Sunday, 12 February: Grazie, Firenze!

Salve, tutti! You’ve reached the blog of Alex Gruber, self-professed bibliophile, Catholic fanboy, and St. Norbert College student studying abroad in Toledo, Spain, for the spring semester of 2017. For those of you who already know this information, mi dispiace (sorry)! Let’s get on with the actual blog.

You may have noticed that I used Italian instead of Spanish in the title and first paragraph. That’s because I was lucky enough to travel to the incredible Italian peninsula and spend the past weekend in Firenze, or Florence as it’s known to us Anglophones. First, though, here’s a recap of my “regular” week in Toledo.

Once my last class on Thursday ended at 7:35 p.m. (still a bit late for an early bird like myself), I was officially done with my fourth week of classes at La Fundación José Ortega y Gasset – Gregorio Marañón and with my fifth week in Europe. I cannot believe how quickly time has passed and how quickly it is still going. In talking with friends about my travel plans, I’ve realized that the rest of my semester is basically set in terms of travel. The only ambiguous period left is the week between the end of my semester here (April 28) and my flight back to the United States (May 6), and I know that week will come quicker than I expect. I am so grateful to everyone on both sides of the Atlantic who has contributed to the increíbles y asombrantes (incredible and amazing) experiences I have had so far. From the bottom of my heart, thank you/gracias/grazie/merci beacoup/obrigado/ありがとう!

This past Monday, I started my first full shifts at the Biblioteca de Castilla-La Mancha and the English practice groups it is my responsibility (and joy!) to facilitate during them. On Mondays and Tuesdays, I meet with individuals between 14 and 25 years old (jóvenes, or youths) at 5 p.m. and with people between 8 and 13 years old (infantiles, or children) at 6:30 p.m.

My first session on Monday was, I have to admit, a bit rough. I had prepared a presentation to introduce myself, get to know the group members a bit better, and see which methods and mediums for learning and practicing English preferred. I didn’t realize that doing so would only take about 30 minutes of the 45-60 minutes for which the groups are scheduled. I asked some questions about life in Spain and tried to get the others to ask me about the United States or suggest certain activities or themes for our sessions, but this still didn’t take up much time, causing me to become even more nervous and apologize repeatedly to my group members.

Being a perfectionist and an organizer means that I do not react well to surprises or mistakes and especially not both together. It wasn’t that I broke down or shouted, but my confidence was definitely shaken after I ended the session for the first group around 5:45 p.m.

The next session provided some gratefully welcomed reassurance. The eight children who showed up at 6:30 were a bit shy but quickly became more energized and talkative. They asked a lot of questions about the United States, which helped the time pass quickly. By the time that session had ended at 7:30, I was more confident in myself and in my ideas for future sessions. I worked on my presentation (about food, my favorite!) until 8, when my shift ended and I was free to return home.

My grupo juvenil on Tuesday went a bit better than the first, probably because there were only two people and they were a bit more talkative. I did have to book it to the library, however, since this group also starts at 5 and my one class on Tuesdays has an afternoon session that ends at 4:45 p.m. My second grupo infantil never showed up! Only one person had signed up for that session, so I’m guessing they either lost interest or didn’t want to be the only person in the group. I worked on and finished my comida presentation for the next week and headed for home at 9 p.m.

Because I am writing this blog post so much later than usual, I really cannot give any specifics on what I did Wednesday of this week. Disculpas (apologies)!

On Thursday, my art class visited the Sinagoga del Tránsito, a Jewish worship house begun in 1357 by the Jewish population of Toledo. Its date of construction is significant, because Toledo had been reconquered all the way back in 1085 and, since then, the construction of new places of worship for Muslims and Jews had been prohibited. However, Samuel ha Levi Abulafia, the almojarife (treasurer) of King Pedro I “the Cruel” of Castilla (r. 1350-1369), asked permission of the king to build the synagogue and received it for his past services to the crown. The synagogue was later converted into a church dedicated to the Assumption (or “transition”) of Mary into heaven (hence the current name) and then restored to its original condition as much as possible and made into a museum.

The western wall of the synagogue, opposite the Wall of Aaron.

The synagogue, unlike many other buildings of the time, has no interior pillars supporting the roof. As a result, the roof had to be extremely light and thus was made of two laters of wood. The interior layer, visible from inside, enchants the eye through the nudillos (knots) made by the joining of precisely-cut beams of wood.

