By shannon

Last Fall I lived and studied in Florence, keeping a travel blog on my experiences there and around Europe. I wrote more than most people probably wanted to read, so I’ve selected just a few of the better posts – spanning from the very beginning of my time abroad to the very end – to include here in case anyone is interested in my previous travels along with what I’m doing now. See if anything looks good, and have a read.

***

Thursday, August 30, 2007

What a View

Well, I’m finally in Florence! Those of you who have talked to me at all this summer know that I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous for this semester abroad. Having never really been out of the country before, I was getting ready for a completely new experience where I’d be surrounded by completely different people. I found some comfort, however, in the remarks of the airport employee controlling a security line at SFO. She let me sneak into her “special passengers” line because, as she told me in her broken English, “the first class passengers get mad when I let other people in, but all same. Everybody same to me.” I realized she was right, and that the people in Florence really wouldn’t be all that different from me.

After departing from San Francisco on Tuesday afternoon and spending a surprisingly tolerable–thanks to a good book and a window seat–eleven hours on a 747, I found myself peering down over a patchwork of villages in Germany, getting ready to land for a seven-hour layover in Frankfurt. I would call this my first European experience, though the only things strikingly different about this airport were the smoking “lounges,” or small booths with vents toward which to hold one’s cigarette (as though that helps), and the abundance of duty-free stores.

Though I refrained from buying any discount vodka, I did treat myself to an espresso and sat at the airport bar for a while studying my Italian phrasebook. I was mostly interested in being able to ask for a taxi and explain that I was coming to Italy to study. As it turned out, I was unable to practice these key phrases because of both the prominence of the English language in Italy, and the startling leniency with which the airport security in Florence let me into their country. I had met up with a friend from Chapman at the Frankfurt airport and after claiming our bags we had to pass through what I suppose you would call Customs. The guard asked where we were from, looked at my friend’s passport only, and then waved us through casually. I was beginning to learn that they truly are relaxed here.

The taxi driver, on the other hand, was all business. He took us and our bags to our check-in location, where he hurriedly dumped us on the curb and did not seem to appreciate my earnest, but slightly embarrassed, attempt to thank him in Italian. “Grazie!” I called as he kept saying what I can only imagine meant “Hurry up!” – or perhaps something less forgiving.

He’d taken us to our school’s student center, where a very frazzled but sweet young woman gave us our keys and did her best to answer any questions we had. It was almost dark by this point, and though my apartment was only a couple blocks away, I wanted to get moving before the moonlight was my only guide. I towed my bags down an alleyway and took the first left down another alleyway until I saw a big 5 by one of the doors. Fortunately I’d found the place and my key graciously let me in. I still had a ways to go, however. My flat is the only one on the fourth and highest floor of this building, and the stairs were certainly a challenge. The intense heat and humidity from the August day had been gathering and waiting in the stairwell since the sun had come up, I’m sure, and I was a panting, sweating mess by the time my two suitcases made it to the top.

It was definitely worth the climb. The open, airy flat is nothing like the hole in the wall I’d been imagining. It has an expansive living room with massive pieces of what I’d have to call modern art on the high walls. The kitchen – equipped with all the necessities, including a goodie bag from our landlord – is big enough for several people to move around in. There’s a healthy stock of books on shelves by the front door, and my bedroom is cozy. The best part, however, is the perfect view of the Duomo from our terrace – yes, I said the Duomo, and yes, we have a terrace. I was surprised too.

Two of my four roommates were already there – both girls from Chapman – and we went out for dinner at the only place I’d seen in my short walk. We sat outside as the sticky summer night air began to cool and drank vino rosso to the music of a street-side violinist and his accompanying accordion player. And although I’d been awake for about 28 straight hours by this point, it felt pretty good to be here.

***

Monday, September 24, 2007

Pompeii, Sorrento & Capri

Our trip south this weekend brought us to some truly unbelievable natural and historical sights that my pictures definitely don’t portray adequately. I’ll do my best to describe them, but forgive me if my language falls short.

