Monday, 27 August 2012

The Italian Animals You Won't Find in Travel Brochures

I'd like to give an insight (or an earful) into the loudest noise in Italy (well, second perhaps if you consider Roberto Benigni!) and tell you about some of the Italian creatures which I doubt you'll find in travel brochures.

The first day of summer often arrives in dramatic fashion in Italy. It goes from "oo-that's-a-bit-chilly" to "pffffff! It's boiling!!" within about 24 hours. When this happened in Bologna, I opened the windows straight away and was hit by a deafening racket. I thought there must be something wrong with my ears or that I'd developed a sudden and localized case of tinnitus. I asked my Italian students if that could hear it only to be given a quizzical look and the response, 'um, what noise?' Apparently, they'd all become immune to the sound that was coming through the open windows but to my English ear, the noise was just incredible.

Hear the Cicada Here

High up in the nearby trees, there were tens of cicadas, a loud chunky looking insect with a unique mating song. Their serenade is 120 decibels at close range (the same intensity as a jet engine) which means your ears could be permanently damaged if you held one to your ear. Even the cicada has to close its own ears to prevent itself from being deafened! However, the loudness of the males' wooing technique also acts as a nifty deterrent to keep birds from gobbling up these juicy insects. 

The gross thing about the cicada is that it begins its life on the tree trunk as a larvae and then leaves its exoskeleton on the trunk when it moves up the tree. This means that you have creepy insect shaped formations plastered all over the tree trunks. 

Other Animals that I've Discovered

Firstly, there are the huge green grasshoppers (cavellette) which I've encountered twice: one nonchalantly crossing a main road and the other, a beast which jumped into the kitchen and pooped on the microwave (below).

I often jump or let out an embarrassing squeak when I hear the sound of rustling leaves in the hedges here. Thankfully, the source of the rustling tends to be little lizards which scurry away as you walk on the pavement. You'll usually find them in grassy areas in the outskirts of Italian cities especially if you're on route to an out of town department stores or IKEA.

And finally, just to show that even Italy is not immune to gross things, during my morning walk, I came across this lovely creature...

and this is what happened 20 seconds later...

and then this...

Saturday, 25 August 2012

Graffiti in Bologna

While many shops are closed for the summer and their shutters are firmly down, I've had the opportunity to  enjoy and take snaps of the street graffiti in Bologna. The graffiti by its very nature is temporary and so old works are eventually covered up and new pieces take their place or crop up in unexpected places. Here are some of my favourites from this Summer. 

The Best Shoe Shop ever! 
Medusa (a Jellyfish)

A newspaper stand (unfortunately someone
stuck something over Snoopy's nose)
A Scheming Giraffe

A Geisha taking Espresso

The Birth of Venus

The local Seamstress

A Jazz Bar

A Lamb stencil that's appeared everywhere

(photo via @John1954Moi)

A Mexican Bar
(Old Photo of Graffiti that still exists in Via Inerio)
Update April 2013: I found this happy chappy on the shutters of a veterinarian nearby. 

For more check out this article: Bologna Street Art at NomadBiba

Friday, 24 August 2012

The 11 Basic Facial Expressions When People See a Muslim (in Pictures)

While I was strolling around Bologna this morning, I happened to receive a few funny looks from Italians in the street. Being a Muslim in a Catholic country, I'm become completely used to this now and usually the reactions are so comical that I don't mind them. Actually, they can be pretty entertaining. So I've compiled a light-hearted list of the 11 most common facial reactions to seeing a Hijab. Which one are you?

The Overcompensating Smile
(to show I'm not racist) 

The Disapproving Old Lady Glare

The Don't Make Eye Contact Look

The Standard Confused Face

The Double Chin Double Take!

The Concerned 'Aren't You Hot in That??'

The Surprised 'Oh' Face

"Is this girl Italian or just foreign?"

The Duck and Cover!!

"So just what are you exactly??"

 Hope you enjoyed them!

I also need to add a special mention for:

'The Hijabi Seeing Another Hijabi Look!'

which results in uncontrollable excitement and, in my case, 'oooooo look hijabiiiiiii!'

If you can think of any more let me know, comment or send me a photo with a caption!!

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Travel Photos: Florence, Italy

Cellini's Perseus with the Head of Medusa  (@SaritaAgerman)

Palazzo Vecchio (@SaritaAgerman)

The Breath-Taking Dome of Santa Maria Del Fiore (@SaritaAgerman)

A Bird Resting on David (@SaritaAgerman)

A Gondola on the River Arno (@SaritaAgerman)

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UPCOMING: Florence Travel Journal to follow...

