Feeling Off Balance

“Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things – air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky – all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.” – Cesare Pavese

I can definitely identify with the statement above in different ways. I think Cesare Pavese was trying to say that traveling can be a brutality when you’re unwilling to adapt to your new environment. My host university, BOKU (University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences) recently had an Easter break, and in a matter of three weeks I traveled to 12 cities in 6 countries. No, of course not alone! I traveled with two other girlfriends, and in order we traveled to: Bratislava, Slovakia; London, England; Paris, France (my favorite city in the world), Bergamo, Milan, Verona, Venice, Florence, Pisa in Italy, to the Vatican City and Rome in Italy, and finally Chania on the Crete Islands of Greece.



Lots of colorful buildings in Venice!


Essentially, nothing was ours. We had the luxury of hostels and everything that was provided to us, but since we weren’t staying in each place for a long period of time, the only thing we could call our own were the adventures we had, the laughs we shared, and the foods we ate. Not necessarily the material things, but the essential things. Nothing actually felt like our own until we were compelled to visit a McDonald’s during our stay in Verona. We called it a safe haven. We didn’t know the hostel we chose to stay at didn’t have WiFi, and we still had assignments to complete for online classes and the need to communicate with our families which required internet access. Situations like this definitely threw me off balance and required that I become resilient, and recognize that life isn’t going to fall apart because I don’t have something I’ve had all of my life. I know I was a bit melodramatic when we were told that were going to be WiFi for three days. Veritably, I got to know my two friends better than I expected during that time. Side note: don’t take internet access for granted!



Holding the tower up.


I have more stories to share about my life experiences than I’ve ever had before. Each story is shocking, funny, and some, unbelievable. Our adventures include: eating a traditional English breakfast, visiting Kensington Palace, home of Prince William and Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton, riding a train underwater from London to Paris, going to the very top of the Eiffel Tower, eating a crepe every day in Paris because it felt like the Parisian thing to do, dancing in front of Le Louvre museum, seeing the Mona Lisa herself, spending Easter in Milan, rubbing the statue of Juliet from Shakepeare’s Romeo and Juliet for good luck (an Italian tradition), exploring different parts of the beautiful city of Venice, discovering my love for spaghetti with clams, holding the leaning Tower of Pisa upright, eating pasta and gelato every day because it felt like the Italian thing to do, visiting the smallest country in the world (Vatican City) and sitting through the hottest communion service just to see Pope Francis, having a beach for a backyard in Chania, and experiencing European humility like none other from the locals there.



Gelato fever.



After traveling to ten different cities and getting a feel of their different cultures, I can definitely say that Paris is my favorite city in the entire world. I’m not sure if it’s because my three years of high school French was finally useful, but I felt right at home from the second we arrived. I’m appreciative to have shared this unforgettable experience with now two lifelong friends.



Beautiful views of Chania, Greece.



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Expectations vs. Reality: FOOD, Part I

If my brain had an equivalent of Google’s most frequently asked questions, I believe my top 3 would look something like this:

  1. Is that a really a job? (Something I ask myself when I witness yet another five people handing out flyers on the street for restaurants, or a women stationed at the bathroom to hand me a piece of toilet paper.)
  2.  Do I  eat this? (Synonymous with “What is this?”)
  3. What is Chilean food?

I do not believe that any of these questions have specific answers. This post aims to explore the realm of possibilities for question #3 of my FAQs.

The question “what do the inhabitants of [insert country here] eat?” is tricky no matter the geographical coordinates. It’s a question of great importance, but requires you to acknowledge that a country is not one homogeneous culture, but a group of individuals with different tastes and interests. Inhabitants of the United States may eat pizza, french fries, and hamburgers, but that answers also veers towards over-generalization. One must trod on the topic of food and gastronomy with careful feet and a conscious mind!

I can admit with some amount of shame that my idea of Chilean food before leaving the United States was based on what I found at local Mexican restaurants and the inaccurate correlation of Spanish-speaking individuals and rice and beans. I briefly looked up images on Google before I departed for my semester abroad. I arrived on the Chilean food scene with a mix of ignorance, naivety, and a big case of never-been-out-of-the-country. Fortunately, I’ve tried enough food in the last two months to share a bit of my observations.

Fast Food

I’ve been living with a host family who provides me with a lot of my meals, however this post is focused on the food I’ve eaten outside of my house which I’ve deemed here as “fast food” for a lack of a better term. I mean no negative connotations.

