Florence, Day 1

I think I fell in love with Florence before I ever visited the city. When my cousin said Florence was her favorite, I thought she was crazy. This was before I studied Italian cultural heritage in college. In my second cultural heritage class, I had the most amazing teacher, Dr. Looney. He spoke Italian fluently and took students abroad every spring to study in Rome. (I should’ve studied Italian and became a professor who takes kids abroad ever year, THE LIFE.) He had such a passion for the material and made his students love it as well. I wasn’t super thrilled with the reading list for the semester, but I wanted to read the literature created in the country where my ancestors came from and built a strong literary foundation that spans the globe and remain some of the greatest pieces of writing ever written.

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I became obsessed with Dante and his writing after reading Inferno. I thought it was amazing and, in some cases, before its time; although, much of what he talks about is still present today, which could be proof that these are issues that have been around for years. There’s so much symbolism and meaning throughout the book and who knows if that’s even what Dante meant. He’s revered in Italy; his face is on the 2 Euro coin and he’s considered l’altissimo poeta or the ultimate poet and, quite literally, “the Father of the Italian language.”

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Dante was exiled from Florence for political reasons, and it was during that time that he conceived the Divine ComedyInferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. You can find parts in his writing that describe the pain he felt being forced from Florence. The city of Florence has expressed regret for Dante’s exile and repeatedly made requests that his bodied be moved from his grave in Ravenna to a tomb built for the poet in the Basilica de Santa Croce. The tomb remains empty as caretakers refused to move Dante’s body back to Florence. There’s also a large statue in front of Santa Croce of the poet. Of all things, that was my must-see spot in Florence, besides the Duomo and the Ponte Vecchio, of course. I had to get a picture with Dante, duh.

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In Florence, we stayed at Hotel Silla, an amazing hotel on the other side of the Arno River, just a few blocks from the Ponte Vecchio and within reasonable walking distance of everything else in Florence. I would definitely recommend staying here. On a map it looks far away from the main attractions, but the best thing about Florence is that it is an extremely walkable city. It’s smaller and not quite as spread out like Rome, and there’s way less traffic and congestion. Lot’s of tourists but still much less congested. We arrived mid-afternoon, dropped of our bags, connected to wi-fi for a few minutes so I could read all of my Happy Birthday texts. Then we were off! We walked out of the hotel and less than a block from the front door was the Arno River and the Ponte alle Grazie, where you can spot a magnificent view of the Ponte Vecchio. And just a quick walk down Via de Benci you happen across the Piazza di Santa Croce and the Basilica. By this time, it was almost 5 o’clock, so we decided to wait until the next day to get tickets to go inside the Basilica. We stopped at a restaurant where the food was less than exciting. I got basic tortellini with meat sauce but some of my fellow travelers hated their meals. This was where we went wrong. We stopped into the first place we saw and didn’t take much time to research some place decent. I usually plan better than this, but the lack of wi-fi was killing my Trip-Advisor creeping that I usually do before a trip. Should’ve planned better back in the states, lesson learned!

Afterwards, though, we got gelato. Hands down, THE BEST gelato I had my entire time in Italy. We got it from a place in the Piazza della Signoria, which I cannot for the life of me remember the name, but it was right next to a coffee shop and then next door was a restaurant with outdoor seating. The little café had mountains of gelato in their shop and looked just as amazing as it tasted. I got caffe mocha. I dream about this gelato. I wish I had enough money to book a flight just to get this gelato it’s that good.
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We spent the rest of the night kind of roaming the streets. The weather was beautiful, but since we got there in the early evening we didn’t have time to go into any of the museums. We saved that for day two.

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Birthdays, Boys, and Bad Vibes

I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling 22……plus 2.

I celebrated my 24th birthday while I was in Italy. My birthday was on a Saturday, and our host/family friend wanted to refrain from traveling during the weekends, especially to places like Amalfi, fearing crowds since the weather was getting nicer. So, we spent time at the house outside of Naples in the little rural town I talked about before. I wanted to be laying on the beach in Positano, but THINGS HAPPEN.

