Kalimera!

So I’m writing this on Samos, and it’s currrently 7:41 AM on th 11th, and we’ve been up for about three and a half hours.  Some of our group is sitting on a pebble beach, curled up and sleeping on beach chairs under umbrellas.  We’re on Samos so very early because the cruise ship is continuing on to a Turkish island, and EF has cancelled all ports of call in Turkish territories, so! We needed to wake up at 4:15 this morning in order to be get ready to disembark around 5:00 on Samos. The ship will continue on to the Turkish island, and will then come back for us at 2:00 PM this afternoon.  So we have a lot of sleepy kids on the beach right now.  Those with more energy are hiking up to see the cave of the Virgin Mary and the tiny monastery attached to it– it looks pretty cool, but I think some of our kids just wanted the time to sleep and rest a little, in part because we’ve had two early mornings in a row.

Yesterday, we woke up in Athens early, had a very nice breakfast– this Greek yogurt with local honey thing is a really excellent way to start the day, let me tell you– and then got our luggage (and selves) onto the bus to go to the port.  Check in for the cruise was slow,as the luggage handlers were on strike, but without incident.  We then did the usual beginning of cruise nonsense– waiting until our rooms were ready, a lifeboat drill, and then a quick group meeting about life on board.

Our ship is relatively small, especially if you’re used to enormous Caribbean cruises where the ship is a floating city.  There are about 1300 passengers onboard, which is a good size for us– not so big that our kids will be impossible to find, but also some new faces and people for the kids to meet.  (There are five other EF tour groups with us on this trip, so that’s pretty cool.)  I think the size of the cabins surprised some of the kids who had never been on a cruise before— if you’re familiar with cruises, you probably know that the cabins are basically a place for you to store your stuff, sleep, and shower– and even that’s a stretch.  So please imagine four teenagers with luggage (after they’ve been buying souveniers for the last week or so) trying to maneuver in a room the size of a walk-in closet.  It was pretty funny, honestly.

After the usual hubbub of trying to situate ourselves, we let the kids know when they would have to meet us again, and turned them loose for the afternoon.  Some chose to sit out on the deck and relax, and others jumped right into the activities offered onboard.  I saw some kids playing Greek trivia (they won! and their AP World History teacher was very pleased), others learning how to do traditional Greek dances, and some taking Zumba lessons.  I met a big bunch of our kids at the origami lessons (everyone loves arts-and-crafts hour, after all), and we learned how to make a crane and a box.   I also saw most of our kids at the 4:00 PM tea on one of the decks– we’re going to eat ourselves silly on this part of the trip, I fear.

After tea, we had a little time to get our things together before disembarking in Mykonos, a rocky, windswept island famous for its windmills.  All the buildings on the island are whitewashed and plastered, and most have bright blue or red doors and shutters– it’s really charming.  We gave the kids about an hour and a half to wander through the narrow, winding streets and shop or take pictures, and then met them just in time for a truly spectacular sunset over the water.  I’m still planning on moving to Capri after I make my first billion, but Mykonos is maybe my second choice. Although it is much more remote than Capri, so maybe not.

After Mykonos, we got back on the ship for a late dinner, and then went straight to bed, since this morning came awfully early.  I think we’re all going to sleep very, very well tonight.

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The oracle said, “Wander.”

Hello from Athens! We’ve arrived in the birthplace of democracy, the home of Socrates, Pericles, and Sophocles, and the city protected by the goddess of wisdom.  It seems a bustling place, although definitely rougher around the edges than Rome was.  However, we won’t be doing much more than going for our dinner and Greek music and dancing experience this evening– we’ll be heading out early tomorrow morning to go on our cruise through the Greek islands, and we’ll tour Athens when we return.

So!  Even though I can see the Acropolis from my hotel window (this trip is ridiculous), we’ll have to wait a few days before seeing it up close.  Islands first, then Athens.

And while I’m on that note: for those parents reading along every day, please know that there won’t be WiFi on the cruise ship, so I won’t be able to post at my usual time (late night for me, late afternoon for you).  However, Alex thinks that we should be able to find cafes and such on the islands with WiFi, so I’ll write up my posts at night like usual, and then try to find WiFi when we go on our excusions and post then. So my entries are going to be coming at wierd times in the next three days, for which I apologize.  But I do promise that I’ll be writing, even if I have to post late.

Because the archeaological site of Delphi is only a few minutes away from the hotel, we were able to wake up relatively late this morning– eight!  In comparison to the previous day’s 4:30, that was a serious luxury.  Breakfast was probably the best we’ve had so far– it’s been a lot of hard rolls and boiled eggs, but today we had some really awesome Greek yogurt with honey or jam or Nutella, in addition to some rolls and cereal and hard-boiled eggs.  (And the coffee was drinkable, thank goodness.  Dear Italy: I like you a lot, but I’m unsure how a people who do espresso so well can do coffee so poorly.)

Once we were well-fed, we loaded up the bus with our luggage and selves, and headed on down the road to the excavation site for Delphi.  Delphi, as I mentioned yesterday, is located on the side of Mount Parnassus, and so therefore involves a lot of slippery marble stairs– but our kids were good and listened to instructions and were all wearing proper walking shoes.  (Delphi is at about 3000 feet above sea level, but the mountain continues up to about 8000 feet. You could do some proper hiking– and rock climbing– around here.)  Our tour guide, Angel, met us at the entrance, and found a nice shady place to give the kids some background on the history of the site before moving them up the steps, which was smart.*

According to mythology, Delphi was sacred to the god Apollo– the most impressive structure in the complex is the Temple of Apollo.  It was there that he killed Python, a monstrous half-man, half-snake.  However, Apollo didn’t realize that Python was one of Gaia’s (Mother Earth) children, and so was punished for his error by being exiled from Delphi for seven years.  When he was allowed to return, Apollo decided to honor Python by establishing an oracle, which is why the seerers at Delphi were known as Pythia– coming from “Python.”  The women who served as Pythia were generally seated in the temple of Apollo, where fumes from deep inside the earth would rise up through the ground.  Acording to traditional beliefs, these fumes were from the decomposing body of Python; modern science identifies them as natural gasses, including ether. The Pythia would breathe in the fumes, becoming less and less sensible of their surroundings, and then would be asked questions by pilgrims.  But as Delphi had a reputation for being such a holy spot, its oracle was usually only visited by the extremely wealthy or powerful– common people didn’t make their way to Delphi.

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I found it particularly interesting to learn that there was never a permanent village or city at Delphi, at least not during ancient times.  Any housing was of a temporary sort, because Delphi– being a place of great power– was not always a comfortable place. After all, the Pythia’s visions could foretell the death of a loved one, or the loss of a war, or reveal a guilty secret.  Living close to that sort of knowledge was probably not something most people wanted.

After Angel gave us the basic run-down of Delphi, we slowly started to walk up to the temple of Apollo, stopping first along the Sacred Way to discuss the statues and treasuries which would have lined the marble streets, and then to discuss some of the stories which feature the oracle at Delphi– most significantly Oedipus.

