Wednesday, July 3, 2013

La Strada

            It’s a strange feeling, leaving a place behind. First, you have to pick and choose: what stays and what goes. Fitting most of my belongings into my two suitcases and one backpack was less of a challenge of space and more of a challenge of priorities. The brilliant orange and cerulean blue ceramics from Sicily? In the suitcase. My cozy, floral duvet, the white lights strung alongside my bed, and a half bottle of olive oil? Left to my roommates. Marta and Viola, in fact, were pretty lucky in regards to my departure; they lost a roommate and a friend, but each got an entire set of sheets, blankets and pillows. Lucky ducks.
            The other odd thing about leaving a place: saying goodbye. This, at least, is something I’m familiar with. It’s like it’s been programmed into my DNA—every three years, I get that itchy feeling, ready for the next move, the next school, the next home. However, if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s this: the goodbye is important. Your first memories of a place will fade with time and they’ll become so unfamiliar that they won’t even feel like your memories after a while, but you will remember the goodbye, because that is the end. The closure. The metaphorical turning of your back on one part of your life and moving towards another. How do you end something the right way? You have to do it justice. You have to make sure that these past five months, spent with beautiful people in far-off places, get a proper send-off.
            Which is why, I suppose, it was so hard to write this final blog post. I have officially been home for over a month and in the time that I have been here, in between wisdom teeth surgeries, working, visiting family and catching up with old friends, I have had the time to catch up on a few of these blog posts. I’ve written about London and about Milan, but those were easy. As long as I didn’t write about my final week, the illusion remained as if I had never left. I could still cling to the fact that there was still one more blog post to write. One more story to tell. But the universe has a way of kicking you sometimes; so when my official transcript came in with all of my final grades, I knew it was time. I have always written too much and this time is no different, if only because I too want to have some record of what I did during my last days. So here it is, folks: one more story about Bologna and all of the adventures I had while I was there.

            My last week in Bologna was beautiful. There is no other word to describe it. Those last few days were filled, miraculously, with sunshine. It was as if Bologna was apologizing for the months and months of fog, rain, snow, and grey skies with this small peace offering. At the beginning of the week, Lily and I had sat down while watching one of our shamefully beloved episodes of Merlin and we made our “Bologna Bucket List”: a two-sided sheet of notebook paper outlined with all of the things that we wanted to do before the end of the week and before we left Bologna. It was not surprising to either of us when most of this list ended up being composed mainly of restaurants and osteria’s and gelateria’s, but there were a good number of activities on there as well. There was suddenly so much that I needed to do, with only just about six days to do them; never before was I so acutely aware of time.
            Early on Tuesday morning, Lily and I laced up our sneakers and made a nearly two-hour hike up to Santuario della Madonna di San Luca, a church on a hill that looks down on the plain that Bologna stretches out on. The “hike” up there is really just one, long continuous portico built by the Catholic Church during the Renaissance to serve as a sort of pilgrimage outside of the city (thank you, Storia Urbana). In May, there is a grand procession that leads the way up to the top, adorned statues of Mary and chanting rosaries and singing included. In fact, as we hiked, we saw a few elderly ladies shuffling up the thousands upon thousands of stairs, clutching wooden rosaries and muttering Our Father’s and Hail Mary’s under strained breathing. Lily and I, heathens that we are, passed these women with our bare shoulders and leggings, appreciating the climb more for the workout and the view than the religious experience.

The Climb (Miley Cyrus, eat your heart out)

Bologna from above

            But it was a religious experience, of sorts. San Luca is supposedly where UNIBO students go before an exam to pray for good grades; I guess maybe I should have done this before my exams, but it was fun regardless, knowing that many other students had walked these same steps, begging for the chance to pass their classes. The view of the plain from the top of San Luca was spectacular and the weather could not have been any more perfect. After taking a quick peak inside the sanctuary (white marble with a lot of gold—quietly peaceful, but with a very strict and imposing-looking priest), we laid out on some benches, enjoying the sunshine, while talking about the trips we had taken throughout the semester. I remember saying that Poland seemed so long ago and we both agreed that booking that flight to Krakow, random as it may have seemed, was one of the best decisions of the semester. We laughed about Greece and lamented the lack of good gyro’s back at home. It was just so devastatingly bittersweet, seeing the last week unfold ahead of us, knowing that things would never be the same after Friday.

Finally at San Luca!

