Friday, December 13, 2013

10 Things I've Learned While Abroad

For my last blog post I wanted to sum up everything I’ve learned while abroad. While I’ve learned so much more than just these 10 bullet points below, these are among the most valuable and important things I want to share with my friends & family, and especially to future study abroad students. While I was preparing for my trip it was hard to find a blog similar to mine to help ease my nerves and to help prepare. Therefore, I hope this information finds future students well.
Last, none of this information I’m about to share about my journey in Italy would exist without the two most important people in my life: my Mom & Dad! I remember the first day I told them I was seriously considering studying abroad and without hesitation they asked how they could help make this possible for me. Thank you mom and dad for letting me vent while I was stressed about the pre-departure process, for sitting with me ALL day long checking off every item for my visa application, for listening to my crazy check-lists, for calling me with words of pride and encouragement everyday while I was in Italy, and of course for financially supporting me; making the best four months of my life and this amazing experience possible. I can never thank you enough!

And now… The 10 things I have learned while studying abroad:

10. Just some random useful tips/facts about life in Florence:
-There ARE such things as mosquitoes in the winter! I think they finally disappeared from our apartment around mid-November. They’re vicious! 
-When crossing the road don’t be scared… they won’t hit you.
-Don’t go to the leather market with a bunch of American friends, take a local with you who speaks Italian, you’ll get the best price for sure.
-The best gelato shop is Bellamia, don’t let anyone tell you differently!
-Don’t hesitate to try out the bus system. It really is more convenient than walking home alone in the dark.
-Look up. Someone told me to always look up in Florence while you’re walking because that’s where you’ll find the real beauty.
-Scandicci (4 tram stops away from Florence) is an easy getaway for awesome gelato and a market on Saturdays, as well as Fiesole (bus no. 7 from Florence) which has a beautiful view of the city and the best pizza at Blu Bar.
-Bread and water aren’t free.
-Wake up early one morning for no reason but to just walk around. This is when the city is most beautiful.

9. American Pride. While living abroad I’ve learned that Americans aren’t the only ones who believe their country is the ultimate best. I’ve met people from all over the world- Australians, Spaniards, British, Africans, and of course Italians- all who have such great pride in their country! And many who look at me like I have four heads when I respond that I am from Connecticut in the States. (For the past four months, I’ve either been from New York or Boston, depending on the intelligence level of the person I’m speaking with. Everyone knows where New York is, Boston can be a bit of a stretch for some). My point is however, it’s an eye-opening experience to learn and understand a different culture rather than one you have been surrounded by your entire life.

8. Educate yourself. Before your trip, during your trip, and after your trip. There is nothing worse than ignorance, especially an ignorant tourist/visitor. Do yourself and the locals a favor and study about the city you will be living in before you arrive. Research about the currency there, how to call a cab, how to say please & thank you, and other important facts about the country itself. While living in a foreign country, immerse yourself in the culture. Step out of your comfort zone and go to the places where no tourists can be found.

7. Be aware of stereotypes. Especially the one that all Italian men are sweet, romantic, angels. Many of them actually rely on the fact that American girls come to Italy with hope to find a sweet Italian boy as seen in the movies (i.e. just watch the Lizzie McGuire Movie if you’re curious about any Italian stereotype). A friend told me its typical for a guy to come up to an American girl with his friends near and speak in Italian, not saying anything romantic at all, and the girl will stare at him melting, listening to his accent, when actually he probably just called her a stupid name to make his friends laugh. Tip- Learn some foreign slang/ swear words before coming abroad. Another Tip- it’s not true to say that the sweet romantic guys don’t exist here, because they certainly do, you just most likely won’t find them at Red Garter and Lion’s Fountain (typical American hot spots in Florence).

6. Budget your money. This can be seriously tedious, but necessary. If money grows on trees for you, then go ahead and ignore this one. But if you’re a broke college student like me, take note. For future study abroad students make a list of all the places you’d like to visit before coming abroad. Consider the most important ones to you and why you want to visit them. When you get abroad its easy to just go where your friends want to go because it’s convenient. Travelling in Europe is cheapER, not necessarily cheap. Also, when it comes to those shoes you’ve been eyeing all semester or that present you want to buy for your Mom & Dad, don’t wait until day 105 out of 109 of the semester to get it! Spread out your money so you’re not digging for coins during your last few weeks. Most people spend the most money during the first few weeks, and during the last. If you’re smart, you’ll take my advice and spreeeeeaaad it out!

