Sunday, August 22, 2010

Italy Part 4: To Rome & A Tour

3 years ago in what seems like another life I visited Europe on a whirlwind tour with 50 people from around the globe. Now, I was in Italy with a firmer grasp on the language about to do an intense, in-your-face, fast-footed tour of this amazing country. And while all of that describes exactly how the tour seems now that I can look back on it - in the moment it was actually pretty leisurely and really, really amazing.

On Sunday morning the 27th, I said good-bye to the Pecchini's who accompanied me at the Modena train station platform. I had not expected to feel so attached to them as I had become. The Italy tour which I was heading towards had been my motivation to go to Italy. But while there I had discovered a family and fell in love with them. We took photos and shed a few tears and when the bullet train arrived I hefted my suitcase up onto the train (with my backpack on a la turtle) and waved good-bye. It was difficult. Yet, in my stomach were the butterflies that come before an adventure into the world of unknown. The next part of my journey was about to begin. (Photo courtesy of Martina Pecchini)

The train from Modena to Roma was pretty uneventful. I sat across from a cute, young Italian guy who slept the entire ride. It was a fairly full train with at least one of every pair of seats occupied in the car I was in. I attempted to take a nap but wasn't able to doze so I looked out the window and watched Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany roll by. It was a combination of farmland, town and graffiti-ed walls. Laundry was being air-dried on every building we passed. What a way of life. Not in the "instant, 40 minutes in the dryer, raise the electricity bill and rush onto the next thing" attitude we have here. In Italy, you have fast trains so that when you reach your destination life can slow down and be spent with the people around you. I love it.

I arrived to Rome's Termini station, feeling like I knew the layout of the place this time around. I found the train heading north towards where I wanted to go (Metro A line to Piazza del Popolo). From there I meant to transfer to the tram or whatever it is that takes me to Euclide station. Well, when I exited at Piazza del Popolo I couldn't find anyone to ask how to get to Euclide. There weren't too many people around and when I reached above ground there was a gruff looking tourbus driver who was already annoyed that tourists were asking him how to get to somewhere. I figured I'd just walk around for a few minutes and see if I could figure it out. I hate asking for directions in a foreign country. Back home I will ask 9 times out of 10. For some reason, on this day, I just coudn't do it. I'm sure it was pride. I paid for it in the end!

I found myself in the Piazza del Popolo which is a gorgeous place. It is known as the People's Square and is a huge piazza with an Egyptian obelisk in its center surrounded by a fountain. To the north is the Villa Borghese and the Borghese gardens. Forgetting I was likely no where near my destination and thinking I could walk to the hotel where I was to stay for the night, I headed north up the winding, hilly road to the Borghese gardens. It was hot. Probably around 90 degrees, as it would be the entirety of my stay in Italy. I had my backpack, purse and heavy suitcase that I was pulling behind me on cobblestones. Let's just say that if I wanted a workout I couldn't have designed one that was better. It was like doing a treadmill workout with 30+ pounds on my back and toting another 50 behind me in temperatures suited for a bikram yoga class.

After nearly an hour uphill and on cobblestones (not the smartest idea, which I knew within minutes but kept plugging along) I finally was approached by a nice Italian gentleman who worked in the Gardens as an information assistant. He walked me to a gorgeous 5-star hotel just outside the gardens so that I could hail a taxi. Best decision ever. I certainly by this time did not look like I belonged at this amazing hotel but the bellman kindly called the taxi and away we went. I definitely couldn't have walked the distance. It was a 10 minute ride. Every euro of the 11euro I spent was worth it at that point, even though I beat myself up for not being willing to ask for directions at the Metro station. Hey, I got to see the famous Borghese Gardens (although I'd have to go again to really soak them in). (photo courtesy

I arrived at the Hotel Regent in the early afternoon and the rooms for people on our tour were not ready yet. It was a nice hotel, although pretty far away from anything else. I met Brittany in the lobby and we chatted on the couch for a bit. When our rooms were finally ready we dropped off our bags (after the man at the desk joked with Brittany saying her room wasn't ready even thought it was) and then headed out for a little walk. Brittany was from Calgary, Canada and we chatted about several things during the 40 minutes we wandered. We then grabbed some bruschetta and water (yum!) and then went back to the hotel to prep for our 1st tour gathering. (photo courtesy Hotel Regent)

That night we met in a rectangle meeting room in the hotel and all sat around a long, wood table. People for the most part were not shy and folks chatted with the people near them. I still hadn't met my roommate yet, but I had the chance once the meeting began! Our tourguide, Angie, gave us a brief introduction to the tour, checked our passports and documents and then we headed for dinner in the hotel dining room. The first night together with new friends is always a bit awkward but I had met some of the girls on the tour online ahead of time and that helped to break the ice a bit.

