Enoteca Calasto

I started writing this post at the height of the summer season while I was working crazy hours and just found it again. It has been so long and I need to get back to writing! Although it is winter here now, I will finish and post this to remind us of summer.

Summer is a far cry from the winters in Lucca when the city closes down and you have to say a silent prayer that somewhere a bar is open to take shelter and drown your sorrows before Lucca’s torrential rain drowns you. Yes, my friends, even in Italy there can be rough times that not even pasta can fix.

Then the summer comes and it is mayhem in our little walled city. It’s like the gates open at Disney World and everyone rushes in with their maps trying to decide what to see first: The Tower of Terror? Or The Guinigi Tower…Bumper cars? Or as I refer to it: tourists standing in the middle of the street almost being hit by cars, bikes, and anything moving. Stop doing that, tourists. Really.

Everything is open, the city is alive, there’s music everywhere from opera to Lucca Music Festival which this year featured THE BACKSTREET BOYS. They were back. Alright. The juxtaposition of the historic medieval city and the modern summer faire makes Lucca a haven for travelers from all over the world. Summer here is what made me fall in love with Lucca. But all of the love in the world was not going to pay for my rent and my peschini. After a year of being led on with jobs on three different occasions, I was finding it difficult to feasibly see working here.

Thankfully I stumbled into the right hands at Enoteca Calasto. It is a little wine bar that was just around the corner from my first apartment. Walking by it nearly everyday, I never thought I would end up finding a job there and over the season some wonderful friends. I walked in on a whim one day and asked a woman in Italian where I could find the boss. She answered me in perfect English, “I am the boss”. Of course I would find somewhere where the owners were English, it was fate! She said she wasn’t hiring for the season, but did need an extra hand during Lucca’s four-day Comic Con, which is essentially where the city fills with 20,000 people dressed like Pokemon. She continued to stress how insane it got, but I was just so ecstatic to have found a job that I didn’t care!

Loki and…something

Loki and…something

And then I did care. When I showed up a few months later for the days I was working, it was just a sea of human beings with swords, maces, crowns, and as promised, Pokemon costumes all shoving their way down the streets and flooding into bars. This was the first time I had ever waitressed IN MY LIFE. After the initial fear had worn off, my adrenaline was pumping and I was like a highly functioning octopus carrying two trays over my head, throwing sodas at people, “you want tortelli? YOU GOT IT”. My first day was 9 hours I think. When I returned home that night, I was literally the walking dead. I laid down in my bed with my sneakers on and passed out. How was I going to get through 3 more days like this?

The next day, one of the waitresses who had been working in the bar during the season FLIPPED OUT in the middle of the lunch rush and literally threw her apron down and yelled in Italian, “I’m out of here!” As much as I wanted to throw tortelli at her for leaving us short while we drowned in a lake of Mario Party characters, I yelled to our boss, “Hey! I’ll take her place during the season!”

That woman walking out coupled with my newfound octopus serving skills was the combination I needed! I was hired for the season as an apprentice worker. I was absolutely thrilled!

IMG_9669We opened in March and things were rather slow, but steadily picked up until the unstoppable summer arrived. Amidst the insanity of summer evening aperitivi, wine tastings, and late dinners all while working in an un-air conditioned bar, I was still quite charmed by the people I met on a daily basis. It seemed like I always had an encounter that was delightful and took my mind off of sweating through my clothes and sucking down ice in the back to keep cool. For every bad incident there is a good one that erases is. AndIMG_9728 I can’t even say “bad” because nothing truly out of control ever happened. It was more just having the capacity to get everything out on time while trying not to blow of curious tourists who asked me the same questions day in and day out about what I was doing here. One of my first weeks, an American stumbled in with a half-lit cigar and sunglasses on clearly a bit lost. His two friends joined him after and I found out he was Paris Hilton’s uncle. Another time, a sweet elderly British man chatted me up and told me just how much enjoying so much traveling on his own and all of the amazing things he was seeing. He thanked me profusely for taking the time to talk with him about his travels and his favorite books one called “Bad Monkey”. The next day I came to the bar to find a new copy of that very book he had left for me.IMG_0724

I started to profile people. You can’t not start doing that when you have people from all over the world stopping by day in and day out. On a normal day I would hear Italian, American English, British English, Australian English, German, French, and Russian. Occasionally Norwegian, Chinese, and Danish peppered the garden outside offering different tones and mannerisms. I could tell who was American by how they laughed- this rich warm guffaw that made me nostalgic for home. Surprisingly, the Norwegians were very loud! One of them explained to me that it is because everything in Norway is so expensive that when people go out they do not drink that much and instead for them here alcohol is so cheap so they have a really great time! The English were delightfully witty and charming and very happy to be in a culture when it is acceptable to day drink. The Germans were very demanding, but once everything was in front of them they were super appreciative and often handed you tips directly while thanking you. There were two types of Russian: the Russians who had extreme wealth like two middle-aged beautiful Russian men I served. They were dressed like royalty with gorgeous colored suits and jewels and spent over 200 euro between them. And then the Russians who came in large families and asked how much everything was and then asked for separate checks.

Politically correct melanzane

Politically correct melanzane

There was one day that my shift finished at 5:00 and it had been an incredibly busy and hot day. The other staff and I were dead tired and were counting down the minutes until we could go. And then at 4:45, 10 Russians showed up and wanted a bunch of lasagna. I nearly wept. It became an ongoing joke for the rest of the season to not get ready to leave until it was literally your time to leave because there was always the possibility of 10 Russians showing up at the last minute and asking for hot lasagna and cappuccino in 95 degree weather.

Medieval procession on a "normal" Sunday

Medieval procession on a “normal” Sunday

The Italians are great for the most part. They love to joke and make fun of you and pretend you messed their order up until the see the fear in your eyes and then throw their heads back laughing making the hand gesture for, “did I scare ya?!” Sometimes you get the ones who are never happy with what you bring them. When you ask them how everything was they tell you truthfully if they didn’t like it. And yet you can’t fault them. It is part of their culture to be honest about how they feel about food and wine and rightfully so. Most loved that I was American and spoke Italian. They really appreciated it and were always curious why I was here

Jedi candle break on a slow day

Jedi candle break on a slow day

I will say that making coffee for Italians is to this day one of the most stress-inducing things I have ever done. ALL THE COFFEE RULES. But for other people I really enjoyed getting

Suddenly all the Brits started dancing

Suddenly all the Brits started dancing

into a rhythm of making the coffee. I always kind of felt like a rock star and would smile to myself as I banged the old coffee out, flipped a few switches, and then set the plate, spoon, and chocolate up all in time to spin around and stop the machine. It was like a little dance. And there was something romantic about setting up in the morning. Laying the tables outside in the little garden in the piazza seemed like a quintessential Italian image to me- just setting up for the day, watching people pass by, having coffee. And for closing snuffing out the candles in the windows, bringing everything in, hurling garbage bags at each other, hitting one another with the broom, loving inflicting physical and emotional pain on each other.

"GOBBLE"

“GOBBLE”

I was nicknamed The Little Turkey by one of the Italian waiters near the beginning of the season because they couldn’t understand what I was saying when I spoke quickly in English and I talked all the time. If I started asking for things, one of them would let me finish talking and then go, “GOBBLE GOBBLE GOBBLE!!!”. We always joked. Even our bosses were amazingly funny and always up for a good prank. It was a daily goal to offend each other to the point of no return: they made fun of my speaking Italian, I made fun of them speaking English (think of the most stereotypical Italian accent), we would write horrible things on each other’s water bottles. More often than not I would get a drawing of a turkey or “gobble” on mine. We IMG_0208would try to scare the living shit out of each other while closing the bar: standing outside the bathroom door, throwing the door open and screaming, hiding behind the bar and popping out, pretending our boss had called and was mad at someone. It was just too easy to freak each other out. There was more than once I had to duck down behind the bar to cover my mouth from spitting water everywhere after a well-timed joke.

