Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Climb Every Mountain...Until You Find Your Dream

I had the amazing opportunity to spend this past weeked in Valle d'Aosta (Aosta Valley), a mountainous region in north-western Italy. It is bordered by France to the west, Switzerland to the north and the region of Piedmont to the south and east. We were able to see (and go almost as high as) Monte Blanc, the highest peak in the Alps.

We left Milano early Friday morning and stopped first at the Forte di Bard (http://www.fortedibard.it/) and inside the fort we went to the Museo delle Alpi. The museum was one of the most unique (in a weird yet interesting way) museums I've ever seen. But they were very strict about photos being taken inside....and I mean very strict. I tried to sneak a photo with no flash but got caught! They gave us way too much free time at the Forte so after doing all the exploring there was to do and eating lunch we found a chocolate shop with free samples! So, we all indulged in the free samples and bought a few bags of DELICIOUS chocolate for only 1 euro. The view from the top of the Forte was incredible and we did get to ride these Willy Wonka like glass elevators to get there. After that we loaded the bus and went to our hotel, Holiday Inn Express, in Aosta. We went to a semi-nice dinner and explored the cute little town later in the evening.

The next morning/day was by far the greatest experience of the whole weekend. We woke up early and had breakfast (there was cold milk!!! :D) and then headed to Mont Blanc which all the brochures called "The Eighth Wonder of the World." We rode in a few gondolas (aka sky lift like elevator thingys..haha) until we reached Punta Helbronner 3.462m up ( Mont Blanc is 4.807m up). When we reached the height of the clouds we were trapped in the fog for awhile and couldn't see a thing. But the moment we were above the clouds, everyone gasped in unison and we all agreed, "This must be heaven!"

Up on Punta Helbronner we were able to admire a 360 degree panaroma of the peaks from Mont Blanc to the Giant's Tooth. We were lucky to have a very warm sun shining on us as the temperature dropped significantly at that altitude. The platform was on the border of Italy and France so we were in two countries at once! I could never put into words how beautiful it all was so I will just share a few pictures.

After many of my peers had gone down a level to the restaurant for lunch, I stayed just a little longer to take in the sun and the indescribable view. I couldn't help but think of the bible verse "He can move the mountains, my God is mighty to save." So I pulled out my Ipod and played "Mighty to Save" by Hillsong (thanks Chloe :)!) and just tried to take it all in. I tried to imagine God creating these mountains, I pictured the 'mountains' in my life, the 'mountains' to come and prayed for the faith to believe that God would move my 'mountains' and only create beauty from them.

We had lunch at a little mountain restaurant 2.200m up called Rifugio Pavillon. Since lunch was at our expense most of us just got pizza or a panini (aka sandwich). Then, the real adventure began. We had the option to take the gondola's back down the mountain OR we could hike 2 hours down the mountain by foot. Someone...no one seems to remember who at this point told us the hike was "easy." HA! It was def. not an easy hike, but it was also one of the most amazing things I've ever done. There were points in the hike where you had no choice but to sit on your butt and slide while navigating yourself from falling off the side of the cliff. EVERYONE fell at least once but somehow we all made it down alive. My legs are still screaming at me, 3 days later. I never realized how little I work the muscles in my legs for going downhill. About 25 of us hiked down the mountain but everyone at different paces. I ended up in a group of five girls and I would say we had the most fun! We passed the time by singing songs from Sound of Music, Pocohantos and various other nature movies. I somehow ended up in the front of the group and therefore got the nickname "Sam, our fearless leader" since I came to all the obstacles first. However, my solution for everything was just to squat and slide down the dirt trails with my arms in the air and yelling, "Weeeee!!!" My companions didn't always follow my lead in this aspect. We knew we had almost arrived to the bottom when we started to smell the cows and I don't think any of us have ever been happier to take in that usually unpleasant scent.
(See below the "Colors of the Wind" sing-a-long)

We spent the rest of the afternoon walking around the famous mountain town of Courmayeur. A few of us found a cafe with 12 different kinds of hot chocolate. It was like drinking a melted chocolate bar. We spent our free time there warming up and reminiscing about the adventures in the Alps.

The next day we had a guided tour of Aosta. The tour guide was all excited because we happened to come on a very important day for Aosta. The start of the festival La Desarpa...the walking of the cows. The cows come parading down from the mountain into the town and there is food and music and dancing and all kinds of Italian crazyness. We left Aosta in the late afternoon to visit Castello di Fenis. The Castello di Fenis is a 13th century castle built by the Challant family. This fairytale like castle took almost 100 years to build and is the best presserved castle in the Valle d'Aosta.

Our final stop was at a wine and cheese tasting place famous in Aosta. We didn't actually get to try any wine but we did get to try their famous meats, cheeses, and .....lard. Haha! Then we started the 2 hour drive back to Milano....

Monday, September 22, 2008

No gelato? Private nighttime rooftop tour of the Castello Sforzesco instead?!

Our Milan City Nugget for Thursday 9/18 was a private tour inside and on the roof of the Castello Sforzesco in Milan. I spent more time taking pictures and being goofy with friends (see below) then listening to the history of the castle from the tour guide... oops. But the few fun facts that I did hear were very interesting and I still can't get over how old some of these places are. So different (in a good way) from modern skyscrapers in New York City.

1: Me with the Duomo on the left and the castello tower on the right.
2: Katharine with a gun designed by Leondardo Da Vinci...."shooting"...Samantha.

My favorite picture from the evening is the courtyard with no tourist cluttering the area. Yay for being VIP!

Gelato on the Navigli Canal anyone?

