Archive | May, 2010

In Flight

31 May

(Though I am already in Roma – or, as Lady Gaga would say, “Roma, Roma-ma-a” – I am catching up on posting after two days without Internet access, so this post is one that was written in my journal on May 29 while I was midflight. Stay tuned for more from our abode in Trastevere! Hint and non-spoiler: Rome is AMAZING. I’m still trying to find the right words.)

There is something about this trip that makes me feel as though I am in decisive forward motion all the time, shedding layers of weighty thoughts with each mile of my approach. But, as I sit here on AlItalia’s plane, whizzing through space towards this country, I still haven’t been able to figure out exactly where the mental magic comes from.

What are you, Italy? What are you that makes me want to open my whole heart to you, and my ears to your language, and my mouth to your nourishment, and my eyes to your sun, without hesitation? I am back in childlike mode, accepting and appreciating based purely on sensory experiences, in the face of this mother of all locales. What are you that your native tongue reverberates so full in my diaphragm and eases off of my curling tongue? What are you, Italy, that makes so many of us sigh and draw the earth into our lungs with deep nods of recognition when your name comes up, even if we have never visited you? What are you, that your politics are falling apart and your rough leaders allow even rougher rings to lead some of your cities, and yet we still lend you our support and black out that section of history involving Il Duce? What are you, that makes me sit here like the crazy protagonist of a quirky romantic comedy, listening to blaring Italian opera through my headphones and insisting on requesting things from the stewardesses in phrasebook Italian rather than English, just to feel myself further embedded in your culture? (For the record, “acqua” means water, and stewardesses are incredibly patient people.)

I really have been trying to absorb the sounds of Italy as much as possible, if not the entire language. For the past two days I have listened to more than 20 Italian language podcasts, tried to sing through my old Italian sheet music again (Che Bella Cosa from Treble Choir Days being my favorite shower tune – sorry, housemates), and walked around the room with my phrasebook glued to my hand. The language is so immediate to me, so unadulterated  by rules or odd vocal contortions, that speaking even the simplest phrases out loud gives me that sense of forward movement again. This is different than French – with French I feel more regal, perhaps, or as if I am part of some sophisticated secret, but never boundless.

I realize as I write this now that perhaps this is the reason Italians are known for gesticulating so wildly: their language removes the bounds and bonds between emotion and tongue, makes words fly, and loosens their thoughts so thoroughly that their joints loosen, too. It leaves them flapping their nerve endings at the sky, this feeling, and signals, “I am raw and open and tumbling with things to say — world, come meet me, cheek to cheek.”

…Okay, so I get overly poetic about Italy. Even I’ll admit that I descend into prose usually reserved for Hallmark anniversary cards. But what so much of this journey is about is finding out why I react this way – what makes these phrases pour out of me with no regard to traveling propriety (i.e. being realistic instead of overwrought about my destination.) This is just another place, after all. So why does it keep so many of us under its spell?

Even the idea makes us giddy. Mixed in among the interpretive gestures of the past few days have been some hilarious turns of phrase, fueled purely by the pleasure of trills on the tongue. A few days ago, I learned (thanks to the Dating and Socializing section of my phrasebook) that I could proposition an Italian with the simple phrase, “L’accompagno a casa?” or “May I take you home?” (My father, upon hearing this, promptly requested that I learn to translate “My father is from Texas and owns a large shotgun;” I’m still working on that one.)

And my mother – well, my mom has spent her past few days stringing together the only three Italian words she knows (“Ciao!” “Bella!” “Mangia!”) into exclamatory phrases, despite the fact that she has no idea what she is saying. “Prego!” I yelled to her from upstairs as I was packing. “Buon giorno!”

“Ciao!” she yelled back. “Ciao, bella! Ciao…bella, ciao, MANGIA!”

And on that note, now that the in-flight meal has arrived, I must say ciao, my bella readers, so that I can, indeed, mangia.


Packing: A Photo Essay

28 May

How in the world do I fit all of my required books for this course into one suitcase weighing less than 50 lbs?

I can just imagine my suitcase saying, "Sorry, can't fit any of your clothes in here - I'm booked!"

Wait a minute -- never mind my suitcase, how am I going to fit that many books into my BRAIN?!?!


after a second,

and another few seconds…

…and one more second for good measure…


More updates to come tomorrow, but tonight, it’s all about the suitcase arranging. Ciao for now!

