Remembering kindness

Reorganizing some of my files, I came across an article I had written over a year and a half ago, attempting to sum up my study abroad experiences for a writing contest. Having written on the topic of the “kindness of strangers” on more than one occasion, I thought I would share this short, but heart-warming little piece.

The Kindness of Strangers

There are many times in any given day when I think back to my semester spent abroad in Verona, Italy. As most people will tell you who have studied abroad, it is one of the greatest times of their lives, and one of the most rewarding. They are always more than happy to tell you some of their ridiculous stories, and even embarrassing moments. I have a fair share of stories of my own. But those are not the stories I want to share here. What I would rather talk about now are the times when it got hard, when I was down and lonely, wishing that I could just go home. It is at these times that I experienced the kindness of strangers. And so, I have a number of short stories to share, that together paint a picture of a kind and generous world. Although these people are no longer strangers to me, I was a stranger to them, and their kindnesses to me were always more than I expected.

Our group had only been in Verona for a month, a blur of activity and intensive Italian classes. Routine was starting to set in. But in early February my close friend Shannon decided to go on a weekend trip to visit a friend in Spain, and I didn’t know what to do by myself for an entire weekend. I thought it was going to be the worst weekend ever, I felt so lonely. After a long afternoon of Friday classes, and all my classmates talking about their weekend plans, I was soon in a melancholy mood. With nothing else to do, I wandered into a café I had visited once before with Shannon. I asked the bartender for a red wine, and sat down to have a pity party for myself. Except that the bartender Marco recognized me and started talking to me. As I thought about it later, I think he saw I was lonely, and tried his best to cheer me up.  He told me my Italian was good, that I was clever, and introduced me to all of his friends. They invited me to dinner and to a soccer game, and it eventually turned out to be one of my best weekends in Verona.

As the weather began to get warmer, I was planning several trips around Italy and decided I wanted to go to Rome for a weekend for my 21st birthday. My roommate Aline, who is from the Netherlands, felt adventurous enough to accompany me. She is generally a quiet and studious girl like me, but we each have our moments. We got along very well, but this was our first time traveling together. We got an early start on sightseeing Saturday morning and went to the Colosseum (of course), the Roman Circus, the Pantheon, and Castel Sant’Angelo.  As the latter place is right down the street from St. Peter’s Basilica, that was of course our next stop. By this time it was getting close to dinner-time, and the light was beginning to sink behind the colossal structure of the church. As we sat in the piazza admiring the scene, a feeling of homesickness came over me. As I wrote in my journal, “I’m in Italy, I’m sitting in front of St. Peter’s, it’s my 21st birthday, but I really just want to be home with my family. I started to cry and Aline hugged me and just made it ok.” And we sat together watching the people and the pigeons move around us.

I got more accustomed to life in Verona over time, and started to meet more people. On the suggestion of a friend back home, I found a tiny protestant Christian church to attend, just one room of a shop front in a quiet back street. I started going to Sunday services and bible study during the week. I made friends with the people as best as I could, with my limited Italian. One sweet old lady would talk endlessly to me about the weather and her children and grandchildren. Oftentimes I couldn’t understand what she was saying, and so I would just nod politely and she would take that as a sign to keep talking, in her slow, soothing voice, resting her hand on my arm. I got accustomed to the people, and they welcomed me in, but I rarely spoke up since my Italian was so poor. In early April I had both my wallet and my camera stolen from my purse. Without any credit cards or money, I was in a tight spot, and had to cancel a weekend trip I had planned to visit Prague. And so, I went to church on Sunday as usual. When I mentioned to someone that my wallet had been stolen, the pastor gave me almost $250 from the church’s funds in order to tide me over. They expected nothing in return and neither did they ask about it again, although I quietly repaid my debt later. And so I found God in this tiny church.

Of course there were other instances where strangers helped me or befriended me, and enriched my experience of the city, the country and its culture. And each instance touched me in ways that are difficult to describe. These disconnected stories remind me of how the kindness of strangers supported me, and gave me an experience I will take with me the rest of my life.

I disappeared for 3 months…

I know that I haven’t written a post since March. Perhaps I gave up on it a little? But so much has still been going on that I intended to write about. Here’s to good intentions.

At the end of March I performed in the Triton Troupers Circus, my first circus performance ever. Just a few days later I boarded a plane for a 2 week trip I had planned to Europe, which incidentally turned into a 3 week vacation! I went to the Netherlands for a week, and to Italy for a week, to visit my old friend and roommate Aline. I think I wanted to make sure I could still do all that travelling by myself.

GertJan, Noortje and I

Re-visiting Verona, my study abroad home for 4 months was unbelievably amazing. Aline and I stayed with our old land lady and her family and spent those days eating, drinking and reminiscing.

