Monday, June 1, 2015

My Italian Adventures! Part One

There's this Italian phrase my study abroad professor said we need to learn and it simply goes like this: "It's Italia!" which roughly means "stuff happens" or "it is what it is". Although this phrase had been stressed on us so we would know to accommodate any influxes in our daily schedules, I didn't realize we would have to apply the concept before we even left the country.

Day 1: Psych!

I'll be honest. This day was a waste. Having already packed the day before (which was also kind of a waste since all I did was slowly pack) my brother drove me to my friend's house where we did nothing until our other friend picked up us and drove us to the airport. We made it through baggage claim and security without any qualms and some Mickey D. Then our 7:50 PM flight to Boston didn't leave for another hour and a half due to the airport delaying us to help and we missed our connection to Rome. It was a ball of stress and frustration as we sat on the plane for basically two hours doing nothing. We got off the plane 15 minutes before our Alitalia flight was supposed to leave, but they wouldn't hold the doors for us so I paced in a circle while the two professors on my trip sorted out our next connection with the lovely Delta employees. Two flights were booked for the following evening, splitting our group of 17 so ten of us would fly directly to Rome and the other seven (myself included) would have a layover in Amsterdam before arriving at our final destination. The remaining hours of the night were spent eating bad Chinese food in our Boston hotel room and allowing it to sink in that we would not be in Rome in 7 hours.

Day 2: Good ol' Italian food... in Boston

The next day we wandered along the Freedom Trail. I enjoyed it quite a bit since the last time I wandered the trail I did it alone. Being with a group who was in the same predicament made it a new experience, but I could still feel that dark cloud hanging over us. We were supposed to be in Rome. We ate lunch at an Italian restaurant in Little Italy, which only added to the disappointment everyone was feeling. We departed from Boston around 8:00 PM and I tried not to worry about whether 1.5 hours was enough time to make it through customs before our connection to Rome. Thankfully, I had the fabulous international flight accommodations (movies and music) to hold me over between naps.

Day 3: Tulips, Vespas, Bodais, and Nutella

Six hours later we landed in Amsterdam where I squealed at the sight of Dutch tulips and wished I could take a tour of the Anne Frank house. My inner Nerdfighter was tempted to make a break for it. The flight over Europe was really interesting, seeing the different landscapes. The shuttle ride from the airport to our hotel was the most fascinating transportation experience I ever had. Driving in Italy is so different than driving in the U.S.! Before we were even out of the airport property our driver narrowly avoided a pedestrian crossing the road and continued on weaving in and out of lanes. Cars here are small. There are no SUVs, Grand Caravans, or trucks. They're all stick shifts, smart cars, Pandas, Volkswagens, vespas, and the like, which contributed to everyone smooshing themselves between other cars. When they change lanes, they don't make immediate shifts but rather drift between lanes for as long as they wish. I cannot recall the use of blinkers and after we started walking around the city I learned there's a specific way you have to cross the streets. If you don't have the go-ahead, you wait until the coast is clear and walk anyway. When you do have the right away or when you need to cross and there isn't a crosswalk sign, you just walk and wait for the other cars to stop because they like to go even when they have red. The crosswalk etiquette took a bit to get used to but within a couple days we were pros.

The hotel was a new experience too. The floor of the lobby isn't known as the first floor because other rooms typically aren't on the same floor. So the first floor doesn't begin until the next flight up stairs. In our first hotel, our room key was also our way of accessing the lights, which was rather weird, but also really convenient because that way you could never lose your room key. The bathrooms had bodais, which we all got a kick out of, and I'm pretty sure you weren't supposed to
throw away toilet paper in the toilets... It was weird to get used to.

First thing we did after settling in was hit up the ATM and grocery store. It took me forever to figure out what food I wanted to purchase because most of their bread products, snack foods, and nonperishable items were things we don't have here, or were entirely different brands that I had to scour the shelves to figure out what each thing was. I ended up getting some bananas, apples, strawberries, bread, peach jam and peanut butter (which was really expensive) for sandwiches, and crackers and a nutella white chocolate spread which was really good. Speaking of fruit, it is incredibly sweet here! Before arriving in Italy I realized I didn't know much about Rome's climate. I was expecting the Mediterranean to be warmer than Michigan climate but cooler than the Carolinas since Rome is sort of parallel to Pennsylvania location wise, so I was surprised to see palm trees and learn that their fruits were really great.

Day 4: All Around the World

Because we had a couple crazy days of traveling, our professor gave us the morning to sleep in (bless her) before heading off on our first big Roman adventure! First place we ventured was Piazza Navona, which is a square lined with shops, one of the oldest churches in Rome, and interesting fountains.

This is also where we were introduced to peddlers. Specifically, Bangladeshi men who were trying to sell us selfie sticks and stupid splat toys. In the beginning, our reactions were "No, grazie" before walking away but after being asked a dozen times within a 30-minute period we either a) ignored them completely or b) bitch-stared them as we walked by. This lasted for the next two weeks so I'm sure you can guess how much we grew to love those guys. Next, we visited the famous Pantheon. Fun facts: the Pantheon is a church and they asked you to be quiet inside, but no one is. Also, it was the first dome shaped ceiling to successfully be standing today due to the hole in the ceiling.

We had lunch outdoors (as we did most days) at a ristorante near the Pantheon. I took a gamble on ordering an "everything" salad without asking what that entailed and ended up with soggy tuna-flavored vegetables. YUM. But I didn't mind. It was a beautiful day spent in freaking Italy and it marked our group's first meal selfie, which became a thing. Just look at those beautiful people! I'll get to them later ;)

Next on our loose schedule was to see the Trevi fountain but we came across Basilica Di S. Lorenzo in Lucina so we stopped to take a look and I'm so happy we did because it was by far my favorite church.

