Musings about Europe

The past two days in Paris have been SO busy. We’ve seen virtually every popular destination this city has to offer: the Arc de Triomphe, the Eiffel Tower, the Sacre Coeur, Notre Dame, the Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay. We’ve taken a trip down the Seine River and toured Versailles. We’ve eaten croissants and eclairs and even seen people walking around in berets. I could go into the epic details of all of this, but I’ve really been missing talking about the details that I don’t get to anymore because we’re always on the go. So here they are, ladies and gentlemen: the little things in life, European-style.

1. Paris is kind of girly. Okay, “girly” might not actually be the word I want to use here. It’s just, in America, Paris is known to be full of everything pink and kind of feminine. Coming here, I thought that was just something that was completely fictitious, that America found a way to make up and completely exaggerate. But in fact, things here are more, well, pink. One of the first things I noticed after arriving was the massive pink cutout of the Eiffel Tower, which held maps. Okay, I thought initially. Free maps of the city – awesome. And then I opened it up… to realize that it wasn’t just the stand it came from or the cover that was pink, but in fact, the entire map. Another example: certain places even print receipts on pink paper:

Wait, really? I have yet to find a pink poodle, but if I do, I shall certainly let you know.

2. Fashion in Europe is awesome. The people here are a little too into it for my liking – at least, I don’t think I could keep up. But it’s interesting how couples will coordinate with each other concerning what they wear. I saw one couple in Torino that was a great example of this: the girl was wearing shoes with the exact shade of sea foam green as that of her significant other’s pants. There’s, like, no way that’s a coincidence when this is a common occurrence. My favorite, though, was the style of this gentleman, who I saw yesterday:

This right here is fantastic. I didn’t even know they made green jeans for people that weren’t my age (let alone for a 60-plus-year-old man). This looks like something I’d wear… on a grown Frenchman. I just. I can’t get over the awesomeness. Men in America, take note.

Or this, which I saw in humid Rome. I could be okay if you all wore this all the time too.

3. It continues to surprise me how much stuff people try to sell you. In Torino, this wasn’t a big deal, most likely because it isn’t a big tourist city (and isn’t even on people’s “Top 500 Places I Need to Visit Before I Die” lists). But in Rome, there were people everywhere, most of them clearly not native to Italy, trying to sell you hats, sunglasses, scarves, friendship bracelets – you name it, they were trying to sell it. The biggest product they had to offer was the parasol, since it was very sunny and quite warm there. One by one they would walk up to us, saying “Umbrellaumbrellaumbrella!” really fast, or “Umbrella, four euro!” It confused me because they’d still approach us even after we’d turned the five guys before them down. One man seemed convinced that I indeed really wanted a parasol but was just waiting for the right price. “Five euros!” he shouted to me. “Four! Three, that’s my final offer!” It’s like, really, buddy? You think that I’ve said no to twenty people already, but I’m going to buy from you?

In France it’s a little less aggressive, but the things they’re selling are equally funny. There are yappy dog toys and clicking flying birds and Eiffel Tower keychains, as well as men selling bottles of water by calling out “Wattawattawatta,” which my sister and I have a good time laughing about. I think my favorite, though, have been the people who again try to sell us umbrellas, but this time for the rain the city’s been getting. Who would have thought that we’d be asked to buy the same thing in Rome and Paris but for opposite reasons? 🙂

These guys are also pretty funny – I really don’t think their product is too effective though:

I wonder what the item-of-the-day will be in London 🙂

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Exploring Paris

We took France by storm yesterday, conquering the three main attractions of the capital city: the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, and the Louvre.

(Okay, fine, we didn’t actually conquer the Lourve – that would probably take two or three days at a minimum to do. But we did see the Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo, along with other wonderful pieces of art.)

We started with Notre Dame in the morning, taking the subway there. It’s kind of sad that my main motivation to go to Paris comes from a Disney movie, but hey, it got me here. Ever since watching The Hunchback of Notre Dame I’ve wanted to see the church that it actually takes place at, and it was even more spectacular than Disney portrayed it (which is saying something, because Disney in general is just so wonderful).

