Sometime at the beginning of March, I became infected with the travel bug. I was also, unfortunately, infected with a real bug, which kept me in bed for almost two weeks. After spending almost all of February in my beloved city of Bologna, I woke up one morning at 6:00 am with a jolt and a sudden urge to go somewhere, anywhere, despite the fact that I was still pretty ill. That day, I went on a ticket-buying spree and booked three trips to Florence, Brussels, and Barcelona, the latter of which I will embark upon at the beginning of May. While it was a wonderfully, chaotically fun month, I have to say that I’m exhausted.
My trip to Florence was brief but insightful. I’ve been to Florence twice before, but I decided to go again because wasn’t busy and the price of the trip was right. My travel-mates and I found a hostel for 20 euro per night, while the roundtrip train ticket cost less than 40 euro. Florence was just like I remembered it: crowded, touristy, and a lot more Anglo-Saxon than I’d like it to be. Don’t get me wrong—Florence is a gorgeous city. The art is incredible, the architecture is breathtaking, and the rich history of the city saturates the streets. However, sometimes it really does feel like some kind of amusement park, or at least that’s how people treat it. After dropping off our belongings at the hostel, we went off in search of food and Italian leather. We filled our bellies with fresh panini and lasagna from an open-air market, and after about an hour of being hassled by leather vendors, we decided to take advantage of the fact that Italy has no open-container law by drinking beer in the piazza. One thing led to another, and we wound up with a bottle of wine by the river watching the sunset. We soon found out that we had actually trespassed on a private community (I guess there was a sign, but we chose not to see it) and were politely asked to leave. The time spent down by the river, however— drinking wine and listening to music coming from a couple of boys’ boombox down the shore—might have been the highlight of my trip.
Later that night, we experienced a little bit of the Florence that I’m not quite as fond of. The streets and bars were filled with people from all over the world, but predominantly with Americans. I understand that Florence is a very touristy city and that you really don’t have to know Italian to live there, but it really rubs me the wrong way when I see a loud, obnoxious American who acts like the world is their Disney Epcot and doesn’t even try to speak Italian. It really made me miss Bologna, where I can go out and not feel so extremely, supremely American. Florence has morphed into a kind of caricature of the American-abroad-experience in Italy.
The next weekend, I took my first international trip since I arrived in Italy. I had never really thought of going to Belgium before, but when my friend said that there were tickets to Brussels on Ryanair for 68 euro round-trip, I said, “Hey, why not?” That Thursday afternoon, I boarded my first Ryanair flight. For those of you who don’t know, Ryanair is basically the travel equivalent of buying two pounds of peanut butter at Costco for five dollars—it gets you really far for as little money as possible, despite the slightly cheap taste. You can usually find round-trip flights on Ryanair for 20-80 euro. They make up for their insanely cheap prices by trying to sell you other things every chance they get, but for that price, I can deal with any amount of soliciting.
With my mind on waffles, fries, and beer, I definitely hadn’t prepared myself for how cold it was going to be in Belgium. The temperature wasn’t that much lower than in Bologna, but the wind was strong and freezing, piercing through my coat; this is probably why the typical foods of Brussels are so heavy and fattening. All of the food in Brussels seemed to be fried and covered in deliciousness, and I didn’t hold back until I reached my absolute limit after eating a diet that consisted of almost solely waffles, french fries, chocolate, and beer for four days.
Moving on from the food for a moment, Brussels is an absolutely amazing city. It has a great mixture of large French boulevards organized by a German architect, beautiful Neo-Gothic architecture from the 18th century, and a gorgeous Art Nouveau influence on the exteriors of residential houses. The primary languages spoken in Brussels are French and Dutch, but nearly everyone also speaks English, meaning that essentially the entire city speaks three languages. The public transportation was also one of the most well-organized systems I’ve ever seen. The city is on a hill that separates the lower part of the city from the upper part. Between all of the hills and the cable cars, Brussels almost had the feeling of a European San Francisco.
