Jump.

Amalfi Coast– Day 2

The next morning, we’re all a little better rested and we get on the bus a little easier before heading to Positano. Before we get on another boat in Positano, we kill some time by eating gelato (again) and watching a wedding go by and listening to the music from outside the church. Once the boat comes and we hop on, we dock by a secluded beach and all of the students pour out and jump into the ocean to swim to the shore and proceed to climb up a cliff before toppling off back into the Mediterranean.

After I do the medium jump (there are three), I’m playing in the water with Claudia, Rosie’s roommate. We’re splashing around like seven-year-olds and watching actual seven-year-olds, who I think are the boat driver’s kids, effortlessly jump off cliffs a good 20 feet higher than ours without a second thought.

It is here that I realize that most likely, I will never be in Positano ever again. Never again will I be able to say that I climbed this cliff and jumped off. So, as the last one in line, I climb the cliffs again. To get to the highest point, you must shimmy up some rock, in which it is necessary to have another person help you over or else you are prematurely going over that cliff. Thankfully, since I am last, an old Italian man who happens to be wandering by (?) lifts me over like I am his own daughter. He doesn’t speak a word of English but luckily sees I am stuck from the distraught look on my face.

It is standing here, teetering off this cliff and the last one in line, that I kind of figure that jumping is a lot like leaving your friends and family to study abroad.

At first, you think, Why bother? I’m perfectly safe and happy sitting here in my own ocean, my own space. Then, when you see others doing it– blazing fiercely outside their comfort zone and emerging even brighter than before, it’s like this little lightbulb implants itself in your mind, whispering just quiet enough, that you know, you could do this too. As you climb the rock and mentally prepare yourself, you look down, and you start to lose your nerve. You think how easy it would be to turn around, to go back to where it is safe. For whatever reason, though, you truck on anyway, and then you reach the edge, you close your eyes, and you jump. 

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This is the Life.

Before I got here, I’ll admit that I felt pretty cool to be spending a semester in Italy– pretty ballsy to leave my friends and family and head across Europe for what seemed like an eternity; three and a half measly months. Well let me explain something. When you are sitting on your ass all summer watching grass grow, three months seems like an awfully long time. When you are living in Florence and you already have the next six weeks of your life filled with trips to places you have only read about in books, three and a half months is suddenly next to nothing, and I assume it’ll feel like the same when I am bundled in a winter jacket and sitting on a plane with tears running down my face because I am on my way back to New Jersey.

Studying abroad also brings you down quite a few notches from being an overachiever to just another face in the crowd. At school, people tell me how much I do and how challenging it must be, yada yada yada. Here in Florence, I feel like the stoner in the back of the classroom as the students talk about the places they have traveled, the things that they have seen, the languages that they speak. I can barely stay awake in my nine am Italian class and most of the places I have been to consist of a pool bar and inclusive drinks.

Even people that you wouldn’t expect seem to have done it all. A frat boy named Michael who was rocking some sort of barbecue frat tee and bright sneakers told me that when he wasn’t getting drunk at school with his brothers and having mixers with ditzy sorority girls, he was doing an archaeological dig in Belize and spent his winter break touring across China. This semester, once his schooling in Florence is over, he is backpacking across Europe through Christmas with a marine.

When I first got here, even though it was all so very exciting and interesting, I couldn’t imagine ever staying for much longer than the three months that already was. However, over time, we got to know our Bus2Alps tour guides, which made me see it a little differently. All of these guides, who are in their mid-twenties and seem to come from all over, studied abroad in various places as undergrads and now intern with the company to promote during the week and then lead tours on the weekends.

One of our guides, Tiernan, said that in high school, she studied Latin because she was sick of Spanish. In college, she followed it up with Italian, because it was another romance language. She studied abroad in Siena while she was an undergrad, even though she barely made it fit in with her seasons of soccer back in the States. Even though she figured she would never have a change to come back to Italy, she ended up attending grad school for graphic design in Florence. Now, she works as Bus2Alps chief graphic designer, and even though she makes little-to-nothing for profit, she has seen places in Europe that people dream about… for free. She won’t stay in Italy forever, maybe just another year or two, and her mother warns her she better not marry an Italian. But while her friends rot away in cubicles in the States, typing away on computers and probably living with their parents, Tiernan bar hops in Sorrento and hikes Cinque Terre and white water rafts in Croatia. Doesn’t sound like too bad of a gig to me.

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Can We Have Class Outside?

Okay so maybe I missed the memo over here, but turns out that when you’re studying abroad, you actually have to GO TO CLASS. Which kind of cramps my three-and-a-half vacation across Europe a little bit, but you do what you have to do, I suppose.

