Cute Italian (and Swiss) Animal Photos

•December 20, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Because the denizens of the internet have such a fondness for cute animal photos, I have compiled a selection of the creatures I encountered during my three months in Italy and Switzerland.  Going through the gallery below will reveal some animals that you may not associate with either of these countries…

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Arriving in Rome

•December 19, 2011 • Leave a Comment

(This post is from the evening of November 25th)

Here it is.  My last day on pilgrimage in Italy.  I didn’t leave the religious hostel too early because it really wasn’t that far to St. Peter’s in Rome.  By this point, I was out of the countryside and well within the city’s larger urban area.  Walking on the sidewalk beside the main road, a man turned around for a moment and did a double take before stopping to wait for me to catch up with him.

“Are you a pilgrim?” he asked.  “Yes,” I said.  “But you’re not Italian.”  I don’t know what it is that gives me away.  Coming from the United States, where a sampling of faces on just about any city street will reveal people with a range ancestries who now share a common national identity, it is funny to be in Europe—a land with such strictly defined national personalities that outsiders are immediately obvious to those in the know.  Strictly defined identities go beyond those of national origin, however.  Regional differences are incredibly well-defined, on a level almost unimaginable in America.  At the archaeological dig a few months ago—where Italians from different parts of the country were brought together in the same place—playful arguments rose up out of the regional stereotypes that seem to be common throughout Italy.  “She’s from Bologna; she has short arms”—a phrase meaning that a person is stingy with their money.  Sienese see themselves as totally different from Florentines, even though the two places are only 45 miles apart.  In Switzerland, it’s the same phenomenon.  Not only is the Swiss German language very different from the High German you would learn in school, but the different accents and terminology at use throughout the country vary from place to place.  “In Simmental,” a man on the train who was from Zurich told me, “people speak verrry slowly.  When you ask them why, they say it’s so they can think everything through before they say it!”

I’m not saying that these sorts of differences don’t exist in America; they’re just on a much larger scale here in Europe.  It’s easy enough for most people to tell the difference between a New Yorker, a Bostonian, a Texan, and someone from LA, but more refined distinctions might take more study.  Whereas Italians have lived in the same area for generations, these days, Americans move around to such an extent that regional differences are now largely faded.  The thing is, there really isn’t a distinguishing feature to being American—at least nothing that I can pick out and give as an example to people in Italy.  When asked about American food, I try to explain that you can eat anything here.  This is a difficult concept to grasp in a place where ‘Italian food’ is just labeled ‘food,’ and there’s really nothing else readily available.  Thanksgiving dinner is pretty much the only thing that I can offer as “typically American,” but that once-a-year meal hardly describes our “identity” to foreigners.

“No, I’m not Italian,” I said.  “Are you French?  German?”  “No, American.”  “…but you speak Italian.”  “Yes.”  The man then began going on a spree of information telling about the pilgrimage to Rome.  Most of what he said was stuff I already knew—“This is the Via Francigena”—or “The Via Cassia is an old road from the Roman Empire”—but he did tell me one interesting story about a chapel which rests near the edge of La Storta.  “It was in this chapel,” he said, “that Ignatius of Loyola stopped when he was coming to Rome to present his plan for the creation of the Jesuit order to the Pope.  By the time he was here in La Storta, he was having doubts about going through with it, and he stopped with his two companions in this chapel to pray.  There, he had a vision of Christ who said, ‘Do not worry.  I will be with you in Rome.’  Ignatius decided he had to finish his journey, and when he arrived in Rome, the Pope had no objection to his plan.”  As he told me all this, we walked together to the chapel in question.  It was just on the side of the road in front of a sort of strip mall.  It was fairly modern and rather plain—“They’ve rebuilt it of course”—but sure enough, there, on the wall was an inscription—“Io a Roma sarò con voi.”

