Brief Overview: Initial Activities in London

 

                Since my arrival at Heythrop College about a week ago, I have been very busy viewing sights and experiencing cultural activities in London. I have visited the Tower of London and Parliament. Also, I have seen the play The Mousetrap and even joined in the celebration of Pride Day 2013 in London. Both the Tower of London and Parliament yielded information about the political history of England and our tour of Parliament explained the system of government that is in place here today. The Mousetrap and Pride Day were all experiences that taught me about British lifestyle and also important topics that are important in London society currently.

                The Tower of London is an interesting historical site because it is the home of many speculations and scandals in British history. This is the place where the two sons, and therefore princes, of King Edward IV were sent by their uncle Richard III when they were found to be illegitimate sons and mysteriously disappeared.  Also, this is the site where King Henry VIII had Anne Boleyn and Kathryn Howard beheaded. Even the Crown Jewels can be viewed at the Tower of London. The beefeater leading our tour informed us that Edward IV’s sons were sent to the Tower of London by their uncle, who had claimed that they were illegitimate sons of Edward IV. The two boys disappeared forever when Richard III was crowned King. Anne Boleyn and Kathryn Howard were both wives of Henry VIII, who had them beheaded when the Catholic Church was taking too long to let him get a divorce from them. Our beefeater said that Henry the VIII accused them of crimes of adultery. The two were beheaded on the Tower Green. The Crown Jewels were especially interesting to see considering that it is the sixty year anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign. Before getting to the Crown Jewels, there was a video of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and it was shocking to see how young the Queen was when she first became ruler of the kingdom. The story about the Princes and their mysterious disappearance, the history of Henry VIII’s two beheaded wives, and the view of the Crown Jewels all made it absolutely clear that the Monarchy of Great Britain is a key part of its history. Ultimately, when Kings and Queens still had political power, their power was almost unlimited. It is still a position that allows a status of great wealth. Power was definitely a concern of Richard III who most likely had his nephews killed in order to be made King. Henry VIII also exercised his immense power when he needed an heir to his thrown and wanted a wife who was willing and able to provide one, regardless of how many divorces it took. I am also sure that, though Queen Elizabeth II has no official political power, she still enjoys all of the jewels that adorn her crown, fingers, and even robes.

                Our tour of Parliament was led by a very informative guide who was able to tell us the history of the Palace of Westminster as well as inform us of the procedures of Parliament today. He told us that the Palace of Westminster, which is the location of Parliament, actually burned down in the 19th century and had to be rebuilt. I never knew this and couldn’t believe that such an icon of British architecture as well as the home to Big Ben had once burned down.  We also learned that Parliament is home to the House of Lords and House of Commons; you will notice the divide between the two when you cross from rooms with red seats, which indicate the House of Lords, to rooms with green seats, which indicate the House of Commons. The public is allowed to sit in on sessions of Parliament. This tour reiterated the British love of the Monarchy, due to the fact that our tour began with a view and brief synopsis of the Queen’s dressing room and her procedural entry into the chamber of the House of Lords. Also, I learned that the British culture is one that sticks to tradition and this can be viewed in the way that the barristers wear wigs or even the fact that there are not enough seats for all of the MPs in the House of Commons and this will likely not change due to tradition. The tradition of the Monarchy as well as governmental procedure are part of the culture of Britain that allows it to remain the same class-oriented society that it was hundreds of years ago.

                The Mousetrap is an enjoyable play that is actually the longest running show in London. It is a murder mystery that keeps the audience guessing until the very end. Throughout the play, the murderer kills two women and has his eye on a third, who is the owner of a Bed and Breakfast right outside of London. I was surprised to find out that the murderer was the very person who had portrayed himself as an enforcer of laws and justice. This play oozed with British culture from the information given from an elderly character about the way an inn ought to be run to the types of food that were served and even the types of music and activities that the characters were interested in. It was entertaining to hear the “bloody hell” from the gentleman in front of me when it began to be clear who the murderer was. I would recommend the play to anyone, especially at the low cost of 16 pounds that I purchased my ticket for.

                The London Pride Parade was the first Pride Parade I have ever experienced. I really enjoyed all aspects of the parade, including learning about the different support groups for the LGBT community and also being able to celebrate love in all of its forms. The concert was a lot of fun and I especially enjoyed watching a drag queen sing Frank Sinatra; she had a very powerful voice. The parade was very awesome and I really liked seeing the members of the army who identify themselves as gay and lesbian who have probably had to keep their sexual identities and preferences a secret for a very long time. Overall, I was really impressed by the amount of support that the people of London had for the LGBT community.

