We go abroad for lots of reasons. We have goals. We wish to grow in ways we wouldn’t be able to at home. We want to get away, to travel the world while we still can. To see another culture, and to see ourselves through the eyes of another culture.
And if we’re lucky, we learn something while we’re out there.
Here are five things I learned outside the classroom while studying abroad.
I like pistachio gelato.
It’s green. Kind of electric green, in some cases. Not exactly the color that comes to mind when you think of dessert, and definitely not something that I, as a pistachio-virgin, trusted initially. But I tried it, it was awesome, and now it’s one of my favorite flavors.
I’d never been “picky,” but I’d certainly never been adventurous, either. I’d try something new, but only if I’d gotten enough recommendations to do so.
That applied to other aspects of my life, too. Never too picky – always just adventurous enough to scroll past all those “try new things!” posts on Facebook and think, “doesn’t apply to me!”
But “passable” doesn’t quite cut it if you want to live more than just a “passable” life. It’s not conducive to any experiences, well, out of the ordinary. And come to find out, the best foods, people, places, and ideas are *all* out of the ordinary. And the best gelato.
How a person cooks is a solid indicator of who they are. And food knows when you’re afraid of it.
I’ve never considered myself a perfectionist. Just someone who had standards high enough to get ahead. But the signs were there nonetheless.
My roommate and I were in the kitchen making tiramisu with our host mother. She delegated us the task of separating the eggs.
I soon noticed her laughing to herself.
“You two are so different. Perfect for each other, opposites.”
My roommate’s eggs were finished. There were some bits of yolk in there, and maybe even a shell or two. I was barely finished with my first egg. I’d taken so long trying to separate it so that there was not a single molecule of white in the yolk or yolk in the white.
Our host mom dumped the contents of both our bowls together (making my inner perfectionist cringe) and finished my remaining eggs with the ease and competency that only an experienced Italian mother could manage.
Then, she gave us each turns whisking the yolks and sugar together. My roommate went first – whipping the mixture with enough force and noise that had it been the whites – they probably would have peaked. Then, it was my turn. I held the bowl gently, quickly but quietly stirring it together. Our host mother laughed again.
“You can tell how a person is by how they cook,” she started.
She explained to my roommate that she was a vibrant young woman, full of life and positivity. She suggested that she attend more to life’s details. Then, she turned to me.
“Bethany, always so careful, always so gentle. But too shy, too afraid. Relax – you have to be a confident woman. If you are afraid of the food, it will know. It will taste like you were afraid of it. Here. Try again.”
She gave me the whisk once more. I left the bowl on the counter this time and mixed with more speed and force. A bit of goo flew from the bowl and onto the counter.
I did too.
Life doesn’t need to pass a checklist to still be great.
Another wisdom nugget from my host mother.
The three of us were chatting after dinner, a tradition that as the semester went on, became my favorite time of the day.
We’d been giggling about an unsolicited phone number I’d recently received from a waiter and a young man who’d soon be helping my roommate with her Italian over pastries. She asked us what they were like. We started with the positives. After each quality, we jokingly make a check mark in the air, and said, “check!”
Then came the “but”s.
“But who gives their number to random girls at work?” I said.
And, “But how are we going to even start if we can’t speak each other’s languages?” my roommate said.
Our host mother laughed that knowing laugh of hers.
“Remember girls, they don’t need to get a perfect score to be wonderful young men. They could have great qualities you’d never think of, or bad ones too, that you’ll never know of if you don’t give them a chance.”
And then I realized, that’s kind of how life works, too.
Earplugs are lifesavers.
Studying abroad is an intentional disruption of routine. Even the most sacred of routines – sleep – is disrupted. Between communal hostels, overnight transportation or even just adjusting to the sleeping habits of a new culture, there’s a lot out there that can threaten that oh-so-holy time of the day.
Then one day my life was changed.
A friend of mine suggested that I try earplugs, saying that they’d worked for her throughout her entire college career. I’ll admit, I was slow to adopt the idea. How was I supposed to sleep with something shoved inside my ear? I thought for sure that would be just as distracting, if not more distracting, than the noise itself.
But after a few more sleepless nights and another glowing endorsement of earplugs, my resolve broke down and I gave them a try.
They worked. And I haven’t looked back since.
I felt my frustration melt away, but not just because the problem had been fixed. The frustration had melted because I’d let it. I wasn’t getting increasingly angry at the world and its noisemakers anymore, asking them why they couldn’t just change themselves and be quieter. Instead, I met the world halfway. I fixed what I could, and let the rest go. And I felt so much lighter.
Bottom line: expecting the world to give you what you want will only make you angry. Do what you can and let the rest go.
Thank God that life is unpredictable.
It was nighttime in Romania and my friend and I had just been chased from the Parliament building by a young guard.
(Okay, so we weren’t actually chased, but the adrenaline we were feeling from the encounter made it *feel* like we’d been chased, so that’s what I’m going with.)
As we laughed about having survived and caught a glimpse of the building anyway, the conversation shifted to the other cool things we’d done over the past few months. What an experience it had been, we realized. We reminisced about adventures both in Florence and beyond, what we thought of them before and how we saw them now.
Then came the reflection on things we wished had gone better.
“It was totally my fault, I definitely should have been nicer to her,” I said, in reference to a snappy attitude I’d adopted one early morning in a foreign airport.
“Yeah, but thank God you did it, anyway.”
I paused. That wasn’t exactly what I was expecting to hear.