After we reached the temple, we said goodbye to Angel and thanked her for a great tour.  The kids then had about an hour to run up the hill towards the theater and stadium at Delphi if they liked, or to go back down the hill to see the site’s museum.  While I really, really wanted to go see the stadium, I knew it would take me longer than I liked to get up there, and I didn’t want to miss the museum.  (They have a bronze statue of a charioteer from the early 400s BCE– just a few years after the Persian Wars, which absolutely blows my mind.  It’s gorgeous. The eyes are onyx, and it has copper eyelashes.  And it’s intact, and 2400 years old.)  So I walked to the museum, and talked with Angel a little on the way back down about Greek tragedies and Sophocles and the use of the chorus in drama.  It was a nicely nerdy discussion, and made me quite happy.

After regrouping with the kids an hour later, we drove back towards Athens the same way we came yesterday. That means that we stopped off at the same restaurant–Angelos– for lunch again.  I saw several kids being a lot more adventurous this time, too.  As for me, I had a tomato and olive salad with tzaziki, and it was maybe the best thing I’ve had on this trip.  Yum.

Then it was time to hop back in the bus and drive three hours to Athens.  Our hotel is in an interesting location– it’s not far from the main square, and from the rooftop and some of the rooms, you can see the Acropolis.  I’m looking out my hotel window right now, and the Parthenon is looking back at me, lit up and glowing like a beacon.  I really don’t even know what to say about that, other than that Europe is weird.  We keep tripping over History everywhere we go.

After letting the kids have some time to rest (or play Risk, or shower, or talk) in their rooms, we all met in the lobby to go to our “Greek evening” experience.  The kids cleaned up nicely for the show– not easy to do after a week of travel.  The show consisted of traditional Greek music and dance– with a few modern additions, such as “Mama Mia” and a song from Grease– and the kids had a blast.  Sometimes these dinner-and-a-show things can be a little awkward, but many of our kids were the first to volunteer to go up and dance, and they were certainly the most enthusiastic about shouting, “OPA!” at every opportunity.

All things considered, a good day.  Opa, indeed.


* Not her proper name, but I can’t remember the Greek spelling for it, only the translation.  Sidenote: Greek is hard.  I can’t even remember how to say “thank you” from one moment to the next.

οἶδα δ᾽ ἐγὼ ψάμμου τ᾽ ἀριθμὸν καὶ μέτρα θαλάσσης, καὶ κωφοῦ συνίημι, καὶ οὐ φωνεῦντος ἀκούω.

(All right, Classics majors, do your translation magic on the title.  I will award ten Internet points to the first person to do so; these can be redeemed at all major social gatherings for nerd cred.)

First off, my apologies for the late posting of last night’s blog entry– our hotel was very, very nice, but the WiFi was basically non-existant.  If I’m ever late posting to the blog, please don’t worry– it’s likely a WiFi issue, since the coverage is much more spotty than it is in the States.  (If you’d like to check up on how things are going with the kiddos, please also check Mr. Stephenson’s pictures and Mr. Auld’s blog.  They both make an effort to post multiple times a day, if possible.)

Today began at the oh-so-unpleasant hour of 4:30, since we needed to make our flight to Athens, which required us to be at the airport by 6:30.  So it was a short night, and a fairly wakeful one for me– I never sleep well the night before a flight, too busy thinking I’ll oversleep, or forget something.  But we were all up and moving by the time we needed to be, and headed off to the airport in good– if sleepy– fashion.

Check-in at the airport was slow, but thankfully uneventful.  We made it to our gate on time, and the kids had a chance to grab some snacks in anticipation of our having a rather late lunch today.  I saw some of the kiddos load up on Pringles (excuse me, sorry, there’s a soccer promotion on right now, so the packages all proclaim that they are “Pringooooals!” instead) and Nutella and giant bags of M&Ms, so the kids were definitely happy, if not nutritionally balanced.

Our flight to Athens was quick– only about an hour and forty-five minutes.  While many of the kids conked out and slept (which was a good idea, considering our early morning), I wasn’t able to fall asleep.  Luckily, I had a window seat this time, and it was a cloudless day over the Mediterranean, so I could see the passing ships and islands and tiny white-capped waves below.  We hit some clouds and rougher air as we descended into Athens, but the landing was smooth, and overall it was a pretty easy trip.

Once everyone had picked up their luggage from the carousel, Alex walked us to our new bus, and we headed out of the Athenian region, and south towards Delphi, which is where we are now.

Delphi, if you know, was a sacred site in the classical Greek world, as it housed the oracles– called Pythia– who could tell men their destinies and give them advice. That advice was rendered through the Pythia, who sat and meditated while breathing in the volcanic fumes (and other substances), and would then be prompted to respond to the questions of petitioners.  Her responses– the Pythia was always female– were often garbled and fragmented, and priests would then interpret her statements in order to give the petitioners their answers.  The responses were usually ambiguous, and allowed the petitioner to interpret the statement many ways– which meant that the oracle was rarely entirely wrong.

Delphi is located on the slopes of Mount Parnassus, which– like most of the mountains in Greece– is limestone, craggy, and spotted with olive trees, wild lavander, and some very tough, clinging shrubs.  So! That’s where we headed off to: down a long, broad highway lined with flowers (with virtually no one on it), towards what was once known as the “navel of the world.”

After about three hours, we stopped for lunch at a place that Alex assured us was her very favorite place to eat on the trip.  Alex hasn’t steered us wrong yet, but the way she talked it up, I really wasn’t sure that the restaurant could live up to her praise.  But– yeah.  Oh, man.  I had a few good meals in Italy– lots of pasta, not all of it memorable– but that lunch was incredible.  I got a sort of sampler platter with spinach pie (spanakopita), some sort of fried zucchini hush puppy thing which was AMAZING, the best tzaziki I’ve ever had, stuffed grape leaves with lemon sauce, and this fried cheese thing wrapped in phylo dough.  It was cheap, and delicious, and Alex is taking us back there tomorrow– and none of the kids are complaining about it because it was all so, so good.  I think I’m getting lamb this time….

Okay. Yes. I’ll stop writing about food now, because we just ate dinner and I have no reason to be hungry.

At any rate, after we gorged ourselves, we drove about half an hour up the winding roads of Mount Parnassus, past the ruins of the temple of Apollo, and into the tiny town of Delphi.  And by tiny, I mean that there are two main streets, some terraced gardens, a church or two, and a whole bunch of tourist shops, hotels, and cafes.  This place clearly lives and dies by tourism– and given the state of the current Greek economy, things do feel a little worn and desparate around here.  But the people have been friendly, and the views are gorgeous. After all, you can’t possibly complain when the view from your hotel room is a broad valley carpeted in thousands of grey-green olive trees, the white escarpment of limestone hillsides, swallows swooping in the late afternoon sun, and there, at the end of the valley is the Bay of Corinth, separating mainland Greece from the Pelopennesian peninsula.

Because our tour of the ruins at Delphi isn’t until tomorrow morning, we were able to give the kids a leisurely afternoon, during which they could shop or wander the village, or take photographs, or possibly nap.  (Or play Risk.  Someone bought an Italian version of Risk in Rome, and it’s become a thing amongst some of the kids.)  I spent a good bit of the afternoon out on our balcony (I know), listening to the sound of swallows chirping and the wine glasses in the nearby cafe clinking as folks had a late afternoon meal.  We then had a late dinner with the kids at the restaurant next door, chatting with them about some of their purchases.  I saw several “evil eye” charms, and one enterprising group of young men all purchased traditional style Greek shirts in varying patterns of white and blue.  They look pretty awesome as a group.

