Monday, August 25, 2014

Little Things I Forgot

**Written 8/23/14**

Flying over Iceland

As soon as the plane landed in Chicago I got this strange feeling inside. I was a stranger, an outsider, but also I knew I would blend in so seamlessly. I was afraid to slide back into my old life without a fight, to just melt into the crowd and rejoin the army mechanically following the predetermined  socially acceptable path into a future of baby showers and 401Ks. I had the overwhelming urge to run, to hide, to just curl up into a ball, shut my eyes and ears and not let any of this stuff leach into me. But of course I couldn't do that, so I pressed forward, with the song lyrics ringing in my head "I'm not afraid of anything, I've got the whole world in front of me", trying to believe them.
Thankfully, I go to Charlottesville tomorrow and school starts Tuesday so I don't have much down time to contemplate my return and likely bawl my eyes out. Keeping such a tight, busy schedule keeps my mind off of all the things I'm missing and the nagging feeling that I'm somehow out of place here.

Anyway, I have to get back to packing for school, but here is a kind of funny list of things I had forgotten about America or things that kind of shocked me coming back Stateside

  1. Those skinny, flippy light switches. In Russia, almost all the light switches look like this:
  2. Bugs in the house. My apartment very occasionally had tiny rolly polly things, but I probably saw three spiders my entire time in Russia.
  4. Drinking tap water! I wished for this luxury every single day abroad. 
  5. Riding in automatic vehicles! I had forgotten there was an alternative to the herky-jerky life of manual transmission. 
  6. DRIVING <3 
  7. American money is so flat and monochrome 
  8. Everyone sounds like me
  9. HUGE cups...and to-go cups in general
    Seriously, that's like 30 oz
  10. People eating full meals in public/on the go
  11. People joke and chat with total strangers
  12. I spent so long being able to think elaborately but only being able to communicate in short, awkward stutters that I got used to words not really being that helpful. Now I'm shocked that I can communicate so freely and I don't need to plan out my sentences before speaking!
  13. Air conditioner in the house
  14. HUGE comfortable bed with fluffy down comforter and pillows
    Zuko waking me up on my cloud-bed
  15. People wearing shoes inside the house
  16. A totally stocked fridge, freezer, and pantry
  17. Insane water pressure in the shower
  18. Everyone dressed so casually 
  19. My mom's house is enormous. How can we take up this much space? Also- 90% of the stuff in my room is complete junk that I just want to disappear and never see again before it inevitably reintegrates itself into my overstuffed, over stimulated, material based life. 

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Why I'm Scared to go "Home"

I'll admit it. It's not just that I don't want to go back to America, or that I'm not ready (both true), but that I'm actually scared...let me tell you why:

I'm scared that all the wonderful friends I've made here will forget me. I'm scared that I won't fit into American culture. I'm scared that all my friends in America will have forgotten me. I'm scared that there won't be a place for me anymore- in Yorktown or Charlottesville. I'm scared to go from a solid home here, back to the floating, constant non-permanence of American college life. I'm scared I will have changed. I'm scared I won't have changed. I'm scared for the culture shock I know will come. I'm scared to forget my time here. I'm scared to lose my Russian language skills. I'm scared to stop having something that automatically makes me stand out as unique and special. I'm scared to return to the land of instant gratification and constant self-absorbed-ness. I'm scared to go back to real university and study harder than I have the last 8 months. I'm scared to eat "normal" food again. I'm scared to lose my steady-ish source of income. I'm scared to leave my internship where I feel like I'm really making a difference. I'm scared to leave the city that still amazes me everyday. Most of all, I'm scared to leave the one place I've lived in my memory that I haven't felt trapped, the one place I haven't felt the need to constantly be planning my next trip, to constantly be looking to the future. In St. Petersburg, I've finally been able to live in the moment, to enjoy and appreciate now to the fullest. I don't know how going back to university- which is essentially just constant preparation for the future in the "real world" will affect my new outlook. I'm scared I'll forgot how to be happy to just be.
Of course, it's not all dread. There are certainly things about America that I'm looking forward to- seeing my family and friends, lower prices, never feeling lost in translation, every food option I can imagine, having my entire wardrobe, being academically challenged, etc...but it's not going to be easy. Yesterday I had my final baseball practice and at the end I couldn't help it, I just started sobbing. Of course I looked like a total idiot, and most of the guys on the team just felt awkward and didn't know what to do, but a few people I've become really close to gave me hugs and kisses and told me how much they'd miss me right as the sky cracked open and rain poured out, drenching us all huddled in tears and now was a perfect way to end what became my favorite activity in St. Petersburg.

