Saturday, December 31, 2011

MN vs. Italy- a look back on 2011

I previously wrote about my greatest accomplishments on 2011, and now it’s time to look back and see how I’ve changed as a result of everything. For the past three and a half weeks I’ve been on a whirlwind trip of seeing family and friends in MN for the holidays. It was absolutely great to see everyone again and I’m so glad we took a long trip instead of the standard 7-10 days. Although, let me tell you… It was definitely a culture shock coming back to the states after living in Europe for 10 months. Living over seas really opens your mind to new things and makes you really think about the way you live your life.

For example:

DRIVING: Driving in Milan is a little crazy and it scared me at first. People drive really fast and there aren’t painted lines on the city streets. But after a while, I realized that everyone on the road (with a few exceptions) understands the rules of the road and are good drivers. The only difference is that people drive faster. When I arrived back in MN and drove for the first time, I got really nervous. People in Italy may drive fast, but at least they know the rules of the road!! It was my first experience back on the highway in MN and some person was driving 10 UNDER the speed limit in the left lane (frustrating? YES!). That lane should be for passing only and Italians understand that. A man also wouldn’t let me merge onto the highway even though I had the right of way. With my Italian driving skills working at their best, I honked at him. He just looked at me like I was crazy. And roundabouts… Minnesotans think they are a place to just stop and wait for everyone else to go. Traffic should move faster when there are roundabouts, not slower.

Ok, I’m venting a little bit. But really, the roads are a lot bigger in MN and there is a lot more room for error. As a result, people don’t pay attention like they do in Italy. We saw more accidents during our three weeks in MN than I have in our entire time living in Milan. My point- I feel safer driving in Italy than I do in MN (which is a sentence I never thought I would say!).

FOOD: Its official, I’ve become a food snob. What seemed so good before seems mediocre now. The produce in Milan is excellent and has opened my eyes to many foods that I didn’t like in Minnesota. Things like cherries, apricots, peaches, tomatoes, and so on. As a result, I’ve become a more adventurous eater and I’ve found so many great foods! I love it.

HUMOR: Italians have a great sense of humor and don’t take themselves too seriously. When I went home for the holidays it made me realize that Americans take themselves very seriously. Yes, we know how to have fun and will crack jokes every now and then, but it just isn’t the same light hearted feeling that I get from Italians. (Maybe I was too serious when I lived in MN?? And I’ve lightened up since moving to Italy?? This will have to be explored in 2012 when we return to MN again.)

BUSINESS: The way of doing business in Italy is definitely old school- seeing people face to face before building a relationship, being successful means you are in the “good ole boys club”, etc. But at the same time, they are very up front and direct. It’s very refreshing! In corporate America I’ve noticed that people tend to be too politically correct and sometimes don’t attack issues head on. People tend to skirt around issues instead of laying them out on the table to be solved. In Europe, they like to attack things head on and solve them. America is more “rah-rah!”- Let’s give everyone a pep talk.

SMOKING: It was so nice to be home and not have to smell cigarette smoke everywhere we went! Although, a lot of people that I know in MN smoke… But, coming home to Milan, I know I’m home because the smell of cigarettes is in the air.

Overall, living in Italy has really been an eye opening experience for me. I’ve become more tolerant of people and situations, and I feel that I’m more open to new possibilities. 2011 was a great year for learning new cultures, languages, and traveling to new places. Hopefully 2012 will bring the same kinds of opportunities that 2011 did. I absolutely love my life and am so grateful for all of the wonderful experiences we’ve had and the amazing people we have met. Let’s keep the good times going!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

My Top 5 Accomplishments of 2011

It's that time of year when the holidays are approaching and the "Top whatever ...." lists are starting. It just wouldn't be the same if I didn't add my own lists of 2011! Wow, when I think of how many things I've done this year it makes me tired! But at the same time, this has been a wonderful year and I wouldn't change anything! Looking back, there a few things that I have learned to love, and a few things that I have grown to miss (more on that later). But, looking at all of the things I have accomplished this year, I am pretty proud of myself for getting through the tough times, and persevering to get to the good times. Here is a list of my top 5 accomplishments:

1. Moving to Italy! Who would have ever thought that we would actually do it?!? Well, we did and it has been so wonderful in so many ways. Not only have we been blessed with many travel opportunities as a result, but it has also allowed Josh and I to become closer and learn more about each other. This move has not only opened my eyes to other parts of the world, it has strengthened my marriage.

2. Graduating with my MBA in May! I started my MBA with Capella in January of 2009 and finished in May- that was a great feeling to finally be finished! Although, every now and then I find myself looking for that intellectual stimulation that comes with studying and research...

