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My Big Adventure (of So Many Little Things)
by Henry Northen
Friday, September 28, 2018
When I arrived, along with seventeen others, at London Heathrow Airport, we were all in awe of the seemingly futuristic security. It was the little things that made the airport experience so much better, like unmanned boarding pass and passport checking stations that prevented the forming of lines, and four-at-a-time security checks with plastic tubs that rolled to you, and at the end of their use, dropped down below the tracks and shuttled back to the start. It’s the little things that make all the difference. The whole security check took us less than fifteen minutes (in SFO, it was much longer). The entire start of the trip had been pretty lucky though. The flight to London was supposed to take ten and a half hours, but it got helped along by 139 mph tailwinds and we got there in a relatively short nine hours. I somehow managed to sleep for six hours! I usually sleep next to none on flights, but this was an exception, and a welcome one at that. We had a connecting flight shortly after, but it wasn’t a problem to make it. We boarded the flight to Milan with high hopes for the rest of the trip, and we weren’t disappointed.
Another smooth round of security and we were met at the exit by a representative and translator from Noceto, Italy, one of Walnut Creek ’s sister cities. We picked up our bags and headed out to the van. Not bus, van. There was not nearly enough room for luggage in the back of the van, so we had to put the giant suitcases in the aisle and at our feet. There weren’t even enough seats, so our Italian translator was a good sport and sat on the floor. Nevertheless, it wasn’t a bad experience. I chatted with my fellow Americans, and groaned when people started singing 2014 pop hits. I laughed with others when the person sitting next to me fell asleep, even with the horrific singing surrounding us like a blanket. Those small details, the little things, kept me sane during that ride.
Two hours later, outside the town hall of Noceto, I met my host family for the first time. Their family consisted of two four-year-olds, Gloria and Diletta, eleven-year-old Ginevra, thirteen-year-old Samuele, also known as Cop (my exchange partner), the mom Michela, and the dad, Pierluigi or PJ. We had to go through various little games designed to be fun, but eventually, we all made it to the Volkswagen. I thought we were heading home, but no, we were going to a welcome party at the local futbol stadium. Once we arrived, I hopped out of the car and went into the tent. There was food galore, and I couldn’t get enough. Pizza, prosciutto, salami, pasta, parmesan cheese. There was everything. After thoroughly stuffing myself, we were forced outside, into the cold, to play an icebreaker game. For some reason, we took the long way to the futbol field, and upon arrival, the Americans and Italians separated. There was a water bottle on the ground, and someone started kicking it around. After a while, we had ourselves a miniature futbol game going on. A water bottle, of all things, broke the language barrier and sparked a connection between people that lived thousands of miles apart. The little things really can make a difference. When the welcome party ended, I headed with my family to our house. It was on the fourth floor of a small apartment complex, and after climbing those stairs, I was certainly ready to fall asleep. It was 10:30 pm, and I was so tired from traveling, that as soon as I fell on the mattress I was asleep.
The next day I ate a breakfast of toast and eggs and went to the school for yet another welcome party. After standing around for fifteen minutes, everyone headed to the principal’s office for a speech. Akila, their P.E teacher spoke the best English out of all of them, and his speech started with “I’ll keep this short and sweet for you.” Forty-five minutes later, we had all been sufficiently educated on the differences between Italy and America, some of which being that the teachers – not students – move classrooms, the fact that they get out at one o’clock, and have to go to school six days a week. Afterward, we had an hour and fifteen minute questioning period with all the eighth graders in their school, and it was absolutely horrific. So many weird, and sometimes inappropriate, questions. I was inexplicably glad to get out of there, as was everybody else in the American exchange group. We all shared this dreadful experience and talked about it for the rest of the trip. This small portion of the trip gave us something to bond over and become closer one another, having little prior experience with each other. I especially connected with Leo Shaften during that time period, because we were going to the Ferrari Museum later, and both wanted to get out of there ASAP. The look of mutual contempt is something that I still remember today, three weeks later.
After the questioning, my host family and I went to the Ferrari Museum. Once there, we met up with Leo and his host family. At the museum they had everything. Formula One cars hanging from the wall? Check. Cars that swept the 24 hours of LeMons? Check. Enzo Ferrari’s desk and trophies? Check. It was Ferrari heaven. The intricate details and extra effort that Ferrari put into their cars to make them great made me have a new appreciation for Ferrari. The Ferrari shop had all the Ferrari branded merchandise you could ever dream of, along with soaring price tags. I didn’t know it at the time, but my host family had bought over one-hundred euros worth of clothing for me. Can you believe how generous they were? But the most outrageous thing in the shop was a super detailed model car, and you could get it for 6,700 euros. Which would you rather have, that or a real car? The little things must really matter to whoever would purchase that.
