If you're reading this, you are almost certainly aware that I recently returned home from a year in Rome, Italy. Many promises were made that I would keep up with this blog. Every few weeks my mom would indirectly prod me with questions such as, "So....how's the blog coming along....?" "Slowly, but surely, Mom. Slowly, but surely." This wasn't a complete lie, but when I say slow, I'm referring to the speed at which it would take one to drink the entire Atlantic Ocean through a bendy straw. However, I feel as though I have an extremely valid excuse. As you know, I was working as an au pair. I agreed upon working 40 hours/week (opposed to 20 hours with the first family I was living with) so my free time significantly decreased. I spent a lot of time in the home with the kids, so I really enjoyed getting out as much as possible during my spare time. If I didn't leave the house, it was usually because I was so exhausted that my brain wasn't functioning enough to form eloquent sentences. "Me like pasta. Me watch children. Walking on cobblestone is different." Ok, so I didn't turn into a caveman, but lowering the quality of my blog never felt like a good option.
I will never be able to fully express what this past year meant to me, but I hope through telling you about my experience, you'll be able to draw that conclusion on your own. My last blog was posted in August 2015 just before my mom came to visit so I'll begin with that and walk you through the ups and downs of my year in a not-so-chronological order. I have broken this down into categorical segments that will make sense once you dive into the small novel I have prepared for you. I'll wrap it up with my plethora of current endeavors because this website is being slightly repurposed for professional reasons.
So, without further ado, what feels like four score and seven years ago.....
Mom's Visit - 10 Days of La Dolce Vita (the sweet Life)
Thursday, August 20th
I met my mom at Termini, the main train station in Rome. I cannot recall the last time I was that excited to see another person. After choking back my tears of happiness, we hopped on a bus and headed towards the hotel. Once we settled in, we took a leisurely stroll around the city center. Every couple of minutes I had to turn around and make sure my mom was still next to me. Not that I feared her being abducted, but have you seen the animated Pixar film "Up"? She embodied all of the characteristics of the attention deficit dog, Dug, that yelled "SQUIRREL!" anytime something so much as moved in his vicinity. Walking more than two steps without the need to stop and stare at a monument or postcard at a tourism kiosk was proving to be a most difficult task for her. To be fair, I reacted the same way when I first arrived in Rome, so my patience level was at an all time high.
I took her to one of my favorite restaurants called Osteria da Fortunata, located near the lively Campo de' Fiori square. There is always a woman in the front rolling the handmade pasta and they offer a variety of typical roman dishes such as 'cacio e pepe' (a simple pasta sprinkled with pecorino cheese and black pepper) and 'carbonara' (pasta with eggs, cheese and BACON - thick cut, salty, scrumptious BACON). Naturally, we split a bottle of red wine and toasted to the upcoming 9 days of Italian adventure and exploration.
Friday, August 21st
Prior to my mom's arrival, we planned an itinerary and booked tours. I highly suggest keeping the itinerary aspect relatively loose, as you never want to miss out on something amazing right in front of your face because you are so focused on getting from point A to B. However, booking tours in advance and assigning main attractions to specific days will undoubtably take away a decent amount of stress.
Ever since my mom booked her flight to Rome in June, I made the decision to hold out on touring the Colosseum as well as the Vatican so we could share in those first-time experiences together. Friday morning we woke up early to be at the Colosseum by 8:15am to meet a small group through a company called Walks of Italy. Everything about our experience with the tour was extremely professional and high quality. At 8:30am we set off to enter the Colosseum and skipped the line (which I now refer to as a queue, thanks to the British gang of au pairs I made friends with that you'll read about in a bit), a great perk of booking through a tour company. It felt like an out of body experience walking inside such an iconic piece of the world's history. This ancient structure that I have seen countless times in books and on television was all of a sudden surrounding me in its triumphant glory. The only regret about being on a tour is that it's not entirely possible to stand in silence and soak in the moment with someone constantly talking into your headset. The tour guide's job is to inform you and to keep the group moving, so I would love to revisit and wander around on my own and at my own pace. They recently added a platform where you can gain an understanding of where the arena floor was located. Our tour group did not access the platform, but it would be a great spot to let your imagination run wild and pretend you are walking out to meet your opponent, and possibly your fate. (You can see this platform in the picture behind my mom and I.) Everything underneath is where the slaves and animals used for fighting were kept. There are special tours that take you to the underground portion, but my mom and I decided not to select this option when booking. My aunt and cousin went underground and said it was an excellent piece of the tour and recommend it. After the Colosseum, we walked through the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill. Some of the buildings are miraculously still in tact, but other structures weren't so lucky with only two columns remaining. Overlooking the ancient baths and walking through the most historic part of the city shouldn't be missed. This portion of the tour is entirely outdoors and we were luckily provided with great weather. It was extremely hot, but earlier in August was much, much worse. I would recommend doing the morning tour (there is also an afternoon option) if you happen to be visiting in the sweltering summer months.
Once the three hour tour had ended, it was time to start thinking about food. Kidding aside, half of my time here is spent thinking about what my next meal is going to be. It's sick, really. I decided to take my mom to my favorite neighborhood in Rome, Trastevere. It's just across the river from the main tourist center, so it is still buzzing with energy, but not quite as populated. Beautiful, lush vines gracefully swirl from one crevice to the next, devouring the buildings and cafe storefronts. (Lush- another one of those darn British words I hear being used in a completely different context.) The cobblestone is in horrific condition, which is all part of the charm and is what gives this neighborhood so much character. We grabbed some of the greatest takeaway pizza either of us had ever tasted, planted ourselves on the steps of a nearby fountain in Piazza Di Santa Maria, and clinked our Birra Moretti bottles. The rest of the day was spent resting, purchasing Birkenstock sandals, and introducing my mom the the famous "Aperol Spritz" for aperitivo (pre-dinner drinks and free snacks with purchase of said drinks). We grabbed dinner at a restaurant near the hotel called Cantina & Cucina. We initially were going to a different restaurant after extensive TripAdvisor research, but it was closed due to the summer holidays. Many businesses are closed in August, so this is not the best month of the year to visit Italy. All Italians flee to the beach. Anyone down to figure out how we can implement this in the States? After checking out the menu and reviews at the next place, we were not disappointed. We split a fried artichoke. SO GOOD. And, of course, another bottle of wine. When in Rome.... No, really. When in Rome.