So, that was Day One of Greece.  I liked Italy a lot, but I have a feeling Greece might be even more my speed.

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Thunder and volcanoes.

I’ll tell you, it’s terribly difficult to wake up to a sight like we did this morning: blue, blue Mediterranean waters beating up against the limestone cliffs of the Amalfi coast, a crisp breeze coming over the water, and big fluffy white clouds in a brilliant sky. 

This is a tough trip, guys.  Nothing to see here at all.

I’m currently sitting in the lobby of the hotel, waiting to do bed check in about half an hour, and listening to our bus driver Francesco talk about 1970s and 80s music with our tour director, Alex.  Francesco’s awesome, and we’re going to miss him.  He’s an absolutely wonderful driver– you should have seen him manage the narrow streets and tight clifftop curves of Meta yesterday.  And today he had to navigate through a series of heavy downpours and a bout of hail, and was completely unshakeable.  We’ve all be quite impressed by him.  At any rate, Francesco apparently has very strong feelings about Chicago (the band) and Journey.  At least, that’s what I’m picking up from their conversation.

(I’m finding that my Spanish is useful in Italy, but only insofar as it will let me recognize about one word in five.  It’s enough to make me both feel like I sort of know what’s going on, and completely certain that I’m missing all of the important stuff.)

Today’s adventure included a trip to the excavation site of Pompeii, which was only about forty minutes away from our hotel. So we had a leisurely morning, and headed out about 9:30 AM to go and view the ruins.

I’m sure you all know the basic shape of the story: in 79 CE, the volcano Vesuvius erupted violently, sending a cloud of pyroclastic ash miles into the sky, and destroyed two major Roman cities– Pompeii and Herculanium.  Herculanium was destroyed by the lava flow, and ultimately rebuilt.  But Pompeii was buried whole and entire underneath compressed volcanic ash, erasing it from view–and also preserving its buildings, dead, and all of the detritus of daily life.  Because of this, Pompeii is a fantastic resource for those interesting in the Roman empire, because it gives us an idea of the how people lived in a bustling Roman city in the first century.  Being a history-type person, I’ve read about Pompeii and watching several documentaries (and episodes of Doctor Who, if that counts), so I was quite excited to see the city today.

But before we began our tour, we ducked into the nearby hotel, which has a cameo workshop and store in it.  Cameos are traditionally made here on the Amalfi coast– artisans use conch shells and mother-of-pearl to carve away the different colored layers to create beautiful pendants.  Many have faces in profile– that’s the most traditional form– but they can also have abstract designs, flowers, monograms, or any other decoration.  We got a quick explaination of the process, and an artist showed us how the carving is done.  Then, we walked down into the showroom, which had tons of really beautiful, delicate cameos and coral jewelry for sale.  Much of it was out of our price range, but there were some less expensive pieces, and several of us walked out with a nice trinket to remember our time in Pompeii.

After visiting the cameo showroom, we met our local tour guide, Marco.  Marco then took us into Pompeii for a short tour– the city itself is huge, and one could easily spend a day or two wandering through all of the houses and shops and public spaces– so we really only hit the highlights.  But while I know there were many among us who would have liked to spend more time at the site, I think we would all agree that Marco was a really excellent guide.  He did a fantastic job of painting a picture of what the city would have been like at the time of Vesuvius’ eruption– the bustling harbor, the noise, the technology, the social classes, and of course Pompeii’s rather dubious reputation as a bit of a “sin city” of the ancient world.  For my part, I hadn’t realized that Pompeii was initially so close to the sea– the coast today is easily several miles away, and yet it’s easy to see the ruined harbor and docks for the trading ships which would have anchored just off shore, unloading cargos of spices and textiles, glass and tile, wine, bronze, and lead.

After entering through Pompeii’s main habor gate, we walked towards the Forum– the political, religious, and economic heart of any Roman city.  Along the way, Marco pointed out the holders for torches in the buildings’ external walls, and the small pieces of white marble set between the basalt paving stones of the street– on dark nights, the white stone would reflect the torch and moonlight, acting almost like modern cats’ eyes in the roads.  He also showed us the large stepping stones which allowed pedestrians to cross the busy– and often dirty– streets without fouling their feet and long clothing.

The Forum itself is a broad, rectangular space, bordered on all sides by temples, shops, and government buildings.  Today it has several bronze sculptures by a modern artist, all interpretations of classical Roman figures– I believe this is a temporary exhibit, but it’s quite lovely.  We managed an excellent group photo in the Forum with Vesuvius rising in the background, and then we went to briefly look at some of the artifacts which had been excavated from various houses and shops in Pompeii.  The shelves were crowded with amphora, safes, sculptures, and other items from the daily life of Pompeii’s citizens– but the things that drew the kids’ attention the most were unquestionably the body casts.

There are eight-six body casts in Pompeii– figures of people in the position in which they died, created by pouring plaster into the voids found in the volcanic ash during excavation.  We only saw a couple, sadly, but the few we saw were still fascinating.  One of the figures was a small child, maybe four or five.  Another was an adult man, crouching, holding his hands over his mouth and nose.  Most people in Pompeii wouldn’t have been killed by the ashfall itself; before the ash, there were scalding waves of poisonous volcanic gasses which would have done much of the damage.  Presumably that would be what the man would have been trying to avoid breathing in.  Additionally, the eruption was also accompanied by significant tremors all up and down the Amalfi coast, and so many people were killed in building collapses as well.

Hmm.  There’s a lot more to talk about, but unfortunately I’ve got to be practical– we have an early, early wake-up call tomorrow so that we can make our flight to Greece, so I’d really better leave it there for now.  So for now– it’s goodbye Italy, and hello Greece!

Ciao, Roma.

On the road to Naples.

Buongiorno, everyone!  Sorry for the abrupt end to last night’s blog update– our wake up call was at 5:30 this morning, and I needed to finish packing up my stuff for our transfer today to Capri and Sorrento and get some sleep.  So!  I’ll make up for it by doing a little early blogging while we’re on the bus down to Naples, since I’ve got three hours at my disposal.

Currently, the bus is quiet: the kids are all plugged into their various devices and listening to music or sleeping, or looking out the window at the scenery.  And the countryside is worth appreciation– we’re driving south down a long valley between two ridges of the Apenines, and the fields on either side of the road are dotted with bright red poppies and yellow wildflowers.  I can see small villages curled into the foothills of the mountains, and if I look out the lefthand window of the bus, I can see the abbey of Monte Cossini, which was founded by St. Benedict.  I can also see enormous windmills spinning along the top of a ridge pockmarked with white limestone outcrops and carved with switchback roads, and a thin strand of clouds hanging about the valleys.  It’s not exactly terrible to look at.

