Allegra In Italia

Eating, studying and living abroad in Rome

The Vatican

Ciao raga’!

I’m sitting at home in my sun room enjoying the (finalmente!) lovely Roman weather after having eaten yet another beautiful meal and discussing with my host mother what I should wear to the bar, Cioccolato e Vino, tonight.

If I were to borrow a overly-trite phrase from one of my college peers’ sparse phrasebooks, I’d ask myself “is this real life?”

Luckily for you, I won’t do that, and I’ll simply comment about how content I am now.

It’s been almost two weeks since I’ve been in Rome now, almost one-third through my program. Small things continue to surprise me every day, and I’ve been enjoying the stark contrasts that make Rome what it is. Like Piazza Venezia, Rome is full of the old juxtaposed with the new, the beautiful making the ugly especially unattractive, and the mean people making the lovely even more lovable.

Every morning, I walk the two blocks I am from my house to the bus stop, and I pass a wall of jasmine flowers surrounded by concrete on a sidewalk with SmartCars mere inches from each other. I love my walk to school, and not a day goes by when I don’t think about how lucky I am to be here.

The last weekend, I went to Assisi, a medieval, religious town just 2 hours from Rome. As I’ve already written, the town was lovely, and it made me happy to just stand in the streets with other tourists window-shopping and gazing at the horizon. However, maybe it was because I was in a group of college students who don’t believe in spending a lot of money on good food, I’m afraid that Assisi’s food did not blow me away.

In fact, a lot of the small cafes and shops had a very clear sign that they weren’t going to be good, and the sign said “Coca-cola.” I don’t know if the signs just come with the microwaves that these “restaurants” buy, but a lot of my friends see these coca-cola signs that have pictures of hamburgers and panini and descriptions in English, and they still expect good food. It’s amazing.

And I’m sure someone somewhere will want to give me a serious talking-to for saying this, but I am not feeling the pizza in Rome. I have yet to have a good slice of pizza, with buffalo mozzarella cheese so fresh it melts in your mouth, tomatoes so sweet they give you the compliment of eating them, and basil so fresh that it pops in your mouth as you bite down. I’m waiting to go to Napoli to experience this.

I’ve found that the best food is across the river from my school in an area called Trastevere. The food there appeals to those who know Rome a bit better. It is better quality and cheaper. The other day, I ate the best bruschetta in my life in Trastevere. The bread was fresh, but toasted to a crunch that sounded like a harmony when I bit down, and was the inviting bed of the salad of dark red, juicy tomatoes and vibrant basil. The warm bread had a hint of garlic, which was briefly spread on it after being toasted, and a hearty glug of dark olive oil. Lastly, and most importantly, the bruschetta was perfectly seasoned with a snowfall of salt and pepper.

Contrast this with microwaved pizza on stale, unseasoned crust and topped with a mixture of frozen mozzarella and (I swear to you) cheddar cheese. Ugh. Unfortunately, that pizza could not have come at a worse time. Me and three other friends had just left il Museo Vaticano, the Vatican Museum, and I don’t think I’ve had a more disappointing experience. First of all, hopeful spectators have to wait in a line that is probably one to two hours long, being heckled by people from all different races offering the chance to skip the line for 40 euro. But I don’t mind standing in line.

After we finally got into the museum, we had to go through what was just like airport security. After going through several more hurdles (check the bag, pay for the ticket, get past the large group of tourists on the never ending spiral ramp/staircase) we finally arrived at the art.

And were promptly nudged, pushed, and knocked into by the hundreds of other tourists hoping to get that perfect photo of the fresco (which they are not allowed to photograph). It is impossible to enjoy the art this way, and the Sistine Chapel especially. Once you go through the various claustrophobic-inducing narrow passageways and hallways, the guards inside the chapel instantly “shhhhhh” the crowd, reminding them for the hundredth time, “NO PHOTOS.” Going to the Vatican Museum is one of the worst experiences I’ve had here in Italy. I should have gone to get gelato instead.

But tonight will be so much better, since we’re going to a wonderful bar that serves chocolate and wine. Tomorrow, we’re taking the free, 30-minute train to the beach. The day after, we’re all going to celebrate my birthday by going to a jazz club. The day after, my host family and I will be traveling to my host mom’s son’s house an hour away from Rome in his car. This will be a scary experience, no doubt.

The Art of History

L’arte della storia

In Rome, I am taking two classes through my university. One is an advanced Italian language course, and the other a culture course entitled “Rome through words, images, and film” or something like that. Essentially, the course walks us through the history of Rome using literature, art and film. The first couple days were about Roman history, but the other day we reviewed passages from The Aeneid, which I’ve always wanted to read. The Odyssey is one of my favorites, so I knew I would love it. There’s nothing like a beautiful story of war, romance, action, and spiritualism. The epics have it all.

You don’t need to have read The Aeneid to understand this post, however. One of the parts of The Aeneid that we reviewed was the story of Dido, who fell in love with Aeneas. Rhetorically, this woman is a masterpiece. Unlike many of Virgil’s female characters, Dido knows what she wants, speaks her mind, and is in a position of power. Throughout her and Aeneas’ interaction, she has the best monologues and speeches of passion and poise. I love Dido. But interestingly, she falls in love with Aeneas because of his tales of war.

In class, I mentioned how her attraction of Aeneas is similar to Desdemona’s love for Othello in Shakespeare’s Othello. When Othello would come over to Desdemona’s house for dinner with her father, Desdemona would listen intently to Othello’s tales of warfare and battles. This, she said, is how she fell in love with Othello.

In Dante’s Inferno, Dante speaks to a pair of lovers who is in hell for their lust. They claim they would read of Lancelot and Guinevere’s affair together, but when Lancelot and Guinevere kissed, they felt the pressing urge to succumb to their love for each other. Obviously, they were not in the position to be lovers.

Each goes to prove the power of words, and more specifically narration. Consider that good journalism should almost be a narration of the subject. A great article should tell a story and urge the reader to take interest in the subject. A compelling blog, I believe, should do the same.

In case you were wondering why I created this blog, more than to document my travels, it is also because I believe in the mysticism and power of narration. Although all of the above literary references describes the effect of narration on the reader, it’s also important to note the effect of telling a story.

A historically powerful persuasion technique is to force a non-believer to take the side of the believer. In many POW camps, the government would encourage the prisoners of war to write essays pro-government, creating a competition, not just for the literature. It was also a means of brainwashing.

Although my intention is to not brainwash, I hope to encourage myself to dig deeper into my travels and find meaning in things that I may have otherwise overlooked. Whether I have followers or not, I hope that by doing so, I will be able to look back on these posts and probe into my own story.

After all, great narration is timeless, and I am in the eternal city.


Hey everyone!

I am currently posting from the beautiful medieval town of Assisi! I did something very European and spur-of-the-moment and took a train to a different city, am staying at a bed-and-breakfast and then going to Rome tomorrow afternoon. I’m not a horribly spontaneous person, and believe it or not, this was my idea!


All of us students were on a bus from the beautiful town of Tivoli (more on that later) and someone mentioned Assisi. Since I had no plans for the weekend, I said, “why not go?” On that very bus, in the next half an hour, we made plans to go the next day. I even called a hotel and inquired about prices and rooms and stuff in complete Italian. This is not as easy as it sounds, I have to tell you.


I’ll post separately about Assisi. For now, I’ll tell you a bit about Tivoli.

The field trip yesterday was draining and fulfilling. We all met bright and early to go to Tivoli to see the ruins of Hadriun’s palace. The guide spoke to us in only Italian and helped us picture the beautiful ruins. To be honest, the most memorable thing she spoke about was Hadrien’s twelve-year-old lover (Hadrien was like 50s-60s at when they met). Hadrien loved him so much that he took the young boy everywhere he went and dedicated many palaces (apparently he had the strange habit of building gorgeous palaces and never really occupying them) and even towns to him. Then, when the boy was 18, he mysteriously died somehow in the Nile. It’s such a good story.

Then we had lunch at Tivoli. A lot of students did what they usually do, and searched for the cheapest panino or pizza they could find. However, my two friends Marina and Daniela and I stumbled upon a family-owned restaurant of which I can’t remember the name. It was our first Italian restaurant experience. (For those of you who, like me, didn’t know, there’s a sort of chain of command for Italian eateries. There are caffes, bars, trattorias, osterias and finally restaurants.) My Italian host mother had been training me for this all week, instructing me on the proper dining etiquette of the Italians (incredibly complex, if you ask me.)

I ordered tagliatelle in an olive oil sauce with zucchini blossom, zucchini peel, fresh buffalo mozzarella and parmigiano. It sounds a lot more boring than it was, I assure you, since fresh pasta doesn’t need much to shine. Additionally, I had been wanting to try zucchini blossom for at least three years now, but since it is such a rarity, I have never been able to.

Marina ordered ricotta ravioli with the most intriguing sauce of walnuts, cream, and I believe wine and Daniela ordered a fritti misti of frutti di mare, a mixed seafood plate. Interestingly, bread was free, usage of the bathrooms was free, but they charged a 1.5 euro (each) sit-down fee (contorno) and also 2.5 euro (total) for water.

After lunch, we trekked over to the beautiful Villa d’Este, the home of a historically very powerful family. In direct contrast to the ruins, most parts of the home were beautifully preserved (some, like the violent art room whose theme was hunting, was too well-preserved, if you ask me) but the gardens were ethereal. There were so many beautiful working fountains, surrounded with aranciata, or orange, trees and jasmine flowers and tulips that I could not believe that it was real. I literally could not imagine how one family could live at such a heavenly place, and one student rightly said it reminded her of Versailles. I think the villa was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen in my life. When I told this to my host mother, she laughed and said that I must not have seen many beautiful things. Perhaps she’s right, or unbelievably blessed to be surrounded by beautiful things all the time, but this was not an exaggeration.

I am so grateful I have a fabulous professor and program to take me to places like that because, to be honest, a villa doesn’t sound as exciting and outer-worldly as I can convey, and I am doubtful I would have gone without them.

Highs and lows of living in Rome


I’m double-posting so that I can catch up!

I’ve had a lot of highs and lows the past few days. This will be a long post because it covers the span of two days, but it’s important for me to cover the important parts.

