Virginian Abroad: January 2018

1 Month in Spain & Italy

After months of stressing out and worrying about the possibility of studying abroad in Italy, I was accepted in October. The next months were then spent preparing for the impending departure; my furthest jump to date-living abroad for five months. I bought a ticket for Barcelona, determined to meet my cousin Elio, and spend some time carefree traveling before I arrived to Viterbo for orientation, January 9.

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Before training to Viterbo, my home city until May 11, on January 9; I traveled for twelve days prior: Barcelona and Rome.  I finally arriving to Barcelona, the flight from Newark, via Norwegian Air was planned to leave on December 27 at 11 pm.  That did not happen, instead it was delayed for 24 hours.  People naturally became irritated, with the inconvenience; others looked for a solution. I had no bed in Newark and explained to them, how can this be remedied? I knew my alternative, sleeping in the airport, and started to look for comfy, quiet spots, if needed. Instead, they provided at 3 am,  van shuttle rides to a nearby hotel and paid for the room.  The next morning, expecting for the plane to be ready for the 11 am departure, everyone was ready in their seats at the gate. Delayed further, now provided two vouchers, one lunch & one dinner—I was patient and satisfied; that evening we exultantly departed following the ending of a great Celtics-Rockets game!

BARCELONA

Despite unexpected irritation; a feeling I’ve come to learn to be synonymous with backpack traveling, and doubt that I wouldn’t make it to meet my “long lost” cousin, I landed at noon on December 29.  Traveling from the airport to the city, in the few European airports I’ve encountered, is consistently a challenge—always considering a language barrier. Nonetheless, made it to Nou Ramblas, the neighborhood of Elio and then we connected on the street.  I was surprised at first, he looked very different from the Facebook photo that I had come to expect.

We marched up the stairs, until reaching his long, spacious apartment; four bedrooms, 1.5 bath, and a Terrace, poi Elio’s bedroom—built to his liking, by his hands! After getting settled into the large bedroom, presently free, only for five days; he rents them out (!) we entered the city. He asked me of what I wanted to do; I was open, I try to be, to anything. We discussed then, he suggested heading toward the coast, how do I say no to a visit to the beach in January? He handed me a helmet, a took a few seconds just to collect myself, first time riding on an Italian scooter, then hopped on behind him; this was authentic. Nervous, but excited I held on to him; feeling like every American female character in those movies (thinking Lizzie McGuire movie.) The beach was/is glorious; the water, peace, activity, view, climate all in one, just there—Free for all to come!

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We talked about NYE plans and discussed how our prior relationship; him visiting me us in the U.S. when I was just a baby, came full circle. We then left to eat at a South American restaurant, him using his Spanish to communicate clearly with the male waiter; I just sat there and waited for a thin-cut popular steak with sliced potatoes. The food was good, but I must be honest, I don’t have much experience with the type of meat, I ordered it too rare. He noticed it, immediately, then checked with me and asked to have it cooked more; without him, I would have just accepted it.

Each day, then evening offered different plans; a wide variety of activities, both stimulating and memorable. The season and holiday spirit certainly seemed to help, with an influx of visitors and travelers; I would soon come to meet some.  I explored out one evening, always enjoying—and Elio as the same sees it, to be at times alone.  Good weather allowed us to play basketball one evening before haircuts. The game was competitive on the eight foot rim, which aided him in beating me. He showed noticeably less ball skills, but the added size and know how to use it pushed through on the smaller rim. He wouldn’t let me forget it, an Italian beating an American in basketball; the only way I would be able to get payback would be through Calcio, but we wouldn’t get the chance. Since it was mostly children around, a few would join; playing with us, as we both acted as rebounders.

We bought fresh from the main market, Boqueria, a tourist destination that I sought out two years prior, and ate good each day. The diet, albeit delicious, was a challenge—quite the change from my accustom American foods of eggs, bacon, bread, etc. The coffee became an early favorite, paired with Muesli cereal, milk, yogurt, and fruit. Our time together in the apartment was often spent in the kitchen, at his table; each of us on our computers, doing work. I stressed to prepare for my coming days in Rome, then Viterbo and to improve my Italian; he suggested using my journal to work on writing conjugations and sentence structure. He’d show me how he was doing the same with French, in his own book. I’d continue to use the journal as such, trying to prepare.

On our third day together, we started to plan New Year’s Eve. That morning in the kitchen we agree to buy fifty-euro tickets for a small dinner & party, for about thirty some people.  Due to the price, I was hesitant and even when agreeing felt sick to spend that much in one sit-in; my remedy—a day out to clear my head in a familiar spot. I would not make it to the Carmel bunkers; instead, a nearby hill of similar height (I believe El Coll). I could see the bunkers from the distance, but unbeknownst to me before I began my climb, went too far.  Wow to see the view of the gorgeous city and then the water again; perhaps, even more importantly, that journey up is a true joy. Strolling through the neighborhoods on the outskirts of the city, nestled within the hills of Barcelona, offers a different flavor of the city.  After exiting from the nearest metro station, the trip becomes a cardio struggle; providing exactly what I needed. Deja vu would occur; I’d see the same court and bocci ball courts as June.

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Arriving to this peak, found a few groups of people, a few meters down and away, then I searched for more solitude. Yet I’d soon, smell something familiar; in desiring to at least take a puff, I encroached hesitantly on three guys, seemingly slightly younger than me. We became acquainted, they welcomed me into the circle, and refused my offering of euro payment in exchange to join. The three friendly travelers explained they were visiting from Brazil for the week around NYE. In giving me a wonderful reception; we discussed foreign customs, cultural, people, etc. and again proving to me, by pushing myself out of my comfort zone (albeit for the desire to smoke) I got an unforgettable experience. We talked for nearly an hour  then parted, the three of them, exited scene let, me then jogging down; straight down the gut. After waiting near fifteen minutes, I beat them down, making great timing—with good speed. We waved each other goodbye, then I continued my descent, past the neighborhood park and to the metro stop. I refreshed myself, simply with local neighborhood markets—a grocer, gave me cheap fruit, juice, dairy, pane.

Later that evening, when I returned Elio and I got ready for the evening; we flossed together; seriamente, a memory. I was nervous, will I fit in, do I look the part, do I want to be around people some more? All answered, with an unforgettable experience—a dinner and a party lasting from 10 pm until 8 am, at least for us. First, the dinner; a four course meal that allowed people to get to know each other, mostly within the apartment adjacent to the dance, party room. Afterward, we helped set up; I was informed the hosts had set the entrance fee, to help fund their next journey to Arizona; for the Burning Man Festival. Several rules were stated for this one of a kind party (at least something I had never experienced.) Most importantly, since some people; in questo caso-le donne, were not to have a shirt on, the party’s theme (free the ta-tas), no photos or videos. Probably best for what I would see throughout the night, the result of drugs and alcohol; people throughout the night became more wild.

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We; Elio and I arrived, were outfitted by several ladies who were in charge of the attire. Again, have fun with it; I’m all about dressing up in festive times. Elio knew several of the people; while, I found it refreshing to know no one except him. The party goers, that I had the chance to ask, were Spanish (or Catalonia), French, English, Mexican, a few Americans, a Colombian (we’ll get there) and a couple from Thailand, if I remember correctly. I changed from my more rigid, generic collared button-up and jean to a skirt, so freeing! The open shirt in the photo above, and the hat wouldn’t last long, as it would get hot. I even got some glitter, and had my trusty blue scarf; don’t know what to do with my hands otherwise. I must admit, dancing alone, for me; not only not a true dancer, but not confident with it, is not common and will never last long. Throughout the night, I’d engage in conversations, both out of curiosity, to break up the dancing and of course, to smoke on the terrace. One man from New York, I must recall his conversation; he expressed a suggestion, as we talked for some time, about not pursuing further education in the States; instead, as he did, go to the UK or somewhere in the European Union. I explained my original fascination with Heidelberg and the German education system and have since given more thought to this, vediamo.

The dancing alone, went for more hours than I could count; my body by the end of it was surprised, but I did manage the occasional breaks and then ultimately a permanent one, in way on a companion. Later on in the evening, I found two ladies dancing, the more was dressed far more conservatively than most; since she had all her clothes on. I approached them, at this time, realizing if I don’t get a dance partner, I’m not sure how much longer I can keep this up. If I was in the states, and near my home, I would have left hours earlier, but really didn’t have that option, nor would I sit on the sidelines. I was received well, and thankfully her English was/is much better than my Spanish. We’d get to talking, dancing, and eventually became more intimate; this would move to the hallway by the early morning. As the sun began to come up, we headed up stairs, two floors up; a hour earlier Elio had come to me, inquiring about an item for protection. This is the moment, I must state (perdonami) always bring in case, so I provided one for him and used another for us. She was sweet, and afterwards we split for some time, for her to remove her now blackout friend from the sofa and a disturbingly aggressive drunk guy. We exchanged numbers, as she explained to me that she’d be in Barcelona for another five days.

