I am sitting in the lobby of my hostel in Interlaken, Switzerland. My nails are longer than I’d like them to be, and I can feel dirt accumulating under them. My hair is palpably oily, and my face grows the prickly, totally underwhelming facial hair I’ve grown accustomed to. I mention these things only to illuminate the lens through which I will be writing this. I am glad I didn’t type this up on my train to Switzerland. I get oddly emotional on trains, and this post would have been a weepy, acutely organized reflection on the past four or so months.
Instead, I’m on a lobby couch, in a city where every few hundred feet it randomly smells like horseshit, the mountains seemingly have sprung out of mythology, and people randomly drop out of the sky (skydiving, hang-gliding and all that stuff is very popular here). Going from Firenze to Philadelphia would have been too radical a transition for me. I’m glad I have an epilogue, one that starts in Switzerland and ends in Ireland.
I’m hesitant to wrap this up nicely, neatly buttoning not only my blog posts but also my entire study abroad experience. Why do I have to close it off, make sure it all neatly fits in a box and wrap it tightly in string? Why would I sequester these few months from the rest of my life?
I’ve been wondering for a few days now why I become emotional when I leave places. Leaving home for college, leaving college for home, leaving home for Europe, leaving Europe for home – I succumb to some heavy, probably misplaced contemplation. I can only theorize that each time I leave somewhere, I try to draw a line, segmenting that period of my life. Indirectly, I compartmentalize stages of my life, essentially building towards periods of my life that I am not ready for, such as: a serious relationship, graduating college, getting married, having kids, and just completely dying (possibly in that exact order).
So, no, I’m not going to tie this one up. I can certainly share the corniest, most optimistic thought I’ve ever had, though, and it’s a direct product of my study abroad experience.
On that train from Firenze, to Milan, to Spiez, and then to Interlaken Ost, I started thinking about Federico, who works the NYU Florence Café, and the owner of a café I frequent (I just realized I should really say frequented now) called The Bench Café, whose name I never came across, nor really needed to. I also thought of the two women who sit in front of my apartment every day. These people stirred in me sentiments formally pretty unheard of.
It hit me that I will probably never see these faces again. I thought about how Federico, while shaking my hand goodbye, held my hand long enough for me to realize he didn’t really want me to go. Though our interactions were seemingly limited to coffee shop interactions, he truly felt just as much as I did about my leaving. That hurt. That really, really hurt.
Luca, the owner of the Bench whose name was just told to me by a friend, hardly speaks English. Upon seeing my bags when I sat down at one of his tables, he pointed and asked “Fine? Tutto fine?” He was asking if I was all done. He then asked, in Italian, how my stay in Florence was, how I felt about leaving, and whether or not I would return. “Sono triste,” I said in regards to leaving. I became especially taken when he asked if I would return, like it really meant something to him. It wouldn’t pain me not to return to Florence, but it does pain me to think we’d never see each other again. I doubt he realized his café’s meal would be my last in Florence.
I exited the café to go to the train, and seeing the Duomo perfectly washed in iridescent light, I stopped to take a picture. I took my phone out, snapped a picture, and thought how impersonal it felt. I couldn’t help but feel that I had no means of capturing moments. Cameras and photos fail me, and even memories fail me. Memories can be just as one dimensional as photographs, and they aren’t mine to keep.
Here’s where I’ll unabashedly try to wrap my life up. I figured, in that moment, I had no chance of securing memories. I can live, and hope I continue to live, and maybe live again.
On the train to Switzerland, I encountered two more smiling faces. One was a wheelchair bound woman, smiling gleefully as I held a door open for her, and another was the woman sitting across from me, who explained Switzerland’s seven president political system, and in very motherly fashion asked if I knew exactly where my hostel was, and if I was sure I was warm enough. She told me my mom would be very happy that I would be home for Christmas.
I can’t help myself not to say that these people, people who can simply be kind, transcend a lot of what I consider to be my life experience. I don’t always hold memories of these people, but when I encounter them, they shine through. I don’t know what it is. I hope one day, I’ll be able to provide a fraction of the comfort these seeming strangers have provided me.
I’m still layered in sweat, and oil, and unshaved hair, and I’m still on the same couch I was on when I started typing this. I plan on shaving my face, changing my clothes, washing my hair and body, and trimming my nails but right now, I marinate in my own gross. I think I’ll be surprised by how much I look like myself when I do so, regardless of the country I’m in, or the mirror I look through.
Studying abroad is what you make it. I could end my advice there; I’m sure that’s been said a thousand times, but it’s brief and better yet, it’s true. If you want your study abroad experience to be an extension of your college life, like just taking what you have in the states and stretching it across the planet, then that is exactly what it will be. If you want a radical change of pace, a full inundation of the unfamiliar, and a dramatic life change, that’s what it will be. Well, that’s what it could be.
The truth of the matter is, whatever experience you have while studying abroad is dictated by your actions. Of course, our feelings largely dictate our actions, but you will not get the radical European experience without choosing it and acting upon it, and you will not get the American version of Europe deciding so.
And you’re not going to get shit sitting in your room, but that’s your choice. Also, just because this prompt is about giving my advice doesn’t mean I have to take it.
I would suggest not choosing the version you want before you arrive. I planned trips throughout Europe nearly every weekend, as well as a fall break crammed with flights, tours, buses and trains. I wouldn’t recommend it.
The biggest, most pragmatic bit of knowledge I’ve acquired here is that you are never going to experience something through a tour, or a museum. If you like art, history, or art history, then sure, go see it all. If you’re a plebian like myself, once you’ve seen one Christ on the cross, you’ve seen all Christs on the cross.
With that being said, of course you should see things like the Duomo, and the Eiffel Tower. I aspire to do something creative with my life, and these monuments are both daunting and inspiring. There’s something amazing about things so giant, so ornate and so intricate. They’re reminders that larger than life projects are not larger than you. Truly, the Eiffel Tower seems like this planet’s beacon around which all life is based.
I assumed I would want to fervently travel throughout Europe on the weekends with my friends, but I grew tired of that. I love my friends, but it’s hard to discover the unfamiliar when you bring the familiar with you.
The moments that I will remember most will be mainly be the times I walked alone, allowing myself to look and listen, while quietly piecing together why I was around to walk in the first place.
I will also remember the sights that amazed me – the Eiffel tower at night, the pebble beaches of Nice, the sunset in Barcelona, the views from various planes over the Alps, the horizon from the highest castle in Lisbon, etc. Not to mention the quieter, more intimate nights with the people I’ve grown to care a lot about.
I would suggest learning the language prior. Certain colleges make students learn the respected language before studying abroad, which should be standard protocol. Learn the language before, and use it as much as possible.
If you find a way to meet locals, please let me know how you did so. I am only friendly with people who work at the establishments I frequent – this is depressing to me. Though, I hope to remember their smiles and Ciaos upon my walking in. I hope my face has been as friendly and familiar as theirs have been to me.
Also, I would recommend doing a homestay. Maybe I romanticize it because I never experienced it, but I imagine it is a beautiful immersion into whatever your study abroad site’s culture.
What else? Smile (if you can). If you’re a guy studying in Florence I suggest growing a mustache to talk to Italian girls. I have no basis for saying that, but still.
I’ll close with this: study abroad is just college somewhere else. You’re not going to have much time to dance under moonlight and whatnot (was that a good example?) most of the time, so stop imagining some fantastic journey for study-abroad. You can go see beautiful things, but this is still school – don’t let the word “Europe” send your expectations too high.
Studying abroad has certainly transformed me, but it doesn’t suffice to just say, “Yes, I am transformed.” Every time I write or say something about who I am, or how I’ve changed, or how I feel, I end up releasing thoughts that I’m not sure I’ve even had. Vocalization of thoughts ends up creating more thoughts, I think. Writing this, I’ll probably say things I never figured before.
I’ve always been fascinated and scared by traveling by train. Going from New York to Philadelphia, I pass small city after small city, town after town, and house after house. It terrifies me that living people inhabit these places. There are so many people alive right now. It’s not easy for me to accept that. What do they all do? Each is an individual with a family and dreams and goals and memories and tragedies. It’s hard to take in. I will never meet the majority of these people, by a vast amount, and I will never see these people, but they are alive and thinking just like I am.
Extending this view to Europe makes the whole thought more intense. The shreds of life I pass on the New Jersey Transit Northeast corridor are multiplied and multiplied exponentially, infinitely. I’ve traveled a lot while here. I’ve seen Lisbon, Madrid, Barcelona, Paris, London, Sienna, Munich, Rome, Nice, Cannes, Naples, Cinque Terra and Milan. In each of these places and in between there is life.
That’s not easy to process. Some may find this scope, the awareness of the enormity of this planet to be comforting. I’m not sure I do, and I’m not sure why not. Though it frightens me, I think it’s unbelievably beneficial to a young person to experience this. I think a young person understanding the size of this planet is to say, “Where you are is not the world. There are other places, other people, other things, and other times.” With that knowledge, a lot of the pressure of growing up could dissipate. “Sure, this matters here and now, but there are so many other places, and so much more time.”
Also, how important it is to know that so many people do not live how I live. There are more living circumstances than I can ever comprehend. I’ve found three quintessential human experiences while in Europe: the uninhibited love between parent and child, the shrugged-off suffering of a human being without a home, and the foreigner, the always dark-skinned man selling some variety of trinket or novelty. Certain things in Europe pull me out of my comfortable American mindset and force me to see, globally, no, this world is very often not diverse, happy, or fair. These moments don’t make me hug myself and think how fortunate I am, but they make me wonder if young kids saw various forms of global, human sadness, would they dedicate some of the efforts applied to themselves and what’s immediately around them to the forgotten people of the world?
I’ve vaguely witnessed a different kind of life in Florence, and just Florence. I don’t think I spent enough time in any other city to pick up on it elsewhere. Life is slow here, and the people, still, are alien to me. I find it hard to relate to them, because I’ve only viewed them from afar. I’ve had so little interaction with the people of Florence, especially people of my own age. Making a generalization on Florentines as a whole without ever truly getting to know an individual Florentine is setting myself up to make a faulty assumption.
In New York, I see action. It’s written on the people’s faces – the purpose, the need, and the impetus to get from A to B. I can see it, feel it, and think I evidence it in myself. I can vaguely tell where people are going in New York. I have no idea where people are going in Florence. I have no idea what they are doing. I’m naïve enough to believe they don’t have these huge, personal goals that New Yorkers have. Everyone’s trying to be someone in New York, while it seems Florentines are more comfortable. This is my view from afar. It seems as though the people of Florence aren’t just “comfortable” in their lives, they are confident and free from our concept of the American dream. I always see Florentines walking or standing in groups – groups of coworkers, friends, or family. In New York, I walk alone, and I see most people walking alone. Maybe Italians put a larger emphasis on the social, familial aspects of life.
Viewing this, albeit from afar, pulls me out of the New York mentality that I need to, “be someone.” I don’t really need to hit the self-actualization of Maslow’s triangle. I can be around good people and eat well, and maybe that’s enough.
I’ve kind of failed myself while here, by not throwing myself into completely unfamiliar situations, and not meeting unfamiliar people, but I’ve seen a lot, and I’m not done.
Fall break was a poorly planned endeavor, to see five cities – London, Paris, Lisbon, Madrid and Barcelona – in ten days was just ill advised. Too many plane rides, two little time. Seven flights in ten days, not to mention countless train, subway/metro and bus rides. All travel and no rest make Jack a dull boy.
I spent one night in London with my forehead rested on a toilet seat. I had sweat dripping from my face, vomit from my lips, and something – some unidentifiable British something, caught in the back of my throat. This awful state persisted for four days. I hardly saw Paris because of it.
Now watch me take a young woman’s grief and turn it into a horror-story about my stomach problems.
I was in London, or rather, a suburb outside of London, and I was staying with my current study-abroad roommate’s family. I loved their house – a cozy, suburban home with narrow halls and wood floors that you could see through the cracks to the floor below. The neighborhood reminded me of my hometown only sparsely. I hadn’t seen streets with houses on each side with trees since being home. It looked suspiciously close to the settings of Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg’s Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy of Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End. I couldn’t help but be reminded of American Werewolf in London as well.
On our second night there, we visited the bar he worked at over the summer. Again, a pub very reminiscent of these films mentioned above. His sister was manning the tap, as he got her his job once he left for the fall. They had their brother sister reunion, and we were all given free pints. There was free “pork pie,” on the bar, and the only person at the bar was a conservatively dressed young woman, short enough to be casually referred to as a girl. She wore all blue, and almost looked like a stewardess, or maybe a nurse of a lost era.
She was pretty in an innocent way that I can’t describe better than “in an innocent way.”
While we drank our pints loudly and my roommate reunited with his sister, she inquired in her high-pitched voice as to what we were celebrating. My two other roommates and I were just drinking, not celebrating like our other roommate who hasn’t seen his sister in a while, I informed her. I noticed she did not speak with an English accent, so I had to ask, “Where are you from?” “Italy,” she replied sweetly, and when I asked for a specific place, she named an unfamiliar town.
How ironic to leave Italy and finally meet an Italian person.
I, apparently, could not let her sit at a bar alone without knowing why she was at a bar alone. I was not trying to pick her up (I am a chivalrous young man, who would never, ever pick up a girl at a bar, and actually, wouldn’t even think of using the phrase “pick up”) but really to find out how this girl, from a small, unheard of town in Italy, ended up in a small, unheard of town in Italy.
“I’m an au pair,” she told me. I knew the phrase, but I had to Google the spelling while writing this. She explained to me that she was waiting for a friend to show up, but her friend got sick and didn’t show. I didn’t wonder how long this friend had not shown, nor why she didn’t leave when she figured out her friend was not going to come.
“Do you want to try my beer?” she asked, and I did. By this time, I was nice and drunk, and all of us had cozied up to this stranger, in an empty bar, in a strange town in London. We walked outside to drink the beer we had purchased prior to entering the bar, and she came along. My friend and his sister wanted to go to a club, and we all decided we would go, the girl included.
We sat outside the bar drinking our beers, when she said, “Uh oh,” in one cute exhale, as half woman half child. “What?” I asked. She motioned to my left, and in the distance, I could barely make out one man and one woman walking together. “Him,” she said. “What?” “I… I fuck-ed-ed him.”
She said “fuck-ed-ed,” which was adorable, but also, she had sex with this shadowed man who was walking with his shadowed woman. “Oh,” I said. “I guess he has a girlfriend,” she said, “they always have girlfriends, and I only find out after.” After what? I had to ask. “After we have sex.”
Well, okay. “They,” implies a lot, I thought. “We meet at a bar, and they always have girlfriends, or wives.” She met me at a bar, I thought. “I started meeting at bars after-“
“Let’s go,” my friend said, and I shot up, fully ready to go anywhere besides next to this girl. Her words made me uneasy. I had to pry, though, it’s in my nature, and we continued towards the tube to get to the club.
“What do you mean they?” I asked, and she replied, “The guys I have sex with.” I asked, “You have sex with guys who have girlfriends and wives?” “Yes,” she said, sensing some judgment in my voice. “If they want it, and I want it.” Not a lot of words, but a lot of meaning.
“How did you end up in London?” I asked. “How did I end up with you on a subway?” I should have asked. I continued to drink my beer on the tube.
“Well, after my boyfriend died-ed, I moved to London to be an au pair.”
She said “died-ed.” If it was cute and strangely mature the first time, it was unnerving now.
I gave her my impassioned apologies and whatnot, and sensing an invitation to inquire further, I asked. “What happened?” My drunkenness was accelerating with the train’s movement.
“He threw himself in front of a train two months ago.”
This is where our conversation gets a little foggy, due to alcoholism or witchcraft, etc. “What the fuck?” I thought, and showed equal astonishment. “I’m so sorry,” I gave, and she told me it was okay. She told me, probably not in one succinct sentence, that she had sex with all the guys she picked up at bars after her boyfriend died. After he “killéd himself.” That little quote requires some grave accent knowledge.
Well, fuck, I thought. “Why do you go home with guys?” “Why do I fuck them?” “Yeah.” “Why not?”
I couldn’t help but think about the fact that she had mentioned meeting guys at bars. “You weren’t waiting for a friend at all, were you?” “Nope,” she said, and grabbed my hand. “I don’t usually invite the guys back to my family’s house, but we can go there if you’re quiet.”
The guys? The guys?
“What do you mean the guys? How many guys have you had sex with since?”
Now, “how many _______ have you had sex with?” is rarely an acceptable question to ask another human being, and I know that, and I did not care. She seemed to have no problem disclosing more difficult information.
She pondered, a smirk on her face, her eyebrows raised, and a finger to her chin. “Forty,” she said, “this month.”
We got off the tube, and went to the club. Clubs are awful, I just thought I should mention that. We all drank more, and danced, and whatever you’re supposed to do at a club. I was sufficiently drunk now.
How weird was this? Some random, cute little Italian girl throwing herself at me. Some random, cute little Italian girl with a dead boyfriend, and an insatiable sex drive – who comes up with this shit?
I thought, this is a horror movie. This is when the drunk American asshole goes to have sex with the fragile foreign girl, who then skins him alive, or castrates him, or harvests his organs, or sucks his blood out of his neck, or gets off on torturing him.
Nope, not me. I am not that guy, and that has nothing to do with my knowledge of horror movies, and not cause I’m some shining moral example, but because this was fucked up.
She came up to me at the club, and asked me to go home with her now. I said, no, and I told her I was sorry about – you know, her whole life – and that I was going to stay at the club. She said that was okay. “You should go home,” I said. I gave her a big hug, and told her everything was going to be okay, as if that was my privilege to tell this girl that life would treat her better, and as if I knew. She held me tight, maybe crying on my shoulder. I realized she wasn’t crying at all, but kissing my neck. I moved back, and said goodbye and that I wished for her the best. I also gave her my name and number and told her to talk to me whenever.
I felt bittersweet. That was all very sad, but Jon, you savior you, you convinced her to go home and grieve properly in the privacy of her own home, alone. Go you.
I continued at the bar, and had a boy dance party (Google it) with my roommates. While dancing, I saw that the girl had not left, but was sitting at the bar alone.
My friend’s sister said, “She asked me if you were gay. She said something about you not going home with her, and she had someone else to fuck tonight anyway.”
We left the club, and I saw her walking down the street with two guys about my age, both much, much taller than she.
The next morning, I woke up hung over, which wasn’t a surprise. This hangover lasted for hours and hours as I toured foggy London town. I returned to my friend’s house, and vomited more violently than I ever have. I continued to be viciously sick on the flight to Paris, and the entire stay in Paris.
I chalked it up to food poisoning, or maybe a stomach virus, or maybe drinking from the girl’s glass. In the back of my head, I thought, I avoided the horror movie ending by not being an enormous piece of shit, but had come down with some sort of curse for not fully saving this girl’s soul. Surely, I had to come away with some sort of nightmare plague – no one leaves a horror movie unscathed.
As I rested my head on my hostel pillow in Paris, the window wide open for fresh air, listening to children play from a nearby schoolyard, I couldn’t help but think, did this boyfriend ever exist? Was she really an au pair? Was any of that real? If she lied about waiting for a friend, what else would she have lied about?
I don’t know. I prefer the horror story. The horror story comforts me.
I don’t want to write right now. There is no particular reason for this, I just do not feel inspired or required (though for this class, I am required) to write anything. There’s an edict I found about writing creatively that has been in the forefront of my mind ever since hearing it. Also in the forefront of my mind are the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, which I will address by the end of this post one way or another. Whether or not these two ideas will merge, I’m not sure yet.
One of my favorite writers is a screenwriter named Charlie Kaufman, and during a master class in Sweden, he said, “If what you’re doing does not have the possibility of failing, then by definition, you’re not doing anything new.” This has been immensely impactful to me. I have always wanted to create in such fashion, but I never had such a succinct reinforcement to my doubts in doing so.
These words have inspired me to always write in my own voice, regardless of how uncomfortable it may make people feel, or whether or not people will enjoy it, or respect it. If what you are making is destined to succeed, it is because someone has done the same thing before and succeeded. If you are making the exact same thing as someone else has, you are making no impact. You are taking no risks, and you have no potential to enlighten a reader or an audience.
This, this concept that the potential to fail is integral to creativity is now a driving factor behind everything I write. I would never use this quote to justify failure. I use this quote to embrace the potential to fail – to create something unloved, unappreciated, disrespected, disliked, and disregarded.
I have nothing in me to write creatively today. Some days I do, some days I don’t. There is no known cause for either state.
Today, I’m simply experiencing writer’s block.
I enjoyed sharing the above quote, because it’s a quote that I love. It’s in my mind today, as I have no creative output. The following is unrelated.
What can I tell you about the recent terrorist attacks that will make you think or feel something you haven’t thought or felt before? Nothing.
I have no light to shed and no insight to share. I have no social consciousness to tell you that if you grieve for one violent attack you must grieve for all, and I have no political consciousness to say these worldwide problems have solutions. I don’t have the cynic in me to tell you that people die everyday, and I don’t have the optimist in me to tell you that one day they won’t.
