Edge of Amalfi Coast

By: Sarena Pollock

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sarena pollock is a sophomore currently studying Creative Writing
and Sociology. She is the secretary of SU Slam Poetry, assistant editor of
an upcoming LGBT+ literary magazine on campus, and Flagship’s next
designer. As an aspiring writer and studio artist, she is also enhancing her
skills in photography, and took advantage of the beautiful landscapes in
Italy over her spring break of senior year of high school.



By: Lauren Beaver

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lauren beaver is a senior studying Strategic Communications with an
emphasis on Advertising and Marketing. During her Spring 2017 semester,
she had the pleasure of studying in the beautiful city of Florence, Italy.

Holy Spaces

by Katy Griffith

Canterbury Cathedral, Canterbury, England

The cathedral looks much the same as it did when Chaucer’s pilgrims journeyed to this town. They told tales to pass the time, and I think, perhaps, that we have not changed much these 600 years. We still tell stories to pass time, still go on pilgrimages. I wonder what stories I will have to tell when I arrive home from my own pilgrimage, and if they will be the kind that stand the test of time as Chaucer’s have.

The cathedral seems immense compared to the small two to three story buildings I have seen so far in Canterbury. It is walled off from town by buildings and accessible by a several hundred year old entryway. The cathedral is invisible from the cobblestone street outside. We pass through the gate and the cathedral comes quickly into view. Its size is breathtaking, and my step falters. This place has seen so much history. It doesn’t even fit in my camera frame until I squat in the grass that surrounds the cathedral and I’m thankful for the blue skies that appeared after a week of gloomy weather, for the grass is soft and dry beneath me.

It is silent inside, yet somehow the tall ceiling creates echoes. It is designed to look like the ribcage of a ship, and I wonder if I’m supposed to feel like I’m drowning. I feel uncomfortable here, like something is pushing the air out of me. I’m a stowaway on a ship and I pray that nobody notices that I’m not supposed to be here. For every tourist snapping pictures there is someone else who actually uses this historical monument as a place of worship. I’m afraid every noise I make is sacrilegious, and when anyone in my Chaucer class speaks in more than a whisper I have to stop myself from cringing. Don’t they know you’re supposed to be quiet in a church?

I feel like every picture I take becomes a crime, but I can’t stop myself. I don’t want to forget any of this. There are people who actually came to pray, to talk to God, to do whatever people do in a place like this, but I pull out my phone and take pictures of everything I can. Somehow I justify to myself that at least I didn’t pull out my camera like a real tourist.

This is the first time I’ve really seen stained glass. The glass here is like no stained glass I’ve seen before. Impossibly vivid colors, intricate patterns, and panels that are nearly floor to ceiling. The amount of man power and time it must have taken to put each piece of glass in its place, to manage to tell a story with those pictures. It’s almost miraculous. Our tour guide points out some of the newer stained glass, added in the 50’s. The people are almost cartoon like, and our tour guide tells us that their creator was heavily influenced by Disney. Now that she mentions it, I can see a little bit of the Disney princesses in their faces. It’s weird, reconciling Aurora and Snow White with the people in the glass pictures. Somehow my brain doesn’t think that these are two narratives that are allowed to cross over.

There are steps in the cathedral that are so worn down by people walking, kneeling, and crawling up them for centuries that they are no longer flat. They have worn away like river stones, rounded and softened by time and waves of people. Like cliffs that are worn away by waves, it took centuries to wear away this stone, so that it slopes in the middle like it’s made of melting wax. My feet are aiding in the shaping of these steps. My steps feel insignificant, but someday, hundreds of years from now, a college student on a semester abroad will walk these same steps and wonder what kinds of people helped wear them away.

Our tour guide tells us that the bare columns and walls we see in the cathedral were not always this way, and in some places you can see remnants of the paint that decorated them. The cathedral was not always this gray, she tells us, and the pictures on the walls served a similar purpose to the stained glass. They told stories, and served to give color in what otherwise might have been a somber space. Back when more people were illiterate, and when the church spoke only in Latin, the common people had to learn God’s stories somehow. Over time, censorship and the ravages of time have conspired and now there are only a few places where the color remains, faded now, but still hanging on.

