Thursday, June 27, 2013

I wish I had time write a real post about yesterday. It was my birthday, and the Supreme Court, who up until yesterday had seemed intent on rolling back civil rights to the 1950s, surprised me by giving me an excellent, excellent birthday present: an affirmation of equality for my LGBT friends.

Unfortunately, after all the excitement of yesterday, today is the day I head to the airport. In about 7 minutes, actually. But this morning I took one last walk through the streets of Bologna. Even though I was sad to be leaving, I found myself singing under my breath, smiling like an idiot at nothing, and walking with a spring in my step that was just short of breaking into a dance.  So. Much. Happy.

And now I leave, to return to a country that seems, while still highly imperfect, just a little better.

Arrivederci, Bologna.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Is it love, or only lust? A photo-essay of 48 hours in Venice

Last weekend, I got to go to spend 48 hours in Venice. My friend Osito, another medievalist of Blargistan who I met in Blerg City back when we were wee slips of grad students, has turned to a second project that has him stationed in La Serenissima for three months. He immediately fell head over heels for the place. He professes that Blerg City is still his true love, but I have my doubts as to how true that is. And there's reason: Venice is, in fact, a stunningly wonderful place, especially early in the morning and late at night, in the 12 hours of the day when there are (relatively) few tourists. [1]

I came into Venice the way everyone does: my train from the mainland, then by vaporetto (a sort of bus line, but with boats) along the Grand Canal:

I'm on a boat!
Upon disembarking at an out-of-the-way stop halfway between the Rialto and Academia bridges, I was met by Osito, who ushered me into the cozy, bright apartment I'd be sharing with him for the next couple of days. the building also housed one of the pavilions of the biennale, a global art fest that Venice hosts every summer, so every once in a while over the past week he had gotten a knock on his door from someone looking for Estonian conceptual art. He was fresh out.

Speaking of odd art: the apartment was right around the corner from an art gallery/studio space where the artist, Gigi Bon, took her inspiration from the early modern cabinet of curiosity. The gallery was indeed stuffed with curious objects (she seems to be very into rhinoceros just now), but my favorite thing to look at was her worktable, which itself is a work of art:

Then there was dinner with Osito and a mutual friend (and director of last summer's Big Seminar Thingy), followed by a leisurely stroll around Venice by night, which is gorgeous beyond words:

Of course, it wasn't all leisurely strolls. One does not leave Venice, even the shortest visit to Venice, without seeing St. Mark's, [2] and with good reason:

(Yes, those are real, unretouched shafts of sunlight.)

But there were also more subtle sights to be seen...

You'd think that a door buzzer would get over being surprised to see guests. well as people, such as these fine fellows:

...and these young ladies, who were either part of a fashion shoot, or another piece of conceptual art:

Of course, Venice has its issues, the main one of which is that it is rapidly becoming Italyland for tourists. Almost no Italian (other than real estate speculators) can afford to buy an apartment there, and the population of real live, honest-to-god Venetians is apparently dropping by about 1,000 a year as owner-occupied apartments are converted into tourist apartments for short-term stays. I can only imagine how it feels to be a Venetian, living in what must seem more and more like a theme park every year.

All that is true. But also true is this: Venice is beautiful. Everywhere you turn, a deep beauty that no other place I've seen can really match, and that no tourist veneer can ever completely efface.

[1] And yes, I recognize that I was, in point of fact, a tourist. Isn't it interesting how even tourists complain about tourists? We so don't want to be one of "those people." Digression: I was browsing through a market (cheap clothes) in the south several weeks ago, when me and the Divine Doctor J. heard a woman near-bellow at a merchant, "NO. HOW MUCH IS IT IN AMERICAN?" This really happened.

[2] You are not supposed to take pictures in St. Mark's. There are signs posted all over to that effect. But look at those morning sunbeams and tell me if you could have resisted. I tucked my big ol' Nikon back in my bag afterwards, though: I figured that I should at least pretend not to be taking pictures, since the many guards were doing me the favor of pretending that they didn't see me doing it.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Not literature. Not even close.

When I was packing for my trip to Italy, I knew I'd want some books for my spare time. I picked a novel by Philip K. Dick, because I like me some speculative fiction and he was one of the masters. I also got a copy of Carlo Levi's Christ Stopped at Eboli: It's a memoir of his year in exile to the Basilicata region during the Mussolini years, and since that was right next door to where I would be spending my first week or so, I figured that it might be atmospheric, and a good opportunity to read one of the classics of Italian literature.

