What Disability Rights Mean to Me

I’ve talked to a lot of people about this already, but for those who don’t know, I’ve decided to pursue a career in space law after law school. When I tell people this, I get two different reactions.

 

Either: That sounds so cool! … What is it?

 

Or: What happened to disability rights? You’d be so good at that.

 

Let’s set aside the first reaction for now. I’ll come back to what space law is in a future post—I promise. Today, I want to talk about that second reaction. What happened to disability rights? And the follow-up comments that I’d be so good at that and it’s really important.

 

In true Jameyanne’s blog fashion, let’s back up. Believe it or not, I started thinking about law school about three-and-a-half years ago. I’d been in Italy for about a month, and I was already pretty sure that I didn’t want to be a teacher. I was invited to a dinner at the local chapter of the Lions Club, because this chapter was involved in fundraising for a guide dog school in Milan, and they’d heard about the blind girl walking around Assisi with her guide dog and wanted to see her in real life. So I went to this dinner, and when I successfully  cut up my own chicken, everyone at the table applauded. I kid you not. They applauded.

 

I got back to my apartment at about two in the morning, exhausted and frustrated to the point of tears. It had been a long, difficult month, filled with countless incidents just like this. The people who screamed at me on the bus for having the nerve to leave my apartment by myself. The clerks who tried to stop me entering their stores. The head of the school for the blind who wouldn’t let me volunteer to help teach the students skills for independent daily living—like pouring liquid or getting toothpaste on the toothbrush without making a mess—because, and I quote, “they can’t do that.”

 

So here I am, at two in the morning, tired, homesick, definitely in culture shock, confused because I’m six months out of college and I don’t know what I’m doing with my life, and furious because I just want to cut up my chicken without people clapping. And I think to myself, you know, self, you could make a difference here, if you really want to. You could go to law school and become a disability rights lawyer and make a difference here, or back in America, or anywhere. You might wonder why law school was the first thing I came up with for a way to make a difference, but actually I’d been told by my parents and our family friend/my special education advocate, Eleanor, that I would make a great lawyer. And I’d actually been fighting against this idea for years. But here I was, seriously contemplating it.

 

Granted, I was seriously contemplating it at what was now 2:30 AM, so I took that contemplation with a large pinch of salt. But I couldn’t shake the idea, and the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to do it. So I spent the next year volunteering at the New Hampshire Disability Rights Center, which I loved, while I studied for the LSAT, took the LSAT, applied to law schools, got accepted to law schools, and decided where I wanted to go. And then I started law school.

 

Law school,  if you don’t know this already, is literally the worst. I have never worked so hard and felt so stupid. I’ve heard this from a lot of friends in grad school for other fields, so it may not be exclusively a law school thing. It took me less than two weeks to start questioning all my life choices and berating myself for letting my crazy 2:30 AM ideas get me into this mess. But I stuck with it, because everyone said there was a steep learning curve, and I’d only been doing this for two weeks. This was nothing like what I’d been doing at the DRC, but of course I had no legal training when I was there. What if the lawyers were spending all their time doing what I was doing in law school now? Could I do this for the rest of my life? So at some point, I asked my resident advisor if this was what it was like to be a lawyer. He said no, not really. Being a real lawyer was more like what we were doing in my legal research and writing course—applying cases and statutes to new problems—than what we were doing in my black letter law classes—reading a lot and analyzing a zillion cases that all said a zillion different things. This advice helped a lot, because I was enjoying my legal research and writing class better than anything else so far.

 

But I couldn’t shake the feeling that I wasn’t doing the right thing here. I just wasn’t totally happy with the idea of doing disability rights anymore. There were a lot of reasons for this.

 

First, I knew I didn’t want to litigate or work with individual clients. I was more interested in broader policy issues. I wanted to go into the federal government and make a bigger difference. But then the 2016 election happened. I don’t want to get political, but civil rights and the federal government became much less certain after that. Our teachers advised us not to give up on federal government work if that interested us, because the federal government was going to need good lawyers now more than ever. But the idea that, if you worked for the federal government, what you were defending or choosing not to defend, what policy you had to promote, could change so radically overnight, shook me. It seems obvious in retrospect, but it wasn’t obvious to me until I saw it happen. And I didn’t know what to do with it. If I didn’t want to work defending individual clients, and if I didn’t want to litigate, and if I wasn’t sure about working at the federal government, where did that leave me?

 

I spent most of second semester feeling like I had no clue what I was doing. I toyed with the idea of going into literary law and being some kind of literary agent/lawyer thing. And while that seemed like it would nicely tie everything I’d done up to this point together, I just couldn’t get really excited about it. When I got my internship at the U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights in Boston, I thought education law might be what I’m interested in. I was interested in education—why I’d decided to teach in Italy rather than research—and I’m passionate about all children getting an equal education. See any of my rants about Braille literacy and you’ll get the point. And the way the attorney who interviewed me described the Department of Ed, it seemed like a really good fit with my interests. But within the first few weeks at that internship, I knew that this, too wasn’t right. I wasn’t sure if education law was right for me or not—unfortunately I wasn’t doing much legal work because the office was so unclear about what it was supposed to be doing after the election—but I knew that in general this kind of federal enforcement office wasn’t for me. Basically, the Office for Civil Rights of the Department of Ed makes sure that any school receiving federal funds is following the federal antidiscrimination laws. So, if there’s alleged discrimination based on race, gender, sexuality, or disability, OCR does a review to make sure the school is complying with the federal laws. But, to give one example they used during orientation, if you have a really small rural school that’s receiving very little federal money, the school can just decide they don’t want the federal money and then they don’t have to comply with the federal laws. When I asked, “But where does that leave the student?” the attorney basically replied that, as sucky as it is, the Office for Civil Rights doesn’t have power to do anything about it if the school isn’t taking federal funds. And this really bothered me. I know I know, I’m a walking contradiction. I don’t want to litigate for individual clients, but when I’m working for the agency that’s making sure the law is upheld in a broader context, I’m upset by the idea that a hypothetical student could be discriminated against and there’s nothing we could do about it. And again, this left me… Where?

 

So that’s my first reason for being uncertain about doing disability rights. I just wasn’t  sure I wanted to do it. I wasn’t sure I’d be happy doing it.

 

My second reason is tied pretty closely to my first reason, and that’s that it just seemed like it would be exhausting, particularly in today’s political climate. It felt like everywhere I turned, I was hearing about activist burnout. And let’s be honest, I face disability discrimination pretty often myself, almost on a daily basis, even here in America. If someone on the subway isn’t insisting he’ll pray for god to fix me, someone else is shouting “Oh my god, she’s blind!” If I’m not being stopped from entering a restaurant and asked to prove that Neutron is a service dog—illegal, by the way—then someone is seizing my arm and attempting to drag me and Neutron across a street when I didn’t want to go that way thanks very much. I’ve had cashiers in the law school cafeteria question whether Neutron is a service dog, for crying out loud. I’ve had people refuse to let me get on elevators with them because they’re afraid of my dog. And then there are all those pesky new airline policies about service dogs (there’s another post about emotional support dogs coming, let me tell you). And this might be a standard week for me. I try to be polite about it all, but I’m only human, and it’s frustrating. I swear the next time someone asks if Neutron is a guide dog is going to get the response, “Yes, I’m blind. I can take out my fake eye to prove it if you insist.” The idea of working forty hours a week on this sort of thing, and then having to live it myself is pretty unappealing. Reason number three really didn’t help with this either.

