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Vespa Riding through Tuscany

As this incredible adventure abroad begins to come to an end, I wanted to take the time to reflect on some of my favorite experiences. One of the most incredible days in Italy was in Mid-October when I took a Vespa and Winery tour through Tuscany and the Chianti region. I knew the second I arrived in Rome last August and saw that nearly every Italian really did drive a Vespa, that I would clearly have to ride one. My Lizzie McGuire dreams were finally realized when a friend and I found a tour group that gave us the opportunity to ride a Vespa, have a wine tasting in Chianti, and of course see a little bit more of the beautiful region that we live in! The day finally arrived and we met our tour group at the train station at the crack of dawn. From there they drove us about an hour outside of Florence to a garage, where we got to choose our Vespas and were tested on our driving skills. The first try around track was a rough one, those tiny scooters have quite a lot more kick than you would expect! After everyone had their helmets securely fastened and multiple insurance waivers signed five times, we *scooted* off to enjoy vineyard after vineyard on the incredible rolling hills of the countryside. In mid October, most of the vineyards have already been harvested in Tuscany. Many of the vines we drove by were already dying, but they created the most gorgeous autumn orange colors that popped out against the greenery of their surroundings. Olive harvester's machines buzzed at us as we zoomed by them, shaking the Olive trees violently. The weather was perfect. Warm, with just the right amount of crispy cool to keep you awake. There was just something so magical about being outside. It was so different from any other driving experience I had ever had before. I felt so much more connected to the landscape around me,  it was real and bright and alive. I never knew that a thin layer of glass created that much distance before. On our tour we stopped in two tiny Tuscan towns. Castellina in Chianti was the first one we stopped at, right before the winery. This teeny town had a tiny Castle dating back from the middle ages. There were many clothing boutiques and a colorful open air flea market along the main street. When you walked past the buildings, you could see the Tuscan hills rolling on around you for miles. After the winery we visited Monteriggioni, an old army town from the middle ages that it still surrounded by fortress walls and high towers.  Here we were greeted with many craft and artisan shops, a huge serving of black cherry gelato, and a friendly, fat cat who liked eating the raisins we had brought as a snack. For lunch, we visited the Poggio Amorelli Vineyard, where we received  tour of their facilities. Our host graciously showed us the winemaking process and explained how the wine is stored in special barrels, and how certain types of wood make huge differences in the flavor. We were also taught how to properly smell, observe and taste wine, and got to taste a few of their best wines over a lunch of bruschetta, pasta, crostini, and cantuccini that they made and dressed with their freshly pressed Olive Oil. When traveling from place to place we were able to explore quiet, scenic routes on our Vespas. With wide open space all around, cool autumn air, good food, good friends, and the most beautiful landscape, my heart was filled with joy .

