Roaming through Rome

The other day a friend in Miami, messaged me saying, “What the heck, Taylor! I have gotten zero updates on your blog.” I realized that I’ve sort of neglected this project for the past 3 months, but I am determined to get back into it! So though it is incredibly late, here’s my attempt to catch up on the last few months of my life. I’ll start where I left off — with New Year’s in Rome.

I arrived in Rome two days before the New Year full of idealistic hopes. My trip was planned for 6 days in “The Eternal City,” with images of Julius Caesar and Constantine coming to mind. When I arrived at 9:45 pm, however, I seemed to surrounded by a different breed of Italians: pissed off ones waiting for their baggage. I mulled through Fiumicino Airport and managed to find a shuttle to Termini Station and then found my way to the proper metro. When I got off at S. Giovani to find my hostel, it was nowhere to be found. I followed and re-followed the directions of my hostel online, but I still could not find it. My watch neared closer to midnight, and I was still hopelessly lost, so as the resourceful young man that I am, I began begging people for directions. Most people bluntly brushed me off after hearing my sad “Scusi?” but finally I saw two travelers in the distance and ran to them! They were to be my saving grace! They called my hostel and helped me get my bearings before I went off. I found my way to Dreaming Rome Hostel, which was flamboyantly decorated with pink boa scarfs, white Christmas lights, and sparkly ornaments. After meeting the hostel’s owner, I understood why. His name was Fabio, and though he bore no ressemblance to the bodybuilder you may have in mind, he did have a penchant for coiffing his hair.

The next day I met up with David & Travis, two Australian friends who were meeting me for a few days in Rome. They told me that just the night before, 3 Italian guys asked Travis for the time. When Travis went to check on his iPhone, they punched him in the face, stole his phone, and ran off. Today, when I saw him, he didn’t look too bad, so we decided to put it behind us and see the town.

As soon as we started walking and saw the gigantic Monument of Vittorio Emmanuelle II, we realized what it was like to be in Rome – to be standing in front of something so immensely beautiful and have no idea what we’re looking at. This happened to us over and over again throughout our trip, as so many supremely beautiful buildings and monuments are scattered everywhere throughout the city. To native Romans, they are merely traffic obstacles, but to the mass of tourists during New Year’s, we swarm to each site like fat kids on cake. In fact, when David, Travis, and I went to meet Gianna, our friend and a native Roman, at the Trevi Fountain, we practically had to beat people off to get through the crowds. Nevertheless, I made it to the front, made a wish, and threw a coin in! (No, I won’t tell you what I wished for!) As a group, we then walked to a café, through Piazza Navona, and saw the beauty of the Pantheon, a temple for the ancient gods of Rome.

The following day, I met Gianna at Circo Massimo, the area in Rome where her family lives. She invited me to lunch at her house, but first we needed to buy some ingredients. Gianna showed me around her neighborhood, including Circo Massimo, a giant chariot racing stadium, and together we went to the local grocery. Slightly nervous but pleased by the invitation, we walked to Gianna’s house where I met her parents, and brother and sister. She lives in a beautiful home with her family’s artwork framed all over the walls. Not more than an hour later, we had a Mexican feast, consisting of Mexican lasagna (think spicy enchiladas!), chili salsa, Jamaican hibiscus tea, champagne, and Aztec cake and espresso for dessert. By the end of the meal, I was immobilized.

Forcing myself to move, I thanked Gianna’s parents and left with Gianna to glimpse the Colosseum and the Italian Forum. We strolled along the Italian Forum, when a band started playing. The drumbeat plus the Mexican family inhabiting my stomach nearly sent me into euphoria. For a brief moment I felt infinite.

That evening was New Year’s Eve, so I continued the feast with David & Travis at a proper Italian restaurant. I tried my best to finish a 1/2 pint of white wine, provolo & bacon bruchette, and pesto ravioli, but to no avail. After dinner, we made it to the Colosseum. There, right in front of the Colosseum, people were tossing firecrackers into the streets, breaking bottles, and cheering loudly. Moderately terrified, I made it into the crowd and saw as the New Year’s fireworks blazed majestically into the sky. They were amazing!

Over the next two days, David, Travis, and I did some more sightseeing and devouring of Italian cuisine. On New Year’s Day, we walked back to the Colosseum to see the damage from the night before. From there, we passed through some badass ruins, tipped (and posed with) beggars and street musicians, and ascended the Spanish Steps to Pincho, to the top of Rome.

On my last day in Rome, I took myself to Vatican City. I wandered around St. Peter’s Square, bemused, and thought it was pretty cool that I was in two different countries at once. I was going to go into the Basilica, but when I saw the massive line, I opted against it and decided to head to the Vatican Museum instead. It was massive and extradinary! I saw incredibly detailed sculptures, tons of statues without penises, embalmed mummies, and at the very end, the Sistine Chapel. It was a really interesting and impressive museum and a cool way to end New Year’s in Rome.


Happiness in the Calm – A Week in the Boondocks

Free from my stint of homelessness, I passed the following week with my aunt and French family in Auvergne. Deep in the center of France, there lives a series of small villages tucked away in between an expanse of mountains and valleys. Brioude, the community where my family lives, is built on top of what used to be volcanoes. The area is quiet but beautiful. In view of the region’s emptiness, I expected my week to be of the same rapport… However, it quickly proved to be a colorful experience.

The interaction between my aunt and her young children, Lucas and Clarisse, provided me not only with fear but also with a whole new vocabulary. On a daily basis I learned different ways to say, “I’ve had it up to here with you!” and “You’re a pain in my ass!” My two oh-so French cousins can be a handful, to say the least, and with Lucas, the rambunctious 11-year-old, constantly poking my gadgets and expecting them to poke back, and his hyperactive 8-year-old sister, Clarisse, running around, it’s no wonder my aunt had to whip out some harsh, but richly idiomatic French slang. Here’s a small list of expressions I picked up:

T’es chiant! You’re a bloody pain! Alternative: You’re super boring.
C’est pas marrant. It’s not funny/amusing.
J’en ai marre! I’m fed up!
Petit coquin You little rascal!
Je suis crevé. I’m spent.
Tu fous de ma gueule? Are you bullshitting me?
(You don’t even want to know the literal translation…)

In addition to spending time with my cousins, I also met several interesting characters that seemed from a different world. When I went with Katherine to her neighbor’s farm, for instance, I was bombarded by a fleshy woman with smoke-stained teeth and a phlegmy cough. She was a cow farmer with oversized overalls, and when she saw me she quickly grabbed me, thrusted me into her bosom, and prompted me to give not 2, but 3 kisses on the cheek. She led me into the kitchen where I met the grandmother, an older version of the farmer who kept telling my aunt how cute I was. Okay Granny, stop hitting on me! Once in the kitchen, the tracks of cow dung on the kitchen floor quickly turned my stomach. I couldn’t help but think, how does this family possibly cook here with the stench and sight of fertilizer around?

And remember my wish to milk a cow over winter break? Well, when I went to see the cows in the stable, I was met with a firm, manure-encrusted handshake from CowLady’s husband. He was a male replica of her – with matching overalls and hair in all the wrong spots except where it should have been. They seemed like fine people, and apparently their livestock’s milk was the freshest in town, but I couldn’t stop looking at their filth-stained hands and consider how that is one sure-fire way to get pink eye.

I also met Didi, a local wine grower, at his vineyard. He showed us his underground cave where he produces and stores his wine and gave me a few cupfuls of red. I asked how strong it was, to which replied that it 17% alcohol and that when my older sister visited a few years back, she got sufficiently wasted.

The last person I met was Jean Paul, a peach seller and a friend of my uncle Hubert. As we sat around the kitchen table one night, we got to talking about life in “la France profonde” (Deep France). Stroking his scruffy beard, Jean Paul gave me a sound piece of advice: “Il faut trouver le bonheur en la calme,” which means: “We need to find happiness in the calm.”

My week in Auvergne was exactly that — happiness in the calm. I spent 7 days eating vegetarian, reading French children’s books with Clarisse, taking hikes to nearby villages, and trying local cheeses (Saint-Nectaire was my favorite). Of course, it came with some difficulties, such as my experience with CowLady and having to poo in a bucket and cover it with odor-reducing woodchips. Yet, life out of the fast line was a nice change. It was my first Christmas spent away from my nuclear family and appropriately, I received a copy of Into the Wild, a pocketknife (with wine opener), and a sketchbook. On Christmas Day when I Skyped with family in Pennsylvania, they asked if I was homesick. Taking a breath, I said, “No, I’m not homesick. I miss you guys, but I’m not homesick.”

How I Became Homeless

When I returned from Vienna, I landed in Nice, hoping to spend one final night in my bed. After the encounter with Scarface and the other Romanian mafia-mate, all I wanted was the comfort of my warm apartment. I walked from the airport to the train station, suitcase in hand, to catch a late-night train to Antibes. I quickly discovered that on one side of the tracks the timetable had been punched out by a hood-rat, and on the other track, there was a display that due to electrical problems, trains were not running for the night.

I made my way back to the airport, shit out of luck, and was told that a taxi ride from Nice to Antibes – a 15 minute trip – would cost me 70 €. Too frugal to pay and too drowsy to care, I decided to rough it for the night and channel my inner homeless person. You know that bearded homeless man in the corner of the airport? The one who seemed like a reasonable man at one point but quickly lost his way? Well, he’s not homeless. He’s just a broke college student. Actually, he’s me.

I spent the next 10 hours in Terminal 1, attempting various sleeping positions and dietary options. Sleeping upright on the airport benches didn’t seem appealing, nor did fetal pose by the vending machines, so I settled for a rock-like couch in the Visitor’s Lounge. I took off my shoes, threw my jacket over my head to block out the blinding neons overhead, and tried to get comfortable. But with an announcement every few minutes telling passengers not to pack knives in their luggage, and an actual homeless man walking around, I gave up on sleep around 4 a.m.

The next few hours were spent deliriously watching the cleaning lady mop the floors and pretending like I was owner of the bathroom. My suitcase became my darling puppy, obediently following me wherever I went. By the time airport shops started opening around 8 a.m., I quickly huddled into a bookstore at the site of civilization. Mmm, Snickers for breakfast.

When morning rolled around, I made it to my lair in the bathroom, washed up, and headed back to the train station. That morning I was to catch a 7-hour carpool to my aunt’s house in central France, Auvergne. By 11 a.m. and after almost 30 hours of no sleep, my motor and verbal skills were shot. I met the driver, Simon, and the other 3 French carpoolers in a dazed and confused state. My foreign language skills began to deteriorate and I accidentally told one carpooler that he could sit in the front seat because he was the fattest (“le plus gros”), rather than the tallest (“le plus grand”). And when asked where I stayed in Vienna, I replied that I stayed in an eggplant (“aubergine”); I meant a hostel (“auberge”). During the 7-hour car ride, we talked about American and French fast food, films, European travel, and Frenchwomen’s tendency to not shave.

One long car ride and a homeless night later, I made it to Brioude, where my aunt picked me up from the train station. It was so good to see her and my cousins when I finally arrived, even if their kisses were slobbery.

Ten Interesting Things About My French Aunt

1. She is a vegetarian. On Christmas we ate salmon.

2. She met her husband, Hubert, at a trout farm in Auvergne.

3. She has lived in France for more than 15 years, and drives a stick shift.

4. She composts.

5. The soup we ate tonight was made from squash grown from her garden.

6. She bakes her own bread and teaches English to French kids.

7. There are no walls in the house. Room divisions are made with tapestries.

8. She restores and rents old houses with her husband. The property that she lives on with her two kids, Lucas and Clarisse, is 4 hectares.

9. The town where she lives, La Haute-Loire, is filled with scenic mountains and plateaus, where a river runs through.

10. When we enter the house, we take off our shoes and put on slippers.

Winter in Wien

As soon as I got on the airplane to go to Vienna, I knew that I was going to be disoriented. Besides the fact that I had to rush to the airport, my neighbor on the plane spoke to me in German, of which I understood nothing and playfully pretended to understand. As you know, Vienna is the capital and biggest city of Austria, and here everyone speaks German. At first, I got along fine just by saying “ja” and “nein” to order my toppings at the Döner kebab place (amusingly called Okay Pizza), but I got into a bit more trouble when I later told a waitress “sechs” (pronounced “sex”) to tell her that my tea was six euros.

In contrast, my friend Rebecca, who I was travelling with, has studied German for years and got along swimmingly. It was for that reason that I left any important communication and navigation to her when it wasn’t appropriate to say, “Ich spreche kein Deutsch” (“I speak no German”).

The first place that we went was to Freud’s House. As the birthplace of the neurologist and interpreter of dreams, Vienna is often called “The City of Dreams.” The house was a small exhibit, but nonetheless interesting to look around and find quotes like this:

“We have been led to distinguish two kinds of drives: those which seek to lead what is living to death, and others, the sexual drives, which are perpetually attempting and achieving a renewal of life…” ~ Sigmund Freud

Rebecca’s friend, Calvin, was also in Vienna by chance, and we also met up with Miriam, Calvin’s friend and a Vienna native. Miriam took us to an all-you-can-eat / pay-what-you-want Indian restaurant. With the warm smell of spices in the air, we painted all over the walls. When I was so full I could no longer move, we walked to a Weihnachtsmarkt (Christmas market). And there we continued to look, shop around and eat: Glühwein, a regional hot white wine with cinnamon and lemon, and chocolate-covered pretzels with almonds. We continued the night with some fruit tea at a dimly lit café and talked for hours while passing the long didgeridoo hookah. 

After a day’s worth of eating and rose hookah, Rebecca and I returned to our hostel expecting for the second night to not have roommates. When we walked inside our room, we were surprised to find two large men. They were from Romania and spoke poor English. One had a big scar on the side of his face; the other a thick mustache and menacing eyes. Rebecca and I tried our best to not be alarmed, but it was hard not to when the Romanian asked, “So, are you husband and wife?”

“Um, no…” Rebecca said.

“So you’re lovers?” Scarface retorted.

“No, we’re just friends. Really,” I assured Scarface and his associate.

Our answers proved imprudent later, when it became clearer that Scarface was hitting on Rebecca.

“I used your shampon,” Scarface said, rubbing his head in a shampooing motion.

“My shampoo? How?” Rebecca asked. It was then that I realized that the only shampoo in the shower was mine.

“I got you a present,” Scarface flirted awkwardly. We never did figure out what was his present, for when he said this, he swiftly threw a bag on the floor.

Throughout the rest of the night, they continued to talk loudly at inappropriate hours. And even though we couldn’t speak Romanian, we determined that “da” means “yes” and that they were plotting to kill us in our sleep. No, just kidding… but Rebecca did keep crocheting needles by her bed in case of attack.

The following day, we couldn’t wait to be rid of our Romanian roommates. We layered up for the cold outside and headed to Zentralfriedhof Cemetary, where Beethoven’s grave can be found. It was a brisk, sunny day and Zentralfriedhof was both ominous and intriguing. To cheer ourselves up, we went to Aïda, a Viennese pastry shop and espresso bar. At Miriam’s urging, I ordered the “sachertorte,” a dense chocolate cake with a layer of apricot jam. She got something drowning in whipped cream, and Rebecca noshed on another chocolate specialty. By the end, a wheelbarrow was necessary to roll us out of the café.

For our last day in Vienna, Rebecca and I visited the Schönbrunn Palace, a 1,441-roomed labyrinth of the Habsburg Dynasty. We saw the room where Motzart played for the first time when he was six, walked around the gardens, and climbed towards Gloriette, an enormous building on top of a 60-meter hill. The Schönbrunn is a majestic building and a testament to the country’s historic economic and political power. And although I was impressed, I decided that eating off of plates with my face on it is not appealing…

On the whole, my trip to Vienna was unordinary and disorienting in a good way. As the gateway to Eastern Europe, Vienna has a different culture and feel. The city certainly follows an order that is not present in France. Here, pedestrians obediently wait for the “walk sign” and drivers don’t honk their horns. In fact, despite the action of my bizarre roommates, Vienna seemed to be frozen by the cold.

Getting Locked Out & Saying “Good Journey”

Saying goodbye is never easy. Last weekend, as the semester came to a close—and my endurance dwindled from the mental strain of final exams—I had to say goodbye to many of the friends that I made over the last several months. The exchange students had one final soirée at David’s villa where we merrily celebrated our time and confessed how we care for each other. Sometimes with tears in our eyes, we pushed our friendship together in squishy embraces and laughed at the fond memories. I will miss Chinese Food Thursdays with Marcos, my Brazilian friend, after OB class every week. And I’ll think about climbing to top of the Arc de Triomphe with Erica and barely making it to the top without dying of laughter. I won’t forget how falling off the club stage while dancing with Michelle. And as Brian ships off to Rome and Laurent continues his studies in Montreal, I’ll miss my three-man sailing crew. I’ll remember photo-bombing with Trina, the Mormon with violet hair, eating foie gras with Sami and Ambre, and fraternizing with the many Skemians who became my chums (you know who you are!).


For my final goodbye, I went to Eliza’s apartment on Sunday morning. My flight to Vienna was at the same time as her flight to Philadelphia, so we planned to travel to the airport together. Before leaving France, we dropped our luggage in her flat for a moment and grabbed some pastries down the street. As we were coming back from our breakfast snack, Eliza clung to her pockets, wide-eyed, and realized that she had left her keys inside the locked apartment. Two and a half hours before we were leaving the country for winter break… Our poor suitcases sat abandoned inside the confines of her apartment, and her disobedient keys rested on the kitchen counter.

“Holy shit,” Eliza panted, “what are we gonna do? I can’t even get inside the building.” Frantically, we began buzzing at random until a half-naked and heavy-eyed guido buzzed us into the building. We sprinted up the stairs, hoping that Eliza, the ditzy freshman that she is, had also forgotten to lock the front door… still locked. Pulling a James Bond, I tried to be slick and pry the door open with my student ID. That didn’t work, so I started digging a whole in the door with my keys. When I got really desperate, I just banged really hard against the door, awaking the neighbors and leaving me bruised. We called several friends who laughed at us for our stupidity, and finally we called an emergency locksmith in very broken French.

The “locksmith” showed up 50 minutes later with a Nascar jacket and a motorcycle helmet. Why was this guy showing up to work on a Sunday morning with no tools, no badge, dressed like a race-car driver? He walked into the building with a sheet of thin plastic—like the kind that X-rays are printed on—slid it up the doorway and unlocked Eliza’s door effortlessly. We proceeded to rejoice, quickly called a cab, and promptly threw our suitcases down three flights of stairs. When we made it into the cab, we had to shell out a hefty fee for the taxi ride (as did Eliza for the locksmith’s services), but finally we made it and hobbled to the finish.

When we finally arrived to the airport, we started cracking up Eliza’s impeccable timing. It went from distressing to entertaining in a matter of minutes. Eliza looked like she a midget being swallowed by her bags. We pulled the oversized baggage by their straps across like Snookie pulls Guidettes by their scalps. I complimented Eliza on pulling a true freshman move, but then texted her to get home safely. Indeed, it was an experience I wasn’t expecting, but one that I certainly won’t forget. Getting locked out will be just another one of my fond memories of the fall semester exchange students. Next semester’s exchange kids have some big shoes to fill. I’ll miss them a lot, but as my wise friend, Nashir, always says, “It’s never goodbye, just good journey.”

Winter Break: “Mini Tour” of Europe

For anyone who has ever traveled anywhere, you know that it’s not for the faint of heart. Before coming to France at the end of August, I made the decision to stay for the  year. As hard as it was at first, explaining to my friends and family that I wouldn’t be returning to the USA for Christmas or Spring Break, eventually they came on board and supported me. So, I bought a 1-way ticket and ended up here.

It’s been 3.5 months and 1 national holiday. In less than 2 weeks it will be Christmas and a week later, New Year’s. As most of my exchange friends prepare their return home at the end of the week, I am busying myself by planning my own European holiday. I will miss my family a lot for the holidays, but I am very much looking forward to doing something outlandish. Like traveling to Austria, for instance. Or staying with my hippy French aunt. Or spending New Year’s in Rome.

So, here’s my plan! At the end of this week, once finals are done kicking my ass, I will fly to the far-off-land of Vienna to meet a friend, Rebecca, where we hope to wreak havoc on another innocent part of Europe. Just playing. We’ll most likely milk a few cows, meet Schwarzenegger, and go prancing through the rolling hills of the prairie, singing The Sound of Music.

After that, I’ll catch a plane back to Nice, carpool with a complete stranger for 6 hours, and stay with my aunt and “rustic” French family in the boondocks of France. I expect it to be a very slow week in Auvergne, since it’s one of the least populated regions in all of Europe, and has more kinds of cheese than people. Considering the fact that my extended French family just recently got running water in the house, and still lacks an indoor bathroom, I suspect Christmas in Auvergne will be an interesting one… (more on that later)

To end winter break, I will fly from middle-of-nowhere France to the capital city of Italy, Rome. Gianna, a native Roman, will give the grand tour to me and my two exchange friends. Rome sounds pretty badass, in and of itself, but New Year’s in Rome should be la cerise sur le gâteau (the cherry on the cake). After that, it’s back to Antibes and 5 more months of this thing crazy thing called “study abroad.”

I’m looking forward to my “mini-tour” of Europe. 1 man, 3 countries. Can he do it? Oh, and I was serious about milking that cow…