Here, I present brief reflection on my five weeks in Sorrento.
First, I am pleasantly surprised at how much my Italian has improved in only five weeks. At the beginning of the trip, no one would speak to me in Italian because my Italian was simply too slow. I could understand words and phrases of the homilies at Mass, but no more. Reading in Italian was a chore. By the end of my trip, I was having conversations with taxi drivers, salesmen, and Italians on the street, all without the aid of English. I was able to catch the gist of homilies. While I am still a slow reader in Italian, it finally feels like reading, not decoding. I would not call myself fluent; however, I would say that I am well on my way to fluency.
In addition to helping me learn the language of Italy, my classes at Sant’Anna taught me a good deal about history. By comparing Dante and Machiavelli, I was able to see for myself some differences between the Medieval and Renaissance eras, such as the different roles of God, the authority of human reason, and the importance of the state. By reading futurist poets, I learned about the seeds of fascism in Italy. By reading Primo Levi, I understood the terrible consequences of Italy’s alliance with Hitler. Through all the literature that I read, history came alive to me.
I learned about the character of Italy, specifically southern Italy. The Italians are exuberant, willing to set off fireworks for any occasion. They are friendly, especially to those who are making an effort to learn their language. They walk the edge between freedom and foolhardiness, as evidenced by their driving. They are firm in their beliefs, and they will believe in the miraculous liquification of the blood of Saint Gennaro, even if the Vatican has not made it official. They feel caught between more than two-thousand years of rich tradition and a desire to move into “the future.” They are fed up by their country; they love their country.
Italy is a beautiful country. I feel so lucky to have had the chance to live there for a few weeks. I hope you all have enjoyed this blog. Thank you for accompanying me on my adventure.
This morning, I took my last exam. Classes are drawing to a close, and that means my time in Italy is almost over. I wanted to write to you all one last time before I leave, and so I now present the post you have all been waiting for: the one about Italian food. (If you are reading on an empty stomach, proceed at your own risk.)
First, the structure of meals in Italy is different from the United States. The main meal is traditionally lunch, and dinner is eaten late in the evening. Breakfast is small and sweet. A common breakfast item is the “cornetto”, which is a croissant-like pastry with jam or cream filling.
Then there is lunch. A full Italian-style lunch is five courses: “antipasto” (appetizer), “primo piatto” (usually pasta), “secondo piatto” (something more substantial like meat or fish), “contorno” (side dish, like soup or salad), “dolce” (dessert or fruit) with coffee and after-dinner alcohol. Of course, there is before-dinner alcohol and during-dinner alcohol as well, but in moderate amounts. Dinner is much later, and is supposed to be lighter, like vegetables or pizza. (Yes, pizza. Apparently it’s considered a light meal here.)
Now, before I proceed any further, I would like to say that I have not been eating a three-hour, five-course lunch every day here. In fact, I haven’t done it even once. That is because one essential ingredient to these long lunches is other Italians, one’s friends and family, with whom to eat. Since I’m living in the dorm, not a host family, I have not had the opportunity to have a big family dinner.
Furthermore, I have serious doubts that the Italians have elaborate meals like this every day. However, all my information about Italian meals is second-hand, and living in a tourist area probably changes the rhythm of Italian life anyway. I can only say that the above description is supposed to be the “traditional” way of doing it.
In reality, I have cooked most of my meals for myself. This was one of the most surprising, challenging, and rewarding parts of the trip for me. I had to learn how to meal plan, navigate a supermarket (in Italian), and cook something other than scrambled eggs. Furthermore, I thought that since I was in Italy, I might as well try to cook Italian. I tried emulating some of my favorite pasta dishes, and used the Internet to supplement my ignorance.
Sometimes, my dishes turned out really well. At other times, I thanked heaven that I was cooking only for myself, since it meant that I was the only one to suffer from the watery-cheese-sauce disaster. Still, increased confidence in the kitchen was not a benefit I was expecting from this trip. I am pleasantly surprised to find that I have learned a lot about how to shop and cook like an independent adult.
One challenge of cooking for myself was that the food in Italy, although it is not totally foreign, is still different from American food. While the food in Italy is generally fresher, there is less variety. There is a whole aisle in the supermarket just for pasta noodles, and another half-aisle just for bottled tomato sauce. There is salami, prosciutto, pancetta, and sausage, but no ground beef, and certainly no plain-old sandwich meat. The eggs are processed differently and so are not refrigerated (which hasn’t stopped me from keeping my eggs in the fridge out of sheer habit). Peanut butter is an expensive specialty item. These are little differences, but they were very surprising at first.
