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Spring Break 2016 - Italy

These are the journal entries I wrote about my Italy trip that was for my class. I just thought I post it on here for memories.

Friday 3/11/2016
This is the first day on our journey to Italy. The plan was to have everyone meet up at 9:45 am to check in and go through security together. I arrived early and was the first one to be around the check-in counter at 8:30 am. I already had gotten into trouble earlier with the airport personnel because my driver decided to quickly go in to use the restroom while making me sit in the driver’s seat at the drop-off area. The security guy was telling me that I should move the truck because it was against the law to stay at the drop-off if no one was being dropped off. I almost had a panic attack because I did not know how to drive this truck and the guy was trying to call someone on me. Luckily, my driver came back in time. I was definitely not happy with how the security guy treated me and it kind of set the tone for today. Then I had another issue that had to do with my carry-on bag. I measured it the night before, and it had met Delta’s carry-on requirement of 22 by 12 by 9. But the actual bag measurement they used was a lot smaller than what was stated on their website. So they told me I had to check in my carry on because it was too big, and I ended up shelling $100 for it. It was ridiculous.
After all that hassle, we got on the plane and arrived at JFK at around 2:30 pm. There was quite a bit of time before we departed from JFK at 7:30 pm to find a place to eat and relax until then. When it was time to board the plane, my roommate nearly did not make it to the flight because she accidentally left the terminal trying to buy a charger for her computer. She had to go through security again during the time we were boarding. Luckily, she was able to be push through all the obstacles and make it to departure. Everyone was relieved that we did not have to leave a student behind. The flight took about 8 hours and when we landed, and by then it was already Saturday.

Saturday 3/12/2016
Today, we arrived in Rome around 10 am. We hopped on the bus to the Hotel Diana located on Via Principe Amadeo 4 where we dropped off our luggage. This is where I first ran into those pestering street vendors who were trying to sell us selfie sticks and scarves. Before we went off on our tour, I tagged along with some of the other students to find an ATM to withdraw Euros from. We ended up finding this bank that was guarded by a military guy holding a machine gun, and he told us that this was not the place for us to withdraw Euros. So we went back to the hotel where we took the bus to begin our tour of the Colosseum. Before we toured this historical site, we stopped at the the Terme De Colloseo for a group lunch. We were served pasta, pork with gravy and potatoes, and a custard dessert with raspberry sauce. I thought wine was served with every meal, but I guess it was not served with this one. This is where I first learned that restaurants do not serve tap water. But rather, they serve both natural water and sparkling water in skinny glass bottles. Both beverages tend to run out quickly since it has to be shared among the table. This was not good for me since I am used to drinking over eight glasses of water a day back at home, so I found myself to be dehydrated a lot during this trip.
After lunch, we met up with our tour guide Alberto, who explained the thorough history about the Colosseum. The steps to go up to the upper levels inside the Colosseum were quite steep. It was interesting to see how the ruins were kept up for thousands of years. He also took up us to his place where we could see the Forum from another viewpoint since the regular entrance was closed by the time we got there. Afterwards, we headed back to the hotel at 6 pm to settle into our rooms. It took my roommate and I awhile to realize that we have to stick in our hotel key card into this slot in order to keep the electricity on in our room.
Later that night, my roommate and I were trying to find an ATM to withdraw Euros. None of us had data on our cell phones to help us navigate through Rome, so we had to rely solely on the physical map and asking around. We were trying to find a BNL. After what seemed like an eternity, someone suggested that we look around the Termini…which was were the Metro, buses, and trains were located. We finally found one there, and then we ended up eating at a nearby Chinese restaurant for dinner. This is where I first learned that I did not have to speak in Italian to order food. The menu was already translated into English, plus in Mandarin and Italian. As we were walking back to the hotel, I was observing random strangers around us and was delighted to see that Rome was more ethnically diverse than I thought.

