Two of the Best Days of My Life: Steak, Art, the David, the Uffizi

Continuing on about how I attempt to assimilate myself into cultures as much as possible the one part of Italian culture where I am having difficulty succeeding at seeming Italian is fashion. One night at a bar I was wearing a blue t-shirt from school that had my old dorm’s name and the year the shirt was made(it happened to be from 2006-2007). In all honesty I use he shirt as a undershirt but since going out that night had been low on my list of priorities(I only originally went out with the guys to try and find the Jets vs. Patriots) I barely gave a second thought to wearing it. Anyway, towards the end of the night I was corralling the girls trying to keep a group of Italian guys at a safe distance when one made a comment about my shirt saying that the biggest mistake about wearing it was that it had the year it was made on it so now everyone could tell how old it is. I didn’t take much offense to his statement; it’s true the shirt was old and definitely not very “appropriate” going out attire, but the fact that he even made a statement about my clothing highlights one cultural barrier I’ll have difficult traversing.

One would not exactly call me the epitome of fashion. I don’t completely lack a sense of style but I surely do not know much. If it weren’t for shopping with girls throughout my adolescence and young adulthood I’m sure my style would be non-existent. I have a hard time telling what looks ‘good’ and an even harder time justifying that looking ‘good’ requires me to spend some serious money. Honestly I’d much rather have a nice dinner than a nice pair of jeans. But this is exactly one of the major differences between me and the Italian men.

Fashion has a deeper meaning than simply clothing in Italy. It’s a true expression of culture and worth. People assume that those who can dress themselves well are some more ‘complete’ people. It’s almost as if good fashion were as valuable as intelligence. Style is beyond important to Italians. It’s more important than comfort. Even in the still fairly hot month of September Italian men wear jeans, log sleeved shirts and sometimes even jackets all in the name of style. I’ve tried. I cannot do it. I start to sweat immediately and need to change to shorts. Maybe my clothes are not made of the same materials as the Italians. Likely their clothing was manufactured with higher quality materials that breathe better than the cheap stuff I wear. Someone put it the best; Italians dress to style, Americans dress for comfort.

And it’s true. I’d rather be comfortable than stylish most of the time, but as I spend more time here I’m finding it increasingly difficult to not feel self-conscious with my fashion. I unfortunately don’t have the money, or the on sense, to really do much about it. Fortunately I am in a group with 14 girls so last night I gave in and asked them to take me shopping. It seemed to be a success! I got three shirts and a pair of jeans for very reasonable prices. Hopefully this will help me feel a bit more comfortable walking the streets of Italy.

But what does this say about my confidence? Am I that insecure that I need to change my style based on a country? I would say no. If it came down to it I would be perfectly fine not changing my style, but I like the Italian style. Not only that, but I want to have to style. I’ve never exactly felt comfortable in my clothing choices. I rarely buy new clothes so I feel that a certain newness for my fashion is in order. Plus if it helps me become more assimilated, I’m willing to improve the way I dress. It’s not a sign of a lack of confidence, but merely an acknowledgment that in the world of fashion I know nothing and could stand to learn from the Italians.

Wednesday was the day of our group trip to the Uffizi; something for which I had been waiting since arriving in Florence. The Uffizi has an impressive amount of artwork that includes works by Leonardo, Botticelli, Michelangelo, Rafael (I think), Fra Lippo Lippi and Caravaggio among others. The artwork is gorgeous and to truly look and study each painting it would take one years. I had been there before and actually spent 3+ hours wandering the grand museum staring at each piece of art, but never really realizing the significance of any beyond the face beauty. With Rocky as a guide I found myself jittery to learn exactly how these paintings were important to the world of art and how they played into the history of the world.

We looked at some International, or Late Gothic, paintings by Giotto which were certainly impressive. He was the first to start making his subjects appear lifelike. Instead of a series of people who act emotions unconvincingly or simply appear unnatural, Giotto began to actually tap into the human. His faces portray sadness or shock properly so that the viewer can almost feel that which those in the work feel. I say almost, because he was not there yet. His paintings still use many unrealistic Gothic motifs including the gold background and slightly unnatural colors. But he was the first and therefore important.

