Thursday, December 18, 2014

TBT: Study Abroad in Florence, Italy

Ten years ago, I had the wonderful opportunity to spend the first half of my junior year of college studying at the Lorenzo de'Medici International Institute (or as my father called it, The Leonardo DiCaprio School of Fine Arts). It had been a lifelong dream of mine to study abroad in Italy, and I was beyond excited to embark on my long-awaited adventure.

Before I left the states, I had carefully researched, picked out, and highlighted the two travel guides that would accompany me on my journeys - DK Eyewitness Travel Guide: Italy (for the wonderful photography) and Rick Steves' Italy (for the wealth of information and step-by-step tours). I had my list of must-see sights (Leaning Tower, Colosseum, Eiffel Tower, etc.), and because I had the fortune of being in Europe at the same time as a handful of other friends from both high school and college, I had roughed out a tentative schedule of where and when to hit certain countries based on my other friends' travel plans. But I did thankfully tone down the anal-retentive impulses every once in a while to allow for some deviation and creativity. While I did run my friends ragged through the streets of Paris over the course of four days so that I could hit every "to-do" on my list, I also threw a wet pasta noodle at a map of Europe to determine where I'd travel the following weekend. It landed on Slovenia and I bought a ticket to Ljubljana that very evening, setting the stage for one of the more memorable weekends of my life.

When I did my semester abroad, it was the fall of 2004. Facebook had just emerged into the world, but my small midwestern college hadn't been accepted yet (back in the day, you had to have a college email address and your school had to be accepted into Facebook). My digital camera (with 6 whole megapixels, you guys!!) didn't have a magical button that shared my photos with the world, and I had to pair that with both my paper-weight of a Nokia cell phone and Discman CD player ("Mary's Italy Mix 3"). Communication with friends and family was done via a desktop computer at a nearby Internet cafe, and our maps and guide books were folded up and stored in our backpacks.

So what I'm saying is that even though it was only ten years ago, it was a different world. There was no sense of immediacy that is so present in today's world. While I was able to immediately view my pictures on the back of my camera, I couldn't just share them with my friends back home. I had a blog that I infrequently updated (see aforementioned Internet cafe), but it was more to just let everyone know I was still alive; it was only after I got back to Chicago after four months of traveling that I painstakingly printed out all my best pictures and inserted them into a (real! analogue!) scrapbook.

I had always had a touch of the wanderlust growing up, and though my semester abroad was the second time I'd traveled internationally without my parents (I did a two-week trip in high school to London and Scotland to perform in the Edinburgh Fringe Fest), it was the first time I was genuinely on my own in a strange place, international or not. Yes, my friends and I were released "on our own" for a few hours on a high school trip to New York City and yes, I was technically without supervision the entire time I was in college, but it was in Europe where I was truly an adult. We lived in an apartment in the very heart of Florence, not a dorm room, and there was no college campus to speak of that would provide any sense of community or union amongst other students. There weren't any clubs or organizations to join, so once our classes were over for the day, that was it - nothing to do, nowhere to be - an entirely foreign sense of being for the Type-A-Joiner-Doer-Overachiever that I was (still am).

We were also not on a meal plan, so we learned to grocery shop and cook three meals a day for ourselves - not that this was at all a struggle, however. We lived in one of the culinary capitals of the world and took full advantage of this. Fresh tomatoes, every cheese you can name, even the canned tuna was wonderful (and let's not forget the buckets of Nutella we all consumed...). Some of the meals I learned to make while studying abroad still find their way to my current kitchen table; to this day, a good friend of mine cites a plate of homemade eggplant parmesan eaten in our tiny Florentine kitchen as one of his most favorite meals ever.

I say all of this without yet mentioning the obvious, yet most important player in the study abroad game - the travel. With classes scheduled only from Monday evening through Thursday afternoon, we had close to a four-day weekend every week, (and that's not including the 10-day fall break we were given halfway through the semester), the world was our to conquer - and conquer it we did. No country was too far away, too hard to get to, or too confusing to navigate. We had backpacks and rail passes and €1 RyanAir flights and insider trading-level knowledge on which hostels had the best bars and happy hours. We had sights to see and cities to traverse and overlooks to climb and foods to try and museums to wander and drinks to drink and nothing was going to stop us from doing. it. all.

