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Archive for February, 2011

Sunday morning in Rome. I lazily opened my eyes and decided that instead of heading out on a train to another new destination, I would stay right where I am and enjoy the city I am living in. After all, this is Rome!

I live near the ancient forum, and so before long I was strolling down the middle of the Via Dei Fori Imperiali, the wide, busy road that runs between the Piazza Venezia and the Coliseum.

Yes, you heard that right – I was walking in the middle of a wide, normally very busy road, and I was not having a “crazy American” moment either. The road was actually closed to traffic and so everyone was out for a stroll.

Sunday on the Via Dei Fori Imperiali. The experience is very old world when this normally busy road is closed!

It was a pleasant experience to be able to enjoy this public space without the whir of cars and vespas. Filled with only pedestrians, bicyclists, and a ocassional horse-drawn carriage, I felt a little bit as though I had stepped into the past. This must have been something of what it was like to have lived in a time when Rome had never even heard the sound of a car.

Headed to the Aventine section of Rome, I took an out-of-the-way stroll along the Tiber river, and the day was cloudy, cool, and windy. One of those days where the weather adds a sense of mystery to everything, as if anything could happen.

Eventually I found my way to the Temples of the Forum Boarium. These two well-preserved Republican temples (one square and one round) are from the 2nd century BC. Unfortunately, the square one was covered in scaffolding for repair work, but the round one was as clear as day.

This round temple is known as the "Temple of Hercules." It is approached by passing a Bernini-esque fountain from 1715 AD.

Nearby is the Casa dei Crescenzi, an 11th-century building that was built using fragments from ancient Roman temples, such as columns and capitals. This was actually common for a long time in the middle ages and even beyond. It was so common that it was finally halted when the Romans realized nothing would be left of their past. That is why today the Coliseum is only a shell of what it once was. Romans were recycling its “parts” for their new buildings!

11th-Century building made of ancient Roman fragments!

Leaving the temples, I found my way to Santa Maria della Consolazione. Not really on most tourist routes, this is a quiet, deserted, dimly lit church illuminated only by candles and the little sun that makes its way through the windows. Being there alone, I felt as if I could “feel” the centuries that had passed. Another time, another era, seemed to still linger beyond the wooden doors and heavy curtains. I could almost sense the 16th and 17th century individuals who had once visited and loved this church. They somehow still lived through the art and architecture they left behind. For those who could pause long enough to let the place speak, this was a window into their world.

Santa Maria della Consolazione, a 16th-century Roman church.

Above the main altar is a beautiful medieval fresco of the Madonna and Child. This is the kind of art that I love. While Renaissance art discovers and parades the glories of the Roman past while proving that they can do the same, and Baroque art is determined to show it can do even better, medieval art simply says “I just am.”

There was no sense to a medieval artist that he was some kind of skilled genius that God had gifted the world with. He simply was a craftsman who provided a necessity, the way a carpenter uses his skills to build a home. He is proud of his creation, yet in a humble way as he knows that its purpose is for someone else and he lets it go at that. What he creates is for us and only for us, the viewer, and never for his own glory.

And this lack of excessive pride and arrogance is what draws me to the art of this time, even though it is so often overshadowed by the ego-touting masters of later centuries. The Madonna and Child that I found in this church is a wonderful example of why I appreciate medieval art.

A medieval Madonna and Child in Santa Maria della Consolazione

Set against a gold background and with prominent gold halos, the viewer is immediately called to consider that they are looking at figures from a higher realm. Despite the call to consider such heavenly figures, there is no attempt to be too “realistic” or too “glorifying,” but rather all the lines are simple, curving gently and without pretense. Mary’s tender, loving maternal focus brings our eyes to Christ, who has an innocence yet also maturity about him. He knows much beyond his visual age yet is content to rest in purity and vulnerability in his mother’s arms. It is such a touching work demonstrating the love between a mother and her Son. Without trying to glorify humanity it somehow shows the human condition at its best – alive and full of the capacity for genuine love.

