Due anni fa…

doors

Due anni fa, non ho potuto dire questa frase.

Two years ago, I stepped through the most intimidating doors I’d ever faced. They were the doors to the place that was supposed to be my home for the next four months, in the acclaimed city of Florence, Italy. I knew this place was famous, and that it had to be as grand glorious — exalted — as it’s so widely-recognized to be. But what I could not expect was just how influential this city would be…at least for me.

Two years ago, I left my country for the first time, walked through these doors, cried non-stop for a solid day, and almost booked an immediate flight back home. I could not speak Italian, I could not stop crying, and I could not imagine how I’d possibly adjust.

But then I walked out the door.

I plunged into an undiscovered world, and with my eyes, mind and heart wide open, I unlocked its magnificence.

panoramic

I can still feel the excitement surrounding the Duomo — the center always bustling with children chasing pigeons, tour groups scurrying through the crowd, artists selling their works, students rushing to class, bikers whizzing by…

Yet a spell of tranquility would silence the energy with every frozen body staring up in awe.

duomo

I can still smell the fresh water of the Arno River — its calming body channeling the vivacity of the entire city and returning it through each renewing breeze.

arnoriver

I can still hear Paolo singing With or Without You from behind the bar — his voice percolating through the soundtrack of my friends and me zealously attempting to exchange Italienglish with the locals, who helped us develop both a new language and new friendships.

joshuatreepub

I can still taste the unbelievably fresh tomatoes and divine olive oil I’d buy from the market, where I’d spend time after an early class meandering through rustic aisles and exploring every little nook.

mercadocentrale

I can still envision the Santa Maria Novella — its historic facade shepherding the piazza, where hundreds of smiling faces shaped stories of their own each day.

santamarianovella

I can still see myself — not quite the person I am now, and definitely not the person I was exactly two years ago from this day — but certainly the best version of myself there has ever been…the most happy, the most spirited, the most alive.

lizzieinfirenze

arrivederci…

When I look through photos of my time in Italy, my heart actually bends — like the way it feels to look at a photo of a loved one who is no longer with you. A journey that started in tears ended in tears as well — at both points yearning to go back home, but neither referring to the same home.

Italy somehow made me a more complete person. Do not ever let “I can not” stop you from stepping through the door. You just might discover a better version of yourself and a better view of the world once you reach the other side.

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A fragmented sense of political issues in Italy

As a Communications student interested in people, culture and art, I’ve done my fair share of attempting to delve into the minds of the locals surrounding me. One type of observation that always stands out to me are political issues prevalent in Florence (or in Italy in general). Through my cultural encounters, discussions with Italians, and lessons in class, I’ve developed a fragmented sense of five political issues in particular:

Snapped a photo with this street art for you, Dad.

  1. Silvio Berlusconi–that’s a funny joke. As I already knew before coming to Italy, the last prime minister was absolutely horrendous. He overstayed his turn, poorly used his power, contributed towards the European debt crisis, and, uh, touched young girls. Fortunately, he finally resigned in November 2011, but he sure is still spoken of today. Sometimes his name angers people, like the way one of my professors spoke about him. But sometimes his name is just a funny joke–like the “Bonga bonga” theme night at a pub that was all about mocking their ex-prime minister.
  2. Immigrant, shimmigrant. Acquiring your Permit of Stay is an expensive, annoying process demanded by the Italian government in order to stay here legally past a certain number of days. Likewise, it is mandatory to carry around your passport (or a copy) to prove your approval to be in Florence. However, complying with these perturbing tasks will feel absolutely useless as you pass illegal vendors on every main corner of this city. During our orientation, we were told what a major problem illegal immigration is in Italy right now–particularly from Eastern Europe and Africa. Many of these people make a living illegally selling goods on the street, and it’s amazing how it seems to just be accepted. It’s not like you see police going after them or asking for their documents. At night, I once passed a group of them sprinting to their van with their merchandise carried in blankets, so maybe they do get caught at late hours. The crime rate of illegal immigrants is high as well. Between the illegal selling and the crimes, it’s a shame that all immigrants here seem to be discriminated against by Italians–even if they’re legal. I’ve not only learned about it in my class, but have even talked about it with legal immigrants themselves, who are thankful for the better life here but are negatively affected with this. I guess these immigration issues are universal among different countries, because it sounds an awful lot like the US situation.
  3. What “mafia?” Especially in Southern Italy, you will find a complete denial that the mafia exists. It exists. That is all.
  4. American health care doesn’t just upset Americans. From the locals I’ve spoken about politics with, Italians seem to despise American health care. Their proposed solutions, to me, sound so socialized that it’s scary. The difference in philosophies doesn’t surprise me, but what did surprise me is how passionately angry they feel about the issue–even though it’s not even the health care system of their own country. So, be careful when talking about this issue with Italians!
  5. Youth in revolt. Every day I pass posters or street art with political messages–particularly anti-fascist messages. Sometimes, I even see protests of young Italians revolting against these issues. My generation here seems to want a more democratic government, and I’m not sure what they’re going to do about changing it.

