Read about my trip to Florence, Italy where between my weekend travels throughout Europe, Italian language courses, fashion marketing internship and Tuscan wine tastings on the weekends, I'm not sure if I'll ever want to return to "The States"...

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

How to Study Abroad in Florence, Italy

It has been officially two weeks since I arrived back home in the good ol’ U.S. of A. and I am finally sitting down to write my final blog entry. Between unpacking, catching up on DVRed Friend’s reruns, doing a some yard work to pay off my debt to my parents and adjusting to the time zone with plenty of naps, I just simply have not found the time. Now that I have though, I have decided the best way to summarize what I have learned while studying abroad would be in a little How To guide written exclusively for my blog followers. Yes, all seven of them.

How To Study Abroad in Florence, Italy
By: Emily Wood

You MUST pack light. Before studying abroad, when it came to packing for anything from an overnight sleepover, to a weeklong vacation, I usually went by my Aunt Susan’s motto: “If you can close your suitcase on the first try, you probably didn’t pack enough stuff.” When packing for Italy though, I somehow managed to bring four months worth of belongings in one backpack, one weekender bag, and one large suitcase that could easily fit a small child as my brother demonstrated before I left. Most of my friends had two large suitcases so I was very impressed with myself. The backpack was essential for weekend trips. And by backpack, I mean school backpack, not one of those intense “I’m backpacking around Europe for the next few months” backpacks. I recommend bringing nothing more than that because you will probably be traveling for many hours to get to your final destination if you use a cheap flight such as RyanAir and you do not want to be lugging around your Vera Bradley weekender even though you think you will look much more stylish.

Even though I recommend packing as light as possible, do not make the same mistake I did by discarding some “essentials” from your final suitcase. For example, I chose to take out my favorite comfy sweatshirt and sweatpants combo. BIG mistake. You will want those on days when the weather is terrible and even though you are in a foreign country, all you want to do it curl up and relaxxxx.

Moral of the story: even though I am wearing the same outfit in many of my pictures (with strategically different colored scarves to mix it up) and also donated many of the items that didn’t quite last for four months after weekly (and in some extreme cases daily) use, it was worth it to not have to lug around giant suitcases everywhere I went.

Once you arrive to your respective destination, plan your trips early. One of the main attractions of studying abroad in Europe is the fact that it is easy to travel to many other cities as well. My recommendation on this though is to start planning your trips the moment you arrive in your city and receive your class/exam schedule. This is essential for getting the best travel deals as well as being able to meet up with friends from other cities. Amsterdam, one of the most popular study abroad travel destinations for college students, was the one city I regret not being able to visit the most. Unfortunately, when my roommate and I finally started looking around for ways to get there we were limited to only one weekend that would work and our travel options were between a $1,000 flight or a bus that stopped in four different cities and would get us to Amsterdam after only a mere 25 hours of traveling each way. Since we only had three days to devote to each trip this would mean that we would be traveling for 2 whole days and only actually in Amsterdam for one. Fail.

Besides the pre planning and weekend excursions to other European destinations, there are many things that you simply cannot go through an entire semester in Florence without doing. I have written my top ten favorite here for you.

Florence’s Top 10 Must-Do’s:

1. Eat Gelato. Everyday. Doesn’t matter where because they are all good, but a couple of my favorite places were Grom, Café Neri, Santa Trinata, and the place by the duomo with the ceramic pig in the window. The "pig place" as my roommates and I referred to it doubles as a bar at night so you can kill two birds with one stone. How economical.

2. Buy some leather goods at the Mercato Borgo San Lorenzo. We were lucky enough to live right on this street and this is where some of the best leather shopping in Florence takes place. Check out my leather jacket and purse for some first-hand purchases.

3. Dance the night away at Yab on a Monday. Even though Florence is a small city, it boasts its fair share of discoteche and Yab is my personal favorite. The clientele is a good mix of Americans and Italians which ensures a good time. Plus it is small so you can’t lose your friends for more than the five minutes it takes to make a lap of the dance floor to find them.

4. Jog along the Arno River, the river that runs through the center of Florence. My roommate and I used to just run as far as we could down the river either going right or left, before or after crossing it from our house. We got to see a lot of the city this way and enjoyed the beautiful views while getting in some exercise.

5. Take the bus to Fiesole, the town 10 minutes outside the city to hike around and see a stunning view of Florence. Or, if you are lucky enough to meet an Italian boyfriend, have him take you there on a date. I got this idea via Lorenzo when he swooned my roommate with this romantic gesture. Che romantico.

6. Go window shopping on the Ponte Vecchio. The Ponte Vecchio (old bridge) is Florence’s famous tourist attraction that crosses the River Arno and houses some of the finest gold jewelry in the entire world. Note that I said window shop though, unless you are ready to drop some serious dough. The bridge is over 1,000 years old and has survived numerous wars because even the opposing army understands how important the bridge is to Florentine culture.

7. Eat dinner at both the Golden View and Il Gato e La Volpe. AIFS students such as myself were lucky enough to be able to dine at Golden View five nights a week if we wanted with our meal tickets. Even though this restaurant is slightly touristy and Americanized (hence the English name) it has the best gnocchi pomodoro in all of Florence in my opinion. Also, the name of the restaurant doesn’t lie, especially if you are lucky enough to get seated at the window, therefore being right on the river with a perfect view of the Ponte Vecchio.

Il Gato e La Volpe (The Cat and the Wolf) is my other personal favorite. Go with a group of six or more and get the unlimited all you can eat all you can drink for 15 euro each. They will bring out an array of appetizers and pasta dishes as well as bichierre after bichierre of vino rosso or bianco, whichever you prefer. Also, their bread is to die for and they have the absolute best balsamic vinegar I have ever had in my life. In fact, if you do go, please bring a bottle of it home for me since I ran out of mine already. Thanks.

8. Visit the Galleria dell’Academia to see The David. Hands down the coolest, most breathtaking piece of art I have ever seen and I do not consider myself an art history buff in any way. In fact, go to The David as often as possible using your student museum pass…it’s free!

9. Climb the Duomo. Florence’s claim to fame, the Duomo is the 1,000 year old church in the center of the city and second largest only to the Vatican. Before you climb the 472 steps to the top through the claustrophobic hallways where over 50 languages are being spoken around you, take a lap around the outside of the building because even after passing the Duomo every day for four months, I still stopped and gawk at it every time.

10. The most important thing to do in Florence I my opinion is to hike up to Piazzale Michaelangelo with a bottle of wine and just sit there and enjoy the sunset while getting the best possible view of Florence. This encompasses Florentine culture in a nutshell and if you are lucky, you may even get to listen to the awesome live band that plays there on weekends or see a newly married couple stop to take pictures with the beautiful view.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Home Sweet Home

Today is my first day back in the United States. I cannot believe how fast this semester flew by. In just four short months I have traveled to six different countries and 15 different cities all over Europe. Never again will I get a chance to experience this kind of “studying” aka extended vacation and I cannot thank my family enough for making this possible.

Here is a list of all the places I visited:
1. London, England
2. Florence, Italy
3. Sienna, Italy
4. Pisa, Italy
5. Rome, Italy
6. Villars, Switzerland
7. Venice, Italy
8. Paris, France
9. Madrid, Spain
10. Barcelona, Spain
11. Munich, Germany
12. Austria (if you count driving through it on our way back to Florence thanks to the Volcano)
13. Cinque Terre, Italy
14. Amalfi Coast, Italy (including Sorrento, Capri, Positano and Pompeii)

Living in Italy has opened me up to so many new experiences and made me realize how important it is to learn a second language. I took Spanish for eight years growing up but could barely speak a word of it. After only 6 months of studying Italian though, I can proudly say that I am able to communicate very slowly in basic sentences. I want to continue teaching myself Italian and hopefully I will be able to return to Italy one day and fluently converse with the locals.

Italy has also exposed me to many different types of food and drink that I did not enjoy before I arrived but now can call some of my favorite foods. The main items on this list include tomatoes, mozzarella, aperitivo (pre-dinner champagne) and red wine. Yum! On our last night in Italy, everyone was a mess. We were all trying to say goodbye to each other with tears pouring down our faces. Even though I consider myself a crier, for some reason I did not shed a single tear. I think I was kind of in shock and also believed that this was not the end for my time in Italy. The first tears did come however when I saw my family waiting for me at the airport. Sob fest.

The scariest part about all this is that I am now a SENIOR IN COLLEGE!! What?!?! I am off to Madison this summer to take full advantage of my last summer break EVER. In just one short year I will be a real college grad off to having a real job (keep your fingers crossed on that one) and living on my own. Welcome to the Real World.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Cliff Jumping? I'm In!

Day 2 in Amalfi. We started the day bright and early and were greeted by sunny 75 degree weather. Perfection. We got to the black sand beaches of the town of Positano and it was absolutely gorgeous. After basking in the sun for a few hours, we headed out with the group for the highly anticipated cliff jumping excursion. About 100 students all headed out with the group to test the cliffs. The guide had us first climb up to the lower cliff which was about 10 feet high. Piece of cake right? Laura was being a little daredevil and I didn’t want her to show me up so I decided it would be a really good idea to show off my diving skills after years of acquired practice at Farmington. The line of people behind me was close to all 100 students so I attempted a front flip as gracefully as possible. Fail. Right as I came out of my tuck to enter the water in a perfect pencil, I lost control and continued to over rotate and managed to land in a perfect belly flop. The line of students simultaneously cried “Oooh, ouch” as I surfaced and immediately turned bright red. Smooth, Em.

After our guide thought we had gotten sufficient practice on the lower cliff, he led us up to the top one. We were barefoot and wearing nothing but our bathing suits while climbing between these huge cliffs. We got to the top of the 32 foot cliff and I decided just to stick with a pencil jump on this one. I successfully landed but many of my friends were not so lucky. Marissa still can’t sit right and Ally ended up having to go in an ambulance after having the wind knocked out of her. Laura also thought it would be a good idea to back dive off the boat without looking behind her and dove right on top of an innocent swimmer. The necks crunched against each other and she came up with a bloody nose. Che disastre.

Saturday night we hung out at the hostel with the rest of the crew for dinner and drinks. Their special that night was Mexican food and after dining on sub-par quesadillas in tacos with spicy marinara served as salsa and thick milk for sour cream, we all agreed that we can’t wait to go back to the states for “real” Mexican food. Tacos el Norte anyone?

Sunday morning we went to Pompeii to see the ancient ruines from Mount Vesuvius’ eruption 2,000 years ago. Looking at all the petrified bodies and the town that was dug up from ash was cool but I’m glad I opted out of paying for the guided tour since it was getting to be quite hot and I am all toured-out after four months in Europe. I need at least a six month recovery process before I ever step foot in a museum, ancient landmark, church or any other cultural tour again.

Overall, this was one of my favorite weekends in Europe. I know I say that after every trip but this was just the perfect final weekend to my semester abroad. Only two more blog entries left! Sono triste!!

T'was on the Isle of Capri that he found her...

We just had our last weekend in Italy. As I right this I am preparing for my flight home in less than 24 hours. Way too soon. Since it was our last weekend and we wanted to go out with a bang, my friends and I took a little trip down to the Amalfi Coast in the south of Italy to visit the beautiful towns of Sorrento, Capri, Positano and Pompeii. We went with a travel booking agency called Bus2Alps which was a very good decision because they showed us all the best things to do on each of these islands.

We started off on an eight hour bus ride that left from Florence at 7pm. It was this giant double decker bus which soon became terrifying as we were cruising along what looked like one way roads hugging the cliffs of Amalfi. We all had a rude awakening around 2am when the bus jerked us all awake. We later found out this was because we actually made contact with another car down this windy road. I felt really safe.

After settling into our gorgeous hostel that was more like a resort hotel, we got up early the next morning to head to the Isle of Capri. Laura, my friend from high school (and college) Danielle, and her friend Marie hopped on a boat with the rest of the group to tour the Blue Grotto which is a little cave on the water. We got in a tiny boat with our guide (who happened to be wearing a shirt from Illinois!) and paddled on over to the cave entrance. It was literally so tiny that we had to lie down in the boat to fit through it. Once we got in we turned around in the pitched black cave to see the water which was literally glowing bright blue. Check out the video below! Keep watching because even though it is black at parts that just means you are about to see something really cool.

After our Blue Grotto tour, we all hiked up to the Giardinia di Agosto to the top of Capri for an amazing view. We got our picture snapped at the top and will most likely be starring on the website soon so keep your eyes peeled for images of yours truly. After our hike to the top, we traveled back into the main area of town to do some shopping. Capri is known for its handcrafted, custom-made sandals, limoncello and coral jewelry. We got to sample the limoncello as well as the lemon flavored chocolates. They were delicious and were made from the lemons all over the island that were bigger than my head.

After a quick bite to eat, we headed down to the rocky beach. The day was gorgeous but the rocks were incredible painful to walk on especially after heating up in the sun. Marie and I went for a dip in the crystal clear water and decided to be adventurous and jump off the rocks about 20 yards out. Just a little warm up for the cliff jumping that was coming the next day.

After getting our fair share of sun, we headed back to the hostel to get ready for dinner. The bus2alps guides took us out to a local restaurant and I ordered the Frutti di Mare linguini or seafood pasta since it is known to be really fresh. They weren’t kidding. It tasted like I was eating a beach. After digesting my sand and salt water, the four of us dipped out a little early to check out the town nightlife. We stumbled upon this Karaoke bar that was empty except for the four of us, two Italian promoters, a couple sitting at a bar, and a lonely stripper pole in the middle of the dance floor. After showcasing my superb karaoke skills with a little Britney and Michael, the four of us just danced around to the funny American music the DJ was playing for us. Right as we were about to leave because we thought we had overstayed our welcome, a huge group of Italian families came in with their children ranging in age of 7 to 13. It reminded me of the Farmington Crew coming to crash the townie Wisconsin bars that we often do. These Italians were so much fun so we decided to stay a little longer and dance with them. They were begging us to dance with their children to get them out of their shell and dance on stage with the stripper pole. They also cheered on every adult who got up there to dance as well. See the video below of the 50 year old man who was extremely talented for some wild entertainment.

When we finally left to go be with the American students at the “English Bar” we didn’t have nearly as much fun. We started on the walk home because we didn’t want to pay for a cab which ended up being a pretty bad idea. Apparently southern Italian men are much more vocal about their feelings for women, especially American women. We had a running tally of the number of cat calls, car honks, and baci we received and I think the grand total was at 42 before we made it home an hour later. Time to go to bed for our big day at the beach tomorrow. As we like to say in Italy, “Basta, Basta, gross, gross, gross!”

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Five Lands

Yesterday I went on our much anticipated field with our school to Cinque Terre. Cinque Terre literally translates to Five Lands and is a group of islands on the Italian Riveria that are a popular hiking spot for tourists. We took a bus to Cinque Terre at 8am on Saturday morning and arrived just outside the first town of La Spezia. After a quick stop to McDonalds for all 50 American students in our group (fat), we hopped on the train to get to the first hiking trail. Our goal was to hike between each of the five lands by the end of the day. Each path was between an hour and two hours hike and got harder as you went on. The first path was called “Via dell’amore” or path of love and had hearts carved in the rocks everywhere and a really cool graffiti wall where couples mark their love for each other.

Once we got to the second land we all got to try Cinque Terre’s famous faccacia bread. Delicious. We continued on our hike for a couple more hours as the trail got exceedingly more slippery and steep because it had rained the night before and continued to lightly sprinkle during our hike. I was grateful for the clouds though because it made the hike much more enjoyable since we still had a beautiful view but didn’t have to be dripping with sweat the whole time.

Once we got the fourth land though, it was like God wanted us to take a break because it all of a sudden changed to 70 and sunny. We sat down at a restaurant overlooking the gorgeous beach in front of us and got some tropical cocktails to sip on. When we finished, we went to go lay out by the water in our hiking clothes which were not very conducive to soaking up the rays. The water was crystal clear but quite chilly when we stuck our feet in. However, there was an old couple that was snorkeling and they inspired us to go join them. Unfortunately we didn’t have our bathing suits with us so we went over to the one of the little vendors to see what we could purchase to create a make shift swim suit. Our best option ended up being these little black shorts and our sports bras. We figured when in Europe that no one would really mind since in most places women don’t even bother with the top half of their bikinis.

Decked out in our new “swim suits” we plunged into the water. It was even colder than we thought. The whole beach stopped to stare as these three American girls were screaming while attempting to tread and stay afloat in the freezing water. After a few minutes though, when we finally got used to it, the water actually felt amazing. It was really salty so I just lied on my back with my arms over my head and floated there for awhile, relishing in the fact that I was currently relaxing in the Mediterranean Sea.

We never made it to the fifth land because we were enjoying ourselves so much at the fourth. This day trip however, has gotten me super pumped to go to Amalfi Coast next weekend which is in the South of Italy. We are ending our trip with a bang by spending our last weekend enjoying some of the most beautiful and historic towns in Italy including Capri and Pompeii. Then it’s off to the United States! Ahh!

Friday, April 23, 2010

Miffln in Munich

Mifflin is the annual block party that happens in Madison every spring. Since all of us who are abroad were very upset we were missing it this year, we decided to make up for by heading to Munich, Germany for their annual spring “block party”: Frulingfest.

Before I came to Europe, I never thought I would end up traveling to Germany. I didn’t know a single person who had chosen to study abroad there so I figured the appeal was as high as the countries we visited over spring break. Once everyone started raving about this Springfest though, Spinks and I booked some cheap RyanAir flights to go and got a hostel with our Florence roommates. When Thursday night rolled around, we went to the Florence train station. By Thursday night I technically mean Friday morning at 3:30am. After an hour long bus to Pisa and a two hour wait in the Pisa airport with every other student who was traveling that weekend, we caught our 7:00am flight to Memmingham. Memmingham was listed as “Munich West” on Ryanair’s website. My favorite review on that sight (which I of course didn’t see until after we had booked our tickets) was, “Yes, Memmingham is west of Munich, but then again so is Paris and the United States.” Wonderful.

Once we landed, the airport shut down immediately due to the Iceland volcanic ash. Thank god we got the last flight out because we had an absolutely amazing time. We weren’t quite sure if we were going to make it home because of this damn Volcano but we figured we wouldn’t be all that upset if we were stuck at the festival for a couple of extra days…

After the two hour bus ride (which brings us to a grand total of 8 hours of traveling) we checked into our hostel and headed out for the free tour of the city they offered. Our tour guide took us around to all the main touristy spots in Munich, which pretty much all have something to do with World War II, and afterwards dropped us off at the famous Hofbrauhaus so we could enjoy our first German beer. She taught us that the Hofbrauhaus used to not have bathrooms so men would just relieve themselves into the troughs running through the floor after downing several pints of beer. Thankfully modern day technology allowed them to have bathrooms installed.

We met up with our friends from school for the second weekend in a row and after a beer (or 3 if you consider the size of the glasses) we went to the festival. Once we got to the entrance, all I could do was stand there in awe. As Spinks put it, it was an amusement park for adults. It was literally a carnival on steroids and with beer tents thrown in there between every few rides. The first thing we went to was a merry go round that had a bar in the center of it. Then we went on a ride that spun you and flung you in every direction, then to a beer garden tent to see some friends and then we got “meter long weinerschnitzels.” In the midst of all this enjoyment, Spinks and I realized we technically hadn’t checked into our hostel yet since check in wasn’t until after we had left for our tour and we didn’t know what time the front desk was open until. We dashed over to the metro and successfully arrived back at our hostel only to have them laugh at us for running back because there wasn’t anything more we needed to do to check in and the front desk was open 24 hours. Is anyone really surprised we made this mistake? No…. So we dashed back to the festival so we wouldn’t miss out on another minute of fun and stayed there for a couple more hours with all the other Wisconsin kids that were there (close to 50…crazy, I know).

The next morning we got up early to go the concentration camp near Munich in Dachau. This was an experience I will never forget. We rented ear pieces to do the audio tour which explained all the buildings to us and even had memoirs from actual survivors of the camp. It was an extremely somber experience and everyone was pretty quiet the whole time we were there but it was definitely worth the visit. We saw everything from the barracks they slept in, to the barbed wire fences, and even the gas chambers and ovens. It was an incredibly meaningful experience and I would recommend if you ever have the chance to visit one, please do. Pictured below is the infamous "Work will set you free" sign.

After the concentration camp, we headed back to the festival. Sarah, Laura and I were sat a table in a beer garden with these three men in their forties from Russia. Only one of them spoke English but not very well so the easiest way for us to communicate with them was actually for me to speak to him in Italian since he lived in Venice for a few years and we would both translate for our respective group of friends. One of the men even bought me a hat which I refused to take off for the rest of the trip. I’m probably even going to wear it on the plane home because I don’t want to ruin the feather by putting it in my suitcase.

Saturday we found out that our flight was cancelled due to this lovely volcano so we scrambled to buy bus tickets for this company that made a boat load of money off all the stranded students by hiring extra coach busses to drive us all home. Even though I was a little disgruntled over the money we had to pay for the ticket, it was nice because we got to have an extra half day in Munich since our original flight was supposed to leave at 7am from “Munich West” thanks once again to Ryanair. My roommates and I took this opportunity to go to the English gardens where they have a man made river for surfers. Yes, surfers. I took a video of these surfers below because it was actually really cool to watch.

We went back to the festival for one more weinerschnietzel and beer before we left for our 8 hour bus ride back to Florence. Another positive about the bus ride was that I got to drive through Austria, so I can add another country to my places visited while abroad. Never mind that it was only to the gas station…

Overall, Munich was one of my favorite weekends in Europe. I definitely want to come for Oktoberfest one year because supposedly it is about 20 times the size of Springfest. This year is the 200 year anniversary of Oktoberfest so I’m sure it is going to pretty wild if anyone is interested. And if you are, please save some room for me in your carry on bag. Thanks.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Spring Break 2010 Part III: BarTHelona

Our final destination for Spring Break 2010 was Barcelona. Even though we were slightly disheveled after the mix up in the Madrid Airport, we safely arrived at the apartment our fellow DGs from Wisconsin, Molly, Rachel and Laura. They were ready to greet us with a cool beverage as soon as we arrived and we got dressed quickly because we only had one night with most of our friends in Barcelona because they were all leaving to do their own traveling the next day. We went to a bar called Chuppitos to start the night off which is basically a bar full of hundreds of different kinds of shots you can take. I think their motto should be “when in doubt, light it on fire” because that’s pretty much what they did with all of them. There was also a highly inappropriate shot entitled, “The Monica Lewinsky” but I won’t go into detail about that one.

Thursday morning we got up early to have Molly show us some of the famous sights of Barcelona. She took us to La Boqueria which was a huge outdoor market where they are had the freshest fruit, vegetables, fish and basically anything else you could want from all different vendors. We treated ourselves to smoothies for one euro which were quite delicious. We also got to see some street performers on the way there and Spinks and I got a picture with a really funny but slightly terrifying gargoyle man (see picture).

Friday morning we went to a tapas restaurant for brunch to try some local Spanish cuisine. The restaurant had a bunch of different crustinis or mini sandwiches that you picked up with toothpicks and at the end of your meal you were just charged by how many toothpicks were left on your plate. Each tapa had so many different fresh flavors of cheese, fish and vegetables and I felt like I was back at the Icon in Madison (but better-sorry guys). After lunch we had to move apartments because Molly was leaving for Venice for the weekend so Laura and I went to stay with my friend from high school, Mike. Mike’s roommate also had friends coming to visit him so Laura and I felt like we were living in a frat house for the weekend since there were about 8 boys there in total.

Since Mike was still recovering from his strep throat, Laura and I decided to do some more sight seeing on our own. We went to Park Guell and Sagrada Familia which is the famous church that is taking centuries to finish. The park is designed by the famous Spanish architecht, Gaudi who is known for his incredibly innovative and modern designs. We decided we were sick of sightseeing and had seen most of the famous sights in Barcelona already so we made a pact to spend the next two days we were there just lying at the beach. Best decision Ever.

