A group of nearly three dozen DeLaSalle students and staff are participating on an international academic trip to Italy from June 18-27, 2013.
The trip - part of DeLaSalle's Global Advantage Program - allows students to earn college credit through a unique partnership with Saint Mary's University of Minnesota. Two St. Mary's professors - History Department chair Dr. Richard Tristano and Art and Design Department professor Preston Lawing - will join DeLaSalle teachers Brother David Barth, Brad Casey and Megan Longman in providing students with the opportunity to study Italian art, history, political history and theology through the lens of the Italian Renaissance.
The long trip home from our adventure in Italy began before the crack of dawn on Thursday, June 27. That 3am wakeup call came way too early for us but we managed to get ourselves packed, checked out of Casa LaSalle and on a bus to the airport by 4.
The short flight to Amsterdam and the monster overseas haul back to Minneapolis gave us time to reflect on our favorite parts of the trip, things we wish would have gone differently and on the travel experience as a whole. One thing was for certain - we were all ready to return to the United States, hug our family and loved ones and sleep in our own bed again.
For many, this trip was their first overseas, their first experience in a new country with a new language, new money, new food and new people. To go on a trip like this takes risk but pays off beyond measure. We accomplished the primary goal of our trip - to learn as much as we could about the Italian Renaissance; the key figures who shaped the rebirth in the arts, architecture, technology and science; the struggle for power; and the drive to lead Europe and the rest of the world into a new era.
But beyond the academic lessons stood experiences that you cannot learn in a classroom - how to really travel, how to interact in and react to a new environment, and how to enjoy oneself. Students may not realize the impact of those lessons now but will make sense of them as they grow older and travel more frequently. The lessons learned in Italy - being open minded, trying new things, the ability to relate to so many people - will translate to everyday life at school, with family or at a job.
We grew together on this trip in a way that 44 minutes in a classroom cannot replicate. Our travel experiences over nine days - from hoofing luggage up a steep hill to Brother Jerome’s to handling money in a foreign country to navigating our way around new cities - developed as much character and personality in us as a cold Minnesota winter.
We will forever remember our adventure in Italy and cannot wait to see what and where the next adventure may lead us.
The last 24 hours of our stay in Italy on Wednesday, June 26 has been nothing but a flurry of activity with a string focus on our Catholic and Lasallian roots.
We made the 4-hour return trip from Florence to Rome by bus then spent about an hour at Casa LaSalle with St. Mary's University History department chair Richard Trestano getting ready for our visit to the Vatican and St. Peter's Square. Richard tied in themes of theology and the arts and suggested what to keep an eye out for on our tour.
Before leaving for lunch, we toured the museum at Casa LaSalle that held artifacts from the days of St. John Baptist De La Salle and the early Christian Brothers - the keys to the schoolhouses used by the Brothers, a wooden hand clicker signal the Brothers used with almost a Morse code like series of taps that would direct students to reread a passage or command silence and the wooden rod known as a ferrule that Brothers would use to mete out punishment to those unruly students.
To stand and walk inside the walls of the Vatican is an indescribable experience and one that everyone should have. To do so for Catholics (and non-Catholics alike) is similar to the experience of the ardent baseball fan stepping foot in historic Fenway Park or the student of government touring the Capitol and White House. In other words, a must see. And because parts of the Vatican like the Sistine Chapel do not allow pictures, these are Kodak memories that will be forever imprinted on our memory.
The art we saw - much of it painted by the great Renaissance artists Michelangelo and Raphael - rivaled and surpassed that which we had already seen in Florence. The frescoes that covered every inch of ceiling in the Sistine Chapel and nearly the full wall makes you wonder just how Michelangelo did it. How did he transform idea into flawless realty? And how lucky were we to stand In that sacred space where Pope Francis had been elected Pope just three months earlier?
If you kept your eyes open, you were rewarded along the way. Look there in the man corridor of St. Peter's Basilica and you found the statue of St. John Baptist de La Salle watching from his perch high above the throng of people. Tucked in a corner to the right of the main basilica doors rests Michelangelo's La Pieta of the Madonna and Child. Past the nave of the basilica, a celebration of the Mass. In a small gate just off St. Peter's Square stood two members if the Swiss Guard in their red, yellow and blue striped uniforms. Emerging from that gate came a bishop dressed in a black cassock with magenta sash escorting a visitor.
