Tag Archives: explorations

The New Haven Field Trip Society

5 Oct

At the beginning of this year, I gathered friends, crayons, and panlist members and started something new. (Perhaps, one could argue, I started something “new…Haven.”) It is a field trip society. It tries to move the boundaries of our self-defined “community” so far outwards that neither we nor local residents notice them anymore. It seeks to make us get up, go, learn, meet, explore, and then, perhaps, belong. And when someone asked me a few weeks ago to write them a piece explaining our mission, I did it like this:

Some people call them crazy. Some call them time-consuming, escapist, exhilarating, or nostalgia-inducing. I, however, simply call them “field trips.”

Remember those? The museums, the mountain hiking, the parental permission forms, and that one day free of the classroom when we earned our “real world” stripes (oh, the days when helping a historical reenactor lead a town meeting was enough to gain you street cred.) It was kind of cool, those few hours of exploding the familiar and singing bad ‘90s pop songs on the school bus. And then it disappeared.

Until now. This fall, I and a group of other quirky, adventurous, wanderlust students decided to do the unthinkable: bring back the field trips. Bring back the sense of discovery and the connection to places and people outside of our normal daily circuits. Bring back the magic. And with that, in August, 2010, the New Haven Field Trip Society was born.

Its mission is simple: to facilitate field trips from Yale’s campus into the wider world, most specifically the greater New Haven area. On top of this, NHFTS aims to make interesting people and places collide with each other. That’s why, in addition to having a huge array of potential destinations, we have a huge array of members, and our favorite trips are the ones that begin with introductions. It’s not all that many organizations that collect spontaneous people. We’re one of them.

So far, we’ve gone on a sunset schooner-ride in the New Haven Harbor, tried homemade pepper jam and fresh-picked blueberries at the Downtown Farmer’s Market, painted murals in Fair Haven at a service event with people from the neighborhood, and jammed at the CT Folk Festival. We’ve invited members to ribbon cutting events more than a half an hour away from campus and neighborhood parties just around the corner. And that’s just the beginning. Our “explorganizers” (no self-respecting society is complete without some tongue-in-cheek board titles) have suggested master classes with area metalworkers, tours of the city’s old baseball landmarks, midnight canoe rides, joint service days with local organizations, and undercover missions to the homes of local celebrities. Not to mention the culinary conquistadors out there; we have a list of area restaurants to fill every spare minute of our days…and every free inch of our stomachs (yes, Mom, even our second stomachs.)

Row, row, row your...schooner?

There is a lightheartedness to all of this, of course. A sense of frivolity, even, in the freewheeling expeditions that we lead. We are the Ivy-League equivalents of the Lost Boys, marching off into the sunset with funny-looking caps on our heads and leaving our Yale responsibilities behind. And that, in itself, is a beautiful thing: to take our resume-laden self-presentations down a notch (or several notches) and force us to interact under more unfamiliar settings. We regain playfulness and break away from our expected social packs. We even, on occasion, laugh so hard that we make new friends and adopt new places as our own. In the most elementary-school way, it’s extraordinary.

It’s also extremely important. As Yale students, we come from hometowns to a campus and expect the two to be roughly equivalent. After all, just like the neighborhoods we left, Yale hosts events, fosters relationships between suites, and builds monuments to its own history. Because of this, for many students, being a scholar and being a citizen may seem like the same thing. But there is so much that they miss. The city outside the university is not “outside” at all, in the sense that it only exists beyond our doors; it envelops us, we are a part of it, spatially if not mentally. This campus is just one portion of a metropolitan area that has its own uniqueness, its own depth and struggles, its own government, its own favorite places and local yokels and neighborhood activists. We would be fooling ourselves to think that the world begins and ends at Phelps Gate, and we would be depriving ourselves of a whole lot of fun. The New Haven Field Trip Society exists to knock down those walls around campus and expose the city for what it really is: our home. And if that sounds like a cool mission to you – or if you really want to live out the adventures that you crave – I invite you to join us. No permission slip required.

If I can't rope you into joining me, can I hula hoop you into an expedition? Not even if I do it in front of a whole festival full of bemused people?

Welcome to the Society (and, for future purposes, email me to get on the panlist or click here to read more.)

Yours in urban questing,

J

I’m Feeling Those Good Migrations

10 Jul

At approximately 9pm on Thursday, Ashley and I learned that we were trapped in Genova. Genova, the city of Colombus, of explorers, of port-induced wanderlust, became our captor just as quickly as it had been our vacation destination.

More specifically, we learned that all of Italy’s transportation workers had gone on strike. For a full 24 hours, from 9pm on Thursday to 9pm on Friday, not a single train ran through Genova Brignole station…including the train that we had planned on taking to Bologna, our next destination, where we had pre-booked and paid for a hotel for that night.

For a moment, we allowed ourselves to worry and to descend into a flurry of “this could never happen in the U.S.” thoughts. Then, we laughed, long and hard. Sure, a national train strike would be much more unlikely in America, but so would the three hours of lingering each morning over our caffe lattes, and the full day of hiking between mountains and sea that we had done the day before. Italy has its quirks (strikes, the lack of breakfast food beyond cornettos and coffee, the fact that each business closes whenever the owners deem it necessary without regard to its scheduled hours…), but it also has a magnificence of presence that I’ve never felt anywhere else.

