Archive | July, 2011

Italian Adventures: Homeward Reflections

31 Jul

I’m coming home today. I’m all packed and have a few minutes to spare before my taxi comes to take me to the airport.

In a way, I’m going to miss this apartment. Yes, it’s constantly dirty. Yes, there are 7 other girls here. No, they never sleep during normal hours. But it has been my home for the past month. I have been happy to come home to it after long weekends in Rome and the Amalfi Coast. But I am looking forward to coming home to MY bed and MY room and all of MY familiar things. I’m looking forward to coming back to my life.

I’ve learned a lot on this trip. First and foremost, I’m braver than I thought. I mean, I signed up all alone. I knew no one when I got on that plane 30 days ago. Now, I have about 30 new acquaintances and a few new friends that I’ll keep in touch with when I get back home. I’m still learning/grappling with the fact that I’m reserved. Something about my innate aura sends a message to people that I’m not…something. Fun? Approachable? I don’t know what exactly. But it’s the reason I’ve always had a hard time meeting people and making new friends. In a way, it’s good. Because only the people who take the time to actually talk to me and get to know me become my friends. The rest are too fickle and superficial, and I don’t want or need them around anyway. However, I’m still deciding if I really want to be able to turn my reserved-ness off easier/faster or if I want to embrace it whole-heartedly.

Also as far as bravery is concerned, I’ve navigated the streets of Florence to the point where I can go anywhere here by myself and be completely comfortable. I’ve learned bits of Italian and can ask for certain things in Italian. I know that traveling to other countries is very manageable now. I’ve also done all of this without a cellphone or phone number of any kind. Imagine how much easier it would be with modern technology! I’m not afraid of leaving my comfortable home and in fact, I’m eager to keep venturing out and discovering new places.

But at the same time, I’ve learned how truly fortunate I am to live where I do. I love California. It’s amazing how many people honestly dream of coming to California and I was born and raised there. I’m also very lucky to live in the States. We Americans are really spoiled. Things we take for granted are sorely missed abroad. Like free water at restaurants. Ice in your beverage. Option, options and more options! You can’t go to a restaurant in Italy and order a salad with no this, extra that, and dressing on the side. In fact, if you ask to many questions, the waiter walks away. There’s no Netflix or Hulu or Pandora or local broadcasting channels that stream shows online in Italy. There is no Target or WalMart. There is no one-stop shopping. There is very little – if any – diversity in food options. Aside from tourists, there’s very little diversity period. And everything is expensive. I would never want to live permanently anywhere else.

I’m grateful for this experience. I’m proud to be able to say I lived in another country for a month when I was in my 20s. I’m also excited to be a more interesting person now that I can say I’ve traveled – I have so much more to offer in certain conversations! I’m thrilled with the excitement for life this trip has given me. I want to see and do everything, and have every intention of tackling as much of it as possible.

I’m also grateful for the people who have very much influenced me for the better during this trip. Sarah is incredibly independent, confident and strong. She’s traveled to plenty of places and has the same outlook as I do on many things. Becky is outgoing and fun and entertaining and super talented – she’s the personality that I have with my closest friends and family, and that I wish I could have with everyone, but she’s that way all the time. Both of these girls make me want to be better in different ways and that’s great!

I think most importantly though, I’ve learned that change is good. Change is growth. And that being open to change or not having a plan – if just for the day or your whole life – is good.


Italian Adventures: Fun Tidbit

31 Jul

Before I left for Italy, I posted about my grandma and throughout this trip I’ve thought of her many times.

I’ve seen dresses and shoes in store windows that reminded me of things she brought to the States from Germany. I’ve been to different places in Italy and wondered if she was in the same spot many years ago during her travels. And yesterday, I smiled to myself in Venice when I heard something I haven’t heard in a very long time.

I was in a crowded area following my tour group when we passed by this family. I believe they were German but I could be making that up in order to fit my memory better. Anyway, as we passed, one of the children lost their balance and started to fall as one of the adults quickly grabbed the child and said, “oops-sa-la.”

