Chapter 7: The Worst Italian Ever

 

My host mom calls me, “la Italiana,” because despite my mostly German heritage, she decided my looks and Spanish accent prevail as Italian, and so La Italiana I became, and for the “Puente” (a week long break we have in the first week of December because Catholic stuff happens), to Italia I flew.

And after a week of living in one of my many European mutt “motherlands,” it is safe to say I am actually the worst Italian ever.

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I do pizza pretty well, though.

Our motley adventure began with a five-hour layover in the Barcelona airport. So, like any self-respecting American college students, we bought a bottle of wine from the duty-free store and decided to drink away the time. Only problem? The duty-free store did not sell corkscrews, and being a seasoned veteran of opening wine bottles with pens (from that one time I did it in Joe’s apartment with Nina’s cat wine and exploded the entire bottle all over his kitchen), I was elected to repeat my previous failures. After failing miserably at the whole “flip it over and bang it until the cork comes out,” method, I physically and mentally prepared myself to shower in wine once again. Armed with a makeshift shield I crafted from a plastic bag, I pushed all of my strength into the cork and managed to open our bottle with minimal casualties and wine lost.

We arrived in Turin at about 11pm, and when the taxi dropped us off at our AirBnb we thought there must be a mistake. I don’t remember whose brilliant idea it was to go to Turin first and why, but from the part I saw I think I could have gone my entire life without seeing this city and been completely fine. Italy, unlike Spain, eats at normal hours, so our only hope of sustenance this late at night was a pizza joint run by an Oriental family that spoke better English than Italian. So Italy started with the most ghetto Airbnb I’ve ever seen and Chinese pizza (Nancy’s didn’t even come with cheese). The next day, my roommate Nancy and our friend Julia learned the hard way that “latte” in Italian means milk. Not coffee WITH milk.

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Your hands are too big for your body.

Thankfully, we only stayed two nights in Turin before catching a train to Venice (only after stressing to catch and find a train that Nancy had made up and didn’t actually exist). Arriving in Venice, it was obvious things would be better. First of all, if you haven’t been to Venice, go. Like seriously, screw your job, your responsibilities, your boyfriend, get on a plane and go. Even in off season, this was one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever experienced. Our Airbnb was a cute, modern apartment in the heart of it all that included fresh croissants every morning. It’s only flaw was a lack of WiFi. We feasted on our first real Italian meal, ending with quite possibly the best dessert I’ve ever experienced. I was actually on the verge of tears eating a fresh crepe, drizzled with Nutella, and topped with Oreo gelato. In fact, my ecstasy was so great that I forgot I was lactose intolerant, speed ate the entire thing, and proceeded to throw up my angelic dessert. Very sad, but still just as amazing going in reverse.

After Venice, we made our way to Bologna for only one night to sample what we’d heard was the best Italian food Italy had to offer. Those rumors are true; the rumor that is not true, however, is how similar Italian and Spanish are. I ordered something from a menu in Italian that, had this been the case, should have been a filet of fish and green peppers. What it ended up being was filet mignon with capers in a cream sauce. While not what I expected, I am glad I was wrong because oh my god. People who know me know I’m happier with cheap fastfood than I ever am with something hip or fancy, but if I had to sell my soul for one dish, it might be this one.

The next morning, we boarded our train to our final destination: Florence. While our Airbnb was once again slightly sketchy (reminiscent of a crack house, or a place where the drugged-out people from your high school would go to do acid), Florence was beautiful. We ate our fair share of amazing food, naturally. I saw the over-hyped statue of the naked man for the second time in my life, though this time was definitely less arousing. I went to my first Christmas market and ate German food and got surprisingly drunk off one cup of vin brule.

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Rachel after one cup of vin brule. See also: little lightweight scrub.