I’m not going to say I stand with Paris, show solidarity for Beirut, or am sending prayers to Kenya, because these are thoughts, and if you have a Facebook right now you’re sick of thoughts. Just because I’m having these thoughts does not mean I have to tell you about them. Maybe I’m not having these thoughts. Maybe, just maybe, I’m not grieving at all, and these events – each of them – have had no impact on me.
I don’t even have judgments right now. I have a few curiosities, a few questions, and I no interest in having them answered.
Why do we grieve publicly? Why do we make sure people know we feel the need to show solidarity, or send prayers, or stand with someone? What kind of release do we get from sharing our grief with others?
When do we stop grieving? When does that red white and blue coated profile picture go back to normal? If we have been to Paris recently, why do we share that information? Does that information mean it could have been us – we could have died? Do we need that knowledge that we could have died to remind us of our mortality? Do we need tragic events like this to remind us of our mortality?
What does it say about the person who didn’t stand with, send prayers, show solidarity, or take that moment of silence? Does that person not care? Why doesn’t that person care? Does he/she view death as inevitable, and find the means by which people die as irrelevant?
Here’s what I’ve got:
People die every day in awful ways. People are mutilated, exploded, disemboweled, crushed and whatnot every day. People die young and old in some absolutely disgusting, gory, violent, and horrible ways. Some die peacefully. Knowledge of that doesn’t mean a fucking thing. It doesn’t change me in anyway.
In my inability to be creative today, I am writhing, and I’ve got nothing
Reading Mark Twain’s A Tramp Abroad, I’m hit with admiration for Twain’s writing like I’m in eleventh grade again, reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I haven’t read Twain since, and at 21 years old, I can raise questions beyond the subject of the author’s intent, questions that reach contemplation of universal genius, artistry, and time. How very intelligent of me.
Immediately apparent is not just the relevance of Twain’s writing, but the accuracy. Much of A Tramp Abroad is not just relatable, but true in the world of today, so much so that his writing hardly feels antiquated. I wonder how much credit should be given to Twain’s genius, and how much should be given to the possibility that society throughout time has somehow coincidentally adhered to his writing. I now make the sweeping statement that an author’s legacy as one of “the greats” is based on his/her ability to capture a time period, as well as put forth sentiments, comments, etc. that remain true to the human condition, regardless of the passage of time.
Enough bullshit – I’ll get to the book now. Being stationed (not exactly correct word choice; I’ve elected to be here) in Italy, I’ve chosen to focus on Twain’s passages about Italy. His earliest mention of Italy and the Italian people is, “For several weeks I had been culling all the information I could about Italy, from tourists. The tourists were all agreed upon one thing – one must expect to be cheated at every turn by the Italians.” Of course, time and time again, individual Italians throughout his travel experience prove this notion wrong. After three separate occasions in which fraud could’ve been wrought, he quietly dispels these generalizations.
How many times have I been warned to protect myself against pickpockets? How many hostel workers across Europe have informed me that they are on their third iPhone this year? Twain presents not just the general xenophobia – xenophobia that I undoubtedly still wield, as I put hands in both my pockets while navigating a crowded market – but also a genuine repulsion at the thought of being fooled by another. Doing so, he makes a bit of an ass out of himself, saying things like “I know it’s Swiss, but you’ll take that or none” after making a donation in a foreign currency.
After explaining his social faux pas with a puppeteer and his coin collector, he launches into a story about giving too much money to a blind beggar-woman in a church and stealing it back. It reads like a Curb Your Enthusiasm episode, or an old Woody Allen piece. He writes, “I whipped the gold piece out of the poor old pauper’s palm and dropped my Turkish penny in its place. Poor old thing, she murmured her thanks – they smote me to the heart.” Not allowing the reader to simply be amused, he adds a simple, endlessly intelligent adage, reading, “The most permanent lessons in morals are those which come, not of booky teaching, but of experience.”
Largely, I’ve had a similar experience in regards to being cheated by Italians – I haven’t been. Hell, I’ve been the only one cheating here. I do my best to avoid paying for the bus, keeping one ticket in hand in case I need to validate and cover my ass, and ducking ticket collectors if I can. I wasn’t charged with the dessert I ordered last night at a trattoria, and I strongly considered not fixing the mistake and not paying for it. When finally paying, I reminded the cashier of my unmarked purchase and paid the correct price. How very kind of me. Someone please find me the oldest definition of “tramp.”
Twain’s closing words on travel include a few gems about Americans, and ultimately, our fear of becoming anything besides Americans. He writes, “To be condemned to live as the average European lives would make life a pretty heavy burden to the average American family.” Do I really need to comment on this, or can I just point to how many of us have written about laundry-related issues throughout the semester?
He recounts his return home with, “I was glad to get home—immeasurably glad; so glad, in fact, that it did not seem possible that anything could ever get me out of the country again. I had not enjoyed a pleasure abroad which seemed to me to compare with the pleasure I felt in seeing New York harbor again.” I can’t imagine an experience in Europe that will have felt better than my eventual arrival in Philadelphia International Airport. Note, up until I was eighteen, I figured once I left, I would never return to the aforementioned cesspool again. One more time: nothing here in Europe is going to compare to my arrival in the hometown I still call a cesspool.
Tidily wrapping up the 600+ pages of travel literature, he writes, “On the whole, I think that short visits to Europe are better for us than long ones. The former preserve us from being Europeanized; they keep our pride of country intact, and at the same time they intensify our affection for our country and our people.” God forbid I return to America Europeanized. God forbid I lose my fight, my constant need to get one over on someone else. God forbid I learn patience, lose my comfy prejudices, or leave myself to experience another.
Places only exist for the sake of getting out of the house. Think about it, but not too hard. Other places just get us away from where we usually are.
I’m almost always bedridden, not due to illness or anything; I just like marinating in my room. I am sleepier than anyone I know, and was actually tested for narcolepsy over the summer. The results were negative, oddly, so I can only explain my room dwelling in terms of Simon & Garfunkel’s “I am A Rock.”
When reading this prompt, I had to consider a few places. I could have written about the gym I frequent in Florence, with its sweaty cigarette smell, posters of very-nippled (yeah, try to figure out what that could mean) topless fitness women, flowery shrines to Lance Armstrong, and old Italian men who passive-aggressively challenge me to weight-lifting competitions and always win. Technically, this is a “good great place” in the way people come and have a good time, but I think it’s a stretch to say people hang out.
I could have also simply written about the campus café, where students hang out, do homework, and drink cheap but delicious coffee. I would have, but I need to make my experience in Florence sound unique. I don’t have a choice. I have to seem cool. I cannot talk about the on-campus coffee place, where often people forget to say “thank you,” to the lone, kindly man who serves them everyday.
The campus café serves the same purpose as the place I’m going to talk about, and I can only explain this by saying you can take the boy out the bedroom but you can’t take the bedroom out the boy. Don’t make that gross, I’m only referencing Hustle and Flow.
I turn a local café around the corner, The Bench, into my bedroom every few days. I show up with my laptop, and I plot down for about two hours every few days. I scatter my papers, books and whatnot, but I try to keep it respectful to those around me. I’ve yet to find out if my doing work there is frowned upon, as I am the only one with my laptop. Though I would expect more study-abroad kids would flock there due to free wi-fi and student discounts, I very, very rarely hear English spoken.
