Rome Is Where Your Heart Is

It’s been two and a half weeks since I arrived at home, and I’ve enjoyed every minute. The four essential Fs (Friends, Family, Fun, and Food) have been pleasingly prevalent, and it’s been great to enjoy them and all of the other things I missed about the States during my semester abroad. It’s been like a vacation from a vacation, if that’s a possibility.

But all vacations must come to an end. For me, this means going back to Wofford for a new semester. While I’m eager to get back into the groove, I still can’t help but look behind me as I see my three and a half months in Rome fade into the distance, and feel a little empty. Here I am, enjoying all of the comforts of home that I couldn’t while I was away, and nevertheless, I find myself to be quite bored with it all. Since everything is so comfortable, there’s not the constant sense of adventure that empowered me while I was abroad. For me, the culture, history, and people that I experienced in Rome is so much richer than what’s around me right now, but I guess that’s just me being used to my home. I think it’s going to be hard to go back to the “normal life” of school and work after having such an amazing excursion, but I’m ready to take on the challenge.

Yeah, I miss Rome already. The good part about leaving it, though, is that I know I’ll be back. I don’t know whether this will happen five months or five years or five decades from now, but the connection that I established with the Eternal City will draw me back one day. I left a piece of myself in Rome, I think. But with this post, it’s time to say my final “ciao” as I sign off once last time. It was an important word for me during the semester, as basic as it is, and I find myself still using it a little too much.

The great thing about the Italian word “ciao” is that it not only means “goodbye,” but it also means “hello.”

Ciao, Roma, and I look forward to the day that I can say that to you once again. Be a good little city while I’m gone.

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FINALS

Just a quick update here as I prepare for my final final tomorrow. I hate to admit it, but I’m actually having sort of a hard time with exams this week. Apparently, no matter where you are, the end of the semester is always stressful. There are always final exams and final papers and final projects to finish before it all ends. So much finality.

It doesn’t help, of course, that everyone, including myself, is also emotionally vulnerable since tomorrow is our last full day here in Rome. People are taking pictures with countdowns, making sappy videos, and preparing for their final goodbyes. The reality of it didn’t really hit me until this week, and it’s not a great feeling. Yes, I’m excited to get home to my family and friends and everything that’s familiar and comfortable, but at the same time, I can’t even put into words what I’ll be closing inside the door behind me when I board that plane home on Friday morning. And really, at this point, it’s not so much the places and the things and the experiences. It’s the people that have made this semester abroad so great. It’s a weird unity that people traveling abroad together share. So much newness comes into their lives at the same time, and they have to cope with it together. Maybe that’s why leaving everyone here will be such a challenge. Or maybe it’s just that I’ve made some really good friends.

Sorry to get all sappy on you, but that’s just how it is here right now. I’m not even the worst, trust me. In just a day and a half, I’ll be headed home. Time to get off of the computer and into my last moments of this three and a half month adventure.

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Last Friday Night

If you thought that this blog post would be some crazy party story in the spirit of Katy Perry’s hit single, then I’m sorry to disappoint you. Rather, you’re getting a more reflective piece that I’m composting here in my apartment on my last Friday night in Rome.

“Lasts.” It’s a term that I introduced in my last blog post, but for those of you who missed that one, here’s a quick review. “Lasts” are those things that people get sentimental about when a specific phase of their life is coming to an end. They’re all the things that, just before the time period ends, people are doing for one final time. As my semester comes to a close, I’ve been experiencing many of these lasts, some more gratifying than others.

Last weekend, I took my last trip of the semester, this time to Amsterdam. I visited my Dutch friend Doortje, who is an Amsterdam native that I met in India over the summer when she was studying medicine in the same city that I was doing my internship. I wandered around the beautiful, Christmas-fied city by myself for a few hours before meeting up with her, and toured the Anne Frank House, which was, to my surprise, quite powerful. I was also sure to tour the nearby Cheese Museum and take advantage of the dozens of free samples. After I met up with Doortje, she showed me around the city for the rest of the weekend. We ate a traditional Dutch meal, took a boat tour throughout Amsterdam’s famous canals, and even saw Cloud Atlas (which was really weird). Overall, it was a great last weekend of travel. Alas, I had to go back to Rome and begin stressful period that always comes at the end of a semester.