After a long day of being on our feet, we decided to retire to our gaudily decorated hotel room and rent the classic Audrey Hepburn film "Roman Holiday." It was fascinating to see the city in a purer form, without the gimmicky tourist traps that exist today. If I was assaulted by a selfie stick one more time, I was going to lose it.
Saturday, August 22nd
Rise and shine, Julie and Colleen! It's Vatican day! This is one of those places that I could speak for hours on and still not say everything that needs to be said. We hired the same tour company that we used for the Colosseum and coincidentally ended up with the same tour guide. Our tour group met at 7:30 in the morning and we were some of the first people to enter the building. We walked straight to the Sistine Chapel and had approximately 20 minutes of quiet time to walk around, sit, observe, and be in complete awe of our surroundings. I'm happy that we went here first because it was relatively empty. We passed back through the chapel on our way out of the building at the end of our tour and it was packed shoulder to shoulder. This is the only place in the Vatican that does not allow photography, but I noticed quite a few rebels with cell phones hanging out of their pockets and purses trying to snap a shot. In my opinion, if you really want pictures of this place, just perform a Google search when you get home and actually enjoy the moments you get to spend in there. The amount of attention to detail in the architecture, mosaics, tapestries, paintings, and sculptures throughout the entire tour was immaculate, so I'm just going to let the photos speak for themselves.
After the tour ended, we ventured in the direction of our hotel to scout for lunch options. We decided to have a light lunch after all of the pizza and pasta and settled on grabbing delicious salads from Insalata Ricca. We strolled around the city for the rest of the day, entertained by street art and street performers. After a small rest and scrubbing up, we went to dinner at a great little spot called Cul De Sac. They have such an extensive wine list that your options are not handed to you in a menu, but in a binder organized by the regions of Italy from where the wines are produced. Needless to say, I returned with friends multiple times throughout my year in Rome.
Sunday, August 23rd
After two days of tours, we decided Sunday would be best spent wandering around without a schedule to follow. As wonderful as cappuccinos and sweet, sugary pastries are for breakfast, my mom was craving eggs and American coffee. My body had already adjusted to the dessert for breakfast lifestyle, but I completely understood her need for something savory. We went to a place near the hotel called Buddy that claimed to have an American breakfast and had absolutely incredible omelets. Unfortunately my mom's "American coffee" was still rather small and I didn't figure out until months later where I could find a legitimate cup of my homeland brew. If you're looking for American coffee in Rome, your best bets are going to be Vero, Bakery House, or Homebaked. We then walked along the Tiber River, conducted a miniature photoshoot in front of the graffiti that runs along the walls of the entire path, and ended at the most extensive flea market in Rome, Porta Portese in Trastevere. It's mainly a bunch of cheap crap made in China, but a fun adventure nevertheless. We bought a couple of shirts and I finally gave in and bought my first selfie stick, which I found to be a sound investment. Note: Do not buy selfie sticks from the men on the street. They will try to sell it to you for 10-15 euros. The market sells them for 5. Actually, don't buy anything from the men on the street. If we make it so this isn't a viable way for them to make a living, then we can stopped being harassed by them at every corner. Ok. End rant. The rest of the day was filled with gelato, another aperitivo at a wonderful place called Freni e Frizioni also in Trastevere, and watching the sunset on the bridge where St. Peter's Basilica can be seen peeking over the treetops in the distance.
Monday, August 24th
Villa Borghese is known as the Central Park of Rome. My mom and I both love the outdoors, so I figured it would be nice to spend our last day in Rome around some grass and trees. We rented a two seat pedal cart, almost got ourselves killed multiple times by accidentally accessing the main road, yelled at each other and laughed until our stomachs hurt. We proceeded to walk to the top of the Spanish Steps, toss our coins in the (unfortunately under construction) Trevi Fountain, and have a final walk around the city center. Edit: The Trevi is now fully renovated and open, but the Spanish Steps are under construction now and can be seen through plexiglass. We wrapped up the day by enjoying a nice dinner in the Jewish Ghetto neighborhood and capped the night with dirty martinis at a rooftop bar overlooking the city.
Tuesday, August 25th
After spending five incredible days in the Eternal City, we set off on a northbound train to Venezia. Upon arrival, we had to buy passes to use the water bus public transportation a.k.a. "vaporetto." As there are no cars in Venice, this is the only option (aside from the ridiculously expensive personal water taxis) to get from one place to another without the hassle of trekking over hundreds of bridges that perpetually make you feel more and more lost in this maze of a city. I cannot stress enough how easy it is to get lost in this place. You will be walking down one of the narrow streets (it feels weird to call them streets as they feel no wider than the common hallway), and before you know it, BAM. You are staring at a brick wall. I can only describe walking around Venice as a life-sized game of Pac-Man, attempting to avoid one dead end after another. Although, the treats you pick up along the way are worth the confusion. The photographer in me was having an absolute field day. The vivid colors and textures made it impossible for me to put my camera down. I have never been in a place with so many eccentric details in every nook and cranny, waiting to be discovered behind every wrong turn. However, not knowing where I was for that many hours on end combined with the claustrophobic atmosphere made for a tiresome day. Venice also has zero night life, which is something I was not expecting. My mom and I headed to the one bar open and even that was relatively empty. We retired for the night after enjoying a couple of delicious craft Italian beers.
Wednesday, August 26th
St. Mark's square is the main gathering place in Venice. Since it becomes extremely crowded during the day, my mom and I decided to wake up early to beat the crowd for a photo op. If you visit Venice, I HIGHLY recommend doing this. Even if you don't care about the photos, the quiet nature of the city without the hustle and bustle of other tourists around is truly serene. Don't even get me started on how the light reflects on the canals in the morning. Magical. We spotted at least six brides and their grooms, accompanied by their photographers snapping away frantically before the square filled with overzealous tourists (such as my mom and myself). Since we only had a day and a half to explore Venice, we did not plan any tours, which I am, in retrospect, happy about. This allowed us to spend the entire day wandering from one neighborhood to the next. We experienced the most extensive fruit market I have ever laid eyes on, a smelly fish market, quirky shops on every corner filled with masquerade style masks or handmade paper products, all while listening to the sounds of swishing water as gondolas floated past us through the intricately intertwining canals. Speaking of gondolas, we went into the day unsure of whether or not we would splurge on this Venetian tourist trap, as they are not cheap, averaging €100 for 45 minutes. Halfway through the day we decided we may never get the chance to ride in a gondola ever again, so we found a spot where they were letting people on and off and hopped on the first boat that rowed up to us. It's upsetting how quickly that 45 minutes goes by. Although it is expensive, I think if you've traveled all the way to Venice, you must do the gondola ride. You are able to see pieces of the city that simply are not accessible by foot. My mom is the queen of TripAdvisor and found a cheap bite for dinner, what was nice because Venice can be horrendously expensive. The little shop, Dal Moro's, was hard to find (as is everything in this cluster of a city). We waited in line (always a good sign of decent food) placed our order and patiently waited for our name to be called. The pasta was served in Chinese takeout boxes and was surprisingly phenomenal. After a long day on our feet, we retired to the hotel room and prepared for our early morning train ride to Firenze.