While Vina Del Mar does yield a surprising amount of mainstream fast food joints such as McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, and Popeye’s Chicken, I believe that Chilean fast food is something different altogether. I’ve tried both McDonald’s and Pizza Hut out of curiosity and an insatiable urge to eat pizza. Though the McDonald’s here in Chile is gigantic– containing a large playland, a separate cafe for their coffee-related drinks, two stories of seating area, and the occasional weekend DJ– the menu was limited, my burger was lukewarm, my french fries uncharacteristically under cooked, and the bill was a reflection of the trend rather than the cheap.

My experience with Pizza Hut was slightly better. I had a personal veggie pizza that cost way too much money and included corn as a topping. I’ve learned now to expect corn on pizza here and have become quite fond of it. Also my friends and I ordered the cinnamon dessert sticks to treat our homesickness, dreaming about the creamy icing, however when they arrived at our table they were presented without icing and instead accompanied by a small bowl of jelly.

The real treasure of fast food in Chile is the underwhelming, often overlooked tiny “diners” that are numerous and often offer what appears to be a continuous cycle of similar specials. Here you will find completos, chorillana, empanada, and all sorts of variation on the sandwich that will probably come with a bebida y papas fritas (beverage and fries).

While none of these fast food joints immediately seem to be blue ribbon options, I’ve learned that Chileans know what they’re good at, and they stick to it. They don’t need to wow your socks off because they already have loyal followers.




My friend Brittany and the famed giant completo. Yes, she ate the whole thing.


The completo is what I thought to be a glorified hot dog upon first arrival to Chile. I’ve recently come to the conclusion that it’s not even about the meat, but everything that comes with it. The completo, generally coming in both a normal size and a giant size, is a hot dog on a bun with mayonnaise, avocado, tomatoes, and usually a form of sauerkraut. Completos are consumed for lunch, for dinner, at 3 am, on your way to class, when you want to grab a snack with your friend, etc. Many are prepared with a bit of variation but one consistent factor is there are never enough napkins and generally a lack of plate. Extra points if the bun is toasted.




This plate feeds 2-3 people. Look at the flavor.


Imagine french fries. Imagine french fries topped with sauteed onions. Imagine french fries topped with sauteed onions, chopped hot dog, and cuts of beef. Now imagine this in large portions. You’ve got the chorillana. I visited the christened birth place of the chorillana, a restaurant in Valparaiso by the name of Jota Cruz. It’s located at the end of a long skinny alley and the walls of the restaurant are collaged with passport photos and customers’ words of thank you and other really random but exciting junk. The restaurant is not large and when you sit down at the wooden tables with table cloths littered with previous customers’ scribbles, you feel as if you are sitting down to eat dinner in the center of the local flea market. The only thing the waiter asks is if you want the large sized chorillanas or the extra large sized, which may be an inaccurate recount of the sizes because I only remember the way he motioned his hands to demonstrate the monstrous plate sizes.


jota cruz

The interior of the famed Jota Cruz is part of the perfect dining experience.

jota cruz again

Impossible to be bored while eating.



I cannot say too much about the sandwiches here in Chile because I am still working my way through trying several. I can only say that the common factors of all types of sandwiches, no matter the meat, are a lot of cheese and even more avocado. And of course good ol’ Chilean bread. Yum. I’ve discovered a restaurant that serves giant sandwiches that I want to try. The buns are about the size of a dinner plate and they are grilled to perfection.



empanada love

Pictured here is one Chilean ID, one happy human (me), and two empanadas.


While the empanada is found in many Latin American countries and also parts of Europe, Chile is a major player in empanada consumption just as well. Recently I took a trip to the small town of Pomaire, home of many artisans and also the 1/2 kilo empanada. The empanada is a stuffed bread or pastry and the possibilities of fillings are endless. My favorite is the cheesy, scrumptious shrimp empanada I occasionally buy from a small family run shop half way up one of Valparaiso’s hills. The typical Chilean empanada would be the empanada de pino which includes beef, hard boiled eggs, onions, olives, and sometimes raisins. The best part about empanadas being in abundance is that you can get a fantastic empanada for less than $1.


I’ve found that navigating restaurant menus and trying foreign foods is one of the most painless ways to dive into a new culture. It’s also a reasonable excuse to spend too much time at bakeries. Nonetheless, consider this a brief, surface introduction to the world of Chilean culinary arts. Expect more to come!


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Learning to Say Yes

I think I have changed quite a bit since the start of my study abroad experience in Morocco, but in a good way. The core of myself is the same, and I still have similar hopes and ambitions, but the way I look at and make decisions is a bit different. Looking back on my life before study abroad, I can remember that I was lacking some self sufficiency. I was open to having new experiences, but within a certain range. I didn’t have much confidence in doing things alone in a country where I did not speak the language. Taking taxis, trains, and renting apartments all seemed like hurdles I would struggle with. And they were when I first came to Morocco, but at this point in my semester, they are simple, painless, and sometimes exciting everyday tasks.


