The Trials and Tribulations of Accompanying an Italian to the Supermarket

When in the center of Florence, the grocery options are slim, and usually tucked between historical something-or-others or wedged into back alleys. It is much better to do a round of shopping – to the fruit woman, the meat man, the egg guy, etc – at the markets than run into the small and cramped mini “grocery stores” that you may find along the way.

(*Side note and travel tip! Unlike in the US, the markets are actually cheaper than in the stores!!) So markets it is – and they take up most of my shopping time in a normal week.

Our normal shopping spot

Our normal shopping spot

Going to a Supermarket outside the city center is an interesting experience. I’ve done it a few times now and every time am overwhelmed in this store that should be more familiar to me than the center markets. Yet, somehow I always end up flabbergasted- especially when I am following around my boyfriend that takes food as seriously as I take shoe shopping (yes, sometimes I can be girly.)

This past week, our fridge was pretty bare and for processed foods, heading outside the city center is much cheaper than in, so we hopped on a two euro train to Lastra A Signa – a little suburb of Florence where Rami’s parents live. Rami’s Dad, Bassel, picked us up at the station in the car and came with us to the Ipercoop – aka the Walmart/Target, etc of Italy.

First things first: there is a reason that there are no rogue shopping carts in Italy. Why? Because you have to (kinda) pay to use one. Stick a Euro coin into the slot located on the handle and the cart is freed from its chains linking it to all others in the corral. Slow Travel did a much more thorough job of demonstrating this than I ever will have the patience for so if you are extremely interested in the detailed process, check it out here.

*Warning – if you do have people coming up offering to “help” you by returning the cart to the corral, please keep in mind that they are not helping because they are a nice person, they are helping because your euro coin is still lodged in the cart and they will earn that euro for walking a few feet – unbeknownst to most that are not used to this process.

However, overall – this system is very well done and I think a good thing for the US to take up – though I can hear the complaints now. “I gatta pay a dolla for a friggn cahhht?!” But I’m sure that the city of Haverhill wished they came up with this idea before half of the city’s carts ended up in the Little River.

Once getting a cart, the fun begins. At this point Rami is trembling like a four year old walking into Toys R Us. In this IperCoop right at the entrance, there’s a pizzeria and foccaceria or bakery counter, as well as a small tabaccheria where you can buy a number of things including the Florence Soccer Team Fiorentina paraphernalia, tickets to the games, cigarettes, lottery tickets, place bets, or play some slot machines.

Turn right and you’re in main area for shopping – which it seems like a normal grocery store in the States, but it is this fact that throws me. For, yes, at the markets, I see many strange things. But in a grocery store, I guess I’m expecting things to be “normal.” Looking through the aisles, however, proves me oh, so wrong.

Think large squid and octopus spread out next to fish under the glass – sometimes still kind of moving. In the meat section, there are skinned rabbits under plastic wrap – complete with heads and eyes that make you want to look the other way. Chickens with feet, snails, brains, tongues, and other things you don’t even want to know about.

Pig Liver wrapped in the lining of the stomach...Bassels favorite

Pig Liver wrapped in the lining of the stomach…Bassels favorite

At this point, I am struggling to find solace in something my brain knows how to comprehend so I run to the produce while Rami bounces around in front of the fish. But in between the apples and celery (which is monstrous for some reason, as well as the Bell peppers) there are products that are as foreign to me as tripe (cow stomach for those unfamiliar with this famous Florentine dish. PS if you see it in a store or market, it is usually bleached. So, I stupidly googled unbleached and successfully found a picture. Click if you dare. Yes I have eaten it, no, I didn’t really like it and I can tell you that what it looks like in that unbleached photo is how it tastes…bleugh)

Rami and his father have now followed me as I suddenly am hoarding apples into our cart. It’s fall. It’s apple time, and for once I know more than them and explain the difference between Granny Smith and Red Delicious. One point for the New England chick. But I soon lose my ground when we turn to the next aisle wherein Rami becomes extremely excited to find these things:

(in English I found out that it is called a Persimmon. Apparently these grow at home too but the New England chick was unaware).

“You have never had these have you,” Rami said as he tried to reach the last of two packages in the entire store. I assumed they must be in season and my thoughts were confirmed when he then turned and asked his Dad if he wanted some too. To which his father responds that no, they have some a home. Where did they get them? “Borrowed” them off the neighbors tree, he says with a smirk.

As I eye the fruit, Rami gives me the background info and, as if to make me want to taste these foreign things more, explains the name for them is Kaki – which basically translates to “shitty.” And though they may taste lovely, they are extremely shitty to eat. Think strings of chunky gelatin encased in a really thin skin that completely explodes when you bite into it. Alas, another fruit I look horrible eating. Figs were the first. NOTE: If an Italian ever asks you if you’ve had figs before and you haven’t, do not try to save face by saying you’ve had Fig Newtons. You will not save face, you will lose it.

So the shitty fruit also made its way into our carriage and we proceeded deeper into the labyrinth that, at this point, I knew was not the norm. But I was struggling. I know how to buy food so I went strolling to the meat section to try and find something familiar enough to pick for myself in between the liver and the brains. I grabbed a pack of diced steak and walked to Rami who was busy looking at the multitude of cheeses.

“We could do a stir-fry,” I asked more than told and his Dad leaned over my shoulder to look at what I had picked up. The two then proceeded to examine the meat as if I had cut it myself and then gave me a 21 question attack as to when I would cook this and how I would do it.

