Tag Archives: travel travails

Last Stop, New Haven?

26 Aug

For the past week, I have been one of the leaders of FOCUS on New Haven, a pre-orientation program at Yale meant for rising sophomores and incoming transfer students. I, along with my fellow leaders, organize, transport, counsel, and challenge the 60+ participants in the program through panels, discussion groups, project sites (Ronald McDonald House of Connecticut for the win!), alternative tours, and even a scavenger hunt containing some New Haven-related quests created by yours truly. As a participant, I found FOCUS to be overwhelming, thrilling, full of no sleep and instantaneous friendships. As a leader, insert all of the above, with the addition of a self-consciousness with regards to my choices and wording during my time as a conduit between these students and the city around them and the subtraction of several more hours of sleep.

This being a program about New Haven, it is something that matters a lot to me. This being a program about service, political awareness, and the dirty, time-consuming process of forming opinions about local issues, it is something that matters to me. This being a program that clashes some of the most open student minds against their surroundings with often spectacular results, it is something that matters to me. In short, in case you haven’t caught on yet (repetition alert!), FOCUS as a program matters very much to me.

Tonight, I spent some time thinking about what I would want to share with participants if given the opportunity. What do I have to say – even for just a few minutes – about New Haven? About this program? About experiencing a city from my point of view?

Here are some thoughts, in speech form, for starters. I’d better eat my Wheaties to prep for this one.

I want to take a moment, after a week of being a FOCUS leader, to tell you what scares me about New Haven.

For a lot of people, the scariest part about this city is the crime map. Where violence takes place, what might happen to them. For others, it’s the statistics, like the number of students who graduate without adequate levels of literacy. And for still others, it’s those moments of coming face to face with someone they don’t know how to deal with, like Daksha’s encounter with a homeless woman, that make them, on some level at least, afraid.

That’s not it for me. Instead, I am scared, scared beyond anything else, to leave. Scared to find a job in another city, to change my homepage from the New Haven Independent to a different local paper, to fulfill what I think is an expectation of Yale students that we haven’t talked enough about during this week: the expectation that we will not stay, that we are transitory, and that our work, however well-meant, is rooted more in our conscience than in our physical place. The expectation, in short, that despite diving into urban affairs with all of the verve of a neighborhood activist, we will eventually cut ties and move away in a way that a homeowner here never could. I don’t know when this tie-cutting might be. I don’t even know if this will be – some of us may well settle down right here. But I can’t know that for sure, and that uncertainty at my core changes me from a resident to a traveler.

This is something that I want to share with you because it is a voice in the back of my head that I don’t acknowledge very often when I am out in the community, the voice telling me, “But what about when you are gone?” Instead, I work harder with all of you each hour, each minute, to prove how committed we are in the number of questions we ask in panels or meals we serve at the Ronald McDonald House. I don’t let myself ask why I am putting all of this effort – why all of us are putting all of this effort – into a community that we may not belong to in two or three years from now, into the absorption of localized knowledge that won’t apply to any other grid of streets. But what if, for a moment, I do allow myself to ask that question: the “why?”

This is what I thought about last night, and this is what I want to talk to you about during this morning charge.

There are generalized answers, of course, reasons that are completely valid and, in many cases, very powerful. Here, I think of our innate desire for justice, our sense of reciprocity and service, and our eagerness to belong to a group and to contribute value to that community.

But the specific answer that I have settled upon, at least so far, is one that acknowledges our potential transience by stating, simply, that as much as we are students and citizens of the city, at this moment of our lives we are also travelers by nature. I don’t mean to imply that we are jetsetters, though perhaps some of us are, or that we live out of our suitcases. I merely mean that in a very concrete sense, we have not yet committed ourselves to a “home” in this world, and until we do (perhaps by buying a house, accepting a long-term job, or running for local office), we remain travelers.

Well, this is not helping, Jess, you are thinking. I was having such a nice cereal breakfast before you undermined my entire relationship with New Haven. I understand what you are saying. But bear with me on this for just a few more moments.

I choose the term “travelers” very specifically. The word actually comes from the French verb “travailler,” which, roughly translated, means, “to work.” And it is in this etymology that I find my answer about engaging with New Haven.

