Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Pisa, Italy, May 29, 2011

Second post written about Pisa, Italy. I left Pisa on May 27, 2011, and wrote this post two days later. I'm finally uploading it now, exactly one month after flying out of Italy.

May 29, 2011

I was in Italy only once before, in 1997. I was about to begin my last year as a university student, and I was trying to decide what to do next. Grad school. But in what field? Where to apply? And there was a boy. He was in Japan for the summer. And I was in Italy. To think. Separately.

In 1997, I entered Italy by tour bus. There were sixty university students in the bus, one professor, an assistant, and a driver. Only the professor and the driver spoke Italian. I borrowed a tour book from another student, and learned to count to 10. Grazi. Prego.

First stop, Florence. Red tile roofs. I remember my first view of the duomo, towering over our hotel, only a few streets away. It was huge. Imposing. Stunning. I had seen images of Florence's main cathedral projected onto a screen the term before: Introduction to Architecture, fine arts core requirement, 6000 miles away.

In person, the building was an architectural marvel that a screen projection could never capture. The size, the colors, the history. The mobs of people, mostly tourist, hovering at its base. I remember feeling amazed, seeing the building in person so soon after memorizing its image for the final exam. It was so massive. And I learned that some things must be experienced in person. The view was unexpectedly transformative.

1997, we had a free afternoon. I couldn't persuade any of the other 59 to come with me, although admittedly I wasn't one to try very hard. And so I wound down the narrow streets on my own, bought a ticket, and climbed into the guts of the building, up narrow stairs beneath the dome itself, to the top of the cathedral.

I thought about this 1997 experience a little, here in 2011, just last week, while wandering alone through the streets of Pisa.

2011, I never considered climbing the leaning tower. It was expensive. Too touristy. And expensive. Paying the entrance fee was like willingly submitting to robbery. And too crowded. Expensive.

Until I overheard the older American couple trying to talk themselves out of climbing it. And then I made my way to dinner -- at the scuola cafeteria -- to find that a colleague had just been, and was grinning ear to ear.

Too expensive? I had forgotten that I was no longer the university student, who had saved every penny and lived an extra year with her parents in order to spend that summer in Europe. Too expensive is spending 30 million dollars to rennovate and restore a beautiful, striking building -- a leaning tower -- so that people like me could come and take a picture of all the silly tourists.

So Tuesday morning, just after a quick breakfast, I made my way back to the tower and bought a ticket. 9:00 am entrance.

I stood in line on my own, climbed to the top on my own.

Stepped out alone onto the top, took a picture, turned, on my own -- and clutched the rail in front of me with vertigo. The tower sloped away from my feet in the downhill direction, to the south. It was surprisingly frightening. My mind knew that the tower would not fall, but my heart felt that if I moved downhill, my weight would be enough to tip the scale and we would all tumble down.

It took me a moment to overcome the vertigo, and then, new courage, I made my way around the edge. I was the first in the 9:00 tour group to see the smaller, narrower stairs, going up even higher. And so I climbed again (slowly), and made it to the very very top, and looked out over Pisa. Red roofs. And listened, silently, to the languages and accents of the other tourists around me, as they saw, as I saw, the grooves in the marble, the ancient stone, the effort and care into keeping this beautiful building standing. And felt the vertigo. Amazing. Striking. Transformative?

I don't know what has become of the few souvenirs I purchased in Italy in 1997. The professor is 14 years dead. The boyfriend in Japan was married, to someone else, the following January. I lost touch with all 59 of the other students, within a year, and moved on to a new life in another state.*

But I remember the duomo in Florence. I remember how impressive the building was, and how glad I have been since, that I was willing to climb it myself.

Remembering that, this past Friday morning, I paid the entrance fee again, and climbed to the top of the leaning tower again, before flying out of Pisa that afternoon.

So in the end, I went up the tower twice. And the second time, I watched the way the thousands of tourists had carved grooves in the steps that matched the lean and pull of the building,

and noticed carvings on the walls I had not noticed before.

And stood and looked out over Tuscany: sea to the west, alps to the north, red rooftops. No regrets. Because in a few years, the building will need rennovating again, and I'm happy to be able to help, for some student like me.

(*While I can't even remember the names of most of the other students, I did unexpectedly reconnect with one of them a few years ago, two lifetimes later, here. Soul-Fusion, your most recent posts (as of May 29, 2011) have been on my mind a lot, too, in Pisa. I am praying for you from here.)

Monday, June 27, 2011

Pisa, Italy, May 23, 2011

I have been back home for nearly a week, now, and I'm finally getting around to going through some photos, etc. This post was written and saved to my hard drive on May 23, 2011. I'm posting it now, June 26, more than one month later.

I arrived in Pisa yesterday evening (May 22), after several hours spent in airport terminals and several more on airplanes. The airport is only about three kilometers from the city center, and I had thought I might walk, but the bus Rossa was already waiting at the terminal, and only cost 1.50 Euros.

I hopped off the bus at the first stop across the river, and walked a few blocks, past the University of Pisa which is helping to host my visit, to a university guesthouse where I will be staying. My room is on the first floor, above the ground floor, which means 2nd floor to American readers.

How to describe my room? The ceiling is very high, and seems to be tiled with brick -- looks quite heavy. Pisa is not in earthquake country, is it? Otherwise, it is quite nice. A painted door leads to the bathroom, which is clean and large. The building itself has been rennovated in modern times, but its frame is from the 15th century. The rennovation exposed the old stone and brick architecture, but incorporated it into light weight glass and color. It has been quite well done.