THE TOP 5 (The kind of important stuff about life)

5. Spontaneity. While it can be beneficial to plan, budget, etc., do not plan it all! Leave room to be spontaneous. This is something I struggled with while I was abroad since I’m the type to always have a plan. Instead, I found the most unexpected and unplanned events allowed me to make some of my favorite memories. Be open to changes and opportunities. 

4. Fear. Throw this all away when you come abroad. If you let it take over you as you’re trying to learn new things you’ll be filled with regret. Be open to everything and everyone. Just because you’re scared to do something, don’t let that be a reason to avoid exploring new things. Take advantage of your surroundings, don’t shy away from them. Don’t be scared to ask the waitress something in Italian, for example; even if its not correct, without trying you’ll never learn.

3. Happiness relies on you and you only. I love making people happy, but it’s easy to make worrying about what others think first a habit, rather than simply doing what you want. Don’t surround yourself with negative energy even when it seems impossible to ignore. Make new friends. Do something different each day. Being abroad has given me the opportunity to completely make my own choices, right or wrong, it’s no ones choice but my own and I’ve learned its only up to me to find my happiness.

2. Time is so precious. When I first got to Florence I thought, four months isn’t too long but it’s plenty of time to accomplish most of everything on my to-do list. I would often walk by a store or a restaurant and say to myself, “oh I’ll just go some other day!” But time goes by so quickly, and before you know it, you have one week before your final exams. My rule/advice to future study abroad students: never say no. When a friend asks you to go to Verona with them for a day trip GO, when someone asks you to go to lunch after class GO, and when someone asks you to go out even though you’re tired and probably shouldn’t just, GO! You have all next semester in America to be on Facebook and to watch movies in your room.

1. Travelling will change your life, I promise. Among the 7 different countries I’ve travelled to during the past 109 days I’ve experienced many different cultures, seen many different things and learned more than I could have ever possibly imagined. I’ve learned, to really travel you must completely immerse yourself in the culture; go beyond the beaten path and find new things about each place that you wouldn’t easily be able to find on Wikipedia. Not always easily done within a short time frame. Fortunately, within my four months in Florence I’ve had time; though still not enough, to discover so many hidden gems. This is my favorite kind of “travelling”. This experience has been invaluable to me. To travel is to learn but it’s all about the journey and what you make of it. I’m sad this journey is over, but I’m anxious & excited knowing that my travelling days have just begun!

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

All good things...

..must, unfortunately come to an end. First, I can't believe we are down to 10 days left in Italy. It's amazing how quickly time flies. I've really been slacking with my blog posts due to a change in pace in the second half of my semester . Looking back at my posts from the first 10 weeks here, almost every weekend I was travelling somewhere. Ten weeks of classes Monday-Thursday, then packing, travelling, alot of sleeping on buses, walking tours, photoshoots etc., then loads of laundry, blog posting and picture-uploading. A continous pattern. SO many memories and experiences that I am beyond thankful for. For the past 3 weeks though I've taken a break from travelling to enjoy my time in Florence. I don't have a schedule or any trips planned. My calender is empty yet I've never felt so busy because everyday there's something new I want to do. After weeks of trying to learn my way around the city, adapting to every-day life here, I have acquired this feeling as if I've lived here for years. Sadly, four months is just enough time to adapt, and then to say goodbye. But realistically, I've basically been on a four month vacation, who would ever want an experience like this to end? It doesn't mean I don't miss my family & friends and life back in America, but this journey has just been too good to be true.
Sunset over Florence from my apartment
So what have I been doing for the past few weeks exactly? After my last trip to Greece, which took a lot of out of me, Mom and Britt came to visit! It was so nice to see my family after so long!! We went on a day trip to San Giminagno and Chianti for wine tasting and horseback riding. One of my favorite days during my entire time abroad so far! Our tour guide Isam, could not have been more fun! We felt like he was part of our family by the end of the day. That Saturday, we went on a day trip to Venice. Such a beautiful and very unique city! We lucked out with great weather and no floods. The rest of the weekend I showed them my favorite parts of Firenze. It was so nice to share with my family what I have seen and done, and I was so happy they were able to see for themselves what this beautiful country is like.

Mom & Isam!

Trenchard girls in Venice!

The rest of my time has been spent exploring new places and meeting new people in Florence. As I am writing with just 10 days left in this city I have a list of about 20+ things I still wish to do before I leave. The amount of things to do here are endless. I've also really been focusing on practicing Italian. It's amazing how much easier it is to learn a language while you're living in a country where they speak it. I took spanish for 6 years and still can't put a sentence together. I've taken Italian for 4 months and I can usually understand people's conversations as I'm eavesdropping on the street. It's a great accomplishment.

