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narrativa e di portafoglio

narrative and portfolio of Ian Siegel

I just spent a good portion of the day Sunday writing this post, but out of excitement I went into such detail that I was on track to write a full-length memoir of my weekend. I’m going to try this again now, but hopefully it will come out to something more like a blog entry. The complete version will be available in hardcover at Barnes & Noble in January of 2011.

The title of this weekend’s post (“Make No Small Plans”) shares a title with my first post from Rome, but looking back on the ambitious endeavors of the past few days, this post probably deserves the title even more.

A Different City Every Night” is a reference to lyrics at the end of the chorus of the popular song Billionaire, which can be seen here on YouTube, and became our theme song of the weekend because of the city-hopping nature of our trip.

The plan was conceived in the kitchen of our dorm on Wednesday night while Neil, Brad, and I were cooking dinner for ourselves. Our idea was to make it out to Venice, which would take us to Florence and possibly Bologna along the way. I pulled out my Florence & Tuscany guidebook, which has a pretty helpful diagram of public transportation connections between most Italian towns and cities that were worth visiting. According to the diagram, Venice had a direct connection to Milan—the design capital of Italy, and probably a must-see for a group of architecture students—so immediately Neil jumped online to look into how feasible it would be to get there.

Our trip to Venice snowballed into a bigger, more ambitious plan:

SIENA – FLORENCE – VENICE – MILAN – BOLOGNA.

Five cities in a weekend.

As soon as the plan was established, Adam R (nicknamed Raptor based on his last name, Rapciewicz, in order to distinguish him from the other two Adams on the trip) walked into the kitchen and asked the question of the week, “What are you guys thinking of doing this weekend?” We finally had an answer to give! Interested in touring the big cities of north Italy with us, our trio was up to four.

Thursday
Siena—Firenze

Ready for adventure: Brad, Raptor, Neil, and Ian

We bought our bus tickets to Firenze (the Italian word for Florence) for €7.10 and train tickets from Florence to Venice for €22.50 from the tourist’s office in the Campo, where our class was about to meet for a tour of the Palazzo Pubblico, the civic building at the head of the Campo. As soon as we were dismissed for the weekend, our group rushed to the bus station to catch the first one we could. We got there just in time and, according to plan, were scheduled to arrive in Florence at 8:40pm. On the ride we passed my guidebook around to pick out what we wanted to see there, and then used the included map to chart out the shortest route we could take to see everything we wanted (once we arrived, we would only have five hours until our train to Venice at 1:50am).

Florence felt like the middle-ground between Siena and Rome: generally narrow streets, sometimes without sidewalks, but buildings were generally taller and on the street I could feel the hustle and bustle of Rome. The city also looked a little bit more like Rome because many of the city’s monuments were built during the Renaissance, whereas Siena still looks and feels the way it did during the 13th-century medieval era.

The bus dropped us off right across the street from Santa Maria Novella, whose façade was one in a series of many of Alberti’s designs for basilica entrances, in search of a “pure” way to justify the form of the basilica’s section. We saw this building in our history of architecture class, so on top of the excitement of just being in Florence, I was psyched to actually see this thing in real-life.

From there we continued along our route down a street with the Duomo visible at the end—I was so excited to see it that I actually jumped in the air and clicked my heels together, even with a 25-pound backpack on my back.


We found ourselves at the Palazzo Medici-Ricardo, the textbook palazzo example (literally, it was in our history textbooks), the residence and workplace of the affluent family of doctors who fueled the art of the Renaissance with their commissions. I never liked palazzos when we looked at them in history class but this trip has changed that, probably because I could experience the building as a building and not just a series of images on a screen.

