Taming Firenze: The End

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Stepping out of the terminal in JFK the smell of late-spring rain and sun-baked asphalt immediately shook through my core. In that moment, my four month dream had ended, and I was awake.

To say I had the experience of a lifetime is cliche and, frankly, meaningless. The phrase “experience of a lifetime” says nothing. It doesn’t speak about white water rafting in Croatia. Tells nothing of the enchanting performance at the Vienna opera house. Ignores the high-class party we crashed at Harry’s Bar in Venice. Disregards the people I met, the lessons I learned, the beauty I saw in every alley way and street corner.

To actually describe the full extent to which my semester abroad impacted me, I’ve written a list of the 10 lessons I learned from a semester in a foreign country. Some of these stem from hardships, some from good experiences and some come directly from my professors, the best people I met while in Florence.

1. Learn the language, learn the culture. Sure, English is more widely spoken than Italian, but as a guest in a foreign country, you owe it to your host to make an effort to belong.

2. Listen. Listen to everyone. Listen to the guy yelling at you at the convenient store, listen to the street performer talking to you about bubbles, even listen to the man telling you how arrogant and ignorant Americans are. A global perspective means understanding how other cultures perceive you, not just how you perceive other cultures (and maybe they have a point about American ignorance).

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3. Being a tourist is ok, but it doesn’t mean you understand the city. A tourist’s eye is temporary and selective. You see what you want to see and what the city wants you to see. It’s difficult to really know a city until living there for an extended period of time. Learn what you can, but don’t pretend to be an expert.

4. Be patient, not passive. When living and working so closely with a small group of people, patience is a necessity. However, your own needs are just as important as the people around you. If you want to stay in the Louvre for another hour, stay in the Louvre for another hour. If you want to go to the Writer’s Museum in Dublin, go to the Writer’s Museum in Dublin. You deserve to have fun too.

5. Talk to people. Yes, the language barrier is real, but if I could have a conversation with a group of deaf tourists from Spain, you can have a conversation with the salesman at the market who speaks broken English.

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6. Everything always works out in the end. This is vague and childly optimistic, but it was something I often reminded myself, like when I missed the last train home in Manchester, or got my wallet stolen in Milan. Bad things happen. Life is unpredictable. But even when you’re 4,500 miles from home, you aren’t entirely alone. There are always other ways to get where you’re going. There will be people who can lend you money. You’ll always find a solution.

7. Travel often, travel far. Go to the places you never expected to go. Go spontaneously. Go alone. Just go, and don’t worry about stopping.

8. “It’s not breaking the rules, it’s being creative.” Advice from one of my professors. Sometimes it’s ok to push the boundaries, to shake things up. We aren’t rebels, we’re just artists.

9. It’s ok to miss home, and it’s ok to not miss home. Sometimes you’ll cry for a cup of mac and cheese and a hug from your mom, and sometimes you’ll wish that all of your friends would just leave you alone for a week. It’s normal to feel caught between two homes. By the time you leave you will have found homes all over the world. You’ll miss a little something from everywhere.

10. “Curiosity didn’t kill the cat, fear did.” A resounding piece of advice from another one of my professors. Fear prevents you from opening up and branching out. Don’t let it get the better of you. Muster up every bit of courage that you have, and get out there into that wide, cornerless world we call Earth. No one can teach you that lesson but yourself.

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In the very beginning of the semester, in a crowded auditorium full of jet lagged American students, a short Italian man with a soft voice and big brown eyes walked up to the mic and asked of us one thing: He asked us to tame Firenze, and to let Firenze tame us.

Over the past four months I have wavered dramatically between hating this city and its tiny sidewalks and screaming tourists, and loving this city and its traditional recipes and devotion to art. I have learned to live without dryers and free water. I’ve become an explorer and a historian. My world has shrunk and my heart has grown.

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Like the sparkling carousel that rotates endlessly in Piazza della Repubblica, I have spent the semester in a bumpy, dizzying frenzy of stumbling over hurdles, helplessly navigating unfamiliar streets and circling madly through tiring routines of homework and studying. But now, after stepping off the ride and watching the lights dazzle the bustling piazza, I can say without a doubt in my mind that I am better for conquering the ride before me.

I am proud that I have tamed Firenze. And proud that she tamed me.

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Taming Firenze: Easter Sunday

Easter in Florence is a colorful, flowery and magical time filled with springy storefronts, fancy desserts and carts exploding in front of the Santa Maria del Fiore.

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Easter festivities begin in the city of Florence, Italy. On Monday, April 10, the day after Palm Sunday, residents begin to get in the Easter spirit with decorations and accessories.
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A nun walks through the streets of Florence, Italy, on the warm, Spring Monday after Palm Sunday. Religious figures flock to Florence for the Easter season, hoping to feel its rich, spiritual energy and vibrant history.
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Behind the decorated spring-time window display of the Europeans store Flying Tiger, an employee wearing and Easter headband and other seasonal accessories helps a customer. This store, along with many others in Florence, embraces the commercial side of the religious holiday.

