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!

European Council Ireland 2017: Where are we?

Catch-up blogging is the worst kind of blogging!  This program already has me moving at a brisk trot, and if I don’t write things up as I go along it all disintegrates into a blur of green hills, coastal plains, dorm rooms, buses, and potatoes. I think when I left off I promised to say something about our visit to Kilkenny. Great town for a day trip as you can start at one end of the Medieval Mile and sightsee, eat, and shop your way to the other. The two ends are St. Canice’s Cathedral and Kilkenny Castle; pick your flavor!

St. Canice’s–the “tomb” of an anchoress

 

The much-quartered coat of arms on this tomb makes me wish I were a lot better at heraldry!

Artsy focus pulling in action

Street view in Kilkenny

Street view in Kilkenny

Kilkenny Castle

Kilkenny Castle garden

European Council Ireland Study Abroad 2017: First Week

Apparently Sunday is Blogging Day for me on this program! We are through our first full week: classes Monday, a field trip to Woodstock Manor and Kilkenny on Tuesday, classes again Wednesday, then an extended excursion to the Ring of Kerry from Thursday morning to Saturday afternoon. It’s been a very busy but really great week! Admittedly, we have had the usual growing pains: someone’s Internet password didn’t work for a couple of days. One of the exterior doors to the dorm didn’t close and had to be fixed. A couple of students’ rooms didn’t have hot water. Someone got a cold. Oh wait–that last one was me. I was completely felled on Wednesday and didn’t even go over to the program office. Got through the Ring of Kerry on paracetamol (what the rest of the world calls acetaminophen i.e. Tylenol), stubbornness, and a little good luck. We are still having extraordinary weather: warmer than typical and almost no rain. Of course, on Friday when we went around the Ring it was grey and gloomy! Our bus driver Tony said that Murphy’s Law plays a major role in Ireland–no surprise that “Murphy” is an Irish name. The students were actually happy to have some “traditionally Irish” weather even though it seemed like a grim joke on our tour itinerary. Even I have to admit that visiting the Bog Village seemed much more real in a cold drizzle than it would have in warm sunshine! And my cold is on its way out, for which I thank my colleagues for their infinite generosity in picking up some of my workload over the past few days. So! On with the highlights.

The first week was focused on introducing students to Irish culture, history, and geography via a lot of short presentations and visits to various sites. On Monday, our fantastic guide/visit coordinator/all-around Ireland genius Jonathan gave an excellent lecture on Magdalen asylums inside one such former facility (it now belongs to Waterford Institute of Technology). You can see the chapel & Jonathan in action in this photo from my Instagram. The students were utterly engrossed and asked as many good questions as we had time for. In a way it was strange to start off with a focus on such a dark topic in Irish culture, but if anything, Americans often have a romanticized and Disneyfied view of the Irish and it was good to complicate that. Throughout the week I was struck again and again by the contrast between Ireland’s beauty and its brutality. Maybe you can’t have one without the other?

Tuesday we set out to visit Woodstock Manor, a now-ruined 18th-century manor house near Inistioge in Co. Kilkenny. The house was burned in 1922 during the Irish Civil War and the gardens became neglected. The grounds are now slowly being restored by the Kilkenny County Council and we got a tour from the head gardener.

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Our expert guide John

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The remains of Woodstock Manor

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The remains of Woodstock Manor

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Close-up of a Monkey Puzzle; they look like trees made of Hens & Chicks!

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The…Laurel Walk? Or Poplar Walk?

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Courtney sketches the scene

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The “conservatory”

The garden is full of exotic plants from all over the world including the Americas; it was common in Victorian times for landscape enthusiasts both to design elaborate gardens and to pay “plant hunters” to travel in search of specimens. Hence Woodstock’s unusually large collection of monkey puzzle trees, whose original specimens were brought back from Chile.

From Woodstock we went on to Kilkenny city. The centerpiece of Kilkenny is the “Medieval Mile” that runs from Kilkenny Castle at one end to St. Canice’s Cathedral at the other. It was a great chance to tour both buildings (I only toured the cathedral–I love cathedrals), climb the round tower at St. Canice’s, and, importantly, get some lunch! More on Kilkenny in my next post because WordPress is, once again, not being helpful at all!

