bad days.

sometimes, no matter what people say or do to cheer you up, you just have a sucky day.  i’ve had a lot of those lately because there’s something missing from my life, something that i always counted on to make things okay, to help me see the positive and to simply tell me that it was going to be okay: my grandpa.  i didn’t have a typical relationship with my grandfather.  i didn’t just see him on holidays and get a card in the mail on my birthday.  he was present at every major moment in my life – well, everything that he considered major.  those events included childhood basketball, volleyball and softball games; high school track meets; graduations; family meals; and any other occasion you can imagine.

my grandpa wasn’t just my biggest fan.  he was the one to encourage me to dream bigger, to not fear failure and to always believe in myself no matter the task – and especially when others were telling me i couldn’t do it.  he is the greatest man i know and he touched hundreds of people’s lives with his love, generosity of spirit and cinderella story background.  he lost his parents before the age of 10 and never had a true father after which to model himself in his later life.  that didn’t stop him from being a wonderful father to my dad and uncle, who in turn learned how to not only be great dads, but also to be great men just like him.  he was entrepreneurial in spirit, mindset and work ethic – something i hope to emulate in my own life.

he was yet another soul to lose to cancer.  last summer, he was diagnosed with liver cancer and liver disease.  i remember when my parents sat me down to tell me that he had been given nine months to live; i felt frozen.  the only words that came to my lips were “i’m so sorry, dad.”  when my mom called two weeks ago to say that i needed to come home to say goodbye to him, i felt like someone had kicked me in the stomach.  how can you say goodbye to someone you aren’t ready to lose?  how do you tell someone that everything you are and everything you’ve done is because of them?  how can you thank them for the gift of your very life?  i rushed home to his side, as did my entire family – a true testament to how loved he was and always will be – but i never got to have one last conversation with him.  every time i tried, we were interrupted by a nurse, visiting family member or rambunctious great-grandchild.  i never had the chance to tell my grandpa about my new job or apartment, to tell him how much i would miss him or to say that i couldn’t imagine life without him.  i never was able to have that true goodbye with the man i admire and love so much.  but when my aunt said that his wish was for each of his granddaughters to write a eulogy to read at this funeral, i knew that my grandpa had come through for me one last time.  as my grandma said about their early dating life, he “just kept showing up.”  as i wrote out my last thoughts to my grandfather, 23 years of memories flooded over me.  i cried for sadness and for hopelessness, but also for the pride i felt in having known him and the joy i felt at being able to say i was his granddaughter.  the end product was a letter to him.  it felt more personal and i wasn’t ready to talk about him, when i suddenly could never again talk to him.

in each memory, sad or happy, my grandpa kept showing up.

in each person i greeted last weekend at his wake and funeral, my grandpa kept showing up.

in each story i heard about him, my grandpa kept showing up.

my grandma couldn’t have been more right about her husband: he just kept showing up.  he never let anything block his path to success.  he never let misfortune wipe the smile from his face.  and he absolutely never let cancer take away his spirit.

 

my last conversation with my grandpa:

grandpa, it’s hard to know where to begin. i’ll start with the bad, because that comes to mind the fastest lately. i hate that twenty three years with you weren’t enough. i hate that you couldn’t see my career develop like i know you would’ve loved to do. i hate that i didn’t see you more often when you got sick. i hate that i didn’t call you every chance i got. i hate that you had to suffer when you’d earned more than your share of peace. and most of all, i hate that any future family i might have won’t know you: your love, your acceptance, your crushing hugs and your fervent belief that each of your grandchildren could achieve their wildest dreams in life. but there are a lot of feelings of love in my life lately as well. i love that, when you couldn’t speak to us anymore, you squeezed our hands so we knew you heard us surrounding your bed. i love that the last thing you were able to tell me was how much you love me. i love that you were there at every step of my life as i was growing up. i love that your spirit, your kindness, your compassion and your heart were apparent in each breath you took and word you spoke.

you’ve always been a wonderful example for our family. as a husband, you were faithful, showing your granddaughters how a true man treats the woman he loves. you loved the epitome of grace, strength and beauty – your childhood sweetheart – for 59 years of marriage.  grandma – my heart breaks for you.

as a father, you were a role model of what hard work can achieve. it’s plain how much your sons admired you, as they bore the weight of the last nine months without complaint so they could be by your side to care for you. dad – i can’t put words to what i feel at the thought of losing you one day.

as a grandfather, you embodied encouragement and support. you understood that my dreams would carry me away from america, from home, from you. instead of convincing me of lesser dreams that would keep me near you, you helped me to achieve them and cheered for me along the way. for that, and everything else you’ve done for me, i can’t thank you enough. you might not be here to talk me through my future as you’ve done so many times before, but i feel comforted in the fact that you’ll be watching me from above.

you and grandma bore your sickness with more grace than i knew was possible. i’ve been blessed with a family that would move mountains for me, but i feel more blessed to have been loved so fiercely by someone like you, who i hold in such high esteem.

it may feel like half of my heart passed on with you, but i still feel whole because you left a piece of yourself behind in each and every person you touched during your life. i love you. i miss you. and i’ll never have a day when i don’t think of you.