The next day was probably my favorite of the trip. For the first part of the day, I just relaxed with the family at the local community center and played intense rounds of foosball and ping-pong. This was the day I really connected with Cop (my exchange partner) and had the best time. After playing around for several hours, we headed back to our apartment. I goofed around with the other kids and set up obstacle courses for the four-year-olds to try. Just having a day of whatever we wanted was nice. At around five o’clock we drove to Parma to watch a futbol game. The time flew by, and although it was a low scoring game, 1-0, it was super exciting especially because our home team won. At one point, fans released colored smoke into the stands to celebrate the home teams victory. I was at the game with Cop, Spencer (another exchange student from America) his exchange partner, and both our host dads. We sat in what you might call the “nosebleed section”, fifty rows up, but the energy from the other fans still reached us, and although I didn’t know what they were saying, I was rooting along with the other fans of Parma. The day where we didn’t do anything huge, no famous places or long bus rides. It was a little day, and that’s part of why it was my favorite day. The little things.
“Ahhhhhhh! My throat! Water water water!” I was sick starting on Monday, and all the way through Friday. According to a doctor, it was a “Very bad sore throat.” To me, It felt like I was trying to swallow burning arrowheads every second of the day. It was terrible, and I didn’t know if I would be able to do anything for the next couple of days, but I decided since I was in Italy I should at least try to do everything. And as such, after waking up early, I went to the Parmesan cheese factory. Have you ever heard of the king of cheeses, Parmigiano Reggiano? Well, If you haven’t, you really should try it, as it is the original parmesan cheese and produced only in the Parma area. I arrived there along with everybody else on the trip, and we went on a tour of the factory, and afterward tasted the cheese. They gave us a piece of the best quality cheese they had, and it was out of this world. Unfortunately, I didn’t buy any there, but I did bring back three nice chunks of a different Parmigiano Reggiano – again thanks to my generous Italian family. I don’t know what it is that made it taste so much better than all other Parmigiano cheeses, but the recipe for it had to have been perfected over centuries. The tiny details must matter a lot.
Also on that day, we went to the city council room and met the mayor. He was very nice, and we saw him twice over the rest of the trip. I was still sick and was trying my best to keep my mouth closed around him as to not contaminate the mayor. That would not have gone over well. After meeting the mayor, we drove to the un-contestable most boring part of the trip. I was miserable. We went to the local castle when it was raining, wet and cold. For hours we went on the most boring tour imaginable. Both the Italians, Americans, and chaperones were dying to get out of there. The only one enjoying themselves was the history teacher. It didn’t help that I was sick, and despite wearing a long sleeve shirt and three jackets I was still cold. At that point, I had more than a sore throat. I was full on sick. Three hours later, we finally left the castle. We all went to gelato, which I couldn’t even eat, and then went back to Noceto. I played Wii with Cop for a while, but eventually went to sleep.
The next day was not much better for my poor throat. It still felt terrible, and it didn’t help that I had to wake up at five in the morning to take a two and a half hour bus ride to Pisa. But it was worth it because Pisa was absolutely fabulous. Although I know it hadn’t, it seemed like the tower was leaning even more than when I was there last. When we got to the top, you could see forever. You could also see all the imperfections of the buildings around the tower. You could see that the gold statue on top of the baptistery was not very well made, the fact that the cathedral was not very pretty to look down on because it was all mismatched colors. We had the best tour guide in Pisa(opinion). He spoke five languages, was funny and very knowledgeable. From him, I found out that there were three red pillars among the rest that were stolen from the Romans, and one was said to have magical powers if you stare at it for five minutes straight.
After Pisa, we went to Lucca, which was not as cool as Pisa but was still interesting. Our tour guide here was okay, but when we went on the bike part of the tour she was out of breath whenever she stopped to talk. It was clear she knew a lot about the history of Lucca, but could not convert it into something thirty-six thirteen-year-olds would care about. I was the only one paying attention to her, and at some points, I just tuned her out and enjoyed the city. The little things made the difference in ancient times as well, because back then all the towers had to be the same height. One smart family decided that they wanted to have the tallest tower in Lucca, so they planted trees on top of their tower. That tower is still the tallest in Lucca, and one of the things I remember the most out of everything I saw.
On Wednesday my throat was a tad better, and in the morning we went to Giuseppe Verdi’s house. If you don’t know who Verdi is, he was a famous Italian Opera composer. We got to visit four rooms of his house, in which his family still lives. The one that intrigues me the most is his bedroom, because he had everything laid out perfectly so if he had an idea in the night, he could climb out of bed and walk two feet to his right where he would write it down. He could then take a couple more steps and go to his piano, where he would play and revise his idea. The little things mattered to Verdi as well. We also visited his humble home where he was born. It was nothing fancy, practically a barn, but it was easy to picture young Verdi running around here in the 1800’s. A funny thing that I still remember from that house: I had put a fruit flavored Mento into a Coke, and instead of it blowing up, it merely stripped the flavor from the Mento, and the Coke absorbed it. What surprised me was that the taste was actually pretty good. Not sure why I remember that, but it was a cool experiment. Later in the day, I had to go to an event I thought to be formal at the time. I dressed up in the nicest clothes I had packed, and when we were about to leave the house, I decided I should bring a change of clothes in case I was over-dressed. Good decision, because when I asked my chaperone why everyone was wearing casual clothes, she said “You didn’t get the text? It isn’t formal anymore!” I hurriedly changed into my less formal clothes, and the rest of the night went pretty smoothly. That was until we had to do our dance. For some reason the speaker we brought didn’t work, so we put the phone next to a microphone and played the song using the restaurant’s speakers. It sounded weird, to say the least. Most of us couldn’t dance very well, so the dance didn’t turn out the best. But at least we were having fun! Sometimes the big thing doesn’t matter as much as the little things do, like having a smile on your face.