So!  A couple of things I left out of last night’s account: Alex took us to the old Jewish quarter in Rome and gave us about an hour and a half to find something to eat for lunch yesterday, which meant that we had our first real opportunity to go and explore Italy’s culinary options.  (I had a caprese salad with buffalo mozarella and a potato, cheese, and mushroom concoction the name of which escapes me.  It was delicious regardless.  Several of the other chaperones had priscutto and cheese and polenta, which made all of us [a] very full and [b] very happy.) After eating, we still had about half an hour before we needed to meet the group, so Mrs. Theaker (as she says, “the artist formerly known as Ms. Kovel”) and I decided to walk around a bit.  And it was on our brief walk that we found probably the Most Important Site in all of Rome.

We’d left Ms. Wong and Mr. Stephenson at an espresso bar, and just across the street, I could see some excavated ruins in a fenced-off pit.

“Hey,” I said to Mrs. Theaker, “We should go check that out!”  Mrs. Theaker agreed.  After all, if you saw the ruins of a random Roman temple across the street, wouldn’t you want to go and see what they were about?

So we crossed the street, and went to go and read the informational signs posted on the fence.  One of the signs explained that the temple was from the second century BCE, and was dedicated to– I forget which god, because the second sign was much more interesting.

“PLEASE DO NOT LEAVE CAT FOOD BEHIND,” it said.  “THE CATS ARE FED THROUGH AN APPROVED ORGANIZATION.”

Lovely reader, it is my joy to tell you that Rome uses its extra temples and monuments as stray cat sanctuaries.  It is AMAZING.  All throughout the ruins, there were cats: sprawled on a collapsed column, dripping down some shady steps, perched on the ledge of the retaining wall.  It was a cat temple.

Alex seemed singularly unsurprised when Mrs. Theaker and I happily told her what we’d found on our walk.  Apparently, there are several of these cat sanctuaries around Rome, paid for by charities.  They’re encouraged because the organizations spay and neuter the cats (to keep there from being too many), and the cats in turn keep the rat population down.

A+ job, Rome.  Congratulations on being incredibly practical and also slightly weird.  I approve.

Now, we should be arriving at the port of Naples in about an hour and a half, so I’m going to try and shut my eyes for a while and doze.  When we arrive, we’re going to take a ferry to the island of Capri, so today is a day where we’re all going to pretend we’re fabulously wealthy and famous, just so we fit in.  Should be fun!

Sorrento, Italy

Dear family and friends, I love you all very much, but I’m afraid I will be moving to Capri.  Feel free to come and visit me in my 55 million Euro villa sometime.  We will go shopping at Prada and Miu Miu and buy necklaces with rubies as big as your thumb.

The ferry ride over to Capri from Naples was uneventful (anxious parents concerned about motion sickness can rest easy knowing that everyone did awesome today– no upset stomachs at all!), although I did spend much of the forty-five minute ride gawking at the sprawl of Naples and the hazy shape of Mount Vesuvius behind us, and the growing island of Capri ahead.

When we disembarked from the ferry, we were immediately herded by our local guide, Francesca, into two motor boats, which proceded to take us on an hour-long cruise around the island, and into several of the grottos.*

Oh, man.  Guys, I’m really not sure how to describe it, except to say that it was beautiful, that the water was so clear and blue that it made the sky seem pale.  I’ll post pictures when I get the chance, but honestly, they won’t do the experience justice.  I could have spent all day out on that boat.  Francesca used our Whispers to tell us about the geology of the island, the history of Emperor Tiberius’s palace during Imperial times, what life on the island is like for most of the inhabitants, and its role in celebrity history.  While she was talking, we were surrounded by some of the most gorgeous scenery I’ve ever experienced– it was glorious.  We sailed through a natural arch reputed to grant wishes, and gawked at some of the (extremely fancy) yatches around us.  Ms. Wong and I tried to do some celebrity spotting, but alas, they were too well-hidden for us to find them.

After our mini-cruise, Francesca helped us get onto the inclided cable car which helps to move people from the marina to the main square of the town of Capri.  The town itself is– hmm.  I want to say charming, but also incredibly, incredibly exclusive.  Almost like a dollhouse build out of filigree goldwork– it makes you smile because of how small and quirky it is, but it’s also somewhat intimidating in its finery.  Or at least that’s how I felt; I do not have the bank account to feel comfortable in most of those shops.  Still, it was lots of fun to window shop for sunglasses that are worth more than my car.

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We took a brief walk down the hill to go to the gardens and get a view of the southern coast from the clifftops, and then the kids had a little time to do some shopping on their own.  Be not alarmed, parental units: I didn’t see anyone with unreasonably pricey purchases.  Some of us (myself included) bought perfume or soap from a perfumerie which is located on Capri; it’s famous for its citrus and bougainvillea essences.  (The island does smell marvelous; we could smell bougainvilleas wafting in on the wind during our lunch.)

After our shopping expedition, we reconvened, made our way (via cable car) back down to the marina where we caught a ferry to Sorrento– our home for tonight.  We unfortunately didn’t have time to enjoy Sorrento on foot, although it looks like a lovely place; instead, we had to make our way up the cliff face to meet our bus.  This involved a brisk climb up a hundred stairs.  The kids did awesome; this intrepid reporter, however, was about done after fifty or so.  Still, we all made it to the top of the cliff, met our driver, and headed off to our hotel for tonight.

So! That was our day.  Tomorrow, we head for Pompeii!


* Unrelated, but I’m pretty sure this is at least the third Francesco/a we’ve had as a guide or driver on this trip.  I should keep a tally.

In the shadows of tall buildings.

First off, ten points to anyone who correctly identifies the artist and song from which I’ve stolen the title of this entry.

Secondly, today was a day during which our group divided into two parts and had plenty of free time, so what I’m writing about is what I did during the day– which may or may not be what our students did, exactly.  But the broad strokes should be there.

Our group was much more chatty at breakfast this morning, which I take as a sign that the jet lag has worn off, but the exhaustion hasn’t yet set in.  (This means we’re in the traveling sweet spot right now.  Let’s hope it lasts.)  We left the hotel at nine this morning, and headed back down into the city to pick up our tour guide and let one group off the bus for their own excursion. The first main event for today was an extra excursion to the early Christian catacombs just outside the original city wall, and not everyone wanted to go– the quarters are tight, and not everyone feels comfortable being underground in the context of human burials, so we certainly didn’t want to force people to go if they would be unhappy.  So a small group left the bus as we picked up today’s guide, Ana.

(You’d have to ask Ms. Husband precisely what that group did until lunch, because I’m afraid I don’t know yet!  I believe it involved a fair bit of shopping and a trip to McDonald’s, and probably a lot of other stuff, too.)

After picking up Ana, we took a brief driving tour of Rome, passing by the Palatine Hill, Circus Maximus (where the chariot racing took place– think Ben Hur), and the public baths.  We wound up along the Appian Way, the “queen of roads” in Rome, and got off the bus at the site of a small church located on top of one of Rome’s many networks of catacombs.

