Saturday, June 18, 2011

Greek Coffee

They make Greek coffee with the grounds sitting on the bottom of the cup. You get a little silt in your mouth with every sip. This is suitable for Greece, for Athens in particular.A scrawny cat walks over the red mission tiles on the roof across from the cafe window. A hasty plaster job at the peak is crumbling, foreshadowing a fate like the ruined walls of Hadrian's Library behind it. Further back, there are green pine and palms, rising up the side of the
This strange horizontal stratification is everywhere in Athens. Yet somehow the old here feels cleaner than the new. Wind and rain have finished the job on the Parthenon that they have only begun on the run-down white block buildings, forty years old, that cover most of the city.
Nothing is pure here. Where there is joy here, there is despair. Where there is faith in democracy, there is anarchy.
Old men play backgammon on chairs behind a peanut cart. Wooden scaffolding covers up the walls and ceilings in the largest Byzantine churches. Metro lines, some just built for Greece's last Olympic games, play tricks, bringing passengers to the same station they just departed from.
O Athens, will you find your own way back? More populous than ever, but not better off. To go forward, you must go back. Take the line from Monastiraki down to Thissio, walk to the opposite track. From Thissio, double-back to Omonia. Switch trains.
Avoid Syntagma, if possible.

Monday, June 13, 2011


Sitting on the train, looking at the beautiful landscape as we cruise along the eastern coast of Italy, heading south. We are situated in the first train car, and can peer through the porthole-like windows of the two doors separating us from the unobstructed view of the approaching landscape. I sigh at the thought of being able to fulfill my dream to be at the front of the train, looking at the tracks disappear beneath us...sigh. I turn to Adam and tell him of this dream of mine. While he is quite used to my sharing of dreams and usually is a great encouragement, he deflates this one pretty quickly. His answer to me: "They won't allow that. A five-year-old kid might be able to..."
Sure, I feel like a five-year-old kid, bouncing on my seat at the thought of that fascinating view, but I don't think I'll pass for one. Rats.
However, I have decided in my travels that I will leave no stone unturned. In other words, I have made up my mind that I will not let my fear dictate what I will and will not due one this trip. (Security personnel is another matter).
So I march up to the front, strengthened by the determination to prove Adam wrong, and stand on this side of the door, looking though the window. Okay, so I at least got closer. I stand there, transfixed by the glimpse through the portholes, when suddenly I see a face looking back at me. I jump at the unexpected intrusion in my line of vision. I start to turn to go back to my seat, feeling slightly awkward at having 'been caught', when the man opens door number one and waves me forward! I can't believe it! I, Nadia, get to fulfill my dream on this day and sit in the co-pilot seat of a train!! I am beyond ecstatic! I beam at the engineer as we strike up a conversation - well, sort of. The fact that he does not know a lot of English and I know about a handful of words in Italian seemed like no hurdle at all in light of my wide-eyed enthusiasm. As we see the coast to the left and the mountains to the right, he tells me stories of the little villages we whiz past and shows me a couple tricks of the trade of train engineers. Finally I decide to head back, where I meet Adam with the expression of a beaming five-year-old.

Adam's words:

...Yeah, yeah - you win this one, Nadia. I didn't realize you were going to stand peeping at the engineer with puppy-dog eyes until he'd let you in. But while you were up there, learning how to push the right buttons, I had an inspired idea for this blog post. I'll call it Portholes or Peepholes - something like that. It'll relate your experience getting in to the front of the train with the nature of travel itself. See, when we visit a new city for five or six days, all we get is a little glimpse, often distorted, often a sort of tunnel-vision of touristy areas or ancient ruins. But once in a while, someone opens up that door where the window is on, and we are allowed to walk through to a place where the view is wide and clear.

In Rome, there is a green-colored door on the top of Aventine Hill, just passed the three churches and the orange-tree park. The door guards the entrance to a compound run by the Knights of Malta (those procurers of Maltese Falcons, etc.). No non-member could ever see the inside, save for one feature in the door - a grand keyhole. Hearing about the place from a book Nadia picked up in one of the Italian terminals, we trekked up the hill to the famed door, where a hand full of locals were already taking their turns peeping at the same sight. Below, you will find a (very smart) meta-theatrical photograph taken of me looking through that keyhole. The view inside was breathtaking: a tunnel of perfectly-trimmed trees, running to the edge of a cliff. Beyond this - as if we were somehow teleported across the city - the dome of St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican.

The Vatican becomes a symbol of our experience in Rome. We visited it on two out of the seven days that we stayed in the antique city. But there are distortions and illusions here as well: St. Peter's square is surrounded by two semi-circles composed of pillars four rows deep - but, if you stand in just the right spot (on a little circle marked out on the ground) - the four rows merge together perfectly, appearing only as one. In the Vatican Museum, there is a wonderful collection of Egyptian artifacts, first taken in by the Romans, then by us.

