Hello Waterford

Yesterday was our first proper program day and we kept the students good and busy. The difference in everyone’s appearance and demeanor from arrival day Friday to breakfast on Saturday is enormous. There’s nothing like some good sleep and a shower to convince you that Ireland might not be such a bad idea after all, although I do think a few students were very disappointed that we weren’t letting them sleep in. Breakfast at 8:15, onto the buses at 9:15 to start learning about Waterford.

We visited the Medieval Museum that houses historical items from or about Waterford. This museum is a great introduction to the city because it immediately plunges everyone into a much longer historical perspective than most of them are used to. Viking arrowheads and brooches; medieval manuscripts; and a complete set of pre-Reformation priests’ vestments are among this museum’s offerings, and it is situated along a portion of the old medieval city wall. At the last minute I learned that we were not getting a guided tour and panicked slightly when Jonathan asked me if I could take the students through the museum. We did end up with a guide but I warmed a bit to my impromptu role when, en route to the museum entrance, we got to walk through an archway in the city wall with a murder hole above it. I had all the students stop on the steps above the archway while I explained what it was. “This is where they could pour BOILING OIL on people who were trying to get through the wall!”  Sometimes I do enjoy my work.

Luckily we did end up with a guide–Teresa–who did much better explaining the museum’s holdings than I could have! This is the Charter Roll, a collection of documents relating to ownership and rights of various businesses and properties in Waterford. As near as I can tell they stitched it together to allow easier flaunting in the faces of those who might take issue with Waterford’s prerogatives.

 

This is another city charter document that is not part of the Charter Roll. The Medieval Museum is a small treasure trove for manuscript geeks!

The seal at the bottom of the charter document. Every time I see one of these seals I’m surprised at how large it is.

Here I must acknowledge that my day as Impromptu Tour Guide/Student Group Wrangler was interrupted by a bit of program director work that took me away for about an hour. While I was on that assignment, the students took Jack Burtchaell‘s walking tour of the city centre. He is an excellent tour guide and a charismatic character; you should take his tour if you have a chance.

I rejoined the group at Waterford Crystal. I’ve done the Waterford Crystal tour before, but it was worth seeing again. Until the early 2000s, Waterford Crystal was the major employer in Co. Waterford. Its factory in Dungarvan closed in 2005 and the Waterford City factory, a stone’s throw from WIT, closed in 2009. Most Waterford crystal is now produced in eastern Europe. The company maintains a high standard of craftsmanship on an apprenticeship model. Today it’s pretty easy to find former Waterford Crystal employees, mostly men in their 60s, bringing the same sense of pride and precision to some other job that they did to their work at the crystal factory. I have to say it makes me a bit sad. It’s always hard when a town loses its major employer–Macon knows that as well as anyone–but to lose one’s chance to do highly skilled and specialized work that one trained years for must be even more difficult. And yet we don’t see much bitterness (not to say it isn’t there). The gentleman who led our tour was a former cutter in the factory and it was easy to see how much he still valued the company’s reputation and its place in the world. The Waterford Crystal showroom still does a certain amount of production and still employs a much smaller number of blowers, inspectors, cutters, and engravers. This time I saw a young woman working as a cutter, which was heartening. Women are few and far between in the Waterford Crystal world.

Students got to hold the crystal football. I have had my chance so I deferred to others this time.

Inspecting and cutting the crystal “blanks” after they have been blown. It takes 14 hours for the crystal to cool completely from its furnace temperature of 1400C.

Looking back at the glassblowers from the inspection area.

A blank marked for cutting. For regular production pieces a cutter is expected to memorize the pattern after only a few repetitions. Daunting!

From Waterford Crystal we went out to Tramore to eat a late lunch–fish and chips is the Tramore classic choice–and relax at the seaside. It was too chilly for Georgia types to go near the water though we did see some Irish kids wading and some surfers out in wetsuits (despite the red flag flying at the beach to advise against swimming/surfing). Tramore is really beautiful. Not chic and expensive and tropical like Miami Beach; not crowded with people in tiny swimsuits like the beaches in Rio. It’s varied and approachable and encourages doing nothing: get your meal to take away and sit on the wall overlooking the beach while you eat it. Listen to the ocean. Watch people walking on the sand. Just keep an eye on the birds. They are cheeky and will get right up in your business!

All in all a very good first day. Some of the students went out last night; after a busy day and a late lunch in Tramore (comprising chips* and a “veggie burger” that turned out to be a potato patty with corn and peas in it**) I opted to stay in and introduce my student assistant to pasta cacio e pepe. This morning, she and I both slept fairly late; I went downtown to fix a problem with a faculty member’s cell phone and then spent some quality time milling around and finding things to eat.

In case anyone didn’t know, the World Cup is happening.

