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: Chianti

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Some stories need to be told with words. Others with pictures. Chianti is a difficult story to tell with either. It is the humming wind, the fresh mountain air and the rows of grape trees lining the hills. It is the sun and the clouds – the world breathing around you.

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Directly between Florence and Siena, Panzano is a small village in Chianti. That’s where we escaped the hectic city, the flocks of tourists and the narrow streets.

In Chianti, we stretched our limbs and took a much needed break. For two hours, we weaved our way across the rolling Tuscan hills through vineyards and farms.

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After our hike, we rewarded ourselves with a wine tasting and a lunch. Here, we toured a small, family-owned wine cellar and learned about the time, love and care involved in the wine-making process. We then sampled three red wines, a dessert wine and grappa (which was pretty gross, but worth a try if you’re ever in Tuscany).

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The beauty of Italy comes from its traditions – its tight-knit families passing down recipes, land and homes. Food and drink is crucial to Italian culture. In the large, ten-room estate in Panzano I felt that I was being welcomed into a legacy – the byproduct of generations of hard work.

The days in Florence where the tourists barricade the walkways and the selfie-stick-pedaling vendors accost you on the way to school make it difficult to love this place. It often feels suffocating. It feels as if the city has no life left.

To get away for a moment – to catch a breath and see the countryside where Florence found its roots – is to gain perspective. Again, I was reminded of all of the things to love about this beautiful city – about this beautiful home of mine.

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Bonus pictures of the cat that lived in the estate (also featuring our tour guide, Niccolo).

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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: A Chocolate Tour Without Singing Cows?

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Perugia was a refreshing breath of spring-time air, filled with rich history and even richer chocolate.

We started the day with a tour of the Perugina Chocolate factory. We learned about the history of the factory, the typical products they make and the process of chocolate making. We also got to taste several of their most popular products (the highlight of the tour).

After the tasting session, we toured the factory itself. Unfortunately, due to the top secret nature of Perugina chocolate making, we were not allowed to take pictures. But I can tell you – and this will come as a surprise to anyone else who has visited Hershey Park – that there was a disappointing lack of singing cows.

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The most popular product of the Perugina factory is a chocolate known ad Bacio. This is a delicious candy made up of a nutty, chocolatey paste that is then topped with a whole hazelnut and dipped in a layer of chocolate.

They are then packaged with a small note about love or friendship – reminiscent of the American fortune cookie.

Interestingly enough, this candy wasn’t always called “bacio.” Initially, it was known by the Italian word for “fist” or “punch.” The company decided this was too harsh a word for a sweet little treat, so they changed the name to Bacio – the Italian word for kiss.

Somewhere in Hershey, Pennsylvania, a trio of signing cows are mooing suspiciously.

After our chocolate factory excursion, we took the Mini Metro (or tuna boxes, as our professors called them) into the city of Perugia.

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The initial moment of fear and excitement when we were accidentally separated from our professors on the “tuna boxes.” 

Our first stop in the city was lunch. We feasted on amazing food (pasta, a plate of some sort of meat and tiramisu so good I nearly started crying) with an equally amazing view.

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Perugia is a beautiful city in the small region of Umbria. It is a very old city, dating back to the Etruscan period. It still has many standing structures from B.C.E.

With a history stretching so far into the past, it was easy to fall in love here. We strolled the quiet streets taking in the relaxing atmosphere. We took in the golden sun and the calming breeze. We saw stunning churches and stunning views.

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This little town tucked between the mountains is hardly a tourist destination – but that’s what makes it so special.

Florence has been robbed of its identity by flocks of tourists that overtake the narrow streets. As the weather gets warmer, the city gets uglier. It loses itself behind selfie sticks and Hawaiian shirts.

An afternoon in an off-the-map city reminded me that Italy is a country rich in history. Though it is getting harder and harder to love Florence, I need to spend my last month here digging under the grime of tourists and trying to see the city for what it really is: a beautiful Renaissance treasure.

Taming Firenze: Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

There were two things that I wanted to do in Berlin: eat German food and visit the Berlin Wall. I managed to do both, plus so much more.