                The Tower of London, Parliament, The Mousetrap, and the Pride Parade all allowed me to absorb a bit of the history and culture of the British people. From government to theatre, the British still have a strong class hierarchy and love of tradition but also an acceptance for modern day issues that affect the people of their community. After these experiences, I have begun to realize the importance of tradition in culture as well as the negative effects of having established traditions that do not yield for efficiency in procedure. So far, I have enjoyed the British culture and caught myself trying to mock the language and lifestyles of this sophisticated group of people.

First thoughts in London

With no disrespect to New York City, London is the city that never sleeps. In a London minute, you might see a man sitting at a café playing beautiful music on his guitar, a woman smoking a cigarette while feeding her baby a bottle, or a man sitting at a pub reading a book while drinking more beer than I would think humanly possible to function, much less read. I know this because I have witnessed all of these scenes and much more. Much more than any city in the United States, I have seen a love for life that goes beyond any New York City happy hour after work. The British live every minute of their day; the concept of working to live is demonstrated in all walks of life on every street in this city. I arrived in London a few days before everyone else and I enjoyed every “task” of life. Going to the Laundromat, where I met some elderly British women who wanted to hear every detail about living by myself in London for a few days as well as all of the places I went in Italy, made doing laundry, a chore of everyday life, an upbeat social hour. The concierge at my hotel was more than willing to research every question I had about concerts, plays, and even how to get to Heythrop College if I needed his help. Though New York may be the home of the most busy people on the planet, London is the home of people who are always alive, because they take the time to do things that make life worth living every minute. In London, people make time for afternoon tea because it is an enjoyable thing to do. This city never sleeps because there are no people listening to ipods while walking to work and no cellphone headpieces to ensure that a businessman doesn’t miss a phone call on his walk home; here work is work and play is play. The British tend to play exactly when they step outside of the physical limits of their workplace. This is a zest for life that will produce the kind of nostalgia that will hurt when I return to the hustle and bustle of everyday life in the United States. Rather driving their car from point to point during the work day, many of the British take a walk through the parks with friends as part of their journey home. While in Kensington Gardens, I noticed families reading together at park benches, mothers walking their daughters to dance lessons, and well-dressed business women strolling across walkways wearing business suits and tennis shoes. In London, every moment in life is utilized. I would have to think that gym memberships are less prevalent because, even in pouring rain, people were out running in the park. Why go to a stuffy gym when you can run within range of where the Princes and Princess of England live. London is New York City that is zoned into enjoyable aspects of life instead of the demands of the office; rather than focusing on achievements at work, the British simply demand more for themselves in the form of social pleasure throughout all aspects of the day.  

Travel Break #2: Venice and Rome

For the second travel break, I went with Ali Chappell and Libby O’Daniel to Venice for a day and then Ali and I went to Rome while Libby stayed in Venice to view some art and work on her summer research project. So far, this has been my favorite travel break because I felt very comfortable traveling and being able to navigate these huge cities and, also, I enjoyed how laidback we all were about planning our activities. Ali and Libby let me join their group last minute when some of my other plans had fallen through, and a lot of the things we did on this trip were very impromptu. The spontaneity of our adventures and also the people I was traveling with and meeting made this trip an unforgettable experience. Finally, I felt like an adult, with a real sense of being able to go with the flow and, therefore, enjoy the beautiful scenery that surrounded me as well as the wonderful people I was spending time with, without any stress.