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As much as I tried not to be, I was in in a terrible funk. How can you be in a funk you’re in Italy, you ask? Well you can be in a funk anywhere. I wasn’t expecting such a weird culture shock feeling, but that feeling swept over me many times, especially traveling through small towns. We spent a lot of time there, and I can’t speak Italian (I beat myself up about not studying it in college, but there’s still time to learn!). Luckily, my mom could get by since the dialect she learned from my grandparent’s was similar in that area, and our friend was fluent, so we didn’t have any problems there. I just couldn’t help feeling so cut off from the world not being able to speak the language. I met some guys my age and couldn’t communicate at all. It was devastating. They were very cute and here I am “la ragazza americana” just smiling and hating myself for not speaking Italian. The love of my life could be on a mountain in Italy somewhere, and here I am.

On the other hand, I felt very much at home. The people were so much like my family and Italian people we know at home in the States. It’s amazing how much of the culture translated to American life but so much that didn’t. It’s a weird thing to describe.

It was especially hard on my birthday not being able to talk to anyone. Note to self: unlock your phone, buy an international plan, do something, because Wi-Fi is never guaranteed. It’s really sad I’m so connected to my phone (as I type it’s right next to me) but that’s the world we live in. I kept wondering if my friends were sending me “Happy Birthday” texts. I couldn’t really celebrate either because how can you celebrate with people you can’t even talk to. I promised my Italian mamma (the mother of the boys who I met, she loved me) that when I come back I would be able to talk to her in Italian. I made a promise to her that I must keep!

The day after my birthday and the day before we left for Florence, we had a rough day. Lot’s of bad vibes and some uncomfortable interactions with fellow travelers and family friends. It was weird and my mom and I tried our hardest to keep it together. It rained that evening, literally down poured for about ten minutes, and then we looked outside to this:

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Amazing right? Just when you think things are really crappy, something beautiful pops up to remind you that everything is all right. We went to Florence next, which was fabulous, but I’ll get to that in another post (or two) because Florence deserves undivided attention as I decided it was my favorite place I visited on this trip, other than meeting my family and sitting on my grandma’s stoop. Florence is magical. How could the place where the Renaissance was born not be magical? It could be me totally geek-ing out over Italian history, but any city that is a favorite of Dante’s is a favorite of mine. Here’s a sneak peak:

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You see? AMAZING.

A Girl Went Back to Napoli…

Because she missed the scenery…la la la “sings the rest of Mambo Italiano” la la

Let me just say that driving in Naples is the worst. If I ever go back, hopefully I’ll disembark from a cruise ship in port rather than drive into the city. Three lanes of bumper-to-bumper torture. For backseat drivers like myself, it is very stressful. I put my headphones in and cranked up the volume on my iPod trying to imagine myself in less stressful situations. I guess I should mention that I, in fact, was not driving; yet I was still stressed out.

After we (safely) parked the car, we walked away from the port to small side streets and piazzas. The weather was beautiful, although we encountered some light run on an off throughout the day. The clouds quickly parted to bright skies and lots of sun. We walked up this side street next to a piazza (which I cannot remember the name there are so many), and there they were—the biggest, most delicious looking arancini. If you don’t know, arancini are cheese or meat (or both) stuffed rice balls, breaded and fried and are the best street food ever. They are so good, but what carb and cheese-loaded food is not delicious? The answer is NONE.

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They were fresh, creamy, greasy, cheesy, and delicious, and the perfect snack to fuel up on before walking all over Naples. We walked through a few churches, two in particular, one for the “rich” people and one for the “poor” people, built years ago. I didn’t snap many pictures because I was trying to soak in as much as I could without my camera or phone glued to my hand. The “rich” church was the most ornate church I had ever seen. Ornate inlayed marble covered the floors, pillars and walls. I had never seen a church so ornate and full of gold and marble covering every inch.

