I can’t believe how much time has passed! I only got here January 13!

First off, the first week was fun, simple, and not exciting. I met the others from the group that I did not know, as well as our “den mother,” Annick. She is incredibly nice, and every other time we see her she has money for us (our monthly “allowance” included in the Study Abroad tuition), so that’s always a good quality of someone. I discovered the “centre-ville” (center city) of Besançon quickly – it’s an old and beautiful city, with beautiful churches, incredibly delicious food and very cool stores. The second week, we all ate together (all the SUNY New Paltz kids, one SUNY Albany, and three SUNY Buffalo) as a group with Annick at the “Tour de la Pelote” (a really old restaurant). It was amazing! I tasted (ate) a rabbit pâté – delicious, even though it was very bizarre.

My classes started January 24 at the CLA (Center for Applied Linguistics). The CLA building was refurnished fairly recently. The first week was complicated: in France, you go to every course that interests you and you choose after having tried your courses. Anyway, I did the same thing, and my courses are interesting.
Monday – No classes!
Tuesday – General Linguistics
Wednesday – Oral Expression & Comprehension; French Modern Society; French Orality
Thursday – French Writing; Francophone Litterature
Friday – French Writing; Oral Expression & Comprehension; Contemporary French History

As for trips, I went to Zürich, Switzerland, which was amazing (I’ll post about it later). I also went to the “Percée du Vin Jaune” (in Arbois, Jura) in February, which was amazing; I’ll explain it in a later post too.

I love the culture and the food in France. Everything I eat is more fresh than in the U.S., and I have never had a bad meal. We used to eat often some “kébab” (it is not at all the same thing as “kebab” in English). Kébab in Besançon is referring to lamb meat in a little wheat wrap or bread roll. My god it is so good. Also, we eat at a pizzeria almost every week. The pizza here is definitely better than in the U.S. (sorry everyone!).
Ahhh, and then the bread. I eat at least a loaf of bread a day (usually 1-2). The bread here is so good. At the beginning of my stay here, I had at least one sandwich per day. Oh yeah, and by the way, I ate cow tongue one night…it was so good!

Finally, the culture and the people are fun and interesting. I still have a lot of difficult with conversation; the French language is still difficult. Nevertheless, I love France, and I’m sure that I’ll eventually be fine with the language.

Here are some photos of Besançon!

The café at the CLA

A café (at the CLA) !
The bridge of Canot (CLA to the right)
A waffle with Nutella
The statue of Victor Hugo (vandalized – poor guy)
Le phénomene hipster !
A bridge at Rue Veil Picard
The river
The other side of this bridge

– Matt Lipinski


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.


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! 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. 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.

Time Flies

I’ve gotten to the point where I’m so comfortable being here and so accustomed to my classes that the weeks are going by so fast. Monday comes and in the blink of an eye its Friday already and time to get ready for tapas and shows. I’ve gotten into a comfortable grove and somehow feel like I’ve been living here for years. Though I’m glad everything has been smooth sailing for the past couple of weeks, I don’t like that I’ve been getting into a routine because I’m not here for routine and normalcy! I want to keep the spontaneity and excitement alive and experience as many things as possible. It’s a balancing act between continuing to be a “tourist” and becoming an actual local. Most locals, my cousin for example, is never out sightseeing and tends to stick to a common group of friends, the same bars and clubs, the same roads, etc. etc. Little by little I’m finding that I too am losing a bit of my momentum and becoming slightly complacent. I’ll think one day, for example, I should go to the Prado or the Reina Sofia, because I still haven’t gone… ah, well I’m here for a year I have time. Or, I should go visit Toledo, it’s only a 30 minute train ride… ah, well I’m here for a year, I have time. I see that the international students that are only here for a semester are taking advantage of their time much better than I am. But sometimes the overwhelming amount of events and activities going on in Madrid can be, well… overwhelming!

I did do something last night though, that was both something every tourist should do and something that locals do as well: I went to see a futbol game!

It was so amazing! I love watching futbol (Sorry I refuse to call it soccer), but even for those who don’t it is definitely an experience worth having. I went with a group of friends for only 12 euro each to see Real Madrid (0ne of the best teams in the world!) versus Real Murcia. Real Madrid won 5-1, of course 😉 With players like Christiano Renaldo and Iker Casillas how could they possibly lose?

I sat in between my Spanish friend Luis and an older Spanish man, both of who were constantly shouting and chanting in cohesion with the thousands of Real Madrid fans in the stadium. It was such a rush to be in the midst of such a passionate atmosphere. Futbol is such an essential part of the Spanish culture.