Anna, Enrico and I

On my way home something unexpected happened. A volcano erupted on Iceland, and suddenly what supposed to be a 2 hour layover in London became an 8 night stay! Making the best of a bad situation, I saw all of London and stayed with a Couchsurfer named William in the Notting Hill neighborhood. I made it back home to Chicago just in time for my 23rd birthday!

And for the past 2 months I’ve been busy at circus practice getting ready for my 2nd performance ever. Over the 4th of July weekend we performed at the Naperville Ribfest, and some of my friends and family were able to come see the show. Among other things, I’m also trying to keep up with couchsurfing, other volunteering, and soon making a decision about grad school in the fall. Life is full, just the way I like it!

Naperville Ribfest, me on the lyra

Sean and I before show.

Verona: Vinitaly, the wines of Italy

This April I will be attending Vinitaly, an international wine and spirits exhibtion in the beautiful city of Verona, Veneto region of Italy. What could be better?

Held in the Verona soccer stadium, the exhibits are divided up by the regions of Italy, with the Veneto and Tuscany boasting the largest exhibits. The wine show has been going on for 42 years, adding other spirits along the way, like the Italian liquor grappa (I was never fond of it, but you have to try it to see if you like  it).

Besides boasting some of the best wines in the world, Verona is an elegant and charming city, and a UNESCO world heritage site (see my previous article on “3 Perfect Days in Verona“). Hoping for warm weather, and expecting great wines.

Vinitaly - That's a lot of wine...

photo taken by Aline Wetzelaer

Currently Reading: Not That Kind of Girl

A New Jersey girl raised in the evangelical church grows up, goes off to college, then to NY, constantly struggling with her faith, ambition and desires. I identify with a lot of the things she says, and the desperate struggle for a coming-of-age.

Day 3: 3 Perfect Days in Verona

Day Three:

On your last day in Verona you intend to soak up the sun as much as possible. After your now usual morning cappuccino, head towards the quietly beautiful Piazza San Zeno, only a brisk ten minute walk.  Turn the corner around Castelvecchio and take the steps to the sidewalk above street-level. Linger to enjoy the beautiful Adige River, and if the sky is clear, glimpse the mountains to the north.IMG_0024

Stop at the tiny grocery store, Fresca Mia, on Via Barbarani and pick up some tasty items for a picnic in the park. Walk your way through a series of mini piazzas until you see the Basilica di San Zeno on your right. Feel free to step inside the church which is named after the patron saint of Verona.  This church is home to a pair of 11th century decorated bronze doors, and the San Zeno Triptych by Renaissance artist Andrea Mantegna.

This side of town is quieter but has an enchantingly local feel, where old men sit at the same outdoor café day after day. Take the short walk towards the city walls, cut through by a modern street and an ancient gatehouse. Walk up into the park to enjoy a view of the city, and the mountains beyond. Now simply part of the city landscape, you’ll find the park occupied by joggers, dog walkers and families. Find a park bench to dive into your picnic lunch, and savor the fresh air. When you’ve had your fill, it’s time to head back to the bustling city center.

You’ve passed by several times, but now you are ready to tackle the Torre dei Lamberti, the tower that dominates the center of town. Full of history, this is the court of the Tribune, and the only Renaissance staircase still remaining in the city. You’ll find it just off of Piazza dei Signori where you can get your picture with the statue of the Italian poet Dante, always recognizable by his overly large nose.

Verona- Venezia- Vittorio Veneto 106Below ground, the history buff can see more ruins of the original foundations around the complex, or peruse the current contemporary art show at the Centro Internazionale di Fotografia. The center exhibits internationally recognized photographers from Italy, the US, and across the world. Just around the corner are the tombs of the Scaligeri, the ruling family in Verona in the 14th century. They became rich making ladders, a symbol which is found in their family crest.

Though the Duomo is Verona’s crown jewel, the quirky Church of Sant’Anastasia is its largest. Under construction during the time of the famous Scaligeri family, the building’s façade was never completed. If the organ player is practicing, you will be blessed with the enormous organ singing a sweet but powerful song.  After all that sightseeing, a siesta is in order, so head back to your hotel for a quiet nap before dinner.

Dinner tonight is at the Antica Bottega del Vin, an upscale restaurant just a few blocks off of Piazza delle Erbe. Take the suggestion of the waiter and pair an excellent bottle of red wine with one of their famous local dishes. Top off your meal with an espresso because the night is still young. Walk off dinner with a stroll down to the river, making your way towards the lively university neighborhood. Just down Via XX Settembre you’ll find the amusingly familiar Campus Pub. With Guinness posters hanging from the walls, and large wooden tables, this feels like a pub straight from England, but don’t let it fool you. The young Italians come here to drink and socialize, barhopping until late in the night.

