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By geovolpe

In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, I was asked to attend and report on both hearings where Mark Zuckerberg testified. These congressional interrogations were an electrifying event for those interested in the issue of data protection. But they became a sensation also due to the incredible fame of the witness. CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who heads one of the largest tech firms in the US, testified before Congress twice, for a total of almost 10 hours over two days. The congressional grilling was highly anticipated, for this reason I had to queue for hours on the first day of the hearing, for a total of 4 hours. I arrived at the Senate Hart Building at around 10am and lined until 2pm, when the hearing started. I was fairly close, sitting in the second row of audience, right behind Mark Zuckerberg aides. I saw Mark Zuckerberg very clearly, and the senators were also extremely visible. He entered from a door which I was sitting by. He is short and very pale. But going back to the subject:

The hearing was by all intents and purposes rather unsatisfactory. No concrete progress was made, and this was largely due to the generalized lack of knowledge of the senators on the internet world. The senators looked unprepared, and Zuckerberg was showed deference, humbleness, and respect. It was a win for the CEO, who left D.C having successfully repaired the damage. At least to the large public’s eyes.

I did not attend the second hearing, I streamed it on line instead. The day after my expectations were significantly lower, so I decided not to go. However, it turned out I was wrong. The second hearing was more useful, as senators tried to not repeat the same show of ignorance that occurred the day before.

On a fun note, I appeared in the background on the live-stream of the event on The Guardian and CNN and, while in line, I was interviewed by a Japanese TV. Fun time!

When I decided to come to D.C as part of my degree, I had also taken into account my passion for American politics. D.C doesn’t deserve its reputation as a heartless capital, filled with greedy corporations and stern-looking institutions. Not only is D.C home to congress, the White House and the Supreme Court, it also contains a vibrant civil society, which is the beating heart of the nation’s capital. This is what I witnessed last Sunday at the “march for our lives” event.

As an external observer, I took part in the march. And I did it gladly, even though it is not my fight. Coming from Europe, guns are seen in a completely different. Or they are literally not seen at all by people who can’t use them: no concealed or open carry of any sort. No second amendment. Arguably, no school or mass shootings of any sort, as a result of no guns given to civilians. But this is another story.

I slept in and woke up around 11. I grabbed a quick breakfast and was soon out of my place. After a week of bad weather, finally a sunny day. Cherry blossoms, rays of sun, and the city is completely revamped.

I went to the Lincoln memorial, thinking I was going to find a protesting crowd. But there were sparse groups of people, some with signs, but mostly tourist. I asked for information and was directed to freedom plaza, close to 13th and E street. Where the march was happening. Turns out, the March wasn’t a March, it was a huge gathering. I made my way through the mass of people, took pictures of signs, laughed at the spelling mistakes and shuddered at the death related statistics. The testimonies of the activists on the stage were powerful, to say the least. It was a very emotionally charged march.

More than 500.000 people attended the march, according to reports. On top of that, similar marches were organized all across the US, elevating the march to being the biggest for gun control.

America is so alive politically. The citizenry does care. And I know it’s not only DC.

People voice their approval, as much as their disapproval for their political leaders. In comparison, Italians passively accept what happens. More often than not, the majority adopts a resigned posture with regards to politics. They don’t happen to think that they can use their voice.

In a capital like Rome, it would be hard to be dragged into a nation-wide demonstration.

That’s the beauty of D.C. You can wake up on a mid-semester Sunday morning, decide to go for a walk to end up being part of a historic moment.

I did not have a spring break. That was completely my choice. Despite the absence of classes, I kept working at my internship, where business went on as usual in a quiet DC, depleted of students.

I spent the week seeing pictures of friends that were actually on vacation: Florida, Mexico, California, you name it. I came to the realization that maybe I should have taken some days off. D.C was cold and empty. Work was unusually little stimulating and fairly repetitive. Other than a cool event at the Organization of American States, where they served amazing Colombian coffee, I spent the rest of the week doing  mostly secretarial work.

I still managed to have fun after work. I tried a few food places that I had never tried, such as Founding Farmers, which I enjoyed.