But before I begin my stream of troubles, I’d like to just pinch myself again as a reminder that we’re in Rome.


I can’t tell you enough how much I forget where I am. Rome is like another world to me. It’s amazing to be able to go to a place where they speak a foreign language almost entirely and understand it. My mind opened a door that it never knew it had. I can’t explain to you the amazing feeling knowing that the past year I’ve been studying Italian has actually paid off–it’s not just a romantic, beautiful language that nobody uses, but in reality, a thriving useful language. Rome solidifies this, leaving me comforted. Every time I have to use a vocabulary word that I memorized two semesters ago and miraculously remember, I grow a little taller, feeling educated and proud of myself.

Although forgetting where I am always rewards me with the gratification and happiness I feel after I realize in I’m Rome, it can also be an issue. Let me start by telling you how often I get lost. I get lost going to class, coming home from class, going to other places–it’s really ridiculous. In a stroke of brilliance I took my iPad to the train so when my host mom walked me there for the second time (she didn’t want me to get lost again) I could take pictures of memory cues on the way. It worked. when I had to walk from the train home again, I was able to do it using my iPad, and after that, I could do it alone both ways. But I wish it was as easy as in the United States–simply whipping out my iPhone and using Google Maps.

One of my greatest hopes is that in the new 6 weeks, I will be able to enjoy getting lost. Before my trip, I thought that I’d be able to get lost and roam into a coffee shop somewhere and just enjoy the experience. Maybe I’m still in transition mode, but I cannot comfortable do this.

I experienced the ugliest part of getting lost today when I was supposed to meet my class for a tour of the Colosseum. We were to meet at Piazza Venezia at 9:30, an hour earlier than our usual class, and then head over to the Colosseum together. I had planned on traveling with a friend who lives nearby. Her mom called my mom (this is how it works here–it’s like elementary school again) but my mom decided that I could go by myself without a problem. It was decided, without my consent. Plus, I had a cell phone, so what could go wrong?

Well, I’m sure you realize that indeed, it was a problem. I advice my future self to always go with someone else in the future, no matter what my host mom says. I arrived at the meeting spot (one of the worst meeting spots possible due to its enormity) only 5 minutes late and couldn’t find my group. Later, I figured out that they waited 15 minutes but couldn’t find me. I tried to call them on my newly purchased cell phone, but it didn’t work, and I couldn’t understand the Italian robot voice telling me why. I decided to go to the Colosseum, sure that they had already left, to see if I could catch up. When I got there, I realized how stupid of an idea that was because there were so many people, it was nearly impossible to find my group. Sheer panic set in, especially once I realized that I was lost in a dangerous, unfamiliar city without a cell phone and I’m a woman and I can’t speak the language very well and maybe I’d get points knocked off my grade for missing this or someone will heckle me.

After unsuccessfully asking several people and policemen to use their phone, I was directed to pay phones across the street. I tried to use them and realized they were out of order. A woman outside directed me to a tourist kiosk where they rip you off for maps and postcards of the pope and asked them if they could help me with my phone. The nice (and attractive) young man listened to the Italian robot on my phone and amusedly informed me that I was out of credit. He sold me a 5 euro credit and I managed to get hold of one of my professors. Then I started to breathe again. My group had already started the tour and I would have to wait outside the Colosseum exit to go to the Italian Forum together. I was happy with this. At least I knew where they were, and I ended up going to the colosseum with another student who got lost after class.


The Forum is a beautiful, captivating experience.


I say experience because for me, it wasn’t just the history or the beauty of the architecture that blew me away. Going to the Forum and visualizing a flourishing community that lived thousands of years ago is completely mind blowing. Learning about the Vestal Virgins and more about Caesar and Nero was interesting, but it was as if all of the history I learned when I was in high school became real at that moment. It was all worth it, and when I went home, I was fascinated with more information I found about these historical masterpieces.


But going back to issues with cell phones… this is another issue for all students. I tell you this not to rant, but if you plan to go abroad, you should definitely consider all of your options. We were told before we left that it was easy and cheap to get just a crappy phone and a local calling plan. We all decided on getting the same provider, Wind (which we don’t have in the United States because here the main providers are Wind and Tim), because calling and texting within the same provider is free, so we wouldn’t have to pay much (this is advice we received from former students of the same program).

Unfortunately, when we all went to the cell phone store, we found out that they were out of all of the cheap phones and the cheapest ones they had left were double the price–50 euro. With more of the required fees totalling nearly 30 euros depending on if the students has internet at home or not, it is expensive for the time span of less than 2 months. Although I decided against it before I left, I realized I should have brought my unlocked iPhone so I would just need to buy a SIM card. I decided against this for two reasons. 1) I have an iPad. 2) I was concerned that I would be a target for theft. Well, about the iPad…

Another thing I would advise you to do is to bring a laptop instead of an iPad (if you can take both, that’s great too). If I had brought my laptop, no matter where I was, I would be able to get internet because they have 10 or 20 euro flash drives that you can plug into laptops for internet. This is not possible with an iPad and they don’t even know what an iPad is at most stores here.