We met our bus at 5:30 on Saturday morning for a 5-hour ride to Pompeii, where we had a tour of the most important archaeological sight in Europe guided by an expert named Federico. Pompeii was destroyed when Vesuvius erupted in AD 79, less than 20 years after the city was devastated by a massive earthquake – and the remains now show amazing insight into the daily lives of the ancient Romans.

Though the roofs of most of the buildings have been rebuilt, most of the original structures remain along the stone streets. We saw a lot of wine bars scattered throughout the city – people gathered around a counter, put their money into a basin and drank wine that was kept in the stone walls to stay cool. Many of the walls along the streets were marked with big red letters – Latin writing that served a similar purpose to modern campaign posters. Women of course couldn’t vote but frequently they were the ones showing support for political candidates (two men selected each year) so they managed to have some influence on the outcome. We saw traditional houses and could easily imagine how these people once lived. The only inhabitants in the ruins now, however, are stray dogs that lay panting in the dusty gutters. It was all I could do to convince myself that they’re leading happy dog lives and enjoying all the history like the rest of us.

Federico showed us a little garden of vineyards where some bodies were found, preserved in their exact positions, and lined up in a case for viewing. What we actually see is a casing of the body, but the bones are still inside and one child’s skull was showing through – very chilling. Another shocking sight was actually discovered within my lifetime – a brothel with very erotic frescoes on the walls (see my photographs for a look). Though excavations of the ruins began in the 18th century and a lot has been uncovered, work is still in progress and clearly a lot more remains to be found. The preservation of the ruins makes the history much more tangible, but I still struggle with the span of time between when gladiators fought in Pompeii’s amphitheater (150 years older than the Colosseum), and when I was standing in it, trying to imagine the executions they used to do as a teaser before the man-on-man combat started. At the end of the tour, I enjoyed a delicious and refreshing frozen slushy orange juice drink called granite made from the perfect, sweet oranges grown in the area.

After Pompeii, our bus took us to our 4 star hotel on the coast of Sorrento, near Amalfi, with a name that involved the words “Europa” and “Palace.” It had a beautiful view of the ocean and a lift that took us right down to the ocean.  We didn’t have much time, but before dinner I made sure to get a little swimming in. We ate a fancy swordfish dinner in the hotel restaurant to the music of a jovial Italian and his guitar. As a friend pointed out, he might have been the most stereotypically Italian man we’d seen so far. He had dark, curly hair and bushy eyebrows sticking out over a big, curled nose and smiling eyes. He wore a white shirt unbuttoned on top and sang a song that our guide translated for us – it was about an Italian who wanted to be an American so he drank a lot of whiskey and coke (how classy).

After dinner we walked into town and saw a smaller version of Florence’s tourist- and souvenir-flooded streets. We visited a famous limoncello store and factory where we got to taste the traditional drink made from their locally grown lemons. The liquor was a little strong for me, but the lemon cookies and chocolates they passed around were delicious.

The next day we got up early and walked to Sorrento’s port, where we got on a boat that took us to the mountainous, Mediterranean island of Capri. At the port here, we switched to a much smaller boat that took our group around the whole island, with our guide pointing out all the interesting historical and natural details. The island is full of color. They took our boat up to a small cave where, in between waves, you can see coral on the rock that is the brightest, richest shade of orange I could imagine – surprising against the gray of the rock and the blue water. I’ve said that the water on the coast of the Cinque Terre was the clearest and bluest I’d ever seen, but the water surrounding Capri is unmatched.

The most amazing color I saw this weekend was inside the famous grotta azzurra (blue cave). Our boat pulled up to a group of various other boats waiting to get into the tiny 4 or 5-person rowboats that bring tourists inside the impossibly small cave mouth. When it was our turn, one of the men pulled up in his rowboat to take us aboard. He looked sort of like an Italian version of American river raft guides–board shorts, tee shirt, cigarette and iPod. Five of us crammed onto the floor of his vessel like sardines, gave him 10 euro each, which he then gave to the very informal ticket takers in their own boat, and said, “It’s 9 euro each, then one euro tip for me, OK?” And yes, it was OK, because our lives were now in his hands.

