Una Semestre in Italia

When preparing to go abroad, no matter the destination, there are always going to be people telling you how awesome it’s going to be, how many people you’re going to meet, but also how rough it can be at times. When they tell you things like that you kind of brush them off, like yeah I know, it’s going to be different. But at the same time, you have this excited anxiety because there are so many “What if’s” that come along with it as well. To be completely honest, if someone had told me that this semester in Firenze was going to change me as a person, have me reevaluate my entire life plan, that I would meet some of the most special people, see incredible views with my own eyes, and that I would casually stroll around different countries, I would have scoffed at them saying, “I wish that could be my life”. But that is exactly what happened. Of course, not all at once, but gradually, like a teapot boils water; starting out slow, the pressure increasing until you hear the familiar whistle throughout the house.

I was not prepared for any of it really, but that’s life, you must learn to adapt. Everything about being here was different, wonderful, fabulous, frustrating, confusing, perspective changing. Small things had become difficult and you had to have patience with others, but mostly yourself. Grocery shopping was the first true hurdle that we had to go through. First, we had to find it then go around the store and if we weren’t sure what something was just by looking, we had to translate and make our best guess. Getting lost was basically a daily occurrence for about two weeks or so; stumbling along the cobblestones, tripping over them and yourself, not knowing what street you’re on, not entirely sure as to where you were supposed to be, and weaving through hundreds of tourists and locals alike. Your senses going crazy; the sounds of different languages and horns of bikes and taxis, the smell of freshly sliced prosciutto, homemade mozzarella, and salty focaccia bread filling your nose, your feet trying to maintain control of where you were stepping on the ancient ground, your eyes filled with tan and golden buildings almost glittering in the mediterranean sunlight making you squint despite wearing sunnies.

It is truly overwhelming the first couple of days, but soon you fall into a routine and you adapt to the new surroundings. You get really good at weaving through people, you learn basics in the language, you can walk on the cobblestones in heels, you don’t get lost (as often!) and sometimes you even purposely get lost just to see another part of town. You eat the food and realize what fresh really means. The church bells every hour are welcomed, you can sleep through the ambulances that sound like ducks, hearing Italian puts a smile on your face. The laughter of your roommates is like music and it makes your heart swell.

As the months went on, the tourists started to go home and the city got more quiet. You are able to spot the lost tourist or the tour group easily and you yourself get mistaken for European, to which you smile and nod, only sometimes correcting them and saying you are actually American. You have your favorite food spots for a quick panino, a creamy gelato, or a warm cappuccino with a cornetto (Italian croissant). The elderly gentleman at the gelato shop smiles whenever you come in, you’re there so often. You create some of the best combinations of ingredients on panini. You don’t think you can ever have American coffee again.

You fall in love with the city more and more everyday, realizing that your days are numbered and that you just take it in as much as you can. You go exploring just to walk around the city and see the sights like the Palazzo Vecchio or the Uffizi or the Duomo just because. You feel like you don’t need a reason to do anything other than you want to, it feels like a fabulous dream that is filled with magic.

As autumn rolls around, the city gets colder and it’s time to break out the sweaters and boots. The city changes, the tourists basically disappear and the locals are going to work or school, riding bikes and vespe (Italian plural of Vespa scooters, it means wasps because of the sound). They all dress so nicely, but so effortlessly. The women ride bikes twice their age in pumps, riding along dodging traffic and people, but making it look good. When it’s cold, you’re need for coffee increases and you and your roommates make coffee dates every Tuesday and Thursday in a small bar. You see professors and dogs, you make friends with both. Doing daily tasks, like the market, ordering food, or going shopping becomes easier as time goes on. You learn the lingo, the ways and you slowly adopt the customs and style. You constantly pay in cash and exact change, learning to love the currency and seeing your own as strange and unfamiliar. Day trips to Bologna, Rome, Cinque Terre, Pisa, or Fiesole are completely normal.

Taking cheesy photos with your friends on the carousel and singing in the streets lined with Christmas lights. Walking to classes taught by professors from all over the world. Meeting up with friends from Paris and sharing red wine while watching the sunset. Watching local artists color murals on the stone streets, eating freshly made pizza in the shape of a heart.

