Lost and Found in the Umbrian Labyrinth

I’m back, Outré loves!

As most of you know, I had the incredible opportunity to spend a month abroad in Spoleto, Italy. I took part in one of College of Charleston’s study abroad programs through the English Department; with Professor Bret Lott leading the excursion, and Dr. John Bruns assisting, sixteen other students and I studied travel writing and global cinema. Although the classes were held at our home base in Spoleto, we also had the opportunity to travel outside of the town on the weekends. During my free time, I got to explore more metropolitan areas like Florence, Amsterdam, Rome, and Venice where we visited art galleries, monuments, and even took over a discotheque.

 

My first day trip to Rome with Sal, Shelby, and Harrison.
My first day trip to Rome with Sal, Shelby, and Harrison.
Discotheque-ing with Ellie!
Discotheque-ing with Ellie!
The whole group on top of the Duomo in Florence!
The whole group on top of the Duomo in Florence!

While I was gone, I took a brief hiatus from my Outré Mode duties, but now that I’m back, you will be returned to your regular scheduled programming; I return from Italy with a brand new perspective and I’m here to share my helpful life and fashion tips with you again!

As much as I’d like to say I’m glad to be back in Charleston, it would be a lie. Living in Italy, and particularly Spoleto, was such an amazing experience. So amazing that I never know what to say when people approach me and ask: “So Thomas, how was your trip?!”

I decided the best way to share my experience with everyone was to share some of the writing I did for my excursion through the Italy. I feel like the best way to express my feelings about being abroad was with the last assignment I had to write, a description of Spoleto to someone we love.

I still can’t quite put my experience into words, nor is this writing anywhere near perfect, but I hope that I can convey how I feel about Spoleto and my time spent there to you guys in my essay, Lost and Found in the Umbrian Labyrinth.

SpoletoOM10

 


Nestled among the emerald hills of the Umbrian countryside you can find the provincial town of Spoleto, where its sand colored structures cling to a foothill of a valley. A winding labyrinth navigable only to its born-and-raised dwellers, the town sighs heavily with age, exhaling the rich history of its ancient settlers. Its narrow streets twist endlessly as they sharply bevel against the sloping hill that ascends to the pinnacle: a lookout that panoramas the expansive valley below it. Our daily trek up the cobblestoned incline proved to be a feat only manageable at the pace of a crawling turtle; we often watched in amazement on our way to class as the women of Spoleto easily darted past us in tall stilettos without breaking a sweat, disappearing in the distance seconds later. Spoleto is comparable to a staircase, for after every flight of daunting slants, a flat piazza full of cafés and gelaterias waits as a landing, providing a respite for untrained and weary legs. Stopping at one of the cafés is a necessity, not only for resting and caffeinating, but also for determining the next step in your course of direction. The piazzas are central hubs of the town where various sloping alleyways meet from divergent directions; should you choose the wrong one, you’ll easily get lost and you’ll be too slow to stop the stiletto clad women for directions.

 

One of Spoleto's numerous winding inclines.
One of Spoleto’s numerous winding inclines.
Shelby and I, our first time to the Lookout.
Shelby and I, our first time to the Lookout.

The alleyways of Spoleto are clad in blast proof walls and the facades of buildings that loom mysteriously, fervently hugging you from either side; you learn to hug them back to avoid getting run over by the tiny Fiats periodically zooming unapologetically past pedestrians. A bastion of mismatched stones dotted with wrought iron light fixtures, its walls defend the rich culture of the town from toxic tourism and alien visitors. In Spoleto, I felt like my sixteen study abroad companions and I were a collection of deformed circus freaks that Professor Lott and Dr. Bruns had dropped into the town for its viewing pleasure. During one of our first excursions into the hillside labyrinth, I remember feeling dozens of leering eyes searing my body with their intense gaze while I waited in a piazza for my friend Bailey to buy cigarettes from a shop. Standing in the middle of the piazza between two restaurants, I looked up from my phone to see every single one of their patrons looking at me with both curiosity and distaste. It was a fruitless venture trying to blend into Spoleto; rarely drawing in visitors before its famous art festival, the discerning eyes of its inhabitants could easily spot the seventeen of us tacked onto its streets like sore thumbs.

 

Trailing behind Shelby during a class break one day.
Trailing behind Shelby during a class break one day.
My first (and hopefully not last) gondola ride on the Grand Canal, featuring Emma and Luca the Gondola Man!
My first (and hopefully not last) gondola ride on the Grand Canal, featuring Emma and Luca the Gondola Man!

After a few days spent navigating the labyrinth ascending to our classroom located in one of the piazzas, it became clear their distaste for our presence was a result of us disrupting their carefully constructed routine. Unlike Florence, Rome, and Venice where the chaos flooding the streets makes it easy to hide behind other international tourists, the reticence of Spoleto relies on convention, where unwelcome irregularity is quickly taken note of. The town consciously rises and sets all together, slow to awake at 8 A.M. and prompt to slumber at 10:30 P.M. after a hefty dinner. Our morning walk was modeled after the townspeople’s routine, beginning promptly at 8 A.M. on class days. It gave me insight into their habitual lifestyle: I saw the same shopkeepers setting up their outdoor seating in the same arrangement, the same townspeople ordering their cappuccino from the same café, the same lull in business during siesta always between 1 and 3 P.M. Our presence made us the unwelcome irregularity with our attempts at ordering cappuccino in broken Italian, the distraction of their careful seating arrangements with our noisy complaints of the steep hill, a nuisance to shops remaining open should we go in during a siesta; we were the disruption to their thoughtful routine. Although I became fascinated with observing the people of Spoleto and with immersing myself in their lifestyle, it was a reprieve to escape their leering eyes after class at 4 P.M. when we retreated to Il Pincio.

