Monthly Archives: March 2011

The Break of All Breaks

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Spring break ended less than two weeks ago. I was fortunate enough to be able to travel to three very different cities while away: Prague, Amsterdam, and Berlin. Together with three friends, I took on northern Europe in a whirlwind of an exciting and exhausting eight days. I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect from these three places. I had heard certain things about each, some exciting and encouraging, others not so much. However, I put my preconceived notions aside and entered each city with the idea of anticipation and desire to explore!

Prague was stunning. The views from the Charles Bridge, as well as varying styles of architecture, were unforgettable. The architecture was what stood out to me the most in this small city, so full of history. It is known as “the golden city of spires” because of the abundance of pyramidal structures sitting atop the buildings. The buildings are mostly in styles of Medieval, Baroque, and Renaissance.  The use of color was also much more prevalent than in Rome. The architecture greatly contrasted that of my current home city. Roman architecture is unique in and of itself, as much of it is so ancient and pulled from Greek, Phoenician, and Etruscan styles from over 2,000 years ago. The architectural contrasts of the two cities were vast and exciting to see.

Our next stop was Amsterdam. Although I tried, I could not really walk into this place with no preconceived ideas. I had heard so many stories and things about this city. I wasn’t totally sure how I would feel about it once there, but it sure had a lot to live up to. We arrived after sunset and when walking from the central train station to our hostel, I almost immediately caught a whiff of marijuana. Well, this fits the rumors of Amsterdam’s “glory” already.  We continued to walk and I was immediately attracted to the small, un-drivable streets surrounding by canals. It was surprisingly quiet, and my reaction was that I would really like this curious city. As we approached the hostel, one of my fellow-travelers who had been to Amsterdam noted, “We’re literally in the Red Light District.” And so we were; our hostel was cozily nestled within the midst of red lights and scantily clad women. As the days progressed, I became more and more impressed with Dutch sweets, waterways, and museums, but less impressed by the stereotypical tourist attractions of the Red Light District and coffee shops. It certainly is an unparalleled city though, perhaps overwhelmingly so.

Our final city to explore was Berlin. What a change from the two small cities we had just traveled; it was huge! It was the first place we visited that really felt like an actual city to me. It was spread out and inelegant, but so massively historical; the combination of these elements gave the city and edge and feel that likely isn’t felt in many cities around the world, and almost none in America. There was no ancient architecture to stand and gawk at, as it was nearly all crumbled during World War II. One could almost feel the dwelling feelings of shame or sadness felt by some members of the Berlin society regarding their difficult history. Although so unique, the city was also more Americanized than my previous two excursions, and Italy. There were many fast food restaurants, Starbucks galore, and a DUNKIN’ DONUTS (which we visited daily, without shame.) Being in Berlin made me realize how impressive a job Italy does with maintaining its culture. Here, there are almost no American restaurants (with the exception of McDonald’s and Burger King, which I presume to be a world-wide exception) and less American stores than I saw in Berlin. Go Italy!

Life After Break

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I truly can’t believe that we’re more than halfway through the semester. We have had seven weeks of classes, taken midterm exams, gone on life-changing spring break trips, and have already been back at Temple Rome for seven days. People weren’t kidding when they said this experience will fly by so quickly. Looking ahead, we can almost count on one hand the weekends we have left here in Europe, and I think many people are starting to feel the pressure of needing to see more in Rome and trying to scatter to figure out how we can travel to all the countries we came here hoping to see. I know I am definitely one of those people.

When I arrived in Italy, I made an agreement with myself that I would not waste any time while here because I know how lucky and fortunate I am to be able to have the experience of living in Rome. I also don’t think it is likely I will ever have this opportunity again, and when I someday come back to visit Rome, the experience simply won’t be the same as LIVING here. Minus the 12-17 hours of class we have weekly, we have morning, afternoon, evening, and night to spend exploring this historic and beautiful city. I feel like up until this point, I have done a reasonably good job of weighing out this colossal distraction with school work, as I have maintained good grades while still seeing a lot of Rome, but I want to do some much more.

