Cruising past the Colosseum

One of my last weeks in Rome, I was hanging out with Emily and one of her friends visiting Rome for the first time. We were at Piazza Venezia and then turned the corner.

“Oh my God,” her friend said. “There’s the Colosseum.”

Almost instantly, she took out her phone and began taking pictures. Neither Emily or I bothered to take a photo. And that’s when I knew it.  That’s when I knew that Rome had become banal.

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Maybe banal isn’t the right word. There’s such a negative connotation associated with banal. What I mean to say is that walking past the Colosseum had become normal. I walked by, pushing my way past the tourists while simultaneously rolling my eyes at them, barely noticing the structure in front of me.

Rome, like most European cities, has monuments everywhere. So many that they become a part of people’s everyday lives so seamlessly that it’s easy to forget about what they mean. People sit on them to eat lunch or have conversations after nightfall. And, in Rome especially, it is hard to walk a mile without encountering a square or a building where someone was tortured or executed or something else historically significant happened. I cruise past the Colosseum without even thinking of how many people were killed here and, more importantly, how many people watched and  enjoyed it and looked forward to it.

But I think that that was  part of the beauty of living in a place like Rome. No matter how beautiful things seem or how familiar it’s become, there are remnants of the past reminding us not to let our lives become banal so that we will be able to recognize and squash the evil that lurks around the corners.

So many people tour the Colosseum and take the photos but I think a majority of those people fail to realize what happened here. If I had spent a weeklong vacation here, I would’ve been right beside those idiots shelling out 15 euro for an obnoxious photo with a gladiator.

But that’s the part of studying abroad I loved the most. I had enough time to experience the constant obstacles and adjustments and language barrier. I had enough time to be dulled by the beauty of the Colosseum so that it wasn’t just something to take my photo in front of. It became just a normal part of my day. A normal sight to see on my walk around town. That’s when I knew — two weeks before I left — that I had finally become a Roman: because the Colosseum had become banal.

 

Roman Routines

I wrote this post in one of my last weeks during study abroad but forgot to post it. Found it among a pile of drafts and decided to share.

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The nostalgia crystallized a few weeks ago. Every time I walked past a monument or ordered a meal at a restaurant that’s become one of my “regulars” I wondered: Is this it? Is this the last time I’ll see the Colosseum? The last time I eat a pizza from Dar Poeta?

There is this distinct feeling that things are winding down here. On Saturday, we move out of our apartments.  As summer begins, so ends my semester in Rome.

In the beginning, it was overwhelming and unfamiliar when it should have been so simple. I couldn’t walk on the cobblestones without tripping. I didn’t where to look for a street sign when I was lost. I couldn’t even pronounce arrivederci.

IMG_6878Someday I will forget the name of the street I lived on and I will forget which bus takes me to the Vatican. And this, really, is what it is like to leave Rome.

It’s good-bye to a city that has become a second home and a life that has so quickly become normal, as routine as my breakfast at Bar San Calisto. As habitual as my walk past the flower stand on Viale de Trastevere.

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No matter how bad my day was, no matter how many Italians looked at me like I was an idiot, seeing that little stand on my walk reminded me to smile, to acknowledge I was living in Italy.

I first noticed the nameless awning. There’s a lack of branding in this country that would never work in America. How many restaurants in Rome are simply called ristorante? Owners don’t need names. To their customers, it is simply the restaurant on Via Garibaldi. The pizzeria near Piazza Trilussa. The flower stand on Viale Trastevere.

The owner of the flower stand was always chatting on his cell phone. He’d smoke cigarettes and yell at the nearby taxi drivers. He’d gesture wildly with his hands in a way that was just quintessential Italy.

His stand isn’t like that of one selling souvenirs. He doesn’t push his product onto people because his customers are all locals. No tourist will buy a bouquet when they’re living in a hotel for a week.

I promised myself back in January that I’d one day buy a bouquet to prove I was not a tourist. That I lived in this city like any other Italian.

It never happened. I kept putting it off, telling myself the flowers were unnecessary, that they’d die within a week. That was my American mindset: practicality.