Wine tasting at Duccio's vineyard in Montefalco with Ellie!
Wine tasting at Duccio’s vineyard in Montefalco with Ellie!
I had sheep at a restaurant in Florence over 150 years old.
I had sheep at a restaurant in Florence over 150 years old.

 

On the outskirts of Spoleto’s heart, Il Pincio sits upon its namesake Monte Pincio. Much like the town, our villa was only accessible, at least for us, by foot; Professor Lott refused to carry us up the steep hill in the rental car. My lack of athleticism was magnified the first time I met the hill; after a nine hour flight over the Atlantic Ocean and a two hour drive from Rome, the hike up the serpentine, gravel-ridden thoroughfare was a testing experience for my lungs. The trial was not without reward, for the beautiful Il Pincio instantly took our hearts with its sweeping views of Spoleto and other towns claiming residence in the valley below. Although Umbria’s cooler climate made the villa’s arctic pool unbearable, the adjacent Jacuzzi became one of our favorite installations of the house; the humanoid, masseur-like jets a safe-zone to vent over a glass of wine. The villa sat proudly against the rolling hill enveloped in local crops, lavender, and fresh, vibrant, lush grass. Divided into six homey and intimate apartments, the villa was an island safe from the exclusive, tightly knit community below Monte Pincio.

 

The view overlooking the Umbrian valley below our beautiful 14th century villa.
The view overlooking the Umbrian valley below our beautiful 14th century villa.
Our first night bar hopping in Florence. A group of students from Presbyterian College who we just happened upon took this photo; small world.
Our first night bar hopping in Florence. A group of students from Presbyterian College who we just happened upon took this photo; small world.

Most nights were spent in the company of the other sixteen, trying our best to recreate a traditional Italian meal with crisp fare from the co-op at the foot of Monte Pincio; most essential of the fare were the jugs of nine Euro wine, around which we played drinking games, shared stories and ideas, laughed, and cried. However welcoming our humble beds were, we grew so close as friends that it was impossible to leave the gazebo in the courtyard a moment before our curfew; though its walls were invisible, the gazebo was a sacred place where our gatherings shed the intolerance and bigotry American culture had instilled within us. However strange it was, the seventeen of us, so vastly different and unaccustomed, became our own version of Spoleto’s tightly knit and exclusive community; Il Pincio produced a group of lifelong friends.

You can't see it, but there's a Tiny Man wandering around this game of Circle of Death.
You can’t see it, but there’s a Tiny Man wandering around this game of Circle of Death.
The whole group on our way to the bars in Florence!
The whole group on our way to the bars in Florence!

From Il Pincio’s gravel driveway, I watched the sun rise at 6 A.M. the morning of our departure back to the States. Above the Umbrian valley, the sky was exploding in a tangerine halo around the blue-tinted mountains, a misty fog hanging gently over the town below. I felt tears clouding my eyes, for Spoleto and Il Pincio had begun to feel like my home, a permanent installation in my life that I didn’t want to leave behind. The month spent in Spoleto made me appreciate the quiet reticence and simple peace of the sleepy town, for in Charleston I can never escape the constant clamor of cars zipping down Calhoun Street or the nearby house party vibrating late into the night. On a given night we returned from a weekend trip to a bustling city, the walk up Monte Pincio’s slope, illuminated by the nocturnal fireflies, became satisfying and warmed my heart with its reminder I’d soon reach the safe haven populated by a pseudo family. I realized that I loved the strict routine its locals followed and restarting my own promptly at 8 A.M. every day became a joy. As we acclimated to Spoleto, Spoleto and its inhabitants returned the sentiment; we were no longer the subject of leering gazes, nor a disturbance to the café attendants serving us cappuccino. Instead, we had become an integral part of Spoleto’s routine, expected be climbing past the shop keepers setting up outdoor seating along the labyrinth’s alleyways, on our way to class every Monday and Wednesday. Spoleto’s walls deserted their looming quality and we accepted them as a warm welcome into the heart of the now inclusive city, our own bastion for the secrets shared and fond memories made together on our trip to Spoleto.

One of my favorite moments of the trip, sitting on the sill of a Venetian home overlooking a canal.
One of my favorite moments of the trip, sitting on the sill of a Venetian home overlooking a canal.
The whole group on our first walking tour of Spoleto with our tour guide, Luca.
The whole group on our first walking tour of Spoleto with our tour guide, Luca.

 

Stay tuned for a post coming soon where I will feature a lookbook of what I wore in Europe…also known as my feeble attempt to blend in.

xoxo, Thomas

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