All in all, I think I’m still in transition mode because I still haven’t gotten over my basic reflexes “Oh, I’ll just use Google Maps’ or “Let me call her.” But this can be a good thing as well, because simple things catch me by surprise here (like getting un buon panino for less than three dollars).

Quando a Roma. When in Rome, I guess.

Il mio primo gelato–first gelato!


Ciao tutti!

Let me tell you about my day. I woke up at 11 a.m. because I realized the alarm I set was unfortunately 9 p.m., not a.m. But my host mom was excited to see me when I woke up, and I think she understood that I was exhausted from my flight. I later figured out that many students slept in late–some until 1 in the afternoon!

I woke up to a breakfast of coffee, biscotti, toast and nutella again. I loved it. We chatted over breakfast for a long time, while watching TV, which is also in their dining room. She told me about all of her past host students, and she finally took out all of the letters she’s received from them. There were so many, and all of them were incredibly kind–telling her about marriage or boyfriends or school, or giving photos of their family. She is beloved, and it’s easy to tell why.

Later, we headed out to meet our group for a quick tour of Rome. The student and her host mom whom we met on the bus yesterday was supposed to meet us and we were all to go together, but something happened with the train and many people arrived late. The train was insane. I was smashed up against many other people and I believe my host mom told me that it isn’t usually like that, but because there was a problem with the train, more people were on each train. I clutched my bag tightly in front of me because it’s very easy to get stolen from on a train, especially since I obviously don’t blend in. My host mom held on to my waist and held me tight to her so that I wouldn’t fall down. The entire way to meet our group, from walking to taking the train, she held my hand. It was adorable.

Finally, we met up with our group and discovered that we were one of the first families there. Some students came alone, which is miraculous to me because it’s dangerous, especially if you don’t know the city, but more power to them. I was happy that my host mom came with me. When my professoressa arrived, my host mom immediately flocked to her and told her she was going to buy a gelato right then and there. Surprisingly, my professoressa, host mom and I left the group to get a gelato and caffe. It was my first gelato, and I can’t tell you how amazing it was. I got il bacio, which is like a chocolate hazelnut, and a cherry swirl. The gelato dripped down the cone as I happily devoured it. I later found gelato on my iPad, and to the delight of my friend Marina, licked if off. She laughed hysterically at this, but I think she would have done the same if she didn’t have any napkins!

When we went to meet up with the group, we had to wait about 20 minutes because my professoressa couldn’t find her husband. In a hilarious series of events, one student mentioned that she saw his husband walking around the piazza, but then he left. “I thought he was pacing, but then he kept going!” Antonella was shocked. “Why didn’t you go talk to him? You know him! He was probably looking for me, and Allegra,” she said looking to me, ‘I was probably geting a gelato with your host mother!”

I shrugged sheepishly, only a little embarrassed. Everyone loves my host mother, so I wasn’t too worried. A few students even told me they wish they had my host mother instead of theirs.

We set off on our tour of Rome, thinking that maybe we’d find my professoressa’s husband somewhere along the way. I mean, really, how big can Rome be?

Walking through Rome for the first time is an experience I’ll never forget. As one student said, everything she saw through the lens of Instagram. That is to say, everything was photo-perfect. The tall, colorful buildings with brightly colored wooden shutters and narrow streets that I always associated with Pinterest photos were everywhere, dotted with attractive men riding Vespas, and incredibly posh women on the back of the scooters. Dogs, also, were everywhere. My feet hurt, but I really didn’t care, everything was so beautiful. Gelaterias were everywhere, as were clothing stores and bars with goofy dancing waiters who sang “happy hour” and aggressively tried to push you in to their restaurant.

Some sights were so much larger than life, you’d really just have to see it to understand. A photo in a textbook cannot convey the enormity of the colosseum or the pantheon or Roman Forum. For a few minutes, I literally just stood in awe of each. It’s incredibly to think they were built so many years ago, juxtaposed with the more modern shops and people using iPads to take photos.

At the end of the tour, coming home was an experience, to say the least. To be honest, all I knew was the stop that I needed to take on the bus home, but not how to go from the stop to the apartment.

We all rode the bus together, but after I got off, I was on my own. I got lost for about an hour, asking around “Dove questo posto?” with a notepad with the address written. Some people knew, some people thought they did, and some just gave me a “mi dispiace, non lo so.” When I finally came home, I opened the gate and tried to open the door but my host mom was there before I was, opening it for me and ushering me inside. She enveloped me in a tight hug. “I was so scared for you,” she said with a scared look on her face. Over and over, she told me she was so afraid and I apologized profusely, explaining I got lost. She sat me down to eat, telling me that sadly, the food was cold because I was late, and I didn’t know what else to say except I was so sorry. I felt so bad for putting her through that, and I’m just glad that she didn’t get angry.

