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5 posts categorized "Italy"

Camera Rollin'

There’s something truly ungodly about modern technology. I just flipped through my camera roll, holding down the right-arrow button out of nothing more than boredom; with that, my life literally flashed before my eyes. Sure, each image flew by too quickly to merit appreciation, but in some ways that’s appropriate—we rarely recall the specifics anyways. With one push of a button and six minutes of free time, I relived every quirky outfit choice, every fleetingly beautiful view, every friendship made and lost, every tree-trimming party and family vacation and awkward selfie and memory worthy of preservation. I’m not quite sure why it elicited such a visceral response, especially since this astounding phenomenon, that of photography, is less than new technology: a preexistent part of my world, that’s for sure. Nonetheless, I think there’s something worthwhile in a bit of reflection, something… moving. Indeed, my breath was running short by the roll’s end. The end of an era, the Pre-Italy Era, and the beginning of another.

Glittery “photo shoots” in town park, tear stained faces as I say my goodbyes, cliche touristy pictures from Milan; my first night out with newly-found friends, my first time eating lasagna, at least thirteen random cats I’ve found on the street; cloudy, underwhelming days in Florence, forty nine iterations of the same headshot, every Greek sculpture I could find maintaining at least one limb. The unfinished adventure of my lifetime, wordlessly inscribed in pixels. Looking hard enough, you can see the gradual changes in my disposition, see the wide smile soften into something more genuine, see the shoulders drop and jaw unclench. I’m a different person than the girl I see here, the girl from six months ago… and what would I say to her now?



You think you know what you’re in for. You think that because you’ve dotted every “i” and crossed every “t” and picked out your shoes for the plane ride, you’re somehow prepared. You’ve got this mental image of what your world will look like, of walking across cobblestones, gelato in hand, laughing with equally sophisticated friends and trying not to scuff your Italian leather heels. You’re so sure that’s what your future holds, absolutely, unwaveringly certain. And you know what? You’re not entirely wrong. There will be moments like that, moments when you look around and feel like you’re living a Hallmark film. But there will be so much more.

You’ll go on adventures, completely spontaneous and horribly planned. You’ll see new things and meet new people, and push through sleep deprivation by the sheer force of adrenaline and independence (not to mention espresso). You’ll consciously experience a thousand unforgettable moments, and subsequently forget them all. You’ll marvel before centuries of artwork and architecture, taste biscotti cookies with a secret ingredient that’s been guarded for generations, dance onstage at a hidden Roman amphitheater, and then later explain yourself to security. You’ll take the bus, miss the bus, and, when you’re language comprehension switches up the details, wind up in marvelously wrong places. You’ll climb Vesuvius and discuss the David, give tours of Pompeii and glide along the Grand Canal in Venice, and live out your dreams so many times over that you can’t quite separate reality.



You’ll also be incredibly bored. You’ll wake up every morning at seven a.m. and go to school, try (and fail) to break your newfound caffeine addiction, and silently pray that your math teacher is sick. You’ll sit at home and binge Netflix shows, you’ll curse at the weather, you’ll walk the same streets with friends night after night after night, until you almost convince yourself that life would be better, more exciting, even, if you’d just stayed home. It would definitely be easier. Because the one thing you’ll surely find, within the first hour of arrival, is that this is really hard.

You’ll cry in the bathroom three times your first day, and avoid phoning home because you can’t bare to see your parents faces, to hear them speak. You’ll shrink into yourself when meeting new people, embarrassed by your pronunciation, and start to shake when strangers laugh at your foreign mannerisms. You’ll do homework in another language, you’ll procrastinate homework in another language, you’ll whine and moan about it until somehow it gets done, and then you’ll realize you’ve gotten the grammar all wrong. You’ll try to take up journaling, and blogging, and then forget about it for three months (sorry readers, I’ll get better). You’ll struggle making friends and silently panic every time you sit alone, then, later, wonder if your friends really care, or if they’re merely enthralled by the fact that you come from the same land as Beyonce. You’ll question yourself: if you’re strong enough, smart enough, confident enough, reckless enough to survive another day. You’ll wonder if you’re on the right track, if there is a right track, and if you’ve really done all you can do to ensure this year is a “success,” whatever that entails. Most of all, you’ll wonder why you ever thought this was a good idea.