I went to bed "early" around 9:30ish, having worn myself out with my misadventure earlier in the day. Our start the next morning would be too early, but early enough to warrant a good, sound night of sleep before we headed south to scenic Sorrento and solemn Pompeii.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Teacher: Year 2 Week 1

I haven't forgotten about all of you faithful and supportive followers but things have been a little nutty as I prepared to get back to teaching this past week.

I'll get back to sharing stories about my summer in Italy in a little bit but thought it would be appropriate to share how my 2nd year as a full timer has been!

I technically started working 3 weeks ago. Finding jobs for teens is really not easy these days. Especially in a college town. I've talked to a number of employers this month who have told me they are reserving spots for their college students who will be returning next week to reclaim their school-year jobs. Many are not hiring at all, the economy wiping out chances to expand or commit to hiring new employees, even it means hiring someone for just a few hours. So as we headed into actual school starting days I had only reached 2/3 of my students and of those only 1/3 of my students were employed. I was nervous.

Monday and Tuesday were staff institute days. Monday the entire district faculty sits in the gymnasium of the middle school and listened to district administrators share info and inspiration. On Tuesday all the high school staff gathered to discuss statistics and rules for the upcoming year. Overall things looked good except for the fact that the stats showed more of our students are from lower-income families and it isn't necessarily a race-determined statistic. The economy is hitting everyone is what that said.

Nonetheless I nervously sent an email to our principal and assistant principal to request a few changes in my program. I wanted to devise a way to keep students in school if they were unemployed so that they didn't just get an F for not getting a job. Staying in school and not leaving early (which students get to do in my program) would be a motivator to being employed. Thankfully they agreed with me. I was thrilled.

I had all my students starting yesterday and by the end of the day I had 20 of 30 employed. The last few need a large nudge to get to work. They aren't really filling out applications and those that are filling them out are dropping the apps off and expecting to just magically get a job. It is too bad they don't learn how to get a job until they've been in my class. That being said, I'm about on par with how things were going last year at this time which is good.

My law class is booming again this semester and filled to the brim with 31 students. I've had 4 chairs added to my room since monday. So far things are going well. My kids all seem to be behaving themselves and despite having a room tucked into a corner away from nearly anyone, they've all figured out where I'm located and are arriving on time.

I left school today with all of next week planned for my Coop 1 class and my Law class. That includes having everything copied and laid out on my back table ready to pass out. All I have left to do is finish planning Coop 2 (my new class) and create powerpoints and possible handouts. Shouldn't be too bad!

It's Sweet Corn Fest in Urbana this weekend. Apparently a big deal. I missed it last year. I love a good corn and will probably taste a few bites.

My next blog should come this weekend. I'll share the next memory from Italy - Pompeii and Sorrento. Photos are on Facebook should you like a preview!

Ciao for now,

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Italy Part 3: I Head 'Home'

Last October I began my quest to visit Italy by sending out 30 letters to people with the last name of Poggioli in the Communes (the Italian version of a county) of Modena and Pavullo. All the records I have on my family show they came from the town of Pavullo.

It was around this time that I discovered the term "Jure Sanguinis" which means by Right of Blood. According to Italian law, I can become an Italian citizen so long as my family did not renounce their Italian citizenship. Essentially, I am already an Italian citizen but have not yet claimed my rights. From there I took another look at the immigration documents I had and found that just south of Pavullo sits a tiny village
named Renno and is likely the place where my ancestors were baptized.

I had 3 responses from my 30 letters. One of them was from a teenager who's uncle received my letter. Martina and I have been writing since November and it was with her family that I st
ayed in Northern Italy at the start of my trip. As I've stated before, the Pecchini's felt like close family and were incredibly kind and welcoming. I had dreamed that we'd visit Pavullo (renting a car was pretty costly so I had crossed that off my list of potential outings) but never thought I would. That was until my 3rd day in Italy when the Pecchini's and I got in one car and the Poggioli's in another and headed southwest into the hills and valleys of Emilia-Romagna towards Pavullo.

As with every other drive we'd been on over the last 2 days, I sat in the front passenger seat. The dictionaries were still out and we shared a lot of stories and vocabulary. Watermelon was a new term I had taught Martina and Maria Teresa among many others. I also was tease
d about being "il camello" which was a story I had shared the day before at lunch.

Pavullo is like central Illinois only its not flat as far as the eye can see. The farmland rolls in a variety of earthy shades among the hills and while barely an hour away from Modena, seems like it is a completely different country. Just like the difference between Chicago the "big city" and central Illinois where my Italian family settled. I always wondered, "Why central Illinois?" Seeing the landscape here answered this question.
(This photo was taken from the castle overlooking Pavullo...more on that in a second).