“Well, if you hadn’t done it to her, you might have done it to me. Or whoever’s on your next trip. Or whoever you’re with the next time you’re out and about doing anything, really. Imagine the person you’d be if you never messed up – you’d be intolerable. We’d all be intolerable.”
“You know, you’ve got a point there,” I said.
We have this idea when we go abroad that everything is supposed to be picture-perfect. We ‘try new things!’ and ‘experience new cultures!’ while ‘finding ourselves’ in ways we’d never even thought possible before.
But we also snap at each other to walk faster in the airport and bicker about which way to go when we forget to print out maps beforehand.
Both experiences have value.
One is wonderful, the other teaches us a wonderful lesson.
Things happen – either when you’re abroad, or in life in general. And thank God they do.
Ahh, Florence. The birthplace of the Renaissance, the capital of beautiful Tuscany. It was once home to the likes of Michelangelo, Donatello, Brunelleschi, the Medici, and just last fall – me. Every day from August to December of 2016, I was lucky enough to stroll those famous terracotta-colored streets and check out the local foods and pastimes in Florence.
Oh, and I did some studying, too.
Amidst all that exploring, I built a list of my favorite things to do, see and eat in Florence.
For anyone planning a trip (or pretend planning, no judgement here), here’s a list of my favorite, must-do, can’t-miss things in Florence.
Best of Florence, Italy
Best Pizza: Gustapizza
It might be a little off the beaten track, but that’s where you find the good food in Italy, anyway. Located on Via Maggio, next to Piazza Santo Spirito, Gustapizza has become a favorite among locals and students for fresh, classic pizza.
I first heard about it from a friend who insisted I check it out. So, on my next trip to the Oltrarno, I saved time for a little lunch excursion. I didn’t realize that the pizza didn’t come by the slice, so to make sure I didn’t miss out on trying what I’d heard was the best pizza in Florence, I ended up ordering a full pizza.
And I ate it all.
Pro tip: take the pizza out to eat on the steps of the church. You never know when the locals will stop by to chat!
Best Pasta: The Pear Fiocchetti with Asparagus Cream Sauce at Trattoria 4 Leoni
Eating this pasta was an honest-to-God spiritual experience.
My roommate came across this place and this dish during our second-to-last weekend in Florence. She loved it so much that she went back for more (and took me with her!) the very next day. I’d never tasted anything like it before, haven’t been able to match it since, and truly believe that you’d be missing out if you went to Florence and didn’t try it.
Best Gelato: Badiani Gelateria Pasticceria
Badiani has been serving up freshly made gelato and pastries since 1932. It’s the birthplace of bountalenti (a fan-favorite flavor in all of Italy now) and of the semifreddi (flavors that are only semi-frozen – think chilled Nutella). And with the number of flavor options – there’s always something new to try.
Sometime during my first week in Florence, my host mother took my roommate and I on a drive around town. The last stop on the adventure was to be a cup of gelato. She told us about Badiani, and said that it was a favorite of hers, her family’s, and all her friends’. We ended up trying another place that night because Badiani’s was too packed (that’s when you know it’s good) and my roommate and I decided to head back another day. There were many trips back after that.
My last trip there was right after I took my last final exam. I left the classroom with an odd feeling – the test had been alright, but I’d be leaving Florence so soon, and that moment was one of my very last in the school. I found a handful of my friends sitting in the landing area right outside the classroom. Some discussing their tests, others discussing travel plans back home. It felt like a moment that would be better spent over some gelato.
“Hey! Does anyone want to go to Badiani?” I asked, presenting the question that had become such a common part of our vernacular by then.
I was met with a chorus of affirmations.
We gathered up a few more friends, making for a sizeable group. We talked and laughed and reminisced all the way up the street, over the train tracks, and down Viale dei Mille. I found myself making a new friend too, even on the very last day.
We went to the counter to order our cups, many of us getting a size bigger than normal, just to savor the last Badiani that much more. By then, we were all pretty experienced in ordering gelato in Italian, making for a vastly different and smoother scene than it would have been three months prior.
We took our cups and little plastic “spoons” to sit under the tent outside. It was December, and much colder than it was when we’d arrived, but still nice enough to enjoy the fresh air. We clustered around black metal garden furniture, chatting and laughing, and sharing stories of our separate adventures from the past few months.
I looked around and realized that I wouldn’t be seeing many of them, or any of them, for that matter, in the foreseeable future. The initial wave of sadness hit, but then it was replaced by a strange feeling of calm. Sort of like how I was starting to feel about leaving Florence.
I’d miss it all, so, so much. I mean, how often do you get to hang around in Italy, enjoying gelato with a group of friends you’d met just a few months ago? Or do anything that I’d done over those past few months, really. But it was happening. It had happened. And I was thankful that it did. I was a part of it, once, and nothing last forever. All I could do then was smile, enjoy the company, and enjoy the gelato.
Best View: Piazzale Michelangelo
Florence (and lots of tourist-popular cities, I noticed) is full of buildings and hills to climb to see the “best view” of the city. You could climb Giotto’s Campanile (the bell tower), Brunelleschi’s Dome (on the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore), or even take a bus out to Fiesole (a neighboring town situated on a hill with a view of all of Florence). However, for the all-time best view of the city, I’d say the Piazzale Michelangelo takes the cake. Why? You can see *all* of the highlights of the city – including the ones that you’d otherwise climb to see the rest of the city. And the sunset? Absolutely incredible.