This week was also the last week of classes, which, I have to admit, was kind of saddening. Although, my last Archaeology field study on Thursday was somewhat of a downer, since I know that I won’t be doing any more field studies in the rest of my college career, especially with a subject that is so appropriate for them. My Italian final exam was also this week, marking the last time my class would be gathered together. Spending so much time together throughout the course of the semester, doing all sorts of crazy and fun activities, has made our class of twelve become a real “family,” as my teacher Monica said. The “family” put some money together to give her a nice, leather-bound journal that we all signed like a yearbook. Everyone got a little emotional when we gave it to her right before the final began.

This weekend is the hardest one yet. Everyone has to study for next week’s finals, but at the same time, they want to make the best of this last weekend in Rome with their friends. It’s a balancing act that’s easier said than done. But by now, I’m used to making the best out of things. I’ve been doing it all semester, after all. Wish me luck!

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An Overdue Reunion

Last weekend, I traveled to Germany for the second time this semester. Per the recommendations of many friends, I went to Berlin this time, but before I could enjoy the city about which I’d heard such great things, I had a very important detour to make, which requires a bit of backstory:

When I was in sixth grade, my family had a foreign exchange student live with us for four months. Her name was Lia, and she was a high school student from Germany. We loved having her around–she was nice, funny, and really cool. Lia did everything with us, just like she were another Novak in our family, including eating dinner, riding to school, and even taking family trips! After her exchange program was over, she returned to Germany, but came and visited us the following two summers, and we were happy to have her. From there, we’ve just kept in contact via annual Christmas letters and the occasional email. That is, until I found out that I was coming to Rome. Before I flew here, I tracked Lia down on Facebook and told her that I was going to be in Europe for a semester. We both got really excited, and decided sometime in October that I’d come visit her during my trip to Berlin.

I took the train straight from the Berlin airport to Bremen, where Lia is currently living and working while she completes her Master’s Thesis. She called me as my train got close to figure out where I was, and sounded slightly surprised at my voice on the phone. After I told her my arrival platform and hung up, I realized that most of her memories of me were of the awkward eleven-year-old that I was when she lived with us eight years ago, and that I hadn’t even entered high school as of the last time we saw each other. This reunion was long overdue, and I couldn’t be more excited for it.

Lia was waiting for me at the train platform, and we walked to her house for some cake and catching up. We talked with a couple of her roommates, and then looked at her old scrapbook from her time in the States. There were so many horrible pictures of that chunk eleven-year-old I thought I’d left behind long ago! It was all really funny though. From there, we left on a walk around Bremen.

The city was beautiful. Everything was just beginning to get geared up for Christmas, and the streets were completely decked out in ornaments and lights and garland. We browsed in some shops and sampled a German Christmastime specialty: hot spiced wine. It was delicious and warm on that cold, foggy evening. On the way back to Lia’s apartment, we stopped by the grocery store for a few items so that she could make a traditional German meal. After we ate the cabbage, sausage, meat, and bread, some of Lia’s friends arrived. I got to know them a little bit before we all biked, like most people in Bremen do, to a house party.

This party was the biggest I’d ever seen. The host apartment was five stories, and all of the residents were participating in the fun. Hundreds of people were crowded into the small rooms and narrow hallways, drinking beers and chain smoking cigarettes. Lia and I stayed for awhile, but decided to leave early, since we’d have to wake up in a few hours to get me back to the train station.

My departure was just as sad as my arrival was exciting. I told Lia I’d be back in Germany as soon as I could, but begged her to come back and visit my whole family in Texas. We cheezily waved to each other through the train window as it pulled away. I was so thankful to get to see her after so many years, but I wish my visit could have been longer. It’s alright though. I’m sure we’ll run into each other again soon.

As much as I’d love to say that the following 24 hours in Berlin didn’t live up to the 16 I had just spent with Lia, I can’t tell a lie. Berlin was amazing. I saw a lot of the city, and just couldn’t get enough. It’s a city with a rich history and culture, which is what I love so much about Rome. How Berlin bests Rome in my mind, however, is that along with these great old-timey aspects, it is very metropolitan, complete with a lot of the amenities we have back in the States. It was the first place that I’ve visited outside of the U.S. in which I could actually see myself living. All in all, it was a good weekend in Germany.

