Organic Chemistry in Italy Study Abroad

First, I want to apologize for the lateness of this post. It has been well over two weeks since my summer study abroad program has ended, but this has been the first time that I have had the chance to sit down in front of a laptop for more than 20 minutes. Second, please forgive me for the bluntness, lack of eloquence and thought, and occasional grammar violations contained in the recent previous posts. They were all constrained to very strict criteria and word limits, limits that for the first time in my life I had to struggle to stay within. Now that the program is over and my grades no longer depend on the content and quantity of my posts, I’m now allowed to freely write whatever I want.

Learning Organic Chemistry I in a month in Italy has been one of the most academically challenging opportunity that I have faced and thankfully succeeded at. Even when I was in high school, I already started to hear horror stories about Organic Chemistry from older friends. I heard that ochem was the class that students would get their lowest grade in or how that was the class that made pre-med students change their minds about going to medical school. Even when I was applying for this program, I still had upperclassmen telling me that it was a bad idea to try to learn ochem. After hearing that, I wanted to prove them wrong. The first week was easy; it was mainly a review of general chemistry with some new information thrown in at the end. Each week, it got harder and harder. By the last week, there were so many different types of mechanisms being thrown at us, I would sometimes find myself combining elements of two different mechanisms in attempts to solve a synthesis problem. Every Thursday night, the night before the test, everyone would be sitting in their preferred studying spot. Mine was the second seat from the end of the right side of the right table in the library. I am so grateful that two friends and I started the unofficial Tuesday and Thursday Night Library study group. Whenever one of us had a topic that was still a little bit fuzzy or needed help solving a problem, someone would always be able to help. As the night went on and turned into the early hours of the morning, there would always be a few voiced comments about  “this is hell” or “is it too late to drop the course”. In that moment, it might have felt like all those things, but looking back upon it, I have absolutely no regrets about doing this program and highly suggest other hardworking students to consider it. Learning ochem in a month, covering one week’s worth of material in a day, has taught me how to intensely and efficiently study in a short period of time, shown me just how far my academic boundaries can be pushed, but most of all, it has reaffirmed my belief that hard work and determination will help one succeed. I definitely wasn’t the smartest student in class and organic chemistry didn’t come the easiest to me compared some of the other students, but I put in the time and effort to truly understand all the concepts that were taught and I ended up as one of the top students in the class.

Besides Organic Chemistry (yes, there were other components to the program), I have gained a greater appreciation of the arts through awe-inspiring paintings like the Birth of Venus, majestic sculptures like the David, and ingenious architecture like the fortress of Arezzo. Through the culinary class, I’ve gained more insight on how much science is involved in cooking and every day life. I’ve always assumed it the only science in cooking would be about new bond formation and chemical reactions. The culinary class has taught me that there so much more than that such as pairing the right flavor chemicals together and there is always a scientific reason behind each cooking method. For example, I always assumed that the reason why we add salt into the water when cooking pasta is to lower the boiling temperature. While that is true, another reason is that the salt and starch in the pasta water actually helps the sauce stick to the pasta. Since we live in a such a consumerist society, we often forget about the arduous process behind making common products such as cheese and pasta. Being able to go to these factories and seeing these items be made has reminded me that there is a very laborious process and many people’s lives depend on the sale of these products.

Overall, this program has opened my eyes to so many different aspects of academics and culture. While there is a culture difference, the culture shock wasn’t as large as I expected. Some of the major differences are having to pay for water and bread at a restaurant, not having dryers and air conditioning in typical Italian homes, and crazy Italian driving. This summer has been one of the best summers I have ever had, and if anyone is even thinking about doing this program, do it. Plus, you get to learn a little Italian. Ciao!

GELATO GALORE!

Gelato is the Italian word for ice cream, but the differences between these two dairy products highly impact the taste, texture, and experience of having gelato in Italy and eating ice cream in the States. While containing the same ingredients, ice cream is much more fluffy and airy, as compared to gelato. Ice cream contains more cream/more fat which allows for the increased trapping of air.