 

European Council Ireland Study Abroad 2017: We’re here!

It’s 8:30 on Sunday; I’ve been in Waterford for just under a week; the students arrived on Friday; I am finally getting a chance to update my blog. The week was busy with preparations for the students’ arrival: the closer the day gets, the more specific the questions become until we have detailed itineraries for the first few days of the program, with times and places for every departure, arrival, meal, and meeting. Thursday night I was going to bed as the students and faculty were checking in for the flight, so I stalked them on GroupMe until everyone arrived at the airport. I got a little bit of sleep before meeting up with my colleague Jonathan and our intrepid bus driver Tony to head to the airport. Everyone was very tired when they arrived, of course, but we got them through passport control and back to Waterford Institute of Technology where we are based–plus or minus a nap on the bus. Luckily for the students they did not have to stay awake for too terribly long the first day. They had lunch, an orientation session, a tour of the campus, a visit to Tesco (grocery store), and then dinner, and that was the end of the official day. How many of them went to bed right after dinner? The world may never know. We were all impressed at how well the students did despite their fatigue and the overall disorientation of being in a new place.

The GroupMe has been bubbling with small but interesting questions that they have mostly answered for each other: “How do you turn on the air conditioning?” (I quote from the WIT welcome guide: “You are in Ireland now; you don’t need air con.) “Where are we meeting for lunch?” Some hours later:  “Where are we meeting for dinner?” “How do you turn on the heat?” Yesterday morning: “Does anyone have a belt I can borrow?” And since arrival: “Can someone let me back into my room?” The knack of keeping hold of a key card takes a little time to develop.

For the first full day of the program–yesterday–we started with an early breakfast (“Where are we meeting for breakfast?”) and a series of tours in Waterford: the Bishop’s Palace, Waterford Crystal, and a walking tour by a fantastic local guide named Jack Burtchaell. I took half the student group into the Waterford Crystal Visitors’ Centre for their first tour (highlight: Waterford considered me a “tour leader” and gave me a voucher for a free coffee & pastry). Last year on my training visit I did not go to Waterford Crystal so this was my first time there. It was impressive to learn about the level of expertise and craftsmanship that the glassblowers and cutters have to have. Becoming a cutter requires an eight-year training process; a cutter learning to cut a new design gets to see the pattern drawn onto the glass base only twice before he’s expected to know and cut it from memory. A cutter completing the first stage of the apprenticeship has to cut a “training bowl” that showcases all the different kinds of cuts. He (or she; Waterford has one woman apprentice right now) gets 3 blank bowls–two for practice and the final one that’s submitted for evaluation and then returned to him as a commemoration if he passes. Here’s what the training bowl looks like:

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Scariest final exam ever!

Most Waterford crystal is now produced in eastern Europe. The closing of the huge factory near the WIT campus was a major loss to the local economy. Our bus driver Tony is a former blower and people have told me that practically every family in Waterford has former employees in it. The visitors’ center does still produce some crystal, though, and seeing the production process was incredible:

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Shaping a glass blank after it was blown

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Preliminary shaping of the hot glass before blowing

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Cooled glass blanks have the rough edges from the blowing process filed off.

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A cutter at work on a gorgeous vase design

From the Waterford Crystal tour we went to Jack Burtchaell’s walking tour, which was so much fun. Jack is so knowledgeable and so funny; it was a great introduction for the students to Irish history but also to the Irish sense of humor.

 
Posting this as it’s now lunchtime Monday. WordPress has been giving me fits! More to come . . . hopefully.