There was a line to get into the church, but it moved quickly and was well worth it. It was really dark inside, so the pictures I got weren’t the best, but I’m going to post them anyway:

The altar was long and gorgeous, complete with what looked like choir stalls on the sides. This statue of Mary and Jesus is in the movie (yes, I know I shouldn’t care, and that it’s kind of lame, but still!).

This was the statue behind the altar.

This is one of the rose windows in the church.

We sat in there for a while and prayed for a bit, and I couldn’t stop admiring the actual structure of the building. It looks like the ceiling was made out of white bricks. Which makes me wonder, how did they do that? The church was constructed almost 850 years ago – I don’t know how people would do that now, let alone back then. It’s quite impressive. We’re hoping to come back to the cathedral one more time and climb up to the top of it, which would be awesome. (Oh, and if you don’t know what I’m talking about when I refer to the Disney movie, here’s the scene I keep thinking of: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iECANaKSWUA And trust me, it really looks like that!)

After seeing Notre Dame, we took our Hop-On Hop-Off bus tour of the city, which is really pretty! We got off at the Eiffel Tower and decided to walk up the stairs of it (or at least to the second level, which is as far as you can go on foot). Doing this is the equivalent of climbing 43 stories! While they weren’t letting people go all the way to the top yesterday, we did get a marvelous view of the city from the second stopping point:

I definitely want to come back and go all the way to the top someday 🙂

Finally, we took our bus to the Lourve, where they were having a Friday-night deal to get in. I was instantly a little overwhelmed by the mere size of the museum, but it was in an awe-filled way. We were a bit tired from all of our activities, so we didn’t spend as much time there as we probably should have, but we did get to see the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo. Mona Lisa was beautiful and actually was bigger than I thought she’d be: I’d heard she was a tiny little painting, so I was surprised to see she was rather normal-sized. It feels really cool to see possibly the most famous painting in the world with your own eyes. Venus de Milo is the popular statue with no arms. I liked her too. I’ve really enjoyed seeing the statues they have here and in Rome because it gives you a sense of what was considered beautiful hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of years ago. We have this idea in our mind (or, at least, most American women do) that you have to be skinny to be beautiful. In many statues, we see that that is not the case: so many of these women were not rail-thin, yet we still find them beautiful. I dunno, I think it’s an interesting perspective.

We ate dinner at a little bistro a few blocks from our hotel, which was lovely. Our suitcase came (alleluia!), and we all went to bed early because we had had such a long day. This morning we’re eating croissants from Subway (the patisserie that we wanted to go to was closed) and are trying to decide what to do before going on our cruise of the Seine River. Hope you all are doing well – au revoir!

“I’ve got a good feeling about Paris!”

These were the words exclaimed by my mother, just seconds before the French equivalent of the TSA blew up an unattended item just outside of the airport.

Not to mention that our bag got lost in transit from Vienna to Paris, causing slight irritation but surprisingly no panic.

But here’s the thing: the people in France are really, really nice. After all I’ve heard about them being rude to Americans, I’ve been really surprised and even impressed by the fact that they just aren’t. Bus drivers, airport workers, hotel front desk men, you name it – they’re all very caring, genuine people. Even the owner of the restaurant that we had dinner at tonight was wonderful, giving us suggestions on what and how to eat as well as bringing the chef out so we could meet him too. He said to come back tomorrow to ask the chef for help in case we need anything while we stay here in this lovely city.

And it’s so clean! I mean, compare almost any other European country to Rome and you’ll instantly find improvement (or so I’ve heard), but it really does feel slightly nicer here in France. Rome was interesting in its own way, but I don’t think I could live there for an extended period of time. Everything’s filthy and so touristy that it really started to bother me (and after only four days at that). I did love living in Torino, though. I think I could live there again.

Our bag will get here, we’re really not worried. And as to the French TSA, we’re kind of glad we have that kind of security. Again, comparing it to Italy, I saw an unattended duffel bag in the Milan train station and no one was doing anything about it. Here, someone leaves a backpack and they call in the SWAT team. So yes, I really do have a good feeling about Paris. Go France.