So green :)

            We climbed back down to our city and ate for the last time at Pasta Fresca—a place where four old women stand behind the counter of a standing-room-only shop, bustling around as they make fresh pasta to be eaten right away from little boxes. In the winter, we had sat on the curb outside the shop, numb fingers clumsily clutching our plastic forks as we greedily inhaled overflowing helpings of tortellini al ragu’. Now that spring had arrived, Pasta Fresca had set out multiple picnic tables on the street where we sat family-style with some Italian guys who gawked at us as we spoke English, but I enjoyed it. Pretty soon, we realized, it was going to be weird for us too, hearing English everywhere.

            We filled the rest of our week with a lot of last meals at various places. We had breakfast at Max’s café religiously every morning and got our usual orders (mine is a cappuccino with a pastry called treccina alla mela—literally, “apple braid”) with a side of snarky from Max, as his two sons would look on and roll their eyes. We went to BomboCrep multiple times (usually after 2 a.m., with club music pounding from their speakers and the street filled with students) and had our traditional crepe con nutella e fragole (crepe with nutella and strawberries). We walked through the market alleys down by Via delle Vecchie Pescherie, where vendors yelled out, advertising fresh fish and tomatoes being brought in daily from Sicily. I tried to avoid exploring too much—I was afraid that I would wander down some undiscovered street to find something miraculous (the best gelato in the world, a cute old man giving out flowers to young girls, an underground jazz club) that I would regret not having found earlier. Instead I stuck to familiar streets, continuously thinking, this is the last time I’ll see that newsstand. This is the last time I’ll walk by that florist shop and that homeless man who always smiles at me.

Casual protest on Labor Day

Last Tamburini dinner! Food pictures obviously need to be included in the last post

Late-night crepes

Late-night crepes

            One undiscovered treasure that I do not regret going to: Osteria del Sole. I was, admittedly, pretty annoyed at myself for not having found it earlier, but it was still really neat. On Skyla’s last night with us (she was leaving early to go to Amsterdam), we all went down this dark, dingy alleyway in the center of town, grocery bags in tow. This osteria was unique in that it still operated as osteria’s operated in the medieval ages: they provided the wine and the tables, but you brought your own food. Our table was a smorgasbord of prosciutto, salami, mozzarella, bread, and egg rolls (we had stopped by the Chinese restaurant just in case, afraid that there wouldn’t be enough food). The whole place was packed, filling it with extra body heat and loud, chaotic voices. I loved it.

Lily and Skyla

Krystal and I

Osteria del Sole! Busy

            Afterwards, we hopped around Bologna’s nightlife scene for a little bit, which was also bittersweet. I will miss Italy’s open-container law, if only because it allows every street corner to spontaneously turn into a party, a reunion with friends. We laughed and yelled loudly on the streets, no different from anyone around us, and a few of the girls began chanting that all-too-familiar line of, andiamo a ballare in Puglia, Puglia, Puglia, which did earn us a few good stares. The sad moments came hand-in-hand with these beautiful ones, if only because I knew then that I would truly miss living in a city where every weekend night the streets came alive with all the youth of the city who go out and celebrate together.

The gang!