Every Tuesday and Thursday IES organizes what they like to call "Milan City Nuggets." While most of us don't really approve of the chosen name, we are usually impressed with the chosen event. This past Tuesday (9/16) IES organized a group trip to have gelato in the Navigli Canal District here in Milan. Myself and two of my dormmates, Sarah and Tera, decided to go straight to the canals rather than meeting up with the large and noticeable group of Americans.

As you can see, it was a beautiful evening. And I must say my mango and chocolate chip gelato were quite scrumptious.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Random Thoughts

Italians LOVE Obama. Check out this ad in one of their local newspapers:

**Roughly** translated it reads: THE MAN. and at the bottom: It is born (or maybe he is born). The man of the day (the man of the hour). A new definition of man.

I went to mass at the Duomo this past Sunday with some other people from my program. What a beautiful church and service. The atmosphere in this massive cathedral was unlike any other. It didn't matter that there were tourist coming in and out taking pictures. You didn't even notice them. All you could focus on was the sound of the young but talented choir, the prayers and readings, or the chaos of your own thoughts and prayers. The entire mass was in Italian but being raised Catholic I was able to follow along to an extent. It's still so surreal living here in Milan. "So where do you go to church?" "Oh...you know... THE Duomo!"

Things I took for granted (too be continued in future journals I'm sure):

1. COLD milk
(Yes it is true, Italians don't drink milk. They don't really eat cereal... so no need for it there and the only milk we find at breakfast in the morning is steaming hot milk meant to be used in coffee or tea. We've been using yogurt in our cereal and suffering without a tall glass of ice cold milk...sigh)

2. Starbucks
(While I don't consider myself a Starbucks addict necessarily, I def. crave a good java chip frapp or vanilla chai at least once a week depending on stress level... double sigh. Although, I have started to grow accustomed to the ridiculously strong Italian coffee (with a lot of caldo latte e zucchero (hot milk and sugar) of course))

3. A/C metros and hygiene conscience Americans
(God has definitely prepared me for this trip in more ways than one. While I was in Chicago I got a lot of practice using a metro/bus system with a unique mix of people. However, He neglected to prepare me for this same task in non air conditioned metro cars with a culture that doesn't rank hygiene at as high a priority as a majority of Americans. Not to mention the stares we receive on the metro. We've been assured this is part of the culture and is not done just because we are Americans...sureeee)

4. The abundance of energy in general
(One washer and One dryer for 100 people... really?! Ok, I should be happy I even have a washer let alone a dryer! Thank God we don't have to get our electricity from the next country over. Italy gets theirs from France.)

5. Dinner at least by 6pm
(Breakfast is served here from 7:30am-10:00am; normal. Lunch is served from 12:30am-2pm; again normal. Dinner is served 7:30pm-9pm; not so normal at least in my life. These times would be fine if I ate breakfast at 10am and could hold out for lunch until 2pm then dinner at 7:30 wouldn't be so bad. But in order to get to class on time I eat breakfast at 8am. And breakfast is simply a croissant or some corn flakes with yogurt.....EVERY single morning. Which means by 12:30 after traveling to class, going to class and traveling home from class, I'm starving! So dinner 7! hours later just isnt cutting it!)

6. English -- the language... enough said. haha

Don't get me wrong. I still LOVE Italy and have/will continue to adjust to the differences. Just thought it'd be fun to share a few of these "small" bumps in the road. ;)

Thursday, September 11, 2008

La mia camera

Here are a few pictures of my cozy little dorm room. We aren't allowed to put anything up on the walls...which is depressing. But somehow I got the one room that has a purple wall! Every little bit helps.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Verona continued...

Two more photos I stole from a friend. The one on the below is me and a few friends in the Galleria at night during the film festival in Milan. The picture on the right is me inside some tunnel at the Castelvecchio in Verona.

In fair Verona, where we lay our scene...

On Friday, I had my first class here in Milano. For the next two weeks we are only having intensive language classes. The first day we had to take a test to make sure we were placed in the right level. While I've taken four semesters of Italian, I have been so out of practice that I have forgotten a ton. Right now I am in level 200 and it seems to be the right fit. My teacher didn't speak a word of English to us even when we didnt understand her she just slowed down, tried to say things another way or moved on to the next thing. When they say intense, they meant intense.

Saturday, myself and five other gals decided to visit the town of Verona (aka the home of the story of Romeo and Juliet). What a beautiful place!!!
1. Cute area as soon as you enter Verona

2. The third largest Arena still standing

3. The breath taking view from the top of the Castelvecchio (Old castle) built in 1354

4. Me :)

5. Check out the toilet (or the lack of toilet) at the cafe where we ate lunch

6. Duomo of Verona

7. The Pope!

8. Juliet's Balcony

9. "Romeo, O, Romeo"

10. Castelvecchio

11. A piazza in Verona

12. Exhausted from all the walking and the blazing sun

Friday, September 5, 2008

Time for some pictures :)

1. The entrance to my programs (IES) building and where I will take most of my classes
2. A courtyard outside the IES building
3. Me with my first gelato and a european hair dryer in Porta Romana

Other various things:

1. In the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele is the emblem of Turin, a bull, on the mosaic floor. It is meant to bring you good luck if you spin around on your right heel on the bull's most treasured possession.

2. Amore

3. Teatro alla Scala

4. Il Blockbuster

Alessandro Manzoni (famous Italian novelist) and his home

!The Duomo!

Collegio di Milano, where my dorm is...pictures of my single bare room to come.

Torrazzetta, the farm/hotel in the Pavia countryside.