Leaving the church, I saw another Madonna gracing the side of a residential building. The devotion to Mary is something that I find very consoling about being in Italy, and I love just looking up and seeing a visual reminder of the Madonna’s watchful presence. She is the perfect mother, for her gaze is only ever filled with love and care for our best interest.

Mary carefully watches over her children and reminds us of her presence on many Italian buildings

Wandering the streets, I happened to see a gentleman taking a photo and as sometimes happens, his eye inspired my own. Above the building’s main entrance, the head of a man peered out, covered in vines. This was the visual expression of how I feel sometimes about Italy. It is as though there is this great “face” that contains so much depth and fascination, but it is covered with the tangled vines of the chaotic modern world. Sometimes I wonder and worry how much more those vines will grow and how thick they will become. Will the amazing face of Italy, with all its centuries of wisdom and knowledge, end up lost completely, swallowed up in a twisting convulsion of modernity?

A face is covered by growing vines. Will the face of Italy also be distorted and eventually covered completely?

Further afield, I came to the church of San Giorgio in Velabro. This is an interesting 12th-century church that contains the remains of St. George! For those of you who do not know, St. George was a heroic figure that was frequently portrayed in medieval and even Renaissance art. The vision of a strong knight out to use his strength in the defense of all things good was an image I never could get enough of in my art history classes. My two favorite knights were always St. George and the fictional Sir Galahad from the Arthurian Legends. Both were so good and put all of their strength into such high ideals.

In the church of San Giorgio rests the relics of St. George!

The relics were hard to see behind the grate, even when I got close I could not make them out well. There was some kind of bronze looking object but I was not sure what it was. The cloudy day and the natural darkness of the church did not help.

One of my favorite places in Rome is high atop the Aventine, and it is a park (with spectacular views over the Tiber and all of Rome) and church called Santa Sabina. This is the church where St. Dominic first founded his religious order called the Dominicans, an order dedicated to study and preaching. If you politely ask, a kind brother will even escort you to the cell that the saint used to live and pray in.

Founded in 425 AD, this ancient church was given to St. Dominic where he founded his religious order, lived, and prayed.

Inside this church is a small chapel that I really enjoy as it is dedicated to the great Dominican saint, St. Catherine of Siena, who is also the patroness of Italy and Europe.

I have a great fondness for Catherine of Siena. The first Italian city I ever lived in was Siena, and my room at the time had a great view overlooking not only the site of Catherine’s home but also San Domenico, the huge Dominican church that contains a relic of her head (it never decayed!). I used to sit on the windowsill in the evening and look out across her home and church, and became so intrigued that I purchased a book of her life which I thoroughly read. The frescos in this side chapel show some scenes from her life.

St. Catherine of Siena receives the mystical stigmata.

The tenderness and devotion in the next two pictures I find particularly touching. You can really see that these are two people in love. One human, the other human/divine, yet sharing a love that transcends all time and space. Catherine’s only thought is for Christ and his is for her. They provide a wonderful source for meditation and prayer, and one could spend much time there considering the life of this great saint and how her example could enrich their own time on earth.

Christ gives St. Catherine his heart, which she lives with from then on.

St. Catherine receives a mystical communion from Christ.

Just down the street is the Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta, which is famous for…its keyhole!

That is right, this lovely piazza is most well-known for peeping toms (i.e. tourists and Romans who are invited to take a look through the keyhole at an amazing view of St. Peters dome!).

The door to this building contains a keyhole that visitor's line up to peer through.

The knocker and tiny viewing hole that visitors are eager to peer through.

Even on a cloudy day, the view through the tiny hole is amazing! Framed by a Gothic dome of green foliage, St. Peter's basilica can be seen in the distance.

Winding down for the day, I tried to make a visit to the Protestant cemetery on Via Caio Cestio. This cemetery contains the tombs of both John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley, the famous English poets.

Unfortunately, it was locked, and as fate would have it two American girls were there at the same time as me. The one seemed particularly let down. I got the impression that they had made the trip all the way out there (it is well off the beaten track) just to see this. I heard her wistfully say to her friend, “well, that’s just another reason to return to Italy.”

I walked away while they were trying to take pictures through the gate, and as I followed the curving wall I came to a small grated “window.” I peered through and could not believe my eyes! There was the tomb of Keats, perfectly framed by this “window!”

