La Vita Nuova | Year Abroad Adventures

Sunday, 26 November 2017

Italy’s “Most Haunted”: Poveglia by Dragon Boat

November 26, 2017 5
Italy’s “Most Haunted”: Poveglia by Dragon Boat

Have you ever heard of Poveglia? It’s a tiny island between Venice and Lido, and it’s had its fair share of news articles from mainstream outlets and websites dedicated to documenting the supernatural. It was first brought to my attention when it was auctioned in 2014 and sold to businessman Luigi Brugnaro. Now, I’m not a big believer in ghosts, but it still gave me the creeps and I firmly decided not to ever go (just in case).

Well, that plan didn't really work out. 😛

During my time at university in Venice, I’ve been learning to paddle in dragon boats. If you’ve never heard of the sport, it originated from Chinese folk rituals, and today many people from around the world participate in races. It’s super fun, especially in sunny weather, when you can essentially row yourself along the Venice canals and see the sights from an unconventional angle. I won’t cover everything about them now, since I’ll probably write a full post about dragon boating… But here’s a picture of a fancy painted one to give you an idea! (Ours are just plain white for training.)
European Dragon Boat Championships 2000
It’s getting a bit too cold for regular lessons now, but to finish off this season of dragon boating we went on a morning expedition to one of the nearby islands. It wasn’t until we were already on the way that our instructor started saying things like “20 minutes and we’ll be at Poveglia!” – at first I wondered if he was joking (since almost no one actually visits it), but when I realised he wasn’t… I low-key freaked out! What if the rumours were true and we ran into something spooky?

I must admit, the morning fog was not helping my fears either.
Poveglia 01 by FOTOlogie on Flickr
After some time paddling in the direction of the island and barely seeing anything at all for the fog, the first shadowy shapes of Poveglia emerged from the mist. It was seriously like being in a horror movie! We steered the boats down a canal lined by unruly vegetation, and parked them by a bank and a very precarious-looking bridge. From that point, we had 15-20 minutes to look around the island before we headed back to base at Sacca Fisola for food. (Unfortunately I had left my camera back there to go paddling, so these photos of the island aren't my own.)

The rumour is that Poveglia’s soil is anything up to 50% human ash, so it’s not the most encouraging ground to step onto on a chilly morning. That said, we had a few children and their parents who had tagged along for the trip, and their happy shouting after the instructor’s dog definitely made the atmosphere less oppressive.

The general impression of the part of Poveglia we explored is that it’s a little overgrown. (Less so than you might expect actually, considering it’s been abandoned.) I did come across a table and chairs (left out as if for a picnic or barbecue), a wooden giraffe, and a few posters which seem to have been made to promote the island as a tourist location, with information on some ruined buildings and landmarks. It’s really hard to tell how old these are, but since there doesn't seem to have been much renovation, I can’t imagine they’re especially new.
After a quick walk around we met back at the bridge to cross the canal. This made me quite apprehensive, as it’s a wooden bridge with no guard rails which seems to be slowly decaying in parts. It’s wide enough that you can walk across without too much worry, but the flimsy wood didn’t exactly fill me with confidence. For what it’s worth, no one fell in the canal! We took a group photo by one of the buildings, and headed back to the boats to go home. We got a good view of the old psychiatric hospital on the way out – I feel like I would’ve gotten a much creepier idea of the island if I had gone inside there… 😰 Once back, we enjoyed some roasted chestnuts (it was my first time trying them: they’re pretty nice!), sandwiches, snacks, and cake. Don’t mind if I do! ❤️ Our instructor’s dog also got a chance to dry off, as the poor thing fell in the water in her excitement.
Cooking the chestnuts!
In hindsight, it was perhaps a shame that we didn’t have more time to look around Poveglia, seeing as it’s so rare to get to visit it. I feel very, very lucky to have stepped on its shores, despite how creepy it may have seemed at the time. I certainly didn’t have any spooky experiences, but who knows… It’s a very unique story for me to tell, so I’m grateful for the whole experience!

Have you guys ever been anywhere spooky or haunted? I’d love to hear about your experiences…

Sunday, 19 November 2017

Bella Bologna: A Journey Through the City

November 19, 2017 4
Bella Bologna: A Journey Through the City

Going back to Bologna with ESN and my fellow Erasmus students was a real treat – I'd visited the city for the first time back in Easter with my family, but it was great to go back with a student's perspective. In fact, with the help of our guide (who was a student at Bologna's university), I learned a lot of new, interesting things about the history of this "red city"!

