After our time in Rome, my mom flew back to the States while I stayed in Italy a week longer and visited a bunch of my Italian AFS friends I met while I was in China.
First, we left Rome and spent some time at the seaside in Bellaria – a small seaside city close to Rimini on Italy’s eastern coast in the Emilia-Romagna region. I honestly had a lot of fun at the seaside with all these new friends I met there. We all went out together on the sea on a boat, from which we jumped into the cool, green sea water. We played beach volleyball, sat under tents and talked, ate the region’s famous “piadina” and “bomboloni”, biked to and from everywhere, and when the heat was too much, we cooled off in the water. We ate bread and focaccia from a local bakery, biked around the port admiring all the boats, and munched on coconuts. I also really enjoyed the atmosphere there. It’s a small, cute city, with a mostly Italian population (there were no tourists). It’s full of things to do, and it seemed like everyone there knew each other. That group of friends hangs out together every day of every summer. I wish I could have stayed there longer.
Next we went to Bergamo, the city that Omar’s from. Close to Milan in Lombardy and once controlled by Venice, the city is situated in the foothills of the mountains, and is really cute. I had a lot of fun going around the old city – Città Alta – with it’s winding medieval and renaissance era streets. We also visited Bergamo’s Duomo, drank way too much espresso throughout the day, ate Bergamo’s famous polenta and the best gelato, and stopped in so many cute shops to look around. We also went to look at a restaurant that’s built up between ancient Roman ruins, which I thought was pretty cool. I really liked Bergamo; it was really quaint and interesting, and was more of what I thought the “real Italy” would be like. I also got to meet Omar’s friends there, his grandparents, his mom, and his aunt. Eating dinners with his family was really enjoyable. One night we went to his aunt’s house, which is high up in the hills and overlooks Bergamo. You can even see Milan from there! The food, of course, was amazing, but it was also great just sitting outside as the sun went down talking and enjoying life. We were joined in Bergamo by some of our other Italian AFS friends – Princia, Fabio, and Sofia. Having all lived together in the same city in China for a whole 10 months, I was elated to be reunited with them. Our AFS China family was reunited.
The next day, the five of us went to the 2015 World Expo in Milan. Princia’s father’s company was contracted for some part of the Expo, so Princia got us all free tickets, and we were met there by 2 more Italian AFSers from China – Lorenzo & Elena. Additionally, we met up with a volunteer from AFS China who was working at the China Pavilion. She got us free food and gifts, and some entrances to special exhibits. All in all I liked the Expo.
This year’s topic was on food sustainability, and it was really cool to see all the countries come together to showcase their cultures, strengths, and ideas. There was definitely not enough time to visit all the pavilions in one day, but some of my favorite pavilions were Korea, Qatar, Kuwait, and Switzerland. Korea was ultra-modern with cool technology and a good layout, and I feel like they presented their traditional food culture really well. Qatar and Kuwait both were really unique and extravagant, and definitely captured attention. Qatar had this really neat spiral video and things like free henna tattoos, a spice market, and other cultural exhibitions. Qatar’s pavilion really made you feel like you were actually there. Kuwait just presented itself so well. There was an impressive 360 degree video, a presentation on their desert climate in this room filled with mirrors which was really cool, and so much more.
Switzerland was probably the most genius of any of the pavilions I saw. It was essentially this tower with different foods like water, salt, apples, and coffee on each level. When your group arrives at the top level they tell you you can take as much of the foods as you want; the tricky part is – there’s a finite supply, so if you take too much, there won’t be any left for people who come to the Expo after you. In fact at the time we went, only coffee and salt were left. Everyone who visited the Swiss pavilion was so impressed because it really put food sustainability into perspective in an understandable way, and it was almost like a mind game. At first you want to take as much food as you can, but when you understand what that will mean for others to come, you have to rethink. We also visited other pavilions- climbing ropes in the Brazilian pavilion, drinking beer and coffee in Italy’s huge pavilion, chatting with random strangers in Mandarin in China’s, and feeling the rainforest in Malaysia. I did visit America’s pavilion, and to be quite honest, I was very disappointed and unimpressed, which I think was the general sentiment. Frankly it was boring. Other countries’ pavilions really embraced their unique cultures and showcased special food products and their country’s style of food production or tradition, and I didn’t see any of that from America. I was really hoping America would step up to the plate at Expo, especially since the topic was food. I personally think America has a lot of great food innovation, but a lot of people around the world look at America and think of just the fast food chains. As I walked through the American pavilion with my Italian friends I felt so disappointed that my country presented itself so poorly. In any event, the Expo was a really cool thing to experience. I loved munching on all the foods there and taking it all in. Food is really a window into a country’s culture!
The next day we went back to Milan to actually visit the city. After arriving at Garibaldi station, we had an amazing breakfast at Princi Bakery, recommended to us by our friend Lorenzo. The cappuccino was to die for, and I also just loved the atmosphere sitting outside under an umbrella for a nice, quiet start to the day. After, we walked around Milan’s center for awhile, passing by the Teatro alla Scala, looking around in famous shopping areas and buying a few things, eating heavenly panzerotti, and visiting the Duomo of Milan.
While in Milan, we were joined by our Italian AFS friends Lorenzo, Elena, Tommaso, and Matteo, who we spent the whole day with just walking around, talking, and taking in the city. I really liked Milan. It’s much more modern than Florence, much bigger than the cute little towns of Cinque Terre, and not as crowded, touristy, and hot as Rome, but still very charming. It’s just strikingly beautiful. I would have loved to spend more time there, but I’m sure I’ll be back one day! It was also really fun exploring the city with my friends who live there. They all have a lot of knowledge about the city and it makes it feel a lot more like real life instead of just a trip.
Finally, on my last day in Italy, I went to visit Venice. Venice was just as I always imagined it would be. Walking through the historic center’s narrow streets with it’s intricate buildings and palaces, the frequent canals and gondolas, the smell of the sea, and its famous bridges was incredible. There were merchants in the streets selling glass and paper products, people feeding pigeons, and the sounds of the water hitting the many boats. We had a great time just walking down the Grand Canal, crossing Rialto Bridge, and sitting in the Piazza San Marco gazing at the stunning Basilica.
We went to Venice’s Hard Rock Cafe for a drink, talked with friendly gondoliers for 45 minutes, who told us hilarious stories and the in’s and out’s of their business, and took the “bus”, which is actually a boat that takes you down the Canal and drops you off at various “stations” (docks). It’s just incredible how a city can be built on the sea like that. The atmosphere there was great and I see why Venice has so much hype. I’m so glad I got the chance to see it while I was in Italy.
During the time I spent with my Italian friends, I feel like I got to experience the “real Italy” without all the tourists – Italy from the perspective of the young people like me who call it home. I really loved what I experienced with them, and the Italian culture I came to know. Seeing them all again also helped ease the pain of having just left behind my life in China, although saying goodbye for the second time was no easier than the first. I can’t explain how great it is to have friends all over the world. It’s sad not getting to see them often, but when you do see them, it’s like nothing changed. I hope we’ll all be friends for a long time, and I also hope they’ll come visit me in America soon! I would also just like to mention the hospitality and welcome I felt from everyone. I’m leaving Italy now with a good impression, not just because of renowned cities, famous sights, beautiful countryside and beaches, ancient architecture, and yummy food, but mostly because of the people who shared those experiences with me. Italia, ti amo e ci vediamo presto!