[Most Recent Entries]
Below are the 14 most recent journal entries recorded in
|Monday, December 23rd, 2002|
|Modern American Protestant church architecture can't hold a candle to St. Peter's.
After going back to Colonial yesterday morning, I'm even more convinced that this is what I've been grasping after for years now. "My" church, the one my parents belong to and took me to growing up, is a very independent, very liberal Protestant place that always tries to act like a corporation, changing itself to cater to the vagaries of the tastes of the suburbanites who go there, many of them, just to say they do. Instead of Big Business, Big Religion. They've been slowly and quietly killing off the traditional worship service, replacing one of them each Sunday outright, rewriting the music to the hymns, cutting down on the participation of the choir and putting in a rock band instead. In other words, they've been ignoring all the traditions of the faith.
I've long felt a strong distaste for this church (well, I hated it), but I chalked it up to what I saw as hypocrisy, plain and simple, reflected throughout the whole of Christianity, and as a result I rejected the religion as a whole. But after spending so much time immersed in the art and architecture of a denomination that does pay heed to tradition, and then actually going to a mass and participating in said traditions, I was wrong. It's the traditions that make or break it for me.
At Colonial yesterday there was only one thing that moved me at all; the rest of the time I was bored or disgusted. We sang "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel," albeit up-tempo and with guitar and drums and all that. It might have helped that I was singing in Latin and therefore thumbing my nose at the nontraditional establishment, and it definitely didn't help that the music was all wrong and that the architecture was decidedly uninspiring. Not much of this was really new to me - it's always been my favorite Christmas-related song and I've always hated the modernized rewritings of old hymns they play at Colonial - but I guess it takes seeing it done right to really understand what's wrong. So I was right a few weeks ago when I said it was tradition that matters to me - it also takes seeing it done wrong to confirm what was right before.
I even know why tradition matters to me so much - it's because my family doesn't have any. There is no tradition that we have (if indeed we ever had any) that has not or could not conceivably be tossed aside in a second. Sure, we have busy schedules, but so does everyone else, and they all have family traditions! I want my parents, just once, to tell my sisters that they have to tell their friends that they have family obligations that night and they can't make it. It won't kill them. But it's absolutely ridiculous that if we can't find a time to make the Christmas cookies that we've made every single year since before I was born, we just decide "Oh well, too bad about that," and another tradition bites the dust. Everyone else I know has them, and sometimes we talk about them, and I always feel left out because I don't have any to share. Yet another way my parents don't know how to run a proper family and yet another thing I've decided I'm going to do differently, somehow, if I can figure out how, when I have a family of my own. Talk about a lack of family unity and togetherness. And so I grasp at straws and try to come up with my own ways to maintain traditions, and Catholicism is what I come up with
|Saturday, December 21st, 2002|
|Back in the U.S.A.
Well, it's over. I left Rome; I came home. (Such possibilities for bad puns in those two word rhyming.) Mixed emotions abound.
Rome is quite possibly my most favorite city on earth. Nowhere else have I seen a city with such a long and glorious history over countless ages, constantly falling and then renewing itself for yet another go at creating the most beautiful art and monuments anywhere, never resting on its laurels but always maintaining itself to this day as a living, vibrant modern city. To live in Rome is to live and breathe history and art to an extent that I will miss dearly. You really get used to it. I take it for granted that anytime I want I can take a ten-minute bus ride and see a Roman temple or a Renaissance church. It's a beautiful thing.
And of course I'll miss the people. Living in such close proximity to only 35 other people for four months is very intense and there was a lot of tension, no question of it, but even the people I didn't really like (or even occasionally despised) were part of the experience. And there is virtually zero chance we will ever be all of us together again. I'm sure I'll keep in touch with some, maybe even a lot of people, and even see some of them, but a Centro reunion? Maybe, but with a lot of people missing. I love my friends, but I also love the whole group; I'll see my friends again, but the group is gone forever.
I'm not sorry the work is over, although secretly I didn't mind it much. But the last 36 hours, between my last final and my flight, were really weird. My art history final ended at 4; by 4:15 I had already been to the wine store and back and was pouring white wine into a Nalgene bottle so I could drink more discreetly. I then proceeded to drink an entire bottle of wine in an hour, then tried valiantly to sober up enough to enjoy the farewell dinner that evening (didn't happen) and not make a fool of myself (we can hope), and to enjoy going out to a bar with everyone one last time (also didn't happen). I always come up with ideal scenarios for how things will work. They never come true. This time I imagined something like the scavenger hunt, which was the most fun I've ever had drunk - getting smashed in the company of friends, staying out late, and having a fabulous time. We went to a bar, all right, but I didn't drink anything, had a terrible time, and went home early. The next morning I felt like shit (my hangovers last forever), compounded by the fact that I had to pack and then wait around for them to check my room so I could get my security deposit back so I could finish my Christmas shopping. So I couldn't go out because I needed to back sure I could get the money before the stores closed. Add to that the fact that this was my last day in Rome and I had imagined spending it revisiting all my favorite places one last time with as many as possible of my closest friends. And to put the icing on the cake, almost everyone else was out doing something and so the Centro was dead and I was just sitting around on my last day in Rome. And then there was Julia - but that's a whole other issue. And so finally I went out for the last time, not with friends but rather totally alone. And so I watched the sunset (always something you want to enjoy with a friend, especially if your idealized vision contained a certain friend) and said good-bye to the Spanish Steps, the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain, the Forum, and so on. And I went back and ate my last Centro meal, and finally resolved the issue that had been hanging over my head of getting everyone's emails and AIM names, and did the last thing I wanted to do on my very last night in Rome. I went to a bar. What I wanted to do was go out to a café or a piazza somewhere with as many as possible of my very closest friends and just sit and talk and experienced Rome for the last time. I can go to a bar anywhere, but Rome is something else entirely. Everyone, including my friends, was going to a bar. So I went to a bar. At least it wasn't one of the ones we always go to, loud and smoky and crowded, but rather a nice place where conversation is possible. So that sucked for awhile, but at least after awhile everyone else went to another bar and a few of us who wanted to go home (a good group for me to spend the last night with) hung out there for awhile and then caught a bus back home. That made up for the rest of the night, I guess.
