I’m currently writing to you from Siena, Italy – yes! I am back in the country of pasta and pizza that’s absolutely dripping in culture and history. I’ve just completed my first month of classes at the Università per Stranieri (University for Foreigners) and it was truly a beautiful month here.

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Siena’s Torre del Mangia in the Piazza del Campo, probably the most iconic site in the city

When they say University for Foreigners, they really do mean it – in my class of about 20 people, I was one of 4 Americans. Students from China, Japan, Nicaragua, France, Denmark, Canada, Australia, Russia, Mexico, and Burma made up my class and the only language we all share is Italian. Of course, a lot of us speak English – I’m a little embarrassed to say that the people I got closest to were the English speakers – but the fact that in class we are forced to use Italian to communicate anything is truly amazing. When we forget a word or phrase, we must circumnavigate it and find another way to say it in Italian, because switching to English just isn’t an option.

Selfie with (most) of our class!
Selfie with (some of) our class!

In class, after our grammar lessons, we have culture lessons, where we discuss current events (Brexit was discussed quite a bit) and compare our home countries in topics like work, education, and family life. The country comparison is probably one of my favorite parts of our discussions; it allows us to gently tease each other but also genuinely search for an understanding of life and culture in other countries.

An American, a Brit, a Mexican, and a Frenchman walk into a bar....
An American, a Brit, a Mexican, and a Frenchman walk into a bar….

With all respect to my professors and classmates, the real fun comes on the weekends, where I take a trip to a different city. My first weekend was Rome, the Eternal City, and currently my favorite place that I have been thus far. I arrived midday on a Saturday and headed right for the Vatican Museums, home of the Sistine Chapel and just about an endless collection of art and artifacts from every period and every corner of the world. Highlights for me included the Egyptian collection (which I knew quite a but about thanks to one of my classes last semester!), Raphael’s the School of Athens, and, of course, the Sistine Chapel itself.

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The School of Athens

Sunday in Rome was the real deal, though, because I went to St. Peter’s Square that morning to catch mass with the Pope. Little did I know that HE WOULD RIDE ON BY IN THE POPEMOBILE SO CLOSE TO ME!!!!!

OMG!!!!!
OMG!!!!!

So that was probably one of the most amazing things that’s ever happened to me. He just seems like such a genuine man and I really do admire him. After the Vatican I took a literal whirlwind tour of the city and saw the Castel Sant’Angelo, the Ponte Sant’Angelo, the Piazza Navona, the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain, and finally ended at the Spanish Steps (WHICH WERE CLOSED!). Despite the disappointment of the Spanish Steps, Rome is really an amazing (and very walkable!) city, and I feel like I saw some of the most incredible spots in Italy, if not the world.

the Trevi Fountain, site of a million Lizzie McGuire-inspired wishes.
the Trevi Fountain, site of a million Lizzie McGuire-inspired wishes.

My next weekend was not in Italy, but it was still fabulous: Nice, France and the tiny nation of Monaco! First of all, the French Riviera is probably one of the most beautiful places on Earth, and even though the beaches aren’t sandy, they do make for some incredible photos.

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blue on blue on blue

I was with one of my sorority sisters, Danielle, that weekend, and we had a grand old time. We shopped in Nice at the Galleries Lafayette, often considered the original department store, and then headed over on a short train ride to Monaco. In Monaco, we visited the Prince’s Palace, which is actually still his residence! The palace is absolutely gorgeous, and the rooms are very well maintained in styles of particular periods of Monaco’s history. After dinner by the harbor, we headed toward our real destination for the night: the Monte Carlo Casino. To get to the Casino, you have to basically walk by the street of high-end shops à la Gucci, Ferragamo, and the like, just to remind you that if you win it all at the casino, you can use your new money to get a whole new wardrobe! And after passing the casual Porsche, Ferrari, and Maserati in the parking lot, we went inside the Casino. It’s not actually that big of a place in the public gaming hall (though I would love to see the private poker rooms), but it is beautifully decorated in the Belle Epoche style. It is honestly magical; you really feel like a princess or James Bond sitting at the bar or watching a game of Roulette.

On the long walk up to the Prince's Palace, there are some prime photo spots. Maybe when I get a yacht, I'll park it here.
On the long walk up to the Prince’s Palace, there are some prime photo spots. Maybe when I get a yacht, I’ll park it here.

Ironically, weekend number three was to Milan: Italy’s banking and finance capital and I was there THE DAY AFTER the Brexit vote, where I was meeting my aunt and uncle who live in London. My train was ~two hours~ late so I didn’t get into the city until after 9pm, and so I met them at a bar where we could discuss the result over a drink. On Saturday morning, we got up bright and early for a walking tour of the city that started with Milan’s most famous resident, Da Vinci’s Last Supper. I didn’t actually realize that the Last Supper was in Milan of all places, but it is painted on the wall of what was monks’ dining room at the Santa Maria delle Grazie church.

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!!!

After the church, we saw most of the famous sites in the city – the Milan Cathedral (Duomo), the outside of the Scala Theater, the Sforza Castle, and the Galleries Vittorio Emmanuale. It was terribly, terribly hot and humid in Milan that weekend, so we pretty much needed an hourlong breather after everything we did, and so after lunch and a rest, we went back to the Duomo to see the inside and go up to the terraces on the roof. Despite a long line outside, people can disperse very easily inside, and it is not at all as crowded as St. Peter’s Basilica. Another cool thing about the Duomo is that there are over 3500 statues on the outside, and each is unique.

On top of the Duomo feat. my photobombing uncle
On top of the Duomo feat. my photobombing uncle (also yes I am wearing the same dress as in Monaco…)

On Sunday, we decided to go to the Castello Sforzesco, the home of Milan’s ducal family, the Sforzas (less known than the Medici and Borgias, but still pretty cool!) The Castello houses a ton of artifacts from early Christianity, as well as works that would have decorated the bedrooms and offices of the Sforza family. One of my favorite things at the Castello was the parks on which it sits. There is big Arc de Triomphe-looking arch at the end of the park that was initiated by Napoleon when he conquered Italy. Well it didn’t get finished by the time he was exiled, but the Austrians that essentially cleaned up this part of Italy after his defeat did finish it, except they turned the horses that sit atop the arch the other way to face the Castello instead of France, symbolizing France’s defeat and Italy’s self-determination.

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After one month in this beautiful country, I don’t know that I could call myself a real Italian yet, but I am getting there. I’ve really mastered the coffee thing (never have cappuccino in the afternoon), and I have found that I love outdoor cafes where I can people-watch. Even more important is that my Italian is improving in leaps and bounds; I’m no longer afraid to ask strangers a question, and I’ve gotten much more confident in using my Italian even in tourist-y places where their English is excellent. I am so grateful for the opportunity I’ve been afforded in coming here and I really do think that my experiences in this country will impact my interests and values for the rest of my life.