My Final Blog: Finito

January 23, 2012

Sitting in a large, bright classroom, with a hundred students spread out evenly from front to back, and a lone professor standing at the front reading a magazine, I crossed my T’s and dotted my I’s and realized… I just finished my test.

I have taken many tests during my time as a college student, and this one was certainly no more profound than any other, but there was still something special about this one: it was my last test in Italy. I took a minute to shake my cramped hand and collect my thoughts after dedicating two hours of my life to Entrepreneurial Strategies of Small and Medium Enterprises.  I finally stood up, and a smile of relaxation came over my face, as I walked up to the front of the room feeling like a proud warrior coming home from battle. Two weeks of studying every day (to make up for a semester of general slacking) had taken its toll on me physically, mentally, and emotionally, but now I had no further responsibilities. I was free as a bird, but surprisingly, I wasn’t in an extreme rush to celebrate. The normal drive to celebrate and jump for joy was replaced by the reality that, after a couple of short days to say goodbye, I would be going home.

As I left the classroom and walked into the main lobby of this once-daunting school building that now seemed like a second home, I stood alone, and I thought back to the first time I had walked in 4 months ago. I channeled that nervous, excited, curious kid and thought about how much I had changed in the past semester. With trips to some of the most incredible places in the world, building relationships with people with diverse backgrounds from around the world, and by experiencing life in another country, I realized I had grown as a person. It happened quite gradually, but now I felt more powerful and knowledgeable. I was no longer isolated and green, but was instead affected by the experience of traveling the world and living in another country. I knew things about places I had never even heard of before, and that knowledge made me feel strong and valuable. I gained insight into world issues, and was able to connect to those around me in a way that I had never done before. I learned that the world is truly full of diverse cultures which all should be appreciated and respected.

While I learned so much about the world around me, I had also learned a lot about myself.

As I returned home and was suddenly dropped back into my old life, I realized that I was coming back into it on my own terms. Seeing life in another place, from another perspective, forced me to think about my own life and what was really important to me. I did a lot of maturing on that trip, and I realized that there were things I was doing in my old life I wanted to change, and some things that I realized I wanted to fight to keep.  Seeing first hand that the world was not Medford, New Jersey, Richmond, Virginia, or even solely the United States of America made me view the world, and my life in that world, in a new light.

My transition back into American life is nearly complete now, and has been strong and successful. I have been able to re-strengthen past relationships with friends and loved ones and am happy with where I am in my life. I feel rejuvenated and want to be even more active in affecting the world around me. As a friend, as a son, as a student, as a boyfriend, as a brother, as a grandson, as a player, and as a leader — I want to do it all better.

Around campus, answering the question, “Hey man, how was abroad?” leads to my usual answer of, “It was amazing, dude — such a great time,” but what I really want to say is, “It changed my life. It gave me incredible memories and experiences I could never have dreamed of having, and allowed me to feel like part of a bigger world.”

So while I will always have my memories of seeing London, Dublin, Venice, Rome, Florence, Budapest, Amsterdam, Munich, Cinque Terre, and Lake Como, and meeting people from Spain, Germany, France, Australia, Portugal, Brazil, England, Italy, America, and Canada in my program, the final thing that I will take from this experience is learning more about myself and about my life.

Ever since I was a freshman in high school I dreamed of studying abroad in college, as I believed that it would be an amazing experience that I would remember for the rest of my life… and I was right. I am quite glad I got to live out this dream, which allowed me to truly grow, and get a better understanding and appreciation for the world around me.

Christmas time in Milan

January 20, 2012

Christmas, to me, is a very traditional time of year. While, in many cases, I like to shake it up, try new things, and have new experiences, Christmas is one thing I always like to keep the same. For me, Christmas creates the magic of the season, and I always try to keep to my traditions, which highlight my holiday. These traditions include: not listening to Christmas music until after Thanksgiving, but then listening to it every day, slowly building myself up to a Christmas frenzy that culminates in Christmas Eve midnight mass; watching A Muppet Christmas Carol with my family; and waking up to Christmas at my house.

However, knowing Bocconi’s final exam policy for international students would keep me from home until late on December 23rd, I knew I had to take action to get me into the Christmas spirit before then.

Now, I already mentioned how traditional I am about Christmas, but I have to say, my attitude of being open to new experiences helped propel me to success yet again. The City of Milan took on a great atmosphere, with Christmas lights, ornaments, and garland decorating streets throughout the city. Decorations were out, people were in great spirits, and despite being distracted by an intense amount of studying, this helped to make my last weeks in Milan quite enjoyable.