My Eastern European Tour 

While studying abroad, I was luck enough to get a fall break from my semester in Florence. Wishing to see some sites off of the beaten path that I might never get the chance to again, I opted to travel through the East of Europe, instead of the west. In ten days I visited 6 cities and 4 countries. Here are a few of the highlights: Budapest I adored Budapest. The second I stepped off of the bus I was charmed by the unique architecture of the city. The city has quite the mix of both eastern and western influences and it shows in the architecture. The city is full of culture as well, from the proud Jewish quarter, to the colorful ruins bars, the crowded bath houses, and museums full of art and history. However, it is at the same time incredibly modern and trendy. On my first day I enjoyed a walking tour throughout the city, stopping at the major sites like the old synagogue, the Fisherman's Bastion, Mathias Church, and Castle Hill. The view from the Fisherman's bastion was absolutely stunning because you could see the entire city from the hill. In my next few days in Budapest I also took a river cruise down the Danube at night and was able to see some of Budapest's most famous monuments lit up at night. It was the most surreal experience. The most touching museum that I visited was the House of Terror Museum, which exhibited the awful things that happened in Budapest under Nazi and Soviet control and commemorated men and women who lost their lives for supporting human dignity. I am very glad that I went and took the time to take those lessons in. It was very eye-opening. In my next few days in Budapest I would also visit St. Stephen's Basilica to climb the dome, visit the famous ruins bars, try my hand at an escape room, relax in one of the bath houses, and eat some really great goulash. I really hope I will get to come back to Budapest soon. Vienna  Vienna's charm and class instantly took me back to the days of rococo. The gorgeous, gilded architecture as well as the fancy horse-drawn carriages, high-end stores, and jaw-dropping pastry shops only add to this environment as you further explore Vienna. While there I was able to walk around and see most of the main sites including parliament and the opera house. For lunch, I at the best sausage I had ever had in my entire life. Seriously, I can't even begin to describe to you how amazing it was. Only those who have had German sausages could possibly understand. being the cookie fiend that I am, I also got roped in by one of Vienna's beautiful pastry shops. I definitely spent more than should have on fancy European cookies, but it's all a part of becoming cultured right?? Krakow  Krakow, Poland was probably one of the most unusual places I have ever visited. It had so much culture for such a small place. Old town was incredibly picturesque with beautiful old architecture mixed in with a little bit of newer buildings. The Jewish quarter in Krakow was small, but proud. It had survived centuries of harsh history and had several synagogues and gorgeous restaurants to show for it. While I did not get the chance to make it to Oskar Schindler's factory, I did see some locations in which the filmed was recorded. Another thing I loved about Poland was the Pierogis. I think I had them for almost every meal with a glass of hot red wine or cider. They were just so  good no matter what filling you put inside of them. St. Mary's church in Old Town Square was the highlight for me. The inside of the church is incredibly ornate and decorated. All of the incredible details and patterning were astounding and jaw dropping. I wished so much that we were allowed to take pictures inside, however it was probably better they were not allowed because it made me stop and truly take in the moment. Auschwitz I took a day trip to Auschwitz concentration camp from Krakow.  I visited both Auschwitz 1 and the larger Auschwitz 2. This was a day that didn't feel real to me. I couldn't fully process the atrocities that I was hearing about or seeing. When we rounded the corner in one of the prisoner bunkers that had been converted into an exhibition space and I laid my eyes on some of the belonging of their victims that the Nazi had left behind, my heart was heavy with the knowledge of the gravity f the crimes committed at the location in which I was suddenly very aware I was standing in. There was a wall that was full of human hair. This two ton amount was only the small remaining bit that hadn't been sold to German textile factories yet. And there was two tons of it. I won't ever forget those images. "For ever let this place be a cry of despair, and a warning to humanity." Prague  Prague is a fairytale city. With the largest medieval castle in Europe on top of a hill overlooking a quaint city full of colorful buildings, winding cobblestone streets, and unique, beautiful towers how could it not be? Prague was full of awesome artisan shops and candy shops and puppet shops that could keep you wandering the streets in awe for years. However, it had modern elements mixed into it as well that made it seem like an older London or New York City. While in Prague I visited the Old Town Square and saw the giant Astronomical Clock, as well as Old Town Hall, walked across the gorgeous Charles Bridge, and of course spent a long visit at the John Lennon Peace Wall. I also hiked up the hill to the castle, where there was an amazing view of the city. I wish I could have eaten my bodyweight in Trdlniks, but there just wasn't enough time! I know I will be back to visit  soon though.   Eastern Europe was such a unique experience and I am grateful that I had the opportunity to visit these places. They definitely are off of the beaten path for most tourists, however I think are definitely a must see. Especially because of their tumultuous history and beautiful cultures. I took a leap of faith and went on this trip by myself. I am so glad I did because I was able to branch out and make new friends as well as learn a little bit more about myself in the process. I won't ever forget this trip.

