Growing up, I went to school at a wealthy, Anglo-Saxon prep school during the day and retired to my working class, Dominican family at night. I was exposed to plenty of cultures via film, literature, and music, but my lens was Dominican-American and the real-life interactions I had with other cultures were never immersive enough to change that. I longed for the adventures my classmates had, but the opportunities rarely aligned and my travel experience was so limited I was afraid of embarking on any journey by myself. Last year, I lived and studied abroad in São Paulo, Brazil and those four months changed that mindset. I jumped in knowing little about the culture or the language, but I learned to see that positively. A sociologist’s job is to use geography, history, and theory to draw meaning to and between interactions and symbols. The unknown is something to be fascinated by – not fearful of.
My roommate Ruchelle is studying abroad in Rome this semester, so I’m visiting her for spring break. As we always do, we’re making an adventure out of it. From Rome, we’re jumping to other Italian cities (Venice, Florence, and Pisa), as well as Paris and Madrid. There will be a lot to take in during these twelve days and I would be thinking too highly of myself in saying I can provide context for or understand everything. You can live somewhere your whole life and still not get the full picture. This blog will be an attempt at stringing together all my random observations as we drink, dance, eat, shop, and tour our way through six European cities in twelve days. Join me and please add in!
Roma (Rome) I: 7 Mar - 8 Mar
I woke up with my cheek pressed against the cold glass of the white taxi’s window. For the previous 28 hours, I had mostly slept in uncomfortable positions like this. On the 2 am bus from DC to NYC. In my mom’s car as she drove me to JFK Airport. Onboard the connecting flight to Munich and then the final leg to Roma. My eyes peered through the droplets of early morning mist that collected on the taxi window. My fatigue fell with the drops. I felt recharged. I was here and I was ready to explore. But where to begin? The saying “all roads lead to Roma” manifested itself before me as I stepped out the car. I stood with my two bags in the middle of an intersection of six winding roads – each one leading to an exciting corner of the city.
First, let’s get rid of these bags. I arrived three hours before my Airbnb check-in time and despite efforts to check-in early hadn’t received a response from my host. Next to her building, I found a tiny shop owned by an equally tiny lady. I thought I could maybe get help locating her from this neighbor. “Hi! I don’t know Italian, but I know Spanish, French, and Portuguese,” I said to the small senior storekeeper. “We can try”, she responded. But as soon as she started talking I was instantly lost. I think she could tell by my glazed expression and lack of verbal response that her words fell on deaf ears, so she walked me back onto the road and flagged a random man down.
The man was American, but knew Italian well enough to translate. I found out as I walked the streets more that tons of Americans live in the neighborhood of Trastevere. In fact, I probably hear more English than I do Italian. Since my host, Donna Anna, was still away, the vendor suggested I go to a nearby café and wait. I went to Meccanismo Bistrot, where I ordered an omelette al salmon and camomila. As I enjoyed my lunch outdoors, on a surprisingly warm and sunny March day, I noticed how quietly others in the café were speaking – if they spoke at all. It wasn’t until I heard the English of other American tourists who entered the café that I realized just how loud and obnoxious Americans really come across in comparison.
After meeting Donna Anna and dropping my belongings off at her apartment I was free to roam Roma (I should have my phone confiscated for that pun). When I first booked the Airbnb I was sketched out. The building seemed run down, and on Google Street View I saw that there was graffiti on all of its surroundings. However, a bargain’s a bargain. What I learned walking around is that you can see the aging and graffiti on all buildings in the neighborhood. A building’s antiquity is considered part of its charm and preserving it acknowledges its place in history. The graffiti, meanwhile, has been widely adopted and accepted as a form of expression. Since the Trastevere crowd is so international and young, they get that. Multiple times periods are brought together in Travestere. The neighborhood is a breathing, living museum and walking down its cobblestone streets is an incredible experience.
