About Me

Monday, April 22, 2013

The Perks of a Home Stay

When I chose to do a home stay when I studied abroad, I’m not going to lie, I was a bit apprehensive about the whole thing. I interrogated several of my friends who had done a home stay when they studied abroad, which left me with mixed reviews. Either they had a great host mom who cared about their experience abroad or had a host mom that only cared about the money they were getting for hosting. I weighed the pros and cons and decided to go ahead and do it. This was also a nerve racking decision for me because I knew zip Italian except “pesto” and “ciao.” I can honestly tell you that at the end of the semester, I am leaving Italy with no regrets, especially about my home stay. I had a wonderful experience living with a loving Italian couple and was lucky enough to have a great roommate (Rachel!). If you’re thinking of studying abroad and debating a homestay, I can’t tell you what would work best for you because not everyone’s experience is the same. But I can tell you what I loved about my homestay so you know what you could possibly get out of it.

 1) Residential Area. I’m pretty sure my apartment is in the retirement area of Florence. Elderly folks are constantly walking their primped dogs and old men use their canes to get to the bus stop. I love it. It’s a very comfortable area and I feel completely safe in the neighborhood. It’s an “upper class” residential area with about a 20-minute walk into the city center, which I love. It gives me a chance to meditate and listen to music.

2) My Host Parents. Franco and Maria Grazia. The most anticipated thing for me when first getting to Florence was meeting my host parents. I didn’t know if the spoke any English, if they would like me, if they were old and inhospitable. basically my mind was making up what they were going to be like. My doubts disappeared instantly after meeting them. Although Maria Grazia doesn’t speak great English, we get by. She urges me to speak Italian, but in a loving way. I’m still terrible, but I know much more than I would living in an apartment without any Italian. She always greets me saying, “Ciao, tesoro!” For the longest time I had no idea what she was saying until I found out it means “my treasure.” She is so loving to all her host students. She constantly asks me if I need something and gives me seconds at dinner. She knows me well. Franco is intelligent and gives us occasional Italian history lessons and political updates at dinner. All these months I’ve been trying to figure out what he does for a living and it’s still a mystery to me.

 3) Foooood. For breakfast Maria puts out coffee, biscotti (breakfast cookies), muffins, fruit, and juice. Italians typically eat a light breakfast, but it’s usually quite sugary, like cookies and cake. Nevertheless, I look forward to breakfast every day. Maria Grazia prepares dinner five nights a week for us. We start with pasta or soup. My favorite is tartufo pasta or pesto gnocchi. Then she makes meat or fish, two vegetables, and bread. She goes to the market regularly; so all the food is fresh and healthy. For that I am truly blessed. For dessert it’s fruit, and occasionally gelato. As the season changes, so does the food. It’s wonderful to live in a home stay during this time because you get to experience the seasonal foods, like fresh mozzarella and bacciole in the spring, or the special cake at Easter. But food is a whole other topic; just know that I’m getting fed insanely well.

 4) Laundry. Maria Grazia is on top of everything all the time. She does my laundry once a week, folds it and lays it on my bed. I make my bed every day, but I always come home to a freshly tucked bed and folded pajamas. She’s such a peach.

5) I am so glad I had a roommate here. We provided support for each other so we didn’t feel completely separated from the other students living in cool apartments in the city center. Rachel also helped me out whenever I didn’t understand an Italian word Maria Grazia would say. I just give Rachel a quick glance and she ould say, “I think it’s_____.” So thanks for the support and for being so cool, Rachel. You’re the best.

It’s so nice to have the homey feel when living in a different country, so I was very blessed to have such a positive experience in a home stay.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Cinque Terre

The spring weather has finally decided to grace Florence with its presence. You can now easily sight Americans because many of them will be wearing shorts. Be warned, though, when choosing to wear shorts in April in Florence, you are ensured to get at least two up-downs. Apparently Italians continue to wear jackets and scarves in 70-degree weather. The perfect weather came just in time for my weekend in Cinque Terre. It was a gorgeous Saturday and Sunday in para..para…paradise, and I am so glad I will experience it again with my parents when they visit in May. It was a great foretaste of what is to come.

 Cinque Terre consists of five colorful fishing towns (Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore) on the coast of the Mediterranean. On Saturday we explored all five towns by way of the train that connects the “lands,” and it’s only about a four-minute ride to each town. Every town had its own feel and was different from each other. I would say Vernazza and Riomaggiorre were my favorite.

 We had lunch in Vernazza at the incredible Belforte Restaurant. You walk up these stairs that lead you to the restaurant that looked like it was in a little stone tower. We ate on the top overlooking the gorgeous blue sea. A straw roof protected us from the sun and a cool breeze kept us refreshed. They serve incredible local seafood and homemade pasta. Cara and I split the Tagliatelle pasta with zucchini and shrimp. It was divine. Our waiter was quite nice and gave us several refills of bread as well as some complementary wine and a shot of something (I don’t even know what it was haha). Every meal is better when something free is included! We definitely felt like we were living the high life.

