Standing before the counter, I meant to order a double scoop of stracciatella for one simple reason – after a week in Italy, the chocolate-flecked gelato remained the only flavor I could pronounce correctly.
The first time I bought gelato, I waited in line behind a panther of a woman, distinctly Italian among the throng of tourists. She radiated confidence in a black leather jacket and sky-high stilettos, balancing effortlessly atop the uneven Roman cobblestone. “Una paletta di stracciatella, per favore,” she trilled, the double C crackling like almond brittle between her teeth, the final syllable sung out rather than spoken, a ringing “LA.”
When the line shuffled forward, my plan to smile and point suddenly lost all appeal, and I blurted out, “Stracciatella!” As parrot-like as the word sounded in my American accent, it seemed less embarassing than blindly butchering anything else.
The gelato culture here isn’t anything like eating ice cream in the states. No matter where you are in Rome, you can probably spot a couple gelaterias from where you’re standing – across the street, inside the bakeries, even next door to one another. Gelato is denser and creamier than ice cream, with fresh flavors and prices cheaper than water.
I ate gelato twice a day while I was in Italy, for dessert and sometimes for dinner. Some shops packed scoops into chocolate-dipped cones, other topped the cup with a thin waffle cookie called a pizelle, and one store smothered the gelato with unsweetened whipped cream. Pretty soon, before lunch and after dinner, my order became a habit, the only flavor I could say with confidence: “Stracciatella.”
I stumbled upon a little gelateria one afternoon in Venice. More of a street-side counter than a shop, tucked in the south end of Campo Santa Margherita, the place didn’t advertise its fame as Venice’s best gelato with banners or framed awards. But the long line of people, all craning over each other’s shoulders to peek at the display case, wordlessly gave me the message.
Unlike some of the shops I’d visited, with counters that wrapped around the room, this place offered fewer than a dozen bins of gelato. But I was struck by the simplicity and intensity of the flavors offered, the effortless swirl of the gelato. Even though I couldn’t understand most of the Italian labels, garnishes translated for me – halved figs sparkling atop the fico, tan-edged wisps of coconut dotting the coco, a scattering of skinned hazelnuts over the nocciola.
I was tempted by the amarena, a cream based gelato swirled with sour cherry sauce, the fruit mixed in whole. In the next bin I discovered pistacchio, a flavor I’d seen almost everywhere. But the natural color, paler than the artificial neon green I sometimes saw, made this one stand out. And of course, there was my go-to stracciatella: white and perfectly smooth, aside from the streaks of rippled chocolate marbling throughout.
Before I could order the stracciatella, I discovered a wholly new flavor. Nearly black, this concoction churned dark chocolate into the creamiest-looking gelato I’d ever seen. In the afternoon sun, bits of candied orange peel studding the chocolate caught the light like jewels.
I found the label and immediately got lost in a string of C’s and vowels, still too proud to silently point. In the past few weeks I’d visited Scotland and England in the UK, English-speaking cities in the Netherlands, and Paris, which revived my high school French. But here in Italy, with no understanding of the language, I felt so invasive, so touristy, unable to blend in.
When I looked up, the man at the counter was smiling.
“Cioccolato all-arancia,” he said, the consonants soft in his deep voice.
“Cho-koh-LAH-toh ahl-ah-RAHN-cha,” I repeated.
He worked a bit of gelato back and forth a few times with a flat paddle until it was soft and creamy, and topped a waffle cone with a generous smear. This gelato had the texture of silk, an elusive airiness. The chocolate melted into a bittersweet custard on my tongue, the candied orange like tiny sunbursts. It was simply the best gelato I’d ever tasted.
When I found myself in line for a scoop the next morning in Florence, I scanned the bins, anticipating the flavor I’d choose next. Gianduja? Castagna? Something mysterious called zabaione, with no garnish whatsoever?
Maybe I couldn’t speak Italian, but by the time I returned to the Netherlands, I planned to be fluent in gelato.
Click for more photos from my travels in Italy…
I flew to Rome last Monday with a single black backpack containing everything essential for a week-long romp through Italy.
