Taking Leave

Leaving Rome was hands-down one of the hardest goodbyes I’ve ever had to muster in my life. I had grown so attached, too attached, to the eternal city, that perhaps I became a part of it. I was its ear lobe, or perhaps a knuckle, a once clumsy appendage which had learned its place in the scheme of the whole body of Rome, a part whose purpose is not revealed without its relation to the whole.

I spent my last day, appropriately, clearing my apartment, mailing things, and touring. The images began to hit me as I ventured to mail my extraneous belongings at the post office. Everything had garnered a glistening beauty—each banality of the street life became completely mesmerizing, precious, and tender with a dewy shimmer. The cobbles, the pedestrians running their course of usual errands, those tattered street posters, the leaves on trees. They all began to seep into my very being. I began to relate to everything, and everything was imbued with an even more meaningful, even more melancholy significance; the sad old Dalmatian walking among the crowds with its tail between its legs, the school children playing with the water spilling out from the nasone, the flickering of cars in pursuit  amidst the sunshine. I walked around with tears in my eyes the whole day, overwhelmed by the majesty of the streets and their fixtures, the buildings and their faces. How did I become so enveloped in this life? In this experience? Maybe I was just being silly, I thought. I probably just want to go home.

But then, I found myself taking pictures of the things I would miss. It was the way the sun came in on the windowsill in our kitchen, the particular tangle of sheets on my bed, a plant that I nourished even though it was bent on extinction. I conserved my walk home, the river, aperitivo tables. I tried to pack it all away with me, as best I could. I took long, contemplative sips from my cappuccino that morning. I didn’t tell the cashier that it was my last day. I gave my ‘buon giorno’ as usual. I teased the barista after he asked me whether my coffee today was better than yesterday’s. I left my normal tip. And just like that I exited.

By now, I recognized people on the street, and they recognized me. They had nicknames for me, they even confided in me the tiny details of their lives. I had heartfelt goodbye dinners with people I hardly knew just a few months before this day. They wrote silly autographs in my books. I gave several goodbye kisses. I had fostered a family. I was daresay even a bit eloquent in my facility with Italian. I knew the streets, I knew the life, I knew it all just enough for it to sting when I left.

Lastly, I listened. I listened to the street life, listened to the familiar swing of the elevator door as it brought me up to my apartment, the little harmonious buzz of the hinge serenading me down the hall. I mulled over the sounds of scooters frantically climbing the hill outside my house, wondering where these commuters were going, who they intended to see. I recognized the familiar staccato of Italian tongues on a short walk around the block, the rhythm of friendliness.

And like phantoms, they have followed me. They followed me to Paris and London, which are not good replacements for my Roma. I can taste the missing elements in my breakfast. My feet are unadjusted to the flat and straightforward pavement. I pick up on other native speakers, blended in with the sea of occidental and oriental languages. They fade in and out as I move about the alien streets just as I drift about, misplaced.

I’m hoping that one day the phantoms will be comfortable reminders of the wonderful things that went on. That these impressions will change me for the better. That they won’t always remain inklings of something that once was, but become the foundation for what is.

I don’t know when I will be back. I don’t know if it will be soon. But I learned more about myself and the world around me in the past six months than I have in a really long time. I don’t want to say goodbye. And I’m determined. This is not the end. Something tells me I won’t be able to keep away. So I won’t say goodbye just yet.


The Images:






Running Rome


You’ll be surprised at how good, and bad Rome can be for runners and fitness enthusiasts. I was looking up gyms I could go to in Rome months before my flight over! However, after arriving in the city- I realized the climate was warm and the city hospitable enough to make public spaces within the city my gym- I didn’t find the prices at the gyms in Centro Storico justifiable.

Low and behold, yesterday, I found (by accident of course) the perfect running route from Isola Tiberina up to Villa Borghese and back. The route hosts pull-up bars, benches for sit ups, hurdles, stairs, drinking fountains, hills, clean air, dogs, and friendly people who might run up to you and ask for a free hug.

Although the art of people dodging as you run past the Pantheon can get a bit troublesome, running through the ancient city centre is a completely different experience from walking it, with all those endorphins being released in your brain-especially on a sunny day, so you’re bound to see the city in a different light!




