Rome VI: the Tuscan whirlwind

San Gimignano

San Gimignano

A moment I never thought I would experience so early in my life, in third person narration:

As the sun set over the Tuscan countryside and her classmates chattered around her, Cierra held in one hand a generous glass-full of Vernaccia and, in the other, a top-notch bite of bruschetta al pomodoro. Top. Notch. She considered the scenery, its vast expanse, its endlessness, its slow-cresting hills and valleys of grape vines – Tuscany is certainly a breath thief. And though she laughed at the house wine-happy jokes flittering around in that cool, 7 o’clock air, she had come to a bittersweet conclusion: it’s all downhill from here, this is definitely the happiest I’ll ever be.

I shared this sentiment with those sitting around me, and a number of them said yes, they were feeling quite the same. It’s difficult to not feel that way when you’re terrace-dining at dusk, being served a spectacular three-course meal after a day of running through the cobblestone streets of San Gimignano, not knowing what you’re running after but finding it all the same. It’s hard not to fall flat on your face in that hilltown, not because it’s particularly dangerous terrain, but because it is so overwhelmingly charming that you can’t help but swoon.

San Gimignano, I think, is my favorite place I’ve ever visited. We spent 24 hours there… plenty of time to do that whole head-over-heels thing. Tower with panoramic views? Check. Grapefruit champagne-flavored gelato? Check. Puppet shows? Check. Medieval fountain? Check. Ceramic shops abounding? Check. Also an unexpectedly high number of medieval torture museums, but I won’t count it against them. Our hotel, Hotel Bel Soggiorno, was a dream with its quaint rooms and many-windowed breakfast dining area that screamed BAM! YOU ARE IN THE MISTY ITALIAN COUNTRYSIDE AND YOU ARE EATING A CHOCOLATE CROISSANT! THIS IS THE BEST MORNING OF YOUR SORRY LITTLE LIFE! (aggressive, yes, but true). The town itself is small, probably walkable from end-to-end in ten minutes, so it’s easy to wander and hard to get lost. The people are lovely. They put up with a group of us sitting in the town square till 11pm on a Wednesday night, wiping our eyes as our wild laughter richocheted off the stone walls. I sat on an old well in the middle of the square while my friends performed dramatic recitations of everything from Keats to Usher, doubled over with my bare feet dangling. Life’s full of beautiful moments.

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We visited Siena the next day, another town with a tower and another town which won my affection (hint: not too hard to win). Under the inexplicably stripey arches of Siena’s cathedral, I sat with my friend until we got kicked out at closing, chattering about the physics of angel wings and childhood church experiences. I’ve noticed this becoming a trend among my friends and me – having meaningful conversations in the quiet of a 12th century duomo or a medieval portrait gallery – and I really like it. There are so many things intersecting in those seconds. Context is cool. So are multi-course meals… which happened again in Siena.

It is around now that my memory starts getting a little blurry – before San Gimignano we had briefly visited Bomarzo, and then we bused to these two hilltowns, and after climbing so many steps and consuming so many carbs and, in the case of Siena’s tower, being confined in very tight, dark spaces, I was understandably disoriented and more than slightly peopled-out by the time we caught our train to Florence. I was ready to stare at the shadow of my own reflection in the window transposed over the passing fields and, not surprisingly, tune in to some bleak neo-folk. It’s a mood. It’s poetic. It’s fine. It was a beautiful train ride, it reminded me how much I prefer trains over any other form of transportation (save rollerskates) and it effectively reenergized me – a similar effect was achieved by a cappuccino the next morning. But hey, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Six other girls and I airbnb’d it in Florence, a decision which in the end garnered many exclaimed “NO REGERTS!” (not a mis-type; this has become an important phrase in our vernacular). Our apartment was close to the train station, our street had an enormous outdoor market, we were two minutes away from the world’s nicest food court, Mercato Centrale – no regerts indeed. The Ponte Vecchio was nice, the sunset from the Piazzale Michelangelo was lovely. But Mercato Centrale… that place makes a trip to Florence worthwhile. Pizza, seafood, pastries, pasta, cheese plates, gelato, BURGERS, it is all there, with free wifi for dessert. You order your food and take it to a table in the middle, where barmen in fedoras come around and take drink orders. I am not embarrassed to say we ate every meal here during our stay. I have a lot of Mercato receipts in my purse. They gave me my first cappuccino and I will never forget them.