Rome has an incredibly extensive network of catacombs– if they were stretched out in a single tunnel, they would reach from Rome to Florence.  But they developed as a result of traditional pre-Christian Roman beliefs regarding the sanctity of the dead, as well as old Roman laws regarding the proscribed locations for the disposal of the dead.  Out of concern for public health, burials (and cremations) were not allowed inside of Rome’s old city walls, so the dead were either buried or cremated outside of the city proper.  Also, Roman law and tradition forbade moving or otherwise desecrating a body after death, which meant that once someone had been buried in a place, that land could no longer be used for anything else– ever.  And because land was at a premium (and because of some lucky geological features which I’ll describe in a moment), it made sense to dig down into the rock below and excavate out tunnels, chambers, and small tombs, rather than to simply dig a grave.

The catacombs we visited were established prior to 313 CE, which means that Christianity was still an illegal practice in the Roman empire.  Thus, while the graves belonged to early Christians, the symbols used on their grave markers and in the decorated tombs were largely coded to indicate their faith.  So instead of the crucifix, you’ll see an icthys– a fish– or the symbols for Alpha and Omega.

Initially, our tour guide took us down into a small underground church build on top of the graves of two early Christian martyrs, and explained the history of the church and early Christianity.  She stressed that while movies and books may like to represent the catacombs as a place where Christians hid due to persecution, this was not the case– the catacombs were a place of burial only, not worship or refuge.  After giving us a basic overview, she led us down into the catacombs themselves.

I know I’ve written about history and cemeteries on this blog before, so I won’t rehash old ground.  But I did really love seeing the catacombs, because I think there’s something deeply empathetic that can happen when you consider the very basic realties and griefs of people who have been gone for centuries upon centuries.  It’s tempting to think of the past as some strange alternate world, full of fictional characters who are interesting to think about, but who weren’t really people.  But when you walk through a place meant to be an eternal monument to personal loss and– depending on the faith of individual– ultimate peace and redemption, it becomes much, much easier to imagine that world honestly, with all the normal pains and flaws and joys of human existence.

That’s a bit much, yeah?  But.  Like I said: there’s something about history and cemeteries for me.  I know that’s not true for everyone, though, so take it with a grain of salt.

At any rate, our tour guide took us through about 10% of the catacombs– that’s all that’s open to the public, here– showing us the pick and chisle marks in the stone where workers carved away at the rock.  Much of Rome sits on a bedrock of compressed volcanic ash known as tuffa, and the stone is therefore porous and easy to carve away.  In fact, our guide told us that generally a new burial niche in the side of a tunnel could be carved away in less than two hours– which was good, because that’s about how long an oil lamp could burn.  We also were able to see an original fresco– more than seventeen hundred years old, which blows my mind– which decorated the burial arch of a wealthy individual.

After our tour of the catacombs, Ana took us over to see the Basillica of Saint Paul.  (For those keeping score, this would be Basillica Number Two, after yesterday’s trip to Saint Peter’s Basillica in Vatican City.)  The Basillica of Saint Paul is also administered by the Vatican, although it isn’t officially within the boundaries of the Holy See, and was built over the remains of Saint Paul, one of the most influential figures in early Christianity.

Ana explained to us that much of the current Basillica is a 19th century reconstruction, as the building caught fire during an attempt to restore part of the ceiling.  Luckily, however, firefighters were able to use water from the nearby Tiber River to prevent the fire from spreading to the tomb of St. Paul, the aspe, and a magnificent golden mosaic which decorates the half-dome over the altar.

Again, we were lucky enough to enter through the Holy Door, which is only open every twenty-five years.  Entering through the Holy Door– both at Saint Paul’s and Saint Peter’s Basillicas– grants one plenary indulgence, according to Catholic belief.  Ana expressed to the kids the importance of this act, and I think many of them found it a moving idea, regardless of their personal beliefs.

After entering the Basillica proper, we could immediately hear the gorgeous sounds of a choir singing during Mass.  We were therefore very, very quiet and stood in the back of the Basillica to listen while Ana told us about the church via our Whispers (those one-way radios I mentioned yesterday).  The kids were absolutely awesome, by the way– and have been every time we’ve entered any religious site.  They’ve been wonderfully respectful and open, and I couldn’t be prouder of them.

St. Paul’s feels more open and airy than St. Peter’s, but much of that has to do with the size of the crowds at the Vatican.  One thing I absolutely loved about St. Paul’s were the windows; instead of stained glass, the windows are made of thin slices of alabaster, a semi-translucent stone.  That, in combination with the austerity of the pillars, the golden glow of the early Byzantine-style mosaic, and the unearthly singing of the choir, made St. Paul’s an incredibly moving place to visit.  Our kids had a chance to visit the tomb of St. Paul, and several made observances.

(And– hey, Mom.  If you’re reading this, please tell Mrs. Milby that I lit a candle for her at St. Paul’s.  I wasn’t able to at St. Peter’s, so I hope that begins to make amends for that lapse.)

Once we finished our tour of the Basillica, Ana brough us back to the city center via our bus, where we met up with the earlier group.  We gave the kids an hour and a half to eat lunch on their own, and then reconvened before walking over to some of the more popular streets for shopping in Rome.  We then turned the kids loose with instructions to meet us again in about two hours, had dinner, and came back to the hotel.

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And– sorry for the abrupt ending, guys, but we have a very early wake-up call tomorrow, and I need to get to bed.  I’ll finish writing up today’s adventures while we’re on the bus to Sorrento tomorrow!

Panem et circences.

I feel a little like that great swordsman and philosopher, Inigo Montoya: “Let me explain; no, there is too much– let me sum up.”

In broad strokes, here’s what we did today: we visited the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, and Vatican City.  We walked a bit, stood in lines with hundreds upon hundreds of people, saw some of the great masterworks of the Western world, and had a little time for some gelatto and shopping.

(If I stop this entry there, is that enough?  No?  I suppose sometimes broad brushstrokes aren’t enough, even if I do like modernism.)

We were lucky enough this morning to have a relatively leisurely start, which meant that we were up by 7:30 local time, breakfasting by 8:15, and on the bus by 9:00.  “Leisurely” is a fairly elastic concept on trips like this, and has everything to do with comparison.  We’ll be waking up painfully early in a few days, so we’ve been telling the kids that 7:30 is a luxury– I’m not sure they really understand that yet, however.  It’ll happen, though.

Our first stop this morning was the Colosseum, the quintessential stadium of all stadia.  The name– colossous— is absolutely appropriate; even in its half ruined state after fifteen hundred years of pilliaging stones and metal braces from its bones, the Colosseum is truly a monument to what man can do– and build– if given the chance.

As a history teacher (even one whose specialty isn’t Europe), I generally feel like I’ve got a fairly good handle on the Romans and Colosseum, bread and circuses, and all that jazz.  But our tour guide, Barbara, was fantastic, and told us all sorts of things that I’d never heard before– about the construction and engineering of the building, the way the games functioned, how Roman society functioned– all sorts of things.  For example: did you know that women were allowed to attend the games, but had to sit in the very, very top section of the stadium?  They were required by Roman law to be physically segregated from men in public venues, which meant that even the highest class patrician matron had to sit in a worse position than the lowest class plebian man.  The gender divide didn’t necessarily surprise me– the Romans are not my favorites in terms of gender history– but the gendering of class I found really interesting, especially when you consider how paternalistic Roman society was.  Roman women were to be protected and their virtue guarded by their male relatives, so the idea that you would have these women, who were idealized as frail and needing protection, sitting Way The Heck At The Top of the stadium, up some seriously steep stairs is somewhat hilarious to me.  Frankly, I think if a lady could make it all the way up to the top of the stadium without tripping on the incredibly steep stairs, I think she was probably strong enough to be her own legal guardian as well.