Make a night of it! Cross to the Oltrano with about an hour til sunset, grab a gelato or glass of wine at one of the places at the top, or check out the monks of San Minanto Al Monte sing mass in Gregorian chant. Then, watch the sunset before having dinner at the Piazzale or at one of the many awesome places at the bottom of the hill.
I might not be an art historian, but I am a self-proclaimed museum enthusiast. In the beginning of the semester, I picked up a list of Florence museums and scheduled my Tuesday/Thursday classes in the afternoon – leaving my mornings completely free to explore two (or sometimes more) museums per week. Admission is much less than museum ticketing here in the U.S. (think ~5 euro per museum) and most you can see in under two hours.
Of the many great museums in Florence, more than a few of them hold the most notable art treasures in the world. The Uffizzi, Academia, and Palazzo Pitti and Vecchio are not to be missed. But they’re the most famous, and you can read about them anywhere. And you didn’t come here for expert art advice, anyway. So here’s a sampling of my favorite museums in Florence, and my reasons why I loved them so much.
This was the first museum I went to in Italy. Classes hadn’t even started yet – it was the tail end of orientation week when I discovered it. The girl I’d met at the Florence airport and I had just finished with one of those get-to-know-the-city activities that the school put on, and we found ourselves on the other side of the Arno with an entire afternoon ahead of us. So, first thing’s first – we got gelato. Then, in the midst of some destination-less meandering, we stumbled upon the sign for this museum.
“Want to go in?” I asked.
“Why not!” she said.
It was so full of such a diverse assortment of artifacts that were older than I can wrap my mind around still today.
Museo Nazionale di San Marco
One evening at dinner, I asked my host parents which museum I should check out first. It was my first Tuesday-morning museum excursion, and frankly, I didn’t know where to start.
“I’m looking for something sort-of close to the school, don’t want to accidentally be late during the first week,” I told them.
“Check out the Museo San Marco – in Piazza San Marco,” my host mother said.
So, that’s what I did.
It was just a 10 minute walk from the school, right in a neighboring Piazza. It was full of artifacts and artwork from early Christian artists, and I even got to explore what was once the living quarters of a Dominican Order.
This is one of the more famous museums in Florence, due to the number of famous Renaissance statues it holds. The building itself dates back to 1255. What I liked most about it though was figuring out which statues were meant to signify which stories. I was taking a class on classical mythology, and so many of the art in that museum was inspired by those stories. It was mind-blowing to realize that the stories I was reading in my class in 2016 were read and loved by artists all those years ago.
This one I loved because it was so different from all the others. Florence is, of course, famous for its art history. Therefore, there are a lot of art museums there. And while I do love a good art museum, by the time I made it to the Galileo Museum, I was in desperate need of a change of scenery.
Plus, I was missing my science-loving friends back home, and lots of the displays reminded me of them.
Ospedale degli Innocenti
This was actually one of the last museums I visited before my “museum weekend.” (I saved lots of the larger, more famous museums for the very end of my trip because in November/December, it would no longer be tourist season and the lines would be significantly shorter.) I’d saved it for one of the last trips because I wasn’t sure how interested I’d be in it. It’s main focus is on one specific Florence orphanage that had previously occupied the building that the museum now lives in, so my expectations were rather low. But between all the interactive exhibits and humanizing stories, I found myself caught up in this little piece of Florence history.
In one room, there were hundreds of tiny drawers, each holding some small trinket. The trinkets were usually left with the child when he or she was dropped off at the church’s doorstep as a baby, and could be used to identify the child’s parents later in life. After peeking at about 20, I found a child that shared my birthday.
Little Guiseppe. 05. 05. 1832.
Perhaps the best museum in all of Florence is the city of Florence itself. Everywhere I went there was something new to see, or some remnant of ancient history to marvel at. From the lively markets to the old, ornate churches – all the way to the spirited interactions between locals and tourists alike, there was always something to do, see, and learn.
We’ve finally come to the (almost) end of my abroad blog.
I’ve been tossing around ideas on how to close the curtain on this digital adventure for some time now.
When I closed the curtain on the real-life adventure, it involved lots of running around town and seeing and eating all that I could in my last few weeks in Florence. I did a lot of Christmas shopping (and, I’ll admit, a good amount of souvenir shopping too), and more museum hopping than I’d even thought possible. I studied for and took my finals, finishing the semester with a 3.75.
But simply telling you about all of that wouldn’t even come close to doing justice to my experience in Florence. So I came up with a plan. I’m splitting the ending into a few different parts, each covering a new angle of my time abroad.
Buckle up – this is part one of four: My Florence.
I remember Monday, August 29, 2016 so clearly. My family drove me all the way from Fitchburg, Massachusetts to New York’s JFK airport to board the only plane I’d been on since a trip to Disney World almost 15 years prior. I guess you could say I was nervous, but by that point, I’d spent so much time worrying about the plane falling out of the sky that I was so over being ‘nervous’.
We got out of the car and dragged my electric blue suitcase into the terminal. It was crowded, but still more spacious than I thought it’d be. We were several hours early (#AirportRookies) so we used the extra time to grab a bite to eat and watch the planes take off.
