Trains in Italy–Allie and Cara S., June 30, 2014

Cara: I don’t want to speak for Allie, but for me, trains are one of the best things about Italy. Yes, they’re a convenient way to get from point A to point B, but it’s more than that. Trains are themselves a destination of sorts. What I mean is, during our six weeks in Italy, trains have served as the backdrop from some of our greatest adventures. I think trains are a reminder that even though life often feels like a series of destinations, of high points, we do some of our best living in the journeying between said points.  As many amazing sights and experiences as we’ve had in Italy, some of my fondest memories were from our train rides. I feel like it was on the train that we really began to realize how amazing this group of people was. Don’t you think?

Allie: I totally agree. I’ll admit I’ve never given much thought to trains on the grand scheme of things. They’re often times cramped, perpetually smelly, and covered with a thin layer of grime– though inexplicably I’ve acquired an odd affectionate for them. They’ve become inclusive spaces separate from the hussle and bussle of field trips, and surprisingly I’ve come to look forward to hours spent clustered in groups and laughing over whatever ridiculous conversation. They have a certain mysterious Train Magic (which I’ve decided to capitalize), that seems to coax out some of the best stories, the hardest laughs, and the most memorable moments in Learning Tuscany.

Cara: One of my favorite memories was the first ride back from Florence. It was within the first five days of the trip, and we were just getting to know each other. Allie and I sat with Lauren J and Anjali, and without iPhones and Internet to entertain us, we had to simply entertain each other. We were perhaps tentative at first, each person holding back as they tried to gauge the others. That was the joy of the train, though; we had nowhere else to be in that moment, and that leant itself to the building of a quick but strong intimacy between us. I’m maybe a little embarrassed to admit it, but we laughed so hard and so loudly that before we knew it, we’d cleared our car. That ride was also the first time that we played the exquisite corpse game, in which each person draws part of the body without being able to see what everyone else has drawn, and it quickly became a huge part of our collective friendship. It seems silly, but that was ride was as significant an event to me as the preceding visit to Florence had been. That trip was definitely the first reminder that trains rides are more than just down time between adventures. They are adventures in and of themselves, and because they are largely unplanned, they often because some of the most hilarious and grand adventures we have.

Allie: It’s hard to transcribe deeply personal moments, especially when they happen so organically and on such an unexpected mode of transportation. A missed train, aggressive encounters with jaded ticketmasters, and general shenanigans found our group browbeaten and tired, trundling closer and closer to our first truly independent excursion in Cinque Terre. We gathered round in a mostly empty car, the sun setting on the water flashing briefly between subterranean tunnels– it provided a fittingly dramatic backdrop for a sudden roundtable discussion of our personal lives and family history. We listened as each person described themselves, at first in embarrassment and finally with earnest intensity, until we were all thoroughly invested. We shared stories for hours, and all at once we had arrived at our destination (maybe even a little too soon).

At the risk of being needlessly dramatic, I’d say that we arrived on that train differently than when we got off. The train, despite its griminess, had subtly changed the way we interacted– and if that isn’t a prime example of Train Magic, I don’t know what is. Not all train rides were immediately beautiful, transformative moments of friendship; in fact, more often than not they were smelly, and gross, and squished. Many times they just seemed an outlet for our silliness. Sometimes, though, train rides provided a space for impulsive and wonderful moments.

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Cara: One of the only salves on the festering wound that was my and Allie’s trip to Rome was our train ride home. Having swallowed the bitter realization that we’d botched our trip and the only solution was the head home, Allie and I hung our heads and bought our tickets for Castiglion. The funny thing was, the ride home was one of the best memories of the whole trip. I think that the whole experience with Ricardo (see Allie’s previous post) had really stripped us of our romantic delusions about the trip, and in the end we were only really left with each other. On the one hand, that could have turned out badly, and all the stress of our multitudinous failures could have pushed us apart and made us fight. Miraculously, it didn’t. Instead we recognized and respected (probably because of our previous train experiences) that train rides can be adventures, too. We ended up watching Grand Budapest Hotel, wearing whitestrips, and essentially wiping away all the disappointment of the trip. Train rides are like all good adventures, mostly because you don’t really see them coming.

Allie: I think life is really most lived in the moments when you less aware of yourself; when you’re too tired to posture or you feel like no one is watching. That’s exactly how train rides are, and frankly, that’s what makes them so great to me. They are real slices of life, and they foster bonding in a way few other experiences do. I have to admit, of all the many things I’m going to miss about Italy, train rides are somewhere near the top of my list.

Our canine friend–Danielle, June 30, 2014

Today was the field trip that my peers and I have been looking forward to since before we even arrived in Italy. Today we traveled to the beautiful vineyard of La Pievuccia. There we had a fascinating tour where we learned about the organic production of wine, and had a delicious six course meal complete with wine pairings.  It seemed that the day was going just as wonderfully as anticipated as Corey, Rachel, Anna and myself began the walk back to Santa Chiara.

However, if I’ve learned anything about Italy on this trip, it is that getting from point A to point B whether it be by foot, train, or bus there most certainly will be an unanticipated setback.  Today this setback came in the form of a tiny four-legged friend.  As we strolled along the quiet street through the valley below Santa Chiara a dog jumped out in front of us and came straight up to us, demanding our attention.  Being a dog loving Austinite, I instinctively bent to pet the tiny dog that was no more than 8 pounds at most.  My friends all gathered around to give the dog a quick pet, and then we decided it was time to continue on our way.  We looked around and saw a gate that we assumed was where the dog emerged from and tried to place it there but the gate would not budge.  We decided the dog must be one of the many Italian dogs that is allowed to roam the streets as it pleases then make its way home when it wishes.