Right away I thought of the American girls, and even though I did not know them I felt instantly sad that they would leave Italy without seeing something they had sounded so disappointed to miss. I turned and walked briskly back the way I came, which turned into a run when I saw they were leaving in the opposite direction!

I tried to run after them, but they were so far away. I thought I must be crazy to do this for two strangers, but something inside of me felt a pang of regret to think they would miss this, especially when the one girl had seemed so sad about it. I even tried to yell after them, as loud as I could (which is pretty loud), but they never turned around. Finally they disappeared around a corner at the far end of the street.

At this point I gave up. The street was a very deserted street, so either they were so engrossed in talking that they could not hear my loud mouth (unlikely) or they thought some crazy person must be after them and figured they would just keep going and get out of there (the cemetery is not in the best part of town and is surrounded by some very dodgy buildings).

Yet apart of me felt sad when I saw them turn the corner. I did not know them, but from what I heard I could tell they were leaving soon and they had really wanted to see these graves. As I walked away, I honestly felt let down that two people came so close but missed their goal altogether. And to top it off, they would never know that I had found what they were looking for and could have easily shown it to them! It seemed poetically sad to me.

As I left, I put on my headphones and allowed the music to distract me from such thoughts. At least I had been able to see the tomb, and I was very grateful! I even got a smile out of a store that I passed which had a pink Vespa in the window for sale. If I ever move to Italy, I would definitely want one of these!

A pink vespa with all the pink vespa gear you could need!

I made it to 6:30 pm mass, and after I left church it was dark and starting to sprinkle. Before long, it literally began to pour. Covered by my little Harrod’s umbrella (so cute – with a little puppy on it!), I could care less about the rain. In fact, somehow the rain was making me very, very happy.

In the dark, with the pouring rain, the lights from the cars shone against the wet ground. The rain drops that touched the pavement seemed to be leaping for the sky, as if they wanted to reach the heavens and then free-fall all over again. I could understand that desire! In a way it was as if I was free-falling myself. The moment seemed beautiful so much so that I was glad it was dark and rainy and that I was hidden under a umbrulla, for my eyes began to fill with tears. The good kind, where you can’t stop smiling or feeling like you want to cry all at once. Even the thunder and lightning seemed comforting to me, as though someone was truly there and watching over me with a power enough for all I could ever need.

For a moment, walking so peacefully in the pouring rain, I even felt like I was really Italian, a feeling I have often dreamed of. I did not feel like I was American, but rather as though Rome was my true home.

Even though I arrived back at my flat with squishy feet from all the puddles, it did not matter. I was grateful for all the good that was around me. Somehow that made everything else shine with its own special light. It was my own poetic moment.

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A few weekends back, I made a Saturday trip to the somewhat small town of Spoleto. (I say “somewhat” as the historic medieval/Renaissance/Baroque portion is still fairly small, but outside its walls the urban landscape has grown.) It looked like a great place to go for someone obsessed with picturesque, medieval hill-top towns surrounded by beautiful views. So off I went!

I took an early train from Rome and at the train station in Spoleto I caught a city bus to the historic center (recommended for arriving. Leaving it is ok to walk – all downhill! Although the environs that surround the hill town are more modern and less ‘viewer friendly.’)

Exploring the city, I caught some great footage and put together a short travel video. You can check it out here:

 

Some things that I did not include were the castle (worth taking a hike up to for the views, which I added at the end of the video. However, the castle itself has been altered by its past as a prison. It has some nice frescoes and a few interesting artifacts though.) and my hair-raising journey trying to find one of the monasteries pictured in my video. (Somehow I ended up walking on the side of a high-speed road, and then even tried to climb through a small path that was too overgrown to be of much help! I bet the Italians driving by had a field day with that! Even I was laughing at myself for such temporary insanity. What can I say? I am obsessed with medieval monasteries!)

