Saturday, December 17, 2011

Last goodbyes to Italia

I just woke up to my last day in Italia… beautiful sunrise. I am definitely going to miss views like this... 

The people I have met in the last 4 months have changed my life, each and every one of them. I learned more from them than I ever thought I would and thanks to them, my life will never be the same. I will miss you all! Please, and I mean this entirely, keep in contact! 

Italia has changed my life in so many ways, I cannot wait to move forward and see where this life takes me! So now, I'll enjoy my last day in Paradise, taking in every last detail possible, and reminisce over the last four months. 

Tomorrow, I will leave bright and early, beating the sunrise, and make my way back to the good old United States of America. Ya'll at home better be waiting for me with Taco Bell, brownie mix, and lots of hugs :) 

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Uno fine è un inizio.

You always think you have all the time in the world to do what you have to, to say what you need to, and to see the things you want to. I am no different and now that I am looking at the last and final week of my life in the AHA Macerata program, I am a little jostled that it all went by so fast. The last few weeks have flown by the fastest, constantly marked by the countdown we’ve all kept, not thinking it actually had the ability to speed time up.

Thanksgiving week was when the whirlwind started and my blogging stopped, something I wish hadn’t happened. That was the week we took our program trip to Firenze, one of my absolute favorite cities. I saw some amazing things such as “The David” and “La Primavera,” all with Filaberto’s expert knowledge given to us through what we call, “Filaberto Radio.” (He has a small headset he talks into, connecting to our headphones. Yes, we are those tourists.) After the rest of the group left on Friday, I stayed behind with Mary and her parents to continue loving the beautiful city. I am so grateful they let me stay with them; the hotel made Mary and I feel as if we were out of place royalty, complete with TV news channels in English.

Firenze will always be one of my favorite cities in Italy, or the world for that matter. I am not what you would call a “seasoned traveler”, but I think it is a good judgment call. Of course the architecture of the city is incredible; Brunelleschi’s Duomo is a Renaissance masterpiece. The shopping in Florence is also something any girl (and most guys) would probably swoon over. The over-abundance of leather purses makes my heart skip a beat and the game of lowering every vendors prices makes for a very enjoyable couple of hours. But the architecture, art, and shopping are only part of what makes Firenze beautiful. The mere atmosphere of the city, the perfect example of laid-back, generous European attitude, is palpable.

The first time I was there in August with my Mom and Aunt, I felt as if it was the most romantic city I had ever seen. I fell in love with the city then, and my anticipation and expectations when I went back were not disappointed. Now, after the second time, I feel as if there is a much deeper familial heart in the city than I hadn’t really seen before. After the museums close, while the Italian families are out taking their passagiata, the real feel for the city is seen and I love it. Street performers, merry-go-round rides, and the smell of Florentine food makes the city picturesque. I truly enjoyed my trip to Florence, and cannot wait to go back again someday.

After Florence, I was home for about thirty hours, just long enough to attend one day of classes (Monday). The next day, Tuesday, we left once again, bright and early, for Roma. My first experience with Rome was not a bad one at all. It was my first impression of Italy in August when I was with my Mom and Aunt and part of me thinks I expected way too much from the city. At the time, I thought I was arriving in the heart of Italy, the best example of Italian culture, food, and history. I was shocked by the amount of tourists (I was that naïve) and the over one hundred degree temperatures did not help. I loved Rome when I was there in August, but it was definitely a culture shock I was not ready for. I found my amazing food and discovered the ancient history though and loved it all.

I returned to Rome the last week in November and the weather was absolutely perfect. December first I was running around in a sweatshirt, something very unusual for someone who grew up in Northwest Indiana. Of course, every inch of the city was explained by Filaberto, something I will definitely miss once I leave here. Going to museums and into churches will never be the same; how will I know what I am looking at!? He took us on the usual, planned excursions to the Coliseum, Roman ruins, major government buildings, Trevi Fountain, the Vatican, and the Pantheon. The info overload filled my small art-history journal as we all tried to remember every bit of information that should be remembered. The thing we all love most about Filaberto came after the mandatory tours, when he would walk all over the city with us, showing us the important things we could not fit into a full three days. Something as simple as a church where a man from Civitanova is buried (Filaberto’s hometown) to the house where the interim Prime Minister lives was viewed on our night tour. It wasn’t purely educational though; we stopped to admire the row of designer stories including my favorite, Jimmy Choo. The small group that went on this night tour appreciated it more than words can say, despite our aching feet and our growling stomachs.

The weekend following Rome was not exactly what I had planned for one of my last weekend’s in Macerata. Having caught some kind of virus, I spent the weekend staying hydrated, knitting, watching movies, and sleeping. It was at that point that I was the most homesick, wanting nothing but an English speaking doctor and my Mom’s usual sick-child pampering. I ended up going to an Italian doctor Monday morning, was put on some meds, and quickly starting feeling better.

Luckily, I felt better just in time for a friend of mine from home, Dom, to get here. She arrived on Wednesday, slightly jet-lagged but thrilled to be in Italy. Thursday we spent the day in Macerata, doing some shopping in the town, enjoying the Christmas market set up in the city center, and eating Maga Cacao hot chocolate. The next morning, Friday, was an early one for us as Mary, Dom, and I met Scott at the bus station. We had decided to go to a town a few hours south of here, called L’Aquila.

I think I should preface the L’Aquila weekend description with the fact that we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into, the four of us just wanted to go somewhere, explore something, and have a good time. That being said, L’Aquila was not a disappointment.

Almost three years ago, L’Aquila was hit with an earthquake that registered a 5.8, a monster that shook most of central Italy. This was not a quake only felt in L’Aquila, but rather its epicenter was almost directly below the actual city. Needless to say, there was a lot of damage. This damage is still visible today: the city center is basically held together with scaffolding, metal and wooden beams, and prayers. Almost every store front has been abandoned and most homes lay empty. It sounds depressing, I know. But in all honesty, it wasn’t! It was a strange feeling to witness so much destruction, so much peace, and so much beauty in one place. It was like a ghost town in some parts of the town, eerie to walk through. In the city center though, small Natale shops were set up as well as a few Christmas trees. According to the people we met, this was the first year in three years they have put a Christmas tree up. It was amazing. They hung lights all through the main street, lighting up the street at night. The only phrase we could use to describe the overall town was a “beautiful tragedy.” It was obviously a gorgeous and romantic city at one time, but now, only emptiness with the hope that things will be fixed some day.