After meeting my roommate, Ruchelle, at her university apartment (she’s studying at John Cabot University for the semester), I spent most of the day knocked out on her bed. There is a six-hour time difference between Roma and the US’ East Coast which I tried beating, but it beat me. I slept for 5 hours; I don’t think that’s the “nap” I claimed I was taking. For dinner, we met up with Morgan, who also attends American University, and went to their favorite spot, Ombré Rosse, for a late dinner at 9 pm. Dinner this late is actually standard in Italy, because a siesta of about 3-4 hours is taken in the middle of the workday. Italians are all about rest and taking your time. So, maybe my afternoon slumber was totally culturally appropriate? At 9 pm, Trastevere was dark, but the streets still beamed with neon lights and laughing people preparing for a night out. For dinner, I ordered spaghetti alla carbonara and I couldn’t get enough. You can get this creamy and meaty delight in the US, but here you could tase the freshness of the ingredients. That made a world’s difference. For dessert, we got cheesecake to share which was so good I went ahead and go my own. Again, something in the details makes it superior. Needless to say, I highly recommend this spot.
At this point in the night, on the first day of a trip, you might go home and sleep. I did, but only for 30 mins. To truly beat my jet lag and acclimate to Italy’s lifestyle I needed to do two more things: dance and drink. We made a whole night out of it. First, we began with Bum Bum, a Brazilian spot in Trastevere. Being there gave me a chance to practice my Portuguese and request a couple of songs (they were all Anita and Pabllo Vittar, of course). I finally left Trastevere and walked into downtown Roma with Ruchelle, in what was a surprisingly fast 15 minutes. Once there we went to Scholars, an Irish pub with a really great live cover band and dangerously cheap student discounts. Our night capped off at Shari Vari, a popular high-end nightclub, where we heard mostly American and Latin music. After dancing for about two hours, we sat on one of the couches to people watch. What we observed is that seemingly straight men and women interact just the same as they would in the US. The frat boy and sorority girl archetypes are strong here, even if Greek life is not part of Italian culture. I wonder if this is just the case at the club or if Italian youth culture, in general, is like this?
What I did realize instantly about the youth is that they’re big smokers. It’s different here, however. While most American students smoke weed, most Italian students smoke tobacco. Further, while drinking is as much a fabric of society as it is in the United States, there are two differences. First, Italians drink socially. Whereas Americans down drinks to get completely hammered, Italians drink throughout the night to maintain a buzz. Second, because of open container laws, drinking in the streets is permissible. What’s most astounding about this is that Roma is super clean. At night, there are broken bottles, empty cans, and napkins littered everywhere. But, thanks to Roma’s robust maintenance system which sends garbage trucks through every street in the middle of the night, by morning the streets are spotless. How trucks navigate the narrow streets, and how cars share the road with pedestrians when there are no separate sidewalks is beyond me. As a New Yorker, I jaywalk all the time, yet even I’m afraid of Roma’s roads, because drivers are absolutely wild and won’t hesitate to hit you.
At 4 am, I finally hit my bed. I fell asleep enveloped by the light breeze that came through my second story window and serenaded by the drunken yells of a handful of students still making the most of their nights.
On the second day, I rested (kind of). I woke up at 7 am to the sounds of an already bustling street. My body ached head-to-toe and despise nighttime being fairly chilly, I found I had sweat through my blankets. I had an insatiable desire for cold water, too. These are common symptoms of someone experiencing jetlag. So, despite having a Google Map filled with dozens of pins, each marking what I wanted to see, I went back to sleep. The last thing on my mind was leaving my bed. Besides, the Italian way of living emphasizes rest and spontaneity. As an East Coast boy who craves structure 24/7, this lifestyle is foreign to me, but I’m leaning into it for the culture (and for science).
Ruchelle and I finally got together around noon. We walked over the Tiber River and into the center of Roma. Seeing the city during the day offered a whole new perspective. At night, only the bar/club districts were busy, while the rest of the city felt deserted. In the morning, however, every road in the downtown core was crowded. People were off to work or shop or to visit tourist sites. I appreciated that even at its peak, a Friday morning, Roma was not overwhelming like New York. Since Roma is old it lacks the mega-tall skyscrapers or underground train of American cities, which in my opinion contribute to a city’s claustrophobia. Roma is breathable. In fact, I ran into many of the same strangers at different locations during my day.