That being said, we still had to deal with the strike. And we had to deal with it without Italian skills other than food words (knowing how to ask for extra extra EXTRA parmesan cheese doesn’t get you very far at the ticket counter) and without access to Internet, because we did not bring our computers along for the trip. So, we decided to take the first train to Bologna after the 9pm reopening of the station, and, after a brief layover and four hours of traveling, arrived at our hotel at 3am in the morning instead of noon the day before. In the meantime, we used our unanticipated (and, honestly, given the city, a bit unnecessary) time in Genova to do the things that most people don’t make enough time for on vacations: have a two-hour lunch (of PESTO), window shop, wander the streets, buy lingerie (I kid you not…we surprised even ourselves with that purchase, but we had been seeing stores everywhere for six weeks, and we decided that it was time to invest in a different type of Italian luxury), drink glasses of prosecco with aperitivi outside on sunny tables, purchase new books (we are both on our second one in a week; I have finished a total of 1135 pages since Sunday), and read for four hours with our empty glasses in front of us. It was a day of surprising vigor, and one that worked out in our favor, as I write this now in the morning from our hotel in Bologna.

I also write this in the middle of the trip that Ashley and I are on through the north of Italy. It is the first trip I have ever planned alone, and the first with such little contact and great independence. All we have are our backpacks for these ten days — that, and a determination that we will take these moments, paid for in part by money that we have been saving since we were ten and had our first change in a piggy bank, and out of them mold experiences that we can return to again and again for the rest of our lives. We have been grateful, adventurous, and scared. And we have been doing, every moment we have been doing: climbing the dome in Florence, renting bikes and cycling through tiny hill towns in Tuscany, hopping trains up the coast, wine and olive oil tasting in medieval fortresses, hiking between all five towns of Cinque Terre, deciphering statues in Genova, taking goofy pictures at every opportunity, feasting on local fish and wines or having our own quiet picnics of fruit and peanut butter, devouring recommended books each night before bed, swimming in desolate rocky coves along cliffsides, and, in just a few moments, exploring Bologna.

We still have this city and one more, Venice, before we return to Rome and then to the place and people that we miss dearly back in America, and I promise to write the entries that this trip (and the end of our Rome course) deserve when we get home. Until then, kisses from the road; go have some adventures of your own.

I want you, I “knead” you, oh baby, oh baby

30 Jun

Friends, Romans, countrymen —

I have been wooed. Oh, yes. I have been wooed, and I have been wooed sweetly, and I have been wooed in Italiano.

(Dad, unclench your fists for one moment and keep reading. Trust me.)

It all started with my arrival in Trastevere five weeks ago as a poor, unsuspecting, supermarket-brainwashed American. I spent the first two days so overwhelmed with fruit and cheeses, wines and outdoor markets that I could barely walk straight, instead bumping into the person next to me as I craned my neck towards the closest open food shop. I began cooking, and then I began learning to trust other people’s cooking.

And then, on the seventh day, when even God was busy resting, I found it. My bakery.

I could smell it from down the sidewalk as I entered my neighborhood, exhausted from a day of traversing the city. My stomach grumbled in recognition of a friendly locale. “Pizza,” it said loudly (anyone who has ever traveled to Italy knows that here, your stomach acquires a persona of its own). “I want THAT PIZZA.” Without further discussion, I grabbed Ashley by the arm and pulled her into the open doorway. I saw cookies. I saw full loaves of bread stretched out on open wooden counters. And I saw at least fifteen different kinds of pizza, all waiting for me to devour them. And so it was that on that fateful day of June, I had my first taste of the best pizza in all of Trastevere.

Pictures can't even do this place justice

Of course I came back, at some points almost every other day. When I didn’t buy pizza, I came to buy breads in full loaves, fresh, warm bread to use as bruschetta or eat plain with cheese, apples, or honey. I let the rest of my friends in on the secret, and soon all of the girls began going to my bakery.

The best part about the place is that the workers there speak no English; neither do any of their customers. It is hidden on a side-street away from tourists, and the crowds of locals who jam it for lunch are so big that they have to use a ticketing system during the afternoon to deal with the volume of requests, like the kind we use at the deli. After our first two times of using our fumbling Italian and hilarious hand gestures to order, we began to be recognized by the people who worked there. One man in particular always lit up when we walked through the door and gave our standard greeting of, “ciao!” One night, he snuck an extra cookie into the wrapping of our bread. The next time we came in, he complimented our dresses, asked us to hang around, and gave us two free pizzettes. I had made a good find with my bakery; my bakery and I were getting along swimmingly.

And then, today, I took Frances there for lunch. We were sweaty and hot and tired and anxious for food after a morning of tracing Mussolini’s footsteps across the city. And despite the busy room, as soon as the man saw us enter, he broke into a grin. “Ciao!” he called out and helped us maneuver our way into the line. We both got sandwiches of fresh bread, tomato, arugula, and mozzerella and sat down at the bar to eat. Within minutes, I was thirsty enough to go buy a water (for the record, that was the first time I have ever bought a water bottle in Rome outside of a restaurant meal; the fountains are so plentiful that I just fill up my own bottle in the morning and bring it with me wherever I go), and when I got up to the register, our baker friend put up his finger. “Wait,” he said.

He returned from around the corner cradling the fluffiest, most incredible pastry I had ever seen. “Shhh,” he motioned with a finger over his lips. “For you,” and he slid it across to me with a smile. Never had I eaten a pastry this good — right out of the oven. It had some kind of light chocolatey cream inside and powdered sugar coating its edges. And when he saw that I had split the pastry in half to share with Frances, he ran back and got one for her, too.

Even my talkative tummy was now silent, happy beyond words.

A few minutes later, having made all kinds of inappropriate moaning noises as I inhaled my dessert, I turned back to the counter behind me. “MOLTO bene,” I said, trying as best as I could to get across the concept of heaven through hand gestures. “BENISSIMO.”