But then, about three seconds later, you’ll mentally slap yourself. You know you’re being stupid. You know that you’re incredibly privileged to be here, that this is the definition of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. You’ve never had better friends, never felt so safe and yet so challenged, never learned and seen another world through another set of eyes. You’ve never flipped through pictures on your camera roll and laughed at how little you knew. You’ve never been this happy in your entire life, and now your only remaining fear is that, once you leave… you never will be.

Trains of Thought from Firenze

    Florence is alive. I know that’s a cliche, but I’m not talking about the “hustle and bustle,” or the “life within.” I mean that the city itself is disturbingly human. Maybe that’s a borrowed sentiment from my recent tour of the Uffizi Museum, a goldmine of Renaissance art, which is loaded with interpretations of the human experience and history’s attempts to depict it. Nonetheless, as I look out over the buildings below (and curse at the wind for messing up my braids), I’m struck by the personability of everything I see.

    Ceramic tiles, all oddly color coordinated, spread out like skin, lined by hills and cypress trees (which I suppose constitute the hairline); the streets and alleyways are veins, filled with vessels that flow from place to place; the Arno river is one elongated limb, snaking under bridges and reaching towards the sea; each piazza is a hand, palm open to the sky, each sculpture a birthmark, each brick a follicle. The duomo to my left is, of course, the skull, made-up in geometric patterns with an eye on every face, watching as the city breathes and grows and falls apart, centuries at a time.


(My view from the Cathedral)

    Then again, there’s still no signal, so maybe it’s not that incredible after all. I don’t know why I’m surprised—the Florence Cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore, isn’t exactly known for cell service—but I was still hoping I’d be able to get through. Whether my true intent was to share this moment with my parents or make my friends back home jealous, the world may never know. Maybe it’s for the best; for all the time I spent preaching independence and solidarity prior to my departure, I’ve rarely put it into practice. Still, I can’t help but hear the nagging voice in my head, saying that those closest to me should take a piece of this moment with them as well, should be able to see what I see, especially since I’m seeing so much.

    Two days have flown by, morphing into one blurry image of cloudy days and guided tours, barb-tipped breezes and oil paintings. Regrettably, I’ve not even finished the trip and I can already feel myself forgetting, well, everything. I know what I’ll remember: the pictures of Hitler in my hotel, the ‘Calumny of Apelles’ (my new favorite Botticelli), and one very awkward night out on the town with our group coordinator. But that’s probably it. How can one expect to absorb it all when there so much to absorb? It’s like trying to force blocks of gold through a pasta strainer. And the Italians say that Florence is small.


('The Calumny of Apelles,' Sandro Botticelli)

    My exhaustion probably isn't aiding my memory. I haven’t really slept since I got off the train: now that I’m speaking English again, I might never shut up. And, of course, I’m excited to see my friends. At least, I think they’re my friends, the same people I met in Milan. Yet, there is something unmistakably different about each and every one of them. The shier girls are speaking up, the louder boys have learned to listen, the flirts are making normal friendships and the know-it-alls are asking questions. Only three months have passed, but the little changes noticeably add up…

    I can’t help but wonder is the same phenomenon is observable in me.


(Our fantastic group for the Florence Trip)


Ode to Culture Shock

    Today was a sad day.

    That doesn’t mean that something bad happened today: quite the contrary. Today was, in every sense of the word, ordinary. Your average Italian Sunday with the Gasparro family. We rose at our leisure and ate breakfast accordingly, took turns in the shower before our weekly chores, maybe packed our bags for school the next day. The exact same things that they’ve done nearly every Sunday for their entire lives. Their habits and rhythms, the patterns that construct their everyday… which, believe it or not, don’t apply to me.

