Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Where did it all go?

Vietri- Amalfi Coast

Sunrise over Tuscania

Wow. Here it is May 5th and semester ends this week with finals next week. It’s surreal, really. I remember being so stressed out about making this dream happen; financial aid, paperwork, passport, visa, essays….Now it’s over and I’ll be returning to the States just in time to jump into summer classes, back to work and what we all call “real life.” These past few weeks we’ve been doing everything we can to see the most of what Italy has to offer, even considering jumping on a bus and hopping off in some random little town just to explore one more place.

A couple of weekends ago we travelled south to Pompeii, Salerno and Vietri. Pompeii was utterly amazing in every possible sense of the word. I remember- we all remembered- studying this place and tragedy in our history classes way back in elementary school. Seeing the pictures in our books and learning about the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius so many years ago. Now seeing it and walking down those streets in real life was an experience I’m sure we’ll never ever forget. For one of my history classes here, I had to do a presentation on Pompeian culture in the year 79 A.D. I actually used the pictures I had taken myself just the week before! How amazing is that? How many students can say they’ve actually had the opportunity to do that? I still can’t believe some of the things that we’ve gotten to see. To learn about ancient Etruscan history and then take a field trip into the town that we live in to see these things with our own eyes. Not in a museum, but in the walls that surround the city, or the preserved remnants of the ancient Roman road on the edge of town. Or to learn about Roman gladiators and ancient politics then taking a field trip to Rome and seeing the coliseum and Roman Forum for ourselves. We actually had lecture in the Roman Forum yesterday. I still can’t believe it.

This coming weekend will be our last weekend here, together so we chose to stay here in town and really take in everything that Tuscania is. In between classes, we’ve taken to grabbing a blanket, bottle of wine and fruits then heading to the park and enjoying a picnic then lying in the grass soaking up the sunshine. On weekdays when we have no classes, we hike around the outskirts of town, exploring, talking and joking about what we’ll be doing “2 wks. from now.” A couple of days ago, 2 friends and I stayed up all night long just to walk to the park and watch the sunrise over the San Pietro valley. We sat perched on the wall of the city, just the 3 of us, enjoying the silence of the still sleeping town and watching the first inklings of pink stretch across the sky.

This weekend will be spent studying for finals and organizing what gets thrown away to make room for treasures we’ve bought at markets and gifts for family and friends. We will be cleaning, saying goodbyes to friends we’ve made here in town and gearing up for the trip back home in the coming days and trying to get as many pictures in as we possibly can. This has been such a surreal, amazing experience for me. I’ve made so many good friends who plan on visiting me in Kansas City and I them in Chicago…NYC…SC…and ME. A summer of road trips has been laid out, where we will, I’m sure, reminisce about our semester in Tuscania. None of us want to leave this adorable little town with the inhabitants who speak Italian and only Italian. We don’t want to leave this place that smells of baking bread and pastries every morning (especially for those of us who live above a bakery… J ) and where the owner of our favorite pizza place now knows to bring me an extra plate for my pizza crusts so Samantha can have them, before we even ask. A place where our favorite gelato place knows exactly which 3 flavors Josh wants and what size cup (the biggest) he will order before he even gets to the counter. A place where our sweet landlord Natalina and her husband Pepe cannot pronounce my name but still honestly love us like we are their grandchildren. And a place where, regardless of the fact that we have been living here for 4 months, we still get gawked at and have finally come to terms with that. From all of the Italian cities we could have chosen to call home for an entire semester, Tuscania is truly the right decision for those of us who chose it. If you want to truly learn Italian language and culture, try to visit the smaller towns and get to know the people who live there, instead of the more tourist (though still beautiful) cities such as Rome and Florence. You won’t regret it, I promise.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Spring Break '09: UK & Republic of Ireland

Spring Break ’09 London, Edinburgh, Dublin, Cork & Blarney

My friend Christine and I chose to spend our 11 day spring break exploring the UK and Republic of Ireland. Rather than lying on a warm Grecian beach, we chose to head for cold, windy and somewhat rainy; nonetheless, it was amazing in every way.

