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: Manchester, So Much To Answer For

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This is going to be a really difficult blog post to write for many reasons.

The first is that I did not expect to like Manchester as much as I did. And I don’t know why I liked it so much. It could have been the people. It could have been the beer. It could have been the red brick buildings offering temporary relief from the stale yellow Florentine neighborhoods.

The second is that this was my last trip of the semester. And in a very short period of time I will be going home. Or at least back to America.

The third is that it made me ask myself a lot of questions (more to come on that one).

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On the surface, it pretty much appears that all I did in Manchester was go to pubs and drink beer. While this is true, it was a lot more than that.

Real English pubs, as my cousin Ryland pointed out, are nothing at all like the so-called English pubs you’d find in America. They are not plastered with Union Jacks or Beatles posters or football (soccer, that is, in American) jerseys. They are warm, cozy bars with nooks and corners and soft light. They are quaint. They are quiet – well, not always.

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At the second pub we went to, Peveril of the Peak, I started to realize that I was not in Florence anymore; in fact, I wasn’t anywhere familiar anymore.

The night life in every place I’ve been to has been very different. In Italy it’s about picking up chicks. In Budapest it’s about bad dancing and strong liquor. In America it’s about looking cool on Instagram.

In Manchester it was about having fun. No pretenses, no costumes, no disguises. People of all ages came together at their favorite pub to drink a couple pints and laugh the night away. It was riding the rolling evening waves until the sun set and morning hit.

And when the wave eventually crashed on shore and broke into tomorrow, we hit the streets early to finish up a tour of Manchester.

We walked around the canals, taking in the rich, industrial history of the small city. The old brick buildings and gritty shadows of an industrial past reminded me of North Eastern Ohio: the abandoned train stations, the old factories, the working class spirit that still resonates under the occasional patches of cobblestone streets.

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We also made our way to John Ryland’s Library, a library straight out of the Harry Potter universe.

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After our morning in Manchester, we hopped on a train to Liverpool, where we went to – you guessed it – another pub.

We also explored the cathedral (the newest church I’ve visited all semester) and the Harbor area. And we saved time for some Fish and Chips.

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The highlight of Liverpool for me was the Cavern Club. The Cavern Club is a literal hole in the ground club with live music and lots of history.

Though the real Cavern Club technically does not exist anymore, the bricks from the original foundation were dug up and reused to rebuild the historic club.

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After a few hours in Liverpool, we headed back to Manchester, then to Stockport for one of my favorite experiences of the semester: a night at a Labour Club.

Britain’s Labour Party is a center-left political party with roots in socialism and a heavy focus on the rights of the working class.

This particular night at the Labour Club was a celebration for the newly elected Mayor of Greater Manchester, who happened to be the Labour Party’s candidate (which is lucky, considering they planned the celebration before his victory).

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What I saw at the Labour Club was something that I’ve been missing for a very long time: community. And despite being an “arrogant and ignorant” American, I felt welcomed; I felt like I could have belonged.

During one of the musical acts, I scanned the room. In the soft, purple glow from the stage lights, I saw hopeful faces illuminated. An older crowd, I saw tired eyes and weathered skin. I heard the hushed flutter of conversations, of reunions, of good news and bad. Husbands and wives held hands. Sons and daughters squirmed impatiently in their seats.

One woman in particular caught my eye. As the performers sang out a traditional English folk song, as their harmonies ribboned out toward the audience like the delicate strings of smoke from a June-time campfire, this woman sang along. Warmth radiated from her eyes. She bobbed her head lightly to the gentle crackle of the beat. In her, there was passion.

And that’s what I understood most from the crowd at the Labour Club. A strong, unifying sense of passion. I understood this from Tom who had been been volunteering there for hours and still managed to stay long after most people had left the party. I understood this from Vincent, a bookworm and traveller with an endless supply of curiosity.

The men and women there are dedicated and kind. They want change and they want to take action. They care about each other and they care about their country in a collective way that the competitive, individualistic America could never comprehend.

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At one of the pubs I visited with Ryland on the first night, we talked a little bit about what we missed from America. Without thinking much of it, I started listing off the places I’ve found myself missing most: Target, Chipotle, Wawa, Chick-fi-la. He quickly stopped me. “No, you’re thinking of stores,” he said. And he proceeded to show me pictures of a specific spot on the West Coast – a spot unlike anywhere else he had ever seen.

In that moment I realized that I had not thought about what I was actually missing. There’s no spot of coast that has my heart more than any other. No patch of woods. No city that I could never replace. There’s nothing special or extraordinary about the way Americans treat each other. We are not always kind, not welcoming. Nothing in America has so deeply lodged itself within me that I could never leave.

