Thursday, February 22, 2018

key words: mosey, patina, art, gelato, pasta

Catholic Holidays and "The Godfather"

One of the perks of teaching in Munich is the abundance of holidays. Munich is in Bavaria, which is a Catholic state, which means that church holidays often lead to school holidays. Last week I had the whole week off for Fasching (a.k.a. Shrove Tuesday, Carnival, and Mardi Gras). Happily enough, Dad had a trial in Italy for a few days that week, so I tagged along for the trip. While Dad worked, Mom and I gallivanted. 

But before we gallivanted, all three of us watched "The Godfather." Research, you know. Into Italian culture and all that. None of us had ever seen it before, and I was surprised how much I enjoyed it. It was also fun to finally know the origin of all those references in "You've Got Mail." It certainly is a quotable movie. My mom sums up the film:

"This is why everybody likes this movie! They walk softly and carry...GUNS! It's true! They're so understated!"

But that is a rabbit trail. The point of this post is Italy, not the Italian-American Mafia.  


After recovering from the drive to Italy, Mom and I traipsed off to Florence, which is a three hour drive from where Dad works in Vicenza. Driving in Italy is...interesting. Let's just say that Italian drivers are very fond of their horns. And not terribly fond of lane demarcations.

It was entertaining to drive my parents' Volvo XC90 through the cramped, market-choked, one-way streets of old Florence to find a parking garage. Fun fact: the streets of Florence look very different when you're trying to drive through them than when you're looking at a map. There's really no comparison: lines on a map cannot possibly capture the crookedness, narrowness, or patina of those streets. Or all the market vendors and tourists who blithely stroll right in front of the car as if it's not there. I'm sure there's some sort of faith metaphor in the map/reality discrepancy, but I haven't teased it out yet. 

Once we got the car parked, we sauntered through the streets, enjoying the sunshine. We window shopped for jewelry on the Ponte Vecchio bridge and perused a leather bags market that's been there at least since Mom was in college (she still has a satchel she got there in her college days).

An aside: there is nothing like the smell of leather. If there were a vanilla leather scented candle, I would buy one and have it lit all the time. (Wait: a quick google search just revealed that there are quite a few leather-scented candles on the market. Several of which are now on my Amazon wish list...)

The duomo overshadows the whole town - it's hard to capture how absolutely massive it is. Because we only had an afternoon in Florence and we didn't want to run ourselves ragged, we decided to not even try to see all the different museums and sights of the city. We mostly stuck around the duomo and the very heart of town. 

A trip to Italy wouldn't be complete without gelato, so I made sure to get some (mint), and Mom and I sat in the sun and people-watched while I ate it. We decided that there are a surprising amount of Korean tourists in Italy in February.

We did go to one museum: the duomo museum, which houses the original statuary for the duomo. The museum is beautifully designed and curated, and even though I'm not usually a statuary person, I greatly enjoyed this museum. Whoever wrote the commentaries (is that the right word?) for the exhibits was incredibly thoughtful and did an excellent job. One display, titled "Living Stones," explains:

The choice of sculpture proclaimed the city's modernity and economic strength, showing that Florence could vie with northern European cathedrals in what was then the most expensive art form, monumental statuary. It also had a religious meaning, since the New Testament calls believers "living stones" of the spiritual edifice whose foundation is Christ (1 Peter 2:5). Thus the statues and reliefs on the Duomo, Baptistery, and Bell Tower symbolized the the identity of the people of Florence, who in these carved prophets and saints contemplated their own call to holiness.

How cool is that? They also included an incredible sonnet that Michelangelo wrote as he contemplated his life work - I posted it here.

One of the main reasons I wanted to go to this museum is to see the choir that Della Roba designed for the duomo:

I remembered this piece from when we were in Florence when I was a child (which is saying something, since I don't usually remember statuary). I love the movement and joy depicted in the panels, which reflect the different instruments for praising the Lord listed in Psalm 150. 

I also discovered a new favorite: this Madonna and Child by Andrea Pisano.

This might just be my favorite portrayal of Mary and Jesus ever. Guys, she's tickling him! And he's trying to push her hand away. I love how tender and joyful and beautiful this is. 

After the museum we went to tea at Gilli's - a marvelously elegant cafe that's been around for a couple hundred years. In a place like Florence it's important to make sure to look in all different directions so you don't miss anything: this painting was on the ceiling of the cafe. 

Speaking of art, there are all sorts of street artists in Florence, and I picked up this delightful painting from one of them - he was busily painting another as I paged through his wares.

We had dinner at a hole in the wall restaurant, where the waiter vigorously denied the claim that it isn't expected to tip waiters in Italy. Methinks he was slightly self-interested.


On Friday, Mom and I got up well before any tourists were on the streets in Florence and hit the road. We drove back to Vicenza, picked up Dad, who was done with his trial, and were in Venice by noon. We timed our trip to Venice to make sure to give the cleanup crew plenty of time to clear the debris from the Carnival finale on Tuesday. There was still confetti, though. 

The reason Dad looks so pleased with himself in the above selfie is that he was busy taking a picture of me taking a selfie: 

Like in Florence, we didn't knock ourselves out trying to see everything: we just moseyed. 

Venice does have tons of canals and bridges, but there are also miles and miles of little streets and squares that aren't on the water. It's great fun to wander through them and discover hidden treasures. 

We discovered a wonderful print shop, and I left with more art. These cats make me very happy.

The little takeout restaurant above doesn't look like much, but it has the best pesto pasta I've ever had. The secret to this restaurant's success: it's takeout, but it's fresh pasta. Boxed spaghetti will never taste the same. 

Mom got a kick out of the window display below, because it's not really a display at all - just trays of cookies that have been seriously depleted. The message: "our baked goods are so delicious that we don't bother putting effort into presentation, because people are buying them so fast the display won't last."

I love the time-worn patina of Venice. Mom put it well: 

"I can't think of anywhere else where decay is so beautiful."

I had wanted to see the inside of St. Mark's Basilica, but we arrived there an hour after it closed. Whoops. Lesson learned: when spending the day in Venice, take the bus (which is a boat) down the Grand Canal to St. Mark's first, then spend the rest of the day moseying. Otherwise you'll end up at St. Mark's too late and take the bus down the Grand Canal in the dark. (And when I say in the dark, I mean it. Venice, unlike every other city, has practically zero lights on its main thoroughfare. So after sunset, it is very dark. Weird.) 

This is the bus stop, folks. The stop itself is a floating dock. Can you imagine this being your regular bus stop? With gondoliers ferrying tourists around as you wait to get wherever you're going?

Coda: Oberammergau

Saturday morning we packed up and started the long drive back to Germany. When we left Italy, it was around 50 degrees Fahrenheit and sunny. By the time we crossed the border into Austria, we had to face the reality that it's still winter north of the alps.

We broke our drive in the little alpine town of Oberammergau, best known for the Passion Play that it produces every 10 years and for its incredible woodwork. It is a charming, quiet little town, and spending the night there was the perfect way to ease back into a German winter. 

Now that I'm back in Munich, it's been snowing steadily for several days. But I have bright Italian art above my bed to keep me cheerful until spring arrives. 

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