Monday, June 20, 2016

A "Traveler."

To me, instant coffee, the kind that comes in those little packets, the powder that you pour under
boiling hot water, tastes like Italy. And it tastes like my grandmother's apartment in Eastern Europe, the one with drawers full of old Communist love letters and where me and my father would hang our cleanest dirty clothes above the shower. Those instant coffee packets taste like the late nights in Milan when we didn't have enough money for an espresso. It tastes like stress. Like wondering where you will sleep the next night.

I remember getting off of a bus near Treviso in the region of Veneto, Italy with my father. And from there, we walked all the way to Venice. My father with the backpack on his back and I with my guitar in its case in my right hand. And we had to have been the only Americans who went to Venice and did not ride in a gondola. When I returned home people would ask me, did you go to Murano? Did you go to Burano? (The islands around Venice.) My response every time was, "Is it possible to get there on foot? Because if it's not, I haven't been there."


Passing through, wherever we happened to be passing, people began to joke, calling us "white gypsies," "zingari bianchi," "tigani albi." And we looked the part too. Especially after we climbed one of the tallest mountains in Moldova, "Ceachlau" in the range of the Eastern Carpathians, in one day alone.  We reached the summit in the afternoon and were back on the ground on the other side of the mountain that night. My dad picked up a hiking stick along the way and carried that with him which didn't help much with the previously mentioned image. We had to cross to the other side in order to catch a train that night that would arrive in the capital city of Bucharest by the morning. I remember my eyes being closed in the train with my head against the window, I was drifting off when I heard two young girls, about my age, laughing. I opened my eyes and saw them pointing to my legs and as I looked down, I realized that the pantyhose I was wearing under my dress, had holes in them.

I remember walking through the cemetery in Bucharest with my father, the one where the relatives of my grandmother were buried and as we were leaving, a gypsy man with dark skin and green eyes, who was sweeping the walkway, lifted his broom from the path upon which we were walking, so as to make way for us. He kept his head down but as we passed him, he smiled at my father and bowed before me. He said to me in Romanian as I passed,

"Saru' Mana." May I kiss your hand.

I didn't understand until we left the cemetery and I asked my father what he meant. He explained to me that people from a lower class do not greet others with, "good day" or "good morning" but instead, "may I kiss your hand," as a way of showing respect. Not even a moment later, we passed a bus stop on the street where the bus driver was screaming at an old gypsy woman to get off of his bus, that he did not allow people like her on his bus. A white woman stopped us and asked us why we wouldn't lend the gypsy woman any money to ride the bus, in that moment she turned to us and showed us her hands, full of coins. She had more than enough money to ride the bus.

That night, my father and I had run out of money. We decided to just go to sleep because we didn't have enough money for food, The thing is, every time I hear an upper-class, Tuscany vacation-home owner call himself a "traveler," I can't help but wonder whether he has worried where he will sleep the next night. I want to ask him how many times he has used his backpack as a pillow in the last empty train car, or argued with the woman selling bread on the corner of the street. I wonder if he has ever seen discrimination, occurring before his eyes, in a foreign language, and tried to comprehend the world in real time. I wonder if, when he smells the smell of instant coffee, his mind is instantly flooded with images of the open window in an apartment without air conditioning and the millions of little wrinkles on an old woman's hands, filled with coins. The blissful ignorance of never having seen or felt. Is it really his luxury to never have known these things?

The last night we spent away from home that summer, I lay awake in the chair in which I had been sleeping, in my grandmother's apartment. And I'm embarrassed to admit it. But I cried.  And I couldn't tell whether it was because I was sick to death of the growling noise my stomach kept making, or if it was simply the frightening image of my country that loomed in the near future. An image of responsibility. The image of a country in which, I had a life made out for me. The country in which, I had to be someone great. The country that my parents came to so I didn't have to sleep in a chair, on an empty stomach every night like they often did. And I was scared to death. Terrified even. I started to question myself, who I was, where I was from, where I belonged. It was a feeling in my heart. I lay awake and wondered if any of the others I had met, the ones who flew to Tuscany every summer, the one's who called themselves "travelers," had ever felt that feeling, in their hearts. Lost, alone, and terrified.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Diventi le Persone che si Incontrano - The American Foreign Exchange Student

I'm sitting here in class, on my last day of Italian school. 3A Europeo at Liceo Classico. There's a teacher speaking French at the front of the room and all of the words pass over my head. I understand stand some of them, but for the most part it is just a song to me. French has always just sounded like a song to me.


Here, there is my good friend, Carol. There are the girls who only talk to me because I'm American. There is the fascist, there is the one who broke my heart. But no matter how much they hurt me or helped me, I will remember them all, without a doubt. No matter whether they left a bad or a good impression on me, I will remember them all.


There is a mark left on me from every person that I've met while I've been here. Some of the marks are pretty, others are not. But they have all contributed something. And now I'm composed of all of those things they've contributed. I'm still Amanda. I'm just a different Amanda. And tomorrow I will step out into the cold air and return to The States.


