Monday, June 13, 2011

The End

As I sit here at my computer, belly full of my last Italian pizza, I am in utter awe of the experiences I’ve had over the past four and a half months. As I began this trip I never in my wildest dreams imagined what I would have seen and experienced. Regardless of all the places I’ve travelled while in Europe I feel that I have learned the most from living in Trieste. I jumped into a completely different culture, language, and attitude on life and this is what I learned.
Simple is Beautiful. Three simple ingredients can make the most delicious pizza in the world. Italians have a keen way of taking the fewest ingredients possible and enjoying them to the fullest extent. This speaks to their overall opinion on life, enjoy every tiny moment and don’t fuss over throwing too many things in the pot, or on the pizza whichever metaphor you prefer.
Relax. Train strikes happen, but you will eventually get there. When you’re meeting someone for dinner 7:30 may wind up being 8:30 and you may not finish until 11. It may take 8 visits to the police station to become legal. Nothing is rushed; you have to accept that everything happens on its own time, regardless of how frustrated you are.
Keep Smiling. Ever day for three and a half months I smiled and greeted the old man down the street, his response was always to look away or at his dog. Finally, two weeks ago, he smiled back and said “Ciao.” It took a while but I finally won him over which would not have happened had I not kept on smiling. More times than I would like to admit I was frustrated to the point of tears, no one warned me how hard it would be to buy cheese, but smiling always got me through.
Enjoy every Moment. A good Italian dinner lasts two hours because every moment is consumed by good food, wine, and conversation. In the evening everyone walks to enjoy the beauty of the world around them and the company of a loved one.  Every aspect of Italian culture is centered on soaking in all the love and splendor that the universe has to offer, truly living in the moment.
I could go on for ages. I came to Italy as an extremely “type A,” success driven American. I am not a complete convert into the “art of doing nothing,” but I have learned to stop, take a deep breath, and truly savor the world around me. Before this experience I entitled this blog La Dolce Vita, the sweet life, envisioning the typical Hollywood portrayal a lot of wine drinking, pasta eating, and loud talking with copious amounts of hand gestures. But the sweet life is so much more than that, it’s taking the time to live your life and cherish every miniscule part. It’s relaxing, not fretting over being five minutes early to every appointment. It’s sipping a cappuccino for an hour with a friend. It’s the little things. Thank you Italy for showing me how to live La Dolce Vita.
La Fine

Monday, May 30, 2011

Forty Shades of Green

 Irish luck rubbed off on me in March when Jourdan and I got tickets to the UEFA Europa League finals in Dublin. This prompted a four-day excursion to the land of Guinness, pots o’gold, Lucky Charms and more shades of green than I knew existed.

The Burren

The trip began with a 4:30am train to Venice to catch our flight; needless to say I did not sleep that night. We arrived at the Dublin airport completely dazed and in a sleepless stupor. Our first moments in a new city always begin the same, we stand in front of the aiport/train/bus station looking like lost puppies trying to find our way. Unlike all of our pervious trips, a kind older gentleman came up to us and, in his fabulous Irish accent, asked, “Can I help you girls?” What? Did someone just offer us help? This is when I knew I would like Ireland. In this way Ireland reminds me of the South, welcoming and ready to take care of visitors.
The next day we took a day trip over to the West coast to see the number one tourist attraction in Ireland, the Cliffs of Moher. Part of our tour was a visit to a farm in The Burren, comes from the Gaelic word for “stony place.” The Burren is an area with limestone “mountains,” more like big hills, which millions of years ago were under the ocean. After this we headed for the Cliffs. When we arrived you could barely see ten feet in front of you because of how heavy the fog was, but lucky for us the fog lifted for about fifteen minutes letting us see the breath taking view. I can only imagine what they would look like on a clear day.