I haven’t heard “oops-sa-la” in years. My grandma always said it when “oops” or “uh oh” was called for and I’ve never heard anyone besides her say it.

It was a nice way to bring my trip full-circle.

Italian Adventures: Secret Bakery

30 Jul

My roommate’s friend who studied abroad told her about a secret bakery in Florence near our apartment. Apparently, they work/bake all night and deliver the goods to other restaurants during the day. So, the only way to buy the pastries fresh is to visit the shop from 1-5 am.

We found it tonight. It’s down a small alley of a residential neighborhood and has an unmarked door. You can tell it’s the bakery by 1. the delivery van in front 2. the sign that says, “Be quiet please” and 3. the delicious smell.

You have to knock on the door – pound rather – and wait for the baker to come and unlock it. He opens it just enough for you to say, “croissant?” to which he answers, “chocolate, cream or plain?” After taking your order he shuts and locks the door. It’s like a drug deal but with sweet treats!

For only 1 euro each, the 4 of us that made the trek in the middle of the night each got a fresh croissant. We saw a group of guys walk away with pizza slices and one had a pineapple danish. Yum!

Tomorrow morning, closer to 5 am, I’m going over there to get a few for breakfast at the airport. Too bad we didn’t know about this joint sooner.

Becky, me, Jonathan, Sarah after our second Secret Bakery Trip

Italian Adventures: Venice

30 Jul

Venice was beautiful! It was so exciting to be in a place that I’ve only seen in movies. The gondoliers really do wear striped shirts and straw hats! The gondolas really are as romantic as they seem! There really is water everywhere (which is probably why I love it so much).

On a water taxi in Venice

We saw a glass blowing demonstration (Murano glass, made on the Venetian island of Murano, is world famous) and I bought a pair of glass earrings. Then we took a walking tour of the city and saw great palaces, Steve Jobs’ house, another palace whose renovations are being funded by Woody Allen, the hotel where Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie stayed during their filming of “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” and of course, we rode on a gondola. And I had a Spritz, a drink invented in Venice (so was the Bellini but the place that claimed to have invented the drink wanted 15 euro for one – HA! Pass.)

Glass blower

Pisa Palace

Steve Jobs' house in Venice


The day went by pretty quick – we walked the two main islands of downtown Venice but it was a 4-hour bus ride from Florence each way (after a train ride from Venice to where our bus waited), so we didn’t have a ton of time in the city.

It was a good day trip to wind down the whole Italian experience.

Tomorrow, I’m packing, cleaning and investigating this small town just outside of Florence with a few people. Tonight, we’re making a trip to the “secret bakery” that apparently only opens from 1 am to 5 am. We’ll see how that goes…

Italian Adventures: Wingwomen & Lads

29 Jul

I’ve decided I don’t like wingwomen. The better they are, the less I like them. Not as people – it’s the idea/practice of wingwoman-ing I’m not a fan of. It’s very flattering when a guy starts talking to you but the moment you realize it’s because of a wingwoman, you instantly feel like someone let you win at a board game. Then, you feel like you’re second-best.

What’s that? You liked my friend but she has a boyfriend back home so you’ll talk to me because she talked about how great I am? Yes, well, had you talked to me first you would have known how great I am all on your own. Ciao, sucker.

Also, despite their accents, Irish men are just as lame as American men.

Italian Adventures: Museums, Rain, Caffe Lattes & A Giant Bottle of Wine

28 Jul

Yesterday was one of those days that only happens once in a great while. You wake up with a whole day as a blank slate with only one thing you HAVE to do and the rest of the time is yours. Most of the time, for me anyway, these days turn into me being bored and desperately searching for something fun to do before time runs out or I end up doing something lame like cleaning or homework. However, yesterday did not end up that way.