When I did finally find the monastery though, an older man who was volunteering on the grounds to do maintenance work unlocked the deserted church for me and then motioned for me to follow him to the lower level. Feeling a bit hesitant as a solo female traveller to follow strange men into dark basements, I carefully trailed along at a significant distance. There, beneath the more “modern” Baroque church, he warmly showed me an ancient, hidden medieval one, with beautiful medieval frescoes that he took the time to explain to me in Italian. It was one of those moments you cannot easily forget, and somehow amidst the fascination of a personal tour by a man who made this place his life, I never thought to take a picture. I think I was too engrossed in his art historical perspectives and insights…and the feeling of stepping back into another forgotten time.

Upon leaving the lower church, and then the upper church, he locked the door and offered to drive me to another church which was even older and more ancient! Well, getting in cars with strangers (even nice ones with a good eye for art) is one thing I retained from childhood as a big “no” (I guess no one warned me about going into basements) so I walked the short 5 minute walk where I came across some surprise scenes for my video above. (Do check it out – they are a surprise and very interesting!)

Afterwards, I managed to make it back to town without gallivanting on the side of free-ways or tumbling through thistles and other dense foliage. There I shot a few more scenes for my video and then headed back to the train station.

Along the way, I stopped to ask directions from a young man who was so sweet. He went to speak but his voice could barely emerge from his throat. I could tell he had some sort of problem speaking which he was very shy and conscientious about, but he was so nice. I wanted to do something for him to show him some kindness, but those encounters between two strangers are so brief and I never know what to say. But the reality of suffering humanity touched me.

This brief interaction reminds me somewhat of the frescoes I had seen in the basement of that dimly lit medieval church. Standing there together, the Italian had gently taken my arm and lead me over to a fresco of the Madonna and Child. He explained that in Spoleto there were many of these, because during that time many children had fallen sick with the plague and it was a constant lingering threat to the people. So the “cittadini” of Spoleto were very devout in interceding to Mary for their young ones.

It was a touching window to the past, and into the concerns and fears of a people from long ago. Humanity still continues to suffer, but there must have been something very consoling to the people of that era to know that watching over them was a woman who, with her son, had also known great pain yet overcome it.

I will always be fascinated with the medieval mind. A cultural mentality so long-lost yet able to be reached through traces of the past.

Have you ever been interested in unlocking the mindset of another time and place?

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It was a perfect night to be back in Rome. Cool, moonlit, and still February – i.e.  few foreign travellers. Rome at its most authentic. Perfecto!

After a long day that had commenced at 6 am sharp, and included a delightful but challenging trip to the medieval hill town of Todi (the small train service to Todi had stopped connecting to my layover train station for one day only, and so I unexpectedly had to rely on my little Italian to find an alternate route), I could not help but smile as the train rolled in to Termini station in Rome.

Popping my i-Pod earphones into my ears, I zipped up my coat and was out the train door in no time. Maneuvering around the first-timers and the crowds of travellers, I knew exactly where to head and it felt good. Like being home again.

Stepping out onto the Piazza dei Cinquecento, the large, busy piazza in front of Rome’s bustling Termini station, I dodged busses, gypsies, nuns, and a wide variety of visitors and locals. Saturday night in Rome – a great time for re-exploring a favorite city!

I literally bounced with enthusiasm down Via Nazionale, with all its traffic and evening shoppers, to the little meandering streets. Lost in my own casual world I made the rounds to some of the classic top sights. Politely excusing myself from the advances of cute Italians who can smell an American from a mile away, I tossed a coin in the gushing Trevi fountain, illuminated by the dazzling glow of  blue-green lights (I have myself convinced I must do this every time I even pass by the Trevi fountain and somehow I keep coming back to Rome!), admired some very good street art, and continued on my way to the Pantheon.

The hustle and bustle in Rome on a Saturday night in winter is perfect. Crowded enough to be interesting, but not too crowded to be frustrating. The voices around you are generally soft and Italian, so you feel more like one of the locals. No shrill tourists distracting you from the ambience. Just perfect, and I was enjoying every moment.

As I entered the square where the Pantheon has proudly stood for millenia, I could hear the sounds of a talented Opera singer softly drifting across the piazza from a distance. Under the moonlight, I curiously circled the fountain in the center of the square and came upon a rather large group of people gathered in a semi-circle, applauding the talent of a young Italian Opera singer.