The worse part about what we saw was a construction fence outside of a building. Covering the metal grid were keys of all different shapes, some newer, some old. Attached to the fence was a sign stating these were all the keys to peoples’ homes, keys that are now useless. It was heartbreaking to think about; in a matter of minutes, the entire center became unlivable for hundreds of people. Makes me incredibly grateful for everything I have…

Another amazing thing about L’Aquila was the hospitality we encountered while we were there! From the moment we got off the bus until the moment we got back on, everyone was nothing but generous with us! Our first interaction was while we were trying to find a city bus to get into town. We walked into a small store and asked the man working there where the closest bus stop was. Not only did he explain it to us, but he walked us there and then walked us to where we could buy our tickets. That bit of kindness was more than we expected and we could not get over his friendly attitude.

Our second interaction was at the hotel we were staying at, Hotel la Compagnia Del Traveler. The moment we walked in, the man behind the counter (who we later found out was the owner) looked at us asking, “Scott?” He showed us to our giant room, in a building separate from the main lodge. Our room, decorated Americani, was huge, plenty of space and beds for all four of us, accommodations usually only found in hostels. We could not help but to compare where were staying to hostels, as that is our usual. From the heated floors to the “welcome drink” we were given, we were quite surprised with the amazing hotel Kevin (a boy in our program) had gotten us.

That night, we headed down to the lobby to have a drink before deciding what to do for the night. While we were sitting around chatting, a server brought out a giant tray of food as part of our apperativo. Gourmet food for free! We just continued chatting, the four of us talking and laughing. The hours passed by and soon a pizza appeared before us! We could not believe it. This kind of unexpected hospitality went on for the rest of the weekend: eggs and bacon for breakfast and extra desserts with our dinner. We could not thank the owner enough, but he always just smiled and brushed it off as nothing. He asked when we were leaving, and immediately offered to drive us to the bus stop in the morning so we did not have to take a cab!

I have discovered quite a few business practice differences between the typical United States business and the typical business here. This experience though, outlined and highlighted it right in front of me. Could you imagine if a hotel had that kind of hospitality in the States!? What would people think of it? Would they trust a ride from a stranger? Even with the free food, we questioned what the catch was. In the end there was no catch and no surprises, only good, Italian hospitality.

Now I’m sitting in AHA, avoiding studying, and blogging my time away. Having woken up to sleeping-me reviewing Italian verb conjugation, I’ve an early morning today. 4:30 is early, even for a student’s standards, but thoughts of packing, cleaning, home, good-byes, and Italian verbs filled my head and I guess sleep just wasn’t in the cards for me.

The Italian language final was this morning and now that it is complete, only a few more until the semester is over. This brings two firsts for me: today was the first time I used the entire allotted time for a final (maybe not a good sign) and it is also the first time I was not thrilled about classes being over. I am thrilled to come home, to see everyone, and to be back in my own bed with my pillow pet; the thought of leaving, though, saddens me. Luckily, the combination of my usual packing-stress with all the cleaning we have to tackle should keep me pretty distracted until I am on the plane. At that point, I think it’ll be too late to skip the flight and the apartment will be empty, so squatting won’t be too comfortable. The point is: in 5.6 short days, I will be home. I am excited; I have missed home for way too long and I can’t wait to see everyone that makes up my home.

I will be embracing every single last minute here though, eating as much gelato and pasta as possible, breathing in the Adriatic air, and giving out more hugs than necessary.

Much love, hugs, and kisses,
See you in 6 days,

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Turkey Week!

Happy Turkey Week everyone! Holiday season started October 31st for me so this is the second holiday in a string of fun; over eating, appreciation of loved ones, and in general, just an amazing holiday season is underway and every bit of it brings a huge smile to my face.

This past weekend we officially began our Christmas music- because there is no Thanksgiving here, there is no time limit! However, AHA did give us an amazing gift this week, a full Thanksgiving feast, Italian-American style, on Monday night.

We all walked into “Il Secondo” together to a beautifully decorated dining room, menus for the nights feast at each spot. Soon, after we all took our seats, the plates of food began to arrive. Course after course was brought out, mixing up American traditions such as potatoes, with the Italian love of frying things, to give us homemade potato chips. Plates of cheeses, meats, fried veggies and meat stuffed olives were only the beginning. Soon was the Maceratese special lasagna and just when you thought you were stuffed, they presented us with a beautiful turkey and cake and a cafe to finish it off.

Honestly, the whole night was more than I ever could have asked. The night was spent with a group of people that I can say feel more like family than friendship. Sure, we all ride each others’ last nerves, and we all like to push the envelope with each other just a little too far. But these people, the students, the professors, and the administration, have all gone through the same things, experienced this same ups and downs in the last 3 months: the students with their adjustments and the adults helping us figure it out.  Of course, we all have our own things we have to deal with, but I have twenty-something people I can call on at any moment; no matter how sick of my off-key singing or terrifying dancing they are, they’ll be there. I know I’m being super beyond cheesy, but it’s Thanksgiving! I don’t think there is a better time to show how grateful you are for people.

So as we all sat around and came to realization that we have less than a month here, I began to think about what I am grateful for. As with many families, my family always goes in a circle and says what they are thankful for. So here is mine!

First of all, I am beyond thankful for the life I have, the Hope I have been given, and the forgiveness shown to me on a daily basis. I am so far from perfect, I cannot even begin to express how grateful I am that I haven’t been given up on just yet! My family, obviously, is my world. I do not think I could get through a day without the knowledge that they are there, only a phone call away, just in case.

My friends… I have to say… the thing I am thankful for the most, obviously that I HAVE friends (sometimes I’m not sure how…) but also that they make an effort to talk to me! It’s kinda a great feeling for someone to say “hey, wish you were here right now!” Of course it’s silly, but I appreciate it all the same. I know how busy everyone is, life moves so fast right now! When I have someone from home take a minute to say hi, it reminds me why I’m leaving this beautiful country in the first place! Believe me, it’s not for Lafollette dining!

And last but most definitely not least, I am beyond thankful for everything that has happened in the last year. Ups, downs, backward moments, I could not have asked for a better year. I have finally seen a product of my last two years of working (this trip) and I spent an entire summer, working for nothing, just for the sake of having a job. I have changed, grown up a bit (not too much, don’t worry), and have slowly figured out exactly what I want out of my life. Of course this is the sentimental me talking, ask me about this blog in a week and I’ll deny it ever happened!

But really, I do appreciate the things I have. I have extremely hard-working parents who have given me so many opportunities; they are great role models, kids! This Thanksgiving, rather than being with my Family, I will be in Florence with my AHA famiglia. Considering Filaberto already put together an entire Italian-American Thanksgiving, I’m sure my stomach will be okay skipping Thursday’s big meal.

Anyways, I hope everyone has a wonderful Thanksgiving this year! Make sure you tell people how important they are to you; we have no idea what the future holds, and in the words of John Mayer, “it’s better to say too much, than to never say what you need to say.” So tell your family they mean the world to you, even if sometimes you want to slap them, and tell your friends you’re not going anywhere.

Be a little sentimental on Thursday, for the sake of the holiday ….just make sure you snap out of it in time to trample the slow-pokes in line at 4am Friday morning in Wal-Mart J


Friday, November 18, 2011

The Little Things

I think I’m going to start this off with an apology, both to myself and to whoever has the time to read this: I’ve been terrible about writing lately and for someone who usually writes too much, it’s been strange. My 10 day break was a busy one and writing about it was a bit of an overload; the weekend after a few of the girls and I took off for a night in London, filled with lots of walking and zero sleeping. After these two trips, I’ve been continuing with school and doing the usual, but was exhausted from the constant movement. Finally, with a three day weekend on my hands, I’m able to sit down and think about what is really going on around me.

I’ll start off with a quick blurb about London, as it was so much fun to skip over. After a complicated route to get to Bologna, we boarded a plane, flew to London, and immediately found some fish and chips. We walked around and did some sight-seeing, went out and danced the night away, only to return to the airport at six AM, catch a quick nap, and fly home! No, we are not all rich, but we found extremely cheap tickets through Easy Jet and thought it’d be a fun thing to do on Guy Fawkes Day, or Bonfire Day as they call it in England. Watching fireworks from Tower Bridge felt like a crazy dream, like I was living someone else’s life. Somehow, the reality that I am here and can see some of these things has still not fully settled in. I feel like a little child staring up at a fully decorated Christmas tree downtown; I’m hoping this feeling of wonderment stays until the day I leave.

The last couple of weeks have been busy ones, but more than wonderful all the same. The last two excursions were to Loreto and Tolentino, both half day trips but just as educational. We saw beautiful churches and frescos we had been learning about. For weeks in our painting class we had each worked on a different section of a fresco we finally got to witness for ourselves in Tolentino. It was exciting to spend so much time studying a painting, copying each detail, only to see the original in front of us.

In Loreto we walked around the small town and grabbed some cafés before meeting in the center piazza for a lesson in architecture, art, and history of the town. The cold wind didn’t bother me; all of my attention was focused on where we were standing, a center that has changed the world. In addition to the once game-changing architecture, the church that stood before us has been the center for catholic travels for years. Kings, Queens, Popes, Dukes, Lords, and the common man have all traveled days to visit this church. Why? Why, in a small walled town that can be missed if you blink, is this church the center of worship for many? Inside is an intricately carved marble structure, in the center of this hundred of year old church. Inside this delicately decorated marble house stands the home of Mary, mother of Jesus, which once stood in Nazareth. According to catholic beliefs, during the wars and attacks from Romans and Arabs alike, this brick home was moved to Italy, to protect it from destruction. This does not have to be something you believe in; as a Protestant, we do not hold the Madonna up as highly as Catholics, but I still found it amazing. Maybe it is the house Jesus grew up in but either way, they have believed that way for hundreds of years so it is something to stand in awe of and be grateful that I was able to witness. Around the center of the church are smaller chapels, dedicated to the Madonna by countries and rulers around the world. The last one we saw that I found particularly interesting was the one “dedicated” by the United States. In this small chapel are beautiful frescos depicting religious things of course, but also US military, priests, astronauts, and even JFK. It was the most peculiar art I have seen in Italy since I have been here: modern and showing events and people from the USA. The other reason this chapel is interesting is because the USA did not even donate money to this chapel; it just came to be. Strange, but interesting.

Last weekend was a quiet one spent here in Macerata. We celebrated Matty’s birthday and had a wonderful time cooking for him, taking him out, and showing him what birthdays are supposed to be like: all about the birthday boy! Sunday I met with my language partner and she treated me to a shopping trip at an outlet mall nearby. In light of my growing self-control (and diminishing funds) I passed up a beautiful pair of leather boots on super sale and spent the rest of the shopping trip proud of my control and questioning my intelligence at the same time. We had lots of fun though; she showed me how crazy Italians really are about their shoes here. Later that night we had a roommate dinner at one of our new favorite restaurants, Il Pozzo, and spent the night laughing, talking, and enjoying delicious Italian food, things we, here at the doll house, have become pretty good at.

Last Wednesday was a pretty busy one, in addition to the usual full day of classes, we finally were able to return to the immigration office and receive our permits of stay, permission to live in Italy until December 18th. An exciting day to say the least since I am officially legal here! That night Marc, one of the professors here, taught a group of us how to make tagliatelle, delicious pasta we made from scratch. I am so excited to come home and attempt to make this for everyone! It may turn out to be a disaster but that’ll be the fun in trying I suppose!

Last night, Thursday night, my roommates and I went to another apartment and we all cooked gnocchi (I watched and manned the music playlist). We have become quite the chefs here and I know that I’m not the only one excited to be able to make real Italian food now. We went out for the night, although it was chilly, and mingled around town. Thursdays are college night and it seemed like everywhere you went there were crowds of Italian students. Our Italian language teacher took us out, walked around with us for awhile, and we practiced our Italian with her and others around us. Going out here is not something we do to avoid studying; we go out TO study! We’ve discovered that going out around town is a constant lesson in Italian language and culture, making our nights twice as exhausting but twice as worth it.