The rest of the synagogue certainly deserves comment, too, of course. The wall of Aaron (the brother of Moses and first Jewish priest), which contained the Torah, is richly decorated due to its important status and sits opposite a wall with many windows that serve to illuminate it and again highlight its significance. An upper level (tribuna) held Jewish women, as separation of the sexes was common in Jewish and Muslim places of worship. Most synagogues have one floor with separate spaces for men and women within it, making La Sinagoga del Tránsito a unique building.

The Wall of Aaron of the synagogue.

La Tribuna de las Mujeres overlooks the main floor of the synagogue.

When Friday came, my host father Paco was nice enough to drive me to the train station of Toledo for my train to Madrid at 6:25. I left Spain around 11 a.m. and headed to Pisa, Italy, from which I had bought a bus ticket to Florence. The Pisa Airport, at which I arrived around 1:50 p.m., was charmingly small—dare I say that travel cliché, even quaint—but the bus company I had chartered was not available there due to its bus being out of service. Thankfully, there was another bus service that left only ten minutes later than my scheduled departure, and the empty kiosk of my original bus company had directions for obtaining a refund (which I received a week later—hooray!). I arrived at the Florence train station around 4 p.m. Friday afternoon, then walked from it to the apartment where I would be staying for the weekend. On the way, I passed by some of Florence’s many monuments, walked by the River Arno, and crossed the river on the Ponte Vecchio, Florence’s most famous bridge. It has retained houses and shops on its structure (a common feature until the 1800s); most of the shops sell jewelry and display it to the wide eyes of the numerous tourists who cross the bridge each day.

I came to the apartment just as Pam, the woman who was allowing Patrick and me to stay there for the weekend, was leaving for a bite to eat. Before doing that, she took me up three floors and showed me the rooms. Let me tell you, folks: I was dumbfounded. I had expected a typical American apartment with bedroom, bathroom, and kitchen/dining area and was grateful to have it for the weekend. What I walked into was an assortment of spacious quarters that constituted just one section of an Italian palazzo (palace). A bathroom the size of my bedroom in Spain (and only slightly smaller than my bedroom in the U.S.), a dining room with what looked to be the Mirror of Erised casually standing in it, a beautiful kitchen (with a basket of fruit, a box of cereal, and a fridge filled with milk, cheese, and prosciutto!), and wifi: it was better than anything I could have expected or hoped for. I was touched by the generosity Pam showed us this night and through the whole weekend; she really made our weekend that much better!

A few hours after Patrick and I arrived, two more people came to the apartment. Somphors and Seiha are two students at a Swiss boarding school as part of an educational foundation established by the family who owns the palazzo. They were on the midterm break for their winter term, so we got to talk with and get to know them over the weekend, starting with a delicious dinner of lasagna and salad on Friday night. It was wonderful not only getting to learn a bit about the European educational system and Cambodia but also getting to meet two fantastic and friendly people. Thank you, Seiha and Somphors!

On Saturday, Patrick and I visited the Uffizi Gallery, one of the largest and most famous galleries of Renaissance art and classical statuary. We arrived just before it opened at 8:30, so we were one of the first people in the building! Even with some rooms closed for remodeling, we still spent four hours in the gallery, and we could certainly have spent more! As in the Prado, the sheer density of artistic treasures amazed me. My favorite section came right at the beginning: the Uffizi also has a collection of Byzantine-style artwork, and I am a huge fan of the iconographic aspects of this art.

The Uffizi Gallery takes up this entire building, which, as you can see, extends behind the camera. There’s a lot of art there!

One of the main galleries of the Uffizi.

After the walk through the Uffizi, headed back to the apartment and made lunch. One of my favorite things about the weekend was that we made almost all of our meals en casa (in house). Using the food provided for us, we made several types of pasta and even bruschetta (credit for that goes to Patrick) during our time in Florence, getting a taste of Italian cuisine without breaking our budgets.

Later Saturday afternoon, we accompanied Somphors and Seiha to a movie theater in Florence and, along with Pam and one of her friends, saw La La Land. I really enjoyed the movie, in and of itself but also because it was in English with Italian subtitles (no dubbing, yay!) and because the theater was a magnificent venue. Created in the 1920s and in the Art Deco style popular at that time, it is one of the few theaters of its kind remaining in Florence; most have closed due to the appearance of newer cinemas. I do not know how other United States citizens would react to an Art Deco movie theater in their town, but I for one would jump at the chance to see a film there and I hope that the theater in Florence survives for coming generations to enjoy.