                To say the least, Venice was beautiful. It was exactly how I had pictured Italy before I came to this country. While we were waiting for a table at an outdoor restaurant, I remember seeing a bunch of gondolas on the water and telling Ali that this scene did not even look real; the water looked like glass and the gondolas looked like toys. Though I had been warned that Venice is a huge tourist trap, I immediately understood why it is so popular with travelers. It is absolutely gorgeous and full of energy because everyone is so amazed by the sight of it. When we arrived, Ali told me that Venice is sinking into the sea and it is speculated that it will be completely under water in the future. Therefore, this beautiful place is just lingering in time and may only be in history books one day. I am so glad that I got to come see this place because I don’t think there is anything quite like it. There are no roads and it is strange to see boats that are ambulances, food distributers, and even people’s personal vehicles. It is a weird feeling to be in a boat rather than a car when going down canals that are surrounded by houses and shops. This is fun because everything slows down a bit; though the city is constantly crowded with people who are rushing around, the canals are a peaceful interlude in which scenery is not a blur through a car window but a slow and more personal view of what is happening all around you. During the evening, we went to St. Mark’s square to look around. We returned later that night to hear all of the live music and enjoy the nightlife of people dancing and walking in and out of the cafes and shops. The orchestra played the song “Con te Partiro,” which was originally written by Andrea Bocelli, who is one of my father’s favorite musicians. I made a video of the square while this song played and I have enjoyed looking back at it. On the next morning, we walked along the streets and just took everything in. I got some delicious chocolate gelato and listened to some of the street performers. Everything about that morning and afternoon before I left seemed to ooze with Italian culture because all of the performers were playing classic Italian music and the smell of all the Italian food and gondola workers talking with us made me feel like I was viewing all of the stereotypical aspects of the Italian culture. It was amazing to me how this city never skipped a beat. From morning to evening there was always a shopkeeper asking you to look at his Venetian glasswork or a hostess trying to get you to eat at a restaurant; it was exhausting but also exhilarating because I didn’t want to miss any of the views or offers that were going on. As morbid as this may sound, if this city eventually sinks into the sea, we can all be assured that the locals and tourists utilized every inch of it, whether that be for lounging by the canal, listening to Italian street performances, avoiding the illegal sales being pushed on shoppers, and even drinking many glasses of wine.  

                When we said goodbye to Libby and got on our train towards Rome, we were really glad that we had experienced this city, even if it was only for a short time period. I think my energy and even monetary funds would probably have suffered from staying another day in this lively place. On our train to Rome, Ali and I met a guy from Africa who was shouting questions at us about where we were from and what we were doing in Italy. We were very alarmed and, honestly, a bit scared. We learned a lot about the difference in our culture from this guy because, though he seemed a bit rough due to the enthusiasm of his speech, he was one of the kindest people we had met during our travels. I am ashamed to say that, for most of the ride, we ignored him and sank into our seats to listen to our IPods. However, when we were confused about our stop, he jumped up and asked a few questions to the other people on the train and informed us that it was our stop. Also, when I got up, my ray-bans had fallen into the seat beside me. I wouldn’t have known until later that day that I had left them there and this guy could have had some pretty expensive sunglasses; however, he made sure to stop me and hand them to me. Most people would not have done that and we learned that even though he was shouting at us, he was really only excited to meet us and he was willing to help us without any benefits for himself. In America, people would be frightened by a guy who was so outwardly interested in meeting us and, also, most Americans would have let me leave the train without my ray-bans so that they could have a new pair of sunglasses. This was a very good lesson to learn and it taught me that sometimes people’s exteriors and the way they act outwardly can be very different than their inner character and motives.  

                Our train was an hour late to Rome and, luckily, Ali’s friend who was coming to meet us was also about an hour late. We had decided to go to Rome because we could stay with Ali’s friend and hangout in the city without worrying about viewing the sites because we would be returning soon. We walked with Ali’s friend, whose name is Deanna, to get a bite to eat before we caught the bus home. The first thing we noticed was that the prices in Rome are a lot less expensive than Venice and, also, to our surprise, a lot of the food and drinks we ordered were even cheaper than they are here in Sansepolcro. I guess that this is because Rome is such a flourishing city in Italy in which there is the perfect amount of locals and a consistent amount of tourists to keep the shops and restaurants going in order to have a strong economic foundation. Our time in Rome was mainly spent just hanging out with Deanna and her room mates. We are ashamed to say that we visited the Hard Rock Café more than once on this travel break. However, while we were at the Hard Rock Café, we did get to meet the members of the band Jutty Ranx, which is the band who plays the number one song in Italy right now. We were shocked; so shocked that we did not ask them for a picture as proof that we had met them. I was disappointed in myself when I realized this. I would have liked to brag to my friends at home. After this trip to the Hard Rock café, we went to a bar called “Scholars,” which was filled with Americans and Italians. We realized that the difference between the flirting practices of the males in these two cultures is immense. The Italian boys walk up to a girl and tell her that they like her and that she is beautiful ; American boys stand at the bar and try to make eye contact with a girl and, when they do, they make sure to flirt with the first girl they see around them in order to show her they aren’t concerned with her. Chivalry may be dead in America but I think it still survives in Italy.

                We left Rome on Thursday and felt well rested because we had spent our time relaxing and slowly taking in the city. We got onto the third train that we had taken during that travel break and felt like professional travelers; we had navigated two huge cities in Italy and also gotten to know a lot of interesting people. I was glad that I had decided to go to Venice and Rome on this travel break, even if it meant we had to do a lot of traveling. We had gotten a good taste of Venice without getting tired of it and we had also gotten to pretend we were locals rather than sightseers while we were in Rome, due to the fact that we would be returning soon. I can’t wait to return to Rome and I will always remember the beauty and splendor of Venice.