I didn't just eat, I also took some pictures.

I didn’t just eat, I also took some pictures.

It wouldn’t be Italy if there wasn’t a museum involved, so a group of us hit the Uffizi this morning. Let me just interject here: Florence, at least on weekends, is an incredibly crowded city. There was not a single place I visited where I wasn’t at least vaguely terrified of being trampled. Shopping at Zara was by far the most extreme example of this, but the Uffizi Gallery put itself on a pretty high level of craziness, its corridors thronged with large groups of people in blue headphones. Practically every picture I took has a stranger’s shoulder in it.

If Caravaggio had wanted your beautiful shoulder in his painting, he would have asked, okay

If Caravaggio had wanted your beautiful shoulder in his painting, he would have asked, okay

Petty complaints aside, the Uffizi Gallery was a great place to spend a few hours. Museuming is an enjoyable activity, especially when artists are sly and sneak bizarre things into their pieces – fat-mouthed dog monsters lurking in the shadows of a three-paneled Madonna and baby Jesus painting, a blurry centaur all but blended into the background of an otherwise un-mystical landscape, a small lizard crawling over a skull at the foot of the cross. Like a meatloaf in a fruitcake. I also saw some Botticelli and Caravaggio and Michelangelo and all that jazz. I should ditch English and History and just become an Art History major. I know three whole artists.

Anyway, the whirlwind of travel has ceased momentarily, and I am back in Rome. Back in the old rhythm: staying up much later than necessary and eating nutella with a spoon. I’m suddenly struck by how insane it is that I’ve developed any sort of rhythm here. Have I really been here long enough for that? Tomorrow will mark the one month anniversary of my intended departure, the next day my actual departure. Surreal to say the least. Without a doubt, this has been the most eventful month of my life, and I have learned so much about writing and people and being happy in situations which are not ideal. All valuable, I’d argue. I’m ready for more.

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Rome V: predictably, mosaics

How about dem mosaics

As my mother so gently pointed out the other day, it has been over a week since I last posted. My b, mom. Rome is a very distracting place to live. Distractions:

  1. Gelato
  2. Literally underground dance clubs that look like fancy caves, where drunk people try to steal your hat off your head and think it’s hilarious
  3. Mosaics
  4. Access to parks that are probably exact replicas of the fields in Heaven
  5. Street musicians playing “Hotel California” because that’s apparently the only song American tourists could ever want to hear

Needless to say, it has been a very good, very full third week of living in Rome (sidenote: how have I already been here for three weeks). I’ve had even more opportunity to sharpen my museum-going skills, thanks to the Museo Capitolini and Palazzo Massimo, and I must say I’m getting pretty good at standing and staring at objects. I’m a little over vases, but bring on the mosaics. All the mosaics. HOT DAMN MOSAICS. I walked into S. Maria di Trastevere the other day and I think I almost exploded:

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Unf – wall-sprawling mosaic

My sandal tan is getting stronger every day, and my shoulders are beginning to collect freckles. I owe this to the ancient Roman Forum and Colosseum, which were immense, unbelievable, and forced me to be in the sun for an extended period of time. That was a good day.

Actually, every day here has been a good day. I’ve managed to meet some really kind, engaging, interesting people in the past few weeks, and we like wandering and eating food together. I think this is the magic recipe for happiness. I’m also feeling incredibly lucky to be studying something that constantly excites me: writing. Obviously I enjoyed writing before I came on this program, but I was, as many will remember, so uninspired it ached a little bit. Aside from some angst-driven poetic pursuits as a 19-year-old, I have been prose, prose, prose, all nonfiction as well, blogs and journal entries and essays. And having taken precisely zero creative writing classes and not putting in the effort on my own time, I was afraid to foray into the world of rhyme and broken lines. (also I thought it was pretentious). But now I’ve thrown myself into this head-first, no practice, just trying things out and seeing if I like them. I like them. Sometimes I stay up till 1am, meticulously stringing words together, because it is fun for me. And guys… this is my schoolwork. I am constantly reminding myself to savor this, because when will this ever happen again, being in the most beautiful city ever with writing as my sole responsibility? I generally like to be an optimist, but I think this is probably as good as it gets. Money well-spent, eh mom and dad?