And when we finally made it to the Trevi fountain... it was under construction. Which was kind of a theme you'll see continued during the trip.

I know, such a great selfie of me and the Trevi. But as you can see: construction. On our way back to the hotel we visited the , a church called Santa Marta degil Angeli (where we were kicked out pretty quickly for not having our shoulders and knees covered) and the Baths of Diocletian.

Later, I and three others went to check out some gift shops when my friend spotted a bookstore and I made a mad dash for the loves of my life. It was like I had entered candy land and every time I recognized a book I won a piece of candy.

I tried finding Colleen Hoover's books, but to my disappointment, I didn't manage it. But look at these beauties! My friend Lydia and I were quite proud of ourselves when we managed to translate the John Green book "Citta di Carta" into "Cities of Paper" aka Paper Towns. No biggee.

The day ended with hanging out with the gang and going out for dinner, which I didn't eat because I wasn't hungry for a big meal and had snacks back at the hotel. This (me not eating a lot) became a norm during the trip and I got crap for it every day despite my reassurances that I was a-okay.

Day 5: Just Roming Around... I'll Leave Now

Our days consisted of lots of walking and this day was no different. Rob, one of the guys in our group quickly took over as our fearless leader and human GPS and led us to each location our professor wanted to take us. Of course, Rob had no idea where we were headed but he managed to take us there anyway.

As I learned from my studies, a lot of what Rome is today is historical buildings and monuments standing right next to modern buildings, busy streets, and every day life. Mussolini did this intentionally to create his vision of Rome (grandeur and power of both ancient and modern descent) and he did this by clearing away rubble and buildings too decrepit and/or insignificant for his plans and then rerouting traffic so he could pave direct access to these symbols of power. It's kind of weird because as we would just be walking along what appears to be all businesses and apartments and then we've stumbled across a little piazza with beautiful marble fountains. This is what happened as we were looking for Piazza de Popolo. 

I don't even remember what piazza it was we stumbled across first because like I said, there are quite a few little piazzas in Rome and to be honest, this one didn't hold as much significant as many of the other piazzas we visited. In comparison, Piazza de Popolo had two massive churches, an obelisk in the center, two fountains, and then a series of stairs and roads that led to a beautiful overlook of the piazza and the rest of the city. This happened more than I expected, where I would find one thing marvelous and then be completely floored by the next.

At this point, standing on top of the overlook of Piazza di Popolo, the battery on my camera died because I'm sometimes careless like that so what I didn't document was our visit to Largo di Torre Argentina, also known as the cat sanctuary. Julius Caesar was executed here, but all our group really cared about were the stray cats that made a home there. One of the girls on the trip was absolutely enthralled by this area and bought a shirt with "Gattos di Roma" on it. On our way back to the hotel we traversed through Piazza Vittorio Emanuele, which is where Mussolini announced to the Italian people their declaration of war. The monument of Vittorio Emanuele II and the tomb of the Unknown Soldier face the piazza and our class thought it was brilliant. Fortunately, we revisited the monument later, which I'll post pictures of in a later post.

Now, I don't remember at what point during the trip I was given the nickname, but I soon became known as the Lilo of our group because I enjoy taking candids of intriguing strangers. I took pictures of homeless people (which is very common in Rome), elderly who liked to people watch from their windows, little children playing in puddles... I could never get the angles I wanted to while still being slightly discreet, but they make wonderful memories nonetheless. At least I don't plaster the pictures of strangers all around my room like Lilo. ;) Anyway, since I don't have any pictures of the afternoon, here are some of the strangers I took on the way to Piazza di Popolo.

Day 6: Fascist Tour Muhaha

Our class centered around fascism and Mussolini's affects on Rome so this day was the peak of our studies in Italy. We visited the Foro Italico, previously known as the Foro Mussolini, which is a sports complex made up of track fields, stadiums, Olympic-sized swimming pools, as well as a school.

The following pictures are of statues that circled the track we toured. The statues were gifts from Italian city-states and each depicted a different sport. We started the tour at 9:00 AM and already by this time I was marveling in the beautiful day and the beautiful pictures I was able to capture.

Our tour lasted four hours, but the stuff in the middle didn't make for the greatest pictures so I'll skip to the end, which is where we visited the EUR. This is the business district of Rome and is located outside the city walls. The Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana, aka the modern day Colosseum, is here along with buildings that now hold offices and congregations. It was a quaint area with wonderful architecture, history and it is not a tourist spot so I'm grateful I had the chance to check it out.

Before this trip I had been powering away at my final projects and papers for my classes that were wrapping up, trapped inside on most days because the weather in my home state is incredibly fickle and April isn't its prime. Going from that to walking miles every day in the sun was quite the change in pace for me and the rest of our group, but all was well because Italy has what they call siestas,  or midday breaks, and we fully utilized most of them for midday naps before going back out on the town. After this particular siesta our group split off and explored. We checked out an Italian McDonald's because we are Americans and #noshame.

No, we did not eat there, but we were surprised to find that some of their menu items are cheaper than ours while others are a lot more expensive. Beef in particular is an expensive meat in Italy. I guess cows aren't their thing.

One of the guys on our trip has a friend who lives in Italy and whose family own's a restaurant so that night we went to his family's restaurant where I ate incredible pasta. I would insert a picture now of the food, but I didn't realize until just now that it's rather blurry so I'll just leave you with our meal selfie. Until next time... prego!

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