Cliffs of Moher

Wednesday was devoted to the football match, Porto vs. Braga, both Portuguese teams. We were supporting Porto and bought scarves for the game. Little did I realize that all of the “real” Porto fans would assume that we were also Portuguese… this made for a few interesting comments and unreturned team sentiments. The match was fun and Porto pulled out a 1-0 win. But the most memorable part of the day occurred before the match at a pub in an area called Temple Bar. In case you are not aware, the Queen of England made a historic, peace-seeking trip to Ireland the same time I was there. As I sat by the window of the pub enjoying some fish and chips and a Magner’s, I kept noticing that the Garda (Irish police) were closing the street. They closed and reopened the street several times, I assumed this was just protocol while the Queen-mobile was in transit. But the last time they closed the street was different, Garda lined up all along the sidewalk; something was happening. I made eye contact with a man on the street and mouthed, “Is she coming?” Just as he nodded the police brigade drove by followed by a black Range Rover and the Queen in all her hat-tastic Queeness! I’m sure I resembled a 12-year-old schoolgirl as I waved enthusiastically to the Queen through the window; clearly she was waving to me and not the other 50 people around. Well, that’s one more excessively famous person I can check off my list: Pope, check. Queen, check. Paul McCartney, still waiting…
The trip came to an end with a quick trip to Northern Ireland to visit some friends of Jourdan’s. We didn’t waste money on a place to stay Thursady night seeing as our flight was at 6:15am. One piece of advice, if you ever have to spend the night in an airport find the Starbucks, their chairs are quite comfy. Ireland was an amazing place to end my semester of travels, good food, good football, and great people! Now it’s time to buckle down and pass my exams; yes it surprised me too when I found out that I actually had schoolwork associated with this semester. I’m banking on using ten-point vocabulary words in hopes of confusing my professors into passing me… keep your fingers crossed.

Friday, May 6, 2011

To Africa and Back by way of the UK

As I sit in bed writing this, immune system significantly depressed from too much public transportation, I am still in awe of the experiences I had over the last two weeks. Thanks to my friend Jourdan having friends all over the place, we were able to have free places to stay in some pretty cool cities.
Easter break spanned from a Wednesday to a Tuesday, so of course I extended it to a solid two weeks. The first week was spent in the Scotland and London. I will never again take for granted the comfort of seeing a sign in English. Edinburgh was beautiful with a rustic Royal Mile. Filled with kilt makers, pubs, and Starbucks; my yearning for a long cup of coffee was satisfied. I was surprised to find such delicious food; haggis (made from sheep but I prefer not to know the details), neeps (turnips), and tatties (potatoes) has become a favorite, not to mention the sticky toffee pudding, all washed down with a Magners. While walking around the town we stumbled across a hill completely covered in daffodils that looked out over the main part of the city, just begging to be the setting for an impromptu photo shoot.
After a few days in Edinburgh we took a bus to Glasgow for a night of tasteful mayhem. We went to a place that literally looked like your 4th birthday and a dance club had a baby. When giant Twister, two dance rooms and bars, face painting and a bouncy castle are in one giant warehouse it is a dream come true. Needless to say, Glasgow did not lend itself to much sleep, but plenty of fun was had by all. After Glasgow we took an overnight bus to London, for one pound it was worth the 3 hours of sleep against a strange Glaswegian’s shoulder.
Being the week before the Royal Wedding and St. George’s Day (English 4th of July, minus the fighting for independence part), London was packed! While wandering around the city one night I turned to look back at Big Ben and the House of Parliament, it was the precise scene shown at the beginning of Mary Poppins and kept me singing “A Spoonful of Sugar” the rest of the evening. I should have been a street performer like Dick van Dyke’s character. 

