A Blonde in Italy (it’s more rare than you’d think)

The past two weeks felt simultaneously infinite and like a single speeding moment. Isn’t it weird how time works that way? While you’re in the middle of something big like that, it feels like you’ll be there forever, but looking back, there’s that vague sense of loss as time passes as quickly as a butterfly’s wingbeat.


WEEK 1 – GERMANY AND AMSTERDAM

The first week of my break was spent in familiar places with beloved honorary German and French sisters. I finally got to explore my first real-life castle in Germany! It was absolutely incredible. The castle itself dated back to 923 ad (I believe), and for being so old, it was in remarkably good condition. I couldn’t help but imagine myself as a princess or damsel within the stone walls. The castle was situated on the top of a mountain surrounded by even more mountain peaks, with another castle topping just the next mountain over. It felt totally unreal.

While visiting Trier, my German sister Steffi insistently took me to places where I could experience what she called “typical German” cuisine. I can’t even remember the names of everything I ate, but I think the most notable (and also the most delicious) was the Schnitzel! I can’t believe I’d never had it before, and I definitely can’t wait to try it again.

Amsterdam was, as always, beautiful and vibrant. I got to try more Dutch dishes and see more of Amsterdam than I had on my previous visit, so that was awesome. I’d have to say that Dutch cuisine is among my favorite so far. If you ever go, find a really good local Dutch restaurant and order the Hotchpot. Just trust me.


WEEK 2 – ITALY

The final half of my Spring break was spent in a place that I had longed to see ever since I was a kid. I’d been obsessed with stories of the Roman and Greek empires, becoming an ersatz expert in the topic. Finally, I was able to go to Italy, and the sights I saw there stole my breath away.

MILAN

I landed in Milan, Italy, on Friday at around 9pm. With it being so late (and with my good fortune of obtaining a window seat), I flew in over Milan already breathless with anticipation. From above, Milan glittered like a radiant jewel, lights winking seductively at me even from thousands of feet above.

Chiara, my Italian sister, picked me up from the airport with her friend Fabio and her dad tagging along. Her family was so amazing and genuine, and they had waited for my arrival before eating dinner so that I’d be able to dine with them. I must say, her mother is a mind-blowingly amazing cook. The dish I sat down to could have been the signature dish of a 5-star Italian restaurant for how amazing it was. I can’t even begin to say what exactly was in it, but living up to true Italian form, it was definitely pasta with amazing sauces and herbs that just made my mouth sing with joy. The pasta, paired with amazing Italian red wine, marked the end of my first short evening in Milan.

We spent the next couple of days exploring the city with Chiara’s friends, plus one of my own friends (Abigail!) who had flown in the day after me. I wish I’d had more time to stay in Milan because one day of exploring simply was not enough time to take in the entire vibrant city. I loved everything about it, from the shopping strips to the magnificent Duomo. It was in Milan that I was blessed with my first taste of real Italian gelato. Oh my. Italy’s reputation for gelato is certainly well-earned. I have to say, ice cream just won’t taste the same now that I’ve tasted perfection.

VENICE

Sunday, we (Chiara, Abigail, me, and Chiara’s friend Kavita) boarded a train bound for Venice. Abigail and I could hardly contain our excitement. While it was our first time in Italy ever, Chiara and Kavita had been to Venice before, albeit when they were relatively young.

On the train, we made the acquaintance of several hilariously funny and interesting American guys who were also bound for Venice. Their jokes and side-splitting conversation with us made the 3-ish hour train ride pass pleasantly speedily. The first thing we heard the funniest American guy (Rhett) say was, “I need some napkins or something, I’ve got a whipped cream situation here!”

His gelato, piled high with a mountain of whip cream, had toppled over and splattered whipped cream over Rhett’s luggage, shirt, and arm. As soon as he made the declaration of  a whip cream crisis, we couldn’t help but burst into giggles and hand him so tissues. From that point on, the interactions between us and the other Americans were hilarious and incredible. Point of the story being, talking to people on the train is certainly worth doing!

Our arrival in Venice was marked with squeals of excitement from Abi and I, with the Italian girls looking quite amused at our unrestrained outbursts of awe and astonishment. Our time in Venice was absolutely magical. Kavita and Chiara had planned a perfect itinerary of things to do, and so we were able to see St. Mark’s Basilica and square, the Doges Palace, the bridge of Sighs, Murano and Burano, and many other incredible landmarks and backs streets of Venice.