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This is the Italy That You Hear About at the Olive Garden

Last weekend, I took a trip to Athens and loved it. The city wasn’t the safest place in the world, but the epic history and the beautiful sights were enough to compensate for the sketchy graffiti and the march in the streets. Due to the current economic state of Greece, everything was ridiculously cheap, too. I was sure to stalk up on some nice souvenirs and eat as many giant 2-euro gyros as I could. The only frustrating part of an otherwise ideal weekend was a three-hour delay on our return flight, but a deck of cards and a makeshift backpack-table made the time fly.

The semester is coming to a close more quickly than ever, and everyone is beginning to take notice. Professors have begun talk of final exams, friends get sappier and more nostalgic by the day, and we’re all entering the realm of the “lasts.” That is, we’re starting to do certain things for the last time in Rome. For a while, at least.

The first of the lasts took place on Tuesday evening. On Monday, I got an invite from one of my friends to a dinner party that some of her Italian family friends, an older couple, were hosting. Earlier in the semester, many of my friends had visited this same couple, a trip of which I have yet to hear the end. From what I understand, they went to pick olives at the couple’s absolutely breathtaking orchard in Tuscany, and then sat around a massive bonfire, eating the most delicious meal in the world and having the best Italian experience of the semester. Apparently, this older Italian couple was just the coolest, so I had to see what all the fuss was about. I accepted the dinner invitation, and am glad that I did. The food was great, and the company was greater. Everything lived up to my high expectations and made me wish that I’d gone olive picking. The atmosphere at the dinner party, complete with older friends and newer ones, was something that I hadn’t yet experienced in Rome–it felt like a home away from home, with something that wasn’t too far from family. It was the last time we’d see these great people, and I have to admit, things got a little bit sappy. But it’s all good.

A similar moment happened just last night at Thanksgiving dinner. A giant group of us did a potluck, and I volunteered my roommate John and myself to cook the turkey. It was an exercise in caution, but by the end of our cooking process, the main dish had turned out beautifully. Everyone contributed something Thanksgiving-ish to our dinner, and when all of the food was set on the table, it looked like quite a feast. I’m happy to report, too that it tasted like a feast as well. The Italian students in attendance were definitely impressed. The 25 of us ate our tasty dishes, talked, and enjoyed each other’s company, knowing that the opportunities to do so were quickly running out. As I looked around at the picturesque moment happening around me, I just couldn’t help but think of the awesomely cheesy line that a friend had conjured up after Tuesday’s dinner:

This is the Italy that you hear about at the Olive Garden: when you’re here, you’re family.

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My Really Random Robbery and its Rather Reassuring Repercussions

After a full week of classes, I invited a few friends over to my apartment last Thursday evening. We sat around my kitchen table, talked, and enjoyed each other’s company. A particular topic of conversation was our limited time left in Rome. After all, this was going to be my second-to-last weekend in my “home” city, since the rest are composed of trips abroad. Upon our return from Fall Break at the end of October, IES distributed a “Roma Bucket List” to all students, which listed activities that we should be sure to do before we leave on December 14. One of these items instructed us to “check out districts you’ve never been to, like Testaccio.” Feeling particularly adventurous, a couple of us decided to do just that.

I’d heard about Testaccio before from many friends in my program. It’s known for being one of the great nightlife centers in Rome, and I was eager to experience it for the first time. We took a cab to Testaccio, since we had no idea how to get there on our own, and managed to meet up with a few of our friends at a well-known discotech. It was really crowded, but pretty fun. After a while, however, I got tired and wanted to go home. Everyone else seemed to be pretty caught up in dancing and having fun, so, not wanting to bother them, I decided to leave the disco alone. I would just hop in a cab and be back at my apartment in no time.

As with most things, this idea didn’t quite go as planned. I wasn’t able to find a cab right outside of the club, so I was forced to walk down the street in search of one. During this walk, I ran into two Italian guys, who seemed to be just a few years older than me. They approached me speaking Italian, so I tried my best to ask them where I could catch a taxi. As I was trying to comprehend the quickly spoken response, one of the guys reached over and snatched my iPhone out of my pocket! I was shocked, since that was about the last thing I’d expected to happen during this seemingly friendly interaction. Grabbing at my phone in a desperate attempt to retrieve it, I didn’t even notice the second guy sneak behind me and grab the cash out of my wallet! I was angry now, but resisted the urge to lash out. After all, there were two of them, and I didn’t want to get hurt. My moment of hesitation gave the thieves enough time to turn and run. I dashed after them, but was outrun before too long.

