Allison O’Pohle’s St. Paddy’s Day in Dublin

Warning: This blog is full of lame St. Patrick’s Day jokes. Proceed with caution.

The luck of the Irish was really with me in Dublin (ok, I’ll tone it down).

I left for Ireland with three friends on Thursday night. We flew into the Dublin airport and found it decorated with balloons and streamers for the holiday. We took a bus to our hostel, which was very centrally located on the River Liffey.

The airport was all decked out for us

The airport was all decked out for us

There was a small surprise (read: shock) when we arrived. We booked our trip with Andy Steves (yes, the travel-guru Rick’s son) and he made the hostel arrangements. Because he is an expert backpacker, sharing a room with complete strangers for the total “hostel experience” probably doesn’t faze Andy.

Andy's self-promotion

Andy’s self-promotion

So many beds. So little sleep.

So many beds. So little sleep.

Luckily (heehee), there were bins with locks underneath the beds so we could lock up our things. The bins were very screechy, so they did tend to wake us up when people used them in the middle of the night or early in the morning. Needless to say, between the hyper-awareness of all of the strangers around me and the snoring of the shirtless guy diagonal from me, I didn’t get much sleep on the trip.

(The room did help me to make friends with American students who are studying all over the world, so I guess I did get something out of the “hostel experience.” I met some very nice girls studying in Copenhagen in Madrid whom I wouldn’t have met otherwise!)

Does this describe you?

Does this describe you?

On our first full day in Dublin, we went on a walking tour with Andy’s guides, who are all Irish college students. Andy popped in every now and then to offer us some cookies, which are apparently a travel “must.” (I wonder if his dad mentions cookies in his guidebooks?)

We finally had sunny weather!

We finally had sunny weather!

River Liffey

River Liffey

Lovers' Locks on the Ha'Penny Bridge

Lovers’ Locks on the Ha’Penny Bridge

Dublin is much smaller than I had imagined it would be. The city centre is primarily located on a few parallel streets that are very easily accessible from the River Liffey. Along the way, our tour guides cleared up some common misconceptions about Ireland.

Spire of Dublin

Spire of Dublin

I 'Rish I were Irish!

I ‘Rish I were Irish!

Is that sun? It's been so long since I've seen you!

Is that sun? It’s been so long since I’ve seen you!

Did you know:

  • Dublin doesn’t dye the river green anymore? It first dyed the water green in 1997, but the coloring killed all of the fish. In 1998, river-dyers from Chicago came over to show the Irish how it was done, and the fish lived. The next year, Dubliners decided not to dye the river anymore, so it stays blue.
  • Corned beef isn’t a native Irish dish? It’s Irish-American! People don’t really eat it in Dublin (at least according to our guides).
  • People don’t drink green beer? It’s black Guinness all the way.
  • Vikings founded Dublin? Apparently the last name McLaughlin means “sons of Norwegians.” And about 25% of Irish people are also of Scandinavian descent.

We passed endless shops with touristy garb, from wigs to leprechaun hats to scarves. We also toured Trinity College, which is one of Dublin’s oldest universities. Oscar Wilde went there once upon a time and I got to see the outside of his dorm room. I was so excited to be able to continue my literary tour of Europe without even planning the visit! I didn’t see a picture of Dorian Gray, though…

Trinity's Campus

Trinity’s Campus

I wonder what kind of "Wilde" times he had here?

I wonder what kind of “Wilde” times he had here?

That night we went to Whelan’s, which is the pub featured in P.S. I Love You, and I saw Gerard Butler! No, I’m totally kidding. I wish I had. But it was still fun. The crowd was very similar to the crowd in the movie. There were a lot of Hilary Swank-aged people (not that there’s anything wrong with that). My friends and I danced, waited for a live band that never showed up and just enjoyed being in Ireland.

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So, I kind of saw Gerard.

So, I kind of saw Gerard.

On Saturday we left relatively early in the morning for the coastal town of Howth, which is a fishing port. It smelled very fishy. Really, it was overwhelming. I took pictures by the cliffs, looked for leprechauns and tried to find a rainbow. I had no luck with the last two.

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Rocking the sunglasses before it started raining

Rocking the sunglasses before it started raining

All three shops that were located in the town

All three shops that were located in the town

We then went on a tour of the Guinness Factory along with every single other tourist in Dublin. Thanks to Andy, we got to skip the line, which had to be hours long. It wrapped around the building and went down the street. I learned about the special combination of barley, hops, water and yeast Guinness uses to make the perfect dark beer.