“Ahh the meat expert,” Bassel mumbled as Rami inspected the package – seemingly to make me feel better. But truly, they are right with meat here, it won’t last more than a day or two – and this is my kryptonite. Because when buying anything like a cut of meat, you have to plan in your head what you will use it for and when. And, because they are Italian, it needs to be the “right” cut of meat for the right recipe. Fail. They would be horrified as to how I cooked in college.

My meat selection, after a few minutes of debate, did make the cut (ha meat puns) and made it into our growing cart of produce. But after this botched attempt at helping out, I decided to stick to what I knew and ran around the store getting milk, yogurt, and cleaning products for our kitchen. How can you mess up sponges? Meanwhile, Rami, with a huge grin on his face, is throwing things into the cart like Supermarket Sweep. Chocolate-filled mini croissants, eight different types of cheese, this type of sausage, that type of pepperoni, this, that, and over there types of sliced meats (this ended up all being part of an amazing dinner that Mr. Chef was planning in his head.)

So as he was off in playland and his father was perusing the entire aisle of Olive Oils, I realized we also needed eggs. Unrefrigerated in Italy, mind you, you’ll find them in an isle all their own. And there are a ton of options – but mostly in only four packs. Me, going by my American sense, grabbed the only dozen there was and wandered back to the cart – in which Rami had just put a bottle of soda in that horrifyingly resembled urine. Basel said nothing as I slowly placed the eggs into the cart but as soon as Rami turned and saw what I had done, he scoffed.

“No. Not those,” he objected, as if I had suggested to buy a package of arsenic. I looked at his father for backup but he only shrugged his shoulders.

“He’s right this time,” he almost apologized to me and made the walk of shame back to the egg isle to exchange my eggs for better ones. The problem? I had picked the hormone eggs. Basically, they would be perfectly normal eggs in the states, but Italians are so health-conscious, these are known as bottom-of-the-barrel. Mind you, there is proof that these other eggs, the “norm” for Italy, are definitely not as chock-full of hormones – which is proven from the few times I have found half-formed or full-formed chicks in my eggs.

Switching up my egg mistake

Switching up my egg mistake

This second mishap on my quest for a successful Italian shopping spree had me raising the white flag. Though it looked like a supermarket, and acted like a supermarket, I am still American and don’t value the quality of food as much as Italians. I can go to the store at home, stock up on everything, and it’ll last for weeks without even a touch of mold. Here? There are spots on fruit in a day. Meat rots in two. And people wonder why here, people in their 80’s are riding bikes and lugging groceries miles, while the US nursing homes are full of elderly that are immobile. Yes, exercise and way of life are elements of this comparison, but our food definitely has something to do with it too.

After the egg debacle, we did the rounds in the shampoo and home goods isles – places where I could hold my own a little better, and then proceeded to check out. Last scramble? There are no bag boys here. If you’re on your own, it is an absolute scramble to pay, ask for bags (yup – you have to pay for each one. (smart and green), and then proceed to bag everything before the checkout girl begins to shoot the next person’s produce directly at you with an annoying smirk that you can’t bag fast enough for her liking. This is the most panic I have experienced in this country. Thankfully, with three people it wasn’t that difficult…but then I packed the bags wrong.

All in all, it’s better here – minus the chicken feet. Healthier food? I can’t complain. Italians know how to do it even without the Whole Foods stores, and all that strange stuff? It actually is amazing that they can make just about any part of the animal something edible. This is what the majority of the world needs to do – especially in the US with their mass production, waste, hormones, and preservatives. Cut it down, and you’ll just live a longer, healthier life. Let’s get going. Just don’t ask me to pick out the eggs.

Dawn – Writing Exercise

On a blog I follow, there is a daily prompt to get the writing juices flowing. Today was one I can relate to. Find it here.

 

“6:00AM: the best hour of the day, or too close to your 3:00AM bedtime? Photographers, artists, poets: show us DAWN.”

Image

I hate getting up. Up before the sun, up before the nonexistent birds of Florence start singing. Up before him, before the boxer and his owner living in our building, before the postman brazenly leans on all of the buzzers outside of our window, begging for someone to open the front door for him so he can deliver the mail (and people wonder why the Post system in Italy is crap). Up before the tourists flood the city, before the continental breakfasts are laid out in little rooms with too-old tables and chairs and the orange juice that tastes stale and the Americans complain that there are no eggs. Up before the sun casts shadows on the narrow alleyways of cobblestone and terracotta. Up before I want to be. 

But I’m up and I throw on a pair of pants and a shirt and a scarf and some studded boots that everyone seems to own here, and I slowly open and close my door so as to not wake the man sleeping upstairs that has worked too long and too hard the night before. And I grab the outside door – the big, wooden door with the graffiti and the knockers as big as my hand and I push out into the morning light. The sun just barely making the sky a pale blue – igniting the surrounding buildings in a light glow of browns, golds, creams. My boots click on the pavement. A breeze blows down the street from the Duomo, and as I circle around the gigantic structure, its red marble, taken from the quarries near Siena, glow a deep rose in the morning sun. The square is empty. 

Senza touristi. 