    These nuances are culture, and what I’m experiencing right now is culture shock.

    I never thought that culture shock would be a real problem. The language barrier I foresaw, as well as the looming threat of homesickness. But as for culture shock, I always figured I would roll with the punches. After all, my definition of culture was limited to visions of cathedrals and Renaissance art, of pizza and pasta, of operatic Italian ballads ringing through the alleyways. I conveniently forgot that culture goes far, far beyond the visible layers.

    Culture is what constitutes a life, what constitutes the lives of the many, what is inextricably woven into someone’s reality. It’s your predilections and distastes, your political opinions and religious beliefs. It’s the way you organize your shoes, the way you greet your friends, even the way you eat apples (yes, they peel their apples here, and no, there is nothing more unnerving than a completely skinless apple).

    After two months, I’d hoped that these nuances would be a bit more natural for me, that practice would make perfect, that I’d once again be comfortable in my own skin. And, most days, it’s not a problem. I’m wrong 90% of the time—when I put plastic in the compost bin, when I forget to rinse down the shower walls, when I set my glass too close to the table’s edge, etcetera—but I still get the job done.

    For some reason, today was not one of those days.

    Every simple request felt like another mountain to climb, every stumble a fall, every task a burden. After a morning in bed, I was exhausted by lunch. I became irritable, snappy, greeting each explanation with a sharp “ho capito” and retreating back into my shell. By the end of the day, my host mother asked that I relocate some clothes and I burst into tears.

    But, like all tantrums, this one came to pass. After trying to explain to a very confused host mother that she hadn’t done anything wrong, and de-escalating the situation as best I could (most people aren’t habituated to crying foreigners in their living rooms), I was able to see with a bit more clarity. Of course this isn’t easy. It’s not supposed to be. It’s frustrating, and uncomfortable, and awkward for all people involved; nonetheless, at the end of my little breakdown, I was met with individual hugs from every member of the clan.

    Perhaps those are international.


(A totally irrelevant picture of my host sister and mother in front of the Spanish Steps in Rome)

The Happiest Birthday

   "Shh! Non vi dire niente, lei sentirà!"

   A couple of girls giggle, clearly struggling to follow Elena's instructions. It wouldn't matter; at this point, I already know what's going on. Hands placed over my eyes the moment I walked in the door (nearly pulling me to the ground, I might add), shuffling ballet slippers, the cryptic text urging me to be on time for dance... all surreptitiously on my sixteenth birthday? Forget modesty, even I know what's going on.

   There it is⏤the sound of a lit sparkler, paired with light shining through the cracks between Elena's fingers and one girl fussing about her hair, which I suppose was in proximity to the flame. And, of course, the song, delivered as some hybrid between Italian and English, "Tanti auguri to you, happy auguri a te, happy birthday dear Gizella, tanti auguri a te..."

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    This is just where the festivities began.

    In the final few days before I embarked for Italy, I was asked at least fifty times if I was nervous for anything (though perhaps that's more creative than, "So, are you excited?"). My response generally remained, “Not really, though I’m a bit worried that I won’t be able to do much for my birthday.” Normally, this wouldn’t concern me: it’s just a birthday, after all. The past few years I’ve done something small, if anything, and asked for nothing more than an SAT prep book and brownies.

    But this was different. This was my sixteenth birthday, and, as an American girl with access to Disney channel, I’ve been conditioned to believe that it holds some great importance. Now, logically, I know that it’s just a number, just one day out of the multitude. Nonetheless, the damage had been done, and I wanted to celebrate.

    However, “Sweet Sixteens” aren’t celebrated in Italy. Far more important is the “Festa di Diciotto,” or eighteenth birthday, at which age all legal privileges are granted unto minors. Thus, my original fears were legitimate; chances were, this year we wouldn’t make a fuss.