But I digress.

One of the coolest parts of the Colosseum is undoubtably the arena floor.*  Because the original wooden floor has long since rotted away, you can see all the hallways and elevator shafts which would allow people to raise gladiators and animals up to the arena floor through a system of counterweights.  I can’t imagine how impressive that must have been in 80 CE– to see a lion rise out of the sand, or sixteen heavily armed men, poised to fight to the death.

After walking through the Colosseum, our guide took us past the Arch of Constantine to Palatine hill, where the Roman emperors built their palaces.  Today the hill is covered with olive trees, umbrella pines, and the tall spires of cyprus.  Then we walked down a Roman road into the Forum, which was the heart of Roman public life during both the Republic and Empire periods.  The Forum housed the Senate and many, many temples, and was the commercial and political center of the Mediterranean for centuries.  Because the Forum is so old, it seems all jumbled up– a temple to Vestia here, a temple to Julius Caesar there, the original combat space for the gladiators, the platform where Marc Antony gave his funeral oration on Caesar– it’s all heaped up, column upon column, right next to each other.  So much of classical Western history in one place, it honestly made me a little dizzy.

Although, by the time we made our way through the forum, that dizziness could have been from heat and hunger.  While it’s been absolutely lovely in terms of weather, walking about in the sun for three hours did take its toll– I know we were all grateful to jump back on the bus for the short ride over to Vatican City, if only to sit out of the sun for a little while.  We had tickets to enter the Vatican at 2:30, which meant that we had a very limited time for lunch, so when we arrived near to the entrance of the Vatican Museum, we gave the kids about half an hour to go and find something from one of the sandwich shops or pizzarias nearby before we met our new guide, Marina.

After eating, we met up with Marina, got outfitted with the Vatican’s Whispers (“Vatican’s Whispers” sounds so much cooler than what they are; they’re basically radios that you put in your ears so that the tour guide can talk to everyone in the group without screaming), and then we set off on our Quest for the Sistine Chapel.  Capitals are necessary for this, because oh my gosh that was one of the most crowded places I’ve ever been in my life.

You see, the trouble is that there is going to be a MASSIVE ceremony at St. Peter’s tomorrow (Sunday), because two new saints are being beatified– and that means that no one can visit the Vatican tomorrow in the normal way.  So therefore, if you’re currently in Rome and want to visit Vatican City, you needed to go today, because tomorrow’s not an option.  Thus, the crowds = INSANE.

Still, Marina walked us through the enormous collection of classical statues, tapestries, and urns, pointing out the gold thread woven through Raphael’s tapestries, the Apollo Belvedere, and an absolutely jaw-dropping passageway modeled after the Roman Emeperor Nero’s famous golden villa.  I do wish that (a) it had been less crowded, and (b) I had been less footsore, because there were amazing objects we drifted right past because of the crowd.  But still– gorgeous.

And then we walked down a couple of narrow staircases, took a left, and– there was the Sistine Chapel.

(We couldn’t take pictures, but if you need a visual, I suggest you Google “Cappela Sistina” + “Vatican” + “virtual tour.”  There’s an amazing 360 degree view of the chapel which is fantastic– I’ve used it in class multiple times.)

I’m honestly not much of a Western Europe person in terms of my background and training in history, but I do love Renaissance art.  And I’ve got a special place in my heart for Michelangelo, because he was difficult and troubled and astoundingly innovative.  I can–and have– taught whole class periods on nothing but Michelangelo’s Last Judgement.  And to actually be in that space, to look up and see his monumental Sybills staring down, to see God reaching out towards a newly-created Adam, to see that brilliant blue wash behind the altar– well.  I have to admit I teared up a little.  Maybe more than a little.  I admit nothing.

After the Cappela Sistina, we made our way– slowly– up the stairs to St. Peter’s Basillica.  Because it’s a Jubilee year, we were able to enter through a door that is usually closed, and immediately were in front of one of the most famous statues in the world: the Pieta.  (Another reason I love Michelangelo.  The way Mary’s fingers press in Christ’s flesh is astounding.)  The crowds were thick, but I know most of our students were able to get a good look at it– even though it is behind glass, now.

Then, we went out into the Basillica itself, where a mass was being performed.  The music, Bernini’s soaring gilded bronze pavillion and altar piece, and the late afternoon sunlight made for a truly incredible moment.  I know our students were tired of walking and pushing through crowds, but I think they would all agree that that one moment was unquestionably worth it.

And now– to bed.  We’re up at 7:30 again tomorrow to go check out the catacombs!

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* Another fun fact our tour guide shared with us: the Colosseum’s floor was wooden, but covered in sand– in part to hide the trap doors and elevators (yeah, elevators, the Romans can engineer the crap out of stuff), but also to soak up the blood from the battles.  And those of you who speak Spanish will note that arena is the word for sand, and is derived from a Latin root.  So the use of the word “arena” in its modern context actually derives from the use of sand on the Colosseum’s floor.  Etymology is fun.

The Eternal Day (And Also City)

Somewhere Northeast of Newfoundland

Air travel is never the most glamorous undertaking.  Unless you’re flying in a 1960s PanAm commercial (the kind with little pillbox hats and fancy drinks), traveling by plane is apt to be crowded, frustrating, and full of the hurry-up-and-wait that most of us (myself included) are really bad at.  But even knowing that flying is full of TSA checks and limits on liquids and infants sobbing because of cabin pressure changes, I keep hoping it will be the sort of experience I see in glossy magazines: civilized, comfortable, and ending with me and my fellow travelers waltzing off the plane looking fresh-pressed and well-rested.

Maybe if we were in first class.  Alas, we are not, and therefore I anticipate getting off the plane in Frankfurt feeling in need of a good yoga session and a shower.

But allowing for all the normal frustrations of travel, the first leg of our trip went relatively smoothly: no problems with TSA, and we got to the gate with plenty of time to allow the kids a chance to go and grab something to eat and drink before takeoff.  Boarding was efficient– given that we’re on a German airline, I wouldn’t expect anything else– and while I’m in the unenviable position of having a Dreaded Middle Seat, my row mates are top notch. Andrew and Gio are currently playing Uno, I think, although I know there’s been some discussion of watching Kung Fu Panda 3 as well.

(Coach Auld has the aisle next to me, and spent the first part of the trip watching Leonardo DiCaprio fight a bear.  I watched some droids and lightsabers save the galaxy again.  I think my choice was more relaxing.)

As we’ve all been fed and watered and the cabin lights have been turned out, I’m going to put on some music and pretend like I can actually sleep on moving vehicles and try my hand achieving some sort of unconsciousness before we land in Frankfurt.

