Monthly Archives: October 2014

Happy Pumpkin Day!

DSC_0444It’s Halloween! And it’s Photo Friday! In honor of this day, I am going to pause the travelogue to praise the power of the pumpkin and proclaim/plea: PEOPLE…please pursue pumpkins with creative purpose! It’s not as hard as it looks!

Here are a few of our creations from past years. Enjoy!

That year when 'Where the Wild Things Are" came out

That year when ‘Where the Wild Things Are” came out

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That year Obama ran against McCain

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That year our friend Ben moved away so we made a pumpkin version of him

That year we came back from our Honeymoon on Halloween and didn't have time to carve pumpkins so made acorn squash soup instead...

That year we came back from our honeymoon on Halloween and didn’t have time to carve pumpkins so made acorn squash soup instead…

That year someone challenged me to turn this into a pumpkin…

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…and this was the result

Now get carving!

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Assisi, I See See!

DSC_2454The sun shone on the white city on the hill as the train pulled into the station at Assisi. We admit it—we were happy to be out of Florence. Many people feel a great romance in Florence, and at certain angles, I can see why. What’s not to love about seemingly infinite flavors of gelato, or priceless, world-changing pieces of art? And, man, did we eat well. I nearly cried a few times from the deliciousness. Indeed, there is much to amuse in Florence; even so, we were happy to be away from the busyness and feeling like we couldn’t walk in a straight line without dodging people and scooters and bags of trash. Overall, we felt the city was noisy, dirty, and oppressive. It also completely lacked anything green—no parks, no flower boxes, no trees, nada.

But we were on to the next place, and it looked mighty promising.

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Il Giardino dei Ciliegi

Why Assisi? Many Italy itineraries do not include Umbria. We came to realize that this is a shame. Assisi had been recommended to us by Josh’s aunt, and we noticed Rick Steves had a whole chapter and a walking tour on the town. We figured there had to be something to it. We also had been urged by our friends to try out one of the many Agriturismos of Italy, i.e. farmhouses turned BnB’s of varying degrees of posh. Our friends were recommending we go to ones in Tuscany, but we couldn’t figure out how to get to any of them without a car. Then Josh found the Il Giardino dei Ciliegi, the Cherry Garden, just outside of Assisi. It sounded like a magical place. So we got into one of the many taxis waiting outside of the Assisi train station. A few miles later we reached our garden paradise. Daniela, the owner, greeted us warmly and showed us to our room. Once inside we were drawn as if with magnets out onto the terrace where the view soothed our weary, nature-deprived eyes. Steep hills tumbled down into the farmlands canvassing the valley floor. The afternoon sun lay across the topography like a golden blanket. We nestled into the two chairs and just stayed there, watching the sunlight turn pinker as the afternoon faded. Slowly, clouds came in, and we retreated into the bedroom and listened to rain fall. We fell asleep in blissful peace.

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As if we weren’t already pleased with our lodging, dinner that night erased any lingering regrets about our decision. We were treated to four courses of Italian gourmet glory: plates of antipasti, homemade pasta with a sausage, pepper, and cream sauce, a beef stew, and a fluffy cake. The pasta in particular made an impression. It was the kind of food that forces your eyes closed and demands that you fully appreciate the present moment.

The next morning, Daniela was kind enough to offer us a ride up to town. Because Assisi is on top of an enormous hill, she wanted to spare us the pain of walking up. Apparently we were an anomaly being carless. Oh, well. She dropped us off and we began to explore. The sun was out and the day was perfect. We walked up to the remains of the Roman ampitheater to begin the Rick Steves audio tour (The tours, by the way, are a great way to get your bearings without paying anything!) With Rick’s lame jokes to keep us company, we began to meander down the narrow stone streets, passing dramatic, hilly Umbrian vistas. We drank from a fountain running with water from a real Roman aqueduct. We poked our heads through Medieval underpasses topped with apartments built to accommodate a once booming population. We admired the flowers that cascaded from the window boxes and listened to the older ladies calling to each other from between colorful, open shutters. Assisi, I realized, is exactly what you imagine, and desperately want, Italy to be: a place trapped in time, unpretentious and lovely.DSC_2467