And then there was Julia, possibly the closest friend I made all semester. And that was not at all how I dreamed or expected or wanted it to end. Just call me Mr. Clingy. I have one bad experience with drifting away from a close friend who's really important to me, I get over my dependence on her, and I go and do it again. I should have seen it earlier. I should have realized that she was really not interested in watching the sunset with me from the top of the Spanish Steps. Too romantic an opportunity, I suppose, which I confess I wouldn't have minded although I would probably have regretted it later. Of course she needed to spend time with her boyfriend whom she was also leaving the next day. Of course she needed to go shopping with her girls one more time. I figured that out for myself, but why couldn't I have managed that a little earlier? How much time did we spend together in the last week, just the two of us, not necessarily out doing something but just sitting and talking in the lobby? It's ridiculous. I can't just go hanging off her arm like that. And it's not like I couldn't see it coming. I kept telling myself I had to take special care to spend time away from her and with the other friends I want to maintain. And yet I always gravitated back. I just hope I didn't alienate her too much. Goddammit. I didn't even get to apologize to her, or say any of the things I knew I needed to say, not only for this but just for general closure…there was no long, deep, meaningful hug, no private words to each other, just a quick hug going down the line in a bar somewhere and then she was gone. So I drank my martini, and then Susan commented that I drank it awfully fast and asked if it was Julia-related, since she knew she was my best friend there. It was actually more that I've had about two martinis in my life and didn't know how fast to drink it, but still I really appreciated her comment - I'm glad that someone pays enough attention to me to notice who my best friend is and how she said goodbye to me.
So all in all, I was really sad to leave Rome, but by the time I actually did, the last 36 hours had been pretty shitty and besides, I was already shifting gears into the being-home mindset, so I suddenly felt a little out of place (or just out of whack in general), and also not long ago I found out my housing for next quarter and starting thinking and dreaming about that a lot. It was good to get home, although now starts the next countdown, to Christmas in four days, which always feels to me the same "ok, c'mon, get it here and over with" feeling that I had on Thursday, so I make no guarantee things will improve. And I'm jet-lagged right now, which I wasn't expecting because I usually handle it very well, and the 800-pound gorilla hanging over my head is how many and which of the Centristi I'll manage to keep in good contact with (not just about Julia, but everyone), so I'm feeling both good and bad about everything all at the same time. Story of my lif
|Friday, December 13th, 2002|
I hate getting too busy to take time to write. I really should have written at least three recently. I'm getting too far away from my original ideal for having a livejournal in the first place. This should be an easy way of recording my thoughts as I have them. Fat chance.
I should have written about having my family here. They came over the week of Thanksgiving, all of them, my parents and two sisters and my grandmother. It was really interesting for me to see how my impressions of them were confirmed or disproved by seeing them here. I had always thought of my dad, who had never been overseas before, as a rather stodgy uninteresting man controlled by his wife. He turned out to be fascinated by everything, to have a number of things he was particularly interested in, like the Trevi Fountain, and to have apparently really done his homework in the guidebooks, at least well enough to recognize the Pantheon at first sight. My mom, on the other hand, had not at all - she hardly knew anything and didn't seem interested in learning much of anything, and certainly not in figuring out what she wanted to see. She just wanted me to play tour guide, which I did, did well (I thought, and so she said), and enjoyed doing. Actually, she commented (and I take this with a grain of salt, given that she's my mother) that I make a good lecturer, which certainly made me feel good, since it won't be too many before years before I'm actually teaching classes of my own. As for my little sister Sara, I took it upon myself to teach her to appreciate art. I think I partially succeeded - she seemed impressed by a few things in various places, and she had a well thought-out reason for not liking the Sistine Chapel. But it was my other sister that was the most interesting. Krissy has taken Latin for five years and studied the Forum and everything. She was just as excited to see it as I was. It had never occurred to me before that maybe she might end up as a classics major too. But really…she has no idea what she wants to do either in college or after, so why not classics? It was really eye-opening for me to watch her look around the Forum in just as much awe and amazement as I once did. [note: if I had written this a few weeks ago, I would have had a much better description of what I thought of this. Shame on me.]
