On Waiting For Milan, Crippling Anxiety, and Anticipation of Pizza

One of the best moments of my adult life was leaving on the plane to Milan on February 2nd, 2014. It was so liberating, so intoxicating, and so scary at the same time. I felt truly alive. But how did I get to that point?

I always knew I wanted to Study Abroad. It’s a “part of the college experience,” many say. However, the college experience is very different for everyone, and that largely revolves around money. My family doesn’t have much money at all, and most of my tuition is paid through financial aid. This year, I decided to explore my options, and somehow, the stars aligned in such a way that I had enough money to get started in my application to study abroad, and worked it out with financial aid to have money to live abroad.

I had been planning to study in Japan, with a year of Japanese under my belt already. When I went to look up the program dates, I found that I wouldn’t leave until April, and wouldn’t get back until two weeks before my senior year started. I knew I couldn’t do that, as I needed to work during the summer and prepare for senior year. So it was back to the drawing board.

I delved into my past a little bit, and decided that, since I had taken a few years of Italian in high school, that Italy was my best bet. Not to mention, Italian is my other favorite cuisine next to Japanese. I could eat pizza for four months (I basically do that at New Paltz). I quickly sent in my application and transferred into an Italian class at New Paltz. My father and sister were very supportive, telling me to take the chance and apply, even if I only had some limited funds. I got accepted, and almost cried tears of joy. I was leaving the country for four months, and going to Europe for the first time in my life.

The weeks before leaving were torture. It felt like purgatory; a life in slow transition. I was working my same busboy job at one of the most unprofessional restaurants I’ve ever worked at. The pay was horrible and the days dragged on and on. I spent New Year’s Eve bussing tables. I spent most of my free time reading 1000 page fantasy novels. When I was in the pages of those books, I wouldn’t be thinking about how scared I was to leave, or how disillusioned I was with the prospect of not being in America in a few weeks. I couldn’t make plans with anyone—I would be gone. It honestly didn’t feel real, like somehow I would just end up staying in America. I didn’t want to, of course. The idea of living in another country was so surreal, however, that the exact implications of it couldn’t fully take root in my mind.

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A few weeks into winter break, I was lucky enough to go see one of my favorite musicians, Pat The Bunny, play in a loft in Brooklyn. He plays a folk-ish punk solo act, and he’s truly amazing. It was such a great experience to see him play live for the first time. He screamed and screamed and screamed, and my friends and I screamed back. I loved every second of it, but I was afraid of being away from such a culture in Italy. Punk culture really isn’t a thing in Italy, even among “alternative” youths. It really is a shame. I didn’t want to be away from all of these amazing people, but I had to if I wanted to go and experience new things. And honestly, that’s what studying abroad is all about; being out of your comfort zone to experience new, scary, and exciting things. I did get a shirt to take with me to Italy, though, and educate some Italians on some great music.

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Now, like most students going abroad, I was in a romantic relationship. The two normally don’t mix. My girlfriend was studying in France, and we decided to stay in our relationship, despite the distance. We’re already long distance, so it didn’t seem so crazy. Besides, Italy and France border each other. It’s like living in another state. She left about two weeks before I did. You’d think saying goodbye would have been hard, but we were both hopeful. Besides, there wasn’t much time to dwell on these things; I was leaving soon, and had some major work to do before I was ready to leave.

If you think the DMV is bad, you really need to step into a Visa Office at a foreign consulate. One of the most nerve racking moments in bureaucracy I’ve ever had was when I was told I did not have the proper financial documentation to be issued a Visa. I had to go back, into New York City, in person, to give them proof of financial stability. You’d think this would be easy to get, but I had to go to three banks to get the information I needed. One bank gave me the wrong papers, but luckily, I fact checked at another bank and set that straight, and went to a third bank to get a document notarized. I gave my papers to the consulate, in person, and they had me come back, in person, at 9AM in two days to pick up my visa. Three round-trip train tickets to New York City and $65 later, I had my visa. I was ready for Italy.