Chaucer’s pilgrims wanted to visit this site because of man named Thomas Beckett. “Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?” Those are the words that sent Thomas to his death.  It’s scary how quickly people listen to those who are in power, how literally they take their words and how quickly they act on them. Only God has the power to take away a life so quickly, so mercilessly. Everyone gives a wide berth to a single lit candle on the floor marking the spot of Beckett’s martyrdom, and I am compelled to take a picture. Centuries later, and he is still memorialized, still remembered. And all he had to do was die.

There’s a small gift shop by the door, and I buy a pin and some postcards, something that serves as proof. I was here. I saw this place. I am telling my story.


St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, Ireland

There are a few large cathedrals in Dublin, and though we pass some of them on our double-decker tour bus, we decide to go to St. Patrick’s cathedral instead of any of the others. This is where Jonathan Swift wrote Gulliver’s Travels.  He is buried here, a statue of him stands outside of the cathedral. This is reason enough for me, even though I have never read anything by Jonathan Swift. Is it a coincidence that so far that both cathedrals I have been to have literary connections? Or is religion more closely tied to literature than I want to admit?

After Canterbury, St. Patrick’s is a bit of a letdown. It’s not as grand, and it doesn’t take my breath away nearly as much. I wonder if it’s because I am already becoming desensitized to places like this, or if after Canterbury, it seems a little redundant.

St. Patrick’s is just as silent, if not more so, than Canterbury. Since I’m not in a large group this time, I am even more conscious of the noises I make. It’s a little darker in here than it was in Canterbury too, but the stained glass is just as vibrant and no less spectacular. I take a picture of each window and hope that most of them turn out clearer than my iPhone pictures from Canterbury. The lighting is so dim in here that some of them turn out worse.

When we leave St. Patrick’s, we leave with all thoughts turned to the Guinness factory. This is our next stop and Dublin’s second holy space.

The Sistine Chapel, Rome, Italy.

I am a foreigner in Italy in a way that I have never been a foreigner before. Not only in the sense that I am so obviously blonde that I can’t possibly be from Rome, but in the sense that I can’t fathom how this city exists the way that it does. Rome is so Catholic that there are no Christmas decorations, and somehow that makes no sense and every sense at the same time. At home the Christmas decorations will have been out for weeks by now, but here in Rome you would never know Christmas was just a few weeks away.

Rome has been on my bucket list for years, mostly because I am fascinated by mythology and ancient civilizations. But as we wander Rome, I am struck with a question: how can a city built on the backs of Roman gods be so close to the city of the Catholic Church that they seem to be swallowing each other?

They’re setting out chairs outside St. Peter’s Basilica when we arrive, and I wonder if the Pope is going to be appearing in public in the next days or so, maybe on Sunday. We’ll be back in England by then, and it’s weird that I’m bummed out by this. I like this Pope, though, and I like to have bragging rights. The Sistine Chapel will have to serve. Not everyone can take a selfie with the pope.

The route we have to take to the chapel is long and mazelike. There are no doors to the chapel from the outside. It’s like a test. If you see and appreciate all of this art, then you may be allowed to see the most famous ceiling painting in the world. We meander through the Vatican’s museum, more conscious of time after we spend far too long looking at the ancient busts of roman gods, heroes, and philosophers, and therefore unable to take our time with the rest. There’s far too much to see in just a few hours and my camera dies before we are halfway through from the strain so I resort to my phone. I’ve come a long way since Canterbury. I no longer have shame.  

As we enter the chapel I almost forget that I should look up. The walls alone are masterpieces. I never knew that the rest of the chapel was painted in frescos as well as the ceiling, but it’s an unexpected treat. Once I remember that what I came here to see is on the ceiling, I turn my eyes toward heaven, scanning the ceiling hungrily. I look for the famous image of God, reaching, almost touching man but not quite there yet. It takes some time to find and the ceiling seems so far away. Each image is as magnificent as the next and I wonder why that is the one that is most famous.   