Thursday, August 27th
Since we did not have much time to spare in Florence, we rushed to check-in to our room and immediately began to explore the city. We had tickets to enter Accademia Gallery, home to the famous David statue. These are preferable to book in advance because you can skip the massive line and you must show up during the time printed on your ticket. I did not know this during my first trip to Florence and quickly realized that seeing the David wasn't in the cards for me that day. The gallery was interesting with many sculptures of heads and faces, but you know everyone is there to only see one thing. After the museum, we went to an upscale spot called Golden View Open Bar that overlooks the Arno River and the famous Ponte Vecchio (translation: Old Bridge). We ordered two Aperol spritz, but when they were placed on the table, I realized these were no ordinary spritzes. These guys had the audacity to put a sprig of rosemary, a slice of orange, and a thinly peeled cucumber in my glass. I mean, how pretentious can you be? *Takes sip of drink* Foot in mouth. No, HEAVEN IN MOUTH. There's something about breathing in the scent of fresh rosemary while taking a sip of this delectable beverage. Palate refining, this was.
Since I had been to Florence a couple months before, one of my fondest memories was watching the sunset at Piazzale Michelangelo. It's a bit of a hike, but the sun setting over the river running through the city is enchanting to say the least. In June the entire square was filled with tents selling fresh, local products, live music, and an atmosphere that makes you feel unbelievably happy to be alive. Since it was August and all the Italians are at the sea, there were only a few tourism kiosks with the cheap, valueless items you see around Rome. Thankfully the sunset did not disappoint. Small world story: We ran into some other Beaumont people, Amanda and Landon Tallarita. If this wasn't strange enough, I went on to run into them a few days later in Rome at a little dive bar I had never been to before. I'd like to swear I wasn't stalking them, but at this point I just can't honestly say for sure.
Friday, August 26th
The next morning we explored the Boboli Gardens. I was only able to spend about 20 minutes in there during my first visit to Florence because my friend and I had a train to catch, but it's so expansive that I knew I wasn't doing it nearly enough justice. Nature mixed with old Italian art is right up my alley. After strolling though the endless pathways, we retreated into the city to soak up our last few moments before heading back to Rome for my mom's flight back to Texas the next day. Our last train ride was just as smooth as all the others and we checked into a hotel right next to the train station so my mom could easily jump on the Leonardo Express to the airport. We ate at a nearby restaurant called Mamma Angela and finished our meals with a shot of limoncello, a common post-dinner, digestive, alcoholic beverage. We clinked our little glasses and made toasts to the past, present, and future. I'll keep these between my mom and I, but let's just say they were filled with the happiest of tears.
If you get anything out of this post, I hope it's inspiration to travel with your loved ones. Of course you can cherish time together in your home, such as binge watching all six seasons of Parenthood on Netflix together (check), but there is something special about exploring in unity and creating untouchable memories in foreign places. Go ahead and add it to your bucket list, you won't regret it. If finances are an isssue, with the proper goals in place, you can make this happen. No one can ever take away the Italian adventure I had with my mom last summer and I think we can both agree it is the best money we have ever spent.
Sunday Outings + Weekend Escapades
Sometimes it's nice to escape from the hustle and bustle of the big city and catch a train or go for a drive to a nearby town. A whiff of fresh air accompanied by panoramic views of countryside evokes some sense of euphoria that I'm not entirely capable of explaining. All I can say is that it pulls the corners of my mouth to my ears and any muscle tension created from the stress of the week deflates. Sunday is the only day of the week that I have the entire day off, so it's generally the only option for a getaway. Thankfully most au pairs have this day off as well, which makes planning much easier.
Castel di Tora - Pasta Festival
September 27, 2015
My friend Amy, a British au pair I met at the beginning of September, and I hopped in the car with our Roman friend Andrew. He told us about this pasta festival that was going on about 50 miles outside of Rome. This was my first road trip opportunity, so I was not about to turn that down. When we arrived, we had to wait in a long line just to pay for our plates of pasta and then we were given numbers because the amount of people waiting to eat was insane. We had a walk around the tiny town and found a fabulous view of a lake, which we hung out by until our numbers were displayed on the board. When it was finally our turn (PRAISE THE LORD BECAUSE I WAS SO HANGRY), they were almost completely out of pasta. They had to scrape the bottom of these big tubs for our plates (there were two pasta options when we got there, but we couldn't be picky because there was only one kind left). You could say there were many angry Italians behind us. Sorry about your luck, guys.
Marino - Wine Festival - Sagra Dell'Uva
October 4, 2015
My friends Jo (Welsh) and Stephanie (British) joined me for a wine festival known as Sagra dell'Uva, typically held on the first weekend of October just outside of Rome in a little town called Marina. Since it is so close, the roundtrip on a train was only 5 euros, which makes us poor au pairs extremely happy. We had no idea what to expect, but we were not disappointed. We went straight for the porchetta sandwiches. They were carving the savory pork goodness at many tents, so we played a game of eeny, meeny, miny, moe and picked one. There were thousands of people packed in this little town, many horrendously intoxicated because, come on, it's a wine festival, so you can imagine it was quite chaotic. Finding a restroom was no easy task. None of the businesses were allowing anyone to use their facilities unless you were a paying customer. Best one euro for 'un cafe' I ever spent. At a certain time in the evening, before the sun began to set, there was a fountain called the Fountain of the Four Moors where men were holding hoses and freely filling everyone's cups with white wine (the smart people held out big water bottles). I'm not sure if it was worth being pushed and shoved for a little bit of free wine, but I figured you only live once and it's all part of the experience. We luckily caught the last train home and left the sticky and completely trashed streets of Marino. Not the classiest day I've ever had, but surely an experience I'll never forget.
