Back in the USA

I’ve been home for a week now. In the last week, I’ve really appreciated the offers from friends to reconnect, the in-depth questions from those who are interested in the cultural part of my experience, and the knowing look of sympathy for others who have experienced “repatriation blues” (feeling weird about being home).

It’s hard to explain to the family and friends that I am so excited to see why sometimes I feel less than happy to be home. Costa Rica became a home away from home for me, and some of the people there I came to care for more than I thought possible in such a short time. I could never say that living in one of the places is better, because the two are not comparable. Things that I experienced abroad would be impossible to recreate at home, and vice versa.

More than anything, I am realizing that the memories I made while away are so important to remember fondly and grow from in my life back at home. Wish me luck as I try to make that happen. The following is a video/slideshow I made of my Costa Rica memories. Thank you to everyone who followed my blogging during this experience!

Pura Vida!

Tori :)

I Blame Audrey Hepburn

Preface to this post: As my mother will attest to, I usually (always) need a solid shove out of my comfort zone. I would happily live within my bubble for the rest of my life if I didn’t realize that that doesn’t make for a very exciting existence.

A few months ago back in the states, I watched Roman Holiday with my parents.The movie is amazing so watch it if you haven’t. Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn are so beautiful, the plot is a classic, and Rome as the backdrop steals the show. My favorite scene – besides the perfect ending – is when she gets her haircut. Here is the clip!

I immediately knew that if I went to Rome, I had to do that. Besides wanting to be Audrey Hepburn, I wanted to, like her character, do something new and exciting and break out of my routine. In the weeks leading up to my departure, I told everyone that I was going to chop off my hair in Rome. I felt like if I told people, I would be more apt to actually follow through.

Well, unlike Audrey Hepburn, who just gracefully wandered off the street into a perfect salon near the Trevi Fountain, my journey was not so easy. First, I kind of forgot about my idea for the first two weeks. I was so busy seeing everything in Rome and doing classwork and traveling on weekends that it just slipped my mind. By the time I remembered, I thought Maybe I just won’t do it… seems kinda scary…..and I don’t really have time…..

But then I thought about my mom. She was the one who gave me the push to go abroad – and many many pushes before then – and I knew if she was here she would give me the push I needed to do this, too. But she wasn’t. So I had to do it myself. I promised myself that I would do this because I wanted to.

Two weeks passed and I had gotten salon recommendations from my professor and I had even tried to go to one after school one day, but public transportation failed me and I took it as a sign. But I was determined to not give up. Time has FLOWN abroad, and with only a week (WHAT) left in Rome, I knew this week was the week it had to happen.

A girl in my class, Perrine, is French and has been a student at AUR for two years. She is mellow, sweet, and has amazing dry humor. We have become friends and I told her about my quest for a haircut. On Monday, she walked me to a salon near school and said it was a great place. It was closed on Mondays so I decided to come back on Wednesday – today.

The unassuming "Coiffeur"

The unassuming “Coiffeur”

Today class ended, and with butterflies in my whole body, I ventured to the salon. The solid friend that she is, Perrine came with me. And thank god for that.

“Buongiorno. Vorrei un taglio?” I said.  (Hello, I want a haircut)

Very fast Italian was then spewed my way and I looked wide-eyed at Perrine. With her as my translator, I maneuvered the questions and got across what I wanted – a simple shoulder-length cut.

After being shampood and conditioned, it was go-time. My stylist was a brusque looking women with blue eye-shadow, but when she saw my terrified-anxious-excited expression, she broke into a warm smile.

The whole thing took under half an hour. It was very unceremonious – probably for the better – and with every snip, I felt more and more confident. Perrine was shooting smiles my way every time I glanced at her, and when the lady started to blow-dry my hair, I could see that it turned out just as I wanted.

Before picture. From this weekend in Germany in a gorge.

Before picture. From this weekend in Germany. My hair had gotten really long and I was really ready for it to be off my head. 

After picture! This was me trying to be cool on the bus home.

After picture! This was me trying to be cool on the bus home.

When really I felt like this. :)

When really I felt like this. :)

I did it, mom! I did it, world! I pushed myself!

In reflection, although it felt like I needed to get my haircut abroad to prove that I was able to get out there and be independent, I’ve realized that I’ve been doing that all along. I’ve mastered (okay, handled) public transportation, eaten unidentified meat, and traveled to Germany for a weekend with only four other 20-something girls.