Viola and Sami shenanigans

            Sometime on Wednesday I went into Zamboni elementary school to be with my third-grade class one last time. The moment I walked in the door, they all looked up from their work with huge smiles and, as per usual, yelled: “Daniela!” Jacopo was standing by me when I entered and he beamed at me so brightly that I, completely wrecked from the emotional rollercoaster I had been on the entire week, threw my arms open and hugged him. Suddenly, I had thirteen little Italians around me in one, giant group hug and it was all I could do to stop myself from crying. I had really fallen for those little munchkins, despite the fact that I had been placed with the “trouble” class. I gave them Dr. Seuss books, which they had never seen before, and seashells for Maestra Giovanna. We spent the class reading out loud and learning the song “What a Wonderful World.” It was so devastating when Samuel asked me if I would be there next week and I had to tell them that on Friday I would be leaving for America—forever. Their faces all just fell and even Maestra Giovanna’s tough exterior melted for a moment, because she quickly assured the children that I would try to visit in the next two years that they were here at this elementary school, so maybe they would see me again soon. I quickly promised that I would try my hardest, and there was a unanimous sigh of relief. As we lined up for the end of the day for the last time, little Amanda came up and took my left hand, while Greta and Francesca fought for my right. Amanda assured me that if I were to come to visit, I could certainly stay at her house, because they had a couch that would probably fit me, even though I was tall. Although, she looked thoughtful, she could probably convince her sister to stay at a friend’s house and then I could sleep in her sister’s bed. Her parents really wouldn’t mind. I watched as they all ran out the door to their parents, but before Greta could leave, I knelt down and took her hand. She was the quietest of them all—the responsible one, the smart one, the one that finished all her work early and read books in her spare time. I looked her in the eyes and told her, Greta, you are very good at English and I want you to keep practicing it, okay? Because I think you could be very, very good at it someday. And I think I might have changed my opinions on teaching in that moment—that moment when Greta’s entire face lit up and she nodded so enthusiastically that I wanted to hug her again, before her mother came to take her hand and lead her away. Maestra Giovanna took me out for gelato at Gelatauro afterwards, which seemed to be an appropriate, full-circle way to end my teaching job there; I had, after all, come to Gelatauro at the end of my first day, only to be bought a gelato by Amanda’s mother. 
            I spent a few afternoons by myself, just walking. I miss that the most when stuck in traffic on my way to the beach here in Virginia. I miss just being able to walk to places. The weather continued to be beautiful that week and I breezed down back alleyways and through portici in the sunshine, not ashamed of being a tourist as I snapped pictures with my big camera. One of my favorite memories of my last week was a quiet, few hours I spent in Piazza Santo Stefano, where the first Christian church of Bologna still stands. It was the first church I ever walked into upon arriving in Bologna and it was also the last. I love that church and the peaceful piazza that surrounds it, livened only by a few café’s and the occasional groups of students who sit out on the pavement, drawing or talking in quieter voices than the ones found in rowdy Piazza Verdi. I like the simple churches the best, if only because they seem to encourage more private reflection than the grand ones.

            That week, in the late afternoons, the mornings, and late at night, I would come home to talk to Marta and Viola…and even Letizia, if she was there. These conversations were the most precious to me, out of all the conversations that I had that week. It’s odd how you are expected to thrive in a situation, while always aware that you will have to leave it. You bond with these people—you give them parts of your life, parts of you. You live with them for five. months. Five months of your life are spent every day with Marta, the somewhat cynical yet so idealistically passionate Italian from Torino, whose family in Puglia makes the best olive oil I’ve ever tasted—poured from cleaned-out 2-litre Coke bottles. Marta, who wore silly dresses with cartoons on them instead of “adult clothes,” making us paper hats and cakes while yelling at us for not eating healthily. The girl who came to me after having known me for only two weeks, bawling, because that day she had finished her internship with the mentally disabled who needed her. Do you understand? She asked me between sobs. Do you know how much it hurts to leave people, even when you know that you have to? My Italian then had been too shaky to give her the words of comfort I could have offered, so I just hugged her because that, at least, is something universal and apparently affected her so much that this, she told me later, was the moment she knew I would be different than the other Americans who came to live in that apartment. I wouldn’t just be a roommate—I would be a friend. How ironic that her words now are so much more than just a bonding experience with my new Italian roommate.

Marta and I in January, on her birthday

Last night together

            Five months of your life spent living with Viola, from a town in the center of Albania. That beautiful and sometimes insecure girl who would laugh so loudly and suddenly that it was like an explosion, tantamount to a flock of birds bursting from the trees with a suddenness that makes you jump. I loved her for her enthusiasm for American sitcoms, Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop,” and the fact that she could eat a dinner of pasta, bread, cheese, and French fries every night and not gain any weight. It’s strange being back in my room at home now—it’s so empty. I don’t think I’ve ever felt like that after any of my other college roommates. I can no longer call to her from across the room, continuing those late-night conversations that would sometimes stretch until four in the morning where I would say, Okay, Viola, it’s late. We have to go to sleep now. Viola would pause before answering: Yes, yes, sleep. But really, Daniela, what do you think about this…” The way she talked about her home and her family still amazes me; I will admit that when I first found out that I didn’t have an Italian roommate, I was disappointed. How was I supposed to get the Italian cultural experience if I was living with someone who was also a stranger to Italy? But I can never repay Viola for what she gave me. She made me appreciate everything I have so much, while simultaneously amazing me with her courage and the fierce love she has for her friends. Just by telling me about her family and her life at home, she gave me an experience that I could never have had with an Italian roommate. I spent so many evenings cooking with her, watching tv with her, being scared out of my mind by her when she followed me down to the laundry room (THE MORGUE) and pretended to be a ghost, making me drop all of my clean laundry on the ground as I screamed bloody murder.

