Exploring Outside London

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Throughout my trip, I had the chance to do several short trips outside of London.  In my five weeks here, I also visited Ireland, Oxford, Bath, and did a day tour to some smaller sites just outside London.

I went to Ireland for one of my free weekends, and stayed in Dublin.  It was everything I was expecting it to be.  One of my favorite things I saw there was the Writer’s Museum.  It is a small, but jam-packed museum in an old house on one of the main streets of Dublin.  There are really only two rooms in the museum, and they chronicle the development of Irish literature.  For such a small island, Ireland has contributed many great writers, including Oscar Wilde, W.B. Yeats, and James Joyce.  As a book-lover and English major, I loved seeing the first editions of their books and the playbills from the theatre that Yeats helped start to promote Irish culture.  The highlight was talking to the clerk in the gift shop about Irish Gaelic, and getting a crash course in the language.  We also took a day trip, which brought us through several smaller sites in Ireland, including the village of Doolin.  According to our tour guide, the spirit world and the human world were constantly fighting each other, until they reached an agreement that one would inhabit the world below earth, and one the world on earth.  The passage between the two was by this village, and would be protected by a man named Doolin, whom the village was named after.  It was very small—mainly a pub and three or four shops along the road.  The people outside seemed to take life slowly and were friendly.  I loved being in Dublin, but it was such a neat chance to experience the “real” Ireland.

Besides visiting the Roman Baths at Bath, I also went to the Jane Austen Center, located next to the house where Jane Austen lived in Bath.  Like the Writer’s Museum, it was located in an old house.  Bath is the setting for two of Austen’s novels, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion (museum tour).  Northanger Abbey was started the first time she visited Bath, and is much more complimentary about her being there as she was a younger, more excited girl.  Persuasion was written after her second trip to Bath, after some of her family had to move there for health reasons.  The view of Bath then is less complimentary, as the circumstances that brought Jane there were less exciting.  I loved getting to see some of the dresses from the films, and the broader picture they painted of life during that time.

One of the stops on the day tour was Dover, located on the coast and home of the White Cliffs.  Dover is a port town on the English Chanel, and the cliffs get their colour from the calcium carbonate—chalk—in the rock.  The shore is beautiful, and the beach was not sandy or pebbly, but outright rocky.  Despite this, people were still sunbathing and swimming.  Dover is the gateway to a lot of English history.  Julius Caesar entered England through Dover, William the Conqueror grabbed Dover as soon as the Battle of Hastings was won, it was a departure point during World War I, and the first bomb to fall on England during World War II fell in Dover (dover-kent.co.uk).  Seaside towns are always beautiful, but it is interesting to see the amount of power that they also hold.

My last day trip was to Oxford.  Ever since I heard the story of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and learned about C.S. Lewis, I have wanted to go to Oxford.  And it lived up to my expectations.  The buildings of Bodleian Library, Magdalen College and Christ Church were gorgeous, not to mention the filming sites of some of Harry Potter (Rick Steves).  I loved the feel of the city, the general love of learning (and bookstores!), and the ties to so many of my favorite stories.  While there, I also visited C.S. Lewis’ home in Headington.  I was surprised that it was just in an ordinary suburb, but excited because I had wanted to see what a “normal” English neighborhood looked like.  The tour was comprised of just six people—me and five others—who were all book, philosophy, and Lewis lovers, and felt more like a visit to a friend’s home than a tourist attraction, unlike how many of the buildings in Oxford felt.  Afterwards, I walked down to the neighborhood church, where he is buried.  After being in so many churches, and seeing the magnificent memorials for other famous people, it was very moving to see the small country church with the ordinary cemetery in the back.  Besides being things I had wanted to see for a long time, my trip to Oxford gave me a chance to see a part of England very different from London.

London Sites

One of the coolest parts of being a whole-program student is that the story that started in Italy continues when you get to London.  I saw the center of the Roman Empire, but now I get to see just how far it really reached.  I got to see where Piero della Francesca lived and some of his paintings, but had to wait to see the one I knew before this trip until I went to London’s National Gallery.  Much of this continuing story came through visiting London’s museums.