But here I am, at the end of the semester, regretting my lack of a purchase. It took five months, but I now see value in those flowers. They represent Italy and this country’s love for appreciating the little things even if they’re only temporary.

IMG_6349I am not sad to leave the Rome of the Trevi fountain and tourists. I am sad to leave the Rome that has become my home and the little things that became my routine. My Roman routine. Like passing that flower stand a couple of times each day.

The old me would never shell out a couple of bucks to buy a plant destined to wilt. But this pang of regret I am experiencing now is how I know how much I have changed. Or really, how much Italy — and that little unnamed flower stand — changed me.

Seas the Day

God, I love being near water. I grew up in Lake Geneva, I go to school with Lake Michigan a couple blocks east, and now I am living in Kansas, a state with zero natural lakes. My current situation has made me think back to my time in Santorini when I could barely go an hour — a minute, really — without being reminded of how much water was around me.

Our schedule for most of our days: wake up, eat breakfast, drive to a beach, sit on said beach for several hours, drive back to hostel and shower off the sand, lay out by the hostel pool.

Yes, I was living the life.

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My favorite beach was probably Kamara because it’s a little less tourist-y and has tiki huts you can rent. We opted out of that one because how does shade help us  become bronzed Greek goddesses. Spoiler: we really didn’t get that tan.

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We also hit up the Red Beach, named for the color of its surrounding rocks. Santorini’s beaches are all different from one another because of a volcanic eruption a while back.

We signed up to take a boat tour to this volcano, which is located on the island of Thira and used to be attached to Santorini, but the eruption separated them. The volcano is still active today and we hiked around it for a while before boarding our pirate-esque ship. The bay of Thira had the greenest water I’ve ever seen.

On the way back to Santorini, our tour guide promised us a stop at some natural hot springs. We were all imagining the captain to dock the boat and then we’d get off on an island and dip our feet into little pools. But then the guide announced that it was time to strip into our bathing suits, jump off the boat and swim to the springs.

What?

Apparently, the boat was too wide to fit through this channel, so we had to swim from the boat and through the channel to get to the springs. We were a bit surprised, but decided it was something we had to do since on none of our beach days did any of us do more than dip our toes into the ocean to cool off. Even when I visited Barcelona and the Amalfi Coast, I barely walked in up to my knees.

A week on a Mediterranean island…we owed it to ourselves to swim in the sea at least once. Carpe diem. Many other people were jumping right in  — one guy flipped off the boat’s railing and into the sea — but I climbed down the ladder like the Nervous Nelly that I am.

The water was freezing at first, but as I acclimated, I found it to be refreshing after spending most of the day sizzling in the sun. The sea was so salty, and even though I didn’t completely submerge myself, my hair was feeling the impact of all that salt. Read: it was wild.

The springs themselves were pockets of warmth. I kept thinking I was swimming in a spot where someone had peed because the springs were about that temperature, but the sulfur-y smell and orange spongy chunks floating up to the surface reminded me I was not. The coolest sensation was standing on this spongy like sand in the spring. I felt like one of those jellyfish in Spongebob Squarepants bouncing along the ocean floor.

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Swimming through the channel to the springs

When we were standing in the springs, I said, “I wish someone would have taken our picture.”

They all nodded in agreement as it was all of our first time’s swimming in the Med Sea.

Then Emily said, “But some of my best memories of study abroad were the ones I didn’t take photos of.”

That couldn’t be more true. All of the undocumented moments where in the back of my head, I was screaming REMEMBER THIS, those were the experiences I valued the most. Laughing at the Moroccan herbalist’s shop as we loaded up our bags…eating macarons with my aunt in our Parisian apartment…making faces at Alexis in Italian class whenever our professor did something so predictable…sipping prosecco on Gianicolo Hill as the sun set…floating in the Mediterranean Sea.

God, I’m writing it out now and I realize how privileged I am to have had all of these experiences. I remember feeling so sad in that last month for all of it to come to an end, but on this cruise — my last day in Greece on my last trip of study abroad — I realized I shouldn’t be sad. I should really just be grateful.

