Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Italy - Christmas 2017 and New Year's 2018

Hey guys!

To keep up with the theme of long-overdue updates, today I'll be sharing a recap of my experiences from my time in Italy over the holidays, in between my two study abroad programs in Moscow, Russia, and Turku, Finland.

On the 16th of December, I packed up everything from my Moscow dorm, spent some final moments with the dear friends I'd made, and took the Aeroexpress train to Sheremetyevo Airport. The three hour flight straight to Bologna was one of the emptiest of my whole life; I don't think the plane was even half full. I hit the absolute jackpot of having a window seat with a row empty aside from myself,  so I got to relax fully. Upon landing, my aunt, uncle, and grandmother surprised me at the airport (I'd only been aware that my aunt would meet me there), and we headed back to the little town of Viadana where they all reside.

The first ten or so days of the trip before my parents and sister arrived from the U.S. were somehow simultaneously relaxing (sometimes a little too much) and jam-packed with activity. At first a lot of people I know and hang out with there were not free very much, since most of my friends still had exams that they were finishing, my relatives were still working and not free a lot of the time, and my parents and sister still had not arrived from the States. I spent those days largely relaxing, waking up and going to sleep very late, reading, writing, taking long, introspective walks or bike rides alone at sunset and taking beautiful photos, and just resting. As I've not shied away from putting in no uncertain terms, my time in Russia was very difficult in many ways and often, to put it frankly, sucked, so being in a place that I love and cherish so much, that I feel truly and fully at home in, surrounded by people that I care about, and eating lots of delicious food, truly helped to replenish and soothe me, both body and soul, after the hardships that I had struggled to make it through in many parts of my Muscovite experience.

After about ten days on the ground, starting to get a little restless and hoping to see three different friends of mine that live outside the immediate vicinity of where my relatives live before my parents and sister arrived, I embarked on a four-day adventure, a nutsy navigation of several different corners of northern Italy, which I came to affectionately refer to as my "Grand Tour of Friends."

  • First, I spent a day in Verona with my dear friend Francesca, who is originally from Sardegna, now studies in Trento, and I met when she was an AFS exchange student in Pinckney, about forty-five minutes from where I grew up in Michigan, three and a half years ago. I'd visited her last year in Trento, but we decided to shake things up a little bit this time and lay our scene in fair Verona (haha see what I did there), a city both of us like a lot. I'd last been when I was in Italy as a thirteen year old, the last time I'd come with my whole nuclear family at the same time, and so it reminded me a lot of that formative time in my life when the ardent pride in my Italian heritage and language skills that I have today was just beginning to take shape. We caught up a lot on my experiences in Azerbaijan and Russia, her university life in Trento and visits home to Sardegna, personal lives, friends of hers I'd met in Trento and that I'd told her about from back home, and just spent a wonderful day together enjoying each other's company in one of Italy's loveliest towns. 

  • In the evening, after Fra hopped on a bus to the Verona Airport to head home to Nuoro for the holidays, I went back to the train station and, just managing to dodge a fee for buying an incorrect ticket and not authenticating it properly, arrived in Bologna in the evening. Having arrived slightly ahead of schedule, I wandered around the Piazza Maggiore aimlessly, taking random turns down the streets, and in one of the world's truly cosmic moments, ran into my best friend from Viadana who happens to study there, with just enough time to grab an aperitivo before my meeting time with my friend Sofia. One of my best friends in the world, we met on our incredible language immersion program in the Icelandic Westfjords back in 2016, and hadn't seen each other since I was in Italy the previous winter. Since she's doing a lot of amazing things in her life right now, starting a PhD program in Torino while doing a journalistic writing job on the side, we unfortunately had far less time to spend together this time around, but we took full advantage of it, heading back to her beautiful and worldly little family apartment, ordered in two pizzas, and talked for nearly five hours straight of all matters of travels, realizations, love, friendships, poetry, personal projects and goals, and more that had come up since our last meeting, continuing over breakfast the next morning as well. I'm sorry both that we didn't get to spend more time together, and that I didn't get to be in Bologna longer, as it's truly one of my favorite cities in all Italy and all the world. But I'm so grateful for what we had, and for both efficient planning and lovely company, the 12 hour encounter felt much longer. And now I look forward to hosting her for a long weekend in Turku come May. :)

  • Once I said goodbye to Sofia, I headed right on ahead to the Central Station to begin my journey towards my last destination of the Grand Tour, Como, which ended up being one of the most time consuming due to a transfer in Milan, and my absentmindedly hopping off the train at the wrong station and needing to grab a new one. But in any case, I made it to Como relatively sane and in one piece, and had a hug from my fellow Turkish CLSer in Baku this past summer, Giovanna, waiting for me. :) We went for a long walk together around the lakeside path, taking in the beautiful views of the water and the mountains at dusk (and ended up being commandeered to take part in a marriage proposal in the process), had an aperitivo in the center, and then went back to her family's place in the nearby hilltop village of Casnate con Bernate for a delicious dinner of spaghetti alla matriciana, one of my favorite Roman dishes, and reminisced further about our time in Baku over a National Geographic documentary on Azerbaijan that her family had recorded. The next morning, we took the train together into Milan, explored the city center and the Castello Sforzesco, and had a tasty lunch and interesting conversation with an ex TV announcer who waited on us at a restaurant in the trendy Brera neighborhood. It was my first CLS reunion since we all said goodbye to each other last August in waves - first in Baku, then in the airport in Baku, then in the airport in DC - and it was a wonderful one. Giovanna and I are both half American and half Italian, but in reverse ways, having grown up in Italy and the USA respectively, and it's absolutely fascinating to discuss our identities and feelings about our places in the world and how many parallels there are between them, in spite of the fact that we experience the intersection differently. 