Hey guys, life is cool when you do new things.

I Have the Sudden Urge to Make a Venn Diagram

People are always asking, “How is where you’re living in Costa Rica different than home?” That is a complex question, so I asked some of my exchange student friends for help. The following is a short list I’ve compiled of things that will change when you move to Costa Rica.

1. Life will slow down a bit. Even in the bustle of the city, things never seem quite as stressful as in the states. On top of that, people actually say the famous, “¡Pura vida!” A LOT. It’s hello, goodbye, how are you, I’m fine, see ya later, it’s all good… and the list goes on!

2. Rice and beans will be served at nearly every meal. Although flavored and mixed differently each time, there is no end to the rice and beans. You might even get them as sides to your hamburger at a restaurant.

3. You’ll see a plethora of interesting animals. Everyone’s favorite Costa Rica fun fact is that it holds 5% of the world’s biodiversity. That’s a huge number when you think about the small size of the country! We’ve seen trees, birds, mammals, and lots of insects that we’d only previously seen in zoos and museums.

4. There are no water fountains. This is especially hard for a girl who spends time in the city of fountains (Kansas City, for those who are confused). Other things on the list of “stuff that’s hard to find here” include: ice, Kleenex, twizzlers, and pretzels.

5. Public transportation is the way to go (pun intended). Hopping on buses was a little frightening at first, especially for country kids like me. However, the transportation system is actually cheaper and more convenient than I imagined.

6. Clothing styles might surprise you. Many of the styles are very similar to those in the US, but people on the street do not typically wear athletic clothing or very casual styles. Of course there are always people that put their own touch on things, but there is less variance among the level of dress, and some ideas of modesty are different. For instance, shorts and short skirts/dresses are less common, but tighter clothes are more common.

7. Frozen food won’t make up every meal. Although it is accessible, frozen food options are much less prevalent than in the US. I was shocked at the tiny freezer aisle the first time I went to a supermarket, but the fresh meals are probably better for me than hot pockets anyway.

8. People here are much more open than in the United States. In general, people are more likely to share their feelings and/or be interested in yours. Sometimes this means that you’re more likely to get catcalled on the street. But more often than not, this openness is shown through the friendly and helpful nature of the ticos.

9. You might not want to leave. Many other things have changed since arriving in Costa Rica, but  some of them are personal or just difficult to explain. As my friends and I look back on our time here, I can’t believe how many wonderful things, and trying things, I have experienced and/or pushed through. I want to say thank you to everyone who has supported me in the planning and duration of my time here. I have LOVED my Costa Rica experience, but I’m mostly excited to say that my next/last blog post will be coming to you from the US!

Here are some pictures of our farewell excursion to the Poas Volcano and the La Paz Waterfall Gardens:

We were so lucky to have a clear day at the volcano!

P1010499 (500x375)

The beautiful view from the old crater/now lagoon near Poas.

P1010510 (500x375)

Making friends with the butterflies in the mariposario.

P1010535 (500x375)One of the waterfalls we saw on the very rainy but beautiful walk through the La Paz gardens.

P1010552 (500x375)

See you soon! Pura vida!

Tori :)

Weekend in Florence: This is a long one, folks.

Here in Italy, I am always on the go. This weekend I spent a short but very full few days in Tuscany.

On Friday morning, a Coach bus for the ISA (International Studies Abroad) kids left bright and early for Firenze (what the Italians call Florence). After a 5 hour drive, we had arrived! At this point it was about 2:30 in the afternoon and I immediately realized that Firenze is noticeably warmer than Rome. We had to walk to our hotel, as the center of Florence is primarily pedestrian-only, and I was drenched. Our hotel was also on the second floor and with only a small, 3 person capacity lift, and that did nothing to help the situation. I roomed with two of my roommates here in Rome, Courtney and Ashley (LOVE them), and after we briefly got settled into our room, we were off on a walking tour of the area.

Firenze is gorgeous. I loved that the streets were free of cars and I loved the medieval feel of the town. The architecture is preserved so well because they actually stopped all new construction of buildings in 1895! After walking past the Medici house, we stumbled into the square that holds the Duomo of Florence. I say stumbled, because all of a sudden there was this amazing, massive, intricate cathedral in front of us, with no warning. That is a common theme in Italy. It is made of marble – green, pink, and white. More on it later.