He smiled. “One minute,” he motioned again with his finger. And there it was, on the counter in front of me. Two MORE pastries, two more piping hot pastries, filled with raisins and sugar and flaky bread and who knows what other sweet sweet nectar of the gods.

I had thought I was full before I had even made it through the first pastry. How would I ever eat a second? Finally, one of my genetic inheritances kicked in for the win. Yes, Mom, you guessed it — your secret, extra stomach pocket specially evolved to hold unexpected dessert SAVED THE DAY. And oh, it was so. so. SOOOOOO. good.

Close-up.

And that's when I knew: I'd been training for this moment my whole life. Pastry, PREPARE FOR DOMINATION.

Before leaving, I had a long conversation with my friend-turned-dessert-superhero. Or at least as long of a conversation as I could have in broken Italian, French (he didn’t speak much outside of “oui, francais!” which made me temporarily very excited), and fragments of English. In fact, I’m not really sure what I actually said to him during those few minutes. However, I do know that he got very sad when I said I would be leaving on Saturday and that he called me “bella, bella, bella.” When Frances and I started to leave the store, saying “A domani!” or, “‘Til tomorrow!” he shook his head. “Venerdi, come venerdi,” (Friday). “Okay, venerdi!” I nodded back. He motioned at my camera, then at Frances for a moment. “Picture with her,” he said, pointing at me. “Happy, happy me,” I said, pointing at my stomach.

Readers, I warn you now. I am going back on Friday, and if he gives me so much as one more cannolo, I may not make it home.

(You’re all invited to the wedding.)

Letter to my Archivist

24 Jun

Dear Memory,

I know you are cluttered and stuffed to the brim with all sorts of knick-knacks – puns and conquests and the smell of my Grampa’s French toast – but I would like to file a request.

Please clear out a corner, preferably on a high shelf that won’t need to be disturbed for a while (and where those pesky short-term reminders can’t reach), and open a file entitled:

NIGHT WALK OUT LOUD, JUNE 23-24, HANDLE WITH CARE.

In this file, with utmost precision, I would like you to record every moment of last night between the hours of midnight and 4am. I want pictures, audio, press clippings if you can find them. This ought to be a veritable archive.

I know you are already overworked processing the Colosseum and that you have a backlog of Bernini statues. But trust me, this is a memory that I will want to come back to for the rest of my life. Push it to the front of the line, would ya?

And just because I’m so grateful for your hard work, I’ll start you off with a collection of the best moments of the evening. You take it from there.

Ashley and I were washing dishes and singing. This was not unusual in itself; however, this time it went on for a long time because we were doing dishes from both the group dinner and the wine tasting. I had already started making a mental map of the rest of my evening like I always do when I am stressed out, weighing the different possible combinations of study and sleep and realizing that sleep would yet again come up short. I had a presentation the next morning on Byron and wanted to knock the socks off of my teacher (I had been talking to her since arriving in Rome about my love of poetry) and so I knew that after dinner, I would hunker down with the eighteen open tabs on my web browser to read more and more about this crazy, violent, passionate, supremely talented man.

Until, that is, Nick, Hannah’s friend who was visiting and who did the program last year, walked into the kitchen. “I’m taking a walk tonight,” he announced. “Anyone else in?”

Hannah nearly choked on her laughter: “Seriously? I am going to SLEEP.” But Ashley and I made eye contact once, twice, shook our heads, rolled our eyes at each other knowing the futility of our situation, and answered together, “We’re coming.” Completely cuckoo or not (not to mention academically irresponsible), we would never say no to a night walk in Rome.

We left the apartment at 1am. It was Nick’s last night in Rome, but Ashley and I had class the next morning at eight thirty, and I still had my presentation to plan. Feeling a sudden pang of worry on my way out the door, I grabbed my Byron printout from the table and told them, “I’m still coming. But I’m going to read Byron from wherever we stop.” They shrugged their shoulders and we walked out into the piazza, still packed with 20-somethings laughing and leaning inwards in flirtation. The cobblestones echoed with Italian.

Before leaving Trastevere, Nick grabbed a cappuccino from S. Calisto despite the fact that everyone else at the bar was ordering a harder beverage. “Ciao!” I announced into the night air when we entered, as usual. “Ciao,” the older man at the cashier nodded back to me as he handed Nick his change with one hand and cleared Peroni bottles off the top of the glass case of pastries with the other.

Newly caffeinated, Nick decided on our destination: Piazza del Popolo. In Italian, this means “Piazza of the People”; in the language of night walks, this means “Hold on to your sandals, kiddos, this is going to be one heck of a journey.” But we went anyways, along the Tiber (dark with no sun to filter through its trees), through Piazza Navona (bodies mixed with bodies in the blackness in front of me. I could only see those closest to the fountains clearly), across the broken glass bottles of Campo de’ Fiori, and into alleyways that confused the compass that I always keep at the top of my mind. I don’t know how long it took for us to reach the piazza, just that it was long enough to weave in and out of narratives of Rome, everything from our independent project topics to the story of deceit behind one of Michelangelo’s window trimmings.

When we did find Piazza del Popolo, it was deserted. Beyond deserted. Echoing and dusky and much vaster than I had realized back when I saw it clothed in hundreds of sneakers, it met us with its central fountain with four lions shooting water down through their jaws.

“I’m reading Byron,” I said. Then, pausing, “Is it okay if I read Byron?”