One of the original gates into the historical city
After arriving by train, we started the day in a similar way to how we started our Trieste trip: with a tour by student guides. We began at one of the original gates to the city – unfortunately not all of them still exist, but it's still nice to see history being preserved. The impression I got from Bologna on this visit is that it's full of intriguing stories, although many are tinged with a mythical element so it's hard to tell what's true and what's not!
Bologna's streets are characterised by their arches
Walking through the distinctive red streets (most of which are filled with people more often than not!) and arches, we heard about all sorts of city legends. These included the Latin inscriptions hidden under arches which translate to "bread is life, cannabis is protection, wine is happiness", the fact that the façades on buildings around the Piazza Maggiore apparently only serve to make it look nicer, and the story of three villains being distracted by a naked woman, missing their target and shooting arrows into the ceiling (where they remain to this day at the entrance of Corte Isolani)... I was overwhelmed by the amount of stories I learned about, but I'll describe some of the most interesting ones for you guys!
Palazzo ComunaleStatue of Pope Gregory XIII
The first relates to the Palazzo Comunale in Piazza Maggiore, and its enduring statue of Pope Gregory XIII. The story goes that when Napoleon arrived in Bologna and ordered that all papal effigies be destroyed, this beloved statue was preserved by fooling him into thinking it was a saint instead. How, you ask? A staff (a common signifier of a saint) was placed in his raised hand and the Latin text "Divus Petronius" (Saint Petronius/San Petronio) was inscribed above the statue. Amazingly, the plan worked: today the statue can be seen with the staff removed, but the "Divus Petronius" text remains as a memory of those events.
The outside of the San Petronio Basilica...and the inside.
Also in the Piazza Maggiore is a damaged pavement left by the American liberation tanks after World War II, preserved for the sake of memory. There's also the San Petronio Basilica, inside of which I discovered a gorgeous, peaceful church complete with an orchestra playing ethereal music! It was one of the most memorable visits to a basilica I've had so far (and trust me, you visit a lot of religious buildings while travelling around Italy). The building itself remains technically "unfinished" in a couple of ways. Firstly, the main decorative façade was never fully completed. More interesting to me, however, is the cut-off window which is testament to how the original vision for this building was never brought to fruition. The church would have been built in the shape of a cross and would have been larger than Rome's St. Peter's Basilica – however, the Catholic Church bought land beside the construction site (possibly because they wanted Rome's church to be the biggest) and forced these plans to be halted. The pictures below show how this fascinating window really does differ from those found on the rest of the building!
Normal windowsThe cut-off window
On the way to the final stop on our guided tour, the two Towers of Bologna, we stopped for a quick tale about the balcony on the Palazzo della Mercanzia (pictured below). The University of Bologna is the oldest in the world, but in the middle ages, it seems being a student there would have been much more stressful! A man would stand on this balcony every morning and scream the names of students who owed money to the university for everyone to hear. Since debt was considered much more shameful than it is today, this was very detrimental for families' reputations, so students were pressured to pay up.
Palazzo della Mercanzia
Of course, no trip to Bologna would be complete without seeing Le Due Torri (the Two Towers) – Torre della Garisenda (the shorter of the two) and Torre degli Asinelli. You can climb Torre degli Asinelli (since it's taller and doesn't lean as much as Garisenda), but I didn't for fear of the superstition that if you climb it as a student, you won't graduate. I'm not particularly superstitious but... I'd rather not risk it. Some other time!
Le Due Torri: della Garisenda (left) and degli Asinelli (right)  
After the end of the guided tour, I took my time walking around and going inside a few of the religious buildings, such as the San Petronio Basilica and the Basilica di Santo Stefano (also known as Le Sette Chiese – "the seven churches"). They were rather different inside and in Santo Stefano especially there was a lot more to explore than originally expected. If you're well-versed in the ways of visiting Italian churches, check them out!
Bologna's market streetsA guitar player by Piazza Santo Stefano
The market streets of Bologna are also very charming – there's something lovely about fresh fruit, vegetables and fish all being sold on the street, and I love that bustling environment! I'm a real fan of wandering around a new city and just seeing what you find; you don't always have to make a beeline for the main attractions to have a good time. Also, shout out to that guy owning it on the guitar! I came across a lot of street music that Saturday, from guitars to live singing to harps, which also added to the great atmosphere.
A Sex on the Beach cocktail at aperitivo! ❤️
I met up again with everyone for the aperitivo in the evening, because what's a day out in Italy without good food and drink?! In Bologna, our food was served in more of a buffet style, meaning you went inside to get a plate and grabbed however much food you wanted. It was awesome, and there were tons of options that the staff brought out throughout the evening to suit everyone! It was definitely one of my favourite aperitivo evenings.
Santuario di San Luca (close-up)From far away...
That was the end of the day trip with ESN, but, there's one more place I'd like to show you! Back in Easter I took the San Luca Express (a "bus" service that is actually one of those novelty train rides) up to the Santuario di San Luca (pictured above). You can also walk all the way up the hill to get to it, since there is a pedestrian path, but it really is a long trek so I'd definitely just take the "train" if you don't have at least half a day or so to spare! 😛 Regardless, it's an absolutely breathtaking building with a great view from the top of the hill, and I wouldn't want to leave it out of any Bologna article.
Le Due Torri as seen from below, at night
I'd like to learn more about local legends in Venice and other cities... if you guys have any interesting ones in mind, I'd love to hear them!