Speaking to my brother after this, he offered me a piece of wisdom:

“You can still explore the culture, art and history from a different perspective when you’re somewhere else. You can learn to cook the food you miss, you’ll find stores to replace your favorites. The sun, stars and wind are common to the entire world. Geography, climate, people, lifestyle. To me, those are the biggest things that make a place unique.”

When we travel, we spread ourselves apart. We barter with the borders we cross, leaving pieces of our minds and hearts in exchange for reminders of their cultures. It is in our nature to search for home where ever we leave our footprints.

The world has become small this semester, but my heart has become crowded. Crowded with the words from Dublin writers, the paint strokes from Florentine artists, the stories from Berlin’s past.

In that cozy pup in Manchester, tucked away in a corner, balancing my pint on a table precariously rocking on an unusually slanted floor, I felt, for the first time in a long time, that home was closer than I thought. So close, in fact, that I will be able to find it anywhere and everywhere I go.

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Taming Firenze: Croatia

“Split: Paradise city where the sea is blue and the girls are pretty”

The above quote was written on the wall of Hostel En Route, welcoming us to the beautiful coastal country.

Croatia was a refreshing taste of home. The familiar salty ocean air and the delicious taste of seafood brought me back to summers on the beach and on the bay. True, there was no Old Bay on our tables, but Croatian seafood does just well without the peppery, Chesapeake Bay staple.

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The first activity on our itinerary was a whitewater rafting trip down the Cetina River. The crystal clear water and the lush, emerald green forest offered us escape from the cobblestone and cement prison that is our Tuscan home.

We alternated between calm, peaceful waters and flowing, hissing rapids (I can’t exactly say “roaring rapids” because we were only beginners rafting through not-very-dangerous currents). Our guide, a member of Croatia’s National Rafting team, coached us through the staggering rocks and the low-hanging tree branches. As a team, we paddled our way through the beautiful forest toward a traditional Croatian dinner.

As we conquered our final bout of rapids, our guide urged us to lift our paddles and close our eyes. Reluctantly, we complied.

With my eyes closed, I waited for the rocky waters to bounce, bob and shake the yellow raft. The rapids cradled us – held us close and waltzed us quickly down the river. When the waters slowed again, we opened our eyes and breathed deep.

Not only did we whitewater raft in the most beautiful river in Croatia, but we whitewater rafted in the most beautiful river in Croatia with our eyes closed.

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Traditional Croatian trout dinner: before and after

The next day we embarked on a cruise to the island of Brač. The cruise, though a bit cold before the sun came out, was the best way to see Croatia. Hugging the coast, we saw the port fade in the distance, along with the mountains and the peach-pink houses stacked on top of each other.

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My second seafood meal of the weekend, served to me on the boat.

The boat brought us to the beautiful island of Brač, where we pretended it was summer and enjoyed the beach for a few hours.

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I didn’t get much time to explore Split itself, but on the way to the port and on the way to dinner, I managed to see a bit of the beautiful city.

I learned from my friend Nikki who went on the walking tour of Split that much of the city and its culture comes from Venice, thus explaining the Venetian-style architecture and narrow, winding streets. I also saw a bit of Diocletian’s Palace, a beautiful palace where parts of Game of Thrones were filmed.

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For dinner, we went to a literal hole-in-the-wall restaurant that our student adviser, Andy, recommended to us.

This tiny restaurant with about four employees and 15 seats does not take reservations and does not have a closing time. People typically line up early and hope the kitchen doesn’t run out of food by the time they are seated.

Our group of six waited about 45 minutes to be seated. In that time, employees walked outside to cross about 4 entrees off their hand-written menu, signifying that they had run out of the ingredients for those meals for the day.

A woman sitting at a table behind us asked the cook which menu item he liked best. He replied with something along the lines of “Close your eyes and pick something because everything is good. Our food here is all fresh because we buy for the day and we close when we run out. You can’t go wrong here.”

And he was right. My sea bass dinner (the third fish of my weekend) was perhaps the best fish I have ever had in my life, which is saying something because I have been raised on good seafood.

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My third fish dinner: before and after

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On our third and final day, we bused to Krka Waterfalls, a national park about an hour away from Split, and spent a couple hours in the freezing water beneath the falls.

Once in the park, we walked about 20 minutes on a small foot-bridge above the clear water. We walked through the green forest, taking in our last bit of fresh air before boarding a bus and heading back to Florence.

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With all the beauty and familiarity of Croatia aside, I am reminded of our rafting guide’s instructions to close our eyes and let feel the rapids take over. This long and rocky semester has been a jolting mix of rough water and calm water, of murky water and clear water, of hot water and cold water. It has been an untamable mess of new experiences – both good and bad.

At the end of the day, the best advice I can receive is just to close my eyes and feel the dance of the world turning beneath my feet. If I listen now, I can hear the music softening. My time here is humming to a close, and all I can do now is let the water carry me home.

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: 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: 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: 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.

Budapest

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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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