"I see a green door and I want to paint it black"

“I see a green door and I want to paint it black”

Literally everything was green this weekend

Literally everything was green this weekend

Bottles throughout the years

Bottles throughout the years

Arthur Guinness signed a 9,000-year (yes, you read that right) lease at the factory site because he was so confident in the taste of his brew. I guess he was right. Guinness is definitely Ireland’s beer and isn’t going anywhere any time soon. We got free pints of Guinness at the “Gravity Bar” when our tour was finished.

The 9,000-year lease

The 9,000-year lease

It's not quite gelato

It’s not quite gelato

Sunday was the big day. We went to mass at St. Mary’s Church in Dublin. The president of Ireland was there with his wife, and I was surprised that he had no security members sitting in sight. The entire Catholic service was in Gaelic and they even blessed a shamrock!

Can you take off your hat please?

Can you take off your hat please?

We next walked in the rain (now that’s more like it, right?) to the parade route. Because Dublin is so small, the route was short, but there were 2 hours worth of floats, bands and Irish jiggers. It was hard to see over the leprechaun hats that everyone seemed to be wearing.

I thought that only tourists would be wearing four-leafed clover gear and face paint, but nearly everyone in the city was wearing some type of ridiculously oversized piece of clothing. While I didn’t have an orange wig or fake beard, I did have on my green Andy Steves sweatshirt, so I think I came pretty close to being crazily dressed.

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Everyone wonders how crazy Dublin is. Yes, people were drunk. Some were very drunk. But most people seemed to be in the “I’m a happy sort of tipsy” state where they were enjoying the buzz from their alcohol and not crossing over into the angry, teary or sick type of drunkenness. That probably changed later in the day, though. All of the pubs were packed wall-to-wall with people licking foam Guinness mustaches off of their lips and enthusiastically taking Irish car bombs.

I think I speak for all of my friends when I say it was incredibly cool to be in a city in a time of such excitement and celebration. Although Dublin was probably 80% (or more) full of tourists and leprechaun-wannabees, the locals seemed genuinely excited to have us there.

Look at those costumes

Look at those costumes

They gave us directions, smiled as they hurried to busy tables and wished us Slainte, or good health. A lot of the buildings were cast with green spotlights and signs on almost every street corner and pub welcomed visitors.

Even though I was the only one of my friends who isn’t Irish at all, I felt very spirited and happy to be in Ireland! I knew that traveling to a country in a time of celebration was something I wanted to do when I came to Europe, which is why I was so eager to go to Dublin for St. Patrick’s Day.

Happy to be in Dublin

Happy to be in Dublin

So yes, the Guinness flows as strongly as the River Liffey, but there’s more to St. Paddy’s Day than brew. It’s the feeling of being one green hoodie in a sea of emerald. It’s the feeling of being Irish for a day, even if you don’t technically have the blood lineage. It’s the feeling of seeing a city in its prime, when streets are decorated, musicians are playing outside and people are smiling.

It’s like Christmas as an adult, when no material object can make the day great, but just being where you are in that moment is the best thing you could’ve hoped for.

Until next time,

Allison, who is still looking for the pot of gold

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Practicing “Keep Calm and Carry On”

I know a lot of people who have studied abroad, and every single one of them has described the experience as “great”, “amazing” or “the time of my life.”

It’s the easiest response, and it’s the most positive. But it’s probably not entirely true. No one wants to hear about how some weeks are harder than others and that life can still go wrong while you’re here. Those confessions aren’t as fun as stories of sitting on Shakespeare’s bed or trying wild boar.

But rough days (or weeks) happen. I felt like nothing went right this week. Every day something completely unplanned went wrong and managed to upset me more than I wanted it to.

Of course, they weren’t major crises. It’s those little things that add up, like a broken washing machine, a shattered glass ring from Venice (that I dropped after one wear) and my arm getting very bruised after I clumsily tripped down the escalator on my way to the tube. And when you’re abroad, it’s hard to go for a spontaneous pick-me-up ice cream run and even harder to call your family and friends to cheer you up, so you have to figure out what you can do to make yourself feel better.

Maybe that’s life.

Even in America, the person you want to talk to most might’ve forgotten her cell phone and can’t pick up, or you might not have any cash to spend on a cheer-up cupcake. But you have to keep going.

And in London, you have to follow the British mantra “Keep Calm and Carry On.”

So that’s what I did.

