Wednesday, November 29, 2006

A week in the life, illustrated

Angela visits, Sarah runs a marathon...
wandering from Ferrara to Venice to Florence.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

I'll be home for Christmas

A Christmas tree just as tall as the duomo now stands in the square in front of it. Lights canopy the streets. A huge gift market is open every day selling ornaments, gifts and food products. Where a book market used to be a carousel, strangely displaced, now stands, curtained with vertical stripes of red and white during the day. With a month until Christmas, Ferrara has transformed into a city for the season.

Smelling pine in the square, I was immediately excited to be home for the holidays. I had originally thought that I would simply stick it out in Italy. But, of course, the mother would have it no other way and I was told I would have a ticket home. So come the 22nd, I will leave Europe and land in Canada in a feat of flying back through time and will be home with family for the holidays. Yay.

Monday, November 27, 2006

I... I... I...

Having had time to catch up with my close friend Angela over this last week and with the wonderful and hard-to-nail-down Shelly for about an hour in Florence, I’ve come to realize that this whole Italy experience hasn’t just been a dream of some sort. Every waking minute is definitely real. My mother has touched down in Italy and will be within arm’s reach by the end of the week. Sarah just ran her marathon yesterday in Florence, a race she has been training for since we arrived. Thanksgiving was a feast and a fest, an evening I’ve been logistically organizing for a few weeks. The last week has made me realize the light of the now sinking sun on my Italian sojourn. Within three weeks, Chris will be finished with his semester abroad and be back at home.

The semester, which at times seemed interminable and depressing but now seems to be flying, escaping very fast, has shaped me in new ways, given me new life experiences, etched the path of my growth and existence over the past few months. I realize, spending time with Angela and Shelley, that my friendships can just pick up where they left off. The random encounter with Tascha and her boyfriend in Florence with Chris, threw me off guard, prodded me back into the shy tacit self. When I go back, I don’t want to open the closet and continue to wear the coat I used to wear… time has gone by, it is too small even though the temptation will be routine. I need to come back with the same me that is living this right now.

When I leave this bubble of Italian, I wonder what will become of my reflective writing, my daily thoughts, my daily rhythms. I tried so hard to adjust to this place, and now I have locked in, but as I realized in the beginning, it has been temporary, an experience with an expiration date from the beginning. Within a few weeks I will be home with family and friends, reevaluating the emotions, speaking about the ups and downs, trying to verbalize a ride that has been so hard to phrase. I will be back in other languages that I know. I may miss the constant challenge of self expression; being back in the states and mono-lingualism I may not be as challenged and as cultured as I would like to be. I wonder if back in Cambridge, I will just shirk out of the whole experience and go back to wearing the old me, pensively looking down the calm waters of the Charles towards Boston. Regardless of who walks in and out of my life, I am but a person, a point in constant motion, relating to those around me, continually rediscovering what it means to be me.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Giving Thanks

Lovely. In one word, that is what it was. The tension of cooking for 14, the worries of getting everything done in time, setting up the apartment, making sure that everyone is content. There was more than enough food, endless conversation, a toast to giving thanks complete with drunken participants, late arrivals, little tensions and schisms. It really was Thanksgiving.

Get a bunch of people together, add plenty of food, a little wine and away you go: socialization, merriment, and good times. A pretty simple recipe if you ask me, easier than trying to recreate your aunt’s lasagna. Having my dear Angela here with me this week has been a laugh and a half and a tender spirit warmer. The mix of Italians and Midd kids created a lovely dynamic, and a good time was had by all :P

I am thankful for being here in Italy, having Angela share a week with me, having a loving family a phone call or an email away, having a roommate on which I can depend and whom I trust completely (we even start thinking similarly at this point…), the opportunity to travel so much, the chance to dream, the chance to learn. I am happy and healthy and in Italy. Not bad at all.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Confusion Remixed

They took away my window and Mother Earth and Father Time conspired to leave me in the dark. All hours of the night and day are now pitch black without electrical light. The sunflower looks down at its roots in shame, the flowers in my fields never open their buds, long endless night. They will come back today to bring me back my window, give me back the rays of sunlight, give me back the rise and fall of the day.