So there was that, and then there was Venice, which is now one of my most favorite places in the whole world. I had been there once before, when I was here in high school, but only for six hours, and I didn't even ride in a gondola, and I didn't see it at night, and I didn't get outside of the tourist area, and so forth - I didn't consider that I had really seen it. So of course I had to go there again, even if only for a day, and preferably with my best friends (that worked out halfway or so, I guess I should count my blessings). We got in late, the two of us, and took the water bus along the Grand Canal at night, something I highly recommend, then got off and proceeded to get as lost as possible on the way to the hotel. I knew that not many people actually live in Venice (too expensive, so they all moved to the mainland), but I didn't realize how deserted the place gets at night. Our hostel was dirt cheap and kinda sketchy, but in a fabulous location - in the part of town where the tourists never go and where the real Venetians live, taking a good map, a good set of directions, and a bit of an adventure to get there. Venice has a lot of excellent museums and beautiful churches, but the real attraction is the city itself, with the canals, the narrow, winding alleys leading to tiny open spots or else to a dead end in a canal, and so forth. I can't even begin to describe it. The best way to see the city is to move around without a definite plan, and especially to get lost, which we definitely did. And we mostly managed to stay out of the touristy parts of town, but even there it was not particularly crowded - the benefits of travelling in the offseason. And we took a gondola ride - horribly expensive, but so incredibly worth it. We ended up sharing a ride with two women "from Australia but currently living in London," which made it not so expensive. It's such a different way of seeing the city, from three feet above the water, under the bridges, seeing all the buildings from the other side (from the canal instead of the street), being all alone except for your boat and occasionally others, the traffic signs for boats, and so on. All completely unique to Venice. My next plan is to go back sometime and spend at least a few days there. This is necessary for me.
And so time passed, and I went to a Mass at St. Peter's Basilica (in the Vatican) with the pope presiding. No, I'm not kidding, I saw the pope from about 100 feet away, eighty-two years old and Parkinson's and stroke and all. It's absolutely heartbreaking to hear him talk - even through the Italian and the amplification (which makes it hard for me to understand even English sometimes) it was painfully obvious that he was slurring his speech enormously, and he was sitting slumped over on his little throne, and never once stood up or took a step - they carried him in on a litter in a big processional thing. Actually, the opening processional was really quite amazing - I couldn't see him for a long time from where I was sitting in the transept, but I could see the long train of people preceding him and I could hear people spontaneously bursting into applause as he came in, first from a long ways away (St. Peter's is a gigantic church) and then closer and closer until he came out from behind a corner and waved to us and I found myself with a huge grin on my face, applauding like mad along with everyone else around me. Even though I'm not Catholic and even though for most of my life I completely rejected everything the Catholic Church and papal power stands for, nonetheless there I was madly applauding this guy. And of course the mass went on from there and despite (or perhaps because of) it being in Italian, I came to realize a few things. I'm a sucker for sacred music. Even though I didn't know any of the musical elements in the liturgy they still spoke to me. Exactly what they said I'm not sure. I think this is part of something I've been grasping at for year, why I don't like Colonial, my parents' church. They don't do the music right. We usually go to a service that's designed to appeal to teenagers in which the choir and most of the traditional hymns completely removed and replaced with a quasi-rock band and contemporary religious songs. In other words, they've completely overturned all the millennia-old traditions, and that's what I can't handle. Quite a turnaround from my high school days, when I completely rejected tradition as capable of having any meaning and tried to turn instead solely to scripture, but I think this works for me in a much more powerful way. It's incredible to hear the organ fill up a space as large as St. Peter's, or a choir raise the roof at the Pantheon, both of which I've heard and it's incredible. I think we really lost something when we moved away from Renaissance ideas of church architecture. Those guys knew something about taking your eye through soaring vaults and lofty domes and leading it up to heaven. I'm not even talking about sculptural programs, I don't know enough about Catholic dogma to really get anything out of that, although the reason Bernini is now my favorite sculptor is how he manages to portray such intense spirituality without needing to resort to the viewer knowing anything about Catholicism - it's right there on the faces for anyone to see. I'm talking about pure architecture, the ability to organize a gigantic interior space and make it mean something. It's incredible. I suppose Bernini and Michelangelo and all the other people who spent their lives on stuff like that should be happy. Anyway, I feel like I'm on the verge of grasping something important, something truly vital. I'm not quite there yet. I don't even know exactly what I'm after. A better definition of what I believe would be good - I don't think I'm about to suddenly profess a belief in God, so another paradigm shift is probably not on my religious horizon, but it would be good to settle down somewhat with a new definition of my spirituality, which is not only alive and well but growing almost daily. This is going to take a lot of - not thought, exactly, but I guess reflect
|Tuesday, November 19th, 2002|
I hate nasty arguments over religion. Who really cares, anyway? You're never going to convince anyone that you're right and they're wrong. People are way too uptight about the details. Why can't anyone ever just accept the fact that someone else believes something different than you do and that they get just as much fulfillment out of it than you do out of your beliefs?
There are many things about Catholic doctrine that I strongly disagree with - actually not so much about the beliefs themselves as how they arrived at them. Still, I have a deep respect for the church and in particular for individual Catholics (maybe this is what I was trying to get at last week), and beyond that, I deeply respect anyone's beliefs. Not just their right to believe anything they want, which is a very intangible thing that everyone knows is correct but not everyone really truly follows, but their actual beliefs. Maybe it has something to do with how many different belief systems I've had over the years - I know exactly how much people's beliefs matter to them, and that different beliefs mean just as much to different people.