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First, the food – and that includes beer. Coming from a Pennsylvania Dutch family, German food has always been the ultimate comfort food. From sauerkraut to sausage to pretzels. In Berlin, the food did not disappoint.

In Berlin we tried everything from currywurst, a type of German fast food, to pretzels, to sausage, to German meatloaf. And so, so, so much beer.

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Beyond the food, we also visited a photography museum. The museum featured two full floors of work from Helmut Newton and his wife, June Browne (otherwise known by her artist name, Alice Springs). To see such an in-depth collection from one of Germany’s most renowned photographers was an incredible experience.

Newton’s eye for fashion, portraiture and the human body in general was unique and striking. He had a creative and innovative eye, establishing compelling and intriguing stories with a series of only a few portraits.

He worked not only with controlled portraiture and studio work, but he also did journalistic work.

Since spending several weeks taking contrasting photography classes at school, I enjoyed seeing a real world example of an artist who works under several umbrellas of photography.

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After wandering through the Helmut Newton rooms, we made our way upstairs to the featured exhibit “Watching You Watching Me: A Photographic Response to Surveillance.” This exhibit explored the constant surveillance occurring in modern society, from google maps, to drones, to surveillance in times of war, the exhibit used different forms of photography to comment on the large and looming “Big Brother” presence in the modern age.

Each and every project in the exhibit was striking and a little bit erie. Tomas van Houtryve’s “Blue Sky Days,” for example, was a response to the grandson of a civilian casualty in a drone strike in Pakistan. The 13-year-old said “I no longer love blue skies. In fact, I now prefer gray skies. The drones do not fly when the skies are gray.”

Houtryve flew a drone through the blue skies of America, capturing the scenes of everyday life that play and replay day in and day out. In capturing these peaceful, innocent moments, Houtryve reveals the vulnerability we take for granted: had his drone carried a weapon rather than a camera, the moment would not have been captured, it would have been destroyed.

If I could, I would devote an entire blog post to each photographer and each project on display in the museum. Each artist critically responded to the serious dangers of hyper-surveillance.

We live in a spiderweb of a world, in which everything and everyone is intertwined. This connectedness opens doors for communication and globalization, but it also opens doors for invasiveness and heavy monitoring.

Most of us go through life unaware or apathetic towards the disembodied eyes constantly following us, but the photographers in this exhibit remind us that this complacency is both foolish and dangerous.

I loved the reminder that photography can transmit a message and can activate change. Each piece was though-provoking and shocking. The images stay with me even today, weeks after I visited the museum.

Throughout this semester I have been struggling to find my voice in photography. This exhibit reminded me of the power behind the image. I am more than just a camera, I am an artist and a reporter. And I am capable of affecting change.

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We covered food and an unexpected trip to a photography museum, but that still leaves one thing: The Berlin Wall.

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In Dublin, my roommate met a woman who lived in Berlin. She told us not to go to the wall, that it was boring.

For me, studying abroad is not about beaches and clubs. It is not about shopping and partying. My study abroad experience is about understanding the world we live in. And sometimes that means visiting boring museums or historic sites. Sometimes that means experiencing tragedy, experiencing hardships, experiencing sadness.

Without all of these things – without a certain level of discomfort- history is bound to repeat itself.

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The Berlin Wall stood from 1961 to 1989. For 28 years, families and friends were separated. People were trapped by an oppressive regime. An entire community once united was torn apart by concrete and barbed wire.

At the wall, I read stories of families missing weddings, birthdays, anniversaries. I read about successful escapes and failed escapes. I read about the more than 170 deaths that occurred from people trying to cross the wall. I witnessed the physical remnants of a world divided.

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The history echoed off the remaining pieces of the wall at Bernauer Strabe. The tension hung in the air. Here, people were trapped. People were blockaded. People were locked in concrete prisons. People were isolated.

In the end, there was no reason for the Berlin Wall. It did not stop East Berliners from escaping to West Berlin. In fact, more than 5,000 people managed to cross the wall. The wall was nothing more than an ugly symbol of hate, oppression and control.

As I said before, without a certain level of discomfort, history is bound to repeat itself. I cannot say I had fun reading the names of those who died trying to cross the wall or reading the stories of separated friends and families, but as I walked the path of the wall, I knew I had to be there. I knew I had to see the scar of history still healing over the bloodied land.