Saturday we went to the beach with some of Mike’s roommates (since Mike was still “sick” aka being a big loser…) and had a great day just relaxing in the sun. It was Barcelona’s first really warm weekend so the beach was absolutely packed. They were a ton of vendors wandering through the beach towels selling everything from coconut slices to fake sun glasses. I would say I’m ashamed to admit that Laura and I each bought five euro massages from the Asian ladies who were pestering everyone with their endless questions of “Massaje? Massaje?”, but it actually ended up being one of the best five euros I’ve spent this trip. A massage while basking in the sun? How much more relaxing can you get?

Saturday night we went to what is probably the coolest club I have ever seen. It’s called Razzmatazz and is 5 stories high with different rooms on each floor that each have their own music playing to go with their theme. There were endless winding staircases that took you outside to get to the different rooms and it basically summed up true Barcelona Clubbing at its finest. Mike had a miraculous recover and was able to make it out that night and I am proud to say that we were able to watch the Barcelona sunrise after we got off the metro on our way home from Razzmatazz.

Sunday we just went back to the beach for the day so we could at least come home with a little color. We spent the whole day there but grudgingly left around 5pm to catch our flight. After yet another easy commute home, we arrived in Florence around 2:30 in the morning. Thanks Ryanair. Can’t wait to take you to Munich in a couple of hours as I write this. I will be leaving my apartment at 2:55am and not actually arriving in Munich until noon at the earliest. However, I’ve heard a little rumor about some volcano erupting in Iceland causing over 3,000 flights to be cancelled so I’m hoping we aren’t going to be one of those lucky flights. First all these earthquakes and now this? I’m telling you, this 2012 stuff is really starting to creep me out….

Monday, April 12, 2010

Spring Break 2010 Part II: Real Madrid

By the time Tuesday rolled around, Laura and I were beyond ready to head to our next destination. We had heard some great things about Madrid and were excited to experience it for ourselves. We got there around 9pm so just took a cab to our hostel instead of dealing with the late night metro since Madrid supposedly has some of the best pick pocketers in the world and we were laden with travel bags.

We were dropped off at the address I told the driver but didn’t see signs for the hostel anywhere so we wandered around Puerta del Sol (one of the more famous squares in Madrid) in search of a neon sign like the one at our Paris hostel. We finally realized that we actually were at the right place but this hostel was just so small compared to our other one that its only sign was a name plate on the buzzer of what looked like an apartment building. Laura and I headed upstairs from some desperately needed showers and then took off in search of some of Spain’s famous paella for dinner. If you are keeping track, you’ve realized its probably getting close to 11pm by this time. Apparently it is completely normal in Spain to eat dinner at that time after taking a late afternoon siesta so we had no trouble finding a place. After stumbling over my efforts to speak Spanish and not Italian, I ordered Paella de Mariscos (seafood) and a daiquiri, even though daiquiris are actually from Cuba and not Spain. We were exhausted after traveling so unfortunately didn’t get to experience Madrid’s famous seven story club, Kapital, but we figured we would get more than our fair share of clubbing in once we got to Barcelona.

Wednesday morning we woke up early to hit the tourist spots since we only had one day in Madrid. The first thing we headed too was a famous church called . The weather was beautiful so we ditched our rain coats and boots from Paris to t-shirts and flip flops and my mood was instantly lifted. The first thing I said on our walk there though was, “Wow, I’m sure it is going to be sooo different from the thousands of other churches we’ve seen across Europe” but ended up eating my sarcastic comment once we walked inside because it was beautiful. The stained glass windows were like nothing I had ever seen before. After that we walked to the Palacio Real (royal palace) where there was some kind of flag ceremony going on which was cool to see and then we headed to Madrid’s huge Parque de Retiro which literally almost made me move to Madrid. First Laura and I sat down at this outdoor restaurant to enjoy more Spanish specialties: Spanish tortilla sandwiches and sangria. So good.

We decided to walk through the park and for some reason I just continued to fall in love with this city. People were jogging in the beautiful weather (something you NEVER see in Florence) and paddle boating through the pond in the center. After another half mile of walking, we came across what at first glanced looked like a playground but then we realized it was a work out park. They had bars randomly placed all over that you could do pull ups on or stretch and everyone just looked so happy in the warm weather. After attempting to do a couple of pull ups after being motivated by the athletic bodies around me (key word there being “attempting”), Laura and I decided to just relax in the warm weather. We laid down on the grass to soak up some sun and people watch for an hour or so and I finally felt like I was truly on “Spring Break.”

Unfortunately our trip to Madrid was very short. We left early to get to the airport on time for our next flight and once we went through security, decided to settle into our chairs and just wait for the plane. I was absorbed in my book and Laura was snoozing when all of a sudden we realized our flight was supposed to leave in the next 15 minutes and they hadn’t called us to board yet. We jumped out of our seats and sprinted to the desk only to see that the sign had a different destination listed even though we were sitting right at the gate our boarding pass and the check in guy told us to go to. We started running around to find the board that lists all the gates and flights and saw that our flight was only three gates over. We also saw that our flight was pulling away from said gate at this time and all we could do was just stand there with our mouths hanging open in defeat.

We sprinted to the Vueling airline desk at the other end of the airport and while panting from running and sweating from carrying my overstuffed backpack we quickly explained to her what had happened. She showed absolutely no sympathy and simply told us we needed to purchase a brand new ticket. We said fine since our original ticket was only 20 euro so we figured it would be the same price. Not so much. Buying a ticket the day of brought us to a grand total of 130 euro each. Here come the water works. I then did what any young women would do in my situation. I called my Mommy. The women behind the desk is sitting there watching me blubbering on the phone to my mother and offers an overnight train ticket for 60 euro as our only other option. Um, thanks, but I’d rather not wait in a train station in the middle of Spain at midnight looking like the vulnerable American student that I am. We finally forked over our credit cards for the next flight which was leaving in an hour.

We walked up to security to go through for the second time around when we realized we were both starving. We saw a McDonald’s right before security but wanted to ask if there was another one once you got through since we weren’t about to risk missing another flight. I even tried asking in Spanish but the first security guide couldn’t understand what we were asking so he called for backup, who called for another backup, and before we knew it we had five different airport security team members trying to help translate our question. When one woman finally figured out that we were simply asking where the McDonald’s was she burst out laughing and said something in rapid Spanish to her coworkers. Roughly translated, I’m sure it was something along the lines of, “these fat Americans are concerned that there isn’t a McDonalds on the other side.” Between that and the minor incident where we missed our flight and sprinted several times back and forth trying to find who to talk to about it, I think it’s safe to say we failed to go unnoticed in the Madrid airport. Time to get out of here and go to Barcelona I think.

Spring Break 2010 Part I: Oui, oui, Paris!

Armed with nothing but my trusty old high school backpack, Laura and I left our apartment at noon on Friday, April 2nd for our ten day spring break excursion. The two of us traveling around Europe was disastrous to say the least. Shall we begin:

We arrived at the train station and bought our tickets at the machine. While waiting for our train to arrive, I decided to venture over to the tabaccheria where I could purchase credit for my phone since I would need to contact the people that we were meeting up with over the next ten days. The lady at the tabacchi gave me credit for the wrong service and then wouldn’t let me exchange it once I realized her mistake. This, unfortunately, was the first of many mishaps to occur during this eventful vacation. 20 euro down the drain. Once I forked over more money to get the correct credit service for my phone, we booked it to our train. It was literally closing its doors as we arrived but hadn’t moved yet so we pounded on the doors to have it open only to have some Italian man just shrug his shoulders at us as they pulled away. Thanks buddy.

We successfully caught the next train to Pisa, boarded our plane to Beauvais, hopped on the shuttle to Paris, and caught the metro to the hostel and arrived a mere 9 hours after we left our apartment in Florence. Biggest thing I learned from this trip: pay for the more expensive flight. It’s worth it, plus you probably are going to pay just as much with the extra transportation to get to your actual destination.

Our hostel in Paris was really nice. It was pretty much like a hotel except you were roomed with strangers. One stranger in our room consisted of a 60 year old man who I got to wake up to changing the next morning. Seriously buddy, there is a Holiday Inn right next door. Pay the extra 10 euro to be with people your own age. At least we didn’t have the little rugrats running around in their DisneyLand Paris gear as roomies. Again, Holiday Inn right next door people.

