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Archive for the ‘culture’ Category

While it may seem unusual, I can literally pinpoint my obsession with Europe to one single day in the fall of my 21st year.

At 21, all I wanted to do was sail off into the sunset.

From the summer after I had graduated high school just over three years prior, there had been a constant tug of war between both my mother and myself. I had dreamed of heading off to the islands and gaining my “education” through adventurous experiences, crewing on a boat around the world. However, this free “diploma” was not the one my mother had intended to hang on her wall. Being the coercive leo that she is, she did everything she could to literally stuff me in the car and drive me off to college right on time with everyone else, at the young age of 18 (while I played Jimmy Buffett tunes and sang about how “I don’t know where I’m a gonna go…”).

Feeling defiantly boxed into a corner, I made good on my outspoken promise to be seen but not participate. I went through the motions of heading to class, but engaged all of my effort into my fraternity boyfriend, throwing the biggest parties in the dorm, and living the “coolest” new-found life of freedom that I could.

While my shallow existence could have easily continued on for a lifetime of trivial pursuits, a series of unexpected events that would quickly unravel over the next few years taught me first-hand the meaninglessness of the path that I was on. It was as though someone grabbed ahold of the steering wheel and made a very sharp, dramatic turn, setting the car that was my life onto an unknown road I had never seen before.

Once I was on this unexpected road, however, I never had any interest in turning back. The road began to hurriedly climb a steep mountain which I now knew had always been near at hand, but had never noticed. As I sat helplessly in the passenger seat, I turned my head to gaze out the window where I could see everyone I had left behind, all so far below. They seemed to be congealed together in a great mass, all struggling and writhing for the little bits of happiness that they could find here and there. It looked miserable, almost shocking really, and I wondered why I had never viewed it that way before.

And then, suddenly, the car stopped someplace far up the deserted mountain, surrounded by a dense, misty grey fog. Like a magic trick it disappeared and I was left standing alone never to know who the driver was or why I had literally been abandoned there. All I knew was that I now only desired to continue journeying upwards.

Symbolic metaphors aside, daily life continued on and my mother, still desperate to hang on to her dream of seeing me through college, found a school she thought I would like and suggested their program to me. A little more open to the idea of education at this point, which stemmed from a burgeoning intellectual curiosity about life, I wandered through the catalog until something caught my eye. At first it was religious studies, but then it was humanities. Before long, I was registered in courses for both European history as well as European art history.

And that leads me to the day that I mentioned earlier. The one day where it all definitively began.

My mind filled with so many fascinating subjects, I now felt a deeper calling to be in a place with so much history and culture.

Completely alone, I had locked myself in my bedroom to study. Sitting on the small round carpet on my floor, I leaned against the wall, tilted my head to the right and gazed out the window next to me. The textbook I had been reading lay idle in my lap, its pages open to an image of medieval Europe and the great universities that had once paved the way for the educational system that we know now. My mind seemed to bob gently up and down in a sea of art and history, the middle ages and the Roman times, culture and legendary figures. I gazed at the blue sky so far above, dotted with gently drifting clouds and thought to myself both dreamily and yet with a deeply profound determination that I did not recognize yet, “I am going to live in Europe some day. One day, I am going to be at one of those universities. One day.”

It was as simple as that. A seed was planted in fertile soil and I never could forgot that moment and the call to Europe that I had first felt. That one, single thought lingered in my life, like an anchor that I somehow knew I needed, and continued to grow. It was a part of me in a deep, hidden way that was unexplainable, and still is.

I hung on to it through many trials. Such a radical turn in an individual’s life as the one I was experiencing was hard to prove stable to others, but I began to work seriously at my studies and eventually was accepted to a solid American university where I graduated Magna cum Laude.

But I was not done there. I continued to hang on to it even when others told me that it never could be. My boyfriend used to laugh good-naturedly at my insistence that I would go to school in Europe some day. Acquaintances thought I was full of smoke and enjoyed gossiping about how it was all a pipe dream. Maybe a study abroad program for a semester would be nice, but to get a full degree somehow seemed unreasonable to them. Yet the more that small seed grew, the more I hungered for what was trying to manifest itself into my reality.