We left from Rome for London Stansted, arriving around 11:30pm. Thankfully, we were able to catch the last train out from the airport to the city center and made it there without a hitch. Unfortunately, we had no idea where we were in proximity to our hostel, the subway was shut down and the bus system appeared to require some sort of flicker of genius, which we did not possess after a full day of traveling. Exhausted, we hopped on the first bus we saw, hoping we were headed in the right direction. We must’ve looked completely lost because the next person to get on asked us where we were headed. We told him the address and name of our hostel and he said he’d be willing to take us there since he was getting off at the same stop we’d need. 1- this meant we had jumped on the right bus! 2- we made a new friend within an hour of being in London. Lamar walked us to our hostel door, told us which sights to see first, how to get to the subway from where we were and even what the weather was supposed to be like during our stay. The next couple of days were spent exploring the city of London, mostly on foot. We saw everything from Buckingham Palace, to Big Ben & Houses of Parliament to THE Abbey Road. We also managed to stumble upon the palace during the changing of the guards and were able to see tradition alive right in front of us. It was completely amazing, really. Seemingly against the laws of the physical elements for England, it was sunny and beautiful during our entire 3 day stay. We spent our last day, Sunday, sitting on a bench in Hyde park talking to locals and enjoying a brunch of Hob Nobs (sent straight from God, I’m convinced) and hot tea. Next up, we hit the train station, headed for Edinburgh, Scotland.

We arrived in Edinburgh around midnight or so, stepped off the train and were greeted with a blustery wind and odd mist that you could feel but not see. Also, we discovered that we’d forgotten to book a night in the hostel for the night in which we actually arrived. Go team. Anxious to get out of the cold and wind, we stumbled into the first open venue we could find- a pub of course. Inside this tiny little one-room pub there were people laughing, talking and singing while crammed wall to wall. We threw our backpacks down under the bar and found a corner, just thankful to be someplace warm for the time being. As we sat there listening to the guys on the other side of the room playing fiddle, banjo and guitar music, we became lost in the atmosphere of strangers (who would later become our friends), good music and an overall feeling of contentment. We obviously stuck out, but they welcomed us into their circle, asking about our lives and our plans while we’re in their city. A couple of hours later, the pub was closing and we were wandering the streets once again, only now it was 2am. Walking up a never-ending set of stairs, we found our hostel and asked if they had any room at all for the night. Luckily, he had one room left with only 2 beds available and it just happened to be the room in which we were booked for the following night. We then had 3 full days to explore what Edinburgh had to offer and even took advantage of the free 3 hour walking tour. For me, it’s important to not just see a city and appreciate its beauty by photographing and documenting, but to also learn its history and background while meeting the people who call it their home. Don’t just hop on a tour bus, take pictures of “a cool looking building” and hop off, heading to your next destination. Take time to learn the customs, the history and introduce yourself to the locals. Personally, I found Edinburgh’s history to be truly fascinating. Witch hunting, gothic structures, body snatching, knights and never-ending fights with England make Edinburgh’s history eerie and real. One night, I even took the opportunity to participate in a walking ghost tour with 2 girls I met in our hostel room. We learned about the underbelly of Edinburgh’s history as well as experiencing the breath-taking view of the city from high atop Calton Hill. One thing I learned. Edinburgh = hills (everything is uphill both ways, it seems), wind and an odd sunshiny-rain. Next stop, Dublin, Ireland.

