Saturday, September 29, 2012

King Arthur

A few weeks into the January yoga teacher training, my roommate strongly advised me to break out of my senior citizen schedule that put me into bed at 9:05pm every night. “You need to get out of your self-imposed yoga bubble. There’s a birthday party on Sunday night, and you are going – hang out, make new friends, and have a conversation about something besides your breath and lengthening your spine.” She had a point. I needed to mount my personal power pony and ride out of my comfort zone. It was about a twenty minute drive from my house, so I carpooled with my neighbors. The party was at a beautiful B&B called Sierra Pontifica, and the location on top of a hill just outside of town provided the most glorious view of the sunset. I silently blessed my roomie as I found myself in light conversation with a cute British surfer, a Corona in my right hand and homemade guacamole in my left. Stu rivaled the average surfer boy in intelligence and wit, and our interaction was an even mix of flirty banter with weightier topics – he even called out a few logical fallacies. It was fun to be back in the saddle again.
            Soon my neighbors drifted over to us, each one holding a sleepy child. “We’re leaving early to put the kids to bed, but that doesn’t mean you have to come with us! Stu, can you give her a ride home? Your house is really close to her neighborhood...” Stu smiled, “Sure, no problem.”  After dusk slipped into darker shades, the host brought out paper lanterns to light and we sent them over the balcony. I felt like I was in a movie as I watched them drift out of sight overhead. Guests began to leave, and by midnight the party had diminished to me, Stu, and the staff that lived on site – Leo the bartender and Kara the waitress. I excused myself from the circle to go to the bathroom, secretly hoping that when I came back my ride would be ready to leave. I was tired, yoga practice began at 5:15AM, and everyone knows that I am not a sunshine morning person.
            I got back to the bar just in time to see Stu and Kara disappearing up the stairs. Leo raised an eyebrow, “So were you going to settle up the tab for you and Stu? I need to close my till.” My power pony snorted as I used the last of my cash for our drinks, which also meant that I had no way to pay for a cab home (ATMs are not on every street corner in the jungle). I tried to keep my voice neutral, “Um, Stu was going to give me a ride home…” Leo smirked, “I’m pretty sure THAT’S not going to happen. You can stay the night with me, preciosa.” I think I need to work on my withering stare, because he didn’t seem to notice that I was giving him one. Changing tactics, I smiled persuasively, “Or! You can give me a ride home. Right now.”
            Walking back from class the next day, I passed by Stu getting out of his white truck parked in front of his house. He waved me down saying, “Hey, I was hoping to talk to you about last night.” I turned to face him, “Okay. Do you always leave girls stranded after offering them a ride home? Or just sometimes?” He inspected the ground, then said, “Well, I guess it was a bit of an off night, really…” I continued sweetly, “Leaving me with the entire bar tab was also a nice touch.” This seemed to hit home, and he reached for his wallet, “Here, let me pay you back for my drinks. I insist.” At first I waved it off, but I eventually accepted. He put his wallet away and looked me in the eye, “You know, I really had such a beautiful time…” my spirit pony flattened her ears as I softened and waited for him to explain in his British accent how he really enjoyed our conversation and felt terrible about things. Then he finished his sentence, “…with Kara, such an amazing night that I really can’t say that I’m sorry about anything.”
            Before you could say ‘Princess Kate’ my power pony bucked me right off and disappeared into the distance. I had no words. Stu turned and left, and I metaphorically picked myself up out of the dust, brushed off my lululemon, and continued my walk home.
            For a few months I mourned the death of chivalry, and I blamed Britain for spooking my steed. I didn’t understand why someone would treat me that way, leaving me divided between invisibility and insecurity. Then I began to realize that I was responsible – I was the one who surrendered bridle control (and self-worth) into his hands. No wonder I hit the ground. It was a cliché, Hallmark epiphany of sorts: people belittle or affirm your existence at times, but critiques and compliments don't define who you really are – keep the reins in your hands.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012


Yes, this is an ESPRESSO VENDING MACHINE in my school building – it’s amazing. I’ve had to limit myself to three a day so that I won’t go overboard…

I wish I could also purchase fluent Italian at a vending machine, but my vocabulary is slowly growing. Part of my evening routine is to watch half an hour of Italian television (mostly teen Disney because the terribly exaggerated acting helps me keep up with the storyline). I’m hoping this will speed up my comprehension, kind of like when Antonio Banderas becomes fluent in a new language within minutes by just listening to the conversation around the fireside in ‘Beowulf.’

“Your first 10,000 photos are your worst.” This quote from Henri Cartier-Bresson (French master of candid photography) sums up my feelings about the second week of classes. My impatient, entitled American self doesn’t want to accept that finesse takes time, and practice, and commitment. I want it now, okay? When I asked my digital photography professor if he had any book recommendations for composition, he responded, “I prefer to instruct on that in person. When you present your photos in class, I will critique what you have done. Then you will remember because it hurts more when it’s personal.” Exactly. That’s what I was trying to avoid - I still need to take about 9,928 more photos before I hit my stride. It’s hard to be vulnerable, hard to admit that I am only where I am. Nothing more, nothing less.

Current favorite class: Film Photography. We spent the entire morning in the darkroom, and I am fascinated with the developing process. While we were dipping our film contact sheets in the different solutions, I really wanted to gush, “You guys. This is SO COOL!” but I didn’t because everyone else seemed a little tense. After the final rinse with water, we spread them out on a rack to dry.

Beautiful images begin in complete darkness. 