The first one I saw was the Victoria and Albert Museum, or V&A, a museum of art and design.   Because it wasn’t listed as an all-inclusive museum like the British museum, I was expecting it to be small.  Wrong.  It was huge.  It worked out that we got there a few minutes before a free introductory tour was about to begin.  That’s one of the things I love about London’s museums: at scheduled times throughout the day, they offer different tours.  Some are like the tour we took, and introduce you to the highlights of the museum.  Others spend time just going through one exhibit, but in such large museums they are so helpful in understanding at least a chunk of what there is to see.  My favorite piece to see was “The Beautiful Sky of Italy,” a table painted by Michelangelo Barberi in 1845 (vam.ac.uk).  It was based on Czar Nicholas I’s tour of Italy, and contains so many scenes that I recognized (vam.ac.uk).  I love being able to make connections with different places and people in history.

After the V&A, I prepared myself for how large the other museums must be, but the National Gallery was still even bigger.  According to the map I picked up, the National Gallery contains around 66 rooms of art from all over the world.  The pieces I was most excited about seeing were some of the Italian ones.  After being in Sansepolcro, I had seen a lot of Piero della Francesca’s works, but one of his most famous, “The Baptism of Christ,” was not in Sansepolcro, but the National Gallery.  As I worked my way through that set of rooms, I came across pieces from a church altar in Sansepolcro and from Santa Croce, and an entire room on works from Perugia.  I loved knowing where the works were coming from, and being able to see other’s appreciation of them.

The British Museum was absolutely massive.   I went on a bright sunny day, and had a picnic in the courtyard before entering, just like many of the other people.  There is so much to see that just walking in is overwhelming.  I decided to start in the most important section to me: the Egyptian sculptures with the Rosetta Stone.  The Rosetta Stone was written in three languages, and was the key to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics (museum description).  I’ve wanted to see the Rosetta Stone for as long as I’ve studied history, as it provided the key to one of the oldest civilizations.  At the ends of the Egyptian exhibit, there were pieces from the Assyrians.   What I found most interesting here was the emphasis on the lord who led most of the excavating work on these objects (museum description).  The British Museum seemed to include everything in the world, but the Assyrian exhibit made me realize why.  British archaeologists are responsible for much of the discoveries and the knowledge that we have of past civilizations.

The Museum of London was one of my favorite museums I have been to because it tells one story—London’s.  It starts out with “London Before London,” telling how the people first began settling the area around the Thames.  Then it moves to Roman London, detailing what life was like under Roman rule.  It was so exciting after seeing the heart of the Roman Empire to see the vastness of it.  So many artifacts—jewelry, earthenware, and other everyday items—were found in places I had been, such as Blackfriars or Embankment, where we stopped to go to the Globe or National Theatre (museum descriptions).  Much of this exhibit also involved young people, with a screen playing the performance of the poetry contest they held.  I loved how they encouraged the preservation of their culture and the involvement of young people in a museum, a place often viewed as something to do for school and not for your own interest.  The next exhibit was on Medieval London, telling about the effects of the Black Plaque in 1348-1350, and Henry VIII’s important split from the Pope (museumoflondon.org.uk).  A timeline that ran along the wall brought you through the fire of 1666, the growth of the new city, the Victorians, the World Wars, and ended with some of the costumes from the 2012 Olympics.  When studying history, it is easy to isolate different periods from each other, but the Museum of London showed the entire progression of London through history.

One of the last museums I visited was the Tower of London.  Like the Museum of London, I loved it because it told the story of history just from what was involved with the Tower.  I would venture to guess that like most people, I always thought the Tower of London was one tower.  Well, it started out as a tower at the center of William the Conqueror’s fortress, but now has twenty towers in all (hrp.org.uk).  It was most famously used as a prison, and, in combination with Tower Hill, a site for executions, Henry VIII’s wives Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard among them (Yeoman Warder tour).  The tours are conducted by the Yeoman Warders, or Beefeaters, who, according to my guide, are retired military who live at the Tower and serve in many different capacities.  The Crown Jewels are also housed at the Tower.  Seeing the elaborate and exquisite crowns of various monarchs, including Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth II, alongside images of coronations, was incredible.

That evening, I attended Evensong at Westminster Abbey.  I still cannot believe that such an important church is still operating and holding worship services open to the public.  Every coronation since William the Conqueror’s in 1066 has been held there, as well as weddings, including William and Kate’s (Westminster-abbey.org).  As I walked into the nave to service, I passed memorials for Charles Darwin, William Wilberforce, Lloyd George, Churchill, and several other Prime Ministers and important people.  As I walked back down the center of the nave to exit after service, I thought of all the history that had occurred here, and how I was walking the path that kings and queens have walked.