Viola and I in January at Marta's birthday party

Dinner dates get weird

            It scares me to think that these people—so important to you, so quickly—might never be in my life again. This fear made those goodbye’s the hardest. Of course I would see my American friends again; after all, we are almost all currently on the same continent. But in August, Viola will be going back to Albania until school starts in Bologna again. Marta will be graduating in the fall. My little home in Forni, Apartment 17, will slowly but surely move apart and the idea that everything is changing is possibly the most devastating of them all. I was incredibly lucky with my housing arrangement. This semester with Marta and Viola (and Letizia, if she wasn’t busy singing loudly in French in the bathroom) was an incredible blessing—and I don’t use that word too often.

Marta's birthday party in January

Introducing the roommates to PhotoBooth

Last night together

            So with all these jumbled-up emotions, you can imagine that on my last day in Bologna, I was an absolute mess. I woke up that morning for my last breakfast with Max, during which Lily and I managed to get a picture with him behind the bar, which is quite an accomplishment. Apparently so moved by our impending goodbyes, Max offered us sparkling wine on the house. I’m not sure if it was judgment I saw in Rebecca’s eyes as she walked by on Via San Vitale, seeing us drinking wine at 10:30 in the morning, but I wasn’t too concerned. Max was toasting to me to anyone who would listen—inside his café or out—and he was the same as he ever was, making inappropriate jokes right until the very end.

Last cappuccino at Max's

A photo to go down in history

            Lily and I visited ECCO’s office one last time, saying goodbye to Ivan. I insisted on giving him a hug and, after informing him that he was one of the best professors I had had throughout not only this semester, but also my entire college experience, we both ended the goodbye with watery eyes and a whispered admission from Ivan, telling me that this year has been his favorite as of yet. Lily and I followed this with lunch at a bakery called Il Fornaio, which was an inconspicuous little place that we had found the first week. Afterwards, we climbed Torre Asinelli, the taller of the two towers, to the very top. The views of our city (and I can call it that now, right?) were beautiful.

Lily's unsure about the climb

Beautiful Bologna!

Long way down

            Lily and I split up in the late afternoon, during which I found a little nook to sit on in Piazza Maggiore, the center of everything, and just people-watch. I don’t know how long I sat there, exactly, but it involved a few pictures, the occasional fighting back of tears, and a lot of soaking in the sun. Bologna really is a city to be enjoyed in the sunlight, with all of the rich hues of color in its walls. I liked having these moments to myself, to say goodbye to the city where most of its life thrived—from the covered façade of San Petronio to the crowded fountain of Neptune, where recent graduates drunkenly teetered on the edge before tumbling back into its waters.

Flirty street musicians blowing kisses

Piazza Maggiore

            That night we all went out one last time to Osteria dell’Orsa and got “Regno delle due Sicilie” at Gelatauro afterwards (saying goodbye to gelato was so incredibly difficult). We even stopped by Café Max one last time, where Krystal also got to get that infamous picture behind the bar. Afterwards, I went back to my apartment where Marta, Viola and Letizia surprised me with gifts and I gave them gifts of my own—the most authentically American thing I could think of.

            The next morning, Marta and Viola woke up and walked me down to the front of Forni, where our bus was waiting for us. It was 6 a.m. and my eyes were burning, since Viola and I had stayed up till about 3 or 4 a.m. the night before, watching Merlin and talking while we still could. It all seemed so surreal that when it finally came time to say goodbye, I wasn’t even really sure that it was happening until I automatically just started crying. Not wanting to be a blubbering mess on the bus, I managed to hold it together, but it was still devastating as the bus pulled away and I could just make out Marta and Viola—still in their pajamas—walking back into Forni before we turned a corner and they were gone.
            We had a short flight from Bologna to Frankfurt. While waiting in Bologna, Lily and I made the very smart decision of pooling our money and splitting a wedge of parmiggiano, which I slipped into my backpack along with a roll of salami (ILLEGAL SUBSTANCES, but not really). I wasn’t emotional until I was about to get on my plane from Frankfurt to Dulles; I was the only one of our group on this flight, seeing as everyone else was flying to Newark. Lily walked me to my gate and in case you haven’t noticed in these blog posts, she has been a constant presence in pretty much all of my adventures. Although I loved all of the people on our program, I had a lot of fun with Lily and I do not think (as mushy as this sounds) that this semester would have been the same without her. We were still hugging as I handed in my boarding pass and it was here, when I was finally separated from everyone else, that it hit me that I was leaving. I’m sure everyone around me on the plane was pretty concerned as I sobbed my way through the take-off. There was a lot of crying in this last week, it seems.
            When finally arriving on American soil, I was in a weird sort of daze. It was incredibly humid and so weird, hearing all the English around me. Everyone was on their Smartphone’s. No one was rudely staring at me. I blended in. And to be honest, I didn’t really like it. I didn’t have time to focus on my first symptoms of reverse culture shock, however, because I had to concentrate on getting through customs with my salami and cheese. Luckily those massive German Shepherds are looking for more dangerous things than a desperate American girl’s need for authentic Italian food, so good news everyone! I am an international smuggler of Italian delicacies.  
            I was greeted at the airport by an embarrassing Dad, who jumped up and down with his neon yellow “Welcome Home” sign while simultaneously trying to take a picture with his iPhone. Before starting the four-hour drive down to Virginia Beach where my Mom and two dogs waited for me, we stopped for some burgers and fries and thus began reinitiating me into American culture.