Elio and I, exhausted now, parted and hopped back on the Vespa. Our first stop was a breakfast stop, which seemed to be doing great business; it was as if people were just all pouring out from celebrations that continued like ours did until this absurd time. The bakery was exactly what I needed, now sleep! Yet the next stop was to his friend’s apartment, to celebrate the New Year (right? at 9 am)—a continuation of drinking and drugs; which I did not expect nor partake in. At this point, I wanted water and sleep. It was and still is insane to me for go out so much for one night. Throughout the night, following the full dinner, I drank a handful of glasses of wine, switching between white and red; yet these guys were going beer after beer watching the morning news! I had to, and since we weren’t far, I soon left—just done. Throughout the night, I’d find Elio just having a good time; at least before I became distracted on the floor con lei, then he’d find me. We enjoyed each other’s company, it was clear—we’re family.

Few moments, sitting forefront on my mind in my time with Elio; not already expressed, must be. First, the Senegalese restaurant, outdoors nearby his apartment. We got a table, ordered two couscous dishes, with ginger-pineapple beer; delicious. One evening, as he was busy with the lady he met at the party, I left for fort Montjuric, the last stop opposite of all other attractions on the metro. The walk offered me a different side of Barcelona, again, a park nestled up in the hills. Requiring a funicular ride up then a bus ride or walk up (my choice)—a good exercise to this high-line destination; I had another chance at nature.  I had the option on my list in 2016, but never made it; glad now to get the views of the sunset, city, and coast; if only I had access to these more often!

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On my return, Elio was free and now chose to relax in his room; projecting Netflix on his large white wall behind his bed. He invited me in and after catching up, he introduce me to Black Mirrors, my first episode; the one with technology and the mom-daughter, this is wild! In the last days at his apartment, he dorm-mate and friend from Calabria would return, bringing back coffee and food from the agriculturally rich area; we were all excited! One evening he’d invite me out with him and his friends, some of the same people at the after NYE, morning gathering. We’d sit at a piazza caffe, outside talk, smoke and drink; it was nice to be included and to imagine what life is like for people my age or older here, my first experience (two years ago) ovviamente, I was only a traveler.

After five days of company, inclusion, and free rent it was strange it move on, back to a familiar place; the 360 Hostel Arts & Culture. The same hostel as the first time, gave me a sense of deja vu, and a new facet of the city in the final two days. Sitting on the computer, prepping for travels; ensuring all necessary information is jotted down, and steps were completed to be ready for travel to the unfamiliar brought me back.  Even walking the halls, the dorms, and location felt very familiar; I never found that taps bar, Samuel and I first visited years ago.

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My experiences and time in Barcelona varied greatly from the first time staying at the 360 Hostel Arts & Culture in June 2016. Staying with Elio provided me, for the first time, a true integration into European life, although I had encountered life in Reggio, I was with people not of a direct age relation connection.  With Elio, I felt comfortable, thinking this is life, for him and possible me?  There is a certain appeal, an allure of Barcelona, powerful and, understandable, beaches, sun, culture, mountains.

This experience outdid my first trip to the Catalonian capital, two years ago, yet did have  some repeats during the days; La Sagrada, the beach, the metro, and a journey up into the hills, all bringing back fond memories. Elio can cook, and showed out as a wonderful host; once again the Family-Italian mantra. Coming from that solo room and big bed, it was tough, to separate from Elio; though, it would work out perfectly to get the two desired day trips in, to Girona and Montserrat. The first city being the site of Bravos in Game of Thrones; boasting a rich Jewish history, with complex, diverse beauty.

GIRONA

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I arrived in the new town after an hour train’s ride, naturally a less desirable destination; common in European cities.  Walking from the train station to the first bridge Pont de’ Pedra took ten minutes, from there I admittedly crossed over the river several times, shear interest in insuring I encountered all I could on either side of the river.  The Pont de les Peixateries Velles bridge offers a far contrast from the more generic bridge; so naturally, like a few other tourists, majority young Chinese international students and travelers, I snapped a share of photos.  The Riu Onyar, running through this city is not too vast, yet provides that same comforting feeling and beauty that I’ve found in the past alongside the river.

Of the many destinations in the city that I aimed to encounter here, the first happened to shed light on the Spanish Inquisition of 1492; the Jewish quarter. Exploration, continued throughout the old town; finding myself out in the rural country, hiking up to monasteries, and the Campus del Barri Vell, and part of the Jardin John Lennon.  The environment is truly unique, appealing to all my desires within a city; water—a river, many historical and architectural gems, plenty of nature, including an elevated area for hiking and an escape. The Jewish presence, leaving historic beauty within the Old town, is not alone; in fact, the Arabic Baths dating back to the 12th century, fuel this traveler’s imagination of a time considered to be the Golden Age of Spain. Centuries before King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella came together; forging the kingdoms of Aragon and Castille into one Spanish Catholic Monarch, the three monotheistic religions existed in peace. This period would ultimately come to an end with the Reconquest of Spain, and the subsequent exile of the Jewish and Islamic religions; yet, architecture remains.

Past to present, Girona and Catalonia provides. Six centuries ago, the two kingdoms came to be unified as one, but now there is a building desire for separation; at least, for Catalan, which financially  out produces the rest of the nation. Demands for LIBERTA have thus far led to no avail, but one can notice the desire, walking through the city. The letters are hung up on university buildings, on businesses and terraces across the city; demands for Catalunya—Nou Estat d’europa.

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It’s a joy to stroll along the river, through the narrow alley ways—streets, stumbling upon stunning architecture, and touring the ninth century walls.  The day proved long, yet a delight and very eventful; however, I must admit one clear fault on my part. I ate lunch, a good full lunch at Dot Tavern—hard to come by on back packers’ budget (in Spain!) and after not being attended to afterward, for some forty-five minutes, I left. I escaped the bill and eluded their grasp; wrong on two accounts. First, I had no business being there; spending my money on a great lunch, eaten, digested, photo-over. Second, it was wrong for leaving; I erred for that entire period—ending with not paying.  As often the case with time at a bar, café, restaurant; it provided an opportunity to recharge, rejuvenate, and prepare; phone, restroom, sit, eat, research, maps, train times.

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Following lunch, I found the Cathedral; then exhausting my phone usage through photos of all angles, involving the climb of the many stairs several times; indecision. I found a further workout, touring the city in amazement; further examples attesting to the wealth of this setting. It is logical why Game of Thrones chose this location; architectural and artistic gems: the Cathedral, Monestir de Sant Pere de Galligants, the Basilica de Sant Feliu, La lleona (kissed it), and the street along the El Call.  Peace can be easily encountered walking alone through the endless maze of historic alleyways, in the many plazas, or retreating to a quiet café for a pick me up!  The history is astounding, teaching me as I whip my head back and forth, the Escut dels Austries I de Girona; boasting a sixteenth century Austrian Hapsburg shield, the Moorish influence, the Jewish presence, and the dominant yet now progressive Catholic stronghold.

After the long day, I returned to the old town and found the train station. Soon, I was able to sit down on the train; with tired legs, I took a nap. The walking wasn’t over, upon returning to Barcelona, I then found the metro and took it until Urquinaoa; then just a brief walk back the hostel. It was an eventful, exhausting day which earned an  accomplished smile, but now came replenishing myself and prep for the next day.

MONTSERRAT

The next morning I scheduled to visit Montserrat, a slightly more difficult journey; and altogether a tougher day trip but proved to be very fruitful. The train travel is not as easy to manage, nor as nice, but like Girona, was reachable by train, albeit more than an hour. The journey took me in, toward the mountains, to a (Monserrat in Spanish, I’ve learned means Jagged mountains) mountainside-top monastery village. We arrived at the base of the mountain, originally a handful of travelers around 9 am; after two connections and an hour or so train ride, we waited for the opening of the cable car company.  Soon we found ourselves transporting up into the air, headed toward the very middle break in the mountains.

Several destinations, viewed in preparation sul internet, peaked my interest—first, heights which mean…a view.  I sought to encounter the Escal de l’enteniment, Stairs of Enlightenment (Monastery grounds!), previously seen in several pictures in 2014 that were unfenced; I can imagine being Enlightened while at that position (palms sweaty even thinking about it). I question two things, first; would I take that chance, if they weren’t fenced, then second what made them become fenced?

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The real reason behind this day trip, or any, is an offering to do something or see/learn, etc. new that the city (in questo caso-Barcelona) can’t offer. The region of Montserrat allows for action packed adventure, with a religious, nature, hiking spin.  History is always entangled in the travels, but with pleasurable (enough) weather before some clouds and wind, the rapid moving about was easy. Several monasteries spread across the region, all within a fifteen-kilometer radius; provided a challenge, prompting me to wonder, how much ground can I cover?  The main attraction, Santa Maria de Montserrat Abbey at the very top is the first destination after disembarking from the cable car, but the trails from there allow for descent to the one below or a walk to a monastery-house residence; and several others attached by hiking and climbing trails.

