Monday, 26 January 2015

Day 13: The Characters in The Story

In the short two weeks we've all been here, a group of strangers has coalesced into a raucous group of the best kind of degenerates that I call my friends.

Somehow the idea of nicknaming started within the very first couple of days, and now just about everyone in our group has one. I've always liked nicknames because I like writing about the characters in my adventures, but not everyone wants to find themselves on the Internet for all to see just by being a part of my life, so nicknames offer them a kind of protection. A vague kind of protection, since some of these people are so wildly distinctive they could never hope to hide.

So for future reference, the characters in this particular play are, in no particular order:

KANSAS: This kid's definitely not in Kansas anymore. The closest to me in age, Kansas initially struck me as quiet and motivated but soon showed himself to be slightly less "quiet" and much more of the "slyly witty" variety. He insists on closed-captioning my life amidst the group in the most ridiculous and dramatic way possible, to the hilarity of us all. He knows wine as well as I do, and he takes longer to do his hair than I do.

JORDY: Ah, Jordy. JORDY got his nickname because he shares more than a few qualities with the infamous Jordan Belfort, the original Wolf of Wall Street. Jordy is our resident frat bro with his Brooks Brothers t-shirts and boat shoes and penchant for wild and crazy partying; he's also highly motivated and dedicated to achieving sheer success, and I have absolutely no doubt he'll be on a Forbes list of some kind, likely surrounded by supermodels on some yacht somewhere, within the next ten years. He's stupidly photogenic and has an utterly winning smile.

SCRAPS: Scraps' nickname originally started as Scrapbook and alternatively Scrappy because Jordy decided she looked like someone who scrapbooks, and he's the originator of the whole nicknaming thing and therefore king. Scraps maintains she's never scrapbooked a day in her life. Scraps is kind, gentle, and utterly adorable with the face of a porcelain Russian doll. It wasn't long before several of our group were under her spell.

SMASH MARSHMALLOW (Updated 02/05/15): Smash's nickname was my doing and there's really no story behind it other than it's vaguely related to her actual name. (All nicknames are subject to change, as Jordy retains final approval rights.) Smash's nickname has been updated to Marshmallow, due to her penchant for a particular puffy jacket. Marshmallow isn't nearly the loudest one in the group, but she reminds me of a Bud Light commercial in that she is ALWAYS "Down for Whatever." I love this attitude and her openness to trying absolutely anything, and she's excellent adventuring company.

RICHIE RICH: I can't recall who came up with this particular nickname or why, but he answered to it and it stuck. Richie and Smash know each other from school back in Florida and you rarely see one without the other. He's a genuinely sweet guy, dedicated and loyal and really easy to talk to. Also an excellent and willing escort for those of us who elect to wear high heeled boots on cobblestoned streets.

BRUNO: Oh, Bruno. Bruno is partners in crime with Simone, and I was fascinated by him from the moment I heard him speak the first night. Having grown up in the Bronx he's got that rounded New York drawl that I love listening to, with the entertaining machismo of a straight up hustler and the slickness and charm of a true big city playa. He further fascinates me because he actually, legitimately, fully believes he can have anything he wants in this world if he works hard enough for it--money, women, cars, fame--and at 20 he's already set about proving it. He's routinely the best dressed cad in the group and an easy photographic subject.

SIMONE PEPE (Updated 02/10/15): Simone's nickname has been adjusted to Pepe, though both may be used simultaneously. Simone, as I mentioned, is rarely without Bruno and while slightly less "New York" he is equally stylish in possibly a more classic way. (Honestly, I just want to hand those two boys a couple hundred Euro and have them go shopping for me, because Lord knows they could do a better job than I ever could.) Simone is just as much of a hustler and dedicated to building an empire for himself, though in a quieter way. The goals he's set for himself and the ones he's already achieved impress the hell out of me. His hair is as soft as silk and it's unfair.

GARCIA: Garcia is my "Spanish Sister" who gossips with me in...well, Spanish. She's a creatively minded career woman, highly focused on building up her fledgling company into a global lifestyle brand. Her dedication and motivation to achieve her dream is impressive and inspiring. I'm hoping to team up with her as a blogging and photography buddy so we can keep each other motivated. She's probably the chicest of us all.

JAZZY J: Jazzy is my other "Spanish Sister" and rocks a black leather jacket and red lipstick combo like nobody's business. She's the first to throw on some salsa music when we're all cooking together and kills it. Jazzy takes up the spot right behind Smash for exclaiming "Let's go out guys!" on a daily basis.

THE ASSASSIN: The Assassin doesn't really have a solid nickname yet, because he might kill you if you give him one he doesn't like. This one's just for blogging purposes. As far as I know he hasn't *actually* killed anyone yet, but hailing from an Eastern European country with the appropriate name and a rather fierce and intimidating mug when he decides to sport it...well, it just came naturally. In real life he's a soccer star with a decidedly handsome face, and from what I can tell, a sweet heart.