Directly across from my lodgings is the Scuela Normale Superiore, which is on the tourist walk from the train station.

I have a card to use the cafeteria there. Last night, jet lagged and tired, I only took a roll, a bowl of lettuce, and a bowl of pasta. Hiding in the marinara sauce were clams and spices, and it was quite good. The roll was very hard, but I soaked it in olive oil and went away happy.

The weather is wonderful, after weeks of rain at home. My window opens above a rose garden, and I left it open all night, letting the scent of flowers drift in.

This morning, after obtaining some papers for my conference, I wandered over to the duomo and the famous leaning tower. The tower is very pretty, and has been recently cleaned and restored. The angle at which it leans is much more striking in person than in a postcard. I took some pictures.

But also just as fun as watching the tower and the duomo, was watching the tourists. There were thousands of them, all stopping at the same places and taking the same pictures.

Lining the street were booths and vendors.

I contemplated buying a hat, since the sun was shining quite brightly. But should I buy one of the ones for the Japanese tourists (complete with Japanese tags),

or one of the ones for the American tourists, with tags reading, in English, "made in Italy"?

And then as I looked more closely, I saw that I could buy a leather purse. Hadn't I been wishing I'd packed a purse instead of my large backpack? Or a leather wallet, to replace mine that is wearing out.

In the end, there were too many choices, so I left.

As I stopped to decide where to go next, I overheard an older American couple trying to talk themselves out of climbing to the top of the leaning tower.

"Think of your heart," said the woman. "All those stairs. And it probably isn't good for me either."

"But look, it looks like you can go only part way," replied the man. "We could go up to there and then decide whether to go on."

"Yes, maybe it's like the Statue of Liberty, where you can climb part way and then there are pullout places to rest."

"But not everywhere."

"No, not everywhere."

"All those stairs. What if you get tired? What if I get tired?"

And on and on, until they were met by other members of their tour group and started talking post cards; and I decided I had better see about climbing the leaning tower, since my heart is just fine, and since I've never climbed the Statue of Liberty, and apparently climbing famous tourist sites is the correct tourist thing to do.

The line in front of the tower was short. Tickets, biglettos, read a sign nearby, pointing me to north. The line to buy tickets was much longer. The next available tower tickets were for a time two hours later. How much? Hmmm... Two hour wait for 15 Euros. Not now. Maybe I'll go back tomorrow morning.

I wandered out by way of the city wall, past some old Roman ruins, down a street which an internet tour described as the "most expensive street in town", to a small gelato shop. The camera weilding tourists were mostly gone here, and the gelato cost only 1.50 euros for a cup, so I purchased ice cream rather than a hat or a purse or tower ticket. Pesca e fragola. Peach and strawberry. Today.

Monday, June 6, 2011

In England

The sky is gray, it has been raining on and off, and so the weather is pretty much exactly what you'd expect from England. We're in Oxford again for a couple of weeks, for me to get some work done, and to see if Jonathan remembers anything of the year we spent here when he was 3 and 4.

So far, he remembers only one playground. He does not remember our old neighborhood, the park we walked through daily, our church, his school, or double cream. No double cream?

We visited our old church this morning, and I recognized at least half the people there, although I had forgotten all their names (and they had forgotten mine). People were very friendly. Remarkably so. Tim commented that he wished we were staying another month, to spend a little more time with people we used to know.

As I said, Jonathan pretty much has no memory of the year we spent here. So we've been reintroducing him. He is a big fan of the double decker buses, and wants to take the bus whenever possible. In one week, he has been to most of the museums around Oxford, and he has the stamina now to appreciate them more than when he was only three.

Friday, after I finished work, Jonathan took me through the Pitt Rivers museum. He and Tim had toured it the day before while I was working, and I wanted a turn. The museum website says that the museum "displays archaeological and ethnographic objects from all parts of the world." Pretty much it's a huge room full of stuff, much of it from time of British imperialism. I found it partly creepy (19th century shrunken heads) and partly truly horrifying. For example, the label next to a suit of chain mail reads something about how the mail was taken from the body of a dead soldier after a battle in Africa, in which the British, seeking vengeance over something, slaughtered about 10,000 poorly armed people. At least they are upfront about the history.

Tim has been working nights, and I have been working days, and Jonathan has been swapping parents midday. This weekend, our only weekend in England, we did that which is unacceptable tourist behavior. Instead of getting up early and taking the train to see all of London, we slept late, then slept some more, and spent Saturday reading, barely leaving the house. It isn't what we had planned, but somehow the schedule, or the jet lag, or something had been wearing us down, and we were all happy to rest. Tomorrow we'll go back to the serious business of work and tourism.

In all, it has been nice to be back in Oxford, if only for a short time.

Saturday, June 4, 2011


Sometimes I feel inadequate.

Like my head is full of mostly plaster instead of brains.

I know there are brains in there, but all the thoughts have to spend so long traveling back and forth through the plaster, that sometimes I get stuck in stupidity.

And that makes me feel inadequate.


I have been traveling, and writing posts, but not posting them. Sometime soon I will post my traveling posts. Maybe even this weekend, because I have a weekend. It would probably be better for my career to spend the weekend sitting quietly and trying to coax my thoughts through the plaster. But that sounds like a headache waiting to happen.

And plus, family gets first dibs on weekend anyway. Not career.