Abbey Road

London was lovely, but extremely expensive and made going to a developing country much easier on the wallet. We were flying into Fez, Morocco and realized that we had been circling for quite some time. The captain came over the speaker and notified us that there was a very bad storm over Fez so we were being diverted to Casablanca, about 6 hours from our actual destination of Meknes. While the rest of the plane broke out in panic and frustration, Jourdan and I laughed hysterically because this is how all of our travel has gone, never smoothly. We owe an apology to all the people on that flight, because it was probably our fault that something went wrong. We landed in time to get a train to Meknes and thanks to the kindness and hospitality of Moroccans we were able to find our stop at 3 o’clock in the morning. Despite the small detour, Morocco was amazing! A couple of the girls we were staying with took us to a hammam, a no frills bath house. You sit in this steam room, faucets lining the walls with a bucket, mat, and soap. After you put henna all over and let it sit, a big Moroccan woman comes over and lays you out like a child scrubbing your body like you’re covered in four inches of dirt and sin. It’s not the most comfortable, or modest, experience but at the end of it all it’s the cleanest I’ve ever felt. Women used to spend hours and hours at the hammam because it was one of the only places they were allowed to go; it was their social time. When in Morocco! 
Assilah, Morocco
It was a humbling experience to be in an Islamic country. It was strange to be the only girls in a crowded cafĂ©, hearing the call to prayer, and buying alcohol is a whole other story: blacked out windows, separate entrance, opaque black bag that might as well be a scarlet letter on your chest. Despite being cultural polar opposites, the people could not have been nicer and friendlier. Sometimes the men were overly friendly and wanted to be your tour guide for the day, like one Moroccan at the beach who found us a horse buggy to take to a deserted beach and proceeded to stay all day showing off for Jourdan. I had to let him down later with what I remember from high school Spanish, thanks Senora Benzenhofer. 
The noble steed that took us to Paradise Beach.
Morocco came and went quickly and it was off to our final destination, Rome. Little did I know that I would be experiencing history. We arrived on a Saturday and it was packed, not uncommon for Rome, however it was packed with nuns and priests. Come to find out, it was the beatification, the first stage of sainthood, of Pope John Paul II. We spent all day Saturday seeing the major sights that everyone must see in their lifetime because Sunday the city would be practically shut down. We woke up at the crack of dawn on Sunday to go to the beatification mass at the Vatican. Despite arriving 2 ½ hours before mass, the Vatican was so packed that most of the bridges were already closed off by police. We tried one last round about way and successfully got onto the street leading up to the Vatican with millions of other people. Thanks to Jourdan’s keen crowd dodging skills we got a prime position to see a big screen for the nearly 3 hour mass and squeeze through to receive communion. Never in my life did I expect to experience a historical mass and receive communion at the Vatican, I think this alone took care of my church quota for the extent of my time abroad. 
Does not do the crowd justice.
This post does not do justice to the amount of things I saw and experienced during this trip. I owe so much to Jourdan and all the girls we stayed with: Jenni, Rona, and Mary Elizabeth. In two weeks I was able to see seven cities, four countries, and two continents. This was the spring break of a lifetime.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Morning Beers on a Train

This past weekend I made a visit to Budapest, Hungary. After 12 hours on an overnight train, and being scared awake three times by Border Patrol, we arrived in a city where you can’t guess your way around. In case you didn’t know, Hungarian is nothing like the Romance languages.
The metro took us straight to our hostel, which turned out to be a single room next door to the owners’ apartment, definitely a steal for about $20 a night. This trip was my first experience, other than the euro, trying to convert dollars. I am a Finance major, however, I do not claim good mental math skills. My bankcard kept being declined at the ATM, so of course I assumed it was the bank’s fault because I am always right… WRONG… I called Wachovia and the nice customer service representative told me that I was trying to withdraw $756 when I was really only trying to take out $200, whoops. One word of advice, double-check your math prior to withdrawals to prevent draining your bank account in a low value currency.
After getting everything settled, and the appropriate amounts of money, we were off to see the city. Our first stop was the Central Market and shopping street, clearly my favorite part. The market was packed with vendors selling Hungary’s finest lace, hand painted wood, paprika and porcelain. After a long night of travel, Jourdan and I quickly moved to the food where we had Langos, special Hungarian fried dough with various toppings, delicious! After our exceptionally healthy lunch we went to the Szchenyi bathhouse for a soak in the natural hotspring pool, with a great atmosphere of Eastern European architecture and old men in much too tight Speedos; I’m pretty sure in America they would be arrested for indecent exposure. When I left Italy I thought I was escaping the massive amounts of “PDA,” wrong again, the warm pool is quite the couples retreat. Despite the awkward lovers and wrinkly old men, the bathhouse was really neat and a great experience.
That night we had planned to go on a pub-crawl in hopes of meeting other people and having a few good drinks. We got to the meeting spot and our pub-crawl group turned out to be a team of three, Jourdan, the guide, and myself… Go Team! Our guide showed us several bars that we would have otherwise never found, where we had some great Hungarian beer, and excessively strong liquor.
The next day was a race to see as much of Budapest as we could before our train at 5:00. We went to some impressive places: St. Matthia’s church, St. Stephen’s basilica, Parliament, and the Dohany St. Synagogue. The architecture and elaborate designs of these buildings is amazing! St. Stephen’s basilica is the home of a relic, the hand of St. Stephen. The synagogue is a place of pride for Budapest’s Jewish community and their perseverance through Nazi occupation. There they have a garden that houses the mass grave of 2,300 Jews killed during the Holocaust.
 Our time flew by and we were off to the station to catch our train back to Trieste. I slept an hour here and an hour there. A Slovenian man told me his life story, how he used to do drugs but now does Yoga. Border Patrol questioned me about where I was going and why. Then the cherry on top, we met three Croatians who bought us beers at 5 o’clock in the morning, only in Europe can you drink on a train 24 hours a day. You never know who you’ll meet on a train. These stories are by far my favorite souvenirs. 