We left from Edinburgh for 3 days in Dublin, Cork and Blarney Ireland, arriving around midnight again. This time we were prepared and even knew which bus number to catch, knowing it would take us right to our hostel door in Dublin. We got off the plane and found that bus #41 stopped running at 11pm and our only other option was the shuttle to the city center then walk. We got to our hostel, checked in and passed out, exhausted. We only had one day in Dublin, but again, took advantage of the free 3.5 hour walking tour of the city in order to learn the history and see all of the sights Dublin had to offer. We learned about the Viking history, saw Dublin Castle and the Temple Bar district- huge with tourists. I was fascinated to learn that the Temple Bar Music Theater was where Bono of U2 got his start at age 14 and made sure to duck inside to sneak some pictures. The next day, we caught the 5am bus back to the airport and left for Cork- a mere 30 minute flight. Cork was beautiful. No walking tour here so we spend the 2 days we had, walking around, talking to locals and taking photographs. We also managed to hop a bus to Blarney and the castle. The Irish countryside in the spring is truly something to experience. In Blarney, we walked through the fields, woods and paths outside of the castle for 2.5 hours before finally making our way up the hill to the real tourist draw- the Blarney Stone. We walked through the castle and up windy straight-up staircases to the very top where we tempted the “gift of gab and eloquence” by kissing the stone. I’m still waiting for that eloquence thing to set in….

Finally at the end of our trip, we headed back to Dublin and would fly home to Italy from there. Since we’re “poor college kids” and didn’t want to pay for another hostel, we set up camp in the McDonald’s within the Dublin airport and slept there until our flight back to Bologna, Italy in the morning. Even though we are still rather shaky in our Italian language skills, stepping off of the plane in Bologna and hearing that now-familiar language we truly felt that we were back home.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Venezia or Bust!

Last weekend my roommates and I took a weekend trip to Venezia. Our 7.5 hour (12 hours including “layovers” and waiting on connections) journey included 2 busses, the Roman subway (the Metro) and 2 trains but it was well worth it. The treno notte (night train) was a good move on our part because it gained us an extra day and saved us a night in a hostel, once in Venice.

We arrived in Venezia at 5:30am…2.5 hours before our hostel opened and none of us had slept much on the train, so we’d been up for quite some time. We stepped out of the train station and were immediately met with characteristic sights of Venice: the Grand Canal, boats lining the periphery and of course the pigeons. We sat down on the steps near the canal and simply took it all in, becoming slightly more invigorated at the realization that we were actually in Venice- a surreal experience to take in for the 2 of us who’d never been there before. Sitting on the steps of the train station, we ate a breakfast of smashed granola bars and shared a small juicebox then decided to wander around through the city, following the signs to San Marco to watch the sunrise. Being led by bright yellow signs pointing the way through back alleys and what would turn into massive tourist attractions in the daytime, we finally stumbled to San Marco 45 minutes later, just in time to see the sunrise over the canal. Let me tell you; having been awake for nearly 26 hours, squeaking down a sad little breakfast, being completely disoriented in a strange city and still carrying a slight animosity towards the strange man who forced his way into our train car then fell asleep snoring for 6 hours was all overshadowed by the sight of beautiful San Marco at 6am, uncharacteristically without a single tourist in sight. The sun coming up through the fog that had set in over the canal was so relaxing, we sat on the edge of the canal, soaking it all up.

We still had time to kill before our hostel opened so we set off for a more fulfilling breakfast. Walking through the streets back towards the other side of the city, we came across a little “bar” that happened to be opening as we walked by. There, we had the most expensive yogurt and fruit any of us had ever paid for, I think. That’s the thing about Venice that none of us thought to look into- the fact that it is a tourist attraction and as such, prices skyrocket…for everything. Even restrooms. We’re used to ducking into a fast food place or supermarket if nature calls, but in Venice, or Italy (at least in the tourist or smaller towns) you must pay for such commodities. Eventually we made it back to our hostel where the manager told us that while they open at 8am, the rooms are generally never ready for check in until 1pm. Our hearts absolutely dropped. We were so incredibly exhausted, all we could fathom at the moment was collapsing into a bed…any bed, we didn’t care if it was made or not. Then a small miracle- she told us that the one room that just happened to be ready for check in was OURS. I vaguely remember thanking her and dragging our backpacks to our room before the world went dark and I was off in dream land.

