Saturday, December 12, 2009

Reaching the End

Travel journal entry written for my Lit class, "Italy and the Literary Imagination."

They say that when you travel, it's time to depart as soon as you begin to feel at home.  I thought I'd skipped ahead.  I'd fallen into a Roman rhythm, a rut that was familiar and endearing, and I missed it when I left the city for ten days on Fall Break.  But another month has passed, and things have changed again.

Each day I've sunken deeper into intimacy with the ancient city.  What began as a spark has transformed into a pulsating flame, which is fueling a cavernous range of emotions.  My eyes tear up when I think of leaving, but I also miss home more desperately than ever.  Yesterday, Jade and I made French toast for lunch and went out for Chinese at night, but I'm dreading the day when I won't have access to fresh, amazing Italian food every day of the week.  6:30 am on December 22 shifted from an indefinite point in the foggy future to a week from Tuesday.  That scares and excites me in amounts that I don't have the ability to measure.

I've been asked "How's Italy?" and "How do you like Rome?"  When I'm home the questions will remain, although they'll unfortunately be shifted into the past tense.  Italy is a foreign country, foreign in so many tangible ways, with the better and worse inextricably bound together.  Who am I to delineate, itemize and judge?  It wouldn't duplicate the experience.  But no one wants to repeat the past few months of my life.  Something small, candy-coated and easy to swallow will do just as well.  In my reflections, I try to be honest.  I say that I've grown up this semester, grown more confident and independent; that Italy is beautiful; that Rome is a rich old city with endless churches, museums and monuments to explore.  I can dredge up a few anecdotes if they ask for more detail.

Soon I won't be able to end the questioning by logging off Skype or closing Facebook.  I won't walk down Via Giulia in the morning, dodging speeding motorcycles, quickening my pace every time I check my watch, certain I'll be late for class.  I won't order una piccola coppia di gelato and wince when I hear the American pronunciation, juh-law-dough (particularly when it slips from my own mouth).  I won't worry about whether the grocery store is still open when I want to make dinner.  I won't watch the news in puzzlement, trying to figure out what story is being covered.  I won't experience the bliss of a sunny winter afternoon in Rome, mercifully free of snow and gloom.  I won't wake up and fall asleep in my own room with fifteen-foot-high ceilings.  Soon I'll be home, with my memories and pictures and the building blocks of a new language.  And I'll live another life that will bear great similarity to the one I led before.  There will be differences, subtle and grand, because I've changed.  But I can't take everything home: Italian people and places will remain rooted in Italian soil, and while I'll spend months trying to articulate what I experienced abroad, I'll never make anyone understand completely.  I might not even get it myself.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Immaculate Conception Day

It's an Italian holiday, Immaculate Conception Day, so I've had the day off school.  Yesterday was my last Italian class, and tomorrow finals commence.  I've been listless and indolent, reluctant to study, and my greatest accomplishments of the day include making vegetable soup, hanging up laundry, and listening to Italian language podcasts.  I picked out a few pictures for my free photo assignment, and I tried to send them to my professor, but I couldn't think of a single thing to journal about them.  I thought putting them onto the blog might inspire me.

Oh, and I was also inspired by my classmate Abby's blog, which has been far more regularly updated than mine and makes me wish I'd gone to Siena this semester!

A bell tower at Subiaco Monasteries, the oldest Western monasteries in the world.  I tagged along with a Religion class and enjoyed the trip into the Italian countryside, despite the nippy mountain air and the fact that I hadn't yet purchased a winter coat.

Villa Adriana, Tivoli.  Hadrian built this little haven from which he could supervise the enormous building project that was going on all around him, and it's an incredibly tranquil little island (which unfortunately we couldn't enter).  I love this picture because the reflection is absolutely crystal clear and there are lots of curving lines.

Statues in Villa Borghese.  These are two of the best faces I've come across in Roman statues, and I took several pictures to try to capture the expressions.  The creepy guy on the right reminds me of a cartoon character (Rasputin, perhaps?).  This is actually the only detail picture included here, even though I've taken so many; it is, after all, a Photographing Art and Monuments class, and I'm trying to include more work that falls under that category.

Ara Pacis, along the Tiber. This building takes my breath away.  It's so simple, and so incredible.  With the trees that line the Tiber reflecting off its surface, it's as if it's covered by a wall of nature.  The museum houses an "altar to peace" built between 13 and 9 BC.