On Thursday I went on a street art tour around East London’s Brick Lane and saw hundreds of illegal masterpieces. Street art is technically vandalism, but our professor explained that street artists wouldn’t be punished because they add value to the area.

How someone can do this in the dark, I have no clue

How someone can do this in the dark, I have no clue

Oscar Pistorius made from newspaper clippings

Oscar Pistorius made from newspaper clippings

It’s actually thanks to street art that the area surrounding Brick Lane became financially stable. Just 10 years ago the area was barren and “sketchy.” Now, it’s inundated with hipsters shops where vendors sell trendy clothes, vegan meals and fair trade items.

Thanks to these unconventional artists, drab brick walls become colorful works of art overnight. The scene is constantly evolving. Street artists paint over one another’s work after just a few days or even hours, so the changing landscape helps to draw people to the area. Even hipsters admit that they like street art, so the universal appeal is undeniable.

Dessert art <3

Dessert art <3

Deep

Deep

I got to see original works by Banksy, a famous street artist who works in the night. He’s a political activist, film director, painter, and also a very sarcastic and irreverent guy who uses dark humor in a lot of his pieces. His works are much loved and admired by people worldwide, but Banksy is famous because no one knows who he is. Somehow, this incognito artiste placed fake works in the Museums of Modern Art, Metropolitan Art, and Natural History in New York.

Sealed with perspex so no one can paint over it

Sealed with perspex so no one can paint over it

Banksy is great, but my favorite street artist is Stik, who paints solitary cartoon figures. Besides the fact that I love animated figures, I love Stik because of his message. His characters symbolize how London can feel lonely even though it’s filled with 8 million people.

I'll be your friend, little guy!

I’ll be your friend, little guy!

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On Saturday, Jessica and I pretended to be royalty as we traveled to Hampton Court Palace, which was once home to the callous womanizer King Henry VIII. I’ve always been interested in King Henry VIII, but it’s mainly because of the number of wives he had. Watching The Other Boleyn Girl has made me incredibly sympathetic to Anne and Mary Boleyn, even if the story is historical fiction. Although I have yet to read the book, I loved the movie (and not just because my favorite celebrity crush of all time is in it).

Home to Henry VIII...and six of his wives

Home to Henry VIII…and six of his wives

The palace is a 30-minute train ride outside of the center of London. It’s incredibly big, which fits Henry’s massive ego. There’s enough room for all of his six wives to live inside at once and never see one another, although they obviously lived there at separate times.

Beautiful!

Beautiful!

We first toured the kitchens, where servants once made enough food for 600 people. The Tudors ate the ultimate “man meals” with meat comprising 75% of their diets. Meat was a status symbol, so the wealthier you were, the more meat you ate. The kitchen actually had an administrative office where one person would keep track of all of the meat orders and meal plans for the day. Tudors ate 4,000-5,000 calories each day, so they definitely enjoyed their protein!

Pies were used instead of pans. No one actually ate them!

Pies were used instead of pans. No one actually ate them!

Fake meat

Fake meat

Faux Tudor dinner

Faux Tudor dinner

Um...

Um…

Looks like I could be a Tudor with my wild boar eating habits

Looks like I could be a Tudor with my wild boar eating habits

We went to Henry’s apartments next, where we saw rooms that he dedicated to each of his brides. Awkwardly enough, these rooms stayed open after he remarried. I guess his brides knew what was coming when they married him, and knew that at the very least they would get a beautiful, ornate room dedicated to them.

Henry VIII was self-important and when he didn’t like the rules, he changed them (remember that whole Church of England scandal? That was because of this guy). He desperately wanted a son to succeed him, but his first two children were daughters. Eventually, Edward VI was born. He took the throne when he was only nine, but died when he was 15.

The first King to be painted standing up, so he looked imposing.

The first King to be painted standing up, so he looked imposing.

Edward VI front and center at the age of 8

Edward VI front and center at the age of 8

Interestingly enough, all of Henry’s kids got to save their turn on the throne. Mary was queen for five years but largely disliked. She’s actually the “Bloody Mary” from the scary folklore tale who will appear in the mirror if you whisper her name in the dark. After she took the throne, she killed all of the church officials whom her dad appointed in the Church of England because she was Catholic. Elizabeth was last and was queen for 45. She was largely admired and never married, thus ending the Tudor dynasty.

King Edward VI painted in a pose similar to the ones his dad made

King Edward VI painted in a pose similar to the ones his dad made

Hampton Court Palace is full of amazing gardens. I decided that if I were ever Queen, I would be known for taking breaks for daily garden walks.

