Auschwitz Jewish Center Program for Students Abroad
Although this study abroad experience was primarily for me to explore and learn about Italy, I was blessed to be accepted and given a full scholarship to the Auschwitz Jewish Center Program for Students Abroad, in Kracòw, Poland. The program started Thursday night and ended Sunday night. There were twelve participants this year from eight American universities who came to Poland from six European cities. Four of us were from Sansepolcro, representing good old Meredith College. The rest were from Germany, England, and Spain. Everyone got along very well, and shared a lot of laughter. Guiding ustwelve students, were Dara Bramson, Maciek Zabierowski, and Gleb Pronskikh. After the first day, they were more than guides; they were friends and mentors. Being in our group provided just the right amount of relief from the overwhelming information and thoughts that surfaced about the treatment of Jews during WWII, and about Auschwitz I and II.
I am still silently comprehending how disgusting the concept of an extermination or concentration camp is. It denies every right of human life and demolishes whatever fragment of the soul that remains trapped within the tortured body. After going to Auschwitz I on Saturday, I was left with disturbing thoughts about how people could so blindly follow, ignore, not know about, or create such terror. To be physically in the location of one of the most extensive abominations in human history was a bit surreal. After entering the gates and seeing the train tracks surrounded by barbed wire charged with electrical currents, my mind and my body were in two different places. The location itself was strikingly beautiful, surrounded by birch trees whose stark trunks were topped with bright orange leaves of fall. It was easy to believe that the people who were brought here would have only been alarmed by the barbed wire because the place looked so inviting otherwise. Half of the guise that Nazis kept up was in keeping the massive prisoner population submissive and relatively calm. Before Auschwitz I had been used as a concentration camp, it was originally a military base for the Polish army. The soldiers had been captured and kept in the camp with the Jewish prisoners as well.
I was amazed and flabbergasted by how logical and effective the Nazi Germans were at slaughtering people and destroying or hiding the evidence. The one marvel, brought to light by another student during a conversation, was that in reality they failed to exterminate all of the European Jews or any other ethnicity or race. It was, in fact, impossible to do it in that short window of time before the Allies liberated the prisoners. While to murder people was quick, it took a long time to cremate the bodies in order to be rid of damning evidence, thus slowing the rate of extermination. Also, the location and construction of the camps had to be done swiftly and shrewdly as to not raise suspicion or concern. For instance, the gas chambers were unwittingly designed and constructed as morgues with crematoria. At Birkenau, where there were about 200,000 prisoners at any given time, there were five morgues that were used as gas chambers. The prisoners sentenced to death by gas were sent to the middle of the woods or to underground chambers to undress, as if preparing for a shower, and then were brought to the small rooms in which bodies would have been examined and prepared had the buildings actually been morgues. Once the people were locked inside, pellets of Zyklon B were dropped through small openings in the walls of the buildings. Activated by body heat, the cyanide-based pellets would then evaporate causing the occupants to suffocate to death. Following the twenty or thirty excruciating minutes that it took for all of the occupants to die, the bodies were brought to an adjacent room with ovens where the bodies would then be shaved and burned. Shaved hair was used to make cloth or netting that was used in the camps. The ashes were then piled outside of the building in the woods or were used to fill some of the marshy ground that the camp operated on. Even though covert tactics were employed, evidence from unexpected sources was still intact, just as in any case of murder. The hair that was shaved and collected contained traces of Zyklon B.
While walking through the camps, I could not, and decidedly would not, stop myself from thinking the "wrong" things. I was astounded by the logic of the Nazis, their reasoning for how the camps were constructed and conducted. It was frightening to think about how organized genocide would have to be to be carried it out properly. I thought about how strategic they were about it, and felt nauseous that there were (and still are) people who take the time to plan the obliteration of other people. As Primo Levi said in If This is a Man, when "man is deprived of everyone he loves . . . his house, his habits, his clothes, in short, of everything he possesses: he will be a hollow man, reduced to suffering and needs . . . for he who loses all often easily loses himself." (33) Levi goes on to say that a man's life or death can be carelessly decided because he is no longer human. Dara Bramson, our program director and mentor, brought up the question about "never again." Since the Holocaust, there have been numerous genocides in Asia, the Middle-East, and Africa. Before we can figure out how to take the steps to "never again", what do we mean when we say it? Never again, another world war? Never again another genocide? Never again blindly following an ideology without looking for and at other options? How?
With total logic, the concentration camp, located in a beautiful town named O?wi?cim (which actually means "Friendship") was picked for its high Jewish residency rate. Half of the population in O?wi?cim was Jewish at the time that the Germans decided to occupy and conquer it. This town was so tightly knit that there was not a Jewish ghetto nor a quarter allotted, but the entire burg was supported by and consisted of Jews and Christians living and working together. It was a second thought for the non-Jewish to think about where all the Jewish neighbors went between the chaos of half of the city being relocated (unknowingly to concentration camps), and having new Nazi German soldiers move into their houses, and take over their businesses, neighborhoods, and eventually whatever the Christians owned as well. While I do not and will not ever believe that people were completely clueless about what was happening ten minutes from town, I can understand not quickly noticing because of the sudden expulsion that the entire population of O?wi?cim suffered. Now there is a stigma that surrounds the town because of Auschwitz I and its terrible history being so close. If we had entered the town without knowing what was around the bend, my first impression would have been that the town was incredibly empty, but quaint. Just as O?wi?cim surprised me, so too did Kracòw. On the most shallow level, Kracòw turned out to be a wonderful mixture of medieval architecture with contemporary graffiti, with an excellent tram system, and hip people. Oddly enough, I felt safer walking around the mysterious streets of Kracòw without a map than I do walking around in most towns and cities in the U.S. It was exciting and a bit disconcerting to be in another country where I do not understand anything that was being said around me. Perhaps because I do not speak Polish, the language sounded soft and beautiful. From this brief encounter with O?wi?cim and Kracòw, I learned how to say "yes," "no," "thank-you," and "hello" in Polish. However, I doubt that I could spell them in Polish. Strings of consonants form many of the words that I saw on signs and billboards. When I return to Europe, I may have to seriously consider Poland. It is already a goal of mine to become fluent in five languages before I turn forty. I was planning on returning to Italy soon after graduation, to live and work here, so Poland could be the land that I venture to after securing my fluency in Italian. The food is amazing in Poland, and reminded me of what my mom cooks, the people are lively, and English seems to be in demand. Also, I enjoyed how the exteriors of buildings were medieval but their contents were voguish.
