Month: December 2012

The Excuse Counter

When I think of courage, and probably when you think of courage, too, some similar images come to mind:

Lions.

Firefighters.

Soldiers.

But travelers? Really? However, lately since I’ve been home, when I tell people about all the cool stuff I got to see and do while abroad for the semester, they respond with “Oh, how admirable! How fearless of you! How wonderful!” And then I got to thinking. Maybe traveling also, in and of itself, demands quite a level of courage alongside its much more prestigious counterparts.

When deciding to study abroad, and many of my other trips as well, I never even felt like I ever had a choice. This is because I know myself, and when I get an idea in my head, even just a tiny inkling of Oh, maybe I should give this a shot, I know I have to do it or else I’ll regret it forever. I’ll always wonder what if and it’ll kill me a lot quicker than a downed plane or a nasty gypsy or living under a bridge when I lose my wallet ever would. Instead, I just shrug my shoulders, take a deep breath, sign my name, and hope for my best.

However, possibly for me but most definitely for more psychologically sound persons, traveling is courageous. To give up everything you know and love, to get on a plane with people you don’t know or barely know (yet), to learn a language, to try food you can’t pronounce and may or may not have eyes, to fit everything that means anything to you into a backpack but also remain detached enough to understand something will probably happen to it. This is a different kind of courage, alongside its calling.

There are millions of people out there who have dreams of seeing the world, who define themselves as being “aspiring world travelers,” but will never even apply for their passport. There are millions more who will always say next year, when I have more money, when the kids are grown, when the house is sold. These are excuses. An excuse that carries the same weight as one from someone who won’t take out the trash or won’t go to the gym.

Lots of people spend their lives standing in line for the excuse counter. Get out of line.

The Excuse Line

Off the Beaten Path

Okay so before I say this, let me get something straight here: I loved studying abroad. I loved walking by the Duomo to class every day (as if you didn’t know that already) I loved traveling every weekend, I loved having one pair of shoes to wear, I loved the music, the food, the people. But let me also say this: Studying abroad is dissimilar to my real life in more ways than the obvious (as that I was in Italy). The main one being that I had nothing to do and no one to answer to.

At first, this is wonderful, breathtaking, grounding. For the first time in my life, I sat. I drank my coffee. I didn’t answer e-mails and return phone calls or update my to-do list. I just drank from my little cup and watched the people walk by and listened to street music.

Must Be Nice.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? Well yeah, it is. But now imagine this feeling for three and a half months. Eventually, it all gets to the point where you miss responsibilities, working, doing something that contributes to society and progress instead of pissing away your money. Luckily, this feeling rolls around at the three-and-half-month mark.

So as you can probably guess, I’m happy and eager to get back to school and my tutoring job and my job for the Annual Fund and my school newspaper and my honors newsletter and the rest of the seemingly endless amount of things I have to do. I’m ready to actually be a part of the world again and not just freeload off of… myself.

However, not everyone feels this way. I feel like there are a lot of returning students out there who saw their time in Florence as what a life could be, when really, this isn’t very realistic. This is a fantasy. In the real world, you don’t go to the bar on days that end in “y” and you don’t just hope someone will let you onto the train for nothing and you don’t carry a backpack on you with everything to your name. Can you? Yes. Will you? Probably not.

The Life

Don’t force Florence, or any other fabulous destination, be your escape. Don’t let it be the way that you got away from the real world for a while and was then forced to come back to mundane, average life. Instead of it being a stopping point, a pretty side street with trees and flowers that you had to leave on your way back to the highway, make it a part of your final destination. Make Florence the way that you changed your real life as you knew it. Let it make you more relaxed, more open to new ideas and new people, let it inspire your love of travel and of art. Don’t look back on your time abroad and say Man, I wish I was still there, but instead let it say, Thank god this made me the way I am today. 

There’s No Place Like Home.