Sunday 3/13/2016
Today was our free day. I woke up around 11 am and caught up on all the lack of sleep I had during my arrival to Rome. My roommate and I went to the nearest pizza restaurant to grab some lunch. It was a really small place on the corner of the street and there were not many tables around. So we had to sit on the stools that were by the glass display. Afterwards, we headed to the Termini to take the Metro towards the Fontana di Trevi. It was only two stops away from where we were. It was a very beautiful sight with clear waters in the fountain. There were a lot of people gathered in that area since it was the early afternoon. My roommate and I decided to grab our first gelato nearby and it was delicious. We also decided to shop around the stores in that area.
We ended up running into some of the other people from class, and we went off explored the Spanish steps and went into a beautiful random church. When we were outside around these areas, one of the street vendors gave two of the girls we were with roses. Then he pretended to walk off, and then came back to ask for money. He kept asking for more and more when they were trying to give him something, but one of the girls just gave up and gave the rose back to him. We were all told about this tactic, but it seemed that the street vendor shoved the roses into their hands without asking. Half of the group separated during the midafternoon. One was going off to explore some more, and the other was going back towards hotel. I went with the group that was going back to the hotel. At one point, we stopped to check where we were on the map...and another shady street vendor approached us. He asked the guy in our group if I and two other girls were his three wives. Of course, he replied no. Then he was trying to give me a trinket, but I politely refused. Meanwhile, the other three took them even though they just witnessed the other street vendor incident from earlier. This man just kept talking and talking and he did not seem to want to go away. When he did pretend to go away, of course he came back and asked for money. Everyone gave him back the trinket and felt foolish.
I went to dinner with the same three people I hung out with earlier at the restaurant next door called EstEstEst! I had the antipasti dish of fresh mozzarella and prosciutto, and then a secondo dish of chicken and potatoes. Afterwards, we invited two more people to our outing and ended up at a random restaurant for wine. The server was generous enough to serve complimentary appetizers since we ordered two bottles of wine. Other people invited more people to spend time with us, and we had to leave the restaurant since it was closing at 11pm. We all ended up going to a random bar for more wine and stayed up until about 1 or 2 am before going back to the hotel.

Monday 3/14/2016
This morning we took all the Metro to visit Parliament. Since it was a busy period, we all had to squeeze into the subway like sardines in order to stay together and get there on time. We met up with a lady who was the Chief of Staff at the Parliament. She told us that she also earned degrees from UNF and ended up in Italy. We also had a tour guide who was showing us the inside of the Parliament building, while explaining the history behind it and also about how the Italian government works. I asked him one question about how often do the Italian hold general elections, and apparently they hold it about every 5 years.
After the Parliament visit, we took a quick lunch break across the street before heading to Vatican City. We met up with our tour guide Alberto again, and he took us through the Vatican Museum, the Sistine Chapel, and St Peter’s Basilica. The artwork inside all of the buildings were amazing. Especially in the Sistine Chapel, where I saw the infamous Last Judgment on the ceiling. The colors inside the Sistine Chapel were so vibrant, it was as if it was finished yesterday.  Then on our way to dinner, we stopped by the Pantheon to explore the inside. After visiting Vatican City earlier, I was honestly underwhelmed by this building. There was a lady who stepped up to the microphone to tell everyone in different languages to please be quiet, which I found to be a little humorous. Then we had dinner at a restaurant owned by the husband of the Parliament Chief of Staff. We had some bread, chicken and potatoes, and ended with gelato.

