That time I went speed dating 9 times in 3 weeks.

Ciao da Firenze! I just got back from a 3 week intensive documentary photography course at London College of Communication, and it seems as though everyone I know is off on August vacation. School resumes in about a week, and since Florence is still about 10 degrees hotter than hell, all I want to do in the interim is stay inside with the blinds shut. I'll venture out for a cappuccino or gelato (or an Aperol spritz after dark), but otherwise I see no real motivation to leave the comfort of my apartment and its half-functioning AC unit. The solitude has been nice. After a 3 week long course of 10AM-5PM lectures 7 days a week plus shooting, I'm relishing the opportunity to indulge my inner hermit. Catch up with you later, society.

A few photos have resulted from those gelato/cappuccino/Aperol spritz runs... nothing groundbreaking, but I'm trying to get in the habit of carrying my camera with me more often. Here's a few scenes from Florence in August.

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Back to the point of this post. As mentioned before, I did a short course in documentary photography with London College of Communication, and the experience was incredible. I'm not going to bore anyone with the details, but I will say that I learned a lot more than I thought possible in the span of 3 weeks. Admittedly, going into it was beyond intimidating. In fact, on the very first day, I ran out of the post lecture meet-and-greet after about 2 minutes because of nerves. Luckily, the group became quite close-knit over weeks of lectures, food and drink, and one very strange karaoke night at a Soho drag bar one of the other students was photographing. I'm happy to report that London grew on me, and I already miss my little flat in Camberwell.

For the photo project, I knew I wanted to do something out of my comfort zone. I didn't want to make another project based on street photos, but on the other hand, picking a topic that both involves outside sources and can be accomplished in 3 weeks isn't the easiest of feats. This led me to some Googling and, in turn, the discovery of the surprisingly active London speed dating scene.

It turns out that London often has multiple speed dating events per night, and this intrigued me for several reasons. Firstly, in the age of Tinder, who on earth decides that speed dating is the best way to meet their match? It's easy to laugh about the concept at first, but I had a hunch that most people chose to try it because they wanted to make a face-to-face connection in a big city. This is something I can empathize with. Being the kind of person who sometimes struggles with "putting herself out there" socially, London could be a lonely place for me as well.

I pitched this idea to my course leader asking how I could get permission to be a fly on the wall for one of these events, and her answer was simple: "Well, it looks like you have to go speed dating yourself!" In short, that's how I ended up going on a 5-minute date with roughly 100 strange men in the course of 3 weeks and then asking if I could take their picture. Requesting permission to take a photo has always been hard for me. I hate the thought of making anyone uncomfortable, so as you can imagine, asking strangers at a dating event if I could photograph them was about 20 times weirder. Some nights I came back with hardly any material, but the dates got easier as I went on.

Surprisingly, most people I met were perfectly lovely. I was right: it turns out that people come to these things because face-to-face connection in big cities isn't easy to come by. However, one cannot go to 9 speed dating events and emerge completely unscathed. There was the overly charming 40-year-old actor that gave every girl in the room an early-2000s era pop star doppleganger (I was given Avril Lavigne). One dude asked the girls sitting next to me if they would make out for him (unsurprisingly, the answer was no). After making our introductions, another guy looked me dead in the eyes and said, in all seriousness, "I have found my person" (totally not creepy at all). Someone else asked me straight up if I take my glasses off during sex. Lastly, and perhaps most horrifying of all, there was the guy that thought it would be a smart fashion choice to show up in Ugg boots.

In short, London was a little crazier than anticipated, the whole thing came together in the end, Florence is still hot, and I'm happy to be home. You can see the full project here. Lastly, for the final part of the course, we each made zines out of our work. Mine turned out like this...

Delayed flights and Swiss flea markets

Right now I'm in an airport in Switzerland, where I've been visiting a friend in a tiny town that neighbors Geneva. Oh look, my flight seems to be delayed again. Of course. Delayed flights seem to be a pattern in my life this week, but it does give me the time to sort through my photos and write (and also eat a lot of Swiss chocolate because what else does one do to pass the time in the Geneva airport?).

I wasn't entirely sure what to expect from Switzerland, but tranquil little Nyon felt like a village out of a fairy tale (this impression was in part enforced by the giant double rainbow that appeared over the castle the night I arrived). It's a quiet place, virtually shutting down on Sunday with the exception of the bustling flea market by the lake. Apparently, if you don't count church, this is the place to be on a Sunday. My friend remarked that sometimes it looks like people are just selling the contents of their attic, and honestly she's right. There's plenty of quirky and interesting stuff to buy, but as with any flea market, a lot of objects for sale are useless and oddly personal. It seems like you could learn a lot about someone by studying their table at a flea market.

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After the market, I did some wandering on my own in Geneva. I'm still not on my flight yet, so why not continue with the photos? Here's a slice of life in Switzerland on a late July evening...

