Ryan Hess

Ryan's a writer currently studying abroad in Milan, Italy. Through everything, he tries to stay on the good side of Lady Fortuna. Try as he might, things usually go awry. His series collect those moments and lessons.

Bring kindness to campus in International Random Acts of Kindness Week

One of my favorite Kingsfoil songs, “Brave Love,” has a line that goes: “Maybe someday I will get it right, let honesty and kindness be the prize.”

That line has stuck with me since the song released a couple months ago.

It’s leading me to think about how warped our priorities are, perverted by expectations, self-destructive through comparisons, struggling with the ever-climb of ambition, our parents, or even employers.

We’re living on this transactional basis in the “real world” while interacting through screens.

Further, we’re getting to that point in the semester where breezy syllabus week is long gone. Quizzes and exams are finally giving us an idea of how much this semester will take.

We’re pouring ourselves out as much as we can, if we’re not already feeling like the bottom of the barrel.

It’s starting to become fire-hosing what’s urgent instead of making the time for what’s important. This is how we crash.

All this leads me back to a simple question: How do we fill ourselves up? How do we stay sane?

This week is a grand opportunity. Feb. 10 to 16 is International Random Act of Kindness Week. For one week, can you refrain from complaint, and render a tender perspective?

It’s incredibly difficult to shift away from our default setting of, “The world revolves around me.”

If you haven’t watched David Foster Wallace’s “This is Water,” drop this article and go. We’ll wait.

Now, that understanding—knowing that the purpose of your education is to get you out of that default mode and make active choices—is where you begin.

It’s not going to be easy, though. George Saunders, in a commencement speech at Syracuse, said: “Because kindness, it turns out, is hard – it starts out all rainbows and puppy dogs, and expands to include … well, everything … Hurry up. Speed it along. Start right now. There’s a confusion in each of us, a sickness, really: selfishness. But there’s also a cure. So be a good and proactive and even somewhat desperate patient on your own behalf – seek out the most efficacious anti-selfishness medicines, energetically, for the rest of your life.”

What attempt will you make this week to be kind, to fill yourself up with love by caring for others?

Feel free to inspire others with #dokindness and #RAKweek on twitter. Smile at a stranger (everyone says this, but have you actually tried it?), eat lunch with someone new or one you haven’t caught up with in a while, say “I love you,” give more hugs and less glares, look past a mistake.

Even better: spend time with someone with your devices tucked away and off.

Undivided attention is becoming the rarest of gifts, so start giving. See how you feel after you connect to those around you instead of checking the next box off that mammoth to-do list.

“Let honesty and kindness be the prize.”

As a random act of kindness, bake someone something this week. Photo courtesy of MCT Campus

A queen’s feast: a peek at Charlotte’s Restaurant Week

Every year, I head up to Virginia in late October to go apple picking in Charlottesville followed by Richmond for restaurant week. We’d get a $25 meal at Millie’s five-star diner and swear by the food until the next year. Proceeds would go to charity, so it would fill not only our stomachs, but our hearts—cheesy, I know, but all the best things are.

Here in Charlotte, there are moments you walk the streets of Uptown as a freshman and see fancy, behind-closed-door restaurants. Your eyes water at the thought of wining and dining at these celestial establishments beside investment bankers and energy tycoons. Taking that senior you’ve been eyeing by the arm and strolling the historic southern quarter after the best meal you’ve had in years works wonders. Yes, I have tried this and yes, it does work—you may think you’re interesting, but you are not more interesting than a spectacular meal, and that’s how they’ll remember you.

But then there’s reality, and with that, money. For Chima’s Brazilian Steakhouse, one could easily drop a hundred dollars per person. Not in the casual college student’s budget.

This is where Charlotte’s Restaurant Week becomes a blessing. From Jan. 17 to Jan. 26, Charlotte’s best fix their prices at $30 for three courses or more (gratuity and taxes not included). Reservations are preferred. It’s okay to stop reading and go reserve. Now. And if you want real-time updates on the action, follow @QueensFeast on Twitter.

I’m excited to dive into Charlotte’s tradition. From asking around, folks are flocking to Chima’s Brazilian Steakhouse—you’ll want their salad bar, too. Ruth’s Chris and Morton’s Steakhouse received rave reviews across social media.

It seems like everyone’s reserving and taking a seat this week. Head over to charlotterestaurantweek.com and check out your mouth-watering options.

Guys, you don’t have to wait until Valentine’s day. Ask her out now. Make the move. Step up. It’s not about the money; it’s how you make someone feel—and given the quality of the Prickly Pear (Mexican) and Red Rocks (Italian), she’ll remember you. Ladies, tag along or get a group. The New Year’s Resolution can allow a pass for the best food our city has to offer. Remember: it’s healthy to let go sometimes, too. This is the week where our city has a higher sense of community—a remedy we need after our sour exit from the playoffs. We’re starved for tradition, we’re lonely, and we just want to be “in,” so here’s our opportunity.