The chapel is so beautiful that I want to stand here for hours and soak in all of the details. I want to cement this moment in my brain forever, but we are on a schedule, and we can’t stay forever.

The signs said no photography allowed, but I am selfish. This painting was without precedent. It changed the course of art forever. It’s a testament to one man’s unparalleled skill. I wonder if I could ever have enough dedication or motivation to create a masterpiece like Michelangelo, or if I’m missing something essential. If I need some kind of belief system since there’s not enough raw talent in me. I know I will never have the words to express my dizzying awe at the ceiling so I pull out my phone, walk right under God’s hand and stealthily take a few pictures. It’s the sneakiest I’ve ever been, but I couldn’t leave without stealing some of that wonder for myself. I need a reminder of this place so that I don’t forget it when I leave. I need proof that this place made me feel something, though I’m not quite sure what it is.  


St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Vienna, Austria

The façade of Stephansdom is very gothic, more noticeably so than Canterbury, perhaps because of the lack of blue skies. It has been a couple of days since we were in Rome, and that means it’s a couple of days nearer to Christmas. There’s a massive evergreen outside the cathedral, strung with lights and topped with a star. Hundreds of people are milling around, walking to or from one of the hundreds of Criskindlmarkts that have taken over the city. The cathedral is nearly as dark inside as it is outside, and it’s difficult to make out its details.  We can only go so far into the building, there’s some kind of event going on later this evening, but we will be on our way in a few minutes anyway, several more things to see and do on our tour of Vienna.

We pass by the cathedral again in the daylight, and it’s more imposing this way. The black pollution stains on the side of the building are more noticeable in the light, and I’m told that workers have to routinely scrub the building to keep it clean. By the time they finish, the first section has already turned black again. I think about how pointless it all is, to spend hours slaving to make this cathedral look as it was intended, never fully succeeding, never getting to take a break. Faith is like that. You don’t get to take a break, it’s not something you will ever be done doing. It’s a process. Maybe that’s why faith is so hard for me, so seemingly pointless. I’m the kind of person who thinks the cathedral looks cooler where it’s black.

Even in the daylight, the inside of St. Stephens’s Cathedral is dim. In the daylight we can walk around a bit more, see the details up close. Statues and art adorn the walls and columns, and it’s noticeable that this isn’t as much of a tourist stop as the other cathedrals I have been in. Most of the people here speak German. After so many holy spaces I know the drill. It’s quiet inside, I take pictures and wonder if that is offensive to anyone, if it’s worse because I can only speak a little German.

This is the city of Beethoven and Mozart and Strauss. What was it about this city that inspired so many musicians? What is it about these tolling bells that called out to them? Was it that they toll at the same time day after day? Were they something to rely on? Were they a source of comfort? To me the bells remind me that time passes whether you want it to or not, and maybe this is what allowed these composers to create multiple masterpieces in their lifetimes. A reminder that eventually your time will run out can be a great motivator. Sometimes it’s the only thing that keeps me going. I can’t waste my time or I will never leave something behind that will outlive me.

A Small Green and Blue Planet, Somewhere in Space

God and space are equally terrifying to me, but I only believe in one of them.

As a deeply cynical and skeptical person, I have faith in very few things, and God is not one of them. If there’s a circle of hell for non-believers, I’d go there if I believed in it. But there is something about visiting a deeply religious place that sparks something in me. Maybe it’s just curiosity, maybe its fascination with something I can’t understand, but somethings is there.

Space is so massive that the human mind can’t comprehend it. God is similar, in a way. I will never understand why people would travel across an entire country to visit the site of a saint’s death. I will never understand why churches are always quiet. I will never understand what it is about God that inspires writers, painters, and musicians.