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drool worthy.

So, this article about restaurants in Florence is just one way to get you excited to study abroad. But I decided to review their reviews so you can eat well on a budget, know what cafes to work in on your laptop and get the best take out possible. Warning: the numbers on my list might skip since I haven’t been to all the restaurants on Spoon University’s list.

1 Margarita pesto pizza from Gusta Pizza: Best. Pizza. In the city. Gusta is the place to go for a cheap meal that is unbelievably delicious. The pesto pizza is one of their rotating specialties so you might have to drop in there a few times before you’re lucky enough to see it on the menu. If you ever stop by and it isn’t available that day, get the margherita pizza – you won’t be disappointed.

Suggestion – take your Gusta pizza to go and eat it on Ponte Grazie during sunset.

Focaccia panino from All’Antico Vinaio: I know many, many people who are obsessed with paninis from All’Antico Vinaio. They certainly live up to their name and the long line that constantly wraps around the block outside of the shop speaks to it. Personally, my favorite sandwich in the city comes from either The Oil Shoppe or Pino’s (Salumeria Verdi, #23 on the Spoon University list). They have more options for a vegetarian like myself and everything there is delicious.

Truffle gnocchi from Osteria Santo Spirito: This is my favorite restaurant in the whole city. The entire menu is SO. GOOD. The truffle gnocchi is an incredible dish, albeit a little bit heavy if you aren’t super hungry. Other good things to try: the oil, garlic and pepper spaghetti; the traditional spaghetti; the bruschetta; the house wine… The list goes on and on. This restaurant is a must try during study abroad and it won’t break the bank.

Suggestion – go for lunch. It’s really busy at dinner and you might have to wait quite some time for a table.

Cappuccino from News Cafe: Good cappuccino. Simple as that. Another great cappucino can be found at Ditta Artigianale, which is another must try in the city. They even have good food at Ditta, like the avocado toast, berry pancakes and quinoa vegetable dish. Either cafe is a great place to go for brunch with your laptop or a friend and sit for a while!

10 Pear ravioli from Trattoria Quatro Leoni: This meal will cost you a little bit more, but it’ll be worth it. The ravioli is great, as is any pasta with vodka sauce. It’s also in an area of town with a lot of cute street art, so visit on a day when you have some extra time to wander around.

12 Rigatoni from Trattoria Tredici Gobbi: DEFINITELY visit this restaurant. Get this dish. Get house wine. Go in the evening. Enjoy the ambiance and stay a while. Thank me later.

14 Bufalina pizza from Cucineria la Mattonaia: This pizza is slightly more expensive than a regular Gusta pizza, but it’s still delicious. Either skip lunch before coming here or eat it early and go to a late dinner because you will be extremely full when you finish the meal. The cheesy goodness isn’t to be missed, unfinished or taken as leftovers.

treats.

The last few weeks have been spent making tons of Christmas-themed desserts for my friends and family – which means my waistline now hates me. The recipes seem to be popular with those who have tasted them, so I thought I’d share some pictures of the final products and links to the directions to prove anyone can make them without it turning into a Pinterest fail.

First up: Christmas crack (recipe). This recipe is addicting and easy to put your own spin on, i.e. I made two kinds. The coconut and Heath bar Christmas crack is for my mom and me. My dad, who hates coconut, gets Heath bar and crushed pecan Christmas crack. It’s simple to make, a fast clean up (when you put foil on the baking sheets) and the recipe is almost perfect.

To have the best Christmas crack possible, use three packs of graham crackers instead of what the recipe recommends (14 crackers). The homemade caramel won’t make the graham crackers mushy if it’s spread more thinly.

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Next: Oreo balls (recipe). I made the first round of these directly following the directions. They weren’t very good – the taste of cream cheese was extremely overpowering. I don’t like cream cheese on a good day, so this overuse of it almost induced vomiting. The second time I made them, I bought mint-flavored Oreos in the hopes that they would be a better match for the cream cheese. I also used less cream cheese (about 5.5oz) when it actually came time to form the balls. Those two switches made for some delicious snacks, which is proven by the fact that half of them are gone and it’s only been three days since I made them.