However,the moment that sticks out the most in my mind is this dinky little Irish pub we went to. The outside had nothing special to show, but we wanted to grab a drink while we waited for the organic dinner place to open (once a Californian…). Upon stepping inside, it was something different. American college t-shirts and greek life letters covered every inch of the walls and tables. A shot list bearing shots named after every relevant college in the United States hung on the wall. My eyes scanned anxiously up and down, rolling to the back of my head when I saw UCSB was on there twice. But when I finally found it, I screamed. I actually, embarrassingly, sorority-white-girl screamed in this bar. The Cal Poly shot: vodka, limoncello, amaretto…an odd combination, but I didn’t care.

I hadn’t been nostalgic until now. I don’t know if it’s me as a person or the fast pace of this trip, but I genuinely hadn’t missed home much. But now, sitting in this bar thousands of miles from home, I missed Cal Poly. Every memory came flooding back: going on my tour and becoming so enamored that my three-year long plan of attending University of Miami ended instantly, moving into my dorm and thinking I was the shit, learning I wasn’t the shit, and relationships I built—some of which lasted, some of which didn’t, and some of which turned out in a way I never expected.

It was this moment, this shot, that I knew I was ready to go home. I might never be a great Italian: gelato makes me throw up, I’m not too fond of cheese, and while I speak Spanish with an Italian accent, my actual Italian is pitiful. But at the end of the day, I don’t identify myself as an Italian. I identify myself as Mustang. Because for all it’s exercise obsessed, beauty-ridden flaws, I am damn proud to be a Cal Poly student, and there really is no place like SLOme.

Chapter 6: Desaparecer

We spend far too much time learning words and far too little time thinking about what they mean. Take, for example, the word appear. If I asked you to define it in your own words you might say something like, “show up” or “become visible,” and by that hacksaw definition, you would have unknowingly reduced the word disappear to mean nothing more than invisible.

I like the word better in Spanish: desaparecer; it has more components. At the end of the word is parecer, which means to seem. Then you have des, which takes whatever idea you have and makes it undone (deshacer, destruir) all encompassing a tiny little “a,” which Greek roots will tell you means to/toward/near. So if you translate desaparecer quite literally, you are left with “the undoing towards what seems to be.”

So much better than invisible.

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And that’s what I did. That’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to take my life at it was seeming to be, and undo it. So on a Monday morning I bought a plane ticket to leave Friday and go to the Canary Islands. Alone.

I went for no cultural purpose. I didn’t go to see any sights or visit anymore churches. I went to just be alone, on purpose. And here’s what I learned:

-Spaniards either think I’m from Argentina or Italy based on my accent when I speak Spanish. I’ve still to learn/understand why.

-I require way more naps to survive than the average person.

-I like the ocean better at night than during the day.

-I can almost always eat raspberry cheesecake and apple pastries.

And that’s all she wrote. I had no major epiphanies, no life changing moments. Sometimes it’s good to just escape your own life, not even to obtain perspective, but just to merely not live it for awhile. And sometimes, it’s as simple as an impulsive purchase of a plane ticket to go somewhere a little warmer and get lost.

 

 

Chapter 5: Almost Speechless

Congratulations, America. You have started a war.

I sit almost speechless, and speechless I would be if it were not for the fact that I have gone completely and uncomfortably numb with rage and disappointed expectance at your incompetence. You have swiftly and proficiently killed what was left of the American Dream.

I will be the first to say I’ve never been proud to be an American. Since I was young and learned that this country was founded on rape and stolen land, I decided I wasn’t proud to be an American. And as I grew, I watch us ship people over seas rather than save our own country. I watched the people who were meant to protect and guide us slaughter and exploit us, and now I potentially lose the only thing I ever truly wanted: motherhood.

Because if this election is any indication of what the future of this country will hold, bringing a child into this world is nothing short of abuse.

You can sit there in denial and claim “nothing will happen” and “nothing’s happened yet.” But today I walked through the streets of Spain, and every Spaniard either marked me with completely disdain, or the look of pity you give someone after someone they love has died.

And I wish I could say we killed America today. I wish I could say that this was unexpected and I didn’t see it coming…but I did. In fact what has me so completely floored is that this is exactly what I expected from America given our history; I had just stupidly hoped we were better.

