A few things, my loves: here's a conglomeration of e-mails I wrote in the past couple of days and also a blog post that I wrote. So there's a lot going on. Italy is pouring rain today, and this week is the emotional insanity week Skillen says, so I am eager for it to be over. Ciao, ciao, ciao.
“the slowness that oppresses us in dreams” - Dante
I’m trying to focus and take joy in the small things that denote progress. Today, in our tutoring session, Alessandro told me that I said something “perfetto,” in a very Italian way. I felt like I would cry earlier that afternoon, and I really almost did start bawling right then. I feel so stupid, all the time, and inadequate, and unhappy to be in my skin. I am pessimistic about how the Italians perceive me, and I am uncertain about how my fellow American students perceive me.
There have been flashes of goodness in today, even though it has been heck of frustrating, I don’t intend to deny that at all. I got to talk to my parents on the phone (and if I can brag on my little brother for a second, he got offered a great scholarship at Hope College!), and I got to talk to Greg on the phone. Alessandro complimented me in tutoring, and I got to prepare and eat dinner with Elena and Katie again, which is always a lot of fun for as long as it lasts. We’re usually the last ones out of the kitchen, if that says how much we enjoy being in there eating and talking. Today I understood more Italian than I did yesterday, and twice as much as I did last week. Today I did more listening than yesterday. Today I made it through canto XXIII of Dante’s Purgatorio.
But you know, in the face of the mountain of information I have to assimilate, I’m overwhelmed. No way I can ever be culturally competent. No way I can ever speak Italian coherently. No way any of these little victories mean anything! How can I ever expect to be a person of integrity or have a great job or make good work or have successful relationships or anything? There’s not enough in me to do even one of those things. If a week has lasted this long, then four months is going to be like three years, and by the time I leave I will be worn down to a culturally incompetent nubbin. You’ll be able to find me gibbering in the corner of the terrace and looking up at the sky for some kind of rescuing angels.
In conclusion, to be quite honest, I’m a wreck (and the continual invasion of my space by dramatic girls is not helping, nor is the onset of PMS, nor is the drama of attempting to communicate with the outside world from this gosh-darn convent). But I am going to focus on tomorrow, and the fact that it is a new day, and tomorrow I will understand more than I did today, and more than yesterday, and twice as much as last week. And maybe saying these words is going to make them happen, yes? A new day means new possibilities, and it is just possible that I will not flub at least one of these fabulous new opportunities.
Hugs from Orvieto.
Italy continues to be pretty fabulous. I’m enjoying my first weekend, and all the available time to write to people and work on my own writing, and of course catch up on memorizing all of that Italian. These first few weeks are going to be really busy, I think, between beginning Italian and culture lectures, and movie nights, and weekend field trips. Yesterday we went to Assisi, and it was so amazing.
Assisi is about an hour and a half from Orvieto, so we just got some busses and all piled in to make the drive. Everyone slept on the way, of course, because we’re college students and that’s what we do, but the countryside was beautiful. Even in the winter there’s a lot of green, some of it really almost a lime green: very brilliant and catching the light. It was a cold day, unfortunately, in Assisi, and a warm day in Orvieto, so I was woefully underdressed. = ( It wasn’t so bad, though, as long as we kept moving.
We saw four churches/monasteries related to St. Francis of Assisi. Most of them were the typical huge renaissance cathedrals. We had a great tour guide through the Basilica of St. Francis, though, who made it much more interesting. He was an American Franciscan monk, on assignment in Assisi for the next three years. If every place we go to is as interesting as that, I might not hate Renaissance art after all! Skillen’s class, which is the Renaissance art history one, is driving me bonkers! He’s a great conversationalist, and as a person I like him a lot, but when it comes to his lecturing, man, it makes me crazy. Pray that I can pay attention through six hours a week of him going off on tangents!