Anyway, the love has not faded. And it is about to expand: tomorrow marks the beginning of a 5-day meandering through some north-of-Rome hilltowns, culminating in what I assume will be a wonderful Florentine weekend. I’ll leave you with some pictures and come back with some new stories –

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PS: I haven’t made any music recommendations lately, so even if they merely echo through the void and no one ever takes my advice, I will make my current recommendations.

spotify:track:4eyl6CaFdDW0jWAQiYyP6E

spotify:track:0E8ztdwAhGJ6KRdElKGQT4

spotify:track:78Bsr3lC1hJcavJNiEMC3Y

Rome IV: hazelnut spread and the unfathomable

After four days of mooching off other people’s wifi, internet has finally been restored to the Temple of Nutella.

Our apartment is rightly named.

Our apartment is rightly named.

We are all very happy, and so are our mothers. Huge shout-out to all of the friends who let us steal their signals, wifi hotspots, etc., and to those who kept us company when we were totally, shamelessly abusing the free internet in our university’s common areas. And a little bit of a thank you to the person who eventually fixed the problem here… after four days.

The time which has elapsed since I last wrote has been positively lovely, for a number of reasons. We visited some ancient Etruscan tombs at Cerveteri and Tarquinia, which I never thought I would do. Cerveteri was basically unreal – we could roam wherever we wanted, crawling into tombs, scaling walls, climbing over mounds and squeezing between walls. There was moss EVERYWHERE, so much greenness, broken up by asphodels and the accompanying bumblebees. I got to whip out my flashlight in some burial chambers, its beam falling on ancient rock and the occasional crab-sized white spider (not my favorite). It’s one of those places that manages to be a playground and an unfathomable thing at the same time – we were running around, adventurous and slightly creeped out, all the while unsuccessfully trying to comprehend the fact that these dark, musty chambers held people and their worldly possessions over a thousand years ago. How can you even begin to understand that, to make it real in your head? It’s insane to think about. On numerous occasions here I’ve felt the need to repeatedly whack myself on the back of the head, chanting “UNDERSTAND THIS! UNDERSTAND THIS! UNDERSTAND THIS!” but, alas, I cannot understand it. History is cool.

Tomb sweet tomb

Tomb sweet tomb

Another great part of this little trek to the Etruscan towns was the drive itself, with the Mediterranean coast on one side and the rolling Italian countryside on the other. Damn it, Italy, you are a stunner. I do truly love the city, but there is something to be said for quaintness. There is also just something to be said for the Mediterranean Sea. You can’t look away.

The rest of my week/weekend consisted of eating food and drinking drinks with genuinely cool people, so no complaints there. We had a girls’ dinner on Friday night, with makeshift gyros and fries – although we didn’t follow my original plan of lamb-napping our gyro meat from a rural town on our way back from Tarquinia, it was some damn good food. Also a damn good vehicle for feta cheese, which was my craving of the week. It was great. I still have a block of feta in my fridge and oh shoot I want to crumble it up and eat it right nooow.

As could only be expected, my cronies and I consumed a lot of gelato. You know, sober gelato, tipsy gelato, chocolate-dipped gelato, NUTELLA gelato. I am never going to be content with American frozen treats ever again. Ever. Even the crappy gelato here is better than the results of a late-night Dairy Queen run in the Ville. Should I go home to my family in June, or eat really amazing gelato every day for the rest of my life…? Hard decisions on my mind.