Entry 9: November 7, 2012Witches, Saints, Souls, and Teenagers
Last week, we celebrated Halloween with about fifty Italian children running with joy. We held an impromptu party for the youngest children that we service learn with. The grade limit admitted children under fifth grade. All of our activities for them were simple, cute, easy, but seemed to entertain them for quite a while. We had a bag decorating station, a bean-bag toss, a pumpkin patch fishing station, a face painting room, a table for coloring pictures and making macaroni necklaces, and a couple tables with snacks and soda spread out. Although it was only about two hours long, it was tiring. It reminded me of the days that I worked at summer camp at home. My only suggestion for further parties at the palazzo is to add music. Even though it would add to the chaos, it would keep the energy flowing for the students throughout the evening. Immediately after the party, we cleaned up most of the house and left the pumpkins, which we finally discarded on Monday when they started to stink.
The next day, 1 November, was Giorno di Tutti i Santi (All Saint’s Day). Because it is a national holiday in Italy, we didn’t have any classes, which was nice since we were all pretty tired from chasing after little kids the night before. There were many families walking the main street, for the entire day. It was an unusual sight to see because nighttime is when activity typically happens. It turns out that they had all visited the local graveyards to visit their ancestors and deceased relatives, as is tradition. When Sara took us to the graveyard on Giorno dei Morti (Day of the Dead), 2 November, it was beautiful. Fresh flowers and lit candles were placed at every grave. Unlike the sad droop of Lilies, the flower for a funeral (or for Giorno dei Morti) is the bushy Chrysanthemum. We learned that when bodies have been in the graveyards for several decades, they combine graves of family members. This is done by taking the bodies and placing them in individual boxes before they are sealed in a shared grave. Because Italy is only the size of California, the graves here are built into walls, with the epitaph as the face of the grave. On the epitaphs are pictures of the dead person along with the usual dates of birth and death. Some people have a brief description of who they were or what they did, but most don’t need the explanation because the living carry the memories of the deceased with them.
Sara said that people visit their dead relatives, even when they are just children with no real concept of death. She says that on Grandparents Day, the children make cards for their dead grandparents and leave them at the grave for them. Death, for the Italians, is not a fleeting moment. When someone dies here, it is much more common for the body to not be preserved with formaldehyde, but to be viewed at the person’s home within one or two days of dying. Sara says this is because it is both more personal and less expensive than sending the body to a funeral home. I have been to several funerals, and I cannot remember one wake that was held at the person’s home. Initially this notion of a dead body being viewed at one’s home made me feel sick. Upon thinking about it further, it dawned on me that Italians do not view it as a “dead body” in one’s home, but as the body of someone they loved remaining in the last place of physical comfort that he or she would have had before dying. Now, it is not a weird or disgusting thought. The thought, now, is a little bittersweet to me. It was touching and interesting to learn about another way that death is treated outside of the United States.
After the peace of the Catholic festivities, the current week began with similar peace. I went to school for service-learning today only to be turned away because the high-schoolers of just that school decided to “protest.” As soon as I walked in, my teacher spotted me and told me to go home because the students had walked in, said it was too cold (the school had been closed for the holiday weekend), and then walked out collectively and said that they were protesting against the State for not having the heat on before they arrived to school. The teacher and I looked at each other for a moment before I told her how ridiculous that would be in the United States. She agreed that it was ridiculous. The school wasn’t cold when I arrived, thirty minutes after the beginning when they all walked out. She said that it was more likely because they wanted another day off and that they could have very well just put their jackets on to stay warm. I agreed with her and then said goodbye. So much for anything productive this week, I thought.
Entry 8: November 1, 2012Veni, Vidi, Vici.
I went to Rome last week for four days. I left on Thursday and came back on Sunday. Before I traveled to Rome, I visited a small town called Orvieto. I originally came across it in a Rick Steve’s travel guide, but then was told by Dr. Webb that it was a stunning little town, and she was right! I visited the Duomo in Orvieto, the Chapel of San Brizio, and three different buildings of the Museum of the Opera of the Duomo (it is called MoDo for short). The next time that I visit, I am going to go to Pozzo di San Patrizio and tour the Etruscan tombs and underground caves.
The Cathedral and the Chapel of San Brizio were beautiful. Construction on the Cathedral started in 1290 and finished three centuries later. My first glimpse of the cathedral were the stripes of green-black basalt and white travertine on the side of the cathedral. As I turned the corner, I saw the magnificent facade of the cathedral, which has marble sculptures and decorations. Not one element of the facade is left without a motif or adornment.
Across it are reliefs, bronze sculptures, mosaics, spires topped with statues of saints, a bronze door filled with bible stories, and two wooden doors with frescos dedicated to the Madonna and Christ. Everything, of course, had to do with bible stories, saints, apostles, and the glory of Christ. It was lovely because it was bejeweled and gilded in the negative spaces where sculptures were not placed. Light trickled across it dramatically. All of the embellishment caused the sunlight to create various deep and shallow shadows. The interior was as grand as its veneer. Inside the building are the bold travertine and basalt stripes, as well as alabaster windows, and frescoes plastered across the entirety of the ceilings in the central nave and the apses. Additionally there were huge sculptures, an organ pipe cover that imitated heaven, and a touching Pietà, created by Ippolito Scalza in 1579.
After the museum, I went to MoDo and was surprised to see that it was not like the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo in Florence that explained how and why the cathedral was built. Instead, inside were works of modern art. I wish that I could remember the name of the artist whose work was on display because he created such powerful pieces that were minimal in their content. In one of the other branches of MoDo, I saw a very engaging and unique set of sculptures of the annunciation. Created between 1605 and 1608, they had just the right amount of baroque style. Mary’s body looked fearful and guarded because she turned away from the angel and held a clenched fist to her chest as if she were suffering a heart attack. Her face appeared to be shocked too, as if questioning, “What? What can you mean that I am going to be pregnant! It is not possible!” Gabriel, the angel that told Mary of her imminent pregnancy, was sculpted in a sweeping manner like a tornado with his robes flying around him and his wings tilted for balance against the wind. His form resembled that of a screw. It was magnificent to see the motion of action and air conveyed by stone. This bold style made Gabriel look even more intimidating. His face was assertive, and his gestures were alarming. While he bore his forceful gaze into Mary’s eyes, his left arm pointed up toward the heavens. I imagined him saying, “You should feel honored that God has selected you! This is going to happen, whether you like it or not!” I am pretty sure that if the annunciation did happen that it would have happened just as Mochi depicted it. After visiting three different sites of MoDo, I had to catch the train for Rome. l wanted to explore more of Orvieto, so I am planning a return trip.
When I arrived in Rome around 18:00, I tried to find my hotel, but I was lost in the surrounding neighborhood. I bought a map of Rome and I quickly found my way to the hotel. I was so happy! After checking in and leaving the key, I went out and scavenged for food. For dinner I ate a cia cia (a sandwich made of focaccia bread, sans seasoning, prosciutto crudo, and sometimes cheese or tomato). To become comfortable with the area, I explored the neighborhood, and then returned to my hotel to sleep. The next day, I walked to the Vatican City. I went at the St. Peter's Basilica and the Vatican Museums. I was early enough to enter the cathedral with minimal tourist activity, and arrived at the doors after fifteen minutes in line. Before I entered the cathedral itself, I climbed the dome. It had 552 steps and a crisp breeze at the top. Sunlight and mist crept across Rome while I enjoyed cooling off. I could see much of the gardens of the estate and I was tempted to walk through them; however, it cost thirty euro, so I decided to just enjoy the view from afar. Once I descended from the cupola, I was on the opposite side of the entrance to the cathedral. Being aware that Michelangelo’s Pietà was on the other side, I stumbled my way through the crowd as I tried to take in all of the papal propaganda. The entire time I was inside of Saint Peter’s Basilica, my most prevalent thought was about the building being a power statement of the pope, instead of being a cathedral that glorified Christ, God, or the Virgin. Michelangelo’s Pietà, created in 1498, looked like it could be real. Although it is made of marble, Mary looks delicate underneath her dead son’s body and her heavy clothing. Her face did not express how much it must have hurt her to lose her son, but the cloth that seemed to weigh her down did.
The Pietà, created by Ippolito Scalza in 1579, in the Duomo in Orvieto, definitely borrowed from Michelangelo's piece. In Scalza’s piece, influence of Michelangelo can be found in the way Christ’s arm hangs as if he is really dead. It can also be found in the thick folds of the cloth that Mary wears, and in the position of the figures (Christ on Mary’s lap) in general. Scalza’s work that is from the mannerist period, deviates from Michelangelo’s in two crucial ways. The first is that Ippolito Scalza created Mary with an arm raised in the air ready to rush down and smack Christ awake. Her face, unlike that of Michelangelo’s docile Mary, conveys frustration. She stares at Christ, almost not believing that he is dead. It was a great contrast to be able to see two pietàs that are so alike, yet very different.
After I left Saint Peter’s Basilica, I swiftly marched with the hordes of tourists toward the Vatican Museum. My next goal was to see the Sistine Chapel, which lies at the end of a labyrinth of rooms with artwork spilling out. The first time I walked through the Vatican Museum, I hastily pushed my way through to the Sistine chapel. After forty-five minutes of gazing at the artwork that paved the way toward the chapel, I could not be any more amazed. It was a huge complex with nearly every surface decorated or displayed. I feel that this built my expectations up for the Sistine Chapel to be the icing on the cake for me, but I instead found myself more baffled by how Michelangelo was able to paint so many scenes and figures in such a small space. It was not as I imagined, but that does not mean that it was not great. My neck started to cramp from staring at the ceiling for so long and picking out some of the concepts and details we had discussed in one of the first art history courses that I took with Dr. Mulvaney. Without realizing it, I started to tear up. This, being in Italy, being in the Vatican, being in the Sistine Chapel was the result of taking those first two art history survey courses. I did not, and admittedly still do not, fully understand where my life decisions will take me, but standing in front of The Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel made me feel that my serendipitous way of life was not as unintentional as I have liked to believe.
On Saturday, I saw Trajan’s Column, strolled through the Colosseum, stood at the mouth of the Arch of Constantine, and gallivanted through the Farnese Gardens and Palatine Hill. The Colosseum was amazing. Its entrails reminded me of the ball-in-maze games from coin machines or cereal boxes one would find to be amusing as a child. I wanted to go down into the pit, but it required a tour. The hall of the first floor served as a museum of the Colosseum and so I did not require additional aid to understand the happenings of the place or its spectators. It was hard to believe that this monument could have once been used as the town dump. Just outside of the Colosseum was the Roman Forum, the Farnese Gardens, and Palatine Hill. The complex spanned about 25 acres and after roaming about half of it, I decided to leave the Roman Forum for another visit to Rome.
After I saw the Arch of Titus at the exit, I left to experience the Pantheon. It seemed that nothing in Rome was what I expected it would be like. The Pantheon had changed so much from the images that I had seen and committed to memory. I had learned that its great dome and oculus were covered in golden rosettes and there were statues of the gods of yore. Now, the coffers of the dome are bare, the gods have been replaced with Christian symbols and relics, and part of it has been altered into an awkward chapel that protrudes into the public space. The juxtaposition between the realm of ‘all gods’ (Pantheon) and the out of place chapel dedicated to the singular Christian god was interesting to me. Of the places I visited in Rome, I liked the Farnese Gardens and the Colosseum, the most. I liked these places because they were outdoors, where tourists had room to spread out. Also, they provided for gorgeous views for pictures and had posts of information about the ruins.
Finally, on Sunday, I came home after I went to the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps. The Trevi Fountain was nice, but there were too many people. I had to push my way through the crowd in order to find an open seat in a secluded corner of the square. The Spanish Stairs were also covered in tourists. I climbed the stairs to find that the view was more breathtaking from the bottom, looking up. Promptly after stopping at these places, I took the train back home. It was an excellent stay in Rome, and I would definitely return there again.
Entry 7: October 23, 2012
Death and Chocolate
Imagine riding a train, comprising two carriages, in misty morning light. The air is deceivingly cool outside, and when you step into it you take your jacket off. It is Saturday in Sansepolcro, Italy, which means that the bambini e giovanni (children and youths) have school today. Fortunately, you have arrived early enough to take a seat. After ten minutes, the car is out of seating. It smells like old bread, wax, and teenage sweat. Oddly enough, it is not an unpleasant odor. Fifteen minutes have past and now people are standing in the aisle or sitting on their friend’s laps while making plans for the day. You smile at all the strangers, tune in and out of their conversations during the one and a half hour long trip to Perugia, and watch the morning mist ascend from the land. Finally the train stops and you are there. You climb out and catch a glimpse of the city. It does not look very big. As you are led up elevators through Roman caverns, into the mayhem of the chocolate festival, you try to keep up while the astonishment of riding elevators through a Roman hall is still whirling about your head. All around there are samples, balloons, children, lovers, police, dogs, and chocolate. Eurochocolate is serious business.
The pack leaders stop for a moment and tell you that you are on your own- good luck! So what do you do? You visit the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria, stroll up and down the main drag to peruse the booths participating in Eurochocolate, and then visit the Museo Archeologico Nazionale dell’Umbria. From beginning to end, it is a great day. You finally see Piero della Francesca’s Polyptych of Perugia, from 1470, and it is stunning. At one of the booths for the chocolate festival, you buy a melting chocolate phone case and some gourmet chocolate. Finally, at the archeological museum, you see what an Etruscan tomb looks like. Inside it, there are fifty cuboidal urns with motifs of medusas, angels, and battle scenes; around the carefully laid out urns are tools for the next life. Even though the air is controlled by a modern air filtering system to preserve the artifacts, it is eerie. You leave, make your way to the train and smile all the way home. Lunch only cost you €4, your month long pass to all the museums was €6, and your giant hunks of gourmet chocolate cost you €15. Overall, a pretty fun and inexpensive weekend.
On Monday I did my second time service-learning at the high school. The giovanni seemed excited to see me waiting for them when they entered the room, and every one of them said good morning to me. The teachers had asked me to prepare a lecture about the geography and government of the United States of America. I gave them a brief description of our geography, an overview of our government, and played some Schoolhouse Rock for them. We discussed the meaning of the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States of America. When I asked what their constitution was based on they replied, “work,” and laughed because the economy is rather stagnant at present. While creating my presentation, I was worried that I had too much information, but it seemed to be just the right amount for the students. The older class was shyer about participating and often acted as if they did not understand. I think the awkwardness of being between a teenager and an adult is not unique to Americans. No one seemed to want to stand out, and they were reluctant to respond in English. The younger students, while restless, did not need me to repeat anything and enjoyed learning about the different languages that are spoken in the United States of America. I think that they haven’t quite hit the age where they are aware of social norms, so they are not reserved in order to compensate for a feeling of incompetence.
In conversation class last Thursday, we interviewed the Italian students about high school. There were many differences between their high schools and ours. The most prominent difference is that Italians have a choice between what type of high school they would like to go to. There are several different types of high schools, such as art high school, science high school, and language high school. The students that we interviewed were from the business high school. In Italy, students attend business high school for four years. They study law, economics, mathematics, Italian, and English, French, or Spanish. Each lesson lasts fifty minutes, and they have six lessons per day. The school begins at five past eight in the morning and ends in the one thirty every day. Usually, there are seventeen students per room. Students do not have lunch at school, but instead they go home for a late lunch. Every day there is a break in between classes. This break is called “l’intervalo” (the interval). During the break, students and teachers have breakfast, smoke, or spend time with friends. Students have homework every day, but how much depends on the day. Typically, study is for one to two hours per night. The grades for the students are on a scale of one to ten. They have two main types of tests: written assessments and oral assessments. The written one is similar to American tests with questions on a sheet of paper for students to answer. The other (oral), is made of questions that the teacher asks them in class on the lessons studied. Like students in the U.S.A., Italian students have some holidays during the school year. There are holidays for Christmas, Easter, and summer. Before the holidays for Christmas and summer, students receive report cards. The grades are bad if they are between one to five, while six to ten are good grades. Italian students do a final exam that they call “maturità” (maturity). They take in this order to graduate from high school. In it there are three written tests on different subjects: Italian, foreign languages or economics, and all subjects mixed together. There are also oral examinations given by all teachers. Students must make a sixty or higher to graduate.
Entry 6: October 17, 2012From A-B-C's to Venezia!
Last week was a whirlwind of new experiences. All of us students have started service learning. I now assist at an elementary school and at a high school every week. After my first day of service learning Victoria and I travelled with the Tuscan Intensives to Val d’Orcia and Pitigliano. We left Wednesday morning and returned Thursday evening just in time to pack for our travel break to Venice. It rained the entire time in we were there, but it was nice. Despite the tempo brutto, I had a unique cultural experience just taking the time to relax.
From the few hours of service learning that I have completed so far, I have observed some major differences. While I have enjoyed working with students in both the elementary and high schools, the content, the physical space of the classroom, the supplies, the children, and the teachers were all quite different from what I was used to. Because the most dominant English speaking land in Europe is the United Kingdom, the children here learn about the countries that it is comprised of and are taught by Italian teachers who have studied English language in the United Kingdom. The effect of this on the teachers, and consequently on the students, is a softer sounding English dialect with the occasional trill of an Italian “RRRR”. For the students, and even a few teachers, it is difficult to pronounce “th” as in “that”. Often, “that” is pronounced as “t-hat”. It is also difficult for Italians to pronounce “R” as “er” or “rah”, sounds that are commonly found in English words. There were four words with an elongated “R” in the previous sentence alone, and five in this one! Other pronunciation difficulties include a hard “C” (as in cat) or “K” (as in kid). I think this is because in Italian a “C” is a soft “ch” (think “choo-choo”) sound, unless it is paired with an “H”, “A”, or “O”. Aside from language contrasts, there is a noticeable difference in the manner that a class and the students within it are treated and taught. Teachers here are quick to critique and adjust and rarely give praise unless a student has outdone him or herself. I have heard several teachers talk about how one student or another is a joker, or does not study well enough, or does not speak English well enough. It seems that it makes some students try harder and others just accept their title. My next visits in the classrooms will consist of me talking about the basics of the United States of America. I was specifically asked to talk about the geography and government of our country.
After I had the pleasure of working with children on Tuesday, I prepared for a busy week with the Tuscan Intensives. We visited several small charming towns filled with idyllic scenes of the mountains in Tuscany. One of my favorite places was the estate of La Foce that Iris Origo’s family had bought in the mountains. Iris Origo was one of the most notable female figures during WWII for hiding many refugees and for bringing food and supplies to those hidden in the hazardous terrain of Tuscany. It was from her hilltop house that one could see the porous white stone, disguised by soft-looking blankets of grass and trees, that is the foundation of the Italian land. The gardens at the villa were stunning and aromatic. They incorporated structural geometric qualities and served as a shelf for which the natural splendor of Tuscany could be seen. Our tour guide explained that, “no Tuscan house is complete without garden, and no Tuscan garden is complete without lemon trees.” Indeed, this seemed true. Two out of the four gardens that were shown to us in the estate grounds contained lemon trees. More interesting, all of the gardens were designed by an Englishman named Cecil Pinsent. He also designed “the most Tuscan” road in the region that can be seen winding through the valley. It is much adored and frequently photographed.
My other favorite place that we travelled to with our sweet TIs was the Jewish ghetto in Pitigliano. Originally a large ghetto with over 400 Jewish people, only four Jewish people live there now. The books we have been reading in Justice and Liberty came to life on those streets as I looked around. I have read about so many people being squeezed into small walled-in sub-cities, and spilling onto the streets because of a lack of space. The buildings shared walls, were stacked on each other, and provided little space for our group of thirteen people to walk together comfortably, never mind letting cars or carts through. Tucked behind and underneath some of the buildings was a museum of the Jewish caves in the ghetto. It was stunning to see the chisel marks on the walls that were carved from the same porous stone that could be seen at La Foce. We walked through the cool dark caves and learned more about the activities that happened below the ghetto: ceremonial and ritual bathing, special services and worshipping, kosher wine fermentation, bread baking, and animal slaughtering. Above these holy caves is the synagogue. It was ruined in an earthquake in the mid-1950s, but was restored in 1995. Leading up to the staircase for the mechitzah (women’s seating area in the balcony) were pictures of Auschwitz taken shortly after January of 1945, when the prisoners had been liberated by the Allies. Usually it is the collapse of time that awes me, but in that place, looking at those pictures in a synagogue behind a cramped Italian ghetto squeezed into a corner of the city, it was the lack of space that struck me.
When we returned to our beloved palazzo that evening, we quickly packed and decided on a plan for our trip to Venice. I enjoyed the cultural experiences of public transport, living in a camping community, and dancing the night away. All of the skills that we have been learning by travelling to smaller towns closer to home, such as how to get bus tickets, how to read the bus schedule, and (most importantly) how to ask enough questions to know we are going in the right direction, were put to use. We also employed our budding travelling skills to buy train tickets and to make a backup plan, because there was a train station employee strike happening. It seemed that the only thing that went wrong was that I failed to prepare an itinerary to see the things that I wanted to see most. This means that I unfortunately did not visit the Peggy Guggenheim collection. On top of that, I had brought too little money with me to do what I wanted on a whim. It is alright because it means that I know what I need to bring for the next time I am there. I am adding Venice to the list of places that I will take my parents if they come to visit me after this program ends. It was still interesting to see a city built up from mud, sticks, and stones- truly a God defying feat!
Entry 5: October 3, 2012
Firenze At Its Finest
Florence: you need a lifetime to experience it. There are several big tourist attractions and numerous others, including its overwhelming leather market. In one weekend, I was able to take a tour of the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, climb to the top of the dome, absorb as much artwork as possible at the Uffizi Gallery, see the marvelous sculptures at the Bargello, learn how the dome of the Cathedral was created at the Museo d'Opera di Duomo; visit the Accademia, and attempt to explore the Pitti Palazzo before going home. I'm not sure how many steps I climbed in total, but after several galleries full of staircases and artwork, my feet, knees and mind were ready for a break. Before this past weekend, I am not sure that I fully understood that I am not at home doing the same old thing week after week. It was a great first experience, considering I spent most of it alone.
I lost my breath when I saw the cathedral for the first time. Green and white stripes with pink detail all over it, a red terra cotta roof, statues, reliefs, frescoes, molding, stained glass, the iconic Christian globe topping the dome, and dramatic pilasters merged together and became the most exquisitely embellished building I have ever seen. I do not know what I did to deserve this experience, but I know that I am fortunate to be where I am and to have other people who support and love me. I cried the first time that I saw the dome. Thanks to its early 15th century origin, its glorious facade stood proudly over the piazza. A variety of emotions and reasons sped through my mind: because I worked so hard for this; because this is my last year of college; because I am in one of the greatest countries in the world for architecture; and because if someone had told me five years ago today that I would be happy, strong, and doing something that I really enjoyed doing, I would not have believed them. Climbing the dome that night meant a lot to me. I hadn't planned on doing it that night, but I ended up climbing it because Victoria wanted to reserve a place in the tour for Saturday and she could not book it until then. When the security guard told her to come back tomorrow, she turned away and I promptly asked, "Are there any tours tonight?" Yes, there was a tour starting in fifteen minutes. So we conquered and then sat for a while. Florence glittered and smiled up at me through the veil of golden light from the evening sun.
I am not positive how many steps it takes to get to the top of the cathedral, but that night I was a little sore. Saturday morning, however, I felt great and went out to accomplish all of my sightseeing for the day: the Bargello Gallery, the Uffizi Gallery, get pictures of the facade of the cathedral and baptistry doors, and visit the Museo d'Opera del Duomo. I started my adventures on the streets of Florence around eight and arrived at the Bargello as one of the first guests. It was as cool and quiet as the marble and bronze sculptures displayed throughout. I saw many sculptures that thrilled me, but the ones that I loved most were Triumph of Florence Over Pisa (early 16th century) and Donatello’s David (created between 1430 and 1440). At the Uffizi, I saw hundreds, if not thousands of paintings and sculptures as I strolled through the rooms. I bought postcards of my favorite things because we were not allowed to take pictures. Photographs do not do Caravaggio, Leonardo da Vinci, Peter Paul Rubens, Botticelli, Artemesia Brunelleschi, and the rest of the legendary artists, justice to their works. There were so many rooms that I was in the Uffizi for four hours. Before I ate lunch, I made sure to go by the Baptistry doors of the Cathedral. By the way, they are not the original doors; they are copies of the actual Doors of Paradise (created in 1425 to 1452) which reside inside the Museo d'Opera del Duomo. Inside the museum, I was able to get as close as the plexiglass encasement let me. The detail in the bronze and gold reliefs was phenomenal. Some figures looked as if they had been fully carved and then glued on because they stuck out so far. Like every person before and after me, I longed to touch them. Nothing about Saturday’s experiences disappointed me.
Sunday, on the other hand, was not the best day ever. After two days of walking miles, climbing endless staircases, and standing for hours without end, I woke up tender, creaky, and sore. Florence, while interesting, has terrible cobblestone roads that ruin one’s alignment and cause joints to ache after walking for so long. It took me several minutes to actually get up, get dressed, and get out. My schedule for the day: Accademia Gallery, Pitti Palazzo, National Science Museum, and National Photography Museum. I walked across town to the Accademia, and was prepared to see something awe inducing. Well, I did, but it was not what I expected to be awed by. The other girls had told me how breathtaking Michelangelos ?David ?was, but I personally was more impressed by the sculptures leading up to David (created in 1500 to 1504). They were some of Michelangelo’s unfinished works. Each figure looked as if he were trying to force himself out of the marble. Thanks to my handy audio tour, I learned that Michelangelo did not conceive a work before he sculpted it, but instead worked freehand. It made sense to me that an artist who let the marble guide him would create figures that were trying to emerge passionately from their stone prisons. Those sculptures moved me. Also displayed at the Accademia were some modern art pieces. I saw Duchamps ?L.H.O.O.Q. (conceived in 1919), Warhol’s The Last Supper (appropriated and remastered in 1986), a beautiful photograph by Mappelthorpe, and a very interesting exhibit of a modern interpretation of triptych artwork. The triptych exhibit was comprised of three pieces. Above the entrance of the room, was a dark T shaped plank of wood; inside the room were two rectangles. One was lapis blue and the other was gold. These three things conveyed the dominance of dark wood, rich blues, and precious gold in religious artwork from the Byzantine and Renaissance periods.
I made my way across town, once more, in the opposite direction, to visit the Pitti Palazzo. My body was killing me and I was mentally exhausted. Although I tried to explore the Pitti, I was not enjoying it. Instead of pushing myself to go through the gigantic palace and its luscious gardens, I gave in and went home. It is not a bad thing, though. This way I have a reason to return to Florence, even if for a day trip. I must admit, even if I did not have these things to look forward too, I would still go back. There is something romantic about the tourist crowded city.
Speaking of the Future...
A lot has happened this past week: I became friends with a woman named Rosanna, our group of students went to Anghiari and Arezzo, and I learned how to speak in the future tense in Italian.
During the past few weeks, I’ve been looking for someone to practice speaking Italian with. Luckily, I ran into John Rose at a cafe with a few friends from the States, and from England. One of the women, Louise, is a teacher. She told me of her Italian friend, Rosanna, who wanted to get better at speaking English. Louise brought Rosanna to the conversation class last week and we spoke briefly with each other before we decided to meet again to practice speaking for a longer period of time. The day after that, we met up and walked around town for a couple of hours, both of us trying to think and speak in another language. It was fun, but tiring. She was very enthusiastic. After an hour and a half I could feel the processor in my brain overheating. We said goodbye after getting some gelato, and then I went and sat for a little while. My brain tingled from the stimuli of hearing, speaking, and understanding a new language. I didn’t know that I could hold a conversation with someone in another language for two hours! It was a great experience because I felt as if I helped someone, and because I learned what I need to improve on and what I do well. Apparently, pronunciation is my forte; speaking in past tenses is not! I get to meet with her again this Tuesday. We’re going to go out for dinner, and then I will have to retire to the palazzo to study and finish homework.
For a few years now, I have been dreaming of living outside of the United States. I do not feel as if I belong there because I cannot imagine living my life in stagnation. If a life could be illustrated with water and stone, then I would be the water, moving through time, pooling for moments at one place or another, but constantly etching out my path grain by grain, until there is nothing left for me. When I was in middle school, I had a teacher whose wife could speak seven different languages fluently. Although I have forgotten what she did for a living, a seed was planted in my heart that day and because of it I have the ambition to be fluent in five languages before I die. I am watering the seed here, but I feel that three months is not enough. We only have a little over two months left, and I already wish I could stay longer. It is a much different place than the USA, but I can see myself living in a tiny apartment, functioning just fine here. Anghiari had many places for sale. The town is full of steep hills, interesting shops, and is located not too far from Sansepolcro nor from Arezzo. Everywhere I have been, so far, has been nothing but quirky, calm, and visually lyrical. Arezzo is bigger and more crowded than Sansepolcro, yet the relaxed pace of life extends beyond our tiny town and seems to affect them all. I wish I could stay and build a life here.
Entry 3: September 19, 2012
Spoleto and Beyond
Our first group of Tuscan Intensive (referred to as TI) students are here. Several of them are alumnae, and the others are family members or spouses. Thanks to their graciousness, we students were all able to go to Spoleto on Saturday. Over the course of eight hours, we visited several museums, churches and a castle; and we also had lunch at a family owned restaurant. Also because of them, I have become even more perplexed about both American and Italian culture.
One of the most memorable visits we had was the first stop we made at Casa Romana (Roman House). It is a house from the Roman Empire era, not to be confused with a house in Rome. Although the house did not display a plaque with a description of each of the rooms, it did house some interesting artwork within them. A collection of stark white wooden children, holding or having one black item or element in the sculpture, stood with very troubling looks on their faces. Each one was alone in a room.
At first I thought these sculptures were a memorial for WWII, but I later learned that Gehard Demetz, a German artist, was displaying his "sculptural child figures." Instead of being a statement about lost lives during the war, they are a memorial "to a world hostile to children and creativity." To see such desolate, modern, and austere sculptures in rooms that were centuries old collapsed time for me. Instead of dwelling on what happened in the past or trying to imagine the future for these suppressed children (of whom I am one), I reflected on what it feels like not to be able to create and express freely. Gehard Demetz did a splendid job of revealing the inner child being sterilized, dissected and silenced. I hope to see more of his artwork.
While the artwork at the cathedral, museums, castle and other churches that we visited was marvelous, the interiors of the buildings were overwhelming. There was so much to see: Bernini bees, Theotokus (Mary presenting Christ) paintings and frescoes, crucifixions in all the rooms, and ceilings filled with masterful deception of two dimensional space, completed with angels to grace them. Floors were tiled with abstract mosaics, colors were splashed garishly on walls, paintings framed in beautifully carved gilded wood filled rooms. To repeat what Dr. Webb said to us before we left, I wanted to pop my eyes out and soak them in saline solution at the end of the day because there was so much that I had seen. Perhaps the simplicity and directness of Casa Romana is the reason why I enjoyed it the most.
A week has passed, and I have noticed more differences between Italians and Americans. A curious thing has happened. Since before we left for Italy, I have wondered what race relations would be like in in another country. We are starting our fourth week here and not once have Italians asked me, “what are you?” Perhaps it is obvious that I am American and that is enough for them. Perhaps to Italians to be American does not mean that you are white. At home, it feels and it sometimes seems that, if you are not white, then you are not really American; you are a subtype: African-American, Asian-American, Latino-American. I very rarely hear or read “Caucasian-American.”
Our TI group arrived on Thursday and by Monday morning I had already been asked three times, “what are you?” or, “what is your ethnicity?” Although these questions were asked with a polite tone it annoys me that it matters. I must admit that being asked this question bothers me because I don’t really know how to answer that. After all, I’m human, I’m a woman, I’m American- those are the technically correct answers to those questions.
But the answer people from the United States look for is rooted in a different question, “what is your race?” I usually answer that I am mixed, black and white. This response is not normally good enough. So the questioning goes further, “which one are you?” It is because of the last question being the core of the others that I abhor being asked. It is a disturbing question because of the history of the United States, and to me means, “how should I act around you, and how do you want to be treated?” Well, we Americans would like to believe that we’re not racist, and that we like and treat everyone equally, but that’s not the case. So if I answer “white,” then I am asking for better treatment, but I’m lying about my identity. If I answer “black,” then I risk being marginalized, and I am lying again. The issue is moral and one of identity for me, which is why I rather like, “What country are you from?” To this I respond, “America,” and that is good enough.
I often wonder what it would be like to be black, American, and studying here. The only black people I have seen are African and are often beggars, prostitutes, or street vendors. It is sad, but they do what they can to send money home. I also wonder how much Italian or English they speak. John Rose told me that they are much better at speaking different languages then nearly all of us. It would be fascinating to sit down and talk to someone who would be able to give me insight to the Italian way of race relations.
Entry 2: September 12, 2012
Make New Friends but Keep the Old
There has been a celebration for the past ten days, literally just outside our windows and around the bend. It was for the 1,000 year anniversary of the cathedral that established Sansepolcro as a town, in 1012. To celebrate this event, the annual "Palio della Balestra" was performed five times. The balestra itself is a crossbow arrow shooting competition. Last weekend, the first and second of September, there was an honorary competition for the cathedral. This past weekend was the annual competition and marked the end of the week-long celebration. Personally, I found the hour long processions, the parades every night past our windows, and the groups of sbandieratori and fire-dancers to be more fun than the actual balestra.
Squadrons of men and women, bedecked with 15th century garb, instruments, and baubles, paraded in an orderly fashion past the palazzo every night to the piazza (main square). Solid drum beats and medieval trumpets obliterated any focus I had on my studies. From my window, I could see men and women whose faces looked as if they had been carved from the very images I had studied in my art history classes. We were able to participate in one of the parades, but I believe that the Italians definitely wore the costumes with a greater sense of poise than we did.
I try to spend as much time as I can walking around or relaxing at different places. My goal is to meet as many people as possible so that I may make friends. Although we have only been here for two weeks, I'm noticing some differences between us and them. The list of shallow observations grows every day and it would please me to learn in greater depth about our cultural differences and similarities. Obvious differences thus far are as basic as language and as personally irking as, "Why don't Italians look up? Americans look up all the time. Are we looking up too much? What would I see if I paid attention to what's going on immediately around me?"
Also on my list of observations is how the people who are thought to be passionate, excitable, loud, and friendly are actually quite relaxed, much quieter than Americans, bold with fashion (yet reserved socially speaking), and stoic. This is not to say that they do not become passionate or excitable, but that I have noticed that they are more subtle about it. During the balestra, I looked around in the crowd with a big animated grin on my face, but noticed that the Italians looked proud but not enthused. I cheered loudly when our team started to win, and, much to my embarrassment, the Italians just clapped politely. Thankfully, they are kind about mistakes. The next time I started to cheer several other people joined in, and soon the whole crowd was rumbling with clapping, stomping, and cheering.
The best way I can think to describe the attitudes of Italians is through the artwork that I've seen. Generally speaking, the depiction of cloth plays a major role in conveying the prodigious skills of an artist, or lack thereof. Other than the Baroque period (and perhaps contemporary 21st century art), human and ethereal subjects are painted with beautiful relatively subdued faces. It is in the cloth and the form of the body that emotions are conveyed. After seeing the intricate flag waving routines of the sbandieratori (color guard or flag wavers), the obsessions with form and the flow of fabrics was made even more apparent. As Italians walk down the street throughout the day, I observe how they wear their clothing: fitted or draped; flowing, never stiff; light layers of pattern and color. All while looking effortlessly put together. Part of me wonders if being surrounded with fine art and architecture for all of one’s life could make one function in the same manner?
Entry 1: September 5, 2012
The palazzo has often been described as a place of beauty. When we arrived here, I did not think of it as beautiful at all. My first impression of it was that it is bare. There is not a lot of decoration, color, or ornate furniture. The floor is terra cotta tiling in almost every room, all of the wood that is part of the building is stained or painted dark, and, faithful to Italian architectural tradition, the walls are made of plaster and stone. What I thought of as bare, upon my arrival, has almost magically turned to quaint. Charm is in the details: how John Rose’s flowers, placed strategically in the halls and on tables, radiate with color because of the starkness of the interior elements; the way light and sound resonate in every room, because of the structural qualities of the building; and even in the way that each door likes to be handled.
Our territory in the palazzo spans two floors that are connected by a series of small and large staircases. In one of the halls there is a fresco from the 16th century. The ceilings are high, covered with what looks like brick masonry and beautiful dark wooden beams. We keep our windows open often through the day and night because there is no air conditioning here, and bugs are few and far between. Along with keeping windows open, we keep our lights and most of our electronics off or unplugged, until needed. Electricity in Italy is very expensive. It's fine by me. The natural light here is usually the perfect combination of bright and diffused. During the early hours of the morning, before the sun is up completely, it is wonderfully cool.
There are seven of us students here, our beloved Doctor Webb, and her husband John Rose. The Doctor and her husband live in a small apartment on the floor below us, where the classrooms are. From the classrooms, I can see the man who lives directly across the way. He frequently opens his window and gazes outside while wearing close to nothing. I assume, like the rest of us, he is just enjoying the breeze. The top floor is where our shared bedrooms are. My room, shared with three other girls, is huge. We all get along quite nicely, even though we are each different from the others. Knowing that we are stuck with this small group of Americans is both encouraging and irritating. I just hope that we will all become friends and learn to live with the virtues and flaws of ourselves and each other.