Thursday, 2 November 2017

5 Ways to Deal with Stress and Anxiety on a Year Abroad

November 02, 2017 0
5 Ways to Deal with Stress and Anxiety on a Year Abroad

Stress and anxiety are a part of all our lives, whether we like it or not. I've suffered from both myself in my first couple of months of living in Venice, whether it's a result of university work, the Italian bureaucracy, or simply the struggle of suddenly having to juggle a double life.

I got quite a shock when I realised that due to lectures every weekday on my Venice timetable (plus 30-40 minute journeys there and back either on foot or by vaporetto), and more homework than expected, there isn't much time to fit in my translation project for Cambridge and even less free time for anything else! To make matters worse, dealing with any sort of administration in Italy is a major hassle – good luck getting anything sorted out within a week! It's one of those situations where you have to just accept the things you can't change, but it is unfortunate. My Erasmus paperwork has been a special kind of nightmare recently, with signatures going back and forth and sending emails to everyone in the hope of not missing my deadlines... With all this going on, my year abroad sometimes feels like the furthest thing from "the best year of my life" that so many people expect it to be.

Luckily, I don't experience those sorts of feelings every day, and I have a lot of good days where I realise just how lucky I am to be able to live in Venice for a whole year! I'd argue that stress never quite goes away, but there are ways to manage it, even when it feels like home (and your support network) is a million miles away!

Apart from the normal stress relievers like eating well (which is never as easy as it seems for a student), exercise, and getting plenty of sleep, here are five other way to cope that work for me:

1) Plan your workload (daily, if possible)!

Some planning from inside my Hobonichi Cousin
When it feels like you're about to be snowed under by an overwhelming amount of work, deadlines and responsibilities, sitting down and planning out exactly what needs to be done (and when) can really calm you down. I know I have a lot of days where I manage to paralyse myself with fear by thinking about how much stuff I need to do when I get home. You can use a paper planner, an online calendar, or even just a plain notebook – the idea is to spend a few minutes setting your priorities straight and scheduling your various tasks sensibly.

Everyone has their own style when it comes to planning, of course, so do whatever is most comfortable and makes most sense to you! For example, colour-coding helps me immensely, and I like to divide tasks between various classes, social things and general life stuff. I'm also a bit of a crazy planner person, so I love paper planners and stationery. If you also use a paper planner (or even just want to plan your days with a blank notebook) I'd really recommend trying the bullet journal system if you haven't already, as it's super flexible! I actually use a version of it in my Hobonichi Cousin, so I'll definitely do a proper write-up about it at some point.

You might also want to draw out a weekly chart or a timeline of events for every day – I usually use a daily timeline to block off any lectures or social events that I know are happening, so I can schedule everything else I need to do around that! I also make sure to make a note of any deadlines that are coming up, so I know exactly what needs to be done first and what can wait until later. It can be very helpful to get into an evening routine of planning for the next day too. Ultimately, if you make a plan of action that suits you (and stick to it!), it should help you avoid feeling so overwhelmed.

2) Talk to other students (especially other internationals)

Some of my fellow Erasmus students (from our recent Trieste trip)
One of the key things that helped me put my Erasmus stress into perspective was talking to my roommate about it. While I was worrying about my own deadlines, she mentioned that (being from a country outside of the EU) she would soon have to go to the police and apply for a renewal of her residence permit for Italy. To me, that sounded a lot more stressful, and I counted myself lucky!

Talking to other people in a similar position to you certainly helps, because the reality is that you're usually not alone in your troubles. If you're doing a year abroad at a university with an ESN (Erasmus Student Network) branch, use it! I've been incredibly lucky that ESN Venezia runs so many events that help you meet other international students and take part in exciting activities together. However, if you don't have a resource like that available, I'd recommend taking up a sport or joining some sort of club – you might find some international students there to share your experiences with, or if not, you could still make some friends with students in your host country. You could also keep in touch with anyone else from your university who is doing a year abroad, either via a Facebook/WhatsApp group or simply sending them a message from time to time.

