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.

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.

Coach Bus Seat is Always Greater than Airport Floor

I’m slumped down on my backpack in a corner Termini Train Station wondering what my next move is. Tuya sits next to me going over the train timetable in her hands – as if hoping that if she stares hard enough, a new opportunity to get to the airport would arise. We had missed the last train to Fiumicino where we were hoping to spend the night lounging among the luggage carousels until the morning, when our flight was scheduled to leave. However, one mistake, and we ended up on the streets with the only option of getting there being a sixty euro cab ride, or trying our luck with a questionable hostel and possibly missing our flight in the morning. Welcome to independent traveling. Where the trains are simply unable to depend upon to come at a certain time and hostels book up the instant you need them. Where tickets are purchased for the wrong dates and street signs become unreadable. Though it is these °on your own° travel plans that usually stir up the greatest adventures and the °it wasn’t funny then but it is now° stories, sometimes, the only desire is to sit back and enjoy the view out the window instead of the map in front of your face.

 

Cue the idea of guided travel or group touring. Many are nervous when booking a tour of any sort. I have heard the typical explanations as to why it would never work out; °but I don’t want to be herded around in a group,° °but it won’t be the same experience.° They are understandable, but sometimes it is so much easier to climb into a bus and curl up against the window seat and not have to worry about if the connection will work, what stop to get off at, or if there will be a strike in the middle of your vacation plans. And there is a guaranteed bed when you book a trip.

Sitting in Balmers hostel in Interlaken, Switzerland. I watched as Cody stumbled into breakfast- he had been my bunkmate from earlier in the weekend, but now the hostel was full and he had no place to be.

“So, where’d you end up?” I asked as he set down his tray of breakfast that he had bought seeing that he had no free breakfast cards.

“Well I stayed up as long as possible on the couch,” he muttered, squinting at the type of jam packet he had in his hand, “And then they kicked me out of there, and then I went up to the hammock room and it was freezing but open so I was there for a few hours until they found me, and then I just walked down the street to a clearing and had to set up my tent.” He stirs his coffee as he looks up at me.

“Next time, I’m booking a trip with you guys,” he concludes, and I have never been happier  to have a bed complete with a patchwork quilt that keeps away the alpine breeze.

 

When in Ireland, I took a ten day tour. The wheels on the bus went round and I would hop off, take pictures, stay in hostels and experience areas I could never get to by train or public bus. Try asking a public transportation Irishman to pull over for a second because you need to take a picture of the sheep on the side of the road…not happening. But with a tour, you can have sheep pictures forever!  I had an excellent time filled with fables from the Irish tour guides and the people I met on the bus are now some of my friends spread around the world. We’re planning a reunion trip and swap travel stories constantly. I would have never met as many wonderful people on my own – when hostel beds are silent at night and most keep to themselves. Traveling with a group does not make you a tourist. It makes you a traveler without the hardships of coordinating time tables, trains, planes, and automobiles. It can help you get more places in a shorter amount of time (think five or six countries on one pretty awesome bus trip.) Try doing that with just a train schedule and get back to me. It’ll be the hardest puzzle you’ll ever have to do. A tour allows you to travel for the pure enjoyment of experiencing places and cultures instead of airports and angry conductors, ticket women, and grumpy old info booth attendants. The extra few Euros is worth it. Plus, you’d just spend them on changing your mismatched tickets in the long run anyway.

 

As Tuya and I walked out of Termini, a man named Melody tried to help us buy a taxi.

°Wait until the bars close and the cabs are cheaper,° he boasted to us as he led us across the street to a bar full of the wrong kind of people. And we sat there in amused misery as this man attempted to make us dance as others were creepily eying our luggage stuffed in the corner of our booth. The minute the clock struck two we ran to the cabs, bartered down to forty euro (much more than the twelve it would’ve taken if we hadn’t missed our train) and sat in the airport as it became busy in the early hours of the morning, our bums growing icily numb on the cold marble floor. The next weekend, we were on the Bus2alps trip to Interlaken. Get on the bus, get off right outside the door to the hostel. Bed, Breakfast, and a guide to tell us just where to ski, to eat, and the secrets of one of the most beautiful towns I have ever seen. As we climbed into bed, Tuya’s voice echoed off the wooden beams.

“This is so worth it,” she sighed and rolled over – escaping from airport floors and train station bars.

It was definitely worth it.

I’ll see you on the bus.

 

 

Lisa Harvey is a current Bus2alps travel specialist and loves that her job consists of helping others see the world as it should be seen – through the eyes of a traveler, not a tourist. However, she also has excelled in airport sleeping, train strike evasion, and the random encounter of the agitated taxi man at odd hours in the morning.

