Culture Shock: Call a Spade a Spade

Today was supposed to be my great adventure to Milan. It’s fashion week in the fashion capital. I was so excited to shop! Shopping isn’t typically something I enjoy doing, but I desperately need some clothes. I seriously under-packed for three months in Italy!

(Side story: I once met a guy working at Trader Joe’s in Los Angeles. For some reason, we got on the subject of shopping, and I told him I don’t actually like it. The spending money on things, the crowds of people, the amount of energy and time it makes just are not my thing. He told me he had never met a woman who does not like shopping. Well, we exist!)

Today’s great shopping and travel adventure came to a great screeching halt. This weekend’s weather forecast was rain, ice, and snow. So not the most conducive travel conditions, but I already purchased my train ticket to Milan. (And I don’t believe in wasting money!) I woke up at 5:30 to catch the 6:30 train, only to discover that my train never showed. It didn’t read “Cancellato” on the train schedule. It just literally did not show up at all.

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Empty 6:30 a.m. train tracks

Luckily, there was a woman waiting for the same train who spoke English. We concluded the train never passed by, and she asked a station worker in Italian what happened. My interpretation of his body language was that he had no clue either. I came back to the station to try again for the 8:30 a.m. train (remember, ticket already purchased!), and the same thing happened. Some trains read “Cancellato,” and others just weren’t coming at all.

A couple hours later, my host dad had to pick me up from a cold (non-insulated) train station at Cavallermaggiore. (I did not get very far on my adventure.) We found out later the train workers are on strike today and tomorrow, and finally, all my travel dilemmas made sense.

Today was frustrating. And that’s okay, completely and 100 percent okay.

It wasn’t my best day. That’s life though. We have good days and bad days. They each bring different emotions with them.

Honesty moment: I have a tendency to stuff emotions. The emotions I deem good, i.e. courage, love, excitement, happiness, I love to share, talk about and express. Then, there are other emotions, like fear, anger, frustration and sadness, that my head automatically labels as bad. You should not feel that! You have to hide that emotion. Today, I was frustrated as I stood in a cold train station for a few hours waiting for a train that would never come. I was cold. I was hungry. I was confused. My inability to speak the language only added to my frustration. And that’s just fine. I was frustrated.

It is important to let emotions run their course. Instead of labeling them as good or bad and trying to curb them based on that label, maybe it’s good to just let them be. Maybe by allowing emotions to breathe, we give ourselves room to process them and respond to them in a healthy way.

When we started our teaching program, several of the World Education Program (WEP) coordinators explained to us teacher assistants that we would experience culture shock throughout our time in Italy. I have had lots of ebbs and flows of this emotion in the last week or two. I realize that culture shock is not necessarily good or bad. It just is. It’s a fact of life and a part of travel and being in a different culture.

Today, I experienced culture shock as I could not communicate with the people working at the station nor quite understand why my train wasn’t coming. I have experienced it when trying to process cultural differences, like whether to smile or not smile at strangers (like I do in America), the different meal times, and the structure of family life.

Identifying an emotion and just calling it what it is helps to process it. I knew traveling abroad would bring its own set of curve balls. I did not know what they would be, but I was up for the challenge. I’m currently just trying to have the courage to not hide under my covers and watch Netflix all day (but even days like these are probably normal and necessary.) A bad day back home in L.A. usually means workout, make a good meal and watch a movie. So perhaps in Italy, I just need to find my own tools to respond to hard days.

Also, I’d like to add my entire weekend wasn’t terrible. I got to explore a small town called Saluzzo, and I went to a bookstore (my favorite place!) with a friend. I had my first Italian hot chocolate (they’re different from America’s- just trust me!), and we sat and looked at kids’ books. I am trying to work on my Italian as much as possible. I bought Finding Nemo in Italian!

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Here’s to calling out emotions when you experience them and not labeling them as good or bad. As a twenty-something, one of the most important parts of adulting I have found is knowing how to be authentic and owning one’s emotions. Call a spade a spade. Call a thing a thing. Today was just a reminder in that.