A Note for a City – One City in Particular

24 May

The world is a very big place until something happens at home, and then, somehow, it all shrinks down. Down from the country to the state, down from the state to the city. And, in my case, down to one teacher and one classroom program in the City of New Haven.

When I first met Marcella Flake, I felt like I was truly in the presence of what a teacher ought to be. She led the classroom by demanding respect from the students because she gave it to them in return; she didn’t treat them like children and she didn’t tolerate childish behavior. “Do you think someone who is drunk or drug-addicted and homeless still deserves help?” she asked them bluntly. “Tell me what you think.”

And slowly the stories came out, and the critical thinking. One student relayed a time when his dad had given money to someone on a street corner and the personal story that had resulted, concluding, “I’m glad he helped.” Another, from her eighth grade perspective, just couldn’t understand why anyone would be stupid enough to drink in the first place. And so the conversation shifted there. Throughout it all, Ms. Flake called on the students by name, probed even further into their assumptions with follow-up questions, and shared with the classroom her own beliefs in respecting and helping every human being, simply because we have no idea what they have been through. “Does any child ever dream of growing up to be homeless?” she asked them. “Did any of you? What are your dreams for yourself? Do you ever think you might stumble and need a helping hand?”

I was there with my friend Joe as a representative of the Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project (YHHAP), a community service umbrella organization that I’m on the board of at Yale. Ms. Flake had contacted us and asked us to come speak to her class about hunger, homelessness, and service during a week of awareness that she was planning, and so we arrived armed with a few handouts, some heartwrenching statistics (they are still heartwrenching now), and an exercise that I had rewritten from my high school days about the varying conceptions of service. We were impressed by this teacher and program before we even walked through the doors – after all, who else organizes outside visitors to teach middle schoolers about complex social issues? – and we left even more energized by the discussion and by the program. Several weeks later, the students organized and held a huge fundraiser with the help of their teacher and donated the proceeds to social service organizations in New Haven. From this one little corner of the city, citizens were being made.

So why am I writing this now? This spring, Joe and I were invited back to the classroom to give another presentation in preparation for another big fundraiser: this time, a karaoke contest pitting a local TV station against YHHAP board members, one college’s students against another, policemen against students. It was a rip-roaring good time and both an intellectual and financial success, and at the end, we wrote an appreciative email. “We can’t wait to see you next year!” we concluded. This was quickly become an eagerly anticipated YHHAP Board outreach tradition.

And then, last week, we got it. The email from Ms. Flake that begins: “Unfortunately, there may not be a next year for us.” Due to budget cuts by the mayor of New Haven, the city is cutting all support for its Talented and Gifted Program, which is what Ms. Flake (among others) organizes. These kids – ones she has known since they were in the very beginning of grade school, the same ones she worked tirelessly to challenge and to engage, to open up and to inspire – will go back into the regular New Haven classrooms full time, at a level above those of their classmates but without any extra support to keep their minds working. For her part, Marcella Monk Flake is worried about gifted students turning into at risk students because of boredom. For my part, I am watching the critical future citizens of New Haven – the ones who are confident and informed enough to speak out, who can lead their friends and neighborhoods – lose an enormous set of opportunities.

Mayor DeStefano announcing the budget cuts, courtesy of Thomas MacMillan and the New Haven Independent

I don’t pretend to know everything about Talented and Gifted programs elsewhere in the country. Maybe they are, indeed, a form of fluff. But I do know about this classroom, about this crazy and all-encompassing New Haven program that brought in two Yale professors to teach eighth graders biomedical engineering and forced students to articulate their hopes and dreams. And I know it shouldn’t be lost. I’m writing a letter to Mayor DeStefano today to say so and to attempt to turn rant into change.

And again, why write this here? First, because it’s weighing heavy on my mind, and I think it’s something that everyone ought to be aware of. Because this is a problem not just in New Haven but in almost every city across America. There is just not enough to do it all, not enough to do even half of it all. This cut comes alongside less policing and the elimination of community celebrations like the annual tree lighting and Fourth of July fireworks. Cities are gasping for air and funds, and they can’t raise taxes but they also can’t keep pulling funds away from their futures in an effort to contribute pennies towards their rickety present. And if I’m truly going to learn how cities work, this is where it happens – in the giant gaps between what ought to be and what is.

I’m also writing this because, no matter how much traveling I do, I still belong to these communities. I’m rooted right here. My homepage will remain The New Haven Independent, and I will still take good note of the cupcake truck’s latest location. In today’s world, I think this is a balancing act that a good amount of us have to learn: how to fold ourselves into every inch of a new destination while keeping home somewhere at the top of the compass.

