Sunday, July 14, 2013

Andiamo - Moving Forward

I've been wanting to wrap up this blog for several weeks now, mainly so that I could check in and tell you that no, I did not die of culture shock - but might have died of espresso withdrawal.

In fact, re-entry to American life has been surprisingly beautiful, all things considered. When I got off the plane in Cleveland, I wasn't overwhelmed or underwhelmed - I was just home. I felt as though everything was happening just as it was supposed to happen. I had been in Italy, I had this beautiful experience there, and now I was home and more good things were happening. It was all very much in order, and I appreciated everything as it happened.

I've been home for two months now. The oddest part is separation from my roommates, who were my closest friends, my family, since January. People I used to see every minute of every day I now no longer see, and that's strange. We keep in touch, but I need to get out to visit them soon. They were all very important parts of my learning experience, and I don't want to forget that.

At first, I did worry that I was starting to forget things - first just memories, places, but then more crucially faces, and words. Now I just feel that it's all a part of the process. I recorded what I could record in words and pictures, but life keeps on moving and I definitely want to be a part of everything new.

I was lucky to visit with many of the American friends that I missed the most right away when I got home, in May and June. I was so grateful for all of these visits. I think I actually do appreciate the people in my life more, after this experience. It was so sweet to see them excited for me to be back. I think it will be easier for me to make my life a little more centered around those I care about, like I said that I would like to start doing.

I think that I am also far more conscious of the way in which I interact with people after all this. Now I've started a new job in Chautauqua, New York, working in interfaith dialogue. I work very closely with very diverse people, something I don't think I could have done as well before my experience with my very diverse roommates in Italy.

If you are interested in continuing to read about my adventures, especially my work in interfaith dialogue and social justice, I started a new blog:

As St. Augustine once said, "The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page." I hope this blog inspires you to take on some adventures of your own, since the core of one's spirit comes from new experiences. Buon viaggio!

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Back to the Start

Sitting in my kitchen in Venezia, I can't believe that I have just a few more hours left in Italia. Sometimes I think back on the past four and a half months, and January feels like years ago. Sometimes I look back and January feels like yesterday.

It is so strange to leave. I kind of anticipated that I would feel something like this, but there was no way of imagining just how it feels to carve a new life for yourself in a totally new place, and to stay there and get all comfortable and adjusted and happy, and then to return to the old place that is exactly how it was when you left it. You've changed, but home hasn't. I just can't seem to process that yet.

One thing's for sure - saying goodbye in Venezia was no easier than Tuscania or Roma. Maybe it was harder. Last night, we made a massive farewell dinner at the school. Our history teacher (the Muranese/Veneziana I mentioned before), helped us with preparing the meal, and then we all ate together out on the terrace - me, the other five students in the program, our advisor, teachers, and other friends from the school. I think it might have been my favorite meal while abroad - and this is REALLY saying something - because the company was just that warm and fun and special. All night we were talking (in a funny little blend of English and Italian that we like to call Itanglish) and laughing and joking and just enjoying the brief time that we had remaining together. Saying goodbye to all of the people who were so kind and hospitable and welcoming was tough. They taught me so much in the time I was here - about their city, their culture, and about life in general. Again I realized how little stands between people from different places or different situations. Whether you're from Mexico, Belarus, Italy, or the U.S. of A., it's all the same. You love, you fight, you laugh, you cry. And you can communicate and connect with other people about all of these things, even without a common language.

Most importantly, I think I learned something from every single person that I met over the last few months. I think about my life before I knew them, and I think about my life now that we've encountered each other and helped shape each other's lives, even if was just briefly. This is what I think I value most from this entire experience, from the opportunity to travel and to study and to immerse myself in another culture. I most value all of the people I encountered who all taught me something in their own ways. It makes me open to continue to travel and move and encounter even more new people in the future, to learn from and to connect with. 

Well, United States, a domani.... And Italia, allora - ci vediamo.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Iniziamo ultimi giorni

Every day in Venezia has been more beautiful than the last. Really, I could not have discovered a more gorgeous city for my last month in Italia. Taking the vaporetti to the little islands that surround Venezia proper is my new favorite pastime, and each is a strange world of its own. My favorite island might have been Sant Erasmo, with its strange abbreviated island farms and its lovely little beach and park and ONE lone little bar on the shore. Of course, I've also gone to the Lido a few times, to set my feet in the Adriatic Sea. Burano with all of the colorful buildings is also serene, especially if you're willing to slip away from the main drag and follow the docks around the island. I sat in quiet park on Burano and watched the sparkling water of the lagoon for hours one day, and made some of my best creative writing in a while.