The long-awaited day, Venice. Luckily, my throat was better, but I had to wake up at five in the morning again to take a bus ride, and this time it was double the length. We had to cross Italy lengthwise to get to Venice and we only spent three hours there. Both ways it took us nearly as long as the flight from California to England. But the trip was well worth it. We took a gondola ride, went shopping, and visited Murano. The demonstration of glass blowing was incredible, and we saw one of the best glassmakers in the world make a nice bowl from scratch in under a minute. At the shop in Murano, I bought gifts for all my family members, and in my opinion, they were all incredible. The skill that the glass blowers have, and the quality of the glass they make, blows my mind. The little things make all the difference in the quality of the glass, and the price tags. We drove the four and a half hours home, and when we got back to Noceto it was ten at night. I ate a delicious meal of pasta and fell right asleep.
Our last day in Italy. We spent half the day in Parma, and the other part in Noceto. In Parma, we visited the baptistery, cathedral, crypt and town square. When we were about to leave the Cathedral, I saw a panel that said “Control the lighting of the dome. Two euro.” Now, in Italy Duomo means the most important church in the city. So I thought that the sign had a poor English translation, and it meant to say Duomo, not dome. So I put my two euros in, thinking “What do I have to lose?” But the effect was unanticipated, and it merely turned on the lights in the small dome part of the church. “What a waste!” I thought to myself. After Parma, we went to Noceto and spent time with our host families. My host dad was very good at futbol and played on the Noceto team. So we went to the futbol fields with Cop, Spencer, and his exchange partner, Pascal. We played a futbol drill where you had to pass the ball to each other in the air, and then kick it out of the air past the goalie and into the goal. It was very entertaining and took us a couple hours to get a winner. After that, we went into town to get Gelato. Coincidentally, we met up with everyone else on the trip and hung out in a park. Eventually, we all went home for a few hours. I spent some of my final time in Italy with my host family, and then we all left to go to the farewell party at a Pizzeria. When we arrived at the restaurant it was extremely hot inside, and after we had finished eating I rushed outside, along with many others. There was an extremely good seven-year-old futbol player outside practicing his juggling, and we started a game. In the game, there were five teams of two, and we had to keep the ball away from the other teams. It was sprinkling outside, which added to the fun of it. We played the game for an hour or so, until we were forced to go home because it was raining too hard.
I had to wake up early once again to catch our plane on time. I didn’t get to say goodbye to some of the family because it was so early, but I asked Michela to say goodbye to them for me. My host Mom, Dad, and brother all came to the pickup spot with me. I said my tearful goodbyes to them and left. It was a sad bus ride for all of us. After the two hour drive to the Milan airport, we walked to our flight. Onboard our flight, with about twenty minutes left until we arrived at London Heathrow, we started going in circles and losing altitude. I didn’t know it at the time, but the pilot was doing that on purpose to lose altitude for the landing. It did take an extra forty-five minutes though, and we had our connecting flight open boarding before we even landed. As soon as we stepped off that plane we were running, and before I continue, I’d like you to note that we had lanyards around our necks that held our passports. Mine had been through a lot of wear and tear, and the clasp was pretty weak. I was also carrying a big umbrella because it was raining, but anyway, back to the story now. We had to take a transport bus to get to our terminal, and when I got off it I opened the umbrella to protect myself from the rain. I sprinted to the door of the terminal to get out of the rain and turned it upside down to close it. I walked into the terminal building, and immediately after everyone got in, realized my lanyard with my passport and boarding pass in it was missing. I knew how big of a deal it was if I lost it, and immediately told my chaperone about it. She told everyone to look for it, and I handed the umbrella to one of my friends because I needed to look in my backpack. He noticed that the umbrella was looking a little strange, and opened it. Inside of it, like a pearl in a shell, was my lanyard. It had fallen off my neck, into the umbrella while I was closing it. The odds that will happen to me again are next to none. I had bought the umbrella at an open-air market with my friend’s money, and it ended up saving the others from having to catch another flight, and me from having to wait for months until I could get a new passport. The little things, like an umbrella, really do make the difference.
As I finish this memoir, I am reminded of a quote we have on the wall of our home. “We don’t remember days… we remember moments.’ Moments, the little things. Those are what matter the most, and make the difference.