Once we settled in, we met up with our friends Monica and Anne for dinner. Our friend, Elysia, who is studying in Paris, recommended this all you can eat and drink fondue restaurant. We got there and after being directed to literally climb over the table to sit down, were served baby bottles of wine. We’re talking actual baby bottles with the rubber nipples on top . It was gross and weird and not at all appetizing. We then got cheese fondue, but by cheese I mean oil and butter with a little bit of cheese melted in. Yum. Needless to say we didn’t take advantage of the unlimited food because we got our fill after two bites of the oil. At dinner we happened to be sitting next to one of my friends who is studying in Florence too so we all decided to hit up the Paris nightlife together. After multiple expensive cab rides and multiple club rejections we decided just to go home. Apparently the clubs in Paris are exclusive to the six foot tall hundred pound models we saw flocking into the club as the bouncer told us they were full. Ouch.

Day two in Paris was the best day by far. I forced Laura to sign up for a Fat Tires Bike Tour with me so we could see all the sights in Paris in one quick sweep. The tour met right at the Eiffel Tower so we snapped a couple of pictures and then got to bike around Paris where we saw Notre Dame, The Egyptian Obelisk, The Louvre and the square where Marie Antoinette was beheaded and her head paraded around on a stick. There was one minor setback where it literally started to downpour on us in the middle but we were rewarded with a gorgeous rainbow afterwards to make up for it. The tour guide was an American guy from Colorado who wanted to be fluent in a second language so he just travelled over to Paris and started a life there for himself. He was witty and really smart so the tour was fun and Spinks was glad I made her go. If only I could get her to sign up for the one in Munich next weekend now too…

Since we saw pretty much everything there was to see in Paris on the bike tour, that probably should have been our cue to leave for our next destination. Unfortunately our flight wasn’t for another two days so we decided to try and actually go inside the Louvre. Unfortunately this happened to be Easter Sunday, and the first Sunday of the month which means a) the Louvre is free the first Sunday of the month, and that b) it is the only thing open in Paris on this particular holiday. We saw the front of the line and figured it might not be too bad if we just waited since we didn’t have anything else to do. Wrong. Once we finally found the end of the line about 20 minutes later, we realized we would probably be standing there for about six hours before going in. Sorry, Da Vinci, but after hearing that the Mona Lisa is only about 2x2 feet, I was not about to wait that long of a line to see it.

We tried going to about three more sites that day and all ended up being closed because of the holiday. That night we hung out at the bar in our hostel and met some really cool people that either were staying there or worked at the bar downstairs. We made plans with a boy from Indiana to go the Palace of Versailles the next day which was absolutely gorgeous. The Palace was about 100 acres and every inch of it was beautiful manicured and covered in ornate statues and ponds. No wonder the Parisians didn’t like King Louis after spending their hard working tax dollars on that kind of home.

We went out that night to the bars (our first successful attempt at actually going out in Paris) and met a 45 year old Irish man who I bonded with because both of our ex-boyfriends were from Palatine, Illinois. Small World. We had a wildly good time that night and realized it was our first time really meeting a large group of people while studying abroad who weren’t fellow American students. Even though our last night in Paris was fun, our last day was not so great. It was Tuesday morning and we bought the same ticket we had been buying the last three days for the metro to go see the Moulin Rouge building. Apparently though, that ticket was only good for weekends and holidays. This confused us because we had used in on Monday but apparently Easter is a 48 hour celebration in Paris. Of course there was no one on the outside of the gates to help us but as soon as we went through, about eight rent a cops ambushed us and charged us 50 euro each for buying a “false ticket.” We tried to explain that we had no idea and were not intentionally stealing metro passes but the lady said, “It’s not my fault you don’t speak French,” in a perfect English accent mind you, but when we asked her to explain which ticket to buy to us she said she doesn’t speak English. She also had no problem telling us she needed to swipe our credit cards for the fine. Then it hit me, this is what people are talking about when the say the French hate Americans. Glad we got to experience the typical French hospitality.

We grudgingly paid the fine and then stomped around Paris for the rest of the day. The icing on the cake was probably getting lost on our last time going back to the hostel so I finally gave in to looking like a tourist and opened my map. As soon as I did though, the wind blew it into the street and as I tried to save it I almost got decapitated by the cars speeding towards me. Now that was our cue to leave.

For a quick recap, if you ever decide to go to Paris, take the Fat Tire Bike Tour and spend no more than 24 hours in that city. Save the money for another destination. Any other destination. Luckily we still had more places to visit.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Hostess with the Mostest.

This weekend Laura and I had our first visitor, Miss Alexis Kuhlman. Alexis is our fellow DG who stayed back home in Madison for the semester but wanted to get a taste of what those of us who chose to study abroad were experiencing via Spring Break 2010. She arrived Friday morning in Rome and after taking a shuttle, a bus and a train, successfully arrived in Florence, much to my admiration. Props to Alexis because I probably would have had a heart attack in that process.

Friday we did a couple of touristy things including a visit to our dear friend, David. Seriously, that statue will never get old. We also went to the leather school where I picked up a couple of goodies for my friends back home (and maybe a little something for myself as well…). Friday night we went out with our friends Aimee, Kate and Sarah for dinner to one of my favorite places in Florence, Il Gato e la Volpe, aka The Cat and the Wolf where we feasted on all you can eat apperitivo such as bruschetta and prosciutto, several different pasta dishes, and of course, as much wine as we liked all for 15 euro. This was great for the wallet but not so great for the waistline. Laura and I were the only girls at this dinner under the height of 5’10” which is random but reminded me of my home life since Nikki and Sam are also right around that height. Miss you guys!

Saturday we forced ourselves out of bed early after a long night of clubbing for more tourist activity. We got a pizza across the street for breakfast (did I mention I’m in Italy?) and ate it outside on our porch to enjoy the warm weather and scenic view. After “breakfast” we headed over to the Borgo San Lorenzo market where Alexis bought souvenirs for what seemed like everyone she has ever come into contact with in the last 13 years and their mom. We then headed over to school to meet for our field trip to the Chianti Vineyards. I’ve been to a Napa Valley vineyard before but unfortunately I was too young to try the wine so I can’t tell you how they compare but this was amazing. We also got to try their special olive oil and I may be bringing back some presents from Chianti when I go home. Keep your fingers crossed!

Saturday night we went to this new outdoor club called Central Park that only opens when it is warm for its premiere weekend. Our friend, Ricardo, “got us a table” aka we paid a boat load of money for it, but it was worth it because we had so much fun, even though it seemed that the average clientele at Central Park consisted of 15 year old high schoolers. We stayed out just a tid bit past our bedtime, especially with the time change not in our favor, but still managed to wake up early enough on Sunday to do some more sight seeing. We went to climb the Duomo but since it was Palm Sunday and the church was closed to tourists, we settled for climbing the bell tower. The climb was just as high but the passageway was wider than the Duomo stairwell so I was happy about that. We were also caged in at the top which my inner fear of heights was thankful for.

Sunday night we went to Piazza Michelangelo for the best views Florence has to offer so that we could watch the sunset. After that we went to Acqua al Due for dinner which is all the rage in Florence guidebooks but a little pricey so Spinks and I hadn’t been yet. Apparently their famous for their blueberry steak so between the three of us we split that and the balsamic steak and then both the pasta and salad sampler. The food was good but I wasn’t as impressed as I felt I should have been for all the hype around it. It was my first steak since last summer and I think being a vegetarian for a semester significantly changed my appetite so that I don’t even crave it anymore. Weird.

After dinner we decided to hit the bars for Alexis’ last night in Florence. We met the craziest couple that were literally the definition of a sugar daddy and super sketchy. They might have been all talk but from what we gathered, she was 32 but had already had some work done to make her look permanently 29 while he was pushing 60. She was American but he was Guatemalan and had apparently “forgotten” to pay his taxes there last year so they’ve been gallivanting around Europe for the last couple of months since he is currently not allowed in his home country. The day before, they spent what they claimed was $100,000 on a shopping spree and over the course of two hours at the Spanish bar we were at (which was empty except for the our two South American friends from our program, the sketchy couple, two English blokes, and the three of us) they paid for multiple rounds of drinks for everyone. They were fun to talk to but I was glad they left when they did since they were leaving the next day for the next European destination.