Another place I visited that continues to be frequented by Royals was Kensington Palace.  It was so fun to go there right as they were preparing for the birth of the new Prince George.  Many Royals have lived at Kensington at some point in their lives, including Victoria, Elizabeth II, and Princess Diana (hrp.org.uk).  There was an extensive exhibit on Queen Victoria, which included several of her gowns.  She was very tiny!  There was also a temporary exhibit that opened halfway through my stay on royal fashion, and several of Queen Elizabeth’s, her sister Margaret’s, and Diana’s dresses were on display.  The exhibit showed how fashion changed, and how the royal family is allowed to keep up with it.  The best part about Kensington Palace is that it is so close to where we are staying, and so I have had the opportunity many times to just go and walk through the gardens.  A walk around a palace is not something you get to do every day in the States!

London Theatre

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Theatre is such a huge part of London.  Last night, Ally and I went to Regent’s Park to the Open Air Theatre to see Pride and Prejudice, which they are performing for the 200th anniversary.  Even though it was a Monday night, we had to queue for returns because it was sold out.  We were surprised that they were sold out on a weeknight, but it just reinforced to us that theatre isn’t just something for special occasions here: it’s for the everyday and for everyone.

I love how accessible it is, making it easy to spontaneously see a show.  So far I’ve seen eight.  The first one I saw that was not for class was Les Miserables, something I had been wanting to see for a while, and even more so after seeing the movie.  We showed up at the box office the day before and got tickets for a matinee.  Les Mis has been playing for 28 year and has had over 11,000 performances in London (Queen’s Theatre playbill).  The show was fantastic, even though our seats were pretty high up.  So high, in fact, that we could see over the barricade.  Nonetheless, the singing and acting lived up to my expectations.  After seeing two much more realistic plays at the National Theatre for class, it was interesting to see how the stage was used in a musical.  The stage spun, sets glided in and out, and lights directed attention and helped create illusions.

Two days later, I found myself “queuing” for returns at Shakespeare’s Globe to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  The Globe is an entirely different experience.  The original burnt down in 1613 and the one that stands now was rebuilt in 1997 (Let’s Go).  While it seems common sense to me to want a ticket for a good seat, the people waiting at the Globe were most anxious to be groundlings, and to get to stand as close to the stage as they could get.  The stage is simple, like in Shakespeare’s day, and the acting is fabulous.  The actors enter and exit through the groundlings, sometimes speaking to them or handing them props to hold on to.  I got a seat on the end of the circle, and so had a restricted view.  However, I got to see things that the audience directly in front did not, like the actor’s facial expressions when their backs were turned and the audience’s reactions, which made the play even more fun.  The love of Shakespeare seemed equal between the actors and the audience, which made me feel like I was really experiencing it as Shakespeare meant.

The Amen Corner was one of the plays that I had to read for my Modern Drama class.  It was being performed at the National Theatre, and deals with religion and family in Harlem in the 1950s.  Music plays a large part of the play, and the singing was an amazing part of it.  After reading and then seeing several plays already, I had started to get an idea of what type of things will be different from reading it when I see it.  With the exception of not hearing the music, I didn’t think there would be much that surprised me.  In some ways, that was true, but the experience of seeing and hearing it is impossible to get from just reading it.  Another factor that was interesting was that it was written by an American at a time when the subject matter was discouraged, and was being performed in London (The Amen Corner notes).  It was interesting to see that the National Theatre recognized it as important to perform and they had to understand not just the play but aspects of American culture to put it on.  Leaving the theatre, we all commented on how much of the gospel music we had known and the memories it brought back.  It made me wonder what the music meant to the British audience members.

We’ve been encouraged to find different types of theatre performances to go to, and when I travelled to Dublin for a free weekend, there was a “Street Performers World Championship” event in Merrion Square.  Just about every kind of street performer was represented, and the park was bustling with music and energy.  The performers I watched the longest were fire performers who threw in a little acrobatics.  The stunts they did were entertaining, but they spent most of their “stage time” talking and trying to work up a reaction for things they hadn’t done yet.  Unlike traditional theatre, each group or individual had very little to work with—just the grass lawn that was on an equal level as the audience and whatever they could carry there with them.  At any given moment, the performer had to have something eye-catching going on to attract the people wandering about, and had to sustain their attention until they passed a hat around at the end.  In a more traditional theater setting, there are so many factors that affect the performance, but here it relied almost completely on the charisma of the performer.