Then there are the specialty stores. The two most common kinds are fruit stands and “salumerias”.
A salumeria is basically a deli. They sell meat and cheese, but often have pasta and wine as well. To tell the truth, I did not use these stores very often. I learned first hand why supermarkets have a corner on the grocery market: they are cheap, and it is very convenient to buy all your groceries in one place.
From time to time, I would go out to a restaurant with my friends here. This would inevitably mean pizza or pasta. (I believe it is impossible to overstate the prevalence of pasta in Italy. It is not just a stereotype.)
Being next to the ocean means amazing seafood pastas. Being next to Naples, the birthplace of pizza, means amazing pizzas. Everything I ate at restaurants was very simple and very good.
Going out to restaurants, we also learned a few Italian customs. First, restaurants do not provide separate bills. This means that, when we go out to eat, one person will pay for the group and everyone else will pay them back. Second, sitting down to a meal is much more expensive than getting take-away. Space is valuable in Italy, so if you want a table, you have to pay for it. Furthermore, it is not customary to tip your waiter, so the service fee is also included in the “coperta”, or cover charge. Thirdly, the restaurant will not bring you your bill until you ask for it. After all, you paid for the table, and so you can linger for a long time if you want. This allows the Italians to enjoy long talks with friends over a meal.
Coffee is almost as much of a staple as pasta. On our tour of the Amalfi coast, the guide said that Italians will drink coffee four times a day. However, when an Italian thinks “coffee”, he or she does not think Starbucks. In fact, I don’t think there is a single Starbucks in Sorrento. “Coffee” means espresso, either a plain shot or mixed with milk. There are cafes everywhere, but I’ve gotten most of my coffee from a machine in the dorm that would make Willy Wonka proud. You insert a coin, select a drink, and wait. Meanwhile, the machine produces a cup, adds sugar, heats and froths milk, adds a shot of espresso, and gives you the finished product complete with a little stir stick. In America, I would be highly skeptical of any “machine coffee.” Not in Italy. Even their machine-made espresso is delicious.
Finally, there are the sweets. I believe that pictures will make the point more eloquently than words.
There is, of course, gelato as well. Sorrento knows its tourists, and so there is a gelateria about every block or so. The best gelato has only a few ingredients and is always made fresh every day. I made it a goal to find my favorite gelateria, and I narrowed it down to two. They are both small, local shops with unique flavors (such as honeycomb or fig).
As one last note, you may be surprised to hear that living in Italy has made me appreciate American cooking more. All the Italians to whom I have talked say that America does some food really well: steak, cheesecake, and bagels are good examples. Furthermore, the variety that we have in America is incredible. Although we Americanize every cuisine we touch, we still have everything from Greek to Mexican to Chinese.
So there you have it. This will be my last blog post from Italy; however, I will write one more once I get back to the States to review and sum up my experiences. As always, thank you for accompanying me.
This Thursday, I was awakened by the sound of church bells. This, in and of itself, was not out of the ordinary. The Church of Sant’Anna (the small parish that serves the port neighborhood of Marina Grande) is practically a stone’s throw away from my bedroom window, and it rings bells during the day to mark the hour.
Two things, however, made Thursday’s bells unusual. First, the bells rang in a continuous peal, not in the measured chiming of a clock. Second, they rang at approximately 4:45 in the morning.
As I soon learned, July 26 is the feast day of Saint Anna, the patron saint of Marina Grande. To celebrate, they had Mass every hour from 5 am to 12 pm, and twice more in the evening. There was also a festival with food and games that night. The bells to invite the faithful to Mass rang out at a quarter-to-the-hour all morning. The car horns (or possibly boat horns–after all, it is a fishing neighborhood) started around 7 in the morning. The fireworks started at 8.
I now digress, very briefly, to tell you all about one unexpected aspect of a summer in Sorrento: the fireworks. I may have missed the 4th of July shows, but I have more than made up for it in my time here. The smallest festivity is not too small for fireworks in Sorrento.