So far today it has been a bit of a lazy day. I walked down to Coal, our little grocery store, since our fridge was looking pretty empty, and bought some of the necessities: bread, eggs, milk, soup, and jam. After I came home and put the groceries away, Mary and I walked down to our fruit and veggie guy, Giovanni, in the lot below our apartment. Giovanni is an older man that sets up his produce truck almost every day of the week, with the exception of Tuesdays and Sundays. On Fridays, we also have a guy down in the lot selling all sorts of delicious Italian cheeses. We like to go down, practice our Italian on them, and stock up on the healthy foods. Giovanni, the sweet man he is, is also a mumbler, loves to laugh at his own jokes, and always gives us more than enough food. After we pay, he throws in fresh herbs, a few onions and carrots (for cooking he says), and ALWAYS a bag of clementines that make your mouth water. After a few trips to his little setup shop, we can finally understand most of what he says, although some sentences fly over our heads regardless of how hard we try. We do know that if he’s laughing, it’s because he said something funny, and he loves when we laugh with him.

Now I’m sitting in my bed, with the determination to finish a full blog, listening to the Christmas music I have been avoiding. I know that is strange, me avoiding Christmas anything, considering how obsessed I get with this holiday. There is something about looking forward to Christmas this year though that is hard for me. Christmas means I come home. Christmas means that I will no longer be here. It also means I get to see my family, my friends, and be in my home once again. It is the epitome of bittersweet this year. I am beyond excited to see my family and my friends; I have missed everyone back home so much and I have learned to fully appreciate every single one of you. At the same time, this place is my home. Every day is a new adventure: last week I went to a new pizza place by myself and used some Italian words I had not used yet on my own. I was so excited! This life here is simple. It revolves around family and the quality of life, not the quantity of things. Of course it has its flaws, but where will you find a group of people that don’t? Living here is simple and straight forward and it is a lifestyle I grown to love.

People have been asking me if I am excited to come home, if I am ready to leave yet. It is such a hard question and all I ever give is the same answer: yes and no. I don’t want to sound un-excited to come home; I have been day-dreaming about seeing my family at the airport for weeks. At the same time, the thought of waking up somewhere other than here causes my stomach to sink.

I guess we will see where the next few weeks go! Next week our program is going to Florence, Rome the week after. Then we have a 4 day weekend and Dom, a friend from home, will be here to visit! Hopefully we will be able to get up to Bolzano and see the Christmas market. With only a month left I am taking each and every moment and fully enjoying it. I will be eating too much, sleeping too little, and appreciating it all! Besides, I have a 20 hour trip home where I can catch up with sleep and Ball States new gym is sure to get me back in shape J

I hope you all have a wonderful weekend, and a family filled Thanksgiving! No matter where you are in the world, there will always be someone who wishes you were with them, and that is the great thing about friends and families.

Love always,

(more pictures are on their way...)

Fireworks from standing on Tower Bridge <3 

                      The marble structure that house's Mary and Jesus's home. 

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Ten Day: Part Two

So here’s the part two of my 10 day break. Just as a little recap, I had decided to go to Germany to visit the Guth’s and made a world-view changing visit to Berlin with Ann-Kathrin. I hadn’t seen the rest of the family yet, but as we drove back to Willich (a small town just outside of Dusseldorf) I couldn’t help but get excited.

Friday, October 28, Anna-Kat and I got up pretty early to go to Cologne (or Koln if you live in Germany). The uneventful train ride showed me more of the German countryside and landed us directly outside the Cathedral of Cologne. I walked out of the train station and was immediately greeted by a giant Gothic cathedral towering over me. Because entrance was free to view the cathedral, we immediately went in (would have been worth paying for though).

I know that it seems like I have seen every possible church in Italy and that by now, I must be bored with them. Believe me, I would have thought the same thing and if it wasn’t for the classes I am in, that might have been the case. However, after learning about the differences between Romanesque, Gothic, and Renaissance, how to see the differences and how to know exactly I’m looking at, each church has become a new work of art. I am not an art nor architecture scholar by any means, but I have learned to appreciate and recognize work done by brilliant people whether it is the façade of a church or the frescos painted inside. This church was no exception and I found it difficult to tear myself away from any one section.

The stained glass windows were different from anything I had seen before; in some places the three paneled window was then divided up, tops and bottoms. Each section was of different patterns and different colors. In other parts of the church, the windows depicted scenes from the Bible. The sun was hitting the right side of the church perfectly to cast a light show upon the rest of the cathedral, more specifically the direct center where the nave and the transept met. There was more about this church that I liked though, in addition to the architecture and detail in ever square meter. It felt like a church. Yes, there were people in there just to look around and sight see, the classic tourists but there were also people there praying, talking to God, and lighting candles for their loved ones. This beautiful cathedral felt more real than touristy and it was interesting to see.
After the church, Anna-Kat and I walked along the river, enjoying the sun and watching families play along the water and in the small grassy park that followed it. We were headed to place I had been looking forward to all morning, the chocolate museum. J The moment you get inside, the smell of chocolate instantly hits you and you know you won’t want to leave (I’m a girl, this feeling is allowed). Just for going in, they give you a little piece of Lindt chocolate, a bite of heaven that melts in your mouth and makes you want more. An excellent marketing strategy if you ask me considering the chocolate shop located at the end of the tour.
Anna-Kat and I explored each room, some telling us where the cocoa bean comes from and who discovered it, as well as the history of chocolate around the world. One thing I did not know is that 75% of the world’s cocoa bean producers have never actually had a piece of finished chocolate! These countries are generally poorer, and although the farmers can sell their beans, they cannot afford to buy the chocolate. It is a terribly sad thing to think of people who have never tasted chocolate! New efforts have been made however to increase benefits given to these producers, so hopefully in the future they will be much better off.
As we entered each room, the smell of chocolate got stronger and stronger until we got to the room that contained the equipment, a display of how chocolates are made.  The whole process seems quite interesting and it was cool to see, but learning about the journey of the cocoa beans before entering the final stage was much more interesting to me.

By the end of the museum, their tricks had worked and I was ready to buy some chocolates. Anna-Kat and I had some hard decisions to make but we decided on a few great presents to give to our friends and family back home, and left.

Once again we were on the train ride, back to Willich to see her family who had gotten home just hours before. My friend Emily, who is an AHA student, was meeting us soon and I was excited to see her as well. As we arrived at Anna-Kat’s house, her whole family was outside, ready to greet us. It was such a good feeling to back in the presence of family; our hugs lasted forever. I was re-thrilled at the idea of being in Germany with a family that I love so much. We all piled into the car, picked Em up from the train station, and headed to Dusseldorf.