Chameleons in Italy: How to blend from an American to an Italian

We pack a suitcase,two,three – making sure we have everything we need to survive overseas. We pack our favorite jeans, shirts, sweaters and coats, only to find that once we get here, we realize that these favorite things from home may not be the best for life in Europe. We’re branded by our brands and picked out of the crowd and labeled as American as soon as they see our Northface raincoats and Old Navy flip flops. To blend in as an Italian, it is not about hair or skin color – it’s about shoes, clothes, and makeup.

When living in Ascoli Piceno, being one of twelve Americans in the town, I wanted to hide in the crowds of black and purple jackets and on vespas and needed to stop being noticed as I walked down the street simply because of my sneakers. I started to blend, conform to style and fashion, and suddenly, I was an Italian.

I wore knee high leather boots, bought my first pair of skinny jeans, and put on too much black eyeliner. Jean shorts with patterned tights, puffy jackets and converse. I became invisible. Here in the larger cities with so many Americans, it’s easier to simply go out in sweatpants and say yes, I am American. Yes, I will wear my bright colored raincoat and my hair up in a messy bun. But sometimes, it is still nice to be able to walk through a piazza without being bothered simply because you have the right shoes on.

Keys to blending in this season in Italy:

Go shopping. No, not just at H&M but in the shops where you see Italians. Look at what they’re buying and what they avoid. Mirror it.

Ditch the athletic sneakers. Italians have an obsession with shoes. The goal is to find a pair that is comfortable and stylish. Buy them here and look to spend a little money so they will hold up on the cobblestones.

For going out, a pair of wedges gives you the height you need to walk confidently, but won’t trip you up. If you can handle it, try heels for a night. The simple key is to watch where you walk.

Skinny jeans only. All others will immediately blow your cover as someone not from here.

Dark colored coats for the winter. The ski jackets and brightly colored raincoats we are used to are not found here. And if they are, they’re fitted correctly. Invest in an umbrella and a jacket that is warm, but will still hold its own during a fashion night out.

Knee high boots for winter. Flat for everyday, a pair of heels for at night.

But the biggest aspect of being a chameleon in any culture or country, is the way you act. Don’t yell down the street into the early hours of the night. Walk with confidence and try to speak Italian every chance you have. Try. Keep a stone face when walking by men who whistle at you instead of running away giggling. They only want you to react. Wear jewelry and put love into an outfit. Italians create art with how they present themselves. You can do it too. Just have the confidence and your colors will change sooner than you think.

Bussing through Ireland

For some reason, the owner thought it’d be a good idea to paint it Kelly green, and to make it worse they painted a leprechaun on the side. Typical. Tourist. But it was cheap, and it was easy, and it was my savior from planning, and procrastinating, and producing nothing but worry. My backpack was tossed in, with the bags of the Canadians and the Chinese and the Australians and the Swedish, and I sat in my own seat, curled up behind my coat and I looked out the window to the green, the leaves, the sheep, the ocean, listening to the Irish brogue of our driver as he lulled me to sleep. And that bus, that horrid green, that blends-but-clashes-with-the-landscape green, that contained a small collaboration of nations, rolled over the hills of Ireland and down to the coast and back up again. Over and over. Like the surprisingly blue waves off the shoreline. And I would sit, and lean my head against the window, swaying back and forth with the rocky road, sitting in my adopted, moving home, feeling that this was the safest place in the world, the safest, strangest place I’ve ever been. This bus, where I knew no one. Where I was no one. No one but the lone American girl that had studied in Italy and was from Boston. And the freedom of it – the freedom of being able to be anyone I wanted. To do anything I ever wanted to do, say what I wanted to say. I could. I had no restrictions, no baggage, no history. No one had any expectations. They knew me as I acted that week and nothing more, nothing less. So it was ok, when some days I was loud and happy, and laughing, and talking, and telling stories about my life, my home, about Italy, about people that I loved, my pets, about what I missed from home, my school, about everything that I have ever known, releasing my mysteriousness, letting them know me, letting them understand. But it was also ok to sit in my own seat, legs pulled up tight to my chest. Sit. Think. Listen. Learn. Quiet. And I’d feel so happy, so content, so needlessly comfortable, watching the landscapes of Ireland pass lazily outside my window. And my heart would soar and tell me it wanted to live here forever. In between the rocky coast and the rocky countryside. Weaving through the fishing harbors and the peat bogs and the myths and the fairy rings. And when I stepped off that bus and walked onto the plane that last day, the bland, white plane, I sat in my seat and brought my knees to my chest and rested my head against the window. But something, was missing.