A friend sleeps on my floor and I can’t stop smiling or laughing. She brings news of her existence, stories of the world I left still spinning. We catch up, chat about everything, rewind and play stories from long ago, remember, reminisce. We’ll have little adventures all this week and then, just as she came, she’ll go, and I will have a floor again. For now I’ll hold on to the moments trickling slowly out of my hands and smile once again.

Out of the blue they asked me to register my machine and barred me from dancing around the world wide web, in contact with the world. But I will find a way, I will reach out and touch the hands of outstretched arms, and hold their hand a little stronger even if it means I’ll have to let go more often. Even so, I found the superhighway, registered for an exam, sent out my love in quickly composed notes. Once again, I’ll figure it out, it is never impossible, just obstacled.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Foggy Ferrara Illustrated

Some photos to keep you occupied... Internet and time are a bit unavailable at the moment... they'll come back.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Ferrara Fog

The fog settled in, heavy, all day on Friday. So thick you feel as if you are in a murder mystery. Buildings glow in the dark. Sunlight filters down in the day. The fog is so dense you can smell it, it reminds me of my humidifier as a child.

I swatted a fly and CRACK, out came a piece of the window, and it took on a webbed pattern. I broke a window. I thought someone had to at least be drunk to break a window. Of course it happens on a Saturday morning, meaning that I won't be able to call the repairman until Monday, which means a week or so before anything actually happens, maybe.

The words may ebb in the excitement of a visiting friend, a busy week, a thanksgiving feast. But with every ebb there is a flow. Low tides inevitably mean future highs.

Friday, November 17, 2006

The Unspoken Side of Study-Abroad or, the part you just don't know how to express because you don't speak the language

Two weeks ago, I looked forward to weekends, I told myself that at the end of this experience I would be happy and I would be finished, I had zero motivation to study, I had no clue what the hell I was doing in Italy. Somehow, I came around. I can’t point to anything that really helped me get over it. Something just clicked.

But I had never felt the emotions I felt. I had never been so low, so despondent, so without motivation. If you transplant a person from everything that they know and all their routines, what type of emotions will you get? You’re going to get lows. You are going to experience that deeply inclined dip that those Study Abroad people talk about on their curve of emotions. You don’t really believe it until you feel it.

Perhaps my body was telling me to get out, yelling the question of WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING? Stefan grew up in English, why now are you trying to make him grow up all over again in Italian? For the longest time I felt like there was nothing worthwhile in this study abroad thing. I wanted to quit. Quit and do what? Language acquisition I was told was the main reason to study abroad. Bah, my Italian is just as good as it ever was, I thought once. Yesterday I got up in front of my class and spoke for a couple of minutes for a mini presentation. Shit. My Italian has improved.

When I go home and people ask me how was study abroad, I am not going to opt for the monosyllabic: good. Difficult, depressing, weighty, horrible, confusing, suffocating. Constructive, learning, worthwhile, independent, new. In the end, it will be worth it, and I am not just saying that because I want to make myself feel better, I mean it. It will give me a few beads of academic knowledge, a river of Italian skills, life lessons I would never have found in the same old place with the same old routines, and friends along the way who dragged through the same stuff, felt the exact same way, but in the end came back themselves, strong and smiling.

Thursday, November 16, 2006


Yesterday's literature class was my first and last of the week. The students and professor sort of coagulate at about 20 past the hour to get the class started and the prof let us know that Thursday there would be a conference on the filology of authors (or something of the like) and that Friday there is supposed to be some sort of strike at the university so she would not be teaching class.

My roommate Chiara transferred from the University of Bologna to the University of Ferrara this year and learned yesterday that her exams won't count until she receives credit for her exams from her other university. She thought this process would be complete by now, given that she was under the impression that the classes would pass through early in the year and she would be able to continue with her life. Unfortunately, no, she basically has no reason to continue with classes except to take the exams at some time in the future when her credits go through. So she's going home for the weekend on Thursday.