So for today, even as I pack suitcases for Rome and drive around the streets of New Hampshire, my mind is sitting up straight in a chair in the front row of a certain classroom. Let’s keep that kind of education alive.

An Honest Heart

24 May

Occasionally, amidst the million flutters of excitement about this trip and the hours of packing and the composition of effusive emails, I stop dead in my tracks and say, “Jess. What the heck do you think you’re doing, spending half of your summer abroad in Rome?!”

It’s not the craziest question. In order to pull this trip off, even with the help of a very, very generous ISA award from Yale, I am emptying bank accounts that I have been filling since the age of ten (yes, Grandma, that’s where the birthday card money ended up – thank you!). I’m leaving my family behind for a month and a half when I haven’t gotten to spend more than three weeks at a time with them for two years. And, as a scholar and citizen, I’m leaving the city and town that I have spent the past few years learning about and trying to participate in for a city where I will be just a few steps above an enlightened tourist.

And it’s not to volunteer, or to work, or to intern, or even to take a required class. No, I’m going to Rome to take a class called “The City of Rome” for credits that I may not need, with a syllabus that includes both Dante and wine tasting. It is an enormous privilege that I even have this choice, and I still feel an occasional pang when I explain my summer to an acquaintance. “Actually, I’ll be in…Rome this summer. Yeah. I really still can’t believe it myself.” There is something that sounds so dangerously frivolous about this path – some hint of jet-setting entitlement.

For me, of course, that feels far from the truth. Aside from Canada (which doesn’t feel like too much of a trek from up here in New Hampshire), I have been to three countries over the course of my life. France and England on a whirlwind family vacation when I was ten (ten whole years ago, wow), and India for two weeks this past March break with a Reach Out trip from Yale where we did some volunteering in Delhi for a week and then spent a week visiting a few other areas of the country. I still consider myself a travel rookie – the one who, much to the amusement of everyone else, spent every flight to and from India with my nose plastered against the window, whispering to the mountaintops through the clouds.

This is me caught staring outside of our bus windows in India. I wasn't kidding about this constant sensation of hyper-alertness and incessant wonder.

I wasn't kidding about whispering through clouds, either. And taking pictures of them. I really couldn't bear to miss a single moment.

And Italy – well, Italy is somewhere I have been praying to travel to since I can remember thinking about traveling at all. I don’t know why it has always been Italy. Maybe it’s the food, or the language, or too much Mario Brothers. But every time my family mentioned taking a trip, I would bring it up again. Every single time. It’s like this inexplicable platial mystique from deep inside of me. And so this is, really, the fulfillment of a dream.

But it’s also this enormous thing, to travel to Europe to spend part of a summer. A thing that has connotations and expectations and very crisp evocations. And though it seems normal for many Yalies (and even many Andover kids, and more and more friends from home), it still sometimes feels weird to me. But there comes a point when I have to just stand up and say it, and that point is now.

Yes, I am lucky. I am so, so, so, so, so so so so so SO very lucky to be able to do this. No, it is not something that is directly applicable to my professional life, though as a concentrator in Urban Studies with an interest in international urban development, it does happen to be a really perfect place to get to know. Yes, I feel like this is a once in a lifetime opportunity, to be able to go live and breathe and LEARN a place every single day. For those of you who may not know the details, this class has me reading about a thousand pages a week with seminars that take place on site all around the city. One day we walk the entirety of the ancient walls, another we are assigned to visit ten separate churches. Throughout the whole course, we will each be researching our own independent project, meeting with experts and preparing a giant paper and report for our final presentation. It is the ultimate Humanities experience, one in which millennia of learning and beauty will be tied into our present day personal experience. It is how I wish I could introduce myself to every new city – by walking straight up to its gates and saying, “I have read your ghosts and studied your victories; I have been tested on your path and want to walk through your present. Teach me more.” So the real answer to the “Why the heck are you doing this?” question has something to do with responding to a yearning and something to do with a sense that if I don’t do this now, I’ll never have the chance again. A few nights ago a group of friends and I sat talking about all of those crazy things that seem to be on our life lists for some reason or other, and we already felt as though we were running low on time and serendipity. So if not now, when? And if not now, a better question to be asking myself is, “Why the heck not?”