“We’re listening,” Nick said, and leaned into the bottom curve of the fountain. I took the folded paper out of my purse, looked up at the top of the fountain, and began to climb. One narrow step at a time. My sandals were not made to grip marble against water but I pleaded with them to succeed, and within a minute, I was straddling a lion, facing a deserted piazza, holding Byron in an 8.5 x 11″ message on my palm.

“Then farewell, Horace; whom I hated so,

Not for thy faults, but mine; it is a curse

To understand, not feel thy lyric flow.

To comprehend, but never love thy verse…”

I trailed off. I had chills. I had two people with closed eyes listening to me read Byron into the marble ruins around me. I was getting wild and romantic, and Lord B. himself would have been proud. On to later stanzas, and,

“Oh Rome! my country! city of the soul!

The orphans of the heart must turn to thee…”

Without acknowledgment I stopped mid-poem and passed the paper off to Nick, who also said nothing but clambered up the adjacent lion. And I stood on the center staircase, listening to words written in that place two hundred years ago. Then Ashley, who had initially shied away from our declamations, pulled herself up onto the central platform, and from above us, looking out, she finished the piece.

“Wow.” Nick said after a few moments. “I think that’s one of the coolest things I have ever done here.” “Wow,” I responded, quietly. “Wow.”

Piazza del Popolo at night. The four lions can be seen, barely, surrounding the base of the obelisk.

By the time we left the piazza, Ashley and I had red roses on our laps from a wandering vendor (“No grazie!” we told him. “No pay — you beautiful,” he argued back, and thrust them onto our laps.) We held them awkwardly in one hand as we followed Nick to our next destination, a “surprise,” we were told.

The surprise was at the top of a hill climb and past scattered Roman couples making out. It was first, a fountain, hidden behind stairs and walls, and second, a view through the Borghese gardens, one that looked out over all of Rome in its quiet repose. “We should recite something else,” we thought. And so, because it was the most firm text in his memory, Nick began the Gettysburg Address from this ledge in Rome in Italy in Europe across an ocean from its initial composition. At the end, we moved on. Each moment of the night cleared the paths of more people until, almost spookily, we were alone on most of our sidestreets. We were deep in the city by this point, and far from home.

"The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. "

So far that our next stop was a climb down – down the Spanish steps. Here, we shared from memory the opening few pages of the Canterbury Tales (yes, Ms. Haag, I still do remember those, Old English emphases and all) and snippets of Shakespeare. By the end, we were sharing every poetic line that had ever stuck to the walls of our minds. We shook them free of their cobwebs and loosed them into the night.

The Spanish Steps

The walk back could be described as uneventful, except that we were walking in the footsteps of emperors and popes. We got lost, used churches as landmarks, and finally stumbled up the stairs more than three hours after our departure. Everyone in the apartment was sleeping, and so we put on pajamas, too; brushing my teeth felt strange after all of those mouthfuls of remembered words.

In the morning, we were tired, but not enough. We had already forgotten moments, but not too many. And we will remember, just for this long.

A rose (and a view) (and a city at rest)

( Now go work your neuron magic, mind. I want – no, I need – this file done right.)

Yours,

Jessica

City By Night

22 Jun

Just returned from another night walk after an evening of dressing up and eating out. I can’t speak for it in the daytime, but tonight was my first time ever seeing the Trevi Fountain, and when it is lit up against the depth of the sky, it is beautiful. Someone carved that, someone carved each stone, and now it means so much to so many people (each of us with our stolen moments in its presence; each of us with our custom memories)…one visit a postcard can’t quite capture.

Tossing our coins in. Now we have to come back to Rome. (I like superstition when it means more travel!)

Climbing the edges of the fountain, moments before a guard told us to get down. That's one small step for us, one giant potential Trevi belly-flop for mankind!

And, because I am already talking about art, I’ll end with a quote from artist Tullio Pericoli’s personal statement in an exhibit at the Ara Pacis museum:

Our face is a page we always carry with us, a page that we write and rewrite day after day. Faces are individual stories, landscapes are collective stories. Hidden in each of these stories is an accumulation of past events, ideas and cataclysms. I feel all this very intensely, and like so many other people I often wonder what’s inside us, what’s below us. I like to think of the earth’s surface as if it were a page in a story, the continuation of a story that began on earlier pages, and I imagine that the future pages will depend on the one I’m reading now. What we see around us today is the result of what happened a million years ago, or a hundred years ago, or yesterday: ground broken by the plow, woods cut down, a drought, a flood, a road laid out, a geologic cataclysm. The same kind of thing happens on the canvas. The surface we see speaks to us of the layers it conceals, of the history of that canvas, of the layers of paint over it, but it also speaks of the history of painting, which has settled intangibly on the work and in our minds.

Until tomorrow —

ciao,

Jess

And sometimes, you find paradise.

19 Jun

I’ve gotten good at this. Finding paradise, that is. It’s not all that hard when I’m in Italy. It just requires letting go of my normal thoughts for a moment – the physical aches of my shoulders and feet or the technological zips of Facebook alerts – and letting my senses take over. No planning ahead, wearing watches, or using maps. Just wandering, observing, touching, and trying to consume as much as possible in real-time memory-making.

Urban studies has a term for this method of approaching cities: the dérive. Students abandon their normal methods of navigation and, it is hoped, their native misgivings and instead journey based on instinct and emotional response to their surroundings. If a certain street looks inviting, they walk down it. If they turn back and switch direction, they note it and later try to determine why. Why enter this piazza? Why not put your hands in that fountain? Why are some parts of the city magnetic and others repulsive? It is a technique that gives weight to the individual experience within the context of the urban whole.