After lunch at a hole-in-the-wall pizzeria, we made our way to the first stop on my very long list of tourist attractions. I probably won’t see all, or even most of them on this trip, because Roma has so much history. That just gives me an excuse to come back! Initially a Roman temple, The Pantheon, now and for centuries has served the city as a Catholic church. Many of Roma’s ancient buildings fell into disrepair after the empire’s collapse, but the Pantheon’s rebrand as a church helped it maintain an audience and that is why it’s the best preserved of all the Ancient Roman sites. One of the building’s signature features is the Oculus, an open skylight in the middle of its dome, which happens to be the largest self-supporting in the world. Since rain falls through the Oculus and into the building, several small holes in the floor of the building are used for drainage. When I peered through these holes, I also found McDonald’s bags and coffee cups. The Pantheon may want to look into that.
Tired from our mini-photo shoot, we sat at the piazza in front of the Pantheon. There’s a large fountain there that attracts both locals and tourists, so our break served as some prime people watching time. Locals pace themselves and are very relaxed, while tourists, who are always on their phones are detectable from miles away. I learned that pick-pocketers target tourists using a myriad of distractions, including a toy that sounds like a crying baby. It may sound unempathetic, but after learning about these scams I have been ignoring all baby wails. The cries echo down alleyways for meters, but there’s no way of determining if the cries are real without putting yourself in danger.
Gelateria della Palma was a great stop for some refreshing gelato. For just four Euros we each got two scoops of the stores 150 options. This gelateria is bound to make tons of money off of me, a now very loyal customer. Their mint chocolate and peach options were light, creamy, and absolutely delicious. I got back in line for seconds – this time to try their champagne flavor. The champagne is real by the way. In the next few days, I’ll be coming back to get as many flavors checked off my list as possible.
Our next stop was Piazza Colonna, home to Palazzo Montecitorio (the Italian Parliament) and Palazzo Chigi (the Italian Prime Minister). The historic buildings are beautiful and striking, but harbor ugly conflict within their walls. I won’t get into all the details here, but Italy is a failed democracy. The last few elections have been marked by Constitutional violations that impact citizens’ voting rights and which have led to the inauguration of members who lacked the numbers to be formally elected. Further, the Italian government is severely fragmented and unstable, which has allowed corruption to flourish. Like many other nations around the world, Italy has also seen a rise in nationalism and the far-right.
The state of the world is always reason for retail therapy. Roma, and Italy overall, are known as fashion capitals of the world. So, when packing, I made sure to leave lots of extra room. Europe is usually ahead of America on trends, so I looked forward to integrating some of that European flair into my wardrobe. Even at the airport, I perceived how well-dressed and put together Europeans are. What is considered “professional” is left up to much interpretation, so people are given the space to really show off their individual style.
On our shopping spree, we hit Zara, Berksha, and Zuiki. Italian Zara disappointed me just as much as the American Zara, because clothing fit just a bit too big or long. Berksha and Zuiki were truer to what I expected from Europe: smaller, more form-fitting clothing. The smallest pants size in American stores is sometimes still big on me, but at these two stores, all the pants fit like a dime. I spent an amount of money I refuse to disclose because it’s pretty embarrassing, but after years of suffering with American brands, I think I deserve to splurge a little. These stores are now bookmarked on my browser. What I did wonder and tried to explore while at the store, was what implications European sizing has for larger or plus-sized individuals? I didn’t find all that many options for them. I found this lack of size variety just as problematic and offensive.
After shopping for some six hours, we retreated back to Trastevere for pizza and an early night in.
Venezia (Venice): 9 Mar
Last weekend, Italy celebrated Carnavale. It still showed in the confetti and glitter-laden “streets” of the Venezia. I use streets lightly here, because neither streets nor cars are really a thing in Venezia. The main throughways in this city of 118 islands are its canals. Venezia is toured by boat or foot; since the boats are pretty expensive, foot it was. We found that the best way to tour the city is to simply get lost in it. Venezia is a maze of bridges, canals, and sidewalks. At every corner, particularly in the main neighborhood of San Marco, are hidden and tucked away barres, discotecas, and ristorantes with tasty dining options. So, it’s hard to plan and best to just go with it.
We arrived at noon – the sun at its peak – after a 4-hour train ride from Roma. I instantly teared up when stepping out of the central station and into the city. There was just something so striking about seeing all these colorful, ornate buildings right on the greenish-blue water. It looked as if they almost rose straight out of the waves. Seeing where climate change is headed, one day they might genuinely rise from the water. Yikes, that was morbid! Anywho, the point is, the city is romantic and makes for great Instagram travel porn.