Civita di Bagnoregio - Castle in the Clouds
October 18, 2015
My British friend Morgan fortunately had access to her Italian family's car and they generously allowed us to take it to a little tourist destination called Civita di Bagnoregio. So me, Morgan and Jo set off through the Italian countryside to see this castle that stands alone on a cliff. The pictures on Google were all we needed to decide this was where we wanted to spend our Sunday. I was so pleased to be breathing fresh air again and for a minute felt like I was cruising the backroads of Texas with open pastures, but with sheep instead of cows. We strolled the small town, stumbled upon a car show, and admired the quaint alleyways. The castle from afar was absolutely breathtaking. We walked along the long bridge until we arrived and poked around at a few of the small shops. There were not a ton of things to do, but it was a magnificent sight to see and turned out to be a lovely, peaceful Sunday.
NAPLES & POMPEII
DECEMBER 19-21, 2015
Many people have asked me how I made friends while abroad. The private Facebook page specifically for au pairs in Rome made this incredibly easy. I was contacted by a girl from Texas, who also went to Texas A&M (WHOOP). She had recently arrived in Rome to be an au pair and, before even meeting, we decided to go to Naples and Pompeii together. This was the second trip I took with a complete stranger and it ended up being a great experience once again. I have heard some horror stories about au pairs going on trips with other girls they don't know, so my word of advice is to check them out on Facebook and make sure you have at least a few things in common. Discuss how you like to travel (ex: are you relaxed or itinerary oriented and structured, do you like museums and art or would you rather be outdoors, what is your budget, do you like to experience nightlife, etc.) to figure out if you will be a good fit. Sometimes you can go through all the motions and questions and it still turns out terribly, but I got lucky.
We met at the train station early in the morning and my Canadian friend Lauren joined us just for the day. First impression of Naples immediately upon exiting the station: unsafe, sketchy, dirty. Before leaving on this trip I was warned to keep my belongings close to me because Naples has a reputation for pickpocketing. Rome does as well, but I rarely felt the need to bear hug my things in order to keep them from being taken away from me. I decided to bring my camera with me, so I was hanging on to that thing for dear life. After checking into the Airbnb, we went out to explore. We chose a fantastic time to visit Naples because they are known for their Christmas market and extravagant nativity scenes. There were many street performers and quirky things to look at on every corner. That evening, we decided we wanted a cocktail and headed to the number one nightlife place on TripAdvisor, Cammarota Spritz. It was a tiny hole-in-the-wall bar and no one was there. The staff welcomed us in and we could choose between an Aperol Spritz or a gin and lemon, both for one euro a piece. Since it was so cheap, we said "why not", grabbed a drink, and sat at a table outside. As we sat there talking, the place slowly began to fill up and was eventually packed. Lauren unfortunately had to leave us, since she was only staying for the day, so we said our goodbyes. In retrospect, we totally should have walked her back to the station, but us Rome au pairs know how to handle ourselves. And when I say "handle ourselves", I mean shank a perpetrator if need be. Not long after Lauren left, Randi and I were approached by a group of Italian friends and they asked to sit with us. I noticed that the Italians who know English absolutely love to practice, so talking to English speakers is a real treat. They were so friendly and invited us out to dinner with them. I could not believe the amount of food they ordered. From fresh seafood, pasta, pizza, etc., I'm fairly certain I had to be rolled back to the Airbnb.
The next day we hopped on a train to Pompeii to explore the ancient ruins. If you're unfamiliar with Pompeii, it's a town just south of Naples that was covered in volcanic ash due to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. However, this also caused the town to be miraculously preserved because of the lack of air and moisure, and was rediscovered 1500 years later in 1599. Imagining the life of these people while walking through their streets and stone houses was fascinating. A german shepherd started following us around at the beginning of the day and was with us until we left. This made Randi extremely happy because she has a german shepherd at home. We named her Pompey. We asked the staff about her and they said she is a stray that they feed so she just roams the ruins and hangs out with all of the visitors. It took everything in Randi not to smuggle her onto the train and take her back to Rome with us.
We resistantly returned to Naples that evening because our train was booked to leave from that station to return to Rome the next day. As we were exiting the station, the sun had already gone down and I felt a weird sensation. Like we were being watched. I turned around and saw a group of shady looking characters whispering to each other. This immediately raised the hairs on the back of my neck. I began to pick up the pace and I noticed they did as well. They were quickly right behind us, so I fully spun around to see what was going on. As I was turning my head, I saw one of the men's hands leaving Randi's purse with her wallet. I'm not sure where this animalistic response came from, but I immediately shouted, "ARE YOU F*%^#@! KIDDING ME?!?!?! GIVE IT BACK!" We were in a crowded street with many shops, so my commotion caused many pedestrians and shop owners to stop and pay attention. The guy started yelling "CHE COSA? CHE COSA?" (What? What?) The wallet had already been handed back a few people, as this was clearly a group effort. The guy holding the wallet was wide eyed and handed the wallet back to Randi. I was shaking for a good hour after this, but had never felt more adrenaline running through my veins.
We had some time before our train left for Rome, so we popped into the Naples National Archaeological Museum, which is considered to be one of the most important archeological museums in the world. As are most Italian museums, it was beautiful, elegant, and filled with some truly incredible and unique pieces. We were about to leave when we saw a sign for a 'secret room'. Curious to know what this meant, we ventured inside only to find a collection that was quite....... exotic. And when I say exotic I mean phallic to the fullest extent. Basically a room devoted to ancient porn. I was really mature when I walked through the exhibit. Totally kidding, I Snapchatted the entire event. I've added a video below with a warning, so just know what you're getting yourself into.
February 21, 2016
Since Randi and I had such a great trip to Naples and Pompeii, we decided to go on a day trip to Tivoli. This is a wildly popular destination for people wanting to take a day trip outside of Rome. The fountain in Villa d'Este is the main attraction for obvious reasons. This 16th century garden greatly influenced the development of garden design throughout Europe. As a parks and recreation major, I was intrigued by this fact. We had dinner and wine at a ritzy rooftop restaurant before heading back to the city.