Dusseldorf is what a classic Germany city has always been in my mind. Pubs and shops lined the streets as people filled them, laughing and talking with their friends. The Guths showed us around their city, hitting the highlights. Emily and I bought way too many gummies as well as two crazy different kinds of mustard: Apple and “Christmas” flavors. We walked along the river, tried to tell the time on the TV tower, and just enjoyed each others’ company. I know how cheesy I sound, but being with them felt like family and it was a feeling that I know I miss. We went to dinner at an amazing restaurant and I ordered my big German meal with my authentic Dusseldorf beer. Everything was incredible and it was a welcomed change from the Italian cuisine I have become so accustomed to.

We all ate more than we could handle, so with our pants barely fitting, and smiles on our faces, we walked around the city a bit more. We stopped at a microbrewery, tried some of their beer, and laughed at a drink menu that only contained three options: beer, water, apple juice. We people watched for awhile, walked around some more, seeing all of the shops, and piled in the car to head home.

For the rest of the night, us girls just hung out downstairs, laughing and talking, as I helped Anna-Kat with some of her homework. We all fell asleep that night, more than exhausted but very content, with our full stomachs, wonderful company, and the comfort of being among family.

The next morning was a bit of a stressful one, although it started out beautifully. Mrs. Guth had prepared a full German breakfast, complete with breads, pastries, meats, cheeses, spreads, and even American peanut-butter in case we were homesick. It was delicious and it was a wonderful meal to spend with my family.
After stuffing our faces, Em and I packed up our stuff and got ready for the train station, as we were headed to the Netherlands that afternoon. We called the hostel ahead to let them know we would be a little late and were met with an unhappy surprise. Apparently, we had made our reservations for the wrong days and instead of having a couple of beds for Saturday and Sunday, we had reserved them for Friday and Saturday. That would have been fine except that when we did not show up Friday, they cancelled our whole reservation. Panic immediately set it as we discovered that we were, at that point, homeless. Right away we began researching hostels, hotels, anything we could find that was open for the night.

This is the part of the trip that I began falling apart… almost. I was frustrated and slightly concerned, and ready to wave the white flag in defeat. Lucky for me, the Guths were slightly more determined than I, calling every hostel and hotel they could that would possibly have an opening. All I can say is that I realized how blessed I was at that moment. I was literally helpless, no knowledge of the language and no computer to do any research, and yet they went so far out of their way to help Emily and me. I could not be more grateful. We found a hostel downtown finally, made our second set of reservations, and took off for the train station.
The Guths went out of their way once again and drove us across into the Netherlands and to a small station where we could catch a train to Amsterdam. Even more chaos followed our arrival there as none of the ticket stations were working and our train was leaving within seconds. Mrs. Guth quickly figured it out, handed us our tickets, and ushered us toward the train. I began saying my goodbyes, thanking them for an incredible week and the wonderful visit. Almost immediately the tears came, an unexpected reaction that I should have seen coming. I am not the kind of person who cries during Nicolas Sparks movies like many girls (and guys for that matter) do, but goodbyes have quickly become a weakness for me. Of course Mrs. Guth responded with “No. No crying. We did not cry when we left you. No tears.” So I did my best to suck it up, get it together, and got on the train.

Emily and our bags of gummy bears were a good cure and we were soon catching up on our last week of traveling and chatting about who knows what else. Amsterdam was easy enough to find and as we walked out of the train station a couple hours later, we were overwhelmed with the crazy busyness of it all. Despite the chaotic beginning of this weekend trip, from the point we arrived on, things went smoothly.

I have always believed that things can be blessings in disguise and I think that us losing our original hostel was one of these cases. Lucky for us, HostelWorld was absolutely correct about our second hostel. It was located only a couple blocks from a main piazza and a block from one of the beautiful canals that wound through the city. Of course, being in Amsterdam came with the usual expected scenes. Coffee shops were seen as often as any Starbucks in Chicago and because it is such a tourist spot, restaurants featuring every ethnicity littered the streets. We arrived on Saturday night and the amount of people running around rivaled tailgating at a homecoming football game. We settled into our hostel and went out to find something to eat. After exploring for awhile we found a restaurant with outdoor seating, ordered some fish and chips, and sat back to people watch.

Because it was almost Halloween, there were plenty of people dressed up although most were just dressed up to go out that night. For the rest of the night, we mostly just wandered. We made a few friends, found a DJ we loved, and mostly had a fun night, laughing and being goofballs, Emily in devil horns and me in cat ears. The thing about Emily is that she is always up for fun and once she gets going, her energy level can last quite awhile.

The next morning we got up, wandered around and found the Hard Rock café. Emily has tried to go to a Hard Rock in every city so who am I to stop her? We waited quite awhile, colored a Halloween picture for the host, and dreamt about what we were going to order. Finally we sat down and ordered right away, so hungry from skipping breakfast. We stuffed our faces with American food complete with nachos, BBQ pork sandwiches, and a free ice-cream sundae. 

We left content and looked for some trinkets and postcards to send home. We found some beautiful gardens, the I AMSTERDAM sign, and bought tickets for a hop-on, hop-off boat tour. We weren’t sure if we wanted to spend the money but it was worth it. It is the easiest and best way to see the city as a whole. There are canals that wind throughout the city and although the architecture is very different from Venice, the general layout seems to be similar.

Amsterdam was created and the canals were built after, forming a gridded system in the city. Three times a week the canals are flushed to bring in clean water. This leaves the city, as well as the canals, beautiful and clean. Because it is fall, the trees were all stunning shades of red, gold, yellow, and lime green. The smell of fall floated through the air and everywhere the boat went, we were surrounded by beauty.

That night we did a little shopping and then settled into a bar we found that was showing real American football! We could not believe they had so many different games on, but we were both thrilled (I am so happy Em is a football fan). We met a couple other Americans, students that are now in Manchester studying for the semester. We hung out with them for the rest night, wandering and exploring. They introduced us to an amazing fry place where all they serve is fries with about ten different kinds of sauces to put on top. We all got fries, sat by the canal, chatted, and enjoyed the night, dangling our feet over the edge, watching the ducks. We finally went back to our hostel and got some sleep, exhausted from the long day.