A trip like this was expensive. Though I had diligently saved the pennies I'd made slaving away behind a bar for two years, those cappuccinos and museum entrance fees quickly added up. Luckily though, I was young and unsophisticated and had yet to be introduced to the wonderful world of upper-middle-class-semi-luxury-travel. Overnight trains, shared dorm room-style hostels with 20 bunk beds in one room, €2 kebab dinners, walking seven miles to avoid a cab fare, and €3 jugs of Carlo Rossi were the norm. And while I know that some of my more well-bread classmates saw their semesters as one giant shopping trip for designer jeans and expensive leather boots, I neither knew nor cared about thread counts and brand names. I was roughing it, and I loved every minute.

Granted, it wasn't all sunshine and lollipops. Pickpocketing was rampant (every one of my five roommates and I were pickpocket-ed by the time the semester was over; mine came at the very end of the trip while looking through postcard racks on Las Ramblas in Barcelona.) The constant catcalling from every male on the continent also got old pretty quickly. Then there was the time I was staying with a friend in Salzburg when we got kicked out of the dorm room and had to literally wander the streets in the cold rain until we ran into another friend who graciously gave us a spare bed for the night. And there was the entire Vienna excursion that started on such a high note because we scored crazily cheap train tickets but that soon turned disastrous after we realized they were only one-way tickets and my traveling companion got robbed while we slept on the train by the very guy who'd befriended us.

But those lows made the highs ever higher. Nightly walks through downtown Florence for a second (third) scoop of gelato, being mistaken for an Italian while in Venice, riding the gondola to the top of the Matterhorn, sharing a beer and a giant pretzel at the Hofbrähaus, sipping wine next to the Trevi Fountain, swimming in the Mediterranean off the shores of the Cinque Terra, dancing in front of the famous glass gazebo from The Sound of Music, sharing fresh bread and cheese in a park in Paris...the list goes on and on. All told, I visited 9 countries, checked more than a handful of items off my Things To Do Before I Die List, made a bunch of new friends, grew closer to some older friends, and matured as both a person and a traveler.

This is by no means a guide to any of the destinations I visited. My memories have faded to a very pretty rose color, and besides - it was a decade ago. Any specific information I would have gleaned has all been recorded by much more fastidious people than I, and even if I did happen to remember names of specific restaurants or hostels, they are probably all gone or at least vastly changed by now. But if there is a takeaway to any of this post, it is that travel is not just good for the soul, but necessary for one's personal development. And if that travel can be continuous and during a semester of college, than it's all the more better. Of everyone I've ever talked to about studying abroad, not one person has ever regretted choosing to go - but nearly everyone regrets not going. Once graduation happens, chances for travel are few and far between. Yes, there are plenty of people who figure out how to make a living from professionally traveling or have incorporated extensive travel into their jobs, but by and large the rest of the population only has a few weeks of vacation a year (if you have a "normal" job, that is. I'm 30 and have yet to have one minute of a paid vacation). And after you factor in all necessary domestic trips to see family and the presence of children and the sheer cost of international travel and any other little thing that comes up over the course of a year, you might get one big vacation every few years. If you're lucky.

As a side note (though isn't this entire post one giant side note? I digress), the four months I lived in Europe also happened to be the longest span of time I had ever, and have ever, not been involved with a theatrical production. The older I get and the more I pack my schedule with rehearsals and techs and performances and lather rinse repeat, the more this period of time becomes sacred to me. Weekend jaunts to the beach, or even week-long vacations are wonderful but few and far between, and even when I do manage to get away, I'm still in some sort of pre-production, whether it be mental or actual. My brain can never turn off, and there is never not a show to think about. Before I left for Italy, I closed the show I had been working on all summer and then packed my bags and got on a plane. I did not bring a script with me, I did not frantically check and send emails regarding meetings I was missing, and outside of one night at the Florence Opera House, I didn't even see a live performance. I focused on classes and train timetables and Renaissance art and red wine vs. white wine and clackity cobblestone streets and well-lit piazzas - and it was wonderful. They were halcyon days and I am in constant search of how I can imbue even 10% of that semester into my daily life.

Have you ever studied abroad? Are there things you learned on your travels that you still incorporate into your daily life? If so, let me know in the comments - let's compare stories!

1.)  Overlooking the Cinque Terra 2.) Being oh-so touristy in front of the Colosseum 3.) A lake in Slovenia 4.) Taking a break in Amsterdam 5.) A street in Pisa 6.) High school friends at the Louvre 7.) A beautiful plaza in Barcelona 8.) At the base of the Matterhorn 9.) A colorful beach in the Cinque Terra 10.) How the Swiss say hello 11.) Childhood dreams realized in Salzburg 12.) Gelato cones in Florence 13.) A day in Pompeii

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