I spent the second semester of my junior year studying abroad.  One of our nearest and dearest had been in Argentina the year before and also did a summer stint in London with others.  Everyone raved about their experiences.  Studying abroad seemed to be the way to go.  We would conquer Western Europe and beyond (some actually snorkeled in Egypt) and return to Chapel Hill to tackle our final year of school.  I am fortunate in that a handful of my closest friends from UNC Chapel Hill (all housemates at one time or another on North Street) also applied to the same program.  We were all accepted.  I think the parents were happy – safety in numbers.  The golden months that followed were marked by living, eating, imbibing, attending classes, taking exams and gallivanting our ways across Florence, Italy as well as anywhere else the prized Eurail Pass would take us.  We studied during the week and jumped on trains for weekend adventures.  The program through which we studied drew university students from around North America – Syracuse, Washington and Lee as well as Georgia, to name a few.  Good old Lorenzo de' Medici.

I was painfully homesick upon arrival.  At the time, I had a boyfriend who was not partaking in this grand adventure.  Go figure.  A dear friend and I traveled to Italy together from Charlotte and I recall asking the stewardess what it would take to turn the plane around.  We were well over the Atlantic at this point.  I arrived in my new home with red stained teeth and puffy eyes.  “Pull yourself together” said my mother when I made my inaugural call home.  I was then instructed not to call back.  I did and regularly, thanks to a pay phone at a local Pensione down the street from our digs.  If you stretched your head far enough out and looked to the right, our windows opened onto the Basilica of San Lorenzo and the illustrious street markets below.  It was a lively, raucous spot and I would not have had it any other way.  Via Faenza served as our stomping grounds.  The song "Stan" echoed through the stalls on our morning commutes to classes.  Our national anthem.  We were also a stone’s throw from the Mercato Centrale.  It is there that I first tasted dried mango and sugared tangerines.  It is also the place where a roommate discovered sliced turkey or tacchino as the locals called it.  We American students were elated.  Word spread fast.  The market was cornered.

Two weeks after arrival, my father was overseas on business and made a weekend detour.  The eldest child was in dire straits.  Still homesick.  While I have no confirmation, my friends must have thought I was crazy.  Dad and I were to meet on a Friday afternoon at the Ghiberti Doors.  Where I asked.  The Duomo he responded surprised.  He then asked if I knew where that was.  Note this is perhaps one of the most iconic cathedrals in Tuscany.  Don’t worry I said coolly, I will find you.  Thank my stars for the trusted Fodor’s book and map.  Find him I did and together we enjoyed a wonderful weekend marked by cold weather, spaghetti, truffles at one spot, tripe, polenta and wine.  I even secured a new winter coat.  It was freezing in Florence and I had not packed properly. Who knew Tuscany was so cold in January?  Also, I had to lose the bright yellow North Face that just screamed American.  It should also be noted that some weeks later we all bought European sneakers so as to better disguise ourselves.  Anyway, that visit was just what the doctor ordered because upon his departure, I was ready to conquer my study abroad experience.

We had the fortune of other close friends in neighboring countries also on semesters abroad.   This added tremendous value to our adventures.  One of my favorite weekend journeys is that of a trip to Paris to visit one of our best friends who upon arrival (as I understand it) found herself studying in a suburb of Paris and not Paris itself. I believe our apartments were promoted as being heated.  Not so said the electric blanket my roommate purchased from the shop on the bottom floor of our apartment building.  Said blanket caught fire one afternoon.  I have always been leery of those things.  Live and learn. So back to Paris.  On our first day, one friend and I were beyond elated to see our newly anointed Parisian gal.  Together, we shared homesick tears over a plate of magnificent frites just a stone’s throw from the Trocaderro.  A wet start turned into a surprisingly fantastic day.  We were in Paris after all.  No use stewing over spilled milk or frites.  We had another two compadres on the French adventure.  I am unsure as to their whereabouts while we were noshing. I will secure confirmation in this regard later.

After a spectacular evening of serious (and I underscore serious) bar hopping on Rue Oberkampf, I did not heed the advice of my father who repeatedly warned me to “never carry a purse in Paris”.  So while yammering on with one girlfriend about soaking my cold toes in a bath of hot water when I returned to our hostel, misfortune grabbed me.  My bag – purchased that day – was snatched.  During this occurrence, I was also thrown to the ground by three strangers.  My friends were all walking ahead of me so no one saw it happen.  Once it was all over, I borrowed a phone from a friend to – you guessed it –  call home.  The parents were less than pleased.  I had woken them up, which understandably ignited panic given the hour.  Then the story unfolded.  You were carrying a purse in Paris they asked.  Guilty.  You ran after the purse snactchers and were thrown to the ground.  Yes.  What in the world were you thinking.  I wasn’t, we just left the bar.  What happened to the bag. Stolen and PS - all my loot has gone with it.  What do you want us to do.  I don’t know, I just wanted to call and tell you. Long story short, it was after 3 in the morning on a Sunday in Wiesbaden, Germany.  Translation:  Tough cookies.  For the most part, Germany is closed on a Sunday and as such, I was on my own. 

