Tag Archives: home

From Nation-Hops to New Haven

26 Aug

This is no travel post. This is no cute-baker-with-coercive-pastries post, nor vino-et-veritas-and-professors post, nor even a ramble-about-Rome post. In fact, this is not much of a typical post at all, for “Jess on a whim” has grown roots, and gone home, and moved in, whimsy and all, to this room in New Haven.

During the weeks right after I last posted, I cooked at least six different spaghetti sauces and got into regular, heated debates about the value of affordable, fresh food on every street corner. I narrated my way through hours of pictures for my patient, smiling-through-their-yawns family members and even considered buying the occasional coffee-related beverage. In short, I was in cultural withdrawal.

Now (fast-forwarding through some Mickey ears and my parents’ TWENTY FIFTH anniversary — now that’s something to emulate), I have come here. To this place for which I, like many college students, have made room in my heart for a second home, one connected more to a web of people, places, classes, and clubs than to a Thanksgiving table. And all of a sudden the patterns of streets and paths and faces are automatic again; my mind at ease in this hammock of familiarity.

And it is in this state of mind, and in this place, and with this sense of still having something that I want to say, to challenge, to peel apart or hold up to the light, that I start blogging again.



P.S. But seriously, three cheers for my parents, who are now mortified and probably dialing me on the cell phone to make me remove these words off this post “or else we will take away all of the books on your bookshelf, young lady” (their atom-bomb-level threat for when I am really out of line), but who also taught me so much about respect, love, and gratitude for each and every day and each and every person in our lives. Not to mention the fact that they look supah-supah stylish in mouse ears. I love you, and thanks.

P.P.S. But seriously, Mom, don’t you lay one finger on that poor, innocent bookshelf in my absence…


Notebook Excerpt: I knew it was not a real poem

25 Jun

I knew it was not a real poem

the moment my mother finished the crisp “t” on

“I must not have been smart enough to understand it-t”


Not a poem of a red wheelbarrow,

the way two roads diverging can be,

nor a people poem, not a pocket full of lines that

can be emptied onto the table when company

comes over, not a

real poem.


My father would disagree, would say

“We just don’t know this stuff

like the rest of the world does,” would

sit for hours in a too-small chair in the back of a school

auditorium just to hear me carve unfamiliar words from air,

but here, he is wrong.


A real

poem (I remind myself) lingers

in the eardrums of more than “the rest of the world,”

requiring no taste for expensive wines nor Latin diplomas (no

afternoons in church, or on an open lake) to make a mother fall in love.


Just a reading and a place in your memory and a repetition

the day you realize the world goes on forever and you have

no other words.

And City By Morning

22 Jun

I wake up fourteen minutes before my alarm to a combination of light soaking my bed from my massive storybook windows and the talking going on outside of my doors. It is, barring one dim morning, always sunny. There are, barring three quiet nights, always accordion players who played me to sleep the night before. And I am, barring nothing, always pinching myself I’m in Rome I’m in Rome I am waking up in Rome.

Some mornings it is a drag to get out the door, generally due to wine-happy antics the prior evening and an early class time. Most mornings, though, are like this one: we emerge from our rooms slowly, we slip into clothes (it is now our fourth week of the trip, so the girls have started swapping dresses. Also, we are all out of appropriate-length church clothes), we put our bags together with whatever syllabi and guides and water bottles and sunscreen we will need for the day.

Then, breakfast. This morning, we made crepes filled with honey and fresh cherries, sugar and cinnamon. Often, I eat whatever I’ve bought from the outdoor fruit and vegetable market down the street. The first time we went there as a group, we turned into humans who had never seen fresh strawberries before – we bought buckets of fresh figs and grapes half the size of my palm and fed them to each other like couples in love, juice dribbling all over our faces. More than the ruins, perhaps, I will miss this fruit.

Other mornings, we eat breakfast at San Calisto, our bar (bar in Italy is a multifaceted institution – it acts as cafe, gelatteria, and permanent home to old men playing briscola.) Another morning, I will give San Calisto the homage it deserves. But for now, think of a group of four girls crowded around one rickety table outside, licking creme off of the pastry that the only-Italian-speaking owners now anticipate us ordering and hand us right when we arrive. Imagine drinking espresso out of cups that, to us, seem doll-sized and making it last for an afternoon. Imagine the unspoken rule of saying “ciao” into the air of the bar as you walk in and “ciao” into the air of the outdoors as you leave. This, too, I know I will miss. It is a morning ritual for me, someone who has never had morning rituals, and it offers far more to me than the coffee shop clusters around campus.

Good morning, Italia

And then – or, for this morning, “and now” – it is time for work or class or explorations. Yesterday I walked around the city and saw the innards of five churches; today I have a writing assignment due and a reading about St. Peter’s before seminar tonight outdoors on the Aventine Hill and our final fancy class dinner.

By this, my fourth week in Rome, it is a way of living that has embraced me, and I am glad.

Mi Casa, Su Casa, What Casa?

20 Jun

I don’t understand homelessness here, and I hate it.

Whoa! You are saying. Whoa, Jess! I was expecting another cute post about flowery villas! What’s the deal with homelessness?