The inevitable theft incident…check.

Well, I made it until I only have two weeks left in Europe to have my stuff stolen…

This weekend I was in Munich, Germany for Springfest (which was absolutely incredible–shall blog about it next time I have time). Maybe the perfectness of the weather and the amazing experience made it too good to be true that something bad had to happen. Sometime in the ~45-minute time of leaving the festival tent and walking back to the hostel with my friends, the clutch inside my gym bag went missing–credit card, debit card, driver’s license, school ID cards, health insurance cards, ~200 Euro, and a bunch of other less-important cards…gone. (I had them all on me because I figured it’d be safer on my body than in my empty hostel room–especially since I haven’t seen any problems like this all semester).

Luckily I noticed right when I got back to the hostel, so I was able to cancel my card accounts before they were used. And luckily my passport was still safe. And fortunately I have really supportive friends and family who did what they could to help the situation and calm me down. I know, it’s “just money”–but it’s upsetting in a panicking sense to lose all my money and access to money while still in a foreign country for two more weeks. And just the matter itself is upsetting…You think you’re being careful with where your belongings are stored on your body and who’s walking around you–but yeah, someone delicately opened your bag and took your clutch, maybe even while conversing with you as a comrade.

😦

But with every bad person you encounter, there’s gotta be 100 good ones you meet too. I won’t let this taint my sentiments towards my travels.

“Ugly American” students in Italy

Warning: Incoming rant!

This morning I spent two hours waiting in the Italian Immigration building to have my number called so that I could be fingerprinted for my Permit of Stay. No, I’m not going to rant about this process of red tape similar to going to the DMV. But, I am going to share some thoughts about the “Ugly Americanism” that I see too much of in Italy–the blatant insensitivity and even disrespect towards the Italian culture that is too-often demonstrated by American students here. Remember–as sitting in the Questura this morning reminded me–we are foreigners here, and foreigners who have been here for enough months to understand respectful etiquette and behavior. There is no excuse for the blatant obliviousness, obnoxiousness, insensitivity and lack of effort to respect Italian culture that portrays you as an “Ugly American” student.

Stop expecting Italians to speak English. If someone walked into a shop in America and asked for something in a language other than English, the shopkeeper would be annoyed and look at that person like he or she is crazy. Believe it or not, this concept works in other countries too! If you are in a country which speaks Italian, then you should expect that the people speak Italian. After months of taking an Italian course [and living in Italy], you should at least know how to say the simple phrases that you need in order to get by…and you should actually use them. It blows my mind when American students capable of saying something simple like “Buon giorno. Posso avere il panino con mozzarella e pomodori, per favore?” will instead ask “Hi, can I have [points to desired sandwich].” Some students will even get frustrated and annoyed with the shop keeper if he/she reacts in a confused manner. You’re in a different country that speaks a different language: why the hell would you just expect them to gracefully receive your speaking in English? Just TRY to speak the Italian you know!–A failed effort at Italian is much better received than an ignorant assumption of English. Furthermore, if you don’t know how to say what you need to say in Italian, then you should first ask if the other person speaks English. “Parla inglese?” is all–hell, even just “English?” can communicate that question. Stop walking up to a front desk and immediately speak in English without any respect for the possibility that the Italian you are speaking to in Italy might only speak Italian and therefore not understand you.