Without tourists, without cameras, without horse drawn carriages, ambulances, or artists. Without traveling musicians, school groups, gypsies, or salesmen trying to get you to buy mindless toys, umbrellas, or posters. My feet grace the white marble steps and I dance upon the entrance of this building – built seven- hundred years ago. I stare up at the detail, the complexity, the beauty. In silence. 

The sun grows brighter – the first rays catch the top of Giotto’s tower. Trucks begin rumbling down the streets, a few tourists, with their suitcases trailing behind them, raise up an iPad in front of their face – capturing the view through a screen instead of their eyes. Capturing it to boast, to send it home, to upload, rather than to learn. 

I step down off the marble onto the earth. My train leaves in thirty minutes. 

 

“…and sometimes good things fall apart so better things can fall together” – Beginning work with GoOverseas

About a semester back, I was contacted by Bus2alps to write an article for a company called GoOverseas. I was to write about ten common mistakes that Study Abroad students make when they’re studying abroad and, in exchange of having the article on their website, Bus2alps would maybe get a little bit more traffic on their site. 

I was excited to have an article of mine published on another website but my schedule at the time of the assignment was insanely hectic. I was the single guide running a tour called Best of Italy which brings students from London, Paris, etc, to see the sights of Italia for eight days covering Rome, Florence, Venice, Verona, and Milan. But between the trip prep, the emails, the guide plans, the mishaps and the fixes, I managed to complete most of the article – it was literally my down time/fun throughout the stress. And, at some ungodly hour in the morning on the deadline, I completed the article in a Roman hostel room, slept for a few hours, and got up to meet all of my new students for the week. 

In the days following, I was entirely too occupied with where my group was, if they were happy, if Venice was going to flood, if they were going to complain about something, if I was going to lose one of them, if they were going to like me, etc and completely forgot I had even submitted an article. Then, a while later, I was notified that it was posted. So exciting! Technically my first published article (on a legitimate website – for travel, no less!) and a humble accomplishment for me. I started exploring GoOverseas.com myself, and saw that there was an option to become part of their Writing Corps. Of course I want to do that. I applied, and a little later was contacted by a GoOverseas employee who personally congratulated me on my article and was very happy that I wanted to continue writing for them.

*Note: What is GoOverseas, you ask? It’s a first for the internet and explained extremely well in their About Section if you want to check it out (and you kinda should because they’re splendid) but, to sum it up, they are the Google of finding a Study/Volunteer/Teach/Intern/Travel Abroad program that is exactly perfect for you.

It was a relief to finally hear praise and to finally be doing something I truly appreciated in its entirety. Writing is not a struggle. Writing about traveling? It’s like asking me to house sit your beach house for a week…oh and we have a two month old puppy that we need you to take care of. WHAT? OF COURSE!

So through this debacle of my Bus2alps career dismount, I was happily writing for GoOverseas. Was I making money? No. Was I getting published? Yup. Was I enjoying it? Absolutely. So when Megan Lee told me I could possibly begin to work for GoOverseas, I was ecstatic. I filled out the application, crossed my fingers, held my breath, turned around three times, threw a coin in the Fountain of Neptune, rubbed the Boar’s nose (this is a pro of living in Florence – there’s a ton of “good luck” things to do around here) and hoped that this’d be the start of something wonderful. Low and behold, I received an email.

 

“Hi Lisa!

 

Great news. Go Overseas is excited to welcome you to our excellent team of Contributing Editors. Welcome to the fam!”

 

 

Finally, I have a writing job. I am an editor. Not only that, I am an editor for a company that is so awesome, they titled my task sheet “GoOverseas <3’s Lisa Harvey”. Talk about making a girl feel special.

 

Today, Florence is dreary, puddles are forming, and my internet has decided that the monotony of staying stable is overrated. I donned my Timberland boots, and, because I had some free time, scaled Giotto’s Bell Tower solo. As I reached one of the terraces, the swishing of the bells could be heard. And soon the giant pieces of metal clanged and my chest hummed with the vibrations of these masterpieces that have sung for so many hundreds of years. I leaned against the marble and looked up at them swinging freely, then glanced out at the city beyond, dappled with rusty terracotta roofs and towers of royalty long-passed. But as the mist of the oncoming rain swirls through the tower, I can’t help but smile. My mind is void of worries about lost students, complaints, or that someone will be miserable simply because they need to tote an umbrella throughout their day. Instead, my thoughts are on the beauty of the Duomo in my view, the glorious smell of the mountains beyond the ancient walls, and the barely-contained anticipation for where the next few months will take me.  

Moving Forward in a Backward Manner – From Tour Guide to Student

Tea Time near the Duomo

After my recent post about leaving Bus2alps, I have been repeatedly pummeled with a single question: What now? Friends and family from home, friends here, and even some that I haven’t spoken to in ages want to know what is next in my non-traditional life. I wish I could tell you. But the fact is that it isn’t as easy as that. I can’t just blurt out an answer that will solve all of my problems. But I found a small, temporary solution for the time being.

Working with a student-travel company that has a customer base almost completely of american students, even though I have been living in the heart of Tuscany and dating a Florentine (for those of you that don’t know, though, Rami is absolutely fluent in English and sounds American – which doesn’t help my situation), my Italian speaking skills are male – aka “bad”. More like terrible. It has come to the point where my non-american friends immediately switch to English when I enter the conversation. Shop owners (if I don’t dress correctly) welcome me with “hello.” What a tragedy I am.

Because of this and because I now have time on my hands, I have decided to go back to school.