Sara dancing to The Backstreet Boys

Sara dancing to The Backstreet Boys

Proseco break

Proseco break

An especially amazing thing though was bringing music to the bar. Shortly after I started, the owners asked me to do an opera night. They had never heard me sing before and the week leading up to it nervously asked me on a daily basis how I was doing and if I was ready. I kept telling them everything was fine because it was. I have been singing since I was 15. Singing in a bar wasn’t going to be something I would lose sleep over. The first night was a great success and for some reason our owners were shocked that I pulled it off! They said, “We didn’t know you could sing so well!” I said, “Why would you have taken such a huge risk?!” They had advertised that I would be singing and gave me a two-hour slot! It was hysterical. We were all cracking up because they really could not believe it. How silly! So it became a bi-weekly engagement for the rest of the year. Once it was summer, we set up a piano outside, added 15 extra tables, and I got to walk around the piazza that houses not only our bar, but the church where Puccini was baptized, and sing to almost 100 DSC_0156people who were either customers, or people passing through, stopping, and sitting on the church steps to listen for a bit. This was the Italy I imagined! Wine barista by day, opera diva by night.

It was a really amazing experience. I could honestly write a book about the customers I met whether I was wearing an apron serving glasses of wine or wearing diamond earrings and singing Puccini. It is so difficult to try and cram a whole year into a blog post. The people I worked with and for were amazing. We laughed a lot, fought a little, and danced to The Backstreet Boys daily. I will really miss having a job that made me feel like I was traveling to different countries every day. I still cannot get over the amount of people you meet just staying in one place and serving them local wine.

Enoteca Calasto 2014/15

Enoteca Calasto 2014/15

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Barefoot and French

Barefoot and French

It has been far too long since I have written and I am in the middle of several pieces, but what happened to me the other night was something I was so moved by that I knew I needed to write it all down and get back on my blog.

I am a huge believer in the universe and that everything happens for a reason. This has proven to be true in my life on countless occasions and I can trace certain events from the root and see how they started maybe in an unpleasant way and then land me where I am meant to be. And this is because of our universe. This is because certain people are brought in and out of our lives at just the right time.

Last night was a confirmation of my belief.

I have a sweet gig singing at the bar I work at two or three times a month and it has been so special for me to sing in the piazza that not only is home to our bar, but also houses the church where Puccini was baptized. It’s an opportunity to sing the Puccini classics that everyone knows and then throw in a bit of musical education with Mozart, and go back to my musical theatre roots. It has also tested me physically in that we are performing for two hours and thus teaches me about pacing. And doing mostly the same repertoire every time, you challenge yourself to try and find how many ways a person can interpret “O mio babbino caro”. Not an easy feat! Tourists and sometimes even locals will flock outside to drink wine and let my pianist and I serenade them. It is a pleasure. An absolute delight to share opera with people who range from knowing absolutely nothing about the music to having been musicians themselves.

As a young singer, or a young artist/musician/athlete/grad student/business assistant…as any young person I should say: every moment can become a life or death situation. We are always hoping that everything we produce is perfect in our line of work. That kind of pressure can be motivation on some days and crippling on others. This past week was one of those Lifetime movie moments where I left a rehearsal crying and questioning why on earth I chose a career I have no business in. Having that happen 48 hours prior to a performance is not an enjoyable or uplifting experience. This was a big week of questioning (thanks a lot Mercury retrograde!). So when the other night (Friday, October 24th) came and an hour before my concert I had a fever, it just seemed as though the universe was telling me something. But I got excited as I always do to perform and tried to remind myself to pace, to focus, and to just ENJOY IT.

Spoiler alert: everything went wonderfully. I was very pleased with how I sang and interpreted the music and that’s all one can ask of oneself. The amazing part of this evening, however, was the presence of two rather strangely dressed young men who had arrived outside near the end of our set with a large group of people. The head of the group I recognized as my boyfriend’s aunt who was coming from her own performance art exhibit.

During a break she introduced me very briefly to her group and I shook hands with these two young men who I assumed were friends of hers. One had long blonde hair pulled back in a bun and was dressed in this pretty heinous bright orange corduroy tuxedo. The other exactly how you would picture a French man to look: clear eyes, light brown hair, a little bit of scruff, cute, and had on what I can only imagine the captain of a ship in the 1970’s might wear: white pants, an above the knee black double breasted suit top with some sort of emblem sewn over the heart, and a red cravat around his neck. It wasn’t until I was inside away from the crowd outside that someone pointed out they weren’t wearing shoes. I leaned over to glance out the front doors and indeed, they were barefoot! This furthered my theory that they were part of the aunt’s performance piece that had included dance.

The next set went on and as I sang outside into the night I noticed one of the men was filming me and high-fiving his friend. During our next break the two of them came inside all smiles and hugged Aldo, my pianist and I and could barely manage to get out words. So I just cut to the chase and asked, “where are your shoes?”. They told us that they were artists and came up with this project where they wanted to leave their houses with absolutely nothing (as in nude) with an end-goal in mind and rely on anything they find along the way or that people give to them. At this point Aldo said, “how are you both dressed better than me from just finding clothes in the donation bin?”. Needless to say, the strange outfits somehow were, as the French say: chic. I was intrigued by this entire endeavor and had a million questions to ask about where they found their clothes, how they walked so far so quickly (from the south of France to Lucca in 10 days), weren’t their feet cold, where were they going to do to next, etc…And when I asked how much longer their journey would be, they looked at each other and burst out laughing. In a thick French accent, the blonde one said, “Now, it is finished! We can go home!”. I said, “Oh, that’s so great! Congratulations! You must be so tired and now you have to turn around and walk back”. The brunette one said, “But don’t you want to know why we can go home?!” I nodded vigorously laughing from their contagious excitement. The blonde one cried, “Because we have found YOU!”. And then my American cynicism flew right in. My face dropped and I told this French poser, “Shut up. Don’t try to woo me”. And I went to turn around and they both started telling me, “Yes! It is because of you! We swear! Listen! Our entire goal when we left France was to come to Italy and find and opera singer! We have been looking for so long and we wanted to give up and then we found you! You are the end of the story!”.

I could not believe it. I didn’t know whether to laugh at them or give into my double ego (Soprano AND Leo) and say, “But of COURSE you were looking for ME”. They recounted their trip and how they had been sleeping on the road or were lucky enough to have a stranger host them and it was all to find an opera singer. This was the end-goal. They wanted to know if after our concert they could film Aldo and I doing a few pieces. We said of course. However, when the concert ended around 11, there wasn’t anywhere that was open to go. They didn’t want to film at the bar so we got emergency permission to use a beautiful oratorio the next day around noon. When I showed them pictures from a concert I had done there they started dancing in the piazza. Like Elaine Bennis from Seinfeld dancing. They were whooping and jumping around it was so funny. IMG_2585

With Aldo

With Aldo

We ended up talking for quite a bit while my colleagues closed up inside and we all crowded around asking them questions. When the subject of meals came up they told us that part of the project was to never ask for anything, but if people offer something then they can take it. When I asked when the last time they ate was they told me they had had a little bit of bread that morning. WHAT! I ran inside and had one of the girls cook them pasta and said I would pay for it. Seeing the look on their faces when two big bowls of tortelli and a mountain of bread came out was magical. Everyone was so excited to help them out and touched by their kindness and persistence for their project. I sat with them and watched them eat and was just filled with glee. I had a million questions and I felt like I was going to burst because I wanted to ask them all at once. “What do you miss the most?” One said the feeling of security you have from being in a home: you can have water whenever you like, you know you’re going to sleep in a comfortable bed and can shower etc. The other answered that he missed tenderness. Being touched by a partner, by a woman. I’m thinking, “You’ve only been on the road ten days, what a French answer…”. But in all seriousness it is such an important thing that we all need and crave so it made sense.

