Under the Tuscan Sun

Where in the world was Carmen San Diego Melanie Prior this past weekend?

BACK IN THE HOMELAND.

homeland_a_gettysburg_address_8

Ugh different Homeland, but can we talk about that last episode?! Alright, later.

I meant Italy of course! Florence to be exact, and I loved every minute of it.

When I was initially deciding on a Study Abroad location, I was between Florence and Madrid. I chose Madrid for a host of different reasons and I absolutely don’t regret it, but I knew I would surely regret not making it to Italy during my time in Europe. SO after some late night/early morning international credit card struggles, my friend Eliza and I set off on our romantic weekend in Florence.

We successfully made it through our first Ryanair flight, exchanging puzzled looks at the announcements for Ryanair model/flight attendant calendars (um, what?), and squinting to see the aqueducts visible from the plane. Flying over the ocean, the water and the sky were the exact same shade of blue, and the white puffy clouds were beneath us. It was a little disorienting but beautiful, and a perfect time to be reading “The Five People You Meet in Heaven” (which is my new favorite book). Also interesting to note, my favorite watch stopped working this week, so I’m taking it as a sign to focus on the little moments that make up each day instead of always needing to know how many minutes have passed since I last checked. It’s liberating, and reminded me of a quote my friend Erin brought up once, “If you didn’t know how old you were, how old would you be?” I’m still figuring it out for myself.

photoScreen Shot 2013-10-30 at 4.34.35 PMIMG_3652

We hopped on a bus to Florence from the Pisa airport, and I was surprised at how much warmer it was in Italy than the chilly drizzly weather I left behind in Spain. I noticed driving through the mountains that they were green instead of brown, and I could feel the humidity in the air! As soon as we checked into our hostel (Thanks Hostelworld, for the great recommendation) Archi Rossi, we walked about 8 minutes to the city center to see the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore and the Duomo, or Dome in Italian. This cathedral is MASSIVE and was completed in 1436.

IMG_0758 My first impression of Florence was that it truly is a romantic city full of art, culture and soooo much gelato. My mother’s side of the family is Italian, so everywhere I turned I kept thinking I was seeing my Nonie, Grampy, or cousins! I felt so comfortable in Italy that it made me homesick, kind of like the beaches did earlier this semester since I live near the ocean. I noticed immediately that while Spanish is rapid and staccato, the Italian language is more musical and almost always sounds like you’re cooing a baby or speaking in time with a horse’s gallop. I could listen to it all day.

When you go to Italy, food is what you spend your money on. Therefore, after much deliberation and turning down several persistent hosts (one asked Eliza if her sparkling blue eyes were “pure” *they are* and then told me I looked “only half American” *I’m Italian-Irish* which I take as a compliment) we agreed on Le Botteghe Di Donatello where we sat outside looking right at the Duomo.

IMG_3671

We enjoyed some Pinot Grigio (hi Mom) while awaiting our fettuccini with pesto and tomatoes, and spaghetti carbonara, toasting to a luxurious first authentic Italian dining experience.

IMG_0763

Now comes the entertainment. While Eliza and I were sitting on the patio between two couples, a (obviously American, hah!) man about 40 years old sat two tables away. He began talking to the couple next to us, and as a game, Eliza and I tried to predict his life story. We were getting pretty specific, and after the couple between us left, the man began talking with us, and we discovered we had been about 87% correct. He was from Massachusetts (like us!), a Wall Street man who quit his job to raise his 8-year-old daughter after his divorce, and was staying in Italy one more day after his family left. He had played basketball in high school and went on to coach at Tufts, and even knew some softball coaches in the NESCAC I almost played for. Eliza and I splurged and each ordered another glass of wine with our ricotta cheesecake with blueberries (we both ate it too fast for a picture), and continued to shoot the breeze with this mystery man. He gave us some valuable career advice, and unexpectedly paid for our (very expensive) meal. We thanked him profusely and he told us, “if you see some kids studying abroad or a young couple debating if they can afford another glass of wine, pick up their tab. Pay it forward.” And then with that he was gone, with no names, only pleasant conversation and some unexpected generosity, exchanged.

