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.

Count to Five

I’m sort of getting used to all of this, to living in Italy, and that I know because of one single reason– I can breathe.

When I’m at school in the States, my time is never mine. My time belongs to the newspaper that I write for, The Outlook, the Newsletter that I put together for the Honors program, Arete, the Annual Fund, New Logic Educators, and many more. Don’t get me wrong– I love every activity that I am a part of, which is why I could never bring myself to quit even one of them. But when I finally get home at night, I am sometimes a little sad when I have to miss dinner with my roommate or when I have to decline happy hour invitations or other simple hang-outs that others take for granted.

At home, my brain buzzes constantly (sounds healthy, I know) and my thoughts are echoes of the countless lists I make of the things I have to do and to consider. When I go to sleep, I count to five over and over again so that I can relax.

It is only now, in Italy, where I see that this is not normal. Today I sat in a nice little cafe near a building where Andrea, Juliana, and Sean had a meeting, and for the first time in a long time, I didn’t look at the clock or think about what else I had to do that day. I sat and I breathed in cool air (thank God) and I drank a tiny cup of expresso and ate a sandwich that was an obscenely low cost. I’m glad to say that it’s only the third day, and I can already see the joys of a three hour dinner.

I know that once I return to the States in a few short months, I will go back to my old ways and I will be stressed and overload myself. And that’s okay, because things need to get done. But it’s nice to think that just for now, I think I’ll just sit quietly on a side street and sip my drink.

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The Very First Day

Looking out the window over the green countryside, I actually have to remind myself that I’m flying over Italy and not northwest New Jersey. The little houses are becoming bigger and bigger dots from underneath us, and it’s becoming more obvious as the seconds pass that we are not in the States anymore, not even close. Seeing Italy is a lot like seeing a movie star in person– they look different when they’re not on a screen, and it’s hard to imagine that any of it is even real.

Being here in itself doesn’t even feel real. Out of all of my trips, I have never been anywhere for three and a half months, making it longer than a vacation, less than living quarters. It’s hard to imagine being anywhere for such a long time; having to buy groceries, go to the gym, watch television. Along with this, I don’t feel like a vacationer. I feel like I am a part of a whole nother animal, a pack of students that seem to mob this city, a city that has more tourists annually than it has citizens.

When we arrive at our apartment, close enough to the Duomo I could spit on it, I see many families toting their one suitcase a person as I try to lug my two giant ones and a black backpack up the two flights of stairs as our cab driver speeds away. There is no elevator, but even though I have been traveling for about 13 hours, I am full of energy and speed.

Thankfully, our landlord, Francesco, opens the door just in the knick of time and and finagles the door with the gold skeleton-looking key he totes. He opens the double doors and my roommate and I see the looming hallway, and then we open our room to see two twin beds with headboards, two giant closets, our own private bathroom, and a great garden window that overlooks the Duomo. I thought that was basically all of the apartment, but when we walk around, we see the place is huge- huge even for five girls. By no means is the place catagorized as nice by American standards, but for once, the cracks in the walls and the lopsided chandeliers and old curtains seem romantic, not dingy. When we see many of the other apartments, though, we see that we really lucked out.

This city feels impossible to navigate, making something overwhelming feel that much more. Unlike many other big cities, nothing is organized into neat little squares, and to an ignorant American, all of these buildings look the same to me. I constantly have a map under my nose yet it seems to take me nowhere.

Since we haven’t made it to the market yet, it’s for the best that our school has paid for a dinner at Acqua al 2, where our group of about 20 is served five different kinds of pasta, a chicken salad, and four desserts each. By 9, the place is packed and people are laughing and swigging glasses everywhere, although most people in our group can barely hold their heads up over their wine glasses. I fall asleep that night to the light of the Duomo of the chatter of tourists roaming the streets in a matter of seconds.

You Better Make a To-Do List.

As soon as July hit, I made a pact with myself- it was time to kick my studying abroad planning into first gear and stop being such a baby and actually accomplish something besides playing with the cat all day and making late night visits to Friendly’s ice cream window. Being that I was supposed to be on vacation July 22-27 and again from August 3-13 but I would be leaving for Italy the 28th, I figured this would make the sense.

(Me: “Dad, PLEASE let’s go on vacation earlier. I can’t only have two weeks and some to get ready to live in another country for four months.”

Dad: “No way. Life is hard.”) End of conversation.

Anyway, point is that I figured I would start getting ready in July. First off, I made a to-do list of all the things that I had to do (there were like thirty things. frick). and then I just very slowly yet steadily ebbing away at them until now I only have the super hard stuff left (what a surprise). Here is a condensed version of a few things that you may forget (and should definitely do) while venturing across the pond.

1. Make a list of places you want to go. It’s a little scary at first to go through the endless lists of things to do and places to see, but this is’t a concrete list. It’s just nice to get you thinking and get planning (just a little) of what you want to do. All childhood dreams are welcomed. Example: I have always wanted to go to Transylvania. No one I know has ever been there and I don’t even know of any cool sites. But I want to go there. So it made the list. After naming a few other general sites and cities, I felt a little more settled in my own adventure. This also makes it easier for step two (see below).