MARAIS VISIT // ROME + CINQUE TERRE
March 10-14, 2016
My best friend Marais is in the process of completing a year-long masters program at King's College in London. We knew we wanted to do a trip together, so we thought what better time than our birthday weekend? (Hers is March 12th and mine is the 13th.) We both shared the desire to hike Cinque Terre, as it's a massively popular destination and for a good reason. She had been to Rome before, but didn't have the best experience, which is unfortunately all too easy to do if you don't get away from the chaotic tourist trap areas. I vowed to make her like the city, so she flew into Rome and I played tour guide and showed her some of my favorite spots and hidden gems. Since she didn't get in until Thursday evening, we stayed at my host parent's flat to help cut some costs. We dropped off her things and went out for a beer at one of my favorite low-key Irish pubs, The Abbey. Seeing my best friend in the flesh for the first time in ten months was therapeutic to say the least.
We rose early on Friday to get out and explore the city, but not before dropping off our things at the Airbnb we rented so we would be a little closer to all the action. We walked all day and fueled ourselves with copious amounts of gelato. Eating this tasty treat was high on Marais' to-do list before arriving and thankfully I had no resistance to this activity. After a little rest in the Airbnb, we got dressed up and went to an extremely upscale place near Piazza del Popolo called the Stravinskiy Bar at Hotel de Russie. This felt a bit too 'lifestyles of the rich and famous' for us (Justin Bieber had recently been spotted here to give you an idea of their average clientele), but it felt nice to treat ourselves to snazzy cocktails and a scrumptious, assorted Italian cheese tray. Afterwards we headed to one of my favorite neighborhoods, Monti. It was rather late in the evening by the time we were ready to eat dinner, so the restaurant we planned to eat at was closing when we arrived. They sent us a few doors down to a place a bit less formal, but the pasta was still delicious as ever. When we finished our dinner, we grabbed a couple of beers near the fountain in Monti where many Italians like to hang around and have some drinks. Both of us are clearly not Italian, so it didn't take long for us to be approached for conversation by the Italian men nearby. Right at midnight we convinced the boys to sing her Tanti Auguri (happy birthday), which you will see attached in the video below.
The next morning I showed her Villa Borghese. We rented a pedal cart and rode around for about an hour. Our train for La Spezia left around 3pm, so we had lunch and gelato and rode out of town. Our train arrived at the station and then we had to take another train to the northern most town in Cinque Terre, Monterosso, because we were going to stay the night there and begin our hike back towards La Spezia in the morning. When we got to Monterosso, it was 9pm and we could not find our hotel. It was dark outside and unbelievably quiet. I eventually got frustrated and stopped a man walking on the road. I asked him if he knew where we needed to go. He immediately knew who I was talking about, verified by an "Ah! Anita!", and kindly walked us to the door of the woman's hotel we were supposed to be staying at. She popped her head out of the upstairs window, they chatted for a few minutes in Italian like they were old friends (clearly a small, tight-knit community), and then she finally came down to help us. She had no record of our reservation because I had made it through a third party website. I had the reservation confirmation on my phone and everything, but I guess some lines got crossed and she was never sent a notification. She was a bit annoyed with our late arrival (Italians wear their emotions on their sleeve a bit more than us), but thankfully someone didn't show up for their room that night so we had a place to stay. After everything was settled, she was very kind and helped us with all of our questions. We were panicked for a good hour there, but everything worked out and we were able to settle into a room. We were starving by this point, so we walked to the main square and found a decently crowded restaurant (there were not many to pick from) called Ristorante Belvedere. We both had phenomenal plates of pasta, shared a bottle of wine, and ordered some desserts to celebrate our birthdays. The staff was kind enough to supply us each with a candle. We were the last ones in the restaurant and happier than the clams I just scarfed down.
Before going to bed Marais said, "I know this sounds a little crazy because we have such a long day ahead of us, but what do you think about getting up early enough to go down to the beach and watch the sun rise?" Since I hardly ever see this happen, I thought what better of a place than this to experience that? I checked my weather app to find out the time this was supposed to happen and set my alarm around 6am. We didn't check the direction we were facing, so unfortunately didn't see the initial rise of the sun, but watching the light spill over the beach and surrounding cliffs with the world quietly rising from its slumber around us was truly magical. Once we had soaked in as much of the sunrise as possible, we headed back to the hotel, packed up our things, threw on our backpacks, and began the hike. HOLY STAIRS. If you're ever planning on doing this hike, know that you will be climbing many of these. Cinque, meaning "five" in Italian, and terre, meaning "lands", represents the five small towns that make up the Cinque Terre region. They are all coastal towns and have train connections between them (remember this, it will be important later). We began at the northernmost, Monterosso, and made our way south to Vernazza. This stretch was physically the most difficult and took us about an hour and a half to conquer. We planned to hike through all five towns in one day, so we had to keep a steady pace if we wanted to make it to La Spezia for our train back to Rome that evening. As these are all small towns, they did not take long to explore. Once we covered a decent amount of ground in Vernazza, we began to make our way to the next town, Corniglia. We did not see very many people throughout the course of our hike, but this was probably because we went in March, which is right before tourist season for this region begins. March can be cold and sporadically has massive amounts of rain, but we struck gold with our weather. It was absolutely perfect. We felt like the world was bringing back good karma from our cancelled Paris trip. I'll refrain from a rant about ISIS right now. Corniglia, like Vernazza, was another quaint town with little restaurants and spots to enjoy the view of the sea. Unfortunately the weather was a bit too chilly to get in the water because I guarantee both Marais and I would have jumped right in. We stopped to grab a bite to eat at a little shop called Enoteca Winebar. We sat outside and enjoyed the breeze. My favorite sign at this place stated, "We are free from WIFI for our and your health. Look around. There is nature. Logout and clear your mind." I had my phone on airplane mode the entire day, which proved to be one of the best decisions I could have made. As we were making our way to the fourth town, we were stopped abruptly by a dead end drop off. We heard there was a piece of the trail under construction and we had unmistakably found it. After speaking with the guy selling tickets at the Corniglia station, we understood our options were to hike two hours around the construction or to take a 5 minute train ride. Due to our time constraint, we opted for the train. Only a little over a euro a piece, this was not a bad call. We arrived in Manarola and let me just tell you, THIS. This is the sight that everyone waits for. Sure, the other towns are unbelievably beautiful in their own right, but I was almost brought to tears with this one. We found a rooftop bar, ordered bruschetta topped with the freshest tomatoes, inventive cocktails (mine served in what seemed to once house a large candle), and a pitcher of sangria. Before we knew it, we were watching the most beautiful sunset of our lives. We laughed on that rooftop until our stomachs ached and mutually understood that we would not be making it to that fifth town. Sorry, Riomaggiore, but you got in a battle with sangria and sangria won. We laughingly call this adventure Quattro (four) Terre.