The meal was thinly-pounded chicken breast battered with eggs and cheese and fried until golden brown and tender in the middle, accompanied by a romaine salad dressed lightly in what I assume was olive oil and lemon juice. At the end of the meal, she offered me mayonnaise to go with my salad. I was confused, thinking that maybe I was misunderstanding the name, but she brought it out and it was indeed…mayonnaise. I explained that in America, we mostly use it for sandwiches, and she said that they use it for everything. Interesting. After chatting a bit, I took a shower, declined a nightcap since I ate so late, and took a shower. After my shower, I was sitting in bed while the phone rang. I distantly heard my host mother nervously answering the phone and after she called my name “Juhie!” which comes out more like “joie” I realized it was my mother. After telling her I needed to use the calling card to call her back, we chatted on the phone for an hour, I wished my host mom good night and went to bed. Even though I slept so late, it was an exhausting day.

First day in Italy

Hi everyone! Sorry–no photos for now!

It’s great to be able to post this. As I expected, my host family doesn’t have internet, so I had to wait until I go to a place with free wi-fi to post. I wrote this at home on the notes app on my iPad and I am now posting it at my school.

It’s been a crazy few days! My flight schedule, to begin with, was insane. I had to take three planes: from Dallas to Houston, from Houston to Paris, and then from Paris to Rome. Unfortunately, I got sick on the flight from Houston to Paris. By that time (I was traveling in a group of the people in my study abroad program) we were all exhausted, but restless with the idea of meeting our host families.

On the plane from Houston to Paris, my friend Marina and I discovered that since it was a French airplane, we could order alcohol even though we aren’t 21. We both ordered celebratory champagne, wine (horrible) and would have ordered cognac if I hadn’t fallen asleep! Additionally, I guess I haven’t flown in a long time because I realized that now, the planes have touch screens on every seat that shows the view from the front of the plane and a bunch of movies. I watched Lady and the Tramp in Italian while drinking champagne. It was magical. They had classics like You’ve Got Mail and more contemporary movies like The Hangover (which they retitled “A Very Bad Trip” for easier comprehension for those who wouldn’t know what a hangover is). The flight, which was about 9 hours, could have been a lot worse, but I was very impressed with Air France’s various comforts.

Finally, we arrived in Rome. I know this will seem ridiculous to you, but upon my arrival in Rome, I was struck by how much Italian there was. I couldn’t believe that everyone spoke Italian! Of course I expected it, but back where I’m from, the only time I get to practice my Italian is in school, so whenever I see an average person speaking it, I get incredibly excited. But in Rome, everyone at the airport spoke rapid fire Italian with beautiful accents. Rome, even the airport, was instantly a beautiful place because of this. My friend and I declared that the information desk guy, who in retrospect was probably ordinary-looking, was a Roman god because of his beautiful accent.

After a bit of baggage confusion on other students’ parts (one poor student had her baggage lost and as of now she still hasn’t found it), we met up with my Italian professor and boarded a bus to meet our host families. On the way, my Italian professor pointed out various distinctly Roman things. According to her, Rome is the greenest city in Italy, with many trees and shrubs and green grass. They are famous for flat-topped trees that look like green umbrellas. There was a lot of graffiti, I noticed, some in English as well. Where I’m from, there isn’t too much graffiti, but that is probably because I grew up in Texas suburbia.

Finally, we arrived at the meeting spot to meet our host families. The poor families were waiting for an hour at this point, which was especially bad because the weather was cold and it looked like it was going to rain soon. I was shocked by the weather–all of the students planned for scalding weather. the warmest thing I packed was a cardigan and skinny jeans and at the insistence of my mother, some leggings. Man, am I glad that she insisted. Mothers know best.

All the students got off the bus with all of our luggage and made our way to the mob of host families. None of us knew what our families looked like, so we waited for them to recognize and approach us.

Immediately, an older woman dressed in a leather jacket, a black scarf, a studded bag and tall wedges approached me. “Tell me your name, carina” she said in accented English, her face glowing with anticipation.

“Juhie,” I said, “but you can call me Allegra.” Immediately, she crushed me in a giant hug and began to kiss me all over. “Aaaah, che bella!” she announced over and over. “How beautiful!”

She smiled at me happily and hugged me over and over. “Sei la piu bella studentessa qui!” she said. “You are the prettiest student here!”

She complimented my outfit and we chatted. Although I was exhausted at that point, I tried my best to tell her how excited I was. It wasn’t long before she began to introduce me to other families there. “Lei e’ Allegra,” she introduced me. “E’ perfetto perche’ lei e’ vero allegra, si? Ridi sempre!”

She joked about how my nickname, Allegra, was perfect for me. I hear this a lot and it makes me happy to see that almost a year ago, I chose a good Italian name. To be honest, most people in the Italian department don’t know my real name and are confused when they figure out it isn’t really “Allegra”.

After a while of chatting with other host families and announcing how lucky she is to have a beautiful daughter like me, we walked to the bus stop with another student and her host mother. My host mother began chatting with her and they exchanged phone numbers. We will meet them today, in less than an hour, to travel to meet with my professor and the other students for a tour of Rome. When I asked my host mother, who said I’m her 17th host daughter, why she does these programs, she said it’s her only income. She said she does it for money and, of course, “l’amore.” She made several gestures toward her heart to show how she loves all the students as if they were her own children.

At one point on the bus, a woman dressed in a long floral skirt, followed by several children, went to sit in the back.

“Statie attenti,” my host mother whispered for us to be alert,” loro sono gypsies.” She eyed them suspiciously.