The week leading up to Easter brought flocks of priests, nuns and other religious figures. Stores advertised Easter food and Easter treats. The city came alive with a brilliant energy of Spring.

The city’s most well-known tradition is the Scoppio del Carro, or “The Explosion of the Cart.” For nearly 350 years, the brindellone, the two-story cart topped with fireworks, is paraded from Porta al Prato to the Basilica of Santa Maria del Fiore (The Duomo). After arriving at 10 a.m. a ceremony, complete with song and dance, occurs around the magnificent cart. At 11 a.m., following a choir performance of “Gloria,” the Archbishop launches a dove-shaped rocket, called the colombina, into the cart, setting off a loud and smokey firework display.

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In front of the Duomo in Florence, Italy, set up for the Scoppio del Carro begins early on Easter morning. The event requires careful and intense preparation to ensure safety for the thousands who come to watch.
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Residents of the apartment complex overlooking Piazza del Duomo avoid the crowds of locals and tourists by watching Scoppio del Carro from their windows.
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A parade of musicians, flag throwers, women dressed in authentic Renaissance clothing and many more marchers leads the cart to its final destination.

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The Scoppio del Carro stems from historic and legendary events. Pazzino Pazzi, a young member of Florence’s renowned Pazzi family, took part in the First Crusade in Jerusalem. He was supposedly the first to scale the walls of Jerusalem, displaying great courage.

His commander rewarded his bravery with the gift of three flints from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The flints were carried back to Florence and stored at Chiesa degli Santi Apostoli.

The ceremony today still resembles the way it has been celebrated throughout history. The three flints from Jerusalem are used to light the Easter candle. The candle is then used to light coals, which are placed in the cart.

If the whole ceremony progresses successfully, it is considered good luck and signifies good fortune for the year ahead.

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As tradition dictates, a pair of oxen carry the cart through the streets of Florence.
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The nine-meter-high brindellone arrives in front of the Duomo at 10 a.m.
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At 10 a.m., once The Scoppio del Carro arrives in front of the Duomo, preparation for the explosion ensues. Onlookers watch as two men set up the explosives on the top of the cart.
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Volunteers handed out various flowers to the audience before the cart exploded.
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The Archbishop of Florence blesses the crowd. He is also responsible for lighting the fuse in the colombina, which then launches into the cart, setting off the fireworks.

Unfortunately, sometimes heavy heat and crowds of people result in medical emergencies.

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Paramedics fight with the gate and the crowd to reach a woman who had fainted from heat exhaustion.

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Several people fainted or fell sick from heat exhaustion. But the ceremony went on as if nothing were wrong. I’m not sure what all of this means for “good luck and good fortune for the year ahead.”

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The fireworks begin!

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And it ends as it began.

When the ceremony reaches its finale, the same parade that led the cart to its empty stage leads it back to its dressing room on Porta al Prato, where it waits for another year to return to its spotlight.

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Easter in Florence was truly a unique and unforgettable experience. From exploding carts, to Colomba di Pasqua (an Italian Easter dessert), to the many festivities that filled the city streets in the days leading up to the holiday, Florence took Easter to a different level than I would have ever imagined.

However, it was not quite enough to ease the aches of spending a holiday away from home.

Sitting on the sandy bank of the Arno river after Scorpio del Carro, I finished a strange book about a seagull that my brother insisted I read. In it, I was reminded of his spirit and his optimism.

“If our friendship depends on things like space and time, then when we finally overcome space and time, we’ve destroyed our own brotherhood! But overcome space, and all we have left is Here. Overcome time, and all we have left is Now. And in the middle of Here and Now, don’t you think that we might see each other once or twice?”

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Even when it seems that a whole bunch of forevers separate you from the ones you love and care about, you learn to realize that they’re closer to you than you think.

Taming Firenze: Gelato Tour

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It’s been a full three months and I haven’t made a post about gelato. Lucky for you, this is about to change.

You might be asking: “What’s the big deal? Gelato’s no different than ice cream.”

That’s where you’re wrong. Very, very wrong.

Though the word “gelato” means ice cream in Italian, the two delicious summer treats are made differently.

Gelato has a higher proportion of milk than ice cream. It also has a lower proportion of cream and of eggs – sometimes it doesn’t have eggs at all. Gelato is churned at a much slower rate than ice cream, resulting in a much denser consistency.

Due to the lower percentage of fat, gelato typically carries a stronger flavor. It is also served at a warmer temperature, leaving it silky and soft.

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My roommates and I chomping down on gelato (and tiramisu, in Gina’s case) at one of our favorite gelato stops, Gelateria dei Neri.