It started with a tour of the Palazzo Pitti – a huge palace of a wealthy family (the Pitti) and all the artwork, furniture and other extravagances they had. Afterwards, Becky, Jonathan and I went for lunch. We went to this place along the river that’s absolutely beautiful. We lingered over our long lunch before realizing that it was raining outside. Even though we were in shorts and tank tops, we strolled back to my apartment to get my museum pass. I changed into jeans and a sweatshirt (in July!) and Becky and I grabbed some umbrellas and went to explore the Boboli Gardens.

Boboli Gardens

The gardens were lovely and we had the place pretty much to ourselves. Then, we went back to her apartment so she could change and we could have a small sit. We chatted in her kitchen for awhile before heading back towards my place. On the way there, we stopped for a cup of caffe latte. We sat outside along the river and sipped our coffee in the misty weather and just talked.

Finally, we made it back to my apartment where a few other girls were home. We played around with Mac’s Photobooth for a bit before Becky and I headed just outside of my building for a quick pizza for dinner to bring back upstairs. About halfway through our dinner, the guys showed up with a 5-liter bottle of Chianti that they bought from one of the wineries a few weeks ago.

That's how we roll

About 10 of us sat around our kitchen table, drinking wine and playing Kings Cup with red wine (how classy!). A few more people stopped by briefly before heading out again, but 5 of us stayed in and played a card game before heading to bed.

The weather gave this warm, fuzzy, cozy feeling to the whole day. We packed quite a bit into our day without any planning and the sheer laziness of everything was very welcome. Nothing spectacular happened but it was one of my favorite days on this trip.

Italian Adventures: Motley Crew of Stories

26 Jul

So yesterday I spent the day working on homework, having a nice dinner with Sarah and Becky, watching a movie at Sarah’s and coming home.

Today, we had class. Then Sarah and I wandered, met up with Becky for dinner and then met up with another of my housemates to meet up with these two guys we met yesterday while we were working on our project. Well, only one showed up. So four girls to one guy = awkward. Turns out, Sarah, Becky and I ended up chaperoning this weird date between the guy and my housemate. It was annoying. But, we found this hilarious Italian band that sang American songs – everything from a slow-jam version of Bon Jovi and Blink 182 (or ‘Blink cinquenta otenta due’ in Italian, LOL) to Van Halen. We rocked out the “Rock ‘n’ Roll All Night” and George Michael’s “Faith” before the three of us decided we were done being chaperones and Becky and I headed off to a pub to meet our other program friends and get a drink.

That drink turned into the WORST margarita I’ve ever had. Which called for a vodka cranberry to wash out the taste. During these beverages, we sang (at the top of our lungs) to Journey and the proper version of Bon Jovi – good times!

Full disclosure: I’m riding a flattered buzz right now. I apparently have a nice booty, LOL. Once we were at the bar, I declared this statement myself during a very strange conversation and one guy here (who has a gf) said he agreed – and he’s the grumpy gus of the guys on this trip! Nice. I’m pretty sure I blushed but then got over that and was just plain flattered.

Then, Becky and I hung out with these two Italian guys who were, well, opportunists. She apparently danced with one of them a few nights ago and his friend just latched on to me. When I told him I was 23, he said I looked 18 (opportunists I tell ya…Italians, hanging out at a bar that attracts American students and thinking I was only 18…shame on you sir). He had a lizard necklace on. I was not impressed. But they were funny and this guy kept telling me I “was nice.” Well thank you sir – yes, yes I am.

And I have a great ass.

Italian Adventures: Siena, San Gimignano & Amalfi Coast

25 Jul

I left my laptop at my Florence apartment this weekend so get ready because this is going to be a long post.