            Ever since May 31, when I made my final goodbyes to Bologna, to Italy, and to every other country I visited while abroad, I’ve been in a weird sort of limbo, neither here nor there. I try not to talk about it too much, because I know my friends will soon tire of me starting sentences with, “When I was in Italy…” But it’s hard. Those five months were truly amazing, and not necessarily in ways that I had expected them to be. Since high school, I had dreamed of studying abroad in Italy. I knew, without a doubt, that it was something that I had to do in college and I am so glad I did. But it was much different than I had originally thought it would be. Without meaning to sound too snobby, I have to admit that I have traveled a great deal throughout Europe and Italy—a side effect of having lived there for 5 years of my life already. As such, spending five months there was not the same kind of culture shock to me as it is often to other American students who study abroad. Having to bag your own groceries? Yeah, I knew about that one. Trains that are sometimes an hour late? Not shocking at all. A slightly sexist lens on society? Unfortunate, but not surprising. Everything closed on Sunday’s? Definitely a challenge when you have no food, but easily solved with a quick phone call for pizza delivery from Spacca Napoli.
            I didn’t come away from this semester suddenly realizing that there was a great big world out there—I knew that already. I came away from this semester knowing that I needed to explore that great big world. How clichéd does that sound? But it’s the truth. I have watched so many of my college friends talk about their major or their work or their hobbies with a kind of fiery passion that lights up their eyes and keeps them talking for hours. To be honest, I have never had that. Even though I love being an English and Italian major, neither of those courses of study fills me in the way that I have seen other people. It always worried me because I thought that there must be something wrong with me; there had to be a reason why I was mildly apathetic to everything I turned my hand to. That is, until now.
            I’ve realized that it’s not just one thing I love, but many. I love the exploration—that thrill of the discovery, of finding something new and alien to you and throwing yourself at it with every intention of understanding it as completely as you can as an outsider. I love, love, love to travel. It’s like an itching under my skin, this urge to pack a suitcase and just go. Do you realize how much is out there? Do you realize that I was in just one small part of the world and I barely even explored that? There are entire continents I haven’t been to. Cultures I have never been exposed to, languages I have never heard. I met so many beautiful, flawed and interesting people this semester and I want to meet more. Each person had such incredibly colorful stories and each time Pappou in Rhodes leaned forward to tell us another story from the war, or Krystal told us about her family in the Dominican Republic, or Max gave us life advice and (most importantly) love advice, I asked for more, more, more, like an addict begging for their next fix. I am, after all, an English major, and those stories fascinate me sometimes even more than the over-rated Roman monuments.
            The idea of traveling to these places, meeting these people, and learning from the experiences—good and bad—that come with them consumes me now. I think about it day and night; I am constantly on the internet, in magazines, watching tv and talking to people to research ways of returning and getting out of my comfort zone once more. Further education, jobs, whatever it is—I want it. It is ironic, I think, that I used the word “exploration” in the byline description of this blog. It was just such a logical word to use at the time of its creation, because isn’t that the ideal study abroad experience? Something to send postcards home about, claiming to have “explored” this small hillside village or that over-populated capital city in Eastern Europe? But it is this idea of exploring that has hooked itself into my chest, refusing to let go, and I am so grateful. I am so grateful and happy that I have finally found something that gives me the confidence to walk up to strangers and strike up conversations with them in a language that is not my own. That feeling of reaching across boundaries and making a connection is something that I never want to lose—something that I need more of.
            Bologna was different than I expected it to be, but it changed me and I love it for that. In this blog, I attempted to capture just one small piece of my experience, something that is borderline impossible. You cannot fully understand the feeling of joy when you successfully have your first political discussion in a foreign language with a group of Italians, Albanians and Ethiopians in your kitchen, which is filled with the smell of cake and wine and the sound of raised, passionate voices. I cannot explain fully how much that afternoon in the golden alcoves of Ravenna’s church affected me, and how I cried at the beauty of the blues and greens in the tiles above me as I looked at them from the cold, marble floor of the basilica. I can’t give you that feeling of freedom that I had while skipping down the streets of Barcelona or the joy in finding kindred spirits over pints of Irish beer after one of the most harrowing exams of my life. I can’t explain how giddy I felt when I realized that I was no longer fazed by the constant protests (and occasional riots) that littered Bologna’s streets. I cannot give you the cathartic experience of Auschwitz or the joy of sitting on the walls of the Ponte Vecchio as the sun sets over the river and lights the entire city of Florence in gold.
            But I tried. I tried to give you what pieces that I could so as to not only share it with friends and family and strangers alike, but also so that years from now I’ll have something to look back on to remember those five months I spent abroad. I will remember the five months that challenged me, that changed me, that made me realize what I want. And that, I think, is something worth writing about and worth remembering, if only to keep some of my postcards from Bologna.