Having returned to America from my semester in Florence, Italy last Saturday, I have clearly taken my time in posting anything about my farewell to Italy and my return back to this strange country I call home. This is because all that I can articulate about the whole thing is

I am sad

And happy

The end.

Because honestly, how do you sum up the strangest, most exciting, tiresome, scary, and thrilling three and a half months of your life? How do you put that into pre-packaged little words that you scramble away on your laptop back at home in your childhood bed?

Sitting in this bed with my stuffed animals and my best friend Dona, the same thing I have done for the last god-knows-how-many years, makes me feel like those three and a half months in Italy weren’t even real. When people ask me the much-anticipated question how was Italy? I just want to ask them, wait, I was in Italy? That was me in my own life? What? 

And at the same time, I feel like kind of a jerk when I’m standing in line in Starbucks chatting with my friends and I say Oh, in Istanbul, Starbucks has way better holiday drinks and the woman in front of me turns around and gives me a confused look. I feel even worse when I ask my family, Hey, what’s new? and they have nothing to report, when all I want to do is tell them about how I spent the weekend before last in Ireland. I feel spoiled, awful. For a second, saying Florence sounds so natural and it rolls off my tongue because it was where I called home. Now, it is a faraway place that people dream of visiting.

At the same time, I remind myself that I made this decision to go, and it was scary and exciting and I did it, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of to not want to be the same person I was back in August. It’s okay to come home and not be happy anymore with going to Applebee’s for dinner when I could be at a family-run hole-in-the-wall place or go on yet another vacation to Florida. It’s okay to not want to wear sweats and Uggs and look like every other cookie-cutter girl in their Victoria’s Secret gear and it’s okay to want to explore the cities that are in your own backyard that you now see that you haven’t really experienced yet.

And yet it’s also okay to take back the life that was yours- your friends, your jobs, your much-loved responsibilities and your big bed and your pets and your obscene amount of purses that still have tags on them. It’s okay to appreciate your television set in English and the fact you can now send text messages without asking what’s the wifi password? I missed my friends and my cat and the fact that I am needed here in America, that people rely on me and I’m not just flitting about aimlessly just because I felt like it.

On this note, I feel like some of the things I wanted so badly to come home to maybe weren’t so great after all. I craved pancakes and bacon and buffalo sauce and driving, and now that I have it, I miss my beautiful pastas and fresh croissants and taking a nice walk to class. It’s funny how the things that once seemed so important really aren’t so important at all. I used to wish I had my dryer back and that I had all my clothes in my closet back to wear. Now I see I wear all the same outfits I wore in Italy anyway.

So what am I getting at here? Um, that’s a good question. I was hoping this was something I would be answering at the end of this post but maybe it’s just not possible to make these grandiose conclusions after something profound. I’m happy to be home, to have my life back and my friends back. Yet I am saddened by the problems I see in America that I was blind to in the past. All I can think of is that day we got in our taxi at the ripe time of 7:00 am in the much-fitting pouring rain and bid farewell to our beautiful Duomo, our beautiful home, that we will never return to, that feels like a dream.

Home

Passion. Boom.

Being that we took our finals for my Monday and Wednesday Renaissance Theory of Love class on Monday, we spent today doing something professors usually don’t bother with- we went over our exams. Usually I run at the mere thought of this- finals week is the point in the semester where yeah, I’ll study, but I don’t really care that much. I’m pretty sure I’m gonna pass anyway and I really just want to GTFO so I can go home and decorate for Christmas or do some other mundane activity.

So anyway, I wasn’t too psyched today to be going over exams in this class, one that which focuses on the philosophy of love during the Renaissance period, a subject my professor is incredibly psyched about. Before she handed us back our tests, she stood up, and started telling us about how when she was writing her Masters thesis, she was in the library doing research and looking at archives when she came across a primary source document that Leone Ebreo had written. She started waving her hands around and her blondish-grayish shoulder-length hair was kind of bobbing about and as she paced the room, she actually ran into the desk behind her a few times. All because it was so amazing to her to have seen Leone Ebreo’s real handwriting, his little dotted i’s and crossed t’s skimming a page that was filled with his own philosophy, his own ideas.