I am so thankful for the week we had on this island. It wasn’t the trip I imagined in my head and I learned that no destination is perfect. There will always be something that goes wrong. People will get the stomach virus and shit for two days straight. Or the car doesn’t work as well as you’d like. Or there’s mobs of tourists messing up your postcard-worthy shot.

But trips aren’t supposed to be perfect. That’s boring. The best trips are the ones where you accumulate moments.

I’ll remember hearing the Greek language and thinking it sounds like Russians speaking Italian. I’ll remember feeling like so many things about this island are familiar and reminiscent of my hometown yet also so foreign. I’ll remember wanting my days in Santorini, this little slice of heaven, to never end because it was one of the few times in my life where I didn’t have work or school or anything to stress about and I wondered when — and if — I’d ever have that again. I’ll remember seeing only blue and white for ten days straight and thinking I was finally living in my desired color scheme. I’ll remember the taste of the salty saganaki cheese and lemon juice dribbling down my chin. And — even without a photo — I’ll remember swimming in the Mediterranean Sea.

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Santorini’s Best Hostel

Booking hostels was one of the most stressful tasks I did during my semester abroad. I heard horror stories about airbnb, was too afraid to try couch surfing, so I  turned to hostelworld.com. It’s a navigable website and easy to book rooms, but I always feared reading the reviews. Because no matter what city I was making plans for, no matter how many different hostels I looked at, there were always at least a handful of bad reviews to counter out the good ones left behind. I agonized over the credibility of these hostile guests and wondered if they were just overreacting or a shred of truth to their complaints.

When we were in the midst of planning our Santorini trip, I came across Villa Manos in my search and was shocked to find absolutely no negative reviews. We booked a private room for only 14 euro per night each. Our room came with access to the pool, a walkout balcony (that had a table and chairs) and an ocean view!

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After the ferry dropped us off at the port, a driver picked us up and took us to Villa Manos. The owner, Poppy, checked us in and all of the reviews proved true. She is a fantastic lady. Seriously, she could teach hospitality at Harvard. Poppy set us up with a bunch of pre-planned tours and told us the best restaurants to eat at and helped us rent a car.

Santorini has a public bus but it’s infrequent, so she said renting is the way to go. Split between the four of us, we each paid around $7/day. It was weird to be back in a car and be able to go wherever we wanted whenever we wanted. After four months of planes, trains, buses, trams and metro, it was a nice change (and blasting Taylor Swift in the backseat also helped).

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Driving in Santorini is unlike any place else. First of all, there are no major roads or signs so finding your way around is difficult. On one of our first days, we drove more than half an hour trying to find a beach! There’s also a lot of hills and the car we rented was pretty pathetic, so the driver would have to completely gun it going uphill so we could slowly inch our way to the top. Santorini also lacks a lot of parking lots, so there were times when having a car was a nuisance. All in all, I’d still say renting a car is worth it because that’s the best way to get around to all of the island’s villages. Without it, we’d have been stuck in Fira and reliant upon public transportation and taxis.

We spent more time at Villa Manos than expected. Two of my travelers came down with the flu or some other virus that caused them to have severe diarrhea and aches and fever for 24 hours straight. One got it and then after she recovered, the next girl caught it. I  became a germaphobe that week because we were all living in one room and I was afraid I’d catch it next. Luckily, that didn’t happen, but it still sort affected the vibe of the vacation.

But we honestly couldn’t have picked a better hostel in which to get sick. Poppy wished us good-bye and insisted we take a photo with her. She also sent us off with a bottle of Greek wine as a thank-you.

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Greek Food (Views included)

Waffles in Belgium, crepes in France, paella in Spain, tajine and couscous in Morocco, pizza and pasta in Italy.  I ate my way through Europe’s best cities last semester, but I think Greece has the best (and cheapest!) food. Part of what made mealtimes so special in Santorini is that every restaurant came with a killer view.

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I ate a 2 euro gyro for at least one meal each day. I’d never really had gyros in the States, but I just might start because they’re amazing. Freshly shaved slices of marinated chicken or pork stuffed inside a pillowy pita with lettuce, tomato, seasoned french fries and that creamy, garlicky tzatziki sauce. Oh, how I miss the tzatziki! I’d often dip my fries in the cucumber-y, yougurt-based sauce and think to myself Holy hell, I could bathe in this.