As any good tourist would do, we stuffed our bags full of rosaries, souvenirs and other mementos by which we could remember the Vatican. It was yet another full day - the last in our epic adventure.
The three days we spent in Florence from June 23-26 represented a return to the convenience of a modern hotel after "roughing" it at Brother Jerome's villa, signaled the midpoint of our visit to Italy and opened our eyes to the heart of the Italian Renaissance.
The luxury of a modern hotel cannot be overstated. A hot shower came as a warm relief after the quick in-and-out cold water only showers in Vicchio. Laying your head down on a soft, fluffy pillow compared to the pillows at Brother Jerome's that had been worn into uneven lumps by years of use. It all amounted to the group's best sleep in two days on that first night at the hotel.
If the Pantheon, Colosseum, Roman Forum and other sites we toured in Rome reflected the ancient era, then the churches, palaces and art masterpieces we studied in Florence reflected the true heart of the Renaissance that drew us to Italy in the first place. Here we witnessed the power tug of war between the Medici and Pazzi families play out in the construction of elaborate chapels and basilicas, the collection of ornate gold relics and ancient artifacts, and the strategic use of the river and surrounding hills to control the flow of commerce and people in and out of the city.
More than anything, Florence is defined by the art and architecture of key figures like Brunelleschi, who resurrected the Roman technology of the dome that had been lost in the Middle Ages, or Giotto, whose use of perspective marked his place in history as the father of Italian Renaissance painting, or Michelangelo, whose renown sculpture of David will keep art history students buzzing about proportion and attention to detail of the human body.
Everywhere we turned, we found churches with murals that still radiated their vibrant colors almost as if they had been painted in the last few years instead of more than 500 years ago. We marveled at sculptures rich in tone and detail. And we walked through the Medici family's trove of artifacts that included a lens once used by Pope Leo XI, a nearly 2-foot tall gold monstrance studded with emeralds and rubies, and golden vase upon golden vase of relics of the saints.
We will remember Florence for its art. And maybe its world class leather market. But the most memorable part of our stay in this city along the Arno River may be the singing restaurant owner who serenaded us as he served our lunch on Monday the 24th. His rich, booming bass voice took us all by surprise at first. But the way he gracefully moved around the room with hot plates of pasta stacked four deep up his arm in a style stereotypical of an Italian restauranteur in a TV cartoon made us all smile and give thanks for his hospitality and zeal for life. It was the motivation we needed to continue on our way...
For days I have kept thinking about the phrase “It’s a small world after all” and deciding whether it applies to our trip.
Small world could refer to the narrow, sometimes cramped streets we have walked along in Rome, Orvieto, Vicchio and Florence. The streets are so small it is almost as if you could stretch your arms out and touch the walls or buildings on both sides.
The sidewalks measure three feet wide in a good spot and much shorter elsewhere so walking down the streets is a lesson in being aware of your surroundings. Walking side-by-side can be a challenge and you almost have to walk in the gutter or a step or two into the street to have room. But walking in the streets has its own perils - particularly when you have small cars or mopeds that zoom by at speeds that would probably be illegal in any U.S. city. Much like children growing up in the city did when they were younger and played outside, we often yell “Car” to warn those in front of us about a vehicle coming from behind.
It is not surprising that we have met people from home like Deb, the former DeLaSalle tennis coach who we ran into at the Roman Forum following our tour of the Colosseum. Or the people wearing Minnesota Twins or University of Minnesota apparel. Italy is a popular destination for Americans and with the number of people in our group, there are bound to be connections made in one way, shape or form.
But as interconnected as we may be with those whom we know (or even those from a common region like the Twin Cities or Minnesota), the world is not as small when you realize just how many people from other countries we have met along our journey. Remember, we traveled 5,100 miles from home. And walking through the airport in Amsterdam and the streets of Italy, you are exposed to people of all different skin colors. You hear languages spoken from all corners of the world - Italian, German, English, Japanese, the list goes on and on.