Lessons for the Working Actor


So there’s something I’ve been keeping a secret for quite a while. I’ve been weaving in and out of my schedules, traveling to the unseen and the forbidden. I’m making a movie. Yes, I’m making a movie with two Italian directors.  I’ve shot about two weeks’ worth of footage already in the countryside, amidst abandoned churches and atop the Vittorio Emanuele monument. It started with a fortuitous trip to Termini Station with my drawing class. Sitting above the noise making impressions of passersby in my moleskine, I spotted two men peeping at me between snippets of conversation, making periodic eye contact. Equipped with neglected suitcases whose contents were chimerical in nature, they had been there all day, waiting for someone to come into view. And they happened upon me, or I upon them. After a long debriefing, a few auditions and emails bounced back and forth, I became one of the curios in their cabinet of humanistic stories.

vittorio emmanuelethe rig

Filming hasn’t been easy. Although the movie is narrated, which means I don’t have any lines to memorize, it’s still hard to fit all the traveling and action into my school schedule. Weekends and audited classes were sacrificed in order to pursue my indie dreams. Because the movie’s an indie and the budget is virtually null, we do a lot of rogue shooting with small rigs. Making art certainly isn’t free, expression is gauged by permit after permit, request after painstakingly humble request. What I gained were places I’d never see, aspects of life I’d never imagine, characters who without my new-found connections could not reveal themselves to me. I got to hone my Italian in the company of exclusive speakers, but I also got to explore forgotten aspects of the Italian countryside—those places riddled with stories of Italian contemporary culture between shards of stained glass and blades of grass. Most of all this film has brought me the consciousness that comes with being on screen—the kind of attention to the details and the potentiality of each moment for a cinematic richness that speaks beyond images and transports the viewer through experiences. And a chance to connect with other actors, namely one Hal Yamanouchi, whose vast knowledge and guru like tranquility gave me the strength to tackle some particularly tough shoots. Never did I imagine leaving New York that I would ever find acting work while I was here, but it turned out to the be the opportunity of a lifetime, let alone the chance to become part of a new art movement.


tarkovskij shots


if you’re interested in sampling their previous work, I’ve left their last film trailer here:




“So Long, See You Tomorrow” – Arrivederci, Rome


Group Photo at Caprarola, Photo Courtesy of Michael Raspuzzi, Jr.

In the waning twilight hours, I hastily packed my bags and cleaned my room. As I left the apartment, a thin layer of charcoal still blanketed the floor, remnants from finishing some final drawings the night before. At half past five, I dragged three full suitcases along Via Trastevere—past the now-notorious Porta Portese studio site, the Conad grocery store, and Istanbul Kebab—and met some friends at the taxi stand. A layover in London, a flyover of downtown Chicago, and some twelve hours later, I had left the ancient Roman arches for the Gateway Arch. All of a sudden I was home, and my adventure in Rome—and Europe—has come to an end.

My last couple weeks in Rome were a feverish blur. Metaphorically, I worked “feverishly” to finish my studio project for review. Literally, though, I actually spent a feverish night at the Roma Emergency Room for stomach infection, probably an unfortunate side effect from the former and some bad fish. Despite all this, I still had fun here and there. A “last hurrah” field trip to Caprarola and Bomarzo; one awesome night of clubbing with the Smolyn gang; an all-nighter adventure at the Pamphili Palace; a lazy afternoon nap on Tiber Island; and a metric ton of curry and gelato for dinner on my last night. Honestly, I won’t remember much of the stomach fever or the studio fevers—just all the good times in between.


Night out with the Smolyn gang, Photo Courtesy of Angela Liim

Which reminds me: these past four-and-a-half months have been all about the adventures I had—and lessons learned—outside studio. Looking back, studio gave me a Roman perspective on architecture, as well as some valuable lessons in urban mapping. But everything else was what made it real, and what made architecture real. There is the unbelievable gravity of history—and two millennia of architecture—on the ridge overlooking Herculaneum. Then there are the ghosts and monsters of the Renaissance, lurking in the arcades of Palazzo Massimo and the grounds of Bomarzo. There is the frigid expanse of the Venetian lagoon, beyond the Doge’s Palace and the settlements of Giudecca. And finally there are the views of Rome—from the Janiculum, the Aventine Hill, the Castel Sant’Angelo, the Vittoriano, and the top floor of Dandolo 12—that reminds you, architecture can be a glorious symphony of the human imagination.


Overlooking Herculaneum, Photo Courtesy of Angela Carbone



Lisa at Venice, Photo Courtesy of Kevin Jin He/Jimmy Chen


Visit to Caprarola, Photo by Kevin Jin He/Jimmy Chen


Venetian Lagoon from the Giudecca, Photo by Kevin Jin He/Jimmy Chen

“Stepping outside” was one of many lessons of the semester. Another, and more important one, was “make a choice.” For my studio review, critics complained that I attempted to develop five projects at the same time, when instead I should just follow through with one idea. This valuable studio suggestion also applies to life; picking between chocolate and vanilla gelato, deciding to visit Denmark, or choosing a summer work opportunity should never be an excruciating, life-and-death choice. When it comes down to it, I should always choose an option, go with it, live it up, and have no regrets.