I have had 24 different flavors of gelato on 15 different occasions.  One of the my favorite flavors, I had very recently in Arezzo: cremino. While other gelato is stacked a little higher, looks whipped and creamy in its tin, cremino is different. A smooth, flat designed chocolate layer sits on top of a vanilla (fior di latte) base. When ordered, the server will mix the rich chocolate topping with the gelato underneath to create a marbled texture that taste oh so delicious. The chocolate was just slightly thicker than syrup, and the gelato was still creamy like normal. The chocolate ganache was so amazing paired with the plain vanilla. My other favorite flavor was a tiramisu that I had in Pisa. This texture was the most interesting, as there was cocoa powder dusted on top of the gelato metal tin, and there were chocolate chunks embedded in the coffee gelato. As a person that prefers fruitier desserts, I was surprised that I loved these two more chocolate-y flavors the most.

The most amazing combination I concocted was definitely the salted caramel and apricot. The apricot was fruit and sweet, and the caramel was slightly salted. This salty and sweet combination was perfectly balanced, and neither flavor overwhelmed the other.

My favorite gelateria was Hedera in Rome. Supposedly, they are the people who create the Pope’s birthday cake. The strawberry gelato I got there was absolutely divine, and I have not have strawberry gelato that compares. There were so many seeds in the gelato–it was extremely fresh. It was so refreshing on that hot day in Rome. They were warm and welcoming in the tiny box of a store. It was clear that all of the workers knew each other well, or were even related. Their kitchen was easily seen behind large windows behind the counter. I was able to see a large bowl of cantaloupe, and I knew I had to try the melone flavor, just to see exactly how fresh their gelato tasted.

 

My Gelato List

Gelato List

  • Caramel and Tiramisu; store on opposite of St. Peter’s Basilica
    –caramel taste stronger than one in America, kind of like a light coffee flavor
    –tiramisu was really sweet and didn’t really taste like the tiramisu cake
    –combination too sweet
  • Lemon and Pistachio; store two blocks  from hotel
    –lemon was sweet and sour at the same time and was really refreshing
    –pistachio was a light green, very smooth and almost tasted like chocolate
    –Good combination
    –Best Texture: Pistachio was very creamy and smooth. There weren’t any bumps are rough spots in the gelato which is impressive since it is made from hard nuts. The gelato was very light, not too dense, and it just melted in my mouth
  • Strawberry and Melon; store next to Vatican Museum
    –strawberry had a rougher texture. Could feel  the seeds. Made with real strawberries
    –melon had a distinct taste like cantaloupe
    –the melon overpower the strawberry
  • Lemon and Peach; Paridiso
    –lemon was less sour
    –Peach had dark chunks of fruit
    — Liked both flavors
  • Mango and White Chocolate; Paridiso
    –white chocolate was not good.  Really thick and too sweet. Texture wasn’t like gelato, more like melted chocolate
    –mango had a rougher texture
  • Lemon and Strawberry; Sunflower
    –lemon had the perfect balance of sweet and sour
    –strawberry was very smooth with little seeds in it
    –Favorite Combination: The lemon complimented the strawberry very well. They balanced each other with the sour of the lemon and the sweetness of the strawberry. The combination tasted like strawberry lemonade. I really like the two fruit combination.
  • Mango and Peach (one flavor); Creme
    –taste interesting. Had more peach flavor than mango. It had a more pink color than yellow
    –had contamination of chocolate so taste was strange
  • Banana and Hazelnut; Sunflower
    –hazelnut was really good. Reminded me of a light version of nutella
    –banana taste not very sweet. Texture like mashed banana
  • Lemon and Acerola; Punto
    –lemon had tiny bits of yellow rind in it. Made gelato more texture and extra flavor of the slightly bitter peel
    –acerola was sweet, but not too powerful. Reminded me of candied cherries. Texture was really smooth
    –Best Overall Gelateria Experience: There weren’t many people in the gelateria so ordering didn’t feel rushed. I really liked the gelato and had time to actually enjoy trying the new flavor. Also, I didn’t get melted gelato over my hands. Plus, there was great company that night.

 

 

EAT TOGETHER

A characteristic Italian meal is later, longer, local, seasonal, and social. Before I left for Italy, I went to a sermon that talked about how meals are important to developing faith and blessing your neighbors, and that is something that really resonated with me on my trip.

Befriending tax collectors and prostitutes, Jesus sets an example for us by sitting down with people that were supposedly far from God.  Sharing a meal with them is a very critical point in scripture and says so much about his character. Jesus, friend of sinners. When forming relationships with other people, eating together is a fairly common step that everyone looks to take. Inviting someone over for a meal with your family is a very precious invitation.  I think that college students especially feel this way when sharing meals with other people. It feels weird to eat alone sometimes, and in college, it really means something when someone wants to meet with you for a meal or coffee. It means that they have gone out of their way to meet you and carve out some of their time to accommodate you. I think that anyone can agree that feeling of appreciation is unique.