When it was time, I checked in and checked out the other SU students. I’d chosen the “group flight” option – meaning I was on the plane with around 30-50 other kids. They were easy to spot. They were either wearing orange, standing with someone who was, or had that signature “look” to them. You know, that I-grew-up-in-an-NYC-suburb-and-know-this-airport-by-heart look. Not a single one of them looked friendly. But that was the least of my concerns. I knew people that I’d be meeting up with in Italy, and I’d always thought of study abroad as a personal journey anyway.
The hours after I said goodbye to my family passed in a blur. All I remember is that I got in a line, and eventually sat down on the plane.
The cabin of the plane was as cozy as I guessed a metal tube of seats and engine-stuff can be. It was eight seats across with two aisles to walk through. Apparently, that’s a pretty big plane. I didn’t really have much to reference it to, so it felt rather small to me. I had the aisle seat on the left side, next to an older man returning home after a visit to America. I must have looked nervous, because he took me under his wing right away. He started by showing me photos of his daughter and her cats, and then of his own cats, to whom he was returning. I could feel the pride he had in his daughter, who now lived in America, through his broken English.
I eventually fell asleep, and when we were about halfway there, was awoken by the stewardness putting the in-flight meal on my tray. My new friend had chosen the pasta option for me while I napped.
After what felt not nearly as long as I’d been told it was supposed to, the plane landed in Rome. We had a two-hour layover, where I discovered that not all of the students I’d seen earlier were unfriendly. In fact, there were some that were very friendly. I ended up meeting a few friends there that I’d grow incredibly close to over the course of the semester.
Then, after another jaunt on another plane (this one much smaller and quicker than the last) we landed in Florence.
Our leader gave us instructions on what to do next: take a sheet of stickers, go collect our luggage, put the stickers on the luggage. The difficulty that I had with these tasks was a testament to the disorienting nature of travel.
Where do the bags come from? Where do the stickers go? Which bags get stickers and which don’t? I needed one of those ropes that they make kindergartners hold onto when they walk through field trips.
As I looked around for ideas from the other students, I found a girl who looked just as confused as I did. Her tired, brown eyes looked kind and friendly, and we started chatting. We sat next to each other on the bus from the airport to the school, and remained good friends and travel buddies throughout the entire semester.
On any given day, I’d wake up bright and early, getting ready and having breakfast at my host family’s apartment. Some days I woke up early to go to class, other days I woke up early to visit museums right as they opened. Either way, there was always a good reason to enjoy the Italian mornings.
At the sound of my alarm, I’d shuffle down the hall and into the kitchen, where on a little table there’d be a thermos of Italian coffee, some heated milk, a bowl of biscuits or bread and some sort of spread to go with it. My host mom would leave these out for my roommate and I, since she had to leave the apartment earlier to bring her son, Giovanni, to school. My favorite breakfast treat was the orange marmalade that my host mom made from scratch with oranges she’d picked in Sicily. Marmalade in general isn’t my favorite, but it’s hard to beat that level of dedication.
Then, I’d grab my backpack and head to the day’s location. If I was heading to class, my walk was short. The apartment was just five minutes from Piazza Savonarola, where the school was. On Mondays and Wednesdays, I’d stay in the Piazza Savonarola area for lunch. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I could be anywhere in the city around lunchtime. At the start of the semester, I picked up a list of the museums in Florence, and did my best to see as many of them as possible. So, using recommendations from my host family and my own interest in the museums’ names, I’d choose one and check it out every Tuesday and Thursday morning. I’d grab a panini from anywhere near the museum and eat it either on the way back or in a nearby piazza.
After class, one of my favorite things to do was try new gelato places. About mid-way through the semester, when I’d tried just about every gelato flavor I could find, I started to try more pastry shops, too. I’ve yet to find a better cure for the 3:00 slump than an Italian sweet.
I did something different every afternoon. Sometimes I’d do some homework or study, other times I’d plan and book an upcoming weekend trip. Oftentimes I’d find myself wandering the streets of Florence, aimlessly discovering new places, streets, and shops.
Then, come evening, I’d make my way back to my host family’s apartment.
The host family dynamic can seriously make or break a study abroad experience. If it’s good – it can be the most fulfilling part of the entire trip. If it’s bad, well, you’d better have lots of out-of-the-country travel plans on your agenda.
Luckily for me, my host family fell into the former category. I simply could not have imagined better people to live with, or a more inclusive, cultural, loving experience to be a part of.
My host-brother, Giovanni, reminded me what it meant to be a kid again. His constant energy (and I mean running around the apartment, often screaming, at least twice a day energy) and instant acceptance was infectious. He took to my roommate and I as sisters right away. I’d often come home to find him sprawled out in our room playing games on my roommate’s iPad, and an evening would be remiss without that familiar little knock on our door, asking us to come out and play Mario Kart with him.
My host-father was a Sicilian transplant, living in Florence because he fell in in love with a beautiful woman there during his college years. His emotions were as strong as his heart was deep, and he took an almost comical (yet incredibly well-deserved) pride in his work, his cooking, and his family. The kindnesses he showed me – all the way from teaching me little kitchen tricks to driving me to the airport at 6 AM before my trip to his hometown – reflected what he told me right before I left: I was like a daughter to him.
And my host-mother? She was an absolute gem. Her motherly wisdom and active, vibrant spirit struck me right away as representative of the type of person I hope to someday be. She never hesitated to show my roommate and I the love and kindness that she treated her own son with, and her genuine interest in my daily activities and in me as a person fostered one of the most welcoming, unconditional, and wholesome relationships I’ve ever had the pleasure to be a part of. Oftentimes, after we’d eaten dinner. she and my roommate and I would sit around the table for up to an hour or more, talking and laughing about anything and everything. The boys would leave to go do other things, and thus, that became our bonding time.