Awestruck at my misfortune, I looked for some help. During the chase, I had run far away from the disco and my friends with it, so, not knowing how to get back, my only option was to find a way to get home. Luckily, I spotted a passing cab. Frustratedly wondering where it had been before the robbery, I flagged it down. The driver got me home safely, and even stopped at an ATM so I could withdraw the money to pay him, since, thankfully, the thieves had left the cards in my wallet.

I woke up on Friday thinking that the previous night was just a bad dream. Small, helpless girls are the ones that get robbed, right? Not big, tall guys like me. But reality hit me soon enough, and before I knew it, I was Skyping with my parents and my girlfriend, telling my story and dispelling their worries. Then, I was on the phone with IES, working through my options. Then, I was at the police station, reporting the incident with my ISC. Then, I was talking with my friends, receiving their sympathies and good wishes. It was a lot to handle, but I did my best.

Now, after everything is said and done, it’s all okay. I am okay. A replacement phone is on the way, none of my credit or debit cards got stolen, I wasn’t carrying a particularly substantial amount of cash, and, most importantly, I wasn’t hurt in any way.

It goes without saying that I learned a great deal from this experience. First of all, I now know that it’s not a good idea to explore an unfamiliar and faraway place, especially at night. It’s easy to get lost in a big city like Rome, and it’s even easier to do so without the light of day. In addition, it’s generally less safe at night due to unsavory characters like thieves. My Grandpa Novak used to say that “the only things that come out at night are the roaches.” Next, I learned that, even if you are doing a little nighttime exploration, it’s important to have others with you. There’s always strength in numbers, even if the situation isn’t an optimal one. Surely, I wouldn’t have been targeted if I was in a big group of people, or even just one other person.

Perhaps most of all, I learned that I have great people on my side, even in the toughest of times. I was pretty shaken up after Thursday night’s incident, but everyone rallied behind me and helped me cope with it. Although I’m now down an iPhone and $80 cash, it’s definitely reassuring to know that I’ll always have people supporting me. Thank you, everyone.

Now that I’ve gotten that sad and dramatic story out of the way, I can get back on track! All of my positive experiences this semester have more than compensated for this single negative one, and my opinion of Rome remains untarnished. It’s still an amazing city, and I can’t believe that I only have a month left in it. More exciting and happy adventures coming soon!

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Traveling Never Quite Goes As Planned

So after ten crazy days, I returned from Fall Break last Sunday. Although I did get a good bit of time out of the classroom, all of the traveling that took place over my break was more tiring than school itself. No complaints here, though. All of the great experiences I had were completely worth being a little more tired than usual.

The first notable event of my fall break happened before I even left Rome. On Friday morning, I was supposed to get up at 3:15 to meet up with my friends and make it to the airport early enough to catch our 6:45 flight to Paris. I tried to get to bed as early as possible on Thursday night, but had accepted the fact that my “sleep” that night would be more like a “nap.” After resting for a bit, I rolled over and momentarily woke up in the middle of the night. Feeling a little too well-rested, I checked the time just in case. It was 5:00! I stormed into my ISC Paolo’s room and demanded that he call a taxi for me, and I rushed to cram things into my backpack at the last second. I told the driver in the best broken Italian I could muster to get me to the airport as fast as possible. Luckily, I made it to my gate just in time to meet up with my friends and board the plane. Next time, I’ll remember to actually turn on my alarm.

My time in Paris lasted from Friday morning to Monday morning, and every moment was occupied. Our activities on Friday and Saturday included eating some delicious crepes and escargot, jumping around a bounce house replica of Stonehenge, riding a carousel, and walking pretty much all over the city.

We saw the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, the Arc de Triomphe, and every pretty building in between. On Sunday, we left the city to visit the palace at Versailles, and it exceeded every grandiose expectation. The building itself was beautiful, but the grounds on which it was situated were even more impressive. We rented some bikes to ride around the property, and then saw the amazing fountains that are peppered throughout the palace gardens. Everything that I saw in France was generally great, and I wish that I could say the same of the people. While I’ve come to expect friendliness from Europeans, I realized in Paris that I’ve been truly spoiled by the kindness I’ve seen from Italians. I found the French to be rather cold, stuck up, and unwelcoming to Americans. The city was amazing, don’t get me wrong, but the attitudes with which I interacted were enough to deter me from hurrying back in the near future.