It’s getting late here, and I’d love to sleep since my mom and sister are already. I have much more to say about Rome, which I may write about in the morning (preview for what’s ahead: Vatican City, Trevi Fountain, and seeing Roberto Benigni and Woody Allen!). But until then I bit you adieu from the wonderful city of Paris!

(PS – If you have a second, go listen to kc89’s version of Coldplay’s “Charlie Brown” – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aR0EW028MwM&feature=channel_video_title It’s rather wonderful ^^ )

Adventuring Around Rome

Rome is a city that I’ve found to be very dirty. It leaves its visitors covered in filth and drenched a sweat that just doesn’t seem to dry. Rome’s visitors have taken over the city, swarmed it in crowds, and left virtually nothing untouched or unseen and just for native Roman Italians. I think I prefer Torino to here: I can hear a difference in the accents as the Romans speak Italian. It’s harsher than it was up north, faster and blunter and a little rougher. But more often than not they speak English to me, just as they do with the other thousands of tourists here. I miss being assumed to be different, but being given a chance to prove that I was trying to be one of the same. I don’t stand out here, which is something that I both hated and loved about Torino. I didn’t realize that I’d become so attached to a place after being there for only five weeks; now try as I might, I can’t help but compare the rest of Italy to it in almost every aspect.

Touring the city continues for us. Yesterday we started our Hop-On/Hop-Off bus pass and went around the city on an open-top bus, seeing all the major points to be visited at a later date. We snapped some photos of the Colosseum and of Vatican City, along with typical Italian streets and statues they seem to have virtually everywhere.

Statue of John Paul II by the Roma Termini Train Station – not a typical Roman statue, but it shows that art is still alive and kickin’ here!

After stopping at “La Mela Stegada” (or “The Witch’s Apple”) for lunch, we took a ride down the Tiber River and learned about more of Rome’s history. This city is surrounded by myths and legends, often involving angels and other supernatural beings. I find them interesting, and did not know that people actually seem to believe them here. The river ride was certainly educational, and afterwards, we went back to our hotel for what’s become our ritual naptime.

Upon waking up, we went to a restaurant near the corner of Via Nazionale and Via XXIV Maggio that was recommended to us by the man that works behind the desk at our hotel. It was a little pizzeria, with – gasp! – air-conditioning inside, and it had some of the best food I’ve had in Italy. I got the Milanese veal… oh goodness, it was so delicious! I had it with their house white wine, and they served it with fried potatoes, which was tasty as well. We walked to our hotel afterwards and stopped to see a fountain in Piazza Repubblica on the way.

Lovebirds at the Fountain at Piazza Repubblica

This morning we woke up bright and early to catch the first bus and get a guided tour of the Colosseum and Forum. However, our tour guide didn’t show up… so we walked around it ourselves! The building itself feels both big and small – smaller than I thought it would be, but massive, given how tall it is and how people had to build it during ancient times. We didn’t make it inside – it was a three-hour wait to do that – but we did get to peer in from the outside and see everything around it. We saw Constantine’s Arch as well, which stands right next to the Colosseum and was built after he was victorious over one thing or another…

The Colosseum and the Arch of Constantine

We took a peek inside a nearby church and looked at more ruins from far away too. Then we hopped back on the bus and went to Vatican City to find where our tour meets tomorrow morning. (We’re really glad we did so now – the entrance to the museum is really out of the way in relation to the Basilica and the rest of the city… all three of us are looking forward to the tour tomorrow!) After eating lunch, we got on the bus once again and took it to the Spanish Stairs, a series of steps that lead to a church and have a great view of the city:

 

This church was also pretty inside. It was a lot lighter than the first, older church, and there were so many people in this one! I really liked the candle-holders they had – they looked like votive Christmas trees! We walked back to the hotel afterwards and took our nap, which leads me to now.

I’ve really enjoyed my stay here so far. Rome as a whole is very overwhelming, both because there are so many people and because there is so much to do. The sad thing is that the sheer amount of people makes me really unmotivated to do a lot of these things though, simply because I don’t want to stand in long lines in a hot and humid city. It’s like a live-size, real-life Disneyland that, while still interesting, lost its magic factor somewhere along the way. I’m very excited to go to the Vatican tomorrow, though; while I know it will be crowded, our tour lets us cut the line (yes! *fistpump*) and we’ll be able to see some more truly famous and beautiful places.