For the longest time I thought about running away, not coming back to the U.S. I'm being serious. It's easy to do here in Europe, you don't have to be an adult to do things here, like in the U.S. All I would have to do is get on a train and go South, then take a boat to Sicily. No one would find me because I would change my name. Kids of 17 years old can do just about anything an adult could here. I could get a job and find somewhere to stay, with the amount of Italian that I know.


But I decided I wont. Not because I miss America but because if I don't return, to whom will I tell these stories? It is time to start the next chapter so that I can tell these stories all over the world. Even if I don't return to Cosenza, (though I'm sure that I will,) I will never forget any of these people. It is because of them, that I am who I am in this moment.


Holden Caulfield put it best when he said, "Don't tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everyone."

Monday, November 30, 2015

"What do you think of Americans?"

Photograph by Carol Gagliardi
The question I ask every time I get to know someone enough in a foreign country. Of course, it is hard not to get a biased answer, as they know that I am myself, American. But the answer always seems to follow along the same lines.


I think that travelling abroad is something that a lot of people associate with the rich. Because they are the ones with the money to travel. This foreign exchange program that I'm part of, is not for rich kids. The cost of the trip was only the plane ticket. In fact, most of the students on this exchange are not upper middle class.


Italians, (foreigners in general,) have this idea of, "Americans," that isn't truly accurate. The idea that they have in their heads, (tall, blonde, affluent,) is not in fact an image of an American but rather that of your average rich person. For them, rich and American are synonymous. It is not their fault however that they have this idea, the media feeds them a dreamy image of bourgeoisie America and nothing else. I mean, here and there they'll see a minority or two, a prole, or a working class hero in a movie but primarily, these people are not given the spotlight. The respondents of this question are not being lied to necessarily, but the truth is being hidden from them. Therefore, it is easy for them to assume that all Americans are like the ones they have seen in the media. They are left to conclude that this image is all that we are, when in reality, it is only a very small portion.


Out of the 13 American students on this exchange, only one fits the tall, blonde and rich image. 1 out of 13. Anytime that 1 represents 13, there is a disproportionality. Why is it that this one, (the minority,) represents the other twelve, (the majority.) It is not only numerically wrong to represent the whole group by the minority, but it is blind and ignorant to do so. In describing this case, "numerically wrong," is an understatement.


If we have given anything to these Italians on the foreign exchange trip, brought anything to them, more than the American-English slang and pop songs, it is the hard truth of who were really are. We are dark skinned, we are brown eyed, we come in all sizes. For the most part, we are not rich. We are not MLB players or movie stars.


We bring you our dark faces and rough hands and this is more than any education anyone could ever give you on the America of today. We are the "Stories Hollywood Never Tells." We are the ones who are asked,
"You're American? All American? And nothing else...?"
"No, I mean really...where are you really from?"
"American...? Are you sure?"
We are the ones who are asked if we are "sure," of who we are. Because of course there is always someone richer, blonder, who knows better than us, who can confirm our citizenship.


We are the tired. We are the poor. We are the huddled masses "yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of the teaming shore." And if there is in fact a poor and dirty, but tall and blonde boy in America, he is not American for his white skin. He is American because someone sometime in his family scaled the highest of mountains to arrive at the pedestal of lady liberty who lifts her lamp beside the golden door.


We are all American and everything else.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Italian School - The American Foreign Exchange Student


Many of the people here look familiar, as if I've seen them before, as if I know them from before. I do know them. I know her, the very smart girl at the front of the class and the boy who sits next to her just to copy her work.

And I know him, the smart boy who sits at the back but doesn't try. The boy who wears the mask of someone stupid, so that no one expects anything of him.
"Ah, Federico? Lui non fa niente."
But I see through him. I know him. I've seen him in America.

I know her, the pretty girl on the side, the one with the red lips. The principal's daughter who talks back to the teacher and fixes her makeup in class.

I know the professor of philosophy, "Il Pazzo," they call him, Crazy. Everyone stops talking or using their phones when he starts talking about il verbo essere. In Italian he says existentially,
"Come state? Tell me how you are. I mean how you truly are. How you exist." Veramente.

Most of all though, I know the girl to the left of me, at the back of the class, Carol. She's intelligent but she doesn't sit at the front with the others. She prefers to watch from afar. Observant. From here, she can see everything. She is quiet because she doesn't feel she can say anything until she has a view of the entire room. She is lost. She is different. I know her well.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Cosenza, Calabria - The American Foreign Exchange Student

Photograph by Amanda Marie Martinez
Carol and I, Photograph by
Christian Gagliardi
Life here is simple, to say the least. People are always making fun of each other, but they never mean bad. Their intentions are good, I mean. Maybe I've already forgotten how to speak English. Allora, it seems as if these Calabrese never worry about anything. The image is fresh in my mind of this afternoon, when my host student, Carol (you're supposed to say it with an Italian accent,) and I were getting out of school today. As we were leaving, her father was waiting for us in his very small car and Carol's little brother, Christian waved from the window, "Ciao Carol! Ciao Amanda!" You'd think that I'm describing a movie scene, but I'm not.