This is not a question of Trump versus Hilary. This is a statement of the horror that not only did we strand ourselves with these two candidates, but we now with our choice in this election have said that every atrocity of our nation is okay.

Sexual assault is okay. Racism is okay. Corruption and deceit and power to rich white men, it’s all okay.

And there will be war. Because now the country so barely holding itself together is openly and completely divided, and not between Hillary and Trump supporters, no. Because not everyone voted Trump because they hate minorities or women or progress. Some misguidedly voted for other reasons.

Whether or not Trump gets anything passed in office is irrelevant, because with his election we have now told those who supported him for all his horrific reasons that their behavior is okay, and we have given them the power to act on their hatred. The racism and sexism that used to sit quietly in the corners of our society has now been blown wide open, and I promise their actions will speak louder than their slanderous words ever did. We have added fire to an already boiling over pot, and there will be blood.

So this is a call to action. This is a call to war: those of us for the good of humanity and what’s left of our nation, and those who seek to make it unlivable. It is a war between love and hate, and to stand idly by and not fight for the crumbs of hope we have left is to stand on the other side.

Chapter 4: Love and Other Things That Induce Psychosis

How insanely baffling that the people you fall hardest for are always the ones you never planned on loving in the first place. How insanely annoying.

September 22, 2014 had seen the start of a new chapter with a same love. Like most freshmen, I had entered college with my high school sweetheart thinking we were going to stay together and be together forever. People warned about the changes, warned about the turkey drop, and like all freshmen in love I’d scoffed, “it won’t be me.”

But it was.

The second part of that saga had seen the other college-stereotype. I’d heard rumors of fuckboys. I’d heard the tales of boys who bent your emotions backwards and sideways until you believed that the lies they told you were love, and the sex they asked for was because they cared. I saw my friends go through it, and rolled my eyes as they spun eloquent quilts with the words of justification for these men who were, quite honestly, simply abusive.

“You don’t know him like I do,” they’d say, “he’s different when we’re alone…” and I’d roll my eyes at their desperation, deaf to the same sentences when they fell out of my own mouth.

And for two years while I was busy tripping over the past or being emotionally enslaved by the present, there was one always there. A boy from the third floor of my dorm that, looking back, I always gave far too little thought to.

He came in with his high school sweetheart as well, a beautiful girl he’d loved since seventh grade. In my mind, I justify this as the reason I never quite paid attention. We bonded over similar pasts, high school loves, and late night life talks. I spent almost as much time up in his dorm taking shots as I did in my own.

October 15, 2015 (and I only remember because it was Megan’s birthday, hbd ho), I was crying over something alcohol induced, and he kissed me. In the middle of my blundering, slurred sentence, he just kissed me. For no reason. To this day, I have not found a more effective way to shut me up. It was never brought up, and a few months later when I kissed him, well, that wasn’t brought up either.

And he sat there and listened to my stupidity. He bit his tongue as I described the love I wanted and validated the bullshit I was getting. For two years, he waited for me to figure it out.

There was no beginning. There was no moment I looked at him and had a grand you’ve-been-there-all-along epiphany. Much like the first time he kissed me, and our friendship, and every moment we’d ever shared prior, it kind of just happened.

And I fought it so damn hard.

In fact, I fought it so hard that the kid got on a plane and flew 6000 miles to come and see me for three days. I guess two years had left him a little impatient.

It often happens in the way that you fall in love with someone and they become your best friend. You have a crush, and in falling in love you grow to adore the idiosyncrasies and hear the life story and develop the late night talks.

Doing it backwards was like no other thing I’d ever experienced. Because he already knew me. We already knew every aspect of light and dark and oddities in each other’s life. We walked into this crazy, intense, spontaneous thing already completely and totally comfortable. Like home. They weren’t kidding when they said to fall in love with your best friend. And I highly recommend to everyone reading this to take a long hard look at yours, and make sure you aren’t being a fucking idiot like me.

 

Chapter 3: Spanish Men Aren’t That Hot If You’re Distracted

Her name was Heidi. She’d been on the program some eight or so years ago. Mid-October, she’d just disappeared. Skipped classes, left her host mom, and dropped the program without such a reason as why. A few months later, Dr. H (our resident Cal Poly professor and basically father) received a call from her.