“Carpe diem,” the saying goes. And here I go seizing it.

Who knows what life will look like tomorrow?

The Road to Blog is Paved with Good Intentions

23 May

Though the roads to Rome are mostly paved with these:

Aw, quit groaning, already. The last post already warned you about my dreadfully corny sense of humor. I can "cobble" together a few more examples, if you'd like...(oh, NOW you're getting the hang of it!)

When it comes to this blog, I should make a few things clear. The first is that I don’t take myself too seriously (you should be able to tell that by now) – until, that is, I’m writing about some new urban social issue or some truly good pesto and then I will be very serious indeed. But I recognize, just like everybody else there in the blogosphere (or the people I like to read about, at least) that this is nothing more than a soapbox of sharing among many other (even taller, cooler) soapboxes in the world. In short, I’m writing as much, if not more, for me, as for an audience – because writing is how I process the world, because words can sometimes almost capture the curve of a streetlamp, because when I don’t have a pen in my hand and the world is happening around me I don’t know where to keep my memories. Plus, for all of the effort it took to be in Daily Themes, I kind of liked having that moment-with-self-and-language at the end of every day, and I’d like to continue the habit heading into this summer.

The second thing is that I am no expert. At anything. Not travel, not Italy, not card castles or foreign languages or mathematical theorems (especially not mathematical theorems). So if you are hoping for another version of a decornographer, I may not be the gal for you. However – and this is kind of the point of this blog – I am someone who wants to DO everything. Why have limits? Why ever have limits about what to read or see or help or learn or fail at or dive into? If this sounds naive or hopelessly dreamy, fine. You’ve pegged me. I don’t make a very good cynic mainly because I’ve always been raised to spend more time discovering the world than knocking it. Ah, lost, wandering, bright-eyed soul that I am — somehow I think I’ll survive. And probably have a pretty amazing time while I’m at it.

Okay. Enough with the explanations; time for a rapid fire list. A few activities that will probably recur on this blog (amongst much miscellany and more comments from my wonderful Nana — hi, Nana!!!): walking, cooking, attempting languages, failing at languages (see Frances’s comment on my first post for details – fyi all, cannoli is a both plural and delicious word), examining a city from as many angles as possible, eating, life-listing, checking off life lists, making super sly allusions to my family back home (ay, ay? mom? that was for you. thanks for subscribing to my posts), reading, late night existing. Did I mention cooking and eating??

Also recurring: embarrassing photos. Like this one of me eating my "The Italian Cooking Encyclopedia" Cookbook. Mmmmm.

Ciao for now!!

7 Days, 2 Suitcases, and 1 Unshakeable Craving for Spaghetti

23 May

In one week, I will be strolling up to Piazza Santa Maria to meet my classmates for half a summer in Rome, that eternal city. My hair will be doing its usual combination of being windswept and well-styled; my luggage will be just one expertly-packed bag that I have no trouble wheeling around the city; and my Italian will make finding my way around a breeze. Or so I like to imagine.

Legal pads filled with scribbles: the newest, hippest travel accessory

Problem is, I don’t speak Italian. Nor, for the record, do I style – never mind well-style – my hair. And even in my childhood sleepover days, I never knew how to strategically pack a duffel bag. In fact, a far more accurate (check with me in a week to hear for sure) version of my first encounter with Rome goes something like this –

Me: This is a beautiful city! A bella city! See, Frances, I know Ital – SHOOT WAIT ASHLEY HAVE YOU SEEN MY SECOND BAG? DID I LEAVE IT IN THE TAXI DID I – oh. Yeah, thanks. Ha. Right there next to me.

Frances (politely): Um, so we probably don’t want to yell. Or make a scene or anything. People are looking at us.

Me (wails): I knoooow. Perfect, beautiful, well-styled Roman people! Maybe we will be like them in a week! (pauses) Do you think my Birkenstocks make me blend in?

Ashley: You might have better luck once you remove the city map from your hand…

Me: Aw. Yeah. Well, yknow, I just thought we might need some direction. Because even though all roads may lead to Rome, not all of them lead to this piazza in Trastevere…

Group: (Collective bad joke groan)

Right. So. Like I said, there could be a few hitches. But the fact remains that barring a volcano eruption (oh whoops! that happened) or my limbs suddenly becoming anchored to my native land (and honestly, I’ve been waiting so long to go that I think I’d STILL find a way…), I will be there. In Rome. In one week. Holy cannolis.

I cannot wait.