Friday, September 14, 2012


Relaxation and lightness of being ignored my invitation as I reclined on my mat and listened to the guidance of my yoga teacher, “Close your eyes. Let yourself just be…listen to what comes up for you.” I wanted to leave. I was swimming in checklists and to-do lists for my Italy trip in 6 days, thank you very much. Deep breath. I exhaled my plans and lists, creating enough space to realize I had a weight on my chest and lump in my throat. I diagnosed myself with an extreme case of cold feet in regards to my commitment to Florence University of the Arts. Then I felt guilty. Who gets cold feet about an amazing opportunity to live and study in Europe? Only crazy people. Or was I crazy to go? At twenty-seven should I be spending my entire savings on one season abroad instead of finding a steady job with perks like parking and benefits? A teardrop slid down my cheek and dropped onto my mat. “It’s really not fiscally responsible…do you even know what you are doing with your life? And why do you of all people deserve to go?” This was the voice in my head.

Professor Fadigati motioned to all the pre-set options on the camera dial for portrait and landscape etc. “You see all these? They are for tourists who don’t want to think before they take a picture.” Then he stopped at the capital ‘M’ (manual setting for exposure) and said, “This is for the artist who needs the freedom of choice.” The words ‘artist’ and ‘freedom’ sounded very romantic and breezy, and made me feel like I was in an Audrey Hepburn film – maybe I should cut off my hair like Sabrina before I return, responding to inquiries about my trip with, “I really found myself in Florence…” In reality, however, I can’t always manipulate the numbers and dials on my camera fast enough to capture a moment. The photo turns out dark and vague.

“And now hug your knees into your chest, then let them gently fall over to one side…” I sighed over to the right, my cheek absorbing the aforementioned teardrop. A quiet voice inside spoke up, “It might not make sense, but I just know that I need to go.”  A memory surfaced. I was about seven and sitting on the floor with my grandmother, Mor Mor. She was showing me postcards and mementos of her worldwide travels. Her face was glowing as she told me stories, and she had a quiet smile on her face the entire time, “When you go, you will see.”

Last night I went for a run, and I had to stop as I crossed one of the bridges over the Arno because the sunset was so glorious. It even rivaled the ones in Costa Rica. My soul was awake, and I felt so grateful for the freedom and the choice that I have been given. Yes, there are moments of dark confusion, but there are also others of arresting beauty. And I don’t think that these radiant, simple moments are limited to Europe – I hope they will follow me back to daily life in Washington or to wherever I land. They seem to come from leaving behind cultural autofocus and choosing the settings for myself as I compose the light around me. 

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Great Expectations

It’s only been ten days, but I already have serious feelings about my program at Florence University of the Arts. It might be that I am still in the honeymoon phase of this relationship, but it feels like we should have dinner with the parents already. So far the faculty and staff have been incredible, and my classes are small enough to have quality time and attention from each teacher. I might become one of “those people” when I get home – purchase a Vespa, wear a scarf everyday with skinny denim, reminisce about the amazing espresso in Italy every time I drink coffee, and annoyingly relate every topic of conversation to the fall that I spent in Florence (whether it actually applies or not). “Oh you’re going to Portland for the weekend? I remember when I studied for sixteen weekends in Firenze…”

Here's a snapshot of my first week here.


Introduction to Web Design – Profesora Silvia Mancini began this class by asking if we had a driving passion as a foundation for the reason we were in her class, “Eef the-ah ansoora eez-ah ‘no’ then pleaz leaf.” I can’t say that I am passionate about HTML or web development (quite the opposite), however, I’m desperate to overcome my fear of software and technical information. My head almost imploded with the overload of encoded rules and vocabulary, but by the end I had created a simple website from scratch. True story.

 Communicating in Italian – This class will focus as much on getting to know the city and culture as the vocabulary and grammar. Catia Ballerini took us on a field trip for our first day, and she emphasized the importance of getting outside the American Tourist box by exploring the outer perimeter of Florence. I don’t know if it’s true, but I heard someone say that about ten million people pass through Florence each year – sometimes it’s hard to move on the sidewalks. I’ve taken to running early in the morning or evening when it isn’t crowded, and I’m going to try to switch up my route to a new neighborhood each week. I also signed up for a “Chat Pal” to work on conversational skills (which are non-existent at this point…I smile and nod a lot).


Introduction to Classic Photography – I’m already inspired by the instructor of this course, Neri Fadigati. The first thing that he gave us was the etymology for ‘photography’ – it’s from the Greek phos (light) and graphein (to write). Writing with light, the camera is your pen and content comes from within you. For the first part of class we’ll be working with technique on SLR film cameras, and then for the second half we will be learning our way around the dark room and development.

Introduction to Photoshop – Self-explanatory…our final project is to create the graphics for a board game that we each design. I feel like Alice in Wonderland as I try to navigate my way around this crazy, confusing software.


Visual Communication Design Fundamentals – I predict this will be the most challenging course. It’s an overview of the major components of Graphic Design. One professor, twelve Graphic Design majors and a yoga teacher…it sounds like a joke. But it’s an opportunity to remember that learning is an inquiry, and that each person’s search and journey is a unique expression of who they are. Myself included.


Introduction to Digital Photography – I think this might be my favorite, because we get to cultivate the art of story through our work. Professor Jacopo Santini specializes in black and white, and he made himself available to anyone wanting to work on a special project in that area. Done and done. Similar to Classic Photography, half of the class is lecture on camera technique and composition, and the other half is a lab for editing and printing projects for our portfolios.

I love being in school. My secret plan is to win the lottery and study everywhere all the time.

“To take photographs means to recognize – simultaneously and within a fraction of a second – both the fact itself and the rigorous organization of visually perceived forms that give it meaning. It is putting one’s head, one’s eye, and one’s heart on the same axis.” 

- The Mind’s Eye by Henri Cartier Bresson