As we get into the car, Christian gives me about 20 kisses, lips, cheek, and all. He's only nine years old and if he were any other nationality I suppose it would be a bit weird. Every time I get in the car with Carol's family, the windows are always open. I'm going to be honest here and also say that no one ever wears their seat-belt. I wasn't so surprised by this, as it's familiar to me because my grandmother, (very European,) has to be forced to wear her seat belt every time she gets in the car with us at home. But this sort of habit enforces what I said previously about not having any worries. I didn't mean it in an entirely romantic way. It's just a way of life that, for me, is very difficult to understand. I worry constantly and curse my life a lot for a person who always wears her seat belt. I mean, if my life is troublesome, what do I have to lose? Why do I not do as they do? They are happier overall, I think, without all these worries, so if anyone should be wearing their seat belt it should be them, (if you've seen the way Italians drive, you know another reason why they, specifically, should wear seat belts.) But perhaps it is I, who has a style of life that doesn't make sense. One in which I worry so much that at times I think of ending it all, yet I take all of the cautionary measures that prevent such a thing.

My school - Liceo Bernardino Telesio
At school there are all the types of people we have in America. You've got the nerds, you've got the jocks, the rich, the poor, But I've noticed that here, the people aren't separated, as they are in America. American society, I think, is very split. The students who make an effort, are friends with those who don't, the rich are friends with the poor. Mostly, because they are all in the same class. Unlike in the U.S. It's so interesting to see how much these Italians like to stay together. I've thought that maybe, it's because they're all Italian. After class, after all that effort or lack there of, every Italian goes home to his/her Italian mother, or father, or grandma. Whereas in the U.S, one American goes home to his Chinese family while another goes home to his Mexican family and another to his Polish family. And we let these differences separate us. It's a choice.

(hypothesis to be further developed during my time here.)

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The American Foreign Exchange Student

If you would have asked me only a year or two ago, whether I would ever consider being a foreign exchange student, I would have said definitely NOT. I would have laughed in your face. I would have given you some lame excuse about how my Italian is not good enough or that I wasn't American enough to be somebody's "American foreign exchange student." And that when my Italian host would introduce me to her friends, they would say that I'm not white enough, or blonde enough, or beautiful enough, or clean enough to be American. Like the Americans that they've seen in all the films. Like Marilyn Monroe or Betty Paige. All of which may be true.
It may very well be true that my Italian is not very good. That they may laugh at me because I stumble over words and verb conjugations. Or because I don't look like the Californians on their TV screens. But I will die before I believe that any one of these reasons, is a justifiable reason for me NOT to go out and see the world. I've realized that. That's what's changed about me in the past year.

It wasn't the fear. I'm scared out of my mind but it's a good feeling. I've grown so fond of this feeling, one that's unparalleled to anything I've ever felt before. Perhaps only to being in love. The same wonder, and passion, but also overwhelming fear.
What is life if we don't do the things that scare us most? Cosenza, ci vediamo presto.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

European Travels - The Last Train Car in RomaniĆ¢

Gypsy crossing - Moldova 2015
So there I was, behind the glass window of the last car in a train that ran like a bullet through the Romanian countryside. Had I been awake for two days straight? It couldn't have been that long, but who could recall?
I opened my tired eyes and looked back toward the locomotive to see that nearly the whole train was empty. There was one stop left, the last stop, and the sun was setting quickly in the summer sky. It was half an hour after nine, during that weird period where it's late but it's still a bit light outside. It was as if the Earth wanted to milk daylight just a little bit longer.
I looked through the window again at what seemed to be an infinite track of rail that was increasing by the second and reaching slowly across the planet's entire circumference.
With one deep breath I squinted my eyes, grasped the handle bar to my left, and hit the button between the two doors that separated myself from the world outside. The doors flew upon and my hair flew behind me as the wind hit my face like the air out of a rocket engine. I planted my boots firmly upon the rusted steel step of what had become the caboose. And I LIVED.
That was it. There was something about being so close to death that ironically made me feel ALIVE. It occurred to me that when I felt lost, it was in the most extreme situations that I found myself. On the edge of a mountain in the Rockies, or before a cliff above the California shore. It was stumbling into a butchers shop in Italy to muster up the courage to tell the man slicing a pound of salami, "Mi dispiace che non parlo bene, sono Americana." And now here.
Gypsy children in a small caravan - side
of the road Moldova/Romania - 2015
It was because of my father and his desire to regain citizenship after being kicked out of the country under the communist regime that I ended up here. But somewhere within the journey to help my father redeclare who HE was, I seemed to find who I was.
I was Amanda. Lost at an inch from death upon rusted steel ledge on an Eastern European train that flew through the present and into the future. I was  anchored by the harsh reality of where I was headed, and that there was no slowing down by any means. But by American dreams I was carried the entire way. Even now, I am lifted from my window by a gift for which I cannot repay my father. The gift of being American.
As I held to the handle beside the wide open door of the train car, I decided I wouldn't look back. And I didnt.