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A taxi driving past a protest in Marrakesh.


Although I have not improved my Arabic as much as I had hoped, I have learned enough to have simple conversations with taxi drivers who light up whenever I ask them how they are doing in Darija (Moroccan Arabic). My negotiating skills in Arabic have improved quite a bit. Sliding in a bit of Darija, and calling the taxi driver or merchant “brother” usually softens them up a bit, or at least puts a smile on their face.

I was very concerned about being able to cook for myself while completing the independent study portion of my study abroad. I had never really cooked much before, aside from breakfast and a sandwich here and there. The two other American students I was staying with are gluten intolerant and vegetarian. The food they made was not my cup of tea, to be honest. So I had to dive in, and try my hand at the easiest things I saw my dad make at home: pasta, pizza, and calzone. Yes, I know, stereotypical Italian, but it’s supposed to be easy, so I thought I should give it a shot. The pasta went by without a hitch, easy enough. Next was the calzone. We went to the grocery store to look for pre-made dough and they didn’t have it. I was going to have to make dough from scratch. I used the ever useful internet to find the ingredients and followed the recipe step by step. I made dough, with my own hands, and it was good. The filling of spinach, olives, and mushrooms was perfect, if I must say so myself. Now, when I go back home to the United States, the kitchen will no longer be just a place for my dad and his culinary expertise. There is a new cook in town, and he learned how to make pizza and calzone in Marrakesh.


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My first successful calzone.


Generally, I think I have become much more relaxed and willing to say yes to things I probably would not have before, and I am so glad I did. Do I want to stay at an Algerian film student’s house in Marrakesh for a week and a half? Why, certainly. Do I want to wake up at 6:00 am to watch the sun rise over the Sahara? Don’t mind if I do. Do I want to go with my friend to bear witness to Moroccan bureaucracy as he pays his traffic ticket and unwittingly get snuck into a Moroccan-only courthouse. Uh, yeah, sure, okay, why not. Probably don’t want to do the last one again, but it was an interesting experience. These experiences have, I believe, made me a more open person: someone who can see the benefit in experiences that might seem a bit uncomfortable, but that yield rewards that are worth it. If I had not done these things, I would not have seen things, or met people that have made my experience what it has been. Although it can be a bit uncomfortable to be pushed outside your comfort zone, you can come out a better, more experienced person.


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The view from Rami’s apartment in Marrakesh.



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Robert Goes Kayaking

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Filed under Robert in Argentina, Video Bloggers

An Inside Look at the Refugee Crisis

I think that throughout this blog, I’ve made it clear how much I have come to love my host country. Greek culture, tradition, and people fascinate me, and my gradual assimilation into the ways of this country (albeit far from complete) has granted me the experience of a lifetime. Inherent in this culture is a love of people, and a general respect for all humanity. With the crisis at hand, refugees have been pouring into Greece from many different countries, most known, Syria and Turkey. While many other European countries have closed their borders to the refugees or set a cap on how many they will accept, Greece continues to aid those who are able to make it here, even in this period of economic hardship for themselves. Knowing this before I studied abroad attracted me to Greece, and now that I am here I have had the unique opportunity to volunteer with some refugees first hand.



A group of refugees in their tents at Piraeus Port.


There are several organizations here to help the refugees, from assisting with food and clothing to playing with the children and helping them become familiar with English. I chose to work with Caritas Hellas, a non-governmental organization located in Omonia not far from my home in Pangrati. Caritas Hellas has a soup kitchen and distributes clothing, toys, and medical information about women’s health. The area I work in depends on the day. When there are many volunteers I may end up in the clothing room, distributing clothes to those who need it. When there are few, the clothing room is closed and everyone helps in the soup kitchen. The managing volunteers do most of the cooking, and my job may be to help slice bread, fill up glasses of water, or when the refugees are let in, distribute the food or help to clean as they leave.

When there are many volunteers, we spill over into the next section, the clothing room. The problem with this is that when volunteers fail to come, those in need are unable to get clothing. When in the clothing room we go through bags of donations, sorting them into different racks by the ages of the children who can wear them. This makes things a little difficult, because ages can range for people within the same clothing size. When the clock hits 12 and mothers start to come in with their children, it can become very confusing and very crowded very quickly. This may be the most challenging part of my volunteering, besides the language barrier. At this point, I can get by with my Greek, but Arabic and the various other languages spoken by the refugees are beyond foreign to me. When helping a mother find clothes for her daughter she was trying to explain that she needed the shoulders covered. In hindsight I should have known this, but I didn’t understand. It took several minutes and a lot of gesturing for me to understand exactly what it was she was asking.