The little boats waited in a group outside the cave mouth, and would alternate with the boats inside; one would come out, and another would sneak in. They had to time it not only with this, but with the ocean swells as well. If a boat tried to get through when the swell was up, the rower and all the tourists would have been smashed into the rock. A chain is attached to the roof of the cave entrance, because the opening was too small for the use of oars – so when it was our turn to get through, we all shoved our cramped selves further into the bottom of the boat, the guide leaned back, grabbed the chain and pulled us in with a few strong, rapid movements.

No amount of travel books or “ooos” and “awws” could have prepared me for the iridescent blue of the water inside this cave. Something about the sun and the white sand and the angle of the cave entrance creates this totally unreal phenomenon of color and light. As we started to get a grip on what we were looking at, our guide began to sing in a nonchalant but beautiful way. With his deep, sweeping voice echoing through the small cave as we glided over the swells of the sea and the blinding blue light swallowed our little dinghy, the whole experience was just surreal.

We kept going with our tour and – not without stopping to jump off the boat and go for a dip in the Mediterranean – landed back at the port to explore the island on foot. Our guide recommended for lunch mozzarella that was breaded and fried, which we enjoyed before Capri’s perfect gelato – I had caprilu, a combination of lemon and almond, in a lightly crispy, just-made waffle cone.

To end the day, I went with a friend up to the higher Anacapri, on a small, packed bus that hugged the cliffs maybe a little too tightly. From there we took the chair lift to the very top of the island – Monte Solaro – which offered a view of the surrounding ocean that literally took my breath away when we reached it. All around us the blue and white of the sky and water swirled together in the kind of horizon when you can’t really tell where one ends and the other starts. To get to a quieter spot, we hopped over a small fence onto an empty chunk of the cliff to get a more intimate look at the view.  With the chatter of the Japanese tour group behind us, it sort of seemed like everything else melted away and we were the only ones in the middle of the Mediterranean ocean, on top of this island mountain.

You’re probably as tired from reading this blog as I was when we got on the bus back to Florence – so my apologies if I rambled. As it turns out I wasn’t limited with my language at all, just more long-winded.

In short, it was quite a weekend.

***

Monday, November 19, 2007

The Luck of the Irish?

It’s funny how certain things happen the way they do – some lucky, some not. My time in Dublin showed me that the luck of the Irish (or those visiting their country for a weekend) is not always good, but that somehow their general good nature sets it right in the end.

My travel companion was my darling roommate and dear friend Daisy, who graciously obliged to follow me around to whatever parts of the city I wanted to explore. Thursday was our first day there, and we happened to make it the whole day without getting rained on. Since we’d be there for 4 days total, we didn’t worry about rushing around to all the sights but rather decided to take it slowly and soak everything up, knowing we’d have plenty of time.

Trinity College and the Book of Kells were first on the list. Both exciting things to see, but the highlight for me was the Long Room, the grand, sweeping corridor lined with vast, dark wooden shelves on two levels that reached the arched ceiling and held hundreds of very old books. Although visitors can’t touch the books, it was still incredible just to look at them all lined up next to each other, each one with its own contents and its own rich history. I could have spent the rest of the trip just sitting in there staring at them. We kept moving, however, and found Bewley’s on Grafton Street, Dublin’s most famous coffee and tea cafe where we sat on the top floor and ate perfect scones with our Irish afternoon tea.