Breakfast that morning had been pretty fun and a great start to the day yet again. Ivan was up early and had the tv on nex
t to the breakfast table. He was watching some sort of car race. As we munched on pineapple, plums, a juliana torta and nutella we also watched part of an episode of "Joey" the Friends spin off and a children's program that taught the exploration of Magellean and Vespucci. I don't think I understood much of the show but the graphics and weird space theme gave me the gist.

Anyway, we left at 9am and around 10am arrived in Pavullo. There was a huge market in town with a lot of knock-off and local goods being sold. It was a quaint village with brick streets, most of them closed to traffic due to the market. We walked through the town for about 35 minutes, stopping in the tourist information building (which we did in every town). The Pavullo folks had no brochures I could take for free but they were really fri
endly and told us to head up to the Castle that overlooked the town. We had a little trouble relocating our cars after walking but a few extra steps never hurt, especially when you are walking streets your ancestors once probably walked. Amazing!

Castello Montecucculo was once home to a prominent general, Count Raimondo Montecuccolo. Raimondo served in the Austrian army (national borders were fluid still in the 17th century, especially in northern Italy which wasn't unified until the 19th century) but was born at this castle and also fought for the state of Modena. His achievements eventually gained him the title of prince of the Holy Roman Empire. His former home is now an art and natural history museum. It had gorgeous vistas from its windows. I took several contraband photos here. I've never seen something so out of place! (This is an image of various rocks and stones found in the region. The stuffed taxidermy animals were really eerie).

Just outside the castle we took a few photos. Ivan found a few baby figs that were not ripe. I was warned not to eat them (I didn't know what they were at first. I've never seen an unripe fig!). We left them by a little waterpump fountain and a tiny Marlboro club car. I also posed for a photo next to a
metal sculpture of Raimondo on his horse near the castello entrance. What a tourist!

We drove just a few miles further south to find
a place to picnic for lunch. We stopped in an incredibly cute deli/store and purchased some meats, cheese, beer, dessert and BREAD! We continued the drive another few minutes down the road when I saw the sign: Renno. In my wildest dreams Renno was a destination. I hadn't told the Pecchini's that I had a connection to Renno. They had picnicked at a little picnic table that sits behind the church in Renno. There was a child's playground there, too. I think I was speechless for a few minutes.

We laid out the food and sat at the table. Ivan used the edge of the table to crack open the Heineken and everyone ate, chatting happily about all sorts of topics. The bells were ringing which seemed to me like a perfect sign of "this is where I should be."

When the minutes went buy and the # of times the bells tolled were beyond 12 we started to wonder if the bells were broken or if it was just a special day in Renno (turns out there was a funeral). We laughed a lot, mostly because the bells were getting a bit annoying. When done with lunch we played on the playground. What else are carefree adults to do?

We arrived back to Modena around 4pm. Of course, we had a detour first in Maranello, home to Ferrari. I bought a few gifts in the Ferrari store (when else is anyone I know going to be here?) and took some photos of Ferrari's zooming by on the street in red and yellow (Ferrari's most famous colors. The yellow is called Modena yellow). I took some photos at the Ferrari factory and again with some cars at the Ferrari museum/test area. Ivan climbed a fence to get some photos of the test track (made me nervous!). Again, I knew this was near Modena but didn't expect to see it!

The rest of the evening I sat chatting with the family in the garden. Ivan watered the plants while I showed Marty and Maria Teresa photos from my facebook page and images of Park Church back home to show them how different some of the churches in the USA can be. We snacked on more fruit and gas water. Dinner at 8:30 was spaghetti, something that the family doesn't normally make in the summer when it is hot. Apparently most meals in the summer are cold meals since turning on the oven makes things hotter. What a great idea! It was a lovely act for Maria Teresa to cook that night.

We watched the USA v Ghana World Cup match at 9pm (I said USA would lose since we hadn't been playing our strongest and they did). Ivan gave me some gifts including a soccer scarf and some books. Have I mentioned how nice these folks are? Maria Teresa gave me some Barilla pasta. In Italy, Barilla makes specialty noodle shapes for different areas of the country. I'm saving it for something special. Bed was at 11pm and I didn't sleep well that night (much like this late night I'm spending writing this!)

I'm blessed to have met (and am somehow related to) the Pecchinis. We're lifelong family now. I'm going to improve my Italian someday and definitely will go visit them again. It was tough to say good-by the next day. I had booked this trip looking forward to the tour and seeing so many wonderful places and revisiting sites I had seen 3 years previously. The days I spent in and around Modena were so unique and special that it would be hard to top them. If I had wanted a unique experience of Italy I had it. I hope I can return the favor someday for them! Grazie Pecchinis!