Interior of the Colosseo.  I took lots of interesting pictures there, and this is one of my favorites because the forbidding nature of the subject helps to conjure the gigantic scale with which the place was built.  Unless you look at the people milling around on the other side, you can gaze into the middle of the Colosseo and forget how big it really is.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Holiday Away

Thanksgiving in Rome! Significant for many reasons, not the least of which is that I only have three weeks remaining in la bella città - well, and a few extra days at the end of the semester, which I'm planning to spend in Florence if by some miracle I still have enough cash to get me there and back, and into at least one museum.

Anyway, IES hosted a Thanksgiving meal and we brought food to share with each other. We were running around like giddy children asking our professor to start class late and burning half-molded chestnuts on scented candles. Jade and I brought banana bread, which our host mom and sister liked so much that we cooked it again today.

I spent the morning working on an assignment for the internship I started this week with an Amherst alum's Rome-based lobbying group. They're opening a new office in Brussels so I was researching EU policy and lobbying competitors. Nothing terribly exciting, but once I got into it I found that I do enjoy learning about political mechanisms. Now I'm trying to figure out how many hours it took, and thinking that being paid by the hour instead of by output is incredibly inefficient.

I'm halfway through two great novels: Anna Karenin, which I started at the beginning of the semester for fun, and Portrait of a Lady, which I started last week for class. Fortunately I was sick when we discussed James' book in class - otherwise I would have found out what happens at the end! And I love it too much to have it ruined for me.

I signed up for a Google Wave account. It looks pretty interesting, and I'm sure it'll be big soon...I just don't quite understand it yet, and since my friends don't have it it's a little useless at the moment. I have a couple invites left, but you can find one pretty easily online (I got one through twitter).

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Starting Classes Tomorrow

I'm a full week into Italian classes, but the semester doesn't officially begin until tomorrow. I've had a great couple of weeks of sightseeing, hanging out with new friends, and getting to know the city, but tomorrow I'll go from being an American tourist to a full-time student.

I've been to the Trevi Fountain twice, once during the day and again at night. It's beautiful whether it's topped by the sun or stars (although, come to think of it, I haven't actually looked at the night sky here and determined whether stars are visible).

The fountain isn't far from the Spanish Steps, which Nina and I stumbled across while we were looking for it last week.

Roman streets are like tunnels with the top opened up. They're impossible to navigate; I pity anyone who has to learn to drive in this city.

Inside Santa Maria in Trastevere, a church blocks from my apartment building. Piazza Santa Maria is alive at night; yesterday, in the wee hours of the morning, I was surprised to see a couple pushing a baby in its stroller in the piazza.

This statue, and several like it, overlooks the bridge that crosses the Tiber, going from the IES Center to Castel Sant'Angelo.

A view of St. Peter's Square in the heart of Vatican City that includes the famous Basilica San Pietro.

Inside the Basilica. It's an incredible, overwhelming experience: the crowds lit with camera flashes, as if fireflies winked throughout the space; guards at the chapel areas, only allowing in those who are there to pray rather than sightsee; tourist groups in matching shirts, each with a unique language rattling between them; awestruck faces looking up and taking in the magnificence; and below, in the tombs of the popes, a group gathered to pray at the grave of Pope John Paul II, and loudspeaker announcements telling tourists to pause, reflect, and keep quiet, as they are walking through a sacred space.

It rained this morning, so I didn't go to the Porta Portese Flea Market; I still haven't bought an umbrella, and I didn't want to get soaked. But I had an excellent weekend that included another trip to the beach, and I'm eager to plunge into academics tomorrow with the freshness and excitement that summer bestows.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Come si dice "Rome is the best place on the planet"?

This morning I was hit by a car.

I had to be up early for a Permit to Stay meeting at the post office, and I walked over to Nina's apartment because she'd forgotten her insurance information. The street, like most Roman streets, was quite narrow, with cars parked on both sides and just enough room for cars to get through. So a car comes hurtling by, and after it passes I realize that the mirror actually hit my arm. It kind of hurt, but I'm perfectly fine; I don't even see a bruise.

After the permit meeting, we went to St. Peter's Basilica. I went into sensory overload about four seconds after we got into the main part of the church, after meandering through the pope's tombs. It's insane. Absolutely beautiful, of course, and I'll put up pictures soon - though I stopped taking them after a while because I felt I just couldn't do the place justice. We didn't go up to the top of the dome because our feet already hurt too much, so I'll definitely go back at least one more time.

It's been a great week. I'm adjusting pretty well and really enjoying myself. The beginning intensive Italian class is progressing at a good pace, although we haven't had much homework yet. My academic advising meeting is tomorrow, so I'll be figuring out exactly which other classes I'll take this semester.