From there we just had to walk a block to the Duomo—which of course fascinated me in history class as somebody interested in church design. The church had been built without a plan for its dome, which would be the largest spanning dome in existence during its construction in 1400, and for many years the church stood finished but topless. Filippo Brunelleschi, a Florentine who grew up within sight of the church during construction, entered a competition to design the bronze doors for the Baptistery—just across from the Duomo’s entrance—but lost to Lorenzo Ghiberti, who won that commission and would become preoccupied for most of the rest of his life designing things like doors that would be cast in bronze, which bought Brunelleschi the time he needed to make a proposal for the dome and become the capomaestro (or, master builder) of the project, designing a fair amount of the tools and machinery to erect the dome without need for a central scaffolding system. I read on the bus to Florence that when Michelangelo would begin work on the design for the dome for St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, he looked at Brunelleschi’s dome and state “I’ll make its sister—bigger, but not more beautiful.”

I turned the corner to look up at the church and it felt like it smacked me right in the face with its size—I almost fell down on the ground. I couldn’t believe I was there.

From there we breezed through the Piazza Repubblico (an open square that I just learned today was established in 1860 when Florence became the capital of Italy for eleven years, and not during the Renaissance. The same goes for the façade of the Duomo, it hadn’t been clad until that year.) and then through the piazza outside the Uffizi Gallery over to the Ponte Vecchio, where we watched an approaching lightning storm:

Then we crossed the bridge and saw this statue, which looked like it was fist-pumping, so of course we all took turns posing for the camera like Jersey Shore guidos on spring break.

Over the course of about two hours, we saw a good deal of Florence and had seen a lot of the buildings we wanted to see from the outside. We knew from the start that we would be back in the city as a full class, so we didn’t feel like we missed out at all—we had a good grasp of what Florence felt like. We found dinner (and gelato) and by then the storm photographed above had made its way above our heads. After getting just a little bit wet, we were able to flag down a taxi to the train station.

All in all, Florence was awesome, and probably my favorite city from this weekend.

Friday
Firenze—Venezia

Our night in Florence ended at midnight at a train station out of town, where we sat on a bench and played I Spy as we waited for our train to arrive at 1:50. When the train finally came we were happy to see it was a train with cabins; we would find an empty one and sleep through the night until our arrival in Venice at 5:30am.

But when we got on board it was something of a nightmare—the train car smelled of pungent body odor, each cabin was completely full, and even the corridors outside the cabins were overcrowded with people trying to sleep on tiny pull-out seats from the wall. Some even were trying to sleep on the floor. We walked up and down the entire train about three times looking for anyplace comfortable; after each pass it seemed less and less likely that we would sleep on this train at all. This trip was going to suck.

I didn't have any pictures of the corridors of the train itself, but this image is pretty close--a diagram of a ship that transported African slaves to Europe and America during the 17th century.

By some miracle Neil and Raptor looked into a dark cabin window toward the back of the train and thought they only saw one person sleeping in it. When they opened the door they were surprised to find they were wrong—the car was empty, except for somebody’s suitcase and denim jacket. We got a cabin to ourselves! (He came back for his belongings after we had all fallen asleep, but it was a decent price to pay for a private cabin and a chance to sleep).

The cabin we never thought we'd find

Unbeknownst to us, our train would split into two trains at a station just outside of Venice, and the back half (of course, where we were sitting) would continue on to a different city altogether.

Luckily for us, I got out of our cabin to ask a similarly frantic woman who spoke a little bit of English what the heck was going on, and we jumped off to watch the front of the train pulling away for Santa Lucia. Also luckily for us, another train on another platform left for Santa Lucia in about ten minutes. What could have been a monkey wrench was just a minor hiccup.

It was pretty cool walking out of the train station in Venice at 5:30 in the morning to see a Venetian waterway where a two-lane city street would have been in any other city. The city was lifeless, so we had the rare chance to explore it in its emptiness.

We took our time exploring side streets and bridges and eventually found ourselves at San Marco (Venice’s Duomo), just off the Grand Canal—without a map, since no place that sold or distributed them would open for another four hours. Hours later we would return to the same square to find it bathed in sunlight and swarming with visitors and tourists. That’s when the four of us would take a romantic gondola ride and go inside San Marco, then find lunch and decide it was time to move on to the next city.