From there, our plan was to walk the mile or two to the Guinness Storehouse – which is right near the Kilmainham jail – see the jail first, then go have our pint and learn all about the famous stout. After asking 3 separate people for directions to the jail, we must have still looked desperately lost because this small Irish woman with kind eyes and a shy dog approached us asking, “y’all right, girls?” in her charming accent. We got to talking and found out her name was Thrace, her dog’s name was Shelly–9 years old, but as we saw from the photo on Thrace’s cell phone, didn’t look a day older than on her 8th birthday. She had all kinds of great tips about Dublin and wished us happy travels before walking off in her lavender windbreaker and her tall wooden walking stick. Our tour of the jail was fascinating and we learned a lot about Ireland’s tumultuous history – unfortunately it took a little longer than expected and we were too late to make it to Guinness that night.

This seemed like a great turn of events, though, because on the bus back to the city center we met this really nice young couple from Seattle. The four of us decided traffic was moving too slowly so we hopped off the bus and walked back together. Jennifer from Seattle and I had a great life talk about travel, change and growing up – she helps college kids plan their futures and something about her made me just spill out all my hopes and worries and when we parted ways she gave me a tight hug, a warm smile and a very sincere “good luck.”

The day seemed to be working out even more perfectly when we realized we still had plenty of time to enjoy a hearty Irish dinner and make it to the (awesome, I know) literary pub crawl led with performances by two Irish actors/literary enthusiasts who know all the famous pubs and all the best history. They had a quiz at the end and whoever answered the most questions got a free tee-shirt – we didn’t win, but Daisy traded a beer for the tee-shirt from the Norwegian literature buffs we’d befriended along the way.

The next day we took a guided bus tour through the Wicklow mountains and into Glendalough (the valley with two lakes). We were lucky enough to have more beautiful weather and a tour guide named Paul who threw in all kinds of great history and jokes when apparently most of the other guides just point and tell you when to take a picture. The scenery was beautiful and we saw a real live Irish traffic jam! A herd of cows crossing the narrow two-lane highway through the hills. It was definitely a first for us.

It was a great day, but that night our luck took a turn for the worse. Poor little Daisy had apparently caught some terrible stomach bug and was up sick all night, and in bed for the next two days. Not only that, but the rain and wind started up. So while she stayed in the small attic room of our somewhat shady B&B hoping her medicine would kick in, I took to exploring the cold streets of Dublin alone. I was lonely without her and as Dublin really is a place to be with friends, I only made it so many places before I (and two umbrellas) surrendered to the fat, cold rain drops and heavy wind and hailed a cab – on the bright side, Irish cab drivers are some of the friendliest, most entertaining people I’ve yet to encounter. They all had sympathy for Daisy’s bad luck, one saying, “poooor lit-tle ting.”

On our last day I sucked it up and walked about 40 minutes in the cold to the Guinness Storehouse alone – making my way through the maze of beer history to the seventh floor “gravity bar” with its 360-degree view of Dublin. Though it wasn’t how I imagined it happening, I drank my Guinness all alone and gazed out over the bleak, drizzly sky and the solemn gray buildings of Dublin. And while I missed my dear Daisy, maybe my cab driver was right when I told him I’d be enjoying a pint of Guinness alone and he told me, “ain’t no better way to do it.”

***

Sunday, December 2, 2007

“…there were no problems except where to be happiest.”

What can I say about Paris that hasn’t been said before? A week ago, I learned first-hand what everybody has been talking about for so long, why the name of this city evokes more romance, mystery, excitement, energy and grace than any other string of letters in any language. I found myself walking around in a kind of stupor most of the weekend, wondering how I’d gotten there and if it was real. For the blissful two and a half days I spent wandering the streets, I don’t think I stopped repeating to myself, “I’m in Paris” the whole time. Due to too many missed classes, I had to make it a short weekend, but it was enough time to see a lot and decide I would definitely find a way to get back there someday.

