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.

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.

Not all just fun and games… Academic Excellence

December 16, 2011

So as my semester winds down, I have been able to reflect on many things, but one thing in particular has been about my classes here in Italy at the prestigious Universita’ Commerciale Luigi Bocconi… we can just call it Bocconi. Now just so you all know, Bocconi is widely considered one of the best, if not the best, schools in Italy and was recently ranked as the 7th best business school in Europe for its academic excellence, famous graduates, and links to success in future life. Some of the biggest companies in Italy were started by Bocconi graduates and a recent study showed that Bocconi grads make on average 90,000 euros a year, or roughly 120,000 dollars a year, in their first jobs after graduation; not to mention the fact that the former president of Bocconi, Mario Monti, was just named the new Prime Minister of Italy because of his knowledge and experience in economic matters. So in the words of Ron Burgundy, we’re kind of a big deal.

Now Richmond is very lucky to have an exchange program with such a prestigious university, and Bocconi’s reputation was one thing that immediately attracted me to this program, but like anything in life, there are tradeoffs. Part of having a reputation as one of the best business schools in Europe means that your classes are not always the easiest.

However while the classes were tough academically, the biggest difference for me was the organization of the classes. For instance at any time in the semester a student can decide he or she would like to be considered “non-attending.” Now this is basically exactly what it sounds. It means that you will not come to any classes all semester, but will be instead assigned a book to read and will be tested on the book  at the end of the semester. Your grade on the final test is your grade for the class, period, without ever having stepped foot in a classroom. Now for those students that decide to attend class, many of your classes depend fully on your final exam as well, however you may be given the option to complete a mid term exam or project as a way of spreading the grades out slightly so your final exam is not the holy grail of your academic success. But believe me, you better be self motivated if you intend to succeed. There is no homework… ever… so the risk of procrastinating and leaving all of your learning until the week before the final is very real, and has happened in some degree to almost everyone I have met here, including myself.  One friend even told me he plans to travel around Europe all semester and take classes at his home university in Paris next semester before returning to Italy to take finals for his next semester classes at Bocconi…. Verrryyyyy different.

As for my classes here, they have been very mixed. Some easy, some hard, some boring, some interesting, but all taught in English by professors for whom English is their second or sometimes third language.  My classes have been educational and a very good learning experience for a number of reasons. In my first class where I learned about Entrepreneurial Strategies for Small and Medium sized companies, I was able to see real life case studies of European companies and meet entrepreneurs from around the world as guest speakers who have had success in different industries throughout the world. In Innovation and Technology Management I learned about preparing for business of the future and even many differences in operating businesses in other countries compared to the United States. Finally, my favorite class was a Workshop on the Global Music Industry, how it has evolved over time, and strategies for changing it further in the future. For this class we were split into groups and asked to present a project to a music producer on plans that would help the music industry adapt to new trends and evolving markets, due to innovation and technology changing the industry.  Being able to work on a real project of this caliber was enlightening and a very valuable experience.

Overall my classes (being specifically for exchange and Italian students) allowed me to meet and work closely with students from around the world. It not only allowed me to see similar business problems and decisions in a new light, but also allowed me to see new strategies and develop new ways of interacting with my peers.

This experience has motivated me to continue learning about things on an international level. When I return to Richmond I will be enrolled in “Economics of the European Union” as well as pursuing a minor in Italian Studies.

A Taste of Home

December 16, 2011

4 am… my alarm goes off. Surprisingly though I am not struck by my normal aggravated sleep deprived attitude that makes me want to throw my alarm clock out the window, but instead I smile.  Today is going to be a special day, one that I have been looking forward to all semester long. I call a cab (mass transportation in Italy doesn’t start running until 6) and head for the train station which will take me to the airport, which will take me to Rome.

Now don’t get me wrong, I was excited for Rome, but the thought of seeing the beautiful city filled with historical sites, both beautiful and meaningful, was not what I had been dreaming of and longing for. But instead it was what awaited me in Rome that fueled by excitement… My mother, my father, my sister, and my best friend.

Italy has been amazing. I have experienced an incredible and brand new culture, I have met people different from myself from every corner of the globe, and I have traveled and seen some of the most amazing places the world has to offer. But even among all of the excitement, adventure, and incredible experiences you can never forget about home, and having a taste of home by spending time with the people I love meant the world to me.

A 10-day tour of Italy was filled with adventure, frustration, and all in all a lot of love.  Now, every family vacation includes some kind of dysfunctional acts and my family is no exception, but I believe that it is how you handle those situations that defines what a family truly is.