    Maybe that’s why it was so rewarding when the opposite occurred

    I’ll spare all of the gory details, but I can say with absolute surety that this was the happiest birthday of my life, whether that pertains to the perfectly catered lunch at home, the surprise party thrown at my dance studio, or the late-night snack session with my friends from school. I suppose, all things considered, it wasn't the birthday-bash of the century; I had three cakes, but other than that it was rather unexceptional. Then again, as they say with most things, it's the thought that counts.


    (Party #3, with the girls from my school)

    I've only known these girls for about a month and a half. They were under no obligation to give me anything more than a cursory "Happy Birthday," maybe a kiss on both cheeks, but they went above and beyond to make me feel loved. I don't think I went three minutes without receiving a hug, don't think my cheeks have ever been pinched quite so hard. It's as if, for twenty four hours, each cog was superbly placed⏤neither too well oiled nor dry⏤and worked in unison to create the perfect night.

    Maybe I can't describe the emotions this "perfect night" evoked, but I can say this; when I came home on Thursday, I couldn't sleep. For all of the pure kinetic energy bubbling up within, for the smile plastered on my pillow, I couldn't sleep... and I didn't care in the slightest that I was exhausted the next day.


The Tourist and the Traveler... and the Inhabitant...

     Most people know the difference between a tourist and a traveler.

    The tourist stays hidden within the safe confines of the hotel, lest choosing to see only the most popular sites; they take pictures, documenting the "vacay" and (not-so) subtly bragging about it on every social media front; they wear big sunglasses, bikini tops, with bermuda shorts and a gob of sunscreen on their nose; they're loud, obnoxious, and, for the most part, uncultured. A tourist dips their toe in the water, but decides it's far too cold for a swim. They watch through the eyes of an outsider.

    Nobody wants to be this person; luckily, the traveler is another beast entirely, and crossing between these two requires nothing more than a shift of perspective.

    Like the tourist, the traveler is an outsider, foreign to the people and places they encounter. But the lens through which they see is different... it is tinted with desire. A desire to learn, to see, to connect, even if that means getting their hands dirty. The traveler yearns to look beyond every bend, to wander off the beaten path, to step into another life (if only for a week). They are the culturally aware, the conscientious and curious, slipping on costumes and playing their parts. Whether these are the people we see on Instagram (draped in parachute pants, often  with a ukulele in tow), or simply those who venture outside their comfort zone, depends entirely on the way their journey affects them.

    However, as an exchange student, I believe I'm subject to another shift of perspective, one which isn't available to most: from that of the traveler to that of the inhabitant.

    When I decided to spend my sophomore year in Italy, I felt that inhabitancy was the most appealing factor. The idea that I could be comfortable, even bored, in a country as glamorous as Italy, was almost more exciting then the "glamor" itself.

    Perhaps we've ought to be careful what we wish for. 

    Now, of course I'm not bored. I don't think I could ever be bored. Heck, I don't speak the language: if I'm not on my toes 24/7, I'll probably get lost in a pizzeria somewhere.  No, I'm not bored... rather, as I settle in, the luster is simply beginning to fade. That is the price we pay for normalcy.

    Indeed, I'm the best example of this phenomenon, for while I grew up in Telluride, Colorado, one of the most beautiful mountain towns in North America (I believe it was ranked number five), all I wanted to do was travel. For while travel, however immersive, is lined with an aura of novice, inhabitancy comes with problems of its own. Inhabitancy rings of social duties, of traffic jams, of making beds in the morning and waiting in lines at the supermarket. If tourists and travelers are outsides, inhabitants are the insiders, privy to the best-kept secret in marketing; nothing is perfect. Not even Italy (though it's pretty darn close).

    But perhaps that's exactly what I need. I didn't come halfway around the world to circumvent the hard parts, to simply ignore that which doesn't immediately please. I'm not here to comment on architecture and then go on my merry way. I'm here for the traffic jams, for the moments when Google translate fails, for the fights with my new host sister and the high school drama of my class. I'm here to learn, to grow... and that can only be done as an insider.

    Plus, I have to "inhabit" somewhere... I might as well do it with gelato!


(One picture from Milan, in which I am definitely a tourist).