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: 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: 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: 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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Taming Firenze: Brussels

“This city of contrasts, symbolic of the surrealist spirit, which continually challenges the confines of seriousness and enchants us just as much as it annoys us.”

Exhibit description at Centrale for Contemporary Art

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If you had asked me what trips I was planning while studying abroad in another country, Brussels would not have been on my list. But for my first trip out of Italy it did not disappoint.

Of course the beauty and innovation of the city was stunning and well worth the trip, but we visited Brussels with a very specific purpose: to see the Philadelphia band Modern Baseball on their European tour.

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My tip to anyone planning to study abroad: if a band you like is going on a European tour, go see them. No matter what city they’re playing in, go see them. Chances are, you’ll end up front row in the smallest, coziest and weirdest venue you’ve ever seen jamming out to your favorite songs with about 50 other audience members – none of whom are from America. You might even get to meet the band.

Aside from the coolest concert ever, it is worth mentioning the incredible food Brussels had to offer. Waffles and chocolate everywhere, fries (or “Frites”) to die for, and beer that puts the U.S. to shame (not that that’s saying much, but, really, this beer was good). Though I will never stop loving Italian food, it was refreshing to trade wine and pizza for beer and sausage.

 

Brussels is a modern city sprinkled with reminders of the past. Yes, there is the ancient beauty of Grand Place and the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula, but there is also the modern beauty of crisp office spaces and innovative design.

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It is a creative city investing in art and progress.

There was no shortage of art in this city. In fact, this city seemed to be made of art. From open air galleries, to the Centrale for Contemporary Art, to a Cat Art Museum, one could not miss the creative spirit of this city.

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We understood its diverse and contrasting history from its vibrant art scene. At Centrale for Contemporary Art, we saw pieces about the Manneken Pis, the famous statue of a little boy peeing. We saw pieces about the Atomium, the large structure designed for the 1958 Brussels world Fair. We saw interpretive pieces embodying the spirit of Brussels from artists’ points of view.

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At MIMA, we saw accessible and relatable art. We saw contemporary art from across the world. We saw art from various cultures that all spoke the same message: question everything.

At The Royal Museums of Fine Art Of Belgium, we saw old masters and new. We saw work from every era. We saw realistic works documenting Belgium’s rich history. We even saw a Rene Margritte exhibit, allowing us to see the city through the eyes of one of Belgium’s most famous artists.

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From all of this stunning art I learned that Brussels is a city with Identity. Though it has struggled throughout history for autonomy, it now understands itself. It understands how to balance multiple languages and dialects. It knows how to balance history and modernity. It knows how to balance reflection with progression. It knows itself even if the rest of the world doesn’t.

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