La Pasqua (Easter) con la mia famiglia italiana!

This past Sunday was Easter in Florence, and it was the most exciting Easter I’ve ever experienced. I partook in Florence’s special Easter tradition Sunday morning and my roommate then had a magnificent Easter lunch with my Italian host mother. 

Florence doesn’t have an Easter Bunny. Instead, Florence’s special Easter tradition is called the Scoppio del Carro — which means Explosion of the Cart. The cart is called the Brindellone. It is pulled by two beautiful white cows–and paraded through the streets of Florence until it is brought between the Cattedrale di Santa Maria di Fiore and the Baptistery. Then sometime after 11am the colombina, a rocket shaped like a dove whizzes from inside the cathedral towards the cart, along a string attached to the cart. It collides and ignites the cart, which begins spewing fireworks. The dove then is propelled back into the cathedral. If it makes it all the way back, or I’ve also heard if all the fireworks successfully go off on the cart, then Florence is blessed with Buona Fortuna for the year!

There was some parade action before and after the fireworks. My host mom actually has a friend that was one of the people dressed in Renaissance garb in the parade. I didn’t find him, but I got to see the cart, cows, and a fluffy donkey up close. 

For lunch we had ravioli with a wonderfully aromatic herb concoction, bollito with homemade sauce (boiled beef that comes out really soft), some wine, and a traditional cake called a Colomba which is shaped like a dove. We also got giant chocolate eggs with a surprise inside (I got a phone charger)!

Living with an Italian host family is an amazing experience. Our host mom is extremely kind and fun to talk with. Easter lunch was really special, but we have breakfast and dinner together everyday. As we learn more and more Italian, we can have longer conversations. It’s amazing how good I feel about oral comprehension because I get to practice so much. 

Dove abito? Adesso a Firenze.

Ciao! Sono a Firenze per studiare la storia dell’arte e l’italiano! Florence is so different from London. Yet the process of having to  learn how to live in a while different city again feels a little bit deja vu because I am definitely applying my new survival skills from London here. I feel more confident, but that doesn’t mean adjustment is any less of a challenge. 

My experience being in oh so gigantic London makes me really comfortable about going to new locations and not recognizing where I am. But actually, I am getting lost here in Italy way more often. Google Maps and excellently user friendly public transportation signs was the Sam to my Frodo back in London. But since my phone kind of slightly broke just recently, the extra few days I waited before getting a new one really had me getting chummy with a paper map. And the thing is, Florence is so much smaller than London and the distance between its roads are smaller, so errors in using a GPS tend to be more dramatic. So even now after I got my new cell phone, this paper map has remained my new Sam. 

My first couple days I was always overshooting my distances. The streets of Florence are way less straight than those in London. But gradually I am actually learning them, kind of like the way we are learning Italian. I feel like there might be something symbiotic in the way spatial memory and verbal memory are working in my brain.
The Linguaviva program for learning Italian is bravissimo. The first minute we meet our teacher, she immerses us in Italian right away and our brains start learning and absorbing–and we can’t do anything about it. No hesitation or wishy washy fanciness. The teacher makes every minute count. 

For our other two classes, one is focused on understanding how the Medici were patrons of art and other delves into museology. But both are very complementary and are like two windows into the art history of Florence especially around the Renaissance. They are both more challenging for me than the other courses in the program so far because there are a lot of people’s names and art periods to get straight, but like in London as Visual Text, we are taken on a lot of walking tours, which is such a helpful way of learning because we get to see art in the flesh and up to scale. 

After seeing so many museums in London and in Florence, I think it’s really helpful to learn some of the specialized concepts to do with art and museums. I really like the book we are reading by Vasari. Vasari was a Renaissance artist and an important art history source because he wrote a lot about artists that came before him. I think he’s really fun to read because he tells little anecdotes and sounds so enthusiastic about everything he writes. 