And as she spoke, I couldn’t help but glance up to my right and at the clock to see how close it was to 11:45 before wondering what the hell I had gotten on that final. That’s when it hit me- this woman is sitting here, telling me about her greatest passions in life, and I’m wondering what I got on a test in a class that I more or less picked out of a hat.

This feeling is what encompasses Italy for me- this grand PASSION. It doesn’t matter if an Italian is screaming at her boyfriend on the street or ordering a cappuccino or dancing in a sketchy dive bar across town. No matter what an Italian does, he does it with conviction. He does it because he wants to, hell, he has to. 

Yet often I see in America, we gear towards the opposite. We take boring desk jobs we hate and we major in subjects our parents forced us to and we write half-assed papers and do lousy workouts at the gym. Where is the want? Where is the need? Why is this in Italy but seems to have skipped a few countries along the way?

Maybe it comes with living in cities in a country so romantic that people have been writing about it for hundreds of years, their joy practically hopping off the pages. Maybe it’s from being somewhere that has one euro gelato so good that you eat it in the dead of winter. I’m not really sure. No matter the case, it’s time we did something for us. 

Quit your job, buy a ticket, fall in love…. just because you want to.

Venizia

My Final Words of Wisdom

Earlier in the semester, I made a post with some advice about coming abroad, pertaining to what to pack, what to spend, what to do. However, I also stressed that I had only been here a few weeks and probably had no idea what I was talking about. Well here I am, 14 weeks in, and I have some more tidbits of advice for you- yet I will also stress that once again, I probably have no idea what I’m talking about. Feel free to take some of this to heart anyway.

1. Don’t bother planning a budget. Being the OCD planner that I am, before I got here, I tried to make a budget plan per months- how much I would spend on food, travel, etc. I came here on my own dime and I was trying really hard to make sure I didn’t have to Skype my mom and beg her to Western Union me some cash, as I had to do in Barcelona a few years ago. (Sorry Mom). Anyway, a detailed budget plan in itself is impossible, but what you should do is have an idea of where you’re money is going to go. For example, I decided that I wanted to travel- a lot. As in every weekend a lot. So I told myself that okay, I’m not going to buy Italian clothes and I’m not going to go out to eat that much or buy alcohol at bars, and instead, that money is going to go to my weekend trips. There. Budget done. BOOM.

2. Try to plan other’s visits before you get here. Knowing that your mom/boyfriend/best friend is coming this week, then another this week, and another this week, makes homesickness fade a little more. When you look at the calendar and you try to plan trips with your newfound friends, it’s easier if you know in advance what weeks are out of the question so aren’t left wishing you had gotten on another trip.

3. And on that note… Don’t buy a ton of shit. No seriously. Okay, yes, you absolutely positively must have those plain black tights.. the same exact ones you can get at home for five bucks. When you’re here a long time, it’s easy to get used to the euro and forget that it’s not the same as the currency you brought over. Everything is more expensive, so save some things for when you get back home.

4. GO TO CLASS. It seems that for many study abroad schools, they give out little work, but the attendance is a must. At home we have an attendance policy too… but it falls more within the realm of “I’m REALLY sorry Prof” and that absence gets conveniently forgotten. Here, it’s not like that. You miss a class, you miss a class, and for me, if I miss more than three I fail. So set the extra alarm. Pay extra attention to your syllabi when planning a trip. Trust me, an art history class is much better off passed in Florence than it is in the States.

5. Bring extra chargers. I know many people who have broken or blown out their chargers and had to go a little bit without their phones or laptops and then pay obscene shipping charges to get new ones sent here. Save yourself the trouble and if you can, bring chargers specifically made for Europe (Apple is great with this so you don’t need an extra converter) or just extra converters and chargers. You’ll be glad you did.