The first thing I did was leave my job as soon as possible. I was barely getting paid anyway, and when you find out you’re officially leaving the country, you tend not to care anymore about an extra week of mindless busywork. You have people to see, people to say goodbye to, provisions to buy and pack, and only a week to decide which five books you want to bring with you. Suddenly, so many things seem so unimportant, even worthless. Pretty soon, you’re gone. Who cares about an unfilled water glass on table ten, or an extra fifty bucks in your pocket?

I also had a book I was editing for a record label, which I had to get finished before I left. The work was hard, but it ultimately payed off. The book’s going off to the presses as we speak.

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I had some beautiful goodbyes. I roadtripped to New Paltz and saw a bunch of my college friends for the last time before I left. One in particular, Pauline, I hadn’t seen in 6 months. That was so fun to see her again.  The goodbyes were so hard that I just sort of faded away when I had to leave, and only said goodbye to one or two people. I even realized how much I’d miss the random acquaintances, the people I’d just see at parties or walking around campus.

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I had a nice lunch with my sister, who bought me some nice Calvin Klein shoes and a denim jacket, so people in Italy wouldn’t laugh at my horrible fashion sense. I was going to the fashion capital of the world—I at least needed to look decent. I had dinner at my great aunt and uncle’s house, and went out to BBQ with my another aunt and uncle. They told me they would pay for one of my plane tickets to travel—thanks for the trip to London, Uncle Pat and Aunt Donna.

My friends threw a party for me the night before I left. It was perfect. I realized how much I love all of these people I grew up with, and how, while our lives are diverging, we will always be close, and will be there for the moments that count.

The day I left, February 2nd, my dad drove me to the airport around 6 or so at night. We stopped for some coffee at a Starbucks—sitting there in the lounge, I think it finally hit him how I wouldn’t be there tomorrow, and it would be even harder for us to talk. He was so proud of me, though, and it felt great that he noticed how truly magical it was that I would be getting this experience. He dropped me off at JFK Airport, and I waited for my airline.

Getting on the plane, I truly realized how different my life would be soon enough. I would be forever changed by this experience. When I stepped off the plane back home into JFK in four months, the person I was would not be the same person I was in this moment. I was excited and terrified of this. I had all of the time in the world to be whoever I wanted to be. As the plane took off, I remember one feeling: liberation. I was on my way to see some of the greatest things I would ever, and will ever, see in my life. I was really free, and I couldn’t wait for my first slice of authentic Italian pizza.

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The end of an Era

The last week of volunteer work has quickly approached and even more quickly vanished. I don’t know how I managed to say goodbye without crying- but I believe it’s due my body turning off all emotions in order to function in everyday life (which is now… quickly… coming to an end in Italy).

I went to both elementary schools, where I used to teach English, to say goodbye. The reactions of the students upon my announcement of departure made my time there worth it (if I didn’t already feel that way before). From Pascoli, I received an incredible book on Siena and Italy written in Italian from the main teacher, and each and every student made me a card thanking me and wishing me merry Christmas as best they could… I had a pretty fun time deciphering some of the more complicated sentiments. Apparently this teacher gave me “the most incredible write-up that the staff in Siena have ever heard, and they were going to insert it into the IPSL blog.” Go me.

The Laboratorio was a little harder for me because a lot of the members didn’t understand that I was leaving for good… (for good for now). I had such a hard time saying goodbye to those friends who kept asking me if I would be back tomorrow morning like usual. While I made them a card with our picture to say goodbye, and I left my e-mail and phone number with a couple of people, I really don’t know how I am going to handle not seeing them anymore. Even the other volunteers- which consist of a bunch of little-old-ladies with a fancy for arts and crafts to do with Christmas shared in the upset of me leaving. It was so hard to walk away, and I really think I will miss this place the most out of all the places I have been in Italy.

The Mensa dei Poveri sent us off with another big meal. Plus some sweets and even a little bit of alcohol. Have you ever seen a nun take a shot of some after-meal traditional liquor? It is a sight to see, let me tell you that. We exchanged e-mails with her as well, and promised to send the photo of all of us together. She gave each one of us a bear filled with some interesting looking candies. It is going to be both strange and upsetting to begin volunteer work at the soup kitchen in my neighborhood. There will be no three course meals, for starters.