 We watched the sun set in Riomaggiore. If you’ve ever seen pictures of the colorful houses on the coasts of Italy, it was more than likely taken in Riomaggiore. Definitely postcard worthy.

Sunday was spent taking a super cool hike with Laurel and Cara. We started walking a paved biking/running path that used to be a railroad. It had lots of tunnels. Dark cool tunnels. It was beautiful because it followed the coastline to another beachy town. There we did a short hike up along the rocky coast. It reminded me a lot of the Californian coast.

The rest of the day was spent on the beach in Monterosso. We weren’t about to spend 18 euro on a bottle of sunscreen so…. I am now the hue of a cherry tomato and I’m pretty sure I crunch when I walk. #worthit.

 My editing system has been acting wacky, so none of these photos have been edited, but I wanted to share them with you so you can see the natural beauty of the Italian coast.


Lunch time

Breathtaking views from the restaurant


The not-so-secret beach


Sunset at Riomaggiore

Such a fun hike

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Switzerland and Germany

I went to Lucerne, Switzerland and Munich, Germany this past weekend with my university. I never thought I would be fortunate enough to travel to all of these wonderful places while abroad, so it’s crazy to think I went there for the weekend.

 Lucerne was breathtaking. It was a bit foggy, but that added to the whole ambiance of the gorgeous lake town. Lucerne is situated in the valley of the Swiss Alps on the edge of a beautiful lake. We had a couple hours there before taking a lift to the top of the Alps. I enjoyed an Almond Americano in a coffee shop and a stroll around part of the lake. After Lucerne, we rode a tram that took us to one of the highest peaks in the Swiss Alps. When we got to the top, we had a swanky lunch prepared for us at the restaurant in the hotel. I felt like quite the VIP.

 After lunch I gazed at the mountains for a good while. The visibility was still a bit foggy, but every now and then, the clouds would move and you could get a peak of the peaks. I felt so small and insignificant, thinking about God’s creativity and ability to move the mountains. The Swiss Alps are unlike anything I’ve seen before, and I am in love with them. Switzerland is a gorgeous place, and I’d love to go back. On the tram ride down, Suzanna and I had a duet performance in honor of Rodger’s and Hammerstein’s “Sound of Music.” It was altogether fitting that we do this, considering the scenery surrounding us. It made so much sense and we sounded so good (ahem). Almost comparable to Julie Andrews…

 Munich is full of culture and beauty. A place where the people drink more beer than water. Which is crazy because their water is goood. We had a tour of the city and Saturday night we experienced dinner at the Hofbrauhaus. If you’ve ever been to Germany in Epcot at Disneyworld, the restaurant with the long tables, the band at the front with the yodelers, that’s what the Hofbrauhaus is like. They serve beer in 1 liter Steins, bratwurst, potato salad, spaetzle, pretzels, and apple strudel. The band was tooting away on their tubas, like the marionettes in the "Sound of Music," all decked out in their lederhosen and suspenders. After practically every song, everyone would stand and sing Germany's national anthem (at least, I think that's what it was) and then "cheers" to everyone. It was a fun experience, full of loud German wannabes.

 Sunday was a more solemn day. We went to Dachau, one of the first concentration camps in Germany during WWII. In middle and high school, you hear about the inhumanity and harrowing circumstances of concentration camps, but to be there and see the conditions in which these people lived was unexplainable. It was humbling to stand on the grounds. I don’t mean to sound depressing, but the truth is, it was. But I was fortunate to see it, and for that I was glad to see it.

 On the way back to Florence, we drove through Austria. I so wish we had time to get out and walk around. With mountains towering over each side of you and little towns around each turn, I felt like I was in the Prelude of, once again, "Sound of Music." I couldn’t get it out of my head the whole weekend! The wonderful thing about bus rides is the freedom to let your mind wander without having to worry about where you are going. So with that, I gazed out the window and daydreamed about Captain Von Trapp singing Edelweiss to me. Only he can remain a man while singing about a flower. Sigh, what a man.

 It was a magical and musical weekend, and I absolutely loved it.

The hillsss are aliiive

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Spring Break Part 4: Paris

Paris is one of those cities I dreamt about as a little girl. When I was in middle school, the way I would fall asleep at night was imagining myself sitting at a street cafe reading. Or working for a fashion company in Paris. These ideas probably stemmed from watching Sabrina starring Harrison Ford and Julia Ormond. I watched the movie at least once a month, and my father would come into the TV room, groan and say, "You're watching this again?" Then he would proceed to sit down to watch the rest with me. Mom and Dad love the movie just as much as I do, and probably fall asleep at night imagining themselves in a little cafe too.