IMG_3911 (640x480)

We then weaved through streets seeing the highlights of the area including the bridge Ponte Vecchio that stretches across the Arno river. It’s unique because on it are jewelry shops. Gold and silver are everywhere. The shops actually used to be homes – can you imagine living there?

Reppin' Northwest and Common Ground!

Reppin’ Northwest and Common Ground on the Ponte Vecchio!

See what I'm saying about the houses on the bridge?

See what I’m saying about the houses on the bridge?

Our final destination for the tour was the Uffizi Gallery – a renowned art museum. Here we saw the first portrait in art, a room full of Botticelli’s, and, uh, oh yeah – a Michelangelo and da Vinci or two. Just a casual thing.

The first portraits in art!

The first portraits in art!

Michelangelo's "Doni Tondo"

Michelangelo’s “Doni Tondo”

"This is what happens to the men when they don't buy jewelry for the women in Florence." -Francesca, our tour guide

“This is what happens to the men when they don’t buy jewelry for the women in Florence.” -Francesca, our tour guide

After this, we had the night to ourselves and spent it exploring markets – both of the food and goods variety. Gelato, of course, was involved. I had peach gelato – which was DELICIOUS because peaches are in season – and ate it with my friend Andrea on the steps of the Duomo as night arrived.

IMG_3959 (640x480)

The sun sets on the Duomo

Saturday, we woke up early to go on another walking tour. This one took us into the Duomo, which is the size of one and a half football fields. One of the coolest parts, for me, was the clock. It goes from hours one to twenty four and shows how long it has been since the last sunset.

IMG_3963 (640x480)

We were at hour thirteen.

After gawking at the painted dome, we headed to the Galleria Accademia. This museum holds the David, along with 6 other sculptures of Michelangelo’s. The 6 others are commonly called the Prisoners because he didn’t finish them – leaving them stuck in stone. He did these when he was 16 or 17. Sixteen or seventeen. Yeah. Okay. The David was at the end of the hallway basking in perfect lighting from a skylight. It’s seventeen feet tall and perfect. Our tour guide called him her boyfriend and took us around back for what she dubbed “the girl’s view.” Couldn’t complain… Michelangelo started the David when he was 26 and it took him three years to complete. It was all sculpted from one block of marble – whoa.

The girl's view ;)

The girl’s view 😉 Not too shabby. 

Okay, fine, here's a real one.

Okay, fine, here’s a real one.

After doing some more gawking, I went through the rest of the museum and got a little separated from my friends. I tried to find them at this lunch spot, but I had failed to get the name of it, so I got a 3 euro panino instead and it was the best one I have had so far. I was just walking through the streets of Florence, enjoying the day, when I came across some of my other friends who were preparing to climb to the top of the Duomo. I had planned on doing this anyway, so I quickly bought a ticket and tagged along.

Street art! Remember the first portrait dude??? It's him!

Street art is cool! Remember the first portrait dude??? It’s him!

Now, climbing the Duomo is a feat. We panted up 436 steps (roughly). The view was definitely worth it, though. I could see all of Florence sprawled out beneath me. We stayed up there taking a million pictures that will never ever capture the true experience.



Our next stop was the leather markets. Some of the girls were looking for shoes, bags, or jackets. I’m not much of a leather gal, but it was fun to go from shop to shop watching them try on jackets and haggle the prices down. After about the eighth shop, however, I was feeling dehydrated and went back to my room to hopefully find my roommates.

SIDENOTE: Rome is amazing because everywhere you go, there are public fountains that spew out cold, fresh water! We have learned to take advantage of these and I really missed them while in Florence.

My roommates and I wanted a great dining experience that night, so we did our research and ended up at a place called La Buchetta. It ended up being probably the best meal I have had so far. As has been my way this trip, I went with what the waiter suggested and got the ravioli. It came in aluminum foil and the sauce was a mixture of eggplant, tomato, capers, and spices. To. Die. For. Afterwards, can you guess? Gelato from a place with a chocolate fountain for a wall!!





Chocolate fountain for a wall. Florence does it RIGHT.

Chocolate fountain for a wall. Florence does it RIGHT.

As previously mentioned, I like to go with what the people serving it like the best, so I got two flavors - something called "Cremino" and pistacchio. Yum.

As previously mentioned, I like to go with what the waiters/servers recommend, so I got two flavors – something called “Cremino” and pistacchio. Yum.