 Bologna, ti voglio tanto tanto bene, con tutto il mio cuore.

Ci vediamo, ragazzi!


© Copyright Danielle DeSimone. 2013.

Monday, June 17, 2013

One more Hello and One more Goodbye


The gang reunited in the rain!

 I guess I lied when I said London was my last trip of the semester. It was originally supposed to be my last trip, but I ended up taking just a few more days outside of Bologna during my last week…but this time not nearly as far away—two hours on a train, and I was already in Milano.
            With my exams finished, I had one weekend and about a week left in Bologna. I had originally intended to spend every last waking moment in Bologna before I had to say goodbye, but I realized that on this last weekend before I left, a good majority of my roommates and friends would be gone. Marta was going home for a few days; Viola was studying like a madwoman; quite a few people in our program were leaving early to return in time for things like graduation, family trips, etc.; and Lily—who I have talked about so much only because she has been such an amazing friend these past five months—was off to Brussels with a friend from school for a few days. I’m sure I could have found ways to amuse myself in Bologna, but the lovely Valeria Mazzucco invited me to come stay with her in Milano for the weekend so that we could finally be reunited and I impulsively jumped at the chance.
            I have talked about Valeria a few times in my blogs, if only because she had such a profound effect on me last semester back at UMW. Although I had had some Italian interaction with my professors and the occasional passerby that I would accost on the street upon hearing them speak Italian in America, my contact with Italians my own age had been slim to none until this past year. Valeria, Francesca and Gianluca changed that when they came to Mary Washington and I became particularly close with Valeria, that sweet, introspective, motherly girl who would get frustrated when I used too many English idiomatic expressions when she cooked many Italian dinners for me. By spending so much time together at college (and then later inviting her to my house for Thanksgiving), I was able to give Valeria a small piece of the America that I knew, which I think was incredibly important. In a liberal arts college, it is easy to slip into cynical critiques of society; and rightly so—the world isn’t perfect and it needs improvement. College has been instrumental in teaching me this. But there are amazing things to life (and life in America) as well—things that get overlooked or forgotten as we argue endlessly on gender equality or increases in tuition costs. And so I made it my goal to show Valeria the pieces of America that I found to be special and important, which ended up being instrumental to the both of us.
            Visiting Valeria at her home was a great experience because I really got to feel like a part of an Italian community. It can be difficult to integrate oneself into the Italian university system—it is not built like American colleges, in which the feel of community and school spirit is everywhere. In Italian universities, you are very much on your own and it is not always easy to make friends. So to be a part of an Italian community for a weekend—one with families and children and the elderly—was truly amazing.
            I took an early train and made it to Milano where Valeria and a great deal of rain were waiting for me. It was so strange seeing her in Italy! I had her permanently fixed in my mind as an entity that would only exist in Fredericksburg, as strange as that sounds. I hadn’t been that excited to see someone in a very long time and what was even more strange was that I wasn’t really sure what language to speak. Back at Mary Washington, we probably would have spoken English for the most part, with just a few paragraphs of Italian here or there. Valeria, after all, had come to America not only to work, but also to learn English. However, after having spent five months in Italy, my immediate reaction was to speak to her in Italian, which I think we both found a little weird. Valeria also complained good-naturedly, saying that she missed English and wanted to speak it with me, but I insisted. I only had about a week left in Italy and I planned on speaking as much Italian as was possible
            Valeria took me to the Universita’ Cattolica—the Catholic university of Milan, which is where Mary Washington’s Italy partner program is located. It was kind of strange to walk onto their campus (surprisingly, this university actually had a physical, cohesive campus), knowing that this was where I could have potentially studied for the semester. UMW’s Italian department certainly tried its hardest in convincing me go there but I was insistent on going somewhere different and, to be perfectly honest, I’m really glad I did.
            The University was really beautiful though, even in the rain. It had a lot of history to it and Valeria, being the bookworm that she is, managed to charm her way with the librarians into a locked room filled with books that dated back to the 14th and 15th centuries. I was freaking out. Old books are kind of passion of mine and these were ancient. It’s so funny how Italians treat history—somewhat haphazardly, as if it were just another newspaper thrown on your front porch. Both Valeria and the librarian encouraged me to take down any and all ancient texts that I wanted, with free rein to flip through their molding, crumbling pages with my oiled fingers which could do who knows how much damage to a medieval text. At first I was so nervous that I kept my hands clasped behind my back, simply staring up at all of the bookshelves filled with leather-bound spines in a child-like amazement. That is, until Valeria made fun of me. And so I pulled down a few of the volumes and was careful not to rip any pages or breath too heavily, for fear of damaging an irreplaceable edition of the Decameron.