So when certain assholes I know started poking holes in the deeply held Catholic beliefs of a friend of mine this morning on site, it completely ruined my day. I hate this shit. It always ends up upsetting everyone involved. Y'know what? It doesn't matter if half the things Catholics believe are not scriptural, what matters is that they believe them!
Sorry, I'm done now. I just feel really really strongly about not just freedom of religion, but especially pluralism in religion and the idea that there is no "right" religion but rather just the religion (or alternative form of belief structure) that works for you
|Wednesday, November 13th, 2002|
Sometimes I wonder if I might not end up a Catholic. And sometimes I'm dead certain Catholicism is everything that's wrong with organized religion today.
I've never been a very religious person. I declared myself an atheist in seventh grade and eventually (to grossly oversimplify matters) wound up considering myself an agnostic. And yet the more I grow up and the more I learn about myself and the world around me, the more I get in touch with my spiritual side. Sometimes I feel that there are aspects of religion that are very important to me. Sometimes it all makes sense. There's always been something about people who have their own deep religious feeling that I've been somewhat awed by, and certainly that I respect greatly. Michelangelo, for instance - he underwent a profound religious transformation in his last years, it's all over his art.
Case in point: I spent the afternoon wandering around Rome, like I do sometimes and need to do more often in the small amount of time I have left, and I wandered into a small church in an out-of-the-way part of town, off the main roads. It was not a sunny day out and the place was very poorly lit. There was nobody there but me, two monks sitting by the door…and God. I don't know what it was. There was something about being in there, essentially alone, with the piers of this tiny, intimate church rising around me in the semi-darkness, that really connected with me. It was almost a mystical experience. Maybe I'm overestimating its importance in the long run, but I thought I finally understood what it was all about.
But on the other hand, a couple weeks ago, I was in Santa Maria Maggiore (one of Rome's biggest basilicas) on All Saints' Day. The place was a madhouse due to the crowds, and the building itself was as huge and richly decorated (read: downright gaudy) as any I've ever seen. How can one possibly have the kind of experience there that I had elsewhere?
And then I remember the history of the Catholic Church and everything it's stood for over the years, and the things it still stands for, how it venerates tradition over the kind of personal spirituality that I go in for and even the Bible, and I shudder.
And then I think of the importance of habits and traditions in our daily lives and how meaningful these things might actually be in a religious context, and I wonder…
I wonder if I'll be one of those crotchety old atheistic men out of a novel or a movie who finds religion in his old age.
More some other time about last week and so forth, but this needed to happen no
|Sunday, October 27th, 2002|
|the city you love to hate
And Greece was just about everything I could have asked for. I didn't leave until Monday, which meant that I had the weekend to relax and get a paper out of the way. I was a little nervous about how everything would work out - for instance, my tickets were hand-written. Very strange. I hate it when things like that happen, it makes me feel sick and I really seriously lose my appetite. But I was travelling alone, and so I was flexible. Got to the airport, flew, didn't have to wait at the baggage claim (I love flying with no checked bags), found a cab with great ease (completely unlike in Rome), discovered Athens traffic, finally got to the hostel, plenty of beds available. And I have to say I'm glad I used the place solely to dump my stuff, sleep, and relieve myself (public restrooms are a rarity) - I was in a quad with roommates I didn't know who changed almost daily, the bathroom was awful, and the bed was hard as a board. It was also $50 for six nights.
Everybody in Greece speaks at least some English, and many were perfectly fluent, much more so than in Italy. A Swedish couple I ate lunch with on my tour to Delphi explained it like this: like Sweden, Greece is a small, unimportant country. Nobody wants to learn Greek, so the Greeks have to learn English if they want to communicate with anyone. I was extremely pleased about this fact and also the fact that important signs and so forth are in both Greek and English - my ancient Greek was of no practical use at all. Oh, it was very interesting to note the similarities and the differences and to be able to pick out roots in certain words, in a nerdy sort of way, but it was no help in navigating the city. Knowing the alphabet was helpful, but they even transliterate things like street signs.
Most people say Athens is a terrible city, a dirty, traffic-filled concrete jungle that the tourist should see as quickly as possible and move on. I disagree in the strongest possible terms. Yes, it is very urban and sprawling, and the air pollution is absolutely ridiculous. But it is possible to ignore that and see its charms. After all, the air is clean enough at ground level, and I saw more people in uniform cleaning the streets than in any other city anywhere. Athens is a city of contrasts - the fast-paced life of the cars streaming by Syntagma Square and the evening spent drinking coffee in the Plaka and watching Athens go by, the ancient city represented by the Acropolis towering over everything and the archaeological sites scattered over what is actually a remarkably small area compared to the modern city, which is itself such a contrast to Italy. No stucco in Greece! As much as I love Rome, the modern city seems very dull compared to Athens, which is so alive. Maybe that has something to do with the time of year. They say that Athens in the height of summer is chock full of tourists and goes absolutely nuts; it also seemed much busier during the day on Saturday. Still, there is absolutely nothing like sitting a table on the sidewalk at a little restaurant in the Plaka or Monastiraki and enjoying life and watching the world go by. It's so much more intimate than Rome. Yes, that's it exactly - Rome is imposing, with huge piazzas, gigantic churches, grand boulevards, while Athens is smaller and more intimate, with squares that are small, yet exactly big enough and intended for people to sit and gather there (completely unlike the big Italian versions, meant for cars), Byzantine churches that are small and comfortably enclosing, not cavernous (even the main cathedral of the whole city is tiny), lots of pedestrianized streets in the historic quarters so you can really get to know the place.