First Travel Break: Cinque Terre

 

                For the first travel break, I decided to visit Cinque Terre, which is located in the Liguria region of Italy. Cinque Terre is comprised of five towns that are located on the coast of the Italian Riviera. Though I mainly went to Cinque Terre to hang out on the beach, I learned a lot about the region of Liguria, which is the home of many of the cultural attributes that are notorious of Italy. Cinque Terre is a popular tourist destination; however, because the hotels and restaurants are owned by Italians who can speak English well, I was able to learn about and understand some of the aspects of the Italian lifestyle.

                The group I traveled with chose to stay in the town called Monterosso al Mare. Monterosso al Mare is the only one of the five towns in Cinque Terre that has a sand beach. Obviously, we enjoyed having the convenience of being so close to the beach and, more importantly, the fact that there was sunshine and warm air, which has been very rare during our time in Italy thus far. On the first day, as we walked out to the beach, it suddenly hit me that I was seeing the Mediterranean Sea for the first time in person. Of course, the Mediterranean Sea has provided a route for travel, trade, and even food for civilizations since ancient times. I immediately thought of the Roman Empire that we have studied in our history class and how this ancient empire controlled all of the land that is bordered by the Mediterranean Sea. Thus, I was now walking on land that was once domineered by the ancient Romans. Names that I have been reading in history books, such as Julius Caesar and his nephew, Augustus, had roamed this part of the world. I was now in a place where such concepts as modern-Western politics, laws, architecture, and so much more had first started to form in way. Therefore, it became apparent that many of the vital aspects of civilization and even my own American lifestyle had all started in Italy. There are so many countries in the world that I could have studied in, but, as I stood before the Mediterranean Sea, I realized just how significant it was that I had come to Italy. Though the financial crisis and even the political corruption of Italy is a major topic in world news, it is important for all of the nations of the world to remember that it was this country that formulated the majority of the systems and ideas that are crucial aspects of the civilization of our modern world.

 Ultimately, even though I have now seen quite a few historical monuments in Italy, the Mediterranean Sea is more significant in history than any of the things I have seen here so far. Looking out into the sea, I was struck by how amazing it was that I was in Italy. I have had a few moments like this when I have felt like I was standing in the scene of a movie or looking at a photograph because the art, architecture, or even landscape before my eyes did not seem real; however, as I stood at the shoreline of the Mediterranean Sea, I understood for a moment what it felt like to have the pride that the Italians have in their country. The way that the Italians have cherished the creations of their people is very evident in the art and architecture of Italy and it is also astonishing how a country with such a rich history is full of people who keep with modern trends so well. Even though I was just standing on a beach in Italy, I was beginning to feel the affect that this trip is having on me in gaining an appreciation for a culture that is not my own and, yet, still being able to feel a sense of pride in a land of so much history and achievement.

In addition to spending time on the beach of Cinque Terre, we also did a little exploring through the trails and town of Monterosso al Mare. We walked a trail that wrapped around a cliff right over the sea. The trail afforded us the opportunity to see many of the pastel colored buildings that Cinque Terre is so famous for as well as features of the landscape that could not be seen from the town. One of our favorite things that we saw while hiking was a statue of a man that was wedged into a cliff. The man appeared to be holding part of the cliff on his back. We noticed that his arms appeared to have fallen off and we later learned that his arms had been blown off by a bomb during World War II. This was significant to me because America had fought in World War II against fascism that existed in Italy under the influence of Benito Mussolini. This was evidence of a time period when Italy had struggled to resist the communism that was affecting so much of Europe. The Italians did not only free themselves from the influence of fascism but, eventually, they also got rid of the monarchy that had led to Mussolini’s control and, also, put into place a democracy. Though the United States fought in World War II against the fascism that was present in Italy, it is also important to consider how the Italian people are also familiar with the concept of fighting for freedom for individuals of their country and also securing a government that will maintain this freedom. Though Americans were fighting against the influence of fascism in Italy and other parts of Europe during World War II, as individuals we can all agree on the importance of freedom in regard to the citizens of a country.

We also went to some of the popular restaurants in Cinque Terre. We quickly learned a fact that was near to our own hearts when one of our waiters informed us that the pesto that we all love to eat in our pasta is actually a recipe that was created by the people of the Ligurian region. The pesto in Cinque Terre was very good, but, even though the recipe was created by the Ligurian people, I still think that Margharita makes the best pesto.