Inner courtyards of the university

            Afterwards, Valeria took me on the metro to the outskirts of Milano, where her family lives. I was welcomed there like long-lost family and it was wonderful. Valeria’s fiancé, Filippo, was also there and it was nice to see another friendly face. I had met Filippo when he had come to visit Valeria at UMW in the fall and the two of them together are quite possibly the most adorable couple I have ever had the pleasure of creeping on. We all ate lunch together and I had a great time; Valeria’s family was so eager to try to speak English with me that, much to their daughter’s chagrin, they kept throwing out random English words or turning to Valeria and saying, “Explain this to Danielle…” apparently forgetting that I spoke Italian. I found this hilarious, though. Over these past few months I have found myself, admittedly, quite frustrated with Italians who attempt to speak English with me on the street, if only because I know that my level of Italian surpasses their ability to communicate in English. However, being around Valeria’s family and their uncontrollable excitement made me realize that a lot of Italians insist on trying to speak English with you mainly because they’re trying to be polite and reach out to you in your madrelingua—mother-tongue.
            After spending a few hours with Valeria’s wonderful family, we bundled up and went to Bergamo, a little town just outside of Milano. This was ironic, seeing as Lily, Sami, Krystal and I had all gotten stuck in Bergamo that fateful night of our return from Greece, only to be saved by Paola. And who did we meet in Bergamo that afternoon after lunch? Paola! I love this girl and I am so incredibly excited for her to be at Mary Washington next year as the Italian language coordinator (she’ll be taking over Valeria’s job). Paola is one of the sweetest human beings I’ve ever met. It was a lot of fun, taking the funivia up the mountain to the medieval portion of Bergamo, which looked like a small Tuscan village (even in the rain), and seeing a much more charming version of the city than I had originally pictured, after having spent hours on delayed flights from Greece with obnoxious, drunk Italians on our plane.

Going up the mountain!

Valeria, me and Paola :)

Such a beautiful view

Valeria and Filippo...essentially, the cutest couple ever and my substitute parents