I set off one morning in the Italian sunshine with a simple list of language schools that I thought looked promising. Finding them is somewhat of a challenge at times, for the first few I entered were in old palaces – set on the upper levels of grand staircases that left me out of breath. I’d have to stop before the doorway and collect myself before going in (I also need to start going to the gym again if you haven’t noticed) – then decide if I was going to attempt to ask for information in Italian or English.

A few were boring – the women at the desk uninterested in me. Some lazily shoved papers across the counter with price lists, while others dragged their feet in true Italian lackadaisical fashion while I followed, peeking in the classrooms they motioned to on my “tour.” I wasn’t impressed and slightly nervous that I was expecting more than I could find. Rami was getting frustrated with me sitting around the house with nothing to do and knowing how much inactivity made me restless – even after only a week. I needed to find something.   The last school I looked at that day was the one I chose. Located near the church of Santa Croce, Parola is a small language school that just so happened to be referred to me by my friend, Jess Dante, who now runs The Abroad Guide. Because it was later in the day, the school was quiet when I walked through the door, but a man was behind the desk, speaking with another potential student in rapid Italian.

My speaking Italian is a catastrophe, but my understanding has gotten significantly better in the past year so I could understand down to what type of classes she was asking about, but whenever she walked out the door and he turned to me, I faltered.

Voglio…lo stesso…di lei,” I pieced together – and even though that isn’t remotely correct for numerous reasons, he smiled and began the conversation in Italian – which, as a respect thing, made me feel better. It’s like when you let a toddler dress themselves for school. Probably can’t do it, probably will come out with a tutu, two left shoes, and a belt around their face, but they want to try and feel important so you let them struggle until they decide to ask for help. He continued with Italian for a bit but then did transfer over to English once it was understood I couldn’t possibly ask the questions I wanted to ask in Italian. He explained that I could begin a class within the week if I wanted to, and told me that it would be 490 Euro for a month-long group class with lessons Monday through Friday for four hours a day. When I asked why this was so inexpensive compared to the other schools I had looked at, he grinned and shook his head.

“We aren’t trying to push up prices just because we can,” he shrugged as he did the chin-jut that most Italians do when words seem to fail for a situation. If you want a demonstration, I’ve found myself doing it at times as well. Body language Italian is another whole class in itself, though I believe it is much easier to pick up. He introduced himself then as the director of the school, Simone, and said he had even taught in Boston College for a few years.

“We’ve kept the same prices for years because we can afford to,” he said. “It also allows our classes to be full. We don’t want to offer a class, and then not be able to fill it. We’re here for you; we’re not going to take your money just because you expect higher prices in Florence.”

He persuaded me to take the evaluation test right there, even though the school was officially closed for the day. As I struggled through the questions, mumbling apologies the entire time over my shoulder that this was the first test I had taken in three years, he was very patient and simply waited for me to finish. He told me I was an advanced beginner and that I should start class the next day.

After that interaction, with genuine care about me enrolling in his school, and even though I was out at a club until four in the morning that Monday, I dragged myself to school last Tuesday at 8:45 and began a pretty intensive course that involves two hours of grammar, and then two hours of conversation. I couldn’t be happier.

Though I’ve talked up the school so far, and the first few days have gone extremely well, I’ll wait until I finish the program before I review it fully on here. Hopefully after a few more weeks, I’ll be able to at least begin to insert myself in the Italian conversations that happen in front of me every day.

This week has been a little hectic with the World Championship Cycling Races being held outside my window and I’ll try to write a post about that a little later, as well as a follow up as to my plan for life after my class is up. Because obviously a month long class doesn’t really fix my long-term predicament. But for now, I’m focusing on parole or “words” for a bit.

**Thank you to everyone who has supported me through the past couple of weeks (nevermind years) and helped me with their advice, or simply just listening to my stories and complaints. You don’t know how much it means to me. And of course, a special shout out to my Mum, brother Ned, close friends here and at home, and Rami. Without you, I’d just be empty words on a page.

“Sometimes on the way to a dream, you get lost and find a better one”

When anyone asks me if they should apply for Bus2alps, to begin the process of trying to take flight and become a traveler, adventurer, and tour guide, the first sentence out of my mouth is always the same:

You are an idiot if you don’t at least apply.

I was stuck. Sitting in a glass cubicle in an office that I hated. My headset clamped onto my temples too hard. My eyes strained from looking at a computer program built in the 90’s (don’t ask…the company had many problems. Being computer unintelligent was one of them). I had been out of college for almost a year and I had an hour-long commute to a dreary, cement building by a decaying harbor in the horrible town of Lynn, Massachusetts. On my lunch breaks in early spring, I would launch out of my seat, grab my sandwich and run out the door and down the street to the sand. The beach was the only comfort in that place. I would roll up the legs of my ugly office pants and stand in the numbing water, watching the planes take off from Logan Airport, and wishing I was on one of them. If I had a really horrible day, I’d let my hair down and jump on the swing-set, pointing my feet to the sky, wishing I was looking down instead of up.

And then I was; peering out of the little oval window down onto the same exact beach I had paced for months. The nose of the plane was pointed toward Rome.

I had thrown myself into a life-changing opportunity that began with a delayed flight and a last-minute solo trip through multiple countries. Which was appropriate, according to my track record of travel previously. And then it began. Life as Bus2alps knows it. And it was beautiful, and I learned. 