It takes a bit of pushing yourself sometimes, but it really is worth putting yourself out there and finding new friends to support you while you're away from home. Equally, your friends from home will still be very happy to hear from you if you ever want to chat!

3) Go for a walk

One of many Venetian streets I discovered on a walk!
If I start going a bit stir-crazy after a whole day of working in my room, going out for a walk (even just a short one down to the supermarket) really helps me to clear my head and put things into perspective. My theory is that seeing the rest of the world going on outside makes me realise that the small things I'm worrying about don't really matter so much. 😊

You can go grab some milk from the shop down the road or take a longer route round to that landmark you haven't had a chance to check out yet – it is ultimately up to you and what will make you feel best. In this downtime, you could discover a cute, quiet place to relax, or an interesting little street... any number of things. If you head towards a more central area of your city, you might run into someone you already know, too!

It might seem like you've got no time to spare, but if you do make some time to get out of your own thoughts, you might just feel a lot better for it.

4) Set aside some time for a hobby

Skullgirls (2012)
Some people are perfectly happy with a busy, work-hard-play-hard kind of lifestyle. I'm personally a bit of an introvert, so going to a lot of fun social events on top of lectures can tire me out and leave me wondering when I'll get a day to myself. For better or worse, those are pretty rare! So, it can be a good idea to set aside a little bit of time for something more chill.

I usually use this time as an end-of-the-day reward once I get the day's work done. Depending on when I finish, I'll take anything between 30 mins to a couple of hours before bed to watch some TV/YouTube, play a video game, write for the blog (woah, meta)... Anything goes! The important thing is to chill out and take some time for yourself in amongst all the chaos that is a year abroad. The reason I do this in the evening is because I know I'm easily distracted from my work, so if you're similar this is an effective way of getting around it. But if you can comfortably take an hour out and get straight back into the groove, go for it!

(And, when you do get that rare day to yourself, enjoy it!)

5) Call home (or if you're close enough, visit!)

Magdalene Bridge, Cambridge, UK
It seems an obvious point, but it is amazing how talking to family or friends for a little while can lift the weight off your shoulders. I've certainly had days where I've felt really down, and then brightened up after a sudden call from my mum or my boyfriend. The people closest to you are usually those who will be most understanding towards any difficulties you're having, and they'll be there for you when you need a bit of emotional support. Once again, this is a way to put seemingly stressful things into perspective – talking it through with someone who will listen can help you think more clearly about how to proceed, and you can get advice too!

Although not everyone on a year abroad is fortunate enough to be able to go home often, for me Italy is close enough to England that I can (I live very close to Stansted airport). It's sometimes hard not to feel like you're cheating and that you should stick it out for the whole year, but there's no shame in coming home for a few days to regroup. It also gives you a great chance to catch up with your friends and loved ones, and reassure yourself that you really aren't all alone in the world (despite how it feels sometimes)!

In the end, I think the key to dealing with stress and anxiety well is consistently trying to uphold a few good habits like these. (I'm not always good at this myself, but I try my best!) Remember that it's okay for things to not be perfect all the time, or even most of the time – the most important thing is to take care of yourself so you can keep going even when things are difficult. And, if you've got any super useful tips on how you manage your stress, I'd love to hear them! 😊

Thursday, 26 October 2017

Damien Hirst's ‘Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable’

October 26, 2017 0
Damien Hirst's ‘Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable’

The Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable exhibition was kind of a must-see before it ends in December, and no, not just because Damien Hirst is also British! Although he's a bit of a strange artist for some, given the chance to see his work in Venice (which was free with my student card), I couldn't really say no! Although I went with several other Erasmus students, I mostly went around the museum at my own pace. It's kind of funny because I already spent a significant amount of my summer in Devon (UK) and saw his statue of Verity in Ilfracombe too – I can't escape Damien Hirst, it seems...

View from Punta della Dogana
I only managed to see the part of Treasures of the Wreck housed in Punta della Dogana this time, since I had to leave early to go to a university radio event. The other part is in Palazzo Grassi, which I'm hoping to be able to visit at some other time. Punta della Dogana itself is a very pretty part of Venice, even now as the weather gets colder and mistier. Standing right at the edge of the land, you can see a great panoramic view of the rest of Venice... and take the obligatory selfies! 😉

The concept of Treasures from the Wreck is this: a collection of various treasures retrieved from an ancient shipwreck of the Apistos ("Unbelievable"). These were supposedly bought by a freed slave named Cif Amotan II... but before you get too excited, a few comments on a Guardian article seem to have already written this off as an anagram of "I am a fiction"!