After getting lost in the movement of the waves, we moved on to our Airbnb check-in. It was a 15-minute walk there, but it felt like longer. I don’t know if its because the pathways are small or because the city is touristy or because Northerners go at a slower pace, but the city felt much more stationary and crammed than Roma. Our Airbnb was located in the city’s Jewish Ghetto, a neighborhood the city’s Jewish community was segregated to starting in the 1500s. Venezia’s is the oldest Jewish ghetto in the world and to this day it still retains a lot of Jewish culture. The city contains little other cultural diversity, because its special location makes property stratospherically expensive and accordingly, the property is often passed down generation-to-generation.
The smell of seafood wafted through the city. Anyone who knows me knows I’m a big seafood aficionado, so all the dining options spoke to my soul. We didn’t waste much time and stopped at the first restaurant we found after dropping off our belongings. Trattoria Bar Piontini was right on the water and as the sun beamed down we feasted on vongoles and gamberettos. For drinks, we had Spritz, a local prosecco-based drink served with sparkling water and orange. While in Venezia we kept drinking spritz left and right, but were kindly informed at one bar that spritz is actually a day drink best had before your meal. Might as well write Americans on our foreheads.
Following food, we had our local photo shoot. The water, vibrant colors, and symmetry of the boats makes just about any shot beautiful. As the klutz that I am, I slipped and fell into the canal while trying to get a picture close to the water. Fortunately, I caught myself before taking a full plunge. I wasn’t able to save my shoe though (or my pride). My “near death experience” did raise a couple of questions. What is emergency response in Venezia like? EMT, firefighters, and police – do they travel via boat or in special circumstances do they get to drive around town? How would response time compare to the response time of motor vehicles? Just questions of a paranoid hypochondriac.
Taking the incident as indication that maybe we should stop being extra, we made our way to the Rialto Bridge, a popular spot to watch the sunset over Venezia’s Grand Canal. There, we sat and did our favorite thing: people watch. Italians love to stare, so it’s only fare we get to stare back.
After a quick nap, we explored the Venitian nightlife. First, we hit a Spanish tapas place, Un Mundo Divino, that had a delicious blend of local meats and seafoods. Next, for the main course, we went to Pizzeria La Perla, a local legend that has been visited by global celebrities. The wine was delicious and too cheap. Let’s just say I don’t recall the names of any of the other places we visited after. For drinks, we went to Piazza San Marco, the main town square. There I noticed an interesting juxtaposition. The square’s large, beautiful church was surrounded by bars and drunken debauchery. There were also several vending machines providing condoms and other reproductive barriers. Compared to the United States, Italy is a very Catholic, yet it’s more socially progressive and sexually liberal.
Our night ended at a club that’s name I don’t remember, but it doesn’t matter because it charged an absurd 30 Euro cover. The club wasn’t particularly packed, the drinks were overcharged and the music wasn’t too exciting. A majority of the music was American Top 40 or reggaeton. This was now my second night out and I hadn’t heard any Italian music. Apparently, Italy’s music stars usually perform classic or traditional pop. Growing up, Italian artist Laura Pausini was actually huge in the Latino community and I loved listening to her music. But if the rest of Italian music is like hers, I understand why it’s not favored at clubs.
We walked about 30 minutes back to our Airbnb and the adventure was quite harrowing. In the day, Venezia is beautiful and bustling. But at night, its more residential neighborhoods can be quiet and creepy. I would love to see a horror flick filmed there. There’s no better setting. I only spent a day in Venezia, but I can’t way to return. There’s not as much to do as there as in Roma, but for a few days it is the perfect picturesque getaway.
Firenze (Florence): 10 Mar
Being a native Spanish speaker and knowing French and Portuguese, at least kind of, makes reading Italian easy. Words usually translate quite literally. But I’m often too reliant on what I know when learning new languages. Fleur (French) and flor (Portuguese, Spanish) are how one says flower, so I assumed there’d be a similar pronunciation and spelling in Italian. Instead, Italian drops the L and adds an I: fiore. This threw me off and I spent much longer than I’d like to admit trying to find tickets to Firenze, because I was adamant about using no external sources while I navigated the website. During our actual trip to Firenze, I learned just how necessary it is to let go of ego and pay attention to small details. Fl, and the Tuscana region for which the city serves as capital, are culturally different from Roma. Since Ruchelle was visiting for the first time, too, everything was new to us and we got lost in translation more than a couple times.