My favorite place in Assisi, though, was St. Francis’ hermitage up in the hills. People still walk barefoot up the path he used to pray at the altar he built. He used to retreat there to a cave to meditate and pray, but the poor guy couldn’t get away from people even there. Other monks kept following him up, and a small monastery grew up over his cave. It’s beautiful, so simple and filled with stone carvings. Everywhere you look along the path to the altar on the hillside, people have scratched crosses on the rocks, and made small twig crosses and set them along the stone wall, or even piled up rocks in the shape of a cross on the ground. I understand their desire to either take away or leave behind something from that place - it was so beautiful and quiet, and yes, a sacred space. I’m certainly not Catholic, but I’m beginning to have more sympathy for a lot of their liturgical practices and the idea of pilgrimage. If you ever, ever get a chance to go there, do it. But give yourselves a couple of hours! We only had 45 minutes there, hardly any time at all to look around. Everywhere you look there is someone sitting along the path reading or writing or praying, and it really does seem like it would be a nice place for that. Probably anyone who’s catholic would skin me alive for saying that it reminded me of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Waters house, but it does. = ) Just the same sort of closeness and fitting, you know, with what’s around it? Maybe the cave and the monastery serve the same function of Falling Waters in provoking us to a new awareness of our surroundings. That’s my theory, anyway. And it sort of makes sense that as a place of prayer it would also be a place of attentiveness.
I’ve now had my first Italian wine, cappucino, and gelato. I confess I liked the cappucino and gelato better than the wine! (although the fish we cooked with the wine turned out to be absolutely amazing) They have the best coffee here. I don’t know that I’m going to be able to go back to American coffee! Even specialty coffee shop stuff just pales in comparison. It’s really full and strong and most of it has a sort of nutty flavor. Oh, it’s amazing. I may break down and buy one of those little espresso-makers Greg told me about to take home, just so I can try to replicate this stuff. And the gelato... mmm! I don’t really like ice cream, but gelato is less creamy, and thicker, more like frozen yogurt. SO GOOD! I want to try the pistachio kind next time, just because it’s green and absurd and I’m feeling adventurous. = ) Coconut gelato also turns out to be great, as are these coconut candy bars they have here, called Bounty Bars. If I don’t get fat, I’ll be surprised.
I have now met all three of the nuns here, and they seem pretty tolerant of my lack of Italian ability. Suar Franca is really nice, as is Madre Giovanna, but Suar Therese is way intimidating and hardly ever smiles. Suar Therese is apparently a scout master here in Italy! I had no idea they even had that kind of thing, much less that a nun would lead a troop! Madre Giovanna is a great cook, and is apparently the one we have to thank for the wonderful menus here. It’s a good thing I love carbs, though, because we don’t eat meat very often. It’s a lot more expensive here than it is even in the U.S. And gas is almost 7 euros a gallon! Can you believe it?!?! It makes me feel like we don’t have it so bad. And all the cars here are stick shift.
Also, my schedule has changed a little bit. My tutoring session got moved up on Tuesday, so would it be OK if you called at 9 rather than at 10? Then I’ll have time to talk for an hour and still have time to make dinner before tutoring. Also, I gave you the wrong country code for Italy! Alessandro, my tutor, informed me that it is 011 for Italy. So you’ll have to dial that, I think, before you dial 039 and the convent number. So complicated! Greg tried calling me on Thursday and the number didn’t work, so it sent us scrambling to figure out the right sequence to actually reach the convent. I wish they’d orient us more clearly to these sort of things.
Oh, funny story: Yesterday in Assisi, Katie and Elena and I went out to eat at a trattoria we saw near the basilica. We each ordered a different kind of pasta and salad, because frankly we couldn’t read the Italian menus, and we decided to try and broaden our horizons. So when we got them, we passed them around to each try a little of every dish. Well, apparently that’s a no-no in Italy... the Italian couple sitting next to us started laughing hysterically. = D At least they laughed, though, and didn’t yell at us that we were rude or something. And we, in our broken 10 or so words of Italian, managed to order and get the check and everything. Whew! I’ve decided, though, that it’s no use being shy, and if I’m going to learn Italian I’m just going to have to go for it and ask a bunch of questions like “Come si dice” while I’m in stores to try and expand my vocabulary as rapidly as possible. I doubt if I would ever be fluent by the time I leave Italy, but my goal is to be able to understand most of what is said to me, and maybe even carry on a real conversation. Luckily, my roommate is also wanting to be very intentional about learning Italian, so we’re going to institute “Italian night” in our room - if you want to say something, you have to say it entirely in Italian.
I’m so glad Katie and Elena are here. They pretty much rock, and we get along really well. I keep wondering if Skillen will get annoyed that we are together so much when we’re all from Messiah, but I think it will be OK.
And now, I have to go get ready for pranzo (the main meal of the day is at lunch, and is called pranzo) and a trip down the funicolare (a kind of mini-train down the cliff and into Orvieto Scalo) to the coop with Federica (our R.A. and Italian teacher).
