I watched as the wings of the airplane rose higher and higher above solid ground, until the view finally became saturated with a collective group of droplets condensed into a heavy grey matter.
The foggy atmosphere was synonymous with the beginning of any great adventure- mysterious, exhilarating and the slightest bit foreboding.
A month of backpacking was a prerequisite to my “actual” study abroad experience. This particular flight would land me in Croatia.
Time on the plane went by quickly, even with the generous number of pokes and prods that the curious youngster next to me administered.
Croatia brought a world of stunningly aqua water that contrasted boldly with a thousand varieties and shades of green.
The color green carried over to my next stop: Ireland. Ireland brought lively traditional music, pubs ignited with the joy of its drunken guests and waves crashing against massive cliffs.
The Cliffs of Moore stood like guards against the sea, ready to soldier on in their duties even in the most violent of storms.
My heart was heavy upon leaving this beautiful place, but I knew that the world had more in store for me.
Scotland presented dramatic hills littered with small purple flowers and the birthplace of Harry Potter (The Elephant House Café).
England gave way to castles armed by ghosts of medieval past, double decker buses and thick British accents.
And then there was Wales. Months in advance to this trip I had discovered a remote 500 year-old cottage cradled in the center of the Snowdonian Mountains.
The love of the mountains and backpacking drew me immediately to book this Bed and Breakfast.
Remarkably, I was able to find the place without cell service or Wi-Fi, without a car and without any confident direction.
It was honestly a miracle. The Snowdonian Mountains became one of those places that forever will hold some element of mystery.
For the next four days I saw more sheep than I did humans.
I left the peace of the mountains, now destined for the place I would call home for the next four months.
Firenze, Italia could not have been more contrasting to the mountainous landscape I had just deserted.
The cobbled stones on Via Faenza seemed to have been impregnated by the sun’s intense rays that day.
Heat rose from the stone only to be trapped between the many sweaty bodies that crowded the street; bodies from Italy, from Asia, from America, from all over the world.
Wafts of pungent sewer smell were prominent, thanks to the 90-degree temperatures.
Proprietors called out in fragmented English to each passerby in hopes of snagging one of them into an unnecessary purchase.
Buildings rose four stories high, pushing the tourists and natives alike through the narrow space.
How could I possibly live here? A country girl at heart, the idea of living here, in a city this populated… was, frankly, daunting.
Powerless to communicate, I somehow navigated my way to the office of Lorenzo de’ Medici, where I would be studying. Jami Hansen, a fellow Gustie whom I had only met briefly at orientation at Gustavus, sat in the orientation room.
After a month of travel, it felt good to recognize at least one face.
As the semester went on I came to love the city. It was no longer overwhelming (with perhaps the exception of Il Dumo); I now knew my way to the Arno River, to Parco delle Cascine, and to Marcato Centrale.
My Italian came in handy as I asked for directions and ordered my cappuccino, I studied lost symbolism in countless works of art, learned the art of slabbing and coiling in ceramics, and mastered recipes and cooking techniques native to the Italian culture.
TrenItalia trains sped me across romantic vineyards, along the coasts of the Tyrrhenian and Adriatic Seas, through the striking Dolomiti Mountains, in and out of small towns, cities and markets.
My three roommates accompanied me for most of these travels and became life-long friends.
Together we tried traditional olive oils, purchased cheap (but good) wine, and explored the world around us. We made it through many things together over the course of those four months.
Fall break brought slightly colder weather, but was nothing in comparison to the snow that I knew now covered Minnesota.
My parents joined me in search of some colder weather, and if we got lucky, snow. We found colder weather in Paris, France and even some snow in Switzerland.
Swiss chocolate gave way to French wine and mountainous landscapes shifted to rainy streets. Time flew past and before I knew it I was hugging my parents goodbye at the Charles de Gaulle airport and I was left to wander the streets alone.
Talented artists, street musicians and to-die-for crepes served as great distractions!
Just as my fall break had sped by, so did the rest of the semester. In those past months we tried all the gelato we could get our hands on, continued to appreciate the city itself and even ran a marathon within the walls of that ancient city.
Before I knew it, I was waving goodbye to the women I went to for vegetables at the market, was shaking hands with the man I got my bread from, was thanking my professors and was having my last Italian meal with some of my best friends.
We laughed as we recalled paragliding into the Lauterbrunnen Valley and snowy adventures in Austria.
After our goodbyes I flew on to Barcelona to meet up a high school friend for the last leg of my travels. We spent our time exploring the city and observing the unique architecture.
Our last stop was Germany. With Christmas right around the corner, we were delighted to have run smack-dab in the center of the largest Christmas market around.
Without a care in the world, we ended our adventure with freshly baked foods, stimulating conversation and anticipations of a snowy Christmas back in the states. The journey was over, but only for now.