Inside Costa Coffee.

Lunch at No. 9

No. 9 is a casual restaurant/cafe in Waterford city centre, upstairs from the much-beloved Carter’s Chocolate Shop. This is their hummus platter: homemade hummus, breadsticks, olives, grilled red peppers, salad, and tomato relish. I recommend it.

The view from No. 9.

And so (later tonight) to bed. Classes start tomorrow.

*Chips = French fries. Potato chips = crisps. You get used to it. I’ve also started saying “toilet roll” for toilet paper because it’s just more fun to say.

** This outcome was my fault for ordering such a thing in the first place. Ireland is really great for vegetarians . . . right up to a certain point. I found that certain point.

Arrival Day Wisdom

Some things are always the same everywhere:

  • Jet lag always drags you down.
  • Coffee always picks you up.
  • Most people are kind.
  • A hot shower always helps.
  • So does a good night’s sleep.
  • When in doubt, drink some water.

But a whole lot of things are different in Ireland:

  • Convection ovens
  • Celsius
  • “Topping up”
  • Duvets with covers (no top sheet???)
  • Driving on the left
  • Beans at breakfast
  • Strange-looking power outlets–some with switches!
  • Confusing shower taps*
  • Asking for the “toilet”
  • And let’s not even address the mysteries of Irish water heaters.

Students have such a learning curve from the moment they arrive on campus for this program. I’ve gotten used to a lot of these small things to the point that I don’t think about them much anymore. But yesterday we learned about how to buy credits for printing/copying while on campus, i.e., how to “top up.” After the WIT employee used the term several times I heard one of the students whisper to another, “What does ‘top up’ mean?”  It’s the little differences, really. Vincent Vega was not wrong. And to tackle all this newness when one is exhausted from travel is not easy. All the group really needs to do is survive the first day. They don’t realize it, but they’ll wake up on day two ready to take on Ireland with much more confidence. And the small lessons of intercultural competence, flexibility, and endurance can truly only be learned through practice. For arrival day, we got everybody here with all their luggage, fed them two meals, and put out a few small fires. I’m calling it a win!

*Confession: I am routinely baffled by unfamiliar shower taps, including in the U.S. I can’t count how many times I’ve been in a hotel and needed 5 minutes to get the shower turned on and adjusted to temperature.

Calm before the storm

It’s 8 p.m. and after 2 days of calm and focused work leavened with approximately 10% chaos, all is in readiness at WIT for the students’ arrival tomorrow. I’ve been in full administrator mode: meetings, phone calls, paying for things, making spreadsheets, moving papers around, writing emails headlined “One more thing.”

View from my desk yesterday with my Bullet Journal in full effect.

But it’s not as if I haven’t seen the sun for 2 days. Yesterday started out warm and pretty, deteriorated into wind and drizzle, and got very gusty and chilly overnight. But today was bright and gorgeous!

Today I got the students’ ID cards, bus passes, and Heritage Cards. Got everything made into packets and placed into the students’ rooms. I think I got most of my steps for the day walking up and down the stairs and hallways of the dorms!

Everything in piles as delivered to me earlier today.

What was left after sorting and delivering everything–plus a celebratory pizza!

Students are arriving at the Atlanta airport as I watch the group chat to make sure everyone gets there and all is well. With any luck they’ll go through to their gate right around the time I plan to go to bed. While I’m sleeping, they’ll be flying. Tomorrow we leave on the buses by 7:00 a.m. to collect everybody from Dublin airport, and then the real fun begins!

Traveling to Ireland

Dear readers, I left Macon, Georgia almost exactly 24 hours ago and have arrived in Waterford, Ireland by means of:

  1. Car ride from home to Groome Transportation depot
  2. Groome shuttle bus from depot to Atlanta airport
  3. Airbus A-330 from Atlanta airport to Dublin airport
  4. JJ Kavanagh bus from Dublin airport to Waterford

All the travel went quite smoothly. When I got to Atlanta–3 hours before my flight, as directed–the security lines were moving fast and there was hardly anyone at my gate. The weather looked very interesting:

But by the time we took off, it was much less threatening. We were late taking off but made up the time along the way on a flight that, incredibly, was not full. I was crossing my fingers as boarding went on and on and no one sat down next to me. Sure enough, I wound up with an aisle seat and a window seat to enjoy. Perfect for sleeping against the window, piling excess pillows and blankets on the other seat, and getting up as often as I needed to. Sometimes the air travel deities smile on me. I ordered a vegetarian meal and was surprised to discover that Delta has finally stopped serving the lentil loaf I’d eaten on my last half-dozen international flights. Now they are serving a “corn risotto” that is actually pretty good. Even more surprising: Delta flight attendants have started wearing purple uniforms after so many years in red and navy! Is it a shout-out to MGA?