My interest piqued, I slowly made my way through the crowd. Like a scene in a movie, the unknown faces drifted past, one by one. The center of their attention, the young Italian, was making adjustments to a small CD player that was connected to a speaker system. Was he really singing, I wondered? What I had heard from a distance seemed extremely good.

Satisfied with his CD player, he gently set  it down, stepped back, stood tall and proud, and expectantly waited with all of us as the music began to fill the square once more. To hear such beautiful tones of violins, persuasively drawing towards a full orchestra of sound was, without a doubt, a very pleasant surprise on an evening stroll.

Finding a good position in the front of the crowd, I watched as he extended his arms and music began to flow from his lips. This was definitely real and he was not improvising. And he was good, very good!

After all, for good entertainment in Rome you could easily pay more than would leave you smiling, but here was the option to enjoy completely free, quality entertainment with a legendary backdrop.

Standing under the stars, the warmly glowing Pantheon directly behind him, encircled by a crowd of admirers, and gesturing with Operatic fervor, this was definitely a moment to be thankful for.

He sang famous numbers, such as “Nessun Dorma,” earning the eager applause of those around him. Families took pictures, couples lingered, it was an enchanting moment under the magical Roman nite sky.

After his performance, the people flocked to him for CD’s, to shake his hand, share opinions, etc. I waited with the masses until I could obtain his card.

And he was as sweet as could be. When I spoke to him, he was so polite and turned down the music that had continued playing in the background to listen to my request. He obligingly rummaged for a card and I walked away with a new delightful memory of another Saturday night in Rome. (And yes, I did tip him! 😉

Next time you are going to be in Rome, send Antonio Nicolosi an e-mail at antoniocantante@yahoo.it and see if he has any plans to be performing on one of the many piazzas at night. If so, you will be one of the blessed few to enjoy a warm performance against a spectacular backdrop for nothing more than the tips you may wish to contribute. And tell him Alexandra sent you 😉

He also does events for parties and ceremonies, so if you are planning a special get together or even a wedding you may want to be in touch.

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Culture shock can happen to anyone, even the happiest among us!

So you finally did it! You splurged on the tickets, braved the long flight, fought the jet lag, thrilled at the new stamp drying on your passport, haggled with the taxi driver, and at last wearily set your bags down in your new room (without the promised view). You manage an exhausted yet triumphant smile as you pass out on the lumpy bed – you are now a world traveller!

Despite the fact that an hour later you are running on caffeine and some puffy creamy thing that you paid 2 Euros for from a surly bartender who stiffed you the correct change (you might be new at this but you can still count!), your excitement has not waned. You begin exploring your surroundings with an eager eye, yet you cannot help but notice a strange feeling creeping in. Something inside you just feels, well, off.

Brushing this unusual inner emotion away, you continue your new explorations. But as the days pass, things still feel not quite right. Is this going to affect your trip negatively, you wonder?

The situation above, while fabricated, is not uncommon. Culture shock is an experience that many travellers are not prepared for, do not know how to recognize, and therefore are unable to manage wisely. I have heard from many people who, on their early journeys abroad, said that they were uncomfortable  because of the strange “feeling” that followed them. Some have even said it ruined their entire trip.

Fortunately though, many travellers before you have experienced this, gradually learned to understand what it is, and can now share their insight in a helpful way. I am one of those travellers who has been dragged through the College of Culture Shock in the School of Traveller’s Hard Knox, but my free education has proven priceless in how I handle my travels – and maybe it can be of some help to you.

My first trip to Europe was in 2001. I was young, excited, and terribly misled about what to expect. I thought Europe would be everything I had seen in postcards, studied in history books, and dreamed about in travel guides, so I was not prepared for the confusion of hideous modern urban developments and most of all, that nagging feeling that something was wrong.

Back home in the states, I shared with friends my conviction that this feeling  must have stemmed from the country that I had been visiting. For some years after I firmly believed something was wrong with that country or else it would not have put off such a terribly uncomfortable vibe.