Now after arriving in Rome, excitement and jet lag were in a vicious quarrel after the 10-hour flight, but for the most part excitement won out and allowed us to begin getting a feel for the busy city and seeing why it is considered one of the worlds greatest.

That weekend was phenomenal for a number of reasons. Rome is truly beautiful and the sites are breathtaking, but in all of my trips so far I have learned that much more than just seeing sites, the true value of experiencing them lies in who you share them with. While I will always remember seeing the sights, more fondly I will remember the experiences and memories that correspond with the sights. I won’t just remember seeing the Trevi Fountain, I will remember throwing coins into it, and paying a street vendor 2 euros and 1 dollar (in quarters) (which was all we had at the time) to take a Polaroid picture. I will not only remember the Vatican and Sistine Chapel, but also remember spending time with my family there, and helping my dad survive the number of monotonous stairs while attempting to keep up with our speedy tour guide. I will remember translating Italian into English in an authentic Italian restaurant, sitting at the top of the Spanish Steps and buying flowers on a romantic night, seeing the view from the top of the Castello San Angelo, and pretending I was starring in Gladiator while I was at the Coliseum. As amazing as Rome was, I know that most of my fondest memories of it are because of who I was with as opposed to what I was seeing.

A Monday train ride brought us to Milan where I delighted in showing my family the appeals of the city I have called my home for the past 4 months. I was proud to show off Milan, and was excited to finally be able to show them the places and people I had been describing since my arrival. I quickly felt like an excited tour guide and wanted to show them all of the things that have made me come to love Milan. A day trip to Florence (one of my favorite cities in Italy) and a few more days in Milan put everyone in a great mood and gave us some time to relax after the stresses of attempting to squeeze the large city of Rome into 2 and a half days.

Finally our journey continued to the beautiful and breathtaking Lake Como, which was a breath of fresh air and took us away from city life. Boat trips, Mountain-top views, and amazing dinners outlined this weekend, but again it was the memories of who I was with that made it all that more special. Como has a very special place in my heart having been in awe of it’s sights, having enjoyed its amazing food, and having experienced some truly romantic and amazing moments there. I won’t get into any deep details, but never have a padlock, an old rickety iron fence, and a swan ever made me feel so loved.

Most importantly seeing and spending time with the people I care about most in this world was an incredible treat that I will always be thankful for getting to experience. As great as study abroad and living in Europe has been for me, being able to get a little taste of home brought me a whole lot of happiness, and seeing those that I miss the most was something I desperately needed.

The sights were great, the memories were better, and the people were irreplaceable… I will never forget it.

Silly Souvenirs

November 7, 2011

We all do it. Every tourist, every abroad student — we buy things as souvenirs we would never buy in our own country.

Consider a postcard… In America, you see a postcard of the Statue of Liberty or the Liberty Bell, and you think, “Ha, why would I pay a dollar for a picture I could take myself? Obviously, no one mails postcards… what is this, the stone age?” Postcards, despite being clearly made obsolete by various technological channels of communication, are still made because they are cheap and because they are the ultimate tourist trap.

I feel pretty confident in saying this because I, too, am a giddy, interested, stupid tourist whenever I see postcards abroad. I currently have a postcard from just about every city I have traveled to this semester. Postcards of Big Ben in London, the Duomo in Florence, the majestic Danube River, and the state building in Budapest, to name a few. I don’t know what it is, but when we see a postcard from a new place, it suddenly takes on a whole new meaning — from a floppy piece of cardboard in our hand to a portal that reminds us of an experience that we treasure and enjoy. It triggers the memory in the back of our brain and makes us feel like we are there, remembering the experience, just as excited as ever.

In addition to postcards, we will willingly overpay for anything that makes us feel like we are part of the home culture. Recently, I bought an Italian soccer jersey in Milan, as well as 2 Italian soccer scarves, because to me, they were inherently Italian. Uniqueness is a big thing for souvenir buyers, as we find that anything we could not readily purchase in our home country is something we must buy immediately (Haven’t any of us heard of the internet?).  Everything from watches in Switzerland, to fish and chips in London… anything we see that we identify as being unique to where we are visiting, we go crazy for. (You should have seen how much stuff I bought at the Guinness Factory in Dublin. My bank account trembles just thinking about it).