But whenever I start to make a certain amount of progress with a new language, I find it's useful to start reading light fiction -- usually historical fiction -- in the target language. [1] Even if I can't understand every word, or even every sentence, I start to catch the rhythms of the languages, and a handful of idiomatic phrases. And because it's hard to get it at the beginning, I always go for a book I've already read a couple of times in English, so I have the context. That way, if I get into a linguistically difficult passage, I can tell myself, "Oh, this is the part where they go to the market and meet the priest guy for the first time" or something similar. And so, a few days ago, I sought out an Italian version of the same book that I had previously read to help me through the late-beginner/early-intermediate stage of German and Spanish.

What is this compelling work of literature, you might ask, that you return to again, and again?

Uhmmm... it's... ummm... ::cough:: Pillars of the Earth.

I'm sorry: I didn't catch that?

Pillars of the Earth.

 What was that?

Pillars of the Earth! By Ken Follett! Okay?

I know: it's not great literature. Or any literature at all. But here are some of its advantages:

(1) It's super-absorbing narrative, if not a particularly subtle one.

(2) The vocabulary is not too difficult, and as a medievalist, some of the weirder stuff may actually be useful to me someday.

(3) Historically... I've encountered worse. Same goes for the prose. (I'm looking at you, Idalfonso Falconés).

The fact is, I have a long history with this book: I read it for the first time the summer before I graduated from college... and I realized that there was a whole set of questions about medieval history that I had yet to answer. In other words, this melodramatic doorstop of a book bears 50% of the responsibility for my decision to apply to grad school. [2]

So, I do keep returning to it. Which is why this week finds me on page 26 of the 950-page I pilastri della terra. Ed ancora mi piace.

[1] Something interesting that I've observed: Europeans are wild for historical fiction. If you go into a European bookstore (open until past midnight! awesome!), you'll find that most have an entire section for historical fiction. I can't speak to the quality, but I can tell you that people here simply devour it.

[2] The other 50% is down to a bad breakup. But I've told that story elsewhere before.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

My museum weekend

"On the weekend in summer, when it gets hot, Bologna empties out. The bolognese go to the beach or the mountains, and the only ones left in the city are the tourists."

This is what one of the instructors here at my school told us a few days ago. Likely the same is true for many Mediterranean cities. But as Bologna is not the huge tourist destination that Rome or Venice or Florence is, it's really notable here. Which is how I come to be passing half an hour leaning against a column under one of he city's famous porticoes in a shady spot blessed by a light breeze, an old bicycle to my left and the "seven churches" of Santo Stefano to my right, working my way through a sour-cherry granita in relative quiet. It's a lovely city.

I've spent a hot and humid weekend ducking inside of air-conditioned local attractions, and that means it's been a museum weekend. Unlike the museums of a place like Rome or Barcelona or Paris, the museums here were uncrowded: at one or two points, a tour group comes through, but they quickly pass me, and I'm left alone again. But that's not the only difference: here, the museum objects and art are just kind of... there. Usually, one or more of the things that I associate with the "museum" experience -- glass, humidity control, carefully researched provenance cards, finely tuned lighting, hovering security personnel -- are absent. Sometimes, it's because the repository is attached to a small church, so the hosts (in this case, an order of monks), while they do their best to preserve and display the art, don't have a lot of money for maintenance, and aren't precisely trained curators:

At least they're set if a fire breaks out.
But even in more mainstream museums, there is a certain casualness when it comes to having someone keep an eye in the visitors. Sometimes someone would poke their head into a room where I was to make sure I wasn't injuring the art, but most of the time I was on my own.

I could have licked this.

Now, I found this all quite strange, and a little shocking. Is there just so much art in Italy that they just pile it up in corners [1] and let us poke around? Is it just because this particular city is off the beaten tourist path, so no one's given it much thought? Is the will there, but not the money? [2]

But then part of me got past the horror of what the benign neglect (not to mention, in some cases, the humidity) was doing to the pieces I was looking at, and began to feel like a bit of a time-traveler. Was this the Italy encountered by American tourists in the 60s? Was there really a time before metal detectors, proximity alarms, and everything under glass? Before everything was carefully labeled to tell you how important it was? Before there was a trained docent standing by to answer your every question?