In the fall of 2005 I moved to Dublin, Ireland where I was to live for the next 9 months. Thrown into the culture and life of the city, I began to notice that same ugly feeling rearing its head all over again, the feeling that something was definitely wrong. I could sense it everywhere, and the worst part was that I could not shake it. I wanted to be free of  it desperately, just to feel for a moment that everything was right. But it followed me everywhere, as though I was trapped and imprisoned in an uncomfortable cloud of energy that I could not escape from. It truly felt like I was being stifled and I could not escape.

I began to naturally miss home, and there were nights when I am sure I looked more like a home sick school girl than a mature adult. So what can you do if you start experiencing similar feelings? Here are ten tips that I have compiled over the years which may prove useful to you or someone you know:

1) Educate yourself about culture shock before you travel. Read all you can and become well versed in recognizing the symptoms. That way if it happens to you, or someone with you, you can recognize it while it is happening and help yourself (or them). This ability will give you great power over it. I can now easily recognize culture shock if and when it begins to emerge, and I can grab it by the reigns and say “I control you, not the other way around!” And always remember it can happen anywhere you travel – even in an English speaking country.

2) Remember that culture shock can take many different forms at many different times. Not everyone’s experience will be the same. Some people can spend months in a culture before they start to experience such emotions while others can go through it immediately upon stepping off the plane. The intensity can vary as well. Travel is a personal experience and everyone processes it differently. So be kind to yourself if you experience it, or to anyone with you who is going through it.

3) If things begin to feel “off” or “creepy” remind yourself that this does not mean something is wrong with the country or place. It simply means that things feel “off” because to your mind, they are. Your mind is constantly processing information on levels that you are not aware of, and even the slightest cultural cues, if different from what you are used to or have seen before, can cause emotions leading to mild or severe culture shock. Being in a new culture, even if it is English-speaking, can confuse your mind on a very subconscious level. (This does not mean you should not use common sense – if you are on a dark street at 3 am [or any other unsafe situation] and you feel creeped out or that something is wrong,  for heaven’s sake get to safety!)

4) Try to remind yourself that this is an adventure. The challenge of an adventure is to experience all the different things around you with the spirit of a true world traveller – and that means bravely forcing yourself to adjust to all differences that do not compromise your morals, including the feelings that you are having.

5) When missing home, try to recall how much you dreamed about your trip. Remind yourself that you will eventually return home, back to your normal life. You have spent many years there and will for many more to come.  But this is a unique adventure, and adventures have real risks and hardships! Try to see yourself as an explorer and remember what the real explorers of old went through. At least you have a clean bed without rats for roommates!

6) Keep going. One symptom of culture shock is to shut down and hide in your room, so do not allow this to happen. It is hard if you are feeling unbalanced by the culture you are in, and it might be easier to You Tube the day away, but force yourself to get out and keep going.

7) Look for the positive. Instead of seeing the negatives, such as a dirty city, or things that you do not like, look for the good. Try to use your eyes like lasers, seeking out the positive around you and filtering out the negative. Try to remember that many people would be very happy to be in your shoes right now. You are a real explorer!

8) Try to speak the language if you are in a culture with a different form of communication. This can be a great help because many natives will be more receptive to a tourist trying to speak their language which can make you feel more welcomed. It also can make your trip more fun!

9) Avoid any forms of cultural arrogance. Sometimes you might want to just scream, “I want to hear English! I want to be on American soil! Why don’t they do things different here?” But don’t. Learning how to blend into another culture is a huge part of successful travel. First time Americans abroad can struggle with American pride, but trust me, you will only look to seasoned travellers like a toddler taking its first steps.

10) Remember that culture shock and missing home is not something that is easily conquered. While some people may breeze by without a whiff of shock, others can spend years of travelling before they overcome  feelings of culture shock and missing home. For me, it was the “keep going” attitude that did it. It took a long time, and many trips, but eventually I began to realize that when I go home I always end up missing travel after a while anyways – so why bother being nostalgic for home? And the feelings of something being wrong eventually go away as well. Now some places that I once felt uncomfortable in feel like home to me! It is all a matter of persistence and strong attitude. You can do it!