I was happy to fly to Spain on Monday morning. After waiting for a two-hour RyanAir delay, that is. My cousin Laurie is teaching English at an elementary school in Madrid, so I stayed with her in her apartment until Friday morning. While she was at work during the days, I walked around the city by myself, taking all of it in. I hit all of the main sights, like Plaza Mayor and the Palacio Real, but I also got a chance to see the inner workings of the city by walking around its various neighborhoods. During my stay in Madrid, I also managed to meet up with two friends from Wofford, Peter and Jen, who are studying abroad there! The reunions were great, but the Spanish food I got to eat was a close second. I ate some dishes that I’d never even heard of before, sampling everything from chocolate churros to bull’s tail. I just couldn’t get enough of it.

Although Laurie was originally supposed to ride the bus with me to Barcelona, things didn’t quite go as planned, so I made the trip solo. I was certainly alright with this, but I wish I could have spent some more time with my cousin. The bus left early on Friday morning, and consisted of eight hours of listening to music, sleeping, and enjoying the view. When I finally arrived, I managed to find my other cousin, Katie, who was vacationing in the city. I stuck with her and her tour group all weekend, and made some new friends doing so. We ate a lot, walked a lot, and got a taste of the famous Barcelonan night life. I even got interviewed by a Barcelonan TV station about parks! Katie and I were sure to tour the beautiful Basilica de La Sagrada Familia, per the request of my mother. The weekend ended sooner than I wanted it to, but I really had an awesome time. I left the hotel at 3:45 on Sunday morning to return to Rome, and despite what I thought, my adventures weren’t quite over. I still had one more debacle left.

Just before taking the shuttle from the hotel, I saw the driver trying to speak to one of my fellow travelers in Spanish. This conversation wasn’t going so well, so I tapped into my Spanish knowledge, having three semesters of class and one month of immersion under my belt. I managed to figure out what he was saying: we weren’t allowed to pay for the shuttle with a credit card–cash only. This was fine with me, since I knew that I would split the 38-euro fare with the three other people that were also going to the airport. However, things got even better for me when the tour group’s guide showed up and informed us that the shuttle fare had already been paid. Glad that I didn’t have to worry about money anymore, I enjoyed the early morning trip. First, the driver dropped off my three companions at Terminal 2 of the Barcelona airport. We said our goodbyes and they were off. As the driver pulled up to Terminal 1 for me, he asked for his 38-euro fare. Using my Spanish again, I explained that the balance had already been paid, but he wouldn’t stand for that. Apparently, I had misunderstood him before our departure. There had been some sort of error with the original credit card payment that the tour guide had made, which meant that we were going to have to pay cash for the ride instead. Neither of us could call anyone to help resolve the problem, since I didn’t have any of the necessary phone numbers and it was too early for his office to be open. Grumbling about the misunderstanding, I went to grab the money out of my wallet. To my horror, I discovered only 20 euro, and remembered, as the driver had mentioned earlier, I couldn’t pay with a card. I didn’t know what to do. I was stuck in a shuttle, 18 euros short of being able to pay the fee. I didn’t have any fellow travelers to ask money, or anyone to call for help. I had a flight to catch in about an hour. And the only way to cope with this horrible situation was to converse in Spanish. I eventually told the driver to wait in the shuttle while I went to search for an ATM inside the airport. He demanded that I leave my bag in the car as a source of insurance. I sprinted through the airport in my desperate quest for an ATM, but wasn’t having any luck. I started considering the pros and cons of selling the clothes off my back when a true miracle happened: I ran into a girl from my program in Rome! She lent me the 18 euro that I needed, and I managed to get home safely.

I spent all day on Sunday laying around and relaxing after my crazy week.

So that was that. Fall Break was busy and tiring, but amazing. I’m really glad that I got the opportunity to travel to so many new and fun places. Now that the semester is beginning to come to an end, I’m running out of opportunities to do so, but I’m going to enjoy every one that I get!