We got off the bus, struggling with our luggage, and began to trek to her apartment. On the way, she stopped several times when she wanted to ask her a question or tell me something, sometimes in the middle of the street. At one point, she stopped with a sad look on her face, to tell me that she lives with her husband, who unfortunately has Alzheimers. She asked me to please be patient with him, and repeated several times “povvero.” Since the information I received prior to my arrival had no mention of a husband, I was surprised, but happy that I’d be living with two Italians. Two for the price of one!

Finally, we arrived at her apartment building, which looked just like the street view google maps provided me when I first received her address in Texas. When I first saw it, I couldn’t tell if it was a house or an apartment because it was blocked by a gate. It reminded me of a bungalow in India, and when I showed my dad, he agreed.

She used her large, old-fashioned key to open up the building and I realized that we would have to trek up the stairs with my luggage. The stairs, made of marble, are slippery and slope circularly. On the insides of the stairs, they become smaller because they slope, so they are particularly dangerous. She and I struggled, alternating who had to carry the large suitcase, going up one flight after the other. Finally, I asked which floor she was on. She told me sadly that she was on the top floor. There is no elevator.

Eventually, we made it and she opened the gate, and then the door. She went in first, introducing me to her husband, and then showed me around. She showed me my tiny, intimate and simple room, where I’m typing this now, which has a beautiful little sunroom attached. The sunroom has a lot of sewing equipment and a comfy rocking chair. It opens to a balcony that overlooks the city. She tells me both rooms are my own, and I will have complete privacy here. I love it.

Her apartment, I realized, is the penthouse of the building. Each floor has about 3-4 apartments, but ours is the whole floor. Although it is technically an apartment, it is like a small house to me. The apartment has a tiny kitchen, my room, her room, her husband’s room/study, a living room, a dining room, a bathroom, and two more balconies. Every room has a window. Interestingly, the kitchen has the tiny laundry machine and the bathroom’s shower is more like a giant tub with a showerhead attached. More on that later.

Midway through packing my bags, she knocked on my door to tell me that dinner was ready. Although at this point, it was 4/5 p.m., I was ravished and she made me a beautiful meal of pasta with fresh marinara sauce, bread, and strawberries marinated in lemon juice and sugar. It was delicious, and she was happy to see me taking many photos.

Afterward, I packed some more and then I asked her how to call my parents to tell them I arrived safely. We were told before the program that we were not allowed to use the home phones of our host families because it was incredibly expensive, and we were to buy calling cards. My host mother declared that we were to go to a tobaccaio to buy it, and she would accompany me because she needed parmigiano.

We trekked over to the tobaccaio, got the phone card, and then went to the maccheria, the butcher, next door. She ordered a bag of parmesan ground “fine fine.” On the way back, we met a man with a beautiful Great Dane. My host mother and I stopped to chat about his beautiful dog, and we discovered that he was an Aussie! People are so friendly in Rome.

I came home and called up my parents immediately. To do so, I used my sunroom. Midway during the call, the door that lead into my bedroom closed, probably because of the wind. When I finished my phonecall, I realized I was locked out with no way to get back in. It took about 10 minutes of knocking on my door and shouting “aiuto!” for my host mom to find me and help me out. After she rescued me, she showered me with hugs again. The woman is affectionate, I tell you.

Then, I took a shower. This was a very interesting experience, and I’ll do my best to explain why. Although the apartment is quite spacious, there is one bathroom with a toilet, a bidet (which I avoid for lack of knowledge), a sink, and a bathtub, which has a shower head. Now, the bathtub is normal-sized, but it doesn’t have a shower curtain and the showerhead rarely hangs on the wall (it can, but I’ve always seen it hanging on the side of the tub). So I took a shower with it hanging on the wall and by the end of my shower, the whole bathroom floor was wet. this is because the shower head doesn’t hang parallel to the tub, like in the US. It hangs perpendicular to the tub, so the water ends up spraying outside even if I try to block it. I’m going to have to work on that because even though she said it’s ok, and there’s nothing to be worried about, I felt terrible for making her mop up the floor, which she wouldn’t let me do myself.

Before I went to bed, she asked me if I wanted anything before I went to bed. I said no thank you repeatedly, but she insisted on giving me a nightcap. She made decaf coffee with biscotti and toast and nutella. It was a wonderful end to the day and I slept beautifully.

Foodography: Arancini


My family had an Italian woman over to give me some more tips about traveling in Italy. To be honest, it was more of her answering my dad’s questions and making him feel better about me leaving on Friday (THREE DAYS).

I made arancini, or risotto balls with the leftover risotto from the day before, stuffed with some ragu and mozzarella.

Man, was it difficult. But well worth it.

Arancini are crunchy, satisfying, and hot. Dip them in the marinara sauce and pop them in your mouth. The crumbly exterior reveals warm, comforting risotto–creamy, cheesy and filling. Dig a bit deeper and you’ll be rewarded with oozing mozzarella cheese and a slightly acidic but still sweet tomato sauce to balance it all out. Chew, swallow, smile. Reach for more.