Throughout the city they are beginning to put up Christmas decorations in preparation for the holidays. There are christmas lights strung down almost every street in the center of the city. It's magical! The Christmas markets have opened in the Santa Croce area and they are putting a giant tree in Piazza del Duomo! Every store window has greens and traditional decorations. They do not mess around here in that department!

For the rest of my time here I plan on squeezing in a day trip or two, a few historical stops around Florence, shopping and spending time with the great people I've met here. If we ever do get to come back to Florence again in the future, it will never be exactly the same. So I'm cherishing the last few days with my friends, going to our favorite restaurants and staying out an extra hour or two each night. Every single person I've met while abroad has taught me so much about life and about myself. I'm always terrible at saying goodbye-- I know December 14th will be an especially sad day here in Florence. But….America watch out, I'm coming home!

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Opaaa! A weekend in: Corfu, Greece

I am so far behind in keeping up my blog! Since Fall break ended, the past few weeks have been a whirlwind! Although it was several weeks ago, I promised a post about my trip to Corfu, Greece the weekend of Halloween!
View of Corfu in the AM from the ferry

My roommate Caroline and I left for our 26-hr journey to Corfu at six on Thursday morning. As I will further explain-- Greece is very difficult to travel to and around. From Florence we took a 5-hr bus ride to Ancona, Italy and from Ancona we took an overnight cruise ship to the main land in Greece. From the main land we hopped on a 2-hr ferry to Corfu, then a 30 minute bus ride to the secluded Pink Palace! The Palace (aka- backpackers Hostel) is well-known in Europe as one of the largest party destinations! It's right on the ocean with its own private beach and beach bar! You can imagine by the time we finally arrived I was thrilled. And after the 21 hours of nothing but sleep on the cruise ship I was fully rested and ready to go!

As soon as we checked in, we changed and got ready to go ATV riding around Corfu, a tour the Pink Palace provides for a fee. There were probably around 60 of us in the group, each on our own individul ATV trying to somewhat stay in a single file line. The tour was about 6 hours- stopping on the way at a beach for lunch, and at a peak looking over the ocean in perfect time for sunset. We rode through beautiful olive gardens, and through the quieter areas of Corfu passing by several colorful and charming houses. I would imagine the sound of 60 or so ATVS riding through the town would be irritating to the locals, but instead they would all wave and smile as we passed by!

After the ride, we rested for a bit and then got ready for dinner which was included with our stay. That night the Palace was throwing a Halloween party, so we threw on our make-shift short notice costumes (a lot of masquerade masks, devil horns and cat ears) and had a wild night of drinking and dancing!
The next morning we set off for the "booze cruise", another activity the palace plans for its visitors each weekend. We walked through the water to the boat with our bags, towels etc. on our heads, climbed up the ladder and immediately, the party began. The water was bright turquoise and the views were amazing. They played fun music the whole ride as we made two stops- one to go cliff jumping (I passed after girls were getting back onto the boat with brusies the size of a football) and another stop at a private beach. By the end of the 6-hour ride we were boozed and cruised out and in need of a nap before the pink toga party that night!
Booze Cruise boat!

Like I mentioned before, the Pink Palace is well known for its party atmosphere, morning till night the whole weekend was just a big celebration! Their most infamous activity, though, is the toga party. The hostel provides everyone with a pink satin bed sheet and you have to get creative and create your own toga with it! We spent the night drinking and dancing again and at the end the staff performed a plate smashing ceremony. Yes, I got a plate smashed over my head followed by a shot of Ouzo (greek vodka that tastes like black licorice- yuck!) It hurt a little more than I expected. The men went around and performed an original Greek dance while also managing to do crazy stunts. One, for example, stacked two chairs on top of eachother, lit candles on both chairs, and then picked the bottom chair up with his teeth and walked around with it! Ouch!
Caroline and I in our togas!

The next morning, our last day in Greece, we spent a much needed R&R day lounging on the beach. The beach bar played house music all day, served delicious club sandwiches and gyros and of course a pink cocktail or two. We stayed to see the beautiful sunset on the beach and then got ready and packed up for our journey back to La Italia.
Beach bar

While I am so fortunate I was able to travel to Greece and experience a crazy, wild weekend  at the Pink Palace, I would love to go back to Greece some day and also visit Athens, Santorini, Mykonos and other greek islands. Its often a misconception that the beautiful white houses with blue roofs that people see in pictures are all throughout Greece, while actually these views are only from Santorini and a few other islands. Corfu was a perfect getaway though-- with beautiful beaches and sunsets. The people were very friendly, though some a bit odd, and the food was way better than I expected! A perfect weekend for 20-something year olds to celebrate and enjoy being young-- and one that I will surely never forget!