The enjoyment started with the Milan Christmas Market, which opens annually from the 13th – 19th of December. This market was incredible. With tents completely surrounding the large Castello Sforzesco (a castle) and leading up to the beautiful Parco Sempione (a park), it was in a perfect central location of the city. Flooded with people everyday, it was a mad house, with people purchasing antiques, CDs, wood carvings, paintings… anything you could think of, besides mainstream consumer products. The best thing for me had to be all of the food and snack carts. For the traditional eater, there were Italian pastries (including incredible cannoli, fried donuts, and my favorite, Nutella crepes), delicious panzerotti, sausage sandwiches, and even a cart with 100 different types of jelly beans. Braver participants could even try a fried, hollowed-out coconut, or a grilled and sugared corn-on-the-cob-on-a-stick. The weather was certainly cold, but the crowds of people, amazing food, and festive music kept you more than distracted. (I even got my grandparents a real Italian newspaper there from 1929!)

The next of my fond Christmas memories came during a final night out with all of my friends from Richmond. With 15 of us studying in Milan, we had all had a great opportunity to bond and decided to celebrate our strengthened friendships and shared memories with one last goodbye dinner. A classic Italian dinner, complete with meat, pasta, and red wine, was excellent and led to a casual stroll around downtown Milan in order to digest. We walked to the Duomo, which was home to a beautiful and enormous Christmas tree for the holiday season. It was quite a sight to see, and helped all of us forget about the stresses of finals for a little bit and be launched quickly into the Christmas spirit. After being in awe at the tree’s beauty, taking some pictures, and even participating in some impromptu American caroling, we all felt much more comfortable about spending our holiday season away from home.

My third, and final, lovely Christmas memory from my abroad experience came in the form of a final goodbye party with all of my international friends. Over the course of the semester, I made many friends from around the world through my intensive Italian class, through living in an international dorm, and by coaching my intramural soccer team. With friends from France, Spain, Switzerland, Brazil, Germany, Netherlands, Australia, and, of course, Italy, I was able to meet people I never would have otherwise met and was able to see parts of the world in a new light. My international friends and I decided to have a goodbye party complete with a Christmas gift exchange, or Polyanna. We all bought gifts for a specific person with a 15 euro limit (we are still broke college kids) and many people cooked dishes from their home countries, so we had a wonderful Christmas feast and gift exchange. While it was hard saying goodbye to these people, knowing I might never see them again, we went out on a high note with a really nice night, and the promise to keep in touch.

Overall, this was far from my normal Christmas, but in some ways, it was more meaningful. When I returned home, I was reminded of the importance of family and friendship, which is what Christmas is truly about, and I truly wanted nothing for Christmas besides being around the people I love and care about. Christmas time in Milan is lovely, and being together with my loved ones for the first time in 4 months for Christmas proved to be a magical occasion. Once again, Milan gave me one final great experience.


January 16, 2012

My return to the U.S. was more exhausting than anything else. The full day of travel helped to ease my anxiousness about letting my life change so completely once again. By this time, I had realized that everything back home did not pause simply because I left. I was not just returning to the life I had left behind three months ago, unchanged. My whole world in Richmond continued moving and evolving, just as I had been doing in Derry. It was traveling down one path, while I was following a completely different one. My task now was to make these two paths reconnect somehow.

On the seven hour flight home, I attempted to compartmentalize my feelings. I decided that, during the first half of my flight, I was allowed to mourn my departure from Derry. The second half, however, was dedicated to yearning to see my family again. I could think of nothing better than just sitting on the couch watching television with my dad and mom. I wanted to play with my dogs and drive around in my car with the windows down and music blasting. I saw so many amazing things while I traveled, but coming back home would be just as beautiful.

The cliche saying “you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone” never made so much sense to me. It applies to coming back home to Richmond as well as leaving my home in Derry. I made a revelation during my time abroad about the meaning of life. Humans have been trying to decipher this universal mystery since we could think and analyze. I decided that at least part of it must involve creating as many homes in the world as you possibly can. The world exists for people to explore and discover and adapt to. Derry will now always be a place where I can be comfortable and feel at home. It has a meaning for me that only a select few would actually be able to understand. If my conclusion about life is true, I, myself, am not doing so bad. I was born and lived in Kenosha, Wisconsin until I was eleven years old — home number one. I then moved to Richmond, where I have been living for almost ten years — home number two. Living in Derry for those three months created my home number three. I can only hope that I continue this trend in years to come.