Getting ready to descend into Dublin.

We landed in Dublin at 9:00 a.m. and I got a little nervous knowing my bus ticket was for 11:00. My anxiety increased when I saw the jam-packed passport control area. 4 flights from the U.S. had landed between 8:30 and 9:10 and the “Non-EU Passports” side was thronging. But the staff kept us moving and the baggage handlers had all our luggage out by the time I got through the passport line. I had time to buy a coffee, my favorite Irish bottled water (Ballygowan sparkling), and a banana before heading to board my bus.

Kavanagh Bus has a route that goes through 3-4 stops in Dublin and then straight on to 3-4 stops in Waterford including WIT. Kavanagh buses also have wi-fi and according to their website, 90% of their buses have toilets. (According to my field research, 0% of their buses have toilet paper. Bring tissues.)  Both of those amenities come in handy on a 2.5-hour bus ride! It was great to see Dublin again–even if only out the bus window–take in some Irish countryside, and finally be welcomed back to WIT by my colleagues here.

Ireland is gorgeous. Believe the hype.

I am all checked in at the dorm now, have been to the grocery store and made some dinner, and it is almost time for bed. The first day in Europe is always a white-knuckle fight against the desire to doze off (I will admit to a very small nap on the bus!) but then the first night’s sleep is magical. Tomorrow, planning meetings with colleagues and a visit downtown for SIM cards.

Tour consultant Jonathan and I went to get coffee and go over the calendar. All planning meetings should involve a Bakewell tart.

Packing for Ireland

By popular demand (a.k.a. “2 people asked me”), I present my packing for the 2018 European Council Ireland study abroad program. I’ll be in Waterford, Ireland for 5 weeks (departing tomorrow) with day trips around the southeast of Ireland and weekend trips to Dublin and Kerry. 58 students and 7 faculty will be joining me for this fantastic learning experience. I am excited! And as many of my friends know, I am an enthusiast about travel logistics and thus pleased to have an opportunity to flex my packing skills in a specific and interesting situation.

Here are the parameters: we are based at Waterford Institute of Technology and staying in dorms there. I will have my own room and bathroom with pretty good storage for clothes but not many convenient places to put things in the bathroom. Irish summer weather ranges from warmish (mid-70s Fahrenheit/low 20s Celsius) to chilly with rain almost always possible. We will be in a tour bus about every other day and have only one occasion in five weeks that will call for a dressy outfit. WIT has laundry service (magical) for €8 per load. Ireland uses 220V electricity and the same enormous-looking plugs as the UK. I am flying Delta which allows one checked bag free of charge on international flights with a weight limit of 50 pounds, plus one carry-on and one “personal item.”

And here’s what I’m taking/how I’m arranging it. Click on the pictures to embiggen* them.

All you REALLY need on a trip: money and ID! (I am taking cards as well, obviously, just not showing them to the Internet.)

 

Carry-on toiletries. The little pink box is a contact lens case.

 

Electronics:
Tablet, camera, headphones, card reader, portable charger, watch (which I’ll wear), outlet adapters (Not pictured: my phone, because I used it to take the photos, and the chargers for the phone and watch, because I have to use them tonight).

It’s hard to photograph a fully loaded backpack! My tablet, some paperwork, one spare outfit, carry-on toiletries, passport, wallet, phone, and Duke ride in here. This backpack is my carry-on and my overnight bag for our Dublin and Kerry visits.

The backpack has a pocket for a portable charger with an integrated USB cable and port so I can place my charger inside the backpack, plug the cable in, and charge my phone with my backpack. Neat trick!

Front pocket: toothbrush, wipes, tissues, floss, deodorant, lens case, headphones, wallet, pen.

Outermost pocket: clear bag of carry-on liquids; passport

Pro tip: Don’t take your clear bag of liquids out of your carry-on unless the TSA agents are asking everyone to do so. As often as not, you won’t be asked, and that’s one less thing to fiddle with as you go through the security checkpoint.

Pro tip #2: If you travel more than a couple times a year, consider applying for TSA Pre-Check. You get to go through a dedicated security line without removing your shoes or taking your liquids and computer out of your bag.

My suitcase: 26″ x 18.5″ x 10″ (66cm x 47cm x 25cm). 5.5 lbs. (2.5kg) empty. It’s a Samsonite I got on clearance at Walmart and it has served me well.

Slippers are in my carry-on; black sneakers will be on my feet; the wingtips, running shoes, and flip-flops go in the suitcase.

I’m taking a total of 4 pants, 6 t-shirts/tank tops, 3 button-down shirts, 2 long-sleeve t-shirts.