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Right now we are at a crossroad. The world is revolving and change is creeping closer and closer. But our fate has not been sealed.

We still have a choice to make: we can choose separation; we can choose to build a wall, or we can choose unity; we can choose to learn from the past and to learn from each other.

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Spray painted on the wall were the words “we never had to put a wall up to keep our people in.” We are all from the same land, from the same earth. We do not need walls to “keep” our people anywhere. We need to take a few pages out of our history books and think critically about the steps we are about to take before we make a critical mistake. Before we close ourselves off to progress. Before we close ourselves off to communication. Before we close ourselves off to each other.

Taming Firenze: If Ever You Go To Dublin Town

“I want to reveal in a simple way the usual – and unusual – life of the city; the corporation workman, the busmen, policemen, the civil servants, the theatres, Moore Street and also, what occupies so large a place in Dublin’s life, the literary and artistic.”

Patrick Kavanagh

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It would be easy to sum up Dublin as the town of good beer and good people. It would be easy to write about the Guinness storehouse, the Brazen Head Pub and the taxi driver who directed us to our bus stop. But none of that would do this city an ounce of justice.

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In between hanging out in pubs, eating fish and chips and pouring the perfect pint of Guinness, I explored the cultural roots of Dublin.

It is so hard to discuss what I did in Dublin. What stands out most in my memory instead is how I felt. How I felt walking through the green, grassy parks, how I felt listening to the profound words of Dublin’s great literary geniuses in the Writers Museum, how I felt watching Dublin’s identity unfold on the winding, colorful alley-wall tucked in a corner of the city.

Dublin spoke to the writer in me – how could it not? A city built on poets and playwrights alike, it is a place of wit, of language, of conversation.

With bookstores on every corner and the literary history flowing madly through the River Liffey itself, this city reminded me of what it means to be a writer.

The first sign I saw that lassoed me in love with this city sat on the sidewalk across the street from our hostel. It read “drink good coffee, read good books” and had a loopy arrow pointing toward a bright blue storefront labeled “Books Upstairs.”

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I spent a good hour navigating the cluttered bookshelves, scanning titles and preparing to empty my wallet.

I have spent a lot of time in bookstores in different countries. I dropped a lot of time and money at a two-story book store in China. I’ve visited bookstores in Italy. I scanned the pop-up bookstores along the Seine River in Paris. In Berlin I went to a comic book store and a magazine shop. The unique thing about this particular bookstore in Dublin was its dedication to its own culture.

Books Upstairs had an overwhelming selection of books from Irish writers – not just the famous names of the past, but also contemporary writers as well.  From poetry to children’s books, to novels, to nonfiction, to zines, to literary journals this shop proved to me that Dublin’s writing culture lives on as vibrantly as it did in the times of Joyce, of Yeats, of Wilde.

After spending more money than I care to admit, we visited the cafe upstairs. A sign on the wall immediately caught my attention: “WiFi-Free Zone. This is a place for reading, talking and drinking coffee.” Maybe I’m being overdramatic, but when I saw this cafe and read this sign, I envisioned myself cozied up on the couch next to the window writing my first novel (cue eye rolls from all of my readers).

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The energy of this tiny town bursts from its tiny, colorful doors and quaint, cozy neighborhoods. Its spirit cannot be contained. Its history and identity tingles on your tongue, in your nose, in your lungs. No other city has resonated with me quite the way that Dublin did.

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The most defining interaction of my study abroad experience so far occurred before entering the Guinness Storehouse. When I presented my student visa to the woman at the ticket counter, she asked me what I was studying in Italy. I answered photography. Her eyes grew wide and sparkly. With awe in her voice, she asked:

“You can do that in America? Study photography?”

To so many people, America is still a dream-like land of opportunity. It is a place where you can follow your passions. Where even the impossible can be possible.

Whether this is the truth or not is not for me to decide. But my brief conversation with this woman made one thing very apparent: traveling changes perspective more than anything else. For two days, I allowed myself to fall head over heals for tiny city so far removed from the rest of the world. As I would do anything to return to this place, so many people would do even more to leave.

