Taming Firenze: Some Americans in Paris

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The first time I went to Paris, I arrived, starry-eyed and jet-legged, to what I thought was a city of magic and wonder.

I remember a blur of a taxi ride from the airport to the hotel. I remember the wildly colorful graffiti flashing outside the window. I remember the steak and french fries they served us before exhaustion lassoed us to our first sleep in Europe.

I remember loving every miserable minute. I remember leaving with only one thing: a burning desire to go back.

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Returning to Paris is like opening a favorite storybook from your childhood. The pages smell like home. The characters are like old friends. The story is a distant, cozy memory.

In two days I wandered my way around the familiar streets, reacquainting myself with the storybook setting I had fallen in love with five years before. From the grand collection of art at the Louvre to the intricate Gothic architecture of the Notre-Dame cathedral, I remembered why I fell in love with Paris.

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We started our fairytale in a sunny, flowery park near our hostel. Complete with a duck pond, a carousel, paths for running, benches for reading and even horseback riding, we were mesmerized by the bustling nook tucked into the corner of the city. A breath of fresh air – a change in landscape from the rickety, cobble stone alleyways found in Florence.

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Just as we happened upon Paris’ bright patch of life, later that day we happened upon its darker counterpart: the Montparnasse Cemetery.

Housing the graves of French philosophers, Holocaust victims and monuments honoring police officers and firefighters, this cemetery blossoms with stories.

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As a writer, I have always been attracted to the things people leave behind. To me, a cemetery is the perfect place to watch a person’s legacy unfold.

The Montparnasse Cemetery is unusual, however, because it is a mere 10 minute walk away from the second tallest building in Paris.

The view of the looming Montparnasse Tower behind the aging gravestones split me between two realities: one of a fragile past – of dust delicately accumulating on an old shelf, and another of a reckless future – of bulldozers barreling toward the blinking signs of “progress.”

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Is it comforting to see the burial sight of an Auschwitz prisoner and the not-even-fifty-year-old tower in the same glance? Is it reassuring to know that history can live on where modernity thrives? Or is it disturbing to know that something bigger, better newer will always overshadow the few faint whispers of the past that still linger in our loud, fast-paced future?

Even more erie was the view from the top of the tower. Looking down on the Montparnasse Cemetery, we were struck immediately by the shameful feeling of ignorance. In other words, the cemetery, which we thought was a just a quaint community of maybe 100 gravestones, was a massive square of land taking up 10 times more land than we thought.

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The distracting beacon of modernity actually gave us a new perspective on the incredible piece of tangible history below. From our 210 meter vantage point, Paris’ history unfolded. The stunning 360 degree panorama viewing platform served Paris to us on a silver platter. We walked around and around, picking out the Louvre, the Arc de Triomphe, Notre Dame and, or course, the Eiffel Tower.

I cannot claim to better understand Paris after seeing it from the top of the world, but I can claim to love it more. Its history spread vast and vibrant in the streets and buildings spanning for miles below.

Later that evening, when I finally saw the Eiffel Tower twinkle, I found the happy ever after to my favorite story.

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This semester abroad has not only graced me with opportunities to see the new corners of the world that I have not yet discovered, but it has also allowed me to return to familiar places with a new mindset. I am not who I was when I first saw the Eiffel Tower and walked the Champs Elysees.

Traveling is not just about seeing new things, it is also about learning new things. To me, there is no better way to learn then to return to the places that once taught us. To return to the places that once inspired us.

Leaving Paris for a second time I had only one thing on my mind: a burning desire to go back. And I now know that, no matter how far you go or how long it takes, there is always a way to go back.

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Taming Firenze: Pinocchio and Lemon Trees

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This past weekend I travelled with my Italian Language class to the nearby town Collodi where the famous story Pinocchio was written. There, we explored the very old and very bizarre Parco di Pinocchio.

As with all good stories, it was a cold and rainy day when our Italian class entered the abandoned park. Yes – I said abandoned. The park closes in the winter months and opened just one day in February for us to visit. So on this cold and rainy day we all made our way through the old, abandoned, entirely deserted park filled with small, old statues of scrawny puppets that looked like they were on the verge of coming to life and attacking us all.

Honestly, it was amazing.

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Though old, the park had a very distinct charm. It felt like walking though an old storybook you’d find covered in dust and cobwebs in your grandmother’s attic. The park allowed you to travel through the story of Pinocchio chronologically. You met the characters, you saw Geppetto’s workshop, you even got to walk into the belly of the whale.

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As our Italian professor told us, the story of Pinocchio is deeply engrained in Italian culture. It is a story of great importance to Italians even in modern times. Though this park – with its creaky animatronics that screeched from lack of oil, its arsenal of demonic-looking marionettes, and its rickety bridges that clearly would not support much more than the raindrops falling fast from the sky – was nothing like Disney World or even my beloved Hershey Park, it was certainly unique.

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After visiting the park we stopped for lunch – under lemon trees!

We had the privilege of dining in a lovely family owned citrus garden. After an amazing meal, we toured the garden.

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Many of the plants in the greenhouse were ornamental, meaning the plants were bought and sold predominantly for the sake of aesthetics. This trend was popularized by the Medici family in Renaissance times. They had many ornamental citrus plants in their family gardens.

However, a lot of the plants were still great for eating. We got to try fresh lemons, oranges, kumquats and even a little something called “Vegetarian Caviar.”

The maze of brightly colored lemons and oranges was made even more beautiful by the love given to the plants. The garden belonged to a family. Our tour guide’s father planted the lemon tree that started it all at the entrance to the garden. Our guide spoke passionately about each plant. He had clearly devoted his life to cultivating the beautiful garden.

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His devotion paid off. Not only was the garden enchantingly beautiful, but the fruit was fresh, juicy, sweet and nothing like anything I’ll ever have in America.

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