For more Photos of Italy - Check out my Flickr: 

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Siena and the Palio (A City of Medieval Rivalries)

Piazza Del Campo (Photo: Anon) 

If Emilia-Romagna is the culinary heart of Italy (although other regions may dispute this claim) then Tuscany is the cultural centre, with Florence at it's heart. Tuscany, the birth place of the Renaissance, claims to speak the perfect Italian, and boasts the beautiful cities of Pisa, Lucca and Siena. In the days before Italy came into existence as we know it today, the country was instead made up of powerful city states. During that time, the fiercest rivalry of them all was between Florence and Siena, a bitter rivalry both in Art and War. I'll always have a soft spot for Siena as it was my first taste of Italian life when I attended an intensive language course there three years ago. 

The winding streets of Siena (Photo: @SaritaAgerman) 

The historic centre of Siena is made up of narrow streets which lead onto the main square Piazza del Campo, a gently sloping piazza in the shape of a shell. During the warm Summer evenings, the piazza is full of young people, families and elderly couples sitting, chatting, eating ice cream or simply enjoying an evening stroll or passeggiata. In the day time, you can climb the Piazza's Tower (La Torre Del Mangia) and see a wonderful view of the city below. There are many activities in the Summer, the streets have designated areas for busking and graffiti and so the streets have a great variety of musicians and artists. The latter often re-create famous paintings with 24 hours and wash it away the next day of create amazing 3D graffiti.  

Street Painting: Da Vinci's Portrait of a Woman

Street Painting: Botticelli's The Birth of Venus

The city itself is divided into distinct districts or contrade, each with its own flag and symbol. They even have their own traditional ally and enemy amongst the other contrade. The competition that exists between these contrade is just the tip of the iceberg. In fact, Siena remains a city of medieval rivalries; rivalries which have been brewing for over a thousand years. They bubble under the surface for the whole year and then erupt spectacularly twice a year in the form of the famous Palio, a frantic bareback horse race around the main Piazza. Spectactors are in the thick of it, herded into the middle of the piazza while the race encircles them. The frenzied action is all over in less than two minutes but nonetheless is a matter of great pride for the winning contrade. It is not uncommon to see grown men reduced to tears and women in fits of hysterics following the race. The race has all the pomp you'd expect from a medieval dual with the jockeys dressed in all their finery. It is not without its perils however and often the first horse over the finish line is riderless. 

Flag of the Onda (or Wave ) Contrada (Photo: @SaritaAgerman) 

For those with a dicky ticker or who have fears for the safety of the horse and rider (and there are certainly many who feel the race is outdated and dangerous for the horses), you can always enjoy the post-race festivities instead. Not only is winning contrada's flag or bandiera hoisted all over the main square but the winners parade through the square on most if not all the nights of the subsequent month. These street parades seem to spring up spontaneously and spill out onto the streets. The parade gains many tens of followers as they march joyously behind the winning flag through the contrade. Those sat in Piazza Del Campo can hear the drums reverberating around the square several minutes before it arrives. The people make guesses as to which tiny opening the throng of people will appear. Suddenly they arrive and fill the piazza with cheers and an infectious party atmosphere. 

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Gelato (Photo: @SaritaAgerman) 

Siena was also the place where I fell in love with real Gelato where it is usually displayed in mouther-matering pyramids topped with fresh fruits and syrups. For more information on Italian Gelato, look no further than my previous blog post Travel Journal: Venice. Speaking of gelato, if you're ever in Tuscany do try and visit San Gimignano, a small Medieval town in the province of Siena. The town, set on a hill and famous for its towers also has a very prestigious gelateria (with an ubiquitous 'world's best" sign!). The gelateria is tiny but it has delicious and unique flavours like their subtle saffron ice cream or refreshing raspberry and mint. 

The Medieval towers of San Gimignano (Photo: @SaritaAgerman)

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(Photo: @SaritaAgerman)

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 If I haven't managed to tempt you to jump on a plane yet, maybe these pictures of the Tuscan landscape with its Cypress trees and luscious vineyards will do the trick! 

Tuscan Countryside (@SaritaAgerman) 

Vineyards near Monalcino (Photo: @SaritaAgerman) 

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Photos were all taken by @SaritaAgerman unless otherwise stated. 