We all have it in our minds that there is always somewhere waiting for us. Some mythical, magical place where we will have the freedoms to be who we’ve always wanted to be. Not all of us are lucky enough to reach those coveted places. So maybe it’s time to stop searching for ourselves in cafes across the ocean and start looking for ourselves in our own skin and bones.

I do not need to return to Dublin to live out my dreams of becoming a writer. The woman at the Guinness storehouse does not need to move to America to become a photographer. Our identities reside within ourselves, not the places we grew up.

” ‘I am Defeated all the time, yet to Victory I am born.’

“Being Irish has a lot to do with having the courage and determination to know this and to drive towards excellence. Being human is to know that greed is not a virtue, that we are all part of a greater design; we call nature. That Ireland is one piece in this giant jigsaw puzzle and that we are responsible both physically and metaphysically for this piece.”

A piece about Irish culture, as seen on a street in Dublin

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Taming Firenze: Milan

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Fashion, Food, Furniture and stolen wallets. I learned a lot in Milan.

Our trip to Milan was the third of four trips Kent State organized for us. This trip was only for students in the College of Communication and Information. There were about 20 of us spending the weekend with our professors Fabio and Nicoletta.

We spent most of our time taking in the rich and diverse culture of Milan. Unlike most cities in Italy, Milan is a city of progress. There are few remains of history there. Everything is new, modern and stylish.

When we first arrived we toured a little bit of history: The Duomo of Milan. The beautiful stained glass windows towered nearly from floor to ceiling, casting the church in a technicolor glow. The macabre statues and the sarcophagus of Saint Charles Borromeo breathed an erie wind into the gigantic cathedral.

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Even this cathedral is uniquely Milan – it’s flashy facade and it’s imposing size make it a glamorous addition to the modern, high-fashion district in which it resides. Like a queen overlooking a kingdom, she watches tourists, locals and even pigeons fight for the right to bask in her charm.

After touring the Duomo, we embarked on a brief walking tour. We walked through the Galleria Vittorio, a street covered with a large glass roof, toward Sforza Castle, another of the few remnants from Milan’s past.

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As a gesture to ensure good luck, tourists come to the mosaic tile in the Galleria Vittorio. The tradition is as follows: place your right foot in the hole on the bull’s body and pivot clockwise in a full circle. 

We then attended a lecture at The University of Milan. Unlike most Italian universities, which are usually spread out across the city, The University of Milan has a central campus. It is an American style university with all of its buildings within walking distance, dorms and places to eat or socialize.

It was refreshing to step foot on a college campus again.

In the lecture, we learned about society’s fixation with “Anti-Heroes” in modern television. It was interesting to learn about the similarities and differences between Italian and American television.

The next day brought us to the  Porta Nuova District (new district) of Milan. We explored the sleek and modern architecture, finding home in the familiar shade of skyscrapers. The new district had fashion, shopping, food and even an art gallery.

 

We made a pit-stop in Corso Como to visit a photo exhibit, sun bathe in a roof top garden and drool over beautiful (and way too expensive) concept books for photography, art, fashion and design.

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The view from the roof of Corso Como.

Later that day we visited La Triennale di Milano, a design museum featuring work by famous Italian designer Mario Bellini. From the exhibit, we learned about Bellini’s design inspiration and his huge impact on Italy. His attention to detail and his incredible design process reminded me of the importance of design and architecture. It also reminded me that, while they are closely related, art and design are very different.

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At the Armani Silos, I also learned that art and design could not exist without each other.

Condescending glares from museums employees aside, the Armani Silos was an incredible experience. To see gowns, suits and accessories designed and crafted by Giorgio Armani up close and in person is a dream-like adventure into colors and textures. His use of materials brings the mannequins to life. The garments control the room; they dictate the light and hypnotize the viewer.

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Armani’s inspiration from other artists  was beautifully apparent from the thoughtful curatorial decisions, such as the powerful red glow meant to emulate Rothko’s masterful use of vibrant color, or the wallpaper reminiscent of Matisse’s flower paintings.

Armani is a designer whose understanding and appreciation of art builds his platform for creation.

I also made it to two more art museums, Museo del Novecento and Piazza Reale. Museo del Novecento is a museum dedicated to Italian contemporary art, particularly Futurist art.