We rounded off the night with a trip to the “secret bakery” for some freshly baked goodies and then went to bed for some much needed rest. I’ll need lots of sleep this week after that weekend and in preparation of our upcoming spring break to Paris, Madrid and Barcelona. Can’t wait!

Monday, March 22, 2010

Don't Jew Know?

Sunday, our last day in Venice, I went with my Jewish friends to visit the Jewish ghetto of Venice for some matzoball soup. We walked around the ENTIRE city to get there but it was worth it because the food was amazing! I grew up eating matzoball soup every Sunday at Buffalo Grove Diner after Church with my family which is ironic because I had no idea that it was a Jewish tradition until I came to college. This soup definitely met my expectations from my childhood memories. I also got to try latkes and applesauce which were outrageously good. Shout out to Kelsey, my fellow Christian friend in DG. We definitely need to continue our mission to become Jews one day if not solely for the food.

When we got back “home” to Florence Sunday night, Laura and I ventured to an American diner to get our fill of American food before going to an American bar for a very American tradition: March Madness. We showed up at the bar wearing converse and Wisconsin hoodies to support our team and ended up sitting with the four other people there to cheer on the Badgers. Unfortunately, Wisconsin had an embarrassing defeat to my parents’ alma mater, Cornell. I haven’t had a chance to discuss this incident with them yet and I am avoiding it at all costs. I've posted a picture here to reminisce about the season. Better luck next year, Badgers.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

That's amore: Venice

Last weekend our school took us to Venice for a three day trip. Everyone kept telling me that Venice is a city you can do in one day and that we were definitely going to be bored by the end of the trip. False. You can’t possibly not have fun when you put 160 American college age students in a town that has only one piazza to go to for the nightlife. I’d say that about 150 of the 160 students were at the same bar both nights, including one of our teachers, Franz. I mentioned Franz in one of my earlier blogs as the tour guide who could talk for hours. Apparently he also knows how to throw down because he was the life of the party. We all had a blast hanging out at the outdoor patio since it is finally getting warm in Italy and I’d say that this was definitely one of my favorite weekends so far in Europe.

We got to Venice on Friday afternoon after taking a ferry to one of the 118 islands that makes up this town. Yes, 118. We learned that the islands were all just marshlands and that the Venetians brought wood from trees elsewhere in Italy to build platforms on top of the marshes so they could live there to protect themselves from the Huns. This seems like way more manual labor than I would ever want to partake in, but it made for a beautiful city right on the Adriatic Sea. These islands are connected by over 400 bridges and it felt like we crossed every single one of them over the course of the weekend.

Friday we basically went on tours all day. Very exciting. Really, there are only so many churches and museums you can see in Europe. The most entertaining part of the tour was at a museum where we had to have “whisperers” aka headphones that you put into your ears so your tour guide can speak quietly so as not to disturb the other museum-goers. These are also known as dead giveaways for tourist activity. While listening to our whisperers, some very strange man decided to latch on to our tour and try listen to our guide without any whisperers. He was just following us around as our tour guide kept trying to sneak away from him while we all just kept laughing. I don’t know why he was trying to listen in on the tour because if he couldn’t understand that we were all laughing at him then I have no idea how he would be able to follow our tour guide’s speech on ancient Venetian history.

Saturday we decided that it would be more beneficial for us to experience Venice for ourselves rather than be stuck inside museums all day so we opted out of the morning tour and ventured out for probably the most famous activity in Italy-a gondola ride. I had two requirements for my gondola driver: that he be wearing the typical striped shirt and hat, and that he serenade me with Italian love songs while we drove. He met the first requirement but told us that he couldn’t sing Christy and I decided to take over for that part. After getting through the first chorus of “That’s Amore” and realizing we didn’t know any of the other words, we entertained ourselves by waving to all the other tourists riding gondolas. I posted a video here of the multinational tourist groups we passed. During this process we must have been drawing a little too much attention to ourselves because the police ended up pulling us over for having seven people in the gondola when the max is six. We would be those dumb American tourists who get pulled over while riding a gondola. The police actually came up to us on their little speed boat to give our poor driver a ticket! We gave him quite a generous tip after that little mishap.

In the afternoon we went to Murano which is famous for its handmade glass. We took what felt like a 5 hour ferry ride there only to be shown a demonstration of glass making that lasted about 30 seconds. Then we set off to go shopping in the town. The shopping consisted of hand made glass jewelry, frames, chandeliers, and little sculptures to display on our mantel. This town had about 100 stores all selling the exact same things so 10 minutes and one small purchase later, I was ready to go back to Venice. Unfortunately we were stuck there for another hour so my friends and I decided to set off in search of a quick bite to eat. Everywhere else I have been in Italy has bars every 10 feet, and by bars I mean Italian bars that serve little paninis and pizzas so we figured we would be able to find something easily. This was not the case in Murano so after 30 minutes of walking around and finding absolutely nothing, I settled for a Twix bar. Good thing I got to experience more Italian food while I was there.

We got back to Venice for dinner and ended up going to the same restaurant as the night before, followed by the same bar. After the bar this time though we went to Venice’s only discoteca and stayed out outrageously late dancing the night away. According to my friends in Barcelona, 4:30am is still early though so I guess this was just a warm up for our Spring Break in just two short weeks. This trip is flying by!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Actually in Villars...

The Swiss Alps are even more beautiful than I imagined. The farthest I have ventured outside the US for a ski trip was in Banff, Canada back in 4th grade and I hate to say it, but these views kicked both Canada the Rocky Mountains’ butt. The first ride up the mountain in the gondola was unbelievable. I just sat there and stared out the window in awe while the other people in our gondola chatted in French. With my obnoxiously large sunglasses and Jordan’s backwards baseball hat and oversized headphones (strictly to keep his ears warm of course) we stuck out like two American sore thumbs. Since most Europeans assume American’s aren’t up to par on second languages, which most of us aren’t, our French-speaking gondola mates were making fun of Jordan’s headphones while we were sitting right there. He was obviously looking way too American for them to think that he would understand everything they said perfectly.

Once we got to the top of the mountain and left the French men behind, we had to stop to take pictures before enjoying the skiing itself. We could not have asked for better weather the entire time we were there. I didn’t get cold or break a sweat once and there also wasn’t a single cloud in the sky. These conditions made for excellent skiing as well as photography. Jordan’s camera is much better than mine (and both breakproof and waterproof) so this picture and any other ones you may see from this trip are stolen from him. He also was able to capture my one big wipeout of the trip on video which can be seen on facebook. I never did thank him for whitewashing me while lying down in defeat. Thanks.

Switzerland overall was absolutely amazing. The only downfall was that it was outrageously expensive. The guy in front of me in line at lunch had a small “salad” aka plate of lettuce, a bowl of pasta, and a coke and spent 45 Swiss francs which are roughly equivalent to American dollars. I stuck to a bowl of mediocre soup and a hunk of bread both days and paid 10 francs each time. Ugh. We also went out to dinner both nights so I had to order the typical Swiss food. This meant that the first night I had a crepe with tomato, onion, cheese, and an extremely runny fried egg on top which was eh. The second night we got cheese fondue which was literally just cheese and bread, split a crème brulee for dessert and half bottle of wine and spent 75 francs. Factor that on top of the outrageously expensive hotel, lift tickets, equipment rentals (including snowpants-best decision of my life because otherwise I would have been wearing my long raincoat over a pair of sweatpants), car rental and gas, and let’s just say I owe a big thanks to my dad for making this trip my birthday present!

The drive home was really fun for Jordan. We were going through stop and go traffic for about 2 hours through mountains while I dozed off. After driving for around 9 hours, we finally got home just after midnight and I passed out as soon as my head hit the pillow. I feel like I still haven’t caught up on sleep since I had a paper due and about half of the kids on my program turned 21 this week. Except my roommate, Michelle. She turned 22 or as I am going to start referring to it as it happens to my friends and I, her second 21st birthday. Tomorrow, I’m off to Venice with AIFS. I’ll tell you how this Gondola ride is and hopefully they aren’t Italians talking behind our backs, or rather in front of our faces on this one.

