This Place

I am blessed to be in Europe and have the opportunity to see countries that I have only dreamt about every weekend. I cannot believe that me, of all people, was awarded such an obscene chance, to see places I have only read about in books. But let me tell you this– as beautiful as Europe is, as much as I literally love every city that I have visited so far, from Munich to Positano to Venice, I am so in love with Firenze that it’s a little embarrassing.

Other cities win you over with their individual masterpieces, like the Colosseum in Rome or the Eiffel Tower in Paris or Big Ben in London. Obviously, all of these cities, and every other city out there, has tons of cool stuff to see that I am itching to visit and take lame pictures with. But Florence is different. Florence, in and of itself, is a sight.

Florence does not try to convince you to love it with big words, big buildings, big promises and rainbows and sunshine. Florence says, “I’m pretty awesome. But that’s all I’m gonna tell you.” From the Secret Bakery to the century-old buildings that seriously litter this city and the uncanny amount of statues and timeless artwork and architecture, it certainly wasn’t built in a day, and you sure as hell can’t see it in one, or even 109, as I am.

Florence has a quiet confidence, an air of intelligence, that, like many of its women, knows that it is beautiful. And soon you will, too.

Venizia, la Citta di Amore

Sitting on the Florence for Fun bus at 8:00 am with a small Italian man with a major cigarette problem was not the best way to start our day in Venice. Luckily for us (and all tourists, really) this does not make this place any less cool.

The only way to get into Venice is by train (since, um hello, the city is on canals). After the short train ride there from our three-hour bus ride from Florence, we emerged from the rather royal-looking train station to see a fistful of traffic… of boats. Instead of clamoring to find a taxi outside of Penn Station in New York City, we stood there and hopped on line to get on a taxi boat, which is pretty nice what really is a taxi. Standing in front of Canal Grande, the main canal of the city, is actually a little unnerving. On the one hand, the image is very familiar, yet on the other hand, you’re in Venice and you’re surrounded by grand palaces that dot the Canal.

Our little angry Italian tour guide shepherded us onto the taxi boat and pointed out some of the key sites, which mostly consist of beautiful buildings and architecture that are extremely gaudy and gold and romantic, like Santa Maria della Salute and Ca’ d’Oro. I’m sure you have seen loads of pictures of Venice that are photoshopped nicely with gondoliers and couples and pinks and reds and blues and greens. Well guess what. IT LOOKS JUST LIKE THIS. My pictures look the same as the ones on the postcards, because this city is friggin gorgeous. It’s hard to tell what’s someone’s apartment and what’s a restaurant and what’s a palace. Unlike other cities, when you see buildings falling apart and their scaffolding coming loose you don’t think, “Ew, gross.” You think, “This place is sick.”

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I can’t really imagine what it would be like to drive my little boat to the grocery store and park it in the garage… that’s in the water. Obviously, it’s insanely expensive. But it also seems to be a little inconvenient and inefficient to me, and the fact that this city functions at all is really a mystery. When there is high tide (which seems to be pretty often) the city workers set up giant tables- literally folding tables- for people to walk across as they gander in St. Mark’s Square or wherever else. When you have an apartment on the ground floor, you have to either seal up the entire bottom half of your door or have some really sick steps. If you have a baby in a carriage, fuggetaboutit. You’re better off in… well not Florence either… I dunno, maybe Jersey?

Walking through this city retains its romanticism in some ways, like when you see gondoliers in their red-striped shirts lounging by their gondolas and little dogs wandering around. We were lucky enough to get on a gondola for a decent price (usually it runs for about 90 euro for 45 minutes), and even though we heard that being a gondolier is a great honor and you can only do it if it’s been in your family for generations, our own gondolier said he is the first one and was confused when we asked, and he also doesn’t really like it because “the hours are long and he really doesn’t have time to hang out with his girlfriend.” When we asked him to sing for us, he said that he only sings in the shower, yet all of us were welcome to join. The romanticism continued to fade when he chugged his Gatorade from behind us and then accidentally knocked it into the water with his foot. Go figure.

Piazza San Marco (the main square) is neat too, with the romantic Basilica di San Marco and Palazzo Ducale and the super cool Winged Lion, which is the symbol of St. Mark (the city’s patron saint). When Napoleon crushed this city, over 1,000 lions were taken in an attempt to crush Venetian pride, but as a Venetian mason was hired to do this, many lions were “accidentally” overlooked (according to Florence for Fun information).

We also got to see a glass blowing demonstration. Sounds lame, right? Yeah I thought it would be too. UM NO. COOLEST THING EVER. Davide, a guy who sort of looks like a modest lion himself, heated up the glass in the furnace and then sculpted a horse in like thirty seconds with the hot glass. I need to learn to do this.

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Sometimes when I go on Facebook and whatnot and I see what my friends are doing at the bar, I’m actually a little sad and I miss them and just being with all these people at home, doing what I do best (running around like a maniac). But then I take pictures like this and I just feel like a jerk.