Of course, the whole place is a construction site, due to the Olympics in 2004. The Greeks are really proud of that, I think, and are doing a huge amount to spruce up the city. Of course, it kinda sucks to be there now, and who knows when they'll finish all these projects, but in five or ten years Athens will be a much-improved and modernized city. I really hope that doesn't take away from its charm - I truly fell in love with the place in hardly any time at all. Athens is the only place I can remember that I decided so easily that I would come back someday - it just wasn't a question at all. I really am a city person at heart.
So as for my trip, I did all the main archaeological sites in Athens, the Acropolis, the Agora, and so forth. The Acropolis is one of the most amazing things I have ever seen, almost a spiritual experience. Still, you can do all the sites in the city in a day, and several of the museums were closed. I wandered around a lot (my feet are currently a blistered pulp from all the walking, despite the best hiking boots) and climbed several local hills with excellent views and good sunsets. And I left the city on day trips. I went on a tour to Mycenae and Epidauros. Mycenae was a city of the Mycenaean civilization (Greek, but separate from the classical Greeks) from about the 15th to 12th centuries BC. It's one of those places that you study a lot but never expect to actually be. I think it's been built up by legend into a lot more than it actually is (this is the city where Agamemnon was supposedly from) but even so, the legend gets to you. And Epidauros is the largest and best-preserved (or best-restored, at any rate) Greek theater in Greece. I've been to several other Greek theaters in various places but compared to this one they're all small and insignificant. The view is better in some places, and the history of the Theater of Dionysus on the south slope of the Acropolis is more grand (that's where all the famous Greek tragedies and comedies were first performed, but I thought it was disappointingly small and poorly preserved), but the sheer size and the marvelous acoustics were absolutely astounding.
And I took another tour to Delphi, which was enormously different than I expected, though no less spectacular. I had expected a small, secluded valley, far from any large road, temples surrounded by trees on all sides, a generally peaceful sites. Instead, it's an enormous site stretching over half a mountainside. And when I say stretching over a mountainside, that's exactly what I mean. You enter at the bottom and the ruins stretch what must be 500 feet or more above you. You climb towards the top passing mostly foundations of small buildings and bases for statues and other small monuments. Eventually you get to a point where you can see the Temple of Apollo, where the oracle was located. It consists of maybe half a dozen columns broken off at various heights and a platform for the floor which should be perfectly rectangular and flat, but which is actually very irregular and seemed to have a lot of the stone blocks missing. A spectacular view of the valley, and absolutely well worth seeing, but not quite what I expected.
I also went to Aegina, which is an island about 40 minutes from Athens by hydrofoil ferry (that's probably 15-20 miles or something) which is supposed to count as my Greek island experience. There was a reasonably nice temple with a spectacular view (although the view was back towards Athens which took something away from the whole Greek island thing) but mostly I just sat on a very secluded (almost empty) beach, which I absolutely needed. The other group that I almost went with ended up spending five days on a beach in Santorini (a real Greek island, much farther south) which would have bored me to tears, but I needed a bit of a break in my heavy schedule. I have a feeling I may regret not relaxing more sometime this week, but in the long run I'm definitely glad I did what I did. Travelling alone was not really a problem. In fact, I actually enjoyed it…seeing and doing the things I wanted to see and do, at my own pace, without worrying about what anybody else wanted to see and do (or not see and do, as the case may be). Dinner was a little lonely, so I tended to rush through it, and it was weird to not speak full sentences in English very much (or even talk at all). Still, a fabulous trip. Bring me back there any time.
|Wednesday, October 16th, 2002|
|Definitely the craziest week of my life
So, I really should have written about Sicily right when we got back, but the insanity of this week has prevented that. First things first…
Sicily is an absolutely marvelous place. We spent two days driving on a charter bus down the coast of Italy (stopping at some sites along the way) to the very tiptoe of the boot where Sicily almost touches the mainland. I will never forget my first sight of Sicily - after driving all day, it's well past sunset, and we come down out of the mountains and we know we're getting close to the sea but we don't know just how close until we come around a bend, still at quite an altitude, so we can see a long way, but we don't need to, because Sicily is right there, practically at our feet. I knew that Sicily was only two miles away from the mainland but knowing is never a substitute for actually seeing. We crossed over by ferry the next morning (driving the bus on board) and started driving down the coast.
Syracuse was described by Cicero as the most beautiful city in Sicily, and even though it's a bit of a dump today, I can see what he meant. It was one of the many colonies founded by the Greeks in Sicily and southern Italy starting in the eighth century BC and quickly became one of the most prosperous and powerful. But what sent shivers down my spine was the history that happened here. This was where (if I may wax poetic for a moment) the Athenian empire foundered when they sent the flower of their youth and their navy and lost it all in a series of battles that took place in the harbor that I stood right next to, and the heights overlooking the city, where I actually stood. Maybe I'm just a history nerd, but that's what really turns me on about a place - standing where the great historical figures stood and seeing what they saw. Not many ancient remains in Syracuse, but so much history.