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Procrastination at its Finest

Boy oh boy, have the last few weeks been hectic. That’s, of course, why it’s been so long since my last blog post. Busy, busy, busy! Of course, I do like to update you about my shenanigans, especially when I have a lot of studying to do. Just know that this post is only procrastination in part. And so we go:

Oktoberfest, three weekends ago now, lived up to and exceeded every one of my expectations. I had a great time, and met a lot of interesting people. Before going, I’d heard from different people that the event is a huge tourist magnet, so I’d mostly be seeing other American college students studying abroad. I was overjoyed to find that this was not the case. Oktoberfest had so many people, and they were from all over the world. My friends and I met people from Italy, the U.S., Germany, New Zealand, and England, just to name a few. I thought that the event was particularly special because, no matter the attendees’ country, culture, or language, everyone was united in their love of having a good time. Our group encountered some challenges before, during, and after the event, but I’m so glad that I went.

I still couldn’t wait to return to Rome, though, since my good friend Deep, who is studying in Copenhagen this semester, was visiting! We got to hang out for two nights in a row before he left, and it felt great to see someone who I actually know from back home.

But I got another dose of this feeling just a couple of days later, when my parents arrived for their visit! Our weekend was packed full of quality time, sightseeing, and, of course, eating. They seemed to like my new home city a lot, and I had a great time showing them around. They left for a week of traveling around Italy and returned to Rome on Friday. We spent the day together at the Vatican Museum, and after a nice dinner at this restaurant that is the oldest Roman building still in practical use, we said our goodbyes. The feeling that I had was interesting. I’ve never had any visitors during my previous abroad experiences, but have always kept in contact via Skype. However, seeing my parents in person actually made me miss home more, I think. It’s a good think that I spend too much time loving Rome to spend any missing home!

As far as the “study” component of study abroad goes, things have been ramping up very quickly. Last week, I had a midterm and two presentations, and this week, I have three midterms. It’s not so bad, but at the same time, it’s hard to keep a steady focus on school when there’s so much else going on. I’ve now racked up two nights in a row of studying that can only be rivaled by those that take place during Wofford’s finals week. Everything will work out, though, since right after midterms end, Fall Break begins! For me, it’ll be ten fun-filled days of traveling with friends in Paris, and then with my cousins in Madrid an Barcelona. I’m really looking forward to it for obvious reasons.

Despite all of the busyness of the week, between class, studying, and travel coordinating, I still made some time earlier today to step back for a moment and take a cooking class. This class’s specialty was eggplant! I’d never taken part in the purple fruit as of this morning, but I’m definitely glad that I did. It’s a really versatile ingredient, which we used to prepare three different dishes. I can’t remember any of the Italian names, of course, with the obvious exception of Eggplant Parmigiana. The little things like random cooking classes are really completing my whole Roman experience, and I really appreciate them.

If you’ve read any of my other blog posts, I’m sure you know how much I love food. That is, if my taking a cooking class isn’t enough evidence in itself. I enjoy sampling all different kinds of food, and I’m ready and willing to try anything anything at least once. During my especially late study escapades of this week, I tried another new food, with which I fell in love. Amidst cramming for my Italy and the Mediterranean exam with my roommate, we decided that we needed a study break/late night snack. If we were in the States, we would naturally take a quick trip to Taco Bell, Cookout, or Wendy’s to pick up some fast food, but that’s not really an option here. Instead, we met up with some other friends and walked to what is, to my knowledge, the only 24-hour bakery in Rome. We’d been here a few times before in the evening, but I never made the connection to the late-night Cookout runs I make at Wofford. I got a donut that was as big as my face, and was more than satisfied.

I’m happy to report that Rome is still just…fun. The food is delicious, the people are great, and the experiences are unforgettable. The end of midterms tomorrow will mark the halfway point in my semester. I can’t believe that so much time has gone by, and what seemed like an infinite amount just weeks ago now seems to be disappearing right before my eyes. I suppose my only choice is to take advantage of the time that I have left, and really enjoy every second of my abroad experience, not that I haven’t been doing that the whole time anyway.

Now, it’s back to studying. Ciao!

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#YORO (You Only Rome Once)

Our full set of classes have been going on for a couple of weeks now, and judging from how they’ve been thus far, I think it will be a good semester. Alongside my required Italian class, I’m taking three other courses that are significantly outside my comfort zone: Italy and the Mediterranean World, The Jews of Rome, and The Archaeology of Ancient Rome. I’m eager to learn a ton of new things about the history and the culture in which I’m living, and these classes will play a pivotal role in doing just that. The best part of my classes is the field study component. As often as once per week in some classes, professors hold class outside of the IES center at various locations throughout Rome. So far, I’ve visited the Museum of Italian Immigration and the Roman Forum. Actually seeing all of the things that we talk about in class is really helpful for internalizing the information, and it’s just cool. Field studies feel less like coursework and more like adventure.