Tortelli Time

Tortelli Time

After my rapid-fire question session, the brunette one who I now knew was named Nans, began to ask me about my life and singing opera. Again, as both a soprano and a leo, I can really go on about talking about myself. I realized after a few minutes that the blonde one, Mouts, had been filming the whole time. Hope I had intelligent responses! I asked what kind of documentary it would be and they shrugged it off saying it was kind of said an art project just about meeting people and they would send me a link when they posted it on youtube.

We agreed to meet the next day around noon and go to the oratorio together. We hugged a lot and they were very emotional and relieved they had “found me”. I was absolutely floating. I felt like the universe had really forged a beautiful moment. Being able to go to bed after singing for two hours and then wake up and do it all again was so pleasing…a little daunting maybe, but exciting.

I could barely sleep and waking up felt like Christmas morning. I had gotten home so late I wasn’t able to tell my boyfriend the amazing event that had transpired and when we woke up I launched into my story, “-and there were these French guys with no shoes-“,
”Yes, I met them at my aunt’s art piece”.
“Really?! Well, guess WHAT?!—“
And like a little girl telling a fairytale, I told him about their epic barefoot journey.
“Hannah, come on. They aren’t walking around without a place to sleep and they didn’t just happen to find those clothes. They are professional filmmakers”.
I refused to believe this. And then Aldo called an hour later and told me in slightly panicked rapid Italian, “Hannah, we need to pick pieces to do today that are going to be perfect. These guys…I think they are professional filmmakers.”
“Are you and Valerio trying to pull a prank on me?”
I thought they were both acting crazy and then Aldo pointed out he had seen four professional cameras and a sound system with them. I guess I didn’t notice at first and then remembered they had a stereotypical hitchhiking stick with a sack attached to the end of it and there were two cameras embedded into it.

I still didn’t believe anyone and wanted to trust that these two struggling artists had indeed struggled here without anything to complete their project.

I met Nans and Mouts and took them to the beautiful oratorio and let them film around while I went in the back to warm up.

I started to notice that they had quite a lot of equipment with them and Aldo mouthed to me, “I told you”. Nonetheless, we went on! We did “Quando me’n vo” by Puccini because we ALWAYS HAVE TO DO PUCCINI IN LUCCA. And then they said they wanted to have me do a piece that could capture the emotion they had of being lost without anything, feeling hopeless and desperate. After conferring with Aldo we decided to do “Vilja” by Lehár as essentially it is the story of a hunter who sees this beautiful witch of the woods and falls desperately in love with her upon first sight. He searches for her and when he finds her she pulls him into her house and after a few hours of passion she disappears right before his eyes. He spends the rest of his life searching the woods for her and calling her name finally crying out for her, “Vilja!” to conclude the aria.

Here, hold this and sing high notes

Here, hold this and sing high notes

Nans and Mouts loved this idea and had me carry around their rucksack with the two cameras. We did three takes: the first time for audio, the second for wide shots, and the third for close-ups. It was a blast. It was really fun to do the piece in succession three times and find different emotion, movements, and dynamics all while using this strange (and very heavy) prop. Throughout filming people would wander in from off the street as usually happens whenever we use the oratorio and sit for a few minutes to listen and then go on their way. At one point between takes someone asked the barefoot Frenchies what this was for. I heard one of them say it was a documentary for French5, a major television station in France. Wait…what? I tried not to think about it and continued on.IMG_2607

We filmed in total for about 3 hours, we wrapped up with close-up shots of my hands, face, and feet, and of Aldo’s playing, their reactions to the music, etc. It was amazing to see all of the small pieces making up a story. And when we wrapped, Aldo played a little jazz ditty and we all danced. And then they whipped out waivers for us to sign. Where did that come from?!

This was when it all began to come together. They pulled out a credit card and started asking us to look up trains and flights for them to get back to France. I jokingly called them out on their deception and how they obviously didn’t leave their homes with literally nothing. They were good spirited and said that they had the credit card solely for emergency purposes with the camera, but that they hadn’t spent any money at all. I stepped outside for a minute and googled them. I was very glad I hadn’t done so before that moment because I found out that they weren’t just doing a random documentary, but that they are two very famous filmmakers in France who have a regular program on French5 where they travel to different countries in the same manor they ended up in Lucca and rely on people’s generosity to see them through.IMG_2598

I walked back inside mouth slightly agape and said, “But you two are really famous”. They both shrugged their shoulders and smiled sheepishly saying, “Yeah…we are”. Seriously though, thank goodness I did not know this all before! It was a very lovely and shocking surprise to end the day of filming! They were so humble and honored that Aldo and I were fawning over them. They were just the kindest people.

We all walked out together, hugged a million times, exchanged contact information, and promised to all meet up again one day in France. And then a rainbow formed overhead. No, that didn’t happen. But that day was such a surreal and inspiring window of time. For all of us to be in the right place at the right time and make a piece of art out of it was inspiring, emotional, and brought on overwhelming happiness. For Aldo and I as young musicians, this kind of exposure is so incredibly important for us.IMG_2604IMG_2587

The documentary is due to air in April, a long time to wait! I am hoping it all turned out wonderfully and that we sound good! Either way, these are the moments that make me reaffirm my journey. My insane journey of being an opera singer. I went from questioning my choices only days prior, to flying back to my apartment on a cloud of happiness at really being pleased with my work. Once again, Universe, you’ve done nicely. Thank you. Fin.

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Danger Zone: Italy

This is a disclaimer before I launch into my slightly judgmental blog post.  For all of these hilarious anecdotes, I feel the need to clarify that I adore the Italians and their culture and I only make fun of them because I love them.  And because I’m American and we get made fun of non-stop.  Just sharing the love.

 I didn’t realize that Italy was the most dangerous place on earth.  It took me a while to recognize it, but it is without a doubt terrifying to live here.  At least according to all of the things I have apparently been doing wrong my entire life.  You see, there is a list of things one should not do or one should avoid at all costs.  I’m surprised considering I’ve done or taken part in most of these things and am still here to tell the tale.

The first one is big.  I used to shower and go to school in below freezing temperatures with wet hair that would turn into crunchy ice atop my head and promptly thaw after walking into class.  I have been…berated for walking out of my house with damp hair.  Literally by everyone.  My Italian friends, my boyfriend, my boyfriend’s mother, my teachers, my American friends who have been converted after living here for years, the guy at the bakery, “What are you DOING?!” they would ask horrified (and with many hand gestures).  I thought my hair was on fire the first time this happened and stopped dead in my tracks praying for death.  There is truly nothing worse in this world than having my hair catch on fire.  Believe me, it’s happened.  And yet, I think people here would consider that a better fate than “wet hair death”.