I was sort of eager to get going, and made my way out of the chapel, but the man stopped me again.  “Now, here comes the Devil,” he said.  “I’m about to tempt you.  Right over there is the train station, and every 15 minutes a train leaves for St. Peter’s in the Vatican.  It only costs 1 euro.”  “No, I don’t think so,” I said. “I’d like to walk the rest of the way.”  “Really?  It’s only 1 euro.  Here!”  He began to reach in his coat, presumably about to present me with a ticket.  “No,” I stated firmly.  “I want to walk.”  “I see,” replied the man.  “You want to be a pilgrim up until the end.  OK.”  He headed off across the street and disappeared into a store.  Now I could really begin my way to Rome.

It turns out that taking the train might have been nicer than walking.  The road to Rome was quite nasty and dangerous, following the paths of many major highways.  The shoulder—if there was one—was always covered in the sort of garbage that gets thrown from car windows, and the cars and scooters going by provided plenty of noise, smoke, and close calls.  I had thought—especially with the newly created paths that I found the past few days—that there would have been a nicer road leading into Rome on the final stage.  At the very least, I expected that there would be a better alternative to the highway.  This wasn’t the case, however, and until reaching the park of Monte Mario, I was stuck, walking through an environment worse than most cities I’ve been to.  Unlike American suburbs where things spread out, the surrounding area of Rome was just as densely packed as the city itself.  I will never understand why Italians refuse to live in houses and insist on close contact with their neighbors.  Maybe I’m a completely beholden to the idea of home and land ownership, but that very fundamental concept—the American Dream—is perhaps what separates us the most from our European counterparts.

Monte Mario is a large hill that overlooks Rome from the north.  When I finally reached it and looked out over the city, I tried to pick out monuments that I knew in the skyline.  Specifically, of course, I was looking for the dome of St. Peter’s, so I could have some idea of where I was headed on the final few kilometers of my trip.  I saw several large domes throughout the city, but couldn’t decide which one was right until I turned a bit and all doubt left my mind.  Even from this distance, St. Peter’s dominated the area, towering over everything else in the city.  It is like something from science fiction or fantasy—too big to be real.

Now that I knew where I had to go, I made my way down the twisting paths of Monte Mario and found the long, wide boulevard that would lead me to the Vatican.  I reached the metro stop nearest to St. Peter’s and was immediately engulfed in tourists coming up from the underground train stop.  Eager tour group leaders were waiting for them on the street level.  “Hello, do you want to go to the Vatican Museum?”  “Hi, you want a tour of the basilica?”  “You can skip the line with my tour!”  “English tours here!”  It was all quite overwhelming.  In addition to these people, there were stores and restaurants all along the street.  Waiters stood outside the doors of their restaurants, offering specials to passersby.  Beggars on the street asked for change, and souvenir salesmen approached anyone they deemed a tourist, plying their wares.  My pilgrim’s pack and garb offered little protection from their advances, as men on the corners sat by their large grills, selling roasted chestnuts, while groups of tourists were paraded around like soldiers behind group leaders bearing identifying flags.  After the calmer arrival in Assisi, and the largely quiet walk to Rome over the past week, today had been hectic and discombobulating.  As the culmination of a spiritual and personally rewarding journey, shouldn’t the end of the trail allow a pilgrim to gather his thoughts and approach his hard-won destination with room to reflect and rejoice?  Now, in the hubbub of city and tourist life, the serene feeling of purpose that had been present for the past few weeks was gone.  It was like moneylenders in the temple, piercing a contemplative and peaceful bubble with their less-than-spiritual commercial activity.

As I passed through the crowds and under the northern wall of St. Peter’s square, I was relieved to find the plaza relatively unoccupied.  I looked up and there was the massive façade of the church, seat of the Popes for hundreds of years.  I walked to the middle of the square, in front of the fountain and obelisk, set my pack down and collapsed to the ground facing the giant basilica.  Here was the peace; I could just sit and rest, knowing that I had completed my journey.  I had done it.  I had made it to Rome.  I had completed a journey that thousands before me had undertaken.  I had become part of a long and enduring tradition of the faithful, and—whatever your views on faith and religion—you have to respect the history behind the pilgrimage to Rome.  During my time walking, I had been challenged in so many different ways, but in each instance had been able to overcome any difficulty with help from others, faith in myself, and an overriding belief that things work out for the best in the end.