In the past year and a half, I have accumulated so much knowledge, experience, stress, life lessons, and happiness. I conquered public speaking. Give me a microphone and I can ramble for hours. ( I can even tell people to “PLEASE LISTEN BECAUSE THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT” without sounding like an incredible snot). I have learned to navigate cities I haven’t even been to. I have more patience with people than I ever thought possible. I have learned the art of persuasive speaking – in ways that can make a rainy day seem like just the waiting time for a rainbow. I can communicate in languages you have never even heard of. Not fluently, but, you know, like hand signals and stuff. Try asking for a fork in Croatian and see how far you get…I got salad tongs on my first try. I can also actually communicate in Italian, though it’s broken, and I sound like a two-year old. But I can understand almost everything, and if a bus driver comes at me in rapid Napolitano dialect, I can get the gist of it enough for me to know if I should duck and cover, or simply nod in agreement.

I can stomp up to a hotel manager and demand that his night staff treats my students more professionally, and he actually listens to me.  Like, he actually takes me seriously. I can discover alleyways that lead to perfect views of perfect historical monuments that allow travelers with me to take perfect pictures that make their trips perfect. I am proud of my fun facts and secrets too. I can work my way through the Constant Contact program with ease and send out mass emails like it’s my job. I can give a walking tour of Venice, Milan, Verona, and Florence. (And piece one together in Rome if need be) I can use Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, Twitter, every major social media program in ways that help build a company, instead of just ways to pass around cute cat videos. (Though I can do that well too) I can make friends in any country, in any language, but I can also make business contacts as well. I can suck it up even when I’m having a bad day – because I have to – because my happiness is the key to others. I can sell you something without coming off as a pushy sales person. That may not mean that I am a salesperson or make millions, but if I am telling you to buy something, it means that I believe that you are perfect for this product and this product is perfect for you. (Sorry I’m not sorry.) I can now explain to you in great detail about international immigration laws. I can find beauty in even the most desolate parts of a town. I can be planning on leaving for Oktoberfest one minute, and be absolutely (ok not right away but I got there) ok with going to Croatia instead. I can navigate the Rome bus and subway system, the Venice vaporetti system, the Milan Subway, and the Vienna subway with ease. I can multitask like a mofo.  I can live out of a suitcase every weekend and be organized enough that I have everything I really need. I have learned how to look completely (ok not completely but close) calm when going through passport checkpoints.  I can pick a movie for a group of fifty individuals and have the majority like it (most of the time). I can give a pretty kick-ass boat tour around the isle of Capri. I can say I have grown to be more confident in myself with asking for directions when needed. I can say that I have matured more in a year than in all of high school and college put together. I can dress so that I look European enough that I don’t get questioned on the streets. I can find cheap flights easier than most.

I have learned so much (that list is only what comes to mind right now but it is so so so much longer than that)  and have been able to experience so much: Flying off into narrow canyons in the shadows of the Alps, diving into the crystal-blue waters off of Capri, making friends in Sorrento, eating too much chocolate in Perugia while winding down its narrow cobblestone alleyways, parading up the same church isle as Julie Andrews, skiing the Jungfrau area until my legs gave out and my eyes hurt from the greatness of the ice, snow, and rock of the Eiger looming above, eating fish off the bone on an island hopping cruise that took us to the tiny towns of Croatia boardered with colorful, worn, wooden boats, falling asleep while looking at the white-washed world under feet while heading to the top of Mt. Solaro, having a humbling conversation with a weathered Roman man on the bus to the Vatican, diving through canyons full of glacier runoff, discovering secret gardens, making gelato, finding the closest thing to Belle’s library and dancing around in it almost alone, seeing the Lippizaner Stallions breathe white puffs of air as they rest in their stalls in the center of Vienna, sledding at night under the biggest sky with the brightest stars I have ever seen, walking the halls of an emperor’s summer home as the moonlight glints on the marble floors – still in tact after centuries.  I’ve hiked up mountains as I listened to the sound of Swiss cowbells, swam through caves trying to avoid the sting of jellyfish – pink against the green water, glowing and reflecting on the rocks above.

I’ve listened to so many stories, of old men when they were young and fit, diving into the water from the nearby rooftops, I’ve met aspirational rappers, and mothers missing their children as they study in other parts of Europe. I’ve met butchers, farmers, and jewelry designers. I’ve met American students that fit the stereotypes so perfectly, I have to apologize for them, and others that have baffled me as to how inquisitive, smart, and kind they are – and how willing they are to learn about the world. I have met bearded guys on the train that kept me company, I’ve met pilots with daughters my age that are working in South America, I’ve met crazy, crazy people who like to base jump on their days off (and secretly wish I could go with them). I’ve met people who have followed their hearts across oceans, and now live completely different lives than they thought they would – simply because of love. I’ve  met many that have felt unwanted and discriminated by the United States, and because of this, I have learned even more than if I had just stayed home. I have met many, learned so much, but there is one that I have met and learned from that is above all of this: Rami.

Before Bus2alps had an office, our hours of internet were to be held in Astor Cafe – left side of the Duomo, you can’t miss it. And if you know me, you know the story. But Rami Saltagi was different and because of him I survived and thrived in this past year. I met him early, but soon was in love with him and soon my dream of living and working here with Bus2alps, coincided with living and working on my relationship with him.

