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.

Rewards

A funny thing happens when you travel. Somewhere along the point where you bought a ticket and you post dopey pictures on Facebook, everyone suddenly thinks you’re way cooler.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate this. But more than one person, usually people whom I used to be close with but I have grown apart from over the years, have messaged me in some form or another and said something along the lines of, “Glad to see all you have accomplished in life! I’m so proud of you!”

Not that this is a bad thing in the least; I feel very happy and fortunate to not only talk to these people once again, if only for a fleeting moment, and of course be in Italy too and spending my semester across the pond. But one thing that kind of gets to me is this: why is it that travel is what has validated everything else that you have accomplished?

I’m gonna toot my own horn here a little bit- although high school was a lot of fun and I made the best friends I think I will ever have and I really figured out what general direction I wanted to go in during life, I was kind of a mess. I was always upset over this and that, stressed out and sad and making silly teenage drama something of a big deal. College started out rough, but now I feel that I’ve done pretty well for myself: I finished my Honors thesis last year, I will graduate next semester with two minors, and I’ve held various positions in my University from editor-in-chief of the Honors Newsletter, Features editor and Senior editor of our University paper, president of the Honors Student Council, writer for our literary magazine, tutor in computer skills and English, and Supervisor for our alumni contact program of the Annual Fund.

So now I have to ask: why is it that one semester of running around Europe suddenly makes you successful?

Well, it doesn’t. That’s all. Maybe what you have done becomes more visible to people throughout your lame photos that you send to your friends. But the point I’m really getting at here is that you don’t need some obscenely expensive trip to prove you’ve done something or change yourself into someone important.

I think that many of us held the notion that after leaving from our semester abroad, we would be totally different people- enlightened, mature, responsible, independent. Have we retained some of these skills throughout the few short months? Yeah, probably. But I think that in part, they were already there.

So students abroad, don’t fret that you didn’t have some Great Revelation throughout the weeks you were chugging wine on Via del Proconsolo or that you didn’t find yourself within one of the many airports you trekked through. Hell, you could have done those things within the comfort of your room. If everyone at home wants to think that now you’re something great, then let them. But the truth of it is, if you made the conscious decision to abandon your mom, your dog, your comfort, and basically everything else you’ve ever known to hop on a plane with fifteen (or zero) random strangers for three months, you probably weren’t as awful as you thought to begin with.

 

Pretty sure I was already this weird before I bought a plane ticket.

Milano: Just Stay at the Airport

So when my dear friend Alex and I departed Budapest, we landed in Milan so she could catch her flight home out of Milan the next day (sad!) After two flights and an unpleasant layover, we were happy to arrive to our hotel in Milan only to see this…

Yeah. It’s a far cry from the Marriott we enjoyed in Budapest, let me tell you. When we walked into the room, I immediately saw we had one bed to share (yet again…) when I had gotten two. The guy at the front desk told me it wasn’t a big deal and “they’re the same price anyway.” What happened to the customer is always right? Oh yeah there were also pubes- yes PUBES- in the bed and I don’t think the sheets had ever been washed. I slept in my sweatshirt and hoped that at the very least, the lock worked. DON’T STAY AT HOTEL VERONA. JUST DON’T.

But anyway, after I dropped Alex off around 8:00 am, I had like three hours to kill before my own train came and I would be en route to Florence. So why not see Milan for a little?

I was there for, like I said, three hours, and trust me, this is enough time to see all the sights. First, I stopped at their Duomo, which is a pretty nice church to say the least. Not as good as Florence’s Duomo (my own personal opinion) but whatevs. When it was built, it was made for all 40,000 residents of Milan, so needless to say it’s not little.

Then I headed over to the Galleria next door which is basically just a big shopping and people-watching center. Unfortunately for me, since it was 9:00 am, there were no people to watch, just this bull’s balls to step on the floor which is apparently good luck.

I also walked on over to Sforza Castle where the equivalent of the Medici family in Florence lived, gandered through their own little city park and fed some ducks, and strolled Via Dante, a huge pedestrian-only pathway that has some shops. This is literally all there is to see in Milan and everything will cost you an arm and a leg. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Honeymooning Across Hungary

Luckily for me, this past week, I had a THIRD person come visit me here in Italy, which is literally a miracle. Unlike my own parents who I begged and pleaded to visit (note: they didn’t) my best friend Alex from home booked her ticket basically as soon as I signed my name on the dotted line in the study abroad office.

Even more luckily, when her mother and aunt found out that we were going to Budapest, Hungary for the weekend, they decided that this was the perfect opportunity for them to go to Hungary, a place being that since they have Hungarian roots, they have always wanted to visit. When we got off our plane and got on the sketchy bus to drive to our hotel, we were delighted to see that instead of staying in a per-us shitty hostel, we were staying at the beautiful Marriott on the Danube River. The day before, Alex and I had shared a twin bed. Here’s just the view from the window.

After passing the eff out and waking up at- god forbid- 8:00 am, Alex and I walked over to the Four Seasons a few blocks away (!) to have a beautiful breakfast with her aunt and her mother. Then, we booked a ticket for the double-decker tour bus and saw some of the city.

On our very rocky bus ride, we saw the House of Terror, which is a museum that explores the Fascist and Communism regimes that dominated Hungary. Fun fact: Later that day, we were in a cab and our cab driver was telling us about when he was a kid in Hungary and communism was in control. His words:

Communism wasn’t even all that bad. Now, everyone works too hard and the banks take all of your money. Everything you see on television about Communism is 50% fabricated. 