 

Reason number three is that from the moment I started law school, anyone who met me, whether at the law school or not, assumed I was going to do disability rights. Conversations invariably went like this: “Oh, you’re going to law school? And you’re blind? So you’re going to do disability rights, right?” And this drove me nuts. Just so you know, I absolutely hate it when people assume things about me just because I’m blind. For example, in sixth grade a friend told me I couldn’t learn to make those gimp lanyard things everyone was making because it was more of a “sighted person thing.” I would stop at nothing to learn how to do it. That’s the kind of person I am. When someone assumes I can’t do something or I will do something or anything like that, I immediately want to prove them wrong and I do the opposite. So yes, I went to law school wanting to do disability rights. But between discovering that I wasn’t really sure about that (reasons one and two), and the constant assumptions that I’m blind so of course that’s what I’m going to do, I was really unhappy with the idea of doing disability rights.

 

I know what you’re thinking, because I thought it myself for a while. I shouldn’t make decisions because of what some people say. I shouldn’t let people’s assumptions derail my career. But like I said, I had plenty of other reasons why I didn’t want to do it. Above all, I didn’t think I would be happy doing disability rights, which is ultimately what made my decision. Yes, part of the reason I wouldn’t be happy is that I couldn’t stand the way people were always trying to pigeonhole me into disability rights because I was blind. But the problem remains, I wouldn’t be happy.

 

If you’re still not convinced, let me relate some of the conversations I’ve had with family and friends. Some people try to comfort themselves and/or convince me to reconsider by asking what kind of pro bono work I can do for disability rights om the side. Some people insist I’m making the  wrong decision, because I would be really good at disability rights, and when I try to explain to them that I’m not happy for all of the reasons I’ve just explained to you, they counter by saying they’re just looking out for what’s best for me. There are layers of problems with that statement that I’m not going to dissect for you. But I think the fact that I felt I had to write a whole blog post justifying my decision and that I’m really nervous about how people will take it says a lot.

 

Which brings me to the last reason I decided not to go into disability rights: I found something I really want to do. Not many people know this about me, but I am a huge astronomy nerd. Like huge. So when my property teacher mentioned space law, I started looking into it, and I was totally fascinated. I even applied for an internship at NASA for my first law school summer—I didn’t get it, but that didn’t dampen my interest in space law. So at the end of my summer internship with the Department of Ed, when other interns and I were sitting on the floor of the file room, talking about what we would do if we could do anything in the world, and I said “I would be a space lawyer and work at NASA,” and another intern said, “Jameyanne, you go to Harvard Law, if you want to do that, you can,” I realized she was right. It’s a really niche field, and I don’t have much of a science background, but I decided to go for it. And I have been a lot happier since. My parents have said that I just light up when I talk about space law in a way they haven’t seen in a while, and friends have told me it’s just great to see me make this decision and go for it. And fun fact, two days after I made this decision, I met my Neutron Star, which pretty much made it official.

 

This year, I’m splitting my summer and interning at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, a federal government laboratory in Maryland, and Analytical Space, a private space company in Boston that’s building a network of satellites that use lasers to communicate. I’ve been at NIST for three weeks, and I’m having a blast. And who knows? Maybe one day I’ll go back to school and get that science degree I wish I had.

 

All this isn’t to say that disability rights aren’t important. It isn’t to say that I don’t care about them—of course I care about them—I need them. And it’s not to say that I won’t keep fighting for them in any way that I can. It just isn’t the right career for me.

 

The way I see it, there are two ways to fight for disability rights. One is to be a disability rights attorney. this is really important. We need good disability rights attorneys who care about the issues. But to me, disability rights means more than standing up in court to fight for someone’s right to read Braille, or use a service dog, or have financial independence or the right to vote or the right to not be abused and neglected. Disability rights means standing up and living the life I want to live, pursuing the career I want to pursue, regardless of my disability. It means showing people that I can do whatever I set my mind to, even if I’m blind. There is a lot of value in seeing someone with a disability doing something totally unrelated to their disability. And really, this is the point of disability rights: to let people do whatever they want to, with their disabilities, just like everybody else. As a disabilities rights lawyer, I felt like I would always be defined by my disability, and true or not, I don’t want that. As a space lawyer, well, not even the sky is the limit.

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America From the Italian Point of View Part Three: Farewell

When I last left you on our grand tour of the northeast, we had just returned to New Hampshire from New York City. If you’ve missed any of the posts about our trip, you can catch up here with Part One and Part Two.

 

We returned from New York very late Friday night. Stefania and Bruno only had a few days left in America. Originally, we had plans to take them to Boston and Portsmouth and the Flume—where once you could see the Old Man in the Mountain. But we were all pretty wiped out, so for the next few days, we mostly just relaxed at home. We walked around my neighborhood and downtown Concord. We played badminton and basketball—which resulted in me jamming my pinkie and having to tape my fingers together for the next three days. We pulled off a surprise birthday party for my mother, which was a lot harder than I would have thought but also a ton of fun. And of course, we played a ton of Uno. My younger brother was now home from Juilliard, and he added a new element of fun to our games. Also, he got to learn his Italian numbers and colors as well.

 

We did go out to Portsmouth for lunch one day so they could try fresh lobster, which they loved. And finally, on their last day, we went into Boston early and spent the hours before their flight left showing them my personal favorite city in the northeast. We went to Harvard Law School so they could see where I will be studying and living for the next three years. We went up to the observatory at the Prudential Center, and just like at the Top of the Rock in New York, we could see all of Boston. Finally, we walked around the waterfront and the North End, saw a couple of the monuments along the Freedom Trail, and ate some last cookies from Mike’s Pastries.

 

All in all, I think we gave them a really good trip around the northeastern United States. They saw Washington D.C. and New York and Boston. They also saw quieter places like Concord and Portsmouth New Hampshire and Gettysburg Pennsylvania. They got to try different styles of American food from different regions. And we did our best to keep it leisurely.

 

We learned a lot about each other’s cultures as well. For example, I learned that Italians eat roughly the same number of meals as hobbits. They learned how tipping in restaurants works and that you do not drink maple syrup. To correct this last bit of misinformation, we actually made them waffles one morning and showed them how to use maple syrup appropriately, then sent them home with a jug of New Hampshire maple syrup (us New Hampshirites are very proud of our syrup).

 

But more than the exchange of culture, it was so much fun for me to spend three weeks with Stefania and Bruno again. I feel like I learned more about them, and they learned more about me, than we did in the nine months I spent in Italy. This is probably because I was so much more comfortable at home than I ever was in Italy. It was because of them that I was able to complete my Fulbright, but I was still so scared in Italy that I just acted like a turtle and retreated into my shell to wait it out. But in these three weeks, I really felt like I was myself with them more than I ever was in Italy, and we had so much fun together. Already, they’re planning to come back for my law school graduation in three years, if they can. If I can pluck up the courage, I’d like to go back to Italy—not to visit Italy but to visit them. After all the time we’ve spent together, they have become part of our family.