            After our exploration of Bergamo, I was chauffeured over to a community dinner up in the mountains, outside of the actual city of Bergamo. There was a sort of fundraiser event in which different organizations in this countryside community each had a booth and they made food for people in the surrounding area to come and buy. All the money went towards their volunteer organization. Valeria, Paola and Filippo are all a part of a church-based organization that goes to Belarus to work with children in orphanages, so their group young Italian do-gooders were whipping up pizza’s in a wood-fire oven. It was surprisingly freezing up there in the mountains, which was quite a shock when compared to the sunny weather that I had left in Bologna. But it was really neat, being surrounded by such kind, curious people. Valeria had in fact only just returned from the States a few weeks before, so a lot of her friends still hadn’t seen her. To them, she was very much the returning hero, back from her grand adventure. Teenagers and young adults alike gathered around her with wide-eyes as she described her American university experience and it took a lot of self-control not to giggle as Valeria explained various differences between the two cultures, if only because I was usually the one giving out such explanations to my friends. It was so interesting (and somewhat strange) to hear Valeria describe a world that I was so familiar with to people who had no comprehension of it whatsoever.
            Valeria’s friends were all very welcoming and were often intrigued by me—Valeria’s little pet American that she had brought back like a souvenir or proof of her adventures. I spent the night surrounded by the people from those surrounding mountains as they ate traditional pasta and too much pizza. Little children giggled and screeched as they played soccer in the empty tennis courts. Large, white tents filled the spaces around these games, lined inside with long picnic tables at which old men leaned forward, earnestly gossiping and swapping stories as their wives fussed over their plates. In the corner was a man calling out numbers…some sort of strange bingo or raffle, I think. And Valeria, Filippo, and Paola’s group of friends made beautiful balloon animals to give out to children as they all danced to Russian club music that I had never heard of before. By the end of the night, my fingers were numb and even my wool scarf couldn’t keep me warm, but the mountains and the lack of city glare meant that I could see all of the stars above me and my breath puffing out in the night air as Filippo and Valeria led the way back to the car.
            The next morning, Filippo took us to his village’s church, which was small and filled to the brim with elderly people and sunshine pouring in from the windows. I felt extremely Italian then; and more specifically, I really felt that Milanese Catholicism. Milano and the area around it is notoriously Catholic and conservative, which I definitely got from the fact that I had so far been to two church-related events and that there were multiple chapels in Bergamo’s airport. After church, I was taken to the florist shop owned by Filippo’s parents, who were some of the kindest people I had ever met, after Valeria’s family. They gave me this magical rose, which I am calling magical because it reminds me a little bit of Beauty and the Beast. Because it’s been treated chemically, as long as I don’t water it, the flower should remain the same (appearing to be in full bloom) for FIVE YEARS. Flower, magic, my friends. In case this small fact doesn’t convince you, let me assure you that Italian florists are artists. The way they put together the simplest of bouquets is done with such flourish that it makes your little pot of daisies from Wal-Mart look like…well, a pot of daisies from Wal-Mart.
            We said goodbye to Filippo, who had to stay home to work on his thesis, and Valeria and I took the train into Milano, talking about her future and jobs and other scary, grown-up things. Once we got into the city, we met Francesca, the other Italian girl who had been at Mary Washington, and we saw a historical castle and some beautiful gardens. We later ate out under another tent; this time the event was run by the Associazione Nazionale Alpini—a group of elderly men who used to fight in the troops of the Alpini, an “elite mountain warfare military corps of the Italian Army” (thanks Wikipedia). Still fiercely proud of their service, these old men tend to organize reunions throughout Northern Italy in the spring to celebrate, raise money, and sing old war songs. It’s not every day that you get to eat traditional northern Italian food on a side-street of Milano as men who probably fought in World War II bang their fists against wooden tables, starting up chants and winking flirtatiously at you as they clear off your plates. This was where we met Alessandra, who had stepped in as Italian language instructor and Italian professor my sophomore year at UMW, when the head of the department was on sabbatical. Alessandra was a wonderful professor and I had promised her that if I studied abroad in Italy, I would be sure to visit her in Milan. It seems crazy now, that it actually worked out! Now finally reunited with my three Italians, we walked around Milano in the sunshine, getting some delicious gelato and climbing to the top of the Duomo, which was spectacular.

Me, Valeria and Francesca!

Me and Alessandra, reunited

            After about an hour at the top of the Duomo, looking out over Milano and the surrounding mountains, Valeria took me back to the train station and saw me off to Bologna. It was really odd, saying goodbye. When I had said goodbye to Valeria at the end of the fall semester at UMW, I had sobbed, completely convinced that I would never see her again even though I knew there would be every chance that we would both be in Italy at the same time in just a few short months. But as the train pulled away from the station and I watched Valeria walk back down the platform, I was strangely okay with saying goodbye. It was as if I knew somehow that I would see her again, regardless of the immeasurable distance between Italy and America. The world seems so much smaller, now. Living abroad used to seem like such a far-off dream but now it seems more and more attainable…so much so that these partings at train stations have become less of addio’s (“farewells”) and more of ci vediamo’s (“see you laters”).

Inside the Duomo

Whatta view!

Life talks up at the top of the Duomo

Fancy Milano

Love this girl