Because of our roots at DeLaSalle, we can appreciate and celebrate the diversity of those whom we meet here in Italy. Yes, it may be a small world in some instances. But this trip has opened our eyes to just how big the world is and how much there is to discover.
Our weekend n Vicchio will be one for the record books and a story that everyone will tell for many years. Don't be surprised if there's a movie written about it someday.
We set out from Orvieto for Vicchio with the goal of spending a couple days with Brother Jerome Cox, who runs the Lasallian Arts and Cultural Center. Brother is from Minneapolis but has spent more than four decades in Italy as a professional artist and sculptor. You can see examples of his work at DeLaSalle with the full size sculpture of the Brother in Brothers' Plaza and the bust of St. John Baptist De La Salle in Albers Atrium. Brother Jerome lives in a 13th century villa in the lush hills outside Vicchio that are rolling with green grass, thick groves of trees and beautiful villas. His villa is owned by the Archdiocese of Florence and there is a church attached to the house that is more than 500 years old.
There are two concepts or ideas that best describe our weekend and they are two of the seven principles of creativity that Leonardo da Vinci created. Sensazione is "the continual refinement of the senses, especially sight, as the means to enliven experience." And cryptic is "a willingness to embrace ambiguity, paradox, and uncertainty".
What made the trip memorable was the fact that - despite having an address - we didn't exactly know where Brother Jerome lived and there were doubts about how close our luxury bus could get to the house. We stopped many local residents for directions. Our journey took us teetering over a stone bridge that was built before any of you reading this blog existed. It then chugged halfway up a narrow road on the side of the mountain and ended in the driveway of a country resident. Once we figured out exactly where the house was, our bodies ached as we trucked our luggage - suitcases and all - more than a mile the rest of the way up the steep, curvy hill.
Brother Jerome's villa alone allowed all five of our senses to experience something different. The musty smell of some rooms the moment we walked in. The sound of the roosters crowing early in the morning or the owls hooting outside your window late at night. The breathtaking, priceless views from the terrace of the house - being greeted that first night by a brilliant sunset to the west that cast long shadows over the valley and a bright, nearly full moon rising in the east - made the sweat and pain we endured getting to the house worth it. The smooth feel of the wax and clay molds that we touched as we toured Brother Jerome's studios or the silver and gold handmade jewelry that we held as we decided whether to buy it. The salty taste of the fresh prosciutto or Brie, mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses that we ate both Friday and Saturday. or the sweetness of the fresh peaches, nectarines, grapes, apples and cherries we found at local markets in Vicchio.
As if one trek on the hill wasn't enough, we made our way down the hill Saturday into town where we found an ethnic festival with shopping opportunities and a look into the many cultures that make up Italy - Africans and the West Indies to name a few in this case. We celebrated Mass in Italian at a basilica in town. And the only meal we ate in a restaurant while in Vicchio came at the Crazy House restaurant. You could order anything you wanted within a 12-14 Euro price range and the restaurant served arguably the best pizza in the world from a wood fired oven that puts Pizza Lola or Punch Puzza in the minor leagues. We prepared the rest of our meals on our own and if Brad Casey wasn't a Social Studies teacher, he should be a cook with his wife Becca.
Getting home from the restaurant on Saturday night and getting to our rendezvous point Sunday morning with the bus involved Art teacher Megan Longman's husband Mike shuttling people n several trips using Brother Jerome's beat up yet sturdy stick shift Ford van. (Mike'a ability to jump right in and help out falls perfectly in line with his day job as a Minneapolis firefighter and his personality allows him to easily connect with just about any student on the trip).
da Vinci's concept of cryptic helps us make some sense of our adventure in Vicchio. No one knew what to expect at Brother Jerome's. The arduous back and forth to his house taught students that travel isn't always as easy as hopping on a bus (or train or plane) at Point A and showing up on the doorstep of Point B. The journey and the obstacles aling the way make us stronger people, reinforces that we must be willing to go with the flow and suggests that patience and an open mind are, perhaps, some of the best traits to have. We survived Vicchio ready to embrace the modern comfort and high class art and architecture we would find in Florence.