As you can see, I have a defined color palette. I’d like to say that’s for convenience of mixing and matching clothes when traveling, but in fact I pretty much wear these colors all the time at home too.

Plus a small amount of workout clothes, 2 pullover sweaters, and my Waterford pullover.

The Waterford pullover is a souvenir from my training visit to Waterford in 2016. I have worn it a ton both here and in Ireland, where it caused me to be mistaken for an Irish person last year at the Guinness Storehouse. The only other person I’ve seen wearing one was a 12-year-old girl.

Travel yoga mat (new experiment for this year) and additional toiletries. Celestial Seasonings tin full of OTC meds, because I am my mother’s daughter.

Dr. Laura Trenchcoat rides again. Orla Kiely (Irish designer!) cross-body bag.

All in! Contact lens solution is the only full-size toiletry item I take along instead of buying on-site. Camera in its padded bag is in top middle of the suitcase.

Special thanks to Vicki for the packing cubes! Anything you don’t see in the photo is already cubed up and tucked away. A lady doesn’t show her underwear on the Internet, after all.

Pro tip #3: Tucked away on the side are two washcloths. European lodgings generally don’t provide washcloths, so bring your own.

That’s everything except a couple of small items I have to use tonight, e.g., my eyeglasses, which will go in my carry-on. Oh, and I am taking a pashmina-type shawl/scarf and a neck pillow with a Velcro strap to attach to my backpack.

Moment of truth: 35 pounds (16kg).

I usually come in under 30 lbs. on the outbound trip, so 35 pounds is making me nervous! My exercise gear accounts for the additional weight. Hoping to run in the mornings and/or do a little yoga at night. If that doesn’t happen, I’ll leave those things out next year. My favorite part of packing is that there’s always another chance to perfect my system.

Tune in later this week for updates from the Emerald Isle!

*It’s a perfectly cromulent word.

Uffizi! Pitti! Ponte Vecchio! Pecorino!

As promised, I spent today at the Uffizi Gallery and then the Pitti Palace, getting a massive dose of art, history, and culture. Or rather, being confronted by the many gaps in my own education. The Medici: why were there so many of them? How were they allied to the other crowned heads of Europe (Hapsburg, Lorraine, Bourbon, etc.)? Why did so many end up in the Church? Were they all named Cosimo? Why can’t I tell saints apart in paintings or remember gods’ and goddesses’ attributes? Why is John the Baptist in so many paintings with the baby Jesus? I know what the Annunciation is but what’s the Assumption? Answers on a postcard, please.

I do think the Uffizi has the intended effect even if one does not know all the historical and religious details behind it. The sheer amount of art on view suggests the extent of the Medici family’s wealth, power, and influence. Seeing a Leonardo or a Caravaggio or a Velasquez is incredible, of course, but I was most impressed by the long hallways lined with portraits, busts, and statues: classical antiquity literally under the gaze of powerful Renaissance figures. The Pitti shows off the dynastic excess of the Medici in a whole different way. Room after room of frescoed ceilings, silk-hung walls, paintings, decorative arts, jewelry, and more. After a while I wondered if they ever got tired of looking at it all. Did any Medici ever long for an Ikea couch and plain white walls? Anyway, since I was on my own I just stayed for as long as I wanted, took pictures of things I thought were interesting, and took breaks when I felt like it. I highly recommend this approach to museum-going, especially since there’s so much to see that you’re bound to miss something and should not feel bad when that’s the case.

So the rest of this post will be my pictures with captions—definitely not a knowledgeable tour of the Uffizi and Pitti given by an expert art historian. In fact, if you are reverent about art, you may get annoyed with me! Don’t forget to click and enlarge the pictures.

Portraits along the crown molding and busts alternating with statues, all the way down three long hallways.

Portraits of the Duke & Duchess of Urbino. The placard described their appearance as “completely unruffled by emotion or anxiety” but I think they just look supercilious.

La Tribuna: if the Uffizi is extra, the Tribuna is EXTRA extra. I read that in the 18th century it was a popular stop on the Grand Tour. Judging by the crowds, some things never change.

The domed ceiling of the Tribuna, inlaid with shells.

Alongside the Tribuna is a room of miniature classical statues and other curiosities including this “big toe broken off from a monumental statue.”

Looking out a window at Uffizi–you can see how long those long hallway galleries are.

The Uffizi is full of Holy Family paintings but this one caught my attention because they seem to be reading to baby Jesus. Good parenting!

 

The Cranach portraits of Martin Luther and his wife. Don’t they just look like people who could invent Protestantism?

Madonna and Child paintings are all over the Uffizi as well, but this one distinguishes itself by making its subjects look extremely unappealing.

Looking toward the Duomo from the Uffizi balcony.

I submit that Titian only had one dog, who was very sleepy, and he wanted to put it in all his pictures.