I climbed up the rooftop of the Hepburn apartments, which has to offer one of the best views in all DC. Also, the Hepburn is an amazingly classy apartment complex. There is a pool on the rooftop and so many amenities. The Hepburn is the epitomization of wealthy, corporate D.C. Unnecessarily luxurious, in my opinion. Although it could be argued that Luxury is by definition unnecessary, depending on your understanding of necessity. I also did something productive and future-related: enrolled in Masters. Starting in August, I will be in the SciencesPo Economic Law Master in Paris. Cool, right?

Anyhow, going back to my spring break. I managed to have fun regardless of the city’s emptiness.

One thing, though, was occupying my mind over the past week.  An underlying sensation of an imminent, fast-approaching and unpredictable threat. The ancient romans would call this feeling “horror vacui”, which literally means fear of the void. Far from being scared, I felt some sort of uneasy feeling as if something was just not right. After a lengthy and thorough internal dialogue, I had an epiphany. Today, March the 19th, it is the beginning of the end.

I have been in the US since August. It will soon be 7 months since I’ve been here. And less than 2 months left of the exchange.

Spring break has been the turning point. 75% of my exchange year is now gone, and I don’t know how to feel about it. The second semester is literally running in overdrive mode, and it feels that I have no control over the things that I wanna do. My days go by very quickly, from a report to a memo, from a midterm to an essay, with little time left to stop and stare.

I have to find a solution to this: in the coming days, I will draft a bucket list of what I should do before I leave the US at the end of this academic year.

Stay tuned.

By geovolpe

Surprise visit with my dad.

My dad’s here, again. He’s stopped by D.C before leaving to go back to Italy. He’s scheduled to leave next Wednesday.

This time he came with his girlfriend, Erica, that I met for the first time. They met back in August in New York, when my dad came to help me move in. They met in a Starbucks. My Dad was in line to the cashier and could not understand a word of what the employee was saying. Not being able to speak English, he was just standing there trying to figure out what the cashier was asking.

Erica was the next in line. She was in a hurry, and paid for his coffee. And here they are, coming to visit in D.C.

They are funny together, they have their own way to communicate as they have no shared language to speak in.

So once again, despite my fast approaching midterms, I spent the weekend doing touristy activities. We went to see the Smithsonian American Art museums, where the portraits of President Obama and Michelle are exposed.

I have finally been fed good food for the entire weekend: we tried Ethiopian, Thai, Japanese and Indian cuisine.

We concluded the weekend watching the Italian elections that took place on Sunday, march 4th. I’d say this is the lowest note of the weekend. As I write, the votes have been counted, and the situation looks particularly dire. A center right, populist coalition has won a clear majority. The anti E.U 5 Star Movement comes second.

I find solace in the fact that I don’t live in Italy. My dad is leaving tomorrow, and flying back home on March 7th. I’m not envious.

By geovolpe

It was a random, rainy and cold Thursday night when we decided that we had had enough of D.C.

Not actually, of course. But sometimes, when your routine gets overwhelming and the weather doesn't help you power through it, it is normal to feel the urge to escape for a few days.

Me and my roommate felt that urge last Thursday night, as soon as we found out that there were no classes on President's day and that we had not planned anything. We bought round trip tickets from DC to Philly, by bus. This type of short term, last minute planning is definitely my favorite. And the US East Coast serves that purpose pretty well. I mean, where else in the US can you get away for 2 days at a price of 80$ to visit a major city?
This isn't something you can do if you’re in California, or Texas or even Chicago.  I like this European dimension of closeness that the east coast has.

We planned it out, recruited 2 friends and then we were ready to go. The details of our trip were as follows:

Departure on Sunday morning, and return on Monday night. 2 full days, 1 full night, 4 people and a full hostel. Full hostel meaning that other than us 4, our room was filled with additional people which, I know, is the very principle of a hostel. But as I had never sojourned in one, I was slightly weary of the concept. I did shared airbnb's or even co-ops several times in the past, but never hostel. The bunk beds remind me of a military setting and the fact that you share them with strangers is a 50-50 situation. Either strangers are normal, or they are not. However, there is no room for such perplexities and considerations when the price for one night is so low: 26$. Unheard of in D.C.