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Food, Wine and the Police Station

The Basilica and Duomo
Florence: food, wine, history, and shopping, what more can you ask for? I spent this past weekend in Tuscany, what an amazing place! I arrived Friday afternoon, checked into the hostel and hit the ground running, well more like fast walking let’s not get crazy. First stop, the Duomo and it’s 463 steps to the top. I was glad to get the stair-master session in prior to dinner. The view from the top is magnificent and worth every euro, eight in total, despite the unavoidable perspiration. After the Duomo, I wandered down the streets of Florence, soaking up the southern-Italian culture that Trieste is lacking.
 Dinnertime came quickly and Jourdan, my travel partner, and I went to 4Leoni (Four Lions), recommended by her friend Anna. As we sat down I noticed pictures on the wall of Goldie Hawn, Kurt Russell, Sting, and Dustin Hoffman… I knew we were in the right place; if it’s good enough for Goldie it’s good enough for me. This restaurant has the most amazing pasta I have ever eaten, fioccheti di pera (stuffed pasta with pear and cheese), delizioso! If you go to Florence, I require that go eat this pasta! We finished dinner and were walking back to the hostel when we heard the voice of an angel! The angel turned out to be an Irish street performer, James O’Reily, serenading the crowd with Coldplay and Damien Rice.  As we sat and listened I scanned the crowd, everywhere I looked all I saw were couples and enough “amore” to make any single girl nauseous.
Boboli Gardens
A lot of Chianti

The highlight of my time in Tuscany was a visit to the Chianti region and a wine tasting at Castello del Trebbio, a 900-year-old castle once used by the Pazzi to plot the assassination of Lorenzo de’Medici, really interesting history but I won’t bore you with it here. At this castle they work miracles to create the best Chianti and extra-virgin olive oil that has ever touched my lips. They live by a saying that has become my new mantra; “the oil is good for the heart, but the wine feeds the soul.”
Unfortunately, my time under the Tuscan sun came to an end and it was back to Trieste with a little remembrance of home in hand, a McDonald’s happy meal. But never fear my life is seldom dull. Monday I went back to the police station for my fourth visit, and third attempt at my visa. I took my ticket and waited two hours to be told that I had to come back on Tuesday to meet with the Inspector. However, the officer that met with me remembered Jourdan and I from our previous visit when we attempted to communicate with phrases Jourdan looked up, and he laughed at us. At least he has fond memories. I went home and prepared my arsenal of documents and returned to the station this morning. After two more hours I left, sans visa, with two options; show the police 2,700 euro in cash or get an official bank declaration of funds by the end of the month… clearly they don’t want me to stay in there country. Who knows maybe my next post will be about getting deported?
Central Market