Today I got up early to trudge through the rain to my first class, a 6 credit Italian class that meets every day at NINE O’ CLOCK IN THE MORNING. I’m not totally sure what possessed me to make this schedule back in April, but that’s okay. Anyway, the street system in Florence doesn’t follow a brand of logic that I can particularly follow. There are two kinds of numbers on the street- red and blue/black. Red (marked by an /r at the end of a number) marks a business, while no letter and just a number marks a personal space. These are scattered within each other (obviously, it’s a city) but each set follows their own number system, neither of which are really in order. How anyone finds anything in this place is seriously beyond me.

Somehow I found my Italian class, and then I headed off to Renaissance Theory of Love, a class that I had no idea what it was when I signed up (see a pattern here?) Thankfully, the class is about just this- what Renaissance thinkers thought about love- and is taught by a little American woman. Whenever she speaks, I just wonder what brought her to Italy; if she fell in love or studied abroad many years ago, if she has grown children back in the States who wish she would come home already.

The woman (whose name escapes me at this moment) was happy to see our 10 person class was entirely composed of girls, all of which whom are outspoken and involved. That’s yet another pattern I see here- almost every study abroad student is female. According to a 2012 StateNews.com article, females are roughly twice as likely to study abroad than men. In my three classes thus far, each one with between 10-15 students, only three students IN TOTAL are male.

Afterwards, I had Pairing Food with Wine (this is not real life). Giancarlo Russo, my sturdy Italian professor, told us how in his former life, he worked in Business and made a lot of money but was never very fulfilled. Fifteen years ago he quit and started his own restaurant, making his own wine. I can see his old Business self in his chiseled face, but his eccentricity in his pink pants and yellow glasses comes through stronger as he tells us that if a waiter ever opens our wine bottle in the back, we better hit him with a big stick. Whenever a student says that he/she is some kind of Business major, like Accounting or Marketing, I can see he looks a little sad for them.

When you’re walking the streets of Florence to get to class, plus you’re getting better and better at navigating without a map, class is a lot less sad to hike to. I won’t lie, though– it’s still class. Today is only my first day and already my notes are covered in doodles of flowers and hearts.

A Night on the Town

So, as usual, we are drunk already.

But I have to say, being drunk in Italy on a beautiful red wine doesn’t have too much in common with sitting in a circle at my University drinking a crunched water bottle filled with vodka and whatever else I could find in my fridge. Instead, a pregame that I eat with my dinner feels nice and classy, and even better once I am giggling with Juliana and we are holding our bottles up together so that we know drank the same amount. Once I start chugging it from this bottle though and scrunching my face, I know that it isn’t very classy anymore.

Juliana, Andrea, Sean, and I wander the street for awhile to go to Louis and Billy’s apartment, which is in a nice square with some grass only about a half a mile away, maybe a little more. Juliana and I skip the street, our wine drunk seeming to skip the tired phase and instead makes me want to scream out I LOVE ITALY! although I’m pretty sure that’s the best way to get mugged.

Billy comes out to meet us and leads us into his apartment which is over a gelataria, and we hike the three floors up until we get to an apartment that isn’t as big as ours, but is stuffed with books I would love to read and consider packing inside my purse. It is filled with pretty Italian paintings and glass and generally looks like a family could live there and gaze out their window onto the square and the Santa Maria Novella church, while ours kind of looks like a big empty house that has an obscene amount of wine.

Max tells us he doesn’t want to go out because he doesn’t want to spend the money, but he gives Juliana and I another glass of wine anyway (as if we needed it) and I tell him I will make him a gourmet meal in return. Billy hands me a pair of binoculars and it’s kind of cool to stare out the window with them after all the people lounging about the square. After awhile, the bunch of us meet our old tour guide, Anthony, as well as some more girls in our group at another bar where we pay 20 euro to join a pub crawl and get three free shots and free entrance to a big club, Space.

I’m so drunk as we wander around that I don’t even feel weird arguing the principles of Catholicism with Billy, meanwhile considering that maybe I won’t be accepting all of my free shots. The problem with wandering a dark city when you’re drunk, adding to the fact that you have an awful sense of direction, is that in the daylight you can never find where you were and you feel like all the places of the night before were just a dream.

When we get to the third club, Space, we are crammed in with a million other people on the floors, reminding me of Pacha in New York. All of the girls dance with each other and watch each other’s backs, and we turn the other one away when a weird European boy tries to creep on her and take advantage of her American tourism. This is one thing I don’t have in the States: girlfriends. I hang out with all the boys when we dance, it’s more of a joke than anything else and we mostly spend our drinking time trying to get into mischief. It’s a nice change once in a while to go out with everyone else and just dance with girls and not worry about what you owe another.

Leaving Space at 2:30 am, even though the place is still packed, is a disaster. Even though we bought no drinks, we have to stand in a crowded line where a huge man screams at us all and actually makes me a little nervous as he holds us back and I yell at him that we are never coming back here. Nicole, a feisty Portuguese girl in our group, is especially mad when she is charged for her supposed free drinks. Once outside though in the Firenze air and walking home together, it’s hard to be angry.