To date, one of my favorite days in Rome was one when I went to Villa Borghese with a few friends and we rented a surrey (one of the covered bikes for 2-4 people.) It was a beautiful day in February, the sun was shining (as it usually is in Rome) and it was over 50 degrees. We rode around on that surrey for the allotted hour we were given and just laughed and joked and had a blast. It was such a simple experience but because of that it was honestly one of my favorite things I’ve done here. Despite my not being Catholic, I was also very moved by seeing the Vatican and Saint Peter’s Basilica. It is a beautiful structure and a touching experience to be in such a religious place.

Just today I finally went to see the

Vatican Museums. What a special experience. The paintings and sculptures housed by the museums are so ancient and historical. The Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo’s masterpiece housed in the Apostolic Palace (the official residence of the Pope) was breathtaking and a phenomenal representation of such an important part of Italian history, the Renaissance. It is intriguing to me that the Papal Conclave, the process by which a new Pope is chosen, takes place in this room, and shows the importance of the room and the artist.

As tourist season has very noticeably already begun, there is still much on the list of things to do in the near future. I have yet to climb the stairs and view the city from the top of Saint Peter’s Basilica, which I hope to do at sunset one evening soon, and I haven’t visited the Borghese Gallery or the inside of the Coliseum. As I continue to see and do more and more, I only grow more enthusiastic and excited for what I will see in the future!

Il volto, parte 3

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After four days of Barcelona, we went to Madrid. While it was still awesome, I much more enjoyed the people than the city itself. However, one of the best parts of my Spring Break was our visit to Museo del Prado. Talk about faces and interpretations galore. I won’t go as much into detail here, I’ll just say if you ever go, take at least three hours. You can skip the audio guide, it tells you the exact same thing as the captions do.

The most moving faces in here were ironically not in any historical portraits. I was most impressed by the ones that had to do with religion. Although there were so many I liked, this post is getting long and it’s already in two parts and I haven’t even talked about Venice yet, so I’ll just focus on two subjects. The first is the myth of Saturn (Cronus) devouring his children. Basically, Cronus fathered six of the olympians (including Zeus), and he thought they were going to overthrow him, so he ate them. Zeus then frees them all from Cronus’ stomach and they rule the world. In the Prado there are two versions of this devouring. The first one is by Peter Paul Rubens.

Saturn by Rubens

It’s really graphic and almost tough to look at, one because of the intensity and evil of Saturn’s face, and two because of the agony of the child that he is devouring. Goya might have been inspired to create his own masterpiece. Goya’s version, though still dark, is not quite as realistic. But here you can see the absolute madness of Saturn’s face. As he is devouring, you can still see his paranoia and fear.

Saturn by Goya

And of course, I’m gonna talk about Jesus. The final two paintings I looked at in the museum are two of the more famous ones. These are both of the crucifixion, but (just like Saturn Devouring his Son), happen right after one another, albeit within minutes of each other. Francisco Goya’s version shows the face of Christ calling up to his Father, presumably saying any of the following statements:

“My God, my God why have you forsaken me?”

“Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.”

“Father, into your hands, I commend my spirit.”

Christ by Goya

This last phrase is believed by many to be the final words that Christ uttered. In that final moment, he dies on the cross. This brings us to Velazquez’ painting. Here Christ is clearly dead, and now awaits to be taken down from the cross, entombed and resurrected into Heaven. You can see much more graphic details, especially with the blood on his face and feet and hands.

Christ by Velazquez

This brings us to Venice, the heart of Carnevale. We were there in the last weekend before what we know as Fat Tuesday, so it was THE weekend to be there. Here, the faces of the people were obviously covered.

As I got my face painted by a woman on the street for 5 euro (definitely do this, well worth it), I asked her the meaning of the masks.

She told me that back when the festival first started, the masks would allow the classes to mix. Those who were poor could dress in costumes and pretend they were someone else; those who were rich did not have to uphold their status if they had a mask on. This still holds true today as people go out and celebrate in the streets.