So there you are, 10 tips for successfully overcoming culture shock and feelings of homesickness. But remember, no list of tips can ever be an end in itself. It is experience and perseverance that always, in the end, win out. But hopefully these tips will help make you a little more prepared to make your trip (or the trip of someone with you) one you will look back on with a smile for years to come.

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Here is your ticket to a day in Orvieto, Italy with me – Alexandra!

You can also watch here, on my You Tube home page:

http://www.youtube.com/jcilt1

This is my very first video, and with practice things will get even better! I hope you enjoy 🙂

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As an M.A. candidate, I spent some time in the city of Assisi, Italy working on my dissertation. It was wonderful. I woke up every morning in my clean yet simple convent room, opened the shutters overlooking the misty valley below, breathed in the fresh air scented with warm burning fires, got dressed, and made the winding walk through narrow story-book streets to the Basilica di San Francesco.

I sat inside the church all morning, gazing upon a multitude of frescos and contemplating their layers of rich significance. I watched the tourists who were shuffled by in their guided groups – and I knew that they were missing so much. I wanted to should out “wait! Your guide is not telling you that there IS more to say about this fresco! Why is he passing it up so quick? Where are you going?!”

I thought to myself at the time, “I could spend the rest of my life doing this.” It was heaven.

Then, in the afternoon, I would head to the little cafe around the corner, where I would order some Italian delight and sip my espresso, while pouring over my notes. From time to time I would look up at the Basilica and just smile. The peace I was enjoying was enhancing everything about my experience and drawing out all the beauty around me.

But one afternoon, a group of American women sat down near me, and instead of smiling I wanted to groan – and if I had the self control of a 2 year old, I may have thrown my now “Gerbered” food at them in a rather unappealing way!

“I am so tired,” one lady complained.

“Me too,” the other agreed. “It is not what I expected.”

“Me neither. I expected more.”

“The other cities we went to were not ‘all that’ either – don’t you think?”

“M-hmm. I really do not care if I see anymore. I am going to go back to my room today. You can go on with the group if you want.”

“No, I agree with you. I am going to my room too.”

When you love someone, and another person insults them or says something negative, you want to rise to their defense. And that was how I felt – how dare they insult my beautiful, amazing, enchanting, perfect Assisi? This place is incredible? Are they blind?

But I had to remind myself that yes they were blind – blind in a very incurable way. They were the product of the typical over-hyped, under-educated, and thoroughly cattled tourist industry.

They had probably heard bits and pieces about Italy, but never taken the time to really study it in depth. They had probably seen certain movies and watched certain books but never really educated themself on the history and culture. Their expectations were therefore insanely high but unrealistic. (Yes, Italy is a real place and it can be very dirty and grity and real! But if you know how to cut through all that, it can also be amazing.)

Coupled with the mass “cattling” that they were likely experiencing in groups, rushed about on buses, and expected to “ooo” and “awe” over the same sights within 2 minutes, snap pictures in another 2, and head out in 5 – it was no wonder they could no longer really see and appreciate what was before them. They were tired, exhausted, and did not know what to look for. All they knew was that right now their eyes were no longer affecting their heart, and so Italy was not all that they “expected” it to be.

I think all travelers, both the experienced and the inexperienced, need to remember that travel is not an “extreme thrills” sport (some of it is, but that is for another group). You do not step on a plane and suddenly your system is overwhelmed with massive amounts of chemicals screaming to your brain “isn’t this amazing?!!!!” (Well, ok sometimes you are – but it is not 24/7 instant thrills.)

Travel is something that has to be done from the heart. And the heart is a sensitive creature. If other parts of your body are overwhelmed and not thinking clear, your heart will be too clouded to really truly perceive what is around it.

So here are some travel tips to protect your heart so that it can help your eyes find the beauty and joy in each day’s experiences:

1) Go slow – do not plan rushed trips unless you understand that it can have a major affect on your entire experience that is not positive.

2) Avoid group travel – herded about like cattle in a group of tourists from the same country as you is like living in a dense fog – and everything that you see will be filtered through bias. After all, it is like you are traveling in a patriotic American bubble formed by people who do not realize they have left their own country. And why leave American just to stay stuck in it?