Tuesday 3/15/2016
This morning we took a three hour bus ride to Pompeii, which is located south of Rome. When we arrived there, we had our group lunch first at a nearby restaurant. While we were waiting, we took a look at the souvenir items that the vendors were selling. One guy came up to me to ask where I was from and I told him that I was from Florida. I thought he was just a random stranger, but it turns out that he was a vendor that was creeping up on me to encourage me to buy something. I heard some stories from fellow students earlier that they tried to sell items to them at a high price, and then try to barter it down in order to convince them to purchase the item. However, that tactic still does not work with everyone. 
At the restaurant, we were once again served pasta, pork and potatoes (I’m sensing a pattern here…), and gelato. We were allowed to share one bottle of wine amongst our table. It was an okay meal. Then we all headed to the tour site where we met up with our guide, Roberto. He was quite humorous and entertaining. We spent about two hours there walking through the ruins and learning about the history behind it. I saw a glass case full of skeletons and ashes, and another glass case with a body of little boy and another one of a dog…frozen in time by the ashes from the Mt. Vesuvius eruption. Towards the end, Roberto was pointing out all the phallic shaped drawings that were on the walls and ground. He told us the reason why it was there was because the ancient Romans believed that it was a symbol of power. So that explains why there were phallic shaped objects for sale at that souvenir stand we were at earlier. I got to see a view of Mt. Vesuvius which were high behind the clouds. All the things I read about Pompeii when I was in third grade had come to life when I was there, and it was pretty great!
The original plan was to spend the day in Pompeii until 6 pm. But we had to cut visit short because one of the student’s father knew a man named Prince Jonathan Doria Pamphilj, whose family was a descendant of Pope Innocent X.  She set up a tour for us to visit the Galleria Doria Pamphilj. It was full of rich, colorful artwork and statues. We all spent a few minutes taking pictures of it. Then we met up with him and he was very nice and welcoming towards us. He gave us some history behind some of the artwork while leading us into his living quarters. He set up a place where he served drinks to us. I am not sure what I drank, but it tasted a little sweet at first…then it became smoky and strong. We all learned that he was raised in London, England…which explains his British accent. He is also married to his partner and has two children, a boy and a girl, who are ages 8 and 9 respectively. We met them all and they seemed like wonderful people. We ended the night with a picture of all of us, then split up for dinner.
I went off with a different group that I have not hung out with yet. They wanted to walk 40 minutes away from where we were to see the river. Once we did that, we had dinner at a nearby restaurant where I had a big piece of steak. It was medium rare and full of fat, so I could not finish it at all. After we were done, we went to a bar nearby for some more drinks. There was a blues band playing that night, and we were all having a good time. We left around 11pm or so, and instead of taking a cab or an Uber, the people leading the group wanted to walk 40 minutes back to the hotel. It was honestly the most miserable thing I have experienced on the trip so far, because I was so exhausted. I remember that we ended up around the Colosseum and knew that it was going to be a long while before we ended up back at the hotel. Plus, they kept getting lost so that took up more time. We finally came back around 12:30am, and I had to quickly pack and get ready for our trip for Florence tomorrow.