Maybe that was my downfall, because I wanted to spend time with my boyfriend and my company. For, truthfully, Bus2alps is a lifestyle, not a job – and having anything else is definitely difficult. Maybe it was because I didn’t entirely “fit in” with the group of people who were my co-workers. Maybe it was because of mistakes I made early on in my life with Bus2alps that I couldn’t fix or make up. Maybe it was simply because I could not be a salesperson.

But recently, Bus2alps told me that I had to make a decision. One way, I would salvage my history with them and maintain my position in the company so I could travel with them and do what I love for at least another semester – but I would be making a conscious decision that may put my relationship in more legal trouble than it already is in. In the past year, I had given the company my everything. I had worked my ass off. I had done everything they asked of me legally to do to the point where I had nothing else to give. But this was asking too much.

The other option? Quit.

Sometimes, on the way to a dream, you get lost and find a better one. I got lost. Lost in the foam of a perfectly created cappuccino, lost in the echo of “BUONGIORNORAGAZZE” every morning, lost in the shadow of the Duomo, and lost in the brown eyes of a European.

Bus2alps was my dream, and I lived it for a year and a half. But now, I’m sitting in Florence, jobless, but completely satisfied knowing that I have found so much of a better dream than what I had in my head when I flew over that beach.

Maybe the second sentence about Bus2alps will be filled with painful truths and some warnings, but I shake them when I say the first. I make it stick, because flying here on that first plane, was the best decision I have ever made.

So, though I never was given a thank you, I will give one to them.

Thank you, Bus2alps, for allowing me to learn, to grow, to see Europe. Thank you for the opportunities, the lessons learned, the tough skin, the lows and the highs. Thank you for the stress – it only made me learn to deal with it better. Thank you for the demotions. It only made me work harder. Thank you for the days at the lake, the nights on the mountains, the dinners under the Tuscan sun and the toasts of Champagne to being young, wild, and free. And thank you, more than anything, for putting me in Florence, when I asked to be in Rome. And for having office hours at Astor every morning at 10 am.

Thank you, so.incredibly.much, for that.

Stop worrying, start dreaming.

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It’s August. Breathe in. Breathe out. Stop looking at those plane tickets sitting on your desk. Stop counting down the days. It’ll come soon enough. Stop stressing about what to pack, will I miss home, will I miss peanut butter too much, how will I make friends, what will my room be like, will I eat too much Nutella and gain the study-abroad fifteen, will I be able to wear my clothes and not stand out, what will my nights be like, will I have fun, how in the world will I only bring fifty pounds of stuff, where do I want to travel, how many toiletries do I need to take with me, will I make friends, can I pass my classes, will I be able to get around without constant connection to the internet, what do I do about bidets, how many classes can I skip to travel, will I like the food, what will I do for fun, will I make it to Oktoberfest, can I get to learn the language, can I use my straightener without it blowing up, will my family miss me too much, will I hate not being at my college, will I be able to fit back in when I get home?

Stop it. Stop the worry, stop the stress, stop the thoughts. (and if you’re truthfully that worried, talk to one of our guides. We can honestly answer all of your questions.) But first, instead of doing that, take a break.

Instead focus on something like this: Walking cobblestone streets and calling them home, smelling fresh baked bread early in the mornings, the feel of your body plunging into waters off the coast of somewhere beautiful – the deep aqua-blue that you’ve only seen in pictures. Sitting in class and learning about the Coliseum, and then reaching out and touching its worn stones only hours later. Skyping your family from your apartment as you look out your window onto an incredible view of Dublin, the illuminated streets of Rome, or the late night street performers in Florence. Getting lost in the narrow streets and canals of Venice while you find the perfect Murano glass ring to give to your mother, paddling out into the surf off the coast of Portugal and catching your first wave back to shore, or walking out of the club as the sun rises over a new city you’ve come to love for it’s vibrance, music, life. Grabbing a ticket on a tour, getting on the bus, and sitting down in a seat next to a stranger, that you soon decide to jump out of a plane with a little later in the weekend, or fly down a canyon with in nothing but a wetsuit, life jacket, and funny helmet. Laughing at new inside-jokes at a local pub, learning the public transportation system down so well you begin helping tourists, and truthfully, becoming a local in a place that you have only dreamt about visiting. Living in, and loving Europe.

Imagine that.

Just a Thursday Void of Thoughts

If I’m up this late, I might as well write before bed. I’m trying to write more, though this crazy “vacation” I’m on as my boyfriend likes to call it isn’t much of a vacation. More of a how-many-people-can-I-see rally that has lasted for a month so far. Plus working on top of it isn’t splendid, though I’m happy to be making back the money I spent on my flight over. 

My days are filled with family, friends, work, and writing. I’m trying now to make something of this blog and may move it to my own domain pretty soon – just like Jess Dante, a friend who certainly knows her blogging better than me. And I’ve hit the point where it’s happening – instead of latenight searches on Youtube for New England or Boston or Ragged Mt, I’m searching Duomo, Firenze, picturing myself there again. 

So I guess that’s it then, a restlessness that emits a hungry growl everytime I plant my feet on the same soil for more than a month now. Really? Am I going to live my life like this forever? Always wanting a ticket booked. Always wanting to run, fly. I’m hoping one day those wings will stop twitching and I’ll be able to sink down into a calm again – but I honestly don’t see that happening anytime soon. 