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Thirdly: chocolate caramel pretzels (recipe). I followed this recipe almost exactly, minus the addition of coconut oil to the chocolate while melting it. You can use melting chocolates, like I did, or add Crisco to the chocolate to get it smooth (for those who, like me, don’t keep coconut oil on hand). They’re delicious, but be sure to put foil under the pretzels to keep the melted caramel from sticking to the tray in the oven. Whatever you do, don’t use wax paper – unless you enjoy picking bits of it off the backs of the caramel pretzels, that is.

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Finally: sugar cookie cake balls (recipe). My mom described these as “very sweet,” but I haven’t received complaints from anyone else. The recipe suggests making your own sugar cookies, but I used ready-bake dough from the store, which worked fine. I would advise doubling the recipe if you plan to share these. The amount of cream cheese for this recipe was spot on (read: didn’t induce vomiting). As is clear from the picture, I decorated the tops of the cake balls with crushed candy canes (instead of the sprinkles that are called for in the recipe) for a very simple reason: I wanted the Oreo and sugar cookie cake balls to be more unique.

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just my luck.

This year hasn’t been smooth. It certainly hasn’t been perfect. It’s been absolutely full of speed bumps, imperfections and problems. But it’s probably been one of the best years of my life. I’ve been blessed beyond belief and luckier than a single person deserves. As the end of the year gets closer, all I’ve been able to think about is all of the great things that happened. The sheer fact that I can place the good times in more prominent memory than the bad times is yet more proof of my luck.
During the spring semester, my soul sister of 10 years finally visited me at school. One of my favorite friends from home even came with her. I also lived with one of my best friends and spent weekends exploring Virginia (aka doing wine tastings).
For spring break, I split my time between New Orleans and Nashville and was again joined by two close friends. New Orleans was a new destination for me but I chose to visit because it was the site I had picked for my senior thesis design project. Nashville is a longtime favorite travel destination that always puts a smile on my face.
At the beginning of May, I graduated. By my side, I had my loving and supportive parents. I also had one of my best friends ever – a friend who flew across the country to sit through my graduation because she was so proud of and happy for me.
Next up was my first trip to Los Angeles to visit the soul sister. It was such a fun few days and I can’t wait to go back one day.
Summer was full of babysitting my nieces and nephew – who are my four favorite humans on this earth. My last single sister got taken off the market this summer, so we celebrated a wedding shower, a bachelorette party and a wedding. I guess watching the Cavs win the NBA Finals wasn’t too bad either..
Next, I moved to Italy. I met a whole new group of people, spent lots of time with my cousin and got to see new cities. Oktoberfest was too much fun and I practically had to be dragged away. Seeing Amsterdam – the architecture especially – was one of my favorite parts of my time abroad.
Now that I’ve been back home and my life has settled down a little, I’ve returned to spending time with cute babies and making lots of desserts to fatten them up.
It’s been a crazy year and hasn’t always made sense (just like this blog post), but I’m very happy about that. Even though I’ve had a lot of bad parts during this luck-filled year, I still am optimistic about what will come next.

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“No matter how far I roam, my heart will always be at home”

to do.

Moving to a new city can be overwhelming. So can starting a new semester. When you combine those, it’s almost too much to handle. Here are five tips on how to begin to conquer the city of Florence upon your arrival.

  • Sign up for a Conad card. You’ll likely be buying groceries multiple times per week, as Europeans prefer fresher ingredients and buy smaller amounts more frequently to fit this preference. Having a grocery card can help with discounts that you might not know about.
  • Get a pizza to go from Gusta Pizza and climb over the edge of Ponte Grazie with it. This is an especially beautiful place for a picnic dinner and a bottle of wine can be a nice addition. The list of things that can compare with watching the sunset on the Fiume Arno while eating Gusta Pizza is short. Just don’t forget napkins and silverware!
  • Another great place to take Gusta Pizza: Piazzale Michelangelo. This piazza provides a view of the entire “tourist” side of Florence, including the Duomo, Piazza della Repubblica, Santa Croce and Piazza Vecchio. Be sure to take a camera and some friends along for great pictures!
  • Buy an electric bug zapper. The mosquitoes are relentless in Florence and you WILL get bitten. I’ve woken up to eight new bites in one night alone – and those were just the ones on my face. If you don’t want to spend the dozen or so euros to get this pseudo tennis racquet, buy bug spray or bug wipes. If you prefer the spray, bring it with you to the city. If you’re okay with rubbing  mosquito repellant wipes on yourself, they’re easily accessible at any 99 cent store in Florence.
  • Even if you’re great with directions, it can be difficult to become accustomed to a new city – especially when it’s in another country and you don’t speak the language. Figure out the closest landmark to your apartment or school. Asking strangers what direction towards the Duomo or Piazza della Signoria is a lot easier than trying to explain your apartment building.
  • Last but not least: go to a phone store (Wind, Tim, Fastweb, etc.) and buy an Italian SIM card. You’ll be in the city for months and you’ll be more than glad to be able to use your phone without Wifi. Prices for data/SMS plans aren’t bad if you shop around. The cheaper prices typically have a slightly smaller coverage area, but you’ll be fine with any of the providers.