The music was a bit loud, and around 11.30, the Carabinieri came knocking on the door of Interno 3, the location for Francesco's birthday party. The police officer expressed quite clearly that he didn't care what happened at the party: get drunk, smoke, have a good time, but just turn down the music and lower your voices. A police officer turning a blind eye to all activities and just caring about the public peace? Never in America.

So much of this experience in Italy is made up of moments that simply don't express the absurdity, the randomness, the difficulties of studying abroad in a small town where you are very much a foreigner. I had a tough time for the first 10 weeks, but now my mind is buzzing with positive energy, and going with the flow instead of swimming upstream. I will not become Italian, but I appreciate the language and culture and know that I have already progressed immensely in my language skills. So I try to share a few moments, crystallized beads that convey a little better the essence of the experience. Expect more.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

When energy and possibility start to bubble...

I see roads, stretching out in every direction with signposts that demark possible experiences, possible writings of a story that is as yet unwritten. After a particularly wonderful session of yoga in which I felt completely oxygenated and as if my muscles had worked to their max, my head was milling with ideas.

I’d picked up a flyer from the Institute of Renaissance Studies of Ferrara announcing a lecture series happening next week. My area of concentration at Harvard is Italian Studies and History of Art and Architecture, so it drops me right into the Renaissance pushing me towards an obligatory senior thesis. Since I am swimming in Orlando Innamorato, a book written by Boiardo for the Estense Court in Ferrara in the late 1400s, I swam a little further into the possibility of perhaps writing a senior thesis about the Castello Estense, or the Estense court…

Being a Harvard student, I am already thinking about the summer, what I will do… Being the last summer before graduating I had thought that this coming summer would be a crucial time in career exploration. I am warming up to the idea of spending 5 weeks at the Graduate School of Design in either Architecture or Urban Design. Maybe I’ll study architecture, write a senior thesis with an architectural spin and move on to work with my Dad. I hadn’t ever really embraced the idea before, but during these weeks of thinking and experience, I’ve let go some of my stupid hang-ups.

I dream that I’ll participate in the year-long internship at the Museum of Modern Art in New York after I graduate. Maybe I’ll write for some newspaper, write books. Maybe I’ll own a gallery. Maybe I’ll become a photographer, a professor. I’ve been writing everyday, taking photos every weekend, reading loads of Italian, getting more and more immersed. The ideas start to bubble as I grasp the Italian and sink my teeth into the ideas. And when the ideas start bubbling, my mind starts wandering and squinting into the distance. I see great courses at Harvard in the spring, possible jobs, new roommates… It is just an endless road that keeps stretching on, still foggy, undefined.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Monday, November 13, 2006

Great Expectations, God Laughs

I have been planning a trip to Paris for the past 2 months: December 8, Immaculate Conception, three day weekend, Eurail pass, train ticket to Paris, awesome. I decided I would buy the ticket returning from Ravenna today, but upon consulting the man at the ticket booth he informed me that all the trains were booked solid. Okay fine, I can solve this, I can leave a day earlier. Wandering around the TrenItalia website, I felt like everyone had already planned their trips to Paris, everyone in Ferrara was going to Paris on every single possible day that I wanted to go. Man plans and God laughs, wise words offered in good humour by my mother. Great expectations, they’re bound to screw you over.

I just decided I’ll go to a travel agent tomorrow morning, we’ll figure something out. My great plans at being thrifty have perhaps failed. Fine. I accept defeat, and after a few hours of agonizing, it is a bit funny. I’ve been looking at that train possibility for months, and the day I decide to purchase, slam down. Tomorrow, maybe I’ll be able to find a plan B, another destination en route to Paree, or else I’ll just let someone else deal with my problems.