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We’re Definitely Not in Long Branch Anymore.

I hate to say this because I sound like a hugely ungrateful brat, but I gotta mention that city living is really not for me. As interesting and dynamic and bustling as Florence is, as cool as it is to turn every corner and see a famous building or monument, I miss walking outside and smelling the sea salt and seeing the trees swing a little in the breeze and running every afternoon in the grass. However, what Florence lacks in natural  beauty, it makes up for in the areas surrounding.

Our group took a trip to Cinque Terre with the study abroad tour group Bus2Alps, where we got on a bus and then a train for about 2 hours to travel to the 5 coastal towns that are only connected by railway and hiking trail (I would recommend not hiking for five towns). We took trains to two of them and then stopped in Vernazza. Since we had to get up at 5:30 and Andrea and I sat up all night trying to block out the sounds from the American drunk tourists screaming from outside the Duomo, we are dead tired, but I can’t sleep on the train because I feel a compulsion to stare out the window into Italy, like every second I can see it is the most important second I have ever lived through. We all gaze a little nervously into the tiny cyclones that sit at the top of the black clouds. Thankfully, Cinque Terre seems to have weather of its own, where I can’t imagine it anything but sunny and breezy.

I have been to lots of typical family vacation spots, like Cancun, the Dominican Republic, the Bahamas, Bermuda, St. Thomas. I live next to the ocean which, although nonetheless nice, has never made me or anyone else for that matter stop and whisper, “Jesus.”

In Vernazza, we wandered the winding streets for awhile that are stuffed full of bright little shops and homes, where as tourists crowd, people lean out of windows yelling at their children to stop chasing each other and hang their clothes up on the line. I asked our tour guide, Anthony, if people here are all rich, but he said that they’re actually quite poor because they have to grow all of their food and the main towns are inaccessible making casual life a little difficult. Being a tourist spot, you would think of jacked up prices, but in reality, people still modestly sell their homemade pizza for a measly 2 euro and Juliana and I cannot help but keep our tradition up of eating a gelato a day.

When we reach the end of the streets and make it down to the water (which is only a few blocks, really) there are lots of colorful boats that sit on the sand, full of fishing gear. People crowd the rocks near the end to take pictures and get splashed by the strong currents that tear us over even when we aren’t actually on the beach.

Our guide, Anthony, later leads us up this path that looks more like it begins in someone’s backyard. I’m in shape for running since I try to run four miles a day and make it to the weight room (although that barely happens), but even still I’m sweating like a pig behind cool, collect Anthony as we make it up the hardest part of the 7k hike, the all uphill beginning that features tiny steps that my own  6 1/2 feet barely fit on. No matter what part of the hike we are on (although we are barely twenty minutes in at this point), the views are spectacular, making it possible to see all of Vernazza as well as the town we are leading to, Monterosso.

I actually have to stop and catch my breath often not because I’m tired (although I am) but because I just can’t believe we’re here. For the first time I can remember, I want to just sit and soak it all in so that I can take it with me forever. I want Cinque Terre to run in my veins and I don’t want a camera to do the remembering for me.

Anthony turns back eventually to get some of those in the back and I wander alone for awhile until I run into Max and Billy, two boys from my tour group. We wander off the path from time to time to explore some of the closed trails and see what we can see from them, although most of them just lead to more straight uphill walks which we really don’t need. Somehow, Monterosso still looks so far away even though I feel like we have been hiking forever. At this point, I see many people stopped and panting, scattered along the trails like the abandoned. We pass a man at a lemonade stand, an odd sight for the middle of the woods on a dirt path, but he is yelling “LIMON! LIMON!” among asking, “Marijuana?”

Finally, we turn the way so that Monterosso’s beaches are right under our noses, and I feel like I do when I wake up in a desperate hangover and I can’t find the water. I can smell the salt, I can see the water, and my legs are shaking so bad whenever I stop moving either from the 2 hours of hiking or from the need to be in the ocean. When we finally get to the ocean, I can barely get my clothes off fast enough and soon the three of us are running and tumbling into the water.

The deep blue water has a thickness that feels more natural, more like people haven’t crowded it and made it their own by posting lifeguards, bullshit fees, flags, and other things that something natural shouldn’t have. Instead of sand that sticks to you like mud, there are tons of tiny pretty pebbles, a few that I grab and stick in my top to take home. We roll around the waves until Billy says that he saw a jellyfish as big as my head, which stings a girl in our group about an hour later.

Back out of the ocean, our group of about 10 stop at a bar next to the water where we drink beers and cocktails. A good beer is good anywhere, especially when you can smell salt as you drink it. I think we are kind of explored out, since after that we just kind of dawdle on a pier and sit on the rocks, talking about nothing in particular and trying not to get in a fisherman’s way. I can’t believe I only got one hour of sleep the night before, because I don’t feel tired at all. I feel like I just want to sit out here forever, under a sun that never seems to set in Cinque Terre.