Monday, September 19, 2011

Under The Tuscan Sun

I spent this weekend with my host family in Capalbio, which was nothing short of amazing. Capalbio is a beautiful little town in the Tuscany region which is definitely a true gem of Italy. The family's house is not far from the Mediterranean Sea where I spent most of my time swimming with Giulia. Her friends were also at the beach, so she kind of took off with them, which was nice because it allowed me to tan and read my favourite book (Eat, Pray, Love). The house in Tuscany was surrounded by olive, fig and apple trees. I have never tasted such delicious figs in my life and I never wanted it to end. The two days we spent there were incredible and they assured me that we'll be going back again. Apparently, most rich families in Rome also have a home in Tuscany where they stay for the summers to avoid the tourists and, more importantly, the extreme heat. The house was yellow and peeling with gorgeous wooden beams throughout the interior. It was like a cottage, but much bigger, and there were mosaic tiles inside. Being in Tuscany made it easy for me to think clearly about all the places I want to travel to and what things I want to accomplish while I'm here.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Vogue's Fashion Night in Rome

OK, so my past couple days here in Rome have been extremely busy. Giulia’s birthday party was crazy and I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many spoiled children in one gathering. Lucky me got to chaperone the party since I’m the au pair, and it was actually quite entertaining. All the kids were dressed head to toe in designer clothes and one girl even had a blackberry. Yes, a 9 year old girl, spent most of the night texting on her blackberry. Who could she possibly be talking to, her boyfriend? Kids these days, I’m tellin’ ya… Since I was the only person in the double digit age, I sat by the juice and snacks station and playing DJ while encouraging everyone to dance. Giulia’s mom burned her a tape with new songs and the kids tried to sing along. Only it was awkward for me because they were singing to songs like Rihanna’s S & M. It just isn’t right hearing little kids sing, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but chains and whips excite me.” It was definitely the most memorable birthday party I’ve been to. Then yesterday, I finally took the bus downtown and visited some of the tourist spots with another au pair from Germany named Jeanny. 
We met at the Spanish Steps, and it was almost filled with every step. It was really nice to finally meet up with someone so that I don’t have to keep going out alone. Not that I mind, but it’s nice to have companionship. Since both of us are quite new to the city, we relied on my map to get everywhere, but it was in Italian, which neither of us understand. Confused and frustrated, Jeanny walks up to a policeman (polizia) and asks, “Excuse me, do you speak Italian?” He told us that yes, of course, everyone in Italy speaks Italian. Jeanny meant to ask if he spoke English, which luckily he did, but he ended up giving us directions and so we were alright. We went to the Pantheon which was also beautiful, but my favourite place was the Trevi Fountain. It was so hot that I wanted to jump in for a swim, but unfortunately it’s prohibited. Jeanny and I threw our pennies in to make a wish like all tourists do, and we spent the rest of the day walking around the city. 
Me and Anna with our
new best friend
During our day out we kept seeing people with signs that read ‘Vogue’s Fashion Night Out’ which happened to be the same night. I took the bus home (which is still sadly confusing for a country girl like myself) to get myself ready and met up with 2 other au pair’s. First, there’s Ashtyn from California. She dresses beautifully, and I most likely would’ve slept on the street that night if it wasn’t for her (but I’ll get to that later). Then there were two girls from Austria. Verena is from Salzburg and was quiet but definitely one of the sweetest girls I’ve ever met. And then there’s Anna from Vienna, who is crazy and fun and taller than any building I’ve ever seen. We met in front of Dior by the Spanish Steps, and mio dios (my God) the streets were packed with people. And I mean PACKED. There were paparazzi and journalists and news crews and models all molded together in one setting. At Chanel there was a famous model who opened the shop and the paparazzi went crazy, but unfortunately I have no idea who she was. In most stores there were models dancing and men half naked and posing out front, some of which were even more gorgeous than the statues carved from marble. There were lots of DJs and free giveaways, and by free giveaways I mean alcohol and food. I have never eaten so many delicious macaroons, cheeses and chocolate. I also drank flute after flute of champagne as well as endless cocktails. The best party of the night, in my opinion, was at Fendi. They had several of their models (many whom I recognize from magazines) walk around and haunt the store and pose. It’s one thing to see them in photos, but to see them in the flesh was amazing. 
Hello, Fendi model. Thanks
for making my night!
They all looked like they came from some hidden country, the island of Fendi, where these amazon-like creatures are bred and shipped off to famous designers. At least that’s my theory. Anna could not get enough of the free champagne, and she almost knocked over one of the models. This wasn't even because of the alcohol, but because she is just naturally clumsy and walks around like a newborn baby deer. She is so beautiful and sweet though that all we could do was find ourselves in a giggling frenzy as we watched her try to maintain her grace. All the shops were open until 12 and it was nearly impossible to find my bus. I really hate the buses in Rome. Fortunately for me, Ashtyn stuck with me to make sure that I would get home OK, but it wasn’t looking good. We walked around the city for what felt like an hour until we finally stood in line for a taxi. This took another half hour because of how busy it was and I will never forget her kindness in dragging me through the city to make sure I got home safely. Now I have a busy day of errands and a pile of laundry that I need to take care of, but once anything new happens (which will hopefully be sooner than later) I will write again.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Rome Sweet Rome