I had a strange weekend: I wandered around dazed in the super huge supermarket (it seems to get me every time) on Saturday with Sarah (we managed to get lost in there for an hour and a half), Chris arrived with Greg, both roommates from school from last year, one in Florence for the semester the other in Paris, on Saturday night and we hopped over to Ravenna on Sunday. The English got whipped out in a major way with the arrival of Greg who knows no Italian whatsoever. Me, Sarah and Chris would usually speak Italian amongst ourselves, but with the addition of Greg, our mother tongue and French became the options. So it was a linguistically complicated weekend. Of course I dreamed in an English landscape that I was trying to return Italian textbooks, cursing in French on Saturday night.

After a night of weird sleep, periods of hot and cold, we caught our train to Ravenna and discovered the quiet town with shining Byzantine mosaics. The tiled works of art are in magnificent shape, but somehow I wasn’t struck by the art as I have been in other places. Maybe I just wasn’t in the mood. Plenty of art, lovely lunch, all spent among friends, a mix of languages, the ups and downs of emotions…

This life is so weird, you have good moments, you have great moments, and then things slam into you with a force you never anticipated. You never expect it: the pain, the love, the bad, the good. It’s that much more potent that way. Why do we try to expect things? Plan things? Navigate? You just get lost, thrown off course, sent hunting for whatever it was you were looking for. Loss and randomness are much more solid ingredients to life than solidity and schedules. I still love being punctual, I guess I am holding on to the little order I can control. Learning life: it takes a good long while. I’m still learning that more than usual, nothing ever goes as planned. So, in the end, Man too should laugh with God. He’s got right attitude, He knows what this life is all about. After all, he made it.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Questioning Foundations

I left class excited, walking home with a spark to my step. Exploring the ideas of post-modernism in my Sociology of Art class had my mind leaping with excitement. These ideas appeal to me, reflections on the state of the world, culling possible answers to the truth we live daily. And it was all in Italian. And I understood.

A few weeks back, or really last week, I was asking myself what I was doing in Italy, what I was doing in college, why I was even bothering with all this learning stuff. But now I know, I think. These ideas, this learning, fuels a creative energy, a thirst to want to know more, to want to explore these universal ideas and their individual meanings. After all, the past is always flowing into the present.

I want to get this down, because the next time I ask myself why I am in college, why I am going to class, why I am not out there doing something, I have to look back. Academia is the realm where we can sit back and reflect as one big body asking itself what is going on out there. I write on an almost daily basis wanting to reflect on my moments, wanting to understand what is going on. Academia just does that on a more heady level. Push aside the big words and the complicated names and all you really have is reflection, a sharing of ideas, different points of view. Explore those ideas and you will get books, works of art, plays, thesi. All wander the path of reflection and exploration, all represent a valid truth.

I walked out of my Sociology of Art class feeling as if there were a few new tints colouring the world. And in this world of college, we are all just trying to see the world, find our own and pick those hues we want to brush across the sky.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

The Turnaround

It happened again. I had another good day. It may be the fact that I was busy reading, going to class and meeting new tutors. I also came to the realization that I don’t have to think in Italian, English is my mother tongue and that won’t change. I find myself smiling, dancing at random moments, making my strange noises, my soundtrack has returned. In all my classes today I chitchatted with my classmates. After 10 weeks, I feel like I belong finally. Or at least that, really, I can do this. And finally the workers came to lay the tiles for the rest of our floor, laid open for over a month.

Last week things were still up and down. Low moments would bring me down like a dead weight and I couldn’t understand why the hell I was here and what the hell I was doing. My week had been sprinkled with the most intense moments of longing I have ever felt: almost tasting my Bubby’s chicken soup, sprinkled with dill, longing for someone to just hold my hand, wanting to hug family members, to see familiar sights, to breathe English.

My roommate Sarah had a realization last week: she doesn’t belong. With her light-coloured curly hair, her early morning routine of training for a marathon and her thirst for learning, she finds herself clashing with Italian culture to the utmost. In fact, I too find that I don’t fit in all that well. We shouldn’t. We are from the United States and Canada respectively and we can’t just change our upbringing, our tastes, our cultures. We are studying abroad, away from home, in another culture.