London Recap: 5 Random Things

London went by so fast! There was a lot that happened in there. When you’re in London, the city just keeps going on and on. Having made small trips to other UK cities such as Edinburgh, Bath, and Cardiff made me I realize just how big London was. All that time when we lived in Islington I could just forget there was a world outside of London. London has a lot of different boroughs and whatnot with different personalities, but the urban-ness never seems to slack off at any point. It can take hours to get from one end of London to another. I liked it, although I can imagine it might make someone feel claustrophobic.

I am no longer in London (!!!), but I’m still going to write about London just a bit. Here is London retold through some random “things”.

Thing #5:

IMG_2218Canal boats, I think they are called. I first saw one at Camden Market, then found a whole neighborhood of them on a small waterway near our flats. When I was looking on Airbnb at one point I found a guy and his canal boat, but I didn’t end up booking him. He literally wrote that he might be in different countries at different times of the year. But essentially the living space is probably really long and narrow. Some people put potted plants along the little “porch” area or on top of the boat. I also saw some people just sitting on top of their boat and having a picnic. The one canal boatmen I talked to said he was a student and was living in his brother’s boat. Some tell me they are actually somewhat expensive to live in, maybe that is so. But next time I have the opportunity I would really love living in one of these!

Thing #4


Pancake Day (Feb. 13th this year, day before Ash Wed.) and Mothering Sunday (March 26th, fourth Sunday in Lent)

Pancakes are more of a U.S. thing, but Pancake Day exists in the UK. Originally it was for getting rid of foods before Lent, i.e. making things into pancakes with various toppings. We took advantage of the holiday and got some pancakes half off.

Just recently! Mother’s Day, or Mothering Sunday, is celebrated earlier than the US Mother’s Day and is in association with religious dates. I saw a lot of signs for Mothering Day when I was in Bath and the Cotswolds.

Thing #3


Dated Eggs. Eggs don’t need to be put in the refrigerator in the UK. Unlike in the US, where eggs are cleaned, in the UK the good ones are not. This means that UK eggs retain their outside layer, called a cuticle, that can protect it from germs. In the US, eggs need to be washed to prevent salmonella, which is less of a risk in the UK. There are also other reasons:

Thing #2

One of my professors at Grinnell actually told me about Quorn. Quorn is a vegetarian meat that’s not found often in the U.S. I found them easily in supermarkets in the UK. It is actually meat made out of fungi. I bought a pack of chicken-flavored Quorn, and it tasted more like chicken than chicken–it tasted so much like chicken it was almost too chicken-y. I felt like it was more an acquired taste, but it wasn’t too bad.

Thing #1: 

IMG_3905Many flavors. In many stores. Much too convenient. These to-go sandwiches in boxes are everywhere, especially in stores that appeal to students in a rush, such as Pret a Manger and Tesco. More than once have I acquiesced to the $3 meal, which includes a sandwich, a side, and a drink.

A Week in the Life

Now that we’ve been here a few weeks, I will try to generalize our daily life!

Midterms have ended, and finals are just around the corner. Instead of taking four courses over the course of a semester like I normally do back in Grinnell, here we are taking two courses in London and will be talking two courses plus a language course in Florence. For our London midterms and finals, we write papers for both our classes. Additional projects giving a presentation about a visual text’s narrative for our London as Visual Text class, and writing a 10-minute play for our theatre class. But both courses are heavily field trip dependent–which I love becuase it really takes advantage of living in the middle of London.
Theatrical Spaces, Enduring Questions, Changeable Lives — is the class in which we get to see so many incredible plays like Escaped Alone and This House and Curious Incident and discuss them together afterwards. It’s different from my intro to Shakespeare class (what I learned in that class definitely has been applicable to this class) I took back in the States because we focus on performance, staging, and production interpretations in addition to the actual scripts. 


London as Visual Text: Constructions of Heritage — is where we go on so many interesting walking tours and get a taste of history and heritage from inside museums and out on the streets of London. We always go a level above what we are actually seeing and discuss the overall “narrative” of places and exhibits we go to. Professor Kennedy is quite funny and very knowledgeable; it’s great being taught by someone who’s lived in London for a while. 