To be completely honest, I’d been having a bad week. It didn’t help that before Rome I was in Berlin, where dying leaves littered the ground and the clouds poured rain whenever I forgot my umbrella. For the first time this semester I wanted to go home. Even though I knew how lucky I was to be abroad, I continually battled stress and exhaustion. Italy felt like an escape, a chance to find myself again.
My friend J- and I arrived in Rome on Halloween night. We navigated the train station and a few tram stops later we arrived at our apartment, where J-‘s childhood friend A- had offered her couch. It was small, but centrally located, and in our excitement to explore Rome we dropped our backpacks down on the living room floor and rushed outside.
I fell for Rome in the hour we spent outside – how could I not? We wandered past ancient ruins in the middle of cobblestoned piazzas, leaping fountains, a blur of arches and columns. The night was so warm I wore a short sleeved t-shirt and a skirt. I had nothing with me. No passport, no wallet, no cell phone. For the first time in weeks I felt free.
We walked back, ready to fall into bed. The barred metal gate to the apartment building was ajar. Inside, the door to our apartment stood wide open. First, I saw my clothes on a pile on the floor, my journal tossed a couple feet away. In one hazy moment I realized my backpack was nowhere in sight, and without thought I opened my mouth and said, “I think we’ve been robbed.”
I sat on the couch and experienced my first real panic attack. J- had his arms around me as he tried to help me breathe again. A- ran from room to room. Laptops, cell phones, cameras, even expensive headphones and cologne – gone. I cried and cried as A- called the police and the seven people living in the apartment, whom I hadn’t even met yet. I’d been in Rome for three hours.
When the police arrived, we made lists of everything we lost. I sat on the steps outside with my torn piece of notebook paper and a pen, absolutely numb. The thieves had taken my backpack itself, leaving only my clothes and my journal. I lost my toiletries, souvenirs from Berlin, and worthless but sentimental things – a friendship bracelet from a dear friend, a bag from my dad, my favorite earrings.
My laptop was stolen. So was my Canon DSLR and 50mm lens. The moment I realized they were gone, I also knew I couldn’t afford to replace either. J- held my hand as I repeated, over and over, “I don’t know how to live without my camera.”
In the morning, J- and I ate a quick breakfast and left the apartment without a map or itinerary. We just wanted to wander. When we stepped outside and I saw Rome in the light for the first time, I exhaled all of the negative energy inside me and knew that everything would be okay. Being robbed was terrible, but in a superficial way, I’m glad it happened.
Honestly, things are just things. All I lost was money, and convenience. Nobody was hurt. We returned to the apartment so early last night, we’re lucky we didn’t run into the robbers, who I’m sure would have been armed. I can live without a laptop. And while it was painful to explore Italy without my camera, I used my iPod instead, and that’s where the photos in this post are from.
Most of all, the robbery provided an emotional outlet I’d needed. For weeks I’d been feeling miserable, but I supressed everything in an effort to appreciate the opportunity I’d been given. But the emotions I experienced during the robbery were so intense – fear, anger, depression, confusion, hurt – that I woke up cleansed the next morning. A blank slate. Ready to embrace Rome fully and whole-heartedly.
And we did. Rome is my favorite city of the five countries I’ve visited, and this trip – robbery included – has been my absolute favorite.
J- and I ate gelato twice a day. We walked through the forum in silence, absolutely spellbound. I stood beneath the Sistine Chapel, and I peered over the stretch of Rome from the St. Peter’s Dome. I sat beneath the Italian pine trees, soft and strong and older than I can imagine, and wrote in my travel journal, which I am so grateful to still have.
Whenever I snuck an olive off J-‘s pizza or borrowed his pen, he wrinkled his nose at me and said, “I’ve been robbed!”
Sometimes, you have to choose to laugh.
The next day we filed a police report with the seven other people who were robbed. As I sat in silence in the Roman police station, that familiar numbness seeping through my skull, I wondered, “Since when is this my life?”
J- and I decided to treat ourselves to a fantastic dinner. We wandered until we found a beautiful restaurant, with outdoor seating and twinkling Christmas lights. We were the only people there but the prices were affordable and the fragrant air beckoned us to sit down. I ordered a seafood spaghetti with mussels, clams, and cherry tomatoes; J- ordered gnocchi with arugula and cream sauce.