Monday, Halloween day, we woke up, packed up our stuff and left. We had most of the morning to wander more so we rode the canal boat around, saw the Anne Frank house, and explored the parts the canal didn’t touch. Amsterdam as a whole is absolutely beautiful. I know there are so many preconceptions of what it is like and it is known around the world as a certain place, but I was happily surprised at the reality of the city. It was beautiful, especially in the fall, and everyone was more than friendly. There is so much history in this city and I do want to go back and learn more about it. The countryside in the Netherlands is supposed to be stunning, especially in the spring when all of the tulip cover the fields. The phrase “you can’t judge a book by its cover” could not be truer than with this city. Of course, you get what you look for but I looked for beauty and saw it everywhere.

The plane ride home was once again uneventful although it was delayed for a couple of hours. We stayed a short night in Rome at a cheap hostel and got the morning train back to Macerata, to the safety of our homes, and comfort of my own bed.

My ten day break was one that I will remember as long as I live. I cannot believe how blessed I am to be able to see and experience the things I have been. I know I do not deserve any of this, I just have an incredibly supportive family, uncountable blessings, and a love of traveling. One of the other AHA students put it perfectly when she told me that traveling is like getting a tattoo. Once you start, they just become addicting. I cannot wait to see where the rest of the semester takes me! The gears in my mind are already turning so we’ll see what happens!


Love forever,

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Ten Day: Part One

When I first found out that with the AHA program, we get a ten day break half way through the semester, the entire map of Europe began swimming through my head. Places I had always dreamed of visiting and things I had always wanted to do began clouding my head. Prague, Paris, Germany, Sicily… the possibilities (not the funds) were endless. As I was daydreaming, I realized how badly I missed my German family, the Guth’s. This family had entered my life four years ago and every since then, they have been nothing but wonderful.  

It was four years ago when a girl named Ann-Kathrin came to live with my family through an exchange program. Over the course of the next four years, the Guth’s visited often, allowing their second daughter, Maryvonne, to live with us as well. We took family vacations together, shared side-splitting laughter, and became wonderful friends. This family was one that I realized I missed: my two beautiful German sisters and their amazing parents. The 10 day break turned out to be an easy decision after all and after an okay from my parents, I was headed to Germany!

October 23 rolled around and after a restful couple of days with my roommate Eva, I had my alarm set and all of my travel details checked. I then double checked, and even triple checked (I had my folder, labeled with its contents of traveling papers; it may be uptight, but I was not about to get stuck in a foreign country!). Enrico, our usual cab driver, arrived at 6 am sharp Monday, October 24, ready to drive me to the nearest airport in Ancona. Properly trained by the United States airport system, I planned on getting there two hours before my flight. The good thing about Italy being so different, two hours is more than necessary and I had plenty of time to sit around and do nothing. I boarded my flight on the famed (and defamed) RyanAir with no problems and two hours later, arrived at the Weeze airport in Dusseldorf, Germany. Walking through the gate, I saw the most wonderful smile I had seen in awhile, one from the lovely Ann-Kathrine Guth.

The Weeze airport is located in an old army base, in the middle of nowhere so I was extremely happy that Anna-Kat came to pick me up. We exchanged the usual hellos and girly squeals that were expected and got on our way. Merging onto the highway seemed like no big deal until I realized I was on the autobahn, a highway I had always dreamed of experiencing. At that point, there were more squeals and looks of amazement from me as Anna-Kat just laughed. There was something about being on a highway with an unlimited speed limit that hit my adrenaline button. Besides, I have gotten my fair share of speeding tickets, and being on a highway where you can only get a ticket for going too slow, I was thrilled.

About 45 minutes later I arrived at the Guth’s beautiful home and got the grand tour before we headed off to explore the area where the girls have grown up. The small villages were adorable, filled with German bakeries, little shops, and beautiful churches. The littlest things amazed me about Germany. Maybe it was because I have been in Italy for so long and Germany is so westernized, but the giant grocery store (about the size of Walmart), over abundance of McDonalds, and the warm showers almost brought tears to my eyes. Something I realized over the course of the rest of my trip was that Italy and Germany, even though they are within hours of each other, were as different as two worlds could be.

Tuesday morning, Anna-Kat and I woke up ready for our German road-trip. We grabbed some pastries for breakfast, boarded the autobahn, and headed to a city on the west side of the country, Berlin. The European road-trip was a fun one, filled with Bruno Mars, European music, too many sweets, lots of chatting, and plenty of dancing.

Along the way we stopped at the checkpoint where the country used to be divided into East and West Germany. Lights that could bring daylight and rows of trailers that were once full of troops, guns, and waiting citizens now lay quiet and barren. Whenever people wanted to pass through, pre-1989, they had to go through extensive searches and forms to be allowed from one side of their country to the next. I thought this was a little extreme but I obviously had no idea what was in store in the next few days. The history of this beautiful country, a history that shaped the world, was about to be unfolded before me. Sure, I had gone to history class from elementary school through college, but as I’ve realized in my time in Europe, learning about history paints a completely different story than seeing history.

Driving into Berlin, it looked like any other city going through growth. Construction spots littered the city while old and new buildings lined the streets. After checking into our beautiful hotel, located in the middle of the city (so much thanks goes to Mr. and Mrs. Guth), we set out with the goal of exploring what we could before it became too dark. Our first stop was the Brandenburger Tor, a giant gate like structure built in 1971, before the division of the city. Years after the construction, the city was divided just outside of the gates, forming an iconic view of the segregation when the wall was still standing. I did not think much of walking between the giant pillars until Anna-Kat pointed out that walking under the giant gate was really something of privilege. It was so simple, twenty-something steps from one side to the other. However, 25 years ago, those twenty steps would have been means of getting arrested or worse. It was at this moment that I began to realize how blessed I am to live in the United States and how blessed the world is that this former wall fell. Lucky for me, the shock and awe of it all was only beginning there.

For the rest of the night, Anna-Kat and I wandered the streets of Berlin, getting our bearings and seeing what we could regardless of the missing sunlight. We saw the Memorial for the Murdered Jews, which is located just next to the Brandenburger Tor. The memorial is made of over 2,700 dark cement slabs, all of different heights and gridded together. They are supposed to give the look of waves, flowing over the open plaza. It was interesting to walk among the cement blocks, some towering over us and some I could take a simple step up onto. I knew I wanted to come back later to take pictures, but just to see my first monument, one built for a relatively recent event, was a bit of an experience.