Here are some pictures of the Laboratorio and me with my elementary school class:

The Effects of Time

I can’t believe there are only two weeks left. I don’t know what I am going to do when I leave this city, these people, the language. There will be no more wild hand gestures on the street (and yes, I am discounting the man suffering from schizophrenia seen on the streets of new york), and there will be no more  strange Italian words like “boh,” which means “I don’t know.” Most importantly though, there will be no more Laboratorio, no more Mensa dei Poveri, and no more Elementary schools to occupy my time in. I have volunteered at these places for a total of three months now, and it is unnerving that this time can be ripped away from me so easily. Is it all over when I go home? Am I going back to the real world and leaving the fantasy life of Siena in the dust? I hope not. My friend and I have already started planning our visit back- but there is always that little issue of money that stops me from being sure of my future here. I know that I will come back- I know that I cannot leave this place behind for good- but I also know that the connections one makes in four months are largely just starting to become tight bonds and therefore can easily be broken. Will I continue to speak with the Italian friends I have met with any sort of consistency? There are obviously a lot of rhetorical questions to be asked here.

On the brighter side, I am now determined to make the most of my time here- (as the ephemeral reality of my stay in Italy has finally been put into perspective). Not that I didn’t “make my time” before, but now It’s incredibly easy to identify what is most important to me: namely volunteering and building on my relationships- and therefore, more easy to also dedicate myself almost exclusively to those things.

Wish me luck.

Venezia

Venice is probably the most incredible place I have been thus far. I spent two days there with some friends- and despite the rain and cold… and major flooding, I had the most amazing time. Not only is the city beautiful, but it has this small town feel that totally contradicts its true immensity in terms of the thousands of little streets there are to get lost down. I became the shopoholac that I never thought I would be- going in almost every glass store we passed by and allowing my frugality to emerge only so often in my decision making process. The hostel was easy enough to find as it was on the “main street” and there was literally a bridge leading to its front door. It is called the Venice Fish and despite some flooding on the lower level, it was a really nice place with big rooms and high ceilings. There was a ridiculous array of wanderers there- from a kid who started traveling 8 months ago around Europe as a final hoorah before he starts college, to a guy who has been studying physics in Budapest for last couple of months and just got accepted into the number one rated school for science in China. We ate a pretty bad free dinner at the hostel instead of spending money on another fancy meal like we had earlier- but it was worth the stomach pain that ensued after because I met some really interesting people in the eating process. It’s surprising how people can bond over a bad plate of pasta and some spicy sauce.

While we didn’t go on any gondola rides (because of the frigidity), I took a lot of pictures of them:

As well as a few pictures of the rivers that run through Venice in general:

The Basilica

The Basilica

Me on the Watery streets of Venice

Me on the Watery streets of Venice

The Venice Fish

The Venice Fish

Ringraziamento

Ringraziamento! Or in that American language: Thanksgiving. The Italians finally gave in to the somewhat frantic pleas of the thirty students who expected to stuff their face on the 25th. I was no exception: the tastes of turkey, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, stuffing, and even pumpkin pie all filled my mouth that day. It’s actually quite interesting to taste the Italian take on pumpkin pie, let me tell you. We all gathered around a long table- which happened to be in the cafe of a local bookstore- and told each other, (somewhat emotionally), what we were all thankful for. Not surprisingly, the fact that we were eating our first American-style meal in Italy, and the fact that we are even in Italy in general, was mentioned several times. What’s more, all the staff members of the S.I.S. program were the cooks for the night- so for once it felt like they were the ones with homework and a deadline rather than us students… how things change, huh?

Ringraziamento

Ringraziamento. Gwen prepared to chow down.

The Dinner Table

Peperoncini crusschi

Altomonte. A seemingly uneventful- and even, unknown, town to most… but after my visit, I know it will always be a place of great personal importance. My father was born in this small town, and when I first arrived, I was greeted by what’s left of our family there: my grandmother’s sister, her daughter, her husband, and their two children- all of whom became a part of my family- or rather, I became a part of theirs- during my three day stay there.