Though I’d often say that dinner was my favorite time of the day, it’s those hours afterwards that I miss the most.
On day two of my Romanian adventure, I headed out to the mysterious mountains of Transylvania – a place where fairy tales, legends, vampires and mysteries abound.
Transylvania, the geographic center of Romania, has been a popular destination for business-people and travelers for centuries. Its position at the crossroads between Europe, the Middle East and Asia put it at the center of more than its fair share of territorial claims over the years.
It’s perhaps most famous for the territorial claim of one man, Transylvania’s most famous resident. His name was Vlad Dracul, or, as he was known in the middle ages, Vlad the Impaler. He was immortalized in Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula.
The region has often been referred to as one of the last remaining medieval regions in Europe, and I must admit, I can see how it got the reputation. Endless fields plowed by farmers using methods from the olden days (think horse-drawn carts) eventually give way to villages with still-dirt roads and thatched roofs. It’s stunning – certainly not untouched, but only very lightly touched by modernity.
We started the day at Pelisor Castle – the little sibling of the famous Peles Castle. (Peles Castle is closed for cleaning in November.)
Then, though we weren’t allowed inside, we got to spend some time on the grounds of Peles Castle.
Bran Castle, located just outside of the little village of Brasov (which we’d visit later in the evening – stay tuned!) might just be the oldest building I’ve ever been in. It was first built as a fortress in 1211, when a the Teutonic Knights – a Catholic religious order – was tasked with defending the border of Transylvania. Over the years, it became home to numerous royals and dignitaries of Romania, including its two most famous residents – Vlad the Impaler in 1459 and later Queen Maria.
We explored the area around the castle, which was mostly a little market set up to look like a village, selling both touristy souveniers and traditional Romanian crafts. We also stopped to get a snack – a Kürtőskalác – or, a doughnut cone covered in cinnamon and sugar. (es – it was just as tasty as it sounds.
Then, it was off to Brasov – a nearby village known for its medieval structures and charm.
After the tour we headed back to Bucharest, where Andrew and I explored a little more of the Old Town, grabbed a bite to eat at one of the more famous restaurants, and took a walk over to the Parliament Building to see how much of the second-largest administrative building in the world we could see. We ended up getting stopped by a guard before we made it too close, but we still got to see the outside, and the walk there and back turned out to be a great time to reflect on our time abroad.
After all, this weekend in Romania was the last out-of-Italy trip I’d take for the semester.
And honestly, I wouldn’t have chosen any other place for that honor.
This post was originally written for Syracuse University’s writing course, WRT 424: Writing a Sense of Place.
It will soon be published in the class book.
We arrived in Romania on a sunny morning in late November. I was so excited – Romania sounded like such an enchanting place. My travel buddy Andrew and I were headed to the castles of the Eastern European countryside, the likes of which inspired some of the most famous novels and fairy tales out there.
We’d booked a tour to Transylvania for the next day. Does that name sound familiar? It’s the legendary home of Count Dracula himself – Vlad the Impaler. (We’ll get into how he got that name in the next post.)
But we didn’t want to miss out on Romania’s capital – Bucharest – either, so we made plans to spend that first afternoon and evening exploring the city.
We got off the plane, exchanged some currency, and grabbed a quick cup of coffee before catching an Uber to our Air BnB. Little did we know, though, that the street we were aiming for was actually a series of four streets across.
Parallel to each other.
With buildings separating the middle two and outside two, and a divider in between the middle two.
At the time, though, we had no idea about any of that. So when our Uber dropped us off at what we believed was our place, we trotted into the building to look for our host.
Instead, we found two old men sitting at a reception desk. Except it wasn’t quite big enough to be a reception desk. It was more like a guard post with some room for paperwork and a monitor.
Their stares told us that we were in the wrong building.
We weren’t exactly eager to showcase our lack of Romanian language abilities, so we decided to try to ask for directions by showing them the Air BnB listing. But before we could cross the landing…
“Private building!” one of them said.
“We know, we know. We’re sorry, could you just…” my friend said, offering the photo of the listing again.
“Private building,” the man said, “private building!”
After a few back-and-forth rounds of this, including an attempt with some Italian thrown in there, the man began to rise and point at the door. And it wasn’t the door we came through.
Pro-tip: when a guard with whom you cannot communicate is angry with you and wants you out of his building – you leave his building.
We looked around and saw that we were on a completely different street.
“Well that was something,” Andrew said.
“You can say that again.”
We looked around, finally realizing we weren’t where we’d started. Anxiety crept in as I realized that we were going to be late to our Air BnB check-in. All of the reviews of our host had been great, but after that clash with those other locals, I wasn’t exactly thrilled to be breaking any more rules.
It was a bright, sunny day, made even brighter by the uniform pale grey walls surrounding us. Cars zoomed past – Unirii seemed to be quite the busy place.
Something felt different, though, and I couldn’t put my finger on what or why.
After another 30 minutes of wandering, including a few street crossings and more than a few double-checks of the address, we arrived at what we thought was the building. We just couldn’t get in.
It was locked. We were going to be much later than I thought.
Eventually, a teenaged boy who looked like he’d just crawled out of bed (it was, after all, just past 1:00 – looks like some things don’t change culture-to-culture) took pity on us and let us in. He didn’t say a word, just stared out the building’s dirty glass door, looking like he was waiting for a friend. We showed him the listing, asking if we were in the right place. He spared us a glance and kept his eyes toward the door.