We continued on our but the dog seemed to have decided we seemed pretty fun.  It leaped and bounded alongside us dashing back and fourth across the street. At first we figured it’d follow us till it got tired but when we reached the old city gates (quite far from where we had first seem the dog) it became evident that this was not the case.  The dog followed us all the way up to the front door of Santa Chiara.  There we paused, unsure what to do with our new friend.  Leaving the dog in the winding streets of Castiglion Fiorentino seemed cruel, as it neither was clear she did not understand the threat of cars nor knew how to return home.

It turned out that there was not a nearby pet rescue that could easily be contacted as we had hoped, and it was decided we would have to drive back down the hill and leave her where we had found her.  We took the dog to the courtyard to drink some water and cool off a bit before returning her. Naturally, heads began popping out of windows and it wasn’t long before our little friend had made many more friends with our fellow dog-deprived classmates.  The ability of a dog to bring a smile to the most stressed art students face is unmatched.

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Finally the prospect of setting up our final art exhibition sunk in and Garnette drove me and the dog back down to where I had found her.  It turned out a lady lived there and she seemed quite surprised (although not particularly worried) that her dog had climbed all the way up the hill to Santa Chiara. Although I cannot say that I approve of how this women kept watch of her dog, I am extremely grateful we were able to return her home.  Admittedly, my day was also very lightened by getting to finally play with a dog.

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The Hermitage–Tallis, June 24, 2014

Among the folds of the hills outside of Cortona there is a small Franciscan Hermitage.

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It is a home for Franciscan monks to come and meditate. They come from all over Italy for the peace and quiet in this little stone building. Gardens wrap around it and a few humble bridges straddle the creek running down the hill.

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We visited on the 24th of June. After many busy weeks obsessing over art projects a 40 minute hike to this understated hermitage was beautiful. The minute I walked through the gate a wave of peace washed over me, I knew that this was a place of rest. The only noises were the frogs croaking. Granted their croaking was a really strange sound, but the point is that the place was quiet and peaceful in contrast with the other busy places we have visited.

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It was one of my favorite visits of the trip.

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Friday in Fabriano–Lauren J., June 20, 2014

Returning from our long weekend away from Castiglion Fiorentino, we welcomed Santa Chiara with open arms and tired feet. That Friday was our day trip to Fabriano. We stepped off of the bus after a beautiful ride through the countryside and the weather couldn’t have been more perfect. The sun was out, the air was crisp, and I could already tell that I was going to like this place.

After a little coffee/bathroom break, we headed to the Museo della Carta e della Filigrana (The Museum of Paper and of Watermarks). Paper-making has been going on here for hundreds of years! The sweet woman who works in the museum gave us a tour of the medieval paper-making machines. The first machine was a bulky, loud, and complex machine used to grind the pulp that would then be mixed with water into a large vat. The expert paper-maker came and demonstrated the technique of straining out the water into a sheet of paper and pointed out that the strainer included a woven image – this would become the watermark.

We saw tons of stunning watermarks ranging from simple ancient designs to intricate photo-like images made by the ONLY TWO watermark experts still living today. Lastly, we were able to make our very own sheet of paper to take home with us. It was such a fun experience and it was amazing to witness how much thought and effort went into something we use every day! And how beautiful the results could be. Paper-making and watermarking is truly an art!

Lauren J



On Being Alone–Lauren B., June 30, 2014

CSI: Castiglion Fiorentino.

Opening scene: an Italian woman bustles into an empty lavandaria. One washer contains clean, but now dry clothes. As she takes them out, she rolls her eyes at the inconsiderate girl who didn’t have the decency to come back for her clothes. Camera pans over to a blue and white bag. End scene.

This morning I woke up craving Chinese food and really wanting to clean my underwear before I go to Spain. No one else seemed hungry so I decided to go by myself to the laundromat which is really close to the Chinese food place. Santa Chiara doesn’t serve breakfast or lunch on weekends, and when I got to Speedy Wash, I realized I was way more hungry than I thought. So I decided to see if I could find a bar or a tabacchi or anything that had at least water. As it turns out, Speedy Wash is in the ghetto, and for the first time since I’ve been here, I couldn’t find a bar within a 5 minute walk. As I headed back, I felt a really creepy feeling, like I shouldn’t be by myself. Nothing happened to me… I’m back at the laundromat safe and sound (sorry if this post was leading up to something awful), but I realized that I’m going to feel that feeling a lot more once I start traveling by myself in Spain.

Yesterday I went to Florence by myself and it was great! I realized I do know that city pretty well and I didn’t have any problem being by myself, in fact I kind of liked it. But sometimes in Castiglion I get “separation anxiety”. We’re so used to being with people 24/7, that if I ever wake up to an empty room, or can’t find anyone in the halls, I get a little worried. I don’t know if it’s fomo and I think they’re having fun without me, or if it’s more like today, where I didn’t feel safe without rooms 13 and 14 by my side.

Either way, I can tell that it’s going to be both good and bad to travel by myself. I’m going to miss everyone and I’m going to want to share moments with them, and maybe I’ll be a little scared at times, but I’m also going to enjoy the freedom of being alone. I’ve also realized that as anxious as I am to see new things and to be in a different country, I’m really going to miss Santa Chiara! This place is so beautiful and it feels like home. Yesterday I took this picture from my window:

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It’s so strange to think that this view that at first was so breathtaking, and now that I’ve gotten used to, is one that I might never see again!!

Anyways, as we wrap up our summer program, I’m filled with all sorts of different feelings: relief, love, sadness, fear, but mostly I’m grateful for this trip and excited for the things to come!