Purse, wallet (purchased for a song and a dance at the Italian designer outlets in Montevarchi), Christmas gift camera (including a roll of film from the previous weekend’s trip to Prague where we met all the actors from the film Hart’s War including the guy with the amazing jeans in the flick Empire Records).  Also in the little nylon bag was my first and last credit card – sayonara, adios, auf wiedersehen. Thank my stars I had the smarts to leave the Eurail Pass and Passport in the room.  The one friend with whom I shared fries earlier in the day and I spent the wee hours of the morning in a Parisian police station drawing pictures of my freshly plucked bag and its contents.  Not knowing the language of a country can be a real drag in times like these!   After zero resolve we returned to the bowels of Paris – aka the location of our youth hostel.  

The next morning I came to terms with the fact that my prized belongings were no longer in my care.  Sitting near to the Fontaine de la Pyramide, which is a beautiful fountain in front of the Louvre, I concluded that my experience in the City of Lights had soured.  It should be noted that I have returned to Paris numerous times on business since this 2001 incident and it still stands as one of my favorite cities in the world.  The friend with whom I shared frites agreed to make the long trek home with me while the other two stayed on and carved an outstanding adventure.  Should we have stayed?  Probably.  Anyway, that afternoon we made the long, overnight journey by train back to Italy.  While our decision to return was last minute, we found ourselves in a cabin of strangers.  The one person with whom I shared a few words in a common language – German – hopefully asked if his prosthetic leg could reside with me that night as he wanted to share the sixth cot with his girlfriend and quarters were cramped.  Of course, not a problem I said.  

That night, I closed my eyes and waited for our train to pull into the Stazione Santa Maria Novella.  There was a McDonald’s across the street that would make it all better.  While most denied going there, it was a local hot spot with those of us studying abroad.  Sometimes you just need the familiarity of home and that smell of glorious French fries does it every time.  Allora, as we used to say back in Firenze.  These few months of independence – and at times learning the hard way – served as a launching pad for moving across the Atlantic and to the western world after graduation.  

Our apartment in Firenze was Grand Central Station.  People always coming and going.  Friends were on different floors so up and down the stairs we went daily. My roommate had an Italian boyfriend.  He played in a Pink Floyd cover band.  He also introduced us to canned tuna mixed with pasta.  Epic.  One of our peers found a bar that we frequented weekly as the establishment only played Bon Jovi.  We painted most nights red in the city’s discotecas.  La Dolce Vita for sure.  During this time, Red Bull and vodka came onto the scene.  We were pioneers.  

No great shock here, we ate well in Italy.  Breakfast was a 5,000 Lira (around USD 2.50 at the time) pizza from the bakery next door.  Some found a secret spot for the city’s most incredible sandwiches.  Others identified the best pizza in town.  It was served at a spot with yellow lanterns.  They also had ice for our sodas.  There was a haunt just off Tornabuoni that served pina coladas half price at a certain hour and bottomless, salted popcorn.   This was dinner many a nights.  While we were students on a budget, it was most cost effective for us to cook or pick up cheap bites here and there. We had one housemate who liked to cook.  Most afternoons, we came home to the glorious smell of garlic consuming the lobby of our apartments.  Those were the days.  

Below is a recipe my Mom’s best friend recently introduced me to.  I love pesto as well as kale so it was mathematical.  I very, very rarely prepare or serve carbs at home but sometimes nature calls for a solid pasta dish.  This one does not disappoint. If you don’t want to use pasta you can also make zucchini ribbons.  Good luck.  Preparation is simple, the end result looks professional and the flavors are magnificent.  Buon appetito!

Kale Pesto with Pasta*


1 head of chopped Tuscan kale – I say Tuscan as I like the leaf texture of this variety
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
½ cup of good quality extra virgin olive oil
½ cup toasted pine nuts – To toast you can do them in the oven or in a pan on the stove.  Please watch carefully as they burn quickly.
2 garlic cloves, chopped
The rind of one lemon


1. Bring a large pot of water to boil.  Prepare a large bowl with ice and water.  Once boiling, add the kale to the water for three minutes.  Use tongs to remove the kale and quickly dunk in the ice bath for a pair of seconds.  This stops the cooking.  Drain and wring out any excess water.

2. Add the kale to your food processor along with the Parmesan cheese, olive oil, toasted pine nuts, garlic and lemon rind.  Add salt and pepper to taste.  Puree until it is smooth and you have a creamy kale pesto on your hands. Taste and adjust salt as necessary.

3. Boil your pasta according to directions.  Once it is done, drain and reserve approximately 1 cup of the water in which the pasta cooked.  

4. Toss the pasta with a few dollops of the kale pesto and a bit of the reserved water.  Mix until you have a gorgeous, bright green vision.  Now for the best part:  Formaggio.  Cheese.  Be liberal. 

* We used Paparadelle for our first meal.  The next day, partner-in-crime added the pesto to quinoa spaghetti.  Both were the business.

Note this yields a lot and it can be saved in the fridge for a pair of days.  Add some fresh squeezed lemon juice and a touch more olive for a wonderful salad dressing.  Use it on a sandwich in lieu of mayonnaise or mustard.  Brush it on chicken, add crumbled feta or goat cheese and bake.  Recycle!

Bon Appetito

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