Stop getting frustrated with people for cultural differences. Once again, you are in a different country, so some things will probably be different. No one can make you stop being frustrated with adjustments you can’t handle, but you need to stop attributing your own culturally-conjured “faults” towards the people from another culture. That barista is not a horrible employee for not serving you coffee in a to-go cup: to-go cups for coffee are not the norm here. That waitress is not giving you bad service for not bringing your bill yet: the norm is to not rush your dinner, and to wait for the customer to ask for the bill. Stop evaluating people based on your own cultural norms.

Don’t parade effusive American patriotism. The other night, a bunch of students threw an “America Party” at an Italian bar I was at. They piled in with their red, white and blue and exerted their American pride, even with Italians in the same place. Another night, someone kept hollering an obnoxious “TO AMERICA!” at dinner in a quaint Italian restaurant. Stop making us all look like arrogant assholes, please…

/endrant

Song lyrics to live by while abroad

For centuries we’ve been told this message in film, music, literature and all kinds of cultural expressions conjured from ancient times to the Grand Tour and beyond: going abroad will change you. I don’t know how much I’m undergoing change versus how much I’m just rediscovering who I really am and what values are truly important to me…but all I know is that I am the purest form of happy that I’ve been in a long time, and I hope the mentalities I’m [re]learning never fade.

I can feel my life-balance being restored. I can see a glowing aura return. There is passion, curiosity, self-confidence, love and generosity surging through my body again with an intangible force that can’t be reckoned with. For once, I feel complete for accepting that I am incomplete.

This blog began with a post that told my story through three songs which guided my initial journey here. Now, at about the half-way point (/cry), I’d like to highlight a few song lyrics that have really struck me when hearing them over the past few weeks. These–especially the last one, in my travel-lovestruck opinion, are words to live by while abroad…and hopefully beyond:

“Just for Tonight” by The Tonight Life

I’ve had enough of
wasting my time on
trying to make up my mind.

Tonight’s the night that it all comes alive,
’cause kids like us our hearts will never die.
My mind is always spinning
and I still don’t know the meaning,
sleeping dreaming talking breathing,
oh my God it keeps repeating.

“The Cave” by Mumford & Sons

Cause I need freedom now
And I need to know how
To live my life as it’s meant to be

And I’ll find strength in pain
And I will change my ways
I’ll know my name as it’s called again

“Bottled Wind” by Polar Bear Club

So let me tell you once and not again
Are we half asleep or walking dead?

I’ll tell it and be done,
Sinking is how swimming isn’t sunk

“Come Talk to Me” by Peter Gabriel

Whatever fear invents, I swear it make no sense
I reach out through the border fence

“Master of Art” by Laura Stevenson and the Cans

until I am a Master of Art,
Until I have done everything.

And we’ll move to it away,
Won’t break our fingers when we wake up
And we’ll stay inside a shape,
And we will never ever worry
Never ever worry, yeah.

“Reasons Not to Be An Idiot” by Frank Turner

So get up and get down and get outside.
‘Cause it’s a lovely sunny day,
But you hide yourself away.
You’ve only got yourself to blame.
Get up and get down and get outside.

“Miles Davis and the Cool” by The Gaslight Anthem

Now honey, put on your red dress,
and your diamond soled shoes.
Climb on down from that window,
climb on out of your room.

My how the years and our youth pass on.