Wednesday 03/16/2016
This morning, we met up with two guest speakers in the one of the conference rooms at our hotel. Our first guest was Roy, the senior manager at KMPG Italy. He was discussing about the practice of auditing in Italy. Since this was not my field of expertise nor was it a career that I plan on aiming for in the future, I did not exactly catch on to a lot of material he was explaining. All I wrote down in my notes was that the company has a total of 55,000 employees: about 3,000 of them were in Italy, about 500 in Rome, and 160 doing auditing. I also learned that it takes about 9 years to do an audit rotation. Honestly, I was quite lost about what he was talking about beyond what I wrote down.
After Roy, we had two speakers from the US Embassy join us, Michael Benton and Jennifer. This is what I had written down in my notes. Michael is in charge of the macro economy and the financial industry while Jennifer handles the digital economy and cyber security. They said their purpose was to reach out to US companies and help them succeed in Italy. They stated that there were are three embassies: one to Italy, one to the Vatican, and one to the UN organization. They also told us that the Italian economy ranks 8th in the world. Italian economy is based on machine goods, clothes, and food. About 95% of the businesses comprise of small to medium sized businesses. Italy has been in a deep and long recession since World War 2. GDP is the same as 2000. The economies are different between North and South Italy. Over 40% of Italians under 25 are unemployed, 70% of that population is in the southern areas. This causes them to put off marriage, buying a house, etc. They rank low on the digital economy. There are 34% of people who have not used the internet. 85% are still using cash transactions. The judicial system is very slow at getting things done. It also has the 2nd largest debt ratio. At the end, Jennifer and Michael were explaining how they got their jobs in the US Embassy and what countries they have been stationed at. They told us there were five departments at the US Embassy in Italy: Economic, Political, Management, Public Diplomacy, and Consular.
After our two business meetings this morning, we took a quick lunch break before heading on the bus to Florence. It took us three hours to get there, and I finally learned that Firenze was the Italian name for Florence. We arrived at the Hotel River around 6pm to check in and settle down. I was excited to see that we were staying at a hotel right by the river, which was a beautiful view. It was much more scenic than the Hotel Diana. The rooms are exponentially better as well. It was modern, it had just been remodeled, and it was much bigger. The only problem I had with the room was the shower, it only had a sliver of glass by it. So when you showered, you had to be careful not to get water everywhere.
For dinner, one of the students made a reservation for 12 at this restaurant nearby called the Outsider. Since I quickly got tired of eating pizza and pasta, I ordered the chicken curry dish and it was delicious. The portions were smaller than usual for the price, which was about a $15 dish. The rest of the group went to explore Florence that night, but I decided to stay in and have some quiet alone time to myself.

Thursday 03/17/2016
Today, we took a morning tour of Florence lead by our guide, Francesca. She is a very spunky and entertaining woman. I think she has become my favorite tour guide during this whole trip. But on the way there, she showed us the library, Basilica of Santa Croce, the Duomo, and we passed by the Uffizi Gallery. Our final destination was to be at the Galleria dell’ Accademia. It had unfinished sculptures by Michelangelo and many other Renaissance paintings. Then at the end of the museum, I saw the infamous statue of David. It was very tall and large from what I expected.
Later, we were off to the Castello de Verrazano where we took the tour of the winery. The tour guide took us down to the cellars to show where they dry out their grapes, how they distribute their wine in large barrels, and showed us a room full of wine bottles. The best part that I have been waiting for the whole day was the four course meal with all the wine pairings. We had bread, antipasti (salami and prosciutto), pasta sprinkled with fresh parmesan cheese, pork ribs and sausage, and ended with biscotti dipped in some kind of liquor. Tasting the pork ribs with their balsamic vinegar was mind blowing. It was the best meal I have had so far on this trip. I ended bought four bottles of wine. I hope this does not cause trouble with US customs when I get back home. After we headed back home, I went out with a group of people to explore Florence at night. Unfortunately, it seems that a lot of shops and some restaurants close around 8 pm so we were not able to do much at that time. It seems that Florence is best visited during the day, unlike Rome.