Today we went to see the Baths of Caracalla, the ruins of which are enormous and magnificent and equally impossible to fathom. Many witnessed me crumble in the shadow of the massive structure, frustratedly groaning “HOW MANY BRICKS” – this was my catchphrase of the day. But seriously, how many bricks? All of them were cut by somebody, transported by somebody, stacked by somebody. These somebodies had homes, and children, and individual life stories. Some of them probably died creating this building which became a social center in one of the largest cities in the world. Like Cerveteri, it is challenging to think about and also quite humbling.

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On the docket for the rest of the week: writing, reading, wining, dining, exploring the Forum and Colosseum… and if I’m being realistic, there will also be a fair amount of watching Catfish reruns on MTV (our only channel in English) and saying ridiculous things to Queen Bae/OG Bae/bromantic interest, Karly, just to get a rise out of her. And maybe I’ll buy a floppy felt hat. That would be nice.

Happy Monday!

Rome III: the first love letter

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I am not very good at being straightforward, or direct, or blunt. I don’t know how to work my feelings into a normal conversation. Doesn’t come naturally to me; I get scared. Sometimes I employ the tactic of counting down, in my head, until I feel ready to say the sentence trying to claw its way out of my voicebox – 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2 –

Rome, I love you.

I’ve known you for a mere week, but I love you. I love your green aventurine waters lazing under bridges; I love your wind, the animator of clothes on their lines; I love your sidewalk salesmen and your churches and your delis, and I especially love your smirk when a tourist brings apples to the register without having weighed them first. I’ve never walked more, and my feet have never hurt less. I’ve never been more lost, and I’ve never felt more sure that I am in the right place. You make me feel young in all the best ways: eyes full of wonder and wobbly at the knees.

I felt a little parched before I came here, creatively stunted, but now there are all these fountains. Literally. Fountains. Not to mention your ponds and lakes and grottoes, man-made or not, doesn’t matter. The stillness and the flowing set off the rusty coiled springs in my ankles – and maybe a twice-daily frolick makes me a fool, but it is far more foolish to not acknowledge what is everyday wondrous. You, Rome, are everyday wondrous. In unexpected places, too, with classical sculptures in fenced-off parking lots, with rooftop gardens peeking from behind a scaffold and tarp. You’ve kept me on my toes and you’ve kept fresh ink on my notebook pages, and I guess that’s kind of what love is.

I’m not the first to fall and I know I won’t be the last, but I’d like to think there’s some sort of exclusivity in what is burgeoning between us, something that is mine and mine only. I know this is forward, but I will jot down your details, your people, your quirks, and I will leave my lipstick prints on your restaurants’ wine glasses. Maybe, then, a part of you will remember me.

Your beauty is true – glimmering and gritty all at once.

I’m yours.

Rome II: Pope Francis and the towel shortage

I’m taking a break from my snack break. Yes. That’s a thing.

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Generic brand nutella, shortbread cookies, and pictures of Boy George in the 80s…?

This weekend, my first weekend in Rome, has been full of mishaps and laughter. Our weekdays were filled with walking and eating and writing and learning – we visited the Pantheon, Sant’Ignazio Church, Piazza del Popolo, the Spanish Steps, Keats’ House, and various lookout points, the names of which I honestly could not tell you. It certainly kept me busy and happy. I am a very, very contented explorer here, I love simply walking around and seeing what finds me – but after looking out on the Forum for a good hour and battling the Good Friday crowds at the Colosseum (people were leaning on me – I know the song, but the sentiment was not there), I was very ready to sleep. Until noon. Which is what I did.