If you want to live a life of experiences, you have to show up. We want a rich life of stories and memorable moments. That means there’s usually a beverage and friends involved. Grab them and go. It’s your week to go out and enjoy yourself. You’ve made it through syllabus week. You deserve it.



You don’t know until you go: home is wherever you are

The Christmas tree in Piazza del Duomo in Milan, Italy. Photo by Ryan Hess

It’s Christmas time in Italy. The largest tree I have ever seen was placed in Piazza del Duomo by crane; she’s now receiving her strands of lightwork.

There are so many red tents wrapping around the cathedral as Christmas markets take over Milan.

Walking to school is now an event in and of itself.

As sneaky as the Italian Mafia, lights and decorations are popping up all around the city—some entire buildings have been gift-wrapped.

The lights won’t be turned on until Milan “officially” starts celebrating the holiday cheer in a few days. Anticipation builds.

It’s that waiting-to-open-presents excitement all over again. For the first time, however, I’ll be spending the holidays abroad.

Despite the distance, I won’t be alone. I’m headed to Lago di Como to celebrate Christmas with a big Italian family and hitching a ride to Rome for New Year’s Eve.

Still, the distance has me thinking.

I’m awfully grateful for this opportunity, and with my last month upon me, I can’t help but thank everyone who managed to make this dream a reality.

That theme overall keeps coming back to me: the people around you make your dreams happen.

If you’re looking for an opportunity, it’s not just you. It’s not just “hustle.” Whether it’s an internship or a dream job, an opportunity is found in a person. And for those starry points to align, there’s a warmth that you need to share first—in being vulnerable and open, in accepting the love and opportunity that your life deserves.

We get so worked up over the holidays with wanting, with perfecting, with resolution-ing. Try giving out more love than you could possibly receive back.

Open up more hearts than presents (this is metaphorical, nursing major).

I marvel at how aware we need to be, in how awareness makes our lives joyful.

Dreams, opportunities, moments; your whole life will pass you by if you don’t slow down from your day-to-day rushing.

If there’s anything I’ve learned from the Italians, it’s that your accomplishments do not make you who you are—your relationships do.

Every person you’ve interacted with has made a mark on you, no matter how small.

Perhaps, this holiday season, it’s time to refine the signature you leave on everyone’s heart.

This series was never about travel. You don’t have to travel to change who you are. You can change whenever you’d like, and it’s not too late.

If you’re lost on where to start, perhaps take an unsexy step toward a big and scary dream, or remove what isn’t working, or practice awareness and gratitude this holiday season.

You’ve got everything to need to love right here—beating behind 24 ribs.

You’ll rarely regret living right here—in being grateful. Suddenly, the future takes of itself when you‘re aware of the here and now.

Look around you. Take in your friends, your family, Charlotte, your hometown. Take all that love in and reflect it right back, greater.

You don’t know until you go: the X factor

My most surprising discovery from study abroad? My time.

Wait, you mean something amazing pops up and I can go? What?

I had the time to meet the design director of Ferrari, Paulo Coelho, espresso industry tycoons and upcoming authors.

I had the time to go to a food festival, to taste wine in Tuscany, and to attend a dozen-plus art gallery inaugural receptions.

That’s what having a life is like: having the time to do what you want to do.

To kickstart having a life, it’s not about effort or will to start. First, it’s about removing whatever’s stopping you, physically and mentally, and everything else that is bearing down on you.

Yes, there are some things you have to do (like take out the dog), but since when did you have to live the way others expect you to?

Stop doing things to be loved and start doing things out of love.

If the genuine pursuit and curiosity isn’t there, try out a bunch of different things and then repeat what you love.

This isn’t the ‘follow your passion’ model, this is the ‘chase your dreams’ model. That probably involves acquiring skills to where you can’t be ignored.

That’s hard and it takes effort, but all the best dreams do.

Milan took 172 steps. At the start, my bank account was in the red and I was still $5,500 away from the final payment three months out.

Had I stayed an RA, unequivocally active and leading within SigTau and other clubs, among all the other things that I “kind of” did … Milan never would have happened. Not a chance.

You have the X-factor —it is just that you’re spending it on things that aren’t in alignment with where you want to be.

You’ll make mistakes, but that’s where information is found. All you need is the intelligence to know if the move you made was a step forward, and if it wasn’t, how to redirect.

That comes from a lot of trial and error, with emphasis on the error part.

The secret to accomplishing your dreams is not about talent, charisma, innate leadership qualities or extraordinary work ethic.

It’s about letting go of what doesn’t work or won’t fit, or is toxic. It’s a wonderful realization, yet hard to implement.

You’re going to let people down, but you’ll disappoint someone even more if you’re barely there at all to begin with.

If you don’t have the time to live your dreams, you’ll probably just waste more time on your expertly-curated Pinterest.

Imitate nature: ruthlessly eliminate what isn’t working. Quit to focus. Quit because you’re tired of doing something to seem like somebody that you’re not, or don’t truly want to be.