All that aside: the medieval museum had a lovely opening section telling about the history of the museum itself, and eve preserving some of its items from its origins as a cabinet of curiosities (including some carved ostrich eggs and a four foot-long "unicorn horn"), and the lack of tags in some places left me to make up my own stories. The church of Santo Stefano was an architectural marvel with some lovely little pockets of picturesque decay that made me wish for a better selection of lenses (and that prompted me to drop another euro in the donation box on my way out). The museum of the history of the city was a thoroughly updated and smartly designed didactic museum that I spent four hours in. And lurking in the basement crypt of a deconsecrated church now housing an astounding collection of antique spinnets and claviers, of all things, was this fourteenth-century fresco that workmen just turned up a few years ago:

Next weekend, I dive in to Venice (not literally dive in; I'm not suicidal) to spend a purely tourist weekend, hosted by my dear friend Osito. I've never been, and I know it's going to be a blast. But I'm glad to have spent this weekend as one of a relative handful of lonely tourists in a near-empty city.

[1] No exaggeration: in one place I ducked into a 20-foot-square "room" to find a three-foot-tall silver-plated monstrance, probably from the fourteenth or fifteenth century, tucked into an unlit glass cabinet. No tag, no lighting: just kind of crammed into an out-of-the-way space.

[2] Here I should also note that most places were busily trying to raise money, one donated euro at a time, to repair structural damage caused by the recent earthquake in Emilia-Romagna, so they may have more pressing concerns.

Monday, June 10, 2013

First 48 Hours in Bologna

  • Had lunch with another professor who’s been here a year, and who helped me orient myself.
  • Wandered into the cathedral just in time for a free art-historical tour of the side chapels.
  • Stocked the kitchen with bread, cheese, olive oil, salt, tomatoes, mâche, yogurt, honey, and fresh fruit.
  • Walked out one night for a gelato, and instead ended up wandering through the open door of a small church (I can’t resist an open door that is usually closed; I’ve always been a bit of an explorer) and happened upon the second half of a free concert by two a capella ensembles, performing together traditional Gregorian chant (the male ensemble) interwoven with the music of Hildegard von Bingen.

  • On the way home from this, still looking for gelato, ran across a film crew filming this: [1]

I also attended the first day of classes (3 1/2 hours in the morning: half grammar, half conversation). I ended up in classes that are challenging, but not so far over my head that I end up discouraged. In other words, they’re just right.

So far, other than the fact that the accommodations could use a coat of paint and some spot treatment on the couch, everything’s just about perfect.

[1] Oddly enough, I ran across her and her film crew today as well, in a different part of the city while I was on my way to lunch. One more sighting and she's going to think I'm following her. 

Friday, June 7, 2013

On Letting Go

I am a planner.

A planner, a plotter, a manager, a schedule-drawer-upper. Ask anyone who knows me. I get very nervous without a plan. My idea of "going with the flow" is actually to have two plans, so I don't have to worry about the first one not working out; this is my idea of "letting it go."

This first part of the trip, though, the leader asked us all to "set an intention" (this is yoga-speak, so if it's too woo-woo for you, just ignore it and move on), and mine was to let go, stop trying to manage my own experience (which often translates into managing other people, and I've found that other people would prefer to manage themselves; imagine that), and just be open to whatever comes.

Well, I've had plenty of opportunities for that. On excursion X, the pretty bit of architecture we were supposed to be able to see was closed. Event Y did not happen due to factors beyond our control. Our leader got sick for two days. Minor injuries and allergies abounded. And guess what? Up until yesterday, the weather in our little corner of southern Italy has been cool-to-cold, with leaden skies and rain at least once a day (including one freak hailstorm). It looked like this:

In so many ways, this was Not Part of the Plan. But you know what? I had an excellent time anyway. Rather than sitting by the pool, I sat in the living
room. I bought a light cardigan in town. I timed my bike rides with the weather. And I took some lovely gray-weather pictures. Today's last-day event was cancelled due to illness, so I'm riding into town after lunch for a last-day espresso granita with real whipped cream that must be half butter.

All things considered, letting go of the plan has produced a wonderful trip, and if I could carry one thing home with me, into my life in general, but especially into my writing, it would be this: chill the fuck out. If it doesn't go according to your plan, it will go some other way. And chances are that other way won't be disastrous.