3) Take rests as needed – if you need a few days, or even a week to sleep in, relax, and just not deal with having to rush from site to site – do it! But do not let yourself get to the point that you do not care anymore about what you see because your heart is so strangled by too many other things.

4) Educate yourself – try to educate yourself on any culture you are visiting beyond what is blurbed about their history in the travel guides. And please – at least learn “Do you speak English?” in their language.

5) Be realistic – no place is perfect. No matter what the photos show, or the videos promote, no place, however amazing, is heaven. Only heaven is heaven – we are living on Earth. So don’t expect perfection and you can find joy in all the imperfections around you.

6) Remember you are not in Kansas anymore – always try to appreciate another cultures ways of thinking and doing things. You may not like them, or agree, but if you fight against them you might as well stay home and make a day trip to Wal Mart.

Let your heart breathe – protect it – let it beat slowly and peacefully at times through your travels – and your journeys will reward you immensely!

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Bonjourno!

A lot has changed in the years since I first created this blog, and I have to admit that my poor blog has suffered greatly. (“Terribly sorry love – spot of tea?”)

I began the blog in the summer of 2007, before I moved to London, England to work on my second advanced degree at the University of London. At the time I thought that my blog’s focus would be on the inherent dignity of women, a subject which is very important to me and which I am sure will come up throughout this blog.

However, life got busy – and after graduation I worked at a museum for awhile before moving to New York City. I then thought that now I would have time to write – after all, I was in New York! The city that never sleeps! And certainly, after a long day, I would have the time to sit down and blog! After all, I did not need sleep! Who did? (Muffles long yawn.) This was Ne…w….Y…o…..r……k…….. (I am going to wake up with keyboard impressions on my face, aren’t I?)

Ok, so granted that did not exactly work out…

After living and working in Manhattan for a time, I decided to move back to the beach and just relax on the seashore for awhile – which I did. And as wonderful as it was to wake up every morning to ocean views and stunning sunrises, there just really is not that much to say about sitting on the ocean day after day.

“Day 275 – still on ocean – still beautiful. There goes a crab! Haven’t seen one of those in a while! Maybe I will go for a walk – if I ever get up off this lounge chair. Really should get something to eat….” Not exactly the essence of a great blog!

That was when Italy fever began to kick back in.

In the fall I came to Rome to “test drive” a flat that I had found online over the summer. And it worked great! It is a rather small flat in a 500 year old building, down a quiet medieval street (queit and medieval in noisy, Baroque Rome – thank you, thank you, thank you!) on the very top floor, with a huge terrace right outside my door. (And the tiniest washing machine I have ever seen! I mean tiny – remember Sylvanian Families? I think they donated this…)

The landlord was fabulous – a retired school teacher who lives on the other side of the top floor (7th floor – no elevatar – all winding marble steps with romantic candle-imitation lights on each floor). Her son lives in the unit above me (ok, so there is one more floor – but not really. His is a “fire escape” attic flat – out to the porch, then up some rickety iron stairs.)

Through my windows, I could look out over the rooftops (and church tops) and when the wind blew, try to pretend that the clanking shutters in a unit that forgot to secure their windows is really a romantic and authentic sound of the real Italia (a little delusion never hurts!).

Back home on the ocean, I was grateful to have all of my American ammenities back, but by the New Year I was restless as always. After being proposed to, and then entering into a long debate on the possible joys of marriage, I shook the rocks in my head out, went to see the movie “The Tourist” twice, became obsessed, and e-mailed the real estate agent in Rome who had helped me first find the flat back in the summer. “I am ready!” was my battle cry on the pleasantly stagnant seashore of my life. (I think I scared a crab.)

What is it that always calls me back? Despite all the great ammenities that I loose, the thrill of adventure and living in new places always pulls me on. But not any adventure – the story book kind. The kind with great challenges and trials, and thrilling rewards. The kind with windows into other places, times, and most of all, ways of viewing life.

These journeys are what I wanted to find. I have found them before, here and there, but now I want to set out to find them full force. This is what I was born to do.

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