I bring this up because I have spent several of the past few days going on my own dérives. Finally, I feel as though I have gotten to the point where I don’t need a map here (which doesn’t mean that I know my way around, it just means that I’ve gained a certain familiarity with the north-south-east-west bearings of the landscape), and I’ve started taking some solitary afternoon walks (mainly to the computer repair shop, which is how I am typing again. YAY.). From this perspective, the city feels completely different. I pay no attention to street signs and instead orient myself based on gut feeling (“where is the Tiber? where should I be in relation to the river right now?”). I don’t take pictures. I don’t slow down to read the plaque on every building. Instead, I make eye contact with the trees and the drivers, and I shake my head with a smile at all of the “bella! bella! ciao, bella!” from Italian men, and I let myself be drawn into the everyday bowels of this eternal city.

But back to paradise. The one that I visited most recently was a series of villas during our big class day-trip to Tivoli yesterday. Tivoli is about an hour away, so we were on the bus at 8:30am and back in Rome by 7pm. Within that time, we visited Hadrian’s Villa, Villa d’Este, and Villa Gregoriana, and the best way of describing the landscapes that I saw is to think back to those old puzzles – yknow, the ones with vibrant greens and distant mountains and always a waterfall, that have at least 500 pieces in them that all blend together because everything is so lush, and you are convinced it’s just a painting after all? yeah, those puzzles – and imagine walking through them, and realizing that they are real, and that your feet – those same dirty feet that played soccer on New Hampshire fields and tottered for hours the night of prom – are touching that painted earth. It is a landscape that forces poetry or prostration, perhaps both. If you are ever in Rome with the chance to take a day trip, this is it. The big and beautiful kahuna.

First, Hadrian’s Villa. We just finished reading an exquisite book called “Memoirs of Hadrian” by Marguerite Yourcenar – one of my all-time favorite books, please please go add it to your list – and so I had some background heading into the day. I knew, for example, that Hadrian had been a Roman emperor right after Trajan, and that he lived from 76-138 AD. I knew that he was an extremely well-traveled man who barely spent any time in Rome and instead slept at the edges of his empire, trying to keep it secure. I knew that he had a love affair with a young boy named Antinous, of whom he had many statues made. And I knew that he was rumored to be an amateur architect.

What I didn’t know was that his villa (and here’s an important point – unlike our connotation in English, the word “villa” in Italian does not refer solely to a house, it refers to an entire estate) is cradled by hills out in the countryside, and that he had built houses, as the guide said, “capable of architectural flirtation.” I didn’t know that his admiration of everything Greek led him to build pools that reflect water in moving ribbons across marble columns, or that I would be surrounded by the remnants of curves and shadows, pillars and grids. “Get drunk on art,” the museum there encouraged us. And so I did, imagining what the tumbling down brick halls looked like when they were first painted with their frescoes or lined with colored marble statues. And we all did, as we delighted in Hadrian’s ability to fuse the organic and the constructed by building man-made fountains in the natural curvature of a valley.

Then, we piled onto the bus and back out at Villa d’Este. Built much later and with the ruins of Hadrian’s Villa in mind (and in hand – many of the decorations at d’Este were in fact stolen – er, scavenged – from Hadrian’s original structures just a few miles away), Villa d’Este is a place where luxury and whimsy gave themselves permission to run rampant across a hillside. It is home to sun and shade and oasis and retreat and olive trees (with the most unbelievable, gnarled and time-wizened trunks) and above all, WATER. Edith Wharton wrote about the gardens here, as do the guidebooks, because of the fountains within them. More fountains than you can imagine, about 500 individual jets of water, all celebrating their surroundings through reflections. I am aching with the beauty of the space before I even make it down the first staircase. This is a planned place, a scripted place, meant to be romantic and evocative, and it succeeds; there is a marking in the exact center of the gardens, and when I get there, I lay down on my back and closed my eyes, and when I opened them, I said something silly and romantic and exactly like what the architects wanted me to say, something like, “I am waking up from a dream and seeing through my heart.” I was actually exhausting myself with my lofty odes. We picnicked in Villa d’Este and ate a cake we had brought with us for someone’s birthday, and as we left, I spoke with someone about how much more disciplined this villa had seemed than the crumpled one before. “That’s true,” she agreed. “But think about it – even with this planning, the water is still slowly wearing down its stone fountain containers every second of the day. At some point, it, too, will go back to nature.” And it’s true – in one hidden corner, I found a dormant statue so covered with moss that it seemed to be clenched by the greenery. It all circles back into itself in time.

Finally, we arrived at Villa Gregoriana. Unlike the other two sites, Villa Gregoriana has no house within its walls; it is a villa of nature, but is well-known for human engineering in addition to its beauty. That engineering diverted the Aniene River from its normal flood path (right through town) and to a safer set of tunnels and pools within the hills. Pope Gregory XVI turned the space into a public park in 1826, and Pliny and Goethe, to name just a few, both mentioned it as one of the most beautiful spaces they had ever seen. I have to agree, if only because so many of the signs used the term “grotto,” and that word in itself connotes a place of splendor, doesn’t it? Either that or the Little Mermaid, who would have been proud of the way I clambered down rock steps and over barriers to dip my feet in waterfall pools.

In all of these places, we wandered. Yes, we talked, and at Hadrian’s Villa, we were taught in a linear fashion by our on-site professors, but we were walking differently than normal, allowing our feet to drag just a bit longer in the ancient dirt and actually reaching out to touch the evidence around us. In the boys’ case, of course, this also meant reaching out to touch every lizard and bug they could find, but it was all part of the classroom experience. Again, if you get the chance, go see them. And if you don’t, well – here it is in pictures. My little slice of paradise.