That is why it is so hard to get a true view of things here. New kingdoms keep writing on top of the old. The Palatine Hill reveals ruins stacked upon ruins, back to the time when Rome was only clay and wattle. The Circus Maximus is now a gravel pit, sporting an improvised stage for rock concerts. And the Pantheon, that ancient marvel of pagan Roman construction, has been dressed up proper like all of the other Catholic churches around.
It is the location of one of my most cherished memories of Rome. We visited it on the first day of bad weather on our trip. The rain was coming down so hard I bought an illegal umbrella from a Bangladesh salesman for 2 euro. We debated heading back to our home base, another camping tent on the outskirts of town. But practicality lost out to wonder, and we splashed our way across the cobblestone to the Pantheon. What a sight awaited us beyond those giant pillars! Rain was coming in through the hole in the domed roof. It appeared to be falling so slowly. Each drop contained light from the sky above, and its path could be traced downwards past Apollodorus' dome, past the Byzantine paintings, past Raphael's tomb - art through art through art. And then, to release this colorful history with a splash!
The water settled around the drainholes in the middle of the marble floor. I don't know where it goes from there. I never looked down.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Glory to God

I haven't written in a while, I think mainly because I have been somewhat down, and not really in the mood to share of my heart...but all that has changed!
A couple days ago, I was feeling pretty discouraged. I realized that it was because I had been surrounded by many people with different beliefs than mine. Even though they were/are great people, I had a hard time connecting with them on a deeper level. So I took this to God. I specifically asked Him to bring some people to me in the next days with whom I could talk to about Him. A couple days went by, but I was still expectantly waiting.
Today Adam and I went to a church inside Rome. After church, I began talking with an elderly lady, and realized that she was God's gift to me today! Our conversation was such a blessing to me! We talked about interests and passions and serving others and God. This is the reason I came on this trip - to learn of how people serve and worship our Lord!
So praise be to our Father for once again making Himself very real to me!
I thank those of you that are praying for us - please continue. God is doing amazing work in me (and He sure has a LOT to do!) and I know He has great plans for Rome, Italy, Europe, Earth.
And maybe, just maybe, I can make a difference in someone's life.
Glory to God!

(new pics/stories coming tomorrow)

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Regarding Gardens

Europe is so well gardened that it resembles a work of art, a scientific theory, a neat metaphysical system. Man has re-created Europe in his own image. (Aldous Huxley)

Before we leave Florence behind, we decide to spend a day strolling in the Boboli Gardens: an eleven acre expanse on the left bank of the river. It turns out that the garden is anything but a stroll - it winds around the side of the hills, rising from the level of the river behind the astounding Palazzo Pitti (where a costume museum and an exhibit on the treasures of the Kremlin were included in the ticket price for the gardens) to a height surpassing that of the Duomo. Yes, this meant more climbing for our poor prairie protagonists!
The Boboli Gardens represent the antithesis of the gardens of Versailles that we visited earlier in our trip. Half of the garden shares the immaculate grooming of its French counterpart, but the other is unkempt, wild. There, the gravel path gets covered in wood chips, and runs among partially ruined walls. The statues abandon the style of Romanesque busts and become grotesque woodcutters and oversize bathtubs(not kidding!). One can almost feel the edge of Romanticism striking against the ideals of the Baroque. And it is this spirit that best sums up this part of the world - the most beautiful works of humankind are inlaid with the most beautiful works of nature. And yet this intermingling does not lead to conflict; it feels like this is the way that cities are made best, and made to last.

The amazing Grotta di Buontalenti in the Boboli Gardens, where human figures seem to blend in with moss and stalactites of the walls.

This sense has stayed with us as we left Florence and headed into rural Tuscany. Booking our lodgings based on only an internet description, we had no idea what to expect, or even a good idea how to get to a town that not even the local Italians in Florence had heard of. Yet, in another small miracle, we found our way to the small town - nay, three farmhouses and a campground - called Santa Lucia, getting a personal drop off from a bus driver that took us out of Poggibonsi, where the train dropped us off.

Just another one of the breathtaking views of Tuscany.

Along the way, we crossed through the castle town of San Gimignano (of which more will be said at a later date), where the townspeople had to press against the castle walls as the bus squeezed through the narrow streets. After looping around the towers an absurd number of times, we drove down the path to Santa Lucia, where we were dropped off right outside the campground path.
We checked in and were given our key and a map to our room - a little mobile home called the "Charmeur" that was supposedly waiting for us at the bottom of the hill. After climbing (yes, it is becoming a veritable theme!) through a forest down a steep flight of steps we arrived at the mobile home area. Here, we searched out trailer number two. Strangely, the only numbers we could find were little pieces of tape with a number, written in pen, on the door handles. What's more, we were surprised to find a key already in the doorknob. But leaving these oddities aside, we decided to check out our new home.
Nadia gasped as we walked inside. The place looked like it had been the home of some film noir detective: searched through and trashed while he was out having a secret liaison. There was a garden table on the master bed, cushions bubbling out of the sink, and pages of a trip itinerary in Dutch clipped in a maroon binder.
We felt anything but welkom. But, we decided to make the best of the situation. I moved a lawn chair from the dining room and put it outside. Nadia started cleaning the dirt off of the bedroom sheets. It was then that I wondered whether the key we were given at the reception actually fit into this lock. We tried it, and it was much too wide. Looking at the map again, we realized that the layout of the buildings was not quite right - the home we had entered wasn't even on it! We walked north, to an area of homes so nice we thought they belonged to permanent residents. Yet here the numbering system started again. Sure enough, there was house one, and after it, number two. Our little Charmeur, at last! This time, the key fit. The sheets were clean, and there was not even a mop in the toilet! A beautiful wooden deck, with an awning like a house in the tropics, was outside the front door. It looked out onto a valley of trees, of all kinds, and some with great height. Not unlike, or so I imagine, that garden of Eden.