Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Grand Tour

This entire continent is preparing for summer.  They remind me of  a bride preparing for a huge wedding.   There are preparations to make her more beautiful.  There are orders of fabulous food and beautiful clothes being delivered.  La grande fête is quickly approaching.  In Italy, the roadwork continues after dark, a policeman polishes a pay phone, box after box of new shipments are delivered to retail stores- all in expectation of the upcoming season.  In France, there are parts of the sidewalk torn up in order for repairs to be made to underground wiring, bike lanes are being repaired, fresh concrete being laid at the yacht club and the bakery below our apartment has been completely gutted with a promise from Frederique that it would be completed "dans vingt-quatre jours"(in 24 days).  The jackhammers and grinders, sheetrock dust and cardboard waste that accompany the preparations are unbelievable.  And it is important that they court their suitors.  In 2015, tourism accounted for 9% of Global GDP but in the EU tourism is their third largest industry over manufacturing, agriculture, banking and financial services.  Tourism directly accounts for over 14 million jobs on this continent.  No wonder they are working toward a deadline- I suspect it is Easter.  The high season for travel on this continent is March through September with tourism peaking in the month of August.  Even Europeans travel during these months with 25% of their travel during July and August.  The locals can enjoy the quiet from October to February but the months for these shopkeepers and restaurants to make their money are quickly approaching.  

The word tourism is loaded with negative connotations and imagery of tacky, sunburned sightseers purchasing souvenirs and clogging restaurant waiting lists at the beach.  Most travelers to Europe, tacky or not, seek to learn something about the culture whether by visiting monuments, museums, and historical sights or trying new foods and learning new languages.  In short, learning about the culture-at least a little bit.  Cultural tourism started almost 400 years ago when the aristocratic and entrepreneurial middle class families of Europe began to send their youth on the "Grand Tour".

According to a book I recently purchased,

" the Grand Tour became a pilgrimage from town to town in search of evidence of the Greek and Roman antique, classical cultures.  ...  The Grand Tour experience was intended to help the members of the new cultural ruling class gain necessary qualities such as:  spirit of initiative, courage, leadership, the ability to make decisions and also knowledge of customs, manners, behavior, and foreign languages."

We are right in the middle of spring break season.  Pete has labeled Nice the "Ivy League Panama City" with all the giddy english-speaking student groups crowding around our favorite gelato stand(in Nice, it's Fennochio) and attempting to enjoy the beach on a 14C day(that is high 50s, low 60s).  Even with all that, I see tourists reading signs, entering museums, diligently following guides and soaking up as much of the culture as possible- while also enjoying the beauty of their surroundings and the warm sunshine.  There are tours here for people to learn French cooking, to develop their photography skills while learning about the city, and a french immersion school where students live at the villa for 2 weeks to fine tune their language skills.  These are great examples of interactive, engaged learners experiencing more than the top 5 tourist sites.

This morning, I asked Camille and Pete if they felt like they were gaining any of the qualities of the Grand Tour.  Fortunately, they answered a resounding yes.  Examples of courage were sailing in super heavy wind and cold conditions, putting yourself out there when you attempt another language(that you are probably butchering) and going to the butcher to buy meat.  The cited the freedom of living in a big city with public transportation as the best example of making their own decisions- daily they walk to the market, go to the park, ride VeloBlue bikes to the yacht club -all without me.  They both gave examples of eating with their German, Hungarian and Finnish friends at the hostel as learning about customs.  The other sailors eat with hats on and elbows on the table but offer to pour water for you and serve your plate before their own.  Lastly, the knowledge of a foreign language is obvious.  Every trip to the bakery, ride on a train, or walk to the park sparks your brain to decipher signs and search for words.  We have created a french chore chart for nous appartement and take turns ordering in the markets for practice.  Food is a great motivator for a 14 year old boy so Pete's best attempts come when he wants his meal to come out right.

One of our biggest revelations has been how they address not only their successes but also their mistakes.  Obviously, we can credit the Italian peninsula with Roman advances in art, architecture, and engineering as well as the birth of the Renaissance and home to artists that shaped and continue

to shape the world.  But until last week in Northern Italy, I had never thought of how they deal with the more dismal parts of their history.  During WWII, after the Armistice was signed in September 1943, the division between the monarch, Vittorio Emmanuel III, and the fascist party and their leader Benito Mussolini divided the country.  The region of Lake Garda was the center of the Fascist party- Mussolini had a villa on the lake less than 5 minutes from where the kids were sailing.  Lake Garda was a vacation spot for Nazi leaders and Saló, a small town on the southern part of the lake, became the headquarters for the Italian Socialist Republic.   So the same small village that claims to be the birthplace of the inventor of the violin and several scientific(seismological and medical) advances must also claim as part of their history - the supporters of Fascism.  The same book that
champions the "Grand Tour" justified their involvement by stating "Fascism vanishes into Nazism and Nazi-
fascism mingles with the cause of a war that is carried on beyond any reasonable calculation or human endurance.  The battle for peace therefore becomes the battle against fascism."  They do not willingly accept any blame.  Nor do Germans when discussing the same war.  It seems to be an American custom to legitimize social guilt for history that occurred 150 years ago.

