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.


Why We Do What We Do

As we come off the high of spring break and the craziness of realizing that the semester is already over halfway through, we realize that all of us here, while we are driven by crazy schedules and all go off in different directions every weekend, still have complete common ground when it comes to why we are here, doing what we do.

Yes, we brag that our weekends are spent on the black sand beaches of Positano, or perched up high in the Alps of Interlaken. And our jobs may look pretty selfish (if we hear that we have the coolest job ever one more time, our egos may explode) but truly, we’re here for you, and because Bus2alps was here for us when we studied abroad.

We do this job for the travel, yes but we do it to travel with people who love to travel as much as us. We do it to hear the whole bus ooh and ahh as we turn the last corner and see the lights of Sorrento cascading down to the ocean at two in the morning. We do it to see the pride on the faces of those that just finished the hike to Monterosso al Mare in Cinque Terre. We love having you walk into Balmers with wet hair and a smile on your face as you start telling us how incredible canyoning was. We love seeing your eyes light up at the architecture of Prague, the sunset on the islands of Greece, and the taste of the prefect gelato. We love seeing a group from all over the country and from different schools coming together to play cards, kick a soccer ball around, and toast to new friends. JMU with FSU, the artists of SACI collaborating with the chefs of RMU. This is why we’re here. We do it to hear that famous line; “this has been the best day/weekend/week of my life.”

Our aim is to make your experience here more fun and allow you to see sights you may never have the opportunity to see otherwise. We did it while abroad, and now we’re spreading the secret to making study abroad the best memories of your life with the best and fastest growing student travel company in Europe – your favorite Bus2alps. Thank you for the memories of the past couple weeks, we can’t wait to spend more time with you in the next few!ImageImageImageImageImageImageImage

Baptism by Fire- My Reintroduction to Travel in Europe

Interlaken in the rain

In my first twenty-four hours back in Europe, I learned some new things:

  1. The airplane Gods have a huge dislike for me.
  2. Nuns always smell the same
  3. No one knows anything in Milan train station except for the currency conversion clerk .
  4. Whenever plans go wrong, I meet some pretty interesting people.

New York – a city hated by most Bostonians, was also disliked by a certain Sox fan when her plane was delayed three hours. They boarded us just fine, after talking to a backpacker traveling to Rome to meet up with a girl that he had met while studying abroad last year. Her mother owns the Pop Inn next to Termini so he was going there to work and see her for the summer. But after sitting down and settling in (I even had my seatbelt on at this point) we were told we needed to deboard because of a problem that “may need us to fly in another plane…” Aye aye, captain. We grumbled off the plane, flooded into the terminal and did an about face, waiting for instruction that followed an hour and a half later, saying we were ready to reboard. Taxiing away from the terminal, the plane lost power, to which the humorous flight attendant then responded with “ok everyone go to bed!” and the captain, who had forgotten to shut the intercom off, got out “screw it, bring us back to the-“ before he realized we could hear him. Groaning ensued as we sat without air flow until somehow we did regain power and actually took off. You better believe that I was praying someone had a picture of Jesus flying with me on this flight – because it sure did calm my nerves when I went to Costa Rica and the woman in the seat next to me was carrying a rather large portrait complete with a rosary.

Even without the Jesus portrait, I arrived into Rome safely, but three hours behind schedule, led a few students through the mazes of Fiumicino, and then propped my computer on my suitcase and found Austin online who was the bearer of the bad news I had already predicted: they had left without me. And to catch the next train to begin my journey from the airport to the Termini train station, switch trains and head up to Milan, where I’d have to transfer again and then once more to arrive in Interlaken and head to Balmer’s all while carrying my 50.0 pound bag and backpack on my back.

Bring it.

I launched myself through the walkways and made it up to the ticket booth where I stumbled through my rusty Italian to explain what I needed. The man behind the counter informed me that my debit card wasn’t working and politely explained it was probably because of my bank. I politely as I could explained that I had taken all the necessary precautions to make sure that this DIDN’T happen as I sighed and pushed my credit card towards him – of course, that worked perfectly fine. Onto the train, off in Termini and, sprinting, back on to a train to Milan (“Your seat is on car nove. You are at due. Run”) where I sat across from a nun that was very quiet the entire time but smelled exactly like my elementary school principal – oddly enough, a nun as well. Getting off of that train, I was filed into Milan train station and began my wild goose chase for a. a train ticket to get somewhere in the vicinity of Switzerland because my train did not exist. And then b. a payphone to gain further knowledge of my terrible mess of a plan.