The next day was our last in Tuscany and we headed into the countryside for a wine tasting/lunch at Verrazzano Castle. The landscape looked like it had been painted. We toured the cellars – the NEWEST one being six hundred years old – and then settled in for lunch. Pasta, wine, cured meats, and cheese. It was all freshly prepared using local ingredients. Probably my favorite item was balsamic vinegar on pecorino cheese. We seriously only got a spoonful of the balsamic vinegar, because they age it for ten years and it goes for 50 euro for 100 ml, but it was heavenly. Much sweeter and thicker than the balsamic I was used to. We dipped a small slice of pecorino cheese – cheese made from sheep’s milk – in it, and I could have made that my whole meal. The cheese crumbled and melted the moment it hit your mouth and its buttery sharp taste was perfectly accented by the sweet balsamic. Man. I’ll be thinking about that combo for years.

Those are some big wine barrels.

Those are some big wine barrels.

Wait, did I used to be a vegetarian? The wild boar salami was my favorite.

Wait, did I used to be a vegetarian? The wild boar salami was my favorite.

Our spoonful of balsamic vinegar.

Our spoonful of balsamic vinegar.

I'm telling you. The view.

I’m telling you. The view was stellar.

Tuscany was an amazing experience. Florence is quaint and frozen in time – if just a tad sweltering. I’m so happy I went, but I’m even happier that I chose to study in Rome. Rome provides something new every single day – I’m still falling more in love as time goes on!

Papal Perspective

The Pope calendar in our apartment definitely set the tone for the day.

The Pope calendar in our apartment definitely set the tone for the day.

On Saturday, May 30th, I spent six hours in the Vatican City. Four were spent in the Vatican Museums. One was spent eating. One was spent admiring the Piazza de San Pietro.

Pictures will never be enough. Words will never be enough.

The Vatican Museums hold painting upon painting upon sculpture upon tapestry of gorgeous, meaningful religious art. Every new room or hallway brings new art and a new short moment of your breath being taken away. The ceilings are always painted and always unbelievable. It’s an experience everyone should have.

This ceiling. So intricate and stunning.

This ceiling. So intricate and stunning.


I saw da Vinci’s, Raphael’s, Van Gogh’s, and Dali’s that day. Sometimes they wouldn’t even be displayed prominently. I almost missed van Gogh’s “Pietra” but I luckily decided to loiter in the small room for a bit longer and look at a few more pieces. Let me repeat that: I ALMOST MISSED A VAN GOGH. But that’s because it’s only a small drop in the extensive collection of the Vatican. It’s unreal.

da Vinci's "St. Jerome in the Wilderness"

da Vinci’s “St. Jerome in the Wilderness”‘

Raphael's "The Transfiguration." The last painting he ever completed.

Raphael’s “The Transfiguration.” The last painting he ever completed.

Dali's "Angelic Landscape"

Dali’s “Angelic Landscape”

van Gogh's "Pietra." I ALMOST MISSED IT??

van Gogh’s “Pietra.”


Of course, the highlight of the day was the Sistine Chapel. It’s what the whole day had been leading up to. Walking in that room was heart-poundingly exciting. You know what’s coming – yet you have no idea. After being in the Chapel for about 15 minutes I realized that my mouth had been hanging open the entire time. There was so much to look at and it was all insanely detailed. I just am amazed that the entire room was covered in true-to-form people. I just think at some point Michelangelo would’ve been like “Ugh my arm is sore. Gonna cut some artistic corners here. Gonna clothe some of these people. Maybe invent minimalism right quick.” But no. It’s all full out. In terms of logistics, they have serious rules about being in the Sistine Chapel – women and men have to have their knees and shoulders covered, you have to be silent, and no pictures are allowed. It’s an intensely spiritual experience, and the Vatican works hard to ensure that. It’s also an experience that I believe is made better because you can’t worry about trying to get the right lighting and you aren’t looking past the phones and cameras. You just look at the art and take the few moments to reflect.

Piazza di San Pietro

Piazza di San Pietro

Afterwards, we were waiting for a bus to take us back at a stop about two blocks away from St Peter’s Square. We had just marveled, oohed and ahhed, and selfied away at the Basilica. It’s gigantic and amazing. But all of a sudden there was this man who was walking along the street by the bus stop, in not the best clothes, with untrimmed hair, picking up half smoked cigarettes. Suddenly, the day was put into perspective. Seeing a da Vinci was amazing, but it’s also amazing to consistently have enough money for meals. Some people have one or the other, some have neither. I have both. I’m so thankful for that.