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When signing up for study abroad in Italy, one might imagine white-marbled cities with extravagant pagan monuments on every street. However, this is quite the opposite. I was unrealistically expecting to visit Rome and see a city untouched after 2,000 years of existence. Don’t get me wrong, the Italians appreciate their historic buildings, such as the Coliseum and the Pantheon, yet the cities continued to grow and evolve, just like any other city, right beside their historic treasures. For three weeks, I traveled with eighteen Honors College students across Italy to numerous basilicas, villas, and piazzas. We went to Rome, Tivoli, Herculaneum, Assisi, Florence, Pisa, Venice and Siena.

Our eight-hour flight to Rome began with a complimentary glass of wine and a choice of forty-plus free movies! Upon arrival, I quickly learned Italians haven’t bought into the American idea of a balanced diet and weekly exercise. Breakfast is primarily a cornetto (croissant-like pastry) and a steaming cappuccino, while lunch and dinner are either pasta or pizza. Snack time is a gelato (Italian ice cream) around siesta, which is their midday nap. In the entire country, I only saw one gym – not that I’m complaining. A vacation from healthy eating and running in the Texas sun? I’ll take it! Besides, all the walking we did should count as exercise, right?

Typically thoughts of Rome always include the Coliseum. It truly is as impressive I imagined. Pompeii also has a big tourist draw but our professors took us instead to Herculaneum, what they referred to as the “secret counterpart.” The joke that one could dig anywhere in Italy and find some ancient ruins, which was exactly how Herculaneum was found. Herculaneum was hit second by Mount Vesuvius, after Pompeii, and was covered in mud until modern day residents were digging for a well happened upon it. Some of the most visually stunning places we visited were the Villa Adriana, Villa d’Este, and Villa Borghese. Villa Adriana was the 250-acre home for the Emperor Hadrian, his wife and his male lover. The Villa d’Este is a breathtaking, multi-leveled garden with statues and marble stolen from the Villa Adriana. Villa Borghese resembles an over-sized version of Central Park.

Most of our free time in Italy was spent eating gelato and visiting the open markets. We even had a roof-top picnic of spaghetti, fresh tomatoes, market mozzarella, strawberries, cherries, gelato, wine and limoncello. It was one of the best bonding experiences we had there.

Being in Italy was definitely a change in culture. No free water, no split checks (my mental math is impeccable now), no free public restroom, nothing open past seven o’clock and drivers who don’t stay in one lane. But the beauty of the Italian countryside, the rich history, and the laissez-faire way of life is a great getaway from the constant “go” in America. Even since being back, I find myself missing my afternoon menta gelato and being able to grab a pizza from a café. I am extremely grateful for the experience I had and the memories I made.

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