Me in the clothing room at Caritas.


Nevertheless, the appreciation and kindness of most of the people there who receive help is astounding. To see people so grateful for the bare necessities they need just to survive is a great reminder of how luck works in the world–the opportunities you have are greatly correlated to the circumstances you’re born into. As someone from a first world, power country where human rights are guaranteed, realizing that others have to fight, flee, or die for what I take for granted is incredibly humbling. It’s easy too, to feel guilty when looking back on the things I worry about–my classes, future, etc.– when watching people who have left everything behind, carrying their tents on their backs with their children, asking for help wherever they can get it. It’s been a great realization though, and a reminder to count my blessings that I will forever appreciate. Although my impact is small, I’m glad to be in a position where I can offer a helping hand when needed.

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Food Adventures in Thailand

Before my study abroad experience, when I first started getting interested in Thailand, the first images that came to mind were of a tropical paradise, Buddhism, and the amazing food. I’ve learned that Thailand has many things to offer but its cuisine is one of the most popular around the world and living here I can understand why.

Thailand has a very food-driven culture. From morning until the moment they go to bed people here seem to always be eating. There is food everywhere and at all times. You go out and in less than a minute you can find a food stall, selling anything from fruits, snacks, to complete meals. There is an immense variety of foods from street food, to simple meals in small restaurants, to more sophisticated and hip places where you go get your coffee. There is something for everyone and everything is extremely cheap. You will never go hungry and if you are on a diet, good luck.


Stylish Street Food Festival in Bangkok to promote tourists to try it.


Some food we sampled at the festival.

When I was looking for an apartment for my semester abroad I realized that the majority of places didn’t have kitchens and if they did they were very expensive. I found this very odd because even as a college student I’m used to cooking for myself and since my home university doesn’t have dorms everyone lives in houses or apartments where we cook because is cheaper than eating out. Here this is completely different, and it is actually cheaper to rent an apartment with no kitchen and eat out everyday than to have a kitchen and prepare food for yourself.

I became to realize that eating out is the norm here. Women in Thailand used to stay at home doing the chores and cooking for their families, and now what we see is that more women have entered the work force and there is not enough time to cook. This has become part of the culture and all of the people eating out or to buying prepared food to bring home has made food cheap and accessible. Even so, dinner remains a very important family-oriented meal where families get together to eat after a long day of school and work.

Food in Thailand is very different than the United States. Here food is prepared to have a balance of many different flavors: spicy, sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. Together all of these flavors create amazing food. Taking a course on Thai Cuisine has allowed me to learn more in depth about the importance of the ingredients and the history of the food. As an exchange student and traveler I feel that we have to be open and try everything to taste and understand the culture that is hosting us. Everything I’ve tried has been interesting, from the delicious pad thai to the mystery meat that we still haven’t figured out what it was. All of it has been a big foodie experience.


Famous Thai dishes we prepared during a workshop in our Thai Cuisine class.

Eating here has become an adventure that all of the international students enjoy and though we sometimes struggle to understand some of the cultural norms and the language here in Thailand, food is something that we can enjoy with everyone despite the language barrier.

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Identity Confusion in the Mediterranean

I would like to preface this post by clarifying a few terms. When I use the terms Southern Italy, Mezzogiorno, or Neapolitan, I am referring to the area, culture, or ethnicity of Southern Italy that was the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies prior to Piedmontese colonization. I am making that distinction because for all intents and purposes Southern Italy is culturally, linguistically, historically, and ethnically (generally) different from that of the North. 

When I first started learning about the Middle East, I was not expecting there to be much overlap, if any, with my Italian culture. I saw Italy as a unified, monolithic country that was part of Europe. Europe was separate from the Middle East and the Middle East was separate from North Africa. The only thing that they had in common was that they happened to share the Mediterranean Sea. At the same time I was learning about the Middle East and North Africa, I was also learning about the history of the Mezzogiorno. I read Terroni by Pino Aprile, countless articles, and had endless conversations with my father and other members of my family about what the Mezzogiorno was like before we were colonized by the Piedmontese. We were a multi-ethnic society and culture, the result of centuries of invasions by the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, and Spanish. Our language, our food, and what we looked like was a result of that. How we treat our dead, a tradition that has been traced back to ancient Egypt, and is a kind of mummification, something I witnessed firsthand with the death of my grandfather. When the Piedmontese (who were financed by the French, and supported by the British) colonized us, our history, culture, and language was disrupted. We were told that our language wasn’t the language of the new country, and wasn’t “proper.” We were told that our culture was dirty and we needed to be “civilized.” We were forced out of our land and our future was taken from us. Those who were able to move, moved to North Italy and abroad and faced further discrimination unless they rejected their history and who they were. Those who stayed were forced to live in poverty and shame, while being told that they deserved to live like that.