Men take longer to get ready then I ever have because they blow dry their hair claiming if they don’t they will get a headache or a stiff neck.  Right.

While we are on the topic of artic death, not covering up completely will also lead to an untimely demise.  If I so much as think to leave my apartment with non-ankle reaching yoga pants and flats before May, I will be shunned from society.  I did this a few months ago as I was running a very quick errand and the LOOKS I received…I’ll be in therapy for most of my adult life.  No doubt.

I was surprised people were even outside considering it was drizzling.  I have had people on more than one occasion cancel plans with me at the last minute because it was raining.  “Why don’t you bring an umbrella?” I would ask incredulously.  And the answer was simply, “but it’s wet out!”

Being wet out is nothing compared to the insurmountable fear, however, to that of air-conditioning.  Even in the stifling, humid heat that characterizes July and August, it is very difficult to find somewhere with AC and once you do, if you are with your Italian friends they won’t go inside for fear of getting sick.  What if I had wet hair and then went into an air-conditioned restaurant??  The fear…

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The crime scene…Frances is alive don’t worry

This next one is golden.  This is something that rings true in the United States also though to be fair.  The famous, “Don’t go swimming for an hour after you eat” is alive and well here.  I understand this one to a point.  If you eat too much and then are frolicking in the ocean you can get a cramp and be in serious trouble.  In pools as well, I’m sure it’s not the best idea, but I myself and no one else I know has ever had a bad experience from this.  And then I heard the following story that changed my outlook and my life.  My dear dear Italian friend, Fede, who has a flair for the dramatic and also a fantastic pool overlooking a Tuscan valley, invited our English friend Frances and I over one afternoon for a swim.  We swam a bit and then toweled off and made a nice big lunch that consisted of antipasto and pasta with pesto.  Afterwards, we chatted for 20 minutes or so and headed back out into the sun.  Within minutes, Frances and I jumped into the pool and upon surfacing were greeted with shouts of disapproval and (you guessed it) hand gestures galore.  Fede tried to get us out of the pool fearing we would get ill or pass out from a cramp.  As we casually laughed this off, he tried even more frantically to get us out of the pool telling us how dangerous it was.  First of all, the pool is MAYBE 12 feet long and 5 feet deep and there were three of us there so if anything happened I would sincerely hope one of the three of us could be bothered enough to save the other.  His final attempt to help us to safety was first-class.  He sat down on his pool lounger, sighed, looked to the heavens, and said, “Now, I tell you a story.”  We gathered around our dear amico as he bared his soul.  He said, “One time, when I was very young, I eat a kinder bueno chocolate,” he paused to collect himself.  “And I get into shower and open the water and after two minutes I faint”.  I will tell you all right now, that I was NOT the first person to burst out laughing.  Surprising, I know, but Frances absolutely lost it.  I followed in suit and poor Fede was left yelling, “But is true!! Is true!”  Long story short: we stayed in the pool and escaped with nothing more severe than pruney fingers.

The most feared condition I leave for last.  It is so notorious that is has its own name: colpo d’aria.  No one disease can do more harm in so many ways than this which translates to “a hit of air”.  A hit of air can happen if you sleep with the windows open at night, if you roll the car windows down, or if you’re outside and not properly covered on a blustery day.  Essentially, the air “hits” you in a way that can give you a sore neck, a cold, a headache, influenza, fever, soreness, and a myriad of other things.  Even in August people wear scarves on windy days because when you sweat and the air hits you…mamma mia say goodbye.  You aren’t safe when it’s hot and you certainly aren’t safe when it’s cold.  Basically what this all sums up to is, if you have any form of illness ranging from a headache to influenza, it is something you have done wrong outside.

The list is endless, my friends, but I must point out that these rules are absurd juxtaposed with the happenings I see out on the street.  You’ll see little kids running around bars until about 2 am on the regular.  Eating raw meat is encouraged.  And oh yeah, leaving the house with wet hair is a big to do, but 10 “ragazzi” piled onto one bike flying down a crowded street is rrreeeeaaallly safe.  Not to mention the dangerous amount of cologne the average Italian male wears.

I must say, however, it’s scary because now I’ve either become paranoid or am actually succumbing to these sicknesses.  I’ve found myself either waiting until my hair has air dried or even blow drying it for five minutes before leaving my house.  I HATE going out in the rain and wrap myself from head to toe if I need to.  When I leave Lucca and go to Pisa, Pontederra, or anywhere with a different pressure I end of getting a migraine.

Maybe our dear Italians know what they are doing after all.  I was recently in London and noticed that the change from being outside in the frigid cold to being inside the heated Tube left me really woozy and nauseous.  The rapid change of temperature is not good for your body.  I guess I can understand why all of the houses are kept freezing bloody cold in the winter and no one uses air conditioning in the summer.  I guess…

 

 

Have any funny facts or stories about health beliefs around the world? Share them!

Food.

Guys…I haven’t written about food and I’ve lived here for over a year…how has no one called me on that?  I must say that I haven’t written about anything lately to be fair.  There have been a bunch of happenings and then Christmas came and went and now my dear American friend is visiting so I will have to get all caught up.

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Italians, Australians, New Zealanders, Americans: Everyone loves pasta!

 That all being said, I feel as though I do not need to explain the title of the post considering I’m in the country most famous for their history, their leather, their men (not together…but no judgment from me), and above all: their food.  It is indeed, as legend proclaims: absolutely f***ing fantastic. 

 One ponders (maybe aloud), “Who is the genius that created pasta? The most simple and yet most necessary staple in the Italian diet?”  And the answer is…ok I actually need to Google that… I got really ahead of myself there…

 aaaand the first answer that came up said it was actually invented in China!  I’m not doing too well here, am I?  Wait wait, ok now it says that they invented noodles, BUT noodles are not always pasta and that the famous forms such as lasagna and linguini were invented in Ancient Rome (I’m sweating right now).  So, yes, it was officially invented in Italy.  I’m sorry, but while the Chinese do indeed produce everything sold in America, this one is going to the Italians.

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Fresh made pasta with porcini mushrooms

 Pasta:  Do I get tired of it?  Yes.  And yet, every time I groan that I don’t want to eat pasta and that I’m sick of it, the moment I put a forkful of in my mouth, I am absolutely positive that it was the right choice.  It is the most versatile food on the planet.  Just the other day we made a frittata with left over pasta ragu we had for lunch.  It sounds really strange, but it was amazing.  Really, any way the Italians can find to eat pasta….

 This is what I was afraid of when I first moved here: constant pasta.  I am a meat-eater and the idea of having pasta more than once a week seemed just out of the question.  It was something we had at home maybe once or twice a year.  All of the Italians that just read that probably died of shock…we will continue without them, but keep them in our memory.

 But it’s not just the pasta that makes Italy special; it’s the entire experience of dining here.  This is such a treat and the wow-factor is long from wearing off.

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Our own aperativo…not too shabby

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Even the cats eat pasta here!

 Aperativo, for example is the time around 6:30/7 when you go and meet your friends for a drink and then miraculously receive FREE FOOD.  This ranges from olives and chips to finger sandwiches, cheeses, meats, or even at one of our favorite places: pasta, risotto, and lasagna.  What I’m telling you people, is that with the purchase of one drink, you have a ticket to a buffet of Italian food that could replace dinner.  But it doesn’t stop there!  No, even after you have gorged yourself on salami, pecorino cheese, garlic bread, and more, you then roll over to dinner.