Going to the theatre has been one of the biggest ways that I’ve felt “British.”  I love that you will see people dressed in every level of casualness, that it is affordable, and can be spontaneous, running from one box office to another half an hour before the show starts.  Now let’s see how many more I can see before I leave.

First Full Week

Visiting Parliament wasn’t the only thing I did the first week.  That Saturday, we also attended London’s Pride Parade.  Half a million people attended the parade that also occurs in cities all over the world, and while it was definitely crowded, it didn’t feel impossible to get around or see the parade or entertainment (londoncommunitypride.org).  The edges of Trafalgar Square in the center of London were lined with booths and the entire square was filled with people.  While waiting for the parade to start, we watched the performers on stage.  While the singers and dancers were okay, I really enjoyed watching the sign language interpreters.  The two men that switched out were incredible and very entertaining!  Most of the time, their dancing was better than the back-up dancers’, which they did while translating in time, but a step behind the singer or speaker.  The parade itself was filled with over 150 groups that came out to show their support (londoncommunitypride.org).

While walking through the square, we passed the church of St. Martin in the Fields and an advertisement for a classical music concert that night.  I love classical music, and had always heard recordings from St. Martin in the Fields.  That night they were playing Mozart, Bach, and Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” so I had to go.  When I returned that night, Pride was just beginning to wind down, with crowds still just hanging out and enjoying each other’s company.  A concert in St. Martin’s is different from any I’d been to, because it is just a beautiful, yet small, church.  I got a seat in the last pew—the only one raised, which was great since there was no raised stage.  The music was beautiful, and I loved getting to hear music from a place that I had always only heard of.

Sunday started out with walking up to take the tube to St. Paul’s, the church designed by architect Sir Christopher Wren and where Prince Charles and Diana got married (stpauls.co.uk).  The original cathedral was the first to be built after Henry VIII separated the Church of England from under the Pope (stpauls.co.uk).  It was spacious and grandiose inside and made me think what it would be like to have church service in Florence’s Duomo.  The service was beautiful, with a London sinfonia providing the music and a male choir leading the worship.  In Italy, most of the churches I went into were treated like museums, and so it was especially special to get to see St. Paul’s while it was “working.”  Getting to worship in a place with so much history in the city you are staying in is very special, and helped me to understand that part of British culture.

Sunday afternoon I headed over to Speaker’s Corner in Hype Park, where anyone can have a forum for ideas and a way to exercise free speech.  Going in, I wasn’t expecting anything profound, reasoning that if they really were great speakers, they would probably have another way to spread their ideas.  It proved to be a sound expectation.  While there was no lack in enthusiasm, of the men I listened to, their arguments were rather scattered.  They all interacted with their audiences, trying to start debate, a move which sometimes backfired when they had a fact wrong and an audience member corrected them.  There were crowds of people there, listening to the speakers or just enjoying the park in spite of the speakers.  It was fun to participate in this London tradition!

I finished out my first week in London with a trip to the Churchill War Rooms.  The order to build the War Rooms were given before World War II even began, just in case they ever needed a more secret, secure place to meet, and although they were used before Churchill became Prime Minister,  they were mainly utilized by him (Churchill War Rooms Guidebook).  Going through them was unlike any other museum.  Since they are literally a series of underground rooms, the “path” through them includes some backtracking and turning around, and a detour through the Churchill Museum that chronicles the entire life of Churchill.  I loved that they left up some of the notices and labels on the doors, giving even more of a feel for what they would have been like when they were operational.  The displays really did their best to keep the original equipment set up so that you could imagine having to work sixteen hour or more shifts, sleeping in the same room as your typewriters while another secretary took over, and the general urgency that always existed there.

Every day that I have been here so far has been wonderful.  The days are filled with exploring London, studying, and processing the experience with the people I am traveling with.  So much happens each day that it seems impossible to capture it all, but each museum, event, play, and class is shaping how I think about London.

First London Adventures: Parliament

I’ve been in London for a week now, and a busy week it’s been.  We’ve seen so much since being here, and there is still so much more to do!  One of my first and favorite things I’ve done so far is to visit Parliament.  On Saturday, our entire group went for a tour.  Then I returned on Monday to observe a session.  I loved both visits and they are helping me to start to gain a clearer picture of the United Kingdom.

The first part of our trip to Parliament on Saturday was getting there.  Its closest tube stop is Westminster, a straight shot from our tube stop.  In this area of town, it was definitely filled with more tourists going to see Westminster Abbey and the other sights close by.  Once we got there, it was time to go through security.  While I wouldn’t say it is more relaxed than security at U.S. buildings, it has a different feel to it.  You show your ticket, get a visitor badge, and go through a metal detector.  Then, we were directed into the entrance—a large, spacious, nearly-empty room that’s easy to imagine as the setting for palace feasts and celebrations.