Ignore the gory beheading and look at Judith and her maid’s faces. That no-nonsense look is so familiar to any woman who has ever cleaned up vomit, taken innards out of a turkey, or washed hockey gear. No surprise that a woman painted it: Artemisia Gentileschi.

I love (a) “night light” paintings and (b) Annunciation scenes in which Mary looks extremely nonplussed.

Now we go from the Uffizi to the Pitti. Come along!

This is the Ponte Vecchio. Easy to imagine a time when all the bridges over the Arno (and the Seine, etc.) were occupied with these chockablock little shops or homes.

The costume gallery at Palazzo Pitti. This is an exhibit about dialogues between art and fashion.

YES PLZ

Ballgown with pockets!

Jacket with Florence on it

I just love 18C portraits. And portraits in general, really.

An enormous 19th-century music box

The plaque says this is some Grand Duke or other but this is clearly Prince Albert from _Victoria_ and I will not be told otherwise.

Not physically like our dog Zouki at all, but definitely a similar attitude!

Looking up the “Monumental Staircase” in the Pitti.

Looking up from the Pitti courtyard toward the Giardino Boboli, which I missed visiting because of the intermittent rain.

This painting is a Botticelli and therefore Important, but I want to shout back through time at the model, “STAND UP STRAIGHT!”

This is about the time when I started to think wistfully of midcentury modernism.

I always meet friends at these museums.

“What? These are my casual reading clothes.”

Curtained beds give me the yips.

Ferdinando III, whose “traveling nécessaire” this was, did not subscribe to the elitist culture of packing light.

This is a salt cellar. When my grandmother collected salt cellars they did not look like this!

Finally found a Medici family tree (hand-drawn in 1699) on display around 3 p.m. after needing one all day. They should hand out copies at the entrance.

Outside the Pitti. It’s pretty forbidding-looking.

And back to my hotel via some window shopping and at least one cappuccino (not pictured):

Dostoevsky wrote _The Idiot_ in this house.

Looking down the Arno from the Ponte Vecchio.

One last attempt to get the whole Duomo complex in one picture. I’m pretty proud of this shot.

Now back from my last dinner in Florence (*snif*) and I must recommend my new favorite antipasto:

Pecorino Romano with honey and thyme. Eat this immediately!

And so to bed. Thanks for coming along on my all-Medici day! Tomorrow I leave Florence at a time so early that I refuse to think about it right now. I’d rather go to bed tonight with visions of great artworks dancing in my head.

A grand day out in Florence

Hello from Florence where I have had a fantastic day! We left Siena at 10 a.m. and got to the Florence airport by 11. I successfully got a shuttle to the main train station and then a taxi to my hotel. Could have gone the whole way in a taxi for about €4 more but let’s say I spent that money on gelato instead. The taxi ride was extraordinary: it felt like a spiral through smaller and smaller streets till we reached the hotel, which (a) is on a street barely one car wide, (b) is in a 600-year-old building, and (c) is down the street from where Michelangelo lived as a kid. My room is on the 5th floor and to no one’s surprise there is no elevator. Once again I’m glad to have packed light. A large suitcase would not even have fit up the stairs.

Michelangelo lived a few steps from my hotel.

I had a 2 p.m. reservation to climb the cupola of the Duomo, so plenty of time to walk around, look around, have coffee and a snack, get lost, get found, and run over to the Duomo museum office when I found out I was missing a piece of paper that I needed in order to get in. Note to future visitors: if you book the combined ticket and reserve your time to climb the cupola, you must present the time reservation and the ticket itself when you enter. But if, like me, you forget the ticket, you can go around the corner to the museum and they will re-print it for you. May you also be as lucky as I am and experience only a small rain shower while waiting in line, then blue sky when you get to the top of the dome 463 steps later. It is a strenuous climb but so worth it. Definitely the highlight of the Duomo, which is beautiful on the outside (similar style to Siena’s Duomo) but surprisingly stark on the inside except for the incredible fresco inside the cupola. The view from the top is an illustration of Renaissance city planning: it looks like an old engraved map brought to life, with buildings cheek by jowl and streets winding everywhere. If you’re able, I recommend making the climb. It will also make your Fitbit or Apple Watch happy. I felt utterly justified in having a panini and a gelato afterward!

Outside the Duomo–utterly impossible to fit into one picture.

Waiting to climb the cupola.

About halfway up the climb, a much-needed break and photo op.

The bell tower is also part of the Duomo. I could have climbed it too–another 200 steps!

I was there. And my front camera was dirty.

In the bottom foreground you can see the curve of the dome.

You can walk around and see 360 degrees of Florence spread out around you.

A little closer to getting it all in one shot!