Uh, okay. He also mentioned to us that he doesn’t like the Italian women because they all have mustaches. Go figure.

We also stopped at Heroes’ Square, which features the Millennium Memorial. To me, this square is just a bunch of museums and a zoo that cost money so obviously, I did not attend. The memorial itself in the center is dedicated “To the memory of the heroes who gave their lives for the freedom of our people and our national independence.”

If you walk past the square a little bit though, you will see Vajdahunyad Castle, which is a replica of the stereotypical “Transylvanian castle” (the only place I have ever wanted to go in life) and even though it’s really of no historical value I think it’s cool anyway. Plus there’s a nice ice rink.

We also strolled the Christmas markets, which were pretty sweet because Hungary loves Christmas. This is pretty nice for me because over in Italy, the weather still feels like fall and it isn’t really Christmas-ed out, but Hungary is decked out in their hot chocolate and ornaments and fur and… rooster balls? Fried? Well, okay.

The next day, Alex and I went to the Szechenyi Baths, one of the public bathhouses in Budapest. This reminds me a lot of the movie Spirited Away (if you haven’t seen it, don’t worry about it). Supposedly, the hot outdoor baths have mineral water that cures all ailments, but really, it’s a big outdoor pool, people. The strong whirlpool is fun for kids (read: me) and it feels nice to be in a swimsuit outside in 30 degree weather, but really it’s a pool that’s gonna make you out 12 euros. You are also gonna see a lot of dudes in Speedos and a lot of… other things… you didn’t want to see. Old people, they just don’t care.

That day also just happened to be Thanksgiving. Obviously Hungary doesn’t celebrate Turkey Day, but everyone’s got a Thanksgiving menu for the American tourists. I’m sure Alex and her family were sad to be away from home on Thanksgiving, but honestly, I couldn’t have asked for a better time. For the first time in my life, I wasn’t driving hours to go from dinner to dinner, house to house, because my parents are divorced and thus I am required to spend the day in my Ford Focus. I wasn’t getting yelled at for not making it to every house on time, nor was I subject to my sister’s idiocy or my father’s screaming. Instead, I ate a nice meal at the Four Seasons with my best friend. We all ate, we talked, and then we went to sleep. I think this is how holidays were meant to be. You’re not supposed to be driven out of your own house because your family can’t pretend to like each other for more than fifteen minutes. I’m gonna start going away more often.

Budapest is a cool place and is worth a look, but not really more than two days. To be fair, I didn’t learn too much historical significance because I was busy hanging out with my best friends and taking really dumb pictures. Whatevs. We all need a break from learning and smelly hostels once in a while.

An Ode to Rudeness

I’m from New Jersey.

Go ahead, do it. Judge me. Think about how I’m rude, obnoxious, uneducated, loud, dirty, and I drive like a maniac. Am I some of these things? Yes, probably. But I also don’t look like this:

Just because you are from New Jersey, or really anywhere else in the world, means that you live up to their stereotypes, as I’m sure anyone with half a brain can figure out. But one thing I gotta say: as rude as New Jerseyans and New Yorkers are portrayed to be, Italy is much worse.

Don’t get me wrong here; there are tons of people in Italy who smile at me in a non-creepy way and yell out BUONGIORNO! when I walk by when I can barely even articulate words because it’s 9:00 am, but there the vast majority seem to be pissed that I’m even in the country. They’re pissed I don’t speak Italian, they’re pissed that I’m on the train, they seem to be pissed that I’m even breathing. So I have to ask, Italy; why so blue?

I’m sorry that sometimes I have to ask you for directions. I’m sorry that my Italian is mediocre at best, and I’m sorry that I literally cannot find one thing on this shitty map and I guess I’m sorry that my presence upsets you so much, because really people, I’m just trying to see the world here. Chin up, Italy. Have a cappuccino and put your best smile on.

The Wonders of Sobriety

Being that most people who study abroad are juniors in college, many of them haven’t hit the much-coveted 21-year mark yet and feel the need to milk the bars in Europe for all they’re worth, blowing their money on beers before they are shipped back to the States and they have to go back to overcrowded frat parties and badly mixed drinks for a few more solid months.

Since I’m already 21, I don’t fit into this category (anymore). Don’t get me wrong, when I was 20 I would have killed (literally, actually killed people) to be at the bar with all my friends, where I heard, from my good 21-year-old friend Jesse, that “everything you could ever want is there, from rainbows and unicorns to all the best loot you can imagine.”

However, I’m grateful to have already been 21 for a good while before coming here, because I feel absolutely no impulse to blow all my money (and time) on getting drunk. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for going out and having a good time… on the weekends. When I have nothing else of value to do. But when it’s Wednesday and I have class at 9:00 am the next day with my crazy Italian professor, then no, I don’t really feel like going to the bar with you. Sorry.

I totally understand that people come abroad for different reasons. Some people come to solely travel, like myself. Some come to live; to learn the culture and go out to eat and study Italian. Some come to shop and come home with a coveted new Italian wardrobe. And others come to party. This is okay.

But before you choose to spend yet another five euros at the bar (for the first twenty minutes…) think about this- all that spent money on shitty drinks on Monday nights could have gone towards your trip to Switzerland, a beautiful steak dinner with your new Italian friends, or a pair of fancy Italian leather boots bargained for at the San Lorenzo market. Your memories of Florence don’t have to be a haze for you to know that you had a good time. A balance exists, you just have to find it within the piles of pasta and gelato.

Image

Everything I drank for this night I did so in the comfort and cheapness of my own apartment. WIN.