Ciao Bella Italia

As the end of the program drew nearer, I was a mess of emotions: sad that everyone was leaving, stressed that I had to pack, and excited to go to Italy with my high school friend Emmi. May 19th approached,I said my goodbyes, but then, it was time to carpe diem in Italy.

They say all roads lead to Rome, so that was our first stop. On the train ride from Paris to Rome (yes, they made us go north to go south resulting in a 16ish hour ride), we were in a sleeper cabin with two Indian-Americans and two Asian-Englishmen. In the car, there were at least five languages represented. Unfortunately, none of them were Italian. When the contrôleur came, he asked for our tickets and passports in Italian. He gathered them all then started to leave. When you’re travelling, one thing you do not want to lose is your passport, so I asked him (in English) for them back. He didn’t really speak much English saying only, “I take the passports, in the bag, to police.” Police!? I started freaking out a bit in my mind. I think he saw my alarm because he tried to explain in Italian. I just kind of gave him a blank stare then asked “Parlez-vous français?” I figured on a train going from France to Italy, the contrôleurs would at least speak French and Italian. “oui,” he replies, but then proceeds to repeat exactly what he had just said in Italian, but slower. After he left, with our passports, the other people in the car turned to me and Emmi to find out what he said. “I have no idea,” I told them. “Wasn’t he speaking French?” one of them asked. “Apparently speaking French here just means speaking Italian slowly.”

Fortunately that was the last time not speaking Italian was a problem and we did get our passports back 8 hours later after crossing the boarder. I think there is definitely a lesson to be learned from this: if you want to visit a country, it’s probably a good idea to learn a bit of the language.

We were in Rome for two full days and two half days so we decided to use one for the Vatican, one for ancient Rome, and the two half days to just wander and explore the city.  Due to photo-restrictions, I don’t have many photos inside the Vatican museum and none in the Sistine Chapel. I’m not Catholic, but walking into the Sistine Chapel, and really most of the rooms inside the Vatican museum, is still an incredible experience (if not for religious reasons, then for the art). The meticulousness and scale of the works are amazing.

While in the Sistine Chapel, I came to accept the truth behind the American tourist stereotype. The Chapel is packed with tourists; everyone moves slowly so as to try to appreciate the full majesty of the masterpiece surrounding us. Everyone that is, except the American woman behind me. She literally was pushing me through the crowd by placing her hand on my back. As she tried to pass me, her shoulder hit me and being the Midwesterner I am, I apologized. Except, instead of “sorry,” I said “pardon” in French (habit from living in France).  I hear her mumble under her breath, “foreigners.” Excuse me ma’am, YOU’RE IN ITALY. And really, there was no need to push. On behalf of my nationality, I apologize to the world. We’re not all like that.

St. Peter's Basilica

Given the proximity of our visit to the beatification of Pope John Paul II, there was a special exhibit detailing his life and work within the church. It’s kind of weird to think of him as a person before he was the pope. One of the many things I found interesting in the exhibit was the many different names of the John Paul II. I always assumed that “John Paul” was his real name, after all it is a proper noun. However, the books below illustrate how it changes from country to country. In France, he’s Jean Paul, in Italy he’s Giovanni Paolo, in Russia he’s Ivan Pavao.

View of Vatican from Castel Sant'Angelo

The next day we went to the ancient sites: Colosseum, Roman Forums, Pantheon. The Colosseum is thought to have been built in the latter part of the 1st century. Do you know what was being built in America during the 1st century? We were building Indian mounds. My country is a little over 200 years old. These sites are well over 2000 years old. It’s hard to wrap your mind around that thought.

At the Trevi Fountains, it is customary (for tourists) to throw two coins over one’s shoulder into the water. The first is to ensure you will return to Rome; the second is for a wish. 

If you’re ever in a foreign country, grocery stores are always fun to go into to see what people eat. In France, I was impressed by their walls of yogurt and cheese. The grocery store in Florence literally had 2 aisles of pasta.

Florence was the center of the Italian Renaissance. This is the city of Dante, da Vinci, Botticelli, Machiavelli, Brunelleschi, Michelangelo, Donatello, and Galileo. Its many squares and churches with their renaissance architecture give an entirely different feel from Rome. Before going to Florence, my host brother (and architecture student), told me the Duomo is possibly the most beautiful piece of architecture ever built. It certainly has a presence in the city.

A note on visiting churches: you must wear either a skirt or long pants. Shorts are not permitted. We ended up waiting in line for the Duomo twice because Emmi’s shorts were not allowed.

Going to Florence, we had to see David. During Academic Decathlon in high school, he was the poster-child of contrapposto.  Standing in line at the Galleria Dell’Accademia for almost three hours in the hot sun, I couldn’t help but think, this statue better be good. Rounding the corner from the first gallery, we saw Michelangelo’s  unfinished slaves, but at the end of the hall bathed in sunlight stood David in all 17 feet of his glory. Unfortunately, photos were not allowed in the gallery.  For reference, a standard ceiling is 8 feet high, so David is just over twice that. One of the first things said was, “He’s huge!” followed quickly by a “that’s what she said joke.” In all seriousness, despite the skewed proportions (it is said that the artist designed him to be viewed from below and adjusted accordingly also enlarging the “important features” such as his hands), the ease of his posture and definition of his muscles make this sculpture seem so lifelike.


The Ponte Vecchio is one of the most iconic bridges in Florence. Crossing the bridge feels more like a continuation of the street as there are shops on either side.

Our second day in Florence, we went with some people from the hostel to Piazzale Michelangelo to watch the sunset. From here, there is a magnificent panoramic of the city. The combination of the setting sun, live music, wine, and great company made this night perfect.

That night, we had most of North America represented: 3 Americans, 2 Canadians, 3 Québécois, and 4 Mexicans (I know, it sounds like the start to a joke). Emmi and I spoke a little French with the Québécois. After finding out we had just spent the semester in France, they decided to teach us some new vocabulary; ours is “too French.” Putain = shoot (vulgar) = “tabarnak” (spelled tabernacle and like many of their other swears refer to the Church),  un petit-ami= boyfriend = un chum, une voiture = car = un char. 

Our Florence trip was planned just right because we ended up being there for the Gelato Festival. We had so much gelato and even learned how to make it. Under the hot Tuscan sun, we needed as much of this frozen dessert as we could to help us cope with the heat. Though gelato has less fat than ice cream, it has way more sugar. Any way you look at it, those two are equally unhealthy (or by the same token, equally healthy). 

Our last day in Florence, we made a day trip to Siena and Pisa. These towns are both really small and honestly, a couple hours is all you need.

Last stop: Venice. I want to know who the guy was who saw 117 small islands and thought, “let’s build a city there.” The city is a labyrinth of canals and small streets. Even with our map, we found ourselves lost multiple times. The three cities we chose each had their own distinct characters. Rome had a sense of being in history; Florence was romantic; but Venice, Venice was just untamed beauty. The water and canals are fantastical. The Carnival masks only add to the mystery of the city.

Venice is a beautiful city, however, after the 2nd day we kind of ran out of things to do. That’s when we decided to just enjoy our last day in Italy and soak up the Venetian sun by one of the many canals.

After ten days in Italy, I was ready for the 14hr trip to Montpellier and the subsequent 17ish hours back to Waukesha. Ciao bella Italia. Thanks for the memories.


2 thoughts on “Ciao Bella Italia

  1. “On behalf of my nationality, I apologize to the world. We’re not all like that.”
    LOL OMG so true though, this is why I mostly tell people I am Taiwanese instead of American when I was abroad.

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