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.

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.

Summer is a’comin!

The street musicians are back in the cities and the coastlines are warming up, flowers are blooming and outdoor seating in the piazzas is popping up as quickly as the tulips; summer is coming, and Europeans couldn’t be more excited.  Stepping off the plane for a summer in Europe is exciting, stupendous, astounding, breathtaking, and sometimes a little annoying because of things you may miss from home – but seriously, it’s guaranteed to be one of the best summers of your life.

The heat of the summer is inevitable in Europe – especially in Italy, and other more southern areas. Regardless of where you are, there are ways to beat the head (even if you don’t have AC where you’re staying). Eat lots of frozen treats – granitas and gelato in Italy, for example. Have a fruit smoothie with locally grown fruits. Staying hydrated isn’t usually a problem in the cities (or even the little towns like Interlaken, Switzerland) because of the numerous water fountains located around the area. Some, like the one in Piazza Signioria in Florence, even have sparkling water as an option. This water is either glacial or at least pretty cold and much better than spending your money on bottled. Take advantage of it.

Also, make sure you stroll at night – when the city comes alive after the sun has set. Dress up for it and sit outside the bars or in the outdoor seating areas in restaurants (no open container laws usually!) and enjoy the summer night surrounded by the beauty of Europe. Take the high road and go to a vantage point above the cities as well. Most illuminate their most coveted monuments so a view of the cities at night is just as beautiful, if not more so than the day. Plus, the heat has resided so you may even enjoy yourself a little more. *Side note – in some cities at night, the mosquitoes are out. Prepare yourself by bringing repellant or at least a lotion to cool the bites afterwards!

Make sure to hit the beach at some point. Most Europeans do during the summer to beat the heat as well. Difference is – most beaches are paid here – meaning you throw a couple Euros their way, and you get to be treated like royalty with beach lounge chairs and your own umbrella. Usually this cost also includes showers (because the seas are pretty salty here) and sometime of changing area and food shack. Though different, it’s cool to feel welcome and fit in on a beach here. If you really miss just lying on the sand with your towel, you usually still can on a small area of “free beach” but it definitely isn’t as nice as the others.

But most of all, experience the European lifestyle as it is in the best season to see it – when everything is bustling and booming, and the European citizens are happy that the long winter is over. What you may miss with barbeques and Fouth of July parties, you’ll get back with food festivals in piazzas and beauty that is insurmountable. Good Luck with the flight over, and we’ll see you in the city!

            

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

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.