To round out my schedule, I’m enrolled in an Internship Seminar class. IES Rome offers a great internship program, and in considering my courses, I thought that I would regret not taking advantage of the opportunity. I’m just getting started at Ittec, which is a small company that performs services in finance, IT, and consulting. It seems like the perfect fit for me. After making the hour-long trip to the office a few times now, I’ve gotten my project assignment. I’ll be working with another guy at the company to redesign the web interface of Quantum Forecasting, one of Ittec’s branches that uses software to predict market changes. I think this will be a great experience, and I’m excited to get to work on my project.

Starting classes has, thankfully, put me into much more of a routine. I’ve finally gotten over my jet lag, so I’m on a decent sleep schedule that gets me up by 9:00 every morning. After the day of class, I go to the conveniently proximate gym for a while before returning home to cook some dinner for myself. Then, after some homework, Skyping, and any sort of socializing with IES students, comes bedtime. Some days, when I have an activity right after school, like my internship, this part gets pushed back to a later time, but I’ve managed to maintain it thus far. It’s a good schedule.

Of course, there are plenty of events that spice up my fairly regimented schedule. I’m trying to participate in as many activities and go to as many events as I can, since, as we say in our program, “YORO (You Only Rome Once).” For instance, I got to go on an IES-sponsored field trip to Tuscany last weekend. In the region, we visited a little town called Montalcino for lunch, the larger city of Siena for a tour and a night at a hotel, and a vineyard and winery in Trequanda for a wine tasting and cooking class. Although this wasn’t as eventful of a weekend as my crazy previous one, it was fun and relaxing. My favorite part was the food, naturally. We had a couple of five-course Italian meals over the weekend, during which the food kept coming and coming. On Friday night after dinner, I was even fuller than I usually am after Thanksgiving! And the best part was that this trip was incorporated into the cost of our study abroad program, so I didn’t have to pay any extra for this enjoyable weekend and grandiose meal. It was really nice, too, to just have to follow instructions and be at the right place at the right time rather than having to plan everything myself.

Another exciting experience was the papal audience a few days ago. One of the reasons that I chose to study abroad in Rome is its giant Catholic presence. I’ve been to the Vatican dozens of times by now, since its on my way to class every day, but one of my goals this semester is to meet the pope, or at least get a picture with him. It’s a lofty goal, I know, but we can all dream, can’t we? Anyway, this papal audience was the closest I’ve come yet to achieving my goal, but it still wasn’t all that I expected. Thousands upon thousands of people were assembled in Vatican Square. They came from all over the globe to, like me, get a glimpse of Benedict XVI. He paraded around a little bit in his popemobile, and then sat on a stage in the facade of St. Peter’s Basilica to watch the service that commenced. It was a simple thing, with a few readings and prayers in probably a dozen languages that lasted an hour and a half. I must admit, it wasn’t the most exciting thing in the world. I’m still not backing down from my goal, though. Benny and I will be best friends before I know it!

This weekend, I’m headed out of Italy for the first time to check out this little event in Munich, Germany. It’s called Oktoberfest, I think. It should be a good time, but I plan to be vary wary during my travels, especially since I don’t know a word of German. Wish me luck, and I’ll check back in next week!

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How I Lost My Left Sock

Throughout last week, I formulated a weekend plan that would be crazily busy. It would involve covering Florence, Pisa, and Cinque Terre in about two and a half days. After pitching the idea to various friends, only one, Esther, agreed to go with me, so we booked our tickets and set off early on Friday morning. We would meet up with another group in Cinque Terre, but more on that later.

All of our transportation would be by train, and we already had some train riding issues from the get-go. First of all, in an attempt to remain somewhat flexible with our schedules, we only bought tickets going to and from Florence, where we’d be staying. This was all well and good, except for the fact that we would have to buy a few tickets on the fly during our trip. Also, we forgot to print the train tickets that we did purchase, so we arrived at the station early to ask what to do. Of course, we almost missed our train waiting in the immense customer service line, and had to run to catch it. Thankfully, we made it right on time and the email confirmations that we showed on our phones worked just fine for the ticket agent. We were off.

