Sunday, July 1, 2012

England / End

I am now back in the United States. My family moved last week from Mississippi to Virginia for good, so I came back to a new house. My room is currently a mess, littered with clothes, papers, boxes to unpack, and who knows what else. My exchange year has finally come to an end, and that means this blog must end as well. This will be my last post.

Last week I went to England with two school friends, Celeste and Giorgia. We stayed with a friend of Celeste's family in a village called Thame, which is close to Oxford. During the week in England we took day trips to the cities of Oxford, Salisbury (including Stonehenge nearby), and London. Needless to say, London was by far my favorite place, even though it was unbelievably expensive. Not to mention that the pound to dollar ratio was very hurtful when it came to spending money. But I'm just saying--they wanted 15 pounds to enter Westminster Abbey. Really? -.-
town hall of Thame
Oxford
Stonehenge
Big Ben / Houses of Parliament in London
We went to see Chicago on the West End!
I came back from England late Wednesday night the 27th and finished packing on Thursday the 28th. That day was also filled with goodbyes, as I saw my friends for the last time. I went out to dinner with my host parents and we watched the Italy-Germany soccer match, which Italy surprisingly won. :-) Friday morning the 29th we all got up super early to have breakfast together and then take me to the airport. I left Italy at 9:50 and endured the following 10 hour flight to Atlanta, where I had to change flights. The next flight left an hour late and so I arrived in DC at 7:15 pm. Seeing my family again for the first time in 10 months was strange but not as weird as I thought it'd be. Now that I've been with them in the new house for a day, I already feel readjusted to family life. At times it feels as if I've never left. Maybe I'm just fooling myself; maybe the real challenge of readjusting to American life is yet to come. But maybe it won't be as difficult as I expected.

I spent my last day in Milano reflecting on the past year and how it had changed me. The easiest way to concretely remember what all I have done is to glance through my photo albums on Facebook or this blog; in this way, I suddenly am reminded of the dozens of incredible places and unforgettable experiences I've had, all since last September. Many people go their entire lives without seeing the things I saw this year. How is it possible that in 10 months I visited much of Italy, as well as Berlin, Paris, and various cities in England? It's difficult for me to grasp. In the plane for Atlanta, before we took off in Milano, the in-flight screen showed the map of Italy, along with all the nearby cities. I suddenly experienced a wave of nostalgia, thinking back on all the trips I took across Italia, la bella terra. This year I learned that Italy is truly a unique country. Every single city, no matter how small, has its own culture and history. There is something special about every place you go. No two cities or towns are alike. And understanding this fundamental aspect of Italy made me so emotional that I knew that I would have to return, whether short or long term, at some point in the future. I miss it already, and I've only been gone a few hours.

The thing that really saddens me is how no other person can know what I know about Italy. No other person has visited the exact combination of places, in the exact amount of time, with the exact group of friends. My experience this year has been unique in every sense, and I wish dearly that I could share it with everyone, especially my family and closest friends. But I can't. I can attempt to describe my year, but it will never come close to portraying how it really was.

Milano will always be my home, and I cannot wait to return there. It is a city that I know better than my hometown. I have people there who love me. And it is in a country that is unlike any other.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Berlin / Last Week in Milano

Last week I spent 4 days in Berlin with my friend Ale, and as we were returning on Friday, I suddenly realized I had exactly three weeks left in Europe. I panicked, also because only half of those three weeks will be spent here in Milano; next Thursday, June 21, I leave for a week in England, and when I return to Milano I'll have only one day before my final departure. All of a sudden I have no time left, and yet there are so many things to do, so many people to see... Yesterday I stayed home and finished packing my huge box that I'll be mailing home later today. I also made a list of things to get done before leaving, and it was quite long. It remains a mystery to me as to how I'll complete everything in time. How is it possible that I have only 18 days left?