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A Venetian Adventure

My prayers were answered; I made friends! Last week while I was waiting, no surprise there, at the International Office my ears perked as I heard the sweet melodious sound of American English. The voice was Jourdan, from New Orleans, who is my permanent travel buddy. Not long after she left I made two more friends from France and Slovakia, and later two more from Italy and Germany. How did this happen? I am no longer a lone wolf; my wolf pack of one grew by five (credit goes to The Hangover)!
Sunday a great opportunity arose; take the train to Venice on Monday for the day to pick up a document Jourdan needed for her Visa. Class or Venice? You can imagine how long that decision took. Monday morning our adventure began on the 8:18 am train to St. Lucia Station in Venice.
We arrived to blue skies and a quite cool breeze. We hopped on a vaporetto, the water buses, and cruised down the Grand Canal towards St. Mark’s square. We stopped and picked up Jourdan’s letter, and the rest of the day was ours to explore all Venice has to offer. We wound through alleys, people watched, pigeon watched, shopped and stopped for the most amazing lunch at Al Covo. This was one of the best meals I have ever eaten; next time you come to Venice call me for directions. After lunch we were off to Murano, the island of glass. This sleepy little island is where some of the world’s most beautiful hand blown glass comes from. Everywhere you look there are brightly colored chandeliers, bowls, sculptures you name it. I’m still awestruck by the works of art that come off this tiny island. As night fell we headed back to the main island to catch a glimpse of the Rialto Bridge before heading to the train station.
Little did I know the end of our trip was just the beginning of our adventure. We got to the station at 7:30, thinking that trains go back to Trieste about twice an hour. We bought our tickets and grabbed some dinner to take on the train that we thought was about to arrive, only to realize we had been reading the “arrivals” not the “departures” side of the timetable. We had missed every train back to Trieste except the last one for the night, three hours later. What do you do in a train station for three hours? Here are a few ideas: Buy drinks and try to make friends with the bartenders, however, this is much easier when you know more that 50 words in their language. Go to the waiting room with all the homeless people until you can’t stand the smell and the awkward looks, you are bound to hear some interesting conversations. Or you can take pictures of all of your feelings; this entertained us for quite sometime.
Finally our train came, we got home about 2am dead on our feet, but I wouldn’t have traded it for the world. Life is meant to be interesting, not necessarily smooth. Do something spontaneous; it could lead to a great story. Eat delicious food, you can work out tomorrow. Laugh when life gets hard, it will always get better. Explore the smallest of streets; you never know what you might find. Miss your train another one will always come. Most importantly, delight in the relationships and experiences along the way they make life worth living.

The sun sets differently over Venice.
View from the Rialto Bridge.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Being the Outsider

Let me preface this post by saying that Trieste is a beautiful town filled with wonderful people, places, and culture. I am ecstatic to be here and have this amazing opportunity.
Prior to my arrival I assumed that all the positive attributes of Italy and its people would supersede any difficulties I may encounter. I completely underestimated the differences I would encounter. Everything is slower in Europe, and when I say slower I mean it takes at least twice as long as in America. I have a washing machine, but no dryer, a gas stove you have to light, and the oven in my apartment doesn’t work so we use the one upstairs. I did cook for the first time today; gnocchi with pomodoro and zucchini so all hope is not lost. Buses arrive when the please, professors email you back several days later, and shop owners close whenever the like.
 Grocery shopping should be an Olympic sport. The nice, big supermarket near my apartment is about 1/3 mile away and the walk back is totally uphill. It’s no wonder locals go shopping every few days--you can only carry so much; on my first trip I forgot that I didn’t have a car right outside and wound up walking home with at least 50 extra pounds.
Today was the first day of class. My classes are in English, however, the class is made up totally of native Italian speakers. As I sat in the classroom waiting for the class, surrounded by conversations in a language I do not understand, I came to the realization that this is the first time in my life I have been the outsider, a very lonely feeling. At this moment I knew that I was no longer a tourist; I am now a “stranieri” (stranger), what Italians call foreigners. I am in a new place where everything is done differently, the people are more reserved, and every sentence I attempt includes “grazie (thank you)” and “mi dispiace (I’m sorry).”
Despite the transition not being all rainbows and butterflies with hunky Italian men falling at my feet, I know there is much more in store for me. It is my turn to be challenged and for life to throw me into difficult situations in which I will struggle to accomplish the simplest of tasks, i.e. buying stamps, but grow through the process. Through every small storm I will search for the wind to fill my sails and carry me on into a brighter, bigger horizon.
“The truth is that our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy, or unfulfilled. For it is only in such moments, propelled by our discomfort, that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers.”              -M. Scott Peck