We went inland after that and then down to the south coast to Agrigento, where there are several fabulously preserved Greek temples. I've read about Greek architecture and seen pictures and all that, but there's nothing that compares to actually going there and walking around on a temple and seeing exactly what a cella is, or how the metopes and triglyphs alternate on the architrave, or how the stylobate curves in a classic Doric temple (don't worry, until last week I didn't know any of those terms either). Everything I do at Northwestern is so dry, bookish, and unexciting compared to this. I hope it's just that you can't understand it until you see it.
I took five rolls of film, but we don't have a scanner here so I can't put them up or anything. There is a website for my program which will hopefully soon have other people's pictures. I don't remember the address right now, but I'll put a note up here when I see that they're up.
The weather was fabulous (and still is in Rome). In Minnesota we'd call this Indian summer, but I guess here it's the Ottobre Romana - a little cool in the mornings and evenings, but beautiful the rest of the day.
Not that I get to enjoy any of it - this is definitely the busiest week of the year, work-wise. Even during finals, it's not like that, because I never have this many separate things going on. A ten-page paper and two finals is a lot, but it's nothing like a three-page paper, a 4-5 page paper, a midterm, a quiz, and a presentation - too many things to keep straight and to work on all at once.
Fortunately, fall break is next week, and equally fortunately, I finally know what I'm doing - I'm going to Greece! Which is what I originally wanted to do all the way since last year. I really dropped the ball on going with the other group, but now I think I'm glad I did - the group got a lot bigger and now includes at least one person I definitely do not want to spend my break with. So I'm going alone, which I'm a little nervous about, especially since I speak absolutely no modern Greek, but hopefully it'll be fun. It was quite a nightmare getting tickets, though - after getting back from Sicily, the cheap fare I had my eye on was much more heavily restricted. Not that it mattered, because it wouldn't give me e-tickets anyway, and I didn't have time for paper tickets to get sent. So I went to the local travel agent and she wanted to put me on a waiting list for this really sketchy sounding airline for $40 more than my cheap fare, but I was beyond the point of caring, so I agreed. This was Monday, and I went back today, and she said that the sketchy airline was full, but I could get tickets for the same price on Olympic Airlines (the Greek national airline). I'm pretty sure it's the exact same flights as I had my eye on before, just with the extra $40, which I'm elated to consider an handling fee, or a commission, or really anything, just so I have those tickets. So I'm going to Athens from Monday to Sunday next week. Yay! I just hope I'm right that this is the slow season and the youth hostel will have plenty of openings without me needing a reservation.
|Thursday, October 3rd, 2002|
|I have found heaven, and it is located in Palestrina.
Definitely a highlight of the semester so far, we went by charter bus to Palestrina, this ancient hill (more like mountaintop) town just south of Rome with a fabulous temple of Fortuna way up at the top. Indeed, this is not your ordinary temple, for it spills down the hillside and has this fabulous double ramp (two ramps sloping up towards each other from opposite sides and meeting at the top). In ancient times you were supposed to start at the bottom, where you can't see the top, and climb the ramp and the stairs and each time you got to a new level it would be a surprise, some sort of a new experience. Especially of the view! Looking out over the town, the surrounding hills, the countryside, all the way to the ocean, a good 20 miles away! I can't imagine what it would have looked like in its glory days, when all the colonnades were still intact and faced with shiny polished white marble so you could see it for miles…my goodness.
I'm told that next week will be even better - we're going to Sicily. Unfortunately, this means I will have no email access until next Saturday, but oh well, I'm sure it will be worth it. Sicily is hard to get around without a car, because the train system is slow and unreliable, so many of these places I will likely never see again, which is a shame because they're so spectacular. At least according to pictures; I'll be able to tell you firsthand in a week or so.
Franco was telling us about the Ottobre Romana, the Roman October that's supposed to be so wonderful weather-wise, and so far I agree - it's quite cold in the mornings, but it heats up nicely in the afternoon, and it's stopped raining every day, which is a very good thing. Too bad I won't be in Rome for most of it - Sicily next week, and then a week here, then the week after that is fall break, when I'm going to Greece. At least I hope so. I tacked myself on to a couple of people who were going, but I haven't heard anything from them since. I hope they haven't forgotten me, either accidentally or deliberately. That could potentially suck. Obviously it's time to bring it up again.
Oh, also, go Twin
|Monday, September 23rd, 2002|
|Now that was what I call an insanely crazy and tiring but very fun weekend in Tuscany.
I went up north on Friday morning (no classes on Friday for once) and met a friend of mine in Pisa. He's studying classics for the semester at the university there, so he showed me around the university and introduced me to a few professors. One of them took us out to lunch, so she got to work on her English and I got to work on my Italian.
See, I learned Italian out of a book this summer. As a result, my grammar is okay, but my vocabulary is tiny. Also, it's one thing to read Italian (I can do that pretty well, or, if I have a good dictionary at hand, pretty much perfectly albeit slowly), but it's a completely different thing to speak it or understand spoken Italian.
After lunch, my friend and I visited the tower briefly (I'd been there before) and then took the train to his apartment in Livorno, just south of Pisa. There we met some of his Italian friends, who all understood English fairly well and speak some, but were too shy to use it much. So I had the enjoyable experience of listening to rapid-fire Italian, which is impossible to understand (my friend, who is fluent, says it took him three weeks to be able to handle a regular conversation), picking up every tenth word or so, waiting for a translation, deciding whether I knew how to answer it in Italian, realizing I usually didn't, and answering in English.