christmas list.

It’s hard to know what to bring on a long trip like study abroad. Sometimes, the things you swear will be useful end up untouched; the most wanted items often get left behind. Here are the things I wish I’d known to bring along my first time – just in time for your Christmas list, so you don’t have to spend a dime!

– A high quality portable charger. I’m talking one of the 4x charge Mophie from the Apple store. You’ll be taking a lot of pictures – especially when you travel. That means your phone dies very quickly.

– On that note, bring an external hard drive or something to store pictures. You’ll likely take more than you can count and you don’t want to need to delete any when your phone runs out of space.

– If you like music, bring good headphones or a Bluetooth speaker. You’ll want to jam out during pre-games and it’s hard to do that at full volume on a laptop.

– Multiple European converters or a plug into which you can put a lot of chargers at once. It isn’t fun to charge your computer, phone and camera battery one by one when you need them simultaneously.

– Extra mascara. Yes, there are plenty of make up stores in Florence. Yes, there are even stores that sell American brands. But I use Covergirl and my specific kind isn’t carried in stores in Florence. If you’re particular about your make up, it’s probably a good idea to bring extras.

– It’s great to have a nice DSLR camera when you travel. Your pictures turn out well, you can take a ton quickly without using all your phone storage and they’re high quality. But these are expensive and plenty of people already have one. Don’t necessarily buy one, but if you already have one – BRING. IT. Throw in some extra memory cards too.

– A hand towel can be nice to have in your bathroom and is something you’re probably used to having around in America. If you don’t have room for one, you can get a cheap one at Conad, the grocery store.

– If you regularly take any medicines (allergy, birth control, etc.), I’m sure you’ve already thought about bringing enough to last during study abroad. But what about things like ZzzQuil? Benadryl? Ibuprofen? It can really help to throw some of these into your luggage.

– You’ll likely bring a backpack for classes, but bring a reusable tote too. You can throw your dirty laundry in it, use it to carry groceries home (avoid paying for plastic bags each time!), etc. It’s ridiculously useful to bring a reusable bag and it folds into basically nothing, so it won’t take up your whole suitcase!

– Whatever your hobby might be, bring it. If you like drawing, bring a sketchbook and your pens/pencils. If you like painting, throw in your watercolors, a brush and some paper. You WILL have down time and the city is incredibly inspiring. Sometimes, you’ll want to capture it in more than just pictures.

– Make sure to order Euros from your bank at least two weeks in advance. A lot of bigger banks keep foreign currency on hand, but not all of them will have enough! I like to bring 500€ in cash with me to pay for things like my cab from the airport, snacks or my first round of groceries. You’ll have ATM fees and likely foreign transaction fees, but you can avoid at least one round of these by bringing some cash with you. Plus, when you’re jet-lagged, do you really want to have to worry about finding an ATM?

packing.

If you’re like me, you find it hard to pack for a weekend away. The thought of packing for a full semester abroad is incredibly daunting; you can’t drive home to pick up that sweater, you can’t have your parents mail your favorite jeans and you don’t want to buy everything you forgot. So, maybe these tips from someone who has studied and lived abroad can help to know what to pack and what to leave.

  • Spend $10 at a store like Marshall’s to get a bag weigher. Have a friend come over the night before you leave to help move things between bags until everything is under the 50 pound limit.

  • Buy these (or something similar) on Amazon: space saving bags. They’ll help you compress your clothes to fit more, but you still have to watch the weight in your bag. (Don’t forget to take the pump with you so you can get everything back in to come home!)
  • Put anything small – but heavy – into your carry on to save weight in your checked bag.

  • Stock up on shirts.  No one notices if you wear the same couple pairs of pants a bunch if your shirt keeps changing.

  • With coats – same thing as pants.  People expect you to wear the same coat a lot, so don’t worry about bringing more than one.