It all seemed (to me) to be destinations to work toward, providing me with a sense of accomplishment, activity, exhaustion, and distraction. The journey down involved just balance and careful stepping while giving me a chance to allow momentum to take hold. The way back, although tougher, and forcing more energy to be used, had less impact on the knees and a heightened sense of challenge, I’ll take that any day. The highlight occurred at the low monastery, which proved to be part of the overall enjoyment of the brief visit. The true memory comes in the way of a good conversation and connection with an incredible woman working, or living at the monastery.

The middle aged woman from the Martinique explained to me of her visits to the states, and briefly living there for some years! It all seemed surreal, a connection with such a unique person, who by all accounts looks so different and coming from a different world view. My travels interested her, as hers to me; so, we remained in conversation for nearly an hour, only to be briefly interrupted by questions from two young French travelers. Confidently, she responded to their questions with a smile, then turned back to me and English; with only two women that I saw their, I imagine they have plenty of experience with travelers.

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The hike back up tired me out, so I had to rest briefly in the congested main flat area before hiking up the left side; providing me an overview of the main site. Soon, I’d be back where I had arrived that morning, thankfully I hadn’t been around all these people, and was able to find an escape in the trails. I walked by them all and continued, now to the opposite side to get me a slight of the whole area from above; to more incline and trails. I’d encountered some people on my way up, but didn’t mind to much, as the difficulty prevented the mass of people, down below, from partaking; important lesson to escape them, do what they won’t—often anything that requires work. So, I rise above.

BARCELONA

That first week in Spain, rejuvenated, enlightened, and tiring due to all the walking!  Getting to know and connecting with Elio was special, reminding me the most valuable aspect of travel; our cultural-language barrier didn’t stop our natural bond and similar dispositions.  His porch, equipped with a washing machine and clothes line, allowed me to re-up my short offering of clothing; a constant challenge in hostels. His schedule was relatively free, allowing us to spend some time together each day.

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In my first week abck abroad, I came to remember how demanding traveling can be, especially while lugging a 30-pound backpack around! This beaten down feeling, both physically and mentally, is also facilitated largely due to a lack of sleep and constant, endless moving!  Following an exhilarating first week in Barcelona, I continued my travelers high and headed to Rome.  The brief two hour Ryan Air flight; so cheap that I have already purchased three flights for the near future, was uneventful compared to my encounters with Norwegian Air, just a week prior!

ROME

Arriving in Rome, I had a whole different feeling; a wild man sense of excitement.  I set out to conquer the city in parts, since I had four whole days in the vast city. I found my hostel, checked-in, grabbed a map and went.  The grounds covered, I look back are to my most extreme, shame I do not have a photo. I recall snapping a photo of the many lines I made on the map. By far the most I have walked in a span of four days to date; this is in part to the city—its sheer size, endless sights, but also due to the location of my temporary home.

Staying Hotel Mosaic, just south of Porta Pia, made me extend my days longer, since I was already starting far from each destination (only a mile to Villa Borghese).  I noticed every day the walking always led me south to the Tevere; which took about 30 minutes even with my pace, mostly due to the many stops for amazement, and a photo.  I find a certain peace being in a city along a river, this was the case with every river city I’ve visited; and certainly here.

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Naturally, the first day I sought out the touristy to-dos that I believe any traveler seeks in Rome. In walking south towards the river, I first had plans to see the colosseum; a sight I recall slightly from eleven years ago. My memories of our trip (Nonna, dad, Julia, and I) are fuzzy at best. The first major stop on my way; Piazza della Repubblica, is the closest metro stop, yet I would never use it. In fact, I never used the metro; one night to my chagrin, since I didn’t have any coin to buy a ticket. This would just be another example of my frugality, or cheapness, on the road.

I came upon the historic sight, about a half hour walk; instantly, I encountered an interesting facet of Rome (and Italy), that forced me to look at the nature of things, differently. I will use my conversation with Alex as the lens of this problem and phenomenon. Immigration and tourism in Italy; check Italy’s location on the map, and one can understand, proximity. Alex is just one of the many street salesmen, tending to the massive intake of people, like myself; with clearly enough money to get them abroad to the tourist hub of Rome, and Italy. Comprised of mostly young men, about my age, these vendors utilize there English skills to seek out profit from the people about.

Selling items that I had no desire in; selfie sticks, umbrellas, etc. I easily expressed my lack of interest to buy anything. Yet, the persistence and shear population of so many people around the Colosseum is overwhelming. Everywhere I looked there were people (tourists): taking photos, sitting about, and eating. Then these young men would either come up to you or announce there product, “selfie stick.” The later I didn’t mind, but the former does become agitating; especially when you refuse one, as he leaves, the next guy comes up to you. The combination of these immigrants; both tourists and migrants, made for my desire to exit the area. I’d be back, but I needed to make for some peace.

In the background, and in all the surrounding areas rests other tourist attractions; including: both the Parco del Colle Oppio, il Parco Cilla, the Palatine hill, the Vittorio Emanuele monument, the Arch of Constantine, and many basilicas. I exited the area, via the Parco Cilla and soon found an excitement with a street name nearby; Via Marco Aurelio.

Despite its glory being about two millennium ago, I cannot escape the importance of this city; my connection to it is evident, from history and philosophy. This heightened feeling led me further in exploration; the Circo Maxssimo, then soon il Giardino degli Aranci. One of the most fascinating aspects of Rome, for me, is the seven hills, all providing a panorama view of the city. I decided to not partake in the Palatine hill on this day, and instead; choose the Gardens of the Oranges. It was near sunset as I walked up past the rose gardens, towards il Clivo di Rocca Savella. The incline cobblestone road did a number on my knees, but I had a clear goal in mind; the view. As I walked up one of the seven hills, I marveled at the broken glass lining the top of the ancient walls (to the right-below).

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Eventually I found the orange gardens, but unfortunately also many tourists; which made finding a spot to sit along the observation deck area difficult. The view was beautiful, especially with the river below; allowing me to take refuge and contemplate how much I had moved in a few hours. My task was not complete, in fact, I hadn’t really yet begun. Checking the maps, I found many attractions to be located nearby; highlighted by the Piazza Dei Cavalieri Di Malta. This supposed secret of Rome, allows for a viewer to have a direct view (within a key hole) of the Basilica of Saint Peter, in the Vatican. Yet, when I arrived in the plaza, I found a long line, comprised of roughly fifty people, just waiting. I was disgusted, it wasn’t worth it for me, to wait in line for a photo; so I left for the decline of the hill. One my way down, I came across another church and couldn’t help but be drawn into the gated/walled area.

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The extravagance of the churches draw me in; to find many tourists like me, snapping photos of the alter, glass windows, and exterior. I made my decline, headed to the river, and sought a place to sit; seeking food, energy, and WiFi. I found the Noname Cafe located within the Trastevere district, nearby the river. Upon entering the small cafe, I took a seat and began looking for what I could get to refuel, without breaking my bank. One of the two young men behind the bar asked to help me. I turned to him, excited to try some Italian; I ordered a panino and told him I wanted something sweet (vorrei un dolce, chocolate?) He suggested a hot chocolate that was just made for another guest, I turned and it was confirmed. It was literally melted chocolate (Gold), I was sold! I will forever have memories of that delicious drink.

During my brief stint at the cafe, I recharged my phone, researched the rest of my evening, ate and rejuvenated myself with una vera gioia. Leaving now I felt refreshed to take on more items; first, crossing the bridge (Ponte Garibaldi) into the former Jewish ghetto. I passed the river and the Isola Tiberina, then stumbled upon the Jewish Museum, and synagogue (Tempio Maggiroe di Roma). I didn’t know much about the Jewish presence in Rome, nor Italy; past or present, but could recall from Dr. Weinfeld’s class that the origin of the ghetto came from the desire to push Jews into a specific area of the city.  The historic buildings and tourist quest led me further from the river; if only for a bit, to the Pantheon.

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The entrance and ease of getting into the ancient senate building was aided by the lateness. Have I stressed enough about the people everywhere, even within the massive interior I got a feel for the buzz of the past greatness. I gladly left, hoping to somehow find a place void of all these people. The next destination, Piazza Navona ddin’t help, yet was stunning with the fountains and governmental buildings. The vibe there was more relaxed than the previous spot, but still hosted too many people sprawled about. In turning back towards the river, I soon came upon two historic sites of Rome; yet, not fully aware of their significance (Viterbo would soon help!)

First, Campo de’ Fiori and then nearby the river, il Palazzo Farnese. The former works now as a piazza popular for the restaurants and a produce market. In the very middle stands a monument to Giordano Bruno, a philosopher of the sixteenth century. That night, I just took a photo; impressed how he appeared to be an Assassin from the popular video game. I would soon learn of his significance in due aspetti. First, an unorthodox intellectual challenger of the church he was burned at the stake here; hence the words, “Qui Dove Il Rogo Arse,” here where the fire rose. Second, perhaps more interesting, the statue was built in the late nineteenth century, as a Vaffanculo if you will to the church; fascinating (more to come about that later-lessons in Viterbo.)