“I knew Prufrock before he got famous” by Frank Turner

Life is about love,
last minutes and lost evenings,
About fire in our bellies and furtive little feelings,
And the aching amplitudes that set our needles all a-flickering,
And help us with remembering that the only thing that’s left to do is live.

After all the loving and the losing,
For the heroes and the pioneers,
The only thing that’s left to do
Is get another round in at the bar.

Daily Failtales: Week 5

Why did I eat that?

Today, I went to the annual gastronomy fair in Florence–a trade show of culinary delicacies that infuse the science, art and consumption of food and drinks. (I might go into detail about this in a near-future blog post). Anyway, the place was swarmed by food snobs and buyers in the food industry, but visitors could pay a 15 Euro entrance fee to also access all these fancy samplings of products. So, I skipped breakfast/lunch and made it my mission to make the most out of my ticket. I figured, why not try everything?

WRONG THINKING. Sure, some of the unfamiliar tasted fantastic! But when handed a fishy product on a toothpick, my instinct was “Do not eat this.” I ate it anyway. And then I suffered.

As soon as I put that fish in my mouth, I looked at Heather with this forewarning look of DON’T DO IT. I couldn’t bite into it again, and I could not tolerate the accumulation of horrible fishy taste sitting in my mouth. As I slid towards the wall and frantically searched my purse for a tissue, I noticed bystanders notice me holding back gags. I managed to somewhat subtly spit out the fish into a tissue and toss it away, but THE TASTE WAS STILL SO POTENT. AND SO HORRENDOUS. I couldn’t even tolerate to swallow the tainted saliva in my mouth. I looked at Heather very seriously and said, “We need vino.” So we quickly sought the nearest wine stand. Of course the vendor took her jolly time opening the wine and schmoozing with the wine snobs in front of us. I was dying.

My stomach has felt weird for the rest of the day. Non mi piace. 😦

LESSON LEARNED: Trying new things is part of traveling, but sometimes it’s ok to trust your instincts about not trying food that you suspect you may have a PHYSICAL AVERSION to.

A seriously NOT OK miscommunication

I really enjoy mingling with locals and attempting to converse with them in Italienguish. It generates the most fun, interesting and cultural experiences, but it also lends itself to some of the most mortifying mistakes.

Last night, Heather and I were playing poker at our regular hangout, and had a couple different groups of Italians join us at different points. After a while of playing and talking with one of these groups, one of the guys pointed to my ring and asked if I am married. He then jokingly asked if I am hoping to get married while I am in Italy. (Well, I thought he was joking). So I jokingly replied, with exaggerated facial gestures soaking in sarcasm, “è possibile!” and laughed…except he didn’t catch on that I was joking.

I did not know the translation for “I am joking/kidding/playing,” but Heather tried to see if in English he’d understand “She’s just playing.” He and his friends understood “playing” not in the context of the tone of our conversation, but in the context of the subject of our conversation: they understood it as I am playing around with men in Italia.

That one took a moment to clear up. Good thing they weren’t creepy.

LESSON LEARNED: Either don’t be sarcastic while speaking Italian, or learn how to say “I am joking.” Better yet, if someone asks if you’re married, just say SI! 😀

I’m not crying…

I went for a glorious 7-mile run yesterday…but ran into an issue. The cool air was making me sniffle, and the pollen was making my eyes tear. These were especially affecting me during a part of my run when I was charging up a steep hill–“charging” as in using every ounce of might in me to slowly ascend up the hill like Wile E. Coyote failing at acceleration. As the tourists and Italians atop the hill looked down on me, I realized that I did not only look like I was struggling to run up the hill, but the sniffles and teary eyes additionally made it appear that I was crying. They were probably like, “Poor, fat American girl…too out of shape to run up the hill without crying.” 😦

LESSON LEARNED: Well, not much I can do about this one…

8 Distinctions between EU soccer vs US sports games

We’ve all heard the stereotypes about soccer fans: in a negative light, their aggression, violence and crazy antics; in a positive light, their energy, loudness, and undying loyalty. Well, I’ve witnessed the latter to be true.