Many of them are set off from the dock in Marina Grande, which is quite close to my dorm. The sound that they make at such close quarters is incredible. I can only do it justice by saying that it sounds like a bomb exploding in my immediate vicinity (which gives you an idea of how alarming they are when unexpected). Even with the noise, I love all the fireworks. There have been some truly spectacular shows.
The celebration of Saint Anna has been going on all week, and won’t be over until Monday. For me, it’s been a window into a very Italian tradition. After all, I’ve never seen an American neighborhood throw a week-long party to celebrate their patron saint. The Catholic faith has left deep imprints on Italian life, even though many modern Italians are not practicing Catholics.
According to the woman with whom I meet to practice Italian, these saints’ days are a lot like Christmas in America. Almost everybody celebrates Christmas, even though many Americans are not Christian. It’s not an exact comparison, however. For one thing, there’s only one Christmas, while there are saints’ days celebrations at least once a month. For another, the celebration of a patron saint is a highly local affair. For example, Marina Grande celebrates Saint Anna, but central Sorrento celebrates Saint Anthony. Therefore, if I walk five minutes from my dorm in one direction, I’m in the middle of a festival. Five minutes in the other direction, and it’s business as usual.
Tradition in Italy stretches back even farther than Christianity. For example, businesses in Sorrento tend to stay in one family. One of my peers who works in Sorrento even calls them “hereditary.” According to my professor, this can be traced to the fact that Sorrento was founded by the Romans, for whom family was very important. To support his claim, my professor said that a woman from Sorrento, if she marries into a prominent Sorrentine family, will introduce herself thus: “My name is —-, wife of—–.” Meanwhile, in Massa Lubrense, a town only 5 miles from Sorrento, a woman always simply states her own name. Massa Lubrense was founded by the Greeks, for whom family was not as important as it was for the Romans. My professor claims this is the reason for the small cultural differences that exist between the cities to this day.
I asked my Italian-speaking partner about other aspects of tradition in Italy. For example, wasn’t it true that Italians gathered as a family, Thanksgiving style, very frequently? Yes, she told me, but most do it out of “tradition.” For many Italians, the big family gatherings are a duty, not a joy. In fact, she says there is too much tradition in Italy. She envies America’s lack of tradition, because it leaves us free to focus on the future. In fact, one of the most common descriptions of America by Italian locals is “young.”
One reason I’m able to get locals’ views on all this is that the locals are finally starting to speak to me in Italian. Many speak to me in English at first, but once I respond in Italian, they will switch as well. It’s a little thing, but it is a tangible sign of progress, and therefore very encouraging. My greatest success happened yesterday, when an Italian woman not only responded to me in Italian, but actually had a long conversation with me. She described the language barrier she faces every day with tourists who don’t speak Italian, and she told me about her dreams to visit America. I only caught about 75% of what she said, but it was enough to keep the conversation going. I am thrilled.
Meanwhile, I have been studying for my final exams, a sure sign that the end is near. Four weeks down, one more to go. As always, thank you for accompanying me on my Italian adventure.
The two days between my last post and this one have been fairly uneventful. In the absence of any new stories to share with you, I want to share instead what I have learned about the Italians’ opinions on America. Through a series of unconnected conversations and various stray comments, I’ve actually learned quite a bit about what “the beautiful country” thinks of “the land of the free.”
First, on a bus from Positano (a town very similar to Amalfi) I sat next to an Italian woman who works as a housekeeper in one of Positano’s many hotels. I struck up a conversation to practice my Italian. In the course of our conversation, I said, “Yes, America is…” then paused to think of the right word in Italian. Without missing a beat she inserted her own adjective: “rich.”
My professor, as I said in my last post, likes the way the United States is organized, being many states united by one central government. However, he is frustrated by President Trump’s recent decisions to isolate America from the EU. He wants Europe and America to be close allies.
The woman with whom I meet to practice Italian has been to New York much more than I have. She sees New York as “her city.” I believe this is related to the fact that she herself wants to be a “global citizen.”
The guide who gave us a tour of Amalfi said, half-jokingly, that we American students are too accustomed to the luxury of our home country to survive in Italy, a place where no one uses air conditioning and where walking up 600 stairs in a day is a matter of course. (Incidentally, the griping of some of my peers when they learned these facts may have proved him right.)