Here I am, sitting in my new white and purple bedroom, trying to figure out where I want to begin. After 24 hours of traveling alone and some serious navigation skills, I have made it to Italy. I said goodbye to my parents and sister Nicole at the Toronto airport where I began  my lone venture across the Atlantic Ocean. This was my 21st time flying, and so you think I would’ve been able to keep my cool. However, this was also my first time flying completely alone, and I barely slept on the plane. It was uncomfortable and I felt nervous the entire way there (this could also be a side effect of the fact that it was the 10th anniversary of 9/11). My plane first landed at the Frankfurt airport where I had 4 hours to roam around and do whatever my little heart desired, but unfortunately for me, I felt sick the entire time I was in Germany, and only bought a couple souvenirs (a postcard for my family, a little magnet with the temperature on it, and some newspapers). Germany was just like I imagined it would be – people were very conservative and there were pretzel stands everywhere you looked. From there, it was another 2 hour plane ride to Rome, and I was just so happy to finally arrive. But no, my travels did not end there… I had to go to Stazione Termini, the main train station in the city. As I mentioned before, I come from a very small city in Canada, and so my level of stress went from a 10 to 11.
It was extremely hot in Rome when I arrived and I was wearing a pair of sweatpants, carrying a heavy backpack, and two 40 pound suitcases. I felt like that Greek mythical character
who was trying to carry a ball of wax that kept melting in the sun and rolling back down the hill. Fortunately for me, I met these kind Danish people who adopted me when I arrived. They were two couples who were in their 50’s and they helped me carry my luggage and saved me a spot on the train. After the 30 minute train ride, everything fell apart. Including myself. I was tired and hungry and sick and sore. This Danish family helped me look for my host mom, Stefania, who I could not find for the life of me. My phone had died and I was lost. After a small breakdown, the Danish took me to the police station where they called Stefania and everything worked out from there. I was so happy to go to bed that night.
Now, the family I’m living with. They are completely loaded and live in an old (everything in this city is old) yellow apartment building close to the centre. All the floors are made of hardwood and the ceilings are at least 25 feet tall. The doors are all white with beautiful brass décor that can only be opened with even more beautiful brass keys. There are 3 terraces and my bedroom has this beautiful antique desk. There are books and pieces of art everywhere, so I am quite comfortable here. I do miss the comfort of my own bed and bathroom, but hey – this isn’t so bad. Also, the au pair before me was an American, and she must come from money since she left a huge pile of designer clothes in my closet. The girl left a raspberry coloured coat from J Crew, several vintage dresses, tweed blazers, and elegant skirts. It’s quite devastating though since she is NOT MY SIZE. I’m hoping that by eating so many carbs and gelato here that I will eventually fit into them. 

The mom, Stefania, is so sweet and understanding. The dad is a dentist who doesn’t speak a word of English, but at least if I ever have a cavity, then I’m in the perfect place. Giulia is the 9 year old girl who I take care of, and she is so so sweet. She is also dyslexic, which makes it very difficult at times for her to do what I ask, but of course I’m patient with her. Last night I helped her with her spelling and time tables, and I can tell that she’s smart. For the most part she behaves politely and she loves that I came all the way from Canada to play with her. Giulia has two older siblings – a 30 year old sister and a 24 year old brother, who I'm falling in love with. He is beautiful and sadly has a girlfriend, so that’s that. They also have a small terrier named Toby who is unfortunately brain dead. There is a second employee that also lives in the house, and I’m already depressed to write about it. 
Cely the sweetheart
They have a 40 year old maid/cook named Cely from the Philippines. Almost everyone has a Filipino living in their house because they can’t find work in their own country. Cely has a husband and a son at home where all her money is sent to. She works 13 hours a day and her bedroom is very small and connects to the kitchen. I’m not sure what this family would do without her because she does absolutely everything. I asked her if she’s seen much of the city and she told me that she never leaves the house, and I just don’t know what to say to her. She is so sweet and sad.
It’s my second full day here, and I have already tried the staples of the country. I ate lemon gelato on the first day and raspberry cheesecake on the second. I also went out for pizza which was so good that I almost cried. And the pasta… Perfecto. While walking in the streets of Rome, it is impossible to blend in. Most people assume that I’m either Dutch or from a Scandinavian country which is flattering, but when I tell them I’m from Canada, they get so excited. For example, yesterday an old man was selling flowers and he gave me a beautiful pink daisy for free after I had a simple conversation with him. He kissed both my cheeks and calls me bella every time I walk by. There is also this old couple who owns a small café and gives me a free drink whenever I stop by. I don’t really know what it is, but it looks and takes like ice tea, so I’m guessing that’s it. They don’t speak any English and I don’t speak Italian, but somehow it doesn’t matter. Tonight I’m going to my first Italian party. It’s for Giulia’s 9th birthday, but so what? I am beyond excited to see what these parents are going to pull off. Perhaps Cely will have a small break (which is unlikely) and we can eat some cake together. Tomorrow I have the day off, and Stefania is going to show me around the city a little bit more, so I’m very excited. I’m also excited to get some sleep tonight, which I haven’t had enough of since I left Canada. I still have a full pack of gravel that I will definitely have to take in order for me to actually get some sleep. I haven’t seen any important monuments yet or met any of the au pairs, but I have tried some truly delicious food which makes up for it. 

So far things are going pretty well, and I’ve already learned some very profound things since my arrival:
1. I love my mom more than anyone in the world.
2. I hate flying alone and will avoid taking a connection ever again.
3. Nothing tastes better than Italian food.
4. I love Danish people.
Like every smart Italian, I am going to take a nap and then venture back into the streets and see what the rest of my day brings me. Ciao for now.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Bracing For Impact

Before I jet off to the greatest adventure of my life, I should probably explain why I’m writing this blog and give you a little more history. Allow me to introduce myself… I come from a tiny, forgotten little city called Port Colborne in the south of Ontario, Canada. A population of 18,000 people, most of who are over age 50. I’m a bright lights, big city kind of girl, which is exactly why I’ve decided to spend my gap year in Rome. As in Rome, Italy. As in over 4,425 miles away from home. This idea was first planted in my head in December of my senior year at my Catholic high school. I had already filled out all my applications and had planned to study Journalism at University of Ottawa (which I ended up getting accepted to the following Spring). But unlike my fellow friends and classmates, I couldn’t see myself walking across a sprawling green campus with ivory growing off the side, drinking from a keg stand in a jail sized dorm room, eating ramen noodles at 2 am and spending my time studying flash cards in a library. I just wasn't in love with the image.
Anyway, back to my story. It was December, and I was talking with my friend Shayna, who has been my neighbour and best friend since before I can even remember. She was working as an au pair in Europe at the time because she graduated the year before and didn't know what she wanted to do with her life. It started out as an ordinary December day: it was cold and snowing outside, so I was curled up on my favourite chair and asking her over facebook to update me on her life. She asked me to wait for a bit, and minutes later, I heard a tiny fist knocking upon my door. You can just imagine my surprise as I opened the door to find her standing on my porch, and it wasn’t long until she spilled out every single detail about her time in Europe, and I had fallen in love. Not with Shayna, of course, but of the idea of living in Europe for a year. Then she asked me what I was doing the following September, and I told her I was still planning on going to school. I will never forget this conversation for as long as I live, because it changed everything. “Why don’t you take a gap year abroad?” she asked. Now, I want you to imagine an actual light bulb above my head, bursting with a golden light as she asked proposed the idea. “Why not? If anyone can survive alone in Europe, it's you, MichElle.” We talked and talked about it, but I still hadn’t committed to anything.
Once Christmas break was over, Shayna flew back to Europe, leaving me to think for myself and make some decisions. At the time, I was in a serious relationship (oops) and the idea of trekking around Europe for a year would change everything. Soon enough, as most high school relationships go, we broke up. I spent the rest of my time in high school trying to figure out if I was actually going to take the jump and go to Europe. Do I go? Do I not go? I spent some very sleepless nights arguing with myself, but eventually the smarter half of my brain convinced myself that yes, I must travel before pursuing university.
Every free minute I had (which wasn’t much, since I was working part time and still involved with clubs, sports and maintaining my spot on the honor roll) I was online talking to Shayna, researching the process of getting an International Working Visa, finding cheap air fares, and families who were looking for an English speaking au pair. While I was supposed to be excited for prom and graduation, I was occupying myself with my plans of going to Italy. Ahh, Italy... The land where they invented spaghetti. I still enjoyed the last part of high school, but I was very, very ready for it to end. Whenever people asked me what University I would be attending in the fall, I always told them the same thing: University of Life (or when my French teacher and classmates asked, L'université du Vie. Cliché, sure, but also true. I was still going to have a learning experience, except that mine wouldn’t be inside a traditional classroom – it would be across the Atlantic ocean. As the great Mark Twain once said, “I never let school interfere with my education.” It’s not that I don’t appreciate my education, but life lessons aren’t learned on a chalkboard.
So I'm leaving this Sunday, September 11th, 2011 (the 10th anniversary of 9/11) and coming home on June 6th of 2012. Because its already so expensive to fly from Europe to Canada and Christmas is the most expensive time of year, I'll be spending it alone. Unless some hot Italian men are reading this blog and decide to change this by climbing down my chimney. I'm just kidding (or maybe not), but I know I'll find something interesting to do. Rather than sit alone wearing a sweater I knitted for myself, I'll probably spend it at the Vatican or something. Again, if any hot Italian men are reading this, I'm pretty sure my e-mail is listed on my site.
I’m currently sitting here inside my tiny Canadian bedroom with the window opened and appreciating the fall weather, the season I love the most. I have two over sized suitcases untouched and waiting to be filled with piles of clothes. Someone please tell me – how do you pack your entire life into two suitcases? My flight leaves at 10 pm for Frankfurt on Sunday where I have 4 hours to kill until my second flight leaves for the land of fine art and Opera music. I guess this is goodbye for now. Until next time..