I think I may have cried when our food came out. I wish so badly I had a camera to take a picture, because it was the most beautiful plate of pasta I’ve ever seen. J- moaned when he took his first bite, but I thought mine was even better. We split a bottle of chianti and then treated ourselves to dessert.
If that night, that conversation with J-, that astounding plate of spaghetti, doesn’t turn out to be the highlight of the semester, I don’t know what will be.
I’m back in the Netherlands now. Classes start again tomorrow. Life moves on.
I’m writing this in the computer lab, which is drafty and continuously buzzing. The internet is spotty and I am missing my laptop more than ever. When I head to Morocco for my next travel weekend, I’ll ache for my camera until my heart bruises.
But my life isn’t made rich by money, or by photographs. I have all the memories I need, and as long as there’s wifi, I’ll continue to share them with you.
When I originally set this weekend aside as a stay-on-campus weekend, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed. It was a smart idea for a couple reasons… Midterms are next week, my past few trips have been over budget, and I’m feeling under the weather. But I still felt a desperate restlessness when Friday rolled around and my friends packed their bags and flew away. Somehow it seems crucial to travel every week as I study abroad – a wasted opportunity to stop and breathe.
I didn’t realize how exhausted I’ve been until I experienced my first lazy Saturday in Europe. Instead of getting lost between train stations, I watched Spirited Away in the castle lounge and ate raisin bread. Today I curled up in an armchair with my art history notes, ready to absorb everything about Romanesque churches, when it hit me. I wanted to write. And for the first time in weeks, I had time.
I hadn’t meant to go this long without sharing my semester with you. Maybe photos of Scotland will help?
Our flight was delayed five hours and we arrived in Edinburgh far later than expected. It was so dark we couldn’t see a single building or street, but we found our way to the hostel and crashed on teetering bunk beds. I woke up early the next morning with no idea what Scotland looked like.
I found the shower room, pushed open the door, and groggily cursed the bright light coming from the window. But when I opened my eyes and looked outside for the first time, I actually dropped my bottle of shampoo, rushed back to the room, and returned with my camera. We woke up to one of the most beautiful sunrises I’ve ever seen – the whole city bathed in fog, planks of light skimming across steeples and trees and rocky crags.
We walked outside and realized, in the daylight, that our hostel rubbed up against the Edinburgh Castle. My life is unreal.
I spent my first day exploring. I tried to soak in the stone buildings, made up of a million colors – almond, tan, khaki, black, a few blush pink. I walked through a park and stumbled upon this beautiful cemetery. Some gravestones weren’t completely rubbed down by wind and weather, and the people laid to rest dated back centuries.
I watched a street performer breathe fire, swallow swords, and lay beneath a bed of nails.
More than anything else, I loved the layout of Edinburgh. I didn’t realize until we stood high on a ridge and looked down at the city, but the streets weave and tangle like a knot. The city has layers, with some roads above and some roads below, and massive inclines in between. For some reason, we always ended up walking uphill both ways to and from our hostel.
It didn’t make sense to us either.
Our first day in Edinburgh was absolutely gorgeous. People kept telling us not to be fooled by the beautiful weather… I thought it was modesty. Then one afternoon the rain turned on and never turned off. Up until that point I’d marveled at the way I could stand on a street and look all the way down, stretching out forever – that day Edinburgh fog swept through until you could barely see anything.
At night, we tried (somewhat unsuccessfully) to find late night food. We sang Brown Eyed Girl at a piano bar and went to a ceilidh – “kaylee,” in my American accent – or a traditional Scottish dance.
I befriended some of the kindest, warmest people I have ever met.
I left Edinburgh fulfilled and awakened, thinking that I could see myself living here someday.
This semester is a gift. I can’t wait to share more of it with you in the coming weeks!
I’m sitting on a windowsill, trying to write this post, but I keep getting distracted.
There’s the jet lag I can’t seem to shake. I find myself asleep throughout lunch and wide awake at three in the morning, powering through the headaches that come and go and the occasional ear pop.