“The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Behold, a gluttonous man and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.” Matthew 11:19

In Italy, it is not uncommon for meals to last hours on end, letting people laugh and talk and savor both the food and each other’s company. One Friday night in Arezzo was spent getting late night crepes at Crepes di Lune, and walking through town at 23:00 or so, there were so many people out at dinner. The town felt alive. I felt warm inside, as I watched people eat with their families, or sip on some wine with their friends, or enjoy some live music with their significant other. As I ate my crepe alongside two of my new friends, I really enjoyed the atmosphere of spending precious time with loved ones and slowly eating my crepe.

I have found that I and a lot of my classmates eat much, much faster than Italians. Perhaps it is because we are absolutely famished all the time, but I think it is also something that we have become acclimated to. Most places in Italy do not serve anything “to-go”, and it is fairly hard to find a fast-food restaurant anywhere. Bars (coffeeshops) generally do not serve coffee in to-go cups, and there is only one Starbucks in all of Italy. Americans always seem to be in a hurry in comparison, and that even shows when we walk 10 times faster than the locals here. Sitting down and enjoying your food is something that I have fallen in love with here. Dinner has more than one course, and things are served very slowly sometimes, allowing you to focus on one course at a time, and chat with your friends and family in between courses.

Eating means so much more here than it does in the United States, and I hope that I will be able to retain some of the values that I have learned here when I return.

Culinary Reflection

After being a month in Italy, I’ve tried a lot of different Italian food but definitely not everything, especially the squid ink pasta. I’ve come to the conclusion that Italians are really good at making a specific selection of food. Italians are amazing at making pasta, pizza, and dessert, but the rest of the selections are decent. I feel like that nearly all the restaurants I’ve been to in Italy, whether it was in Rome or Arezzo, all serve roughly the same selection of pasta and meats with a slight variation between restaurants. Most restaurants serve the same types of pasta such as tagliatelle, ravioli, gnocchi, and tortellini with mix and match of various sauces. I’ve also noticed that their diet mainly consists of carbohydrates through pasta and pizza. I wonder how Italians stay in such good shape with all the carbs in their diet. It might  be due to the fact that Italians walk nearly everywhere while in America we drive our cars to a place that is 3 blocks away. They also keep their vegetables very plain with simple ingredients. At many places, the only vegetable options are either a mixed salad or grilled vegetables. In America, especially in Couch Cafe on campus, the vegetables are often drenched in a thick creamy sauce to make them taste better but takes away the vegetables’ nutritional values. We definitely can learn from the Italians on how to make more nutritional vegetables.

I’ve had some very good culinary experience such as trying gnocchi and carbonara for the first time. Before coming to Italy, I’ve never even heard of gnocchi or knew that pasta can be made from foods besides wheat flour. The first time I had gnocchi was at a restaurant in Pisa. The taste and texture was very different than regular pasta; it was softer and more chewy with a stronger starch taste. It definitely took several bites to adjust, but afterwards it has become one of my favorite pasta. The first time I tried carbonara, it was a restaurant called Tortello and it sadly didn’t go well. Not only did the restaurant run out of all types of pasta expect for penne, but also they really under-cooked the pasta to the point where the inside of the pasta still had a ring of white. Despite the pasta disappointment, the carbonara sauce was amazing. I could definitely taste the eggs in the sauce, and I was surprised that I actually liked it since I normally detest any egg-tasting foods. When I had the next opportunity to replace my first bad experience with carbonara, I immediately took it. That dish was one of the best pasta dishes I have ever had. I know for a fact that I will never be able to emulate the same quality of carbonara I had in Italy back in the United States.

The only major culinary disappointment that I have had was when I was in Naples. Being located so close to the coast, I had high expectations for their seafood dish. On the second night, I ordered a seafood risotto which had calamari, mussels, clams, and shrimp. The risotto wasn’t fully cooked so that every time I took a bite of the pasta, it was really chewy and slightly hard in the middle. I expected the risotto to be a lot more softer and didn’t require so much effort to swallow it. Due to my bad luck, a lot of the seafood such as the mussels and the clams still had sand in it. There would be times where all I would taste would be gritty sand which I had to spit out in my napkin. I spent the rest of dinner trying to pick out pieces of risotto to eat while trying to avoid getting mouthfuls of sand. The seafood quality was just decent; they weren’t particularly fresh.