The whole place was extremely theatrical,  obviously with masks everywhere. All definitely seemed to be made in Italy, but some were mass-produced by perhaps teams of artsists. These were cheaper (but still awesome), and were usually sold by vendors on the streets. The more expensive ones could be found on side streets in different shops. Some of the artists were working while they had their masks on display. They came in all shapes and sizes, ranging anywhere form 5 euro to 300, probably even more than that. Some were for display, some were for wearing, some where for both. In Barcelona and Madrid we saw art on walls. Here, we saw art on the faces of people in the streets. The masks were unified in their style, but differed in each of their designs. It’s a reminder that we’re all the same.

And FINALLY, this brings us to today. Today, as I write this, there is neither mask nor facepaint. My face is not drawn in flat ways by Joan Miro or in sculpted stone by Antoni Gaudi. It is not painted in detailed brush strokes by Peter Paul Rubens, Francisco Goya, or Diego Velazquez. There is only one thing on my face that is not normally there; a black, puffy cross made of ashes. It’s a reminder that the festivities now transform into a humble time of reflection, and now we await a rebirth.

Il volto, parte 2

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Beyond the faces of the people I met, there were faces made of art. Since this is Carnival, I’ll focus on the tradition and the religious aspects of these faces.

In Barcelona, we were able to see modern art faces at the Joan Miro Art Museum, Cubist-like faces on the Passion Facade of La Sagradia Familia, and realistic faces on the Nativity Facade of La Sagrada Familia.

Joan Miro was a surrealist painter. His museum was awesome but a bit repetitive. Half the paintings are called “Woman with bird.” These are the ones that have very flat faces, like a distorted abstract-y cartoon. What was really neat about seeing modern art (besides the fact that I haven’t seen any yet in Rome), is that it’s a little more interactive. You can do a few things with it. One, you can look at the picture and try to guess what the artist is conveying; two, look at it and create your own story/interpretation; three, just look at it for its aesthetic of shapes, colors and lines. I often found myself doing the second one, just for kicks.

Joan Miro painting, typical style of geometric shapes and abstract lines and colors.

Going along with the same modern-art idea, I want to talk to you about La Sagrada Familia. This “Church of the Holy Family” was created by Antoni Gaudi, the most famous artist in Barcelona. It won’t be completed until 2026, 100 years after construction started. This is my favorite church in the world, topping the Vatican. It was expensive to go inside, 10.50 for students, and even more expensive to get the audio guide and the ticket to the lift (about 16 euro total), but it was all worth it. I know (or hope) my money is going towards its completion. Definitely go inside by yourself with the audio guide if you can spare a few hours. I could have spent a good four hours there, but it closed so I had to leave after three. Anyway…I digress. The faces…

La Sagrada Familia has two completed facades; neither of which is the main entrance. This part has yet to be completed. The Passion Facade acts as the main entrance to the building, and has extremely moving images of the story of Christ’s final days. The most tragic are the following: Peter, who denied knowing his friend Jesus three times; Judas, who has his head in his hands during the Last Supper and kisses Christ on the cheek before betraying him; Pontious Pilate’s wife when she looks on as her husband condemns a just and innocent man; Pilate when he displays Christ to the people below; and that of Christ himself.

Except for Peter, the ones of Jesus are the most moving and make you stop in your tracks. When he is standing next to Pilate before the crowd, you can see an absolute loss for words. It’s heavily contrasted by the black stare of the Roman soldier on his right hand side (whose helmet influenced the Storm Troopers in Star Wars. Cool huh?) When you walk into the building, you are forced to pass by Christ clinging to a pillar. Some interpretations (like the audio guide), said that this was a depiction of his loneliness in the hours before his death. To me it seemed like the scene where he is ready to be flogged 39 times by the Roman soldiers. Either way, the face is lonely and distraught. Even if you’re not Christian, looking at these stories from a strictly historical perspective and seeing the art displayed is something incredible to see.