Upon arriving in Rome, there was more a feeling of emptiness than elation, as the goal I had been striving towards was now done.  Maybe this is proof of one of the most clichéd and trite adages you could make about a pilgrimage—It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey.  This really has to be true, especially when it comes to the experience of a pilgrim.  No matter where you’re heading—Santiago de Compostela, Rome, Jerusalem, Mecca, Lourdes—the expedition is going to take up the majority of your time and thought.  We go to these places for a number of reasons—to get closer to God, to discover more about ourselves, and to reconnect with what’s truly important in life.  Showing up at any one of these places doesn’t help you achieve any of these objectives, but the pilgrimage walk itself offers unique, visceral, instruction into what it means to be human.  Perhaps it is this knowledge and experience of the world of here-and-now that is meant to bring us in closer communion with the realm of the divine.

Almost to Rome

•December 16, 2011 • Leave a Comment

(This post is from the evening of November 24th)

As was true of my pilgrimage to Assisi, the last stretches of walking on the Via Francigena to Rome became more difficult than previous days on the trail had been.  Today’s hike of 24 km should not have been particularly onerous, yet the last few hours of walking were difficult to bear.  Maybe it’s something about knowing that the end of the journey is near; subconsciously, you realize that there’s not much more walking to do, and somehow this is reflected by the pain in your shoulders and feet.  Your body knows that it doesn’t have to endure much more, so all the pain it’s been suppressing begins to well up and make itself known.  At least today I didn’t have to deal with getting lost at any point.

Today’s path as indicated by the Via Francigena signs differed a bit from what was in my guidebook.  My book instructs walkers to pass through the outskirts of the small town of Formello, about one third of the way through the day’s itinerary.  The signs that I was following instead direct you right through the center of the hilltop town, and onto what seems like a newly created VF footpath on the other side.  Not only are the signs generally easier to follow than the sometimes-vague instructions in the book, but the paths in takes you on are much more pleasant than the roads that the book suggests.  In this case, I’m fairly certain that the path I took was new, and probably opened after the book was published.  I’m glad that I followed it, though, because it gave me the chance to walk through the pleasant town of Formello—yet another medieval hilltop settlement—before walking on nice, wooded paths until La Storta.

Throughout the day’s journey, as I was reflecting upon my time in Italy and the impending completion of my pilgrimage, I thought back to something the nun at the convent in Vetralla said to me the morning of my departure—“When you get to Rome, remember us.”  At the time, I didn’t think much of it, but recalling her request now, in light of my nearly-completed journey, gave me pause to consider the privileges associated with pilgrimage.  When you’re walking for days on end, getting lost and putting your body and sometimes your sanity to the test, it is often difficult to think of your time on pilgrimage as a blessing rather than a curse.  Upon close reflection, however, you realize that undertaking a pilgrimage of any sort really constitutes a tremendous privilege, and one that not everyone has the opportunity to experience for himself.

First of all, the technical aspects of participation in a pilgrimage must be considered.  The physical requirements necessitated by each journey immediately rule out the old and infirm who are literally unable to walk or carry packs long distances.  Beyond that, very few people are able to uproot themselves from their lives—homes, families, jobs—for the amount of time most pilgrimages require.  Once begun, complete and immediate separation from the world as we know it can be difficult initially, but, after time, it affords the opportunity to reflect on what is important, and on where we want to focus—or refocus—our attentions.  Beyond the obvious religious significance of pilgrimage—which I believe the nun was referring to when she asked me to remember the members of her convent upon my arrival in Rome—pilgrimage allows for a great deal of spiritual reflection that may not be present ordinarily in our lives.  Whether that guiding, “still, small voice” comes from God, yourself, or somewhere else, it is difficult to deny that the long silences of pilgrimage help to discern, distinguish, and distill its message.   Being stuck, alone, in the middle of nowhere in a strange land, is the best place for this sort of contemplation.  For big parts of each day on pilgrimage, there is nature, there is you, and, if you believe in such, there is a spirit—nothing more.