America from the Italian Point of View Part Two: Washington D.C. and New York

I meant to write this on Saturday, but I jammed my pinkie playing basketball, and it’s a bit difficult to type with your fingers taped together. My fingers are still taped together, but I don’t want to put this off any longer. If you missed the beginning of our grand tour of northeastern America, check out last week’s post here.

 

When I left you last, my Italian host parents, Stefania and Bruno, had arrived, and we’d spent a few days in New Hampshire and then traveled to Pennsylvania to visit my aunt, whom Stefania and Bruno knew because she came with me when I first traveled to Italy at the beginning of my Fulbright year. We also introduced them to Rocket, our rambunctious black lab puppy—not so much a puppy anymore, but still crazy. We spent a rainy day relaxing, playing with the dogs, and playing game after game of Uno. My mom learned all her Italian numbers and colors, and watching Stefania and Bruno’s interactions while playing cards was eerily similar to my own grandparents.

 

The next day, we went to Washington D.C. I haven’t been to D.C. in ten years, and I barely remember it. We walked along the mall, visiting the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, the Vietnam Memorial, and the new World War II Memorial, which I’d never seen before. Stefania and Bruno were very interested in seeing the World War II Memorial, because they know the history from the Italian front, and they were interested to learn about the war from the American point of view. Thanks to my senior honors thesis, this is something I could discuss at length, even in Italian. It’s an interesting juxtaposition, that for them, the war happened on their soil, to their citazens, in an immediate and terrible way, but in America, the violence of the war didn’t touch civilians in the same way. America was fighting a larger war than Italy as well, because of the European and Pacific fronts, and even though the only attack on American soil was Pearl Harbor, the war was still felt at home in America, with every citizen pitching in to help with the war effort in a way that has not been seen since.

 

On our way back from Washington, we stopped in Gettysburg and had dinner at a really interesting restaurant. It was in the oldest building iin Gettysburg, constructed in 1776. We ate at a table, but other parties were eating in 1800s-style beds, and all the servers were dressed in Civil War style clothing. It was really cool for Stefania and Bruno, who knew about the Civil War and were very interested in it.

 

The next day, we left Pennsylvania and drove north to New York City, where we spent five full days. I’ve been going back and forth to New York all year, visiting law schools and seeing my brother at Juilliard, so I feel like I know the city pretty well. Until I got into Harvard, I thought it was where I would be living for the next three years. But it’s been a long time since I’ve done the touristy things in the city. We started with Time Square and Fifth Avenue and St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Then we spent a whole day at the September 11 Memorial Museum. It was incredible, but also very difficult, as it should be. I don’t think anyone can go through that museum with dry eyes, and we didn’t even get through all of it. It was just so much to take in—the faces of all the victims, the recordings of phone messages from people on the planes and in the Towers telling their family they loved them, the pieces of the buildings and the planes and the charred fire trucks. It was incredible not only to see all of this but to share such an intensely American experience with Stefania and Bruno, who of course had heard about the attack on Italian news but never quite appreciated the extent of what that day did to America in the same way we did.

 

After Ground Zero, we walked along the High Line, which used to be the tracks for an elevated train along the Hudson but is now a walking path. Like the bridge over the Hudson in Poughkeepsie, we had expectations that were much different from what the reality actually was. We expected a view of the city, but instead we found ourselves dwarfed, as usual in the city, by skyscrapers on all sides. We could barely even see the Hudson. However, Stefania and Bruno really enjoyed the leisurely stroll and the chance to see all the different plants and flowers planted along the walkway. They were also fascinated byt the way old, historical buildings were right next to brand new skyscrapers all over the city. I wouldn’t have thought this would be anything of note for them, because this is in fact very similar to Italy, where history is literally layered on top of older history, but I think they were so interested because it wasn’t something they expected to find in America.

 

We spent the next day at the Statue of Liberty. We climbed the pedestal, and they were able to get audio tours in Italian, which gave me a break from translating. I told them about my own grandparents, who came to America as children from Italy, stopped at Ellis Island, and saw the Statue of Liberty as a symbol of freedom and opportunity, just like so many other immigrants.

 

Finally, on our last day in New York, we walked leisurely through Central Park and went to the top of Rockefeller Center. This was incredible, because we could see all the places we had visited all week. Stefania and Bruno were just overwhelmed with everything we’d done and seen. They’d never imagined that they would be able to come to America and see New York in person. It’s thanks to them that I could see so much of Italy last year, so I’m glad we were able to give them this chance.

America From the Italian Point of View Part One: First Impressions

Last year, when I was in Italy, my landlady and landlord, Stefania and Bruno, basically adopted me. I ate with them every day, and they took me all around Umbria. Honestly, I couldn’t have completed my Fulbright without them. So when I left last June, my family and I invited them to come to America. And this week, after months of planning, they did.

 

They’ve been here for four full days now. They have recovered from their jetlag, and we’re planning a leisurely tour of the northeast. So far, we’ve had a lot of fun.

 

We picked them up Monday night at the airport. It took over an hour for them to get through customs, while we waited on the outside and tried not to worry too much. Neither Stefania nor Bruno speak any English, and without any English, we knew it would be hard for them to navigate the airport. At the same time, we knew that other Italian travelers or the flight crew from Italy would be able to help them. Finally, they came through customs, and we set off for NH. After a light dinner, we all went to bed. I was glad to find that while my Italian is a little ragged around the edges, it is still very much alive and kicking. I did devote the last several weeks to reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in Italian, which I’m sure helped.

 

On Tuesday, we relaxed and strolled around our neighborhood, but it was a bit rainy, so we didn’t do much. It was a good day to sleep and continue to adjust to American time (Italy is six hours ahead). Things I took for granted before I spent a year in Italy—like ziplock bags, vegetable steamers, and garbage disposals—fascinated them. They were also fascinated by the chipmunk population in our backyard. I guess chipmunks are far less common in Europe, and also apparently chipmunks are cute (I know a lot of people think they’re cute, but having never seen one, I’m not so sure I can get too excited about it, especially when it sounds like they’re candle pin bowling with acorns in our attic at midnight).

 

It continued to rain on Wednesday. I had a clarinet recital, just for them, where I played the concerto I’ve been working on all year. It went really well. Then we all cooked my mom’s famous roast chicken and my up-and-coming smashed potatoes together, and then I taught Stefania and Bruno how to play Uno. Of all the games I have, it seemed the simplest to play in multiple languages. Throughout my very fractured explanation of the rules in Italian, Stefania asked question after question, but Bruno said absolutely nothing, giving me no indication of whether he understood what I was saying. I was pretty nervous about it, pretty sure I completely messed it up, but apparently I did all right, because Bruno creamed us all.

 

On Thursday, we drove from New Hampshire to Pennsylvania. It was a long, long drive, but we took the scenic route, and they enjoyed seeing the American countryside and the architecture. They’re keeping a running list of all the states we’re driving through and visiting. We spent a lot of time going over the geography with them. We stopped in Poughkeepsie New York and crossed the Hudson River on the Walkway over the Hudson. It was a bit cold and windy and still cloudy. Honestly the bridge wasn’t what we expected, given everything we’d heard about it. It was so big that it was really just like being on a road—it didn’t feel like a bridge—and the sides of the bridge were so high it was difficult to see the river over them. But it was a nice way to stretch our legs, and we found a good lunch right on the waterfront. Finally, we had the quintessential American experience: eating McDonald’s for dinner in the car. We’d planned to have dinner upon our arrival in Pennsylvania, but the walk over the Hudson took longer than expected, and we hit a bit of traffic, and we knew we didn’t want to eat dinner at ten o’clock.