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Peschino: Our haven for aperativo

 ImageThis is where the magic happens…Every time I have gone to an Italian’s house for dinner, it is like having a dinner party even at the most simple of occasions.  There are appetizers, more times than not champagne, and then more than one course.  This was something I did not pick up on for a bit when I first moved here…There is the “primo piatto” (first plate) and the “secondo piatto” (second plate).  Seems self-explanatory OR SO I THOUGHT.  One would think that ordering a dish of pasta would suffice as a meal especially when said dish is an endless bowl of penne covered in sauce.  This, my friends, is where we are all so very wrong.  My curiosity finally got the best of me one night at a restaurant in Rome as I was perusing the menu.  I was able to discern that the first plates were made up of pastas or rice and the second plates were meat.  Ok, good first step.  Then I finally asked and the answer was just more than I could handle.  You are meant to order ONE FROM EACH SIDE!  So you order your pasta dish, which is already dinner, and then you order your meat dish, which is again, dinner.  So you essentially have two dinners.  This is following your aperativo that could count as first dinner, but before desert and coffee.

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Pass the meat

 “Impossible!” you may proclaim.  “There is no way anyone can eat that much nearly every night especially when you see such svelte Italians walking around in their skinny jeans”.  And yet, I am here to tell you that I have seen them in action and seen them walk away skinny jeans and all completely in tact.

 It is utterly unbelievable and amazing all at once.  Now, living with an Italian, I was so afraid about gaining weight from eating like this on a regular basis.  But oh my god, the opposite has happened.  We eat pasta nearly everyday and my jeans are falling off, I literally just put them in the donate pile last night.  I know that everyone reading this hates me, it’s fine I would too (I’m a Leeeeoooo), but I’m serious and I’m just as in shock as the rest of you. 

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My personal Italian chef

 Eating here over the holidays was an Olympic sport.  There were the parties leading up to Christmas, Christmas eve, Christmas, the day after Christmas, two days after Christmas, New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day, my boyfriend’s birthday, La Befana (the holiday that signifies the end of the holidays…only the Italians would build in a day off to remind everyone you just had a bunch of days off),…it was just sheer insanity.  On one of the days between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, we went to my boyfriend’s father’s house after eating a heavy pasta dish at lunch.  Still recovering from that, we were served champagne (I’m not kidding, it’s the equivalent of water here), aperativo, a seafood pasta dish…ok at this point I was like, “I can’t.  We had pasta for lunch and I’m still somewhat full” and then I looked around and everyone was almost finished with theirs and as soon as I put a forkful in my mouth I was like, “WHAT?! You eat this right now, you fool”. It was fantastic: penne with seafood sauce.  Boom.  And then my god, please no more….but oh, my friends, there was more.  Out came potatoes, huge shrimp, fish and homemade mayonnaise.  And just when I did not think I could eat anymore…I could.  If there’s one thing I’ve learned here, it’s that you can always find room for food no matter how full you are and no one accepts “no” when they ask you if you want more.  They do not care how you feel, you are eating it all whether you want to or not.  And bread is a utensil…and edible utensil.

 When people say Italy is a food culture, it is completely true.  I never really noticed that sitting down at a table, with a tablecloth, and non-disposable utensils was so important.  We always had really wonderful family dinners growing up especially around the holidays with a beautiful set table, but here it is every night that this tradition is upheld.  To me, that is something lost in the busy world and it is the fault of no one: everyone has different schedules and long hours, but sitting down and blocking everything else out for an hour or two and talking while you enjoy your (AMAZING) home-cooked meal is a beautiful thing that I have grown to appreciate each day more.

Now, if you’ll excuse me I have to go eat the eggplant parmesan with ragu sauce my boyfriend is cooking WAY-OH!! Ciao

 

 

And just a few more photos to upset everyone further:

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Seafood from Manarola

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Buccellato with strawberries and lemon juice

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Christmas mayhem!

 

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Pasta Norma…my mouth is watering

 

 

Endless Pleasure

Aside

The word “pleasure” brings with it so many connotations that it is not one of those terms you can casually drop into a conversation.  Here in Italy, it’s used more than the word “and”.  And as tempting as that sounds, it makes it incredibly difficult for someone trying to work to actually get work done.

I have always prided myself on my work ethic with my music.  It takes me longer to learn it without good piano skills, so I start earlier.  And while I am famous for my procrastination, I have to say, that only applied to work in school…and I did always get it done.

When I moved here, I had visions of myself practicing music for hours on end every day in one of those villas where there is constantly natural light streaming in and I’d be wearing a flowy gown and singing out over the fields.  On a more realistic note I thought I would be having having regular piano and voice lessons, learning one opera after the other.  No.  That did not happen.

This time around I am looking for work and doing the work at the jobs I already have and also enjoying a surprisingly ample social life.  So where does the music all fit in?  That was the reason I moved here in the first place: to learn the language and learn the music.  It seems as though those two things, my very reasons for being here in the first place have been put on the back burner.  Or so I thought…

In my mind, you have to be at school to learn the language and you have to be in a practice room or working with a coach to learn the music.  But I’m finding that those are the places that are just the jumping off point.  While I am in fact at a language school here, I have learned infinitely more by speaking with friends or simply walking around and starting conversations with strangers.  The friends will hold your hand and give you a break if you’re wrong, but when you talk to people you’ve just met, you have to get it right.  They don’t know your personality or in my case, your frantic hand gestures that make up for a missing word.

I want to be fluent.  Plain and simple.  I want to know this language inside and out.  It’s funny how when I knew the language less, I thought I knew it more.  The more I learn, it seems the less I know which is incredibly frustrating, but also exciting because I still have so much time to get it right.

For singing, it’s so much more.  Every time I watch the people here conversing, using their bodies and accenting certain words, I am learning my music.  The emotional highs and lows, I take them with me now and embrace them, acknowledging either the pain or elation and I’m learning my music with these feelings.

I was so afraid that when I thought I wasn’t practicing enough every day that I was failing.  I thought that if I did not go over all of my upcoming pieces or didn’t vocalize for enough time that I was going to just fall on my face and fail.  I felt like I was spending so much time NOT doing music that I would never improve.  But after being back for almost two months, I feel like the experiences I have had in this short time could easily carry me.  When I sing now, I sing from another place that I hadn’t sung from before.  From a pleasure center.  Everyone who just gave me a look…you’re only half right.

On one of my first nights back, still suffering from jetlag, I got to see a really dear friend of mine who I met last year here during the opera program.  Her Italian “family” and friends whisked us up into the mountains for her “last supper”.  Within ten minutes we were singing- or rather screaming- “La Traviata” and speeding through the winding streets.  Then the music abruptly stopped as her friend from the back paused the iPod.  He was so filled with joy and this guy (who is not a musician in the slightest) proceeded to recite the chorus part to the famous drinking song, “Libiamo”.  He said, “This is our culture.  We find pleasure in this, in our music, our love, our sex, our wine, our food.  Everything is about joy.  You must have pleasure here!”  He was so passionate about what he was saying that I didn’t even let my jetlag bother me for the rest of the night and I kept thinking about what he had said.  Or rather, what Verdi said with this piece of music.  The chorus sings:

Godiamo, la tazza e il cantico

la notte abbella e il riso;

in questo paradiso ne sopra

il nuovo dì.

Which translates to:

Be happy… wine and song

and laughter beautify the night;

let the new day find us in this paradise.

The verb, “godere” is kind of like that illusive word “pleasure”, it carries with it a few different interpretations that can range from “enjoy your day” to “enjoy what’s happening sexually”.  You can imagine the confusion this can cause.  Happy accidents?  But the bottom line is it’s all about finding pleasure in everything you do.