Friday, 10 August 2012

Tips for Motivating Children in Class

Here are some tips to help ESL and general teachers who work with young children. Teaching children can be very challenging, but it can also be the most rewarding age group to teach. Don't be afraid to try out new things or to look silly, you never know, it might just be the method that gets the most out of your students! The methods below have mainly been learned through trial and error. Some of these ideas can be applied to different ages while others are more applicable for young learners or teenagers, depending on ability. 

1. Ask children to bring in their own toys to use for illustrations. 

A very simple but highly effective use of realia (tactile or visual objects used as learning tools). Obviously, children are very attached to their own toys and will be far more receptive if you include familiar toys in lessons. If you want to teach prepositions for instance, you could ask children to bring in dolls, Barbies, figurines etc. and give instructions like:

  • Put Barbie on the table
  • Put your doll under the desk 
  • Put Teddy on your head
  • Put Action Man in your bag

Alternatively, you could place the toy somewhere yourself and then ask the students, 'where is Barbie? ' 

This method doesn't have to involve a lot of planning, you can be spontaneous. If a child has brought a toy into the classroom, you could spend a few minutes chatting about it before the lesson begins properly. Over the last few months, I've used Star Wars Lego to narrate favourite scenes from the films, a globe to learn the names of different countries, and a Barbie doll to learn body parts in English. 

If a student is preoccupied with something he brought into class, this method could be used as a invaluable starter activity as a way to divert the children's attention back to the lesson. For example, a child once brought in a sticker album and wouldn't put it down but kept showing it to other students. I used the opportunity to teach them names of animals and made a game out of it, seeing how many animals they could name. Basically, use the toy as a teaching tool rather than fighting a battle against it.

2. Mix Realia with the Ridiculous

During TEFL training, teachers are encouraged to use real situations to give grammar a grounding in real life so that students can relate to it and regard it as useful for their own learning experience. When it comes to teaching children however, I've found that a mixture of real and ridiculous works best. 

Comical mental images (i.e. a shark playing tennis) keep their attention far better than the standard grammar examples you find in most text books. One trick for teaching grammar is to do it in such a way that children (and adults) not realize that's what they're learning. Ridiculous games are perfection for this kind of diversion. I often use surreal examples for a game I developed called 'Preposition Pictionary' where children have to draw scenes including a target preposition such as 'a witch on a surfboard' or 'a hippo on a pirate ship.'  

I usually have an emergency boardgame to hand (usually just a paper photocopy in my bag) such as snakes and ladders. When a student lands on a square, you can get them to guess a phrase of Pictice Pictionary or act out a mime (a great way of using up excess energy). For ages 10+ you can use more complicated mime scenarios such as eating spaghetti on a rollercoaster. These scenarios makes the laugh and ultimately they're more likely to remember them in the future. 

3. Be Honest and Open with the Children 

Children are very intuitive and know if you're giving empty promises so if you make a promise, always stick to it or everything else you say will lose all credibility. At the beginning of the lesson I like to explain that we'll spend the first part of the lesson doing work while we're all awake and then they will be rewarded with a game if they finish the work. You can tailor the game to revise the aims of the lesson. Games are an important part of learning as they reinforce everything you've done.

4. Tap Into Their Interests (and Obsessions)

Find out the interests of your students and use them to your advantage. Young children often have focused, almost obsessive, areas of interest. Tap into them and you'll have their attention instantly. I once taught a student who wouldn't pay attention to anything but the 100+ Pokemon cards in his pocket. I decided to make tenuous links to Pokemon (Can Pikachu swim?, Does Bulbasaur eat carrots?) and amazingly it managed to keep his attention for the whole lesson. 

Usually you can pick out areas of interests from whatever they are talking about before they settle down to study or you can simply ask them during mini breaks.  This is also good for building rapport with young learners. It's important them to keep up to date with the latest trends or films or at least have a general awareness. For the sake of my students I've put myself through Justin Bieber music videos and whole episodes of Selena Gomez's Wizards of Waverley Place! This method involves changing tactics for each class. What interests one set of students may be disastrous for others. Justin Bieber is particularly divisive.

5. Keeping the Attention of Talkative Students

As tempting as it is, I learned that if you start shh-ing, it never stops and your classroom will end up sounding like someone has left the tap on full blast! This is always a tricky situation and you don't want to resort to simply telling the student off. It's better to try other tactics. If a child is constantly talking, ask them a question while they're mid-sentence rather than telling them to be quiet. often they stop speaking to work out what you said. Using the names of students in examples will usually catch their attention (Does Matteo hate One Direction?) or ask them to translate a phrase with their name in it. 