The ceiling of the Baptistery–somehow the outside of it is not in any of my pictures.

My next stop was the San Lorenzo leather market—an assignment from a friend who loves Florence and gave me good advice on haggling to get the best price. “Take cash and make them take off 30%,” she said. Florence is a historical center for leather production—there’s a leatherworking school that I may try to visit tomorrow if I can—and there are leather shops everywhere as well as this large open-air market at Piazza San Lorenzo with stall after stall of bags, jackets, wallets, belts, etc. I walked through and looked for a little while and finally started picking out some inexpensive keyrings. The man tending the stall showed me a cool bag that could be worn as a shoulder bag or a backpack, so I said yes to that once we agreed on a price. It’s an interesting experience if you are not used to assertive salesmen or dickering over prices. I’ll just echo my friend’s advice: don’t pay the marked price on anything! I actually got about 45% off and I don’t think I drive a particularly hard bargain.

By the time I finished at San Lorenzo I had walked a lot and was getting tired, but I remembered I wanted to go to the Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella. It’s a 600-year-old perfume shop near the main train station, and it’s worth going just to see the building and smell the wares. It’s so elaborate that it might be a little intimidating, but when I went in, it was thronging with tourists, including baby strollers and even a dog, so don’t hesitate to visit. The glass cases around the walls are full of the antique equipment that used to be used to make the products. It’s definitely a place where the old world meets the new, and in that sense it’s a microcosm of Florence itself.

Inside the Santa Maria Novella shop

At last I headed back to my hotel to drop off my purchases and accept their offer of a voucher for 10% off a meal at a nearby trattoria. Just hoping to stay awake through the meal, I arrived 10 minutes before they officially opened (fatally American—Italians eat late and I am incapable of doing so) and dispatched my dinner with such a quickness that the hotel receptionist was clearly surprised at how soon I came back. “Did you go to the trattoria?” he asked. “Did you eat? Was everything good?” I would like it noted for the record that this conversation took place in Italian and that the answer to all the questions was Si. I had a green salad, a bowl of ribollita, a little bit of white wine, and a gratuitous cappuccino. Ribollita (Tuscan bread soup) is delicious, filling, inexpensive, and vegetarian: you should try it.

Dinner: so Italian it hurts.

And so to bed soon although Florence is clearly still rockin’. It’s been a while since I have slept over a lively pedestrian street. Shades of Cité Universitaire and summers in Paris. Tomorrow, rain is predicted but I have a ticket for the Uffizi and Palazzo Pitti so I plan to stay dry inside and overdose on fine art.

Hello Suitcase/Goodbye Siena

My suitcase’s fan club can be reassured that we have been reunited. It was delivered late last night–after 11:30 p.m., I just found out, so I didn’t see it till this morning or open it until this afternoon. Wearing fresh clothes to dinner tonight was pretty exciting. But this experience could open a new frontier in the art of packing light: bring only 2 outfits, wash one every night. (Probably not.)

Today was our last day in Siena; tomorrow we go to Florence where I will spend the weekend and Dorothée will go on to France to spend the weekend with her family. We spent the morning working on the program: sat in on an excellent class called “Reading the City as a Textbook” and then met with Luca and Sonia to continue refining the structure of next year’s offerings. After today I am even more confident that we will be able to offer a good variety of classes that will help students progress toward their degrees while making the most of the study abroad experience itself. We had a quick lunch at Osteria del Gatto (same place we ate Tuesday) where I had grilled radicchio, delicious bruschetta, and a bread and tomato stew that Luca described as “very poor food”–as in it was traditionally what poor people ate–but that I am going to be nostalgic for the next time it’s cold and drizzly like it was today. After lunch we went back to the Institute to sit in on part of an Italian language class. My Italian has a looooong way to go, though I’ve found that I can understand basic things, order in restaurants, and sometimes follow conversations. The students were doing very well learning the present progressive tense and vocabulary for family relationships. I am not quite there yet!

“Reading the City as a Textbook”

Later in the afternoon, Luca took us to the Duomo, which is the main cathedral in Siena and properly called the Metropolitan Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption. It is so unlike other cathedrals I’ve seen. The Gothic style is familiar but the marble is striped, the ceiling is dark blue with gold stars, and the floor is a series of marble mosaics depicting the path to wisdom through classical allegories and figures that lead the viewer to the Christian message of the main altar. It is elaborate, overwhelming, and extraordinary. Luca knows it very well and during our short visit told us more details than I can remember. Cathedrals are such a synthesis of art, philosophy, symbolism, and religion that I think students should see them simply as an exercise in critical thinking. We don’t get as much practice as we should at combining ideas in this way, but seeing a cathedral–if you take the time to really learn about it–requires it.