Tomorrow, our history teacher (who is a REAL Venetian, but more specifically a Muranese, but still VENETIAN, goshdarnit, but also a Muranese! Get it right) is taking us to Murano to see a fornace or glass-working studio that members of her family own. She is from one of the old glass-making families of Murano, who have read their family name in an ancient golden book of glassworkers from the 16th century (imagine being able to trace your family that far!). Her perspective on Venice has been fascinating to observe, but a little sad as well. She was talking to us about the long, slow decline of the once-great Venetian empire when she said, "Siamo destinati a morire" - we are destined to die (referring to Venice).

I saw the beginnings of the Italian Alps last week in Trento and Bolzano/Bozen and Oberbozen. It was really fascinating - the tirolean culture is totally Austro-German, but was influenced by Italian culture after it was annexed by Italy. Now everything in the area is translated in both German and Italian. My father is of Italian descent and my mother is of German, so I felt like the city sort of represented me! It was a mix of the best of both cultures, from food to friendliness to festivals (it was the festival of flowers when we went). Viewing the Alps (called Dolomites in this particular part) was the most calming, serene, silent experience of my time in Italy so far. Peace just seemed to lay across the valley that we rode across in the cable car, and when we reached the top of the hill at Oberbozen we couldn't make a sound to disturb the calm of those mountains. The next time I come to Europe, I want to go to the Alps again to experience that calm. I think I'd like to live by mountains very much.

Finally, last weekend, I spent some of my final days in Italia going to the place where my great-grandfather took off from for America some 100 years ago - Palermo, Sicilia. Today, there are 5 million people living in Sicilia - and 18 million Sicilian-Americans. Many, many Sicilians immigrated to America due to mafia violence in the 20th century. Now, Palermo is far safer, and it's finally starting to open its doors to a small bit of tourism. The island was absolutely mind-bogglingly beautiful to me. I couldn't even process it. Mountains embraced the shoreline and the sun was so close and warm and comfortable there, I could have basked in it all day and done nothing else. My roommate Jill (who is also part-Siciliana) and I stayed in a B&B run by a friendly Siciliano named Claudio, who taught us quite a bit about Sicilian history but even more about the warm hospitality of the Siciliani. He made us breakfast each morning - homemade bread and croissants and fresh fruit and olive oil and cheese and tomatoes. We walked all over the old city, seeing everything Claudio told us was important, and in the evening we danced in the big outdoor market like all the young Palermiani do. Seriously, the whole piazza became one huge party, with good music and great food and more fun than you could imagine. I felt so embraced by the whole experience, and it was the perfect way to begin to wrap up my time here - by going back to the very start, to the very port that my great-grandfather left from decades ago. Somehow, it just felt like the perfect culmination to all I've learned and seen.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Paris and Dublin and Barcelona and Venezia!

It's been a while, but all of that can be explained. We packed up and left Roma on April 5, and my four roommates and myself moved all of our possessions one last time - this time, to Venice, or Venezia as it should be called (why does English Anglicize everything?). But we stayed in Venezia only long enough to set down our things, and then we embarked on a whirlwind tour that the words "spring break" just don't seem to describe well enough.

First, we agreed that we all must go to Paris. For me, I knew that if I came to Europe, Italia was the first place I needed to go. I needed to see and understand and learn from all of the different places in Italia. But then, I knew that I needed to go to Paris. And Paris, as it turns out, was also far beyond anything I could have imagined.

Everything in Paris was so strikingly beautiful, but in such a specifically Parisian way - from the arches of Notre Dame to the stained glass of Sainte Chappelle to the decadence of Versailles to the Eiffel Tower putting on a sparkling light show each night on the hour to the artsy charm of Montemarte. Everyone told us we would want more time in Paris, and even though we had more than four days in the city, everyone was absolutely right. Paris seemed like a place where you want to move slowly, blend and become a part of the city to experience it best. Even though I know only a few phrases in French, I loved practicing - and quite frequently, people totally believed my act. Even when a local realized my poor language skills, they were still very kind to me for at least giving an attempt. I think French will be the next language I learn.