There is life, then there is drawing. Like neoclassical architects rediscovering all-antica in Italy, I rediscovered sketching during my stay in Rome. Since attending Cornell three years ago, my sketchbook had taken an extended hiatus; I gave up recordings of daily life for abstract plans and sections. On that first visit to Herculaneum, however, I felt inspired again. Perhaps it was the layering the of ruins, or the Miyazaki-esque cerulean sky. Maybe it was Jan Gadeyne’s inspiring narrations, or the memory of Piranesi’s breathtaking etchings. Probably, though, inspiration came from experiencing a little bit of everything, and I am confident the rest of classmates were inspired as well.


Nils drawing. Photo courtesy of Kevin Jin He/Jimmy Chen


Gosia drawing. Photo Courtesy of Kevin Jin He/Jimmy Chen


Cole drawing. Photo Courtesy of Kevin Jin He/Jimmy Chen


Everyone drawing at the Aldo Rossi school. Photo Courtesy of Kevin Jin He/Jimmy Chen

Yes, there were a lot of places and sights I missed: I never went to Spain, and I gave up a visit to Paris for a trip to London. But I am not upset. This was Cornell in Rome, after all; I would never exchange a night of cooking fancy dinners with my apartment mates, or a midnight stroll through the streets of Trastevere, for another experience. Now, I have more excuses to return to Europe.

One thing I will miss? Spending time with the most talented group of people I know. Especially during the pasta nights.

Smiling in a group

Photo courtesy of Kevin Jin He/Jimmy Chen


Photo Courtesy of Kevin Jin He/Jimmy Chen


Photo courtesy of Kevin Jin He/Jimmy Chen

Lucia Lee

Photo courtesy of Kevin Jin He/Jimmy Chen

The adventure continues. On my flight’s final descent into O’Hare airport, I looked out the window. Below me was the vast blue expanse of Lake Michigan. On the horizon, an impressive collection of supertall skyscrapers greeted my return to America—and the Windy City. The lessons of Rome are now past, and a new destiny awaits.


From the streets of Rome… Photo courtesy of Kevin Jin He/Jimmy Chen


…To the shores of the Windy City. Photo courtesy of Author.

This is Umberto signing off. To Rome: So long, see you tomorrow*.

*Note: This is also the title of the latest album by English indie band Bombay Bicycle Club. Tomorrow means “in the near future.”


Finally getting outside of the box

I experienced culture shock, or the closest thing to it. It was bizarre because it was so close to where I am right now, geographically. Southern Germany is not too far from Italy. But arriving in Basel, en route to Freiburg, I was already rattling in my cushy microfiber VW bench seat. Even the car, in its pristine factory form equipped with rare bottles of still water and deluxe carpets, was alienating a bit. We sped off on the autobahn, and before I arrived at the row house perched in the valley separating the black forest, I had already been in three countries.

I was stationed in the city of Freiburg. It’s really surprising to see that the residents here all know the facts about their town (e.g. there are 200,000 residents, the local crops and their respective seasons, the complete building history of their town church) Little streams strung together the city and provided a path through which I could learn more. More about its rigorous structure, its exposed lumber beams, its meticulousness.

Everyone in Freiburg rides a bike. You can’t live in Freiburg and not have one, or dare I say not know how to ride one. I took the commuter route through the countryside into the city center, and I probably saw at least 200 people with their children, spouses, and dogs whisk by on bicycles. Freiburg’s openness and wide city streets  lends itself well to the bike traffic, but if you pay close attention, you realize that cars are not allowed within the city. Seen often in Italian cities to reduce the cramped and polluted feel of medieval towns, the relocation of cars to outside the city center seems to be motivated more by pride, and less by disdain of the age of the motor vehicle. The automobile has its place on the elegantly crafted straight shots through the rest of the country.

The culture is sumptuously rich—with a knack for nature. I definitely saw more fresh, homegrown produce in Germany than anywhere else in Italy. This is probably the greenest place I’ve been, a kind of attainable utopia without the foibles of big brother (not that there are fewer or looser laws regulating the pristine land here!). The dinner table may be ridden with dense bread rolls, potatoes, and creamy Spaetzle with veal, but the cooking’s so good it’s all guilt free. And you can’t forget the unveiling of the nacreous, white asparagus glistening behind its steamy veils, whose complete shadowy immersion under white Tyvek ends with this ripe, show-stealing appearance on your platter. Popping in and out of the steamy town of Ronchamp, spending time in the chapel of light on a foggy day, and the fissured city known as Staufen, I realized how interconnected Europe can be both physically and culturally, while being totally different. And I got to see how a green city, a sustainable city, could actually work. How to retrofit or adapt this model to existing cities would be the real issue. But it was truly inspiring to see this kind of health, beauty, and efficiency.