 

Last Wednesday, our fearless leader and beloved receptionist, Andy, led a group of about 45 hungry and tired college students through the streets of Florence to three of his favorite Gelateria’s in Florence: Vivaldi, Santa Trinita and La Carraia.

Stop One: Vivaldi

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Our first stop brought us to Vivaldi, a Gelateria in the San Niccolo area of Florence.

Vivaldi has unique gelato flavors that are typically hard to find around Florence. My favorites are the lemon basil flavor and the Oreo flavor (yes – this is a rarity).

Here, I tried lemon and fondente, or very dark chocolate.

Vivaldi’s gelato is incredibly silky and smooth. The dark chocolate is my favorite in Florence – it tastes like chilled brownie batter.

This is a great place to stop after hiking up to watch the sunset at Piazzale Michelangelo.

Stop Two: Santa Trinita 

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Located directly at the end of the Santa Trinita bridge, this pretty, pink Gelateria is not only a great place for delicious gelato, but also a great place for your Instagram pictures.

Their flavor selection includes the standards – mint, lemon, strawberry, stracciatella and coffee – and also some signatures – santa trinita, passion fruit and black sesame.

The first time I came here, I tried the Santa Trinita. I’m not sure what exactly was in it, but it tasted like a sweet blend of cream (or vanilla), chocolate and caramel.

This time, I was a bit more adventurous. I tried the black sesame and pistachio. Together, it tasted just like peanut butter.

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Stop Three: La Carraia

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This store actually has two locations: the original, in Piazza Nazario Sauro on the other side of the river, and another directly across the street from my apartment.

On this tour, we visited the original location, which is bigger and has a larger selection of flavors.

The best thing about La Carraia is its low prices – you really can’t beat one euro gelato.

Beyond that, it has a great flavor selection and a mix of gelato and mousse. Though I typically avoid the mousse, it is a lighter and fluffier alternative to the denser gelato.

I took advantage of the large flavor selection and tried a flavor that I never saw at the location across the street: cream with chocolate and orange. Made with real orange (you could actually see the large shreds of orange zest mixed in) it tasted like a creamsicle. I would definitely recommend it to anyone looking for the best gelato in the city.

The Results: 

It’s not an easy task to pick a favorite gelato flavor or a favorite Gelateria, but the place that stole my heart – and stomach – on this particular tour had to be La Carraia. With unbeatable prices, fun flavors and fresh ingredients, it has to be my favorite place to get gelato in Florence.

Taming Firenze: International Women’s Day

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Florence, Italy, celebrated International Women’s Day by granting  women free access to all the government-run museums across the city.

Unfortunately, Kent State University did not celebrate International Women’s Day by giving us a day off of class, so I only had time to visit one museum. The museum I chose was the Uffizi Gallery.

My initial desire to spend free museum day at the Uffizi was sparked by Botticelli’s famous “The Birth of Venus.” Commissioned by the Medici family, “The Birth of Venus” is a sparking gem of Florence. What better way to spend International Women’s Day than hanging out with the goddess of love herself?

However, the Uffizi hosted an even more interesting exhibit: an exhibit for Florence’s first female painter, Plautilla Nelli. A nun and a self-taught artist, Nelli was a highly skilled and dedicated artist who took inspiration from male artists before her.

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Nelli’s work falls in line with the themes of most Renaissance art. She painted religious and biblical scenes and portraits. In looking at her pieces, however, there is a slight feminine touch.

For example, Nelli’s “The Last Supper” has a distinctively different table setting than the other well-known Last Suppers of history. Art historian and founder of The Advancing Women Artists Foundation, Dr. Jane Fortune, speculates that Nelli’s upbringing in a convent gave her a different perspective than the male artists before her. Fortune wrote in an article of The Florentine “She actually wanted the Apostles to eat!”

Nelli also depicted strong emotion in her paintings, especially in the women she painted. She often painted women with tears rolling down their faces. Perhaps this was an emotional outlet of her own. Perhaps she was more empathetic than the male artists before her. Perhaps she wanted the subject of her paintings to be the emotion rather than the events depicted.

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Nelli has been criticized throughout history for her tendency to copy rather than create. She tended to put her own spin on old pieces rather than produce totally original work. This can be attributed to the restrictions placed upon her due to her status as a woman.

Nelli was self-taught. She learned only from the sketches of old masters that fell into her hands. As a nun, she could not use men as real-life subjects. Her paintings of men often appeared more feminine because she was unfamiliar with the male body.

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Despite her gender and her status, Nelli produced enormous, well-crafted art pieces that still garner respect today.

Spending International Women’s day in the presence of a great woman’s spirit and dedication was an honor and an inspiration.

The world of Renaissance art is dominated by men. Their legacy shouts throughout the streets of Florence. But women did not spend centuries lingering on the sidelines. Their voices deserve to be heard too, and, though it’s a few decades too late, their legacy is finally becoming apparent in this beautiful city.