As I arrived in La Storta, sore and tired, I began to get the same sort of empty feeling I had upon the completion of my pilgrimage to Assisi.  As I remembered the nun’s words, however, I realized that I would be taking thoughts of her and her convent, and of all of my other hosts, to Rome.  I’m sure these people must have been to Rome before, so it’s not as if they really needed me to inform the Holy City of their existence.  Nevertheless, as a pilgrim who traveled through Italy on foot to reach Rome—and as someone who benefitted from their help and hospitality along the way—I would serve as evidence of their good works and deeds.

We who are about to die salute you!

•December 14, 2011 • Leave a Comment

(This post is from the evening of November 23rd)

Today was meant to be the longest of this last leg to Rome, but I was not overly concerned with running out of sunlight to complete the journey.  Most of the next 25 kilometers were downhill, and the uphill sections were supposed to be short and easy.  I left my room in Sutri early so that I could take a look at the archaeological site outside the center of town.  I retraced my steps, heading down the hill toward the main road so that I would not pass through town and miss the ancient church, catacombs, and amphitheater all along the path my guide indicated.  After crossing the main road, I walked along a pleasant footpath and came to the park in front of the Mithraeum—an ancient temple built for use by followers of Mithraism.  Mithraism was a so-called “mystery religion” practiced in the Roman Empire from the 1st to 4th Centuries AD.  The cult was based on religious figures from Persia and was particularly popular with members of the Roman army.  This particular Mithraeum was later converted to use as a Christian church.  These temples are normally built in naturally occurring caves, with architectural features carved out of the rock itself.

Arriving at the door to the Mithraeum, I found it locked with a sign saying that it was only open three times a day—at 9, 11, and 3.  I had missed the opening at 9, and waiting until 11 would surely mean that I would not be able to make it to Campagnano di Roma before nightfall.  I felt bad about not being able to see it, and thought it a bit silly that it was only open on such a limited basis.  I continued on the path, following the signs pointing toward the Roman amphitheater.

The amphitheater of Sutri is carved out of the natural rock of the surrounding hills.  Although small by comparison to some other venues of gladiatorial combat during the Roman period, the Sutri amphitheater is still plenty impressive in its size and scope.  You can enter the arena from one of two main entrances, and looking up at the surrounding stands lets you imagine what it must have looked like for a gladiator “about to die” in front of the hungry crowds.  You can also walk up to the first level of stands to get a sense of the view of the vicious combat.  Although the events themselves have changed, sports arenas are really pretty similar to what they were 2,000 years ago; this amphitheater could very easily serve as a soccer stadium today.

Leaving the amphitheater and continuing along the path, I began walking my way along another side of the rocky cliff face and came across the beginning of the section of catacombs.  Hollowed out cavities in the rock contained benches that must have held the bodies of the dead.  Some rooms had several of these benches, and were probably used for multiple members of the same family.  Others had decorations carved into the rock above and around their entrances.  This side of the cliff held a vast number of these caves, and I wondered if any of the competitors who had had unsuccessful outings in the amphitheater I had just visited wound up in one of these holes in the wall.  After passing the last of the tombs, the footpath ended, meeting the busy main road that I now had to navigate.  Bracing my nerve, I began my way along the shoulder of the road.

The rest of the day’s journey passed uneventfully.  In the late afternoon, I was approaching Campagnano on a small gravel road in the middle of huge fields.  I couldn’t yet see the town, but I had a general idea of where it was—behind the hills to the south.  I had been following the posted signs for the Via Francigena, checking the guide once in a while, but arrived at an intersection that confused me.  The guide said to turn right, next to the large farm building 500 meters away from the last turning point.  The next intersection I reached was well beyond 500 meters, but near no building whatsoever.  I hadn’t passed a building, and could see none ahead, so I didn’t know what to do.  There were no signs helping me out, and the “Private Street” sign made me not want to go to the right.  I decided to take my chances, continuing straight ahead, but after another couple hundred meters I determined that this couldn’t be right.  I turned around and went back.  Despite the numerous fenceposts and light poles providing plenty of opportunities to place signs indicating the path, there were none, and I again began to doubt my revised decision.  I turned back yet again and went further this time, still not seeing anything indicating that this was the right way to go.  The sun was setting, and I knew that unless I figured it out soon, I would be wandering through these fields in the dark.  I changed my mind one more time and decided to try the first turnoff I had passed.  At least there were houses down that way, and I could ask for directions there.  I climbed over a fence and walked through the field in the direction of the road.