Although Damien Hirst's world may be a fiction, I'm of the opinion that it doesn't hurt to suspend one's disbelief for a little while to enjoy the artwork on its own terms. The quote over the door as you go in even alludes to this: "Somewhere between lies and truth lies the truth". Nice wordplay! And granted, contemporary art is always controversial, but I certainly found the exhibition interesting even if I didn't understand it fully!

Calendar Stone
The Warrior and the Bear
I've included pictures of a few of my own personal favourite pieces, but the sheer amount of "artefacts" (both big and small) that have been created for this exhibition is simply astounding – if you didn't know any better, you could probably be fooled into thinking you'd walked into a museum instead!

One of the Lion Women of Asit MayorThe Collector with Friend
For me, the most impressive artwork was the two statues (pictured below) of Hydra and Kali – in real life these figures look so dynamic that you can really picture the two of them locked in battle. I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to see this kind of exhibition up close and personal, and in the beautiful city of Venice to boot. If you'll be in the city whilst it's here and you like/don't mind modern art, check it out! But it depends what you guys think: a thought-provoking collection of art, or a meaningless waste of money? You be the judge...

Two versions of Hydra and Kali

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

So, what was Trieste like?

October 24, 2017 0
So, what was Trieste like?

I wasn't quite sure what to expect from Trieste, since I chose not to look it up online before getting on the train, but I was very, very pleasantly surprised! Trieste is an Italian port city which is actually very close to Slovenia and Croatia. As such, it's by the sea and very picturesque. A lot of its architecture also seems influenced by its history as part of the Austro-Hungarian empire (I was surprised to find out that the city had been Italian for a relatively short time!), and it too, is very beautiful!

Grand Canal, Venice
I travelled by train to Trieste from Venice as part of a trip organised by ESN Venezia, or the Erasmus Student Network. They're a fantastic group of volunteer students who have organised an insane amount of events for us internationals, so I'm very grateful to them for giving me some semblance of a social life!! The above picture is what the Grand Canal looks like at about 6:45am. An ungodly hour, but a pretty nice view.

James Joyce statue
Once in Trieste, we were treated to a tour around the city led by a student from ESN Trieste. We saw most of the central city and its beautiful buildings, a nice statue of James Joyce (who spent 15 years in Trieste), a photo exhibition depicting various aspects of life in Trieste, and another amphitheatre sort of structure. We also went to the Saint Spyridon Church, which is the first Serbian Orthodox church I've visited! It was gorgeous inside, very extravagant and golden.

Saint Spyridon Church
The whole tour was pretty interesting, but since a lot of us hadn't had much time to eat in the morning, we got very hungry after a while...! Luckily we were able to take a short break for lunch, grab pizza, and then start the walk and bus ride towards Castello di Miramare. Now, these bus rides... let's just say they were not very fun at all. The buses are not designed to hold around 40 students as well as the general population all at once. Suffice it to say that we travelled like sardines for far too long... 😖

Piazza Unità d'Italia
Stepping off the bus, there was a sight to behold – the Adriatic sea stretched out in front of us with no end in sight, and it was so blue and so peaceful. Pictures honestly can't do justice to how gorgeous the sea looked with the sun shining on it that day. We walked right along the coastline to the castle, passing by swimmers and sunbathers...

After a short while we finally arrive at Castello di Miramare, and oh my gosh, I think this may be one of the most beautiful locations I've ever been to, seriously! Miramare literally means "watch the sea", and as you can see from the photos, it truly lives up to its name!

The castle grounds are absolutely huge, much bigger than you would expect from first glance, and they're filled with gardens, ponds, little paths through the trees, views over the port... Just about everything you could want. There were also so many gorgeous photo spots, I could have stayed there all day! It really is the sort of place where you want to just relax and sit by the sea forever.

Castello di Miramare
After we gathered ourselves to finally leave Castello di Miramare (and were treated to the story of the castle's curse: it is said that whoever sleeps there will die a violent death in a foreign land!! 😬), we took another crowded bus up to a small bar where we had aperitivo, with a beautiful view over the city as sunset fell. The wine was slightly cheap and nasty, but we had good fun snacking, drinking and chatting to one another!

Night view over Trieste
I came back home exhausted at the end of the day (not helped by the fact that the train we were supposed to get on was too crowded for us, and we had to wait nearly an hour to get the last one...), but I had such fun! I met a couple of lovely friends on the trip, and got talking to plenty of people I might not have done otherwise. Trieste and its castle are perfect for anyone staying in this area of Italy to visit – if you like beautiful views, this is the place for you.