There are a few things that my brain can wrap around. I may never believe in or understand God, but I do believe that there is magic in imagination and storytelling. I understand wanting to build things that last, things that inspire people, things that are beautiful on their own merit. I understand wanting to leave a legacy, wanting to inspire future generations. I guess it makes sense then, why these holy places became so important and fascinating to me once I stepped foot in their spaces.


Read an interview with Katy here.

Interview with Jess Mitchell

First, where did you GO?
I studied in Florence, Italy for the fall semester.

Why did you choose that location?
It wasn’t until a week before applications were due that I stumbled across the Florence program. What drew me to it was, first, the structure and amount of class offerings. Florence University of the Arts (FUA) had a whole catalogue so you could predict what you could take, which helped me because I needed to fulfil requirements while abroad. Second, FUA’s program in Florence offered some amazing opportunities that fit my majors and interests- things like journalism and writing courses, an internship program, photography classes, and built-in trips across Italy. Plus, it’s Italy! The food, the history, the arts, and the natural beauty all enticed me as I did more research. And when it was time to turn in applications a week later, I knew I was headed to Florence.

What is your strongest memory from your time abroad? It can be a good memory or a horrible one, just one that you will never forget.
My strongest memory was when I was hiking the Cinque Terre trails. I distantly remember a point where I stopped on the path and looked out at the Mediterranean Sea. I stood on a cliff that had a drop hundreds of feet below to the ocean with only a wooden fence holding me back. What I most remember about that memory was the stillness and the vastness of the sea. It made me ache inside because, in a way, it felt lonely, but also exciting. It was a feeling I had felt so many times while abroad, that lonely yet exciting feeling when you’re about to step into something unknown by yourself. When I felt that coming from the Mediterranean Sea of all things, I felt a connection to it, and eventually that encounter became the subject of a travel piece I wrote that’s featured in Flagship, “Lonely Blue.”

What is one thing that surprised you about your GO location?
I did not expect the closeness. From pictures online, you see Florence mainly from an aerial view so that you can see the Duomo, the other churches, the river, the mountains. It seems spread-out and majestic. When you’re living in the heart of the city, the feeling is very different. The buildings aren’t high, but the streets are narrow, and when you live in the historic center, there are always lots of people. I didn’t expect to have to adjust myself so much to living in that city. The noise of bells ringing every hour, the throngs of tourists and business people, and the at-times claustrophobic streets were a challenge. But after that initial surprise, I became more used to it.

What is one thing you wish someone had told you before you left for your trip?
The mosquitoes are a pest! I had read that Florence had lots of them because of the amount of water running through that city, especially near the Arno River, but that still didn’t prepare me. When we first arrived, it was 95 degrees, and there was no air conditioner in our apartment. We kept windows open at night to try and ventilate the house, but that meant we also got some unwelcomed neighbors, too. In the mornings, part of my routine was counting how many bites I got during the night- and where I got them! The mosquitoes were part of the experience, but it was something I wish I had prepared more for.

What is one thing that you wish other people knew about your GO location that they probably don’t know?
My program director, Olivia, told us on one of our first days to not forget Florence in the midst of our traveling. I think that’s so true. Even though Florence is a smaller city, not many people realize how much it offers besides The David and the Duomo. There’s so much more beyond the historic center. I don’t think people know that there’s such an extensive culture to Florence. You don’t have to travel far to find things to do on the weekends or the evenings. You have the ability to visit museums and see “the big stuff,” but you can also step beyond that and explore civilian life in the outskirts and into the country. And because it’s a smaller city, you don’t always need to take a bus. Sometimes it’s easier to just walk!

Is there anything that you wish you had done while abroad but didn’t get around to because of time, money, etc?
The big thing I missed doing was climbing the Duomo. I was so busy I never got a chance to do it. Besides that, I wish that I would’ve had the time to be a part of Italian Family Club or Chat Pal while at FUA. Both these programs give you the opportunity to learn Italian and meet new people from Florence, either in a family or friend-to-friend setting. I never got involved in that, and I wish I had.