The real reason that we tourists spend money, however, is that everyone wants to feel as though they connected with the culture that they experienced. It comes in different degrees, based on the length of your journey, obviously, but in some way, a true tourist or world traveler wants to do something that identifies them with the country at least once while they are there. Whether that is eat at an authentic cultural restaurant, buy authentic cultural attire, or attend an authentic cultural event, we search for an experience we have never had before in a place we have never been. After all, we do always covet things we have never had.

The next fun souvenir topic, and probably the most important, is mastering the souvenir gift. This can be tricky, and I have already had some trouble with this myself. The truth is, we generally have a lot of souvenirs to buy,  in order to avoid the classic reaction of “Why did she get one, but I didn’t?” This also means that we can’t buy something too expensive for everyone, or we won’t be able to pay for dinner at the authentic cultural restaurant we already made reservations for a month and a half in advance. (We tend to get very prematurely excited about our trips.)

So how do you find something that is unique to the place you’re visiting, unique to the person you are giving it to, not too expensive, and is something they might actually want? … It’s almost impossible, and I feel like that last criteria gets overlooked most of the time. While hopefully the trend of t-shirts and other things saying “My (fill in generic family member title here) came all the way to (fill in place you are traveling here) and all I got was this lousy (fill in name of useless item here)” is dead and gone, there are still plenty of worthless souvenirs to go around.

While for a normal gift, our biggest concern in getting something is “Do I think they will like it?,” that seems to be the farthest concern from the mind of a souvenir gift buyer. Realistically, how many of us have gotten souvenir gifts and never looked at them again? Probably 90 percent of us. But it isn’t even the souvenir buyer’s fault– it is the system’s fault. We are obligated to buy gifts, and the stuff we have to choose from is stuff no one would ever want! It is inevitable that these gifts will be presented to less-than-thrilled family members. But it is the thought that counts, right? So remember, as you go to purchase that Swedish snow globe, or if you are receiving a“I heart Madrid” keychain — giving a bad souvenir gift is still always 100 percent better than giving no gift at all.

So as we all waste our money on these items of uselessness, let us remember that:

1. We are stimulating the economy of the country that is so graciously hosting us, and
2. To embrace this practice, as it is simply part of being a tourist. Enjoy your junk! I know I will.

Adventure Wednesday and Cinque Terre

October 24, 2011

As any college student knows, or any future college student will find out, having a good class schedule can make or break your semester.  In my experience, a higher number of early morning classes has a direct correlation to being unhappy most mornings, but also improves your productivity (when you’re up early, you have nothing better to do then be productive… or go back to bed). Also, the holy grail of class schedules for almost everyone is setting a schedule that gives you off on Fridays, as 3-day weekends are a college student’s best friend. Because I had to get courses that I knew would transfer credits back to Richmond, and because I had to take all of my classes in English (which gave me far less options), I could not be very creative with my schedule this semester. This, unfortunately, left me with the reality of two 8:45am classes, two classes that actually overlap on Tuesdays, and instead of Friday off, or even Monday, I have a day off on Wednesday…. Wednesday. What can you do with an off-day on Wednesday? You can’t take a long weekend, it splits your week in half completely, and is just generally unnecessary. But as I have done (or attempted to do) with most things on this trip that have seemed to not go my way, I turned it into a positive. This was done through the creation of Adventure Wednesdays, which is my brain child that is exactly what it sounds likeEvery Wednesday… I go on an adventure. Whether in the city, out of the city, taking a train, plane, or automobile, I find something to do that will make a memory and create an experience (some positive, some negative).

As my test trial for Adventure Wednesdays, I decided to go to a place that tops many experienced travelers’ list of “must-see places” and now that you have heard of it (I hadn’t heard of it before I came), it should top yours. It is called “Le Cinque Terre,” or “The Five Lands.” In the Liguria region of Italy, Cinque Terre was a place I knew I needed to see. Most of my friends had already gone, and even though it was a little far (about a 3 hour train ride) I decided I would make the trip on my own, to uncharted lands, with no background knowledge, as a great way to kick-off Adventure Wednesdays.

To give you a minute-by-minute breakdown of my solo adventure would be both time consuming and long winded, so I suppose I will give you a plethora of highlights instead.