Highlight of the week: probably going swimming in the Mediterranean. My host family took Jade and I to the beach. The waves, the salt, the stinging eyes: I love the ocean, and to me it was absolutely perfect (there was even SUN, which I don't usually associate with the beach!). I did get a pretty painful sunburn since apparently I missed a lot of my back when I was putting on sunscreen. But it was absolutely worth it, and I'd like to go back this weekend.

Thursday, September 3, 2009


Yesterday was the first day of orientation. We heard about academic policies, the staff, and other basic information about the program. We even had an Italian police officer speak to us about safety (through a translator, of course). Then they served us some amazing food, we wandered around the center for a while, and then exploration groups were dispatched one by one.

I went with a group of girls who live in an apartment near my homestay. We were going to go shopping, but when Maria and I got off the tram at the store, the other girls didn't make it before the doors closed, so we walked to her apartment. Then she and her roommates had a scare because they thought that a laptop had been stolen from the apartment (and one of the girls is still missing 300 euros). After that we finally did go shopping, but all I bought was some conditioner, so the expedition wasn't too exciting.

I was pretty tired by the time I got back to the apartment, and I took a nap, learned a few more Italian phrases, and then had dinner with my host family and roommate. Jade and I then went to Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere, very near our house, to meet friends to go out. We waited for a group of girls for quite a while, but in the end Caitlin, Jade and I struck off to the Campo dei Fiori area to meet a couple Italian guys who hosted Caitlin's brother-in-law several years ago. They took us to a couple of American bars, nothing too exciting, and we were out until 2 when we took a cab home. The guys were nice, and we had some interesting conversations, but the flux of drunk American students was more than a little annoying.

This morning the students who had previously studied Italian are taking a placement test. I don't have to go in until 12:30, so I'm planning to walk the whole way and see a few more sights. The awe of being in Rome keeps hitting me in waves: when I see a beautiful building or fountain, when I hear a conversation in Italian, when I witness the insane flow of traffic, when my senses are overloaded by new sights, smells, and sounds; I'm an outsider in the midst of it all. It's ripe with adventure.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

A Very Long Day

Here I am in Rome, the city of all cities, and it’s far better than I could possibly have imagined, if I had imagined anything at all; to be honest, I formed very few expectations, so the fact that it’s already far exceeding them doesn’t say as much as it should.

I’ve been having the longest day of my life, as it was two days morphed into one, with seven hours extracted somewhere in the middle. My flights went well, and I met several other American students. I couldn’t get internet access until well after I arrived, since the Detroit airport didn’t have free wireless.

My host family, Roberta and her daughter Aurelia, is warm and welcoming. Roberta speaks quite a bit of English and understands it if we (my roommate Jade and I) speak slowly. She puts so much effort into forming English sentences that I feel awful for not being able to reciprocate yet. Jade has had a couple years of Italian, so she tries to converse with it, but what little I learned this summer goes out of my head whenever it might be useful. “Grazie” and “prego” are the extent of the vocabulary I’ve used so far.

I expected Jade and I to share a room, and since Roberta was only expecting one student she had a room all set up for me. However, she agreed to take on a second homestay guest, and moved her office and library out of the room that I’m in to get it set up. I arrived about ten minutes before Jade, and picked the larger room, which Jade says she’s fine with (since my room currently has a curtain instead of a door, for now we’re even, but Roberta apologized profusely and says that a door should be installed in a few days).

It was over 80 degrees Fahrenheit here when we arrived this morning. I wasn’t expecting this kind of heat! I’ve been sweating all day. We ate a very late dinner at 9:15 pm, after Jade and I went for a walk and saw the Tiber river.

We start orientation tomorrow morning. I slept for a few hours earlier today but I'm now quite ready for bed (it's nearly midnight here). More updates soon!

Friday, August 28, 2009

Two days...

...twenty-one hours, and fifty-three minutes until my flight departs for Rome.

I saw my sister and father off at the airport early this morning. They're going to Seattle, to go to our cousin's funeral, visit family and spend time with friends. Nathan was 26 and now that the shock is fading, I'm still racked with grief at his death. I'm glad that they get to go and represent our family, even if I can't be there.

That said, the last twenty-four hours I've only slept an hour or two here and there, so I'm exhausted and not getting much done. I'm upset with the financial aid office, frustrated with packing, putting off doing the laundry, and generally grumpy. I did find a great way to entertain myself the other day, using an automated simplified Chinese translator. You put in a sentence in English, then translate it back and forth until it morphs into something unrecognizable but hysterical. For instance, the first sentence in this paragraph became: "My each rank dormancy 1:00 number or counts two before 24:00, therefore I exhaust with obtaining the execution." Here's another: "I'm leaving for Rome so soon that I'm afraid my head will explode if I think about it too much" became "Which I forgot that my situation concerns me to be afraid generates Rome rapidly, if I also considered." It's like computer Telephone, and it's immensely fun. Give it a try.