I must have eaten gelato every single day that I was there, because with the sun incessantly beating down on us from above, I easily understood why the Italians had perfected their gelato – by necessity! Abigail bought a selfie stick (don’t kill me for telling, Abi!!) and so we made the perfect tourists, lugging along a polaroid, a professional canon camera, and selfie sticks.

Tourists, blondes, and hot-blooded Italian males

The ironic thing is, even if we hadn’t brought along all the cameras and taken as many pictures, we still would have been identified as tourists, even with the Italian girls in our group. Why? Because of me.

As it turns out, blonde Italians are very rare, so every blonde is immediately identified as a tourist. I have never been approached so many men and stared after so unabashedly than I did while in Italy. I could constantly feel their eyes follow me while I walked down the streets. Men would come up to me in groups and ask me if I liked them, I received several “Ciao bella”s, and one guy was even so bold as to ask for a picture of my butt. I kid you not.

The most annoying part of being blonde in Italy? Hundreds of street vendors would immediately identify me as a tourist and shove their goods in my face. I was constantly fencing off street hawkers trying to sell me selfie sticks, and I was approached by nearly every street merchant that I passed. It was absolutely insane.

Regardless, I loved being in Italy, because it was quite frankly one of the most beautiful places I had ever had the immense pleasure of seeing in my life. My favorite moment in Venice, however, took place on the final night of our stay there.

Kavita had a friend who was studying art in Venice, who had a Venetian friend, and this guy happened to have a boat. So, the four of us, Kavita’s friend, and the Venetian all piled into his boat at around 12am for a midnight boat ride through the back canals of Venice.

What a magical experience. With Italian music playing from the Venetian’s phone, he navigated through the canals of Venice, showing us a part of the city that few tourists ever see. For several hours, we explored Venice at night, discovering Venice on a whole new level. Finally, at 3:30am, we made it back to our hotel and collapsed into bed, wholly content, falling asleep with wistful smiles on our faces.

ROME

The next morning, we bid farewell to Chiara and Kavita. They had to return to school, and so Abigail and I pushed onward to Rome solo. The 8-hour bus ride, paired with our complete lack of sleep the night before, caused us to pass out on the bus for the majority of the ride. How unfortunate, because we missed many breathtaking vistas and mountains right outside our windows.

I remember how, when we were about 2 hours into the drive, I woke up to the most lush, green, picturesque scenery I’d ever seen in my life. Abi later told me that this area was Tuscany, and oh how I wish we’d had time to go there. Nothing, no words can adequately describe this country.

Our first night in Rome was, in a word, sketchy. This was entirely my own fault. I hadn’t looked enough into the hostel I booked, and only once we reached there did I discover my error. First of all, it was more of a campsite than a youth hostel. Second, it was at least 50 minutes by train from the center of Rome, and finally, the shuttle that picked us up from the train station sounded as though it must have been in the final stages of a deadly car cancer. The piece of junk sounded like it might just fall apart right under our feet.

Needless to say, we did not wish to stay there, and so we booked a B&B in the center of Rome as soon as we could and headed there the next morning.

After our unfortunate first night in the sketch campsite, however, our stay in Rome took a complete 180 for the better. Rome was everything I had dreamed of and more. Pictures and books do not do the city justice. We walked around the city until our feet hurt and blistered, and then we walked some more. Although our bodies protested against our eagerness, our eyes could not take in enough of the everlasting city.

We both threw a coin in the Trevi fountain to secure our return someday in the future. We entered countless churches and basilicas, blown away every time by the extravagance and majesty that we saw there. When we went to the Vatican, I finally saw a sight that my heart had desired for years; the Sistene chapel caused my heart to overflow as I took in the mighty, vibrant works of Michelangelo. When I entered St. Peter’s basilica, nothing could have prepared me for what I would see there. How can you adequately describe something that even the eyes can’t fully comprehend? Even now, thinking back to that church, I can’t even being to write down everything that I saw. The basilica has the power to overwhelm the mind and thrust the observer into a state of deep and unrelenting awe.

Rome is a dish best chewed slowly, savoring each morsel over a length of time so as to fully appreciate the taste and not overwhelm the senses. With as rushed as our 3-day sojourn to Rome was, Abi and I would retreat to our B&B daily mentally and physically exhausted, but pleased to be so. When I return, I want at least 4 days there in order to fully see and appreciate every aspect of the glorious city.

Turns out I’m not so healthy after all.

Our last day in Rome was marked with a near tragedy. I am (or should I say, was?) proud to boast that I’m a totally fit individual, with no serious or minor health problems, no allergies, nada. I’ve never had to worry about when a cat enters the room, the flu is the worst disease I’ve ever contracted, and I’d never been so seriously wounded as to need to go to the hospital. My entire schema of personal health was flipped upside down that last day in Rome.