Following the road, I passed between several farm houses at the crest of the hill.  I could see in the distance in front of me a highway and, knowing that it would lead to Campagnano, made for that direction.  I passed down into the bottom of the next valley and saw a large complex stretched out in front of me.  Metal walls were blocking the land inside from view, but when I peeked through a gap, I could see that it was concealing a racetrack.  I was surprised to find something like this out in the middle of nowhere, and continued along to find drivers running through large puddles in a parking lot next door.  I gathered that this was a school for safe driving because of the instructors standing outside, watching as each person aquaplaned through the water.  This suspicion was confirmed by the sign I passed at the entrance to the complex.  By now, it was dark and I was grateful to find a bus stop on the highway by the entrance to the racetrack.  I crossed the street to the stop and waited there about 15 minutes until a bus arrived.  We were driving for a few minutes—just me and one other person in the bus—and the driver suddenly pulled to the side of the road as we came to the edge of town.  “It’ll be just a minute,” he said, rising from his seat.  Leaving the bus running, he exited through the front door, and I expected him to be replaced by another driver.  Minutes passed, and I could see the man returning from the across the street, plastic bag in hand.  Apparently he had just taken a break from his bus route to do his grocery shopping for the day.  How typically Italian.

We did eventually make it to the center of Campagnano.  I hoped off the bus and walked through the busy streets adorned with Christmas lights, and found a place to sleep.  Just a few more days left for the pilgrimage.  I was almost all the way to Rome.

St. Cecilia Day in Sutri

•December 11, 2011 • Leave a Comment

(This post is from the evening of November 22nd)

Ave Maria,” came the voice over the intercom of the Carmelite convent in Sutri.  I was glad someone had answered and hoped that it meant I would be able to get out of the rain.  “Hello, I’m a pilgrim…” I began.  “Yes, please come in.”  I heard a buzz come from the door and I eagerly opened it to get inside.

I found myself in a small, dark room with a closed door.  I waited in this lobby area and soon I heard noise come from the other side of the door.  I heard a light switch on, and a little door opened up on a large wooden counter that I hadn’t noticed in the darkness.  On the other side of a grate stood a nun, looking at me.  “Can I have your credential?” she asked, indicating a large turntable to her left.  It was like I was cashing in chips at Vegas or buying something at a 7-Eleven in a particularly dangerous part of town, but the nun was replacing the casino employee or embattled convenience store worker, making for a funny image in my head.  As she was busy stamping the credential, she explained that the convent did have a house for pilgrims, but it wasn’t heated, so I may want to look for somewhere else.  I had no desire to go back out into the rain and it wasn’t actually all that cold, so I told her that I didn’t care and would take whatever they had, heated or not.  She passed a key to me through the turntable and told me the house was next door.  I was pretty certain, based on the way this limited interaction went, that they would not be serving dinner to me, so I went to set down my things and make my own plans.

I emerged a little while later from the cold room to wander about town and found the door to the chapel of the convent—which had been closed upon my arrival—now open.  I went inside to go take a look and found a very dimly lit, sparsely decorated sanctuary.  I could hear chanting and prayer, but attributed the noises to a recording that must have been playing over some speakers.  Many churches in Italy follow this practice—I guess to give a certain ambiance to their worship places while actual services aren’t going on.  As I approached the altar, however, I looked to my right and saw another room separated from the main one by a large grate.  In the other room, facing the opposite direction of the main chapel’s altar, were the nuns of the convent conducting a service.  I didn’t want to disturb their prayer, so I quietly slipped out and starting to make my way through town.