In this context, traveling is not merely observing. It is not just taking classes and walking by the Green every once in a while or writing cutesy blogposts about the PechaKucha nights in town (though, incidentally, the one that I attended tonight was pretty darn cool). It is, instead, the act of WORKING, of putting your own energy into your physical surroundings, of expending effort to make connections and to leave each place better, safer, happier, brighter than how you found it when you first arrived. In other words, traveling in New Haven, for us, as Yale students, ought to be seen as our job.

In this light, FOCUS and other New Haven outreach programs make all the sense in the world. Despite the fact that we can move away and leave this city – perhaps because of that fact – we, as travelers and visitors of both the physical and intellectual kind, have a responsibility to work while we are here, to earn our hospitality and our right to call ourselves members of this community for even the shortest time.

This is what I want you to have in mind during today, your final day of project sites. This idea of you having an identity in the city that does require thinking, hard work, moments of forcing yourself to go that extra step, to make the awkward introduction, to do the obvious service like tutoring but also the less obvious outreach like saying hello to everyone you pass on the street in an unfamiliar neighborhood. This whole scholar-citizen thing isn’t easy; it requires work. But that same work acts as a legitimate retort to the stereotyped  here-today-gone-tomorrow assumption about Yale students, and it is a large part of the reason why I, at least, feel responsible for and excited about doing as much as possible with the citywide community, whether it will prove relevant to my future life or not. So over the next twelve hours – our final twelve hours – see what you can do with your traveler identity. What can you give, how can you leave your site better off for the next arriving traveler or the people who live there, how can you choose to approach your day in a light that moves you from outsider to included participant? I can’t wait to see what you’ve got. CHARGE.

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I’m Feeling Those Good Migrations

10 Jul

At approximately 9pm on Thursday, Ashley and I learned that we were trapped in Genova. Genova, the city of Colombus, of explorers, of port-induced wanderlust, became our captor just as quickly as it had been our vacation destination.

More specifically, we learned that all of Italy’s transportation workers had gone on strike. For a full 24 hours, from 9pm on Thursday to 9pm on Friday, not a single train ran through Genova Brignole station…including the train that we had planned on taking to Bologna, our next destination, where we had pre-booked and paid for a hotel for that night.

For a moment, we allowed ourselves to worry and to descend into a flurry of “this could never happen in the U.S.” thoughts. Then, we laughed, long and hard. Sure, a national train strike would be much more unlikely in America, but so would the three hours of lingering each morning over our caffe lattes, and the full day of hiking between mountains and sea that we had done the day before. Italy has its quirks (strikes, the lack of breakfast food beyond cornettos and coffee, the fact that each business closes whenever the owners deem it necessary without regard to its scheduled hours…), but it also has a magnificence of presence that I’ve never felt anywhere else.

That being said, we still had to deal with the strike. And we had to deal with it without Italian skills other than food words (knowing how to ask for extra extra EXTRA parmesan cheese doesn’t get you very far at the ticket counter) and without access to Internet, because we did not bring our computers along for the trip. So, we decided to take the first train to Bologna after the 9pm reopening of the station, and, after a brief layover and four hours of traveling, arrived at our hotel at 3am in the morning instead of noon the day before. In the meantime, we used our unanticipated (and, honestly, given the city, a bit unnecessary) time in Genova to do the things that most people don’t make enough time for on vacations: have a two-hour lunch (of PESTO), window shop, wander the streets, buy lingerie (I kid you not…we surprised even ourselves with that purchase, but we had been seeing stores everywhere for six weeks, and we decided that it was time to invest in a different type of Italian luxury), drink glasses of prosecco with aperitivi outside on sunny tables, purchase new books (we are both on our second one in a week; I have finished a total of 1135 pages since Sunday), and read for four hours with our empty glasses in front of us. It was a day of surprising vigor, and one that worked out in our favor, as I write this now in the morning from our hotel in Bologna.

I also write this in the middle of the trip that Ashley and I are on through the north of Italy. It is the first trip I have ever planned alone, and the first with such little contact and great independence. All we have are our backpacks for these ten days — that, and a determination that we will take these moments, paid for in part by money that we have been saving since we were ten and had our first change in a piggy bank, and out of them mold experiences that we can return to again and again for the rest of our lives. We have been grateful, adventurous, and scared. And we have been doing, every moment we have been doing: climbing the dome in Florence, renting bikes and cycling through tiny hill towns in Tuscany, hopping trains up the coast, wine and olive oil tasting in medieval fortresses, hiking between all five towns of Cinque Terre, deciphering statues in Genova, taking goofy pictures at every opportunity, feasting on local fish and wines or having our own quiet picnics of fruit and peanut butter, devouring recommended books each night before bed, swimming in desolate rocky coves along cliffsides, and, in just a few moments, exploring Bologna.