 The first night there, we walked around the Montmartre area, where all the artists live. You get an amazing view of the city as well. Cafes are left and right, artists are selling their work. It's quintessential. We ate dinner at this amazing Creperie. There were these two young, very french-looking boys, one playing the piano and the other playing the guitar. With this being the first real experience in Paris, I mean, I was in heaven. I had their French Onion Soup, which had a thick layer of melted cheese and fresh croutons on top. uhhhh, it was so gooood. To finish, I had a chocolate crepe. Use your imagination, it was heavenly.

 Paris is just one of those places where your imagination can run wild. When we were watching the Eiffel Tower light up at night, I almost cried (But I didn't). I had imagined this moment for so long time, I was a bit overwhelmed when I was finally there. A lover might have added to the experience, but experiencing it with my friends was a happy substitute. We played "La Vie En Rose" on my ipod about seven times that day. We would get funny looks and smiles, but deep down they were happy they could hear Luis and his trumpet.

We took a train to Versailles on the last day in France. We walked through the Palace first, but every window we came to we just had to look outside at the grounds. We could not wait to walk around the gardens. The grounds are huge! And everything is so perfectly kept. Every bush trimmed, every garden bed weeded. I absolutely loved Versailles. Rowers were rowing in the lake. Ever imagine having rowing practice at Versailles? You can also rent bikes and explore the vastness and beauty of the gardens. We're poor, so we were content just sitting by the water enjoying the beauty that surrounded us. I could've spent all day there. Unfortunately we had to depart for Florence that night. But we took advantage of every minute in Paris soaked up the magic of it all.

 Laurel made an awesome video that sums up our trip. It was a wonderful break, and I was blessed to experience it with such good friends.

Spring Break Part 3: Amsterdam

Amsterdam was unexpectedly one of my favorite cities we visited over Spring Break. The only things I envisioned in Amsterdam was weed everywhere and the Red Light District. Yes, those are definitely prevalent there, but Amsterdam has a lot to offer.

 First of all, the canals are quaint, adorable, and everywhere. You know what else is everywhere? Bikes. It is quite the biking town. The houses on the canals are adorable. There are cheese shops, pancake houses, and cute little souvenir shops with wooden shoes hanging from the ceiling. We found an awesome hole-in-the-wall pancake place in an old canal house called Pannenkoekenhuis. We walked up a steep narrow set of stairs to an upstairs room with about seven tables. The guy making the pancakes was right there in the room with us. They could only make two pancakes at a time because one, their griddle isn’t that big and two, the pancakes are huge. I order an apple and bacon pancake, which had strips of bacon cooked right into the pancake. The salty and sweet combo was divine. I’m so glad Cara found the restaurant looking on bunches of blogs of places to eat in Amsterdam. Blogs are so informational!

 We experienced the Heineken Experience, which is the tour of the brewery. If you’ve ever been to the Hershey Chocolate Factory in Pennsylvania, it was like that only with beer. We experienced the whole beer making processing, partook in a tasting, and learned about the history. It was a lot of fun. After the tour, we went on a little canal ride at night to see all of the adorable canal houses from the canal perspective. So fun!

 We also went to Anne Frank’s house when her family was in hiding. It was surreal to stand where she stood, and looked through the same sunroof she did.

 I chose to opt out of the Red Light District tour. We walked through part of it one morning, and even at ten o’clock in the morning it gave me an upset stomach and a cold feeling all over my body. After talking with some people who went on the tour, I was even more heartbroken than ever. I heard things like, “I have so much more respect for these girls now. They actually choose to do this.” “The police are on their side if something goes to court.” “They have emergency buttons by their beds in case something bad happens.” “They do this so they can afford an education.” This is what people learn on their tour. The fact that the tours are even selling prostitution to the tourists makes me sick. All of the information given may very well be true, and the prostitutes may have a choice to chose that occupation, but does that mean they want to do it? Do they want to sell their bodies for even a portion of their lifetime? These women pay money to stand in a window for hours at a time so they can get fast money because this industry is encouraging buyers to come from all over the world to buy women’s bodies. It is repulsive and wrong, and I don’t care if Amsterdam tries to make it classy. It reopened my eyes to the disturbing world of the sex industry, and many people are blinded by the flashiness of red lights.

 It’s a stark reality, but the truth is, it’s everywhere, not just Amsterdam. So despite to tragedy of the human condition, there are sights of God’s beauty everywhere. Amsterdam is a beautiful city filled with beautiful people. God’s creativity is so obvious in Europe, and sometimes I forget that He created the world for His children, so that we may experience glimpses of heaven on earth.