What is one thing that you wish you hadn’t done while abroad?
I wish I hadn’t stayed so confined to the historic center of Florence. It was where I took classes and worked at my internship, but I didn’t realize until much later into the semester that there’s so much to explore outside of that. I think the historic center is wonderful, but sometimes it doesn’t offer you the full experience of Italian life because it is catered to outside visitors. I ended up navigating around there most of my days, mainly because I didn’t know where else to go. But I’m sure if I would’ve talked with some more people, I could’ve easily branched out beyond that area and explored more of the city.

What is your favorite souvenir from your trip?
My favorite souvenir is a gray pea coat from my bosses at my internship. Franz and Ilse Moser was a couple from Austria that have lived in Florence for a long time. They work at St. Mark’s Opera Company and put on opera performances and aria concerts with the help of local opera singers and musicians. Everyone in that company is so talented, and I was privileged to intern there in the patron services- and even be in one of the performances! Franz and Ilse were my bosses, but they were also like my adopted parents while in Florence. They always made sure I was taken care of. One time I asked Ilse if she knew any stores where I could buy a nice coat, and instead Ilse gave me one as a gift. It fit perfectly! The coat is not only a reminder of my time abroad, but it’s also a reminder of a couple who were so kind to me and whom I’ll never forget.

Last, do you want to go back?
Absolutely. I never thought much about Italy until I stumbled across FUA’s program. But as I learned and immersed myself, I grew to love the history, the culture, and the people. I also found what I didn’t like about it. But it was all part of the experience. I would love to return to Florence to keep exploring it and to connect with the friends that I made there. If nothing else, I also still need to climb the Duomo.

A Foggy Venezia

by Megan Rudloff

This particular boat ride was unlike any of the others I’ve experienced. Usually, seasickness is inevitable, and the dizzy feeling I get doesn’t disappear until long after I have set foot on land. Yet sitting on this small ferry, a thick, heavy fog hanging in the air impeding my view, I only felt adrenaline and excitement course through my body.  Although I couldn’t see where I was, I knew one of the items on my bucket list was about to be checked off. As part of my global semester program, I had opted to travel through Italy with seven other students and our program advisor. Unfortunately, this excursion would only last four hours before we had to get on the road again. I sat with my friends and waited impatiently for the boat to dock in Venice, Italy.

Due to the time restraint, my friends and I made our way quickly through the crowded streets until we reached Piazza San Marco, also known as Saint Mark’s Square. The dense fog lingered in the large courtyard, preventing me from seeing to the end of the square. Street vendors stood by and enticed passersby to inspect their merchandise. T-shirts, figurines, selfie sticks and other souvenirs lined their carts. Since it was colder than I was prepared for, I appeased a salesman by purchasing a scarf. Folded wooden platforms leaned against buildings in the street, used to walk on when Venice floods from the high tide of the sea in the summer. Although the buildings were discolored and partially eroded from the frequent floods, they were beautiful in their own way.

Behind me stood Saint Mark’s Basilica, a Roman Catholic Church with breathtaking Byzantine and Gothic architecture. The cathedral’s exterior is comprised of three levels: domes, upper and lower. The lower level consists of five arched portals, with the center slightly larger. Intricate mosaics depicting Venetian religious history appear over these arches. On the large central window, located on the upper level above the main arch, is a symbol of Venice – the Winged Lion. This level also contains the statues of the Theological and Cardinal Virtues, four Warrior Saints, and most notably, St. Mark, that all watch over the city. The highest portion consists of five domes, a characteristic of Roman Catholic Architecture. My friends and I stood in line to enter the basilica, awestruck over its elaborate exterior. I walked inside and was met with utter silence, and I realized that mass was being held. Although I am not Catholic, my grandmother is, and I imagined how happy she would be if she were here. I took this opportunity to experience this moment for her – the priest singing in Italian, church members performing signs of the cross, others praying. I admired the beautiful murals and opulent mosaics, and keeping my tight schedule in mind, I lit a candle and said a prayer before exiting. Then I went off to explore the maze of Venice.