The exterior of the Duomo

Looking toward the cathedral entrance

The dome of the cathedral–looking up is a little dizzying!

The Virgin Mary is the “queen” of Siena.

We left the Duomo around 4:30 and I walked back to the hotel in the rain for a much-needed nap. Dinner was not until 8:00 tonight and I wasn’t going to survive without some extra sleep! Sonia came to the hotel to collect Dorothée and me, and we met Jim and his wife Carol on the way. The young secretaries at the Institute had picked out a restaurant for us called Osteria Babazuf. It was sort of high-concept–the front page of the menu actually made reference to semiotics, and I got a little nervous when I ordered something called an “eggplant tower,” but the food was excellent and the atmosphere was comfortable. After the eggplant tower I had pasta with butter and truffles and that was so delicious! Somehow I still found room for a salted caramel mousse for dessert. But the highlight of the meal was a celebratory toast to the fact that I had a different outfit on!

Truffle pasta: YES PLZ

So tonight we said goodbye to Jim, Carol, and Sonia; tomorrow we’ll say goodbye to Luca. Everyone has been so generous and welcoming. The students that are here this year are clearly having a great experience and I am eager to see some MGA students make the trip in 2019.

Luca, Sonia, Dorothée, me, and Jim

More tomorrow from Florence . . .

Siena: In quale contrada posso trovare la mia valigia?

Facebook comments are suggesting that the actual star of this blog is my missing suitcase, so let me say up front that it is still at large as of this moment (9:50 p.m.) despite the text message I received last night stating that it would be delivered. I suppose it is the case that that message has not yet been proven wrong or inaccurate. Like Schroedinger’s Cat, my suitcase is in a state of quantum indeterminacy. In my ongoing search for the bright side I will note that I have finally learned how to turn on a towel warmer–because I am using it to dry the clothes I washed in the sink–so once again we are reminded that study abroad programs are packed with educational opportunities.

Despite this annoying development, today was an excellent day. We spent the morning with the co-owners of the Dante Alighieri Institute (the school that hosts and coordinates our program) planning out future offerings and recruitment strategies. The details of the meeting are probably of interest to no one but me, so I will just say that some very appealing plans are in the works for 2019 and beyond. The Institute has connections with the University of Siena and plans to tap faculty members from there to potentially teach for our program. That connection opens up opportunities for course offerings in a multitude of subjects, so we are figuring out how best to combine the talents of USG faculty, Dante Alighieri faculty, and University of Siena faculty. Students considering this program for spring 2019 should stay in touch with me: we hope to have courses selected by the end of April.

From the morning meeting we headed to lunch at another very good restaurant (I need to start writing these names down). I had a delicious traditional soup made of bread, white beans, and greens in a tomato broth, and then a plate of grilled vegetables.  (Me: “If I order both of these, will I have way too much food?” Luca: “No, you’ll be fine.” Me: *stuffed*) Finally, of course, we had coffee and although we had decided against desserts, Luca ordered a plate of biscotti that were so yummy. Would it have been bad manners to put extras in my pockets?

Yep, it’s a picture of my lunch.

The afternoon was spent learning more about the contrade that make up the central city of Siena. These 17 districts date back to the middle ages with ties to both the military–they trained and supplied troops–and the trade guilds as each contrada has a traditional occupation. Luca is a long-time resident and member of the Tower contrada and a true believer in the value of the contrada system, which seems to function as an extended family, neighborhood watch, home team, and miniature government all in one. Both the rivalries and the alliances between contrade date back centuries and are taken very seriously. Tower has two rivals (which is unusual), Wave and Goose. Wave seems to be acknowledged as a respected rival while Goose is regarded with contempt. Siena’s trademark event is the Palio, a terrifying horse race in which horses and jockeys representing the contrade compete–nominally for a silk banner depicting the Virgin Mary but in fact for something more like bragging rights. Strategizing about horse choices, knocking other riders off their horses, and making side deals to get a better position at the starting line are all part of the game. The Palio is taken so seriously that if a woman from one contrada is married to a man from another, she goes to stay with her parents during the Palio period. Each contrada has a museum where they display the palli they have won, the traditional costumes they wear in the Palio procession, and other treasures that belong to them. Tower also has a sort of clubhouse (café/snack bar/neighborhood hangout) and an absolutely extraordinary eighteenth-century chapel. It’s hard to recount it all because I can’t quite wrap my head around it. Sometimes it seems like the contrada system is all in good fun, sometimes it seems like a beautiful embodiment of civic pride, and sometimes it seems like blood sport. Having said yesterday that I still needed to learn a lot more about this system, I succeeded in learning a lot more today, and still feel like I don’t entirely grasp it all. Might be time to accept that I need more than 3 days to get my head around a complex element of a complex culture that has been around for at least 6 centuries.