Privy Garden

Privy Garden

I love these trees!

I love these trees!

My palace photo shoot

My palace photo shoot

Starting to bloom

Starting to bloom

Ok if I can't live in the palace can I live in the garden?

Ok if I can’t live in the palace can I live in the garden?

To finish our visit, Jessica and I decided to warm up with coffee and a cupcake. Because he loved food, it’s what King Henry VIII would’ve wanted.

Now who's surprised?

Now who’s surprised?

So yes, my washer is still broken and my arm is bruised, but I’m not one of King Henry VIII’s wives, so things are still looking up.

Until next time,

Allison, the princess wannabe and cartoon enthusiast

Roma: That Time I Saw The Pope

If you couldn’t tell from my excited tweets, Facebook posts and videos, I saw the pope.

Well, I saw him in his helicopter leaving the Vatican on his final day, so that’s still seeing him, right?

But we’ll get to that.

We arrived in Rome on Wednesday at 9:30 a.m. We weren’t sure what to do, so we strolled down to the Vittorio Emanuele II Monument and looked at some ancient ruins from afar. The cool thing about Rome is that you can walk down the street, past souvenir shops selling Italia track jackets and gelato (sorry for referencing it so much) stands, and bam! You’re looking at ruins that were built BC.

View from the monument

View from the monument

Vittorio Emanuele II Monument

Vittorio Emanuele II Monument

Don't be fooled, this isn't Florida. Rome has so many orange and palm trees!

Don’t be fooled, this isn’t Florida. Rome has so many orange and palm trees!

Tomb of the unknown soldier

Tomb of the unknown soldier

Bongiorno, Roma!

Bongiorno, Roma!

We always seemed to have a hard time deciding where to eat, but we decided on the News Café because it seemed pretty cheap and had authentic Italian food (I promise these details are significant). Right after we ordered our food, I looked up at the TV screen in the news cafe and saw the news broadcast summary of the pope giving his last ever public appearance in the Vatican.

The panini I ate with a broken heart (ok I'm being a little dramatic)

The panini I ate with a broken heart (ok I’m being a little dramatic)

He had just finished speaking and we could’ve been there because we had no morning plans.

My heart sank to the bottom of my stomach.

Now, you may wonder how I didn’t know this was happening. In Italy, I was only able to use my iPhone when I was connected to wifi, which never happened. You have to pay for internet access in restaurants, and it was very spotty in every hostel we stayed in. I had hardly any access to Twitter or Facebook and wasn’t reading the news.

Nonetheless, I felt like I should’ve known. We had previously been told that the pope’s last day was Thursday, and I naively assumed he would come out and wave or make a speech when he was finished.

I really regretted missing this “once in a lifetime” opportunity and the regret would not leave from the pit in my stomach. I had just missed a major historical moment and now there was nothing I could do.

We had already ordered, so we ate our food as fast as possible and jumped on the metro to head to Vatican City just in case anything else happened.

The area had pretty much cleared out. All that remained were empty chairs from the 50,000 people who had tickets to sit and watch the address and desperate reporters looking for sources to interview about the speech.

Anderson? Brian? Nope.

Anderson? Brian? Nope.

50,000 chairs

50,000 chairs

A frantic BBC reporter ran up to us and asked us if we spoke English. If we had actually been there for the speech, we could’ve been on the BBC TV broadcast. However, I didn’t think it was a good idea to lie in the Vatican.

Being the journalism nerds we are, we stalked the broadcast stand to see if any TV celebrities came down from the platform. If we couldn’t see the pope, we were hoping to see Brian Williams or Anderson Cooper. Unfortunately, we didn’t have any luck.

We were happy to have seen the aftermath of the speech, but the missed opportunity still stung a little. To overcome the disappointment we walked to the Spanish steps and Medici villa, which are part of Rome’s most famous piazza. We then walked to the Pantheon, which looked absolutely amazing at night. Raphael is actually buried inside the Pantheon, but it’s primarily significant because it was first built as an ancient Roman temple to the Gods.

Hola, Spanish steps

Hola, Spanish steps

Sunset over the Spanish steps

Sunset over the Spanish steps

Pantheon!

Pantheon!

Then we had one of the best meals of our trip. For just 15 euros, we got endless wine, bruschetta, pasta, pizza and dessert. We also made friends with our Italian waiters, who were very friendly!

Sometimes being an American student has its perks

Sometimes being an American student has its perks

Devoured this

Devoured this

I know it's not gelato, but it was still good

I know it’s not gelato, but it was still good

Thumbs up to you too, dude.