Next, we were off to Dublin, where it was extremely strange to use our native language in social settings again. However, signs and notices in Ireland are written in both English and Irish, which I found incredibly cool. The Irish are working to preserve their language, which was faltering after years of English influence. But we heard quite a bit of Irish during our short time in the country, which was awesome. We spent our first day in Dublin, and of course experienced pub culture at its finest. As a Finnish friend explained to me, a "pub" is supposed to be a "PUBlic house," and in Ireland, that is exactly how all of the pubs feel. There are a million, each as cozy and welcoming and lively as the next, and they truly feel as though you are stepping into someone's home for a few hours. There are usually couches and small tables and people making conversation, and you go in to socialize and talk to the people in the pub and get to know them and share stories and enjoy great live music - and this is happening every night! It was hard to process how different this was from American bar culture, and I loved getting to meet and chat with new people and to appreciate great musicians at every establishment we went into. You feel at home, a guest in someone's public house for a short while, and I think this was the best sort of entertainment I've stumbled upon so far in Europe.

While in Ireland, we went on a special bus tour of the countryside. For two days, we drove through several counties and encountered small villages (such as Cong, the home of a gorgeous forest full of trails and the setting of a John Wayne film), breathtaking countryside (as in Connemara and the surrounding lakes region), and the Cliffs of Moher. We stopped in Galway on the first day and stayed there overnight, which is a smaller city with some of the most famous pub life in Ireland. Here my roommate and I watched college student musicians put on a few sets, and then relocated to a different pub where traditional musicians were playing to accompany Irish dancers.

Traveling through that countryside was beyond beautiful - the mountains, the lakes, the cliffs, the sea. I wanted to get out and somehow embrace that land, if it were in any way possible. On the way, we learned about both the joyous and the tragic aspects of Irish history - especially about English occupation and the famine. Passing by famine shacks was a moving reminder of what widespread poverty can do to a people. But the people would never touch a stone of those shacks - they are a constant memorial to those who suffered, a constant reminder of the strength of the Irish spirit, and a preventative warning to never let something like that happen again.

Our last stop was Barcelona, Spain, where the Spanish culture and Spanish weather were equally as fun. After freezing in Paris and Dublin, a little sunshine in Barcelona was exactly what we needed. We spent a whirlwind day touring all of the crazy, imaginative Gaudi architecture that makes Barcelona so unique, and then we went to Barceloneta beach to relax before heading out for a Flamenco show. At the show, we saw traditional Spanish flamenco dancing, singing, and clapping, which was extremely intense and incredibly beautiful. Afterward, we went out for tappas and sangria, or Spanish aperitivo as I like to think of it. Travel-worn and beautifully happy, we returned to Venezia with plenty of experiences to ponder and reminisce upon.

Now we are gearing up for our last few weeks in Italia. Here in Venezia, the weather is absolutely beautiful, and we spend each day exploring a different part of the islands. Surprisingly, tourists stick to just a few main attractions here and totally miss the most beautiful, haunting, hidden parts of Venice as she sits in puddles of the most elegant decay. I don't want to say too much more about Venezia yet, though - we'll leave that for next time. ;)

Friday, March 29, 2013


Before I left Florence, my advisor, Ambra - who was a pretty cool, hip, young advisor - said she was excited for me to go to Roma and live, "the capital life."

I'll admit, I was a little afraid at the time that big-city life just meant noise, pickpockets, and swarms of tourists.

As it turns out, it does in fact mean all of those things - but it also means a whirlwind of experiences everyday, a never-ending list of places to see, people to meet, and history to learn. Life in Roma lives you, as some say, and I feel as though I blinked and the past few weeks in Roma flew by.

In Roma we were graced with an absolutely incredible history class, with a fascinating and fun teacher who took us on little field trips all throughout the city, explaining each piece of history and why exactly we MUST find it interesting and culturally significant. We went to the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, the Arch of Constantine, several medieval churches, a few early-Christian churches, the Vatican Museums, and Castel Sant'Angelo, which was originally the tomb of the emperor Hadrian. As our teacher, Tiziana, constantly reminds us, it's crucial to learn about these events and places and people that contributed to the culmination of Western culture as we know it today. To understand the way in which westerners perceive the world, it's important to know our history and the reasons we think and speak and act the way we do.

Some of the art I've encountered here is so striking that it seems to shock you despite the gap of the passage of centuries. One great example is the School of Athens in the Rooms of Raphael at the Vatican Museums. I can't explain the feeling of walking into that room and seeing the massive fresco of a concept that we covered in LEAD 101 again and again - the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle, the dichotomy between the human and the divine.