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

4 Countries, 10 Days and 1 American Girl in Europe: Fall Break 2013

Berlin, Amsterdam, Paris and Barcelona. A week long trip that only a group of sixty ambitious and adventure-hungry 20 something year olds could manage to accomplish.

Our trip began in Berlin, Germany. Sleeping overnight on the bus from Florence, the 14-hr ride wasn't enough to kill the excitement when we arrived that morning. We quickly got changed in the bathroom lobby of our hostel and rushed off to our walking tour of the city. We saw several of the highlights including museum island, Brabdenburg gate, and the Univeristy of Berlin. We also saw the hotel where Michael Jackson held one of his children over the balcony. Thought that was a fun random fact worth sharing!
Brabdenburg Gate

Hotel Adlon
Damage from the war
During the tour our guide pointed out several buildings which still had holes on their surface left from World War II. The tour ended at the Reichstag building, or the parliment building in Berlin. The building itself was built in 1894 but the Reichstag Dome was built just recently in 1999. We climbed to the top of the dome which provided a 360 degree view of the beautiful city!

Inside the Reichstag Dome
That night we went with a large group on a pub crawl throughout the city. We went to four different bars and ended at the biggest club in Berlin, Matirx. On our second day in Berlin we went to see the East Side Gallery of the Berlin Wall and check point Charlie. We also stopped at the Sony center and the Holocaust memorial. Berlin, Germany was such a humbling city due to all it's fascinating history.
Check Point Charlie
  On our last night there, we ate dinner at a small local restaurant called "Sophie Neck" it was so quaint and the food was delicious. We ended our stay in Berlin with the Festival of Lights. This takes place once a year in Berlin as the city sets up light displays on the surface of several popular buildings throughout the city. Such a perfect way to say goodbye to the beautiful Berlin!

Berlin Cathedral for Festival of Lights

Sunday morning we were off to Amsterdam! We arrived around 5:30, checked into our hostel and got ready for a night out. We ate at a highly recommended Irish pub which was very overpriced. First, we went to the popular bar/coffeeshop Bulldog before we headed out to the event "Encore". Our first night out in Amsterdam definitely exceeded my expectations!
On our second day we began with taking pictures on the "IAmAmstedam" sign, a huge tourist trap, and then headed to the Van Gogh museum. I'm usually hard to impress when it come to museums, but the amount of artwork that Van Gogh made throughout such a short period of time was amazing. Not to mention his works are beautiful. I went a little crazy in the gift shop afterwards! 


After eating one of the most delicious avacodo sandwiches I've ever had in my life for lunch, we were off to the Heineken museum. Here we got to see the brewery and how the beer is made, we went through a simulation ride of what it's like to be a Heineken bottle and then we got to taste the beer at its different stages of production! It was a very cool and very interactive museum. Later that night we walked through the red light district, an interesting experience to say the least. 

Tuesday morning we left for the Anne frank house/ museum. The most fascinating, yet very sad experience. I was amazed at how large their house was yet how small the portion of the house was where they were all forced to hide. We saw the secret bookcase that they hid behind, and even the pictures that Anne posted on her bedroom wall. It gave me goosebumps that we stood in the same exact house that they once stood and were able to walk freely around, in and outside of the house and all throughout Amsterdam while they were forced to hide in such a confined area. 
Secret Bookcase
Pictures on Anne Frank's bedroom wall

After the museum we went the carousel pancake house where I had the most amazing Belgium waffle with fresh fruit and whipped cream! After a bit more roaming around the beautiful and quaint  streets of Amsterdam we were off to Paris that afternoon. I definitely hope to get back to Amsterdam some day as it was my favorite city we went to! The people were so nice, the canals were so pretty, and the lifestyle was so simple. 

Wednesday morning we began our do-it-all-in-24-hrs super tourist day in Paris! We started at the Louvre around 8 am, went straight the Mona Lisa and then made our way to a few other works of art. It's impossible to see everything in the Louvre unless you have an entire day to do it, which we didn't, so we moved on to our next destination, Notre Dame. 

On our way we stopped at the pont de archeveche or the "lock bridge". I wasn't able to see this during my last visit to Pari so I was so glad we accidentally stubled upon it! After a visit to Notre Dame we made our way over to the the prettiest attraction of all! Wonder what that could be?!