 

Today is another day for relaxing. It’s still raining. We really hoped we would have escaped the rain, but at least it’s a little warmer, and the forecast is for better weather. This weekend, we’re going to visit Washington D.C. and Gettysburg. Then we’ll start back up towards New Hampshire, spending a few days in New York along the way. Once back in New Hampshire, we plan to spend a day in Boston, where I’ll show them where I’m going to school next year. We’re also planning to go to Portsmouth for lobster one evening. And based on the hours and hours we’ve spent playing Uno so far today, we’ll be doing lots of that too.

 

So far, I think it has been a great experience for them. I’m certainly having fun, and it’s really just nice to see them again and show them America, after everything they did for me in Italy.

 

The purpose of the Fulbright program is cultural exchange and understanding. I learned so much from Stefania and Bruno about Italian culture, and while I explained a lot of aspects of American culture to them, it’s one thing to have it explained to you and another to see it. We’re barely a third of the way through their trip, but I think already they’ve seen a lot of American culture. Here’s hoping the rest of the trip is as great as these first few days have been.

Favorite Books of 2015

There are only hours left in 2015. At this time last year, I was in Florence with my family, dodging literal bombs in the streets (a New Year’s Eve tradition in Italy, I’m told) and watching fireworks from the roof of the apartment we’d rented. But I already talked about all that’s happened to me since then. Now, I want to talk about all the books I’ve read this year. There were a lot of them. I read my way through Italy, and then I read my way through the summer and fall. I read some books that were interesting but just all right, and I read some books that I wanted to throw across the room because I hated them so much, but I’m a completionist, so I had to finish them anyway. But I also read a bunch of books that I absolutely loved. I have already updated my Book Recs page with my favorites from 2015, but I wanted to share with you why they are my favorites.

 

Beauty by Robin McKinley: This was the perfect book for reading in front of a warm fire during the winter, when the bitter wind from the mountains to the north seemed to make all of Assisi shiver. The writing is beautiful, and the story is both familiar and unique. Also, I really love retold fairy tales.

 

The Boy Who Lost Fairyland by Catherynne Valente: This is the fourth book in Catherynne Valente’s Fairyland series, and it was an excellent next installment. I really enjoyed seeing different aspects of Fairyland, and it took the series in a direction I was not expecting. I loved the paralells between the characters’ stories, though it did feel a bit awkward to me to see September in someone else’s story, even though we really haven’t finished September’s story yet. Can’t wait for the fifth book!

 

Howl’s Moving Castle and sequels by Diana Wynne Jones: I can’t believe I haven’t read these before! I just loved Howl’s Moving Castle and Castle in the Air. House of Many Ways was also good, but it didn’t sweep me off my feet like the first two books did.

 

A Glory of Unicorns edited by Bruce Coville: I read this when I was working on a middle grade story for a contest. I found the stories aimed at a younger audience than I like to write for (I prefer upper middle grade personally), but there were still a lot of really great stories, and I had a lot of fun reading them.

 

Sunshine by Robin McKinley: I picked up this book with no idea what it was about and literally read it in a day. It was fabulous and intense and made me really, really want baked goods. It’s about vampires, by the way.

 

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline: This book was on my wishlist for a really long time. My mother read it over Christmas and said that the minute she finished it, she turned back to the beginning to read it again. So I read it over Easter break, when we were visiting Matera, and I couldn’t put it down either. I really admire how Kline weaves the two stories together. They really don’t feel like separate stories at all, by the end of the book, because each story has influenced the other so profoundly, but at the same time they are both complete stories in their own right. This is the sort of layered storytelling I’m aiming for with my honors novel, and reading Orphan Train actually gave me some ideas for how I want to revise it. Now, I just have to do that.

 

The Bloody Jack Adventure series by L. A. Meyer: There were like three weeks when I just blew through these books and no one heard from me. I really enjoyed the history in them, and I loved traveling with Jacky all over the world. In retrospect, though, I do have some reservations about the series. After the seventh book (the series has twelve books), I started to look for an end to the story, because it just started feeling like it was going on too long and why can’t they defeat the bad guys already? Also, there was a lot of Jacky being rescued by other people, and in every single book, someone attempts to rape her. Every single book. Not only did it get a bit old as a threat, but the image of a female character as being nothing but a sex object and also the image of men as only being able to think of having sex with her was troubling to me. Guys I finally understand what can make fiction problematic! But I still had fun reading them, and I would recommend the first seven books of the series, if not the whole thing, with a clear warning about what you might be getting into.

 

The Colors of Madeleine series by Jaclyn Moriarty: A Corner of White, the first book, was interesting but not my favorite thing in the world, but the second book, The Cracks in the Kingdom, was fabulous. The third book isn’t out yet, but I’m really looking forward to it. Madeleine, in London, starts communicating with Elliot, in the fantastic world of Cello. For Madeleine, it’s fantastic, but if Elliot is caught having contact with Earth, he could be killed. And both of their fathers are missing. Cello is really unique, and it also makes me want to eat lots of baked goods. I’m noticing a trend in the books I was reading last spring.

 

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern: If you haven’t read this book, go do it now. Right now. It’s beautiful and epic, spread over something like thirty years and at least two continents, and it has the best romantic subplot I’ve ever seen. Because the romantic subplot is integral to the plot, and it isn’t even a romance. Also, for audiobook fans, the audio version of this book is narrated by Jim Dale.

 

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah: I’ve read a lot of World War II books. And I mean a lot. One of the pitfalls I’ve noticed in many of them is that they try to cover too much. World War II was massive in scope, both in time and place, but it can’t all be contained in one story. That’s what I thought until I read The Nightingale. Kristin Hannah managed to tell a story that was very broad in scope, covering many aspects of the French experience in World War II from the point of view of two sisters: one with a German officer billeted at her house; the other fighting with the French resistance. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in World War II history or anyone just looking for a good story.

 

The Lunar Chronicles series by Marissa Meyer: Again, if you haven’t read these books, stop what you’re doing and go read them now. They are amazing, possibly my favorite of my favorite books of this year. Retold fairytales set in a vivid science fiction world. Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, and Snow White team up to fight an evil dictator. Need I say more?

 

A Series of Unfortunate Events: I read the first three books a long time ago, but this year I finally sat down and read the whole series. I actually had the opposite reaction that I had to the Bloody Jack series, because I felt the books got so much better after the seventh book, when the Baudelaires stopped simply letting themselves be shepherded from one awful guardian to another where they were forced to foil Count Olaf’s latest crazy scheme, and instead took it into their own hands to solve their own mysteries. And even though I’d heard the ending was disappointing, I actually really liked it.

 

Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor: This was my first ever alien invasion book, so I can’t really compare it to anything, but I enjoyed this book a lot. It was very different from what I normally read, and I appreciated the diversity of the setting and the characters.

 

Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien: It took me more than two years to do it, but I finally finished Lord of the Rings, and now that I have, I can definitely say it was worth the ride. There were certainly some very slow parts, and now I understand why people object to including songs in novels, but on the whole it was a great experience to read.

 

The Girl Who Ruled Fairyland – For a Little While by Catherynne Valente: This novella on Tor.com was lots of fun and added a lot of insight into the Fairyland books. (I love the Green Wind!) You could probably read it at any time after you’ve read the first book, but I personally think it’s better having read all four books that are out so far. If you enjoyed the Fairyland books, you will enjoy this.

 

The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson: Honestly, when I read the description of this book, I was not sure it was something I would enjoy, but I know the author (Seth was a staff member both years I attended Alpha), and I know he’s a really great writer, so I read it. And it was fabulous. The fantasy world was incredibly rich, and the plot was complex, but not so complex that I couldn’t follow it, and Baru was a fascinating protagonist whom I both cared about but also was someone I was a little wary of. I highly recommend this book.

 

So that has been my literary year. I doubt I’ll be able to read as much next year–law school is coming, after all–but if you have recommendations for books that should be on my list, let me know. Happy New Year, everyone. Here’s to all the fabulous stories of 2015, those we read and those we created ourselves, and here’s to all the stories to come in 2016!

2015 the Year

2015 is coming to a close. It has been an absolutely crazy year. When I look back at where I was a year ago (and Facebook has been kind enough to remind me that a year ago today I was touring the Vatican with my family), I cannot believe how far I’ve come.

 

I was in Italy until June, finishing my Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship in Assisi. Parts of those six months were really difficult. I was lonely and more afraid than I have ever been ever, not to mention that I had no idea what I was going to do next. But despite all this, I persevered, and I still had some wonderful experiences (I can say this now because perspective is a great thing). After Christmas, I visited Rome, Florence, and Pisa with my family. I returned to Rome in February for the Fulbright midyear meeting. In March, my mother and I visited Bari and Matera. In May, I visited Narni—the village that inspired The Chronicles of Narnia—with some Kenyon friends who were studying in England for the year. In June, before I came home, I went to see the Museo Omero in Ancona and the Flower Festival in Spello. We visited Spoletto and Venice, the wineries at Montefalco in Umbria, and Lake Trasimeno on the border between Umbria and Tuscany. And when I wasn’t traveling, I was teaching everything from English, literature and creative writing to history, sociology, and chemistry (I claim very little proficiency in those last two). I improved my Italian (though I haven’t practiced much since), and I made some wonderful friends.

 

At the same time, the difficulties I was facing in Italy, including a lot of discrimination, helped me decide that I want to attend law school. I’ve said this a few times already, but though I feel that I might have come to this decision without my experiences in Italy, those experiences gave me the passion and the empathy that I hope to bring to disability law in school and beyond. So when I came home, I spent the summer studying hard for the LSAT. I took the LSAT in October and claimed victory. Then I filled out all my law school applications. Now I’m back to playing the waiting game. And everyone knows I’m really bad at that. On the other hand, I have already been accepted to three law schools, so it’s much less stressful. I know I am going to law school. Now it’s just a question of where.

 

Since I took the LSAT, I have also been volunteering at the New Hampshire Disability Rights Center, which has been a blast. I have learned a lot about disability rights in just two months, but most of all, I am sure now that this is what I want to do.

 

Finally, I had some writing successes as well. My story “Naming Angelo” was the second runner-up for the Dell Award, and “Dissonance” was accepted for publication by Abyss and Apex in October. And it’s coming out Friday, guys! Be excited!

 

So I did a lot of stuff this year. Last January, when I set out my goals for the year, I had no idea what was coming. Now… I have no idea what those goals were and if I actually achieved them. So let’s take a look:

 

  1. By the time I return from Italy at the end of June, one of my novels will be edited and ready to start submitting:

 

Victory!

 

From January to March, I worked pretty much nonstop to revise my small child wizard novel and get it down to a reasonable length. And I did it! I was having a really hard time then, and my father suggested that I reorient my goals: take this time and use it to write or read or draw. Set goals for yourself that you can accomplish and use this time for that. So I wrote, and I’m positive that having this project was the only thing that kept me going through February. I even started to get to the submitting part. More news on that soon, I hope.

 

As for the honors novel, which I also thought I might revise, that didn’t happen at all. But I have a plan for that, and my goal was only to edit one of the three novels on my computer.

 

Onward!

 

2. Keep this website updated on a semi-regular basis:

 

Victory again!

 

Okay, I slacked a bit from July to October, but it’s a far cry better than I was doing before, when I was posting only like once every four months. So I count it a win. Also, I’ve gotten more than 2000 hits this year, so thank you all for sticking with me and my ramblings this year.

 

3. Use Twitter:

 

So, about that…

 

Unless you count that I tweet every time I write a new blog post (and I don’t, because WordPress does it for me), I have pretty much utterly failed at this. I just can’t seem to get the hang of Twitter. Can someone teach me?

 

4. Continue writing and submitting short stories:

 

Done and done. And it’s paying off.

 

5. Make decisions about what I want to do with my life:

 

Mission accomplished, at least for the near future. But let me tell you, these were some tough decisions—not to pursue a doctorate in comparative literature or an MFA in creative writing—and in some ways they were disappointing decisions. If I think about it, I’m honestly not that surprised that teaching wasn’t my favorite thing in the world. But I always expected that I would almost exclusively go the writing route, which isn’t to say I’m going to stop writing, obviously. It’s just not the only thing I’m going to do. And after I’ve been telling my family my whole life that no way would I ever become a lawyer, well, you can guess how that felt. But now I’m confident that I’m on the right path, and if I change my mind down the road, I know myself enough to accept that.

 

But I’m not going to change my mind.

 

So that’s 2015. It’s been an incredible year. Looking back on where I was a year ago, I’m overwhelmed with feelings I can’t quite pick apart. Nostalgia, probably. Happiness at all I’ve done, definitely. Shock and wonder at how far I’ve come—both figuratively and literally—there’s a lot of distance between January 2015 Jameyanne and December 2015 Jameyanne. But all the changes have been good, and I’m excited for what comes next.

Home Sweet Home

Last weekend, I finally watched The Assisi Underground, the movie adaptation of one of the books I read while researching my honors thesis at Kenyon and then again just before I left for Assisi last year. It was a very good adaptation, but more than that, it was really interesting to watch the movie, which was filmed in Assisi, and say, over and over again, “I’ve been there. And there. And there. Wow! That’s where my favorite restaurant is now.” Granted, I made a point of going all over Assisi in search of the important places in the book, but I still didn’t expect the movie to strike me quite in this way.

 

I have been home from Italy for about two and a half months now. I’ve tried several times to write new posts for this blog about various writing topics, but obviously I wasn’t all that successful, so I decided to talk instead about what I’ve been up to this summer.

 

I spent most of July catching up on the doctor and dentist appointments I’d been neglecting, which was a good thing, because I also managed to get every kind of sick I can possibly think of that month. I participated in Camp NaNoWriMo as well, trying to get myself back in the groove of writing, and though I got pretty behind thanks to being sick, I caught up and completed my goal. It’s been a while since I’ve felt that surge of energy that comes with some real momentum on a writing project, but unfortunately I didn’t keep that momentum up in August because I have also been studying hard for the LSAT. I’ve been improving steadily, and I’m feeling pretty confident about the test at this point. I’m taking the test in the beginning of October, and in the meantime I’m going to keep doing practice tests, refining my list of prospective schools, and starting the application process.

 

I’ve also been talking a lot about my experiences in Italy. I wrote this Facebook post for the U.S.-Italy Fulbright Administration for the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. I gave a presentation at the New Hampshire Association for the Blind about living independently and self-advocacy abroad. And last week, I was interviewed by Mobility International USA (I’ll post the link to the article once I have it). And, of course, I’ve been catching up with friends and family and talking with them about my year.

 

One of the questions I have been asked most often is, “So, are you glad to be home?”

 

And yes, I really am glad to be home. Reliable air conditioning and hot showers and internet are still amazing to me, and I definitely don’t miss feeling like cars are chasing me down the sidewalk.

 

But watching The Assisi Underground and seeing the city where I lived for nine months made me realize there are some things I definitely do miss about Italy. I miss being five minutes walk from the center of Santa Maria debli Angeli, and I miss how active that town center is. It’s so rare to see people in America walking downtown just for the sake of walking, and the couple of squares downtown where I live are virtually unused, unlike the main piazza in front of the basilica. On nice days, I would sit in the piazza with a book, and there would be people sitting talking all around me. Kids played soccer in the center of the piazza or rode bikes in great loops around everybody else.

 

I miss the food, especially the gelato. And even though I said I wasn’t going to eat pasta again for a long time because I had so much of it in Italy, that resolution lasted all of a week. I’ve been trying out some recipes my Italian friends have given me, with some success. I’ve gotten pretty good at the gnocchi with black truffel sauce, mostly because I brought a lot of truffle sauce back with me. Other recipes I’m trying I feel like something is missing.

 

I miss speaking Italian. I’ve pretty much switched from speaking a lot of Italian but not writing to only writing Italian and not speaking it at all. Except with Mopsy.

 

Most of all, I miss all the people I became friends with in Italy. I’m keeping in touch with a lot of them, but the time zone makes it difficult—I’m not sure if it’s harder being here or there—and it’s just not the same.

 

When I was in Italy, it was hard. There were plenty of times when I was lonely or angry or een I just wanted to turn around and go home. I haven’t forgotten that. But I also gained some perspective—something everyone told me I would do—something I even told others I would do. Because there were a lot of good things about this past year, and on the whole, it really was a valuable experience.

 

So yes, I’m glad to be home. I’m very glad to be home. But I’m also glad that I have this perspective and that I am now truly able to appreciate the incredible year I just had. And I am glad there are things that I miss.

Arrivederci Italia

February was a rough month for me. I’d placed in the Dell Awards, which I was really happy about, but I couldn’t go to ICFA because it would be too hard on Mopsy, which meant I couldn’t go home for a bit. I’d just finished revising a novel, which was also wonderful, but now what was I going to do? I was being rejected from one graduate school after another. A lot of my classes were being canceled because of festivals and work placements for the students, so I had way too much free time on my hands to dwell. And June just seemed so far away. I’d reached a point where I’d realized that I had gotten something out of this time in Italy, so now that I’d done that, could I go home? Well, no, I couldn’t. I’d started this, I was halfway through this, and I was going to finish it. So I sat down and said, “Okay, Jameyanne, if you’ve learned so much, then what did you learn?” And I wrote this post. It turned out pretty flippant, actually, and at the time it really helped me get some perspective on the first half of my time in Italy and face the second with more confidence.

 

I was also pretty sure, at the time, that I could just use this post wholesale when I was getting ready to finally leave in June. And I can, but I’m adding to it. Because now it’s June, and I’m getting on a plane tomorrow, and I am overwhelmed with all the feelings I did not expect I would have and all the things I have learned in these last months.

 

Last October, I arrived in Italy, filled with hope and shiny new dreams. I’d graduated summa cum laude from Kenyon College with high honors in English. An agent was looking at my thesis novel. And I was going to Italy—a dream come true. I was going to revise my thesis novel and research another novel that I wanted to set in Assisi in the 1950s. I was going to make a ton of Italian friends, become fluent in Italian, maybe even fall in love (deep down, underneath all the horrible things I do to my characters, I’m a hopeless romantic, and there’s no getting around it). And, did I mention I was going to Italy?

 

Now, nine months later, I’m going home. I didn’t fall in love. I didn’t even make that many friends my own age, really, though I was pretty much adopted by some of the most wonderful people I have ever met. I traveled all over Italy, visiting Rome, Florence, Pisa, Venice, Ancona, Bari, Matera, Gubbio, Narni, Spoleto, Spello, Canara, Montefalco, Bevagna, and Lake Trasimeno. I saw the big tourist spots, but also all the beautiful little towns around Assisi. And Assisi, too, of course. I taught English in two high schools, and I tried to organize a volunteer project with the school for the blind in Assisi that ultimately fell through.

 

Revising my honors thesis? Didn’t happen. Researching another novel set in Assisi in the 1950s? Maybe subconsciously, but I didn’t put real effort into it. And if anything, for a while I actually fell out of love—out of love with a country, out of love with a dream, out of love with some of my own goals and ideas. Looking back at myself boarding that plane in Boston, I’m not sure who I was then. I’m not sure who I am now, either, but I know I’m different. And I know what changed.

 

So here it is, what I’ve learned in Italy, the big things and the small, the flippant and the serious.

 

  1. Things like dryers, ziplock baggies, traffic laws that people follow, window screens, showers that stay hot for more than five minutes, grocery bags you don’t have to pay for, real wifi (not the kind on a stick), fresh milk that keeps more than four days, and salty snacks are glorious and should not be taken for granted. Ever. Ever!

 

2.  It really is possible to have too much of a good thing. I might never eat pasta again.

 

3.  Being an adult is hard.

 

4. Grammar is not as important as you might think. What matters is understanding, and if that means you’re speaking only in infinitives or playing charades while your jetlagged brain frantically tries to catch up, that’s okay.

 

5. I do not like boiled food. Potatoes, apples, greens, chicken, what have you. If it’s boiled and that’s it, I don’t like it. (Actually, I already knew this, but I thought it bore repeating.)

 

6. While there were definitely times when I really enjoyed teaching, there were also times when I honestly found it kind of boring, which sounds terrible, but I have to be honest here. And on the whole, I don’t think it’s what I want to do for the rest of my life.

 

7. I have fabulous family and friends. I definitely would have lost my mind a dozen times over this year if I didn’t know they were all standing behind me—six hours and several thousand miles behind me, to be precise, but ready to listen to me and be a virtual shoulder I could cry on and cheer me on. (Did I mention the internet should never be taken for granted?) My parents came to visit me at Christmas for a family vacation, and then they came back again in March, when it became clear how hard a time I was having. If they hadn’t come back, I would have given up and gone home, and if I’d done that, I would have missed so much. I couldn’t have done this without them.

 

8. I have an incredible Seeing Eye dog. I don’t know how many times Mopsy has literally saved my life (I lost count the first week), what with the traffic laws being only suggestions and the drivers who I swear are out for blood. But more than that, she stood by me this whole year, when I was excited and when I was miserable, when I was dancing around my apartment singing Disney songs at the top of my voice or when I was curled up in bed feeling like I would never be able to get up again. When I felt like it was all too much, like I just wasn’t brave enough to get up and keep going, like I just wanted to turn around and go home, Mopsy was the one who forced her head under my arm and wagged her tail: “Come on. We can do it. We’ve come this far.” She deserves a blog post all her own, and so much more.

 

9. I love writing. I always will love writing. But writing all the time can be very lonely. Maybe if I was in the same time zone as all my writing friends, it would be better. I don’t know. But I’m not sure being a full-time writer is what I want to do with my life either. Of course I’ll keep writing and keep trying to get published, but I’ve been doing that my whole life while I was in school, so why can’t I keep doing that while I’m doing something else too?

 

10. There is no shame in crying over Disney movies when you’re twenty-four. (I already knew this too, but again, I felt it deserved to be repeated.)

 

11. Things don’t always work out as you plan, but they do work out, and they might be just as good.

 

12. I want to go to law school and become a disabilities rights lawyer. I might have come to this decision without Italy. I wasn’t sure even before I graduated that I wanted to get a Ph.D in comparative literature. I loved Italian literature, but I could read it without a doctorate, couldn’t I? So I might have realized that I had something else I could give, that so many people had fought for me and my rights all my life, and I could give back by fighting for someone else. But without Italy, without having to really fight for myself and my rights, without feeling discriminated and judged, I don’t think I would have had the same compassion and empathy that I have now, not only for people with disabilities, but for other groups as well.

 

There’s more, so much more, but it’s harder to put into words. There were times when I didn’t feel like I was really independent, but in fact, I have been more independent this year than ever before. True, I couldn’t cook myself—you had to start the stove by turning on the gas and then using a lighter, and in case I haven’t mentioned it, I have no aim—and I couldn’t even get to the store by myself without risking getting squished because the cars in Assisi think the sidewalk is at best a parking lot and at worst an extra lane. But I was taking care of myself and my dog. I had my own apartment and my own finances to handle. I was traveling to and from work every day by myself—stay tuned for the “Whacky Adventures of Mopsy and Jameyanne Trying to Get to School Without Getting Killed.” And I wouldn’t trade the ability to go to the store and cook myself for all the wonderful meals I had with Stefania and Bruno—my landlady and landlord—and the friendship we formed over those meals.

 

Stefania and Bruno basically adopted me, and I cannot put into words what kind, caring, loving, wonderful people they are. They took me for who I was, from the minute I walked in the door. They didn’t help me because I was blind, but because I was a young girl far from home. They welcomed me with open arms and hearts, and the love and friendship they showed me, from the start, has changed my ideas about what is most important to me. Thanks to them, I value my friends and family—and I count them family now—more highly than ever. When I come back to Italy, I know that I always have a home.

 

And finally, I saw that I can make a difference, even if it is one person at a time. When I first arrived in Italy, people were always giving me strange, if not downright hostile, looks. I was told that it was practically taboo for someone with a disability to be living, working, and traveling independently. Most Italians have never seen a service dog. What I was doing, living and working by myself in a foreign country thousands of miles from home, was unheard of. When I proposed volunteering at the school for the blind in Assisi to teach the kids some basic independent living skills–tying their own shoes, pouring a drink without spilling, putting toothpaste on a toothbrush without making a mess, that sort of thing–I was told, “They can’t do that.” I was told I couldn’t enter stores. Bus drivers forgot I had asked them to tell me when we were at my stop or forgot to mention I was on the completely wrong bus (if the buses are color coded, why are three orange buses going three different places?). Once, a woman started yelling at me on the bus because she was afraid of dogs and what business did I have bringing such a fierce dog on a public bus? People applauded when I poured myself a glass of water, operated a vending machine, or cut up my own food. I was not allowed to climb the tower of Pisa with Mopsy, and they refused to refund my ticket. I had to fight for every inch I gained. But I gained a whole lot of inches. After a while, people started saying hello to me as I walked down the street. A waiter at my favorite café started asking me how I did things myself. The next time someone threw a fit about Mopsy being on the bus, the bus driver started yelling right back at them before I could. How did I do this? I pushed. Yes, I am legally allowed to enter your store. Yes, my dog is getting on this bus. People started recognizing me. People started respecting me.

 

I will tell one quick story to really illustrate this. A few weeks after I first arrived in Italy, I went to the supermarket with Stefania and Bruno to buy cereal and milk, and the cashier didn’t want to let me in with Mopsy. Stefania and Bruno offered to go buy my cereal and milk while I waited for them, but I insisted that I was going with them and that I was legally allowed to. The cashier gave in, possibly just to shut me up, but hey, whatever works. But nine months later, just two weeks ago, when we went to the hermitage where Saint Francis communed with the animals, a nun didn’t want to let me into the church with Mopsy, and before I could even object, Stefania said, “First, she’s a guide dog and she’s allowed everywhere. Second, think where we are. Would Saint Francis really not let such a beautiful, good dog come into his church?” (Only an Italian would talk back to a nun like that.) Stefania’s growth, from taking my inability to enter a store at face value, to facing down a nun on my behalf, really drove home to me not just how much I have changed, but how much I have changed others around me this year.

 

And so here I am. Tomorrow, I’m flying back to America. I’m really glad to be going home, but leaving all the wonderful people I have met, even leaving this country that sometimes seems like an alternate universe where things just aren’t quite right, is so much harder than I ever imagined it would be. I know that when I get home, everyone is going to ask me, “So, how was Italy?” And I’m not sure what to say. I’ve had better years, but I’ve also certainly had worse (the year of the exploding eye chief among them). At times, it was really hard. But that doesn’t mean it was a bad experience. In fact, looking back on it even now, it has been a pretty incredible year, in every sense of that word, and I’m sure that I’m going to look back on this year and everything that I learned as a difficult but also a wonderful time, and really, as the beginning of something new.

 

So, arrivederci Italia. Until we meet again. And grazie.

City of Dreams

When I was in middle school, I read The Thief Lord by Cornelia Funke. It was about a group of runaway children living in Venice. It was so beautiful, so magical, so vivid, that I read it again and again. It is one of the most concrete things I can use to account for my obsession with all things Italian—that and growing up hearing stories of Italy from my mother’s family. The first complete sentence I remember speaking in Italian on my own—not part of an exercise or group activity—was “Io voglio andare in Italia” (“I want to go to Italy”), followed closely by “Io voglio andare a Venezia” (prepositions in Italian are hard, guys). This was my dream. In high school, I wrote a short story set in Venice that later became a chapter of my honors thesis novel. There wasn’t enough time to go when I studied abroad in Torino three years ago, so this year in Italy, I was going. I had nine months in Italy, so I was going. And Italy might have been rough, but I’d been dreaming of going to Venice for half my life, and nothing was going to stop me. I. Was. Going.