I've been lucky to have taken two weekend trips while in Roma, both of which allowed me more fascinating glimpses into life in other regions. One weekend we went to Napoli and Pompeii. Now Napoli - she's a massive, sprawling, filthy, shouting, emphatic, colorful, beautiful mess of a gorgeous city. Life is just a little more REAL in Napoli, and yet couldn't possibly be real at all. We walked down alleys in Napoli that were so dark and terrifying we went around the bend and laughed as we walked through them, too scared for anything else. Of course, we had the famous pizza at the same pizzeria where they filled Eat, Pray, Love, where a signed photograph of Julia Roberts hung on the wall. We went to a world-class archeological museum and saw the colorful citizens of the city take their evening passaggiata, and for one fleeting day we got our taste of that crazy, emotional, passionate, furious, easy-going life.

Pompeii was, predictably, absolutely mind-blowing. You go there knowing it's a whole city, but my word - it's an entire city. You could spend an entire day exploring that city like any other, except this is an ancient Roman city that's been relatively untouched since it's untimely volcanic demise. Vesuvius smolders smirkingly in the background all day, winking at you as you wind around the corners and stumble into the stark realization that these ancient Romans had everything we have, from advanced plumbing to "beware of dog" signs to fast food. It's surreal and it's strange, but hauntingly beautiful.

Our next weekend trip was to Sorrento, home of lemon groves and one of the most beautiful Mediterranean coastlines in the world. Don't stop twice to think; just go. We arrived in Sorrento and immediately grabbed gelato; the man in the shop noticed my budding Italian language skills and told me to please, sit down a moment and practice conversation with him outside. I was nearly floored - how kind, to want to help me practice! - but we had to run to catch a bus to the Amalfi Coast. Which was well worth it, because the entire bus ride balanced precariously along the edge of a cliff and looked something like this:

The next day, we went to the island of Capri, which is a famous vacation destination for everyone from Roman emperors to movie stars. You may wonder why, based on the wretched nature of my oh-so-unsightly pictures, right? When you go to Capri, the Blue Grotto is an overpriced must-see. A gorgeous boat ride around the island takes you to the grotto, and swarthy oarsmen haul you into little rowboats to lay down and squeeze into a cave. But the cave, lit from underneath by the sun, is the most beautiful blue refuge you've been inside - and if you're lucky, your boatsmen will do his best rendition of O Sole Mio. No, really. And you must also take the bus to Anacapri and ride the chairlift to the top of the island. I don't think I've experienced a more tranquil and peaceful three hours of my life than the ride up, the time spent looking out, and the ride down from that beautiful mountain.

The other night, our advisor Roberto took us walking in Trastevere, a hip little neighborhood in the south of Roma, and at the end of the evening we found ourselves sitting on the steps of a fountain in the middle of a piazza, laughing and talking and just enjoying each other's company, and I thought that maybe THIS was Roma more than any of the ancient history can "explain you," because this is what truly makes la vita bella - it's the people you come to know. Still, I write to my friend and teacher from Tuscania, and whether it's someone like that with whom I want to communicate for the rest of my life, or whether it's someone in a shop who I know for a few moments, these are the people that comprise my bella esperienza.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Habemus Papam