When Sunday came, Patrick and I again left a bit before eight in order to make the opening of the Florence cathedral complex for the day. The Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore is nothing short of amazing. Begun in 1296 and finished (for the most part) in 1436, it displays both Gothic and Renaissance characteristics, as well as a striking exterior of pink, green, and white stone. The cathedral also boasts a dome with a richly decorated interior from Filippo Brunelleschi, a bell tower of over 400 steps, a baptistery with an exterior similar to that of the cathedral but a luminous and golden Byzantine interior, and a museum displaying former components of and historical information on the church. Though we were not able to climb the Dome (reservations are required and were completely unavailable for the day—¡que lástima!), we still had a fantastic and awe-inspiring journey through the other facets of the cathedral, including Mass at 9 a.m.

The Baptistery of Saint John in front of the cathedral.

The view from the bell tower of the cathedral.

The bell tower: over 400 steps to the top!

Mass was celebrated in one of the apses (the two horizontal arms of the cross shape in which most Christian churches are designed) of the cathedral. Pamphlets on the pews provided the readings in several languages and the Mass responses in Italian. It actually was not that difficult to follow the flow of the service, say the responses, and even pick up a little of the homily: Italian is strikingly similar to Spanish, even more than I expected with them both being Romance languages. By no means am I fluent in Italian, however!

When Patrick and I stopped back at the apartment for a quick bite and some water, Pam told us that there was a chocolate festival going on in the Plaza of the Annunciation due to the close proximity of Saint Valentine’s Day. Obviously, we made our way there as soon as we could! I enjoyed several free samples of chocolate, purchased a few bars, and indulged in a cup of strawberries covered in molten chocolate and topped with whipped cream. The strawberries made it healthy, right?

After the chocolate treat, we visited a museum right on the square. The Gallery of the Ospedale degli Innocenti is dedicated to the history and artifacts of the Hospital of the same name (Hospital of the Innocents), which took in and cared for abandoned children starting in the 1400s and still provides social services, though not in this building anymore. It contains artwork and altarpieces from the Renaissance and exhibits prime examples of architecture from that era, as well.

The view from the museum. You can see the Great Synagogue’s dome in the background.

Once done with the museum, we walked to the Great Synagogue of Florence, built between 1874 and 1882 as a symbol of the emancipation declared in the Grand Duchy of Tuscany (of which Florence was then part) in 1848; this declaration put Jews on an equal footing with other people on a communal and individual basis. The synagogue amazed me with its architectural elegance and beauty; a blend of Italian and Moorish styles, it reminded me of much of the architecture of Toledo and brought to mind the terms I’ve learned in my art class. Overall, I am very glad to have made the trip to the synagogue and viewed the physical expression of another religion’s faith.

By the time we arrived at the apartment, we were ready to tuck into a dinner of handmade pizza bought at a local supermarket; it was stupendo! We then went out for one more walk in search of that most Italian of desserts, gelato. Before deciding on one of the many locations we saw, we walked up the hill behind the palazzo of our apartment to a plaza, where we were treated to a magnificent view of Florence at night. Even further uphill we encountered and enter the Church (and basilica) of San Miniato al Monte, a Romanesque edifice with a gorgeous interior and exterior in an Eastern Christian style (San Miniato was from Armenia). The patio in front of the church also provided a marvelous view of the city.

At the bottom of the hill, we stopped at a gelato shop we had passed on our way up, Il Gelato di Filo (The Gelato of the Wire, according to Google Translate). Considering all the walking I had done over the weekend, especially up the hill to the church, I decided to treat myself to a cone with three flavors of gelato (which only came to 3.50 euro – ¡qué bueno!). I had stracciatella (very similar to chocolate chip), crema di filo (the house special: a good taste that I still now cannot describe), and another crema flavor that was a mix of chocolate and vanilla. For the minutes that I took to consume the cone and its contents, I was in frozen-food heaven.

After the gelato, I basically got ready for and headed to bed, since I had a flight back to Madrid at 7 a.m. the next morning. Little did I know what kind of day was in store for me as I went to sleep. That, of course, was a Monday, so you’ll have to read my next blog post to find out what happened. Don’t worry, though: everything turned out fine in the end (if you couldn’t tell by the fact that I am still writing posts, if a bit later than usual)!

Well, there’s another week done and gone abroad. As usual, I thank my lucky stars (and, more importantly, God) for the fact that I am here in the first place and that I have had the opportunity to go to, see, taste, learn, and experience so many incredible, interesting, and invaluable things. May you find the extraordinary in the ordinary over the next week, too, reader! Until then, ciao!

Leave a Reply