26 May 2017: Knights Impact goes to RePapel; departure from Amber Cove

Today was not an easy day. My group did the recycled paper activity at RePapel this morning: we were the last Fathom group to do so, because Fathom is disbanding (as is widely known) and RePapel is closing. When I was here in January, one of the NGO liaisons expressed worry about RePapel as being the project that would be most difficult to continue in Fathom’s absence. But I kept hoping something would come through to save it. It’s genuinely hard to think about: we will go home and go on with our regular middle-class lives but for the women who had come to rely on RePapel for employment and income, the future is bound to be uncertain. I have to admit that I always took the full-throated cheer and warm welcome of the RePapel ladies with a grain of salt. Was it genuine or were they putting on a show for us tourists? I still wonder a little but today it dawned on me that they got to come to work every day and feel special and valuable as well as useful and productive. There aren’t many jobs for women in Puerto Plata other than in the tourism industry, which requires more education than these women probably have, as well as access to transportation and child care. So RePapel was filling a gap on several levels. They really tried to put on a brave face for us, and it almost worked. At the end of our morning there—we made paper, smoothed dried sheets, rolled beads out of recycled magazines, and made jewelry out of our beads—Juanita, the most loud and cheerful of the group, led everyone in singing and dancing to “La Bamba” as they always do, and then the ladies sang another song that I recognized but couldn’t identify. All of a sudden I noticed that Altagracia, the quiet but smiling woman I remembered from last time, was crying, and then I was crying too. Most of us cried before we left. I hugged Altagracia and even though I know she didn’t understand me, I said “Don’t cry! You’re making me cry!” And now we are on the ship and the ladies are…who knows?

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Jasmine put a smile on for paper-making even though she does not like mornings.

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Jamia lifting out a fresh sheet of paper

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Stevanie and Garrett smoothing the sheets

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Juanita (white outfit & headband) leads the singing and dancing

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Garrett is getting into the groove

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One last song

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Me & Altagracia!

We did have an experience this afternoon that put a little balm on the pain of departure. Early in the week, the Fathom executives on board had mentioned that they wanted to meet with the university groups on board (Tuskeegee U. has 14 students here in addition to our 24). The idea disappeared after that initial mention and I assumed it wouldn’t happen after all. But in today’s Soundings appeared an invitation to an open meeting for all university students and educators. The meeting was led by Katie Dow—I think her title is “Fathom experience manager”—and a recent college grad turned impact guide, Paige. Middle Georgia State University showed up in force and I have rarely been prouder. The students got emotional as they talked about their experiences and how valuable this program has been to them. It was so validating of our work in offering the program but equally, it spoke well of their sincerity and open-heartedness in approaching the activities. I am excited for my last meeting with them tomorrow when I will ask them to talk about what they learned; I’m expecting some excellent reflections. I also met my counterpart from Tuskeegee and it is a little funny how similar we are professionally: both Associate Professors of English who have been Directors of International Programs for 2 years as one-person offices. She is eager to collaborate with MGA, which is awesome. So it’s not clear right now what will happen to the “Fathom experience” but it’s clear that Carnival Plc is not planning to abandon it. I’m still hopeful that it will evolve into something that can continue to be as transformative to future groups of students as this week has been to our current group.

So now we are sailing; everyone made it back on the ship on time and did not have their names called in the Roll Call of Shame before departure. The program is winding down. Tomorrow we have Fathom cohort meetings in the morning and meetings with our MGA cohorts in the afternoon. By voice vote my cohort decided they’d rather have a midafternoon meeting and then be at liberty till we disembark Sunday morning. A few people’s thoughts are turning toward home but I think most of us are determined to live in this moment a while longer.

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I was there!

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Still my favorite ship

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Casting off the lines

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Adios, Amber Cove

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Sailing away

25 May 2017: Knights Impact does Concrete Floors & Caribbean Culture

As promised, today was a big day! My cohort had wanted to do the “Concrete Floors in Community Homes” activity as a group but it filled up quickly. By chance, I was the only one who got a spot in it. So at 8:00 this morning I was back in my grubby clothes from Reforestation and rolling out on the bus toward a tiny neighborhood called San Marcos. To reach San Marcos we had to get off the bus on the side of the highway, more or less, and cross a swaying wooden footbridge to reach a dirt road lined with at most a dozen houses. We were working in 3 houses: two that had just one room each needing a floor, and a third that was getting concrete put in throughout the house. I ended up working in the third house. The facilitators introduced us to the owners of the houses, who were incredibly nice but a bit shy. One facilitator mentioned that San Marcos had never had such large groups of visitors before. I am sure they did not know what to make of us. But the owner of the house I worked in warmed up enough to want to show me a picture of his family on the wall, as well as the pigs he was raising in the back yard. I asked the facilitator how people in San Marcos provide for themselves and she said they might work in town but they also raise their own livestock, fruits, and vegetables. We saw cows, chickens, ducks, and a donkey during our morning there as well as the pigs.