Let’s take it back to last Wednesday when we went to Siena & San Gimignano. Siena is a small town that is divided into 17 neighborhoods, all of which are tied to some sort of animal mascot (the catapillar, the goose, the unicorn, the dragon, etc.) Every year, 10 of these neighborhoods compete in a bareback horse race around the main piazza and the winning neighborhood gets to hang their flag all around for months afterward. This year the goose won. Also of note is the church that is home to the relics of St. Katherine. St. Katherine was from this town and at the age of 6 started seeing visions of Christ and Mary. She also came down with a case of stigmata. She was able to talk the Pope into relocating back to Rome from Paris and was eventually granted sainthood. About 5 years after she died, a priest dug up her body and took her head and one of her thumbs, covered them in wax and now her body parts are on display in the church we visited. Unfortunately, no pictures were allowed. But I can tell you that these body parts that were admittedly covered in wax looked much more realistic than the “un-decomposed body” in St. Peter’s Basillica in the Vatican. Just sayin’.


Siena's piazza for horse racing

Next we went to San Gimignano – another small Italian city that was absolutely gorgeous. Everywhere you looked, you had an amazing vista. The city was so quaint and cute with a small piazza whose centerpiece was a wishing well. Also, it’s home to the best gelato in the world (it has the awards to prove it – however, I think the gelato I had in Rome is still better). We weren’t given much history about this town, but it sure was a great place to just ‘be.’ Right before we left, Sarah and I were sitting on a wall overlooking this:

In beautiful San Gimignano

I looked at her and said, “How lucky are we to be sitting on a wall somewhere in Italy just staring at this gorgeous view in the middle of the day on a Wednesday? Not worried about anything, really. Just being.” It was great.

The best? Notice it hasn't won in a few years...

San Gimignano

Then, Thursday I woke up and felt like Hell. I nearly cried in the shower because the steam wasn’t helping my sinuses like it had been in the days before. I was able to get dressed, pack, go to class and find a pharmacy before leaving for the weekend. I got my hands on a decongestant and was ready to face the weekend, sick or not sick. The bus for the 8-hour drive was FREEZING. I was in shorts, a tee and sandals. And sick. I only had my towel to use as a blanket. I asked them to turn down the air (as I clearly looked ill and half-way frozen) and they didn’t oblige. Then, at 2 am our bus broke down about 3 miles from the hotel. Another bus had to come and pick us up and take us the last few miles to the hotel before we finally checked in around 2:30 am.

You should have seen the hotel room in this “3-star hotel.” The room had 3 twin beds with about 3 inches in between each and…that’s about it. Fortunately, Sarah and I loved our third roomie Mo from Penn State. We all got about 3 hours of sleep before heading out to Capri the next day.

Capri was b-e-a-utiful. Perfect blue waters, bright blue sky, big white puffy clouds – just gorgeous. Only the bus and trains were on strike so we had to hike up hundreds of steps to get anywhere (I’m still sick at this point) but I did it and it was lovely to lie on the beach and put my feet in the crystal waters.


Happy Shannon on a boat

Happy Shannon on a beautiful beach

Gorgeous view of Capri

Then we headed back for dinner – which is a whole other story.

We were told our dinner would be a pasta dish followed by a meat dish with vegetables and dessert was generally seasonal fruit – lovely! I was stoked – meat and fresh veg and fruit are hard to come by in Italy. We sit down to dinner and the pasta was fine. Then the meat dish came out. It was a slice of pork loin with gravy (that looked like a TV dinner) and french fries. That’s right. Fries. Apparently, fried sliced potatoes equate to vegetables at this hotel. Our whole table could barely contain their giggle when the waiter came out with plates of french fries and pork loin. It was ridiculous!! At least we still had dessert. The waiter pulled over a cart with a basket of whole oranges and offered them to our table and I thought, “Oh ok, to cleanse our pallet.” And as I took my orange I had another thought and looked at the rest of my table mates and asked, “Is this the seasonal fruit?” We looked around and yes, yes it was. We sat there, peeling our seasonal fruit, cracking up at the absurdity of this 3-star-hotel meal. There wasn’t even presentation with the oranges. I mean, if they had come out on a plate of their own, peeled and sliced with a small cup of cream to dip them in it would have been much easier to swallow the idea of an orange as ‘seasonal fruit dessert.’ But no, we had to sit there and peel our dessert laughing all the way.

