By Ellis RossStudent journalist
A group of 52 students from the School of Journalism and New Media at the University of Mississippi recently traveled to Italy for an immersive learning experience that provided rich exposure to Italian culture and cuisine, while affording myriad opportunities to capture their experiences in written and visual formats.The group explored Italy from May 11 to June 6.The majority of the trip was centered in Florence, with excursions to Sorrento and Rome, the last leg of the journey. Leading the tour were professors Jason Cain, Mark Dolan, Ronnie Morgan, and Chris Sparks – all of whom teach courses in integrated marketing communications and journalism. The students enjoyed many cultural experiences while writing in-depth features, gathering documentary photos, exploring international brands and exploring relevant topics in media studies. With Florence being the birthplace of the Renaissance, there was history to be found everywhere, from town piazzas adorned with statues, to buildings and cobblestone streets that have remained in place for centuries. Shared here are some student observations. We hope you enjoy.Photographers and writers sharing their work with HottyToddy.com are Sally Anderson, Ellie Boos, Tatum Chenen, Jack Clements, Catherine Cline, Cameron Cooley, Ellie Ducharme, Ava Ferree, Addie Flasck, Olivia Flax, Claire Hendry, Kenzi Howton, Will Johnson, Hillary Kaniecki, Bella Kraft, Lexie Kratky, Lauren Lucas, Ali Mattox, Grace Mitchell, Sarah Moore, Olivia Morgan, Kaylee Plowman, Olivia Ray, Emily Reib, Ellis Ross, Laurie Sanford, Rhiannon Schaeffer, Hannah Skinner, Maggie Sligh, Ryan Strickland, and Emily Sutermeister.
By Addie Flasck
Inconspicuously nested within my Mississippi hometown, there is a loose interpretation of an Italian restaurant sandwiched between a hair salon and a sporting goods store. If you were to request gelato, it would most likely be substituted by a mug of ice cream deluged with Barq’s root beer. On the bright side, a float would pair nicely with the kitchen’s wide assortment of wings and burgers.
The restaurant’s reputation as being Italian is only redeemed by the red and white checkered tablecloths spruced with no-flame candles and the menu’s numerous takes on spaghetti noodles and pizza. Although, as Mississippi natives are notoriously implicit residents, I do not believe its identity was ever disputed in the first place.
In fact, the illusion of this establishment is so successful that this spot was designated as the “special occasion” restaurant in my family for years. The portions are enormous, but it was never more than an hour before we were waving for the check. After all, what American doesn’t love a quick bite to eat?
As a teenager, the authenticity of this experience was not up for debate. A simpleton may have said that we were dining in a strip mall. But me – I had caught a glimpse of one of the chefs tossing pizza dough by hand once when the kitchen door was left open. Thus, in my eyes, we might as well have been floating along the Venice canal with an accordion.
Four years and three debilitating flights later, I have found myself in Florence, Italy, to officially burst my teenage self’s bubble with a sharp understanding of true Italian food culture, which undeniably hinges on entirely different values compared to the fast-paced, heavy handed propensities of American restaurants.
In Italy, the food and drinks are designed to be savored. Rather than being served in a heaping portion, a traditional Italian dinner is made up of small courses. First, an antipasto, or appetizer. The antipasto is followed first by pasta, then by meat and sides. Dinner is concluded by dessert and, of course, espresso.
The espresso here is not like what one might expect in America. I must admit that I am guilty of falling into the category of Starbucks fanaticism that would make an Italian squirm. Such concoctions are not found here. In Italy, coffee is serious business.
Perhaps the most notable difference is that coffee is not something to sip on throughout the day. Rather, purchasing a small shot of espresso or 8oz cappuccino is like buying a cup of quietude. Whether it be for a minute or an hour, sitting down in a café is an excuse to pause and appreciate your surroundings. Even for someone as antsy as myself, relaxing with a coffee here seems only natural. The flavor is so delicate and soothing that it feels wrong not to relish in the hush of my favorite local shop. It is an inclination that I have yet to feel from my usual venti chai tea with caramel drizzle.
When Italians do want to socialize, the bar is the place to be. Grabbing drinks is for just that: keeping company with the people around you. Coming from a background of beer funnels, keg stand, and shotgunning, it is a refreshing change of pace to be immersed in a culture where the objective of drinking is not to consume the most amount of alcohol in the least amount of time.
The meals here follow a similar theme. When I dined in Italy for the first time, I was utterly perplexed when the check was not brought out within the first hour of sitting down. It was so unusual to my friends and I that we spent the remainder of our time quietly debating whether or not we were expected to go up front to pay.
Eventually, the bill was brought out, and on our way out I noticed how many of the surrounding parties were also finished with their meals. I came to the realization that the difference between us and the Italian natives was that while our meal was complete by the time we reached a clean plate, their meals were complete by the time they were ready to say goodbye. For them, the point of going out to eat seemed to have hardly anything to do with the food.