Thumbs up to you too, dude.

Thursday. We were told that the pope was leaving the Vatican at 9 a.m. via helicopter, but as we know, news sources aren’t always correct.

Our Vatican tour was supposed to take two hours, but took us upwards of three. No matter what your religious beliefs are, it’s impossible not to appreciate the beauty that is inside of the Vatican museums. There are thousands of sculptures, busts, tapestries and paintings, all created by some of the world’s most famous artists. There are scenes documenting every stage of Jesus’ life, every historic moment in the bible (old and new testaments) and even mythological Gods and Goddesses whose stories contributed to the formation of Rome.

No pictures can do these works justice.

No pictures can do these works justice.

Every millimeter has intense detail

Every millimeter has intense detail

Once again, I spent the majority of my time craning my neck upwards. I took endless pictures and did my best to listen to our tour guide’s broken English as she explained every significant work in detail.

My favorite ceiling

My favorite ceiling

Once we finished, we toured St. Peter’s Basilica. We all made sure we were dressed appropriately because you are not allowed inside if your knees or shoulders are bare (but that wasn’t a problem given the weather we had). I got to see the famous inscription with all of the previous popes, the beautiful altar and even part of a service that was being conducted in Italian.

Altar in St. Peter's

Altar in St. Peter’s

The next pope is being decided right now!

The next pope is being decided right now!

I also saw the some of the former pope’s shrines where their bodies are prominently displayed in glass cases. Masks cover their faces, but their hands are left folded on their chests, which means you can see the progress decay has made.

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Suddenly, the security guards in the basilica started closing off entrances and exits. I assumed it was because it was almost 5 p.m. and the church was closing, but then I heard a helicopter.

It was the pope leaving the Vatican.

We sprinted outside and saw the helicopter circling around the main piazza. I assumed the pope was inside, and was surprised that the crowd outside St. Peter’s was so small.

Snapped a picture as fast as I could

Snapped a picture as fast as I could

The helicopter soon landed out of view. There were some protesters inside the Vatican and I think they wanted the pope out of view for security reasons. Soon the pope was in the air and the crowd began cheering. I think the video I took can explain the feeling more than any words can.

I knew history was happening in that moment and my “once in a lifetime” was redeemed. I was surrounded by people craning their necks to wave a final goodbye and by priests and nuns who had traveled from all over the world to bid farewell to the leader of their church. Many of them had tears in their eyes and crossed themselves continuously.

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The coverage continued until the pope reached Castel Gandolfo, where he would make his final speech. He walked very slowly and deliberately with tiny steps out to the balcony, where he was greeted by a massive cheering crowd and also by cheers from the bystanders in the Vatican.

He looked incredibly tired and weak. We can assume that he’s in ill health, but the effects showed. Although he was giving up his position, he almost looked as though he’d given up on life. My heart broke for him.

A lot of protestors argue that other popes have served until the ends of their lives and that it’s Pope Benedict’s duty to stay until the end of his term. On the other hand, some argue that people do retire from their work once they have done their duties and that it’s responsible of the pope to recognize that he cannot do the job anymore.

Inside the Vatican

Inside the Vatican

Swiss Guard

Swiss Guard

Who am I to say what is right? As I watched him deliver his final address and wave his last goodbyes, I did feel an overpowering sadness. I already had goosebumps from being in the right place at the right time, but seeing the pope give his last public words was incredibly humbling. He stood there almost admitting defeat, but vowing to continue his pilgrimage.

Humans have limitations. Even the pope has weaknesses. And regardless of your faith, we’re all looking to do the best we can and overcome challenges. Sometimes the obstacles are just too great.

We continued our day in a haze of disbelief, all the while making wishes in the Trevi fountain and of course having more gelato.

 

The pizzas are so big! This one had grilled veggies

The pizzas are so big! This one had grilled veggies

BEST GELATO EVER. I'm serious this time.

BEST GELATO EVER. I’m serious this time.

151 flavor options. Oh my Gosh.

151 flavor options. Oh my Gosh.

Throwin' a wish in the well

Throwin’ a wish in the well

Our last day in Rome was spent at the colosseum and Roman Forum ruins, which are just as spectacular in person as they are in pictures. I still have a hard time believing that ancient people walked amongst the rubble that now stands preserved by fences. Once again, I felt small. Who knows what relics will survive from our time period that our ancestors will look at for years to come?