Yes, I spent my first Saturday in Rome cozied up in my apartment with my two roommates, and I was only awake for 12 hours. I went outside once, for about thirty minutes, to get the aforementioned generic brand nutella and some $2 bottles of wine. I’m sure some people would consider this a grand waste of time. That’s understandable. But it was the perfect lazy Saturday, sitting around with these amazing girls and exchanging life stories, listening to music, eating a home-cooked meal (thank you, Maddy!). First of all, I feel pretty damn lucky to have been put with these marvelous young ladies – I’ve lived with them for under a week, and I already have a lot of love for them in this little heart of mine. Also, it is a huge privilege to even feel like I’m able to veg out on a Saturday while I’m here. I’m going to be here for two months, I am living in Rome. I have a lot of time to be out and about and adventuring. Therefore, it is acceptable for me to spend a couple weekends trying to open wine bottles:

One of my favorite pictures of myself, ever (thanks, Karly)

One of my favorite pictures of myself, ever (thanks, Karly)

Today, though, we went to the Vatican for Easter. The three of us whined and whined and whined as we walked out the door of our building, as we realized we would be standing outside, in the pouring rain for upwards of two hours – a couple of us were actually just getting ready to turn back, opting to watch the whole ordeal from the comfort of our loveseat in our pajamas, but eventually I was dragged down the street to a taxi stop, and at this moment there was no turning back. After a shockingly short ride, our driver dropped us off at the edge of St. Peter’s Square, which was positively teeming with people in an array of pastel-colored rain ponchos. In a few minutes’ time, we had hopped on this plastic-covered bandwagon, doling out five euro a piece to minimize our misery by like… 15%. While I was juggling my purse, umbrella, and jacket in the attempt to don this emerald green rain poncho, the endearingly goofy (and probably filthy rich after the downpour today) salesman skipped over and held up my umbrella to protect my hair, glasses, dignity, what have you, and I think we had a conversation about wrists? Funny guy. I was glad I bought the poncho.

Long story short, I was roughly seven feet away from the Pope today. It was cool. He has a very kind face. I’m still trying to make #moshpitforpapafrancesco a thing, but it’s not really catching on, do you guys want to help me out?

The rest of my Easter Sunday has been spent doing homework, taking snack breaks, and wondering if I can actually pull off this half-up, half-down bun thing. But before I sign off, there are just a few random things I would like to share (in no particular order):

  1. I was mistaken for a local my second day here. Two elderly Italians approached me on a bridge and asked, in Italian, if some dome in the distance was the Vatican. I had no idea. I looked at them sadly, shrugged my shoulders, and said “I do not know,” which was met with a “stop” and the appropriate hand signal from the man. They promptly walked away. I felt bad, but also flattered that I they thought I looked like I belong here?
  2. Back to the nutella. I never eat nutella when I’m in the States – it’s so sweet and peanut butter is far superior. But I had just a little bit yesterday, and it has been nutella on my mind, all the time, for the past 30 hours. I have no idea why this is happening, but I am letting it happen. Ya know. When in Rome [you have to have a spoonful of nutella everyday].
  3. I’ve been listening to Sufjan Stevens’ new album the past couple nights, and although I love it and I am inexpressably happy to hear him doing folk again, it has been giving me crazy weird dreams. His eccentricity is like seeping through my headphones or something. What powers do you possess, Sufjan!
  4. Champagne gelato tastes exactly like champagne. Also I am obsessed with champagne and other sparkling white wines, which has seemingly come out of nowhere.
  5. After having practically NO SENSE OF DIRECTION for my ENTIRE life, I am suddenly able to navigate a city I’ve never even been to before. I mean, my track record in Rome is not flawless, but for the most part I have this inexplicable sense of where I need to go in order to reach my apartment – I’m not talking about confidence in my understanding of the cardinal directions, not at all, but rather a “let’s go this way” and an oddly self-assured point down whichever street “feels” right to me. And this method has gotten me home, safe and sound and unrattled, probably a dozen times. I am completely mystified by this.
  6. Either our washing machine is broken or we are incompetent. Either way, we are fresh outta towels, folks. Why? We’ve been using them to mop up the leak from the tub whenever we take a shower, and for obvious reasons we are not going to use mop towels as body towels. So yesterday I used a washcloth, which I’m estimating is 17% of a normal bath towel. Step at me, Bear Grylls. I’m the new woman in town (or rather the wilderness).

And that is all I have the energy to type. More stories to come. In the meantime, here is the Forum (after two seagulls noisily desecrated one of its pillars with their lust for each other):

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