An empty piazza outside San Marco

When the city was finally beginning to wake up, we found a small café where we ordered some pastries and coffee for breakfast. That’s where I took my first ever airport shower—after eating, I took my bag of toiletries and the ShamWow-style bath towel from our week at the asylum into the café bathroom to brush my teeth and wash my face. As awkward as it was to use the bathroom for face-washing and teeth-brushing, I walked out of there feeling like I may as well have slept a full night in a hotel bed—I felt great. (Unfortunately, that fresh feeling would wear off as quickly as the caffeine from the coffee.)

So we all took our little airport showers—Neil actually brushed his teeth outside at a public fountain—and we walked some more of the city.

My evaluation of Venice It’s a beautiful city, until you “get it.” No place else in the world can you cross a bridge to turn down a cozy side street to find it terminate at a picturesque gondola waterway. Unlike Florence and Rome, there aren’t many points of destination that you absolutely need to see before you leave, and because of that, there aren’t primary avenues that make circulating about the city easy. All the streets twist and turn at will to the way the city organically grew, which makes for a perfect place to walk with a girlfriend or newly-wed spouse. Four twenty-something-year-old dudes, on the other hand, tend not to find that same excitement in the city (although our romantic gondola ride was pretty excellent).

Interesting observation about Venice—I noticed on the cozy little bridges over the canal that there were more girls taking pictures of the guys they were with than there were guys taking pictures of their girls. I can’t say this with total confidence, but I have a feeling Venice meant more to the girls, and they were actually more excited to be there. Yet, out of excitement, they were the photographers, even though I’m sure they would love more than anything to look back on photos of themselves in the city after they’ve returned.

Something that I did not tire of, however, was that the city was not Renaissance, but Byzantine. I absolutely love Rome and Florence because of their Renaissance character, but Venice was a refreshing change from that. As a port city with waterways instead of cobblestone-paved streets, the Venetians were seafaring peoples who were known for their advanced maritime technologies. This gave them the advantage of trade with cultures east of Italy in the Mediterranean Sea; particularly Byzantine (modern-day Istanbul), whose culture and architecture heavily influenced the character of Venice. While the entire city looks different from other Italian cities, it is most evident in San Marco, which is decked out in some of the most impressive mosaics you will ever see (not just in the quality of the work, but also in the sheer quantity of area covered in these tiny tiles. Maybe there were a few good things that came of slavery…), and most of this mosaic was colored gold, a signature of Byzantine art.

By about 2pm we were exhausted (we had walked around the city for almost nine hours by then, and on about two hours of uneasy train sleep) and decided we were ready to move on. We charted out where we had been on Brad’s map (he bought one when the souvenir stands opened around 9) to find we had seen most of the city, and just needed to make it back to the train station we started at—which was actually pretty far away. As I mentioned before, Venice’s street system isn’t as conducive to point-A-to-point-B travel as most cities, so our walk back took us close to two hours of fighting with the urban fabric. Of course, our undersleptness probably didn’t help matters.

Undersleptness is now a word.

Venezia—Milano

After some time fighting our way back, we arrived back at Venezia Santa Lucia train station around 4pm to find a train leaving for Milan in about twenty minutes. SCORE. Bought tickets for €14.55 each and passed out on the train before it even left the station.

I was especially looking forward to spending some time in Milan, even though I didn’t really know about anything there that I wanted to see. I had heard that it was the design capital of Italy, so that excited me to begin with. This train ride was beautifully uneventful compared to our train to Venice, and after a three-hour nap we arrived.

Against our hopes for our weekend plan, the first thing we did upon arrival in Milan was book a hotel room for the night. We felt all cool for roughing the night on a sleeper train the night before, but nobody wanted to feel as exhausted again as we had that day. By the time we were checked in, showered, and ready for dinner, it was close to 9pm. The hotel concierge recommended a street nearby the city’s “central park,” where restaurants stayed open fairly late and there were some bars worth checking out.

