Sweet Vacation

The Duomo- always peaking out at you.

"Be still my heart...."
Detail on the front of the Duomo

The Duomo

It's amazing how refreshing just one little week in a new place can be. Last week, I was lucky enough to visit my family in Florence and Udine for Spring Break. The fact that I now live in Istanbul puts me a hop, skip, and a jump away from Europe, and I am still astounded at how short and relatively inexpensive the flights are. It's closer and much cheaper than going to Chicago from San Francisco!

My first stop was Florence. I hadn't been since I studied abroad there in college, over 10 years ago. I was eager to walk around and see how much of the city I remembered and to see if I could still find certain special spots. One of these special spots was the 'secret' bakery, for example, that we'd go to after a night out. It churned out freshly baked goods all night, to be delivered in time for the morning crowd at the cafes all over town. They would also sell their pastries to tipsy university students, who came upon it by following the scent of baking dough-a smell-guided Marco Polo game, and the path of people holding small white bags to their mouths. On those late nights, we would creep up to the door in apologetically quiet footsteps, tried to quiet our boisterous banter down, and in our most polite Italian, solicit a pastry from its no-nonsense, sleep-deprived bakers, who pulled huge trays of warm and buttery treats out of the oven, with chocolate in its liquid state laying on top of some of them- magma on a sugar volcano. Heaven. Another spot was Eby's coffee shop, who's owner my friend Mike got close to and even ended up taking shoes to Ethiopia for him, when he went there to visit a friend. I was also curious to see whether I would remember how to get to my host family's house, although I was pretty sure they'd since moved, and whether the map of the city was still imprinted in the grease-crusted back burners of my brain.

When I landed, the sun was shining. My cousins came to meet me at the airport and a few hours after I'd gotten off the plane, we were driving into the Florentine hills to meet their parents for lunch at a family restaurant for some traditional Tuscan food. The restaurant overlooked beautiful rolling vineyards and while chatting, sampling the mix of appetizers (fried vegetables and sliced polenta topped with meat sauce and vegetables) and good house wine, I grew nostalgic for San Francisco and the sunny weekend outings we took there. I got to catch up with the recent happenings of the family. One of my cousins- Filippo- recently got married and I got to meet his wife, who is now rocking a cute little bowling ball-sized pregnancy. Their family makes me think of my family and it's funny to think that there can be other replicas of your family and your dynamics in other parts of the world.

My cousin Costanza showed me around for most of the time I was there. She walked all over the city with me, took me out with her friends and boyfriend, and took me zipping through the city on her sister's motorino. Riding on a motorino is thrilling and has the power to zap you back into the carefree aura of your teenage years. We biked around and she showed me which of the dozens of gelato shops, trying to lure tourists onto their shores, had the native Florentine stamp of approval. I had the most delicious pistachio gelato I've ever had at Vivoli, along with my usual 'go-to', nocciola. I also sampled the rice flavored gelato, which is typically Florentine and tastes like rice pudding, and another typical flavor called 'Buontalenti,' at Badiani, named after the guy who first invented gelato for the Medici. Everything was fresh and new and oh, so much fun!
Costanza and I at Santa Croce.

Throughout the trip, the food was a highlight and I remember each dish with sharp detail and slide into short culinary flashbacks and think 'mmmmmmmmmm'. I know I'm biased, having been raised on Italian food and my mother's wonderful cooking, but there's nothing quite like Italian food. The ingredients are fresh, it's seasonal, and just so flavorful. I tried a lot of things I had never had before. On the last night I was in Florence, for example, Costanza took me to a dinner to celebrate her friend's art opening. As an appetizer, we had fava beans and peccorino. The dish came out with the fava beans in their thick fuzzy shells, small dashes of salt and pepper to dip them in, and a slice of peccorino on the side. The beans were a little bitter, but balanced out by the cheese, salt, and pepper. Such a simple and unassuming dish, but so amazingly satisfying. I didn't say 'no' to anything during those four days and was happier for it.