The next day, Eliza and I strolled leisurely around the city, taking in all the sights, sounds, and especially smells. My cousin Anthony who studied in Florence (remember him from Barcelona and Amsterdam?) gave us some don’t-miss destinations, so here are some of the highlights:

IMG_0685 IMG_0688

  • Window shopped at Ponte Vecchio (“Old Bridge”) where luxury jewelry stores have replaced old butcher shops from back in the day.

IMG_0700 IMG_0714

IMG_3683

  • Literally hiked up to Piazzale Michelangelo for the 2nd most breathtaking view of the city (keep reading for the first).

IMG_0743 IMG_0736 IMG_3687

  • Moseyed through a public rose garden on the way down.
  • Stumbled into the Museo di Palazzo Vecchio.
  • Enjoyed pistachio cannoli & espresso in front of the Duomo.

IMG_3740

  • (More hiking) to the top of the Duomo (here it is, the most breathtaking view of the city! We spent more than an hour up here as the sun was descending, casting perfect golden rays as far as the eye could see. Definitely my favorite part of this trip.)

IMG_3756 IMG_3739 945977_10152060506482275_1909200002_n IMG_0770

  • Mercato Centrale di San Lorenzo = leather bags & delicious food EVERYWHERE.
  • Ordering off a completely Italian menu for dinner at Osteria Il Gatto E la Volpe, Eliza and I split a caprese salad with the freshest mozzarella I’ve ever had (and I discovered I don’t hate cherry tomatoes), cheese ravioli with creamy tomato beef sauce (YUM and I’m so sad I forget the name), four cheese gnocchi, and sparkling white wine.
  • We ended the night with gelato (I got oreo and chocolate, again, eaten too fast for a picture) near our hostel and sat on the sidewalk people watching and talking about life.

On Sunday we had lunch at a literal hole-in-the-wall Bar Pasticceria Cucciolo, and it was there I fell in love… with a sandwich. To this day I still can’t comprehend how the combination of solely prosciutto, mozzarella, and tomato melted between focaccia bread could be SO delicious, but my mouth is watering right now just thinking about it. It just goes to show that when you have the freshest quality ingredients, even the most simplistic dishes can taste gourmet. Oh, and I can’t forget to mention the delicious robust Italian coffee or the Nutella pie… yes, you read that right.

IMG_3750 IMG_3749

While there is SO much to do in Florence, part of experiencing a new city is just getting lost and observing the people and the culture that makes it so unique. The whole time my mind was racing, thinking about my family from Italy, what is must have been like, and how in another life I could have been one of the locals I was staring at all weekend. I knew that being in Florence would inspire me to go back, and- as if I needed any more reasons- I am definitely going to stop in Italy again when I return to Europe… hopefully as soon as possible.

Overall, Eliza and I had SO MUCH FUN during our weekend together. We are both really laid back, but have the same attitude about trying to see as much as possible given we had such a short amount of time (mejor que nada, or “better than nothing” as I continually told my host mom when she would pester me about only going for a few days). We each got an Italian leather purse, and I got a hand painted espresso mug with the Duomo on it while Eliza got a Duomo-topped wine stopper for her collection from the same shop over the Ponte Vecchio. We ate well, drank well, and soaked up the Tuscan Sun as it was setting over the city of Florence. Tornerò presto, Firenze!

IMG_3658

Advertisements

Imperium Reunion

Valencia is the favorite band of the boy I had a crush on in middle school third largest city in Spain and the site of the Imperium reunion. This is gonna be good…

After a glorious night on the town in Madrid, the biggest case of déjà vu ever set in as I boarded the bus at 9 am with the kids from my seminar, and of course our faithful guides Jose Luis, Alfonso, and Elena.

I slept most of the hours-long bus ride, but woke up between tracks of John Mayer’s Where The Light Is: Live In Los Angeles playlist just in time to catch glimpses of the rivers, rock formations and manmade tunnels that brought me back to driving through the mountains in Colorado a couple summers ago. Like the drive to Barcelona, the way to Valencia through the eastern Spanish countryside is breathtaking. Shades and textures of browns and greens laid perfectly unevenly beneath a blue sky.