I think this quote sums it up pretty well. If you've lived abroad, you'll understand this:

  “So you look at your life, and the two countries that hold it, and realize that you are now two distinct people. As much as your countries represent and fulfill different parts of you and what you enjoy about life, as much as you have formed unbreakable bonds with people you love in both places, as much as you feel truly at home in either one, so you are divided in two. For the rest of your life, or at least it feels this way, you will spend your time in one naggingly longing for the other, and waiting until you can get back for at least a few weeks and dive back into the person you were back there…
         To live in a new place is a beautiful, thrilling thing, and it can show you that you can be whoever you want — on your own terms. It can give you the gift of freedom, of new beginnings, of curiosity and excitement. But to start over, to get on that plane, doesn’t come without a price. You cannot be in two places at once, and from now on, you will always lay awake on certain nights and think of all the things you’re missing out on back home.”

Saturday, August 16, 2014

4 Reasons NOT to go to Italy

This is just a short post...a warning of sorts. To read my full Italian experience, click here.

1. Money. 
Saw this classy souvenir in every city- 15 Euro
Unless you're making the big bucks, Italy will be really rough on your budget. Coming from anywhere outside Western Europe, really, Italy is very expensive. This is a problem that causes many others: first, there's the struggle between good food and affordable food. In Italy of course you want to eat the best food, that's a huge part of the reason most people visit the country, but it's difficult to eat out for less than 10 euros at anywhere other than a kebab stand or a tourist trap with re-heated frozen spaghetti. Second, stretching your budget on 2 euro bus tickets and tiny 1 euro slices of fruit stresses you out! It's hard to relax when worrying about money. Third, Italy is a country best experienced with a knowledge and passionate tour guide. As much as I hate organized tour groups, in big cities it is literally impossible to avoid the lanyard-toting, headset-wearing gaggles of chubby foreigners in khaki shorts, so I say embrace it! You're obviously a tourist, so take advantage of the position to get a good tour guide who can turn cathedrals from another pretty fresco into an actually memorable, educational, culturally enlightening experience. There are also so many hidden secrets and treasures in Italy that you really miss going it on your own (unless of course you've done extensive research and remember everything you've read about the details of the chapels and statues and fountains). Of course, getting a guide means spending more money which puts you in another tight spot. Fourth, frugal accommodations and transportation exist in Italy, but you must check options often and book early, while also sacrificing comfort and western-style customer service. It really depends on the type of traveler you are, but your dollar goes a lot less far in Italy than many other countries.

2. Because of Impressions You've Gotten From Films and TV
Under the Tuscan Sun, Roman Holiday, Letters to Juilet- those landscapes and lifestyles exist, but you won't see them. Okay, you MIGHT see them. Maybe if you charter a yacht and sail up the Amalfi Coast, or rent a car and drive through Tuscan villages, knocking on locals' doors. The sad truth is, the rustic, idyllic life than many people imagine as quintessentially Italian is not accessible to most foreigners. It is far more likely that you will shuttle quickly from city to city along with the other tourists and hear more English, Chinese, and Russian than Italian. You'll eat more "touristic menu"s than home cooked meals, and see more multi-lingual directional signs than TV-style life.
Typical Roman man taking in the piazza

3. The People
Italian people are not known for their hospitality or jolliness, and you shouldn't expect that of people you'll interact with in Italy. Now, I'm sure there are plenty of nice, kind, friendly Italians- in fact, Roman and I met one of them when we couldn't find our hostel in Porto Venere and some random teenager who spoke English climbed all up and down the cliffs to help us find it! However, you will likely spend time in 1)cities and 2)touristy places. Italian city slickers are definitely too cool for you, and they will let you know by ignoring you as much as they can. In touristy areas (everywhere), the Italians you run into will be in the tourism industry- either giving you fake smiles if you pay enough or they want your money, or making it very clear that they would rather be anywhere else. If you manage to make it off the beaten path and find a cool locals bar (that you probably found on the internet by Googling "authentic local bar", and thus has already seen plenty of tourists just like you desperately searching for an off the beaten path experience), the bartenders will likely ignore you and make a big show of serving all the locals first. Italians are rude to tourists- they'll yell at you for bringing luggage on the bus, they'll mutter under their breath and shake their heads at your confusion while reading a map, they'll roll their eyes when you try to communicate through your broken 10th grade Spanish...but the upshot is that there are scores of other tourists to share your awkward dejection. 
Awesome local pizza place, but the guy at the cash register literally pushed me out of his way and they were overall not happy to have two tourists who needed help with the menu and tried to pay with a credit card...

