Viva l’Italia: Reflections

Needless to say, the trip was amazing. I was traveling with some of my best friends to an absolutely beautiful place and doing and seeing things that many people never have the chance to experience in their lives. Every day I kept mentally pinching myself, reminding myself how lucky I was to be there and just trying to take everything in, which was difficult because there was just so much to see. We packed a very busy schedule into 12 days, so upon coming home I felt like my brain needed some time to process everything we did. And now, after posting all 1200-some pictures and showing them to family and a few friends, I feel like I can more adequately some up the major things I took away from the experience.

  • I want to see the world. My favorite thing about the trip was immersing myself in another culture and experiencing all the little things that are different, seeing how another people lives, just exploring. Having done that in one place, I can’t wait to do it in others.
  • Nothing in the U.S. is old. I’ve been lucky enough to travel with my family to most of the historic sites in this country, so I have an appreciation for old buildings and monuments. But singing in a church built in the 300s really puts all our 1600s and 1700s items to shame.
  • I still can’t believe how kind the people of Brugherio were. Brugherio is a town of about 30,000, about 25 minutes outside Milan, and the town had raised tens of thousands of dollars to help fund our visit, publicity had been going for more than a year and our posters were everywhere. They were so friendly to us and so interested in our visit. Their resident artist, who I think is a bigger deal than we realized, gave each member of the choir a copy of Gaffurio’s treatises with a handmade, unique cover.
  • Our concert in Brugherio was probably one of the most amazing performance experiences I’ve ever had. The church was absolutely packed — it seemed like the entire town had come — and the emotional response to our music was overwhelming. It was very unique to sing in English and have the audience not know the meaning of each words, and vice versa for singing in Latin and Italian. Still, the audience was engaged with every piece, regardless of language. They stood up for us after the first half, and, in fact, the group of college boys we’d been hanging out with were the first to give us a standing ovation. That would never happen in America.
  • There are no big cars. Tiny smart cars are everywhere, as are motorcycles. But it’s not like in America. Women ride motorbikes in pantsuits and heels. Same goes for bicycles, which usually have big baskets on the front. That’s how I’m getting around campus next year.
  • The music we had been working on all semester took on a greater meaning on this trip. We sang our song about the crucifixion in front of Michaelangelo’s sculpture of Mary holding Jesus. We sang a Gaffurio mass in front of a portrait of Gaffurio. We sang a hymn in front of (literally) the saint who wrote it. We sang in front of a lot of things, to the point that it got a bit old, but it helped me so much to engage in the music and really get at the emotional core of our pieces.
  • I really wished I had done better research before the trip. Things had been really crazy beforehand, but being there made me wish I knew my religious and musical history better. It was amazing being in places that I knew were instrumental in the creation of music as we know it and in the beginnings of Christianity and Catholicism, but I also know I could’ve appreciated it more if I had really known what I was looking at.
  • I’m going to learn to speak Italian. I wanted to before the trip, but time just got away from me. Still, the little bit I knew was immensely helpful and made interacting with the people so much fun. I was also incredibly jealous of the Italians my age who were bilingual or trilingual, even if they aren’t quite fluent. Europe definitely does it the right way, having students learn multiple languages at a young age. For my future travels, for the beauty of the language and for the fun of learning it, I’m determined to do it.
  • I took far too many pictures. I’m usually the one with the camera, but I outdid myself on this trip. But I justify it this way: Throughout my life I’ve traveled to historical and educational places with my family, but none of us had ever been to Europe, so I wanted them to see the things I was seeing. So many times on the trip I wished my mom were there or that my brother could see what I was seeing, so I guess I decided myself that they would travel Italy vicariously through my camera. Too bad I had so many pictures that I think my slideshow ended up boring them.
  • I can’t get over the intricacy of the art and architecture in cathedrals. Every time I saw the Duomo it took my breath away. There’s an attention to detail on the churches we saw that you just don’t get on modern buildings. Every inch is beautifully decorated, including spots that no one will ever see. It’s even more astounding when you think of the means the creators had, compared to what we have today.
  • There’s a surprising lack of security in these old buildings and churches. Sometimes they checked my bag; sometimes they didn’t. In America we wouldn’t be able to bring in cameras or waters or cell phones if things were half this important, but the Italians don’t seem too worried about it.
  • I’ve never been stared at so much in my life. I was called Barbie, asked if I came from Sweden and asked if I am Finnish. I guess I took for granted the diversity of hair color, eye color and complexion in America, but it was weird to stand out as a blonde, particularly because staring isn’t rude there. The flipside of this was that I realized there are places in the world where everyone is blond — that would also be a strange experience for me.
  • Our stereotype of Italians is correct: They are all well-dressed and attractive. However, we proved their stereotype of Americans (fat and eating at McDonald’s) wrong.
  • The street signs are very different. Most are circles. And they’re quite amusing. Any time children are depicted, the little girls have pigtails with bows.
  • Graffiti is everywhere, but I think it’s more culturally accepted. And there seem to be unwritten rules about buildings that are ok to graffiti and others that are off limits.
  • They have the best fresh fruit and yogurt I’ve ever had. But they don’t eat much in the way of raw vegetables, particularly in the northern parts. We were told this is because vegetables are difficult to grow. Being a vegetarian, it was very strange to me to not see salads as a standard item.
  • I was disappointed to find that I like Americanized Italian food better than authentic Italian food. We always serve olive oil with bread, which they don’t, and we serve pastas with saucey sauces, which they don’t. The bread is really crunchy, and the sauces are rather light. I never saw alfredo. Nonetheless, I could never get tired of eating pizza, pasta and bread. We also had a lot of risotto and plates of thinly shaved meat (which I passed on). Almost always, the meal came with pork. I don’t think I saw any cooked bird the entire trip. If we got salad, it came in the middle of the courses, not at the start. Dessert is not a given the way it is in the U.S. Sometimes we got espresso instead. When we did get dessert, it usually tasted of coffee or alcohol. Or both.
  • Eating every meal was an adventure. We never knew how many courses there would be, which made it difficult to budget our appetites. We also frequently had difficulty figuring out what exactly was put in front of us sometimes, but standard meal would be some combination of this. First course: pasta. Second course: salad (in the south). Third course: meat (thinly shaved in the north, meat and potatoes in the south). Fourth course: risotto. Fifth: dessert. Sixth: espresso.  We rarely had all of those course, but don’t get me wrong — we did a lot of eating. And it could take hours. Sometimes we didnt’ start dinner until midnight, and sometimes we started at 8 but didn’t finish until midnight.
  • They don’t put salt and pepper on the table.
  • Wine is a given. And it’s cheap. And it’s good. I’ve never really liked wine in the States, but I also haven’t tried much of it. Since it came with every meal, I drank it and found that it was quite enjoyable. One night we had an absolutely delicious bottle of white Chardonnay. Best part was it cost 2.30 Euro.
  • The Italians don’t seem to eat that much chocolate.
  • They also don’t seem to pee. Public bathrooms are almost impossible to find, which does not bode well for the super-hydrated, such as I.
  • Everyone smokes. All the time. And as much as I know that’s how it is in Europe, I still don’t get it.
  • The streets are so unorganized. On the one hand, it’s frustrating to look at a map and see a big mess and have a hard time navigating. On the other, it was cool to know that that was because of how old the streets are. The cities weren’t mapped out in advance, and the tiny streets were laid out centuries and centuries ago.
  • It really is as beautiful as I imagined and as everyone says. But for everyone who raved about Rome, Milan is better. It’s cleaner, classier and more beautiful. On the other hand, Rome had better gelato, and you can’t beat the ancient history there.
  • Everyone is in love in Italy. Couples holding hands are walking around everywhere. Couples making out (and more) are sitting around everywhere.
  • We took an eight-hour bus ride from Milan to Rome, and some people dreaded it, but it was one of my favorite parts of the trip. I loved seeing the countryside, the ancient farm homes, the vineyards, the villages built right into mountains. It was truly beautiful.
  • My favorite part of the trip, without a doubt, was interacting with the people. I had so much fun communicating through the language barrier. In Brugherio, we hung out with a group of college students who spoke very good English, but much translating and charades was still needed. I spoke with older people at concerts about our trip. I had a conversation with one man about Obama, Iraq and global warming. Bonus: two Egyptian men approached us in Milan to ask for directions, and we also chatted about American politics.
  • I love my friends, and I love choir. It’s hard to go through two weeks with a large group without getting frustrated with people, but it worked. I’m so grateful that I got to spend this trip with some of my favorite people in the entire world. And even though sometimes I didn’t feel like singing, the musical backdrop of our trip made many things much more meaningful. Plus, we had the opportunity to sing in and visit some breathtaking churches with astounding acoustics.
  • I’m going back. I can’t wait to see it again, and I want to revisit my Brugherian friends. Also, because traveling with a group of 60 gets tedious and exhausting, I really want to do this trip (and more) on my own terms, with either my family or a small group of friends. I’ve officially been bitten by the international travel bug.
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