Practicing my music in such a strict way was not pleasurable.  Singing and emoting is pleasurable and I am finding, more productive.  When you can open yourself up to this way and not whip yourself for singing a wrong note or wrong word, you can just focus on connecting with the music and connecting with people.

Last week, two wonderful friends from school held a party at their house one evening.  These two sisters, or as they lovingly were dubbed “The Spicy Spanish Sisters” were here for a few months studying Italian like all of us and had became a core part of our group.  And they knew how to have fun.  Finding the beauty and the friendships in everything and everyone, this party they held was so filled with love (and copious amounts of wine, Spanish specialties and chocolate) that you literally could not be stressed or perturbed in any way, but just give yourself over to the pleasure of their company.

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England, America, Italy, Switzerland, and Spain doing The Macarena

As a parting party, they told me I did not need to bring anything, not even the obligatory bottle of wine you instinctively carry with you to every party.  They just asked that I sing.

Maybe it was the glass of white wine or the warmth of the apartment, but when I sang for all the people at the party, I was so calm and happy to be sharing what I found my pleasure in with them.  And I enjoyed every second of it.  Even when I got towards the end and forgot some of the words thus forcing me to make up my own language (I might mention one of the people at attendance at this party is Italian and a published expert on opera), it was fine!  I did not break a sweat so no one else did either.  And what could be better than a night with your friends from all over the world, wine, and opera?

This similar instance happened a week later at an American style BBQ at a friend’s villa.  The sun had finally come out after months of cold rain, and we all gathered on her gorgeous property to spend time together and enjoy each other’s company.

At the language school I go to, there are people that come from all over the world and usually are only here for a few weeks, but this time around we were lucky enough to have “The Spicy Spanish Sisters” and “The Australian Couple” and of course, the token Swiss who were here for a few months.  I now group my friends by their nationalities…that isn’t racist, right?

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Multi-Cultured Kickline

But all of these people were together on this gorgeous Spring day on top of about 15 others that are family and friends.  We cooked outside, fed each other different specialties, learned to salsa, had an impromptu Hannah Moss opera concert by request of our illustrious host,  spoke every language, had a kickline to 80’s music, and listened to a friend play guitar until the sun went down.

These are the days that make me a better singer.  When I can watch people from every culture converse with each other and fully communicate even with a language barrier.  It is something that feeds my soul and gives me pleasure.  These kinds of moments of such extreme contentment.  The extreme moments I think are when we learn the most and remember the most.  They are like muscle memory.  In my last post, “Home” about being (you guessed it) home, that extreme feeling of loss of faith and sadness.  I would not have changed that.  As terrible as it was, I use that now.  Or one of my nights when I got back here and planned to be in bed by 11 pm only to find myself running through the pouring rain in the streets at 6 am with someone who I never would have expected.  That extreme exhaustion mixed with extreme excitement is something I will never forget.

It’s a balance.  It’s easy to write about all the fun I’m having here, because I am having fun!  But intermingled with the apperativi nights and stolen kisses under the magnolia trees, I am trying my best to stay afloat.  Trying to earn money doing a bunch of odd jobs, getting up early for intensive language classes, and plunking out notes for all the music I still need to learn.

I always thought it had to be one or the other: you could work really hard all the time and just focus on that and yes, you would be a really great musician, but you’d be an empty musician.  But you also cannot be gallivanting around the city staying out until 6 am every morning.  As fun as that can be every so often.

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Aperativi with the United Nations

I’m finding the balance…slowly.  I am trying to slow myself down and not be worried about what needs to happen in 6 months or where I need to be when and if I’m not there, I’ve made a huge mistake.  I talked about living in the present in my last post and how difficult that is.  When there is so much you want to achieve and so many people you want to move, it seems like the time we are given is never enough.  But it is.  It’s just enough.  I can honestly say that I have done a really good job living in the present these past two months.  And I’ve done a lot of living because of that.  Finding pleasure within and outside of the walls (even when it rains nonstop for WEEKS).  The friends: old and new, the language, the coffee, the sex, the sun (finally), and the music of course.  It all gives me such pleasure.  And I cannot wait to use that when I sing…unless it’s ANY of the soprano roles because we are all so tortured and usually go mad or die.  But at least my “Lucia di Lammermoor” will die happy…if only on the inside.

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Pleasure.

“Home”

Most of my posts on here have been about my experiences with traveling, art, and music and how they have moved me.  This one is more personal and I hope you’ll indulge the sometimes sporadic emotional highs and lows.  Being back in the United States was incredibly eye opening and a true emotional rollercoaster or rather plane crash of emotions.  It’s a happy post, but it’s also post that was important and therapeutic for lack of a better word.  It’s a piece that I have extended from my column that I write for at http://www.giornaledibarganews.com

After the inevitable 10-hour plane ride back to New York, I then took a bus and countless subways to my friend’s apartment where I would be basing camp while bouncing around the north like a gypsy.  I hadn’t seen my family or friends for over three months and the excitement outweighed my jetlag as I lugged my suitcase up a five-floor walk-up in Harlem.  Nothing was going to dampen my joy!

I was in “passegiata” mode- something that took me weeks to get into when I arrived in Italy.  I had mirror experiences with my walking speed in both countries.  Upon arriving in Italy I went for a walk with a friend and while I was bulldozing ahead he lagged behind and eventually we turned to each other in a manner asking what the other one’s problem was.  He said, “This is Italy!  We stroll.  You walk too fast.”

Upon arriving in New York in December, my friend was in a rush for work and said, “ I know you’re in “Italy walking mode”, but remember, this is New York City, baby!  I am going to break you of your new habit!”

Another jarring experience was getting re-used to “manners” back in the United States.  It was hard adjusting to being in New York City after Italy because you go back into old habits especially on the subway.  You do not, and I repeat: Do not make eye contact with people and talking is just completely unacceptable.

So being back you notice that no one wants to talk, everyone is in a rush, food and coffee aren’t savored, but the love remains.  Living abroad has made me appreciate the friendships I have maintained halfway across the world even more.  Going from residing in a house with some of my best friends to being in a foreign country puts into perspective time difference, lack of telephone communication, and the amount of extra work necessary to preserve friendships.

The next few months of reunions proved to be a tumultuous emotional experience as I was seeing people who I care very intensely about but knew I would not be able to see again for a very long time.  Breaking away and coming back was a huge hindrance in my desire to return to Italy once the holidays were over.  And this notion was prolonged when I learned there were a few financial obstacles standing in the way.

And then there was the night I found out I had Mono.  It was truly akin a tragic scene from a hospital show.  After a finally signing up for classes that very morning, I found myself in the Emergency Room at midnight.  After about 10 days of flu-like symptoms that I accredited to my (sadly) normal bouts with strep throat, I found myself weeping into the telephone pleading with my nurse to prescribe me painkillers as it now hurt to even breathe.  I had never experienced pain this intense in my life and nothing was shaking it, even the copious amount of painkillers I was taking.  So against my will, I got into the car with my parents awaited my fate at the hospital.