During our orientation at Sant’Anna, we were shown this comparison about Italian drinking habits versus American drinking habits (Keep in mind that this was a presentation given to college-aged students):
AMERICA: Drinking age “21”. Preferred alcohol: beer. Limit: what limit? Ever been drunk? Ha!
Finally, on my flight from Denver to Germany, I happened to sit next to an Italian couple, and we had a lovely conversation. They were flying back to Italy after a vacation to the U.S., and had many interesting observations to share. First, they were astonished by the sheer size of America. (America, a single country, is almost as large as all of Europe.) They were appalled by what passes for “Italian” cuisine (our pizza and pasta, for example). However, the husband professed his love for American steak and beef jerky. They were confused by the American sense of individuality. They were also confused by a phenomenon which I would call “commercial extroversion.” The salesmen with big smiles and enthusiastic handshakes, the store clerks and waiters hovering to make sure you have a great experience, the companies sending you surveys to rate your quality of service: all this was strange to them. (It is interesting that I have definitely experienced some of this, especially the hovering store clerks, in the stores in Sorrento.) They said that the Americans are “a young people” and the Italians are “an old people,” perhaps even too stuck in the past.
These conversations were all disconnected from one another, but putting them together paints an interesting picture. If I were to attempt a summary of Italians’ views toward America (truly a bold attempt, since I have been here for less than a month) this is what I would say: Italians see America as a wealthy country, a powerful country, and a country focused on the future. They see it as very different from their own country, which is almost drowning (or, like Venice, quite literally drowning) in history and tradition. And yet, many of them don’t want to be American. Even though their own country drives them crazy sometimes, they love it, and they are proud of its quirks.
And now, pictures! These are some miscellaneous ones that haven’t quite fit in any other post but which I think are interesting.
Today’s installment has two parts. I took a tour of the Amalfi coast yesterday, which means that you are in for another travel edition with lots of pictures and fun facts. However, I first want to tell you about some conversations I had this week about the immigration crisis in Europe. These conversations provided substantial insight into modern Italy and are worth sharing. However, they deal with international politics and not pictures, so feel free to skip to the second part if you want.
Part 1: Italians’ views on the immigration crisis
As many of you know, there have been staggering numbers of migrants moving from North Africa and the Middle East to Europe. The question of how Europe should respond to these migrants is especially relevant in Italy. By nature of its location between North Africa and the rest of Europe, Italy is often the place where these migrants first land. The dilemma is this (I simplify greatly): on the one hand, receiving so many destitute people is a severe strain on Italy’s resources, but on the other hand, both international law and human compassion would forbid turning the migrants away.
This week, I asked two Italians for their opinion on the migrant crisis. I now present to you what they said to me. (I must add a disclaimer that this situation is very current and changing every day. Furthermore, I have not been keeping tabs on the EU’s immigration policies, so forgive me if I oversimplify or misrepresent such an important situation.)
The first person I asked was the Italian woman with whom I have been meeting to practice my Italian speaking skills. Her reply was this: to her, Italy is a beautiful country, full of humanity, goodness, and creativity. It is also a place that suffers under many evils, like the mafia and the growth of poverty. In the end, however, human life takes first priority over other concerns. Italy cannot refuse to help the desperate people fleeing their homes in search of a more just society.
The second person I asked was my literature professor from Sant’Anna. His response was much longer and more detailed.
First, he is frustrated by the EU’s current policies, which make it very difficult for migrants to move from one European country to another. The migrants that land in Italy are treated as Italy’s concern, not Europe’s concern. According to him, this places an unfair burden on Italy, especially when most migrants want to use Italy only as a gate to France and Germany where the jobs are. Finding themselves stuck in a country without a job market, it’s no wonder that some migrants become desperate and turn to crime to provide for themselves.
However, he is even more frustrated by the new Italian government’s attempts to fix the problem by closing all the ports. First, this policy places Italy in opposition to the EU. Second, the closed-port policy means that migrant ships, even those in need, are turned away from Italy. This has caused the death of many people. Thirdly according to him, the policy is ineffective. International law requires that if a ship sends out an SOS signal in international waters, it must be rescued. This means that hundreds of migrants are still arriving in Italy after being rescued by the military.
My professor shared that this situation has brought to light his frustration with the EU in general. According to him, European bureaucracy is “the Inferno.” He believes that Italy will receive sanctions from the EU for closing its ports, but it will take months. He said, “Imagine if Florida closed its ports. It would receive retaliation from the US government within hours!” In fact, his dream is for Europe to become more like America: united states with a stronger central government based on human rights.