4. Too Many Tourists
This is probably the number one turn off of Italy for me. I live in St. Petersburg, where millions of tourists a year flood the main prospects and sights- maybe I just know the city well enough to frequent the non-touristy places, or maybe it's just that the sheer volume in Italy is beyond comparison, but I've never experienced the boiling, seething rivers of hatred in my blood towards tourists as I did in Italy (okay, maybe that's a bit intense, but bear with me). The swarms of tourists are crushing, crippling, and oppressive. Venice alone gets an average of 50,000 tourists (almost the population of Yorktown) a day. Almost everywhere you go you are following and being followed by other tourists, shops and restaurants are heavily geared towards tourists, and there is a constant barrage of vendors trying to sell you umbrellas, magnets, water bottles, t-shirts, etc. I understand there were some compounding factors to my trip- we stayed mainly in cities, we were there for only a short time hitting the main sights, and we went at the peak of tourist season.
Venice, St. Mark's Square
So to lessen this burden, do the opposite of what I did. From what I've read and personal anecdotes, however, even in the low season there are still impressive numbers of tourists. If Chinese couples shouting to each other about how to pose for a smiley peace-sign picture on their iPad across the main hall of St. Peter's Basilica doesn't sound like a historical, culturally enriching experience...I think you understand my frustration.
This especially cut me in contrast with the last trip I took- to Georgia, which was basically the opposite of this open sewer of tourist filth. I visited Georgia just before the start of the tourist season, and with a population of less than 5 million, everyone in that country seems to know everyone. We in fact ran into the same tourists multiple times in different cities! Everyone was friendly and warm and we found ourselves the only foreign tourists or among a very small group at more than one sight. In fact, now that I think about it, I think the only Americans I saw the entire trip (other than my travel partner, Kaley) was an expat family living in Tbilisi where the father worked for the New York Times.
To give Italy a little credit, I did notice a significant increase in stress as I moved from Cinque Terre to Milan to Venice to Florence to Rome- the more touristy, the worse the city was. (Venice is basically hell, and I spent a lovely day on my own in Milan reading in a park). 

Overall...I understand why people like Italy. Especially people who haven't been there or who have lived there for a significant amount of time. I don't really understand how anyone could like Italy after a short whirlwind trip through major cities and sights at the peak of tourist season. If you do what we did, you will almost certainly be wasting your time and money. If you're still set on visiting Italy, take my advice and plan a trip that moves slow, that leaves lots of time for exploration, forget the "highlights" and the guidebooks, and try to get out of the cities. Unless you have a specific thing you want to do/see in Italy, some strong connection to the country, food, or language, or are very wealthy, my recommendation is to put off traveling to Italy. Italy is spoiled. Its glory days as a travel destination are long gone, and waiting can't make it any worse than it is. For your next trip, try to visit somewhere that still holds a little mystery, magic, and purity left before it goes the same way as Italy...good luck and happy travels.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Missing the Mark in Italy

It's hard for me to admit this, because I like to style myself as somewhat of a pre-professional traveler, but my trip to Italy was for the most part a failure.
I even made a list of reasons not to go to Italy...
There were certainly good moments on the trip- wonderful moments! But overall, there was more stress than smiles, more unfulfilled expectations than moments of wonder, and more frustration than delight. Italy just...isn't my style- and I've always known that! I've said time and time again that Italy just wasn't on the top of my list of places to go, I knew it wasn't the type of place I would enjoy with my style of travel. I ended up being totally right. But the trip wasn't a total bust, and it's definitely worth recounting some of our adventures, so here are the highlights (and lowlights) of my trip to Italy.