We waited in line to climb the tower, and finally got to the top. The views of the city are amazing! It was so windy on the very top at certain points I could barely stand without holding onto something. After heading back down, starring at the beautiful tower for several minutes, and taking one too many pictures, we headed towards Sacré Coeur. We climbed up the 300 steps to the top of the basilica and snapped a few pictures of yet another beautiful view of Paris! 

Sacre Coeur

After all that our day was still just about half way through! Next, we went to the Arc de Triomphe, and climbed up those 284 steps to reach one of my favorite places in the world. As soon as we made it to the top step the clock struch 7o'clock and with perfect timing we saw the first hour of the sparkling Eifell tower! It only sparkles for a few minutes at the start of every hour so we quickly snapped our pictures and then enojyed the rest of the view. I could have stayed on the Arc all evening long just starring at the tower, the Champs Elysees, and the beautiful City of Lights!

For dinner we went to a small, local French restaurant where I had my favorite meal of the whole week. I had a steak fillet and au gratin potatoes with a glass of wine and chocolate mousse for desert! Finally, to end our day we went to the Trocadero platform to watch the eifell tower sparkle again with the group. The last stop of the day was the moulin rouge.

Steak and Au Gratin Potatoes

Yes, all in about 15 hrs we managed to visit the Louvre, the pont de archeveche, Notre Dame, climb the Eiffel tower, climb the steps up to Sacré Coeur, climb the Arc de Triomphe, watch the tower sparkle at night, and finally visit the moulin rouge. By the end of the day we had officially mastered the metro in Paris-- I needed several strong drinks and a new pair of feet. 

On our second day in Paris we began at the Palace of Versailles. Though it was my second time visiting, I was still so amazed at extraordinary size and architecture of the palace. My favorite room was Marie Antoinette's with her floral curtains and bed spread. The gardens are immaculate and so large-- it's breathtaking to see in person. 

Hall of Mirrors
After heading back to the city's center we went to visit the Musée de l'Orangerie. There we saw Monet's beautiful water Lillie's paintings. During our last hours in Paris we went to visit the Galeries Lafayette, the opera house, and the Montmarte area where we ate dinner at a very charming restaurant overlooking the street. Around 8pm we were off to Barcelona with our beds as the seats on the bus. 
As I'm writing this post, I'm just as tired as I reach Barcelona in terms of writing as I was in terms of travelling and I'm sure as you are reading. As warned by our tour guide, Paris would kick our asses, oh boy she was right! 
The first morning in Barcelona we began with a 4-hour bike tour around the city. We were able to see almost all of the main highlights of the city including the Sagrada Familia, the Arc de Triomphe, Port Olympic on the beach, the Cathedral, and the Park de la Ciutadella near the zoo. Our tour guide mentioned during the tour that for the 1992 Olympics held in Barcelona the city actually imported sand from the Sahara desert and "rented" thousands of palm trees from Hawaii to hand-make the main beaches. While the bike tour was fascinating, it did however get a little difficult when we were riding on 4 lane very busy roads throughout the city, crashing into each other and managing the heat especially after a pitcher of sangria after our lunch break. 

La Sagrada Familia

Arc de Triomphe of Barcelona
The bike tour took up the majority of our day and definitely all of our energy. That next morning we woke up and went to Park Güell. This amazing park is on a very high hill overlooking Barcelona constructed by the very famous architect Gaudi. The border of a portion of the park or the "serpentine bench" is constructed of beautiful mosaic tiles.

After the park we walked around the center of the city, did some shopping and stumbled across thousands of Barca fans getting ready for the big game against Madrid that afternoon. That evening, our last night of fall break, we got ready for a big night out! We began in the bar of our hostel and then went to the stock exchange bar in Barcelona also known as the Dow Jones Bar. It's a very fun concept to watch the prices of the drinks and shots go up and down as the demand fluctuates just as it does in a real stock exchange. Every few minutes the market would "crash" and everyone would run up to the bar and get the lowest prices for the drinks! 

Dow Jones Bar

After we went to the four-floor club razz ma tazz. Barcelona is infamous for their nightlife- now I know why! The clubs don't close until 6am, we made it until 4! Just a few hours later we were back on the bus en route to Firenze driving through the very picturesque French countryside.

I don't think I'll ever be able to top such an amazing, exhausting, crazy, non-stop, vacation in my entire life! I've made memories that I'll cherish for a lifetime! 4 countries, 10 days, 10 nights, 50 hours of driving, and about 70,000 steps according to my speedometer. Fall break 2013 was certainly one that I'll never forget.