Anywho. Berlin. I loved it. The spirit of the city was completely different than those of Milano and Paris; whereas the latter two are somewhat snobby, Berlin is a city of young people who are looking to start their careers, artistically or otherwise. It was extremely cheap, and there were always cultural events happening everywhere. I was also fascinated by the history of the city, especially the period of the Wall. At some point Ale and I visited the DDR Museum, which documents through hands-on interaction how life was in East Germany. Truly interesting. And of course we saw the typical sights such as the Brandenburg Gate, Checkpoint Charlie, Berliner Fernsehturm, Bundestag, Tiergarten, Holocaust Memorial, and the Berlin Zoo, among others. It was a wonderful taste of the city and of Germany in general.
Fernsehturm in Alexanderplatz (we took the elevator to the top)
Me as JFK as a Berliner 
West German jeans (left) and East German jeans (right)
Ale in front of the Bundestag
Holocaust Memorial 
Brandenburg Gate
one of the few remaining sections of the Berlin Wall
And now everything is ending as summer arrives. Several dear friends have already returned home to their respective countries. Summer is heating up the city and everyone is sweating. The remaining students are constantly organizing aperitivos in order to make the most out of our precious time together. A year ago I was at the Outbound Camp, all excited for what was to come in my exchange year, and I remember that period very well. And now, somehow, I have already finished the year. It's the strangest thing I've ever had to comprehend. Where did my time go? Before springtime, the months dragged on as we endured the winter. Ever since April, however, the time has slipped through my fingers and I can't take it back.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Firenze

June. The month of my departure. I have exactly 28 days left. But before delving into my current emotional state, let me recap the month of May for you. After getting back from the Rotary trip in the south of Italy, life got crazy. All of a sudden the weather began to fluctuate between tantalizingly balmy and obnoxiously cold-enough-to-need-an-extra-jacket. Once we hit the halfway point of May, around the 15th, we Rotary kids started to realize that our time was running out and that we wouldn't be in Italy for much longer. In fact, tomorrow the first of our group goes home. Therefore we started making last minute efforts to see each other as much as possible, organizing happy hours, disco nights, dinners, and even scavenger hunts throughout the city. Last night the Milan kids had a final dinner with our old professor of Italian, with whom we had lessons every Monday for the first five months. Throughout these final meetings with various friends, we signed each other's memory books and took far too many pictures, but I know we will appreciate everything in the future.

Brazilian friend Marcela and I. :)
Signing each other's books. :(
At the dinner with our old Italian professor. 
This past Wednesday I finally made it to Firenze (Florence), the city where the Italian language as we know it was practically born. Funnily enough the cheapest train tickets were with the brand-new private company, Italo. Talk about luxury, at least compared to the normal public trains. We arrived in Firenze early, around 9:00, and set off immediately to see as much as we could. Throughout the day, we were able to enter the Uffizi without a line, climb to the top of the cupola of Brunelleschi, see David in the Galleria dell'Accademia, eat the typical Florentine steak (fiorentina), stroll across the Ponte Vecchio, and enjoy a perfect day in one of the most Italian cities. We left around 21:00, so we had a good 12 hours in the city. It's never enough, of course, but I'm planning on returning someday soon. :)

Ponte Vecchio
Il Duomo e Il Campanile di Giotto
View from the top of the cupola. :D
David <3
In front of Palazzo Vecchio. So amazing. 
We are in June and I do not want to leave. Even though the whole school situation has been rather awful this year, I have fallen in love with Milano, and if I could stay here on my own without Rotary, I would seriously consider it. Although Italians tell me I am now fluent in the language, I still learn new things every day, and this keeps me on my toes. My pronunciation has a long way to go, and my vocabulary is ever-expanding, but I hope to continue onward. At some point I would like to take an exam to certify me as an official Italian speaker, but I will wait until I return to the US to do that. I'll need to study more before that happens. 

On Tuesday, June 5, I leave for four days in Berlin, and I am ecstatic. Monday is my last day at school (it technically ends the following Friday but I'll still be in Berlin). Everything is ending and everyone is leaving. I don't really know how to take all of this. Soon I'll be back on my native soil and this whole year will seem like a dream, and that is the worst thing of all. 

My home. 


Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Life Could Be Worse

Summer is drawing ever nearer and we have reached May. Yesterday I returned with my entire District 2040 from our week-long trip to Southern Italy. I don't know what to say other than that it was the best week of my life. Every single day was filled with friends, fun, and unbelievable sights that I will never forget. Let's start by giving a basic layout of our week in paradise:

Day 1 - departure from Milano / Herculaneum / arrival in Sorrento
Day 2 - Capri
Day 3 - Baia di Jeranto / Sorrento
Day 4 - Caserta / arrival in Roma
Day 5 - Roma
Day 6 - Roma
Day 7 - Roma / return to Milano