After queuing for a few minutes, our guide arrived and we started the tour.  According to Let’s Go, Westminster Palace has over three miles of corridors, which is easy to believe once inside (44).  Every room has several entrances, some public, some private, some for use only when the Queen is there to start a new session of Parliament.  The building itself is beautiful and intricate, being built after a fire in the 19th century, and repaired many times after bombings during World War II (Let’s Go 44).  As we went through, our guide pointed out how the decoration changed with the purpose and importance of each room and the occasion it was built for.  The first rooms we entered were state rooms used by the Queen when she comes to officially begin a new session of Parliament.  These were exquisitely decorated, one with massive portraits from Arthurian legend, including coat-of-arms along the top of people from the legend, another with the portraits of the entire House of Tudor, including every one of Henry VIII’s wives.

The decoration of the two houses themselves seemed to reflect the attitude towards them.  The House of Lords was furnished with red benches and with incredibly ornate gold thrones at the end to accommodate the royals.  The members of the House of Lords are appointed, not elected, which, in addition to the style of decoration, adds to the altogether “higher” air of the chamber and emphasizes the role of tradition in Parliament (parliament.uk).  The House of Commons is decorated more plainly, with less use of color and no gold.  The benches are green, which our guide explained was purposely chosen to set it apart from the House of Lords as being for the people.  Its members are elected, and when arguing with each other, members address each other by the place they represent, rather than with their name, all things which emphasize the members’ job as a representation of the people, and not of their own status (parliament.uk).  And the people treat them differently because of it, seeming to hold the members of Commons more accountable.  Our guide explained that a clear barrier had to be erected in front of the viewing area in the House of Commons after someone threw flour down on a speaker, but there does not seem to be any need for one in the House of Lords.

Our guided tour through the houses was very informative and gave me time to appreciate the beauty of the building, but I really wanted to see what Parliament was like while it was in a meeting.  I returned on Monday afternoon to queue for a debate in the House of Lords.  Getting in was very simple and I appreciated the openness and accessibility that the Houses of Parliament show by making it so easy for even a non-citizen to observe.  Going in, guards and staff pointed me in the right direction, but I found it odd that for the most part, they just trusted me to get to where I was going and not wander where I wasn’t supposed to be.  I didn’t know how long the queue would be, and when I asked, I was told that it is generally not as long for Lords as it is for Commons, another way that I could see the importance placed on representation.  The center room connecting the halls for Commons and Lords has the message boxes of every member and a public post office.  It was filled primarily with people in suits, who worked either as aides or lobbyists, but there were also a large number of families and small groups of individuals who came to meet their member.  At one point, the entire hall fell silent while the Speaker of the House of Commons, Bercow, entered.  A few minutes later, a man guiding a small family around the building passed us and the woman next to me told me it was Ed Balls, a prominent member of the Labour Party.  All of these things—the post office, members meeting and guiding families, and the simple, welcoming process of visiting for a meeting—showed me that the Houses of Parliament really do belong to the people.

London at Last!

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Monday afternoon, I finally made it to London!  As we were landing, I got views of the London Eye, Egg, and Tower Bridge, and I couldn’t believe I had made it here.  Because I am a whole program student, I was able to arrive a day early so I could go to a concert Monday night.  I felt very accomplished that in the three hours between the time the plane touched the ground and the concert started, Adrienne and I managed to get through everything in the airport, navigate the tube by ourselves for the first time, get our luggage dropped off at the hostel, and make it to the theater with seven minutes to spare.  On Tuesday, we met up with the rest of the group after they arrived and dove into our classes, getting to know London and each other.

Staying in London is much different from staying in Sansepolcro.  Everyone can understand you, people walk faster, and there are more brands that I recognize.  There is so much to explore here, and I can’t wait to get started!

Basilica di Santa Croce

One of the first things I saw on my travel break to Firenze was the Basilica di Santa Croce.  Going in, I didn’t know completely why Santa Croce was so significant, just that it was beautiful.  As I walked through the basilica, the realization of its importance kept hitting me in waves.

Santa Croce was built in the late 13th century to accommodate the large number of Franciscans that were coming to Firenze to worship (santacroceopera.it).  After Chancellors of the Republic Leonardo Bruni and Carlo Marsuppini were buried there, it began to be used to house the tombs of many of Florence’s greatest (santacroceopera.it).