We safely made it back to Rome, slept like rocks, and I accompanied her to the train station for her to make her flight back to London the next morning. These days, without a doubt, held some of the fondest memories of my entire year.
Ostia - A Scandalous Day at the Beach
April 3, 2016
The train ride to the beach is quick and easy, so when the weather started to warm up, our Sunday plans were a no-brainer. Ostia is no where near the most beautiful beach around Rome, but it's the most accessible from the city with public transportation. Basically I wanted to post about this day just to claim that I tanned topless and it was unbelievably liberating. I surely won't be doing this in the states (or probably ever again for that matter), but it felt like a good bucket list item (private backyards don't count, people) and I went for it.
Ladispoli - Artichoke Festival
April 10, 2016
Sagra del Carciofo (pronounced CAR-CHO-FO), festival of the artichoke, is held annually in the coastal town of Ladispoli. The date is set based on the agricultural calendar and the collection of artichokes, usually after the Easter holiday. A short train ride away from Rome made it easy for everyone to attend. The lines for the famous fried artichokes were ridiculously long, but definitely worth the wait. There are different types of fried artichokes, some are battered and some are fried directly in the oil, but they were all fantastically delicious. Big jugs of wine are sold at an incredibly low cost, so we all chipped in and passed around the fermented goodness.
"Don't wear a white dress to a festival," they said. "It's dangerous," they said. They were right. Not long after arriving I had spilled a hefty portion of wine down the front of my dress. Luckily I was there with some incredible and proactive girls that brought me from place to place trying to find a solution for my self inflicted problem. We walked into a nice restaurant where many families were eating. I was a bit embarrassed, but my friend assured me the same place allowed them to use their restrooms last year and were very kind. These people saw my dress and immediately handed me a can to spray on the stain. They led me upstairs, away from the majority of the customers, and I sprayed away. A powdery substance was released and they gave me a brush that looked like it was for shoe shining to wipe off the excess. The stain was hardly noticeable. I wish I had thought about taking a picture of this can because it was a miracle worker. My friend Jo was later able to completely remove the stain and save the dress by using vinegar and throwing it into the washing machine. Shout out to those people at the restaurant. They are the true MVPs. We spent the rest of the day lounging on blankets, eating as much as our stomachs could handle, soaking up the sun, and ended with a walk along the beach.
May 8, 2016
There are many hits on Google when you search "Day Trips from Rome". With multitudes of charming small towns surrounding the city, it is difficult to choose. One of the towns that frequently resurfaced in many articles I stumbled across was Orvieto. I had time for one last day trip before my departure, so Jo, Meaghan (British), and myself hopped on a train (could seriously do this in my sleep at this point) and headed north. All of my day trips were fabulous, but I'd have to say that Orvieto was my favorite. I'm not sure if I was just feeling overly sentimental due to leaving the country soon, but I felt as though this place had a lot to offer. There was a church with the most breathtakingly ornate facade, gorgeous views of rolling hills, and plenty of artisan shops to poke around in until your heart's content. Italian made leather purses, shops completely dedicated to cashmere, hand-painted ceramics, and an entire store full of wooden gadgets handcrafted by the owner are just a few examples of the things we experienced that day. 10/10 would do again.
I spent the afternoon preparing the kids to go trick or treating. A few of Carlotta's friends came over to our house to get ready and have their faces painted. Naturally, a group of 4 year olds dressed as witches and skeletons and excited about getting a bag full of chocolate Kinder eggs is ridiculously adorable. The Italians have an event in February called Carnival and that is when they dress up as characters from movies, etc., but for Halloween they stick to the typical holiday-related costumes. There was a street near the house where all the businesses were open late and handing out candy to kids. After the sun went down, we wrapped up trick-or-treating and I was able to get myself ready to meet my friends. I dressed up as a black widow, meaning I glued a fake spider to a headband. Remember, us au pairs are on a budget. We went to a nightclub called Vibe, located in Villa Borghese (the main park in Rome). It was overly crowded, as are most night clubs in Rome, but still enjoyed dancing and escaping to take group selfies in the bathroom.
Thanksgiving was the first holiday that was hard to be away from home. I knew Christmas was going to be tough as well, but I was just planning to cross that bridge when I got there. To make myself feel less homesick, I attempted to make my host family a traditional Thanksgiving dinner and invited my friend Jo and her host family over. Note: I am not a cook. At all. This fact made tackling a Thanksgiving dinner all the more overwhelming. As I planned the menu, I made some adjustments to make things a little easier on myself. I did not buy a whole turkey because I knew that would have been disastrous and if my Italian family saw me pulling out a heart and all kinds of parts, I don't think they would have stuck around for dinner. They might even call the cops on their masochistic au pair. I compromised by going with turkey tenderloin instead. The rest of the menu was comprised of green beans picked up at the local market, buttery, creamy, mashed potatoes, sweet potato casserole topped with miniature marshmallows, pumpkin pie purchased from an American bakery on the other side of town, and homemade cinnamon apple crumble cheesecake bars. Everything was relatively easy to locate, but the sweet potatoes were a freaking nightmare. I spent hours upon hours in search of these because I refused to sit down at the table and not have this orange baby food-esque concoction sitting on my plate. I finally came across a blog post that told me where I could find them, so I crossed my fingers and headed to a fairly sketchy market near the train station. Don't worry, sweet Jo accompanied me because I was not brave enough to do this alone. SUCCESS!!!!!!!!! We bought a couple of kilos and scrammed. After slaving away all day in the kitchen, our host families sat down and enjoyed a nice dinner together. I was happy as a clam. As I said, I'm not a cook, but I was pretty darn proud of my spread. Other than the undercooked green beans that were squeaking like rubber, it was not bad for my first Thanksgiving dinner attempt. I appreciate the efforts of all my past Thanksgiving dinners a million times more. I apologize for not fully understanding the amount of hard work that goes into these events. The more you know...