One more thing I’d like to ponder for a second before I get ready for dinner: my mom and sister seem insistent on eating American food, so we have been doing so about half of the time. I don’t necessarily have a problem with this – I have been here for five weeks after all, and I miss a hamburger as much as the next person. What does bother me, however, is how American food here tastes exactly the same as American food back home. Hard Rock Café’s hamburger the other night was something I could have ordered in the United States, and the only difference between the Subway sandwich I had here and the one back home is that I had to order it in centimeters, not inches. This disturbs me on so many levels, especially after being in a country with such a heavy emphasis on fresh food. Americans’ diets consist primarily of food that, at one point of its “lifecycle” or another, has been frozen, and it is nowhere near as good for you as its fresh equivalents. The ingredients for the meal we had last night were bought that morning at an open market and other stores around town (according to our hotel front desk worker, who is friends with the restaurant’s owner). I’d be willing to bet that the ingredients for the sandwich I had this afternoon was shipped over from America after being processed to taste exactly like its counterparts being sold in the rest of the world. And that really grosses me out.

As a warning to my family and friends back home: I’ve definitely turned into a food snob after being here. Sorry about that… but I might be more hesitant to eat things now that I used to be. (I’ll still cook you good, fresh food, though!)

Now I must be off – I need to shower before we go in pursuit of (Italian!!!) dinner. Arrivederci!

Arrivederci, Torino… e Buon Giorno, Roma!

The past three days have been packed with lots of fun and travelling. I feel like it’s whizzed by so quickly, I don’t even know where to begin to recount it all. I guess the beginning would be a good place to start…

Thursday night my friends and I went out to dinner, marking our last time doing so as a group. We went to “Il Barone,” a restaurant very close to our apartment. I had a beef stroganoff-like pasta that was delicious – I thoroughly enjoyed it 🙂 The bread at the restaurant was really good too. Afterwards we went to Silvano’s, one of our favorite gelato places. Erika, who was leaving in the morning, said goodbye to Sam, Katie, and Samuel, and then we went home, where she finished packing and we looked at pictures from the trip.

We woke up early Friday morning to send her off to the airport via taxi. As she was driving away, it hit Chloe and me that this was the end of our short stay in Torino. I’d only be able to call that apartment home for a little more than 24 hours. We both went back to bed, and when I woke up again on Friday, it was to the excitement that my mom and Molly would be getting there soon. I cleaned our apartment and then went to pick them up from the train station, where they were being dropped off by a shuttle from the airport.

It was wonderful to see them. They both seemed really tired – they had been traveling for 18 hours or so, and they had been on four airplanes and in five airports to get to Torino (as they didn’t hesitate to tell my friends), but it was nice to see some really familiar places in my new city. I got them settled in their hotel room and then took them to my school, where my teachers had said the day before that they’d wanted to meet them. After watching the presentations of some of my friends for their landscape architecture class, I took them to get gelato and showed them my apartment, which they really liked. Then it was back to their air-conditioned hotel room for nap time, which was something I needed too. When we woke up we felt really well-rested and met my friends at a pizzeria called Amicis for dinner. The food was delicious – we’d been there before for Erika’s birthday – and I think Molly and my mom enjoyed it. Molly got a margherita pizza, which she loved, and my mom ordered “scampi” which turned out to be massive shrimp complete with eyes! We had a cannolo for dessert and then walked home. I made sure my family knew their way back to their hotel before saying goodnight to them and heading home myself. Chloe and I said goodbye to Samuel, Katie, and Sam in the Metro station, which was quite a sad affair. These past five weeks really flew by faster than anything I’ve experienced before. We’d shared such good times, and we promised each other that we’d meet up again soon. Once home I refused to pack, trying to enjoy actually living there for one more night. Nothing really felt different than any of the nights leading up to it, and for that I’m a little grateful.