We arrived in Albufera Park in Valencia in the early afternoon, where we were treated to the most delicious paella (famous in Valencia) lunch I have ever consumed. Rachel was especially in her glory. Paella is her spirit animal. Mine is croquetas.

IMG_0576 IMG_3507

After lunch, we toured the estuaries in Albufera that used to be a major fishing spot where the salt water of the ocean meets the freshwater rice fields. The temperature was perfect at the golden hours of the afternoon, and all I wanted to do when I got off the boat was take a nap in the sun.

IMG_0581 IMG_0590

Once we checked into the hotel, Allison, Rhiann and I had about an hour of downtime to digest lunch rest before we set out to explore. We met up with Rachel, Hailee, JenBundy, Amanda, and Michelle and took the bus across town to walk along the beach before dinner. The moon was full and bright and you could feel the humidity in the hair air. We took some classic jumping pics, then sat down at a restaurant for some sangria and tapas for dinner. Allison and I split shrimp croquetas and an order of shrimp sautéed in garlic and olive oil, followed by homemade cheesecake for dessert.

We spent the hour waiting for the bus back across town discussing the wonders of Disney World, explaining the rules of “Mafia” (ask Hailee, I still don’t get it), and laughing about #sh*tJenBundysays, which I think will be my next blog idea. Hilarious. The best thing about that night was that after we got back to our room, I had almost the same feeling I get after spending a night out to dinner with my home friends. It was really nice to come back to the same group of people I started this whole “study abroad” adventure with, especially after we’ve all had a chance to gain a little more world experience on our own.

On Saturday, MY “LITTLE” BROTHER TURNED 17! I can’t believe it. Seems like just yesterday I was writing this note about him…

9685_512761752143805_8888291_n

In-class writing assignment, circa 2001.

photo

BFFs, May 2013.

ALSO on Saturday, we had the most delicious fresh squeezed orange juice (Valencia is also famous for oranges…Go ‘Cuse) and hotel breakfast. DEFINITELY beats the crap out of the plain cereal and coffee I get at home in Madrid.

We saw the cathedral in Valencia where the Holy Grail is kept… casual. And while a young handsome Harrison Ford didn’t come to sweep me off my feet, there was a demonstration about fighting pobreza in Spain that had some really awesome drum lines.

IMG_0616 IMG_0617IMG_0621 IMG_3596

After, we set off to the L’Oceanogràfic, the largest aquarium in Europe. I had a great time reliving childhood field trips and babysitting outings to the Boston aquarium, but this place was on another level, with each building dedicated to one of the nine main marine ecosystems. We also got to watch a dolphin show. Is it too late to change my major?

IMG_0634 IMG_0639 IMG_3577 IMG_0637 IMG_0651

After the aquarium, we took a tram tour around the Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias that looked like some new age space park, with a giant model of Gulliver from Gulliver’s Travels that serves as a children’s play park…casual.

IMG_0660

Our “SWEET SURPRISE!!!!!!!!!!!” on the itinerary was horchata, a traditional Spanish beverage that tastes kind of like very sweet and nutty almond milk. You can drink it straight or dip in a pastry, either way it’s very good!

IMG_3593 IMG_3594

After exploring a little more of the area around our hotel with JenBundy and Maya, it was time for dinner at the hotel, where we had more paella. Score. At night, Hailee, Rachel, Rhiann and I bought some bottles of wine and enjoyed an evening of pretty deep conversation about dreams and after-life on a bench outside a church near the lively downtown, until we were approached by four entertaining Spanish suitors all slightly resembling Christian Bale. We ended up with almost all of the other Syracuse kids at a local bar/club Bolsería Café and danced until it closed at 3:30 am to the best DJ I’ve ever heard. Wow, what a great night.

1382976_10151943116425071_1928203165_n

The next morning we walked to the Lonja de la Seda, a late Valencian Gothic building which was used as a major trading house for oil, silk (seda) and other types of business and conveniently located next to our infamous church bench of the night before. Culture truly is all around us.