Pisa and Lucca

  14470509_1277038055640880_2897639978120655005_n Since being in Italy I have visited both Pisa and Lucca twice. They are such an easy day trip from Florence, just a short train ride away, and both can be seen well enough in just one day.   Upon first arriving in Pisa, you would think that there isn’t a lot to see and do, but if you’re into Art history, you can easily spend an entire morning in the Piazza Di Miracoli. To get to the piazza I recommend taking a bus from the central train station, the walk is quite far! When you first enter the Piazza the first thing that catches your eye of course is the Leaning Tower, as it should. Crowds of tourists fill the street leading up to the tower, all of them leaning over the fence to get the famous picture of them pushing or leaning or touching or kicking the tower. Recently restored (there was a structural scare in recent years, which began a long process of brainstorming how to save the tower, on idea even included building another tower leaning the opposite direction and tying them together so they would balance each other  out!), it is now possible to climb to the top of the tower. It does cost 18 Euros, so it is up to your budget to decide if that is the once-in-a lifetime experience for you.   Entrances to the other structures in the Piazza also cost an entrance fee, but are worth the cost. Inside the Romanesque Pisa Baptistery which was built in 12th century, you can see beautiful stained glass windows as well as the pulpit made by Nicola Pisano.   An important piece in gothic sculpture, this beautifully sculpted pulpit draws inspiration from classical sarcophagi and also features the first heroic male nude in sculpture in Tuscany. So it is an important stepping stone on the path to the renaissance in Italy. You can also hear a demonstration of the baptistery’s perfect acoustics. The cone-shaped dome on the inside of the Baptistery was built specifically to create perfect acoustics. It is hauntingly beautiful to listen to, as the demonstrators singing fills the building and echoes back down to all of the people below. When the demonstration is being a given, you get a little picture of what baptismal ceremonies must have been like when the building was still in use, it must have been a very mystical experience.   14494885_1277035872307765_8520773502077559008_n Finally, check out the Cathedral, in the heart of the Piazza. Done in a Pisan Romanesque style, it is covered in colored marbles and spoils from war, representing Pisa’s great power at influence at the time of the cathedral’s construction. A lot of the outer decoration has intricate patterning that reminds of Moorish and Muslim influence, probably from textiles that Pisans traded as they were also the naval power at the time. Inside, there is an impressive mosaic located in the apse; however it is currently undergoing restoration. The coffered ceiling is equally beautiful, with the gilded edges catching the natural light from the windows and illuminating the deep blue coves. The real masterpiece to see however is another pulpit, sculpted by Giovanni Pisano, the son of Nicola Pisano. It shows 9 scenes from the life of Christ and also draws inspiration from classical sculpture, with the upper panels resembling ancient sarcophagi.   After Pisa, Lucca is just a short train away. Probably one of my most favorite towns in all of Italy, this adorable Tuscan town is still surrounded by medieval walls, that in modern times they have expanded and planted trees on. It is possible to walk the entire 4 kilometers around the town on the walls. It is even better and very affordable to rent a bike and take a ride around the town. The trees are reminiscent of beautiful Parisian parks and the views of the town make great snapshots of quiet Italian life.   Inside the walls of Lucca there is a nice change of pace from the tourist craze in Pisa and Florence. You can feel the difference almost immediately. Lucca is quiet but still full of life. The tiny streets are cozy and adorable, and so Italian. They are full of local restaurants, wine bars, and fancy, unique boutiques, all with at least ten perfect and stylish bikes parked outside. Every Italian we passed was fabulous of course, wearing outfits us inferior Americans could only dream of pulling off. Tucked in between Romanesque churches there are dozens of piazzas that paint little snapshots of local life in Lucca. My favorite being the Piazza di Libri, or the Square of Book in English, that is quite literally overflowing with book markets. We happened upon it accidentally, and were met with the most wonderful smell of old books. 14492354_1277038025640883_2151637568353376742_n