After a tram and metro ride to the train station, I missed my first train at 8:05am because of a malfunction with the ticket machine, delaying my departure  until 9:10am, the next available train. After an hour and a half, I switched trains in Genoa and had a lovely train ride along the western coast of Italy and the Mediterranean.  After reaching my train’s destination, I was told I needed to board a regional train that stopped at each of the 5 lands (Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso al Mare) but reached another snag when I boarded the incorrect train, headed in the wrong direction. After asking an elderly Italian woman (with my little Italian) where to go, I got off the train, only to find myself stranded in the nearby town of Moneglia because the next train to Le Cinque Terre would not be coming for over an hour. It turned out Moneglia wasn’t the worst place to get stuck in, and I had a wonderful lunch there while enjoying the small and beautiful town along the Mediterranean Sea.

Finally, I arrived in Cinque Terre, and started at the bottom of the 5 towns in Riomaggiore.

A leisurely 30-minute walk along cliffs over looking the sea brought me to the lovely Manarola. It might sound girly, but Manarola was definitely the cutest of the 5 lands.

Because of a rock slide, the hiking path was out between Manarola and the next of the five towns, Corniglia. Despite receiving warnings, I decided to see for myself, so I got to the edge of this cliff before deciding it was best to turn around.

Next was a train ride from Manarola to Monterosso al Mare (by far the biggest of the Cinque Terre, almost like a small city) which was full of tourists enjoying the beautiful restaurants and beaches. After walking through the city, I began a grueling 2 hour hike up steep stairs, rocks, and along cliffsides (without railings of any kind) to the most beautiful of the 5 towns, Vernazza.

With sore feet, out of breath, and sweat pouring down my face, after walking through trees and wildlife (very beautiful), I turned a corner to see a breathtaking view of this incredible city.  In what seemed like the middle of nowhere stood this city as beautiful as a painting that took my breath away and made the near torture of the last 2 hours more than worth it. A giddy 15 minute walk down to the city to get a closer look opened my eyes to the true atmosphere of Vernazza. Incredibly impressed and worn out, I decided to take a swim in the bay in Vernazza as I watched the sun set slowly over the Mediterranean, signifying the ending of a seemingly perfect day.  After grabbing a pizza in Monterosso, sadly without time to enjoy the glorious seafood restaurants of the area, I boarded the final train for Milan, capping off my first-ever Adventure Wednesday, which supplied me with memories that will truly last a lifetime. This solo adventure proved to be a rollercoaster ride, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way. The imperfections and perfections combined to make it a perfect trip in my eyes, and to a place I would be extremely lucky to get to see again.

Food For Thought

October 24, 2011

So, I am in Italy, quite possibly the birthplace of amazing food. Amazing, expensive food. If you have 15-30 euros to spend on dinner every night (roughly $25-45), you will eat like a king. You will think that America has been tricking you for your entire life and that only now have you discovered what food is truly supposed to taste like– like Columbus or Marco Polo conquering a new world with the greatest food imaginable.  However, the criteria for me being able to indulge you with my stories is that I need to be a college student, and generally, a basic characteristic of any college student is being broke. So needless to say, I can’t eat like a king every night, but on the rare occasions that I have, my taste buds were taken to a place far surpassing any previous level of enjoyment and satisfaction– a place they still long for when I bite into my cold pizza left over from the night before.

I have needed to find new ways to feed myself while saving money and still enjoying eating some delicious food. So early on in my trip, I took a trip down to the supermarket and walked around indecisively, looking for food that I could cook with my extremely limited cooking skills. We’re talking microwave pizza limited… actually, we’re talking a stove or an oven might as well be alien technology limited… but anyway, I decided I had to learn, or I would be broke and starving on the street come December.  I had been longing for red meat since my pizza and pasta Italian diet left me with a big hole in my usual diet, so I got 2 packaged steaks and put them in my basket. I decided then that I would be a little adventurous and try to add some flavor to the steak, which turned out to be best served by a small bottle of soy sauce located in the corner of the grocery store. So I walked back, proud of myself, and excited to begin my experimental cooking. I met my friend in one of the communal kitchens in our dormitory and we both tried to decipher the stovetop. It was an electric induction stove (much safer for dorm rooms, no gas or fire) and it took us 10 minutes to figure out how to turn it on.  We had to ask an Italian girl across the way that after a strange look walked in, pressed one button, and walked away with heat emitting from the stove. “Grazie mille,” (“Thank you very much,”) we said as she left, probably adapting the old adage, “How many dumb Americans does it take to turn on a stove?”