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Although the church was beautiful, I was sick of walking through churches. Once you’ve seen one you’ve seen ‘em all, amiright? Not really, but I’m not enthralled by churches. There are thousands in Italy, literally, thousands and how much can you remember about every one you walk in? That’s right you can’t remember. I can’t even remember their names. And I was preparing myself for the church-splosion in Florence, Rome and basically everywhere I went in Italy I was forced to pay a visit to whatever church was nearby.

I digress…

We continued walking and walking, stopping in various stores and eating at a delicious restaurant; I had spaghetti Bolognese and veal. Unfortunately, I didn’t take a picture of my meal. God forbid you don’t Instagram every meal you eat while you travel.

We walked through Castel dell’Ovo or Egg Castle. It sits on an island, but there is a bridge that takes you directly into the castle. It was free to walk through. We walked all the way to the top where we found some seriously amazing views of Naples and Mount Vesuvius.

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I mean…does it get any better? Right after this I indulged in Oreo and salted caramel gelato, which was easily the best thing I had ever eaten (until I got to Florence, that’s for another post!).  Naples did not disappoint, although I could do without the traffic conditions. (We sat in rush hour traffic on the way home for an extra hour.) But it makes for good stories. Next stop-my birthday, Florence, Amalfi, Grandma’s house, and Rome! To be continued…

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All photos are mine, thanks.

Italy Days 1-6: Mountains and Italian Beach Towns

The first stop on my Italian adventure was to my mom’s friend’s hometown. He has a home in a small, what you could call “rural,” town about 45 minutes outside of Naples. We flew into Rome, rented a car, and drove to his home, making a stop at his mom’s house to surprise her! What’s amazing about these small towns is that they are ON MOUNTAINS, built INTO MOUNTAINS, ON THE SIDES OF MOUNTAINS. Real MOUNTAINS. I’m from Pittsburgh, where we have some serious “hills.” Pittsburgh, where my brother from Michigan complains about how “hilly” it is. You honestly haven’t seen hills until you’ve been to Italy and are on top of a mountain. Most of the towns have a center of town, typically where the piazza is, and then outskirts of the town, in this case at the bottom of the mountain. The home we stayed in was in the town area, so we were close to little bars and bakeries and the church.

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Low and behold we got a flat tire in her driveway. A huge piece of glass was stuck in the tire after only being in Italy for about five hours and after being awake and traveling for 24 hours! We were able to get it fixed that day, thankfully. We stayed here for a few days in between our shorter trips to different. I was the only one on the trip who had never been to Italy, so I picked a few places to visit that were absolute MUST SEES for me, one of those being my grandfather’s hometown in Calabria. Our first venture was to his town, a tiny place called Vadi, also on top of a mountain along the coast of Calabria. The bigger beach town along the coast is called Amantea, where we stayed for three days. It’s a tiny little beach town with many hotels and restaurants. We stayed a little further outside of Amantea at a beachfront hotel called Hotel La Tonnara. We visited in May, which is technically still low season for the beach area. The hotel was extremely reasonable for each night’s stay. We only paid about 150Euros for the three days of our stay. From mid-June through August the place is jam-packed. We located a friend of a friend who owns a small hotel in Amantea who said of the June-August months “don’t come.” Apparently, it gets ridiculously busy.

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The beach is impeccable. The water is crystal clear with hues of blue and green, probably the most amazing water I have ever seen. The water was fairly calm, but the beach was full of small pebbles. Not so great for your feet but perfect for collecting sea glass, which I found a bunch of. We ate fantastic seafood at our hotel multiple nights.

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We also spent some time tracking down my family members in Amantea, who I finally got to meet. It was definitely an emotional experience. I’m so glad I made the trip now that I’m older and can appreciate those moments much more that I would have if I were younger. I should mention on the way to and from Calabria a large portion of the autostrada was CLOSED, which meant a difficult detour up a mountain, down a mountain and then up and around and down another mountain. That was dicey, but we made it. Next stop—Napoli!