Reflections on the Cinque Terre

If my experience with Italy is a love story, the infatuation began on my first trip to the Cinque Terre. On my first solo trip abroad, like 99% of Americans in Italy, I was immediately grabbed by the scenery that’s made those five villages so iconic. I used to fit a stop in Vernazza into my trips as a sort of vacation from my vacation, because even though it's good to see new places, there’s a comfort to returning to a location you’ve come to know on a more intimate level. After three years and a good amount of travel around Italy, I’ve realized that there’s so much more to experience in this country, but I still think of Vernazza (mostly) fondly. After all, it’s the place that kickstarted this whole ridiculous affair.

Fast forward to this weekend, where I took a spur-of-the-moment overnight trip to the Ligurian town of Levanto. Honestly, I just wanted to escape my sweaty oven of an apartment and throw myself into the sea. I didn’t plan on going back to the Cinque Terre and fending off the summer crowds. However, considering that I haven’t returned since moving here last year, the idea crossed my mind and a quick visit felt imperative. Vernazza is just a 15 minute train ride from Levanto, after all.

Let me elaborate a bit on why Vernazza stands out in my mind. Like most mildly interesting love stories, my relationship with Vernazza isn’t perfect. Though I wouldn’t have admitted it a year ago, for some kismet reason, I’ve found myself there during the most emotionally intense points of my adult life. My first solo trip was a dream, and I remember discovering a sense of independence and adventure that I'd never experience before. However, the next time I returned to the Cinque Terre, it was at the climax of the darkest and saddest few months of my college career. It was also December, so the entire town was fittingly dreary and I mostly just holed myself up in the stuffiness of my room. If I learned anything from the latter experience, it’s that paradise isn’t a place; rather, at least in my case, it’s more of a state of mind. You can’t escape your problems with international travel (trust me, I’ve tried). On a brighter note, the third time I came back to Vernazza, it was at the end of that dark period. I remember hiking and cliff jumping and feeling a sense of ownership over my own life that I’d been lacking for months.

I had my first experience with the alluring yet utterly baffling species known as Italian men while in Vernazza, when 20-year-old Cocoa had not experienced much in the realm of male attention. Looking back, I was also nowhere near secure enough to navigate that situation. Worse yet, Vernazza was also the place where I had my first experience with violence while traveling. Again at age 20, a man saw me in the bar where I was catching up with friends. He followed me, first to the harbor and then to the alley by my rented room, and tried to force himself on me. Because he was drunk, I was able to fight him off before anything serious happened, but it was still a definitive and grounding moment. Not everyone you meet is good, and I learned never to take my safety for granted.

More recently, I was in Vernazza the day after I decided that I wanted to go to grad school in Italy. This was a different December, a few days after visiting SACI for the first time and meeting some of the people who would become more important to me than I could have dreamed. Lastly, there the weekend after I started school, when I showed my parents my favorite trail and the rock in the harbor where I’d go to read my book. Like I said before, I haven’t been back since then. My patience for crowds has waned after a year of navigating tour groups on my way to school each morning, and there’s so many other places in Italy that I want to experience. Still, I'm glad I made the trip back this weekend.

It would have been great to return, think about all of the good and the bad, and realize that I’ve surmounted the troubles that made a few of my visits to the Cinque Terre so memorable. However, that’s not what happened. At my core, I’m still the same neurotic and anxious girl that couldn’t manage to order a glass of wine in Italian in March of 2014. However,  I’ve realized that I’m never going to reach perfection, that life’s narrative (like the narrative of a solo vacation) is always going to be messy, and I’m much happier and saner if I let myself acknowledge the hard things in addition to the happy ones. For me, that’s the beauty of Italy.

Most of my day was spent in swimming and exploring Levanto; in fact, I only stayed in Vernazza for an hour before escaping. It was long enough to wander, take a few photos, and take a coffee. Still, it was oddly emotional to go back to Vernazza, revisit those memories, and realize exactly how much has changed. After a year in Florence, I’m learning new things every day, but I’m also more confident and my appreciation for Italy has grown much deeper. I recognized plenty of familiar local faces among the throngs of tourists, and for the first time, I can often understand conversations (or at least the gist of them). While sipping a cafe shakerato, I wrote a thank-you note in strained Italian to the owner of a local cafe. During that initial trip, he was the first person to make me feel welcome in Italy. Sadly he wasn’t there when I dropped by, but honestly, I didn’t mind too much. Maybe, at least in my mind, Vernazza has become more of a symbol than a physical place. It represents both the best and the worst of my (admittedly short) adult life thus far, to the point that going back is a mixed bag of emotions. Maybe one day I'll learn to take a normal, relaxing beach vacation. Sadly that day has not yet arrived.

So, there you have it: a narrative of my tumultuous relationship with one of the most touristy destinations in Europe, as written on the train home. Of course there will be a few photos to accompany this tale. I remember pointing my camera at anything and everything during my first few visits to Italy; now I’m a little more discerning about what I shoot. This time some of the photos are from Levanto, though most were taken in Vernazza. They’re not quite as blindingly colorful as my earlier photos here. Maybe that’s because Vernazza isn’t my safe place anymore, and if I’m honest with myself, I’m not sure if it ever was. Still, this village means something to me… the good, the bad, and the hordes of tourists included.