A copy of the original David, in its original spot- staring down Rome.
During the four days in Florence, I also visited some of its amazing historical and artistic sites. I went to the Academia for the first time (I can't believe I never went as a student there!), where the David lives, frozen in his decisive moment forever. It is such an overused image to represent Italy, that I appreciated taking the time to look at it, admire the precise and masterfully rendered details of the body, such as the veins running down his arm, and the intense emotional tension in his gaze- a look so piercing, focused, and wrought with concern, that you half expect to look in that direction and see Goliath. It was interesting to later discover the underlying political symbolism that was intended in the David- as a representation of the small Florentine Republic standing its ground in the face of other surrounding city states- his eyes icing down Rome.

Since lines were incredibly long for all other monuments, my cousin Maria Teresa suggested I go to visit The Magi Chapel in the Palazzo Medici Riccardi. It is a small chapel, covered in frescoes, by Benozzo Gozzoli, depicting the procession of the three kings on their way to Bethlehem to visit the baby Jesus. The frescoes are painted in breathtaking detail, such as the fine details of their period clothing, and the portraits, which include prominent members of the Medici family are gorgeous. I was entranced by this small jewel of a chapel and tried to take in every inch again and again- an artistic binge fest for my eyes.

After four days in Florence, it was time to leave. I was sad to say 'goodbye' to my cousins, but knew that I would come again, now that I live so close. I was then off to Udine, to visit my grandma, aunt, and other family there. I settled into a quiet routine for the next three days that generally went like this: after sleeping in a bit, I'd meet my grandma and go to the centro. Once there, we'd head to Piazza San Giacomo and into a chocolate shop on the corner, that served the thickest and tastiest hot chocolate I've ever had. It tastes as if a whole chocolate bar was melted down with a touch of milk and beaten constantly until poured to keep it liquid and light. Although they served it in cappuccino cups, we stuck to the espresso size- we didn't want to ruin our appetite for lunch, after all. Needless to say, I thoroughly scraped the inside of the cup, to savor every last drop. Post-hot chocolate, we picked a cafe on the piazza and plopped ourselves down for an hour. We chatted and I sketched, while watching different scenes come together and break apart on the piazza. The Italian piazza, is a big communal porch, where you are never rushed out and you can take your time to watch life go by. It was great to catch up with my grandma and hear her recount stories from earlier days.

The thickest and most delicious hot chocolate ever. Willy Wonka would approve.

My grandma

Abandoned easel with painting in the piazza. Perhaps the artist was on a short coffee break?

Church of San Giacomo, Udine

Painting on the ceiling of the Church of San Giacomo- reminded me of the Dorothea Lange photograph  from the Great Depression.
After our morning outing, we returned home for lunch and a rest. I took some time in the afternoons to visit a few things around Udine, including the Church of San Giacomo, which was decorated with beautiful Baroque frescoes. At night, I got to see my uncles, aunts, and cousins and caught up on all the latest adventures. I could have repeated the routine for quite a while longer, but unfortunately, vacation ended and I had to return to Istanbul.

White asparagus! They were in season and are grown near Udine. It was my first time having them. They are much thicker than the green kind, but taste the same. Spring vegetables- yum! 

In both Florence and Udine, I was struck by how small and comfortable each city was. I was also shocked at how close the countryside was to each and how easy it is to get away from the chaos of the city. Even from the city, one could look out and see hills and mountains on the the outskirts. Life felt a little slower (probably because I was also on vacation), and I appreciated the pace. Biking was easy and cars stopped for you, both cities were very walkable and scenic, with history and art at every corner, not to mention great little wine bars. I was even taken aback by the fact that both cities not only recycled, but composted!  Being in these cities, made me realize that I miss all these things in Istanbul, and that although I am enjoying the experience of being here in many ways, it is not an ideal place for me. Getting off the bus and wheeling my suitcase through the dense crowds back home was almost heartbreaking. When I finally made it, after unloading my suitcase of all the Italian goodies I'd brought- wine, chocolate, and cheese- Jeremy offered to give me a massage. "Wow!" he said, "You don't really have a lot of knots." Sigh. Yes, vacation was good to me, and especially a vacation where I was able to  reconnect with family and turn down the speed of my life to the Italian pace; that of sitting back in the piazza, enjoying the warm spring sun on my face, and sipping a spritz.

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