>>> I notice that I've used the words "dedicated", "motivated", "success" and "impressive" a lot in describing these people. Reflecting on that, I can't say I'm all too surprised that those words come up so often, because it takes a certain collection of qualities to study abroad--a high GPA being one of them. (Not to mention the fact that we come from a school that had a 34% acceptance rate last year.) It's inspiring to be in such company and keeps me motivated to keep my eyes trained on my own goals, which have become markedly loftier since I returned to school. <<<

There are other members of our group that come and go--occasionally we're rolling 15 deep--and I'm sure they'll earn their nicknames in time. Oh, and as for me, I've been emblazoned with two nicknames so far--half of the group refers to me as Granny/Grandma/Abuelita in light of my position as the oldest and ostensibly the most responsible one of the group, and the other half firmly christened me "Krazie" after the first night we all went out together. I...will say no more on that.

Here's to the next four months with these "kids."

 Photo by East + Mia.

Day 10: Things I Have Noticed

The more I travel the world, the smaller it seems to become, in some ways. Travel opens your eyes to new perspectives and ways of seeing the world, but it also shows you a commonality that all humans share no matter where you are.

There are a couple of small things, though, that have piqued my interest in these past days as being markedly different from the life I knew in the States.
  • First, and of course the most important--THE WINE! Oh, the wine. Sweet, sweet, wine. In 9 times out of 10 cases small restaurants offer only two wines, red and white. No names, no types, nothing, just what do you want, red or white, pick a colour. It's cheap (Kansas and I split a litre of wine--which is more than a standard bottle of 750 mL, mind you--for 8 Euro at a cafe the other night), and it's GOOD. And I can get a really enjoyable white wine in a Tetrapack from the market for...wait for it... 1.79 Euro. About $2.
  • Second most important: there are gelaterias EEEEVERYWHERE. I mean people tell you that there's lots of gelato in Italy and you should definitely eat it, but like...there's one on every BLOCK. Not even a minor exaggeration. At the moment we're all in competition to find the best one...what a terrible life to be living. :P
  • Italians don't drink drip coffee. This should be firmly in the "Duh" category, since who could want drip coffee when you have the world's most amazing espresso at your fingertips, but I'm surprised at the number of people in my program who are so sad to be separated from their Dunkin Donuts. Oh, and there's absolutely no Starbucks either. (And the Lord said that it was good.)
  • Italians stare. Quite a lot. At first I was vaguely unnerved by this, constantly wondering if there was something on my face, but in fact according to the cultural advisor Gianni we met on our second day here, that's just how Italians are. They're curious about you, where you're from, what you're doing, where you're going. People watching and openly staring is a national pastime, it seems. 
  • Italians are not overtly friendly. As in, strangers passing on the street don't say "Ciao" or smile at each other, shopkeepers don't greet you with a ringing "Hi, how are you today?" and waitstaff isn't coming by your table every three minutes to see if you need anything else. I LIKE THIS. Having mostly grown up in the American South I am deeply familiar with this open friendliness but it has never been my natural nature. It's true--I am one of those people with "resting bitch face", and in America, I have to remind myself to constantly put a smile on my face so that people don't assume I'm constantly mad. Here...well, here I fit in just fine. I have found my people.
  • Italians love exact change. I was told this before I came over so I sort of knew what to expect, but it really is true. I'm not used to handling cash in the first place (I am of the generation that will absolutely swipe a debit card for a $1.50 purchase) so it's a constant reminder for me to pay attention to my bills and change, especially since the 1 and 2 Euro coin are so common as well. Many of the boys in our group are finding it challenging to remember to bring their change with them, since American change is essentially worthless and the Euro decidedly less so. 
  • You bag your own groceries. No exceptions.
  • At all the grocery stores I've been to, you can only get eggs in six-packs. No dozens, no 18-packs, nada. They even come in simple pairs for 79 cents. What must Europeans think when they come to America and visit a Super Walmart with the option of purchasing literal CRATES of eggs? I like the fewer options here.
  • The bread that gets put on your table at a restaurant often isn't free, and neither is the water. And they will look at you very strangely if you ask for tap water, even though the tap water here is the best and most clean tasting I've had anywhere in the world.
  • No ice in drinks. Granted, it's the middle of "winter" here but I have found this true in the summer as well, as well as in many other parts of Europe. You might get lucky with a few cubes in your aperitivo cocktail, but that's it.
  • Oh, aperitivo! What a wonder. This is the Italian version of happy hour (which usually runs for a span of 3-4 hours not just one paltry hour, because how could you possibly have fun in only an hour?) wherein you pay a small upcharge on your pre-dinner cocktail of choice (which usually involves Campari as an appetite stimulant, or some other bitter element) and you then eat for free from a buffet. The contents and variety of each buffet vary wildly from one restaurant to another, but generally it's tapas-type portions and finger foods. For broke college students who would be trying a 6 Euro drink anyway, the extra 4 Euros covers dinner and we're set!
  • There are dozens and dozens of free, constantly running water fountains everywhere around Rome. I'm told these operate on the ancient aqueduct systems. Not only are they often beautiful, but the water flowing from the is crystal clear, cold, and delicious. 
  • DOGS IN ROME ARE REALLY WELL BEHAVED! I've seen *lots* of dogs since I've been in Rome, and a very large variety at that, and all of them seem terribly well disciplined. Many people opt to walk their dogs off the leash, even on busy sidewalks, and the dogs just trot along faithfully right beside them. Thinking of my own adorable little terror at home, it makes me wonder if there's some sort of mandatory doggie obedience school over here.
  • Almost all the produce in the grocery store is local--truly, everything I've spotted has a proud "Product of Italy" tag on it. This was previously explained to me by my cousin, in that Italians are simply really proud of being Italian and why would they eat someone else's food when they can produce their own? It results in a lot more seasonality (clementines are in season at the moment, and they are UNBELIEVABLE) and forces me to be more flexible with what I decide to make. It's good practice.
I think that's about it, for now. It's only Day 13 after all--so as you will note from the title of this post, I've been struggling to find time to blog because I'm so busy running around the city and joling with friends. For my own memories I know I need to get it all down, though...not to mention the fact that it probably wouldn't kill me to pull out my laptop from time to time to check in on this whole "school" thing.


Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Day 8: I'm in Love

I figured it would take me about a week to settle in before I'd find the time and motivation to sit down and write, and here I am! Day 8 and it's finally time to start writing about this thing.

Hi! For those of you who don't know me, I'm Gracie, resident foodie blogger over in my usual playground Lekker and Liquor. I'm starting up this separate little doodad to write about this new, very short phase of my life that is living and studying abroad in Rome, Italy, for five months. This is mostly for my own benefit, to act as a journal of some kind, as I am famous for my atrocious memory and live in fear of forgetting. It also continues to amaze me that I somehow got so lucky as to have friends and family that want to share in this adventure with me, so it's for them, too. (Hi Dad!) You can also opt to follow me on Instagram under the handle a_broad_travelling.

So! As I mentioned, I'm studying abroad as a satellite student of St. John's University in Rome, Italy, through the study abroad program hosted at my home school, the University of Florida. I'll be here for about five months, returning home at the end of May. I was very fortunate to qualify for some financial aid, loans, and scholarships to foot the bill for this experience, and then ran a successful GoFundMe campaign (open-ended, in case you were wondering...) to raise some extra funds to pay for my travels around Italy and Greece. (Remember those amazing friends and family I mentioned?)

I've been in Italy before; in August, my cousin married an Italian in Milan and I spent a glorious ten days exploring Milan, the coast by San Remo and Ospedaletti, and the mountains by the Swiss border. My whole life, though, I have dreamed of Rome. I'm not sure why; none of my family is Italian, I'm not an art or architecture major, and I'm certainly not Catholic. Perhaps it arises from my love of food, I don't know, but I have dreamed of Rome as my ultimate dream city for as long as I can remember.

But you know how you sometimes have dreams that seem kind of wild, or the dreams that are just so precious to your heart that you never believe they'll really come true because that would just be TOO fantastic, just TOO amazing and wonderful that you would never actually believe it could happen? That was Rome, for me. And it took me seven days, but last night I finally had that "Holy shit, I made it. I'm in ROME!" moment. The set up goes like this: I had rallied together my group of fellow UF adventurers and other assorted St. Johns additions to go out to a neighborhood we hadn't explored yet, Trastevere, with the purpose of venturing out to a pizza place called Dar Poeta that I had heard made the best pies in all of Rome.  The 14 of us enjoyed some UNBELIEVABLE pizza and cheap table wine with plenty of raucous laughter, teasing, shouting, and general friendly frivolity--this from a group that didn't know each other at all a week ago. For someone who admittedly does not make friends very easily, it was quite the wonderful feeling to be surrounded by such fun-loving and generally loving people.

 It's a miracle we managed to scrape together enough self control to take this one photo with those steaming cheesy pizzas in front of us all.

"La Bufalata": Tomato sauce, cherry tomatoes, basil and buffalo mozzarella.

At any rate, we wiled away the rest of the evening traipsing around the streets of Rome, exploring different neighborhoods (and the offerings of the bars within them!) until the early morning hours. Wandering home my companion Bruno and I fell behind the rest of the group, and while deep in conversation I suddenly looked up to realize we were unexpectedly walking right through the Piazza Navona, which I had never seen before. The cobblestones were wet from the day's rain, and the air around us was snappy and just chilly enough to be comfortable...and we were the only ones there. The entire piazza was utterly deserted with not a single other soul in sight; the only sounds that of our stylish boots tapping on the stones and the water rushing and gurgling out of what is, in my opinion, the world's most beautiful fountain: Bernini's Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers). Both the fountain and the Palazzo Pamphili were lit up dramatically, and I stood in front of it struck dumb and open-mouthed in true awe. All of these factors somehow aligned to create this incredible moment...and it all hit me--promptly bursting into overwhelmed tears of gratitude in the process. This dream that I never dared to believe would happen is coming true, it's happening and I'm living it, right now.

I hope those moments of sheer overwhelming wonderment never stop coming.

For now, arrivederci.

Disclaimer: Please note that all photos are mine, and are not to be used for any purpose, commercial or otherwise, without my express written consent.