I agree with you. I was expecting another post about villas, too. And then I saw a man outside, sleeping in the rain, and now I am writing about homelessness.

First of all, it exists here. This is an obvious statement. But I realize that in my (well-deserved) hyperbolic raptures about fresh olive oil and charismatic guest professors, I have yet to mention this. This is, in part, because it impacts my own life very little. I have a beautiful apartment and enough money to cook a nightly feast. It is also because my last international trip was to India, and seeing a single beggar on the street every three or four hours does not smack me across the heart the same way the slums full of children with no shoes and sand-caked hair did – that is to say, the difference on the scale of poverty between the two trips is immense, and without being conscious of it, it has dulled my shock. But, more than anything else, it is because of the specific way that I am approaching this city.

I do not come as a citizen, and as a scholar, I come only to study the past. I am here as a guest — a guest who, out of politeness, should not go rummaging around in the medicine cabinets of my host the first chance I get to see what ails her. Complexity is for class discussion. (Tiramisu is for dessert.) And Italy is, for me, an academic vacation.

Which doesn’t mean that I’ve been avoiding tough issues entirely. I have had four-hour-long discussions sitting on the steps outside of Santa Maria Maggiore about the role of the Church as a political entity as opposed to a religious institution. I watched a military parade and thought hard about the proper values for a state to celebrate. I’ve heard from experts about preservation, demolition, and the ethics of displaying restored or commandeered pieces in museums. As a student in the course “The City of Rome,” I can even tell you about why there was a public housing crisis after Rome became Italy’s capital in 1871 (in fact, that’s part of my final project…details to come.) So it’s not the fault of the course – one that specifically looks at the history of the city and ends right after the fall of Mussolini – that I don’t know about homelessness.

It’s the fault of me. I use the term “fault” loosely here, and not in an accusatory sense. “It’s my own doing,” might be a better way of phrasing it. I decided before coming here that I would treat Italy, as mentioned above, much like a fascinating, school-filled vacation. I was not moving somewhere for five weeks; in my mind, I was just residing there. Unlike India, where we paired with a non-profit and worked for them for half of our total stay, my time here would be very much a one-way absorption of culture. Unlike New Haven, where from day one I tried to memorize the names of elected officials, here I delight in picking up phrases in Italian for a few minutes and then letting them slip out of my mind that night while sleeping. And unlike my time in New Hampshire, where I pull over to ask workers why they are out in front of a grocery store striking and then phone in a tip to the local paper, I pay more attention to the scores of World Cup games in Italy than to national headlines.

This is probably not an awful thing. Even if I am not learning the location of every government meeting, I am doing a different kind of learning. I am using all my energy to study more abstract things (have you ever been able to figure out the history of a church just by deciphering papal insignias and the placement of statues, and then used that history to extrapolate more details about the state of Rome at that point in time? or stood in front of a building and unwrapped its epochs by knowing which windows must be medieval and which carvings would only have been added in the late Renaissance? these are learning experiences that i will probably never have again), and to learn how to take care of myself within a new city. I know how to get around, I know the neighborhoods, I know the rules about how to weigh vegetables properly in the grocery store so I don’t get frustrated looks at the register.

But it does teach me something about myself, and the way that I would like to approach cities in the future. I need a point of modern entry; some portal to make me feel a bit more as if I am straddling two worlds instead of just looking into one from the outside. I’ve tried that, briefly, here; during our long walk down Via Appia Antica, I caught the professors while they were alone and asked them what the state of social services is in Rome. I mentioned that my first afternoon in Piazza Santa Maria di Trastevere, I had seen a half dozen men sleeping outside of the church in the square. And I wondered out loud about the interaction between Church and state in caring for them.

I was right in my hunch and observations, they told me. The Church has historically had a huge role in caring for the destitute, which is one of the main reasons that it grew so fast, and that church in particular offered a regular soup kitchen. But as for more specifics, they told me they didn’t really know, and that, as with everything in the Italian government, the whole situation is complicated.

Well, I guess I want complications. More than that, I want knowledge. This is, of course, a controversial statement in itself; the mere fact of knowing where the shelters are does not mean that I am helping society any more than before. And I do believe that information can be a false comfort, one that makes me, as an individual, feel like a better citizen without having had to get off my butt and actually do something. Because, of course, I can’t understand homelessness to its full extent, no more than I can fully understand any other aspect of the human experience without living through it myself. But it’s a start, and from now on, when possible, I want to connect more with the daily complexities of anywhere that I go for longer than a month.  I think it’s enormously important to have a hometown that I understand, and to stop ignoring inner questions just because I’m not a local. After all, these women with the thousand years of lines on their faces and outstretched palms are vagabonds, too; both types of us, tourists and beggars, without proper roots here, both of us coexisting in a world where we are constantly bumping into strangers.

After I wrote this post, I spent some time researching services for those without a home in Rome. This is a very surface-level list, but if you, too, are curious, here are a few links to check out:

A NYTimes article on the homeless in Rome in 2000, after the government renovated the city’s train station

The Pope’s visit this year to a homeless shelter

Contact information for many social services in the city

An old news blurb with some statistics

Men sleeping outside of my local church the morning that I arrived in Rome.

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.

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.