After another few minutes of figuring out that we were – yet again – in the wrong apartment building, we made contact with our host. She told us to look for a certain shop and to go through the door just down the street from that. I stayed in the building (so that we wouldn’t get locked out again) and Andrew set off to find the shop. Turns out we were finally on the right side of the street – we were just one door down past the opposite side of the shop.
Our host’s mother (our host was at work) took us into the apartment, giving us the key and showing us the Wi-Fi router and light switches. The apartment was spacious and cozy – so unlike the vibe we’d gotten from the architecture of the city itself. We were so happy to finally have made it.
Our host’s mother left almost as quickly as she’d ushered us in. Couldn’t blame her, really. By that point, we were at least an hour late.
We collapsed on the bed and laughed. Who knew we’d have such difficulty finding an Air BnB on the main road in the capital city? We were so relieved to finally have figured it out.
“Don’t you feel like Big Brother is watching you out there?” Andrew asked me.
“In a way, I guess. What do you mean?”
“Well, it’s like Stalin took a big ol’ can of spray paint to the buildings. Stalin. Was. Here, W-U-Z here,” he said, gesturing the letters in the air. “And the locals just haven’t bothered to clean it up yet.”
I laughed. Andrew had a way with words like that.
But he was right. My earlier feeling that something was “off” had just been given some context. The imposing architecture was a product of a communist government, and the attitudes of the guards we’d met were likely bi-products of some governmental oppression. I figured they were old enough that they must have experienced a little of the corrupt regime, at least.
We spent the rest of the day wandering around Bucharest’s Old Town, where it seemed most of the restaurants, shops, and businesses were. Locals were out and about, already at the bars by the time we got there (PSA – it gets dark really early at that time of the year in Romania).
We stopped for tea, ran into some street musicians with instruments I’d never even imagined could exist, and even found an old eastern European church to explore.
For dinner, we found a nice little place in the Old Town.
When neither of our meal selections included any meat, our waitress was a little more than perplexed.
Andrew and I spoke more about the various remnants of communism we could see in the city on the way back to our Air BnB. He knew a little bit about what might have taken place in Bucharest, but I had gone in completely blind.
We arrived and took a few minutes to thaw (it gets cold in Romania in November!) then turned to Google for some answers.
What we found was a history of corruption that ran far deeper than I’d expected.
Members of Romania’s government were up to suspicious business dating all the way back to the middle ages, but I’ll spare you that history lesson and instead give you the one on more modern times.
Romania was occupied by Soviet troops following WWII up until the Romanian Communist Party began its rise to power. Eventually the communist party drove out the Soviet troops (1958), earning them a good deal of trust and popularity among the people.
Then came the notorious reign of dictator Nicholae Ceausescu.
He was the semi-charismatic leader of the communist party, and eventually became president after the suspicious death of his predecessor, Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej. In his 15 years as president, Ceausescu was responsible for the imprisonment, torture, and murder of countless Romanians.
His propaganda infiltrated every media – from restricting television to just one channel that played for two hours a day to newspapers only being allowed to report stories that glorified Ceausescu and his government. Books were banned unless they praised communism, and only certain types of music (following the same rules as the rest of the media) could be played at home or on the radio.
Portraits of Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, hung on public buildings, and schoolchildren were taught to sing songs praising him and his works.
In an effort to increase Romania’s declining population, Ceausescu implemented a strict natalist policy. Both abortions and contraception were outlawed, and secret police were commissioned to conduct periodic pregnancy tests on all women of child-bearing age. The population did skyrocket, but over 9,000 women (or more, since those things are never quite accurately reported) died from botched illegal abortions. Orphanages quickly became overcrowded and many children were forced to live on the streets.
Food was rationed to the point of starvation for many. There are many reports of people having to wait up to two hours in the early morning to buy just milk. Any goods that were available to the people were rejects from the Romanian factories, and anything marketable was exported. Electricity, heat, and gas would frequently be turned off to save money for the government.
Getting caught breaking any of the rules – including simply speaking ill about the government among family members – would result in the imprisonment, torture and death that Ceausescu’s government soon became famous for. Reports hold that at least one in every four citizens was working for the Securitate (secret police) in one way or another. Husbands and wives were expected to report on each other, parents and children too. No one could truly trust even their closest friends. Telephone calls, mail, and public conversation were all monitored by the government – making no place safe.
Ceausescu also earned himself a reputation for completely disregarding the country’s history. In addition to banning Romania’s real history from being taught in schools, he was responsible for ordering the destruction of more than 2000 buildings – many of which were in fine condition and dated back to the 1600s. In their places, he constructed apartment buildings, government buildings, and the Palace of the Parliament – the second-largest administrative building in the world.
The Romanian people eventually grew tired of Ceausescu and his strict totalitarian laws. After a series of historic rebellions that cost the lives of many, Ceausescu and his wife were captured, tried for genocide and stealing from the Romanian people and shot by a firing squad on Christmas day, 1989.
Since the execution of the Ceauscesus, Romania’s political governance hasn’t exactly been smooth – and many Romanians still today report that they might have been better off living under Ceausceuian rule.
Just goes to show how deep the marks of corruption run, and how long they take to heal. Our visit to Bucharest was just 17 days after the American 2016 election, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t worried.