Sutri is one of these well-preserved, medieval hilltop towns that you can find all over central Italy.  It is very narrow, resting on the crest of a hill, and one main street leads all the way through town along the ridge.  I walked through the main square and continued beyond to find the town’s cathedral.  The building had been altered many times since its early construction, and now was a jumble of architectural styles.  The basilica layout was decorated with bright, baroque design, making for an interesting combination.  On one of the poster boards near the entrance, I saw that there would be a special St. Cecilia Day mass at 5PM on November 22nd—today!  Cecilia is the patron saint of music, and the Schola Catorum of Sutri would be making a special appearance that evening to provide music at the service.  Since it was already 4:30, I decided to come back to the service after walking around a bit more.

I left the cathedral, and, as it began to rain lightly, I made my way down some of the smaller roads that went through the town.  It was getting dark.  Orange street lamps were turning on, glowing brightly in the rain.  I ended up back in the central piazza and found that the area which had been deserted when I walked through earlier was now brimming with activity in spite of the bad weather.  Couples were walking under umbrellas—reminiscent of Caillebotte’s Paris: A Rainy Day—and old men were standing in bars around the square talking to one another.  The large clock on the gate at the opposite end of the square was reaching five, so I walked back to the cathedral to catch the beginning of the service.

When I arrived, there was hardly anyone there, but people began to enter as soon as I had found a seat at the back.  By and large, the attendees were old women who took up positions near the altar.  Instead of just sitting there, waiting for the service in silence, they began to go into a long series of chants.  All stood, and one woman began reciting prayers—mostly to Mary—and the others would respond from memory.  This ritual went on for at least ten minutes and I was surprised to see such precise and impromptu devotion from the laity.  They finished, and the service began without much pomp.  A priest was the only official present, and there was no procession or anything of the sort.  The choir was standing in the apse, behind the altar, and all were in street clothes.  The priest even had to do his own incense.  The sermon—about St. Cecilia and the transcendental joy of music making—seemed very unplanned and improvised but was actually better than many I’ve heard.  It didn’t try to make a cute point or delve into things beyond the scope of the day’s scripture and significance.  The choir was a bit disappointing.  From what I could tell, it was many enthusiastic, older members of the community who had no real vocal training or experience but made up for it with excessive verve and volume.  Either way, it was interesting to see all the proceedings and I was glad to have had the chance to see the way another church does its business.

“You live near the palace of Barack Obama?”

•December 9, 2011 • Leave a Comment

(This post is from the evening of November 21st)

Describing Viterbo as a “dirty Milan” was a totally unfair representation of the city.  This morning, I got up early enough to have a chance to wander around the city before I began the journey to Vetralla.  Yesterday, only briefly, I entered the historic center before going off to find a place to stay the night, and I completely missed the beautifully preserved medieval portion of the city.  This area, which I visited today, was much more like Siena than Milan.  Twisting, narrow alleys made for difficult navigation, but beautiful photography opportunities.  Old churches mixed in with palazzi comprised most of the quarter.  In truth, though, surfaces were marred by a great deal of graffiti spread across every wall.  This graffiti wasn’t the typical Italian “ti volgio bene Sylivia”—I love you, Sylvia—or “Marco tu 6 le mie stelle”—an Italian pun for ‘Marco, you are my stars’—but rather something more sinister.  Swastikas were scrubbed out in some places, but not everywhere, and someone had turned a once-harmless painting of a giant smiley face wicked by adding a particularly offensive Hitler mustache and bangs.

Aside from the wall paintings, everything was lovely to look at.  I found an especially old church from the 11th Century called Santa Maria Nuova.  This was so well-preserved and beautiful that I wondered if the older Saint Mary’s was still standing.  On my way out of the city, I stopped by the old Papal Palace that used to house the pontiffs when they were actually seated in Viterbo instead of Rome.  Next door is the city’s cathedral—San Lorenzo.  This was another beautiful church, with several popes buried in it.  A man saw me walking around with my backpack and asked me if I wanted my pilgrimage credential stamped.  I handed it to him and he went off to go fill it out.  As I was waiting for him to return, the couple who had been examining the church while I was looking around approached me and surprised me by beginning a conversation in English.  “So, how did you find out about the Francigena?”