I have hundreds of pages to read, classes to attend, tutoring sessions to prepare for, little events and trips to look forward to, and the whole Italian ‘casino’ (mess) to live in. And it’s great. Here’s to the beginning, it starts now. Really, it does. This week has been the first complete week of classes since the beginning of the semester. I may still be waiting for a textbook that was supposed to arrive 10-12 days ago, but, finally, like Marina said I should, I am just choosing to laugh.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Happy Days

The whole phase of beginning has finally worn out its welcome. These days I find myself laughing for no reason, smiling more, enjoying my classes, being busy. A little more structure is finally being introduced to my studies with the beginning of tutorials this week. I am grateful, because I am resigned to the fact that I will not be able to find an internship before the end of the semester. I go to one office, I get redirected to another person who doesn’t pick up their phone when I happen to call. Oh Italy. I am also still waiting for a textbook for one of my classes: it has been two weeks since I ordered it and only now did they figure out that the editor changed distributors so the order was basically calling out to no one. But I am not depressed because of the fact, I am just going to wait a few more days and then read, read, read.

It is telling that all the Middlebury students laughed at our last meeting when we were faced yet again with the uncertainty of the initiation of exam registration, maybe in a month, or maybe the week before the exam, we can’t be sure. At least now we’re laughing.

It feels so nice to laugh again, at stupid jokes, at the craziness of bureaucracy or lack thereof or for no reason at all. At the dinner table tonight, I just started laughing. I felt like it. And it felt so good.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Illustrated Version

Pious in Padova, illustrated.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Pious in Padova

Sarah and I were enchanted. The city of Padova blessed us with blue skies, chilly weather and harbingers of autumn. It truly was the first time we could sense the seasons, seeing the muted reds of fall. Dry leaves seem to be accumulating in places around Ferrara but there aren’t many trees in our life to speak of. Padova infused us with fresh enthusiasm: a city larger than our own, smaller than Bologna, full of a mix of architecture and elegant buildings and spaces. Our main objective was to see the Cappella degli Scrovegni but we also absorbed the stories and sights of the Chiesa degli Eremitani and Basilica S. Antonio. I’ve decided to share my three sacred moments…

Trying to pick up our tickets for the Scrovegni Chapel and find tickets for the “sold out” Mantegna exhibit (Sold out doesn’t necessarily mean sold out), Sarah and I accidentally wandered into the Chiesa degli Eremitani. Glorious frescoes of Andrea Mantegna now can either only be projected up on the wall or remain virtually reconstructed in shadowy black and white along with bits of the original fresco. In 1944, during World War II, the Church was unfortunately bombed and, more unfortunately, the work of Mantegna was among the casualties. In the heartbreaking effort of conservation, the discovered bits were matched up with old photographs to put the fresco back together as well as possible. A valiant effort, a display in tragic hope.

Wow. We both said the same thing looking down the street from the Prato delle Valle at Basilica S. Antonio. The mix of domes and turrets on the church in the distance drew us down the avenue and through its doors. Subtle and intricate details tickled my eyes in the dark from the faraway domes. Deep blue painted skies were accented with golden stars. S. Antonio’s tomb was surrounded by relief panels exercising mastery in perspective, but it was the tomb itself that drew visitors: the devout paused behind the tomb and pressed their hand to the cold marble where S. Antonio’s body would be. They were praying and I watched as they closed their eyes, one hand to the tomb. There was something else in that church, something I couldn’t lay my eyes on. Right before leaving, a chapel decorated in the 1920s was soaked in sunlight, making the tile-work glimmer, glow and sparkle. There was something else…