The second sight is yet another absurdly extravagant palace, previous owned by one of Rome’s great families, the Farnese; I learn later, having great wealth and a connection to Pope Alessandro (Borgia!) I continued along the river, entranced by the light flickering off the river, and the growing separation I had found from all the tourists; it was getting later. Soon, with music in my ear and an absolute excitement for the near solitude I had, I came upon the religious sector. First, wrapping around the Vatican walls I found the Ponte Principe Amedeo bridge, which gave me a view of Castel Sant’Angelo.

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The massive castle, adjacent to the Vatican; in the past allowed safe refuge and protection to the Pope. Famously housing Pope Borgia for a period during his tumultuous reign (more of that-later.)  I crossed the bridge, lined with many stunningly intricate statues, and found l’ospedale Santo Spirito; interesting to me for two statues lining the outside area. First, a distressed sprawled out, sheet covered man with his hand out, below with a small plaque, “Ero malato e mi avete visitato.” The next, a figure sitting cross legged with a hand pointed to the bowl in front, “Ho avuto fame e mi avete data da mangiare, ho avuto sete e mi avete dato da bere.” The lines below explains in English, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink.” The religious connection is now real, and somehow; despite being now within the Holy City, I had mostly escaped the crowds.

Again, a feeling came about; of heightened significance. Perhaps, the allure got to me, but I was once again, entranced. It was the season, four days following the turn of the new year; which meant a massive manger and tree were still up from Christmas. I walked about, took many a photos, and enjoyed the semi-enclosed environment; surrounded by armed guards. Birds even flew around the area, leaving their post atop St. Peter’s Basilica, upon the ringing of the bell.

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Now exhausted, I was not pleased to find that my walk back to the hostel would be an hour. I made a direct line, across the bridge past the many picture worthy piazzas and chiese, before making two stops. First, la Piazza del Popolo (the plaza of the people), then the Spanish steps. This tourist stop I had been to before; reminded later by Julia and dad of our photo opportunity, despite all the other picture goers along the worn down steps. The area, Piazza di Spagna, is famous from many films depicted there, and hosts at the peak the Trinita dei Monti church; too late to enter I continued on. I pulled my energy together to complete the rest of the walk; the entire time questioning why I didn’t have any coin. I’d cross into the pizza Barberini and its grandness before finding again la Piazza della Repubblica, now I felt comfortable not looking down at my phone for maps. I retreated back to the hotel, walked the three flights of stairs and found my eight bunk room. I quickly completed my items before bed, teeth and eyes and hoped into my top bunk.

In looking at the map, the next day while eating breakfast; freely offered with the price, I was surprised to find that in my rushed state I so closely missed several sites; including: la Fontana di Trevi e la Villa Medici. There is a clear difference in the sights at night and day. Faced with the interest of entering it during the day, but the crowds, and then the near bliss at night; I wanted to encounter both options. During breakfast, secluded in the back, with several plates and bowls of simple cheap food; toasts with jam, cereal and fruit, I planned. I compared my physical map with the phone, for both direction, distance and “things to-do.” Prepping is part of the fun, both months before then now, in this instance on the ground, in the city. With such a massive city and many interests to do and see, one must plan to best use the time allotted.

The day began, as always, early, in the hope of beating the tourists out to some destinations. I headed out and quickly encountered some visitors; most memorably, an Italian family, with three young school children that asked me for directions, in Italian. I responded in the best Italian I could muster, which relayed my relative lack of knowledge of the area, but did convey to them the needed direction, to the Colosseum. They then continued, asking where I was from, I responded D.C. They seemed excited to meet an American; I don’t remember where exactly they had come from, but they were southern, perhaps from the lower Campagna region. It was another cool experience, to be confused for a local, but like every time before, in Madrid for example, I couldn’t hold up the act for long; normally ruined when I open my mouth.

I reached my first destination, Piazza Venezia and quickly found out that I had failed in that task, the monument was already covered. The people were all across the steps and upper level, cars zipped around the intersections, and birds hovered over the area, waiting for food.  I entered trough the opening in the gates, walked up the giant wide, marble stairs. The monument dedicated to the first king under the newly unified Italian peninsula, following il Risorgimento circa 1861; is magnificent, purtroppo unfitting for what I would learn of the king later on in class. Notably, the inside serves as a history lesson for the Italian nation since its official unification. Arriving outside I found an area, just open enough to fit my shoulders between; I leaned up against it and found this view of the Colosseum.

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After having enough of the mayhem of all the people, I left in route for a better vantage point; la Collina di Giancolo. In crossing through the Jewish Ghetto, I once again came across familiar sites; il Teatro Marcello and the synagogue. I researched, with a need and want for some food, to find il ristorante di Nonna Betta. This Jewish-Roman eatery is fancier than I would normally attend to but, with everything I had read about the artichokes and fish I wanted to sample. It is funny, how people receive you; the restaurant staff that is, and perhaps, other people, when you are only at a restaurant. They are surprised, even perhaps, sadden for you; but soon, take interest of to why I am alone. My reaction, like on a train, is to pull out my journal and recap; capturing the moments that I am in the midst of experiencing.

The cod, and artichokes were good; and soon I was more energetic crossing the Tiber and coming to the Tiber Island. I’d continue up the hill, finding the first of two cherished quotations; one in beautiful artwork on the wall, “The Role of the Artist is to Make Revolution Irresistable.” At the peak sits a terrace, which if one would to deviate away, will come across the Mausoleo Ossario Garibaldino; a monument to the soldiers of the eighteen hundreds. This square monument boasts the statement that I would take on to represent my trip and thoughts on the city, “Roma o Morte.”

This historic hill serves as an expression of Italian pride, almost nationalistic in nature; with the wall of the constitution, two Garibaldi statues (heroic husband and wife), then  the Belvedere Niccolo Scatoli (a lookout in front of yet another stunning clear blue fountain.) I headed back to the Vatican, nearby, now desiring to see it in its full glory during the day. The Castel Sant’Angelo and the Vatican were packed, proving my decision to see them last night, more intimately.

Afterward, I’d come across two extravagant palaces, in dedication to Italia’s past, now used by the government. The first, the Ordine degli Avvocati Roma (Labor Union of Rome) is placed n the middle of Piazza Cavour; which brought to me one of my most unfortunately unforgettable memories. I was frantically walking about, in search of directions, when I came upon an older man sitting on a bench. I stopped to greet him and ask for directions, “Scusi, signore…” I was glad to practice my Italian, when he asked me to sit beside him; so, I figured I’ll take a quick seat. In the next moments, I should have read his behavior better; first, he approached me by sliding closer to me. He then explained he had an apartment nearby, at this point I started to realize his intentions, but wanted to remain polite. It was not until he placed his hand on my knee that I figured I must end our conversation, he wasn’t understanding why I must leave.

Now, at this point I stood up to explain that I must go, for whatever reason, he felt it necessary to disclose, “Mi piacciono uomini.” My Italian comprehension is far better than my speaking, so when he informed me that he likes men, then licked his lips I shivered. I have been hit on my guys before, realizing that it is always a possibility; men once this happens to us, we should immediately recognize and question, merda…is this how I am to women? It is at this moment, an unfortunate one for me, that we check ourselves, in hopes to never put an interest in that uncomfortable situation; and it was Uncomfortable! Not only should peaceful dialogue exist without an intention but to make a person, myself in this case, shiver and desire to leave. I give props to this guy, it is very difficult to make me feel uncomfortable but he had done it. I was gone, to the next location with some troubling images in my head.

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The rest of my evening’s activities were now in route back to my hostel.  The day had been long, and tiring; and again, I began to question why I did not use the metro. First, I came back to the Piazza del Popolo; however, this time, as I had questioned before, I wandered up to the top to give me this overhead view.

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The terrace overlooking the piazza was packed, too many tourist and so many young school age children out; Italian teenagers everywhere in packs. The area below was crowded with activity, which meant the occasional conversation, or complete disregard of street sellers to tourists. I oversaw one in particular, a woman offering some hand made (I presume) items to a long line of people sitting around the fountain; some dismissed her, others politely responded no thank you. It always fascinates me to watch exchanges between people that perhaps, otherwise would not ever engage in dialogue.

The Villa Borghese, the massive park behind me in the photo above, encompasses many gardens, a lake, and a few palaces. Most notably, and within the closest distance from me is the Villa Medici, which appeared to be representative of the true extravagance of Italy’s past. Like the terrace, people were scattered about the area; whether tourist or local, just enjoying the weather and view.

I could not escape the amount of people, as I walked the same route as the day before. This time I wanted to ensure my arrival at Trevi fountain, although difficult to find, nestled between the many narrow streets. I’d eventually come upon it and a disturbing amount of people, all jocking for position to take the best photo-video. It was astounding, so many people all in one area; I just couldn’t. I left with two intentions, to come back when it was removed from the plague, and to find a path home that would allow me to hear my own thoughts. The round about path, first took me to Roma Termini; the main train station; which although normally packed with all the people, and madness, one should expect in Rome, was fairly quiet. The rest of the walk back I dragged, occasionally marveling at the buildings and sites, before continuing on back up to the northern part of town.