4 hours later we woke up and set off to explore the city in daylight and a slightly improved state of consciousness. Venezia in the daytime is a completely different story in comparison to what we’d seen of it at 5am. There are so many people from every walk of earth crowding the souvenir carts, restaurants and sidewalks. There aren’t roads of course, no cars and since we didn’t have money to spend on water taxis/buses, we walked everywhere, taking in the amazing sights of the Rialto Bridge, Acadamia, Roma Piazza and San Marco. Sitting on the bottom step of the Rialto Bridge, sharing a cup of gelato was surreal and one of the best places for people watching, I think. We even decided to splurge and spend 20 euro each (the daytime student price) on a gondola ride down the Grand Canal. Our gondolier’s name was Matteo and he was a character. We learned that gondoliers have 4 years of mandatory education where they are to learn multiple languages and massive amounts of history on their city. They must be 100% Venetian and, according to Matteo, be able to sing. Matteo burst into song before we even started moving, singing to us Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” and Culture Club, interrupted every once in a while to tell us when we were passing Marco Polo and Casanova’s houses. As we were heading back, the sun was setting over the canal and he told us we “just missed” the night rates but he wouldn’t have charged us so much because we were his “bella ragazze.” Yeah, yeah…

We spent 2 nights and 3 days in Venezia, realizing 2 days was probably adequate. We treated ourselves to a farewell dinner of non-Italian food at the infamous Gam Gam, a sweet little Kosher restaurant in the Jewish Ghetto. Our train didn’t leave for another 3 hours so we took our time, eating hummus, cous cous, drinking wine and listening to the house accordion player, singing Andrea Bocelli. 12 hours later, we were home in Tuscania again. A pretty fantastic weekend, I think.

Monday, February 23, 2009


A year ago, I wandered into Angela Peterson’s office curious about Park’s study abroad program. I’d always wanted to do it, but never took the initiative to take the first step. When I got there, I mentioned that I’d like to study in Ireland perhaps. She asked if that was my dream and I told her, “No, my real dream is to study in Italy but I don’t speak Italian.” Then Angie said the magic words, “Oh that’s no problem! You can study at Lorenzo de Medici and learn Italian while you live there! Total immersion.” Seriously, total immersion is right.

I’ve been in Tuscania, Italy for a month now and it still seems unreal. I have a 10 minute walk to school in the mornings, down uneven but beautiful cobblestone roads. Sometimes I pass a local or two, walking their dogs. One thing I love? Everyone looks you in the eye and greets you, regardless of whether or not you understand their language. “Buongiorno” really is a beautiful word. I’ve also fallen in love with the fact that the entire town smells of pastries and bread in the mornings. Everyone in town has a favorite pastry and pizza shop and I’m willing and able to try them all. This is also how I’m beginning to pick up a little Italian here and there. While I have only a preschooler’s knowledge of the language, I’ve managed to get by just like most of the other 19 students here at LdM; pointing to what I want and asking the person behind the counter to show “quanto costa;” how much.

Lorenzo de Medici offers more than one study abroad option. Three Cities gives students the opportunity to spend one month each in Tuscania, then Rome, and ending in their choice of Venice or Florence. The “three cities” students who are with us here in Tuscania now will leave for Rome next week. Another option is to spend the entire semester in Tuscania, Rome or Florence. Knowledge of Italian language is not required but a sincere desire to learn about the Italian culture and integrate with Italy’s people is. Here in Tuscania, it is a total immersion program, in that we are living as Italians in this rural town of only 8,000 people. It is about 90 miles from Rome and believe me when I say almost no one speaks English. Although we do have mandatory Italian classes (beginner’s for most students), I’m finding that I learn more from interacting with Tuscania’s citizens. In fact, I’ve made friends with the café owner of San Marco in the San Marco Piazza. His name is Waldo and he does speak a little English. He is patient with us, explaining the Italian words for certain pastries, coffee and anything else we ask him. He shared his personal story with us of how he came to be in Tuscania (he’s actually from South America) and lets us sit in his café before and after classes, no charge. I really found his kindness comforting in the overwhelming circumstances we’ve found ourselves in. I love stopping by in the evenings when he’s slow and just sitting at a table sipping cappuccino and talking with him. If you come, be sure to ask him what his hobby is. A hobby of taking college courses for years and years just to soak up information and knowledge really is one of the most beautiful things a person could do with his time, I think.