3. Leaving Capella- This was one of the hardest things I've done in a long time (professionally speaking). I had finally found a company who's values align with my own, and in an industry that I feel passionate about. I finally found my niche. My co-workers were fantastic and it was a fun place to work. It was a really sad day when I had to leave the company, but I hope to go back someday. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that they'll want me back.

4. Starting my first official teaching role. In May I started teaching English as a second language in Milan, and it's been a really fun experience! It was quite a change switching from a sales role to teaching, but it's worth it. I've had the opportunity to meet a lot of Italians, see a lot of the city, and start practicing the art of teaching which is on my long term career plan. Eventually I would love to teach at the college level, so this is a great opportunity to start working on those skills :)

5. Learning a new language- Italian. At first learning Italian was strange- I would translate from English to Spanish, then to Italian. By no means am I good with the Spanish language, but what I did learn in High School and college came flooding back to me when I started working on Italian. Thankfully that has stopped and I am able to think only in Italian without Spanish getting in the way. Also, our new friends in Italy have been wonderful in helping me practice my listening and speaking skills. I'm not fluent yet... but I met my goal of becoming conversational this year! I can speak in present terms, present continuous, as well as the basic past tenses. Now I need to work on my vocabulary and future tenses... I've always wanted to learn Italian, and now I'm doing it!

Ok, maybe I am "tooting my own horn" a bit... but this year has seriously changed my life in many ways. These five events are the largest life changing events that I have experienced this year, so I thought I would share. I also have another list or two that I would like to post before the end of the year... so stay tuned!

Friday, December 2, 2011

An Italian Thanksgiving

For thanksgiving Josh and I invited our Italian friends over for dinner. This made me really nervous because I've never cooked Thanksgiving dinner before!! Not only that... our oven here is maybe 3/4 the size of our oven back in MN. It's perfect for roasting a chicken, but maybe not a big turkey. Luckily our friend Ilaria informed us that we have to order the turkey a week ahead of time from the Butcher. So, I was able to do that in time. I ordered a 12-14 lb turkey and kept my fingers crossed that it would fit in the oven. Josh wanted a bigger bird, over 15 lbs. Personally, I thought he was crazy! After all, there would only be six of us for dinner. We weren't going to eat two pounds of turkey each!

Preparing for dinner was an adventure... I went shopping for the essentials- groceries, pie pan, meat thermometer, roasting pan, etc. Unfortunately, I was only able to get the groceries. But, I was able to find pumpkin pie stuff at a specialty grocery store that has imported foods (including Mexican! I found our place for Mexican food when we have cravings! So excited about that...) At our grocery store they have most of the essentials, except the pans I needed. So, I ran to a kitchen specialty store and looked for everything and couldn't find one thing on my list!! After that, I stopped at another grocery store thinking they had to have everything. Again, nothing! So, I had to go to plan B for the pumpkin pie and leave the meat thermometer and roasting pan to Josh. I ended up making mini pumpkin pies in a cupcake tin and they were really good! That with homemade whipped cream- yum!!
I cooked mine in a cupcake tin, but you get the idea.

On Thanksgiving morning Josh was on duty for a few things- pick up a roasting pan, meat thermometer (from Ikea), and pick up the turkey and be HOME by 1PM. Well.... he made a few side stops and called me at 1PM from the butcher shop. He informed me that they were closed for lunch until 3PM. This was exactly why I wanted HOME by 1PM... So, we had to wait until 3 PM to pick up the turkey. They finally opened at 3:15 and Josh rushed home so we could get it into the oven. Again, we ordered a 12-14 pound turkey... well, we ended up with a 16 pound bird!! It barely fit in the oven! It roasted for a solid four hours and it was not even close to being cooked all the way through. Unfortunately the only edible part on the bird when everyone arrived at our house at 8:30PM was the breast. So we ate that along with the stuffing, potatoes, and other sides. Our friend Marina wanted to bring something for desert or a side, but I told her we had plenty of food and not to bring anything. When she sat down and saw all of the food she was amazed! She laughed and understood why I told her not to bring anything.