Friends in tow, I wandered through a labyrinth of streets and canals filled with busy passersby. I saw a hotel worker dumping dirty laundry into a boat, since a canal ran along the building instead of a road. Gondoliers paddled quietly through the canals; they only sing at night, which I learned later. They wore jackets since it was a cold morning, but their striped shirts peaked out around their necks. We walked until we reached a stretch of shops that had ornate hand-painted masks, worn for the famous celebration of Carnevale di Venezia. This celebration, which dates back to 1162 and representative of Venetian identity, lasts for about two weeks each year and ends on the Christian holiday of Lent. Beautiful purple, gold, silver and maroon masks boldly stood out in store windows. I witnessed an artisan begin the process of creating one using a papier-mâché mold. This is their livelihood.

We continued through small streets and over canals and found many shops that made and sold Murano glass. Only made in Venetian culture, this glass is created from silica, soda, lime and potassium melted together in a special furnace with different minerals added for color. This mixture is crafted by master glassmakers into vivid patterns and unique creations. We entered a shop, and I watched as the owner dipped the colored glass in a flame and began to create the shape of a small animal figurine. After exploring a few shops, I realized that Murano glass has no limits to what it can be molded into, from small items like jewelry and figurines to larger pieces like vases and chandeliers. Many had signs that read “Do Not Touch” for obvious reasons, and when I accidently broke this rule, the Venetian storeowners made it clear that they were not happy with me by their harsh tones in indistinguishable Italian.

My day trip to this foggy, mysterious place would not have been complete without a gondola ride. My friends and I found an unoccupied gondola, and with the help of the gondolier, I stepped carefully from the high edge into the boat. After the four of us were successfully inside, we had to position ourselves on opposite sides in order to balance the small vessel. The gondola was a dark, royal blue and embossed with gold designs, fit for royalty. I was surprised at how elaborately decorated it was, but I realized that this was just to please the tourists. The gondolier guided the boat with ease through the narrow canals, and I admired all of the buildings built up from the sea. Lightly colored and somewhat dirty due to erosion of rising water, the buildings seemed otherworldly and eerie. We glided past other gondolas and personal boats, and I thought about how different my life would be if I lived here and drove a boat instead of a car. What a strange, brilliant concept to build a city in what was once open water. Our gondola continued through the web of canals until it reached the Grand Canal, where we floated into the main, open stretch of the sea. Here, we passed vaporettos, or water taxis, transporting others through the Grand Canal. Finally we floated under the Ponte di Rialto, or Rialto Bridge, a famous Venetian stone-arch bridge built in 1591, and then circled around to where we had boarded the boat. Our ride was over, and after my friends and I cautiously exited the boat, careful not to tip it over, we realized our time in Venice was almost over. We quickly made our way through the maze again back to the dock and entered the ferry just before it left the port.

Although I could only explore this eerie island for a few hours, it was just enough time to experience the important aspects of Venetian culture. Just as Venice had appeared through the fog, it was mysteriously gone again in an instant.


Read an interview with Megan here

Lonely Blue

by Jess Mitchell

Unending blue stretched before me. Pricks of light sparkled on its surface. In the distance, patches of sunlight broke through the clouds and fell on the waves like a spotlight from heaven. I felt like I could reach out and touch them I wanted to be out on that water, out in the blue.

So this was the Mediterranean. She was the color everyone promised.

She was a woman. She lay before me, her arms open not in welcome, but in solitude. She had been floating here for a long time. She minded her own business. I was an observer to her home.

I had come to hike Cinque Terre’s trails and visit the Five Lands. But I was captivated with her, with the sea. With the being that we name in order to refer to whole countries and cultures. The Mediterranean. I stood on the cliff side, at the point where our domains met, and gazed at her.

I don’t know what I expected from her, but all I got was silence and an ache in my chest.

There were no flashing colors, no smell of food, no music, no houses, no people. There was only the Mediterranean, a sea that brushed against a cliff, alone and blue.

