Allegra In Italia

Eating, studying and living abroad in Rome

Tag: 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.

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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.

Tivoli

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!

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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.

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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

5/27-28/2013

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.

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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.

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The Forum is a beautiful, captivating experience.

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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.

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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!

5/26/2013

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.

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?

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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.

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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.