1395212_10151943126765071_316496208_n

Morning after.

IMG_0668 IMG_0677

We strolled through a local flea market on the way back to the hotel before boarding the bus home to Madrid. I had an exceptional weekend in Valencia. Great food, great music, great company, and another fantastic Spanish city to check off my list!

Eye on the Prize

Living in another country makes me feel grown up, empowered and excited for my future!

So do lists and pictures like these:

*DO NOT feel like you have to do every single thing on every single list. Most of the time it depends on who wrote it (I’m not even going near the “before 8 am” one this semester), so pick a few that inspire YOU and stick to them. If you aren’t seeing results after some time (more than 2 hours), pick a few more. You’ll be amazed at how much you can do if you

set your mind to something you really want.

138907969726959683_IWsoeDq9_f 75920_10152255052120543_866239036_n quote_do-it-amazing-16856-530x330 262827328224903616_eEBn4k54_c

The Abroad Guide

“Weren’t you that guy on The Abroad Guide: Awesome Study Abroad Blogs?”

Yes! I am that guy. [laughs] How kind of you to notice.”

tumblr_lapn10VLkT1qbl9u7o1_500

 

In all seriousness, I have some cool news! First, before I began my wonderful adventure studying abroad in Madrid, I was scared out of my wits researching what to pack for your semester abroad, what to expect from a home stay experience, and maybe even how to make your friends jealous with an awesome travel blog… I found The Abroad Guide on Twitter first, and it really helped me get more excited about my semester ahead.

HeaderVersion12

After my trip to Lagos, Portugal, I tweeted at The Abroad Guide to share my post. I wasn’t really expecting much of a response, but a couple days later the Creator and Editor Jessica Dante commented on this blog, and asked if she could use one of the photos from Lagos for some stickers to hand out at study abroad events. I sold my soul said sure why not, and this is how they came out!

Screen Shot 2013-10-14 at 1.15.19 PM

 

Jess and I continued to correspond over email (she loves my blog, I love hers) and she asked to feature me on the new series of Awesome Study Abroad Blogs. How could I object?! I answered some questions (which you can read here) about where I have traveled and the most exciting things I’ve done so far, and it was published on the website. So exciting. I didn’t realize so many people were reading this blog and enjoying it so much! I got a lot of great feedback from my friends and family, so I just want to take a moment to say THANK YOU & GRACIAS for following along with me on all my adventures.

study-abroad-blog-mel1

I amsterdam.

Hmm, where to start, where to start… Maybe with that I can’t believe I didn’t even want to go here in the first place (and almost didn’t go)? Or with that I developed an ear infection the day before I was supposed to leave? What about with I had to make my first international flight abroad, find the hostel and then kill 5 hours by myself before everyone else showed up?

Nah, I’ll just start with Thursday:

  • After classes, I hopped on the metro and went to the airport in Madrid. I waited for my flight and devoured read quietly The Da Vinci Code. (That part was easy.)
  • I fell asleep instantly on the two hour flight to The Netherlands, but woke up just in time to catch the sun setting on the coast of the North Sea.

IMG_3234 (1)

  • When I got to the airport, I was surprised (and a tad disappointed/confused/relieved) to see that all the signs were in English. However, I still managed to take the train in the wrong direction… oops. Thank God for the group of attractive helpful Italians I met along the way, who had also taken the same wrong turn. Long story short, we all ended up at Amsterdam Centraal.

IMG_3240

  • Between asking a police officer (my parents trained me well) and reading the map screenshots on my phone (#nowifiproblems), I eventually found my hostel, stored my stuff, and set out to explore the downtown area while I waited for my friends to arrive a couple hours later.
  • I was amazed at how different Amsterdam is from Madrid. Like 100% different. My initial impression at the train station was that I was at a ski lodge based on the people and the attire, and I finally got to wear my new winter coat! Some places I saw vaguely resembled Boston, but it’s hard to explain. Also, there are canals EVERYWHERE. Even more than Venice. The buildings look like they’re going to lean over any second and there are cobblestone streets and way more bikes than cars.