After two hours and a lot of un-fun tests, the doctor apprehensively entered the room to tell me that I had Mono.  Ok, I can laugh at this now because it’s all over and done with, but at that moment I felt as though my entire life was crashing down around me.  I literally lay back on the bed and started sobbing.  Dramatic, I KNOW!!  Thank god I chose a career where I’ll get paid to act like that.  But seriously, that moment was just the cherry on top of the pain of being away from Italy for so long, saying goodbye to my friends again in the north, dealing with the pain of moving out of our house, and a whole other host of emotions I was feeling.  And the worst part was the doctor looked at me and said, “You cannot sing while you have this”.  Ok, bye.  I’m going to just really quickly hurl myself from the tallest tower in the vicinity…oh wait, we are in Florida…  I couldn’t sing because when you have mono your spleen enlarges and the breath support would put pressure on it, not to mention dealing with the swollen tonsils.

So as I wept my way back to the car and lamented the tragedy that had become my life, I then had to email the school I had signed up for classes with 12 hours ago and my roommate in Italy who was expecting me in the next week and explain what happened.  I would have to stay in Florida for at least another month.  And then I would be back in Italy with this.  Having mono and living in Italy did not seem like a possibility. The currency is kisses.  It’s how you get those free drinks and flowers.  It’s part of greeting everyone from best friends to strangers.  You share everything and if you don’t, you are not part of society.  So not only was this going to be a painful and exhausting disease, but it was now prohibiting me from enjoying the culture I had fallen in love with.

I am someone who has always said and always believes that everything happens for a reason.  No matter how painful or unnecessary it seems at the time, it seemed that everything in my life up until this point had happened for a reason.  In this moment, I could not understand what the hell was going on with the universe, but I felt abandoned.  I was in this strange claustrophobic limbo.  I was technically at “home” but it wasn’t the “home” I was used to in Connecticut.  I was in the United States, but could not see any of my friends because they were all up north, and I could not get back to Italy.

What was this supposed to mean?  What was I supposed to learn from this?  A couple of weepy days went by…ok more than a couple and I felt like someone had smothered the fire inside of me.  I could not think straight and for the first time in my life, I felt truly sad.  Being sad has never kept me from anything and has always been a fleeting emotion that came with the loss of a pet or loved one or with saying goodbye to friends after graduation.  But it was something that came and went and I could push it aside.  This though, this was crippling.  And I know it seems like, “Oh, how hard for you, you have never been sad before, welcome to reality”.  But as someone who has never felt that emotion so strongly to then suddenly have it hit completely with no friends around to lean on was suffocating.

Finally there was this one-day that the veil felt like it lifted and it happened really abruptly.  It was this feeling that there was literally nothing I could do and being upset and anxious over the situation was only going to prolong it.  And in that moment, the time began to fly by.  I poured every fiber of my being into music.  Taking the time to overcome my fear of the piano (don’t ask) and really understand what I needed to do to continue on my journey with this passion.  I learned new music, something I had always used coaches and teachers for as a crutch.  I sat down and would not leave until I knew it.  Then suddenly I was in Miami getting my visa, booking tickets to come back to Italy and planning one last visit up north in New York to see friends.

And then, of course, another issue arose.  This time though, it was internal.  I had paid for my classes, I had booked my flights, I had received the visa (which was a saga in itself), and I had this new fire burning.  And then I realized I had spent every single day with my parents for the past two months.  I had never spent that much uninterrupted time with them in my entire life and I very much doubted I would ever do so again.  My amazing, supportive, hilarious parents.  This was a luxury I had overlooked in my hustle to get out and now I didn’t want to go.  This sense of comfort had crept in under the window and slithered into my soul and now I wanted to stay with them and have a “home” and spend my time with them.  We all knew that this was not possible.  I moved to Italy for a reason and I would not be fulfilling it by living with my parents in Florida.  I chose the wrong career to pursue if I wanted stability in my life.

We all silently dreaded and yet celebrated the day I would be leaving to get back to my life.  And on my last night in Florida after I said goodnight to my beautiful mom, all wrapped up in her covers and my dad who was diligently working and being the creative genius he is and always has been, I closed the door behind me in my room and cried.  But it wasn’t because I was sad.  It was because I had this moment of realization that I did not think I would get for a long time.  I understood why I got sick and stayed there and everything had fallen into place.  I was there to support my parents emotionally as they have done for me my entire life.  I always had and still do have them to lean on for anything and everything but they didn’t have anyone.  And I helped them through one of the most turbulent emotional stretches of their lives.  And I needed to physically be there to do that.  Not skyping in from Lucca.  When they dropped me off at the airport the next day, through blurred eyes, my mom and I held each other and as we did she whispered to me, “You saved me.”  And in that moment, I knew I could let go and continue forward with what I needed to do in my life.  She was ok.  Dad was ok.  The cats were….insane as usual.  But everything was where it was supposed to be with their part of the story.  I didn’t have to look back because I knew what I would see: the two of them in a much better place emotionally after a big transition and chapter in their lives.

My next week was spent back at my college with friends and teachers -who had now become friends and some of the best I have ever had.  And that same uneasy sense of a countdown was looming in every gesture I made.  Only four days left, only 3 days left.  I leave tomorrow.  It was terrifying.  I was back in a place that had been my “home” for four years.  Where I experienced so many firsts and made friends I will never let go of.  I felt unsettled like I had been knocking on doors and couldn’t find the right house for the past six months.  “Does this situation fit?” “Is this supposed to be the thing I choose?” “Why does this hurt so much?”.  It was unnerving and upsetting.

When the big day came, I was not happy or excited to be going back to Italy.  It was almost this fear that being back inside the walls would make me feel claustrophobic because I would be so far away from “home”.  I spoke to one of my best friends while I waited for my plane and said, “I don’t know where I am going to be that is going to be right.  When I’m in New York with all of you, I miss my family and I miss Italy.  When I am in Florida with my family, I miss you guys and I miss Italy.  When I am in Italy I miss you guys and my family.  There just doesn’t seem to be an answer that completely fulfills me and I will always be missing people”.

Two plane rides and three trains later, I was hearing, smelling, seeing, and feeling things I hadn’t for months.  I walked into my apartment and it felt as though no time had passed.  I walked through the streets inside the walls that I figured would seem empty and foreign, but my feet knew exactly where they were.  I was afraid I would have lost some of my Italian after not being around anyone who spoke it for three months, and yet it was right there at the tip of my tongue aching to be spoken.  And then I saw my friends.  My wonderful friends who on this rainy March night came into town to make sure I felt at “home”.  And I kept debating what “home” meant in my mind.

They say “home” is where the heart is but mine seems to be all over the place. It is with my parents in Florida, it’s in Connecticut with my best friend of 16 years, with my life long friends and mentors from college who live all over the country, it is amongst my friends and colleagues from music summer programs whose bonds are unshakable, my heart is with the amazing people I met on my travels through Europe.  My heart did not know where to rest and it felt as though there was a huge strain being put on it.  Where would it be happy?  Truly happy and fulfilled and with who?  Who took precedence in my heart?

But as I sat in this little pizzeria while the rain pounded down outside and I laughed with my friends, the questions seemed to melt away.  The jet-lag, the raging emotions that hadn’t subsided yet, the doubts, everything was overpowered by this sense of “home”.  I felt right and I felt fulfilled by the culture, the language, the people I was with and decided to be present in that moment and not to miss those I had to say “goodbye” to only a matter of hours before.  It is difficult, yes, to constantly live in the present.  Impossible even.  But the only thing more difficult is spending your time in the past and future and missing everything in front of you.  The moments, the people, and the feelings that are happening to you in this moment need to be the most important.

And so, I was “home”.  In this moment I finally felt settled and my heart and I felt like we were home…without the quotation marks.

 

Rome.