Furthermore, he is deeply concerned at the trends of isolationism, nationalism, and xenophobia that led Italy to close its ports. According to him, these trends bear an eerie resemblance to Fascism. One hundred years ago, the Jew was excluded from society; today, it is the migrant who is unwelcome. He said, “This is not the Italy that I know.”
However, when I asked him what the majority of Italians thought, he replied that Italy was split 50-50 on these issues. Clearly, plenty Italians believe that “Strong Italy” means “Italy First”; otherwise, the current government would not be in power. Therefore, the opinions of the two Italians to whom I spoke are by no means indicative of the country as a whole. However, I learned a lot about Italy even by only hearing one side of the story. The passion with which both my professor and my speaking companion gave me their opinions on this issue showed just how much it matters to them.
Part 2: The Amalfi Coast
As I said at the beginning, I went on a tour of the Amalfi coast yesterday with a very knowledgeable tour guide. Here are some of the pictures and fun facts I picked up along the way.
Electricity is very expensive in Italy because Italy can’t produce enough of it for all of its inhabitants. This was not always the case. Italy used to use nuclear power plants; however, after Chernobyl, it shut down those power plants, and to this day has not made up the difference. The expense of electricity means that Italians don’t use air conditioning, central heating, or drying machines. They also have to be careful not to use too many big electrical items (the oven, the iron, hair dryers, etc) at once.
Even though electricity is expensive, churches still use electric lights instead of much cheaper wax candles. This is because they have learned that the smoke from the candles damages the art in the churches. The pictures on the ceiling of the crypt of the Cathedral in Amalfi (see below) were almost entirely blackened until just recently when they were cleaned.
Churches in Italy were built at all different times and in all different styles. However, most of them have been renovated in a grand, ornate style (called “Baroque”, a style which was popular during the Catholic Counterreformation. My new hypothesis is that many churches were renovated around this time as part of the Church’s attempt to “change its look” in response to the Protestant Reformation. This would explain why many churches in Italy look so similar.) The Cathedral in Amalfi is one such church. Restorers have exposed one of the old Roman columns which was first used to build the church in the 8th century and then was subsequently sheathed in the grand marble towers used by the Baroque.
The Amalfi Coast used to make its money not by tourism but by sea-trade. This meant that this area of Italy had lots of interaction with the Arab world of North Africa. For that reason, one can see some Islamic influence in their art.
Being close to North Africa also meant the danger of Arab pirate raids. This picture tells the story of a storm that miraculously appeared and destroyed the ships of approaching pirates.
Finally, we saw a chapel built to hold a vessel of the blood of an early Christian martyr, Saint Pantaleon.
According to the Italians, every year, on the anniversary of his death, the blood (long since congealed) miraculously liquefies.
In America, I believe, many people, even believing Catholics, would treat such phenomena with skepticism and a little revulsion. However, many people in Italy still fervently believe in the power of relics and in such miracles as these.
In all, there’s a reason that the Amalfi coast is so famous. It is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been.
(For more views of the natural beauty of the Amalfi coast, look at my pictures from “Il Terzo” of the Path of the Gods, which runs along the coast. It was well worth it to go back just for the views from the highway.)
Today marks the halfway point of my time in Italy. As I look over my two-and-a-half weeks here, I see several signs that my Italian has improved, even in such a short amount of time. First, I’ve finally started dreaming in Italian. (These dreams usually involve me speaking broken Italian to native speakers and not being understood, but the Italian is still there!) Second, last night when I went to Mass, I understood a whole sentence said by the priest. This excited me, because I usually only understand individual words or phrases. Following a whole sentence is much harder. Finally, last night I tried to speak in Italian to the employees at our favorite take-out pasta place. They were delighted that I was trying to speak Italian (which was gratifying) and very complimentary of my speaking skills (which was encouraging).
I remain painfully aware that my sentences are awkward and my vocabulary is limited. It is still difficult for me to understand a native Italian speaker. However, I am greatly encouraged by the progress I have made in the first half of my trip.
Meanwhile, I continue to notice more and more about the people and culture of southern Italy. One thing I love to do is explore all the churches here. As many of you know, I have a passion for sacred architecture. The chance to visit old Italian churches in person was one reason I was so excited for this trip. Sure enough, the churches here are vastly different from the ones I have seen at home. If I had to pick a word to describe the Italian style, it would be “rich”.