When I first arrived to Milan I had about half a day to myself before Kirstyn arrived and those hours were really quite pleasant. My impression of Milan was really positive. Before I went, reading information about the city made it seem like an impersonal, bnoring, quasi-Italian, grimy business capital. I did get a distinct feel for the buisiness atmosphere of the city- lots of people of all ages zooming along on their little motorinos in beautifully tailored suits, and Milan is of course known for it's fashion and shopping which couldn't be missed. I didn't think the average Milanese was particularly stylish, but walking around the gorgeous "Rectangle of Gold" and Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II was a wonderful glimpse into a certain lifestyle.
Piazza Scala
There was a wide selection of shops ranging from Zara and H&M to Prada and some place selling 100 Euro hand-carved pipes. Inside the Galleria there were little swarms of Chinese and German tourists clicking their shutters incessantly, but here and there was a business man negotiating something into his Blackberry while smoking a cigar and throwing back a tiny espresso, or an older woman with heavy makeup and perfectly coiffed hair sitting at the Gucci cafe with her tiny dog laying at her feet. There were so many moments where I felt "this is so Italian!" and I initially thought that if Milan isn't "traditionally Italian" enough for some people, the rest of trip would be amazing. Milan saw my first Italian pizza (mozzarella, potato, and sausage), and my first Italian gelato (crema and nutella) and my first smoking hot Italian young businessman in tight slacks and a suit jack on a motorino flirting with me! So overall, yes, Milan was a positive experience. Of course the duomo was also gorgeous, and especially loved the Catholic University, late 4th century Saint Ambroggio Church, and quiet neighborhood surrounding them. In Milan I got the feeling that instead of a busy center that fades into more residential areas with less character, the whole city was like the very center had gradually relaxed and melted into the edges to form a large plain of pedestrian areas and high quality stores. It's hard to describe, but I liked it! I didn't get any grimy or industrial feel- although our hostel was certainly substandard. When I came back to Milan after Venice to meet up with Roman, the one thing he wanted to do was go to the AC Milan football we made a two hour mostly walking pilgrimage in terrible heat to see a big empty stadium...but Roman liked it, so that's what's important))

Venice is where the negative aspects of the trip really began to pile up. Maybe I just had expectations that Milan would be the base and everything would get even better from there, but it didn't really work like that. Venice was...crowded. Hot. Expensive. There were WAY too many tourists for my liking. Apparently Venice gets 50,000 visitors a day and it was really oppressive. Absolutely everything was geared towards tourists, it was nearly impossible to find anything local and authentic. The only real locals we saw were a few old ladies early on a rainy Friday morning, and the shop assistants and waiters at restaurants- many of whom weren't even Italian, but immigrants from North Africa and Southeast Asia. In Venice, there aren't really street signs, but there are signs leading tourists towards the major sights like St. Mark's Square and the Rialto Bridge/Market. There was literally a moment, when it was raining, and a big swarm of tourists, many dragging suitcases up and down the stairs and bridges, clad in ponchos, umbrellas clashing, shouting in Chinese and English, all pushed through a narrow alley following a sign towards St. Mark's Square, and I felt exactly like I was in a theme park. Like Busch Gardens' "Italy" section. I think that metaphor really carried through the rest of the trip as well. There were certainly things I loved about Venice, though! At night when it was cool and quiet, the canals were really beautiful. The architecture reminded me a lot of St. Petersburg (which was built by Italians), and I thought that was really cool. Because the whole city is SO geared towards tourists, there are lots of fun restaurants and shops, which is good, but also not really authentic Italy. There are no cars in the city, which is super neat, and there are lots of little alleyways and tiny courtyards to explore!
Adorable alleyway we found
The thing is, Italy is so imitated, and so well imitated throughout the rest of the world, that seeing it was surprisingly un-shocking. Nothing was completely new or unexpected, it was like I had seen it before. It was also a bit hard to tell what was real and what was fake. There are a lot of authentic old buildings, but also a lot of replicas. Are the gondeliers doing it for the tourist money or because its their family trade? Are the pizza-makers singing in the restaurant to draw in tourists or because they're happy? Does that fruit seller grow those in his garden or import them from Ecuador? You just can't I found myself being pretty skeptical about everything. I would go back and give Venice another shot in the off-season, but my experience there was certainly not one I'm eager to repeat soon.