 

But here’s the thing. Italy was my dream too, and for a whole lot of reasons, it didn’t go as planned. So what if Venice wasn’t everything I’d dreamed? What if it wasn’t magical at all? What if it was so crowded with tourists we couldn’t move? What if—and here’s where it started to get irrational—what if a car snuck in and managed to run me over even there? You get the point. When I stepped out of the train station with Mopsy and my mom, I was painfully excited, and at the same time, terrified that it would not be real, that this last dream that I had clung to all year would fall apart in my hands.

 

But it didn’t. Because from the moment we stepped out of the train station, it was magical. The light glittered off the Grand Canal. The gondolieri sang as they rowed. The breeze was cool and smelled of salt and fresh fish. There were no cars attempting to run me over (this was a big deal to me), and I didn’t even fall into a canal.

 

Yes, there were a ton of tourists, especially around the Rialto Bridge and the Piazza San Marco, but it’s Venice, and I actually found that the Italians were more friendly to me speaking Italian than they were in Rome and Florence. In Rome and Florence, they would continue speaking English, despite me repeatedly speaking in Italian. In Venice, they almost all exclaimed, “You speak Italian so well!” and then switched to Italian themselves. I also had absolutely no trouble bringing Mopsy in anywhere, which I think is a first. In fact, people were always really helpful, bringing Mopsy bowls of cool water without me even asking (it was 90 degrees every day).

 

Despite the heat, we stayed outside mostly, avoiding the big indoor tourist attractions, walking around and experiencing the city. We took a private tour, where we learned all about the history of Venice—how it was built in the sixth century when the people on the Italian mainland fled invading barbarians, how they later cut down the forests on the mainland and sank the trunks in the lagoon to support the city, how Venice is really an archipelago of something like a hundred fifty islands. Our guide took us to the parts of Venice where the real people lived, and we sampled traditional Venetian snacks—called cicchetti—with the traditional Venetian drink, the aperol spritz. In particular, she showed us all around the old Jewish ghetto, which I was really interested in because of my research into World War II in Italy my senior year of college. Not only did she tell us all about the history of the quarter and the city at large, but the tour also really helped to orient us in the city, which is something we desperately needed, what with all the canals and rios and campos and piazzas and alleyways so narrow your shoulders brushed the sides. They say getting lost in Venice is to be expected, and even part of the romance of the city, but it’s one thing to get lost in the light of day when you’re wandering towards something and don’t mind experiencing the city like that, but quite another to get lost at night, when you’re tired after a long day of travel, and just want to find your way back to the hotel, which is what happened to us our first night. So finding our “tiggerings and bearings” in the city with the tour guide was really helpful, and made us much more confident finding our way around the rest of the time.

 

The main city of Venice is divided into six sections, called sestieri, and we walked around all of them, through the tiny alleyways, across the narrow rios, up and over bridges, along the fondamentas beside the water. We ate gelato and listened to music in the Piazza San Marco. We took the vaporetto out to the islands and explored Murano and Burano. We did it all, and Venice is definitely on my list of places I want to come back to when I return to Italy.

 

Notice I didn’t say “if I return to Italy.”

 

Because even though this year has been rough at times, I have grown and changed so much, and I have met some truly amazing people and done some truly amazing things. And one day, I will come back. Because if I learned one thing from going to Venice, it’s that even if some dreams change and some don’t work out the way you wanted, some come true.

“I See!” Said the Blind Man

I’ve talked a lot about the struggles I’ve had here in Italy because I am blind, but now I want to talk about something really wonderful I discovered, something that I have never experienced before, not even in America.

 

There was no school last Tuesday because of the holiday for the founding of the Italian republic, so my mother and I went to Ancona to meet my Italian professor from Kenyon. Professor Dubrovic took us to the Museo Omero—an art museum for the blind.

 

Here’s the thing: I rate art museums below bookstores on things that are useful for me. At least in bookstores, I’m interested in the stuff I can’t see. In art museums, I have virtually no concept of what is interesting about anything. There’s a painting. So what? And why is everyone making such a big deal over a sculpture of a naked guy? Sometimes, if I can get close enough to paintings, I can see the colors, but in Italy, where the art museums are packed with people and you’re being herded from one exhibit to the next, I couldn’t take the time to try to see anything. And even with people describing the paintings to me, there’s only so long I can stand there before I’m bored out of my mind. So, yes, I’ve been to the Vatican and the Uffizi and the Accademia in Florence and the Egyptian museum in Turin, but all I can really say about them is that I’ve been.

 

But this was different. The Museo Omero is an entirely tactile art museum, filled with models made from plaster casts of famous sculptures. It’s funded by the European Union, not by Italy, and it takes its name from Homer, who apart from writing the Odyssey and the Iliad, was also blind. When I was first applying for the Fulbright and planning my volunteer project to work with blind children and explore the differences between American and Italian society’s treatment of people who are blind, my Italian professor told me about this museum, and I knew if I was accepted to the Fulbright and came to Italy, I wanted to go see it. And I was accepted to the Fulbright, so here I was.

 

The museum was small, but the collection ranged from ancient Greek and Roman art, to Renaissance, Romantic, and Baroque art, to contemporary sculptures and modern art, and I could feel all of it. All of it!

 

I have never experienced anything like this, and I’m not sure how I can explain it. Suddenly, what everyone was looking at made sense to me, took on a whole new meaning, even. I never imagined there was so much movement, so much kinetic energy, so much life bound up in these statues.

 

For example, I just thought Michelangelo’s David was a naked guy standing there. I didn’t understand what the big deal was, unless it was that he was naked. But I had no idea that his left hand is cocked back over his shoulder, gripping a sling, and that there’s a stone clutched in his right hand. It made sense—he is, after all, the David from the story of David and Goliath—but I never really appreciated that until I felt the sling and the stone in his hands.

 

I had a similar experience, though not quite as drastic, with the Pieta. Feeling the Blessed Mother holding Jesus in her arms moved me. I could finally appreciate the complexity and intricacy of the statue. So that’s why it’s so famous.

 

There was more. Sculptures of people playing musical instruments, dancing, walking, gazing at their reflections in bowls of water—their reflections were sculpted too. I felt some of Michelangelo’s unfinished sculptures, and it was like the people were walking out of the stone, just like that idea that the statue already exists within the block of marble and the sculptor just has to chip away the excess. And, of course, we can’t forget the tactile representation of modern art—a pair of gloves, a towel, aluminum foil, a sponge, a brush, a cheese grater. I have no idea what the point was, beyond representing modern art in a tactile form. Perhaps something to do with common household items and what they mean. Whatever it is supposed to mean, it was certainly cool to feel.

 

We were the only people in the museum, so we could take our time exploring everything. Professor Dubrovic knew all about the history of the pieces, as well as the artists, and that made it even more special. We spent the rest of the day in Ancona with Professor Dubrovic, eating a delicious seafood lunch, visiting the cathedral, walking along the port and through the historic center, but for me, the Museo Omero was the highlight of the day. It was one of the most interesting things I have done in Italy—and I’ve done some really neat things—and it completely changed how I perceive visual art. It’s hard to describe, but something that I did not—could not—understand, even with the help of Jameyanne Feeling a model of Michelangelo's David, her hands on David's hands, feeling the sling iin his left hand and the stone in his rightdescriptions from friends and family, suddenly had real meaning for me. I saw.