We still have this city and one more, Venice, before we return to Rome and then to the place and people that we miss dearly back in America, and I promise to write the entries that this trip (and the end of our Rome course) deserve when we get home. Until then, kisses from the road; go have some adventures of your own.

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.

The Attack of the Mozzarella, or Why You Should Always Buy Insurance Before Eating Delicious Things

10 Jun

In case you are wondering if the gods of Rome have a sense of humor…

…my computer may be dead right now due to an intense keyboard injection of fresh mozzarella juice.

Yes, you read that right. Now go ahead and laugh your tail off. Unless, of course, you are my mom or dad, who will read this, shake their heads with a look of despair, and say, “Oh, Jessica. Really?”

Really. It all happened with an innocent Skype conversation home. And as usual, instead of talking about my day or my feelings or their day or their feelings, I was talking about food. Lots of food. My breakfast, my lunch, my dinner — I mean, what else do you talk about when you are Skyping from Italy?

At the time of my conversation, we had already set the table with our beautiful antipasto of fresh mozzarella, cut tomatoes, and arugula. “Mmmmm,” I said into the microphone. “Mmmm?! What mmmm?!?!” replied my jealous mother. “THIS MMMMMMMM!” I exclaimed in reply.

And that’s when it happened. I brought the whole platter over to my camera, leaned it over to allow for maximum viewing, and…Splat. Mozzarella juice. Cheese whey. On my keyboard.

At first, it didn’t do anything except my make mom’s envious expression get a bit more pronounced. But slowly, over the next hour, as I attempted to type, something seemed very, very wrong.

The letter “o” turned into “oi.” The letter “d” made “dhe.” And the letters “y,” “c,” “b,” and “h” ceased to exist at all. “AHHHHHHHjgtleuiydouygbchxjgs!!!!!!*^%^&^&%!!!!!!” I yelled to my apartment. Which, roughly translated, means, “I CANT BREATHE MY COMPUTER IS BROKEN MY LIFE IS OVER THE WORLD HAS ENDED APOCALYPSE APOCALYPSE waaaaahhhh (explosion of tears)”

Which brings me to tonight, almost 24 hours later. My computer is sitting upside down in the guys’ apartment with the keyboard thoroughly dismantled (“WHOA!” they yelled when they first removed the keys. “It smells so much like mozzarella in your computer!” In lieu of responding, I banged my head against the wall several times.) They tell me it might survive, but fortunately the data on my hard drive will be recoverable no matter what, if not the functionality of the full computer. And even MORE fortunately, I purchased personal property insurance before leaving for Italy, so even if it doesn’t revive, I can get a computer replaced with minimal difficulty.

So here is my advice for anyone else traveling: BUY PERSONAL PROPERTY INSURANCE AHEAD OF TIME. I used Haylor (http://www.haylor.com/, the college students program, which is the one Yale recommends), but there are several with good plans that extend their coverage worldwide. Because of this, even though I didn’t think I’d have to use it this early, I am covered under accidents, drops, theft, etc, etc. And depending on how this whole cheese episode turns out, I think I will feel very grateful indeed to have purchased it.

Our home-cooked dinner of pasta with zucchini and mussels. Don't believe the innocent expression on the mozzarella's face in the upper left. That is a dangerous - I repeat, armed and dangerous - criminal you are looking at.

P.S. More posts to come in the future whenever I regain regular computer access. I have lots of other things to update about and have been writing in my journal even when I haven’t had time to post, so I’m hoping to catch up with the blog this weekend. Until then, I’m crossing my fingers that this will all be fixed when I wake up in the morning – after all, where there’s a will…there’s a “whey.”

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?!?!

then,

after a second,

and another few seconds…

…and one more second for good measure…

HOLY CABOODLES I'M ACTUALLY GOING TO ROME!!!!!!!!!!!!

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

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?

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.