I took this photo at the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden the other day (full album here), and it was published on Amherst's intranet today, which also made me happy.

But I don't feel like packing, or cleaning, or doing laundry, or even reading or practicing Italian vocabulary, so I'm feeling like a useless blob, and extremely tired at that. And the clock just keeps ticking.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Meet Jade

Today I received an e-mail informing me that I have a roommate, Jade Ang. I was a little surprised, since I'd been assuming I'd be on my own in the homestay. That was the plan, but when she called her host mother yesterday, the woman said that she'd changed her mind and could no longer host a student! So last-minute scrambling landed her with me. We're on the same flight to Rome, she speaks some Italian, and I'm psyched to have a roommate!

Jade called our host mom and she apparently speaks pretty good English, which definitely makes me more comfortable, even though I'm planning to take every opportunity to practice Italian. Okay, okay...not every opportunity, just, you know, quite a few.

Forget about worrying. Looks like this semester is going to work out!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Santa patata, a cosa stai pensando?!

(Or, Holy potato, what are you thinking?!)

I've changed my facebook language to Italian.

This is not a big deal. I can figure out that 'Gio' is Thursday and 22.20 is 10:20 pm. I know that 'oggi' means 'today' and, shit, I can translate almost anything when it's in exactly the same place as it's always been, even if the words aren't familiar. But it's reminding me that there will be a lot of little things that are going to be different over the next few months. It's the first of many changes to come.

I actually made a lot of progress today: filling out forms, acquiring property insurance mostly so that if anything happens to my laptop I won't have to live long in a state of Internet deprivation (it's questionable that I would live for long, really), making a detailed packing list that's forced me to start making painful decisions about which books to bring along, and trying to hold off the freaking-out point that I'm dangerously close to. I'm not sure what level of freaking out this one's going to be, but I've had a few already, and I think I'm due for a big one.

There are lots of reasons to freak out. There's also a pretty good reason not to: it doesn't help in the slightest. However, this rationale does not fully eclipse the crazy situations I'm concerned about: what if I can't communicate with my host family? What if I hate Italian food, or it makes me sick? What if I get lost between the airport and my homestay? What if all of my stuff gets lost? What if I get there and find that I've packed way too much? What if I leave something very, very important behind? What if I'm going to a foreign country where I don't speak the language and don't know anybody? OH, WAIT. Yeah...I signed up for this.

Okay, those are some of the things that could go wrong the first day.

I'll spend a couple more days relaxing. Maybe I'll schedule the freak-out for Friday. That seems pretty reasonable, right? So, on Friday, you should call me up and calm me down, or send me a really funny e-mail. Or just fix all the paperwork and take my place on my flight to Rome and get me settled in at Amherst; that works too.

Arrivederci, amici. I'm in for quite a ride.

Monday, August 24, 2009

One week to takeoff!

This is the apartment building I'll be living in this semester: Piazza San Cosimato, 40, in Trastevere, Rome, Italy. I leave in just one week!

Today I finished reading "An Italian Education," by Tim Parks. I was very proud of myself for translating these lines, graffiti that Parks' daughter came across:

Quello che tu vedi non è il mare
Ma il mio amore per te, Amalia.

I haven't learned a great deal of Italian yet, but these words are all simple enough that I've come across them (with the exception of "Amalia," which I correctly guessed is a name). The translation:

That which you see is not the sea
But my love for you, Amalia.

I have one more week to pack, cram in some more Italian language learning, historical and travel reading, and finish approximately four million things that I still haven't made into a to-do list.

At home this week, my sister Brigitta dyed my hair. I was going for dark brown, and she convinced me to go with the darkest brown that we could find. It shouldn't have been a big surprise that, with blond hair dyed blonder for the summer, it ended up turning almost black with the dye. Well, okay, straight-up black that over three days has begun to fade to a very dark brown. I've had light hair for quite a while, and I was ready for something new. And since being blond in Italy might ask for a little more trouble than I want, I figured now was as good a time as any. I'm getting used to it. I don't have enough of a tan to pull it off really well, and I'll go crazy when my roots start growing in, but I definitely like it. It's too bad that I haven't miraculously increased my IQ. At least, I don't think that I have...

Ma, vado in Italia prossimo settimana!