The next day, I was in for a treat; especially to my frugal liking. I learned that every first Sunday of the month, in Italy, federal buildings and national museums are free to enter. In my research I was excited to learn the Colosseum was one of these options; so, I planned my day around visiting several of these items. The day started out early, I was awake around six for an early departure. I bypassed breakfast, which didn’t offer until seven, and instead; decided I get it out. I made my way first to Piazza Venezia, to find the monument to Vittorio Emanuele completely empty, it was a glorious foreshadowing of what was to come.

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Afterward, I made a beeline to the Trevi Fountain, now in hope that it wouldn’t be in the same state of infestation, like the night prior. Again, how wonderful it was to find the stunning sight void of all the tourists; just me and a handful of people taking in the view. I then made it to my destination, and was one of the first ten people in line; within a half hour, I walked into the historic gladiator battleground. I was able to walk about, free of the majority of visitors to come; for the first thirty minutes I walked about carefree, before the people started to flood in. In reading about the reconstruction and original significance of the Colosseum, I found out it had been partially destroyed due to earthquakes. Despite visiting the inside when I previously came to Rome, at age thirteen, I was impressed. The intricate nature of the venue, which explained, allowed viewers to attend for free, but did segregate according to class; acts as the connection between modern and ancient Rome.

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I left satisfied but wanted to make more of this free day, but first, I needed food. I came upon a cafe not far from the area, in a cute, more remote location, nearby a church which seemed to captivate the people around. There a speaker addressed the crowd, I couldn’t make it out completely, due to his pace of speech; but the Sunday mass tradition was intriguing to someone who could relate it to Nonna and Lucia’s churches in the past. Afterward, I continued and soon found the National Museum, the Baths of Diocletian; now used primarily for funereal artworks and decorations from the Aurelian period (third century C.E.) The most memorable sights within came from the Chiostro di Michelangelo, a courtyard featuring many marble animal heads; horses, lions, bulls.

By the afternoon, I exhausted myself from any and all tourist regions.  I sought to see something more than the tourist beauty, and most importantly escape the plague! I returned to the hostel, for a break, to recharge and research. I was curious what was north of Porta Pia, a large ancient gate that divided my area and what lied south from whatever existed beyond the wall. All I knew, according to my phone map; as the tourist map I had been using didn’t cover it, was it was all green, the most Rome had to offer.

I ventured past the gate, and into Quartiere Coppedè; a haven away from the tourist world.  Within this secluded quarter, filled with beautiful buildings, a large park, and people seemingly unaware of tourists; there is a uniquely intimate feeling despite on the cusp of a global city. I came upon a cafe, which advertised a buffet of sorts, but when I asked the women she didn’t understand. She apologized for her English was not very good, I smiled and insisted that for I should be sorry, since my Italian is not much better. She’d get her younger co-worker, but neither of them were very comfortable speaking English. I thought this was great, and we managed to get through it; I ordered a room temperature feast of vegetables, pasta, and meats.

I explored further, despite the sun fading; as was my body. It had been a long and tiring two days, and I was feeling it. I determined to do enough recon for the next day, then set back; to catch up on some sleep; that I needed. Instead, after arriving home I began to succumb to a brief period of loneliness. I talked to Katie, missing her admittedly; which only brought me into a feeling of sadness and jealousy. She explained about being hit on by a guy, which for whatever reason I responded with a feeling that I despise. As I talked on the phone with her, I sunk more into a feeling of disconnect with my area (here), previously happy in Rome and from my home in Richmond.

Thankfully, this feeling was short lived once I came across Mehrie, my new roommate from Germany.  He arrived into the room just as I had come back from the call. After briefly speaking each on the way to two different African restaurants, we decided to go together to a nearby Eritrean restaurant; Asmara.  He proved helpful here, being from Eritrean, he guided me through a collective, massive feast; one that cost each of us twenty euro, but wow it was good. It was my first time at an African restaurant, and the first time eating Eritrean or Ethiopian food. He guided me through the process, telling me to use my hands, explaining me the name of this and that. I tried to understand the nature of the conversations with the store owner, who would come by just to chat, but failed ovviamente, so I just spoke to the man in Italian when he turned to me.

I enjoyed some company; especially his, since he provided me two different viewpoints. First, he painted the image of his past, escaping north into Europe; and making a new home in Germany. He has a strong connection to his homeland, but now as he explained must turn to a new opportunity. His telling of assimilation into a new country, forced to retake high school classes, and once again earn his GED; while learning German is intense. Just his dedication for advancement and the desire to enter into Finance, rising to the top in a country which is known globally for that; he specified Frankfurt.

Finally, the reason for being in Italy; the only way we met, to see and be with his girlfriend, who lives and studies in Italy. She lives about an hour outside Rome, so they plan each day after her classes, she takes the train into the city to spend time together. The story alone, I cannot forget, the guy as well; passionate about finance, learning, and the Big Bang Theory; particularly Sheldon. That we could bond over. We talked further after dinner, then each retired to our beds, as he watched videos of Sheldon and laughed, occasionally asking, “What does he mean…?”

I realized the next day; my final before Viterbo, several different things. First, I was about to move to a much smaller, less diverse city than Rome, so again, I should look to eat something besides Italian food. Second, there was still so much of Rome I didn’t know; in reading about the city, people explained living in Rome for years, one will still encounter new aspects of the diverse city. Finally, I was not ready for Viterbo, I didn’t have a train ticket yet, nor had I  completed the application for an internship. Naturally, all this had me reeling; so I was up again early. I sat downstairs and prepped, first, print the needed documentation for the train station and get a ticket to Porta Romana. Next, find a good place to eat tonight, not Italian and research where to go new, besides further exploring Coppede.

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I set out for San Lorenzo, a quarter less known to tourists, located to the north of Termini; known to be more of the young student area. Much like Coppede, this area is drastically different from what I saw the first two days; and what I imagine people only ever see of Rome. In my reading ahead of time, I expected two things of this new area; first, students and young people. The second, perhaps, a byproduct of the first, street art and graffiti. It was fascinating to see more different face of Rome, more dirty, and seemingly, less superficial, since it was not depicted in countless movies, like the Colosseum, Trevi Fountain, etc. After exploring the area beyond the wall, I searched up and found an authentic restaurant. I caught them before they closed for post-pranzo, around 330 pm. I faced trouble ordering, mostly since I couldn’t pronounce my dish properly; I’ve been corrected many times since, Gnocchi.

After San Lorenzo, I ventured north, towards the hostel and then back to Coppede. This instance, like the day prior, was rushed, as time was not on my side, but I sought to explore what I couldn’t the day before; the large park on the very north side. My intended destination, Villa Ada Park is located deep in the large green area of Villa Ada Savoia. The journey to the lake took a serious hour or so, trekking to the point of getting lost, then resorting to running to make up time. The area is full of trails; for people on feet or on horseback, and provided me an escape from the city and some much needed time within nature. I left as the sun removed itself from the sky, and aimed to go back by way of a shortcut which would ultimately led me to a different part of the city; again, three for three today. I stayed parallel to the park, strolling through neighborhoods and then finding myself nearby a campus, then armed guards, protecting the many government buildings and embassies of the area.

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In returning to the hostel, I faced my last evening in Rome; as it seemingly always happens I found my fondest moment, although of course fleeting. As Mehrie and I were talking and catching up about the day, we meet our two other roommates; a new guy from Milan, and my bunk-mate from South Korea, who had previously been quiet. He would be of particular interest, since he explained his desire to travel about Europe, for roughly two months, before having to return and join the military. He seemed so kind, and young; it was hard for any of us to grasp how and why he must be a soldier. In explaining to us, it was as he was going to break down and cry; I can’t imagine.

So after a four-day walking intensive quest, challenging myself to see as much of the city that I have dreamt about for years; the memory that remains is of the four of us sitting on the ground and the bottom bunks; exchanging cultural norms, asking questions, sharing food, learning different words, and getting to know each other.  The experience for me was truly unique, four different travelers all originally from four different continents!

VITERBO

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(Piazza Commune, Viterbo)

After a brief period of worrying if I would be affected by the train delay, “Quest’ e’ l‘Italia”, I arrived at the Porta Romana train station with an hour to spare.  I have not seen to them to thank them, but three police officers confronted me, which I have now found to be a common occurrence for me.  After they reviewed my paperwork, and asked me a few questions, they told me to get in the car, stating “today we are taxi.”  That occasion alone will be most likely the only time I am in the back of a police car laughing with a smile on my face.  Their last words to me echoed a societal problem I noticed throughout Rome, “beware of the blacks.”  That issue is for another time but is both disturbing and fascinating to see such a racial divide here in Italy.  As I arrived to hotel Baletti eager to get settled in, I saw a long line of students, standing stagnant with their luggage.  I joined in the back but quickly questioned why?  I found out it was for the lone elevator, of course!  So, I grabbed my room key and with my backpacker’s bag on my back, and two backpacks, I moved it up the four flights of stairs.  Minutes later, I arrived in my empty room, choose the lone bed away from the other two connected, and began to unpack.  I realize now the first impression of me is that reaction, but that moment properly depicts who I am.