The worst part about my travels back to America was not the sadness of leaving Derry, or the anticipation to be in my house again, but the feeling of being in a limbo between the two places. While choosing the cheapest flights with the best times, I signed myself up for a 7 hour layover in the Newark airport. You can imagine my frustration when contemplating the fact that my layover was indeed longer than my flight from Belfast. This was the time that seemed like an agonizing purgatory. I no longer could call Derry my place of residence, but I was not home, either. I was a nomad, wanting to find the next place to set up shop, but every obstacle was in my way.

Sitting in those uncomfortable airport seats, I watched people come and go. Some sat down longer than others, but none as long as me. I tried to read a book, but could not concentrate. Music wasn’t satisfying either. All I could do was sit and think and wait. The hours dwindled down until there were only around 30 people sitting around one last gate when boarding started. My exhaustion overcame me before our tiny plane even took off. I awoke just as we were landing in Richmond. I pulled together all of the energy that I could muster to trudge to my baggage claim carousel. I stood in a daze as luggage slipped by me when I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was my mother. With a surprised exclamation of “Ma!”, I gave her a hug, and I was home. It felt like I was finally sitting down to relax after the longest and most tiring, yet satisfying, day of my life.

This experience has changed me completely. I would not be the person I am today had I not studied abroad. It made me hungry to delve into more cultures and explore more places. It made traveling less of an impossible unknown and more of a feasible necessity. I conquered one city. There is no telling what I am capable of doing now. As for me, I’m just excited to find out.

The Two-Step Program

January 11, 2012

Finally, this is the last post. I’ve boarded my plane, reached my destination of home, and am back in the United States. My study abroad is over. But really, it doesn’t feel like it is. I think one of the hardest parts about studying abroad really is the end; the part where you leave the country you spent a significant portion of your life in. Once you get home, it hits you that you’ve just left the country, school, and friends you had just started calling your own. You start to realize that you really were in another country (in this case, halfway around the world) and going back to visit just isn’t something our current level of human technology makes simple or cheap.

Ironically enough, going home can make you feel…well, homesick. The thing about studying abroad is that no matter where you go, you throw yourself into a completely new environment. You toss away any foundation of who you are or friends you have or what you know and get to find out who you are without everything else you’re so used to identifying you. You throw away all the labels and, regardless of your experience, you realize that it’s something you’ll never forget.

I finally understand how those people from “Lost” felt. Even though they were almost murdered countless times in the most incredulous ways, they would always feel a connection to that insane place they spent a portion of their lives in. Now, I’m not saying that my experience in Australia was equal to that of being on a deserted island. But even looking back at those  low points (few and far between), I can still laugh, smile and feel some sense of wistfulness.

With that said, I have made my own patented guide to cope with returning.

Dear (insert name of study abroad student here),

(Mike), you have just returned from your study abroad experience. At times, you may feel it will be hard to cope. Therefore, someone has composed this multi-step guide for your benefit.

1. Although modern technology has yet to provide us with teleportation devices, molecular destabilizers, etc., it has provided us with Facebook and Skype. It makes keeping in touch much simpler. And though you may want to cut off your entire trip’s existence altogether to make it easier on yourself, your trip happened, so deal with it and cherish it. Miss your friends and keep in touch — it’s normal. And didn’t you make friends who are back in America now, too? Keep in touch with them as well; you can reminisce together.

2.  Refer to step 1.

With this guide, my study abroad trip really does come to an end. However, the experience really never does quite end.

P.S. Here’s that other guide I promised you– Mike’s Guide to Australian Phrases:

Arvo – Afternoon
Mate 1: Sorry mate, I don’t do the whole arvo tea thing.
Oi: An expression or interjection similar to that of “yo” or “Hey you”
Mate 1: Oi! Get over here mate, the footie game’s about to start!
– much like the cheers said at a toast, but can also be used as a response to an act of kindness you have received.
Mate 1: I’ll get the door, mate
Mate 2: Ah, cheers, mate
Mate: A friend or acquaintance
Barrack: To cheer or support, especially an AFL Team
Mate 1: Hey mate, who do ya barrack for?
Mate 2: I barrack for the Essendon Bombers of course!
AFL: abbreviation used to refer to the Australian Football League where Australian Rules football is played
Footie: Another abbreviation used to refer to Australian rules football
Mark: A catch, used especially in AFL
Mate 1: If he had made that last mark, he would have been close enough to score and win the game!
Speckie: A spectacular mark in AFL
Mate 1: Did you see that speckie?! He got on that other bloke’s shoulders to mark that!
Bloke: another term for a man, similar usage to dude
Sheila:  Another term for a girl or a woman
Snags: another name for sausages
Get on ye mate: an expression used to express a job well done to another person
Mate 1: I finally did it! I spoke to that Shelia I’d been telling you about!
Mate 2: Ey! Get on ye mate!
No worries: an expression similar to that of “not a problem”
Mate 1: I’ll get the door mate
Mate 2: Ah, cheers mate
Mate 1: No worries
Thongs: flip flops
Troll: a prank or a joke
Zed: The letter z

Saying Goodbye.

January 9, 2012

My last week in Derry came and went far too quickly. After winter break officially began, the Student Village, including my particular flat, was a ghost town. Only the international students remained. I tried to get out into the city as much as possible during this time to keep from contemplating my impending departure. Never have I felt so conflicted in my life. On one hand, I could not stand to think about leaving my new home, but on the other, I could not wait to return to the utterly familiar. The only word that could describe it is bittersweet.

I decided not to travel during my last few days- more due to insufficient monetary resources than to any other factor. It was fulfilling, however, to just concentrate on completely absorbing my new favorite city. It was rewarding to tread the same beaten path that had seemed so new and unfamiliar three months prior. It is amazing to see such quick adaptation in myself. Where once I had stared blankly into my wallet before pulling out the correct coins a minute later, I could now blindly navigate my purse in seconds. If I had gained nothing else from this experience, I am now proficient in three currencies thank-you-very-much. To this day, I only have a £10 Irish note in my wallet… the re-assimilation process is slow going to say the least.

During the past month or so, I had been rushing around in Derry and on campus like a crazy person. My main focus at the time had been academic work, work, work. Now I actually had time to stop and just enjoy the expansive views of Derry. Because the Foyle River cuts somewhat of a valley through the city, from the top of campus you can see clear across the river to the neighborhoods and fields on the other side. It is amazing how much you can see on an average day- providing that the weather is clear of course. It just makes the city of Richmond seem too flat, or too big, I suppose. Here is a picture of the city:

Making the leaving process so much easier though, was having a close friend who was going through the same thing. Megan was set to leave the night before I was, so we were both sadly counting down the days. She and I frequented our favorite restaurants and pubs in our last days. We shopped for souvenirs to bring home and went to places we had been wanting to go to all semester. We were determined to leave no rock unturned in that city. On our last nights we visited Peadar O’Donnells quite a bit. This is everyone’s favorite pub in Derry. It is the most authentic, right down to the live Irish music played every night. To our great fortune, the father of our best Irish friend Tomas’ band played there most of those nights. Here is a picture inside of the pub with an Irish flag proudly hanging on the ceiling:

There is no better way to take in the Irish culture than to stomp and clap along to Irish songs with friends in a pub. Here is a picture of Me, Tomas, Megan and our friend Ronan on my last night in Peadars:

I was holding back the tears after Tomas’ father dedicated a song to Megan and me. This was the best form of farewell I could have asked for.

Fun Fact #17: Similar to how some Americans refer to their mothers as “ma”, the Irish refer to their fathers as “da”.

Fun Fact #18: Some Irish pound notes feature a picture of the Bushmills whiskey brewery that I visited earlier in the semester.

Soccer at San Siro: Forza Inter!

January 3, 2012

Maicon brings it across midfield on the right side, makes a quick move around his defender, lays it off to Zanetti, who crosses into the box for Milito, and GOALLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLL!

Never before have Americans been so entranced by soccer as 3 of my buddies and I scream at the top of our lungs celebrating in Inter Milan goal surrounded by 80,000 passionate Italians. An experience unlike any sporting event I have ever been too, Italian soccer (calcio) is truly incredible.

With fans that reach crazed levels of fanaticism screaming aggressive chants, numerous catcalls, and loud whistles (the Italian form of booing), when you find yourself comfortable in the atmosphere it can become many things, but most of all, it is fun.