Ciao, Bella!

I’m back! It has been months, literally, that I’ve been away. But I’m back and trying to get back to the swing of things. A little update:

I technically, not so technically, finished graduate school! All of my courses are completed and I rounded out my final semester with two A’s and a B+ finishing my program with a 3.6! But, I’m technically not finished because I have yet to present my final (pass/fail, not for credit, pain in the ass) research paper. I ran into a few bumps with my mentor, which was not totally my fault, but I am in no position right now to burn bridges. I just want to BE DONE and MOVE ON. Bye, Felicia.

While I subtly stalk my professors, I’ve got some time to apply for jobs, work out and reflect on my trip of a lifetime to the motherland—ITALY, YA’LL!

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About a week after my final semester, I embarked on my first trans-Atlantic trip to where it all began. Without Italy, I would not be here…well kind of. Anyway, I spent three weeks running up, down and all around my homeland, getting a flat tire, getting lost, feeling totally miserable but happy all at the same time, and experiencing feeling at home and yet the strangest feeling of culture shock. I came out of it with a second home 4,000 miles away; I’m counting down the days until I can go back.

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I’m trying my absolute hardest to put together a series of posts that highlight my trip: all the places I went, the food I ate, what I liked, what I absolutely hated, etc. I want to share it all with you mostly because my friends and family are sick of hearing about it but also because I’m so sad that I had to leave and come back to real life. I’ve already started on some posts and they’re mighty entertaining. Stay tuned!

Sunny Days Chasing the Clouds Away

It’s officially April! The sun is shining in Pittsburgh, which is so amazing it had to be documented via every social media outlet because we get so few sunny days. Today is the first, which means April Fools Day, and I have made it through almost the entire day without being fooled. My professor canceled class tonight, and my classmate and I took a substantial chunk of time to decide if he was fooling us or not. He’s not, so that makes my weekend so much better. Since it is April that also means the semester is dwindling away and by the looks of my planner, I’m not sure if that’s a good or bad thing. From now until I leave for Italy on May 14th, I have something to do every weekend in addition to school and work. Mostly family stuff, some exciting things to do, some I’d rather gouge my eyes out with a blunt object than attend. But you gotta do what you gotta do.

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Somewhere in between school, work, and annoying family functions, I need to squeeze in some shopping time because my spring clothing collection is so sad, and there is no way I’m running around Italia in anything less than magical. Speaking of Italy, we are STILL ironing out an itinerary for our trip. We have some flexibility, which is great, but I have a few non-negotiable places that I MUST see.

As we finalize our plans, I’ve been desperately online shopping for some trip essentials. I have some separates from J. Crew and Express that I plan on bringing. I also just ordered the cutest summer wedges from Macy’s that I absolutely love. I bought them in nude, so they are versatile and they are extremely comfortable! I’ve worn them around the house doing miscellaneous things to break them in a bit, but so far so good!

Now, I’m currently searching for the perfect one-piece bathing suit. When I was younger, I was strictly a two-piece girl in order to get maximum sun exposure, but now that one-pieces are on trend and super cute, I really want to find the perfect piece for my trip abroad. Plus, I want a sturdy swimsuit for boat excursions or anything we may do that involves needing a swimsuit that doesn’t just look good, but stays on. I also love the more retro look with structured high-waisted bottoms. I’m so picky and indecisive! I’ve compiled a few of my favorites below to help me organize which ones I like best.