IMG_3270

  • After exploring the shopping areas, doing some cheese tasting, eating a “traditional Dutch dessert,” and watching the street performers, I headed back to my hostel.

IMG_3269

Yes, those are knives he is juggling.

Yes, those are knives he is juggling.

  • I met up with our friend Kristin and a couple ‘Cuse friends who are staying in London and we caught up about how we are liking our respective cities while we waited for the rest of the crew.
  • Once everyone was together, we checked in, took a quick lap around the surrounding streets and called it a night early.

Friday:

  • Anne Frank Museum. Definitely the most meaningful abroad experience to date. Walking through the house, the Secret Annex, and reading passages of her famous diary along the way was like watching an unsuspecting movie character when you already know the tragic ending, and feeling helpless to change the outcome. As a diary keeper and internally reflective person myself, I couldn’t help but cry picturing Anne writing about longing to run and jump and play outside the very city I was visiting, but never being able to after she went into hiding. Her courage, optimism and wisdom at such a young age was truly a loss to the world.

IMG_0329

  • Heineken Brewery Tour. We were looking for quite a different tone for the afternoon, so once the rain cleared up we walked down to the Heineken Brewery for a tour! It was really cool to see how the beer is made and there are theaters playing continuous loops of Heineken advertisements (which intrigued all of us communications students). We ended the tour in the Heineken bar, and each person received two free beers while we sat and socialized with our now 15 person group.

IMG_0359

IMG_0362

IMG_0330

  • The thing I really liked about our group was that it was big enough to split up if people wanted to do different things, there was no drama, and everyone was super enthusiastic about sightseeing and maximizing our time in the city.
  • We did a Canal Tour in the late afternoon that took us in and out of Amsterdam’s famous canal ways. I can definitely see why it is called “the Venice of the North.” We got to pass the quirky houseboats and get a unique perspective of the city.

IMG_0387

  • After experiencing the vibrant sunset, we headed over to Barney’s and I had one of the most delicious hamburgers ever, followed by chocolate-covered waffles for dessert and more exploring.

IMG_0402 IMG_0404

Saturday:

  • After grabbing a quick coffee we headed over to the Vincent Van Gogh Museum. I loved the progression of his early works, drawings, and famously colorful masterpieces as the floors got higher. My favorite ones were of a sailboat, flowers, and seasonal scenes. Not gonna lie, his self-portraits kind of freak me out.

IMG_3289 IMG_3306

  • Later, we took the traditional “I amsterdam” pictures with the letters in the backyard of the Rijksmuseum and enjoyed the local street performances.

IMG_3307 IMG_0422

  • FINALLY we got to have pancakes (something I haven’t found yet in Madrid and desperately miss). I got the bacon-egg pancake and I regret nothing.

IMG_3311

  • As if we hadn’t been active enough already, we decided to rent bikes! It was pretty hectic and a little dangerous given the fact that some of us hadn’t biked in years and there are literally zero (traffic) laws in Amsterdam… But everyone survived and I was able to check “bike in Amsterdam” off my Abroad Bucket List. Sweet.

IMG_0443 IMG_0444 IMG_0457

  • We got pizza for dinner and revisited our friend at the chocolate-covered waffle place. Again, no regrets.
  • As a final activity of the night, we decided to follow the crowds to Amsterdam’s infamous Red Light District before heading back to the hostel for the night. I don’t think I’ll elaborate any more than that.

IMG_3319

Overall, I really really enjoyed Amsterdam way more than I anticipated. It was the glimpse of fall that has yet to hit Madrid, the air smells a bit like sugar and chocolate outside the bakeries, and the clash of rich history and a Disney World of vices made it seem like it wasn’t even real, or couldn’t exist in the context of my mind. In a way it reminded me of Pinocchio’s Pleasure Island, but I was also drawn into the romance of the canals at sunset, the slanting and sloping houses, and the pleasant old timey chime of bicycle bells that just seems to make Amsterdam a fantasyland…

1375856_10151948883188894_1012415627_n