Discovering Romania’s political history gave a whole new meaning to the interactions Andrew and I had experienced earlier that day, too. All of the people we’d encountered had likely lived through the worst years of the dictatorship, and who knows what their roles were.
The old men that greeted us in that first apartment building could have been members of the Securitate, or political prisoners themselves. None of the perpetrators of the crimes against humanity undertaken during those years were ever even questioned.
The waitress, so taken aback when we didn’t order meat, could probably recall the strict rations on meat and that her parents would have had to divide among her family.
We’d felt like we were being watched all day, and had it been just a few years prior, we would have been. There would have been cameras following our every move.
I recognize that this was not the most corrupt government in the world, and isn’t even the most recent case of detrimental governmental corruption. There are plenty of countries still today suffering under oppressive, morally twisted, totalitarian regimes. But it was the closest I’d ever come to seeing the scars of corruption, and it was enough to leave an impression.
But when I fell asleep that night, I fell asleep in a freer Romania than the Romania of the past. The people had overcome the seemingly impossible obstacle in the way of their liberty. Their spirit had persevered, they’d done what they needed to do to fight for what they believed in.
And though the road afterwards wasn’t exactly what they’d hoped it would be, my democratically-raised mind believes that good is still growing in Romania.
I hope that it can continue to grow in America, too.
Despite the obstacles we must soon, and even currently, have to overcome.
Verona might just be the most under-rated city in all of Italy.
Ever since I first read Romeo and Juliet, I’d wanted to see Verona. Even just walking through other Italian cities, I often found myself saying something like, “This looks just like how I pictured Romeo and Juliet!”
So after two days in Venice, I hopped on a train bound for Verona. And I’m so glad I did.
When my friends and I arrived, we were greeted by the unfolding festivities around the Verona Marathon. Not only was the atmosphere exciting, but there was an entire piazza filled with marathon-related (and some not-so-marathon-related) vendors. We saw everything from running gear and hand-made crafts to fine cheese, wine and chocolates.
After wandering around the vendors’ tents for a little while and taking a moment to cheer on the runners, we started to make our way to Juliet’s house. We got a bit distracted along the way, though.
Soon it was time for the main attraction – Juliet’s house. Of course, there’s no way to prove that it was the real Juliet’s house – and there are actually some pretty solid arguments that it isn’t – but we pretended it was authentic and had fun doing so.
We had a nice lunch and did a bit more exploring before catching our bus back to Florence. We passed by the marathon and the Verona Colosseum again once more, marveling at the enormity and old age of the structure.
Our trip to Verona was like our very own fairy tale. (Or a scene from a Shakespearean play – if you would.) We did some exploring, saw incredible art, ate some great Italian food and visited La Casa di Giulietta.
Before I even knew I’d be studying in Florence, I dreamed of going to Venice. The sparkling city on the water, full of extravagant elegance at every turn, was like a far-off fairy tale to me. It was something out of the pages of an ancient romantic story, its pages telling of mysterious and festive masquerade balls and artists still practicing their intricate crafts.
So, when I first arrived in Italy, I blocked out a weekend in November (best to go in the off-season – Venice can get very crowded around vacation times) and started thinking of things I wanted to do there.
Soon enough, that weekend was upon me. A few friends and I took the train from Florence on Friday morning, enjoying the scenery of Italy’s Emilia-Romagna and Veneto regions pass us by. We’d have the next two days to enjoy in the city, before setting off for Verona on Sunday.
When I first stepped out of the Santa Lucia train station, I was awestruck. I didn’t have to walk around to find the famous canals of Venice – they were right there. Just under a hundred yards or so from the station was the main one – the Grand Canal.
As we walked on, we saw shop after shop selling artwork by local artists who’d inherited their crafts from generations of Venetian heritage. The stone streets were exactly what I’d dreamed of, and every so often, we’d cross a little footbridge to continue our wandering.
That was my main goal for the weekend – to wander. I’d heard that if I were to get lost in any city, Venice was the one to do it in. And the one it was most likely to happen in. The tiny streets were really designed only for foot traffic, and at times it felt like walking through a never-ending maze, in which re-tracing one’s steps is all but impossible. And it was wonderful.
We stopped by St. Mark’s Basilica – a must-see for anyone in the area. The inside is decorated almost entirely by gold mosaic tiles that glitter when light passes over them. In some spots, the ceiling reaches over 140 feet – and the detail in the decoration, even that high up, is stunning.
Then we made our way next door to check out the Doge’s Palace. The sprawling palace gave us a sense of the wealth of the merchant city in its golden days. Back then, it was used primarily for government functions and to house the Doge and his family. The Doge was the most important member of Venice’s government, usually one of the most senior members of the existing government, and would be elected for life. Nowadays, though, the palace serves as a museum, filled with important paintings and artifacts from Venice’s history. The palace itself could stand as a museum on its own without all of that, though. Just the ceilings and walls alone gave new meaning to “extravagance.”
Afterwards, we grabbed a quick snack from a nearby market and met up with our friends who had been on a field trip for some more good ol’ fashioned exploring. We worked up quite the appetite and found a trattoria near our accommodation for some dinner. My host dad suggested I try the “spaghetti alle vongole,” or, spaghetti with clams, so that I did. Best seafood/pasta combination I’d ever had.
We had three items on the agenda for the next day: explore, ride a gondola and visit the island of Murano.
We started with the exploring part…
When we made our way back to the main areas, we did some shopping and ate a quick lunch at a panini shop. Then came the experience on everyone’s bucket list – the gondola ride.