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In Museo del Novecento, we entered a kinetic exhibit that required viewers to sign a release form. This strange hall of flashing lights and turning mirrors made for a great model session. 

We spent our very last hour (more like 20 minutes) at Piazza Reale rushing through a Keith Haring exhibit. I didn’t have much time to focus on the pieces, but I still took in the bright colors and bold emotion of Haring’s incredible work.

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In between walks through history and tours through museums, we explored the lively city. Despite getting pick-pocketed on the crowded metro, I  felt welcomed by Milan. Its freshness. Its focus on design and aesthetics.

It is a trendy city with a grand future looming not far ahead on its path.

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Milan is a city moving forward ever faster, and it is not likely to stop any time soon.

 

Taming Firenze: Budapest, Vienna and Salzburg

This weekend I spent a day in Budapest, a day in Vienna, a day in Salzburg and a lot of time on a bus.

My first (and I wish I could say my last) bus trip through Europe brought me through three beautiful cities with rich histories. I learned that I prefer planes to buses, I don’t like group dinners and that in Budapest you do not have to be a good dancer to have a good time.

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Budapest’s history is vast. A fairly small city just now finding itself after centuries of being the monkey in Eastern Europe’s complicated game of “monkey in the middle,” it is filled with character.

From the intricate architecture, the towering castles and the monuments whispering reminders of Hungary’s complicated past, it became easy to love this city.

Hungary is relatively new to the game of democracy – their democratic system is just under 30 years old – and they still have a lot of wounds to mend.

There were two memorials (more like two-and-a-half) that really struck me. The first was a monument essentially taking the blame of the Holocaust away from Hungary and placing it on Germany.

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This memorial shows a giant metal eagle, representing Germany, attacking a statue of the Archangel Gabriel, representing Hungary. It is meant to honor “all the victims” in the German occupation of Hungary.

Many members of the city believe that the depiction of Germany attacking Hungary is not the whole truth – that this monument is an attempt at covering up Hungary’s role in the Holocaust.

More interesting than this monument is the counter-protest set up before it.

 

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A large barbed wire fence stretches along the sidewalk across the street. Attached to it are pictures, letters and names. Below it are flowers, rocks and mementos of the past. It is a pop-up cemetery reminding the city of the people it sentenced to death.

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Another equally haunting memorial stands by the river: a long line of copper shoes scattered mere inches from the water.

This memorial recalls the brutal murders of the countless people (many of them Jewish) who were mercilessly shot into the river.

A fascist militia, the Arrow Cross, rounded up Jewish people in the dead of night, brought them to the river and forced them to remove their shoes before firing at them.

Our tour guide told us they still found human remains in the Danube river.

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But Budapest is not just a city of blood and carnage. It is a beautiful city investing in art and political reform. Its beautiful churches remain proud and stoic in the middle of its busy squares. Its rolling mountains found on the Pest side of the river keep careful watch over the Buda side. Its famous hot springs flow continuously, refreshing and purifying all who come to visit.

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I witnessed young men drinking beer and laughing with homeless men on the street. I witnessed a gay couple’s bachelor party on the dance floor of a bar. I witnessed a group of pre-schoolers holding hands and walking home in the rain.

I learned about a city with a complicated and tragic history. I witnessed a city with a vibrant and limitless future.

Our tour guide put it best when he told us this: “Our parliamentary system was put together in two weeks. Our democracy is 20 years old. What really takes time to change is this tiny, three-cubic center thing inside our skull. That can take generations.”

A man sits in a car on a rainy day in Budapest, Hungary.

Vienna

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I can say definitively that Vienna is the most beautiful city I have ever been to. With a soft, pastel color palette unifying each and every neighborhood, giant, palace-like architecture on every street, wide, open sidewalks free of litter and large, winding gardens green and blooming with life, no city could ever compare.

Walking through the city felt like walking through a cloud. The air was clear and fresh. The people were kind. The colors were soft and light. The whole city felt like cotton candy and feather pillows.

 

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On our walking tour we learned about Vienna’s bizarre and dramatic history. We learned about cocaine-addict and lesbian royalty, the strange alternate uses for horse drawn carriages and the secret symbols of sex carved into the facade of the Stephansplatz Cathedral.

