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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Taming Firenze: Catching Up With My City

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

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

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

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

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Two views of the fountain in Piazza Signoria.

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A book seller at the market.

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

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

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Lottie Doherty outside of Basilica Santo Spirito.

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

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

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

Taming Firenze: Roma Caput Mundi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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