Red Carter One-Piece at Nordstrom
                 Red Carter One-Piece at Nordstrom
Trina Turk One-Piece at Nordstrom
                  Trina Turk One-Piece at Nordstrom
Robin Piccone One-Piece at Bloomingdale's
          Robin Piccone One-Piece at Bloomingdale’s
Lattice High-waist bottom at Victoria's Secret
    Lattice High-waist bottom at Victoria’s Secret

You may notice a theme…an “all black everything” theme. I love black. Preferably all black.  I’m short like five-feet-zero-inches-tall short, so I really like to stick with more monochromatic looks as it doesn’t create a “chopped up” look.  With the exception of the Trina Turk suit, all of the suits I’ve been pining over are black or including some patterned variation of the color. I do like colors and patterns, but with that, my concern moves over to the cut and fit. Speaking of color and pattern,  I’m obsessed with Mara Hoffman’s latest swimsuit collection, but I can’t bring myself to fork over the cash. The patterned maxi-dresses in her collection are something I would seriously consider rocking regardless of the pattern. Her patterns are AMAZING. If I were to wear a pattern/colored print, it would definitely be hers. The colors are unreal.

BRB…Going to stare at swimsuits online while I procrastinate school some more. Five weeks left to go!

All Aboard the Struggle Bus

A week ago, I wrote about my return from Mexico aka the best vacation of my life thus far. But now I write to you in a post-vacation depression and on a one-way ride to Struggle City. I know you’ve been there before; it usually follows you having a fabulous time when you are forced to return to reality. If only reality was a permanent vacation…

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My current view.

I have about seven, yes only seven (7), weeks left in my final semester of graduate school. Hopefully, I will have completed and presented my final research paper, completed all of my other miscellaneous assignments and will graduate. Currently, I’m struggling to stay afloat, but I know I can do it. I’ve never failed myself before and always kept my shit together despite feeling like everything was falling apart.

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My view two weeks ago…what I wish was my current view.

In college, I definitely experienced the late nights, binge eating fried foods from the dining hall, and starting that ten page paper at 9:00PM the day before it’s due. That led to some sleepless nights, printing at the 24 hour computer lab at 3:30AM, and bursting into tears trying to crank out the last few pages. I was getting my work done (barely), but I didn’t have any sense of time management nor did I value things like eating right, exercising to stay sane or getting enough sleep.

It wasn’t until I took a yoga class regularly in college that I learned to value my time, sleepy and eating habits. So in order to keep my sanity these last few weeks and get shit done, I’ve compiled my non-negotiables, the things I need to do every week in order to finish graduate before graduate school finishes me.

  1. SLEEP:  This is the most important. Brain freeze at 1AM because you’ve been white-knuckling your computer for four hours? Unless your work is due at 9AM or ever during the next 24 hours, just go to sleep. Seriously, you need to sleep.
  2. EAT:  Don’t just eat, eat well, and TREAT YO’SELF. No, don’t hop over to the Taco Bell drive-thru ordering $12 of food to gorge yourself on. Eat well and pack your meals for the day. Portion out healthy whole foods and snacks getting a good balance of protein, carbs and fats to get you through the day. No, hooking yourself up to an IV of Starbucks Non-fat Mocha Latte Frappe doesn’t count as “balanced.” Treat yourself, too. I will be paying a visit to Chipotle this weekend.
  3. EXERCISE:  Hit the gym, lazy! I don’t need to tell you that exercise is good for you, that it unleashes endorphins blah blah blah. YOU KNOW THIS. Most importantly, it gets your mind off of school or work and lets you be in control for a little while and do something good for your body. You don’t even have to hit the gym. Put your headphones in and salsa around your room. Practice your hip-hop dance moves in your basement in between some push-ups and squats. And if you’re wondering, does Carla do that, the answer is YES, YES I DO.
  4. FOCUS:  School, work, life is all fleeting. It will be over before you know it, so there is no sense getting worked up over assignments, grades, deadlines, etc. Keep reminders around you of what’s important (family, friends, vacations). Don’t forget to have a social life. Nobody wants to be a super successful student/employee if you have no life to celebrate those accomplishments with people you love.

Keep it together, think about the big picture, and get shit done. It will all be worth it in the end.