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Colosseum

Colosseum

I am so lucky to have had the opportunity to travel all around Italy for a week. Between all of the incredible gelato I ate, all of the ancient relics that reminded me of my place in the world and all of the emotions I felt while seeing the pope’s departure, I know the week is one I will never forget.

Not even rain could "ruin" this trip

Not even rain could “ruin” this trip

Channeling Lizzie McGuire

Channeling Lizzie McGuire

One last thought: I visited a lot of churches while in Italy, and as I mentioned before, it’s possible to appreciate them no matter what your faith is.

But I came to this conclusion, which is best summed in a line from Mumford and Sons’ “Ghosts That We Knew.”

I think that no matter what time period we live in, no matter if we sleep in a stone hut or a gigantic palace, we’re all looking for one thing:

“Hope in the darkness that (we) will see the light.”

Until next time,

Allison, the pope-spotter and gelato connoisseur

Firenze and Milano: Where Once in a Lifetime Takes on a New Meaning

Before you study abroad, everyone tells you that you should do it because it’s a “once in a lifetime experience.”

I think one of the scariest parts is realizing that it’s true.

“Once in a lifetime” is such a common phrase that its meaning has lost its dramatic effect. I saw some of the most beautiful sights in the world in Florence, where I spent the middle stretch of my spring break, and it’s humbling to think that in however much time I have left on earth I might never get back to see them again.

Maybe I’m too aware of my own mortality, but traveling has also made me realize how much I don’t know and how much I want to understand other cultures.

See what I mean?

See what I mean?

So maybe Florence brought out a contemplative side of me, but wait until you see these views. We spent an entire afternoon hiking up to the Piazzale Michelangelo on our second day and admiring how beautiful Florence is.

Amazing.

Amazing.

I got to know Florence in a very fun way: through its food. “Feast your eyes” on a blog post full of food pictures. Italy definitely encourages having both a dinner stomach and a dessert stomach, so who am I not to go along with it?

First pizza in Florence. "Pepperoni"

First pizza in Florence. “Pepperoni”

Aside from satisfying my stomach, Florence also gave me some of the most picturesque landscapes I will ever see. I never realized how much I love green spaces until I moved to a big metropolis.

It’s not a secret that I don’t walk out of my way to throw my recyclables in recycling cans and I’ve never had a desire to spend a night camping outdoors. After using an ancient stairstepper and climbing the 414 steps to the top of the duomo, I was surprised to find that I was most excited by the greenery and hillsides of Florence. There is a sea of yellow-tinted buildings, but they rest against a backdrop of mountains and rolling hillsides. The stuff paintings are made of.

So happy we made it to the top!

So happy we made it to the top!

From the top of the duomo, you can also see rooftop pools, terraces and table settings. Space is clearly at a premium in Florence, which we found out firsthand while lugging our suitcase up five flights of stairs to our hotel room. It’s obvious there’s something that draws people to Florence. It’s big enough to have a city feel, but small enough to cross by foot in 30 minutes.

Selfies from the top of the duomo

Selfies from the top of the duomo

People are also friendly. Men were most often too friendly. I made a “friend” in one of our waiters when he gave me this note.

I think "go to exit" means "go out"

I think “go to exit” means “go out”

We didn’t have much of an agenda in Florence, and I’m finding that as much as I like trying to plan out every aspect of my future, I like the relaxed, unplanned way of traveling. We were able to enjoy the slower continental pace while walking through piazzas, churches and Florence’s famous leather market.

We spent the next day in Milan, which was probably not the best day to go. Besides the fact that it was hailing, it was a Monday, which meant that all of the museums were closed.

Help me, I'm wet.

Help me, I’m wet.

Milan is much more urban than any of the other cities we visited. It has its own underground system and downtown area, but is also home to cathedrals and ancient castles. I think the old castle was my favorite part of the city, proving that once again anything that’s green and ancient is the way to my heart. I do wish the original moat still existed though instead of the current grass.

Once upon a moat

Once upon a moat

View of the castle from afar

View of the castle from afar

Milan fashion week was in its final days, so we saw some of the set-ups where shows were going on. The city also has a three-block shopping area filled with incredibly expensive designer stores. The funny thing is, the stores were the same on every block. All of the window displays were at their prime for fashion week, and I’m sure all of the increased prices reflected the huge number of fashionistas as well.

A show was going on in here!

A show was going on in here!

Milan's Next Top Model

Milan’s Next Top Model

"Check"er them out

“Check”er them out

"Shoes. Oh my God! Shoes. Shoes."