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The highlight of our explorations came at the bottom of the hill with the Basilica of St. Francis. Before visiting Assisi neither Josh nor I knew much about the man. The audio tour clued us into a bit of his story. The son of a wealthy cloth merchant, Francis had a roguish reputation. After spending a year as a prisoner of war, however, he began to question his purpose. During that time, he felt God speaking to him and calling him to rebuild his decaying church. Francis took the call so seriously that during a public confrontation with his father, who disapproved of his son’s behavior, he stripped naked and renounced the materialistic ways of his youth. Francis quickly gained followers who also wanted a return to the simple and beautiful things in life. Given his reputation for a love of nature, we think Francis would be pleased with the vibrant, naturalistic decor inside both sanctuaries of the basilica (yes, there are two). In the upper sanctuary, Giotto’s frescos capture the stories of the life of St. Francis and frame them in natural images and colors that really stand apart from the styles typical of the period. The effect on the viewer, I think, is stupendous: the colors and natural images capture my imagination and make me want to know more about the man and the God he adores. I am drawn in by the colors and the beauty of nature on display. I feel led to worship and celebrate, and, after all, isn’t this what church is supposed to be about? Alas, we were not allowed to take pictures in there.

We walked back to the Agriturismo downhill through olive groves. Assisi, I see.
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Sciopero

A wise buddy of mine named Lance once said whilst we were stranded somewhere in the northern mountains of Spain, “It’s ok. The worse it gets the better a story it makes later.”

I thought about Lance on this recent trip to Italy as I stood in a long line of angry travelers at the Ravenna train station. Lance’s motto made the situation not only bearable, but it even helped it seem more interesting than infuriating. Why was everyone so upset? One little word: sciopero.

What is a sciopero? An Italian word I will never forget: STRIKE. Strikes in Italy, we learned from a side note in the Rick Steves Italy guide, are not only frequent but scheduled. That’s right. Scheduled Strikes. They typically last 24 hours between Saturday evening and Sunday evening and affect local and some regional train traffic. You can find these schedules on the internet. And it’s not only trains…many of the service industries of Italy schedule their strikes as well. We read online that the bus drivers and flight attendants would be getting their turns in the upcoming weeks.

I can’t fathom what purpose these limited, scheduled strikes serve. I think about that line from The Princess Bride:“You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means.” What are they trying to prove? What do they gain? It just seemed like a splashy way of getting a day off to me.

That Sunday we were trying to get from Ravenna to Florence with a change in Bologna. We arrived with plenty of time for a 3pm train, but when we got there the board read CANCELLED. Ok. We got in line to learn about our options for making our connecting train. We waited and waited. People tried to surreptitiously cut in line, but those who were caught were harshly abused in Italian by people in the queue, not that it made a difference. When we finally got to the man behind the window, the language barrier made things tricky. We eventually understood that we could change our connecting ticket in Bologna and just take the next train 2 hours later. Ok, well, I like reading books, so 2 hours isn’t the end of the world. We camped out for that time in the grass in front of the station. I should have known that wasn’t the end of it. 2 hours later, same thing: cancelled train, long lines, people cutting, Italians yelling (One person even threw a telephone at the ticket window he was so mad!). This time, however, the man behind the window looked at our tickets again and said, “Tomorrow. You go tomorrow.”

The problem was this wasn’t an option. We had a non-refundable AirBnB reservation in Florence. I had sent the owner an email saying we would be late, but I knew cancelling was not possible. Be Creative, I thought. I started listening around me. Did I just hear American voices say, “Taxi to Bologna”? Time to whip out the small talk.

It turned out the couple behind us were in an even bigger pickle. They were trying to catch an overnight train to Germany from Bologna that night. They really had no choice to wait to the next day. They weighed their options and it seemed like taxi was the best bet, but it would cost ~100 euro. I waited, and was rewarded. “Would you be interested in splitting the cab?” Heck yes!

As my Dad once told me, life costs money. This seems inane, but it has profound depth. A little quick thinking and bit more money got us out of a nasty scrape, and we were the better for it. Do I wish it hadn’t happened? Of course, but it’s just a fact of life that–pardon the phrase–sh$t happens, and sometimes it takes your money. The trick is to accept it, be slow to anger, and be creative with your options. You might just be able to save some money, meet some nice people, and sleep in the place you intended to sleep*. And hey, for some perspective, we were in frickin’ Florence.