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Already unpacked I joined a fellow student, Matt on a quest to revisit a casino, which he won 100 euro the night before.  I soon found out he is the only student in the 50 person program older than me; with good reason, he was honorably discharged from Iraq after his service.  The evening’s event included a trip to a pizzeria, in which people began to mingle, and then a night walk around the town.  Led by two Italian students, we ended up at the local bar/hangout, settantasette (77).  The night concluded our stay at the hotel and all students dispersed to our future temporary homes.  I learned I was to join three-year long students, Mason, Camilla, and Kiara, in an apartment on Via Zazzera, near the main piazza, del commune.  I am very fortunate I like all three of my roommates and I don’t believe they resent me, since I am the only one with the queen size bed!  The rent is cheap, 210 euro, amounting to $262, plus roughly an additional $50 per month for electricity and gas.  We would “suffer” through a few cold days early, especially in the apartment, since heat is not as simple here.  Besides the first week, and a few days here and there, I have been overjoyed with the weather.

The temperature, with an average of 10 degrees Celsius (conversion-50 degrees Fahrenheit), during the coldest month of the year is a nice change from 20 degrees days in Richmond!  Perhaps the greatest luxury is the proximity to the university, just an eight-minute walk right outside the walls.  Orientation continued the next two days in room 14; I believe everyone, especially the staff members, appreciated the end of that! I sat in the back, way up in the rows, with one headphone in; I couldn’t help myself, so much of the information was just basic. How not to get the FBI or American embassy involved, advice on not drinking too much, etc. The only time I felt really keyed in was the discussion, very informational about all the many types of pasta and caffe; seriously, we went over the many types of coffee in Italy, helpful later. Class started for me on Friday, January 12 with travel writing, a class I have since dropped.  Although the class seemed interesting, as I explained to Francesca, my favorite staff member, the class does nothing to advance my degree and only takes away free time for me; she had heard it before, another American just wanting to travel.  The next day, I opted to skip a free tour around the city, and instead attended the Saturday market to buy some much needed winter clothes.  I walked away spending 11 euro, on the olive turtle neck sweater, a long sleeve workout shirt, and a grey heavy pea coat; with zero winter clothes, it would get its use.

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After my exciting market experience, and of course second breakfast, I joined the group on a trip to Civita di Bagnoregio, “a hilltop village in central Italy.”  The city, with a population of eight people (!), is nicknamed the dying city due to erosion causing the city to slope.  The houses and the whole town essentially appears to be falling off a cliff.  As one could imagine, it is solely now a tourist destination and being very small, only took about a half hour to see.  After the 45-minute bus ride home, with some energy, Matt & I grabbed a bottle of Italian brandy, his idea, and some food, my idea, and visited the nearby hot springs!  We encountered some Romans, visiting for the day, and enjoyed the baths for the evening, which get up to 100 degrees Fahrenheit. I noticed early on that Matt did not know any Italian, which would cause one local to continuously correct him on how to pronounce Viterbo. It was funny, already seeing the cultural divide; not only between us (Americans) and them, but between an man from Idaho and a Virginian. Several aspects were clear; we are two very different people (Him and I), yet he has an adventurous nature, and after just simply exploring for such a brief time, I wanted to further explore, why not hot thermal springs. They are located about a fifteen or twenty minute cab ride outside of the city, the bus didn’t offer on this day, and we had no idea where to walk. With several different baths located in the surrounding area, we were enamored, but had to be concerned with one thing; theft of our items.

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The next day, I followed my Sunday tradition, relaxed and prepared for classes the following day. My class schedule; consisting of Italian conversation, Italian history of the Renaissance, Italian Culture, Italian Cuisine, and Modern Italian history, provides me with a fair amount of time to myself.  Italian conversation is divided into two sessions a week, the first Monday at 1130-1 pm, and then again on Wednesday from 330-5 pm.  Both Italian Renaissance, Tuesday, and Modern Italian history, Thursday, begin at 830 am and go until 11 am.  I have a nice break on Tuesday following my Renaissance class before I head to Italian Culture, 245-515 pm.  I am not accustomed to this amount of free time so far in these first few weeks, away from my normal Richmond routine, gym, class, work, etc. has provided me with a chance to reform myself in different routine (how valuable that is!)  What has come of me so far is, or my routine, is a fair amount of cooking, researching, traveling of course, conversations with my roommates, practice with Italian; particularly Duolingo and Netflix Italian style!

I have struggled, outside of a lot of walking, in bringing my gym/sporty side to Italy.  I have run some, done some push-ups, but have yet to find a basketball court to play!  That is surprisingly, what is the most difficult, satisfying the active/competitive me; I know it may sound strange, but I catch myself occasionally missing fighting past a screen or receiving an elbow, I never thought that would be the part of basketball I missed!  Running, or any exercise, does not seem to be a common thing here; as I have received a few curious looks as I maneuver around the city like an excited, energetic mad man who just escaped!  Recently I devised an exercise routine, consisting of push-ups, ab work, and running; I aim to complete 1000 push-ups in a week and 13 miles on a single run by the end of my tenure here.  On April 8, the day after I am to return to Rome from Palermo, there is the Rome Marathon.  I will most likely choose to run the cheaper, easier alternative, the 5 km, which I have not run competitively in maybe four years, which for a former still somewhat in shape cross country runner is shameful!

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The first week of classes, also drew the first Italian celebration for many of us, the Sacro Fuoco at Bagnaia.  On Tuesday, January 16 the nearby town held its annual celebration for Sant’Antonio, in the form of a large bonfire in the main piazza.  Although the celebration seemed to be lacking entertainment, besides an enormous fire, it was very cool to see the excitement of the nearby townspeople.  Mason and I arrived after our Culture class, about a ½ hour before the lighting; survived being smoked out, met up with some other USAC students then left to catch the final bus around 9 pm.  By Wednesday morning, since Italian Cuisine is only about every third or fourth week, I was already halfway finished with class.  It is truly a nice schedule to be free of classes after 11 am on Thursday.

My original plan after changing my schedule was to take advantage of the four-day weekends and relentlessly travel about Italy. However, my excitement and then extreme planning has since been altered due to lack of funds and a growing desire to make Viterbo my home.  I have struggled internally thus far combining an urge to be a traveler but also to forge a lifestyle here comparable to my one at home.  Of course, as we push ourselves outside of our comfort zone; one of the greatest reasons to travel, our lifestyle and interests will change.  This is obvious in simple everyday activities, especially in cuisine and habit.  Due to my Australian roommate buying an electric tea kettle, I have shockingly started to drink hot tea; some days I resist the urge to have another espresso and instead opt for a cup of tea.  Both a daily espresso and mugs of tea are new habits adopted due to my environment and particularly my openness to change; I advise to be true and stay within oneself but also “when in Rome,” or Viterbo.

The cuisine here is a little different from that in Richmond, particularly just the availability of many types of pastas and cheeses.  I miss certain foods I am accustom to, have yet to find sweet potatoes and do not eat chicken like I did before; instead I eat more russet potatoes and deli meat!  The first weekend upon exploring the nearby streets and shops I came across wine barrels, which is common here in i mercadi, that offer a liter of wine for roughly $2.50, all you need to do is bring your own bottle!  I enjoy how wine and coffee are ingrained into the culture here, and particularly like to see how Italians appreciate eating together.  I understand now why I seem to receive such weird looks when I walk into a restaurant and respond uno or solo me!

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Every day, many times on my way to and from class, I see all the school age children headed home for their daily Pausa Pranzo.  Like the siesta in Spain, although to a larger scale, the streets and shops empty during a three-hour period, roughly 1-4 pm as families surround the table and interact with each other during lunch.  I imagine Italians think that American style TV dinner or eating in the individual bedrooms is very strange, and I agree!  One of the greatest treasures of traveling; particularly assimilating as we are attempting to do in these months, is changing your perspective on your own life at home.  I will not only go home with an improved level of Italian conversation but also a different attitude on how I live my life in Richmond!  Although only a four-month period I will be in Viterbo, I know from my previous travels in Europe, that I will be a different person after this experience.

FIRENZE

No Class Friday, I made for the easy decision to leave Viterbo via Porta Romana toward Roma on Thursday. Once arriving in Roma Tiburtina, I then took a FlixBus to Florence, a-round bout way but arrived later that evening. The cheap option; I am frugal, however, did not get me to the hostel (near Santa Maggiore Piazza) until later that night. First, upon arriving to the Santa Maria Novella station, I would get lost on foot; directions, I just wandered. Thankfully the sites were to my liking, and when called upon I was able to get enough assistance from a few people around to led me straight. As expected the city is beautiful, all sights if not already exploited by tourists are picture worthy. Walking the narrow cobblestone streets requires one to be looking down to ensure each step, then the street opens into a piazza, the traveler is stopped, quieted, and humbled.

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The rain came that night, my first experience with it on the road thus far; I was lucky in Spain and Rome. Albeit a nuisance, and making it difficult to truly enjoy the exploration of a new city, it did take care of one issue that I have constant trouble with; tourists. The rain seemed to wash them all away; infatti, in crossing over the famous bridge Ponte Vecchio,  I was surprised to find very few people about. I continued out, just amazed with the architecture and ambiance. It is hard not being impressed with the layout of the city; divided by the Arno river, each side offers a different feel.