With hope,
Stevie

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The Power in Being Yourself

My first day of teaching classes in Italy was last Thursday. If I could pick one word for it, I’d say nerve-wracking!

I am teaching English at the high school in Bra, a city of about 30,000 people in northwest Italy. In and of itself, it is a daunting task- teaching English to non-native speakers without a teaching background or any proficiency in Italian myself. Yet, here I am, ready to take on the challenge. I’m always up for a challenge.

One of the English teachers (or professors as they call them here in Italy) gave me some good advice on my first day. She told be to just be myself and to speak English. Be myself. What a concept?! I have learned this lesson before, the importance of being yourself and how there’s an ease, a confidence and a simplicity in just being you.

Back in college (aaah the yester years!), I was in a beauty pageant. Think Miss America or Miss Universe but on a much smaller scale for university students. While I don’t consider myself a beauty pageant type of gal, the prize for the winner was a $1,000 scholarship. Sign me up! As soon as I found out that scholarship money was involved, I was all about it. I was paying for college on my own so I was always looking for scholarship opportunities (but what average college kid isn’t looking for money to pay for school?!)

The categories were interview, opening dance number, swimsuit, evening gown and on stage question. Contestants had a few months to prepare leading up to the big day. I got a new one-piece swimsuit, borrowed a gown from a friend and practiced my answers to all the questions. I was prepared but still nervous (really nervous).

The night before my pageant I got the news that a friend of mine had won a different pageant that she was competing in. I was so happy for her but also not surprised at all. My friend was kind, smart, beautiful and well-spoken. Of course, she won her pageant. I had no doubt that she would.

Then, I paused.

Why did I not have the same confidence in myself that I had in my friend? Why was I so certain that my friend could win but I was uncertain that I was capable of doing the same? Why didn’t I believe in myself?

The realization was eye-opening. From that moment, I made a deal with myself. I would just be me. I promised that I would not try to outshine the other women in the competition or mimic their talents or beauty. I would simply be myself and own that. I would be confident in my gifts and abilities, and I would own my weaknesses. I would bring this confidence to the table. I would be myself, freely, wholly, authentically, and I would trust that it was enough.

Twenty-Something Advice (for Anyone): “Be yourself- freely, wholly, authentically- and trust that it is enough.”

I ended up winning the pageant. When I think back on it, I know that my changed perspective is what helped me win. For one of the first times I can remember, I believed in myself. I decided that me, just as I was, was enough. I didn’t try to be anything or anyone else. I silenced the voices in my head that said who I was wasn’t enough.

So far in my time in Italy, I have found this wisdom to be true- to just be myself. Otherwise, what am I doing? I have strengths and weaknesses, but I am always open to learning, growing and improving. There’s beauty in my gifts and talents, and there is grace for the areas where I lack.

For my first week of classes, I did a Powerpoint presentation about myself and life in America. Since I have lived in five states in the United States, I thought it’d be a good way to teach them more about America by highlighting the differences throughout the country. The seemed to really enjoy the highlights of the states! I played a little Jay-Z and Alicia Keys to represent New York (because that’s a classic vibe.) I talked about country music and Oklahoma and the endless sun of California. They seemed most intrigued by the concept of Chicago deep-dish pizza and what hash browns are.

First day nerves at breakfast

My first few classes were harder to break the ice with. I wasn’t sure if they understood me or if I talked too slow or too much, but it got easier as the days went on. I realized if I just be myself, my teaching experience can be not only good, but fun!

That’s my plan for the rest of my time here- to just be me, 100 percent myself, to love that and own it. Having the confidence to be myself frees me, and I believe it may help someone else do the same.

With hope,
Stevie

A Taste of Italy: The Sweet and Salty

 

I’ve officially been in Italy for one week and four days. What a crazy 11 days it’s been.

At times, it’s been hard, tiring, overwhelming and stressful, but in the midst of all of that it’s been really, really good. I am not sure how good and difficult can coexist simultaneously, but it’s a part of this messy thing we call life. It just is. The hard things are sometimes the best things.