It turns out the man used to be a professor of Italian at Middlebury and the couple now divided their time between Italy and the US—7 months in Europe and 5 months in the States.  “Sounds good to me,” I said.  “It’s worked very nicely for us,” replied the woman with a smile.  They actually lived in Sutri, a town I am meant to stay in tomorrow.  They told me about a convent there where they see pilgrims staying all the time.  It was the place I had picked out, so hopefully there will be no trouble getting a room.

I left Viterbo and the route soon became ugly, following a gravel road running parallel to the highway.  This had become a dumping ground for all sorts of trash that no one wanted to keep.  Apparently in Italy it is acceptable to just abandon used appliances out here on the side of the road.  I found a graveyard of refrigerators and a pile of old TV’s.  There were also mounds of unused tiling and insulation along with messed-up couches.  They had everything you might need to start a secondhand hardware store—including several kitchen sinks.  Eventually, I left the main road behind and began a more pleasant section through fields and olive groves.  The plentiful sign markings eventually ran out at a particularly confusing section and I made what I guess was a large detour in order to find the proper road again.  This brought me into close proximity to a lot of vicious dogs, but they were—for the most part—behind fences, and if they weren’t, they were tiny and not much to be frightened of.  Just as I was rejoining the right path, I came upon a farmer herding sheep with his dog along the road.  It was funny to watch the two of them try to maneuver the sheep the way they wanted, and I was glad that losing my way had afforded me the opportunity to watch the spectacle.

Not too long after my encounter with the sheep, I got to Vetralla and began to look for the convent where I hoped to stay the night.  The convent was a little bit out of town on top of a hill, and a black nun greeted me at the door.  She showed me to a very nice room with its own recently-renovated bathroom and told me that dinner would be at 7:30.  At 7:30, a knock came at the door and the same nun escorted me downstairs to the dining room.  The table was set for seven, and the six other diners were already waiting for me at the table.  The nun disappeared into another room and without introductions we began eating.  I was ignored for most of the meal because I think that the others thought I didn’t understand Italian, despite my comprehension of and proper Italian responses to their offers of food.  First, we had a very good soup of vegetables and pasta.  Then the main dishes were brought out, consisting of deliciously buttered potato chunks, tuna from cans, collard greens, and cheese.  Overall, it was a simple but good meal, and one I was glad to have, considering I wasn’t expecting the convent to feed me.  At the far end of the table were three black children—two boys and a girl.  The younger boy was the focus of much of the attention, making strange noises and occasionally wandering under the table.  His well-behaved siblings seemed used to his shenanigans and were sort of amused by them, but the woman to my right—who I later learned was from Sardinia—proclaiming herself to be acting mother for the evening, took a dimmer view of the boy’s playfulness.  Several times she would go over to him and forcibly place him back into his chair while threatening to throw him outside if he continued his bad behavior.  Towards the end of dinner, the bearded priest—who had been translating random words from the conversation into English in order to impress me—decided to take matters into his own hands and lifted the boy into the air, pretending to throw him out the window.  After setting him down, in his chair, the priest pushed it in close to the table so that the boy had no room to move.  Apparently, this was enough excitement for one night, and the priest went off to bed.

After he left, the two women seemed more inclined to talk to me.  One was from Romania, and she began asking me where I was from.  “I’m American,” I said—a different reply to the one I usually give of “I’m from the United States,” because whenever I say that, the next thing that’s said to me is, “Oh, Americano.”  “Which America?” asked the woman.  I was confused and in my pause, the other woman definitively said, “South America.”  Where on earth did she get an idea like that?  “No, I’m from North America.  I’m from Washington.”  “Oh, Washington!” everyone exclaimed.  At this point the Romanian woman began to ask me all these questions about American food, and she didn’t seem to believe me when I said that in America we eat everything and have cuisines from around the world.  At this point the nun returned and the Romanian woman began excitedly explaining that in America people eat all sorts of food.  “Brazilian too?” asked the nun.  Again, confused, I paused and said, “Yeah, I guess so.”  Then I understood the source of the question.  They had seen the Brazilian visa in my passport and thought that that’s where I was from.