To make arancini, simply mix in an egg and breadcrumbs to leftover risotto. Take a large tablespoon of the risotto and place it in your palm. Make a well with your finger. Fill the well with chunky tomato sauce and mozzarella. Take some more risotto, cover the stuffing, and form a ball. Roll in breadcrumbs and deep-fry. Serve with marinara.

A novel concept

Why is it that when people go abroad, they think that they’ll fall in love?

Like my Italian professoressa, the image of traveling abroad somehow paints a picture of a skinny, attractive woman riding on the back of a Vespa around the Colosseum with a charming English-speaking man with an Italian accent.

Roman Holiday, anyone?


Or maybe an image of sharing a romantic meal of spaghetti, during which he’ll sacrificially push the meatball with his nose. That type of thing.


It’s a private but well-circulated story about how my native Roman professoressa fell in love with her American husband. He was in Italy to make films and he met her on a beach. He knew immediately, the story goes, that he was in love. Mind you, it was a miracle she eventually spoke to him because Italian women are very picky.

Long story short, they fell in love and he ended up prolonging what was probably a month-long trip to Italy into a year-long trip. Just for her. She recounts this story, while waving a cigarette, with a casual air of mystery.

And somehow, everyone seems to think this will happen to them when they go abroad. I’m pretty sure my sister secretly prays at night that I’ll fall in love with an Italian man and do something spontaneous. On the other hand, my mother has nightmares of this.

Believe it or not, this aspirating leads another TED talk that I saw recently about love.

Helen Fisher explains that trying new things increases dopamine in our brains, which makes us feel like we’re in love. She told a funny story about a man who knew this and decided to use it to his advantage and try to get a woman with whom he was in love to feel the same way. So he invited her for a ride on a rickshaw.

She was gasping and giggling the whole time and after hopping out of the rickshaw, she said something to the effect of, “WOW, that was so much fun and the rickshaw driver was so attractive, isn’t he?”

So I guess the idea is that people think that when they go abroad, to an unfamiliar place, nobody will know who they are. They can reinvent themselves, become a completely different person… A person who may fall in love. The idea of experiencing new things also extends to experiencing new people.

But I think the rickshaw story she tells is extremely important, in addition to hilarious. There are all of these preconceived notions we have about travelling abroad. “I’m going to eat at this restaurant, stay at this hotel, meet up with these people, and see this tourist sight.”

But when it comes down to it, isn’t the purpose of traveling abroad experiencing something novel? If you plan out your whole trip, or have ideas in your head about what will happen, it is inevitable that you’ll either be disappointed or not surprised.

We are all guilty of this. I know nothing about my host family/ Italian nonna except that she is retired and lives by herself, without even a pet.

But I’ve got this whole vision in my mind of her being a masterful cook who tells incredible stories and has age-old wisdom.

After telling my friend Allie about my host family, she gleefully said, “I bet she’s going to be one of those crazy badass gradmas who secretly fell in love with a prince or something.”

We both have seen You’ve Got Mail too many times, this is for sure.

In the end, I think it’s fine to dream about everything you’d like to accomplish or have fantasies of when traveling abroad, or about planning your life in general.

But don’t get carried away–there will always be a cute rickshaw driver who can throw you off course, for better or for worse.

Worth a journey

The first time I have ever had a teacher offer me a bribe was in my high school culinary program.

My insane, quirky culinary teacher’s life dream was to go to a restaurant called The French Laundry in Napa. (We all used to joke that he had a man crush on the chef, Thomas Keller.) The legendary food writer Ruth Reichl described this restaurant as “the most exciting place to eat in America” in an incredibly memorable review in 1997. I cannot stress the importance of both the review and the restaurant on modern cuisine. In 2006, Keller became the second chef to receive three stars Michelin for more than one restaurant. Reichl and Keller both embraced the food world with a firm grip, turning it upside-down with their bare hands.

So in 2011, my culinary teacher decided to plan a vacation around a trip to The French Laundry, but the issue was that he couldn’t get in. He tried calling the restaurant for hours before finally offering $5 cash to any student who could get through.

All of his teenage students whipped out their cell phones, suddenly motivated by concrete evidence of school being directly related to money. In the very last 20 minutes of school, someone got through. My culinary teacher, who is usually reserved and poised, started dancing.

Three stars from the Michelin Guide is supposed to mean “worth a journey.” What some people don’t realize is that foodies take this very literally.

The other day I watched a documentary on Netflix about the Michelin Star rating system. Ever since I learned about it in high school, I’ve been fascinated with the star system.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Michelin star rating system, it was created in the 1900s to review restaurants around the world. It began as an incentive for Michelin tire customers to travel and it turned into something much, much bigger. Today, diners and chefs both live both in fear and awe of the Michelin guide, and some literally die over even the prospect of losing a star.

Restaurants can earn one through three stars. One star means the restaurant is worth a visit, two means it is worth a detour and three means it is worth a journey. Getting even one star is a huge deal and restaurants immediately see the result of their success with full houses and an influx of customers. The loss of a star is equally devastating.

I remember reading when Alinea became the first restaurant in Chicago to earn both three Michelin stars and also 4 stars from the New York Times. I read the Times religiously, every Wednesday, and I’d always look forward to chatting with my culinary teacher about the latest foodie happenings in New York.