Cinque Terre, La Spezia, and Porto Venere
Here is what I would call the best part of our trip. Unfortunately it was only two days, one night, but it was the closest we got to the idyllic Italian countryside paradise of the movies and I loved it! It was also our only time spent on the coast, and the only hours of relaxation I really enjoyed during this "vacation". Cinque Terre, or "Five Lands", is a series of five towns clinging to the Mediterranean coast of north western Italy. It is still touristy, but mostly Italian tourists from other parts of the country. It is also really popular for backpackers and hikers with its gorgeous cliff-side trails. We rode the little regional train up and down the coast to some spectacular views! Our hotel was actually in Porto Venere, another small town about a 30 min busride away from the regional hub of La Spezia. Porto Venere was so quaint, the perfect Italian post card! Our hotel was up high on a hill and we had a great view of the beach below. We had an AMAZING seafood dinner with wine and gelato for dessert. Perfect night))) Then the next day we went to the biggest town of Cinque Terre, Monterosso, and, despite threatening storm clouds, swam in the Mediterranean! If I could do it again, I would have spent the majority of our trip there.


Florence Duomo
Piazzale Michelangelo
I had pretty high expectations of Florence, and while I can't say it was exactly what I'd hoped for, I can definitely see how people love it. The train journey through Tuscany was much more beautiful than the city itself- rolling hills, mountains in the distance, little red roofed villas and stately palazzos. The city itself had less character than I expected, but the center was certainly worth seeing. We climbed the Campanile (bell tower) and got beautiful aerial views of Florence, we climbed up a big hill to Piazzale Michelangelo, basically the balcony of the city, and saw the urban core melt into the surrounding Tuscan countryside. Thanks to some wonderful tips and recommendations from my friend Emily who studied abroad in Florence, we found the BEST gelato (muscato and peach granita was possibly the best thing I ate in Italy) ever and got more out of the city than we would have otherwise. I liked Florence overall, but I felt like I was missing the magic. I think if we were to have someone who completely adored the city show us around and transfer some of their passion, it would have left more of an impression.
Posing in the garden of a convent with orange trees!

Well...I read a lot of articles before I went about how Rome is hard to get on the first visit, and almost impossible to love. The best you can really do is to try and handle the city through its overwhelming chaos. I actually didn't find the city to be that overwhelming, perhaps because our hotel was in a very quiet neighborhood outside the center, or because our short stay only let us see the highlights, but I can't say I loved it either. Rome was definitely the city I liked least out of everywhere we went. It was awesome to see the ancient ruins alongside well preserved medieval and renaissance architecture, and I decided I liked the latter much more. It was actually difficult to reconcile my ideas of the Roman Empire with the experiences we had in the rest of Italy. We dedicated a day to "Ancient Rome" and it was hot, dusty, and tiring. Roman knows a ton about that period, and he was loving it, so maybe having a knowledgeable tour guide would have improved my experience. We also spent a day at the Vatican, and that was really really cool. I loved it and I would definitely recommend it. I love the mystery and tradition of the seat of the Catholic Church. I've read enough about the Papacy to really get into it! (Plus at every corner I was pointing out Angels and Demons references...) The Vatican Museum is enormous and full of interesting details. One of our best nights we spent in. On our last night in Rome, we picked up pizza from a restaurant on our street that was hopping with locals all night long (it was absolutely delicious), cracked open a bottle of wine we brought all the way from Florence, enjoyed a juicy watermelon, and just relaxed, decompressed, and reflected on our trip. I can see myself returning to Italy at some point, giving it another shot, but honestly I can't see myself going back to Rome- I've had enough.
Castello Sant'Angelo


If I could do it again...
  • I would go with a bigger budget.
  • I would have read a book or two about ancient Rome or general Italian history before I went to get me in the mood, so to speak.
  • I would have hired private tour guides (bigger budget)
  • I would have spent all the time on the coast and in the countryside relaxing, with maybe day trips to Venice and Florence.
  • I would have met some Italian people.
  • I would have eaten more local specialities rather than just constantly (totally delicious) pizza and pasta
  • I would have tried more local wines
  • I wouldn't have missed my flight home and have to spend 13 hours in the tiny, terrible Bergamo airport.
  • And the biggest "would have"?...I would have spent the money on a different trip altogether. 
 The initial reason to take the trip was to see my darling best friend Kirstyn, and that was a total success, so in the end, perhaps the trip wasn't so much of a failure after all.