The kids began their own interview of me, practicing what was actually very good English.  “How long have you lived in Italy?” asked the older boy.  I was honored to think that he actually thought I lived here.  At least my level of Italian is beginning to fool nine-year-olds.  I explained to them that I wasn’t from Italy and that I lived near Barack Obama.  “Oh, Barack Obama’s palace is in Washington?”  “I wouldn’t call it a palace, but yes.  His big, white house is close to where I live.”  They were from Angola, and had been living in Italy since 2008.  I think the nun may have been their aunt, but I wasn’t quite sure.  They kept talking about their mother, but I think it’s safe to assume that the nun didn’t have children.

By this point, the two women had left, and the kids were told that they needed to go to bed in order to be ready for school the next day.  I thanked the nun for the meal, said bye to the kids, and went upstairs to my surprisingly comfortable bed.

Cats at the Baths

•December 7, 2011 • Leave a Comment

(This post is from the evening of November 20th)

The cats had surrounded me and were becoming more and more insistent.  At this new vicinity, I could see that most had some sort of defect.  One was mangy and losing tufts of hair, and another was even missing an eye.  I decided that it might be better to leave than to continue to entice them with my snack.  It was probably for the best.  I think my presence was beginning to annoy bathers at the thermal ponds.

On the road into Viterbo, I knew that I was going to pass by a set of thermal ponds, but I had no idea what it would look like when I got there.  I sort of expected a bathhouse structure over the pools like they have in Bath, England, but these were just right out in the open.  The only indication that I was coming up on something interesting was the group of camper vans parked out in the middle of the field through which I was walking.  Beyond the campers was a modest, chain link fence surrounding some bushes.  I could hear voices but didn’t see anyone until I entered the parking lot.  There was a group of around a dozen people all squished into one circular pool, about 10 feet in diameter.  Looking around, I saw several more pools, all without anyone in them.  One was full of cold water, two were empty, and one was slowly being filled by water from a large PVC pipe whose source seemed to be the first, occupied pool.  There was a weird smell in the air—a mixture between the kitchen of a Long John Silver’s and several-week-old Easter egg basket.  This, coupled with the sight of the (mostly) old bodies of Italian men (thank goodness they were not nude), didn’t really entice me to try the waters myself.  I walked around the first pool and found a stone bench to sit on and take a break.  I took out some of the food I had been carrying with me and was soon set upon by a group of feral cats that seemed to reside around the ponds.  Looking closer at the pool that was being filled, I could see the white mineral deposits that the water had made over the years.  As I was eating, a new man came and stuck his feet in the water before being accosted by two women and another man.  They complained to him about how dirty it was, and I sort of agreed.  The water he was bathing his feet in seemed to be coming off the pool that was filled with people, and I wouldn’t have wanted to bathe in someone else’s run-off.  One of the women brought a large broom and handed it to the man in the pool who began to sweep the floor with it.  I’m not sure how this solved the problem of the water being dirty.  At this point, the cats were jumping up next to me on the bench and pawing at my backpack.  The man had also shot me several odd looks, so I decided it would be best to go.

I wasn’t far from Viterbo and was expecting to pass the rest of the day’s journey in as uneventful a manner as the first part.  Aside from walking on more stretches of Roman roads, nothing terribly interesting had happened since leaving Montefiascone.  I reached Viterbo and was reminded of a dirty Milan.  There were lots of stores and the city seemed fairly alive for a Sunday afternoon.  I didn’t want to run into the same problem of yesterday in finding a place to stay, so I tried not to waste too much time.  I dialed several numbers in my guidebook, and found that they were disconnected.  I was beginning to suspect that there was something wrong with my phone before I finally reached a sweet-sounding woman at a religious institute not far from where I was in the center of town.  I made my way to the institute and was met by an old nun who, aside from showing me to a room, warned me that if I went out again I should not return very late because all the sisters go to bed early.  It was already getting dark and I had enough food for a dinner, so I decided to make an early night of it myself.  Tomorrow’s walk would not be very far, and looked to be all downhill, so I planned to wake up early in order to walk around Viterbo before departing.

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