The owner of the place doesn’t speak a lick of English, and I actually strive to speak Italian to all three of the café’s employees. Unwaveringly I become scared when I order a “café latte” and a server brings me a tall glass of milk. I always forget that he/she will soon pour an espresso in. God forbid I am handed a cool, natural beverage without bitter, crack nectar. With each coffee comes a little shot glass of water. It’s like they know how weird my mouth feels after coffee. They get their water by three exposed pipes that hang from the ceiling with nozzles at the end.
It’s a hip little place that for some reason plays swing covers of pop and rap hits from the 2000’s. Note, this is the fourth place I’ve been to in Italy that has played swing covers of popular American songs. I use head phones, to avoid hearing some lounge singer croon, “Lick my neck / my back / my pussy and my crack” as I eat pesto ravioli out of a tiny iron pan.
Everything is made out of wood, which is only contrasted by the piping, creating a rustic/industrial dichotomy. It could easily serve as a New York coffee place in that sense, which I suppose is why I set up shop there. Also, there’s a wildly inconsistent student discount. Sometimes I’ll pay full price, other times I’ll order multiple coffees and a meal and the owner will call it at six euro. They serve beyond the typical Italian dish, often throwing fruit into the pasta equation, which is nice. You’d think otherwise Italians only believe in feeding us American tourists that bottom section of the health class food pyramid.
I take my routine with me, whether to The Bench, or the campus café, and even the gym. Only through writing this have I realized the reason these places seem expendable to me is because I do the same thing in each. I wonder if I have to abandon my purpose of going to these “good great places” in order to carry them with me regardless of where I am, as opposed to just using them to get out of bed.
I’m about the last person to write anything that uses the word “style” in it; I’m even less likely to write about “fashion.” In New York, at least freshman year, I at least tried to dress well. By sophomore year I realized I could not afford to compete with how New Yorkers dress, so I settled into dressing – for lack of better words – shitty. I’ve been consistent in this shittiness in Florence.
In this sense, I haven’t paid much attention to fashion, or the way that people dress. I’ve also set aside visiting tourist locations (museums, churches and the like) until about November when Florence should be empty of tourists. This means I don’t really have much to talk about in terms of Florence’s art, and I can forget about writing about architecture due to complete lack of knowledge. Honestly, I’m ignorant to most conventions of style except for those in subjects I care most for. It’s not something I pick up on.
However, one stylistic aspect of Florence has burst through my inability to view the art in my surroundings. Clet Abraham’s street art is everywhere in Florence, to the point it feels commonplace. It’s interesting how easy it is to forget about his art, along with all the colossal buildings that double as works of art in Florence, after first recognizing it. I hardly notice the Duomo anymore, really.
Clet Abraham is a street artist with a guerilla mentality, akin to Banksy. Clet applies stickers to road signs (stop signs, crosswalks, etc.) that he says are easily removable – which is important, considering police continuously fine him for defacing street signs. His most famous image is likely a stick figure Christ crucified on a dead-end sign. While his art is easily removable, its messages, or rather, the thoughts they produce, can be hugely impactful.
On his own work, Clet says:
“My street sign work stem from a reflection upon our “common visual space”. The omnipresence of street signs, other than being a sign of the [Italian] culture of “anti-responsibility”, can verge on the absurd. The message is very poor (sometimes I feel like I’m being treated like an idiot by them) and yet they have a highly invasive aesthetic. As a professional in the world of visual space, I feel called to intervene, both to notify the public of the absurdity of the situation, and to propose a constructive and respectful alternative. My adhesives are developed to add a further level of reading [to street signs] constructed on the base of their original signification in order to maintain its utility but give it some intellectual, spiritual, or simply amusing interest. The final objective? That traffic keeps flowing without us feeling spoken down to!”
Essentially, he thinks the city of Florence uses street signs to avoid being held responsible for automobile accidents. Why this seems unacceptable to him is beyond me. I wholly support his goal of adding a level of depth to the mundane to the wild world of street signs though.
I find a lot of his art to be just mildly thought provoking. How much can be said of a stick figure with his head and hands locked in medieval stocks? There’s no facial expression and no context clues. It’s just a stick figure being punished. Can one chalk this image up to the ambiguous notion that all of us are being punished in some sense? Should we use the word “society” to describe it? Why do those viewing art like to assume the artist is trying to encapture an entire planet’s situations, emotions, etc? “Society” is rarely an apt term.
On the other hand, some of his art is not truly disturbing, but it definitely has a lasting effect – one I’ve yet to put my finger on. Seeing three stick figure corpses packed into a stop sign line like sardines is not graphic enough to upset me, but it’s enough to sink into my thoughts later on. Though cute in its animation, it’s grim as hell. At its least, it’s unpleasant. At its worst, it’s not just a reminder of death. It’s reminder of death that echoes with the concepts of corpses, decomposition, etc.
I’d like to know how others view these images. They don’t often instill dark thoughts, but they certainly have the potential. Is this just cheeky street art, or harsher criticism?
Quote from:Tuscany Arts
“76% of Travelers post vacation photos to social networks, so fuck you and your hometown,” reports adweek.com. Okay, I made that last part up, but it may as well be true.
I have no experience with Travel 2.0, and it holds almost no relevance to me. I don’t use Yelp, or any other kind of travel app, or even any travel websites like Airbnb. My closest friends here planned the majority of trips before we even got here, and I’m not even quite sure what they used to do it. I know this is about social media, but I don’t feel like discussing tourists taking selfies, and hashtagging, because I am not your dad’s friend, you are not my friend’s young adult child, I am not mildly drunk, and we are not awkwardly seated next to each other at a dinner party.
My dad told me back in his day, he just used a book to figure out where he wanted to go while abroad. He and his friends looked at pictures of places, read descriptions, and handwrote possible itineraries before traveling to Europe. To that I say, “wow,” and “bravo.” More so, I feel a tinge of jealousy.
Imagine going somewhere with only the tiny image of your destination from a printed page with no more than that and a description. Forget an interactive 3d map on your phone, and certainly forget the iPhone’s “fly over tour” option. Just take a small square photo, a brief description, a few addresses and one or two maps. That’s a recipe for travel, along with some wanderlust (if you’re being romantic) or parents’ money (if you’re being realistic).
What an amazing, mysterious, and frightening experience that would be.
I’m not the right person to discuss “travel 2.0,” or social media. I don’t have a twitter or instagram, and I stick to Facebook to keep up with life events, and snapchat so my friends can send me disgusting things for me to laugh at. Otherwise, I think social media is infinitely detrimental, and ultimately pointless. I share the same views as your uncle, really.
However, I must admit, over the summer I saw a Bonigen, Switzerland in a friend’s snapchat story and I had to message her asking where she was. I still haven’t seen Bonigen, but by seeing her picture alone, I feel inspired to go there.
I take no issue with certain aspects of social media. It’s great to inspire someone to do something positive, or even neutral, like take a trip to Switzerland while abroad. My learning that Bonigen even exists is a direct result of snapchat. For that, and for many, many naked pictures (just kidding – I am not that cool) I thank you, snapchat.