I hung on to it as I made my applications to graduate school abroad, hand shaking from a fiance who had tried to tear all hope out of me. I continued to hang onto it on the airplane the day that I finally left, as the engines revved and the aircraft began to slowly pull away. I hung on to it as sitting there in my window seat the realization that this was it brought a sledge-hammer down on my life, tearing it apart and dividing it in two.

I hung onto it that first night in Ireland, when all I could do was lay on the unmade bed in my dorm room and stare at the ceiling, too overwhelmed to understand where I was or what I was doing. Through homesickness, culture shock and a multitude of challenges to complex to describe here, I refused to let it go. I hung on to it because it was the one thing I knew I could not let go of without loosing apart of myself. It was truly apart of me. It was my dream. The anchor of my life.

In the end, I walked down not one but two aisles to receive two European degrees. And when everyone had thought it was over, and it was time for me to stop living in a dream and to take up reality, I still hung on to it. I ran with my gut and listened to what it was telling me, and went in that direction only. And today, I write this from my flat in Rome.

I will always hang onto it. It is apart of who I am. You know you were destined for something when it comes true despite what everyone else is telling you. Promises are like that. They only whisper to the promised and no one else can hear them but the one they are speaking to.

It can be hard to listen and let yourself be led. But a call will lead, if you allow it, as mine is still leading, up that misty, mysterious mountain, to a destiny shaped only for you.

As I fall asleep tonight, I cannot help but wonder what it is that I am journeying to. What awaits me at the highest peak of the mountain? It is a question whose answer continues to elude me, in the most tantalizing way, and so I am thankful for the still unknown journey that lays ahead.

And, for mom.

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It was a perfect night to be back in Rome. Cool, moonlit, and still February – i.e.  few foreign travellers. Rome at its most authentic. Perfecto!

After a long day that had commenced at 6 am sharp, and included a delightful but challenging trip to the medieval hill town of Todi (the small train service to Todi had stopped connecting to my layover train station for one day only, and so I unexpectedly had to rely on my little Italian to find an alternate route), I could not help but smile as the train rolled in to Termini station in Rome.

Popping my i-Pod earphones into my ears, I zipped up my coat and was out the train door in no time. Maneuvering around the first-timers and the crowds of travellers, I knew exactly where to head and it felt good. Like being home again.

Stepping out onto the Piazza dei Cinquecento, the large, busy piazza in front of Rome’s bustling Termini station, I dodged busses, gypsies, nuns, and a wide variety of visitors and locals. Saturday night in Rome – a great time for re-exploring a favorite city!

I literally bounced with enthusiasm down Via Nazionale, with all its traffic and evening shoppers, to the little meandering streets. Lost in my own casual world I made the rounds to some of the classic top sights. Politely excusing myself from the advances of cute Italians who can smell an American from a mile away, I tossed a coin in the gushing Trevi fountain, illuminated by the dazzling glow of  blue-green lights (I have myself convinced I must do this every time I even pass by the Trevi fountain and somehow I keep coming back to Rome!), admired some very good street art, and continued on my way to the Pantheon.

The hustle and bustle in Rome on a Saturday night in winter is perfect. Crowded enough to be interesting, but not too crowded to be frustrating. The voices around you are generally soft and Italian, so you feel more like one of the locals. No shrill tourists distracting you from the ambience. Just perfect, and I was enjoying every moment.

As I entered the square where the Pantheon has proudly stood for millenia, I could hear the sounds of a talented Opera singer softly drifting across the piazza from a distance. Under the moonlight, I curiously circled the fountain in the center of the square and came upon a rather large group of people gathered in a semi-circle, applauding the talent of a young Italian Opera singer.

My interest piqued, I slowly made my way through the crowd. Like a scene in a movie, the unknown faces drifted past, one by one. The center of their attention, the young Italian, was making adjustments to a small CD player that was connected to a speaker system. Was he really singing, I wondered? What I had heard from a distance seemed extremely good.

Satisfied with his CD player, he gently set  it down, stepped back, stood tall and proud, and expectantly waited with all of us as the music began to fill the square once more. To hear such beautiful tones of violins, persuasively drawing towards a full orchestra of sound was, without a doubt, a very pleasant surprise on an evening stroll.

Finding a good position in the front of the crowd, I watched as he extended his arms and music began to flow from his lips. This was definitely real and he was not improvising. And he was good, very good!

After all, for good entertainment in Rome you could easily pay more than would leave you smiling, but here was the option to enjoy completely free, quality entertainment with a legendary backdrop.

Standing under the stars, the warmly glowing Pantheon directly behind him, encircled by a crowd of admirers, and gesturing with Operatic fervor, this was definitely a moment to be thankful for.

He sang famous numbers, such as “Nessun Dorma,” earning the eager applause of those around him. Families took pictures, couples lingered, it was an enchanting moment under the magical Roman nite sky.

After his performance, the people flocked to him for CD’s, to shake his hand, share opinions, etc. I waited with the masses until I could obtain his card.

And he was as sweet as could be. When I spoke to him, he was so polite and turned down the music that had continued playing in the background to listen to my request. He obligingly rummaged for a card and I walked away with a new delightful memory of another Saturday night in Rome. (And yes, I did tip him! 😉

Next time you are going to be in Rome, send Antonio Nicolosi an e-mail at antoniocantante@yahoo.it and see if he has any plans to be performing on one of the many piazzas at night. If so, you will be one of the blessed few to enjoy a warm performance against a spectacular backdrop for nothing more than the tips you may wish to contribute. And tell him Alexandra sent you 😉

He also does events for parties and ceremonies, so if you are planning a special get together or even a wedding you may want to be in touch.

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Culture shock can happen to anyone, even the happiest among us!

So you finally did it! You splurged on the tickets, braved the long flight, fought the jet lag, thrilled at the new stamp drying on your passport, haggled with the taxi driver, and at last wearily set your bags down in your new room (without the promised view). You manage an exhausted yet triumphant smile as you pass out on the lumpy bed – you are now a world traveller!

Despite the fact that an hour later you are running on caffeine and some puffy creamy thing that you paid 2 Euros for from a surly bartender who stiffed you the correct change (you might be new at this but you can still count!), your excitement has not waned. You begin exploring your surroundings with an eager eye, yet you cannot help but notice a strange feeling creeping in. Something inside you just feels, well, off.

Brushing this unusual inner emotion away, you continue your new explorations. But as the days pass, things still feel not quite right. Is this going to affect your trip negatively, you wonder?

The situation above, while fabricated, is not uncommon. Culture shock is an experience that many travellers are not prepared for, do not know how to recognize, and therefore are unable to manage wisely. I have heard from many people who, on their early journeys abroad, said that they were uncomfortable  because of the strange “feeling” that followed them. Some have even said it ruined their entire trip.

Fortunately though, many travellers before you have experienced this, gradually learned to understand what it is, and can now share their insight in a helpful way. I am one of those travellers who has been dragged through the College of Culture Shock in the School of Traveller’s Hard Knox, but my free education has proven priceless in how I handle my travels – and maybe it can be of some help to you.

My first trip to Europe was in 2001. I was young, excited, and terribly misled about what to expect. I thought Europe would be everything I had seen in postcards, studied in history books, and dreamed about in travel guides, so I was not prepared for the confusion of hideous modern urban developments and most of all, that nagging feeling that something was wrong.

Back home in the states, I shared with friends my conviction that this feeling  must have stemmed from the country that I had been visiting. For some years after I firmly believed something was wrong with that country or else it would not have put off such a terribly uncomfortable vibe.

In the fall of 2005 I moved to Dublin, Ireland where I was to live for the next 9 months. Thrown into the culture and life of the city, I began to notice that same ugly feeling rearing its head all over again, the feeling that something was definitely wrong. I could sense it everywhere, and the worst part was that I could not shake it. I wanted to be free of  it desperately, just to feel for a moment that everything was right. But it followed me everywhere, as though I was trapped and imprisoned in an uncomfortable cloud of energy that I could not escape from. It truly felt like I was being stifled and I could not escape.

I began to naturally miss home, and there were nights when I am sure I looked more like a home sick school girl than a mature adult. So what can you do if you start experiencing similar feelings? Here are ten tips that I have compiled over the years which may prove useful to you or someone you know:

1) Educate yourself about culture shock before you travel. Read all you can and become well versed in recognizing the symptoms. That way if it happens to you, or someone with you, you can recognize it while it is happening and help yourself (or them). This ability will give you great power over it. I can now easily recognize culture shock if and when it begins to emerge, and I can grab it by the reigns and say “I control you, not the other way around!” And always remember it can happen anywhere you travel – even in an English speaking country.

2) Remember that culture shock can take many different forms at many different times. Not everyone’s experience will be the same. Some people can spend months in a culture before they start to experience such emotions while others can go through it immediately upon stepping off the plane. The intensity can vary as well. Travel is a personal experience and everyone processes it differently. So be kind to yourself if you experience it, or to anyone with you who is going through it.

3) If things begin to feel “off” or “creepy” remind yourself that this does not mean something is wrong with the country or place. It simply means that things feel “off” because to your mind, they are. Your mind is constantly processing information on levels that you are not aware of, and even the slightest cultural cues, if different from what you are used to or have seen before, can cause emotions leading to mild or severe culture shock. Being in a new culture, even if it is English-speaking, can confuse your mind on a very subconscious level. (This does not mean you should not use common sense – if you are on a dark street at 3 am [or any other unsafe situation] and you feel creeped out or that something is wrong,  for heaven’s sake get to safety!)

4) Try to remind yourself that this is an adventure. The challenge of an adventure is to experience all the different things around you with the spirit of a true world traveller – and that means bravely forcing yourself to adjust to all differences that do not compromise your morals, including the feelings that you are having.

5) When missing home, try to recall how much you dreamed about your trip. Remind yourself that you will eventually return home, back to your normal life. You have spent many years there and will for many more to come.  But this is a unique adventure, and adventures have real risks and hardships! Try to see yourself as an explorer and remember what the real explorers of old went through. At least you have a clean bed without rats for roommates!

6) Keep going. One symptom of culture shock is to shut down and hide in your room, so do not allow this to happen. It is hard if you are feeling unbalanced by the culture you are in, and it might be easier to You Tube the day away, but force yourself to get out and keep going.

7) Look for the positive. Instead of seeing the negatives, such as a dirty city, or things that you do not like, look for the good. Try to use your eyes like lasers, seeking out the positive around you and filtering out the negative. Try to remember that many people would be very happy to be in your shoes right now. You are a real explorer!

8) Try to speak the language if you are in a culture with a different form of communication. This can be a great help because many natives will be more receptive to a tourist trying to speak their language which can make you feel more welcomed. It also can make your trip more fun!

9) Avoid any forms of cultural arrogance. Sometimes you might want to just scream, “I want to hear English! I want to be on American soil! Why don’t they do things different here?” But don’t. Learning how to blend into another culture is a huge part of successful travel. First time Americans abroad can struggle with American pride, but trust me, you will only look to seasoned travellers like a toddler taking its first steps.

10) Remember that culture shock and missing home is not something that is easily conquered. While some people may breeze by without a whiff of shock, others can spend years of travelling before they overcome  feelings of culture shock and missing home. For me, it was the “keep going” attitude that did it. It took a long time, and many trips, but eventually I began to realize that when I go home I always end up missing travel after a while anyways – so why bother being nostalgic for home? And the feelings of something being wrong eventually go away as well. Now some places that I once felt uncomfortable in feel like home to me! It is all a matter of persistence and strong attitude. You can do it!

So there you are, 10 tips for successfully overcoming culture shock and feelings of homesickness. But remember, no list of tips can ever be an end in itself. It is experience and perseverance that always, in the end, win out. But hopefully these tips will help make you a little more prepared to make your trip (or the trip of someone with you) one you will look back on with a smile for years to come.

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As an M.A. candidate, I spent some time in the city of Assisi, Italy working on my dissertation. It was wonderful. I woke up every morning in my clean yet simple convent room, opened the shutters overlooking the misty valley below, breathed in the fresh air scented with warm burning fires, got dressed, and made the winding walk through narrow story-book streets to the Basilica di San Francesco.

I sat inside the church all morning, gazing upon a multitude of frescos and contemplating their layers of rich significance. I watched the tourists who were shuffled by in their guided groups – and I knew that they were missing so much. I wanted to should out “wait! Your guide is not telling you that there IS more to say about this fresco! Why is he passing it up so quick? Where are you going?!”

I thought to myself at the time, “I could spend the rest of my life doing this.” It was heaven.

Then, in the afternoon, I would head to the little cafe around the corner, where I would order some Italian delight and sip my espresso, while pouring over my notes. From time to time I would look up at the Basilica and just smile. The peace I was enjoying was enhancing everything about my experience and drawing out all the beauty around me.

But one afternoon, a group of American women sat down near me, and instead of smiling I wanted to groan – and if I had the self control of a 2 year old, I may have thrown my now “Gerbered” food at them in a rather unappealing way!

“I am so tired,” one lady complained.

“Me too,” the other agreed. “It is not what I expected.”

“Me neither. I expected more.”

“The other cities we went to were not ‘all that’ either – don’t you think?”

“M-hmm. I really do not care if I see anymore. I am going to go back to my room today. You can go on with the group if you want.”

“No, I agree with you. I am going to my room too.”

When you love someone, and another person insults them or says something negative, you want to rise to their defense. And that was how I felt – how dare they insult my beautiful, amazing, enchanting, perfect Assisi? This place is incredible? Are they blind?

But I had to remind myself that yes they were blind – blind in a very incurable way. They were the product of the typical over-hyped, under-educated, and thoroughly cattled tourist industry.

They had probably heard bits and pieces about Italy, but never taken the time to really study it in depth. They had probably seen certain movies and watched certain books but never really educated themself on the history and culture. Their expectations were therefore insanely high but unrealistic. (Yes, Italy is a real place and it can be very dirty and grity and real! But if you know how to cut through all that, it can also be amazing.)

Coupled with the mass “cattling” that they were likely experiencing in groups, rushed about on buses, and expected to “ooo” and “awe” over the same sights within 2 minutes, snap pictures in another 2, and head out in 5 – it was no wonder they could no longer really see and appreciate what was before them. They were tired, exhausted, and did not know what to look for. All they knew was that right now their eyes were no longer affecting their heart, and so Italy was not all that they “expected” it to be.

I think all travelers, both the experienced and the inexperienced, need to remember that travel is not an “extreme thrills” sport (some of it is, but that is for another group). You do not step on a plane and suddenly your system is overwhelmed with massive amounts of chemicals screaming to your brain “isn’t this amazing?!!!!” (Well, ok sometimes you are – but it is not 24/7 instant thrills.)

Travel is something that has to be done from the heart. And the heart is a sensitive creature. If other parts of your body are overwhelmed and not thinking clear, your heart will be too clouded to really truly perceive what is around it.

So here are some travel tips to protect your heart so that it can help your eyes find the beauty and joy in each day’s experiences:

1) Go slow – do not plan rushed trips unless you understand that it can have a major affect on your entire experience that is not positive.

2) Avoid group travel – herded about like cattle in a group of tourists from the same country as you is like living in a dense fog – and everything that you see will be filtered through bias. After all, it is like you are traveling in a patriotic American bubble formed by people who do not realize they have left their own country. And why leave American just to stay stuck in it?

3) Take rests as needed – if you need a few days, or even a week to sleep in, relax, and just not deal with having to rush from site to site – do it! But do not let yourself get to the point that you do not care anymore about what you see because your heart is so strangled by too many other things.

4) Educate yourself – try to educate yourself on any culture you are visiting beyond what is blurbed about their history in the travel guides. And please – at least learn “Do you speak English?” in their language.

5) Be realistic – no place is perfect. No matter what the photos show, or the videos promote, no place, however amazing, is heaven. Only heaven is heaven – we are living on Earth. So don’t expect perfection and you can find joy in all the imperfections around you.

6) Remember you are not in Kansas anymore – always try to appreciate another cultures ways of thinking and doing things. You may not like them, or agree, but if you fight against them you might as well stay home and make a day trip to Wal Mart.

Let your heart breathe – protect it – let it beat slowly and peacefully at times through your travels – and your journeys will reward you immensely!

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Bonjourno!

A lot has changed in the years since I first created this blog, and I have to admit that my poor blog has suffered greatly. (“Terribly sorry love – spot of tea?”)

I began the blog in the summer of 2007, before I moved to London, England to work on my second advanced degree at the University of London. At the time I thought that my blog’s focus would be on the inherent dignity of women, a subject which is very important to me and which I am sure will come up throughout this blog.

However, life got busy – and after graduation I worked at a museum for awhile before moving to New York City. I then thought that now I would have time to write – after all, I was in New York! The city that never sleeps! And certainly, after a long day, I would have the time to sit down and blog! After all, I did not need sleep! Who did? (Muffles long yawn.) This was Ne…w….Y…o…..r……k…….. (I am going to wake up with keyboard impressions on my face, aren’t I?)

Ok, so granted that did not exactly work out…

After living and working in Manhattan for a time, I decided to move back to the beach and just relax on the seashore for awhile – which I did. And as wonderful as it was to wake up every morning to ocean views and stunning sunrises, there just really is not that much to say about sitting on the ocean day after day.

“Day 275 – still on ocean – still beautiful. There goes a crab! Haven’t seen one of those in a while! Maybe I will go for a walk – if I ever get up off this lounge chair. Really should get something to eat….” Not exactly the essence of a great blog!

That was when Italy fever began to kick back in.

In the fall I came to Rome to “test drive” a flat that I had found online over the summer. And it worked great! It is a rather small flat in a 500 year old building, down a quiet medieval street (queit and medieval in noisy, Baroque Rome – thank you, thank you, thank you!) on the very top floor, with a huge terrace right outside my door. (And the tiniest washing machine I have ever seen! I mean tiny – remember Sylvanian Families? I think they donated this…)

The landlord was fabulous – a retired school teacher who lives on the other side of the top floor (7th floor – no elevatar – all winding marble steps with romantic candle-imitation lights on each floor). Her son lives in the unit above me (ok, so there is one more floor – but not really. His is a “fire escape” attic flat – out to the porch, then up some rickety iron stairs.)

Through my windows, I could look out over the rooftops (and church tops) and when the wind blew, try to pretend that the clanking shutters in a unit that forgot to secure their windows is really a romantic and authentic sound of the real Italia (a little delusion never hurts!).

Back home on the ocean, I was grateful to have all of my American ammenities back, but by the New Year I was restless as always. After being proposed to, and then entering into a long debate on the possible joys of marriage, I shook the rocks in my head out, went to see the movie “The Tourist” twice, became obsessed, and e-mailed the real estate agent in Rome who had helped me first find the flat back in the summer. “I am ready!” was my battle cry on the pleasantly stagnant seashore of my life. (I think I scared a crab.)

What is it that always calls me back? Despite all the great ammenities that I loose, the thrill of adventure and living in new places always pulls me on. But not any adventure – the story book kind. The kind with great challenges and trials, and thrilling rewards. The kind with windows into other places, times, and most of all, ways of viewing life.

These journeys are what I wanted to find. I have found them before, here and there, but now I want to set out to find them full force. This is what I was born to do.

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