When I arrived on Friday afternoon, the sky was a thin gray, the streets were wet and there was a persistent drizzle – annoying weather, unless you’re in Paris. I checked into my hostel in the fourth arrondiessement, a great neighborhood, and set off for the St-Michel fountain to meet Kallie, fellow Livermore girl who has, as though in some kind of real-life fairy tale, ended up living in France with her French husband, Philippe. Before she led me around sightseeing, I set right to business and found a ham and cheese crepe for lunch and for energy. I needed it too, because for the following 3 or 4 hours we walked all over the city and saw pretty much all the major monuments. The sky was moving as fast as we were, and by the time we reached the Eiffel Tower, the gray had dissolved into a clear blue, leaving behind perfect swirling clouds that made for great pictures and a great walk through the city.

That night, I went back to the hostel to rest my feet where I met a couple of other solo travelers, both girls from different parts of Australia who are currently living in different parts of Europe. We got to talking and ended up going out for drinks and a nice French dinner – we tasted kirs cassis at a small, low-ceilinged, smoke-filled bar and I had beef bourgignon and lots of bread at the restaurant we found. We stayed out late and talked about travel, food and how things are different from continent to continent.

I got up the next morning before the sun, which wasn’t that hard to do as it didn’t rise until around 8:00 am. The morning air was sharp and cold, and the city, though just waking up, felt fresh and full of life. I had a baguette with butter and a small croissant for breakfast and set off at a brisk walk toward the river, my breath forming small fast clouds in front of me. As I walked along the Seine, I found to my surprise that I couldn’t keep from smiling, even laughing a little with a few light steps. Few people were out, and I wasn’t passing anything I hadn’t seen the day before, but (and I’m not trying to be sappy here) something about waking up and starting a day in Paris just makes you want to smile. I thought I must have looked crazy to the local passers-by, but then again I wouldn’t be surprised if they get that all the time from visitors.

I arrived at the Louvre just as they started letting people in. Unfortunately I had little more than the morning to spend there, but I saw a lot of the pieces I’ve been studying in my art history class and just enjoyed walking around amidst more culture and history than I knew what to do with. I stopped at a cafe for a nutella crepe and coffee on the way to the Musee d’Orsay, where I spent some time with the impressionists. While I could spend weeks in these museums, the streets of Paris are works of art in their own right so I set off once again to keep walking and find lunch, stopping only a few times to rifle through the old books and postcards set up by the vendors along the Seine.

After perusing some books in English at Shakespeare & Co., the famous old bookstore by Notre Dame, I settled into a snug table with a red checkered table cloth at a restaurant in the Latin Quarter where I warmed up with French (of course) onion soup and creme brulee for dessert. The whole situation was just lovely, but I could have done without the early 90s love ballads they were playing – heaven knows why songs like “My Heart Will Go On” haunt me all through Europe.

Re-energized from lunch, I took the train to Versailles and did a quick tour of the palace, emerging just in time to see the velvety French sunset, the sky striped with soft orange and lavender fading behind the bare black branches that surround the pools and topiaries of the gardens. The real destination in Versailles, however, was to Philippe’s parents’ house down the street where my friend invited me to join them for a mini-Thanksgiving dinner that evening. I hadn’t been planning on any Thanksgiving at all this year, and I certainly wasn’t planning on celebrating it in France, but I guess life can surprise you. The five of us ate turkey, cranberry sauce, stuffing and sweet potatoes, and I was reminded of holidays in Livermore – that is, until we finished the meal in the French style, with a big platter of different goat and sheep cheeses. Kallie told me she’s on a quest to convert the French people to pumpkin pie, one November at a time, and with the solid approval of Jean-Claude and Cecille, it seems like she’s on her way. We lingered at the table for a while, then Kallie and Philippe put me on a train back to Paris and I promised I would visit again the future, maybe for the 4th of July or something.

Full and content on the train back, I found myself smiling once again – but this time I was seeing something new. It was approximately 11:00 pm, and the Eiffel tower was sparkling – literally, sparkling. Until I saw every surface of the giant structure gleaming and twinkling excitedly off in the distance, I had completely forgotten hearing that on the hour, every hour in the evening, the tower sparkles. Speeding toward the city on the train, inclining to find the sparkling tower out the window with each turn, I smiled. Something about ending a day in Paris, watching the buzz and energy of the city reflected on its most famous and romanticized monument, just makes you smile.