See a Wonder of the World for Fourteen Euro

As the rest of our group headed off to the Amalfi Coast for the weekend, my roommate Andrea and I set our alarms for 10:00 am (yes, this is necessary) to hop on the train to Pisa for the day. After paying a measly seven euro each and missing a train (this is a learning process, people) we got to Pisa, which was only about an hour away by train. When you drive as much as I do, an hour seems like an obscenely long time. But when someone else is driving and you get to gander at the Italian countryside, it’s really quite pleasant!

Anyway, Pisa is an odd place. When you’re in Italy you kind of expect cities to land in a few different categories– ancient, beautiful cities like my Firenze (it’s nice to feel like “it’s so good to be home” when you’re studying abroad), modern, expensive cities like Milano, and picturesque countryside towns like Lucca that ooze romanticism and make you want to skip. Pisa is not like any of those. It’s a little dirty and there isn’t too much going on.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m sure that there’s a couple nice sights in Pisa that don’t include one of the Wonders of the World. But I’ve never heard of them and I forgot my travel guide that day. So instead of trying to see it all, Andrea and I bought a map for 1.50 and crossed Fuime Arno (the main river that crosses the city) and walked the mile-or-so to the Square of Miracles, which houses the Leaning Tower and a couple of other buildings no one really cares about.

The only miracle in the Square of Miracles is that there is a fair amount of green grass, one of the only spots I saw in the city, that is actually quite cozy in the sun and seems to be a good place for tourists to lounge after they took their photos. It’s pretty pleasant for such an ugly city, really.

The Leaning Tower, which is mobbed with tourists in stupid positions (myself included) and their significant others laying on the grass trying to take their pictures, can be climbed if you’re willing to pay up and stand in a really long line. Otherwise, you can try to read the information poster on it, but nowhere on it that I saw does it explain why the damn tower, which was built in 1174, leans to one side. So I’ll tell you why.

In good ol 1174, the Tower’s architects didn’t realize that the soil was unstable and the three meter foundation would be insufficient. Uhh, whoops. After the first three stories were done, the ground sunk some and the Tower began to lean. While Pisa was at war with other republics, construction stopped for about a century, which was for the best because it let the soil settle. When construction began again, the engineers built the upper floors with one side higher than the other to compensate. Each year, it leans about a millimeter more, and in my own uneducated opinion, that baby is doomed.

Spend the fourteen euros and the few hours of your life is this picture is worth it to you–

(I think it is).

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To the Motherland

Back in August, as the days leading up to my plane ride to Florence came about, my own family relations at home in New Jersey grew more and more complicated (because God forbid we all fight at a time that isn’t inconvenient). Someone close to me in my own Italian family began to hate me more and more, and I couldn’t help but regret my decision to fly to Italy, just a bit, in a few days because I felt like as much as I wanted to escape this person and their various methods to hurt me, instead, I was heading to what I felt like was “their” country. I felt like I was intruding in their life when really I wanted to create my own.

But since being here, living next to the majestic Duomo is this city surrounded by Renaissance art and architecture, traveling to places like Capri and Pisa and Venice every weekend, I realized that this isn’t a place that belongs to anyone that lives in the States. I feel silly to think that these people who wish nothing but the worst for me also have no real connection to this country– as much as they would like to think they are a part of it, that they understand the culture and their lives, they have never even been here. If anything, they are a part of the overstated Italian-American culture, which literally has nothing to do with Italy. These people I was so afraid of have never been here and probably will not set foot on this land before they die. They don’t understand the fine art and the modest love, the humility and the sunshine.

I may only be a kid. I may not understand too much and mostly, I’m just musing here the best that I can. But I will say this– for this time, I live here. I breathe this air and I see these places and I eat this food. This land is mine.

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Ruins, Pizza, Men

Amalfi Coast– Day 2 and 3

The night of Positano, Andrea, Rosie, Claudia, Claire, and our other roommate Lucy walk to the hostel, which is where the other half of our group apparently lives in luxury. We have a buffet dinner and grab some happy hour drinks, filling up on Coronas and shots. The bartender makes Lucy and I “special drinks,” which seem to be just Sex on the Beach. The wines and beers running through us makes it easy to sit on the rooftop bar and talk as we over look the lights of Sorrento until Andrea calls me.

“Come down here to the dance party!” she says. Expecting a packed group crowding the DJ, we take the elevator down only to see an exuberant Claire and Andrea rocking out to themselves next to a DJ who kind of looks like he wants to go home. We dance with them for awhile, shooing away the creepy Italian boys until Lucy, Claudia, Rosie, and I walk home only to have Andrea and Claire stumble home an hour later.