I couldn’t move from the trail. I had to watch her. The longer I looked out at the blue loneliness, at those empty spotlights of sun, the longer I listened to the waves that sighed from below with no one to talk to, the more I just saw a sea. Her loneliness infected me.

I forced myself to continue my hike, but I couldn’t free myself from that feeling. My soul seemed to have extended out of me and fused with hers, but I knew something was missing.

The Mediterranean is a sea, an ancient woman, but she is only water. It is us that help make her come alive, the people who exist around her. The ones who create art, families, life- that is also the Mediterranean. We ask her to join us, she takes our hands, and we fall in love. Or perhaps it’s the other way around. But regardless, I know it’s true. When we approach her in a solitary place like I did, we can catch her in her silent, blue loneliness, and we in turn search for life along her shores. Neither of us are complete without the other.

We, humanity, are in love with a sea. Perhaps the reason why I was drawn to her is because we are not so different from her. We are all seas that catch the light, drifting along and waiting for something. We are all a lonely blue.


Previously published in Blending, the semesterly magazine of Florence University of the Arts.

Read Jess’s Interview

Private Smiles

by Jess Mitchell

Tiana and I were about to leave one of Florence’s cemeteries after taking pictures of the weather-beaten gravestones when a man sat down at one of them with a toolbox. It awakened the curiosity in my fingers, and I grabbed at my camera.

“I really want to talk to him and see what he’s doing,” I said.

Tiana grinned at me.

“Then go over there.”

“All right. I’ll do it.”

I took a step and then doubled back to her.

“Can you come over with me and help?”

The man was engrossed in his work, bent over the tombstone. His glasses rested on the edge of his nose. He sat cross-legged on the ground. Despite the lines on his face and hands, he reminded me of a kid playing in a sandbox, the way he hunched over the tombstone with his tools, holding each one delicately in his thick hands.

It was like he was encased in a glass bubble with his own life, his own language, his own agenda. It wouldn’t be possible for me to enter it. But I walked towards him anyway.


A part of me didn’t expect him to respond, as if my inadequate use of language couldn’t break through that glass between us. My stomach flipped when he turned so quickly at the sound of my voice. Gathering my thoughts, I stammered in Italian if he knew English, and he said no. With Tiana’s help, I asked if we could take a few pictures of him. I expected a scowl, but he shrugged, smiled, and said yes. I snapped away while Tiana talked with him. We learned he has a nephew who worked for the New York Times and that he was restoring a piece of a gravestone.

We said good-bye and left the cemetery. I felt triumphant. I had broken through that glass bubble and emerged with a story. I wanted to do it again.

A woman sat on a stool at the exit. She spoke Italian and held out a bowl that had a few small coins in it. At first, we passed her with a smile, but then the curiosity seized my hands again.

I grabbed at my camera and looked at Tiana.

“Do you think we could ask her?”

Tiana taught me the phrase “Can I take a picture of you?” in Italian and stood back as I approached.

I smiled and placed a few euros in her bowl. She nodded and said “grazie.”

I asked if she spoke English. She didn’t. Then I asked if I could take a picture of her. She said something to me and I whipped my head around toward Tiana, gesturing for her to come over.

Tiana asked the same question to the woman. She squinted at us with a smile still on her wrinkled face. We motioned the act of taking a picture. We said it was going to be private. It was for school. But she shook her head, smiled again, and said no.

Tiana and I left the church. The curiosity had left me hands. I hadn’t broken through the glass bubble with the woman. Instead, I was pushed back with a smile.

The experience at the cemetery reminded me that these people don’t owe us, students and tourists, anything. They aren’t obligated to smile for a camera. They aren’t required to share their life stories with us. We are strangers in their home. Some may smile, a few may share, but all must be respected. It is a reminder that though this city is international and caters to the distant traveler, there is a hidden, more private side to it. It is a privilege to learn about it, but it is not a privilege automatically granted to those of us who come with cameras and backpacks. Especially when we expect it to be.


Read an interview with Jess Mitchell here.