Another Take on the “Creepy” Italians

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© 1952, 1980 Ruth Orkin / Courtesy of Stephen Bulger Gallery

I am sick of hearing you girls complain about it.

“They are so rude,” you say to me as your roll your eyes with a look of disgust. You continue to complain, onward and upward about how horrible your day has become because of this incident. That you feel unsafe here, that you hate this country because there are no “normal” people. That you can’t believe someone would treat you like that. You sit there, with your makeup done up, with your wedges (no heels, you can’t handle the cobblestones) crossed one over the other, with your mini skirt on and your top too low, and you balk.

For many, one would believe something horrific just happened. That you were sexually abused in the street, that you were flashed, that you were grabbed, that you we’re called some slanderous name because of your outfit.

But no, this outburst was simply because three men walked by, looked at you, and mumbled the word “bellissima.” Or, “very beautiful,” “lovely,” “gorgeous.”

Before many comment saying this is wrong, saying that Italians are scary, that they are too forward, creepy, they go too far and grab you on the dance floor and you’ve been in horrible situations, yes, I understand that this can happen – but this is not what I’m talking about. Because before anything gets serious, on those first few days as you explore the city, this will happen to you – you’re going to be called beautiful. Simply given a compliment, and I am still baffled as to why this upsets you.

Take this in stride. They are not getting in your way. They are not bothering you. Usually it is a mumble, as you pass by, as they pass you at a table. Usually there is no harm, these people simply are appreciating beauty. Today, it is the beauty held in your face, your smile, your hair, your curves, your walk.

Someday, you will wake up and do your makeup – complete with wrinkle cream and push up bras, merely comfortable shoes (your feet can’t handle anything else anymore) and your hair colored to match what it once was.  You’ll walk out on the streets (or if you’re lucky, you can visit the cobblestones once more) and you’ll look straight ahead and you’ll desperately pray that someone notices, that you hear that familiar whistle. You’ll look into the eyes of the passerby instead of down at the ground by their feet, and you’ll plead with their faces to give you that look that you once became used to so many years ago. You’ll hope that they do not just look at you, but they see you in all of your beauty.

*Also – if you would like to see the truth behind that iconic picture, click here. The story may surprise you.

Tipping in Italy

When studying abroad or simply traveling, there are certain things that your school, program, or the internet may tell you that aren’t necessarily true. Who made up these info sheets for you guys? Sometimes I wonder if the writer has even been to the places that they’re writing about, or are they simply stealing information from other sources on the web. Because there’s a certain rule that I was even told before flying over the big blue ocean to Italy that really doesn’t hold any water – but I only realized it when I got here and met the people that were getting cheated. 

Fact: Though waitstaff and bartenders do get paid more than in the US, in Italy, tipping is still nice to do – and most importantly, appreciated. Many believe that in the tourist areas the “coperto” or cover charge is in replacement of tipping, and even after excellent service on a 200 Euro bill, get up and walk out with (hopefully) just a thank you. However, that cover charge does not usually go towards your excellent waiter as it should, but simply to the owner. 

 

It has been the case for years that it has been said that tipping isn’t mandatory and I’ve even heard that it is deemed ignorant and rude to tip in some areas. But in most cases, especially in the tourist areas of Italy, a tip is appreciated, if not expected. These people run themselves ragged serving thousands of customers in the high tourist season and truly do not make that much. 

Tipping should simply be the same as in the states. These people are not millionaires off of a waitstaff salary – and bartenders here maybe earn half of what bartenders do in the States. So when you get an amazing Spritz or Bellini, or a Florentine steak cooked to perfection (meaning rare, guys! anything more is a tragedy), throw a few extra Euros on the table. Especially if you’re a regular, the service after tipping becomes substantially better. 

Behind the Mainstream Study Abroad – Moments that are worth Duplicating

Sitting in my apartment, I can hear tourists pass by on the Florentine street outside my window. Some complain about the rain, others comment on how beautiful the Duomo is. Some girls pass talking about day trips they’ll do while they study here, while others scoff at the fact that there’s a Subway Sandwich shop across the street. “Are you kidding?! When there’s an amazing Panini place right around the corner?!” All the conversations are varied, yet so much the same – living or visiting this beautiful city and looking at it through the eyes of a foreigner. But sometimes, I wish I could tell them that they need to stop and step off the main path. Adventure. I wish I could share some experiences that are my favorite – but if you’re reading this – maybe you can recreate these moments.

 

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Sunrise somewhere: Before the tour groups step off their busses, before the restaurants open up their doors and unfurl their tablecloths out into the summer air, stroll the streets of dawn.

We woke when it was dark out and crawled out of bed, fumbling in the unfamiliar hotel room – donning jeans, a sweater, boots that I thought would make me fit in while I was in Italia. Caitlyn looked at me and questioned this decision, is it worth it? I responded with a resounding yes. I had done this before. We stepped outside our hotel – a small canal silently greeting us, a red rowboat sleeping peacefully in off-season air. And then we began, a walk through twisting and turning streets of dormant shops and ornate doors to come up upon the Grand Canal of Venice – just in time to see the golden sunset begin to shed light on the City of Bridges. Below us, the only boats were of the Venetians – Gondoliers uncovering their golden gilded boats, their striped shirts contrasting upon the rose and faded walls of an exhausted city. But in this moment, senza touristi, it became alive again. The real Venice; radiant in life instead of a travel book.