You don't realize just how crowded and hot Rome is until you travel to a city like Orvieto, which we did on Friday, June 21. It was our first real journey into the countryside and the start of what would become a weekend away from the big city.
A quick observation about the ride north. Italian freeways - or at least those we took to Orvieto - are smooth, paved blacktop with clearly marked lanes. Unlike many freeways in the U.S., however, the Italian freeways don't have large shoulders and driving in the far inner or outer lane puts you right up against a guardrail, if one exists. Much like the U.S., drivers in Italy can have a lead foot and are more daring than American drivers in making risky moves like passing with inches to spare or zooming past you like it's the German autobahn. The same can be said about our bus driver who safely maneuvered us to our final destination.
The views from Orvieto take your breath away. You look upon green valleys dotted with trees or farms in an idyllic scene that Norman Rockwell could have painted. The streets are narrow and made of cobblestone and not much has changed in this town that was established in the Middle Ages. The brick buildings show their age both in the color of their bricks and some of the pockmark holes.
After arriving, we climbed our way to the duoma or dome - the purpose of our visit. Built in the 13th century, the duoma represented a central part of life in Orvieto as both a church that people flocked to for spiritual salvation and as a hub for connecting with fellow townspeople. The church - like others built in its time - featured reliefs or beautifully painted murals that tell stories from the Bible for those unable to read but still yearning for a connection to God. And if you were rich enough to support any construction or repairs, you likely were buried in the church or on its campus.
Orvieto itself historically held a strategic position between Rome to the south and Florence to the north. Today it is known for its quality wine with grape varieties grown that are unique to the Umbrian region where it is located. The city is also known for its ceramics. We spent some time looking through shops and buying brightly colored handmade pieces that will serve either as decorative flair in your home or be put to practical use in your kitchen. And lastly, it is known for its hospitality. The staff who ran the osteria where we ate lunch kept us fed with plates of pasta carbonera and penne with red meat sauce.
Orvieto was an adventure but it did not hold a candle to the adventure we were about to have on our way to and weekend in the Vicchio countryside...
One of the cardinal rules of traveling is to always be prepared for the unexpected. All the planning in the world for different situations that may happen may be for naught when you are faced with reacting to a situation in the moment. It becomes all too easy to panic when something doesn’t go as planned. And such reactions can be heightened when you are in a foreign country far from home.
Three situations we hadn’t planned for have already happened to us on this trip:
- Not seeing your piece of luggage come down the baggage carousel is enough to send anybody into a frenzy. But the way Emily Wilczynski handled the situation on Wednesday when we arrived in Italy was remarkable. After nearly 11 hours of traveling, she could have become an emotional wreck. And while she was frustrated not to have her luggage when everybody else had theirs, Emily took the lemons she was handed and made lemonade out of it. To her credit, Emily had packed some extra essentials in her carry-on bag and was able to live off of those until her bag turned up this morning.
- Being from MInnesota, we take it for granted that people are nice. And while we want to extend the benefit of the doubt to others we meet, we must also face the reality that there are thieves in this world who want what we have. One of our students learned that hard lesson yesterday during our time at St. Peter’s Square when he later discovered that his watch was missing and not on the bus where he thought he had last left it. We concluded that someone may have actually slipped his watch off without his knowledge. It is a sober reminder that you must always be aware of your surroundings in a big city like Rome and do the best you can to prevent thieves or pickpockets from making off with your valuables.
- And, when we get sick living in the Twin Cities, we can usually go home, rest and recover from whatever it is that ails us. Getting sick in a country like Italy is a different story. Thankfully one of our tour guides was able to break away from the group and escort a student who got sick back to the hotel. THe student was able to get over what appeared to be a stomach bug and joined us in time for dinner.
Today has been a long, grueling adventure in the hot Italian sun. Our feet are sore, our legs are tired and our energy level is spent. We got our first taste of authentic Italian pizza at one of the best pizzerias in Rome - think of pizza in the style of Pizza Lola or Black Sheep Pizza. We lapped up rich gelato from a corner store that has more than 150 flavors of it. And we had loads of fun exploring the Pantheon, the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, and the Trevi Fountain while soaking up all of the different street scenes along the way. Take the street entertainers who dress up as Roman soldiers and pose for pictures (for a price, of course). Or the robot-like characters who laugh when you put money in their donation box. Or the street vendors who are trying to sell umbrellas or neon-colored putty-like toys that squeal when you throw them onto the ground then gel into the shape of a ghost with beady black eyes. You can see the pictures from Day 2 on the DeLaSalle Faceook page. Follow the link in the blog post below.