Anna-Kat and I walked around more after this, grabbing some subway passes and making our way over to KaDeWe, the Herod’s of Berlin. Knowing that Forever 21 is more my price range and style did not stop me from exploring the life of the rich and famous at this giant department store, bug-eyed the entire time. We soon left empty handed and found some dinner at a small Italian place closer to our hotel (I grabbed a German beer for the sake of being in Germany). After, we settled in for a full night’s sleep back at our hotel; we knew we had so much to see the next day!

Day two in Berlin started off wonderfully with a HOT shower and an actual breakfast with a full cup of coffee. The actual breakfast was only a sandwich but that was better than “il postre” that you’d get here in Italy. Checkpoint Charlie was only a few blocks away so that was where we pinpointed our first stop. That is also where Anna-Kat explained the workings of the divided world that was so recent, yet seemed so foreign to me. The idea of a divided city, fear induced when trying to pass from one side to the next, was an idea I never really had to imagine.  Checkpoint Charlie was the American checkpoint in the middle of Berlin where it could be regulated who crossed from one side to the next. The informational display along the road explained the transition in Germany from Hitler’s reign to the ruling of the Soviets. It gave stories of heroes, those that risked and sacrificed their lives to give freedom to both their loved ones and complete strangers. It gave examples of men and women who did whatever they could to be out of the terror of the East. What kind of world this must have been, to risk everything to escape. The saddest part to think about is that this kind of fear and desperation still exists today, only now it is in other parts of the world.

Anna-Kat and I decided to go inside the Checkpoint Charlie museum, a small museum that is well worth the money. Inside were more stories of escape, even displaying an original car that was used (the engine was taken out of the front and moved elsewhere in the car to fit a person in the hood) as well as a home-made hot air balloon that two families built to escape together. Stories of torn apart families were shown throughout the rooms and the realization that some of these families never came back together was terribly saddening. One woman’s son was taken from her, never to be seen again. He would now be only in his 30’s, still such a young age. The museum was not all sad though. There were stories of survival and triumph, people coming together from different nationalities to see the survival of the suppressed.

Next on our to-do list was to see the Eastside Gallery. This gallery, located only a couple subway rides away, is located along the river. It is made up of part of the original Berlin wall that has been painted over by artists from around the world. The individual panels revolve around the wall, its meaning then, its meaning now, and the idea of freedom. There were a couple things I noticed about this wall as we walked along its made-over surface. One was the height of the wall: too tall to jump over, short enough to be possible, but impossible because of the merciless guards. It was at the most taunting height. The other was the beauty and individualism that covered this once tyrannical and cold wall. We had to stop every few steps just so I could take another picture, just so I could capture what each artist was possibly trying to convey.

After exhausting every piece of art, we walked over to see the only remaining part of the wall that is still intact today as it was 25 years ago. The raked sand (to monitor footprints) and two walls still stood, along with barriers for trapping vehicles and the guard stand. Anna-Kat and I just stared at it, imagining this communist sandbox weaving throughout the city.

For the rest of the afternoon, Anna-Kat and I wandered around, trying to see everything we could. We saw the New Jewish Synagogue, a gorgeous piece of architecture. It had been bombed in the war and after much work and determination, was rebuilt; its gold detail now stands out against the grey German sky, especially on the rainy day we were there. We walked around the museum campus as well, becoming completely overwhelmed by the Berlin Cathedral that towered above the green lawn in front of it. The sun began to set around that time, casting a pink hue over everything the light could reach. It was absolutely beautiful, especially after such a rainy day. As if on cue, a full rainbow appeared over the cathedral as we were visiting another church only a couple blocks away. I wish I could exaggerate this, but I can’t; it was just a moment of happiness.

For lunch that day, Anna-Kat and I decided to experience a real currywerst, an original creation of Berlin, so to keep with the “original Berlin” idea, we got Doner Kabob for dinner. Doner is another Turkish dish that was created in Berlin and is a lot like Pita Pit. It is a pita stuffed full of gyro meat, lettuce, coleslaw, tsatsiki sauce, and onions. We have a Doner here in Macerata but I had been holding out for the real thing. I will be the first to tell you, it was so worth it.

Berlin was an incredible city and as Anna-Kat and I walked around after dinner, I knew it was a city I would have to return to someday. Its busy-ness and modern society seems to refuse to be held back by its rocky past, wanting to remember it but not be suppressed by it. Granted, this point of view was only from a tourist’s perspective, but that is the only view I have to go by.

We got back to our room kinda early that night, knowing we had to leave the next day to go back home, but not before the couple stops we wanted to make. The next day, Thursday, I wanted to see the Jewish memorial one more time before leaving the city, and then make a stop that not many people have the privilege nor the desire to see.

Thursday morning, after a short walk around town, visiting the memorial again and doing some trinket shopping, we loaded up the car and headed north. We were about to go see Sachesenhausen, a Nazi concentration camp just outside Berlin. Anna-Kat and I both grew quiet as we came closer to the site. Our nerves were a result of not knowing what to expect as well as knowledge of generally went on at these sites so many years before. We purchased our audio guides and walked to the entrance of the camp, uneasy before we ever entered the gates.

There were two levels of entrances to this camp, each prisoner humiliated before walking through the gates. The words on the second set of gates seemed particularly cruel reading “arbeit machtfrei” or “work will free.” We walked into the camp, still unsure what to expect and just stood, quiet and still, by the gates. The camp stretched out before us, designed for optimal vision of the prisoners from the gates, where the men in charge worked. The grass lay dead and an eerie quiet blanketed the acres of seclusion. I had heard that nothing lives in concentration camps, that neither living plants nor animals are not seen there; it is just full of morbid emptiness. This concentration camp was not very different from that prediction: a few trees stood between where some of the barracks used to stand and the only living animals I could see were a few black crows. No birds were ever seen flying overhead.

I won’t go into too much detail here about the concentration camp (if you want to know more, just ask me), but I will say it was an incredibly moving and life changing experience. Like I said before, learning about history and standing where history was formed are two incredibly different experiences. After Anna-Kat and I left there, we found it extremely difficult to complain about much of anything at all. Suddenly, our hurting feet and our empty stomachs seemed so petty and trivial compared to what these poor people had to experience. If anyone ever gets the chance to visit a concentration camp, I highly suggest you do. Yes, it is depressing and hard to digest, but it is important to see. It is important to see the evil in the world; I have never felt more grateful for the country I have grown up in and the freedom I think so many of us take for granted every day.