The next morning, we get on another bus to go to Pompeii in Naples, which we are told only has “men, pizza, and ruins.” A little Italian man named Franco who is dressed in a Hustler shirt and hat gives us a tour of Pompeii, a huge city originally of 15,000, in which 3,000 suffocated under the ash of Mt. Vesuvius, which is visible in the distance along with a little crater at the top which was busted off from lava. We see the sauna, the little homes, and the very first red light district, which is full of stone beds and erotic pictures on the walls that foreigners could point to for the girls. After a couple of cheap souvenirs, gelato (as usual) and some pizza, we are told there’s nothing else left in Naples and we stretch out on a nearly empty seven-hour bus to go home sweet home– Florence.

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Dancing in Sorrento, Spilling in Capri

I’m standing with my feet on the edge of this cliff in Positano. Looking down at the water, I feel like my heart is about to jump out of my bikini, especially when I think about jumping my whole self from this stupid cliff. Unfortunately, it all looked a lot less daunting from the ground. I consider counting to five, but I feel like I’ve already been standing here an embarrassingly long time. I turn my brain off, close my eyes, hold my breath, plunge. This is the moment where I feel my feet tingling at the free fall, out in the open air, that I realize cliff jumping is very reminiscent of studying abroad. 

Amalfi Coast– Day 1

After a seven-hour red-eye bus ride from Florence to Sorrento on the Amalfi Coast with Bus2Alps, Andrea, my roommate and Italian partner-in-crime, and I collapse on our sad-looking twin beds stuffed in a room along with a set of bunks in Hotel Londra, which kind of reminds me of a place people in hiding might go to. However, since it’s 2:00 am and we have to wake up in four hours to get on a bus to Capri, the little beds with the grandma covers might as well be my king bed in Long Branch, New Jersey. About a half an hour after we collapse, our then-unknown roommates from Rome stumble in as well and crawl into their bunk beds.

The next morning, we get up around 6:00 am and stumble onto a bus to get to the marina in Sorrento and to take us on the ferry to Capri. As usual on these trips, I want to sleep so badly on these few precious moments of downtime but I can’t help but keep my eyes open to spot the little pink-yellow-blue houses pressed together and perched on the edges of cliffs. By the time we are on another boat after landing in Marina Grande in Capri, I’m wide awake as we circle the tiny island.

We sail past the Blue Grotto, the Green Grotto, and many of the other grottos (although I still don’t really get what a grotto is) as well as a tiny fisherman statue on a large cliff which welcomes visitors to Capri. Soon, we can see the Rocks of Faraglioni in the distance. Seeing them on various postcards is one thing. But actually sailing through the Love Rock and seeing couples kiss under it, hoping the promise of eternal love from it is true, is quite another thing altogether.

Back in Capri, we hike up an obscene amount of steps, where I can hear students mumbling, “I need to stop smoking,” to Anacapri, which the top of the island. Here, homemade sandals and limoncello are made for touristed-out prices. We hop on a nearly-vertical chairlift for a measly seven euro, in which an Italian man literally pushes you onto a one-person chair with a rusty iron bar to keep you in as you float to the top. We breeze by little cottages and gardens, stray cats and Virgin Mary statues.

Here, we peer over the edge to see the straight-down drop, which goes straight down. One sneeze and you are done for. We can see a 360 degree view of Capri, making the island seem like a tiny place, yet nonetheless colorful. I can see people heading to the beach and eating some gelato and walking hand-in-hand, reminding me that this is a place that people save up for years to visit, to get married. Here we are on a whim and it’s obvious how lucky we are.

Claudia and Rosie, two other study abroad students we met earlier in the day, meet us at the top of the island. Rosie and I hop a “FORBIDDEN” sign (in which an Italian attendant helps us actually open the gate) and we scramble through some brush onto a small beaten path which takes us outside of the initial fence and truly on the edge of these cliffs.

Later, we take a “topless taxi,” basically a convertible, down from Anacapri back to the marina and the beach at the bottom. Andrea, myself, Rosie, Claudia, and Nick, another person we picked up on the way, hold our breath as the little taxi zips through the tiny streets that hug the sides of the mountains. The toothless taxi driver either has to pull over when another car comes by or squeeze by anyhow (his usual choice). All the while, vespas speed by in and out of the cars. Making it out alive, we sit on the rocky beaches and cool off in the blue-green water, so deep yet clear that I can see the schools of fish parading by.

That night, our group goes to a restaurant in Sorrento, where we walk to from our hotel on the even tinier streets. The owner, a fat Italian father which his shirt undone to his belly button, gives us his homemade vinaigrette. While we wait for our meals, we quietly explore the sitting area outside, which borders a tiny garden and well with little icicle lights and a woman singing in the corner.

After dinner, we walk to the Olde English Inn, an outdoor bar. Even though we’re operating on four hours of sleep, everyone gets more alive from wine and beer and the big dinner and soon we are dancing to 90’s hits. One of our roommates who we have befriended, a sweet blonde girl named Claire from Minnesota, ushers the tall Italian men to dance with us with a smile always on her face. We all drift easy, squished on the dance floor, until the booze wears off and we are wishing for those grandma beds in the hotel a few blocks down the road.

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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