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.

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.

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.

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

Orientation is far from a conference room with Bus2alps

“It’s simple really,” Moos began as he stood at the top of the mountain, bathed in the light of headlamps from the other Outdoor Guides that had accompanied us up the gondola. He sat on the bright blue sled and demonstrated to us how to turn, stop, and gain as much speed as humanly possible.

“If you see white, you are ok. That is the snow on the track. If you see black in front of you, turn away from it because it is going to be someone, or something else that won’t be too nice to run into.”

And as the strobes of light move past the Swiss Chalets of Insenfluh, I stop and look out from our perch on the mountainside. The town below sparkles as bright as the stars and the Milky Way above; the faint outline of the snow-covered mountain range looming in between.

Not many people have gone night sledding before. And that included most of the Bus2alps guides on our orientation. Some fumbled nervously with their glow sticks (used as “break lights” on the track) while others, including myself, looked out at the beauty around us. But the silent moment of awe was soon replaced with the screams of us careening down a dim-white track of snow through the trees. And I don’t think I’ve ever had such a fun experience in my life.  Sledding turned into a Mario Kart-style race. Breaking with your feet, flying past co-workers, and that view still flickering through the trees.

Welcome to Orientation – Bus2alps style. Where “conferences” involve having chats at the top of a black diamond trail in the middle of the Alps. Yes, sure we were seated in front of Power Points occasionally (though the distraction of paragliders out the window does not help with attention span) and we did have meetings brainstorming ideas for the upcoming semester (make sure to keep checking in on our YouTube channel in the next few months) but those in charge at Bus2alps make sure to keep a pretty good balance of work and play, though most of us think the work IS play!

From night sledding followed by a cozy little fondue dinner, to skiing and sledding the alps the next day to learn the trails above the tree-line in the shadow of the Eiger peak of Switzerland. We here learn so we can show you. Fun, adventure, adrenaline, experience.

This is our job. We do it and learn it, so you can experience it.

We are getting ready for a bus2awesome adventure this semester!

Are you?

Niente

Livingroom is cozy, scented with pine of the glowing tree in the corner, finally with tinsel this year because our last kitten had died at the old age of seventeen. Graciously passing away while I was gone, just like the last. Sometimes I wonder if someone is protecting me from sadness in the form of airplanes and train tickets. It just seems that way lately. And as I sit here and watch the first snow falling down outside my window and listen to the christmas movies on the television and explain to my brother he has to do his paper, I’m home. My dog sits at my feet, my cold feet, always cold. And I plan ahead – taking the train into Boston for the night, work reasons – though I’d rather walk Faneuil Hall and the Boston Common with a few people, past, present, and future. Because on one hand I want my fathers – large and warm in old work gloves that he refused to give up – as we walked Downtown Crossing looking at the lights and parts of the Enchanted Village in the windows of the local stores – until we go inside and walk through magic. And his and my mother’s eyes light up as bright as my and my brothers. And it’s perfect, as we find his old friend up in some building we aren’t supposed to be in – and she tells us to look over the floor because we may find a diamond someone has dropped from the jewelry stores on the floor. And we search and search as she remembers the day he came in to pick out an engagement ring for my mother. And I remember the story he’d used to tell about how he was listening to Christmas music on the front steps of the Needham house when he decided he was going to. And he never looked back.

But at the same time, I want to head down there with another man. I want to stroll through the Public Garden hand in hand with leather gloves and bright red scarves and show someone the most “European city” in America. And I want to kiss him on the bridge over the swan boats and I want him to love it here as much as I do. And I want to fall into a tumult of emotions – here and there, and fly back to Firenze and walk the cobblestones instead of the pavement and have the magic to make it snow and sleep under the Tuscan sky. More in love than I have ever been.

And I am torn, once again. Unsure of what direction to go but only knowing there is a deadline soon – simply because I wanted an education and did what society told me to do. Now letters in the mail and on the computer force my hand into deciding my life differently. That I cannot wander anymore. That I need to chain myself into something as critical as anything. And I’m not sure I can do it. Because all I truly want is to stop rambling on this piece of digitally created paper, take up a pen and write something meaningful that isn’t simply a train of my thoughts, an unending sentence that slithers out of my mind and through my fingers with a clicking noise instead of the scratching of a pen on paper. And I want my words to be understood and loved and coveted as something that moves people, that makes the smile and cry and understand the world just a little bit better – and how unfair it is. And maybe it will happen, but until then I have to live, I have to eat, and love, and pray. And deal with death and dying and helplessness. And love and life and newborn babies so far away I can’t see them. And all I wonder is where I’ll be, who I will be in another six months – for every six my life spins, making me dizzy, making it hard to see straight, and i see my past my present my future in one blur. And I love it, but i just want answers, and yet I’m patient enough to let them wait. I think. But I have no choice but to stand still and let the snowflakes fall on my shut-tight eyes until they melt and create tears I hadn’t cried. And I wonder if they’re from happiness or sadness coming from heaven.

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.