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Random Classes


Caprarola, Bagnaia, Bomarzo


Art Students at Palazzo Pasolini dall’Onda

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Matters in Matera: Il Simbolo Dell’Italia

This semester our European Cities Professors Claudia Meschiari and Sandra Annunziata organized a class trip to the city of Matera, in the southern Puglia region. Between the 1970’s and 1990’s, Matera was considered one of the most dangerous places in Europe- no one would consider going there to sight-see or for a leisurely stroll. Thanks to assistance from the European Union, the city of Matera was able to re-brand itself.

Today, the city of Matera and its two Sassi (Literally meaning stones-but are actually two of the residential precincts built into two different cliff-sides of Matera) are host to tourists, artists, and architects alike. The city is even a European Capital of Culture candidate for 2019.

It’s difficult not to fall in love with Matera.


From Rome, our European Cities class took an approximately 3.5 hour high-speed train ride from Rome to Bari, then from Bari, took a recently installed local train (funded by the E.U.) to Matera. It was a quick and easy trip- that transported us to a magical place.

Our hotel was located in one of Matera’s two Sassi, our hotel rooms were converted caves. Stepping out of the rooms, one could easily ponder and stare out across to the other side of the Sassi, and down to the intricately carved town below.

The magic of being in Matera is much different from the Disneyland-like magic of Venice. Built into calcareous rock rather than constructed in a water-lagoon, the historical center of Matera, like rock, gives its visitors a more solid and grounded sense of being. Activating the body with its many stairs, overlooking heights, fresh air, and churches located a hike away (down a cliff side, across a river, and up another cliff side), being in the historical centre of Matera may often make one ponder the meaning of life.


Now without getting too sentimental and contemplating the meaning of life- Claudia and our English tour-guide said a few things that inspired me to view Matera as a symbol of Italy, hence this post’s title, …Il Simbolo Dell’Italia. The calcareous stone Matera’s two Sassi are built into corrupts over time- yet they look beautiful in the light. And when looking at an aerial view of Matera and its two Sassi, our English tour guide said that one may see the shape of a dove- its wings formed by the two Sassi, and its body by the stone formation separating the two Sassi in the middle.

It’s perhaps an interesting coincidence that a city that transformed from one of the most avoided places in Europe to a now sought-after holiday destination can be said to have the aerial shape of a dove- a symbol of hope and peace. Like Matera’s calcareous stone, although the Italian government is known to have particularly high levels of corruption, on a sunny day especially- the state’s corruption becomes a minor thought, and La Bella Italia shines through.


Exploring the Heart of Italian Cities-The Periphery

CRP studio presentations

This week, the hard work of my City and Regional Planning (CRP for short) colleagues is finally coming together. After surveying three neighborhoods outside of Rome’s city center for the past 2 and half months, we presented our findings in Palazzo Lazzaroni’s beautifully painted lecture hall.

The CRP urban design and analysis studio class here in Rome has allowed me to apply myself to my coursework in meaningful, Italian, ways. Such coursework indeed would not be possible to complete back in Ithaca, New York. So far, in our CRP studio, I have finally learnt how to draw and create street maps on In Design, and also how to approach complete strangers on the street and ask them questions regarding their neighborhood and to ask them to draw a mental map of their neighborhood on a piece of paper.

Not only has my CRP studio coursework been meaningful in ways of gaining new experience and skill sets, but also in ways of actually contributing back to human society by working towards creating a final neighborhood analysis booklet and set of posters for each of our respective neighborhoods, that each CRP group was assigned.  Within the booklets and posters are neighborhood analyses of significant findings of the neighborhood that set it apart from the rest of Rome, in addition to creative design proposals to help improve the livability and overall image of the neighborhood. Our completed booklets along with a number of exhibits will be presented to the public and key stakeholders of our neighborhoods before the end of the semester.

Spina Tre a Torino


Converted Industrial Space, Spina Tre-Torino


Were it not for the CRP design studio, I would not know what it is to explore the heart of Italian cities. As Italian film director Pasolini alludes to (particularly in his film Mamma Roma 1962), that the heart of the Italian city lies not in the city center, but rather in peripheral city neighborhoods, where real living occurs.  Real living as the majority of urban dwellers don’t live in the city centers themselves.

Before coming to Italy, and before coming to Rome, I had never really imagined what anything outside the historic city centers of Italian cities would look like.  With our CRP design studio, we have explored not only the peripheral neighborhoods of Rome, but also of Bologna, Turin, and Milan. Exploring the peripheral neighborhoods of each of these cities has provided us with the bigger picture of the Italian city, a greater understanding of the Italian city that truly differentiates a mere tourist from an academic.

Urban Horticulture a MilanoUrban Horticulture Greenhouse- Milano