Overall, Italian cuisine is very complex with its many courses, but each dish is very simple. For the first course, it is the pasta with some type of sauce with an occasional meat in the sauce. The second dish is usually just the meat. If one wants a side, they must order it separately. In the United States, the side dishes normally come on the same plate as the main course. I think by keeping the food on separate dishes, it prevents people from overeating since all the food isn’t on one dish. One major difference that I noticed is the pizza. I’m so used to having take away pizza that is pre-sliced into eighths that I can eat with my hands. In Italy, I have not seen a single restaurant or cafe that serve sliced pizza. You have to buy the whole pizza and the pizza isn’t cut. I’ve noticed a lot of Italians who would eat the entire pizza using a fork and knife. The pizza, especially the bottom crust is very hard to cut through so sometimes I would cut half way through and then use my hands. I guess the Italians don’t see pizza as finger food. With Italian’s slower pace of life, I’ve noticed that dinner normally takes about nearly two hours long and the waiters are in no hurry of making customers who have finished their food to leave. Back at home, I’m so accustom to eating dinner at home in 30 minutes, so the pace of dinner was definitely a change that I had to get accustomed to.

When I return back to the States, I don’t know if I could go back eating store-bought pasta and frozen pizzas. There is no Italian restaurant  in America that can compare to the quality of food in Italy. However, I’m definitely looking forward to my mom’s home-made Asian food and the large variety of food that America offers. Though I’m might wait several months before trying to open a box of hard, processed pasta or ordering Papa John’s pizza. Italy might have ruined Italian food for me…in a very good way.

Pasta Making Class

I had the opportunity to participate in a pasta making class. Our instructor, Fabio, first gave us a demonstration. Afterwards, we made our own pasta. Flour is sprinkled on the board, then the flour is dumped in a pile. A hole is made in the middle, creating a volcano. An egg is broken in the hole as well as a pinch of salt and a teaspoon of oil. Using a spoon, everything is whisked together, using hands to slowly add in flour until it becomes a ball of yellow dough. Semolina flour is sprinkled on the board and on the dough. The dough is rolled out, alternating sides and adding semolina flour when it began to stick. Once the dough is thin enough to see the shadow of your hand when held up to the light, it is ready to cut in half.

Tagliatelle is made by rolling half of the dough into scroll. Using a knife, cut the dough into strips about 0.5 cm. It is cooked for 2 minutes and then put in pesto sauce. Ravioli is made by taking the other half of dough and folding and unfolding it in half. Then put spoonfuls of the filling made of spinach, ricotta, and nutmeg in a row in the center of one side of the dough, leaving a finger-width space between each filling. Moisten all sides of each filling with water. Fold the other side of the dough over and press between each filling to seal. Using the slicer, cut out each piece of ravioli. It is cooked for 2-3 minutes then put in butter and sage sauce. Gnocchi is made by mixing mashed potatoes, eggs, and flour. The dough is rolled into a snake and then slice into little rectangles. Each piece is rolled down a fork to create texture, allowing the sauce to stick better. It is cooked til it floats and then put in pomodoro sauce.

The tagliatelle was chewy and good with the pesto. It came in varying thickness and shape. The light ravioli sauce brought out the filling, which taste earthy. It was much thinner and softer than American ravioli. Though some ravioli had an overwhelming olive oil taste due to being at the bottom of the pot. The gnocchi was my favorite. It was very soft, like a pillow, and less chewier than restaurant gnocchi. The sauce complimented and stuck to the gnocchi really well.

 

A CHEF INSIDE EVERYONE

I have always loved baking and cooking; it has always been a form of a stress relief. Without it, my first year in college was hard, and this coming year, I will have to go without it as well. I think that a lot of people will agree that the kitchen is a safe and beloved place. In our fast paced digital world, we miss out on seeing a lot of concrete progress and time to slow down for a while. I like making food as a retreat from all of that. Spending two hours on recipe, you have a different kind of focus than you do on schoolwork or on Instagram. Cooking takes a lot of patience and attention to detail. In Italy, we are surrounded by so much amazing food. The pasta here is very different from macaroni and cheese we eat in the States. In OU’s Santa Chiara Monastery, we were lucky enough to have an instructor teach us how fresh pasta is prepared from scratch.