When you pass through the church, you can see the Nativity Facade on the East side. This shows details of the story of Jesus’ birth and life growing up. The most moving faces are not those of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, but actually of King Herod and the children he is slaughtering. This is located on the left hand side facing the facade. This portico symbolizes hope (the other two porticos are charity and faith). This shows a hope for a future kingdom, a hope that the Christ child will bring.



Il volto, parte 1

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So Spring Break….absolutely amazing. There was a group of eight of us that went from Rome to Barcelona, Barcelona to Madrid, and Madrid to Venice. This was all during Carnevale (Carnival), which is a roughly two week celebration leading up to Ash Wednesday. It’s just like Mardi Gras, same concept but with masks and not beads.

Before I talk about the masks, I just want to further emphasize how awesome Spring Break was. Not because of all the really good food and bars and all that, but moreso because of the people we met on the trip. “Il volto” means face, so I wanted to talk about people themselves.

Barcelona alone was by far the best city of break, and possibly my favorite city in the world (still deciding between that and Rome, Philly is my 3rd favorite…yes over New York). Our hostel was located very near to Las Ramblas, which is the main strip of the city. It leads right to the Mediterranean Sea. Within 4 days, we met people from all over the world.

My friend Becca and I shared a hostel room with a girl from Brazil named Rossa. She was treating herself to travel for her birthday, so she hung with us for two days. One night we all went out to a small night club and she asked why Americans go crazy when they dance. Then she taught me how they dance in Brazil, and that it’s nothing personal. Just because you dance close with someone in a sensual way doesn’t mean you have a thing for them. So I can now officially say I danced with a slightly older Brazilian woman, no strings attached! We also met Emma and Chris from Canada. Chris was on five weeks holiday, and Emma lives in Europe, so they were travelling together. Cal, from Scotland, was definitely the most…interesting of the characters. Really cool guy, but every other sentence out of his mouth was about drugs or anarchy. To each his own I guess. Then there were our nextdoor neighbors, a group of about seven French kids who were always in the lobby, either making dinner, eating dinner, or drinking. There was even a little old lady from Holland that was in our room; retired and just wanted to travel the world. At the front desk was Gian Carlo, a Peruvian that was our age; and Oliver, a Brit who spoke four different languages. I asked him how he knew so much, and he said that he was currently living with an Italian, and just taught himself French and Spanish. He said he learns about 100 vocab words a day (which is nuts), but a professor told him if you work up to 20 a day, you will learn the language so fast. So I want to strive to get to that point. We’ll see…

That was just in the hostel. I also bought two paintings off an artist from the Netherlands, who spoke five languages. Before entering the Sagrada Familia (which was AWESOME by the way), I bought lunch from a “Tropical” sandwhich shop. I explained to the waitress that I wanted to learn Spanish, and it was 20 minutes of trying to speak Spanish with her before I realized she was from England. At an Irish pub, I got to talk to a guy from Boston named Chris who works in radio. There were many more exchanges, but these are the ones I remember the most. In Madrid, we went on a pub crawl. Here I talked to a New Zealander who was teaching English in France, two Italians named Stefano and Rimini, and two kids from China that were studying in Germany. They taught me how to say

“Hello”…你好…”Nǐ hǎo”

“Goodbye”…再见…”Zàijiàn”

“Do you speak Chinese?”…你会讲中文吗…”Nǐ huì jiǎng zhōngwén ma?”

I repeated all three back to them but only could remember Nǐ hǎo. Oh well, I’m facebook friends with them so maybe I can learn that way?

The closest I got to a foreign language besides Italian in Venice was speaking English to Fernando, a Brazilian friend of my friend Dan. He’s currently working in Florence. His English is excellent, my Portuguese doesn’t exist. I also got to talk to some British kids in a bar about Spain, and the English language in general, and how it’s upsetting that only just recently are English-speaking children taught other languages from such a young age. The rest of the city was extremely touristy, so it was mostly just English and Italian. Va bene.

Talking to all these people really made me want to learn other languages. I’ve never had a desire to be proficient or fluent, just to get by, but I feel that might change by the time I leave in two months.