P.S. Domani e la festa della papa in Italia. Auguri papa! Baci!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Scenic Route.

The Wood Family has always been big on skiing. I knew that coming to Europe, I would definitely need to check out the Alps so that I could compare it to my favorite place in the Rockies, Copper Mountain. Luckily for me, my friend, Jordan, (a fellow student at both Wisconsin and Florence) has been spending his summers in the French part of the Swiss Alps at a camp since he was nine years old. We decided last semester that we were going to rent a car a drive up there for a ski trip and it finally happened last weekend.

Unfortunately for Jordan, the only cars available to rent in Italy that have the ability to make it through the rugged terrain of the Alps are manual. The only experience I have had with stick shift is from my dear friend, Nicole Applegate, who drove me around in her manual car during the summer of ’04 and I could guarantee that pretty much anytime we drove we would stall and get honked at by the line of cars that would steadily lengthen behind us. I knew I wanted an automatic car when I got my lisense after those entertaining experiences with Nicole so I never got the chance to learn stick. Jordan was therefore stuck driving the entire way which GoogleMaps predicted would take about six and a half hours…funny.

I warned Jordan in advance of my lack of navigational direction and ability to differentiate between my right and left but I don’t think he realized that it was going to lead us on a minor detour before arriving at our final destination in Villars sur Ollon, Switzerland. I believe the quote that came out of his mouth as we missed our exit somewhere around Bologna, Italy was, “I feel like I’m in a horror movie where you know you aren’t supposed to go that way because the bad guy is there but you do it anyway.” On this trip however, instead of a bad guy we got BEAUTIFUL views of Lake Como and most of Switzerland. Yes, most of it. I’ve drawn lines on the map above of our route. The blue one is the route GoogleMaps gave us and the green one is the route we took. Wow. We stopped in some unknown town to take a picture as the city skyline could be seen across an enormous lake at night. The was even a swan just chilling by the dock-so serene.

We grudingly jumped back in the car for a few more hours and after a solid ten hour trek, we arrived completely exhausted to our hotel where Jordan continued to impress me with his language skills. He spoke fluent French to the receptionist while I just stood there and smiled before going to our room to pass out from the exhausting journey. Riding in a car is surprisingly draining but I couldn’t say that to Jordan after he had just driven across a country and a half. We attempted to set alarms for midnight after a quick cat nap to hit the town but ended up just getting a good night’s rest so we could hit the slopes early in the morning. This was definitely a good decision since the skiing was AMAZING! I’ll go into more detail about it in my next post. Bonjour!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Vagina Monologues.

In honor of "La Festa delle Donne" aka International Women's Day, my roommate, Marissa, and I decided to go see "Monologhi di Vagina" last night. I wasn't really sure what to expect since I've never seen The Vagina Monologues in English, let alone half in Italian, but the show ended up being amazing.

The Vagina Monologues is literally a collection of monologues based off of the author's interviews with hundreds of women of all ages, religions, and nationalities about, you guessed it, their vaginas. The show is performed by amatuer actors but some of them gave absolutely beautiful performances. It written to raise money for VDAY which is the day that women will be victorious over the sexual violence that happens all over the world. This year's theme was about The Democratic Republic of Congo where women are brutally raped and murderd every day so that soldiers can collect the mineral tin from their villages and sell to companies that use them for cell phones, computers and mp3 players. It terrified me to think that my iPhone could potentially be contributing to these horrific events that women are experiencing because the documentary we watched on it had me crying within the first five minutes.

Fortunately, the show also had some hilarious monologues which were delivered by some very talented Italian women. OK, so I cheated and looked at the subtitle screen to understand what they were saying, but it was worth it because they had us all crying with laughter.

Marissa and I decided after the show that we definitely want to find a way to participate as a performer one day. It would be so much fun and it goes to a great cause. However, I would definitely have to practice a couple of times before I was comfortable enough to say some of the vocabulary they were using on stage in front of an audience...Buona festa delle donne!

Saturday, March 6, 2010

The time I went to Milan for 5 euro.

Yesterday, I got to take a trip to Milano. That’s Milano the town as the Italians say it, not the cookie. I jumped at the opportunity to tag along with the field trip organized for the students in the “Da Vinci” class when we were told there were ten extra spots because I paid a grand total of five euro for round trip transportation and entrance to three different museums and churches. Compared to the 140 euro round trip trains I was looking at just to get to Milan, this was quite the steal.

I was disappointed that I was visiting the “Fashion Capital of Europe” and didn’t get to see anything but the inside of old buildings (except for a gelato shop during our lunch break of course) but I got to see the Duomo di Milano (stunning), the Da Vinci museum, the original “Last Supper” fresco, and the old castle of Milan. While inside Milan’s famous church, our teacher attempted to give us some background information but this was taken by security as an attempt to give us an illegal tour (which it was) so our threatening looking teacher, who was about 5’0” and 100 pounds, was escorted off the premises, leaving us to browse the church by ourselves for a few minutes before meeting up with our B.A. professoressa.

Next we hopped on the bus for a trip to the Da Vinci Museum. I am a huge Da Vinci fan and think he is absolutely fascinating so I was excited to see the museum dedicated to him and his work which included actual pages from his notebooks. Anyone who has read Dan Brown’s widely famous novel, The Da Vinci Code, can appreciate the fact that we were able to see the original Last Supper as well. Because it is a fresco and painted directly on the back wall of a Monastary, they have to be very careful about preserving it. Apparently you have to make a reservation to see the painting six months in advance and if you are late to your reservation time, there are no second chances at getting in. Since our appointment was at promptly three o’clock, our group of about 20 was patiently waiting outside the first of three sets of sliding glass doors to get in at five minutes till. One girl almost didn’t make it through the initial set of doors the first time around but luckily, after she stared at us with her sad puppy dog eyes while receiving no remorse from the grumpy old guard, they opened again after a few minutes to let her in. Once we got to the final set of air-tight doors to the room with the painting, we were herded in like cattle at exactly 3:00 before the doors quickly sealed behind us.

Though The Last Supper was very faded compared to the hundreds of images I googled on the internet after reading The Da Vinci Code ( apparently the reason for the mad amounts of security), it was amazing to see in person. It was painted on what was the back wall of a Monostary dining room so that while the Monks dined, they could look at the image and be reminded of the significance of communion when it originated at Jesus’ last supper before he was betrayed and crucified.

After our allotted time of 15 minutes to look at the painting was up, we headed over to the Castle where we basically ran around for awhile before viewing what must have been the torture chamber they used hundreds of years ago-quite disturbing. I was exhausted after our day of touring so I passed out for the entire four hour drive home while sprawled across the backseat of the bus. After waking up energized and ready to hit the town of Florence for what might be my last full weekend here, we headed off to a bar so “Americanized” that they took dollars for payment. The bar had different shots for college campuses across the US but they were missing the most important one. Since there were five of us there from Wisconsin, including Laura’s boyfriend who is visiting for the week, we created one and took the inaugural shot which consisted of tequila and grenadine. Yum? At least it reminded me of home even though we are on the other side of the pond.

Lots of activities in this upcoming week including two plays and two exams. What? Exams? Ugh. At least I’ll be rewarded with my trip to Switzerland this weekend! Baci!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Since this week hasn’t been too adventurous, I am going to take this opportunity to rave about my internship. I LOVE MY JOB. Seriously, I could not have asked for a better experience. I work for an event planning company called Pirene, named for the mythical water fountain that Pegasus used to drink out of. Cheesy, I know, but it sounds much better when Italians say the name-kind of like everything else romantic or poetic. The title of this blog is the website if you want to check it out. For those of you unfamiliar with the Italian language, just click on the icon of the British flag in the top right corner to translate the page (some of which was done by yours truly).

I’m learning absolutely everything, from designing pamphlets, to writing press releases, to fund raising through sponsorships, and even how to speak Italian (solo un po’). My boss is great, my co-workers are awesome, even my boss’ “slave-man”, for lack of a better term, is fun to talk to. He is Indian (I think) but thinks he is fluent in both Italian and English. Funny thing is though, only the Italians can understand his English and only I can understand his Italian because he obviously speaks like someone who is no where near fluent, like all of us.