It was an incredibly refreshing time, full of lovely reunions and memories made with dear friends, and was absolutely worth it. But after days that had been that jam packed with plans and movement and SO. MANY. TRAINS., I was quite glad to head back to Viadana, hunker down for a few days over some dubbed Italian Disney movies and episodes of RuPaul's Drag Race, and sleep in generously before my family arrived from the U.S.

When they did arrive, on the morning of Christmas Eve no less, it was truly one of the best holiday gifts I could ever have asked for. I've missed a lot of things in the U.S. while I've been abroad since September, and they're certainly top of the list. Since they all rented a car and drove down from the airport, the bear hug-filled reunion took place on the street outside of my grandmother's apartment building, rather than the arrivals hall of Malpensa as I'd so often imagined in the months we'd spent apart. I ran into each of their arms and hugged them hard enough to jolt them out of their jet lag for just a minute. :)
The holiday celebrations began pretty much right from there. We had a big Christmas dinner together with my grandmother, uncle, and aunt, complete with traditional seafood dishes, and then stopped by my aunt's relatives to say hello, where I spent Christmas Eve the previous winter. The next morning, with everyone feeling refreshed after a solid night's sleep and two meals of Nonna's cooking, conversation was even more stimulating. Thoughtful gifts were exchanged, and we spent a lovely time catching up and discussing all matters of things.

The next big highlight was a two-day trip that we took with two of my mom's childhood friends, who have always been close family friends of ours, to Naples. Though I was definitely excited to go and glad that I got to, seeing as Naples is an important city within Italy and the south remains a part of the country that I have not seen very much of, I'll be frank in saying that I don't think whoever chose to travel to the south in the winter made the best decision. We had the grave misfortune to be there over two days of awful weather, in which it rained constantly and the winds ruined all the umbrellas we continued to buy within twenty minutes of purchase. But the final morning, when the skies opened up and a radiant golden sun lit up the city's grand coral palazzi and quiet grey alleys, which we spent wandering along the coast and admiring the imposing figure of Vesuvius across the sapphire bay, made everything completely worth it.

I spent New Year's at my friend Francesco's house, just as I had the year before (though this time with my sister as well), but this time it was an intimate gathering of close friends relaxing over some good food and wine, rather than a huge party like last time. We rang in 2018 comfortably and happily, with another New Year's to remember, though in a completely different way.

At that point, given that I had to be in Turku by the 3rd of January at the latest for my exchange student orientation, the time I had left in Italy with my family at that point was little. As I recall, we took little trips within the vicinity of Viadana to have some fun and discover the area a little more. We spent one afternoon in Sabbioneta, a town about fifteen minutes away from Viadana by car which is a UNESCO World Heritage sight by merit of its lovely historic center and well preserved ducal palace, theaters, churches, and synagogues, and spent some time touring the ducal palace and grand theater. I remember once when I was in Italy as a child, perhaps around ten years old, I visited a Gonzaga palace like that one with my mom and sister, and my mom saying something along the lines of "we're learning about our ancestors," which made the whole structure come alive for me in a way it hadn't been before, and I have never forgotten.
Then we also spent an afternoon in Modena with my aunt and uncle, enjoying some hot chocolate and admiring the lovely architecture of its piazza and own leaning church that is far less famous than that in Pisa.

My parents accompanied me to Malpensa for my direct Finnair flight to Helsinki on the morning of the 3rd, hugged me goodbye in front of the security line, and so once again I found myself embarking on a solo journey, ready for my next great adventure.

Overall, this was a truly lovely trip. Every time I return to Italy is soothing and revitalizing for me, both body and soul, and brings new opportunities to connect with and understand my own identity, background, and culture. And this was no exception. When I'd visited the winter before, I was feeling a little bit insecure within my identity, not fully confident with it and feeling like my Italianness was not being fully recognized. Thanks to advancement in my own academic knowledge and therapeutic experiences I'd had in bonding with the Italian community I found among the international students in Moscow, I felt far more comfortable and confident this time in the context of that particular matter. What was very interesting to me was the way that the experience sort of changed being there with my whole family. We'd not gone all together at the same time since I was thirteen, and much has changed since then. The last couple of times I've gone in particular, I've always either gone just with my mother or alone, and in both of those cases I find that the linguistic and cultural immersion within the local context is truly total. But this time, being all together the experience felt much more dual, as I was speaking English with my dad and my sister, and so felt like I was experiencing a meeting of both cultures at the same time, rather than moving into the local one fully. In any case, it was quite interesting to experience it in that way, and to be together with my family after so many months apart.