We arrived at around 11 am on Sunday. Unfortunately, we couldn't get rid of the D.C cold, as in Philadelphia it was about the same temperature. It was sunny, though, unlike in D.C. So the absorption of vitamin D compensated for the lack of heat.

We spent the day doing touristy stuff: the liberty bell, the independence hall, the museum of Art. We went to a pub at night, and the rest is history. No, we didn't do anything malicious by American standards, of course. We chilled at the pub and then went to bed. There was no weirdo, and we made friends with the other people in our room.

On the second day, we visited a super cool garden (see pictures) made with re-purposed waste.

  

Philly is a cool city. Middle ground between a European city and New York. It is high rise, but also historical. Pretty hipster-ish, and more lively than D.C on a Sunday night. Food is good (shout out to Philly cheese steak!) and cheaper than D.C

My verdict is: great get away destination for a weekend. Hostels are mostly safe.

  

By geovolpe

When I announced to my family that I would see them in the summer after the end of my exchange year, and not over Christmas break, I knew that I had triggered something.

Like the United States, Italian society is very much family centered. Families are the first places of socialization for little humans. The process of growing up is overseen and supported emotionally and financially until little humans get bigger and ready to leave home. At which point, their independence causes their ties with the family to get thinner.

Kids in the US start taking up jobs to sustain themselves financially as soon as they enter college, and  once done with college they’re gone for good and ready to be independent. In Italy, this is not the case. Families try as hard as they can to preserve co-dependency with grown up kids. Hence the stereotype of the over-protective and extremely caring Italian Mamma. Italian parents have a tendency to cling to their children especially when they are getting independent. No wonder why the average age of adults leaving the family home for the first time in strikingly higher than the US. Even the average age for young adults to get their first job. Well, that’s also because the state of Italian economy is not very kind to young people at the moment. But I don’t want to get political now. I will, in due time: we have election on March the 4th, and I just requested my absentee ballot from the General Consulate of Italy in DC.

Lecture time is over. In light of these considerations, the point I was trying to make is that  I did not go see my family for Christmas, therefore my family is sending envoys to come see me.

On a short notice, my dad notified me of his arrival a week before. The funny bit is that he told me he would be staying for a month. As a matter of fact, as I write, he is still in the US. Not in D.C, but in New York. He came last weekend and remained until last Tuesday.

We didn’t do much, because of the bad weather. But we got to catch up on some stuff that I had put off. We went to Walmart and bought a table for the living room, a bunch of kitchen utensils, bathroom products and so on. Walmart is always an experience for us Europeans, and it was the first time for my dad as well.

Most importantly, from as empty as black hole, my fridge was replenished in a matter of hours thanks to my dad. And so was my stomach. I had forgotten how he is at cooking.

We also watched the Superbowl, but since we didn’t really know the rule of the game we got bored easily. On Monday, he came to visit me at work at the EU delegation.  Anyway, it was a very good weekend.

I love to see how Italian family bonds adjust to globalization.

By geovolpe

As the new year began, I vowed to put an end to procrastination. One of my new year’s resolution was to stop procrastination and putting off things to do. The main goal is that of getting to the end of the day knowing that I did not waste my time.

It is very likely that you end up not doing much of your day when it’s cold outside, warm inside, and school deadlines are not pressing yet.

It was a beautiful day in DC, at least 15º(celsius). It felt like a pause from the crippling winter-like cold that haunts most of the East Cost. So I decided I would do something I have been procrastinating since I was a child. That is, going to the zoo. My parents have always avoided taking me to animals-related attractions such as to zoos or circuses. There was no particular reason, it just wasn’t a family thing to do.

At 21 one years of age I have the chance to catch up with this long overdue childhood experience.

Here’s some pictures from the Smithsonian zoo.

 

By geovolpe

During semester 1 I was looking forward to Semester 2. Semester 2 makes me nostalgically look back to semester 1. Why’s that? I went back to school on January the 16th after a month long winter break, during which I didn’t realize I was crossing an important, milestone line. That of adulthood. Yes, It might sound presumptuous. But that’s how it is: Semester 2 definitely feels closer to what the future will be like, whereas semester 1 in retrospective looks like a period of my life that is unlikely to come back.

You might be wondering what differs from the two semesters. Well, I am working now. Well, I am interning to be precise.