Concourse A42 in Frankfurt

Layover in progress! It’s 8:35 AM local time (which I think puts us in the 2 AM hour back home), and the kids have an hour to find some food, stretch, and try to freshen up as best they can before the next leg of our trip.  I’ve staked out a seat at the very end of the terminal to sprawl and write this, and I’m watching planes taxi in along the runway in the fog.  I couldn’t tell you what Germany looks like– from here, it looks like pavement and air traffic controllers’ towers and a thick grey sky.   I believe this means that by the Laws of Travel, I still can’t say I’ve been to Germany, as I haven’t left the airport.*

I had some modest success in my attempt to achieve unconciousness on our last flight; there are about two hours for which I can’t fully account, and I missed several episodes of the podcast I was listening to, so I’m going to pretend that means I actually slept.  The kids had better luck, I think– I saw several of them curled up and checked out for several hours at least, so hopefully that means that we’ll be able to hold of the worst of travel fatigue until we manage to check into our hotel outside of Rome this evening.  (The winner of the Most Sleep Award goes to Parris, by the way, who has just informed me she “only” slept for five hours on the flight. My jealousy is immense.)

Everything continues to go smoothly, although I managed to trip going up a flight of stairs on our way out of the gate and now have an enormous bruise north of my left knee.  I’d say nothing was hurt but my pride, but that would be a lie.  Ouch.  But the pride took the bigger hit. And frankly, I’m sure that’s not the only bruise I’ll get on this trip, because I am a grade A klutz.  Ms. Husband isn’t feeling terribly well right now, either, as she got hit by a bout of motion sickness during our last flight, which is never fun.  But she’s resting a bit and has taken some Dramamine, so hopefully she’ll be feeling right as rain soon enough.

Now it’s time for me to rejoin the group, count up my girls, and off we’ll go on flight number two!

L’Ottava Hotel, Someplace Outside of Rome (I Wasn’t Paying Attention)

About eighty percent of my brain right now is arguing in favor of going upstairs to my hotel room and crashing until dinner.  But if I do that, I know I’m going to be Zombie Ms. Galloway, incapable of holding a conversation or writing a complete thought.  Therefore, I have unpacked (as much as I’m going to) and plugged the electronics in to charge, and headed down to the courtyard in front of the hotel to write up this account.  Sleep will have to wait a while longer.

It’s really lovely out here– we’re about fifty minutes outside of Rome proper, and our hotel is up on a hillside.  I’m currently looking down into a valley with occasional stripes of olive green vineyards and red tile roofs, and at the edge of the valley the Apennine Mountains rise up like watercolor sentries.

Several kids have joined me out here– Gio and Andrew and Chiara are continuing an epic game of Uno, and Malik and Evan and several others are playing a game of Heads Up on someone’s phone.  And while they look tired, I’m seeing a lot of smiles.

The kids were troopers today (and yesterday? I’m not sure how to count the passage of time right now); we arrived at Rome at around 12:30 local time, and at that point,  we’d been traveling for more than fourteen hours, and most of us hadn’t slept more than a handful of hours.  We were met at baggage claim by a representative from EF, found our bags without too much of a delay, gave the kids a chance to clean up in the bathrooms– and then met our tour director, Alex, and jumped right onto the bus and headed into Rome to see the sights. And while we were certainly tired, and probably thinking fondly of the possibility of sleep, it really does make sense to just power through and beat the jet lag with brute force.

So! As we drove into Rome, Alex gave us some background information about the city and what we could see out the window.  Which– I have to be honest, it is extremely weird as a history teacher to look out a window and see the site where Julius Caesar was stabbed (twenty-three times!), or to see the arches of the Colosseum off in the distance, or to watch Vespas weave between cars in the alleys behind Vatican City.  I’ve been lucky enough to travel a fair bit thus far in my life, but it never stops surprising me when I can see that the places I’ve studied and read about and seen in movies are actually real, that they have a presence beyond my imagination.

That would be the value of travel, my friends.

Eventually, our bus driver found a place to park, and we ventured out to visit a few piazzas and stretch our legs.  We visited the Trevi fountain, where students threw in coins, took selfies, and bought their first Italian gelatos, and then walked past the Temple to Agrippa, and took a little time inside the Pantheon.  (This intrepid reporter has to admit she spent an inordinant amount of time at the tomb of Raphael.  School of Athens Raphael– not Ninja Turtles Raphael.)  The kids probably have a million pictures, but I’ll upload a few as well when I’ve got a chance.

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And now–  I think that’s about for today!  Tomorrow we’ll be going to the Colosseum and Vatican City, so we need to eat well, sleep fast, and get ready for another awesome day of adventures.

 


* Note to Emily: The Laws of Travel do, however, state that a person has been to a place if they have driven through it, even if they didn’t stop.  Therefore I have been to Brazil, and also Idaho.

the audience that witnesses history.

In the past, I’ve had students ask if the reason why I teach World History is because I loved it in high school.  I’d like to be able to say yes, I had a marvelous World History class in high school, and that’s why I majored in History and fell backwards into teaching– but the fact of the matter is that I remember very little of my high school World History class.  I know we read Cry, the Beloved Country, which I loved, and we colored a lot of maps.  Beyond that, it’s a bit of a blur.  But the next year, my junior year, the summer after I went to GHP and thus became increasingly frustrated with high school, I took AP US History with an amazing teacher, and I remember that class.  Ms. F lectured from a podium, all day, every day– no PowerPoint, no nothing.  I sometimes took notes, but more often I drew pictures while she talked and asked questions of us.  Sometimes I drew henna patterns on the back of my hand.  It should have been deadly dull, but it never was.

(This– the doodling instead of taking notes– was pretty par for the course for me.  I’m an abysmal note taker, and always have been.  But I remember what I hear, and so my notes often just are a list of names with arrows and triangles and pictures of birds.  It works for me, and it’s part of the reason I’m opposed to the idea of requiring notes, or checking that students take notes in a particular format.  You take notes?  Good for you.  You don’t?  I hope that works for you, kid.)

I loved Ms. F.  She was the first teacher I had in Social Studies who really made me see how amazing primary sources are, how documents function as time machines.  And while today I’m not an Americanist in terms of my interests or training, I owe to her my fondness for Supreme Court decisions, my everlasting girl-crush on Abigail Adams, and my love of epistolary writing.

I still have the textbook for that course, believe it or not.  Bentley’s American Pageant.  It’s on the bottom of one of my bookshelves, and I occasionally consider giving it away to Goodwill or something.  And then I think, “But what if someone makes me teach U.S. History one year?,” as though textbooks are something I couldn’t get easily, and am able to justify hanging on to the text for just a little longer.

I bring all this up because I went up to D.C. last week with my mother and sister and my mother’s friend, and D.C. is an odd sort of textbook of a city— all those monuments and memorials and museums crammed into a tight space, like an editor trying to fit all the requisite facts into a certain number of pages.  I’d been to D.C. before– once, with my family when I was nine or so, and it was so cold the Reflecting Pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial was frozen solid.  We walked across it while Congressional interns played hockey.  I also went in eighth grade, and we did the endless bus ride, quick blast in-and-out trip that so many middle schools do in the hopes of engendering some sort of civic-mindedness.  I’m not sure it worked, but I still have the photographs.

We totes need a selfie with Abe!

Eighth graders on a school trip to D.C. mobbing the Lincoln memorial. Obviously, this is not one of the photographs I took in eighth grade.  No one took selfies in the 1990s, thank god.  My middle school self is intensely glad she missed out on that particular trend.