Every church, from the Cathedral to the smallest parish church, has marble floors and columns, massive paintings on the ceiling, an abundance of statues, and elaborate altars.
America has plenty of beautiful churches, but I have not seen any to match the sheer ornateness of the Italian churches. It is almost overwhelming at times.
I realize that I have to “get to know” the Italian churches just like I have to “get to know” the Italians: I need to get accustomed to their way of presenting themselves, the language they use, and the things they value.
In a similar vein, I have been fascinated to compare the way Italian Catholics worship as compared to American Catholics. On the one hand, there is a lot in common. Even though I can’t actually understand the Italian spoken in the Mass, I always know exactly what the priest is saying because the liturgy is the same. On the other hand, certain Italian customs have surprised me. For example, in classic Italian style, the “line” for communion is really more of a movement en masse towards the altar. Whoever stands up the quickest gets to the front first. In the end, such an approach still gets the job done; nevertheless, it shocked my organized American sensibilities the first few times.
Another tidbit of life here is the street performers. The fact that the streets (and trains) have performers is not so exceptional. What is exceptional is that they all play the same song. Every. Single. Time. The song is called “Despacito”, a slightly raunchy but very catchy Spanish song about love and summertime–for which, not coincidentally, Italy is famous. In my opinion, the prevalence of this song is another example of how important tourism is to Italy. Even street performers try to make a living by selling the dream of Italy: love and endless summer.
On the other hand, I’ve started learning more and more about Mussolini and Italy’s fascist period in my Contemporary Literature class. I already knew about Mussolini thanks to my World War II history lessons in high school, but Fascist Italy was always a side story to Nazi Germany. Living in Italy, even for only three weeks, has changed that. The history itself is very painful, and the passion and urgency with which my professor speaks about fascism indicates that the pain is still relevant today. I am catching glimpses of how much Italy has suffered in the past century. It’s yet another reminder that Italy is a real place, with both grand achievements and tragedies in its story.
Here, at the halfway point, I see that every day I spend in Italy makes it more real to me. I find that the more I learn about Italy, the more I begin to love it. I’m truly so lucky to be here and see the world with new eyes. As ever, I thank you for accompanying me on this adventure.
Welcome to the travel edition of this blog. This weekend, I traveled a great deal, visiting Pompeii, Mount Vesuvius, and an amazing hike called the Path of the Gods. Without further ado, I present pictures and anecdotes for your viewing pleasure.
We visited Pompeii on Friday. Our tour guide was an archaeology professor at Sant’Anna who has worked as an archaeologist at Pompeii for nearly a decade.
Before the eruption, Pompeii was a thriving Roman city. It covered more than 60 acres of land. So far, we’ve only unearthed about 40. According to our guide, it will take centuries to finish all the excavations. A single building can take decades to unearth.
This photo may not look like much, but that low wall you see is the old dock of Pompeii. It used to be a coastal town, but the explosion filled the sea with rock and so moved the coast several miles away.
Archaeologists have so far found 89 of these “fast food shops” that would have served a kind of vegetable soup to the inhabitants who were out and about.
We visited this arena and a smaller amphitheater. Both had an acoustic “sweet spot” in the center. When you stand there and talk, you sound as though you are using a microphone. I do not exaggerate.
This painting, found in the dining room of one of the richest houses in Pompeii, has not been restored. The original colors are faded but preserved.
The “bodies” seen here (from behind glass, hence the reflection of my hand in the picture) are actually plaster casts. When the inhabitants died, their bodes were buried under the ash. Eventually, the soft tissue decayed, leaving an empty space in the rock. Archaeologists fill in these empty spaces with plaster to create a cast, as you see here. Even though these were not the actual bodies, seeing the casts was still very shocking. It was a reminder that Pompeii, while an archaeologist’s dream, was also a tragedy. These people died as they tried to escape. The place where they were found is called “The Garden of the Fugitives.”
Saturday was dedicated to Vesuvius. We took a bus most of the way up, then walked the last stretch. Yes, it is still an active volcano.