We made 3 different kinds of pasta: tagliatelle, ravioli, and gnocchi.

The tagliatelle and ravioli were made from the same dough: 100g of flour to 1 egg. On large wooden cutting boards smothered in flour, we poured the 100g and created a mound of flour. Using your fingers we then created a hole in the middle of the pile, like a volcano. Next, the egg was cracked into the flour with a dollop of olive oil and a healthy pinch of salt, and a fork was used to whisk the egg and slowly incorporate the flour. Once the mixture begins to become solid, you can use your hands to knead the dough. Make sure there is enough flour on your hands to avoid the dough from sticking to you. Knead until it is thoroughly mixed into a yellow ball. The dough will be very elastic. Place the ball on the cutting board and slightly flatten. Use a large rolling pin to roll out the dough into a large slightly oval piece. Sprinkle semolina flour onto the dough every once and awhile to prevent stickiness. Roll until the dough is translucent. The dough will be cut in two and one will be smothered in more flour. This will be rolled and cut to make tagliatelle. The other will be folded and used to make the ravioli. Our ravioli filling was the traditional spinach and ricotta cheese. The gnocchi was made from potatoes, mashed and then mixed with flour. There was no ratio, as we watched Fabio, our instructor, just knead and add as much flour as he thought was correct. After the dough was completely kneaded, we rolled pieces of dough into long “snakes” and then cut the shapes into very small cylinders. Afterwards, we rolled the pieces on forks to create textures, allowing sauce to better stick to the gnocchi. We watched as Fabio cooked the pasta, salting the pasta water a lot, and always leaving the water on a rolling boil. This prevents from the pasta from sticking together and the salt gives the pasta dough flavor. The ravioli was added to a simple butter and sage sauce, the tagliatelle to a pesto, and the gnocchi to a tomato. The ravioli was amazing with parmesan and the sage smelled so fragrant. I love the gritty, green pesto sauce with the tagliatelle. Lastly, Fabio’s tomato sauce was the most amazing tomato sauce I have ever tasted.

Dinner was delicious, especially after spending time to make it ourselves and cleaning up the mensa afterwards. And not having to spend limited meal vouchers to eat.

The Gelato Factory

We went to a gelato production facility to see a demonstration of how gelato is made. The president and vice president of the Association of Ice Cream Makers were there. The lady showed us how to make the fior di latte, the base for most gelatos. She first mixed the sugars: glucose, dextrose, and normal granulated sugar. The ratio determines how thick the gelato will be; dextrose prevents gelato from being too frozen and glucose makes it thick. Powder milk is added to make richer. Neutral powder is added to help ingredients angulate together. Local, fresh, high quality whole milk is added. Cream is added. The mixture is put down a funnel inside the machine that mixes, pasteurizes, and cools the gelato. It whips the mixture to force air into the liquid and make it more solid. The machine gets colder, to the negative degrees, than the gelato to make sure the gelato doesn’t melt. For small quantities, it takes about 20 minutes. When it is done, the gelato is poured onto a frozen track to prevent thermal shock.

In Italy, the production of gelato is important. There are many strict laws that gelato-makers must follow and those laws are constantly being updated. Also, they take their jobs very seriously and make sure that the product they make is safe for their customers. They still pasteurize the mixture even though the milk they use has already been pasteurized. They also take great care of making sure there is no contamination for those people who are allergic to nuts or eggs or are gluten intolerant. One thing that I noticed is that the gelato making process is very secretive. Each maker has their own special recipe with different ratios. They take great care in making sure no one knows the ratio. During the demonstration, everything was pre-measured and stored in measureless containers.

The fior di latte that we tasted was amazing; it tasted like milk. I never knew that flavorless gelato would taste so good. It reminded me of the milk-flavored popsicles that I used to eat in China. The gelato was very creamy and smooth, and sweet. It would just melt in my mouth, much softer than ice cream. The gelato did start melting quickly after I started eating it; it explains why it must be kept at low temperatures at all times. I defintely prefer gelato over ice cream.