Hadrian’s Villa

A guesstimated model of what Hadrian's Villa looked like during Hadrian's lifetime. My reaction: "Well...I guess I wouldn't mind living here. If I HAD to..."

The class at Hadrian's Villa. Our professors are the two women in sunglasses.

Olive trees. I am beyond positive there are mythical creatures living within these trunks.

I am a pillar of strength! Also, a dork.

Villa d’Este

The entrance hallway at Villa d'Este

Me in front of the first fountain I encountered. And no, you are not the first one to poke fun at me for not being able to touch my feet to the ground.

Mo' fountains.

Group fountain photo! These are the best girls. We explored together (read: splashed each other with water) all afternoon.

Villa Gregoriana

First view of the Villa. Can you really blame me for my overt romanticism in these situations?

There were rainbows. No pots of gold, though. But definitely rainbows.

And there were waterfalls. (Hearts and stars and horseshoes, clovers and blue moons!)

Annie and I on the descent. Note the backdrop.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood...and I, I took the one - well, I took the one that gave me the viewpoint over the Valley of Hell. And that has made all the difference.

Caesar’s Notes: Tuesday, June 1 – “You are 2000 years old. I am 20.”

6 Jun

Belated and abbreviated post for Tuesday – since I have more time this afternoon, I’m going to try and include a few of these in rapid succession to finish recording the week!

On Tuesday, Ashley and I woke up and decided to go for a run. To the Colosseum.

Living in Trastevere, this is not nearly as epic as it sounds. We lace up our sneakers, change into running clothes (our professor would hate this — we were told not to wear shorts or white sneakers in the city to avoid pegging ourselves as tourists!), cross Ponte Garibaldi, run through a few streets, sprint across the Circus Maximus (which isn’t a big deal in itself, or anything), and look around until we spot a big hulking ruin on the horizon. Excusing the fact that Rome is filled with big hulking ruins, we spot this one pretty quickly – and bam. All of those hours of History Channel watching are condensed into one building right in front of me.

We don’t have a camera, so instead of pausing for pictures, we jog closer. And closer. And closer, until I can reach out my hand and touch the wall. “You are 2000 years old.” I say to it (I’m starting to get into this weird habit of talking to ancient structures.) “I’m 20. Excuse my language, but holy shit.”

Dodging tourists, we run the entire perimeter of the Colosseum, silent the whole time. I am a bit out of shape, the Euros tucked into my sock are itching me, and I am getting an awful sunburn on my right shoulder, but I can’t pay attention to any of that. I am too busy seeing the Colosseum on my morning run.

An hour and a stop-start shower later (to conserve hot water, we all have to wash our hair, stop the water, soap up, start the water, stop the water, shave, start the water…rinse and repeat as necessary), I am on the #3 tram on my way to the Capitoline Hill, the Palatine Hill, and the Roman Forum. These sites are our class for the day. I am in dork urban history heaven.

And that’s before I meet Jan Gadeyne, our guide for the day (and for one of our classes next week, too.) His reputation far precedes him – so much so that we heard about him for nearly a half hour from last year’s students during a pre-departure mingle in New Haven. Why, you might ask? Because he’s a beast. First of all, he was featured in the History Channel’s “Rome: Engineering an Empire” and PBS’s “Did Rome Really Fall?” Second of all, he has not one but TWO Facebook fan pages and a YouTube impersonator. And third of all, he walks SO. ABSURDLY. FAST.

Jan sketching out the four quadrants of the hill. At one point he turned and snapped at us: "Do not sit down! This is not an ElderHostel tour!"

So I came prepared, having stretched from my run and tapped into my Yale tour guide/New Hampshire cul-de-sac walker mentality. If you are unfamiliar, both the Palatine and the Capitoline Hills are famous in the history of Rome because they are two of the Seven Hills of Rome that surround and cut through the city. The Palatine Hill in particular is the site of the homes of Rome’s most ancient settlers, including (legend has it) the hut of Romulus, one of the twin brothers who founded the city (remember that story? suckled by wolves, Romulus kills Remus? ahh, now you’re with me). Archaeologists have found traces here of civilization going all the way back to the 9th century B.C. Because of its legendary importance, many emperors built their palaces here (Augustus literally built his to encompass the traces of Romulus’s hut), and we get our word “palace” from the name “Palatine.”

Me on the Palatine. It's not so bad to be "over the hill" when you're around buildings that are several millennia older!

Taken together, Jan Gadeyne’s guidance and my epic surroundings meant that I saw a lot of superbly-explained, stunningly-old sites over the course of three hours and was out of breath the entire time. Though I am proud to say that I KEPT UP, even when the entire rest of the group got lost behind us. Jan gave me a grudging, “You’re a little better than the rest of them…but I’m still not impressed,” at the end of the tour. We’ll see how I do next time we meet.

Ruins from the Palace of Domitian. At its (literal) height, the palace had walls that were 100 ft. high.

The best part of the outing (besides the scenery and Jan’s continuous griping about the flowers that had been planted on the hill “to please the tourists”) was the Roman Forum. The forum first became a proper Forum in around 625 B.C., so it beats even the Colosseum by a long shot. Heck, even Cicero had his digs here for a while. Among the ruins: the Temple of Julius Caesar (and the site where much of “Julius Caesar,” the Shakespeare play which we had to read during our spring term semester, takes place!); a few bricks left over from the Imperial Rostra, a platform from which ordinary citizens could get up and make speeches to the crowd; a handful of temples, each with a few marble pillars or ceiling blocks remaining; and my favorite, the Curia Senatus, or the former senate house which has been carefully reconstructed around its foundations to the point where I stood still, closed my eyes, and just imagined all of the debates that had raged there and famous orators who had spoken. Throughout the day, I felt as though I could hear the ruins echo.