The outside of the Basilica di Santa Croce is beautiful, but simpler than the outside of the Catedrale di Santa Maria dei Fiore.  However, I found the inside of Santa Croce more impressive than the interior of the Duomo’s cathedral.  As I tried to understand the architecture of the church, I realized that it has a language all its own.  According to the church’s website, the main part of the building is called the “nave” and has two chapels on either side of the front end.  The central part is divided by columns, a function called “bays.”  The patterns on the floor divided it up into large sections, some with just different colored designs, some with inscriptions, and some with carvings in the shape of different figures.  Two sections of benches filled the central part of the church, running from about halfway down the basilica to the front altar.IMG_0363

When I walked in and started walking around the perimeter, some of the first things I saw were paintings and frescos on the walls and in the various nooks that were dedicated to certain saints and people, as well as altars.  As we were examining one of the alcoves, we saw the name “Charlotte Napoleon Bonaparte” on a tomb.  I couldn’t believe it when I saw that.  A relative of Napoleon (we guessed—correctly—that it was a niece) has a tomb here?  It was so strange to think that you were so close to such an important figure in history.

I continued to make my way around the church slowly and methodically.  One of the things that drew my attention with every step was the floor.  Every few feet the pattern on the floor changed.  The sections that most interested me were the ones that had the shape of people carved on them.  Each one had a different person, dressed in a way that I could get an idea of who they were or what they did.  Some were more worn than others, and some were roped off so that people wouldn’t walk on them.  When I wasn’t watching where I was stepping, tripping over the uneven ground was easy.  There was nothing around that I could find to explain them, but I assumed they were tombs of other townspeople who were buried at the church before they set it aside as the basilica for the greats.

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A section of the floor in Santa Croce.

One of the coolest of the tombs was that of the Blessed Umiliana, the first woman to join the Franciscan order at Santa Croce.  Although she was from a very wealthy Florentine family, she still chose to dedicate her life to the poor, dying when she was only 27.  At Santa Croce, she is honored with an elegant place in the church that recognizes her, her order, and her family.

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At one point, as I was walking around, an elderly woman and her daughter stopped me.  They only spoke Italian, but she kept asking, desperately, “You know where Michelangelo?  Michelangelo?”  I didn’t know where; I didn’t even know his tomb was here, so I started looking.  The first few monuments were impressive, but I didn’t know the names (many of them were influential statesmen).  But then, the next name I saw was “Dante Alighieri,” and I was so excited.  As I kept walking around, each tomb hit me with the significance of the person and importance of Florence in the world.  First Dante, then Michelangelo, Galileo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Nicolai Machiavelli.  I was overwhelmed when I thought about their contributions to the world.  Some of the greatest men in history were all in the Basilica di Santa Croce, were where I was.  To have created and added so much to the world to receive renown not only in your own time, but also for hundreds of years afterwards is hard to get my mind around.

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Dante’s tomb.

What struck me even more was the fragility of human life.  The tombs in Santa Croce were those of some of the greatest men and greatest thinkers in the history of the world, and although their works have survived and remained as some of the most respected in the world, their works could still not make them immortal.  In the end, they were still just men.

Going to Santa Croce made me realize how important and central Florence has been throughout history.  So many of the things that make up history books were written, painted, and discovered in Florence or by people who were born or died in Florence.  Having a church change its purpose from one of worship to a memorial seemed strange to me, but as I thought more about it, realized that not just Italians, but people from around the world want to remember the contributions of others throughout time, and the Basilica di Santa Croce is one place for them to do that.

Firenze: My New Favorite City

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For our first full week in Italy, we took a day trip to Florence, and for the first travel break, I travelled back.  We got there Monday evening and got settled in the monastery we found to stay at.  Tuesday started early, with a trip to the Uffizi.  After waiting in line for some time to buy a Firenze Card (which we later ended up getting at Palazzo Vecchio in less than five minutes), a woman came walking down the line asking if there were any Americans.  When we said yes, she held out two tickets and explained that two of the students from the university she was travelling with dropped out and they were going in right now.  So, we got into the Uffizi for free.