Last time I wrote was right before my big voyage, my flight from New York City to Istanbul to Milan. (Yes, this flight schedule is slightly backward since Istanbul is past Italy, but that’s the flight Turkish airlines selected for me!) In 36 hours, I got two hours of sleep, but when we landed in Milan, we had a two hour bus ride into Turin, and then, we went straight into the teachers’ assistant orientation. So basically, it was all go-go as soon as we touched down in Italy. We literally hit the ground running!

The teaching program I am a part of is under two organizations- the World Education Program (WEP) and Greenheart Travel. There are about 25 teacher assistants in my program from all over the world, mostly America but also from Australia, New Zealand, Germany, France and South Africa. The group was only together for a few days, but we quickly bonded over our similarities as Americans, as English speakers and as twenty-somethings. Our differences (between states, countries and ethnicities) sparked conversation and a lot of laughter. (The New Zealand teacher assistant asked a few of the Americans if Boston was in New York, and you would have thought he said a bad word. All the Americans gave him an adamant NO!)

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A few of the teachers assistants

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The joy and excitement of being in Italy with new friends experiencing this adventure together was briefly put on halt. On my second day in Turin, Italy, as the group of teachers assistant and I were headed back to our hostel, I was pickpocketed on the city bus. Frustration quickly turned into panic when I couldn’t get in touch with my parents in America for more than an hour to suspend my phone. (I was nervous my phone- which has my bank app on it- would be hacked into.)

If you have ever been robbed, then you know the feeling of helplessness and violation that overtakes you. One of the teacher’s assistants (Anna) stayed with me as I struggled to contact anyone back home in the states. It was comforting to have someone stand with me and help me figure out what to do.

All in all, getting your phone stolen in a foreign country really sucks, but it could have been worse. I wasn’t hurt, and my passport, money and credit cards were safe! My Italian host family was so concerned I’d think badly of Italy because of the experience. I smiled and told them I have lived in Los Angeles and New York City. Hence, I have seen it all, and I know that bad and good people exist everywhere, not just in Italy.

 

After orientation, on Friday afternoon our host families came to pick us up in Torino. All the teachers assistants nervously and excitedly parted ways to spread across the Piemonte region to our new temporary homes. My first full day in Bra (where I am living and working) was plagued by jetlag, but I managed to stay awake long enough for mealtime and to run a few errands around town.

Sunday and Monday, I spent my time in the Alps with my host family and their friends. I have never skied or snowboarded before. So instead I hiked with the parents. My host sister and her friends skied. Boy was that a workout. It was so hard climbing the mountain with all the layers and gear, but the view from the top? It was probably the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. All the sweating and shortness of breath was worth the destination.

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The Alps

Overall, the Italian people I have encountered so far are loving, welcoming and caring. Everyone instantly becomes like a mom or a brother or sister to you. There’s always someone looking out for your or ready to lend a helping hand or plate of pasta!

All in all, my time so far has been sweet and salty. Good and hard. It’s been fun and eye-opening meeting new people and learning about a different culture. It’s also been difficult being at a dinner table or in a room where you don’t understand the language everyone around you is speaking. Good and hard. Sweet and salty.

Isn’t that such a metaphor for life though? There will always be another mountain to climb, an obstacle to overcome, but the view on the other side is marvelous. I think what’s most important is how we choose to handle each mountain. We get to decide if and how we will face the hard things in life. We get to choose whether we will have the courage to keep putting one foot in front of the other.

Here’s to three months in Italy and a lot of putting one foot in front of the other!

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With hope,
Stevie

 

Just Passing Through: Lessons From a Cross-Country Trip

From Los Angeles to Minneapolis.

Minneapolis to Vermont.

Vermont to New York.

Next up, New York City to Turin, Italy.

So I did this crazy thing. I spent the last month traveling throughout the country visiting friends before a three-month trip to Italy. The past few weeks and days before my trip, I’ve been asked the same question: So how do you feel?