The weather is nice in Tower contrada!

Outside the Tower Contrada museum

A stone from the original Tower Contrada chapel

The Tower crest inlaid in the chapel floor

The Tower chapel as it exists today

Ceremonial outfits for Palio processions

This is the outfit Luca gets to wear

We ended the day with the Georgia Southern students in cooking class back at the Dante Alighieri Institute. Their program includes a certain number of these cooking classes in which they learn to make a traditional Italian meal and then, of course, they get to eat it! Tonight we learned to make

  • pizza: dough from scratch and 4 different combinations of toppings–we had the pizza as a starter
  • baked whole sea bass: stuffed with chopped herbs and lemon zest, baked, then filleted
  • grilled vegetables to go with the fish
  • tiramisu: egg yolks mixed with mascarpone and then folded into merengue; that mixture is layered with espresso-dipped ladyfingers.

It was all very good–the chefs gave us a lot of help, of course, but none of the work was too complicated except maybe filleting the fish. And even that would become easy with practice. The students have all said they don’t cook very much but I’m hoping they’ll at least take the skills and the memories home and try it all out again later. I am definitely going to make tiramisu again as soon as I have the chance.

And so back to the hotel to confront the continued absence of my suitcase. Tomorrow is another day; my colleagues have reassured me that they really like my black sweater; washing your jeans too often is bad for them anyway. (. . . right?)

Buongiorno Siena: All’s well that ends well

It’s 8:40 p.m. in Siena where I am ensconced in my hotel after a big day. Or day and a half? I left Atlanta at 4:30 p.m. EDT yesterday (Monday) afternoon, landed in Paris at 6:00 CET (Central European Time) this morning (Tuesday), missed my connection to Florence and had to be rebooked, and finally made it to Florence at 11:30 a.m. only to discover that my suitcase did not make the trip to Florence along with me. At least I feel validated in my decision to put a change of clothes in my carry-on!

I had to file a claim at the Florence airport for the suitcase, which will hopefully be delivered tomorrow. After that was done, I met up with Dr. Jim Anderson (former Director of International Education at Armstrong State University, now consultant to the Dante Alighieri Institute here in Florence) and Dr. Dorothée Mertz-Weigel (Director of International Education at Georgia Southern University) for the drive from Florence to Siena. We dropped off our stuff at the hotel, where we were met by Luca Bonomi and Sonia di Centa from the Dante Alighieri Institute, and headed straight to lunch at a small restaurant that Luca knows. Need I specify that the food was delicious? I had “pici”–sort of fat spaghetti with a garlic tomato sauce–and shared in the antipasti ordered for the table: bruschetta (always good; extra good when made with super-fresh olive oil), and wedges of aged Pecorino Romano drizzled with honey and a little pepper (you should eat this right now!). I’m so glad the meal ended with a double espresso or I’d have needed a nap right then and there.

Instead of a nap (remember: no naps on your first day in Europe!), we walked over to the Piazza Publico (public square), popularly called “el Campo,” and toured the city museum. I am glad I am already learning at least a tiny bit about this city’s history, but there’s so much more to learn. Italy is a young country but an old culture, which is interesting: the museum is housed in a building that’s over 600 years old and features 14th-century frescoes but also contains a room from the 19th century celebrating Italy’s unification. I took some pictures:

This building houses the city museum. Tomorrow I will work on finding out what it’s called.

Here’s Luca telling us about the 15th-century fresco depicting an allegory of good government.

Another 15C fresco–Mary and Jesus surrounded by saints as Mary gives a message to the city of Siena.

I photographed this espresso machine so that my espresso machine would have something to aspire to.

In the late afternoon we met for an hour with the 7 students from Georgia Southern who are spending their spring semester here. They were fantastic! Meeting students is always my favorite part of these visits. It’s clear that this group has become expert travelers and gained a lot of confidence and self-awareness by participating in this program. I am looking forward to seeing them again tomorrow evening when we get to join in their cooking class and then eat dinner (i.e., the dinner we will have cooked) with them.

This year’s students with Dr. Jim Anderson

By the time we were done with the students it was too early for dinner by Italian standards, and we’d had a late lunch, so we ended the day with a glass of wine and some appetizers at a patio bar on the Campo. We discussed the 2019 program a little bit this afternoon and evening  but tomorrow we’ll be meeting with Luca and Sonia to really start working out details. Luca is also going to tell us more about the contrade (the neighborhoods that form individual cultural identities within Siena) and take us to the museum celebrating his contrada, Tower. I do not quite understand the contrada phenomenon yet, so tune in tomorrow.

More soon–hoping to do some more Facebook Live or an Instagram video during the cooking class. Everybody hold a good thought for the arrival of my suitcase, please!