Southern Italy is notorious for violence and theft, so we were on guard as we arrived in Napoli. We took a train from the Napoli station to the ancient Roman city of Herculaneum, one of the two cities destroyed in CE 79 when Mt. Vesuvius erupted. (We wanted to also see Pompeii but it wasn't possible.) The ruins were extremely well preserved, thanks to the scalding ash that rushed from the volcano down to the sea. Later that night we went a bit farther south to Sorrento, where we had a hotel for the first three nights.
The Rotary chaperones kept telling the girls to clutch their purses tighter. 
Ruins of Herculaneum from above.
Vesuvio :)
Day 2: We took a ferry from the mainland to the island of Capri, whose beauty is incomparable. After getting off the ferry, we took a funicular up a mountain to reach the main part of the island. The weather was beautiful, how it would be for the rest of the week, and we walked through picturesque towns of white buildings until we reached a secluded beach. After swimming in FREEZING water, we climbed to the highest mountain on the island to see the villa of the Roman emperor Tiberius. It was a tiring but satisfying day.
Capri
Beautiful. 
Vesuvio from atop Capri
Day 3: We went all natural. After taking a bus to the other side of the peninsula on which Sorrento lies, we hiked for a few hours before reaching a grove of olives and lemons, at the bottom of which was yet another secluded beach. This beach came complete with jellyfish!  -.- The water was once again ridiculously cold, but it was fun. In the afternoon we took a walking tour of Sorrento and had a bit of free time to relax downtown. 
On the trail to the beach!
All for us. 
Enjoying a cool evening in Sorrento. 
Day 4: An extremely early wake up call so that we could make it to Caserta, a town 45 km outside of Napoli where the royal family lived. I definitely did not expect a Versailles-esque residence from the Kingdom of Napoli, but there it was! A humongous palace full of gold, plus a long series of reservoirs that extended up a hillside into the distance. I was one of the few to walk all the way to the top, in the blistering heat no less. In late afternoon we took a train that dropped us off in Roma! 
La Reggia di Caserta

View from the top, back to the palace. 
Day 5: ROMA. My first full day in the Eternal City was filled with the typical sights, including: Trevi Fountain, Pantheon, Spanish Steps, and Piazza del Popolo. At this point, I already suspected I would fall in love with the city, but the confirmation of this would not come until my second day there. 
Throwing my coin into the Trevi Fountain!
Drinking Coke in front of the Pantheon, no big deal.
Spanish Steps
First sight of the Forum.
Day 6: In the morning we visited the smallest country in the world, Vatican City. Which had no border security, by the way. Oh well. We stood in line for a long time to get in Saint Peter's Basilica, but we did it! Inside it was stunning; you really feel the power of the Catholic church. I also did not mind viewing La pietà of Michelangelo. In the afternoon we saw ancient Roma: the Colosseum and the Forum. The atmosphere was so perfect that I couldn't help but declare when I saw the gardens above the Forum, "The Romans built paradise." And it's true. They did. 


In the Vatican, in front of Saint Peter's.
La pietà di Michelangelo 
Colosseum!!
On a bridge after an indescribably beautiful walk along the river. :)
Day 7: Sadly, our last day in Roma. We had free time, so we went shopping. In the end I only bought a Hard Rock Cafe t-shirt and some postcards, but it was a great time exploring the small streets of the historic center. Southern Italians are so much friendlier and all the exchangers were captured by the relaxed feel of everyone. In the late afternoon, we boarded our train and tearfully said goodbye to Roma, the city that had spiritually spoken to us, the city that had breathed its secrets into our ears, the city that exuded history from every corner. 

The station's name "Termini," or "ends," is a very fitting name. 
Now I am back in Milano and tomorrow I must resume the daily grind of going to school. Thankfully, I have only 5 weeks of school left, but since I'll be in BERLIN the last week, it's technically only 4 weeks. Reality is becoming clearer now that I am in my penultimate month in Italia. Only 57 days left, not all of which will be spent in Milano. Suddenly I do not want to leave. As my Australian friend Mel said rather cheekily, "Life could be worse." <3 

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Pasqua a Parigi

What an Easter break. Yesterday I returned to Milano from PARIS, a city I now adore. We arrived Friday evening and I was instantly captured by the vitality of it all--while Milan is also a large city, Paris practically wipes if off the map. The people in themselves were completely different. I don't know how to explain it, there's just a different atmosphere in Paris than what I'm used to in Milan. But maybe it's just because this was my first time out of Italy all year and I don't speak a word of French. :)