Firenze has become home over the past few months, a wonderful dream that has finally come true. I guess twenty was a good age and 2015 a good year. This place will always hold my heart forever, I will come back, maybe not as soon as I would like, but soon. Needless to say, studying abroad was a large dream of mine and I worked very hard to get here with great support from my family and my advisors back at Roanoke. If you want it, you have to work hard and make it happen. I owe so much to them and my new best friends, my roommates. I am beyond grateful. It can be so terrifying and the scariest thing you can ever do, but most of the time, it will end up being the best thing too. I can say that without ANY doubt at all that studying abroad in Florence, Italy was the best decision I have ever made in my short twenty years of life. I am so sad that it is over, but I must remember to smile because it happened. But I’ll still cry when it’s over.

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“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own, and you know what you know. And you are the one who’ll decide where to go”

“So…be your name Buxbaum or Bixby or Bray or Mordecai Ali Van Allen O’Shea, you’re off to great places! Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting, so, get on your way!”

Oh, The Places You’ll Go! by Dr. Seuss

Friendsgiving and Mass

This past Thursday was Thanksgiving in the United States, not in Italy, but that did not stop my apartment! We had planned to participate in Thanksgiving as best as we could because our roomie Alex is from Melbourne, Australia, so she has never been able to have a day dedicated to eating. We planned a few days in advance to make sure everyone had a chance to make something. Victoria made her mom’s macaroni and cheese and banana pudding layered with cookies, Carla made an Ecuadorean version of fried rice, Alex made chocolate and peanut butter semi-freddo and salad, and I made homemade mashed potatoes. We also bought a small rotisserie chicken instead of a turkey. We were missing Kelley, but her family was in town so she hung with them while they were here. We had class that day so it didn’t really feel like Thanksgiving until we got cooking. The desserts were made the day before so they could set and then we all began making food in shifts. Once the food was made, we put it in our small oven to keep it warm and I made the potatoes last. Once we brought out everything and placed in our dining room table, we had quite the feast on our hands. We also watched the Charlie Brown Thanksgiving special, I was able to find it on YouTube.

We all dished our plates and Carla had the brilliant idea of saying what we were all thankful for. As we went around, we all had things in common like family, pets, friends, and each other. Thanksgiving has become a holiday based upon food and Black Friday shopping, but in all reality, it doesn’t matter where you are, what you eat or how much, but who you are with. I met these girls in late August and yet I feel so much love for them and from them. Being able to enjoy a make-shift Thanksgiving with them will definitely be one of the most memorable Thanksgivings yet. We drank wine and ate a mixture of the most random yet delicious food and laughed until we cried, mostly laughing at each other. We talked about the different traditional Thanksgivings at home and what we do, comparing each others and helping Alex understand such a strange holiday. Even though I didn’t get my mom’s mashed potatoes, the sparkling apple cider, Polly’s Pies rolls or butter in the shape of a turkey, I wouldn’t have traded that evening for the world.

Later that night, I FaceTimed my family to see what they were doing. I caught them just in time, it was the mad scramble to get food in the oven, mash the potatoes, carve the turkey with the electric knife and get everyone inside for the prayer. They propped the phone up on a picture frame by the dining room table and I was able to join them virtually from over 10.000 km away. It was nice being able to see everyone and catch up for a bit before Christmas. By the time we were done it was about 12:30 here, so I went off to bed. But not before trying to FaceTime Janey and Matt, but her phone was being weird so I texted her Happy Thanksgiving.

Black Friday was not really a thing here in Florence, so we all just stayed bundled in the apartment, trying to stay warm in an old stone house. We also ate leftovers which made it feel a little more like a true American Thanksgiving. Then Saturday rolled around and we all were working on final papers and staying warm. As Sunday is the first Sunday of Advent I wanted to go to church, so I looked at times for Santa Croce and the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, or the Duomo. I found that there was a mass in English at 5:00pm every Saturday. So I put on a blue dress, stockings, boots and a scarf, ran a brush through my hair and prepared to go into one of the most spectacular cathedrals in the world AND sit through my first Catholic Mass.