Yesterday’s Fiorentina vs Cesena soccer game is one of the most cultural experiences I’ve encountered while in Florence. Sure, there are plenty of similarities between professional American sports fans and these European soccer fans: wearing the team’s gear, tailgating before the game, cheering and heckling. But these soccer fans are just so much cooler!

Anyway, here are some of the overall key distinctions I found between this pro Italian soccer game I attended versus pro football and baseball games I’ve attended in the United States (Note: This is only based on my impressions of this one game I’ve attended! So some observations might not be a great representation):

Credit: zimbio.com

  1. More affordable entry. I don’t know if prices skyrocket towards the end of the season, but the soccer ticket prices I saw here seemed really affordable to me. Mine was 7 Euro, not for a bad spot either. I suppose some prices of the best seats can be somewhat comparable to baseball price tickets, but they still seemed mostly cheaper overall.
  2. More hardcore entry process. There were several steps to enter the stadium. Along with the typical procedure of entering at your gate and having purses checked, we had to get our tickets stamped and enter through a barred gate one by one then show identification to match our ticket (passport, license, etc). I was a little nervous when my bag was being checked, because I got pulled over to the side thanks to my little bag with make-up and feminine products. Apparently that security guard found lipstick and tampons to be suspicious? The female guard was called over and helped me out, though.
  3. Lack of cameras. Fans are not allowed to bring cameras into the stadium. I don’t know if it was this Firenze stadium in particular, or if this is a standard, but I was intrigued. At first, I found it kind of disappointing, unnecessary and fascist. But in the end, it was kind of nice. The crowd was all about experiencing the game rather than documenting it. Also, there were barely any TV/broadcasting cameras recording the game, which is also very different from what you’d see at pro (and even college) games in the US.
  4. No one cares about your seat number. At least in our section, the only people who bothered to seek out their row and seat number were the American students who had clearly never been to a game like this before. People just sat anywhere in the section, and a substantial amount of people preferred to just stand behind or sit up on the railings. I ended up standing up there for a bit too…it was a very casual atmosphere.
  5. Eat/drink before the game. Like at American sports games, tons of people were outside drinking beers and eating outside the stadium before the game (except replace grilling burgers with buying gelato and panini). Then during the game, I observed very few people buying food or drinks inside. At the start of the game, there were some men I saw drinking beer, but then that was it. It was very different from American games, which constantly have people getting up and down to grab food and drinks. Only one drink vendor came around only one time, too.
  6. Undying energy of the crowd. Going along with the notion of no eating/drinking during the game, the Fiorentina fans were just so incredibly energetic. At US sports games, sure we cheer, we heckle, we chant now and then…but we often wait for the queue of a song or a digital banner to tell us to do so, and still it isn’t always loud and clear. Too many people are just quietly sitting and eating their hotdogs. But this crowd was AWESOME. There was a nonstop energy of flag-waving, cheering, ridiculously unified chanting instigated by one section of a crowd and carried out throughout the stadium, and even unified motions like jumping to them. I’ll admit that I have sometimes seen this at some sections of NFL or college basketball games, and that maybe those pro American sports games just have so many more people that you could never except such a massive energy…but man, was that cool!
  7. Ghetto bathrooms. When I entered the stall, I wondered if I accidentally entered the guys’ room, because I swear there was basically a urinal below me. A low, sink-like thing with no toilet seat. Not sure if this is relatively standard or just a Firenze stadium thing, but I felt compelled to include this nonetheless.
  8. Noticeably unbalanced gender ratio. There seemed to be a significantly greater number of males at the game than females. Lots of groups of guys–both young and old–and lots of fathers/uncles with sons/nephews. The nice thing is, they are all so ridiculously focused on the game and their bro experience that they didn’t seem to hit on the girls like you’d expect at least a few creepy Italian men to do! 😛