Path of the Gods:
The Path of the Gods (in Italain, “Il Sentiero degli Dei”) is one of the most beautiful hikes in all of Italy. It is also not for the faint of heart. The path leads across the top of the massive hills that border the coastline. It starts in (or rather, above) the town of Amalfi and ends outside the town of Positano. (You may recognize these names. They are generally used as synonyms for “the most beautiful places on earth.”) From that great height, one has stunning views of lushly vegetated cliffs and the Mediterranean Sea.
We began our trek early, departing on the 8:30 bus. Between riding in buses, changing buses, and waiting for buses, it was 12:30 before we started the hike itself. First, we stopped in the town of Amalfi. With some time to kill before our next bus left, we wandered into a town square. I turned a corner, and there in front of us was the Cathedral of Sant’Andrea.
It took my breath away. We were lucky enough to be able to spend some time admiring the interior as well.
Here you see one of my friends wearing a large piece of paper as a cape. In Italy, especially at the important churches, they prefer that women have their shoulders covered. They handed out these sheets of paper to women with bare shoulders so that they could go inside as well. I felt enormously under-dressed in my hiking clothes, but was fortunate enough to be allowed inside anyway.
While I was overjoyed to have the chance to explore the cathedral, the wait meant that we started hiking in the afternoon. The heat was intense. For these views, though, it was worth it.
At one point, we found large area that had been filled with stacks of rock. It seemed that, as people were hiking, they would stop here to leave their own little cairn as a memorial. It was surprisingly beautiful.
In all, the hike took about 3.5 hours to complete. We were all glad when we reached the little shop selling cold drinks at the end.
Then there were the stairs. We were on top of a small mountain, after all, and needed a way to get down to the bus stop. So we took “The Thousand Stairs” down to Positano. As it turned out, 1000 was a rough estimate. There were really about 1800 (we counted). I’ve never been so glad to get off of a staircase in my life. I pity the people whom we passed going up.
In all, it was a very adventurous weekend. I’m looking forward to getting back to the (much easier) schedule of classes during the week!
Last week, wanting more opportunities to practice my Italian, I asked the program director for advice. She had the perfect solution. She introduced me to an Italian woman who is taking English classes at Sant’Anna and who has been wanting an opportunity to practice her English. We have started meeting on a semi-regular basis just to talk, she in English and I in Italian, to help each other learn. This woman is not only a patient listener and good teacher, but also a very kind and interesting person. I could not have wished for a better opportunity to practice my Italian.
So, as you can see, I have made progress at finding more ways to immerse myself in the Italian language. Other small opportunities have also come along–for example, the chance to serve as an impromptu interpreter between my American peers and Italian shop owners. I’m still speaking more English than I would like, but the progress of this past week encourages me to keep forging ahead. Every unknown word in my literature classes reminds me that I still have a long way to go.
Meanwhile, Sorrento has begun to feel more and more familiar. It is a very small city, and everything is within 10-15 minutes walking distance. It has one large main street lined with shops and bars and cafes, as well as many narrow side streets. Pedestrians, motorscooters, and compact cars all vie for primacy at such close quarters as would give nightmares to the head of the American Traffic Safety Services Association (though I have not yet seen any accidents). There are many alleys, for example, that I would judge to be big enough for only one car at a time. The Italian drivers, apparently, do not agree with my judgement, since they use any old road as a two-lane speedway.
Even with the narrow streets and crowds of tourists, Sorrento is far from being an overwhelmingly busy city like New York or Rome. The residents describe it as “calm”, especially compared to other tourist hot-spots. I saw the truth of this when I visited the island of Capri last weekend. Capri is the place where the Kardashians and LeBron James vacation, which gives you some idea of both its popularity and its beauty.
There are several towns on the island of Capri: Anacapri (a more residential town, accessible only by a steep winding road), Marina Grande (the port), and Capri proper (which is filled with breathtaking clothes, breathtaking jewelry, and breathtaking prices). I visited all three of these towns, as well as the top of Monte Solaro, which provided panoramic views of the island and ocean.
I also took a boat tour around the island, which sits on massive grey limestone cliffs above the bluest water I have ever seen.
Small wonder that the richest of the rich want to visit here–as does everybody else, apparently. During tourist season (that is, now), Capri has 1200-1500 visitors every day. The crowds were intense, especially in the town of Capri proper. After a long day on Capri, Sorrento felt positively homey.
