Sunday, July 8, 2012

Afsaneh--An Iranian Italian

Afsaneh Ferdosi Milani
I may have met the biggest walking contradiction in Florence. 

Afsaneh Ferdosi Milani says she lives by a daily routine. She writes pieces of her thesis every day, and during the weekdays she attends Florence University and works at a gelato shop.

This woman says she is engaged to her husband, believes in herself and is intent on pursuing the highest degree of education.

Born in Tehran, Iran, Afsaneh grew up with strong support from her parents and siblings. Now, this auburn-headed firecracker with olive-toned skin spends her days working and studying in Florence.

“Always my parents said to us, if you want to be an independent person, you have to study. The more informed you are, the more independent [you will become], and character will form within yourself,” Milani said.

Her sisters and experience at an artistic high school influenced her move to Italy, where she is currently working on her master’s degree in Intercultural Studies. Milani plans to pursue her Ph.D. in the U.S.

Milani’s interest in education started at a young age. “Fortunately, I had a very open family and read books.”

Although she experienced the luxury of having support from her parents, Milani says her childhood in Iran was not always easy.

“I was born in 1983. I can’t say I didn’t have a difficult life. I had to have the hijab when I’m out of the house. You know there are many things you want to do, but can’t because the government denies it to you,” Milani said.

This influential time of growing up as a young Iranian woman resulted in a curiosity about other countries and a determination for independence and change.

“When I decided to leave, I saw the difference between that country and this country. I saw what they were doing to my people. I’m always trying to improve the situation in Iran because they have to know what is going on in Iran,” Milani said.

Her life in Florence is strikingly different than the stereotype of an Iranian woman. Milani enjoys going out for dinner and drinks on weekend nights in Florence. “I am very sociable. I try to talk to people.”

Milani met her husband eight years ago in Iran just before moving to Italy. The two met each other after both winning their respective divisions of a climbing competition. Although they partook in an official wedding ceremony, she introduces him as her fiancé.

Milani says once you’re in love, you stay in love. “It doesn’t change anything if you get married. It doesn’t change because of a signature. I have a problem with the wife and husband titles,” Milani said.

Milani says her fiancĂ© is Diest, and despite her Islamic upbringing, she cannot believe in anything but herself. “I am atheist, and on my Iranian card I am Muslim,” Milani said.

Milani shakes her head in disbelief when she recalls how long she’s lived in Florence. It’s been five years.

As she plans to start the next chapter of her life in the U.S., Milani says, “I will miss Florence. It becomes your second country. You know the language, culture and you establish a life here.”

In Tehran, Milani’s father runs a small coat factory for men. She says her mother is just a simple housewife, but Afsaneh Ferdosi Milani is anything but a typical Iranian woman. Milani is a strong, independent dreamer in pursuit of knowledge and freedom from restrictions.

Savvy Student Shopping

From artisan products made of leather, metal, textiles and paper, to big retail goods, Florence makes a unique shopping capital. Getting to know the local shopkeepers and understanding the authenticity of products they sell will make anyone a happy shopper.

Florence specializes in leather. Passionate craftsmen are excited to show you what they have created with their hands. Of course the best time to shop is when studying abroad. Take advantage of your student status and receive heavy discounts. Merchants love students. (You can receive anywhere from 5 to 100s of Euros off leather.)

Hidden in the heart of Florence where few tourists roam, you can find metal workers turning out artistic beauty for reasonable prices. Some of the shops are exclusive, though, so you may need to make an appointment.

I visited a small metal shop with the Baylor in Florence study abroad program. Our local guide knows the owner and gave us a unique experience. Shiny objects and bulky machines filled his basement workshop, where he demonstrated the process of copying an intricate print onto square pieces of metal.
The master of the shop creates pieces for Christian Dior, Neman Marcus and other famous clients.

The products for sale were reasonably priced, and a seashell-shaped salt and pepper shaker made for Dior was even available. Drawers and shelves filled with compacts, flasks, pins, jewelry, picture frames and pillboxes were all for sale.

Another unique find in Florence is Lisa Corti Home Textile Emporium located just 10 minutes away from Florence University of the Arts. This gem is packed with bright middle-eastern tones splashed on bedspreads, bolster pillows, table clothes, napkins and placemats.

It’s a little pricey, but well worth it. The products are made using ancient techniques and are unique in every respect. Lisa Corti has six locations, including three others across Italy. This store cannot be found in the U.S.

Globally, making paper products is a dying art. In Florence, it is still well alive. Homegrown stationary can be found in shops on almost every other street.

One of the more popular Florentine paper stores is Papira. On Ponte Vecchio, they demonstrate the process of painting paper with striking colorful swirls.

Clothes and shoes also run rampant across town. While artisan shops consume the local venues, commercialism doesn’t escape Florence. You can find fun European chains like Zara and H&M, high-end designer stores such as Louis Vuitton and nice specialty shops. These mall-type stores can be found in the heart of the historical district, where the Duomo is located.
Gold and other precious gems are valued over the Arno River. Local merchants protect Ponte Vecchio, so you can be assured that everything is authentic. The bridge is a historical must-see, but a fair warning: the prices are high. For students, window-shopping is the best way to experience this bridge.

One other piece of advice: don’t buy illegal or fake merchandise. It sounds like a no-brainer, but you can be an easy target if you haven’t been to Florence before.

As a general rule, the open markets sell fake goods. Leather, hats and scarves are best bought in a shop and not on the street.

Avoid the men with Chanel and Vuittons strapped around their shoulders. It is illegal to buy from them.

Blankets that line the pavement are a bad sign, too. Thin cloth sheets spread in the streets with sunglasses or jewelry lined up in rows are stolen. Italian law prohibits buying or selling these goods.

