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.

…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.