WANTING TO BUTA(DIE)NE

Organic Chemistry has been really hard for a lot of us to grasp right away. Many of the people on this program are pre-medicine, pre-dental, or some other pre-graduate level course based in the medical field. Thus, everyone here could probably be classified as an introvert or has some traits and qualities of being an introvert. I personally, love people. I love helping others, I care immensely for other people, and I love spending time with others and building relationships; however, I need alone time. I am a very introspective person, and I enjoy thinking about life and making sure that I am enjoying every moment. Especially, as I spend time abroad–expensive time!!!

This course has been really enjoyable for me, but also extremely difficult. My brain is wired for chemistry–not biology. I do not enjoy memorizing things and like to think in a more thoughtful and meaningful way. Chemistry better makes sense to me in this way, as we are taught a concept and taught how it is carried out and how that affects how compounds are formed and why things are the way they are. I dread memorizing anatomy and compound structure names. I learn by doing and seeing it be done. I like the mechanics of problems, and the reliability of atoms and compounds. It makes great sense to me, and I feel at ease when my question of why can be answered. Organic Chemistry works in both of those ways. Many people here are wired for Biology. They like learning things by memorization, and much of the vocabulary and mechanics that we learn in Organic Chemistry have a lot to with memorization. Unfortunately, chemistry can come off to people as extremely abstract and miniscule, and irrelevant. While I like to understand the mechanics, the compounds have certain skills that need to connected in your mind just by memorization. Organic Chemistry is a lot of connecting products to reactants to substrates by memorization. Now all the future doctors, biology or chemistry oriented, feel lost and frustrated and screwed over, as we try to grasp concepts of a full semester of Organic Chemistry in 4 weeks.

While we are all fish out of water, flailing on a dock in lecture, our professors struggle as well. This week has been especially hard as we switch professors in our classes and must get used to a new teaching style while learning harder material. While still getting comfortable with each other and our professors, we are spending a lot of time together, and this usually becomes how people begin to hate one another as we become too close for comfort. Many others in my program have gotten touchier and touchier when it comes to ochem. As we continue, we are feeling the mid-term crisis, and hitting a wall. The way that this program is taught, many people feel overwhelmed by the amount of information shown to us in a day, and miss that time to process that you would during a full semester. For me, it has been a mix of that and a push to understand more faster, as things seem to click easier as we something we learned in the past would be the day before and not a week ago. Without this time to process and understand, many people are left confused and want everything to be explained to them because the information is not sticking and thinking hurts. Today, our professor became extremely frustrated and had to rush out of the room for air. We were left feeling terrible and remained silent. I know that some students felt it unprofessional and looked down upon it. I did not. We all feel the exact same way as he does. Even a few days ago, I had to spend time alone to regather myself after spending so much time with Jena and going over the same things over and over while studying for her sake and for mine. Taking this intense of a course is overwhelming. It has sucked a lot so far, but judging by our A average on tests, many of us are successfully retaining the knowledge.

Organic Chemistry in Arezzo is going to be hard. Organic Chemistry is not something that comes easily to anyone. It combines memorization, chemical knowledge, and spacial reasoning into one science. Many of these things are separate in our minds. Many people are not extremely accomplished in all three skills. A little over two weeks in, I am enjoying myself greatly, and finding myself learning so much about Italy, about myself, and about others (and a hell of a lot about ochem). Everyone is different, and we push ourselves and others to be better versions of ourselves. Individuals learn in different ways, and we should use each other’s strengths to inspire ourselves. I have also learned greater respect of other people. Our differences mean other strength and weakness. We have to respect each other for both and not judge others for their strengths or weaknesses. I have learned that being on your own can be a good thing, and that it is completely okay to feel better alone sometimes. Silence in a group can be a source of comfort not awkwardness. Everyone learns in very, very different ways, and it can take longer for some people than others. I have learned so much about Italian culture, and I have learned so much about why I am so in love with Italy and what that says about who I am.

I’m praying for everyone to simmer down in the next week and a half and to find some chill. I have to constantly remind myself and check myself before I say exactly what I think, and rewire my thoughts. I think that all of us have a tough week and a half ahead of us, but that we all can do it. I know that I still have a lot to learn from this country, my professors, and the other students in my class. I can’t wait to see what the rest of June brings. Hopefully all good things.

AREZZO

Arezzo is a smaller city in the region of Tuscany. Only 45 minutes and €8.40 away from Florence, the city is actually quite larger than you would think, but much calmer than the bustling tourist centers of Roma or Firenze. Still, like the rest of Italy, Arezzo has a rich history, and I am enamored by this city.