  • Keep it light on shoes. Those take up a lot of space and weight in your bag.  There are plenty of stores in Florence where you can buy some cheap shoes that will last the semester and you won’t mind leaving them behind when it’s time to go back.

  • Buy bathroom stuff in Florence. There are plenty of stores that sell good shampoos/conditioners/lotions – don’t waste that weight in your bag.

  • Buy something like this: charging station. It’ll save you from bringing separate adapters for your phone/tablet/etc. and help charge everything simultaneously.
  • If you’re taking a second checked bag, pay for it online before the day of your flight. Airlines often charge more to check a second bag when you do it at the counter, so avoid the frustration and save money by doing it beforehand.

Hopefully the things I’ve learned from previous mistakes can help! Good luck packing and get excited for study abroad!

soulmates.

“Maybe our girlfriends are our soulmates and guys are just people to have fun with.” – Candace Bushnell

Yes, that’s a quote from Sex and the City after one of the women goes through a particularly bad breakup.  The show is a bit of a guilty pleasure because of how ridiculously the women react to hardships in their lives; I feel better about my freak outs when I compare my reactions to theirs.  But this particular scene caught me more seriously.  I see so many of my friends, peers and old classmates pairing off with babies, boyfriends and engagements lately.

 

I’m so happy for those friends, to experience such happiness in their own lives.  But what about those of us who don’t want that in this stage of our lives?  How do we answer the endless stream of questions: When will you meet someone?  Why aren’t you dating anyone?  Did you have a bad breakup last time?  Then there comes the meaningless platitudes: You’ll meet someone when you least expect it.  The best things come to those who wait.  You find the best people when you stop looking.

I’m almost through my twenty-second year.  I graduated from a nationally ranked program – at a good university – with honors.  But that doesn’t seem to be what people call to mind when they think about me.  They see that I moved to Italy and assume that I’m running from something or that I don’t want to start in the “real world.”  Maybe they’re right.  I’m only 22.  I assume I came here because I felt a draw to return, but that was a feeling I had and wasn’t based on much more.  But I do know that whatever I’m missing in my life isn’t going to be found in a man right now.  I always used to have a boyfriend.  I went from one relationship to the next without much thought because that’s what I wanted at that time.  I’m unsure what specifically changed, but that phase of my life is certainly on pause – indefinitely.

None of this means that I don’t feel drawn to find a soulmate.  I just think my definition of that word is different at this point.  It becomes more clear to me as I go through hardships that my soulmate right now isn’t even a singular person.  My soulmates are my friends, just like the girls in SATC.  Because a true soulmate doesn’t just tell you things are going to be okay and that you’re great; that’s what transient friends spout.  A soulmate friend is permanent; he/she reminds you of who you are and why you’re loved.  Tells you it sucks right now, but asks how to help.  Initiates conversations on the topic, instead of sighing when you bring it up yet again.  Helps you remember what you like about yourself.

 

To find a soulmate in a friend is more meaningful to me.  I’ve yet to find a man who can support and love me as truly as a soulmate.  If I’m meant to find the same relationship with a man in the future, I have full confidence that it will happen.  But for now, I’m overly content to share my life with my girlfriends.

transition.

I’ve been back in Florence for about six weeks.  It hasn’t been an easy adjustment and it’s nothing like what I was expecting.  I had a great summer last year – working as an expatriate, traveling around Italy and making friends from across the world.  Perhaps naively, I was thinking that this secondary expat section of my life would be the same.

I don’t mean to gloss over the difficult parts of last summer, but the overall feeling left in my mouth when I moved home was of a fantastic ten weeks in which I met some of my now closest friends.  This time, I feel like I’m fighting to fit in.  I showed up a month later than the rest of my coworkers/roommates and it shows in my daily routine.  I often feel like an afterthought to people who bonded so deeply while I was still in the States.  Simply comparing pictures from last summer to this fall, the difference shows.

I’m still smiling, posing with friends and presenting a person overall happy to be in Europe.  But there’s an undeniable shift to more individual photographs, whereas those were rare last year.  It’s been difficult to deal with adulthood, graduation, and learning to be on my own all at once.  I can’t stress enough how many times I’ve felt so lonely that I almost moved back home.  But I’m slowly learning how to fill my days on my own.  I’m learning to travel solo.  And I’m learning that sometimes my quiet time can be in a piazza absolutely packed with people.  It isn’t easy to be on your own.  But it can surely be worth it.  While I know when this experience will end, which is sooner than I originally planned, I’ll never regret coming here.  The only way to learn about yourself and grow as an adult is to put yourself in difficult situations, to encourage less-than-ideal experiences and to do it with a smile on your face.