We were heading to the Catacombs of Callixtus, the place where Christians would hide and pray during persecution. We were both very excited to see such an important place. Walking there, since we both were reluctant to pay for a bus, took over an hour. The entire day, I had been sneezing and blowing my nose. I assumed it was just the springtime pollen assailing my sinuses.

I had filled up on tissues at bathrooms along the way as my sneezing and running nose continued unabated by time. At some point, my eyes started watering, but not severely, and I assumed it was just the wind drying out my eyes.

It was when we reached that final hill, the final stretch of our trek, that I began to feel severely and deeply wrong. My eyes were watering to the point the I could barely see, and they were stinging so badly that I just wanted to curl into a ball and close my eyes. My nose was running to the point that I had to hold a tissue constantly to my nose. And my arm was itching like crazy.

I didn’t know what was happening. I’d never had allergies, never had anything serious happen. How was I to know? Abigail had voiced concern for me several times along our walk but me, being the independent woman that I am, shrugged off my condition, insisting that I was absolutely fine. I felt that I could totally push through it long enough to reach the catacombs, and then I would be totally fine. Mind over matter, right?

When we finally reached the catacombs, I immediately rushed into the bathrooms to deposit all of my used tissues into the bin and blow my nose until I felt like I might just blow my brains out. I felt absolutely terrible. Stumbling over to the mirror, I take a look at myself and stare in shock.

My cheeks were stained and wet from the incessant tears that had spilled from my eyes and I looked pale everywhere except for my flushed cheeks. Most shocking, though, were my eyes. They were completely red. There was hardly any white left. I looked absolutely ghostly.

I threw my sunglasses on and walked out of the bathroom, certain that it wasn’t as serious as I feared. When I reached Abigail, who had been waiting patiently on a bench near the ticket office, she looked at me and immediately could tell something was wrong. I decided that I just didn’t feel well enough to go into the catacombs, told her to go without me. She was debating it when I immediately had to rush into the bathroom again, my eyes flooding over with tears and my nose running faster than my tissues could absorb. My arm itched terribly.

Abi followed me, truly concerned now. “I’m fine” I insisted stubbornly, even as I threw water on my face to cool down my flushed cheeks. “See? The water helped. I’m fine.” I declared stolidly. I reached down to scratch my arm again, but it felt weird. When I looked down to see, I immediately knew that I was indeed not fine at all.

Hives had broken out across the inside of my elbow and had swollen my arm to twice its normal size. I gasped. “I-I’m having an allergy attack,” I said disbelievingly. Abigail and I immediately began trying to find allergy medicine, asking other tourists and the ticket salespeople, but no one had so much as a Benadryl. I decided to call my mom, the hands-down expert on allergies.

As soon as I told her, she told me to call an ambulance, to go to the hospital. I freaked out when I hung up. My arm was continuing to swell. I struggled to see through the tears.

Fortunately, another ambulance had already been called for another guy who had fallen and busted his chin open. The tour guides allowed me to sit in their office, away from whatever it was outside that triggered the allergy attack, and there I struggled not to hyperventilate as I considered my situation. I was truly afraid that I was going to die.

Looking back now, maybe it wasn’t so severe as that. At the time, however, all I could think of was my neck swelling and my throat closing up, and so I was carefully monitoring my breathing, doing a self analysis on how I felt to reassure myself that, at least for the moment, my breathing was steady.

God was surely with me, because a lady who worked in the office came up to me with Cortisone, and my dad’s friend – a dermatologist – told me to immediately take the drug. I’m pretty sure that those two little pills saved me.

I went to the hospital, but the swelling had gone down, my eyes returned to normal, and my nose stopped running, so I was discharged with a prescription for more Cortisone and a clean bill of health. Even now, I don’t know what triggered the allergic reaction in me, but I can only pray that I never encounter it again.


TIME TO STUDY!

Sorry for the massive blog post, I guess that’s what happens when you slack off and try to pack 2 weeks of incredible traveling into one post!

If you ever have money and a desire to travel but can’t decide where to go, I would emphasize with all my heart to go to Italy. It might ruin you for travel anywhere else since nothing I’ve seen can quite compare with the magnificence of Italy, but if you’re willing to take that risk, then absolutely go to Italy. I guarantee you won’t regret it.

Also, take some spare Benadryl or something with you. You might think you’re not allergic to anything, but it’s definitely better to be safe than sorry.

Yay I’m still alive! Ciao for now…
K ❤

P.S. – Pics below for those who are interested!

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