Here follows a few of my initial thoughts after stumbling serendipitously into the thick of this papal transition:
I moved to Rome on March 1, literally the day after former Pope Benedict XVI officially renounced the papacy (he flew out of the Vatican on February 28 in private helicopter; I'm actually visiting the Castelli Romani, near where he is currently living, next weekend). Most of Rome falls on the east side of the Tiber River - that's where the Spanish Steps and the Trevi Fountain and the Colosseum and all the most notable Roman landmarks are. But the Vatican is on the west side of the river, at the Ottaviano metro stop - and that is EXACTLY where I live. St. Peter's is just a three-minute walk from my apartment door.
By another stroke of luck, my roommates and I were on the metro Tuesday evening when a bunch of American students rushed onto the train, talking loudly about how if they ran to the Vatican, they would get there in time to see the smoke of the first round of voting. So my roommates and I looked at each other and silently agreed to make the mad dash - along with a rapidly growing crowd - to St. Peter's Square. As we got to the square Tuesday night, it was rapidly filling with people from all over the world (but mainly Italians), and we waited until 7:40 PM to see black smoke pouring out of the chimney above the Sistine Chapel - a sign that the cardinals had not reached a decision with this vote. It felt so cool to be a part of that historic moment, and to be surrounded by a passionate crowd just as tuned-in as you are to how momentous this moment is. It was exciting for all of us; there was almost an intangible bond between the people in the square because we were all experiencing history together.
The following evening (Wednesday, last night), we heard news that the Sistine Chapel was billowing white smoke. The new pope had been elected, and people everywhere were rushing to St. Peter's to see his first address! So my roommates and I dashed out the door and to the Vatican, falling in line among the biggest crowd I have ever been a part of in my life. People packed into the huge square, filling it entirely. Then the police opened up the colonnade surrounding the square (which is where I stood), and then the area even outside of that. There had to be tens of thousands of people there. And this was not just any crowd - this was the most excited crowd I have ever seen. People were cheering, praying, evening crying tears of joy about being a part of this moment. "Viva il papa!" was the cheer from many of the Italians present. The crowd was electric.
Finally, a cardinal came out and announced habemus papum, "we have a pope," in Latin. The crowd went absolutely wild with excitement. Then Jorge Mario Bergoglio - now Frances I - came out onto the balcony, humbly it seemed, waving. It was hard to hear, but I could understand a little bit of his brief address in Italian. One of the first things he asked was for the crowd to pray together. "Pray for me, and for the world," he asked simply. Then he led thousands of people in the Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be. I can't explain how incredibly thrilling it was to hear that huge crowd reciting those prayers in unison - most people in Italian, a few in Latin, and me personally, in a blend of both (plus English). It echoed through the whole piazza, and it really did feel like we could in that moment pray for the entire world. Regardless of personal beliefs, here were thousands of people looking to this important spiritual leader as someone with power to bring some positive change to everyone on this planet, to use his power in a way that brings humanity closer together, and they prayed to grant him the courage and fortitude and faith to do just that.
Frances's address was simple and brief. It wasn't flowery, with lots of dramatic pauses and varying tones. To me, it seemed as though he spoke as though he were just having a conversation with someone right in front of him. I am really looking forward to going and hearing his public addresses and his Easter address. I didn't know before I left for Italy that I would live in Rome exactly during the time of a papal transition, but being a part of this page in history has been an unforgettable experience in my life. No matter what you believe, being in the thick of such a massive crowd that is so passionate, so hopeful, and so excited for the future of this faith is an absolutely indescribable experience. I feel so much more personally connected to this event than if I had simply watched it on the news. To me, it makes the world feel so much closer and so much more connected, and it inspires me to contribute in my own little way to that hopeful future that thousands were praying for.

Mixing it up in Belgium

Last weekend, I had the lovely opportunity to visit Maggie Pike ( in Brussels, Belgium, where she is currently studying abroad as well. Maggie and I are the only two Marietta College students in Europe this semester, so we figured we really ought to meet up - and it ended being a brilliant idea.

Maggie has the best of both worlds - a home-stay family and her own apartment on the first floor of the home-stay. Her family was incredible - for more about them, see her blog. But they spoke Spanish and French, neither of which I speak at all, so I spoke Italian to them... And they actually understood me! When they spoke to us, it was this seamless blend of French and Spanish that seemed almost to be a different language in itself - and I actually understood that! This made me pretty excited, having once studied Latin, the root of these romance languages - maybe I will set in on learning some French, once I nail down Italian.

Brussels itself was a fascinating city, with everything translated into both French and Dutch and sometimes a third language (usually German or English). It was so weird to see such an extreme blending of cultures and languages, but it's just the way of life in Brussels. After a while, all those different languages just started sounding like one big language with LOTS of different words. I think I understand why they put the EU in Brussels.

The highlight of my stay with Maggie was a really interesting dinner that we went to on Saturday night. An American former study-abroad student befriended us and invited us to dinner at her boyfriend's parents' house. This dinner was perhaps the most multicultural experience of my life. Bethany (the former student) was American, but spoke excellent French. The boyfriend was Belgian, so he spoke French and Dutch and English, and did his Belgian mother. His father was Russian and Lithuanian, so he spoke both of those languages, along with French and Dutch and English, and a little Polish as well - and they invited their two Polish friends over that evening, one of whom spoke a little Italian with me. Over the course of dinner, people began sharing family stories - and we all realized just how much we had in common. Turns out, parents all over the world have embarrassing stories about their kids growing up. After that whirlwind of a night, Maggie and I and her roommate walked home shaking our heads, hardly believing such a magical evening happened.

Maggie was a fantastic tour guide, and we even went to a few places that she had never been, so we both got to explore! We went shopping around the Grand Place, bought waffles and chocolate and lace, tried Belgian beer, and went to a number of other Brussels landmarks, including Mannekin Pis, the weird and futuristic Atomium and the very interesting EU Parlimentarium.

I've been really lucky to visit with some familiar faces while I've been abroad. It's nice to be able to talk to someone who cares about the same silly little things in Marietta that I miss, too. I think it was a refreshing change for both of us, and I couldn't thank Maggie enough for being my ambassador to Brussels!