Our trip to Cinque Terre was a wonderful get-a-way for a few days to get to spend time on the beach and hangout around Monterosso al Mare. The local people were very friendly; they spoke very good English and it was nice to be able to joke with them about our choices in wine, which they definitely have a better knowledge of, and, also, listen to them talk about things such as soccer and even traveling to universities which are both major aspects of Italian life. We got to practice a bit of our Italian and also experience the personalities of people who were our own age and who had much of the same interests as we do. The train rides were very easy and I enjoyed being able to sit on a train rather than worrying about navigating a trip in my car. I would recommend Cinque Terre to Americans and Italians alike due to the friendliness of the local people and the beauty of the landscape.

Sansepolcro Churches

             On Wednesday, May 22nd, our class went on a walking tour of Sansepolcro that included viewing many of the churches and sanctuaries in the town. Sara’s father gave us this tour and he was very knowledgeable about the many churches and their focus on subjects such as mother Mary and even death. All of the churches and sanctuaries were beautiful and shed light on important aspects of Catholicism; the Santuario e Oratoria di Saint Maria della Grazie and also the Church of San Francisco really struck me with the importance that these townspeople have always placed on their Christianity due to their efforts to obtain art and also regularly groom these places in order to create such special buildings to worship and be with God.

            The Santuario e Oratoria di Saint Maria della Grazie is the church that Sara’s family goes to worship. It was clear that Sara’s family has put much time and money into the church because both she and her father had such a vast knowledge of the many parts of the church. We were first introduced to the wood carvings of the skulls, which were meant to symbolize the company of death. At first, I will admit that I thought that the term “company of death” sounded a bit dark for a church. However, as Sara’s father explained, the company of death is a group that aims at honoring those who have died and also reminding all of us that we will eventually die. The fact that we will all eventually die sounds a bit morbid but it is really meant to open our eyes to the fact that our life on earth is only temporary whereas eternal life in heaven is what we must strive for while we are here on earth.

            There were also many works of art in the church that represented not only the company of death but also the Virgin Mary. There was a fresco painting at the alter that appeared to be two angels but behind it there was a painting of the pregnant Virgin Mary. This scene used to always be closed, but, if my memory is correct, it can now be opened during the month of May. After seeing all of the artwork at the museo civico that depicted mother Mary, it was interesting to realize that this was one of the first paintings that we have seen that illustrated Mary while she was pregnant. It symbolized her motherly nature and how we should all respect the pains she went through to give labor to and raise Jesus Christ, all while knowing he would have to die on the cross to save the world. On the ceiling there were many carvings that represented biblical stories as well as the company of death. These were done by two different artists of Sansepolcro in the seventeenth century. One of the carvings that I was touched by the most was a carving that portrayed a skull with a cross over it. This carving was meant to portray how Jesus has saved us from death and given us eternal life.

            The Church of San Francisco is the only church in Sancepolcro that was originally a chapel that is still remaining. This church is most famous for its connection with Beato Ranieri, who lived in Sansepolcro during the fourteenth century. We learned that the term “beato” means that Beato Ranieri was only just shy of being a saint. Beato Ranieri was most well-known for his ability to perform miracles on children and even pregnant women. He lived in the convent that is attached to the church and his coffin is still there today with his embalmed body lying in it. When Beato Ranieri died, it is said that children in the town were running around announcing that a saint had died and the bells in the town were also ringing by themselves. Directly after his death, lawyers came to document all of the miracles that he had performed and they were able to record over forty miracles. There was a special bell that was put in the bell-tower of this church in honor of him. Until the bell broke in 2004, when a baby was born in Sansepolcro, the bell would be rung in celebration and also to commemorate the many miracles that Beato Reinieri performed for the children of Sansepolcro during his time on earth. Also, the people of the town donated money to build an alter in honor of Beato Reinieri. There are Latin inscriptions on this alter that explain how he died in the year 1304 and that this alter was built for him during that same year.

            Both the Santuario e Oratoria di Saint Maria della Grazie and also the Church of San Francisco were filled with so many forms of art that reminded me that I was given the gift of eternal salvation when Jesus Christ died at the cross. The Virgin Mary, symbolism of the company of death, and works of Beatro Ranieri are all a part of the salvation story and the miracle and power of Christ. The fact that biblical scenes and reminders of our temporary lives on earth were surrounding me throughout my time in these places really instilled a sense of awe and respect for the amazing miracle of Jesus Christ. I really came to appreciate these townspeople such as Sara and her father that have committed so much effort in upholding the beauty of these churches in order to allow all who worship in them to be able to feel all the amazement of the story of salvation and the miracle of Jesus Christ.

 

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