Rome was so breathtaking and amazing, but it was extremely overwhelming. I loved how busy the city street got at night; however,  I was also rather nervous and scared in the city, as exhilarated as it was. I was exhausted on our bus ride from Rome to Arezzo, and I do not remember much, but arriving in Arezzo, I felt much safer. It felt much homier and less touristy than Rome did. The only overwhelming part of Arezzo was all the hills–which is why most of us were winded pulling our suitcases up to the monastery from outside the walls of the citadel. Even further up the hill, you can find the Church of San Domenico and a Medici Fortress. An important part of Italian history is tangled in a power struggle between the Emperor and the Pope. The Medicis controlled Florence and were large supporters of the Pope, while Aretini were historically ghibelline, against Florence and the Medici. Between the Fortress and the Church is a large park with an overlook that is breathtaking. Our first day in Arezzo was the monthly first Sunday antique market, creating a much different atmosphere than any of us were used to.

The biggest event in Arezzo, is the Giostra del Saracino. Jousting  began during the crusades during raids of the Saracens and declined into the 18th century. In 1931, it was reinstated as a historical reenactment of the Saracen Joust. Arezzo is separated into 4 different quadrants: Porta Santo Spirito (4 time consecutive as of this year), Porta Crucifera, Porta Sant’Andrea, e Porta del Foro (where the OU Santa Chiara Monastery is located). The Joust takes place the second to last Saturday of June (and again on the first Sunday of September), but the party and celebration begins the weekend before. Parades will go through town as they practice for the Giostra, with trumpet players, drummers, horses, and people historically costumed. The Aretini begin to wear scarves of their quadrant around their neck, in their hair, or even just tied on their purses. Friday night, mostly all Aretini remain in their quadrants, and large “block parties” take place in a large common area. Wandering after dinner, Jena, Sam, and I found ourselves walking towards the fireworks and flares of the del Foro block party, after hearing chanting and singing. Tables (slabs of wood) with plates on them were carried out again and again. As we walked into the piazza, there was a man standing on top of a table with other people fervently waving the del Foro flag and singing along with him. People talked and laughed with one another, and there were so many people gathered together to enjoy themselves before the Joust the following night, scarves all tied around their necks of course. We were waved at by several people for our scarves as well. Walking back at midnight, we were surprised to see so many people still eating dinner, drinking wine, and talking each other’s ears off at the party, in restaurants, or on patios. The next day was completely different from the Arezzo we had come to know. 

The Saracen Joust is “the greatest, most fantastic event that Italy has to offer,” as told to us by a British man we met on a patio, now living in Italy. The Joust was so different than what I had imagined, and the pride that the Aretini had for their city, history, and quadrants showed as we sat and watched the largest event in Arezzo. Excitement filled the air, and it was easy to tell that both tourists and locals were enamored by the event. It started with traditional processions of each quadrant, and flag throwing! (After watching Under the Tuscan Sun that afternoon, the flag throwing was so exciting to see in person.) Then the joust began. We watched as horses galloped towards a wooden target, and awarded 1-5 points based on where the jouster’s long lance would hit the target. The crowd leaped to their feet to see the point of impact, and scorekeepers would quickly cover the target to bring back to judges. Minutes later, when the announcer began to speak, the crowd would become dead silent, ready to hear the score. Cinque!  or Tre! or Quattro!  This year, Santo Spirito scored two 5’s and won the Joust for the 4th time in a row. As the joust ended, people swarmed towards the Church of San Domenico to see the Archbishop of Arezzo bless the Jouster, and see the Golden Lance prize be paraded through the Church. We made haste and quickly found spots with our del Foro scarves hidden away, and watched excited groups of Santo Spirito pile into the Church. They yelled, grinned, laughed, and waved their scarves in the air in triumph. They sang their chant and reached out to touch the Golden Lance for good luck as it was carried down the aisle. Their excitement was overwhelming; the moments in the church surreal. There is no greater moment than this that showed me the passion and pride of the Italian people and more specifically, the Aretini of Arezzo.

We leave Arezzo in under a week and a half, and I dread that day. We have been here for so long, and it is just started to feel normal, like home. There is still so much here that I want to experience, and I will desperately miss the entire culture here.

Spero di rivederti, Arezzo. I desperately hope to see you again, Arezzo.