Sections of the Forum; also, HELLO, pillars.

Talk about a walk back in time...

We made our way back to our apartment after class and did a little shopping for dinner, including a short stop into this delicious cheese, bread, and wine shop whose owners speak absolutely no English. We communicated with sign language and baby Italian.

Don't worry, I won't insert another cheesy pun here...oops.

Before cooking dinner (spaghetti with a sauce of meat, zucchinis, eggplant, etc; salad; bruschetta; wine and cheese), Jonah (one of the guys in the program) and I made one more field trip. We went to John Cabot University, a nearby English-language college, and we attended a poetry workshop by Mark Strand, former Poet Laureate of the United States and current Writer in Residence at John Cabot. Sitting in the audience with my notebook open, I couldn’t believe that I was hearing this American poet read poems translated into Italian while sitting in Italy. A cross cultural triumph.

When dinner ended, the girls and guys split up again, and while the guys were off exploring the local pub scene, we went for our first night walk around Rome.

Setting off on our night walk.

Rome is an AMAZING city at night. Everything is walkable, populated, safe, noisy, and full of couples making out (and I mean seriously making out, leaving no room for the Holy Ghost) until at least 3am, often later. We didn’t have a destination in mind at first, but we ended up at the Pantheon. Kind of like how we had “ended up” at the Vatican and the Colosseum. What can I say? Rome is a good place to wander.

My, Pantheon, what big columns you have!

The whole city changes in vibrancy after sunset, and while not everything is enhanced, many of the statues and buildings have an ethereal glow (okay, okay, or just an added glow from strategically-placed tea lights) when set against the night sky.

Just another bridge statue looking epic.

The buildings rise out of the darkness, and I am left feeling awfully small, and completely awed.

After almost two hours of walking, we make our way to the Vatican to see St. Peter’s after hours. The crowds are gone, no cars are whizzing down the street in front of us; in fact, were it not for our footsteps, it would be just the cathedral and our breath. And my thoughts quiet down, and I stop in the center of the street, and I think there is a whole world waiting for me in this silence.

Caesar’s Notes: Monday, May 31 – “Well, hello there, St. Peter’s.”

5 Jun

Again, a belated and abbreviated post for Monday, May 31, our first full day in Rome.

When it comes to Trastevere, that old expression of “the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker,” rings pretty true. Down every street, there are small shops with fresh fruit, just-baked bread, wheels of cheese, and more kinds of pizza than I have ever seen. And that doesn’t even include places to get wine! In large part because of this bounty and accessibility, being in Italy for just a week has already completely changed my outlook on food (more on that in a future post…lots more on that in a future post.)

We are introduced to all of these new shopping options in a special tour given by Emanuela, a woman from our building who has lived in Rome for years and years. She is an Italian teacher and an expert at fresh produce; she is also seriously quirky. We begin our day by meeting her in the piazza and marching through the streets. She shows us the supermarket (yum, yum, yummm — and, believe it or not, CHEAP! Our last three dinners, all home-cooked, have cost us seven Euros total each, and that includes wine.), the best places to get our cheese and meat and fish and bread, the local market that happens just a few minutes away from our apartment and sells fresh fruits and vegetables from farmers every day from 9am-2pm, and my personal favorite, the fresh springs of water all around the city. She even squats down to drink the water in front of us to prove how safe and delicious it is. And as a New Hampshire native and water aficionado, I have to say, she is completely right. Since then, I have not bought a single water bottle here in Rome.

Emanuela manages to introduce us to fountains without putting a "damp"er on our first day in Rome. (The groans for cheesiness should come naturally by now)

It doesn't take me long to follow suit. The Romans know their water.

When we visit the outdoor market, the produce is so bright and fresh that we all, without thinking or consulting one another, buy something different and immediately stick it into our mouths. I buy strawberries from a renowned growing region in Italy (or so says Emanuela), and they are so rich that, raw, they taste just as sweet as when our strawberries at home are pressed into syrup. I try raw cherries for the first time, deep purple grapes the size of golf balls, oranges, apples, and grape tomatoes that I savor on my tongue for a few seconds each bite. We are all stuffing ourselves full of this freshness like it will never happen again when we realize that it will happen again, every day. At least for the next five weeks. And that’s when I realize that we are going to be doing a lot of cooking.

We finish our tour, have some lunch (fresh bread from the baker, toppings from the grocery store, the remainder of the strawberries, a bite of fruity yoghurt), and realize that we have a few hours free before our next meeting. We could take a nap to combat our jet lag. We could Skype friends at home, or go for another stroll around the neighborhood.

Or, we could walk to the Vatican. So of course we opt for…the nap.

Not.

The Vatican is about a 20 to 25-minute walk from our apartment. To get there, it’s a fairly straight shot up the bank of the Tiber River and then a diagonal to the left at the very end. Luckily, despite the Vatican being its own country, we don’t have to do anything special when we crossed the border. Except perhaps gape.

We gape because we turn a corner, chatting to each other and thinking about how much we still needed to break in our new sandals, and all of a sudden, there it is: St. Peter’s Basilica. No fanfare, no lightning, not even a face in the clouds like something out of Monty Python. Just one of the most famous buildings in the world.

We all stagger to the nearest sidewalk and burst out laughing. It isn’t even funny, just too much for our minds to process. Suddenly something we have heard about, read about, watched awkward non-accented news reporters talk about, is right there in front of us, and it is like we hadn’t even had to try to summon it. It just appeared, majestic and wide, and one of us looks at the rest of the group and says, “Well, hello there, St. Peter’s. It’s nice to finally meet you.”