“Are you safe?”
“Yes. I’m sorry.”
“Where’d you go?”
“I met someone.”

And she never came home. Eight years later, she’s still here. In Spain. Married to some Spanish man.

Now personally, I seemed to have a thing for the Italians. And the Portuguese if you count that one time I fell in love for four years. Also, given that my heart and mind were occupied somewhere at a frat house on Foothill, I couldn’t see myself giving up my life at home for a Spanish man, but I could see myself giving it up for Spain.

Values were different here. I was 15 years old when I went to Spain for the first time, and a singular experience had made me determined to come back.

It was a topless beach, as most beaches here are. And it wasn’t the envy  of people with actual breasts that sparked my desire to return (still waiting, puberty…), it was the confidence. All shapes and sizes and body types lay naked on this beach, basking in the sun, and not once did you see a look of judgment. Not once did the heavier woman look up in fear of snide remarks or giggles. Not once did a skinny girl strut past someone less genetically blessed with an aura of superiority. Everyone minded their own, and everyone seemed to feel beautiful. It was a concept so foreign to me, but it was breathtaking.

Because this is something you’d never find in the United States, where someone will berate your body before they ever berate your character.

But I digress. After story time, it was time to get on the bus and reach our final destination: Valladolid and our host families. I was nervous. I couldn’t sit still. I couldn’t stop my mind from racing. And to the continued chagrin and annoyance of my classmates, I could not shut up.

But when they called me and my roommate’s names (first), and we got off that bus to meet our “mama Española,” my nerves seemed pointless.

She reminded me a bit of my own mother, short brown hair slightly feathered, brown eyes, and a personality big enough for someone three times her size. She was fiery, loquacious, and immensely opinionated. She was perfect.

Walking into the place I’d be living for the next three months felt like home. It wasn’t fancy. It was actually quite small. It was messy, and a tad disorganized, and I shared a bunk bed for the first time since I’d lived in my dad’s Foster City apartment. And I absolutely loved it.

There was no grace period. No awkward time of trying to find my footing or get comfortable with my new maternal figure or my surroundings. It just felt like I belonged there. It was comfortable.

The first week saw a multitude of occurrences. Friday night, we all went out. Naturally. Nothing special there. Sunday saw my first home-cooked paella. Sunday night saw me getting the stomach flu for the first time in three years. Monday morning saw me barely making it through my Spanish placement test without puking on the table, and Tuesday morning saw my placement in a level that obviously reflected just how shitty I’d been feeling.

But I didn’t mind. Out of six levels, I’d been placed in Level 4. While not the most challenging academically, it would cover crucial grammar, syntax, and vocabulary that I knew I needed to re-learn desperately. My teacher was a pistol, and while her aggressive teaching style rubbed some the wrong way, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

There were groups, as was natural in large gatherings of people. People found who they clicked with, who made them comfortable, and smaller subsets formed. It bothered me in the beginning, but didn’t anymore.

The Universidad classes were easy. They were thought-provoking and the homework load was light. I found it easy to pay attention. The Cal Poly classes…well. I had never been one for history. It either pissed me off, or bored me to death. So the history of Spain, at 6pm while I’m fully fed and wide awake, brought out the worst side effects of my inattention. I couldn’t sit still, I couldn’t shut up, and then upon knowing I was annoying my classmates I would become anxious. And, as anyone who knows me knows, the more uncomfortable I am, the more obnoxious I get. But I tried to find new ways to distract myself and tone it down with every class.

We shared language classes with some students from Eau Claire in Wisconsin. The students in my class didn’t speak much. I’m not sure if it was from a lack of understanding, or that they partied harder than we ever did. But in their silence I asked questions, and I practiced. I’d come here to learn the language, and I wasn’t going to do that by staying silent in class.

This apparently rubbed some the wrong way. Wednesday, October 12 was a holiday, so Tuesday night we all went out. I was talking to one of the Wisconsin students who was in my class, when another walked up and said, “are you telling her she talks too much?” I turned to face him.