After missing our first train (in typical is fashion), we made it to Firenze around noon. The city’s differences, in comparison to Roma, immediately struck me. Firenze is the birthplace of the Renaissance. While much of Roma’s appeal is the ancient Roman architecture and history, Firenze attracts people for its art. That art comes in many forms: architecture, paintings, sculpture. We walked through the Duomo, the city’s main piazza, on the way to our Airbnb and it is dominated by three large buildings: the Firenze Cathedral, Gitto’s Campanile, and the Firenze Baptistry. The exterior design of these three imposing buildings is eye candy. Due to long lines and our short stay, we didn’t get the opportunity to go in, but the interior is full of religious, Renaissance-era art. A trip back is definitely necessary.
Most of the city’s other must-see spots include museums that house the most famous pieces of Renascence-era work such as The Birth of Venus and The David. Again, with it being a short trip and museums closing on Mondays, we skipped out on the art. Instead, we made our way across the Arne River to see Firenze from afar and take it in as the piece of artwork it is. There’s a bus that takes you from central Firenze to the hilltops across the river which offer breathtaking views. There are two options: the Bibilo Gardens (privately owned) or Piazzale Michaelangelo (a public square).
We opted for the piazzale, which is different from a piazza in that it is composed of multiple smaller squares. To get on the bus we bought passes which are available at newsstands and tobacco stores. There’s something discomforting about a tobacco store being a point of access for something the entire public relies on. Thanks, Big Tobacco.
Navigating the bus lines and getting to the piazzale was an experience. We were lost for quite some time and didn’t make it there till nightfall. The city was still absolutely breathtaking. The lights and orange-colored domes bounced off the dark night sky. The energy at the piazzale was invigorating, too. Couples cuddled and groups huddled on the steps with drinks and food in hand. There was live music and singing. It was a cute sight of community and regardless of where in the world you were from, you felt it.
Dinner took place at Trattoria Za Za, in Duomo. We waited about 20 minutes to be seated and while the restaurant had a host, our names were not taken down. This is apparently common in Europe, which as a restaurant host I found anxiety-inducing. Once inside we treated ourselves to an appetizer platter of local cheeses and menus. Since truffles are big in the region, we both ordered dishes containing them for the main course, as well as local wine. I had rabbit – a first – and it was absolutely delicious, sorry!
Following dinner, we ran around the city center a bit more. Outside Palazzo Vecchio, we found a David replica, which may be useful for those seeking to skip the museum lines. This replica is found in the exact spot where the original stood before being relocated to the museum. The yard outside this palazzo featured other famous pieces such as Persus with the head of Medusa. A few blocks away we came across Porcelllino, a bronze piglet statue and fountain, that was hand-picked by Firenze’s Medici family in the 1600s. You can place a coin in the pig’s mouth and if it falls straight into the fountain’s grate, you’ll have good luck and a return trip to Firenze. My coin did and trust me, I for sure want to return!
Pisa (Pisa): 11 Mar
The town of Pisa, known for THAT tower, is an hour train ride away from Firenze. The ride is pretty cheap, too – we paid less than 10 Euros each. We made a hop over and it was definitely a change of pace. I fell asleep on the train, but when my eyes opened, all around us were golden fields and empty blue skies. Pisa is a small city of less than 100,000 and even with its booming tourism, the city still feels remote and rural.
Piazza dei Miracoli, where the Leaning Tower and Pisa Cathedral sit, was the busiest spot in town – we got to see the rest of it after taking the wrong bus. With its large green lawn, haggling vendors, and picnicking/sun-bathing tourists, the piazza felt a bit like a college campus. The Leaning Tower stands 185 feet above the piazza. We climbed nearly 300 steps to reach the top and you really feel the lean as you ascend completely off-balance. The Tower, which took 200 years to complete, started leaning shortly after construction. I wonder why construction continued with the knowledge that it was unstable? Regardless, I guess it worked out well since tourism reels in lots of money. Further, even with the lean, the Tower is completely safe, having been reinforced in 2001. It’s a quick stop, but a definite must do activity.
Paris (12 Mar - 13 Mar)
Madrid (14 Mar - 16 Mar)