I walked up to one of the side entrances, to one of the guards and said I was going in for Mass and he let me right on in. Normally, if you want to visit the Duomo, you have to pay a fee unless you are going in to pray or to Mass. I walked in and was instantly amazed. This was the place were thousands of people over hundreds of years have worshiped. Two members of the Medici family were assaulted here. Popes have worshiped here. It was so incredible. However, I couldn’t just take photos right before Mass so I quietly took a seat towards the back. I was able to follow most of it because of the similarities between Lutheranism and Catholicism, but I did not say I was a Lutheran. I also did not take Communion because technically I am not allowed to. The Mass was only about an hour long and was interesting, it was a typical Advent Mass complete with a choir. As I left I took a couple photos and walked out into the cold Italian air in the middle of the piazza. The piazza was crowded with people all bundled up walking arm in arm and with dogs. The city has begun to put up Christmas lights and it’s so beautiful. I still cannot believe I went to Catholic Mass at THE Duomo.

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Football in its True Form

Most of the world associates football as a sport where the players actually use their feet. The United States says that is soccer. But don’t get me wrong, I love American football, I plan on streaming the games live on Thanksgiving. This sunny Sunday afternoon I decided to attend a professional football game in Europe. It has been on my bucket list for a while now and Vic and I were able to figure it out. I bought a jersey, sporting number 22: Giuseppe Rossi, forward and we went on our way to the stadium. We took bus number 17 towards the stadium, the bus itself was packed like sardines! We got off a bit early and walked a couple blocks to the ticket counter and bought the cheapest tickets we could get, only €30. We made our way to our entrance, all the way around the stadium, and bought street food. I’m not really sure what it was, but I later found out that it was the local street food of sheep guts basically put on a brioche bun with peppers and sauce. It was so delicious. Our panini in hand and our Moratti beer we walked into the crowded stadium that you could hear from blocks away. As we walked under the tunnel to get into the stadium, we looked up and saw the stadium packed with people sporting purple with the giglio, (Florence’s trademark lily) and chanting, singing, and waving flags with symbols of ACF Fiorentina.

We found some seats high up so we could see the field and ate our food. The game started out pretty slow. We played Empoli FC; they are from a small town called Empoli about 20 km away from Firenze. They scored twice in the first half and Fiorentina was making stupid mistakes. After halftime it was like they got it back, we scored twice and kept the ball on their half of the field most of the time, taking many shots on goal. The game went on for an extra five minutes more, but nothing happened so it ended in a 2-2 tie. It was quite fun, everyone hugging and chanting and clapping when they would score. It was like nothing I’ve ever experienced before; when they say that Europeans really take football seriously, they aren’t kidding. The only issue was that it was so cold! It did not get above 50 degrees while we were there, so we opted to walk home to get warm.

I truly have fallen in love with this city. Saturday night was rainy so we decided to go to the Galleria degli Uffizi to peruse the artworks. Then Sunday, go to a football game. All just because we can.

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Love//Amore//Amour//Amor

As many of you know, many countries have been bombed recently, and I am geographically closer to these tragedies than ever before. I also know a few people that were affected by these acts of terror. One of these attacks was in Paris, France. I found out through the BBC News App on my phone and immediately messaged the people I knew in Paris to make sure they were safe, and they all were. These multiple acts around the world are simple, yet harsh reminders that the world we live in can be a cruel one, however, one must not forget that love can conquer all. Now I don’t mean that in a romantic kind of way, but that love in its most basic form can be the best healer. Think of Jesus, He is love and the best healer I can possibly think of.

After the attacks were all over the news, my roommates and I immediately got into contact with each other to make sure we were all safe. At the time, we were spread out; Alex and I were in Firenze, Carla in Roma, Kelley in Budapest, and Vic was in Zurich. As I sit here now and read about how these countries have become more united than ever, it just makes me realize how powerful love can be. It can be the simple “Watch your step” or “Excuse me” from a stranger. Or the “Hey, you guys safe?” from my roommates and the fact that we have family dinners almost every night. These are all ways to say “I love you”.  I have found myself falling for this city and the people within it. I see love everyday; from the little kids walking with grandparents, the greetings of old Italian friends, the smile of someone getting gelato, the laughter of my roommates. As I sit here at my dining room table writing this I can hear Carla and Alex laughing while Vic sits beside me working on a paper. The small things about us, like making tea for each other, helping each other with homework, eating dinner together, it’s all just a reminder of how much these women have impacted me. Parts of my heart are going around the world when we have to leave each other.