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We got organized into a bucket brigade pretty quickly while a few volunteers mixed and shoveled the concrete in the middle of the dirt road (N. B.: This arrangement requires work to halt briefly when cows are coming through). Full buckets went in, empty buckets went out, and the few professional construction workers on the site spread and leveled the concrete as well as adding a layer of colored pigment over the smoothed concrete. This gentleman will have a great-looking yellow floor—in fact, probably already has it, by now, because another group was coming through in the afternoon to complete the work that we did not have time to finish. It was hard work passing the buckets and I’m sure I’ll be sore tomorrow, but it is really rewarding to think that in just one day we hugely improved someone’s quality of life. Imagine how hard it would be to clean up after a flood—flooding happens here, and San Marcos is right up against a river—if you had dirt floors in your house. For that matter, how much harder is it to keep a clean house from day to day if floors are dirt? All the owners were very pleased as well as a little disbelieving. One woman said she didn’t believe she was really getting a concrete floor until the supplies started showing up. She said that politicians sometimes come to their neighborhood and make promises, and then nothing ever happens. That touched me as much as anything because I pride myself on living up to what I say I’m going to do. I’d like to meet the politician who could make an empty promise to a soft-spoken woman and her baby daughter living in a cinderblock house with a dirt floor—but that politician probably doesn’t want to meet me.

One downside to doing concrete floors is that one gets incredibly dirty. 50% sweat, 50% concrete smudges, and I even got some yellow coloring powder on the strap of my bag. Luckily I had time to shower, change, and eat lunch before reporting back to Amber Cove to leave for the Caribbean Culture tour. True confession about Caribbean Culture: when I did it in January I enjoyed it, but felt like the tour guide’s talk was not as in-depth as I’d have liked. Nevertheless, I recommended it to my students as the cultural activity for our group because it offered the most cultural/historical content in a fairly short timeframe. I ended up glad I stuck with it because we had an excellent tour guide today (shout out to Mr. Oscar Rodriguez!): funny, knowledgeable, open to questions, obviously enjoyed his work. We went to the San Felipe Fortress first but cut that a bit short because it was incredibly windy (the fort is right on the coast). I kept having to hold my dress down because I’m not ready for Puerto Plata to know me quite that well yet. Second stop was the town square and San Felipe cathedral, which I love. It came back to me in a flash that the last time I was here, the Christmas decorations were still up. We drank coconut water, bought souvenirs, and got to see a cigar-making demonstration (fun cigar fact: some of the best cigar wrapper leaves come from Connecticut). Then the last stop was at the gorgeous botanical garden owned by Rafy Vasquez, a Dominican-born, Canadian-educated artist whose family has owned his property for three generations. It was great to see everything again and hear about it from Oscar, who was agreeably critical of (1) Catholicism as a state religion, (2) people’s misunderstandings about voodoo, (3) Christopher Columbus, (4) corrupt bureaucracy, (5) Dominican drivers.

(N. B.: My experience suggests that sensible people in general should be critical of Dominican drivers.)

On the way back to the port we drove along Ocean View Avenue, known locally as the Malecon. Oscar called an audible and let us stop for pictures of the statue of Neptune that stands on a rock out in the water. That was cool enough, but the sunset was incredible and the beach is gorgeous. I almost didn’t get out and now I’m really glad I did.

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Puerto Plata central square–Plaza Independencia

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San Felipe Cathedral

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Fresh coconut water

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Last time I saw this gazebo it had Christmas lights on it.

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Look closely. Ice cream shop takes Bitcoin?

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Cigar-rolling demonstration

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Fort San Felipe

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Students at the fort

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Outside the fort (inside the bus)

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DR’s flag is the only one in the world with a Bible on it.

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Sunset at the beach

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Orchids in Mr. Vasquez’s garden

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Orchids in Mr. Vasquez’s garden

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Students on the beach

 

Now it is after 10 p.m. and I am waiting on my laundry to dry while watching a Top Gear episode before bed. Tomorrow is our last activity; we sail around noon. Our time here goes so fast. I shed a few tears when we sailed away last time and I’m sure I’ll do the same tomorrow.