My one regret of the night is that I brought my camera without my memory card, so I couldn’t take the close up shots of Renaldo and Casillas I had planned. I did however manage to take some pictures on my cellphone:

Not the best picture, but at least I have an excuse to go back and take more pictures!

More excitement in Madrid: The MTV Awards were hosted here this past Sunday so there were free outdoor concerts all weekend long! I went on Sunday night after eating with my family and caught Linkin Park at Puerta de Alcala. Katy Perry played before them, but unfortunately I missed her.

Here’s a video I took of Linkin Park playing In the End:

Getting back to Getafe on the metro was an adventure with all those people!

The weekend before that was Halloween weekend, and much to my surprise, Spain actually celebrates Halloween! It has started to get popular here within the last ten years or so. On the Friday before, I saw a bunch of little kids all dressed up like witches and vampires and monsters on their way to school. I ended up spending Halloween night with my two cousins whom I never in a million years would have guessed I would be celebrating Halloween with. We went to a bar named “Any Trouble” near where they live. I went as a 1920s Charleston girl vampire, and my cousins went as a fallen angel and a crashed pilot (ironically he is studying now to be a pilot).

Guillotined! I’m not sure if vampires die if you cut off their heads…..

Anyway, here are some random pictures I took while walking around the city:

These were taken on Calle de las Huertas. This street has a lot of nice bars and place to get tapas. It was pretty dead when I went because it was a Monday around 8pm, but I saw a Vegetarian Buffet and a Karoeke bar and Jazz Bar I think I’m going to go back to see. Calle de las Huertas was really nice too because phrases from famous Spanish authors were printed on the actual street.

This week and next week is the Jazz Festival in Madrid and I am very very excited!!!!

Unfortunately, last night when I was at the futbal game I missed Christian Scott and Kenny Garrett playing at Teatro Fernán Gómez, but I did get a ticket to see Esperanza Spalding on Wednesday of next week. I can’t wait!!!

Hasta luego,


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


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.

Favorite Things

1) Spanish Food

Last weekend my cousin took me out to get the best churros in town. I don’t remember the name of the cafe, but it was on Calle Alcala and there was a line of people waiting to get in. That’s how you know it’s good! I was most, definitely, not disappointed. We had one order of churros, which are basically fried dough sticks, and one porra which is a larger version of a churro, and we each had a cup of melted chocolate to dip the churros in. DELICIOUS!

Another favorite: Tapas!  It’s very typical for Spaniards to go out around 10pm and go tapa bar hopping. You go from bar to bar, order a beer, and you will get a small plate of food, usually jam or olives, or you can order something from the tapa menu like morzilla (blood sausage), tortilla española (a potato omelette kind of), boquerones en vinagre (tiny little fish that look like anchovies that are soaked in vinegar, and much much more…

The other night, my roommate and I went to Sol which is the very center of Madrid and had tapas at the Museo de Jamon (Ham Museum). Spanish people LOVE their ham! Here’s some chorizo:

And short video of the inside of el Museo de Jamon:

I’ve been trying to eat really weird foods too because Spain has some pretty interesting food and I like trying new things. The other day I topped my “weirdest food I’ve ever eaten” list with pig ears. That’s right. They tasted pretty good but the texture was pretty disgusting. I wish I would have taken a picture but I forgot my camera! My goal is to eat as much weird food as I can find, so I’ll get a picture next time!

2) The Night Life

After going out on the weekends to several places, I think I have finally found my favorite hang out. If you are tired of the usual club music, this is the place to go! The Blues Bar: La Coquette. It is right near Sol, two blocks down from one of the most popular clubs in Madrid, Joy. All the international students in Madrid flock to Joy every weekend. After going one night, I was pretty much sick of it. I am much more into blues, jazz, and rock, than club music.

Here is the Plaza de Sol, where every one usually meets by the Tio Pepe sign at night to go out.

And here is a video I took of the blue band that played at La Coquette when I went this past Thursday. They were amazing!

This is me enjoying the music.

Apparently there is a huge blues and jazz scene in Madrid which I plan to take full advantage of. This Thursday I’m going back to La Coquette to see another blues band, and sometime this week I plan on going to a famous jazz bar called Cafe Central.

I’ll definitely have to find some flamenco bars too! I think flamenco is the jazz of Spain, at least in terms of difficulty and skill involved and the passion of the artists.

3) Blue skies

I’ve been warned that Spain isn’t always sunny as people seem to assume and that it isn’t always warm. It has started to get a little colder, but midday when the sun is brightest it is still very warm and even at nights sometimes it still feels like summer.

When I was a little kid I swore that the sky in Spain is bluer than the sky anywhere else. Now that I’m back, I still swear upon it. These are some pictures I took on the walk to school. The sky is so blue!

Hasta luego,