The Uffizi was incredible.  The first hall is lined on one side with Roman emperors and on the other with other Roman statues, each following the pattern of two busts and then a full statue.  The collection is obviously a display of their wealth, culture, and power, emphasized by the portraits of family members that hung above the statues of Roman emperors.  The rooms off the hall and on the next floor were filled with paintings.  I had been happily going through each room, learning about the art, when suddenly Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus” was staring at me.  On the next wall was “Primavera.”  Two of the most important paintings in the world, and the Medicis had acquired both of them.

Walking down the first main hall, I kept stopping to imagine what it must have been like to walk down the halls lined with rows of busts and statues of Romans and emperors when the Medici family was still in power.  Over the years that they collected these pieces of art, how did the clothing change in the way that is swept over the floor?  What were the sounds and smells that surrounded such sophistication?  Was the messiness of everyday life drowned out when you were in the hall?  Would you have wanted to be invited to see their collection, or would such a display of power have been nerve-wracking?

At the end of the Uffizi, we met up with Ali and Libby and went to lunch.  We found a small restaurant when the owner came out to explain the menu to us, and told us he had gluten free pasta.  After we sat down, he took our order, and then stepped behind a counter and cooked each of our dishes individually.  After lunch, we went to see Santa Croce Church, which was awe-inspiring, and my favorite thing I saw in Florence.  So much so that it will get its own entry.

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Michelangelo’s tomb in Santa Croce.

After walking around for a little, we made our way to the Archaeological Museum.  The museum was much less crowded and well-known that the Uffizi, and once we got there it took walking around the entire block just to find the entrance.  There were so many pieces that I didn’t realize were there, and probably wouldn’t have even noticed if Ali hadn’t pointed them out and explained their significance, such as a female sculpture that was barely three inches tall, but is known as one of the first figures to show full three-dimensionality.  There were also a number of Egyptian sarcophagi and mummies in various states of wrappings.

On Wednesday, we climbed the Duomo at the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore.  After walking around the dome to continue up on the other side, the steps got closer and steeper.  The view from the top was beautiful and worth the climb.  We enjoyed the view from the top of Brunelleschi’s duomo, and after taking lots of pictures turned to head down.  This is the part where the height and steep steps got to me.  After climbing back into the dome, the first set of stairs is curved so you can’t see where it ends, and it hardly looks like stairs.  After taking a minute to remind myself that “what comes up must come down,” I started down the step carefully and slowly.  As I reached the bottom of that flight and started on the next, I looked behind me to see an Italian running down the steps.  When he caught up, I stepped to the side so he could go ahead.  As he passed, he laughed and said, “It’s ok; it’s normal.”  Even still, I think I took longer to get down than to go up.  After I got to the bottom, we went into the cathedral.  It was beautiful, but nothing like Santa Croce.

After climbing the duomo in Firenze.

We went to the Bargello next, and then spent most of the afternoon walking around trying to find a bike rental place and the leather market.  Lesson learned: if you look lost and someone stops to help, trust their directions, instead of continuing to try to find it on your own.

Going to the market was interesting.  So far in Italy, I had been trying very hard to use whatever Italian I knew, usually just “grazie,” “ciao,” and “si.”  When I went to the market and greeted someone with ciao, they would respond with hello.  Confused, they would say didn’t I speak English?  I would say “si.”  From being in Sansepolcro even for a few days before going to Firenze, I’ve started to learn not to expect English all the time, something which throws me less and less every day.  I think the vendors in the market expect people to be thrown off by only Italian, and so use English.  Whatever the case, neither of us knew what to make of the other.

After the market, we ran to the Academia and into see “David” before it closed.  Going in, I was really only going because it was something you were supposed to see in Florence.  In my mind, it was just a nice statue.  But when I walked in, I immediately understood why it was so famous.  The size is captivating.  The perfection of the form in every detail—even in the veins on his feet—was unbelievable.  But more than that, there is really just a presence that the statue has that makes you appreciate it.  I loved going to Florence again.  Everywhere I turned I was reminded what an important city Florence is to Western history, and how much is packed into that one city.  It made me realize more about my own culture, and realize that I want to learn how Italy was and how it is.  I left in awe and in love and wanting to go back.  It’s okay; it’s normal.