Sorrento, however, is not immune to the “tourist bug”. Every hundred yards or so on Sorrento’s main street, there is a shop overflowing with lemon paraphernalia.
You see, lemons are quite abundant in southern Italy, and have become so popular that they are almost synonymous with the region.
These stores are essentially capitalizing on the natural attractions of Sorrento. Capri does the same. In fact, every tourist city does it. It’s how the money gets made.
This aspect of living in Italy–namely, trying to bottle it up and sell it–rubs me the wrong way. I feel like I’m being denied “real Italy”. However, I had an important realization this week. Tourism is a big part of “real Italy”. When I live in a tourist hub like Sorrento, I’m actually experiencing a substantial part of the modern Italian economy. My experience in Italy looks nothing like Italy of movies and novels; but then again, why should it?
This example brings me to what is perhaps the biggest theme of my trip so far: adjusting my expectations. I expected to be speaking Italian almost constantly. Now, I find that I have to search out opportunities to speak with Italians. I expected to be immersed in “real Italian life”. I am, but it looks very different than what I anticipated. The fact remains that Italy is a real place with real people, and I want to learn about their reality. That means getting over my expectations and learning to experience Italy as it really is.
I will keep searching for ways to dive into the language and culture here, and I will continue to keep you posted on my progress.
This week I began my exploration of Italian language and culture in Sorrento. I have gone through a steep learning curve in the past five days, so allow me to update you.
I am taking classes for 5 weeks this summer at Sant’Anna University, which is located in the seaside vacation town of Sorrento.
I am living in a dorm with other American students who are also taking classes at Sant’Anna. I am here because I am studying Italian at Notre Dame, but there is only so much language you can learn from a classroom. Last year, I realized that if I really wanted to be able to speak Italian, I needed to go to Italy. Thanks to the generosity of Notre Dame’s Summer Language Abroad program and its donors, I am here now.
Although I was excited by the opportunity to go to Italy, I was also very nervous. In my head, I pictured my arrival to Italy: I would get off the plane, look around, and not be able to read any of the signs. I was afraid of being lost in a strange country filled with people whom I could not understand.
As you may have guessed, I did not end up stranded at the Naples airport. In reality, I disembarked from the plane, looked around, and realized that I knew more Italian than I thought I did. Furthermore, many of the signs were written in English, and everyone spoke English even better than I spoke Italian.
At first, the fact that Italy was bilingual was a huge relief. However, the longer I am here, the more I realize that the prevalence of English poses a problem for me. For example, at my hotel, I carefully practiced how to say “Where is Sant’Anna University?” in Italian before asking the front desk staff for directions. However, there was nothing I could do to prepare myself for the flood of Italian with which the staff member responded. Not ready to give up, I asked her to slow down. Instead, she began speaking to me in English. The same thing happens in stores, on buses, on and even on the street. An unexpected problem therefore confronts me: even in Italy, it can be hard to practice my Italian.
Now my task is to solve this problem. I have several ideas for how do do this. It will probably mean leaving the “American Bubble”, that is, the dorm of American students who all speak English to each other. It will probably also mean searching out Italians and starting up random conversations with them. The solution will almost certainly require me to leave my comfort zone; however, it is worth it. I will keep you all posted on my attempts!
As for Italian culture, I can say that Italy is truly a beautiful country. The view out my window is the Mediterranean sea.
Mount Vesuvius (which is still active) stands in the background.
The gelato puts American ice cream to shame. My professor from Southern Italy is incapable of speaking without gesticulating. Street signs are taken as suggestions. A Signora from a restaurant saw a group of us students passing by and ran out with a plate of dumplings just to get us to taste her cooking. There is history everywhere: I looked off a bridge and there, in the lush valley below, were ruins.
The churches are massive, ornate, and plentiful.
However, it is not a fairy-land. Last night, I was eager to see the parts of the city that were not built just for tourists. I accompanied one of my friends, who lives with a host family, to his neighborhood. Once I left the main street of Sorrento, the city quickly changed. Instead of glowing shops, there are crowded apartment buildings, some of them quite run down. Real people live in Italy, and I saw that here, like any other place, the fortunes of real people can be good or bad. Seeing this, rather than being off-putting, was encouraging. I want to get to know Italy as it is, tourists, residents, riches, and poverty alike.
I’ll send updates to my Italian adventure periodically. Thank you for accompanying me on this most exciting opportunity.