We had a great time sharing Thanksgiving with our Italian friends. It was their first Thanksgiving and they really enjoyed learning about our tradition and experiencing it. We even went around the table and said what we were thankful for this year. It was a really fun night! Overall, it was a success even if a few things didn't turn out as planned. I have a new appreciation for all of those people that cook Thanksgiving dinners every year- you are amazing!! It's so much work!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Day 2 in Sofia

gate to the Boyana Church
On our second full day in Sofia, Bulgaria we decided to head out of the city and explore some recommended sights near the mountain. We went to see the Boyana Church and the Dragalevtsi Monastery. Trying to get to both places was definitely interesting! The GPS needed to be updated on the streets, and kept trying to take us on roads that were nonexistent. While driving to the monastery the GPS wanted us to literally drive up the mountain! Well… that wasn’t going to happen. But even when we got to a better area the roads were still really steep and bumpy. Once we found the main road everything was good!

the TINY door to the church
one of the ancient graves

one of the hairy eared squirrels

Interesting facts about Sofia:
·         1.27 million people live there
·         We could see a pollution line on the mountain from the Monastery… people use fires to heat their homes
·         The city was founded near natural mineral springs and the city is known for its mineral water
Boyana Church was an interesting sight- the church is one of the best preserved medieval churches I’ve ever seen (probably because entry to the church costs so much!). Inside there are amazing murals that are hundreds of years old, gravestones that looked like they were from Celtic times,  and crazy squirrels with long hair on their ears. We enjoyed the scenery and the church, but I think the highlight of this monument was watching the squirrels jump from tree to tree! They were just weird!

"The Wingtip Photographer"

the ice on the stream

Benz enjoyed shooting the stream too

The Dragalevtsi Monastery was like a big apartment building with a church on sight. There were also three large bells that you must be able to hear from Sofia (even though it was miles away). The walk from the car up to the monastery was really nice. It was late fall with a lot of colorful leaves on the ground, but it was cold enough to have ice on a stream that was flowing down the mountain.  Josh and Benz decided that this was a great opportunity for pictures, and they spent some time capturing the scenery. In the meantime, Mike and I got to know each other better.  We decided that Josh’s photography business (if he ever starts one) should be called “The Wingtip Photographer” because he was slipping and sliding in his dress shoes trying to get the perfect shot. We had lunch after seeing the monastery at a lodge near the parking lot, and it was amazing typical food for Bulgaria (homemade bread, meats, salads, vegetables). It was good! Although the trip to the restroom was interesting… there was a picture (almost cartoonish) in the stall of a hunter squatting to go to the bathroom, and there was hair coming out of his behind! It was just bizarre!! And this was in the ladies room...

the church at the monastery

the boys

Sofia at twilight

The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral at night
We ended the day just hanging out in the Presidential Suite with a couple bottles of wine, some cheese, crackers and other snacks we picked up. It was fun to look at pictures from Benz and Mike’s adventure and other cities that were more polluted than Sofia. Overall, it was a great weekend with friends! But I was definitely coughing up gunk for a few days afterwards because of all of the cigarette smoke. I can only imagine how Benz and Mike will feel after their 3 weeks in Eastern Europe!!

My favorite parts of Sofia: the saxophone player at the club and the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Sofia, Bulgaria

Rotunda of St. George
Our friend Greg Benz and his friend Mike rented a car in Munich and decided to drive through Eastern Europe for three and a half weeks. Talk about an adventure! Our friend Benz has traveled all over the world and when he told us that his latest trip was going to be near us, we thought it would be fun to meet up with him for a weekend. We met his friend Mike and enjoyed a great weekend with the two of them in Sofia, Bulgaria on the weekend before Thanksgiving.

National Theater
Russian Church

Sofia is a walkable town, despite its large population, with some interesting history. There was a monument to the Soviet regime that currently used as a skate park, the beautiful Alexander Nevsky Cathedral built to commemorate the soldiers who died fighting the Russo-Turkish War in 1877, the old royal palace and the square where the Soviet coup d’├ętat happened in 1944, the national theater, the Rotunda of St. George near our hotel (a church build in the 4th century) and many other places. There were traffic control booths on corners of intersections and there was even a yellow bricked road. Seriously. Sofia is also known for its nightlife. There are fun clubs and great restaurants. People in Sofia really love to dance, and we got to witness it first hand when we went to dinner at a local restaurant. There was a band playing traditional Bulgarian music and the people kept getting up to dance the traditional line dances. At one of the clubs we even saw a guy playing the saxophone to the lounge music. Of course, we got video of both!! I'll try to upload those on the next entry... today they won't upload for some reason.
traffic management booth

random couch we found outside of a bar

the "Yellow Brick Road"
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Benz (left) and Mike (right)