My host family has an apartment in a central neighborhood which was extremely convenient. Throughout the long weekend, my host parents took me around to see many of the famous sites: Notre Dame, Tour Eiffel, Musée du Louvre, d'Orsay, Beaubourg, Arc du Triomphe, Montmartre, Champs-Elysées, etc. etc. I made sure to take plenty of pictures even though it was rainy the entire trip. We hadn't expected it to be so cold so I was wearing many layers and a raincoat basically 24/7. Then, the last day, the sun came out and the skies were clear. That was, of course, the only day in which I didn't bring my camera with me when I went out on the town. Ah well.
Notre Dame
Opéra
Tour Eiffel 
Montmartre, for me, captured the soul of Paris. Virtually untouched by the stampedes of tourists, it is a beautiful hill that overlooks the rest of the city, and it is marked by exquisite buildings and windy, tree-lined streets. Next time I will definitely have to see more of it. Another area I particularly enjoyed was Le Marais, a district in the exact center of the city with many boutiques, bookstores, and restaurants, and some of it is pedestrian-only. Absolutely charming.

I spent an entire morning inside the Louvre, which is massive. I managed to see all of the most famous pieces there, including Mona Lisa, Nike of Samothrace, Venus de Milo, The Raft of the Medusa, Hammurabi's Code, and countless others. I ended my visit by eating at Starbucks, which was the first time I had eaten there in over 7 months (Starbucks doesn't exist in Italy). It was heaven!
mhmmm
The Raft of the Medusa (my favorite)
I tried to pick up a bit of French along the way, but since I hadn't brought a notebook, I had trouble memorizing all the phrases and words I learned. In the end, even though I really liked Paris, I spent the last half of my stay going around alone because my host parents had to work, and that was kind of depressing. Next time I'll have friends with me and we'll tear it up. :) The fact that I didn't know the language was also intimidating, and I really hated having to use English. The French I encountered were very good at English, but I just feel like other countries shouldn't have to learn our language for the sake of tourists. Ughh. Oh well. Coming back to Milan, in a country whose language I know, was a big relief. Plus the Parisians are rather condescending so that was odd as well. :P In any case, I got a good taste of the city, I now know the layout, and I feel confident using the metro by myself, so I will be ready for my next visit!

I have two weeks here in Milan before we leave for our big Rotary trip to Rome and the Amalfi Coast. Can't wait!!!!!!!!!!

Sunday, April 1, 2012

PRIMAVERA

It is April 1 and we are officially in SPRING! I am so happy right now that you can't even understand. No wonder my mood had flatlined during winter; Milan is a grey mess when it's cold! Now that we have the sun once again, everything has burst into life: the trees are once again green, the people are back on the streets, and everyone is enjoying life in 1 layer of clothing instead of 4. THIS is why I came to Italy in the first place, to enjoy life in a place where others were doing the same.

Continuing my one-blog-post-a-month tradition, this is my first post since the beginning of March, when we had just returned from Venice. Now I have just returned from Cremona, and even though I had already been there in November for the Festa del Torrone, I feel compelled to give all of you an update on my life (even though there was nothing different about Cremona except the weather). March passed extremely quickly, so quickly that it almost scares me a little. If the remaining 3 months pass by like this, I'll be back home in the US before I know it. During the winter months, life dragged on as if it was a slug (great simile, I know) but now that we are in the warm-weather months, life is flying by! Like a dragon or something! Crazy stuff. (I'm a little delirious if you can't tell; I blame the heat.)

the entire 2040/2050 group
gettin' crayy
Duomo
Nothing of major consequence happened in March, at least nothing I consider of consequence at this point. I remember how I used to blog about going to an aperitivo or something back in October, but now I go to aperitivos quite often with my friends so it's no longer a blog-worthy topic. Now that people are coming out of hibernation and want to hang out 24/7, it's getting trickier to manage my money, so I'm having to be really careful about that. On the subject of money, there are several trips I would like to plan for the next few months, the options of which include Denmark (to visit my friend Laura), Florence, Berlin, the French Riviera, Amsterdam, and Barcelona. Obviously I can't go to all of these places; maybe 2, but in reality I'll probably only make one big trip like this work. I'm already going to England the last week of June, and (surprise!) I'm going to PARIS next week for Easter break with my host family! I CANNOT WAIT! Paris has been my dream city ever since I got to Europe and I am so excited to go.

Two weeks after Paris will be the big Rome/Amalfi Coast trip with Rotary, the one we've been looking forward to all year. Then I have all of May free and half of June before England. I return to the US on June 29. The date is set, we've bought the plane tickets. As of today I have 88 days left, and it's truly odd to think that the year is almost over....in some senses if feels like it has just begun! Anywho. May will be my month of traveling so I have to start planning NOW. As in right after I finish this blog post, haha. I'll post again after Paris happens. Less than a week. Can't. Wait. :D