We have had Brits at church and German sailors all poke fun at the current American presidential election asking what we think and what will happen to our country.  The natural instinct is to apologize for the media circus and our lack of relevant, rational, prepared leaders to serve our country.  Good manners and our set of cultural customs has prevented us from asking about their biggest political mistakes and what happened to them?  We left the apartment the other day when we heard chanting in the Place de Palais de Justice.  It turned out to be a Young Socialist rally- mainly kids with an excuse to be out of school, lacking even the passion to remain standing(or off their cell phones) during their protest.

No country is exempt from its mistakes or its successes.  The challenge for modern learners is to take all of that information from our omniscient view whether it is 300, 100 or 70 years later and become engaged in the world we live in.  Maybe part of the courage we are to gain on this "tour" is to not only build our opinions based on a wealth of knowledge we have been lucky enough to experience but also have the courage to verbalize and defend those opinions and ideals.

For a great video see Kevin McLoud's "The Grand Tour"

Sunday, March 13, 2016


Where you come from matters.

A friend of Camille's sent her a message saying "why don't you come back to the USA, the land of the free and the home of the brave?"  now- he was just kidding but.... I agree.  America is AWESOME and I don't want to live anywhere else.  America made me and my children who we are.

Provenance is... from the French word provenir  which comes from Latin prōvenīre to originate and from venīre to come.

So the underlying idea here is that your education, experiences, friendships, and connections will shape the person you are to become.  And as long as you are engaged in the world around you, wherever you are, that never stops.

We are traveling to widen that perspective, broaden that horizon and expand the world that our

children think of as "theirs".  It is not better here- just different.  In the past month, my children have learned passable french, made French, Italian, German, Hungarian and Finnish friends, navigated train systems, learned to use public transportation, and sailed in two new bodies of water.  All of that in addition to staying on track in virtual school and being exposed to more art and architecture than would be possible in Fairhope.  This isn't because I want them to leave Alabama, it is because I want them to bring these experiences home with them.  If it makes them more interested in world politics, art, or helps provide a framework for future history classes, then all the better. Last week over dinner in the sailing hostel, their German friends were commenting on the hunger strikes- Pete quickly realized that they are living the refugee crisis in Germany and asked their opinion.

On their days off, Camille, Pete and I have had conversations about the history we are surrounded with as well as how that history plays into our opinions and national ideals.  For the last two weeks, we have been in Northern Italy at Lake Garda.  The lake has a written history back to 800AD when the Romans built on the southern end of the lake near a hot spring.  This region, while all along building a culture of vineyards, lemon orchards, olive groves and life on the lake, has been governed by Romans, Venetians, Veronese, Napoleon, and even the Austro-Hungarian empire up until after World War 1.  These people are rich in their heritage and their small village museums and local cuisine reflect their civic pride.  Using the word broadly, the provenance of this region makes these people and this area what it has become.

Camille and Pete have also learned to APPRECIATE things about themselves that they never thought were a part of our culture.  Apparently, Pete is quite the storyteller at the hostel.  He regales them at dinner with stories of our Gulf Coast
friends, regatta stories, even descriptions of the extreme heat.  They love the stories but do not really have stories of their own.  Camille said, "As southerners, I guess part of who we are is our verbal storytelling- we never realized everyone wasn't like that."

Virtual school has also afforded us TIME.  We are all reading in our free time and during our time together, we have the time to share.  Over a hike the other day our discussions ranged from the stations of the cross(we were hiking up to a church) to what these mountains would have been like during WWII to a protein discovered in a family in a nearby village that prevents them from heart disease.  There is time to learn and discover-making our experiences each day what we are interested in - not just checking off the list of classes, practices, and homework assignments.

So this virtual school experience combined with this amazing opportunity to travel will be a part of what makes my children what they will become.  We are still closely following the presidential election, we keep in touch with friends, and everyone we meet here knows that part of who we are is southern, American, friendly, mannerly, and INTERESTED in who they are and where we are. And this experience, combined with all the others will become part of our family's provenance.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Buona Giornata

Getting to Italy on Wednesday was a challenge.  We left the apartment by 7am headed to the tram -3 stops-then walked to the train station headed for Lake Garda.  The entire trip seems to be a lesson in Patientez… the Thello train to Milan was on the board but the voie(platform) had not been determined so we had a pastry at Paul and watched the board.  About 15 minutes before departure, the board popped up Voie C and we hustled over.  

The train was really nice, we had seats facing each other and the first part of the trip was a gorgeous view of the French Riviera.  We were on the water all the way to Genoa stopping at every small village and some larger ones- long stops at Ventimiglia and Genoa then a track change sending us through tunnels and mountains toward Milan.  It was beautiful.   We had a picnic I had packed, played cards, read, did some homework …. all was well until we realized we were late arriving in Milan.  We originally only had a 15 minute window to change so the 25 minute delay was a problem.  