Esther and I arrived in the beautiful city of Florence and lost ourselves in it. That is, we got lost in it while searching for our hostel. But after looking around for a little bit, we managed to locate the Euro Student Home around 2:00 and left our bags there. The attendant instructed us to return at 5:00, which gave us a few hours to get to and from Pisa.

Pisa is a nice enough city, but there’s not much going on in it. That is, except for the iconic tower right in its center. We showed up, attempted to do some good poses with the monument, and then were on our merry way. During the brief walk to the nearby train station, we stopped at a grocery store, deciding to pick up some dinner there rather than spending too much at a restaurant. I just grabbed a roll of salami, a hunk of cheese, and a baguette, and took a bit of each one to make a delicious mouth sandwich. We enjoyed our simple meals on the return train to Florence.

After a long search for the best gelato in the city, we got back to the Euro Student Home to find dozens of students our age gearing up to go out on the town. As much as we wanted to join them, the two of us were already exhausted and knew that we’d regret staying up ay later than we already had. Everyone else in the building left, and I fell asleep in the peace and quiet.

Cinque Terre is a series of five famously beautiful towns along the Italian Riviera. Tourists flock to the area to hike between the five, spending some time in each one. Typically, the hike takes about eight hours in total, and the time in each of the villages varies from person to person. Esther and I had planned in out really well: we were going to start hiking around 10:30 in the morning and be finished in time to catch out 8:43 train back to Florence. This would give us more than enough flexibility to take our time hiking, enjoy each of the towns, and meet up with the other group of IES students that was spending the entire weekend in Cinque Terre.

We left the hostel at 6:30, allowing ourselves enough time to grab breakfast on the way to our 7:13 train. McDonald’s was the only place open that early, so we grabbed a couple of breakfast sandwiches before arriving at the train station at 7:00 to see our train puling out from the platform. Since we had so many train rides planned throughout the weekend, we’d gotten the times mixed up! We momentarily freaked out, but settled down when we discovered that our tickets were transferable and we could just take the next train out. Everything was going to be completely fine.

Everything was not completely fine. There were two connecting trains on our trip form Florence to Riomaggiore, the first of the Cinque Terre, and our missing the first leg caused us to miss both of them. After a lot of tense waiting, we finally arrived at our destination at 1:30–three hours behind schedule. Our planned 8:43 train from the final village, Monterosso, back to Florence was the last one for the night. We had to catch it no matter what, leaving us with just over seven hours to make the eight-hour trip.

One of the main trails was closed down, so we had to take a detour that added a supposed additional hour to the hike. Esther threw out the idea of taking the bus instead of the detour to ensure that we’d make our train, but I wasn’t having it. I was hiking, and only hiking. We met up with the other group very briefly, but didn’t have much time to stay and chat. The train wasn’t going to wait for us. When all was said and done, after enduring pain, sweat, and thirst, we finished the hike with a little time to spare. Despite the rush of it all, the trip provided us with some gorgeous views, and it was a really satisfying experience. I wish we would have had more time to spend in Cinque Terre, but I’m still really glad that I got to go.

Of course, our trip still wasn’t over when we got on the train from Monterosso. We had to make two more connecting trains to get back to Florence, and this became a significant struggle due to our overall exhaustion. At the Pisa train station, our final stop before Florence, I removed the tennis shoes from my aching feet and traded them for flip-flops. Since the shoes couldn’t fit in my backpack, I stuffed my socks into them, tied the laces together, and carried them in my hand. Ester and I were sitting at Platform 5, waiting for the 9:30 train. When 9:28 rolled around, our train was nowhere to be found, but one was pulling into Platform 1. We double-checked the Platform 5 sign to see that we’d gotten mixed up and that the Platform 1 train was ours! I grabbed my backpack and shoes and sprinted for dear life on my gelatinous legs. Esther followed suit just behind me. I heard her yelling something at me, but in the delirium of it all, I couldn’t understand her. My only focus was the train. When we boarded in the nick of time, panting, Esther told me that she was yelling, “SOCK!” I looked out of the train window to Platform 5, where I could barely make out the tiny white object that I’d dropped while sprinting.

And that’s how I lost my left sock.

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