Conversation without Social Media: Turn off your phone when you travel. The person next to you could change your life.

I was lost in Rome, again, but managed to find a bus stop that seemed to point me in the right direction of the Vatican, I hoped. It wasn’t too crowded – not like rush hour when you are pressed up against other bodies, all just desperately clinging onto the bars and handles available. Now, in the evening chill, I stepped lightly into the orange bus and faced forward, beginning to search for signs that confirmed my arrival at the heart of Catholicism. He was quiet at first, and maybe it was my outfit that gave me away, but when the bus came to a stop at the next station, he patted my wrist. “Due piu” he smiled at me behind thick-rimmed glasses. Two more stops until the Vatican. When he realized I could speak minimal Italian, his face brightened, his brown eyes swam and he began teaching me the landmarks that were passing by the window. He spoke about the beauty of women when they don’t wear makeup: “that is when they look most beautiful, when they first wake up in the morning,” and as the Vatican came into view, he grinned, told me to drink the water from the fountains in the square and sent me off. A true Roman, he will be in my memory forever.

Adrenaline: Do something that scares you:

“I can’t wait,” I had boasted as we rode through the Swiss Alps. I saw the guide’s eyes flicker to my face in the rear-view mirror. I loved heights and adrenaline. I had seen my friends jump before, but canyon jumping was new to me – and as we pulled up to the bottom and saw another jumper fall gracefully into the crevice with a loud WHOOP, I was terrifyingly ecstatic. And the higher we climbed up to the platform, the more nerves began to creep into my system. The tremors in my legs began as I was fixed into the harness. I stepped out onto the metal grate with the guide. His smile was trumped by the sheer drop off behind him. “Are you ready?” he asked, and as I turned to face forward, I looked around. The Eiger was to my right – in the setting sun, in all of its glory – a Swiss Alp towered above us. Below, so, so far below, the river crashed over the rocks, daring me to jump, daring me to try and fly. Split second decision, my muscles moved, my feet left solid ground and I was falling, falling so fast, so far, my stomach clenched, my heart raced, it was too far, too fast, a free-fall like a bird soaring, and then the rope caught – swung me through past those that had already jumped, and back again. I could breathe, and as I looked up from where I had just come, I gave a “whoop” of my own. No roller coaster will ever compare.

Delve into other cultures: Break out of your comfort zone to begin to understand others.

“Here, I cannot speak with a girl like this,” he says. His dark brown eyes squint into the Moroccan sun, searching the horizon for the next surge of water from the Atlantic. I don’t understand what he means. I lean forward to look at him closer and the nose of my board settles into the water. He turns and glances at me and then back to the water, his dark brown shoulders glistening with droplets of salt water.

“If I want to speak with a Muslim girl, it is secret. No one can know. Here is one. Turn,” he leans toward me and pushes at my leg, eyes still on the ocean. I look out, see the swell, and obediently turn and lie on my blue and white surfboard, chin hitting wax, resting my eyes on the golden Moroccan sand with Mounir’s board and back to my left. Still sitting, his muscles ripple as he balances.

“That’s stupid,” I say over my shoulder. “How can you talk to them in private if you don’t know them?” The sun is hot. He chuckles and tickles my foot.

“Paddle.”

“I couldn’t be Muslim,” I say as I feel the wave build behind me. He laughs again and takes hold of the back of my board, one hand resting on my calf, he pats it twice. The earthen scent of Argan Oil from his skin drifts towards me on the breeze.

“No…you are too strong….paddle,” he reminds me.

I sweep my hands into the water and under my board, pushing. I hear the wave crashing to the right of me. I feel Mounir push me forward.

“Stand up!” he calls under his French/Arabic accent. The wave carries me from him, surging me toward the beach. I can feel the board bouncing on the tumult. My hands push up against the board, my muscles tense, legs bend. I stand and shift my weight, easing the board into the side of the wave, gliding it down the stretch of water. I push against the water, up and down, pumping the board parallel with the wave until it breaks. I glide to the shore with the foam, jump off, feel the grit of the sand under the soles of my feet. I turn toward the horizon, raising an arm up to shield the sun. His silhouette gives a thumbs up as the ocean glistens behind him.

Run, hike, bike, climb – while you are still young enough:

“You won’t last in jeans,” I tell the guys as they stand in front of me. It’s autumn in the Swiss Alps, about fifty degrees, and I’m in a tank top and shorts. “It’s too rough and you’ll be sweating in about fifteen minutes.” But they were stubborn and came anyway, and as we started our ascent, the hike grew steep and they started stripping layers. I hated to say I told them so. But it didn’t matter – because they were doing it. We talked as we hiked, getting glimpses of the snow-covered alps on the other side of the valley – with the town of Interlaken nestled before us. I learned about the group, their time abroad, their home life, what sports they played, and we stopped to take pictures along the way. It grew steeper, and sweat started pouring, the banter stopped, for we needed to breathe and muscles ached. We climbed up into the mountain pastures, collected water from a hollowed out log used as a basin for the spring water used to satisfy the thirst of the cows that grazed there in the summer – their bells chiming in an unorganized harmony. When we reached the summit, I turned to the group and was met with smiles and astonishment as they looked out over the lakes and mountains. “Thank God I did this and have the ability to do this,” one said to me. Take care of yourself and challenge yourself – for sometimes the best views are at the other end of a climb.