First Look at Sansepolcro: Churches

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Throughout our first week here, we’ve been getting acquainted with Sansepolcro’s churches.  On our first Sunday in Sansepolcro, we went to the main church, Cattedrale de San Giovanni Evangelista.  It was Confirmation Sunday, and from the words I could pick out of the liturgy, I think it was Pentecost too.  We got there right before it began, and because of Confirmation, it was packed.  We ended up sitting in folding chairs on the side, behind the massive stone columns, so I could only hear what was going on.  They announced the beginning of the service, but only about half the congregation quieted down; there was still a lot of talking and moving about as they recited a prayer.  Everyone stood for the opening, but then nothing happened.  One by one over the next five to 10 minutes people started sitting down, and when we realized nothing else was happening for a while, we eventually followed.  People continued to talk and walk around for the entire service, few paying attention, and few looking like they knew what was going on.  Soon, the priests and Bishop processed in, and the service began again.  A hymn, prayer, scripture reading, and another hymn followed.

Cattedrale de San Giovanni Evangelista was magnificent.  Large paintings and relief sculptures adorned the walls.  The ceiling was gorgeously decorated, and the side walls and the front wall were all decorated to make the front wall with the altar the focal point of the room.  Dark wood rows of pews with kneeling benches on the back filled the room all the way to the back.

The next day, we went with Sara to a small chapel off of the main sanctuary that is dedicated to Piero della Francesca.  A crucifix decorated the main wall, there were a few pictures of saints and rows of benches, and an engraving dedicating the space to Sansepolcro’s artist.  In his will, Piero asked to be buried there.  However, no one knows where his grave is, only that they followed his wishes.Image

On Wednesday, Mr. Andreini, Sara’s father, gave us a tour of some of the other churches in the city.  As he showed us around, he told us the stories behind the buildings and the people who founded them, allowing them to take lives of their own.  Our first stop was Santuario e Oratorio di San Maria delle Grazie.  It was founded by members of the Company of Death in order to honor the Virgin Mary and offer burial rites to the poor in Sansepolcro.  When first seeing the church, it puzzled me that the wooden doors had skeletons carved into them, as it is an unusual decoration for a church, but after hearing the purpose of the church, it makes sense, even if it’s still not my taste.  The interior of the church is decorated with paintings of Mary and more carvings with the symbols of the Company of Death on the ceiling and walls.  The paintings of Mary on the ceiling and the wall behind the altar show Mary pregnant—a rare depiction.  Her hands are together in the painting on the ceiling, but farther apart on the wall.  The story goes that her hands were together in both paintings before an earthquake moved them apart in one.Image

The second church Mr. Andreini took us to was Chiesa de San Francesco.  The interior of this church was not as ornate as the others, having been renovated in the Baroque style.  Much of the decoration and use of this church revolve around Beato Ranieri.  Ranieri was a beloved religious man in Sansepolcro that the people treated as a saint, beato being a step below a saint.  They considered him the patron saint of children and pregnant women, and the bell at the church can still be rung every time a baby is born.  After his death on 1 November 1304, the people had his body embalmed, erected the large stone altar that is still at the front of the church, and had a lawyer record the over 40 miracles attributed to Beato Ranieri.  After telling us his story, Mr. Andreini showed us down into the crypt where Beato Ranieri’s body has been for the last 700 years.

The final church Mr. Andreini brought us to was Chiesa di Sant’ Antonio Abate.  It was a small church with two stories about its saint: one, that he was the first artist to become a saint, and the other that he was farrier.  His statue and other artwork inside were being repaired.  The coolest part is that now the church is entirely taken care of by the people in the neighborhood, several of which stopped by for one thing or another during our time there.  They greeted us kindly, listened to Mr. Andreini for a few minutes, before smiling and leaving. The number of people that just wanted to stop by showed me how this church is really a part of the community.

Listening to Mr. Andreini tell the stories of these places was fascinating.  He spoke more slowly, and I was surprised how being able to recognize a few words, his gestures, and his inflection combined to help me understand it.  His knowledge of every place was incredible: he knew every name and date in every story and answered our questions without having to stop a moment to think.  Everywhere we went, someone stopped to greet him and tell him some news, showing how much he means to the community here.  I learned so much just from listening to him.

As evident in the number of churches we have seen in one week, churches are a very central part to Sansepolcro, even to its founding.  The stories behind them, decoration, and services differentiate them from American churches.  I’m used to neat rows of pews and stained-glass windows, as opposed to statues, massive altars engraved with Latin, painted ceilings, and crypts with embalmed bodies in them.  At home, everyone quiets down when the pastor stands up, instead of the understood chaos that was the service we went to.  One thing, though, that I could connect with was that the churches, especially the smaller ones like Chiesa di Sant’ Antonio Abate, wouldn’t still exist without the care and interest of people in the community, just like my small-town Baptist church.  Learning more about Sansepolcro through its churches has really helped it to feel like home.

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