I stayed out that evening until about eleven, eventually finding my way back across the river and to the my hostel; not the nicest of places, but on the short notice and my budget, it had to do. The bright side would turn out to be the dorm-mates; two guys that I got to know on two different nights. First, a Moroccan guy, younger than me; who was already there when I arrived. It was just us two in the four bed dorm; so, we got to talking. It was interesting hearing his insight, a foreigner from the Arab world, he spoke of different insights about visiting Italy than what I offered; my first time meeting someone from Morocco. He spoke about the difficulty learning English, as an Arabic speaker; yet, his English language skills were good. Younger than me, after our conversation he would stay up talking to a few friends and then his parents, he explained. I had no trouble with it, it was a long day; I passed out with the lights still on.

The next day I woke up with a sense of purpose, only founded when I am on a true mission, to serve a purpose and accomplish; in questo caso, Explorare! There are many sights in Florence, but beyond that I aimed to obtain a sense of the city; which, I have only found by putting foot to ground. The second part of that task, getting to know an area, requires knowledge and assistant; similar to Manu in Lisbon, Sascha in Hamburg, and Rita in Athens. It is a local’s perspective that I just do not have, and can not gain in such a short period. It was a joy to explore the Renaissance city, but something was lacking; it wasn’t Rome where I was led by that intense heightened feeling. In needing something else I reached out for company.

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The second evening I tried something different; I linked up on couch surfing activities and on tinder. I began messaging with both a group of three travelers on CS but chose the Italian tinder match.  We met that evening at the market, Mercato Centrale; a location I only briefly walked by, but now with know how in the company was excited to enjoy the environment.  It was rich, uniquely large and quaint feeling, we found our way upstairs. She led with expertise, at least familiarity—the food, service, and wine was satisfying.  We continued our conversation, then began walking about the city—soon the campus library and dining hall; the second-floor café, there’s a good shot at the Cupola (she was an excellent guida!) It’s special to have a local, native speaker, to act as a guide around the unfamiliar city.  I had places to go, things to do, on my schedule—or planner of the weekend, but nothing prepares for spontaneity on the road.

I didn’t expect for us to have a connection; I certainly enjoyed the nightly tour and conversation, but then we ended up outside her apartment.  It was a surprise to me; so, despite our chemistry I thought clearly this was her way of, here I’m back home, goodnight. Instead, she offered a view atop the shared rooftop; I accepted and did not return to the hostel that night, which would ironically irritate me; I mean I paid for the bed.  Soon, with not bringing a necessary item; since I would not have expected such an event, I strangely found myself getting get more of a tour of the city, now self-guided—in search for a farmacia.  In not understanding to buy them at one of the vending like machines along certain streets (located on the wall, or in); I jogged further than needed to the open farmacia in a main piazza.  I returned, now having experienced another specific oddity; buying a specific item at the pharmacy in Italy, the night continued.

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The next morning, having not slept well in the single bed—I gladly accepted a café and breakfast before parting her place.  We kissed goodbye, with me assuring her that I would reach back out later that day—I left.  Before leaving, I asked and received advice to a few restaurants; and a spot across the river.  Again, rain came down on me in Florence, and I guess other people; yet, thankfully not as hard as Thursday night.  I used the remaining energy I had, to walk down to the main bus line, for a ride up the hills to Fiesole.  The short day trip, a mere thirty minutes away, provides a journey into the hills and a view of Firenze.  Purtroppo, the day was not assolutamente clear, so the view was as such; nonetheless, it was drastically different from the big tourist hub.  In that case, I will gladly make a brief change to experience a slightly different culture, environment; allowing me to more so hike, climb along an old Etruscan wall.  The bus rides, particularly the return to the big city; gave me a different side of Firenze and the surrounding towns, and townspeople.

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I returned to the city in the early evening, and needed to heed her advice; two items in particular, first: food. I cannot suggest the restaurant, All’Antico Vinaio more highly; seriously, perhaps my fondest moment eating on the road in Italy. The truly authentic deli had meats hanging from the ceiling, and seemingly endless bottles of wine on their shelves! The line down the street clearly indicated how popular it is with the locals; despite it being dinner time and sprinkling, we waited. Afterward, I continued across the river to achieve a view of the city that seemed unmatched. It was a lot of walking but at her insistence and the research I had done, it seemed worth it; soon despite a sweat it was confirmed.

(Piazzale Michelangelo)

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Despite, having promised to her, I broke it; instead, I opted to try again. In figuring it better to achieve a different experience, I tried the app again. The experience would be very different, which I gladly accepted. but would not have expected; she was an American from Houston. It took me a while, just trying to locate her apartment in the narrow, seemingly all similar streets of Florence. We had agreed upon a clear motive, company, conversation and fumare. Lei e’ una studente in the culinary world, a good place for an American to be studying the art of cuisine. She explained to me her world, parts of her home (in Texas!) and how living in Firenze was; I didn’t yet have much to say about Viterbo. We Vaped, continued to get to know each other and vibed. Later into the evening, she reacted to my now dosing off; she made me feel bad! I certainly didn’t mean to offend, but was just exhausted; traveling is. She offered me the couch, but for whatever reason I decline; I’d soon regret it. On the way home, it began to pour, worse than Thursday and I was not prepared. I returned to the hostel a soaking mess.

Before going to bed I met the new dorm-mate, another culinary student from Japan. He explained how he was funded to come to Italy and study the cuisine; he showed me a map of everywhere he had been, it was astounding. This guy, who spoke little English; in fact, we turned to Italian to converse, had been everywhere on the peninsula. If there was to be advice from a foreigner living in Italy, it should come from him; I was hooked, what a cool story. I only wish that I had met him earlier, to better learn his perspective about a country I was now to embark on; purtroppo, my body nor did the time allow.

The next morning, I packed up quickly realizing that my checkout time was not eleven but ten. Thankfully, another night was not charged to the card and I was free; now just a beautiful ride through the Tuscan-Lazio countryside on my way back to Rome, then to my home in Via Zazzera. On the journey back I had time to sit, write, and reflect. I met a local who persuaded me from not returning to my bed the second night.  That got me to thinking, is it possible to not pay for a bed, and hopefully find somewhere to sleep for free; to be determined.  As I did with Roma, I walked everywhere and visited a nearby small hilltop town of Fiesole!  In the last 24 hours I took the locals advice, tried the local favorite panino shop, All’Antico Vinaio, and walked up to the San Miniato Chiesa, which overlooked the entire city!  Like my time with Elio in Barcelona, experiencing the city with a local is truly unique and provides a completely different experience!

VITERBO

The Monday after Firenze I felt a very strange feeling which I couldn’t properly explain; I guess lethargic?  I realized for those three days I started to relive my traveler’s life, whether before with Rome and Barcelona, or the summer of 2016.  I am here however for a different reason, or at least am here for more than just to travel.  I also think I was a slightly sleep deprived, after a tiring weekend, in which I did not sleep much or very well!

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After much reflection, and in talks with both mom and dad, I realized I must find a happy medium!  I know, especially with travel, I have an all or nothing, my type of personality; but now unlike the past, I needed to fuse it with a more prolonged period of sustenance. I couldn’t just hop from city to city, like two years ago; isntead, I needed to make a home here in Viterbo. A historic city, I choose Viterbo for a reason; rich history and full of places nearby to explore for people, like myself, interested in history, religion, and physical activity. That being said before deciding to leave the next day for a nearby town, I made a decision to figure out how to make traveling to Puglia, the southern region of Italy (opposite of Calabria & Sicilia) a reality. I would spend some time over the next few weeks, in discussion with Kiarra and in research to make it feasible for me in the coming months.

MONTEFIASCONE

Again, the school week ended on Thursday, which prompted me to catch the train one stop to a nearby town, Montefiascone.  I understand this sounds strange, but my half-day in this quaint city rivaled my time in Firenze. It began by purchasing a ticket for the train outta Porta Florentina, for only 1.50 euro. I sat in first class (if that exist on such a short travel), for only eleven minutes; I didn’t have much time to write before the train started to move and arrived there. The train attendants didn’t even check for my ticket; the first reason this trip was so appealing, proximity. Yet, exiting the train into the station, I soon realized I was not actually in Montefiascone; or at least, not the part I aimed to explore. Instead, I would spend the next forty minutes traversing through fields, a forest, and up a tiring hill; but then I’d make it to civilization.

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The journey up was part of the fun; always seems to be (see Petrarch!) Walking around during their lunch break, I explored the whole city, which included a castle overlooking Bolsena lake, a beautiful Duomo, and the bizarre inside of a church with a decomposing body on display; which I’ve come to learn is not so uncommon in Italia! During my few hours walking about the old town, I came across seven people; mostly seemingly filled with curious of what I was doing. Several people attended to their shops, a few others appeared to be monks or friars, but no students or families. In reflection, I was there during the lunch and school hours, which meant for many, there freedom of walking about the town wouldn’t be until later. I took the photo below here, yet unbeknownst to me at the time, is not in fact Viterbo; which I had on my screen saver at work for months in anticipation but the main piazza of Montefiascone.