The title of this blog says it all.  Rome.  I do not even think I need to write a blog post about this place because the name of this city carries so much with it.  I also know there is absolutely no way to cover every single moment that my breath was taken away, my heart began to race, or I was completely overcome with awe while I was in the Eternal City.

But as always:  I try.

And per usual:  I succeed.

I went with some friends who had a music conference conveniently being held right near the Villa Borghese.  A short walk through this enormous park humbles you especially when you realize that it belonged to one family.  In fact, much of Rome was dominated by the Borgia dynasty.  And they do not let you forget it with monuments, statues, churches and other buildings with their names scrawled across claiming their city and also granting it to others.  There were also countless homages to the Farnese family and especially Giulia.  La Bella Farnese.  She was everywhere and all she had to do was seduce a Pope.

This aspect alone would have been enough for me.  Touring all of the glorious monuments dedicated to this beautiful and sophisticated woman.  And yet, this was but the tip of the iceberg and what followed was almost too much to take it.  The first night, walking through the darkness, we came to a dimly lit section of ruins.  The old market stalls littered with columns that sat about 20 feet below us where Ancient Rome used to be.  Catching my breath, I leaned over to look, trying to imagine people trading goods thousands of years ago. 

Ruins on my first night, how wonderful.  And then I turned.  Down the street masked by the dark, I could just make out what lay before us.  The Roman Forum.  Shrouded in darkness like looming shadows, each column and building began to slowly materialize.  But how was this possible?  How was it that I was standing here looking at new and old Rome in a single instance?  It is hard enough for me to form sentences in Italian that are grammatically correct, but this moment it was hopeless.  I just kept repeating, “Wow.”  Over and over again.  “Wow”.  I think that translates though.  At least if the word didn’t, the awe on my face did.

ImageAnd what was waiting at the end of this road?  The Coliseum.  At this point, I could not speak in Italian or English, I just kept mumbling and gaping.  We arrived at the Coliseum at midnight and it beckoned us welcomingly with its towering illuminated presence.  There were no words.  No feelings.  No modes of expression for how I felt in this moment.  I had to just stand there and take it.  Not do anything but look.  There was this desperate need inside of me to do something to honor or worship this monumental feat, one of the most recognizable structures in the world.  And yet there was nothing that could possibly suffice to fully revere it.

This was just the first night mind you.  I hoped my fantasies of Rome would not be completely dashed and overshadowed by this epic moment.  And Rome did not disappoint.  Rome brought it’s A-Game and took me on an adventure every moment.Image

Over the next few days I would start my journey at Villa Borghese or Villa Medici (my Rome home) and trace my way back to the large monuments that would serve as landmarks to find the next.  The Spanish Steps, The Trevi Fountain, The Pantheon and so forth.

On my first day adventuring out alone, I had a list of sites I needed to see so I wandered the streets, spoke with the locals, and gaped at the city.  I climbed the Spanish Steps, watched tourists at the Trevi Fountain, went to the top of the Altare della Patria and then set my sights literally on the Roman Forum.  In my mind, I would be able to fully admire the Roman Forum in an hour or so.  Wrong.  I spent almost my entire first day there.  I wanted to see every single thing.  Everything.  My heart started to race and my palms began to sweat at the thought of missing even the smallest stone.  So I walked up and down both sides of the Imagestreets for hours and up the side roads that took you to the heart of the old city.

I ended at the Coliseum and of course the line of tourists that rivals even the scariest Greek Myths was actually real.  So I walked along the outside comforted by the fact that I had thrown a coin in the Trevi Fountain the night before.  So I’d obviously be back.  I now had to make some decisions about the rest of the day.  Being by oneself in a new city seems like it would be intimidating and lonely, but doing exactly what I wanted to do and doing it on a whim was the best way to see this place.  I literally said aloud to myself, “Vatican!  Why not?!”.  I didn’t have a map and was relying in my instincts (which according to my family in terms of geography are sub-par) and street vendors for directions…and gelato.  One warned me it was quite a walk and to take a bus.  Nonsense!  I am not missing anything including walking along the beautiful bridges over the Tiber river.Image

He wasn’t kidding.  It was quite a walk.  But when I finally found it, I felt such an epic sense of accomplishment that I would not have done it any other way.  And then like Cinderella at the ball, I had to rush to be back before a certain time.  I was going to a concert right outside of the Villa Borghese as part of the music conference.  How exciting to listen to gorgeous classical piano from the front row after an inspiring day.

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Bridge over the Tiber and Castel Sant’Angelo looming in the distance.

When I arrived and met up with my friends before the concert, they were eager to hear what I had done and I proudly announced, “Ho fatto tutto di Roma!”  And this one can be added to my section of Hannah Moss’ incorrect Italian translations.  My thought: I did everything in Rome!  My friend gently explained to me that it meant, “I did everyone in Rome”.  You live, you learn, you yell inappropriate things at classical concerts in front of dozens of music scholars.

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Villa de Medici by day

The next few days were a whirlwind of art, architecture, food, and friends.  I spent them exploring on my own again and seeing such sights as the Pantheon- which rendered me to tears.  Piazza Farnese- This woman had it going.  Original Caravaggios quietly lurking in churches.  The Galleria Borghese housing the famous portrait of Lucrezia Borgia and an entire room dedicated to renderings of Venus. Castel Sant’Angelo- like a giant out of some fairytale.  Piazza Navona- with its monumental fountain and churches.  And then there was the Villa de Medici.

This was the alternate location of the music conference and second piano concert.  I felt like I had been plucked out of time and space as I wandered through the grounds and gardens at night overlooking all of Rome.  I could barely tear myself away to make it inside for the concert.  The electrical feeling from the palace was almost too much.

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Villa de Medici by night

 

 

Not as much excitement, however, at being told we were going to extend our Roman holiday for a few more days!  I jumped up and down and wanted to do a Maria-like twirl akin to the Sound of Music but realized I had done an ample enough job the night before of publicly embarrassing myself.

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View of Rome from Villa de Medici

The next few days we roamed Rome (it’s ok to laugh at my hilarity) and had a marvelous time.  We found nooks and crannies I had missed in my epic sweep of the city and ate Roman delicacies with new friends.  It was a wonderful adventure and even more fun to explore with my Italian friends who knew where the best everything was.

On our final night, we went to a spot that is not widely publicized that overlooks the Roman Forum.  Under the strangely un-obscured stars, we stood on a ledge that dwarfed the Roman Forum and just stared.  How was this possible?  I can still feel my heart fluttering as I remember this moment.  A friend who lives in Rome and is an architect described to us how these ruins would have looked and what they would have been.  He filled in the blank spots of the missing columns and roofs that had crumbled and painted a stunning picture for us.  It was the perfect farewell to Rome. Image

In Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat, Pray, Love” she has a fabulous line about the character of Rome.  She writes, “There’s a power struggle going on across Europe these days.  A few cities are competing against each other to see who shall emerge as the great twenty-first century European metropolis.  Will it be London?  Paris?  Berlin?  Zurich?…They all strive to outdo one another culturally, architecturally, politically, fiscally.  But Rome, it should be said, has not bothered to join the race for status.  Rome doesn’t compete.  Rome just watches all the fussing and striving, completely unfazed, exuding an air like: Hey- do whatever you want, but I’m still Rome.”

 

It is in its very own league.  I loved that description and when I arrived there I completely understood its sentiments.  Rome is Rome.  There is nothing on this earth that can or will trump the Eternal City.

I am already dreaming about going back and knowing my coin is somewhere in the Trevi reassures me that it won’t be too long.

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