After a nine hour bus ride (which was grueling, by the way), I arrived in Altomonte at 6:30 am. Perfect timing right? Soon after, I was greeted by Giovanna and Mario who took me to their house located somewhat within the city center. The clouds hung low and our drive through the country was incredible. I was largely unsure of how to interact with my “family,” as blood doesn’t necessarily dictate relationships.

I was overloaded with food (to put it lightly), and received my favorite italian dish ever- direct from my grandmother’s mouth to her sister’s- “peperoncini crusschi.” I’m sure I spelled that wrong- but they are dried red peppers (not spicy), fried in oil until they are incredibly crunchy and then drizzled with salt. They are delicious… especially when there is a really cute older woman who can’t wait to make them for you.

My three days there were mostly spent running errands with Giovanna (which I really liked), picking up Rebecca from elementary school, and eating way way way too much. I solely spoke Italian for three days, and was amazed at how much my Italian improved by the end. I didn’t realize how important- or rather, how extremely beneficial, it is to be immersed in the language at all times. Unfortunately, back in Siena, I have about 30 other American students around me most of the time- and by no means do we consistently attempt to speak solely in Italian.

Being in Altomonte, seeing the house that my father was born in (which is now in ruins, by the way), made me think about what the word “family” actually means. I have a family in the United States, I have a host family in Siena, and I have extended family in Altomonte. From experience, I have found all these “terms” to imply completely different things, to evoke completely different sentiments, and to suggest completely different lifestyles.

While I found myself relieved to return to a city and house I knew after the mysteries of the ten day break, I found myself more comfortable with the “family” I discovered in Altomonte. We looked at incredibly old  pictures of my “family” in the United States, we ate food that I am accustomed to having back at home, and we even shared in activities (a thing that I really don’t get the pleasure of doing back here in Siena with my host family).

In all, I had an amazing time and am so glad that I got to meet them.

A Spanish Halloween

Hey all. So, I know it’s been way too long since I last wrote, but I have some pretty good excuses: I just got back from my ten day break, which I spent in both Barcelona and Altomonte, in Calabria- with a little pit-stop in Siena in between, and I have been without internet for some time because I couldn’t get to the store to pay a ridiculous amount for credit.

Anyway, I guess this blog will be solely about Barcelona as the three days that I stayed there are packed full of events.

Getting to Barcelona was not in the least bit easy, and actually took a ridiculous amount of time out of the trip (I will get more into my disgust for the actual process of traveling later). I, along with six other girls first headed to Rome via city bus, then took the metro to the Rome airport. In theory this sounds relatively easy, but wait until you step into the Rome airport, where no one else knows any better than you how to get from one place to another. We took a nice walk around the entire airport before we ended up in the same spot that we started- which of course was ironically where we needed to be all along. From there we took a plane to Barcelona, and finally a city bus and a taxi to our hostel. Arriving at 3am is not a good idea- so I suggest anyone who thinks they will arrive at midnight but has yet to factor in all the traveling mishaps: be warned! We sat, a bit slap-happy from overtiredness, and a bit desolate because we couldn’t get in the barred door that would lead us to what we hoped would be our beautiful beds, for about 20 minutes before I decided to ask two random people who “looked american,” if they new of another hostel that was open at this hour. Amazingly, the two men happened to be walking by at that time because they stayed in the same hostel and were returning home from a night out! Although they played jokes on us for a while, and wouldn’t let us in without first getting the attendant (which isn’t a bad thing… but was a little upsetting considering our current 3:30am state of being). Finally we were let in and basically crashed until around 10 ish the next day:

Emily and I took it upon ourselves to feed our caffeine addiction as soon as possible that morning. But not before snooping around the hostel a bit- which turned out to be incredible. I would recommend San Jordi’s Hostel for anyone traveling to Barcelona in the near future. First there was the factor of cleanliness, then the part with free internet (okay, I guess I had access while I was there, but I was too busy trying to jam pack my three days there too stop and update), high pressured showers, a kitchen, communal food, and AMAZING people (and I’m including both the people who worked there and the people that stayed in the equation). Anyway, Emily and I found a really nice place to eat, (thanks to our blues-guitar-playing attendant), and ended up having the first semblance of an American breakfast I have had here. I got an omelet with mushrooms in it, that came with some tomato tapas, and Emily got a fried egg and fried potatoes (which, to her dismay, implied french fries, and not hash browns).  We walked around the entire day and I noticed that despite the big-city look of Barcelona, there was something in the air that made me feel lighter and happier than I find myself accustomed to feeling in either Chicago or New York. I think some of the Italian ideals towards efficiency may have trickled over to Spain, where I found everyone to be equally as lax and easy going as I have in Italy. This first occurred to me during a conversation with the same attendant I mentioned before- where the possibly disastrous fact that Emily and I booked a different San Jordi’s hostel than our friends- turned out to be a don’t worry about it- pay later when you want- type deal. After walking around for a bit and returning to the hostel for a short nap, Emily and I set out for some good Spanish food only to arrive at a Subway about half an hour later. Because Europe actually has food standards, Subway, (and the McDonalds too- which I refused to try but my friends did), had really good quality food and we were completely satisfied.

A day with Emily in Barcelona

A day with Emily in Barcelona

Our Hostel, too add to the list of it’s immense awesomeness, plans events every night in which all antendee’s are invited to. These events aren’t some card-game or costume party type deal, they are getting VIP access into all of the best clubs around the city center (the hostel was located in the best part of the city)- and really means passing all the hour long lines and going straight into the bars for gratis. Yea, that means free. So, we got a bit dressed up in celebration of the day before Halloween, and set out to a club called Elephant.

The next day I decided to do some more sight seeing with some girls that I met at the hostel. The name Salvador Dali came up in conversation the night before, and Alice (a Brazilian girl staying at the hostel) told me that she planned on going to his house- which was only two hours away in a small town called Figures. I was so enthralled by the idea, that I made an entirely unnecessary scene in the kitchen and she promised that we could go together the next day. Unfortunately, and to my horror, we woke up at 12 and didn’t make it until the train station until 2.30, where we discovered that the museum closes at 4, and there would be no point in making the two hour bus ride down there today. I tried to put my upset to use though- instead of heading home, we decided to venture to Park Guell, which was unbelievably beautiful and peaceful.

Park Guell, Barcelona

Park Guell, Barcelona

The park was immense and was decorated with incredible mosaics and sculptures all done by Antonio Gaudi. For those of you who haven’t seen his architectural genius, you should look him up. We sat in the park, listening to live music and taking in all the sun possible (because it’s already freezing in Siena), for about 3 hours before we decided to go back to the hostel.

Preparation for Halloween: I was a policeman. I know, it’s not that innovative, but all I had to buy was a hat and a badge and I was set. Cheap (ish because it actually was incredibly expensive for what it was) is the way to go. After dressing up in whatever we could piece together, we all headed out to a Karaoke bar where some of my friends and I took the liberty of sharing our oh-so-beautiful voices to the public. It was my first time singing karaoke and I vow to always do it again because singing “Hot in Here” by Nelly was about the funniest thing I have ever done.

Spanish Halloween

Final full day in Barcelona and I yet again missed out on the chance to see Dali. I am still incredibly disappointed, but Lauren and I, (another girl I met at the hostel who is studying abroad in Perugia, Italy), decided to visit the Gaudi museum and make the most of the day. The building was amazing and the rooftop even more so- with odd and beautiful structures jutting out at ever turn. The sun was out too, which made the idea of renting bikes on the beach a great one. First we had another not-so-traditional Spanish dish of chips and guacamole on the boardwalk, and next we headed over to the bike rental, where we were allotted bikes for two hours (both of which were spent either riding along the boardwalk or laying on the sand next to us on the beach).