Saturday morning brought with it the leaving of Chloe too. I helped her carry her bags down the stairs and wished her a safe journey home. Then the apartment was all mine, and it felt really empty. The life was slowly being drawn out of it, and once I left, it would be gone… well, until another group of students moved into it next quarter. I got ready for the day and met my mom and sister at the Metro stop by my apartment. They helped me pack everything really quickly, then I gave them a little tour of places around my apartment. We went to the Lingotto mall and to Eataly and Pam (our grocery store), then to a nearby kebab place for lunch. I showed them how delicious Blood Orange Fanta is – I really wish we had that in America. We went back to school and my mom took a picture of me by it, then we returned to my apartment so I could say my final farewell to it. After locking the door and dropping the massive key in the mailbox, we headed out, and our European travelling adventure began. We brought my bags to their hotel and took another nap – we’re really digging the idea of siestas – then went out to explore the city some more. We tried to catch Mass at one of the two churches in Piazza San Carlo, but when I went there to look at schedules initially I didn’t realize that the church would be taking a vacation for the month of August (which is apparently something not uncommon for Italy – August is the month of taking holidays here). Instead we went to the other church, where Mass was three-quarters of the way over. It was cool to listen in for the last part of it – the whole thing was in Italian, so we wouldn’t have really understood much more of it anyway. We meandered over to Piazza Vittorio afterwards and ate dinner at one of my favorite restaurants in Torino. It was delicious, and I think Molly and my mom enjoyed themselves too. We got gelato on the way back to the hotel, then drank moscato (which we got from Eataly) in our room before turning in for the night.

We woke up early on Sunday to catch our train to Rome. After quickly eating breakfast, we checked out of our hotel and headed outside into the rain. Upon arriving at the train station, we were informed that the train wasn’t going to stop there after all, so we got on a bus and went to the station that the train was going to be at. After this hustle and bustle, we made it onto our train safely and headed for Rome. And what a nice train it was! It was air-conditioned and had comfy seats and a table that we used to play cards on. However, after our stop in Milan, a family got on next to us, and the kids were not very well behaved… one of the girls (who looked to be about four years old) kept screaming at her parents, who didn’t do anything to quiet her. It makes me sad to see parents like this sometimes. I know I’ve never been a parent before and that it is more work than I can even fathom right now, but I hope my children will be better behaved than these ones were. We got off the train in Rome and wandered around for a little while, trying to find our hotel. I asked a police officer for help, but he stared at me like I was an idiot and told me to follow the poorly-written directions on a paper I already had to find the hotel. Luckily, there was a man who was selling tours that was very kind and helpful and gave us great instructions for getting us there. We checked in and again took a nap (they’re widely accepted here, and quite nice!), then went out and explored the city. My mom was missing food from home a little, so we ate dinner at possibly the least-Italian place we could have gone: Hard Rock Cafe. I hadn’t eaten a hamburger at all while being here, so having one was quite delicious! It didn’t taste as fresh as most of the food I’ve eaten recently, but it was still pretty good. We went for a huge walk of the city and saw the Trevi Fountain and the Pantheon, both of which were beautiful! We’re going back again to both today to take more pictures and throw our coins into the fountain.

Whew! That’s really all I got for now! We’re going to be starting our “hop-on-hop-off” bus pass and are planning on going to the Colosseum and on a trip down the Tevere River today… what fun! Ciao for now!

The End… and the Beginning

I studied through sweating and mini panic attacks last night, through runny noses and a slight sore throat. I didn’t sleep very well – I’m coming down with something, I just know it – and when my alarm went off this morning I pulled myself out of bed and went over my notes one more time. I walked to school slowly, trying to shake the negative thoughts out of my head (“… no, Sarah, you’re not getting sick… you’re going to make it through this test, everything will be fine!”) I got to school and powered through the thing. But even though I found it relatively easy, I dragged it out near the end because, well, I knew it was coming.

And then that was it: it was over.

My final, my Italian class, my study abroad experience, my stay in Torino.