Excerpt Day 2: Three Perfect Days in Verona

Day Two:

Your second day in Verona dawns rosy on ancient monuments. You are ready to tackle the day after getting your coffee fix at the Cappa Café, a cozy joint with a bohemian feel.

With that jumpstart to your day, you head a few blocks north to Verona’s Duomo. The Romanesque exterior, and a breathtaking expanse of columns and chapels inside are meant to impress, as this is the city’s main cathedral. Light a candle if you like, and take a moment to ponder Titian’s famous Assumption of the Virgin, located in a chapel towards the back of the church.Duomo

A short walk back towards the river and you’ll find Verona’s oldest surviving bridge, Ponte Pietra, simply meaning ‘stone bridge’. An original Roman construction, the bridge was rebuilt by residents even after its destruction during WWII.  A plaque is inscribed with words from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in both Italian and English. “There is no world without Verona walls” it reads, a true statement for those who have come to love the dear city.

Crossing the bridge, the Teatro Romano comes into view, a Roman amphitheater home to the Museo Archeologico, built right into the grassy hill. Walking up the steps of the amphitheater, imagine the performances and how it looked 2000 years ago. The rooms inside the museum are crammed full of Roman artifacts, enormous columns and tiny oil lamps alike.

Though it’s time for lunch, you’re still in a Roman frame of mind. Head for a street café near the river on Via Leoni, where you can enjoy a panino, a simple sandwich, in the sunshine. All along this thoroughfare, the ruins of ancient city walls rise up from the middle of the street.giardino

Refreshed and ready for more, the afternoon is full of inspiring views for the camera-happy traveler. Cross the river at the Ponte Navi, and head to the Giardino Giusti for a stroll in a Renaissance garden. Italians are fans of a sophisticated garden with hedges and fountain statues though, admittedly, modern Italians don’t have much more than a balcony flowerbox. Climb up to the higher terrace and admire the multiple towers that dot Verona’s skyline.

castelloAs many locals will agree, the best view of the city can be found from atop the Castel San Pietro. Take the street back north to the river, where you’ll climb the stairs to the left of the theater. Street names aren’t helpful since this same road changes name every block, a phenomenon of Italian city planning. Climb the steps to the castle where friends and lovers sit and chat, perhaps waiting for the sun to sink towards the horizon. Once again, feel the Italian way of life calling for you to slow down.

Do as the Italians do and head back to Piazza delle Erbe for a spritz aperol, an orange colored white wine cooler that is extremely popular before dinnertime. Look around and notice everyone has ordered the same thing. The locals, after all, are creatures of comfort and enjoy the habit of a drink before dinner. Head back to your hotel to rest and get spruced up for tonight.

For a romantic hilltop dinner, visit the classy Piper Bar & Restaurant overlooking the city. Order the Gnocchetti Patate con Scampi for a little seafood paired with Verona’s favorite pasta made from potatoes.  Linger to enjoy the sassy contemporary atmosphere and the twinkling lights of the city below. With a drink list just as long as the menu itself, you’ll be prepped to head to Verona’s hottest nightclub just down the street, Alter-Ego. The young stylish crowd spreads out through several rooms and outdoor patios.  You’ll surely be dancing until the wee hours.

Excerpt: Day 1 of “3 Perfect Days in Verona”

Verona: A Gem off the Beaten Path

Rachel Smith

Verona is a pleasant mix of old Roman history and modern Italian culture, located about halfway between Milan and Venice.  It is a relaxing but vibrant alternative to more conventional destinations, and is easy to reach by train or plane. The historic city of Verona in northern Italy is best known as the home of Romeo and Juliet. Couples and tourists alike can stand on Juliet’s balcony, rub her statue’s breast for luck in love, and scrawl their own names in love graffiti on their way out. But there is far more to Verona than this tourist spectacle.  For a true Italian cultural experience Verona is the place to go.

Day One:

Just off a grand piazza in the heart of Verona’s historic city center stands an unimposing building with quaint green shutters, the Hotel Bologna. Traces of an ancient fresco, and flower bedecked balconies are everything one might expect from an old Italian inn. Start your first day with breakfast in the hotel’s attached Restaurant Rubiani. Sitting at one of the outdoor patio tables with a view of the Roman Arena and a frothy cappuccino in hand, you’ll begin to understand why Italians enjoy a slower pace of life.

spring break 022

You’ve been dying to see it ever since you got here, so walk out into the open air piazza with its crowning jewel, the Roman Arena. At one time, Verona was a major trading city in the Roman Empire, and this stadium was constructed outside what were then the city walls. Today it marks the center of town, or il centro, in the middle of the pedestrian-friendly Piazza Brà.