Rome during the month of December is spectacular. Lights and ornaments are strung all over the city and, just like in America, there's an extra pep in everyone's step. I loved going out at night to see all of the decorations come to life. A massive nativity scene and Christmas tree are on display in St. Peter's square outside of the Vatican and another large Christmas tree can be found in the center of Piazza Venezia. With all of this excitement surrounding me, I wasn't feeling as homesick as I thought I'd be. However, after many of my au pair friends returned home to their families and the city quieted down, I felt the sadness like a punch in the gut on Christmas Eve morning. I had never missed Christmas with my family and, as we have lived in the same house since I was born, every Christmas of my life looked exactly the same. That night, my host family had their friends and kids over for a big, delicious Christmas Eve dinner. After we ate, the four kids opened their presents and bits of joy began to spark inside me. Once I allowed myself to enter into the ever-so-present happiness that filled the room, I was able to let go of the grief I had created for myself. I had not been around young children on Christmas in a long time and their excitement brought me to a place of peace with my surroundings. We opened more presents on Christmas morning in our pajamas and played games all day long.
My friend Lauren stayed in the city for the holidays as well, so we went over to the Irish pub, Scholar's Lounge, to hang out with other expats.
New Years Eve
Many au pairs were still out of town for the holidays, so a couple of other au pairs, Randi and Lauren, came over to my place. We cooked dinner, curled our hair, and went out to one of our favorite pubs in Rome called The Abbey. We love the bartenders at The Abbey, so we ended up staying there the entire evening (it's not uncommon for us to hop from place to place throughout an evening in Rome). The most memorable thing about that night was the surcharge for an Uber ride home. NOT COOL, UBER. Spending over 70 euros to get home was not on my to-do list. Coulda woulda shoulda taken the night bus that evening.
New Years always holds an interesting weight. You feel the need to make positive changes, cut negative habits, and reevaluate the people in your life in order to prepare for a happier and healthier upcoming year. After reflecting on 2015, I was pretty darn proud of myself. Living abroad, especially in a country that speaks an entirely different language, was proving to be challenging and tested me in ways that I couldn't have even imagined. I was responsible for taking care of two precious children for 40 hours a week and was learning patience at an olympic pace. I knew that I would be returning home to Texas in 2016 (we will get into that later), so my thoughts about anything life-changing (i.e. career goals) seemed a bit far off in the future. For the time being, I just took a deep breath and enjoyed the fleeting moment.
St. Patrick's Day
If you followed me on Snapchat, you know how much I loved me an Irish pub in Rome. I've already mentioned them quite extensively by this point in this post. These pubs are where I could find the other English speakers and I'm a sucker for a British/Irish/Scottish accent. My friend Randi and I decided to go to The Abbey (yes, again) and this felt like one of the bigger mistakes of the year. We could barely move and everyone in the building was furious about not being able to move. The Abbey and Scholar's Lounge are the two big Irish pubs in Rome, so anyone wanting to celebrate this holiday were cramming themselves into one of these two establishments.
Pro tip: There are a ton of small, charming pub dive bars around Rome. I went to many of these throughout the year and if I could go back and redo St. Paddy's Day, I would have opted for one of those. If you catch yourself in Rome on March 17th, Druid's Den or Highlander Pub would be a good shout.
My host family invited me to go with them to my host dad's family's house in Bari (on the southeastern coast of Italy, just above the heel of the boot.) This was a lovely invitation, but I had already made plans to have brunch with some girls and a quiet weekend in Rome sounded relaxing. After filling up on scrambled eggs, french toast, mimosas, we went to the park and laid out on a big beach blanket. More mimosas, some tunes, and good company was a superb recipe for a glorious afternoon. That evening we went out to the fountain in Monti and proceeded to go out for a little late night dancing. Nothing says Easter like going to the club, right?
In January, in accordance with New Years resolutions, I decided to take a more active approach with my health and fitness. Sure, I walk a lot in the city, but it just wasn't enough to compensate for everything I was eating. One day I saw a little smart car with a Crossfit logo. I had no idea that these gyms existed outside of America. I'm just like everyone else. I fully judged Crossfit and everyone involved. However, after a simple Google search, I realized there was one only an 8 minute walk from my house. After checking it out, I signed up for a 6 month membership. Through this I met my great friend Amy (also American, yay!) and the staff was so supportive and friendly. I wasn't great about going regularly as my life and schedule were constantly hectic and chaotic, but I always looked forward to my time there. They all made me feel at home and were incredibly difficult to say goodbye to.
After living in Italy for 10 months, I decided it was time to finally learn a little Italian. I'm constantly asked if I can speak the language and the most straightforward answer is, "No, I cannot." A large aspect of being an au pair is the language exchange, so we only spoke in English at the home. Also, all my friends were British or spoke to me in English as their second language, so I wasn't speaking Italian unless ordering food or a coffee. My friend Amy, who I met at Crossfit, was living in Rome as a teacher and I was beginning to hang out with her Italian friends, which served as a decent incentive to gain some knowledge on the subject. Lord knows I like to talk and I get antsy if I can't join in on the conversation. I knew enough to get around and could understand a decent amount, but taking a month-long course for 3 hours a day, five days a week was helpful to tie up some loose ends. I had many a-ha moments and said, "Oh, that's what that means!" on multiple occasions. I'm still not great at the basics, but I'm realizing how much studying and hard work it takes to get to a fluent level.
My class was comprised of a German male student in his early 30s, a Polish nun in her late 20s, a Peruvian woman in her 50s on a year long vacation with her husband, and Englishman in his 30s between jobs and traveling with his wife while she had temporary business in Rome, and myself, an au pair in her mid-20s from Texas. We were quite the motley crew. On breaks we would go downstairs for coffee and a pastry and mingled with people from the upper level class. It was strange to spend so much time with a group of people, become friends, and then know I'll probably never see them again in my life. I learned a lot from everyone about their cultures and they made my daily trek across Rome to get to class worthwhile.