Friday 03/18/2016
Today was a free day. But it was inevitable that I eventually had to venture out on the town on my own since my roommate did not invite me to go out with her. I was terrified at first. But I have traveled alone to Boston and New York City and was able to navigate the city on my own. I carefully studied the physical map and the map on my phone before I left. I stayed close around the hotel around the Santa Cruze plaza. It seems like street vendors love to prey on people who are minding their own business. I saw a lady just taking a selfie and this street vendor comes up to her and harasses her to try to sell something. This problem has become annoying. I was trying to head over to a restaurant called Buddakan, which served Asian cuisine. I needed to eat something that was not Italian. When I walked in, the restaurant was completely empty and I asked the hostess if they could serve for one. She rudely told me that I needed a reservation. So I left and ended up at this place called the Italian Bar for lunch. I had slices of medium rare steak plus fries with a glass of wine. It was delicious. Later, the class reunited to visit the Scuola del Cuoio a.k.a the Leather School. Our guide was showing us how one of her workers imprinted a design on a coaster. He pressed the design onto the leather coaster with real gold and we were all impressed. He also showed us how he ingrained a customer’s initials on her handbag. Then we went to the station of one of the owners, and she was explaining that all the designs on their products are handsewn. They do not have a big manufacturing plant mass producing their products. Then our guide showed us the types of leather they use: calfskin, ostrich skin, alligator skin, etc. I ended up buying a leather wallet, coaster, and change purse to give as a gifts back home. It only came to a total of $71 with the group discount. I was very pleased because I expected to spend over $100 over there. Later, I ended up going to dinner by myself because I became tired of trying to find a clique to go out to dinner with. I was trying to head to another restaurant that served Asian cuisine, and she ended up rejecting me because I was a lone diner. So I walked into another random Italian restaurant and the service was very pleasant. I had pork chops and potatoes with wine, and it was very delicious. I have come to the brief conclusion that the Italian restaurants seem more welcoming of customers than the ones that are owned by Asians. I stopped by a random leather shop on the way back to the hotel because I needed a bag to carry my laptop when I traveled back home. The store owner, who seemed to be of Indian descent, seemed very eager to sell me something. He showed me a bag where when he tried to light it with fire, it would not burn to prove that it was real leather. I ended up buying a leather bag where the store owner marked down the price from $129 to $110. Whether or not this bag was real leather, I did not really care. I just needed something to hold my laptop.

Saturday 03/21/2016
Today is our last day in Florence before we head back home to Jacksonville. It is a free day for all. I spent another day going out alone again, and I enjoyed it very much. I have discovered that I enjoy trips more as a solo traveler rather than traveling with a lot of people. I find that coordinating plans with multiple people is such a hassle and takes the fun out of the trip for me. I went up to the San Lorenzo plaza where I heard that they have a variety of shops. My shopping list was full of gifts I was planning to bring back to the US: Italian snacks, scarves, dry pasta, and limoncello. Then I finally found a fast food Chinese restaurant to eat at without rejection. I was the only patron there during lunch time, which is fine because I needed a break from crowds. Then I had gelato. Then I sat at a random restaurant to drink two glasses of wine. We ended up at the Il Latini for our final dinner. I knew what the place would be like because I watched a very old episode of “$40 a Day” with Rachael Ray that use to air on the Food Network. She traveled to Florence and was showed us how she had breakfast, lunch, and dinner on only $40. The Il Latini was the featured restaurant on that episode for dinner, and I knew that there was going to be a long line when we got there. We were the first ones at the door, and by the time it was 7:30 pm, there was a large crowd behind us. I believe we had the second best meal on this trip here. We had prosciutto and mozzarella for the antipasti, pasta and soup for the primo dish, a big plate of meat for the secondo dish, and an assortment of desserts for the dolce. We had two jugs of wine that was shared among the eight of us at our table, plus a shot of limoncello and a liquor that was used to dip biscotti’s in. We were all very merry. I ended up going out with some of the group to walk around the area. We went to some bars and clubs. They wanted to stay out until 3 am, but I wanted to come back to the hotel so I could get a little bit of sleep because there was no way I could survive staying up that long. I ended up walking back alone, but I was not worried about being kidnapped because there were lots of people out and about on a Saturday night. I believe I have great self-preservation skills to keep that from happening.

Sunday 03/20/2016
We boarded the bus back to the Rome airport at 4:30 am. We arrived there around 8 am. Our flight back had to avoid going through France because there was an air controller strike going on. But we still got back to the JFK airport just in time for our connection flight. I successfully went through US Customs and Border Protection and security with no hassle. I expected them to look through my bag because I purchased six bottles of wine and liquor to take back home as gifts. So I was nervous they might have charged some kind of duty tax on the things I bought in Italy. But luckily, I was able to recheck my bag with no inspections done. Our flight was delayed by an hour due to the weather. But I was glad to see it snowing outside because I have not seen show in 12 years. But we were finally able to board the place at 8:00 pm, and made it safely back to Jacksonville. I am glad to learn and experience a new culture, but I am really glad to be back home. J

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