It feels like no two weeks are the same here, since we often go on field trips that change things up. Moreover, we go see a show for our theatre course on average 2 times a week, which can happen Monday-Thursday. If we did have a typical week though, it would be something like this:


  • 9am Theatre class begins
  • 11am Visual Text class begins
  • 12-1pm lunch
  • meet at 1 or 2pm to go on a walking tour for Visual Text class
  • May see a show


  • Professor Barry (theatre class) office hours in the morning
  • at around 1 or 2pm, go on another walking tour!
  • May see a show


  • No class! unless we have a theatre show in the evening.
  • May see a show


  • 1-3pm theatre class
  • May see a show

Friday, Saturday, Sunday

  • No class

Even though our only two days of actual “classroom” class occur on Monday and Thursday, we also spend a lot of time on walking tours, which is essentially an outdoor classroom, and watching theatre shows, each show being around 3 hours long. On the surface, this schedule looks lighter than it does during my normal semester, but every day is actually very busy for me. It’s up to you really, how much you want to push yourself everyday, but the extra time we have is often spent on exploring even more of London when not doing homework or readings. 

What is unique about our experience overall is how the classes and program are built to enable and encourage us to pursue independent travel exploration.Our visual text course doesn’t end just at the tour–walking the city with Professor Kennedy really opens up the city for us to go back to places to study more in depth for our essays and presentation. Our theatre course also teaches us how to book our own tickets and be informed consumers of theatre (of my own choosing, I’ve seen Much Ado About Nothing and Les Miserables outside of class). Furthermore, the three day weekend is a perfect chance to take trips outside the UK or to other parts of the UK. In fact, this weekend I’m flying to Edinburgh.

The Week of Shakespeare

ACM London & Florence–Week 2, Feb 6-12


Where can you find the most majestic moss in the world? It might just be Shakespeare’s birthplace. I’ve never felt so surrounded by moss before–moss in every crevice, moss covering the tops of stone pillars like happy green hats–I feel like I’m being attacked by moss. And there are so many adorable thatched roofs that I just wish I could pet them all!

Stratford is both quaint and not quaint. There are thatched roofs everywhere, but this place is bustling with tourism and unexpectedly heavy traffic. Perhaps it’s a quaint village with city traffic, or a city posing as a quaint village. Either way, I really enjoyed the unique and engaging atmosphere.

After all, it is the world’s first theme park, as our professors called it. I had to work my mind around this idea because there aren’t rides here–but I came to understand that there’s a sort of commercial parallel–there was a man who started the effort to make Shakespeare’s origins a destination for tourists, and now this entire town is Shakespeare themed. Our B&B was literally on a street full of B&Bs. I’ve never seen so many B&B’s in my life, nor a town with a theme. For the people who live here, the ethos and reality of Shakespeare is a part of their everyday life.


We visited Shakespeare’s birthplace, Anne Hathaway’s Cottage, Hall’s Croft, Shakespeare’s New Place, and the Church of the Holy Trinity where Shakespeare is buried. There were docents dressed according to the era in each of these houses, and they were best docents I’ve ever encountered. They new so much about the era and the people who lived in the houses that we almost ran out of time to see everything.

While in Stratford, we watched two incredible plays (Two Noble Kinsmen and The Rover), and someone from the Royal Shakespeare Company HE WAS IN BOTH OF THE PLAYS WE WATCHED actually met us in our B&Bs and chatted with us. He used his diaphragm so well just when talking normally–it was incredible to be in the same room as him and get a sense of his views on the performances and to hear about his energetic life. His name is Gyuri Sarossy.

The air was chill and moist the entire time we were in Stratford, but the pub was nice and warm.