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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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Taming Firenze: Catching Up With My City

Lately I’ve been posting a lot about my travels across Europe. I’ve been experiencing incredible things in the various cities through which I’ve wandered. But I’m not living in Brussels or Rome or Venice; I’m living in Florence, and this is a post about the city I call home.

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The stunning Duomo never fails to impress. It’s always an extra special day when the sky complements her beauty.

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The four photos above show Santa Croce, the beautiful church I live next to. This is my favorite church to photograph. It’s also the church where Michelangelo is buried.

A pigeon flies off the head of a statue at Piazza Signoria on Feb. 13, 2017.

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Two views of the fountain in Piazza Signoria.

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A book seller at the market.

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A glass of wine at our favorite restaurant, Osteria Santo Spirito.

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A delicious treat from the Florence Chocolate Festival.
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Meg enjoying a crepe also from the Chocolate Festival.

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Lottie Doherty outside of Basilica Santo Spirito.

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Mr. Goodman, a street performer, puts on a great bubble show in Piazza Della Repubblica.
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Francesco and Lorenzo play football next to the Basilica Santo Spirito.
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Nicola Cocchi poses in his workshop. Cocchi makes frames and furniture.

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Erica Rickey was kind enough to pose for some photos around the city.

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The end to a lovely Valentine’s Day: Gusta’s Pizza near the Ponte Vecchio. 

Taming Firenze: Roma Caput Mundi

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The legend of the Trevi Fountain is as follows: throw one coin into the fountain and you are promised to one day return to Rome. Throw two coins into the fountain and you are promised to fall in love. Throw three coins into the fountain and you are promised to get married.

Five years ago I happened upon Roma Caput Mundi (center of the world), tossed a coin into a marble fountain and went on my way, never expecting to live the experience of a lifetime all over again.

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The city is magnificent in its pride and in its history. Its ruins make its beauty. From the maze of decrepit, crumbling structures and foundations to the towering, astounding Colosseum, it is impossible to ignore the profound glory of the Roman Empire.

The past walks with you in this city; it becomes your shadow; it wraps around your ankles and leads you backwards through time.

The art sings from the city’s soul. The captivating Bernini sculptures at the Galleria Borghese, the marble masterpieces in the Vatican Museum and the breathtaking Sistine Chapel all inspire and impress the humble eyes that stand before them.

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And there is something even more impactful about seeing the city a second time. My first Roman Holiday came in a humid July between middle and high school. Something in my stubborn blood drove me away from the city. No matter how the ghostly whispers of history presented themselves, I refused to listen – I plugged my ears – I would not be impressed here.

But this ancient city was determined to win me over, and the magic fountain worked its charm.

My new image of Rome is standing on top of the world over and over again, feeling more powerful each time.

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My first ascent came with my small cohort and my professor who knew where to be when golden hour hit. We spent our first Roman sunset in an orange garden at the top of the city, watching a warm day close its eyes. We felt like lovers, like dreamers, like artists. We basked in the type of light that shines through your skin and sets your bones aglow. Already, we knew we could love this city.

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rome51.jpgThe next day we ended in the Roman Forum, standing above a different city – or a shell of a different city. After weaving through the old city we stood like retired kings over the great successes of our reign. And we sighed proudly, knowing we had been a part of something great. A part of something glorious.

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Our last sunset fell slowly as we walked up the Spanish Steps. We stood for thirty minutes, stalling until we reached a socially acceptable time to eat dinner. We watched the pink and orange sky bleed gently into blue. We watched the city light up beneath our feet. This time we were students learning that miracles always happen at sunsets, but only when you’re watching.

 

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Greedy for more of the Roman sky, we did not stop at collecting sunsets. Each night we climbed to the rooftop terrace of our hotel and laid down on the scaffolding of the slanted roof to watch the clouds and the stars battle like gladiators in the Colosseum of the sky. Here we were kids. Celebrating birthdays and watching water vapor transform into imaginary animals. Our bodies were heavy with the weight of the world below us. Our lungs were light from the air flowing above us.

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In Rome history repeats itself everyday. The sun rises and sets on the same table, set with fine china and rusty silverware – with some plates full and some left with only the crumbs of a meal too good to forget.

Whether it was an act of magic, an act of god or a mere coincidence, my own history repeated itself in Rome. At 19 years old, I retraced my steps through the Colosseum, the Sistine Chapel and the Roman Forum. I felt my old self next to me on the hotel rooftop. Saw her in my shadow. Like the old city, she was gone but not forgotten – she still had something to teach me.

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I threw my second coin in the Trevi Fountain. As the legend goes, I am now promised to fall in love.Though I would say this has already happened. Already, I have fallen in love with Rome. “Oh Rome! My country! City of the Soul!”