Picking Up Steam

Alex Cherry Food & Sustainability Studies, Perugia, Italy


April 25, 2017
And then, suddenly, things can pick up steam again, changing into new, previously unseen forms that demand constant attention. And though you may know have other things to do, you just can’t help but sit around and watch the new stimuli reveal their beautiful shapes and colors.

So it’s been a little over a month since I last wrote, but what an exciting month it has been! So many things have happened in this time, from the mundane to the existential, that I don’t even know where to begin. Since I’m writing this in the middle of final exams right now, I guess I’ll start with the basic and work my way through to the more complicated things. 

School / Work:

Contrasting my first few months in Perugia, most of my time in April was spent working in front of the computer. For school, the past month has been stuffed with final projects, exams, and papers. For my Sustainability class, I created a presentation about how climate change will affect agriculture in the EU in the future (hint: it won’t be easy to adapt, surprise!) For the History and Culture of Food in Italy, I wrote an eight-page paper describing the importance of geography and regional identity for the diversification of pasta varieties around the country (gripping stuff, I know). For my Business of Wine class, we had a group presentation and project to create a social media strategy for a local traditional, sustainable, and female-owned winery (a combination not very common in Italy!). For my Fair Trade seminar and practicum, the two other students and I put together a presentation explaining the current business strategy of the Fair Trade shop we had been working at all semester, and some ideas we thought of that could help improve the business. After that, I am (still) writing a paper reflecting on the economic and philosophical viability of Fair Trade. For my Racconto Italiano course, I wrote a short story in Italian. And finally, I have an exam in each of these classes reviewing all of the topics we’ve learned about over the course of the semester.

On top of all this, I got myself an internship I can do work for online. Using a connection I had made at Tufts last fall, I have been contracted to edit a textbook chapter on Food Law that has been translated from German into English rather crudely, and I needed to proofread it and essentially re-write it into understandable sentences. In exchange, my name will be published with the final product! This was a very cool job to do, especially since it is so related to topics  I’m interested in and already studying, but it ended up taking a lot more of my time than expected, so things such as social events and working out have taken a backseat recently to all of this work. 

Summer Plans:

Speaking of internships, I’ve also gotten myself an internship helping put on a classical music and arts festival for a family friend who lives in Narni, a cute little town about an hour south of Perugia, during the month of July. 

This means I have the full months of May and June to do, well, whatever I want. This freedom is exciting: no responsibilities! And I have enough money saved up to do practically anything I want to (although using this money would mean I don’t have it in the future, but now is the time and the experience to use it for, right?). But deciding what to do is more difficult than it seems, since there are really unlimited options. But I’ve carved out somewhat of a plan for myself, with lots of room for flexibility. First, I’ll work on a sustainable farm near San Marino for a week, and slowly travel to Milan from there. From there, I’ll fly to London and by a touring bicycle, which I will then travel on to Belgium, before taking a train to Marseilles. Then, I will board a ferry to Sardinia, and bike around the island. After Sardinia, I will board a ferry for Sicily, and do the same there. After all this, I’ll finally return to Perugia for Umbria Jazz, a cultural phenomenon in Perugia at the beginning of July, before starting the internship in Narni. Lots of the details are still unfilled, but I’m excited to find out what happens along the way.

Back to the Present: Training and Waiting

Before I can embark on this ambitious bicycle journey, however, I needed to learn a lot about how bikes work, and begin training my leg muscles. Luckily, I found a bike cooperative right across the street from my apartment, but it’s only open on Wednesday afternoons. Throughout the month of April, I would spend a few hours there every week working on constructing a bike that I could then use to bike around the city for free (though I have to return the bike when I leave in a couple of days). It took a few weeks to get everything put together properly, but it’s finally finished. I have ridden it up the hill to school (quite difficult, but a short ride), and even to the large lake nearby, Lake Trasimeno, about 30 kilometers away.

I didn’t do most of the work for the bike myself, though. This cooperative is an entire community: different people from all kinds of backgrounds come together to work on bikes for fun for a few hours every week. Despite the occasional language barriers, I learned so much from these people about everything from the mechanics of bikes and how to do repairs to Italian bike culture. They even invited me to an introductory Arabic class being held in someone’s apartment down the street! I really enjoyed spending this time with these cool characters, who come from places like Senegal, Germany, Morocco, and of course, Perugia itself, and finally got to feel like a member of a local community. I’ll be sad to leave Perugia soon, but adventure awaits!

The Weekends:

These past few weekends have also been stuffed full of opportunities and excitements. The first weekend of April, our class went to a meat farm/restaurant in Chianti known for raising their livestock humanely and using all parts of their animals that have been butchered for culinary consumption. I’m not the biggest meat eater out there, having been vegetarian for a year in the United States, but it was really incredible to eat these cow parts that would have otherwise gone to waste, prepared in ways that made them truly delicious.

The next day, we went to Malvarina, an agriturismo locale in Assisi for the second time this semester to go foraging for wild herbs and hang out drinking wine, playing with dogs, and eating risotto for an afternoon. The weather was beautiful, and with the wine flowing and wild herb processing, this was an absolutely wonderful day. It felt like a golden reward for having worked so hard the week before, and a promise that there is more to come in the future if I continue in this way.

The following weekend, I took a solo trip to Ancona, on the Adriatic coast. Ancona is not typically known as a tourist town, but it’s an ancient city founded by the Greeks and has some magnificent beaches south of the city. I stayed with a professor at the local university who I met over the web community Couchsurfing, and we had a wonderful time there. Traveling alone reminded me that if I keep my mind open to meeting new people and exploring new things, there are incredible experiences to be had anywhere in Italy (and, of course, around the whole world). The weather was gorgeous, and I had an amazing experience. 

