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?)

On the Road (or Plane) Again: Semester in Siena visit coming up

I’m excited to be posting again after a very long silence! Last June I had to bail out on blogging altogether due to mysterious posting problems that seem to be solved now. It’s a good time to have a functioning travel blog as I am setting off for Siena, Italy on Monday (12 March) to visit the Semester in Siena program that Middle Georgia State University is now offering in cooperation with Georgia Southern University and the Dante Alighieri Institute in Siena. This program is a major expansion of our international offerings and a great opportunity for students to immerse themselves in Italian culture for an entire semester. I can’t wait to learn more about it, experience some of the highlights firsthand, and share it with everybody. Hoping to do lots of photos and/or video, blogging, and social media posts during my trip, which will include 2 days on my own in Florence (sounds better in Italian: Firenze) before I return to the States on Sunday 18 March. This will be my first trip on my freshly renewed passport, I have my packing list ready to swing into action this weekend, and I’ve been working diligently on my Italian, learning sentences I probably will not use (e.g. “Vorrei dare una festa” and “La camera non mi piace”) plus some I will (“Sono vegetariana” and “Quanto costa un cappucino?”). I think I am almost ready!

If you’re a member of the Middle Georgia State University community, please make sure you’re following the Office of International Programs on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram as I’ll be posting there as well as here as much as I can.

Stay tuned!

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.

And so it begins

Home from Paris on Saturday; faculty convocation Monday; department meetings yesterday; finalizing syllabi today. The new semester is taking shape and so is the consolidated institution. First day of fall classes is Monday, August 19–see my “Teaching” page to find out what I’m doing this semester.

I’m also eagerly awaiting the arrival of page proofs for my book The Matrimonial Trap: Eighteenth-Century Women Writers Redefine Marriage (part of Bucknell University Press’s Transits series). After proofing and indexing, the book will go into production and is expected in November.

And believe it or not, we are already rolling on Study Abroad promotion for Summer 2014. Take a look!

45 days to Paris!

Just finished updating the syllabus and reading list for my Study Abroad class titled “Dangerous Liaisons: Anglophone Cultures and France.” I am excited about teaching this class and “British Lit. I: Brit. Lit. Goes to Paris.” Study Abroad faculty and students will meet this Saturday at Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville, GA for orientation and our first class meetings. It will be great to meet the students with whom I’ll be sharing this adventure. I’ve already met my fellow faculty members a few times and they are fantastic–experts in their fields and excellent people besides.  Between now and our departure date of June 30 I’ll be preparing my teaching materials while my students start working on their assignments.  I am so eager to see the connections they make and how the classes develop.

If you are one of my Study Abroad students, don’t forget to check out the page on this site for your class (see links in the sidebar) and download the readings as needed.  We’ll go over assignment requirements in detail on Saturday.  See you soon!

Bring on the fall semester!

Classes started this week so I’ve been busy meeting my new students–and some who are not new but are brave enough to come back for more.  I’m especially psyched to be teaching Gender Studies again and teaching my Special Topics class “Women, Writers, and the Marriage Plot” for the first time.  Been trying to spare a brain cell for study abroad in Paris next summer as well.  Luckily I’ve got the Internet to keep me motivated:

  • Multiple smart perspectives in favor of multilingualism.  Foreign language teaching, of course, is not my field, but I’m a language fanatic and this article’s explanation of the limitations of International English is excellent.
  • Paris travel tips. This American has totally been guilty of not wanting to take the time to sit down at a café. This American has learned the error of her ways.
  • Libération: Have the French become friendly and welcoming?  “Americans are the most pleasantly surprised” by French people’s welcoming attitude, according to a survey.  Even Charles de Gaulle airport is well regarded.

Our first organizational meeting for study abroad is September 8.  Definitely looking forward to it.