The next day was Positano, a beach city along the southern coast. Again, I woke up feeling like Hell. The medicine I bought only made it so my nose was now a faucet. My throat hurt, my glands were swollen, my eyes were puffy and I had liquid snot falling out of my face. I was ready to throw in the towel. Until I talked to Samantha, a housemate of mine from Florence who was also on the trip. She went to the doctor in Florence for a cough. He said she had no inflammation in her throat but still gave her an antibiotic. I asked her if it was helping her and she said no. I asked her if she still had some and she said yes. I then made an executive decision. I’d give her my decongestant to clear up whatever was in her chest causing her to cough in return for her antibiotics for my infection. Deal. I was suddenly amped to take on the day. Until it started raining at the beach. I wasn’t actually planning on going in the water (not good for head colds) but the inclimate weather (rain for 10 min, sunny for 30, rain for 10, sunny for 30) made it hard to do anything for the 5 hours we had to spend in this town. Finally, we made it back to the hotel where we had another lovely dinner followed by ‘seasonal fruit.’

The black sand beach at Positano

At Positano

Sunday was our last day there and after we checked out of the hotel, we headed to Pompeii. This was amazing. The ruins were spectacular. This town was the flourishing during the height of the Roman Empire. Rich people during that time went to Pompeii for vacation. Jesus Christ was running around talking about being the messiah. Incredible. In 79 A.D., Mt. Vesuvius erupted over 3 days covering the entire city in ash and preserving it for us to trapse through today. I walked on 2,000-year-old streets and tile mosaics. I wandered through a 2,000-year-old bath house and brothel. I saw what could possibly be the first “Beware of Dog” sign. And I saw the plastered corpses of some of the victims of that tragedy. The people died from toxic gases from the volcano and the ash preserved the bodies’ shapes. Because everything but the bones decomposed under the ash, archaeologists injected the ash casts with plaster to preserve them. You can still see the emotion on the faces – the fear, the pain, the helplessness. As sad as it is, it’s incredible to have a window into an event like that. It’s more poignant than the YouTube videos of any natural disaster we have today.

Pompeii victim

2,000-year-old mosaic that says "Beware of Dog" in Latin

Then we climbed to the summit of Mt. Vesuvius, which is now 3,500 feet shorter than it was during Pompeii’s heyday. It was cold and foggy, so we didn’t have a great view into the crater (which is still active) but I was able to grab some pumice from Vesuvius and say that I’ve been to the top. Then we made the 8-hour bus ride home.

The view from Mt. Vesuvius

At the top of Mt. Vesuvius

After 4 doses of the antibiotics I scored in my illegitimate drug deal, I feel amazing. All things considered, it was a great weekend.

Italian Sinus Infection

21 Jul

How exotic, right? Not. It’s exactly like an American sinus infection only I’m on the other side of the world trying to deal with it.

Everyone in my apartment has been sick. Two girls have gone to the doctor out here and gotten anitbiotics. I’m debating on doing that myself. See, I feel like my body is moving swiftly through the process (I’ve dealt with the initial sore throat and sinus pressure, then the icky green boogers and now I’m onto the coughing up ickiness phase – all in a couple days). Also, I’m leaving tonight for the Amalfi Coast and I can’t get a refund for the trip if I don’t go. So, I kind of HAVE to go and just monitor what I feel comfortable doing.

I bought orange juice and chamomile tea, and my friend has Mucinex so I’m set with home remedies. It’s just the nights and mornings that are awful. If I still don’t feel well after this weekend, I’ll suck it up and see the doctor here.

But as I was getting ready to go to the store to pick up my tea and juice, I noticed all the blisters on my feet from walking everywhere. And the bruises on my legs from goodness knows what. And the bug bites all over my legs as well. I’m a mess. An Italian mess, LOL.


18 Jul

Visit the program’s blog to see the slideshows I’ve put together of my Italian Adventures thus far: