Veni Vidi Vici

Five days in Rome.  Then five days in Paris.  Back to back.  Two of the most iconic cities of all time.  I can hardly hope to remember all of the little moments that made the trip what it was.  I have been trying to organize my thoughts about the cities.  Trying to piece together what everything meant to me.  In the process of doing this I came to the realization that traveling isn’t the seeing of new sights or meeting new people or trying new foods.  It’s not anything new at all.  It’s experiencing something old.  It’s experiencing an image that you have heard others talk about or seen in the movies or read in books but that always seemed so…fictional.  Travel is transcending that line and realizing that the only reason that image hasn’t seemed real is because you haven’t experienced it.

So what image came to my mind prior to going to Rome?  Red-checkered tablecloths.  Clinking bottles of red wine.  Soft accordion music.  Heaping mounds of spaghetti.  Plump dark-haired chefs loudly proclaiming “perfecto!” with puckered lips and a raised arm.  With this fragmented idea was ingrained the belief that it was in the realm of make believe because of my travel naivety.  After all, how accurate can an idea of a city be when it is formed from Hollywood-ized sources?  Rome couldn’t possibly be all that it was cracked up to be.  There had to be a catch.

I was wrong.  Rome was exactly what I grew up thinking it was, but better.  I felt like I had stepped right into a movie set.  As I walked along the Spanish Steps I became Audrey Hepburn from Roman Holiday and as I twirled some pasta around my fork, I saw myself as Julia Roberts from Eat Pray Love rediscovering the simple joy of food.

It’s difficult to put into words.  Rome was a series of moments.  Rome was in the violin music across from the bistro.  Rome was in the old Italian man wearing a beret walking down the cobblestone street.  Rome was in the dramatic Italian plays.  I think I understand now why when Rome is depicted in the movies, it is always the same few things that are shown.  The feeling of Rome is easier to grasp in those things!  Most of Rome must be experienced to understand.  So I will try to sum Rome up in a few words.  Elizabeth Gilbert says much more eloquently what I am trying to in this excerpt from Eat Pray Love:

He said, “Don’t you know that the secret to understanding a city and its people is to learn—what is the word of the street?”

Then he went on to explain, in a mixture of English, Italian and hand gestures, that every city has a single word that defines it, that identifies most people who live there.  If you could read people’s thoughts as they were passing you on the streets of any given place, you would discover that most of them are thinking the same thought.  Whatever that majority thought might be—that is the word of the city.  And if your personal word does not match the word of the city then you don’t really belong there.

“What’s Rome’s word?”  I asked.  “SEX,” he announced.

“But isn’t that a stereotype about Rome?”  “No.”

“But surely there are some people in Rome thinking about other things than sex?”  Giulio insisted:  “No.  All of them, all day, all they are thinking about is SEX.”  “Even over at the Vatican?”

“That’s different.  The Vatican isn’t part of Rome.  They have a different word over there.  Their word is POWER.”

“You’d think it would be FAITH.”

“It’s POWER,” he repeated.  “Trust me.  But the word in Rome—it’s SEX.”

Now if you are to believe Giulio, that little word—SEX—cobbles the streets beneath your feet in Rome, runs through the fountains here, fills the air like traffic noise.  Thinking about it, dressing for it, seeking it, considering it, refusing it, making a sport and game of it—that’s all anybody is doing.  Which would make a bit of sense as to why, for all its gorgeousness, Rome doesn’t quite feel like my hometown.  Not at this moment in my life.  Because SEX isn’t my word right now.  It has been at other times of my life, but it isn’t right now.  Therefore, Rome’s word, as it spins through the streets, just bumps up against me and tumbles off, leaving no impact.  I’m not participating in the word, so I’m not fully living here.  It’s a kooky theory, impossible to prove, but I sort of like it.”

Now I can’t say I agree with Giulio’s selection of a word for Rome, but his theory is just about spot on in my opinion.  Except I believe that if you live long enough in a place then the word of that place will become yours.  Even with the short amount of time I have spent in Rome, Paris, and Norway I have been  homesick leaving all three.  I enter places feeling completely out of place and leave feeling like the rhythm of the city is in synch with my own.

Rome’s word for me was EMOTION.  Rome perfectly fit the entire concept of emotions.  Emotions with all their variety and passion and chaos and contradictions.  This was Rome.  It was apparent in the condition of the stores, the atmosphere of the streets, and the culture of the people.

The stores in Rome were incredibly unorganized.  In the bookstore, the books were piled haphazardly and strewn about carelessly and in the supermarkets you had to hunt for everything.  The universal rules of the road (red means stop, green means go) were acknowledged but overridden by unwritten laws it seemed.  Cars would drive on red lights and zoom in front of pedestrians and vice versa pedestrians would walk across the street when they pleased.  People also seem to pay no mind to lines.  Leaving a space in front of you is an invitation for someone to take your spot.

The Italians themselves have a contradictory way about them.  They will spend hours eating together and laughing, not paying any mind to the time.  However, once they start going somewhere they are suddenly extremely conscious of punctuality and rush to their destination.  The time flux of Rome somehow manages to feel relaxed and stressful simultaneously.  People are constantly whizzing by on their vespas and mini cars, yet you are never more than a few steps away from a peaceful candlelit bistro.

These were tucked in the streets everywhere!

Some favorite catch phrases of the Italians are “domani” or “va bene” meaning “tomorrow” and “it’s okay”.  Procrastination and going with the flow of things seems to be part of the culture.  When you go to a restaurant you eat first and pay after (not just the fancy sit down restaurants like in the U.S.); it would be easy to slip out without paying.  The bus system is based on the honors system as well.  They don’t check if you have a ticket when you get on so it is possible to ride the public system for free.

They are also extremely expressive people-both verbally and with hand gestures.  When an Italian has a phone conversation, it is never private.  Even the women have lower powerful voices that carry far.  Likewise, Italians won’t keep their opinion of you to themselves.  I experienced both ends of the spectrum; I got stares and dirty looks from one couple and a “Ciao, bella!” (translates to hello beautiful) from one man.  Public displays of affection are also quite common.  I’m beginning to think that hiding emotions is an American characteristic…  Europeans seem to think that doing so is a waste of time and energy.  Perhaps this is why we think of them as being rude and they think of us as being fake.

If EMOTION wasn’t such a perfect fit for the description of Rome then FOOD would be a close second!  Rome had amazing wine, pasta, panini, pastries, pizza, and bread!  The panini were way different than what I thought they would be…  Honestly I think I might prefer American-style panini which surprises me.  They were still good but Italian panini are kind of like white bread sandwiches with a soft filling (egg salad, crab salad…etc.).  The pasta and pizza were delicious though!  The pizza had less sauce but the crust was delicious!!!  Then there were the pastries…with their perfectly crispy crusts and crème fillings…divine.  And I can’t possibly forget the gelato.  There was a flavor for everything!  Kiwi, grapefruit, pistachio, orange…and the list goes on.  I personally tried caramel crème, nutella, chocolate, mint, coconut, strawberry, strawberry crème, blackberry, and champagne.  Yeah.  I ate a lot of gelato.  It wasn’t cheap either!  A tiny cup (about the size of a Like It from Cold Stone Creamery) was around $3.35.  But it was worth it.  VERY worth it.  The cappuccino in Italy is frothier and has a different flavor than in the U.S. because they put lots of latte in it.  Wine is dirt cheap there!  A bottle of red wine (probably really bad wine but I can’t tell the difference!) can be obtained for around two bucks.  Just the dining experience in Rome was a treat.  I loved the whole atmosphere of the restaurants (or as they say in Italian, “ristorante”).  It’s sometimes difficult to know what you are ordering though.  My roommate found herself chewing on some octopus by accident.

Choosing a flavor was incredibly difficult!

Wonderful atmosphere. 🙂

If you’re interested in where specifically we went in Rome then you can check out a day by day breakdown of all that we saw in my next post and see lots of pictures.  Other than that, I think I thoroughly covered my experience in Rome.

I came.  I saw.  I conquered.

I think I’ve fallen in love…<3

I haven’t really had a chance to talk about what the whole process of studying abroad feels like yet.  The emotional stages of studying abroad can be broken down into the following stages: honeymoon, frustration, understanding, and acclimation.

I can definitely vouch for the honeymoon stage!  When I was on that last flight from Frankfurt to Oslo all that was going through my mind was, “What have I gotten myself into?”  I was scared to death to set foot in the country that was to be my home for the next four months or so.  However, after getting the introductions with the students at ACN out of the way, I regained my confidence and was immediately glad that I had taken the leap of faith and decided to study abroad!  The following three weeks everything I saw was amazing.  Going to the grocery store was magical…  Every sign that was in Norwegian captivated me…  And hearing the Norwegians speak was mesmerizing.  I even broke out a Norwegian phrase book and tried to memorize a few terms.  I was so proud of myself the first time I uttered a very poorly pronounced phrase.  Every day I woke up early.  I didn’t want to waste a single moment in the beautiful country of Norway!  My camera was my constant companion; everything needed to be documented.

Then came the frustration stage.  Brief but difficult.  It only lasted about a week.  My jar of peanut butter that I had packed was scraped clean; I was devastated.  I was told that I would have to make the trek to Sweden to buy a jar of that creamy heaven that would be up to the standards of Jiff.  I wanted REAL FOOD!  Everything seemed to cost a fortune though.  And then there were those darn Norwegians.  Nothing like standing awkwardly in a crowd of jolly people speaking in a language that you can’t understand a word of.  It’s like that moment when someone tells a joke and everyone bursts out laughing, but you miss the punch line.  Except worse because I couldn’t even fake knowing what was going on.  I’d daydream about my beautiful Chrysler Concorde.  1996.  She’s a beauty.  Or was…in 1996.  But that’s beside the point.  The point is that having to trudge through a foot of snow to get anywhere wasn’t exactly an enjoyable form of exercise.  Yep.  I wasn’t too enthused at this stage.

The understanding stage was by far the best.  I had made friends.  My classes were going good.  I had scheduled some flights to Dublin, Paris, and Rome.  I’d started to figure out how to bargain shop for groceries.  I’d finally figured out the confusing washing machine.  Best of all I’d gotten internet and heat up and running in the apartment.  Life was good.

I am currently in the acclimation stage.  I was walking the harbor in Moss today as the sun set and it just hit me.  Norway feels like…home.  I really like it here.  I like it…more than the U.S. in many ways.  I know that this country is changing me and I can’t help but think how much harder these changes are going to make readjusting to North Dakota.  What am I going to do when I go back to America and have to eat American bread?  And where am I going to get brown cheese?  Or Norwegian chocolate?  My professors at UND certainly aren’t going to allow me to skip class to take a weekend trip to Paris…my bank account won’t either for that matter.  Not with the insane price of travel there.  The pace of life here is so…wonderful.  I can afford to just go out and walk around and take everything in.   Everyone is so accepting.  And let’s face it, for the first time in my life, I’m a novelty.  People here idolize the States which means I’m interesting to them.  I’m the one who can answer their questions about the U.S.  I’m exciting.  I’m…American.

Meaning I can’t stay in Norway forever.

I think I vow to myself that I am going to make the most of every opportunity here at least once a day.  Because before I know it…I’ll be boarding that plane and heading for home.  Home won’t feel so much like home anymore though.  I’m already bracing myself for reverse culture shock.

“Norwegians are like coconuts. Americans are like peaches.”

Now that I’ve been in Norway for a month, I think I have a fairly good idea of what distinguishes a Norwegian from an American.  Everything that I read about Norwegians before I came here said that Norwegians are a very reserved people and can even come across as rude.  On the plane ride to Oslo, the rest of the passengers on the plane (I assume the majority were Norwegian) were strangely silent.  I sat down next to a stranger and he didn’t say a word to me the whole flight.  The bus from Oslo to Moss was the same; eerily quiet.  However, when I got to ACN I walked into a room where everyone was reuniting with their friends after Christmas break and was surprised by the level of intimacy between them.  Everyone was hugging and kissing each other on the cheeks and greeting one another excitedly.  From the looks of what I was seeing you’d think that these friends had been estranged from one another for years!  Gradually, I have come to understand the inconsistency between the social interactions I experienced on the plane and on the bus and what I see on campus.

Norwegians are very reserved in public, but when they are in a setting with friends and family they are very animated.  At first, I felt very uncomfortable walking around downtown Moss and shopping on my own.  When I walked past a group of people oftentimes they were hushed and I could feel their eyes following me as I walked by.  Granted, perhaps I have “tourist” written all over me with my American Columbia jacket (no one wears that style or brand here) and my chunky Canon camera slung around my neck.  The first time I went for a walk I felt like I was Nicole Kidman in a scene of Invasion.  Think of it this way;  we’ve all experienced that moment in a lively gathering when for some reason everyone abruptly ceases talking and the room goes from being very noisy to perfectly still.  Imagine that instant, that moment when all of the sudden you are slightly uncomfortable and wish someone would say something.  Anything!  That’s how going out to eat or walking into a small store in Norway felt like at first.

However, I’ve come to like the peace of being in public in Norway.  When I walk into H&M to shop I’m not bombarded by a sales associate with “Jeans are on sale for buy one pair, get the second pair half-off” and no one is constantly knocking on the changing room door saying, “How ya doing in there?”  When I go shopping I can focus on my shopping and I don’t have to worry about being sucked into a fifteen minute conversation with an overly chatty stranger in aisle 12.  I am still trying to get used to people not saying “excuse me” though.  If I am blocking the fridge door and someone needs to reach in and get a carton of milk, then they will just stand close to me and stare until I acknowledge that I need to move.

Norwegians in public may seem impersonal and rude but once you get to know them they are incredibly accepting and open.  I was once told, “Norwegians are like coconuts.  Americans are like peaches.”  Don’t get lost in the fruit analogy; it simply means this.  Norwegians are hard on the exterior (it’s hard to get to know them) but once you do know them you really know them.  Americans, on the other hand, are soft on the exterior (it’s not too hard to go through the typical “Hi, how are you?” spiel), but if you really want to know an American on a personal level then it is going to take some work to get through the core.

After being here for a week or two, I was really starting to appreciate the social culture of Norwegians.  I began to ask myself, “Why can’t the people in America be like this???”  So I decided to see what Norwegians think about the people in America (this topic is for another day…) and what they think of their Norwegian culture.  Here, I began to piece together a different story and regained appreciation for the values that America stands for.  Another quality that Norwegians hold to the utmost importance is being humble; I haven’t really heard anyone brag about their accomplishments here.  Some of the students are very talented singers or athletes, but I never hear it from them.  Sounds good right?  Wouldn’t it be nice if we never had to listen to anyone go on and on about themselves?  But…on the flip side of things from a Norwegian’s point of view, the pressure to be humble means not being able to speak about their dreams and goals in life.  They hold the United States up as the place where you are free to express what you want to become.  It is a place where you can speak openly about your aspirations and not have anyone label you as being prideful for doing so.