That’s all I have to share for now. CIAO!

Cruisin to Asia

Istanbul, Day 3 

We wake up early (ugh) and unfortunately, the power is out in Chill Out Cengo (double ugh). I figure I’ll just rough it and go for the cold shower, trying to think about how much better I’ll feel being clean for the whole day instead of cold for a few minutes. Now, I’m not sure which would have been worse, since it was so cold I basically spent the day covered in soap after showering in a Hostel film-esque shower by light of my cell phone.

But anyway, a shuttle comes to pick us up to go on a boat through the Bosphorus Channel and the Black Sea to Asia after we fuel ourselves with Starbucks (again) and I sit next to a rando on the shuttle, who proceeds to tell me about how in Egypt, she is a tv broadcaster and has her own talk show. She tells me all about my sign as an Aquarius and gives me her email and tells me that if I come to Egypt, I better give her a buzz. Not a bad deal for a 20 minute bus ride.

When we get to the coastline, we get on a ferry which takes us to Dolmabahce Palace, a majestic and jeweled-out palace that I should be appreciating but really I’m just tired as hell. The views aren’t too shabby from the coastline though, and I can imagine why the sultans didn’t want to leave. Too bad all I can think about it ZOLTAN!

ZOLTAN

After we get back on the boat, we get another traditional Turkish meal as our ferry sails over to the Asian side of Turkey, a country that is split on part Europe and part Asia. We don’t do much on the Asia side, basically just get harassed and eat waffles, but whatevs I went to Asia!

Asia... NBD. I'm a boss.

On the way back, we stop at the Maiden’s Tower, a tower that overlooks the city. It was built because a sultan got a fortune that his daughter would die before her 18th birthday by being bit by a snake, so he locked her up in the tower until her birthday. When she turned 18, to celebrate, he came to free her and brought a big basket of fruit… in which a snake had snuck inside and bit her as it got inside the tower.

Later that night, we run through the rain to get to where our pub crawl meets, a weird hodge podge of people that includes us (already a weird mix in itself), a 40ish computer program from Seattle who insists he doesn’t have a job because of the “caste system,” an army medic stationed in Naples, and two girls from Amsterdam who are clearly already wasted. Plus, of course, the leader of our pub crawl, a dad-aged Turkish man named Ali, comes with us and feeds us shots, who turns out to be the best dancer of all. Guess some things don’t fade with age.

Being out and about in Taksim Square is a funny thing. Sometimes you hear American music and you dance along, eager to have found a piece of home. While other times, much like being far from home in the first place, you hear something quite different and you just go with the flow.

Mosques, Bazaars, and Magic Lamps

Istanbul, Day 2

The second I walk outside, I’m counting my lucky stars that I’m in nice warm Istanbul where a jacket is optional when it’s monsooning in Florence and I was wishing I had my thicker winter coat. However, the sun doesn’t last for long and soon it’s rainy and chilly anyways, but whatevs. We go to breakfast at some kind of little place nearby, where we get a pretty nice mix of stuff as well as the traditional Turkish tea, a happy change in the mornings when I’m used to cappuccinos that fulfill my calorie intake for the day (not that this matters).

We then take the subway- myself, our tour guide, a Catholic fashion student from New York, the Venetian aspiring lawyer, and a quiet Psychology major from Colorado, and we head off to the center of Istanbul, where the mosques, the Grand Bazaar, and other main sights basically are. There, we meet our tour guide for the day, a Turkish girl named Elif who is currently hanging out with her boss, a mom from Colorado who got bored one day, sold all her stuff, moved to Greece, and is now chilling out in Turkey for a while.

Elif first takes us to the Blue Mosque, which is supposed to be open but is closed. She takes us two other times later, where it is also closed. Apparently signs and opening times are of no hindrance, understandable because this is a place of worship firstly, not a tourist picture point.