There are only 5 of us here for the entire semester and we’re already planning trips. Just today, we planned and booked our first trip of the semester- Venice. It’s 2 bus rides, 2 trains and 6.5 hours from Tuscania. We grabbed a hostel and will spend 2 full days exploring the city. When the Three Cities students leave, we will have a farewell dinner in their honor. It will be sad to see friends leave, but we are already organizing weekend trips to visit them in Rome.

One of the first things they tell you when you study abroad is to avoid making a spectacle of yourself; blend in and respect the city you’re in, as well as the people who call it their home. Tuscania is an incredibly safe town, which is why I have taken to letting myself enjoy long walks around the town by myself at night. I tend to stay within the walls and the streets are well lit, but there’s a point at the top of a hill by the school where I go and sit and can see everything from the lights of nearby towns to St. Peter’s church on the outskirts of Tuscania. Locals will walk by and offer the chance for conversation but I still lack the ability to understand or respond in Italian so it usually ends up being a simple “buongiorno” and they walk on.

I’m a psychology major so of course one of my favorite things to do is to sit on a park bench on Saturday afternoons when it seems as though the entire town is out, and just people watch for hours. Observing behavior, culture and customs is something I find incredibly interesting and Tuscania is a wonderful place to do so. Saturday is when the parks fill with children, elderly and the in-between, especially on sunny days. I sat there for 2 hours last weekend, by myself, watching them all. At one point a little old lady came and sat by me. When she discovered that I did not speak Italian, we just sat there in silence, watching Tuscania’s citizens enjoy the afternoon together. It was not awkward in the least and I think we were both equally grateful for the company.

For young adults, there is very little to do in the evenings and on weekends. They mostly go to neighboring towns for their entertainment, and some of the LdM students have discovered this. Since most of us have limited funds and are on a budget, we’ve taken to gathering at different students’ apartments and cooking, then just hanging out and talking all evening. One thing that takes some getting used to here is the late dinner time. Most people eat dinner at about 8 or 9, so when we head out to a restaurant for dinner at 7, we’re often met with closed signs. Also, most places shut down from 1pm-4pm for siesta which is why I’ve missed lunch nearly every day since I’ve been here. I’m used to eating lunch at 1 or 2 but nothing’s open then. Since I don’t eat breakfast and I almost always miss lunch, by the time dinner rolls around at 8, I’m completely ravenous! I’m trying to make myself adapt to their schedule of early morning breakfasts of coffee and a croissant, lunch at noon of a sandwich and juice and a late dinner of pasta and meat. I think I’m getting it….

Most students opt to stay in apartments with other LdM students, but there is also the option of living in a homestay. One student this semester chose the latter and her host family invited me over for dinner with them. They are an older couple with a young daughter who lives in Rome, working as a receptionist. While they don’t speak English and I don’t speak Italian, we managed to have sparse conversations, ripe with wild hand motions and occasional trips to the English/Italian dictionary. The host mother made a complete 4 course Italian meal consisting of pancetta and grilled eggplant for the appetizer, pasta, then chicken and potatoes, followed by wine and dessert. I hadn’t eaten so much or so well since I arrived. It was heaven on earth. In fact, when Christine (the student who lives with this couple) and I walked into the house 2 hours before dinner was to be served, her host mother was in the kitchen working on our meal and it smelled absolutely amazing. While we were in her bedroom studying our Italian and doing homework, we both stole occasional glances at the clock, waiting on 8 when we could taste those amazing smells that were filling the house. In fact, when I left, I think my stomach was actually smiling…