Our excitement was short-lived when we discovered the pan we put on the stove was not getting hot. That led to another 20 minutes of confusion and stress, my stomach growling, and us stupidly pressing every button to make it work. The Italian girl was gone, so with no more help from her, we found a manual for the stove… written in Russian, and we had no experience with something like this before. Frustrated and hungry, on the verge of giving up, we were about to be saved. My friend’s Italian roommate and his girlfriend came in to cook and saw us struggling. He was confused at first too, but after diagnosing the problem, he told us in broken English that induction stoves need induction pots and pans to work (duh). He happened to have some in his room he would let us borrow, and the four of us cooked and enjoyed our meal, them teaching us some Italian, and us teaching them some English. My soy sauce steak was actually quite delicious.

Since that run-in, I have had some more cooking struggles, with every time being a learning episode, but I am slowly becoming a world-class chef (self-proclaimed). I am getting more daring with my recipes, trying new foods, and I know that stovetop like the back of my hand.  When cooking gets boring, or if I haven’t made a supermarket trip in a while, I enjoy getting a kebab from one of the many places around the city (basically gyro meat in a sandwich or wrap that is insanely good), a salamella con tutto (a sausage sandwich with lettuce, tomatoes, onions, mushrooms, ketchup and mayonnaise, which I am basically obsessed with at this point) for lunch from the sandwich cart in the middle of campus, or I will spring for a 3 dollar pizza from my favorite hole-in-the-wall place around the corner where they always greet me with a friendly “Ciao caro” (“Hello, dear”).

I have come to greatly enjoy the food here, made either by myself or by others. And when I have some money saved up, I can always treat myself to a delicious four- or  five-course meal in downtown Milan. Adapting to my situation wasn’t quite smooth, but very effective, so it is always important to stay open minded and versatile… so I guess that, right there, is a little food for thought.

Downtown Duomo

October 5, 2011

Downtown Milan is home to the Duomo (Church/Cathedral) di Milano, which is the 3rd largest Catholic church in the world. This place is stunning! The entire building is made of hand-carved marble, and the detail of it, combined with Italian inefficiency, took them almost 600 years to complete. Every inch of the building is carved with intricate details; sculptures of Saints, religious symbols… A true enthusiast could be entertained for days just admiring the masterpiece that is this building.

But you didn’t think I would actually write an entire blog about a church, did you?

Although short of the Vatican, this thing is the crème de la crème.

The main focus of this post is to describe the atmosphere in the Piazza (Square) in front of the Duomo. Milan is a cool city, and there is a lot going on all the time, but there isn’t much to see from a tourist’s standpoint. Which means that anyone traveling through the city on vacation, staying in the city for a business trip, visiting a son or daughter that’s studying abroad (my family), or even just people living in Milan who are bored all go to this one place– downtown Milan at the Duomo.

The downtown area as a whole has a great atmosphere. The streets are lined with shops and restaurants in the city center that make for great shopping (real shopping for most people, and window shopping for broke college kids). Some other attractions include the Castello, built in the 14th century (very old and cool to look at); La Scala, the famous opera house, which is filled with culture in the form of ballets and opera; and the beautiful Parco Sempione, which has everything from babbling brooks and nice footpaths, to basketball courts, to a library, and even a miniature go kart track for kids (only for kids, though… believe me, I tried).  In addition, the world renowned Galleria– an indoor/outdoor mall with some incredibly high end stores with prices that approach CEO housewife status– is a must see, even just if you buy a McFlurry (yes, they have a McDonald’s tucked in between Armani and Louis Vuitton) and walk through it admiring the architecture, along with the clothes and shoes that most of us normal people cannot afford.

However, the best thing to see is the Duomo itself, and as it turns out, my favorite thing to see has been the Piazza in front of the Duomo. This place is a people-watcher’s dream come true. Whether it is the street vendors selling useless stuff that you “need” to have (I have already made some solid purchases from these guys), the “Marochinni” looking to tie a “free good luck bracelet” to your arm as you walk by (which they will later pester you for money for), or the mass flood of tourists doing obvious cliché tourist activities (taking pictures, holding maps, etc… you know what I’m talking about), there is plenty to keep you entertained and busy. However, the most noticeable thing in the Piazza might be the pigeons. These crazy birds will swoop at your head from nowhere, so you need to watch out. I have seen locals with an unhealthy lack of fear walk up to these pigeons and pick them up without a flinch. They are everywhere! Some of the more brave, and in my mind, deranged tourists actually pay 50 cents to hold rice in their open hands and allow the flock of pigeons to eat straight from their hands…. It’s even more disgusting in person, trust me.