The people of Paris stood with the people of the United States when September 11 happened 14 years ago, and now I, as an American, stand with the French. The City of Lights will always hold a special place in my heart, along with Firenze. Each country and city that has been affected by these attacks has a place in my heart and I grieve for them everyday. I guess it just hits home when it is a place that you have been to and a place that has a couple people that you love in it.

As Christmas is just six weeks away now, it is almost more prevalent. Firenze has started decorating the city center with twinkle lights and store fronts have lights and garland around the doorways. I’m sure Christmas markets are just around the corner. We will begin to see love in the donations, the hugs of loved ones, the squeals of young ones, the lights.

 

Love is actually all around, you just have to know where to look. Fam

(Left to Right:) Carla, Alex, Me, Kelley, Victoria

Living in Il Centro di Firenze

Living in the Historical Center of Florence has its positives, for obvious reasons. It’s all about location, location, location. However, it also has its drawbacks. This past weekend, our small water heater began leaking. We put a pot underneath the leak and emailed our housing director, not thinking of it. As time passed, water pressure went down, then back up, and soon we did not have hot water any longer. We had water, it was just FREEZING COLD. Awesome, right? So four of the five us, including myself, braved a chilly shower for sake of cleanliness. Cleanliness is close to Godliness, right? That’s what I kept telling myself as my body slowly turned from normal, to red, to blue and onto purple as I tried to rinse the soap off myself. My toes and fingers were a shade of violet for about an hour afterwards. Thank goodness for hot tea. As our predicament progressed, we no longer had power and had to flip the switches for the circuit breakers. Of course, this happened around 9:00pm. As it turns out, our water heater was completely broken, but no one knew why. So our landlord was going to try to get someone to fix it on Tuesday. Perfect, Tuesday, hot showers, yes. One problem: the Pope was in town on Tuesday. The streets were closed and most people do not work that day. We still had classes, but we managed to get a new water heater early that morning! We were so happy, basically ecstatic.

Tuesday morning: new water heater.

Tuesday afternoon: see the Pope drive by one of our school buildings.

As my roomie Alex would say, the Pope came to town and we got hot water restored to our apartment, coincidence, I think not. #blessed.

Later that night, my other roomie, Carla and I went to see Of Monsters and Men in concert. We got froths (Aussie slang for beer) and walked to a small venue on the outside of the center of Firenze. We sang, we danced, we screamed, we cried, we laughed, we felt the bass in our chests syncing with our beating hearts, our lungs burning from singing as powerfully as we could. It was the most basic and pure form of happiness and stress relief; something that we both desparately needed. The endorphins that flowed through our bodies created an aura and energy that ebbed and flowed with the sea of people surrounding us. Leaving the concert, we were bursting with joy that we could barely contain it. We were jolted back to reality soon enough, we had papers to write in a few short hours. But as the moon loomed in the sky above us, we walked along the cobblestone streets living in a dream world full of beautiful melodies and strong beats.

Another Day, Another Country

Once midterms were over on Thursday, there was a sense of overwhelming relief that rushed over everyone here. Everyone was traveling for the next few days, including myself, and I couldn’t have been more excited about it. My first stop: Paris, France.