Dinner was the best meal we ate all weekend—we found a pizzeria that served the best pizza I had ever eaten in my life. The Milanese nightlife was also really neat to observe, the interiors of some of the bars we stopped in would rival those of most American nightclubs. Everybody also dressed really well; we were probably the only ones who weren’t wearing designer shoes. Everybody also looked like they were having a good time, and I wished multiple times that I knew enough Italian to start conversation beyond “hello,” “please,” and “thank you.”

We also unanimously agreed that the girls in this city were to die for. Everybody was a supermodel. I joked that if I had to pick any city in the world where I had to marry the next girl to turn the corner, it would have to be Milan.

The next morning we woke up and did the little bit of sightseeing we wanted to—particularly, Milan’s Duomo and Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, an intersection of two city streets adjacent to the Duomo which had a cast-iron and glass vaulted ceiling and dome constructed over top of it in 1865, and now its ground floor is home to several multiple high-end retail and eating establishments. Like our night in Florence, we had already picked out a train out of Milan, and had more than enough time to take our time seeing the things we wanted to see.

Much like my first encounter with the Florence Cathedral, the Milanese Duomo was a smack in the face as soon as we emerged right beside it out of the subway. The detail in the sculptures and Gothic ornament of the façade was breathtaking, and the great height of the church of course contributed to the wow-factor. The inside was similarly beautifully detailed; I was impressed with the amount of detail put into the infill surface between the vaults all the way on the ceiling.

There’s just nothing like a good Gothic cathedral.

Facade at entry

Bronze doors

After that we crossed the street to check out the Galleria, which was also kind of neat once you stood directly under the grand glass dome at the intersection of the two corridors and looked up.

Getting to the center, however, was harder than it sounds…

Shenanigan Number One: Photobomb

A circular mosaic marks the location on the ground of the dome above, and standing on it was a woman, probably in her mid thirties, dressed in a casual sleeveless sundress, posing for her husband’s $900 Nikon DSLR camera as if it was a wedding photoshoot. Their four-year-old daughter, buckled into her stroller, was pushed off to the side. He would snap 10-15 photos of his wife, and she would change her pose slightly for another 10-15 shots, and then change her pose again. This confused us, because sure, the space was rather beautiful, but we all agreed that it was no background for a photoshoot like this. At ground level, the space looked a lot like a shopping mall. And of course, this was all taking place right at the center of the circle, where we wanted to stand so very very badly.

Eventually she moved out of the circle, and we had our quick chance to move in and snap our own photos straight up at the glass and iron dome. I suppose it was worth the wait, the effect of the perfect circle overhead was stimulating to a group of architecture students.

When the direction of our gaze returned to eye level, we noticed that our photographer friend wasn’t finished yet—he was setting up a tripod. Not even a small, portable one, we’re talking a full-on tripod.

After it was assembled—by now, we had moved to the edge of the circle to let others experience the thrill of standing in the center—he pressed the shutter release button and proceeded to the center of the circle so that he could have a photo there, too.

I couldn’t believe it—any other guy visiting Milan with his wife would ask her to snap the picture of him in the shopping mall, especially after he spent the past fifteen minutes taking her glamour shots. I think he earned that. But not him. No way. He brought his tripod. He tried one photo, looked at it and seemed dissatisfied, and set it up for another try.

Neil and Raptor formed a quick plan: “Neil—pretend you’re taking a bunch of pictures of me under the dome.”

While the tripod man was setting up his second shot, the spot under the dome was vacant—so Raptor went and posed right at the center point, where the photographer would want to be in a moment. Neil hovered around Raptor, snapping shot after shot from different angles, and Raptor would change his pose every couple of seconds.

By now tripod man had noticed the new photoshoot that had intercepted his own, and stood patiently, waiting for his second chance at a self-portrait under the dome. But Neil and Raptor kept on, knowing they were pressing his buttons. Brad and I laughed from the sidelines. Probably out of spite, Neil got this close to the man’s tripod:

PHOTOBOMBED

At which point the man began to disassemble his tripod and put away his camera.