Tomorrow, we replace the scenery of the big city with a drive through the countryside to explore the cities of Orvieto and Vicchio, spending the weekend in the latter location at the studio of Brother Jerome Cox - a renown sculptor whose work you can see in the bust of St. John Baptist de La Salle in Albers Atrium at our school.
We may not have Internet access for a few days but will post pictures and updates as soon as we do. Thank you for your prayers and for the many good wishes you have sent our way. We are enjoying every moment of our trip and cannot wait to tell you so many stories when we return.
As you slept soundly in your bed in the quiet comfort of the Twin Cities, we traveled nearly half a world away to begin a journey into what for many on this trip is likely the unknown. Yes, we may have studied Rome in our history or government classes, learning about mythology or the impact that the Roman empire had on our current civilization. But you never really know what a city or a country until you travel and experience it first hand.
Remember, you can see any photo galleries that we share on the DeLaSalle Facebook page
Our journey took us about 11 hours and more than 5,100 miles from home. The flight from Minneapolis to Amsterdam was uneventful - some tried to sleep, others read a book, watched a movie or listened to music. When we landed at 6:20am in Amsterdam, our body clocks were still wired on MInneapolis time, believing it was only 11:20pm. Jet lag had sunk in for some and would sink in for all of us at some point throughout the day.
We moved as quickly as we could through customs and hustled to board our plane to Rome, only to find it delayed about 10 minutes by heavy runway traffic. Even planes experience traffic jams. Moments after we did takeoff, we experienced a stomach-churning, heart-stopping bout of turbulence caused by unforeseen storms. Moms, you should know that your children said they love you. And God was reassured that he has faithful believers. But we escaped that panic and arrived in Rome safely, following a trip that included breathtaking views of the Swiss Alps.
Our first day in this historic city began with an unscheduled stop at St. Peter’s Square (we were early for our lunch reservation and needed to kill some time). Lunch on a rooftop cafe featured bread and olive oil, bruschetta, and a Caprese salad (fresh tomatoes and mozzarella). After checking in at Casa LaSalle (the hotel-like quarters at the international headquarters for the Brothers of the Christian Schools), we were off on a guided city-wide bus tour that drove by the Vatican, a castle that once featured as a papal escape and the Circus Maximus that once offered public entertainment.
Dinner happened in true European style - about 7:30pm at a tasty restaurant within walking distance of our rooms that served a meat platter, breads and fried olives and french fries for starters, continued with pasta carbonara (pasta mixed with scrambled egg and bacon) and gnocchi (a potato-filled pasta shell covered in tomato sauce), and ended with tiramisu or chocolate cake for dessert.
Rest assured, we have not nor will we starve on this trip. And yes, the writer of this blog is someone who appreciates food so you will be kept up to speed on our menu. After all, trying new foods is one of the greatest joys in traveling.
The students are tired and ready for a full night’s sleep. They’ll need it. We have a full day tomorrow in Rome with stops that include the Colosseum. As tired as we all are, there is a real sense of excitement and wonder as we begin to explore and only touch the surface of this city’s story and secrets.
Welcome to the Italy blog. On behalf of the students and staff who are going on this trip, we invite you to join us on our adventure in the land of pasta, pizza and popes.
We will try to post as often as possible - and as much as we have Internet access. Internet access may be limited to non-existent in Vicchio and more available during our stays in Rome and Florence.
You can also follow our activity, especially any photo galleries we post, on the DeLaSalle Facebook page.
We are all busy packing and getting ready to fly out tomorrow from Minneapolis. The first leg of our journey will be what amounts to an overnight flight from Minneapolis to Rome with a brief layover in Amsterdam. Once we get to Rome, we hit the ground running with a tour of the city and getting settled in...
Let the adventure begin!