That is not to say that Italians do not take great pride in their dishes. In Florence, the food is consistently composed of ingredients that are minimal, yet delicious. Each recipe is concocted with only a few key players, mainly fresh produce, homemade cheeses, and warm breads. Authentic Italian dishes lack any unnecessary additions one might find in America. You likely would be hard pressed to find a tub of leftover bacon grease in an Italian’s fridge. Here, each ingredient is so impactful that it needs no assistance. The tomatoes are ripened and succulent, the bread is light, the cheese is bold, and the flavors are rich and self-sufficient.
With food as appetizing as Italy’s, it is no wonder why the meals are so celebrated. The bottom line of Italian food culture, I’ve found, is that it is prepared and shared with intentionality. Italian dining goes far beyond simple nourishment; it is family, it is enjoyment, it is pride, and it is passion.
Now, I feel certain that my small town’s Italian glory really is just a vaguely ambient restaurant in a strip mall. Ignorance was bliss, but not as much so as a quiet shot of espresso.
Conquering the hike between neighboring towns in Cinque Terre felt a lot more like the hike was conquering me. Hours after hauling ourselves to the bus stop by 7 a.m. for a two-hour transit from Florence, my friends and I had become thoroughly saturated by sweat, courtesy of the summery Italian sun and a footpath that led several miles uphill. Our objective was to finish the hour-long hike in as little time as possible. Despite taking no breaks, we were able to tap into our stowed energy partly thanks to our eagerness to reach our destination, but also by way of our 25-year-old tour guide, Guido, that the majority of girls seemed determined to impress.
Unfortunately, the chances of wooing Guido, who spoke fondly of his girlfriend in Australia, were greatly diminished by the time we reached the descent of our mountainous hike. By then, all of us were red in the face, panting, and pooling sweat. There were deep wrinkles around my eyes and forehead from squinting against the glaring sun, and each of us wore our backpacks fastened appropriately around the front for optimal back support. Against all odds, our beloved Guido was able to remain entirely professional. I admired his restraint.
Just as we began to think the hike may never end, we dragged our feet around a corner that suddenly revealed everything we had been grappling for: the beach. The water, which was clear and glistened peacefully under the same sun that seemed to despise the rest of us, appeared sluggish until its waves sloshed against the shore’s rocks and slipped back into the sea. Tourists who dotted the sand and the water floated in and out of surrounding gelaterias and souvenir shops.
We squealed and, in a sudden burst of adrenaline, sprinted down the remainder of steps, darting around the town’s narrow corners until we reached the water’s brink.
I hopped across the surrounding rocks until I reached a point where the water was deep enough to dive in. It was ice cold, but I had hoped for nothing less after the incredibly taxing journey it had taken us to get there.
After some amount of coaxing, everyone else splashed in. I tried smacking away the taste of salt in my mouth while we giggled and bobbed with the waves. I took in my surroundings and hoped to never forget them.
My friend climbed from the water and headed towards the ledge of one of the cliffs overlooking the water. We cheered her on as she dived off the top and plunged back into the sea.
When she came up for air, she laughed, and before even catching her breath, said “Can you guys believe this? We’re never going to be 20 again!”
Though the rest of us did not address her comment directly, it was clear that we were in silent agreement of the feeling she was having. The pure fact that I was even present in that moment, in that water, and in that town seemed like a gift from God.
Although the moment was fleeting, her words stuck. They have echoed throughout all of my little adventures. I have ridden through the Venice canal, trudged up the stairs of Positano, climbed Mount Vesuvius, gone clubbing in Florence, and experienced countless moments in between that are special in their own ways, like walking to my favorite cafe or swimming in a hotel pool.
In each instance, her words rang through me.
I’ll never be 20 again. I’ll never be 20 again.
It is a small way of reminding myself to relish in the moment while I can. Before coming to Italy, most parts of my day go largely unnoticed. While I may hang out with my friends in our college apartments, or go out to the bars, or hit the gym, or walk across a beautiful campus almost every day, I rarely stop to think how enriched my life is by the fact that I am young and capable of doing the things I love with the people that I love.
Very seldom had I put any thought into how my life might be different if I were not as able as I am. Even more seldom had I put any thought into how I will almost certainly not be this able at some point in the span of my life.
Now, since a moment in Cinque Terre that may have seemed miniscule from the eyes of a third party, I see every moment of my day as something to cherish.
Here, it is easy to do. It is easy to be grateful for being able to go on elaborate day trips and spend my time in locations that most people only dream to visit. But I feel that my experience here has led me to see the world through a lens that will allow me to appreciate everything I am able to do, even outside of lavish hotels and crystal-clear waters. I hope to hold fast to the feeling of having my life ahead of me, of being able to feel my feet on the ground, and of being twenty for now.