“Shoes. Oh my God! Shoes. Shoes.”

As I mentioned before, we spent our last day in Florence sitting on one of the very hills I had grown to love. It’s no wonder Michelangelo created “David” here.

Obviously very happy to be here

Obviously very happy to be here

The hills are alive!

The hills are alive!

Seeing good ole’ Davy turned out to be harder than I expected. There are probably 40 copies of the David around Florence, but the real one is kept inside its own gallery away from the elements and tourists who want to climb on it and take pictures by its junk.

Fake David (exposed)

Fake David (exposed)

I bought the tickets online through a third party website (you can already see where this story is going) and to make a long story short, they were for the Uffizi Gallery, which houses original paintings by Botticelli, Caravaggio and other famous Italian artists, but not the David like the website promised it did.

Shoot.

I’m glad we saw the Uffizi gallery, but it’s not what I was expecting. Claire and I spent the extra 6 Euros to go see David, because I couldn’t stomach leaving Florence without seeing him.

I’m really glad we did go. It’s hard to believe Michelangelo crafted him from a single slab of marble. The tendons in his hands are pronounced and his every muscle is sculpted with intricate detail, but his face, with its calm and grace, has become an iconic symbol worldwide. He’s also massively tall. 17 feet to be exact.

I ended my time in Florence with more great food, of course. Each time I had gelato, I would ecstatically pronounce, “oh this is the best gelato I’ve had by FAR.” I’m very happy to report that this trend continued throughout my entire trip.

Pasta arrabbiata (tomato and chili sauces)

Pasta arrabbiata (tomato and chili sauces)

"Surprise" cake

“Surprise” cake

Bruschette

Bruschette

Best fruity gelato

Best fruity gelato

Cannoli! (They taste the same, except they put apricots in theirs)

Cannoli! (They taste the same, except they put apricots in theirs)

Always thinking of my next scoop

Always thinking of my next scoop

Gnocchi

Gnocchi

Best creamy gelato

Best creamy gelato

Florence was hard to leave, mostly because it was so beautiful and gave me the opportunity to reflect. Seeing things you might never see again is bittersweet. Jane Austen’s house showed me that more than anything else I’ve seen thus far.

Ciao, Florence.

Ciao, Florence.

So yes, a lot of what happens when you live abroad is “once in a lifetime.”

But at least it happens once.

Until next time,

Allison, who might just start recycling more

Viva Venezia: Italian Spring Break Part 1

I’m back!

And wow, is “the continent” different. So different that it’s inspired me to share what I’ve learned based off of my Italian experiences instead of just summarizing what I did. No, I didn’t jump on the back of a scooter and ride into the sunset like Lizzie McGuire, but I did have a great whirlwind of week filled with gelato, enough walking to destroy my trusty pair of black boots and infinite amounts of ancient relics.

First off was Venice, where we arrived in the early morning after waking up at 3:15 a.m. for our flight (I still can’t believe that happened).  Did you know that there are no cars in Venice? Maybe I’m just clueless, but I was shocked to find that the roads are designed for pedestrians and the air isn’t clouded by smog and exhaust fumes. We had to take a waterbus to reach the island. It makes stops at assigned locations and rocks back and forth pretty slowly.

All aboard the waterbus

All aboard the waterbus

Venice feels like Italy, if that makes sense. There are canals, which we’ve seen pictures of all of our lives. There are little streets with balconies, awnings and flowers that are trying not to wilt under the weight of the February snow. The overwhelming feel is very rustic. Every side street looks similar, so it’s easy to get lost. I actually think it’s impossible not to get lost.

I probably have 86 pictures that look like this

I probably have 86 pictures that look like this

Man, I have good it in London with no language barrier. Studying abroad is overwhelming enough at times, but the fact that everything in Italy was, well, in Italian was incredibly challenging. My only tool was a Siri-esque iPhone app that played audio recordings of common phrases so I knew how to talk to people with decent pronunciation. Thank goodness for technology, right?

At least a smile is universal in all languages

At least a smile is universal in all languages

Venice is what I like to think of as Italy’s reward to old retired couples. There are places to dock the boats they’ve spent their entire lives working for, endless mom and pop shops where they can visit their friends who sell glass items and countless bridges over canals where they can watch the sun set on their beautiful city. It’s removed from the rest of Italy and has a quiet feel all its own.