Foodies take these reviews incredibly seriously, like those people who consistently post on Yelp (except on crack, injected with heroin and spiked with 5-hour energy).

In the Netflix documentary, one of the featured restaurants was in Italy. I was enthralled, especially since the chef was a woman. “Man,” I thought, “if I could go there when I’m in Italy my life would be complete. I could die so happily.”

I have never been to a Michelin rated restaurant. But immediately after this ridiculous sentiment about wanting to go, I had a gripping revelation. Someday, I will.

This whole “worth a journey” business…do I really need a guide from a tire company to tell me to make a journey?

I do not.

In Italy, the farmer’s market will be worth a journey. The trip from the stove to the kitchen table can be a journey.

Like food, a journey is the direct result of how, not why. How much time, how much effort, how much love you put into it. I hope to find a meal equally “worth a journey.” There are so many factors that make a meal worthy, some of them are more personal than a guide can ever touch.

Besides, it becomes increasingly clear to me that Italy is worth a journey for many reasons, and a Michelin star (or three) is a very small portion of that.

Italy—not a restaurant review—is worth a journey.

Comment below: what’s worth a journey for you? Food, family, the sake of travelling itself? Let me know!

Mother’s Day indulgences

I’m so happy to be at home for a couple weeks (12 days!) before I go to Italy. My mom, who is also my best friend, is having a pretty hard time coming to terms with my trip. I’m the baby of the family, and neither my sister nor I have gone to Europe before. This past year was my first year away from her at college, and so Mother’s Day is a pretty big deal this year.

So I did what I usually do for people I love: I cooked.


Food is a huge deal in my family. The kitchen is the heart of our home, and my mom is the first person who taught me how to cook before I began the culinary program at my high school. She’s the best cook I know because she cooks from the heart. It’s particularly adorable because every time I go home from college or she comes to visit me, she brings me enough food to fill my entire dorm mini-fridge.



Food is especially important for my mother and me because before she and I began cooking together, our relationship was strained at best. Now, because of our mutual love for food, we never run out of things to talk about. Maybe this is why I feel such a connection with Italy. In Italy , food is a way of life, and when people think of Italian families, they generally think of the Italian mama or nonna stirring up marinara sauce with a wooden spoon while wearing an apron. The importance of food in my family is something that I have a hard time relating to Americans sometimes.


Because my mom is a vegetarian, I grew up loving vegetables. The Mediterranean orzo salad was representative of all of her tastes. It was fresh, bright, citrusy and had a sour kick to it.


Since there were so many ingredients, it was an indulgence because it was such an expensive compilation. Hearts of palm and artichokes are a particular luxury for my mom and I. We’ve also gravitated toward whole wheat pasta of late, but today (unintentionally) we used white flour pasta. This pasta salad has a dressing similar to what you’d find in a Levantine fattoush salad, but it has some Italian elements as well (such as the pasta).


It’s not my style to give exact and precise measurements for ingredients. This is not how I learned how to cook, and I don’t believe that it’s an effective means of teaching one to become familiar and experimental in the kitchen.


But here’s the rough breakdown! In the comments, tell me what you like to do to indulge for holidays. What’s your mom’s favorite thing to eat?

Mama’s Day Mediterranean Orzo Salad

  •  0.5 lb of orzo pasta
  • roughly 7 olives
  • a tablespoon of capers
  • half of a cucumber, seeded and diced
  • half of a red onion, diced
  • a tablespoon of oregano
  • two sundried tomatoes, diced
  • 2 hearts of palm, diced
  • half a cup of artichokes, diced
  • a quarter bunch of asparagus, diced
  • two tomatoes, seeded and diced
  • a quarter cup of crumbled feta cheese (I like to crumble it further in my hands to avoid large hunks)
  • parsley to taste

For the vinaigrette

  • olive oil
  • the zest and juice of a lemon
  • two tablespoons of red wine vinegar
  • a teaspoon of cumin
  • a teaspoon of sumac
  • a teaspoon of paprika
  • salt and pepper to taste


Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. As it begins to boil, begin to prep your ingredients.

Dice half of a red onion, cucumber, tomatoes, hearts of palm, and the artichokes. Add them to a bowl. Mince the olives and sundried tomatoes and add them to the bowl. Chop up the parsley and oregano, then add them to the bowl. Add your capers and feta to the bowl and put it to the side.

At this point, the orzo should already have been added to the boiling water. Keep an eye on that.

On a separate burner, get a medium-sized saute pan with olive oil preheating. Prepare your asparagus by dicing into small half-inch pieces and saute it quickly, for 2 minutes, until it is firm but cooked. Add to the bowl of vegetables to cool.

For the dressing, add three parts olive oil to every part of acid to a jar. This is why I recommend zesting and juicing the lemon and adding the red wine vinegar to a jar first, then adding the proper amount of olive oil. Then add spices and salt and pepper and put to the side.

Drain the pasta and add olive oil so it doesn’t clump. Add pasta to the bowl of vegetables and mix thoroughly. Then shake the jar of dressing and mix into the pasta and vegetables. Serve with pita chips and hummus.