6. The Power of Stickers 

Don't underestimate the power of colourful stickers for young learners! If if works for dentists and Jamie Oliver, it can work for you! My young students proudly plaster their books with stickers and flick through them with pride. You can build anticipation by letting them choose their next sticker halfway through the lesson. This motivates them to work well for the second half as they know the reward at the end (and the risk that another child might get their sticker if they don't get in quick).

I hope you've found these tips useful. Please leave a comment if you any other effective tips you use in the classroom. I'll post a second part in the series soon. 

Next Post: Travel Journal: Bolognese Recipes and Culinary History

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Secrets of Bologna (Part Two)

A window onto a watery world  (Photo: Via @TravelWithKat)

If you peep through a discreet window in a certain nondescript street in Bologna, you'll suddenly find yourself gazing onto a scene not unlike a typical scene in Venice. One of the best concealed secrets of Bologna, a fact often missed by tourists (both foreign and Italians from other cities) is that Bologna is a city of buried rivers. It's quite a shock to see canals in the centre of such a seemingly dry city like Bologna. You see the city that once was. Bologna was once a city of waterways in a similar manner to Venice (albeit on a smaller scale) and was a thriving river port city. The rivers were used for navigation and to power grain mills and Bologna's thriving textile industry in the Middle Ages. In modern times, this system of hidden rivers explains why a metro has never been introduced to a key city like Bologna, as they have been in Milan and Rome. 

Unfortunately though, having underground canals does result in high levels of humidity during the summer months. The best times to visit Bologna itself are between April-June and then September-October when the weather  is warm, sunny but not stifflingly hot. In August, especially, the city is near abandoned by the locals and many shops are closed for the period. If you visit at this time, you'll see a sea of signs on shop doors with the words, "Chiuso per Ferie" ("Closed for the Holidays"). These "Closed for the Holidays" signs do beg the question: 

Where do Italians go on holiday?

 (Photo: via

Many Bolognesi are drawn to the surrounding countryside and hills where the temperature is noticeably lower and there is a refreshing sought-away breeze. There are a high number of Italians who have a second home either by the sea or in the countryside where they spend every other weekend or the whole Summer period. In the Northern Italy there are many Italians from the South who have moved there for university or in search of work. In the Summer they return to their family homes in the South and enjoy the gorgeous beaches and come back with unbelievable tans. 

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If you do visit Bologna, it's hard to miss the Two Towers (Due Torri) which define the Bolognese skyline but just as imposing is the huge Basilica di San Petronio which dominates the central square, Piazza MaggioreThe unfinished basilica is the 15th largest cathedral in the world. It would have been the largest in the world if it had been finished and would have even surpassed St. Peters Basilica in size and grandeur. Such ambitious plans however made the Pope suspicious that Bologna wanted to steal power from the Vatican and so pulled the plug on the funding. 

Basilica di San Petronio (Foto: Giovanni Dall'Orto 2008)

Construction stopped immediately and this is evident by several half finished frescoes and partially painted walls. Only the top section of the Latin cross design was completed and even that is imposing when you walk into the main square. The facade, which would have been very similar to the striped Duomo in Florence, remains bare from the waist up. This means you have an insight into the impressive cathedral building process and an inkling into what the Basilica might have been. 

Despite being unfinished, the Basilica still boasts many interesting things: the longest sundial in the world, dusty and gruesome relics of saints, and quite a bit of controversy. One of the larger frescoes at the front of the Basilica contains a scene based on Dante's Inferno which depicts Mohammad (pbuh) being tortured.  For this reason, despite being built nearly 1,000 years ago, it remains pretty controversial. Unfortunately, there have been several supposed attempts by terrorist groups to destroy the church within the last decade and therefore there is always a military presence within the square. This presence is not too intimidating mind, from my experience Italian security usually comes in the form of two soldiers leaning against a jeep and watching the ladies go by! 

Note: If you do wish to enter an Italian cathedral, do dress modestly and cover (at least) your legs and arms. Covering your hair if not usually required inside but don't be surprised if you are asked to put a plastic mac over your shoulders or refused entry because you are wearing shorts or a short skirt. 

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Click here for [Secrets of Bologna (Part One)]

For more photos and information about Bologna's canals click on @TravelWithKat's wonderful article, 'Uncovering the Secrets of Bologna.'