2. Call the damn bank. I WANTED to go in and speak to them myself about the places I would be visiting (kind of like what grandparents do) but apparently Bank of America doesn’t do that, although Wells Fargo does. Whatevs. I called the bank and told them the countries and dates I would be visiting. WRITE THIS DOWN. Because if you end up going to a country you didn’t name (which you probably will) you’ll be up the creek without a paddle once the ATM takes your card because it thinks you’re a thief. When you call, they’ll also give you an international number and a collect call number for once you’re away in case you run into problems. This is a beautiful thing.

3. Buy a guidebook. I love Amazon– I live 30 minutes from civilization and buying online is almost always cheaper, plus you can sell it back later. Utilize the “look inside this book” feature to make sure the book is what you thought it would be- are the maps comprehensive? Does it cover the countries and cities you want to hit? Is there detailed information about the sites (so you can give tours to yourself)? Are there nifty traveling tips that aren’t common sense? Getting the book early will also give you something to do when you get bored on the plane (i.e. read). Highlight and make some notes of the must-see sights.

4. Make copies of all your stuff. Your plane tickets. Credit cards. Student IDs. License. Passport. EVERYTHING. Make two copies- one to leave at home with fam or friends and another to keep with you in case something gets stolen.

5. Buy a money belt. They look super lame (like a small fanny pack) and they hide under your clothes where you can keep some money and your passport in case you get pickpocketed. They also have ones that are like a cross body bag (but als0 go under your clothes). Cheap and worth it.

6. Get some ear plugs. You’ll be glad you did once you’re on that 12 hour bus ride.

7. Exchange your money at the bank. Don’t you dare count on those exchange stations unless you HAVE TO. You’ll get the best rates at your own bank and you’re better off arriving with cash, since many European destinations aren’t huge on debit and credit cards.

8. Get an iPod converter. I love my Mac and my iPhone dearly, plus they’re the only things I own of value. So I’ll be damned if I waited this long to get this stuff (thanks Dad!) and then it blew out when I got there. Do yourself a favor and get the real Apple converters. Apple makes a World Travel Kit with all the adapters for all the continents, but it’s $40 and you don’t need them all. Just get what you need on eBay and save some dollars.

9. Send out a mass text and gather everyone’s addresses. Write them down or put them in your phone so you can send out postcards (way better than receiving or having to carry a magnet all day).

10. Credit card. Boom. If you’re like me, no one will give you a credit card. And even if they do (God bless) the limit is probably like $300. Get a co-signed one with your parents if you’re a young’n so if you need an emergency plan ticket or something, you can buy it and pay them back later (like over five years throughout the course of your life). You’ll be glad you did when you don’t have to spend Christmas in an airport because your flight got delayed.

There. That’s it. I think I have carpal tunnel now. THANKS. Anyway, please comment if you have any questions or suggestions to add to this list!

…Bye?

There has rarely been a summer where, at this point in time, I didn’t feel the same as I do now. Midway through, I’m a little bored and antsy, I’m sick of working and being cooped up in my house and I am ready to move on out and go back to the water and go to class and live with my best friends. I go on Facebook and talk to my friends and I know that I’m not alone in this– most feel the same and are ready to go back to the place that we now consider home, even if it is in a dorm room. Only this time, I won’t be returning.

On August 28, instead of heading back to the Jersey Shore, I’ll be getting on a plane to Italy with a bunch of people I don’t know, only a few of which I have ever spoken with, and I will be living with them for the next four months. I will be on another continent with not one person I really know, and I can count the ones on one hand that can speak English. I will not see my best friends, my mother, my father, my cat. Even a simple phone call will be a project.

From this perspective, I couldn’t be more nervous. It makes me so scared sometimes that I have trouble making the preparations, trouble talking about it, trouble leaving my house.

On another hand, it makes me kind of sad. I know that I planned this. I know that I made the arrangements. I have high hopes for what I will find, and hope that it is what I am looking for. But even still, I am jealous of those who will be returning to my home the first week of September, who will jump in the ocean in their clothes late at night, who will stumble into class the next morning, who will drink cheap beers at happy hour at Jack’s and will sit in their rented king beds and do homework with their own best friends. It saddens me that even upon my return, I will only share a short four months more of this life before college will throw me out of its nest and shove me into the real world (because, as God knows, I won’t go willingly).

However, there is one more perspective that exists here. When I get really bored (as I am most days here) I think of what I could be doing in Florence right now, at this moment. I think of how newfound friends will invite me for a walk alongside the river, how we will order beautiful meals in Italian, how we will explore the Tuscan countryside on a whim. I think of the cheap planes we will take, of the dreamlike Amalfi Coast, of Oktoberfest, Sicily, Naples, Rome, of my already planned trip to visit my family in Bergen, Norway. I like to consider the prospect of feeling alive again and feeling like I am doing something important, instead of rotting away in the same room I slept in when I was fourteen years old and had braces.

When I signed up for this, I was scared then, too. But when I get an idea in my head, it doesn’t just fade away. I have to finish what I started. I have to do it all.

All it takes is twenty seconds of courage, and good will come. 

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Soon, there will be pictures of me on these pages, instead of photos of Italy I find on the Internet.