Being able to find reviews, photos and whatnot of travel locations seems like a pretty positive function of social media, so I’m not going to rant about it. Considering it, I am being led by a friend I trust throughout Europe, and another person is being led by social media users whom they trust. We’re not that different.
However, I must briefly explain why I think social media is dangerous. To put a quantity (likes or favorites) on someone’s thought (or tweet), or someone’s face (an Instagram post) can make someone mistake numbers for confidence, human interaction, etc. That’s an issue. That breeds insecurity.
I think it’s fine when an institution gets this sort of quantified evaluation. It gives hotels, restaurants, tourist sites, etc. a good indication of how they are living up to expectations. Does anyone want a number telling her how well she is living up to someone else’s expectations?
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Reading E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View was a strange experience. While the characters and conflicts seem extremely antiquated (the book was published in 1908, after all), Forster touches on some very specific travel phenomena that remain relevant at least to me and my life in Florence. It even raises some arguments about the memories one traveling abroad will leave with.
After vividly describing a busy Florentine street corner, Forster writes, “Over such trivialities as these many a valuable hour may slip away, and the traveler who has gone to Italy to study the tactile values of Giotto, or the corruption of the Papacy, may return remembering nothing but the blue sky and the men and women who live under it” (19). This is quite a loaded sentiment. The author is expressing a notion that it is not the subjects we study, nor the artwork/museums we see and visit that we will remember. We will remember something much less specific and defined: the people in passing, and the space they inhabit.
This is difficult for me. It’s much easier to remember and recount pieces of art and subjects studied. It’s relatively simple to tell you of the marble statue of David. I can talk about the color, the marble itself and how smooth it appears, the contours of his abdomen, and the most famous (and modest) penis in art history. I can tell you about my studies, my class on Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, or my class on the politics of organized crime. I can remember and later recount facts, theses, and notable figures.
Can I do the same with the Florentine ambience? Can I recall and describe the aura of the Italian people as a collective? I believe it’s easier to remember the objective, qualitative and quantitative aspects of travel, rather than the exact feeling of travel. I feel I am writing myself into a hole, but I wonder if other members of this blog agree or disagree. However, I do think feelings and perceptions, rather than objective facts, create a greater lasting effect on a person. Maybe this “lasting effect” I have just mentioned has nothing to do with memory, but a greater phenomena of existence. Maybe I have no idea what I am talking about at this point in my longwinded paragraph.
I admire the way Forster opens his novel by expressing the disenchantment a traveler can feel in the presence of other travelers. Protagonist Lucy Honeychurch’s first words are, “’And a Cockney, besides!’ said Lucy, who had been further saddened by the Signora’s unexpected accent. ‘It might be London’” (7). Here, she’s referring to the one who manages the pension, or boarding house, and how she is British and not a local Italian.
I wonder how diluted a traveler’s experience may be simply by being among those of the same nationality. As I’ve mentioned in probably too many posts, I do find the constant presence of similarly born people a little troubling. Sometimes, in my most negative states, I find for each accompanying American, I release the opportunity to swim in Italian culture to someone more adventurous.
As vapid, painfully innocent and proper as I find Lucy Honeychurch to be, Forster defends her character by channeling some insightful, yet universal, thoughts through her. Lucy enters a church to view the artwork, and Forster writes, “But though she spent nearly seven lire, the gates of liberty seemed still unopened. She was conscious of her discontent; it was new to her to be conscious of it. ‘The world,’ she thought, ‘is certainly full of beautiful things, if only I could come across them’” (42).
I will not beat a dead horse (even though my RA in Florence just told me a story about punching a pony in the face multiple times) by saying I have not ventured far enough in an isolated state in Florence. It seems as though Forster does not find the most notable aspects of Florence, or anywhere foreign, to be the sights of art and history, but rather, the unexplainable and intangible.
I think I lean more towards Forster’s expression that what will have the greatest impact on a traveler is not going to be found after paying a ticket price. Well, maybe after paying a bus ticket.
I suppose it makes sense to think studying abroad is one big adventure. One is venturing to a new country, continent, and culture, and will presumably meet many new people. However, an adventure in the classical sense is about the journey while making one’s way from A to B. When studying abroad, getting from A to B is a plane ride, and the majority of the time is spent living in B.
In my studies, I learn a lot about objectives and goals in terms of screenwriting and acting. A protagonist in a script has a want and a need. The want is the objective, and the need is the unconscious fulfillment the character needs to achieve happiness and whatnot. A character in a scene needs, or wants, to achieve something. This is the basis of the conflict in a scene. “Acting is about action,” so I’ve heard.
I don’t fully agree with any of this. I think firstly characters are alive; characters are not always pursuing something consciously. Characters are alive like people are alive. You don’t walk into most human interactions with an explicit goal, such as “make her feel loved,” or “prove he is guilty.” First and foremost, we’re just alive, and often passive. Studying abroad isn’t four months of venturing. It’s living and studying, and venturing on occasion. The routines we enact at home are more or less the routines we enact abroad.
My usual weekday begins with waking at 10:00am. I wake, then get in a 2×2 shower where I either turn my body counterclockwise, accidentally hitting the knob and making the water scorching hot, or turn my body clockwise, making the water excruciatingly cold. I get dressed and throw my class materials in my bag. I eat a ham and mozzarella sandwich for breakfast and make my way to class. I wait for the bus, which is never on time, and has actually been late enough on a rainy day for me to miss an entire class.
I get to campus and climb up and down the goddamn canyon that connects the side of the campus I enter into and the side of the campus where I have class. I sit in an hour-long Elementary Italian class, not entirely frustrated or bored, but also not remotely enthralled. After class, I grab lunch with my friends and avoid asking myself why the meat tastes the way it tastes.
I stay on campus even after my classes for the day have ended, either to write or to use the campus Wi-Fi. See, the Wi-Fi in my apartment is even less reliable than the bus’ punctuality, and at its very best, it is usable. It’s a disaster when one (or all) of my four roommates is using it as well. Most notably, when someone is streaming an NFL or rugby game, or is in the bathroom streaming something quite different, it’s function collapses upon itself.
I often watch a movie on my computer on campus in one of the common rooms, hoping no one glances at my screen only to see I’m watching a movie and not “working.” For the record, movie watching is some of the strongest education I receive, so if you catch me on campus watching Beauty and the Beast or The French Connection or anything in between, I promise I’m being productive.
After watching a movie, writing, or doing some homework I go to the gym. The gym is a labyrinth of old, rusty workout machines and misplaced dumbbells. I go and pick heavy things up and put them back down. I do this because I was skinny in high school and am a douchebag in college.
If I have another lecture that day, I won’t go to the gym. I will sit in a classroom or lecture hall and wonder at what age will I be able to not listen to someone talk about something I do not care about? When does that end? When can I be lectured only on topics I am interested in? Unfortunately, I’ve found college not to be about what I’m interested in, but finding classes within a selection that very tenuously relate to the subject I would like to learn about.
I return to my apartment which I call home and drink a liter of milk, because I am a friggin’ weirdo. I also wash a dish and a pan, previously used and unwashed by one of the bros on my floor. I wash a bro’s mess, and I throw some chicken on a pan and eat it. That sentence killed my soul.