Paris, France

My first stop was Paris, so to get there, I chose to fly. I took a bus from the Santa Maria Novella Train Station in Florence to Pisa; only about two hours. From there, I flew to Paris. Once I landed, I took a bus to Porte Maillot where wonderful Emma and her friend Becca met me. It was around 11 at night and pretty cold, but I was also starving. So we walked a bit down the Champs Élysées toward the Arc de Triomphe. It was a stunning sight to see on a rainy October night in Paris. We stopped at a small café called the Washington Post to get food, which was warm and quite good. After, we met with Becca’s French friend Zooey and took the metro to the Bastille. The Bastille is where all of the bars are and Becca’s boyfriend is a bartender. We got drinks (black mojito anyone?) and stayed out until around 3 in the morning singing and attempting to talk to Parisians. My phone had died a long time ago, but I didn’t care, I was in Paris drinking with the locals and I had been in the country for less than an hour. I originally had booked a hostel, but it was on the complete other side of Paris, so I just crashed on Emma’s couch. Then Emma did a wonderful thing and offered her apartment for me to use while she was in Normandy for the weekend, I took her up on the offer and thanked her profusely. Her apartment is very very small, like less than half the size of the one I have in Florence, but it was perfect for the weekend. So, the next day when she left for Normandy, I got up, got dressed and decided to wander around Paris for the day. I mean, why the hell not?! It was a beautiful day, slightly chilly, but perfect for a dress and a sweater. I strolled the winding streets of Paris, coffee in hand and saw things that I had only dreamed of seeing. Apparently, I also looked like a Parisian girl because I had many tourists asking me in many different languages where things were, and much to their surprise, I said I was American. I walked to the Arc de Triomphe and saw it in the sunlight, I saw the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, randomly placed but beautiful gothic churches, the Esplanade des Invalides. I also went to Bouillon Chartier and Ladurée. By the end of the day, I had my fill of pastries, macarons, and things I can’t even pronounce. I had also walked about 26 kilometers, or a little over 15 miles in one day. Paris is a beautiful city with loads of stunning architecture and classic styles; your eyes taking in as much as they can: the harsh straight lines along with curving edges. Your nose is hit with cigarette smoke and expensive perfume alike. I liked Paris, but I had another destination in mind for the next day.

Dublin, Ireland

After I showered, I slept for about four hours before getting up to go to the airport once more. I walked the 10 minutes to Porte Maillot and got on the same bus to take me to the airport. I got through security and boarded another RyanAir flight to Dublin, Ireland. This was another place I had always wanted to go to, so I had made it work. I sat next to a young Irish couple from Cork who had gone to Paris for their fifth wedding anniversary and they were very glad I was so excited about being in Dublin. As soon as we landed, I looked out the window and saw nothing but green, lush land covered in sheep. It was such a strange sight since I had been in a city made out of Italian stone for the past couple of months. I exited the plane and went to get another bus into the center of Dublin to check into my hostel. My bus driver with a thick Irish accent helped me find my hostel, however, I apparently looked like a lost Swedish girl because a Canadian guy asked if I needed help. His name is Mike and we ended up hanging out most of the time I was in Dublin. He had been there for a few weeks and was going down to Killiney for the day to watch the Rugby World Cup Semis with some Irish friends of his at a pub and asked if I wanted to tag along. Yeah, sure, why not? So I put my suitcase in a locker at the hostel, bought a train ticket and headed 40 minutes down the Irish coastline. We met his friends Mark and Shane at the train station and walked up a huge hill to the small pub filled with locals. The Rugby game was on every television screen and the volume was at full blast. As soon as we walked in the door we got a pint of Guinness each and started cheering for Ireland. Needless to say, I fit right in with my blonde hair and blue eyes. After the match we followed Mark and Shane to what looked like the side of a cliff that would just end, but the locals go there to hang out because it has a killer view. Afterwards, Mike and I took the train back into the city and got food a restaurant, I got traditional Irish stew with lamb and potatoes, served with Guinness bread. The next day was my full day in Ireland, so I took the walking tour around the city with people from other hostels. Our tour guide was named Lawrence and he was about as Irish as it gets. Hanging at the hostel, the people I met were so interesting and from all over the world. There were a few Canadians, Finnish, Danish, Northern Irish, Australian, Italian, German, French, and a few Americans. Drinking with people around the world is an experience I will never forget and everyone had gained  a love for Ireland. The next day I was off once again to another lovely destination.