Shenanigan Number Two: How to Gypsy a Gypsy happened immediately afterward, we made our way back to the piazza out front of the Duomo, where we knew from our earlier visit of the high concentration of gypsies (gypsies galore!) trying to swindle tourists out of their pocket change. Here, for the first time, we saw popcorn gypsies, who would offer an unsuspecting tourist a small handful of birdseed and corn kernels to feed to the birds. If he took the handful and fed the pigeons, he would then demand about €10 for the seed.

Our first day in Rome, Raptor fell victim to the string gypsy, who were also prevalent in the piazza of the Milanese Duomo. The string gypsy approaches a tourist and acts friendly with him and offers him a handshake. Once he has a grip on the tourist’s hand, he presents him with the gift of a cheap string bracelet, which he proceeds to tie onto the tourist’s wrist, and then charges him €10.

As seasoned tourists, by now we are learned in the ways of the gypsy, and decided it was our turn to gypsy the gypsy. (By the way, we have been using the word “gypsy” as a verb since our first days in Rome.)

The first thing I did was completely empty my pocket, especially my change so that it wouldn’t jingle as I walked. I walked ahead of the group, who stood back at a distance and photographed as it all went down. One of them approached me and said something in Italian. Trying to look as touristy as possible, I just looked back at him as confused as I could and pretended to try to form words together—“Uhh, no Italiano?”

He switched to English. “Hey buddy how are you. You from Africa?”

Clearly, no. I am not from Africa. “Uhh, no, the US.”

“Ah okay buddy. I’m from Senegal. You know where that is?”

“Uhh, Yeah, I do.”

“What’s your name buddy?”

“Ian.”

“Nice to meet you, my name is (I didn’t understand what he said, but it sounded like it was from Senegal).” And he went in for the handshake. The clincher. I accepted.

“Here you go, I give you a gift from Senegal.” And he proceeded to tie his cheap little string-thing on my wrist. Score.

“Oh, thank you.”

He took a pair of fingernail clippers out of his pocket to clip off the dangling excess string.

“I help you out buddy, you have ten euro?”

“Ten euro? Uhh, no, I don’t have any cash on me, just my credit card.” I turned my empty pocket inside-out to prove I had no change for him.

“No money?”

“No, nothing…I’m sorry.”

And then he walked away. Gypsied.

And so ended our Milanese shenanigans. We descended into the Metro station, laughed about what just happened, and headed on for Bologna.

Milano-Bologna

Bologna was really just a stop we needed to make in order to make it back to Florence; there were no direct trains from Milan. I had been told that some of the best food in Italy is in Bologna, so we picked trains that would allow us about three hours to explore a little bit of the city. Unfortunately for us, we arrived around 3pm, the start of siesta, and our train was close to 6, right before all the good restaurants opened again.

In search of a place to grab something to eat, we walked down the city’s main street toward the center. What stood out to me the most was that the sidewalks were tucked inside an arcade that ran along the street, which creates a covered walkway, a distinct sectional condition in relation to the street, and it allows the floor material to be a smooth, polished finish because of its reduced direct exposure to the elements.

After an hour and a half we found some food at a small café, but we’re pretty sure the pasta we ordered was microwaved, and the worst food we had eaten all weekend (it still wasn’t bad, it just didn’t meet the expectations of “best food in Italy.”) What redeemed the experience, though, was a gelato place next door called StickHouse, which served some really delicious frozen gelato on popsicle sticks. I saw one that looked chocolatey but wasn’t called chocolate, so I tried it out to find it was a hazelnut/Nutella flavored gelato inside a chocolate shell. Good call on my part and good save on Bologna’s.

From Bologna we caught our train back to Florence and then our bus back to Siena. We walked through the Campo to get back to our dorm, and for a few minutes we threw off our backpacks and sat down in it to comment on how we couldn’t believe all the places we had been and the things we had seen in just fifty hours—around the same time two days prior we boarded the bus for Florence.

Siena had never felt so much like home.

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