chill weekend. On Friday night, after the kids left, we walked 3km in the pouring rain to the closest bar/restaurant to have some pizza and then walked back again in the rain. That's how much the food here sucks. Andrew also walked across hot coals at the campfire and burned his feet pretty bad.

On Saturday Andrew and I got up early (everyone else was once again too hungover to come with us) and walked 4km to catch the only bus into Vienne. We only had three hours til the return trip back to our camp, so we headed to the Gallo-Roman museum which had some pretty cool ruins. I especially loved the mosaics. It really made me miss classics! We then stopped by the farmer's market for some rotisserie chicken, cherries, nectarines, and watermelon. We started our picnic lunch before getting back on the bus to the nearest town to us. We finished our picnic and then hiked back into camp, returning exhausted and hot but happy to have spent a couple of hours away from the camp.
Andrew trying out the ancient latrines
I love Roman pools
Dining room with reclining couches
Cool mosaic of Hylas and the nymphs

Today we've been organizing things for our trip next week, cleaning our room, and sunbathing naked in the nearby field. The plan is to leave next Saturday for Aix-en-Provence and spend the night there, then continue to Nice the next morning and spend two days on the French Riviera and in Monaco. Tuesday is the big day when we take four different trains with all our luggage to get to Venice. After that, we don't have any clear plans. We really want to meet up with our friend Meagan who is living near Bologna, but our itineraries aren't exactly overlapping, but we're determined to make it work somehow. We hope to rent a boat with her and visit the island of Elba and get in some quality beach time. We also want to meet up with Alfredo, a buddy of ours we met in Denmark so long ago, but he's a bit unresponsive at the moment and he lives really far south so we're not sure it's going to happen.

We fly from Rome to Beijing on July 8th, and we've already hit a snafu. I assumed that like all other airlines, we'd be charged $50-100 to check an extra bag. It turns out we'll be charged 47 euros. Per kilo. This bag is probably 30 kilos. That means that our bag would cost about 1400 euros to check. I don't understand how that makes any sense. Our tickets didn't even cost that much!!! So we're looking into possibly shipping it through a company or just throwing everything in it away, even though we spent quite a bit of money on the bag just recently. Anyone have any ideas?
Cute ducks and geese on the walk to camp
Sweet and slimy snail love!

Monday, June 7, 2010

A Reunion

Us near our camp

Andrew is here! He arrived last weekend, after a grueling ten hours of transport. We're thrilled to be together again, even though Andrew misses his Bourride teammates.

I only posted about my first week of camp, so I'd better backtrack a little to fill you all in. The posts during these American Village weeks are mostly going to be a list of adorable kids that I've decided to adopt/kidnap.

Hollywood, Ivy, Basil, Easy E, and Gizmo

After the first week of mostly bilingual kids, we received a group of 10-11 year olds whose
English wasn't amazing. Being a newbie, I wasn't allowed to teach ESL two weeks in a row, so I had to be an activities counselor instead. I found it to be much more work, and it involved doing a lot of things that were a total mystery to me. I'm not a sporty person, so playing baseball and Capture the Flag weren't as enjoyable for me, but at least the kids were worse players than me so it wasn't a total blow to my self-esteem. I also did tie-dye shirts for the first time, which was a little bit of a disaster because I didn't know the kids weren't actually supposed to do the dyeing part. 56 kids had stained hands for three days. Oops. But their shirts turned out surprisingly well! Dreamcatchers also were a nightmare, and didn't turn out so well since I basically just made up the procedure.

My favorite kids from that week for three little boys named Buckwheat, Nutter Butter, and Cankles.

Nutter Butter

We also had Wild West Day, where for the evening program we had a Carnival. I was the blackjack dealer and there was also a strongman contest, a fortune teller, and a caricature booth.
Master as the Strongman

The third week, when Andrew arrived, allowed me to return to teaching. The kids' level of English was really low, so we had all beginning classes. I really enjoyed my kids. I had Billy Mays, H-Bomb, Princess Leia, Your Majesty, Circuit Board, Sister Ray, Lipstick, Lipgloss, Broadsword, Honey, Balla, and Lucille. They were smart kids and learned quickly. I personally adopted Supernova, Sister Ray, and Billy Mays.

For Fairy Tale Day, the kids performed little skits and the counselors embarassed themselves with interludes. One of them was called Levitation and involved four counselors supporting each other with nothing but their crotches.
My skit group doing Cowboys and Indians

Levitation Interlude

This past weekend we went to stay in a chateau in southern Burgundy region. The chateau is the site of another camp, and home to some very lucky AmVil counselors.
Chateau d'Aine

We arrived late in the evening on Saturday and stayed the night. The next morning Andrew and I walked around the vast grounds and then went on a wine tasting tour that was excellent. This region is known for its white wines, which both of us prefer, so it was an ideal setting. Not only was the testing free, but the bottles that we bought for about 5 euros for such a great deal! We probably had fifteen bottles of wine between all of us for free, and each person bought a bottle to take home.

We spent Saturday morning in nearby Vienne, which is what we consider the Orleans of the south. It's quaint and cute, but has enough fun stuff to do, and is so close to Lyon that it's easy to escape for the day. There as a nice little market going on Saturday morning, and I was able to score some shoes for only 10 euros! I also bought a cute little purple dress for 5 euros.

Everything was so much cheaper there than anywhere else we've been. We also hit up the farmer's market and bought a delicious rotisserie chicken, some cherries, and some goat cheese. For us, it was a feast after weeks of eating yucky camp food. We're going to return to Vienne next weekend for the market and to take a look at the Roman ruins scattered throughout the city. After Vienne we headed to Lyon for a couple of hours to buy some bagels, which were ridiculously priced (3.75 each!) and we wandered around the consulate fair, admiring different foods, costumes, and dances. There was even a Mali booth there, but neither of us is able to really face that just yet.

Now we're back at our "permanent" site, Tour de Buis, which isn't very far from Lyon. We have a new batch of kids, these ones aged 7-9 years old, and are absolutely adorable! They also have better English than most of my students who were 11-15 years old in Orleans. They go to an international school, though all are French, and they have an American as their English teacher. She's from Palm Springs and brought us some CoffeeMate Irish Cream Creamer, which if you know me, you know that I LOVE Coffeemate Creamer and wish I could buy it here. Pictures of these kids to follow in a later post!