My Little Italian Family
As much as I have written about all the adventures and trips, that was only a small portion of my time in Italy. Day in and day out was spent with a family that I hold so incredibly dear to my heart. This is not easy for me to write, as I am still processing the fact that I am no longer waking up every morning to the sound of the two most precious voices calling my name and knocking on my door for me to come out to play. Full disclosure- Federico, 1, and Carlotta, 4, exhausted me to the point of tears at times. They made me angry, frustrated, impatient, and the list goes on. I got a real glimpse of what being a parent would look like and, let me just say to all the non-parents out there, it ain't a walk in the park. With that said, and I'm sure all the parents reading this can relate, their smiles and laughter would fix any wrongdoing in the blink of an eye. I have worked in child care for over 10 years, but being the youngest child in my family, I have never lived with children full-time. Spending so much time with them lead me to love them fiercely and wholeheartedly.
As I mentioned before, the point of an au pair is an exchange of culture, especially language. My job was to constantly speak to them in English and being with them for so many months allowed me to witness some real progress. Fede, since he was only 1, was just beginning to speak. He would go back and forth in English and Italian saying "shoes", "scarpe", "shoes", "scarpe." He said a number of other English words such as "cheese", "no", "socks" and "star." Carli had only recently begun to learn English when I arrived. She didn't understand much of what I said, but as time went on, she quickly picked up on many words and phrases. At the end she was stringing little sentences together and would say things like, "Colleen, I am very happy today." Fede loves cars and animals and Carlotta loves Princess Elsa (go figure), dance, singing, and anything chocolate. My days with them typically included picking them up from school, going to the park, to get ice cream or pizza, maybe the supermarket if we needed a few items (which always included a hysterical breakdown over the chocolate Kinder eggs near the register), and bringing Carli to her extracurriculars such as dance or swimming. I bathed them, dried their hair (Italians are very strict about not leaving your hair wet, something to do with longterm pain behind the ears), and made them dinner. First course was always pasta mixed with vegetables or a soft cheese, second course was a protein such as chicken, red meat, or fish, and they would finish their meals with a piece of fruit. Dinner was the only time during the day the kids would watch any television. Carli's favorite show was Paw Patrol (which is ironic because she is absolutely terrified of dogs) and Fede would watch nursery rhyme videos on the YouTube Kids app. After they finished their meals, they would wash their hands, brush their teeth and prepare for bed. If time allowed, we would play a game in their room. If you play a board game with Carli, she will be your best friend in the entire world. She is also amazingly good at puzzles. Fede would play with some cars or stack blocks and if he got bored would terrorize us until we finished our game. Finally, story time would commence and the kids were down for the count. I will always miss Carlotta holding onto my hand as she fell into a deep slumber. I will not miss Federico resisting sleep like it was his job.
My host parents were Emanuela (also known as Manu) and Dario. She is a professor in a nearby town and he is a lawyer. I could not have asked for better people to host me during my time in Rome. They were both always completely kind and respectful. Manu worked from home a lot, so we ate lunch together most days. Her and I became great friends during my time with them and we still text at least a couple times a week because I demanded a constant flow of pictures of the kids when I left.
If you can't tell, I grew incredibly attached to this family and look forward to visiting again in the future. I literally have hundreds of pictures and videos of these kids and it would take far too long to organize them all to put in this post so I'll just leave you with a group shot. If you'd like to see more, I posted many on my Instagram account throughout the year. http://www.instagram.com/collscott
In a city as big as Rome, it could be all too easy to feel unimportant amongst the other 2.6 million residents. Coming from a relatively small city in Texas, I grew up accustomed to politely smiling at strangers and holding the door for the person behind me. Although I am constantly poking fun at the (lack of) customer service in Italy as well as their tendency to become completely irate human beings once positioned behind the wheel of a motorized vehicle, I feel compelled to admit that I have been on the receiving end of multiple acts of kindness. If you keep your eyes open, you'll notice that the Italians, in general, are quite generous when it comes to lending a helping hand. One day I was struggling to lift the stroller (which I have begun to call a pram, thanks to my posse of British friends) onto the tram, and without skipping a beat the woman next to me picks up the front end and assists me until we are safely positioned inside. In the summer I was on a train to Ostia, the nearby beach town. The train became outrageously crowded with people and we were standing up, packed like sardines for the entire 30 minute journey. I started to feel faint, extremely nauseous, and had to sit down on the floor of the train. An elderly woman, who could not speak a lick of english, saw what was happening and proceeded to give me her water, whip out a sugar packet, rip it open, and pour it in my mouth without asking. This seemed odd, but I felt better instantaneously. I undoubtably encountered my fair share of weirdos and uncomfortable situations, but the guardian angels scattered in this city consistently restored my faith in humanity.
Recently I came the conclusion that a big part of life is navigating our way out of ruts. These ruts can be mental, physical, or emotional and it's not uncommon to revisit the same ruts multiple times throughout your life. My solution? Bucket lists. The concept is simple. We conjure up these enchanting ideas concerning the infinite possibilities of life. These ideas swim around in our brains and give us something to dream about. Acting on one of those items could be the first step in a positive direction and away from your rut. My biggest fear is looking back on my life and having a bucket list that never saw the light of day. Living abroad was a huge item for me. It wasn't easy. It was actually really freaking scary at times. Though I will tell you, the growth that I experienced this past year was leaps and bounds greater than my wildest expectations. I learned how to be strong and independent, but I also gained a softer and more understanding heart of other people and cultures. I'm not saying that everyone should move abroad because that would be terribly impractical, but what scenario or event would take you out of your comfort zone and force you to grow or, heaven forbid, change? What's going to knock the wind out of you, allowing for a full, new breath of fresh air to enter your system? Figure out what that is and GO DO IT.
I have been home for two and a half months and the transition has been relatively smooth. My friends and family have embraced me with open arms, which is something I could not be more thankful for. I have started back with the memorial design ( www.redtrunkdesign.com ) and recently began to dabble in real estate photography. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I am repurposing this website for professional reasons. The portfolio has been updated with my most recent real estate work and I will continue to use this blog to document life as a freelancer. I have another exciting project that some close family and friends know about, but I will wait until more happens with that to share my involvement so stay tuned.
If you made it all the way through this post, I commend you. I can assure you I will never write another blog post this lengthy ever again. I wanted to write all of this for personal reasons to remember my year in Rome, but I shared the beginning of my journey so I figured I might as well share the middle and the end. Thanks so much for all of your unwavering support. I'm constantly reminded how fantastic this life is, and I cannot wait to tackle this next curveball, my career. I've got my feet firmly planted and I'm ready to slam it out of the park, y'all.