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Secrets of Bologna (Part One)

Photo: @SaritaAgerman

A lot of attention goes to the leaning tower of Pisa. But if you, like me, found the tower to be rather underwhelming (and pretty expensive) then look no further than the city of Bologna. Not too many people know however that Bologna boasts a leaning tower that makes the tower of Pisa pale in comparison - in fact not one but two! They are called the due torri (Two Towers) by the inhabitants (the bolognese).  At 97m the Asineeli tower is nearly double the size of Pisa and the Garisenda tower (48m) matches its three metre tilt! The latter used to be taller than the Asinelli tower but had to have it's top taken off due to safety reasons but the two continue to lean towards each other. It comes as no surprise then that the smaller tower is closed to the public but you can climb up the taller Asinelli tower, all 498 steps! You can really feel the lean (a tilt of 1.3m) as you go up and get nearer to the top! But the view is absolutely incredible. 

"Imagine, they were built only twenty feet apart. If the Torre degli Garisenda had 
not been shortened, the two towers would be near to kissing each other" *

(Photo: @SaritaAgerman)

I certainly wouldn't fancy my chances living under the shadow of the two towers though! Sitting underneath the overhang of Garisenda is quite scary as the clouds passing overhead creates the illusion that the tower is falling on top of you! Dante himself was so impressed by the tower that he included Garisenda in his Divine Comedy: 

                                    As when one sees the tower called Garisenda
                                    from underneath its leaning side, and then a cloud
                                    passes over and it seems to lean the more,
                                    this did Antaeus seem to my fixed gaze
                                    as I watched him bend...
                                           Divine Comedy, Inferno, XXXI, 136-140

It's a fitting tribute to the most prominent of the remaining towers in the city. Many of the approximately 180 towers have come down over the centuries due to security concerns. The two towers have survived regional conflicts and even the recent earthquake (although it was closed for a time while the tremors continued). They remain the symbol of the city today and there is even a superstition that if a student climbs the tower before finishing their degree, they'll never graduate. 

(Photo: @John1954Moi)

The historic centre is compact and all within the Medieval city walls. The best way to see the city is on foot and means you can take advantage of a unique feature of Bologna is the extensive network of arcades or porticoes within the city walls. It's the longest stretch of porticoes in Europe, 38km in total. For over a thousand years, they have protected the inhabitants from sun, wind and rain. The porticoes were built as a remedy for a sudden surge in the number of immigrants to the city and so the people built extensions to their houses to accommodate more people. At the time when they were built, each property had to pay for their own section of the arcade and so this resulted in some sections being far more ornate and embellished than others such as the section of arcades which now house Gucci in Piazza Cavour. In some of the older medieval wooden porticoes (which were banned from being constructed in the 13th century) there are still several medieval arrows embedded in the ceiling after conflicts between Bologna and nearby cities. 

(Photo: SaritaAgerman)

There's also a 4km wall just outside the city which runs up a hill to the Sanctuary of the Madonna of San Luca. The architect fell out with the Vatican during the construction and so inserted 666 arches, the number of the devil, along the wall just to spite them!  This is just one demonstration of the rebellious nature of the city which is defiantly left wing and has always been always vehemently anti-Berlusconi.  

Bizarre Windows in Santo Stefano (Photo: @SaritaAgerman)

You know a city has become your home when you come to love the small details that most people miss. There's a lot of graffiti in Bologna, both loved and hated by the citizens. Many shopkeepers prevent unwanted scribblings by pre-emptively commissioning young people to graffiti their shutters. These shutters become attractions in themselves during the lunch hour and mid evening when the shops are closed. Then there's the hickledy-pickledy architecture that you can only find in Italy!    

(Photo: @SaritaAgerman)

Cute Graffiti on the Road (Photo: @SaritaAgerman)

For the sake of balance I should also add that there is a downside to Bologna's porticoes and is in fact the bane of Bologna. To understand the problem I must first explain that Italy is dog crazy. Bologna perhaps more so than any other city. As you walk down the street, every other person has got a dog with them and I wouldn't bet against the fact that the other half have a dog waiting for them at home! Now you can imagine that having a large amount of dogs wandering around underneath porticoes which prevent rain from washing away certain material is a cause for complaint among the inhabitants. I'll say no more. 

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Next Post:  Travel Journal: Secrets of Bologna (Part II) 

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