“He wasn’t, but it seems apparent now that you are,” I smirked.
“You think you’re so smart just because you can talk fast, like, slow down.”

I found this response comical, and it perplexed me that someone would equate the velocity of my speech with my intelligence. I talked fast in English, too. But why not have a little fun with the drunk boy?

“Alright, well then Thursday in class I won’t say anything. And when she’s standing up there asking questions none of you answer, feel free to just go for it.”

I began to walk away.

“Alright, bitch, see you Thursday.”

I raised my eyebrows and turned back to face him.

“Oh sweetheart…don’t fuck with me.”

My roommate, Julia, and I left the bar, wannabe-alpha male screams of, “oh now you’re gonna call me sweetheart? Now you think you’re the shit?” fading into the background.

I had not previously valued myself above this boy, but anyone who will call a woman a bitch based on her intelligence has a dick smaller than my nonexistent one. How tragic.

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I shall spin you a yarn. A yarn that will be a metaphor as transparent as too small yoga pants, but a yarn nonetheless.

Once upon a time, in a land far far away that references no one in particular was a group of princesses. They all varied in looks and personality, but they all had redeeming and lovely qualities. Some princesses had more wealth in beauty, others in heart, but all possessed valor.

As the kingdom grew, more princesses came in order to help rule over the land and keep the peace. Having many princesses delighted the people, and different princesses appealed to different townsfolk.

Quite recently, a new princess had come to the land. She was plain in looks,  heavy in stature, and overall not that special. But still, many townsfolk who had not yet connected with one of the already ruling princesses adored her. The other princesses, already so high in power, paid little attention to her, content with their own followers.

Alas, the Great Migration came, and new townsfolk flocked from far and wide to the kingdom. All the princesses beamed with joy as they anticipated the lives of the new townsfolk they would touch.

Each princess received dozens upon dozens of new supporters who loved their ideals, their beauty, and their spirits. The new princess did not expect many followers, but was excited all the same. She worked immensely hard to prepare her speeches and platforms to appeal to the new townsfolk.

But then, something odd happened. A fair number of the townsfolk did begin to enjoy the new princess. For what purpose, she was not sure, but she found herself with more followers than she had ever anticipated. She glowed with pride, thrilled to have the chance to share her ideas with these new people.

But some of the other princesses grew petty. Though they had gleaned far more followers, and though this new princess had never mattered before, they suddenly found themselves plotting her downfall. They whispered in the ear of the townsfolk horrible rumours about the new princess’s harsh regime and unfair laws. They spoke of her simple looks and empty mind.

Many of the townsfolk listened, and ran away from the new princess. Despite having loved her speeches and ideals, they feared there was truth in the lies they’d heard.

And while the old princesses laughed at their success thinking, in fact, they’d won, the truth was the whole thing was really. Fucking. Dumb.

The End

Chapter 2: Wine and Less Important Things

My first night in Madrid found me alone at a bar across the street from my hotel drinking white wine. I loved going to bars alone; it was absolutely prime for people watching. I sat reading the paper, and laughed at the amount of time the U.S. came up and how we were portrayed (sort of like a giant island of Donald Trumps).

I guess Madrid was playing a soccer game, because a man outside was dressed like a chicken, and he and his group of rowdy companions ordered beer after beer after beer after beer. I had no other explanation for this behavior. I would have to learn that soccer was to Spanish men as football was to the boys back home.

“Doh-bless cervezas por fuh-vahr,” a voice next to me at the bar struggled in broken Spanish. I smiled, not at her lack of lingual prowess but at her obviously strong accent of something else behind it.

“Where are you from?” I turned, asking in English.

“We’re from Ireland,” she smiled back, “we’re here in Spain and we’re going to be teacher assistants.”

That explained the other accent.

After three glasses of wine and a sample of each complimentary tapa (because your alcohol comes with free food in Spain, U.S. take notes), I found myself satisfied, thoroughly exhausted, and asleep promptly by 10pm.