Globe Theatre

The day we got back to London we came to this place–Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre itself, rebuilt as accurately as possible. We got to stand on the stage and experience for ourselves how actors were able to see the faces of and be heard by every single audience member. Afterwards we even did an acting workshop–which involved dueling each other.img_2595

Somehow this all happened in three days.

—Sunny Zhao, Grinnell College student

Eyes Unblinking

I could tell you about how my flatmates and I visited Kensington Palace on our own, how we went to Museum of London and Museum of London Docklands for our London as Visual Text course, or how in our Theatrical Spaces, Enduring Questions, Changeable Lives: theatre in London here and now we already seen two live performances (Escaped Alone and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime). There is just so much to do here, and even enough time especially on weekends to do independent travel. You have to believe me, because it’s been a week and I still haven’t gone on my pilgrimage to Platform 9 and ¾, nor have I visited Baker Street.

I am overwhelmed. In such a jolly good way.

I just want to share this photo of one of the rooms in the Pollock’s Toy Museum to metaphorically the feeling of being overwhelmed,img_2204

And this face right here,


There hasn’t been a single day that I have been idle. And all of my experiences have been learning experiences. Dolls and toys from the past that frankly look creepy today have their own wisdom to bestow. In these photos the dolls happen to be white, but there were also toys from other cultures in Pollock’s Toy Museum. Some of the toys, however, were by no means racially acceptable by today’s standards. We asked our professor, and he explained that black-face minstrelsy used to be very much a part of popular culture. It was a disturbing but meaningful history lesson about race relations in the past.

While I’ve been in big multicultural cities before, London by far is the most vocally multicultural I’ve every been in. On the streets, in the Tube, I hear all sorts of languages from everywhere. Lots of European, South Asian, East Asian, etc.

Here’s another photo of metaphorical multitudinous:


The angle of this photo gives me vertigo but that’s kind of how I felt when we visited Camden Market–an outdoor (and parts of it subterranean) market with stuff and more stuff some British some stuff from other cultures and other quirky stuff and food and more pubs all looking down into a canal and lock.

The theme of this blog post is multitudinous-ness because I have come to realize that the infinite choices London presents to me will or already has become a personal hydra to overcome. Even though we get to be here for seven weeks, I want to see as much as I can within that finite time period. Today in class we learned about coincidental interpretive work which essentially means that the order of things we experience expects our experience and interpretation of subsequent things. For example, if I watch three plays I can watch them in a total of six different orders. Each order of viewing will produce a different experience. If I watch Play A before Play B my impressions of Play A will color my impression of Play B somewhat, and so on.

Basically, of all the things I see and do in London, the order in which I do them, as well as other factors, will affect my textual interpretation of London as a text. My experience of London will be different from another person.

What does this all mean? Erm nothing, I don’t really have a punch line. I’m just going to continue going strong here and experience as much as I can and try to look at things from lots of angles.



Also here’s some divine moss.





It has been a whole week that we’ve been here now, so it is time I give some of my impressions of culture in this place called London. I have let myself mull it over trying not to jump to conclusions because I know I am already biased by a notion UK culture that has filtered into my life through books, TV, and film. Even though people here speak a language I can understand, I know it would be naive to take anything for granted. In fact, just the other day I asked for a split check at the end of our meal and greatly confused our waitress, since we should have asked to have our bills be separate at the very beginning.

People are friendly is very true, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. These are city people is important to remember, because the friendliness isn’t exactly the small town kind. In fact, people are a bit antisocial at least on the Tube. I also really need to do better in seek out more conversations with locals here, so I’m just saying that my ideas about culture may continue to change as I become bolder. But right now, I would say that after speaking to Londoners I feel that there is a sense of a universal matter-of-factness that is almost existential that is much stronger than it is in the US.

One of my fellow study-abroaders made a joke that if he made eye contact with people on the Tube that the people would sustain it. I wonder if that was part of it? When I asked a women in a supermarket why she liked her persimmons firmer (calling it a persimmon here but it was actually a related species I forgot the word for), the way she answered me it was like we were already on a metaphysical chum level.