I’ll stop raving now, but I just thought you should all know (and by all, I mean the five of you who actually read this) that I am being productive here and not just gallivanting around Europe for four months. But don’t worry, I’m making time for that too ;). For example, tomorrow I’m going to Milan to visit the fashion capital of Europe…yay! Buon fin de settimana!

Sunday, February 28, 2010


Friday afternoon I was bored because I had been in Europe for 6 weeks already but had not yet left the country of Italy. Now, I know that Italy is probably the best place possible to be “stuck” for 6 weeks, but I knew I wanted to do something adventurous to make the most of my time here before I travel for the next 8 weekends in a row. I googled “things to do in Florence” and found a website that recommended some good day trips from Florence. Since I had already done most of them, including Siena, San Gimignano, and Pisa, I decided to look up Fiesole.

Fiesole is a small town that was just a twenty minute bus ride from il centro where I live. Laura, Ally, and I hopped on the bus number 7 and figured we would just ride it to the end. Once we arrived in Fiesole we wandered around looking for “il ufficio di turista” and were “helped” by some Italian woman who forgot to take off her grumpy pants before coming into work that day. We came to Fiesole mostly for the hiking that the website recommended, so armed with our 90s look of gym shoes and sweatshirts tied around our waists (Spinks even had a fanny pack), we headed off for the most advanced course. I wasn’t aware that Fiesole was known for its views, but we got to the first terrace and were rewarded with the best view of Italy I have ever seen (see picture above).

The trip was definitely worth it especially because my buns are feeling the burn today. I would say that we are going to go again but I only have one more weekend in Florence for the rest of the time I am in Europe! Ahhh the rest of my trip is going to fly by!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Andiamo all’Opera e Apperitivo

Last night our school had a field trip to see the Opera. Of course I had to go because we are in Italy and I love theatre and my dad put it on his list of things for me to accomplish while abroad. Even though it was a great experience, I think I’ll stick to musicals from now on. Maybe it’s because I couldn’t understand a word they were saying (even though they had subtitles for us-in Italian) but I must be more partial to the happy singing and dancing in crowd pleasers such as Wicked.

All the actors had beautiful and powerful voices but the show was about 4 hours long and I had maxed out at around 2 ½. We were given a synopsis to read before the show so when it came to the final act I already knew the main character was going to sniff some flowers that were given to her “anonymously” and die from the poison her arch nemesis had put in them. I did not, however, know that this woman must have been some type of cat because she literally died 9 different times. They took the phrase “encore” to a whole other level. Once the woman had taken her final breath after her fourth dramatic faint to the ground, the whole audience was uproarious with applause. “Bravo! Bravo!”

After the show, my roommate, Marissa, and I decided to treat ourselves to some gelato. Unfortunately we arrived right as the shop was closing but since we had been there before, the generous Italian gelato shop owner gave us free waffles with nutella. Theatre and free dessert in one night=successful evening.

While on the subject of food, tonight we stumbled upon one of the best deals in Florence. Every Wednesday at this cooking school in town, they have all you can eat apperitivo plus one glass of wine for four euro. We piled our plates high from the buffet with food from all different regions. I was thouroughly enjoying my Spanish soup until I found out that “tripe” is not a type of fish like I though, but actually cow’s stomach. Vile. Other than that, my meal was delicious which was obvious from the fact that our group did quite a bit of damage on all the food they had laying out for us in the buffet. I also met a guy who is American but had been living in Italy for almost two years and he’s only a little bit older than us. I might be following in his footsteps…

Sunday, February 21, 2010

When in Rome...

This weekend we went on a field trip to Rome with our school. From Thursday to Sunday I did absolutely nothing but tour famous sites and enjoy the Roman nightlife. We saw more churches than one ever needs to see in a lifetime, the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, the Pantheon, the Spanish Steps, the Trevi Fountain, and so much more. My diet consisted solely of pizza, gelato, and McDonalds. Yes, I had McDonalds in Italy so this week we have decided to cleanse our bodies and live off of salads every day.

The first night we got there we went on a Colosseum Bar Crawl. I was expecting to get a great view of the Colosseum between each bar but the title was actually pretty deceiving since really we only met at the subway next to it and took a bus to our other destinations. 15 euro though for an open bar and a free t-shirt made the night worth it. I also got to meet up with my friend, Kate, again and we had a really good time.

After waking up at 7am the next morning to catch the subway before the “public transportation strike” started and being packed in like sardines because everyone else had the same idea, we went on a tour of the Vatican. St. Peter’s Basilica was absolutely beautiful and the video I posted here doesn’t quite do it justice. You can also get a glimpse of how our knowledge of all these famous monuments has blended together after having art history shoved down our throats since we have been here from the conversation Spinks and I are having in the background. We also decided to climb the basilica and got an AMAZING view because the weather was perfect just as we reached the top.

After going to lunch and spending 25 euro at the biggest tourist trap I have ever seen for a plate of lettuce and four measly raviolis, we decided to take a siesta to get ready for our second night out in Rome. While getting ready after our nap with six girls in one room, we apparently were making too much noise because our Italian hotel neighbor knocked on the door and asked us if we could please be quiet because, “We are trying to make a baby.” Now, I’m sure that’s not quite what he was trying to say and he merely got confused in the translation but we all just stared at him for what seemed like five minutes of awkward silence until he closed the door before bursting out laughing. Hopefully our laughter didn’t interrupt him “making his baby”.

We went out to Campo di Fiori which was this big open square that looked like a fairground with a generous mix of American and Italians all socializing both inside and outside the bars. Most of the bars had English names so we were surprised to make some new Italian friends. I also ran into a friend of a friend who was studying in Rome and found out that one of my best friend’s from high school, Mike Barry, was also visiting Rome that weekend from his school in Barcelona. After going on a wild goose chase for his phone number, we were able to meet up the next night in Campo again. He decided I was bad luck though because when we went to an ATM to get cash out, the machine ate his card. I was forced to call the Italian operator where I just kept repeating “Mangia la carta!” until we figured out there was nothing we could do until Monday when the banks open. Luckily he had an assortment of cards on him so we were still able to enjoy ourselves when we got back to the bar.

After waking up before 8am for the third day in a row after going out the night before, we packed up our things to hop on a bus to go to these amazing fountains outside of Rome. We went to two different places that had once been the houses of incredibly wealthy Romans who owned amazing properties with gardens, statues, fountains, and some of the prettiest views of Italy I have ever seen.

Overall, Rome was amazing. I’m still happy with my decision to study in Florence but I’m sure I will definitely be back there again before the semester is over. Starting in two weeks, I am going to be traveling almost every weekend which makes me nervous that I am going to find someplace I will like better than Florence, but at least I know that Florence has already become my “home” because of the relief I felt when we got off the bus today. Enjoy the pictures!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

High School Reunion

My friend, Kate, from high school is studying in London this semester and unfortunately we were unable to meet up while I was there. Luckily she came to Florence this week. My other friend Danielle, who went to Viator and goes to Wisconsin with me, is also here in Florence so the three of us went out to dinner together at this restaurant called The Golden View. The name doesn’t lie because the restaurant is right on the Arno river which runs through the center of Florence. Our server was loving the three smiling American girls so he treated us very well. He immediately brought us aperitivo which is a traditional Italian pre-dinner sparkling white wine. We ordered a bottle of white wine for the table and he surprised with a second bottle for free since he thought we were “strong enough” for it. At the end of the dinner he then brought us limoncello which is a super sweet lemon alcohol which is supposed to help you digest the meal. I have no idea how that is supposed to work but it tasted like it was a straight shot.

The picture I am going to post as soon as either Kate or Danielle put it on Facebook is the three of us with our waiter, Alessandro. When Kate and I went to the bathroom he gave Danielle a note that said “Will you go on a date with me?” and then she was supposed to check the box for either yes, no or maybe. How suave.

We had a lot of fun just sitting and talking about high school and it made me feel really old but it was nice to catch up like that in a foreign country. Every little piece of home I can get here is treasured. It’s weird but a lot of Florence license plates start with CW and those are both my dad and brother’s initials so it always reminds me of my family. By the way, that was your not so subtle hint to come visit. Felice Martedi Grasso!