Our first night in Sofia was a rough one... the room at the hotel we were staying at was right next to the ballroom. There was a party going on until 3AM that night. When we returned to the hotel at 1:30 after meeting Benz for a couple of drinks they said the party was going to shut down at 2, so we thought “no problem”. Well, 2:30 rolled around and our room was literally vibrating from the bass. It seemed like the music was getting louder. Josh ended up having to contact the corporate headquarters because the person he spoke with at the front desk didn't do anything to shut things down. Everything finally shut down at 3AM. Of course the next morning at 8AM we were woken up by construction in the building next door (literally on the other side of our wall). Thankfully the hotel manager was aware of our situation and kindly told them to hold off on construction until after 12PM. We were able to go back to sleep for a little more time before meeting up with Benz and Mike.
the park near the Soviet monument

Soviet monument

the side of the Soviet monument

a strange monument under construction, with a lot of graffiti
surrounding the construction barrier

The room manager of the hotel felt so awful about our experience the first night that she wanted to make it up to us. We were just hoping for a different room away from all of the action. She did better than that... she put us in the Presidential Suite for the next two nights after telling us the party was supposed to shut down at 1AM! We were completely shocked with that and we gladly accepted their apologies. The previous night Tom Jones was playing in Sofia, and he stayed in the Presidential Suite. We were in the same room that he stayed in the night before, that was interesting! Honestly, I had no idea who Tom Jones was until Josh pulled up some of his music online. After hearing some of his songs I realized I definitely know his music. We were pretty happy with the news of our new lodgings, and we enjoyed the dining room, living room, monster bedroom and two bathrooms. Ok… it was WAY more space than we needed, but it was definitely nice. And quiet!  

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Bergamo, shopping and a missed flight!

Laura "Lew"
The first weekend in November Lew came to Milano!! I’ve known Laura for many, many years and I call her Lew (for her last name Lewandowski). We’ve been friends at least since Junior High and we were about 12 or 13 years old.  We used to figure skate together, and then we were in cheerleading together; we even sang and danced in show choir junior and senior years of high school. Needless to say, we go back a long time! She is one of my very best friends, so it was great to see her again and show her where we have been living this year.


Old city gates of Bergamo

While she was here we toured downtown Milan on the day she arrived, took some time the next day to go out to Bergamo (about an hour east of Milan), went shopping down in Serravalle (designer outlets near Genova), and partied like rock stars on her final night. It was a really fun weekend that ended with a bang!

the city center

a little gelato- it was amazing!!

Bergamo was really easy to get to from Milan- we took a train from the central train station (about 5 or 6 euros one way), and then we caught a bus from the train station in Bergamo to go to the old town (Bergamo Alto). It was a really hazy day with lots of fog, so it was difficult to see anything on the train ride out there, but it added a mystique to everything. Bergamo is a beautiful city at the base of the Alps and on a clear day it would be an awesome setting! We grabbed lunch, walked around to take in everything, bought a cake for Josh, and enjoyed exploring the old military artillery they had on display.

on a clear day you would see the Alps in the distance

some of the artillery we found

the park outside of the old military fortress,
that's where we found the artillery

That night we grabbed some Pizzeria Spontini pizza with Josh and I think Laura liked it! She got to meet the Pizza Nazi and experience our favorite spot. She never did mention if it was the best pizza she has ever had though… I have a new experiment going- every time someone visits us I want to take them to Spontini to see if it’s the best pizza they have ever had. Almost each visitor has said that, so I want to see how many people say it’s the best ever.

fall colors in Bergamo

drinks with Josh after Spontini

On Friday we went shopping at the designer outlets at Serravalle. It was a wet and rainy day, but we weren’t going to let that get in our way of some great shopping! Well… it turned out that some disastrous storms rolled through that same day. Literally. At least six people died in Genova that day because of flooding, and that was only about 60 kilometers away from where we were shopping.

flooding in Genova that day

courtesy of Peoples Daily Online

The final day that Laura was here we did some more shopping and walked around Milan. It was a lazy day for us; we slept in and enjoyed a nice nap in the afternoon. We needed to save our energy because that night we hit the town and experience the night life of Hollywood in Corso Como (a famous club in Milan that stays open until 6AM). This may not have been the smartest idea because Laura had to catch a flight out of Malpensa around 10:30AM the next morning. The airport is about an hour from our house (if you time the trains right), so she needed to be on the road pretty early. Well, we ended up staying out until 3:30-4AM… Needless to say, we slept right through her flight! I woke up at 10:45 and realized she had missed it! We scrambled and got her to the airport in time for the next flight at 1PM, but she had to purchase a whole new ticket!! I felt so awful! Now she can officially say that she missed a flight because of staying out too late (which is partially my fault). Talk about ending the weekend with a bang! But it was so great to have her visit Milan and hopefully she won’t have second thoughts about visiting again. It turned out to be a more expensive weekend than she expected!