Here’s a video I took of the outside of the building and of the piazza at the Vatican. Feel free to say hi, too.

"My name is Jessica. I hope you don't think it's creepy if I already know your name? Maybe we can be friends on Facebook!"

Because we have to take an official tour of the Vatican for class next week, we don’t try to go inside. We just walk, talk, and observe the keen fashion sense of the Vatican guards (hint: sexiness is a bit less important than ceremony. Or a LOT less important.)

Poofy streamer pants! They're all the rage here at the Vatican!!

Then we take the bus (ushered by Professor Fry, one of our two professors for the summer) to what will be our classroom from now until the program ends on July 3rd. After a brief orientation (I now know eight different ways to hold my purse to hinder pickpockets, as well as the precise Italian derogatory terms for anyone who dares to wear flip-flops within city walls – these teachers are thorough), we turn around and go back to the banks of the Tiber for a special modern art/musical performance combo with an orchestra playing right beside the river. The scene is free for mingling, so I end up spending most of my time having a long conversation with one of the professors about local urban renewal groups. I had done a bit of research before arriving about anti-graffiti activism (graffiti is worth a whole ‘nother post in itself), but I also learn about attempts to reinvigorate the river as a social hub. Plus, since Pauline (the first name of Professor Fry – we interchange the two based on whether we are inside or outside of an official classroom) is an expert on literature and Rome and quickly learns how much I love poetry, I also leave with a page full of writers to check out.

Then (and if you are getting tired just reading this, you are beginning to understand how long and jam-packed our days are here), we go home to our apartment (all of the guys come over to ours, too — this will be our main gathering spot for the summer, as we have the largest dining area and the most comfy couches, not to mention the best cooks) and make dinner. Two of the guys take charge on this one, believe it or not, and make a DELICIOUS spread of (brace yourself): cheese, bread, wine, salad, al dente pasta with fresh-cooked tomato sauce and another pot of pasta tossed with fresh basil, pecorino cheese, and olive oil, and eggplants sauteed with onion, garlic, wine, and olive oil. For less than five Euros a person, might I add. And with that, our first full day in Italy ends with us stuffed with good food, rosy with good wine, wallet-heavy, hearts-light. Just the way it ought to be.

Caesar’s Notes: Sunday, May 30 – “Che paradiso!”

3 Jun

I figured this would be a more appropriate title than Cliff’s Notes, but that’s pretty much what this post has to be. Our days have been SO packed so far – and I have had such an overwhelming desire to explore out in the Roman sunshine (maybe too much of a desire…I am a bit of a tomato at the moment. At least everyone in Italy loves tomatoes!) – that I haven’t had a chance to sit down and put it all into words. So, here’s a brief picture-list of day one with the rest of the week on its way.

Sunday, May 30: We arrive in Rome after a red-eye flight. I have not slept. I have been listening to blaring Italian opera for seven hours and (this is beginning to become a pattern) taking bad pictures outside of plane windows.

Gee, whiz! I'm so good at capturing blurry landscapes during a flight!

I land ecstatic, as well as with a very heavy, very book-filled bag. Though thanks to my grandma, at least it is a very well-packed, heavy, and book-filled bag! We manage to scramble together five of us and split up in taxis to head to Trastevere (one of the neighborhoods of Rome). Our instructions are literally to “Meet Professors Jewiss and Fry and Richard Piccolo at the fountain in Piazza Santa Maria at 5:30pm.” Meeting at a fountain? This sounds like a good start.

Our designated meeting spot. Only, yknow, a tad romantic.

Of course, because my mother is the one who booked my plane ticket, I arrive at the piazza with six hours to spare. In this case, the early (and very tired and jetlagged) bird may not have caught the worm, but it definitely caught the gelato. We grab lunch at Caffe di Marzio – I get a panini and limon gelato – and we continue to “grab” lunch for three hours sitting at the same cafe table and crowd watching (there is no such thing as a quick meal in Rome unless you don’t even bother to sit down.)

The site of my first meal in Roma. Also the site of my first sunburn in Roma, though definitely not my last.

I discover that this little piazza in Trastevere is a wonderful, wonderful place. It also happens to be EXACTLY WHERE I AM LIVING, about five floors up. See for yourself:

A video of the piazza

A video of a walk around the neighborhood

A video of nightlife in Trastevere as seen from my windows, and a mini-tour of my apartment! Sidenote: NO ONE EVER SLEEPS IN ROME. As you can see from the time of this posting, this is one instance where I am indeed “doing as the Romans do.”

Since we STILL had time before everyone else arrived, my little group decided to go into the Church of Santa Maria in Trastevere (right on the corner of the piazza). Little did we know that when we stepped inside the doors, we would see this kind of majesty:

Not bad for the neighborhood church, huh? Click on this picture (or any other on the page) to see the full version.

We also did a bit of walking and side street exploring, though nothing compared to our walking excursions of the last few days.

Three of the early birds. You might not be able to tell from far away, but our jaws are on the ground...

A street in Trastevere: Home sweet (laundry-filled) home.

Fast-forward to 5:30pm, we all meet, we go to our apartment (see the link above about Trastevere nightlife to get a peek at it!) which just so happens to be directly above this incredible square, we get a ton of fresh pizzas and wine and all hang out at our place (there are 13 of us total, by the way: six girls and seven guys) until eleven, when we crash and don’t wake up until morning.

I’d say it was worth the flight.