I made the kids get all the luggage and we were poised and ready to hop off the train as soon as it stopped.  Headed to the departure board to assess the damage, we passed a track that had a train to Verona- it gets confusing but at some point I said “run”, Pete full out ran with the 75 lb giant red suitcase full of sailing gear and as I was asking, “este trene a Verona?", the three of us jammed ourselves and 4 suitcases and 3 backpacks into the most crowded train I have ever seen full of stinky people, a fat guy with a bag of Burger King that he warned us not to kick over(it was on the floor).  Lots of local hoodlums and street people in what they all thought were stylish flat bills and sagging pants paraded back and forth looking for seats while I held onto all our belongings with a death grip and prayed that we were actually headed in the right direction.  Believe it or not, that worked out.  

We got to Verona, got a cab and made it to the rental car office.  That is where the biggest hurdle appeared.  I left my driver’s license in Nice!  I don’t know what I was thinking…The rental car guy almost didn’t give me the car, it was only after much pleading and begging and me almost crying and asking” what if it were your wife and children in another country?  Isn’t there anything you could do?” that he started typing and said he was giving me his car…we are still not sure if I am driving Lorenzo’s Fiat or some lowest level Europcar but we took it and said Grazie and moved on promising to have my friend and landlord in Nice go to the apartment, get my license and overnight it to Verona.

Then the Italian SIM cards- the sweet guy said what language do you speak and when I said I could speak Spanish, his comment was “Espanol and Italiano sono egual, bene”  and we did most of the transaction in Spanish.   We immediately had a better cell plan than France for little money, the kids were thrilled to have a little data and free texting between the three of us.

Then the drive which was great.  Lorenzo’s Fiat had a USB input so Pete used his Italian cell phone to dj as I old-school navigated down the autostrada with Lorenzo’s hand written directions to Campione(a USB but no navigation).   Headed up the mountain, we knew we were missing a view and probably some major heights, knowing they would still be there tomorrow.  

I called Denise the landlady at the apartment and she met us in the square, her husband helped with the luggage and they directed us to the only restaurant in town that was open.  We finished the day with antipasto, warm pasta in a room with exposed beams and a big fire.  The sweet waiter brought us more than we could possibly eat.  I had a glass of local wine and exhaled for the first time in 12 hours.  So with bellies full and hopes for tomorrow- we went to sleep.  
I considered that a good day and a good day's work using almost all my mom skills.

Then Thursday, I dropped the kids at Campione Univela sailing hostel with their German sailing coach, two German sailors, and a Hungarian sailor.  It was freezing cold, crazy windy- never would have left the beach in America but they sailed.  The morning was challenging, Pete loved it but Camille was overpowered by the wind.  I encouraged her to talk to the coach and make an alternate plan for the heavy wind practices.  They all ended up sailing until sunset in the afternoon and had a great day, both kids were excited about new things they had learned and gained confidence with the new conditions.  

I am positive both kids would consider that a good day and a great day's work(of sailing practice).

When I travel, one of the first things I try to learn or remember in the new language-right after how to order my food politely- is how to say "have a nice day".  In spanish, I say "tenga un buen día", in french "bon journée" and in Italian "buona giornata".  This serves no purpose other than for me to connect with the local culture and be one friendly visitor they have come into contact with that day.

Years ago- so my memory might be a little cloudy- while reading Ross King's Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling, I learned about fresco painting.  The plaster is wet and the painters basically pushed pigment into the wet plaster, a tedious process that required them to work quickly before the plaster dried.  The amount of fresco that could be painted in a day was referred to as a giornata- a day's work.  The last three days in Italy, as I have wished people buona giornata, I have been thinking.  How funny that the country that takes 3 hour lunches and reminds you to relax at every turn, uses the term for a good day's work and having a good day synonymously?  I think it may have something to do with a pride in your work, and finding joy in your purpose.  Yesterday morning, we had breakfast in a small Bar Ristorante before I dropped the kids at the hostel.  The signora behind the bar was more than happy to teach me the Italian word for orange juice- spremuta d'arancia- and  spent five minutes making two beautiful glasses of fresh squeezed juice for the kids.  A very handsome, well-dressed young man came in put an apron on and proudly carried our breakfast to the table.  Then a local mechanic, sporting a jumpsuit worthy of a formula one pit crew came in and stood in front of the fire rubbing his hands together to warm up.  Even the uniforms in Italy are sources of pride- the police and military look like they were designed by Armani.  The bakery in Tignale is only open from 8:30 to 12:30 and when I went in today at 12:15, she was embarrassed to be so low on stock.  So maybe my point is- whatever they do...they do it with pride.  They choose to make their work meaningful.  

I think I need a daily reminder to have a buona giornata- not just a good day, but make each day meaningful and take some pride in it's outcome.