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 .
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. No 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.