With the occasional event or concert in the Piazza, it is truly a local hangout because of its proximity to the most beautiful sites in all of Milan. Most recently in the Piazza, I attended a city-wide party located in the Duomo for the start of Milan’s “Fashion Week.” If you were in Milan, you were there, as shops everywhere offered free food and drink to all customers, with the city center decorated lavishly to promote the crown jewel of events for this fashion-driven city. In addition, the Piazza was home to the NBA (yes, the National Basketball Association) who sponsored a 3-on – 3 tournament for locals in the Piazza, as a way of promoting American basketball abroad.

At the end of the day, sitting and staring at the Duomo is awe-striking enough that at times, you can feel alone in the middle of this crazy atmosphere. Day or night (especially at night, because the stained glass windows light up and it is beautiful) the Duomo is spectacular. So, loyal readers, if you happen to be in Milan for a day, or week, or 4 months, make sure you take a trip downtown– all of the trams go to the Duomo, more or less. Walk around the downtown area, and conclude it with a trip to the top of the Duomo, which will allow you to see the city for miles straight from its center and enjoy the beauty of Milan from a whole new perspective.

Navigli, discos, and the lovely Como

September 19, 2011

Now for the amazing stuff that I referenced in my last post… the fun stuff, haha. My first few nights brought me down to an area of Milan known as the Navigli. To give you a setting to imagine, the Navigli lies along 2 long canals that are perpendicular to one another, forming an L of water in the middle of the very busy city. So this nice canal and the surrounding areas have a diversity like no other, as they create a street fair with things for sale during the day, but then transform into a local hangout and boardwalk-esque area at night for people of all ages to come and enjoy. The bars set out tents with tables and chairs next to the canal, so on a nice early autumn night, the Navigli are filled with Italians and foreigners alike all coming for the atmosphere, beautiful views, and most of all, for appertivo.

All Americans, listen up… we need appertivo back in the states right away. For around 6 or 7 euros (roughly 10 dollars) you receive a free drink of any kind from the bar, plus access to an all-you-can-eat buffet (and since I’m in Italy, clearly the food is awesome). So at any bar in all of Milan from the hours of 6pm to 10pm, you can sit, relax, and have a drink, eating as much or as little as you desire, for as long as you wish. Then afterwards, especially in the Navigli, you can get a gelato (I like Nociiola or Baccio, but they are all insanely good, even the fruit ones like Pina Colada or Wild Cherry) and walk around enjoying a nice night.

After getting more acquainted with the school and my fellow peers, I went to a couple of get-togethers for exchange students hosted by the University at various night clubs known here as discos (but no Saturday Night Fever). The parties were a great way to meet people in a less formal atmosphere and let me get to know some of my new friends on a more personal level. This is where I had my conversation with my friend from Barcelona that I mentioned in my previous post. The parties regularly go from 11pm til almost 4am, but I was home in bed or on a Skype date by 2am on most of those nights.

Finally, to cap off my week of stress and transition, came my journey to one of the most peaceful and relaxing places in all of Italy and probably the entire world: Lake Como. It is no wonder international celebrities like George Clooney and Richard Branson gladly drop 40 million for villas near the amazing lake. Just stepping off the train, you are greeted with views of a lifetime, surrounded by mountains all covered with houses extending as far as the eye can see. After a nice walk through a quaint and– dare I say without sounding too girly– cute city, you reach the crème de la crème, a lake that extends throughout these mountains, touching the Alps and covering the area with beauty. Just walking around the lake is a full and relaxing day for almost anyone, with the stunning views that, believe me, pictures cannot do justice.

But in order to truly make our trip momentous, my friends and I decided to be a little more adventurous. After climbing a hidden path we found halfway up the mountain, we noticed a small recreational beach for locals down by the lake. Very curious, as well as hot and sweaty, we decided it was most definitely worth exploring. So after speaking Italian to get our way in, we changed into bathing suits and made a dash for the lake. Our thirst for adventure and our heat exhaustion persuaded us to overlook the signs warning against swimming in the beautiful but polluted lake, with my friend justifying our decision by saying:

“I see fish in there. If they can survive it, so can we.”

In retrospect, that was not the wisest advice to take, but was advice that proved to be valuable nonetheless. After jumping into the perfectly refreshing water, we swam out to a nearby dock, climbed onto it, and saw Como from a view that normally only fish can see. In awe of my surroundings and this perfectly serene moment, I succumbed to the beauty of the world and became content with simply being a spectator of the world around me.

With open eyes and an open mind, this adventure, while only the first of many, will certainly be hard to top.

I can’t wait to go back there with my loving family and amazing girlfriend on November 12th… I’m counting the days.

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