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*On a side note, a warning to AirBnB fans: I wish we had had reservations at a hotel. For starters, the address given was incomplete. Florence has separate commercial and residential addresses, so 70 Via Del’Angelo in red is way down the street from its blue counterpart. When we got to the right place, the correct name was not on the door buzzer as promised. This didn’t matter because no one was home. We had to find wifi to make several calls and send several emails before connecting with the owner, who couldn’t show up until 11pm. Then, it turned out our AirBnB host was so merciless as to charge us 20 euro for being late even though I had sent her an email explaining how the sciopero was completely beyond our control. Any hotel would have been understanding. This gal also went on to take our sheets and dishes before we were done using them on the last day. She also responded to my honest review by calling me a liar and saying she hoped that when my husband finally realized what he married that I would not return to Florence on my divorcee trip. Real nice. Is this a good story, Lance? I’m not so sure. I’m just glad I get to warn all of you.

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The Hunt for Ridiculous

When traveling, (well, really all the time) it often pays to be vigilant for the silly and ridiculous. Here are a few pieces of artwork we found in Italy that made us giggle. After all, life’s too fun to take it too seriously.

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Creepy Demon Babies in the Sky. Even Jesus thinks they’re creepy.

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David Schwimmer/Ross Geller clearly had a former life.

See what I mean?

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Apparently, Mary is also digging the Ross Geller look.

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Colors of Ravenna

DSC_1979When traveling through Italy, you see a lot of churches. After two weeks I’ve lost count of how many we’ve seen. The big kahuna, of course, is St. Peter’s Basilica, where just a step through the door strikes most visitors dumb. They are all wandering around, bumping into each other, twirling slowly to take in the vastness. All over Italy tourists do this clumsy dance through the myriad of church naves. How many of these visitors, I wondered, are moved by what they see? Specifically, how many of them are moved to worship?

This question came up for me while I was visiting St. Peters. About three quarters through my visit I saw a nun just standing and staring, at what I could not be sure. I watched the back of her as she stood. She didn’t move. I wondered, from my protestant prospective, what she felt about what she saw. What did this place mean to her? Was this the culmination of a grand pilgrimage? As I pondered these questions, I suddenly realized that this place, in all its baroque lavishness, held little spiritual significance for me. The surrounding opulent artwork eclipsed the fact that the church was supposed to be a holy space. I hope that I am in the minority and that others can look to such spaces as aids for connecting with God. But in that moment I concluded that many of the Italian churches exemplified an aesthetic I couldn’t connect with spiritually, and as a result I found it hard to appreciate those spaces as places of worship. Why was this?
There were, however, two wonderful exceptions. The first came in Ravenna, and the second in Assisi. I will discuss Assisi at a later time, but let me tell you about the colors of Ravenna.
Ever since reading a History of Byzantium many years ago, Josh wanted to see the mosaic portraits of Justinian and Theodora, so Ravenna made it onto our itinerary early on. I thought it sounded neat, but otherwise did not know what to expect. We walked into the church and looked up to see a large frescoed rotunda. That’s nice, I thought. But when we turned around our breath was taken away. The main alter of the church was covered floor to ceiling in the most beautiful, most colorful mosaics I ever saw. I couldn’t believe it was possible to achieve such colors at that time in history, let alone with mosaics. Blues and golds and reds and greens seem to dance in intricate, pixelated swirls across every surface. Faces with distinct visages and personalities looked down on us and directed our attention to the central figure of Christ whose portrait loomed from the center part of the ceiling. I looked into his face and admired the colors which so beautifully reflected the colors of His created world. This, I thought, was a holy space I could get excited about.
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look up.

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Theodora, eternally in purple.

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color explosion.

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a different kind of cubism?

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just keep spinning.

It is amazing how much color connects with our emotions. Artists have known this for millennia. Of course, many of them were limited in their color choice by the expense of different dyes, but they knew that color meant so much more to the composition than just filling in white spaces. Color speaks to us subconsciously, makes us feel things we might not feel otherwise. Consider this picture where you can see both the frescoed dome and the mosaic enclave. What do you notice? What do you feel? Which side attracts you more and why?
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This is, of course, an entirely subjective exercise and I would be fascinated to hear why your answers might differ from mine. To me, many Renaissance compositions exhibit pinks, purples, and creams that strike me as harsh. They make the holy figures seem somehow distant and cold (which is ironic considering the reddish palette is technically called “warm”). By contrast, the mosaics with their greens, blues, and golds seem lively, inviting, and hopeful. They speak to me of triumph and renewal and joy. There was such a naturalistic beauty in those colors that I wanted to count myself a part of the stories they helped depict. Indeed, I felt very much connected to those faces, connected to their reason for worship, and I was grateful.
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Virgins and Martyrs.

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colors of ancient crypts.

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Josh in awe.

 

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