The weekend after that, I finally visited the Saturday morning market in Perugia for the first time, an incredible mix of fresh food, casalinghe, or everyday house supplies, and textile vendors selling their goods at incredibly low prices. I only bought a book and a box of strawberries, but it was a really interesting experience in the cultural differences between American and Italian markets.

After the market, my parents came to visit. I had been a bit worried about this for the weeks leading up to their arrival, afraid of the cultural clash between their very American ways and the Italian culture that is quite unapologetically, often arbitrarily traditionalist. But it turned out to be a wonderful visit! I showed them around Perugia and took them to some nice restaurants I usually can’t afford to go to, and introduced them to my roommate Freddy. Additionally, since they had rented a car, we also drove to Gubbio, a beautiful town with a strong cultural identity forty-five minutes away at the foot of a mountain. There we walked around, ate a nice lunch, and rode the standing chairlift to the Church halfway up the mountain, with wonderful views of the town and surrounding valley below. I was sad to see them go, but also glad that they were only around for a weekend, as any longer would have been difficult to balance with all the schoolwork I had coming up!

The next weekend contained our last field trip, an overnight stay in Parma and Modena, two towns in the Emilia-Romagna region about a four hour drive north of Perugia. In Parma, we visited a prosciutto factory and learned about the simple yet strict aging processes that the hams must go through in order to be considered legally worthy of the highest quality “Prosciutto di Parma” label.

That night, we stayed in a hotel outside of Parma, where Freddy and I had a nice final bonding experience of the semester. He had injured his ankle somewhat severely while skateboarding a few weeks prior, and was now on crutches, unable to walk long distances. So while the large part of our classmates traveled to the city for the evening and to find dinner, Freddy and I instead walked a few blocks the other direction, where we found the most incredible Asian fusion restaurant either of us had ever been to. Immaculately decorated inside, the restaurant even had a koi pond covered by glass in the floor, complete with mini pagodas. They were also offering all-you-can-eat sushi that night, and we had a wonderful time hanging out and reminiscing on our semester.

The next day, we visited a Parmigiano Reggiano factory and saw all the steps that go into creating Italy’s most famous cheese. Apparently, the vast majority of “parmesan” cheese sold worldwide is fake, and only those cheeses with the “Parmigiano Reggiano” label are true parmesans, which can be quite expensive. The process for making the cheese is surprisingly unsanitary and open compared to American standards, but with its two-year aging process, any possibly dangerous bacteria, as well as all the lactose in the cheese, are completely removed, making it one of the safest cheeses you can buy.

After the cheese factory, we visited a balsamic vinegar factory, for which I also learned that the global market is mostly full of fakes. The only true balsamic vinegars, which are made from transferring fermenting cooked grape juice in a series of (quite small) wooden barrels over the course of at least twelve and often twenty-five years! It can only be produced in the region of Modena, in very small quantities, and so is very expensive (but very delicious, much less vinegary than the common versions, which are cut with red wine vinegar). This whirlwind weekend concluded with a long bus ride home followed by a week of intense schoolwork.

During this month, I had been going to the climbing gym far less frequently than I had in previous months (only once every two weeks or so, not enough to be really staying in shape). But this past week, I went one evening only to discover a group of young Italians (many of whom spoke English) around my age who are very strong climbers and a lot of fun. I had already met a few people at the gym before, but for the first time with this new group, I felt like I could actually be friends with them and train together to improve our climbing abilities. What a shame that I only met them on the last week of my semester! Anyway, they invited me to go climbing outdoors on some real rock an hour and a half outside of Perugia this past Saturday, which was a lot of fun. I hadn’t been outdoor climbing in over six months, and was very out of shape and climbed poorly, but simply being in this beautiful place with some cool people was enough enjoyment for me. On the way back, we stopped and got pizza and the gym’s owner even drove me home since public transportation was closed when we returned to the city. 

Some other cool things that happened:

Despite all of this excitement, there was still room for a few other cool things to happen to me.

  • My boss for the Food Law internship has a contact at the University of Perugia who she connected me to, and we met up for coffee to discuss food laws and academia. He gave me a tour of the university’s law department and asked me to come and teach a lesson to his class of graduate students about food laws in the United States! This is a topic which I didn’t know much about before, so I did some research and put together a little explanation, which I then presented to the class the following week. It was really an incredible and completely unexpected experience, that I’m sure I’ll remember for the rest of my life. 
  • In my Italian short story class, we took a trip to the city’s public library to see some eight-hundred year old books, Medieval Latin and early Italian writings painstakingly copied by monks over the course of several years on animal-skin paper. The books, rare and incredibly valuable even when they were created, also have artistic representations and gold-leaf additions inside.
  • One night, two of my friends and I went to see a classical pianist play in the fancy theater, which was quite beautiful. 
  • The weather got warmer! Although it’s been a bit cold this past week, for the first three weeks of April we got beautiful warm sunshine, and with it the rebirth of Perugia’s plants and animals. Winter has ended, and springtime is here, and I couldn’t be happier about that. 

Final thoughts

This is not my last entry in this public journal. I haven’t even begun to process the entirety of my time in Perugia, let alone the future plans I have for Italy that haven’t even begun, and that alone will warrant another post. But for now, I wanted to leave you all with something from this busy last month of mine, and we can think about the whole at a future, more distant point. Now, I’ve got to finish up with finals, pack up my entire life into bags, ship one of those bags home and leave another in Perugia for two months of travel, clean and empty my apartment, say goodbye to all of the incredible people I’ve met here, and then travel to another city, all in the next two days. It’s going to be busy!

Love from Italy,



Italy Semester