A dopo (until later),
Whew! Feeling overwhelmed like nobody’s business yesterday and today. The day definitely had flashes of good things - communication, mostly, with Katie and Elena here, and Alessandro (the tutor for my Italian small group), and with people back home. If a week has lasted this long, I think, then the next four months are going to be like three utterly incompetent years. I guess it’s pretty normal to freak out when you’re jumping headlong into a new culture. I feel like a chronically cranky two-year-old who just can’t manage to make herself understood. It must be even more difficult for Maria Louisa and Juanita, who are from Colombia and just out of high school. They’ve never even lived on their own before, let alone with a bunch of Americans in a foreign country. I hope to goodness that this sense of insecurity and inadequacy fades soon. Pretty much I spend half the day happy and half the day flipping out. And it’s just plain hard to study when you’re flipping out.
Thank goodness for Katie and Elena, who are fun to be with even when I can’t tell from moment to moment when I’m going to laugh or cry. We usually spend three or so hours in the kitchen making the food, and then eating the food, and then talking after the food, and then cleaning up the food. And they usually wait until after I get out of tutoring to eat, which is totally sweet of them, but it means that we’re eating at like 9 p.m., so we’re leaving the kitchen at like 10:30 or 11, and have only a little time before we’re in bed.
The good thing about communal breakfasts is that one is forced to get up at a regular time, and therefore to go to bed at a regular time. Otherwise I’d probably be freaking out even more than I am already, because I would never get on a regular sleep schedule, and that always throws me haywire.
Tutoring is totally blowing my mind. Today we had Italian class for two hours in the morning, then tutoring for two hours this evening. I’m wondering, did I flip out this much when I moved to college? I feel like I didn’t - but maybe that’s just selective memory. Maybe I did flip out this much, which would be kind of hopeful. Because if I could make a place for myself at college, I can make a place for myself here. Granted, at least at college everyone spoke English, but I think it might be sort of the same principle.
I went to Vespers on Wednesday, did I tell you? It was amazing. I really want to go back, although this week looks so crazy busy in the evenings I don’t think I’ll be able to until next week at least. There’s an Italian holiday called ladies’ day, which is kind of like our mother’s day. It’s coming up on Thursday, and we’re all going to go out to dinner. Even Jeff, the lone guy on the program. The Italians cut a bunch of mimosa and give it to all their female relatives/the women in their lives. Hopefully it will be fun and not actually awkward and humiliating. Then Federica is also going to start an Italian film series with us, and Alessandro gave us a cultural lecture (which I have to say was intensely boring, as much as I like Alessandro in general), and of course tutoring and a field trip to Siena on Friday....
The Skillens had us all over for a dinner/party thing on Sunday night, and that was good. It was nice to see their house, even if they do have a lot of really ugly art on their walls (it came with the apartment). They also have a lot of good art from professors on the program, including Don Forsythe, my Photo 1 teacher. Katie, Elena, and I decided that we were going to start trading our work so that we could have rocking art collections when we grow up. I’d definitely love to hang some of their work in my house!
Laura made us some tiramisu tonight, which was pretty much amazing. She says she’s going to teach us how to make it this weekend, so I might just come back with some rad amazing cooking skills. If Elena, Katie, and I do end up getting an apartment together next year (which we’re considering now, seeing how well we get along together), we would have the best food all the time. It’s kind of becoming a joke, now, for people to wander into the kitchen when we’re making dinner and ooh and aaah over what we’re making. Juanita and Maria Louisa have fun mocking us for being so obsessed with our food and calling us alcoholics (because we’ve been cooking so much with wine lately), and on Saturday we’re planning a cooking party with them. They really miss their home food more than we do, I think. Italian food really isn’t all that different than American food, except that we never have beef or casseroles and a lot more pasta of varying kinds. So... yeah, it’s different, but not that different. You know what I’m craving, though? Fried chicken fingers. Like from Arbys or something, with some honey mustard? That would be great. Elena craves Japanese food all the time, so we’re thinking of hitting the one Chinese restaurant in town this week sometime. Not the same, obviously, but it might be a good taste of home for her.
Man, it is super late right now, (11:30 my time, although only 4:30 your time) and I am going to head to the bed, and maybe do a teeny bit of reading beforehand. I really want to finish the Purgatario, just to say that I have.