My one teacher Silvia gave me cookies afterwards, with a note that read, “Dear Sarah, I wish you all the best! I would like you to keep studying Italian language because you are an excellent student. I hope to see you again.” I walked home slowly too, but this time it was not because I was feeling bad – I was just trying to take in everything around me and realize that after Sunday, it will all just be a memory.

I watched The Godfather upon returning to my apartment. Doing such a thing is unheard of here in Italy: the movie has a terrible reputation, since it gives Italians an even worse one. Then I went back to school to check my grade and say goodbye to my teachers.

I walked into the classroom that Aida (my other teacher) and Silvia were in – they had just finished proctoring their other Italian class’s test. Silvia beamed at me and asked me if I liked my grade. I told her I hadn’t checked yet, that I wanted to make sure I said goodbye to them before they went home for the day. She said, “Well, I won’t tell you, but congratulations.” She gave me a big hug, and then she left. Aida walked over to me and said, “What’s the highest possible grade you could get?” I couldn’t help but smiling – an A was definitely in my future! “What?” I asked her. She pulled my final over to me, where she had totaled all of my points. “100,” she said. “Bravissima. Congratulations.” I was so excited I didn’t even know what to do with myself. I thanked her over and over again, telling her that I loved the class and that she and Silvia were excellent teachers. “You have a real bend for Italian,” she said. I looked at her, confused by what she meant. “After all my years of teaching, I can tell that it comes really naturally to you. I urge you to keep taking it. After one or two more classes, you should be fluent.” I thanked her again and told her that I hope to, that I really like it and that I can’t wait to learn more.

It’s an awesome feeling being told my your teacher that you’re excellent at something you really enjoy. I feel like Italian does come kind of naturally to me. It just makes sense. My learning of the language and the culture by no means stops here; I hope to take it home with me and continue to learn and improve at it.

It hit me afterwards again how sad I am to be leaving. True, I’m still going to be travelling, but the little things about this place won’t be around anymore. Or rather, I won’t be around them. I won’t have to turn the main gas line on to cook dinner, or to light the stove myself. I won’t be able to walk down the street to one of my favorite gelaterias in town. My toilet at my house flushes and fills itself instead of me having to wait to fill the one here. The store back home doesn’t have pre-toasted bread or mojito sodas or Kinder Bueno bars. It doesn’t leave its eggs out on the shelf or have converting carts. True, I won’t be woken up by the glass truck in the early hours of the morning and I won’t get eaten alive by mosquitos every night, but there are a lot of things I’m going to miss about this place. I am actually leaving, and I really can’t take a lot of what’s become part of my life back with me.

My consolation is that I can take all of my memories, and that I get to show others what living in Torino is like, starting with my mom and sister. I can take them all of the places that I loved going to and eat the best food I found here. Then, after adventuring to other parts of Europe, I get to go home and tell all of my friends what it’s like to live in Italy. I can show them pictures of the places I frequented and speak to them (if only a little bit) in Italian. I can read off an Italian restaurant menu with confidence that I’m saying it right. I can take everything I’ve learned here and try to adapt it to the way I live my life back home. It’s a little daunting, this reconciliation, but I’m kind of excited about it. I can’t wait to walk more, to visit our Farmer’s Market more often and to cook real food.

For now, I’m going to enjoy the short amount of time I have left here. I’m going to our modern art museum in an hour or so, so I have to shower and make my feverish self look presentable. Tonight is also my roommate Erika’s last night here, so we’re all going out to dinner as a group for the last time. Ciao for now – I’m sure more sentimental posts will head your way shortly.

Inspiration in Funny Places

I love inspirational sayings. And not just the typical “ripple card” kind (though those are awesome too) – the ones that make me smile the most are the ones in places you don’t expect. License plate frames, advertisements, and even tampon wrappers are all included in this. My newest discovery was when I looked down at the cough drop I was about to consume, and it said, “Tough is your middle name” on it. Darn right it is! Not only did the saying on my wrapper brighten my day just a little, it made me think, “Hey, even though I don’t feel my best right now, I really can do anything, including studying for my Italian final! Even this cough drop believes in me!”

Thanks, Halls. You made me feel awesome, if only for a second – mission accomplished.