Still Figuring it All Out

image In my vision of myself abroad, I saw what everybody tells you to see. I saw a girl who had it all. One who quickly made this new, strange continent her home, who jet off on glamorous and ambitious weekend trips with her camera and a great wardrobe, and who would be deeply moved by the people, places, and beauty she saw. That my apartment would be perfect, in the perfect location, right near to everything I needed, and my roommates would have been a home away from home. That I would have made the best of friends quickly, and we would laugh loudly and freely as we stumbled on the cobblestone streets, huddled together whispering the secrets of shared adventures. I imagined that I would have a favorite coffee shop, one where I knew the owners and could speak with them in perfect, unbroken Italian. One of those cozy places to study with good pastries to fill up on. They would give me free chai on cold days just because. That upon embarking on this adventure alone, I would have the ultimate journey of self discovery. But they don’t have chai in Italy, at least not the sweet and spicy creamy chai that has brought me comfort for so many years. And cafés aren't exactly study friendly the way they are in the states. All that I have found in the infinite cluster of Florentine cafés is a mumbling, very broken Italian that is answered in English. As it always goes, my expectations that had grown over the last year were very different than the reality I was currently facing. My roommate situation was not as warm as I had hoped it to be. What I had hoped would be bright evenings filled with shared pasta dinners, and bottles of wine that disappeared far too quickly, were really cold kitchen floors trying to fraction spaghetti out of the package in the appropriate proportion for one, drinking to an empty room. Many students are spread out around the city, and thus friendships came slowly. I found myself longing for the familiarity of home and the comforts of my best friends and family. I wanted people who understood me, who the shy version of me could speak to freely about my experiences. I felt alone, realizing that at 6,000 miles away I was actually completely by myself. And contrary to my hopes, I had no idea what I was doing. I was filled with guilt whenever I longed for home.
"Push it out of your mind." I would tell myself. "Focus on the good, not the loneliness."
So I thought about the good. Florence is really beautiful. I have found inspiration here. The city is brimming with secrets, centuries old stories hidden in every wall and crack of cobblestone. They beg to confide in you as you stroll by, to touch you the way they have been touched by dukes and beggars alike; to them you are no different. My classes only emphasize the intrigue of the heap of old buildings. From the on-site visits to museums and famous landmarks, to the field trips around Italy that allow me to fully feel the power of Renaissance Italy. They force me to take the time to understand, process, and appreciate, instead of checking things off a list. Learning the works of the masters and distinguishing their techniques and applying it to my own work. I feel joy from learning about all of the humanity that has happened here. It is a beautiful thing.
"But when am I going to start finding myself?" I would ask. "It's not fair that everyone else gets to study abroad with people they know from school." I feel guilty when everyday isn't some incredible adventure out of an artsy YouTube video.
But I have my afternoon walks around the city that reveal a more modern Florence in all of its golden glow. Tourists crowd and choke the streets, sprinkled in with the dings of locals' bike bells as they try to navigate them. Vespas fly by instead, not even trying to dodge the foot traffic. Get out of the way, or get run over. At least with the horse drawn carriages you hear clomping hooves on the cobblestone coming from miles away. Fabulous ladies young and old strut around in outfits I can only dream of wearing, their little dogs the perfect accessory. You can’t walk a block without inhaling a lung-full of cigarette smoke, and the occasional smell of sewage, contrasted with the smell of fresh pastries and slow-cooking meats. Stores and restaurants fill every block, from high end to low end, tacky to classic. Some displaying the great and historic crafts of Florence, and other knock offs for tourists' pleasure, but somehow it all works. imageNo matter the day, all winding streets I seem to walk down lead me to the Arno. There is something mesmerizing about the Arno, and the small patches of greenery towards the end of the city, if you can find them. Territories of stillness, where one can feel their own breath, transported in an instant worlds away from the crowded, smokey stone and marble. They keep their own rhythm apart from the city, a slower, steadier beat. It’s a place where it is still enough to process that city around you, to feel its soft tugs on your heartstrings. A place to think "Perhaps I am alone sometimes, but my heart is full." Perhaps expectations should never be lived up to and plans never fully executed. There is beauty in piecing things together.