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I felt alive exploring the city, all alone, tiring myself out with the seemingly endless amount of hills and inclines up cobblestone streets. The view from the Rocca Dei Papi was stunning, with Lake Bolsena and endless fields in the background. The activity supplied me with an enjoyable time and plenty to do, exploring la Basilica di San Flaviano and the Basilicia Santa Margherita; encountering the corpse/crypt of Santa Margherita, and then finally relaxing with the view at il Parco di Rocca. From a distance I noticed a statue of two walkers in a small square, overlooking the region below, it occurred to me; this town was another part of the pilgrimage (like Viterbo), in la Via Francigena; the camino da Canterbury a Roma.

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I felt an intimate attachment to my surroundings, something I could go back and tell people about; it is quaint, local and authentic. Although how beautiful and entertaining they are, cities like Firenze, flooded with tourists, will never have that feel. I returned the near four kilometers via the road, now realizing; like always, that an easier route exists. On my way, before truly exiting the town, I stopped for the local favorite; Est, Est, Est.Il Vino of the region has an interesting story of how it got its name; a German monk Johannes Defuk, a lover of wine found the wine to be so good, it deserved three Est (Latin for is), but unfortunately for him died, apparently since he drank too much. His grave stone, indicated here lied Bishop…for he drank troppo Est. I couldn’t help myself to try some, buying three bottles at the Catina Coop, along Via Cassia Nuova; later I’d find out, troppo dolce for me.

BRACCIANO

I relaxed the next day, or at least didn’t travel, electing to clean the apartment with Kiarra, in preparation for our first party; the celebration of Australia day.  Then on Saturday, after a day of relaxation; further preparation and assimilation into my new environment within the walls of Viterbo, I was invited to visit a nearby town, thirty minutes south. As Kiarra headed to work for a few hours as an English language helper, I left the apartment with Mason, and as he did for the first week he helped guide us to our destination. We’d met the other four on the train, stationed at Porta Romana. I was excited, in my research the previous days I had noted this as a must, but wasn’t sure when I would take advantage. I was also nervous however, as this was my first time traveling in a group of Americans, from all over; Mason from California, Mckenna- Maryland, Brock-Michigan, Charlie-Colorado, and Michael from Idaho. The later three roomed together, Brock and Charlie; like myself were new, the other three now on their second semester. They each had already visited the town and spoke highly of it; yet, each experience is new and different.

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The train, which only cost three euros each way, dropped us off right near the town center, from their it was a 20-minute walk down to the water.  We spent roughly five hours exploring the city, which involved visiting the main church, and the well-kept Castello Orsini-Odescalchi.  Brock and I, a few times, found ourselves going somewhere we weren’t encouraged to; perhaps, a small closet door, which when opened, showed a bunch of circular pillows on the floor.  There were also many candles about, I’d come back to show him my full backpack, now electing to carry the items I had previously had in the bag. Both the candle and pillow were useful, lasting throughout the semester. We enjoyed ourselves; talking many pictures, especially of the swans along the water, and atop the castle overlooking the lake and surrounding mountains!

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VITERBO

Upon returning to Viterbo, and the apartment, Mason and I were welcomed to an energetic Kiarra playing the 2017 top 100 playlist, apparently the real cause of excitement for “Stralia day.”  Despite my tired state her energy rubbed off on me, however Mason wasn’t looking forward to having people over.  Fast forward four hours later, with the apartment filled with about 25 people, including six Italians, Mason was not a happy camper!  The party goers seemed to be split between smoking in her room, crowding the hallway, playing card games in the kitchen, smoking outside, and of course the Italians drinking in the kitchen; unfortunately, they did not follow the Facebook post of BYOB, alcohol!  I must say it was entertaining to watch drunk Kiarra explain to a few Italians that they should not have drank her and McKenna’s alcohol!  That might have been the most entertaining part, although the next day I felt the repercussions for gorging on snacks once everyone left; we just opened the frig and freezer then without regard started.

The next morning, I continued my Sunday tradition and relaxed, although I did get out to explore unfamiliar areas of Viterbo with Mason.  Later in the day I was delighted to find out I was to have a conversation partner, Marco.  So, on Tuesday evening I met with Marco, at the local hang out Settantsette.  Walking into the bar I was surprised to see a table of roughly 15 Americans celebrating Liana’s birthday, as I waited for Marco I joined in.  It certainly grabbed my fellow American’s attention when I left them to sit with both Marco, and his friend Marco; I know!  As the three of us sat on the couch and chair near the back I would occasionally notice stares coming from my fellow program mates. The two Marco’s asked, or perhaps suggested, that I didn’t want to be with the group. I was sure, I had little interest in being apart and a large American group; instead, I was in a position, exactly where I had dreamt of back in September. I enjoyed my conversations with both Marcos; which included basic discussion about English vocab words, items around us, and they helped translate to Italian! It was interesting and certainly different. We left the bar, and they helped guide me back to my apartment then to their cars; as we parted ways, I felt a fulfilling feeling.

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Months before I came to Viterbo I envisioned two things that would progress my goal of being in Italy, first having an Italian conversation partner, and second, teaching as an English language helper.  My first goal, to have an Italian friend which could be mutually beneficial for both parties has been accomplished; we met the next night and headed to his favorite pizzeria in town for our first official meeting.  He has invited me to his birthday celebration tonight, February 2, another chance for me to integrate into Italian life here in Viterbo.  The issue as he noticed at 77, is Americans seem to be isolated within their own group and do not venture out to befriend the Italians, the same can be said with most Italians I’ve noticed; but he is right.  It seems insane to me, but most of the Americans here, if not all, appear to seclude themselves from Italians, instead choosing to hang around what is comfortable, other Americans speaking English!

Well I of course, I came here to grow, and even be uncomfortable. I imagine I will be tonight, as I plan to integrate and assimilate best to my ability!  Before tonight however, I will be headed to accomplish the start of my second goal, to become an English language helper!  After class yesterday, I met with a woman from London, Lisa, who runs the Real English School!  After discussing my interest to help her out; along with her need for an additional teacher, I will be sitting in this evening on a class full of elementary school age children to see if I am interested.  Of course, I do not know how it will go, but I came here with the goal to advance my experience and resume as an English language teacher; and making money doesn’t hurt, so I can’t imagine being scared off from this, so she spoke.

My first month here in Viterbo, has represented a duality; the ability to travel (only two hours north of Rome, and two hours south of Firenze) and the opportunity to lay down roots in this smaller city. I’ve had the opportunity to explore a few towns in this region of Lazio, and begin to create relationships here. This is perhaps what has become the most promising, as being abroad I am away from all the social connection that I cultivated in Richmond, or from family in Harrisonburg and Dayton, makes one take on a sense of loneliness. At home (now Via Zazzera) I am excited each day to hang out with Kiarra, encountering her strange antics; the same can be said of me, and learn more about Mason, an oddity (self-admitted) in this group of Americans. I consider myself fortunate that out of all the new comers, I was placed with a group of three returners, who gladly offer insight into Italian culture, Viterbo, and many fascinating stories of travel.

The four of us, including Camila, are able to sit around a table in the dining room and just discuss for hours the various places we’ve been and what we have learned. I am especially interested in hearing about countries and cultures that I have not encountered; like Kiarra in Morocco, and Mason cruising to Turkey. Yet, each day I find myself learning from there native lands; Australia, and California, yes, life in Cali is so different than VA that I feel it necessary to ask about another U.S. state. Our conversations, for example, about gun rights (ask Kiarra has inquired) show that with such drastically different perspectives and environments, even while both having the same nationality.

The relationships, thankfully, have not just grown within the house; as we all try to manage to share one bathroom, and coordinate our shower schedules; while trying to keep warm with the cold temp in the apartment, but also outside. I have had the exciting opportunity to build, a work, school, social life outside the confines of the third floor apartment and outside the walls of Viterbo. Class has given me a chance to learn about Italian professors and staff members, other American students, and naturally, Italy. My consistent research for an English position, led to a phone call, then a sit-in at the Real English School; a learning academy that offers a different world into Viterbo, twenty minutes from home. The academy is led by three women, all native English speakers but from very different backgrounds; Manchester and London, two sides of England, and then South Africa.

I get the sense that this little Italian city, with immigrants from northern Europe, various countries in Africa, and at least one Chinese family; the 99 cent store right within the walls at Porta Romana, has more to it than what I have seen thus far. Filled with churches dating back centuries, or nearly a millennium, several Liceos (high schools geared toward a specific study/subject), many corner stories (selling Frutta e Verdure) and fountains built in the Renaissance period; the area enclosed within the walls has offered me endless exploration. To add, the surrounding area has peaked enough of my interest with its many fields, hills, and some thermal baths, which I have only yet to experience. I foresee running the countryside in the coming months, as I am no good at being cooped up in an apartment nor confined by any walls.