Honestly, I have been so busy traveling and wrapping up loose ends in Los Angeles, I haven’t had much time to think about Italy. Well, of course I have thought about it. More so, I have not had time to worry and over-analyze my trip to Italy. (Because I am really good at that.) I have my passport, flight numbers, a bag of clothes and an open mind headed into the trip. That’s all I need.

Thanks to old and new friends who welcomed me into their homes the past month, I also have a full heart and a rested soul. The sweetest part of my trip so far has been quality time with people. I spent the first two weeks in Minneapolis, at the coldest time of the year. Let me remind you, I live in Los Angeles. Although I may be a native northerner and have lived in Minneapolis before, blood thins people. Scientific fact. It really does.

My first words when I landed in the Twin Cities were, “It’s like real snow!” (Yea, so sometimes I don’t think before I speak.)

Luckily, my parents came through in the clutch, and they mailed me the winter coat I left behind when I was California dreamin’. Minnesota is still the same, cold and aesthetically beautiful. Oh and the Minnesota accents are still going strong! (Those over-pronounced a’s and o’s though? Gotta love a good Minnesotan accent.)

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Next up on my cross-country adventure was some time in Vermont. A friend moved to Burlington, VT a few years ago for a magazine position. What better time to see a new place and an old friend? Vermont was beautiful. Lots of snow and cold. If you like organic, grass-fed beef, then Vermont is the place for you. The vibe was outdoorsy, home-grown, evergreen tree lovin’, farmer-esque. The air is crisp. The sky is bright with stars at night, and the snow, well the snow is your picture-perfect winter post card.

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Last up, I boarded a Greyhound to the city that never sleeps. It’s been seven years since I moved out of New York. It is still the same bustling, dirty, crowded, in-your-face New York. I was surprised by how easily I picked up on navigating the subway. I even had an older lady ask for my help getting a Metro Card. Perhaps I seemed like a real New Yorker? (I was definitely wearing a Dodgers baseball cap though.)

It was a long month of travel, and it was so worth it. Most important were the people I got to spend time with. I won’t forget nervously laughing as my friends and I walked on a frozen lake in St. Paul. (Don’t worry. That’s a thing in Minneapolis. There were a ton of people and even free skates.)

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Walking on a frozen lake in St. Paul

I won’t forget the crazy snow storm that hit Minneapolis on the day I was supposed to fly out, how my flight got cancelled, and my friend Michelle and her husband opened their home to me. I literally came to her doorstep covered in snow, and she had hot cocoa and a warm dinner ready for me.

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The morning after the storm hit Minnesota

I won’t forget seeing Bernie Sanders in downtown Burlington. I freaked out, and my friends were completely calm. I won’t forget going to see The Post with my friend Lucy and a group of other journalism and media professionals and nerding out about the importance of journalism and the First Amendment. I was really excited! Moral of the story: Journalism is needed for checks and balances. (Didn’t your high school government class teach you anything? Watergate people!)

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Lake Champlain photo just moments before spotting Bernie Sanders

I won’t forget making it to NYC, taking the subway with a crap ton of luggage, and my friend’s mom and sister welcoming me into their home. They literally picked me up at the subway exit in Brooklyn in the pouring rain, and they had dinner ready for me when I walked in the door.

So far in my time away from my LA home, I have been reminded of one important thing: the value of people and human connection. Any house, city, or state can become home, but it only becomes home because of the people who make it that. I think back over the last month, of the hugs, the good heart to hearts, the home cooked meals, the laughter, the movie nights, and I think what I am most grateful for in all my travels is people. The people who give. The new and old friends who open their homes. The people who live with extended arms.

That’s the kind of person I want to be. One who opens her heart and home to new and old friends. One who always lights a candle for the traveler just passing through.

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The Dodgers hat came with me cross country

Stevie

P.S. Just because Minnesotans are super cute, I thought I’d add this quintessential Minnesota moment I spotted at a Trader Joe’s in St. Paul. Because #onlyinMinnesota.

