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  • Writer's pictureZanny Merullo Steffgen

Explorations

Up until the last few days of my time in Naples, I had no plans after my volunteer work ended. As the reality set in that I needed somewhere to go, I caught wind of the plan of two of my fellow volunteers to spend a week in Florence after their programs ended. A large part of this adventure is picking up on opportunities as they present themselves to me, so I decided to come along with them. Looking back on that time from a month later,  I can say it was one of the best decisions I’ve made. Here are some of the highlights of my time in Florence:

  1. The hostel we stayed in was called “The Florence Experience” and it certainly was an experience! 75 people were packed into several rooms crammed with bunk beds, and all of us shared a total of four bathrooms. I learned which bathroom to avoid within the first ten minutes of my arrival. The floor was smudged with dirt, the bathroom smelled so strongly that when I brushed my teeth I had to pinch my nose closed as to avoid gagging, and during my first shower (in which the water ranged from freezing cold to burning hot and every couple of minutes slowed to a slow drip before regaining its only barely stronger pressure) the lights randomly went out for a period of five minutes.  Even with the long waiting times for the not-so-clean bathrooms, the rooms with creaky beds and filled with snoring guests, and the cramped living situations, I had a wonderful time at The Florence Experience. Since I had booked the place for five nights with my friends and had no alternative, I decided to give in to the experience, to forget small comforts and just live out my time there fully. As soon as I made that mental change, I started to enjoy myself. Every night at 9 pm one of the hostel workers made an enormous batch of pasta, and another hostel employee pranced around singing “the paaaastaaaa iiiiis reaaady, the paaasta iiis reaaaady” until all the guests filled up the kitchen and lined up down the hallways to receive their large portion of steaming hot food. I learned to get to the kitchen early to get a seat at the table, and made friends with the man who cooked the pasta (a guy from Morocco who had moved to Italy ten years ago and dearly missed home). Because I asked him about his life, he often gave me seconds (or thirds when he made pasta with pesto which is my favorite food of all time) and made me coffee in the mornings. One of my friends from Napoli and I would sit in the kitchen and talk to whoever happened to be there. We met one guy who had traveled around Italy working in hostels for a short period of time and cooked us delicious Australian omelettes, an Australian girl who kept a tube of Vegemite on her at all times, a girl from South Africa who was nannying in Belgium, a man who claimed to have found a lost Michelangelo painting, and a whole host of other characters with interesting stories. All in all it was a wonderful Florence Experience.

  2. The first day, the three of us rented bicycles for 7 euros and spent the afternoon biking around Florence. We saw the view from Piazzale Michelangelo, found a park to bike through (the boys raced each other while I struggled to keep up on a bike without gears), explored the streets, and ended up at a gelateria before returning our bikes and walking back to the Piazzale to watch the sun set over Florence.

  3. We decided to splurge on a vespa wine tour of Tuscany! We were brought in vans out into the countryside, had twenty minutes to learn how to ride the vespas and practice in a parking lot, then were off! We followed one of the instructors in a line through the hills of Tuscany, stopping every so often at a vineyard or other particularly picturesque spot to take photos. For lunch we were served various bruschetta, wine, bread, the best pasta with ragù I’ve ever eaten, and a delicious chocolate cake. There we talked to the other people taking a tour- including a young man who worked for the NBA and a girl and her mother who had a house in Easthampton, Mass near where I live! Our last stop on the tour was a castle in the Poppiano area where the count and countess run a business making wine and olive oil. We had a quick tour of the winery that included an incredible view from a tower of the castle, then had a wine and olive oil tasting before heading back into Florence. It was a wonderful day.

  4. One morning the three of us headed to the world famous sandwich shop called All’Antico Vinaio for the best panino I’ve ever eaten in my life. I had one with fennel salami, Pecorino cream, artichoke spread, and spicy eggplant. We somehow resisted eating our sandwiches as we walked from the shop to a park, then sat at a picnic table, played music, and ate. Afterwards we played frisbee and sat on the grass listening to summer songs and basking in the sun.

  5. I’m grateful for all the sunsets we watched together, usually with a bottle of wine. There was one night we didn’t make it to the Piazzale on the hill, so we stood on the Ponte Vecchio talking about life and watching tourists take pictures as the sun went down and a street musician played his somber tunes. There was another night when we were joined by one of my good friends from Rimini who studies in Florence, and we sat on the steps of Piazzale Michelangelo, passing around plastic cups of wine and talking in Italian and English.

At the end of our week together, the three of us had a wonderful relationship. We made each other laugh, teased each other, and knew each other even better than we had during our time volunteering together in Napoli. I am lucky that we got along so well and that I had such a good time with two great guys in Florence.

After my time in Florence, I booked a small apartment for myself in Forlì, a town near Rimini where I had a friend who studied. It was nice to be in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy again after so much time down south! The apartment I rented for a few days was absolutely wonderful, and felt so luxurious after my time in a hostel. I had some time to myself to research plans for the next few weeks, rest, cook, and see my friend. I also explored the town’s park which was full of bunny rabbits! I then spent a night in Rimini to see my former host family. I took my host siblings for gelato, then had a sushi dinner with them and my host parents and had the most wonderful time. My host siblings had turned thirteen (they were ten when I first met them) and showed signs of maturity that had developed since the last time I’d seenthem. They were both so calm and steady in themselves, they spoke to me in very good English, and were filled with stories for me from school and their travels. I have a very deep connection with my former host mother, Carmela, and after a conversation with her I always feel completely seen and understood. That was no different this time, and I was so happy to see her excelling in her career and filled with joy. After dinner the five of us gathered around the coffee table in the living room, covered in blankets, sipping tea and talking and laughing together and I was filled with so much love and gratitude that these people had entered my life three years ago!

From there I booked a ticket to join my friend from Forlì and his friends in Berlin. I had met this friend two years ago in line for a flight to Italy (he was Italian and had studied abroad in Massachusetts), and we sat next to each other and talked the whole flight about the difference between the two cultures and our study abroad experiences. I had seen him once again last summer, and then decided to take the opportunity to go to Berlin with him and see something new. Here are some of my thoughts on that experience:

  1. The hostel we stayed in was by far the nicest I’ve ever been in (called the Generator Mitte if anyone will be in Berlin any time soon). It was full of rooms with either 9 or 12 bunks and a private bathroom and shower room, and everything was very clean and modern looking. There was a kitchen/lounge area with plenty of tables and board games, a cafe that had a wonderful breakfast (a croissant, apple, yogurt, water, and unlimted coffee for 5 euros!), a pingpong table and courtyard, and a full bar with nightly events!

  2. The nightlife in Berlin was absolutely wild. There were tons of clubs, some very famous, and most very hard to get into. As we stood in the lines for each club, we came up with a plan (“you two go together, then you two, then me. Don’t speak Italian, speak English!”), but more often than not the bouncers simply shook their heads when we approached. One club we managed to get to was called Suicide Circus, and is a place that I think will forever be in my nightmares. It was more of a smoky pit with a dirt floor than a club, and there was violent techno music blasting and the strangest people I had ever seen dancing to the music in a kind of trance.

  3. The best night I had in Berlin is when I opted to go out with some friends from my hostel room and people they had met instead of the Italians that I had originally come to the city with. We all played card games in the hostel and then went out to a karaoke bar to celebrate the birthdays of two girls. More and more people joined as we went- Australians, Americans, Irish, Italians. We got up on the stage and belted out several songs, then got a private room to continue the music.

  4. The city itself I think will forever haunt me. Not only was the weather miserable (at one point it starting hailing while I was walking around) and the food awful, but I felt the presence of the ugly history wherever I went. The buildings were large and imposing, fragments of the Berlin wall stood to remind everyone of a dark period not that long ago, and the memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe was absolutely eerie. I walked by a parking lot that had been the bunker where Hitler hid and where he and his lover committed suicide, and I could feel the terrible negative energy that surrounded the place. Walking around the city I felt constantly uneasy and afraid at a very deep level.

  5. I did make friends with the girl who slept in the bunk under me who was a wonderful person! We spent a lot of time together playing cards, eating, singing Ed Sheeran at karaoke, and walking around the city where she told me all the facts she remembered from the walking tour she’d done. Turns out we had a lot in common and got along so well that I visited her later in my travels! That is one of the best parts of staying in hostels, and the friends I made in Berlin were the highlight of my time there.

From Berlin I returned to Italy, where I stayed a day in Rimini so I could visit with all of my friends who were back from university for Easter. I met up with three of my close friends for a dinner of gelato one night. We talked about their new university lives, what everyone we had gone to high school with was doing, and then walked around the city center like we used to on Saturday nights. It was wonderful to see those people who had been so important to me during my time in Rimini, and I felt just as comfortable with them as ever. Seeing them again made it clear to me how much we had all grown up.  I am grateful to have friends who I don’t see often but who still mean so much to me!

Stay tuned for my stories from Ireland…

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