Are you ready for a long haul of reading? Because this might be... in an attempt to catch you up on the happenings of my life.
The first two weeks, I was in Italy. Literally the day after I turned in my big second year report (the only annual report we have to submit/ progress check we receive), I was on the plane to Rome.
As mentioned briefly in the previous picture post, the first week was spent in Cortona, Tuscany at the Neuroepigenetics course, put on by the Neuroscience School of Advanced Studies. It was INTENSE! Class from 9 to 7 (with a 3 hour break at lunch), lecture format with a lot of inter-class discussion. And everything was new to me, so that alone was tough. Not to mention that half of the class consisted of professors, so the level of teaching was at its highest. However, I learned SO much and had a great time. Lunch and dinner was prepared for us every day, which was nice because we got to try authentic Tuscan cuisine. One thing I have to say about it- Tuscan food is so salty! A friend I met there, who is also from the Tuscany region, said that it is because Tuscany is situated along the old Salt Trail. Salt was shipped throughout Italy on this path and the more salt you had, the wealthier you were! So salty food was very desirable and the traditions of the region have maintained in the cuisine today. It was nice to see a little town in Tuscany- during the day, there was a lot of tourism. However, after the tourists had gone, the town had medieval festivals running for the locals and it was very interesting to see the celebration of their culture.
However, 9 days in a little town gets to be a bit much after awhile. Half way through the course, we got a half day to explore so a few friends and I went to Arezzo, the "big" local town. Arezzo was nice as well and gave a great new town to discover after some cabin fever started to settle in Cortona.
By the end of the course, I was SO ready to see Ben and go on vacation. I met him in Rome, where we went off to our Air B&B stay (if you haven't used Air B&B, I highly recommend it as an alternative to hostels or cheap hotels). By the time we finally got settled, we didn't have too much of the day left so we grabbed some dinner (touristy and disappointing) and went to see the sights of the Colosseum. My impressions of Rome- not impressed. Actually, I REALLY wish Rome wasn't my first city (I flew into it) because it lowered my view of Italy for awhile. The people are rude and, while I realize Rome is a major city of the world, it doesn't maintain the majesty or culture as cities like Paris do. However, the next day Ben and I explored the Colosseum and Palantine Hill and I LOVED it. I would go back to this area of the world again and again. It was amazing. And the only thing worth doing in Rome, in my opinion. After that, we took a free walking tour where we saw the Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, and Pantheon. I always enjoy the walking tours because you get to learn a lot about the city you are exploring and it helps bring some culture when it is otherwise difficult to see. As Rome is a big city and FULL of tourists, is easy to get lost in the not so pleasant aspects. If you visit Rome, and not just the Ancient Roman highlights, definitely put a lot of emphasis on local points of interest as opposed to tourist. Or else you will be disappointed.
The next day, we went to Vatican City. Again, I was very disappointed. The Vatican was... underwhelming. Ben agreed. After seeing other great churches in Italy, Notre Dame in Paris, and wonders in Portugal, Spain, and England, I just wasn't impressed. It was showy and had no intimate feel like all other churches I've been in have. We then raced through the Vatican Museums (which was a bit of a shame) as we were low on time but really wanted to see the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Again, it was underwhelming. I think the biggest problem with the entire trip was that there weren't any tour on offer. You could take a walking tour, which we didn't have time for. If you wanted a self-guided tour, you could only get the pilgrimage tour for Christians. All we wanted was the history and religious relevance of the buildings and items we had seen. But it was lost on us and that really was a shame.
I know this seems negative so far and I apologize for that. But I was SERIOUSLY bummed with how underwhelmed I was by Rome and Vatican City, especially since I had put Italy on such a high pedestal. After speeding through Vatican City to catch our train to Florence, my attitude seriously switched around.
Florence was AMAZING! And our hostel was AMAZING!!! Soggiorna Laura (that might be a little misspelled...) was great- the people were friendly, the breakfast was AMAZING, and since Florence is so little, we weren't too far from anything. All the food we had in Florence was great; that is a big thanks to the hostel since they gave us a great list of recommendations. Our full day in Florence was spent wandering around the city. And eating. But mostly wandering. You can see our highlights in the previous picture post. The next day, we visited the Tuscan cities Pisa and Siena. We knew Pisa would be a waste of time, but we had to see the Leaning Tower. Just to say we had been there. And Pisa was such crap haha. The tower really wasn't even that impressive. And when we went on to Siena, I still didn't see what all the fuss was about. Cortona and Arezzo were far better Tuscan cities. Lucca was one of our city options and I'm kicking myself a little bit for going to Pisa instead of Lucca. However, I'm sure I would've been kicking myself if we had missed the leaning tower. So....
After we sadly left Florence, a city with amazing people, amazing sights, amazing feel, and amazing food, we were off to Cinque Terre (an area on the Italian Riviera). We stayed at an Air B&B and it was AMAZING! We were actually in La Spezia, just outside of Cinque Terre and we stayed with a family on their farm. We had a homemade white wine welcome bottle and were fed an array of homemade jams with fresh breads and pastries each morning. It was great. We saw fireflies and wild pigs, surrounded by an environment similar to being in the Marin Headlands. There was nothing around but beautiful nature and we loved it.
In Cinque Terre, there are 5 towns on the cliff face, with different hiking paths connecting them (or a rail line). We visited all 5 and both agreed our favorite was Manarola. And we took a great hike between two of the towns, followed by a swim in the Mediterranean. Cinque Terre was great, if you can avoid the super touristy aspect of it. Luckily, the first town is the most touristy and it is easy enough to get away from all of that.
At the end of our stay, we left for Milan to grab our flight back to England. We had a little time to kill in Milan, but the Duomo was too far away to get to and back in time for our flight. And we weren't too impressed with the immediate area surrounding the station. So we just relaxed. I was SO tired (and bloated from all the food and salt) by the end of the trip that I was actually looking forward to going home.
Overall, the Italy trip was great. My travels definitely have changed the way I view countries and towns- for some reason, I always expected countries to ooze their stereotypical cultural qualities. And they don't. Especially the big cities. The smaller cities maintain more of this in-your-face-cultural-awesome, unless they are very tourist-y. You have to plan a bit more to experience the culture and you have to work hard to ignore the tourism surrounding you. Local is key to travel and if you want to get local, you've really got to do your research.
Once back, I jumped straight back into work. The majority of June was full of grant writing. I've applied for the F31 predoctoral fellowship through the NIH. It will be EXTREMELY difficult to get this grant and I'm really not expecting to get it. However, the experience was great and well worth the stress it induced. The grant application was huge. And it gave me a lot of practice for working on my scientific writing and articulation of my work. Now that the grant has been finished, I've got to finish writing my behavioral paper for publishing and my poster for the Postgraduate Colloquium in September. In the mean time, I'm also working on cloning and sequencing a gene in my model organism and finishing up my signaling pathway analysis. Hopefully, by the end of summer, I will have completed all (or most) of this work.
Next up is the post about July. Its way less exciting, but lets hope it doesn't take 3 months to finally get to writing it!
Now here's a picture from June since this has been ALL text: