Entry 3: 5th June, 2012
Adventures in Southern Italy
Wow, time is really flying away. We are back from our second travel break, and we spending are last stretch in Sansepolcro, and then we are off to the land of the Alps. For our second travel break, Zainab and I decided to head towards the southern coast. I was particularly excited for this trip partly because two years ago I was unable to join my fellow Presidential and Legacy Scholars for our winter trip to Southern Italy and also because the rest of our study abroad crew had told us all things amazing about the South except the apparently “sketchy” underground station of the circumvesuviana when you get to the Napoli Central Station. I was really intrigued by this rather long-winding name of the train service used in this region. But during our adventures in Sorrento and the surrounding areas, my travel buddy and I gained a pretty good grasp of the circumvesuviana, and in the process we learned why this particular train service has this name. The tracks of this particular train run around the base of the volcanic Mount Vesuvius, and hence the name circumvesuviana. I love making connections between new ideas and words to what I already know, and developing this kind of connection helps me remember them better while increasing my pool of interesting facts.
Gladly, I would confess that our experiences at the train station were nothing close to being an example of something qualifying as “sketch” rather during this train adventure we developed a new dimension on Italian culture. The brightly colored graffiti covering the train station walls contrasting with greyish, gritty tiled floor provided a rather unique character to this train station with the teenage boys playfully fighting with each other. The unique character of these circumvesuviana train stations do not end here; they continued as we hoped on to actual train. The train was packed, and it seemed like every morsel of space in each of the compartment was filled with a human soul; I doubt I could see the ground underneath me, and the passengers who had to get out at a particular stop had to push and shove throw the thicket of the crowd displeasing many on their way as they encroached upon their personal space. Amidst this chaos, a local band with their African drums, duffles, and piano accordions chimed away some wonderful blend of music as the circumsvesuviana sped across from the “apparently sketch” train station at Naples to San Angelo. I thoroughly enjoyed the free entertainment this nomadic band was providing to the train passengers in return for some measly coins, and the mellow tunes were a welcome break to me after the wobbly and long train ride from the Rome to Naples. It was surprising or rather fascinating to see such an eclectic mix of instrumentation being used by the train band. The drums definitely looked African in origin. I was under the impression by piano accordions have Spanish origins and are used in Spain more, but I have seen them being used both in Sansepolcro as well as in Naples. I am not sure if this eclectic choice of instrumentation and music was to appeal to the heavy traffic flow of tourists in the region or rather it was because music in this region is a blend of many cultural influences. I believe it had to do more with appealing to tourists because I have seen concerts in Sansepolcro, and in most of these concerts the choice of instrumentation was very different from these bands. I am not still sure how these men in the band would make a living out of playing music on the circumvesuviana especially because the cost of the circumvesuviana was €4 each way from Sorrento to Naples. But, at the same time there is no conductor or any other train staff to see who has a ticket and who does not have a ticket. I noticed that the band randomly got off at different stations and then they would hop back on latter; I am presuming this could be to avoid being caught by the police. Overall, I enjoyed being in the circumvesuviana especially after our Rome bus adventures they seemed much simpler and had also so much character in them.
Mostly tourists and sometimes our mostly reliable travel guide books present a rather dismal image of Naples. Most often this dismal image masks the actual experiences individuals have in Naples especially in the train stations and in the process the “real experience” never emerges and we continue to reinforce the stereotypes that exist about places. I could clearly observe the north-south divide we discussed in class. Northern Italy is known for its fashion and busy metropolises, while the south is roughed with high unemployment, broken infrastructure, and Mafia arrests. From our rides in the train stations and walking through Meta, Sorrento, and Capri, you could clearly see that this area was not very wealthy especially the apartment complexes we saw were older with paint chipping off and covered in dirt. Based on this, I think it should be no surprise to see that the train stations are not as well kept as some of the other bigger cities and you see more pollution and crime in this area because unemployment is so high. As I see from the perspective of a poor Neopolitan already facing hardships with the economic downturn, the train station seems to be the ideal place with so many rich and vulnerable targets available at hand. Meridionale is often associated with “laziness”. But I got a very different taste of Italians from the south, and their hospitality and enthusiasm defied any associations I could possibly have with the word “lazy”. For instance, one of our waiters in the hotel, who had not even served us in the hotel breakfast room saw us later in the day in the market, and remembered us and asked we were doing okay. I made every effort to look beyond the stereotypes associated with this region especially because as a Muslim, Pakistani woman, I have been target of many stereotypes, so whenever I see others making generalizations about a whole group of people without understanding the context and background it saddens me.
The next day of our travel break, we headed off to see the beautiful Amalfi coast and the Mediterranean Sea. The hydrofoil ride from Sorrento to Capri was rough, but the 20 minute momentary torture was complete worth for seeing the absolutely gorgeous cliff and azure blue waters and the wonderful town of Capri itself. Having grown up right across from the beach, the water and the beach lost its charm to me, but the absolutely breathtaking views and the mystifying blue of the Mediterranean Sea stool my heart. What really caught my attention was the unique color of water in this region? It was completely different from any beaches or coastlines I have seen before. I think the geography of the region contributes to the unique colors and shades of the water in this sea. I think the light bounces off the rugged cliffs bedecking the coastline, and the light reflecting off from these cliffs renders a unique color to the waters in this region.
Capri continued to surprise me. I thought the views from the boat ride were breathtaking but I was mistaken. My travel buddy and I decided to trek some fifty or so flights of the stairs to get a better view of the city and its adjoining waters. The hike up was a struggle, but it was completely worth the views we got, and all the little residential complexes we saw on the way. The region is known for its ceramics, and we saw the region’s pride of ceramics in action. Each of the houses we saw had a wonderfully colorful and decorated name and number plate hanging on their front entrance. It was fascinating to see the different patterns and designs different individuals had chosen for their own residence. I wonder if there is any symbolism hidden in this choice of patterns because each of the houses had a unique style from sea horses to flowers.
Capri is known for its handmade sandalwood shoes with their leather strapping. Our friends who had been to Capri on their first travel had told us all things wonderful about this particular shoe store called Cuccurullo. Capri and its surrounding sea-towns are strewn with these handmade shoe stores, but this particular one stands as the oldest and the most renowned. A testament to the popularity and quality of the shoes from this place was that as we rode back to Sorrento on the hydrofoil, every third or fourth women taking the boat with us was either carrying a shoe bag from their store or the women themselves were live models of Cuccurullo’s handcrafted shoes. This kind of popularity is especially impressive because these craftsmen face direct competition with world famous brands stores that are found in the Capri. Our time at the Cuccurullo’s shoe store was much more than a shopping experience; we saw the Italian, small family-owned firm model in action, so I guess sometimes retail therapy can have educational benefits. At the time, we visited the stored the staff included the Imma and her husband and two other hired laborers one of whom was from Morocco. Imma is the niece of Cuccurullo, who was the first one in Capri to start this business of handmade sandalwood shoes. Cuccurullo started this business in early 1950s and today his grandchildren ran this business. So, Severgnini was right that most Italians inherit their professions from their older generations because Imma inherited being a shoe maker from her grandfather. It was interesting to note that Imma is the first women in over six decades to join the men of her family in this art of shoe-making; this inclusion of women in the family business . Her inclusion into the family business shows that Italians are becoming more open to having women work alongside men at work. Nadeau in her article “We are treated like prosciutto” talks about the gender disparities women in Italy experience every day, and how a women’s main domain is considered her house, where is she responsible for the household duties and “mak[ing] babies”. I do not know if Imma’s participation in the family business is a reflection of the Italians becoming more open to the idea of women joining the men in the workforce or she was able to join in because it was her family business and she would not have to work with somebody else or somewhere else. I definitely noticed that Imma had a very comfortable and flexible working environment because while Imma worked on fixing one of my friends shoes her husband took their little girl for a walk. One of our friends had broken her handmade shoe from Cuccurullo’s store, and we had brought her shoes back to get them fixed. We showed Imma a picture of her father making our friend’s shoes, and she seemed so excited about seeing a photograph of her father working on the shoes that she asked us she could keep it. Based on our interactions with Imma, it seemed that she enjoyed working at her family business, and the fact the store’s website talks about her joining the business, I think reflects that the Cuccurullo family appreciates and encourages their women participating in their family business. The skeptics might argue that Cuccurullos having an encouraging attitude towards Imma joining the business might be because the shoe-making business has a huge female clientele and having a woman as their shoe designer would give them a business edge.
The day of shoe-shopping, hiking up, and rocking in the hydrofoil made up for a great day of relaxation and enjoyment especially after being in the train and bus for more than 6 hours the day before. Capri set very high expectations for our next day of adventures at Pompeii, but I will talk about Pompeii another day.
Entry 2: 24th May, 2012
Duomo of Florence-Overcoming the Fear of Heights?!!
We finally get to Florence after our long train ride from Arezzo. The train station was bustling with people, but I was excited to explore the city and especially the Duomo of Florence. As I caught the first glance of the Duomo, I knew Florence had already stolen my heart away, and I could not wait to climb up the Duomo to see it.
We walked to the main Piazza del Duomo, which is home to three of most popular sites in Florence including the Duomo of Florence, Baptistery, and Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore. I could hear a multitude of languages as I tried moving in between the throngs of people to see the wonderful the architectural masterpieces within the piazza. It almost seemed the entire world had converged upon this square, which seemed large, but with throngs of people it seemed relatively small. The 375 feet high Basilica di Santa del Fiore with its beautiful terracotta dome looked magnificent. As I stood before the magnificent structure, I began to notice the huge height difference between me and the huge cathedral standing before me; this realization made me rather anxious about the climb to top of the Duomo of Florence particularly because I am scared of heights, but I am determined to use this study abroad opportunity to overcome this personal fear of heights.
There were many features of the exterior façade of the Cathedral that fascinated me and caught my attention. From distance it seemed, the entire exterior of the Cathedral was just made up of single kind of whitish cream colored marble, but as I got closer to the cathedral I began to realize that the structure was actually made up of green, white, and pink marble. What really fascinated me was the extent of detailed carving on the marble structure? I was not only amazed by the detailed carving on the multi-colored marble structure but also how careful the architect of the structure had been in making this structure ensuring everything was symmetrical in nature such that the design on every part of the façade had its complementary symmetrical part; in fact, I think the cathedral structure had a unique geometrical repeating pattern on it. It continues to fascinate me how detailed and meticulous the creators of this structure were, and how well they applied their knowledge of geometry and mathematics in designing this structure. I cannot agree more with Jason Kersten that this cathedral and the beautiful dome atop to it would make the “heavens envious”.
As I continue to see different artworks and architectural structures around Italy, I cannot help bring my little chemist out, and somehow I have been fairly successful in making wonderful connections so far. The multi-colored marble façade of the cathedral reminded me of my Chemistry and Art class; I could not help wondering what kinds of compounds gave such beautiful colors to the marble, which especially became even more pretty as the sun rays shone upon them giving them an almost sparkling affect. However, the effect of dirt and the other sources of degradation could be clearly seen on the façade of the Cathedral because the dirt made the appearance of shiny and sparking marble dimmer. Dr. Vitarbo explained us how maintenance staff constantly cleans the structure alternating between the left and right side, and while we here, we could clearly that the left side had been recently cleaned while the right side was being cleaned. The chemical composition of the colored marbles really intrigued me. At the beginning of last week, we learned in our Chemistry and Art Class that white marble was mainly calcium carbonate, and seeing this marble façade of the Cathedral made me reconnect to our discussion in class about the nature of art materials, and how most art materials including marble are mixtures. Based on our discussion from Chemistry class, I think the marble decking the magnificent cathedral in Florence is a mixture of calcium carbonate and some other transition metals, and the nature of the transition metals attributes different colors to the marbles. During the coming weeks in Chemistry class, we will be learning about chemical compounds, and seeing this cathedral and its marble structure have helped me come with more interesting examples for the activity sessions of our class for the coming weeks.
After a brief tour of the city, lunch, and market, Eliza and I were back to the main square of Florence, which is home to the Duomo considered the “object that gave birth to the Renaissance.” My initial morning sightings of the outside of the cathedral in the morning had made me rather nervous of scaling up the 473 steps up to the top of the Duomo, but I tried putting off my faint-hearted self and decided to begin the adventure. As Eliza and I climbed up the steps, we could not help think about two things: one for what purpose these stairs were created and two how often people would climb these stairs back when this Cathedral was originally constructed. However, I later realized that the article by Jason Kresten explained that the “well-lit stairway between the twin domes that rose to the very top” of the Cathedral were built to help the workers building the dome have an easy access to the top. During our adventurous trek up the narrow steps, we encountered some platforms and landings, and Kresten had explained us in his article about the Duomo that the platforms and landings were created to provide extra safety and sense of security to the workers. It continues to amaze me the extent of detail Brunelleschi incorporated in not only in the design of the structure of the dome but also in the building processing of the dome. I did not climb to the top of the dome, but from the two levels I climbed up I was able to get magnificent views of the Gothic cathedral below. Vasari’s beautiful frescoes covering the Duomo and the brightly colored stained glass windows adorning the dome provided the prefect contrast to the rather simplistic and serious rendering of the Cathedral. As I stood up in the balcony view, I kept shifting my focus from the frescoes bedecking the dome and the view of the church beneath. It fascinated me how Vasari was able to paint such detailed painting on an uneven surface of the dome. As I stood up in the balcony, I continued to think about the worshipper and his or her thoughts as he or she looks up at the dome while being engaged in prayer and worship at the altar. The huge scale of the structure helps to reiterate the insignificance of the worshipper in front of God, and how this structure would help the worshiper better understand his or her position before God and how this would affect the worshipper’s prayers. I wonder if Brunelleschi and the others involved in the design of the structure were considering this aspect of the structure and how the magnificence of this structure would create an effect on the religious and spiritual function of this building. After trekking up the four hundred some stairs up the dome, I am convinced why this architecture genius gave birth to Renaissance. In fact, I feel the Duomo is the jewel crown of Florence.
Entry 1: 28th May, 2012
Trevi Fountain and First Night Adventures in Rome
Wow, time is flying away. We are done with our first travel breaks and we have started our preparations for the next one, which is just around the corner. A group of us including Zainab, Alex, and I decided to head to Rome for our first travel break. We had a relatively smooth train ride to Rome. However, we decided to stay a little bit further away from the main center and tourist attractions of Rome partly to lessen our expenses and partly because living away from the hustle and bustle of the center of the city would give us an opportunity to interact with many of the locals and in the process learn more about Italian culture.
Our adventures and rather our struggles began as we headed off from the Roma Tiburtina Train Station. We got to the hotel after walking almost 2 hours when the actual walk to the hotel was only 20 minutes from the train station. Our getting lost adventures did not stop here and they continued through the rest of the evening as we tried navigating to the center of the city from our hostel to see the Trevi Fountain on the local bus system. At the time this getting lost experience seemed extremely frustrating, but as I see the experience in retrospective I realize that it was a great learning experience. After my adventures out to Perugia myself, I had thought I had understood and partly mastered the art of reading Italian maps, but this getting lost experience taught me otherwise; maps in each city of Italy are laid out differently. The new aspect I learned about navigating maps is that unlike maps in Sansepolcro and Perugia which are laid out based on the location of major landmarks maps in bigger cities like Rome are laid out based on a gridding system. I am so glad that a kind Italian lady on one of the buses we took explained us how to navigate the Roman maps. The kindness of this wonderful lady reminded me of Severgnini’s comparison of the Italian stewardess to the British steward; in Severgnini’s description of the Italian stewardess, he delineates how the Italian stewardess converted from being the “the goddess” of coldness and detachment to “a smiling woman who is trying to be helpful”. Severgnini’s description of the Italian stewardess’ transformation aptly encapsulates the kindness we experienced at the hand of the local Italian women that night and evening, from the young women who showed us the location of the bus stop to the old women who photocopied a map of the neighborhood around our hotel so we could easily reach our hotel. Severgnini was absolutely right when he said that “at the time of crisis the inner mom, sister, confidante, friend, and lover” emerges, and this emergence of thoughtfulness among the hearts of Italians during times of difficulty is not only prevalent in cities but especially in small towns like Sansepolcro. I saw a demonstration of this behavior this past Friday when our host family drove us to shoe-maker’s store because my classmate Samantha’s handmade sandals from Capri broke and they wanted to help her in any way possible.
Being at the Trevi Fountain at night was a wonderful experience even though it meant getting lost in the streets of Rome and getting trapped in a bus all by myself. The view of the fountain was breathtaking as the mellow yellow street lines shown on the foaming azure waters emerging from the fountain. We entered the piazza, which is the home to this enormous and massive fountain, from one of the roads leading to the piazza, and we left the square through another of its entrances, and in the process we ended up in another completely different location as compared to where we had started; this maze-like nature of the entrances to the piazza, which is home to this glorious fountain, further contributed to our getting lost experience in Rome. The next day as I was musing through my travel guide book, I read that the Trevi Fountain is called so because Trevi comes from the words tre vie meaning three roads, and reading this little tit bit made me feel so much better about ourselves. This made me realize that the maze like nature of this area had more to do with us not understanding the local bus systems and locations of different tourist attractions in this city.
The Trevi Fountain was flooded with people even though it was close to midnight when we got there. We were expecting to see a much thinner crowd of tourist at such a late hour of night, but I guess the amount of tourists at this site were a reflection of how popular this site. I stood before this magnificent fountain probably the largest fountain I have seen thus far not only in Rome but anywhere I have been in the world- the size and magnificence of this structure reinforced my initial observations from Florence that Italians like grandeur and stateliness. But what truly fascinates me that this grandeur and stateliness are not without purpose and use, which is what makes seeing these gems of Roman architecture such a fascinating experience. As I am seeing different kinds of architecture across Italy, I have realized that in attempting to attain grandeur the Italians do not miss out on details, which is clearly evident in the representations of the God of sea, Neptune, and the chariots of the led by the Tritons with sea horses (Italy, Lonely Planet). The facial features and movements of the sea horses as detailed in the stonework of the fountain completely left me mesmerized; it was amazing that how much detailed stone craving had been done in the creation of this fountain and the detailing was done to reflect the different modes of the horses one being wild and one being calm; and the modes of the horses are reflective of the nature of the different sources of water including the wilder seawater and calmer river waters. From my initial impressions, I was unfortunately developing a rather not so positive image of the Italian obsession with beauty, but this viewing of the fountain help me modify my initial impressions because I feel even though they are concerned with the beauty and image of either themselves or architectural structures, but they simultaneously do not lose sighting of functionality and purpose.
As I have read more about the fountain post my initial sightings of it at my first night in Rome, I have realized that Roman architecture particularly fountains are not just about aesthetic value to the viewer but also about providing the beholder with an intellectual and learning experience. My hometown has many beautiful fountains, but I had always thought the purpose of the fountains was to bring beauty and elegance to the area they are adorning while providing a sense of calmness and serenity to the passerby through the movements of water in the fountain. However, this viewing of the Trevi fountain left me with a completely different understanding of the utility of fountains. It seemed from my novice understanding of this structure that the architect might have wanted the viewers to understand the different sources of water and how those sources of water differ in nature through his representations of the seahorses. I was hardly surprised to note that the Romans architects had done a remarkable job in combining the entertainment and relaxation with learning. I sincerely hope that the chemists were as creative as the Roman architects in combining education with entertainment; I hope my observations while seeing these sites will help me learn to do better in getting the fun part of science across. I am, however, not sure if the educational value of this site is still is seen by the thousands who converge to this site every day because in my observations of fellow tourists at this fountain I saw that mostly individuals cared about throwing the coin into the fountain for good luck and documenting their presence at this site by taking pictures. I am glad I was able to soak in to this experience as I stood before the fountain for a few minutes and I just tried listening to the soothing sounds of water splashing down the rocks and statues. I had like to believe that the soothing sounds of water from my fountain sightings had done their magical effect on me because I slept quite well that night.
Among the many things that fascinated me about the fountain, the materials of which the fountain is made up of definitely fascinated me. The fountain is made largely of carrara marble and travertine, and both these materials are made of calcium carbonate (TreviFountain.net). What really intrigued me is how despite the constant flow of water over this structure, the material was not degrading and it continued to maintain its brilliance. The water flowing in to the Trevi Fountian is from the first century aqua duct, called Acqua Virgo (Italy, Lonely Planet). I am presuming that the water from this aqua duct was extremely clean and lacked the chemicals that could possible disintegrate the material of which the mountain is made up. This aspect of the fountain’s structure continued to fascinate me as visited the Colosseum, and I learned during my tour of the Colosseum that the Colosseum like the Trevi Fountain was made up of travertine and calcium carbonate, but unlike the Colosseum, the Trevi Fountain’s constructing material had been more resilient to degradation despite the constant contact with water. The resilience of the structure also alluded to the cleanliness of the water terminating into the fountain, and it could partly explain the better state of the Fountain as compared to the Colosseum. I am greatly intrigued by this difference between the states of the Colosseum and the state of Trevi fountain; however, what I am really excited is that in the coming weeks some of my fellow classmates in Chemistry and Art class would making presentations about different aspects of chemistry including the chemical degradation of architectural structures and I am hoping that these presentations would help me in reducing my ignorance.The first night in Rome was a truly an adventure, but the Trevi fountain and its magnificence completely made the night adventures worthwhile. It is often said that visiting the fountain and seeing it in action is a “show and performance” in itself. I am glad that I was able to experience this magical show in live with the moving waters and still statues each telling their own stories but their combined efforts culminate in a wonderful and memorable experience. The Trevi Fountain had just raised my expectations for future adventures in Rome and the rest of Italy; I cannot wait to learn and explore more of this country.