Barcelona, Spain

I was very sad to leave Ireland, however, I had a country filled with tapas and flamenco dancing calling my name! I landed in Barcelona fairly late and made it to my hostel around 11pm. I made my bed and fell asleep almost immediately. I woke myself up at 8, got dressed and headed downstairs for the simple hostel breakfast of muffins, cereal and juice. I made myself some Irish tea that I had bought, got some cereal and sat down at the table. I met Terese and Paige, both from Boston, and were also planning on taking the walking tour around Barcelona, so I was able to hang around with them for a bit. We took the tour that highlighted Antoni Gaudí’s most famous pieces. He was a Catalonian architect in the late 1800s/early 1900s. We walked and took the metro around the Spanish city to see his many works including Casa Mila, Casa Bottló, and La Sagrada Família. Barcelona has this vibe to it where everyone is happy and people are dancing on the streets; hispanic music fills your ears and brightly colored buildings line the calles and carerras. Your eyes work to make sense out of Gaudí’s work that is filled completely with flowing lines, mosaics and bright colors. Your nose is greeted with smells of freshly made pastries, curing meats in windows and freshly made tapas and paella. There were young people walking along the old, singing, talking and laughing. Also, having everything in Spanish was wonderful and I was able to practice it a bit. It was like taking away a language barrier for a while. It was a beautiful place filled with a strange combination of Spanish and Catalonian culture.

Back to Firenze, Italia

I had to wake up at around 4 in the morning to catch a flight back to Bologna, Italy, so I was exhausted. I slept on the plane, but I was very sad about having my whirlwind of a trip come to end. I gazed out the window as we took off and saw the stunning Spanish coastline with the beautiful ocean and said adios to España. When I woke up, I could see the golden and brick lined houses of Italy and felt a sense of familiarity and comfort. Landing back in Italy and being around the bustling train station in Bologna made me realize how much this country has become home. I bought my train ticket (in Italian!) and made my way to platform number six. My fast-train came and I boarded with a smile, knowing I was going home. I was only on the train for about 35 minutes before I got off at the Santa Maria Novella Station back in Firenze. I walked along the cobblestone streets and soon saw the Duomo in the sunlight; the marble of the Duomo, Campanile, and Battistero glittering in the Mediterranean sunlight making me squint. It was like a warm hug, it was stunningly beautiful, it was familiar, it was comfort, it was and is, home. Hearing everyone speaking Italian again was like music to my ears and I am pleasantly surprised at how much I can actually pick up now. As I sit in my apartment down the road from so many amazing things, I can’t help but have a hole in my heart because I miss the other places so much, but I missed Florence just as much as when I was away from it. Each country had its charm that makes people swoon over it and I appreciated each and every place I went to and I would love to go back. I would highly recommend traveling to everyone, even if it means traveling alone, I did it and it was nothing short of spectacular.

Nostalgia and European Wanderlust

Florence: the birthplace of the Renaissance and one of the original golden ages of Europe. The place where geniuses like Donatello and Michelangelo sculpted pieces like the David, Brunelleschi created the largest freestanding dome in the world, Giberti created bronze doors guilded in gold for an ancient baptistry, Leonardo da Vinci painted one of the most iconic paintings in the world, Arnolfo di Cambio was the architect behind so many of the political and Catholic buildings in the Mediterranean, and Giotto di Bondone planned the most memorable bell tower in the Tuscan world. Normally this city is just as bustling as it was back then, complete with leather venders around every corner, the smell of fresh cornetti and coffee, and cured prosciutto and cheeses in the small windows.

A poet once said that cities like this are more wonderful in the rain and I would like to agree, and this one is no exception. My flat mates and I took advantage of this rainy Saturday to study for midterms. In the midst of studying, we took a much needed break to enjoy a film called “A Midnight in Paris” written and directed by Woody Allen. In the film, there is a sense of nostalgia for Paris in the 1920s.

Being a History major and having a love of history, I have noticed I have this sense of nostalgia for a different time, this other supposed golden age. But the thing is, is that everyone has a different idea of the golden age. People in our present look towards Paris in the 1920s as the Golden Age, people in Paris in the 1920s looked towards the 1890s, those looked towards the Renaissance and the great thinkers of the Renaissance looked back at Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome.

I also have this sense of European wanderlust for these cities of culture, painting, literature, architecture, sculpture, history, food. It’s this unhealthy idea of these romanticized cities, cities where things happened and people made history. Cities that are known to be beautiful beyond wonder and gave way for geniuses like Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Salvador Dalí, Claude Monet, Henri Matisse.

I suppose I’m really hoping that if I go to these places, I’ll see what they see and understand the inspiration and need for change that they had felt in their time. It’s this sense of unrequited love with the intangible, the ideas and the love for a city that cannot possibly love you back.