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The Importance of Dreaming in Adulthood

Have you ever had that moment when you recall the words of a parent or adult in your life years later and you realize he or she was right? I’ve had these “ah-ha” moments numerous times. Keep your hands away from the stove. Don’t date that guy. Be careful of the company you keep. One moment stands out particularly.

It was my senior year of college, and I was home in Michigan for winter break. My uncle worked in Ann Arbor so I drove with him into town to visit friends at the University of Michigan’s campus.

On our ride home that night, we were talking about my college career and my plans to pursue a career in journalism and writing post graduation.  We talked about how the average salary for a journalist compared to that of other, more lucrative careers, and I told him how that didn’t matter to me. Writing was it for me. I just knew that it was what I was supposed to do.

Then, my uncle said the most profound words. (Drum roll please. The ah-ha moment is acomin’.) He said, “You are one of the lucky ones. You know what it is you are passionate about, and now, you get to spend the rest of your life doing that.”

21-year-old me didn’t quite understand what he meant, but his words stuck. They were there when I moved to Minneapolis, a city where I barely knew anyone, at 22 years old to work at a travel magazine. They’d come back years later when I moved to California without a job lined up. His words would ring in my head when I got laid off from my editorial assistant position almost a year later. His words would echo in my head whenever a new person would ask, “So what do you do?”

Writing is something I have always just done, and I absolutely love it. I wouldn’t want to live a life or pursue a career without passion. Money will come and go (like literally this happens. Just ask my bank account.) Yet, at the end of the day, I know I am truly blessed to get to do what I love.

Twenty-Something Advice (for Anybody): “Live a life of passion. Keep dreaming of the world you want to make.”

Living a life of passion propels me forward during uncertainty, struggles and loss. It helps me put one foot in front of the other even when I cannot see the full staircase. Knowing that I have a passion and using that gift for a purpose fuels me every day I wake up.

I have had to learn the hard way, no, I am in fact not what I do. I am not just a writer or a journalist. Writing is what I do, and I love it. Yet, it is not who I am. It is not my identity. Having this realization allows me to freely and passionately pursue a life of purpose using my gifts, writing being one of them, to make an impact on others.

As far as my uncle’s words, he gave me a new perspective on the importance of dreaming and living a life of passion. My uncle has worked at a job he hates for years. He explained to me how draining it was but how it paid well.  He talked to me about how his focus when he was in his twenties was making an income and how if he could, he’d go back and discover his passion. He instead pursued the good old, practical American dream, making a dollar.

I’ve always been of the mindset that if I persistently pursue the things I am passionate about and that I am good at, the money will come. It may not be easy, but dollar signs can’t be my motivation. I think a successful life is just as much about having your head in the clouds as it is about keeping your feet on the ground. You can be a realist and an optimist. You can be a dreamer while being practical.

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We shouldn’t allow practicality to overtake our dreams. I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was a little girl. I think my younger self would be pleased to see adult me walking that dream out. I recently found an old journal of mine from high school. I wrote down a list of life goals and dreams. A handful of them made me laugh, but a lot of them I was proud to say I had accomplished or I was working to accomplish.

One dream I had completely forgotten about, and there it was in my own handwriting from almost 10 years ago: Travel to Italy. I am headed to Italy for a three-month teaching assistant job in less than a week! Apparently, going to Italy was something I have been dreaming about for  a really long time. It was exhilarating to see myself accomplishing something I set out to do a long time ago.

What’s my point? I think in adulthood, we often get caught up in trying to make a living, buying the nice car, making a name for ourselves or just being practical that we forget to dream. We forget to live a life of passion. I never want to live like that. Even if they call be crazy, I want to be a dreamer. I want to be surrounded by other dreamers who are actively pursuing their passions despite the odds and the naysayers.

I hope your dreams keep you up at night. I hope they give your life color. Never stop passionately pursuing your purpose. Never settle for practical. After all, you’re never too old to dream again.

Stevie