If I need to, I do laundry as well. The wash works fine, but I have to use three dryer cycles for one small load of laundry. Each cycle costs one euro. I thought the laundry rooms of NYU dorms were reflective of NYU’s insatiable greed; I can’t even begin to comprehend this laundry room.
Then, I will read in my bed and go to sleep. Just like I do in New York, NY, just like I do in Upper Holland, PA, and just like I’ll do right now.
The first actual walk I took (“actual” meaning without headphones, without other people, and most importantly without destination) was last week. I had just woken up from a nap, which was not nearly enough for me to be alive, so I grabbed an espresso as well.
I walked out of my apartment and made a right, and another right on the first street I encountered. That was all I did. I soon left the arbitrary boundaries of my “comfort zone,” which extends in this direction as far as the “OK Café,” a “restaurant” with “student deals” on “hamburgers.” Past this point, I was unfamiliar to my surroundings.
It’s worth noting I was in no state that required me to clear my head, blow off steam, or any other idiom. I was fine. I was not ordained by any sort of higher power, artistic muse, or wandering spirit; I just went for a walk.
About a New York City block past the “OK Café,” I had reached an area where I felt like the only American. I can’t explain the sensation of identifying as the only American, just like most Florentines can simply spot a tourist when they see one, regardless of dress/appearance. In retrospect, I think I felt I was finally only in the presence of Florentines when it appeared no one around me was searching for a destination. Perhaps Florentines take on more of a stroll than an inquisitive gait.
Once I had crossed the threshold between Florence, Florida and Firenze, Italia, I first noticed a custom notebook shop on my right. In the storefront I saw the products of custom parchment and custom binding. “Custom” may not be the right word – “handmade” more be more accurate. Anyway, a papersmith (that’s a word that exists now) in the back was running a straw-like string through the spine of a seemingly watercolor cover. I wanted immediately to become his apprentice, learning paper the way a blacksmith learns iron. More so, I wanted a notebook, but felt like I should stick to a marble notebook as opposed to sullying the work of a man who must be so brilliant at writing, he needs his own parchment.
Anyway, I stumbled upon a similar shop (this one made marionettes) and I gave not a shit. I find Pinocchio troubling for many reasons, so I continued without putting thought into the probably sensual woodworking occurring inside.
Walking further, I found Italian shops that seemed very clearly to be chain stores, like the Italian versions of Gap and Express. I passed many, many gelato shops and many, many Florentines eating gelato. What city other than Firenze has such an economy grounded in ice cream? How can Italians eat so much gelato, carbs and the like without having an obesity issue? Please answer in the comment section below.
Among other things, I found a defunct “cinema.” A friend and I later talked about how great that word is, and how we wished it were more prevalent in the American lexicon. My wish to find a movie theatre showing current films was crushed once again.
Once I hit about the end of the road, I turned back. The end of the road was more of an intersection that was too congested to cross than an actual end. I walked on the opposite side of the road I had started on, and entered the open gate of a church, because I had heard the sound of human activity, life, etc.
I entered some soccer fields where elementary school kids were playing. I watched for a little, but not long enough to see any goals scored. The only thing I could think was that kids were kids; nothing I heard sounded foreign. They got excited and yelled like kids do. They ran and stopped and let their arms flail to their sides just the same as American kids. Language was irrelevant.
I walked back towards my apartment, and on the way stopped to eat. I was one of the only patrons in this little primary-colored café, and sat right behind a pretty waitress who was standing and cutting freshly baked bread. She waited on me, and I found myself talking at a slightly higher register than usual. I found this was due to my being insecure speaking the language. As I sat and pondered this, I realized a lot of my reservations unraveled as I walked alone. I yielded to those walking in my direction as opposed to refusing to alter my movement. I didn’t get frustrated when edges of the sidewalk were too crowded for me to walk on. There was a noticeable difference in my demeanor.
I wanted to ask the waitress, who was especially kind, where I could meet and befriend local Italians. I didn’t.
I got back to my apartment and let my roommates know they could have the rest of the prosciutto, mozzarella and fried dough balls (no kidding) I had ordered from the café.
I don’t speak a lick of Italian. I speak with a Philly accent that cripples my English to the point that I have been asked if I am Australian, and a new friend told me I had “the ugliest accent [he] had ever heard.” I know a little bit of Spanish after three years in your typical Spanish public school classroom, but not enough to not sound like a jackass. Fortunately, I don’t have to speak either Italian or Spanish or any other language while abroad, because English is ubiquitous here. It is the dominant language, prevailing through the centuries and across all lands. Everyone understands me, and when I speak my language, they speak my language. I AM A GOLDEN GOD.
I resent the attitude I am allowed to hold while abroad. I’m allowed to walk around with the knowledge that all the people who do not have to understand me will pander to me and understand me anyway. It’s a shame. I am supposed to be the one flailing his hands and desperately trying to speak a new language. Each time I order food, or really, have any interaction with a European, I speak my language, and they struggle to understand me. Sometimes, the person I am interacting with seems to be embarrassed. It makes me feel guilty.
The simple fix: try to speak their language. I have no excuse not to put in the effort, but I don’t know it well enough to even conjure something remotely comprehendible. I don’t want to look like an idiot, and I don’t want to insult anyone. My Italian sounds like Dr. Nick from The Simpsons (see below).
My French is something else entirely. In the two days I spent in France I very minimally attempted to speak the language. I’m pretty sure I cycled through English, Spanish, and Italian before landing the “merci” I was reaching for. Every other French word or phrase I attempted was butchered in ways too graphic for the modern horror film.
I feel more American in Europe than I have ever felt at home. The last few weeks have shown me that this is inescapable, until I dive into some venture on my own. I must put myself in a situation where speaking language simply is not an option if I’m ever going to learn this language, or you know, get half of the experience I came here for. I’m too damn comfortable.
The closest thing I’ve come to being unable to speak my language is when I visited Cinque Terra for the day. I met a few people who spoke absolutely no English, forcing me to pantomime various odd gestures as well as slip in some Spanish words that I felt had to suffice. Luckily, one of them had a phone with a translator installed, possibly for the sole purpose of making friends with the clumsy foreigner. Clearly, this was a very important interaction, and I am now married to one of these people, who just happened to be an Italian goddess.
That’s another thing – is the language barrier too intrusive for me to actually befriend a local? Did my use of the word “local” make me sound like Columbus, racially insulting his subjects after landing the Santa Maria? The only way I could get to know someone living in Florence is if he/she spoke English, as my poor language ability just wouldn’t suffice. Furthermore, how is anyone studying abroad supposed to meet anyone who actually lives in this country? That’s a whole separate issue, and I’ll shut up.
Despite the fact I abhor the thought of speaking Italian, I love listening to it. It’s beautiful – I don’t need to attempt to describe its flowing, musical nature. It’s simply unfound in the English language. Words seem to rhyme and blend in ways that my language refuses. This makes the thought of speaking Italian daunting. I can’t just affront two Italian people in conversation with my language – it’s a crime against their melodies. I ended up trying to describe its flowing, musical nature, and I did not do it justice, so I’m sorry for that.