There’s the noise. In the hallway outside my room, I hear every step on the creaky wood floors that are older than me. Downstairs someone is playing the untuned grand piano. Whenever a door slams – and they have to slam or they won’t shut – the sound bounces up every flight of stairs, around the high ceilings, and into my jet-lagged head.
But most of all, there’s the beauty. From the window opposite me I can see into the courtyard, four even brick walls and a stone tower around a square of cobblestone. If I lean I can see the path continue into a drawbridge, then an open field. My bedroom window looks over the moat, slowly churned by a single fountain and home to one black swan.
I’m blogging from a small castle in the Netherlands, a three-hour bus ride from Amsterdam and a seven-hour flight from Boston. For the next three months, this is home.
I found out I’d be studying abroad way back in first semester, but it didn’t feel real until I was loading my bag onto the bus, lugging it through Logan Airport. I didn’t think I slept much on the flight but I blinked and the sky changed from charcoal to pink and apricot. Then the plane touched down onto the flattest country I’d ever seen, and “Welcome to Amsterdam” crinkled over the speaker.
Even though the airport was filled with English, nothing was familiar. I instantly regretted wearing my Boston sweatshirt, which made me feel extra touristy and kind of guilty. We boarded yet another bus and passed windmills, grassy stretches, and lots of cows until finally we arrived at the castle.
There’s a village ten minutes from here, where we can buy shampoo from “Everything Under One Roof” and applekorn shots from the bar (Wednesday nights are American Night.) Cars always honk warmly at us when we walk through town, elderly couples smile when they pass on bikes. So far I can’t help but adore the Dutch. Every local I’ve run into is friendly, to the point, and has a good sense of humor.
Still, the culture feels so new, with distinctions I haven’t really learned. I asked a teacher if I could find an oven somewhere in the village and her reply was polite, but brisk – “No. The Dutch are a private people. Nobody will let you into their home just to use a kitchen.”
I can’t cook, but I can eat. Our castle tour guide passed around a bag of stroopwafel, two thin waffles sandwiched with caramel syrup. I bought apricot tart at the village bakery. The dough was like bread and the apricots were so sticky sweet, they perfumed my fingers for hours. I’m obsessed with the tomatoensoep from the little café. It’s like marinara! I ended up dipping French fries into it because – sorry – I didn’t like the weird custard-like mayonnaise that came with them instead of ketchup.
I didn’t expect much from the castle’s dining hall, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised. Breakfast and lunch usually includes breads, deli meats and cheese, even fresh fruit. Dinner always has potatoes in one form or another, and a heavy white sauce. It kind of feels like home until you reach the spreads. Literally, a table full of various jars, available at every meal and totally strange.
There are two chocolate spreads. One is kind of like Nutella and the other is a milk/white chocolate swirled duo. I tried to read the back for ingredients, which were offered in six languages, none of which were English. I tried a strange black syrup on a dare – it turned out to be apple. There are cheese spreads, vegetable spreads, and more of that European mayo.
Then, for no obvious reason, every table has peanut butter and jam.
For the first time, I was reminded of something wholly American. I was thrown back to childhood afterschool sandwiches, thumbprint cookies, and this Peanut Butter and Jelly Loaf I made in Seattle. The pound cake is soft and sweet, and the sugar coating on the pan makes the edges slightly crisp like a peanut butter cookie. I couldn’t help but add dollops of grape jelly, which became set into a sticky swirl after baking.
I ate my potatoes and heavy white sauce but I kept thinking about that loaf. Finally I decided to make a PB&J. I expected the unexpected, because everything that looks familiar ends up being strange. The milk is extra thick, the yogurt is extra thin, the butter has a texture I can’t place. But I opened the two jars, spread each onto bread, and sandwiched them together.
Unbelievable. The peanut butter was creamy and sweet but really… A whole lot like Jif. And the strawberry jam? Maybe a few more strawberry chunks than I’m used to, but exactly like jam at the Boston dining hall. I ate my peanut butter sandwich and felt wholly American, and kind of okay with that. I have plenty of time to adjust, travel, and adapt. Next weekend I’m off to Amsterdam, and the weekend after that, Edinburgh. For right now, though, I’ll enjoy the occasional PB&J.
The internet is a little spotty, but I’ll keep blogging! Expect some photo-filled travel posts…