The most enchanting part of Vienna, though, was our night at the Opera.

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For only four euro, I and a couple friends packed into the standing-room-only section of one of the most famous opera houses in the world. For one hour, we watched music come to life.

The orchestra gave breath to notes on a page, stringing them together into a masterpiece of melody and harmony. They worked like a music box, swinging violin arms in tandem with the conductor. Each instrument complemented the other. They spoke in unison, changing pitch and tempo with the ease of a tumbling waterfall.

The performers onstage were like Sirens. Luring us into their embrace, their voices rose and fell with all the power and all the softness of the sea. As they cast their melodic spell, we had no choice but to listen and to fall in love.

Vienna was a beautiful and inviting city. It gave us new friends, new opportunities and new air. I left with lungs full of breath – feeling light, feeling weightless.

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Salzburg

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When in Salzburg there’s only one thing to do: take a bus to the top of a mountain and yodel your heart out.

In other words, go on a “Sound of Music” tour.

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Even if you don’t like “Sound of Music,” (I’m judging you if you don’t) this four hour trip through the mountains takes you to breathtaking views of lakeside villages, quaint and colorful towns and even the headquarters of red bull.

As we wound our way up the mountains, we sang along to the scratchy CD that our tour guide carried around in her purse. We belted operatic melodies, we learned our do re mi’s and, of course, we yodeled – or tried to.

Along the way we also learned the history of the Von Trapp family and some secrets of the film.

We learned that two different houses were used as the front and the back of the Von Trapp house, the gazebo in “Sixteen Going On Seventeen” had to be built larger in an LA studio to accommodate the choreography and that the Von Trapp family never did escape through the mountains, but took a train to Switzerland instead.

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We also learned that Maria and The Captain never really did fall madly in love, but that the Von Trapp children played “cupid” and convinced the two to marry because they wanted her to be their new mother.

But that wouldn’t have made for a very good movie.

Our tour guide told us that Maria Von Trapp decided to join the convent as a way to thank God for the beauty of the mountains in Salzburg. It was said that after she travelled there from Vienna for the first time, she fell madly in love.

The mountain views of the crystal blue lakes and colorful houses dotting the dips of the valleys cannot be recreated by photos.

As our bus began to carry us on our journey home, the sun wove through the crests on the mountains. It shone bright, casting golden light on the tiny, snow-covered neighborhoods.

The world there was quiet. Life was small. Days were always peaceful. And everything was beautiful.

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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: Much Ado About London

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London, England. So much to say about this city. From the art to the food to the sights, we fell fast and hard for the United Kingdom’s beautiful capital.

The most refreshing part of our trip was the thrill of understanding locals. While Italy is a beautiful country with an equally beautiful language, there is something incredibly alienating about living in a country where you cannot easily communicate.

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Overhearing conversation is such an integral part of city life – of life in general. It is a quick and fast way to make a connection – as brief and fleeting as it may be –  with a stranger.

As a journalist I am a natural communicator. Without the ability to speak to others, I find myself lost and lonely. I have spent hours scouring Florentine streets starving for little crumbs of English to fill my empty stomach. In London, I was finally able to feast.

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After our initial shock and excitement of understanding the crowds of people around us, we took to the streets to take on our London bucket list.

Item number one: Abbey Road.

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My roommate, born to a family of hardcore Beatles fans, was named after the famous album. So naturally, we risked death multiple times, dashing frantically across the busy Abbey Road intersection, struggling to capture the perfect re-creation of the album cover.

This photo is not as easy to shoot as most would believe. The famous intersection lies on what seems to be the busiest street in this district of London. Commuters don’t care about your Instagram shot, they care about getting home as fast as they can. So they honk, they yell and they do not stop.

We were lucky enough to happen across the world’s most dedicated Beatles fan who was also willing to risk life and limb to help us get the shot we were looking for. He was so prepared he had printed out a picture of the album cover to use for reference.

After my roommate Abbey tried nearly 100 times to take his perfect photo (barefooted and all) he returned the favor.

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Note my roommate Abbey’s bare feet. We were not messing around.