I have worked before, but this is the first time I get acquainted with a Job in a domain that fully reflects my interest. I work at the EU delegation to the US, the most active diplomatic mission of the European Union, in the section of politics, security and development. One of those names that would make your grandma really proud of you without her really understanding what the deal is.

I catch myself saying very adult stuff. “I’ll see you later at the office”, “I’ll get off earlier today” or again, “the sweet green salad I had for lunch was so good and didn’t make me sleepy afterwards”. I started doing very adult things like wearing suits and talking with my co-workers about how annoying ironing shirts is and saying no to going out cause “guys, I start at 9am tomorrow, I don’t wanna be a zombie”. I punctually end up being a zombie every morning by the way. That’s because it is so tiring that when I get back home after work, typically at 5, I doze off for like, 2 hours and mess up my sleeping schedule. So that I won’t be asleep until 1:30 am. (I will take suggestions as to how to interrupt this sleep related problem, and no, melatonine doesn’t work for me, it makes me groggy.)

So yes, maybe “adult” is too strong a word. Although, semester 2 is indeed making me feel less young, less naive, less unaccountable to life. I feel that what I am living right now is the anti-chamber of what life is. Or, at list what it will look like.

And it’s not even a question of wether I like it or not, it is a simple life fact that I (and we, all) happen to have to deal with: time flies. And I can't think of doing anything else right now other than stop and stare at what I was and what I become.

By geovolpe

I’m not coming back for Christmas, Mom. 

“I spent a lot of time reflecting about this, and I know I promised you before I left for the US, but I feel this is the right thing to do. 

 I don't think that coming back would be helpful to me in any way, and I think we both know it. I will be home in July, I will see you then. Or whenever you overcome your fear of planes and decide to come visit. 

I hope you understand and sorry for canceling the tickets.”

I cancelled my tickets to Italy a few days before my scheduled departure. Having been abroad for almost three years now, Christmas has become the only constant re-encounter with my parents. My parents were not super enthusiastic about losing the money, but they eventually supported me in this: “You know I would love to have you here. If I were selfish, I would have you fly home immediately. But If I were you, I would not want to come back either. Just try to go somewhere sunny over the break, maybe to California. You need vitamin D.” 

That was the beginning of my first Christmas away from home in 20 years. 

I spent Christmas eve and Christmas day in DC with some friends of mine that also remained in town. We were all excited and lonely. Three young men and one young woman on the other side of the Atlantic. We tried to emulate a family-like situation: went out for dinner on Christmas eve, cooked a full course meal on Christmas day. I guess it was the closest I ever felt to adulthood. 

On December the 26th I was leaving for Sevierville, Tennessee. A small town next to Knoxville. I know, pretty random place to go on vacation, but that’s where my heart was riding me to. And I was happy to be along for the ride:  I spent a week with a fantastic girl I met in GW and her family. This love among the school desks brought deep into the South. Despite being only a 9 hour bus ride from DC, Tennessee did not feel like the America I had known so far. The thick southern accent, the food culture, both so rich but so exaggerated, the interminable mountains surrounding the town. I hopped on a bus in a fairly European-styled place and I drop off in the middle of America. Real and genuine America. The one we choose to ignore as visitors but that is there and has a lot to offer. I will elaborate on this in my next post. For now, I’ll only say:

I had a great time, but as soon as January the second, I felt I needed it was time for me to follow my mom’s advice. I stayed for three days in DC, running errands and moving into my new apartment, bracing myself for the golden state.

Landing in Los Angeles in January the 6th felt more than just good. I was ecstatic. Not being very used to DC-cold weather, being catapulted to the beach at 70º really thrusted life back into my body. I was staying on UCLA campus at a friend’s place. The equation is very simple yet infallibly effective: friends + good weather + beach + January and winter break = Happiness. I dare you find a better recipe.

I came back the morning of January the 14th. Waiting for me, 10 degrees and another semester to start. D.C does feel like home now. Despite the unappealing weather. And I’m sure my last semester here will be so great I will forget California pretty easily. Although, as much as I like DC, I have to admit to the inarguable fact that the West coast is the Best coast. And that my mom gives good advice.

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