This particular trip was prompted primarily by the fact that my sister, Emily, returned from her term of service in the Peace Corps in Paraguay in December, and had begun applying to jobs.  As anyone who’s ever had the extreme joy of job searching could tell you, the first few weeks and months were less than fun– a few nibbles here, a phone interview there– and then things finally start going right.  She had a couple of interviews in quick succession, followed by a couple offers.  And a few weeks ago, she received a tentative job offer from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) contingent upon a background check– which we knew she’d pass without trouble.  Em’s wanted to work in emergency management since college– her undergraduate thesis was on hurricane evacuations– so this was exactly what she was hoping for.  With a pretty secure offer on the table, we mustered the troops and made a trip to D.C. in search of housing for her.

FEMA girl.

Emily, standing outside of the FEMA building. Which is just across the street from the Department of Education. I have told her that I might send up a few pieces of constructive criticism she can deliver to them.

Finding housing in D.C. is, it turns out, somewhat challenging!  Especially if (a) you’re working with a limited budget, (b) you want to try to live in a neighborhood with working streetlamps, (c) you need Metro access, and (d) would like a grocery store within walking distance.  Still, after some dedicated stalking  of online rental pages and a day in which we did basically nothing but drive around the city looking at properties– Mom and her friend looking at it from the perspective of parents concerned about safety, and Em and I looking at it from the perspective of Can You Afford It? and Do You Think The Electricity Will Go Off If The Wind Blows? No? Then It’s Better Than Paraguay!— Em found in a room in a brownstone in a nice transitional neighborhood, a couple blocks from a Metro station which will take her to work in about ten minutes.

(Side note: I love my job, and I very much like where I live, but let me tell you how much I would love to be able to ditch the car and rely on public transportation.  But alas, I live in the wilds of metro Atlanta, and public transportation is a dirty word here.)

After successfully managing the housing thing, and giving Em some time to meet with her future employers, we had plenty of time to play the tourists.  Of course we did the inevitable monuments tour of Lincoln and Jefferson and Washington and Korea and Vietnam, as well as the more recent MLK and FDR memorials–

The junipers smell lovely, too.

Korean War Memorial. I’ve always loved this one.

The Great Emancipator.

The Great Emancipator.

Maya Lin knew what she was doing with this design.

Maya Lin knew what she was doing with this design.

We couldn't have gone up the Washington Monument-- there's something wrong with the elevator, and I don't fancy all those spiral stairs.  Talk about dizzying.

We couldn’t have gone up the Washington Monument– there’s something wrong with the elevator, and I don’t fancy all those spiral stairs. Talk about dizzying.

I was working for that angle, with the Washington Monument in the shot.

I was working for that angle, with the Washington Monument in the shot.

I like the colors of the Roosevelt memorial-- the slight pinkish hue of the granite against the gold and green of the bronze statues is lovely.

I like the colors of the Roosevelt memorial– the slight pinkish hue of the granite against the gold and green of the bronze statues is lovely.

TJ and I have a rapport.  He's confusing and contradictory and I don't care, he's awesome. <3

TJ and I have a rapport. He’s confusing and contradictory and I don’t care, he’s awesome. ❤

— but my favorite thing about D.C. is always and forever going to be the museums.  I love them, love them, love them.  I love that they’re free, without question.  I love the idea is that these are treasures that belong to all of us, and that we, as American citizens, have a right to access and appreciate the great works of art and history that we, as a people, have produced.  I think of the great museums of Europe– the Louvre, the Prado, the British Museum– and they are all breathtaking and impressive, but.  They’re also exclusionary.  The Louvre is something like $25 for a one-day admission.  If you try and take a family of four to the Louvre, it’s going to cost you at least a hundred dollars.  But you can go to the National Portrait Gallery and the Air and Space Museum and the Museum of the American Indian in the same day in D.C., and all of them are open to the public and cost you nothing to enter.  And that’s important.

We went to several museums during our trip, but I think my favorite was the Hirshhorn.  While I definitely love history museums, I think I like art museums better.  There’s something meditative in it for me.  I’m one of Those Museum People: I like to sometimes just find a quiet place to sit in front of a piece, and just drift for a while.  I’m not really a great person to go to museums with, I think– I’m too much in my own head, and I don’t usually like talking too much about what I’m seeing and thinking, mostly because it seems stupid when I say it out loud.  I like trying to figure out what the artist wants to say with a piece– especially sculpture or modern art.

Elaine de Koonig

Like these portraits. I like the shape of them.  I like their lack of faces.  I don’t know much about de Koonig– I know more about her husband– but I think maybe she was going for shape and movement?  The way you see a silhouette from a long way off and recognize the person from the way they scuff their left foot on the floor.

Courtyard at the National Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum.

Courtyard at the National Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum.

Three Altars, from the self-taught section of the American Art Museum.  Man, I love folk art so much.

Three Altars, from the self-taught section of the American Art Museum. Man, I love folk art so much.

I sat in the folk art section of the American Art Museum for a good fifteen minutes, just looking at Three Altars, thinking about the fervor of faith that drove its creation, and about how that depth of belief is so contrary to anything I’ve experienced, and how that doesn’t seem to matter when I look at pieces like this.

A work in paper and gunpowder, displayed at the Hirshhorn Museum of Modern Art.

A work in paper and gunpowder, displayed at the Hirshhorn Museum of Modern Art.

A yellow tower of statues of the Virgin Mary, with an abstract painting in the foreground.  From the permanent collection of the Hirshhorn.

A yellow tower of statues of the Virgin Mary, with an abstract painting in the foreground. From the permanent collection of the Hirshhorn.

Curving, dripping pieces of nylon filled with Styrofoam pellets, suspended from the ceiling of the Hirshhorn.  Amazing to walk through and under.

Curving, dripping pieces of nylon filled with Styrofoam pellets, suspended from the ceiling of the Hirshhorn. Amazing to walk through and under.

Lick and Lather.  Two sculptures, one made out of chocolate, the other out of soap.

Lick and Lather. Two sculptures, one made out of chocolate, the other out of soap.

Oh.  Oh, this was from Shirin Neshat's exhibit, Facing History, and it was AMAZING.

Oh. Oh, this was from Shirin Neshat’s exhibit, Facing History, and it was AMAZING.

Part of Neshat's exhibition included films.

Part of Neshat’s exhibition included films.

Part of Neshat's exhibition, this display is called "Book of Kings," and includes portraits of Iranians with verses from the Shahnamah overlaying their faces.  Gorgeous.

Part of Neshat’s exhibition, this display is called “Book of Kings,” and includes portraits of Iranians with verses from the Shahnamah overlaying their faces. Gorgeous.

I loved this portrait.  Must have spent ten minutes in front of it.

I loved this portrait. Must have spent ten minutes in front of it.

This display used verses from a Persian poem about loss, called "The House is on Fire."

This display used verses from a Persian poem about loss, called “The House is on Fire.”

At any rate.  That’s a brief, nonsensical collection of thoughts about our trip to D.C.  I’m sure I’ll have more to say about the city in the future, once Em moves and she settles in.  I anticipate many future trips up via Amtrak for the purposes of crashing on her floor and spending days in the museums.

See you later.