Lauren, with the remnants of our chips and guacamole

Lauren, with the remnants of our chips and guacamole

Me trying a mask on at one of the stands along the boarkwalk

Me trying a mask on at one of the stands along the boarkwalk

Sunset

Gaudi Museum

Gaudi Church

Gaudi Museum Rooftop

Returning to the hostel, I felt an immense sense of homliness, which is great to feel when you are tired and you just want a comfortable, safe place to rest. I ended up being somewhat of a couch potato- watching two movies and falling to sleep. While everyone else was getting ready to go out, I was packing for the plane that I would take early next morning. It was really nice to just sit and relax though- especially after having the feeling of needed to see as much as possible in a little amount of time.

I made the long trek home the next day- partly with Emily, who was leaving for Dublin, and partly by myself (which I was nervous about). After not speaking Italian for three days (or really, trying to speak Italian only to realize that English was better understood), I felt like I lost my language skills completely, and was dumbfounded for a while upon my return to Siena. It’s scary to think about how much I will inevitably lose when I leave Italy. Even with taking classes and talking to my family, Italian will no longer be in my every… moment.

When I got back to Siena, I headed over to my friend Rodolfo’s house (he lives in Siena and is currently studying law… I actually met him through my cousin- who I would be going to Calabria the next day to meet for the first time), where I slept the night and most of the next day. Actually, while with him, I probably did about all the cliche “Italian” things possible: I drove on a vespa, watched a soccer game, ate pasta, drank wine, and… well, that pretty much covers it. It was incredibly fun, and I’m really glad I have made some Italian friends. He really helped me get back into Italian mode before I headed to Altomonte, in Calabria to visit my only-italian-speaking- family.

Rodolfo's House

Rodolfo's House

More later.

San Gimignano and a little too much Ice Cream.

The past weekend I ended up taking a day trip with some friends to San Gimignano- which is about an hour away from Siena. It was completely beautiful there, and after climbing up 218 steps, we got to see the scenery in its full glory. After walking around for a bit like the tourists we were, we then decided to splurge the 5.50 euro for a really incredible “tour.” Which in actuality consisted of a ticket that permitted us into various places throughout the town. Splurge was obviously an exaggeration for all those who don’t understand my sarcasm. The museum was amazing- first there was the archeological exhibits, and then a room focused solely on one contemporary artist who I am now in love with- Giannetto Fieschi. There was also an incredible photographic exhibit called “Afinita” by Giuliano Briganti where he documents the construction of multiple projects through an incredibly interesting point of view. All who read this- if anyone really does- you should check it out.

Some pictures from San Gimignano:

We ended up waiting in a long, hectic line to sample some of the “world’s best ice cream,” which was actually, in my opinion, pretty tasty. I got cafe and hazelnut- two of my main flavors here.

Since i got back, i have mostly been taking classes and volunteering around the town. Tomorrow I am teaching fourth and fifth graders english- and i’m a bit nervous actually. Essentially my group director is showing us the school and leaving us there to figure out an hours worth of teaching for ourselves. I have back to back classes tomorrow, so wish me luck!

Unfortunately, Siena’s night life suffers significantly when university starts as most students stay home during the week nights to study. Plus, school is in session on saturday’s here too…so essentially saturday night is a major thing to look forward to each week. There are still bars and cafes open pretty late, so if we do decide to venture out, there is always something to do. Speaking of which- venturing out is not so easy around here. A lot of the time i have been here has been spent waiting for…something- the bus, a call, class to start, etc. My roommate and I attempted to go to the city a couple of nights ago and finally decided to call a cab after an hour of waiting for the number ten bus. Tonight it was late as well- and we were consequentially late for dinner. It’s actually really frustrating the amount of time i am in the state of anticipation. While i have come to terms with the italian idea of “being on time,” I have yet to completely shed my promptness and therefore am constantly in a state of anxiety! Okay, it’s not all that bad, but i cannot deny that I am frustrated at least once a day at the serious lack of any conception of time here.

Okay i’m going to bed because i need to be up early to volunteer at 9! See, there is the promptness again. I can’t get rid of it.

