So far on this list, I have visited:
- Cayman Islands
Sad. I haven’t even visited Canadia.
My first international experience didn’t occur until I was a junior in college. I was lucky enough to take advantage of a college sponsored trip during our January Short Term and spend an entire month in Italy, with a focus on art museums and time in the studio. Heaven.
I should say now that not only was this my first international trip, it was also my first time on a plane. My very first plane trip was an 8 hour red-eye across Atlantic. We flew into Rome and then took a bus trip 2 hours to a small town called Todi, in the Umbria region of Italy. We were to stay in a converted 12th Century Monastery, and I was lucky enough to have a good friend, Courtney on the trip with me; she and I were roommates for the month. Each day we were supposed to spend working on our art, either on location or in the studio. Each evening we spent in the studio working with a live model.
However, I mostly just wandered through town, exploring the area, trying to learn Italian. At the end of the month, I had completed two watercolors and one sculpture. Also, at the time of this trip I was 20, and would turn 21 in April of the same year. No drinking age in Italy. Needless to say, I decided to take advantage of this the first weekend we were there. I proceeded to get stupid drunk and, with Courtney and some other girls, got in the car with some Italian guys to go to the nearby city of Perugia (the capital city of Umbria, but also where they make the yummy Ferraro Rocher!-called Baci there). In Perugia, we went to a discoteque, where Courtney was stuck with the responsibility of looking after me. I was so (embarrassingly) drunk that I couldn’t stand up and ended up sitting in the corner on the disgusting floor of the discoteque while Courtney stood in front of me to make sure no one stepped on me. I also managed to leave my passport in the guy’s car when they dropped us off later that night. Luckily, the guys were trying to make it with two of our friends and they returned the next day to return my passport and also ask the girls out.
There were also lots of trips. We first went to Florence, which was about an hour and half north of Todi. I immediately fell in love with Florence, and outside of New York City, it is my favorite city in the world. Courtney and I quickly found the San Lorenzo Street Market and began taking advantage of all of the cheap shopping. This was back in 2001, back when the US economy wasn’t in complete shambles and Italy was not yet on the Euro, but instead on the Lire; exchange rates were good. Courtney and I both bought leather boots, and I bought a leather skirt that I have never worn in public.
We also did a little of what we were supposed to do, visiting the Galleria dell’ Accademia to see the David, viewing the Medici house, seeing the Duomo and Museo dell’Opera del Duomo (which had one of my favorites Mary Magdalene by Donatello) and finally finishing our day at the Uffizi. One of the most famous pieces of art housed at the Uffizi is the Birth of Venus by Botticelli. Unfortunately, it was on loan to a museum in Russia, so I missed it.
On another day we visited Rome; some students opted to just do one day but Courtney and I, with a few other girls, stayed overnight for one more day. While in Rome, we visited Vatican City and saw the Sistine Chapel. We also visited the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain (A traditional legend holds that if visitors throw a coin into the fountain, they are ensured a return to Rome), the Spanish Steps, the Coliseum and the Roman Forum. I wasn’t as big of a fan of Rome because while Florence had kept much of its medieval/renaissance charm with cobblestone streets and centuries old buildings, Rome is mostly a modern city. Few things differentiated it from any city you’d see here in America. It was especially disturbing to stand in the Roman Forum and look back to see skyscrapers and other modern buildings so near ancient ruins.
We didn’t go any further south than Rome; the Southern part of Italy has a bad reputation for being a bit more dangerous. I was disappointed as I definitely wanted to visit Pompeii but we were a group of all women, with only one male chaperone, and he was not comfortable with us visiting the area around Naples.
We did go further North, to Asissi, Sienna and Padua. Mostly here we looked at small chapels including the Scrovegni Chapel with the famous frescoes by Giotto. I do have to tell this story from the Scrovegni Chapel. The frescoes are very susceptible to climate/moisture and the environment is controlled by only permitting visitors into an exterior room first. Visitors would remain here for 10 minutes while the outside air was purified of damaging effects. We were then allowed into the Chapel, given 15 minutes to view the frescoes. While inside, one of the guards stepped outside to smoke using a side door. There was no climate control room outside this door. What was the point of sitting in that other room for 10 minutes if this guy was just going to step outside AND probably allow cigarette smoke inside?
While we were in Sienna, some students were given the option of continuing on to Venice; Courtney and I chose not to, as January was the rainy season and Venice was flooded. I know what you are thinking: Venice is always flooded. Apparently, when Venice is truly flooded, this means sewage is running through the canals and the streets. We decided we’d just wait to see Venice the next time we visited Italy.
The month flew by, as all surreal moments in time tend to do. I felt like I really didn’t take advantage of my opportunity while there, treating it more as a vacation than a life changing experience. I was awfully homesick (as much as I love traveling, I get homesick easily) and whenever we were in an urban area, Courtney and I would seek out McDonalds to eat!
Some random things about Italy:
- Apparently, Italians tend to eat the foods that are traditional to their regions. This means that the food we ate while in Todi was mostly vegetables, with some chicken or pork; historically, Umbria was an impoverished region of Italy. I mean, wouldn’t you expect pasta every day? I really don’t remember eating any pasta the whole time I was there.
- They also fry way more food than I ever thought Italians would-they fry more stuff than we do here in the South! One night, I swear, the entire meal was fried-fried pork, fried carrots, fried potatoes, etc.
- I actually lost weight while I was there because they don’t eat much for breakfast (typically just coffee and a croissant), lunch isn’t until 2pm, and then dinner wasn’t until 9pm. I did discover coffee and was sorely disappointed when I returned to the US and discovered that not all coffee is the same.
- Courtney and I did grow quite fond of the pizza and I discovered that I LOVE European Coke-I think its sweeter. We also discovered the chocolate brand Kinder and I still get super excited when I find it in specialty stores.
Even back in 2001, Italians were ahead of us in a couple of ways.
- First of all, EVERYONE in Italy had a cell phone and they were on it all the time. Here in the US, we had cell phones, and probably some people were using them a good bit, but back in 2001, the mobile phone I had stayed in my car and was meant for emergencies.
- I quickly realized I needed to bring my own bags to the grocery store or else be charged the equivalent of 10 cents per plastic bag used.
Italians operate on a very loose sense of time.
- First of all, they work to live, not the other way around. You may go to a store and they’ve stepped out for an hour, but the posted time of return was two hours ago. Or the store is just closed with no notice.
- Train schedules aren’t worth the paper they are printed on-they make up the schedule as they go. Its not just an issue of late trains; maybe they flat out just aren’t running that line that day. This way of approaching time was very stressful for me.
Other bits and pieces:
- The communist party is alive and well and its not seen as a negative thing. It has a lot of support throughout Italy and makes up about a third of the political leanings of the population.
- It continued to impress me that everywhere we went, there were frescoes, murals, sculptures, and other forms of art; it was a part of Italians’ every day lives.
I’ll post later on my other visits to other countries. What countries have you visited? Your favorite?