I’m jealous, really. I’m fascinated by the fleeting, foreign nature of Italians and the Italian language. It’s something I haven’t been able to get a grip on, but like with every post on this blog, I’m acknowledging that this requires significant effort.
Due to what I can only attribute to sheer, blind confidence, I don’t often find myself lost. New York city, geographically, most reminds me of a living, multidimensional map, with its lines tangible, and street names visible. There’s no need for a legend; the Empire State building and Chrysler building are north, and the Freedom tower is south.
There are no such vertical markers in Firenze, or at least I don’t believe I’ve found them. The only point of reference (that I can pronounce, at least) is the Duomo, and if its direction is identified, I can surely make it back to my apartment. If unidentified, I don’t quite feel lost, as the road home can’t be far.
You can’t be lost on a map. There is no “lost” position; being lost is a condition, not a location. To be lost is be unable to place yourself in relation to a specific location, or to not even be aware of a location that you could place yourself in reference to. To stop speaking in weird, mechanical terms, I will say that in order to be lost, everything around you must be unfamiliar.
That is never the case for me in Florence, and I can’t chalk it up to any sort of intrinsic GPS. I simply believe that if I’m on a street that is unfamiliar, there is a familiar street not far. It’s a sense of calm, and maybe even apathy. This allows me to know where I am and always believe I am right, which I assure you, people love.
Hell, I don’t remember the last time I was lost, and I’m not sure how I would describe the sensation. There’s a feeling of panic, and the looming sense that I will never again be able to place myself in reference to something familiar; if I am unable to compare my location to another location, my location may as well not exist at all, and shit, we’re back to the existential crisis.
I only remember feeling lost as a child, and inherently thinking, “Oh no, I don’t know where I am, I am most definitely going to die.” This feeling doesn’t really exist in my current adulthood, but let’s hope I don’t get lost in the woods – where there are often no reference points – anytime soon.
I’ve been to three cities while abroad: Firenze, Siena, and Cinque Terra. Each city has discernible roads, while Siena has a great church marking the highest point of the city, and Cinque Terra has a hiking trail spawning all five of its towns. These factors allow me the knowledge of my location. Furthermore, I have bumped into a middle school acquaintance in all three cities. This renders me wholly unable to even lose my middle school identity.
As referenced in my first blog post, being around those I know keeps my sense of self most consistent. To be lost as a person, I would need to be inundated in an ocean of strangers, where who I am would be more of a fluid concept. Whoa, trippy. In all seriousness, this mind state of being “lost,” would require me to eventually be “found.” Whoa, trite.
Cinque Terra is the closest thing I’ve experienced to nature in Italy, yet the tollbooth operators along the hiking trail are a firm reminder that you are not truly exploring in the slightest. You are along a path that you can navigate in one of two directions, and more so, you’re paying for it. So don’t you dare hit the beach in Monterosso al Mare, with your Bus2Alps tourguide, take a picture with your bucket of booze (not kidding, they will serve you a bucket of whatever alcohol you like for fifteen euro) and caption it as “the road less traveled,” and make Robert Frost turn in his grave. There’s certainly a theme in my blog posts, and it is making dead poets unhappy.
I’m not sure if I ever left the United States when I landed in Florence. I feel genuine jealousy that Pico Iyer can say, “The first great joy of traveling is simply the luxury of leaving all my beliefs and certainties at home, and seeing everything I thought I knew in a different light, and from a crooked angle.”
I certainly did not leave my beliefs or certainties at home. I’m from the suburbs of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and have been studying at New York University for the past two years. I have not left one conviction back in the states, and I am not yet viewing anything I know in a different light, or from a crooked angle. I think I’m a realist, which is what every “cynic” thinks. I’m 21 years old, and at this point, I’m familiar with my thoughts, and confident in my reality – that is, until the monthly existential crisis kicks in. I know who I am, or at least I believe so. There are a few beliefs that I hold that allow me to rationalize just why I am not changed, and why I don’t feel the need to adjust to my experience so far in Florence.
Firstly, I believe I am myself when I am alone, and when I’m with others, I am a variation or mutation of that original, base self. When I am alone, or only in the presence of strangers, I am anonymous, and have full potential for personal change. I am not alone, nor solely in the presence of strangers. I am with my closest college friends, and happily away from the concept of self-rebirth. Iyer describes traveling as being born again, which I can respect, if he was specifically speaking of travelling in solitude. I’m sure if I traveled to an unknown place, with no connections to my prior life (I essentially experienced this when moving to New York), I would feel born again. This is not the case in Florence.
As far as “unknown” goes, Florence doesn’t feel unknown. I spent a day here last summer, and my two-week stay in Italy actually convinced me to choose Florence as my abroad site. Regardless of being here before, it still does not feel unknown. I hear my big dumb language spoken about as frequently as I hear the Italian language. I speak my big dumb language to Florentines and they more or less pander to me and my absolute neglect to communicate in their native tongue.
The sheer amount of tourists makes Florence feel familiar to New York. I’m comfortable with funnily dressed middle age men bumbling and bumping their ways around crowds. This is nothing new. With all the tourists, the beautiful, old world architecture may as well be the façade of Epcot’s Italian showcase, a la Disneyworld.
More so, Young American-ness has fully crept its way into Florence, and though I fell out of it when I left high school, I joyfully jumped right back in on arrival. I’m speaking of binge drinking, clubbing and the like. Not that these things are bad, but I mainly replaced these activities with things that benefit my career/studies of film, writing, and the general enjoyment of things, with the occasional respite night of going out and drinking.
However, the first five days were spent not at the Duomo or the David, but weird Euro-American bars and clubs. I want to make this very clear: I enjoyed my time and my decisions, and I am merely saying I did not need to adjust to Florence because Florentine culture feels diluted with American drunkenness, which if you were alive in the last hundred years, you will find familiar. Just look at Space Club which plays American music from the top-of-the-charts music from 2000 to present day. Slipping between Rihanna and Pitbull was an electronic dance music rendition of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Music plays, Kurt spins in his grave.
Walk around Florence and you’ll find Americanized bars with walls covered in American college logos, Greek letters, American quotes (“Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose”) and American names (are there any young American women not named Ashley?). I can’t help but believe the drunken douchebag with his pastel button-down shirt wrapped around his chest like a toga was not preserving the culture of Florence, nor infusing Florence with any sort of respectable American culture. However, he made me feel right at home.
I will most likely spend fewer nights shit-faced in dark, loud spaces, under the assault of strobe lights and sweaty strangers, not because I hate these experiences, but I just didn’t travel across the globe for them. I want to fully imbibe Italian culture, not whatever this is. I could talk about how amazing the food, gelato, architecture and whatnot are, but above all, the Americanization of Florence prevails as the topic to write and think about.
I do believe that I am ultimately a collection of the people I’ve met and the places I’ve been, it’s just that I do not feel like I’ve met anyone new (the modern bro is all too familiar) or been anywhere new. I am not adjusting, because I have nothing yet to adjust to. I have no shame in describing my first few days here, and I’m actually glad for having experienced Italy’s version of America; it serves as a starting point. However, I want the Italian experience, and eventually an entire European experience. There is anonymity and culture shock to be found in Florence, but it demands pursuit.