Later that night, I had the opportunity to see one of my favorite Shakespeare plays in the Theatre Royal Haymarket.

Not many people can say that they saw their first live Shakespeare production in London. But I can. And it was as amazing as it sounds.

“Much Ado About Nothing,” a brilliant comedy packed with wit, strong women and Shakespeare’s signature foolishness, never fails to make me smile. This particular production was reimagined in the context of World War I. Jazzy, flashy and glamorous, this interpretation brought out the best in the characters and the plot.

I laughed, I cried and I ate ice cream (intermission ice cream is definitely a trend America needs to adopt). A perfect end to day one in London.

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Florentine street artist Clet made an appearance in London.

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We spent the next morning rushing through the galleries of the Tate Modern.

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Inside the walls of this beautifully curated and wonderfully inclusive museum, I found my old favorites and discovered new ones. I found inspiration from the stunning, mammoth-sized Rothko pieces, the tranquil Monet, the clean and crisp Mondrian, the colorful Matisse, the spirited Guerrilla Girls and so many more.

The Tate reminded me how diverse and impactful art can be. Artists from all over the world found their places along the gallery walls. I saw documentaries about public protest, photo stories about the fight for women’s rights in India and colorful portraits celebrating women in history who spoke out for equality.

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Through the shouts of the artists I encountered, through their bold movements and their loud cries, I began to find my voice as a photographer again. I was reminded that art and journalism are not always separate – in fact they work better in tandem, each one complementing the other.

I am incredibly grateful to the Tate Museum for reminding me that I am an artist, and that in my field “art” is not a dirty word.

After the Tate we took a break from reality and embraced our inner-children at a vintage tea party.

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In the basement of Betty Blythe Vintage Tea Room, a quiet cafe nestled on a street corner in the outskirts of London, we spent two hours swapping hats, throwing on dresses and drinking obscene amounts of tea.

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An aesthetic diptych shot in the quaint neighborhood where Betty Blythe  Vintage Tea Room was located.

The pink flowery china, the steaming hot earl grey tea, the crystalline sugar cubes and the closet of clothes and accessories at my disposal took me back to tea parties with my grandmother. Sipping imaginary tea out of plastic cups believing I would one day be royalty – or that I already was.

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Portraits at tea by my talented roommate Gina DeSimone.

It wasn’t exactly tea with the Queen, but it certainly felt like it.

From tea we made our way back to the theatre to see “The Curious Incident of the Dog In the Nighttime.” A phenomenal play with an interactive and breathtaking set, this play follows a boy with autism as he tries to uncover the mysterious details behind the death of his neighbor’s dog.

The play invited the audience into the mind of Christopher, the main character. Through beautifully designed sound, lights and other effects, viewers began to see the world the way Christopher did.

If you ever get the chance to see this incredible play, do not pass it up.

With only one day left, we knew we had to continue the trend of embracing our inner-children at King’s Cross Station.

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Waiting in a line for an hour to get a picture in front of a wall may not sound appealing, but when everyone else in line has shining smiles, Harry Potter costumes and the giddy excitement only found in first-years about to get sorted, it is absolutely a necessary experience while in London.

After watching people of all ages run through the wall to the magical world of Harry Potter, I finally took my turn. Slytherin scarf wrapped around my neck, I grabbed my cart and my wand and prepared for Hogwarts.

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London was a long, deep breath. Like stepping off the tube (be sure to “mind the gap”) onto the solid, stable platform in the Paddington Underground Station. Our weekend in London felt like a refreshing pause.

I managed to escape the pressures of internship applications and resume writing with dress-up games and day trips to Hogwarts. I found inspiration again from the beautifully crafted plays and the breathtaking Tate Modern.

London reminded me that communication is easy and people are nothing to be afraid of.

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I have often used the Italian language barrier as an excuse to not do good work. In reality, I was just scared. Scared that Italians hated Americans. Scared that I would bother everyone I met. Scared to make my voice heard.

I learned from the Irish woman next to me at the theatre, from the college boy who stopped to talk to us near Big Ben and from the  friendly German girl in our hostel that we all want to listen and to be heard.

Sharing a language might make this easier, but language barriers do not make it impossible.

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