We waited for our designated time to enter the Scrovegni Chapel: five minutes outside, and fifteen minutes inside. In order to prevent pollutants from entering and regulate the air inside the chapel, visitors must sit for a fifteen minute video about the chapel before their fifteen minute visit to the chapel. Commissioned in 1303 to save the soul of Scrovegni’s father, Giotto’s chapel has been meticulously preserved and still radiates. The ceiling is so beautifully blue. Blue radiates from almost every panel depicting the lives of Jesus, Mary and her parents Saints Joachim and Anne. Giotto’s daring use of realism gives life to his figures and integrates a wonderfully angular and awkward perspectival space. Fifteen minutes wasn’t nearly enough to witness the work of an artist so key in the development of art. I’ll remember the blue.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Upstream, swim

I’m feeling incredibly in control all of a sudden. I was causing anxiety and tears across the ocean with my downward oscillating emotions. I was spending great lengths of time thinking, too much of a good thing is always bad. But, most importantly, I wasn’t taking time to appreciate, to really appreciate, the greatness of each day. I am Stefan, I am alive, I am in Italy, I am here, I am lucky. Something kicked in hanging up the phone with my concerned mother, an instinct to not cause helpless worry, an instinct to take control and steer, to do like the salmon I ate for dinner and for lunch: to swim upstream.

It has been a tough bit of time here in Italy especially because I have so much time to think. My classes, once they settled down after three weeks, leave it up to me completely to do any work at all, to structure my time, to tackle the knowledge. With so much time to sit and think, inevitably I dip into more emotional slumps than I am used to. And that my mother is used to. We talk frequently and mother knows best when her child is struggling.

Neither she nor I thought this time abroad would be such an emotionally and personally straining experience; mostly we heard it would be fantastic. In the end though, it will be completely worthwhile. The knowledge I already have about real life has encouraged growth: being shy in conversations is stupid (not knowing a whole lot of Italian, one has a tendency to be more blunt), cooking and washing dishes doesn’t take that much time (and cleaning the foodstuffs in the drain isn’t gross at all), money doesn’t make the world go ‘round but it sure flies fast (especially at the beginning of the month when rent is due), and struggling will make you a stronger person.

In the end, I will say the experience was worth it, but I will always, always speak the truth of the tough times I had, changing every aspect of my life, synchronizing the day to day to another beat. Now it’s up to me to seek out a routine that will make life here a little less weighty: a job, volunteering, another yoga class, some other activity. I know I am not alone, there are plenty of people writing me emails, letters, words of encouragement. But in the end, I am alone here, only I can steer this ship so that it doesn’t get lost in the middle of nowhere. And if I have to steer it upstream, at least I know how to swim. I won’t let that stop me.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

A Monster Mash

In honour of Halloween, or more appropriately, in honour of the fact that we have a day off for All Saints' Day on November 1st, Chiara decided to host a party and strapped me and Stephanie into the planning. So, yesterday, off we went to Ipercoop, a huge supermarket a busride outside of the center of Ferrara. Sarah had spoken of the immenseness of the place, but nothing prepared me for this monstrosity. The supermarket I usually go to is tiny, small enough that if you decided not to buy anything you have to wait in the checkout line anyways. It was wonderful to take a little expedition within Ferrara, we three bounded into the supermarket and, in a frenzy, bought the necessary provisions for a Halloween bash and night of merriment (including a zucca di halloween for only 1.68 euro).

I came home with the pumpkin for Sarah and I to take charge of before the party and after dinner. We carved away, a cute little Jack-O-Lantern, our child, and primped ourselves up as Madonna and Tony Manero (Saturday Night Fever; take a stab at who was who). The party was flooded with Italians chatting up the hallways and learning American drinking games, and in the flurry of it all with strange costumes (Stephanie and Sarah went all 80s, while Chiara bangled up to the gipsy level and well, Hezzy showed up with sunglasses created by his cousins and a fishing rod), I forgot about the weight that my days have taken on here in Ferrara.

I went to bed happy, tired, tipsy. The secret to feeling a little more content here in Ferrara must surely be taking on a personal velocity. That then is my objective in this quiet town.