A Month?

My host mother informed me yesterday that it has been an entire month since i got here! Unbelievable. Time passes by so quickly and so slowly here: on one end, yes, I have been here for a month and I can’t believe it, but on the other, the concept of time that I have lived by all my life is obsolete in Italy. Time is not a thing to be set, to be finite, or to be agreed upon by any means. “Al’ ora di pranzo,” or literally, at the hour of lunch, implies a time anywhere from 1.00 to 3.oo in the afternoon. I unfortunately learned this the hard way- as I expected someone to call at 12, but had to wait an hour and a half to hear from them. But, I suppose that is all in the name of living the “Vita Bella,” or beautiful life- there is no beauty or enjoyment in constant efficiency: if this were so, you would have no time to sit down and sip your coffee, staring out the window at the mountainous landscape covered in tress.

My life lately has been mostly centered around volunteer work- which I am incredibly happy with. Namely, I have been volunteering at the Mensa de Poveri- or soup kitchen, for the past couple of weeks. Everyone is so friendly here and so ready to accept you into the group. There was no exception with the soup kitchen- which I found to be completely different from the one I volunteered at back in my home town of Oak Park. I don’t know why I was still surprised, but all those who come to the soup kitchen are greeted with three course meals and as much bread and water as they please. Everyone crowds to sit over a delicious, large, and warm meal- which I thought perfectly epitomized the very essence of life in Italy- good food, and good friends/ family. Though my language skills are sufficient enough volunteer without worry of totally misunderstanding, I can’t believe how much simply being there has helped me improve my abilities. Whether talking with the attendees, or with the staff afterward (all the volunteers are welcome to a family-style meal after work in which we similarly all crowd around one long table and eat pretty much the same delicious food that was served while the Mensa was still open), my vocabulary and ability to hold conversations in general has significantly improved. In addition to all this good, I met some really interesting/ incredible people while working there, and can never wait to go back.

Group picture on the beach at Viareggio

The most spectacular gelatto place I have ever seen, Florence

Mi in the Piazza del Campo, Siena

Via Del Amore e La Vita Bella

So I have been without internet for a while now, and let me tell you, it feels pretty good to not rely on technology once and a while. For the last four days I have been traveling Italy with my Siena Italian Studies group to Pisa, Viareggio, La Spezia and the Cinque Terre, and finally Lucca. Mostly we just walked until our bodies couldn’t take it anymore and then ate until our stomachs were more than fully satisfied. The food was incredible, and I’m pretty sure we were supplied food or a hundred instead of thirty.

In Pisa, of course, we saw the leaning tower- and yes, it does look the same as it does in postcards. Except a bit more real and a bit more surreal at the same time. Apparently not that long ago, the town made an attempt to stabilize the bottom by putting heave weights on one side and inserting cement into the base. As the tower is built on sand and as underneath that sand there is water- the plan didn’t really work and there was a mandatory evacuation of all surrounding houses just in case of collapse. Now, and again, the tower is stable- but it is also still leaning.

La Spezia and the Cinque Terra was my favorite part of the trip. We began by walking the “Via del Amore” trail which runs along the coast and has the most amazing view. The walk itself was not far, but with the amount of times we stopped in awe, I am sure we were there for at least an hour. After this less intense hike, a few other students and I decided to take the train to Vernazza to try out another path. It turned out to be the most “real”  hike I have ever been on- there were little to no railings to protect you from falling hundreds of feet into the oceany/mountainy abyss. We even were forced to traverse across a waterfall- and by forced I mean were really excited to see if we could survive the current. The air was incredible on the mountain- I actually felt healthier just being up there. I am starting to realize why Italians are known for living “La Vita Bella.” With the unavoidable exercise that comes with walking the hilly streets of Siena, with the inevitable digestive health that comes with eating only organic food, and with the promise of beautiful scenery wherever I go, I am starting to loose my American need for efficiency and opt for a more relaxed and more enjoyable way of life.

Via Del Amore

Via Del Amore

Via Del Amore

Via Del Amore