Despite these conditions, the Mezzogiorno maintained their identity, even though they were pressured to be ashamed of it. So, what does it mean to be Neapolitan? That is the question I have been struggling with. I don’t want to say I’m Italian because that implies that Italy is one, unified country and culture and the South is not an internal colony. Although my roots are probably mostly Greek, I have no family there, nor any personal connection to the country. I can’t call myself Arab because I am not a native Arabic speaker nor do I really know how much Arab influence is in my family. The Spanish and Norman influence was more political than cultural. So what am I left with? Now, you’re probably asking, what does this have to do with my study abroad experience in Morocco? I’m getting there, bear with me. I would like to mention before I continue that Morocco, as many other countries, is ethnically, culturally, geographically, and religiously diverse, and I do not intend to disregard these diversities, but rather look at the similarities. The Mediterranean has many layers, and I am focusing on one of those many layers.


nonno e nonna

My grandmother Zoe and my grandfather Alberto.


When I got to Morocco, as I mentioned in previous posts, I was overwhelmed at first, but then I was comfortable because I was able to find a remarkable amount of similarities between Rabat and Naples, Italy. The way people spoke, their gestures, the merchants yelling, the poverty, the family structure, the disorganization, the food. But there was also something else. There was something that I could not quite put my finger on that made me feel like I was home, in a way. However, when I tried to explain this to my other American friends, they did not understand what I was saying. They looked at me, and looked at the people around me, and the environment and did not understand the connection. I tried to communicate this to some of our instructors, and I did get somewhat of a positive response from my program director, who is Moroccan. He said that there are similarities between Morocco and Italy, but politics get in the way of us forming a more cohesive Mediterranean. He told me when he went to southern Spain, he said it felt like he was back in Morocco. I agreed with him, and it was the most reassuring response I had gotten to that point, but something was still missing.

About a week ago I relocated within Morocco for my program’s independent study project. Myself and two other American students have been staying with an Algerian film student named Rami in an apartment in Marrakesh. On one of the first nights, a couple of his friends came over, another Algerian, and a Tunisian names Mehdi. I mentioned that I am Southern Italian and we started talking about the Mediterranean. Mehdi started talking about how he, along with a lot of Tunisians, have an identity crisis because they don’t know what to call themselves. He went on to say that his roots are technically Turkish because of the Ottoman Empire, but Tunisia was also invaded by the Arabs. But he doesn’t relate as much to Arab culture because he doesn’t feel a connection to the Gulf, a region he thinks is truly Arab. Additionally, Tunisia was also a big trading partner with a lot of other Mediterranean countries, therefore it is extremely diverse. So I asked him, what does he call himself? He responded by saying Mediterranean. I asked him if a lot of Tunisian people identify as Mediterranean, and he said not everyone, but a lot of people do.


Rami .jpg

Rami, from Algeria, who is hosting us in his apartment in Marrakesh.


Another one of Rami’s friends came over, and he is Moroccan. Rami starts to tell a joke: “There were two Algerians, a Moroccan, a Tunisian, and an American…” Mehdi interrupts him and points out that I am Southern Italian, and the Moroccan guy that just came in says “Oh, a neighbor!”
A couple of days later, we were eating dinner and we started talking about identity again, and Rami said that he can trace his roots back to an Arab tribe, but he has a hard time relating to that because he is so light-skinned. Responding to that, Mehdi said that sometimes people don’t know he is from Tunisia because he is quite light too, and people make fun of him, thinking he can’t understand what they say. He went on to say that it was interesting that we were having this conversation together, because it is what his family and friends have been talking about since he was a kid.



Mehdi from Tunisia.


This issue of identity in the Mediterranean is very, very complex. I am not writing this post as a researcher, or an expert in any way. I am simply writing this to explain how I feel, and how other people in the region might feel. I am aware that not everyone in the Mediterranean feels the same way me and my friends did while having this discussion. There are people who really closely associate with Arab, Greek, Spanish, Lebanese, Amazigh culture, etc. and that is perfectly fine. Most people, as Rami said, simply don’t know enough about our similarities to feel any kind of connection to one another. However I am grateful that I was able to find these four people from different countries, who under similar circumstances and historical contexts, felt the same identity confusion I did. I am proud to feel a deeper connection to my fellow Mediterraneans after exploring this issue with them.

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