Saturday night at dinner (which we sat down to at 9:30; we left the restaurant at 11:30, at which time I imagine people at NU, seven time zones back, were starting to think about dinner - what a quintessential Italian experience) I was told by an Italian that my Italian was very good.
Sunday afternoon I was told by another Italian that I have a perfect lower-class accent. Oh well. (This occurred at the "American breakfast" that my friend cooked for his Italian friends and me, which started at 1pm and ended at 4pm - also typically Italian.)
(All of these Italians, by the way, are friends of my friend and therefore students about my age. I've found that every educated Italian knows English - theoretically. Whether they use it well is another question.)
Anyway, so I spent some time with some real Italians, which is more than most people in the Centro can say. Also I can say that I successfully navigated the Italian rail system alone during a train strike. See, the Italian unions are not like American unions. Strikes are announced in advance, short in duration (this one was 24 hours) and never really followed through on completely, since the really long-distance trains keep running, and oftentimes individual train workers will decide they don't want to strike and so a train will run. All very confusing, and so all a strike really means is that your trip is a lot more complicated and confusing than it has to be.
Also, Florence on Saturday, just as beautiful as I remembered it, although I definitely did not remember being charged admission to so many places, such as churches, or the whole thing being so controlled. I swear, there have been some changes made in Italy since I was here last, and I don't like them in the least.
|Saturday, September 14th, 2002|
I take back some of what I said yesterday about fresco. It becomes very lifelike, which is a much harder effect to achieve in oil (although when it's done well it's stunning).
I went up to Orvieto today, which is a medieval hill town in Umbria, an hour north of here. That was cool. Actually, it was mostly nice to get out of the city - I do love Rome, but it's best in somewhat limited doses. And the air is quite polluted. There were several of us that went which was good and we saw a lot of cool stuff, including a great Gothic cathedral, and inside, a fabulous fresco sequence of the Last Judgement by Luca Signorelli, which was what made me alter my views of fresco somewhat. Actually, if I think about it further, the Raphael rooms at the Vatican (the private apartments of some pope that Raphael did in fresco) were quite cool, especially the "Battle of the Mulvian Bridge" in the Constantine Room. Oops…I'm going technical again. I'm going to stop now.
|Friday, September 13th, 2002|
|Raphael is my new favorite painter
I guess I got my sense of wonder back today in the Vatican Museums. Raphael's "Transfiguration" is absolutely stunning. I've discovered that I don't like fresco as a medium that much. The level of detail possible is superb and it stands the test of time really well, but the colors are too light, almost pastel, and there's very little contrast. That's what does it for me in painting. I've known that for a long time, hence my own private collection, but this Art History class is making me understand why. High Renaissance painting, especially in oils, is stunning in its contrasts, use of light and dark, complex poses, individuality of the figures, etc. My goodness.
Also today, the Sistine Chapel. I'm glad I knew a lot about it before going in, but even so there was so much to take in. I wish I had remembered to bring binoculars. I'm definitely going back. Soon.
|Thursday, September 12th, 2002|
|Have I no sense of wonder anymore?
We went on an all-day field trip to the Forum, the Palatine Hill, and so forth on Tuesday. These are the places where the movers and shakers of ancient Rome lived and worked. I walked where Julius Caesar walked. I sat where Roman Emperors sat. I ate lunch in front of the Temple of Castor and Pollux! I have wanted to be there for so many years. You would think I would have some sort of emotional, gut response to this. And I felt nothing. It seemed, for lack of a better word, normal.
I remember the awe I felt the first few days I was here - riding on a bus late at night, seeing some arches and thinking, "Holy shit, that's the Theater of Marcellus!" Or in a big group on the same bus, somebody spied a little round building out the window and we realized all at once, "That's the Temple of Hercules, which means we're in the Forum Boarium!" Everything was spectacular, because everything was new to us. We hadn't ever seen any of this before.
And now, it's old hat. Been there, done that. "Oh, it's only 2000 years old. Oh, it's only the Palace of Augustus or something. Oh, it's only the Colosseum again." What happened? Every corner you turn in this city there's another ancient column sticking up out of the ground. There's a big hole in the ground on practically every block containing archaeologists at work (union regulations). I have no idea what most of it is. Most of it, in fact, is not even from a period that interests me. There are a lot of buildings in the Forum and elsewhere that were built in 500 BC, then rebuilt several times over the next thousand years, and by the time you get to the currently existing stuff (which is largely modern reconstructions anyway), it's all from 500 AD and I don't really care about that. (Then there's the early Christian stuff, which is even worse.)
And it's all really broken down, a few columns standing here and there, maybe a fragment of a pediment on top if you're lucky. A lot of brickwork, which was the core of most Roman walls, since the marble sheeting over it was all stolen by the popes. So it's disappointing - I was expecting something somehow better. And for some reason I just can't imagine it the way it looked at its height. I stand and look out over the ruins of the Forum and that's exactly what I see - ruins. I know in my head that it was once the headquarters of the world, the most opulent, beautiful urban landscape anywhere in the ancient Mediterranean, that all the great personages I've studied once stood where I stand - but I can't make myself see it or feel it.
I suppose all this really means is that I'm not cut out to be an archaeologist, which I knew already. I'm cool with that - I'd rather study history or literature than a bunch of dusty potsherds. Still, I'm a little disconcerted by my gut reaction to something I've looked forward to for a long time.