Monday, August 9, 2010

Italy Part 2: Through Time in Emilia-Romagna

I woke up this morning to the sounds of birds chirping outside my window around 7:15. I was likely among the first to wake up and decided to get in the shower and just soak in the morning. Mornings in Modena are orderly and beautiful.

Large window shutters much like garage doors on pulley ropes are opened in houses around us, including the home where I was living. There is something about this action that is like signaling the start of the day. Just like the birds chirping it was this sound that made me feel prepared to enjoy another day in the heart of Italy.

Around 8am Martina, Maria Teresa and I had breakfast. We gathered in the kitchen in our slippers/house shoes and chatted, dictionaries on the table next to our plates. Today's breakfast was comprised of tea, espresso, a breakfast torte, pineapple, a cereal similar to Special K and the ever present Nutella.

Lara joined us just after breakfast and we jumped into her car and drove to a parking lot at the Modena Station. From there we climbed
a set of stairs to the street above and walked into downtown Modena.

Modena (pronounced MA-de-nah) is in northern Italy in the Po River valley, just a short drive from the Apennine Mountains. It is smack dab between Parma (Parmagiano cheese anyone?) and Bologna (ham anyone?) and is known for its balsamic vinegar (I guarantee the bottle in your house is from here). People have occupied this area since the 3rd century BC and have witnessed the historical figures of Pompey, Cicero, Hannibal, Octavian and more recently it's native sons, Pavarotti and Ferrari. You can imagine the history that exists in the streets here.

Unlike much of the more tourist-traveled towns in this stunning nation, the cobbled streets of Modena are large-stoned and not necessarily close together. I spent nearly as much time looking down to be sure of my footing as I did admiring the beauty of its architecture.

Among its most prized buildings are its churches, palace, town hall and piazzas in centro storico (historic center). It contains UNESCO World Heritage buildings, which are scattered all over the country of Italy, including the Piazza Grande and Modena Cathedral. The Cathedral was begun in the 11th Century (yep, 1000 years old!) and is breathtaking. The arches that line the interior of the church are brick and just as you would expect in an old building - there is a feel of perfection in every brick and stone in the building and there is no wonder as to why it has stood the tests of time. The photo here is looking towards Piazza Grande and the colored banner in the foreground is the Catherdral Tower which is being restored. The neatest thing about Italian restoration projects is that the object being restored is often blanketed in a cover that replicates the object beneath it. Apparently these large banners cost the taxpayers quite a bit of money but as a tourist I loved the idea.

There is a
n odd object under glass in one of the historic buildings in Modena. It's an old oak bucket. It turns out that in 1325 Modena soldiers (then its own state) invaded the state of Bologna and stole the bucket. War ensued for the next 12 years and thousands of people died. Modena came out the victors and now the bucket sits on a pedestal in a room with some of the most amazing frescoes and ceiling gilt that could rival the gems of Rome or Vatican City. I made sure I signed the guest book. This could make a great story for 2 truths and a lie.

Before departing Modena we stopped at the market so that we could have something for lunch
before heading to our next destination, Reggio Emilia. What a lunch it was! Back at home in the garden of the Pecchini house we munched on prosciutto, celery, bread, bell peppers, salad and fruit cake as well as plums which were the best I've ever eaten.

We then headed to Reggio just a short drive away. Reggio is known for its University and is where Lara attended. There is a rectangular, timed jumping fountain as you walk through the University walls towards the center of town. The dozens of jets were quiet when we walked up but a family at the far end of the fountain took a step a bit too close and the jets plumed upwards from their hiding spots getting them a bit wet. It reminded me of t
he fountain outside of Navy Pier in Chicago.

The most famous object in Reggio Emilia is the Tricolore.
It was in the current City Hall that representatives from several area "states" joined together to form a republic in 1797. This was in response to a threat from nearby France and the famous Napoleon. The standard o
f the Cisalpine Republic was the tri-colored flag of green, white and red, known as the Italian Tricolore. When Italy unified as the country we know today, the Tricolore remained its symbol.

The Museum/City Hall was closed when we arrived but Maria Teresa did a little sweet talking & someone gave us a private tour, including the Hall of the Tricolore. It was such a special moment and one I will never forget.

My day ended with a delicious meal at a pizzaria with the whole family including Lara's boyfriend and the Poggiolis. What I learned this night was that everyone orders their own pizza (About the size of a medium thin-crust pizza back home). That was my first surprise. The second lesson was this: Get a olive oil bottle and put some chilis in it. Then pour a dash of the chili oil over your pizza. Molto bene!
So much better than chili flakes. Boun appetito!