I don’t have many free weekends here in Greece, but when I do, I travel. And apparently, I only travel to Italy. I like Italy. This past week we had a break because my program hosted a study abroad conference. Basically they told everyone to leave so they could focus on promoting themselves and the ‘study abroad experience’ (i.e. themselves). Smart move on their part because they got attention from lots of schools and we, as students, got to go places. Three of my roommates, another friend, and I decided to go to Italy. In fact, we decided to go to most of Italy. Here was the itinerary: fly into Rome and stay for a day, take an overnight train to Venice and stay for a day and night, hop on another train headed for Milan and stay for a day and night, and fly out of Bergamo. We ended up traveling 570ish miles (35ish miles by foot) within Italy over the course of 4 days. Legendary.
Our trip started with Rome. Most of us had been to Rome, but there is always more to see in Rome. It’s a big place. I was most excited to check out the Vatican Museum, which holds tons of famous art and houses the Sistine Chapel (Michelangelo, famous painted ceiling, two fingers touching…), but I was also excited to eat pizza. My favorite brief memory of Rome aside from walking/talking/taking pics with the roomies was arguing with a tourist shop worker. This sounds weird, but it was so funny. We knew we could get into the Vatican for free because of these magic cards our program gifted us with (they really are magic), but the shop owner wouldn’t have it. She kept trying to sell us tickets while vehemently muttering Greek mixed with the English words ‘free,’ ‘unbelievable,’ and ‘entitled Americans.’ I wanted so badly to show her the pictures I took in the museum after I got in FOR FREE, but I decided against it for her sanity. Justin and roomies – 1, stubborn shop owners – 0.
After our day in Rome, we boarded a late train to Venice. Our plan was to sleep on the train, arrive early the next morning in Venice, and do Venice things for the rest of the day. The train was super cool. There were beds, normal train seats (like airplane/bus seats), and cabins. The roomies and I were in a cabin. Every time I walked in and out, I felt like I was in a scene of Narnia or Harry Potter because the cabin seats faced each other, had a window on the far wall, shelf-like racks to hold bags above the crappy recliner seats, and were cut off from the noisy car hallway by a glass door. You could slide the glass door open in hopes of finding Edmond, Susan, or Lucy; unfortunately I only found tired Italians. Until five minutes before our train departed Rome, I thought we would have a cabin to ourselves, but then in walked Mr. Frazzled. This man looked rushed, partially disoriented, and a little unkempt, but he had somehow made the train. Mr. Frazzled was Italian and he spoke no English.
Sharing a cabin with Mr. Frazzled was quite entertaining. The eight-hour train ride started at 10pm, making stops ever so often at various cities. Before going to sleep, I tried to ask where Mr. Frazzled was supposed to get off so we could move when he needed to get out, out of formality. Though, I think I really asked this question to hold him accountable and wake him up when he needed to leave. Frazzled looked at me with a look of utter confusion. I tried Spanish. Now he thought I was messing with him. Seeing that this would go no where fast, I laughingly waved off the conversation and stretched myself out (I was practically lying across my roommate with my feet in his face). 5:30am rolls around and Frazzled’s alarm quietly chimes for five minutes straight. Why we didn’t wake him up, I am not sure. All I remember is waking up, hearing the alarm, giving my roomy whose face was closest to my feet a look that said ‘whose alarm is that,’ receiving a nod towards Mr. Frazzled, shaking my head while chuckling, and reclining my chair one notch further. Frazzled missed his destination by thirty minutes. Needless to say, he was super frazzled when he found out. We arrived successfully in Venice at 6am. Justin and roomies – 2, stubborn shop owners and frazzled Italians – still 0.
I won’t say much about Venice except that water taxis are cool and tourists are not. If you ever go, bring a jacket and don’t spend the night on camping grounds in a glorified tent just because its 12 Euros a person. Also, try sneakily jumping into one of the canals. You won’t regret it.
One day and night in Venice passed quickly and Milan was next on our list. During this trip, we stayed in what are called hostels. Hostels are a poor man’s hotel. Hostels are cheap and not always accommodating. Naturally, the roomies and I sought to stay in the cheapest hostel Milan could offer us, even if the name was as boding as sounds of bats, black cats, and organ music outside a dark, gothic-style mansion. Scream House was the Hostel we chose. With a name like that, why wouldn’t we stay there? I really thought there might be bloodstains on our sheets, or ominous ghost/wind noises in the air vents, but there weren’t. Actually, bed sheets weren’t even included. According to the reviews, the only threat to my wellbeing would be the rude desk employees, who actually turned out to be pretty nice. Favorite quote from the Romanian lady at the desk: “I could say more, but I too noise. I talk much.” She laughed like Dracula/the Count from Sesame Street.
As the fashion capital of the world, Milan is literally one big outdoor strip mall. All stores are brand name and all stores are pricy. There are some cool churches and old monuments in Milan, but the people really flock around fashion, what is hip, and cool new fads. One fad included yoga under park trees. Another was wearing baggy jeans that didn’t quite reach your ankles coupled with a deceitfully expensive t-shirt, circle shades, and white lifestyle shoes. I felt like I was in New York. With all these crazy stores, being the shopaholic I am, I decided to check out the most expensive one: Prada. Prada is one of the few shops inside a large, iconic domed area closest to Milan’s central Duomo Square. Prada is nice. Prada is grossly pricy. I walked in wearing a $5 Old Navy t-shirt, Fayettechill shorts (5 in. inseam), and Chacos… with socks. The looks I got upon entering were so demeaning that I almost turned around, but I stayed strong. The story kind of woefully disintegrates when I tell you that I didn’t try on the $6,000 trench coat I saw, buy an overpriced pastry upstairs, or even spark a conversation with the famous dude sitting nearby. I walked around like a bashful child because I knew I had no business being there. It felt so foreign.
My feeling of brief embarrassment, self-consciousness (even a little shame at my attire), and unfamiliarity at Prada is, I’m sure, what many people experience in church. While my feelings were pretty self-determined, I knew walking into Prada was more for the story than a confidence boost, the principle is the same: I walked into a store where I felt some form of established group should be. I had a clear idea of what kinds of people I would see in Prada, what kinds of clothes they would be wearing, and even what kinds of people those people would hang out with (likely, other people who wear Prada). I was clearly an outsider. Simply by the way I dressed, it was clear that I was other and therefore inevitably unwelcome. How many times does this happen in our churches? How many times do people walk in, see the realization of everything they expected a Christian to act, look, and talk like, and walk out. How many times do I settle for chatting with my already-established friends instead of engaging the new guy? This doesn’t even have to apply to church anymore, but simply in day-to-day life. Our engagement of people speaks loudly of our love, purpose, and heart. I hope that my friends, camp, church, etc. are never like Prada. I hope we have the awareness to see someone who is dazed and confused, sit alongside him/her in that messy time, invite them into an established community, and lead with generosity. I hope that faith never becomes a brand name, that it never carries the ‘holier than though’ connotation. I hope that love extends beyond the price of an expensive jacket or pastry, even beyond possible ostracism from the in-crowd, so that the outside and other can be shown love. The same grace is available to him/her. It’s the same forgiveness. Sometimes we have to get uncomfortable in order to make someone else feel at home.
A lot was learned in Italy and lots more can be said, but I’ll spare you here. I will say that a big development has occurred here for me in Greece that I will write on next, one of pelagic and maritime proportions.