This is the perfect place for sitting and people watching, an activity Italians take seriously.  There is far more to see in Verona, so when exiting the piazza head up Via Roma towards the river, enjoying the old world cobblestoned streets. Castelvecchio, or the Old Castle, looms before you, a gothic fortress built by Verona’s ruling family in the Middle Ages. A bridge extends out over the River Adige where one can peer between the imposing battlements for a peek at the rushing water below. Right next door is the Arco dei Gavi, a Roman arch now covered in modern graffiti like so many other ancient monuments. Graffiti is an Italian word for a reason.

Back on the main street, meander towards the ancient city gate Porta Borsari, once the entrance to Roman Verona. Around the next corner is restaurant San Matteo, the doorway practically hidden in a small stone courtyard. This former church was converted into a restaurant that now boasts one of the longest pizza menus in town, including the popular quattro stagioni , or four seasons. Each quarter of the pizza has its own ingredients including fresh mozzarella, tomato, artichokes, mushrooms, cooked ham, and black olives. Check out the book-sized menu by the door, since you’ll be returning here for dinner.


Continuing down the main drag past all the high-end shops like Prada and Mariella Burani, you’ll come upon another large square. With an altogether different vibe, Piazza delle Erbe is the hangout for a younger crowd, and also the place to buy your knick knacks and souvenirs. Stop at one of the many outdoor cafes for a light lunch and savor the bustle of people against a backdrop of frescoed walls and ancient stone facades. A column with a lion capital stands at the north end of the square, a symbol of Venetian rule.

Since Romeo and Juliet are this city’s namesakes, the Casa di Giulietta is a tourist’s most obligatory stop in Verona. Entering the gate of the Capulet house, you’ll perhaps be surprised to find the walls covered in love graffiti, full of names and hearts. Inside the small courtyard stands a small statue of Juliet. Get your picture rubbing her breast for good luck in love, or smiling from her stone balcony just above.

Now begins an afternoon of serious shopping. The crowded, pedestrians-only thoroughfare Via Mazzini is the place to see and be seen, and contains Verona’s trendiest shops. And as the city of love there is no end to lingerie stores; Intimissimi is Italy’s answer to Victoria’s Secret. While away the afternoon in high style, being sure to stop for a gelato and shamelessly check out what everyone else is wearing. Take Via Mazzini all the way back to Piazza Bra and drop off your purchases at your hotel.

Italy 003

Dinner tonight at the San Matteo restaurant is an education in what pizza should be. Surprising even yourself, you can manage to eat an entire pizza, and still have room for dessert. The waiter may tempt you to try some limoncello after your meal, a popular lemon flavored liquor made in southern Italy. The after dinner passeggiata, or a walk around town, makes for the perfect end to a delightful meal. A glass of wine in Piazza Bra, and you’ll wish this dreamy night could last forever.

My First Printed Article: Italian Meetup

Since March of this year, the Oak Brook Italian Language Group has met once a month at the Panera Bread by the Oak Brook Shopping Center to share in their common love of Italian. Attendance at these meetings has steadily grown, doubling from five to ten at their meeting just this past week. As a part of the online networking site, The Oak Brook Italian Language Group is one of many active social and special interest groups from the website that meet in the Chicago suburbs.

Wednesday’s evening meeting at Panera brought together an interesting mix of people from the area, all interested in improving their language skills in Italian. Skill levels varied from the nervous beginner to the nearly fluent, and all had unique connections to Italian culture, whether through family, travel, or purely for enjoyment. Beginners in Italian listened in on multiple conversations, but inevitably, a more advanced speaker might coax them out of their shell. “If you don’t try because you’re afraid, you’ll never learn” said one member Pete Falco. Having studied language and Italian literature in school, Pete joined the group in hopes of maintaining his Italian.

For other members, this group may serve to help them practice what they’ve learned in class or on vacation. Many members have had the wonderful opportunity to travel in Italy, and meeting up with Italian speakers once a month is a great way to reminisce and share their experiences. Or on the other hand, many have Italian-American relatives and have grown up in that culture. One member said “If you miss Italy and want to speak Italian, this is the group for you. You will feel right at home, as if you are with friends in Italy”.

Not to scare off those whose language skills are rusty, there is always room for conversation in English. The point is to practice and improve, but also to enjoy conversation with new people. But as the saying goes, practice makes perfect! The next meeting is set to take place on July 8th at 6:30pm, at Panera Bread, 1600 16th St in Oak Brook.

Oak Brook Italian Language Group