We had a good group. There was no awkward getting-to-know-you phase. Everyone clicked pretty well. Personalities were strewn across the board from the shy and timid to the “beer at 10am” types, but the chemistry between what had previously been 15 strangers was eminent.

Our first day was breakfast down the street (where I was blessed with Spanish tortilla and orange juice, my new addiction), a rest, and then we met up to take a walking tour of some of Madrid’s more prominent features. We had to be awake and ready to get on the bus to Toledo at 9am the next day, so we all planned to go out, but to take it easy.

These things did not happen.

We started with a hotel room pregame and a game of Kings Cup played with what might arguably be the worst wine I’ve ever tasted. But, in Spain’s defense, it was three-dollar wine from the corner store. However, not in Spain’s defense, it was ten times worse than any box of Franzia I’ve ever tasted.

We meandered down the street looking for a bar that seemed interesting enough to enter. We were beckoned into a nearly empty bar with promises of free beer. Not being a beer drinker, I ordered a tequila shot to join the ranks of my peers. Now I’m not sure if they took this as a challenge, or if what happened next would’ve happened anyways, but suddenly free beer turned to rounds of shots and everyone was much, much drunker than they intended.

We came to Spain knowing full well binge drinking was not the Spanish culture. However, coming from the U.S. where a shot costs more than my life is worth, being able to get three servings of alcohol (beer, wine, shot, etc) for under $7 had everyone pretty excited.

We ended up in a Plaza—the name escapes me now—and a voice beckoned from the shadows.

“Hello! You like to dance?”

We exchanged glances, and whether it was the booze or the first night confidence, we followed this random man into a nightclub, tickets for a free sangria in hand. We danced around to the same playlist I used to hear at my middle school dances, buying more drinks, making more noise. And then, grace of God that she is, Sloan Cinelli came out of damn nowhere.

At 1am, someone wisely reminded us of our waking hour, and we headed home.

 

There is something to be said for an American college students’ ability to fully function through debilitating hangovers. Not speaking personally, in this case. I woke up feeling mediocre. But I would like to take a moment to appreciate my peers who puke and rally on a regular basis—you are warriors of your own liver-killing kind.

We boarded the bus to Toledo at 10am. An hour later, the view from the window was breathtaking. Toledo was the kind of beautiful that almost made you emotional. I don’t know how to describe it, and pictures would never do it justice. It just was.

We walked all day. I wrote as often as I could. Pen to paper, every thought that came into my head, like it might kill me to be anything less than honest. Sometimes, it felt that was the only way I could be.

We went to two churches, and I was haunted by something different in each one: in the first, the cathedral, a gigantic painting of Saint Christopher. In the second, a statue of Vírgen de Guadalupe who seemed like she could see right through me. In the cathedral, I had wandered off from the group, enchanted by some tombs. I found myself alone, but not panicked. I wandered around the cathedral alone, without the drone of the tour guide in my ears, making up my own stories. It was an eerie calm…a calm I felt guilty feeling, because I had walked away from the Church a long time ago. I saw a nun, and considered asking her to pray for me.

I don’t think it would help.

I couldn’t sleep anymore. I had gotten three hours the night before, and maybe a forty-minute nap. I was learning to run on fumes and, while impressive for someone who used to barely function on nine hours, I knew I was destroying my body.

That night, we had a dinner of tapas with our professor, Dr. Hiltpold. I tortured the boy next to me with stupid questions, and the one on my other side probably with my mere presence. It didn’t matter to me, I merely enjoyed the game of it all.

We found ourselves in an empty karaoke bar. We had all be under the impression we would only be staying there briefly to get drinks But, several songs later (including, but not limited to: Don’t Stop Believin’, Drops of Jupiter, and Smack That), we had one of the most fun nights I’d had in a while.

At 3am, I realized exactly why most people hate Americans. Eight of us walked over a mile to a 24-hour McDonald’s. Drunken slurs of broken Spanish asking for McNuggets, euros dropped on the floor, and the sheer madness of drunchies tortured everyone around us, except for one laughing woman who seemed to enjoy it as much as we did.