Anna-Kat and my drive back to Dusseldorf started off a bit quiet but soon enough we were jamming out, being goofy, singing at the tops of our longs, and laughing all over again. It was a long 5 hour car ride but I was so happy to be trekking across the country with her. I knew that the next day I would get to see the whole Guth family and that was enough to bring a smile back to my face! 

 There is so much more to my trip to talk about so I’m going to go ahead and make a part 2 so it’s not so long. So that is all I’ll write for now, I know this blog was incredibly long, but it was such an incredible 10 day trip. I am so grateful to my parents and the Guths for giving me this experience; it was something that will never leave my heart or memory. 

Much love to everyone,
Bethy mae 

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Olive you!

Okay so about last week: it was not super eventful but it’s worth mentioning since it was another week I spent here and it was a landmark week here. Wednesday marked the halfway point in our program! Only seven weeks left, a very sad thing to realize.

Obviously, since it is half way through the semester, last week was also midterm week this week. Placed sporadically throughout the week we had tests to take; some I did better on than others. I love learning and being in these classes and I definitely did my best, but luckily, I was only super stressed about two tests. This was because only two of my classes are counting towards my GPA; the rest are pass/fail. So I know I’ll pass them all and get credit but I am determined to do “A” work in the two for grades.

Now, this may not come as a surprise to most everyone who reads this, but I’m very clearly my mother’s daughter. I was reminded of this once again this week when, along with my studying and lack of sleep, I came down with a gross cold. The only reason it is worth mentioning is because of the humor I saw in the situation. The difference between my mother and I is that I know when I need to stay in bed for a few days; she doesn’t until she is forced to by mere inability to do anything else. So Mom and Dad, be proud! I slept a few days away and although I am not better yet, I’m getting there!

Friday was the day of our last midterm, Italian (dun dun duhhhhnnn!). Scott and Matty came over Thursday night, accompanied by pizzas and wine and we (Kacie and I) began studying.  Working our way through a hundred photo copies filled with prepositions and verb conjugation wasn’t easy but we gave it our best. The boys gave it their best effort too, but I think maybe the tea, pizza, wine, and coffee hyped them up a bit too much.

[Oh and just as a side note, having wine sounds a bit irresponsible while studying, I understand. But the thing about Italy is this: wine is considered another food group, just like pasta, pizza, and salad. Wine is served with almost every meal and people are brought up on it. It’s not given the stigma it is in the United States and I think it works for them here! Just an fyi :]

Friday morning we tackled the midterm as best as we could and decided that after walking out of the room, we were on break and nothing else mattered! HELLO TEN DAY BREAK! I’ll find out my grade when I get back, but there is nothing I can do about it now J. To kick off our break, Casey E. and I went to grab some coffee over a long talk, and then rejoined the world at AHA, finalizing plans for our trips and hanging out before everyone went their separate ways for a week.

At some point Mary and her friend that was visiting, Jessie, found me and informed me that our director, Filaberto, would be taking us to see his olive garden. A REAL olive garden! (I thought maybe it was called a farm? But garden makes more sense I guess). I’m so happy I have a roommate that asks questions! So he took a small group of us out to his garden consisting of 385 olive trees and three different kinds of olives. It was a beautiful spot out in the country and had a run-down brick house (he hopes to fix it up some day so he and his wife can live there). After showing us around and explaining everything, he took us to an olive press. There, they use some of the older methods of pressing olives which is definitely cool to see. The smell was amazing; the moment you got close to the building it was overwhelming! Filaberto showed us around and explained how everything worked, what things are used for, and process of extracting the oil from the olives. Anyone can bring their olives in for pressing and then take their oil home with them. The thing that surprised me the most was the color of the oil! It was a bright green-ish yellow color, nothing like the clear liquid you get from the store.  He says that it only stays that color for a couple of weeks and then the pigments fall to the bottom. As a little token, one that none of us asked for, the people who owned the shop brought us two little bottles of fresh olive oil. It was so nice of them and it is easily the best oil I've ever tasted!

After we left there, Filaberto drove us around and showed us a small walled city and then took us to a church just outside Macerata. It was an old church, two floors, and simple but beautiful. It is believed that this was a church that Charlemagne spent much of his time. With Filaberto’s infinite knowledge, he explained what everything was, what was more modern and which relics were from the Romanesque time period. We got cappuccinos at a small café nearby and headed back. We stopped at one more church on the way back, one that was mostly white on the inside except for the apses.

It was quite a mini-excursion, one that I know was unplanned, but Filaberto was more than happy to take us on. This goes back to what I said about the staff here being more than just staff. They are true teachers, ones that go above and beyond what they need to do because they care that much. I don’t know what other directors are like in other programs but it seems to be that Filaberto has just as much passion for the program now as he did the day he started.

Friday night was a relaxing one. The boys came over and cooked us a delicious pasta dinner that would give Rachel Ray a run for her money. Then, in honor of the upcoming Halloween, we watched Amityville Horror. Ryan Reynolds was amazing but that movie was beyond terrifying! I love being scared though so after the boys left and I locked all 5 bolts shut on our door, I slept soundly.  I did however threaten each of my roommates that if they tried scaring me while I was sleeping, I would never speak to them again. I don’t know if I could have lasted, but no one scared me in my sleep so no worries! 

Italy is such a wonderful place but I am more than ready for this ten day break. I am spending the first couple of days being lazy with Eva since we are both leaving Monday. Neither of us wants to be sick, and since I am, I probably won’t be doing anything exciting. But Monday I’m making my way to see my German family, the Guth’s and I’m stoked! Germany will be a nice change of pace I think. Then for Halloweekend, Emily is flying up and we’re going to Amsterdam. Matty says it’s beautiful than Paris, so I’m beyond excited to see it. We’ll probably hit up a few museums in Berlin and Cologne as well a couple in Amsterdam so by the time I get back, hopefully I’ll be a little bit smarter!

I cannot wait to write about my trip when I get back but until then, I’ll try to keep track and remember it all! 

Have a wonderful fall week everyone and Happy Halloween!