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I also tried moussaka, which tasted a lot like a beef and vegetable stew baked in a clay pot with cheese on top.

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I was most excited to order saganaki and have the waiter bring it out flaming as I’ve had at a Greek restaurant in America.  I was expecting crashing plates, pandemonium, maybe even a “Opa!” thrown in for good measure. The waiter just brought out a square piece of cheese on a plate and set it on the table. I never asked where the flames were, when the “Opa!” was coming. I guess that’s the Americanized version of Greek restaurants?

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Also tried a traditional dessert: Greek yogurt with honey and walnuts. I still prefer the sugary American Yoplait flavors but couldn’t think of a better first place to try Greek yogurt than Greece.

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Even better than all of the views were some adorable donkeys passing by a restaurant we were eating at. I dreamed to ride a donkey through the streets much like Lena did in the Sisterhood.

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Hate to be a pain in the ass and get all animal rights activist on you, but after seeing these poor fellows forced to carry tourists all day long, I didn’t want to anymore. I much preferred to spend my money on more saganaki and gyros anyway.

Fish are friends; feet are food

The Santorini I pictured in my head was 75 and sunny for my entire vacation. In reality, we had a handful of good days, a couple cloudy ones and only one with rain.

On that day, beaching was out of the question as was tanning by the hostel pool. We decided to walk around the island’s main town, Fira, and pop into and out of shops when we needed a respite from the rain.

One of the stores we passed was a fish spa and decided to give it a go! Ever tried it? It was only 10 or 15 euro for a 30-minute massage by little fish that eat away your dead skin for sustenance.

At first, I hated the feeling of the fish bites. It was so ticklish but not like if somebody would tickle your feet because the little guys go between your toes.

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About seven minutes in, I adjusted to the odd sensation. And when the timer beeped, I removed my oh-so-soft feet and rewarded with a popsicle. It felt like going to the doctor’s and walking out with a lollipop (+ soft foot skin).

IMG_6464Great rainy day activity in Santorini…except when the beach sand roughed up my feet the next day!

Searching for the pants…and Kostas

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Confession: the only reason I desired to go to Santorini was because of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants movie.

I’d never seen pictures of the island let alone heard of it until I watched Alexis Bledel, arguably my favorite actress, sketch the  small streets, fish in the Mediterranean Sea and fall in love with a local Greek boy.

Well, none of those things happened to me, but I still had a wonderful time (though probably not as much as Bledel’s character, Lena Kaligaris, did). It was the only place I visited for a full seven-day week, so I left feeling like I’d done and saw everything I needed to do, but that may be because it’s a small island with not that much to do. It’s the only trip where I wasn’t exhausted at the end of the day by sightseeing. I spent my days relaxing, tanning, eating and staring at the endless blue waters that surrounded me.

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I have to admit my initial reaction to Santorini was This is it? The island was larger than I expected and so overwrought with tourists. I know I say that about almost every place I’ve been, but Santorini just might be the worst. It was nothing like the Sisterhood movie where everyone on the island except Lena is a local.

I was hit with this pang of regret those first couple of days. I questioned my judgement in choosing this location when I could have spent 10 days doing a Celtic loop through England, Scotland and Ireland instead. But then we arrived in the town of Oia.

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That’s where most of the Sisterhood filming take place. And sure it’s still all tourists. But it’s where you see the royal blue domed churches. Where all of the buildings are built into the cliffs, one piled on top of the next. Where everywhere I turned, I was enveloped by my favorite color scheme: blue and white.

Click on any photo below to start the photo gallery. 

I remember popping into a store to ask for directions one day and I had forgotten to wear my watch, so I asked the shopkeeper for the time. He sort of smiled, didn’t bother to glance at the watch on his wrist and said, “You are on island time.”

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Alexis Bledel circa 2005. (Kidding.)

On one of the nights, we stayed in Oia for the sunset. So many John Cabot students went to Santorini for spring break and bragged about how it was the most beautiful sunset they’d seen in their entire life. I could not say the same. In my opinion, little old Lake Geneva beats out superstar Santorini…but it is a close second.

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