From there we looked at Lippi and other Early Renaissance artists where one finally could fully recognize the subjects as human. These artist portraits and paintings look more photographic than imaginative. They use more realistic colors and backgrounds that are not gold, but landscape or people. They can paint in three dimensions and use perspective to portray that which they desire. From there we moved on two of my favorite paintings, both done by Botticelli; The Birth of Venus and the Primavera. While both of these paintings are actually of mythical events no one can deny the sheer majesty of them. They are stunningly beautiful, that’s about all I can say. Next up was Leonardo da Vinci. Of the twelve or so existent paintings by the master, the Uffizi has two; the Annunciation and his unfinished Adoration of the Magi. Leonardo takes reality to a new level. He is the first to use optical distortion in his paintings. The backgrounds are slightly out of focus because in real life the eye cannot focus perfectly on the foreground and the background at the same time. Looking at the Annunciation one can feel the tension of Mary as she is told she will be the mother of God. Her outer appearance is calm, but her hand grips the book which she was reading in an almost violent fashion. The stone patio on which she sits appears so lifelike that one would think that he could touch the painting and feel stone. Simply magical. Finally we finished with Michelangelo’s Holy Family where he uses a male body for Mary’s body because he thought the male form was the most perfect in nature and therefore refused to paint women as women. They were men with breasts.

Once I left the Uffizi, and everyone else went to their Italian lesson, I headed to the other side of the Arno to visit the Pitti Palace which is a grand palace overlooking the city to which the Medici moved I think in the early 1500’s. In the palace itself they were holding a Caravaggio exhibit that displayed another one of my favorite paintings of all time: Bacchus. Caravaggio’s Bacchus looks youthful, mischievous, fun, thoughtful and fun all at the same time. He is exactly the representation that I envision of my favorite Greek god.

Behind the palace are the Boboli Gardens, an expansive park where I’m sure the Medici lounged away the hot summers. The many trees keep the area cool as do the several fountains. From the top of the gardens, which extend up the hill behind the palace, there is a fantastic view of the city in the valley. What better fitting place for the family who saw themselves as the head family of Florence to seat themselves overlooking it?

Continuing our boycott of the terrible hotel food, Brian, Matt and I decided to finally get a Florentine steak. Florentine steaks are essentially thick cut T-bones, but what makes these special is the type of cow. The Tuscan cow is allowed to roam freely and eat grass. It is lean, yet tender, and with enough beautiful melty fat to intoxicate the meat with intense beefiness. On top of the proper handling of the live cow the meat is then left to hang, which allows liquid to evaporate only intensifying the flavor. From the appearance of the raw product I assume they dry age the meat. Luckily the best place for such a steak, according to Rocky, happened to be right across the street from our hotel. We wandered over to Perseus around 8:45 with Katie and Meg(both of whom had already eaten but were coming along for the adventure). The place, Perseus, was packed. Nine is a little after the average dinner time of Italians so most people were finishing up. We got a table and prepared ourselves for the supposed glory.

We ordered an antipasto of lardo bruschetta with anchovies. Amazing, purely amazing. Lardo is an Italian ingredient that needs to come to the states. It literally is the cured fat of the pig. It melts in the mouth upon contact releasing all of the best flavors of bacon, prosciutto and pork. The salty anchovies only accentuated the layer of salty fat covering my mouth. Going on the good advice of Rocky we ordered a steak for two (by their standards about 1 kilo or 2.2 pounds) and a side of grilled vegetables. I instantly loved this place because on the menu it says explicitly that they WILL NOT cook the steak more than rare. Yes. Just the way it should be done.

We wait. We drink some wine. We eat some of the raw vegetables on the table and a lot of bread. We see other steaks. My mouth starts to drool. I head to the bathroom as our waiter passed with our steak. He told me so in Italian, another reason I liked this place; they didn’t speak to me in English even though we were clearly American. Once back to the table I see or beautiful steak cut off the bone and into big hunks and the bone sitting in the middle. I’m too in awe to bother taking a picture. Matt and Brian are about to pounce upon our prize, but as faithful friends they wait for me. I arrive. We each take a piece and then a bite, and heaven exploded in all of our mouths.

No piece of steak, no piece of meat, nothing perhaps, has ever tasted as good as that steak. I chewed the rare meat that had been seared harshly on the outside producing a well seasoned ring of crispy fat and meat surrounding the most tender beef in the world. The flavor ran through my mouth literally turning eyes inward at the ecstasy. I looked at Matt and Brian both of whom were having the same reaction as me. The girls asked how it tasted and we could only groan. Slowly we ate through the steak, savoring each glorious bite until only the bone was left, but this did not mean the end of our joy. We sliced the meat from the bone and then passed it around chewing on the supple fat and sucking on the delicious marrow. We looked like dogs but I would not have stopped even for President Obama. I’ll nee forget that moment. It was not even ridiculously expensive. I would have paid twice as much for it. Heaven, pure heaven.