In line, with a 50 pound bag, a backpack and a line of people “dieci” long according to the three year old counting to his father behind me. When I finally reached the counter, I spoke in Italian and asked for a ticket to Interlaken via Spiez. The man rolled his eyes as if I asked to go to the moon via boat. He told me there were no trains. I told him I was told there was one at 7:30. He shot me down. I scoured the terminal for another ticket window – asking the store owners, the Cabanieri  (just one more example of how they are not the most helpful people) and all pointed me directly back down to where I had just been.Perhaps it was my sweaty forehead that made the conductor stop, but he helped me (does stress induce better Italian language skills?) by explaining that there was no train, pulled out his schedule to show me this, and then gave me advice to tell me what train to take instead.

With this information, I needed to inform bus2alps what my new plan was. Trying to find a payphone was even more dramatic endeavor . My arms were aching from the bag and the moving sidewalks had a minimal effect on the up and down flights. On this round of inquiry, I was repeatedly directed towards the same non-functioning phone conveniently located directly in front of the whirring train engines and loudspeaker for announcements. Another round of asking for directions led me to the currency converter office, wherein a very nice man knew enough English to tell me there was another phone hidden between the mobile tabaccheria and a telephone pole. I couldn’t fit into the spot with my backpack on. Battling the noise of the trains, I called Austin. He and CJ helped me get a new ticket and I jumped on the train. I switched trains and switched boarders as I pointed out Lake Como out my window to my new friends – the bearded travelers that I had squeezed next to after realizing my real seat was three cars down and I refused to make it that far.

While riding, they spoke about their travels to Sardinia without a map, how they rented a car and drove blind through the countryside, coming upon a restaurant with a local delicacy of cheese processed with live maggots (they had horrible pictures to prove it), and how they slept in said car for the night on the coast, and woke with the most beautiful sunset. We spoke about past travels as we sped through the mountainous regions of northern Italy, and stopped as the conductors changed from Italian to Swiss on the border. It was then the boys decided that they were riding the train out as far as possible. They had a tent, anyway. It wouldn’t matter if there was a hostel or not. On the smoke break, we met a girl from the next car from Belgium who was kind enough to draw out a large and detailed map of the downtown area, complete with the best waffle places. She was traveling around Germany for a few weeks. It was in this time span that the train almost emptied out because of the late hour and one of the boys, Franklin courteously pointed out that the wheel on my luggage had perished in the struggle. Lopsided and hanging on by a thread, I then realized why it had been more and more difficult to lug the bag through Milan. Now, with one wheel and 50lbs, I hoped that the rest of my journey would be in association with people with arm muscles, or I was going to grow some pretty quickly.

As requested by Austin, I jumped off the train at a stop called Olten at about 2ish in the morning where I sat with construction workers whistling away in the background until my knight in shining white armor came to take me away into the mountains…just kidding it was only Mike LaPorta but it was still wonderful to relax in the seat and brought right to the front door of Balmers.

Finally pulling into Interlaken, I was partially in dream mode to begin with, but walking into Balmers didn’t feel real. The last time I left, I didn’t think I’d be there again, never mind in two years for a job.  I was led up to a room and my bags were flung into the dark. “Have fun trying to find an open bunk” – Thanks Mike. But thankfully a cell phone lit up on the right of me and T helped me to my top bunk in the corner where I dramatically collapsed under a patchwork quilt that made me feel as if I was home and put me instantly to sleep.

In the morning, I woke up to sunlight streaming through the curtains. The mountains of Interlaken, covered in snow, stood tall in the backdrop of Balmer’s. All was well in life. Missing flights means making friends. It may require a little extra effort and stress, but the best stories come from travel woes. Europe knew me too well to give me an easy travel day.I’ll call it training for the best job I could ever think of. If the travel god’s haze me a bit, I think I can handle it.