The combination of artisan craft and hip commercial stores creates a unique shopping experience for buyers. While in Florence, shop. Nowhere else can you find the same set of products. Students should grab the good deals and buy the souvenirs that will create memories for a lifetime. You only study abroad in Florence once.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Secrets of Vecchio

After a weekend in Venice, we came to back to an uncomfortable heat wave in Florence. High nineties was the forecast for the week. We don't have air conditioning. We were in need of a fan. Thankfully, after asking three pharmacias, some local non-English speaking police, and a Tabacchi shop owner, we found a place to buy a fan!

Earlier that day, we toured Palazzo Vecchio, Florence's city hall and home to the Medici family for a while. I was completely surprised. I didn't expect to climb inside a secret door that looks like a cabinet!
The main hall: the large covering to the right is an on-going project. Art historians have found a famous Da Vinci painting behind the Vecchio architect's painting. The architect left a few inches between the two paintings.
Upon entering the place, you see huge paintings that cover the walls and ceilings and an original Michelangelo statue. Our guide Stefano is legitimate and intelligent. He told us that he would take us through the rooms of the royal Medici family and a few other cool places, where he knew secrets that he would share with us.

Stephano grabs a set of keys and pulls back a velvet rope to quickly let us in. It's a tiny room, so only 10 people of our Baylor group are allowed in at a time. 
This room was a private workshop. Filled with beautiful paintings, we soon discover that each painting symbolizes what was kept in each cabinet. Yes, it turns out that each panel is a cabinet. But it gets better. One of the panels is a secret door! 
Inside the private study
Cabinets are behind every painting.
Secret door behind a painting panel.
Our jaws dropped when Stephano twisted a key, and a door opened to a mysterious staircase. He nodded us to go in. What?! We get to go in? Ah, I felt like a princess in a movie. We climbed the stairs in child-like wonder and entered a private study. 
The three colors of tiles symbolizes the unity of the three regions of Tuscany.
Cabinets inside the study
The private study
We didn't exit the same way we came in. Instead, Stephano made us figure out which of the panels in the study was a door, and we exited that way back into the workshop.
That wasn't the end of our adventure. Our tour time was technically over by this point, but Stephano is so passionate about this stuff that he extended our tour for 45 minutes.

We climbed another narrow staircase behind a velvet rope, while other people looked at us in confusion. When we reached the top, we saw the infrastructure of the ceiling. We could see where the paintings frames were and the original wood and metal that hold it all together. 
The very top of Palazzo Vecchio
Our journey continued as we toured the public rooms of the family. When we got to the room of maps, another cabinet turned into a door, and we proceeded through. This led to yet another door with a balcony and to the Duchess' private room. This was her own space, where she could escape and get away from everything. This room connected to a public chapel we saw earlier.
The room of maps 
A secret panel turns into a door.
The balcony attached to the Duchess' room 
The Duchess' room
The door to the chapel
The coolest part was the secret window. Back in the Medici era, events and meetings would be held on the main hall. The Duchess had a hidden window that overlooked the hall, so she could spy on people and see what was going on. 
Hidden window
View of the main hall from the window
Think Princess Diaries 2. You know, the scene where Mia is spying on the parliament in a secret passageway. Yeah, I pretty much totally did that, and that mind of thing definitely existed in Medici times. 

Who knew that this stuff was real? This definitely goes on the 'Top Ten Coolest Things I've Ever Done List.'

After the tour, we had class a couple hours later. I actually learned a lot in that one hour. We had the opportunity to use the photo lab at FUA. We got to learn about lights and how the studio works in general. It was so interesting and really fun. I definitely want to explore studio photography more.
Then I got to see Lauren!...all the way in Florence! Catherine and I had dinner with her and some other Baylor business students. I was so excited to see her! It's pretty awesome to meet up with your best friend in Firenze for an Italian dinner!

Fan, secret passageways, photo lab, and Lauren...overall this day was awesome!

Venetian Itinerary

Venice has always been one of my favorite cities. It's the Atlantis of Europe. It's emerald green water canals and narrow alleyways make it one of the most beautiful spots on earth.
This is actually the second time I've been to Venice. I visited the city my senior year as part of a choir trip over spring break. This time was different.

We toured a lot more, and I learned more about the history of Venice. I saw San Marco square, the Doge Palace, the Jewish ghetto and San Marco Basilica.
Doge Palace
Girl in the Jewish Ghetto

Local venetian
Fun Facts:

The city is a hodge podge. Not many things in Venice are original. A lot of what is there was plundered, stolen, or bought from other areas.

The lion is a promienent symbol of Venice

Venice had its own government, and at once, was independent.

Gondoliers go to school and training for 2 years. It cost about 50,000 Euro to buy a boat. The tradition is commonly passed down in the family for generations.

Many residents have private owned boats they use to navigate the canals.

There is one casino in Venice.

Venice is known for two artisan items, masks and glass. 

After we completed our tours, we had some free time. I chose to take a water taxi and go to Murono. This island of glass was absolutely stunning. Glass factories were everywhere.
Water taxi ride
Murano glass shop
A lot of the glass though is not functional. In fact, most pieces are artisan, decorative items, like sailboats, animals and other novelties.

After Murono, I realized a life dream: I took a gondola ride. Surprisingly, it took us a while to find one, but we located a boat just in time for dinner. Our gondolier was friendly and knowledgeable. He told us interesting facts as he rowed down the canals.

Our gondolier
It was really cool to see the city from this perspective and to be so close to the water. It was also extremely relaxing. The boat could have easily rocked me to sleep. There was no time for an Italian siesta though because we had to book it to dinner.

At dinner that night we had lasagna, veal, potatoes and terrimissu.

We only spent 3 days in Venice, which wasn't long enough. I hope I'll get to revisit someday.