Next, we walked across the city to catch the water bus – yes, that’s a thing – that would take us to Murano Island. Murano is just under a mile away from the mainland Venice, and is world renowned for its glass artisans.
In the middle ages, glass was a sought-after, prized luxury, and Venice was beginning to build a reputation for having the best glass artists in the world. However, after a few scarring fires on Venice’s mainland, the government decided to move the artists to the island of Murano so that their equipment would no longer endanger the rest of the city.
All the way back, we watched the sun sink into the water from the water bus. By the time we got back to the city center, it was dark out. We stopped by a nearby trattoria for some dinner.
Lastly, we made our way toward the main canal, to the Chiesa di Santa Maria della Pietà. We had plans to catch a concert that evening – a string ensemble’s rendition of several classics and Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.”
The coolest part? Hearing Vivaldi’s pieces in the very church they were written for. Vivaldi wrote his music for the orchestra of orphans he taught and conducted – and their performances were held in the church we were sitting in.
The concert was wonderful – the perfect end to the perfect visit to Venice.
And the name isn’t an exaggeration, either – Prague is full of spires! From the world-famous castle to the old Baroque churches, all the way to the charming decorations on everyday buildings, the historical capital of Bohemia is full of old-world charm .
We arrived in Prague early Friday morning and checked into our hostel, enjoying a full breakfast before setting out for a guided walking tour of the city. I was stunned by how storybook-like the whole city looked. It was like being in Disney’s Epcot – but in real life.
After the walking tour, it was time to grab some lunch.
We used the next few hours to explore the city’s eastern side; that is, the areas east of the Vltava River. We wandered through the streets, gathered information about events going on that night (spoiler alert: Prague is famous for its affordable classical concerts and dance performances!) and even made a stop in a modern art exhibit.
That night, we made our way to a beautiful church in the Old Town Square for an organ concert.
The next day, we crossed the river to the west side of the city. That’s where some of the city’s most famous attractions – the John Lennon Wall, the Charles Bridge and the castle, to name a few – are located.
Final Gelato Count: 55
(And yes, that is counting the ice cream filled doughnut cone.)
The next morning, the time came to leave Annascaul. We boarded the bus after an early breakfast at the hostel for our last day with our tour. Today’s agenda: the Blarney Castle and Guinness Storehouse.
We spent much of the morning at the Blarney Castle, and it’s a testament to the castle’s size and intricacy that we all wanted more time there. We first glimpsed the castle from afar while walking the footpath up to it, enjoying the streams and gardens of the castle grounds. The castle that visitors see today was built in the 1400s, though historians estimate that the first structure built on the spot dates back to the 900s.
However, as fascinating as the castle itself is, it owes its millions of annual visitors to a single stone held in its topmost wall. The Blarney Stone, thought to bring the “gift of the gab” to anyone who kisses it, holds about as much legend as it does germs. (Just kidding, they clean it every now and then. I hope.)
One story says that long ago, one of the castle’s residents got into a bit of legal trouble. Cormac Laidir MacCarthy took his case to the Celtic goddess Clíodhna before taking it to court. She told him that if he kissed the first stone he saw the next morning, he’d be eloquent enough to present his case successfully. So, he did. And he won his case. He saved the stone and brought it to his castle where it would be safe forevermore.
Other stories lean more Biblical in origin. Speculators tie it to Moses, David, Jacob, Jeremiah and St. Columba. Yet another story tells of a witch saved from drowning by the MacCarthy family. As a gift of thanks, she enchanted the stone to bring eloquence to the whomever kissed it.
I first heard about the stone many years ago on a TV program about Ireland. I remember thinking how cool it would be to see it in person, but how impossible such a journey seemed. Funny how those things work out sometimes.
After a quick lunch break near the Blarney Woolen Mills we headed toward Dublin for the final stop on the tour – the Guinness Storehouse.
Sadly, that concluded our time on the tour. What a wonderful 6 days it had been! We saw so many places, met so many wonderful and fascinating people, and had a great time.
Our tour bus dropped us off back in Dublin. We dropped our luggage off at the hostel and headed out to enjoy one last dinner at a local pub with some of our new friends from the tour.
As sad as we were to be done with the tour, Camilla and I were still looking forward to our last day in Dublin. Our plane didn’t leave ’til later in the evening and we had plans to make the most out of those last hours.
First stop: St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
Then it was off to the National Museum of Ireland, but not before a detour into St. Stephen’s Green!
By what felt like nothing short of a miracle at the time, we made it to the bus that took us to the airplane that took us to Pisa where we were just in time for a bus back to Florence. We were tired, but so, so, so grateful for the entire week.
I’d wanted to go to Ireland for as long as I can remember, and now, I’d finally done it. It was so sad to leave, and not just because it was over. It’s a very strange feeling to have lived out the one dream you’ve held onto forever. A wonderful feeling, but a bit odd at the same time. Like finally climbing the tallest mountain, except in this case, it was more like the tallest cliffs.
Leaving Ireland left a bit of an empty spot where the dream of going once was.
But of course, that empty spot was the perfect place to put the memories I’d made.
I once read an old Irish blessing that went a little something like this:
May your joys be as deep as the oceans,
Your troubles as light as its foam.
And may you find, sweet peace of mind,
Wherever you may roam.
I might have left a little piece of my heart in Ireland. But I know there’s roaming left to do.