Blue Mosque

So instead, we go over to Hagia Sophia, which from the outside, isn’t  very much. When Elif tells us it costs 25 Turkish lira to get inside (about 14 dollars), I’m trying to deem how socially inappropriate it would be to tell her that she can find me on the bench outside when she’s done, chillin by the fountain and eating pretzels.

Hagia Sophia

But instead I take out my wallet (okay, fine, dinky change purse thing) and we go inside the kind of dilapidated building. Which is no longer a dilapidated building on the inside. Damn.

Instead, it is a cluster of textures and colors, golds and browns and oranges, all intertwining with one another and becoming such an opulent masterpiece that it’s hard to believe someone made this and didn’t just throw some colors on a canvas and call it a day. We spy the Sultan’s Tower, which is where the Sultan himself worshipped from afar, and then we make a wish on this wheel thingy as we spin our hands in it. I’m not telling you what I wished for, so don’t even ask.

Inside Hagia Sophia

Even though as we’re leaving it’s raining harder and harder, nobody minds, especially when we get our beloved Starbucks (thank the Lord for caffeine) and then finally get inside the Blue Mosque, deemed because of its blue topped towers. Entering the mosque, since I’m wearing leggings, I have to put on this skirt they give me and wrap my head in a scarf as well as put plastic on my shoes. People have been confusing me for a Turk all day, but now I really look legit. Unlike the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque is less touristed out and more a legit place of worship, surrounded by seemingly floating candles and people kneeling on the red carpeted floor.

Blue Mosque

After the mosque and a traditional Turkish lunch of meatballs, which are more like meat sticks really, we go to the Grand Bazaar- probably the most anticipated destination thus far of girls. I was expected an atmosphere similar to Canal Street in New York or the San Lorenzo Market in Florence, lots of stands with hassling men, but instead, the Bazaar looks a lot more like the Ponte Vecchio on steroids with all the jewelry and ceramic elephants and magic lamps under covered streets, making it look more like a cheap mall. Unfortunately, we weren’t the only ones to stampede the Bazaar, and the lack of negotiating and abundance of overpriced junk and confused tourists reflects this.

Grand Bazaar

We also stop by the Topkapi Palace, a pile of different museums that hosts a lot of the sultan’s jewels and other sultany stuff (this isn’t a word but that’s okay). Perhaps the coolest thing we see is the special exhibit of a couple of the stone soldiers found of the Terracotta Army, which I oh-so-subtly took pictures of (and then got yelled at).

Terracotta Army

Plus, we stopped by the Hippodrum, the old square center of Istanbul where there a few relics to remind those who pass by of the breathtaking history of the city, including the Egyptian Obelisk of Theodosius and the Serpent Column, a gift to Turkey that used to be way taller and have three heads on its snakes but now has none…? Whatevs, it’s cool Istanbul.

The City of Lights

So what is the City of Lights? Why did I name this post that? Honestly, I have no idea. I know Paris is supposed to be the “City of Lights” but after my weekend in Istanbul, I am going to have to politely disagree. Especially considering it rained the entire weekend, trust me when I tell you that city is lit up like a damn Christmas tree.

Day 1 

First of all, when I paid like $125 for my flight to Turkey, a place that doesn’t have a great reputation to begin with, I was kind of expecting a Ryannair-esque flight with Turkish Airlines; you know, the obnoxious 70’s blue upholstery, the fighting for seats, the lack of anything free, and the abundance of stewardesses in hooker outfits. Instead, I got a four-course meal, a row to myself, and some cool Asian music to listen to. Not a bad deal.

Flying into Istanbul reminds you pretty quickly that you’re going somewhere unlike anywhere else you have been lucky enough to visit. As you float over the water, you see the little boats dotting the coast with their lights shining, not too far away from the big opulent mosques and the sparkles that can only exist in the fifth biggest city in the world, which hosts 13 million people.

