Posts tagged ‘study abroad’
First, I noticed the doors.
I took a bus from Menara airport to Djemaa El-Fna, a large square in the heart of Marrakech’s old city. The bus swerved through a sea of motorized bikes, past flat stretches of fanned palms and arches marking unlit alleys. On the sidewalk I counted more feral cats than I’ve ever seen, and on the rooftops I caught glimpses of oversized nests and tall, toothpick-legged cranes.
We zigzagged between buildings the colors of rust, orange-pink and off white, with unpainted brick exposed on the sides. Elaborate grates decorated the arched windows. The Arabic tile was all geometric shapes and primary colors: chaos and balance. But the doors.
The doors were painted turquoise, seafoam green, red. Some were patterned with raised studs, others with thin scrolls or contrasting diamonds. As the bus sped towards the center square, the doors become vivid blurs against the burnt orange skyline.
(Click thumbnails for full-sized photos!)
Night fell by the time my friends and I arrived at our riad, which was tucked in the maze of side streets of a residential neighborhood. We turned a few corners, walked through a children’s game of football, and found the right alleyway. I saw a door marked 18, just like our directions said, so I pushed it open and the six of us walked inside, backpacks and all.
Inside I saw richly threaded pillows, candles flickering through the cut-outs of metal tins, and… a family of four eating dinner? The woman herded us out of her living room, back into the alley, and pointed further down. Wrong door marked 18. I’d been in Morocco for an hour, and I’d managed to walk into a stranger’s home.
We found the right door, knocked first, and settled into our riad.
We sat in the lounge and planned out our trip over a pot of mint tea – a super sweet drink consumed in tiny, steaming cups. The riad offered a two day excursion into the Sahara desert. We argued amongst ourselves before realizing we couldn’t travel this close to the Sahara without going in. As we came to the decision, I felt a raindrop, and looked up through the open roof as the sky began pouring.
I woke up early for the excursion. I showered on the rooftop terrace, under the starlit sky, and listened to the roosters crow just as my hot water ran out.
We loaded into a van – our home for the next two days. We drove out of the city, around crumbling red mountains and over rocky cliffs, past cacti dripping with ruby fruit. We stopped at villages along the way, where I haggled for silver bracelets and drank an Arabic coke.
By sundown we’d reached the edge of the desert, where we mounted our camels and rode into the Sahara. Here’s what I’ve learned about camels: I don’t like them. Mine was too tall, too fat, a little bow-legged, and very fond of spitting. I also managed to get the camel with the sassiest hips, and when I dismounted two hours later, I felt every ounce of that sass in my aching legs. Can a camel look smug? I think so.
But we set up our tents and ate vegetable tagines for dinner. We danced around the campfire and sang to each other. The sand, cool as the night air and finer than sugar, slipped through my fingers like silk. I stayed outside as long as I could, listening to the camels gossip, looking up at the clearest stars I’ve ever seen, until I woke up to a glorious sunrise edging over the dunes.
(For the record, the camel ride back in the morning is worse.)
We drove back through the snow capped Atlas Mountains, and seven hours later, returned to Marrakech. That night I explored Djemaa El-Fna, a square full of snake charmers, henna artists, and monkeys with chains around their necks. The night market offers heaped spices, fresh orange juice, and bin after bin of roasted nuts. I devoured dried apricots, figs, and dates by the handful.
In the morning, Marrakech experienced a torrential downpour. My friends and I picked that morning to visit the Majorelle Gardens, and by the time we walked there, my socks squelched. But thanks to the rain, we were the only visitors to the garden, and the sight of thick palms, lilies in still ponds, and a forest of bamboo moved the rain to the back of my mind.
With two hours left in the country, I fell in love with the Souks, Marrakech’s mazelike market. The stalls sell everything from slippers and earrings to glazed pottery and gunpowder tea. The market only has a few entrances, and the knot of alleys and streets of stalls were impossible to navigate. For about twenty minutes, thoroughly lost in the heart of the Souks, I thought, “There’s no way I’m making my flight back.”
Now I’m back in Seattle, my semester abroad finished. I’ve seen my old friends and had family dinner, and I’m happy to be home. But a little part of me misses standing ankle deep in sand, scowling at my camel. The weight of lifting the lid of a tagine pot. I probably won’t stop missing the crumbling archways, the brilliant fabrics, the thrill of feeling completely foreign – until my next trip to Marrakech.
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.