I imagine Venice is at its peak in the summer. “Spring break” in Venice is a challenge in February, and sure, I wasn’t expecting it to snow. But studying abroad has taught me to be flexible when things go wrong. It’s taught me not to get frustrated and roll my eyes, but to try to laugh and go ahead with what I wanted to do anyways. After walking around shivering to the bone, my friends and I took a gondola ride in the snow. When in Venice, right?

 

Quiet day on the water

Quiet day on the water

Even barred windows look pretty

Even barred windows look pretty

At least we had a blanket

At least we had a blanket

The gondola “driver” had a striped shirt on just like I’d imagined he would. He sang a bit, but mostly talked on his cell phone. I saw the same views of Venice that endless couples have seen on their honeymoons and on dates. But I didn’t feel lonely. Studying abroad mostly makes me feel small and part of an immense web of people who have done the same thing before me for generations upon generations.

View from the water

View from the water

Venice also made me feel naïve. We went to dinner at a restaurant that promised ”special” spicy pasta, but instead served me five noodles and charged 3 Euros for a table setting fee. Who would’ve thought that Italy encourages portion control? It was a frustrating introduction to Italy, where locals can spot Americans from a mile away and will use every extra charge and tax to scam you. Sure enough, in tiny print at the bottom of the menu there was notice of the restaurant’s “cover charge.”

This was from a better Venetian meal. I didn't document the 5 noodle incident

This was from a better Venetian meal. I didn’t document the 5 noodle incident

As always, I turn to dessert to solve my problems. Thus began my introduction to gelato, which was one of the best parts of my Italian trip. I ate gelato almost every night and don’t regret it for a second.

Gelato selfies

Gelato selfies

Our second and final day in Venice was spent primarily on the island of Murano, which is known for glass blowing. Our morning began early because, if Venice is a city for lovers, we heard it early at 6:30 a.m. from the room next door (if you know what I mean).

Murano!

Murano!

Nonetheless, Murano was full of family-owned shops where it was obvious generations of people have been crafting beautiful glass sculptures, jewelry and light fixtures for centuries. We encountered people who carefully strung beads onto bracelets and a man who took so much pride in his display of bracelets that he had to reclasp each one onto the display bar with his own hands, all while scolding us for not hanging them up properly. My four-year-old self would be envious of how well I “kept my hands to myself” so I wouldn’t break anything by accidentally knocking it over.

Look at those cows!

Look at those cows!

They sounded great (if you like the sound of silence)

They sounded great (if you like the sound of silence)

"Don't touch anything"

“Don’t touch anything”

Although it seems as though our world is largely rejecting organized religion, it’s obvious how much it still means to some people. Italy is home to some of the world’s most beautiful churches and the San Marco Basilica was no exception. It was here that I began looking up at the ceilings, which I continued doing in every church we visited during the rest of the trip. I’m admittedly a “Chreaster” and only attend church on Christmas and Easter, but it didn’t stop me from appreciating the beauty of the church and the reverent atmosphere inside.

 

Don't look down!

Don’t look down!

 I promise I wore more than one outfit while I was here. The black coat is misleading


I promise I wore more than one outfit while I was here. The black coat is misleading

Venice first alerted me to how different Italians are than Brits. One Venetian woman touched my hair while she told me it was “bella,” while Italian men confidently approached my friends and me because we are noticeably American. Even people in quiet wintertime Venice are much louder than English people, who apologize for everything and avert your glance.

But some things are the same. I noticed a child’s birthday party inside the city’s only McDonald’s and the number of kids who ran around screaming while holding their Happy Meal toys. I guess Happy Meals have universal power.

I knew London was fast-paced, but coming back emphasized it even more. In Venice especially, I spent time tasting the pizza I ate and time turning over souvenirs while considering what my family and friends would really like. Even though I was cold, I strolled along the side streets and stopped to admire the canals.

Sunrise in Venezia

Sunrise in Venezia

Once I got back to London, I noticed how quickly everyone was walking around me. I once again noticed how they kept their eyes down and shouldered past people in their way. I never realized how much I, too, sped past strangers to get onto the tube and shouldered past slow-movers to grab a bottle of spaghetti sauce in the grocery store.

It’s more than a little weird to realize that you adopt new traits to survive in a city. The book I’m reading about Londoners often says that you have to be tough to survive in London, especially in the winter. You have to walk fast, know what you want and go after it. Most of the time I do.

But I think there’s still time to stop and taste the tea without gulping it down. Time is going fast enough already.

So here I am, back in London, moving a little bit slower and still looking people in the eye.

More Italy updates to come soon,

Allison, who is powerwalking a little slower today