That whole stick-with-it loyalty is better for relationships that hit a rough patch every once in a while, not club memberships that you acquired to look impressive.

I eat my own cooking here. I’ve let go of many things since Italy. Don’t expect me to have 21 hours next semester and never be around. I’ll have more free time in the day than not.

That’s what I’m working toward: time to live a healthy and loving life.

Sounds dreamy, doesn’t it?

You don’t know until you go: the first unattractive step

We’re 20-somethings with boundless dreams. Stuffed in our heads are all these ideas, stumbling over one another. We’ll talk a big game: “I can’t wait to study abroad, maybe next spring” — I can’t tell you how many times I heard that line when I mentioned Italy.

Tomorrow is what stops you from today.

We don’t know where to start so we stop ourselves — with excuses, more immediate issues, “maybe next month,” “after this exam” and so on.

Oftentimes, more effort is spent worrying about our major or deadlines for projects we don’t honestly care for.

Our dreams are the first to kick it to the backburner. What a shame. Do you even know the aspirations of your closest friends? Have you asked?

You’ll be sitting in an interview when they ask what you’ve done. You mention some project from school.

“No,” they say. “What do you do on the weekends?”

And you stumble to find the words because you know you spent half of the day on Facebook and Twitter, running away from your scary, bone-thundering dreams.

Yet I know the feeling all too well. I’d like to cook masterfully. Learn calligraphy. Speak Italian fluently and comprehend it without pause. See the world. Write travel columns and build a portfolio — master my craft and self, if you will.

Yet with Italy, I’ve started all of the above and more.

I managed to study abroad through the culmination of moments where I said, “That wasn’t so bad.”

Turns out all the dreams are like that, where actions become the water that saves you. The hell-fire inside my head takes it down a notch with every failure, with every let’s-see-what-happens adventure.

And I didn’t realize this until Italy actually happened.

I was in Fabriano’s Boutique, a tiny paper store that started in 1264. I said to myself, “Why not sign up for their calligraphy class?”

I don’t know a lick about calligraphy, except for how Dr. Swisher raved about his pens and learning the true art of expressing yourself with ink.

I signed up. I started, which is a lot easier when you let all those crazy thoughts in your head go.

Nobody really cares whether or not I learn, but I do. I feel like one day talents and skills will mix into this awesome person, myself. And with such tools, help people like you.

All these ideas, all these dreams — they wait. They’re as patient as books. You can pick them up whenever you want and they’ll be wide as can be. Yet we forget we don’t have time.

If you want to start living, you have to let go of what’s cutting you down. Oftentimes, that’s the perfectionist residing between your two ears — as your dreams beat and beat and beat.

What if you started? What if tomorrow looked like today?

Maybe you should try and take one tiny, unattractive step.

You don’t know until you go

I have a hunch about why they say you “find yourself” when you travel.

I’ve only been studying abroad in Milan for two weeks now, but it feels like two months.

Everything accelerates so rapidly and the days stitch together so quickly that I don’t have a clue what’s going on most of the time. Maybe you felt a similar rush if you’ve ever moved. Sometimes it’s a lot like freshman year.

In my Vespa-dodging days of discovery, I notice myself trying on new accessories of my personality. Milan is not just about how you look, but whether or not you’re comfortable.

I’m deliberating trying to slow down time by catching my breath or capturing the details of the day in a notebook. Sometimes I freeze and forget how to perform basic questions, like asking for directions. But that’s okay. I find myself laughing at how many mistakes I make.

Study abroad has already turned self-criticism into self-amusement, which has been the best transformational part of this journey thus far. Adjustment through uncertainty gives us the chance to figure out something on our own: ourselves.

You think you know, and then your illuminating support system is no longer around. I noticed loneliness and perfectionism rearing their ugly heads at the start of my second week here, but I’ve laughed them away now.

As I read in one Italian bookstore: “Life is too important to be taken seriously.”

There are some moments of paralysis when someone makes a demand in Italian and I have no idea how to process it. Yet I’m amazed with how patient Italians are. They’ll gladly wait five minutes for me to crank a butchered sentence out. They’ll respond in English if they’re on the clock, like a waiter, but outside of that they genuinely want to help me understand. Using Italian first warms their heart. They adore their language.

Some stereotypes are true and others far from it. Yes, Milan is all about fashion, yet whoever said the Milanese were stereotypically cold northerners met the wrong bunch. A few Italians are loud, but they’re some of the most tranquil human beings I’ve met.

They’re not late because of laziness — they’re late because they cared enough to stay on the phone with a loved one or soaked up another fifteen minutes with a friend at the caffe. They don’t care too much for paperwork because life isn’t about paperwork. Life in Italy is food, friends and family.

The problems that come with adjustment have translated into incredible opportunities. Studying abroad is a worthwhile stretch concerning everything that matters: how do you treat people, how do you do on your own, how kind are you to yourself with all the mistakes you’ll make, and how do you live? These questions matter, wherever you are in the world.

If you want to figure life out, try.