While in Milan I had to use my small amount of European soccer knowledge to select a team to which I would pledge my allegiance. With two powerhouse teams both playing in the San Siro Stadium home to 80,000 seats and a large amount of history I had to make my decision between supporting AC Milan or Inter Milan. From the moment I stepped off the plane in Italy I was already being grilled about which team I would support my locals, cab drivers, and fellow students, with the city of Milan being split almost down the middle with fans of each side. After attending one AC game and one Inter game it was clear that I was driven to support Inter… so I embraced it. With one of my best friends already being a huge supporter of Inter (which he claimed was his biggest reason for studying in Milan) we went to a number of matches and truly embraced the Italian sporting culture. Over the course of the season thus far I have attended 5 Inter games… all of which they have won.

Now if I tried to claim I was a good luck charm you all might doubt me. And I will grant that one American in a knock off jersey and a European soccer scarf may not ultimately be the deciding factor for Italian soccer.  However as any avid “Serie A” fan can tell you Inter is having an uncharacteristically disappointing season and has only won 8 of their 15 games up to date. Which means that the probability of me attending 5 winning games out of 8 is quite low (I told you I was taking statistics), so there must be some kind of magic going on.

After 5 games at San Siro I felt like quite the loyal fan. I knew where to buy my ticket, I knew where to sit in the stadium, I knew the players’ strengths and weaknesses, I even knew where to buy the best street vendor food outside of the stadium. Attending Inter Milan soccer games became a way for me to truly blend into the Italian culture and feel like a bigger part of the country I was living in. So for your next European adventure whether you are a sports fan or not, see a unique side of European culture, feel connected to the people of that culture, and have an amazing time doing it. Go see a soccer game.

A Last Minute Trip.

January 3, 2012

Seven days before all final work was due Megan, Tomas, and I hightailed it to Scotland. It was to be our final excursion of the semester. After what seemed like less than an hour flight, we arrived in Edinburgh. Being late at night, we just headed to our hotel for the night. Much to our surprise, our room was spectacularly modern- a welcome change from Derry. Our building was also right on the water so we had a great view. From what we saw, Scotland looked relatively similar to Ireland, but was much, much colder.

The next morning, we got all bundled up and headed to the train station. Our destination? St. Andrews. Not only would Megan be able to fulfill her parents’ wish of walking on the famous greens of the St. Andrews golf course, but I could see my good friend and fellow Spider, Kate. She has been studying at University of St. Andrews. Needless to say, we were all very excited about the day ahead of us.

The train to St. Andrews passed over some beautiful rivers and scenery. When you are in Europe, it is difficult not to miss something. Everything is intriguing and interesting- the nature, the buildings, the people. I could not get enough of simply looking around. Purely observing my surroundings would have been good enough for me.

Meeting up with my UR friend Kate was uplifting. It was just enough of home to help me to the end of the semester. I had been homesick lately, but seeing her washed those feelings away. After visiting the St. Andrew’s Links Golf Course, Kate showed us around a bit. We visited the ruins of a cathedral and a castle. It is amazing that such sights could not really be seen in America. Here’s a picture of Kate and me:

Back in Edinburgh at night, we happened upon a German food festival near the train station. Spontaneous events such as this have been the highlight of my trip abroad. The next day in the city we followed this trend by wondering aimlessly through the intertwining alleyways and streets of Edinburgh. The easiest way to gain the feel of a city is to just walk around and explore. Our main plan for the day was however to visit Edinburgh Castle.

Finally I fulfilled one of my main goals of going abroad- visiting a castle. Perched atop a hill in the city, the views were remarkable. We were even able to see across the water to St. Andrews where we had been the day before. In the distance, the mountains were covered with snow. We explored the dungeons, the oldest building in Scotland, chambers of Scottish royalty, as well as saw the Crown Jewels. Here’s a picture of the castle:

Our last day in Edinburgh ended with a ghost tour in the crypts underneath the city. On that frightening note, I returned to Derry where all of my final work waited for me. Famous for procrastination, I headed straight to the computer lab to get my work done. After a long week of nonstop work, I had finished and turned in the work for all three of my modules.

For graphic design, I just needed to edit projects created previously in the semester. Finishing up the work for this module took no time at all. Animation and 3D however were the most time consuming. I needed to finish up my dinosaur character for 3D as well as make my robot character walk for Animation. Both proved to be difficult tasks, but here is what I came up with:

Now all that lay ahead of me was my last week here in Derry and my long, long journey home…

Fun Fact #15: The oldest pub in Derry is called the River Inn. It has recently been converted into a much more modern bar.

Fun Fact #16: Irish people call potatoes spuds.

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