Now, let me tell you about beer. Belgium is known for having the most extensive selection of beer in the whole world. I knew this fact before going there and, as an avid lover of exotic beer, I was excited beyond belief. Brussels definitely exceeded my expectations in the beer department. There’s a bar called Delirium in the center of the city with three floors and over 2,000 different kinds of beer from which one can choose. Brussels specializes in fruit beer, so I made sure to try the bar’s cherry, raspberry, and strawberry beers. I also had a beer called Orval that’s made by monks for only a couple months out of the year. I honestly can’t count how many beers I had, but it was worth every penny and every burp.
Last week was our study-abroad group’s spring break, and we all took a trip down south to Naples. I’ve never been to southern Italy before, but I have friends from the southern regions of Calabria and Puglia, so I had an idea of the cultural and geographical differences between the north and south. It’s hard to explain exactly how they differ, and I’m certainly no expert on the matter, but from my experience, the main differences between the north and south seem to be based on the locals’ attitudes. Southerners are proud, strong, stubborn (even by Italian standards), and extremely playful, and they speak with vulgarly thick accents, but they make the most incredible food. There’s quite a bit more poverty in the southern regions of Italy, and the city of Naples is especially famous for the amount of pick-pocketing and theft that takes place every day. Thankfully, none of the students in my program were targeted victims, but the sights and smells of poverty were everywhere, from the narrow streets lined by tenements with laundry hanging between windows to the stray dogs that seemed to rule the streets like packs of hungry thieves.
We took a couple day trips, one to Pompeii and another to a couple of small coastal villages on the Amalfi Coast. Although they were full of tourists, the streets of Pompeii were absolutely incredible. The city was like a piece of the past frozen in time and filled with the dust of thousands of years that never really settles. It was all so perfectly preserved that it was hard to believe that any of it could really be real. Standing on those stones that millions of feet have touched and looking up at daunting shape of the volcano Vesuvius, looming like a sleeping monster in the distance, I felt closer to history than I ever have before.
If you’ve ever seen or read Eat, Pray, Love, you’ll probably remember that scene where Elizabeth Gilbert (Julia Roberts) eats an entire pizza by herself as she declares, “I’m having a relationship with my pizza!” I’ve already been in a pretty committed relationship with my pizza for a few months now, and have definitely polished off a couple pizza pies all by myself, but we took our relationship to a new level in Naples. The pizza napoletana is the classic margherita pizza that we all know and love: tomato sauce, mozzarella, and basil—a combination so simple and yet so exquisitely delicious. The story behind the pizza goes that Queen Margherita was coming to town, and the people of Naples decided to make her something special with the colors of the Italian flag. Thus was born the pizza margherita, and for this we should all be extremely grateful.
Now, let me get back to Elizabeth Gilbert’s relationship with her pizza, and consequently my own. The restaurant in which she consumed that glorious margherita was the same restaurant in which I consumed my own pizza napoletana, L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele. As soon as the clock strikes the hour of Italian dinner time around 8:00 pm, there’s a nearly two-hour wait just to get in the door. The pizzeria only has three kinds of pizza on the menu: pizza pomodoro, pizza margherita, and pizza margherita with extra mozzarella di bufala. Once you get inside, you sit at a crowded table while touching elbows with strangers, place your order with a rather rude napoletano man, and then wait as you watch countless pizzas go flying by your face with mozzarella cheese resting teasingly upon the tomato-covered plateau of perfectly cooked extra-thin crust. I feel like the experience of actually eating my pizza is a little too explicit to divulge in this blog post (a lady never chews and tells), but it was unforgettable.
It felt good to get back to Bologna after my weekend in the south, like a pleasant homecoming, but I’m desperately missing the sunshine of the south. This has been an especially cold spring for Italy, and the entire country seems to be holding its breath for the day when we can shed our coats and play in the gardens. Until then, we continue to wait expectantly for the sun to shine and the budding flowers of the primavera to bloom.