Steak

I woke up yesterday still in a daze from my steamy high. Everyone went to Italian and I walked into the city to get a wonderful roasted veal panini with arugula mayo, mushrooms, sun dried tomatoes, pecorino and spinach. Another crazily delicious meal. After talking to Courtney for a while(my poor baby’s sick, but I get to see her soon!!!!!!!!!) I went to meet our group in front of the Gallery of the Academia where perhaps the most impressive lice of artwork ever created is housed.

There is other artwork in the Academia including unfinished statues by Michelangelo, but unless you have a private art professor like Rocky, there is no reason to go there save the 14’3″ sculpture of David. This statue is as close as perfect as one can get. You cannot help but stare speechless. It could very well bring a person to tears. His body, his face, his musculature, his skeleton, his eyes, his expression is so beautiful, so lifelike. It feels that at any moment David will come to life and wreak havoc on some giant threatening or lives. How can a person carve with sun precision? How could he turn something lifeless to life? I dare somebody to look at that magnificent statue and not be awed.

I have never seen eyes in painting or statue that were as lifelike as those of David. They don’t need color because Michelangelo so accurately sculpted the contractions, lines and movements of a human face and how they affect the eyes I could venture to say that David’s eyes are more lifelike than some loving people. Beyond his eyes his right hand clutches his leg exactly as a tense person would. He is scared, excited, troubled and ready for a fight. Though his face displays the emotion of one sizing up his enemy, his hand shows the apprehension beyond the cocky facade. This will be a battle and he’s starting to realize it. He has a choice to make; fight or flight. Be a hero forever or go back to herding sheep? Staring at Goliath it suddenly becomes a difficult choice. Even his abdomen perfectly shows how a scared person looks. His upper abs are extended while the lower are slightly distorted. The little details throughout the body such as the inflection of the left calve on which he rests his weight and the tendon popping out behind his knee make it seem as if this were a mold of a person instead of an imitation. I could never tire of that statue. Bravo Michelangelo, you created the most awe-inspiring, the most moving, the most powerful piece of art ever.

Once we had filled our minds with the image of David(I can still vividly see his face) we headed out with the iteration of going back to the hotel. Matt wanted to eat the free meal but Brian and I had other plans. Since it was 6:30 and neither Brian nor I wanted to eat until around 8:30 we had some time to kill. I admitted my desire to buy a purple shirt so we headed out in search. We happened to run into Bianca, Lacey and Abby, three girls who have style. We convinced them to come with us, and once it was determined, via text, that the free dinner was once more terrible, the girls agreed to eat out with us. We ended up shopping until 8:30 before going back to Mangiatoia where Brian and I had eaten with Katie a couple of days prior(it’s where I had roasted rabbit).

This time I got Spaghetti alla Carbonara, something I vehemently avoid in America because of my distrust of last cooking outside of Italy. Once you eat pasta here nothing else compares. The spaghetti was cooked perfectly and the sauce of pancetta, cream, cheese and egg was so delicious that I considered once again finding my inner dog by licking the plate. The pancetta must have been cooked slowly because like a good croquet the outside was crisp while the inside dissolved without much chewing. The salty pancetta mixed with the creamy sauce was completed by the raw egg mixed in at the end both thickening the sauce and giving it an almost dressing-like consistency.

After dinner Abby and got gelato. I was not exactly still hungry but Abby and were having a heart to heart so I figured it was more worthwhile to continue it than to avoid something as beauteous as good gelato. She’s going to be one of my housemates in Parma and until then we had not really talked much. In fact she, like most of the girls on the trip, despised me at first because I am such an intense person. I spoke Italian right off the bat and I guess seemed to be showing off. I just don’t hold back and I’ve accepted that this can be off-putting at first. But as is evidenced by Abby, people generally can come around and see I’m not such a cocky jerk. I’m confident for sure and in situations as new as abroad can be for most people it makes sense that my confidence would be obnoxious to those who are still struggling to adapt. Anyway, I’m happy that Abby and I get along since we will be living together for 3 months. Our host mom, with whom I’ve had fairly consistent contact, continuously tells me that the situation of 2 girls and one guy is dangerous. I cannot tell if she means for them or me. I know she’s said girls are dangerous, but oh well. I’m sure our house won’t have any issues.

I cannot say this enough. Thank God for my parents who are bankrolling this trip. I have no money of my own, but I have quite the generous parents who want me to live and love life. If only everyone were so lucky.

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