Sunday morning I got up early again, and although hardly anything was open, I was content to wander the streets and just be. Among other things, I strolled through the Luxembourg gardens, drank coffee and ate a croissant at the Dome on Rue de Rivoli, and perused the St-Paul area for French antiques. And though it wasn’t spring, I understood more and more, on that clear, sunny November day in Paris, what Hemingway meant when he wrote in A Moveable Feast, with his perfect simplicity, that, “When spring came, even the false spring, there were no problems except where to be happiest.”

***

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Finito.

Soo…what just happened? Did I really just spend three and a half months in Europe? I keep asking myself these questions because I am having a truly difficult time understanding that it is, in fact, the middle of December and that I am already headed back to California.

I’m writing from the airport in Frankfurt, where I have my layover before boarding a plane to San Francisco. A few minutes ago, flying over Germany, I looked down over the landscape—nothing extraordinary: buildings, roads, a river, bridges, boats. And my immediate thought, biting and unexpected, was this: “Oh god, I’m sad.” Until that point I had been content and at ease, heartily enjoying both my book and the Twix they served on the plane. Usually exceedingly sentimental and mournful over the conclusion or ending of anything—an experience, a good book, an exceptionally enjoyable couple of hours—I’ve surprised myself over the last week with my peace of mind and acceptance of the present passage of time. But just now, staring down over the hazy brown of the morning Frankfurt countryside, it really hit me. This experience is over.

I’m now sitting at the gate with a hollow, breathless pit in my chest, the suffocating truth that I am leaving Europe for an indeterminable length of time pressing on my lungs like a heavy stone. This may seem a tad melodramatic, but I will venture that anyone who has traveled understands the desperate addiction that is so easily ignited, and so impossible to satisfy. Maybe eleven hours on a plane’ll do it.

It’s now 4:30 in the morning of the following day, and as I lie awake in my bed in Livermore, unable to sleep any longer, I find myself scratching the small mosquito bite on the knuckle of my right pinky finger not with frustration, but with fondness.  Funny, the souvenirs we take home.

Sometime in October,  my sister remarked that she would be interested to hear a conversation between the me of last year, and the me now. It was a thought that hadn’t occurred to me, though certainly an interesting one. I can see the me of last year persistently spitting worries and fears at the current me, and despite all the calm, confident reassurance offered, unwilling to believe that it will actually be OK, that I’ll be able to handle everything, that it might even be… fun!

I’ve always been somewhat of a worrier, to say the least, and my mom suggested that the reason I had so many concerns before leaving for Europe was because I couldn’t see it, completely did not know what to expect. She’s right that I usually prefer to operate in this way; when I’m reading a book, for example, at the start of a new chapter I always flip to the end to see how many pages it is, to see just what exactly I’m getting myself into. But, while I still do that with every book I read, my travels and – until this point, unparalleled – experience of facing the unexpected, I no longer feel that I have to know how something is going to happen, no longer submit to the anxious need of a clear picture and understanding of what I’m about to do.

I still think my brother-in-law said it best, correctly predicting that the huge 747 jetliner that carried me to and from Europe would feel a lot smaller on the way back. And while I am sad to leave it, I’m happy and immeasurably grateful for all that I did and saw. Although I’m not navigating my way through foreign cities anymore, am no longer in a place that is thrillingly unfamiliar, I still find plenty of excitement in the reality that I’m about to do some very new things, that after graduation in May I will have a world to face that is foreign in a completely different way. I’m beginning a new chapter in my life (I do apologize, but the corny sentiment had to be included), but in this case I’m definitely glad I can’t flip to the end to count the number of pages.

I don’t forget that I’m young, and there will be plenty of time to feed my travel addiction in the future. As my roommate, Daisy, has said about our study abroad experience, “This better not be the coolest thing we ever do.” And it won’t be, it’s just the first step. And that is pretty exciting.


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