(I hope I haven't turned anyone off by shoptalk and things you haven't heard of. Believe me, I could be a lot worse. And I just needed to go off on it for awhile. If anyone doesn't understand something I wrote, and is interested enough, ask and I'll explain. I doubt anybody is.
|Sunday, September 8th, 2002|
|I don't believe in titles
I suppose I should start with an explanation. I originally intended to keep a daily journal every day while I'm in Italy, to record the time of my life that I'm supposedly having, and to post it online, for the admittedly very, very selfish reason of letting my friends know what's going on with me but not having to write it out by IM 20 different times. So far, that hasn't happened, and it probably never will be an every day type of thing. Oh well. It'll still work. Just slightly…altered.
And I suppose I should go back to the beginning. I left Minnesota on August 31 (that's last Saturday) and it was supposed to be a nice, easy flight, only 12 hours long, getting me through Detroit and into Rome by early Sunday morning. That was not to be. I got on a plane in Minneapolis, we taxied away from the gate, we sat for awhile, and they discovered that there was something wrong with the engine. I suppose I should be glad that they discovered it on the ground, instead of in mid-flight, but they took us back to the gate, worked on it for awhile while we stewed on the plane, and after over an hour, they decided to cancel the flight. Which of course meant that I missed my connection in Detroit, and that screwed everything up. I was rerouted through Detroit and Paris, getting in seven hours later than scheduled. What worried me is that according to the information the school had given me, I had to arrive within a certain timeframe or else I was screwed. Fortunately, I was scheduled to arrive on the early end of the window, so I would still be okay, but it was pushing it. (I should have considered that these are Italians, who have their own conception of time, not corresponding to anyone else's.) The other problem was that I was on Northwest for the first two legs (as I had been scheduled all the way through) but from Paris to Rome was on Air France, which of course was on the completely opposite side of Charles de Gaulle Airport, and of course they're the French, and of course the flight was delayed for no apparent reason, and of course they lost my luggage. They lost my luggage for THREE WHOLE DAYS!!!! Nor did they answer their phones when I called the baggage-assistance number they gave me to try to get updates, nor did they bother to deliver it even when it had been sitting in the Rome airport since about three hours after I left there.
Fortunately, everyone here at the Centro (the Italian word for my program, the Intercollegiate Center for Classical Studies) was incredibly nice and helpful, which was pretty much the story of my life for the first several days. Everybody was concerned, the office staff was calling Air France, the guys were lending me clothes, one girl bought me a shirt, etc. etc. There's 36 students, all Americans, all classics majors, and we live in such close quarters (and eat and go to class and everything else in the same building) that we're basically just one big family. Franco, the big, incredibly kind Italian guy who runs the place, says it with a heavy, welcoming Italian accent: "I do not have three kids, I have 39 kids, you are all my kids because we are all one big family. No need to worry, because Franco takes care of his kids."
But since then, the social situation has deteriorated somewhat. It's starting to fragment, and I'm starting to fall on a side of the divide that I'm not sure I want to be on. There's a group that goes to a bar every night and gets wasted. There's a few people who sit in the Centro every night. There are a few who go out sometimes, usually not with the first group, but they tend in temperament more towards the second group. That's where I seem to be heading, and I'm not sure I want that. I'm not a heavy drinker. I don't want to go to a bar every night, or even most nights. But I'm sure sometimes they'll want to do other things than drink, and I want to do that with them. Heck, I even want to go to a bar sometimes, on special occasions, like the bar trip on Wednesday for Moira's birthday. I don't want to do that every night. But it was a lot of fun, and I'd like to do it occasionally. This sort of thing happens everywhere else, too - I want to be part of several groups and so I end up not really being part of any. I have a secret dream that I'll be the bridge that will bring different groups together, but of course that never happens, and I usually just end up left out in the cold. And here, I worry that by trying to give myself more options and more scope, I'm actually limiting myself. Still, even the people who are my most polar opposites are nice to me, like Joanna or Lincoln. I'm trying to remember what it was like my first few weeks in Jones, freshman year. How long did it take before the dorm started splintering into its various cliques? I hope that's not what's happening here. Doubtless there will be many more updates on this theme.
Academically, things are still a little slow. Classes officially started on Monday, but not a whole lot has happened so far. I have three courses: The Ancient City, which covers all the monuments and so forth of ancient Rome through field trips, as well as two week-long trips to Sicily and Campania (Naples). That starts in earnest tomorrow, although last week we did the so-called Obelisk Project (an obelisk looks like the Washington Monument, only much smaller and made of a single piece of stone, and many were brought to Rome from Egypt in ancient times, then re-erected by various popes), in which groups of four were assigned an obelisk to visit, study, research, and befriend, and then give an oral presentation. The real purpose, of course, is for the groups to bond, which we did, more or less.
I'm also taking Intermediate Greek, which is a pretty typical language class, and Art History, which is based on site visits. The professor is the kind who is a little uncertain of himself (although he knows plenty about the material) and compensates for it by babbling. I don't know how that's going to turn out.
I'm sick of writing now, so I'm going to stop. Please talk to me when I'm online, or email me, or send me mail (Via A. Algardi, 19, 00152, Rome, Italy), or something so I don't feel isolated from all my friends back home.