The Maiden's Tower

Thankfully, since I am directionally challenged, I met another girl on my tour group while getting off the plane who was on her way to the same hostel as me. No really, thank God. A Colombian who was currently studying in Venice, she told me about her ambitions to be a lawyer all while discussing the lack of partying in Venice. Basically, my perfect mix of person.

As soon as the packed shuttle dropped us off in Taksim Square, which isn’t very near the mosques and otherwise attractions and coastline in Istanbul but instead hosts the array of bars and clubs and waffle stands, I became even more thankful I wasn’t alone. Not many of the broken cobble-stoned streets have signs, not many people and speak English, and not many people are girls. Weird. Instead, Taksim Square on a Thursday night bustles with piles of men all clamoring over each other in drunken stupors, whistling and cheering and staring. Besides the men, there are also an odd abundance of cats, who beg just like dogs and crowd the streets just as much. Apparently, as a guide later tells us, the city breeds them for people who can’t afford pets to play with.

We also stop to snag some baklava, a traditional Turkish dessert that is a little croissant-like pastry that is filled with honey or chocolate and lots of other sweet stuff. Who would have thought Turkey would be such a hub for desserts?

This all may sound very un-charming, but actually, it is. It’s a jumble of people in an orderly hustle who are singing and yelling and laughing, their faces lit up by the golden and pink lights in the windows. However, after all day travel, I was still happy to stumble upon our hostel, which was basically someone’s converted house with a couple extra bathrooms thrown in (thankfully).

Chill Out Cengo

A Sum of its Parts

As we enter into single-digit days of our time left here in Italy, we are often asked these questions…

What was the coolest thing you did?

What was your favorite place you visited? 

What’s the craziest thing that happened?

I feel like I speak for everyone when I say that when someone asks one of these questions, my brain kind of freezes. I want to give them the intelligible, wonderful, unbelievable answer they were looking for. I want to tell them about how Prince William met me in a bar in England and swept me off to his palace and I want to tell them about how I fought a band of thieves in Istanbul and returned unscathed with their loot and I want to tell them how I saw the Loch Ness monster in Scotland and got some great pix that they just have to see.

MONSTERS

Unfortunately, as you are probably guessing, none of these things happened.

So, when someone asks me one of these questions, I can feel their disappointment looming as I say that although cliche, I loved almost everywhere that I visited, and picking a favorite city is like picking a favorite child. When I tell them that just the prospect of being here the craziest situation in itself, I can sense their interest fading as they reach for their drink.

Which is why I want to stress that a semester abroad, isn’t, and shouldn’t be anyway, a time that can be summed up in one experience, one country, or one person. It isn’t something that I can explain away by telling someone about the breathtaking and unscathed beaches in Croatia, the dark and ominous Cliffs of Moher, or the bustling lights in Istanbul. None of these really captures anything at all, and if I try to explain it, I end up feeling like I just shortchanged my semester anyway.

Croatia

Instead, a time abroad, a time away from the daily bores and people and errands of ordinary life, is made up of many small experiences that only you will ever know. No, you didn’t meet Prince William, but you did meet the cutest little old man on the airplane to Austria who told you about China and how he scuba dived in the Galapagos Islands and how he really thinks you’ll be great someday. No, you didn’t get a picture of the Loch Ness monster, but you did get some beautiful shots of the Eiffel Tower as it sparkled on the dot. No, you didn’t fight a band of thieves in Istanbul, but you did put on your game face and visit a city alone that frightened you to death, yet you went anyway with five other random strangers and stepped on the soil of Asia and ran amok Taksim Square by nightfall.

Taksim Square

Just like all other things in life, a semester abroad isn’t a single experience that can fit itself into a standard refrigerator box. Instead, it’s a pile of knickknacks on the floor that you kick under your bed when you get home, but when it’s getting dark out and you find your mind racing, you pull one out and remember how sick your life really is.